Sue Burke, Interference

Sue Burke’s new science fiction novel Interference is the sequel to her previous book Semiosis. That book introduced us to Pax, a superhabitable Earth-like planet some fifty-six light years away. Human colonizers, fleeing an ecologically and politically ravaged Earth, arrive on Pax; they must learn to get along with the native life forms. These include, most notably, intelligent plants. All the plant species on the planet are sentient to varying degrees; they are often engaged in Darwinian struggles against one another as well as against the animals who feed on them. There are also a number of language-capable animal species too, including the predatory eagles and the scavenging bats. (The colonists give names reminiscent of Earth species to all the life forms they discover, even though their biochemical makeup and descent are quite different). Pax also has a population of large arthropod-like beings known as the Glassmakers; intellectually and culturally, they are at least the equals of Homo sapiens, though their manners and outlooks are unsurprisingly quite different. In Semiosis, the human community learns, over the course of several generations and about a hundred years, that in order to survive they must give up their colonialist/pioneering/conquering mentality, and instead negotiate ongoing relationships with the other species. By the end of the novel, a stable community of human beings and Glassmakers has been established, with both species in effect playing the role of “service animals” for Stevland, the intelligent bamboo species that dominates the portion of the planet on which they live.

Burke draws on recent scientific research that has discovered that, already here on Earth, plants are sentient in the sense that they actively sense and monitor their environment, they are able to learn and remember, they make decisions among possible alternatives, and overall they respond flexibly to the situations in which they find themselves. Plant neurobiology is a real scientific subfield. For more on this, see the recent books by Daniel Chamovitz and by Monica Gagliano. Only animals have cells specialized as neurons, but non-specialized plant cells exhibit the same physiological bases for thought — electrochemical reactions and transmissions from cell to cell — as animal neurons do. Of course, Burke’s intelligent plants on Pax are extrapolated far beyond anything that actually exists on Earth. But such further specialization, on the basis of already-existing biochemical processes, is not wildly implausible. Intelligence in varying degrees is a useful adaptation, evidenced to some extent in all living organisms on Earth, and there is no reason why it could not develop further. On Pax, plants have cells specialized in similar ways to animal neurons {Another science fiction novel that includes speculation on neural cells added to plant architecture is Joan Slonczewski’s The Highest Frontier}.

You definitely need to read Semiosis first in order to make sense of Interference. But given that, the sequel at least equals the previous book, and adds layers of richness to Burke’s world-building. Interference picks up the story about a hundred years after the end of Semiosis. The human/Glassmaker/bamboo community is largely doing well. Life on Pax is not quite a utopia, but it arguably allows for a greater degree of flourishing than most of the actual social formations we are familiar with here on Earrh. There are all sorts of minor injusticies, power differentials, and petty disputes and jealousies. And there is a lot of work to be done: many advanced technologies have been lost, and metals are generally not available. Nonetheless, the small society on Pax, organized around one single village, offers a lot of room for personal idiosyncrasies. Many things are done collectively, and resources are shared on a mostly equal basis. Everyone has access to food and shelter. People accrue obligations to one another, but there is no money. Glassmaker society is matriarchal and somewhat hierarchical; among the human inhabitants there seems to be gender equality. Humans and Glassmakers together make decisions on a more or less democratic basis, though there is no doubt that Stevland, the intelligent bamboo, has ultimate authority.

But Stevland is not a dictator; it understands that its own well-being is entirely intertwined with that of the two other sentient species, as well as with a wide variety of other plant and animal life with which it remains in communication. The politics of Pax rests upon the biological conditions of commensalism, mutualism, and symbiosis. One of the best things about both novels is the way that Burke imagines such relations arising out of Darwinian competition. Burke’s vision stands in opposition to selfish gene theory, but it is in general accord with more recent theories about the evolution of cooperation, multi-level selection, and ecological webs of multispecies dependencies. Burke does not skimp on the horrors of predation and parasitism; some of the competition among species described in both volumes is violent to the point of extermination. But the novels also insist on the ways that mutual dependencies are also a crucial part of evolution; cooperation itself evolves, and complex forms of life could never come to exist without it. Most importantly, perhaps — at least from a human point of view — is the fact that the multispecies community on Pax maintains a more or less steady state, in terms of energy, ecology, and economics. It does not strive to endlessly expand in the manner of all too many human societies on Earth, ranging from ancient and early modern despotic regimes all the way to contemporary capitalism.

