Escape Velocity Girl

A quantumly uncertain spoon
July 7, 2011, 12:29 am
Filed under: Fictional Worlds, Uncategorized

The above graphic incarnates the history of speculative fiction as a sort of malformed terrestrial squid, wriggling, or (in a feeble cephalapodian pun) squiggling through the literary substrate, its tentacular subgenres masturbatorily  entangled. And this idea of speculative fiction as a lurid and living Gordian bio-knot seems right to me, somehow. The concept of distinct literary genres can be seen in two ways (if only – por piedad! – for the purposes of this post): as a kind of useful Tupperwaring of tropes, themes and styles for the ease of discerning/finicky readers – or as the intellectual stockyarding of the aforementioned literate, veal-stunted in cages of their own self-perceived preferences, fat-stippled flesh/wallets air-gunned for profit of paperback pushers.

According to an absolutist view of genres, Anne McCaffrey’s telepathic dragons and Mercedes Lackey’s psychic horses are crypto-taxonomical Montagues and Capulets, their homologous mental abilities the products of genetic manipulation and sorcery, respectively– and in this distinction are meant to be crystallized the comparative quiddities of science fiction and fantasy, the former generally judged as having a more intimate relation with reality, or some embryonic version thereof.  However, on a fundamental, no doubt unsophisticated, level, I just don’t buy the idea that of two sets of talking animals, one can be more fictional than the other; to my mind, all fiction, whether literary or speculative, is equally fictional and thus equally unreal. Firefly worlds spun from synaptic flashes may mimic reality, but can never belong to it in any concrete, corporeal way  – each writer a Lem-ian Mymosh the Selfbegotten, constructing “brand-new constellations, arranging them with loving care in the eternal darkness of his consciousness, which [is] his Gozmos.”

This base-level equality of make-believe-osity both invalidates any kneejerk intellectual snobbery in favor of literary fiction and undercuts the jockeying for status and legitimacy between subgenres within speculative fiction, re: Vincent Omniaveritas née Bruce Sterling’s vintage takedown of swords and sorcery in Cheap Truth #1:

“As American SF lies in a reptilian torpor, its small, squishy cousin, Fantasy, creeps gecko-like across the bookstands.  Dreaming of dragon-hood, Fantasy has puffed itself up with air like a Mojave chuckwalla.”

Now, while I do squee for a herpetological metaphor or four, and while I must confess to a certain ambivalence concerning magical artifacts and arboreal elves,* I reject hard sf’s claim to being somehow more “real.” My own (admittedly high-school level) understanding of scientific progress and innovation is that it rarely follows an arrow-straight path – the course of progress, like that of love, running not smooth, but along bumpy backroads and unexpected detours. For all Jules Verne’s efforts to extrapolate future means of transportation from then-contemporary technology, his Columbiad space gun bears little resemblance to the liquid-fuel rockets actually used to fly Autour de la Lune. Many of our own seemingly reasonable speculations will likely seem as quaint in a century’s time, hard sf’s carefully constructed scientific justifications for the fantastic proving no more than a house of cards, toppled by the Pompous Wind of Unpredictable Progress.

…or, to continue the architectural motif, perhaps hard sf is a Potemkin village of sorts. As Kathryn Cramer writes of the subgenre:

“…when scientific ideas and formulations are invoked in a text that does not make use of mathematics in appropriate amounts, the text relies upon other texts that do. Before science can be incorporated into hard sf, it must be stripped of its mathematical bones, so-no matter how accurate the text-science is used as a mythology. What science gives to hard sf is a body of metaphor that provides the illusion of both science and realism.”

