Archive for June 4th, 2010

STORY OF BYRON THE BULB (Thomas Pynchon)

Friday, June 4th, 2010

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ByrontheBulb

Tao Wells – Byron the Bulb

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Brian Stonehill

Pynchon’s Prophecies of Cyberspace (excerpt)

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Perhaps the clearest prophecies of cyberspace occur in what a subtitle in the final Part of Gravity’s Rainbow calls THE STORY OF BYRON THE BULB. You recall the scene: Pfc. Eddie Pensiero has been ordered to give a haircut to an unnamed but very garrulous Army colonel from Kenosha, Wisconsin, while Eddie’s friend Private Paddy McGonigle hand-cranks a generator to power the electric light bulb overhead. Pynchon’s narrator tells us,

Now it turns out that this light bulb over the colonel’s head here is the same identical Osram light bulb that Franz Pokler used to sleep next to in his bunk at the underground rocket works at Nordhausen. [...] But the truth is even more stupendous. This bulb is immortal! It’s been around, in fact, since the twenties, has that old-timery point at the tip and is less pear-shaped than more contemporary bulbs. Wotta history, this bulb, if only it could speak — well, as a matter of fact, it can speak.

And so we get the aforementioned STORY OF BYRON THE BULB, who gets into trouble with the international light-bulb cartel by not burning out when he’s supposed to. The other light bulbs notice his unusual longevity, and compare it to other cases they’ve heard of on what Pynchon calls, with a capital G, the Grid.

Other light bulbs can recognize his immortality on sight, but it’s never discussed except in a general way, when folklore comes flickering in from other parts of the Grid, tales of the Immortals, one in a kabbalist’s study in Lyons who’s supposed to know magic, another in Norway outside a warehouse facing arctic whiteness with a stoicism more southerly bulbs begin strobing faintly just at the thought of. (650)

So “the Grid” is a kind of webspace, the global circuitry not of T-1 lines and telephone links but the primordial power grid itself, adopted for the sake of this fantasy to the needs of instant communication. In the style of a recent New Yorker cartoon, you might say that on the Internet of this prophecy, nobody knows you’re a light bulb.

As Byron the Bulb’s hours of use continue to climb, threatening to throw all the capitalist averages out of whack, the Committee on Incandescent Anomalies — whose author knows we can spell that one out for ourselves — the Committee on Incandescent Anomalies sends out a Berlin agent to unscrew Byron. The other bulbs watch, in barely subdued terror. The word goes out along the Grid. At something close to the speed of light, every bulb, Azos looking down the empty Bakelite streets, Nitralampen and Wotan Gs at night soccer matches, Just-Wolframs, Monowatts and Siriuses, every bulb in Europe knows what’s happened. (650)

Well, such a global information network operating “at something close to the speed of light” was not even taken seriously as science fiction when Pynchon let Byron the Bulb shed his light, but clearly, in retrospect, the episode was prophetic, and now every bulb in Europe — or every wired monitor screen in the world — does know what’s happened.

Interestingly enough, Pynchon mentions prophecy itself at the end of Byron the Bulb’s story, for it is Byron’s fate — like that of so many e-mail addicts — to have access to all the information in the world, yet be able to do little with it:

Someday he will know everything, and still be as impotent as before. His youthful dreams of organizing all the bulbs in the world seem impossible now — the Grid is wide open, all messages can be overheard, and there are more than enough traitors out on the line. Prophets traditionally don’t last long — they are either killed outright, or given an accident serious enough to make them stop and think, and most often they do pull back. (654-55)

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