The ground for all this was already established in Semiosis; but Interference pushes things a lot further. The second book has a wider scope than the first. Interference starts on Earth, and we witness a near future involving massive genocide followed by the establishment of an ecofascist regime. This helps us appreciate, by contrast, the positive aspects of life on Pax — despite its dangers, and its lower levels of technology and material well-being. At the start of the novel, Earth has lost contact with Pax; a spaceship is sent there on a scientific mission, to find out what happened as well as to check on the animal and plant life. This allows Burke to avoid the danger that is often attributed to utopian fiction: a portrait of a more or less stable and satisfying social situation can lead to a boring, conflict-free narrative. Instead, we get massive cultural and political conflict, already among the human beings on the spaceship, even before they arrive; and all the more so, once they have arrived, between them and the humans on Pax, not to mention all the other species.

I will avoid spoilers at least to the extent of not recounting any of these conflicts in detail. I will restrict myself to several observations. The book extends the range of sentient species further than had already been done in the first volume. Imperatives of both violent conflict, and grudging or active cooperation, together with instances of both understanding and misunderstanding, continue to ramify in Interference. Burke does not extend her vision of sentient diversity to the extent of radical incommunicability, i.e. the existence of intelligences so different from one another that they are unable to communicate at all. But she does try to imagine how sentient arthropod (Glassmaker) intelligence might in fact be quite different from ours, and plant intelligence even more so. This is highlighted in Interference by the way that each chapter of the novel has a different narrator: we get Earth humans, Pax humans, Glassmakers, and plants. The ongoing events are described from vastly varying perspectives. Interestingly, it is the human narrators who come out the worst: they range from badly misunderstanding what they experience, to seriously delusional, to outright sociopathic. The Earth humans come out as far worse than the Pax humans, though the latter also show serious limitations. The chapter narrated by a Glassmaker is somewhat more understanding and sensible than any of the human ones; and the chapter narrated by Stevland is the most rational, observant, emotionally balanced, and self-aware of all. We also get, from Stevland’s perspective, a powerful sense both of the plant’s stable rootedness and rhizomatic proliferation, and of the constriction it feels from being unable to really travel.

In short, Interference gives us an absorbing and exciting story, but it also asks us to think about how things might be otherwise than what we take for granted, both for better and for worse. In particular, it thinks about emotion, intelligence, and the problems of living with others in both a biological and a sociological register. It neither reduces social processes to biology, nor pretends that biology is irrelevant to our own species being (or to those of presumptive other intelligent beings). It extends Darwinian perspectives to the social and intellectual realm — and it does this in ways that are opposed to, and offer a useful counterpoint to, the nastily reductive fictions of’ so-called ‘evolutionary psychology.’ All in all, Interference, like its predecessor, is science fiction at its best.

Annalee Newitz, The Future of Another Timeline

Annalee Newitz’s new science fiction novel, THE FUTURE OF ANOTHER TIMELINE, is about to be published – it comes out on September 24. Here is my review. I got to read an advance copy of the novel thanks to Netgalley, which asks me in return to write a review. I loved the novel, but in order to explain it I will need to be a bit nerdy. I will try to avoid too many spoilers, but give a warning when one I cannot omit discussing is about to come up.

The novel is set in a United States, and a world, that is similar but not identical to our own. In the world of the novel, time travel is a reality; there are five portals, in Canada, Jordan, Mali, India, and Australia, which allow people to travel into the past (but not into the future). Nobody knows who or what forces created the portals; they have existed for hundreds of millions of years, at least since the Cambrian and Ordovician periods. Time travel is an object of academic study, in the field of geochronology, which seems to combine geology and history.

There are two main protagonists in the novel. Tess is a geochronolgist and a professional time traveler; she is based in California just-past-the-present (in the year 2022), but spends a lot of time in the late nineteenth century. Tess is tough and resourceful, but also deeply troubled. Beth is a teenager in Irvine, California in 1993, who is fascinated by geochronlogy, and also likes to go hear riot grrl bands. Newitz gives us vivid descriptions of a number of such bands, which never actually existed but which really ought to have; this alternative-punk invention is one of the pleasures of the novel. Of course, Tess’ and Beth’s trajectories intersect over the course of the book; but in the interest of avoiding spoilers, I will not say anything more specific about how this happens.