In other (more unnecessarily obfuscatory) words, perhaps the definition of hard sf has less to do with its creators’ intentions than with the fact that its readers have faith that its flights of fancy are more than fancy. Kim Stanley Robinson may have labored to make his Mars Trilogy scientifically plausible, but, not having seen the arithmetic justifications for his speculations, I must accept the plausibility of his theories on the basis of a sort of truthiness, which is more a matter of knowing which subgenre his books have been branded (hard sf=kinda sorta real!) and of picking up on his style (in Robinson’s case, his exhaustive and, occasionally, exhausting cataloging of Martian rocks and terraforming theories broadcasts a kind of narcotizing authoritativeness). But, even were each hard sf novel to be accompanied by a companion Tome of Underlying Facts, I would still have to accept its premises on faith; for a nonscientists (or, at least, this nonscientist), the experiences of reading stories based upon carefully woven daisy chains of scientific/technological logic and those based on sui generis soap bubbles of handwavium differ but little.**

I do wonder, though, if there is, or ever was, some sort of sweet spot for hard sf, a point at which the average reader’s understanding of the scientific bases for such narratives was more profound than a facile-ity with genre jargon (genrargon?). Though Newton may have had to piggyback on a giant or two before being conked by his apocryphal apple, his resulting Laws of Motion seem simple enough (the experiments used to illustrate their meaning yielding visible, physical results) to have perhaps been comprehensible to hoi polloi of ye olde tymes (assuming hoi polloi not cerebrally stunted by malnutrition, black buboes, i tak dalee). And, thus, said unwashed masses could have enjoyed a genuinely informed understanding of the advanced concepts of Newtonian “gravity” and “inertia” as employed in contemporaneous hard sf-this, of course, in a magical slipsteam land, in which 18th century sf had progressed past the zygotic, and plebians possessed ample hours to devour scientifically-sound tales of interstellar derring-do.***

From what I understand, the the intellectual “buy-in” required to conduct or comprehend cutting-edge research-its nuts, bolts and terrifyingly complex concatenations thereof-has rather increased in the last few centuries; one cerebellum no longer sufficient, but rather Stakhanovite computers and collectives of contemporary Newtons required to advance “upward, not forward, and always twirling….” And if indeed scientific knowledge is complexifying and increasing at such breeding-bunny pace, then the foundational facts of works of hard sf will only become ever more abstract to the chimerical average reader (if one accepts the above-disputed premise that the subgenre is defined by an actual correspondence to reality, rather than by a posture or style vis-à-vis the same). Perhaps I lack the necessary geek credentials to comment, or aimlessly pick brain-bluebells, on a topic as potentially inflammatory as genre definitions (narrative, not science, having been my Stargate-way drug to sf), but, from a subjective experiential standpoint, I can objectively non-pre-pro-scriptively assert that, to this reader: dark energy=pixie dust

*and while there is little as exhilarating to read as bare-knuckle bile in criticism (see anything by Anthony Lane, or this splenetic and splendid  gastro-takedown in Vanity Fair, the inventive and eloquent vituperativeness of which reaffirms my faith in humanity far more than any Hallmarkian pablum-atic kumbayosity)…the question of whether gastrointestinal juices can actually have knuckles being conveniently not within the purview of this blog…

**I would argue that there are also-somewhat attenuated-comparisons to be made between religion and hard sf: the Book of Revelations builds its eschatological prognostications on a body of myth believed true by true believers, just as hard sf frankensteins plausible or probable futures from scientific scraps (I do not, however, wish to paint all would-be Cassandras with the same brush, there being, clearly, differences between predictions based upon religious belief and those on reason, my point being rather that such differences are not always as profound as they might appear prima facie).

***’Struth, Sir Isaac! ‘Twould seem the beryl beasties with ocular orbs of demonic diameter knew not that that that doth go up, so shall it ever come down. Yonder their sky chariot burns in the inferno and yea, verily, saved we have been by your principia mathematica!

image via, painting by Ward Shelley

“If you want to make a lot of money, start a religion.”
March 6, 2011, 6:42 pm
Filed under: Real Worlds, Uncategorized

Scientology seems tailor-made for mockery, with its low-rent psychotherapy couched in Dilbertian bureaucratese, sinister attack-Pomeranian of a celebrity figurehead (Cruise, konechno) and neon-lit temples. And, then, of course, there’s the little matter of Xenu: galactic despot and amateur vulcanologist, mistakenly conflated in the public imagination with Travolta’s dreadlocked villain in the almost transcendentally terrible Battlefield Earth. With the recent publication of the New Yorker‘s blockbuster article on Paul Haggis’s apostasy, Scientology has come in for another round of “Shoot the Freak,” one of the Internet’s favorite games. While there are indubitably reprehensible (and potentially legally actionable) aspects of the religion – the pseudo-slavery of Sea Org, the exploitative formula of redemption through financial contribution – I am not sure that its mythology, when considered in isolation, justifies such mass snarkasm.

