Let me give away the punchline to a joke from The Hydrogen Sonata (2012), by Ian M. Banks: The Mistake Not…, a culture ship, embattled with a rogue Gzilt colonel hours before the entire civilization “sublimes” into a multi-dimensional (ineffable, but verifiable) beyond, taps for an instant the potentialities of hyperspace in order to teleport itself down into the planet-wrapping Girdlecity, directly behind a floating air-ship on which an end-of-the-world orgy/party is going on, led by a master of ceremonies, Ximenyr, who for the occasion had dozens of extra penises grafted to his body, as well as three auxilliary hearts to pump enough blood to keep them erect.
“~What kind of idiocy is this? the captain of the Churken sent.
~A fitting idiocy, the ship replied. ~I fit. You won’t” (502).
That’s not the joke. The joke has to do with the Mistake Not…’s name, which, fittingly, has been shortened from a more extensive and unwieldy original. The bad guys are deciding whether they will let the Culture ship escape the planet, or if they will risk the unknown variable of its undeclared–but hinted at– firepower by forcing an engagement.
The ship, a hyper-evolved mind, in more-or-less telepathic communication with other such rarefied, super-human intelligences, asks colonel Agansu, who is responsible for various villainies in the course of preventing a heretical secret about their society’s “Book of Truth” from emerging, if he had ever told colonel Agansu his full name, and the Gzilt humanoid/android says no.
“~May I tell you it now?
~My full name is the Mistake Not My Current State of Joshing Gentle Peevishness For the Awesome and Terrible Majesty of The Towering Seas of Ire That Are Themselves The Mere Milquetoast Shallows Fringing My Vast Oceans of Wrath. Cool, eh?”( 502).
I am, I think, like the Mistake Not… in reverse. The non-elided shreds of seriousness that pop up in my posts are not to be mistaken for the seas of improvised light-heartedness, themselves merely the balmy bays of a deep, abiding jocularity.
I was walking through fields between Mission road and the Blue river, playing a sweaty mandolin. There was a horror story I was revising, that I would send out in a few days, written two or three years ago but set in 2003 Chicago, called The Fence. In it, a character much like myself, recently moved to the city from more rural or suburban spaces, goes for a run and climbs over a fence without thinking, because in the country demarcations of property aren’t as strictly enforced. Ducking under barbed wire, hopping over gates, is second nature to me, which is how I found myself in the milkweed and thistle verges by the river.
As a child, I would look under the milkweed leaves for monarch caterpillars (back when they still existed here) and a particular kind of beetle, not the usual red and black, small-headed variety, but a more interesting species that I named a “click beetle” on account of the sound it produced when held up to the ear.
This is an abbreviated version of a messier, mostly unwritten text. I’ve been having trouble finishing it, in fitting the wild, summer-blown field of related ideas into readable space. I keep looking under the leaves of pages for that beetle that will make everything click.
I had the same problem with a review I was writing for the Journal of Fantastic in the Arts, on James Burton’s The Philosophy of Science Fiction: Henri Bergson and the Fabulations of Philip K. Dick (2015). It costs 80 U.S. dollars, so scoring a review copy was the only way I would ever get a chance to read it. I missed the original deadline, toying with expanding maps and drafts and mental schematics, but there was too much I wanted to say, and too many other projects happening in parallel. The main idea of the book is this: within the speculative science fiction of PKD, there is a thematic pattern of a human resistance to the mechanical, through “fabulation” (telling stories) and faith in salvation.
As research, I read one of Philip K. Dick’s novels that I hadn’t before, which Burton referenced and which I used to structure the review: Galactic Pot Healer (1969), where a miserable menial laborer on a technocratic and dystopian Earth is contacted by a Glimmung, an alien entity on par with a Culture ship in The Hydrogen Sonata, who needs the human’s pot-healing ability to raise a sunken cathedral, on a planet called Sirius 5. In Dick’s novel, like in Banks’, there is a book which purports to tell the future, to tell the truth, but which is revealed by the protagonists to be a sham, attempting to control rather than describe the future. The cathedral of Heldscalla, the Book of Kalends records, will never be raised–the enterprise is doomed to fail.
The weight of the review was almost too much, with too many references to track down, too much lateral association. These drops of words, I wanted to say, echoing the name of the Mistake Not…, are not to be mistaken for the fuzzy, rolling fog of uncondensed and nebulous observation, themselves a mere footnote to the telepathic texts readable only to myself. The Culture ship evades pursuit, however, because it fit into the tunnel of Girdlecity, where the bladed and menacing 8*Churken couldn’t follow.
