Inside Outside

Through me you go to the grief wracked city; Through me you go to everlasting pain; Through me you go a pass among lost souls. Justice inspired my exalted Creator: I am a creature of the Holiest Power, of Wisdom in the Highest and of Primal Love. Nothing till I was made was made, only eternal beings. And I endure eternally. Abandon all hope — Ye Who Enter Here.

–Dante, from The Inferno

Just this week I was in Dublin, and in my exploration of the city (i.e. Guinness drinking) I learned some things about traditional Irish mythology. For one, did you know leprechauns are cruel little sprites with dreadlocks and unkempt beards? Or that the quaint ritual of the wishing well derives from attempting to bribe sinister residents of the underworld into cooperation? Literally: people screaming into holes in the ground at imagined fairies and demons, throwing money, begging them to relent in their systematic destruction of lives in the human world. As it happened, my discovery of this very literal understanding of the planet’s theological geography coincided with a book I’d just finished reading, Philip José Farmer’s Inside Outside.

Inside Outside is about a place called Hell, the most nightmarish science fiction world I’ve yet encountered. This isn’t to say that it’s the scariest, most imaginative, or exotic: rather, it has the logic of a dream, a strange distribution of detail and texture that gives a half-formed, lucid impression of place. We meet Jack Cull (i.e. Jackal), who lives in Hell. His only food is made of mashed arid desert plants, supplemented by a sticky Manna that falls from the sky. The city he lives in is a cyclopean construction of basalt populated by immortal humans and sniggering, opaque demons. Paper is made of human skin, and Cull works at a weird Borgesian office called “The Exchange,” with sloping walls and tiered rows of stone desks that stretch to the ceiling. His trade is in religious gossip: he barters hope, myths, and origin stories to help Hell’s citizens get through the day.

In Inside Outside, magic is a palliative, religion a technique to allay an incomprehensible reality. But just as even the jolliest human myths have sinister origins (viz. leprechauns, who will make you dance until you drop dead), nothing here is as it seems. A Jesus figure roams Farmer’s Hell in dark sunglasses and white robes, disappearing whenever people glom onto him. The question that hangs pregnant in the air is this: are they dead, or is Hell a real place? If so, why does no one remember how they got there? Jack Cull—incidentally, the Jackal, archetype of cleverness in countless myths–is determined to find out.

As it turns out, Cull accesses Hell’s underworld not by yelling down a well but through its sewers. The technicalities of the Hell-world are manifold and perverse; it’s like a Hieronymus Bosch painting in space, and Cull’s journey as it unfolds is a medieval spirit quest through the physical underworld, owing as much to Dante as it does to fantasy. Cull discovers that he doesn’t live on a planet, or in a protoplasmic afterlife. Rather, it’s a hollow metal sphere with artificial gravity and a sun in the center. Like in some cosmic version of the Poseidon Adventure, Cull tunnels down out of the city, hits the edge of the sphere, and peers out a porthole into space. Then the real implications of his situation echo: he isn’t dead.

Perhaps, though, he never lived.

The novel is a heady allegorical journey from early-career Philip José Farmer, part of the excellent Avon “Rediscovery” series, which incidentally brought me face-to-face with my first Farmer collection, Strange Relations. It’s not really a good book, per se: not one character is likable, anyway, and the story is basically just a woozy set piece until the last ten pages, in which all the truth of Inside Outside is artlessly revealed. It feels more like a hastily scribbled articulation of a dream, like Farmer tried to get it all down before the memory ebbed back into his subconscious. In that sense, it reads like J.G. Ballard; it has the same kind of unapologetic surrealism, the sense of personal mythology.

The conclusion of the novel indicates that a sufficiently advanced alien race might be indistinguishable from God, and a sufficiently advanced tinkering from said race tantamount to Creation. Farmer seems to accept implicitly this fairly advanced esoteric concept: that heaven and the cosmos are the same thing, that the medieval picture of celestial spheres, as jewels nestled in aether, is closer in spirit to the indifferent reaches of outer space than some cloudy, harpy invention of man.

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Distrust That Particular Flavor

In the early 1990s, William Gibson wrote Agrippa (A Book of the Dead)a 300-line autobiographical poem saved on a 3.5″ floppy designed to erase itself after a single use. The book version accomplished the task in analogue: its pages were treated with photosensitive chemicals, which began gradually fading the words and images from the book’s first exposure to light. The text was about memory, and the idea was that a reader would experience it as such, with the words becoming memories as they were consumed. Like a conversation, like a moment experienced in direct time, one could never recall it precisely, or command it–as on a computer–to return. It was simply lived, then faded away.

