Collapsing Time & Space

“One thing that struck me about the 9/11 footage shown during last year’s anniversary was that in 2001, the people on New York City’s sidewalks had no smartphones with which to record the events of the day. History may well look back on 9/11 as the world’s last underdocumented mega-event. But aside from the absence of phone cameras, the people and streets of September 2001 looked pretty much identical to those of September 2011: the clothes, the hair, the cars. I mention this because it has been only in the past decade that we appear to have entered an aura-free universe in which all eras coexist at once — a state of possibly permanent atemporality given to us courtesy of the Internet. No particular era now dominates. We live in a post-era era without forms of its own powerful enough to brand the times. The zeitgeist of 2012 is that we have a lot of zeit but not much geist. I can’t believe I just wrote that last sentence, but it’s true; there is something psychically sparse about the present era, and artists of all stripes are responding with fresh strategies.

“This new reality seems to have manifested in the literary world in what must undeniably be called a new literary genre. For lack of a better word, let’s call it Translit. Translit novels cross history without being historical; they span geography without changing psychic place. Translit collapses time and space as it seeks to generate narrative traction in the reader’s mind. It inserts the contemporary reader into other locations and times, while leaving no doubt that its viewpoint is relentlessly modern and speaks entirely of our extreme present. Imagine traveling back to Victorian England — only with vaccinations, a wad of cash and a clean set of ruling-class garb. With Translit we get our very delicious cake, and we get to eat it, too, as we visit multiple pasts safe in the knowledge we’ll get off the ride intact, in our bold new perpetual every-era/no-era. Translit’s precursors are, say, “Winesburg, Ohio” and “Orlando,” and the genre’s 21st-­century tent poles are Michael Cunningham’s novel “The Hours” and David Mitchell’s “Cloud Atlas.” To these books we can add Hari Kunzru’s gorgeous and wise “Gods Without Men.”

“This is Kunzru’s fourth novel. It is many things, and it is certainly a reflection and an embodiment of our new world of flattened time and space. Its multiple substories span the years 1775 to 2009, and geographically cut between Manhattan, Southern California and Iraq — or rather, a simulation of Iraq. Reading this book is not unlike watching a TV show that’s simultaneously happening on multiple channels, a story filmed in different eras using differing technologies, but which taken together tell the same single story, echoing and reinfecting itself.

“The core of the book concerns a prosperous young Brooklyn couple, Jaz Matharu, a second-generation Punjabi-American mathematician, and Lisa, a nonobservant Jewish American who works in publishing. Jaz writes algorithms for a Wall Street firm in pre-crash 2008. He is estranged from his family in Baltimore, having broken with the Sikh way. The couple have an autistic son who turns their life upside down as they try to cope with his un­expected condition. It is not giving away too much to say that the 4-year-old child, Raj, is lost during a day trip to a rock formation in the Mojave Desert near the military area of Twentynine Palms. Raj is later found, but something is different with him. He is healed, and yet. . . . Best to stop here. The book all too convincingly explores the horror of Raj’s wrenching disappearance, and the catharses of his strange return…”

Text: Convergences: ‘Gods Without Men,’ by Hari Kunzru, reviewed by Douglas Coupland, The New York Times, March 8, 2012.

Image: Gerhard Richter, September, 2005. Oil on canvas, 52cmx72cm.

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Total inversion

“Talk of the changing relationship between the speculative genres and the mainstream surely predated Bruce Sterling’s now-canonical 1989 essay on slipstream, but the past several years have seen an enormous proliferation of collections based on Sterling’s concept or a related one. What now seems most significant is that, two decades later, slipstream is finally selling. Of course, not everyone is sold on it, so to speak, and slipstream is surely selling rather modestly in comparison with “mainstream” SF and fantasy. Even so, the anthologies are steadily accumulating, and “slipstream” is beginning to lose its scare quotes, at least in some circles. Fans, editors, and even writers seem less afraid to apply the label or have the label applied to them. For instance, James Patrick Kelly and John Kessel’s 2006 collection Feeling Very Strange soon lost its self-proclaimed title as “The Slipstream Anthology,” when not two years later Allen Ashley released Subtle Edens: An Anthology of Slipstream Fiction. (Martin H. Greenberg and John Helfers’ Slipstreams, also 2006, seems to have kept a lower profile.) Many other anthologies and periodicals have tended to ignore the word “slipstream” even when voicing what are arguably similar ideas—and even when including many of the very same writers: a follow-up to Interfictions was released last fall, and ParaSpheres 2 is scheduled for release early this year.. They just keep coming!”

