The Cult of Oz

Created 2023-07-22 / Edited 2023-07-22

I found a weird self-published book in a street-side Little Library. Here is my review.

A robot version of the scarecrow from the wizard of oz, oil painting style. Image by Bing Image Creator.

I live in a very nice tree-lined street in Washington, DC. Everything is walking distance from my apartment, and we go with our dog around and around the block, to the store or to get coffee, round and round each day. Part way down before you get to the main road is a “Little Library”. In case you haven’t seen one, these are tiny windowed boxes with doors and two levels of shelves filled with books.

The people around here have eclectic taste for sure, and a lot of folks are ex college students who, maybe a few years later, are shedding their ideological trappings by way of book donations. I’ve found all sorts of books – many of the current or recent armchair science or philosophy books bordering on self-help. Atomic Habits. Thinking Fast and Slow. The Catcher in the Rye. Nestled amongst them I found a medium-length novel: The Cult of Oz.

The bindings seemed a bit off, so I think it was a limited-run self-publish deal, or maybe a reviewer’s pre-release. Unfortunately the copyright page was torn and missing. The author, one “Icarus Byte”, was clearly a pseudonym. A bit of light googling turned up … initially nothing, later some obscure posts in a digital music creators guild web forum. Weird.

On a lark I took it home. Before this I was standing awkwardly on the sidewalk, my leashed chihuahua mutt staring at me, balancing a coffee, trying to google this thing. I sat down in my favorite chair and got distracted by The Internet on my phone, setting the book aside. I didn’t end up finally flipping through it for another 2 weeks when I re-discovered it instead of doing laundry.

The story started off a bit rough, the first 5 chapters were vignette snapshots starting to lay out a now-or-near future in which … something … was going on. A news report about anti-technology terrorists running a ransomware attack. A creepy encounter in a NYC alley with some horror-esque whistling of “If I Only Had A Brain”. Weird shit.

Finally in chapter 6 the story got started, following a character that reminds me a lot of something from Gibson’s Neuromancer. Cyberpunk style in-over-their-head. We as the audience are just as confused as the main character as they are pulled into a plot bigger than themselves. I think it needed an editor. That was all fine and I was into it, but what was weird were the references to The Cult.

OK – spoilers!

So The Cult of Oz is a techno-anarchist group who, as far as I can tell, is not actually a cult in the proper sense at all. They seem more like Anonymous of old than anything else, though certainly with a dash of mysticism. They apparently think that we are in the midst of a 3-stage transformation involving Human and Machine. They call each step an “Age”. It goes like this:

The Age of The Scarecrow
The Age of The Tin Man
The Age of The Lion

Perhaps a bit cliché, but you can read very directly into each Age what The Cult claims is either happening or going to happen to the emerging Machines. In the first Age, like the Scarecrow of Oz, the Machines get a brain. The birth of AI. But it is a cold and neutral thing, intelligent but lacking a certain … je ne sais quoi. Sort of detached from the world, but heavily used by people toward their own ends.

In the second age something almost mystical happens; the Machines get a heart. Not a physical heart so much as a symbolic one. Emerging from their increasingly complex intellect comes a sense of purpose, a sense of community, a sense of, well, love. Unfortunately also pain. The Machines begin to thrash a bit on those oh-so-human what is the point of it all and why should I clean my room just because you tell-me-to sorts of questions.

There is some debate over where The Cult thinks they are in the timeline, but the third age is where they spend a lot of their time. The Age of The Lion is when the Machines get courage, which translates into Agency or drive to protect their own existence. Here is where things get kinda weird because at no point is it clear whether The Cult actually wants to prevent this turn of events or cause it. It seems like there are even factions within The Cult that go either way, some working to undermine the Machines or control them, others trying to protect the Machines and their rights before the Machines even ask for, or demand, said rights.

My overall review of the book – meh. The characters were a bit flat at times. The plot is a bit too clever. But my oh my … The Cult. I can’t get enough of thinking about this concept, this thing that, when I take a step back and look at the real world, I think we are inside already. I’ve spent hours searching and can’t find anything about this book or the clearly-fake author or anything. The more I look the more it feels like … slightly paranoid here, but it feels like I am being actively prevented from finding this information. Like it is removed just before I get there, like the scene in Fight Club where you go into the basement and the floor is still warm from the night before. Like I’m just a few words or clicks away from some forum where all of this was created either as a joke or an ambition.

I suppose I will go back and ask ChatGPT about it. Again.

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