Tag Archives: Vertigo

Robert Silverberg’s ‘The Artifact Business’

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.

fig. 1. All page references to ‘The Artifact Business’ (1957) refer to the copy I read in Silverberg’s 1986 short story collection, Sunrise on Mercury.

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.

fig. 2. Stumbling upon the artifact business… Image taken from Hergé, The Broken Ear (1947).

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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.

fig. 3. ‘The Artifact Business’ first appeared in Fantastic Universe Science Fiction, April 1957