Glorious failures in science: a sinister year in review

fig. 1. “There must be a sinister explanation…” Illustration by the great Frank Hampson. From Dan Dare, ‘The Man from Nowhere’, May 1955.

I started this blog back in 2020 at the height of the first lockdowns and waves of COVID washing over our lives. The intention then, as it still is, appeared relatively simple: “writing on critical theory and science fiction”. My twist on critical theory is that which I’ve largely inherited from the Situationist International (SI)—both my long relationship with their works as well as my attempts to understand their version of revolutionary theory and practice. Whereas my twist on science fiction (SF) comes from an even longer relationship that dates back into the mists of my childhood.

In part, SF and the SI meet in their somewhat shared and entailed historical context. However, the shared context of SF and the SI is perhaps the least interesting aspect of their confluence—or at least, is less interesting than what can be gained from bringing the critical insights of the SI to bear upon SF. The peculiar trajectory of written Anglo-American SF takes it from Hugo Gernsback ‘scientifiction’ in 1926, through the Second World War and beyond, to become one of the key landmarks of pop culture in the 1960s and after. In the process of this rapid, half century of development, SF moved from its relatively niche existence to global cultural phenomenon. It is my belief that SF came to play an important role in the explosion of the global culture industry in the wake of the Second World War, paradoxically as both sometime critic of this ‘explosion’, and as an awkward exemplar of the burgeoning spectacle of commodity culture. Indeed, SF’s initial existence as almost solely a phenomenon made in and exported from the United States goes some of the way to explaining its later success as one aspect of the global hegemony of the US in the wake of the 1940s. However, I am less interested in the national or even international peculiarities of Anglo-American SF than I am in its singular existence as both overture and swan song to the dream of a technological utopia fostered in the Second World War and largely in ruin a short thirty years later.

Over the course of 2022, views of and visitors to my blog have more than doubled. Unfortunately, much like 2021, health problems once again intervened to undermine my ability to post more regularly. This year I am keen to work toward the gold standard of one post per week. Let’s see how that pans out.

You may ask—ask! ask!—what is the sinister science? Back in September 2020 I wrote of the sinister science as something akin to what the situationists proposed in their imaginary city beyond the capitalist one, or the surrealists in their dreamt of marvellous chateaus of no clear utilitarian purpose. Perhaps slightly more clearly—or more confusedly, depending on your taste—I wrote that,

the sinister science is closer to Hegel’s negative dialectic and Marx’s redeployment of this under the aegis of his ‘materialist conception of history’.

It occurs to me today that Karl Marx provided the best definition of the sinister science early in his anti-career, when he spoke of a ‘science to come’—a science that would, by turns, reconcile the unfortunate split between the so-called natural and human sciences.[1] The sinister science aspires to be this, or at the very least a tributary or pointer to this science to come. Which is not to say that the blog called the sinister science is this science, only that it dares to name itself after such. And just to be clear, the latter is not to be confused with Alfred Jarry’s pataphysics, no matter how much I would welcome such confusion (at least some of the time).

My top five posts are a good indicator of what’s on offer here. They run the gamut from posts more concerned with the SI through to posts more concerned with SF. Except for the first one below, they are more likely to be somewhat impure, i.e., a mix of SF and the SI.

Here are my top 5 posts for 2022:

1. Surrealism: an irrational revolution (2 July 2021)

The top post two years in a row, though the only one of the top five that was not published in 2022. Last year I wrote that the popularity of Surrealism: an irrational revolution was ‘due to the fact that a “new” old work of Guy Debord’s has a potential audience much bigger than my own peculiar take on SF’. No doubt this remains true. It constitutes an excellent introduction to the surrealist revolution that emerged in Europe in the 1920s—an irrational revolution moreover that was highly influential upon Debord and the situationists, amongst others.

2. J. G. Ballard—Manhole 69 & The Concentration City (16 January 2022)

Ballard is a particularly rich vein to be explored regarding the possibility of a situationist influence, though it is more likely he was influenced by the surrealists than the situs. Nonetheless, there is a remarkable congruence, particularly regarding the shared interest in the profound effects of urban alienation. Ballard is certainly less concerned with the amelioration of such, and tends to naturalise the effects of alienation, insofar as he sees the city as the expression of deeper, more subterranean forces than those of the relatively recent arrival of capitalism. Still, more than many of his contemporary SF confreres Ballard captures the enervating effect of modern city life, and its technological avatars. This is on show in these two early pieces, ‘Manhole 69’ and ‘The Concentration City’, both from 1957—which is also the year the SI was founded.

3. What comes after SF (25 February 2022)

My personal fave of the year. Here I attack what is, to me at least, the strange problem of the absence of something like science fiction in most SF stories. More pointedly, I investigate the genre’s avant-garde chops, considering that in its initial conceptualisation by Hugo Gernsback, SF was presented as a proselytising vision of the coming technological future, whose purpose—chiefly educational, though cunningly disguised as entertainment—would be fulfilled once this future arrived. If SF is realised—as it were—then what comes after?

4. Internationale Situationniste number 7, April 1962 (8 April 2022)

A pivotal issue of the situationist journal. When they turned toward realising a project whose clearest result would come some 6 years later, among the biggest wildcat general strike in recorded history. I wrote my PhD thesis in order to better understand the nature of the pivot, of which this issue was one of the more obvious results. Another result, the Hamburg Theses, also haunts the pages of number 7…

5. Robert Silverberg Downward to the Earth (8 February 2022)

I have discovered over the last year or so that I truly love much of Silverberg’s oeuvre. Which is not to say there are no problems—the fate of women in his many representations being one of the obvious ones. Renowned in SF circles as initially more machine than man when it came to composing works, Silverberg entered his own golden age in the 1960s. More intriguingly he was burnt out by the mid-1970s, and even gave up writing SF for some years. Indeed, scattered amongst his many introductions to short stories from this period are some illuminating thoughts upon the nature of the genre and the impasse it reached in the early 1970s, on the back of such conflicting forces as New Wave experimentation and commercial success. ‘Downward to Earth’ is a product of Silverberg’s golden age, a striking novel that deals with the inhuman dimensions of the human. Highly recommended.

So that’s the top 5.

Who knows what heights this year will bring?


