I started this blog back in 2020 at the height of the first lockdowns and waves of COVID washing over our lives. The intention then, as it still is, appeared relatively simple: “writing on critical theory and science fiction”. My twist on critical theory is that which I’ve largely inherited from the Situationist International (SI)—both my long relationship with their works as well as my attempts to understand their version of revolutionary theory and practice. Whereas my twist on science fiction (SF) comes from an even longer relationship that dates back into the mists of my childhood.
In part, SF and the SI meet in their somewhat shared and entailed historical context. However, the shared context of SF and the SI is perhaps the least interesting aspect of their confluence—or at least, is less interesting than what can be gained from bringing the critical insights of the SI to bear upon SF. The peculiar trajectory of written Anglo-American SF takes it from Hugo Gernsback ‘scientifiction’ in 1926, through the Second World War and beyond, to become one of the key landmarks of pop culture in the 1960s and after. In the process of this rapid, half century of development, SF moved from its relatively niche existence to global cultural phenomenon. It is my belief that SF came to play an important role in the explosion of the global culture industry in the wake of the Second World War, paradoxically as both sometime critic of this ‘explosion’, and as an awkward exemplar of the burgeoning spectacle of commodity culture. Indeed, SF’s initial existence as almost solely a phenomenon made in and exported from the United States goes some of the way to explaining its later success as one aspect of the global hegemony of the US in the wake of the 1940s. However, I am less interested in the national or even international peculiarities of Anglo-American SF than I am in its singular existence as both overture and swan song to the dream of a technological utopia fostered in the Second World War and largely in ruin a short thirty years later.
Over the course of 2022, views of and visitors to my blog have more than doubled. Unfortunately, much like 2021, health problems once again intervened to undermine my ability to post more regularly. This year I am keen to work toward the gold standard of one post per week. Let’s see how that pans out.
You may ask—ask! ask!—what is the sinister science? Back in September 2020 I wrote of the sinister science as something akin to what the situationists proposed in their imaginary city beyond the capitalist one, or the surrealists in their dreamt of marvellous chateaus of no clear utilitarian purpose. Perhaps slightly more clearly—or more confusedly, depending on your taste—I wrote that,
the sinister science is closer to Hegel’s negative dialectic and Marx’s redeployment of this under the aegis of his ‘materialist conception of history’.
It occurs to me today that Karl Marx provided the best definition of the sinister science early in his anti-career, when he spoke of a ‘science to come’—a science that would, by turns, reconcile the unfortunate split between the so-called natural and human sciences. The sinister science aspires to be this, or at the very least a tributary or pointer to this science to come. Which is not to say that the blog called the sinister science is this science, only that it dares to name itself after such. And just to be clear, the latter is not to be confused with Alfred Jarry’s pataphysics, no matter how much I would welcome such confusion (at least some of the time).
My top five posts are a good indicator of what’s on offer here. They run the gamut from posts more concerned with the SI through to posts more concerned with SF. Except for the first one below, they are more likely to be somewhat impure, i.e., a mix of SF and the SI.
The top post two years in a row, though the only one of the top five that was not published in 2022. Last year I wrote that the popularity of Surrealism: an irrational revolution was ‘due to the fact that a “new” old work of Guy Debord’s has a potential audience much bigger than my own peculiar take on SF’. No doubt this remains true. It constitutes an excellent introduction to the surrealist revolution that emerged in Europe in the 1920s—an irrational revolution moreover that was highly influential upon Debord and the situationists, amongst others.
Ballard is a particularly rich vein to be explored regarding the possibility of a situationist influence, though it is more likely he was influenced by the surrealists than the situs. Nonetheless, there is a remarkable congruence, particularly regarding the shared interest in the profound effects of urban alienation. Ballard is certainly less concerned with the amelioration of such, and tends to naturalise the effects of alienation, insofar as he sees the city as the expression of deeper, more subterranean forces than those of the relatively recent arrival of capitalism. Still, more than many of his contemporary SF confreres Ballard captures the enervating effect of modern city life, and its technological avatars. This is on show in these two early pieces, ‘Manhole 69’ and ‘The Concentration City’, both from 1957—which is also the year the SI was founded.
My personal fave of the year. Here I attack what is, to me at least, the strange problem of the absence of something like science fiction in most SF stories. More pointedly, I investigate the genre’s avant-garde chops, considering that in its initial conceptualisation by Hugo Gernsback, SF was presented as a proselytising vision of the coming technological future, whose purpose—chiefly educational, though cunningly disguised as entertainment—would be fulfilled once this future arrived. If SF is realised—as it were—then what comes after?
