In William Gibson’s newest novel, The Peripheral (2014), wealthy elites from a distant future are able to contact their past via a quantum server. By doing so, they transform the contacted reality into a “stub”: a dimension whose future is no longer convergent with their own. The inhabitants of this now diverted time-line can then be exploited in various ways, either hired to perform virtual tasks like piloting a drone (as happens with the main protagonist, Flynne Fisher) or manipulated into perpetual conflict, from which the resulting military technology can be harvested. Knowledge of the future makes the economies and governments of the alternate continua easy to control, and as a kind of metaphysical sub-class, the dwellers of these diverted pasts have no legal standing or protections.
In his acknowledgments, Gibson notes that “the idea of ‘third-worlding’ the past of alternate continua owes everything to ‘Mozart in Mirrorshades’ (1985) by Bruce Sterling and Lewis Shiner, though there the travel is physical, with extraction of natural resources the focus of exploitation” (562). In his own book, by contrast, only information can travel between dimensions, although inhabitants of the “stub” can visit the future world by means of teleprescence androids, known as “peripherals.”
The title—as Gibson’s comment about “’third-worlding’ the past” makes clear—also refers to the idea of a periphery, an exploited edge far from centers of wealth and power. Flynne and her brother Burton, in a world near-future to our own, scrape by on the margins of a society ruled by monopolies, corrupt governments, and drug cartels. In the later, 22nd century future, after a catastrophic event known as the “Jackpot” which reduces the human population by 80%, power has been even further consolidated into a closed kleptocracy, ridding itself of even the pretense of democratic governance.
This is how the Jackpot is described:
“No comets crashing, nothing you could really call a nuclear war. Just everything else, tangled in the changing climate: droughts, water shortages, crop failures, honeybees gone like they almost were now, collapse of other keystone species, every last alpha predator gone, antibiotics doing even less than they already did, diseases that were never quite the one big pandemic but big enough to be historic events in themselves. And all of it around people: how people were, how many of them there were, how they’d changed things just by being there” (375).
At the same time, Wilf (the main 22nd century character) explains to Flynne, “None of that…had necessarily been bad for very rich people. The richest had gotten richer, there being fewer to own whatever there was. Constant crisis had provided constant opportunity” (376). The catastrophes had propelled technology forward and discredited popular rule, until society was run entirely by “oligarchs, corporations, neomonarchists” (377). There was little periphery left after the Jackpot, which perhaps explains why the multibillionaires had to turn to cannibalizing their own past, creating alternate continua to exploit.
Hebdo and Erró
Our friend Keith had told us that a pub in Vieux Lyon called The Smoking Dog was (logically enough) dog-friendly, and we met him there, with our Cocker Spaniel, for drinks, after which he showed us a walk through some gardens on Fouvière hill, which we hadn’t yet discovered. I told him it was a shame I was discovering all of these new places in Lyon just when I was about to leave.
In Keith’s car, with the steering wheel on the wrong (British) side, talk inevitably turned to the Charlie Hebdo attacks. Keith said that yes, of course, all acts of violence should be condemned, but I countered with some of the salient arguments I had seen floating around the internet: that in the same week of the attacks 2,000 people had been killed by Boka Haram in Nigeria. That U.S. drone strikes regularly kill comparable numbers of civilians in Yemen or Pakistan. That the cries for unequivocal support of “free speech” are disingenuous coming from Western countries that regularly persecute whistle-blowers and journalists. The hypocrisy is also evident in the United States and other countries’ close relationship with Saudi Arabia, who on January 9th began carrying out a sentence of 1,000 lashes on a blogger who insulted Islam.
I told Keith it reminded me of something that the radical environmentalist Derek Jensen wrote, which was that terror or violence is only recognized as such when it travels in the wrong direction, from the bottom of the social hierarchy upward. When brutality originates from the top, and is inflicted on the lowly (as is in fact necessary for the maintenance of current structures of power) this is simply understood as business as usual. Drone strikes, police brutality, political oppression—none of these are really remarkable because the arrow of victimization is pointing in the proper direction. It is only when terror travels upward, touching those at the top of the social order, that violence becomes visible, recognizable as such, and a reaction is mobilized.
There was something frightening about the “solidarity” and support that congealed after the attack, “Je suis Charlie” appearing everywhere, on subway signs, bus-stop advertisements, even sung as a pop ditty over the radio. Politicians and anti-Islamicists were taking Rahm Emanuel’s advice to “never let a good crisis go to waste.” Paris saw the largest demonstrations in its history.
Jensen’s metaphor about the directionality of violence can easily be reconfigured as normally moving outward, from the central points of power (those who control narratives, or less subtle weapons), to the generally despair-ridden and invisible edges of global society. Very occasionally some of that suffering splashes back. Free speech, like outright violence, is reaffirmed and lauded so long as it is used to vilify the already marginalized. When power is spoken truthfully to, as Edward Snowden, Barret Brown, James Risen, or Julian Assange could attest, speech becomes significantly less free.
