New Suns (speculative fiction anthology)

New Suns is a forthcoming speculative fiction anthology edited by the great Nisi Shawl. I was able to acquire and read an advance copy, thanks to Netgalley. This book contains short stories by writers of color. Some of the writers are already well known to me, while in other cases this was my first introduction to their work. The anthology reflects the fact that so much of the most dynamic and powerful speculative fiction at this point in time is being written by people of color. The writers in this anthology radically revise familiar traditions, both western and other. They do what speculative fiction, whether future-oriented (science fiction) or past-oriented (fantasy fiction) at its best generally does: suggest alternatives that speak to our possibility of survival in a world currently ravaged by neoliberal capitalism, with its racism and its assault on the environment.

I cannot write about all the stories individually in this comment, but I will mention the ones I particularly loved. Tobias Buckell’s “Galactic Tourist Industrial Complex” gives a satirical and very funny description of a future in which the entire Earth has become a backwater that subsists entirely on tourism from wealthier and more technologically powerful species from other planets. This story brings home post-colonial dependency to American readers who might well themselves be on the other side of the equation (as tourists in poorer countries themselves). Kathleen Alcala’s “Deer Dancer” shows how indigenous ways might give the best hope for survival in a decayed post-climate-catastrophe landscape. Minsoo Kang’s “The Virtue of Unfaithful Translations” is a witty parable about surviving the stupidity of the powerful, and about the limitations of scholarly and historical reconstruction, in an Asian-based fantasy world. Steven Barnes’ Come Home to Atropos goes along well with Buckell’s story, as it is a sarcastic take on the tourist economy of poorer, post-colonial countries seeking to attract dollars from the affluent white world; in this story, even suicide becomes a fancy and “exotic” experience. Jaymee Goh’s “The Freedom of the Shifting Sea” brilliantly rewrites the mermaid tale in terms both of white/Asian colonial relations, and of some rather unusual (but actual) facts of biology. Lily Yu’s “Three Variations on a Theme of Imperial Attire” sarcastically rings a number of social and political changes on Hans Christian Anderson’s tale of The Emperor’s New Clothes. Those are my favorites, but in fact all the stories in this anthology are really good.

The Other Side of the Wind

Quick impressions after seeing The Other Side of the Wind for the first time.

I think it might be interesting to see The Other Side of the Wind as a late-career revision of Citizen Kane. Both movies are centered on an enigmatic powerful male figure (this is, of course, a recurrent theme in Welles: cf Mr Arkadin most obviously, but also Touch of Evil; and in a certain way, Chimes at Midnight). The crucial duality of Kane is that 1) we cannot really KNOW Charles Foster Kane, all we can get is a series of outside, partial perspectives; yet 2) Kane himself is a massive physical presence at the center of the film thanks to Welles’ performance. Stylistically, Kane juxtaposes German Expressionist lighting and camera angles, and sound editing intricacies that came from Welles’ experience in radio, with all those unbroken long takes in deep space (and I am entirely convinced by Deleuze’s contention that Welles’ exploration of deep space is also an exploration of deep time, making Welles one of the inventors and pioneers of what Deleuze calls the time-image).

Now, in The Other Side of the Wind we find a similar structure, but with the elements redistributed. The enigmatic figure at the center is John Huston’s Jake Hannaford. Huston doesn’t have the same massive presence as Welles’ Kane; whereas Kane seems too massive for us to get beneath his skin, Hannaford’s toxic masculinity is instead expressed in an inverted form; he is like a black hole that sucks in all light and energy and gives nothing back, except the blankness that guarantees power and fascination. [It is worth noting that Huston appeared in his other greatest acting role, in Chinatown, right in the middle of the extended period when he was acting for Welles in The Other Side of the Wind]. You can see this in all of Hannaford’s interactions with both men and women (most notably, perhaps, in the way that Peter Bogdanovich’s hanger-on speaks “for” Hannaford by recounting anecdotes and playing tape recordings), and in the central enigma of his sexuality. Instead of the half-dozen long narrations of Kane’s life by his associates, we get a multiplicity of cameras, recorders, etc. capturing the action simultaneously. In a more recent media age (pre-digital, but with cameras already multiplying and light weight enough to be manipulated in multiple ways – Bogdanovich’s voiceover introduction, recorded and set in our present of 2018, makes a point of this), perspectives are multiplied to the point where we can’t really keep track of how many there are, or entirely differentiate them from one another. Instead, we get the dazzling editing that combines multiple film stocks, both color and black and white, from multiple angles. This movie features a sort of radical editing style that I have scarcely seen anyplace else, either when the film was made or up to now. (I read one account online that said that Oliver Stone saw a rough cut, and this may have influenced his somewhat similar style in Natural Born Killers). (Welles apparently edited only about 30% of the film himself, but I presume that Bob Murawski, who edited the rest of the film in the past year or two, was following Welles’ instructions, much as Walter Murch did for the posthumous restoration of Touch of Evil). So my overall claim here is that Welles’ unprecedented radical montage works as an update, for a new media situation, of the perspectivism of Kane.

As for the long shots / long takes that were the other half of Kane‘s stylistics, these get translated into the film-within-the-film, the incomplete Hannaford film that is being screened in segments. This entirely dialogueless erotic thriller has to be seen as more than just a parody of Antonioni or whatever. It leads nowhere, but it is compelling and weirdly expressive in its bright colors, its extreme angles, and its open landscapes with strange architectures. (It is mostly in long shots and long takes, but there are also highly edited sections like the brilliant sex-in-the-car sequence). In any case, the cinematography, the editing, the lighting, and the frequent wide open spaces of the film-within-the-film contrast with the claustrophobia and the intense clutter of Hannaford’s birthday party. Perhaps the splitting here can be related to the ways in which our current media regime offers us a sense of temporality as different from that of Deleuze’s time-image as the latter was from the previous movement-image. The deep time of Bergsonian duration and “time in its pure state” is no longer directly experiential, but only works insofar as it is aesthetically framed and relegated to the distance. Meanwhile, there is a new, third sort of time (what I have previously called the rhythm-image, and what Steen Christiansen has more recently called the morph-image) that we experience today in the Internet age, but that Welles already had intimations of in the 1970s, and that is embodied or expressed in The Other Side of the Wind in the dazzling multiplicity, with a vacancy at the center, of Hannaford’s birthday party. We no longer dig into the ontological past, but instead experience the shock of space-time compression as all of Hannaford’s half-century of filmmaking and experiences of manipulating others is compressed into a single night….

(Obviously these thoughts are subject to revision as well as elaboration when I get the chance to watch The Other Side of the Wind a few more times….).

Richard K Morgan, THIN AIR

I put this review up on Goodreads, as it is more slapdash and less coherent than what I usually post here, and a lot of things I should have said are missing (either I’m too lazy or too busy). But I guess it is worth placing here as well anyway, considering how lame Goodreads is as a platform.

