Science fiction as the literature of cognitive estrangeletment

We all know Darko Suvin’s definition of science fiction as “the literature of cognitive estrangement”. This is a bold hypothesis (in the best of the Popperian tradition of conjectures and refutations) and so capable of falsification, and thus more scientific, because falsifiable, than nominalist definitions of the sort “science fiction is whatever I point at when I say this is science fiction”. Not only is this nominalist, but it is also definition by authority, as we do not pay attention to just anyone’s ostensive definition, which at best can only give us a more or less consensual list.

Darko Suvin’s definition is science-influenced at the level of method, but unfortunately not scientific at the level of content, and so needs updating. We have the good fortune of being able to refer to a meta-fictional update from within the best of the “high concept” hard science space opera canon, by solidly established authors in this universally respected paradigmatic sub-genre.

Enter the strangelet.

A “strangelet” plays a key role in Gareth L. Powell and Peter F. Hamilton’s LIGHT CHASER. As described in Wikipedia: “A strangelet is a hypothetical particle consisting of a bound state of roughly equal numbers of up, down, and strange quarks”.

Metaphorically read this is a good definition of a certain type of “high-concept” science fiction: it binds together “up” metaphysical concepts (religious, spiritual, philosophical) and “down” scientific concepts along with the strangeness that intensifies the sense of wonder inherent to such conceptual experimentation.

This definition also indicates a specific danger that arises when the highly unstable strangelet decomposes into up and down components and loses its strangeness. We then get transcendence (up) alongside reductionism (down) without binding into a coherent whole.

The ever possible decomposition of the metaphoric, or cognitive, strangelet, gives us a typology of this sub-genre of science fiction. Too many “up” concepts (C.S. Lewis or some Orson Scott Card) or too many “down” concepts (say Greg Egan) or too many “strange” conceits (some Jeff VanderMeer) and the bound state does not last in practice as long as it could in theory.

Hamilton and Powell’s novel LIGHT CHASER is a compromise pulsation between the bound and the unbound states of such a cognitive strangelet. See: LIGHT CHASER: towards a cognitive strangelet? | Xeno Swarm (wordpress.com)

Disclaimer: no intentionality is attributed to the authors, all intentionality, if at all detectable, is my own. SF authors are spontaneous strangelets (as are philosophers), and have lived through the death of the author so many times that … (uh oh! I have just unintentionally brought up another concept explored in the novel).

LIGHT CHASER: towards a cognitive strangelet?

LIGHT CHASER is a short novel written by Peter F. Hamilton and Gareth L. Powell and logically should have been a science fiction novel, but a certain disconnect between the narrative point of departure and a key point of the underlying world-building deflected it from this goal.

Very impatient to read this novel as soon as it was released, I came across a mixed review on the blog The Cult of Apophis which left me perplexed. Reading this review I wondered if it was a bit too harsh, but I had yet to read the novel in question. Post hoc, I have to agree this review.

Indeed the lightness of the basic premise of the novel and of the thought process of our protagonist lead me to classify it as intellectually “pre-YA”.

We are told about someone, Amahle, with millennia of experience and a brain of amplified ability. She is confronted with a few anomalies, and radically changes not only her scientific and political paradigm, but also her ontological paradigm on this rather slim basis, without a long process of doubts, investigation, scientific tests or at least research done in the spirit of science.

At this level the novella (because, given its length, it is more of a long novella than a novel) reads like a summary of a set of ideas for a future novel, but the rigorous investigation and emotional development behind this radical change of paradigm are lacking. So the work of writing needed to motivate and make this conversion plausible isn’t provided, it’s a frictionless slide from one paradigm to another.

Without wanting to spoil the plot there are novellas, for example by Alastair Reynolds, where this transition with its journey of doubts, anomalies, haphazard deductions, partial revelations, is treated realistically, and not as the result of an almost blind credulity.

The question asked by LIGHT CHASER is how to fight against social and intellectual stagnation, how to fight against entropy? Is there a strategic key point that it suffices to blow up so that life can resume its “natural” course, that is to say, according to the hypothesis of the novel, its negentropic course?

Peter F. Hamilton and Gareth L. Powell use a religious and spiritual type hypothesis, with trans-spatial and trans-temporal “souls”, to which they attempt to give a science-fictional materialised treatment. It’s ambitious, but the result is disappointing. If they had succeeded, they would have built a powerful literary cognitive strangelet.

