MAGIC IS SCIENCE FROM A PREVIOUS UNIVERSE: On Clifford Simak’s THE GOBLIN RESERVATION

This novel is difficult to situate within the categories of today’s science fiction and within Simak’s oeuvre. It belongs to the genre of science fantasy, in that the fantastical beings, powers, and events receive a (sort of) scientific explanation. There is also an outrageous sense of humour that we associate more with Robert Sheckley or Douglas Adams, only a little slower as befits Simak’s style.

The whole story revolves around a man commissioned to broker a deal for the purchase of a repository of knowledge both from the previous universe, prior to our Big Bang, and from our own universe’s long history up to now.The knowledge is stored on a mysterious nomad crystal planet

The antics revolve around a coarse but loveable Neanderthal (retrieved from the past by time travel), a sabre toothed tiger (produced as an experimental model and a pet by bio-mechanical engineering), teleportation, time travel, goblins versus trolls, a ghost who has forgotten who he used to be when alive, and villainous aliens taking the form of hives of insects on wheels.

The world-building is that of an off-the-cuff space opera universe as background to the action, which takes place mainly on Earth.

This is more a long novella than a novel, by today’s standards. It is a fast and enjoyable read, although perhaps a bit lacking in the intellectual depth we expect from Simak.It is also a paean to the value of knowledge and friendship in the face of the entropic running down of the universe and of its magical possibilities.

Note: I am greatly indebted to the inspiration provided by the discussion of this novel on the SFFaudio Podcast: https://www.sffaudio.com/the-sffaudio-podcast-399-readalong-the-goblin-reservation-by-clifford-d-simak/.

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ROSEWATER: Xéno-Fiction Fortéenne

Je viens de terminer la lecture de ROSEWATER, un roman de science fiction passionnant écrit par Tade Thompson, publié l’année dernière (en anglais). C’est un livre captivant, et je le recommande vivement.

Dans un futur proche (2066): un mystérieux “bio-dôme”, d’origine extraterrestre, occupe le centre de la ville de Rosewater au Nigeria. Il est entouré d’une barrière que personne ne peut franchir. Une fois par an, une petite ouverture ou “pore” apparaît sur la surface et les gens aux alentours du dôme sont guéris de leurs maladies (un bon résultat) ou ils sont “reconstruits” autrement que sous forme humaine (généralement un mauvais résultat).

Contenu: mystères, espionnage, secrets, violence, sexe virtuel “alien”, amour romantique, êtres angéliques ou quasi-divins. Des humains devenus télépathes grâce à une infection fongique peuvent accéder à la noosphère composée des pensées, des affects, et des images de tous les êtres sentients (on pourrait dire de toutes les “âmes noétiques”) de l’univers.

ROSEWATER synthétise de multiples influences et tropes science-fictionnels, transformés par un style “weird” (imaginez STALKER raconté par China Miéville). Le récit concerne une invasion extraterrestre accomplie par des moyens écologiques ayant lieu dans un décor post-post-cyberpunk. Deux romans récents auquel on pourrait le comparer sont  SWEET DREAMS par Tricia Sullivan et ANNIHILATION par Jeff VanderMeer.

ROSEWATER se lit (provisiorement du moins, puisqu’il y aura une suite), comme une version “eucatastrophique” d’ANNIHILATION. Il est raconté dans un style en apparence plus simple et direct, mais qui néanmoins atteint le même niveau de complexité.

La “xenosphère” (le monde des pensées,ou monde noétique) dans ROSEWATER rappelle le monde des rêves (qu’on pourrait appeler “l’oneirosphère”) qui figure comme élément central dans SWEET DREAMS de Tricia Sullivan. Il s’agit d’un monde virtuel composé des rêves cybernétiquement assistés d’une humanité de plus en plus dépendante des réseaux et des technologies numériques.

Dans les deux cas, les humains commencent à avoir accès à un domaine virtuel noétique (xénosphère, oneirosphère) auprès duquel notre réalité virtuelle contemporaine semble une caricature  manipulatrice.

La narration fait alterner des chapitres dont le récit est situé dans le présent et d’autres racontant ses origines. On assiste à la découverte par notre protagoniste Kaaro de sa capacité à utiliser les pensées de son entourage pour trouver des objets perdus et de pouvoir voler impunément. On le voit devenir un voleur, se faire prendre, trouver un mentor, se faire attraper par une agence gouvernementale mystérieuse (S45 ou “section quarante-cinq”) qui l’embauche et le forme comme agent secret télépathique. La plus grande partie de cette histoire a lieu en 2055.

