Category Archives: critical theory

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.

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

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

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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Internationale Situationniste number 7, April 1962

fig. 1. Advances in alienation. The first color photograph of the whole Earth (western Hemisphere), shot from the ATS-3 satellite on 10 November 1967.

It is sixty years since Internationale Situationniste number 7 was published, dated April 1962. Partly in commemoration I plan on posting new translations of several articles from the seventh issue over the next month.

Our world is arguably less distant from the situationists, sixty years past, then theirs was from 1902. Certainly not in terms of clock time, but rather in lived time. No equal of the revolutionary insurgency and capitalist disasters of 1914 to 1945 have marked the decades since 1962. But more pointedly, the fitfully globalising capitalism of 1962 has come to fruition in the sixty years since. The commodity-spectacle has not only triumphed across the planet—remarkably expressed in the first colour photograph of the world-globe from space, taken the same year Debord published The Society of the Spectacle—it has ramified down the years, taken on new, more intensively reified forms as it has extended its reach throughout the social-natural metabolism.

The absence of revolutionary contestation in the 60 years since 1962, at a level equal to that of Russia in 1917, Germany in 1918-19, China in 1926 and Spain in 1936-37, can be attributed solely to the success of the global commodity-spectacle. The unification of the capitalist world over the past six decades has been singularly aimed at preventing a repeat of the revolutionary insurrections capitalism faced between 1914 and 1945. A more thoroughly integrated, quiescent proletariat has been perhaps the single greatest project of capital—a project, moreover, that has been achieved without the dangers of the old social-democratic politics that offered a working-class community of sorts in which the dream of a post-capitalist world was kept alive, albeit in a largely religious, and so ineffectual form. The contemporary spectacle, in which the communal moment of the old social-democratic politics has been thoroughly replaced by the fractured and atomizing pseudo-communities of mass consumer culture, is by far more successful at integrating and undermining any pesky proletarian aspirations for a world beyond capitalism. Alongside the full spectrum dominance of commodified dreams, whether of the cinematic, televisual, or computerised variety, even so-called radical theory and politics is churned out to the hum of machines and mass produced profit. Unsurprisingly much of it reiterates the impossibility of a revolutionary project.

The situationist project, 1957-1972, was an attempt to make sense of the legacy of the first half of the twentieth century, in both artistic and political terms, to the end of the immediate revolutionary overthrow of capitalism. On the basis of a thoroughgoing critique of the nostalgia that dominated the far-left and artistic avant-gardes of the 1950s and 60s, the situationists outlined a revolutionary project that targeted the weakness of not only their artistic and political contemporaries, but more pointedly the nature of the vast commodity-spectacle that had come into being in the wake of the Second World War. Unlike many of their erstwhile disciples and followers today, the situationists did not simply propose a theory of the present; even more they argued that the desire for a different future was already present amidst the misery of capitalist alienation, albeit in an often disguised, marginalised or unconscious fashion. Thus, their belief in no compromise with the forces of spectacular integration. One can only throw off the domination of the past if one’s eyes remain firmly fixed upon the future, and so necessarily against all the alienations of the present.

fig. 2. Illustration from Internationale Situationniste no. 7. The image is taken from a contemporary US ad for family-sized nuclear shelters. It is a deeply ideological rendering of a mid-20th century US family. No doubt if such a campaign was launched today, canny capitalists would be more attuned to using a “diverse” array of models to flog their grim wares.The aim would nonetheless remain the same. As the situationists mordantly noted at the time, “If this system were to go to the point of bluntly proclaiming that it imposes such an empty and hopeless existence that the best solution for everyone would be to go hang themselves, it would still succeed in managing a healthy and profitable business by producing standardized ropes”.


The seventh issue of International Situationniste was a pivotal one in the life of the situationist group. It was the first issue to be published after the so-called ‘break with the artists’ in the first quarter of 1962, and the first issue to take up the project outlined by Guy Debord, Raoul Vaneigem, Attila Kotányi, and Alexander Trocchi in the enigmatic Hamburg Theses of September 1961.

In the articles of Internationale Situationniste no. 7 (hereafter IS no. 7), the group was chiefly concerned with outlining a distinctly situationist revolutionary project. Following on from their turn to critically appropriating the council communist perspective Debord found amongst comrades in the Socialisme ou Barbarie group, and announced in IS no. 6 (August 1961), issue seven finds the group more forcefully transforming itself from a group on the margins of artistic experimentation to one in which a ‘new type’ of revolutionary practice is being proposed. For instance, here we find not only the concept of ‘survival’ through which the SI would criticise the cult of work that then dominated what passed for a revolutionary left, but also the distinctly situationist notion that revolutionaries have more to learn from the glorious failures of the past, like the Paris Commune of 1871 and the German Revolution of 1918-19, than erstwhile “successes” like the so-called ‘really existing socialism’ of the then contemporaneous Soviet Union.

Today, IS no. 7 is perhaps best remembered for four articles: the first part of Raoul Vaneigem’s ‘Banalités de base’ (Basic Banalities, part 1), the lead articles, ‘Géopolitique de l’hibernation’ (Geopolitics of Hibernation), and ‘Les mauvais jours finiront’ (The Bad Days Will End), as well as ‘La cinquième conférence de l’I.S. à Göteborg’ (The Fifth SI Conference in Göteborg [excerpts]) in which details of the arguments that laid the groundwork for 1962 split were finally revealed. As linked, all of these articles exist in good English translations made by Ken Knabb. However, this selection, arguably the most important of the articles in IS no. 7, constitutes only about half of the written content of the number.

Nonetheless, the other articles from IS no. 7 exist in English translation, available here (The Role of the SI, Priority Communication, Situationist News, and the complete The Fifth SI Conference in Göteborg) and here (Sunset Boulevard). Links to all of the available translations of IS no. 7 are usefully available in one place, here. Unfortunately, these other translations, made by Reuben Keehan and Not Bored, are not always of the same high quality as Knabb’s. Indeed, many are desperately in need of an overhaul. At best, Keehan and Not Bored have made available many situationist articles that had previously only been available in the original French. At worst, they are traps to the unwary reader who either cannot or will not compare them to the original French.[1]

However, I cannot spare myself from all the critical barbs I’ve aimed at others. Over the last decade I have published the occasional translation of situationist and para-situationist texts on this blog, and elsewhere. Whereas I stand by my more recent efforts—for instance, my translations of Guy Debord’s Surrealism (2021) and Mustapha Khayati’s Marxisms(2016)—I cannot recommend the more distant ones—for instance, from my very first published translation of a situationist text, On the Exclusion of Attila Kotányi (2012), up to and including the equally awkward and flawed Socialism or Planète (2013). As such I feel that I bear some responsibility for any confusion or misinterpretation that has flowed from my less than adequate translations, alongside those of Keehan’s and Not Bored’s. To that end, and in the hope that I can continue to aid in the communication of situationist ideas, I offer more recent efforts in an attempt at exculpation. Indeed, one may say, like Hegel and Marx, that error is the surest road to the truth. Accordingly, none of my translations should be considered done with or finished, but rather works in progress—as, indeed, are all things,including the original situationist texts.

