Notes from the Underground

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I tolerate this century, but I don't enjoy it.

All of the ephemera that is far too trivial to be bothered with elsewhere on this site or, depending on your point of view, a meta-commentary on it. This ephemera includes, but is not limited to art, music and literature. Most of the content here will be discussed in terms that are as abstract as possible, reality being a singularly overrated concept.

Monday, October 08, 2007

As part of an occasional series here, this piece seems to suggest that JG Ballard has provided the most accurate depiction yet of the spirit of our times:

"Feverish shoppers ripped clothes off shop mannequins during a bargain store sale which ended in trouble and police being called... Product manager Will McCooke said some people had lost all sense. "It was completely primeval - it was like hunter-gatherers. Within half an hour of the store opening the windows had been ransacked by people coming in and ripping the clothes off the mannequins and just leaving the mannequins on the ground. They were literally tearing the mannequins apart to get the clothes."

Amongst other things, it doesn't really help that the shop in question is called 'Clockwork Orange.'

Update on a similar note, I found myself rather arrested by this piece, if not ncessarily for reasons the author intended:

"Auge’s remarkable observation was that, in the contemporary world, place is giving way to "non-place." Places, Augé explained, are made up out of social interactions between people, accumulating in memory to form historical meaning. Contemporary life, however, is a relentless procession through spaces of transit. Airport lounges and freeways are non-places, but so are less obvious spaces: ATMs, computer workstations, and supermarkets. In these spaces shared experiences between humans rarely develop. Non-places, Auge concluded, remain empty, meaningless environments that we pass through during our solitary lives.

Anthropologist Ichiyo Habachi has observed that the mobile phone creates a "telecocoon," an extension of intimate personal space into our surroundings. Through both phone calls and text messaging, it is possible to feel the presence of others nearly constantly and non-places become domesticated."

It's difficult not to feel that the reassurance that the abolition of place will be offset by being bathed in the warm electromagnetic glow of networked appliances is scarcely less preferable that the original scenario. In either case, it still seems, once more, like a manifesto for a Ballard novel.

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posted by Richard 6:21 PM

Sunday, October 07, 2007

This article touches on so many of the themes I've commented on here, it's difficult not to want to quote more of it:

"In that case, one could look at the remnants of the avant-garde project that litter the former USSR as the detritus left by the Martians: the incomprehensible, incommensurable ruins of a strictly temporary visitation by creatures not like ourselves. The Strugatsky Brothers' tremendous 1972 novel Roadside Picnic depicts just such a visitation. A city that has been 'visited' is left with the Zone in the area where the visitation took place: a fenced-off, contaminated and ruined area, marked by scatterings of bizarre and technologically fantastic objects left by the alien visitors. The Zone is a dangerous, melancholy place, an industrial district where the chimneys no longer give off smoke, visited by strange climactic phenomena, with a stretched sense of time. Within it, however, is quite literally the answer to all human wishes, something which in the last instance holds the promise of eternal happiness for all humanity.

Filmed by Andrei Tarkovsky in 1979 as Stalker, the Zone is visualised as a Chernobyl-like scarred, postindustrial landscape of ruins, waste, rubbish, of the remnants of industrial civilisation corroded, dilapidated and rapidly being reclaimed by nature . Tarkovsky's version of the Zone has gradually, over the last thirty years, become the foundation of an entire aesthetic. If Modernity, or Modernism, is our Antiquity, then its ruins have become every bit as fascinating, poignant and morbid as those of the Greeks or Romans were to the 18th century. Tarkovsky’s Zone is in some ways specific to the former USSR and a few locations in Estonia, yet practically every industrial or post-industrial country, has something resembling the Zone within it. Such an area would be, for instance, the remnants of industrial districts of East London. Beckton, Woolwich, Stratford, outposts marked by the cyclopean remains of silos, gasometers, factories. These are the places that inspired the Modernists of the 1920s: every manifesto from Le Corbusier's Vers d'une Architecture to Moisei Ginzburg's Constructivist response Style and Epoch had their lovingly photographed silos and power stations. Appropriately, also in the Zone can be found the bastard children of the Modernists, the scatterings of overambitious social housing, with their crumbling highrises and streets in the sky. These are remnants of something as alien and incomprehensible to the seamless mallscape of 21st century Capital, or the heritage Disneyland of European Urbanism, as Shklovsky’s Futurist Martians were to their contemporaries: only here without any of the insurrectionary promise of a new world, merely the ruins of a defunct future...

