Jeff VanderMeer’s BORNE

Borne is Jeff VanderMeer’s first new novel since his Southern Reach trilogy. I was stunned by reading it, and I am not sure that I can really do it justice. The novel is set in a post-apocalyptic landscape: a nameless city that was first transformed by a biotech enterprise known only as the Company, and then abandoned when the Company broke down or abandoned the region (it is not entirely clear which). The Company itself seems to have come from elsewhere; perhaps it is (as the novel suggests at one point) a mechanism of “the future exploiting the past, or the past exploiting the future,” or “another version of Earth” enriching itself at the expense of this one. (The issue is not resolved, but I find it suggestive: it’s a far better version of Nick Land’s fantasy of capital as an alien parasite from the future). (The idea of the future exploiting its own past — which is our present — is one that I find especially compelling; something like this is also the premise of Grant Morrison’s Seven Soldiers).

In any case, the city in which Borne is set is basically a desert; and there is nothing left but ruins, noxious chemicals, and the remnants of the Company’s biotech — much of which is mutated and broken. There are many dangers: polluted water, violent feral children, venomous beasts, and a gigantic flying bear named Mord who ravages and destroys whatever he cannot control. There doesn’t seem to be any exit from this hellscape: there are remembered past scenes, and the elsewhere from which the Company emerged, and to which it has presumably returned — but none of these are accessible to the characters in the world of the novel.

In this landscape, the novel’s narrator Rachel ekes out a living as a scavenger, venturing out into the ruins to find usable bits and pieces of abandoned stuff — anything that can either be eaten, put to work, or somehow repurposed. Her partner, Wick, is a broken man who used to work for the Company, and still manages to engineer working biotech from the fragments Rachel brings him: worms that, introduced under the skin, can clean and heal wounds; bugs that provide new memories, or erase old ones; “alcohol minnows” that can be swallowed to get you drunk. All this is background; Rachel meticulously describes it in a flat and direct manner. This is the given: that which must be taken for granted, the reality in front of her — even if she has fragmentary memories of a happier childhood, before the world was destroyed.

The novel’s landscape/background is vividly drawn, imposing, and indeed sobering — since VanderMeer is in fact warning us about how bad it can get if we continue down our current route of environmental catastrophe, and of using technology which has no end or rationale except subordinating everything in the world, and extracting maximum profits. However, at the same time VanderMeer is also warning us that this devastation isn’t the end — there is also the existential dread of surviving the end of the world, of living on in its aftermath, of having to outlive the ruination of everything that made living worthwhile. Of having to go on, and to discover that things can become even worse than what you thought was already the worst we could endure. As Rachel remarks at one point: “Apparently we’d been richer than we thought, to suffer such continual diminishment and still be alive.”

But all this is still only background. What really makes the book, what really impassions the reader (or, at least, me as a reader) is two things: Rachel’s voice; and the creature known as Borne, who gives the novel its title. As for the first: Rachel is a survivor, but this fact/condition is not romanticized (as it all too often is in dystopian fiction). Rachel’s voice is weary and matter of fact, even when she recounts the most bizarre and incredible things. There is no triumphalism in her; she is not any sort of savior. Surviving itself is the most that she can hope for; but survival always has its price, since the more you survive the more you suffer. The novel has a provisionally happy ending, but it is still one in which survival — even with something of an improvement in one’s circumstances — is tenuous and fragile, always subject to revocation, to new shocks and surprises. The desolation remains. There is no moment of self-congratulatory resilience.

As for the second: Borne is a bit of biotech that Rachel discovers one day. She initially refers to Borne as an “it”; but quickly she moves to referring to Borne as a “he.” At first, Borne is tiny, something “like a hybrid of sea anemone and squid: a sleek vase with rippling colors that strayed from purple toward deep blues and sea greens.” But as Borne grows, Rachel discovers that he can change his shape at will, and mimic or impersonate just about anyone and anything. Also, Borne learns to speak, and to read and write. Rachel at first raises him like a child; but soon she has to accept his independence from her guidance, as any parent must with any growing child. In any case, Borne is the novel’s richest and strangest creation. Along with Rachel, we come to love and admire him, for his childlike enthusiasm and wonder, as well as for the way he loves her back. But in the course of the novel, along with Rachel, we are ultimately forced to realize that — for all his beauty and lovability — Borne is also a monster, and a danger to survival.

Rachel insists on regarding Borne in human terms. She assures him over and over that he is a person, in the same way that human beings are persons. But she (and we, reading her narrative) are finally forced to recognize that Borne is not, after all, human; and that the “human” itself — whatever essential or merely contingent attributes we might assign to it — is not a viable construction in and of itself, but must always rely on — or be dependent upon, or find itself networked with — that which is not human, which is inhuman, and which cannot ever be humanized. This would be true even in the case (not envisioned in the novel, and probably never having existed) of a vital and unspoiled Nature; and it is all the more true in the denatured nature, the aggressively “humanized” nature, within which Rachel finds herself — and, I am inclined to say, within which we in the Anthropocene inevitably find ourselves. “Turn and face the strange” — as David Bowie sang, in what might well be the motto for all Weird Fiction; though especially for Weird Fiction today — much more than in the time of colonialism and of Lovecraft. How antiquated Lovecraft’s vision of alien powers appears today. Lovecraft mythologized an indifferent Nature, whose horror resided in the fact that it does not care for us, is not in any way concerned with us, and may well crush us out of simple negligence (rather than anything that can be moralized as “evil”). Today, Lovecraft’s cold materialist vision seems outmoded, and hopelessly naive; and it even works as a sort of consolation. The menace of Cthulhu is so much simpler than the actuality of systems that threaten us precisely because we are so intimately intertwined with them. VanderMeer has often, rightly, rejected comparisons of his work with Lovecraft’s; books like Borne (and like the Southern Reach and Ambergris trilogies) indeed forge a new path for Weird Fiction, away from Lovecraft’s outworn metaphysics and towards a new sense of how the inhuman impinges upon us, all the more so because it cannot be recuperated in human terms.

The Anthropocene means that “we” (human beings) have irreversibly altered the entire biosphere; but it also means that, in doing so, we have exposed ourselves, more fully and more nakedly than ever before, to the geological and biological forces that respond to us in ways that we cannot anticipate or control. This seems to me to be the core of what Jeff VanderMeer is exploring — and seducing us to recognize. In Borne, the material forces unleashed by the Company do not do what the Company wanted them to do, nor what anyone else might want them to do. These material forces have an impetus, and an intelligence, all their own. They have twisted, both for good and for ill, into strange and ungainly patterns that stretch well beyond us — and that may continue, with their own interests and desires, even when we are gone. As Rachel says, very near the end, the animal descendants of the Company’s mutant creations “will outstrip all of us in time, and the story of the city will someday be their story, not ours.” This is the point to which Borne brings us, and the prospect with which it leaves us. We live in an ongoing catastrophe; but we may be able to outlive it, or to maintain ourselves beyond it. The novel leaves us with a diminished world, but one in which the worst destructive forces have been defeated (or have just played themselves out), and in which we can perhaps indulge hope for a yet more distant future, beyond our own extinction, in which things might at least be slightly better, or even (these are the last two words of the novel) “truly beautiful.”

Tade Thompson, ROSEWATER

WARNING: numerous spoilers, since I cannot really discuss the novel without them

Tade Thompson’s extraordinary new SF novel Rosewater is the second recent book I have read with the premise of extraterrestrials arriving in Nigeria. The first is Nnedi Okorafor’s Lagoon, equally wonderful, but in an entirely different way. Both novels go explicitly against the common tendency to set such narratives in big cities of the Global North. Of course, there is always the danger that a white anglophone reader from a hegemonic country and culture (i.e., somebody like myself) might find any such futuristic depiction of the developing world to be alluringly “exotic,” if only on account of its unfamiliarity. However, both Thompson and Okorafor guard against this tendency by immersing us in the social background, without any special explanations. The underlying state of Nigerian society is simply taken for granted in both novels — which forces the reader (no matter his or her own background) to take it for granted as well. Lagoon and Rosewater both expose the provincialism of the very North American, British, and European readers who tend to congratulate themselves on their supposed cosmopolitanism. The fact is, both authors (and many of their characters) are far more cosmopolitan than I am, because they are intimately familiar both with Western (US/UK) society and with societies in Nigeria and elsewhere.