[1] Karl Marx, ‘Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844,’ in Karl Marx & Frederich Engels Collected Works Vol. 3, Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1975, p. 304.

To bootstrap the stars— Walter M. Miller & Poul Anderson

fig. 1. Captain Rovic on the deck of the Golden Leaper. Cover illustration by John Schoenherr, Analog, December 1960.

To bootstrap the stars— Walter M. Miller jr’s ‘The Big Hunger’ and Poul Anderson’s ‘The Longest Voyage’

One of the more persistent tropes of SF, inherited from its ‘golden’ heyday, is what we might call ‘bootstrapping’. To ‘bootstrap’ is to do something without any help or assistance. In the case of SF, the ability of humans to ‘bootstrap’ their way from animal origins to the stars is often held out as a prime human quality. At the very least, if not peculiarly human, such an ability is nonetheless contrasted with those poor alien species who are gifted the space drive or what have you, and are, consequently, lesser for having been patronised thus.

Under the stewardship of that renowned bigot, John W. Campbell jr, such fables took on a quasi-religious form, disguised under the ludicrous misnomer of ‘hard’ science fiction. Nonetheless, it would be too much to simply damn all such stories, whether produced under Campbell’s direction or not. In that spirit, I will briefly examine a story by Walter M. Miller jr, and a story by Poul Anderson, both of which appeared in that magazine with two names.

Without doubt, both stories appealed in part to some of Campbell’s prejudices, but such flaws by no means exhaust their content or worth. I am not, however, arguing that we should judge these works by the sins of the father, nor his virtues either for that matter. Which is not to say that I subscribe to the dubious thought of the postmoderns who recommend extricating a work from the time and space of its production all the better to judge it by way of the space time of its consumption. No.

Poul Anderson—‘The Longest Voyage’ (1960)

Though both stories have their pains and pleasures, the later published story is the least interesting of the two. Still, Poul Anderson’s ‘The Longest Voyage’ (1960) is a cracking tale. He effectively conjures a world not unlike the Earth’s early 16th century, except in this case the people are descendants of human exile, millennia past and largely forgotten and mythologized. The story is told from the perspective of a young ship’s officer, Zhean, onboard this world’s equivalent of Ferdinand Magellan’s circumnavigation, embarked from a land not unlike Europe at the dawn of the epochs of science and colonial conquest. The ship’s captain, Rovic, complete with red beard, seems more akin to Sir Francis Drake than Magellan, just as the former’s ship, The Golden Hind, is reborn here as the Golden Leaper.  The bulk of the tale involves the sailors of the latter ship encountering a primitive people, whose story of a fallen ‘Sky God’ proves to be more than a mere legend.

There is little subtlety in Anderson’s analogues. The ‘Montalirian’ sailors are effectively stand-ins for Portuguese, Spaniards and/or English, right down to their corselets, caravels and grapeshot (the kilts are a nice, if familiar touch on Anderson’s part). The ‘primitives’ they encounter, the ‘Hisagazi’, are a curious admixture of Polynesians, pre-modern Japanese, and the people of the Kingdom of Butuan (the latter encountered by Magellan in what are now the Philippines). However, what is most remarkable about Anderson’s amalgamates is that despite the minor differences in detail, this alien world inhabited by humans nonetheless proves to be an exact analogue of Earth’s early 16th century. Indeed, one may even conclude that Anderson replicates an historical trope often erroneously attributed to Karl Marx: that there are iron laws of history that must be expressed, no matter the differing initial conditions.

The most apparently alien, and indeed science fictional aspects of this tale lie in the planetary setting. Though set on an Earth-like planet, the heavens above are somewhat different. The world is one of several satellites of a gas giant that the Montalirians call ‘Tambur’. Indeed, their world is tidally locked to its primary, a fictional fact that plays a minor if vital role in the narrative.

However, most alien of all is the encounter between the Montalirians and the Hisagazi. Despite their roles, conveniently borrowed from Earth’s history, Anderson has lifted the burden of bigotry and assumed superiority from his quasi-Europeans. Unlike Magellan’s sometime bloody Christian proselytising, Anderson’s Montalirians act only with honour and ultimately in defence of the entirety of the human species on the planet. Indeed, Rovic unveils his motivation most clearly at the end of the tale, in what amounts to a plea for the right to bootstrap against any pesky interference from technologically advanced utopians. And even though this right is asserted along with Rovic’s use of superior technology against the Hisagazi, the comparison and thus hypocrisy of his pontificating is never drawn out. One is left wondering why Anderson, even though closely hewing to some of the details of Earth’s history circa the early 16th century, chose to in effect whitewash the inconvenient bits from the miserable story of Europe’s ‘discovery’ of the world. This is perhaps all the more strange considering that Anderson was far from being simply an apologist for European superiority, and was even capable of a more sensitive portrayal of non-Europeans (consider, for instance, his Maurai stories). Still, the scene in which Rovic and his sailors destroy the rocket of the ‘Sky God’ from Earth—no less—could perhaps be interpreted as a sly dig at Campbell, in which the human right to bootstrap is asserted against the original bootstrappers!

fig. 2. The ‘space-spider’ weaves its web. Illustration by Pawelka in Astounding, October 1952.

Walter M. Miller jr—‘The Big Hunger’ (1952)

Though it shares some thematic similarities with the Anderson piece, Walter M. Miller jnr.’s ‘The Big Hunger’ (1952) is a substantially different beast. Miller’s story regale’s the reader in its short length with the tale of humanity’s ‘big hunger’ for the stars, which drives it on to spread throughout the entire Milky Way. Yet his tale is more prose poem that short story. It is told from the unique perspective of the ‘eternal’ rocket—‘my principle lies beyond particular flesh’—the ‘space-spider’ that weaves its web throughout the galaxy at the behest of the humans.

By evoking the depths of a future in which individuals come and go, mere character masks of the greater story of the species, Miller’s tale bears comparison to Olaf Stapledon’s Last and First Men and Star Maker. However, unlike Stapledon’s chilly prose that often borders upon omniscient indifference, Miller’s epic is more lyrical in expression, ably evoking the fleshy desire that drives the humans on, even as he reveals the emptiness that resides at the heart of this discontent.  Indeed, it is this ability to both hail and call into question this ‘eternal thirst’ of the humans that marks his tale out from Anderson’s. Whereas the latter poses that to divert or impede the drive can only be a misfortune—one that would rob the human of the very essence of their humanity—Miller is more equivocal, evoking the bitter costs of this drive: the destruction and even ‘genocide’ rained down in the name of human desire. Caught between praise and damnation, Miller achieves an elegiac quality largely absent from Anderson’s tale.

