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[BOOK REVIEW] Foreshadows: The Ghosts of Zero by the Very Us Artists

Foreshadows: The Ghost of Zero is an original shared world anthology with a unique premise. Editors John and Jeff LaSala first asked several musicians to create compositions that would fit appropriately into a cyberpunk world. Then, the editors asked a variety of authors (many of whom have significant experience working in shared worlds) to write stories based on the music. Always on the lookout for interstitial fiction, I was intrigued when one of the authors asked if I would review this multimedia project of the LaSalas.

After a forward on the uniqueness of the project by C. S. Friedman, the anthology opens with a prologue by The Digital Alchemist, a character who reappears in the four part novella by the LaSalas. The Digital Alchemist introduces us to the world, the conceit that the LaSalas have invented for the authors and musicians to use as a creative playground. In this world of the late twenty-first century, the Earth has suffered two new world wars. Rather than being fought by nation states, these wars were instigated by corporations, who arose as the new superpowers of the information age. Federal power has been relegated to a supportive role and coin is king. In this world of powerful supercorps it is a daily struggle for most just to survive. Technology has progressed to the point where AI’s are normality, simulacra (robots) serve a variety of functions, and very few individuals lack some sort of cybernetic implant. But then, for all its tech, humanity hasn’t changed all that much. Though humanity may think the world has reset, gone back to zero, but the truth is “we’re all just ghosts, haunting a planet no longer ours.”

The four-part Geist story interweaves and stabilizes the contributions of the invited authors. In this story, Gav the Digital Alchemist, a former memory addict and unique mind, hunts the mysterious Geist, a being of legend and myth akin to Nessie or Bigfoot. Each of the four parts relates an encounter Gav has with the Geist. In “Geist Anthropic 1:4” the LaSalas team up with Jeremy L. C. Jones to tell the story of Gav’s finding of purpose. A chance glimpse while wandering the desert outside Cairo gives the recently sober Gav the drive to pursue a creature so elusive it is thought to be merely a ghost, a shadow of the cybernetic world. Michelangelo and Dylan Leeds combine Arabic sounding wind instruments with a slowly pulsing two-note violin and high note piano for a short but haunting piece to pair this story with music.

Don Bassingthwaite brings the reader “Too Much is Never Enough” a cage-match tale in which a former thief is rebuilt by a company into a Stomp Brawl fighter. But to fight in the cage is not our protagonist’s main purpose and the company wants him to serve them as a living weapon. Bassingthwaite ably adopts the cyberworld and turns its complexities to his advantage to tell a story that is a mix of the Six-Million Dollar Man with Jason Bourne. Accompanied by Bilian’s electronic and rapid repetition of the title the music and throaty masculine vocals amplify the immediacy of the story’s pacing.

“Cenotaph, or We’ve Been Reduced to Lo-Fi” by Mike Ferguson gives the reader a sense of what its like to live in a world where the brain and mind are mapped and can be written and re-written like a computer hard drive. Its one of those circular stories that reminds me of the classic drama exercise where the actors pretend themselves mad, enact some scene of danger, only to return to the very positions in which they began – with no forward progress except elapsing time. Ferguson’s story is an exemplar of the despair and circuitousness so many of the ghosts of zero are trapped in. It can be a difficult read, as the protagonist’s nature, and therefore what she experiences, is forever in turmoil, but it ably establishes the difficulties of humanity’s living in the truly cybernetic age. The music and lyrics by Alternate Modes of Underwater Consciousness and Colin Garvey with Dylan Leeds reflects the immediacy and changeableness of the moments on which the protagonist finds herself and yet at the same time interconnects the disparate scenes Ferguson imagines. Its repetition of the phrase “buried in your brain” elevates the fear we read in the protagonist and the changing harmony and base line tie into each scene of the story, alternately throbbing and relaxing.

“Graveduggery” by Brian W. Matthews and Jeff LaSala may at first seem like a story out of place. A sequence of scenes in which the family history of the Untermeyers is remembered, the story seems to end incomplete. But then, this is by design, as the Untermeyers have an important part to play in the overarching Geist story. Still, on its own, the story is also a history of the change in technology over centuries that change nothing in the human character. Apropos for a story of this kind, Michelangelo’s music is an orchestral piece that sounds like it would belong in any medieval-history based movie soundtrack.