In any case, Rosewater is set some fifty years in the future (2066, with flashbacks to earlier dates in the mid-21st-century). In Thompson’s future Nigeria and future world, computing technologies have been pushed — mostly for reasons of political control — well beyond their actual state today. For instance, people all have implants that allow them to broadcast their location — or to be tracked by the police and by others, even when they do not want to be. Many (but not all) people also have implants that allow them to access the phone and data networks, without the need for an external device. There are also ubiquitous mobile surveillance mechanisms, often lodged in the bodies of animals like birds and cats. The novel doesn’t make all that much of these new technologies; they are fairly linear extrapolations from devices that we already have today. They simply form part of the everyday background of the novel. Surveillance as it exists today has been both expanded, and completely routinized and “normalized.”

The same can be said for the social and political dimensions of Rosewater. The extrapolation remains fairly linear. The world of 2066, in Nigeria and elsewhere, is riven by the same inequalities of class, the same rampant capitalism (and the same downscale version of it, rampant criminal organizations), the same violent prejudices (e.g. against gays and lesbians), and the same governmental corruption and deep-state surveillance and control that we already have today. “Neoliberalism” is never named as such in the text, but despite its complete failure as an economic and social program, it evidently remains as the hegemonic — indeed, as the only — social form. No collective movement for change seems possible. Social, political, and economic forms of oppression therefore exist as obstacles that each individual must navigate on his or her own. In this way, Thompson keeps us aware of the constrictions of what the late Mark Fisher called capitalist realism: the situation in which we find it easier to imagine the end of the world, than any concrete alternative to globalized neoliberal capitalism.

There is one ironic exception to this situation. At some point in the half century between today and the novel’s future projection, America “goes dark,” shutting off all contact with the rest of the world. There is no trade, and no communication. This is perhaps the triumph of Trumpism, born in reaction to neoliberalism’s utter failure. From the very little information people in the rest of the world have managed to get, America seems to have become a completely closed and regimented society. In any case, neither in America nor elsewhere is there any indication of any movement towards a more equitable social system.

The novum (science fictional novelty) that drives Rosewater is something entirely different from this incremental development of human technologies and social arrangements. It is rather the presence of entirely alien (extraterrestrial) life forms and artifacts. We are introduced, early in the book, to what people call Utopicity: an enormous biodome, of alien construction, that is closed off to all human access. Utopicity is opaque to all outside inquiry; but it crackles with electricity, and it seems to possess almost supernatural powers. Once a year, the gates of Utopicity open for just a few hours: the dome emits radiation that almost instantly cures the illnesses (from cancer and HIV down to the common cold) of anyone who is exposed to it. Because of this, the new city of Rosewater, forming a ring all around the biodome, has grown, in just a decade, from uninhabited savannah to a major metropolis. (The name “Rosewater” is an ironic allusion to the foul river smells of the city, whose sewage treatment facilities have not kept up with its swelling population).

The alien technology of Utopicity is so advanced as to be (in the words of Arthur C. Clarke’s Third Law) indistinguishable from magic. Importantly, though, this technology is not infallible. For instance, the beings in the dome sometimes get the details of human anatomy wrong. The radiation from the dome cures all sorts of ailments, but it sometimes leaves the patients with “knees which point backwards,” or with “multiple and displaced orifices.” The radiation also affects recently dead bodies, reanimating them as shambling, mindless zombies — which then have to be dispatched by the police and the army.

We only learn gradually, in the course of the novel, about the aliens and their actual powers. In Rosebud‘s timeline, an enormous intelligent living entity falls from outer space, and lands in central London, in 2012. People call it Wormwood. It is not the first of its kind to come to our planet, but it is the first to survive. All the previous ones die soon after entry. But Wormwood sinks into the earth, and spends several decades burrowing through the crust. It finally re-emerges in Nigeria in the 2050s. When government forces attack it, it builds Utopicity for self-protection.

Apparently, Wormwood is not quite a single, unified organism, at least in the way that we understand such things on Earth. It seems to contain multitudes within itself. Portions split off and take on a quasi-independent existence. For instance, in order to communicate with human beings, some portions assume a more or less humanoid shape, while others emulate the fantastic appearance of cyberspace avatars. Still other aspects of Wormwood are monstrous and directly threatening, like the floaters: carnivorous flying vampiric entities released from the dome into the surrounding environment. In any case, these different aspects of Wormwood “are not all the same.” They often work at cross-purposes; at times, they even seem to be arguing with one another.

Wormwood also generates an enormous mass of microscopic fungal spores, which it releases into the Earth’s atmosphere. These spores are ubiquitous; apparently they work to gather information about the environment and organisms of Earth. These spores grow in — or better, they infect — nearly everything in the world, living or not. They also form a worldwide transmission network called the xenosphere, through which they funnel data back to Wormwood. The xenosphere can be blocked temporarily, through the use of antifungal medications. But sooner or later, it always grows back.

Most human beings are oblivious to the xenosphere; it gathers data from them without their knowledge. But a small number of people are able to feel the xenosphere directly; they are known as sensitives. They develop psychic powers as an acccidental side-effect of the alien incursion. One of these sensitives is Kaaro, the novel’s protagonist and narrator. He is able to plug into the xenosphere, and use it to access other people’s minds. Kaaro explores the network: he goes into a trance, takes on an avatar, and encounters complex informational structures, together with the avatars of other sensitives. At times, he even encounters aspects of Wormwood itself. The way that Kaaro moves through the xenosphere is quite similar to the way that people surf cyberspace in classic cyberpunk novels (e.g. William Gibson’s Neuromancer). But even without such deep immersion, Kaaro is able to read the hidden thoughts of ordinary people, and also to manipulate those people by implanting suggestions into their minds.

Kaaro is the novel’s sole narrator. We only experience things from his perspective. This means that the reader needs to remain vigilant, because Kaaro is not an entirely reliable narrator. It’s not that he is deceptive in what he tells us; but he is a bit selective and slanted in what he chooses to reveal, and when. Also, Kaaro is not a particularly sympathetic character. At least he isn’t an outright sociopath: he fears and avoids violence, and he sometimes tries to do right by people he cares about. But Kaaro is still basically a grifter: he is sleazy and sexist, and always seems to be looking out for the main chance. Even when his conscience gets the better of him, he insists that he is “not the saving-the-world type.”

When Kaaro first develops his telepathic powers, in adolescence, he quickly becomes a thief. He reads people’s minds in order to discover where they stash their valuable items. And he spends the money acquired in this way on sex, drugs, and partying. When Kaaro finally gets caught, he is forced to accept a deal from the cops. In lieu of punishment, he is drafted into the Nigerian secret police. His job is to scan the minds of political prisoners, after they have been tortured, in order to extract their secrets. He doesn’t enjoy doing this, but he has no choice. Kaaro is perpetually disaffected, alienated, and anti-social; but he never imagines that this somehow puts him outside the system. He knows that he’s a tool, and a fairly limited one at that.

The novel finally turns upon the implications of the alien presence on Earth. But the details only get filled in obliquely, and quite slowly. The book has a complicated temporal structure: in between the chapters happening in the present moment (2066), there are also chapters set in 2055, and still others set at a few other times. These flashback chapters give us Kaaro’s backstory, and his earlier experiences with Wormwood and with the secret police. Within each time sequence, events are linear from one chapter to the next. But these timelines interfere with one another as we weave back and forth among them. Each chapter, regardless of which portion of the timeline it comes from, is narrated in the present tense, and made to feel viscerally immediate. This results in an odd sense of displacement. (I couldn’t help thinking, at least a bit, about David Wittenberg’s powerful discussion of time travel narratives, even though it is only the reader, and not the narrator, who actually shifts back and forth between one time and another). In fact, it is only by grasping what happened in 2055 that we can make full sense of what happens in 2066; but we don’t achieve this grasp until almost the end of the novel. The book’s narrative is therefore a slow burn; at the end, we need to look back and revise our understanding of earlier incidents, in the light of what has finally been revealed.

Thompson’s oblique narrative strategy obviously works to keep the reader enthralled. But there is more to it than that: if the narration is oblique, this is really because the events being narrated are themselves oblique. As Seo-Young Chu argues in her general theory of science fiction narrative, so for this novel in particular: it’s not that Rosewater cognitively estranges the process of representation, so much as that it straightforwardly represents a state of affairs (or a referent) that is in and of itself cognitively estranging. Wormwood’s presence on the Earth is neither simple nor straightforward. It doesn’t have a single identity, and its effects on the planet are multiple and inconsistent. This has a lot to do with the formal complexity of the xenosphere. In recent years, we have become accustomed to think that everything is entangled in dense and diffuse networks, so that we cannot isolate individual entities (but also so that we can’t find unity or identity on the level of the network as a whole). Things are separated from one another, and yet entangled with one another, all at the same time. Causality is not arbitrary, but it is also not linear.

