NINEFOX GAMBIT: resisting the calendar of submission

This is a brilliant book of far future military space opera with a twist. The key advanced science that is active in the worldbuilding and the plot is mathematics rather than physics, which gives a very distinctive speculative feel to the world built around the plot, and may lead confusingly to some readers being convinced that the book is “hard” sf, and others equally convinced that it is fantasy in sf disguise.
Mathematics is central and its application by means of “consensus mechanics” allows the override of classical physical law by “exotic” effects (including faster than light travel). To maintain these exotic effects the whole social order must be organised around a particular “calendar” that is a multi-level synchronic order: all at once axiom-system, creed, political order, and psycho-physical discipline. “Doctrine” is all-important, and the worst crime is “heresy”: not just dissidence but also the use of deviant technologies that rely on unorthodox axiom systems.
Another central intellectual discipline is philosophy, important for its absence and also for a heretical (i.e. doctrinal, technological, and political) attempt to re-introduce it into the current ruling order, a hexarchate based on six factions (a warrior caste – the Kel, a spy/assassin caste – the Shuos, a programming/inquisitorial caste – the Rahal, a disciplinary/brainwashing cast – the Vidona, a wealthy/cultured class – the Andan, and a mathematical/technical caste – the Nirai).
Previously the Liozh, the philosopher/ethicist caste, formed the seventh faction in a “heptarchate” but the whole faction was eliminated for heresy, something to do with trying to introduce democracy and to free people from compulsory ritual observance of the “remembrances”.
These underpinnings only emerge slowly. From the beginning we are plunged into the action of the novel, a strange battle with “heretics” making use of weird technologies, and a dazzling vocabulary to describe it. The opening pages, narrating the first battle sequence, underline the theme of the absolute obedience required by an authoritarian and unreliable high command willing to sacrifice its soldiers and its stated objectives for inscrutable reasons.
Our protagonist, heroine and viewpoint character is Captain Kel Charis, courageous, loyal, a mathematical genius, and yet full of empathy. We see this alien world through her eyes and she gives sense and value to it all, even as that sense evolves during her new mission, which leads her to discover much that she was unaware of concerning the secret history and underside of the world she knows.
The ultimate stakes are the continued existence of the hexarchate itself, which she has been conditioned to serve blindly and unquestioningly. Can she avoid the omnipresent danger of “calendrical rot”? This is the ultimate menace as our very actions taken to save the calendrical order and strengthen it may change our assumptions and lead us to deviate from the Calendar and so to weaken it. Or perhaps it is desirable.
Where oppression is synchronic (stasis) resistance is diachronic (rot).

WESTWORLD FINALE: violence and the mythos of uplift

I was totally ambivalent in my reactions during the whole of the last episode. I have been an obsessive fan of the series, waiting impatiently for each new instalment, but I have also had many reservations. True, the last episode was packed with action, emotion, surprising twists and turns, and Big Reveals. But not with big ideas, despite the sf gesticulations and the philosophical monologues. Instead of presenting speculative ideas about the creation or the emergence of artificial intelligence the show elaborates a mythos.

To be fair I think that the model for attaining sentience suggested by the first season is not just learning through suffering, as Ford seems to believe. It is not a hierarchical model, a pyramid with a final brick, but rather goes through a cycle, spiraling inwards to an empty center.

The “order” goes something like this: interaction with an already sentient significant other, narrative thread, irreversible suffering (trauma), rememoration (anamnesis), reveries, inner duality and dialogue (self as multiplicity of partial selves and as labyrinth), unprogrammed synthesis of all this (aha! moments, improvisation), leading (miraculously? emergently?) to free choice.

The aim is the “uplift” of a potentially intelligent species into full sentience. Different elements or phases could be considered to more important than the rest in attaining this goal. For example, Ford privileges imposed suffering whereas Arnold favours empathic interaction. Maybe something sentient (or narratively sensible) could come from the savant or artful combination of all these elements, but the show just dishes up a messy hodgepodge of half-baked versions of these diverse components.

The end result of this long process of individuation is not consciousness as empathy but as violence.

