ELYSIUM FIRE: wonder vs catharsis

Review of ELYSIUM FIRE by Alastair Reynolds.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

BLADE RUNNER 2049 (3): a faithful sequel does not replicate

Those who know my work on my philosophy blog AGENT SWARM will be aware that I have been giving a Badiousian reading of this sequel to BLADE RUNNER, taking my guide from the statement at the beginning by the replicant Sapper Morton that a replicant can become human by being faithful to a “miracle”.

I concluded my last post on BLADE RUNNER 2049 by calling it a story of soul-making or of becoming-subject, the transformation of K into Joe.There is a greater sense of process in the film, as compared to the original.

This process is envisioned by the main characters in diverse ways, each according to one of the four truth procedures that Badiou describes as necessary conditions to philosophy and to true life: science, politics, art, and love.

Wallace sees the birth of a replicant baby as a scientific miracle whose secret he urgently searches, Fraysa welcomes it as a catalyst to political revolution, Stelline draws on it as a source of inspiration for her artistry, and K hopes that it will be an opening to love. Each of these conditions developed apart from the others can lead to a reductive world view: scientism, politicism, aestheticism, romanticism.

The film is “thoughtful” in that it attempts to maintain a balance between all four ways of seeing and acting.

BLADE RUNNER 2049 (2): a pedagogical sequel

As explained in my last post, I greatly enjoyed BLADE RUNNER 2049 but I do not share the opinion that it is somehow “surpasses” the original film. My impression is that the new film is much more explicit about some of the issues raised by the first film, and even about its enigmas, which are no longer simply suggested but explicitly discussed.


Unlike some commentators I do not wish to see a sequel recounting the ascension of the replicant “messiah” to the head of an uprise, in the disastrous manner of the planet of the apes franchise. THE RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE REPLICANTS would be a soulless film indeed.

The film poses the question of whether an artificial intelligence can have a soul, and of how this could come about. The film gives several answers to this.

The protagonist, K, gives one answer near the beginning of the film, endorsing the thesis that to have a soul one must be born, not made. This is the official doxa and forms part of the ideology that justifies the world order. It contains the presupposition that replicants cannot reproduce, but must always be made. This implicit hypothesis will be falsified by the discovery that the replicant Rachael from the original BLADE RUNNER gave birth to a child, presumably by that fact both replicant and ensouled.

This discovery threatens to “break the world”, as Robin Wright’s character Joshi phrases it, as the world in place is based on a Cartesian (and Christian) dualism separating made replicants from born humans. This ruling ideology is spelled out again and again in the film, with its pedagogy of explicitation and repetition.

Another response is suggested even before this ideological doctrine is stated, by Sapper Morton, the replicant that K “retires” in the incipit to the film. He declares that K and his line, the re-asimoved obedient nexus-9 series, have no compunction about killing their own kind because they “have never witnessed a miracle”. It takes a miracle to break the world, but it also requires a subject who is faithful to that miracle.

Antagonists like Joshi and Wallace (the mad hubristic creator of the nexus-9s) do not see the possibility of a miracle, but see the potentially world-changing event reductively in terms of political management or technological innovation.

Political uprising is another mode of becoming ensouled, and Freysa’s army of replicants waiting for their miracle-born messiah are already revolting against their programming (unlike her, who is presumably one of the free nexus-8s). K obeys, until he understands that disobedience is an option.

K later seems to get indoctrinated into acting on the Freysa’s that giving one’s life for a good cause is the most human thing they can do. However, the risk is that this simple inversion of the dominant political ideology maintains its dualism without subverting it. Something more is needed.

The political miracle may already have taken place. Freysa tells K that many others took themselves for the chosen one. This implies that they had memories that were emotional and messy. The nexus-9s were re-asimoved into obedience and into inability to harm a human being (see this short prequel to the sequel) but they were also equipped with real, messy memories. They thus contained an inherent flaw, an inner tension or dialectical contradiction, permitting re-subjectivation under the right circumstances.

These memories may need to be dwelled on, not just alone in solipsistic isolation or in “interlinked” subservience, but in loving exchange. Love is another mode of ensouling or of subjectivation proposed by the film. K  has only de-humanising relations with humans, his police colleagues insult him or shun him as a “skinjob”, his superior manipulates him. It is only with his AI companion JOI that he divulges his memories and aspirations.

For me the most striking comparison is not so much with Pinnochio wanting to be a real boy as with the Tin Man in THE WIZARD OF OZ, who wants a heart, little realising that he already had one. Joi glistens, gives him a name, borrows a body to make love to him, accepts mortality to accompany him, tells him in her last words she loves him. All this seems to confirm that by sharing feelings each has come to subjectivise the other.

