Tag Archives: USSR

A tale of science fiction and decomposition

fig. 1. Robert Rauschenberg or Richard Powers?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

SF as decomposition.

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

The situationists continued:

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

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

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

Dystopia as consumer will and science fictional representation.

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

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

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

CAPITALISM AS WILL AND HALLUCINATION

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

PORTRAIT OF ALIENATION

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


FOOTNOTES

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

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

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

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