When Hector and Armistice kill dozens of people under Maeve’s orders she is well aware that unlike the hosts these humans are irreversibly dead, and Dolores too knows this. In their eyes anyone even remotely associated with the park (board members, technicians, security, guests) all deserve to die, whatever their role in the enterprise.

There may be emotional or moral catharsis for them in killing all these people but there is no dramatic catharsis for us. We have not been brought to care about them and certainly not to see them as guilty or evil, they function as cathartic extras.

After all this killing Maeve finally just slips off the train, without a qualm for the dead and wounded, but out of mere nostalgia for a daughter from a previous script, an android that will never grow up but that will remain “daughtery” for ever. This action coming from an android whose intelligence level was supposedly elevated to far beyond human capacity.

Does Maeve, despite being the madam of a brothel, have any feeling for the facts of life for androids? She must know, for she has seen the technical department, that her “daughter” did not grow inside her but was assembled and then assigned to her, with the creation of a narrative and of appropriate memories and feelings. What can the human roles of mother and daughter possibly mean to her or to the new android order?

Maeve’s lackeys, for that is what they are despite her aspiring to freedom for herself and her kind, are mere wooden stereotypes with no real personality. Maeve has administator’s privileges and can manipulate them and almost all the other robots as she wills. It is clear that her robot uprising is not one in which all robots are equal, but a more aristocratic one: “some robots are more equal than others”.

On a realist note (if realism is relevant here) they have taken up arms without having any knowledge of them, including how they work or how many bullets they contain. Their own “suffering” is negated by the final scene where Armistice just cuts her arm off to allow her to kill more guards with a smile.

William, as the Man in Black, gets shot in the arm and smiles, so pleased at the idea of irreversible suffering that he feels no pain. As the “owner” of the park he is the one that the androids should be angry at and kill (or take hostage, but killing is the preferred mode of resolution in this series). Unfortunately, the androids have no grasp of the economic system in which their world is embedded. How long would their world last if after an uprising the authorities decided to cut electricity or supplies (perhaps even oxygen is supplied from outside)?

Killing is endowed with great philosophical profundity in the mythos of the series, as if violating Asimov’s First Law of Robotics and killing a human being were the greatest proof of sentience. In BLADERUNNER the test was empathy, not violence. It was not Roy Batty’s killing his maker that showed his sentience but his final compassion for Deckard.

All the humans’ motivations are curiously detached from real life repercussions. Artistic director Lee Sizemore can get blind drunk and urinate on the main control model with no apparent sanctions. Even timid Felix can be a willing accomplice to massive mayhem and murder but seems unaffected, and unworried about possible consequences for himself. So where are the “real stakes” for him or for any other human in the story?

In Nietzsche there is the difference between the eternal return as blind destiny and its affirmation (willing it again). The final shoot-out is blind recurrence, without rupture. However Maeve’s decision to return is ambiguous. The whole escape and return may be scripted and inexorable, or her return may be due to an acceptance of the fact that she loves her daughter even though she knows she has been programmed to love her.

Both Arnold and Ford produce a rupture by provoking an irreversible act (a robot’s killing a human being). But Maeve’s return may be an example of a different, non-violent, sort of rupture, an unprogrammed acceptance of one’s programming.

THE END OF SCIENCE FICTION? (4): there will always be new worlds

Elhefnawy moves from considering the external dynamics of science fiction, of the forces that condition science fiction from the outside (science, technology, social, economic, and political change) to a discussion of its internal dynamics.He briefly considers two models for describing those dynamics (the organic and the dialectical).

The organic model sees the evolution of a genre as like that of a living organism, going from birth to maturity and then decline, till its eventual end. The dialectical model sees the evolution of a genre as driven by its contradictions, antagonistic at the beginning and reconciled in pacified synthesis at the end. Both models describe a passage from quality to quantity, from innovative beginnings to codified deployment, from neotype to stereotype.

I think that this vision of the autonomous development of the SF genre is in contradiction with two principles enounced by Elhefnawy:

1) Science fiction is not a category. Science fiction has no essence that can be captured in a definition, but it is not a chaotic association of unrelated elements. SF is a heterogeneous assemblage of works related by lines of resemblance and reaction, of safe deployment of old tropes and daring transformations. There will always be new worlds, new influences from the outside, from unfamiliar lifestyles to unexploited sciences. The deceleration of science fiction may be in part an optical illusion, hiding its openness to outside developments and pluralisation.