Last weekend I went to a retrospective of the artist Erró at the Musee d’art Contemporaine, and it was interesting to compare his style of pictoral bravery to that of the Hebdo cartoonists. His visual critiques were decidedly pointed inwards at the centers of ideological, cultural, and political power. His cartoons lampooned the real causes of war and inequality: petroleum, consumerism, capitalism, and copyright. It is more dangerously transgressive, one might claim, to use images of Mickey Mouse and Marvel superheroes without permission than to draw the prophet Mohammed.
Many of his canvases, stylistically, mixed centers of focus with peripheral visions, showing flattened perspectives of feverish pastiche, a ravenous assimilation of commercial and cultural forms. When I left the museum, walking through the nearby park Tete d’Or, those overloaded lines kept leaking out of my eyes: wire grids, primary colors, and popping comic-book style chromatic ensembles.
The third floor, especially, showing his later work, had hallucinogenic wall-sized vacuum-abhorring canvases, my favorite of which (naturally) was Science Fiction Scape (1992). One of the scariest, on a lower level, was a simple collage of thousands of food advertisements cut out, apparently, from magazines, arranged with the smallest towards the top, to create the effect of a relentless, never-ending, receding horizon of packed and processed products.
There was more of a challenge to power, I thought, in Erro’s work than in those simple blasphemous cartoons, and capitalism’s counter-attack was much for devious and effective than machine-gun fire: it declared him a success, and put his work in a museum. All messages after that were flattened out into the hypocrisy of high culture.
Empire on Which the Red Sun Never Rises
The other book I’ve recently read, A Red Sun Also Rises (2012) by Mark Hoder, has a troubling set-up for an otherwise satisfying other-worldly adventure. The main character, Aiden Fleischer, is an erudite clergyman, who, along with his crippled yet mechanically brilliant assistant/sexton Clarissa Stark, embarks on missionary work on Koluwaia, a distant island of Papua New Guinea. They leave from that center of imperial power, London, in 1888, which is described as “a city divided. Its opulence was incomparable, its sophistication astonishing, its indulgences entrancing, its poverty terrifying, its ruthlessness overwhelming its vileness unremitting” (23).
The stratified social structure of Victorian England, however, like Aiden’s religious convictions, never really gets examined. When they arrive in Koluwaia, the natives are described as cannibals and slavers, and Iriptiz, the ‘witch doctor,’ is a scheming drunk who sends them, via voo-doo and demonic ritual, through a portal into another world. The opening chapters of the novel teem with racist stereotypes that would have made H.P. Lovecraft proud, saturated with the assumptions of (sub?)conscious colonialism. One of the alien races, for example, the Yatsill, telepathically pull from Clarissa’s mind memories of industrial-age London, and recreate, with miraculous speed, a version of the city, including its architecture, language, and class positions. When Aiden first notes with astonishment that one of the Yatsill speaking English (whose name previously had been Yazziz Yozkulu, and now wants to be called by the delightful moniker “Colonel Momentous Spearjab”), the alien responds “’Quite so! Quite so! And what a versatile lingo it is, too! Bally marvellous! Harrumph!’” (71). The humor lines up a little too easily with the mean-spirited sneering of the powerful at those on the periphery who attempt, unsuccessfully, to mimic their “betters.”
The back of the book includes an interview with Hoder, and when he is asked about the reasons behind a resurgence in the popularity of steam-punk settings, he responds that “steampunk references a time when the British Empire was at its most powerful. We currently live among its ruins—along with those of other empires—and are laying the imperialistic impulse to rest, which is an agonising process that requires much self-reflection and reassessment” (278).
John Passmore, on the other hand, gives a different reason for why steam-level technology might maintain a grip on our imagination: “We can learn,” he writes, “or envision ourselves learning, how to repair such inventions. We admire the manual dexterity of the watch repairman or a plumber but have no disposition to feel that he posses (sic) magical powers” (Science and it’s Critics, 36). I actually found the above Passmore quote in a book on SF writer Greg Egan, written by Karen Burnham, which I am hoping to publish a review of in the near future for the Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts (JFA). Passmore, as quoted by Burnham, goes on to observe that “nowadays it is precisely as magic that science appears to a great many citizens…as occult, taught through mysterious initiations, handed on in a very exclusive filiation. Its generation of an elite is one reason why we so often find it alleged against science that although it purports to give human beings power over nature what it really does is to give certain human beings power over others” (Passmore, 37, Burnham, 149).
The Open Source/Freeware movement, in a way, is seeking to restore the steam punk aesthetic to information technology, making our programs and devices less like black boxes with opaque, fire-wall protected surfaces, and more like a victorian-age machine that we can disassemble, laying open the gears and steam-valves of its code and components, tinkering with them as we like. The Open Source movement is also, incidentally, why I had to type the above paragraph twice, because my freeware word processor, running on a linux-booted chrome-book, is prone to frequent crashes and quirks of conflicting software. The ideological satisfaction of working with a hackable system, however, is totally worth it.