So we have here, via these two models of alien visitations in the imagination of Russian Modernists, whether of the 20s or the 70s, two competing models of Modernity. On the one hand, the advancing, gleaming, ruthless aesthetics of Futurism, particularly, for our purposes here its mutation into the more humanist, politicised Constructivism. On the other, an aesthetic of disintegration, of the aforementioned Futurist world's gradual descent into an overgrown, poisoned wasteland....

In contemplating these images however, one is reminded of the interesting element to Albert Speer's otherwise utterly banal 'Theory of Ruin Value'. Not the bit about the impressiveness of ancient ruins, and the need to leave similarly imposing remains. Rather, the psychotic, suicidal notion of building with the ruins already in mind: a death-drive architecture, where posterity's opinion is internalised to such a ludicrous degree that, in a sense, the corpse has been designed before the living body...

Today, the aesthetics of everyday life are provided by ultra-conservative developers (the likes of Barratt Homes in the UK) and the aesthetics of Art or Commerce by the avant-garde of a few decades ago (from Foster to Koolhaas). The remarkable thing about Constructivism, something that can still be seen as a shadow in Pare's work, is that the everyday was so frequently the area for experiment. A much-used Russian term here was Byt, translated usually as Everyday Life, specifically in its most habituated, domestic sense. So most of the projects here were applications of the aesthetic that would be branded 'alien' by the Stalinists to the most basic architectural elements of society. That is, housing, public leisure facilities, schools. Equally frequently, there were administrative or industrial buildings. Although even these were often in the poorer quarters of cities and towns, the growing nomenklatura’s presence is unavoidable.

Superficially, these buildings might seem similar to corresponding Western models: social housing, working men's clubs and so forth. So it's the differences that are especially key here. This was frequently a teleological architecture, one could even say a Pavlovian one: particular social affects were intended to be produced. Although a socialist state power of some sort was claimed (rightly or wrongly) to be in place by 1922, its leaders were well aware that old habitus died hard: religion, patriarchy and 'petty bourgeois' attitudes still pervaded. In 1924, Leon Trotsky, a few years before his expulsion, published a book called Problems of Everyday Life. Here there was a cautious endorsement of 'Byt reform'--the experiments in living being carried out at the time by communes and co-operatives--and the particular material forms that might house them. 'Public laundries, public restaurants, public workshops' would take the place of all that used to take place in the kitchen, thus abolishing 'household slavery'. A poster from around this time shows a dingy, cramped kitchen being opened up to a glittering, glassy new world of futuristic structures and open space, and this was what was, tentatively, being constructed at the time. "

I've written before about ruin value, noting that the interest of modernist architecture here lies precisely with its status as a forgotten future (particularly given that many of the architectural projects referenced above where essentially futile attempts to demonstrate that the Soviet Union was not being left behind economically by the United States by seeking to rival the likes of the Empire State Building), but this is something I'm nonetheless much less able to relate to than the author of this piece. I don't especially feel any nostalgia for the failure of either communism or architectural modernism, both seeming to be essentially utopian projects that sought to reform humanity by deforming it. To my mind, Tatlin's tower can comfortably remain in the same category as Speer's New Berlin. By coincidence, I've also recently comes across this article, which serves as an interesting contrast (albeit one that is often rather too conservative for my taste):

"Much of the left was and remains "anti-anti-communist." This is what accounts for what Ferdinand Mount calls the "asymmetry of indulgence" afforded communistic and fascistic state-sponsored murders... On walking into the first room of the exhibition, the visitor was greeted by a sign asking "What is Modernism?" and answering as follows: "The Iconic Objects in this room...were created by practitioners who believed that their art could help bring about Utopia within their lifetimes." This belief was expressed in all kinds of ways, as the exhibition shows, from calisthenics to kitchen design, from the cantilevered chair of Mies van der Rohe to the colorful rectilinear paintings of Piet Mondrian...

Beginning with Filippo Tommaso Marinetti and the Futurists before the First World War and continuing with Die Stijl and Bauhaus after it, there was always a strong element of political radicalism associated with Modernism. Particularly in the 1920s and 1930s when it was in its heyday, Le Corbusier, Walter Gropius, and others envisaged a sweeping architectural revolution—more or less explicitly as a complement to the political ones that were projected or actual at the time—to provide for simple, efficient, undecorated "workers' housing" and do away with luxury, sentimentality, ornament and other "bourgeois" values. Tradition had to be cleared away along with traditional images and traditional architectures in order for ideological and architectural engineers to build a new civilization from the ground up.... As the title of Nathan Glazer's new book puts it, Modernism has gone From a Cause to a Style. The rags of a failed utopianism still hang from it long after it became routine for banks to commission for their headquarters Mies-style glass towers or for reproductions of Picasso and Matisse—the originals, are of course, only available to the very richest—to decorate the "living rooms" of the haute bourgeoisie. We may not be conscious utopians ourselves anymore, but we still believe that those who are (or were) are entitled to full credit and even a certain veneration merely for the goodness and the nobility of their intentions."