A pivotal issue of the situationist journal. When they turned toward realising a project whose clearest result would come some 6 years later, among the biggest wildcat general strike in recorded history. I wrote my PhD thesis in order to better understand the nature of the pivot, of which this issue was one of the more obvious results. Another result, the Hamburg Theses, also haunts the pages of number 7…
I have discovered over the last year or so that I truly love much of Silverberg’s oeuvre. Which is not to say there are no problems—the fate of women in his many representations being one of the obvious ones. Renowned in SF circles as initially more machine than man when it came to composing works, Silverberg entered his own golden age in the 1960s. More intriguingly he was burnt out by the mid-1970s, and even gave up writing SF for some years. Indeed, scattered amongst his many introductions to short stories from this period are some illuminating thoughts upon the nature of the genre and the impasse it reached in the early 1970s, on the back of such conflicting forces as New Wave experimentation and commercial success. ‘Downward to Earth’ is a product of Silverberg’s golden age, a striking novel that deals with the inhuman dimensions of the human. Highly recommended.
So that’s the top 5.
Who knows what heights this year will bring?
 Karl Marx, ‘Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844,’ in Karl Marx & Frederich Engels Collected Works Vol. 3, Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1975, p. 304.
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.
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.
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.
Beneath a photo of Caroline Rittener, who had appeared in Guy Debord’s 1961 film, Critique de la Séparation, appears a phrase cited from a French translation of The World of Null-A (aka, The World of Ā, 1945/1948), by Canadian SF author A. E. Van Vogt (translated as, Le monde des Ā, Gallimard, Le Rayon Fantastique #14, 1953). Vogt’s words are put into Rittener’s mouth, to illustrate the situationist critique of separation—modern alienation, that “plot” of which we are mere “pawns in a game being played by men from the stars”. Even the capitalist ruling class, protected by their wealth, play a game they barely understand: “The point is not to recognize that some people live more or less poorly than others, but that we all live in ways that are out of our control.” (Guy Debord).
The photo and citation are one of several illustrations with text that appear amidst the situationist article ‘L’avant-garde de la présence’ in Internationale Situationniste no. 8, January 1963 (English translation available here). Once again, the situationists demonstrated that the quality of the elements of culture changed under the aegis of détournement. “Ideas improve. The meaning of words plays a part in that improvement. Plagiarism is necessary. Progress depends on it. It stick’s close to an author’s phrasing, exploits his expressions, deletes a false idea, replaces it with the right one” (Isidore Ducasse).
[You can read my translation of Debord’s The Hamburg Theses of September 1961here]
The plans announced in my last post with an eye to the 60th anniversary of the first publication of Internationale Situationniste no. 7 have been held up a little. Most obviously and unfortunately by the fact that I contracted covid shortly after posting. More pertinently by what I would call a certain lack I identified in the project of publishing new translations of articles from Internationale Situationniste no. 7 (hereafter IS no. 7).
For instance, I was struck by the spectral presence of what is arguably the pivotal situationist ‘document’, one whose shadow is cast over the entirety of IS no. 7: namely, the mysterious Hamburg Theses.
Published in April 1962, IS no. 7 marked the definitive turn of the SI toward the task that would take it up to May 1968: the relaunch of a revolutionary movement. However, whereas the seventh issue cements this turn, the turn itself had been underway for a good two years. In part, this can be seen in the arguments that raged over the significance of art that reached a peak at the 5th Conference of the group in August 1961. In part, it emerged from Debord’s participation in the Socialisme ou Barbarie group over 1960 and 1961. The Hamburg Theses of September 1961 were a response to both aspects of the SI’s evolution.
In two of the three documents that I have translated from IS no. 7, ‘Du rôle de l’I.S.’ (The Role of the SI), and Attila Kotányi’s ‘L’Étage suivant’ (The Next Stage), the Hamburg Theses are explicitly cited, even though no clear details of their content are revealed. As was discovered by Thomas Y. Levin in 1989, the Hamburg Theses never existed as a finished document. To the end of better contextualising these documents, I’ve decided to post a new translation of Debord’s 1989 note on the Hamburg Theses.
In early September 1961, as the story goes, Guy Debord, Attila Kotányi and Raoul Vaneigem were on their return from the recently concluded 5th Conference of the Situationist International (SI). Having embarked, at the conferences end, on a drunken drift (dérive) across the Kattgatt sea from Göteborg to Frederikshavn, the three situationists, in the wake of the acrimonious discussions over what exactly constituted ‘anti-situationist’ activity (and why artistic activity under current circumstances constituted a subsection thereof), wended their way to Hamburg. There, ‘in a series of randomly chosen bars in Hamburg over two or three days at the beginning of September 1961,’ Debord, Kotányi and Vaneigem composed the aptly named Hamburg Theses.
