RE-READING ALAN MOORE’S PROVIDENCE (1): dreams are bridges (to the underworld)

PROVIDENCE is a densely layered graphic novel devoted to re-imagining Lovecraft’s life and work in terms of the mythos that emerges from and subtends his creations.

These are not my “annotations” to the graphic novel, the people at the blog “Facts in the Case of Alan Moore’s Providence” have done an excellent job, and I am indebted to their work. I have also read with profit the discussions of PROVIDENCE on Sequart, by David Whittaker and by Matthew Kirshenblatt.

This is rather a set of “notes” in my digital Commonplace Book, recording my reveries or waking dreams as I re-read it. I am envisaging Moore’s work as a set of nested dreams, and adding my own to the already complex layering, dreaming the dream on.

The title PROVIDENCE is rich with multiple meanings when it is envisioned with respect to Lovecraft’s life and thought. One thinks first of divine providence, and the last comic in the series ends with Brears statement:

as far as anybody knows this is a predetermined universe, without free will. It’s all destiny,it’s all providence.

Lovecraft was an atheist and a mechanistic materialist, he did not believe in providence but he did believe in determinism. Strangely he was very attentive to dreams and he was fascinated by weird visions expressing anomalies and mad occurences that suspended or belied both divine providence and natural law.

“I am Providence” wrote Lovecraft in a letter to his aunt Lillian Clark. He was rejoicing at returning to his natal Providence after his two years’ exile in New York. Providence is not just a universal theological concept, it is also a specific geographical place.

The first sense of “providence” suggests generality and inevitability, the second suggests singularity and choice. Lovecraft chooses to return to Providence, after having chosen to leave it. Macrocosmic determinism is supplemented (or contested) by microcosmic, local freedom of choice.

A choice opens a bifurcation, or a bridge between two possibilities. Bridges are important in PROVIDENCE, which begins on its very first page on a bridge.

“Lillian” or “Lily”, whose mundane name is Jonathan Russell, is standing on a bridge in Bryant Park, New York City. He is tearing into pieces and throwing into the river a letter from his lover, Robert Black, who is the protagonist of the story if not the hero. The scene takes place after Black has broken with him despite Jonathan’s declaration of love, just before going to the local “suicide parlour” to put an end to his life.

Associatively, the name “Lillian” resonates with the title “Providence”, considering that Lovecraft makes his declaration “I am Providence” in a letter to his aunt Lillian.

“I am Providence” means also “I am not New York”. Lovecraft’s move to New York was a disaster, and he came very near to a nervous breakdown, perhaps even suicide. We find an echo of that experience in the opening paragraph of his short story “He“:

My coming to New York had been a mistake; for whereas I had looked for poignant wonder and inspiration in the teeming labyrinths of ancient streets that twist endlessly from forgotten courts and squares and waterfronts to courts and squares and waterfronts equally forgotten, and in the Cyclopean modern towers and pinnacles that rise blackly Babylonian under waning moons, I had found instead only a sense of horror and oppression which threatened to master, paralyse, and annihilate me.

The protagonist of “He” had gone to New York in search of wonder and inspiration, but had found only horror and oppression. Robert Black moved to New York as a haven for his secrets: as a closet homosexual and a secular Jew. The move was motivated also by careerism, and he does not hesitate to choose his career over his secret life. He was also seeking inspiration as a writer, but this was not to be. His job as a journalist was petty and boring. Unlike Lovecraft returning to Providence, Black does not choose to return to his native Milwaukee. His quest to write a Great American Novel about a secret marginal underground America comes to dominate his life choices, to his undoing.

Much of Lovecraft’s fiction, and Moore’s PROVIDENCE, turns around the question: can a book plunge you into madness, make you go insane or drive you to suicide? But the same question can be posed in relation to a city. Can a city drive you mad? Lovecraft found this to be the case with New York, he was beginning to lose himself. Black too loses himself in New York, and plunges ever deeper into alienation and loss of self. He too, like Lily, will commit suicide at the end, unable to make the transition into the new world that his own quest and experiences, and their record in his Commonplace Book, made possible.

This new world, “Yuggoth”, will be the one dreamt by Cthulhu, whose birth at the end in issue #12 was made possible by Robert Black’s life and influence on Lovecraft, and by the influence that Lovecraft’s writings had on the modern world. Cthulhu will dream and so produce retroactively the circumstances, including Black’s undoing, leading to its birth.

This is a strange dream determinism, in which the future (re)writes the past to make its own existence possible. Dreams are bridges to other meanings and to other possibilities. The philosopher Bernard Stiegler emphasises this strange logic of microcosmic locality where bifurcations can be produced by means of waking dreams and visionary projects. As “Earth” our world is subject to mechanistic determinism and free will is an illusion, as “Yuggoth” it is subject to oniric determination, and producing a bifurcation and choosing one fork rather than another is a real pssibility.

Yuggoth is the Mythos name for the planet Pluto, but in the Mythos dream and waking reality commingle. Pluto is the name for the God of the Underworld, Hades, the world of shades and dreams. At the end of issue #12 Joshi, the Lovecraft scholar, asks “Is this our new world?”, and Brears replies:

“I think it’s Yuggoth now. I think maybe it’s always been Yuggoth”.

Cthulhu’s providence implies a very different ontology to the one compatible with divine providence, and a very different notion of determinism. Famously, Lovecraft’s aphorism “I am Providence” was enounced by Satan in his temptation of Saint Anthony. Thus the title “Providence” expresses another theme of the series, that of divine/demonic duplicity.

LOVECRAFT NOETIC DREAMER: from horrorism to cosmicism

I am dissatisfied with the analyses of those thinkers and writers who seek to establish a demarcation in Lovecraft between the pure horror works and the dream cycle.

The same noetic estrangement underlies both, and the arbitrary privileging of the horror over the dream excludes Lovecraft’s unitary vision of such estrangement or weirdness. This unitary perspective on horror and the dream can be explained in terms of Deleuze’s concept of the “weird”, which is

“the approach of a coherence that is no more our own, Man’s, than it is God’s or the World’s” (Deleuze, DIFFERENCE AND REPETITION, Preface).

For Deleuze, Lovecraft is an affirmative writer with an ontology of cosmic becoming, and so is the very opposite of a pessimistic misanthrope. Deleuze, like Lovecraft, seeks to think outside anthropological predicates. Neither philanthropy nor misanthropy but ex-anthropy.

One such “anthropological predicate” is the Face. Lovecraft as a child was tormented by uncontrollable facial tics, spasms and grimaces. He was also tormented by nightmares of “night-gaunts”, horrible creatures with no face. Lovecraft as a child used to lie awake at night, resisting sleep, to avoid these nightmares. But he did not spend his whole life doing so. He transvaluated his torments by means of his writing.

Lovecraft did not go mad like both of his parents. He became a writer of weird fiction. He wrote down his dreams and recounted them in his letters and created many of his stories from their inspiration. This is not pessimism but affirmation. Dreams are not a symptom. It is rather the lack of dreams or neglect of dreams that is a symptom of illness.

