On The Boredom of Fantasy



I have just read an essay on the subject of science fiction that I found both spectacularly wrong-headed and completely astute. It was published in 1953, in Harper’s Bazaar, by the Hungarian-American author Arthur Koestler, about whose oeuvre I have zero prior knowledge. Because I can’t find the essay reproduced anywhere online, I hope to crib from its ideas for years. But I’ll let you in on some salient passages, more or less illustrating the arc of Koestler’s argument, and which I hope you might find to be as niggling as I have.


In 1953, science fiction was experiencing its first major boom, and it’s likely that Koestler was sharing his two cents on what was—at the time—a very topical subject. Being a literary figure, his stance is about on par with most literary figures in 1953: that science fiction is objectively less than art, and seems to be the side-effect, like a nasty rash, of the burgeoning atomic age. Koestler writes that the “developments and vistas of the last fifty years have created new vistas and nightmares, which art and literature have not yet assimilated.” He continues, “In a crude and fumbling fashion, science-fiction is trying to fill the gap.” In the age of Buck Rogers, ray guns, and bug-eyed monsters, few people understood the critical power of science fiction. Koestler is being progressive, I think, by even seeing how the anxieties of any moment need to be absorbed into the culture in order to be overcome; even more canny is the observation that our specific anxieties might be developing more quickly than the culture can make room for. Technology, that is, lapping us—then as it is now.


But from here on out, Mr. Koestler and I disagree. He acknowledges that some critics might see in science fiction a light at the end of the traditional novel, but he cannot see it developing into a serious art form. Although Lucius, Samuel Butler, Jules Verne, and H.G. Wells, Aldous Huxley, and George Orwell all wrote science fiction of some form or another, he notes, those works are only “literature precisely to the extent to which they are not science-fiction.” Time is on my side here: in the 1950s, Wells might have been best known for his works of social criticism and history, but he has gone down in the canon of literary history as—above all things—a science fiction writer, or one permanently stained with the genre’s pen. Same goes for all these guys.


Regardless, Koestler sees novels like Nineteen Eighty-Four and Brave New World as isolated instances—“literary extravaganzas,” he quips—which amount to not much more than day dreams among the serious thoughts of serious writers. The idea that we should make small incisions into the bibliographies of these writers, quietly excising those works which don’t fit into the narrative of straight literary history, is utter nonsense, as is Koestler’s conclusion that “day-dreaming is not poetry, and fantasy is not art.” Seriously, what is poetry if not day-dreaming? And what is art which doesn’t include at least an awareness of fantasy?


The next point raised in this essay—did I even tell you what it was called, the essay? I didn’t: it’s called “The Boredom of Fantasy.” The next point raised in “The Boredom of Fantasy” is an interesting one. A pure fantasy, Koestler writes, can never be as interesting, as engaging as a work of literary art, because it contains no correlation to the world. It has no footholds, no tethers to grasp onto. There is nothing to identify with in a quivering, slack-jawed Martian. And without identification, “there is no art, only a thrill of curiosity which soon yields to boredom.” It doesn’t matter how spectacular the invention is; when there is no there there, it can do little more than briefly titillate the reader. “We are tickled by them for a few pages,” Koestler writes of Martians, “but because they are too strange to be true, we soon get bored.”


This is a fascinatingly weird assumption. For one, what does “true” even entail in this scenario? If a Martian is too strange to be true, then how about a woman? A Russian peasant? I’m not quite sure where the line falls, as Koestler seems to suggest that one must identify at the outset with a character in order to care about him, her—or it. I suppose it must have been an unusual punishment, in 1953, for a white male human reader to suffer through the travails of non-white male human characters, but in my estimation, identifying with someone (or something) other than yourself is exactly the point of reading. The more different, the more complex and powerful the development of familiarity becomes. The higher the art. One of the primary roles of The Novel is to evoke the inner world of the other; of The Reader, to somehow absorb, though the ephemeral medium of language, something from beyond the perimeter of our cranium. Great novels are those which create lasting instances of communion with another soul. Often an entirely imagined soul, to boot. That is the fantasy inherent to art. You cannot escape this specific and rudimentary truth.


Here—and because this essay is self-indulgent—I can’t help but think of Philip José Farmer and his poignantly lurid stories of human-alien relationships, Strange Relations. In Farmer’s stories, marooned astronauts form, over time, sexual bonds with their alien captors. But these are not stories of three-breasted women a la Total Recall. These are bonds forged with fungal gastropods, with gelatinous membranes the size of a room, with parasitic worms. It takes a complete disavowal of the centrality of human experience to forge such connections. Farmer’s lovers manage to take that herculean conceptual step away from themselves, to face the anthropocentric prejudice deep within themselves and prevail over it. They go native. And since because to love something is to lose a little of yourself to it, it’s really just an extreme version of what literature does to us.