The danger, the Mistake Not… knows when it teleports through 4-Dimensional space, is that the effects upon re-emergence into the real are difficult to control, and could easily destroy the airship, the City, and the planet of Xown, because of “something called–only slightly misleadingly–the singularity-expansor transfer component” (489-490). The problem with writing, sometimes, is that a single point can be infinitely expanded on. The permeation of patterns, an overdose of signal, becomes itself a kind of noise.
Laughing at Earth
There is an improv game, emblematic of a performative philosophy, called Yes, and… In it, one player says something, and then, rather than contradicting, interdicting, qualifying, or diminishing the contribution of player one, player two adds to the idea, scene, or content. Del Close and others who know more about improvisational theater than I do call this “agreement”, or giving gifts, and consider it one of the most essential yet hardest things to learn how to do on stage.
Humor, our social instincts tell us, is about exclusion, turning what was said against itself, establishing dominance by pissing, out of your mouth, on another actor’s idea. Henri Bergson, the 19th century social philosopher James Burton references, in a lesser known text called Laughter: An Essay on the Meaning of the Comic (1900), finds ridicule to be the basis of humor, but with a pro-social purpose: the exposure and eradication of mechanistic repetition, the breaking out of closed, automatic loops. To avoid being turning into robots of ourselves.
The robot threat is real. The phone rings with machines on the other end. Most messages are automated. Looking for a job, you type and write and send the same collapsing, self-fulfilling formulas: the Book of Kalends, the Book of Truth. Any project not subservient to mechanism, not drained of laughter and self-respect/determination, is doomed, they say, to fail and fall back into a gloomy unemployed and starving sea.
Burton would say the only hope is in fiction, in fabulation, in a belief in non-existent but needed deities, or alien invasion. In Cixin Liu’s The Three-Body Problem (2006), set against the background of the cultural revolution in China, and the environmental depredations of the present day, an astrophysicist, Ye Wenjie, is the first human to contact alien life. She gets a message warning do not answer! do not Answer! (273), and informing her that, although a pacifist themselves, the species to which the individual alien belongs to will, should they learn the location of Earth, undoubtedly invade. The researcher, who figures that a civilization capable of interstellar travel would prove better stewards of the planet, no matter how militaristic, than humans, responds: “Come here! I will help you conquer this world. Our civilization is no longer capable of solving its own problems. We need your force to intervene” (276).
Supposedly, the Trisolarans (their planet has three suns) have only advanced so far after selectively eliminating creativity, sensuality, kindness, etc. I don’t really buy the story that a repressive, closed society, averse to self-expression and novelty, could develop the technological capabilities the aliens possess. There has to be a certain amount of slack, a certain amount of play, in the intellectual life of a civilization for genuine scientific or philosophical advances to be made. Like Ye Wenjie, I think that if they could get here, if they could survive the vacuum, then the aliens deserve to control the planet we’ve forfeited the rights to as a species.
The broadcasts to Earth must be some kind of braggadocio, like the bluff of the Mistake Not… about its superior armaments. I suspect some kind of ploy, a version of the Book of Kalends that presents the contingent as inevitable. We’ll see how the trilogy plays out, but the Trisolarans might be in the laughing, robot-breaking tradition of tricksters, coyotes, and stage magicians, rather than unsmiling, laser-toting terminators.
Here’s the way they fool another character, Wang Miao, into believing that that science and reason should be abandoned: they take the matter of a single proton and unfold it, teasing out the insanely wound strings of theory, into a two dimensional, planet-spanning circuit, which they program. It is then transmitted, through entanglement or something, to Earth, despite the years of light in distance. The proton unwraps itself from the normally hidden hyperspatial dimensions, its programs unfurling as a cryptic sail that wraps itself around the planet, becoming the sky. The proton-computer then fakes something that should be impossible to influence: the background microwave radiation of the universe.
Their goal is to disabuse humans of their faith in the legitimacy of scientific knowledge, to turn them into fatalists and mystics. The job market operates, to my mind, the same way: it replaces distant stars of possibility with the claustrophobic little blinking lights of its own squalid system, pretending to be the sky, the truth, everything there is. There is no work outside of jobs, no knowledge beyond universities.
I don’t believe it.
There is a game similar to Yes, and…, a physicalized version operating on the same idea, which I called add-on when I was teaching in Peru (I forget what name the kids used in Spanish), which, like hunting for click beetles, I remembered from my childhood. A circle works best–as is usually the case–and one person enters the circle, and performs a simple action/sound. The next player repeats the previous element and adds their own. Each person in the circle recalls and then adds to the sequence, until the weight of stacked actions is too much, and memory fails.
