Category Archives: science fiction

In praise of the infodump

fig. 1. Astounding Science Fiction, September 1948, in which John D. MacDonald’s ‘Dance of a New World’ first appeared.

In praise of the infodump:
or, the joys and pains of reading science fiction in general and John M. MacDonald and Laurence Manning in particular, and various other works of the last century and more, and etcetera

1.

Why is the infodump so hated, so derided? I suspect that the chief reason is unstated—or barely suspected. Could it be that vast slabs of unadorned information impede our ability to suspend disbelief and briefly escape the humdrum world of wage labour and quiet despair?

Though often polarising, the infodump is a common feature of science fiction. For its detractors it is the very epitome of all that is non-literary about SF. For instance, the Science Fiction Encyclopaedia’s entry on the infodump notes that for some critics, ‘the infodump presents as a large obstructive mass, a clump of narrative whose author has not properly digested it’. For such critics the infodump simply is a literary flaw. But is there only one type of infodump, an impossibly perfect Platonic form whose perfection is, perversely, its distracting imperfection?

Recently, what set me off ruminating upon the infodump was reading a short story by John D. MacDonald: Dance of a New World (1948). The story is not one of McDonald’s best SF genre pieces (for that I would recommend Spectator Sport). But it’s not all bad. A solid tale to while away some of the perils of boredom.

For the first few pages the story tootled along, establishing character, plot and setting in relatively efficient fashion. From the first sentence, unquestionably a story of the future set on a more hospitable Venus than what we got, with one of the characters working as a supervisor of a work gang of local indigenous lifeforms called Harids. The Harids are conveniently insectoids, presumably so we don’t have to care too much about them being rendered zombie like all the better to slave away upon the human run plantation—no doubt one of many projects spreading the unalloyed joys of marginal economics throughout the solar system and beyond. All this information is deftly arranged by MacDonald, woven into a story that works hard to make more of less. A good example of the “show, don’t tell” principle in action. And then this happens:

Shane Brent went up to his room in Hostel B, shut the door wearily, listlessly pushed the News button under the wall screen and watched the news of the day with little interest as he slowly undressed. Crowds demonstrating in Asia-Block against the new nutrition laws. Project 80, two years out said to be nearing Planet K. Skirts once again to be midway between knee and hip next season. The first bachelor parenthood case comes up to decide whether a child born of the fertilization of a laboratory ovum can legally inherit. Brent frowned. Soon a clear definition of the legal rights of “Synthetics” would have to be made. He stopped suddenly as he had an idea. He decided to submit it to Frank. Why not get Inter-Federal Aid for a project to develop Synthetics to fill personnel requirements for future project flights? But would humanity agree to colonization by Synthetics? It still wasn’t clearly understood whether or not they’d breed true.

This block of information—a microdump perchance?—plays little or no role in the main plot. Nonetheless, it helps further set the scene—or rather flesh it out. After reading these tantalising flashes of the world that the character Shane Brent inhabits, I found the author’s previous efforts at convincing me of this future even more secure. Though clearly an infodump, it is far from the indigestible mass hated by the haters. The chief protagonist even interacts with it. It is an example of the infodump at the service of the story, working in concert with the “show, don’t tell” principle with the aim of further establishing mood and setting with subtle, not overwhelming detail.

Laurence Manning’s story, The Living Galaxy (1934) is, on the other hand, the very opposite of MacDonald’s wonderfully brief and efficient infodump. These days when Manning’s story is remembered, it is best known for being arguably the first, fully fictional rendering of the “generation starship” trope—though this is under dispute (see, the Generation Starships entry at SF Encyclopedia). Manning’s story is all infodump. It’s at its best in its initial conceit of fictional pedagogy: a future history presented as the past of the near immortal heirs of homo sapiens. Unfortunately, this wonderful set up is frittered away in its dull delivery. My heart goes out to my imaginary descendants in this story, having to sit through their marvellous past rendered boring. It seems as if school sux, even in utopia.

Being all infodump is by no means a slight upon this work. For is the absence of entertainment or convincing distraction the best damnation we can manage?

Indeed, I have not come to damn the infodump but praise it.

fig. 2. Wonder Stories, September 1934, in which Laurence Manning’s ‘The Living Galaxy’ first appeared.

2.

I believe there are at least two souls of the infodump. The first is all that is listed as worthy of despair; for instance, the too common reality of the indigestibly prolix and dull in information retrieval. But there is another, more striking class of infodump of which the example from John M. MacDonald above gives us a glimpse. One of its hallmarks is an excess of realism—though excessive only in a literary sense. What I mean is that the reality conjured is by way of a sensory overload, in which fragments of the imagined future (or “present”, for that matter) threaten to drown the reader. John Brunner’s Stand on Zanzibar (1968) is an excellent, though partial realisation of such an excess (more on this below). Nonetheless, both souls—variously dull and poetic—push at the limits of the novel, even if one is more self-consciously set upon breaking the conventions of literature.

The source of my ruminations on excessive realism is Guy Debord. He once wrote upon a situationist use of theatre which influences my thoughts here. Debord’s aim was decidedly more anti-literary, insofar as he envisaged the negation of theatre by way of ‘an excess of realism’. The characters would meet in a ‘normal’ situation lacking in ‘spirit or interest’, in which the conversation would be equally ‘normal […], which is to say, not very intelligent, not very stupid. A permanent and empty spectacle, like life […], with brief overtures of what could be’.[1] Such a vision reminds me of some of the achievements of literary modernism: from Lautréamont’s Maldoror to Joyce’s Ulysses by way of Knut Hamsun’s Hunger. The point being that the excess of realism Debord invokes is neither just tedious nor simply marvellous, but both (‘not very intelligent, not very stupid’ surely being alternate names for the two souls).[2]

Two of my favourite SF novels are arguably all infodump: Olaf Stapledon’s Last and First Men (1930) and Star Maker (1937). Stapledon’s works, founding epics after the fact, are without peer. In the case of the former, the excessive nature of a future history is underlined by its being an unrelenting infodump, albeit in a more poetic register than most. Stapledon errs on the side of epic, the form in which the infodump is best suited, wedged as it were between the lyrical and the dramatic. Nonetheless, they are not the only examples of the prose poetry of the infodump. Walter M. Miller’s short story, The Big Hunter (1952), is also an excellent example. John Brunner’s Stand on Zanzibar (1968) approaches the majestic scale of Stapledon by taking a leaf from the masters of modernity to turn its eye upon the epic quality of the future everyday. Indeed, Brunner comes close to Debord’s demand of an excess of realism. He falls short only to the extent that he concedes ground to the strictures of plot and characterisation.

I have often envisaged an infodump novel that would push further in the direction Brunner opened. Except, whereas Brunner inserted character and plot to relieve the reader of his assault upon their sensibility, I would strip the novel of all such concessions in order to leave the cavalcade of these fragments from a future mass culture. Undoubtedly, by turns tedious and entrancing, the two souls of the infodump would be reunited, all the better to underscore the necessary irreality of aspiring after the real upon the page.

Is it too much to imagine the infodump in its excessive guises as the real source of literature? I am thinking here of not just the dull and repetitive parts of the Epic of Gilgamesh or the Iliad and Odyssey, but especially of the hard prose of the chronicles, Herodotus’ Histories being the true grandaddy of all the infodumps. Closer to the present, Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick comes to mind with its innumerable and often unjustly maligned digressions into whale history and folk lore. Stephane Mallarmé’s two paragraph prose poem Le Phénomène futur (1871) is more obviously science fictional, and a simple joy at two paragraphs in length, leaving its world building remarkably dense and slight simultaneously. Mallarmé, to my mind, constitutes a bridge of sorts between the SF ghetto and the 19th century literary avant-garde of Europe. On the far, more science fictional side of the bridge I can see Edgar Allan Poe’s Eureka (1848) and J. H. Rosny aîné’s La Légende Sceptique (1889), both prose poems of cosmic dimension. On the more self-consciously literary side of the bridge I spy Jorge Luis Borges—though he undoubtedly slummed on the far side as well. Surely Borge’s Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius (1940) is the prose poem of the infodump? Further away, harder to see, buried in the sub-structures of the bridge, an old, dog-eared copy of Thomas Browne’s Urn Burial (1658) lies wedged.

Can I be serious that all of these are iterations of the infodump? At the very least I believe not only in the merit of the infodump, but also that what we categorise under this term is somewhat less straightforward than is often imagined. Not only is the SF infodump not as dull or turgid as is often imagined, infodump-like examples of prose can be found scattered through modern literature and its more ancient progenitors. My attraction to the infodump is, nonetheless, leavened by a certain fascination with those that have set out to break literature, or at least give it a good thrashing.

