Vampir Moths, Consumate Consciousness and Weird Fictions of the Self
Science fiction and the city; how to respond to a system of stories whose continued relevance stems entirely from its responsiveness to our own changing circumstance, a situation dependent on the substrate of a site itself defined by its interconnection, its quicksilver responsiveness to itself. As technological progress – or rather, we should say change or evolution, to sidestep the suspect teleology of regular linear progression – distends and reorients our notions of the world and of ourselves, shifting the literal and metaphorical ground beneath our feet at a rate exponential to traditional geologic time, science fiction has proffered itself as the natural medium for exploring and experimenting with what we now are, where we find ourselves, and where are to be or wish to be going. For in the secular and sacrilegious New World modernity has erupted into, the rationalist epistemology of Capital S Science is the new state religion, and the afterlife we labour to find ourselves in is not an illusory metaphysical comeuppance but a future here and now rendered perfect, rendered heavenly, by the labours of history and the universal insight reached collaboratively by the collective efforts of endless individuals united in the lingua franca of Science. Having by and large shed ourselves of the vast store of myth and occult mystery which once provided a navigational stockpile of images of persons and possibilities by way of the unflinching edge of Occam’s razor, it is the necessary opportunistic impulse of today’s poets and mythmakers to insinuate themselves into the nomenclature of science and technology, to vest themselves in our novel information technological exoskeletons, to extrapolate the consequences of our actions that we might better use them in the present, and more fully envision the futurological consequences of the inclinations we pursue today.
We might productively look back over the past century/ies of science fiction to see the many ways it has failed and succeeded at predicting and presaging the olden futures we are currently undergoing, but for the present purposes of this blog post, it might be more fun and productive to look forward at what our present imaginings are harbinging ourselves towards. For the value of hindsight being twenty twenty essentially nullifies it’s value, whereas the imperceptibility of even the immanent near future renders any successful predictive skill priceless. And the particular value of fiction as a medium for such prediction is its ease at bypassing the over-articulation of extemporaneous analysis – such as this – by resolving any need for loose-end fiddling in the ambiguity of a scene and setting which reflects the intangible complexity of the world itself. Such has always been the power of contemporary fictions, and so to further unfurl this capacity, and its inherent modernity, we will turn briefly to an examination of the parallels and significant disjuncts between Brahm Stoker’s modern classic Dracula and a contemporary refiguring of that myth in the pseudo-sci-fi (post-sci-fi?) Weird Fiction of China Meiville’s Perdido Street Station.
When it came out, Dracula was a tale entirely embroiled in the trappings of the cutting edge technologies of the day, a narrative which could not be told without the novel developments of the telegraph, the phonograph, blood transfusions and steam powered trains. London grounds the novel, with its frequently mentioned “teeming millions”, as an epicenter of empire and progress which quite suddenly finds itself under a threat which gains power all the more by its inability to be accepted or understood. For in the rationalist zeitgeist of English culture, the very idea of a vampire is itself too much to be ever granted, for as one of the protagonists puts it, “the doubting of wise men would be [Dracula’s] greatest strength.” (321) Yet though the vampire is viewed as an occult and antiquated enemy, as it is popularly construed as such throughout its broad absorption into the collective unconscious, in fact many critics point out that Dracula is not in fact atavistic or regressive, but actually draws his greatest strengths from his successful adoption of the tools of civilization. The writing of letters grants him anonymity, the collection of massive libraries allows him the full breadth of the knowledge of civilization, and his retention of lawyers and hired men allow him a scope of sway beyond anything he could accomplish on his own. Far from being a true monster, Dracula is in fact a horrifying image of ourselves, whose greatest terrors are his damning similarities. Terry Eagleton even goes so far as to christen Dracula as the star of a new subgenre of Irish Gothic fiction, where the figure of vampire reflects the brutal truth of British colonial rule.
On the other hand, Perdido Street Station could not distance itself from modernity further, creating an alternate world wherein technology has stalled at the stage of steam power, and arcane magical forces persist under the guise of an alternate set of physical laws. Yet, without sidetracking this analysis too much into the question of what constitutes science fiction is and in what ways this particular text might meet or fail such definitions (a broad and in fact daunting question I’d hoped to reserve for the more extensive final paper), the novel is clearly fixated on the very questions which themselves define the genre; namely, what is science, and what is it allowing us to do. Isaac’s empiricist attempts at the production of knowledge foreground these questions, and the eventual plot of vampir moths and the unique threat they pose provide a final test of his science. There are certain similarities between the threat of the moths and that previously covered of Dracula himself: both originate at the periphery of the known world; both exist purely to feed off the vital essences of the densest metropolises; and both cause mass terror by their anonymity and peculiarity, especially at the behest of the deliberate negligence of those powers that be. But there is a pivotal difference, and that is the reason for this elaborate juxtaposition: whereas Dracula feeds on the blood of his victims, playing off an elusive sexual subtext with which the work is rife, what the moths seek is more ethereal, but all the more essential for being so. True brain food; what they eat is the very consciousness of their victims, their dreams and aspirations, the essence of their beings without which they are left alive, but listless, absent, existing without point or purpose.
The result, the plague they perpetrate, is appropriately described as a “Mystery Epidemic of Imbecility,” (155) a description which neatly conflates the biological (“Epidemic”) with the psychological or epistemic (“Imbecility”). Episteme, the condition of knowing, is what is at stake in the novel, and it is the severity and dramatic suspense of this which explodes the question into a necessary obsession, and fundamentally orients the work towards that selfsame tenement of science fiction: science. Knowing, what we know, how we do so, and at what peril we risk ourselves in its pursuit. Of course within the novel itself, the ultimate knowledge becomes of the self, and of the ethical treatment thereof. Beings are mutable objects here, the -ological powers of New Crobuzon’s learned classes has granted total mastery over the confines of the body, and yet the result is not the antiseptic idealization of our traditional images of the future. Rather, these powers remain in the thrall of that other underdeveloped sort of knowledge, that of ethics and right action. As our heroes depart to their separate ways at the novel’s conclusion, their successful end thwarted in a terrible rupturing of ties in an ambiguous maelstrom of attempts at justice, it is clear that the very uncertainty (certainty requiring knowledge) of what is the correct course of action, and the moral vacuum it enables, is what provides the environment of anarchy wherein citizens can be mangled and reformed at the whim of higher powers to better suite their own usury. Science allows us many things, anything, but it alone cannot bestow that greater knowledge, the sense of its purpose which is the lifeblood of the enterprise of fiction. Science, fiction. And the city? That sprawling ghetto palace of instants and environments, mainline of human history and spatializing structure which itself undergirds and situates the endless minds and dreams, desires and delusions which this new fluttering breed of vampir/e would have for wanton feasting? It is only the semblance of a superstructure, the appearance of being an outside world; the city is the sum of its citizens, themselves an amalgam of minds, and delicious, delicious dreams.