“I had heard people say that when they looked at the stars too long they grew terrified by the sensation of being drawn away”
-Gene Wolf, Sword and Citadel
1: Distant Stars
The narrative device at the beginning of Olaf Stapledon’s The Starmaker is refreshingly unadorned. The first-person protagonist looks up at the stars from a heather-covered hillside on the outskirts of London, and becomes a disembodied perspective floating away from Earth. From that simple frame he launches a series of space-based philosophical essays, each more expansive than the last. While the event described at the inception of the story is stripped of any distracting context, the language itself is florid and ornate. I don’t remember where I got the idea to read the book—probably some internet forum, and I knew nothing about the novel or its author when I started. It was only after finishing the first chapter that I checked the date of publication: 1937.
That explained to some degree the unfamiliar style, and the absence of expected elements: the heaping spoons of character-driven sugar 21st century authors usually use to flavor even the weakest tea of abstract speculation. I had read in graduate school quite a few of this book’s nineteenth-century predecessors, a species of more purely philosophical science fiction, less ashamed of outright moralism and allegory. Stapledon would, I guessed correctly, follow the standard pre-war formula of offering alien worlds as thinly disguised illustrations of social or political theory. Not surprisingly, considering the time in which it was written, the extra-terrestrial civilizations in the book would be facing great peril, perhaps destruction, by spiritual crises and global war.
The Starmaker is related to its 19th century antecedents, but it also looks forward to more modern waves of Science Fiction concerned with astronomical realism—Stapledon’s text, to some extent, assimilates real scientific details and distances. The first few chapters could almost be an overly-elegant introduction to a planetarium show, soothingly read by some deep-voiced actor trying to induce a proper appreciation for perspective. “I found no planets,” he writes, describing the beginning of the protagonist’s journey. “I know well that the birth of planets was due to the close approach of two or more stars [okay, so Stapledon’s science isn’t that accurate], and that such accidents must be very uncommon. I reminded myself that stars with planets must be as rare in the galaxy as gems among the grains of sand on the sea-shore. What chance had I of coming upon one? I began to lose heart. The appalling desert of darkness and barren fire, the huge emptiness so sparsely pricked with scintillations, the colossal futility of the whole universe, hideously oppressed me” (p. 20).
He eventually does find “other Earths.” In the first few planets he visits, the changes are mostly cosmetic, the physiology of the aliens shifted just enough so that when he criticizes their civilizations, Earthlings can pretend like the story isn’t really about them. For example, the inhabitants on his initial stop are bipedal humanoids, but the product of an evolutionary process that favored taste and scent rather than sight and hearing. They have taste organs on their hands and genitals, as a result of which they always wear gloves, and their social lives, including racial prejudices and even theological attitudes, are defined by smells and flavors. Religious factions argue, for example, about whether the taste of the supreme deity is predominantly salty or sour. This first world, like subsequent ones the narrator visits, is filled with enough amusing inventions to make palatable the obvious social critique.
Stapledon writes: “In this world, as in our own, nearly all the chief means of production, nearly all the land, mines, factories, railways, ships, were controlled for private profit by a small minority of the population. These privileged individuals were able to force the masses to work for them on pain of starvation. The tragic farce inherent in such a system was already approaching. The owners directed the energy of the workers increasingly toward the production of more means of production rather than to the fulfillment of the needs of individual life. For machinery might bring profit to the owners; bread would not. With the increasing competition of machine with machine, profits declined, and therefore wages, and therefore effective demand for goods. Marketless products were destroyed, though bellies were unfed and backs unclad. Unemployment, disorder, and stern repression increased as the economic system disintegrated. A familiar story!” (p.31).
Flipping through the book again, I am in danger of coming across too many things I want now to mention, like the “radio-brain-stimulation” that had been invented on this world, whereby sexual experiences (mostly of taste and odour, of course) could be conveyed to the population at large, a “sexual broadcasting” that threatened the state, because the humanoids might not reproduce sufficiently to supply them with soldiers for their wars. Stapledon, writing in the mid 1930s, is understandably preoccupied with the effects of propaganda, as much as he is with modern warfare (if the two are, in fact, distinguishable).
The narrator enters into telepathic communion with one of these other-earthlings, a philosopher named Bvalltu, and eventually both of their minds, mingled together, will travel, mentally, out into space. As they meet more Sentient species, gradually adding them to their band of telepathic travellers, the stranger the worlds to which they are able to project become, including civilizations far more “advanced” than that of Earth. “As we passed on from world to world we greatly increased our understanding of the principles underlying our venture, and our powers of applying them. Further, in each world that we visited we sought out a new collaborator, to give us insight into his world and to extend our imaginative reach for further exploration of the galaxy. This ‘snowball’ method by which our company was increased was of great importance, since it magnified our powers. In the final stages of the exploration we made discoveries which might well be regarded as infinitely beyond the range of any single and unaided human mind” (53).
To me, of course, it seems like he is describing what happens when you read a lot of science fiction. The framing device, which at first seemed arbitrary and awkward, becomes justified as the psychonautic explorers meet and combine with other groups of inter-stellar drifters, and realize they are part of a cosmic process by which the universe is coming to understand itself. Something similar happens to Severian, the hero of Gene Wolf’s The Book of the New Sun tetralogy, which I will talk more about in a later section. With the help of an alien-derived chemical, he is able to absorb the memories of the woman he loved by consuming her corpse. Towards the end (I don’t want to give too much away) the possibility is raised of this process indefinitely repeating itself, until a super-mind co-populates the brain of a single individual, in a snowballing telepathy.