Over the coming weeks I will offer my translations of the following articles from IS no.7: ‘Du rôle de l’I.S.’ (The role of the SI), ‘Communication prioritaire’ (Priority Communication) and Attila Kotanyi’s ‘L’Étage suivant’ (The Next Stage). Though perhaps not as important as some of the other articles in the issue, all three of these are important for understanding the turn carried out by the Situationist International over 1961 and 1962, and further, shed light upon the influence that the mysterious Hamburg Theses exerted on the group. To that end I will also offer up my translation of Guy Debord’s 1989 text on the latter, ‘Les theses de Hambourg en septembre 1961’ (The Hamburg Theses of September 1961). Indeed, the two extent translations of this text of Debord’s (available here and here) both share an identical flaw—a mistranslation of a central phrase that inverts the phrase’s meaning. That these continue to be the only widely available translations of this important text is testament to the perilous state of much of what passes for scholarship, exegesis, and translation of the works of the Situationist International.

What we really need is not only well-made translations of all the article in IS no. 7, but also of the entire run of the Internationale Situationniste journal. Considering that Knabb’s large selection, collected in his Situationist International Anthology, is now more than 40 years old (originally published 1981, and substantially revised 2006), it is way past time that a complete collection was published in English. If anyone reading this is interested in such a project do not hesitate to contact me: antyphayes [at] gmail [dot] com

fig. 3. The metallicized cover of Internationale Situationniste no. 7.

Anthony Hayes
April, 2022


[1] An example of the latter can be found in James Trier’s recent book, Guy Debord, the Situationist International, and the Revolutionary Spirit (2019). However, Trier’s errors cannot be solely put down to the inadequate translations that he relied upon. To present just one example: on the third page of the introductory chapter he attributes an article by Guy Debord, All the King’s Men (title originally in English), to Michèle Bernstein—a mistake that he compounds by continuing to refer to her as the author throughout his book. Perhaps being distracted by Humpty Dumpty’s great fall, Trier has confused, or inadvertently associated Debord’s article with Bernstein’s similarly titled novel, Tous les chevaux du roi (All the King’s Horses). But such a mistake does not bode well for an author who claims to offer new information on the situationist group. At best, Trier’s work is a relatively straightforward and unimaginative description of the works of the situationists. However, the authors efforts are hamstrung by his inability to engage with their works in the original French, and so judge the worth or usefulness of the extant translations.

This post also appears here:

What comes after SF

fig. 1. Has the future of SF come and gone? Illustration: “As Mars Sees Us”, by Frank R. Paul, Amazing Stories, July 1940.

What comes after SF

‘the hour of its birth is the hour of its death.’
—G. W. F. Hegel[1]

Is there a future for science fiction?

Consider this: writers of science fiction have imagined not just the end of civilisation, and the end of the human species (among others), they have even imagined the end of everything—up to and including the beyond of the end. And yet rarely—perhaps never—do writers of SF imagine the end of SF, even though its finale is necessarily implied in the end of it all.

This is perhaps less strange if we consider that SF itself rarely features in the futures imagined by SF writers. Could it be that the collective imaginary of science fiction sees no future for SF? Or at least no future for SF in SF. With the notable exception of recursive science fiction,SF is strangely absent from most imagined futures. Is recursive science fiction, then, where we will find SF imagining the future of SF? Perhaps—but I’m not holding my breath.

Recursive SF is a somewhat fuzzy sub-genre of SF—which is no bad thing in that fuzziest of all genres. In its clearest and narrowest definition, it is ‘science fiction stories that refer to science fiction […] to authors, fans, collectors, conventions, etc.’[2] However, the self-referentiality of recursive SF runs the gamut of the more straightforwardly comic and satirical at one end (like Frederic Brown’s novels, What Mad Universe or Martians Go Home), through to the more self-consciously critical works of Barry Malzberg, in which Malzberg uses the conceit of self-referentiality to interrogate SF—albeit in fictional garb.

When speaking of two recursive works of Robert Silverberg’s—‘The Science Fiction Hall of Fame’ (1973) and ‘Schwartz Between The Galaxies (1974)—Malzberg notes that they are ‘less […] work[s] of fiction than of literary criticism.’[3] This is an apt description of some of Malzberg’s works. For instance, his ‘A Galaxy Called Rome’ (1975) is an excellent example of, and introduction to, such critical-recursive SF. Malzberg himself prefers the term ‘decadent science fiction’ to describe what he’s up to—a term that is presumably derived from Joanna Russ’s suggestive essay ‘The Wearing Out of Genre Materials’ (1971).[4] To the extent that such ‘decadence’ is indicative of a more self-aware and sometimes critical take on the pretensions and pathologies of SF, that often includes formal experiments in literary style, both Russ and Malzberg associate it with the development of a ‘New Wave’ in SF in the 1960s and 70s. Unfortunately, and despite my own fascination with the New Wave and ‘decadence’, I have yet to find amongst its practitioners any evidence of what I have set out to find. Namely SF imagining either the SF of the future, or the end of SF itself—even though the utter exhaustion of SF is hinted at in the most corrosively recursive SF (Silverberg’s short story, ‘The Science Fiction Hall of Fame’ again leaps to mind).

The entry on ‘Recursive SF’ at The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction seeks to expand the definition of recursion to include, ‘Alternate Histories, usually backward-looking in time, and frequently expressing a powerful nostalgia for pasts in which the visions of early Genre SF do, in fact, come true.’[5] This is almost an answer to my question. Unfortunately, I am not looking for a ‘backward-looking’, retrospective vision of the future of SF, no matter how attractive such decadent confabulations are. No doubt imagining a different future for, say, SF in the 1940s, is easier to do given that one is imagining an alternate future based on what happened in our universe. But for now, in this quiet sector of the multiverse, I am trying to find is an SF that imagined SF in its future, not a future past.

What got me thinking along these lines was a remark made by Michael Moorcock in his introduction to a 1969 collection of New Wave SF writings, appositely entitled The New SF:

In the early days of the science fiction magazines writers often tried to visualise what literature would be like in the futures they invented. In a sense, therefore, the stories in this book are something of a natural development from magazines like Amazing Stories (founded 1926) for, to Hugo Gernsback the editor of Amazing Stories, they might well seem like the products of an ‘alien’ future.[6]

Moorcock’s remarks are more suggestive than factual. The idea that the wild and wacky experiments of the New Wave could almost have been the future of science fiction imagined in the past is a fascinating thought. I have, however, found little evidence for Moorcock’s claim that SF writers in the 1920s, 30s and 40s were doing much to ‘visualise what literature would be like in the futures they invented’. I could be wrong about this—indeed, I want to be wrong. Perhaps somewhere in the lost drafts of Olaf Stapledon’s Last and First Men (1930) one can find an outline of the entirety of SF’s future trajectory, and, inevitably, its end.

To further illustrate what I am driving at, regarding the absence of an imagined future for SF in SF, let’s look briefly at two examples of recursive science fiction from the 1950s and 60s: Arthur C Clarke’s novel, The Sands of Mars (1951) and Edmond Hamilton’s short story, ‘The Pro’ (1964). In Clarke’s novel, the protagonist is a long-time science fiction writer who now lives in a future that has overtaken, in part, his pulpish imaginings. He journeys to a Mars that already has the rudiments of a permanent colony, somewhat bedazzled by the way the near future both confirms and refutes his fiction. Hamilton riffs on a similar theme. However, he makes the dislocation of the SF writer who has lived to see the future the central focus of his short story. In both cases nothing is said about the SF in the science fictional present imagined in either story. It either no longer exists, or—demonstrating a singular lack of imagination—is simply the same as it was when these stories were written. One can only assume that if there is an SF in these imaginary worlds, it is exempted from the forces of change and history that are otherwise speculatively evoked in the self-same stories.