Dans le présent de l’histoire (2066) on découvre que quelqu’un ou quelque chose est en train d’assassiner tous les télépathes comme Kaaro, y compris ses anciens camarades formés comme lui par la S45. Sa lutte pour survivre et sa quête pour apprendre ce qui se passe et pourquoi occupent ce deuxième fil narratif.

Thématiquement, le roman est plus complexe qu’il ne semble à première vue. Ses grands thèmes (l’incertitude et la découverte, la duplicité et la confiance, l’identité et l’altérité, l’émerveillement et la trahison, l’égoïsme et l’empathie, l’angoisse et l’amour) donnent de la profondeur au roman. L’histoire est celle de l’individuation du protagoniste Kaaro, qui progresse du cynisme égoïste d’un voleur amoral privé d’empathie jusqu’à l’amour, à l’engagement dans une cause plus vaste que lui, et à une forme (limitée) d’altruisme.

ROSEWATER: A XENO-FORTEAN FICTION

I have just finished reading ROSEWATER, an excellent science fiction novel written by Tade Thompson, published last year. It is a compelling read, and I highly recommend it.

In a near future (2066) a mysterious “biodome” of alien origin occupies the center of the city of Rosewater in Nigeria, a space which none can enter. Once a year a small opening or “pore” appears and people in proximity around it are healed of their illnesses (good, usually) or “reconstructed” along other lines (bad, usually). Mysteries, espionage, secrets, violence, virtual alien sex and human love, angelic and god-like extraterrestrials, fungal infected human telepaths quantum accessing the noosphere composed of all sentients’ thoughts and thought forms.

ROSEWATER synthesises many different sf influences and ideas, combining a weird sff treatment of an alien ecological-based invasion with a post-post-cyberpunk near future setting. The two recent novels that I would compare ROSEWATER to are SWEET DREAMS by Tricia Sullivan, and ANNIHILATION by Jeff VanderMeer.

ROSEWATER reads like a (provisionally, as there will be a sequel) eucatastrophic version of ANNIHILATION, told in a seemingly more straightforward style that manages to attain the same degree of complexity.

The “xenosphere” (or thought-world) in ROSEWATER recalls the use that SWEET DREAMS makes of what one could call the “oneirosphere” (a term not used in the book), a virtual world composed out of the cybernetically assisted dreams of an increasingly plugged-in humanity.

In both cases humans begin to have access to a virtual realm that makes ordinary virtual reality seem like a manipulative caricature.

Narratively, the chapters alternate between the protagonist Kaaro’s nascent discovery of his abilities to draw on the thoughts of others to find objects, and to avoid detection as he launches into a life of theft, is caught, survives to be mentored, and trained to be a secret government operative. Most of the action on this thread takes place in 2055. The “now” of the narration is 2066, and someone or some force is killing the telepathic “sensitives” like Kaaros. His struggle for survival and his effort to learn what is happening and why make up the bulk of this second thread.

Thematically, the novel is more complex than it may seem at first. The themes of anxiety, uncertainty, duplicity, identity and alterity, morality and responsibility, wonder and trust are omnipresent. The story is one of individuation as the protagonist Kaaro progresses from cynicism, an amoral thief devoid of empathy, to engagement and a limited form of altruism.

SIX WAKES ON THE DORMIRE: space clone murder mystery

This is the perfect crime fiction with clones in space. Told with an economy of means at a galloping pace, it is impossible to put down. There is just enough world-building to get on with the story, and the diverse details we learn on the fly, from surprising turns of events and multiple flashbacks, all converge on the character-driven dénouement.

The novel constitutes a very interesting thought experiment concerning all the variations that cloning plus hacking (both genetic and psychic) can generate. The metaphysical theme of identity is cleverly inter-twined with the ethical theme of our responsibility for our unowned or unconscious past.

The style is flatly narrative rather than literary, but the intrigue and the suspense are very skilfully handled.

All in all not a ground-breaking work, but a quick and enjoyable read.