Although Agrippa was engineered to be ephemeral, it committed one cardinal error: it was written at the dawn of the free information age. Almost immediately after the poem’s initial “Transmission” (a complex affair involving illusionist Penn Jillette and a vacuum-sealed sculptural magnetic disk) enterprising hackers pirated the text and disseminated it online, on USENET groups and listservs. Since Gibson didn’t use email at the time, fans faxed him pirated copies of the text in droves. If Agrippa had been undertaken today, I can only imagine the full text would have been leaked before it even made it into the art gallery. The project was, in short, a failure: not because it was a bad idea, or poorly-executed, but because there simply is no such thing as a transitory memory anymore. When someone tries to artificially construct one, our networked technological milieu literally wrests it away and commits it, permanently, to the cloud.

We no longer serve one another sensory impressions, live largely felt experiences; we no longer conjure up the past through a patchwork of fallible nodes of thought, ever-shifting, foggy and surreal. It’s difficult today, perhaps impossible, for an artist to make something with the qualities of pure memory: intangible, subjective, and yet with real emotional affect. In an age of hyper-documentation, of consistent quantifiability, every click leaves a trace.

Which, of course, may have been the very point Gibson was trying to make. Agrippa, in attempting to emulate natural memory, was an impossible object. By being technological, it was inherently destined to assimilate itself into a greater collective cache of experience. In his new collection of essays, Distrust That Particular Flavor, he addresses this more succinctly: technology, in a sense, is memory.

In Gibson’s view, our technology is–always has been–an direct extension of our humanity. He argues that the moment we began began taking photos, making films, externalizing the human experience with so-called “mass” media, we set into motion an immeasurably vast prosthetic memory for the race. What we can’t remember, or live directly, we can now conjure up through images, films, and data; we can remember second-hand, often losing touch with the difference between our memories, truth, history, and the experience of others. We can view things at a distance, things which happened before we were born, we can watch the dead talk: ghosts have been walking among us since the first image was recorded. Of film, Gibson writes, “we are building ourselves mirrors that remember–public mirrors that wander around and remember what they’ve seen,” adding, “that is a basic magic.”

Only briefly does he make what I think is a crucial leap to extending the argument beyond the parameters of 20th century technology. The prosthetic memory of the human race isn’t just quantifiable in archives of film, living networks of interconnected conversation, and endless bytes of media data. It’s also a different kind of information: mesopotamian clay tablets, cave paintings, the printed word, anything, in fact, that is capable of representing a fragment of ineffable experience in physical form. Of course, this isn’t Gibson’s territory, the cyberprophet, the calm-and-bemused  voice of techno-truth, but he tackles it:

“Our ancestors, when they found their way to that first stone screen, were commencing a project so vast that it only now begins to become apparent: the unthinking construction of a species-wide, time-defying, effectively immortal prosthetic memory. Extensions of the human brain and nervous system, capable of surviving the death of the species. The start of building what would become civilization, cities, cinema.”

While media is an “extended nervous system we’ve been extruding as a species for the past century,” art is a complex memory we’ve been collaboratively creating for much, much longer. It’s too big for a single individual–or a single machine, hopefully– to experience it all at once, but it’s the central project of the human race. And it can’t be pirated, or destroyed: only lived, and added to, often thoughtlessly, by succeeding generations of increasingly technological human beings.

Additional Materials:

Full text of Agrippa (A Book of the Dead)
Distrust That Particular Flavor on Amazon
Fantastic video interview with William Gibson on Motherboard TV

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The Food of the Gods

A villanelle is a kind of 19th-century French poem long derided by modern poets for its fusty, pompous formalism &#8212but, like many things, revived when the madness of the 20th century brought about nostalgia for structure. H.G. Wells was a prophetic writer and social critic who has gone in and out of favor since his death in 1946. Both are decidedly ungroovy in our currently self-navigating, chronically manifesting science fictional milieu, which is why I’m reviewing Wells’ ridiculous 1904 scientific romance, The Food of the Gods&#8212a novel about a food that causes gigantism&#8212in the form of a villanelle.