Could it be that the inability to imagine a future for SF disguises a repressed belief that there is no future for SF? In his 1994 essay, ‘The Many Deaths of Science Fiction,’ Roger Luckhurst argues that, ‘SF is dying, it has been dying from the very moment of its constitution’.[7] Motivated by those interminable debates that mark fandom, which locate the ‘death of SF’ in an imagined transgression of what is meant by ‘SF,’ Luckhurst argues that such anxieties necessarily emerge precisely as a result of the establishment of the genre in the first place. Indeed, he further believes that SF has a ‘death wish’ that is bound up with the boundaries of the gerne, and that is a function of the repressed desire for a ‘proper death’: either by way of its dissolution and return to the mainstream, or by way of being acknowledged as more than or better than its pulp, popular origins. Either way, the establishment of clear boundaries for SF only intensified the anxiety of this death-wish, and the anxieties that continues to metastasise with every controversy over perceived threats to these borders, whether from within or without (though especially from the former).

Luckhurst is at his most interesting when he focuses upon ‘the effect[s] of the structure of legitimation’, by which he means that the exclusionary policing of SF’s ambiguous borderlands by trufans and writers alike is the real source of SF’s internal conflicts and ‘death wish’.[8] By any measure, the efforts of people like Hugo Gernsback and John W. Campbell in establishing an exclusive definition of SF was bound to explode, given not only the relatively arbitrary origins of their stipulative definitions of SF, but also the patent influence that the rich borderlands of the genre continued to exert upon readers and writers. What’s clear, even amidst the hardest of the so-called Hard practitioners of SF, is that there is no such thing as pure SF. Perhaps SF was stillborn from the outset, a consensual hallucination held together by the will of a Gernsback or a Campbell, not to mention the self-legitimating institutions of fandom they surrounded themselves with. Indeed, Gernsback’s and Campbell’s SF is starting to sound more like something you would find in SF, some harebrained scheme cooked up in the imaginary laboratories of the future.

One of the interesting threads Luckhurst unpicks, but does little with, is Hugo Gernsback’s pioneering attempt to establish not only the contours of SF, but also its aspirations to be more than simply another pulp ghetto for popular consumption. In Gernsback’s proselytising and agitational vision for SF, SF is calling into being a world that has yet to come. To my thinking, implicit in that vision is a sense of the self-limitation of SF. Once the world Gernsback desires has come into being, once the general consciousness of the population is in synch with science rather than simply ‘tak[ing] new inventions and discoveries for granted’ in a quasi-religious fashion, then SF’s role as harbinger and teacher will be complete.[9] And once complete, the need for SF will simply disappear.

The idea that SF has no place or part to play in the future it fictionally conjures into being, can be seen in the Clarke and Hamilton stories discussed above. There is a sense in both that with the realisation of the dreams of science fiction, SF as anticipation and advocacy is rendered superfluous. Clarke’s story is more positively disposed to the merits of SF as anticipation, no matter how flawed the speculation often is, whereas Hamilton poses that perhaps there was no point in the first place, and that the space age of the 1960s was realised despite the existence of SF. Indeed, its Hamilton’s pessimism about the worth of SF—reflecting, perhaps, his own mixed feelings after almost 40 years in the business—that gives this story is melancholic power. He seems to be posing: would it have been better if SF had never been born in the first place?

Given a future in which SF was realised in line with Gernsback’s or Campbell’s desire, presumably SF would become something akin to pulp Westerns, a fiction of nostalgia for a lost time. In large part, SF has become this. The shiny rockets and bubble headed space suits of the Golden Age of SF can today seem to be more aged and out of place than spurs and a Colt 45 were in the 1950s. But in developing this tendency toward nostalgia, SF is not just the Romanticisation of a lost past—the past of the pulps on the verge of the space age. It is also the Romanticisation of an imaginary future that never was. That dream of SF—of grand and ever-expanding space exploration and colonisation—was not and perhaps never will be realised. Indeed, Ballard’s fiction from the 1960s, when he attempted to redirect SF from its technophilic obsessions amidst the burgeoning space age of Mercury astronauts and Project Apollo, has proved to be a better guide to our present.

Is it possible that the repressed desire for death and the striking absence of an imagined future for SF were finally realised in the New Wave? Not the ‘proper death’ that Luckhurst spoke of, by which the New Wave broke down the walls that separated SF from the non-genre literary recognition it both envied and imagined itself superior to. Rather, the New Wave enacted the death of SF—albeit in an erratic and largely unconscious fashion—and brought it to ruin through the exhaustion of all the shop-worn tropes in a fury of play and experiment. Which is not to say that the New Wave in SF did not live a terrific life full of noise and wonder. But as Robert Silverberg has mordantly noted:

by 1972 the revolution was pretty much over. We were heading into the era of Star Wars, the trilogy craze, and the return of [a] literarily conservative action-based science fiction to the centre of the stage.[10]

In any case, SF died—or at least that archetypal Anglo-American SF born in Amazing Stories and Astounding Science Fiction between the 1920s and 1940s. It was killed off amidst a blaze of play and experimentation at precisely the same time that the revolutionary movement that erupted in France and Italy in 1968 and 1969 was being murdered by erstwhile friends and foes alike. And much like the supersized capitalism that came after the failed revolutions of the 1960s and 1970s, the reconstituted and globalised SF is a strange beast: a vast commercial spectacle, a bloated behemoth that staggers through its domesticated afterlife, shorn not only of its earlier aspirations and optimistic urgency, but equally denied the peaceful death it so richly deserves.

And today, through the fog of an infinite regress of proliferating sub-genres, which inadvertently mock the old delusion of a unitary SF, we see our old friend the commodity, whose terroristic mass production has brought the biosphere itself to the brink of destruction like some arch science criminal of yore, colonising the real and the imaginary with equal indifference and spite.

Is this the future that SF imagined for itself?


[1] G. W. F. Hegel, The Science of Logic, trans. George di Giovanni, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, [1813, 1816, 1832] 2010. Translation modified.

[2] Anthony R. Lewis, An Annotated Bibliography of Recursive Science Fiction, Cambridge, Mass.: NESFA Press, 1990. See, also:

[3] Barry N. Malzberg, ‘The Science Fiction of Science Fiction,’ in Engines of the Night, Baen Ebooks, [1982] 2013.

[4] See, Joanna Russ, ‘The Wearing out of Genre Materials,’ College English vol. 33, no. 1 (October 1971); Barry N. Malzberg, ‘Thinking about Thinking About Science Fiction,’ in An Annotated Bibliography of Recursive Science Fiction, ed. Anthony R. Lewis, Cambridge, Mass.: NESFA Press, 1990.

[5] John Clute & David Langford, ‘Recursive SF’ in Encyclopedia of Science Fiction (2021).

[6] Michael Moorcock, ‘Preface,’ in The New SF, ed. Langdon Jones, London: Arrow Books, p. 8.

[7] Roger Luckhurst, ‘The Many Deaths of Science Fiction: A Polemic,’ Science Fiction Studies Vol. 21, no. 1 (March 1994), p. 35.

[8] Ibid., p. 44.

