Monday, July 29, 2013

Circuits and Nerves

Now Playing: Billy Idol - Cyberpunk (album)
In the sporadic years where we managed to be a traditional nuclear family, Saturday mornings in my house would be still and silent until my mother’s hunger and impatience somehow overpowered her tiredness and pushed her to the kitchen. The fridge door opening and closing, oil sizzling in the pan, water running over dishes, the microwave beeping at the end of its countdown, and silverware shaking inside drawers—these were the sounds that would make my eyes fly open on weekend mornings. I would stay in bed until the smell of fried eggs or bread baking in the oven slipped into my room and urged me to slide out from underneath my mountain of blankets. I would tiptoe out to the living room so not to wake up my baby brother. I’d go past the kitchen and say good morning to my mother (or endure a five minute lecture if I’d rudely walked by without greeting her) and then head to my parents’ bedroom.
My dad usually woke up five minutes after my mom, and so I went to see him in the mornings so we could wait together for breakfast. In that waiting period, he would head over to his CD player and fish around for an album. I know for a fact he never had a large collection, but in my memories, there were hundreds of CDs, from rock albums by Soda Stereo (his favorite band), to the soundtrack of the original Star Wars, to Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons. To me, there was infinite music at our disposal.
When I was six years old, I woke up and headed over to see my dad, as usual. My parents’ room always seemed to be operating on a different time than the rest of the house. The heavy curtains shielding the windows kept the bright sun from lighting up the room. There were birds chirping in the garden and breakfast simmering just outside the door. It was warm enough to be morning, filled with all the right sounds and smells, but it was dim and soft enough to be twilight. I sat at the edge of the bed, kicking my feet back and forth against the mattress, my hands clutching onto the blankets as I waited for the right moment to start talking his ear off about the heart-pounding adventures of my Barbie dolls, how much I’d read of Chamber of Secrets, my visit to Erika’s house, and the game I’d played the day before with my little brother.
The album he selected was technically nothing new, though he’d never played it for me until that day. I’d seen it lying around and the cover had caught my attention before. It was the face of a man. The left side showed his features as colored by a grainy purple, while on the right side his flesh disintegrated into green dots and dashes, like codes running down a computer. Above the man, in yellow letters with splashes of orange, the musician’s name read “Billy Idol”. Underneath, in significantly smaller font, the name of the album: Cyberpunk.
My dad slipped it into the player then went back to lie down on the bed. I bounced up next to him, my mouth open in anticipation to release a stream of incoherent words only patient parents could vaguely comprehend. Then the album began to play.

