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.


Neal Asher’s Blog:

Page devoted to THE BOSCH:

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


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.


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.


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.


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.


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):

(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:

Or if you want the final, complete version:

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

Here (summary and link):


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).


– 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).


– 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.


– 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.


– 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:

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.





L’Odyssée Green est le premier roman publié (1957) par L'Odyssée Verth Philip José Farmer. Il raconte les aventures d’un voyageur civilisé, Alan Green, venant de la Terre, qui échoue sur une  planète féodale où on considère les gens tombés du ciel comme des “démons” qu’il faut torturer et tuer. Green se fait passer pour un étranger venu d’une lointaine contrée nordique. Ainsi il n’est pas tué, mais seulement réduit à l’esclavage.

Le roman raconte l’évasion de Green (dont le nom est traduit par “Verth” dans le titre français) et son voyage à la recherche de deux autres astronautes et de leur vaisseau spatial, pour pouvoir quitter cette planète violente et cruelle.

Le titre contient un jeu de mots portant sur le nom du héros, Green, et sur la partie de son voyage qui se passe en parcourant une grande plaine de verdure. C’est l’odyssée de Green et aussi le voyage vert.


Dans un monde où la science-fiction imprègne la culture populaire et où ses prédictions ont été partiellement réalisées, la SF reste mal aimée ou sous-estimée par les gardiens de la culture de haut niveau. Dans un article très intéressant, Bryan Alexander demande:

“Pourquoi tant de gens dédaignent-ils les genres de science-fiction et de fantasy?”

Je suis assez d’accord avec les hypothèses avancées et l’orientation globale de l’article de Bryan Alexander, mais je souhaite me concentrer sur un problème de perception.


Mon hypothèse sera que la perception de la science-fiction par la culture littéraire est à l’origine du réflexe irrationnel de dédain des literati pour la SF, dédain qui constitue une véritable phobie.

La question de la perception est cruciale. Beaucoup de critiques qui rejettent la science-fiction ne perçoivent tout simplement pas ce qu’elle contient. Une grande partie de la SF utilise un masque de surface apparemment formulaïque pour exprimer des pensées qui sont en réalité subversives par rapport aux idées et aux croyances populaires.

Prenons un exemple concret: nous avons vu que le premier roman publié par Philip José Farmer s’intitule L’ODYSSÉE VERTH ou L’ODYSSEE VERTE. Le livre se lit comme un space opera stéréotypé. Cela a surpris et déçu les lecteurs de SF, qui s’attendaient à quelque chose d’explicitement transgressive, comme ses précédentes nouvelles traitant de thèmes sexuels.

Au lieu de retrouver la surface “subversive” des précédentes nouvelles de Farmer, telles que “The Lovers”, lauréat du prix Hugo, les lecteurs ont été confrontés à un fantasme de pouvoir, partiellement humoristique et partiellement scientifique, sur une planète dure avec une culture féodale caricaturale.


L’un des plus gros problèmes de perception provient de notre narcissisme enraciné. Nous avons appris que nous ne sommes ni le centre du cosmos (Copernicus), ni le sommet de la création (Darwin), ni même le maître de notre propre psyché (Nietzsche, Freud, Jung). Mais le narcissisme revient toujours.

La science-fiction est LA littérature de la blessure narcissique, nous rappelant encore et encore que nous ne sommes pas le centre. En fait, parler du “sens de l’émerveillement” et de “l’étrangement cognitive” de SF est une manière de se référer à cette défaite, ou du moins à l’affaiblissement, de notre narcissisme.

Dans THE GREEN ODYSSEY, Alan Green, le protagoniste éponyme du roman, apprend que les humains ne sont pas originaires de la Terre mais d’une planète cruelle et idiote, isolée du reste de la galaxie, qui a transformé son ancienne supériorité scientifique et technologique en ignorance et en superstition.


Beaucoup de gens voient que la science-fiction se moque souvent de la religion ou la critique (comme Richard Dawkins). Ils ne voient souvent pas, poussés à l’erreur par le nom de “science fiction”, que la SF peut aussi critiquer la science (contrairement à Dawkins) et le narcissisme de la science.