The Starmaker describes many different worlds, but one I found particularly memorable was populated by a species of “Human Echinoderm,” evolved from a kind of starfish, using electricity for communication. “The key to the understanding of this race is…its strange method of reproduction, which was essentially communal. Every individual was capable of budding a new individual; but only at certain seasons, and only after stimulation by a kind of pollen emanating from the whole tribe and carried on the air” (60). The “tribal perfume,” naturally, exerts a strong influence on the minds and actions of the organisms, with social groups, consequently, of paramount importance.
“The primitive tribes were groups of a few hundred or a few thousand individuals, but in modern times their size greatly increased. Always, however, the sentiment of tribal loyalty, if it was to remain healthy, had to be based on the personal acquaintance of its members” (61). Technologies of mass communication and propaganda, again, pose a threat because “always there was some point beyond which further growth of the tribe was unwholesome” and radio and television broadcasting have caused the natural size of social groupings to swell into “super-tribes,” which subvert individualistic function. An organism drawn into one of these “tribe of tribes” “might in fact be a critical, self-respecting and other-respecting person,” the narrator tells us, “but in all matters connected with super-tribes, whether national or economic, he behaved in a very different manner. All ideas coming to him with the sanction of nation or class would be accepted uncritically and with fervour by himself and all his fellows. As soon as he encountered one of the symbols or slogans of his super-tribe he ceased to be a human personality and became a sort of de-cerebrate animal, capable only of stereo-typed reactions” (62).
As I’m sure you have guessed, Stapledon is using his Echinodermic, electricity-speaking, pollen-reproducing aliens to talk about 20th century humanity. He was living through the an age of unprecedented insanity and mass slaughter that would have been unthinkable without the twin weapons of mass communication and nationalistic ideology, an era of mob-minded nightmares from which we, today, have yet to awake.
One of my strongest political convictions is this: that politics themselves (when taking place at a national or even state level) are essentially apolitical. What I mean is that large-scale elections, campaigns, and structures of identification seem designed to actually defuse and subvert the ability of citizens to meaningful change or even understand apparatuses of state control. Because they take place at the level of “super-tribes” political discourse will necessarily be stereotyped and imaginary. Representative democracies are a trap, giving people the images and forms of civic engagement without the substance, providing an outlet for energy—the waves of protest and sentiment that result naturally from inequality and oppression—while at the same time maintaining the solid wall of obfuscation and bureaucracy for those waves to smash, helplessly, against.
Julian Assange, in his otherwise unremarkable interview, recently published, with the CEO of google, talks about complexity as a weapon of mystification and control. Financial instruments, off-shore bank accounts, etc, are fiendishly complex because exploitative/predatory/dishonest systems that were obvious were audited or legislated out of existence. Natural selection works at the level of institutions, favoring those that are difficult to understand, and so sheltered to some degree from public rage. In the same way electoral politics has evolved in such a way as to provide the veneer of democratic control, while the true, unaccountable mechanisms of funding and influence remain hidden.
Elections provide a diverting spectacle, behind which a shadow government of self-perpetuating processes and unregulated institutions continue to rule unchecked and unobserved. The Capitol, so to speak, is only the visible and unimportant symptom of the laws of Capital. To avoid this trap, social movements (in my naive understanding) should work at larger and smaller scales than are anticipated. There are well-established walls to keep out public pressure, but giants can step over them, and mice can burrow underneath. We need to build global movements, like that currently mobilizing in the threat of climate change, and at the same time nurture local structures of resistance.
It might seem like Stapledon’s constant advocacy of an ever-broadening scope for the rational spirit (as redemption from the selfishness short-sightedness of war) would be at odds with his fear of the super-organic mob mind. The space-farers in the novel are themselves expanding into their own tribal, telepathic community. The difference (a subtle one) is between exploration and conquest, between speaking to and speaking with, or, if you prefer, between theater and film. There are examples in the text of alien worlds, like one in which avian swarms are psychically linked through radio waves, where large-scale communication actually improves their ability to think, by drawing them together in a functional, super-organic consciousness. When it works, a linking of minds can allow individuals to think like a group, improving their overall capacity to reason. When it is abused, as in the case of “representative democracy” or propaganda, it forces groups to think as an individual, limiting them to acting out the psychoses of a totalitarian despot or a ruling class.
If you can’t tell, I think this is a book worth reading. It was also, however, a tremendous disappointment. You know those graphs that plot the “rising action” supposedly ideal for a narrative, where the tension starts out slow, rises to climax, and then falls to a conclusion? That wouldn’t apply to The Star Maker (it is a philosophical novel, and there isn’t really much action at all), but it could chart, rather perfectly, how much I liked the book over the course of reading it. Three-fourths of the way through, I thought it was brilliant, but by the end I was glad that it was over.