Richard K Morgan has long been one of my favorite science fiction writers. This book marks his return to science fiction after writing a fantasy trilogy. That trilogy was pretty good, but I found it intrinsically less interesting than his science fiction work, so this new novel is a welcome return to form. Thin Air takes place in the same universe as Morgan’s last SF novel, THIRTEEN (US title; it was originally called BLACK MAN in the UK), but it is not a sequel; the two books are entirely independent from one another. Morgan pulls off a difficult feat in all his texts: he gives us a central character who is essentially an ultra-macho superman (due, in the sf novels, to different varieties of technological body enhancement, as well as character), yet combines this with a degree of sensitivity to social and political concerns that one would not usually expect in this subgenre. For instance, Veil, the narrator and protagonist here, is emphatically not in the least misogynistic, even though this usually comes with the territory of ultra-violence and frequent sexual opportunities. The women he meets have agency, and sometimes the sex is… just bad. All of Morgan’s sf novels have interesting takes on the way neoliberal economics and governance work, extrapolated into various futures. Here Morgan again pulls off an impressive and difficult feat: he is sufficiently clear-eyed not to gild the lilly to the slightest extent, but instead to present financial domination and corporate/governmental impositions without even the slightest hint of redemptiveness; he wants to give us neoliberal capitalism in its full feral horror, even to rub our noses in it. There is nothing in this world besides rich people, and the corporations and governments they control, willing to go to any degree of destruction, torture, murder, and oppression in order to augment their profits. There is no line between criminal corruption, grand political manipulation, and totalitarian control; they are all the same thing. Yet at the same time, he resists the all too common temptation whereby this would slide into total cynicism. Morgan suggests that the worst speculations of Machiavelli and Hobbes are correct in how they view politics; and yet he maintains a sense of outrage about it all. His protagonists enjoy perpetrating violence, and their skills are largely for sale to the highest bidder; they don’t really have the stubborn integrity of those hardboiled noir detectives in novels and movies of the mid 20th century; and yet they aren’t simply amoral monsters, but suggest that there is at least a slim hope of getting beyond the atmosphere of atrocities that they inhabit (and do their bit to perpetrate). In Thin Air, Veil doesn’t really have a conscience, and yet he remains convinced (even if he himself doesn’t quite understand why or how) that something better than given social world is still possible. I am being vague here to avoid spoilers; this pattern is one that we see in all of Morgan’s science fiction in different ways. I am not sure Thin Air is quite as good either as the Takeshi Kovacs trilogy (with its surprising meditations on the slim but not entirely in existent possibilities of socialist revolution in this neoliberal capitalist hell, or as Thirteen, with its fascinating meditation on the powers and limitations of genetic engineering as a technology of capitalist control; but it is still a powerful book because of the way it posits the worst, almost revels in it, and yet allows us to think about the possibilities of things being otherwise than the way the text depicts them… which I take to be Morgan’s overall accomplishment as an SF novelist.
It may sound as if I am describing Thin Air as a cyberpunk novel, but it’s not. Cyberpunk is long dead and gone, and this is what comes after: the deglamorized residue. Most specifically, Thin Air is about neocolonialism under neoliberal conditions, or about what has been called Combined and Uneven Development . It takes place on Mars, in the aftermath of the Earth attempt to populate a new world. Things are grim and rundown; despite over 200 (Earth) years of colonization, Mars is still a crappy place to live, though there is a lot of money to be made from exploiting it. Of course, this rundown state, with the project of terraforming having been abandoned, rather than a glorious new settlement, is what we can actually expect if Elon Musk or Jeff Bezos ever should succeed in their projects for colonizing Mars. Capitalist cosmopolitanism always requires backwaters. Capitalism always needs to underdevelop the very places it milks or exploits for profit, and the people there are just collateral damage (if they aren’t among the very few who are joined with the corporations back in the center – Earth in this case – in skimming off the surplus). Veil, the protagonist of Thin Air, is a former corporate goon who now sells his labor (and the corporate implants for killing and surviving that the corporation didn’t manage to deprive him of when they got rid of him) as a mercenary to the highest bidder. It’s the only work he can get on Mars, and he doesn’t have the money to get back home to Earth. Under such circumstances, everything is a set-up of which we are right to be suspicious – every bit as suspicious as Veil himself is. The novel succeeds because it already anticipates, pre-empts, and discounts in advance whatever we might be tempted to think about it. The novel shows us that everything is in fact even worse than we were prepared to think; and in continually outrunning us in this way, it also earns the barest whiff of the possibility of an at least slightly less awful world with which it entices us, but withdraws from whenever we get too close.

On Lisa Adkins, The Time of Money

Lisa Adkins’ new book, The Time of Money, is brilliant and, I think, extremely important. But I also find it quite perplexing in terms of its overall stance and motivation.

The basic argument of the book is that speculative financial operations are central to social life and experience today. Capitalism has moved from an extractive regime (generating surplus from exploiting labor) to a speculative regime (generating surplus from speculative financial transactions). In this way, finance is in no sense superstructural or extrinsic to the “real economy”; rather, it directly and entirely makes over the entire realm of the social. And in particular, financial speculation makes over our concept and experience of time. Under industrial capitalism, we experience time as a uniform and extrinsic measure: labor power is a commodity measured in units of time, and commodities in general are subject to universal equivalence through the socially necessary time of their production. But we are now, instead, subject to speculative time:

Time is not a thing that simply passes or that contains and orders events, nor is it something that moves in one direction or another, proceeding, for example, chronologically, progressively, or sequentially, with the past standing behind the present and the future unfolding from the now. Speculative time is a time in which pasts, presents, and futures stand not in a predetermined or pre-set relation to each other but are in a continuous state of movement, transformation, and unfolding. It is this form of time that belongs to the time of securitized debt. Thus, in the time of securitized debt, futures may remediate not only the present but also the past; the present and its relation to the past and the future may be reset in one action (via, e.g., index rolling); pasts and presents can be forwarded and futures and presents backwarded. It is, moreover, along the flows of these nonchronological pasts, presents, and futures, including their reordering and resetting and even their suspension, that channels for profit are yielded. In short, in the time of securitized debt, the time of profit lies in the nonchronological and indeterminate movements of speculative time.

This new sort of time is not only the time of derivatives and other arcane financial instruments; for it completely penetrates and transforms everyday experience as well. Individuals and households are now subjected to speculative time. It is no longer the case that wages compensate labor, and provide the basis for social reproduction (the old, Keyensian-Fordist model, under which the man’s labor provided for the commodity needs of the household, like food and shelter, while women worked inside the home in uncompensated domestic labor). Instead, wages are no longer sufficient to meet household needs, even if women as well as men enter full time into the workforce. Similarly, so-called “welfare reform” means that the state no longer provides necessities for the unemployed, but instead forces even people without jobs to engage in incessant, uncompensated labor.

For both the employed and the unemployed, and for both men and women, wages today do not provide enough to get by (enough for social reproduction), as they used to do in the Fordist era; instead, we are all required to use our wages for speculative investment, by accumulating debt as well as by enlisting what money we supposedly have in speculative schemes from which banks, realtors, etc. can draw more and more surplus. We are now continually indebted for life; financial institutions lend us more than we will ever be able to pay back, because they make their money not so much on the ultimate repayment of their loans as on the packaging and sale of these obligations in the form of derivatives, credit default swaps, etc. etc. I will never get my Visa debt, or my mortgage, down to zero; for one thing, I do not earn enough to pay down these debts in my lifetime, and for another thing, I am continually offered the prospect of rolling over and renegotiating these debts, which serves to perpetuate them ad infinitum. None of the financial institutions to which I owe these debts is interested in my paying them off and becoming debt-free; they would rather that I continue to pay them off without ever fulfilling my “obligation.” They make more money by buying and selling such accumulated debts, and their associated income streams of continual payments, than they ever would by getting me to pay back the principal.