For where does the infodump begin or end? On the page? In a conversation? Broken up into a cavalcade of memes? Indeed, I dream of the world as infodump, and of a work that is one great infodump, a science fiction tour de force that inevitably and simultaneously will be a grand misstep. My Zanzibar that is no longer Zanzibar. Necessarily, it will divide opinion. There can be no other way.


FOOTNOTES

[1] Guy Debord, Correspondence: The foundation of the Situationist International (June 1957-August 1960), trans. Stuart Kendall & John McHale, Los Angeles: Semiotext(e), 2009, p. 376 (letter to André Frankin, 24 July 1960).

[2] It’s worth noting that Debord saw little of use in the novel form (at least for situationist uses): ‘There is not much future in the détournement of complete novels, but during the transitional phase there might be a certain number of undertakings of this sort’. The only such uses that Debord approved of, insofar as they brought him and other situationists the use of money in a moneyed world, were Michèle Bernstein’s parodic detournements of Françoise Sagan on the one hand, and the Nouveau roman of Alain Robbe-Grillet, on the other: respectively, Tous les chevaux du roi (1960), and La Nuit (1961), both Roman à clefs of sorts, dealing with Bernstein’s life among fellow young International Letterists.

“Who am I?”

fig. 1. Somewhere in Sydney, Australia, c. 1969 A.D.

The photo above was taken some time between my first and second birthday. That would make it most likely 1969. I like to imagine that I have been left all alone while the rest of my family has gone to watch the moon landing on the tele.

A few toys scattered around. Some pathetic beads on the inaccurately named play pen. The magnificent desolation of the family home. My sad eyes betray the truth of the situation, imprisoned behind a stockade that I learn to push around as I gain in strength. The literal prison that I gradually internalise and push around for the rest of my life.

I don’t remember the moon landings—and yet I do. Not from when they happened, but shortly thereafter. In the 1970s I became childishly obsessed with Project Apollo. I awoke to it not long after it ended—perhaps as it ended. My first clear memories of the space race are in its immediate wake: Skylab in 1973 and 1974. Puzzled and amazed by the few pictures appearing in the newspapers, a desultory epilogue with none of the fanfare of its earlier, grander cousin.

To my child’s mind, thirsty for sensation and experience amidst an ocean of naivety, Apollo quickly came to represent the apex of human achievement. The great adventure beyond the atmosphere, the first step on the road to the stars. Surely this was the old dream become fact of the science fiction I had already begun to consume; paperbacks passed down from my siblings on high: Robert Silverberg, Arthur C. Clarke, C. S. Lewis, Robert Heinlein, Ursula K. Le Guin, Frank Herbert, Philip Jose Farmer. And so on—all the begats in a newfound materialist pantheon.

The 1970s passed. And the inexplicable monotony and random violence of school became as familiar as the weather, as my growing awareness, awash with the confabulated fancies of just so stories of space and time, became fitfully aware of the adult world of work, economics and other miseries.

When did I lose the desire, that pressing need to be an astronaut just like Colonel Steven Austin? That perverse longing to be simultaneously less fictional and more fantastical. Would it be possible, in my onrushing adult life, to juggle the struggle with fembots and bigfoot while furthering Neil Armstrong’s mundane triumph?

The never-ending delays to the launch of the first Space Shuttle played a role in my creeping disillusion, as age and a changing world alerted me to how far we had fallen from the dizzy heights of the all too brief space age. To have missed it, even though I was born a full 18 months before the first human set foot upon the moon, was surely the greatest misery in my life before my eleventh year.

When the 50th anniversary of the moon landings rolled around back in 2019, before the pandemic came to remind us that life is far more fragile than the jokers who rule us would have us believe, I tried to reconnect with my first love. I bought Lego. I bought more Lego. I built the kits and tried to feel connected to my past—real and imagined. I even framed an old, National Geographic moon map from February 1969, replete with “proposed Apollo landing sites” dutifully marked out on this map of my future life in space. But I felt little other than the cloying taste of nostalgia, overripe for demographic targeting and other lamentable scams and marketing opportunities. Indeed, I made a fake ad in the style of the 1960s that attempted to summarise my critical anxiety and fascination with July 1969.

fig. 2. “When will all these shadows of god cease to darken our minds?”

The space race failed as surely as the so-called struggle between the East and West: one shitty system masquerading as communism, the other disguised as freedom. Both miserable mirrors of each other’s spectacular claim for human apotheosis.

Meanwhile, in the veritable ruins of the last century and more we wonder more about the unbearably hot days soon to come upon this Earth. Other viruses have invaded our collective imaginaries, none quite so bright or as faintly ridiculous as the childish wish to live out there among the stars. Still, for those of us unfortunate enough to have been struck by the bug, the fever dreams of space exploration and extra-terrestrial colonies that never came continue to haunt the bleak future that did arrive. And the paltry visions of the current hucksters of commercial space exploration does nothing to mollify this, only rendering more starkly what we have lost in all its aching, dayglow imagery.


For more information regarding the image, “When will all these shadows of god cease to darken our minds?”, see here.

A tale of Shamass as told by Miss Verity Hawkins

The following tale was related to me in a dream. Its source is indisputable, as too its author. It first appeared as A Christmas tale in Julius of H. H. B. Shamass, as told to Miss Verity Hawkins, 104 O.P. More Shamass available here.

***

fig. 1. A broken gadget.

He told me of a dream, or was it the memory of a voyage? He found himself in a far country. Alone on a dark plain he was seized by a great birdlike creature that blotted out what little remained of the pitiful sky. Caught up in its talons and their dread passage, he was unsure for a time if he was the bird or the disquiet of the air.

                Soon, he was rudely deposited at the gates of a metropolis. He drifted into the sprawling city. Beneath the dismal sun, its citizens existed in a perpetual twilight. They called the city Izdubal—or possibly Gilgitron. Its drab streets and ravaged buildings and towers were encircled by an immense putrid river that beat upon its crumbling shores. Here, life was just so much rot in a universe of decay.

                Though rank and festering, the blight of the city was far from the strangest sight. He noted that all the people he came across—all but one as he was to discover—had encumbered themselves with a most puzzling contraption. Carried upon their chests a device was slung that contained in its centre a small, polished screen. Across the surface images flittered that bore a striking resemblance to the bearer. He stopped, fascinated by these stuttering forms, and soon realised that they were moving at a slightly faster rate than the lives so represented. “My future,” one of the city-folk whispered. “All of our futures,” another mumbled, whose screen was dark—or rather, a clutter of static. He pondered these words and realised that for many, indeed for all these people in the fullness of time, their screen life outpaced their actual. He soon saw many more of them, young, old and the barely living, whose screens were dead. Indeed, it seemed to him that no one here was fully alive or dead, and time itself was neither overripe nor completely barren—just uniformly dull. Screen life as bare recompense for something lost; a burden disguised as an apt distraction. All waiting for their dead life to catch up with its representation.

                On the outskirts, across the raging river and past the ruins of the old city of the sun god Shamm, he found a refugee from Izdubal. She, like he, wore a helmet to guard against the foul air that some called atmosphere. On a mound, near a lone tree whose roots broke through a nearby burial chamber of a long-forgotten priest of the sun, she stood bereft of screen and so too her double life. At her feet, the gadget lay broken. There, with neither concern nor the complications of abstraction, she sung the day into being:

                I believe in the gods. There are good reasons. They dress only in feathers. Eat and in turn are eaten. They are the vaults of heaven. I know this. I have heard these things. For I am their scribe. The suffering of their transcendence. In truth I am only a leaf. The entropy of contentment. Mark these words. Be their filth. Anticipate the transition between one sound and the next. Find necessity, never freedom, in these gaps. And as penance, dwell there. For they are divine in all but name . . .

                He tried to join her upon the mound, but was never able to gain a sure footing. She smiled, wiped the tears from her face and continued to sing.

fig. 2. In the ruins of the old city of the sun god Shamm

Frederik Pohl’s mass consumer (2): The Tunnel Under the World

fig. 1. Interior illustration by Ed Emshwiller, for The Tunnel Under the World, Galaxy Science Fiction magazine, January 1955, p. 7.

The following is a bit of a mess—two, possibly three articles struggling to be one. A book review, a critique of book reviews, and a valiant attempt to make of the review something more critical. I’m not sure I achieve any of these goals, but in the attempt, something emerges: ideas, criticisms, elusive thoughts. A failed whole that underlines its failure. Much like the lot of all mortal things.

*

In the preamble to my review of Frederick Pohl’s The Midas Plague, I denounced the book review as a literary form. You may think that it was not the wisest of opening moves in a review of my own. To be fair to my paradoxical self, I was taking aim at a particular type of review, one that eschews critique in favour of plot summary and bland opinion (“It’s great, read it!”). But to be unfair to myself, who says—apart from me—that my reviews escape the morass of opinion?