[9] Hugo Gernsback, ‘A New Sort of Magazine,’ Amazing Stories Vol. 1, no. 1 (April 1926), p. 3.

[10] Robert Silverberg, ‘Introduction to “Schwartz Between the Galaxies”,’ in The Collected Stories of Robert Silverberg, Volume Four: Trips, 1972-73, Subterranean Press (Electronic Edition), 2009.

Robert Silverberg Downward to the Earth

I have often imagined a review that never ends, that contains every review that has ever been or ever will be written, snaking on and upward, from ruminations on Gilgamesh to who knows what works the future will bring. But it’s not this one, this is just one of the leaves in that review to come, that has never been and perhaps never will…

fig. 1. The copy I read has this cover. It effectively conjures the elephant-like Nildoror, and Gundersen in futuro-retro-1970s garb, gripping his chest anxiously. Cover art by Stuart Hughes.

It is common to describe science fiction as a literature that projects the concerns of the present into an imaginary future. From this perspective, there are those critics and fans that hail science fiction as the royal road to all that is unconscious in the present. Left or right, hard or soft, SF flows from the space-time of its composition. How else could it be? Unless, perhaps, the author was themselves caught up in an SF story, like a hapless protagonist in a Barry Malzberg story, little suspecting their present was doubly fictional, caught in a reductio ad absurdum with appropriate recursive details.

Like most clichés, this well-worn one that SF is just about its present has a lot going for it. We are encouraged to decode the concerns of the author to find traces of our world in their fantasies of tomorrow. What’s less clear, to my mind, is why we should only be concerned with the present as some type of absolute fact of composition.

Our present reality is a strange science fictional beast indeed. It recalls to me Karl Marx’s belief that in capitalist societies the ‘past dominates the present’. Marx’s argument was that by virtue of the twin principles of social organisation in capitalism, the accumulation of wealth by way of the exploitation of wage labour, the past comes to dominate the present. More poetically he put it thus: ‘The tradition of the dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the minds of the living’. The situationists called this ‘dead time’. The experience of wage labour—with its dull rhythms and repetitions subservient to the needs of business and wealth—is it most obvious manifestation.

Once the entire planet had been made over, industrialised into a single market in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, science fiction appeared to cheer this vision and chase it across the Earth and the dream of beyond. Dead time is the true subject matter of science fiction, just as science fiction is the poetry of dead time. SF sings of technological alienation, of rockets and of man. Which is not to say that it does not have its own beauty. At its best, SF dreams of overcoming the present dominated by the past; at worst, it endlessly projects the living death of the capitalist present ever on into a future without respite.


The past dominates the story in Downward to the Earth. However, Silverberg endeavours to interrogate this dominance, in the guise of the central protagonist, Edmund Gundersen, and his quest for the redemption of past sins. Indeed, the author does not spare us with a flattering image of our present projected into his fictional future. And yet, in the person of Gundersen, he holds out the possibility of meaningfully reckoning with the missteps of past crimes.

The outline of the story is simple. Gundersen returns to the planet Belzagor to seek redemption. In the course of this tale, he travels upriver to the Mist Country where the inhabitants undergo a mysterious rebirthing ceremony. There, the possibility of transcendence beckons—a familiar trope in this high period of Silverberg’s writings (1967-75). Along the way, Gundersen revisits the old places of the colonial occupation and some of the people who remained behind. In the guise of these characters, old friends, colleagues, a former lover, Seena, and his travelling companion Srin’gahar, an indigenous Nildoror, Gundersen successively throws off the memories of a past that still weighs upon him.

Belzagor. That’s what they called the planet now. The native name, the nildoror’s own word. To Gundersen it seemed like something out of Assyrian mythology. Of course, it was a romanticized pronunciation; coming from a nildor it would really sound like Bllls’grr.[1]

A revealing episode near the outset of Gundersen’s journey upriver is given in a brief discussion between him and his travelling companion, Srin’gahar, the Nildoror. Scratching a map into the dirt, Gundersen attempts to engage Srin’gahar in a discussion regarding the course of their journey. Quickly, we discover that for the Nildoror the map is quite literally not the territory. Bereft of analogues of the human hand, not only do the Nildoror have no written language, equally they have no experience of the abstractly symbolic, whether picture or text. It is in this passage, and later, in the even more elusive chapter on the mysteries of rebirthing, that Silverberg truly renders the alienness of his aliens. No doubt humanity lived its long dream without need or desire for a written language until relatively recently, and yet along the way it fashioned abstract symbols all the same. The idea of an alien intelligence without any need or desire for such abstraction, and so perforce literally at one with their ephemerality, intrigues me no end. Indeed, it reminds me of Guy Debord drawing attention to the systematic abstraction that is entailed in our world of dead time and the commodity-spectacle:

Workers do not produce themselves, they produce a power independent of themselves. The success of this production, the abundance it generates, is experienced by the producers as an abundance of dispossession. As their alienated products accumulate, all time and space become foreign to them. The spectacle is the map of this new world, a map that is identical to the territory it represents. The forces that have escaped us display themselves to us in all their power.[2]

Under the influence of the Nildoror, Gundersen’s journey from his past as a colonial agent is clearly a movement from the map to the territory, from abstraction downward to the earth.

The worldbuilding of Belzagor is one of the most astonishing aspects of the novel. The two sentient species Silverberg populates the planet with, the elephant-like Nildoror and the less seen Yeti-like Sulidoror, are well realised. One could perhaps mistake Silverberg for merely fashioning yet more dubious versions of racist stereotypes. Certainly, the Nildoror and Sulidoror are variously represented as noble, and sometimes savage. But they are never merely this. Silverberg uses them as more than simply a foil to the ‘civilised’ Gundersen. Indeed, Gundersen’s desire to understand the significance of the rebirthing ceremony points to a more potent message that is suggested, in part, in the Debord quote above. It is not that we have simply lost something in the fall into civilisation and abstract culture; rather, the desire to overcome abstractions as truly abstract and wholly autonomous, remains an urgent need.

Unfortunately, Silverberg is unable to extend his sensitivity for the colonised to a more full-blooded representation of human women, or rather the only significant woman in the story: Seena, Gundersen’s former lover. I’m not the first to remark on this common failing of Silverberg. To my mind this is precisely a failing of his future imaginary, his succumbing to the worst ideas and practices of the time in which the novel was composed. Which is all the more striking considering that Silverberg was not insensitive to the stupidities and impositions of hierarchical society. To be fair to him, he is not completely unaware of his failings in this regard. For instance, consider the dolphin protagonist of ‘Ishmael in Love’ (1970), and his somewhat hilarious if still limited comments on the nature of heterosexual male desire in the human. And once one gets past the voyeuristic male gaze that has no equal in his descriptions of Gundersen and the other men in the novel, Seena is more than a simple carboard cut-out as one finds written by too many of Silverberg’s male contemporaries.

In part, Silverberg’s models Gundersen’s quest upon that of Marlowe’s in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. He even goes so far as to include a character called Kurtz, who like his namesake in Conrad’s novel operates as a narrative pivot, but nonetheless somewhat differently in Silverberg’s story.