In this way, the everyday experience of individuals and households, and the everyday money we use to buy basic goods and services, are entirely subsumed by, and subjected to, the speculative time of finance. This means that in the current regime of debt time is not emptied out, or deprived of a future, in the way that Lazzarato and other critics have claimed; rather, our experience of temporality is more intense and convoluted than ever before. We are compelled to live according to the speculative time of finance; we cannot simply remember the past and anticipate or project into the future, but must micro-organize every aspect of our lives, and of our temporal experience, in accordance with the never-completed and continually-reshaped necessities of debt servicing:

Such [repayment] schedules—operating for the waged, the employed, the unwaged, the jobless, the underemployed, and the unemployed—have not only rewritten the relationship between household and personal debt and income but tie populations across whole lifetimes to the movements of speculative time, a time in which the relationships between the past, present, and future are not fixed but open to constant adjustment. Contemporary debt, then, does not destroy time by tying populations to futures that can never be their own but opens out a universe in which they are tied to the indeterminate movements of speculative time. This is a time through and in which the productivity of populations is maximized via the flows and movements of money.

I find Adkins’ account compelling. She makes a powerful argument for the claim that speculative finance entirely and massively “rewrites the social.” This is clearly in tension with Marxist claims that are based in the primacy of roduction, and that understand financial instruments as “ficticious capital.” But in a broader sense, I find Adkins’ account still congruent with the larger Marxist understanding that social processes are based, “in the last instance,” upon the extraction and expropriation of a surplus generated in the course of human life activity (or what Marx called “species being” in his early writings, and specified in terms of productive activity in his later writings). I think that the expropriation and accumulation of a surplus is the most crucial point – which is why, for instance, I have never been troubled, as many orthodox Marxists have been, with something like Sraffa’s understanding of surplus extraction and accumulation. It is the extraction (or theft from the public) of the surplus that is crucial, whether this is understood in terms of labor commodified as labor power (Marx), of physical production (Sraffa), or of financial speculation (in Adkins’ model). And in the contrary case, it is this failure to recognize the expropriation of a surplus, in any of these modes, that characterizes bourgeois economics. [Right-wing populism sometimes denounces “parasites,” who can be bankers (presumptively Jewish), as well as welfare recipients (presumptively Black) and violent criminals (presumtively Latino), but it never offers a social and systematic account of surplus expropriation].

So from this point of view, I see Adkins’ understanding as a useful one, and indeed as a way of showing that financial activities are fully material processes, as against “the ongoing identification of money and finance as immaterial or superstructural phenomena,” as other Left theorists, such as Mauricio Lazzarato, have tended to claim:

contra Lazzarato, the emergence of such everyday forms of money as a nonrepresentational surface that must be put in motion and practices that ensure that the productive capacities of populations are maximized toward such speculative activities is neither immaterial nor does it operate outside of the coordinates of the social world.

I think Adkins is right that financial speculation is a fully material process, not a parasitic superstructure to the economy. Just as I find Sraffa as a useful supplement to Marx with his emphasis on physical production, I see Adkins as useful for her emphasis on speculative movement. This is despite the fact that, just as my worry with Sraffa is that his theory seems to offer no place for contemporary finance (circulation as itself a productive activity), so my symmetrically opposite worry with Adkins is that, even if we accept her contention about the centrality of financial speculation, she seems to write as if physical production didn’t exist at all any longer. When wages no longer allow for social reproduction of the individual or household, condemning people therefore to enter into endless speculative spirals of debt, isn’t this because people still need to obtain physical stuff in order to survive, or in order to maintain what Marx saw as the socially-defined level of subsistence (which is not the same as minimal physical subsistence, since it also includes, in the US for instance, such things as mobile phones)?

This limitation of Adkins’ theory is not in itself fatal — I accept that what she is writing about is indeed crucial, even if it is not total — but it leads me to the perplexity I mentioned at the start. Adkins’ tone is polemical, even vitriolically so, when she denounces other accounts of neoliberal economy and of financial speculation. She continually attacks “normative assumptions” such as the way that “the expansion of finance has been taken to be destructive of the future, to interfere with the proper flow of time, and to threaten to return us to previous, unenlightened eras.” While I understand Adkins’ desire to get away from “normative” ideas about temporality, I don’t see why she needs to make so extreme an opposition. I don’t think want to try to subsume these opposed images of time in some sort of Hegelian sublation, but I also don’t think they exclude one another as absolutely as Adkins says (I prefer to see it in terms of a Kantian antinomy, in which the opposed terms are mutually implicated, in a way that refuses any possibility of Hegelian sublation). She is quite positive in denouncing these other visions of futurity, but frustratingly vague in explaining the contrasting details of the speculative time of finance. Sometimes Adkins refers to the schedules of speculative time as “calendrics”; this puts me in mind of Yoon Ha Lee’s Machineries of Empire space opera trilogy, in which calendrics are the basic tools of imperial domination. As is so often the case with science fiction, Lee’s trilogy is much more detailed in its consideration of oppressive calendrics and how they might operate, than Adkins’ sociological text dares to be.

Adkins shows how time is produced in the current neoliberal regime of financial speculation, so that we are bound to a very powerful, if indeterminate and continually shifting and changing, sort of futurity. This is entirely in line with Foucault’s (and Deleuze and Guattari’s) idea that power is generative rather than repressive. But such an ordering — an enslavement, really, to contingency, possibility, and irreducible risk — is not really opposed to the idea of capitalist realism (Mark Fisher), according to which we cannot imagine a future that is in rupture from the ongoing neoliberal present. Rather, the two are conjoined. In what Deleuze calls the society of control (rightly cited by Adkins), we are continually indebted (rather than serially imprisoned in a series of institutions as was the case in the disciplinary society), but this perpetual indebtedness, while it binds us to a very particular set of obligations that entirely determine our future, can also be said to be denying us any difference in the future. We cannot imagine anything different from financial capitalism, because we cannot imagine anything different than a regime of continually metamorphosing futures which, for all their uncertainty, generate a surplus that financial institutions expropriate from us, while leaving us exposed to risks for which there is no social remedy (since the structures of the welfare state have been systematicaly dismantled). Our binding to complex nonlinear regimes of futurity is precisely what makes other senses of futurity impossible.