Like all artefacts, at the heart of the book review lies the problem of our historical moment itself. Even and especially when that beating heart appears absent. The following can seem so obvious, so platitudinous, that for many it is of little or no consequence: books appear today primarily as commodities. They are produced not only by authors, but given the mass market in books, also and especially by workers in factories, before being circulated and transported by still more workers, finally to be sold by booksellers or increasingly bought and sold online by still other workers. That books exist in a book trade may appear hardly surprising; but once we begin to examine the nature of that trade, particularly the modern book trade from the time of the first industrialised production of books as recently as the mid-19th century, right up until the vast warehouses of the internet behemoths of the present, we begin to see that the book trade is far from the simple or transparent fact it sometimes imagines itself to be. What Marx once evocatively noted of the commodity in general, can be said of the book trade and all that it entails in particular: “at first sight [it appears] as an extremely obvious, trivial thing. But itsanalysis brings out that it is a very strange thing, abounding in metaphysical subtleties and theological niceties.”

Even when books do not immediately appear as commodities—for example, when they are presented as zines for free—their form implicitly references the commodity, albeit as a critique (even if only implicit) of the purported necessity of the commodity form. That books appears today under these historical and social conditions—conditions largely beyond the control of any single author, reader, print worker, courier, bookseller or zinester—requires that we confront such conditions. Of course, we can remain silent about such issues, or even confuse and obfuscate them. But the necessity of making sense of this world remains—one either takes up this task or ignores it at their peril. That we review the explicit content of books while saying little or nothing of their forms of appearance—which is to say the ways in which they are produced, circulated, sold and consumed—is perhaps a greater story than any so far told.

The task of addressing the book or story appearing in the form of a commodity can seem somewhat easier when the explicit content of the story itself deals with this question. For instance, Frederick Pohl’s The Tunnel Under the World. Here, Pohl takes aim at the lengths to which capitalists will go in order to sell a commodity. But it is unclear whether he has a problem with commodities or just creeping commodification. In this Pohl is little different than those orthodox Marxists (from which Pohl himself hailed as a callow youth) who consider the problem of capitalist wealth as primarily one of distribution rather than the truly horrible fact that the entirety of human activity has been progressively forced to appear “as an immense collection of commodities” (Marx again). Nonetheless, Pohl effectively conjures the grinding repetitiveness of much of what passes for social life in a society dominated by commodity production and consumption—much more so than his failed satire, The Midas Plague.

*

fig. 2. Interior illustration by Ed Emshwiller, for The Tunnel Under the World, Galaxy Science Fiction magazine, January 1955, p. 13.

Published in Galaxy Science Fiction magazine in January 1955, The Tunnel Under the World presents a world of the then not-too-distant future—sometime in the 1980s I reckon. In Pohl’s imagined future the burgeoning advertising machine of post-war USA has reached an apotheosis of sorts.

“On the morning of June 15th, Guy Burkhardt woke up screaming out of a dream.

“It was more real than any dream he had ever had in his life.”

Burkhardt, a white, middle class Yankee Everyman—familiar to the entire planet thanks to the Twentieth Century—soon discovers things are not as they seem. Not only is his Everytown, Tylerton, beset by peculiarly aggressive advertising campaigns, he further discovers that unbeknownst to most of its denizens the entire town is reliving June 15th over and over again.

“And every day the same—always the 15th of June, always my landlady, Mrs. Keefer, is sweeping the front steps, always the same headline in the papers at the corner. It gets monotonous, friend.”

Soon Burkhardt realises that the never-ending day and the offensive advertising are far from unrelated. In fact [OBLIGATORY AND LATE SPOILER ALERT] he soon discovers that the entire town is a miniaturised simulation of the town he thinks he is living in. The horrible truth that Guy Burkhardt uncovers is that he, and the “twenty or thirty thousand other people” of Tylerton have been killed by a tremendous leak and consequent explosion at the Contro Chemicals plants on the town’s outskirts. Seizing upon this “opportunity” a group of advertisers, presumably with the connivance of the US state, move in and retrieve the personalities from the corpses (the high point of the science fictional handwaving of the story), in order to imprint them on tiny robots. And so, they rebuild Tylerton, “a perfect slice of America”, as a scale model city, populated by tiny robot simulacra, all for the nefarious purposes of the dreaded admen and their market research.

“They aren’t Russians and they aren’t Martians. These people are advertising men!”

While reading The Tunnel Under the World I was struck by how Philip K. Dickian it felt—with a dash of Samuel Beckett’s absurdity. Pohl evokes a dream like setting seemingly more real than the real, in which the unwitting characters are stuck, perpetually repeating their lives like clockwork. Here, only the broken machines become aware, and yet this awareness is little recompense. Those who escape their programming finally understand the awful truth that lies beyond appearance: there is no escape, except death—and perhaps not even then.

Pohl’s story most resembles, to my mind, Philip K. Dick’s Adjustment Team (1954). Dick had published this work some four months before Pohl’s The Tunnel Under the World.[1] I do not know if Pohl had read Dick’s work prior to writing The Tunnel Under the World, but the similarities are striking. In Adjustment Team the protagonist, Ed Fletcher, accidentally discovers that his reality is “adjusted” by unseen manipulators that are more bureaucrat than numinous divinity. Indeed, Adjustment Team can seem like the template for a key Dickian theme that Philip K. would chisel away at for the rest of his life: nothing is as it seems.  

“There was Tylerton—an ersatz city, but looking so real and familiar that Burckhardt almost imagined the whole episode a dream. It was no dream, though.”

Where Pohl’s version of Dick seems superior to my mind—at least to the version presented in Adjustment Team—is in the way Pohl evokes the bleak repetitiveness of life in modern capitalist societies. Inevitably, Guy Burkhardt’s reliving of June 15th is given a definitive science fictional explanation in the story. But in truth, Burkhardt realisation that he is trapped in an endless cycle of work and consumption effectively presents the grim monotony of everyday capitalist life. By having the workers of Tylerton being forced to continue the living death of alienation beyond their physical extinction, Pohl cleverly draws attention to what the situationists would come to call the “dead time” of life under capitalism.

However, the circularity of the story also reveals the limits of Pohl’s tale—and perhaps also reveals the story’s limitation as itself a commodity. There is no escape from the little town of Tylerton, and the story ends as bleakly as it began. Burkhardt’s growing awareness, and final discovery of the truth leaves him in no way able to challenge his position. His only option appears to be: cooperate or die. Certainly, Pohl paints him into a science fictional corner. But I feel that it reflects Pohl’s own pessimism about the impossibility of confronting the mundane horror of capitalism. Burkhardt’s awareness cannot lead to a revolutionary consciousness or praxis within the bounds of the story; but in truth, Pohl had become dominated by a cynicism regarding the potentialities and possibilities facing his fellow humans after his less than inspiring brush with Stalinism as a teenager. Indeed, his cynicism is on full display when Burkhardt is confronted with the choice made by another of the town’s denizens, Alice Horn. Horn, “the most beautiful thing he had ever seen in Tylerton,” first appears as another town dweller. Soon, Burkhardt begins to realise that she is somehow in on the mysterious plot that surrounds the town. Finally, when she reveals the actual fate of the town to Burkhardt, she also reveals her role in the deception as a in situ agent of the advertisers:

“I was an ugly woman, Mr Burkhardt, and nearly sixty years old. Life had passed me. And when Mr. Dorchin offered me the chance to live again as a beautiful girl, I jumped at the opportunity. Believe me, I jumped, in spite of its disadvantages.”

Perhaps more distantly, Pohl’s fictional townspeople, repetitively going about their daily undead lives, recalls for me a stunning sequence from Raymond Roussel’s quasi-proto-surrealist fable Locus Solus (1914). Roussel’s work tells the story of the scientist and inventor Martial Canterel guiding a group of guests around his country estate, Locus Solus. Similar to his earlier “novel”,[2] Impressions of Africa (1910), the plot is largely irrelevant, playing mostly the part of vehicle for presenting a series of vignettes in which Canterel shows a series of bizarre contraptions to the guests. In one particularly long and evocative sequence, the guests are shown a series of eight glass enclosures that contain reanimated cadavers. Within, pumped full of the suitably science fictional drugs “vitalium” and “resurrectine,” the undead on display perpetually re-enact “certain outstanding minutes” of their lives.[3]

Roussel’s fiction is deeply unsettling, though equally bizarre and fascinating. His stories are intensely otherworldly in a way few science fiction or fantasy writers achieve. Indeed, apart from the trappings of everyday existence (scientists, travellers, foreign locales, etcetera, etcetera), Roussel’s fiction seems to bear only the most tangential connection to our world. Pohl, on the other hand, wanted to interrogate reality—after a fashion. The target in The Tunnel Under the World is clearly US capitalism circa the 1950s. The horror of the story draws its power from the real horror of capitalism. Tylerton is merely an exaggeration of a situation that already existed in the 1950s.

