Persona Cracked is a series that explores the intersection of artists, their work, and social media. My next guest, Joseph Hurtgen, holds a PhD in English Literature and is the author of several books, including Tower Defender, The Archive Incarnate, Sherman: a Novel, and tae kwon GO. He writes science fiction analysis on his blog, Rapid Transmission and is a writer and editor for New Rural, a slow web project devoted to exploring the intersection of global culture with rural life. Hurtgen lives in Campbellsville, Kentucky with his wife Rebecca, daughter Frances, and son, Ira. This interview focuses on Hurtgen’s first novel, Tower Defender (2017).
I was carried away by the big ideas, humor, pop culture, history, music, and philosophy referenced in Tower Defender, but that’s just me summarizing my overall impressions of your first novel. What do you think this book offers that is unique to the pantheon of science fiction?
Yeah, you’re onto it. It’s this great mix of ideas mostly in the humanities, but what holds them together is Michel Foucault’s ideas from Society Must be Defended that war has become the basis for all institutions of power over the last several centuries. That’s part of the reason why the title of my book has the word defender/defense in it. There’s also a kind of lesser video game subgenre called tower defense where you have to defend something from attack. The irony in the novel being that the heroes are actually the ones making the attack. But I was playing with an idea that goes beyond considering the significance of war to society. War is at the center for the individual too. We define ourselves by defending our space, defending our identity. Sometimes we can do that by merely working or communicating and other times we have to put up our fists and stand our ground. Larger society is a reflection and multiplication of what goes on at the individual level. The tower must be defended, but it also must be attacked. And why is this? It is because humans are animals. We’re frightened. We’re backed into a corner and ready to claw our way to safety.
The first third of Tower Defender takes place inside a rehabilitation unit for people whose language capacity has been surgically diminished to help them ‘cope’ from a traumatic event. What is the theoretical basis, in fact or otherwise, regarding such ‘treatment?’ What inspired your use of this procedure in the story, and what purpose might it serve, besides a plot point?
If you look into the history of treatment for especially those on the fringe of society, especially those suffering from madness, you find a lot of techniques that amount to an attempt to erase personality, memory, and even consciousness: medications that tamp down the emotional and psychosocial aspects of personhood; electroshock therapy to jostle a person into alignment with social perceived norms; and the granddaddy of them all, lobotomy, to simulate aphasia. The lobotomy splits apart the rational from the creative, essentially a surgical disintegration of personality. A lot of these practices have ended, but there’s still a quest to separate the unacceptable self from a self that could properly integrate into society. The term I use for the “therapeutic” procedure in Tower Defender is sort of made up and also sort of French: parole. This term simultaneously evokes the French term for language and a disciplinarian term: to receive parole, to be let go. But if you’re deparoled, that’s a removal of language and simultaneous entry into/beginning of disciplinary measures. Philosophers like to talk about the origin of thinking. Can we think without the grammar and logic of language or does thinking naturally give rise to the logic of grammar and language? I think the answer is obvious enough. If you go back far enough in history you get to a point where Latin doesn’t exist, Greek doesn’t exist and you have protolanguage. Where did that language come from? Someone had to think some thoughts without the benefits of language to articulate them. Somebody had to make some sounds and point to a rock and have their community agree that you’re pointing at a rock. From there you can have an explosion of thinking and communicating. Within the greater concept of the book, if the tower is the mind and you’re defending it, then maybe you’re interested in going through some sort of therapy that could strip trauma away and let you start fresh. Who wouldn’t want to go back to the tabula rasa, that ideal that humans begin in a state of natural innocence, everything sweetness and light. But I attack that idea in the book with a character like Vitaly who enters into therapy as a drug addict and comes out of therapy as a drug addict. You can use language to assess your situation. Removing language wouldn’t naturally fix problems, just like putting someone through electroshock therapy will never shock them into perfection.
Tower Defender reminds me of an adult version of Ready Player One. On the one hand, it is rife with the influence of big money and big tech; and on the other hand, it is infused with mind-altering drugs and erotic scenarios that come off more Philip Dick than Ernest Cline. Thus, the story begs the question—what hell, or relief—does the mind and its amusements offer?
So, with this question, we’re going right back to the deparole. Is the mind some locus for heaven or hell? Maybe there’s a third choice? Some sort of purgatory with splashes of joy and sorrow. The main character, Robert, is a drug user and he’s gone through some level of trauma enough to go to the deparole, but he’s also going through it to ready himself for a process of copying his mind to create an AI personality capable of carrying on his research around the clock. So, you’ve got this vaunting of the mind as a powerful and positive force like if you could just isolate the pure mind (nous), then all the sudden possibilities are unlimited. And if you could divorce the mind from the needs of the body, then all the better. But as long as mind is tied to the weaknesses of the body and the weaknesses of the personality then you have all of these desires and anxieties and stressors that threaten the purity of the mind. Deparole is a kind of desire for an ultimate introverted state, the desire to gain the creativity and authenticity derived from independent times of self-reflection.