Given the influence of Conrad, what is striking about the human empire that had once ruled Belzagor is its antiquated character. It is patently modelled upon the colonial empires of the 19th and 20th centuries—most obviously, upon the Congo that had only gained its independence from Belgium some 8 years before Downward to the Earth was published. Considering that Silverberg has little to say about the whys and wherefores of this empire of the future, I will forgive him this anachronism. Simply because he does not use the empire in the usual science fictional way, as a somewhat exotic backdrop that too often affirms the prerogatives and crimes of the actual empires that litter our history. Refreshingly, Silverberg interrogates the brutal truth of empire, on Earth as much as in his fictional setting—and so perforce as it is often unthinkingly used in SF.

Another clear influence upon Silverberg’s novel is the work of J. G. Ballard. One episode, in which Seena tells Gundersen about the fate of a co-conspirator of Kurtz, reminded me of Ballard’s story, The Crystal World:

He was staying at Fire Point, and went out into the Sea of Dust and got some kind of crystalline parasite into a cut. When Kurtz and Ced Cullen found him, he was all cubes and prisms, outcroppings of the most beautiful iridescent minerals breaking through his skin everywhere. And he was still alive. For a while.[3]

Ballardian tropes are scattered throughout the novel. The Drowned World is here, shipwrecked in Belzagor’s humid jungle, alongside other evocations of ruin and cold melancholy: the dilapidated hotel, the abandoned, overgrown colonial stations, the futility of struggling against entropy. Downward to the Earth is at once homage and elaboration that wears its influence proudly.

fig. 2. On the left, one of René Magritte’s illustrations of Les Chants de Maldoror; on the right Félix Vallotton’s fanciful portrait of Isidore Ducasse, aka Comte de Lautréamont. Magritte’s drawing illustrates a scene from the first canto, presumably when Maldoror seduces and destroys the young boy. I like to imagine that this creature is also the one Gundersen encounters in the abandoned company station in chapter eight.

I believe that another, more obscure force worked itself upon Silverberg here. It can be found in the suffixes that Silverberg used for his indigenous aliens: the Nildoror, Sulidoror, and especially the dumb Malidaror, a ‘semi-aquatic mammal’ that we briefly encounter in chapter four. They all, especially the latter, seem to descend from the unspeakable lineage of the eponymous protagonist of that strange, disquieting nineteenth century anti-novel, Les Chants de Maldoror by the Comte de Lautréamont. Am I merely imagining this? I know that Silverberg had some encounter with Lautréamont. He is mentioned in passing in his much-admired novel Dying Inside. Though again, perhaps he betrays the influence of Ballard. In a Vermillion Sands short story, ‘Cry Hope, Cry Fury’ (1967), Ballard has his protagonist not only reading Les Chants de Maldoror, but appropriately dogged by a Maldororian character. Of course, I may be wrong regarding the influence of Lautréamont upon Silverberg. I hope—inevitably a wretched and sickly hope—that the connection exists. And if you don’t believe me, as Lautréamont remarks in the final line of Maldoror, go and see for yourselves.[4]


I first read Robert Silverberg as an 8- or 9-year-old. It was his first novel, Revolt on Alpha C, published 1955. It is a very different beast to Downward to the Earth. And yet there are structural similarities. Both novels revolve around a choice made by the protagonist, one that must lead either to destruction or transformation—or possibly both.

Revolt on Alpha C is a kids book with classic SF tropes: dinosaurs, rayguns, space-time overdrive and thus, necessarily, rocket ships. It became one of my early templates for SF—which is no bad thing. Remarkably, for my childish and impressionable mind, it had a positive representation of revolution, based upon the Revolutionary War in North America in the 1770s and 80s. Thank you, Robert Silverberg. And thank you, decade of the 1970s, and for the many and varied realities and representations of revolution and revolutionaries in the mass popular culture of the day, even if most of them were cast as dastardly and bad. Silverberg’s was an exception. Come join the revolution on another planet, he said. Was it this call that lodged in my infant brain?

fig. 3. The Scholastic Book Services version of Revolt on Alpha C. Permanently burnt into my longterm SF imaginary. Cover art by William Meyerriecks.

My tumble into Silverberg’s work, though long, has been occasional. After reading and rereading Revolt on Alpha C as a child, I didn’t read him again for many years, and not so successfully. I recall trying to read The Time Hoppers (1967) and not finding it of much worth. Though this review makes it sound like a cool, Philip K Dick gem of a story—could I have been so wrong? Horses for courses as they say. A slew of excellent Silverberg short stories from the mid-sixties made me realise that I was perhaps being unfair by thinking of him fondly only for that slight tale of Space Academy Patrol cadets Larry Stark and Harl Ellison of the starship Carden mucking about on Alpha C IV. And please excuse me for thinking that it is more than merely a coincidence that the ship’s name is also a nom de plume of Cornelius Castoriadis, sometime revolutionary and theorist of Socialisme ou Barbarie. For with a mind made of correlations and paranoias what else could it be?

It wasn’t until I read the excellent ‘Passengers’ (1968), and then not long after Hawksbill Station, both novella and novel in rapid succession, that it was confirmed for me that Silverberg was worth more than a cursory look. But even then, I was confused, mostly because I had read both versions of Hawksbill together. To my mind the novella is the better realisation. The novel adds superfluous detail that only detracts from the horror at the centre of the story. Reading it so soon after the excellent novella only detracted from the latter. And so more years passed before I found myself here. And on my way I recently read the review of Hawksbill Station at Weighing a pig doesn’t fatten it. Reading and talking about Silverberg got me to thinking and wanting to read and talk some more about Silverberg. Good fortune: I already had a copy of Downward to the Earth. And so, my review. Is it here that it begins just when it looked like it was ending?


[1] Robert Silverberg, Downward to the Earth, London: Pan Books, 1978 [1969], p. 7 (chapter 1).

[2] Guy Debord, The Society of the Spectacle, trans. Ken Knabb, Berkeley: Bureau of Public Secrets, [1967] 2014, thesis 31.

[3] Silverberg, Downward to the Earth, p. 97 (chapter 9).

[4] Comte de Lautréamont, ‘Maldoror [1869],’ in Maldoror & the Complete Works of the Comte de Lautréamont, Cambridge, MA: Exact Change, 2011, p. 219. Translation modified. Note that if Silverberg used an English translation of Maldoror before 1970 he would not have had access to Alexis Lykiard’s excellent version. The only widely available English translation at the time was Guy Wernham’s 1943 version, newly reprinted in a 1966 New Directions paperback. I can see a project taking shape: perusing all citations of Maldoror in science fiction, hidden or explicit. Written up, it would resemble Ballard’s superlative short story, ‘The Index’ (1977).

The Generation Ship in TV & film: J. G. Ballard’s Thirteen to Centaurus (1962/65)

This is the first in a projected series of posts on the SF generation ship trope in TV and film.

Over at Science Fiction and Other Suspect Ruminations, Joachim has been hosting an occasional read through of stories focusing on the generation ship trope in SF. It began with Chad Oliver’s “The Wind Blows Free” just over two years ago. His latest gen ship review, the thirteenth in the series, is of Vonda N. McIntyre’s “The Mountains of Sunset, The Mountains of Dawn”. Joachim also has a comprehensive list of gen ship stories with more links to other reviews, here.

I find the gen ship trope perhaps the most compelling of all the ideas that SF has thrown up over the years—perhaps it is the most singularly science fictional of all? The ship as world operates as a thought experiment by which we can explore the peculiarities and extremes of human nature, considered in its social and animal guises.