An investigator and his AI assistant find that love and loyalty can take surprising form in “Love Simulacra” by Joe Rixman. At first this story seems like a traditional P.I. tale, but Rixman jukes left just when you think he is going right. The story surprised me. Additionally, this story gives the reader a better sense of what is meant by the term simulacra in this Earth of Zero. Bilian’s music and lyrics are a rock piece with an electronic edge in which the vocals are hidden behind a synthesizer. The electrifying of the voice is key to the integration of the story and song. It’s a deep connection that only on re-listening was I able to pick up on the subtle connection between the two beyond obvious words connection via the lyrics.

“Cold as the Gun” is another P. I. story in which the ruins of New Orleans are the playground of a man whose technological enhancements are obsolete, but whose skills as an investigator need no enhancement. Trace, hired to find a package, encounters more than he bargained for in the ruins of Orleans. In this story the reader is first introduced to the dodec, a device that plays an important role in many a story to follow. Joshua Wentz provided the music and lyrics (sung in part by Jessica Risker) that inspired Robert J. Randisi’s story of a stranger in a familiar land.

Keith Baker sets his story primarily in the Worldnet (Internet) of the Earth of the later twenty-first century. “…And Weave the Spider’s Web” is about an information gatherer who is in search of something tied to a previous life. When an old flame asks the Spider for help, he agrees. Baker deftly weaves a story with a surprise ending that snatches success from the jaws of defeat. We have again an outsider protagonist who fights evil, as he sees it, on his own terms. Joshua Wentz’s slow harmony warbles with an underwater quality, as if the protagonist is swimming in an ocean of information. Its slow and repetitious providing an underlay for Rich Baker’s story that both inspires and supports it.

“Geist Threnodic 2:4” is the story of Gav’s hunting of the Geist. Written solely by the LaSala brothers, it’s a lengthy story that finds most of its perspective in the mind of the Geist itself as the hunter becomes the hunted. Paired with music by Dylan Leeds and Ali Kilpatrick, the music, like the story, picks up the thread where “Geist Anthropic 1:4” left off, with the pleasantly repeated piano overtop a layer of tapping electric drums that blend comfortably. This leads into the addition of a guitar that matches the drumbeat with chords. The music captures the slower pacing of this story, and its slow building of the character of Gave through the eyes of the Geist.

Ed Greenwood’s “Best Served Flash-Frozen” picks up on a passing mention in another story of the assassination of Mark Steelweather, CEO of Steelweather industries and interprets a whole reason and story behind it. It’s a madman, family, and love(?) story rolled into one that provides one of the few glimpses into the upper hierarchy of the corporate nations, even if from an outsider’s perspective. Michelangelo and Thee Crumb’s under two minute electronic background gives a sinister glint to a maimed protagonist that the reader initially sympathized with in his suffering.

“Geist Eidetic 3:4”, again solely written by the LaSalas, is a memory story. We are thrust back into the recent past of Gav, to the character-shaping events that led him first to addiction and then inspired the hunt. He also discovers a key clue as to the source of the Geist. The accompaniment continues the trend of subtly increasing the complexity of the music. In this combination work by Dylan Leeds plus Alternate Modes of Underwater Consciousness, Thee Crumb and Ali Kirkpatrick the piano is overlain with a machine sounding beat and a slowly throbbing stringed instrument that breaks off into a static slowly interpolated by an orchestral score.

In “All the Good Things You Are” Robert Velarde posits a rescue story gone horribly wrong. Velarde works hard to include the music into his story, quoting lines from the lyrics by Bilian and even introducing the musician as an unseen character into the story. I think the forced nature of this connection actually damaged the story’s quality in the long-run as it made the connection between music and story too obvious and turned the plot jagged. I applaud Velarde’s attempt to more explicitly include the artist and lyrics in the story, but ultimately it made the story lack any depth, resulting a surface level chase through an ever-changing Rocky Mountain complex with no emotional impact on the reader.

