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

Neither and/or

“The term slipstream was coined by Bruce Sterling in a column he wrote for a fanzine called SF Eye in 1989. Sterling was attempting to understand a kind of fiction that he saw increasingly in science fiction publications and elsewhere. He quite rightly asserted that it was not true science fiction, and yet it bore some relation to science fiction. In a key passage of his essay, Sterling wrote:

‘This genre is not category SF; it is not even “genre” SF. Instead, it is a contemporary kind of writing which has set its face against consensus reality. It is fantastic, surreal sometimes, speculative on occasion, but not rigorously so. It does not aim to provoke a “sense of wonder” or to systematically extrapolate in the manner of classic science fiction.

Instead, this is a kind of writing which simply makes you feel very strange; the way that living in the late twentieth century makes you feel, if you are a person of a certain sensibility. We could call this kind of fiction Novels of a Postmodern Sensibility… for the sake of convenience and argument, we will call these books “slipstream.”‘

“Two points need to be made about Sterling’s essay. First is that it includes a reading list of writers, of whom only a vanishingly small fraction were identified with a genre. From the outset, Sterling defined slipstream as largely a mutant form of the mainstream. The second point is that the essay was addressed to an audience of science fiction writers and readers. Nobody calls mainstream writers ‘mainstream” except for those of us in the ghetto of the fantastic. The very notion that slipstream writing needed to be placed in a genre of its own comes from measuring it against science fiction and fantasy. Building a wall to pen the mutant up is a very skiffy thing to do; the impulse is generated from an understanding of genre built up over fifty years of category publishing in the United States.

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“This is primarily a social distinction. Science fiction, since the birth of the genre magazines in the 192os, has been seen as a category of pulp publishing more than as a literary form, and still carries this meaning (and associated stigma) despite fifty years of scholars and writers attempting to define it as a mode of writing rather than a mode of publishing. As such, sF was isolated from developments outside of pulp genres. Although the writers themselves may have been well read and educated in other forms of fiction, the genre for better or worse retained its separate identity.

“So when the New Wave SF writers of the 1960 and 1970s adapted techniques and attitudes of literary modernism to SF materials (stream of consciousness, fragmented narrative, cinematic techniques, intense concentration of the sensibility of the protagonist, psychological ‘realism”), it was seen within the genre community as a revolution, even though these techniques had been commonplace in Dos Passos and Hemingway and Stein and Joyce since the 1920s.

“Slipstream as a publishing category has meaning only to those coming from the genre side of the divide. Sterling, chief propagandist of the cyberpunk movement of the 198os, was trying to come to grips with other forms of ambitious visionary fiction being written in the 198os that could by no means be categorized as cyberpunk. In a way, his essay was an attempt to identify a form of fiction in opposition to cyberpunk so as to differentiate it. In the ensuing seventeen years, many writers in the genre who have been trying to establish an identity separate from category SF and fantasy, and in relation to literary fiction, have seized upon Sterling’s formulation. They have taken it to places that Sterling did not intend, and created a subcategory of publications, editors, magazines, and critical opinion within the world of SF discourse and yet separate from it. But in all discussions of slipstream we have seen, at some point the relationship of slipstream to genre science fiction is entertained and defined.”

James Patrick Kelly & John Kessel, eds. Feeling Very Strange: The Slipstream Anthology. San Francisco: Tachyon Publications. 2006. pp iix-ix.

Melancholy face across the night sky

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“The sale of cartoon characters created by professional designers for use in comic strips, television shows, and films is a common feature of Japan’s animation industry. French artists Pierre Huyghe and Phillipe Parreno purchased such a cartoon—the figure of a young girl—for use in their own work, thereby giving this ready made character a new life within a specifically fine art context. In this exhibition, Huyghe presented a short, animated film that resulted from this purchase. A meditation on the fragile boundary between reality and representation, No Ghost just a Shell “Two minutes out of Time” features a monologue, delivered by the cartoon girl, on her condition as a “virtual” image.”

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“Trust the French to turn a playful jeux into a complex semiotic/legal/existential/moral/cultural conundrum by enlisting – purchasing, actually – a female tabula rasa. In No Ghost Just a Shell (the title refers to Mamoru Oshii’s 1995 Japanese animated film Ghost in a Shell, based on the original manga by Masamune Shirow), the blank slate is a bland, commercially produced cartoon drawing of a wide-eyed, elf-eared, prepubescent girl whose only distinguishing characteristic is her undeveloped potential.