LADY ASTRONAUT OF MARS: A Retro-Futurist Love Story

A bitter-sweet tale focused on the conflicting demands of conjugal love and of passionate vocation. Love is not only an emotion but also a set of life choices together. To be faithful to love is to be faithful to those choices, not always to be faithful to our image of love.

Mary Robinette Kowal manages to convey a lot of emotional complexity in such a short space. Elma, an aging astronaut, in fact the first lady astronaut on Mars, lives in a human settlement on Mars with her elderly husband, pining to get back into space. Miraculously, she is offered a new mission, her last chance to live her passion.

Elma longs to accept, as she has no ties, except her husband, as they chose to have no children. Unfortunately her husband is sick and getting progressively helpless, dying slowly. She does not want to leave him.

It’s a hard thing to look at something you want and to know that the right choice is to turn it down.

These are the cold equations of life, wherever you may live. But where is the sense of wonder? For Elma it was in the voyage out, in space. The wonder of being on another planet is diminished by having to live in a dome on Mars:

The natural night sky on Mars is spectacular, because the atmosphere is so thin. But where humans live, under the dome, all you can see are the lights of the town reflecting against the dark curve.

Wonder is relative, and even migrating to another planet may come to seem a limiting experience, instead of a limit-experience.

I couldn’t stop thinking about the mission. “He knows it’s the only way I’ll get back into space.” Garrett Biggs frowned like I’d said the sky was green, instead of the pale Martian amber. “You’re in space.” “I’m on Mars. It’s still a planet.”

I found this a quite enjoyable story, but the more I think about it the richer it seems. It is about how we may devote ourselves to an absolute, despite the sometimes disappointing nitty gritty details of its effectuation. Elma gets to be an astronaut, but she is selected also as a pretty smiling face to advertise the mission. She is selected decades later for the new mission for both practical and PR reasons. Her love too is absolute, despite being mired in difficult materiality. The contradictions between the ideal and its realisations are well handled.

This story explores the impossible reconciliation of these contradictions and conflicting desires. The end provides us with a lop-sided synthesis, half motivated by the rest of the story, half tacked on.

SEQUEL AS REVENANT: Yoon Ha Lee’s Revenant Gun

REVENANT GUN is the third volume in Yoon Ha Lee’s THE MACHINERIES OF EMPIRE sf trilogy. It is a fitting final episode in the military space opera that began so impressively with NINEFOX GAMBIT, and continued in the less impressive but still engrossing second volume RAVEN STRATAGEM.

The story arc comes to a strong end, and the reading experience is full of the poetry, the sense of wonder, the humour, the sexual attraction, the political and strategic complexity that we have come to expect from the series. This signature stylistic formula is back once again for the third episode, so it is the true “revenant”.

We learn more about our heroes and about the difficulties they must face and overcome to succeed in their plans. However, the universe and its inhabitants beyond the confines of the empire are not explored.

The key word to describe this volume is “more”. We learn more about the world that was set up in the first volume, and that was filled in and expanded in the second volume. We learn more about the calendar and its remembrances, more about Hexarch Nirai Kujen’s plans for immortality, more about the robot servitors, more about the “moth” spaceships.

The new novel is more pedagogical, and more descriptive. Perhaps this is in response to complaints about the difficulty of the opening scenes, the unvisualisability, and the lack of essential explanations that characterised the first book.

Indeed, some of the things we learn here would have been better placed in the first book, such as the nature of the mothships and the torture and human sacrifices that alimented the High Calendar. It is possible that the author had no idea of the explanations behind some of his verbal fireworks, and only came to give determinate content to the evocative neologisms much later.

The pedagogical approach to filling in the missing information is mirrored in the plot by the familiar trope of bringing up to speed an ignorant character.

At the beginning of the novel Jedao is amnesiac, having regressed to the mental age of a seventeen year old first year cadet in Shuos Academy. He has no memories or knowledge of his own life or of political developments since that time, over four hundred years ago.
A second character, Hemiola, is a robot servitor serving on an isolated planet at the edge of the Empire It has no idea of the downfall of the Hexarchate nor of the current political situation.

Both Jedao and Hemiola are brought up to date on the fly, in the course of a fragmented series of conversations, as are we.

This volume was slow-going during the first half, because of the different threads of the intrigue playing out in different times and places. The pay-off was a convergent plot-line that became quite gripping in the second half. The narrative culminated in a satisfying, but predictable climax, and then went downhill into a less predictable, unsatisfying, anti-climax.