Lastly, Koestler writes that “when we reach out for the stars, our limitations become grotesquely apparent.” So, science fiction demonstrates our failings; and those who write science fiction are fighting a losing battle against their own, inherently human, incapacity to imagine anything completely outside of human experience. Koestler makes a great little conceptual joke about asking a space cadet on the third planet of Orion if his journey from a drugstore in Minnesota was “really necessary.” Because, of course, nothing differentiates an astronaut from a druggist but the scenery. That’s true, of course; in novels, space cadets and druggists alike are reflections of whoever invented them.


How Koestler misses the point that this is also precisely their value is beyond me. Science fiction is a mirror for the present, as is any literature. If it creates fantasies, it does so by extrapolating from the tools, attitudes, and anxieties of the present moment. That’s why there’s no such thing as an alien, incidentally. No writer can propose a creature genuinely too strange to be true; in the proposing, we inevitably shape our creations with the mold from which they emerged. If it can be imagined by the relatively limited capacities of the human brain, then it’s not alien—by definition. And incidentally, I would bloody well hope that literature demonstrates our limitations; god forbid we might think we’re infallible. Then nobody’s making any decent art.


The druggist bothered to make the trip to the third planet of Orion because there might not have been much left to talk about in Minnesota. If, as Koestler seems to indicate, art must have a one-to-one relationship with the world, then to say anything meaningful about the space age one must rub elbows with it. Or perhaps there’s something important to be said about Minnesota, except a slightly different vantage is required—it helps to put some space between the writer and the subject he or she is aiming to be reflexive about. Anyway, even the most rudimentary rebuttal works here too: we should talk about space like the ancients talked about heaven. Not because it doesn’t include so many fantasies, but because we need something big for scale.


“Travel is no cure for melancholia,” Koestler writes, “space-ships and time-machines are no escape from the human condition. Let Oedipus triumph over gravity; he won’t triumph over his fate.” And yet we travel, in our reality as in our art, as we always will.



“The Boredom of Fantasy,” and many other fascinating critical genre essays, is anthologized in Science Fiction: The Future, a musty ol’ paperback you can buy on Amazon before the drones destroy them all.

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Introducing OMNI Reboot


Big news: yours truly has been tapped to become the Editor-in-Chief of a rebooted version of OMNI, the classic science and science fiction magazine upon which yours truly cut her very own teeth. The chain of events leading up to this appointment is so strange and circuitous that I recommend you read my entire article on the subject over on Vice.

For an autodidact science fiction head, this is the equivalent of being given the keys to the palace. Preparing for the launch of the magazine over the last few months has been the most terrifying and ecstatic experience of my career. After a million emails and as many pots of coffee, however, I’m so proud to have kicked off OMNI Reboot with new fiction from Bruce Sterling and Rudy Rucker, two of my all-time favorites, along with a heady mix of nonfiction and aesthetic inquiry.

A lot of people have been asking me how the world has changed since the original OMNI went out of print. At 28, I’m too young to have bought the magazine when it was on newsstands; my initiation came much later, when I found old copies and fell in love with their voice, which seemed so similar, in many ways, to my own. For me, looking at old OMNIs has always been an exercise in paleofuturistic archaeology: what did the future look like to clever, eccentric thinkers 20 years ago? Did those visions end up manifesting themselves in reality? The disconnects are often more telling than the accuracies.

In a 1987 OMNI feature, a young Bill Gates imagined a world database at our fingertips by 2007, while David Byrne dismissed computers as “just big or small adding machines,” adding that “if they can’t think, that’s all they’ll ever be. They may help creative people with their bookkeeping, but they won’t help in the creative process.” We all know how wrong that is. But it gives the reader a very evocative peek into the specific mindset of that time, a time where computer scientists could be more visionary than artists.

OMNI came onto the scene at the dawn of the computer age. In suit, its tone, when discussing technology, was by and large hopeful–it predicted all manner of cybernetic enhancement, innovative leisure, high-tech sensuality. Its advertisements hawked hi-fi systems, computers, cars, liquor, and self-help tapes. OMNI believed in a better tomorrow, and  think it inspired a generation of dreamers because of that. But that’s not our world–there were unforeseen consequences. Now we have a different relationship to technology. We ask ourselves what it’s doing to our society, what deleterious effects it might have on culture, how it has changed our children.

Ideally, I’d like OMNI Reboot to consolidate those two visions of the future–to be pragmatic and even cynical, but hopeful, too. After all, our idea of the future, like Gates and Byrne’s varyingly accurate predictions of the Internet, says more about who we are than who we hope to become.