Tower Defender starts off as a violent video game on a windswept post-apocalyptic desert between in which one Mad Max crew competes to annihilate another, and the story concludes with a physical struggle for survival between the main characters within a super-scraper. In your view, what does your story suggest about the relationship between capitalism and consciousness?
One of capitalism’s most powerful aspects is fungibility, the ability to convert anything and everything into capital. Even human consciousness will one day be considered in terms of capital. You’ll be able to rent out the ongoing experience of celebrities, for instance. And of course celebrities will sell their conscious experiences by the hour, maybe by the minute for highly desirable celebs. You won’t live your own life anymore, at least if you’re not working. In your time off, instead of watching television or TikTok, you’ll sit down in the chair put on the VR mask and experience a simulation of being Billie Eilish or one of the Kardashians. And kind of like a Spotify streaming service, they’ll get paid for every person streaming their consciousness. And, of course, the result will be that people are less and less authentic and increasingly become puppets of pop culture, which from the perspective of capital is great. Instead of religion becoming the opiate of the masses, pop culture does the work. People will be paying to conform to the norms of society. Techno-conformity reinforced by the processes of capital to, in turn, generate more capital.
One of my favorite snippets from the novel is a scene in which a Kentucky livestock farmer returns to the mega corporation farm where he works only to discover that the hogs and chickens he typically slaughters and processes for stores are no longer present but have been replaced by countless genetically engineered insects…that are human! The idea is that over-populating, over-burdening Homo Sapiens have been replaced physically with insects that are much less consuming and harmful on the environment, while still retaining many of their same conscious qualities. With this context in mind, what do you feel is the best-case scenario for the future of humanity?
I expect to see billions of humans die at the beginning of the next century because of a widespread environmental collapse. The world governments won’t move swiftly enough, if at all, because of the rise of nationalism and fascism. America is going to fall to some weird-ass RepubliQan/QAnon/militia and all environmental gains will be erased. But California will break off from the fascist AmeriKKKa and continue researching nanotechnology. Everyone in China and India will die because of pollution, crop failure, and extreme temperatures, but through nanotech, carbon capture will be super easy and affordable. After the first couple decades of the new century, with nanomachines joyfully cleaning everything (terraforming terra), the atmosphere will be totally cleaned and human drama will rese—except the Silicon Valley California Tech country will dominate everything.
You continue to work on new fiction, including the release of your latest novel, tae kwon Go, and several story short stories penned and published in recent years with Mark Everglade. Is there a particular area of science fiction and/or human development that you are particularly interested in exploring in the near future?
Mark Everglade is an absolute wizard, a mastermind, and deeply funny. I can’t say enough good things about him! We are currently working on a short story that considers the multiverse. Our idea is that it could be possible to create other universes through the same process by which our own universe was created and link them through wormholes. If you had a library of highly sensitive material that you wanted to conceal from, say, extraterrestrials, your enemies, whoever, then this would be a pretty beneficial technology to have. Just don’t let the E.T.’s figure out how to jump between worlds so they can’t raid your secret library!
Finally, you play the drums and love jazz music. Between your work as a professor, family man, and writer, how often do you play, and is it a satisfying as it used to be? What is the relationship between writing and music for you?
Recently, I’ve been sitting down behind the kit at least once a week. Through my 20s, I played about five hours a day. I studied Philly Joe Jones, Elvin Jones, Buddy Rich Alex Acuña, Jack DeJohnette. I had two years there when I stopped reading entirely and only read drum notation. For those two years, I devoted all my time to drumming. Drumming was my own deparole. It can still be comforting to think in rhythm instead of spoken language. But rhythm is its own language. I’ve discovered recently how I can play very quietly and hear aspects of the drum tones and cymbal tones that I wouldn’t hear if I was playing louder. I learned a long time ago that rhythm is unlimited. You can always find more subdivisions. You can always find more space. Everything is infinite. This is my approach to writing as well. There’s no end. There’s always something new to find. Even after decades, if you sit down and spend some time in whatever world you’re invested in, whether it’s music, writing, or whatever, it’s infinite. You’ll find more beauty there forever as you fall upward into the next unknown world.
Thank you for sharing your story!
Ryan Hyatt, April 18, 2022