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?


FOOTNOTES

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

3 thoughts on “Glorious failures in science: a sinister year in review”

  1. I look forward to all that you write in 2023! Especially anything about Merril… another author who might interest you (I plan on reading some of his short fiction as I haven’t warmed well to some of his novels) — Ward Moore. He was apparently a Trotskyist Libertarian who hung out in Beat communes in California…

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    1. Not sure why I said California… sorry!

      Here is the passage I was attempting to reference from memory vs. looking at the text from Mike Davis’ “Ward Moore’s Freedom Ride” (2011) — let me know if you want it. It’s a bit more personal reflection than I wish…. and I want to know more about his actual biography!

      “From either perspective, Moore is a whirling dervish of unorthodox opinion and radical sensibility, a Trotskyist and a libertarian whose avowed literary models were Rabelais, Jarry, and Grimmelshausen. The Father of the Beats (writing in 1964) added that Moore “is still around today, an influential, if not very successful, science-fiction writer.” Rexroth, of course, was being snide.”

      “Moore, who reputedly had been kicked out of DeWitt Clinton High School in Hell’s Kitchen for antiwar activity in 1918, knew the Ferrer Colony (which had just moved from Manhattan to Stelton) and its gentle delights very well. During the 1920s it was the weekend refuge for every young libertarian bohemian and anarchist garment worker in New York City. A place to rub
      bellies with Emma Goldman or, from the other side, the young Mike Gold. In Jubilee Moore simply contrives to combine the Colony with another commune just down the road, the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, where Albert Einstein ponders the dialectics of space-time.”

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      1. That’s fascinating info about Ward Moore: ” a Trotskyist and a libertarian” is quite a thing to be. I’ve been both a Trotskyist and an anarchist at different times, but never all at once! He sounds a little like David Widgery, at least in temperament and somewhat confused allegiances.

        I’ve read ‘Bring The Jubilee’, but was frankly oblivious to his politics, at least on the basis of this reading. I’ve also read at least one of his short stories, ‘The Fellow Who Married The Maxill Girl’, but remember precious little. I have to say I am intrigued with this information and plan on having a bit more of a look at his work. Not to mention that he was a mate of Mike Davis, an author I really should pay more attention to, particularly re: the city. And it’s also amusing to read of Kenneth Rexroth being catty about Moore.

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