Notice that Hoder’s and Passmore’s explanations for steampunk’s appeal are inverse images of one another, Hoder emphasizing the nostalgia for a centralized, imperial technocracy, and Passmore instead identifying older technology with a decentralized, democratized aesthetic—we can imagine taking apart and learning the inner workings of a steam engine, in the same way we can imagine examining the source code of a Linux distribution (the practicality or likelihood of actually doing so aside).
Regular readers will know where I stand on the ideal configuration of power, both literal (electricity) and political. Distributed, modular, and adaptable systems are key, if we are to survive the global crisis of ecology and government. Up with the periphery, down with the center.
I actually saw Pascal Boyer, the author of Religion Explained, at a dinner party a few weeks ago. I didn’t mention that I wrote about his book on my blog, but I did tell him that I was moving to Peru. He was surprised, like most people I’ve told, and when he asked why I tried to laugh it off, saying that it was like how some people were impulse shoppers. I was impulsive job-seeker, accepting on a whim teaching posts on other continents.
Of course, it wasn’t an impulsive decision at all. I spent several sleepless nights trying to figure out if it was the right thing to do, imagining alternate dimensional branches in my mind. Once it was clear that staying in Lyon without a more substantive source of income than my occasional editing jobs (and the long-shot pipe-dream of publishing a novel) the choice was more or less between two teaching gigs: one at St. Edward’s University in Angers, a city in Western France, and another at an experimental school in Peru.
The job in France would have been teaching a class on Medieval architecture and its influence on American Culture, which sounded fascinating, but it would only have been part time, and I would have been in the same situation as I have been in for the past year here in Lyon, looking for extra work as an English tutor. The french visa that I have, the calculating, mercurial voice in my head told me, is a tremendous resource, and if I really wanted a career in academia, working in a University department, no matter how peripheral, would have been the smart decision. Why would one move from the center of Europe to the edge of South America?
In Peru, though, I would have a full time job, and one that resonates with more of my actual self, rather than just my professional aspirations. Some lessons take place on an organic farm, and I will be one of a handful of teachers, actually involved in planning lessons and developing the curriculum. The classes are project based, with workshops in art and music. Academia, like economies, tends to isolate people, atomizing them into self-sufficient wage earners who must be ready to uproot themselves from all but the most nuclear connections based on financial or bureaucratic dictates. For a long time now, I have wanted to be a part of a community, rather than just an institution.
According to the “multiple worlds hypothesis” featured in so many Science Fiction narratives, whenever a decision is made, different continua of the universe are created, reality branching into alternate versions in which all possible choices are made. At various points in my life I’ve thought about this theory, comforting myself when it feels like I may have seriously fucked up some important life decision. Some version of me, I figure, in one of the divergent dimensions, must have chosen more wisely.
I can’t really fall back on that anymore. This dimension is not peripheral. It’s the only one I will ever know, the center of my life. Whatever happens will have to happen here. While in Peru, I’m going to keep trying to find online clients for the New Language Studio, as well as sending out short stories and agent queries, trying to pry open a published future. Maybe my entreprenurial/authorial endeavors will eventually earn enough that I will be able to afford to live on the same continent as my wife.
I’m not moving to Peru to “volunteer.” My motives are not altruistic. There is a book by Arundati Roy called Capitalism: a Ghost Story (2014), in which she talks about NGOs and philanthropic organizations being a kind of neo-liberal version of missionary work. Just because I won’t be earning very much doesn’t mean my job in Peru is “non-profit.”
Between 2000 and 2002 I was in the Peace Corps, as an English teacher in Romania. Despite being a “volunteer,” this was the highest income I have ever earned. It was also my first real exposure to the periphery: of American empire, of centralized economic and political systems, and to my own culture and previous life.
At the dinner party, I told P. Boyer about the last time I had been to Peru, on a vacation my parents paid for, when my brother and I had hiked the Inca trail. A group generally hires a guide and porters to carry all of the food and equipment, running ahead of you with amazingly heavy packs (they let me try to lift one) to set up camp for each of the four nights. My brother was tying to learn Spanish, but I decided it would be more interesting (and considerate to our Andean escorts) to try and pick up a few phrases of Quechua, instead. Spanish, after all, was the language of their colonizers.
Ollantaytambo, where I will be living, is at the start of the Inca trail, and is the only still inhabited Incan village. The inhabitants speak both Spanish and Quechua, and I hope to learn a little of both. My interest in ecology will finally have practical application, and the sacred valley will be a perfect place to write. It is a great center of an ancient civilization, and of a beautiful ecology. It will be far away from some things, but at the heart of others.
Whatever happens there, I’ll let you know. I’ll find a way to send words between my dimension and yours.