Another “anthropological predicate” is signifying language. It is undermined from within by means of Lovecraft’s writing techniques, for example by his use of esoteric words that are employed denote non-ordinary things. Deleuze in LOGIC OF SENSE analyses the function of such words as a type of nonsense that produces new sense outside ordinary significations.

“Cthulhu”, the transcription of a word that cannot be pronounced by the human phonic apparatus, is one of Lovecraft’s equivalents of Lewis Carroll’s “Snark”. It constitutes a weird intrusion into our anthropic language, to name what is unnameable within it.

(1): “Hesperia” and Immanent Platonism

The most common stereotype concerning H.P. Lovecraft work associates him with the tale of supernatural horror, and with the negative affects of fear, fright, doom, despair, dread, horror, terror, etc. and with a worldview of pessimism or nihilism. However, while all these elements are indeed present in his work, I wish to argue that this conceptual and affective assemblage presents a reductive tableau of Lovecraft’s cosmological vision as expressed in his literary oeuvre.

Some writers seem to be vaguely aware of this reductionism and prefer to talk of Lovecraft as a writer of weird tales, but their use of the term “weird” is usually strongly tinged with this horrific coloration. A more englobing coloration of the weird would be provided by the recognition of the overwhelmingly oneiric quality of Lovecraft’s work.

Fortunately some commentators, for example Lovecraft’s friend and mentoree Robert Bloch, have seen and emphasised this pre-eminence of the dream.

“The one theme incontrovertibly constant in both his life and his work is a preoccupation with dreams.  From earliest childhood on, Lovecraft’s sleep ushered him into a world filled with vivid visions of alien and exotic landscapes that at times formed a background for terrifying nightmares” (Robert Bloch, introduction to THE BEST OF H.P. LOVECRAFT (New York: Ballantine, 1963)

Where this oniricity is acknowledged it is still most often reduced to only one dimension of the dream, that of the nightmare. The positive affects of awe, wonder, inspiration, desire, mystery, numinosity, expectancy and revelation are given short shrift. Ambiguous words of ambivalent connotation and coloration are glibly reduced to a single negative tone, for example the “void” is seen under the aspect of negativity and extinction.

Another theme that is blown up out of all proportion is that of the “supernatural”. Strange Gods, ancient magic, demons are either taken at face value by the most naive or seen as metaphors of the indifference of the Universe to humanity and of its eventual extinction by the more sophisticated. This terrifying supernaturalism is valorised all the more as it fits in well with the diagnosis of nihilism.

These considerations cohere into the stereotype of Lovecraft the author of nihilist tales of supernatural terror. Unfortunately there are many of Lovecraft’s poems and tales that do not fit easily, either in whole or in part, into this stereotype. These are either ignored or denigrated as Romantic residues or derivative, Dunsanian works.

These more positive oneiric works can still be integrated into the nihilistic interpretation in that they often contain both a de-realisation and a de-valorisation of life, as illusion or as unsatisfying, not worth living. There is a nihilistic longing for another yet unattainable world, often synonymous with the extinction of personal identity seen as deliverance from the mistake of ever having been born, a mood of dissatisfaction and yearning underpinned by a vaguely Schopenhauerian-tinted Platonic dualism.

Yet we know that Lovecraft was both a materialist (recognising no separate supernatural or even Platonic realm) and a dreamer (subscribing to no mundane nihilism of the loss of all value). Lovecraft’s materialism is a constant of all his stories:

“There is never an entity in Lovecraft that is not in some fashion material” (S.T. Joshi, THE WEIRD TALE, 186).

Far from being a cosmic pessimist or a Romantic nihilist Lovecraft is best seen as a noetic dreamer, an oneiric materialist, an immanent Platonist. The dream, both waking (noetic) and sleeping, is part of our creative engagement with the material world and of our resistance against nihilism.

One can easily find elements of “Platonism” in Lovecraft’s stories and poetry, but I wish to argue that this is part of his revaluing or “renoetising” of a material world that is often seen as hostile to creative values, as “denoetised”. Lovecraft’s fiction presents us with a form of “immanent” or non-dualist Platonism.

Note: I am using a terminology taken from Bernard Stiegler’s DANS LA DISRUPTION (2016) for the positive vocabulary and analysis that it proposes for talking about the dream as a material phenomenon of imaginative meditation and aspiration, a “noetic” (from “nous”, Greek for intellect, intellection).

I wish to talk about the poem “Hesperia”, number XIII in the sonnet cycle FUNGI FROM YUGGOTH, to illustrate this approach to Lovecraft’s vision. I choose this because of the very interesting reading proposed by Jesse Willis and Eric Rabkin in their marvelous and intelligent podcast “Reading Short and Deep”. They provide a link to the pdf of the poem, and they discuss it on episode 54. The motto for the podcast, “there’s always more to say”, is an invitation to continue the dialogue further, or as Jung advises us to “dream the dream on”.

At first sight “Hesperia” is built on a dualism between this “dull sphere”, the finite and imperfect world of human constructions and aspirations and another world of perfection, “the land where beauty’s meanings flower”. The other Platonic world is forever out of bounds, unattainable by mere humans, unsoilable by “human tread”.

Yet this realm is not totally inaccessible, we can approach it in dreams (“Dreams bring us close”). But not just in the dreams of the night. The poem is a meditation that occurs at a visionary moment (“winter sunset”), it is a waking dream where the poet can actually see the other world. The affects that preside over this experience are not those of dread, fear and doom, but splendor, divine desires, beauty and wonder. We participate in those affects even if we cannot abide in their source. We are humans not gods and so our participation is limited to intermittent visions and cyclic dreaming.

The dominant elements are fire and water, the “flaming” winter sunset and the “starlit streams of hours”. Our world is the world of Heraclitean flux and becoming, but the “rich fires” open the way to divine desires, and the “streams of hours” derive from the “great river Time”, whose source is the eternal world. So we are never wholly separated from this world, only “half-detached”. In the other direction, starting from immanence, religion and industry (spires and chimneys) are themselves “half-detached” from this dull Earth.

We need both movements to make us fully human, subjects capable of living in time in the light of eternity. We are intermediate beings, forever “half-detached”. Certainly we are never fully detached from the dull matter of the material world, but we are also never fully immersed in dull matter either.

The poem conforms to the classical structure of the sonnet. It is traditionally composed of an octave presenting the problem and a sestet disclosing the solution.In “Hesperia” the octave is situated in the world of immanece, the movement is up and beyond. The sestet begins in the world of eternity, the movement is down into time and matter.

The initial octave is the point of view of the mundane world which opens onto a vision of divine life located in an eternal city. The gates open in certain visionary moments and we can see the way, but we cannot tread it. The sestet is the point of view from the numinous world, in which the river of Time finds its source, crossing the vast void lit by the light of the stars, and dividing into the “streams of hours” of our human heliocentric measures of time.