Rosewater takes our emerging understanding of networks, and raises it, as it were, to a higher power. Wormwood is radically alien to us, and yet we find ourselves more and more implicated in what it is doing. The xenosphere, with its powers of connection and disconnection and its incessant work of surveillance, both mimics and takes its distance from the social, political, and technological networks that we are already accustomed to, and that have become even more virulent in 2066 than they were in 2016. Wormwood may be seen as an allegory of colonialization; and its ubiquitous surveillance may be seen to reflect that of the neoliberal State. But Wormwood must also be taken as something entirely apart from such power relations; both its autonomy and its dependency on us, and we on it, work in another dimension than that of neoliberal economics and governmentality. Wormwood’s logic is essentially biological, but in a very different manner than the one characterized by our usual understandings of neoliberal biopower and biopolitics. Wormwood’s alien strangeness is what the novel effectively communicates, both in its story and in its form of narration.

Finally, Kaaro worries about alien invasion, and its potential effacement of everything that we have previously understood as human — both for good and for ill. It seems that, when Wormwood heals people with ailments, and when it opens human contact to the xenosphere, it is taking the opportunity to replace our DNA with its own. This is not a biological shift in lieu of a social or cultural one — because it is both, inextricably, at once. Wormwood is taking over, alike by insinuating itself within our cells, and by changing our conceptions and our feelings. Other people, besides Kaaro, feel and experience this. For instance, there is his girlfriend’s half-brother Layi, who seems to be able to fly, and to ignite spontaneous fires; these are evidently powers given to him by Wormword (or more precisely, by some portion of Wormwood); but people in Lagos and Rosewater — in accordance with the heavy influence of evangelical Christianity in Nigeria — presume that his mother was made pregnant by an angel. In fact, by the end of the novel all human beings have had some percentage of their cells “replaced by xenoforms.” This parallels the way that also “we are all part machine,” due to the various technologies that are embedded in our bodies. We are already cyborgs in 2016; this will be all the more the case in 2066. “How human am I?”, Kaaro wonders, and he has no way to tell.

There is no easy answer to this dilemma. Kaaro thinks at times that perhaps this transformation is only “what humanity deserves.” People already have been “conquered and killed by invaders” without knowing it; and the saddest part is that they don’t even care. “Humans don’t care about anything as long as their TVs and microwaves work.” For its part, the government doesn’t care either; after the catastrophic failure of its efforts to destroy Wormwood, it cynically uses whatever advantage it gets from the entity in order to maintain and increase its own power. (Kaaro’s last assignment, which he refuses, is to monitor the mind of an opposition politician, so that the party in power will be better able to win the next election). As for the few people and groups who know about the alien invasion, and try to do something about it: they themselves are ironically also dependent upon Wormwood, for it protects them from the official authorities. The only thing to do, then, is simultaneously to “work with and against the xenoforms.”

At the end of the book Kaaro compares the xeno-invasion of Earth life to such catastrophes as global warming, or an asteroid crashing into the Earth, like the one that wiped out the dinosaurs. But “the alien in me” tells him that this isn’t quite the case. The coming disaster is, and will continue to be, an intimate one. It will be something for which “we will all be present,” even as we are devastated by it.

Favorite SF of 2016

I am usually not very good at top ten lists and the like; there is always too much stuff that I haven’t seen, read, or heard. But I think that I have done a lot better than usual with new science fiction / fantasy / horror / speculative fiction than usual. So here is a list of my favorite SF published this past year. I mean “favorites” in a broad sense: there are a lot of novels I liked that go unlisted here; but I have tried to name all the new novels that really hit the spot for me in one way or another. (I should note that there are definitely some 2016 publications that are missing here because I haven’t gotten to them yet, but which I expect to like because they are, e.g., sequels to previous books I liked; e.g. N K Jemisin’s The Obelisk Gate, sequel to her superb 2015 publication The Fifth Season).

Anyway, here goes. List is chronological according to when I read it. Not a ranked order, though if forced to choose, my number one would have to be Death’s End. There are brief comments, and occasional links to blog discussions.

  • Tricia Sullivan – Occupy Me – Sullivan is one of our best, and most underrated, contemporary SF authors –
  • Charley Jane Anders – All the Birds in the Sky – Cute combination of dueling genres, SF and Fantasy
  • Sofia Samatar – The Winged Histories – Brilliant metafantasy.
  • Matthew De Abitua – The Destructives – DeAbitua is another SF writer who is underrated and insufficiently appreciated. This is a brilliant book about singularity, alien communication, and other matters. (NB: this is the first SF book for which I have been named in the acknowledgments).
  • Lavie Tidhar – Central Station – Future neorealism, sort of.
  • Gemma Files – Experimental Film – Weird fiction about, yes, avant-garde cinema.
  • Ken MacLeod – The Corporation Wars (2 volumes: Dissidence & Insurgence) – Accelerationists versus neo-reactionaries, plus robots, a thousand years from now. Will be waiting impatiently for the final volume, which won’t be out until next summer.
  • Malka Older – Infomocracy – speculative political fiction.
  • Richard Kadrey, The Perdition Score – Latest entry in the Sandman Slim series, which I love.
  • Yoss – Super Extra Grande – Hilarious Cuban SF, newly translated.
  • Warren Ellis, Normal – The maladies of actually existing futurism.
  • Nisi Shawl – Everfair – Progressive multicultural steampunk.
  • Cixin Liu – Death’s End – Massively mindblowing conclusion to the Three Body Problem trilogy.
  • Silvia Moreno-Garcia – Certain Dark Things – Vampires in Mexico, conflicts between tradition and neoliberalism.
  • Laurie Penny – Everything Belongs to the Future – disturbingly plausible near-future dystopia; cutting-edge medical research and the police inflitration of radical activism.
  • Becky Chambers – The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet – old-fashioned (but multiculturally updated) space opera; a bit cheesy but utterly irresistible, delicious, and adorable.
  • Chris Beckett – Daughter of Eden – Conclusion to the brilliant and thought-provoking Eden trilogy. I wrote about the first volume several years ago:
  • Ada Palmer, Too Like the Lightning – This is stunning and altogether original; I have never read anything even remotely like it. A 25th century heterotopia with posthuman inventions, but also a culture-wide obsession with the French Enlightenment (Voltaire, Rousseau, Diderot, Sade). Apparent economic abundance, but messy, complicated politics, strange hierarchies, and odd philosophical dilemmas. Stops basically in the middle – waiting impatiently for the sequel, due in the spring.

Canavan on Octavia Butler

Gerry Canavan’s new book on Octavia Butler is smart and useful. It gives a good introduction to Butler for people who have never read her before, but it also provides much food for thought to those who (like me) have already read all of Butler’s published works, and know them well. This is the case both because Canavan offers fresh and original takes on Butler’s published writing, and also because he is one of the first people to have done research in the Butler archives at the Huntington Library. Butler wrote prodigiously, and left behind a vast quantity of work that she never published: unfinished stories and novels, alternate versions, and texts she completed, but decided weren’t good enough for publication. Canavan goes through a lot of this work, and situates the actual publications in the light of many things that Butler tried out but couldn’t resolve to her satisfaction. In part, this is because she was a perfectionist, always feeling that she hadn’t done well enough. In part, also, this is because Butler suffered from periods of writer’s block, when she was unable to give her work the point and focus that she needed.

But above all, Canavan shows, Butler’s enormous quantity of unfinished and unpublished work testifies to the fact that she was a genuinely original and creative thinker. At their best, science fiction and speculative fiction are indeed acts of speculation and experimentation as rigorous and as insightful as philosophical speculation and scientific experimentation can be. Creating fictional characters, and telling fictional stories, can itself be a way of probing the unknown. This was certainly the case for Butler, all of whose work, even the most polished, is unresolvedly conflictual. As Canavan says explicitly at one point, Butler’s work always grapples with what Kant called Antinomies — that is to say, with dialectically opposed perspectives, both of which have their valid points (or their “truth”) but which remain incompatible with one another. Kantian Antinomies may be distinguished from Hegelian Contradictions in that the former, unlike the latter, cannot be reconciled by jumping to a meta-level with a supposed higher truth that accommodates both.