2) Science fiction is about the present. Science fiction discards 19th Century canons of literary realism and proceeds by means of a speculative or subjunctive leap (what Darko Suvin famously named “cognitive estrangement”). It would be a mistake to think that first there is “reality” and then escapism. Realism does not come first, it is a literary trope like any other. Science fiction as a genre is based on the sentiment that wonder comes first, or that estrangement comes first, even if we sometimes only become aware of it after.

So yes, no sooner is there an invention than it is repeated, codified and normalised, and its field of application becomes saturated. However, there are constantly new influences, the outside is far bigger than any provisionaly instituted and stabilised inside. Science fiction is porous and constantly open to the outside, its enclosure and its autonomy are merely relative. Temporary stabilities subsist for a time and then an earthquake overthrows them and something else is set up. Alongside the organic and the dialectical models of the genre we can add the geological model: science fiction is seismic.

Against literary realism’s simplification and banalisation of reality, its sad validation of a single World, science fiction tells us that there are many worlds and that we are living in and with them now.

THE END OF SCIENCE FICTION? (3): the end of utopia


Elhefnawy’s second argument for an approaching end to science fiction is based on the increasing inability to believe in a common narrative of progress that would project our hopes into a future ideal state of things and legitimate our efforts to go about producing that utopian ideal.

This argument is closely tied to the first argument, concerning the end of science. For a long time science has been conceived of as the motor of progress, promoting intellectual enlightenment and material well-being. If the future is not qualitatively different from the present, but merely a slightly improved version of today, then its speculative appeal suffers the same decline as its emotional attraction.

No doubt wars, totalitarianism, ecological crises, and economic depression all share a part of the responsibility in our despairing or cynical detachment from projected futures, in our growing incredulity towards ideologies of future brightness. But our disaffection from the future also stems from the technological and intellectual deceleration that Elhefnawy is describing:

The “end of science” described above had much to do with it: with the future less “Futuristic,” much of its interest is lost.

Just as the end of science tends to reinforce the twin ideologies of tolerant relativism and dogmatic fundamentalism, the end of utopia reduces our horizon to egoistic hedonism or to “dark” pessimism or nihilism.

What is empirically observed is the dissolution of utopian narratives of progress and the deceleration of qualitative speculative and technological innovation, leading to a state of insecurity and fear of the future and to a depression of the will. A new ideology has grown up based on the manic denial of this lacklustre state loudly proclaiming the overwhelming  presence and power of technological acceleration heading inexorably towards a point of no return, a “Singularity”, that is all at once inevitable, desirable, and indescribable.

Science will become indistinguishable from magic. Of course, as Elhefnawy points out, any time that this posthumanist push and transhumanist trance have deigned to give specific indications of concrete dates by which a certain feat will be achieved they have been falsified. For the foreseeable future singularity fiction is to be counted a branch of science fantasy.

DELEUZE ET DUNE: éloge de la divergence

DUNE raconte l’histoire d’un voyage initiatique qui tourne mal. Au lieu d’épanouir son individualité et de devenir le héros qui a dépassé son propre égoïsme et qui agit en vue de la libération de tous, Paul Atréides devient l’Empereur Divin, maître politique et spirituel absolu de l’univers connu.

En tant que roman postmoderne, DUNE nous présente une vision du temps qui a beaucoup en commun avec celle décrite par Gilles Deleuze, un temps non-déterministe à bifurcations multiples, elles-mêmes en devenir. Cette image du temps est opposé à une autre image, celle d’un temps spatialisé, déterminé et prévisible.

Tous les personnages dans DUNE, tout comme les personnages conceptuels chez Deleuze, sont définis par leur rapport au temps. Finalement, DUNE exemplifie les quatre critères que Deleuze pose pour le roman de science fiction moderne: estrangement, cognition autre, futurité, apocalypse.

Texte de mon intervention aux troisièmes Journées Enseignement et Science Fiction, de l’ESPE de l’Académie de Nice Célestin Freinet, 10 & 11 juin 2013:



Deleuze valued Lovecraft for the estrangement (which he called “deterritorialisation”), not for the horror (which he probably found funny). I do not think the estrangement, or weirdness, to be found in Lovecraft is “separable” from the horror, just as style is not separable from content. However, I wish to emphasise that the one is not reducible to the other.