Aside from the existence of time travel, the biggest difference between the world of the novel and our actual world is that, at least at the start of the novel, abortion is still illegal in the United States both in 1993 and in 2022. The timeline is also different in other subtle but important ways. Reconstruction was not brutally halted in the world of the novel as it was in our own world in the 1870s; and as part of the process, women were given the vote (half a century before they actually attained it) alongside black people. On the other hand, the Victorian backlash against women’s sexuality was even more brutal in the world of the novel than it was in ours.

But due to the existence of time travel, all this is subject to revision. Tess and her friends use time travel not just to do scholarly research, but also to change history in various ways. How this is done is one of the main innovations of THE FUTURE OF ANOTHER TIMELINE. Usually in science fiction, the paradoxes of time travel are sidestepped by using the multiple-worlds theory of quantum mechanics. If you change the timeline, in effect you create a new universe that diverges from the previously-existing one, without abolishing it. This allows you, for instance, to go back in time and kill your grandfather without thereby eliminating your own subsequent existence; you still exist in your own timeline, but you also create a different one in which you are never born. The trouble with this approach is that it means that you cannot really change anything; even if you go back and kill Hitler and create a world without the Holocaust, the world in which Hitler and the Holocaust happened continues to exist as well. This is unsatisfactory, because it means that you cannot really ever change things at all.

But THE FUTURE OF ANOTHER TIMELINE takes a different approach. Here, there is only one timeline. If you succeed in changing things in the past, then the present you return to is altered as well. Only the person who went back and intervened can remember the earlier state of the timeline; everyone else only remembers the past the way it was revised. At one point in the novel — WARNING: HERE IS A SPOILER THAT I CANNOT AVOID DISCUSSING — Beth gets pregnant, and has an illegal abortion. Later, after Tess has changed the timeline so that abortions became legal in the late 20th century after all, Beth instead remembers going to a Planned Parenthood clinic for the abortion, which she gets despite being vilified on the way by fundamentalist-Christian extremists. Only Tess knows that abortions used to be illegal in 1993, but became legal back then due to her own “edits” of the timeline. I enjoyed the mind-bending nature of this metahistorical revisionism.

What this leads to is a time-editing war, between feminists and misogynists. Both sides go back to the past in order to change historical outcomes. As the novel traces this history of revisions to history, we go back not only to 1993, but to the famous Chicago world’s fair (the Columbian Exhibition) of 1893, to the Nabataean Kingdom of 13 BCE, and even to the Paleozoic Era, when the world was dominated by trilobites. Along the way, Newitz drops a lot of vivid historical references, most of them more or less true of our own world. We meet a number of personalities who really existed in the late 19th century, including the notorious censor Anthony Comstock, and the really cool feminist anarchist Lucy Parsons.

You can read this book as an empowering feminist story — I don’t think I am really giving away a spoiler when I say that the good guys win — but also as an intensely thoughtful form of speculation (which is what science fiction at its best does). In the course of its rousing story, THE FUTURE OF ANOTHER TIMELINE asks us to think about a number of big subjects. For instance: how does history happen? To what extent do Great Men – or Great Women – make a difference, and to what extent does it depend on collective action? What is possible at any given time, and how are possibilities limited? Do small changes make a difference, as opposed to major historical events? Or another example: how do memory and history work in the case of individual personalities? In the course of the novel, Tess breaks one of her group’s main taboos, which is that you aren’t supposed to change your own personal timeline; as a result, she suffers greatly from extreme cognitive dissonance.

The novel also makes us think about contingency and precarity. Even when the feminists succeed in changing the timeline for the better, we remain aware that the bad guys could try to change it back. I think this speaks to one of the biggest issues that we are facing today. In order to keep hope alive, we need to have some sort of faith in the possibility of progress. The gains made by people of color, by women, by gays and lesbians, by trans people, and so on, over the past fifty years, give at least some credence to the hope expressed by Martin Luther King, that “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” But at a time of Trump and all the other fascistoid leaders in power around the world, and the renewed attacks in the US on fundamental freedoms like abortion rights and voting rights, we must also realize that these victories are precarious, that we can never totally guarantee that they will last, that we cannot take anything for granted, that we must continue struggling and remain vigilant. This is grim, but it is not a counsel of despair: and it is something that we really need to keep in mind in these troubled times. THE FUTURE OF ANOTHER TIMELINE is one of those not-common-enough novels that addresses important questions, and really helps us think about them.