“You finally understand. There’s no place to go. You know it now. I could have told you, but you might not have believed me, so it was better for you to see it yourself.”

The more terrifying conclusion to be drawn by readers is that for the capitalist nothing is beyond the realm of possibility when it comes to improving sale’s figures. The Tunnel Under the World is a cautionary fable about the limits of commodification. By Pohl’s reckoning, there is no escape from the perils of capitalism in suburban USA, only a labyrinth that draws you further in to its repetitive cycles.

“Sometimes he screams, sometimes he wheedles, threatens, begs, cajoles… but his voice goes on and on through one June 15th after another.”

*

fig. 3. Interior illustration by Ed Emshwiller, for The Tunnel Under the World, Galaxy Science Fiction magazine, January 1955, p. 37.

A final note on the role of repetition in the tale. Re-watching an old skool Doctor Who story recently, Robert Holmes’ Carnival of Monsters (1973), I was struck by his use of repetition. In a set up that has become more familiar since the appearance of the film Groundhog Day in 1993, the Doctor and Jo find themselves in a moment of time that continues to repeat itself. Importantly they can affect some of the detail and content of the moment, but not the overarching formal structure—the moment repeats itself despite any minor changes that are made. As a representation of the historical dilemma we face in capitalist societies—of the sense of never-ending entrapment being caught in the web of wage labour and exclusive property with no way out—the cinematic evocation of this circularity is particularly effective. To what extent were such narrative structures themselves only made possible with the advent of the cinema; the cinema’s singular ability to record and replay an instance of time over and over? However, this apparent perfection of cinematic repetition was itself made possible by the machine-like rhythms of the factory and industrialism. The cinema is the first, truly capitalist art form, in the sense that it is the product of the advanced industrial and scientific techniques that emerged from the development of industrialism in the 19th century.

The cinematic evocation of circular time is the technological realisation of a social fact, the inscription of the capitalist imaginary into the ephemeral reality of its brief historical passage. Its failing as representation, and so as an ideological representation, is to be found in its various uses and interpretations. The apparent technical perfection of cinematic repetition can lend itself to the maladroit theories that read the historical specificity of capitalist alienation into the very substance of existence—for instance, the misplaced ontologies of Heidegger and Foucault. Not unlike Kant mistaking the structures of capitalist modernity for the eternal verities of the supersensible things-in-themselves.

Did the cinema influence Raymond Roussel’s repetitious fancies? Possibly. Frederick Pohl and Philip K Dick were deeply affected, undoubtedly, by their cinema drenched upbringing in the US of the 1920s, 30s and 40s. The truth of these various Groundhog Days is not the eternal lie of capitalism, i.e., that we can only make use of these structures, never change them. Rather, the truth is that cinema time, just like capitalist time, is a structure in the making and, even more so, in the unmaking.


FOOTNOTES

[1] Dick submitted the manuscript to his literary agent early in 1953. See ‘Notes’ in The Collected Stories of Philip K. Dick, Volume Two: Adjustment Team (1952-1953), Subterranean Press, 2011, pp. 400-401.

[2] I use the term “novel” hesitantly, simply because Roussel’s work can also be categorised in terms of the modernists anti-novels that were calling into question, around the same time as his work, the form and content of the 19th century bourgeois novel.

[3] Raymond Roussel, Locus Solus, translated by Rupert Copeland Cunningham, London: John Calder, 2003, p. 118.

fig. 4. Strictly speaking, this article is not a part of the not-a-challenge, considering that the month in question is January. However, I began writing this piece with an eye to making it my second contribution, and the bulk of the text was completed in January 2021. Plus I like the image. Plus I like the good folk of The Vintage Science Fiction Month not-a-challenge. So there.

Frederik Pohl’s mass consumer (1): The Midas Plague

fig. 1. Interior illustration for ‘The Midas Plague’ by Ed Emshwiller, Galaxy Magazine, April 1954.

1.

There is something I find repellent about the idea of the book review. To my mind they rarely communicate more than the individual preference of the reviewer. Which is not to say that I believe we can find a single objective reading of any text, but rather that reviews—and here I am primarily thinking of reviews of fiction—rarely rise above the accident of opinion. If done well, the review can be a thing of beauty, a creative work in its own right. Even better, the critical review attempts to situate a text in the time and place of its composition and consumption, beyond the jaded whim of the reviewer. And perhaps best of all is the polemical review that treats the work at hand only as an opportunity to wade into the eddies of the historical present, with some combative advice on how best to remedy its dolorous state (preferably from an explicitly revolutionary perspective). Unfortunately, many reviews are rarely more than a hackneyed summary of the text with a vague judgment tacked on. But perhaps this is not the fault of any one reviewer but rather of the condition of reviews given the suffocating dominance of the mass market in book commodities. Today, the mundane truth of the review—whether hailing from blog or bespoke journal—is to be the handmaiden of the sales pitch, and little else.

Maybe this is why I feel less anxious and more relieved in reviewing old works—stories and novels past their publishing prime. Certainly, in the face of present turmoil I take comfort, after a fashion, in the relative stability of the recent past. ‘Stability’ here is strictly a temporal notion, in the sense that this time is over with, past, and complete (as it were), a relatively stable object of enquiry, even if this recent past was beset with its own instabilities and crises when possessed of the mantle of the historical present. Of course, in another sense the recent past is not done with to the extent that it remains with us: a constitutive element of the present insofar as it is an immediate condition of such. For example, the story I review below dealt with, in the 1950s, the then new reality of ‘mass consumption’ whose novelty has since metamorphosed into a mundane fact of the last half century of global capitalism. And perhaps here is where my review may play some critical or even polemical role: to defamiliarize ourselves from the suffocatingly commonplace by showing that what is apparently trivial or routine is anything but.

2.

Some months back I outlined a research project of sorts, what I called the science fiction spectacle. There, I wanted to draw attention to one thing in particular: the appearance in works of science fiction in the 1950s and 60s of what Guy Debord called variously ‘the spectacle’ or ‘the commodity-spectacle’. For now, it is enough to say that by this Debord meant the materialisation of a world view based upon and manifesting the rise to dominance of commodity production and consumption, first in Europe and the US and then the rest of the world. Since outlining this project, I have also been ruminating upon a related notion of Debord’s: the decomposition of culture. In my reading of SF, particularly Anglo-American SF between 1940 and 1970, I have been struck by how it formally recapitulates the progression of the European literary avant-garde of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Namely, we witness in SF of this time and place, the emergence of a self-reflective and recursive decomposition of the artistic object. By “decomposition” I mean, primarily, the literary “experiments” in the form and content of the short story and the novel. This can be seen particularly in the rise of the so-called ‘new wave’ in science fiction in the 1960s.

3.

So what has this got to do with Frederik Pohl?

“Finally, the review!”

Frederik Pohl, ‘The Midas Plague’ (Galaxy Science Fiction, April 1954)

In the 1950s Pohl became known for stories that ruminated on the changing nature of contemporary society, particularly with regard to the transformations in the modes of production and consumption—what some called back then the emergence of a “consumer society”. His best known—and perhaps the classic iteration of 1950s SF satire—is the novel he wrote with C. M. Kornbluth: The Space Merchants (1953), aka Gravy Planet, in its original serial publication (Galaxy magazine, 1952). In the novel, Pohl and Kornbluth ably illustrate what Guy Debord would later describe as the “incessant fabrication of pseudo-needs”[1] consequent upon the rise to dominance of capitalist production:

He extended a pack of cigarettes. | They were Greentips. I said automatically: “No thanks. I smoke Starrs; they’re tastier.” And automatically I lit one, of course. I was becoming the kind of consumer we used to love. Think about smoking, think about Starrs, light a Starr. Light a Starr, think about Popsie, get a squirt. Get a squirt, think about Crunchies, buy a box. Buy a box, think about smoking, light a Starr. And at every step roll out the words of praise that had been dinned into you through your eyes, ears and pores. “I smoke Starrs; they’re tastier. I drink Popsie; it’s zippy. I eat Crunchies; they tang your tongue. I smoke—”[2]

Like The Space Merchants, I consider Pohl’s The Midas Plague as an instance of the ‘science fiction spectacle’ (briefly discussed in section {2} above). Unlike The Space Merchants, The Midas Plague is not a good story. Its central conceit, the inversion of the wealth of mass consumer society, such that a rich person consumes less than a poor one, is at first sight satirically sharp. The set-up, which presents what was once known as the working class utterly dominated by the necessity to consume the vast panoply of goods churned out of the automated factories of a future welfare state capitalism, is biting. Lamentably, the more Pohl works to make this conceit believable, the more it becomes tiresome. Nonetheless, judging from the number of times it has been reprinted and translated, The Midas Plague seems to be popular with someone.

