The immense void of space

“Galactic-empire fiction has always been an important branch of space opera: action-packed, adolescent, cheerfully anachronistic, deriving its world structure very loosely from information and myth about caste-ridden, sensual, and violent empires in their decadent phases. Yet it offers rich possibilities for expression of the vast, the sublime, and the exotically multicultural or multi- specific. The purpose of this essay is to examine how two expert and inventive contemporary writers of galactic-empire sf have taken up these opportunities and produced fiction that reflects, and reflects on, our contemporary situation-what is now conventionally labeled the postmodern condition…”

flosstyle

 

“To elaborate the characteristics of Iain M. Banks’s and Dan Simmons’s galactic-empire fiction […] we have inclusiveness, which launches these novels in a procedure of critique by overload rather than by irony. We have hedonism, virtually unaccompanied by the utopian impulse, riven and twisted with sado-masochism. We have complicated relations with textuality and intertextuality-a topic which may be opened in a preliminary way by positing a space in which the textualist and the cornucopian happily coexist (this is the space in which Gravity’s Rainbow and Foucault’s Pendulum-not to mention Ulysses-already confabulate, like some exotic, overcrowded intergalactic barroom). We have decentered subjects, self- unknowing, overlapping, pastiched, or simply crowded in multitudes, but, on the other hand, a violent sense of the dark reaches of the personality.

“It seems plausible that this fiction is the result of the operations of a postmodern imaginary on the materials of traditional galactic-empire sf; this imaginary operates mainly by excess, overload, and exacerbation. If the sketch offered in the rest of this essay is valid, then it is by pushing the earlier, adventurous, and exuberant fiction to the limits, piling invention on invention, juxtaposing spaces that are hard to relate, that this more recent galactic-empire fiction expresses the postmodern condition. What is the significance of the version of the post- modern that results? It can be suggested that there is an anxiety, an intense unease, in this excess, overload, and exacerbation. For all its richness, this fiction seems a long way from any sense of the postmodern as liberatory.”

Inclusiveness and the Extravagant Multiverse.

“The immense void of space is a temptation to the Western imagination: it seems to ask to be traversed, filed, settled, populated, ordered-and not only spatially but also temporally. Hence, perhaps, the popularity of sf about galactic empires, their gargantuan conflicts, heroes backlit to colossal dimensions by the stars or by starships exploding, in the casual disasters of those gargantuan conflicts, intrigues, and cruelties which are given grandeur by their scale, if nothing else. And if these empires are set in a future that is far from now, the consequence is that, being much older than us, they can be seen as archaic, based on exotic fantasies of hierarchy and power dimly related to Rome or Byzantium. In this way time as well as space is fantastically filled. Recent renditions of the galactic-empire novel have included Dan Simmons’s HYPERION novels and Iain M. Banks’s sf. These novels do exhibit the horror vacui to which I alluded above: space is full of planets, worlds, spaceships on the scale of worlds, empires. And all these are filled with societies and secret societies or sects, customs or perversions, classes or species, histories or games or histories as games, and conspiracies and apo-calypses (revelations and total disasters).

“The dynamic is proliferation and inclusion, though-as will be seen when the complications of spatiality in these novels are more closely examined-there is also an undertow of fragmentation and confusion. Previous sf is shamelessly pillaged and knowingly outdone, even if it might seem antagonistic (for instance, Simmons includes, outdoes, and affects contempt for Gibson’s cyberspace). Humanity is imagined to be able to do anything, though humans have no agency, and when individual characters are set before us, it is their lack of agency that is most poignant. Humans have the option of pleasure and exertion-self-expression, a range of activities, adventures, and excite- ments-but not of political choice. They are vessels of experience, like travelers with no home to return to. They exist to have their experiences so that we can read about them: this is the inescapable fate of characters in fiction, it might be pointed out, but this fate is given a particular edge in this context, where the characters are so often adventurous, enviably adept, and powerful in various clear-cut ways. Another way of framing this comment is to say that the characters live in the aesthetic rather than the political or the technological. They don’t choose or work; they experience, enjoy, suffer. These novels may reflect the late twentieth-century relations of politics and culture to the degree that, for instance, politics in the late twentieth century is presented as an entertainment and thereby aestheticized. Characters may lack agency, events may not be assimilable to that meaningful social movement through time that used to be called History, but both characters and events certainly have style.”

Christopher Palmer, “Galactic Empires and the Contemporary Extravaganza: Dan Simmons and Iain M. Banks”,Science Fiction Studies, Vol. 26, No. 1 (Mar., 1999), pp. 73-90.

Image: Retro Spacecraft: How to use Maxon’s Cinema 4D to create a science-fiction spacecraft in the style of Chris Foss. By Adam Benton.

Coz We Like It Like That

4d
4d

Hans Ulrich Obrist: In 1971 you also said, “Violence is probably going to play the same role in the ’70s and ’80s that sex played in the ’50s and ’60s. There’s what I call in my book The Atrocity Exhibition the ‘death of feeling,’ that one is more and more alienated from any kind of direct response to experience. And the car crash is probably the only act of violence most of us in Western Europe are ever going to be involved with, is probably the most dramatic event in our lives apart from our own deaths, and in many cases the two are going to coincide. What do you think of that statement retrospectively? What about now?