Check out OMNI Reboot and follow us on Twitter to keep abreast of our updates. We’re going places–all of us.

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J.G. Ballard, Social Media Prophet

ballardtvQuick nugget: this excerpt of an interview with J.G. Ballard in a 1977 issue of Vogue has been making the rounds on the web today:

All this, of course, will be mere electronic wallpaper, the background to the main programme in which each of us will be both star and supporting player. Every one of our actions during the day, across the entire spectrum of domestic life, will be instantly recorded on video-tape. In the evening we will sit back to scan the rushes, selected by a computer trained to pick out only our best profiles, our wittiest dialogue, our most affecting expressions filmed through the kindest filters, and then stitch these together into a heightened re-enactment of the day. Regardless of our place in the family pecking order, each of us within the privacy of our own rooms will be the star in a continually unfolding domestic saga, with parents, husbands, wives and children demoted to an appropriate starring role.

My impression of Ballard has always been a writer who lived somehow outside of time, in a dreamlike precognitive amnion. Despite my headline above, it’s not that he was a prophet, and it’s hugely reductive of his work to just credit him, now, for “nailing” social media; rather, he understood the most base tendencies of human desire and saw in technology various nodes in which those desires could be sublimated. In the Ballardian worldview, the subconscious can never be separated from our higher operating functions. Sporting white coats, we can edify the race, but behind closed doors, we are still human, dominated by strange, primeval needs and fears, which will have us deconstructing our modern high-rise apartments into concrete terrors, perverting our technologies, and licking our windshields in no time. Ballard was one of the first writers to port human sexuality over to technology, most famously in Crash, a novel of automotive lust and carnage, and it’s not surprising that he foresaw the rise of the selfie–they’re both clear expressions of the fact that technology can’t be separated from the egos of its makers.

In the Vogue interview, Ballard talks about how the “apotheosis of all the fantasies of late twentieth-century man” is the “transformation of reality into a TV studio, in which we can simultaneously play out the roles of audience, producer and star.” He used TV as his primary metaphor–interesting, considering he once referred to the 1960s as an enormous electronic novel governed by simultaneity–but today, our dramas play out over fragmented media on the hand-held micro-screens which dominate our everyday. It’s particularly boggling to me that Ballard not only got the gist of how our inherent narcissism might play out in a world of total access to tech, but even presumed we’d be kicking around “kind filters” for the images of ourselves. Touché, J.G.

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Flowers for Algernon


This is how long it’s been since I last read Daniel Keyes’ Flowers for Algernon: I can remember the neck-ache I got from bending to read it under my school desk. It was one of those particle-board, comma-shaped desks; to read covertly required a particular contortion in which I, at eleven, was an expert. I wept like a baby when I finished the book.

As an adult, re-reading a thrift store copy of presumably the same vintage as my childhood edition, no such clandestine action was required. The emotional impact of the book was also significantly lessened, either because I was primed to anticipate the devastating conclusion of its plot or because, like the novel’s protagonist, I have matured. If you somehow missed Flowers for Algernon or its 1968 film adaptation, Charlythe story is thus: Charlie, a mentally handicapped man working in a bakery, is selected for an experimental trial of a new procedure which might make him more intelligent. The story is told through his journals, which means the first third of the book is written in a “simple” English that borders on pidgin and is definitely more offensive now than it was meant to be in 1959.  As the trials progress and his intelligence grows, Charlie’s reality expands. The many tragedies of his life come into focus; the laughs he shared with his “friends” at the bakery, he discovers, were always at his expense. His teacher is a beautiful woman, with whom he is in love. His mother was cruel. The scientists are exploiting him.

It’s to Keyes’ credit that Flowers for Algernon isn’t just a thought experiment or a hackneyed gimmick. As dated as the novel reads now, Charlie’s development is nuanced and complex: despite near-superhuman intelligence, he retains the emotional IQ of a wounded child, having never developed a robust personal defense system for the trials of life, and struggles to come to terms with a violently nascent sexuality. The novel should also be commended for not veering towards the saccharine. Despite his editors’ demands to the contrary, Keyes stuck to the tragic arc which gives Flowers for Algernon its high pathos: the intelligence effect, it turns out, is temporary, and Charlie, intelligent enough to anticipate what’s coming, documents his descent back into the darkness, until he can no longer remember who he is, or why he’s keeping these journals at all.


My favorite genre critic, Robert Scholes, calls Flowers for Algernon “minimal SF,” which is to say the discontinuity it manifests between its world and our own is small, and “requires no appreciable reorientation of our assumptions about man, nature, or society.” Flowers for Algernon takes place in mundane reality–a world of bakeries, college campuses, and the milling, indifferent American city. This doesn’t make it any less science fiction; while other works of science fiction about intelligence (most notably Olaf Stapledon’s Odd John and Sirius, two novellas often collated together) experiment with broader world-building, one needn’t recreate the universe to tell this kind of story. Often, I believe, the most powerful stories are those which manage, in rejiggering a small variable, to change everything. It’s the butterfly effect. Such narrative efficiency is astounding.