My puzzlement grows even further when I reflect how Adkins suggests that the speculative time of finance is closely akin to the speculative accounts of time that we find in contemporary feminist and new materialist philosophy (she specifically mentions Karen Barad, Elizabeth Grosz, and Iris van der Tuin, among others). But though she mentions this, she doesn’t follow up on the observation. The speculative temporalities advanced by these thinkers are intended to offer us liberatory alternatives to the oppressions of normative, linear clock time. Should we think instead that they are just accurate descriptions of our current mode of oppression? I have sometimes made this move with regard to Deleuze and Guattari; for instance, I have suggested that their notions of the rhizomatic, of smooth space, of micropolitics, etc., are not forms of liberation, but precisely the tools that allow us to apprehend how neoliberal power and exploitation operate. Nothing is more rhizomatic than contemporary finance capital, and nothing is more exploitative. Should we say the same for feminist and new materialist temporal speculation? Is there any alternative temporality at all, if it turns out that these supposedly liberatory accounts are really just mechanisms of finance capital? That is what Adkins implies. But she never quite comes out and says this. And of course, convinced as I am by her arguments, I nonetheless do not want to accept this grim conclusion. And we should also consider — although Adkins does not — the alternative, speculative temporalities proposed by Afrofuturists from Sun Ra to Rasheedah Philips, which refer both to the past and the future, against an oppressive present and against enslavement to linearity. Are these too merely expressions of the logic of financial speculation? Can speculative fiction be disentangled from speculative finance? This is the biggest question that Adkins leaves me with, and to which she does not offer any sort of answer.

Sweet Dreams by Tricia Sullivan

I loved SWEET DREAMS, Tricia Sullivan’s most recent science fiction novel, published last year. I am not sure I can give as good an account of it as I would like – there is a lot of stuff there to disentangle. The story is about a dreamhacker – Charlie, the protagonist/narrator, has the ability to enter other peoples’ dreams, and alter what happens in them. She tries to make a living at this, but finds herself caught up in dangers and apparent conspiracies that challenge her abilities. It’s really a speculative novel about the coming collision between computer networks and neurobiology. What happens when the Internet enters intimately into our brains, and it becomes possible to hack our minds/thoughts/neural architecture directly? The novel explores the possibilities, which are both dystopian/scary and also possibly hopeful. The narrator gains her dreamhacking powers as the result of a medical trial gone wrong – she is a lucid dreamer who is now able to lucidly enter the dreams of other people as well. But the experiment also leaves her with narcolepsy (the propensity to fall asleep without wanting to, especially at inopportune moments.

The book is both a gripping thriller and a deeply intriguing and thoughtful speculative fiction. The protagonist/narrator is endearing, in the way that she is absolutely out of her depth and making costly errors all the time and letting herself be manipulated by others and suffering from extreme self-doubt; yet at the same time she is empathetic to others, and she has a strong will not just to survive, but to set things right. The novel deconstructs the kickass-heroine trope while at the same time rejecting the misogyny which so often holds women who are the slightest bit femme in contempt. I strongly identified with her, across gender, because she is a new sort of hero/heroine figure for people who feel socially awkward and confused and unfulfilled, etc., and who have to deal with a world that utterly exceeds their ability to comprehend and control it, and who manage to pull through nonetheless (and even perhaps to triumph). The fact is, the world really is that complicated and unfair (rigged to favor the rich) and beyond grasping (cf Jameson on how the complexity of globalized late capitalism exceeds our powers of representation). And this is in fact everybody’s position today — with the possible exception of a small number of overly entitled pricks with a lot of money/power (several of whom Charlie has the misfortune to meet in the course of the novel).

Speculatively, the book is so rich that I haven’t really been able to process it yet. There are questions about how recent neurobiological discoveries, together with the ways that the network is reaching ever more powerfully into our minds and subjectivites, change many of our commonsense assumptions of how the world works, of what it means to be a self, of private vs public experience, and so on. The novel has a traditional setup where the heroine is on the track of a hidden but very powerful antagonist; but the antagonist turns out to involve more twisted and complicated processes than can be encompassed by a traditional villain in a thriller. The book makes for an exciting narrative, but at the same time it twists the very structure of narrative into a new form, because these new discoveries and technologies are changing what it means to be a subject or an agent, what it means to act, how our buried unconscious (not-quite) selves are related to our overt selves, and so on.

The only other book I can think to compare it to is Nick Harkaway’s GNOMON, which has more dazzling literary pyrotechnics, but whose treatment of a similar set of issues in our digital near-future is not quite as profound as Sullivan’s.

(Note: the book is only in print in the UK, not in the US. You can buy a UK hardcopy via Amazon, Book Depository, and other retailers. The lack of US publication means that I was not permitted to buy the Kindle version, which is UK-only).

Footnote on Dawkins

An outtake from a work in progress:

DNA-centrism, as formulated in Crick’s “central dogma of molecular biology,” may well be mechanistic and reductive in theory; but in practice it turns into something else. According to Jessica Riskin’s revisionist account of the idea of mechanism in biological thought, the real issue dividing biologists has never been one of mechanism versus vitalism; the struggle has always been between two different accounts of mechanism, each of which is shadowed by its own sort of vitalism. One account sees mechanism as entirely passive and reactive, because its animating force comes from the outside (the human craftsman who makes a clock, or God as the originator of the clockwork of life). The other account sees the mechanisms of life as themselves intrinsically endowed with “various forms of agency: living forces, sensitive capacities, vital fluids, and self-organizing tendencies,” all or any of which “originate within the natural form in question” (The Restless Clock). The first account sees matter as intrinsically lifeless, and entirely passive and reactive, but at the price of positing a external, transcendent principle of order, as in the eighteenth- and early-nineteenth-century “argument from design.” The second account embraces immanence; matter itself is already at least potentially agential or vital. Today, however, biologists find themselves in the paradoxical position of endorsing the first alternative while also seeking to deny any sort of transcenence. As Riskin puts it, contemporary biologists generally agree that

naturalism precludes treating agency as an elemental feature of the natural world, or indeed as anything beyond an irresistibly compelling appearance. To violate this ban has seemed tantamount to lapsing right out of scientific explanation into a religious or mystical one. Yet we have seen this core principle of modern science—banning agency from natural processes—emerge historically from a tradition that denied agency to nature in order to ascribe it instead to a designer God. (The Restless Clock)

This paradox is evident, for instance, in the writings of Richard Dawkins, probably the best-known biological theorist working today. Dawkins convincingly argues that no driving force of life is necessary, because natural selection is only a “blind watchmaker,” making the clockwork mechanisms of life without intending to (The Blind Watchmaker). and animal bodies are little more than “survival machines — robot vehicles blindly programmed to preserve the selfish molecules known as genes” (The Selfish Gene). Dawkins’ lurid metaphor is often taken as the ne plus ultra of scientistic reductionism; but it has always struck me as having more in common with the novels of William S. Burroughs and the early films of David Cronenberg than with any sort of scientific naturalism. That is to say, Dawkins’s vision, even against his own intentions, is unavoidably a sort of vitalism — albeit one centered on viral contagions and zombie reanimations, rather than on the supposed generosity of some superabundant life force.

Madeline’s Madeline (Josephine Decker)

MADELINE’S MADELINE is amazing, disturbing, and ultimately both exhilarating and devastating. It is Josephine Decker’s greatest film to date. The film is so experimental/abstract, yet at the same time so visceral/intense, that I don’t really know how to talk about it. I am trying to give my impressions, but everything I say may well be entirely misguided and beside the point.