When, suddenly, a giant is born,
Product of misplaced toxic vial,
He looks down on our world with scorn.

Who of us can safely warn
The young colossus of his trial
When, suddenly, a giant is born?

Before we know it, we will mourn
Our lilliputian lifestyle.
He looks down on our world with scorn.

Now giant wasps, and giant corn,
Will populate the British isle.
When, suddenly, a giant is born.

With massive step, our city torn,
For him our avenues are aisles.
He looks down on our world with scorn.

Reader, no need to feel forlorn,
It’s just our future that’s on trial.
When, suddenly, a giant is born,
He looks down on our world with scorn.

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The Zap Gun

The original cover’s horny pronouncement: “Alien Satellites Circle the Earth–and Man’s Only Hope is a Mad Cartoonist!?”

The Zap Gun is one of Philip K. Dick’s lesser “pot-boiler” novels.

It was originally serialized, so it’s shitty in the way that novels always are when it’s clear a writer is being paid by the word, useless adjectives everywhere. The story chugs along at a variable pace, committing the unforgivable sin of being (*gasp*) boring more than once.

Being a slice of PKD’s consciousness, however, it’s also completely insane. The story is about para-psychic government weapons “fashions” designers who receive schematics for world-destroying bombs while in drug-induced fugues. To fuel what is essentially a Cold public relations War between East and West (here given the adorable monikers “Peep-East” and “Wes-Bloc”), they tap into what they believe is a higher plane and awake with sketched designs for things like lobotomy gas, the “Evolution Gun” and “weapon BBA-81D.” These weapons are designed and constructed in underground laboratories, then tested and disseminated in propaganda films, but never actually used on the enemy. Instead, each element of the weapon is immediately “plowshared” into useful commercial products. Before the action even unfurls, the essential premise is already an illusion: the weapons designing, the psychic trances, and the entire industry of war are just a front to keep the economies of the East and West mutually afloat. It’s purely formal technological development without purpose, a war of design espionage, without bloodshed. The greater public knows nothing of this elaborate pact between East and West. They believe they are at war.

Which…this was written in 1967, but obviously the joke is still funny.

The Zap Gun introduces a daisy chain of science-fictional future banalities: automated kitchen appliances, vidphones, autonomous robotic journalists, a talking house oracle called “Ol’ Orville,” all products of weapons plowsharing. The main character, a top US weapons psychic, respected and feared the world over (his pick of mistresses!) suffers. He knows his work is useless, and pines for his puff existence—his appearance of vitality—to be made real. As it later turns out, he’s even more useless than he imagined: instead of tapping into a higher level of consciousness, touching God, he is actually just in psychic contact with an African comic-book artist. As he discovers that his ideas are nothing more than stolen design fictions, he plunges into a reckless anomie. Suddenly, ravenous pulp aliens start hovering over the Earth, their intentions inscrutable; the more ships appear, the more obvious it is that generations of fake-warmongering have left the planet unprepared for conflict, and due for certain extraterrestrial enslavement. We wonder: is the war machine necessary? Does it keep us hungry, keep us vigilant? Is it the engine that drives both technological innovation and artistically productive dissent?

Cute.

Our hero becomes despondent. He is incapable of dreaming up a weapon that could possibly touch the new enemy. There’s simply no time, no resources to produce a smash-em-all nuke to obliterate the Slavers from Sirius. The solution—and I’m going to spoil the ending, because it’s interesting and odds are you’ll never read The Zap Gun—isn’t a weapon. It’s a toy. And this is where it gets really good, where the feverish rays of the true Dick Id start peeking out from behind the pulp-novel door. The toy is a kind of empathy feedback machine, a handheld maze in which a tiny, adorable creature is trapped. The maze is designed to be inescapable; as the creature reaches its end, the walls seamlessly re-arrange themselves. The user (gamer?) can control the difficulty of the maze, the harshness of the illusion, then rapid disappearance, of an exit. The catch is that the creature has a parapsychic ability to connect with the gamer. The gamer, essentially, feels a profound sense of empathy with the creature, and as they punish it with the shifting labyrinth, so they punish themselves. In the absence of a weapon of mass destruction, humanity instead sends an amplified version of this game to the alien overlords, banking on the evolutionary consistency of empathy. This works, and the aliens retreat with their proverbial tails in between their horrific, chitinous legs.