Charlie is Flowers for Algernon’s protagonist, but science itself is its hero, or anti-hero. Science is the enabling metaphor–without it, there would be no novel, only a fable about a simple man who woke up intelligent. The fact that Charlie’s growth is scientifically engineered, rather than magical, brings accountability into the equation, raising precisely the kind of questions folks were beginning to ask themselves in the Atomic Age: are we playing God? What are the limitations of man? Where are the ethical lines drawn, when we wield such power? Presumably, such anxieties contributed to Flowers for Algernon‘s massive success–it blanketed Cold War fears with a human allegory, one where relatively comprehensible variables such as love, sex, and cognition placed a buffer between the reader and the truly cold, harrowing mysteries of the growing scientific-industrial complex.

Intelligent Charlie is arrogant, impatient with others, and ultimately unlovable. The more he learns–and learns to learn–the less he can relate to people, least of all the scientists who created him, who dwindle into sycophants as he outpaces them. As people begin to fear him, he becomes despondent. But as his mind wanes, he regains the affection of those around him, even if that affection is rooted in pity. To be intelligent, Keyes seems to argue, is to be in a state of perpetual desperation, always seeking, always alone. The sheer complexity of the world, once one begins to grasp it, is horrific. In this sense, Flowers for Algernon has the qualities of a myth: man, toiling in obscurity, peeks beyond the edges of the shadows of the cave, or behind the veil, or in the secret box, or else bites from the apple of knowledge. What he sees is not beautiful: it’s the screeching maelstrom of the real.

In such myths, curiosity, rewarded with the sour taste of truth, is essential in the coming of age. Once you’ve seen reality, you can’t un-see it, and so begins the troubled march towards enlightenment. Or the fall from grace–either way, the impulse to peek and suffer the consequences is what makes us human. Flowers for Algernon is a modern myth, although what it teaches is different. It’s not that ignorance is bliss; it’s that intelligence carries with it a burden of responsibility towards the weak, the ignorant, and the innocent. We must learn with ferocity, Keyes argues, but love like children.

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Man of Earth


Although “Golden Age” science fiction has always seemed corn-fed as hell to me–space cowboys and army men, pioneering colonists and alien baddies usually tinged with Soviet undertones–I’m discovering, more and more, that it’s partially an immigrant’s literature. Isaac Asimov was a Russian Jew, born on the Belarussian border. Hugo Gernsback, editorial granddaddy to the age of pulp magazine publishing, hailed from Luxembourg. Clarke, of course, was British. And Algis Budrys, the subject of this review, was the son of a high-ranking Lithuanian diplomat, born in East Prussia and sent to live in the U.S. at 5 years old. I’m not making any real point here: just that in a genre often defined by xenophobic leering, it’s interesting that so many of its A-level practitioners were imports themselves. It speaks, I guess, to the self-reflexive dimensions of science fiction’s critiques, even in the early days.

And, of course, science fiction is an art form enhanced by the ability to understand a multiplicity of perspectives–hence its clubhouse perennially stocked with outsiders, libertarians, anti-establishment nuts, women, homosexuals, people of color, geeks, and anyone else not tailored to the moment’s mores. It’s always easier to define the alien when you have a little bit of it kicking around inside you. English was Budrys’ third language; as a child, he watched Hitler parade past his apartment window in a black Mercedes. By the time he was living in America, publishing science fiction, he was on his second or third life, and this–combined with his upbringing in government circles at the dawn of the Second World War–goes a long way in contextualizing his 1958 novel, Man of Earth

Man of Earth, according to its paperback cover, is “a fascinating science fiction novel of a man who chose his own physical structure.” As ever, this is an approximate description. Yes, the novel concerns a meek bureaucrat (Sibley), who, facing imminent political evisceration, decides to take a mysterious solicitor up on his offer of help. This leads him to a strange corporate office, hushed promises, and eventually a surgery, some kind of glandular restructuring-cum-skin-graft, that metamorphoses him into a stronger, more resilient man. Adopting a new name (Sullivan), he ships off to Pluto to begin a new life, where he rises to the upper ranks of a jingoistic army. Although Sibley’s still there, the new identity–Sullivan–eventually jostles its way to prominence; the original man, who once so fervently desired to be remodeled, is now trapped deep in the new man, Sullivan’s, unconscious mind.

