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.
To bootstrap the stars— Walter M. Miller jr’s ‘The Big Hunger’ and Poul Anderson’s ‘The Longest Voyage’
One of the more persistent tropes of SF, inherited from its ‘golden’ heyday, is what we might call ‘bootstrapping’. To ‘bootstrap’ is to do something without any help or assistance. In the case of SF, the ability of humans to ‘bootstrap’ their way from animal origins to the stars is often held out as a prime human quality. At the very least, if not peculiarly human, such an ability is nonetheless contrasted with those poor alien species who are gifted the space drive or what have you, and are, consequently, lesser for having been patronised thus.
Under the stewardship of that renowned bigot, John W. Campbell jr, such fables took on a quasi-religious form, disguised under the ludicrous misnomer of ‘hard’ science fiction. Nonetheless, it would be too much to simply damn all such stories, whether produced under Campbell’s direction or not. In that spirit, I will briefly examine a story by Walter M. Miller jr, and a story by Poul Anderson, both of which appeared in that magazine with two names.
Without doubt, both stories appealed in part to some of Campbell’s prejudices, but such flaws by no means exhaust their content or worth. I am not, however, arguing that we should judge these works by the sins of the father, nor his virtues either for that matter. Which is not to say that I subscribe to the dubious thought of the postmoderns who recommend extricating a work from the time and space of its production all the better to judge it by way of the space time of its consumption. No.
Poul Anderson—‘The Longest Voyage’ (1960)
Though both stories have their pains and pleasures, the later published story is the least interesting of the two. Still, Poul Anderson’s ‘The Longest Voyage’ (1960) is a cracking tale. He effectively conjures a world not unlike the Earth’s early 16th century, except in this case the people are descendants of human exile, millennia past and largely forgotten and mythologized. The story is told from the perspective of a young ship’s officer, Zhean, onboard this world’s equivalent of Ferdinand Magellan’s circumnavigation, embarked from a land not unlike Europe at the dawn of the epochs of science and colonial conquest. The ship’s captain, Rovic, complete with red beard, seems more akin to Sir Francis Drake than Magellan, just as the former’s ship, The Golden Hind, is reborn here as the Golden Leaper. The bulk of the tale involves the sailors of the latter ship encountering a primitive people, whose story of a fallen ‘Sky God’ proves to be more than a mere legend.
There is little subtlety in Anderson’s analogues. The ‘Montalirian’ sailors are effectively stand-ins for Portuguese, Spaniards and/or English, right down to their corselets, caravels and grapeshot (the kilts are a nice, if familiar touch on Anderson’s part). The ‘primitives’ they encounter, the ‘Hisagazi’, are a curious admixture of Polynesians, pre-modern Japanese, and the people of the Kingdom of Butuan (the latter encountered by Magellan in what are now the Philippines). However, what is most remarkable about Anderson’s amalgamates is that despite the minor differences in detail, this alien world inhabited by humans nonetheless proves to be an exact analogue of Earth’s early 16th century. Indeed, one may even conclude that Anderson replicates an historical trope often erroneously attributed to Karl Marx: that there are iron laws of history that must be expressed, no matter the differing initial conditions.
The most apparently alien, and indeed science fictional aspects of this tale lie in the planetary setting. Though set on an Earth-like planet, the heavens above are somewhat different. The world is one of several satellites of a gas giant that the Montalirians call ‘Tambur’. Indeed, their world is tidally locked to its primary, a fictional fact that plays a minor if vital role in the narrative.
However, most alien of all is the encounter between the Montalirians and the Hisagazi. Despite their roles, conveniently borrowed from Earth’s history, Anderson has lifted the burden of bigotry and assumed superiority from his quasi-Europeans. Unlike Magellan’s sometime bloody Christian proselytising, Anderson’s Montalirians act only with honour and ultimately in defence of the entirety of the human species on the planet. Indeed, Rovic unveils his motivation most clearly at the end of the tale, in what amounts to a plea for the right to bootstrap against any pesky interference from technologically advanced utopians. And even though this right is asserted along with Rovic’s use of superior technology against the Hisagazi, the comparison and thus hypocrisy of his pontificating is never drawn out. One is left wondering why Anderson, even though closely hewing to some of the details of Earth’s history circa the early 16th century, chose to in effect whitewash the inconvenient bits from the miserable story of Europe’s ‘discovery’ of the world. This is perhaps all the more strange considering that Anderson was far from being simply an apologist for European superiority, and was even capable of a more sensitive portrayal of non-Europeans (consider, for instance, his Maurai stories). Still, the scene in which Rovic and his sailors destroy the rocket of the ‘Sky God’ from Earth—no less—could perhaps be interpreted as a sly dig at Campbell, in which the human right to bootstrap is asserted against the original bootstrappers!
Walter M. Miller jr—‘The Big Hunger’ (1952)
Though it shares some thematic similarities with the Anderson piece, Walter M. Miller jnr.’s ‘The Big Hunger’ (1952) is a substantially different beast. Miller’s story regale’s the reader in its short length with the tale of humanity’s ‘big hunger’ for the stars, which drives it on to spread throughout the entire Milky Way. Yet his tale is more prose poem that short story. It is told from the unique perspective of the ‘eternal’ rocket—‘my principle lies beyond particular flesh’—the ‘space-spider’ that weaves its web throughout the galaxy at the behest of the humans.