JG Ballard: Violence does seem to play a dominant role in our imaginations, perhaps for good reasons: a symptom of our need to break down the suffocating conventions that rule our lives. Human beings today display a deep and restless violence, which no longer channels itself into wars but has to emerge in road rage, Internet porn, contact sports like hyper-violent professional rugby and U.S. football, reality TV, and so on.

HUO: In this same interview of 1971, there is an almost unbelievable statement that you make. You said, “I think that the biggest need of the painter or writer today is information. I’d love to have a tickertape machine in my study constantly churning out material: abstracts from scientific journals, the latest Hollywood gossip, the passenger list of a 707 that crashed in the Andes, the color mixes of a new automobile varnish. In fact, Eduardo [Paolozzi] and I in our different ways are already gathering this kind of information but we are using the clumsiest possible tool to do it: our own hands and eyes. The technology of the information-retrieval system that we enjoy is incredibly primitive. ” It’s really a premonition of the Internet! So now, do you think it changed the way artists and writers look at and interact with the world?

JGB: Yes, it was a premonition of the Internet, which I relish for the unlimited information it provides, and the unlimited possibilities. Large sections of it strike me as remarkably poetic. It may turn out to be more important and more innovative than television. It’s a kind of collective lucid dreaming.

HUO: What do you find of specific interest in works made by young visual artists today? And what is your opinion on contemporary literature?

JGB: I take a keen interest in what today’s painters and sculptors are doing. On the whole, my views coincide with those of the great Brian Sewell, but I see the young British artists of the past ten years or so from a different perspective. They find themselves in a world totally dominated by advertising, by a corrupt politics carried out as a branch of advertising, and by a reality that is a total fiction controlled by manufacturers, PR firms, and vast entertainment and media corporations. Nothing is real, everything is fake. Bizarrely, most people like it that way. So in their installations and conceptual works, the young artists are rebelling against this all-dominant adman’s media-landscape. They are trying to establish a new truth about what an unmade bed is, what a dead animal is, and so on. Our mistake is to judge them by aesthetic criteria. By contrast, the novel resists innovation, and is much closer to the TV domestic serial.

Boutoux, Thomas, ed. Hans Ulrich Obrist Interviews Volume 1. Milan: Edizioni Charta. 2003. pp 62-63.

Image: David Pelham’s classic 1977 cover for Ballard short story collection, via The Art of Penguin Science Fiction

Off screen

Bottles

“Toward the end of the film, the hero (Robert Duvall) attempts to escape from his underworld city (called, in the title of the student version of the film done by Lucas at the University of Southern California, an “Electronic Labyrinth”). It is an escape which will bring him finally to a huge ventilation shaft and from there into real daylight for the first time. On the way he breaks into a video monitor room, annex of the central computer bank, and in an act of ultimate counter-acculturation takes the controls himself. He punches out the necessary code and then focuses in on a full-screen shot of the bottled fetus to which his just-dead mate’s ID number has been reassigned. Too long trapped in this encaved prison house of images himself, he cannot help but read this last image—the only one he has chosen for himself to call up, the one that makes visible to him the end of what human place he could claim in this subterranean world—cannot help but read this fetal image, or at least we can’t help but read it for him, as a symbol. The hero will become now in his own shaved person just such a newborn identity, out the long tunnel into the light. In escaping from the actual detention center a few scenes before, the prison within the prison—an overexposed sterile space bled of color and without discernible walls or angles, as if it were the two-dimensional space of his own video-monitored entrapment on an engulfing white screen—he is led out by a fugitive hologram, no less. This video refugee, one of the figures nightly used to pacify the masses, is a mirage tired of being ensnared in his monotonous digital circuit and aching to break free into bodied reality. When asked by the hero for the direction out, he points straight off the screen into the camera and so at us, at a palpable world elsewhere, the world itself…”

Garrett Stewart, “Videology.” Shadows of the Magic Lamp: Fantasy and Science Fiction Film. George Slusser & Eric S. Rabin eds. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press. 1985. p 176.

No such thing

“When I went to do Star Wars, the real challenge was that I wanted to make a much more active film [than 2001] – which meant more shots, more cutting, more movement, more work. It had never been done before. I looked at this story I wanted to do, and said to myself: ‘Well, can I make this movie? How am I going to do this?’ And being young I responded: ‘Well, sure. I’ll figure out how to do it.’ At school I had a lot of experience in animation and that sort of thing, so I had a vague idea of how to approach some of this stuff from my animation background. Also, I had worked as a camerman and as an editor. I thought: ‘I think I know how to put this together.”

Lizard

“It was a bit like my first film, THX 1138. Walter Murch and I had to present it to the studio, and we put together this presentation showing that it was going to be a futuristic and outlining how we were going to be shooting it on location and such. And we put in there that we were going to develop this very unusual reality using ‘rotary-cam’ photography. We said: ‘That sounds good. Let’s put that in there.’ Fortunately, nobody at the studio asked what it was – because it was nothing. There was no such thing as rotary-cam photography. We thought it would make them believe that we could create this whole world with some wonderful new technique, when all we were going to do was shoot on locations and overexpose a lot.”

Don Shay, “30 Minutes with the Godfather of Digital Cinema”, Cinefex #65. March 1996. p. 58.