I find myself much more drawn to two quotations offered late on in the piece, of Stoppad's descriptions of Herzen; "He came to the conclusion that there was no abstract formula at work on our history. There was nothing going on that was inevitable. The big bond between me and him is that he found an appalling arrogance in the way that people might construct an abstract narrative of our society and subordinate the individual life to it. He found that morally repellent." Although it was Schoenberg who formed the central protagonist in Mann's depiction of the culpability of German romanticism in Nazism (incidentally, this piece has an interesting observation on how Schoenberg's descriptions of tonality decaying through "inbreeding and incest" mirror those of racist politicians of the time), I do wonder if an equivalent narrative might not assign similar roles to figures like Corbusier.

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posted by Richard 9:55 AM

Sunday, December 10, 2006

Having previously written about anti-utopianism, I wanted to write about its analogue, dystopianism. If modern literature tends not to feature utopian themes of the kind promulgated by William Morris then it similarly seems not to feature dystopian themes of the kind familiar from Huxley and Orwell, even if many of the predictions made in those novels are increasingly being fulfilled.

The nearest example of a dystopian writer is JG Ballard. Ballard's work tends to depict artificial communities existing in a society characterised by alienation and anomie, where violence becomes the only means of release from this paralysing conformity. " While Ballard's fiction has become increasingly 'realistic,' it's not difficult to see how this would relate to novels like Brave New World. Nontheless, it's difficult to see Ballard as the heir of a politically engaged aspect of science fiction, not least due to the zeal with which his characters reach towards the dystopian future. The violence within novels from Crash to Super Cannes serves as both a rebellion against society and as an integral component of it, while the violence itself is both an innate psychopathology and a product of modern society. As Ballard puts it, "I’m frightened that the possibilities of a genuine dystopia may be much more appealing than any utopian project that people can come up with." To take the example of Millennium People, rebellion ("an entire professional caste was rejecting everything it had worked so hard to secure.") is both a rejection of society and a product of it, as much as sexual tourism ("thrill seekers with a taste for random violence.. a deep need for meaningless action, the more violent the better"). The difference from previous Ballard novels lies in the inherent absurdity of a middle-class revolution; "we're trying to rescue them from heaven.. I want to be brainwashed." Not only this, but the novel suggests that any such rebellion is effectively assimilated, as with Kay Churchill becoming a TV presenter; "far from being on the fringe, these groups were now part of the country's civic traditions."

The question in Ballard's novels has always been whether the suburbanisation of the soul simply creates frustrations (the "new vices" referred to) that lead to a release of primitive impulses (a model that would be congruent with Freud's Civilisation and its Discontents. In Super Cannes, Ballard notes that "Homo Sapiens is a reformed hunter-killer of depraved appetites... these criminal activities have helped them rediscover themselves. An atropied moral sensibility is alive agin.") or whether it actively creates an entirely modern form of psychopathy "the old morality belonged to a cruder stage of human development... since they couldn't rely on self control they needed ethical taboos." The question is this; are the violent executives in the novel, as Penrose suggests, really no different from figures like Gilles De Rais? One of the hallmarks of Ballard's surrealist approach to the novel is that these events are seen via a number of distorting mirrors. The perspective continually shifts, leaving the answers to those questions unclear. For example, Penrose comments that "she's a rebel, but she doesn't realise that Eden Olympia is the biggest rebellion of all," when he has previously been at pains to portray Eden Olympia as a form of social evolution; "perverse behaviours were once potentially dangerous. Societies weren't strong enough to allow them to flourish." In this, Ballard's surrealism is particularly adept; by distorting the events through the eyes of a multiple overlapping statements and perspectives the reader is exposed to the same form of disorientation as the characters. The most obvious device for this is his customary device of a heavily biased narrator, where we are invited to determine whether his own psychopathy is any different to that promoted by Penrose.

Another example worth considering is Michel Houellebecq, whose shares with Ballard an idea of how the consumer society and the sexual revolution alike have commoditised emotion. To Houellebecq alienation is not a lifestyle; it is something determined by the fragmentation of social being; "just like unrestrained economic liberalism, and for similar reasons, sexual liberalism produces phenomena of absolute pauperisation." Atomised features a discussion of Brave New World as a utopian novel based on the ideas advanced in Julian Huxley's 1931 What Dare I Think?:

"Everyone says that Brave New World is supposed to be a totalitarian nightmare, a vicious indictment of society, but that's hypocritical bullshit. Brave New World is our idea of heaven: genetic manipulation, sexual liberation, the war against ageing, the leisure society. This is precisely the world we have tried - and so far failed - to create."