[Irrelevant digression: To my mind Hegel’s vision is a catastrophe for human thought, and a dishonest denial of the stubborn intractability of actual Antinomies. You know Zizek is engaging in mystification when he says that Hegel is really about rupture rather than reconciliation; for if that were the case, Hegel would have stayed with the “bad infinity” of the Kantian Antinomies, instead of making a bogus claim to “sublate” or resolve them. Sorry for this detour, which has nothing to do with Canavan’s book, but only reflects my own obsessions.]

In any case, Canavan’s accounts of the unpublished material work to show how complex a thinker and writer Butler was; how she always rejected facile resolutions, and only published novels and stories in which unresolvable difficulties were articulated in many dimensions, remaining intact through all their developments and metamorphoses. Butler’s work is largely concerned with utopian desire as it meets the horrors of actual human history. Encounters with alien beings work to sharpen these terms. Butler’s books look at human-created predicaments like exploitation and enslavement and bigotry and other sorts of violence and destruction, without willing into existence a solution to these more-than-difficulties, and also without cynically accepting the status quo on grounds that it is supposedly inevitable. This leads to opposed valorizations at the same time, which is what makes her books so knotty and difficult and uncompromisingly clearsighted. For instance in the Lilith’s Brood trilogy, it is both the case that the Oankali (the aliens who rescue the few human survivors of a global nuclear war) stand for a cosmopolitan, hybridizing and civilised remedy to the intractable racism/sexism/etc of actual American and world culture, and, at the same time,  that the Oankali are arch-oppressors, whose actions encapsulate and repeat all the horrors of colonisation, exploitation, and enslavement, from the Middle Passage to the current day. Canavan is very good at outlining these antinomies, which drive Butler’s fictions, and are their main expressive content.

Ray Brassier on Nick Land

This is a brief (and quickly written) commentary on an old talk by Ray Brassier, about Nick Land, dating from 2010. The questions around speculative realism, accelerationism, and Land’s current politics are all still with us today. Brassier describes Land’s philosophical project, its impetus, its originality, and why it ends in an impasse that Land can only deal with by becoming a neo-reactionary.

According to Brassier (and I think this is entirely accurate), Land’s starting point is the “transcendental materialism” of Deleuze and Guattari. Land “proposes to radicalise critique… by collapsing the hierarchy of the transcendental and the empirical… the first thing that needs to be destratified is the empirical/transcendental difference.” Kant’s critique of metaphysics is conducted precisely by means of distinguishing the transcendental from the empirical (and also the transcendental from the transcendent). Deleuze and, a fortiriori, Land turn this critique back upon its presuppositions, in order to affirm a radical immanence, in which “matter itself is synthetic and productive. Matter is primary process, and everything that unfolds at the level of conceptual representation is merely secondary and derivative.” Deleuze already pursues this via Bergson’s critique of representation and privileging of intuition. Land goes further, getting rid of intuition, and of anything else that is subjective, phenomenological, or affective. Land values intensity in itself, apart from any of these frameworks; the “subject” cannot experience intensity, because intensity destabilises and eliminates it. Brassier applauds this move, in contrast to the “flaccid inanity of contemporary Bergsonian vitalism,” which Brassier clearly detests.

However, this move also gets Land into an impossible impasse; this is because

vitalism is hence all about having intense experiences. But Landianism can’t avail itself of this register of intensification, because he’s not interested in phenomenological subjectivity and he’s not interested in experiences insofar as they are experiences of a subject in the Deleuzoguattarian register: an organism, with a face and a personal identity, etc. These are all the things that are supposed to require destratification.

In other words, the project fails precisely because intensification is “not translatable into any register of affective experience or affective intensity” — in exactly the same way that it is not translatable into any register of cognition or conceptualization. Those of us working in affect theory have been claiming for quite some time that the realm of affect is presubjective, and that it includes layers of efficacy and determination that are irreducible to cognition or to concepts. (My own version of this works this out by ignoring Kant’s transcendental argument in the First Critique, in favor of his aesthetics in the Third Critique). Brassier tells us that we are operating with a stacked deck, as it were; all our arguments about the failure of cognition or of concepts can be turned around to equally demonstrate the failure of “affective experience or affective intensity.” From Brassier’s point of view, we are all a bit “muddle-headed” (as Russell accused Whitehead of being). In Brassier’s account, the superiority of Land is that he at least faces the deep consequences of an ethics of intensity, as Deleuze and affect theorists do not.

But the other side of this is that, according to Brassier, Land has no other basis for action besides the one that he has so rigorously destroyed. Land wants to maintain “that you can just keep on intensifying and intensifying,” without end. This is impressive in that it substitutes a death drive, Thanatos, for the vitalist  (Bergsonian) life drive that Brassier finds so lax and vapid. But ultimately Land’s process of radicalization subverts itself: “if your schizoanalytical practice is fuelled by the need to always intensify and deterritorialize, there comes a point at which there is no agency left: you yourself have been dissolved back into the process.” Inevitably “you end up engendering performative contradictions, not just theoretical ones. Contradictions at the level of concepts manifest themselves as an incapacity at the level of practice.” Or, in other words, Land’s philosophy  “leads to a kind of practical impotence.”

From this, the route to Land’s current politics is easy to see. For Land, “politics must be displaced, it must be deputized, and all you can do is endorse or affirm impersonal processes which at least harbour the promise of generating or ushering in the next phase of deterritorialization.” You can only be fatalistic, welcoming the processes that destroy us as agents or subjects. But in practice, your disavowal of any willed practice “means affirming free markets, deregulation, the capitalist desecration of traditional forms of social organization, etc…. If you have no strategy, someone with a strategy will soon commandeer your tactics.” Land ends up becoming “he pawn of another kind of impersonal force… a much more cynical kind of libertarian capitalism.” Celebrating capitalist deterritorialization for its own sake leads to neo-reaction, or neo-feudalism, or whatever else we want to call the emerging politics of Silicon Valley. Trump may be losing the current election, but (as Roddey Reid suggests), a Trump 2.0 is likely to emerge in the near future, one much slicker than Trump, and even more insidious. 

Brassier’s own answer to this dilemma consists in his turn toward Sellars and allied philosophers; it’s a sort of Kant 2.0 that rehabilitates epistemology, rationality, and scientism from Deleuzian and Landian critiques. But I am not going to go into my own critique of Brassier’s position in any direct way here; rather, I want to suggest the possibility of a third position, distinct from either Brassier or Land, but nonetheless subsisting within the (anti-vitalist) terrain that Brassier depicts.

In short: Brassier warns us that “once thinking itself becomes subordinated to the imperative to intensify and destratify,” — and thereby rejects representation and epistemological issues– then “it’s clear that there must be a limitrophic point of absolute deterritorialization towards which the process of affirmation or acceleration tends.” But why should thought be governed by “the imperative to intensify and destratify,” any more than by the more traditional philosophic imperative of self-reflexive epistemological and representational critique? I am inclined to think that these are two sides of the same coin. Why should we do either? 

My own response here is an aesthetic one. I am inclined to think (as I already argue in my book Discognition) that — far from being a discrediting flaw — performative contradiction is actually a sign that something is going right. Or — to put it a bit less categorically — arguments that end in performative contradiction are of course not necessarily right; but any line of approach that is right must necessarily lead to some sort of performative contradiction. This is because of the necessary inadequacy of cognitive categories to grasp and determine the Real. It’s a lesson we ultimately get from Kant, in spite of himself, and that becomes more overt in post-Kantians like Derrida (I know he usually isn’t regarded this way, but he should be), and in today’s speculative realism. This is where we get the philosophical destratification of the transcendental-empirical binary. All of our transcendental a prioris (and we cannot ever dispense with them) turn out to be empirical and contingent in the last analysis. The very act of making a categorical assertion involves me in a performative contradiction; yet we cannot do without such categorical assertions. You can well say, from the point of view of epistemology, that this situation leads to a kind of practical impotence,” or to an endless process of deconstruction. But performative contradiction is an aesthetic condition, not an epistemological one. Art exists because the most important things in life are epistemologically intractable. Epistemology (the First Critique) and ethics (the Second Critique) are incomplete, and indeed they can only avoid collapse, through the intervention of aesthetics (the Third Critique).