The chief argumentative thrust of the Theses would find its way into other works by the situationists. Debord, in his 1989 note, handily summarised the non-existent ‘document’:
[T]he ‘Theses’ were conclusions, voluntarily kept secret, of a theoretical and strategic discussion that concerned the entirety of the conduct of the SI. […]
Deliberately, with the intention of leaving no trace that could be observed or analysed from outside the SI, nothing concerning this discussion and what it had concluded was ever written down. It was then agreed that the simplest summary of its rich and complex conclusions could be expressed in a single phrase: ‘Now, the SI must realise philosophy’. Even this phrase was not written down. Thus, the conclusions were so well hidden that they have remained secret up until the present. […]
The summarised conclusions evoked a celebrated formula of Marx from 1844 (in his Contribution to the Critique of Hegel Philosophy of Right). It meant that we should henceforth no longer attribute the least importance to any of the ideas of the revolutionary groups that still survived as heirs of the old social emancipation movement destroyed in the first half of our century; and therefore, that it would be better to count on the SI alone to relaunch a time of contestation as soon as possible, by way of revitalising all the basic starting points that were established in the 1840s. Once established this position did not imply the coming rupture with the artistic ‘right’ of the SI (who feebly desired only to repeat or continue modern art) but rendered it extremely probable. We can thus recognise that the ‘Hamburg Theses’ marked the end of the first period of the SI—that is research into a truly new artistic terrain (1957-61)—as well as fixing the departure point for the operation that led to the movement of May 1968, and what followed.
Two things need to be said in clarification of the foregoing.
First, the two extant English translations of Debord’s note on the Hamburg Theses contain mistranslations of a crucial phrase rendered in the last paragraph, above. In these earlier translations, ‘qu’il ne faudrait donc plus compter que sur la seule I.S.’, became, ‘that it was therefore no longer necessary to count on the SI alone’ (Reuben Keehan), and, ‘that it would no longer be necessary to count on the SI alone’ (Not Bored!). As I noted in my last post, Keehan and Not Bored’s translation have the unfortunate result of inverting the meaning of the phrase in question—arguably the pivotal phrase concerning the import of the Hamburg Theses for the future of the SI.
This mistake alone justifies a new English translation. Nonetheless, I feel that the confusion of these earlier translators was understandable. The phrase in question is a particularly convoluted one in the French.
Nonetheless, the meaning of this phrase in relation to the entire sentence of which it is a part—its internal coherence if you will—should give one pause. For instance, the idea that one would no longer count on the SI alone (as Keehan and Not Bored rendered the phrase in question) does not clearly follow from the preceding clause to which it is the conclusion, i.e., ‘that we should henceforth no longer attribute the least importance to any of the ideas of the revolutionary groups that still survived as heirs of the old social emancipation movement’. Perhaps these translators believed that Debord was talking here of the revolutionary movement they proposed to relaunch as opposed to the relaunching itself? Certainly, the SI never suggested that they alone would constitute such a revolutionary movement. However, Debord was not claiming here that the SI would alone constitute such a movement. Rather, he was arguing that given the way that the artistic and political contemporaries of the situationists remained beholden to forms of artistic and political spectacle that were recuperated and ‘destroyed in the first half of our century’, these contemporaries were more likely not to be involved in the relaunch of such a movement. Thus, it would be better to count on the SI alone.
Further, in the seventh issue of Internationale Situationniste, the situationists made the case for actual existence of the forces which would make up such a revolutionary movement—passively, in terms of the sheer weight of the increasing proletarianization of the world, and actively in so far as elements of this proletariat were being driven to revolt, albeit sometimes in less than ‘orthodox’ fashion. Thus, the SI put much store in what was then, in the early 1960s, signs of a burgeoning youth rebellion across the advanced industrial world, as well as the increase in ‘wildcat’ strikes already extensively commented upon by comrades in the Socialisme ou Barbarie group.. The question then, from the situationist’s perspective, was one of ‘organis[ing] a coherent encounter between the elements of critique and negation (whether as acts or as ideas) that are now scattered around the world’. However, such an organisation was, perforce, distinctly opposed to the various authoritarian and hierarchical conceptions of a political or artistic avant-garde beloved of much of the contemporaneous far-left, whether Marxist or anarchist. Underlining this anti-hierarchical sense, the situationists would later say of their role, ‘[w]e will only organize the detonation: the free explosion must escape us and any other control forever’.
Secondly, critics have—perhaps justly—been confused when Debord in his 1989 note initially speaks of the Hamburg Thesis as being ‘the most mysterious of all the documents that emerged from the SI’ (my emphasis), only to later clarify that ‘nothing concerning this discussion and what it had concluded was ever written down’. Debord speaks of the Hamburg Theses as a ‘document’ in an ironic fashion, in order to underline not only its non-existence in written form, but more pointedly to draw attention to this non-existence as its most singular and enduring quality.
