THE ORIGINAL – Kowal and Sanderson’s hypermodern novella

Postmodernism began as a critical and democratising force, questioning the hegemony of the original over the copy. It proclaimed the aesthetic, ethical, political, and ontological superiority of the copy pushed to the point where the original was seen as itself just one copy amongst many, and not the ideal to which they must conform.

The aporia of postmodernism lies in its denegation of the real, a denial that is tantamount to a passive collaboration with the power relations that both constitute and conceal the real.

Hypermodernism is the intensification of this aporetic state, only relieved of its paradoxes. The real is no longer denied as such, but perceived to be uninteresting, in need of augmentation. The hypermodern subject perceives just enough of the real to be able to navigate it without bodily harm, and actively collaborates on its amelioration by means of multi-sensory overlay.

In the hypermodernist society, the real is acknowledged, but only as a basis for the democratised creativity of everyday life. Not only does the adapted subject of this society give power free reign, as did the postmodern subject, it actively participates in the surveillance and control technologies, and so enlarges and intensifies the ruling class’s power over the population.

THE ORIGINAL is an SF novella by Brandon Sanderson and Mary Robinette Kowal, published on the 14th of September in audio form. It makes use of music to immerse us in the world and the action, ironically employing in a nascent form the very techniques of augmentation and immersion that the novel describes.

At the start of the story, the protagonist Holly Winseed wakes up lying in a hospital bed with no knowledge of how she got there. Thus we begin inside a familiar SF trope, and we shall never leave them.

The book narrates the heroine’s voyage of discovery across a sea of tropes, concluding with the (self-consciously) failed and flawed subjectivity that constitutes the best outcome possible in hypermodern times.

Holly, who is both the protagonist and our only point of view character in this first-person narrative, learns that she is a “provisional replica” of her original, containing the memories and personality of her last back-up. She is a legal clone (replica) with an inbuilt life-span of only four days, created to track down and execute her previous instantiation (her original), guilty of murdering her (their) husband and of going into hiding.

We learn that in this society people are virtually immortal, their body is full of nanites that repair all injury and stop the ageing process. The nanites also permit the periodic backups of personality and memory that can be infused into a clone, in case of irreparable damage and death. The nanites are also employed to generate “themes”, modes of sensory perception of the external world – from bucolic to Gothic, from sober to garish augmented overlays.

A crucial problem is that these modifications to our sensoria are not limited to simple aesthetic overlays, but involve actual editing of perceived reality, to edit our violent actions that take place around us, to create a perception of being alone even though we are in a crowd, etc.

Holly has had her theming capacity turned off, and she has been edited to have strength and combat skills far beyond those of her original. She is told that her personality and motivations have been left unaltered. She begins to feel uncharacteristic tendencies towards violence. These are supposedly not implanted but a result of the disinhibition permitted by her new capacities.

Can a copy surpass the original, in what ways and to what extent? We see that memories and emotions are not enough to define the self, and that our capacities and circumstances contribute to this definition too. Nevertheless this multiplication of selves does not lead to postmodern relativism where each self is “equally valid”.

Far from seeing herself as “valid”, Holly-the-replica learns that her original is equally invalid, and that a choice must be made between selves that are equally flawed and failed. Despite all the plurality and plasticity of reality, real points of bifurcation exist where the choice is life-or-death. The real intrudes.

The book concludes with a flawed but satisfying ending, and one’s reflexion has been enriched by this enjoyable voyage across diverse science-fictional tropes, each given its own twist. Reality is composed of stereotypes, but the real is in the twists.

A DREAM OF DIFFERENCE: Adrian Tchaikovsky’s THE DOORS OF EDEN

0) INTRADIEGETIC SUMMARY AND THE APTNESS OF NAMES

THE DOORS OF EDEN begins and ends with two young women, Lisa Pryor and Elsinore Mallory, who call each other Lee and Mal respectively. They are in love with each other but are separated at the beginning of the novel, at the age of nineteen, as Mal falls into a crack in the world and disappears. They are reunited four years later, when Mal reappears and drags Lee into an adventure to save the multi-verse.

Mal aptly and concisely summarises the plot:

‘We’re here and they trust us.’ Mal chuckled. ‘It’s a million-to-one long shot, and only these two desperate lesbians can save the world. Perfect action movie material.’

A certain number of the themes of the novel can be seen to be reflected in the names, with varying degrees of plausibility. “Lee” is appropriate to a story based on chance and its branchings, “Pryor” to one based on Deep Time. “Elsinore” alluding to Hamlet, is appropriate to the choice between being and non-being, Mal to the necessary tolerance for transgression. “Mallory” is an anagram of morally, it is also the surname of the protagonist of SLIDERS, a TV series involving transport to parallel Earths.

1) POP-STAPLEDONIAN DIFFÉRANCE

Adrian Tchaikovsky’s new book THE DOORS OF EDEN is an intelligent and enjoyable book quasi-Stapledonian in scope, ambitious and full of sense of wonder, only it includes pop culture clichés, silly puns, and geeky memes.

There is much in the book to interest and give pleasure to the contemporary reader, multiversal alternate Earths and Extinction Events, multiple other Intellects, puns and paradoxes, transgressive sex (polyamory and adultery, lesbian love, transsexuality, “open-minded” Neanderthals), Fortean research and Dr Who references. The whole book is a eulogy to difference.

Talking about a god-like “it”, Mal says:

maybe it was static. It saw the possibility of something dynamic and different, and it preferred that. It sure seems to want to preserve that difference…We are the things it dreamt, and now it needs us to keep the dream alive,

2) GENITIVITY AND THE AMBIGUOUS TITLE

“THE DOORS OF EDEN” is a resonant but cryptic title. To unpack its sense we need to resort to some (simple) grammar. It is possible to distinguish at least three main types of genitive with “of” in English: objective, subjective, and appositive. This enables us to see three different meanings for the title.

a) Objective genitive: the doors that take Eden as an object, that open onto Eden. Portals.

b) Subjective genitive: the doors that belong to Eden, that open from Eden onto somewhere else. Branchings.

c) Appositive genitive: the doors that are themselves Eden (cf. “the city of London”, which does not signify possession, but identity, i.e. the city that is London). “Vive la différence” (actually said by Mal).