Decker invents (especially here, though it was already present in her previous films) an entirely new formal language, to express an entirely new sort of subjectivity, here embodied in her teenaged protagonist Madeline (the utterly brilliant an remarkable Helena Howard). Shallow focus, often fuzzy, roving camera, strange angles, strange edits, soundtrack interpolations (including both heavy breathing sounds and the amazing music of Caroline Shaw) – even to the extent that I can describe them, I cannot explain how they add up to something both entirely fresh and greater than the sum of its parts.

The movie is about acting (including its own) and the mystique of improv theater (something I am not very enamoured of in other contexts, or perhaps due to my own ignorance; but it is overwhelming here). At their highest point, intense inner feeling and its completely fictive simulation become indistinguishable, and that is what happens here in the course of a teenage girl’s relation with her two mother figures (one the biological and legal mother, played surprisingly against type by the great Miranda July, the other the mother substitute that the head of the improv troupe becomes, played by Molly Parker).

The film recounts incidents, rather than anything that is shaped like a conventional narrative, but it builds to a completely logical and shattering climax – which then in turn transmutes into something vivid and powerful but also dreamlike and almost ungraspable (theater returning to its roots in Dionysian ritual? I am grasping at straws here).

One could say that MADELINE’S MADELINE is deconstructing oppositions between real life and theater, or between authenticity and performance, or whatever – or even between human and animal, since the film features repeating exercises in which the actors try to channel animals, especially cats – there are pig masks as well, not to mention may closeups of actual cats – and in fact the film begins with a warning, delivered to us in extreme closeup, about the nuances of identification and possession (it is only a metaphor, you are not really the cat, you are IN the cat) –
I could say all that, and it would be sort of true, but it is totally inadequate as a description of the movie, because MADELINE’S MADELINE is not just a deconstruction of identities and oppositions, but a positive expression of some new sort of identity (which is female, and biracial, and other things, but isn’t ONLY all that) that we don’t have words for yet. Which is why I will not be able to shake the memory of this film (and will have to watch it again, a number of times) (all this I felt more obscurely already in the case of BUTTER ON THE LATCH, but here it is magnitudes more powerful and more perplexing).

(originally posted on Facebook, but I think it is important enough to also post here)

Monster Portraits (Del Samatar and Sofia Samatar)

Sofia Samatar is one of the most interesting of the new(er) generation of writers of speculative fiction. Her two novels, A STRANGER IN OLONDRIA and THE WINGED HISTORIES, radically rework the conventions of heroic fantasy, both in terms of race/ethnicity and gender, and in terms of narrative conventions and questions about literariness and about the writing of history and of ethnography, not to mention questions of written vs oral more generally. Her short story collection TENDER contains stories straddling the divisions between science fiction, fantasy, and other genres; my favorite of these stories, “How to Get Back to the Forest” — also available for free download here — both moves me and freaks me out every time I (re)read it.

Sofia Samatar’s new book, MONSTER PORTRAITS is a collaboration with her brother Del Samatar. It’s a book of short sections: each section is a short description of a monster, or an even briefer series of mediations on what it means to search for monsters; Sofia Samatar’s text is accompanied by gorgeous (& sometimes gruesome) black-and-white illustrations by Del Samatar. The overall effect is quite poetic. The short sections are mostly fragmentary or nonlinear, combining weird descriptions (weird in the sense of “weird fiction”) with (real or made-up?) autobiographical reminiscences, and citations from a large number of earlier texts (these latter are listed at the end of the book; they range from a Victorian translation of the Odyssey to Frankenstein to Amiria Baraka and Aime Cesaire to Helene Cixous and Roland Barthes).

The result of all this is a text that is kaleidoscopic or dreamlike. It roams in many directions, without ever choosing just one. MONSTER PORTRAITS is a meditation on the varying senses of monsters and of monstrosity. Monsters can be scary, but also misunderstood. “Creating monsters is an act of faith.” Anything that deviates from socially-imposed norms (anything, for instance, that isn’t white cismale heterosexual etc) is a monster; and to identify with monsters is to “identify” with that which escapes or refuses traditional, socially-sanctioned forms of identification. But the endeavor to impose norms, to make everyone and everything alike, to stigmatize anyone who in any way is different, is also essentially monstrous. “The monster evokes, in equal measure, both compassion and its opposite.”

The book moves delicately between these different meanings (or efforts to escape from meaning). Insofar as it is arranged like a catalog — each chapter describes a particular monster, both in prose and in the illustrations that are listed by number — Figure 1, Figure 2, etc. — MONSTER PORTRAITS is reminiscent of Borges’s famous “Chinese encyclopedia”, divided as it is into multiple, incompatible classifications.

This incompatibility is itself the real subject of MONSTER PORTRAITS. At one point in the text, Samatar warns us that: “In the realm of language, the opposite of a monster is a catalogue.” The book takes the form of a catalogue that it is impossible to catalogue. Overall, I find this book pleasurably and frustratingly enigmatic: it teases me with the prospect of an overall comprehension that it continually and finally denies me. In reading it, I find myself passing through thickets of beautiful but unsummarizable prose, interrupted at times with startling pronouncements that jump out from this woven background:

“What joy to be a parasite instead of a host.”

“Her heart bore a pair of claws that were useful for nothing, she told me, but scratching at itself.”

“Exiles and insomniacs share this feeling: that each is the only one.”

“Try as much as possible to conform and you will be saved by a wily grace. Imperfection is your genius.”

And many more. Despite being such a short book, MONSTER PORTRAITS defies closure and summary.

Bison/Bonobo/Kerala music video

This was rejected for publication, so I thought I might as well post it here. It is a discussion of the music video for “Kerala” (2016), a track by Bonobo (Simon Green), directed by Bison (Dave Bullivant).

The music itself is midtempo electronica (125 bpm), fairly bright and relaxed. It’s an instrumental track, mostly strings and percussion, with wordless vocals (a repeated “hey yeah yeah yeah yeah yeah” sampled from the chorus of Brandy’s 1994 song “Baby”) added in the second half. “Kerala” starts out sparse, but becomes increasingly dense as instrumental layers are added, one at a time. These layers occasionally stutter or syncopate, but usually stay on the beat. The samples wash through the song in repeating loops, invoking the ebb and flow of (not very funky) dancing. At the same time, the piece’s changing textures do suggest a limited degree of narrative progression. As the sounds thicken, a simple two-chord alternation is fleshed out into an almost-melody. Bonobo avoids the dramatic soars and drops of mainstream EDM; but the song does build in intensity, with occasional lighter interludes. There’s no climax, however; rather, the track ends with an extended coda, allowing its energy to slowly dissipate. All in all, “Kerala” walks a fine line between putting the listener into a hypnotic trance and sounding, well, cheerily chintzy.

