Welcome to the course blog for ASTU 400D, Science Fiction & the City – a student directed seminar that ran in Spring of 2009 at UBC Vancouver. The archived posts (below and at left) reflect some of the ideas discussed in-class. Enjoy!
Welcome to the course blog for ASTU 400D, Science Fiction & the City – a student directed seminar that ran in Spring of 2009 at UBC Vancouver. The archived posts (below and at left) reflect some of the ideas discussed in-class. Enjoy!
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.
It is the character of the weaver, who is by far my favorite of all we have come across so far. Maybe it is because it is whimsical, childlike in its focused intensity. I was so amused by the way in which it was presented, I could not help myself – I had to play around a little and decided to introduce my response with some oneiric babble much like that of the weaver. Enjoy!
QUESTIONS, QUESTIONS, BUT WILL YOU DANCE, THINKLINGS, PLAYING GAMES OF ARE YOU AREN’T YOU? YOU THINK YOU ARE, BUT WHAT IS YOU – NOT WE WHO SLIPSLIDES CRAFTING CRAFTY CLOTHS. TICK NOT YOU DO AS ONLY GEARLINGS AND GRINDINGS. TRICKY TRICKINGS MAKE PLAY FEIGNING FACES OF WHAT IS NOT. CRAFTING WITH CLOSED LIDS PATTERNS VEILED TO GEARLINGS STILL TO UNDERSTAND. WE SEE THE JOKE, PRETEND YOU DO YOU BE BOTH MIND AND MINDLESS, YOU CANNOT WEAVE AND GRIND ALTOGETHER BOTH YOU ARE. ANSWER FOR YOURSELF THE MISSING COLOUR, REVEAL MUCH OF YOUR NATURES NATURE IN THE DANCING.
The city of New Crobuzon exists in sublime tension. It is here that the extraordinary becomes the everyday as the lines blur between magic and science, making the surreal into the hyperreal. People are both organic and inorganic creatures, bioengineered to suit a variety of purposes both military and aesthetic. It is in this world of spaces, where nothing is what it seems, that we can find an explanation of what? human nature? (perhaps this is taking things too far) Nevertheless, the whole book goes into the exploration of this tension that exists between one object/thing and another, and it is through exploration of these liminal spaces and the relationship between things that truth is exposed. Most compelling of all these relationships is the one established between the Weaver, the Construct Council, and Man. We are introduced to the two distinct minds briefly:
“The Weaver thought in a continuous,incomprehensible, rolling stream of awareness. There were no layers to the Weaver’s mind, there was no ego to control the lower functions, no animal cortex to keep the mind grounded. For the Weaver, there were no dreams at night, no hidden messages from the secret corners of the mind, no mental clearout of accrued garbage bespeaking an orderly consciousness. For the Weaver, dreams and consciousness were one. The Weaver dreamed of being conscious and its consciousness was its dream, in an endless unfathomable stew of image and desire and cognition and emotion…
…the Construct Council thought with chill exactitude. Concepts were reduced to a multiplicity of onoff switches, a soulless solipsism that processed information without the complication of arcane desires or passion. A will to existence and aggrandizement, shorn of all psychology, a mind contemplative and infinitely, incidentally cruel.” ch.50
It is these two types of consciousness which we are supposed to examine in relation to our own. The pure rationality coupled with pure awareness both equals and does not equal the consciousness of the human mind. Like the Council, men are calculating beings, we think and are logical, we understand what it means to be rational and can process information through scientific method. At the same time, we are more than just logic, we are driven by purpose, by desires and motivations that defy our rationality. We appreciate beauty, an order of a different kind; this is the part of ourselves that is like the weaver. What then, do we have that these two entities lack? The obvious answer that lies within the context of the novel itself is simple: we dream.
Dreams, they are so much more than those fancies that invade our sleeping hours. Whether you view them to be divine intervention (not likely in today’s day), or mere reenactments of already experienced events and emotions there is no denying that it is through dreams that our unconscious mind (LINK) is able to surface. It is dreams, that hold the key to the inner workings of the mind. Certainly, shamanistic practices have long looked to the influence of the dream realm, and recently psychoanalytic theory has recognized the importance of dreams to the understanding of personal psychology. More accurately, it is the presence of this unconscious mind that differentiates the human consciousness, it is the source of our creativity and ingenuity. Unlike the Council, who can never deviate from the logical world, the human mind has the ability to ascend beyond the parameters of rational experience. Our ability to dream is evidence that proves our conscious mind is influenced by the unconscious self. We receive inspiration and wisdom from our dreams, they are a source of personal reflection but also illogical fantasy and inspiration. This is true of the Weaver also, but its unconscious does not exist. It is trapped, like the Council but on the other end of the spectrum, with no ability to conceive of logical thought, its consciousness is made up of what for us would be pure unconscious fancy. It is dreams and nightmares which allow our minds to explore all the ideas and consequences of our everyday experience, and it is the unconscious mind that can conceal everything from our most profound to our darkest conceivable imaginations.