Remembering Kathy Acker

This weekend is the Kathy Acker in Seattle symposium, exploring her visits to Seattle in 1980 and 1989, and the influence she had on younger writers, artists, and musicians. I was unable to attend, but I participated in the symposium via Skype. I read an essay/chapter that I wrote about Acker a long time ago, a text that I am still proud of – it is probably the greatest success I have ever had in not commenting on another writer, but mingling their prose with my own (thus mimicking Acker’s own technique as a writer). I am not sure how well it all went: there were sound issues with the Skype transmission, and I read much faster than I ought to have done, in order not to overrun my time slot.
But in any case, I prefaced the reading with a short remembrance of Kathy Acker, how I met her, and how I saw her both as a writer and as a person. I am reproducing this here:

I want to talk about Kathy Acker as a person, somebody I knew; but also about Kathy Acker as a writer. The two are not identical, though it is difficult to disentwine them. Indeed, Acker’s construction of her public persona as an avant-garde punk-feminist icon is certainly one part of her accomplishment as an artist.

But I still wish to put the emphasis where I think it belongs, which is in Kathy Acker’s accomplishments as a writer. There is something overwhelming about her fiction, which has to do with the way that it combines emotional intensity with rigorous and incisive intellectual abstraction. These qualities are generally considered to be entirely incompatible with one another. You can be raw and immediate, or you can be distant and reflective; but you aren’t supposed to be able to be both at once. And yet this is what Acker accomplishes in her writing. She conveys the urgency and excitement of sexual arousal, and the pain and rage that come from a lover’s betraying you. But she also takes us away from all these feelings — estranges us, as the old modernist critics would put it — in order to stop us from taking things for granted. Instead, her writing forces us to think, for instance, about how gender stereotypes work in our society today, and about how oppressive and constraining they are.

In literary terms — which always mattered to her, though they are not the only things that mattered to her — Acker is equally an emotivist and a formalist. She is widely known for being sexually explicit and vulgar in her writings, and for giving voice to womens’ feelings that were scarcely allowed to be expressed so openly before. But she deserves to be equally well known for the ways that she takes pre-existing materials, tears them apart and assembles them into new configurations. She makes new realities out of the debris of old ones. “Art is this certain kind of making,” Acker once wrote; “a writer makes reality, a writer is a kind of journalist, a magic one.”

Autobiographical material certainly plays a large role in Acker’s fiction, as Chris Kraus shows in her recent biography. But all sorts of other materials play a role too. Acker describes her writing method as piracy. She adapts, transforms, or “plagiarizes” a wide variety of sources, including novels, plays, movies, histories, philosophy texts, and so on. To give an almost random example, just because I happened to be reading it the other day: on page 16 of Pussy, King of the Pirates, Acker splices an account of how her biological father abandoned her mother when she was pregnant, with an account of the suicide of the French Romantic poet Gerard de Nerval. Both of these are then juxtaposed with a reading of the Hanged Man card from the Tarot deck, together with a passage lifted from James Miller’s biography of the French philosopher Michel Foucault, explaining why Foucault retained an interest in the German philosopher Martin Heidegger, despite the latter’s having been a Nazi.

The staggering result of these combinations is a vertiginous, unexpected new narrative. Tarot plus Foucault and Heidegger plus Nerval plus autobiographical trauma leads us to someplace we have never been before. Through this web of references, Acker invokes “the act of turning inside out, reversing, traveling the road into the land of the dead while being and remaining alive.” This is an impossible quest; but it is one that resonates throughout Western culture, from the ancient Egyptian Book of the Dead, to the Greek myth of Orpheus and Eurydice (the explicit subject of one of Acker’s last writing projects, left incomplete at the time of her death) to the writings of the 20th-century French avant-garde writer Maurice Blanchot (whose work was always a touchstone for Acker). All this from a single page from just one novel.

To put this more broadly and abstractly, Acker is accusing our contemporary American way of life of being a culture of death. And she is asking — here and throughout her fiction — if there is any way for us to remain alive, and to be open to life and love, even as we are unavoidably stuck in this culture of death. Nobody would call Kathy Acker a utopian writer; she is too acutely aware of all the obstacles we face, both from existing social and economic structures, and from the unruly passions of our own hearts. Neverthelss, she continually asks us to envision new ways of living and loving together: to imagine a time “when there’s human pleasure in this world” (Pussy, King of the Pirates), or when “there’ld be a human society in a world which is beautiful, a society which wasn’t just disgust” (Empire of the Senseless).