A counterpoint to this “miracle of love” hypothesis is foreshadowed in the buggy Elvis hologram, when he sings “I can’t help falling in love with you”. Later, in the creepy dialogue between Deckard and Wallace, this idea of programmed love comes up again. Wallace tells Deckard that he may have been designed to fall in love with Rachael and to run off and procreate with her. This is a heavy-handed moment when the possibility that Deckard himself is a replicant is not only suggested, as in the original film, but explicitly discussed.

Memory and anamnesis are not enough to induce soul, the memories have to be worked on and their sense extracted and incarnated in actions. Joe, at this stage he is no longer simply K, declares that all the good memories belong to Stelline. However, his memory of hiding the wooden horse from the older children who ganged up on him to take it is not a particularly happy memory. Initially K thinks that the date carved on it is his birth date and that his memory is proof that he was born, and thus has a soul.

The transition from K to Joe is accomplished when he understands that this meaning is not only false, but too superficial. The deeper meaning comes from owning the memory and appropriating its sense of battling the bullies and hiding the treasure, which is what he does at the end in saving Deckard and faking his death. This act steps out of the little Oedipal drama he had concocted with Rachael and Deckard as his lost parents. He can now live his subjectivity as both separate and interlinked, and abandon Deckard to his daughter. This deed echoes Deckard actions, who to justify his abandonment of his and Rachael’s child, tells Joe:

“Sometimes, in order to love someone, you have to be a stranger”

There is no real reason why the mystery of the replicant baby should be tied to Rachael and Deckard from the original BLADE RUNNER. The pat Oedipal conclusion could have been avoided while still giving closure. Stelline, the replicant Messiah, despite all her work on memory and attention to detail (getting the beetles movements just right) seems rather insipid. Yet she is a fitting counter-power to the creepy Wallace, demiurge and Antichrist. Wallace is a memory of the creepy, and crappy, mad hubristic creators that Ridley Scott is so fond of in his Alien franchise. Perhaps we shall not be spared a sequel PANDORA, on the analogy with PROMETHEUS, where it is made even more explicit that it was “hope” that emerged from the box of bones at the beginning of the film.

This film “remembers” its original in almost every shot and plot point. It is not so much an action film, the story of the origins of a robot rebellion, but of one person’s struggle with soul-making in a de-humanising world. It is a thoughtful sequel that comprehends and transforms its original, extracting its sense from a memory of someone else’s film, just as Joe does from his memory. The new film creativelyexplicates and re-expresses the old, giving one possible interpretation and prolongation amongst many.

BLADE RUNNER 2049 (1): can a sequel have a soul?

I was looking forward to this film for a long time, with impatience and suspicion, eager to enter the Blade Runner universe and fearing that it would be ruined. To my delight, I found the sequel to be an engrossing story, visually impressive and thoughtfully told.

A quick search online revealed a repeatedly expressed view that the second film is even better than the first, just as the replicant is supposedly “better” than the original baseline human.

The question that resonates throughout both films, in different ways, is: can a fabricated sentient being have a soul, or is it merely a made object of heightened complexity, but as soulless as a zombie?

This is a question that comes up today with increasing force in discussions over genetic engineering. A designer baby or a clone may have no parents and may even be produced for a particular function (super soldier, organ farm). The “does AI have a soul?” question is both valid in itself, a useful metaphor for exploring the engineering approach to the reproduction and/or replication of human beings.

Can a copy be as good as, or even better than, the original? If not a copy, then a creative repetition? Can the successor species to humanity, or the sequel to a film, have a soul?

CHILDREN OF TIME: only an ethical uplift can save us

I found CHILDREN OF TIME slow going to begin with. I disliked the first chapter (but this is in fact normal as the point of view character, Dr Avrana Kern, is deliberately quite antipathetic) and put the book down for a while before trying again. Finally, the book was a very rewarding read, so I advise anyone with doubts at the beginning to persist.

The plot takes a while to pick up but I found the later social and technological evolution of the spiders interesting and enjoyable. There was a real attempt to imagine how the very different subjectivity of the intelligent Spiders could evolve and progress in similar but not identical ways towards greater civilization, despite their “uplift” being due to an accident.

The parallel plot of the decadence and devolution of the humans provided a predictable but satisfying counterpoint.