Major world religions are rife with myths that must appear outlandish (the story of the loaves and fishes as a more benign – but less groovy – Trouble with Tribbles) when objectively judged by those of use not indoctrinated in their particular brands of faith/crazytime – yet we abstain from making light of such stories out of respect for “tradition,” a quality so nebulous as to mean nothing more than “extended existence through time.” Scientology, however, is comparatively new and has accordingly not yet acquired a respectable patina of age; the scaffolding of cynicism and hucksterism, upon which it was built, is yet exposed. Put another (editorially superfluous) way, if Xenu is a La Belle Époque charmeuse, then we’ve stumbled into his boudoir before Chronos has cinched his corset.

Or perhaps the scorn that Scientology’s mythology triggers is related to its space-operatic substance. While sf writers like China Miéville and Iain Banks weave far more whacked out narratives than those in Cruise’s catechism (which are almost quaintly Golden Age, LRH having cut his teeth in the pulps), and proper Ph.Ds debate how to communicate with as yet undiscovered extraterrestrials, the use of science fiction tropes in religion is automatically considered curdled-lactose-product-y. And this despite the fact that, among certain elements in the s/sf community, the boundaries between faith, science and literature seem somewhat blurred – take, for example, Carl Sagan’s  prophesied “glorious dawn” (though perhaps my conflation of optimism and certainty with faith lacks nuance…). Auto-tune masterpieces aside, however, I wonder if Scientology (and its somewhat more benign cousins: Raëlism, Unarianism, and the various other UFO cults) is simply the vanguard of the next wave of religious development, drawing as it does upon our new understanding – or fictional representation – of the heavens in its own conception of heaven. I am no theologian (calling upon our lord Cheebus only in times of throbbing toes and unexpected turbulence), but there seems to be little latitude for traditional, terrestrial mythology in a world of precise cartographies; satellites have found no pearly gates floating cloud-high, and if Scylla and Charybdis are but rock shoal and whirlpool, then Odysseus is no epic hero. Unless a wannabe prophet is willing to eschew concrete, embodied deities and miracles, and base her belief system instead on a spiritualism amorphous enough to coexist with science, space would seem to be the only option: it will be, ahem, some time before we are able to declare the unlikely impossible in all corners of the universe.  If Brian Greene is right, there may just be a thetan or thousand hiding in those extra seven dimensions.  While Google Earth may strip away what modesty and mysteries our planet has left, next-gen Hubbards can still write  “here be dragons” on maps of the sky.

photo: Stray Cat Theatre’s “Very Merry Unauthorized Children’s Scientology Pageant”; taken by John Groseclose.

“Physicist, heal thyself/Submit to Alien Pleasure Rays…”
January 22, 2011, 7:42 pm
Filed under: Fictional Worlds, Uncategorized

Men’s magazines (to say nothing of atrocious movies starring Mel Gibson) make a mint purporting to answer what some represent as one of the most profound mysteries of the Universe: What Women Want. Science fiction (and the occasional slumming scientist) addresses what might actually be one of the most profound mysteries of the Universe: What Do Aliens Want?* Assuming the existence of said aliens (it being sine qua non to the sensicality of this inquiry) and acknowledging the un-PC-ness of blurring (likely) myriad cultures, civilizational temperaments and tentacular physiologies into an Edward Said-ian extraterrestrial Other, engaging in speculative psychoanalysis in anticipation of a big date/First Contact makes a certain amount of sense: in order to increase the probability of sexy time/survival, should one greet the Other with processed Theobroma cacao and carbon allotrope adornments, or leis made of viscera and a gift basket of first-born? Herewith, a random assortment of theories from equally random sources on what, exactly, interstellar organisms desire in their heart of hearts of squidgy silicone-based blobs:

1. Intended annihilation of the human race: the mere existence of our pink-brown fleshiness being a profound insult to carapace-d superbugs, whose xenocidal intent can only be thwarted by the odd couple chemistry of Independence Day‘s Goldblum and Smith. Salvation through Hollywood casting and canned quips. Or through the grooming of a pre-adolescent military messiah as in Ender’s Game, in which the Bugger-Formics’ hostility is prompted by a somewhat improbable misunderestimation of mankind’s sentience. Kumbayas are likely to be of little use in this scenario and the cozy comfort of a beneficent god and harp-scored heaven remote.