It is this aspect of the mind, that is hunted by the slakemoths. At first I wondered how the eradication of dreams from the mind would result in the loss of intelligent thought in an individual. It seemed extreme that dreams should be so intricate a part of the waking mind. In his The Interpretation of Dreams Freud speaks on the importance of dreams to the conscious mind:
“A man deprived of the capacity for dreaming would in time become mentally unbalanced, because an immense number of unfinished and unsolved thoughts and superficial impressions would accumulate in his brain, under the pressure of which all that should be incorporated in the memory as a completed whole would be stifled. The dream acts as a safety-valve for the over-burdened brain. Dreams possess a healing and unburdening power.” Ch.1 s.g
If it is true, and dreams act as the door to the unconscious mind, a safety valve that works to release the built up pressures of conscious thought, than it is those powerful thoughts and emotions that are what the slakemoths are truly after. It is the unconscious that is the true strength our of psyche policing our conscious minds through its subtle influences. It is why the thoughts of the Weaver, although so tantalizing, held no sustenance. Its thoughts have no grounding in reality. What is left behind, the detritus of thought are those unthinkable, nightmarish fantasies, the dregs of unconscious fears and worries. We are greater and yet less than the single-minded consciousness of the both the Weaver and the Council. Their single minded purpose gives them strength greater than our own and yet they can only ever follow the same purpose, what makes us unique is our ability to harness the thoughts of our unconscious and allow our ingenuity to look beyond the constant plodding motions of the everyday and see the endless possibilities that life can hold.
YOU SEE THAT THINKLINGS TRULY ARE NOT TRULY BUT DREAMLINGS CRAFTED NEITHER ONLY GEARS NOR CRAFTY BUT BOTH, INDEED HIGHER YOU FLY TO FALL FARTHER BETTER
“Men had built cities before, but never a city such as this… Diaspar alone had challenged eternity, defending itself and all it sheltered against the slow attrition of the ages, the ravages of decay, and the corruption of rust…” Clark ch. 2
Virtual immortality, a concept that was, when Clark first fostered the notion of the city Diaspar, something only fit for the realm of the fantastical. As long as men have been sentient enough to realize the fact of their own mortality (and fear it), there have been those among men who have devoted themselves to finding the secret to abolishing death. In today’s world of technological and medical advances, immortality is no longer a simple fantasy, but an easily conceived possibility for the near future. Death has been pathologized; it is simply one more thing we can now work to cure, instead of fear. Those who have devoted their lives to finding this ‘cure’ are aware that their solution and our future waits in the age of the cyborg. An age in which cities and the people in them will become indistinguishable from the technology they depend on. Already, we are ‘plugged in’ to the vast communication and information network that exists around us. Our generation will be the first to experience their own form of immortality, in the masses of information archived in online databases. How long will it be until the next step is taken and we move into an age where you can chose to maintain your consciousness through the ages. In reality, the process has already begun.
“I construct, and I am constructed, in a mutually recursive process that continually engages my fluid, permeable boundaries and my endlessly ramifying networks. I am the spatially extended cyborg.” Mitchell pp. 39
We have yet to experience the true ramifications of a fully micro-documented past. It seems impossible that such a shift of attention towards the virtual persona could not have some sort of effect. There are those, having watched as relationships become increasingly impersonal, people gather less and ‘communicate’ more, and identity becomes an increasingly nebulous concept, who would say these effects have already manifested. We have begun to be defined not by our actions and interactions, but by how we present the events of our lives to others. Our digital memory is perfect in that it remembers everything we want it to and it does so on a scale that has never been seen before. Our privacy is both absolute and non-existent, in a digital environment that has no way of distinguishing fact from fiction. We have become dependent on the ease with which we collect and our distribute information; and for the first time, the trouble with information does not seem to be that it cannot be remembered, but that it cannot be forgotten.
“The old, the ossified, must always give way to new life and the birth of new things. Before the new things can be born the old must perish… Unless we can psychologically accommodate change, we ourselves begin to die, inwardly. What I am saying is that objects, customs, habits, and ways of life must perish so that the authentic human being can live. And it is the authentic human being who matters most, the viable, elastic organism which can bounce back, absorb, and deal with the new.” Philip K. Dick
But it is not just our own lives that we have sought to preserve. Whether it is for convenience sake or for aesthetics it seems we have a fear of being forgotten. Evidence of our obsession is obvious in our efforts to preserve anything from data, to art, memories, sound, food, animal and plant life, and the physical world around us. People are focused on preserving what it is we cannot hold onto, and in our desperate race to immortalize the world around us there is one question that should be asked: what are the social and psychological implications of this immortality that we seek; what if we were meant to forget? Dick proposes that death is what allows for real life, we must be able to change to truly live. Perhaps we are in danger of becoming paralyzed, of becoming too invested in our emerging cyborg selves to realize that our hyper-connectivity has the potential to create stagnation and a dislocation from our ‘authentic human’ identities. Or, perhaps we are simply being ushered into a new age, and it is this new cyborg self, this kind of pseudo immortality that is the inevitable next step in our development.