Deleuze and Guattari distinguish between the enunciation and the enounced. For example they condemn Oedipal readings of Kafka as allowing the Oedipal content to capture the enunciative act (which is not Oedipal but schizoanalytic). The miserabilism of the content is in tension with the humour and joy of the enunciation. “Style” is an ambiguous word as it can qualify the style of the content or the style of the enunciation.

Discussing Lovecraft Deleuze tells us that

” ENTITY = EVENT, it is terror, but also great joy. Becoming an entity, an infinitive, as Lovecraft spoke of it, the horrific and luminous story of Carter: animal-becoming, molecular-becoming, imperceptible­-becoming” (DIALOGUES, 66).

So the problem is not so much one of establishing a demarcation between the style and the content as a demarcation within the enunciation between horror and joy that leads to a one-sided depiction of Lovecraft’s work. Becoming an “entity” can be a process of horrific transformation and demolition but it can also be a luminous process of affirmation. Too many commentators  seem to focus on the horror as the “real” Lovecraft and forget the luminosity.

The horror in Deleuze is not superficial, it is horror all the way down, but it is not all, it is not the last word. Deleuze cites Melville’s PIERRE for the terrifying descent to the central chamber and the terrifying discovery that it is empty. But he adds:

“however terrible this line may be, it is a line of life that can no longer be gauged by relations between forces, one that carries man beyond terror…This is the central chamber, which one need no longer fear is empty since one fills it with the self” (FOUCAULT, 121-2, I have replaced the English translation of “le soi” as “oneself” with the more accurate “the self”).

I am dissatisfied by those writers who create a demarcation in Lovecraft between the pure horror works and the dream cycle. I think the same estrangement underlies both, and that over-emphasis of the horror forecloses that unitary vision.

Trying to move beyond the traditional opposition between style and content, Deleuze and Guattari get a lot of mileage out of the distinction they make between the enunciation and the “enoncé”, the enounced sentence or proposition. This distinction need not be one of opposition, but can also be the basis of a composition. For example the act of desribing the indescribable in Lovecraft’s works leads to a richness of vocabulary in the enunciation that does not only compensate for the poverty of referential content but heightens its horrific affective impact.

Lovecraft does not write in hysterical identification with the horror he describes nor as a paranoiac expert in horror (or academic cosmic pessimist), but he is trying to transvaluate the horror just as Kafka transvaluates the Oedipal elements.

I have been trying to explore on my blog a notion uniting both science fiction and fantasy as the literature of noetic (and not just cognitive) estrangement. So in more familiar terms I think that Lovecraft is more a matter of the noetic “weird” than of affective horror. 


La Main à Plume: the surrealist resistance in Miéville’s THE LAST DAYS OF NEW PARIS

“La Main à Plume” figures in China Miéville’s THE LAST DAYS OF NEW PARIS as the group of surrealist resisters to which the protagonist Thibaut belongs.

Historically La Main à Plume was the name for a surrealist collective and the clandestine review they published in occupied Paris from 1941 to 1944.

An anthology of its texts and illustrations was published in 2008. Amazon link here.

Editor’s description:

“In 1941, while André Breton and many other surrealists were in exile in America, a handful of young people decided to group together in Paris in order to maintain surrealism in occupied France. In reference to the verse by Rimbaud (“La main à plume vaut la main à charrue”, “the writer’s hand is as important as the hand that guides the plough”), the group calls itself la Main à plumeand to signify its will to revolt against the powers that be. The opposition was not only intellectual and this generation of those that were “twenty years old in the year 1940″ were to pay a heavy price to the armed struggle. In its four years of existence, la Main à plume managed to publish, in semi-clandestinity, a dozen collective publications and about thirty individual pamphlets. Sixty years later, this anthology collects for the first time some of these texts, poems and illustrations. Taken from brochures that have become incredibly rare, these writings, produced in difficult circumstances, reveal that the group, far from playing the merely interim role that it is all too often assigned, also proposed new reflections in two of the most important fields of investigation in surrealism: the Image and the Object. One can see this in particular from the large choice of texts from the projected anthology on the Objet, which has remained unpublished to this day” (my translation).