Opening Manifesto, Wasteland, segue of LA riots, Shock to the System.
First, rippling waves coming from a machine. A deep voice began to narrate. In English. I couldn’t understand a single word. I asked my father to translate.
My father knew basic, basic English. At that point, his education on the language mostly consisted of the elementary concepts taught to him in primary and secondary schools and things he picked up from subtitled American movies. He had no idea what the narrator was talking about, except maybe for key words here and there. Something about information no longer being free, megacorporations, and a nuclear war. He could have admitted that. But I would have asked dozens of questions, interrupting the music till I grew bored of it. The only thing in the world that could shut me up and settle me down was being told a story. So he lied. Or technically, he improvised. Armed with a growing knowledge of computer programming and a love for sci-fi works like Neuromancer, Ghost in the Shell, Akira, Blade Runner, Terminator, and The Matrix, he began to create a cyberpunk tale. He told me it was a story set in a not so distant future where a nuclear war had torn apart the world. A new, unified government ran by an unknown but powerful leader was gathering humans and plugging them into a perfect virtual world while Earth fell apart. People were unknowingly prisoners inside their own minds. “No religion, no religion at all,” echoes against the first song, so my father explained to me that the hero was trying to bring about structure and faith to the last free humans. On the side, he was working with the resistance.
Tomorrow People, Adam in Chains.
I assumed, early on, that this was going to be an action packed adventure with thrilling explosions, rebellious leaders, and great triumph in every battle. I didn’t expect more. After Shock to the System’s defiant and upbeat battle melody, Tomorrow People drifted in slowly, a melancholic voice echoing along. Here, the nameless hero’s motivations became clear—he was afraid for the children born in the apocalypse, those who would suffer and die for their freedom or be captured and enslaved in a perfect world that didn’t exist. He had a son, a blue-eyed boy who had been born during the nuclear war. This boy was a young-man, maybe sixteen or so, but he was still just a child in the eyes of his father. Somewhere during Adam in Chains, the man fell in love. The woman in question was a resistance fighter like him, strong willed and brave, but beaten mentally and physically by the battles of yesterday and today.
He had people to lose. The hope he held onto grew weaker each day. I was frightened for him. He sounded so fragile now. I understood that this was not an adventurous, fun battle of the ages—this was a dark era of humanity. There were families born in the vast ruins of great nations, children who knew nothing but the debris and ashes of old cities. Whenever the man closed his eyes, he tossed and turned through his nightmares, terrified that there would not be a tomorrow.
Neuromancer, Power Junkie, segue prayer.
Then the antagonist was revealed: a mind within a machine. It was the one imprisoning the humans and forcing the planet to crumble in ruins. The hero learns of the core of this machine, the one area he must attack. It resided and operated within Earth’s last functioning, high-tech city, composed entirely of circuits, vast computer hardware in place of buildings, and neon lights that shone brighter than the sun. Everything within the city is controlled by the artificial mind. It enlisted the help of traitor humans and fabricated automata to defend and fight against free humans.
When I asked for details about the battles, my dad steered my imagination into things I’d seen in video games. I pictured armored men, impossible physics, and weapons bigger than the people carrying them, blasting enemies into chunky red pieces. It was perfect.
Perfect until the man and the woman were captured. When a battle went wrong and dozens of resistance members were murdered, the man and the woman remained as the last few survivors of their unit. They were sentenced away to the world within the machine’s fabricated cyberspace. They would never escape.
Love Labours On, Heroin, segue injection
I was a tiny ball of distress by that point. I wanted to bounce on the mattress and demand my father to tell me the man made it out okay, that he wasn’t really imprisoned, that this was all part of his plan! But I couldn’t move. I was shaking but waiting for more. The man was now plugged into a fake world where there was no war, no starving children born in the wasteland, no ruins of futuristic cities that had withered away in the last great conflict of humanity. Earth was at peace and the population was thriving within a paradise. The woman was there with him, her smiling face free of the scars and bruises that had marred her in the bleak, real world. He had no reason to question it all. This was the world he’d been fighting for, and now, he could truly live in it.
There’s a heartbeat in the music, followed by solemn words sang by a tranquil voice. The pulse is calm. Then the beating heart is replaced by the beating of drums, and the tempo increases. The voice grows louder, determined.
He could not be fooled. He knew his world was in ruins, and he would not abandon it.
Resistance members were planning to free him and the woman, but they wouldn’t get anywhere unless he initiated an attack from inside. It meant driving his body to a breaking point, somehow, in his sleep, turning the very wires that enslaved him into his weapons. He fried his nervous system, severing his connections to the virtual world, breaking free and tearing down the facility with him. He began to wake up. When the resistance members got there, they finished the job, freeing everyone from the outside. My hero was at death’s door. His friends gathered around him and put him back to sleep to operate on him.
This was a silent period, a moment in time where my hero was allowed to rest. My father said as the operation was going on, the man was granted a temporary sleep. He dreamt of a lifetime with his son and the woman, a time where the battles had come and gone, and a home with warm colors and peace. These thoughts came to him with the underlying knowledge that they were hopes and wishes rather than reality. He would finish the fight later. For now, the adrenaline was wearing off. I drifted with him. It was the only time my eyelids fluttered to a close.
Concrete Kingdom, segue galaxy within, Venus
It didn’t last long. He woke up with a wounded body but the will to continue on. He learned that the last free humans were being imprisoned or killed, the resistance growing smaller each day. The artificial intelligence grew stronger. With the aid of the remaining resistance members—as well as the woman and his son—he would destroy the machine. He had failed once, but he would not fail again.
Then the Night Comes, segue electronic presence, Mother Dawn
It’s impossible to describe the final battle. My father barely spoke during this song. I was no longer picturing things detail by detail—I just felt it all, simmering underneath the surface of my imagination. I was no longer watching the man’s story, I was there. I could hear my heart pounding in my ears, my lips curling up into a grin as I realized, somehow, someway, that he was taking down the machine. He was liberating everyone.
The world awoke as the battle came to an end. Both the man and his son were narrating this part. I could see colonies of people descending from facilities to witness a glowing orange sky. I asked my father if the man was alive. His voice echoed in the music, above the voice of the young man, distant and warm. I wanted to know if he had survived. My father had no answer. He said it didn’t matter, that the man’s journey was over. He said I mustn’t worry whether or not he had died because that did not lessen the greatness of his bravery and sacrifice, nor did it undo all that he had accomplished.
It was not uncommon for me to hate stories where heroes died in the end. Thick tears would roll down my cheeks, and I’d refuse to speak to my dad for not warning me such injustice was about to happen. But I did not feel that way about this ending. It truly didn’t matter if my hero had died. He had saved humanity.
Closing Manifesto
The machine was withering away, trying to hold on. It screamed—an action that should have only been capable from one of flesh and blood—then disconnected. But it had not been truly destroyed. It didn’t seem possible to kill something as complex as a mind without a mortal body.
But for now, it was gone, and humanity was safe.