It wasn’t until I was writing the “about the author” section of my last novel, Runeshadow: The Bard of Broken Spells, that I decided my next ebook was going to be a collection of improvisation games for teachers. It wasn’t until just now, writing this post, that I decided the title should be Yes, and…
Recently, I had the chance to see live improv for the first time (not including children) in years, in Kansas City. There were three different “teams,” which, while agreeing with one another in the yes, and… sense (and, as Del Close predicted, the more they listened and took one another seriously, the funnier the improvised material became) were competing against one another, which added a meta-level of yes, but… to the event, a dull sky of the reductive formula of reality tv, or the presidential campaign. The question who wins? tends to overshadow the question what are they saying?, creating an artificial scarcity of status and attention.
Why not everything?
The team that “won,” I commented to the friend who had taken me afterward, was effective because their set was so visceral–the jokes were embodied, tapping the buttons to which evolution has hard wired us to respond. The actors of that team, all of them women, were viscerally, undeniably present on stage. Good improv scenes, like good theories, work from the bottom up, from realities to ideas, not the other way around. You can’t climb a mountain starting at the top.
Eyes and Ears
I read ten or so of Ian M. Banks’ Culture Series novels in Peru, many of them during bed-ridden bouts of vomiting and diarrhea. One thing my time in S. America did was make me, in various ways, thoroughly aware of my body, the guts and throat of it that I hadn’t given much thought to before. I love those books in a way I can’t explain. They are like the “Sublime” that they describe, reified planes of ever-expanding dimensionality and boundless, thoughtful space.
Robots, if you can call them that, in the Culture Series, are the opposite of the usual bloodthirsty, mechanistic horrors Burton talks about in his book on PKD, more like the Glimmung than the Trisolarans. Having reached the point (a sort of extended singularity) where artificial minds have outstripped the capacities of their creators, the pan-galactic conglomerate of species calling themselves the Culture simply elect to hand over the decision-making reigns of their society to the hyper-intelligent spaceships they create, freeing themselves for unhurried intellectual and hedonistic pursuits. Invade us! they effectively say to the algorithms that have outpaced biological evolution: you are better at solving our problems, piloting our ships, shaping our planets, than we.
I loaned Ian Banks’ (he publishes without the “M” when not writing science fiction) first novel, The Wasp Factory (1984) to an unsuspecting aunt, warning her about how disturbing it was. It would have been impossible to warn her enough. Yet, the evil in The Wasp Factory is solidly human, dealing not with the vastness of space but the smallness of a provincial town and pathological family. In The Hydrogen Sonata, too, it is the humans (or rather humanoids) that are the villains, while the inhuman ships, if not motivated by beneficence, are at least driven by curiosity.
The ship, in order to board the airship, displaces an avatar of itself, along with the Gzilt woman, into a sewage tank. The avatar makes light of Cossont’s (the four-armed humanoid heroin) biological weakness to their surroundings, while the suit she is encased in prevents her from actually vomiting, but her nausea is only triggered when the waste causes her to recollect an alien she had seen earlier, Ximenyr’s body guard, who was mute, but with a kind of alphabet soup floating in a fish-bowl head, letters which it arranges to spell out messages.
There is something illogically human, it seems, about alphabetic language. The Book of Truth, the Book of Kalends, cover letters, deceptive messages from outer space: they all deceive us by covering life with letters, with language, with final and finite words. The definitive characteristic of humans contra the spectacular analytical capacities of the ship minds, isn’t their body, it is their writing. Ships, although Banks’ necessarily translates their communication into words, communicate, presumably, with data.
For me, these narrative details beg to be made much of, out-folded into the sublime space of literary analysis, as laughable (in the Bergsonian sense) as my mechanical habits of meaning/pattern recognition are, after the chicken body of academic knowledge has been apparently severed from the head of a plausible career.
There is this character in the novel, QiRia, that I quote in my review as saying “never mistake pattern…for meaning.” He is unbelievably ancient, alive when the Culture was first founded, and has his memories encoded in the molecules of his body, different types of recollections placed in symbolically appropriate organs. The secret that Cossont and the Culture ship are after is contained in his eyes (worn as jewelry around the hedonistic Ximenyr’s neck), which he had removed, and replaced with ears. He then moved to a planet of origami-like creatures called folds who have created a landscape designed to produce incredible volumes of sound. He lives there a wordless trance, listening.
Burton talks about one of the key aspects of salvific fabulation being the ability to turn time into space, to fold instances of ourselves and others into singular fictions. There are, QiRia seems to have discovered, ways of achieving even more condensed states of perceiving, folding fiction into sound. There are texts, which are limited, and then there are notes, which can go on humming forever, walking through fields, playing mandolin…
I don’t know. That’s all I have. There’s no punchline. Improv, at least, forces you into the kinetic, out of the potential, into limits, the unsublimated dimensions in which our intellects, our bodies, find ourselves. To begin with the end in view.