Strange and Wonderful Things

“According to the anthropic principle […] we inhabit a universe full of violence and unpredictability, but one so finely-tuned that it allows us to observe and fathom it; in effect one which has been trying for twelve to fifteen billion years to produce strange and wonderful things that can think, feel and react to it. The circularity, or tautology, involved here is built into the assumptions of science (they cannot contradict the fact of their own existence). Our mere presence entails consequences among which is the idea that a host of very sensitive conditions had to be just right to produce homo sapiens. Time and size, the age, speed of expansion and mass of the universe had to be very delicately poised to get us here, and this in turn means that something very like us was predestined (if not exactly predetermined) by the universe. Nature or God had a predisposition to produce us. If the strong force of the atom were just slightly stronger there would be an explosive consumption of all protons, if the nuclear force were slightly weaker, there would be no chain reaction in the sun, and if the ratios of the four fundamental forces were slightly different, we would not be here to know anything about these extraordinary gifts, these un-asked for perfect balances. As Paul Davies and John Gribbon point out:

‘These apparent ‘coincidences’, and many more like them, have convinced some scientists that the structure of the universe we perceive is remarkably sensitive to even the most minute changes in the fundamental parameters of nature. It is as though the elaborate order of the cosmos were a result of highly delicate fine-tuning. In particular, the existence of life, and hence intelligent observers, is especially sensitive to the high-precision ‘adjustment’ of our physical circumstances.’

“The fact that the universe shows this kind of non-teleological teleology (a predisposition to produce something like us, if not exactly us) and the fact that it exhibits extraordinary creativity and real novelty, is unbelievable – most of all to a modernist brought up on a steady diet of mechanism, determinism, and materialism. The fact that the universe is fundamentally alive, spontaneously self-ordering at all levels – from the very small to the very big – is a shock to those who thought it was based on a matter that was boring, determined and fundamentally dead.”

Text: Charles Jenks, ‘The Post Modern Agenda’ in The Post Modern Reader. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1992. 35.

Image: Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln, Disneyland.

“Mr. Lincoln [returned] in a new attraction called The Disneyland Story presenting Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln on December 18, 2009. The previous hydraulic-based audio-animatronic figure was replaced by an electronic autonomatronic figure, which Disney Imagineers say greatly extends Lincoln’s emotive capabilities. The new show features an abridged version of his autobiography, the first two sentences from his Gettysburg Address, and the song “Two Brothers” following the news about the civil war. In the final act, the auto-animatronic Lincoln stands to perform portions of the speech from the original attraction, in which the late Royal Dano once more provides the voice of Lincoln. The script is the same that was used from 1984 to 2001. However, Dano’s voice is from a newly discovered recording that is cleaner than the original performance.” Wikipedia.

Black box recorder

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“SF names not a generic effects engine of literature and simulation arts (the usual sense of the phrase “science fiction”), so much as a mode of awareness, characterized by two linked forms of hesitation, a pair of gaps.

“One gap extends between, on the one hand, belief that certain ideas and images of scientific-technological transformations of the world can be entertained, and, on the other, the rational recognition that they may be realized (along with their ramifications for worldly life). It is a gap that lies between the conceivability of future transformations and the possibility of their actualization. In its other aspect, SF names the gap between, on the one hand, belief in the immanent possibility (and perhaps inexorable necessity) of those transformations, and, on the other, reflection about their possible ethical, social, and spiritual interpretations (i.e., about their embeddedness in a web of social-historical relations). This gap stretches between conceiving of the plausibility, i.e., the prospective factual reality, of historically unforeseeable innovations in human experience (nova) and their broader ethical and social-cultural implications and resonances. SF thus involves two forms of hesitation—a historical-logical one (how plausible is the conceivable novum?) and an ethical one (how good/bad/altogether different are the transformations that would issue from the novum?) These gaps compose the black box in which scientific-technological conceptions, ostensibly unmediated by social and ethical contingencies, are transformed into a rational, “realistic” recognition of their possible materialization and their implications.

