All posts by Paul Raven

Six foot of unkempt postgraduate researcher.

This could be Rotterdam

An excellent day in Rotterdam yesterday, ending with this appropriately Bladerunner-esque sunset shortly before a screening of Alien, which in turn was tied to the ongoing Science Fiction: a Journey Into the Unknown exhibition at the Kunsthal, which I recommend wholeheartedly. It’s rare to see an exhibition aimed at a general audience on your own field of interest that doesn’t make you angry, and this felt genuinely well conceptualised, if a little canted toward the rationalistic/”hard” formulation of the genre (wot no New Wave/New Weird?)

A lot of cinema props in the catalogue, but fewer than I expected, and some excellent paleofuturological material that serves to remind us just how long a flogging that some dead horses have been enduring. And of course these images made great bonus gimmicks for highly addictive products like cigarettes:

The Kunsthal is a fine and recent neo-brutalust edifice, and excellent value: €12 gets you into everything, and there’s lots to see. A fine addition to a very walkable city; set aside a full afternoon for it.

Bonus sfnal sublime: the new floodproof archive building currently under construction next to the New Institute, a vast concrete boat/bowl/spaceship dropped onto an empty plain.

And it wouldn’t be a proper trip to Rotterdam without a portrait of the notorious Buttplug Gnome, would it?

The mainstreaming of worldbuilding

Looks like some ideation-futures concepts and methodologies are leaking out of the Valley and into the entertainment industry:

[The artist formerly known as Grimes] plans to eventually take up the name of the main character in her book series, an elaborate mythology comparable to J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord Of The Rings. It sounds like the books will have a soundtrack, too: “Only, the songs will come first. It’ll be like Sailor Moon and Game Of Thrones, and yeah, it’s super, super pretentious….” Relatedly, “I call branding that is art, lore. Prince has lore. Rihanna has great lore. It’s essentially world building. It’s my favorite art form.”

TafkaG has been in some sort of relationship with Elongated Muskrat, which is probably the infection vector in this case — both of the worldbuilding stuff, and also the gravitation toward some sort of meme-ready edgelordism. I think we can expect to see the notion of “lore” get some rapid traction in the cultural world, even if only for a season or so… but “worldbuilding”, as a label for a hard-to-define bundle of practices, is going mainstream faster than I expected, which presents both opportunities and difficulties. It’s an interesting moment for science fiction (and the scholarship and criticism thereof), too, because there’s no escaping where that concept originated.

Ballard (1962), The Drowned World

I thought I’d read this before, many years ago, and perhaps I did – the handful of dog-eared pages in my paperback copy suggest someone read it, though perhaps I acquired it second-hand. Or perhaps I buried my memories of reading it, whether deliberately or unintentionally? That would certainly be a Ballardian response to a Ballardian text. But usually when I reread a book I first read long before, chunks of it will produce a sense of deja vu-esque familiarity, and I got none of that from The Drowned World – which is surprising given how often I’ve read critical or theoretical work which references it. Selah.

The story is less about Kerans and his self-thwarted urges to head south than it is about the attempts by Riggs (representing Continuity Civilisation’s last attempt to shore up its militaristic and hierarchical order in its Arctic redoubt and somehow BAU itself into a future which has now been foreclosed upon) to keep control of any viable space and/or knowledge left free of the encroaching waters, and the attempts by Strangman to roll back the clock just far enough to reclaim the ruins as a playground in which to re-enact the barbarisms that Continuity Civilisation had long suppressed. I’m by no means a scholar of Freud, but I wonder if one might see Riggs as the superego and Strangman as the id, leaving Kerans to stand for the ego retreating into a state of redundancy and collapse… eh, probably not. Indeed, trying to map any particular theory onto this book is probably a mistake, as it’s as much a map of Ballard’s own theory (and his own unconscious) as anything else, by the author’s own admission.

But then again, that may be too easy an escape route – for how unconscious was it really? Ballard’s obsession with the themes of the reversion to barbarism, solitude, and solipsism amid the collapse of a previously rigid hierarchy is perhaps too consistent and well-established (not to mention clearly signposted time and time again outwith the texts in question by the author himself) to be as unconscious as he claimed them to be. That’s not to negate the power of their insight, to be clear; rather, it serves to highlight the fascination and loathing that the spectacle and experience of social collapse held for Ballard, manifest as a longing to escape into a solitary and self-sufficient annihilation while the world wound itself down around him… a longing perhaps less held in abeyance by the act of writing than it was manifested through it.

It’s a feeling I recognise quite clearly – not just the supposed (and, realistically, false) liberation of running away into the lawless and abandoned ruins, but the longing for the contextual excuses for doing so, for the moment at which one can give up on the perpetual struggle between order and chaos that is human affairs and eke out your last days in the punctuated quietude of the interstices, knowing yourself to have been fooled or seduced by neither side in the struggle, dependent on no one but yourself. Of course, I may very well just be projecting myself into an equally fictional authorial-intention-space, here, over-identifying with the author because I’m too cynical and trained at over-reading to identify with the text itself… but then again, maybe not? Ballard’s endless and relentless return to those formative images and experiences may preclude his own claims of their unconscious origins, but it in now way precludes their being the engine of his art. And while my own experiences were never so drastic or violent as his, I have in common with Ballard the experience of an “expatriate” childhood, the gradual dethroning of parental authority, competence and power, and an exposure to the arbitrary and contradictory whims of hierarchical authority. We both saw just how thin the veneer of civilisation really is, and the hypocrisies which prop it up; perhaps then it’s no surprise that we share the urge to leave it all behind, to enact a refusal of both stasis and entropy, despite the knowledge that our knowing is a function of the privileges afforded us by the very system that so revolts and fascinates us.