I think that (as I argued in a different way in my little book on accelerationism) any such neo-aestheticism also implies a different theory of desire from the one we take for granted. Affirmationist and vitalist theory, and the radical negation of these that we find in its most “virulent” form in Land, and in a much more sophisticated form in Brassier, are united in that they both assume the infinitude of desire, and hence the inevitable discontinuity between desire (or desiring production) and its actual effects or consequences. Such is also the presupposition of the 19th and 20th century sublime, of psychoanalytic theories of desire, and of the simple consumerism which is our most elaborated form of desire today. Against this widely-shared idea of desire’s infinitude, what I am calling neo-aestheticism understands desire as being finite, multiple, and combinatorial. Such an approach to desire is expressed most fully perhaps, in Charles Fourier’s utopian visions (which are simultaneously a parody of bourgeois-capitalist forms of subjectivity, and their antidote), as well as in the notions of self-fashioning that we see, perhaps, in Oscar Wilde and Andy Warhol. Aesthetic self-fashioning does not start in any thing subjective or agential; instead, it ends in them (and of course it only ends in this way provisionally, because as finite and combinatorial it always runs out at some point, and hence needs to be practised again. This incompletion is what is often misunderstood as the infinitude of desire; but it involves repeated small satisfactions, rather than some general existential dissatisfaction).

Alain Tanner, JONAH WHO WILL BE 25 IN THE YEAR 2000

I really like the Francophone Swiss director Alain Tanner, and I wish to see him recovered from his current oblivion. I originally saw some of his films in the 1970s, the only period when they were released in the US with English subtitles. They are long since out of circulation in the English-speaking world, but you can find some of them (even with subtitles) on youtube.

I just watched, for the first time in forty years, Tanner’s film JONAH WHO WILL BE 25 IN THE YEAR 2000; a film initially released in 1976, and co-written by Tanner with the British Marxist art critic and novelist John Berger. The film is about the aftermath of the failure of the political movements of the late 60s/early 70s; there’s an ensemble cast of men and women who are dealing with these failures in a variety of ways. You might say it is about forms of Western European subjectivity in the wake of massive disappointment, and about the ongoing negotiations between private lives and public hopes.

I was really curious to see how it would hold up after all this time — and the answer is, at least for me, that it holds up pretty well. It is certainly limited — we only see heterosexual white people of what might be called the educated working class. And the movie is filled with countercultural enthusiasms (from organic farming to Tantric sex) that today have none of the potentially radical charge they might have seemed to have then. But there is a certain feeling to the film, anticipatory with a certain degree of hope despite the bleakness of the present, that we would do well not to just cynically dismiss as would be nearly everyone’s first reaction today.

JONAH certainly will not be to everyone’s taste — I mean not even to the taste of many of my friends. You can say it is more than a bit sentimental, with an additional sentimentality that my mourning for the 1960s/70s brings to it. You can also note that it is sort of Godard-lite, playing metafictional games and employing Brechtian alienation effects — but comfortable in a way Godard himself never was. All in all, it can easily be said that the movie fails to be anywhere near as radical as it thinks itself to be; it certainly wears its humanist heart on its sleeve in a way that seems embarrassing in retrospect. I should note, for what it’s worth, that as early as 1983, Alain Badiou dismissed Tanner as a “petit-bourgeois” director, in whose films “personal moods, the sense of instability, and inner changes are erroneously placed at the heart of the movement of the times.” And Badiou is quite accurate in his evocation of what Tanner’s films are like, even if I value these modes, senses, and inner changes in a way Badiou evidently does not. 

But for whatever good or bad reasons — and however much my feeling this way might merit Badiou’s contempt — I still find myself moved by Tanner’s vision. The movie’s title refers to a child born to one of the protagonist couples in the course of the film; the child is of course a source of hope, even in a time when we have suffered only defeat. The film ends with a scene showing the boy Jonah in 1980 (in the film’s future, but still far away from the new millennium toward which the film projects). Seeing this movie now, well past its expiration date, and noting how nothing the film yearned for has even remotely come to pass, the movie is something of a relic, in a strange way, as if it had projected a different post-1975 time line from the one that actually came to pass. And I treasure it for this. Today Jonah would be 41, and probably stuck in a soulless-yuppie job that he hated, but found impossible to escape.

It might be worth noting that Tanner and Berger are both still alive — Tanner is 86, and Berger is 89. I wonder what they would say about their film today.

Frank Ocean, ENDLESS — first thoughts

Frank Ocean’s Endless contains lots of gorgeous music, though it is difficult to take it all in on first listen. The music is mostly low-key, soulful r&b, but mutated with a lot of electronica and various fuzz effects. (While Ocean’s music sounds very different from that of Dawn Richards, they can both be described as exploring the borders between r&b and electronica). (It is notable to me that one of the tracks was produced by Arca). The songs play one after another, as on a mixtape, with no indication of where one song ends and the next begins. There is also no indication, until the final credits, of the names of the tracks, let alone of who worked on them). Besides songs in the strict sense, there are also fragmentary snippets with electronic sounds that play for a short while but don’t congeal into finished songs. There is also a section with (according to this website) “the German artist Wolfgang Tillmans reciting product pitches for Apple and Samsung devices over a hard synthpop backing”.These involve the repeated line “blur the border between still and motion pictures.”
But, speaking of motion pictures, Endless is not just a mixtape; it is also a 45-minute long “visual album” (Ocean seems to be borrowing the phrase from Beyonce here), or an experimental music video. Maybe nobody else cares, but I can’t help approaching the work from this point of view. The music video, if I can call it that, is very strange. It is apparently directed by Francisco Soriano (according to this) even though Ocean is listed as director in the end credits. The video is slow-moving and minimalist, so it requires patience. It basically shows, as many articles have already noted, Frank Ocean building a spiral staircase in the middle of a large and mostly empty loft space. (Some of the footage was streamed and looped on Ocean’s website several weeks ago, but I missed it). The most peculiar thing about the video — which hasn’t yet gotten enough notice in the online discussions I’ve seen — is that we see multiple iterations of Frank Ocean at the same time. Usually there are two of him on screen, and sometimes three. One will be plaining wood, another cutting wood with a circular saw, and a third sitting in the corner doing something on his phone.
Ocean wears different clothes in different sequences of the video, but all his iterations in any single sequence are dressed the same. There is no dialogue, and no suggesting that the multiple Oceans are interacting in any way. The editing is pretty tight, in that it carefully observe continuity rules when it shows action; e.g. if one shot shows Ocean climbing a ladder to place a block of the stairway, the next shot will show him continuing the same action from a different angle. All in all, though, the number of set-ups and camera positions is quite limited. There are occasional brief closeups of pieces of machinery, but that is all the variety we get. Also, the video is entirely in black and white, often with high contrast. In the opening portion of the video, for instance, Ocean is wearing black clothes and his clothes and skin only show up as silhouettes against the intense lighting. Later sequences are equally well lit, but in such a way that we can observe Ocean’s features more fully.
The video is very procedural: it shows the steps of the stair’s construction in linear order and with lots of detail, and with some effort to make us feel the duration of the various parts of the process (including cleaning up afterwards). Nonetheless, the activity doesn’t seem to have a point. For one thing, the stair doesn’t seem to lead anywhere. it rises from the center of the loft space, and doesn’t quite reach the ceiling. (Ann Powers suggests it’s a “stairway to heaven). Also, the final 7 or 8 minutes of the video return us to the beginning: to a loft space in which the staircase hasn’t been built yet, and the three iterations of Ocean are doing preliminary tasks. The video ends with no conclusion of culmination. (Hence the title “endless”? as in Sisyphus?)
All in all, I found Endless to be beautiful and movingly perplexing. And I experienced it quite differently than I would have it if were audio only. And obviously, there is only so much that I can say after a single view/listen. The lyrics have all been parsed and commented about on; and there is a lot of information about the songs in the credits. It will certainly take a good while to assimilate it all; and there is also the suggestion that this is not the new album from Frank Ocean that we have been waiting for for the past four years — that will be something entirely different (and according to various websites, should be released in the next several days).
Clearly Frank Ocean is deliberately making himself mysterious and hard to grasp — this is the way that he is presenting his persona, in other words. The music and the visuals are both intriguingly oblique. However, we shouldn’t try to discover the “real” Frank Ocean that would be teasingly hinted at yet withdrawn from our view. Rather, we should realize that this obliqueness is itself the inner reality that he is expressing.


This is a general statement, nothing really new. I was writing it in another context, realized I didn’t need it, decided to post it here.