I started reading Acker’s novels at around the same time that I moved to Seattle, in the mid-1980s. The first book of hers I read was probably Great Expectations, which was published in 1983. It was also around this time that I first saw Acker give a reading, at an art space in San Francisco. I didn’t get to meet her in person then; but I become sufficiently obsessed with her writing that I tracked down and purchased everything that she had published up to that point. And I started buying and reading all her new books as soon as they came out: Don Quixote in 1986, Literal Madness in 1987, and Empire of the Senseless in 1988. Each of these was an important event for me: a communication from beyond, you might say.

I was thrilled, therefore, when Larry Reid invited Acker to come to Seattle in 1989. I wanted to hear her read again. But also, in order to meet her, I offered to interview her for the art journal Reflex. I scarcely remember the details, any more; and I don’t seem to have preserved a copy of the article I wrote. We met in somebody’s apartment on Capitol Hill. The interview went well; we hit it off. This was partly due to common literary interests; Kathy and I were both in love with the transgressive French writers of the mid-twentieth-century, like Georges Bataille and Jean Genet. In any case, though she was quite different from me, or from anyone else I knew, by the end of the afternoon I felt like we were soulmates. We chatted for several hours, indiscriminately, about life and art and books.

I should point out that Kathy didn’t make any distinction among these topics. She wrote from life, and she also wrote from books. She rejected those all-too-common cliches that would oppose life and art to one another. She was, among so many other things, a voracious reader; she knew a much wider range of books than I did, or than I ever will.

Shortly after Kathy left Seattle, I received a letter from her, saying basically, let’s keep in touch. And we did. Not long after her gig in Seattle, she moved to San Francisco, where she remained until 1996. Kathy seemed to thrive in San Francisco; in those days before extreme gentrification, the city was something of a multicultural, queer, feminist utopia. I had lots of friends and relatives in the Bay Area at that time; I would go down there a couple of times a year. Whenever I went, I made sure to get together with Kathy. Sometimes I would visit her at her apartment in the Haight; other times we would meet at a restaurant, and she would show up on her motorcycle. We had dinner, or went to clubs, or to the movies. I remember seeing Jean Claude Van Damme’s Double Impact with her, on the day that it opened in 1991. She told me that, as far as she was concerned, Van Damme had “the perfect male body”; but she was disappointed in the film, because (in contrast to his previous ones) he didn’t give sufficient recognition and respect to the Asian masters who had taught him martial arts.

During her years in San Francisco, Kathy taught creative writing at the San Francisco Art Instutute. She challenged and excited her students, and in turn she was invigorated by her contact with them. Acker inspired a lot of younger writers and artists — predominantly women — both as a role model and as a teacher. The downside to her job at the Art Institute is that she was horribly underpaid. In those years, she was always looking for a teaching job at a college or university, anywhere in the United States, that would give her adequate pay and medical benefits. But nothing ever turned up.

Kathy left San Francisco in 1996, shortly after she learned that she had cancer. The last time I saw her was once again in Seattle, during the Labor Day weekend 1996, when she came to perform with the Mekons at Bumbershoot. This was a live performance of the album that she did with them: a musical version of Pussy, King of the Pirates. Acker was a writer above all; but she was keenly interested in other media, and especiallly in the new multimedia environment that was just coming into existence at that time, due to growth of the Internet. She told me that she was interested in adapting Pussy into a virtual environment or a video game.

I do not want to claim any special insight here. I would not say that I knew Kathy Acker extremely well; she had broad social networks, and at various points in her life, lots of people were closer to her than I ever was. But I got to know her well enough; and I can confidently say that she was one of the most extraordinary people I have ever known. She was interested in so many things; she was curious about everything and everyone. Her thinking was fresh, independent, and idiosyncratic. With most people, alas, once you get to know them a bit, you can pretty much tell in advance what they will say about any given subject. But Kathy was one of those extremely rare people whose takes on things you couldn’t possibly predict. I was always surprised, and stimulated, by her insights and opinions.