In a sense, Man of Earth encapsulates genre SF’s tiered truths: what looks like a great American dream of reinvention and gung-ho pioneering is, actually, a complex immigrant’s story. As Sullivan/Sibley strives to settle into life on Pluto, he is never quite whole: he is wired for fracture, containing multitudes. He essentially speaks the languages of two different modes of being; yes, the binary is simple (weak/strong) but it remains unclear, as it does with many transplants, where the old and new identities meet. The Plutonian army trains Sullivan to fight against the Earth, an arbitrary enemy which happens to be himself; I imagine this isn’t too far from the experience of emigrating to the U.S. as an Eastern European right before the Cold War.

In a 1997 interview, Budrys said, “What science fiction does…is speculate about the nature of things. SF frequently turns to the past. All kinds of SF and fantasy is set centuries in the past. People forget that when they talk about SF as a medium for predicting the future. That’s not what SF is for. SF is for speculating, not predicting.” Although he was trying to put to bed the notion that science fiction should be judged on the quality of its predictions, he obliquely raises the point that the literature is both inward-turning and imaginative. And, by virtue of being a personal craft, it by necessity pulls the inward experiences of its practitioners outwards–in this case, to the stars.

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Ben Bova: The OMNI Interview


I recently had the great fortune of interviewing three of the surviving editors of the late, great OMNI magazine, a publication which, for 17 years, blew minds with its gonzo blend of science fiction and science. From 1978 to 1998 (it switched to full-time online publication in the mid-1990s) OMNI regularly featured extensive Q&A interviews with some of the top scientists of the 20th century–E.O. Wilson, Francis Crick, Jonas Salk–tales of the paranormal, speculative fantasy art by the likes of H.R. Giger, and some of the most important science fiction to ever see magazine publication: writers like Orson Scott Card, William Gibson, Stephen King, Harlan Ellison, and even William S. Burroughs graced its pages.

Ben Bova was the editor of OMNI for five years. He’s also a six-time Hugo award winner, author of 120 books of science fiction and fantasy, and was the direct successor to John W. Campbell at the helm of Analog Science Fiction and Fact.

Universe: You went to OMNI after seven award-winning years editing Analog. How did the two publications differ?

Bova: Analog was published in those days by The Condé Nast Publications, Inc., a major magazine house that published Vogue, Glamour, Mademoiselle, House & Garden, etc. They had acquired Analog when they bought out Street & Smith, around 1960. The management of Condé Nast didn’t know anything about the science fiction magazine except that it made a small profit every month, and it was regarded as the leader in its field. They just let John W. Campbell Jr. run the magazine as he saw fit. Campbell, of course was a giant in the field, and had discovered most of the major science fiction writers of the time. I was picked to take over the magazine’s editorship when Campbell unexpectedly died, and tried to continue I his tradition. My only staff was Katherine Tarrant, who had been Campbell’s assistant since he first took over the editorship in the mid-1930s. I had an art director, and one of the circulation department’s senior men handled Analog’s circulation business. I made all the decisions, with no one looking over my shoulder.

Omni, of course, was a very different affair. We had an editorial staff, an advertising staff, and a circulation staff. It was a major magazine, breaking new ground in the industry. And it was, for me, a dream come true: a big, national (even international) magazine, heavy with advertising, read by millions every month. There were always issues of one kind or another with the staff, but they were minor. We worked together quite well, actually.

Universe:  You once pitched a magazine of science fiction and nonfiction, Tomorrow Magazine, to Condé Nast: did that vision turn into your work at OMNI?

Bova: I felt that Analog, good as it was, only spoke to the relatively small science fiction community. I proposed a major national magazine that focused on the future, both with fiction and fact articles. The management heard me out, but decided that they didn’t know enough about the subject matter to invest in a major effort. They knew the women’s magazine market, so they launched instead Self magazine, which had done quite well for them.

Universe: How much freedom did you have at OMNI, and what kinds (if any) of commercial expectations did you need to meet?

Bova: I had a very wide field of operations. Kathy Keeton was the actual publisher of Omni, the idea for the magazine was hers. She was in the office every day, but she hardly ever interfered with editorial decisions. She made suggestions aplenty, and many of them were good. Those that weren’t, we discussed openly, and she almost always gave in to our editorial opinions. As long as the magazine sold well, everyone was happy. And Omni did sell spectacularly well, thanks to its editorial content, its visual quality, and a very talented circulation department.

Kathy Keeton was the de facto publisher of the magazine. Bob Guccione was the boss, but he usually stayed clear of the editorial process. He was more interested in the magazine’s visual appeal. Both Kathy and Bob were vitally interested in showing the world that Bob Guccione was more than a copycat of Hugh Hefner. Omni broke new ground and succeeded when most of the pundits said it would fail. That made both Bob and Kathy very happy.