Affect theorists tend to distinguish between affect and emotion. I will start with the latter, because it is easier to explain. Emotions are personal experiences or states, like anger, disgust, fear, happiness, sadness, and surprise (these are the six basic emotions catalogued by the psychologist Paul Ekman, though we may well dispute his claims that this list is either exhaustive, or invariant across cultures). There are also more complex emotions, like humiliation, contempt, relief, jealousy, exhaustion, and so on; it is unclear whether these can be broken down into combinations of the more basic ones, or whether more specific cultural contexts need to be involved. It also isn’t easy to delineate the boundary between emotions and moods (which might include such conditions as melancholy, despair, and contentment). Presumably emotions are acute and momentary, while moods are longer-lasting and more stable, providing a general background to our more immediate experiences. But in spite of all these difficulties, we are generally able to recognize emotions in ourselves and others. Indeed, emotions are always attached to subjects or selves. They are conditions that come over us, or in which we find ourselves. They are states of mind that we experience directly. They tend to color and inflect — or even set the conditions for — nearly all of our other perceptions and actions.

Cognitivists and evolutionary psychiatrists understand emotions largely in functional terms. Emotions, they tell us, are shortcuts which aid us in making judgments necessary to our survival. If something tastes disgusting, I immediately spit it out; I might well die if I only rejected a given piece of food after having rationally determined that it was poisonous. But it seems to me that this sort of explanation is inadequate; it fails to account for the ways that emotions seem to take on a life of their own. They creep up upon us, overcome us, and sometimes overwhelm us. They can be dysfunctional and dangerous. Indeed, emotions can be (and often are) experienced — felt, enjoyed, or suffered — for their own sake, without serving any particular function, and entirely apart from anything that they might lead us to believe or do. Such vicarious experience is the basis of all aesthetics. Reading a novel, hearing a piece of music, or watching a movie is an emotional experience first of all. Cognition and judgment only come about later, if at all.

This situation is what leads affect theorists — following in the wake of such thinkers as Spinoza, William James, Whitehead, Deleuze, and Massumi — to differentiate between emotion and affect. If emotions are personal experiences, then affects are the forces (perhaps the flows of energy) that precede, produce, and inform such experiences. Affect is pre-personal and pre-subjective; it is social, or even ontological, before it is strictly individual. Affect isn’t what I feel, so much as it is what forces me to feel. Affect in this sense is not necessarily conscious; but conscious experience may well issue from it. Psychoanalysis tells us of drives that impel thought but cannot themselves be captured in thought; cognitive psychology tells us of computational processes that provide the basis for conscious awareness, but that cannot themselves be grasped within such awareness.

Affect theory accepts both of these formulations, but pushes them even further. It argues that drives and cognitive processes are themselves only instances, or specialized and limited aspects, of more general movements of affect. Affect is best understood — in Spinoza’s formulation — as any manner in which (using the word as a verb instead of a noun) entities in the world affect and are affected by one another. I see things in the light of the Sun’s visible spectrum, and I feel with pleasure the warmth of the Sun’s infrared rays on my skin. But I am also affected by the Sun’s ultraviolet rays; even though I cannot sense them directly, they may well impinge upon me in the long run, in the form of sunburn, or even of skin cancer. And as William James argued, I don’t feel a clenching in my stomach because I am afraid, so much as this clenching is already in itself my experience of fear. In this way, I already feel afraid, before I become aware of what it is that has frightened me. In this way, our perceptions and our emotions are drenched in affect, and driven by affect, even though affect per se is irreducible to perception or emotion.

This means that affect is at once both physical and mental; or better, affect precedes (and thereby escapes) the very distinction between the physical and the mental. Affect is also all at once both actual and vicarious. It is actual, because it happens within me as an alteration of my physical and psychological state. But it is also vicarious, because — as a process of alteration — it is independent of the things or forces that trigger it. I actually do feel fear, even when I am mistaken (that rustling in the grass was not actually caused by the movement of a poisonous snake), and indeed even in what I know to be fictional circumstances (as when I respond to the slasher in a horror movie). This is why affect is so central to our experience of audiovisual media artifacts (and indeed, of media and arts in general).

Nalo Hopkinson – “Message in a Bottle”

Nalo Hopkinson’s short story “Message in a Bottle” was originally published in 2004; it can currently be found in her recent collection of short stories Falling in Love With Hominids, as well as in her short volume Report From Planet Midnight

[MY DISCUSSION CONTAINS SPOILERS, OBVIOUSLY. So you really shouldn’t read this until after you have read the story itself. My method with writing about science fiction always involves going over the plot in tedious detail. This is unavoidable, or at least necessary to what I am trying to do: which is neither to evaluate the story — it should be a given that I think it is great, because otherwise I wouldn’t be writing about it in the first place — nor to interpret it in anything like a hermeneutical or New Critical or deconstructionist close reading — since I pretty much confine myself to overt surface meanings — but rather to elicit, and develop in my own way, and (I’m afraid) according to my own preoccupations, the mindblowing (I hope) feelings and ideas that it already contains.] 

The story is set in Canada, in a near future that is not much different from our actual present. The characters are nonwhite. Greg, the narrator, describes himself as “Indian” — though I am unsure if this means that he is South Asian (like other characters in the story) or First Peoples (he does say that he is “Rosebud Sioux on my mum’s side”). Greg also remarks on the brown skin of his lovers and friends. The story is mostly about Greg’s encounters with Kamala, the adopted daughter of his friends Babette and Sunil. It’s a fraught relationship, because Greg is ambivalent, at best, about children: he admits that they “creep me out,” and says overall that  “I truly don’t hate children. I just don’t understand them. They seem like another species.”

Greg and his girlfriend Cecilia — who he describes as “lush and brown” — don’t want kids of their own; but when she gets pregnant despite their precautions, 

we both got… curious,  I guess. Curious to see what this particular life adventure would be; how our small brown child might change a world that desperately needs some change. We sort of dared each other to go through with it, and now here we are.

So Greg and Cecilia are stuck with what he, at least, calls their “creepy little alien child.” All this is just background to the main action of the story, but it sets the atmosphere. I am the last person to be judgmental about whether other people choose to have kids or not; and Hopkinson clearly isn’t judgmental about this either. But Greg’s highly self-conscious ambivalence gives the story its uneasy tone. It’s not that he’s an unreliable narrator; but his emotional responses to the story he recounts just seem a bit… I’m not sure, askew.

Dealing with another species — as Greg at least metaphorically feels children to be — is quite often, in science fiction, a figure for dealing with another culture, or another gender or sexual orientation, than one’s own (or than the normative white male heterosexual Euro-American perspective that narrative fictions all too often presuppose by default). Hopkinson, a West Indian/Black Canadian fantasy and science fiction author, has long been concerned with white supremacy, and the continuing marginalization of people of color, as well as misogyny and homophobia, both in the writing of SF and related genres, and in the fan culture surrounding the writing. “Message in a Bottle” responds to this history by giving us a narrator who is male and heterosexual, but nonwhite. He’s very aware of racial hierarchies, but maybe not so much of other sorts. His perspective is in between; partly but not entirely normative. At least he is very aware of the particularity of his subject position, rather than taking it for granted as universal. His uneasiness about the otherness of children is not really phobia or panic, though it is certainly marked as a kind of uneasiness, or as an inability to negotiate difference as fluidly and openly as one might hope. I find myself a bit distrustful of Greg, but at the same time I “identify” with the way that he seems to enact and embody tendencies that I recognize in myself, and that I strongly dislike — but that, from my position of unavoidably taken-for-granted privilege — I somehow feel powerless to escape or change.

Greg — as I should already have noted — is an installation artist. He’s a hoarder, and a *bricoleur*, of miscellaneous odds and ends and pieces of junk:

My home is also my studio, and it’s a warren of tangled cables, jury-rigged networked computers, and piles of books about as stable as playing-card houses. Plus bins full of old newspaper clippings, bones of dead animals, rusted metal I picked up on the street, whatever. I don’t throw anything away if it looks the least bit interesting. You never know when it might come in handy as part of an installation piece. The chaos has a certain nestlike comfort to it.

In his art practice, at least, Greg is open to otherness and change. The exhibition that he describes in the story is a mock archeological site. It consists in “half a ton of dirt” covering the floor of the art gallery. In this dirt he has buried “the kinds of present-day historical artifacts” that actual archaeologists “[toss] aside in their zeal to get at the iconic past of the native peoples” they are studying (in this case, people in Chiapas, Mexico). Visitors to the installation become archaeologists of the present, instead of the past. When they enter the gallery, they “get basic excavation tools. When they pull something free of the soil, it triggers a story about the artifact on the monitors above.”

In this way, Greg’s installation undermines notions of aboriginal authenticity, such as well-meaning white Westerners are all too likely to have. Instead, he acquaints his viewers with the actual, present-day material culture of native peoples: a culture that is multiple and heterogeneous, and that bears the traces both of colonialist oppression, and of these peoples’ struggles against it and affirmation of their own lives and values. The installation also relates material culture to narrative; stories matter, because without them objects are deprived of the contexts that give them meaning and importance.