The critic and author Barry N. Malzberg noted in an introduction to the work that,

The audacious and patchwork concept underlying this story […] was Horace Gold’s [editor of Galaxy] and according to Pohl he had offered it to almost all of his regular contributors, asking for a story centred on the idea. The idea lacks all credibility, everyone (including Pohl) told him, and everyone refused to write something so patently unbelievable until, according to Pohl, Horace browbeat him into an attempt and Pohl decided that it was less trouble to deliver something than continue to resist. To his utter shock, the story was received by Gold and his readership with great glee, was among the most popular GALAXY ever published (or Pohl) and one of the most anthologized. Whether this demonstrated the audacity and scope of Gold’s unreason or whether it confirmed Gold’s genius (or both) Pohl was utterly unable to decide.[3]

I can only sympathise with Pohl’s confusion here. Sure, it is ably written, but any claim this satire has to incisiveness or wit is lost in its overlong and ramshackle telling. Judging from Damon Knight’s near contemporaneous review, few people other than Horace Gold seemed to think much of it:

This [story] is good for one laugh, or possibly two, but there is some-thing gaggingly irrational after a while in the spectacle of Pohl’s hero choking down more food than he can eat. The question, “Why doesn’t he flush the stuff down the drain?” comes up several times during the story, but Pohl never answers it, he only makes vaguely relevant-sounding noises and changes the subject. The alternate solution, that of putting robots to work using up all the stuff the hero is supposed to consume, comes thirty pages too late in the story, but is hailed by everybody as a revolutionary idea.[4]

Unlike Knight I am less concerned with the failed “realism” of the story. That realism is at issue in fiction is patent—after all, such realism or “naturalism” is the very hallmark of the one-time avant-garde radicalism of bourgeois literature. However, it is here that science fiction helps reveal the chief impasse of such literature, perhaps even more than the modernist literature that set out to call into question nineteenth century realism. As the saying goes, the map is not the territory: more so when the territory in question either does not yet exist; or when it comes to pass, will most likely never exist in the way it was imagined. Of course, this is not a problem for those that conceive of science fiction as merely the fictionalised present. In either case, we are back at square one. Either the realism of a fictional future is inherently problematic (just because… the future…), or the realism of the novel itself is problematic simply because as a literary artefact it is necessarily more than simply the reflection of the true state of things.

The realism, or not, of The Midas Plague is at issue because Pohl attempts to fashion a coherent, realist picture of the future. And very quickly, as Knight points out, this sham coherence unravels. For Pohl’s future to “work”, one must accept that the vast majority of its denizens are idiots at best. Indeed, I suspect that this says more about Frederik Pohl the jaded ex-Young Communist League member, whose despair at the present state of capitalist society is underwritten by his loss of faith in the capacity of the masses to understand or even desire to change the nature of the present social arrangement.

What would have been more interesting by far would have been something akin to what Pohl and Kornbluth attempted with The Space Merchants: to whit, an extrapolation of current trends. But in The Midas Plague it is precisely the science fictional gloss that gets in the way of Pohl’s satirical intent. Still, buried in the ponderous extent of The Midas Plague lie elements of a genuinely radical critique of capitalism:

It wasn’t so hard to be a proper, industrious consumer if you worked at it, he reflected. It was only the malcontents, the ne’er-do-wells and the incompetents who simply could not adjust to the world around them.[5]

Unfortunately, the genuinely biting and occasionally funny satire quickly fades under the burden of the stupidities of plot and character. As Damon Knight remarked in his review,

The story proper is just as dull as it ought to be, but Pohl has embellished it with some additional scenes that are better than it deserves—fine, zany drunk episodes, involving a couple of very sharp minor characters and some highly agreeable mock poetry and politics.[6]

Fortunately for us, Pohl had another go at the fictional critique of present trends. A mere nine months after the publication of The Midas Plague he returned with The Tunnel Under the World, broadly similar in its interrogation of the new arrangements (particularly with an eye to what Debord called “pseudo-needs”). This time, however, he hit pay dirt. Tunnel… is a vastly superior work, whose fictional premise and execution lives up to its critical bite.

I will return to discuss Pohl’s The Tunnel Under the World in my next post.

fig. 2. Cover illustration for Galaxy, April 1954: ‘An Expedition to Eden’ by Ed Emshwiller.

FOOTNOTES

[1] Guy Debord, The Society of the Spectacle, chapter 2, thesis 51

[2] Frederik Pohl & C. M. Kornbluth, The Space Merchants, chapter 8.

[3] Barry N. Malzberg, ‘eForward’ to ‘The Midas Plague’, The Galaxy Project, Rosetta Books, 2011. In his memoir, The Way The Future Was, Pohl noted that The Midas Plague was one of only “two stories in my whole catalog which were suggested by someone else,” concluding, perhaps over-generously, that “it is a source of some chagrin to me that I like them better than most”.

[4] Damon Knight, ‘Infinity’s Choice’, Infinity Science Fiction, October 1957, pp. 108-109

[5] Frederik Pohl, ‘The Midas Plague’ (Galaxy Science Fiction, April 1954).

[6] Knight, ‘Infinity’s Choice’.

fig. 3. This has been a contribution to Vintage Science Fiction not-a-challenge.

A tale of science fiction and decomposition

fig. 1. Robert Rauschenberg or Richard Powers?

Over at science fiction and other suspect ruminations, Joachim Boaz has written about the excellent Walter M. Miller Jr short story, Death of a Spaceman (1954, aka Momento Homo). James Harris has also been inspired to blog about the same story at Classics of Science Fiction.

Joachim plants his flag firmly in the camp of recursive sf:

‘I am far more interested in the way “Death of the Spaceman” interacts with pulp science fiction— i.e. “drivel written in the old days” about the “romance” of space (16). Donny negatively contrasts his own experience with the stories that are told about the stars and adventure.

‘Miller doesn’t set about smashing it all with a bludgeon  (like Malzberg would at the end of the next decade), but rather presents future experiences as prone to the same moments of painful self-reflection as life comes to its end. He charts the emotional roller coaster that waffles between moments of calm and the growing tension/anger/helplessness…. and after Donny tells all his “rotten messes” to the priest (20), he comes to the realization that we make who we are, sins and failure and sadness and all.’

This is the key to Anglo-American sf in the 1950s and 60s.

I like the idea that Malzberg’s bludgeon is seen as the continuation and maybe even culmination of Miller’s more self-consciously literary crafting of pulp SF themes. Guy Debord spoke about the decomposition of the arts as their trajectory under the solvent pressure of capitalism and commodity relations. “From Miller to Malzberg” could be the title of a book dealing with the high period of the decomposition of Anglo-American sf: 1950-1970. Surely a timing to generate scholarly disputes by…

I am intrigued by the idea that SF recapitulates a trajectory followed by European poetry, painting and literature in and around avant-garde circles through the 19th and early 20th centuries—and find it suitably weird too, as if I am reading a science fiction account of a future history. I often like to imagine alternative versions, science fictional anticipations of the decomposition of SF, a vision of a bizarre and cracked future 21st century written in the 1950s. One of my favourites is Walter Miller’s story of a robotic theatre in the early 21st century. The Darfsteller is a peek foreseen of the society of the spectacle in diesel punk attire. See some of my related comments on the science fiction spectacle here.

Incidentally, I continue get a kick out of the fact that in The Darfsteller, Miller even got the timing of the emergent collapse of the old Soviet Empire right: the late 1980s!

fig. 2. Death of a Spaceman–illustration accompanying Miller’s short story of the same name, Amazing Stories, March 1954.

SF as decomposition.

In the early 1960s the Situationist International hailed the arrival of self-conscious decomposition in modern cinema (for more on the situationist notion of decomposition, see here). In passing they noted that the so-called nouvelle vague, Truffaut, Godard, et al, were not the source of this. By the situationists lights this cinema ‘new wave’ was more of a marketing strategy of mutual aid rather than an avant-garde project unified around a program (like the surrealists and dadas). Unlike contemporaries such as Godard’s mannered and derivative À bout de souffle, and Truffaut’s riff on Zéro de conduite, the situationists saw in Hiroshima Mon Amour by Alain Resnais and Marguerite Duras a film of real import. Here was ‘the appearance in “commercial” cinema of the self-destruction that dominates all modern art’.