Miller’s story has both that curious quality that Stapledon’s epics have. It is as if we are reading an actual fable from tomorrow, not just a projection of our present anxieties into the future. And despite Miller’s ambivalence about the use or virtue of human exceptionalism and expansion, his story is the more human of the two, even as Anderson’s is the more conventionally appealing narrative. The latter tells a story of the past in a science fictional setting, whereas Miller attempts to fashion a melancholic song of events yet to come. His story opens upon both the possibility and impossibility of the future described, rather than merely pinching off a tale from a tale we already know, and dressing it up with some science fictional curtains.

Henri Lefebvre once defined science fiction as that “which explores what is possible by using myths from the past.”[1]  In doing so he was arguing more than what has become something of a platitude: that SF is merely about the present in which it is written. More pointedly, by Lefebvre’s lights, is that SF is about possibility immanent in the present moment. And so, such projections are an ambivalent thing. They appear as both plans for realisation and frustration. In part, Lefebvre derives this view from Hegel and Marx; and in part he derives it from a reading of contemporary science fiction (for instance, the oft mentioned Clifford Simak novel City had an outsized influence on Lefebvre’s rallying to what the situationists would later propose as their minimum program: “never work!”). At stake is a grander claim. SF is a bastard child of the bourgeois epoch, at once heir to the utopianism and science of the rising bourgeoisie, as much as product of the antagonisms that drove the latter to commercial and political supremacy.

I will return to this in future posts.


[1] Henri Lefebvre, Critique of Everyday Life, Volume II: Foundations for a Sociology of the Everyday, trans. John Moore, London: Verso, [1961] 2002, p. 333.

Testament of Andros—James Blish

fig.1. The cover of Future Science Fiction, January 1953, edited by Robert W. Lowndes. Cover illustration by Milton Luros, “symbolizing the distortions of ‘Testament of Andros’ ” (page 4).

Testament of Andros (1953) James Blish

‘Testament of Andros’ is a remarkable early example of SF that is self-consciously modernist. It joins works like Kornbluth’s ‘The Last Man Left in the Bar’ (1957) as an example of a formally “experimental” literature predating and pointing the way to the 1960s New Wave in SF.

Like many works of modernist fiction, the form of the story is, perhaps, the most important aspect of its content.

The explicit, science fictional content—an impending disaster that involves the sun and its impact upon Earth—is told in a succession of numbered parts. Following on the experimental discovery of the “disturbed sun” in the first part, the following sections make up so many fragmented testaments of an apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic world that results from a solar disaster.

Or do they?

Blish anchors the story with a final reveal that calls into question the previous accounts—a reveal that is, nonetheless, appropriately ambiguous.

Joachim Boaz of Suspect Ruminations writes that “an organizing principle [for the story] is suggested by the ending”, such that the final testament but one (#5) could be read to say that the entire tale constitutes the delusions of T. V. Andros, criminal, rapist, and reader of “those magazines that tell about going to other planets and stuff like that” (p. 83). This certainly helps to explain the way such diverse testaments like those of “Andrew” (#2) and “Admiral Universe” (#4) relate to each other—the latter of which is a wonderful pastiche of SF pulps. Joachim further speculates that perhaps the first “four visions are fragments of what [Andros] read as a child […] manifest[ing] themselves after psychiatric treatment”.

But then, in the final paragraph of his testament, does Andros write himself into his own fantasy while sitting in prison, or is the world rather on the verge of destruction by errant solar flares?

“Outside the cell the sun is bigger […] there is something wrong with the air. […] Maybe something is going to happen.” (p. 84)

The divide between reality and fiction is finally dispensed with. Was it even there in the first place?

Unfortunately, immediately after the chilling conclusion to Andros’ testament, Blish provides a superfluous final testament. Superfluous in the sense that it seems to me that the author is tacking on a science fictional twist to try and make his story less threatening to the average 1950s SF nerd:

It was Man all along!

Or maybe I am being too ungenerous. The final fragmentary testament (#6)—Man’s Testament as it were—really doesn’t detract from the overall effect of the piece. And despite this, Blish rescues his story from a dread twist by going full ouroboros. And so, the narrative devours itself, the first and last lines making a neat couplet:

Beside the dying fire lie the ashes. There are voices in them. Listen: […]
Here the ashes blow away. The voices die. [pp. 70, 84]

Could this be the final testament? The final, inescapable, absurd twist?

The total effect of ‘Testament of Andros’ is to undermine the sense of a coherent and reliable narrative, even at its most “realist”. Not only is the testament of T. V. Andros (#5) itself ultimately called into question, the “realism” of other parts of the story is also attacked from within—and not just by way of the possibility that they are aspects of a deluded imagination. Thus, the first numbered part of the story, the somewhat “realist” testament of Dr. Andresson’s, is also seeded with striking touches of surrealism.  For instance, Andresson’s ageless wife, Marguerita, who reappears in the later parts of the story under different guises: Margo, Margaret, St Margaret, Margy II, the Margies, Maggy. The role of this spectral woman bears comparison to the surrealists’ somewhat questionable evocation of woman as dreamlike muse. It is, for all that, one of the most effective moments of the modernist styles on display here.

In part, Blish also anticipates Ballard’s metamorphic Travis/Traven/etc—in ‘The Terminal Beach’ (1964) and The Atrocity Exhibition (1966-1970)—deploying the trope of anti-realist, fantastic repetition borrowed from the modernist avant-gardes of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. A more apt comparison, perhaps, would be with contemporaries like Jorge Louis Borges, or the writers of the French Nouveau roman, then most of his SF contemporaries. Which is not to say that Blish is alone in the SF ghettoes of the 1950s. Philip K. Dick, Damon Knight, C. M. Kornbluth, Judith Merril, Walter M. Miller, Robert Sheckley, and William Tenn, among others, were also experimenting with form and content. But such experimentation made up a small and marginal part of what passed for SF at the time.