“SF embeds scientific-technological concepts in the sphere of human interests and actions, explaining them and explicitly attributing social value to them. This may take many literary forms, from the resurrection of dead mythologies, pseudo-mimetic extrapolation, and satirical subversion, to utopian Auffiebung. It is an inherently, and radically, future-oriented process, since the exact ontological status of the fictive world is suspended. Unlike historical fiction (of which SF is a direct heir), where a less intense suspense operates because the outcome of the past is still in the process of being completed in the present’s partisan conflicts, SF is suspended because all the relevant information about the future has not been created yet, and never can be.

“Since future developments influence revisions of the past, SF’s black box also involves the past, in the hesitation that comes in anticipating the complete revision of origins. A past that is not yet known is a form of the future. So is a present unanticipated by the past. Further, since SF is concerned mainly with the role of science and technology in defining human—i.e., cultural—value, there can be as many kinds of SF as there are theories of culture. Obviously, this conception of SF concerns the range of possible science fictions, many of which have not been realized (for many and various reasons), and not just the actual historical production of the commercial genre known as Science Fiction…”

Istvan Csieser-Ronay Jr. “The SF of Theory: Baudrillard and Haraway”. Science Fiction Studies, Vol. 18., No. 3. Science Fiction and Post Modernism, pp 387-88.

The world outside fiction

Metafiction is a term given to fictional writing which self-consciously and systematically draws attention to its status as an artefact in order to pose questions about the relationship between fiction, and reality. In providing a critique of their own methods of construction, such writings not only examine the fundamental structures of narrative fiction, they also explore the possible fictionality of the world outside the literary fictional text […]. The term […] itself seems to have originated in an essay by the American critic and self-conscious novelist William H. Gass. However, terms like ‘metapolitics’, ‘metarhetoric’ and ‘metatheatre’ are a reminder of what has been, since the 1960s, a more general cultural interest in the problem of how human beings reflect, construct and mediate their experience of the world. Metafiction pursues such questions through its formal self-exploration, drawing on the traditional metaphor of the world as book, but often recasting it in the terms of contemporary philosophical, linguistic or literary theory. If, as individuals, we now occupy ‘roles’ rather than ‘selves’, then the study of characters in novels may provide a useful model for understanding the construction of subjectivity in the world outside novels. If our knowledge of this world is now seen to be mediated through language, then literary fiction (worlds constructed entirely of language) becomes a useful model for learning about the construction of ‘reality’ itself.

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“The present increased awareness of ‘meta’ levels of discourse and experience is partly a consequence of an increased social and cultural self-consciousness. Beyond this, however, it also reflects a greater awareness within contemporary culture of the function of language in constructing and maintaining our sense of everyday ‘reality’. The simple notion that language passively reflects a coherent, meaningful and ‘objective’ world is no longer tenable. Language is an independent, self-contained system which generates its own ‘meanings’. Its relationship to the phenomenal world is highly complex, problematic and regulated by convention. ‘Meta’ terms, therefore, are required in order to explore the relationship between this arbitrary linguistic system and the world to which it apparently refers. In fiction they are required in order to explore the relationship between the world of the fiction and the world outside the fiction.

“In a sense, metafiction rests on a version of the Heisenbergian uncertainty principle: an awareness that ‘for the smallest building blocks of matter, every process of observation causes a major disturbance’, and that it is impossible to describe an “objective” world because the observer always changes the observed. However, the concerns of metafiction are even more complex than this. For while Heisenberg believed one could at least describe, if not a picture of nature, then a picture of one’s relation to nature, metafiction shows the uncertainty even of this process. How is it possible to ‘describe’ anything? The metafictionist is highly conscious of a basic dilemma: if he or she sets out to ‘represent’ the world, he or she realizes fairly soon that the world, as such, cannot be ‘represented’. In literary fiction it is, in fact, possible only to ‘represent’ the discourses of that world. Yet, if one attempts to analyse a set of linguistic relationships using those same relationships as the instruments of analysis, language soon becomes a `prisonhouse’ from which the possibility of escape is remote. Metafication sets out to explore this dilemma.