Resolution and provisional stability is achieved by the end of the book, but there are enough loose threads to allow a fourth volume, or a further set of short stories, if ever Yoon Ha Lee wants to return to this universe.

AVENGERS INFINITY WAR: Calculation, Manipulation, Montage, Nihilism

I really enjoyed the new Avengers film, although I couldn’t understand why I did. I felt manipulated by the technical perfection of the movie despite its absolute lack of ideas and of real stakes.

I used to like the comic book version because Thanos was unique among super-villains in having an explicit philosophical position: Nihilism. Further, he was no cold calculating rationalist psychopath: he was passionately in love with Death. This gave a craziness to the comic book saga that is missing in the film.

The hubris in the comic is in the desire to win Death’s love, not in the means to do this by gaining Infinite power and killing off half the universe. With the film, the passion, the craziness and the hubris are all flattened out into the film-makers’ calculative desire to make such a film featuring as many super-heroes and escalating powers as possible.

Thanos the Nihilist in love with Death has been replaced by Thanos the Calculator, who provides a good symbol for those who calculate the film (how many actors, who must be included and excluded, how many special effects, space and time limitations, budgetary considerations).

This replacement of the passionate lover of Death by the cold Calculator is a movement that takes place inside nihilism, from nihilism as content (comic book Thanos) to nihilism as form (film-makers of Thanos). Many thinkers (Heidegger and after) have argued that the hegemony of calculation is the fulfilment of nihilism, its ultimate form.

My attention was effectively captured by a continual, and calculated, series of breaks in space and time, in setting and characters, in tone and mood, in demonstrations of power.

Hence my feeling of being manipulated. Not so much by the pathos of Gamora’s tears at the prospect of killing her adoptive father or by the Scarlet Witch’s despair at having to kill the love of her life to destroy the Mind Stone (plot points in which the characters are as manipulated as we are) as by the calculated cinematic montage.

A MATERIALIST READING OF P.K. DICK: Evan Lampe and the world we live in

For those interested in Philip K Dick Evan Lampe’s “Philip K. Dick Book Club” (a rubric on his American Writers podcast) is an amazing resource, together with his blog Philip K. Dick Review, and his book PHILIP K DICK AND THE WORLD WE LIVE IN.

The title of Lampe’s book on P. K. DICK expresses the essence of his approach. He does not indulge in starry-eyed adulation of an oracle or in pseudo-mystical escapism. For Evan Lampe Dick’s stories and novels are about our world of global capitalism and our lives within it.

Of course, this is a one-sided reading, for example Lampe does not give much shrift to Dick’s Gnosticism or to his ontological speculations, but I do not think that Lampe rejects other approaches, such as epistemological, ontological, religious, or meta-linguistic readings of P. K. Dick. Lampe simply pursues with tenacity his own interpretative hypothesis, reading Dick in materialist and sociological terms.

This is a difference of approach that I have with Evan Lampe. I find that the Gnosticism can often illuminate even the earlier pre-gnostic works. Lampe sticks to his materialist hypothesis and offers us the completest interpretation to date. Lampe’s readings are very often illuminating, even if one-sided. I do not think he is being reductive or exclusionary of other approaches.

I myself read P.K. Dick through Deleuze (and Laruelle, Stiegler, Latour, and many others). These are all materialists, but they give us the means to take Dick’s gnosticism seriously. I see no incompatibility. No one person can do everything, but Evan Lampe’s readings are very useful.

I use Evan Lampe’s book, blog, and podcast not as a definitive summa of P.K. Dick’s thought, but as a rich source of hermeneutic catalysts for reading Dick. If ever I feel stuck or stumped, with no (or incomplete) insight into a story, I can turn to these resources and generally find a useful approach.

For those interested in Philip K. Dick’s work I can recommend they read Evan Lampe”s blog or book, and listen to his podcast. If you have another reading of Dick you cannot decide in advance that a materialist reading is all no good.

Lampe’s approach is comprehensive but inevitably one-sided. It compensates for other readings that are themselves one-sided, but in the opposite direction. His approach is no doubt incomplete, but I always draw insight from it.

Note: I am indebted to a twitter discussion with Burton Fisher for helping me clarify my ideas.

ELYSIUM FIRE: wonder vs catharsis

Review of ELYSIUM FIRE by Alastair Reynolds.