Highly recommended for fans of literary modernism in SF.

Note that all references to section and page numbers refers to the version of the story as it appears in Future Science Fiction, January 1953. It can be found online here and here.

And thanks to Joachim for bringing yet another story to my attention.

fig. 2. Robert W. Lowndes perceptive, if somewhat defensive comments, accompanying ‘Testament of Andros’ in its appearance in Future Science Fiction, January 1953, p. 71.

They say it’s your birthday

fig. 1. From ‘The Birth of Death’ (1974) by Jim Starlin.

When we are born, we cry that we are come to this great stage of fools—Shakespeare

Why do we wish people a ‘happy’ birthday? Is it because our births were anything but happy? Would it be better, or at least more accurate, to offer commiserations for the trauma of birth and arrival in the world?

Such thoughts came quickly upon my birthday this year. The day was not a particularly good one for a variety of reasons. Reading a ‘happy birthday’ message from a family member set me to wondering. Perhaps one’s birthday should be a time of melancholy, not happiness.

For the freshly born, birth is dislocation and terror, a primary exercise in separation and solitude, suddenly immersed in the din of extra-uterine life. An awkward awakening.

Is it significant that we mostly have no memory of this occasion? If we remembered this day clearly, would we be so quick to hail it a good one? Must we remain unconscious of the terror of our birth the better to emerge fully into life unencumbered by this memory?

Whatever the case, the first birthday[1] seems far from a happy one.

Our first lesson is the foundation of a lifelong pedagogy. We learn to cry and draw meaning from the tears. From then on, each and every sob is a mourning for this dawn of loss and exile.

Celebrating the gift of life is a later story, propaganda for and by the living long past the time or possible memory of their arrival.

In Oedipus at Colonus, Sophocles wrote of how it is best of all not to be born, and that the next best thing is to die quickly. I am not sure when I first came upon these lines, but I do recall the way these words initially unsettled me. As a child, then as a maudlin adolescent too full of thoughts of death and dying, I was rattled by the thought that anyone could wish not to be born, let alone yearn for a quick death.

Sophocles possible source was an older Greek poet called Theognis of Megara:

Best of all for mortal beings is never to have been born at all
Nor ever to have set eyes on the bright light of the sun
But, since he is born, a man should make utmost haste through the gates of Death
And then repose, the earth piled into a mound round himself.

Theognis himself may have been citing or paraphrasing an even older saying.[3] Certainly, the tragedy of life and the living was hardly the invention of the tragedians, snaking back through the written word and speech to the first dim spark of reflection and realisation. Before Gilgamesh mourned Enkidu, what obliterated progenitors called to mind the nothingness that precedes and undergirds this life? Is it this dream of oblivion that marks out the human—the first thought, the birth of abstraction, the idea of death?

Death always happens now, not later. As Hegel averred: the moment of our birth is the moment of our death—two points of a single line. It will come upon us, and we will have no choice in the matter. This will be our death, the inescapable instant. And yet this will not be an experience so much as the end of experience, as Maurice Blanchot argued.

Perhaps it is this that we should wish happiness for—the approaching end. Each birthday a countdown to the inevitable, the impossible. The return of blessed nonexistence.

“And with strange aeons even death may die.”

Happy Deathday everybody!


[1] Here I cannot help but agree with the old Korean custom of counting the day of birth as the first birthday, rather than birthday zero—as it is effectively counted in the rest of the world.

[2] Theognis 425–8. For this translation, see Wikipedia entry on Theognis, linked above.

[3] Robert Fagles in Sophocles, The Three Theban Plays, Penguin Books, 1984, p. 273.

Robert Silverberg’s ‘The Artifact Business’

This is an experiment of sorts in the essay form disguised as a book review…

Was there a time when there was no reality? When the thought of the real and the not real was not even a thought? Is reality an industry and what’s more an industry now fallen into ruin? If there was before the real, then necessarily there must be after the real. But then, and if so, was reality ever real?

In the literary scheme of things, Robert Silverberg’s ‘The Artifact Business’ (1957) is a minor work—in Silverberg’s oeuvre as much as SF more generally. And yet its central conceit continues to haunt me. Be warned, there are spoilers aplenty in what follows.

fig. 1. All page references to ‘The Artifact Business’ (1957) refer to the copy I read in Silverberg’s 1986 short story collection, Sunrise on Mercury.

On Voltus, one of presumably many planets in Earth’s far-flung empire, the Company outsources its exploitation of the local indigenous culture to impoverished human archaeologists. These archaeologists, keen to raise money to move on or return to Earth, hire locals to guide them to the buried remnants of ‘one of the most fertile creative civilisations of them all, the Old Voltuscians’ (116). All of this digging goes to satisfy the growing demand on Earth for ‘trinkets and bits of frippery to adorn rich men’s homes and wives’ (113). For we discover that archaeology, now in abeyance on the home planet, has enjoyed a ‘revival’ off-world, though purely as a source for commercial exploitation.

The protagonist, Jarrell, is a human archaeologist who has never seen the Earth he dreams of visiting. Hoping to finally raise the money for this long dreamt of trip by way of his contracted exploitation of the local Voltuscians, he stumbles upon the truth of their ancient culture. It’s a fake:

Unable to market work that was labeled as their own, the Voltuscians had obligingly shifted to the manufacture of antiquities, since their ancestors had been thoughtless enough not to leave them anything more marketable than crude clay pots. Creating a self-consistent ancient history that would appeal to the imaginations of Earthmen was difficult, but they rose to the challenge and developed one to rank with those of Egypt and Babylonia and the other fabled cultures of Earth. After that, it was a simple matter of designing and executing the artifacts.