By evoking the depths of a future in which individuals come and go, mere character masks of the greater story of the species, Miller’s tale bears comparison to Olaf Stapledon’s Last and First Men and Star Maker. However, unlike Stapledon’s chilly prose that often borders upon omniscient indifference, Miller’s epic is more lyrical in expression, ably evoking the fleshy desire that drives the humans on, even as he reveals the emptiness that resides at the heart of this discontent. Indeed, it is this ability to both hail and call into question this ‘eternal thirst’ of the humans that marks his tale out from Anderson’s. Whereas the latter poses that to divert or impede the drive can only be a misfortune—one that would rob the human of the very essence of their humanity—Miller is more equivocal, evoking the bitter costs of this drive: the destruction and even ‘genocide’ rained down in the name of human desire. Caught between praise and damnation, Miller achieves an elegiac quality largely absent from Anderson’s tale.
Miller’s story has both that curious quality that Stapledon’s epics have. It is as if we are reading an actual fable from tomorrow, not just a projection of our present anxieties into the future. And despite Miller’s ambivalence about the use or virtue of human exceptionalism and expansion, his story is the more human of the two, even as Anderson’s is the more conventionally appealing narrative. The latter tells a story of the past in a science fictional setting, whereas Miller attempts to fashion a melancholic song of events yet to come. His story opens upon both the possibility and impossibility of the future described, rather than merely pinching off a tale from a tale we already know, and dressing it up with some science fictional curtains.
Henri Lefebvre once defined science fiction as that “which explores what is possible by using myths from the past.” In doing so he was arguing more than what has become something of a platitude: that SF is merely about the present in which it is written. More pointedly, by Lefebvre’s lights, is that SF is about possibility immanent in the present moment. And so, such projections are an ambivalent thing. They appear as both plans for realisation and frustration. In part, Lefebvre derives this view from Hegel and Marx; and in part he derives it from a reading of contemporary science fiction (for instance, the oft mentioned Clifford Simak novel City had an outsized influence on Lefebvre’s rallying to what the situationists would later propose as their minimum program: “never work!”). At stake is a grander claim. SF is a bastard child of the bourgeois epoch, at once heir to the utopianism and science of the rising bourgeoisie, as much as product of the antagonisms that drove the latter to commercial and political supremacy.
I will return to this in future posts.
 Henri Lefebvre, Critique of Everyday Life, Volume II: Foundations for a Sociology of the Everyday, trans. John Moore, London: Verso,  2002, p. 333.
‘Testament of Andros’ is a remarkable early example of SF that is self-consciously modernist. It joins works like Kornbluth’s ‘The Last Man Left in the Bar’ (1957) as an example of a formally “experimental” literature predating and pointing the way to the 1960s New Wave in SF.
Like many works of modernist fiction, the form of the story is, perhaps, the most important aspect of its content.
The explicit, science fictional content—an impending disaster that involves the sun and its impact upon Earth—is told in a succession of numbered parts. Following on the experimental discovery of the “disturbed sun” in the first part, the following sections make up so many fragmented testaments of an apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic world that results from a solar disaster.
Or do they?
Blish anchors the story with a final reveal that calls into question the previous accounts—a reveal that is, nonetheless, appropriately ambiguous.
Joachim Boaz of Suspect Ruminations writes that “an organizing principle [for the story] is suggested by the ending”, such that the final testament but one (#5) could be read to say that the entire tale constitutes the delusions of T. V. Andros, criminal, rapist, and reader of “those magazines that tell about going to other planets and stuff like that” (p. 83). This certainly helps to explain the way such diverse testaments like those of “Andrew” (#2) and “Admiral Universe” (#4) relate to each other—the latter of which is a wonderful pastiche of SF pulps. Joachim further speculates that perhaps the first “four visions are fragments of what [Andros] read as a child […] manifest[ing] themselves after psychiatric treatment”.
But then, in the final paragraph of his testament, does Andros write himself into his own fantasy while sitting in prison, or is the world rather on the verge of destruction by errant solar flares?
“Outside the cell the sun is bigger […] there is something wrong with the air. […] Maybe something is going to happen.” (p. 84)
The divide between reality and fiction is finally dispensed with. Was it even there in the first place?
Unfortunately, immediately after the chilling conclusion to Andros’ testament, Blish provides a superfluous final testament. Superfluous in the sense that it seems to me that the author is tacking on a science fictional twist to try and make his story less threatening to the average 1950s SF nerd:
It was Man all along!
Or maybe I am being too ungenerous. The final fragmentary testament (#6)—Man’s Testament as it were—really doesn’t detract from the overall effect of the piece. And despite this, Blish rescues his story from a dread twist by going full ouroboros. And so, the narrative devours itself, the first and last lines making a neat couplet:
“Beside the dying fire lie the ashes. There are voices in them. Listen: […] “Here the ashes blow away. The voices die.“[pp. 70, 84]
Could this be the final testament? The final, inescapable, absurd twist?
The total effect of ‘Testament of Andros’ is to undermine the sense of a coherent and reliable narrative, even at its most “realist”. Not only is the testament of T. V. Andros (#5) itself ultimately called into question, the “realism” of other parts of the story is also attacked from within—and not just by way of the possibility that they are aspects of a deluded imagination. Thus, the first numbered part of the story, the somewhat “realist” testament of Dr. Andresson’s, is also seeded with striking touches of surrealism. For instance, Andresson’s ageless wife, Marguerita, who reappears in the later parts of the story under different guises: Margo, Margaret, St Margaret, Margy II, the Margies, Maggy. The role of this spectral woman bears comparison to the surrealists’ somewhat questionable evocation of woman as dreamlike muse. It is, for all that, one of the most effective moments of the modernist styles on display here.