A couple of observations here. One, empathy is a fairly common science fiction tool; we often see empathy as a paranormal or psychic ability to sense others’ emotions—in this case, the word “empath” is used. The science, or speculative-fictional, empath often suffers from their gift, feeling the pain and confusion of others all around them. But empathy is also one of the fundamental elements of human morality. Our capacity to not only recognize the bodily and emotional feelings of others, but to port those experiences over to our own system, essentially neurologically replicating them, is an essential function of the human mind, undoubtedly key to our development as a social species. Those who do not have this ability are sadistic, autistic, and generally incomprehensible—not unlike aliens.

In fact, a lack of empathy, or, alternately, a lack of relatability, is one of the scariest things about aliens as they’re represented in popular culture; their inscrutable faces, their unclear—but obviously sinister—motives, their willingness to experiment upon us without any concern for our fragile psyches. Aliens are terrifying because they have no compassion, because their moral or ethical system, if they have one, has no bearing on our reality. They are not, in short, “human.”

For Dick to turn this entire construction on its head is brilliant. In a serialized 60s sci-fi novel, we expect the baddies to be slimy monsters from the great beyond, roundly destroyed by mankind’s martial ingenuity. Instead, in The Zap Gun, humanity employs the cornerstone of its neurological and spiritual makeup against the enemy—and the enemy is defeated by virtue of sharing that quality. The weapon of mass destruction is compassion. The conclusion is a philosophical grey area: the enemy is not so different, and so we can destroy him as we would destroy ourselves.

And, in a sense, we are destroying ourselves, because—ta-dah!—the alien is really us. Etymologically, alien is alienus, Latin, meaning other. But our perception of “other” is defined by the boundaries we place on the self; the more extreme the otherness (“Slavers from Sirius!”) the deeper it relates to some core quality of the self. The alien in science fiction is often the cold heart of man, the creature powered solely by evolutionary imperative, a horrific iteration of our animal origins. An empathy trap exorcises this demon, and we can all sleep at night.

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The Synthetic Man

This world is a
Haven for
Extra-terrestrial

Stones. The Earth
Yields them,
Nestled in the dirt and
Thoroughly unconcerned with
Humanity.
Every night,
They quietly
Invent perfect
Copies of

Men.
A dream is all we are, the
Nightmares of a jewel.

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Virtual Light

Virtual Light is the first book of William Gibson’s “Bridge” trilogy, in which an nonfunctional, shanty-town Golden Gate bridge is a major feature. Like his previous “Sprawl” trilogy, it leans low and hard into its dystopian city-scape, positing a completely probable slumification of the modern metropolis — one which has developed laterally, growing in spontaneous density, rather than upwards into the mega-skyscrapers and glass-domed arcologies of standard gung-ho futurism.

Unlike the Sprawl books (Neuromancer, Count Zero, and Mona Lisa Overdrive), however, Virtual Light doesn’t take place in the future, not really; with a time-stamp of 2006, it’s an alternate present rather than a straight science-fictional tomorrow, although the effect is the same. While stories that unfold in the future give us an extrapolative shock, Gibson seems to understand that in an urbanized world of mediated digital communication — a climate of instantaneity — the distinction between “now” and “tomorrow” is irrelevant. Reality fluctuates wildly from individual to individual depending on his or her point of perceptual entry, and hence Gibson’s dystopian 2006 is as real as the person reading it.

As with many Gibson novels, the most compelling thing about Virtual Light is its atmosphere. The environment of the novel, essentially an archetypical cyberpunk milieu, is dizzying: a California divided into two nation-states, jacked up on privatized security thuggery, pocketed with anarchist utopias of organic provenance. Data pirates, security cops, hackers, and televisual evangelists war over hardware; namely, a pair of “Virtual Light” glasses, a virtual (today we might say “enhanced”) reality device that ratchets directly into the optic nerve, overlaying any number of data points seamlessly onto the visual plane.

This book is about architecture and perception. The crux of the plot is that the virtual light glasses, when worn to gaze upon the city of San Francisco, reveal a plan by overseas developers to restructure the city. The plan, to plant nanomachines in the downtown that self-construct into buildings — buildings that “just grow” — is presented as being so fundamentally repulsive and unnatural that the hacker underground is galvanized to prevent its implementation without any encouragement.