There is no radical separation between the two realms, no dualistic opposition, no point of absolute detachment. There is a tension between two poles. We live as more than human animals by participating in both. The poem is both cosmological, expressing a vision of the world contained in a winter sunset epiphany, and ethical, containing implicitly an answer to the question of the conduct of life.

The answer to the question of how to live is not just the impossibility of transcendence for the human subject, but also its pointlessness: we are not separated. Beauty is eternal, and even if its full meaning does not flower for us we have dreams and visions, moments of insight and poetico-cosmological epiphanies.

We cannot “tread” our way, like animals, into eternity, nor can we dwell there like gods. But we can dream our way there and come back enriched or transformed.

Another answer is contained in the hour of the vision, the “winter sunset”. Yes this is the symbol of the World Cycle and of the Eternal Return. As noetic beings we rise and sink in imagination and understanding. More specifically, “winter” and “sunset” are times not just of decline, like autumn and evening, but of disaggregation. Lovecraft is a materialist for whom all is the coming together and the dispersal of matter. The winter sunset is the season and the hour of decomposition, a time particularly favorable for sighting another world, only half-detached from our ordinary world.

Maxim 1: inspiration can come when things are falling apart.

This materialist maxim of life, that moments of decline and disaggreagation can provide the inspiration for new vision, does not sound at all pessimistic. Pessimism and nihilism are not inherent to Lovecraft’s vision but stem from the dualist spectacles with which we may read him.

This advice to look to moments of decomposition of our certainties and of our stereotypes for inspiration to new understanding and new action is complemented and reinforced by a spatial indication – the poet looks out to the horizon, to a space “half-detached” from our mundane sphere of dull indifference, to “great gates” that open onto eternity . Mundane forms are dissolved, replaced by imaginative forms burning with intensity and desire.

Maxim 2: inspiration can come if we follow the line of horizon.

A third indication for the eyes of the spirit is that beauty is no longer a matter of personal esthetic enjoyment nor is it the fruit of personal memories. The imaginative “method” is one of anamnesis, or remembering, of images and events that are not located inside our personal experience, instances of “unplaced memory”. Beauty is conjoined with meaning and memories with their source in imaginative vision:

It is the land where beauty’s meaning flowers;

Where every unplaced memory has a source

Maxim 3: inspiration can come if we search for the images, desires, and intensities active within the memories.

My vision of Lovecraft is the Nietzschean one of the artist as convalescent, both patient and doctor, sick from our civilisation and healing from it. For Lovecraft, nihilism is the sickness, not the solution or the conclusion. Dreaming and imagining actively, as valued moments in our processes of individuation, are not escapism but an important part of the cure.

Note: Lovecraft’s misanthropy is a different question than his racism, although they are related. Both are incompatible with the general drift of his thought. His misanthropy is inconsistent with his cosmicism, and his racism is inconsistent with his principle of non-identity, of identities being dissolved in the void/plenum.

(2): “The Ancient Track” and dreamology as cosmology

In the previous section I presented Lovecraft as a “noetic dreamer”, an immanent Platonist and an oneiric materialist rather than a pessimist or a nihilist. On this view of Lovecraft his works do not present a nihilistic worldview to which the only lucid reaction is cosmic despair or existential horror. Nihilism is the malady of the modern world after the death of God, a malady from which Lovecraft himself also suffers, and for which his works are both diagnosis and attempted cure. Part of that cure is the valorisation of the “weird”, of visionary moments of noetic estrangement.

In “Hesperia” we saw elements of this immanent Platonism, in which a numinous oniric world of “divine desires” is glimpsed in contrast with the “dull sphere” of the mundane world, where human animals tread. These glimpses, or intermittent visions, can occur at moments of disaggregation (e.g. “winter sunset”) of ordinary perceived and remembered (“dull”) forms allowing the imaginative recomposition of empyreal forms of extraordinary meaning and beauty.

The moment of disaggregation is only alluded to in “Hesperia”, in the sole expression “the winter sunset” at the beginning of the poem. The nihilist predicament is alluded to in the reference to the human animal limited to treading this dull sphere, and in the opposition between treading and dreaming. According to the poem “Dreams bring us close”, and by implication treading keeps us far.

Access to this realm is only partial and intermittent (according to the cycles of seasons and of hours). There is a path (“the way leads clear”), but it is a noetic path, open to dreamers but closed to treaders. It leads beyond the horizon to the “starlit streams” and the “vast void”

The Ancient Track” contains these elements in a slightly more developped form. It is composed of 44 lines, compared to Hesperia‘s 14-line sonnet form. The moment is not sunset but night:

There was no hand to hold me back
That night I found the ancient track

This distich, which opens the poem, is repeated three times, at the beginning of the first and second parts, and at the end. It seems charged with meaning, but the sense remains elusive. Given the thematics of the poem, in particular the danger of being misled by false memories of a dead pseudo-past, we may gloss the “hand”, absent, unwilling or powerless to “hold back” the poet as the dead hand of the past. The infinitive, “to hold me back”, is itself ambiguous between “in order to” and “capable of”, between purpose and capacity.

We are entitled to cite the words of another materialist here, Karl Marx, who was perhaps more oneiric than is usually believed:

The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living. And just as they seem to be occupied with revolutionizing themselves and things, creating something that did not exist before, precisely in such epochs of revolutionary crisis they anxiously conjure up the spirits of the past to their service, borrowing from them names, battle slogans, and costumes in order to present this new scene in world history in time-honored disguise and borrowed language…In like manner, the beginner who has learned a new language always translates it back into his mother tongue, but he assimilates the spirit of the new language and expresses himself freely in it only when he moves in it without recalling the old and when he forgets his native tongue (The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte).

The poem recounts the narrator’s ascent of a hill, following a “path” or a “climbing road” that leads upwards to a “silhouetted crest”. His mind is filled with memories of familiar places and landmarks that he expects to see when he reaches the summit. He recognizes a “milestone” ten paces from the top but when he reaches the crest he sees a “mad scene”, a panorama of dead unfamiliar forms going to ruin in a “long-dead vale”:

A valley of the lost and dead…

…weeds and vines that grew

On ruined walls I never knew.

During the ascent the poet was immersed in the positive affects of expectancy, familiarity, order, certainty, confidence (“no fear”). He “knew” what he “would” see. Looking down, the poet confronts the affects of disappointment, confusion, unfamiliarity, loss, mockery, madness. Reaching the “crest” is a moment of noetic shock: trauma, disorder, confusion (“Around was fog”) and bifurcation.

The straight path towards an anticipated future that the poet had been following up till now divides into a “trail” that descends into the dead pseudo-past (“my loved past had never been”) and a “track” that leads “ahead” into “the Spray/Of star-streams in the Milky Way” (cf. the “starlit streams” in “Hesperia”).

Once again, as in “Hesperia”, we are invited to follow the noetic path, the skyline, or the line of the horizon. Descent is not an option:

Nor was I now upon the trail
Descending to that long-dead vale.