2. Incidental annihilation of the human race: Stephen Hawking made headlines relatively recently by arguing that an alien incursion “would be much as when Christopher Columbus first landed in America, which didn’t turn out very well for the Native Americans.” In other words, we can expect stellar smallpox and a nouveau Trail of Tears (the moon standing in for Oklahoma in this somewhat insensitively flippant comparison), depopulating the planet in anticipation of a land or resource grab, the question being what, exactly, in our terrestrial cornucopia (gravel? catfood?) stimulates the exobioforms’ salivary analogues. Of course, man himself could easily be the gold dust in this tale of intergalactic prospecting: fresh-squeezed human juice the taste du jour as in War of the Worlds, our orifices prized by extraterrestrial bestiality fetishists, our deep-fried love handles the ideal incubators for their marshmellowian spawn. While not all these scenarios entail extinction, insult, injury and indignity are guaranteed.

3. Annihilation of the human race through its transmutation or “transcendence”: in Octavia Butler’s Xenogenesis trilogy, the Oankali (Medusa-skin-ed humanoids) are driven by genetic imperative to enact a program of hybridization with the post-apocalyptic remnants of humanity, emulating a kind of triple-XXX Mary Poppins and sweetening their medicine (enforced speciation) with a spoonful of sugar (trippy tentacle interspecial intercourse). In Arthur C. Clarke’s Childhood’s End, the Overlords husband mankind towards dissolution into an undefined universal Overmind; homo sapiens as a semelparous species, consumed in the evaporation of the Earth as its children tally-ho to the realm of the immaterial. Eugenics writ large and catastrophic for those of us primitively purebred.

4. Enlightenment of the human race: according to Archangel Uriel (otherwise known as Ruth Norman, the co-founder of the Unarius Academy of Science), extraterrestrials want nothing more than to apprise mankind of the indestructible energy-based nature of reality, a reinterpretation of the first law of thermodynamics tarted up with pinhead prophets, glitter-vision and karmic reincarnation. The Special Circumstances division of Iain M. Banks’s Culture has an equally evangelical, if a-religious, mission: to fast-track species’ civilizational development and nudge them to play nice in the intragalactic sandbox (this paternalistic interference occasionally entailing a body count). And, as advanced by an anonymous Internet poet-prophet, our putative extraterrestrial playmates desire above all else that mankind accept their gifts “Of pleasure tools, telepathy, Empath Juice and Wisdom Weed/Of bulging bulbous sacks of alien eggs and seed.” Those who object to the interference of current international institutions (UN, ICJ, etc.) may find such paternalistic alien intrusions insupportable, but hey – at least the copulation is consensual in this scenario.

5. Absolutely zippo: Perhaps the little green men or “grays,” as they are known in conspiracy theory parlance, profess a Prime Directive or policy of noninterference, having been brainwashed by late night Star Trek reruns beamed past the Kármán line, in which case the future is in our hands, the chil’ren are our future, ergo the chil’ren are in our hands (cliched blah-blah) and those of us SETI-enthusiasts or Fox Mulder-delusionals/hopefuls are doomed to disappointment. Or perhaps Lovecraft was prescient in his description of Cthulhu and the Great Old Ones, ancient and imponderable extraterrestrials, so awesome in aspect and overwhelmingly powerful that humanity would register as little more than an especially inconsequential and easily swatted gnat. In which case, we are le screwed.