The scope and ambition of the novel are what make it appealing, but they are also, eventually, what breaks the spell the more successful chapters cast. Stapledon goes too far, and the whole structure collapses. Not when the narrator explores the limits of the galaxy, the first-person voice assimilating the consciousness of alien beings until the “I” represents a telepathic amalgam of super-stellar entities. Not when the group-mind visits other galaxies, nor even when Stapledon reveals his travelers are moving through time as well as space, mentally traversing the life of the universe from its creation to the end. Stars themselves are conscious entities, and object to having their energies harnessed by stellar engineers? Fine. Keep going, Stapledon, let’s see how far your imagination can expand. Then, sadly, it fizzles out.
From the start there had been a religious undercurrent to the narrative, and it seeps to the surface when the inter-galactic super-mind ultimately meets with the entity it had been searching for all along: the star-maker. There is, predictably, a blinding, debilitating flash of light, and in that moment of horrific inspiration, the narrator peers into the nature of the divine. Again and again, the narrator laments how the content of his revelation can’t be apprehended by the merely human consciousness to which he has returned. Again and again, we hear how he can’t hope to describe the ineffable profundity of his vision. Again and again, I found myself thinking: okay, then don’t.
I was disappointed because at that point, the novel ceases to be speculative, and becomes didactic. It stops being sociology, and becomes theology. I started out by saying that while the allegorical structure is carried over from the 19th century, but combined with the more scientific sensibilities of the 20th, the final chapters retreat into stale religious doctrines of the 1600s, dressed up in thin, pseudo-scientific trappings. The narrator, in his brush with the creator, glimpses other dimensions, alternate universes representing earlier or later works of the star-maker (although of course, from his infinite perspective, time doesn’t exist). The age-old ever reliable dodges of actual logic are trotted out, paradoxes that passeth all understanding, the intellect-eating aphorisms that philosophers have been feeding the tired tails of their theories too for centuries.
When Stapledon expands his narrative vision to its ultimate extent, it becomes its most provincial, bound by dated ideologies and superstitions. Instead of looking forward, into a blazing enlightenment (as he would have us believe) the author ends up looking over a nervous shoulder, in obeisance to the authorities that preside over what, ultimately, can be written or known. The book starts out looking up at the stars, but ends with its head stuck in the sands of “mysteries,” the desert monotheisms thousands of years old, for which I have little patience.
2: Near-term Extinction
When my parents visited us in Lyon, early last summer, I made them watch a presentation by Guy McPherson on youtube. His message, based on supposedly solid scientific sources, is that humanity will be extinct by 2040. He had gone beyond the standard alarmist message of impeding catastrophe in the absence of concerted action to curb greenhouse emissions, etc., to claim that our species is screwed no matter what we do. Various self-reinforcing feedback loops feeding into atmospheric warming have already been triggered, most notably methane clathrates bubbling up from the oceans, so that sufficient momentum has been established so we are plunging, irreversibly, into ecocidal argmageddon.
I knew that McPherson was overstating his case, but arguments over the severity of climate change are a recurring refrain between my father and I, and one of the reasons I wanted him to watch the video was to give his optimistic complacency a jolt. Another reason, which I doubt that he suspected, was I wanted him to tell me why McPherson was wrong. Afterwards, walking the dog by the Soane, he did. Months later, I would hear an episode of the same podcast that introduced me to McPherson in the first place (ecoshock radio), explaining why his ideas and sources are suspect. The host and his guests, while still taking care not to back off of claims of more-or-less immanent ecological and economic collapse, suggested McPherson goes too far, turning scientific speculation into theological conviction, making climate change into a religion.
There is a certain perverse appeal to worst-case scenarios and the criers of doom: you want them to be wrong, of course, because they are predicting unimaginable horrors, but at the same time, you want them to be right.
I admit to not being entirely immune to the draw of radical thought, as an antidote to the mind-numbing mantras of the status quo. Noam Chomsky on politics, Derek Jensen on the environment. When mainstream opinions are so obviously flawed, the datasphere patently corrupted by disinformation, big deviations from accepted truth begin to seem as plausible as minor ones. Extreme positions seem like a necessary counterweight to propaganda. Conspiracy theories, pools of radical/delusional ideology eddying off of the main-stream discourse seem increasingly prevalent, and let me indulge in amateur sociology for a moment to propose a theory why: if your opinions don’t really matter (because you are socially or politically disenfranchised), then you are less likely to invest the energy that rigorous rationality requires. If no one is listening, getting attention becomes more of a priority than gaining a reputation.
All of which goes some way towards explaining why the Climate March on September 21st was such a relief. Sanity is contagious, and there is intellectual strength in knowing you aren’t alone.
And yet, as I’ve said before, I have an aversion to all like-mindedness—a claustrophobia of consensus, especially when once any point of view reaches the level of popular awareness, it will inevitably have been monetized, repackaged, and fitted with intellectual limiters and safe-guards. My style, anyway, my role in the cultural ecology, will always be poetic-associational rather than systematic, science-fiction rather than science. I try to stay informed, and reason through things as best I can, but I will never be a consensus builder, just a jester whose foolscap bells might ring in a tiny concept previously inconceived.