In the same note, Debord wrote that the Hamburg Theses ‘were a striking innovation in the succession of artistic avant-gardes, who hitherto had all given the impression of being eager to explain themselves’. The question, however, was never one of refusing ‘to explain themselves’, as the ongoing publication of Internationale Situationniste testifies. Debord would explain the avant-garde nature of the Theses by underlining the positive nature of the destructive truth of the Hamburg Theses in a letter to Vaneigem:
we agreed not to write the Hamburg Theses, thereby all the better to impose in the future their central significance to our project. Thus, the enemy will not be able to feign approval of them without great difficulty..
Here, the Theses are spoken of as a trap to the unwary. There is no question that their conclusions became a part of the explicit weaponry of the SI, and yet it was forever put out of reach, an authority impossible to appeal to just as the SI worked hard to disabuse those who, perhaps inevitably, had begun to treat them as authorities. As the group would later write, in an article moreover that took its title from the Hamburg Theses:
It is quite natural that our enemies succeed in partially using us. We are neither going to leave the present field of culture to them nor mix with them. The armchair advisors who want to admire and understand us from a respectful distance readily recommend to us the purity of the first attitude while they themselves adopt the second one. We reject this suspect formalism: like the proletariat, we cannot claim to be unexploitable under the present conditions; the best we can do is to strive to make any such exploitation entail the greatest possible risk for the exploiters.
By refusing to publish a document called the Hamburg Theses, and so being less that ‘eager to explain themselves,’ Debord, Vaneigem and Kotányi were gesturing at what was coming to be a central aspect of the situationist project as they understood it. In IS no. 7, in the wake of the Hamburg Theses, they wagered that, ‘situationist theory is in people like fish are in water’. This sentence has proved puzzling for many readers, some of whom have read it ungenerously as yet more evidence of the SI’s megalomania. However, by 1961 the situationists around Debord, Vaneigem and Kotányi were beginning to conceive of the particularities of their project as a moment of a more general revolutionary contestation dispersed in time and space. Which is to say, as a moment of the forces of refusal and rebellion that were real products of the spread and development of capitalist alienation.
Contrary to Lenin and Trotsky, for example, and for that matter a fair amount of anarchist theory too, the SI did not see themselves as bringing a theory of revolution to the working classes. Rather, like Marx they held to the idea that such a theory and practice itself emerged from the experience of the alienated and conflictual nature of proletarian life. The young Marx had argued, in words echoed and approvingly used by the SI, that ‘[t]heory can be realised in a people only insofar as it is the realisation of the needs of that people’; thus, ‘[i]t is not enough for thought to strive for realisation, reality must itself strive towards thought’. At best, the SI saw itself as a particularly coherent moment of the struggle for theory from below whose practical truth they found posed not only in their own faltering experiments in unitary urbanism and the constructed situation, but even more so in the wildcat strikes of workers as much as the then flourishing counter cultures of alienated working-class youth.
In opposition to many of their leftist and intellectual contemporaries, the situationists did not see that alienation was being ameliorated or revealed as an idealist delusion, but rather that it was ramified and multiplied with the intensification and extension of capitalist production and consumption across the globe. The question, then, was not one of educating the proletariat in the guise of the eternal sacrifice of the intellectual leader, but rather participating in the clarification and cohering of a fractured and dispersed contestation that was already underway.
And so, the peculiar and not so peculiar situationist sense of the ‘avant-garde’. In artistic, political and military terms, ‘avant-garde’ had come to designate those ‘in advance’ of the main body. In the Leninist and Stalinist vernaculars, it indicated the necessary gap between the merely social democratic consciousness of the worker and the avant-garde consciousness of the revolutionary who would lead the worker to the promised land. For the situationists, the notion of avant-garde, to the extent that it had come to merely justify an unchallenged hierarchy amenable to a capitalist division of labour, had ceased to be of any use. As Debord would put it some years later in The Society of the Spectacle,
Proletarian revolution depends entirely on the condition that, for the first time, theory as understanding of human practice be recognized and lived by the masses. It requires that workers become dialecticians and put their thought into practice.
Which is not to say that the SI rejected its avant-garde role, but rather that it rejected the then dominant conceptions of what constituted a political or artistic avant-garde. Against both, Debord would pose that, ‘now, the first realisation of an avant-garde is the avant-garde itself’. To have itself as its ‘realisation’, instead of the fetish of the art-object or theoretical manifesto, was simply to emphasis the true, ultimate object of the avant-garde. For the SI this was precisely the communist society it saw as the necessary condition for the realisation of the project first outlined in the hypothesis of the constructed situation back in 1957. The question, then, was one of realising the project of communism (or at least the situationist conception of such) and so abolishing the need for such an avant-garde like the SI—an abolition, moreover, that would be embodied in the realisation of a mass revolutionary movement. As they phrased it in IS no. 8, the situationist avant-garde would be ‘a party that supersedes itself, a party whose victory is at the same time its own disappearance’.