The spatial indications are interesting here. There is the ambiguity of “over” in the run on expression after the first distich:

There was no hand to hold me back
That night I found the ancient track
Over the hill

“Over” can mean beyond, which would converge with the spatial indication in “Hesperia”:

The winter sunset, flaming beyond spires
And chimneys half-detached from this dull sphere,

Or it can mean above, as it does elsewhere in this poem:

And over Zaman’s Hill the horn
Of a malignant moon was born

Yet the numinosity of the star streams is not presented as even higher than, or above, the crest but as simply “ahead”.

The cosmology present in the two poems, “Hesperia” and “The Ancient Track”, is visibly the same. In “The Ancient Track” the nihilist element is accentuated, the dead past and the malignant moon, the madness and the menacing talons. The oniric vision is accessible if we relinquish the past and the illusions of memory, but the cosmos is material, there is no quest for transcendence. The weird contains both horror and wonder, but we are not by our very existence condemned, horror is not the final word. Nor is the fog.

Lovecraft is no warm and fuzzy optimist, unlike the narrator eager to return to the fields of his memory  as he walks “straight on” (this is similar to the “human tread” of “Hesperia) during his ascent of the hill. Lovecraft acknowledges our disorientation and confusion, he recognises the emptiness of our illusions and memories, and warns us that horror borders and subtends our ordinary world. The horror is lying just around the corner, just “over the hill”, but so also is “the spray of star streams”.

Note: there is an interesting discussion of this poem on the excellent podcast Reading Short and Deep episode #005.

(3): “Ex Oblivione” or cosmicism is not pessimism

Lovecraft fully subscribed to the worldview of modern science, to what Michel Serres calls the Grand Narrative of science. He rejected all religion and all supernaturalism, declaring himself to be an atheist and a materialist.

“The cosmos is, in all probability, an eternal mass of shifting and mutually interacting force-patterns which our present visible universe, our tiny earth, and our puny race of organic beings, form merely a momentary and negligible incident. Thus my serious conception of reality is dynamically opposite to the fantastic position I take as an aesthete. In aesthetics, nothing interests me so much as the idea of strange suspensions of natural law – weird glimpses of terrifyingly elder worlds and abnormal dimensions, and faint scratchings from unknown outside abysses on the rim of the unknown cosmos. I think this kind of thing fascinates me all the more because I don’t believe a word of it!” ( Lovecraft, letter to R. Michael July 20, 1929).

His cosmos was scientific, but Lovecraft was aware of the danger of nihilism inherent in the transition from the religious worldview to such a scientific cosmos, indifferent to the life of humanity and to its cherished values.

In fact the problem is not so much science versus religion as the denoetisation of existence, the reduction to the human animal:

“Honestly, my hatred of the human animal mounts by leaps and bounds the more I see of the miserable vermin” (Selected Letters, 1.211).

Lovecraft’s materialism is not nihilism – the negation of all values, but cosmicism – the idea that our esthetic and moral values are of only relative validity, temporary and local concretions out of the the chaotic material flux of a vast and indifferent universe.

“Indifferentism”, understood as the indifference of the inhuman cosmos to insignificant human values, is not the problem, for why should the vast cosmos care about us? This is just the way things are for Lovecraft. However, cosmic indifference elevated into a human value and belief (pessimism, nihilism) is something else. Lovecraft’s stories constantly mock beliefs and cults as based on ignorance and anthropocentrism.

“Cosmic pessimism” is strictly a contradiction in terms for Lovecraft’s later philosophy. It represents a transitional anthropomorphic stage in the evolution from personalism to cosmicism. For Lovecraft’s Lucretian materialism we are nothing but atoms and the void, but the void is not reducible to mere emptiness. The void is also a plenum, from which all forms arise.

This void as plenum can be seen in Lovecraft’s last story “The Haunter of the Dark“, where the protagonist Robert Blake gazes into the “Shining Trapezohedron” an eerie complexly asymmetrical crystal:

This stone, once exposed, exerted upon Blake an almost alarming fascination. He could scarcely tear his eyes from it, and as he looked at its glistening surfaces he almost fancied it was transparent, with half-formed worlds of wonder within. Into his mind floated pictures of alien orbs with great stone towers, and other orbs with titan mountains and no mark of life, and still remoter spaces where only a stirring in vague blacknesses told of the presence of consciousness and will…. And beyond all else he glimpsed an infinite gulf of darkness, where solid and semi-solid forms were known only by their windy stirrings, and cloudy patterns of force seemed to superimpose order on chaos and hold forth a key to all the paradoxes and arcana of the worlds we know.

This experience of the void pregnant with multiple forms comes at a price, that of one’s identity. This loss of identity is ambiguous in its valence, and can constitute a negative version of the mystical experience if it is resisted or a more positive one if it is embraced. In the case of Robert Blake the experience is one of horror. He desperately clings to his identity as it begins to dissolve into that of Nyarlathotep:

“My name is Blake—Robert Harrison Blake of 620 East Knapp Street, Milwaukee, Wisconsin. . . . I am on this planet. . . .
“Azathoth have mercy!—the lightning no longer flashes—horrible—I can see everything with a monstrous sense that is not sight—light is dark and dark is light . . . those people on the hill . . . guard . . . candles and charms . . . their priests. . . .
“Sense of distance gone—far is near and near is far. No light—no glass—see that steeple—that tower—window—can hear—Roderick Usher—am mad or going mad—the thing is stirring and fumbling in the tower—I am it and it is I—I want to get out . . . must get out and unify the forces”

However the same experience can be actively sought out and welcomed as a merging with the plenum. This is what happens in the short story “Ex Oblivione“. The narrator is an experienced dreamer taking no pleasure in the mundane literal world. Perhaps this is the crucial difference with Robert Blake, who lives on College Hill and despite being a writer of weird fiction is too personalistic and literal-minded in his approach to the unknown.

In a golden valley of the dream world the narrator encounters a high wall with a locked bronze gate and desires to pass through it to the other side, despite contradictory reports of wonder and of horror waiting beyond. Finally the dreamer finds the instructions for the potion that will unlock the gate and finds happiness rather than horror in the loss of his identity:

But as the gate swung wider and the sorcery of drug and dream pushed me through, I knew that all sights and glories were at an end; for in that new realm was neither land nor sea, but only the white void of unpeopled and illimitable space. So, happier than I had ever dared hoped to be, I dissolved again into that native infinity of crystal oblivion from which the daemon Life had called me for one brief and desolate hour.

The paradox here lies in the act of enunciation. The purported author tells us the story of the dissolution of his identity “into that native infinity of crystal oblivion ” from which he came into life and to which he returned only, apparently, to be called forth once more. The ultimate character of the void is not that of a sterile empty chaos but of a fecund plenum of oblivion and birth of forms. Lovecraft’s encounter with this void did not lead to silence and despair or mad resistance but to literary friendship and the writing of weird fiction.