Then they were buried in the appropriate strata. This was a difficult feat, but the Voltuscians managed it with ease, restoring the disrupted strata afterwards with the same skill for detail as they employed in creating the artifacts. The pasture thus readied, they led the herd to feast. (120)

Once the fakery is revealed, the Company up stakes for richer fields, leaving not only Voltus behind but also the impoverished archaeologists. The locals come up with a plan to both save the archaeologists and their now ruined local economy:

This morning […] one of the aliens came to me with an idea. It’s a good one. Briefly, he suggested that, as expert archaeologists, we teach the Voltuscians how to manufacture Terran artifacts. There’s no more market for anything from Voltus—but why not continue to take advantage of the skills of the Voltuscians as long as the market’s open for things of Earth? We could smuggle the artifacts to Earth, plant them, have them dug up again and sold there—and we’d make the entire profit, not just the miserable fee the Company allows us! (123)

The ‘happy’ conclusion to this story is perhaps its least satisfying aspect. And yet it is full of suggestive ideas. Not to mention a twist, of sorts, that I will return to, below.

fig. 2. Stumbling upon the artifact business… Image taken from Hergé, The Broken Ear (1947).


The central theme of this story—what’s real and what’s a fake—never ceases to fascinate me. The SF of the 1950s were awash with such stories. Philip K. Dick is certainly remembered as the most singularly obsessed author of such, but he was by no means the only one, though the Dickian take on the limits of the real was profoundly influential on other writers—like Silverberg.

In part this concern reflects certain changes that were underway in the wake of the Second World War. For instance, the US and other so-called ‘advanced’ capitalist countries experienced a vast multiplication of mass-produced fakery—the media landscape of cinema, radio, TV, & etc. Not to mention the rising anxiety around questions of class, sexual, and racial identity in such a rapidly industrialising, ‘decolonising’ and globalising world. Additionally, this was also a deeply paranoid period in US history. Through the course of the anti-communist witch hunts launched by Senator Joseph McCarthy, among others, the idea of the communist being a fake American gained a certain purchase and notoriety in the US imaginary. SF books and films like Heinlein’s The Puppet Masters and Invasion of the Body Snatchers riffed on this theme, variously for and against McCarthy’s delusions.

However, to my mind the contemporaneous cultural work that taps deepest into the anxieties around the nature of identity and of the real and the fake is Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958). In this wonderfully bizarre film Scottie, played by James Stewart, is obsessed by the enigmatic Madelaine, played by Kim Novak. Madelaine is, by turns, real, fake, and really faked (in the latter sense that Scottie attempts to re-craft Judy into the role of Madelaine that she has, initially unbeknownst to him, already played). No other work from that time, except maybe Philip K. Dick’s superlative short story, ‘Second Variety’ or Frederick Pohl’s ‘The Tunnel Under the World’, conjures the literal vertigo one experiences on the precipice of the real and its avatars.

In Vertigo, Hitchcock reveals both the confusion of dream and reality in everyday life, and so simultaneously its creative majesty and poverty. Scottie’s dream of Madelaine is by turns cosmic, expressed in the recurring motif of the spiral, and mundane insofar as Madelaine/Judy as much as Scottie himself are revealed as bit players confronting their insignificance—whether one considers this in existential terms or the more pedestrian fact that they are so many cogs in the machinery of the capitalist city. Scottie’s fantasy of Madelaine is not only a fruitless attempt to escape his reality, but a monstrous plan to refashion another human being, Judy, that culminates in the latter’s death—the ultimate result of Scottie’s confusion of dream and reality.

What Vertigo and Silverberg’s ‘The Artifact Business’ share, is the way the fakery under discussion is bracketed from the larger, more encompassing fakery of everyday life. In Vertigo we are suffocated by Scottie’s neurotic fantasy, Hitchcock ably drawing the viewer down into the former’s awful vortex of delusion and despair. However, there is a sense that the rest of ‘reality’ is unaffected and continues despite Scottie’s private state and his appalling treatment of Judy/Madelaine. Similarly, in ‘The Artifact Business’, the fakery is represented as an accidental thing, or rather a ‘market opportunity’ seized upon by the indigenes of Voltus. However, the more terrifying conclusion we could make is that in both cases the fakery and delusions are merely local instances of a more far-reaching problematic. Indeed, this truth is the barely concealed reality of Vertigo, in which James Stewart’s American everyman is revealed as a bundle of neuroses held together by the rituals of ‘normality’.

In ‘The Artifact Business’, the Voltuscians hide the mundane reality of their own past (‘their ancestors had been thoughtless enough not to leave them anything more marketable than crude clay pots’) by inventing a history that the decadent humans would recognise as real. Is Silverberg here mordantly pricking the assumptions of European colonialists and imperialists who too often only saw an absence of significance in the rich cultures of the indigenes that they displaced and destroyed? Today, perhaps one of the most distressing aspects of the recognition that has finally been achieved by some indigenous cultures, after centuries of dispossession and appalling treatment in the name of the colonising logic of capitalism, is the way such ‘recognition’ seems to be dependent, in part, upon the wholesale commodification of what remains. What disease and murder were unable to achieve comes by way of the reductive process of commodification. Culture destroyed and rendered harmless in the aspic of art galleries and shopping precincts. In effect, culture rendered ‘fake’, insofar as what was once indistinguishable from the lifeways of a people now survives as so many commodities and ‘experiences’ for sale.

That human culture is, in large part, a fake, has entered the realm of cliché and platitude. What many are less able to discern, however, is the vague boundary between the ‘real’ and the ‘fake’. Even that doyen of postmodern fakery, Jean Baudrillard, believed there was a time when the dividing line was clear, or at least less fuzzy. Only ‘now’, in the latter half of the Twentieth Century had the fake—what Baudrillard sometimes called ‘hyperreality’—come to supplant a real that perhaps had never really been real in any case.

There is, however, a more satisfying solution to Baudrillard’s proposition that today the fakery hides the strange fact that there is no real. It is true that human culture is fake in the sense that through myth, religion and story, we have manifested that whose ‘referent’ or ‘signified’ cannot be found anywhere—at least in this part of the cosmos. However, a better conceptualisation of this fakery, is the idea of the real fake—a necessary and superior complement to the fake real.

Such fakeries and fictions as class, gender, race and nation rule our individual and collective imaginaries. Nonetheless, what is most fascinating about such ‘fakes’, is not their explicit content but rather that they are in truth human creations—no more or less ‘natural’ than any other product of human ingenuity and despair. Where they fail is precisely the extent that those that promulgate and defend such fakeries such as race and nation imagine them absolutely ‘real’ and even ‘natural’ givens. But equally we are mistaken to conceive of them as solely imaginary or fake. Apart from the obvious miseries they herald as moments of everyday practice (for instance the terrible results of racism and nationalism), as ultimately human creations they implicitly raise the question of their replacement by other, less odious forms of human poetry and praxis. Even the worst of the real fakes of global capitalism are in truth human creations, negative images of what we could make out of everyday life beyond the domination of the myths of the market and the much-purported necessity of generalised fungibility.