“This is the way our ancestors gave us virtual immortality, yet avoided the problems raised by the abolition of death. A thousand years in one body is long enough for any man; at the end of that time, his mind is clogged with memories, and he asks only for rest-or a new beginning.” Clark ch.2
Rest. For Clark, it is rest that solves the problem of immortality; citizens of Diaspar can continue to live because they can re-boot, leave behind the backlog of memories and experience and start fresh. But rest is a concept counter intuitive for those enmeshed within our technological culture. We allow our lives to be documented in the virtual landscape, struggling to preserve more and more everyday. We network, blog, twitter and facebook ourselves into connection with as many people as possible in order to extend our virtual footprint. Unlike the citizens of Diaspar, we cannot live forever, free to slip in and out of existence as we please, as of yet we must remain confined to our bodies, with our cyborg selves extended, preserving our existence. It is hard to say how this will effect us, maybe it won’t; perhaps before long it will be us who are looking for the answer to a question: where is our reset button?
Everybody knows Marshall McLuhan’s famous adage – “the medium is the message.” It’s popular because it sums up perfectly the way in which the 20th and 21st centuries’ sudden explosion of new media have affected interpersonal communication. Radio and TV changed the way we tell narratives, both journalistic and fictive. The internet has done much the same, but with a notable exception: there is far more variety in the ways in which humans can interface with data (and narratives) via the medium of computers.
Writers like William Gibson and Neal Stephenson explored the ways in which people would interface with the net in the future. As it turned out, they were wrong about many particulars, but did a fairly good job of predicting some of the broader concepts. Like Jules Verne’s idea that man would one day travel to the moon (he was right; we just didn’t put people inside giant balls and shoot them out of a cannon to do it), Gibson and Stephenson’s predictions for the future of human/computer (and mediated human/human) interfacing were largely right… in the same way that the adorable three-year-old girl who describes the plot of Star Wars is also technically right.
One of the major themes of the cyberpunk era is the coming similarity of having an internet connection to heroin. “Jacking in,” in Gibson’s works, is an analogue to “tuning in, turning on, and dropping out.” It’s a drug-powered surge toward a collective consciousness. Gibson’s internet echoes the narcotic togetherness of the 1960s, but rather than getting people high in order to facilitate groupthink, the Net is the other way around: it sucks people into the zeitgeist to get them high.
The fear of technology ensconced in all science fiction is just as present in cyberpunk. Much like fear of a rapidly changing society helped readers of Victorian Gothic fiction stay up all night with the lights on (and of course, the Victorian Gothic was science fiction for its time – Dracula, for example, makes use of then-futuristic telegraph technology!), fear of the coming ambiguity between humans and computers made the anxieties of cyberpunk thrilling (and not just cyberpunk, at the time – who can forget Patrick Bateman’s ATM from American Psycho and its inexorable command to FEED ME A CAT?)
Regardless of the anxieties of early adopters, computers never did end up meshing with us as completely as we thought they might. VR technology was introduced in the nineties and never went anywhere, something demonstrated by the abject failure of Nintendo’s Virtual Boy. Attempts to change the way we interface with data physically have been made, but few have been successful since the introduction of the mouse decades ago. Who can forget the rousing success of the Power Glove, for example? It’s so BADDDDDD!
Nowadays, people claim that multi-touch is the future of data interaction. Check out Microsoft’s Surface for an idea of where this may be going:
Multi-touch may well be the future of data manipulation: the success of the iPhone has proven that people are open to new ways of manipulating media (shaking it, dragging it, pinching it, twisting it). The all-encompassing sensory override of Gibson and Stephenson’s work is unlikely, though.
In line with the dread stirred up by the end of term, a grimly sublime photo series by David Maisel, titled Oblivion:
(I’m wondering how spatial, locative applications like google maps might be used in our term projects – in addition to narrative/fiction overlays, what about critical/theory-based ones, or some combination of the two?)
So, peep this,
I was ruminating on these pictures after Monday’s heated discussion, and I was reminded of a visual art lecture I attended that was about representation. The main point was that a representation of a certain thing be it a 1) picture 2) painting 3) blog 4) insert your own representational item here, or turn to page 8 to see what happens with the sharks!
Perhaps the most famous manifestation of representation versus reality was the Magritte painting, The Treachery of Images, in which a painting of tobacco pipe is accompanied by lettering that tells the reader, “Ceci n’est pas une pipe,” or, “This is not a pipe.” Truly, it is not a pipe because we can’t use it to smoke. I wanted to insert a link here, but the tubes will not obey my will today.
Other than that observation, I just wanted to see if anyone has read Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. Not super important, but there is a section near the middle where the narrator is waxing all poetical and shit, and he wonders why it is that we remember what we want to forget (trauma) and forget what we want to remember (names, faces, etc). I thought that vaguely related to The Ebb of Memory, and the camouflage class concept that so amused us on Monday.