Greg evidently has trouble fitting children into the artifactual stories that he likes to tell. He complains that he they

don’t yet grok that delicate, all-important boundary between the animate and inanimate. It’s all one to them. Takes them a while to figure out that travelling from the land of the living to the land of the dead is a one-way trip.

With their magical beliefs, children strike Greg as being oddly self-contained — in a way that belies their eventual transformation into adults just like ourselves. Greg admits to feeling freaked out that, in just a decade, his toddler son will be “entering puberty. He’ll start getting erections, having sexual thoughts.” Greg is perturbed by the difference of children, as expressed in all the things that they do not understand; as well as by their irksome dependency upon us. But he is equally perturbed by the knowledge that they will not be like this forever, that soon enough they will become fully grown, and therefore entirely independent of us. And all this is even more confusing against the background of our massive social and technological change:

Human beings, we’re becoming increasingly posthuman… Things change so quickly. Total technological upheaval of society every five to eight years. Difficult to keep up, to connect amongst the generations. By the time your Russ is a teenager, you probably won’t understand his world at all.

In these manifold ways, children are indeed like science-fictional aliens (or vice versa). But all these confusions are further intensified, until they finally come to a head, in Greg’s interactions with Kamala. The girl is unusual, to say the least. Even at a very young age, when she is first adopted, Kamala has an “outsized head” that looks “strangely adult.” She also “speaks in oddly complete sentences” for a young child. At the same time, her body seems to develop very slowly: she looks far younger than what her parents believe is her chronological age. Eventually, Kamala is diagnosed with Delayed Growth Syndrome (DGS), a condition shared by other children who came up for adoption at the same time she did:

Researchers have no clue what’s causing it, or if the bodies of the kids with it will ever achieve full adulthood. Their brains, however, are way ahead of their bodies. All the kids who’ve tested positive for DGS are scarily smart.

 Kamala perturbs her parents, and perturbs Greg even more, because of how she disrupts their historical, developmental, and archaeological schemas — in much the same way that posthuman technological developments also do. Kamala stands at a nodal point that compresses together all of Greg’s — and indeed, all of our society’s  — confusions and anxieties about difference, otherness, and change.

“Message in a Bottle” finally offers us — as science fiction generally does — a narrative resolution of all these dilemmas. I say “narrative resolution” here advisedly — rather than speaking of a “solution” in any more expansive sense. This point requires a more detailed explanation, which would be too much of a digression here, but which I hope at some point to develop elsewhere. In brief, I think that science fiction, in its practice of *extrapolation*, and in its presentation of social, technological, and even ontological difficulties in a narrative with individual characters, does something similar to what Claude Levi-Strauss defines as the purpose of *myth*, which is “to provide a logical model capable of overcoming a contradiction (an impossible achievement if, as it happens, the contradiction is real).” But where myths for Levi-Strauss are synchronic structures (like language according to Saussure), narratives are in their very nature diachronic or temporal; and science fictional extrapolative narratives most of all. It’s not that I want to trade structural anthropology for narrative theory — indeed, I find both of these disciplines insufferable. But SF deals in futurity, rather than being set in the eternal present either of myth or of mimetic fiction (and neoliberal actuality). And in this way, it is counter-actual: it offers us a provisional resolution — one in potentiality — of dilemmas and difficulties that are all too actual.

In any case, at the end of “Message in a Bottle” Kamala offers Greg a futuristic explanation of all that has been going on: this is a resolution, at least, for us as readers, though Greg himself remains reluctant to accept it. It involves a conceptualization of time travel radically different from any that I have encountered in any other science fiction text. Kamala explains to Greg that she is in fact an art curator from the future, who has been sent back in time to our present day, in order to collect cultural artifacts that have otherwise been lost in her own time. Because of the energetic and financial costs of time travel, the future art gallery Kamala works for cannot afford to send adults back in time, nor to bring back the collectors once they have found what they are looking for. “Arts grants are hard to get in my world, too” — apparently, at least some aspects of neoliberal governmentality are still in place several hundred years in the future.

So instead of sending arts curators themselves back in time, the future art galleries genetically engineer “small people… children who [are]n’t children,” to go back in their place. All the DGS kids are in fact far older than they appear; Kamala, who looks like she is 6, and whose adoptive parents think she is about 10, is in fact 23 years old. She is a genetic clone of the curator whose interests she represents, and the curator’s actual memories have been “implanted” within her as well. But her chromosomes have been altered, given extra telomeres in order to “slow down aging.” As a result, Kamala says, “my body won’t start producing adult sex hormones for another fifty years. I won’t attain my full growth till I’m in my early hundreds.” She will physically bring her artifacts back to the future by living through the entire span from our time until then.

“Message in a Bottle” doesn’t spare us any of the grotesque and horrific consequences of this deeply compromised technological strategy. Kamala and her cohort find themselves having to spend all their time and energy in strenuous forms of pretense: “Do you know what it’s like turning in schoolwork that’s at a grade-five level, when we all have PhD’s in our heads?” Their double consciousness on a sexual level is even worse: “the weird thing is, even though this body isn’t interested in adult sex, I remember what it was like, remember enjoying it. It’s those implanted memories from my original.” Some of the seeming-children from the future have an even harder time than Kamala, because they get abused, just as actual children sometimes do; or they find themselves “living in extremely conservative places”; or they fail to get adopted, and have to “make [their] own way as street kids.” In any case, these people from the future have no legal rights, because in appearance they are “never old enough to be granted adult freedoms.” Some of them have already died, Kamala says, and she and the rest will probably be institutionalized at best. All for the sake of an art retrospective: “this fucking project better have been worth it,” Kamala says.

All this is too much for Greg — and probably for us as readers as well. One of the great things about the story is how it has a sort of light tone, even as it drops these atrocious details on us. Because we know that we are reading a science fiction story, we have a much easier time accepting Kamala’s account than Greg does within the frame of the story. The first time I read “Message in a Bottle,” it all seemed kind of cute — the horror only kicked in retrospectively.

But there’s even more. The one thing in Kamala’s story that initially gets to Greg is Kamala’s interest in his art: she has been sent back from the future to get ahold of something from Greg’s installation. “This little girl has dug her way into my psyche,” Greg thinks, “and found the thing which will make me respond to her.” But alas, this too turns out to be a misconception. Kamala isn’t interested in Greg’s installation concept, nor even in the remnants of present-day Indigenous life that he included within it. Rather, she treasures a seashell that plays no real role in Greg’s exhibition; for “some of the artifacts” buried in the dirt “are ‘blanks’ that trigger no stories.” But in the future, this seashell is regarded as a greater work of art than anything Greg or his contemporaries ever created.

Kamala explains to Greg how “the nascent identity politics as expressed by artists of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries,” such as Greg himself, eventually gave birth to a broader understanding that “human beings aren’t the only ones who make art.” In fact, the particular shell that Kamala retrieves from Greg’s installation is a masterpiece: 

Every shell is a life journal… made out of the very substance of its creator, and left as a record of what it thought, even if we can’t understand exactly what it thought… Of its kind, the mollusc that made this shell is a genius. The unique conformation of the whorls of its shell expresses a set of concepts that haven’t been explored before by the other artists of its species. After this one, all the others will draw on and riff off its expression of its world. They’re the derivatives, but this is the original.

The poignancy of this claim — if we are willing to entertain it — has to do with a new understanding of limits. We need to respect the aesthetic creations of other entities, Kamala says, even though

we don’t always know what they’re saying, we can’t always know the reality on which they’re commenting. Who knows what a sea cucumber thinks of the conditions of its particular stretch of ocean floor?… Sometimes interpretation is a trap. Sometimes we need to simply observe.

Greg isn’t entirely ready to accept Kamala’s claim; indeed, it puts him in mind of a Monty Python routine:

“Every shell is different,” she says. My perverse brain instantly puts it to the tune of “Every Sperm Is Sacred.”

But in the end, Greg feels forced to admit that “a part of me still hopes that it’s all true.” He understands the heuristic value, at least, of Kamala’s story. For the reader, the same thing plays out on a metalevel. “Message in a Bottle” takes up the traditional science fiction figuration of extraterrestrial aliens; it shows us how this figuration works in hegemonic groups’ fears of other human beings as aliens; in the way the narrator cannot help seeing children as aliens; and finally in the unassimilability of other (alien) species to our own. 