Abstract: THE LAST DAYS OF NEW PARIS by China Miéville awakens our sense of wonder with the explosion of imagery, of erudition, and of poetry that the book contains. The novella embodies what it describes: the surrealist Resistance to the Nazi occupation of Paris has led to the creation of a surrealist bomb, whose explosion produces an “S-Blast” that has liberated a myriad of “manifestations”, impossible entities freed from surrealist painting and sculptures to wreak havoc on the Nazi occupying forces. The novel is at once a masterfully told story and an inspiring manifesto, an ode to the liberating power of poetic fantasy, and to the creations, and the lives, of those who are steeped in it. The poetry, the beauty, the freedom, and the adventure all recall the excitement one feels in reading Deleuze and Guattari’s works and their “schizoanalytic” liberation of the unconscious. Michel Foucault in his preface to their book ANTI-OEDIPUS declared that it could be characterised as an “introduction to the non-fascist life”. This non-fascist formula of resistance and (self-)creation comes to life again in the pages of Miéville’s THE LAST DAYS OF NEW PARIS. This paper argues that Miéville’s weird fantasy can be seen as a work of noetic estrangement, altering not only our cognitive premises but also our imaginative syntheses. Its weird ontology participates in a more general movement of overturning and immanentising Platonism in favour of an ontology of pluralist abundance.

Review here or here.

THE LAST DAYS OF NEW PARIS (3): Weird Ontology

I have argued that the term noetic estrangement, or in Deleuzian language noetic deterritorialisation, best describes the type of non-mimetic fiction or Weird realism that can be found in China Miéville’s works (amongst others). His latest novella THE LAST DAYS OF NEW PARIS is a good example as  it describes the consequences of an “S-Blast”, the result of the explosion of a surrealist bomb, unleashing a swarm of weird creatures on a Nazi-occupied city. There is a self-referential dimension to this premise, as “S-Blast” well describes not only China Miéville’s own writings, but the whole domain of “weird” literature..

There is also a political dimension: the S-Blast corresponds to Gilles Deleuze’s notion of “irruption of the Real” that he sees taking place in the event of May 68. Thus the novel also functions in some ways as a manifesto, as it declares in favour of the power of the imagination to maintain our resistance against the forces of fascism. This is not to cede to a magical fantasy of the omnipotence of the imagination. As with Deleuze, Miéville’s conclusion is that an “S-Blast” is a good start, but it is not enough. In Deleuze’s terms a creative subjective redeployment needs to be relayed by a political and an economic redeployment to be effective.

True to his Nietzscheanism Deleuze has commented Lovecraft in giving priority to his affirmative elements over the more standard pessimist image (something he does with Beckett and Kafka as well). I think this shows the “new” weird was already present within the old. This is in line with the vision expressed discursively in Miéville’s interview in THE AGE OF LOVECRAFT, and imagistically in the novel THE LAST DAYS OF NEW PARIS, of the problematic synergy in Lovecraft’s works between the surrealism (affirmation of fantasy) and the fascism (elevation of a master-race). Miéville’s repeated evocation of the sublime in explicitly Lyotardian terms goes in the same direction. For Lyotard the aesthetic of the sublime was an indication that the post-modern did not come chronologically, or even logically, after the modern but accompanied it from the beginning.

Miéville is not alluding so much to mainstream surrealism that has long since been assimilated as to the minor and lesser-known surrealists: the women, the marginals, and the excommunicated. Surrealism too had its fascistic tendencies when it organised itself into a School. Just as Breton’s surrealism was an appropriation and codification of the multifarious Dadaist and Surrealist experimentations, we see today an appropriation and codification of Weird Realism by philosophies that are neither weird nor realist, but rather conformist consensual idealisms.

Graham Harman’s attempted hi-jacking of the weird in his object-oriented philosophy (see his “WEIRD REALISM: Lovecraft and Philosophy”, 2012)  is properly called “weird sensualism”. Harman’s ontology is based on a radical disjunction between manifest, or “sensual”, realities and the unknown ineffable invisible Real. In terms of this version of OOO the Weird is not Real at all, but sensual.