Kathy was a very demanding person: she expected a lot from others, just as she expected a lot from herself. She could be quite imperious at times: even (or especially?) when she was also feeling vulnerable and desperately needy. This often led to fallings-out with people she had been close to; or in my case, to bouts of anger, eventually followed by reconciliation. To this day, I am not really sure what she saw in me, or why she valued my friendship. But I think her liking for me might have had something to do with what she accurately perceived as my social maladroitness; or even with what could be called (in contemporary terms) my mild gender dysphoria: my failure to adequately perform straight masculinity, even as I am unable to imagine myself in any other terms.

One final, possibly embarrassing, anecdote. When Kathy was on her deathbed, in an alternative cancer treatment clinic in Tijuana, I called her to say goodbye. But being, as usual, socially maladroit, I said just about the stupidest and worst thing I could have said under the circumstances. When I got her on the line, I said to her: “Kathy, I don’t know what to say.” She responded, in a weak voice, ravaged by her illness, that I could at least tell her whether or not I loved her. So I said to her, “Kathy, I love you.”

Gwyneth Jones on Joanna Russ

Crossposted from goodreads:

Gwyneth Jones’ book about Joanna Russ – one of the greatest contemporary science fiction writers discussing one of the greatest science fiction writers of the previous generation – is lucid and concise. And it is actually quite rich, even though it is relatively short. Jones goes through all of Russ’ published writing, including not only her science fiction novels and stories, but also her non-genre fiction, and her non-fictional prose as well, including everything from major essays to ephemeral book reviews. Jones cuts to the chase, with no wasted prose; but she is deeply insightful about everything she discusses. I appreciated the discussions equally of the Russ books I have read recently, of those I read a much longer time ago (Jones made me want to read them again), and of the essays and short stories that I have never previously read. The emphasis is on Russ’ published texts, with only a minimal amount of biography – though Jones speculates interestingly on how Russ’ life (as somebody who grew up at a time of extreme misogyny, and had to struggle as part of the second wave feminist movement of the 1960s and 1970s) is inscribed in her fiction, and also about how a lot of her fiction can be read as a working through of her love/hate relationship with science fiction itself (she read sf from the age of 12, and wrote sf as an adult, because it offered her visions of imaginative freedom and possibility; she encountered and suffered from the extreme sexism and misogyny that was engrained in the sf community, and much of the sf writing, of her time). All in all, this is a great book that taught me a lot about a writer I already loved and whose works I already knew at least in part.

The Deep, by Rivers Solomon

I published my review of THE DEEP, by Rivers Solomon, on Goodreads. But I thought it would be a good idea to post it here as well. I got access to an advance copy of this novella through Netgalley. The book is scheduled for publication on November 5, 2019.

Rivers Solomon recently wrote on their twitter feed: “me discussing writing today with a friend: i wanna be murdering ppl with every line… to clarify, i mean murdering readers. emotionally.” This applies, I think to Solomon’s new science fiction novella THE DEEP. The book just slays me. It is about about trauma and history, and about remembering and forgetting.

The book refers to the real history of the Atlantic slave trade, but also to an imaginative alternate history, or counter-mythology, that was invented by the Detroit techno band Drexciya. In a series of releases between 1992 and 2002, Drexciya tells us the story of an underwater realm in the mid-Atlantic, “populated by the unborn children of pregnant African women thrown off of slave ships during the Middle Passage who had learned to breathe underwater in their mother’s wombs.” These merpeople and their descendants establish a utopian society in the sea, free from the war and racism on the surface. In this way Drexciya imagines a partial escape from the horrors of modern history, and reclaims what the philosopher Paul Gilroy calls the “Black Atlantic.”

Other artists have further developed Drexciya’s vision. Ellen Gallagher’s ongoing “Watery Ecstatic” series of mixed media artworks (2001- ) offers a Black feminist, and also “posthuman and interspecies,” reworking of the Drexciya myth. More directly relevant to Solomon’s novella, the avant-rap band Clipping released a song called “The Deep” in 2017. This song is set in the world imagined by Drexciya, and brings its narrative into the present. The song envisions the underwater realm threatened, today in the 21st century, by global warming and undersea oil drilling, and imagines the Drexciyans’ apocalyptic response to these dangers.