If Guy McPherson goes to far in crying the doom of climate change, another book I read over the summer doesn’t go far enough. The Sixth Extinction: an Unnatural History by Elizabeth Kolbert makes the case that the Earth, due to human industry, has entered into a new geological phase, the Anthropocene, ushered in by the sixth mass extinction event in Earth’s history. Unsurprisingly, most of the earlier events that chopped off whole branches of the planet’s phylogenetic tree were caused, in one way or another, by climate change. The end of the Ordovician (444 million years ago) actually resulted from glaciation, but one of the most drastic extinctions, the end-Permian, was caused by global warming, triggered by excess carbon in the atmosphere.
“Right at the time of extinction, 252 million years ago, there was a massive release of carbon into the air—so massive that geologists have a hard time even imagining where all the carbon could have come from. Temperatures soared—the seas warmed by as much as eighteen degrees—and the chemistry of the oceans went haywire, as if in an out-of-control aquarium. The water became acidified, and the amount of dissolved oxygen dropped so low that many organisms probably, in effect, suffocated. Reefs collapsed…by the time it was over, something like ninety percent of all species on earth had been eliminated” (103).
She goes on to explain one of the more terrifying theories of how the atmospheric change could account for so much carnage—the altered conditions favored a type of bacteria that produced hydrogen sulfide, filling the air and water with a poison fatal to most forms of life. It may seem odd for me to claim that a book comparing the consequences of climate change to these type of events (although she doesn’t actually spell this out the connection is implied), but my disappointment isn’t so much with the content, as it is with the style.
Accustomed to the frantic, hyperbolic blogs of terrified activists, or dry but apocalyptic scientific papers, Kolbert’s prose seems far too cute and polished, at odds with the subject she describes. It is popular science, and designed to be accessible. My dislike comes from this accessibility—the chapters are too readable, too filled with all of the standard writerly tricks to personalize and humanize the story of unthinkable proportions. You can smell the meeting rooms where it was pitched to editors, and hear the publicity blurbs that are its true unit of replication—the text itself is just a superfluous expansion of the talking/selling points.
Since capitalist consumerism is the driver of ecological collapse, it is impossible for a salable product to supply any sort of alternative. You have probably heard of the WWF study that came out, concluding that over half of all vertebrate wildlife on the planet has gone extinct since 1970. Other aspects of the tragedy aside, the extinction event we are experiencing is appalling when seen as a loss of knowledge. Handfuls of pages are being torn out of the book of a living biosphere. Future scientists are forever losing the ability to study and understand ecological populations that we are too primitive to catalog or comprehend. And don’t give me that whole DNA-trapped-in-amber nonsense, or the fantasy that future geneticists will be able to resurrect pristine forests and oceans from databanks. A zoo is not a habitat, and once a complex biome ceases to function it is gone forever.
There is one bright side, I suppose. Extinction is incomparably awful, but in order to contemplate the extent of the loss, to survey damage at such an epic scale, you first have to construct mental models of evolution, the complex bio-chemical beauties, cells, microbes, mitochondria, strategies for survival blindly developed by untold eons of trial and error, improbable mutatagenic success in the frowning face of almost certain death. The persistence of animated sunlight, struggling to sprout and spread on barren rock, in unforgiving seas. Phyla learning about one another’s energy by consuming and being consumed, hideous fossilized shrieks of laughter.
But who am I to type about extinction? How can I stare at such a scale without falling into religious error? My world is this small apartment, which I have trouble keeping clean. My bonsai trees, about half of them, have died from too much or too little water, sun, or heat. Their tolerances are narrow, once uprooted from the Earth.
3: Sexy Alternatives
Back in July, I returned to the U.S. for the first time over a year. I spent a week living in a church in Lawrence, Kansas—or at least what used to be a church, the structure recently re-zoned as residential. A friend of mine from high school, along with his best friend and co-director of an Austin theater troupe, had the idea of renting the place for a year and turning it into a “pilot balloon church house” where performers, writers, and artists of various stripes would take up one or two-week residencies. Upon my arrival, the experiment in communal synergies was wrapping up—when my stay was over the two organizers would also pack up and move back to L.A. to pursue television and film careers.
The idea was that I would work on my novel, which I did, but most of my time was spent sitting in the back yard, watching squirrels scurry over trees and fences, and reading science fiction.
Although I hadn’t previously spent much time in Lawrence, after France and Turkey it was a combination of elements palpably familiar: college town, midwest, childhood memories of brick streets and open skies. Parks and pizza shops, down-home upscale, outward sprawl and inward attraction of tax brackets. A place for the perpetuation of prototypical America, safe from everything save its own insularity.
My friend, the one behind the church-house project, has an acute sense of smell. I remember him telling me once that scent was more of a determining factor in his attraction to females than appearance. Towards the back of the church (the nave? transept?) there was a shelved display, on which were arranged various bottles of olfactory samples. In the first few minutes I was there, he opened one of these for me, and asked if I could identify it. I couldn’t—something artificial, plastic. It was, he told me, a chemical particular to the manufacture of dolls.
When my brother was showing me his garden, a week before, he had offered me a bulb of raw garlic, fresh from the ground, and having taking one potent bite, I put the rest of it in my pocket. Predictably, I forgot it was there, and it went through the washing machine, imparting its ordure to all of my clothes. When I showed up at the door of the church, one of the first things my friend said was, “you smell like Italian food.”