Dans THE GREEN ODYSSEY, l’architecture religieuse essentielle, les mythes, les croyances et les rituels proviennent d’une science ancienne oubliée et dégradée. Si nous éliminons la métaphore du mot “ancien”, nous pouvons y voir une critique (pour aujourd’hui) de la science en tant que religion de substitution. Les détracteurs souvent ne perçoivent pas cette critique de la science par la SF.


Un autre problème dans la perception de SF est que beaucoup de gens voient la science fiction comme une forme de divertissement inculte ou d’évasion. Les mêmes personnes qui sont tellement impressionnées par la culture de James Joyce et qui s’enthousiasment pour les correspondances entre ULYSSES de Joyce et L’ODYSSÉE d’Homer ne peuvent pas voir la culture incarnée dans une bonne SF.

Cette superposition consciente et délibérée du mythologique et du mondain est l’un des fondements structurels de la SF. On peut le voir codé et proclamé dans le titre du roman de Farmer, THE GREEN ODYSSEY, «Vert» fait référence au protagoniste Alan Green (et à la plaine verdoyante maintenue par les reliques automatisées de la civilisation antique).

Joyce aurait pu intituler son travail THE BLOOM ODYSSEY (titre moins accrocheur). En fait, sa tentative d’hériter des tâches de la religion et de la mythologie du passé s’inscrit dans la même esthétique que celle de la SF.


Norman Spinrad a tracé l’esthétique cosmologique sous-jacente de la SF à son héritage et à son ancrage dans le transcendantalisme américain (Emerson, Thoreau, Whitman, Melville). Combien de détracteurs de la science-fiction voient le transcendantalisme sous (ou mieux, dans) la surface “pulp”?

Philip José Farmer n’est pas un gribouilleur illettré qui se branche inconsciemment sur quelques archétypes, les transformant en stéréotypes. Au contraire, il est assez cultivé et utilise consciemment le processus inverse consistant à rétablir les sources archétypales des stéréotypes afin de nous libérer de leur emprise.


Un autre problème découle de la perception des classiques que partagent les amateurs de la littérature traditionnelle, les associant principalement à leur contexte social et historique, ou à des thèmes supposés «éternels» et immuables. Peut-être devraient-ils essayer de re-percevoir les classiques comme une aide à la réflexion sur l’avenir.

Cette tâche est l’une des leçons de la perception de la SF: ré-écrire les classiques pour faire ressortir le potentiel futur de leurs idées sous-jacentes. Le thème de “l’odyssée»”est omniprésent dans SF, non seulement comme cliché, mais aussi comme une ressource à extraire et à retravailler.

Philip José Farmer travaille dans la tradition de H.G.Wells et d’Olaf  Stapledon (comme Arthur C. Clarke et beaucoup d’autres), se réappropriant les classiques pour penser le changement plutôt que l’éternité. Il reconnaît l’influence non seulement d’Homère, mais également de Herman Melville, en écrivant une suite à MOBY-DICK: “Les baleines à vent d’Ismaël”.


Les érudits de la SF parlent du «méga-texte» de la science-fiction, un échange continu où un auteur emprunte, vole, reprend, critique, transforme, commente, remplace les idées, les inventions et les procédés d’autres écrivains de la SF. Les intellectuels traditionnels parlent d’inter-textualité. Cependant, ces deux discussions ne se rencontrent presque jamais. Cette absence de dialogue tend à valider la démarcation traditionnelle entre les deux, favorisant le narcissisme disciplinaire.

L’exemple de Philip José Farmer montre que, pour l’écrivain de la SF, le méga-texte ne se limite pas au genre de la science-fiction, mais s’étend à l’ensemble du canon littéraire (et du non canon, d’ailleurs).

Percevoir l’inter-textualité est une condition préalable pour percevoir la pertinence. La mentalité (ou l’esprit) de la science-fiction considère beaucoup plus de choses (littéraires et scientifiques) comme pertinentes tant pour le présent que pour l’avenir.


En parlant de la «mentalité» de la SF, il s’agit d’une idée cruciale de la science-fiction. Il est souvent réduit au “mythe de l’homme compétent”.