The resonance with Marx’s notion of the realisation and abolition of philosophy is palpable—as Debord noted in his 1989 note on the Theses. Marx’s early conception of the intersection of a radical philosophical project and a proletariat struggling to overcome their respective alienations and separations amidst the commercial wastelands of a fledgling industrial capitalism would become a central point of refence for the situationists. Indeed, Debord considered that in Marx’s notion of the congruence of the self-abolition of philosophy and the proletariat could be found a process akin to the various artistic avant-gardes of the 19th and 20th centuries—all of whom appeared to move inexorably toward the progressive destruction of traditional aesthetic and artistic truth. It is here, in the artistic lineage of the SI that one can, perhaps, find the formal antecedents of the Hamburg Theses—the ‘height of avant-gardism’ as Debord called them.
Much as the Comte de Lautréamont and Stéphane Mallarmé had announced and celebrated the shipwreck of language and poetry in LesChants de Maldoror and Un coup de dés jamais n’abolira le hasard, as Kazimir Malevich had paused on the representational abyss of the destruction of the art-object in his painting White on White, and as André Breton caught sight of the marvellous amidst the drab of everyday art and alienation, so too Guy Debord, Raoul Vaneigem, Attila Kotányi and Alexander Trocchi pushed on to the limits of expression given the prison house of the commodity and its various alienations. To manifest the anti-manifesto, and to leave nothing to posterity but the fading and fallible memory of the passage of a few persons through a rather brief unity of time.
As a young Letterist, Debord had set his sights on destroying the cinema, making a film in which the Letterist effacement of the cinematic image was taken to its extreme. In his film, Hurlements en faveur de Sade(1952), all the images were eliminated to leave a blank screen during its projection, variously white or black depending on the dialogue that was left to occasionally mark the film’s 80-minute run. A few years later, reacting against the nihilist tendencies of his Letterist and International Letterist days, Debord argued that the coming Situationist international must constitute ‘one step back’ from such an ‘external opposition’ to art. The point, for Debord, was never one of re-entering the artistic domain under the banner of the SI but rather investigating the possible uses to which artistic practices could be deployed in developing the situationist hypothesis of the constructed situation. Having increasingly encountered the limits of such experimental use between 1957 and 1961, Debord and his circle forced the issue, breaking the SI away from the artistic morass it had fallen into in order to better chart the new waters of an avant-garde practice at once political and artistic—as much as it proposed, simultaneously, to supersede both. However, this was not a return to the heady days of Letterist nihilism. And the Hamburg Theses is perhaps the most singular proof of this. When Debord spoke of it as ‘the most mysterious, and also the most formally experimental [text] in the history of the SI’, his reference was no longer the impasse of formal destruction that he had faced in his film, Hurlements en faveur de Sade. Rather, the Hamburg Theses, even as it embodied the destruction of form, posed the positivity at the heart of the situationist project: namely, that most pressing question of how best to bring about a social order conducive to the free play and construction of situations as outlined at the founding of the SI.
 Two slightly different versions of Debord’s 1989 note exist. The first, published in 1997, excised the name of the original addressee, Thomas Y. Levin, from the text of the note. The second, published in 2008, reinstated the full text of the note as it was originally conceived: as a letter addressed to Thomas Y. Levin in November 1989. See, respectively, Guy Debord, ‘Les thèses de Hambourg en septembre 1961 (Note pour servir à l’histoire de l’Internationale Situationniste) ,’ in Internationale situationniste : Édition augmentée, Paris: Librairie Arthème Fayard, 1997; Guy Debord, ‘Lettre à Thomas Levin, Novembre 1989—Les thèses de Hambourg en septembre 1961 (Note pour servir à l’histoire de l’Internationale Situationniste),’ in Correspondance, volume 7, janvier 1988 – novembre 1994, ed. Patrick Mosconi, Librairie Arthème Fayard, 2008.
 Internationale Situationniste, ‘La Cinquième Conférence de l’I.S. à Göteborg,’ Internationale Situationniste, no. 7 (Avril 1962).
 Debord, ‘Les thèses de Hambourg en septembre 1961 (Note pour servir à l’histoire de l’Internationale Situationniste) .’
 This is an excerpt from my new translation of Debord’s 1989 note/letter on the Hamburg Theses. For details of the original French version, see footnote 1, above.
 See, respectively, ‘Unconditional Defence’ and ‘Instructions for an Insurrection’, both from IS no. 6 (August 1961). For more on the brief relationship between the SI and Socialisme ou Barbarie, see Anthony Hayes, ‘The Situationist International and the Rediscovery of the Revolutionary Workers’ Movement,’ in The Situationist International: A Critical Handbook, ed. Alastair Hemmens and Gabriel Zacarias, London: Pluto Press, 2020.