In part, Blish also anticipates Ballard’s metamorphic Travis/Traven/etc—in ‘The Terminal Beach’ (1964) and The Atrocity Exhibition (1966-1970)—deploying the trope of anti-realist, fantastic repetition borrowed from the modernist avant-gardes of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. A more apt comparison, perhaps, would be with contemporaries like Jorge Louis Borges, or the writers of the French Nouveau roman, then most of his SF contemporaries. Which is not to say that Blish is alone in the SF ghettoes of the 1950s. Philip K. Dick, Damon Knight, C. M. Kornbluth, Judith Merril, Walter M. Miller, Robert Sheckley, and William Tenn, among others, were also experimenting with form and content. But such experimentation made up a small and marginal part of what passed for SF at the time.
Highly recommended for fans of literary modernism in SF.
Note that all references to section and page numbers refers to the version of the story as it appears in Future Science Fiction, January 1953. It can be found online here and here.
And thanks to Joachim for bringing yet another story to my attention.
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.
It occurs to me that I haven’t updated all of the loyal Shamassians who, for whatever reasons, have failed to receive the last few Shamass cards (new series). Yeah, that’s right folks, there is a NEW SERIES of Shamass cards circulating in the Shamassoverse!
The good news is that they actually exist. The bad… well, there is no bad news in the Shamassoverse, even when there is.
Some of you will be pleased to know that Shamass has moved to the postcard format–see below–having reached the limits of the folded card and christmas cheer. And some of you, no doubt, will be displeased, whether by this or something else.
You will, however, be most pleased to know that the latest series is a direct sequel to that sometimes puzzling, always entertaining Shamass TV episode we unearthed some years back.
Recently I’ve been rereading Olaf Stapledon’s Star Maker. I last read it in the late 1990s, not long after reading Stapledon’s Last and First Men. The grand scale of the latter is restaged in Star Maker, but on an even grander scale: this time the story of the entire cosmos across time and space rather than the mere 2-billion-year future history of homo sapiens and its various descendants.
However, this time around I was immediately struck upon reading Stapledon’s preface to Star Marker. In the late 1990s the preface seemed somewhat anachronistic, lost to me in its historical specificity. Today, we have unfortunately caught up with Stapledon’s concerns, as the passage of time brings us once again to the verge of a crisis not unlike that faced by Europeans and the wider world in the nineteen thirties.
Dated 1937, Stapledon wonders if Star Maker, and its apparent disengagement with its temporal and social context, is in truth “a distraction from the desperately urgent defence of civilisation against modern barbarism.” He goes on to contrast his perspective with those writers and intellectuals who were more obviously engaged in a partisan struggle with fascist barbarism, in particular, and capitalism, more generally. One cannot help but think of the Spanish Civil War that was then raging—even though Stapledon does not mention it.
Stapledon declares, for himself and others like him: “though we are inactive or ineffective as direct supporters of the cause, we do not ignore it.” Indeed, the threat of barbarism seems every present in his work in the 1930s. The first third of Star Marker is taken up by the spectral narrator’s visit to numerous far-flung worlds of barely human “men”, whose civilisations also stand at the crux of barbarism and those that would oppose it. However, he further poses in the preface that perhaps something is lost to those who are too immersed in the struggle, as if the future that they fight for recedes beyond their grasp precisely because of their focus upon the battles and brutalities of the present:
Those who are in the thick of the struggle inevitably tend to become, though in a great and just cause, partisan. They nobly forgo something of that detachment, that power of cold assessment, which is, after all, among the most valuable human capacities. In their case this is perhaps as it should be; for a desperate struggle demands less of detachment than of devotion. But some who have the cause at heart must serve by striving to maintain, along with human loyalty, a more dispassionate spirit. And perhaps the attempt to see our turbulent world against a background of stars may, after all, increase, not lessen the significance of the present human crisis. It may also strengthen our charity toward one another.
It may seem common sensical to pose, like Stapledon, that to be engaged and to be dispassionate can at best be complementary and at worst opposed. Thus, he can both laud those partisans driven by the demands of the “desperate struggle” against fascism, and equally his own somewhat more detached position. However, something else is in operation here that may not be immediately obvious unless we cast an eye over the historical context of Stapledon’s words. As I mentioned above, Stapledon never mentions the Spanish Civil War, even though he wrote his preface amidst the first year of this conflict.
The Spanish Civil War was by no means a simple or straightforward conflict. Today, most commentators accept that Hitler and Mussolini used it as a training group for the world war they were even then preparing. Lesser known is the story of the radical proletarian revolution that erupted at its origin in July 1936. Even less well known is that this revolution was not only ultimately defeated by the victory of General Franco and his Nationalist army in 1939, but rather had already been crushed by erstwhile allies and comrades as early as 1937. Operating under the orders of Stalin and with the connivance of the broad left Spanish Republican government, member of the Stalinist Socialist Party, alongside of Russian NKVD agents, hunted down, tortured, and murdered all those communists and anarchists who refused to bend to their leadership.
This is not the place to enter into the minutiae of the Spanish Revolution, and the counter revolution led by Stalinists. Some good places to start, but definitely not end, can be found in George Orwell’s first-hand account, Homage to Catalonia, Ken Loach’s 1995 film, Land and Freedom, and Vicente Aranda’s 1996 film, Libertarias.
Stapledon’s was what was known as a “fellow traveller” of the so-called communist regime in Russia and its various “communist” parties spread throughout Europe and the world. Though he was reticent to fully commit and was perhaps somewhat squeamish when confronted with the reality of their practice, he nonetheless broadly supported the USSR and its branches as bearers of a project that pointed beyond capitalism. This perhaps explains his generalities and effective silence on the events of 1936 and 1937 in his preface to Star Maker, preferring to neither condemn nor fully endorse Stalinist practice in Spain.