“In 1999, the French artists Pierre Huyghe and Philippe Parreno found her image in the catalogue of Kworks, a Japanese agency that develops manga figures for animated films, comic strips, advertising, and video games. The prices of these images depend on the complexity of their character traits. The copyright for this one – a nondescript, expendable, empty vessel ripe for exploitation – was cheap: a mere $428 for her digital file.

“Parreno and Huyghe bought this cipher, named her Annlee (aka AnnLee, or Ann Lee), gave her a cosmetic makeover, and, with Anna-Lena Vaney, set up a state-of-the-art video animation facility for her in Paris. They started filling her in, so to speak, and � expanding the French Surrealist tradition of the “exquisite corpse” – they lent her free of charge to other artists they commissioned to do likewise.

“Since Annlee’s life expectancy had been short to begin with, the artists were arguably doing her a favor. Thanks to her new handlers she acquired an identity, multiple identities, in fact, and a voice, several voices. She achieved something approaching self-consciousness. Her existence was prolonged; she’d have experiences her original creators had never dreamed of for her. With so many artists animating her, investing her with various virtual inner and outer lives and a wardrobe of personalities, she’d gained quasi-celebrity status, maybe even a kind of immortality.

“In its three years of operation, the Annlee industry produced animated videos by Huyghe and Parreno as well as Liam Gillick, Dominique Gonzales-Foerster, Francois Curlet, Melik Ohanian, and Rirkrit Tiravanija. Other artists and writers who participated in the project include Joe Scanlan, Douglas Gordon, Sylvie Fleury, Molly Nesbitt, Catryn Davis, Angela Bulloch and the actress Catherine Deneuve. (A catalogue documents all the work.)

“Following this flurry of intense artistic activity, Huyghe and Parreno pulled the plug on Annlee. She’d been through enough; no other artists, or anyone else – especially the entertainment industry via television products, video games, advertising, press, and publishing – would be allowed to exploit her image ever again for any purpose. They would give Annlee back to herself.

“The legal document which transfers Annlee’s copyright to a foundation that belongs solely to her is, in effect, her death warrant. Paradoxically, it also gives her her freedom since “The acquisition of ANNLEE is part of an artistic project that consists in liberating a fictional character from the realm of representation.” “Give me liberty and give me death” could be her epitaph.

“An Annlee extravaganza, showing all the works associated with the Annlee figure, was presented at the Kunsthalle Zurich in Switzerland last Fall. In December 2002, Huyghe and Parreno staged her apotheosis at the Miami Basel Art Fair, where Annlee literally went out in a blaze of glory: a firework display emblazoning her waiflike melancholy face across the night sky.”

No Ghost Only Shell, review, Stretcher.org

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One Million Kingdoms, 2001, is the most recent in a series of animated films in which a Japanese anime character, the brooding young girl AnnLee, is inserted into various dramas. Here she is dropped into a lunar landscape that is mapped out and developed in correspondence with the rises and falls of the narrator’s voice – tinny, at times labored – digitally derived from a recording of Neil Armstrong. The stories of the first moon landing, in 1969, and of Jules Verne’s 1864 novel Journey to the Center of the Earth have been conflated here in a conspiracy theory of the faked and the fantastic. Armstrong’s first words – It’s a lie – prompt AnnLee, as she moves from place to place on a constantly fluctuating terrain, in which mountains, craters, ridges, and outcroppings rise and fall according to the intonations of the narrator’s voice. His words blur the fictional and factual, using language that derives from distinct genres and centuries—Verne’s work of fiction and Armstrong’s and Buzz Aldrin’s presumably true transmissions of their experience during the landing of Apollo 11’s lunar module. Thus the landscape of AnnLee is a shifting terrain determined by utterances, which chart both the real and the imaginary. Art Torrents

“The artists translated her static image into a computer model, redrew her slightly, and made her the open-source, freeware starlet of a time-limited, collaborative enterprise: No Ghost Just a Shell, un film d’imaginaire, 1999-2002. (The physical home for the Annlee project is a production facility in Paris, coordinated by the fortuitously named artist Anna-Lena Vaney.) “No Ghost” is, of course, an unveiled reference to the classic 1995 anime film Ghost in the Shell. It’s 2029: Major Motoko Kusanagi is a typically hypersensualized cyborg reconstruction retaining only half her original human brain (in train-spotting otaku circles, her age is said to be thirty-something, though her robot body replicates a twenty-year-old). She faces off against Project 2501, aka the Puppet Master, a secret, government-spawned Web crawler. When that batch of bad code generates its own sentience and tries to escape the Net by merging with Major Motoko (the genie needs a bottle), she suffers a very human crisis that casts into doub t her place on the man/machine spectrum. Clearly, if she can be overwritten by alien software, she’s not human; the only thing that makes her feel like a woman is being treated like one by others.