Quelle que soit la notion de “compétence”, elle ne signifie pas maîtrise ou expertise dans une discipline, une spécialité ou un genre distinct. Ulysse d’Homère est l’archétype de l’homme “compétent”, car il s’appuie sur son intelligence beaucoup plus que sur la force.

Green dans THE GREEN ODYSSEY s’appuie sur son esprit, c’est-à-dire sur une attitude critique de la pensée associée à une approche pragmatique. Il tente d’enseigner à ses enfants adoptifs la même approche, qu’il applique aux relations sociales, à la religion mais aussi à la science elle-même, voire à tout.

Cette attitude critique n’est pas la même chose que l’attitude scientifique, mais elle sous-tend ce qui est vivant dans la science, son noyau spéculatif et critique poppérien. (La religion peut aussi être poppérienne, mais ça, c’est une autre discussion).


Une autre chose que les détracteurs de la science-fiction ne voient pas, c’est qu’ils sont souvent eux-mêmes décrits dans la science-fiction. Dans THE GREEN ODYSSEY, ce sont des personnalités religieuses qui diabolisent littéralement ce qu’elles ne comprennent pas ou ce qui est différent.

Si on diabolise la science-fiction ou des thèmes de la SF tels que “l’espace” ou les aliens on ferme les portes de la perception, refusant de voir ou d’entendre ce que Franz Kafka a appelé les pouvoirs diaboliques de l’avenir qui frappent à la porte.


Remarque: je suis reconnaissant à l’article de Bryan Alexander ( ) et à une précédente discussion avec lui sur le rôle du sublime dans la science fiction.

Il se peut que les détracteurs de la science-fiction soient principalement pris dans le paradigme du beau, alors que la SF et l’horreur relèvent du sublime. Bryan Alexander cite l’exemple du cosmos “sombre” de Lovecraft. Selon ma perspective les oeuvres de Lovecraft synthétisent les deux affects sublimes de l’émerveillement et de l’horreur.

AGAINST SF-PHOBIA: on a certain blindness of the literati (with special reference to THE GREEN ODYSSEY)

In a world where science fiction has come to pervade popular culture and its predictions have been partially realised, SF remains unloved or under-appreciated by the guardians of highbrow culture. In a very interesting article Bryan Alexander asks:

“why do so many people disdain the science fiction and fantasy genres?”

I agree with the hypotheses and the global direction of Bryan Alexander’s article, but I wish to concentrate on the problem of the perception of science fiction by the literati culture as lying behind the unreasoning reflex of disdain that amounts to a real phobia.

The question of perception is crucial. Many people who dismiss science fiction just don’t perceive what it contains. Much SF makes use of a seemingly formulaic “pulp” mask to express thoughts that are in fact subversive of popular ideas and beliefs.

Let us take a concrete example: Philip José Farmer’s first published novel THE GREEN ODYSSEY (1957) reads like a formulaic space opera. It surprised and disappointed even SF readers, who were expecting something explicitly transgressive like his earlier short stories dealing with sexual themes.

Instead of being treated to a reiteration of the “subversive” surface of Farmer’s earlier short stories, such as the Hugo-Award winning “The Lovers“, readers were confronted with a partially jocular, partially scientific power fantasy romp over a harsh planet with a caricatural feudal culture.

One of the biggest problems of perception comes from our ingrained narcissism. We have learnt that we are not the centre of the cosmos (Copernicus), nor the pinnacle of creation (Darwin), nor even master in our own psyche (Nietzsche, Freud, Jung). But the narcissism always returns.

Science fiction is THE literature of the narcissistic wound, reminding us again and again that we are not the centre. In fact talk about SF’s “sense of wonder” and “estrangement” is a way of referring to this defeat, or at least weakening, of our narcissism.

In THE GREEN ODYSSEY the eponymous protagonist, Alan Green, learns that humans did not originate on Earth but on a cruel and silly planet, isolated from the rest of the galaxy, that has converted its ancient scientific and technological superiority into ignorance and superstition.

Many people see that science fiction is often mocking or critical of religion (like Richard Dawkins). They often don’t see, led into error by the name “science fiction” that SF can be critical of science (unlike Dawkins), of the narcissism of science.