My father had kept his eyes closed until the end. I had stared at the ceiling, a statue of a little girl whose mind was overloaded with the neon battlefields of humanity rising against a machine and the grey wasteland of Earth warmed up by a new dawn. I couldn’t move because every ounce of energy I held within me had been utilized to bring color to the story, to have the battles, the riots, the conversations, the embraces, everything come to life. I’d stared at the grey ceiling as if it had all been projected in front of me.
Then my mother poked her head in and said breakfast was getting cold. The story lingered with me, but I didn’t ask questions. I think I just assumed my dad didn’t know what happened next—he had told me only what had been narrated by the music.
My father left to the United States a year or two later, sent away by the computer company he worked for. In his goodbye to me, he handed me books, toys, and albums he wanted me to keep safe till he returned. Cyberpunk was amongst them. On days that I missed him the most, I’d put on the CD and lay down on the floor, staring at the grey ceiling with my hands against my stomach. I’d become a statue again, wide awake, barely blinking, the images pouring back to me.
After two years of being apart—connected only through the words exchanged in the early AOL chat and long distance phone calls—my mother saved up enough money to fly us to America and see my father. Her plan had been to spend the holidays together and then return as a family to our country. My little brother and I were allowed one backpack each, and my mother only took with her two suitcases. I don’t know why I packed away Cyberpunk when we were going to return for it and I barely had enough room for my toys and clothing as it was, but I shoved it into my bag and took it with me to Miami. After two weeks of being in the new country, my parents decided the future was bright in America even if the present was paved with hardships and struggles. So we stayed, never to return to our old home.
I didn’t speak and write English fluently till I was around eleven. On a whim, when I was twelve, I put Cyberpunk on for the first time in years to relieve the memories. It was going to be perfect. I could finally understand it all, hearing details my father might have missed in his translation.
But of course the story was not there. There was a structure to the album, little transitions that tied some songs together, but it was not the well fabricated narrative my father had presented to me. My hero was missing. I tried to read about it on the internet, wondering if I just wasn’t listening closely enough. The most I found out was that, enamored by a new science fiction genre and the rapidly changing technology of the world, Billy Idol had composed music that departed from his traditional style and then gone above and beyond in promoting it. He used his personal e-mail and early online communities to advertise it—something no other major musician had done at the time. Then it was released. It crashed and burned. Critical reviews that dubbed it forgettable were the highlight of its short career. Only his most loyal defenders purchased it. It took him thirteen years to bring his career back with another studio album.
I couldn’t help but see that Billy Idol’s fascination of cyberpunk science-fiction mirrored my father’s admiration for the genre and culture. I knew his admiration had begun early on in his life. While he was a fan of sci-fi as a child, at eighteen he enrolled into university and was granted the chance to use a computer for the first time in his life. His love for mathematics and the sciences (particularly physics) sprouted a love for technology. While attending university, he learned computer programming. Though both my parents were great students with promising futures, a lack of money and complicated personal lives prevented them from earning their degrees. Nonetheless, even if he doesn’t have a shiny piece of paper to prove it, my father continued to educate himself on the subject and seems to learn new things about programming and computers to this day.
Maybe Billy Idol hopes he’d never composed Cyberpunk, but I’m not exaggerating when I claim it means everything to me because of my father’s tale. I don’t think I ever understood the structure of storytelling or the impact it could have on people until that moment. My dad may barely pass 5’8 when he bothers to stand up straight and hasn’t even hit the age of forty as of this writing, but he is as much of a wise giant to me now as he was when I was a child. I still remember the many times he sat with me for hours, improvising characters and their adventures, while oftentimes even encouraging me to add in details or come up with new narratives on my own.
When I spoke to my father about it at the age of eleven, he said he remembered listening to the album with me and improvising a narrative, but he had no recollection of the actual contents. When I was twelve, I decided he needed to be reminded of it somehow, to know why it lingered in my memories after all those years. I set out to write it as my first sci-fi novel. I spent the next two years planning and crafting it, but I couldn’t recapture it completely. My writing made it too plain and vague. There was not enough world-building and the emotion was not the same. I steered that novel to another direction, using a slightly different plot and shifting the focus to the post-apocalyptic aspects rather than the cyberpunk elements. I didn’t try again after that.
           Oftentimes it feels like the story he told me can only exist in fragments inside my head. I cannot properly retell it with the impact it carries to me. It’s like the only way to free it at its purest form is to dig around my brain and watch the vivid imagination of a six year old girl, to listen to the music without truly understanding the language. It makes me sad that no one will ever see it the way I got to experience it. But I will never forget my father’s story of the nameless man and his battle against the machine. I’ll always be thankful that he chose to imagine such a tale just to entertain his daughter while waiting for breakfast one mundane Saturday morning.

Note, I really hated trying to come up with a title for this. Since I saw I mentioned circuits in one of the descriptions, I figured I'd use the title for my attempted short story/possible future science fiction novel, Circuits and Veins. Problem was I didn't have any references to veins and had a reference to the nervous system--and I realized then that nerves are better metaphorically compared to circuits. So I switched. But I like how Circuits and Veins sound when compared to Circuits and Nerves >.> There's just something off about that one :P

P.S: I didn't add it to the top, but I listened to a bunch of Queen, Soda Stereo, and Gustavo Cerati albums while writing the first and last sections.

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"Science and science fiction have done a kind of dance over the last century... The scientists make a finding. It inspires science fiction writers to write about it, and a host of young people read the science fiction and are excited, and inspired to become scientists...which they do, which then feeds again into another generation of science fiction and science..."
- Carl Sagan, in his message to future explorers of Mars.