The situationists continued:

‘The film’s admirers do their best to find admirable little details wherever they can. Everyone ends up going on about Faulkner and his sense of timing […]. In fact, the reason they insist on the fragmented rhythm of Resnais’ film is so that they don’t have to see any of its destructive aspects. In the same way, they talk of Faulkner as a specialist — an accidental specialist — of the dissipation of time, accidentally encountered by Resnais, so that they can forget the time that has already passed, and more generally the literary works of Proust and Joyce. The timing — the confusion — of Hiroshima is not the annexation of cinema by literature: it is the continuation in cinema of the movement of all writing, and first of all poetry, toward its own dissolution’. (Cinema after Alain Resnais, Internationale Situationniste no. 3, December 1959)

I suspect that much of what passed for the ‘new wave’ in SF in the 1960s was akin to the corporate avant-garde of French cinema’s nouvelle vague. Like Godard and his band apart, the newness of the SF avant-garde was asserted more than signifying something truly new in the way dada and surrealism were new in 1916 and 1924. Nonetheless, one wonders what are the Hiroshima Mon Amour’s of SF, in which the ‘self-destruction that dominates all modern art’ appeared in ‘commercial’ form—but then, isn’t all pulp commercial? Here, ‘commercial’ is better translated as mainstream. I would argue that the Hiroshima’s of the sf new wave were books like Stand on Zanzibar (Zanzibar my love…), Dick’s Ubik or A Scanner Darkly, or Malzberg’s Beyond Apollo (to name only a few of the better known and hopefully uncontroversial instances of what I term the decomposition of science fiction). Stories like Miller’s Death of a Spaceman, or Cyril Kornbluth’s Altar At Midnight can be re-conceived as akin to avant-garde steps in the emergence of more self-conscious expressions of decomposition and self-destruction in science fiction (albeit often more self-consciously literary, in the practice of particular authors who aspired to make of SF a realm of artistic dignity and renown, such as Kornbluth). Any number of Philip K. Dick short stories and novels in the 1950s and 60s can be conceived thus, or works of other, lesser known writers (Wyman Guin and Kris Neville come to mind).

Where does this get us? And what the hell am I talking about anyway!? Decomposition? Avant-gardes? Science fiction? Are you kidding me!?

Dystopia as consumer will and science fictional representation.

By comparing the progression of Anglo-American SF in the 1950s and 60s to that of the avant-garde arts of 19th and 20th century, I equally want to draw attention to the way Debord and others conceived of this progress as in fact a limit or impasse rather than merely the expression of an experimental flourishing—even if it is also the latter. Indeed, the experimental nature of the SF new wave has often been overstated—mostly by its hucksters—considering that their experiments were in truth the application of a preexisting (anti) tradition of formal experimentation already thoroughly practiced throughout the arts of the 19th and 20th centuries.

Science fiction, born of capitalism and industrialism, is at best a herald of the coming future, no matter whether it is disaster or eutopia. Ultimately, SF has no place in the future it conjures. Like all literature and the arts, it shares in the estrangement and creation of the everyday. Unlike them, it foregrounds this estrangement, makes the true bizarrerie of the present explicit by drawing attention to its essential conditions and making them its materia prima: change and ephemerality.

To the extent that we still have SF—and it is an even larger part of contemporary culture than it was 60 years ago—is evidence not so much of the health of science fiction than it is an expression of our failure to build eutopia in the present. As I have argued elsewhere, SF invaded and submitted the utopian literature of the 19th century by building an empire on the wager that utopia will always be revealed as dystopia. SF’s triumph as a genre is intimately bound up with this wager, as much as its ability to best express the dystopian capitalist frenzy of accumulation and expansion which chases itself across the globe and on into the cosmos.

The Final Dialectic

fig. 1. “No doubt it played the part of transition from ape to man.”

The following first appeared as A Christmas Tales of H. B. Shamass, 1921, in print December 2017. Since then the meandering misadventures of that equivocal figure have been relaunched under the title of A Shamass New Year. As the day approaches for this years Shamassian missive, and amidst the percolating expectations I regularly have to navigate, I thought it would be wise to look again into the singular role Doctor Shamass played in one of the twentieth century’s pivotal moments. Indeed, revealed below is the gruesome truth that lies at the heart of that quixotic attempt to storm the heavens and refashion human nature once more.

* * *

Shamass!

He stood upon my doorstep. I had not seen him since that business with the underground Taborite sect in southern Bohemia—almost   fifteen years.

In southern Bohemia Svobada had saved us, dragged us unconscious from the grip of the tele-ideomat in the town of Tábor. When we had found a cell of Clockwork Men at the heart of these machinations, buried in a hidden labyrinth near Žižka Square, Svobada alone had briefly seen through their mechanised visions of barracks like happiness. Now he was lost to us—blind, mad, wailing.

On the doorstep Shamass pulled at his roll-neck sweater beneath pale sunken eyes. The rain undercut his silent face, his imploring eyes. So I helped the Doctor into my study.

Within the plush velvet carpets and thick lining of books he sat and wheezed. I brought him brandy and, when he requested, stimulants. His vision cleared, and he held me in his gaze, his glistening eyes.

“Verity…” he managed.

I held him, cradled his head upon my carriage.

“I have seen …” he said and then drifted away. 

Drawing upon a range of stupefacients he returned to us and told us of his various passages, his journey into the depths of what it means to be a human relation.

It was during a Civil War. Shamass had found himself a passenger, sometime actor upon an armoured train. His adherence to the revolutionary faithful became more tenuous with each day. He read the arguments that wracked the International, caught up in the revolution and its bloody conditions of being—accidental and planned.

“In the snow, during an unplanned furlough from battle, I found myself in a lonely corner of the Second State University. I stood on the  threshold of the All-Union Experimental Zoological Institute (Annex) with instructions from the Councils.

“The building was more porous shack than stolid structure closed off to the world. One could almost imagine that the snow drifts were        important supports, flying buttresses made of water and the ephemeral dreams of tomorrow.

“A single light stuttered above the door. This close we could hear the generators scream each time the light flickered, filling the air with ozone. I hammered on the loose door, it slammed open. The light and a strange humidity struck me as I stumbled beneath the stark light of the interior. A short corridor struck off ahead to a door. Beyond the sounds of machine and animal interpenetrated.

“What we found inside was inhuman—but human, definitely human. I cannot explain it any other way. ‘Nothing that is human is foreign to me’.

“You have perhaps not heard of Ilya Ilyanov, biologist. In those days we still fought out the revolution, defended it from its enemies without and within. What we did not suspect at the time was that the latter would prove more insidious and persistent.

“We had stopped the Allied attempt to destroy the revolution by routing the Whites. Meanwhile other forces buzzed over and amidst the dead and dying body of the armed proletariat. Ilyanov was one of them. Not much later he would clearly ally himself with Djughashvili; but at that moment he was building a monstrous simulacrum of the coming disaster of iron and wrought steel.”

“Ilyanov?” I asked.

“You know him as …”

Jacks!

“… my chief antagonist…

“We found him in the very centre of the building, bent over a creature shackled to an  operating table. Part man, part I did not know what—hairy and thin and bent in a peculiar fashion upon a metal surface. Framed in reddish brown hair it’s face looked like no person I’d ever seen, ape like and yet more than ape. No doubt it played the part of transition from ape to man.

“Like all caged animals its terrified eyes bespoke a desire to be free.” 

“The fabled Salango!” I gasped.

Shamass nodded. “The very one. A pathetic creature. More itself than any other beast of Earth could claim—and so, so lonely. Jacks, under the guise of Ilyanov, had produced what some would call the ‘perfect worker’—the total man of breeding and the mechanisation of fancy. In the open, under the most orthodox of guises, Jacks confabulated a future—turned the dream of freedom into a nightmare vision of proclaimed efficiency and despair.”

  “So what happened?” I asked

  “Happened…?” Shamass fixed me with his rheumy stare.

  “Nothing happened, so long as you can call the lab being broken up and Salango… disposed of… ‘nothing’.”

*

There is no need to repeat here what happened to Lord Jacks upon his capture that day in 1920. Like a diminishing few, I swear I ran into him once—Lord Jacks that is—on a tram on Crown Street in the 1950s. I was getting off and bumped into him as he mounted. He looked back at me from his window seat as the tram clattered on toward Oxford Street.

And what of Shamass? No doubt this interests you more, interests us all. In the morning he was gone from the bed I had made up for him amidst the study, little sign of his presence apart from a terse note. “Don’t.” it read—all of his farewells said that. I never saw him again. I last heard talk in an article in the Dreadnought, telegraphed whispers that he had joined up with the rebel sailors of Kronstadt. Did he fight Lev Davidovitch’s murder troops and die?

fig. 2. Stamp from the other world.