So, and inspired by my participation in and comments upon Joachim’s read through, I have decided to offer up my own take. But rather than replicating Joachim’s efforts I’ve decided to offer an accompaniment: a look through of the gen ship trope in TV and film.

This post will be on the 1965 TV adaptation of J. G. Ballard’s short story “Thirteen to Centaurus”. As far as I can tell, “Thirteen to Centaurus” is the first appearance of the gen ship trope on television, and only the second appearance of the trope on a screen (being piped at the post by the 1961 film, Battle of the Worlds, which I will review in a later post). Considering that Ballard’s piece is not merely a contribution to the trope, but partly a critical interrogation of it, I feel it is a fitting place to start. In the review that follows I will refer, by turns, to both the original short story and its TV adaptation. There will be spoilers.

fig. 1. To begin again from the end. From the closing credits.

Thirteen to Centaurus (1962/65)

Originally appearing in Amazing Stories in April 1962, Ballard’s story was adapted by Stanley Miller only three years later for the first series of the British TV anthology series, Out of the Unknown.

The TV adaptation hews fairly closely to the original story. Abel, a teenage boy, lives on the Station. Beset by anxious dreams of a large bright disk, he is slowly awakening to the belief that things are not as they seem. Dr. Francis, the Station’s psychotherapist (a familiar character in Ballard’s stories), reveals to Abel something the boy seems to already suspect: the Station is in fact a ‘multi-generation space vehicle’ halfway to Alpha Centauri (conceptual breakthrough 1). Shortly thereafter Dr Francis leaves the ship via a secret passageway to further reveal (only to the reader this time) that he is a part of an Earthbound team that runs the Station as a living simulation (conceptual breakthrough 2). However, outside in the Earthbound control room of the experiment Dr. Francis discovers that the 50 years long experiment is to be shut down due to funding shortfalls and the failures of the real space program. Troubled by the disturbing ethics of the experiment and his commitment to the people within, Francis returns to the Station. Back on the ship, his relationship with Abel becomes progressively reversed as Abel subjects Dr. Francis to a series of experimental tests. Ultimately, we discover that Abel has known the truth all along, and yet thanks to the rigid social programming that Dr. Francis has overseen, Abel has no apparent desire to either leave the ship or expose the truth (conceptual breakthrough 3).

fig. 2. Dr. Francis (Donald Huston) and Abel (James Hunter).

One of the great things about the generation ship trope, at least in what many consider its classic iterations—e.g., Robert Heinlein’s Orphans of the Sky (1963/1941) and Brian Aldiss’ Non-Stop (1958)—is the central importance of the conceptual breakthrough. In both these cases, the present inhabitants of the ships have forgotten the truth of their situation and have come to believe that the ship is simply the world or universe in which they are born, live and die. For the protagonist in both, the conceptual breakthrough is centred on the discovery that they are in fact the descendants of the crew of a spaceship. Indeed, this breakthrough is akin to the Copernican Revolution in science fictional garb, upending the way these people perceive themselves and their world. However, here we begin to also reach the limits of this trope. Once revealed, what more is left to say about the trope?

Ballard attacks the problem by complicating the conceptual breakthrough. The first conceptual breakthrough of the story is consistent with the classic iterations of the gen ship trope. But in Ballard’s rendition it is quickly shown to be a false one when the second conceptual breakthrough reveals the true nature of the gen ship. However, not content to leave it at that, Ballard further complicates the story by showing that even the second breakthrough is more complex than it first appears and is ‘false’ in its own way.

A circular narrative structure is central to Ballard’s original story. We go from knowing that ‘Abel knew’ (the first sentence of the short story) to finally knowing what he knows: ‘Abel knew!’ (the last sentence). However, and as outlined above, the conceptual breakthroughs are deceptive. With the first sentence in mind, we, the reader, at first think that Abel already knows that the Station is in fact a ‘multi generation space vehicle’. However, with the final conceptual breakthrough we now understand that what ‘Abel knew’ was in fact the truth that Dr. Francis and the Space Department believed was hidden from view. The horror of revelation: ‘Abel knew!

Inevitably, and due perhaps to the technical limitations of television, the story’s central structural conceit is lost in the adaptation. Stanley Miller, who wrote the dramatization, bookends his adaptation with scenes of the religious dimensions of the crew’s conditioning—something that is gestured at by Ballard, but not made explicit (for instance, in Abel’s dream of the god like ‘disc of burning light’). In doing so, Miller—perhaps inadvertently—draws a link between Ballard’s discussion of the methods of conditioning and programming used on the crew, and the way religion has served precisely such a role here on Earth.

Nonetheless, the adaptation is a faithful rendering of Ballard’s story, replete with a mid-60s British TV aesthetic. At times I was expecting the TARDIS to appear in a dark corner of the Station. Indeed, the uniforms worn by Abel, Dr Francis and other crew members would turn up in the Dr Who serial, The Ice Warriors, in 1967.

There are two earlier stories I feel that are important milestones on the way to Ballard’s final word on the trope: Chad Oliver’s “The Wind Blows Free” and John Brunner’s “Lungfish”—both first published in 1957. Oliver briefly and effectively explores the mechanisms of social control and cohesion that would be required for a generation ship to function. However, Brunner’s story is almost certainly the last step before Ballard upended the trope. In “Lungfish”, Brunner poses an interesting quandary: what if the ship-born generations become more adapted to ship-born life? Certainly, such a result would undermine the aim of a generation ship. Ballard does not so much solve as develop Brunner’s proposition to its logical and terrifying absurd end: aren’t we all ship-born creatures, inescapably trapped by the conditions of our existence?

fig. 3. A gen ship on its way to Alpha Centauri…
fig. 4. … or just a model in a TV studio? You decide.


In “Thirteen to Centaurus” Ballard makes it clear that Abel’s ‘choice’ to stay, despite knowing that he is a part of an unspeakable experiment firmly located on Earth, is hardly chosen, but rather programmed from the outset. Abel cannot exist anywhere but the ship. But then neither can Dr. Francis in the end, doomed to be caught between the programmed reality of the fake ship and the inescapable reality of the world outside.

Like his contemporary, Philip K. Dick, Ballard seems to be saying that we are all living in a fake reality, whether we know this or not. That one is programmed—by society, one’s family, even “nature”—is proof that we are made, works of fiction as it were, even if the cosmic author is nothing but the physical and social laws of time, culture and history. Yet Ballard’s belief in the inevitability of structural determination is decidedly bleak, in which any ray of hope in the guise of conditional freedom is another ruse of the structure—a fact simultaneously horrible and mundane. It reminds me of Ballard’s understandable fear of the conformism of suburbia, a theme scattered throughout his work. Nonetheless he acquiesced to this suburbia, remaining ensconced in suburban Shepperton beyond his rise to fame and fortune, like some forgotten or abandoned anthropologist from one of his stories. For Ballard there simply is no escape from the Station, in his story or everyday life. Like Abel in “Thirteen to Centaurus”, not only do we know that we are caught in the grip of prison like laws of society and nature, we end up reproducing the very chains we despise so much.

fig. 5. The tables turned. Dr. Francis becomes Abel’s experimental subject.