That’s because architecture, here, is a metaphor for class: the rich, in Virtual Light, live in planned corporate megaplexes — giant glass domes, gargantuan malls — while the poor live in organically-generated slums, which are portrayed as being vibrant, warm, human communities, beautiful in their senselessness. Gibson’s tenderness for the slum is manifested through the character of Shinya Yamazaki, a Japanese sociologist studying the community of the Bridge.

“The integrity of its span was as rigorous as the modern program itself, yet around this had grown another reality, intent upon its own agenda. This had occurred piecemeal, to no set plan, employing every imaginable technique and material. The result was something amorphous, startlingly organic.”

The Bridge, which Yamakazi describes in his notebooks as an “accretion of dreams,” something with “magic and singularity,” a “pointless yet curiously artlike feature of the urban landscape,” is the home (physical and spiritual) of Virtual Light‘s most likable protagonists, those fighting the nano-urbanization of San Francisco. There’s a clear binary here. On one side, the wealthy, whose urban environment is intentional, architectural, built, technological, clean, and corporate. On the other, the poor, whose practical ingenuity has cumulated in a massively dense, anti-technological, piecemeal construction that somehow reflects the best qualities of the human spirit, of a community of individuals fighting against the compartmentalized alienation of the modern city. On the Bridge, everyone lives on top of everyone else, in an interconnected system functioning entirely outside of the matrix of the law.

The Bridge, Gibson clearly iterates, is real life — sweat, filth, and color.

The Bridge, as represented (poorly) in the 1995 film Johnny Mnemonic, which was written by William Gibson.

The city, on the other hand, is Virtual Light: it’s data. It’s glass and steel. It’s businesslike efficiency, robot maids, and stringent rules. And it has no right to impinge on the Bridge’s natural quality of growth — it simply can’t, in Gibson’s world, share any qualities whatsoever with the people’s Temporary Autonomous Zone-esque urbanism. The rich just mustn’t implement technologies that mimic the organic development of the slums. It would be a perversion, a co-opting of the underground.

The takeaway, it seems, is that the poor — i.e. the nontechnological — are the only truly connected people. Technologies like Virtual Light, or the complex computer systems that monitor the security of the wealthy, only serve to alienate people from one another. A clapboard house constructed bit by bit from hand tools, a bicycle, a slum full of cultures woven into a hallucinatory puzzle: these are the real connective technologies. It’s obvious (to me) that Gibson is often mislabeled as a cyberprophet, a digital zealot. He’s quite the opposite: not a luddite, but certainly an advocate of that human je-ne-sais-quoi that seperates us from machines.

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Myths of the Near Future and The Venus Hunters

We are all haunted by the totemic images of our subconscious. They rise, seemingly of their own volition, out of the dreaming depths of our minds to color our experience of the world. While there are socialized symbols that have been codified within individual cultures by centuries of thought and mythology — the moon is woman, the sun is man, for example — we can’t all adhere to the same sets of visual references. Our semiotic experience, particularly in this highly mediated age, is personal. The British writer J.G. Ballard referred to the pop culture of the 1960s (his period of greatest popularity, at least in the States) as an electronic novel we all lived inside, governed by instantaneity. It’s easy to draw a parallel to the present day — but this sentiment can also be applied to Ballard’s own oeuvre: a richly visual place, utterly simultaneous.

I decided to read J.G. Ballard because it’s a good idea to be well-versed in authors whose names have become adjectives. From the kinds of things I’ve heard described as “Ballardian,” I knew I was in for bleak suburban landscapes, grotesque televisual feasts, and tales of technological anomie.

However, the atmosphere of the short stories contained in Ballard’s Myths of the Near Future and The Venus Hunters is clouded with persistently recurring images — wings, drained swimming pools, visual trails, cameras, hotels, the slowing down of time, feminine features blown up to the point of abstraction — that smack of personal obsession, not deconstructionist sci-fi attitude. Ballard seems entirely comfortable within the matrix of his working mythologies. He unfolds his pet compulsions repeatedly, from different angles: in one story, a high-rise holiday hotel is merely a setting, in another, it’s a concentration camp for unemployable expatriates, doomed to spend their lives forever waterskiing. Drained swimming pools* are time machines and refuges, totemic pieces of landscape that even Ballard doesn’t seem to understand. In the story, “Myths of the Near Future,” the American Space Race has somehow caused a time-disease, an affliction which makes it so that every iteration of oneself exists simultaneously; in “News from the Sun,” the same time disease causes increasingly long fugues that eventually slow an individual’s existence down to a single point.

