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Thursday, January 22, 2015

R.U. Sirius on his new book and on RAW

R.U. Sirius

If you pay attention to today's counterculture, you probably already know who R.U. Sirius is: The Mondo 2000 founder and editor, the guy who has written for  200 gazillion publications including "Wired" and "Rolling Stone," and so on and so on.

I have been wanting to interview him for a long time, but the publication of his new book, Transcendence: The Disinformation Encyclopedia of Transhumanism and the Singularity (with Jay Cornell) seemed to provide a convenient opportunity to approach him.

The new book's website explains,  "Transcendence is a mind-stretching and entertaining look at the international movement that advocates the use of science and technology to overcome the 'natural' limitations experienced by humanity. In nearly ninety A-Z entries, Transcendence provides a multilayered and often witty look at the accelerating advances in artificial intelligence, cognitive science, genomics, information technology, nanotechnology, synthetic biology, neuroscience, robotics, virtual worlds, and much more, that are making transhumanism a reality."

Sirius appears in the movie "Maybe Logic: The Lives and Ideas of Robert Anton Wilson." You will almost certainly be charmed by reading his Boing Boing article about discovering the first and third original paperbacks of  Illuminatus! when he walked into a bookstore in Binghampton, N.Y., in 1976. ("I fished the rumpled scraps of welfare-provided legal tender out of my pocket and bought both immediately.")

You can follow him on Twitter.

We conducted the interview via email. Can you tell my readers something about your new book, and why they'd be interested in running out the door immediately (or running to their computer) to obtain a copy?

SIRIUS: It’s probably the only irreverent book about transhumanism and the singularity, served up in bite-sized sections, you’ll ever find. As most of your readers know, RAW was an advocate of Space Migration, Intelligence Increase and Life Extension. My original inspiration for getting into this sort of stuff was RAW and Timothy Leary. I feel like I’m following through. It may be a long shot towards the relatively utopian future that RAW favored, but the technology, at least, is getting there. How does the new book fit in with your previous work?

SIRIUS: It’s very similar to Mondo 2000: A User’s Guide to the New Edge which I edited with Rudy Rucker in 1993. That book covered the cyberculture/cyberpunk of that era and presented an A – Z list of technologies, sciences, memes, groups and personalities that were very avant garde and made them accessible to a common person. I believe this does the same thing for a culture just beginning to directly feel the impact of advanced robotics and AI, nanotechnology, genomics and on and on.

And I continue to take the piss out of all of it at the same time. It’s a habit I got from my father, Arnie, or as one of his friends used to call him “Irony.” You wrote a biography of Timothy Leary, Timothy Leary's Trip Through Time. Oz Fritz's review said that it was "the biography to read if someone knows nothing about Timothy Leary apart from his popular, often misrepresented image given in mainstream media." Oz also wrote it  is "a valuable and worthwhile read even to the hardcore Leary cognoscenti." Was this the balance you were trying to strike?

SIRIUS: Sure. It was really a brief biography written mainly for his estate’s website. It’s rare that a famous person has an estate that wants to not only put the best possible face on that person but also is willing to manifest some of his playful irreverence. I’m really proud to be associated in any way with the Leary estate What do you think of other Leary biographies that are available — Flashbacks and the Higgs, Greenfield and Harcourt-Smith books?

SIRIUS: Flashbacks was wonderful and inspirational. I understand the book company made him cut it in half. I wonder if some of that is in the NYPL archives.  He once mentioned the book company lawyers making him cut some of the Mary Pinchot-Meyer stuff. One wonders what revelations were within. I also wonder if they cut some about his dealings with the FBI. There’s a feeling that he may have glossed over a bit there and I’m wondering if he tried to say more about it.

The John Higgs bio is really good and very European with a lot of focus on his escape from prison and his exile (which was mainly in Europe). That was the period when I, personally, became most fascinated by Leary.  While I dug some of his underground press writings during the ‘60s as a high schooler, Leary wasn’t really my thing then.

The Greenfield biography is obviously problematic. It’s the biggest effort of any of the bios, very complete; and it’s even, in parts, affecting in a good way. One gets a sense of the enormity of the ambition and drama… even its benign nature, if one is very very skilled at reading between the lines.  But the authorial voice is absurd. I read the book a second time and I counted 30 some places where the author intrudes with a judgment that is a massive leap of bad faith or where he presents a resentful person’s comments as gospel truth. The one that stands out is a scenario in which Leary is in some kind of courtroom situation and his wife Rosemary and daughter Susan are in jail. And Greenfield quotes an authority figure (I think it was a D.A. or someone of that sort) as saying that Tim was talking and laughing about his wife and daughter being in jail and kind of leads us with the impression that this definitely occurred.

Now, was Tim inclined to laugh in the face of grim authority and persecution? Yes. Was he overconfident that the psychedelic revolution would overcome everything and everyone during the 1960s? Yes. Would a D.A. know or understand what Leary was laughing about? No. (Of course, the other question would be whether this thing really happened at all.) But here he is in this biography, the picture of evil… Snidely Whiplash tweeking his moustache, laughing and tying his daughter to the railroad tracks. Come on.

Joanna’s book is pretty damn good. I read what I remember as an earlier version that she sent to me a long time ago. I’m pretty sure she worked hard to improve it, although maybe I just wasn’t in the right mood when I first got it.