Indeed, I believe we can detect in Stapledon’s opposition of the “partisan” and the “detached” sympathiser, an argument somewhat analogous to that used by the Stalinists to justify their grab for power in Spain. There, and throughout Europe at the time, the Stalinist catechism was something like this: first, we deal with fascism, and then—and only then—we stage the revolution. With hindsight, we know that the committed Stalinist was always terrified of revolution and worked tirelessly to destroy any real or potential revolution that threatened to escape their control (for example: in China, 1926; Spain, 1936-37; France & Italy, 1944; East Germany, 1953; Poland & Hungary, 1956; Czechoslovakia, 1968; Poland, 1981). However, in the 1930s, Stalinism, insofar as it was apparently something to do with workers’ power and revolution, was attractive to many of those battered or outraged by the reality of capitalist crisis, economic depression, and the rise of fascism. In the face of the appeasement of the fascists by liberal and conservative politicians alike, not to mention the allure fascism held for many capitalists, it could seem that one must focus first on the fascist threat above all else. However, even if we forget for the moment the reality of Stalinist counter-revolution in Spain, we cannot simply ignore the role that capitalists and capitalism, liberal or otherwise, played in preparing the way for fascism. Today, as we again face fascism under new brands and names, it is the lesson of the other Spanish revolutionaries, the anarchist and the dissident communists, not the Stalinists, that we must relearn: the struggle against fascism begins and ends with the struggle against capitalism.
Stapledon, by accepting that his own utopian speculations, spread across many of his works, constituted a disengaged idealism in the face of partisan pragmatism, merely reinforced that great error known as Stalinism. As he notes in his defence, “an imaginative sketch of the dread but vital whole of things” as contained in Star Maker, for example, may in fact “increase, not lessen” the chances of success of the struggle against fascist barbarism. And yet he fumbled a real solution to the dilemma he presented: which is to say, there is no dilemma, the partisan struggle and utopian speculation must be united, otherwise we lose sight of precisely what it is that we struggle for.
Take for instance Stapledon’s “spiritual” speculations. IN the preface to Star Maker he appears somewhat circumspect about this dimension of his work, with an eye to his materialist comrades. However, his “spirituality” is far from religious, in the conventional sense. He notes that the “spiritual life” that he proposes as an aim beyond the competitive and individualistic ethos of capitalism, “seems to be in essence the attempt to discover and adopt the attitude which is in fact appropriate to our experience as a whole, just as admiration is felt to be in fact appropriate toward a well-grown human being.” In Star Maker, as elsewhere, Stapledon conceived of the movement from capitalist individualism to the communalism of communism as not merely a vital necessity—for species survival as much as its potential flourishing and ongoing creativity. He also saw it as the basis for the true flourishing of “spirit”, in the sense of the trans- and super-individual nature of the social body through history. Elsewhere, I have called Stapledon’s concern with spirit in this sense, evidence of his being a “pulp Hegel”. However, unlike Hegel, Stapledon’s spirit bears a passing resemblance to Marx’s, insofar as Stapledon’s spirit is the result of history rather than its presupposition (though, to be fair to Hegel, it is both result and presupposition in the latter’s work). Stapledon’s spirit is an emergent principle and essence, a marker of the further spiritualisation of the human that finally wakes, through and beyond capitalism, not only to the vast dimensions of its species capabilities, but increasingly to the cosmic stage of a burgeoning social consciousness become aware of its new breadth and powers.
In my experience, communists and anarchists have often been singularly incompetent in fostering a relationship between their present means and methods, and their future aims and ends. It is as if the more we focus upon the demands of the present, the future that we struggle for recedes and finally disappears. To that end, Stapledon’s speculations on the future course of spirit helps us draw attention to the emergence of spirit—in his sense—in the here and now. The outline of the future social being must surely appear in the present, even if its contours are often sketched in the negative of the capitalist society we struggle against and reject.
Indeed, Marx and Engels posed that the future aimed at—which is to say communism—is already present, immanent as it were, in the struggles of workers and others in the here and now, rather than being simply a fantastic ideal forever put off until the day after the revolution:
Communism is for us not a state of affairs which is to be established, an ideal to which reality [will] have to adjust itself. We call communism the real movement which abolishes the present state of things. (Marx & Engels, The German Ideology)
In part, Marx and Engels were here refuting mere utopian socialist speculation (of the likes of Charles Fourier, Henri de Saint-Simon and Robert Owen), not in order to simply dismiss them, but rather to draw attention instead to the utopian dreams and desires of the exploited and oppressed. By their reckoning, the mistake of the utopian socialists was not their utopianism so much as the failure of their imagination when it came to the question of how to bring about their ideal palaces. Today’s anarchists and socialists often have the reverse problem. Bogged down by the minutiae of demanding more crumbs from the capitalist’s table (no matter how necessary such struggles are), they have forgotten that there is a world beyond said table.
To return to where I began. Stapledon’s dilemma, that between the partisans of the anti-capitalist struggle, and the detached dreamers of which he numbers himself, is in truth no dilemma at all. Indeed, in order to counter the purported alternative that fascism, for example, offers, we cannot dispense with our dreams and desires for a better world on the basis of an ill-conceived pragmatism. To do so is to concede the impossibility of making such aims a living moment of our present practice. Indeed, if the present struggle disengages us from the “dread but vital whole of things” in the name of a narrow pragmatism, we have already lost.
We struggle for a better world, a different world, not merely this one with a few more bells and trinkets. In this sense, and as noted above, communism is immanent to our needs and desire, both as individuals and as moments of our historical and social heritage. Indeed—and again taking a leaf from Marx and Engels—the question is not one of dismissing the likes of Fourier, Saint-Simon, Owen, or even Stapledon (insert favourite contemporary speculative fiction author here), but rather one of taking up their speculations as a part of our present struggles and demands. Contrary to Stapledon’s fear that speculative works like his novel, Star Marker, or Last and First Men, are mere distractions from the “real” problems of our day, we should rather consider them as blueprints of the possible, as necessary to the struggle as aim and inspiration, as the struggle itself.