“Chabon’s earlier editorial work deserves our serious consideration now, not because it predated what may come to be known as “the slipstream boom” (or possibly “the slipstream bubble”), but because Chabon comes at the ongoing “slipstream” debates from a very different place and at a very different angle. If you’re at all interested or invested in these debates, his introduction to MECOAS may prove the most interesting part of the book. On the other hand, if you’re tired of the debates, skip Chabon’s intro and admire the selling point of another (possibly) slipstream anthology, Small Beer Press’s 2003 collection Trampoline: “does not contain a manifesto.”

“For those interested in the Great Debate, it’s worth looking at the concept behind MECOAS. Chabon makes the familiar gesture of locating the best contemporary fiction in a mutually fruitful synthesis of genre and mainstream: “it might be possible to argue… that our finest and most consistently interesting contemporary writers are those whose works seem to originate from both traditions”. Almost immediately, however, he shifts focus from a discussion of genre conventions and distinctions to the sheer pleasure of genre. One of the definitions usually proposed—and then dismissed—for slipstream is something like “science fiction with literary sensibilities,” but what Chabon seems to advocate here is the reestablishment of pulp sensibilities in any kind of fiction, whether genre or mainstream: suspense, heavy plotting, entertainment, and downright fun. Chabon’s introduction represents a total inversion of the way some science fiction writers and fans turn to concepts like “slipstream” out of some half-admitted desire to legitimize their endeavor. Chabon, without a doubt a mainstream figure, seems comfortable “legitimizing” the genres without appealing to any kind of literary sensibilities at all. In fact, he’s tired of literary sensibilities, because by now they’re just plain boring.”

A Look Back at a Tributary of the Slipstream Review of McSweeney’s Enchanted Chamber of Astonishing Stories, edited by Michael Chabon, by T. S. Miller – Internet Review of Science Fiction, January 2010.

Image: Ed Valigursky, Amazing Stories May 1958, Brother Robot.

The Rapture of Science

Sydney-based artist Sam Leach has curated Extropians, a new show at Sullivan & Strumpf Fine Art. The exhibitions brings together a group of artists whose work suggests ambiguous science fictional narratives. Leach spoke to Science Fictional about the ideas and themes behind the title.

What is an “extropian”?

Sam Leach: Extropians are people who believe that progress in science and technology means that humans will soon achieve some kind of immortality. The term derives from extropy – not quite, but almost, the opposite of entropy – it refers to the idea that life and intelligence will expand in an orderly way throughout the universe. The extropian view is sort of an extreme optimism about the future. I’m not totally convinced they are right, but I do like technology and I really like the optimism.


Tony Lloyd, Unique Form of Continuity in Space Time, 2009.
Oil on linen, 23x30cms.

Perhaps you could talk about the selection of works for the show – what were you looking for when you selected the artists and their paintings?

SL: I wanted works which addressed the relationship between humans and technology and I tried to think about that in a broadest sense. So there are paintings which have technology as their subject matter, as with Tony Lloyd and Giles Alexander. There are paintings in which painting itself is represented as a transformative technology as with Stephan Balleux. The show really emerged after seeing some works by Topologies (Donna Kendrigan and Chris Henschke) and, quite soon after, a show by Charles O’Loughlin. Topologies create objects which seem to appeal to a nostalgia for an historical form of futurism – beautifully crafted wood and brass instruments which present quite sophisticated optical illusions with scientific themes. Their works do not unreservedly celebrate science but they do set up a very romantic view of technology. In O’Loughlin’s work data analysis based on his own social interactions is used to generate charts which the form the basis of his abstract paintings. Ultimately he aims to gather enough data to be able to forecast his own life. I could sense some connection between these works and when I came across the extropians it began to fall into place. O’Loughlin’s wildly ambitious plans for his data – not to mention his use of his entire life in the cause of data collection – was related to the scientific heroism hinted at in Topologies’ work. The final piece fell into place with Michael Graeve and Toshiya Tsunoda. In their works technology is already being used to extend perception beyond the limits of “natural” or un-augmented human abilities.