Before reading ELYSIUM FIRE I first read the short story “Open and Shut” and then the novel THE PREFECT to prepare for this new book. It is billed as a standalone novel but our understanding and enjoyment is greatly enriched by reading these two prequels. In fact, I think that the attempt to make ELYSIUM FIRE a standalone novel by incorporating numerous infodumps to explain to the first-time reader material that was acquired more contextually in THE PREFECT actually weakened it.

ELYSIUM FIRE (Prefect Dreyfus Emergency 2) is a worthy sequel to THE PREFECT, which is now retitled AURORA RISING. It presents us once again with a gripping story, full of impatience-provoking suspense and surprising reversals.

However, most of the necessary world building was done in THE PREFECT, so the sense of wonder, so ably conveyed by Reynolds, is diminished if one has read the first volume, which managed to combine harmoniously both wonder and intrigue. The sequel is much more explanatory than THE PREFECT. If the stylistic ideal for fiction is show, don’t tell, in this second volume we have more telling, less showing, and the harmonious balance is lost.

New elements include duplicitous sub-plot concerning two morally ambiguous brothers who are brought up in a vast mansion full of dark secrets within secrets and strange technology, that recalls Gene Wolfe’s novella “The Fifth Head of Cerberus”. There is a similar exploration of the complex relations between identity, doubles, and memory.

(The SFFaudio Podcast episode #439  contains a very interesting discussion of the Gene Wolfe novella).

The theme of doubles is repeated in the ethical and legal concerns over the ontological status and the rights of digital copies of people, and the potential blurring of the notions of sentience, responsibility, and culpability.

There is also a shift of emphasis in the analysis of democracy. Whereas THE PREFECT expanded on the potentiality of a technology-assisted democracy to produce extreme living choices, ELYSIUM FIRE focuses more on the loopholes and failings such as the power of demagogy, the identitarian will to secession, and the manipulation of information.

One of the sub-plots that was foregrounded in the the first volume, that of the battle between two vast distributed artificial intelligences (Aurora and the Clockmaker), is carried over into this volume but remains mostly in the background. Its continued but unresolved presence suggests a formulaic plot device capable of generating at least a third “Prefect Dreyfus Emergency” novel, or even more.

This develoment promises to reinforce the primacy of intrigue over cosmo-technical invention that characterises this second volume, and so perhaps to a further decline in science-fictional wonderment in favour of police procedural excitement and catharsis.

In short ELYSIUM FIRE is an enthralling novel that makes one want to race through the book and to finish it in as few sittings as possible. It comes close to, but does not fully match, the balance of speculative invention and suspense-filled intrigue that made the first book such a successful fusion of sf and detective genres.

BLADE RUNNER 2049 (4): the strange void of subjectivity

“There is no subject without an incomplete Big Other” Slavoj Zizek

The original version of BLADE RUNNER had neither the voice over by Harrison Ford nor the happy end showing the escape in the car. Supposedly this was felt to be too confusing for the ordinary viewer and the contextualising narration was added, along with the traditional Hollywood happy end, to give coherence to the montage. A visual summary of the different versions can be found here. Ambiguity and incompleteness are an essential part of the mode of enunciation of Ridley Scott’s film.

Denis Villeneuve’s sequel re-inscribes this ambiguity and incompleteness at the level of content. The replicants’ inserted memories are incomplete fragments, ambiguous and unreliable, yet, as we have seen, this messy aspect makes them real even though they are not authentic.

K’s inquiry-cum-quest for closure reveals him to be even emptier than he thought. He is not only officially programmed for obedience and equipped with false memories, but his entire “secret”, unofficial history that he uncovers is itself a fabrication

The revelation that his previous “revelation” (he was the first replicant born, not made) was false leaves him in a state of subjective destitution even more thoroughgoing than that of Rachael in the first film.This subjectivity as unprogrammed void is what there is in replicants that is “more human than human”.

Deckard declares, to justify his abandoment of his and Rachael’s child “Sometimes to love someone, you gotta be a stranger”. This statement has more far-reaching import than he realises, as behind our familiar roles and cherished memories there is the strange void of our subjectivity. To be human is to be a stranger.

The true anamnesis is not the recollection of facts and anecdotes about one’s past life, but the discovery of this pure subjectivity void of content and the retroactive perception that it was present all along.