Universe: Can you roughly characterize for me what your editorial imperatives were: what was the tone of “OMNI under Bova”?


Bova: I emphasized that Omni is not a science magazine. It is a magazine about the future. Science magazines came and went: some of our editors had worked at half a dozen different science magazines, all of which folded. I tried to get across to the editorial staff (and everyone else) that the public’s conception of science is that it’s like spinach: good for you but not terribly appetizing. Our approach was to present the future, which is like lemon meringue pie: delicious and fun. Of course most of our nonfiction pieces dealt with science in one way or another. But our approach was to talk about the future; readers swallowed the science because we made it palatable.

Universe: Did you feel that you had any predecessors, or peers?

Bova: Omni was sui generic. Although there were plenty of science magazines over the years (most of which failed eventually) Omni was the first magazine to slant all its pieces toward the future. It was fun to read and gorgeous to look at. I don’t think we had any direct competition, although our success prompted other publishers to bring out other science magazines.


Universe: How was OMNI perceived in the science fiction community?

Bova: The science fiction community was initially leery of a magazine that included science fiction in its pages but was published by the man who published Penthouse. A large part of my responsibilities was to show the science fiction community that Omni was the real thing. I also worked to convince potential advertisers and overseas publishing houses that Omni was far more than “Penthouse in space.” The fact that our payment rates for fiction were ten times the rates of ordinary science fiction magazines helped to bring the writers to us. But I had to impress on them the fact that Omni’s audience included tons of people who never read science fiction. Our writers had to be able to write for a much more general audience, and eschew the jargon that dedicated science fiction people took for granted, but was unknown to the wider audience. Some of the best-known writers in the science fiction field were not able (or perhaps willing) to do this. Most of them were personal friends. But they couldn’t write for Omni, alas.

Universe: What do you think is OMNI‘s greatest legacy?

Bova: I think Omni’s greatest legacy is that there is a tremendous audience for fiction and nonfiction about science–if it is presented in an attractive, understandable way.


Check out my piece, Omni: The Forgotten History of the Best Science Magazine That Ever Was, live today on Motherboard & browse some of its greatest hits.

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I am Ubik. Before the universe was, I am. I made the suns. I made the worlds. I created the lives and the places they inhabit; I move them here, I put them there. They go as I say, they do as I tell them. I am the word and my name is never spoken, the name which no one knows. I am called Ubik, but that is not my name. I am. I shall always be.

In Ubik, a group of “inertials,” paraphysical technicians who make a living neutralizing psychic spies, are sent on a routine business trip to the moon. They experience a reality-shattering event, an explosion which they believe to have survived. Upon returning to Earth, however, they begin to notice strange phenomena of decay: their cigarettes are stale, their coffee goes moldy as soon as they order it, their money is obsolete. These conditions, initially minor, ramp to fever-pitch as forces of decay wreak havok on their world. Reality begins to revert to earlier forms all around them. Formerly high-speed pneumatic elevators turn into brass-caged contraptions staffed by vacant-eyed operators. Automated appliances become wood-burning stoves, flat-paneled televisions morph into old Victrola radios. The changes happen in fits and starts, varying from one individual to the next; for some, it’s 1992. For others, 1939. It’s like a literal version of William Gibson’s overly quoted truism: The future (or, rather, the past) is already here, it’s just not evenly distributed.

This isn’t time-travel, to be clear: each object in the world and its place remains the same, only in increasingly primitive versions. It’s a subjective withering of modernity, a hefty, sped-up obsolescence. “The past is latent, is submerged,” Dick writes, “capable of rising to the surface once the later imprinting unfortunately–and against ordinary experience–vanished.”

Like most of Dick’s novels, Ubik centers around a group of people trying to make sense of an inconsistent and shifting reality. Why is it suddenly 1939? Will the phenomena continue until the very structure of the world blinks out into nothingness? As the world devolves and entropy laps everything, the inertials desperately seek order, or a cause, among the shifting ruins; science-fiction critics warily familiar with Philip K. Dick refer to this as the “reality problem.” Thankfully, another force seems to be keeping the inertials alive, a mysterious product called “Ubik.” The titular Ubik is a reality support spray that helps shore up the edges of the crumbling world: “One invisible puff-puff whisk of economically-priced Ubik banishes obsessive-compulsive fears that the entire world is turning into clotted milk…plus other, as-yet-unglimpsed manifestations of decay.” This life-preserving force is a fairly transparent metaphor: Ubik derives from the latin ubique, the root of ubiquity, the defining attribute of the Christian God.