In THE GREEN ODYSSEY crucial religious architecture, myths, beliefs, and rituals come from forgotten and debased ancient science. If we take out the metaphor of “ancient” we can see a critique (for today) of science as a substitute religion. Detractors miss this SF critique of science.

Another problem in the perception of SF is that many people see science fiction as a form of uncultivated entertainment or escapism. The same people who are so impressed with the formidable culture of James Joyce and who get excited about the correspondences between Joyce’s ULYSSES and Homer’s ODYSSEY cannot see the culture embodied in good SF.

This conscious fusion of the mythological and the mundane is one of the basic structural foundations of SF. We can see it encoded and proclaimed in the title of Farmer’s novel THE GREEN ODYSSEY, “Green” refers to the protagonist Alan Green (and to the verdant plain maintained by the relics of the ancient civilisation).

Joyce could have titled his work THE BLOOM ODYSSEY (less catchy). In fact his attempt to inherit the tasks of past religion and mythology participates in the same aesthetic as that of SF.

Norman Spinrad traced SF’s underlying cosmological aesthetic to its inheritance of , and grounding in, Transcendentalism (Emerson, Thoreau, Whitman, Melville). How many of science fiction’s detractors see the Transcendentalism underneath (or better, within) the pulpy surface?

Philip José Farmer is no unlettered hack who unconsciously channels a few archetypes, transforming them into stereotypes. He is quite cultivated, consciously employing the reverse process of reverting stereotypes to their archetypal source, to free us from their hold.

Another problem stems from people’s perception of mainstream literature, relating great classics principally to their social and historical context, or to supposedly “eternal” and unchanging themes. Perhaps they should attempt to re-perceive the classics as helping us to think about the future.

This task is one of SF’s lessons of perception, rewriting the classics to bring out the future potential of their underlying ideas. The “odyssey” theme is everywhere in SF not just as a cliché but as a resource to be mined and re-worked.

Philip José Farmer is working in the Wellsian/Stapledonian tradition (cf Arthur C. Clarke and many others), re-appropriating the classics to think change rather than eternity. He acknowledges the influence not only of Homer, but also of Melville by writing a sequel to MOBY-DICK, “The Wind Whales of Ishmael”.

SF scholars talk about the “mega-text” of science fiction, an ongoing exchange where one author alludes to, borrows, steals, reprises, criticises, transforms ideas, inventions, and devices of other SF writers. Mainstream scholars talk about inter-textuality. However, these two discussions almost never interesect. This absence of dialogue tends to validate a demarcation between the two, promoting narcissistic inbreeding.

Philip José Farmer’s example shows that for the SF writer the mega-text is not limited to the genre of science fiction alone, but ranges over the whole of the literary canon (and non-canon, for that matter).

Perceiving inter-textuality is a pre-condition for perceiving relevance. The science fiction mindset perceives many more things (literary and scientific) as relevant both to today and to the future.

Talking of the SF “mindset”, this is a crucial idea of science fiction. It is often reduced to the “myth of the competent man”. Whatever”competence” means here, it does not mean mastery of or expertise in a separate discipline, speciality, or genre. Homer’s Ulysses is the archetype of the “competent” man, because he relies on his wits.

Green in THE GREEN ODYSSEY relies on his wits, a critical attitude of thought combined with a pragmatic spirit. He tries to teach his adoptive children this same approach, that he applies to social relations, to religion but also to science itself, in fact to everything.

This critical attitude is not the same as the scientific attitude, but underlies what is living in science, its Popperian speculative-and-critical core. (Religion can be Popperian too, but that is another discussion).

Another thing that science fiction’s detractors don’t see is that they themselves are often portrayed within science fiction. In THE GREEN ODYSSEY they are the religious figures who literally demonise what they don’t understand or what is different.

If you demonise science fiction, or SF themes such as “space” or “space exploration” you are closing your doors of perception, refusing to see or hear what Franz Kafka called the diabolical powers of the future knocking at the door.

Note: I am indebted to Bryan Alexander’s article ( and to a previous discussion with him on the role of the sublime in science fiction.

It may be that the detractors of science fiction are mostly caught up in the paradigm of the beautiful, whereas SF and horror go for the sublime. Bryan Alexander cites the example of Lovecraft’s “dark” cosmos.