Atomised itself is certainly an utopian novel advancing extropian ideas that rather recall HG Wells. However, his more recent novel The Possibility of an Island is much closer to the dystopian tradition, aligning it to apocalytic novels like those of Wyndham and the early Ballard. Houellebecq assumes a series of environmental catastrophes leading to the destruction of society, but differs from earlier novels by applauding the demise of the human species allowing as it does for the rise of a genetically modified race as a replacement. The Elohminite movement depicted in the novel itself rests upon a number of internal contradictions, particularly in the way it depends on a consumer society that turns youth into a commodity that can be indefinitely preserved only for this expectation to be inevitably disappointed. Its force depends entirely on what it opposes, just as Daniel's career depends on the sensibilities it deliberately provokes and outrages; "if the fluidification of forms of behaviour required by a developed economy was incompatible with a normative catalogue of restrained conduct, it was perfectly suited to a celebration of the will and ego". The consequence of this ambiguity is that the new species of neohumans find themselves leaving the calm of their habitations and exploring a post-nuclear wasteland inhabited by savage humans for whom the collapse of civilisation has been total and complete. The neohumans are both revolted by these creatures (the culture of the mind being impossible in a society locked into struggles for existence) while remaining unsatisfied by their own lack of will and consequent stagnation. As a species they achieve nothing and their lack of suffering effectively leaves them as an evolutionary dead-end.

In this sense, Houellebecq's novel follows in the line of Margaret Atwood's (whose The Handmaid's Tale is the closest modern novel written in the vein of Orwell and Huxley) Oryx and Crake where a society based around social inequality and gates communities falls victim to a genetically engineered plague that allows for the rise of a new species that lacks the worst traits of humanity (though in both cases, it is suggested that the posthumans are far from being what is intended, with Houellebecq's species walking out onto the ruined earth in search of what is left of their ancestors). it would be perfectly possible to read Oryx and Crake as a dystopian text where Crake, a Faust-figure like Nemo, Moreau or Frankenstein, pursues dangerous technologies without thought for the consequences, unintended (such as the Craker's development of symbolic thought and religion) or otherwise (the success of the engineered virus). On the other hand, most dystopian novels, including Brave New World, 1984 and We deal with the suppression of biological imperatives rather than their alteration. But comparisons with other Atwood novels suggest otherwise. Surfacing is full of similar dystopian theories concerning an American invasion of Canada for its oil reserves, and sees its protagonist retreat from civilisation into nature (feeling a guilt at being human and expressing a desire for humanity to disappear); similarly, throughout Oryx and Crake mankind is viewed as an aggressive species that consumes resources indiscriminately (essentially, as Easter Island writ large); the Crakers represent a similar retreat to nature, allowing Crake to take on the mantle of an almost heroic figure instead. Oryx and Crake's overall depiction is more ambiguous than Surfacing since the damage is largely done by environmentalist characters rather than corporate strategy.

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posted by Richard 7:41 PM

Wednesday, May 31, 2006

It's apparently a rather old piece, but I've just stumbled across Pynchon's article 'Is It O.K. to Be a Luddite?', and its suggestion that science fiction is underpinned by a luddite impulse opposed to science and technology. Needless to add, as someone who thinks abandoning the quill pen in favour of the Gutenberg press was probably not a sensible idea, I was rather taken by it:

"If there were such a genre as the Luddite novel, this one, warning of what can happen when technology, and those who practice it, get out of hand, would be the first and among the best... The craze for Gothic fiction after "The Castle of Otranto" was grounded, I suspect, in deep and religious yearnings for that earlier mythic time which had come to be known as the Age of Miracles. In ways more and less literal, folks in the 18th century believed that once upon a time all kinds of things had been possible which were no longer so. The laws of nature had not been so strictly formulated back then. What had once been true working magic had, by the Age of Reason, degenerated into mere machinery. Blake's dark Satanic mills represented an old magic that, like Satan, had fallen from grace. As religion was being more and more secularized into Deism and nonbelief, the abiding human hunger for evidence of God and afterlife, for salvation -- bodily resurrection, if possible -- remained. The Methodist movement and the American Great Awakening were only two sectors on a broad front of resistance to the Age of Reason, a front which included Radicalism and Freemasonry as well as Luddites and the Gothic novel... Besides being a nearly ideal synthesis of the Two Cultures, science fiction also happens to have been one of the principal refuges, in our time, for those of Luddite persuasion."