Rivers Solomon picks up Clipping’s scenario, and once more reimagines it. (In an Afterword to the book, the band compares the transmission from Drexciya to Clipping to Solomon as like a game of Telephone, in which each reiteration of a phrase creatively expands and transforms it). Solomon gives us the story of Yetu, the official Historian of the merpeople, who are here called wajinru rather than Drexciyans. Her job is to remember their past. She hoards the memories of these aquatic human beings, all the way back to their ancestral origins, when their first generation was born underwater from the wombs of kidnapped African women thrown from slave ships into the open ocean. By remembering, in excruciating detail, everything that has ever happened to the wajinru, Yetu grounds them in history. On the one hand, she uses her knowledge to remind them who they are. On the other hand, by remembering for all the others, she frees them from the burden of their history, allowing them to forget, and thereby to enjoy life in the present.

The history of the slave trade is deeply traumatic, and Yetu suffers mightily from being forced to remember it. She experiences directly, in mind and in body, the tensions that animate her whole society. On the one hand, to forget your history is to become unmoored, to feel a kind of hollowness, a cavity (a word the novella uses several times). Without some sense of growth and development across time, there can be no feeling of accomplishment or achievement. On the other hand, to remember your history is to be traumatized by it anew, and to feel unable to escape it. As Karl Marx famously wrote, “the tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living.”

Yetu is literally trapped by this dilemma. Her job of remembering and preserving the past makes it impossible for her to function in the present — let alone to enjoy it. But by taking the task of remembrance upon herself, she allows her people both to have fulfilling lives in the present, and to maintain the historical background that they need to thrive. She is torn between the need for self-care, and the need to hold things together for her people and for the ancestors. THE DEEP is really about how Yetu negotiates between these two needs, both of which are crucial to her survival, and yet which seem to contradict one another. It’s a powerful and affecting book; you can’t read it without being deeply shaken by the conflicts that it depicts in such vivid prose.

Favorite Music Videos, 2018

Here is a rough list of my favorite music videos for 2018. It was complied fairly casually, so I may well have forgotten something. As for the order, the top three are definitely my three absolute favorites of the year; from 4 on down, the order is more or less arbitrary.

  1. Tierra Whack, “Whack World” (Thibaut Duverneix)

  2. Childish Gambino, “This is America” (Hiro Murai)

  3. Janelle Monae, “Dirty Computer” (the entire 46-minute “emotion picture,” directed by Andrew Donoho and others; also the individual videos, such as “Make Me Feel,” directed by Alan Ferguson)

  4. Taylor Swift, “Delicate” (Joseph Kahn)

  5. Anthony Roth Costanzo, “Liquid Days” (Mark Romanek)

  6. Billie Eilish, “when the party’s over” (Carlos Lopez Estrada)

  7. Moses Sumney, “Quarrel” (Allie Avital & Moses Sumney)

  8. Sophie, “Faceshopping” (Aaron Chan & Sophie)

  9. Vince Staples, “FUN!” (Calmatic)

  10. Mitski, “Washing Machine Heart” (Zia Anger)

  11. The Carters, “Apeshit” (Ricky Saiz)

  12. Cardi B., “Money” (Jora Frantzis)

  13. Clams Casino, “Healing” (Timothy Saccenti)

  14. Flasher, “Material” (Nick Roney)

  15. Jay Rock, “King’s Dead” (The Little Homies)

  16. Kendrick Lamar & SZA, “All the Stars” (Dave Meyers & the Little Homies)

  17. Brockhampton, “1997 Diana” (Kevin Abstract)

  18. Noname, “Blaxploitation” (Alex Lill)

  19. The Weeknd, “Call Out My Name” (Grant Singer)

  20. Troy Sivan, “My My My” (Grant Singer)

Favorite Movies, 2018

These are my favorite movies of 2018. I won’t call this a best films list, since there are so many movies I still haven’t seen (for instance, Mandy, Let the Sunshine In, A Star is Born, Vox Lux, If Beale Street Could Talk, Suspiria, and others I am probably forgetting). But among the ones I did catch so far, these are the ones that most impressed me, more or less in (vague) rank order.