“Isn’t Annlee wonderful?” Marian Goodman asked, after I saw Ann in one of many identical video avatars. “She looks sad,” I said. “Yes, but she could also be made to seem gay.” Seem is the operative word here, for anime is tragic at its root. In it, Japan (the ubiquity of the art gives license to generalize) is seeking that HAL-out-of-control frisson that is probably some pop-psychological balm for a shame-based culture in which abasement–deflation, the novelty of layoffs, geopolitical irrelevance–has become common. Takashi Murakami made this point in a recent essay: “Behind the flashy titillation of anime lies the shadow of Japan’s defeat in the Pacific War. The world of anime is a world of impotence.”

“And in that world, no one is more impotent than our little Ann, the virtual walk-on, born to be lost in the crowd. Huyghe acknowledges that Ann was not a perfect blank when he found her. “There is something in this sign that has to do with melancholia,” he said. “Something in her eyes?” Tasked, imagining in those exaggerated pools hints of Bome collectibles or echoes of the malevolent sprites of Yoshitomo Nara, or the conflicted sensualisms of Major Motoko herself. Doesn’t Ann embody some flicker of those catalysts for a thousand parallel reveries on a crowded evening train out of Shinjuku? Huyghe would have none of that: “The thought never crossed our minds,” he said, laughing. “Don’t make it romantic.”

Annlee: sign of the times – Japanese anime comes to life, Artforum

Burn the manifesto

“Partly Mundanity was also the result of asking: what’s worked best in the past? My favourite SF authors such as Philip K Dick, J G Ballard, Samuel Delaney or Walter Miller tended to avoid those particular tropes. For a while naming writers who could be considered Mundane was quite a hobby.

“We felt as if SF had accumulated so many improbable ideas and relied on them so regularly, that it had disconnected from reality. The futures it was portraying were so unlikely as to be irrelevant, if not actually harmful.

“Julian Todd, a British SF writer, pointed out the moral problems as well. If we keep telling ourselves that faster-than-light travel will whisk us to scores of new Earths, then we’d feel better about burning through this one. In really bad SF, like the movie Lost in Space, environmental catastrophe is almost wished upon us, to justify the cost of interstellar voyages. Why, why the continual desire to escape our beautiful planet?

“My particular bugaboo was the cheat of having faster-than-light travel without any relativity effects from different time frames. Mass market SF, the SF that most ordinary people think of when you use the phrase, commercial and media SF want to pick and choose from science, using only those things that will grant us our wishes and dreams.

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“We want FTL interstellar travel with no more inconvenience than a tour of duty on an aircraft carrier. Mom can ring us up from 30,000 light years away to have a real-time conversation about why we haven’t married yet. She’s still alive when we get back home. Everything is recognizable, comfortable. In Star Trek, we get to the stars without having to change.

“Mass market SF doesn’t imagine how different interstellar flight will make us. And I don’t mean the usual posthuman stuff. I mean different culturally. I mean getting back home to find 200 years have passed and that everything we loved and believed in is gone. Yes, some SF has done just that, notably The Forever War. So why isn’t the space pilot coming back from the distant past an SF stereotype? Answer: because that’s not what the SF wants.

“Big SF, the stuff that sells hugely or is found in movies, is not really about the future; we know that. It’s also not about the present, though that’s our excuse when people point out that SF couldn’t predict its way out of a public restroom. SF, especially mainstream commercial SF, copies the past onto the future, to make it comfortably entertaining. The future will be just like the more exciting parts of the past only with better toys. Perhaps that’s because so many people now fear the future, rather than welcome it as a wonderland of possibility.

“So I wrote a jokey Mundane Manifesto. It said let’s play this serious game. Let’s agree: no FTL, no FTL communications, no time travel, no aliens in the flesh, no immortality, no telepathy, no parallel universe, no magic wands. Let’s see if something new comes out of it.

“In a reference to The Bonfire of the Vanities, I called this the “Bonfire of the Stupidities”. That was what we call a joke, but jokes can be serious. I also said that we should burn the Manifesto when it got boring.

“Take the Third Star on the Left and on til Morning!” by Geoff Ryman, Mundane SF.

Image: Hany Armanious, Uncanny Valley, 2009.