The movement of the narrative is from objective to subjective genitive, and then to appositive genitive. There, I have spoiled the plot, but only for those who already know it and who are ready to see it through the grammatical lens provided by the title.

3) SCIENCING ALICE

An interesting technique of science fiction is its capacity to give a scientific treatment of fantasy stories, thus transforming them into sf. THE DOORS OF EDEN can be seen as a contemporary re-writing of Lewis Carroll’s Alice books as science fiction.

The structure of THE DOORS OF EDEN is based on allusions to famous plot points in Lewis Carroll’s two Alice books:

Part 1 DOWN THE RABBIT HOLE: portals and multiple worlds

Part 2 LOOKING GLASS CREATURES encountering the strange others from alternate earths

Part 3 RED QUEEN HYPOTHESIS believing seemingly “impossible” things hopefully before breakfast. Any sufficiently advanced technology and cosmology are indistinguishable from magic.

Part 4 RED KING’S DREAM make the world safe for (quantum-computing exosomatic cosmological) dreams

4) SCIENCE-FICTIONING PHILOSOPHY

Another interesting technique of science-fiction is its ability to translate a philosophical concept or hypothesis into a premise of world-building, to “physicalise” the idea and explore its consequences. We can see this in the SF trope of multiple worlds that we can not only imagine or speculate on, but in certain cases actually visit. This has become a rather familiar idea by now, reprised in popular TV series from SLIDERS to COUNTERPART.

The trope has been so thoroughly exploited that it is hard to come up with a new and interesting variation on the same hackneyed old theme. One of the most brilliant inventions in this line in recent science fiction is to be found in Neal Stephenson’s ANATHEM, which posits a multiverse in which Plato’s world of ideal forms exists as a physical world in a nested hierarchy, that we can travel to or receive visitors from.

In THE DOORS OF EDEN Adrian Tchaikovsky is able to invent a new version of the multiple world trope by having recourse to another science. Instead of making use of ideas taken from mathematics and mathematical physics as Stephenson does, Tchaikovsky turns to paleo-biology and the concept of Deep Time.

5) MULTICOGNITIVE ESTRANGEMENT (1): Speculative Biology

In the structure of the book as I have described it above the four parts that compose it are of unequal size and composition, ranging from three to six chapters (part four contains three or six, depending on how you look at it).

Between each chapter is an “Interlude” composed of an excerpt from “Other Edens: Speculative Evolution and Intelligence” a fictional book by Professor Ruth Emerson. This book recounts the development of inhuman and vastly different intelligences flourishing on alternate Earths, as different species rise to dominance on divergent timelines.

This is one mode that Tchaikovsky employs for presenting what is for me the strong point of this book: its combination of a notion of multiple Earths on alternative timelines with a vision of Deep Time.

Speculative Paleobiology is his major source of cognitive estrangement. This key feature is part of what makes the book interesting as speculative fiction.

6) MULTICOGNITIVE ESTRANGEMENT (II): Speculative Mathematics

The other major science that enters into the scaffolding of the book’s world-building is mathematics, but it figures only as hand-waving, in gestures at some magical science or mental potion in the possession of the “boffins”.

(The word “boffin” is a marker of a third science, or pseudo-science, that figures in the book: the science of Britishness. It is regularly invoked, but only in the guise of clichés. Does a self-aware cliché cease to be a cliché. As I keep remarking THE DOORS OF EDEN is a very self-aware book, does that mean it is not very clichéd?).

This use of mathematics to generate or explain the sense of wonder sought for in good science fiction is becoming more frequent in recent sf, perhaps in response to the increasing abstraction of contemporary physics itself. I mentioned the example of Neal Stephenson’s ANATHEM, which is a rather demanding book. Another example is Yoon Ha Lee’s NINEFOX GAMBIT and its lesser sequels, whose world-building relies on a mathematical substrate.

The case of NINEFOX GAMBIT is interesting, as Yoon Ha Lee remarked that he could have made a more demanding use of the mathematical basis, but that he chose to privilege the adventure and accessibility to a wider public.

So it is a little disappointing that a recondite (fictional) field of mathematics plays such a central role in the world-building and plot in THE DOORS OF EDEN, but that Tchaikovsky does not elaborate much on it. He is very much aware of this magical use of mathematics, and several times jokes about it, but it still seems to be a failing.

7) SEQUENCING WITTGENSTEIN’S LION

Preliminary disclaimer by a giant alien intelligence quoting Wittgenstein:

“If a lion could talk we could not understand him, it pronounced.”

This dictum is put forth as an self-evident remark in a surreally funny scene of an attempted dialogue with a talking head made out of worms secreted by a giant intelligent flying trilobite the size of a small village, so far beyond us in intelligence that Wittgenstein’s statement is a truism for it.

But if we had a sequence that ran without break from lion to human then perhaps we could pass words up and down the chain.

This contains the best analysis of and response to Wittgenstein’s “if a lion could speak” argument. It is proffered by Alison Matchell, who is called on one occasion “Alice”, whose main activity is “rabbit-holing”.

8) TCHAIKOVSKY’S LADDER

This scalar sequence of intelligences expresses an idea that I propose to call Tchaikovsky’s Ladder. It is a good image of the book’s style as it moves with impressive ease from a YA adventure story through speculative biology, and from multiversal spy thriller to apocalyptic cosmology, or from Charles Fort to Ludwig Wittgenstein.