I find Ballard’s grim lesson here more compelling as a fictional thought experiment than as a description of the deceptive truths of social reality. The proposition that social reality is a fiction is no longer the earth-shattering statement it once was. What’s more disturbing about Ballard’s presentation—and this he shares with his erstwhile fan Jean Baudrillard—is that despite the fictional nature of social reality it is nonetheless pointless to attempt a re-write. A miserable conclusion, surely. I will return to the question of the fictional nature of reality in a future blogpost, and why, despite the grim prognostications of Ballard and Baudrillard, we should press on to intensify the fictional nature of reality—which is to say a creative and consciously constructed reality. Only this can liberate us from the truly fake reality of capitalism.

fig. 6. The same table turning as seen in fig. 5, but as originally illustrated by Virgil Finlay in Amazing Stories, April 1962.

A final word. The same year Ballard’s story was published, the French speleologist Michel Siffre spent two months alone living in cave in the Ligurian Alps. His solitary stay constitutes to my thinking an extreme (and ultimately unsustainable) manifestation of the ‘closed community’ that is posed in generation ship stories. Without any way of measuring time, Siffre’s experiment helped to further understand the nature of internal, ‘chronobiological’ mechanisms by which humans and other animals regulate their wake/sleep cycles. Perhaps most interesting was the extent of malleability that Siffre discovered. Certainly, he could not eliminate the need for sleep—like the unfortunate experimental subjects of Ballard’s story “Manhole 69”. Nonetheless, he and later other researchers, found that the wake/sleep cycle could be lengthened, and effectively doubled: e.g., 36 hours awake, 12 hours asleep. Whereas it may be true that there are real limits to the way life can be transformed, surely human history provides more than enough evidence that such limits can be shifted even if they can never be entirely eliminated.

Still want to read more about “Thirteen to Centaurus”? Check out these reviews of Ballard’s original story: Joachim Boaz’s, Classics of Science Fiction’s, and Galactic Journey’s. Galactic Journey also has a brief review of the TV adaptation here.

Up next in this occasional series? The two Star Trek: The Original Series takes on the gen ship.

J. G. Ballard—Manhole 69 & The Concentration City

fig. 1. The cover of my increasingly thumbed 2002 paperback Collected Short Stories–now with added spine.

I have been reading J. G. Ballard, The Complete Short Stories (2002). My intention is to use Ballard to facilitate my ongoing research into the Science Fiction Spectacle. Along the way I plan on the occasional review with thoughts and ruminations on the side. Here are its first, sickly fruits.

fig. 2. The cover of New Worlds no. 55 in which Ballard’s “Build-Up” first appeared. Even though the cover illustration was not for his story, it nonetheless seems eminently Ballardian in retrospect: the wreck of a craft, a barren landscape and the lone survivor of this collective unconsciousness. Illustration by Terry Maloney.

The Concentration City (1957)

“The Concentration City”—originally “Build-Up” (1957)—is an early story that plays with what would become, in time, distinctly Ballardian themes. Here, it is the city become metaphor of a labyrinthine and neurotic psyche rendered in concrete and steel.

Possessing a suitably Kafkaesque name, the protagonist Franz M. wants to fly, to escape the bonds of Earth.[1] But his dream seems impossible. All is city, horizontally and vertically, as far as the eye can see. The city’s “Foundation” is a myth, pure speculation, and the idea of a free-space that is not the city remains just that—an idea whose improbability is underlined by the brutal fact that a cubic foot of space operates as the universal commodity, perforce with a dollar figure attached.

Ballard’s dystopian city become world/world become city is implicitly critical, a hellish vision of the anxieties surrounding the urban reconstruction and mushrooming suburbanisation of the 1950s. In the story the city is rendered suitably extreme and fantastical. Unlike the sense of real limits in the most horrific of dystopias (for instance, the spatial limits of We or 1984, or the temporal limits of Well’s The Time Machine), Ballard’s city fills all possible time and space—an urban moebius strip become manifest. And yet it is precisely in this nightmare vision that Ballard reveals a singular truth of the emergent ideology of “urbanism” in the post-war world: the future will be boring, ‘a vast, conforming suburb of the soul’.[2]

fig. 3. Presumably Franz M. “Build-Up” illustration by Gerald Quinn, New Worlds, no. 55.

Manhole 69 (1957)

In “Manhole 69” we follow the fortunes, or rather misfortunes, of three men who are the subjects of a truly unsettling experiment. They have had their ability to sleep surgically removed or switched off. Over the course of the story, we come to see not only the hubris of the Promethean experimenters, set upon altering the deep fabric of not just human nature but its profound animal heritage, but more pointedly the deeply distressing psychological effects that are ultimately—and unintentionally—induced in the test subjects. By stories end, the subjects—Avery, Gorrell and Lang—have been reduced to a catatonic state and the experiment is a bust.

“Manhole 69”, alongside “The Concentration City”, can be conceived as constituting a manifesto of sorts for Ballard’s fictional obsessions—two halves of what would come to constitute the Ballardian. Indeed, “Manhole 69” inverts the movement of “The Concentration City”. Whereas the latter story manifested the neurotic topology of the inner self in the city, in the former the narrative drags the reader down into the suffocating confines of the individual test subjects themselves. Unable to escape, however briefly, the travails of being constantly conscious, the narcotomized Avery, Gorrell and Lang’s ability to distinguish the difference between themselves and their world quite literally collapses. Their attempt to escape ‘the group unconscious, the dark oceanic dream’ of their animal nature fails as assuredly as Franz M’s futile flight from the all-encompassing city.

The genius of Ballard’s science fictional conceit is to evoke something we all have experience of. Namely, the alienation of individuality: that claustrophobic sense of being absolutely cut-off and cast adrift in one’s self.

Why “Manhole 69”? The title appears to divide its fans—e.g., ‘despite its unfortunate name’, ‘best short story title ever’, etc. I fall into the latter camp, finding the name peculiarly evocative, precisely because it is simultaneously puzzling and erotically charged—classic Ballard! In the story the “Manhole” refers to the collapsing sense of reality experienced by the test subjects, when the gym in which they are ensconced seems to dwindle in size to more terrifyingly human dimensions: ‘This, then, was the manhole: a narrow, vertical cubicle, a few feet wide, six deep’ (62). “69” is the number of the door always locked to the test subjects, and through which their own contact with the sleeping world remains—namely, the scientists Neill and Morley. Put together they effectively name the syndrome the story is about: Manhole 69.[3]

fig. 4. The cover of New Worlds no. 65 in which “Manhole 69” first appeared. Perhaps by way of a Freudian slip it would later be referred to as “Manhole 65” in New Worlds no. 69, no less! Illustration by Brian Lewis.

Ballard and the Situationists

Boredom is counterrevolutionary. In every way.”—Situationist International, 1962[4]

As noted above, “The Concentration City” originally appeared as “Build-Up” in its initial publication, and subsequent reprints. However, it was renamed “The Concentration City” for its 1967 republication in Ballard’s collection, The Disaster Area. The re-titling appears to draw a connection between the Nazi concentration camp and the endless, claustrophobic city of Ballard’s story. Taken as parable of the new urbanism of the 1950s and 60s, replete with housing developments and the reconstruction and construction of towns on the basis of automobile traffic flows, the rebranded “Build-Up” begins to sound like a work in parallel with the more explicitly critical and revolutionary critique of urbanism carried out by the Situationist International.