*and really, this parallel is rather complimentary, implying a parity of inscrutability and (theoretical) omnipotence between us be-uterus-ed and mankind’s hypothetical future extraterrestrial overlords.

photo credit:

“A medieval missionary tells that he has found the point where heaven and Earth meet…”
November 7, 2010, 7:47 pm
Filed under: Real Worlds, Uncategorized

The ghostly, ghastly pickled putti in Lena Herzog’s Lost Souls, never having been alive, cannot be said to be dead – but rather exist pre-life in perpetuum, pallid as Riftia pachyptila and destined to swim (literally) in the same (figurative) darkness. Herzog traces the practice of preserving such “anomalous” fetuses to the Wunderkammern, or cabinets of curiosities, of the 16th-18th centuries; these proto-museums combined objets d’art and objets d’science in an undifferentiated continuum of wonders, intellectual Edens uncorrupted by categorization, in which a real-“life” baby in a bottle might share a shelf with a rosy-cheeked painted representation thereof.

“Wonder” is the key concept: just as such cabinets were meant to collect objects of and inspire feelings of, so too is a sense of wonder a hallmark of science fiction, expressed as “an appreciation of the sublime, whether natural, such as the rings of Saturn, or technological: a space station or rocket ship.” And indeed sf as a genre breaks down, vaults over, or renegotiates the modern atomization of science and art; astrophysics dressed in literary drag or vice versa (just as Leiden University’s “Mouse Orchestra, or The Rhapsody of Death” twists itsy-bitsy rodent osteo-anatomy into a fictional tableau).

Wunderkammern became particularly popular with the discovery of the New World, which, in its very improbability destigmatized credulity; if a land beyond the sea exists, why not a fountain of youth? Or, for that matter, an interstellar Japanoiserie amniotic bubble, à la Aronofsky’s The Fountain? If narwhales, why not unicorns? Which (at least in this post’s artificial formulation) begs the question: what is that discovery that will re-enable or re-allow wonder when it comes to the possibilities of space travel (as reflected in science fiction), that will reignite the collective excitement that accompanied such early space age events as the lunar landing? The discovery of Gliese 581g, a purportedly habitable planet a mere hop, skip and 200 trillion kilometers away, is apparently not sufficient, having registered as little more than a blip in our ouroborotic news cycle. Or, somewhat depressingly, is “wonder” an incarnation not of intellectual excitement, but rather of avarice at the prospect of material enrichment? Perhaps those bewigged, be-bloomered blue bloods carefully curated their cabinets not to reflect their encyclopedic curiosity, but because all those yellow nuggets, Quetzalcoatl feathers and savage specimens represented serious “bank.”

Economics is the driving factor behind exploration, which means that, until we can quantify space travel in terms of dollars, cents, flatscreens bought and unobtainium obtained, it will continue to trigger little more than a collective “meh.”


“…loathsomely redolent of spheres and dimensions apart from ours…”
September 26, 2010, 9:55 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized

Blogospherians can be thought of as cultural archaeologists sifting digital sand for the odd pot shard of a story. Or (storm cloud over silver lining), as Mad-Max-ian moto-carrion, cannibalizing roadside relics for conceptual spare parts to keep their meme-guzzling jalopies gunning the information highway. Either way, the NASA Ames space colony archive counts as a find of some antiquity, dating as it does from the 1970s. Judging by the proliferation of relevant posts, it’s the new blogo-village sci-fi-bike – and one might as well take a (non-erotic) ride.

Bernal Spheres (catnip to Umberto-Eco-ian  conspiracy theory Diabolicals) and spoked Toroidal Colonies (primitively real versions of Iain Banks’s elegant single-strip Orbitals) promise a world in the which the fate of future-us is divorced from that of the world – global warming and market collapse being relatively irrelevant to a species with a diversified geographical portfolio. But, having evolved upon the exterior surface of a sphere, what effect would life in such inside-out, topsy-turvy habitats have on us? To what extent do concave vs. convex, obtuse vs. acute shapes shape our thoughts and assumptions – if at all?

Though the tessellated radiolaria of Ernst Haeckel’s plates illustrate the mathematical regularity of Nature’s microstructures, for much of our 200,000 or so pre-microscope years man’s visual world has been one of irrational, organic, unpredictable arabesques – a landscape seemingly far more chaotic than the matryoshka-ed right-angle rectangles that define the modern metropolis. Has the contemporary prevalence of the perpendicular and parallel made us, as a people, more hubristic and narrow-minded, less able to home-run or even handle entropic curve balls? Would life on the inner rim of a humongous bike-tire – no horizon, but a swell of man-made land curving “forward, not backward, upward not forward, and always twirling, twirling, twirling” – promote a fallacious sense of omniscience and corresponding claustrophobia, the world/Toroidal Colony as Panopticon, each inhabitant both jailer and jailee?