The text abounds in interesting cameos, for example the short sketches of the worlds visited by our light chaser. Each world could have served as the basis for a chapter in a longer novel. The beginning of the novel is at the summit of science fiction in its description of the journey at 97% of the speed of light to inject a strangelet into the heart of a star and commit “xenocide” by a preemptive strike! (The ethical question is put in brackets).

Perhaps the question at this level is how to write science fiction that advances us intellectually and emotionally, instead of that stagnant literature that occupies a large part of the market today?

Answer: only an unyielding spiritual force can enable us to resist the stagnation and to craft and deliver the cognitive strangelets capable of blowing up the algorithms that regulate the market and increasingly the rest of our lives.

I wish our two authors good luck with their next avatars.

LIGHT CHASER: vers un strangelet cognitif?

LIGHT CHASER est un court roman écrit par Peter F. Hamilton et Gareth L. Powell et logiquement aurait dü être un roman de science fiction, mais un certain décalage entre le point de départ narratif et un point clé de la construction du monde sous-jacente l’a dévié de ce destin.

Très impatient de lire ce roman dès sa sortie je suis tombé sur une critique mitigée sur le blog Le culte d’Apophis qui me laissait perplexe. En lisant cette critique je me demandais si elle n’était pas un peu trop dure, mais je n’avais pas encore lu le roman en question. Après coup, je suis dans l’obligation de valider cette critique.

En effet la légèreté de la prémisse de base du roman et du processus de pensée de notre protagoniste me poussent à le classer intellectuellement “pre-YA”.

On nous parler de quelqu’un, Amahle, avec des millénaires d’expérience et un cerveau de capacités amplifiées. Elle se trouve face à quelques anomalies, et elle change radicalement de paradigme non-seulement scientifique et politique, mais aussi ontologique sur cette base, sans long processus de doutes, de mise à l’épreuve, de tests scientifiques ou du moins dans l’esprit de la science.

A ce niveau la nouvelle (car, étant donnée la sa longueur il s’agit plutôt d’une nouvelle) se lit comme un résumé d’idées pour un roman futur, mais l’enquête rigoureuse et l’évolution affective derrière ce changement radical de paradigme manquent. Donc, le travail d’écriture pour motiver et de rendre plausible cette conversion n’est pas fourni, c’est un glissement sans friction.

Sans vouloir spoiler l’intrigue il existe des nouvelles par exemple par Alastair Reynolds où cette transition avec son parcours de doutes, d’anomalies, de déductions hasardeuses, de révélations partielles, est traitée de façon réaliste, et non pas comme le résultat d’une crédulité quasi-aveugle.

La question posée par LIGHT CHASER est comment lutter contre la stagnation sociale et intellectuelle, comment lutter contre l’entropie? Est-ce qu’il y a un point clé qu’il suffit de faire sauter pour que la vie puisse reprendre son cours “naturel”, c’est à dire, selon l’hypothèse du roman, négentropique?

Peter F. Hamilton et Gareth L. Powell se servent d’une hypothèse de type religieux et spirituel, avec des “âmes” trans-spatiales et trans-temporelles, à laquelle ils tentent de donner un traitement de type science-fictionnel., matérialisé. C’est ambitieux, mais le résultat est décevant. S’ils avaient réussi, ils auraient construit un puissant strangelet cognitif.

Le texte abonde de trouvailles intéressantes, par exemple les petites esquisses des mondes visités par notre chasseur de lumière. Chaque monde aurait pu servir de base pour un chapitre dans un roman plus long. L’incipit du roman est aux sommets de la science fiction dans sa description du voyage à 97% de la vitesse de la lumière pour injecter un strangelet au coeur d’une étoile et commettre un “xénocide” par préemption! (La question éthique est mise entre parenthèses).

Peut-être la question à ce niveau c’est comment écrire de la science-fiction qui nous fait progresser intellectuellement et affectivement, au lieu de cette littérature stagnante qui occupe une grande partie du marché aujourd’hui? Réponse: seule une force spirituelle inflexible peut nous permettre de fabriquer et délivrer les strangelets cognitifs qui pourraient faire sauter les algorithmes commerciaux.

Je souhaite à nos deux auteurs bonne chance dans leurs prochains avatars.

How We Lost The Moon: quelle attitude avoir face à la science?