It’s interesting looking at the contrast between the works seen individually and then as a group. Taken individually, the paintings work in a realist mode and might suggest an ambiguous narrative, together they have a very science fictional feel, as though the exhibition works together as an overall narrative – was that your aim?

SL: A proper geek would prefer the term speculative fiction. Yes, I do think the paintings and the especially the piece by Topologies have that feel. I love science fiction so it is probably not a coincidence that the art that appeals to me has some hint of that too. I did try to create the possibility for narrative by including works which hinted at history (Lloyd, Topologies), works which engage the viewer with the present (Graeve, Tsunoda) and works which hint at futures both near and distant (Lloyd again, Balleux, Alexander). Many of the works cover several of those at once, of course, so it is not as though it unfolds like a comic strip. In the best traditions of hard science fiction, multiple realities and timelines co-exist.

The term “speculative fiction” is credited to Robert Heinlein, who liked to call it “spec-fic” – but it seems the term has been subsumed back into the greater generic name “science fiction” – do you see a difference between the two terms? And how does that relate to the show?

SL: The term has drifted in and out of use for quite a while. Fans of this genre do tend to be enthusiastic so there are many thousands of internet pages devoted to discussing the nuances of these terms. For my two cents, I tend to think of speculative fiction as a slightly better description of the genre and a bit broader than than science fiction. Some of the most interesting books do not really go into science at all but look at alternate histories or social structures – Hesse‘s Glass Bead Game, Philip K Dick and Neal Stephenson spring to mind. In this show, with one or two exceptions, there is no reference to any actual science. The works deal with the relationship between humans and technology without getting too bogged down in the actual gear mechanisms.


Charles O’Loughlin, September, 2009.
Gouache on paper, 49x45cms.

The imagery of science fiction tends towards a decidedly realist mode of image making – yet you’ve also included abstract works such as Charles O’Loughlin’s mandala-like ‘September’. Was there something in that juxtaposition that interested you?

SL: Absolutely. In the same way that I wanted works which specifically addressed the future, present and past I also wanted to look at artists who used a wide variety of modes in their work. O’Loughlin’s practice verges on performance. His works are really charts which present information, month by month, about who he meets, where and how often. When a painting of a graph is shown, or even several of them, it is really only a tiny fragment of his overall work, which presumably won’t be finished until he is dead or gives up. Or both. The paintings are presented together with books of coded data. Literally thousands of pages of the stuff. They hint at what these apparently abstract paintings represent but they are absolutely no help at all in recovering any kind of meaningful information from the charts. Where the realist paintings have a science fiction feel, O’Loughlin’s work feels closer to the way imagery is actually used in contemporary science – mostly for the graphic display of statistical information (and mostly unintelligible to all but the authors).


Joanna Lamb, High Rise 8, 2009.
Acrylic on canvas, 170x120cms.
From the companion exhibition High Rise.

Joanna Lamb’s latest paintings are also on show at Sullivan & Strumpf and seem like a very natural continuation of what you’re talking about. The title of her show Highriseseems to be a direct reference to J.G. Ballard, whose spirit is very much present in your show too. Was putting the two exhibitions together intentional?

SL: Funny you shoud mention that because I spent the weekend installing a rainwater tank and Ballard was never far from my mind. Sullivan and Strumpf will have to take the credit for bringing the two shows together. It is a really great juxtaposition. Ballard consistently asked questions about the way that technology and especially urban development might impact the human psyche. The extropians themselves seem pretty unconcerned about the possible psychological implications of extreme longevity or technological augmentation of the human. Or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that they are optimistic about the implications. The image of the highrise perfectually captures the moment of transition between utopian vision and dystopian delivery, especially as it is shown in Lamb’s paintings with their idealised clean, hard edges and disturbing acidic colours. Since my show is upstairs from the highrise, maybe it could be thought of as a sort of tech version of the blood garden!