Note: there is a very interesting discussion of “Ex Oblivione” on The SFFaudio Podcast Episode #393 – AUDIOBOOK/READALONG: Ex Oblivione by H.P. Lovecraft

SOME THOUGHTS ON PROVIDENCE #12

I have just finished reading Providence #12. It manages to tie a lot of threads together from the preceding issues, and also from Alan Moore’s The Courtyard and Neonomicon. It does this final wrap-up in a satisfying, but not mind-blowing way.

I liked the idea of all books and narratives as “spoors”, life from other worlds infiltrating our minds. Books and works of art are presented as not only mind-transforming but also world-changing devices, of a piece with dreams.

Lovecraft scholar S.T. Joshi is integrated into the cast of characters as the last remaining scientist, a “Lovecraft scientist”, which I suppose we all are as readers of Lovecraft and Moore.

The blog FACTS IN THE CASE OF ALAN MOORE’S PROVIDENCE suggests an interpretation of Joshi, Perlman and Brears as representing the three major responses to Lovecraft’s work (scholarly and philosophical, proactive and combative, existential and spiritual). Moore himself seems closest to the Brears response of enlightened fatalism.

In the debate over whether horror or the dream is primary in Lovecraft, Moore seems to come down on the side of the dream. On the question of free will, Brears declares that as far as they know it’s a deterministic universe, but Johnny Carcosa (Nyarlathotep) affirms that the world is a fiction that easily submits to a stronger fiction, so determinism may not be the last word.

The balancing act of entertaining both hypotheses (mechanistic determinism and oniric agency) is nicely stated in the coda, which is a citation from Lovecraft’s “Beyond The Wall of Sleep“:

We may guess that in dreams life, matter, and vitality, as the earth knows such things, are not necessarily constant; and that time and space do not exist as our waking selves comprehend them. Sometimes I believe that this less material life is our truer life, and that our vain presence on the terraqueous globe is itself the secondary or merely virtual phenomenon.

“La Chute de la Maison aux Flèches d’Argent”: Aliette de Bodard, l’altérité et le fantastique postcolonial

Le nouveau roman d’Aliette de Bodard est une histoire fantastique insolite, défiant toute classification par genre: une fantasy urbaine, néo-Gothique, post-apocalyptique, qui mêle l’histoire alternative avec une cosmologie et une poly-théologie pluralistes.

Dès le début du roman, “La Chute de la Maison aux Flèches d’Argent” est une lecture passionnante, que j’ai dévorée avec grand plaisir et aussi avec une grande hâte pour arriver au dénouement. La fin était très satisfaisante, mais le sens de clôture qu’elle apporte à l’histoire n’est pas définitive et on peut espérer qu’une suite sera écrite et publiée sans trop d’attente.

Le roman démarre avec une scène d’une grande force imaginative et affective: le récit de la “chute” d’un ange inconnu, déchu pour une faute jamais définie, dont les ailes sont petit à petit arrachées pendant la descente et qui au terme de sa déchéance se manifeste dans notre monde avec un cri annonçant à la fois une nouvelle naissance, une douleur immense et une perte déchirante.

Nous apprenons tout de suite que les “Déchus” sont une espèce en danger dans notre monde: on les recherche avidement en tant qu’alliés potentiels dans les luttes intestines entre les grandes “Maisons” qui partagent le pouvoir, conjuguant atrocités commises sans vergogne, intrigues labyrinthiques et stratégies politiques machiavéliques pour atteindre à l’hégémonie incontestée. Si par malheur une des bandes de pilleurs qui sillonnent la ville retrouve un nouveau Déchu, ils récoltent jusqu’au plus infimes parties de son corps pour se servir de la magie qu’elles contiennent, et qui peuvent être conservées en bouteille et stockées pour une utilisation ultérieure.

Le cadre c’est un Paris alternatif, en ruines. La ville a été à moitié détruite par une guerre magique dévastatrice, menée pour décider quelle Grande Maison dominera Paris. Étoile-du-Matin, le premier des Déchus, a disparu mystérieusement il y a vingt ans et depuis sa disparition la Maison qu’il a fondée, la Maison aux Flèches d’Argent, décline lentement en puissance et en influence.

Séléné, la seule apprentie encore en vie d’Étoile-du-Matin, devient à contrecœur et par défaut le nouveau chef de la Maison aux Flèches d’Argent, puisque tous les apprentis plus anciens et mieux qualifiés sont morts. Sous le règne de Séléné, la Maison aux Flèches d’Argent est en déclin, en chute libre, perdant lentement mais sûrement tout son ancien pouvoir et son prestige et elle s’achemine vers le démantèlement. Étoile-du-Matin était unique, le premier et le plus puissant des Déchus, et personne ne peut assumer son héritage.

(Les thèmes du pouvoir, du déclin et de la chute et comme on le verra de l’exil, sont omniprésents dans ce roman).

Malgré la beauté et le détail du monde construit par Aliette de Bodard, cette cosmologie de type chrétien, n’embrasse pas la totalité du monde du roman, elle reste régionale. Le cadre cosmologique du livre n’est ni univoque ni mono-centrique. Le Paris Magique et les Anges Déchus sont au centre de cette histoire particulière, mais il y a aussi d’autres cosmologies en jeu, et d’autres histoires sont entr’aperçues. Ce décentrement et cette pluralisation du “worldbuilding” traditionnel du genre fantastique est une des forces du roman.

Philippe, un des protagonistes, n’est ni un homme mortel ni un ange déchu, mais autre chose entièrement: un ex-Immortel venant de l’Annam, le nom employé dans le roman pour désigner un Vietnam tout aussi fantastique que Paris, mais autrement. La description de ses perceptions et de ses actions, qui sont basées non pas sur la magie et sur la soif du pouvoir mais plutôt sur une sensibilité et sur un comportement plus écologiques, où ce qui importe est de sentir les courants du “chi” et notre relation aux cinq éléments, fournit un contrepoids puissant à l’expérience du pouvoir et de la hiérarchie qui caractérise les Déchus et à leur arrogance dans l’emploi cynique de cette magie pour atteindre leurs buts.

Du point de vue de la logique classique, ces deux cosmologies sont incompatibles, voire incommensurables, elles devraient s’exclure mutuellement. Aliette de Bodard n’explique pas comment leur interaction serait possible, son récit commence avec le fait brut de leur impossible coexistence et interaction, et avec leur méfiance et leur incompréhension mutuelles.

Il n’y a pas de grande méta-cosmologie qui surplombe tout et qui rassemble toutes les cosmologies divergentes en un Tout unique. Les gens doivent apprendre à s’entendre et à collaborer sans connaître toutes les règles, sans savoir comment tout se tient ensemble.

Les séquences racontées du point de vue de Philippe, un étranger vivant à Paris qui s’est exilé de son pays pour fuir les effets néfastes de la colonisation, empêchent le roman de retomber dans les rets d’un récit univoque raconté d’une perspective unifiée, une sorte de “Trône de Fer” situé dans un Paris magique et post-apocalyptique, ou la Chute de la Maison de Lucifer.