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).
The following is something of an oddity. I found it on an old hardrive. In was in a folder called “web reviews” that also contained a few other pages that I had downloaded around the first five years of the twenty tens. Mostly reviews of science fiction novels from blogs I was then following or had stumbled upon.
Did I write this? It is hard to say. I have no recollection of doing so though I would hesitate to deny it outright, as it sounds like something I would. I have long been interested in SF and “old” science fiction in particular. That is SF written before the 1980s.
C. Knight Calender’s Exit, the Masses resembles nothing so much as John Brunner’s Stand on Zanzibar. The main difference being that Exit, the Masses does not appear to exist outside of the review, below. It is this non-existence that is possibly the clearest sign that it was written by me. And yet I have no memory of doing such. Dare I say, much like the rouge sociologue, Mulligan Speke, that this work “is doubly non-existent”?
The most peculiar thing of all is the way this review mixes elements of its fantasy of place with those of ours. There is much that is familiar but enough that is not, which lends to it a dream like quality. And yet alongside such patently false personages as Knight Calender, William Jean and Emmerson Stampe, stands A. E. Van Vogt and Philip K. Dick. It is as if this review itself originated in a story of the aforementioned; as likely this as that it has come to us from another dimension in which things are the same but not quite. Or perhaps—and this is an even more unsettling thought—it comes from a story of Dick’s or Van Vogt’s that was never published in our universe, which is to say it does not exist in thought or deed. Or if it does, only in one of its less travelled, far-flung corners.
In the late 1980s I recall reading a novel called The Planiverse, by A. K. Dewdney. The framing device for this fiction was that the story was no fiction at all. The “planiverse” upon which the author had stumbled was the result of a computer simulation gone wrong—or right, as the case maybe. For reasons arcane to both author, and perforce reader, the mechanism by which the planiverse came into sync with our universe remained obscure.
It seems to me that the only criteria that a simulation requires is that it may also be that which is simulated.Could it be that Knight Calender exists somewhere, like the Berenstein Bears? Is it enough that we believe that he does? That no such person wrote a book called Exit, the Masses is far from clear. Maybe we have simply not found all the manuscripts left to the gnawing criticism of the mice? Or worse, could it be that in this world, our world, the manuscript of Knight Calender’s novel was destroyed? In truth, I find it more comforting to believe that it was never written, and that this review is a fake. Though I would prefer to believe that the novel, and so too its reviews, simply remain to be written.
Exit, the Masses by C. Knight Calender
C. Knight Calender (real name Karl Keding) is unfortunately not as well known or as frequently read now as he once was. He was an extremely prolific British (originally South African) science fiction author from the 1940s through the 1980s, ranging from sword and sorcery to space opera, social satire and complex analyses of social trends. Exit, the Masses is one of his best-known novels and a Nebula award winner, written in 1969 but not published until 1972. Its subject matter was grand, a sort of “near future modernist epic realism” through which questions of power, population, mass media, philosophy and international politics were addressed. With that subject matter, you would think it would be dated, but this is one of those books that beautifully captures general tendencies in society despite often being wrong about the particulars.
The narrative structure of this book is unusual and rather intimidating at first. Calender’s model is the early 20th century author William Jean and his sprawling Americas trilogy. But don’t let this put you off as the author transforms Jean’s modernist realism into his indelible near future modernism. Similar to Jean’s “structures in waiting” there are three types of chapters in the book, usually very short: “superbase”, which contains snippets from essays and books that help explain world background; “what’s happening?”, composed of very short news blurbs, ads and other pop cultural fragments and detritus; and “satellite tracking”, which tells the heart of the story through the cast of thousands that Calender successively weaves into an eerily familiar whole.
I was convinced at first that the whole book was going to be an annoying and difficult read. Thankfully, I was wrong. The “satellite tracking” chapters tell a traditional and quite comprehensible story. From the many characters rapidly introduced in the first third of the novel two emerge as the most significant: Janice Jones, the Australian government agent, and Mohamed Brown the English PARA (Pan Arab Revolutionary Alliance) activist. With two viewpoint characters the world becomes much less confusing fairly quickly. Indeed Calender’s casting of a female in a traditionally male role written in the midst of the pogroms of ’69 is merely one of its revolutionary aspects (and perhaps the least of them).
Despite its often confusing multitude of voices, Exit, the masses cleverly deploys the larger story shown in the “superbase” and “what’s happening?” chapters across the more conventional narrative in the “satellite tracking” chapters. Indeed the scatter gun presentation of various characters across the face of the future Earth of 2015 works well. Still I was surprised that by the end of the book, with more understanding of what’s going on, the “superbase” and “what’s happening?” chapters would became my favourites.
I’ll mention some “shortcomings” up front just to get them out of the way. Calender makes extensive use of invented slang, and while he mostly has a decent ear for it (far better than Heinlein, for instance), it’s still invented slang. Expect to take a while to get used to words like “the jikks’ (men and women of no fixed abode who move from one cramped space to another) that are explained only in context. He also has a few hideous clunkers, such as “pretzel-sniffers” for the putrid things produced in the industrial laboratories of the EUG (European United Genetics) corporation. Thankfully, most of the slang adds just the perfect amount of retro futuritic flavour and fine shading, and isn’t just slang for the sake of it.