Ascending the scale we have humans from our world, Kay Amal Khan – a scientist from our world, but the only human capable of understanding the mathematics of multiverse cosmology, Neanderthals from a parallel Earth – more intelligent than us both intellectually and emotionally, giant trilobites, a giant Ice Computer, a planet-wide moss-like creature (making us wonder about the continued use of “sod” as an insult, e.g. the villain is called “a patronizing sod”, Kay says “Sod it” to complain, Alison even says in a fit of despair “sod the universe” – all these should be good things, if only humans weren’t so ignorant).

9) MULTIVERSAL MULTICULTURALISM

THE DOORS OF EDEN is not a short book, 445 pages long, but I read it avidly over three days. The book is ambitious, intelligent, engrossing,funny, and self-aware but does not live up to the full speculative potential of its ideas, preferring in the end to privilege the “only a young lesbian couple can save us” adventure.

Perhaps this is an indication that Tchaikovsky agrees with his Neanderthals, and with Lee and Mal, that emotional intelligence is more important than cerebral intelligence, that difference is to be valued rather than to be fought and purified away.

A political reading of THE DOORS OF EDEN would be as an anti-Brexit novel, glossing the title as THE DOORS OF EUROPE. One very nasty main character, who finally comes out as a racist and a fascist, accomplishes provisionally the ultimate Brexit. The novel addresses the question of the fate of difference in a not so tolerant world, and of how much difference and diversity we are willing to “tolerate” or even enjoy.

There is much to enjoy and admire in this novel, and that it is enough to make it a book I can wholeheartedly recommend.

NEAL ASHER’S THE BOSCH

I just bought and read Neal Asher’s new novella THE BOSCH. This is a very gripping and entrancing story, and at 276 (e-book) for 59 pages it is well worth the purchase.

In discussing science fiction stories about vastly superior alien intelligences or about far future civilisations it is customary to cite Clarke’s Third Law:

“Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic”.

This law applies to the enunciative content of a story, and signals a tendency towards the convergence of SF and Fantasy. One often forgets to state the corollary of this “law” at the level of enunciation:

Any story about a sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from myth, legend, fairy tale, or dream narrative.

THE BOSCH takes place in a far future, “post-Polity”, i.e. in the same universe as Asher’s Polity cycle, but long after the Polity itself has been and gone. It takes place on a planet with at least two moons, a Red Moon and a Green Moon. So not on Earth as we know it.

The two moons Green and Red may symbolise two aspects of the Goddess of this planet, a “Nature” Goddess that corresponds to Gaia for Earth. Her name is “Yoon”. This is the first word of the novella: “Yoon swims towards the lake of the Progenitors”.

(Note on pronunciation: “Yoon” rhymes with “Moon”, but given the prominence of bio-technology, one could also pronounce “Yo-on”, to rhyme with the Greek “zo-on”).

Yoon, a seemingly beautiful young woman, then surfaces from the “pellucid waters” she is swimming in, onto a beautiful beach and all around is pristine and beautiful. However very rapidly this innocence (Green) is violated by a gang of of five outworlders, and an inexorable, implacable quest for vengeance ensues (Red).

These transgressors have violated a Goddess consubstantial with the planet itself, as we soon learn, but as we should have realised from from the realised first paragraph: “She encompasses the world and it lies within her”.

Yoon goes from mode Green to mode Red, and conjures up (i.e. biotechnically engineers) some very creepy monsters, called the “Bosch” as they resemble characters straight from a Hieronymous Bosch painting, and “Retribution” is sought.

The Goddess is a scientific wonder but also an artistic masterpiece, and her retribution will be a scientific lesson in poetic justice, and also in diplomatic relations – for she is also the Sovereign political agent of the planet.

The plot plays out like a Greek myth embedded in a Tragedy embedded in a Lovecraftian horror embedded in a noir detective story embedded in a planetary opera embedded in a nightmare. On her quest for retribution Yoon is more like a Terminator than the naive Venus of the opening paragraphs.

The novella’s story is one of beauty, sex, love, and violence (in fact mostly violence), and the sense of wonder that far future world-building provides, when done well. It is full of ideas, embedded in striking images and teaseful twists.

The waves of invention (Asher’s own Green) maintain the same frenetic cadence as the gusts of violence (Asher’s Red). Catharsis ensues.

Links:

Neal Asher’s Blog: https://www.nealasher.co.uk/

Page devoted to THE BOSCH: https://www.nealasher.co.uk/book/the-bosch/

THE LAST HUMAN: talking intelligently (or not) about higher intelligences

CO(S)MIC YA SPACE OPERA

THE LAST HUMAN is a new science fiction novel by Zack Jordan. A great pleasure to read, this book synthesizes a lot of influences and several genres of SF. It combines the sense of wonder of a big idea space opera, the thrilling adventures and realisations of a cosmic young adult coming of age story, with the whimsical humour of post-Douglas Adams jaunt through a bio-culturally diverse galaxy.

PLEASURE

The novel is very pleasant to read, and the plot is very engaging. (I read it over two days) and it’s difficult to tear yourself away from it, as the intrigue and the frequent reveals, twists, and reversals are well conducted.

AMBITION: TIERS FOR FEARS

The novel is based on a brilliant (but not unprecedented) idea: to make intelligence and its different degrees an integral part of the construction of the world (world building) and not only the structure of the personality (characterization). The lower tiers usually have no idea what is going on, and the higher one climbs the tiers the more god-like the entity’s understanding and power.

EXECUTION: the conceit of higher intelligences

Nevertheless, the execution does not fully rise to the height of this ambitious idea. The conception of a hierarchy of tiers of intelligence is interesting, it is an important theme of SF (for example Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes, The Marching Morons by Cyril Kornbluth, or Understand by Ted Chiang). Zack Jordan makes an original contribution to this theme of intelligence/stupidity. However, the description of the thought processes of tiers higher than the human level often leaves something to be desired. Zack Jordan is at his best on this conceit (in both senses) of higher intelligence when he shows it at work in the production of seeming luck and coincidence as part of the general manipulation of lower tier intelligences.

YA: YOUNG ADULT (or Young Arthropod)?