(And perhaps that urge to walk away is more widespread than we would like to admit, too, even if the moderating awareness of privilege is not. As has been remarked many times before now, there’s something deeply Ballardian about Brexit in general, and in particular the almost rabid fixation on the no-deal exit option that currently reigns among its most fervent disciples… perhaps to them the EU is Riggs and the Arctic settlements struggling to manage their own decline, and Strangman the depredations of a more nimble and rapacious form of capitalism that doesn’t square with the old (“noble”, imperial/paternal) form? Perhaps then walking southward into the floodlands beneath the blazing sun, cognizant and fully accepting of one’s inevitable doom, is the only dignified way to refuse either option… there’s something very Captain Oates about it, and indeed about this whole sorry shit-show of imperial nostalgia. As such it worries me that I identify with that solipsist-annihilation urge in Ballard’s characters, because they are more often than not distillations of anxieties that, while not particular to the British middle classes, are nonetheless endemic to them; I was raised in Brexitland, and despite all my conscious efforts, that deep architecture may never be fully expunged.)

The Drowned World doesn’t so much reach a climax as it finally permits the possibility of the ending that’s signposted clearly from the very start, and then repeatedly deferred. (Another Brexit parallel, amirite?) The obstacles that prevent Kerans from following through on the urge to head south into the sun are not external so much as they’re his internalisations of the external: he’s clinging to a vestigial sense of the appropriate, and perhaps to the last shreds of fear that prevent him from embracing a fate that is finally made concrete when he discovers the necrotic Hardman on his journey southward. The implication is that he will continue southward, in the hope (if not the expectation) that other may follow, as indicated by his scratching out a message with his pistol-butt. This is traditionally read as being a pessimistic and dystopian conclusion, but does it have to be? Perhaps we can imagine the inevitable Hollywood coda wherein Kerans limps into some enclave of sun-baked refuseniks eking out an existence on berries and iguana meat, reproducing just fast enough to beat the mortality rates and allow the inevitable mutations to ensure that some of the next generation make it through to repopulate the new, hot, wet world… but that’s not just scientifically unfeasible, it’s also a betrayal of Ballard’s entire literary project, I think. His refusenik characters are proxies for himself, to some extent, but they’re also necessities of narrative mechanics: the irrationalities of both “civilisation” and “barbarism” can only be exposed as such from the alienated perspective of the outsider, the character given the privilege of choosing either side who nonetheless chooses neither.

It bears noting at this point that Ballard’s portrayals of Strangman’s piratical crew are seriously racist, using hackneyed stereotypes of blackness and mixedness as a shorthand for a form of barbarism characterised by the ease with which it might be directed by a more “civilised” captain. (While it provides no excuse whatsoever, it’s interesting to note that Strangman is portrayed as an avatar of extreme whiteness not merely in contrast to his crew, but also to Riggs, Kerans and the others, albeit to a lesser degree.) This aside, the consistent othering of blackness all through the book makes it very hard to like or praise, even as I can recognise its historical importance and influence… indeed, its largely unquestioned position as a foundational element in the proto-canon of “cli-fi” probably needs a sustained and critical examination on that basis alone. Many have made comparisons between The Drowned World and Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, but that comparison cuts two ways: much like Conrad’s novel, this one is badly tainted by the institutionalised viewpoints of its author.

Social media as trench cyberwarfare

Will Davies at the NYT:

Many of the anxieties surrounding “post-truth” and “fake news” are really symptoms of a public sphere that moves too quickly, with too great a volume of information, to the point where we either trust our instincts or latch on to others’. There’s a reason Twitter invites users to “follow” one another, a metaphor that implies that amid a deluge of data, truth is ultimately determined by leadership.

Everything is War and Nothing is True

The birdsite has been much on my mind in recent weeks, after some meatspace conversations in which my reasons for leaving it were revisited. I remarked last week that it still feels like a sort of self-amputation, and that metaphor holds strong — but any sense of regret is increasingly eclipsed by a sense that it’s become a weird synthesis of warmachine and battleground.

To follow on from Davies’s points about militarisation metaphors: if we’re currently mired in a culture war, then the birdsite is a theatre of trench attrition, a foul morass of embedded positions where neither side can win, but where the left has more to lose simply by merit of the right seeing a state of open conflict as a precondition of its broader dreams of victory.

Leaving aside questions of professional necessity, most of the arguments I’ve been offered in support of staying there have been political: it would be a form of defeat to let the right seize control of the discourse. But the longer I’m away from that front, the more obvious it seems to me that its horrific spectacle (and the sense of moral necessity that stems from that horror) only serves to distract attention from other more concrete theatres of conflict where, unobserved and largely unopposed, the right is clocking up conquest after conquest.

Perhaps my position can and should be treated like that of any other conchie. But I’m starting to think that my silence is a form of complicity in and of itself, and that sits uneasily with me. I recognise the ideological struggle, and the necessity of engaging in it. But this particular manifestation of the conflict seems only to prolong and amplify the problem — and when the opposition treats destructive conflict itself as their victory condition, then strategic withdrawal is the only option that makes any sense.