In 1961, the Situationist Raoul Vaneigem, described the then new housing developments being constructed amidst post-war reconstruction as akin to Nazi concentration camp.[5] The following year, Vaneigem and the other situationists drew a link, in frankly psychoanalytic terms, between this new concentrated urban sprawl and the suffocating nuclear shelters that President Kennedy was then promoting as the family friendly solution to nuclear catastrophe:

The new habitat that is now taking shape with the large housing developments is not really distinct from the architecture of the shelters; it merely represents a less advanced level of that architecture. […] The concentration-camp organization of the surface of the earth is the normal state of the present society in formation; its condensed subterranean version merely represents that society’s pathological excess. This subterranean sickness reveals the real nature of the “health” at the surface.[6]

Was Ballard influenced by the Situationists? It’s hard to say definitively. No doubt he knew of them, considering his interest in and contacts with British Pop Artists and the Institute of Contemporary Arts. Additionally, his obsessive interest in Surrealism, and his pathological interest in the car and the encroaching conformism of modern capitalist life would seem to indicate that he was open to their influence. He even had stories appear in at least two magazines that also contained articles on and/or translations of Situationist writing: Circuit no. 6, London, June 1968, and The International Times, no. 26, London, 16-29 February 1968. Though whether he had come across their writing in 1967 or before is something I presently cannot answer.

fig. 5. Detail of the cover of Circuit no. 6, June 1968.

Of more interest to me is the resonance between Ballard and the Situationists. The Situationists infamously argued that their critique of the society of the spectacle was ‘merely the concentrated expression of a historical subversion which is everywhere’—more pithily: ‘Situationist theory is in people like fish are in water’.[7] Certainly, the idea that a spectacle of everyday life mediated in large part by the new mass communication technologies was emerging more generally in the 1950s and 60s. Indeed, Ballard himself attempted to distinguish his fiction in terms not dissimilar to this. For instance, in a 1967 interview he spoke—in terms not unlike those Guy Debord used in the same year—of ‘the fictional elements in experience [that] are now multiplying to such a point that it is almost impossible to distinguish between the real and the false’.[8] In the same interview, Ballard reckoned that his turn toward writing a non-linear, fragmented, collage-style fiction—most obviously on display in the stories collected as The Atrocity Exhibition—was deliberately an attempt to conjure the modern relations between inner and outer life in a world saturated by the new medias:

we switch on television sets, switch them off half an hour later, speak on the telephone read magazines, dream and so forth. We don’t live our lives in linear terms in the sense that the Victorians did.[9]

There are real problems with Ballard’s attempt to theorise the modern world of the 1960s. In contrast to the Situationists, Ballard’s reasoning is more positivist and circular. For him the fictionalisation of everyday life seems to be caught up with its increasing non-linearity. Which one might argue is related to its technological decomposition: ‘we switch on television sets, switch them off half an hour later, speak on the telephone read magazines, dream and so forth’. However, this seems to imply that previously life was not fictional—i.e., it was linear. In effect, Ballard is arguing that life has become fictional because it has become fictional. What is missing is any account of why it has become more fictional—apart from a type of technological determinism—or, more importantly, whether or not it was ever not fictional (only consider, for instance, the predominance of religious ideology in earlier societies, one of which—the Victorian—Ballard’s calls ‘linear’).

Hopefully I will return to a more detailed criticism of Ballard in the (non-existent) future.

Final thoughts

The choice of “The Concentration City” and “Manhole 69” was not merely driven by the fact that they constitute early exemplars of what would come to be known as the Ballardian turn in SF and the New Wave of the 1960s. As a callow youth in the early 1980s I was given a copy of the collection The Disaster Area and the novel The Crystal World by an older brother. To say that this constituted a perverse initiation of sorts is perhaps an understatement. The deeply disturbing worlds I found in these books was markedly at odds with the largely optimistic and anodyne ones I had so far found in the likes of Clarke, Heinlein, and Asimov. Perhaps Herbert’s Dune was the closest I had then come to something approximating Ballard’s pessimism—though ‘close’ hardly does justice to either Herbert or Ballard, nor the shattering effect that the latter’s work had on my teenage psyche. Of the stories that made up The Disaster Area, “The Concentration City” and “Manhole 69” were the ones I kept returning to and reading obsessively. I recall desperately wanting to solve the impossible dilemmas they presented, the vertiginous puzzles that seemed to promise a future only of madness and inescapable despair, simply because they seemed so real and inevitable in comparison to all the other SF I had then so far read. Certainly, Ballard’s SF, more technological horror than utopian dream, would prove to be a better map of the coming dystopia of the capitalist millennium and beyond. 


I am not sure whether dystopian fiction is the best SF because it foregrounds dystopia as the truth of contemporary society, and so presages its destruction (and so, too, SF’s end); or whether it is the worst SF because it gives up on the possibility of there being any truly human civilisation beyond the perils and pains of the present. Perhaps a little bit of both. Where Ballard’s pessimism shines, so to speak, is in its unremitting exposure of the pathologies of spectacular capitalism and the fact that these are the products of human activity. Where it fails is in its wholesale collapse into the pathological symptoms that he identifies, such that one begins to suspect that Ballard truly desires to simply dwell in the ruins.


[1] Flight would remain a powerful image of escape and freedom throughout Ballard’s work: ‘I believe in flight, in the beauty of the wing, and in the beauty of everything that has ever flown’. J. G. Ballard, ‘What I Believe,’ in Re/Search: J. G. Ballard, ed. V. Vale and Andrea Juno, San Francisco: Re/Search Publishing, 1984, p. 177.

[2] J. G. Ballard, ‘Interview with JGB,’ in Re/Search: J. G. Ballard, ed. Vale and Andrea Juno, San Francisco: Re/Search Publishing, 1984, p. 8.

[3] So far, the only indication I have found of Ballard acknowledging the more libidinal nature of the title—albeit very tangentially—in some comments on the editorial work of Ted Carnell of New Worlds: ‘Ted Carnell […] never really wanted any re-writing. The only things he sometimes changed were the titles, but not too often. There was a little story called “Track 12”—that was his title, not mine. We had an argument over that, because he’d just taken “Manhole 69” without querying what that meant…’, ibid., p. 119 (italics in the original).

[4] Situationist International, ‘The Bad Days Will End [1962],’ in Situationist International Anthology: Revised and Expanded Edition, ed. Ken Knabb, Berkeley: Bureau of Public Secrets, 2006.

[5] Raoul Vaneigem, ‘Comments Against Urbanism [1961]’

[6] Situationist International, ‘Geopolitics of Hibernation [1962].’ Online here.

[7] Situationist International, The Real Split in the International: Theses on the Situationist International and its time, trans. John McHale, London: Pluto Press, [1972] 2003, p. 7 (thesis 2); Internationale Situationniste, ‘Du rôle de l’I.S.,’ Internationale Situationniste no. 7 (Avril 1962), p. 17.

[8] J. G. Ballard and George MacBeth, ‘The New Science Fiction: A conversation  between J. G. Ballard and George MacBeth [orig. BBC Third Programme, 1967],’ in The New SF: An original anthology of modern speculative fiction, London: Arrow Books, [1969] 1971, p. 54. For the resonance with Debord, consider this from The Society of the Spectacle (1967, Ken Knabb’s translation, 2014): ‘the spectacle […] is not a mere supplement or decoration added to the real world, it is the heart of this real society’s unreality’ (thesis 6, chapter 1).

[9] Ballard and MacBeth, ‘The New Science Fiction’, p. 57.