“The linguist L. Hjelmslev developed the term ‘metalanguage’. He defined it as a language which, instead of referring to non-linguistic events, situations or objects in the world, refers to another language: it is a language which takes another language as its object. Saussure’s distinction between the signifier and the signified is relevant here. The signifier is the sound-image of the word or its shape on the page; the signified is the concept evoked by the word. A metalanguage is a language that functions as a signifier to another language, and this other language thus becomes its signified.’

“In novelistic practice, this results in writing which consistently displays its conventionality, which explicity and overtly lays bare its condition of artifice, and which thereby explores the problematic relationship between life and fiction – both the fact that ‘all the world is not of course a stage’ and `the crucial ways in which it isn’t’. The ‘other’ language may be either the registers of everyday discourse or, more usually, the ‘language’ of the literary system itself, including the conventions of the novel as a whole or particular forms of that genre.”

Patricia Waugh, Metafiction: The Theory and Practice of Self-Concious Fiction. London/New York: Methuen. 1984. pp 2-4.

Image: RIBA Robot Nurse Bear

The world around them

“…The challenge of finding a suitable means to examine the “postmodern condition” has produced a vigorous and highly energized response from a new breed of SF authors who combine scientific know-how with aesthetic innovation. But because much of this writing is so radical and formally experimental, and because writing which bears the imprint of “SF” has been so commonly relegated to pop-culture ghettos, it has remained until recently largely ignored, except within its own self-contained world. Examples of important, aesthetically radical SF exhibiting many of the features associated with postmodernism are evident as early as the mid-1950s and early 1960s, when literary mavericks like Alfred Bester, William S. Burroughs, J. G. Ballard, Philip K. Dick, and Thomas Pynchon began publishing books that self-consciously operated on the fringes of SF and the literary avant-garde.

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“During the 1970s and 1980s, a few other authors working at the boundaries of SF and postmodern experimentalism continued to borrow the use of motifs, language, images—as well as the “subject matter”—of SF. Important examples would include Don DeLillo’s Ratner’s Star (1976) and White Noise, Ted Mooney’s Easy Travel to Other Planets (1981), Joseph McElroy’s Plus (1976) and Women and Men (1986), Denis Johnson’s Fiskadoro (1985), Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale (1985), William T. Vollmann’s You Bright and Risen Angels (1987), Kathy Acker’s Empire of the Senseless (1988), and Mark Leyner’s My Cousin, My Gastroenterologist (1990). While writing outside the commercial SF publishing scene, these writers produced works that perfectly fulfill the generic task of SF, described by Vivian Sobchack as “the cognitive mapping and poetic figuration of social relations as these are constituted by new technological modes of ‘being-in-the-world”‘. As is true of the cyberpunk novels that began appearing in the early 1980s, these mainstream works (recently dubbed “slipstream” novels by cyberpunk theoretician Bruce Sterling) typically portrayed individuals awash in a sea of technological change, information overload, and random—but extraordinarily vivid—sensory stimulation. Personal confusion, sadness, dread, and philosophical skepticism often appeared mixed with equal measures of euphoria and nostalgia for a past when centers could still hold. The characters and events in these works typically exist within narrative frameworks that unfold as a barrage of words, data, and visual images drawn from a dissolving welter of reference to science and pop culture, the fabulous and the mundane, a tendency that reaches its most extreme expression in William Burroughs’s hallucinatory mid-1960s novels.

“A few of these “mainstream” postmodern writers have drawn very self-consciously from genre SF for specific tropes and narrative devices. This is very obvious in, for example, Burroughs’s use of the motifs of the 1930s space opera works he read as a youth, in DeLillo’s borrowing of dystopian elements in White Noise, in Vollman’s improvisational treatment of a much wider range of SF modes in You Bright and Risen Angels, or Kathy Acker’s borrowing of specific passages from Neuromancer in Empire of the Senseless. But typically one gets less a sense of these authors consciously borrowing from genre SF norms than of thier introducing elements simply because the world around them demands that they be present.”

Larry McCaffrey, ed. Storming The Reality Studio: A Casebook of Cyberpunk and Post Modern Science Fiction. Durham & London: Duke University Press. 1991. pp9-11

Image: Andrew Hurle, Model, 2001.Darren Knight Gallery

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…”

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“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.