It’s certainly a coming of age story, but is it really Young Adult? Admittedly, the heroine, Sarya the Daughter, is a young adult, the adoptive daughter of a gigantic spider foster-mother, Shenya the Widow (one may note that the names of the first two characters we meet end in “ya”). We see Sarya grow intellectually and morally, as she progress in her understanding of her world and its background. The story begins as in many YA novels with the heroine to be, Sarya the Daughter, on the point of having to decide on her future profession and of being stuck for life with her unsatisfactory (and unfair!) corresponding social status.

THE ANXIETY OF (THE HUMOUR OF) INFLUENCE

For me, the answer to the question of whether THE LAST HUMAN is basically another YA dystopian novel, or whether it merely contains elements of this type of story alongside those of many other types, is related to the appreciation of humour that permeates much of his style. A close affinity for the works of H2G2 by Douglas Adams is omnipresent, but, as this comparison shows, this type of humour is not necessarily reserved for “young” literature. One can also think of DIMENSION OF MIRACLES by Robert Sheckley, where the hero gets tired of meeting so many quasi-divine entities, repetitiously awe-inspiring and overwhelming in their superiority, and ends up becoming quite jaded about them.

MESO-TOPIA

The novel is interesting in that it does not begin with, or develop into, the realisation that one is living in a dystopia as in so many YA SF novels (or, more likely, series), nor does it plunge us into a utopia. The final realisation (“final”, awaiting a probable second volume) is that Sarya is living in an in-between society, which one could call a “meso-topia”.

So the novel is a real pleasure to read. I hesitated for too long before finally deciding to read it, convinced by this review (in French): https://lecultedapophis.com/2020/03/30/the-last-human-zack-jordan/

(Note: there have been some mixed reactions to the novel, but it only disappoints if one considers that a partial awkwardness in execution overshadows the grand ambition of the design.

Note: one can find a video of the author reading the whole first chapter of THE LAST HUMAN here.

GENE WOLFE AGAINST RELATIVISM: ontology, indeterminacy, pluralism, and tradition

This is my side of a discussion with Marc Arimini, who very kindly commented on my last post.

In my re-writing of Darko Suvin’s definition of science fiction (“the literature of cognitive estrangement”) as the literature of noetic estrangement I referred to the incipit to Gene Wolfe’s THE SHADOW OF THE TORTURER as an example, making use of indeterminacy as one mode of estrangement.

Estrangement is the more generic term, and indeterminacy, taken for example however metaphorically or literally in its quantum acceptation, is but one of the possible modes of estrangement.

Given the role of indeterminacy in THE BOOK OF THE NEW SUN, foreknowledge, like memory, cannot be associated with either certainty (epistemological) or immutability (ontological). From the moment that Wolfe includes quantum concepts into the tissue of his text, classical concepts such as theodicy take on a “strange” new aspect. There is no incompatibility between objectivity and indeterminacy, if the latter is taken ontologically rather than epistemologically.

I would not say that the “central mystery” (Mar Aramini’s term) in THE BOOK OF THE NEW SUN is ontological, but ontology (or, if you don’t like the use of that word in this way or in this context, speculative cosmology) is built into the framework of the story’s projected world.

Divergent possibilities can be ontologically real, irreducible to some epistemology. So I do not think that uncertainty and divergence can be attributed solely to the epistemological level. Thus an objective state of being can well be indeterminist but predictably so (as in the ontological interpretation of quantum theory, as opposed to the epistemological one).

In a nutshell: quantum gnosis ungrounds univocal meaning and multi-contextualises interpretations of being (not so concise, to be sure, but including the crisis of foundations and ontological pluralism in its purview).

Note: the first half of my last post was a very tentative reflection on SF, and I am quite open to discussion here, it is not meant dogmatically. The second half is an analysis of the opening image, and I was pleased to see what I could come up with.

On the question of whether Wolfe’s writing is in accord with a particular tradition my opinion is mitigated. One cannot combine tradition and quantum thinking without getting something strange. I am not arguing for relativism here, quite the opposite.

Multiple possibilities can be objective, pluralism can be a realism. I am not talking about Wolfe’s work in general, I defer to Marc Arimini’s expertise on that. However, I do talk about some aspects of THE BOOK OF THE NEW SUN.

I also defer to Marc on the influence of Augustine and Aquinas in Gene Wolfe’s work, but I see THE BOOK OF THE NEW SUN through categories and themes developed by thinkers that Wolfe never read, but whose conceptual paths can enrich our vision: Gilles Deleuze, François Laruelle, Alain Badiou. These philosophers are not my authorities, but they do provide useful resources I can draw on. They belong to the philosophical tradition, but to its self-subverting side.

My own idea of tradition is that of a shared evolving metaphysical research programme that can be characterised, and evaluated, by an open set of heuristic criteria such as openness, realism, historicity, pluralism, apophaticity, place and role of an absolute, etc.

In these terms, a tradition considered as a shared body of knowledge not fixed.  It is a shared research programme, containing an ongoing research process. In this context the word “creed” is ambiguous. It designates either the heuristic core of that tradition, or a static photo or dogma, so I am wary of the word. A tradition is self-adapting, in this sense self-subverting, or it has degenerated from a living tradition to dead dogma.

“Beliefs” are objective facts, that exist and have effects, and can “move” us even in very different contexts than that of their origin, irrespective of the question of whether they are true or not.

My general views of science fiction are presented indirectly, and very partially, in a series of eight blog posts commenting on TETRALOGOS a recent book by Laruelle, beginning here: https://terenceblake.wordpress.com/2019/10/06/laruelle-and-science-fiction-abstract/.

Or if you want the final, complete version: https://terenceblake.wordpress.com/2019/10/07/laruelle-and-radical-science-fiction-full-english-text/.

For a overview of my ideas on ontology, realism, and pluralism, see my paper IS ONTOLOGY MAKING US STUPID?