In a sense, all images are metaphors: they trigger sets of associations within us, often in ways that a writer cannot anticipate. J.G. Ballard is keenly aware of this; as particular as his work is, as much as it seems like a closed box with its own set of narrative rules, he doesn’t seek to unpack his own spiritual mechanics — he simply lays them out, trading in symbols like a Surrealist painter. In a 1984 interview with the Paris Review, Ballard cited the Surrealists not as inspiration, but corroboration: he explained, “the surrealists show how the world can be remade by the mind.”

1965 edition of Ballard’s The Drowned World, with an appropriately Surrealist cover: The Palace of Windowed Rocks, by Yves Tanguy.

As a consequence, it’s difficult to speak to the incredible power of his stories; they bypass the mind and kick directly to the subconscious. They are wildly sensuous and strange, lovingly detailing obsessed men with the loving detail of an obsessed man. In the words of symbolist painter Odilon Redon, they place the logic of the visible at the service of the invisible.

From that same genuinely enlightening interview with the Paris Review:

INTERVIEWER

Let’s start with obsession. You seem to have an obsessive way of repeatedly playing out permutations of a certain set of emblems and concerns. Things like the winding down of time, car crashes, birds and flying, drained swimming pools, airports, abandoned buildings, Ronald Reagan…

BALLARD

I think you’re completely right. I would say that I quite consciously rely on my obsessions in all my work, that I deliberately set up an obsessional frame of mind. In a paradoxical way, this leaves one free of the subject of the obsession. It’s like picking up an ashtray and staring so hard at it that one becomes obsessed by its contours, angles, texture, et cetera, and forgets that it is an ashtray—a glass dish for stubbing out cigarettes….Presumably all obsessions are extreme metaphors waiting to be born. That whole private mythology, in which I believe totally, is a collaboration between one’s conscious mind and those obsessions that, one by one, present themselves as stepping-stones.

I’ll go so far as to posit that Ballard is a science fiction writer only in the sense that his references overlap with recognizable emblems of the genre. He writes about astronauts, time, and the universe, but with an awareness that they are tropes manifested by the collective unconscious, rather than actual objects — what he does with those images is more Dalí than Delany. Digital tombs catacombed in sand, an abandoned Cape Kennedy thick with tropical birds which hang in the air like insects preserved in amber, drained swimming pools full of broken sunglasses, a woman’s silhouette fractured across bathroom tile, nude and Hockney-eqsue

I love Ballard’s idea of these obsessions as “extreme metaphors waiting to be born,” and I love that he sees the writer’s private vocabulary of symbols as the iceberg tip of their subconscious. Indeed, Ballard was one of a handful of science-fiction writers who argued that the future of fiction lies not outward, but inward. Keyed as we all are to our own obsessions, we’re all prone to reading Ballard differently. While the other New Wavers ported the psychosymbiotic mystery of the LSD experience into their tales of “inner space,” however, Ballard’s work isn’t druggy at all: rather, it has the time-signature of dreams. I, for one, see these subtropical lizard brain landscapes as portholes into the richness of a stranger’s liminal brain-space; I find it thrilling to imagine a man in suburban post-war Britain being driven by visions of sun-bleached concrete and the jeweled vicissitudes of time. At this point, it’s become what “science fiction” is all about to me: the iterative, and forever-magic, power of minds.

*“Ah, drained swimming pools! There’s a mystery I never want to penetrate—not that it’s of interest to anyone else. I’m never happier than when I can write about drained swimming pools and abandoned hotels.”

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Artistic Education: Hannes Bok

Hannes Bok’s last published work, a wraparound illustration of Roger Zelazny’s “A Rose for Ecclesiastes,” printed in the November 1963 issue of The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction.

Hannes Bok was a seminal figure in early science fiction culture and one of its great artists. An astrology nut and closeted homosexual in the already surreal milieu of early SF fandom, his work, championed by Ray Bradbury and fan icons like Forrest J. Ackerman, was minimal, sometimes almost Art Nouveau, characterized by austere pen and ink renderings of kitsch monsters, hybrid creatures, and elegant humans in angular turmoil. He was mentored in his early career by Maxfield Parrish and adopted from this elder the technique of layering his canvases with glaze, which lent his color pieces (often made for the cover of magazines like Weird Tales and Other Worlds) a hyper-saturated luminosity.