It’s a complicated thing for the Timothy Leary legacy because she says he was all in on her actions with the feds outside prison while he was inside, which caused some people some problems. And people close to Leary have implied that he was unhappy with those actions, and Timothy himself implied that, albeit very gently. So it’s a conundrum, because she’s alive and doing her public work and just wrote a very sympathetic book and the other two people who were really involved, Leary and Dennis Martino aren’t around anymore.

It would also have not been very chivalrous for Leary to come out directly and let Joanna take the rap for any damage done by the FBI affair, so he’s kind of in trouble either way.

It’s also possible that they were both telling their own truths. The situation was terrible and disorienting for both of them, I’m sure. He seemed to have undergone something bordering on torture in prison and she was pulled into a ridiculously sad and messy situation. She was, in a sense, a hostage to the feds — him having someone that close on the outside made them both vulnerable to exploitation. Joanna’s book dramatizes this very nicely.

There are other aspects of her book that are interesting to people who follow the Leary story. We can see how for real he was about magick and psychedelics and transformation and all those things during the ‘70s. It’s a pretty loving portrait, ultimately, and quite humanizing. In a way, it really contrast with Greenfield’s version, even with… or in spite of… the FBI stuff. Can you comment on why your Leary biography has not been made more widely available? It was released as a free PDF ebook when it came out, but now it's not even listed on Amazon.

SIRIUS: Not really. It was written mainly for the website. I know they were going to get it on Amazon but I certainly didn’t have any follow through on it.  I’ve daydreamed about expanding it slightly and having it published by a book company (with the Estate’s permission, of course). We’ll see. Is there a book tour planned to promote your new book?

SIRIUS: No. Book companies, at least the big corporate ones, used to sponsor glorious book tours. They were expensive but really effective. When I toured for the Mondo 2000 book, I got every major daily paper, local tv talk shows, radio — shock jocks, colleges, and your local PBS affiliates in 19 cities over 3 weeks. They don’t do that anymore. In fact, they basically only promote one book per season, usually their best known writer who doesn't need it.

This bitching is not applicable to my publishers at Red Wheel/Weiser/Disinformation because they’re very cool and not a big corporate monster and I wouldn’t expect them to be able to put me on the road.  I just think it’s interesting how things have changed.

We will be at Green Apple Books in San Francisco though on January 30. Everybody within reach, please come! You mentioned Leary and RAW's interest in space migration and life extension. It seems to me that Peter Thiel and Elon Musk deserve credit for trying to make these things happen, but I wondered what your take was.

SIRIUS: They do deserve credit. It would be wonderful if there was enough wealth flowing through society at all levels so that some of these things could be crowdfunded — owned and controlled by groups of people from all walks of life (SpaceX works with NASA, so in a sense that is happening via taxes). Thiel and Musk are visionaries (Musk, particularly, strikes me as a well-balanced altruistic entrepreneur) and we’re lucky they’re reaching towards these goals. But it’s also worth noting that there are lots of brilliant visionaries and we need to liberate the potentials of greater numbers of people to make this stuff happen faster.  Post scarcity could lead to crowdsourcing at an undreamt of scale.

RAW Illumination: You have played in bands and made recordings. Is rock music dead, or is there life in the form yet?

SIRIUS: I’m pretty sure that as a vivid expression of the zeitgeist and as a source for identity and rebellion, particularly among youth, it was a phenomenon of the second half of the 20th Century, at least in the West. Almost the dominant expression of the zeitgeist for that period, really. You never know, but I think ‘90s grunge, appropriately, was the final nail in the rotting coffin of rock rebellion. Which is not to say that some people aren’t doing good stuff or that it isn’t bracing to see Nick Cave perform or fun to dance to electronic music and so on. There are still good artists and it’s still a pretty good way to let it loose.

RAW Illumination: You appeared in the "Maybe Logic" movie. What can you share about RAW that people might not understand by reading his books?

SIRIUS: I didn’t hang with Bob all that much, but I can say a few things that might surprise some people. He could be a really grumpy old guy sometimes… which is a position I’m increasingly learning to respect.

I can remember checking into a hotel room for a conference and him being right next to me doing the same. When you get invited to a conference and you warn the conference people ahead of time that you want your room paid for in advance and you don’t want the charges put on your card even temporarily, the hotels always fuck that up. And you have to stand around after a long trip and wait for them to clear it up.  I seem to remember a few scenes like that. He didn’t suffer fuck ups and fools gladly, at least in certain moments. And, in my experience, he was more inclined, in casual circumstances, to display a dry George Carlinesque wit than to wax cosmic.

There’s also the fact that he considered himself a libertarian but he was for social welfare. I remember standing backstage with him at the Disinfo Con. He’d just returned from one of the Scandinavian countries and he talked about the free health care and referred to Europe as “the civilized world,” in contrast to the US.


Bobby Campbell said...

What a great interview! Transcendence looks really cool :)

michael said...

I enjoyed this interview and I think the Transhumanist dealio needed a book like this, from RU's POV.

I nabbed the Mondo 2000 book when it came out and so many of the ideas were new to me, and I didn't know what to make of it, but I was enchanted. It looked really cool. (I hafta admit: it still looks good even if it feels a tad dated.)

Jeez, if ever there was a cultural conglomeration of ideas (Transhumanism) that needed the tones Sirius can bring...this is good. I wanna read it ASAP.

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