Once you are immersed in his work Calender more than ably evokes a believable future. Sure he got some of it wrong. But how well he anticipated social trends! There are no “meggcorps”, and in contrast to the runaway DNA pollution of his world, our Eugenics Boards are strictly policed. In our world the US isn’t fighting PARA, but there are US troops all across north and central Africa. And sure the Soviet Union is no longer as powerful as it once was, but then Calender wasn’t perfect – who is? Sexual morality didn’t work out the way Calender predicted either. The absence of contracting in his future seems odd from today’s perspective, and of course he missed the advent of pilnodes and many other uses of entabulaters. But when you’re reading Exit, the Masses, the politics, the mass opinions, the human reactions to the events of the world are so believable and recognizable that you want it to exist.
I think Calender is strongest in his elaborations of then popularly discussed extrapolations and his analysis of the resulting side effects. If there were “meggcorps” there would indeed be intense social pressure within and without the fragile nation state. His idea of fluid employment dynamics is almost exactly the way work became integrated into super-state sources. And the large bodies of “idlers” is just about right. Even the radical Communist sect called “Sisyphus” fighting against all limits on creativity feels plausible under Calender’s hand. Sure, the broad strokes of his political antagonism creak a little the further he gets away from his Middle Eastern comfort zone, but his meggcorps using a dispersed network of “bio-ordinators” matches the real development of entabulaters and the resulting revolutions in mass psychological fashion-molds. Of course, we won’t have such technology in the near term, even though the Davis tubes introduced last year promise a new type of entabulater in the not too distant future.
One of the major supporting characters is Mulligan Speke, author of the fictitious hapzhi-dicto, a sort of Vigilant Chronicle for Calender’s 2015.
NECESSARY — Means: (1) I don’t approve; (2) I rarely like it when it happens; (3) I can’t be jikk’d; (4) Neither can Yesnelm. Meaning 4 is the most likely, but the others are 250 keyzers of parched drail. (p. 38)
Speke shows up occasionally in “satellite tracking” and is a lot of fun there, but his best parts are to be found in the excerpts from either the ’dicto or his various other imagined books, letters, or essays littered across “superbase” and “what’s happening?”. If you like dark sarcasm, this is awesome stuff.
Painfully, we managed to digest the theories of physico-chemical economy so far as the political characteristics were concerned, and within only half a century of the initial controversy. (I say “we,” but if you’re a god-blithering-recidivist I expect you at this point to take the book by one corner at arm’s length and ceremonially consign it to the place where you put most sensible ideas, along with everything else you decline to acknowledge the existence of – like shit. Go on shit you higgs! (p. 257)
Indeed, it’s worth reading Exit, the Masses for Mulligan Speke alone.
I haven’t yet mentioned the plot. Partly that’s because the world and the character profiles are the highlight of the book. After a slow and deliberate start the plot quickly gathers its momentum to deliver a stunning conclusion. The way Calender handles the extensive supporting cast is simply incredible. Even Mulligan Speke’s first fleeting appearances in “satellite tracing” later lend sense to the weft and weave of the main story. Nonetheless he kept me wondering about how some of the chapters were going to fit into the main story until the very end. For instance labelling a third of the chapters “satellite tracking” becomes clearer retrospectively.
The two main protagonists, Jan Jones and Mahomed Brown, twirl around each other without ever meeting. Jones starts at the International Moonbase and slowly spins inward to Orbital-3 and finally Earth and the planned secret meeting at Pentagon 2. Upon her strange discovery at the Lunar observatory lies the fate of the Earth and the future of billions. Meanwhile, and in parallel, the developing mission of Brown’s PARA squad in Syria and what he finds in the shelled remains of a EUG experimental unit outside of Homs bears down upon Jones. Strangely it is Calender’s depiction of the EUG creatures that proved most hideously prescient. Still, the way he connects Brown and Jones’ stories is heartbreakingly abrupt and unexpected, albeit logical. If Calender’s 2015 is anything it is meticulously logical.
Alongside the regular smog alerts in London, Paris, Peking and Los Angeles, and the aggressive militarisation of Mars and the asteroid belt, Calender conjures a world you can almost taste if not already inhabit. Even the slapstick subplot that spins on the recovery of the missing historical documents from the Anz Republic provide more than amusing. Indeed it proves to be an ultimately important distraction from the terrifying pace and carefully orchestrated conclusion of Exit, the Masses.
Calender’s inversion of the traditional deus ex machina solution, and his harking to Van Vogt, P.K. Dick and Emmerson Stampe, can sometimes be difficult to keep track of (pay attention, one of the early chapters is a quite useful summaryentire in disguise to be read in the negative). It is, after all, in the denouement that the author truly fleshes out the status of his novel as a masterpiece. Indeed there is more realistic social analysis in this book than in a truckload of run of the mill science fiction novels, and Calender is proof that you don’t need to get your extrapolations right in order to talk about how people speak in the world.
Highly recommended; one’s knowledge of SF canon is simply not complete without it.
‘the hour of its birth is the hour of its death.’ —G. W. F. Hegel
Is there a future for science fiction?
Consider this: writers of science fiction have imagined not just the end of civilisation, and the end of the human species (among others), they have even imagined the end of everything—up to and including the beyond of the end. And yet rarely—perhaps never—do writers of SF imagine the end of SF, even though its finale is necessarily implied in the end of it all.
This is perhaps less strange if we consider that SF itself rarely features in the futures imagined by SF writers. Could it be that the collective imaginary of science fiction sees no future for SF? Or at least no future for SF in SF. With the notable exception of recursive science fiction,SF is strangely absent from most imagined futures. Is recursive science fiction, then, where we will find SF imagining the future of SF? Perhaps—but I’m not holding my breath.