Giles Alexander, 1180 AD, House of God, 2009.
Oil and resin on canvas, 65x105cms.

You’ve often included technological objects in your own painting – how do you see your own work relating to the show?

SL: To be honest the show is a massive indulgence for me. I love the aesthetics of science and technology and to some extent this show could be subtitled “ideas I wish I’d had” or “works I wish I’d made”. The themes of nature and technology are important for me but the relationship between humans and animals is of equal importance. This show allowed me to really get stuck directly into the human/technology relationship via the entertainingly extreme position of the extropians. The other thing is that my own practice is primarily painting – trying to paint well is a very time consuming process and doesn’t leave a lot of room to engage with other modes of artistic production even though I am very interested in them. So it is great to be able to look at the themes and ideas I am interested in using objects, installation and sound works. Even if someone else made them.

Extropians, curated by Sam Leach, and High Rise by Joanna Lamb are at Sullivan & Strumpf, Paddington until December 13.

Foundation & Empire

“In October last year, an item appeared on an authoritative Russian studies website that soon had the science-fiction community buzzing with speculative excitement. It asserted that Isaac Asimov’s 1951 classic Foundation was translated into Arabic under the title “al-Qaida”. And it seemed to have the evidence to back up its claims.

“This peculiar coincidence would be of little interest if not for abundant parallels between the plot of Asimov’s book and the events unfolding now,” wrote Dmitri Gusev, the scientist who posted the article. He was referring to apparent similarities between the plot of Foundation and the pursuit of the organisation we have come to know, perhaps erroneously, as al-Qaida.

“On the surface, the most improbable explanation of the name is that Bin Laden was somehow inspired by a Russian-born writer who lived most of his life in the US and was once the world’s most prolific sci-fi novelist (born in 1920 in Smolensk, Asimov died in New York in 1992). But the deeper you dig, the more plausible it seems that al-Qaida’s founders may have borrowed some rhetoric from Foundation and its successors (it became a series) and possibly from other science fiction material.

“As Nick Mamatas argued in an article on sci-fi fans in Gadfly magazine, “even the terror of September 11th had science fictional overtones: it was both an attack on New York from a tin-plated overlord with delusions of grandeur and a single cataclysmic event that seemingly changed everything, for ever”.

“Science fiction has often featured “evil empires” against which are set utopian ideas whose survival must be fought for against the odds by a small but resourceful band of men. Such empires often turn out to be amazingly fragile when faced by intelligent idealists. Intelligent idealists who are also psychopaths might find comfort in a fictional role model – especially one created by a novelist famous for castigating that “amiable dunce” Ronald Reagan: the president who prosecuted the CIA’s secret war in Afghanistan.

“The Empire portrayed in Asimov’s novels is in turmoil – he cited Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire as an influence. Beset by overconsumption, corruption and inefficiency, “it had been falling for centuries before one man really became aware of that fall. That man was Hari Seldon, the man who represented the one spark of creative effort left among the gathering decay. He developed and brought to its highest pitch the science of psycho-history.”

“Seldon is a scientist and prophet who predicts the Empire’s fall. He sets up his Foundation in a remote corner of the galaxy, hoping to build a new civilisation from the ruins of the old. The Empire attacks the Foundation with all its military arsenal and tries to crush it. Seldon uses a religion (based on scientific illusionism) to further his aims. These are tracked by the novel and its sequels across a vast tract of time. For the most part, his predictions come true.

“Seldon, like Bin Laden, transmits videotaped messages for his followers, recorded in advance. There is also some similarity in geopolitical strategy. Seldon’s vision seems oddly like the way Bin Laden has conceived his campaign. “Psycho-history” is the statistical treatment of the actions of large populations across epochal periods – the science of mobs as Asimov calls it. “Hari Seldon plotted the social and economic trends of the time, sighted along curves and foresaw the continuing and accelerating fall of civilisation.”

“So did Bin Laden use Foundation as a kind of imaginative sounding-board for the creation of al-Qaida? Perhaps reading the book in his pampered youth, and later on seeing his destiny in terms of the ruthless manipulation of historical forces? Did he realise much earlier than anyone else that the march of globalisation would provide opportunities for those who wanted to rouse and exploit the dispossessed?”