Why does the track have this particular title? Kerala is a state in southwest India. It is best known, internationally, for the fact that it has been under Communist Party rule for most of the past sixty years, and that it has flourished as a result. (According to Wikipedia, Kerala has the highest Human Development Index, the highest literacy rate, and the highest life expectancy of any state in India). Bonobo says in an interview, however, that he named the track because the state is an important stopping-place for birds from North Asia, migrating south for the winter. In any case, “Kerala” is drawn from an album called Migration (2017), whose sonic palette is diversified with touches of “world music.” With such a soundscape, Bonobo might well be accused of musical tourism or colonialism. But I am willing to accept at face value his claim that the album is not really engaged in appropriating cool sounds from the developing world. Rather, as its title indicates, the album is concerned with passages from one place to another. Bonobo is more interested in shifting identities, and in the process of transit itself, than he is in identifying, or appropriating and laying claim to, fixed points of origin and destination. He says on the album’s Bandcamp page that he is fascinated by “how one person will take an influence from one part of the world and move with that influence and affect another part of the world. Over time, the identities of places evolve.”

If Bonobo’s music evokes passages and transitions, then Bison’s video for “Kerala” itself performs an additional act of transfer, moving the track into an entirely new register. On the most obvious and literal level, the video is set in London, rather than Kerala. But Bison transforms the song in more complex ways as well, radically altering its mood and its import. The video for “Kerala” shows a woman (played by Gemma Arterton) in a state of absolute panic. She runs through a park, past some shops, down a street, and up to the roof of a high-rise building. The video begins with a shot of the sky, seen through the crowns of some trees, accompanied by the background noise of birds and traffic. The camera descends through branches, and down the trunk of a tree. As the first layer of music fades in — a loop of two alternating, arpeggiated guitar chords — the camera circles around the tree and closes in on Arterton. She is squatting with her back against the trunk, shaking and panting in fear, with her eyes closed. A second instrumental loop begins: a short synthesized drum roll, one long beat and three short. At the very first beat, Arterton jerks herself upwards and abruptly opens her eyes. She pulls herself to her feet and begins to run. The camera backs away from her, keeping her face in focus, while the background goes blurry.

From this point on, the video employs a remarkable visual stutter effect. There’s a jump cut at every return of the opening beat of the drum roll, which is looped continually throughout the song. (The drum roll is sometimes syncopated or phased slightly, but it remains the track’s most fundamental and steady pulse). This means that there is a visual discontinuity roughly every second. But where most cinematic jump cuts tend to elide a few seconds of action, pulling us slightly forward in time, Bison instead uses these cuts to repeat action, jumping backwards in time. The image track’s repetitions answer to the repeating loops out of which the music is constructed. But these image repetitions, unlike the sound loops, are never total. At each strong beat, the cut brings us back to partway through the previous shot. For each second of elapsed time, we are pulled back something like half a second. Each new shot repeats the latter portion of the previous shot, and then extends a bit further — at which point it is interrupted and partly repeated by yet another shot.

The video’s action is therefore cut into overlapping segments. Each gesture is broken into multiple iterations: Arterton spinning around, glancing back anxiously over her shoulder, running and stumbling and recovering and running on. She turns a little, then the frame jerks back, then she turns a little more… The rapid cuts produce an uneasy feeling of speed and agitation. At the same time, the reversions and repetitions stretch things out: actions unfold with a dreamlike slowness, and the simplest gesture seems to turn into a Sisyphean task. We never get a moment to relax, but we also never break free of the nightmarish sense that time has somehow congealed, and become an impediment that can only be overcome through titanic effort. This amounts to a violent reinterpretation of the relaxed back-and-forth dance rhythm of Bonobo’s track. Instead of measuring repeated motion, time in Bison’s video seems to hold back motion, preventing it from accomplishing itself. Zeno’s arrow gets stuck at every point along its flight.

These jump cuts break up what would otherwise be three long takes with a highly mobile handheld camera. This is evidenced by several reconstructions on YouTube which remove the repetitions: and

In the first of the jump cuts, Arterton stares towards the sky, as if looking at something beyond and behind the camera. She runs away from whatever it is she sees, while still fearfully glancing backwards at it. She bumps into a businessman walking along a path, jostles him, stumbles back, grabs at him to avoid falling, and whirls around as the camera moves to keep her in frame. The businessman waves his arms in remonstration, but Arterton turns away from him and runs forward along the path. The camera pulls back as she heads in its direction; it keeps her in focus as the background once again devolves into a blur.

The second section of the video (corresponding to the second long take) starts at 1:35, when the choral vocal sample is heard on the track for the first time. We get a brief respite from the drum loop, and therefore also from the jump cuts. Arterton is hunched up against a wall, her eyes closed, with an anguished expression. For about ten seconds, we see her face in extreme closeup; the camera is jittery, but without a break. Starting at about 1:47, when the drum loop resumes, Arterton opens her eyes again and stands up; the camera pulls back from her, and the jump cuts resume. As Arterton runs, she shakes herself away from various people who try to grab her, whether in order to help and comfort her, or to restrain her. At one point, she bumps into a man holding a bag of chips; as she jostles him, the chips pop out of his hands and fly through the air. At another point, she momentarily stares at a television in the window of a shop, which is playing footage of her running, from a slightly later section of the video. (The television appears between 2:21 and 2:30; it shows a sequence that itself appears between 2:50 and 3:00). She eventually turns a corner, and runs down the street without any more interference. The jump cuts continue, but the camera ceases to follow her as she draws further and further away.

The final section of the video (corresponding to what would be, if not for the jump cuts, the third long take) coincides with what I have called the song’s coda. The instrumentation becomes sparser and lighter; eventually, tones are held for longer intervals, until they gradually fade away. Arterton emerges onto the roof of a tall building; she runs to the edge, still frequently glancing backwards in terror. She looks down at the ground, turns away, and collapses into a heap, her hands holding her head in despair. The camera then passes her by, instead gliding over the edge of the roof. It shows us, way down on the ground, a parking lot eerily filled with people standing motionlessly in rows, in an orderly grid, looking upwards. The jump cuts finally cease. The video ends by reversing the movement with which it began. The camera pans upwards from the parking lot, to take in the London skyline shortly before sunset. The music is replaced by traffic and other city noises; an enormous swarm of black dots (birds? or something more sinister?) swirls menacingly on the horizon.

Aside from this main action, there are many subtle, creepy background details scattered throughout the video. You can only notice them by paying close attention to the background; it took repeated viewings for me to find them. The director says in an interview that he thinks of them as “easter eggs,” like the ones hidden in DVDs or pieces of software. These glitches are rare at the beginning of the video, but they become more frequent as it proceeds. Online fans have obsessively scrutinized the video in order to pick out these anomalies, on websites like Reddit. For instance, when Arterton is running through the park, a rock in the far distance appears to levitate (1:08-1:30). Later, a metal gate on the side of a building suddenly buckles inwards as Arterton passes it (2:02-2:05). Still later, as Arterton is running down the block, a parked car changes color with each looped repetition (3:02-3:16). A man seems to be suspended in midair, arms stretched out (3:06-3:20). A fire breaks out on an upper floor of a high rise council building (3:19-3:22).