This same friend has suggested I do a blog on French cheeses, which one of these days, perhaps, I will actually do. I’m not a particularly smell-centric person, but there is this one aged, tangy chevre we get in small, moldy buttons from the market, that makes my nose hurt just thinking about. My brother-in-law compared the scent to dirty socks.
The book I brought with me to Lawrence, one of several I’d ordered online to take advantage of the absence of international shipping charges, was Oryx and Crake (2004), by Margaret Atwood. It was more of a readily recognizable, easily palatable Science Fiction text, with welcome things like characters and a plot–fast paced, well written, switching from a post-apocalyptic (or at least mostly post-human) future to the back-story of the mad scientist and his friend who helped create it.
Oryx and Crake features an exotic form of humanoid, one genetically engineered to live in balance with its ecosystem, unlike the humans it was designed to replace. The females of this post-human species go into heat once every three years, and which point their genitals turn blue, somewhat like baboons, and their bodies release pheremonal signals of their readiness to mate. A single woman copulates with four different males, a feature designed by Crake to make paternal parentage impossible to determine. Therefore, “it no longer matters who the father of the inevitable child may be, since there’s no more property to inherit, no father-son loyalty required for war. Sex is no longer a mysterious rite, viewed with ambivalence or downright loathing, conducted in the dark and inspiring suicides and murders. Now it’s more like an athletic demonstration, a free-spirited romp.” . These new types of humans are made-to-order utopians, with all of the problematic traits edited out, like acquisitiveness, violence, and symbolic language.
“They were perfectly adjusted to their habitat, so they would never have to create houses or tools or weapons, or, for that matter, clothing. They would have no need to invent any harmful symbolisms, such as kingdoms, icons, gods, or money. Best of all, they recycled their own excrement.” The “Crakers,” you see, are not only vegetarians, subsisting without the need for hunting or agriculture, but in perhaps the ultimate adaptation in sustainability, they can eat their own shit.
Oryx and Crake is a fun book, using a rather absurd and implausible premise to prod the theme of extinction. The name taken by the scientist, Crake, comes from a game he and the main character play growing up, called EXTINCTATHON. It is “an interactive biofreak masterlore game” (80) similar to twenty questions, where one player picks an animal that has gone extinct in the past fifty years and the other player tries to guess what it is. The difficulty of the game is that there are so many species to choose from.
Margaret Atwood, by the way, was the first author to contribute to the future library, a collection of stories that will be published in 100 years, using paper made from trees that have been planted in Oslo, Norway. The texts will be kept secret until 2114, with a different author contributing every year. Atwood has quipped that “this project, at least, believes the human race will still be around in a hundred years!”
Lawrence has some nice used bookstores, which I sniffed out the first couple days I was there. It was overwhelming to realize that all the books there were in English, not just those on a single shelf. I picked up a volume of poems by Kabir, and two science fiction novels: Pennterra (1987), by Judith Moffett (who I had never heard of), and Always Coming Come (1985), by Ursula K. Leguin.
Pennterra describes an alien planet ecountered by human settlers, the sentient species of which, called Hrossa, warns them against any attempts at colonization. The Hrossa give them simple rules to follow: they can’t expand beyond the valley where they originally landed, they can’t use machinery, and they have to keep their population below a certain size. The humans, conveniently, happen to be Quakers, so they are able to follow these injunctions with little trouble. Until, of course, the second wave of settlers arrives…
Like Atwood’s Crakers, the Hrossa represent a humanoid life-form actually capable of fulfilling the environmentalist’s ideal of living in balance with the natural world. Moffett manages, despite the relatively humble scope of her vision, to imagine a world more radically different than any found in Stapledon’s cosmos-encompassing work. The mind-bending thing about the planet Pennterra is that it is non-Darwinian.
Rhetoric of sustainability and human-nature harmony aside, the truth is that the natural world has never existed in a perfect state of sustained, harmonious balance. Evolution is predicated on constant change, starvation, and death. Biological populations are inherently prone to overshoots and corrections, predation and adaptation, constant trials and ubiquitous errors. Extinctions weren’t always as drastic as they were in the end-Ordovician, end-Permian, or today, but there has always been a background rate of extinction, an undertone of species dying and dropping out, to make room for whatever will be next. Existence has always been a hard-won reward for surviving constant crucibles of competition. Or so standard Darwinian theory assumes. You don’t have to read a lot of 19th century social theory (or 21st century political rhetoric, for that matter), to know that this view of nature is tied up with free market economic theory. Personal tragedies, massive suffering, bankruptcies, over-production, periodic crashes and corrections, are all necessary signs, according to this logic, of an efficiently functioning system. Compassion for the losers, individually, is antithetical to collective progress. Poverty is a kind of culling of the herd.
A recent example of this mindset is how courts recently upheld the legality of the city of Detroit’s decision to shut off the water of those citizens who couldn’t pay their bills. Access to water, they ruled, is not a human right (although it remains unclear how a person could have life, liberty, or the pursuit of happiness while dying of thirst).
Moffet’s biological utopia, then, of a planet truly in balance, where Darwinian pressures are, if not absent, then at least in abeyance, strikes me as an important social critique. Not even Stapledon’s Starmaker could create a world without natural selection. So how does the non-Darwinian ecology work? Every organism has one offspring, after which it freely gives itself to another animal to be eaten. A predator simply walks out into the ecosystem, broadcasting hunger (Pennterrans are telepathic), and a prey animal, already having reproduced, answers the call and…well…they have sex. With three penises and three vaginas, as it turns out.