What is the origin of the name al-Qaida?

“Beatles in dialog with Buddy Holly…”

“Fans began to take over creative responsibility in the world of Science Fiction as early as the mid-thirties; I doubt that by the mid-seventies there were many major practitioners in the genre who had not started out as a passionate, Con-going, zine-compiling fans. The second great age of American cinema was entirely created by fans (Coppola, Scorsese, Rafelson, Ashby, Spielberg, Lucas, et al) ; The Godfather is as much about the intensive study of gangster films as it is about gangsters. Same goes, even more so, for Scorsese. Rock and roll, same deal. The Beatles work is fan fiction on the work of Buddy Holly and the Everly Brothers: It’s not simple (or even complex) imitation; it’s elaboration, infilling, transformation, a strategic redployment of the tropes and figures of the source material/primary text; the Beatles are in dialog with Buddy Holly, as Badfinger was in dialog with the Beatles and Jellyfish with Badfinger. Or you could go Stones/Stooges/Sex Pistols. The word “influence” is insufficient and too one-sided to describe a relationship that is much more accurately reflected by the system of tribute/ appropriation/critique that fandom employs. This kind of process, by which one generation of fan/critics (because anyone who doesn’t understand that a fan is a critic doesn’t know what a fan is, and there is nothing sadder to contemplate than the idea of a critic who is not also a fan) becomes the creators whose work inspires and obsesses and is critiqued by the next generation of fans, who in turn become critic-creators, has occurred in every popular art form across the board going back fifty or five thousand years. The apostles wrote fan fiction on Torah…”

Q: Why do you think such a high proportion of alternate history novels revolve around World War II in some way or another? Do you think it’s different for authors who weren’t alive during World War II and the Holocaust to imagine them turning out differently, than for someone like, say, Philip K. Dick, who was in high school during the war?

“Well, of course PKD did a pretty fair job of imagining just that in THE MAN IN THE HIGH CASTLE. I think the thing about WWII is that it was so huge, so important, so clearly one of the two or three most significant periods in human history — and yet even a cursory study of it reveals it to have been woven of dozens if not hundreds of teensy little frail threads which, if pulled or tucked a different way, might easily have produced a completely different outcome. Say, for example, that the British Navy had not captured a German cypher machine from a sunk U-Boat in 1941. Cracking of the navy codes is delayed… key messages are never intercepted…”


Geeking Out About Genres with Michael Chabon
, io9

The Heat Death of The Universe

(1) ONTOLOGY
That branch of metaphysics which concerns itself with the problems of the nature of existence or being.

(2) Imagine a pale blue morning sky, almost green, with clouds only at the rims. The earth rolls and the sun appears to mount, mountains erode, fruits decay, the Foraminifera adds another chamber to its shell, babies’ fingernails grow as does the hair of the dead in their graves, and in egg timers the sands fall and the eggs cook on.

(3) Sarah Boyle thinks of her nose as too large, though several men have cherished it. The nose is generous and performs a well-calculated geometric curve, at the arch of which the skin is drawn very tight and a faint whiteness of bone can be seen showing through, it has much the same architectural tension and sense of mathematical calculation as the day after Thanksgiving breastbone on the carcass of a turkey; her maiden name was Sloss, mixed German, English and Irish descent; in grade school she was very bad at playing softball and, besides being chosen last for the team, was always made to play center field, no one could ever hit to center field; she loves music best of all the arts, and of music, Bach, J.S; she lives in California, though she grew up in Boston and Toledo.

yesicanseenow

(4) BREAKFAST TIME AT THE BOYLES’ HOUSE ON LA FLORIDA STREET, ALAMEDA, CALIFORNIA, THE CHILDREN DEMAND SUGAR FROSTED FLAKES.
With some reluctance Sarah Boyle dishes out Sugar Frosted Flakes to her children, already hearing the decay set in upon the little white milk teeth, the bony whine of the dentist’s drill. The dentist is a short, gentle man with a moustache who sometimes reminds Sarah of an Uncle who lives in Ohio. One bowl per child.