 As Debord noted in a letter to his old Letterist comrade, Ivan Chtcheglov, even though publishing the journal could be ‘tiresome’ and prone to ‘inevitable defects’, it remained ‘one of our only weapons’, ‘a living voice […] to envision supersessions more precisely’. Guy Debord, ‘Lettre à Ivan Chtcheglov, 30 avril 1963,’ in Correspondance volume II septembre 1960 – décembre 1964, ed. Patrick Mosconi, Paris: Librairie Arthème Fayard, 2001.
 Guy Debord, ‘Lettre à Raoul Vaneigem, 15 février, 1962,’ in Correspondance volume II septembre 1960 – décembre 1964, ed. Patrick Mosconi, Paris: Librairie Arthème Fayard, 2001, p. 127. Italics in the original.
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.
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.
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
Anthony Hayes April, 2022
 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.
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…
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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?
 Robert Silverberg, Downward to the Earth, London: Pan Books, 1978 , p. 7 (chapter 1).
 Guy Debord, The Society of the Spectacle, trans. Ken Knabb, Berkeley: Bureau of Public Secrets,  2014, thesis 31.
 Silverberg, Downward to the Earth, p. 97 (chapter 9).
 Comte de Lautréamont, ‘Maldoror ,’ 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).
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.
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. 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’.
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.
Ballard and the Situationists
“Boredom is counterrevolutionary. In every way.”—Situationist International, 1962
In 1961, the Situationist Raoul Vaneigem, described the then new housing developments being constructed amidst post-war reconstruction as akin to Nazi concentration camp. 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.
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.
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’. 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’. 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.
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.
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.
 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.
 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.
 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).
 Situationist International, ‘The Bad Days Will End ,’ in Situationist International Anthology: Revised and Expanded Edition, ed. Ken Knabb, Berkeley: Bureau of Public Secrets, 2006.
 Situationist International, ‘Geopolitics of Hibernation .’ Online here.
 Situationist International, The Real Split in the International: Theses on the Situationist International and its time, trans. John McHale, London: Pluto Press,  2003, p. 7 (thesis 2); Internationale Situationniste, ‘Du rôle de l’I.S.,’ Internationale Situationniste no. 7 (Avril 1962), p. 17.
 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,  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).
 Ballard and MacBeth, ‘The New Science Fiction’, p. 57.
Neither space fish nor fowl: a sinister year in review
When I set out about 18 months ago my aim appeared relatively simple: “writing on the Situationists and science fiction”. The plan was to take two routes: first, I would examine ‘science fiction’ as an idea that appeared in the writing of the Situationist International (something I have begun to do here); and secondly, I would use some of the critical tools of the Situationists—in particular Guy Debord’s related concepts of ‘spectacle’ and ‘cultural decomposition’—to examine science fiction as a sub-category of capitalist culture. To my mind, the best explanation of what I mean by ‘decomposition’ and its relationship to SF can be found here.
Since then, things became a little unstuck. In early 2021 I wrote up two long pieces on two Frederick Pohl stories from the 1950s (here and here). However, I feel somewhat deflated with the results. The articles in question suffered the twin problems of being overly ambitious and somewhat fractured in delivery. Rather than advancing the two axes of my research I toyed with them in a desultory fashion. Complicating things further I suffered from some non-COVID health problems while attempting to write and post these pieces. One of these problems was more serious and resulted in a brief hospitalisation, the other less so but chronic and long lasting. In short, the first half of last year was shit and I struggled with life in general, let alone the blog.
Despite this loss of focus, I was able to finally finish a translation of one of the few remaining works of Guy Debord that had remained untranslated. Indeed, while recovering my health I fell down a Surrealist hole that the Debord article was one of the fruits of (some other fruits can be plucked here and here).
‘Surrealism: an irrational revolution’ is far and away my most popular post of the last year, four times more popular than the second most popular. This is almost certainly due to the fact that a “new” old work of Debord’s has a potential audience much bigger than my own peculiar take on SF.
I dare say that ‘To experiment with the creation of everyday life’ has ridden into second place on the coattails of Debord’s article. At best, it summarises some of my thoughts on the role played by artistic avant-gardes in posing the need to move beyond art in the 20th century in order to ‘turn our experiments once more to the vast canvas of everyday life’. It’s also got a great detourned graphic made by me:
‘In praise of the infodump’ in fourth, signals a return to form for the blog having been published recently (last November) after posting nothing in September and October of 2021 (this two-month hiatus being no doubt the blog’s nadir last year).
In fifth, ‘Hateful anti-christams’, another refugee from 2020, is yet another example of my ongoing fascination with all things Dadaist and Surrealist—to whit, another “new” old work: a translation of a short anti-poem by Raoul Hausmann and Kurt Schwitters (the ultimate Dada-Merz mash up).