Tricia Sullivan – Occupy Me

Tricia Sullivan has long been one of my favorite contemporary science fiction authors. Her past books include the amazing MAUL. It has two plot lines: in one, set in present-day New Jersey, teenage girls engage in gang warfare at the mall; in the other, set in the far future, men are almost extinct due to a plague that kills nearly everyone with a Y chromosome; scientists are busy trying to find a cure by conducting experiments on the few remaining human males who are apparently immune. There is also the DOUBLE VISION / SOUND MIND diptych, which includes among its elements martial arts, the autism spectrum, interplanetary war, corporations testing the effectiveness of TV advertising campaigns, aspects of (I think) the author’s autobiography (from when she was an undergraduate at Bard College), and displacements of the spacetime continuum.

Her new novel, OCCUPY ME, is equally heady and thrilling. The book has just been published in the UK. (There doesn’t seem to be an American publisher at present; I ordered a copy of the paperback directly from the UK). It has a gripping action plot, but at the same time it has ontological implications that I haven’t entirely grasped after just an initial reading. I use the word “ontological” deliberately; as Sullivan says in her blog posting on the book, her aim was

to move beyond what I’d written in the past. Most of my books are about consciousness, which is an ontological subject in its own way, but not the same kind of ontology as cosmology–or so I thought at the time.

Actually, I think that OCCUPY ME is about both consciousness and cosmology. I’ll try to summarize what is at stake without too many spoilers, but [SPOILER WARNING] some account of what happens in the book is unavoidable.

OCCUPY ME seems to start out in the genre of dark paranormal fantasy; but the magical elements — an angel; a briefcase at least as mysterious and potent as the one in Pulp Fiction — are subsumed into what turns out to be much more of a science fiction framework. There are three narrative strands, conveying the points of view of three main characters. But one of the strands is first person, one is second person, and one is third person. This turns out to correspond to the differences among the three protagonists. The first person narrator, Pearl, is the one who seems to be an angel; she has wings and superhuman powers, though she initially works as a flight attendant, and seems ultimately to be some sort of artificial intelligence construct. The third person narration focuses on Alison, a 60-something Scottish veterinarian who is the only character in the novel possessing what might be called (non-pejoratively) common sense; she provides the human anchoring for what is largely a transhuman or posthuman story. The second person narration addresses its “you” to Doctor Sorle, a surgeon working in the US but originally from Africa, haunted by a strange double who takes over his body in the service of an alien agenda. I presume that it’s because of this possession, so that he is impelled by forces that are both strangely intimate and beyond/external to himself, that he is narrated in the second person.

The first background to the story involves a rapacious energy company that wreaks destruction in the developing world in its search for oil to extract, and an equally rapacious businessman, now on his deathbed, who used to work for the oil company, but detourned some of its profits in order to set up his own financial empire. Appropriately for today, we have a world dominated by petrochemicals and derivatives — and it is clear that governments and police forces are subordinated to corporations dealing in these commodities, rather than the reverse. In this sense, the novel is embedded — as much SF is — in the actual social conditions of the time in which it is written.

But there is also a second background, and this is where the cosmology comes in. We have cosmic forces located in the higher dimensions that contemporary physics gives us hints of. We have the power of informatics, in the way that organisms, environments, and subjectivities can be sampled for their quantum “waveforms,” and thereby preserved in virtual form (though never completely — the data are never vast enough to encompass the totality of an organism together with its conspecifics and its environment). We have organic encryption — not just in DNA, but more significantly in carbon nanostructures that introduce higher-dimensional gates hidden in crude oil. The oil that corporations extract today was formed out of organic matter from the Cretaceous — and in OCCUPY ME, the Cretaceous data is still encrypted in the oil, which allows for reversions from the deep geological past to manifest themselves in present day reality (in the novel, this takes the form most notably of a predatory pterodactyl, whose actions are crucial to the plot). And we have the forces or entities that have gathered this data — which becomes a way to suggest influences beyond the present, or beyond our current consensual spacetime reality, without introducing any sort of supernatural authority (whether in traditional religious or in vaguely spiritual new-agey format).

In an odd way, all this makes the novel sort of self-reflexive: a science fiction narrative about the powers and effectiveness of science fiction itself. We know that, to quote Faulkner, “the past is never dead. It’s not even past.” This is true of historical time: the colonialist depredations of the oil company are still active twenty or thirty years later in the present time of the novel. But it is equally true of deep time: which the novel dramatizes in the form of the resurgence of the Cretaceous (from which the oil derives) within the moment in which we extract and use the oil. But if the past still subsists within the present (despite our American tendency to dismiss things by saying that they are “history”), then we can equally say that the future already insists within the present moment: its potentialities glimmer in the form of premonitions, and also in the form of alternative outcomes — according to the “butterfly effect,” the way that tiny shifts can have disproportionate consequences.

The novel reflects at one point that these shifts disrupt our pretensions to control the future:

The idea that this principle should work makes it sound like the universe is made of Swiss clockwork, not fickle electrons that might as well be leprechauns. The butterfly effect isn’t real in the sense that people think it is; chaos is chaotic, right? You can’t manipulate it by flapping a particular butterfly on a particular day. The only way you could make the butterfly effect work, to interfere in a chain of events, would be to run against the grain of time. And that really would be resistance to entropy.

In other words, not only can we not calculate the future from the present in a deterministic or Hari Seldon-esque way, we cannot even calculate the broad outcomes of our own small interventions into initial conditions. But the novel also suggests that, under some circumstances at least, it is possible to go against entropy. This reminds me, among other things, of Erik Schneider and Dorion Sagan’s argument that the negentropic organization of living systems is possible because on the larger, more cosmic scale, it works to increase entropy or energy dispersion. In OCCUPY ME, Pearl makes a similar suggestion; just after the passage I quoted above, she says that

the funny thing about entropy is that it loves order. Entropy loves order because more order burns everything down faster…

The novel’s speculations about entropy, together with its citation of higher-dimensional acausal quantum networks, allows some elbow room for a nondeterministic account of futurity (of how it insists in the present, in my language) and of the possibility, therefore, of nudging future events, after all. The physics of this is admittedly speculative (and therefore, unavoidably dodgy). In the blog post I cited earlier, Sullivan lists as her scientific sources for this speculation books by the physicists Lisa Randall (Warped Passages) and Michio Kaku (Physics of the Impossible). Both these books are already somewhat speculative; Sullivan’s extrapolations from them are therefore speculative squared.

Such speculation propels the overall narrative of OCCUPY ME, and especially Pearl’s own quest — which she only discovers in the course of her experiences through the length of the novel. Towards the beginning of the book, we are introduced to a shadowy group called The Resistance, which tries to nudge the future in better directions, as unobtrusively as possible. This falls apart, however, in the course of the novel’s plot, which involves revisions of the past as well as the future, through a recursive feedback process. (I don’t want to be more precise here, because that would involve rehearsing the book’s narrative more than I want to here — although it is very much to the point that part of what makes the novel so powerful is that its narrative, from the point of view of thrills, twists, and character identification, resonates with and is inextricable from its conceptual argument, which is what I am trying to disentangle here). But by the end of the novel, Pearl comes to another, perhaps less fragile, formulation of the same process by which it is possible to nudge causality without violating it. (This also involves how the higher dimensional implicate order is related to the linear order of spacetime as we experience it — but this is one aspect of the novel’s extrapolative argument that I don’t feel ready to work out yet. It also involves elements of both informatics and energetics, which are brought out in some other plot strands).

All this is consistent with my own general claims, that I have been trying to formulate in different ways, about science fiction. In the first place, though SF is not scientifically accurate (its extrapolations involve inventions that will never be experimentally verified, hence that will never come true), it nonetheless performs legitimate acts of metaphysical (or, let’s here say ontological) speculation. In the second place, SF is precisely a “realism”, not of present social and ecological conditions per se, but of the future potentiality that insists or resonates within this present (of course, this does not mean that SF claims to predict the actual future). If Pearl, the first-person narrator, is the most important of the three persons (in both a grammatical and characterological sense) populating the novel, this is because she increasingly discovers, thoughout the course of the novel, how her subjectivity (and her substantial physical power) is a matter (or a function) of waveform data that are virtual rather than actual, or that extend beyond the simple present to more complex and convoluted temporalities. In this way, the novel’s account of cosmology is also its account of consciousness: a double ontology which is not inconsistent with the double plots of some of Sullivan’s earlier novels.

There is a lot more to say than this rough outline; but that will probably have to wait for a rereading of OCCUPY ME. For now, I can just say that the novel both confirms my overall sense of what science fiction can do, and extends this in directions that I haven’t quite been able to work out yet.