(5) If one can imagine it considered as an abstract object, by members of a totally separate culture, one can see that the cereal box might seem a beautiful thing. The solid rectangle is neatly joined and classical in proportions, on it are squandered wealths of richest colours, virgin blues, crimsons, dense ochres, precious pigments once reserved for sacred paintings and as cosmetics for the blind faces of marble gods. Giant size. Net Weight 16 ounces, 250 grams. “They’re tigeriffic!” says Tony the Tiger. The box blatts promises. Energy, Nature’s Own Goodness, an endless pubescence. On its back is a mask of William Shakespeare to be cut out, folded, worn by thousands of tiny Shakespeares in Kansas City, Detroit, Tucson, San Diego, Tampa. He appears at once more kindly and somewhat more vacant than we are used to seeing him. Two or more of the children lay claim to the mask, but Sarah puts off that Solomon’s decision until such time as the box is empty.

(6) A notice in orange flourishes states that a Surprise Gift is to be found somewhere in the packet, nestled amongst the golden flakes. So far it has not been unearthed, and the children request more cereal than they wish to eat, great yellow heaps of it, to hurry the discovery. Even so, at the end of the meal, some layers of flakes remain in the box and the Gift must still be among them.

(7) There is even a Special Offer of a secret membership, code and magic ring; these to be obtained by sending in the box top with 50 cents.

(8) Three offers on one cereal box. To Sarah Boyle this seems to be oversell. Perhaps something is terribly wrong with the cereal and it must be sold quickly, got off the shelves before the news breaks. Perhaps it causes a special, cruel cancer in little children. As Sarah Boyle collects the bowls printed with bunnies and baseball statistics, still slopping half full of milk and wilted flakes, she imagines in her mind’s eye the headlines, “Nation’s Small Fry Stricken, Fate’s Finger Sugar Coated, Lethal Sweetness Socks Tots.”

(9) Sarah Boyle is a vivacious and intelligent young wife and mother, educated at a fine Eastern college, proud of her growing family which keeps her busy and happy around the house.

(10) BIRTHDAY
Today is the birthday of one of the children. There will be a party in the late afternoon.

An excerpt. Read the entire story here

Horse lover fat

philipkdick

Some time over the next year a new movie, Radio Free Albemuth, starring Alanis Morissette, is due to be released. The movie is based on a novel Dick wrote before VALIS and originally entitled VALISystemA (it was published after his death as Radio Free Albemuth). The novel VALIS includes references to a science fiction movie “Valis,” which recapitulates the plotline of Radio Free Albemuth. Did Dick intend for all of these works to be intertwined? Can you help us sort the threads?

Jonathan Letham: I’m not familiar with the movie project, apart from what you’ve heard, so I can’t predict how faithful or satisfying it might be for readers of VALIS or the other related works. The novel that the movie takes as its source, Radio Free Albemuth, is an odd duck in Dick’s shelf of published works in the sense that it was actually an earlier draft of the VALIS material, submitted for publication by Dick and then reworked so completely in the writing of VALIS that it appeared to his posthumous editors as a legitimate work of its own. It has champions— some who even prefer it to VALIS. I can’t agree, myself. It seems a fairly pedestrian and cautious feint at the material—readable, perhaps, but not essential. VALIS, meanwhile, is one of Dick’s great masterpieces, so I’m awfully glad that Radio Free Albemuth was written, if only to be rejected and rewritten.

You have a new novel coming this fall, Chronic City, and many of its themes—paranoia, drug use, alternate realities—echo those of Dick more than any of your recent novels. Did editing the three Library of America volumes influence your writing—or is Dick’s influence like a centrifugal force that becomes simply irresistible at some point?

Good spotting. I’ve certainly had a very full refresher course in Philip K. Dick over these last few years, and that’s unmistakably had its effect on Chronic City, yes. Yet I think your image of a “centrifugal” influence is also right, and it feels to me that I’d been swinging back in this direction for a long while—and I’d conceived of many of the images and sequences that would become Chronic City as much as ten years ago. The odd thing about writing novels if you write them as slowly as I do (as opposed to the breakneck speed of Phil Dick) is that you often can barely remember their point of origin by the time you’ve finished them…

The Library of America interviews Jonathan Lethem about Philip K. Dick’s Later Novels