  1. Sorry to Bother You (Boots Riley). Clearly my choice (despite all the ones I have not seen yet) for best film of the year. The closest we may well come to a comprehensive vision of racialized capitalism today: both how it works and how it feels. Satirical, surrealistic science fiction is the only way to be adequate to contemporary social reality.
  2. Bodied (Joseph Kahn). Social commentary on race combined with exuberant formal inventiveness. Kahn is a great music video director, and his earlier feature film Detention (2011) is one of the most important American movies of the twenty-first century. I reviewed Bodied for Cinema Scope journal:
  3. The Other Side of the Wind (Orson Welles). Though Orson Welles shot this movie, and began editing it (until it was taken away from him) in the 1970s, it is still remarkably prescient about our media situation today. I won’t say it is as great as Citizen Kane or Touch of Evil, but it does update Kane in the light of the new media landscape that was just emerging then, and that is in full force today. Dazzling more than moving, but definitely brilliant and relevant. I discussed it at greater length here:
  4. Annihilation (Alex Garland). Beautiful, speculative, and depressive. Different in many ways from the novel by Jeff VanderMeer on which it is based; but it makes a similarly resonant statement about the alienness of the world that is a (counter-intuitive) consequence of the ruination imposed by the Anthropocene. Filled with haunting moments, like when Tessa Thompson becomes a tree, and when Natalie Portman confronts her spectral double. “It wasn’t destroying. It was changing everything. It was making something new.”
  5. Blindspotting (Carlos Lopez Estrada, Daveed Diggs, Rafael Casal). Another brilliant take on race (the inescapable central subject of American life today) and gentrification. Embedded in social reality, but at the same time brilliantly stylized (as when the dialogue turns into hip hop rhymed lyrics). Daveed Diggs and Rafael Casal have rightly been praised for their screenwriting and performances; but I would like to give props as well to Carlos Lopez Estrada, one of our best music video directors, who powerfully articulates the story in his first feature film.
  6. Blackkklansman (Spike Lee). Spike Lee has been struggling in the past few decades, compared to his earlier successes. But even his misfires have consistently been cinematographically fresh and formally inventive. Here he plays it straight more than he has for a while, and the result is an effective, audience-arousing, pop-mainstream movie on a subject (yes, racism once again) that big-budget Hollywood still won’t touch. This is a far better old-fashioned movie— the kind with characters you can root for and identify with — than any of the ones that overtly reach for that role.
  7. Madeline’s Madeline (Josephine Decker). All I can say is that this movie actually delivers on something that all too many experimental films unsuccessfully strive towards: it makes us see the world in a fresh new way. Unprecedented, and yet something we have long needed without realizing it. Something of a 21st-century update of Jacques Rivette, with similar concerns about the nature of performance, or the relation of acting to actuality. I have written a bit about it here:
  8. Mom and Dad (Brian Taylor). I haven’t seen Mandy, but it is hard to imagine Nicholas Cage giving a more stirringly and crazily over-the-top performance than he does here. I will never think of the “Hokey Pokey” the same way again. And the movie works effectively as social commentary, as the best horror films so often do — here, a reflection on the dynamics of the suburban nuclear family. (A vision I cannot fail to be disturbed by, speaking as a parent myself). Sharply directed, inverting and deconstructing all the cliches of the genre, by the great Brian Taylor.
  9. Cam (Daniel Goldhaber, Isa Mazzei). A clever and well-made (semi-) horror film about sex work, and what happens when your online account is stolen and you are locked out. In other words, everyday life. (It is refreshing how the movie treats sex work as everyday life in the manner of any other job). This is the sort of movie that I find emotionally compelling and (as my students would say) relatable.
  10. Jeannette: The Childhood of Joan of Arc (Bruno Dumont). The best French-Catholic-movie-by-an-atheist (yes, that is a thing) since at least Godard’s Hail Mary (1984). I have never much cared for Dumont’s slow-cinema movies: I saw the first two, and then gave up on him. I watched this only after John Waters called it his favorite movie of the year; and I immediately fell in love with it. What’s not to love about a spare, but beautifully photographed, avant/heavy-metal musical, set in peasant landscapes of the early 15th century, with mystical visions and acrobatic amateur dancing, and with a screenplay taken from the gorgeously hyperbolic and pleonastic poetry of Charles Péguy?
  11. Black Panther (Ryan Coogler). The only recent blockbuster since Mad Max: Fury Road that I can really get behind. Here the action editing is serviceable (though not anywhere near as good as Mad Max), and the plot is just okay (I am in agreement with those who say that Killmonger’s anti-imperialism ought to have been given more sympathy and attention). But the worldbuilding is stupendous, creating the vision of a Black world not crippled by colonialism and enslavement.
  12. Upgrade (Leigh Whannell). Cartesian dilemma: Logan Marshall-Green’s body does all this slick martial arts stuff, while his face registers his mental horror and pain at the fact that he is killing all these people without wanting to.

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.