Here, more so than usual, the dimensions of Dick’s experiment are metaphysical. Ubik/God, applied sparingly, as the manufacturer indicates, not taken internally, in the recommended dosage, keeps the walls from caving in.  It props up that ever-shifty mental construct we call reality. Of course, like God, Ubik isn’t an eternal manifestation of spiritual grace or guidance, but a human invention, a kind of jargony scientific made-up thing, a commercial product, if anything just a totem of the struggle against entropy. So God is the end of the road, but the signposts are manmade, plunking names and measurable boundaries down where there really are only undifferentiated, formless lagoons of reality.

Ubik is a fascinating novel, proceeding at a sensible clip while simultaneously caving in on itself at every turn–really, the purest distillation of Dick’s maddening, anti-literary style.  Its mysteries compound on one another in ragged concentric circles until there is nothing concrete left to hold onto, but it somehow retains the formal elements of a propulsive work of fiction. The story works, despite–or perhaps due to–a narrative constructed from contradictory events. Like Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Lathe of Heaven, it presents new variations on narrative time: cycles which shade over one another in overlapping shapes, pinned to alternate sources of light, creating a wash of gray. Is regret just nostalgia for a half-remembered alternate timeline?

Not that it necessarily clarifies or enhances a reading of his work, but Dick in the Ubik years had reconciled himself to the belief that we were all living in a static timeline (which happens to be Biblical Judea) masked by a shifting, artificial modern world. Sometimes, he believed, shamans, mystics, and science fiction writers could cut through this veil of Maya and gawk unflinchingly at the stone-cold real shit, where time breaks down. “I have an abiding intuition,” he wrote in 1978, “that somehow the world of the Bible is a literally real but veiled landscape, never changing, hidden from our sight, but available to us by revelation.” There’s an eerie logic to this, and it’s the bottom line of his later work, but then again, he had a hell of an amphetamine habit.

Time is speeding up. And to what end? Maybe we were told that two thousand years ago. Or maybe it wasn’t really that long ago; maybe it is a delusion that so much time has passed. Maybe it was a week ago, or even earlier today. Perhaps time is not only speeding up; perhaps, in addition, it is going to end.

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Merry Christmas from the Outer Limits

As a holiday treat, here’s a small gallery of painterly Christmas-themed covers from the great Galaxy Science Fiction magazine, all from the mid-50s and early 1960s, arguably the golden age of science fiction illustration. These were done by Ed Emschwiller, who later went on to a career in experimental film and video, creating groundbreaking 3D computer animations and founding the animation lab at CalArts.

I don’t know about you guys, but I much prefer imagining Santa Claus riding his sleigh through the cosmos, delivering presents to intergalactic boys and girls. Merry Christmas!

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We Can Build You


The scene is a basement repair shop, 1982.

Work benches, tools, and a prone robotic simulacra of Abraham Lincoln, being turned on for the first time. In the presence of its makers, the Lincoln is slowly emerging from objecthood into the scrum of sentience. It flails to sit up, big hands grasping around, jet-black eyes beginning to survey their surroundings. Gears whirr and click. Suddenly, what was once a sculpted mask of a famous face begins to register wariness, a wariness “beyond the capacity of man to imagine.”

What follows is one of the bleakest, most quintessentially Philip K. Dick descriptions of consciousness imaginable, in which a version of Abraham Lincoln, uncertain of who (or what) he is, is born into a fully adult body. The humans in the room can sense his fear, recognizing in it some echo of their own wailing arrival on the scene, a rupture which for them is obfuscated by time, but, for the Lincoln, is immediate. Is happening now.

In its birth pangs, there in the repair shop, the Lincoln’s face registers fear, “absolute dread…Paralyzing dread so great as to produce apathy.” This is a primeval, atavistic fear, the horror of existence itself. And it isn’t just a scene. It’s a worldview. Dick defines the catalytic spark of life not as a simple evolutionary impulse to get up and go, a but dread so powerful that it singlehandedly bootstraps us onto the grid. A profound, crazy malaise that we spend our entire lives attenuating (in Dick’s case, with prolific literary output and Benzedrine). He writes,

“Birth…is not pleasant. It is worse than death; you can philosophize about death–and you probably will: everyone else has. But birth! There is no philosophizing, no easing of the condition. And the prognosis is terrible: all your actions and deeds will only embroil you further in living more deeply.”

Like all of Dick’s quote-unquote lesser novels, We Can Build You is a dark character study/grim think-piece only half-assedly sheathed by a pulp-magazine conceit. Nominally: about a company that builds simulacra of historical figures. Actually: about how social constraints can turn people into automatons, can turn them on the whole sociopathic. This is so classic a Dick trope it scarcely bears mentioning: perhaps, the novel suggests, in a certain context, a programmed being–a robotic Lincoln, for example–can be more human than its programmers.