Minimalism Mash Star Wars

“In a 1967 essay on minimalism, Clement Greenberg, America’s most influential critic, could have been describing Star Wars: “Everything is rigorously rectilinear or spherical. Development within a given piece is usually repetition of the same modular shape, which may or may not be varied in size.” Greenberg rejected minimalism as pedestrian. “Minimal works are readable as art,” he wrote, “as almost anything is today, including a door, a table, or a blank sheet of paper.” Perhaps because of its fantastic nature, the Death Star has never been recognized as an essential work of minimalism—but it is one.

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“Its destruction has never been acknowledged as a turning point for modernism—but it was one. Lucas unabashedly emulated the visuals of Stanley Kubrick’s film 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968),which incorporated the principles of modernist architecture (spare, utilitarian, evenly lit spaces) and the presence of a minimalist slab (colorless, drab, depersonalized, inscrutable non-art). The only ornamental flourishes in the film were borrowed from NASA (whitewashed modular construction pocked by latches, struts, and access panels) and corporate furniture design (steel, leather, powder-coat enamel, and blobby red Dijinn).

Lucas hired so many members of Kubrick’s team that their subset of the Star Wars crew was dubbed “The Class of 2001.” But he borrowed selectively. Kubrick’s 2001 environments were cohesive and balanced, informed by architectural theory and late-’60s aesthetics; they upheld the distinction between the astronaut modernists and the alien minimalists. By contrast, Lucas willfully mashed together minimalism, modernism, and NASA design. Two visual rhetorics are at war on-screen: The first is that of an industrial superpower; the second is that of a rogue fringe of misfits and mismatches…

Star Wars: A New Heap – Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love The Death Star, John Powers, Triple Canopy

Serpents & Birds

“As filtered through Horace and the power of Roman literary institutions, Aristotelian notions of genre provided the very foundation of the neoclassical critical system. […] Perhaps the most celebrated cause of this period is the battle over the ultimate generic crossbreed: tragicomedy. Ever the incontrovertible naturalist, Horace had set limits on the poet’s right to mix genres: ‘it does not go to the extent that savage should mate with tame, that serpents should couple with birds, or lambs with tigers’. Reacting strongly against the medieval grotesque tendency to mix the sublime and the ridiculous, the sacred and the secular, the tragic and comic, seventeenth century French neoclassical critics and first found it impossible to accept the new composite. Yet little by little the production of new plays […] broke down critical resistance and led to the acceptance of the hybrid genre.

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“For our purposes, one particular lesson stands out from this unexpected development. That a new genre should be born in an expanding culture hardly provides cause for surprise. More important is the way in which this genre develops out of the coupling of two genres previously thought diametrically opposed. In spite of the Horatian committment to keep genres seperate and the neo-Aristotelian refusal to recognize genres not mentioned by Aristotle, the rise of tragicomedy demonstrates the possibility of generating new genres through monstrous mating of already existing genres […].

During the latter half of the 18th Century, a new genre began to edge its way between tragedy and comedy. At first called the ‘serious genre’, as opposed to classical genres, deemed incapable of dealing with contemporary reality, the new genre was designated the ‘weepie genre’ (genre larymoyant) biy its conservative opponents. Eventually baptized simply ‘drama’ (drame) by its radical supporters […] this is the theatrical form that would eventually give rise to melodrama – the most popular theatrical mode of the nineteenth century and cinema’s most important parent genre…”

Rick Altman. Film/Genre. London: British Film Institute. 1999. pp 4-5.

Ultimate Warrior

“Only a few people still live in New York in 2015. They are organized in gangs with their own turf. One of them is led by Baron, another one by Carrot, and they are constantly at war with each other.”

“Directed by Robert ‘Enter the Dragon‘ Clouse, The Ultimate Warrior is a gritty, uncompromising effort blessed with a quality cast and some brutally violent and well choreographed fight scenes. Baldy Brynner is perfect as the honourable hero for hire, and looks totally bad-ass stripped to his waist and brandishing a wickedly sharp dagger. Likewise, Smith is excellent as Carson’s heartless nemesis Carrot, a savage brute so cruel that he thinks nothing of using a baby as bait to lure his enemy into a trap. From it’s opening scene, in which a cobweb-strewn, dusty, derelict loft provides the setting for a violent ambush, to the gripping bloody finalé, which sees Brynner and Smith battling to the death in a long abandoned subway, the Ultimate Warrior is unrelentingly harsh glimpse into a possible future where life is cheap, and often short.”

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