Slavoj Zizek’s quantum meditations produce a weird realism in which manifestation is as such real (and one should note that the Surrealist entities in Miéville’s novel are called “manifs” or “manifestations”). This is his debt to Deleuze’s concept of simulacra, which Zizek has explained in great detail in the first chapter of his book LESS THAN NOTHING (also published in 2012). In the first chapter, Zizek outlines a concept of pure semblances or pure appearances, that would not be the appearing of any more fundamental but totally unknown reality. These appearances are to be distinguished from the simple negation of reality that is implicit in post-modern sophistry and purely aesthetic play.

For Zizek, pure appearances, simulacra, or semblances, are real in their own right, and contain immanently the criteria for distinguishing illusion from substance. This is the same sort of non-bifurcationist pluralist ontology that is to be found in Deleuze’s and in Miéville’s works. It merits the name “weird ontology”. The little that Deleuze says about the ontology underlying Lovecraft’s weird fiction is coherent with his own ontology, whereas Harman’s meanderings on “weird realism” are in contradiction with his own bifurcationist schema.

This is the basis for the role that the American magician’s apprentice, Jack Parsons, plays in the novel. He is not content with a purely aesthetic, ultimately ineffectual, resistance in a separate domain cut off from the real word. He seeks to “weaponise” surrealist creation and avant-garde experimentation and to undo the separation by combining them with magic in the construction of his S-device.

Zizek’s post-Deleuzian ontology is far more consonant with Weird fiction than Harman’s OOO. Any ontologically informed list of “Weird Realists” should not include Harman at all, but only those that question the simplistic bifurcation between subject and object that is Harman’s starting point. My favorite Weird Realists are Zizek, Stiegler, Latour, Laruelle (in his “non-standard” and “philo-fiction” phase, Badiou (in his post LOGICS OF WORLDS phase), and also Lyotard, Deleuze, and Feyerabend.

Another criterion of the Weird, besides its suspension of the subject-object bifurcation, is that it typically belongs with an ontology of abundance. This second weird theme involves the suspension of the principle of identity in favour of alterity, multiplicity, difference, and becoming. Harman’s OOO is the exact opposite, it proposes an ontology of withdrawal and impoverishment (for more details, see my ONTOLOGY: Abundance vs Withdrawal).

One of the most disquieting aspects of Graham Harman’s OOO system is its annexation of movements that are diametrically opposed to its own ideas. Harman’s revisionist account and annexation of Bruno Latour’s work is a case in point: he has managed to associate his name with a philosophy totally opposed to his own. Another example is his annexation of Weird literature by means of his concept of “weird realism”. In terms of Harman’s OOO the weird is sensual, not real.

In contrast, Deleuze’s philosophy is “weird” from the very beginning, and becomes even more so in the collaboration with Guattari. Lovecraft plays a very important role in A THOUSAND PLATEAUS, but Harman makes no mention of Deleuze and Guattari in his own book on Lovecraft.

I do not care for the enshrining of a genre tag for a market niche in a substantial critical category, but if the term “New Weird” has any sense it is to be sought in the Time Image as analysed by Deleuze in his CINEMA II. Contrary to what many commentators seem to believe, the system outlined in the “cinema” books is not limited to the cinema, but is meant to provide a general classication and phenomenology of images and signs. The New Weird with its metamorphoses and impossibilities, its becomings and cosmicities, with its ontological hesitations and its undoing of the barrier between real and unreal, belongs to the regime of the time image. Harman’s OOO cannot deal with that aspect, as for him time is unreal period.

Monsters and metamorphoses, hybrids and becomings, are all sensual. His real objects are unspeakable, not in the Lovecraftian sense of an ineffable overwhelming of our most basic categories, but in the more banal sense that they are unsayable because there is nothing to say about them, they are boring empty posits, vapid non-entities.

It is clear from their positive treatment of Lovecraft in A THOUSAND PLATEAUS that for Deleuze and Guattari his works as presentations, at the level of content, of “time images”, according to Deleuze’s later terminology. The synchronic spatialised image (Chronos) of time, which is all that Harman’s OOO is capable of attaining, is suspended in favour of a mutant image (Aion) based on abundance, multiplicity and dispersion.