La Maison aux Flèches d’Argent capture Philippe et le rattache à sa “protection”, mais il ne s’y sentira jamais chez lui:

“Elle ne pourrait jamais être sa maison, même si elle avait été aussi accueillante que son foyer maternel. Il était… Annamien. Autre”.

Jadis Philippe était des Immortels de la cour de l’Empereur de Jade, mais il en a été banni. Ensuite il a été enrôlé de force dans l’armée d’une grande maison et dispatché à Paris pour combattre dans la guerre entre les Maisons pour l’hégémonie dans la ville. Ce conflit n’a aucun sens pour Philippe, qui la voit comme un combat impitoyable entre des adversaires qui se valent, tous également cyniques et corrompus.

Philippe aspire à la liberté et à la paix plutôt qu’à l’inféodation et à la guerre, et il reste radicalement aliéné du monde des grandes Maisons et des Déchus qui les dirigent et qui cherchent vainement à assurer leur sécurité dans une guerre fratricide pour posséder le monopole du pouvoir.

(Les thèmes de l’altérité, de la différence et de la divergence, sont eux aussi omniprésents dans le roman, apportant un sens de l’étrangeté et du pluralisme).

Philippe commence à avoir du sentiment pour les divers êtres qu’il côtoie sans vraiment les comprendre. La logique intellectuelle lui dicte de partir, dès qu’il trouve le moyen de s’évader, mais le sentiment, la compassion, un lien qui existe par dessus la fêlure de l’incompréhension, l’incite à rester et à participer dans une lutte qu’il ne croit pas être la sienne. Il reste fidèle à la vie concrète, aux personnes qu’il aime et non pas aux principes abstraits ou à l’honneur féodal.

(Les thèmes de l’amour de la diversité, du souci de l’autre, du lien, de la fidélité, de l’amitié, et de la communauté des petites gens parcourent le roman et s’affirment malgré les chutes, les divergences, les fêlures et les incompréhensions).

En conclusion, “La Chute de la Maison aux Flèches d’Argent” est un roman d’une écriture claire et poétique. Ambitieux à la fois narrativement et conceptuellement, il se lit avec un grand plaisir et nous laisse impatients de lire la suite.

Yoon Ha Lee’s THE BATTLE OF CANDLE ARC

“The Battle of Candle Arc”, by Yoon Ha Lee, is a short story set in the same universe as his novel NINEFOX GAMBIT.It was first published in 2012 in Clarkesworld Magazine (text and audio), and was later included in an anthology of his stories entitled CONSERVATION OF SHADOWS.

The action takes place many years before NINEFOX GAMBIT, as the novel’s hexarchate is in this story still a heptarchate. We know from the novel that there used to be seven ruling factions, but that one of them, the Liozh, the philosopher/ethicist caste, was eliminated for “heresy”, having tried to introduce democracy and a measure of freedom into the totalitarian regime of the high calendar and its compulsory “remembrances”.

The high calendar is an axiomatic system of beliefs, concordances, and ritual observances necessary to the obtention of “exotic” technological effects that suspend or surpass the ordinary laws of physics, including faster than light travel:

The heptarchate’s exotic technologies depended on the high calendar’s configurations: the numerical concordances, the feasts and remembrances, the associated system of belief. The mothdrive that permitted fast travel between star systems was an exotic technology.

The administration of this calendar and the regulation of life according to Doctrine and to ritual Remembrances falls to the dogmatic and sadistic Rahal (another of the seven ruling factions).

The protagonist is General Shuos Jedao, who is also one of the main characters of NINEFOX GAMBIT. The Shuos faction is given over to “intelligence” operations: diplomatic games, spying and assassination. Jedao however is atypical in that he actively seeks allies among the Kel, the military faction, and seems to respect the independent spirit they sometimes show when questions of battle and of honour are at stake.

We can see Jedao’s detestation of the Rahal’s rigity and cruely. He disapproves of their propensities for torture and of their general lack of compassion. Their adherence to, and imposition of, Doctrine borders on the fanatical.

The story begins with the “Remembrance” of a heresy that made an unacceptable demand for the freedom to venerate their ancestors.

Jedao would have called the heresy a benign one. People who wanted the freedom to build shrines to their ancestors, for pity’s sake. But the Rahal had claimed that this would upset the high calendar’s master equations, and so the heretics had had to be put down.

I have concentrated on the underlying principles of the physics and of the social order, but this is far from capturing the interest and excitement of this story. The story contains in a short space the speculative breadth and ethical intensity, the fusion of  poetic terminology and imaginative science, and the complexity of character that provide a good introduction to the hexarchate universe and that foreshadow the pyrotechnics and the sense of wonder of NINEFOX GAMBIT.

Yoon Ha Lee’s CALENDRICAL ROT: Pluralist Platonism

According to a concise entry on Yoon Ha Lee’s blog “Calendrical Rot”, a short story set in the hexarchate/heptarchate universe, was originally intended as a prologue to his recent novel NINEFOX GAMBIT. It is published in”An Alphabet of Embers“, July 2016.

Yoon Ha Lee’s teaser summary is quite cryptic:

“when people go to war over calendars, weapons of assassination are not what they seem at first”.

My interest in this story is fired by my enthusiasm for the novel NINEFOX GAMBIT (cf. my review) and for the very interesting use of mathematics as the hard science on which the story’s technology and ideology are based.

I see the metaphysics underlying this fictional universe as participating in a more general tendency that I describe as the immanentising of Platonism. Instead of maintaining the splitting of the world into an absolute realm of unique and unchanging Truth and a relative world where everything is in flux and nothing is true, we can imagine a world where truth is local, constructed, dynamic and multiple, without being totally malleable.

Another example of this trend is ANATHEM by Neal Stephenson, which I review from this point of view here.

“Calendrical Rot” has the advantage of making explicit this pluralist element. It begins with a paragraph that announces this theme explicitly:

This is the way the hexarchate tells it, the one true clock, but they’re wrong….the whisper across the known worlds is not unity.

Truth, as expressed in the one true calendar, is constructed and imposed. Other truths are actively suppressed. Those who base their lives on another calendar are judged, and then re-conditioned (brainwashed), or eliminated. In the short story the action takes place on Nran, a “city-station”, whose criminal underworld dates its transactions with a calendar that is in conflict with the hexarchate’s high calendar. The city-station is to be judged and presumably to be brought into line with the high calendar, but the judge is assassinated.

Such a disparity, one that cannot simply be retranslated back by simple conversion into the terms of the high calendar but that embodies an irreducible divergence, cannot be tolerated. It is not a simple affair of local colour, but of active resistance. In the novel this will be called “heresy”.

This disparity is not just an ideological difference but has dramatic consequences for the technology of empire. For example, the hexarchate’s starships (“voidmoths”) depend for their functioning on the universal observance of the high calendar:

In regions where other calendars dominated, their stardrives were useless, inert.