Bok was a card-carrying member of the Futurians, a legendary New York fan group that nurtured the careers of Isaac Asimov and Frederick Pohl, as well as being active in the primordial science fiction scene of Los Angeles in the late 1930s — in a compendium published posthumously, his best friend Emil Petaja recalls eating free lime sherbet at L.A.’s historic Clifton’s Cafeteria with Bradbury and other members of the then-elite of science fiction. File under: great minds and great desserts.

Hannes Bok died at 49 of a heart attack after a protracted period of withdrawal from the world; his lifelong obsessions with astrology, the occult, and the Finnish composer Jean Sibelius made him a pariah in his later years. Regardless, Bok remains a beloved icon of the genre’s early years, a true heretic of the acrylics.

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Science Fiction You Can Dance To

Step into the tractor beam, and never come back.

As some of you may know, when I’m not writing esoteric science fiction reviews, I’m a singer, writer, performer, and concept-maker for a band called YACHT. Occasionally, these wildly separate spheres of reality do have axes of intersection; now is one of those times.

I’ve made a continuous mix of music that journeys deep into the musical underbelly of science fiction. Yes, finally! Science fiction you can dance to! Download “Fly On, UFO” to travel to disco dystopias and far-flung cosmic boogies. Visit the hellish world Cerrone‘s “Supernature,” where scientists would do anything to feed the starving masses, including poison the world with chemicals that would create mutants down below. Sidle up next to miss Dee D. Jackson, who, looking at the erotic robot in her bed, polished chrome gleaming under white satin sheets, raises her perfectly glossed lip in a snarl, and utters: “Your body’s cold.” Raise your fist to the night sky with Chromium, who, seeing a UFO in the sky, beaming with promise, lights in primary colors like an 80s movie, are yelling “Come back later!”

And end your adventure with the impossibly weird folk burner, “In The Year 2525,” the musical equivalent of Olaf Stapledon’s Last and First Men, a future history that tells the tale of the next two billion years of time, touching on eighteen distinct versions of the human race, from regular flesh-and-blood people to birdlike creatures living on Neptune (Zager & Evans only go about ten thousand years into the future, but they hit some classic sci-fi themes on the way, like genetic engineering, mechanical automation, and test-tube babies).

DOWNLOAD: Fly On, UFO (111 MB, 48:29, via Boing Boing)

  • Tracklist:
  • Message from the Stars – Snob
  • Space Disco – Cosmic Hoffmann
  • Spacer – Sheila & B. Devotion
  • Supernature – Cerrone
  • Automatic Lover – Dee D. Jackson
  • Spacer Woman – Charlie
  • Beam Me Up (Jacques Renault Remix) – Midnight Magic
  • Tout Petit La Planete – Plastique Bertrand
  • I’m Ready – Kano
  • Future World – Ganymed
  • Fly On UFO – Chromium
  • In The Year 2525 – Zager & Evans

Big thanks to Boing Boing for featuring “Fly on, UFO!”

The new YACHT album (which comes out in less than a month on DFA RecordsSHANGRI-LA, is very much inspired by the discipline of science, or speculative fiction; the idea of “Shangri-La” or “Shambahla” gained traction in the West, like science fiction, in early pulp publishing; its Utopian aspiration strikes a similar chord.

After all, Utopia is science fiction, as is its inevitable inverse.

As a parting gift, I leave you with a sick, almost disgustingly slick vision of the future from Ganymed, an Austrian band whose gimmick was the nexus of proggy synth opuses, full-bore silver costumes, and cosmic pseudonyms. It’s no Philip K. Dick, but at least you can boogie down to it.

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Dawn

Dawn is the first book in Octavia E. Butler’s Xenogenesis trilogy, recently reissued as the infinitely-less-cool-sounding “Lilith’s Brood” series. It tells the story of Lillith, a woman who wakes up after a nuclear winter on Earth in an sealed room. She’s held there for almost two years, under constant interrogation from a maddeningly patient, incorporate voice. One day she discovers a shadowy figure in her cell — her captor. He tells her that the people holding her hostage aren’t Soviets, the CIA, or any other terrestrial entity. They’re aliens. He tells her that he’s come to free her, but only when she’s able to look at him without terror. He raises the lights: tentacles for a face.