Recursive SF is a somewhat fuzzy sub-genre of SF—which is no bad thing in that fuzziest of all genres. In its clearest and narrowest definition, it is ‘science fiction stories that refer to science fiction […] to authors, fans, collectors, conventions, etc.’ However, the self-referentiality of recursive SF runs the gamut of the more straightforwardly comic and satirical at one end (like Frederic Brown’s novels, What Mad Universe or Martians Go Home), through to the more self-consciously critical works of Barry Malzberg, in which Malzberg uses the conceit of self-referentiality to interrogate SF—albeit in fictional garb.
When speaking of two recursive works of Robert Silverberg’s—‘The Science Fiction Hall of Fame’ (1973) and ‘Schwartz Between The Galaxies (1974)—Malzberg notes that they are ‘less […] work[s] of fiction than of literary criticism.’ This is an apt description of some of Malzberg’s works. For instance, his ‘A Galaxy Called Rome’ (1975) is an excellent example of, and introduction to, such critical-recursive SF. Malzberg himself prefers the term ‘decadent science fiction’ to describe what he’s up to—a term that is presumably derived from Joanna Russ’s suggestive essay ‘The Wearing Out of Genre Materials’ (1971). To the extent that such ‘decadence’ is indicative of a more self-aware and sometimes critical take on the pretensions and pathologies of SF, that often includes formal experiments in literary style, both Russ and Malzberg associate it with the development of a ‘New Wave’ in SF in the 1960s and 70s. Unfortunately, and despite my own fascination with the New Wave and ‘decadence’, I have yet to find amongst its practitioners any evidence of what I have set out to find. Namely SF imagining either the SF of the future, or the end of SF itself—even though the utter exhaustion of SF is hinted at in the most corrosively recursive SF (Silverberg’s short story, ‘The Science Fiction Hall of Fame’ again leaps to mind).
The entry on ‘Recursive SF’ at The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction seeks to expand the definition of recursion to include, ‘Alternate Histories, usually backward-looking in time, and frequently expressing a powerful nostalgia for pasts in which the visions of early Genre SF do, in fact, come true.’ This is almost an answer to my question. Unfortunately, I am not looking for a ‘backward-looking’, retrospective vision of the future of SF, no matter how attractive such decadent confabulations are. No doubt imagining a different future for, say, SF in the 1940s, is easier to do given that one is imagining an alternate future based on what happened in our universe. But for now, in this quiet sector of the multiverse, I am trying to find is an SF that imagined SF in its future, not a future past.
What got me thinking along these lines was a remark made by Michael Moorcock in his introduction to a 1969 collection of New Wave SF writings, appositely entitled The New SF:
In the early days of the science fiction magazines writers often tried to visualise what literature would be like in the futures they invented. In a sense, therefore, the stories in this book are something of a natural development from magazines like Amazing Stories (founded 1926) for, to Hugo Gernsback the editor of Amazing Stories, they might well seem like the products of an ‘alien’ future.
Moorcock’s remarks are more suggestive than factual. The idea that the wild and wacky experiments of the New Wave could almost have been the future of science fiction imagined in the past is a fascinating thought. I have, however, found little evidence for Moorcock’s claim that SF writers in the 1920s, 30s and 40s were doing much to ‘visualise what literature would be like in the futures they invented’. I could be wrong about this—indeed, I want to be wrong. Perhaps somewhere in the lost drafts of Olaf Stapledon’s Last and First Men (1930) one can find an outline of the entirety of SF’s future trajectory, and, inevitably, its end.
To further illustrate what I am driving at, regarding the absence of an imagined future for SF in SF, let’s look briefly at two examples of recursive science fiction from the 1950s and 60s: Arthur C Clarke’s novel, The Sands of Mars (1951) and Edmond Hamilton’s short story, ‘The Pro’ (1964). In Clarke’s novel, the protagonist is a long-time science fiction writer who now lives in a future that has overtaken, in part, his pulpish imaginings. He journeys to a Mars that already has the rudiments of a permanent colony, somewhat bedazzled by the way the near future both confirms and refutes his fiction. Hamilton riffs on a similar theme. However, he makes the dislocation of the SF writer who has lived to see the future the central focus of his short story. In both cases nothing is said about the SF in the science fictional present imagined in either story. It either no longer exists, or—demonstrating a singular lack of imagination—is simply the same as it was when these stories were written. One can only assume that if there is an SF in these imaginary worlds, it is exempted from the forces of change and history that are otherwise speculatively evoked in the self-same stories.
Could it be that the inability to imagine a future for SF disguises a repressed belief that there is no future for SF? In his 1994 essay, ‘The Many Deaths of Science Fiction,’ Roger Luckhurst argues that, ‘SF is dying, it has been dying from the very moment of its constitution’. Motivated by those interminable debates that mark fandom, which locate the ‘death of SF’ in an imagined transgression of what is meant by ‘SF,’ Luckhurst argues that such anxieties necessarily emerge precisely as a result of the establishment of the genre in the first place. Indeed, he further believes that SF has a ‘death wish’ that is bound up with the boundaries of the gerne, and that is a function of the repressed desire for a ‘proper death’: either by way of its dissolution and return to the mainstream, or by way of being acknowledged as more than or better than its pulp, popular origins. Either way, the establishment of clear boundaries for SF only intensified the anxiety of this death-wish, and the anxieties that continues to metastasise with every controversy over perceived threats to these borders, whether from within or without (though especially from the former).