Truth, once the violent imposition of the hexarchate’s hegemony has been overturned or at least briefly nullified, is local. The time of death of the hexarchate judge was rigorously determined. “All across Nran and its satellite tributaries this was true”. However, from the standpoint of the nearby system of Khaio, this time is uncertain. The narrator remarks

there should have been a single answer – and there was not

The dynamic aspect of truth is apprehended negatively by the hexarchate, in the guise of the fear that the prospect of real change inspires. Such change is an ever present danger to the status quo, and is violently suppressed under the name of “calendrical rot”

Isabel Yap’s A CUP OF SALT TEARS: love without monsters

It is Short Fiction Month on Rob Weber’s blog Val’s Random Comments. During the month of January he will be reviewing one science fiction or fantasy short story a day. I think this is a very interesting initiative, and I will be trying to keep up with the reading and to post a review for each story too. Weber has given a preliminary list of stories here, if anyone else wishes to follow along.

For his fourth read Weber has chosen a dark fantasy story, “A Cup of Salt Tears” by Isabel Yap, that is available for free online here. It is not my usual sort of reading and I have not read anything else by Isabel Yap. This is one of the advantages of the exercise, to discover new authors and stories, to widen our reading and to renew our appreciation of what we read.

I am a little perplexed at what to make of the story, and it seems to be able to be read in two different ways. I do not agree with the moral stated in the introductory remark that prefaces it.

To keep with the thread of transformation that I have been following in the previous stories, we can say that the heroine Makino has been transformed at the end but in a seemingly negative way.

Makino is courted by a kappa, a demon or dark trickster figure, who claims to have saved her from drowning when she was a little girl and to have fallen in with love her, but may be after her soul. At the end, the kappa seems to have won and eaten her soul, as she feels no more love for her husband Tetsuya:

“She feels just as much affection for Tetsuya as she did before, but nothing else”.

Great affection, but nothing more.

However, if we read the story more symbolically, the reverse can be said to be true: Makino has triumphed over the kappa and its effects on her life and has gained a new perspective based on greater self-knowledge.

The rememoration of a childhood traumatic event (in the terms of the story: of falling into a river and nearly drowning) reveals to Makino that this trauma was at the basis of her self-sacrificial love for her husband (as she gave up Tokyo and modeling for the sake of his job). She manages to free herself from the fixation on the trauma but at the price of loss of soul, flattening of affect.

Or is this just a more realistic, more mature emotion? Has she in fact learnt to “befriend” the trauma and to renounce a particular figure of love?

Her husband is described in terms that recall a kappa: monkeylike, a beaklike mouth, very long fingers:

He was not handsome. There was something monkeylike about his features, and his upper lip formed a strange peak over his lower lip.

Makino allowed Tetsuya to touch her fingers, just as she allowed the “kappa” to touch as a child. They fall in love, marry, and she sacrifices her career for his. Psychologically, it is her husband, or the self-sacrificial love that she feels for him, that is the monster.

The final scene suggests as much. Usually one inscribes the name of a child on a cucumber and throws it in the water, so that the kappa eats the cucumber and not the child. At the end Maniko writes the word “love” on the cucumber before throwing it into the water, so we can imagine that this is to prevent the kappa from eating her love anymore, so that she can pass on to a phase of monster-less, non-traumatic, non-sacrificial love.

Arthur C. Clarke’s THE STAR: consilience is the phoenix

The next story on Rob Weber’s series of reviews is Arthur C. Clarke’s THE STAR. Weber’s review can be found here.

This story is an interesting counterweight to Clarke’s “The Nine Billion Names of God“. In the latter story religion wins out over science, in this one science wins out over religion.

Yet THE STAR seems the “deeper” story. There is a difference in motivation. In “The Nine Billion Names of God” the scientists are cynical and the Tibetan monks seem naive. Here there are superficial scientists questioning naive superstitious faith, but the narrator is more complex than they think. He points out that the “incongruity” of his position is only “apparent”:

“It was, I think, the apparent incongruity of my position that caused most amusement to the crew. In vain I would point to my three papers in the Astrophysical Journal, my five in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society. I would remind them that my order has long been famous for its scientific works. We may be few now, but ever since the eighteenth century we have made contributions to astronomy and geophysics out of all proportion to our numbers”.

The narrator’s motivation, both religious and scientific, is deep. “The Nine Billion Names of God” incarnates the conflict between the Two Cultures in separate individuals, whereas in “The Star” the narrator incarnates both sides of the divide, and lives out their conflict as an inner struggle.

THE STAR combines a speculative element, the cold equations, and a religious element, the problem of evil or suffering. But is it really a pessimistic story, as the despairing tone may suggest? We are all mortal, civilisations included. But we must not forget the wonder and beauty of the alien civilisation, its “loveliness” and “innocent happiness”, and the glory of interstellar travel.

The wonder, the beauty, and the glory are all real, and the cruel coincidence of the timing of the star’s explosion poses a problem only for the Christian theodicy. Yet with the failure of theodicy and the abandonment of faith something is lost.

The question posed is that of the relation between science and religion. Is it necessarily one of conflict? The conflict thesis is not borne out by the history of science, much of the original motivation for science had religious roots. Is another form of religion both more compatible with science and more desirable? This solution is suggested by Dr. Chandler in the story:

“Well, Father,” he would say at last, “it goes on forever and forever, and perhaps Something made it. But how you can believe that Something has a special interest in us and our miserable little world—that just beats me.”

This secularised religion has no problem of suffering to resolve, as the hypothetical Great Something has no special interest in humanity, but with it there comes a loss of soul, the flattening of affect and the triumph of a quantitative approach to the world.

The “conflict thesis” seems to apply now to the science side of the divide, where formerly the Church (i.e. not “religion” but a political institution) imposed its hegemony by all the means at its disposal. In the spaceship the conflict continues, seemingly as just ideological struggle:

The crew were already sufficiently depressed: I wonder how they will take this ultimate irony. Few of them have any religious faith, yet they will not relish using this final weapon in their campaign against me—that private, good-natured, but fundamentally serious war which lasted all the way from Earth.

But this is also a struggle for the meaning of life and the basis of our civilisation. Dogmatic faith versus nihilistic science. The alien cvilisation seems to symbolise a third alternative, a depth based on knowledge that is perhaps still beyond us:

“Everything that they wished to preserve, all the fruits of their genius, they brought here to this distant world in the days before the end, hoping that some other race would find it and that they would not be utterly forgotten. Would we have done as well, or would we have been too lost in our own misery to give thought to a future we could never see or share?”

Faced with an extinction event secular nihilism would have no meaning to protect it from misery. The aliens surpass us in their optimism, in their faith that preserving and sharing their genius, in the full sense of that word, is a worthwhile endeavour. They did not give in to depression, as the ship’s crew has, and the narrator more so.