The imagination of a biology-based technology was well done, but it had the defect of biological determinism. Humans are glorified monkeys genetically lacking in empathy, and so biologically doomed as a species to self-extermination, unless some sort of ethical, as opposed to cognitive, uplift can occur.

This speculative premise recalls that of Octavia Butler’s XENOGENESIS TRILOGY, and the Spiders with their genetic technology recall the Oankali, except that their encounter with the Other is not driven by trade but by their capacity for empathy.

RAVEN STRATAGEM: sequelitis and its discontents

I really enjoyed Yoon Ha Lee’s NINEFOX GAMBIT, the first novel in the Machineries of Empire Trilogy and felt inspired to defend it from the Shadow Clarke’s critiques of its uncritical use of genre clichés, personality stereotypes and formulaic plot structure. I argued that these defects were more than compensated for by the novel’s speculative elements and the imaginative world-building. I eagerly awaited the sequel RAVEN STRATEGY, but I found it a disappointing, albeit pleasant, read.

This second novel contains a competent and enjoyable story set inside Yoon Ha Lee’s Hexarchate universe. Unfortunately, there is not as much world-building and speculative beauty as in the first volume.

Instead of cosmology we get a sketchy sociology of the factions, each of which gives its members a faction-specific “super-power” (except for the Shuos) based on “exotic” technology (and so dependent on the reigning calendar). The interactions and power plays between the factions are explored in a little more detail, as are the quirks and foibles of the ruling hexarchs.

In conclusion, the Hexarchate universe is fleshed out with interesting and engaging details, and the number of important characters is increased, allowing a more complex intrigue. However, the supplement of sociological complexity does not compensate for the psychological simplicity of reducing characters to rather stereotypical faction and individual personality traits.

NINEFOX GAMBIT: the actual novel and its virtual shadow

I have been giving a generous or charitable reading of Yoon Ha Lee’s NINEFOX GAMBIT. I don’t read much Space Opera, for precisely the reasons that many give for its personally and politically problematic, and so less enjoyable for me, nature.

I was enthusiastic about 9FG because it tied into my exploration of a turn towards an immanent or pluralist Platonism not just in philosophy but also in SF. I discussed Neal Stephenson’s ANATHEM from this point of view (https://terenceblake.wordpress.com/2015/11/14/immanentise-plato-on-neal-stephensons-anathem/) and was looking for other examples. Greg Egan’s PERMUTATION CITY seems to fit this trend, as does 9FG. In my post on ANATHEM I make a disinction between pluralism (ideas are testable, reality resists) and relativism (ideas are uncriticisable, reality is plastic). Relativism (what some call “post-modernism” falls under this category) is ultimately a form of magical thinking, pluralism lets reality have the last word.

This is where my interest in 9FG comes from. I did not agree with the popular reaction that it was fantasy disguised as SF, because a science fiction novel based on maths as the hard science rather than physics or biology necessarily projects a more plastic view of reality. So I am not totally satisfied with the notion that its world works on “alt-physics”, which seems to me to be a compromise solution to categorising its world-building. However, maths as basic science leads easily to multiple physics, so “alt-physics” may be a founded description in that sense.

I agree that the political analysis is not the books strong point, but this criterion is perhaps overly demanding, and would lead to exluding almost all science fiction (and not just space opera) from our speculative consideration. Nonetheless, the political analysis that is present goes in the sense of undermining the stereotypes of the genre. Obviously the hexarchate is an inexistent empire designed to strike us as “evil”, and so criticism of it comes cheap, but perhaps there are structural analogies with our own regime.

We know that given the choice between a demanding book where mathematics played an even greater role and a more ommercial book where maths was treated as just “magic”, Yoon Ha Lee chose the latter option. So I may be reacting to the book as if it were that first option, the virtual or shadow version of the actual book, but most books do not have a virtual version accompanying them. Still, this would constitute a good internal critique of the novel: that it does not live up to the expectations that it creates for itself. Perhaps this split between the virtual and the actual book explains the “torn” feeling that some reviewers (including me) have in accounting for their reactions to the book: it should have been more game-changing than it actually is.

I think that Yoon Ha Lee does achieve complexity of a sort, but it is at the price of privileging abstraction over description and of violating the precept “show don’t say”. His precept seems to be “when in doubt, say”. This is coupled with a tendency to employ an exotic vocabulary in a way that emphasises functionality over denotation. People seem to find the beginning of the book “difficult”, but the difficulty is more an artefact of this vagueness about denotation and description. The disappointing aspect of this procedure is that the abstraction promises more than it delivers.