This year—in stinking hot, tottering, and imploding twenty-twenty-two—all I ask is that we finally—FINALLY—get rid of capitalism. Failing this, I’ll continue to blog away. In the coming months be prepared for: thoughts on SF authors J. G. Ballard and Cyril Kornbluth; a re-jigged version of my research into the ‘Science Fiction Spectacle’; the long awaited third part of ‘Thinking through The Time Machine’ (check out the first and second parts); and perhaps even another episode in the mysterious saga of La Hipótesis…
A bit over two year ago I finished the final story in Isaac Asimov Presents The Great SF Stories. Over the 25 volumes, the editors—Martin H. Greenberg and Isaac Asimov—introduce us to their choice cuts of primarily Anglo-American SF between 1939 and 1963.
The collection is a good introduction to Anglo-American SF that takes you from the so-called Campbellian “Golden Age” right up until the precipice of the New Wave of SF in the 1960s. First published between 1979 and 1992 by DAW Books, The Great SF Stories is now sadly out of print. Many of the stories can be found elsewhere, and I have heard that pdfs of the collection exist on the interwebs. However, I desired the hard stuff, so I hunted the entire collection down through various online secondhand bookstores between 2016 & 2019.
As a result of the read through I’ve assembled a list of works that I liked, divided into three categories: Top shelf (three ***), Good (two **) and Not Bad (one *). My system, like most—or rather, all—is highly subjective. Make of it what you will. The list is linked here—and can be accessed through the menu bar above. Or, if you want to cut to the chase, you can check out the Top Shelf picks alone, that can also be accessed through the menu bar above.
Over the coming months I am planning on revisiting some of the Top Shelf stories in order to critically assess them on this blog. Who knows, maybe an occasional Good and Not Bad will creep in too. And I will no doubt even change some of the ratings from time to time, depending on rereads and whim.
I found that reading Asimov and Greenberg’s selection spun me off further to pursuing stories from this period and beyond. As a result I’ve added other works not found in this collection to my list, drawn from author collections and other collections from the period—for instance, T.E. Dikty and E.F. Bleiler’s Best Science Fiction Stories,Frederick Pohl’s Star Science Fiction, Judith Merril’s The Year’s Greatest Science Fiction and Fantasy and Year’s Best S-F.
At the odyssey’s end I found myself wanting to continue the journey, so I first of all read Robert Silverberg’s one-off attempt to continue Asimov and Greenberg’s collection. Sadly, Silverberg didn’t continue with this. So, I began reading collections that fortuitously began the year following Silverberg’s selection of 1964 stories, notably Donald Wolheim and Terry Carr’s World’s Best Science Fiction Series. I have plans to extend my reading into other collections from the 1960s and 70s, but here I begin to find certain limits that were a kind of negative factor in inspiring Asimov and Greenberg’s attempt to present a “definitive” collection from 1939-1963. When one reaches the mid-1960s SF collections begin to mushroom, alongside of the growing popularity of SF. Indeed, it was partly the scarcity of collections prior to the mid-60s that inspired Greenberg and Asimov’s 25 volume collection.
One of my prime motivations for reading the entire collection was to get a better idea of the general themes and trends of this crucial period for SF. I have been reading SF since I was a wee boy in the 1970s. But it was only upon discovering the likes of J. G. Ballard and Philip K. Dick in my teens in the 1980s that I began to understand the true power and importance of the short story. Over the years I increasingly turned to short SF, but my journey through written SF through the 1990s and 2000s was more of a meander while other things competed for my attention: primarily university, far left politics, avant-garde literature and parenthood. It has only been over the last decade that I have begun to more systematically explore the riches of short SF.
Having read the entire Isaac Asimov Presents The Great SF Stories collection, I can now heartily recommend it, but with a few caveats. Of the 30 stories that I rate as Top Shelf in the 25 years covered by the collection, only 7 of these lay in the so-called “Golden Age” period (1939-50)—and none in the first two years of the collection (1939 and 1940). No doubt what I rate as Top Shelf would differ for another reader. However, to that reader and all readers of this collection I would propose that the “real” Golden Age of science fiction—or at least what I term “Anglo-American” science fiction—begins around 1950. Something Barry Malzberg believes in too. 
The years that first leapt out in my read through were 1950, 1951 and especially 1952. What a year it was that could manifest “Delay In Transit” by F. L. Wallace, “The Altar At Midnight” by C. M. Kornbluth, “What’s It Like Out There?” by Edmond Hamilton, “Cost Of Living” by Robert Sheckley and “Ticket To Anywhere” by Damon Knight—to name just a few. 1957, 1963 and 1964 are also great years too.
Nonetheless, without Campbell’s so-called “Golden Age” what would modern science fiction be? This model, replete with its fanzines, fannish conventions, DIY ethos, and Campbell’s much vaunted (by himself) “professionalisation” of the pulps, became the model par excellence for SF. It was exported on the coat tails of US cultural hegemony, replicating itself across the globe, starting scenes where there were none, and in other cases displacing and converting pre-existing ones.
