Last week in the Paris Review, John Reed makes a canny observation right on the heels of a far cannier presupposition—that there was in fact an exact location, a precise moment in time, when counterculture took on grander ambitions and became transmogrified into popculture. This of course all being contingent on the idea that counterculture and popculture are somehow related, or even relatable.
The traditional, received wisdom is elegantly simple, and as Reed suggests, savagely inaccurate. Counterculture is what The Good Doctor describes in his first piece for Rolling Stone, “Freak Power in the Rockies”. Counterculture finds its spirit deep within the “dropout” culture that escaped the militarization of civil surveillance in San Francisco during the late ‘60s and fled to Colorado, particularly to Aspen. Only there to encounter “land-rapers and greedheads” (HST’s words not my own), already launching in on hyper-commercialization of Pitkin County. So-called “dropout” culture was opposed to the land-rape of Aspen by its very nature rather than through any direct confrontation.
“Freak Power in the Rockies” reads like a war journal entry of a sort, around how the Good Doctor and a small group of likeminded individuals begin to harness “dropout” culture to directly oppose hyper-commercialization. And yet, remain rooted in that cultural statement about never becoming a “joiner”—the very psychology that debilitates your critical faculties and allows you to merely, robotically, enact high cultural statements. Or more correctly, to “inflict” them.
While counterculture resists top-down incursions by high culture, popculture always seemed to radically reconfigure high culture. Are corporations evil? Think of a group of students protesting corporations, but having a Coke after things get heated and the cops eventually break things up. Popculture’s always seemed to be about the most rapid spread, most fluid uptake of ideas; it challenges us all to imagine an economy where ideas are currency. It’s never a question of which was better, the book or the movie; but more a question of how many of us, after having seen the movie, would discover or rediscover or disregard the book.
Reed’s insight is deeply disruptive; it simply savages this very comfortable, very neat, very invisible binary that’s crept in between counterculture and popculture, a binary we’ve come to accept as natural. What if for whatever reason, Reed ponders, counterculture had been historically prevented from the ambitions of popculture? And what if, in a single night and day, like the sinking of Atlantis, those cultural cordons were simply demolished? Reed goes on to suggest, much like HST before him, that this emboldening of ambition is tied to the politics of urban spatialization. In the blended cultural space of horror/scifi comics, Steve Niles makes very much the same statement in his recently launched Transfusion.
In a savagely dystopian future, Niles posits two species vying for evolutionary dominance, neither of them human. Both the machines and the vampires find themselves teetering on the edge of extinction as both rely on humans as a food-source. The machines’ war with the humans has however devastated the planet, decimated the ecosystem and consequently left the humans without food of their own. Each of the three groups finds themselves in a last-ditch jump into simple survival, maybe none of them will make it.
Menton3’s moody artwork takes over as a visual perfect metaphor for the Third Law of Thermodynamics—that a system will run out of energy, but it will never really hit Absolute Zero in a finite number of steps. But the real creative breakthrough comes with Niles’ world-building—and the character of William who first appears to guide a pack of humans to a crop of wheat.
In this bleak world, where humans are subject to two higher-tier predators, one created by their own hand, meditations on culture seems like the worst kind of luxury good. Yet, in William, and in his interactions with humans, machines and then vampires, Reed’s question around counterculture vs. popculture becomes centralized: can “nature vs. nurture” (counterculture) be evolved into a newer, broader, more ambitious form (popculture)? To make the exact argument as how William effects this debate, and frames biology as culture, would venture too far into spoiler territory.
Suffice it to say then that, Transfusion is alarmingly, amazingly good. By reintroducing the idea of humans needing to compete for essential resources, and humans once again being subject to top-tier predators, Niles offers the seductive notion that biology might arise from culture, rather than the received wisdom of the reverse being true. In the space of just 22 pages then, Niles seems to have inaugurated an entirely new subgenre of scifi, and catapulted himself onto the very short list of great innovators of the genre, like Philip K. Dick or Robert Heinlein. Transfusion simply deserves, underline deserves, to be read.