Here (summary and link): https://terenceblake.wordpress.com/2015/06/10/is-ontology-making-us-stupid-synchronic-vs-diachronic-ontologies/

 

GENE WOLFE AND NOETIC ESTRANGEMENT: the incipit to The Shadow of the Torturer

I would like to talk you about The Book of the New Sun, by Gene Wolfe. It is a science fiction novel in four volumes, of a genre difficult to determine unequivocally, which is part of his writerly intent. It is a speculative cosmo-theological planetary romance, a metaphysical and religious Bildungsroman, halfway between fantasy and science fiction.

This indeterminacy and this pluri-vocity constitute both the strangeness of the novel and its canonicity, as if we were touching on the essence of science fiction. From the start, SF produced works that went beyond simple scientific extrapolation to ask questions and propose visions built on ontological, theological and epistemological speculations.

From the Star Maker by Olaf Stapledon to Anathem by Neil Stephenson, via the Dune cycle or the latest novels by Robert Heinlein, SF has regularly produced unclassifiable works, real logics of the worlds (to borrow the title of one of the major books of the philosopher Alain Badiou).

The philosopher Jean-Clet Martin, who wrote a Logic of Science Fiction: From Hegel to Philip K. Dick (published in French in 2017, still untranslated), was able to highlight this deep logic at work in science fiction. He does not explicitly discuss the fiction of Gene Wolfe, but his book allows us to see that The Book of the New Sun is in logical dialogue not only with the canon of science fiction but with its essence.

For my part, I have explored aspects and examples of this speculative logic under the name of “noetic estrangement”. We know the definition of science fiction proposed by Darko Suvin:  SF is “the literature of cognitive estrangement”. This simple formula is both concise and paradoxical, which allows it to resonate on multiple planes while having the air of final precision. It ties together fiction, cognition and strangeness in an admirable, but incomplete attempt at generalization.

Suvin’s definition attempts to get at the generic core of science fiction by generalising its component terms. By replacing “science” with “cognition”, we gain in generality, which is necessary to characterize a genre deploying knowledge that goes far beyond the sciences alone.

On the other hand, even with this more general term of “cognition” we risk losing the openness introduced by the further choice of the generic term “estrangement” instead of the traditional “sense of wonder”. In fact, science fiction invokes far more affects than wonder, for example dread and horror, but also dysphoria and malaise, happiness and joyn doubt and uncertainty, worry and hope, and the numinous.

In the search for a generic definition of speculative fiction, that is, of science fiction and fantasy, I think that we should include other acts of the mind than cognition alone (be it extrapolated or alternative). This arbitrary limitation of strangeness to the “cognitive”, to the detriment of the perceptual and imaginative dimensions, could valorise the literal sense of the texts, and thus lead us to neglect considerations of style, conceptuality and  metaphoricity of the texts. It is for this reason that I prefer to replace “cognitive” with the more general term “noetic”.

With these prerequisites in mind, we can examine the incipit in THE SHADOW OF THE TORTURER, to try to grasp the specific type of noetic estrangement it produces. The text is written in the first person, the narrator is called “Severian”, an apprentice in the Order of the Seekers for Truth and Penitence, more colloquially called the Guild of Torturers.

Everything happens in a future so distant that our own era has the status of a myth. The first chapter, Resurrection and death , begins as follows:

It is possible I already had some presentiment of my future. The locked and rusted gate that stood before us, with wisps of river fog threading its spikes like the mountain paths, remains in my mind now as the symbol of my exile. That is why I have begun this account of it with the aftermath of our swim, in which I, the torturer’s apprentice Severian, had so nearly drowned (4).

1) The first words are “It is possible”: we start with the modality of the uncertain, of the virtual, and not of the actual. This is a very paradoxical beginning coming from someone who presents himself as having the certainty of a perfect memory:

It is in my nature, my joy and my curse, to forget nothing. Every rattling chain and whistling wind, every sight, smell, and taste, remains changeless in my mind, and though I know it is so with everyone, I cannot imagine what it can mean to be otherwise, as if one had slept when in fact an experience is merely remote (7).

Notes

– There is a strange epistemo-temporal knot here as we begin with a present uncertainty about a past anticipation of a future destiny.

– Given the title of the book (The Shadow of the Torturer) , this gives enhanced meaning to the concept of foreshadowing.

2) Then we talk about the future, about the “presentiment” contained in the incident that Severian chose to open the book of his memories. These memoirs do not recount a story of suspense, since Severian reveals to us at the end of the short first chapter that he will survive his adventures and go on to become the monarch of his world (its “Autarch”):

 It was in this fashion that I began the long journey by which I have backed into the throne (11).

Notes:

– We are talking about the memory of a possible foreknowledge of an exile to come, yet the tetralogy recounts both his exile and final return. The foreknowledge has its limits, it is “foggy” (see point 4).

– The “backing into the throne” suggests an involuntary destiny, an inexorable necessity, in contrast to the theme of possibility of the opening sentence.

3) Severian speaks about a swim where he “nearly” drowned. Death, at some point, was avoided. However, the title of this first chapter is Resurrection and death, not death and resurrection. It is suggested that the death given by Severan to a stranger is preceded by a “resurrection”, perhaps his own. Later in the tetralogy we will see several resurrections linked to Severian, his own as well as that of others. So it is possible that he actually did drown. The title, at first sight symbolic, could be literally true.

Notes:

– With “nearly” we are once again in the realm of possibility, but this time of a possibility averted, a virtuality.

– A possible bifurcation was avoided. This foreshadows the theme of branching paths that is important in the rest of the story.

4) The closed gate and the wisps of fog “like mountain paths” are for him the “symbols” of his exile. Concrete objects kept in his memory, the portal and the fog are de-literalized in his imagination, become allegories of the path of his life. It is the reverse movement of (3), where a virtual fact has been, allusively, literalized.

Notes:

– Severian’s analysis of this symbolic (yet real) seems incomplete. The closed gate seems to prefigure his “exile”, but the fog hints at the fuzzy, indeterminate nature of this future.