These signs and portents only last for a few seconds each, but together they help to account for Arterton’s panic. For they suggest that something is seriously wrong, either with the world or with the way that we are perceiving of the world. Fan theories online are split between subjective explanations (Arterton’s character is suffering from drug hallucinations, or from a schizophrenic breakdown) and objective ones (she is witnessing an alien invasion, or even The Rapture). In the same interview I cited before, Bison says that he “like[s] everyone else’s theories about it – I think they’re really interesting.” He does not endorse any particular interpretation as being definitively correct, but he says that the range of responses gave him “all the stuff that I wanted, really – I kept it purposefully open.”

It is crucial to note that the bystanders in the video do not notice any of these glitches; even Arterton’s character doesn’t necessarily see them, since she is usually looking in a different direction. In effect, the anomalies only exist for us, the viewers of the video. (This is even literally the case, since they were evidently added in post-production). The looping repetition of footage would also seem to be something that we experience, rather than a process that Arterton’s character is going through. In addition, we never actually get to see just what it is that so terrifies Arterton’s character. She is always staring (or in one case, pointing – 2:35-2:38) out of frame. Even when she glances backwards, more or less towards the camera, she is not looking towards its actual position, but rather beyond it (as it were, over its shoulder). In other words, Arterton is condemned (Cassandra-like) to witness what she is unable to share with anyone else: visions that even the camera is unable to show us. It is only at the very end of the video, on the roof, when the camera abandons Arterton, that it pans down and shows us what she might have been looking at a moment before: the enigmatic sight of people lined up motionlessly in the parking lot.

We are therefore closed off from Arterton’s character. We cannot really “identify” with her; we see her staring, but the reverse shot of whatever she is staring at is systematically withheld from us. Indeed, we only get near enough to see her face in close-up at the two moments when her eyes are closed. As soon as she opens her eyes again, the camera pulls away, even as the jump cuts resume. By closing her eyes, Arterton’s character refuses the horrific vision with which she has been cursed. As Bison says, this is what makes her “the one fighting against” whatever it is she sees; “she did have power, she knew that if she shut her eyes she could have an element of control.” But in thus closing her eyes when the camera holds her in a close-up, Arterton also refuses any sort of reciprocity with the camera’s own gaze, or beyond it with the gaze of the video’s spectators.

The video, then, is neither purely objective (creating a consistent fictional world) nor purely subjective (giving us the perceptions of Arterton’s character, or putting us in her position). Instead, it is something in between; the video engages in a sort of free indirect discourse. Pier Paolo Pasolini introduced this literary term into the theorization of cinema. A novel engages in free indirect discourse when its omniscient, third-person narration takes on some of the linguistic and subjective characteristics of the character it is describing. We do not get all the way to a first-person voice or point of view, but the impersonal narration nonetheless seeems to be tinged by the traces of that first person. The novel’s creator takes on some of the characteristics of what she has created. According to Pasolini, something similar happens in movies when the director “looks at the world by immersing himself in his neurotic protagonist,” to the point that the director “has substituted in toto for the worldview of [the protagonist] his own delirious view of aesthetics.” We find ourselves in a strange position in between subjectivity and objectivity, in between the first person and the third person, and in between the existential suffering of the character and the expressive aestheticism of the director.

This situation is perhaps even more complicated in the case of “Kerala.” For the ambiguity between Bison’s point of view and that of Arterton’s character is doubled by a similar ambiguity between Bison’s perspective and Bonobo’s. The video translates its implicit narrative into formal terms, by means of its glitches, its looping repetitions, and its refusal to align gazes. These strategies are tinged by the protagonist’s experiences, but they do not work in any direct way to convey those experiences to us. Rather, they alienate us from those experiences, by refusing any possibility of representing them. On a meta-level, however, this process is itself analogous to the way that Arterton’s character is radically self-alienated. For her very experience is one of the failure of experience: that is to say, of being unable to bear, let alone to grasp, the events that are nonetheless being imposed upon her, and that she is forced to witness. In a similar manner, the video closely follows the formal articulations of the music for which it provides an image track, giving visual equivalents for changes of rhythm and timbre. But at the same time, the video does not express the feelings conveyed by the music in any straightforward way. To the contrary, it denatures and uproots those feelings. Bonobo’s “Kerala”, heard by itself, is a bright and inviting track. It idealizes migration as a sort of open, equal exchange, as influences fluidly move from one place to another. But Bison’s video insists instead upon the impossibility of any such exchange. It envisions the flow of influences from one place to another as a traumatic, irreversible process of irreparable loss.

Nnedi Okorafor’s Binti series

Nnedi Okorafor’s Binti: The Night Masquerade (available on January 16 – I was lucky to get to read a pre-publication copy) is the third (and at least for the moment, final) installment in the series that began with Binti (2015) and continued with Binti: Home (2017). The three books individually are of novella length; though the third installment is almost as long as the previous two combined. Indeed, the three together can be regarded as a single novel, both in terms of word length and in terms of imaginative scope.

The Binti series is Afrofuturist science fiction. The eponymous protagonist and narrator is a young woman from the Himba people of Namibia. This group is known today for the way that they strongly maintain their traditional practices and ways of life, while at the same time engaging fully with social and technological modernity, and the other peoples with whom they interact. This is still the case in the future world of the novellas: the Himba rarely leave their desert territory, and they keep to something like their traditional ways of life; but at the same time they are known for their cutting edge technology, which they sell to other peoples on Earth, and even to beings from other planets.

Binti herself is a mathematical genius, who comes from a family who make their living by manufacturing astrolabes – handheld electronic computing and communications devices which are small enough to fit into a pocket, but at the same time evidently far more powerful than our present-day phones and other computing devices. Binti is proud of her Himba heritage; the traditions with which she has grown up are an essential part of her. But at the same time, she has outward ambitions and desires that go beyond what these traditions can accomodate. Her mathematical skill and passion is something universal, rather than particular. She often goes into a trance — she calls this process “treeing” — while envisioning mathematical equations, such as the formula for the Mandelbrot Set (which produces infinitely ramifying fractals). Treeing is all at once psychological (she often enters into the state in order to calm herself, when she is feeling stressed or anxious), imaginative (it allows to to contemplate extended possibilities that she would not be able to see otherwise), and powerful (through envisioning the mathematical structures she is able to call up electrical currents that she can direct so as to manipulate aspects of her body and her environment). Mathematics is finally Binti’s mode of access to the universal, or to order of the universe (an intuition that has often been expressed by mathematicians and physicists; it exists at the point of union of the mystical, the scientific, and the real). (Though Binti insists that, while mathematics is her route to something like the ultimate, other people may well have other routes to the same asymptotic goal).

In any case, one could say that the conflict between the particular and the universal is what drives and underlies the narrative of the whole series. Though I should add that I am unhappy with the Hegelian tone of this formulation, which is not Okorafor’s but just mine; I’d like to figure out a way to say it less grandiosely, and less totalizingly — which would be more in tune with the way the novellas actually work themselves out. Binti’s Himba identity is very important to her, at the same time that she has desires that point beyond it. The first book begins with Binti doing what she cannot help thinking of as a transgressive act: she leaves her family and community behind — indeed she leaves the Earth itself behind — by getting on a spaceship and travelling to Oomza Uni, on a distant planet. It’s the best university in the galaxy; and Binti has been admitted thanks to her mathematical genius. But leaving her family and her homeland goes against her heritage; the Himba don’t like to travel, and they strongly value staying together. Binti leaves early in the morning, when everybody else is asleep, and without her family even knowing that she plans to go.