To take the daisy-chain of inquiry further, are our puny man-minds limited in their ability to even comprehend certain forms of geometry and geography? H.P. Lovecraft’s R’lyeh, the sunken city of cephalopod-headed Cthulhu, is built according to a geometry so very non-Euclidean it drives fictional men fictionally mad. Christopher Nolan’s dream heisters in Inception construct Escher-inspired infinite stairs impossible in reality, but apparently comprehensible by a drugged or druggy subconscious. Alan Moore includes a yellow-brick Möbius strip as a symbolically screwy part of Promethea’s psychedelic journey through the Immateria. Ender’s battle room breakthrough is his reorientation to fight in three subjectively-defined, rather than absolute, dimensions, while the good Doctor’s ability to comprehend and manipulate the time bit of space-time marks him as a capital-a-Alien or, perhaps, as the equivalent of the Sphere in Flatland, whose very existence hints at dimensions beyond our/the Flatlanders’ knowledge.

photo credit: NASA Ames Research Center

Sci-fi Naked Eye
August 22, 2010, 8:53 pm
Filed under: Fictional Worlds, Real Worlds, Uncategorized

Beyond: Visions of Our Solar System, which is currently on display at the National Air and Space Museum, purports to show the planets as they appear “in reality,” the photos reverse-engineered from the black-and-white or partial images beamed back from our kino-eye mechanical surrogates: Galileo, Pathfinder, Viking, et. al. The exhibit is an implicit rejection of the Technicolor trickery of Hubble images, in which the universe appears a pirate’s chest overflowing with gas-giant gems, Impressionistic swirls of color ready-made for the dorm room walls of an undergrad punning on the de rigueur decorative “Starry Night.” In a counter-intuitive way, the toned-down colors and simplicity of composition of the photos makes the “beyond” seem even more alien; while I would bet the Horsehead Nebula holds pride of place on countless desktops, Benson’s minimalist Uranus, a powder blue circle in a square of black, represents an existentially threatening, visually minimalistic view of the universe, which is, after all, approximately 96% empty to the naked eye.

The photos at the exhibit that generate the most awe or attention, however, seem to be those of Earth; during my visit, a mid-western mother enthused to her red-headed brood over images of the Great Lakes, while Japanese tourists sat apathetic and unseeing in front of a photo of golden Io’s four hundred flaws – mosquito stings in the myth, volcanic eruptions in reality. Their reactions seemed a confirmation of the provincial cast of the human brain; though we’re told as children that our imaginations have “wings,” Icarus-like we can only fly so high. The familiar-made-strange is more wondrous to most than the merely strange.

Viktor Shklovsky coined the term остранение (defamiliarization) to describe this artistic effect, writing,

The technique of art is to make objects ‘unfamiliar,’ to make forms difficult to increase the difficulty and length of perception, because the process of perception is an aesthetic end in itself and must be prolonged.

Michael Benson’s photos zoom out kilometers from the quotidian waves and motorboats, discarded beer cans and tadpole hatcheries, turning the Great Lakes into a cluster of  terrestrial tears; the alien-view makes viewers see anew. This, of course, has implications for science fiction, begging the question: are all the wormholes, crinkly-forehead-ed humanoids and handwavium tech really just window-dressing meant to “defamiliarize” or de-cliche love, hate and threadbare narrative scaffolding? Does setting our human dramas against against inhuman backdrops lend them a sheen of grandeur? Or, perhaps, through a reverse-остранение,  does Google-mapping  an imaginary universe with plot points make the empty expanses of the real deal somehow more pedestrian or comprehensible? The stars are no longer ginormous super-really-hot spheres of gas billions of years old scattered across a three-four-twelve dimensional stretch of infinity, but depots of futuristic truck fuel, garbage dumps for Cylon fleets, oversized lightbulbs to be switched on or off with nuclear circuitry, way-stations during the TV hero’s journey of whats-his-name, who, after all, isn’t all that different from you or me.