– The fog divides into wisps, “like the mountain paths”, indicating the forking paths or the possible bifurcations of the future. The image symbolises both necessity and multiple possibilities.

In this short paragraph Gene Wolfe establishes a play of intentionalities (retention and protention, or memory and anticipation), temporalities (past, present, future), epistemic (certainty, possibility) and ontological (virtual, actual) modalities and epistemological or noetic status (literal cognition, symbolic imagination).

We are warned at the outset that the narrative will consist of passages from one pole to another in each of these conceptual couples, and that Severian’s apprenticeship will be a voyage between all these semiotic categories.

THE DEATH OF DR ISLAND: A Structural Tableau of Hell

THE DEATH OF DR. ISLAND is an amazing novella by Gene Wolfe. You can find the audiobook on youtube, here. There is also a very good discussion on the Gene Wolfe Literary Podcast here. See also the four previous episodes for an extended analytical recap of the novella.

The discussion on the Gene Wolfe Literary Podcast is, as usual, is very interesting, and I think that it gives a very good treatment of the themes, possible interpretations, and the remaining questions. They give a very useful summary as well, so I can only provide a few footnotes to their discussion.

1) Structural Tableau

The title plays on four possible meanings, depending on whether “of” is construed as a subjective or an objective genitive, and whether the “death” is to be construed as literal or metaphorical.

2) Four Deaths

Three of the meanings can be found in the body of the story.

A) Nicholas tries to literally “kill” Dr. Island, the AI of the satellite.

B) Diane is allowed to die (literally) at the hands of Ignacio as wish-fulfilment therapy for both of them. This sense of “the death of Dr. Island is explicitly revendicated by the AI.

C) Nicholas is plunged into metaphorical (psychic, but not biological, not cerebral) death to allow the foregrounding of the Kenneth sub-personality.

This allows us to hypothesise a fourth possibility:

D) The metaphorical death of Dr. Island, who shows himself to be more a figure of Satan than an equivalent of God. This is foreshadowed in Nicholas’s vision of Lucifer as having “fallen up, into the fires and the coldness of space”.

3) Two Souls

One thinks of Goethe’s FAUST: “Two souls, alas, are housed within my breast, And each will wrestle for the mastery there.” Nicholas physically, like Diane psychically, houses two souls within his breast. Diane dies in a failed attempt to liberate her second soul (a bird), and thus foreshadows Nicholas’s death.

4) Infernal Trinity

If Dr. Island is an AI caricature of God the Father, and Ignacio is a psychopathic Christ, then Diane’s bird is a hallucinatory Holy Ghost. The bird foreshadows the coming of Kenneth, who is now to function as a physical Holy Ghost, “helping” others.

5) Hatching

Diane is an egg, she hatches a non-existent bird. The satellite is an egg, it hatches Ignacio, who leaves presumably by the hatch. Nicholas is an egg, he hatches Kenneth, who will de devoted to hatching new “important” patients.

6) Diane and Actaeon

One should bear in mind the classical references contained in the name “Diane”. The goddess Diana is the Roman equivalent of Artemis) is the daughter of Jupiter, and the mental hospital that is the habitat of the three characters (or inmates) is in orbit around Jupiter. Nicholas can be seen as a version of Actaeon figure, the huntsman that observed Diana naked bathing in a spring. In punishment he was transformed by Diane into a stag, incapable of speech, and was hunted down and torn apart by his own hounds. Nicholas is reduced to a mute “beast” at the end, his brain torn apart by a pack of monkeys under the orders of Dr. Island.

MÉMOIRES D’HADRIEN: xénocide et héliophage (L’empire du silence)

L’empire du silence, le premier tome d’une vaste épopée de science-fiction écrite par Christopher Ruocchio, est une œuvre très ambitieuse, et assez bien réussi pour un premier roman.

J’ai eu des sentiments mitigés en le lisant. Contrairement à certains lecteurs très élogieux, je ne trouve pas que le roman soit un chef d’œuvre, mais c’est d’une lecture très prenante (malgré certaines longueurs) et je lirais avec plaisir les suites.

S’il fallait chiffrer mon propos, je lui donnerais une note de 3,5 / 5 étoiles, portée à 4 / 5 grâce à sa gestion intelligente de la problématique de “l’estrangement” linguistique et culturelle ouverte par la description de civilisations et de subjectivités très différentes des nôtres.

Je suis d’accord avec de nombreux lecteurs que le roman est très intertextuel, contenant maintes éléments qui rappellent (pour ne pas dire qui imitent) des traits structurels et narratifs importants présents dans les œuvres de ses influences (avouées ou non) et de ses prédécesseurs. S’ il s’agit d’un roman dérivé, au moins il est ambitieusement dérivé, voire multi-dérivé, combinant des éléments tirés de grands modèles tels que L’OMBRE DU BOURREAU (et LE LIVRE DU NOUVEAU SOLEIL en général), LA STRATÉGIE D’ENDER, DUNE, et LES CANTOS D’HYPÉRION).

Certaines caractéristiques structurelles du “world-building” peuvent sembler difficiles à avaler pour certains lecteurs, comme la possibilité réelle d’un empire galactique capable de cohérer malgré les décennies nécessaires pour voyager entre les étoiles. Néanmoins, le concept de dette temporelle qui s’impose pour décrire les “déficits de temps” subis par les voyageurs inter-stellaires fait également partie intégrante de la saga Hypérion de Dan Simmons, sans plonger la structure politique dans l’incohérence. Christopher Ruocchio tente de compenser ces pertes de temps en posant la très grande longévité de la caste dirigeante palatine.

La première partie de L’empire du silence peut sembler longue et et verbeuse, et notre narrateur Hadrien Marlowe est complaisant envers lui-même. Cependant, il n’y a pas de “syndrome de Chekov” à déplorer, car tout ce qui est présenté dans cette première partie est repris efficacement dans le dernier tiers du livre. et tout contribue intégralement au déroulement de l’histoire.