Baudrillard’s hyperreality is Guy Debord’s spectacle without any escape. I prefer Debord’s description of the modern commodity spectacle as the reign of ‘unlimited artificiality’, to Baudrillard’s derivative, and pessimistic take. The problem, in Debord’s reckoning, is not the ‘artificiality’ so much as the terrible truth of its seeming ‘unlimited’ extent. Despite the patent victories of capital, whose emerging monument is the unlimited fabrication of global climate disaster, the struggle continues—not to disinter a ‘reality’ hidden behind the fakery so much as a world in which we could truly elaborate on the real in ways hitherto only dreamed of.

Here, is the real lesson of ‘The Artifact Business’—if such a lesson was either intended or desired. Even though Silverberg implicitly raises the question of the fakery bound up with cultural production, his story never rises above its presentation. It is just a gag, ‘and why not?’, you may wonder, considering it is just pulp SF. However, the story’s dénouement holds a twist that perhaps its author barely suspected. In the final paragraph the narrator ruminates on the real and the fake. He declares that he is ‘thinking of writing a book of Voltuscian artifacts—the real ones’ (125), even as he muses upon helping the self-same Volutscians sell faked ancient Earth artifacts to the gullible Terrans. Perhaps we can find here an intimation of Jean Baudrillard’s notions. But I prefer to identify it as a crude intuition of my sketchy concept of the real fake—that human culture is, by turns, a tissue of lies and truths rather than simple one or the other.

fig. 3. ‘The Artifact Business’ first appeared in Fantastic Universe Science Fiction, April 1957

Shamass? What!

Meanwhile, just when you thought you’d never hear of Dr. Shamass again…

works & days

fig. 1. Could this be Shamass?

It occurs to me that I haven’t updated all of the loyal Shamassians who, for whatever reasons, have failed to receive the last few Shamass cards (new series). Yeah, that’s right folks, there is a NEW SERIES of Shamass cards circulating in the Shamassoverse!

The good news is that they actually exist. The bad… well, there is no bad news in the Shamassoverse, even when there is.

Some of you will be pleased to know that Shamass has moved to the postcard format–see below–having reached the limits of the folded card and christmas cheer. And some of you, no doubt, will be displeased, whether by this or something else.

You will, however, be most pleased to know that the latest series is a direct sequel to that sometimes puzzling, always entertaining Shamass TV episode we unearthed some years back.

It could be that…

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Olaf Stapledon, Star Maker & ‘The dread but vital whole of things’

fig. 1. Photograph of William Olaf Stapledon

Recently I’ve been rereading Olaf Stapledon’s Star Maker. I last read it in the late 1990s, not long after reading Stapledon’s Last and First Men. The grand scale of the latter is restaged in Star Maker, but on an even grander scale: this time the story of the entire cosmos across time and space rather than the mere 2-billion-year future history of homo sapiens and its various descendants.

However, this time around I was immediately struck upon reading Stapledon’s preface to Star Marker. In the late 1990s the preface seemed somewhat anachronistic, lost to me in its historical specificity. Today, we have unfortunately caught up with Stapledon’s concerns, as the passage of time brings us once again to the verge of a crisis not unlike that faced by Europeans and the wider world in the nineteen thirties.

Dated 1937, Stapledon wonders if Star Maker, and its apparent disengagement with its temporal and social context, is in truth “a distraction from the desperately urgent defence of civilisation against modern barbarism.” He goes on to contrast his perspective with those writers and intellectuals who were more obviously engaged in a partisan struggle with fascist barbarism, in particular, and capitalism, more generally. One cannot help but think of the Spanish Civil War that was then raging—even though Stapledon does not mention it.

Stapledon declares, for himself and others like him: “though we are inactive or ineffective as direct supporters of the cause, we do not ignore it.” Indeed, the threat of barbarism seems every present in his work in the 1930s. The first third of Star Marker is taken up by the spectral narrator’s visit to numerous far-flung worlds of barely human “men”, whose civilisations also stand at the crux of barbarism and those that would oppose it. However, he further poses in the preface that perhaps something is lost to those who are too immersed in the struggle, as if the future that they fight for recedes beyond their grasp precisely because of their focus upon the battles and brutalities of the present:

Those who are in the thick of the struggle inevitably tend to become, though in a great and just cause, partisan. They nobly forgo something of that detachment, that power of cold assessment, which is, after all, among the most valuable human capacities. In their case this is perhaps as it should be; for a desperate struggle demands less of detachment than of devotion. But some who have the cause at heart must serve by striving to maintain, along with human loyalty, a more dispassionate spirit. And perhaps the attempt to see our turbulent world against a background of stars may, after all, increase, not lessen the significance of the present human crisis. It may also strengthen our charity toward one another.

It may seem common sensical to pose, like Stapledon, that to be engaged and to be dispassionate can at best be complementary and at worst opposed. Thus, he can both laud those partisans driven by the demands of the “desperate struggle” against fascism, and equally his own somewhat more detached position. However, something else is in operation here that may not be immediately obvious unless we cast an eye over the historical context of Stapledon’s words. As I mentioned above, Stapledon never mentions the Spanish Civil War, even though he wrote his preface amidst the first year of this conflict.

The Spanish Civil War was by no means a simple or straightforward conflict. Today, most commentators accept that Hitler and Mussolini used it as a training group for the world war they were even then preparing. Lesser known is the story of the radical proletarian revolution that erupted at its origin in July 1936. Even less well known is that this revolution was not only ultimately defeated by the victory of General Franco and his Nationalist army in 1939, but rather had already been crushed by erstwhile allies and comrades as early as 1937. Operating under the orders of Stalin and with the connivance of the broad left Spanish Republican government, member of the Stalinist Socialist Party, alongside of Russian NKVD agents, hunted down, tortured, and murdered all those communists and anarchists who refused to bend to their leadership.

