Tag Archives: J.-H. Rosny aîné

In praise of the infodump

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

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

1.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


FOOTNOTES

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

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

The Mysterious Force of J.-H. Rosny aîné

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thinking through The Time Machine

The truth of The Time Machine laid bare, having deleted a false idea and replaced it with the right one. Adapted from the Marvel Classics Comics version of The Time Machine, 1976.

Utopia is dystopia

My thoughts often return to H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine. Its stark beauty and tragic breadth—30 million years compressed into a short novel. Alongside of Shelley’s Ozymandias and Olaf Stapeldon’s Last and First Men, it is one of the great evocations of the cosmic (in)significance of humanity. And yet its utter pessimism regarding human nature, and now laughable theories regarding evolutionary degeneracy are hard to take. Unfortunately, it is here, in the 1890s, in which the scientific romance, science fiction in all but name, is given a manifesto: utopia is dystopia. The Time Machine is the real beginning of science fiction simply because of this; the line in the sand that marks off the ephemera of utopia from that of science fiction proper.

Before The Time Machine there is no science fiction. At best there are different types of speculative fiction and non-fiction.[1] It is only with Wells’ success, both commercially and as a model for the writer of science fiction, that the formula “utopia is dystopia” comes to dominate.

Considering that Wells became known for his utopianism, we do well to remember how miserable is his view of human nature in the works that not only made him famous, but established him among the advanced guard of twentieth century science fiction. Indeed, when later turning to speculations on the possibilities of socialism, Wells distrust of human nature—particularly of the “lower orders” of the human—remains on display. His was a vision of the dictatorship of knowledge, or rather the dictatorship of those in the know (i.e. as Wells imagined himself). As George Orwell intimated some years later, Wells’ socialist world-state is fascism or Stalinism in all but name.[2]

But I digress. My main point is just this. In The Time Machine, Wells’, through the adoption of a perspective of evolutionary pessimism, established a powerful formula which is the real pivot upon which science fiction came into being. That is, utopia is dystopia. Indeed, and as I have attempted to briefly argue above, his own later utopianism is founded upon this early “insight”. No doubt the experience of the rapid degeneration of the Russian Revolution and the rise of fascism in the 1920s and 30s were also powerful impetuses to establishing this formula as the chief distinguishing mark of science fiction. But it was Wells’ who provided the model.

In future posts I will return to thinking through The Time Machine. The text, so slight in its own way, is so dense with content and context. No doubt, there is still much to be said regarding my claim that Wells’ work is the manifesto of pessimism that lies at the heart of the science fiction. Indeed, the historical context of Wells work is of key importance in this regard. There is also the need to understand Wells as an exemplar of science fiction itself, or at least its emergence as a distinct genre, rather than as the beloved solitary genius (beloved, that is by many of the early purveyors and proselytisers of SF).[3] Additionally, Wells’ conception of the speciation of class difference, though questionably presented under the guise of evolutionary science, is nonetheless rich in metaphorical suggestions.

Slowly, a project begins to take shape: to overcome the dystopian heart of science fiction is simply to overcome science fiction. And then, at long last the horizon will appear free again, even if it should not be as bright; and at long last our ships may venture out again, venture out to face danger; and all the daring of the lover of knowledge is permitted again; and the sea, our sea, lies open again; and perhaps there never yet has been such an “open sea.” [4]

To be continued…



Part 2 of this article is now available.


FOOTNOTES

[1] I would argue that the boundary between fiction and non-fiction, apart from the convenience for vendors and buyers of books, is at times fraught. No doubt the most fictional of fictions speaks to the time in which it was composed. But consider the following examples of utopian fiction predating Wells work: Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward and William Morris’ News From Nowhere. Both are impossible to understand without the context of the aspirational socialist politics from which and for which they spoke. Though in the strict sense fictional, these works were presented as aspirational oughts to the brutal is of 19th century capitalism. Indeed, they are of a different order to those present-day fictions that are little more than illusory “escapes” from the boredom of capitalist alienation and despair.

[2] “Much of what Wells has imagined and worked for is physically there in Nazi Germany. The order, the planning, the State encouragement of science, the steel, the concrete, the aeroplanes, are all there, but all in the service of ideas appropriate to the Stone Age. Science is fighting on the side of superstition. But obviously it is impossible for Wells to accept this. It would contradict the world-view on which his own works are based”. George Orwell, Wells, Hitler and the World State, 1941.

[3] The French writer J.-H. Rosny aîné comes to mind as a contemporary working in the same rapidly coalescing field; indeed who did not share Wells’ early pessimistic visions. I have written on Rosny aîné here.

[4] Adapted from Nietzsche, The Gay Science, #343, translated Walter Kaufmann.