The narrator finds the name of the Phoenix Nebula inappropriate:

I do not know who gave the nebula its name, which seems to me a very bad one. If it contains a prophecy, it is one that cannot be verified for several billion years. Even the word “nebula” is misleading; this is a far smaller object than those stupendous clouds of mist—the stuff of unborn stars—that are scattered throughout the length of the Milky Way. On the cosmic scale, indeed, the Phoenix Nebula is a tiny thing—a tenuous shell of gas surrounding a single star.

But here his vision is uniquely quantitative, assigning any finite object, however vast, to cosmic insignificance. The name is also ironic and depressing, localising the site of the death of a civilisation and of the death of faith.

One wants to say here that the “hero” has been transformed by his voyage, but that the transformation is incomplete. He claims to return with nothing but the sad “burden of knowledge”. He has gone further than the founder of his order, Ignatius of Loyola, could have imagined and discovered an insurmountable challenge to his faith. He set out with certainties and faith, he returns with questions and doubt.

However, he does not come back as empty-handed as he thinks, with a knowledge that serves to defeat all idea of a divine plan or of divine justice. He comes back enriched with visions of loveliness and knowledge of a people who, even if they did not solve the physical problem of survival, solved the moral problem of avoiding despair, and shared it with us.

The optimism in the story is not, as yet, available to the narrator. It comes from the gap between the implied author’s vision and that of his narrator. We know that Clarke was an atheist, and nonetheless an optimist, so the narrator’s point of view is not the final word on the conflict between science and faith and their possible reconciliation. The narrator has glimpses of this, but only at an emotional level, where it is mixed with despair. Like the other crew members, he has only partial knowledge, he remains a divided soul.

Perhaps he will learn to reconcile the fragments in a vaster synthesis, no longer of conflict but consilience.

FOLDING BEIJING: immanent hope

The next short story reviewed by Rob Weber is “Folding Beijing”, which won the 2016 Hugo Award for Best Novelette.

I liked this story, but not as much as Alastair Reynolds’ SCALES. There is a similarity of structure, as Lao Dao ascends the scales to higher spaces and descends again. Only this time they are economic and social spaces rather than physico-mathematical ones. The difference is that Lao Dao ascends and descends untransformed, and finds things pretty much the same on all levels of existence.

Lao Dao’s desire is that his daughter Tangtang learn to dance and sing in a proper school, and that his neighbour Ah Bei act like a coy and elegant girl of the highest level, sit quietly and smile demurely. His ideal of femininity is untransformed, despite what he learns, and remains quite conformist. On the other hand he has remained humane and selfless, and was not humiliated or embittered by his experience either. He keeps his lucidity without becoming cynical.

The science fiction does not lie in the folding city. This is a fantasy concept disguised as science fiction. It is made possible by a magical sleeping gas with no side effects that puts people to sleep to be folded away, with no worries about fires from forgetting to turn the gas off, or even needing to pee during the long period of dormancy.

This is a science fiction story based onthe science of  economics, or perhaps one should say political economy. The folding city and the imposed dormancy are dictated by the need to fight unemployment and inflation. The “European” solution of reducing working hours is rejected because it “saps the vitality of the economy”. The dynamic and “vital” solution is to make people sleep more:

“The best way is to reduce the time a certain portion of the population spends living, and then find ways to keep them busy. Do you get it? Right, shove them into the night”.

There is no critique of inequality in this story, it is just taken as a given and then found to be regrettable. The “science” at its base is Western economics fueled with a Communist sensibility, class without class struggle.

There is a Platonic resonance here. Lao Dao leaves his Third Space cavern and ascends to the place where one can see the Sun. The Great Guardian knows that they already have the technology to put the majority of third spacers out of work, but withholds this knowledge out of concern for the ordinary people. Lao Dao gains insight but returns happily into the cavern. His struggle is an immanent one, inside the cavern to make things a little better for his loved ones and neighbours, and he accepts his station in life “philosophically” in this immanent sense.

The protagonist of SCALES mounts to transcendence but returns with war and no insight. It is only the reader that gains the insight of our identity with the other. Lao Dao seems to already have that insight and so he remains unimpressed by those he sees in Second and Third Space, discovering that they have foibles and aspirations like everyone else. So he comes back not with blindness and hostility but insight and solidarity.

This story bears thinking about. My first reaction was that there are no dialectics in this story, no class struggle, just a set of givens. The Western trope would be a revolution, as we are still pre-Revolution. Savloj Zizek claims that the big danger for modern society is “Capitalism with Asian Values”, an false alternative that does not really put an end to inequality, only places a kindly but authoritarian face over the intact system to set some limits. This would seem to describe Beijing’s politico-economic system in the story.

But Hao Jingfang is writing post-Revolution, and for her these “Asian” values are real, and constitute a real alternative to neo-liberalism, the European solution mentioned in the story. Difficult choices have to be made, but the Leader is there to keep the people’s best interests at heart.

Lao Dao does not want war, not even class war, but insight, empathy, and solidarity. His own personal revolution came when he took Tangtang into his life. He has faith that even a poor foundling can become an “elegant young lady” and is ready to do what it takes to make that happen.

Alastair Reynolds’ SCALES: speculative vs military in a space operetta

Rob Weber at the blog Val’s Random Comments has inaugurated a “Short Fiction Month“, proposing a month of daily reviews of short sf stories, with a review of Alastair Reynold’s “Scales” (text available here).

This story is a good choice for the first review in the series as it allegorises and extends the definition of science fiction in terms of cognitive estrangement by tying it with ontological estrangement.

The “scales” of the title are the literal scales of the alien lizard’s skin but also the scales of estrangement from our ordinary reality, as the story spirals out from Earth and the solar system to another star system, to “an N-dimensional tangle of interconnected wormhole pathways”, to an adjunct dimension in a reality stack, to “mind-wrenching chasms of meta-dimensional structure”.

A meta-fictional sense of the title would be that of musical scales, the arrangement of noes in ascending and descending order. This short story, only 2,000 words long, reads as if Reynolds the writer is going through the basic SF scales, going as high as he can before descending once again.

Identity is also estranged. The hero metamorphoses from an ordinary human called Nico inducted into the humans’ war against the lizards to more and more estranged entities, each characterised by the denomination “thing-that-was-once-Nico”.

Reality and personal identity are both in flux. The combattants’ minds and bodies are

“in constant, self-evolving flux as the bedrock of reality shifts and squirms beneath them”.

The basic matric of the military science fiction is set out as the uneasy combination of the pluralist speculative element and its binary overcoding by the oppositions of war:

“The terms of engagement have become so abstract—so, frankly, higher-mathematical—that the conflict is more like a philosophical dialogue, a debate between protagonists who agree on almost everything except the most trifling, hair-splitting details.

And yet it must still be to the death—the proliferation of one self-replicating, pan-dimensional class of entities is still at the expense of  the other”.

However the tale is more a deconstruction of military science fiction than an example of it, as the speculative element relativises the oppositional structure. Sometimes we need to ascend to the highest reaches of abstraction to undo our empirical vision of the other as pure enemy and to perceive our speculative identity.