Luckhurst is at his most interesting when he focuses upon ‘the effect[s] of the structure of legitimation’, by which he means that the exclusionary policing of SF’s ambiguous borderlands by trufans and writers alike is the real source of SF’s internal conflicts and ‘death wish’. By any measure, the efforts of people like Hugo Gernsback and John W. Campbell in establishing an exclusive definition of SF was bound to explode, given not only the relatively arbitrary origins of their stipulative definitions of SF, but also the patent influence that the rich borderlands of the genre continued to exert upon readers and writers. What’s clear, even amidst the hardest of the so-called Hard practitioners of SF, is that there is no such thing as pure SF. Perhaps SF was stillborn from the outset, a consensual hallucination held together by the will of a Gernsback or a Campbell, not to mention the self-legitimating institutions of fandom they surrounded themselves with. Indeed, Gernsback’s and Campbell’s SF is starting to sound more like something you would find in SF, some harebrained scheme cooked up in the imaginary laboratories of the future.
One of the interesting threads Luckhurst unpicks, but does little with, is Hugo Gernsback’s pioneering attempt to establish not only the contours of SF, but also its aspirations to be more than simply another pulp ghetto for popular consumption. In Gernsback’s proselytising and agitational vision for SF, SF is calling into being a world that has yet to come. To my thinking, implicit in that vision is a sense of the self-limitation of SF. Once the world Gernsback desires has come into being, once the general consciousness of the population is in synch with science rather than simply ‘tak[ing] new inventions and discoveries for granted’ in a quasi-religious fashion, then SF’s role as harbinger and teacher will be complete. And once complete, the need for SF will simply disappear.
The idea that SF has no place or part to play in the future it fictionally conjures into being, can be seen in the Clarke and Hamilton stories discussed above. There is a sense in both that with the realisation of the dreams of science fiction, SF as anticipation and advocacy is rendered superfluous. Clarke’s story is more positively disposed to the merits of SF as anticipation, no matter how flawed the speculation often is, whereas Hamilton poses that perhaps there was no point in the first place, and that the space age of the 1960s was realised despite the existence of SF. Indeed, its Hamilton’s pessimism about the worth of SF—reflecting, perhaps, his own mixed feelings after almost 40 years in the business—that gives this story is melancholic power. He seems to be posing: would it have been better if SF had never been born in the first place?
Given a future in which SF was realised in line with Gernsback’s or Campbell’s desire, presumably SF would become something akin to pulp Westerns, a fiction of nostalgia for a lost time. In large part, SF has become this. The shiny rockets and bubble headed space suits of the Golden Age of SF can today seem to be more aged and out of place than spurs and a Colt 45 were in the 1950s. But in developing this tendency toward nostalgia, SF is not just the Romanticisation of a lost past—the past of the pulps on the verge of the space age. It is also the Romanticisation of an imaginary future that never was. That dream of SF—of grand and ever-expanding space exploration and colonisation—was not and perhaps never will be realised. Indeed, Ballard’s fiction from the 1960s, when he attempted to redirect SF from its technophilic obsessions amidst the burgeoning space age of Mercury astronauts and Project Apollo, has proved to be a better guide to our present.
Is it possible that the repressed desire for death and the striking absence of an imagined future for SF were finally realised in the New Wave? Not the ‘proper death’ that Luckhurst spoke of, by which the New Wave broke down the walls that separated SF from the non-genre literary recognition it both envied and imagined itself superior to. Rather, the New Wave enacted the death of SF—albeit in an erratic and largely unconscious fashion—and brought it to ruin through the exhaustion of all the shop-worn tropes in a fury of play and experiment. Which is not to say that the New Wave in SF did not live a terrific life full of noise and wonder. But as Robert Silverberg has mordantly noted:
by 1972 the revolution was pretty much over. We were heading into the era of Star Wars, the trilogy craze, and the return of [a] literarily conservative action-based science fiction to the centre of the stage.
In any case, SF died—or at least that archetypal Anglo-American SF born in Amazing Stories and Astounding Science Fiction between the 1920s and 1940s. It was killed off amidst a blaze of play and experimentation at precisely the same time that the revolutionary movement that erupted in France and Italy in 1968 and 1969 was being murdered by erstwhile friends and foes alike. And much like the supersized capitalism that came after the failed revolutions of the 1960s and 1970s, the reconstituted and globalised SF is a strange beast: a vast commercial spectacle, a bloated behemoth that staggers through its domesticated afterlife, shorn not only of its earlier aspirations and optimistic urgency, but equally denied the peaceful death it so richly deserves.
And today, through the fog of an infinite regress of proliferating sub-genres, which inadvertently mock the old delusion of a unitary SF, we see our old friend the commodity, whose terroristic mass production has brought the biosphere itself to the brink of destruction like some arch science criminal of yore, colonising the real and the imaginary with equal indifference and spite.
Is this the future that SF imagined for itself?
 G. W. F. Hegel, The Science of Logic, trans. George di Giovanni, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, [1813, 1816, 1832] 2010. Translation modified.
 Barry N. Malzberg, ‘The Science Fiction of Science Fiction,’ in Engines of the Night, Baen Ebooks,  2013.
 See, Joanna Russ, ‘The Wearing out of Genre Materials,’ College English vol. 33, no. 1 (October 1971); Barry N. Malzberg, ‘Thinking about Thinking About Science Fiction,’ in An Annotated Bibliography of Recursive Science Fiction, ed. Anthony R. Lewis, Cambridge, Mass.: NESFA Press, 1990.
 John Clute & David Langford, ‘Recursive SF’ in Encyclopedia of Science Fiction (2021).
 Michael Moorcock, ‘Preface,’ in The New SF, ed. Langdon Jones, London: Arrow Books, p. 8.
 Roger Luckhurst, ‘The Many Deaths of Science Fiction: A Polemic,’ Science Fiction Studies Vol. 21, no. 1 (March 1994), p. 35.
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).
sf & critical theory join forces to destroy the present