Ari Marmell (as I expected) provides the only story with humor in “Twenty-One-Oh.” In this chase story, a messenger must deliver a package by bike, foot and subway while being pursued by rival companies or else lose a big corporate contract. But all is not as it seems, as Marmell’s trademark humor led the reader on a bit of wild goose chase before the reveal. Michelangelo’s speedy combination of mouth harp, bongos and didgeridoo keeps the mood light even as the story seems dark.

“”Made in Brazil, Living in Japan” by Jaleigh Johnson is about the nature of art, about the transference of artistic skill, and about the crossover of cultures. A “Pan,” a mind reader of the cybernetic age, is tasked by a company to read the comatose mind of an artist they sponsored to find his attacker, afraid it may have been the artist’s protégé. What the Pan finds is something else, something personal. Gene Pritsker and Bilian’s musical collaboration is a slow, repetitive drumlin interspersed with a pointed melody that is like a drop of water falling into a lake.

“Crossed Swords” by Ken Hart shares something in common with Keith Baker’s tale, in that it takes place entirely within the unreal. A scientist, a believer in the old gods of Egypt, seeks a sort of afterlife in posthumanity, in the transference of the human mind from brain to computer. Will he find what he seeks in the representation of the Anubis, judge of the underworld, or something else? Michelangelo, sparked this story with music that sets at odds the melody of a reed horn with a harmony of an Arabic sounding drumbeat. Its one of my favorite musical scores of the nineteen on the CD.

The final Geist story “Geist Intrinisic 4:4” is about the showdown between the elusive Geist and Gav. In it, several threads that had appeared in several previous stories are brought together to reveal the origin, location, and purpose of the beast Gave hunts. The resulting confrontation is more complex that you think, and the ending action is surprising given what had come before. The musical accompaniment for this action tale is appropriately fast paced. Bilian remixes Dylan Leeds’ original music for a harder, faster, more electronic edge appropriate for dancing in the dark. It’s the type of music I imagine would fit in well at a rave and heightens the story’s excitement immeasurably.

“Anodyne Fading: The Wolf Without” has a different take on the cybernetic age. Rather than focus on the mind-mapping as so many of the other stories do, this one looks to the body modifications that could accompany advances in medical science. An individual suffering the belief he is a wolf would have the means (if the money) at his disposal to become what he believe his is. So it is for Johnny Masters. But for a poor person, to suffer such would put you in touch with the wrong crowd, which may lead to your end. Music by Thee Crumb, Michelangelo, and another cultural landslide mixes the a haunting reed instrument with a hard rock underbelly that gets at the wildness intrinsic to Christopher Dinkins’ story. The music also leads directly into the next story and song.

“Lament” by Brian W. Matthews is a lament for what was lost by a killer, a murderer for hire. The lyrics, sung with a warble meant to haunt the ears, are integrated directly into the story to bring about a buried memory for the killer protagonist. Pain leads to insanity say the music of another cultural landslide, though redemption can be found, says Matthews’ story.

Rosemary Jones wonders at the fate of literature and the arts in a world struggling just to survive in “Deep in the Deep: Reaction-Diffusion Dies Tonight.” Would free information be “free” or become proprietary? Would there be lone wolf librarians ensuring that learning, thought, and speech were always accessible? It’s a poignant SF story that touches on issues of the modern day. The steady drip, drip of Jeremy Simmons music led Jones to the idea for her ice-pack storage device – obsolete before its time. In way, the understated music asks, like the dancer Neling, to find the melody in our own head.

The anthology concludes with “Unto the Interface” by Ruth Lampi and Jessica Van Oort, a story about two ex-experiment Filipino boys who arise from the ashes of an attack. Their cybernetic properties and love of robot TV shows, however, make them uniquely situated to become the attack survivors’ best hope. The angelic, wordless chorus of Ali Kilpatrick’s music ends the story of humanity’s translation into posthumanity on a hopeful note.

Foreshadows: The Ghosts of Zero is an amazingly integrated effort. Each story informs on the next, and no story stands wholly alone, though is also not dependent on the others. Even in the four-part Geist story, each tale could stand-alone. Details from one story are seen, re-interpreted, or included in another author’s story, with the music providing background, overlay, and impetus at just the right moments while also remaining a cohesive whole. I’ve never read or heard a project like this, and I hope it becomes the first of many that meld the arts of music and writing.

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