How we lost the moon, a True Story by Frank W. Allen” est une courte nouvelle par Paul McAuley, publiée il y a une vingtaine d’années. Je suis redevable au blog Le culte d’Apophis por avoir attiré mon attention sur cette nouvelle. Elle est disponible sur audible.fr, et l’audio dure 36 minutes.

Le récit est très agréable, bien écrit, comportant assez peu d’action. La partie la plus importante du récit est composée de descriptions très réalistes des paysages lunaires et surtout des événements insolites qui se passent sur la lune par le narrateur qui les a vus et vécus, et par l’imagination (assistée par les calculs savants de son ami et coéquipier) de ce qui se passe invisiblement en amont des conséquences visibles.

L’histoire se déroule en grande partie dans la tête, car il s’agit de calculer et d’imaginer ce qui va se passer avant que ça n’arrive. En ceci la nouvelle fait penser à une nouvelle célèbre, « Inconstant Moon » de Larry Niven.

On est balancé entre deux visions de la science: d’une part la recherche fondamentale et son éventuel hybris, et d’autre part la science appliquée et son nécessaire bricolage. Le pessimisme concernant le retour éternel de l’hybris humain se trouve contré par l’optimisme concernant la foi toujours renouvelé du bricoleur (“on peut toujours trouver une solution de rechange). Le narrateur opère la synthèse des deux: il est désabusé, certes, mais il reste optimiste.

Concernant notre actualité, le problème du réchauffement climatique anthropogène, je ne sais pas si l’optimisme désabusé du narrateur sera validé dans un futur proche.

Pour aller plus loin:

https://lecultedapophis.com/2021/06/24/how-we-lost-the-moon-paul-mcauley/

https://lepauledorion.com/2019/06/02/how-we-lost-the-moon-paul-mcauley/

STRANGE INTENSITY: science fiction and the shape of a life

Is there something special about reading science fiction? does it require a special mindset? does reading science fiction over a long period of time, or over a whole life, change you in any way? Any long-time reader of science fiction may want to ask themselves these questions, with the feeling that it may give some insight into our life and our approach to life.

Over at the excellent blog Classics of Science Fiction, Jim Harris discusses the long-term evolution of his “changing attitude to science fiction over a lifetime“. He inventories and analyses his thoughts and experiences, many of which I share, so it may be worth summarising and commenting on them from a different point of view here.

Harris lists some very general motifs in the lifelong passion that one may have for science fiction: marvels and magic, sense of wonder, intellectual stimulation, love of science (sometimes combined with scientism), escape, virtual reality, dreams of metaphysical adventure, scepticism and nostalgia, aesthetic perspective, historical approach, in depth study, admiration of the fictional embedding of speculative ideas.

All of these aspects of a life immersed in science fiction have been phases of my own life, and I repeatedly cycle through many of them still today, in no particular order any more. They are no longer “phases” to go through and to leave behind, but rather multiple lenses I may use to enjoy or to think about the stories I read.

I am no collector or completist, but I think my very sensibility is irrevocably “science fictional”, and this conditions my whole approach to life, to people, to conversation, to teaching, to philosophy and religion, to current events (such as the corona virus). There is always mentally near at hand, or below the surface, a story, an image, an idea, an extrapolation that comes to me from reading SF.

Over and above the specific content I read there is this “form” of sensibility or speculative field of force that accompanies and englobes me.

There is no one science fiction sensibility that could be defined, but there is a loosely knit patchwork (with four dimensional bends and loops and folds back on itself, of sensibilities, approaches, and perspectives with enough of a family resemblance to recognise and to resonate with each other.

Science fiction is such an influence that for many people once in it they can’t leave it, even if with time they can no longer enthuse over its more literal-minded action stereotypes.

Science fiction can be compared to a religion, and it certainly can mobilise the religious attitude, but it is far vaster in its multiplicity than any religion, and you don’t have to “believe” it. It is perhaps closer to mythology, in the sense of myth as good to think, i.e. not just good to think about but also good to think with.

Science fiction is art and philosophy and entertainment all rolled into one. It helps us to think and to see things differently, and so has as much impact on our lives as we are willing to give to our thoughts and our dreams, to our feelings and visions, although not in a one-to-one correspondence sort of way.

Jim Harris’s whole essay shows this possible “practical”, even existential, effect of science fiction, a sort of mutation or conversion that can happen, that gives us not just the pleasure of reading, but also the strange intensity of a life lived in and with science fiction.

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/