Thus begins Lillith’s real ordeal, the struggle to assimilate with a race of impossibly alien aliens on a ship orbiting her own destroyed planet. The aliens, called Oankali, offer her a deal: they’ve restored the Earth to health, and they intend to send the surviving humans they’ve gathered back down to begin the race anew. In exchange, they demand access to the genepool. The Oankali are genetic traders, creatures who’ve evolved specialized organs to manipulate their own genes, but who (paradoxically) must interbreed with other species in order to assure the survival of their kind. The aliens, Lillith discovers, want to have sex with her.

“Your people will change. Your young will be more like us and ours more like you….We’re as committed to the trade as your body is to breathing. We were overdue for it when we found you. Now it will be done, to the rebirth of your people and mine.”

One of the most compelling things about Dawn is the way that it expresses the fundamental dread that alienness inspires in its human protagonists. The Oankali are ugly — covered in thousands of wormlike tentacles that serve as sensory organs — but it’s not their ugliness that Lillith and the other humans find repulsive. It’s their shocking difference. Upon first meeting an Oankali, humans panic, lose consciousness, and self-mutilate. They literally cannot bring themselves to move any closer to the aliens, or even look directly at them. The first time Lillith encounters her captor, he forces his presence on her for five days before, exhausted and psychically broken, she is finally able to touch him.

This realistic horror of the other is the crux of the conflict that Lillith and her human counterparts face in Dawn. They are given the opportunity to resurrect the human race, but only if future generations of humans hold Oankali genes. Can the humans cope with the idea of their children being only half-human? Is that a fair trade? Is it even the perpetuation of the human race, if the future includes tentacles for arms and advanced powers of genetic manipulation?

Many critics have read Butler’s tales of racial anxiety as post-colonial allegories about powerlessness and domination in a racist society, which is a totally valid interpretation since a) Butler is one of only a few black female science fiction writers, and b) many of her novels deal explicitly with slavery. Despite the obvious parallels in Dawn — Oankali as plantation owners, forcing nonconsensual interbreeding, denying the humans access to books and writing implements, emphasizing their genetic superiority — I think it’s somewhat reductive to read “humans” as “slaves” in Butler’s work. The value of science fiction is often sold to the mainstream as being primarily allegorical; the aliens are Russians, the astronauts are colonialists, the new planet is the continent of America, intergalactic trade is really just slavery, “how clever, this will fool the censors!” But the power of this kind of tit-for-tat symbolism died with the pulps, and Butler didn’t write space westerns — she wrote highly complex, nuanced, sexually-charged feminist think pieces with no clear resolution and no obvious bad guys. The aliens here aren’t evil, they just have a different evolutionary imperative.

If anything, the Oankali practice a kind of inverse racism that is particularly foreign to humanity: while the narrative of racism in the West stems from an emphasis on racial, biological, and genetic “purity,” the Oankali impose mutations, symbiosis, and cosmic miscegenation. There is nothing isolationist about the alien mentality; the Oankali procreate with humans by literally placing themselves between a man and a woman, interpreting and modifying the biological exchange. They’re in the scrum, not peering down at it from a pedestal of their own design.

Butler speaks, rather, to the instability of identity in the face of genetic manipulation. It’s a weighty exploration of biological determinism; if our genes define us, then who are we? We contain billions of them; how many need to change before we are no longer human? Lillith undergoes subtle biological changes as the result of her cooperation with the Oankali: increased strength, a change in chemical signature that allows her to operate parts of the ship, a greater resistance to cancer. These all contribute to a perception of her as a Judas goat, someone who has betrayed her humanity. And yet her essential identity remains, even when the aliens give her an eidetic memory. Her transformations cut her off from her own kind, and while she grows close to her alien keepers, she can never be quite like them, either. Lillith’s position is deeply liminal: she is human, biologically, though less than before, and soon to parent a generation born of intergalactic parentage.

In suit, Dawn is a meditation on the self, a novel that ponders the porous boundaries between skin and world, human and alien, person and nonperson, natural and technological. What we think of as our personhood is actually an emergent system of genes, microbes, and electrical impulses — and it’s the product of cultural interpretation, an ideological system for enforcing meaning from meat. Identity is not biology. The Oankali know this, and they push Lillith to understand herself as more than the sum of her genes, as a mutable instance that is adaptable to an intergalactic, rather than terrestrial, context.

Supplemental Materials:

Space Canon review of Octavia E. Butler’s Parable of the Sower

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