Sex on Pennterra is non-reproductive (the Hross and other animals are hermaphroditic, and produce their one offspring asexually), serving instead as a kind of intra and inter-species communion. Things get weird, as you can imagine, when the Quaker researchers begin to adopt this indiscriminately polyamorous and orgiastic sexuality, which they are susceptible to because of their empathetic link with the Hrossa.
The sexual transgressiveness, in my view, works as a kind of symbol for the transgressive politics, the unthinkable biology of a non-Darwinian planet. “Say that all animals,” one of the humans writes in his field notes when first learning about the system, “from the lowest to the highest forms are immune to being eaten until they have produced their single offspring and made it self-sustaining but then afterward all give themselves voluntarily to whatever preys upon their species…By Earth standards, what you’d have seems like a formula for evolutionary stultification. You wouldn’t need stamina or agility or speed to run away from predators or catch prey; you wouldn’t need intelligence to outsmart either. You wouldn’t ‘need’ anything, so none of those traits would be selected for…There’s no ‘success’ in the large-scale Earth sense, no alpha male passing his genes on to every child of the next generation and cutting many other males out for keeps. That perception you get in the study of biology, of every creature madly struggling to survive (eat, avoid being eaten) and to beat out the competition for breeding opportunities, would be missing completely. Everybody survives to reproduce himself. Everybody then generously offers himself to feed others. A slow, coordinated dance of inter- and intra-specific cooperation” (132).
Pennterra is a kind of biological socialism. “I don’t buy it,” the human scientist concludes. “There are too many problems.” Neither do the second wave of colonists that bring the Earthling view of evolution—competition, expansion, success, and war—with them.
Although I don’t believe in near-term extinction for the human species, I do believe in near-term collapse. There will be—more so than there is now—shortages of resources: energy, food, and water. To survive, in any sense that will make our survival worthwhile, we will have to colonize our own planet with the alien concept of ceasing to expand, to struggle, to build ever larger economies and machinery, becoming instead empathetic with other species and with ourselves, to call an end, once and for all, to our bloody competitions.
4: New Suns and Coming Home
There is something egotistical in thinking the current planetary crisis will lead to human extinction. Extreme catastrophism is the reverse side of techo-optimism (postulating that humanity is about to end because of an impending singularity, where AI will outpace human intelligence, or we will be able to upload our minds into computer networks)—both give the present historical moment too much credit. As Kolbert’s book makes clear, the current age, from a geological/evolutionary perspective really is exceptional, but from the point of view of individual lifespans, the collapse will still seem slow, too gradual for any radical greens to say “I told you so” to repentant capitalists. We’ll all be dead before the real evidence comes in. Not that we won’t see the fore-shocks of the disaster. Habitats will be ruined, life-webs stripped of diversity and splendor, incalculable resources squandered, our descendants condemned to physically impoverished, diminished existences, all so nation-states can compete in producing trash. To think, though, that our silly scenes of loss and depredation, tragic as they are, constitute the final act, smacks of hubristic folly.
Readers of this blog will know that I don’t rank or rate the books I read, but out of all those I will be discussing here, the one I most wish to recommend is Always Coming Home. It is a future-anthropological account of neo-primitives inhabiting the Northwest coast, long after the inevitable end of the petro-chemical age. Human populations are drastically reduced, inhabiting small villages saturated with art, ritual, and story. Like the Crakers, like the Hross, the “Kesh” (as LeGuin calls the people in the book) live within ecological constraints, eschewing cities and disruptive machinery. Their ability to co-exist with nature doesn’t come from designer genes or an alien biology, but simply from a rational, functional culture. Politically correct Westerners often pay wistful lip-service to pre-industrial societies, but to actually convey, in such elaborate detail, the complexity of a hypothetical, non-technological way of life—without idealizing or patronizing the indigenous traditions she is using as a model—constitutes an imaginative feat at least on par with Stapledon’s bizarre speculations or Moffet’s xeno-ecological thought experiment.
The book isn’t so much a novel as a collection of future-historical source material, including stories, essays, plays, and poetry. The pages are filled with illustrations by Margaret Chodos, and the back section even contains recipes, and sheet music of Kesh songs. The original box set apparently included a cassette of the poems and music, a sample of which I was able to find online.
Always Coming Home could be described as a post-apocalyptic utopia. It’s the end of the world as we know it, and they feel fine. Not that everything is perfect—they suffer from high mortality rates and short life spans, resulting from the residual toxins left over from the ancient, less enlightened epochs, and there is still conflict, war, and personal struggle. LeGuin’s narrative is not, I should point out, anti-Science, advocating any kind of a willful lapse into simplistic spirituality. Aside from lingering pollutants, the Kesh’s ancestors also left them a functioning computer network, accessible by terminals to be found in every village, and serving as a repository for the accumulated wisdom of the past. Anyone sufficiently curious could teach themselves electronics, astrophysics, or molecular biology, although interest in such impractical subjects is understandably rare. The Kesh adopt those technologies they find beautiful or useful, but reject anything resembling the disruptive industrial productions of the past.