This is not the place to enter into the minutiae of the Spanish Revolution, and the counter revolution led by Stalinists. Some good places to start, but definitely not end, can be found in George Orwell’s first-hand account, Homage to Catalonia, Ken Loach’s 1995 film, Land and Freedom, and Vicente Aranda’s 1996 film, Libertarias.

Stapledon’s was what was known as a “fellow traveller” of the so-called communist regime in Russia and its various “communist” parties spread throughout Europe and the world. Though he was reticent to fully commit and was perhaps somewhat squeamish when confronted with the reality of their practice, he nonetheless broadly supported the USSR and its branches as bearers of a project that pointed beyond capitalism. This perhaps explains his generalities and effective silence on the events of 1936 and 1937 in his preface to Star Maker, preferring to neither condemn nor fully endorse Stalinist practice in Spain.

Indeed, I believe we can detect in Stapledon’s opposition of the “partisan” and the “detached” sympathiser, an argument somewhat analogous to that used by the Stalinists to justify their grab for power in Spain. There, and throughout Europe at the time, the Stalinist catechism was something like this: first, we deal with fascism, and then—and only then—we stage the revolution. With hindsight, we know that the committed Stalinist was always terrified of revolution and worked tirelessly to destroy any real or potential revolution that threatened to escape their control (for example: in China, 1926; Spain, 1936-37; France & Italy, 1944; East Germany, 1953; Poland & Hungary, 1956; Czechoslovakia, 1968; Poland, 1981). However, in the 1930s, Stalinism, insofar as it was apparently something to do with workers’ power and revolution, was attractive to many of those battered or outraged by the reality of capitalist crisis, economic depression, and the rise of fascism. In the face of the appeasement of the fascists by liberal and conservative politicians alike, not to mention the allure fascism held for many capitalists, it could seem that one must focus first on the fascist threat above all else. However, even if we forget for the moment the reality of Stalinist counter-revolution in Spain, we cannot simply ignore the role that capitalists and capitalism, liberal or otherwise, played in preparing the way for fascism. Today, as we again face fascism under new brands and names, it is the lesson of the other Spanish revolutionaries, the anarchist and the dissident communists, not the Stalinists, that we must relearn: the struggle against fascism begins and ends with the struggle against capitalism.

Stapledon, by accepting that his own utopian speculations, spread across many of his works, constituted a disengaged idealism in the face of partisan pragmatism, merely reinforced that great error known as Stalinism. As he notes in his defence, “an imaginative sketch of the dread but vital whole of things” as contained in Star Maker, for example, may in fact “increase, not lessen” the chances of success of the struggle against fascist barbarism. And yet he fumbled a real solution to the dilemma he presented: which is to say, there is no dilemma, the partisan struggle and utopian speculation must be united, otherwise we lose sight of precisely what it is that we struggle for.

Take for instance Stapledon’s “spiritual” speculations. IN the preface to Star Maker he appears somewhat circumspect about this dimension of his work, with an eye to his materialist comrades. However, his “spirituality” is far from religious, in the conventional sense. He notes that the “spiritual life” that he proposes as an aim beyond the competitive and individualistic ethos of capitalism, “seems to be in essence the attempt to discover and adopt the attitude which is in fact appropriate to our experience as a whole, just as admiration is felt to be in fact appropriate toward a well-grown human being.” In Star Maker, as elsewhere, Stapledon conceived of the movement from capitalist individualism to the communalism of communism as not merely a vital necessity—for species survival as much as its potential flourishing and ongoing creativity. He also saw it as the basis for the true flourishing of “spirit”, in the sense of the trans- and super-individual nature of the social body through history. Elsewhere, I have called Stapledon’s concern with spirit in this sense, evidence of his being a “pulp Hegel”. However, unlike Hegel, Stapledon’s spirit bears a passing resemblance to Marx’s, insofar as Stapledon’s spirit is the result of history rather than its presupposition (though, to be fair to Hegel, it is both result and presupposition in the latter’s work). Stapledon’s spirit is an emergent principle and essence, a marker of the further spiritualisation of the human that finally wakes, through and beyond capitalism, not only to the vast dimensions of its species capabilities, but increasingly to the cosmic stage of a burgeoning social consciousness become aware of its new breadth and powers.

In my experience, communists and anarchists have often been singularly incompetent in fostering a relationship between their present means and methods, and their future aims and ends. It is as if the more we focus upon the demands of the present, the future that we struggle for recedes and finally disappears. To that end, Stapledon’s speculations on the future course of spirit helps us draw attention to the emergence of spirit—in his sense—in the here and now. The outline of the future social being must surely appear in the present, even if its contours are often sketched in the negative of the capitalist society we struggle against and reject.

Indeed, Marx and Engels posed that the future aimed at—which is to say communism—is already present, immanent as it were, in the struggles of workers and others in the here and now, rather than being simply a fantastic ideal forever put off until the day after the revolution:

Communism is for us not a state of affairs which is to be established, an ideal to which reality [will] have to adjust itself. We call communism the real movement which abolishes the present state of things. (Marx & Engels, The German Ideology)

In part, Marx and Engels were here refuting mere utopian socialist speculation (of the likes of Charles Fourier, Henri de Saint-Simon and Robert Owen), not in order to simply dismiss them, but rather to draw attention instead to the utopian dreams and desires of the exploited and oppressed. By their reckoning, the mistake of the utopian socialists was not their utopianism so much as the failure of their imagination when it came to the question of how to bring about their ideal palaces. Today’s anarchists and socialists often have the reverse problem. Bogged down by the minutiae of demanding more crumbs from the capitalist’s table (no matter how necessary such struggles are), they have forgotten that there is a world beyond said table.

To return to where I began. Stapledon’s dilemma, that between the partisans of the anti-capitalist struggle, and the detached dreamers of which he numbers himself, is in truth no dilemma at all. Indeed, in order to counter the purported alternative that fascism, for example, offers, we cannot dispense with our dreams and desires for a better world on the basis of an ill-conceived pragmatism. To do so is to concede the impossibility of making such aims a living moment of our present practice. Indeed, if the present struggle disengages us from the “dread but vital whole of things” in the name of a narrow pragmatism, we have already lost.

