All posts by Paul Raven

Six foot of unkempt postgraduate researcher.

An ending is an extended dissolve

… Vásquez knows that history isn’t the “facts”, much less an approachable truth: it’s the shape of the ruins. Everything we describe as the past depends on an interpretation of what’s left over: and everything that’s left over has a baked-in undependability. In addition, no historical narrative has clear-cut limits: a beginning is always the story of what came before it, an ending is an extended dissolve – a solution which can only weaken with time. Definition, as much as conclusion, is shaped by needs and narrators.

From M John Harrison’s review of The Shape of the Ruins by Juan Gábriel Vasquez at Teh Graun.

Cyborg dialectics / a perpetual state of transition

Cyborg dialectics with Kimiko Ross

Dresden Codak. Started following his original webcomic way way back in the Noughties, when it was just as much of a one-person labour of love as it is now (though the artwork has gone from good to astonishing over the years).

Back then DC (and I, for my sins) were fellow-travellers of transhumanism; DC is, I suspect (on the basis of my reading of their work, rather than any direct knowledge), still a smidgen closer to that scene than I am these days, but the Dark Science series (go read some) has been steadily developing what feels like a much more posthumanist position — an understanding of the cyborg as a (sociotechnopolitical) metaphor, in other words, rather than the naive concretised misparsings of sf images so fetishized by the transhumanoids. This panel seems to confirm that feeling quite bluntly, at the same time as it resonates with stuff I’ve been discussing over the last few weeks*. Plus I thought maybe it was time I posted something that wasn’t just words.

* Things have been quiet because I’ve been in Sweden for close to three weeks, a “visiting scholar” set-up that is now drawing to a close. It’s been insanely busy and tiring, but very much in the positive sense.

Between fact and friction

The insistence on the primacy of narratives and interpretations does not involve a deriding of facts but an alternative story of their emergence. Postmodernism sets itself against the notion of facts just lying there discrete and independent, and waiting to be described. Instead it argues that fact is the achievement of argument and debate, not a pre-existing entity by whose measure argument can be assessed. Arguments come first; when they are successful, facts follow — at least for a while, until a new round of arguments replaces them with a new set of facts.

This is far from the picture of Nietzschean nihilism that Hanson and others paint. Friction, not free invention, is the heart of the process: You commit yourself to the standards of evidence long in place in the conversation you enter, and then you maneuver as best you can within the guidelines of those standards.

Stanley Fish at the NYT.

The old ones are the good ones

Or at least this person thinks so. An anonymous book collector turned blogger is writing posts about titles from their (apparently quite capacious and varied) library, which includes a copy of Fables from the Fountain from Newcon Press, which just so happens to contain my first properly published short story. Quoth said blogger:

One of my favourites is ‘On the Messdecks of Madness’ by Raven about which I can say almost nothing without spoiling the enjoyment except it’s the only fantasy story I can recall that uses the great diarist Samuel Pepys’s admiralty career as a basis of the plot.

I’m almost certain that there are other sf/f stories in which randy ol’ Samuel is a character and/or plot-point (though I’ll admit I’m unable to recall any right now; answers on a postcard, and all that). “Messdecks” was first drafted circa 2009, not long after I’d left my part-time day-job at at the Royal Naval Museum Library in Portsmouth — though it was actually published some time later, in 2011, because [early days of a small press] — and I have no shame in admitting that I responded to my first commission by resorting to the oldest writing adage of them all, recommended by some and deplored by others: write what you know.

And what I knew then was just how many crackpot conspiracy theorists with a naval history obsession there are… because the bulk of my job at the RNML was to answer their (often rather accusatory and poorly spelled) emails as diplomatically as possible. I think I lost them all to an old hard drive’s dying, but I used to have a pretty good collection of stock debunking essays on everything from Nelson’s supposed satanism to the voyages of HMS Habbakuk, the aircraft carrier made of ice. (A scale-model experimental version of the latter actually existed, but never saw action, and was anyway too small to carry any aircraft; Nelson had manifold flaws as both human being and national hero, but as far as I was able to discern, worshipping the Lord of Lies was not one of them. He was way too much of a priggish wanker for that sort of gig, anyway.)

I left that job to go full-time freelance, just as the post-crash recession was really starting to dig in. A massive mistake in many ways — but hey, I wouldn’t be here today if I hadn’t. (Wherever “here” is.) Regardless, it was nice to be reminded of that daft but fun-to-write story, and nicer still to find that some random someone thinks quite well of it, seven years after it was published.

The two possibilities are not mutually exclusive

One of our great errors in thinking — another aspect of that unfortunate idea of human exceptionalism that makes it so hard for us to be at home in this world — is that the natural and the man-made are distinct entities. Like all other parts of the branching experiment, we make and are made by the living environment, and we have done so since before we were us. Without the forests of the Santa Cruz mountains, there would be no Silicon Valley. But Silicon Valley will make or unmake the forests of the future. No nature story, no account of environmental struggle would be complete without bringing on-stage all the human technologies that are to us what the invention of flowers and nuts and chlorophyll and mycorrhizal networks are to the forest superorganism.

Just as the emergence of tree intelligence forever changed the planet, so the emergence of consciousness (which long predated humans) forever changed the nature of evolution. Cultural transmission is orders of magnitude faster than genetic transmission, and digital transmission has accelerated the speed of culture a hundredfold or more. We may soon seem, to our artificial intelligence offspring, as motionless and insentient as trees seem to us. And here we live, trying to make a home between our predecessors and our descendants.

Will we double down on the great migration into symbol space, our decampment into Facebook and Instagram and Netflix and World of Warcraft, the road that we have already traveled so far down? Or will Big Data and Deep Learning allow us to grasp and rejoin the staggeringly complex processes of the living world? The two possibilities are not mutually exclusive. Indeed, they’re inseparable aspects of the new ecology of digital life.

It’s surprising to realize that the rise of ecological and environmental consciousness was made possible by the advent of the Information Age. Life is simply too complex and interdependent for us to wrap our heads around without the help of our machine prosthetics. And now those prosthetics allow us to assemble, generate, contemplate, and interpret the hockey-stick graphs that prophesy our future. We came into being by the grace of trees. Now the fate of trees, and of the whole world forest, is squarely in our machine-amplified hands.

The question is what those machines are doing to our hearts, because without the heart and mind, the hands will get up to all kinds of things.

From a LARB interview with the novelist Richard Powers [via the still-reliable MeFi], who I’d never heard of previously, but will henceforth be seeking out assiduously. Any novelist who refutes the social/natural dichotomy is almost certainly gonna be my jam; that he name-checks Le Guin and KSR merely confirms it. (More than a whiff of Haraway in there, too, though she doesn’t get a mention.)

Anyone out there familiar with his stuff?