The robotic Lincoln in this novel (incidentally: can a graduate student somewhere please pen the be-all dissertation about animatronic Lincoln, Disneyland’s Great Moments With Mr. Lincoln, Ray Bradbury‘s delight with the form, and PKD’s various horrified interpretations? There’s definitely a lineage.), like the real Lincoln, might be schizophrenic. The tragic undertones of his character, anyway, his radically depressive tendencies, his melancholy: all traits attributed to the historical Lincoln which make for a particularly self-conscious robot. Unlike the simulacra of John Wilkes Booth or Edwin M. Stanton, he cannot adapt to the modern world, nor can he ever truly come to terms with his transmutation into mechanical existence. Like Dick himself, he’s already crazy enough to imagine he might not be real, so the whole thing takes on meta-proportions which only serve to kick him into a depressive tailspin.

The hallucinatory delusions of its largely schizophrenic characters eventually become so nesting and protracted that this novel ceases to be about robots altogether. Rather, it develops into a love story that unfolds across a gradient of sanity. This departure from plot seems to be the main criticism of We Can Build You. Theodore Sturgeon griped that Dick’s “willingness to pursue some collateral and fascinating line at the expense–and even the abandonment–of his central theme” diminished the novel.

Of course, that’s my favorite thing about PKD, his total lack of interest in central theme, the way his narrative arcs deflate at the sight of an interesting line of inquiry, an opportunity to zero in on some truly horrible truth. Anyway, I see the continuum. After all, whose subjective reality is realer: an automaton with a precisely created set of epistemological prerogatives, or a schizoid mid-fugue? What about a schizoid automaton? The point is that the simulacra’s operating constraints begin to take on a particular kind of broken humanness, as though the Lincoln were created solely to give concrete form to the horror of being.  Through his birth, we re-experience our own. Some uncanny manifestation of our realest dread, doffed with a stovepipe hat.

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Science Fiction’s Speculative Pharmacopeia

Last week, I published an article on Motherboard rounding up some of my favorite fake drugs from the coffers of science fiction. The list isn’t exhaustive; rather, it tackles a representative spread of uppers, downers, psychedelics, and unclassifiables. The tradition dates back to Homerian lotus-eaters, and has been taken up by everyone from Aldous Huxley (his Soma, from Brave New World, is a canonical ‘lude) to Anthony Burgess and William Gibson, whose oeuvre abounds with snorted uppers. In the article, I argue that fake drugs serve a specific purpose in science fiction: they allow writers to make key adjustments to the human brain, just as speculative technologies alter the human world.

Consider it this way: science fiction is like chaos theory. It alters small, key variables about the world, just to see which butterflies cause thunderstorms 10, 50, or 100 years into the future. When we read even the basest genre fiction, we acknowledge that the continuum of reality can persist, in a more-or-less recognizable manner, even when an author has deliberately removed (or added) something vital. Science fiction asks us to imagine all manner of things: flying cars, interstellar travel, cosmic war, and advanced weaponry. We find ourselves in a radically altered landscape–the unchecked globalized sprawl of William Gibson, say, or the shiny planetary colonies of Robert Heinlein–and immediately set about, as in a children’s game, spotting the differences.

The fun is in examining the disconnects, and drawing our conclusions back to the present. In short, when we consider the flying car, what we’re really wrapping our heads around is the significance of their road-bound cousins. But the examples I’ve cited here are only modifications of the physical world. Humanity, despite its space-age digs, is usually the same old dog; an astronaut is just a space cowboy, after all, with a snazzy outer-space backdrop. What about when science fiction wants to be about inner space, not outer space? Never mind those astronauts’ first steps on an alien planet––what about their first thoughts? Just as we imagine leaving the solar system, we must also imagine new ways of getting outside the head.

Like an addictive street drug, the piece has been propagating across the web, thanks to some friendly promotion from The Verge and the great dismal master himself, William Gibson. Of course, many have pointed out that my list lacks many classic science fiction drugs: NZT, the brain-booster from Limitless (incidentally the only drug from this category I can imagine sampling), Nuke from Robocop, and Slo-Mo from Judge Dredd, to name a few. And that’s only the overtly SF inventions; we can’t forget Dylar, an experimental treatment for the fear of death, from Don DeLillo’s White Noise, the various heroin analogues of William Burroughs, or, you know, Hobbit pipeweed. Speculative drugs in film, literature, comics, and video games are such a widespread narrative conceit that a full list would bore readers to tears. To wit, I present to you the exhaustive (and exhausting) “List of Fictional Medicines and Drugs” section of Wikipedia. Enjoy!

And, hey, while you’re over at Motherboard, why not tune in, drop out, and check out some of my other science-fiction and technology pieces?

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