De même, le fait de commencer par la fin, avec la représentation mélodramatique faite par Hadrien de lui-même comme Xénocide et Dévoreur du soleil, ne gâche pas l’intrigue, mais éveille notre intérêt pour une histoire qui commence assez banalement comme le récit d’une intrigue familiale formulaïque et terne. Grâce à ce début “divulgacheur” nous voulons suivre le Bildungsroman jusqu’au bout pour voir comment Hadrien passe du pathétisme œdipien au pathos cosmique.

La tentative de nous faire ressentir de l’empathie pour les Cielcin tout en soulignant leur caractère d’alien est originale et bien gérée, tout comme les présentations des différentes “cages” existentielles et politiques dans lesquelles le narrateur était confiné.

Le mystère autour des “Quiet” (des aliens dont les mystérieux habitats noirs constituent un rappel de plus d’HYPÉRION) et le désir de voir plus d’interactions d’Hadrien avec les inquiétants Cielcin suffisent à me donner envie de lire les suites, malgré mes sentiments mitigés concernant le cadre stéréoptypique sous-jacent rempli de tropes familiers. Quant au seul protagoniste, Hadrien, il n’est qu’à moitié sympathique.

Il s’agit d’une fiction spéculative de “fusion”, l’accent étant parfois davantage mis plus sur la fusion que sur la spéculation. Néanmoins, assez souvent pour éveiller notre sentiment d’émerveillement et maintenir notre intérêt, c’est l’élément spéculatif qui domine.

Pour aller plus loin:

Empire of silence – Christopher Ruocchio

L’empire du silence – Christopher Ruocchio

SLOW BULLETS: mémoire et ambivalence

SLOW BULLETS, une nouvelle d’Alastair Reynolds, est un très bon texte de science-fiction “dure”, sans être tout à fait à la hauteur du style habituellement excellent de Reynolds.

Le texte ressemble plus à un résumé, soumis à un éditeur potentiel, l’esquisse d’un futur roman, divisé en plusieurs morceaux ou segments séparés. Malgré le fait que chacun des segments soit captivant et contient des idées très intéressantes, il y a de grandes lacunes dans la séquence narrative, qui doivent être comblées par le lecteur, et de nombreux segments ont des trous béants ou des contradictions flagrantes qui auraient pu être éliminées ou aplanies dans le roman final, qui n’a jamais été écrit.

C’est quand même une lecture très agréable.

Toute l’histoire est basée sur l’ambivalence et la contradiction, comme le titre l’indique. Une balle est un projectile à grande vitesse, donc le titre “slow bullets” (“balles lentes”) est une contradiction en termes, un oxymore, comme dans l’exemple classique: festina lente, hâte-toi lentement. La nature contradictoire de l’expression sert à mettre en évidence l’adjectif “lent”, et nous voyons que la “lenteur” impliquée a deux valeurs: positive – la balle est lente pour ne pas nuire aux organes vitaux; et négatif – la balle est lente pour provoquer le plus de douleur possible, pour prolonger la douleur.

En termes classiques, une “balle lente” est un pharmakon, quelque chose qui peut être soit un remède ou un poison, un médicament ou une malédiction. Cette ambivalence est codée dans le nom de l’héroïne «Scur», qui est phonétiquement un anagramme à la fois de malédiction (“curse”) et de guérisons (“cures”). Nous pouvons voir la possibilité de ces deux prononciations sous la forme complète de ce nom, “Scurelya”.

La version du livre audio en anglais devait décider d’une prononciation et a choisi “Scur” pour rimer avec “cur”, mais les deux prononciations sont possibles. Dans la deuxième hypothèse, “Scur” rimerait avec “secure” (“sécurisé”) ou avec “cure” (“guérir”).

Le pharmakon en tant qu’indétermination entre deux valeurs opposées, ou ambivalence médicament/poison, remonte au moins aux dialogues de Platon. Dans son PHÈDRE, l’écriture est présentée comme un pharmakon. Soi-disante aide à la mémoire, l’écriture comme mémoire extériorisée ou artificielle pourrait affaiblir ou détruire nos souvenirs personnels.

Ce thème est à l’œuvre dans le concept du “bullet” (à la fois balle et puce) et ses fonctions réelles et potentielles, et quelles informations elle peut utilement contenir. La balle sert normalement à enregistrer et à garder les détails personnels des soldats, mais va être ré-instrumentalisée pour garder intact le savoir collectif, puisque l’ordinateur du vaisseau est en train de perdre sa mémoire.

Une deuxième ambivalence dans PHÈDRE et aussi dans SLOW BULLETS serait la réponse à la question qui est sage? Les sophistes qui écrivent leurs discours, s’appuyant sur la mémoire artificielle de l’écriture, ou Socrate qui n’écrit pas, mais s’appuie sur la mémoire vivante de l’âme active? Les deux figures ont beaucoup en commun, mais l’une est un poison ou une malédiction (cf. le discours de Lysias, le sophiste, qui figure dans PHÈDRE) et l’autre est un remède ou un médicament (Socrate, le philosophe).

On retrouve ce thème dans l’opposition et l’identification entre l’héroïne Scur et le vilain Orvin. Scur est-elle aussi mauvaise qu’Orvin, comme le prétend Orvin lui-même? Scur peut-elle apporter quelque chose de bien à Orvin, malgré lui? Est-elle poison ou remède?

La mémoire et son ambivalence sont au cœur de cette histoire: la mémoire est-elle une bénédiction ou une malédiction? Quels sont les meilleurs souvenirs, les souvenirs personnels ou ceux de la culture collective? Les souvenirs personnels nous ancrent, nous concentrent et nous centrent. Mais ils nous donnent aussi la division, la répétition du passé, une appette de vengeance.