But it does deliver. The political critique that people are looking for liess in the form of what Slavoj Zizek would call “ideological critique”, in particular of highlighting certain structural features of ideology rather than criticising any particular ideology. The novel displays just how deep ideology penetrates into our lives without it being a question of conscious ideas.

The notions of calendrical synchronisation of populations, in their religious and mass media applications, are pertinent to today’s theme of the “clash of civilisations” and the exclusion or persecution of those who live by different national narratives, or even just by different calendars. Their “remembrances” (here we can think of 9/11 or of “I am Charlie”) are not the same, and the “exotic” effects attained are different (drone warfare vs suicide bombings).

This is not psychology in the place of politics, but constitutes an interesting speculative take on an important psycho-political dimension of ideology. However, this dimension is abstracted out from the larger picture, hence the conrasted feeling of impressive world-building and simplistic plot and characters. Paradoxically, this abstraction is what has led to its appeal, and to the surplus enjoyment of having read a “difficult” book.

IS SPACE OPERA EVIL?: Ninefox Gambit and The Shadow Consensus

Three reviews take Yoon Ha Lee’s recent NINEFOX GAMBIT to task for its conformity to Manichean, individualist, élitist, anti-democratic, violence-banalising space opera tropes. All three reviews are from a shadowy institution calling itself the “shadow” Clarkes. There is a noteworthy convergence of views in the three posts, condemning the novel for its lack of political relevance (read “correctness”).

This unanimity is rather amusing given that the reviewers are commenting on a novel based on the dangers of convergence (the calendrical system is a synchronous regime of convergence and consensus) and of the over-riding imperative of political correctness.

NINEFOX GAMBIT is itself in part a critique of the genre of space opera and of the sort of narcissistically satisfying identification with the hero that it may encourage. Until proven otherwise by the sequels it seems to favour dis-identification rather than identification.

The idea of the calendar and the calendrical regime is a very Stieglerian idea: power operates by synchronisation. This calendarity plus the hexarchate’s six “factions” is a way of highlighting the stereotyping often present in the genre and of displaying its political and military enforcement.

On the question of the privileged focus on certain individuals to the detriment of the mass of real people, it is true the forward movement of the plot is driven by a small number of individuals. However, these are presented as both belonging within the stereotypes and as exceptions in the sense of not fully corresponding to their official type. So complexity is present in the diversification of the stereotypes (seven factions are involved) and in the undermining of those stereotypes by showing their inability to prevent exceptions being generated.

Links to the reviews:




The three reviews condemn not just NINEFOX GAMBIT (a novel that I like a lot) but space opera in general as vicarious escapist power-fantasy representing, sublimating, and thus banalising, compassionless violence and legitimating it by means of its concentration on an individualistic quest for redemption on the backdrop of the perpetual reiteration of the war-machine. Real people are missing, only the actions, motivations, past history and personalities of the main characters count.

What is missing from this tableau is the element of speculation itself.

NINEFOX GAMBIT (3): the ambiguity of space opera

Guattari thought that fascist desire was in the service of some transcendence, a fixed supreme value in the name of which the fascistic order is imposed. Being woke, being aware of the semiotic machine and the power mechanisms driving that imposition of an order, is not enough, but it is a good beginning in the process of deterritorialisation (estrangement) that can lead to greater freedom.

In these terms NINEFOX GAMBIT is a critique of fascism rather than its sublimated (because fantasy) and hyper-sublimated (because “woke”) satisfaction. The universe is explicitly described as fascistic, and the attempt to bring back a heptarchy is a fight for religious freedom and democracy, i.e. a struggle against the transcendent régime of the hexarchate.

The whole world-system and plot of the novel are even more Guattarian than Jonathan McCalmont’s use of him implies. True all of this crystallises around one individual, but I do not think that we are invited to identify with him. Enough is done to keep us alienated from him up to the very end. We learn his motives and strategy, but we are not incited to say “Oh OK, that’s all right then”.

The overall movement is from mystery to understanding, but not from negative to positive, and Jedao remains a very ambiguous figure, with a huge amount of negativity attached to him. We attain noetic catharsis, in that we understand him, but we do not attain ethical catharsis, since mass slaughter as a means to social emancipation and individual salvation is not something we can identify with.

Awareness without ethics is a form of self-deceptive self-indulgence, but the novel seems to me to have an ethical thrust that does not coincide with the motivations of the “hero”. This critique of the hero and his quest is not new in space opera, but goes back at least to DUNE, where the hero, Paul, becomes even more despotic than his predecessor, a woke Despot building his reign on fanatical devotion and submission.