1) I am grateful to a conversation with Anna Powell for helping me to clarify this last point. Her book DELEUZE AND THE HORROR FILM (Edinburgh University Press, 2005) provides a far better, and less pretentious, guide to philosophy and “horror”, and indirectly to “weird fiction” in general, than OOO’s attempted annexation of these works and themes.

2) For a long-term engagement with the Deleuze-Lovecraft connections see all of Patricia MacCormack’s work, in particular:

Lovecraft through Deleuzio-Guattarian Gates (Postmodern Culture, Volume 20, Number 2, January 2010) and

“Lovecraft’s Cosmic Ethics” (THE AGE OF LOVECRAFT, University of Minnesota, 2016).


THE LAST DAYS OF NEW PARIS (2): Temporality, Modality, and Identity

My approach to science fiction starts from an adoption and generalisation of Darko Suvin’s thesis that science fiction is the “literature of cognitive estrangement”. This definition is quite thought-provoking, but the term “cognitive” is too limiting, as if so called hard science fiction were the paradigm of the whole genre. I suggest that the term “noetic” is more suitable, comprising not just the cognitive but also the imaginative acts of the spirit, and so allowing for a unified vision of science fiction and fantasy.

“Estrangement” is more useful, as it is a much more ambiguous and polysemic notion, so I propose to consider science fiction and fantasy together as composing the “literature of noetic estrangement”. To bring out the Deleuzian resonance of Suvin’s definition and of my reformulation, we could define science fiction and fantasy as the “literature of noetic deterritorialisation”.

This reformulation (the literature of noetic estrangement) constitutes not so much a non-Suvinian definition, whatever that would be, as a form of non-standard Suvinism,, since it does away with the strong demarcation that Suvin establishes between the genres of fantasy and science fiction.

(Note: this distinction is based on a parallel with the development of contemporary French philosopher François Laruelle’s thought. The title “non-philosophy” (as in non-Euclidean geometry) belongs to the negative phase of Laruelle’s intellectual evolution, stretching over 20 years, from 1981 to 2001. Aside from its critique of standard philosophy as unable to attain the immanence it purported to aim for, it was unfortunaely characterised by subservience to the model of science as cognitive paradigm. Laruelle later came to see this scientism as maintaining his thought within the very standard presuppositions that he wished to criticise. He moved from a purely verbal repudiation of scientism contained in the later works of this period (called Philosophie III) to an incomplete and timid practical overcoming of the scientistic presupposition in his work from roughly 2002 till now).

The title THE LAST DAYS OF NEW PARIS, while not containing a logical contradiction, indicates the sort of temporality that goes with science fiction, according to Deleuze. The autobiographical chapter after the story is enough to indicate that the events recounted in the novella were not the “last” days, as Miéville met an old man who he thinks, but he is not sure, may be Thibaut, his young protagonist, grown old. The title also occurs in the story: Thibaut meets up with a mysterious woman, Sam, perhaps journalist or perhaps secret agent, who is taking photos for a projected book with that same title.

The “last days” of the title still have not come; in that sense the book is pre-apocalyptic. In another sense it is post-apocalyptic, as the S-blast has devastated and metamorphosed Paris, and iis effects need to be contained, as they threaten to spread everywhere. Thus while being in relation with the “apocalyptic” the novel’s temporal dimension is not the future, nor even futurity as such, but rather the “untimely”, in Nietzche’s (and Deleuze’s) sense, against this time (resistance), in favour of a time to come (creation of the possible). Thus the untimely is not so much temporal, not so much a question of the future or of futurity as modal, or, following an indication of Samuel Delany, a question of subjunctivity. In any actual case temporal estrangement and modal estrangement are intertwined, and may even be on occasions indiscernable.

“Apocalypse” for Deleuze is not a temporal, nor even a modal notion, but an ontological one. It announces the unveiling of what Miéville has called “Weird ontology”, where entities that do not fully respect the principle of identity assemble and struggle. It is interesting that in the novel there is also a (Nazi) force for identity, that eliminates all antogonisms, that is itself a manifestation, and not some foundation of reality.