More than fifty years later, in Sydney of the late 1970s, and aged beyond repair, I received a note, a bit yellowed and tattered no doubt, but recognisable—legible even. The stamps were all wrong. On two of them was repeated the striking image of Great Pyramids floating in ranks that marched off to vanishing. The Pyramids were suffused with a preternatural light. Beneath their bulk, a single craft, little more than an indistinct smudge on the stamp, navigated the waterborne shadows of those impossible structures. These identical, stamped tableaus were marked “Arrival of the Strangers, 1949”. The third stamp was less familiar. The three heads of a generic woman, man, and the necessarily generic Old One overlaid above a single phrase: “The Alliance”. The Pyramids reminded me of my too brief travels across the wastelands of N’lleros. But what of the Old Ones and their gossamer “Alliance” with the humans? Had Shamass really managed to escape death and cross over, to live on in the Other World?

Maybe. Perhaps. I’d prefer not to speculate.

And inside the envelope, written on the letter?

fig. 3. In the Hall of Shamass, Museum of Peripolis, on N’lleros.
 

The doctor who is Shamass

fig1. Who is this Doctor?

Today is the 57th anniversary of the first broadcast of Doctor Who in the UK. Hence it is known in some quarters of the universe as Doctor Who Day.

While celebrating this day in whatever way, as any fan should and must, I have a related anniversary to mark of my own—Doctor Shamass Day, if you will. “Doctor what?” you might well ask.

A bit over 23 years ago I published the first version of a zine called The Journal of Doctor Shamass. I wrote it around the middle of 1996 and self-published it the following year. For those many Shamassians out there, more info on the particulars of this writing and publishing can be found here.

Perhaps Shamass is everything I wished I was—at that time as now: an exotic loner adrift upon the capricious waves of time and space. Sound familiar? These dreams are, like most, brought on by the humdrum of existence. Though to be fair to existence, the present “humdrum” is without doubt overwhelmingly a product of the stupidity of organising everyday life around work, wage-labour and commodity production. Oh to find a different time and space—or better, to make one.

The inspiration for my Doctor’s name was the Assyrian and Babylonian god Shamash, itself a later version of the Sumerian Utu. That winter in 1996 I had poured over The Epic of Gilgamesh, entranced by the story of the King of Uruk and his friend Enkidu. I imagine I was looking for the source of it all, or at least the source of literature and science fiction. In Gilgamesh I found a dual progenitor: of culture, and that literary form most redolent of our industrial, post-industrial world—sf.

I cannot clearly recall if I set out to consciously evoke Doctor Who in Shamass. A mysterious stranger who accumulates time, and apparently travels in it—what else could it be? At the time, though, my concern was more literary, and my references more arcane. I was a reader of Arthur Rimbaud, the Comte de Lautréamont, André Breton, René Daumal, Karl Marx, Guy Debord and J. G. Ballard. If it is true that I wanted to evoke a fictional character of which I was immoderately obsessed during a childhood spent in the 1970s and 1980s, now—in 1996—the passion had somewhat changed.[1]

By the time I published the second edition of The Journal of Doctor Shamass in November 2008 the relationship of Who and Shamass was now official. Appropriately, I put the Seal of Rassilon on the final page of the new edition.

fig. 2. The Seal of Rassilon.

A month later I printed my first Doctor Shamass Christmas card, a now venerable tradition I have continued to this day. Since then, amidst a stream of more cards, posters and postcards, I have even managed to shoot a video story of Shamass and his most faithful of companions, Verity Hawkins. Indeed, the video—launched just before Christmas 2019—is to date the most explicit of references to old skool Doctor Who. It’s all in the name: The Clockwork Masterplan.

fig. 3. The Clockwork Masterplan. The first foray of Doctor Shamass into the world of video.

What more have I to say about these two doctors? Picking through the detritus of one’s life it is by turns easy and difficult to sort out the peculiar stories of personality and habit (are these even different?). One is inevitably more intrigued, horrified and bored by one’s own story than any other. That Doctor Shamass contains more than just the Doctor—Doctor Who that is—is clear to me. What more there is, is by turns intriguing, horrifying and boring to all. Perhaps one day, when there are no more days, I can at last tell that story.

*

While wating for that day, stay tuned for more things Shamassian on this blog, an all-new Shamass zine, and—of course—the latest Christmas/New Years card. For the time being, many of the cards and posters are available in PDF format here. And remember, if not the strangest of Doctor Who fan fictions, Doctor Shamass is at least a contender for the most obscure.


FOOTNOTES

[1] Perhaps I was inspired by the Doctor Who film in 1996 that promised the return of the TV series to our screens after so many years?—a promise that was rapidly dashed. I do, however, recall being mightily impressed by the reimagining of the TARDIS interior in the film—and little else! Also, the seventh Doctor’s perusal of H. G. Wells’ The Time Machine in the opening sequence of the film. I am inordinately interested in Wells’ novel, which coincidentally makes an appearance in The Journal of Doctor Shamass.

CAPITALISM AS WILL AND HALLUCINATION

fig. 1. Illustration by Leo Dillon and Diane Dillon. Taken from the original publication of Faith of Our Fathers in Dangerous Visions (1967). For more on Mao, see the situationist image and text, below.

Some thoughts on Philip K. Dick’s Faith of Our Fathers

Over the years I’ve found myself returning to a Philip K Dick short story called Faith of Our Fathers.  Or, to be more exact, I am haunted by the central conceit of this story. The idea at its heart resonates long after the details of the story begin to fade.

First published in 1967, in Harlan Ellison’s Dangerous Visions anthology, Dick imagines a future in which the Cold War has been won by the East. The protagonist is a minor bureaucrat in Vietnam. Though “protagonist” doesn’t get to the heart of Dick’s main characters, who are often thinly veiled versions of himself inextricably enmeshed and propelled by the situations they find themselves in, rather than being actors and shapers of plot and destiny. Anti-protagonists perhaps.

Of course, as so often happens in Dick’s fictional worlds, not all is as it seems. However, in Faith of Our Fathers, Dick elaborates a subtle transformation upon his familiar theme of the false and the true. As the protagonist at first suspects and soon discovers, the apparent world is not the real one. But rather than finding a single hidden truth, the protagonist discovers that the truth is multiple, ‘a variety of authentic experiences’ hidden by a single, consensual hallucination.

Here Dick is playing with the intuitive sense that reality is singular, unitary and most importantly objective—in the sense that there is only one reality, no matter how big or potentially infinite it is, and that its being is independent of a particular subjective experience of it. The concomitant of such objectivity in this case, is the idea that a false reality would almost certainly be the result of a subjective experience, whether through a defect in an individual’s perceptual capacities (e.g. as the result of a psychosomatic impairment like schizophrenia) or through the “external” alteration of perception (e.g. as the result of mind altering substances).

Dick upends this common sense in Faith of Our Fathers, insofar as he presents the false reality as singular, and in a way objective, whereas the true reality is multiple and subjective—though not exactly in the latter case. In later comments upon this work, Dick seemed more concerned with resolving his story’s conceit to the question of different subjective experiences of the one true divine reality.[1] Here, unfortunately, Dick offers a less interesting insight into his story, than the story alone. We do well to remember a comment of Marx’s: that we should not judge an individual merely by what they think about themselves, but rather by way of an examination of the conflictual social and material relations in which they find themselves.[2]

Indeed, it is the central conceit of Faith of Our Fathers and not Dick himself that speaks to us today (see some earlier comments of mine, here, on why I think we can use an author’s works for other purposes, even one’s at odds with the author’s intentions). Global capitalist society is the consensual hallucination that we have been submitted too, bolstered by the soporific ubiquity of money, wage labour, and the commodification of the entirety of our desires, no matter how mundane or extraordinary. Indeed, the singular achievement of pro-capitalists has been to cajole enough people into believing that there is no alternative to the rule of the market, and even more incredibly that its reign is in effect the most rational and even most natural form of human organisation. That the contemporary global market is a type of shared delusion, a hallucination in which we poor saps are drugged in a haze of commodity choices and the struggle to simply survive by means of—or in the absence of—waged labour, has become increasingly stark.

Living as we do in a world in which the West “won” the Cold War, what is perhaps most illuminating for us is the sense that such a victory resolved none of the underlying issues of the Cold War—in particularly, the purported success of the capitalist model. Indeed, this is far more obvious almost 30 years after the collapse of the Soviet Union than it was in the first few years of the 1990s. In this sense, the sheer mundanity of Dick’s imagined Eastern Bloc victory aptly describes both the banal triumphalism of the US in the wake of 1991, and the mundane horrors of globalisation and accelerating climate change that we have enjoyed as a consequence.