La mémoire culturelle nous donne la poésie, la science et l’humanité, mais aussi les armes et les conflits sectaires. Effacer les informations personnelles sur votre balle signifie passer de la mémoire comme preuve littérale de son identité, à la mémoire comme relation personnelle avec le passé et relation créative avec notre individualité. Mettre l’information culturelle sur la balle signifie passer de l’auto-authentification nostalgique narcissique à une construction collective tournée vers l’avenir.

Un autre thème de la nouvelle est le danger venant du littéralisme. L’Écriture Sainte de cette civilisation future, appelée simplement «Le Livre», existe en deux versions, très similaires mais avec des différences cruciales. En voyant le livre à travers les yeux de l’héroïne Scur qui a été élevée dans une famille religieuse, mais qui n’est pas elle-même croyante, nous pouvons voir à quel point il est source de division s’il est pris à la lettre, mais consolateur et porteur de sagesse si l’on s’en approche sans croyance littérale, plus poétiquement.

Le thème du pharmakon (malédiction ou guérison, poison ou remède) peut être vu très clairement chez l’auto-chirurgien du navire, qui pourrait vous guérir ou vous massacrer. Dès le début de la nouvelle, nous avons le recueil de poèmes de la poète Giresun, avec le poème intitulé «Morning Flowers» (“Fleurs du Matin”). Scur nous dit que ce poème parle de la mort et de la mémoire, de la perte d’un être aimé, et de la vie. Cela met en place dès le départ les thématiques de l’histoire.

Un autre terme ambivalent est «caprice», un changement d’humeur ou de ligne d’action déraisonnable ou inexplicable, en violation des règles de comportement acceptées. Le vaisseau sur lequel se déroule presque toute l’action s’appelle «Le Caprice». Un caprice peut être une velléité, une envie frivole, souvent égoïste, ou relever d’ une impulsion plus profonde.

Lorsque Scur demande à Orvin pourquoi il la torture malgré le cessez-le-feu, il rit et lui demande “Pourquoi pas?” C’est un caprice négatif, avec l’intention de tuer. Lorsque Scur à la fin épargne Orvin et lui donne une seconde chance, ce fut une décision inattendue, un caprice positif.

Prad, un autre membre de l’équipe du Caprice, s’exclame: “Je ne pensais pas que Scur ferait la chose évidente”.

Le résultat est incertain et Scur a violé les souhaits de la “Trinity” règnante, mais Prad conclut que malgré cette incertitude et malgré l’illégalité de l’action, le caprice de Scur était un geste positif:

“Il était bon de ne pas tuer cet homme, et c’est bien que nous lui ayons donné l’occasion de faire du bien lui-même”.

Voir aussi: https://lepauledorion.com/2020/01/18/slow-bullets-alastair-reynolds/

VALIS DOES NOT FAIL US: notes on a philo-fictional anamnesis

The following post is a response to a review by Baird Searles of Philip K. Dick’s novel VALIS, as it contains a number of oft-repeated criticisms of the book. Baird Searles on VALIS

The review was posted on twitter by Jesse Willis @SFFAudio. It was published in ASIMOV’S, March 16, 1981.

Searles’ review is a typical example of a literal-minded reader who is afraid of anything involving metaphor, philosophy, or “mysticism” (which he ignorantly identifies with “flying saucers, god’s chariots, Bermuda triangles and all”. Literal-minded = one-dimensional.

VALIS is a multi-layered fictional account of one character’s (not the author’s) encounter with the unconscious and of his evolution from nihilistic despair through literalism and belief to a religious attitude of awareness (the opposite of belief).

The style of VALIS is modernist, with its focus on daily life and its resonances with mythical, religious, and philosophical structures. It is postmodern, not in the debased pop relativist meaning of the word, but in that of a perpetual scepticism towards its own explications. It is an ode to being faithful to your experience, however unorthodox, an ode to thinking and to dialogue, and an ode to caring (even if it hurts). It is a devastating critique of belief.

Searles shows his rejection of all this from the beginning, with his stereotypical opening of not liking people’s accounts of their dreams or drug trips, especially involving religious experiences. His is the voice of intellectual conformism, he sees nothing interesting in these experiences.

Searles does not see that the book is both literal and metaphorical from the beginning. It begins with the suicide of “Gloria” (sic transit gloria mundi), who is both a real character and an embodiment of nihilism.

Earles does not realise that the book contains a critique of “objectivity”: as literal-minded systematising of fragments of experience (the character Horselover Fat), but also as ironic meta-minded modernism (the character Phil). The narrator claims to be objective but is often ignorant or unreliable

Searles notices that there are multiple incompatible explanations of Horselover Fat’s experiences in VALIS, but does not realise that this is a feature, not a defect. He prefers the old style one hypothesis explains all type of story. He likes Aristotelian logic (rejected in the book). VALIS explicitly calls Aristotelian logic into question.

Searles’ cumulative list of defects terminates in a “crescendo” with the presence of quotes from philosophers, mystics, poets as if this were damning criticism, when it only shows his own philosophy-phobia.

Searles ends by holding up James Blish’s novel BLACK EASTER as a model of combining metaphysics and mysticism with the science fictional mindset, praising it for being a “succinct, straightforward account”. Real experience is not straightforward, it involves “time dysfunctions” as VALIS calls them.

BLACK EASTER is a very enjoyable book, but unlike VALIS it does not show how science fiction is already metaphysical and religious if you go for the metaphor. It does not trace the fraught translations between everyday life, SF, philosophy, and mysticism.

For example, the Black Iron Prison reprises the repeating theme of the Chinese finger-trap, which is a pathological relation (with a person, but also with an idea or a belief) that becomes inextricable once you enter into it. These are what anti-psychiatrist R.D.Laing called “knots”.

This theme of anti-psychiatry runs through the book. It could be formulated as “the only good psychiatrist is an anti-psychiatrist”, and its equivalents: the only good mystic is an anti-mystic (sceptic), the only good sf writer is an anti-sf writer, etc.

We could say to Searles: the only good critic is an anti-critic, one who seeks to expand, rather than to reduce.