Certainly, the unquestionably science fictional works that pre-exist this “Golden Age” both inside and without the Anglophone countries somewhat undermines Campbell’s late claim. Still, I am fascinated by the focus SF achieves from around 1940—though more so around 1950 (coincident with the arrival of the Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction and Galaxy in the US). Indeed, it is my belief that between 1950 and 1970, SF, in its own distinct and science fictional way, replicates the paths and patterns of modern literary and artistic culture outside the ghetto. From the enthusiastic fury of its half-baked DIY pulp origins, SF rapidly matures, aspiring after a literary renown the equal of the mainstream, only to find by the end of the sixties precisely the impasse reached by the European artistic avant-gardes in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. In this sense I see the New Wave of the 1960s—and New Wave adjacent SF works—as signaling the end of not just the first phase of Anglo-American SF, but the end of literature in a similar way to the literary avant-gardes of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Here, the ‘end’ I speak of is not the actual cessation of the writing and consumption of literature, but rather the end of a project that was embodied in the avant-garde. The ‘freedom of the word’ announced amidst the poetic experimentation in France in the mid-19th century not only led to the ultra-modernist experiments of the Dadas and James Joyce (for example), but posed the possibility of a freedom of creative action beyond the expressive impasses reached upon the written page. It was Guy Debord’s wager that this movement toward self-destruction—that is, the formal experimental destruction of the received wisdom regarding what counted as ‘art’—demonstrated the limits of merely artistic experimentation, and the pressing need to transform such experiments beyond the canvas and the page into a revolutionary transformation of everyday life itself. It is to this ‘end’ and ends of art and literature that I am pointing to here.
This ‘impasse’ of the apparent self-destruction of so much of what we would consider ‘literary’, whether met with in SF or elsewhere, is what Debord called the “decomposition of culture”. It is this that I seek to explore more fully on this blog, through critical reviews of individual works, as well as more general reflections on the place of science fiction in the three or four decades after the Second World War. I might even try and explain what I mean by ‘impasse’ and ‘self-destruction’ more clearly—at least more clearly than I have previously done!
A brief note on my definition of ‘Anglo-American SF’. What it is: what is sounds like: SF produced in and or by people in the US and the Anglophone countries, broadly defined (Britain and ex-British Colonies, though primarily Canada, Australia and New Zealand in the period 1950-1970). The importance of this SF is undoubted, coincident with the rise to dominance of the USA in the post-Second World War globalisation of capitalism. However, it is hard to disentangle the “triumph” of Anglo-American SF as the dominant model of SF from the rise to cultural, economic and political dominance of the US itself (and, to a lesser extent for the period we’re talking of, the dominance of the British Empire prior to this). What do I mean? In the case of the classic John W. Campbell “competent man” SF promulgated in the magazine Astounding Science Fiction, the resonance with the overwhelming influence of the US in the West after the war is obvious. But less noted—to my mind—is that even strains of SF that were more open to oppositional ideas (for instance H. L. Gold’s Galaxy), indirectly benefited from US cultural dominance. Which is not to damn such oppositional strains—far from it. Rather, it is to reckon with the context and conditions in and by which English language SF was singularly predominant in the period covered by Asimov and Greenberg’s anthology.
 As the evil Hegelian-Marxian that I am, I prefer to think of the subjective as in truth a dialectical interplay of subjective and objective determinations—no subject is purely subjective, and perforce is capable of objectifying not only their subjectivity, but the world which they inhabit too.
 For instance, see Barry Malzberg, ‘Introduction: The Fifties’, in The End of Summer: Science Fiction of the Fifties, eds. Barry N. Malzberg and Bill Prozini, Ace Books, 1979. Available to borrow online here.
 See the definition of ‘decomposition’, here. Debord spoke of the movement toward the ‘self-destruction’ of poetry in France in the 19th century as been bound up with the assertion of the ‘autonomy of poetic language’ around the time of the poet Charles Baudelaire: ‘Henceforth, poetry—which is to say the people who wanted a poetic use of language—rejected all reasoning beyond itself and gave itself the goal of contemplating its own power. While undertaking the demolition of all conventional forms of expression, this poetry simultaneously set itself against the society whose values it denied and proclaimed itself in revolt against “bourgeois” order. Such poetry rejected everything in the world that was not poetry, while progressing toward its self-annihilation as poetry’ (see, here). It is my belief that a similar movement exists in Anglo-American SF between 1950 and 1970.
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
Infodump:“An item of sf Terminology commonly used to designate chunks of technical discourse inserted into fictional texts […]. In sf criticism, the term is often used to pejoratively name a flaw, when the infodump presents as a large obstructive mass, a clump of narrative whose author has not properly digested it”—from the SF Encyclopedia
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.
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’. 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).
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.
 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).
 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.
sf & critical theory join forces to destroy the present