One novel that deftly sidesteps Shklovsky’s theory is Consider Phlebas by Iain Banks, which is often labeled “space opera,” a genre admirably honest about its use of ray guns to tart up Australopithecine-ancient themes of lust and revenge. During the first 95% of the book, Bora Horza Gobuchul, the shape-shifting protagonist, is set up as proof positive of the Great Man theory of history – the one person in the galaxy with the skills and background to infiltrate a Planet of the Dead, retrieve a brilliant, dimension-hopping Mind, bring an end to a conflict so mind-bogglingly bloody it must be surely be the War to End All Wars, and grant the Idirans victory over the machine-led Culture, which doubtless is mere years away from eliminating all biological life. Except…Horza fails and dies, it turns out the Mind was relatively inconsequential, the Culture not only wins but fails to perpetrate indiscriminate genocide, and the war itself turns out to have been no more than a minor blip in galactic history. Despite Consider Phlebas‘s post-Singularity, interstellar setting, Banks is relentlessly realistic, undermining any attempts to correlate the vastness of the novel’s geography, the sophistication of the characters’ ray guns, with any significance of plot: a man tries to do something, fails or succeeds, and dies, none of which ultimately matters – science fiction as backdrop for the most quotidian story possible, belonging, as it does, to all of us.

photo credit: NASA

“Though I’m past 100,000 miles, I’m feeling very still”
April 7, 2010, 6:17 pm
Filed under: Real Worlds, Uncategorized

I’ve always believed in two basic human subspecies: Homo sapiens peregrinae and Homo sapiens homebodiensis. But the more interesting taxonomic differentiation is not the rather cloying one between those with wings and those with roots, but rather is a further bisection of the former category based upon where exactly its members lust to wander.

There are those who are drawn to the jungle, proverbial geographical cups spilling over with vegetable fecundity, humanity’s perpetual motion machine in all its different ethnic and cultural permutations. Silks, spices, endangered species! In a phrase: saturation of experience. I would venture that most wanderers can be classified thus. But then there is that rarer breed of traveler who spends his accrued .833 days/month in search of desolation, who would choose the Gobi dunes over Goa, Antarctica’s wastelands over the Amazon’s chlorophyllic chaos, the silence of the inorganic over the caw of the macaw or rickshaw rumble. These people recharge their so-called batteries not in scenes of riot and color, but rather in the contemplation of barren landscapes that seem to belong more to geologic time than the blink of the biologic.

The word that best describes this predilection is, perhaps, fernweh, a German word meaning “farsickness” or the “ache for the distance” (whereas wanderlust, despite its usage in English, translates literally as the more quotidian “to enjoy hiking”). But in this case the distance desired can not be measured on a GPS, but rather in terms of the scale of spacetime; our allotment of years in the mere dozens and miles in the thousands seems puny. Deserts and frozen wastes, lands seemingly outside the feverishly ouroborotic world of man, offer the illusion of the eternal and the endlessly vast. (Through a Freudian lense one could characterize this contrast as a case of Eros vs. Thanatos: extreme fernweh as representing a kind of death instinct or desire to return to a pre-biologic, inanimate state of being, the obliteration of the ego in the face of inorganic immortality…but this line of reasoning leads to Oedipus and oral fixation and sundries indecent and unscientific…)

How does this relate to the (admittedly loosely-defined) purview of this web log? The above photo was taken in 1984 and shows astronaut Bruce McCandless II free-flying a full 320 feet away from the Challenger, farther from the safety of steel and plastic and man-made home than any man in space had been before. Now there are manifold reasons to explore beyond the Karman Line, from the fol-de-rol of flag-planting to the speculative economics of interstellar resource exploitation, but it seems to me that those who willingly venture into the (almost) vacuum of space must share something in common with those earthbound desert-lovers described in the above paragraphs. Reactions to this photo (at least among those of my acquaintance) fall into two distinct camps: “terror! vertigo! embrace me Mother Gaia!” and “if only I had a Manned Maneuvering Unit of my own I’d gun for the next galaxy over.” Whether or not this split is related to extroversion vs. introversion, misanthropy vs sociability, adventurousness vs. conservatism, or one of countless other psychoanalytical spectra, I suspect it has to do with something innate. Question: are spacemen born?

photo credit: NASA