We struggle for a better world, a different world, not merely this one with a few more bells and trinkets. In this sense, and as noted above, communism is immanent to our needs and desire, both as individuals and as moments of our historical and social heritage. Indeed—and again taking a leaf from Marx and Engels—the question is not one of dismissing the likes of Fourier, Saint-Simon, Owen, or even Stapledon (insert favourite contemporary speculative fiction author here), but rather one of taking up their speculations as a part of our present struggles and demands. Contrary to Stapledon’s fear that speculative works like his novel, Star Marker, or Last and First Men, are mere distractions from the “real” problems of our day, we should rather consider them as blueprints of the possible, as necessary to the struggle as aim and inspiration, as the struggle itself.

fig. 2. Front cover flyleaf of the first, 1937 edition of Star Maker

around the corner

fig. 1. ‘United in death’, collage by antyphayes.

Recently I contributed some words to the tenth issue of Peculiar Mormyrid, a surrealist journal.

I have a love love hate hate relationship with poetry. I love to create and hate to decant the living into a fixed form: the hatred of life. And still I love the hate. The perversity of desire under condition of commodity production.

Surrealism, particularly the variety asserted by André Breton in his manifestoes of surrealism, has exerted a powerful attraction upon me over the years. The discovery of a current committed to transforming the world and changing life upon the fantastic basis of the communist utopia and the dream. To dream the world into being, which we do in any case, currently more nightmare than playful whimsy.

To create the living, to be alive and nothing more is not just a necessity, it is inescapable. Capitalist society fosters the absurd task of turning the flow into fixation whose grim and laughable truth is that it changes in any case. Nothing will remain, so why bother holding on?

At best, poetry in the form of the reified poem-thing tends to express the ebb of being and becoming. At worst, it reinforces the blockage, adds to vast detour of capital and wage slavery.

The insignificance of this diversion will become more readily apparent once it has disappeared, whether by way of socialism or barbarism. Amidst the noise and the seemingly endless spectacles that induce us to consume and enjoy amidst the horrors, it is easy to forget that this historical moment, much like death itself, will one day die.

Meanwhile, in the hot seat of fake electronic gnosis, here is the poem in question.

around the corner.                                                                                          for BJK.

in my dreams, there is a library at the end,

there are books at the end, reading covers.

here I am, at the end of the world, reading covers.

“The City Screamed”. “It Stopped”. “At The End of The Burning World”. “And The Under Privileged Waters of New Babylon”. “This Tangle Hold”. “This, The Luckiest Machine in All Denver”.

“It’s Great to Be Back!”

here, at the end, my friends.

it’s great to be back, and still with a fever, caught from the eventual impending and imminent tomorrow. which is to say, from the future.

this is more than the fault of a quote or confusion,

more than the phlegmatic, the phantasmatic bad memory of the new drudge,

they flap and slither with the utmost seriousness. all of them.

of the very many hands and the very many fingers. all of them.

the new robotics. nature. the brass and brazen victory of the mechanoid caller.

here, is the sweet mould, the forge of the wine dark stupor. puke. you call vomit.

to change. something. to overturn all the words, say.

so the world at the end of the word, this world and this one.

from this momentary. this promontory. from this train. and this midnight.

tonight, from this cabin and the next, there are cows I will never see.

therefore smash all the clocks.

break all the faces.

here. at the end.

twist out a lament for the change that is coming,

and for the axe with which we will grind,

and for the fine shapes of the nothing much more than all the outrage,

all the bad press, for all the dirt that we call dust,

with a tongue for a corpse and a corpse for a tongue,

we will grind out a paste to fix the filmy mist of the hereafter.

and the week after?

break all the cocks.

smash all the quasars.

all of them,

all that is palpable, for example, your quasi-diagram guise,

here, around the corner.

The Situationist International by way of A. E. Van Vogt

fig. 1. “Critique of Separation”, from, Internationale Situationniste no. 8, January 1963, p. 20.

Beneath a photo of Caroline Rittener, who had appeared in Guy Debord’s 1961 film, Critique de la Séparation, appears a phrase cited from a French translation of The World of Null-A (aka, The World of Ā, 1945/1948), by Canadian SF author A. E. Van Vogt (translated as, Le monde des Ā, Gallimard, Le Rayon Fantastique #14, 1953). Vogt’s words are put into Rittener’s mouth, to illustrate the situationist critique of separation—modern alienation, that “plot” of which we are mere “pawns in a game being played by men from the stars”. Even the capitalist ruling class, protected by their wealth, play a game they barely understand: “The point is not to recognize that some people live more or less poorly than others, but that we all live in ways that are out of our control.” (Guy Debord).

The photo and citation are one of several illustrations with text that appear amidst the situationist article ‘L’avant-garde de la présence’ in Internationale Situationniste no. 8, January 1963 (English translation available here). Once again, the situationists demonstrated that the quality of the elements of culture changed under the aegis of détournement.  “Ideas improve. The meaning of words plays a part in that improvement. Plagiarism is necessary. Progress depends on it. It stick’s close to an author’s phrasing, exploits his expressions, deletes a false idea, replaces it with the right one” (Isidore Ducasse).

fig. 2. Astounding Science Fiction, ‘The World of Ā’, part 1, August 1945.
fig. 3. The World of Ā, Simon & Schuster, 1948.
fig. 4. Le monde des Ā, Gallimard (Le Rayon Fantastique #14), 1953.

An eye for an eye . . .

from our sinister friends at prole no prole…

fig. 1. A photo reproduction of Asger’s Jorn’s modified painting, ‘Le canard inquiétant’ (The Disquieting Duck).

Originally posted on prole no prole

If an eye for an eye is the motto of revenge, it can also be bad advice. On 29 April 2022, a white nationalist attacked Asger Jorn’s 1959 painting The Disquieting Duck (shown above in Jorn’s form). Jorn’s ‘modification’ (also ‘disfiguration’) was on display at the Museum Jorn in Denmark. Lex talionis: just as Jorn ‘disfigured’ a pre-existing nineteenth century style idyll, so too Jorn suffers disfiguration.

An obvious interpretation is that a Danish painting is reclaimed by a Danish nationalist for his own cause—he affixed his own likeness and signed his name in permanent marker. In the rush to exploit an increasingly excluded populace and the last remnants of a near exhausted natural world, capitalists, their managers and fascist proxies advise us to ramp up the…

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sf & critical theory join forces to destroy the present