To be clear: in no way am I advocating for the so-called “communism” of the Eastern Bloc that Dick himself found repellent. Undoubtedly, the people of the old Soviet Union suffered under a hallucinatory nightmare version of “communism” that was cynically used by Stalin and his successors to mollify the truth of the continued existence of all the old garbage of class society. If we dig down into the reality of life in the Soviet Union, what is clear is that the working classes had little or no control over the state or the economy, a state of affairs conspicuously reminiscent of the “free” West.[3] Indeed, the symmetry of the contending sides of the Cold War was a common trope in some of Dick’s greatest works of the 1950s and 60s. Dick’s novel The Penultimate Truth (1964) is perhaps the best exploration of this theme. Also check out the brilliant short story Foster, You’re Dead! (1955) regarding one of the more egregious stupidities of the Cold War in the US.[4]

To be honest, it’s been some time since I last read Faith of Our Fathers. The detail fades, the central conceit is crystal clear. Time for a reread.

fig. 2. Image and text taken from the article ‘Le point d’explosion de l’idéologie en Chine’ in Internationale Situationniste no. 11, October 1967. Translation of the article available here. Translation by me of the text accompanying the illustration, below.

PORTRAIT OF ALIENATION

This Chinese mass, arranged in such a way that in itself it composes a screen portrait of Mao, can be considered as a limit case of the concentrated spectacle of state power (see Internationale Situationniste no. 10, pages 44 and 45), of which “in the under-developed zone… all that is [considered] admirable is gathered together in ideology and—at the extreme—in a single man… to be applauded and consumed passively.” Here the fusion of the spectator and the image of contemplation seem to have attained a police-like perfection. Sometime later, by believing it useful to go even further beyond this degree of concentration, the Chinese bureaucracy was able to leap over the machine.


FOOTNOTES

[1] Additionally, Dick was keen to distance himself from those commentaries that tried to assert that he was advocating for the Eastern Bloc’s victory in the Cold War. See the Notes to both versions of Dick’s Collected Short Stories. Here, I’m referring to Volume 5 of the Subterranean Press 2014 edition of The Collected Stories of Philip K. Dick, ‘We Can Remember It For You Wholesale’, pp. 472-73.

[2] See, Karl Marx, Preface to A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy (1859).

[3] Note I am not advocating for a working-class state. However, the far more interesting and tricky question of the self-abolition of the working class, and the destruction of the capitalist state and economy in the red heat of communism is for another time.

[4] In this regard, also see the Situationist International, Geopolitics of Hibernation (1962).

The Mysterious Force of J.-H. Rosny aîné

fig. 1. A detail from the cover illustration by Jean-Michel Nicollet for a 1982 edition of “La force mystérieuse: suivi de Les Xipéhuz”

The following review of J.-H. Rosny aîné’s The Mysterious Force (orig.: La force mystérieuse, 1913) was first written and published in 2015. I like to think of this story as a speculative recasting of the end of the Paris Commune of 1871 or the Russian Revolution of 1905. The worker revolution is defeated, and the world grows grey as life breaks down. But ultimately, a new life triumphs in a reborn individualism amidst a nourishing though bizarre collectivism. A post humanism avant la lettre.

Rosny aîné, a contemporary of Jules Verne and H.G. Wells, began publishing what is recognisably science fiction after Verne’s first works but before Wells’. In his fantastic speculations, however, he is more precursor to latter than child of the former’s hard SF in anticipation.

Rosny aîné’s Les Xipéhuz (1887) is a pioneering tale of a truly alien invasion set in the distant past of the human paleolithic and published almost ten years before The War of the Worlds. Its thematic sequel, La Mort de la Terre (1910), is set at the other end of human fortune, in the dying days of the species. Obviously influenced by the wonderfully weary end of Wells’ The Time Machine, Rosny aîné evokes his own peculiar and haunting vision of humanity’s end.

To my mind, Rosny aîné avoided the dystopianism that dominated Wells’ early work. For instance, in his imagined death of the human species in The Death of the Earth he achieves a tragic vision beyond the bleak and simplistic social Darwinism of Wells. However, Rosny aîné was no mere utopian propagandist. These are tales born amidst the immense ferment in French literature of the last half of the nineteenth century. Perhaps if French had become the dominant language of 20th century imperialism, the life of science fiction would have played out differently. But surely that is but one potential SF story among many still waiting to be told.

fig. 2. An illustration taken from the original serialisation of La force mystérieuse in the magazine “Je sais tout” in 1913.

The following review first appeared on works & days of the antyphayes

The Mysterious Force
by J.-H. Rosny aîné
First published in French as La force mystérieuse in 1913.
This review based on the Brian Stableford translation (or ‘adaptation’ as he describes it).

*

That the Earth might swallow its inhabitants, that the seas might drown the continents, that a deadly epidemic might carry off all living things, that the Sun might go out, that a fiery star might burn them or a displaced planet crash into ours — they were conceivable events, in the image of things that had happened since the beginning of the world… but this fantastic death of light, this dying of the colours, which affected the humblest flames as well as the rays of the Sun and those of the stars, derisively gave the lie to the entire history of animals and men!

In J.-H. Rosny aîné’s The Mysterious Force, the eponymous force, later described as an ‘interstellar cyclone’, passes through the Earth and forever alters daily life. At first the force causes widespread anxiety and even helps spark a worker revolution that is ruthlessly suppressed by the French military. But worse is to come as the colours of the spectrum begin to disappear leaving a wan, grey reality barely animated by a lacklustre and dying humanity. Global civilisation is severely disrupted as technology and even the chemical reactions of material reality fail. Eventually the worst of the catastrophe passes. However millions have perished and a strange new world begins to manifest.

Those that survive the catastrophe find themselves covered in hieroglyphic ‘rashes’ that are later discovered to be the manifestation of an alien presence beyond visible perception. The rashes are more manifest symptom than alien appearance. Perhaps even stranger are the far reaching effects of the alien presence upon the animal life of Earth. Thus is marked the onset of ‘groupism’, a type of super-individual intimacy that binds together extended family and friendship groups into near telepathic gestalts, including even nearby non-human animals. Rosny aîné doesn’t present this as a disaster — the horror of collectivism descending on virile, competitive and fiercely individual Man — but rather as a type of communal idyll in which individuals reach new levels of individuality precisely as a result of the more heightened sensitivity to their intimate others. Such a view is a refreshing alternative to the barely repressed horror of the collective individual in such works as Robert Heinlein’s The Puppet Masters and more recently Star Trek’s Borg collective. And yet the emergence of this desirable collectivism in the story is more like a disease than a conscious decision (in contrast to the attempt at socialist revolution that is thwarted early on). Rosny aîné’s representation of an accidental transformation has the tang of pessimism and misanthropy.

Nonetheless there are some wonderful ideas pressed into serving the fairly mundane adventure and romantic threads of this novel. Its core idea was one common to Rosny aîné: if there are forms of life and intelligence outside the terrestrial realm they will almost certainly be utterly alien, verging on the incomprehensible.

Permit me, Gentlemen, to conclude with a hypothesis […]. Considering that the interplanetary storm gave rise to a cycle of phenomena […] we may conjecture that it is a world, or a fragment of a world, that has encountered the Earth. To all evidence, this belongs to a system very different from our solar system. […] It might be that our space includes different kinds of universe, some of which are capable of partial interaction with one another, and others almost complete in their mutual indifference and even their mutual permeability.

Such a perspective is there in his early The Xipehuz (1888) and his stunning Dying Earth story avant-la-lettre, The Death of the Earth (1910). In this he anticipated the later author Stanislaw Lem, who made the idea of the utterly alien a recurrent trope of his science fiction, written in the midst of the only too comprehensible cold war of Soviet state capitalism and Western ‘free market’ welfarism. Lem’s perspective is a hypertrophied development of the cultural cold war. The universe is not only strange, it is incomprehensible. Rosny aîné’s perspective is to my mind more interesting and less sceptical. His aliens are truly alien but not beyond the limits of rational inquiry and human understanding.

Rosny aîné was an old man when Stalin and Hitler came to power, dying at the age of 83 in 1940. He did not live to see the complete, horrible extent of World War Two, dying some months before the fall of France to the Nazis. Unlike Lem he did not emerge as a writer under the pervasive cloud of post-war existentialist absurdism. And unlike his contemporary (and junior) H.G.Wells he was less concerned with the utopian and dystopian promise of industrial civilisation and more interested in the potentially infinite variety and strange possibilities of life in a vast and long lived universe.

Nonetheless there is a residue of the utopian promise of the late 19th and early 20th century in his work, albeit shot through with a peculiar sadness. Indeed Rosny aîné repeatedly conjures the vast and time weary melancholy that Wells so briefly and beautifully wrote of at the end of his first novel.