So the first Binti novella begins as a coming-of-age story: a feminist and Africa-centered version of the “myth of the hero’s journey” we’ve heard about so many times. (In interviews, Okorafor has made no secret of her love for the Star Wars series, probably the best-known work explicitly modeled on that so called universal myth). Personally, I hate Joseph Campbell and all the hero’s myth stuff – there is nothing more boring and oppressive than being told that there can be nothing new under the sun (or even in the whole galaxy), just recapitulations of the same fucking story. So I love the ways that Okorafor departs from the myth, and pushes her story in new directions that change things radically. Of course, it still remains possible for a reader to subsume everything that happens in the three books under the “monomyth” after all — that is part of what I hate about the theory: it can take anything whatsoever and subsume it into itself. But if you read the Binti series in such a way, you lose what is most rich and exciting about it. The novellas continually surprise us because, behind the story of the plucky young woman discovering her true potential and becoming a hero, there are all kinds of swerves and deviations, which turn the story into something else.

For the Binti series is not just about the universal, but equally about particularities, and all the ways that – for both good and ill – they resist being subsumed into the universal. Mathematics gives Binti a universal structure; its abstractions mean that she can use it to comprehend just about anything. But she also continually has experiences that push her beyond her limits (to the point where the only use she has for her beloved mathematics is to calm herself). In the first novella, when Binti defies her family, leaves town, and gets on a spaceship, her trials are only beginning. All the other human beings heading to Oomza Uni are Khoush — a lighter-skinned ethnic group that control most of the Earth, and who are mostly racist, looking down condescendingly at the Himba. The Khoush really are Hegelians (though Okorafor never designates them as such); they cannot accept the stubborn refusal of the Himba to be subsumed within the “higher” universality that they represent. But as soon as we think Binti has gotten a handle on this problem — she has made friends with many of the Khoush students, gotten them to accept her, and found common terrain with them — something else happens. Another intelligent species, the Meduse — their bodies are sort of like giant jellyfish — invades the ship, commandeers it, and kills all the Khoush — Binti is the only human being left alive, aside from the pilot. It turns out the Meduse have grievances against the Khoush, who have behaved towards the Meduse in the same arrogant, colonialist fashion as they have towards the Himba. The Meduse at first try to kill Binti as well, but they fail — it turns out she has both technologies that repel them and are dangerous to them, and technologies that can soothe them and cure their ailments.

I won’t discuss all the turns and twists of the plot in the three novellas (I justify what I said above about the first volume because it was published long enough ago that nobody has the right to object to spoilers; but I will avoid any spoilers regarding the new volume). Suffice it to say that the Meduse invasion of the ship is only the first of many situations, throughout the three novellas, in which the Star Wars heroic paradigm simply fails to work. Not just in the early part of the first volume, but through all three novellas, Binti is continually faced with problems that cannot be resolved either by antagonism, or by cooperation towards some higher cause. She has to find (or better, to improvise) oblique solutions, which involve the contingencies of particular cases and particular histories as much as they involve the universality that can be (to some extent) realized through mathematics.

These oblique solutions are also always partial and temporary. There is no repose and no completion: no sublation into the universal, and no self-reflexivity to close the circle. Even though all three volumes have happy endings, there is never a real sense of closure. Binti always remains afflicted by anxiety and by a violent ambivalence. There are always dissonant notes in her harmonies. I use the word “harmonies” here advisedly; Binti’s vocation, according not only to the Himba but also to others, is to be a harmonizer. This means that she is able to pull things together and allow them to coexist; when faced with an intractable opposition, she is able to perform “a shift of meaning which converts the opposition into a contrast” (to use Whitehead’s great phrase). Her harmonizing conversions are not reconciliations, however; tensions and inequalities always remain. Okorafor’s future Earth, and indeed her galaxy, remain subject to colonialism and racism, and other forms of oppression just as the actual Earth does today. Harmonization is less than revolutionary transformation; what it is about, ultimately, is finding a way for oppressed or subordinated groups to not only survive, but even flourish, in spite of the (continuing) state of oppression. Binti harmonizes by improvising, finding the best solution she can in situations that remain unsatisfactory.

Binti’s harmonizing improvisations are characterized by two things: diplomacy and hybridity. I mean diplomacy here in the strong sense that has been developed by Isabelle Stengers (in the final volume of Cosmopolitics, as well as elsewhere):

What is difficult and interesting about the practice of diplomats is that it frequently exposes them to the accusation of betrayal. The suspicion of those whom the diplomat represents is one of the risks and constraints of the profession and constitutes its true grandeur. For what is demanded of the diplomat is characterized by an irreducible tension. On the one hand, diplomats are supposed to belong to the people, to the group, to the country they represent; they are supposed to share their hopes and doubts, their fears and dreams. But a diplomat also interacts with other diplomats and must be a reliable partner for them, accepting as they do the rules of the diplomatic game. Therefore, the diplomat cannot be one with those she represents.

Binti faces this problem, mediating between the Meduse and the Khoush — who have been bitter enemies for a long time — as well as between both and the Himba (and also among other groups of humans and sentient extraterrestrials whom we meet throughout the three novellas). Binti’s Himba heritage is what allows her to be a harmonizer, or a diplomat in Stengers’ sense; but her assuming this role means that she also finds herself apart from the Himba, and can no longer unproblematically belong to them or be one of them. This logic is alreadyat work from the very beginning of the first novella, when Binti violates her heritage while clinging to it at the same time. The paradox of diplomacy is not only the displacement of the diplomat, but also the fact that, on the one hand, without diplomacy we are doomed to the horrors of continual unabated conflict; while at the same time, there is never any guarantee that diplomacy will work: it is always susceptible to failure, and even at best its improvisations are fragile and ephemeral. We experience all of this — the failures as well as the partial successes — throughout the course of the three novellas.

Binti’s activity as a harmonizer is also an adventure of hybridity. She is no more able to just exist, rootedly and unproblematically, as a Himba, than she is able to cast off her Himba-ness and dissolve (as it were) into the universal. Over the course of the three novellas, she enters into several symbioses — at once cultural and biological — first with the Meduse, and later with other groups both human and nonhuman. Hybridity does not mean merging, or entering into a “melting pot.” Binti remains, or increasingly becomes, an assemblage of identities, or characteristics, from different sources, that do not coalesce but must learn to coexist. Her vocation as a harmonizer or diplomat must first, and most importantly, be exercised for, and upon, herself. Her emotional ups and downs in the course of the story are aspects of this process. It’s a trajectory that never comes to a definitive ending point, but needs to be renewed and maintained throughout, and this is still the case at the end of The Night Masquerade.

I will stop here. Saying more would involve getting into the details of the new volume, and I promised not to introduce spoilers. I am also leaving for a later time questions about how Binti relates to the rest of Okorafor’s fiction, and to Afrofuturism more generally. Here I can only testify to how compelling and impassioning a read the Binti saga is, how absorbing it is on a page-by-page and line-by-line basis, as well as all the deeper questions it raises.