LeGuin’s Always Coming Home, unlike most science fiction, doesn’t just describe more intelligent machines, larger bombs, faster spaceships, or farther-reaching galactic empires. Nonetheless, more than any other book I can remember reading, she describes a futuristic culture that has made something that feels like progress. It took a long time to read, but will take a long time to forget.
There is a common trait in much science fiction and fantasy literature that bothers me, maybe more so as I age, which is when a lone hero-protagonist ends up saving the world. Sometimes the galaxy. Gene Wolf, who wrote the Book of the New Sun series, made a comment in an interview that when you are young, you believe yourself to be the center of the universe. Then, with age and experience, you begin to appreciate your relative insignificance. Severian, though, the main character in the New Sun novels, ends up as just the kind of world-saving hero that panders to the adolescent mind-set of absolute self-importance. There seems to be something pathological in the endless pop-cultural narratives of the intrepid individual on which the fate of everything depends. As wish-fulfillment fantasies, they reinforce the magical thinking of children and the paranoid, which, when confronted with reality, can only collapse into its opposite: if your life isn’t all-important, then it is utterly insignificant.
In Always Coming Home, society itself if the hero. Rather than writing the generic story about a good individual struggling against a hostile world, LeGuin manages to write about a good world making individuals better. Pennterra was the same way—the Quakers act with courage and intelligence, but ultimately it is the alien planet itself that propels the story to its conclusion. The Book of the New Sun starts off mostly focused on the far, far future world in which it is set, a fascinating blend of feudal fantasy and strange high tech. The moon, for example, is green, having been terraformed with forests long ago, while the sun is red and dying. Don’t get me wrong: the books are wonderful, well worth the time they take to read. Like the Star Maker, though, the ending was disappointing, and for the same reason: the speculation dropped out, giving way to hollow theology.
Severian, in the third book of the New Sun series, travels North to where the kingdom’s forces are at war with a people called the Ascians. The curious thing about this enemy is that their speech is completely made up of memorized aphorisms from government approved texts. This is the only way that “correct thinking” can be assured. “To think of those millions upon millions without speech, or confined to parroting proverbial phrases that must surely have long ago lost most of their meaning, was nearly more than the mind could bear. Speaking almost to myself, I said, ‘It must surely be a trick, or a lie or a mistake. Such a nation could not exist'” (382).
I finished reading Gene Wolf’s series (the first book/quadrology I’ve ever read on a “device” rather than on paper) while in Turkey. We were there meeting a sociology professor who flew out to give a talk at an Istanbul teaching hospital. I was telling him about this novel, about the Ascians, and I mentioned that their odd injunction of allowing being able to communicate in quotes reminded me of what it was like in graduate school. The only ideas you could really have were those that could be attributed to someone else. Everything that was said had to consist of refashioned citations and secondary sources, a patchwork of already approved authority.
After his talk, a group of us went to a restaurant, which the neurology professor who drove us there informed us was one of the oldest in Istanbul, dating from before the republic. I saw a young, bearded man there who had made some comment on the American sociologist’s talk, and asked him about it. “Wait until I’ve had a few drinks,” he said. After he had an opportunity to get sufficiently lubricated (Turks are partial to an anise-flavored liquor called Raki, so strong you generally mix it with water), I tried again, and this time he launched into an long, uninterrupted monologue about morals, modernism, capitalism, Turkish politics, subjectivity, and so on. He had a Master’s in Cultural Theory and was getting a PhD in genetics. It has been a while since I spent time with academics, and I was amused to get a chance to listen to the type of talk with which I was once so familiar, blurred a bit by accent and inebriation. I even played along, quoting sources, throwing in my own bits of memorized authority and theory. We were Ascians, not really talking as ourselves, but showing “Correct Thought.”
I would like to think I’ve moved away from the habit of obsessively quoting sources, replacing a living, if foolish voice with dead, if learned, letters. What else, though, is this blog, other than using the already written as an excuse to speak? I pretend to review these books, because I am afraid of putting forward my own opinions without camouflage or cover.
5: Police and Prefecture
There was this moment, when one radio station started staticing into another. I remember a kind of vision of a moth of white noise, trapped in the car stereo, batting the speakers with its wings. Classical music contended with bad pop-rock, and it was like shifting between dimensions. We were travelling from France to Italy, going to spend a few days on the shore of lake Maggiore, and the language of the stations, too, was changing. Overlap, balance. The present phasing with the past.
The book I read on that trip, in the hillside house we’d rented for the weekend, was Flow my Tears, the Policeman Said (1974), by Philip K. Dick. The main character, Jason Taverner, is a famous singer and TV personality, who wakes up in a hotel room, in a reality where he is a complete unknown. Not only is he not famous, but he doesn’t exist, in the sense that there are no police or governmental records that attest to his being alive. This itself, in the total-information-awareness dystopia Dick describes, is incredibly suspicious, and attracts the attention of various authorities. Having read many of his other novels, I knew that Dick would be able to draw everything together into a satisfying and unexpected conclusion, and he did.
Psychologically, the main character is interesting because he inverts the usual progression to which wish-fulfillment narratives usually adhere: he doesn’t rise from being a nobody to a hero/celebrity/king, he starts off as significant and then falls into irrelevant obscurity. This, I think, more realistically reflects most of our experiences growing up.
I was at some back-yard party a couple years ago, maybe around a fourth of July, some friend in the Midwest with horses and bees, and there was this old couple there, and the man kept repeating the same story about working at a gas station when he was a teenager, and how it taught him a good “work ethic,” and his wife at one point said something about how when you graduate (high school? College?) you learn that the world doesn’t need you. What she said stuck in my mind, and I’ve since concluded that the world does need you. The living part of it, the trees and oceans and species that are going extinct, the animals that are dying. The economy, though, the paperwork and governments and parking lots and real estate—that part of the world is dead, and wishes you were, too.
In Turkey, the sociology professor and my wife and I went around to all the tourist sites of Istanbul I’d seen before—the Blue mosque, Hagia Sophia, the grand bazaar, spice market, but because it was nearby I got to stop by the used book market, where I found, from the sparse selection of English language texts, Star Fraction, by Ken McLeod.
It was okay. I finished it waiting in line at the prefecture in Lyon, trying (unsuccessfully) to get my permis de cunduire. A somewhat near future, after a third world war, which was resolved by balkanizing Europe and the rest of the geo-political map into small ideological zones, what one of the characters calls “multiple choice totalitarianism”. It is a future that feels stifling because it carries over the jargon and factional divisions current today—communism, capitalism, trotskyism, libertarianism, and so on, with a bewildering array of anachronymic armies and militias. The usual suspects of techo-futurism are dutifully in evidence: A.Is, cool weapons, and colonization of space. I mentioned earlier how I thought that political discourse served as a limiter, a way to dampen and redirect revolutionary thoughts, and reading Star Fraction leaves you with a feeling that there are no causes worth fighting for, all labels laid out in a flattened plane of murderous and meaningless idiocy.
“One of the ancestors of our modern militias,” a character named Jordan says, a refugee from a conservative Christian enclave, “was a group called the Falange. They had a slogan: Credere. Obedere. Combatere. ‘Believe. Obey. Fight.’ I suggest that you doubt, disobey, desert. Particularly if you are called upon to fight against those who insist, against all the evidence, that we are one people.‘”(337).
If, reading The Starmaker, you get the sense of falling up into space, of speculative possibilities and cosmic distances to fill with subversive rumination, the sky of the Star Fraction is claustrophobic, with las-guns and tactical nukes pointed back at Earth. You aren’t going anywhere. C’est fini. The window into the future is closed.
I’d been waiting for two hours, from 7:00 until 9:00, for the prefecture to open. Lines stretched for blocks from the building in various directions, doubling back upon themselves. This was my fourth try, the fourth time I’d waited in this line. Finally, we were allowed to go in. On the wall, in enormous writing, was the motto: Liberte. Egalite. Fraternite. Like a beehive, we were cordoned into a maze of intestinal queuing. A man in front of me was arguing at the window, two polis officers approaching to escort him to the door. Just before it was my turn (at about 9:07),a loudspeaker announced it was fini for aujourd’hui, no more applications for foreign licenses.
I heard that moth again, the soft wings of conflicting possibility. One was my past, my ego still coddled by academic institutions, where I was going to be a writer, a teacher, someone who could reach into the ground and grab a tree of great ideas by the roots and shake it. But the sky got darker, filled with static, and there was myself as perceived by a foreign bureaucracy: powerless, too late, left behind by the beat of popular, repetitive music. Standing in that line, I felt my own kind of duality of dimensional existence: in one, I was recognized, I had the proper form, and in another, I was insignificant and invisible. Like Jason Taverner, I was suddenly in a world where I wasn’t known. I’ve never before felt such a call for revolution.
6: Forward in Time
I always feel like I ride the edge of ontological ambiguity. There were the wings of static fluttering against my life. Drifting between overlapping channels, diverging into orthagonal dimensions.
There is one last text, one last trilogy I’ll talk about, that I read since my last post: Arrows of Time, by Greg Egan. Scientifically-minded aliens with the ability to mold their flesh at will, who live in a universe with laws of physics different from our own, set off in a flying mountain to save their world from extinction. This could be a whole other post, but I will confine myself to commenting on one small detail, more present actually in the first two books: when the females of the species reproduce, they split into four, and die.
There are no pictures of Greg Egan on the internet, no biographies. He is a famous writer, but like Jason Taverner, he is oddly unrecorded and unknown. My theory, for a while, has been that, like James Tiptree, Jr., he is actually a woman. I read Egan because he/she makes me aware of my intellectual limits, and compels me, with his/her narratives, to try and surpass them. The detail about the reproductive physiology of the aliens, at first glance seems to be a feminist comment on the self-sacrifice needed to raise children–the obliteration of self taking on the burden of child-rearing entails.
It could also, though, represent the decision to write novels, with so little prospect of recognition or monetary gain. You have to realize: your life, your past, your ability to subsist, physically and emotionally, may very well be destroyed.
I don’t know. Je ne sais pas. I’m humble now, and will do what I can for money. I love the sound of those inter-dimensional moths, their wings beating against the speakers of reality. I don’t believe I will go extinct. I will stare at the stars, and dream of distant suns…