Certainly, if we look at the utopian fictions of the nineteenth century, the role of technology and progress is uncertain. William Morris in News from Nowhere advocated a more decentralised, rural society that had left the cities behind. Morris had believed firmly in the dignity of craftmanship against mass production but nonetheless the novel pronounces that "All work which it would be irksome to do by hand is done by immensely improved machinery." Equally, novels like Gilman's Herland balance the notion that that society has fared better without industrialisation with the inhabitants curiousity about science. Erewhon's polemic about the threat of machine consciousness evolving is partly satirical and points to the backwardness of that society, but nonetheless remains a concept Butler seems to have cleaved to. Similarly, Wells delineates a socialist critique of science in The Time Machine (as opposed to the depiction of science in The Island of Dr. Moreau, which extends back to Frankenstein), suggesting that technology will concentrate power to the ruling Morlock class, while the otherwise utopian existence of the Eloi (one that recalls that of Erewhon or Herland) is characterised as a form of disenfranchisement. Utopia depends on access to the means of production (though equally a counter argument can be made resting on the resemblance of the Morlocks to working class laboureres; "even now, does not an East-end worker live in such artificial conditions as practically to be cut off from the natural surface of the earth?").

However, by the second half of the twentieth century, when Sartre had declared that it was no longer to adhere to the concept of scientific progress, matters become more difficult. Wells marked a turning point and from hereon it is the dystopian novel that has become the cornerstone of the more literary branches of science fiction. For example, Wyndham's novels were more unambiguous in depicting the results of genetic manipulation (Day of the Triffids) and nuclear warfare (The Chrysalids), though the latter is also forthright in depicting a new primitivism as forming the basis of a coercive and repressive society. JG Ballard's novels begin in the Wyndhamite vein, especially The Wind from Nowhere and The Drowned World (depicting a world where global warming has left London a flooded city that is as inhospitable as the Amazon). However, where Wyndham's protagnosts are all practical men of action who strive against their times, Ballard's are largely passive and come to embrace them as fulfilling a repressing instinct. Later, Rushing to Paradise comes to critique environmentalism as a form of pyschopathology, a resurgence of civilisation's discontents.

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posted by Richard 7:57 PM

Thursday, December 01, 2005

I've found myself particular fascinated by this article on the subject of literary utopias:

"During the Cold War - thanks to Stalinism and the success of such dystopian fables as Aldous Huxley's ''Brave New World" and George Orwell's ''Nineteen Eighty-Four" - all radical programs promising social transformation became suspect. Speaking for his fellow chastened liberals at a Partisan Review symposium in 1952, for example, the theologian and public intellectual Reinhold Niebuhr dismissed what he called the utopianism of the 1930s as ''an adolescent embarrassment."

Niebuhr and other influential anti-utopians of mid-century - Isaiah Berlin, Hannah Arendt, Karl Popper - had a point. From Plato's ''Republic" to Thomas More's 1517 traveler's tale ''Utopia" (the title of which became a generic term), to the idealistic communism of Rousseau and other pre- and post-French Revolution thinkers, to Bellamy's ''Looking Backward" itself, utopian narratives have often shared a naive and unseemly eagerness to force square pegs into round holes via thought control and coercion. By the end of the 20th century, most utopian projects did look proto-totalitarian.

The question... is how to revive the spirit of utopia - the current enfeeblement of which, Jameson claims, ''saps our political options and tends to leave us all in the helpless position of passive accomplices and impotent handwringers"... Is the thought of a noncapitalist utopia even possible after Stalinism, after decades of anticommunist polemic on the part of brilliant and morally engaged intellectuals? Or are we all convinced, in a politically paralyzing way, that Margaret Thatcher had it right when she crowed that ''there is no alternative" to free-market capitalism?

Borrowing Sartre's slogan, coined after the Soviet invasion of Hungary, about being neither communist nor anticommunist but ''anti-anticommunist," Jameson suggests we give ''anti-anti-utopianism" a try."

It's a point that reminds me of Derrrida's Spectres of Marx, where the denial of alternative social structures, such as with Fukuyama's End of History, represented a denial of pluralism and democracy. For myself, when I think of Utopian narratives, I think of William Morris and News From Nowhere or Samuel Butler and Erewhon; while critiquing the existing state of society these authors also drew strength from a social context that believed human ingenuity was capable of refashioning itself in the most fundamental manners (whether through a benevolent alliance of technology and commerce or through completely overthrowing the existing state of things). Such an imagination was as evident in the works of Carlyle, Arnold, Fourier and Owen as it was in Marx and Engels.

By contrast, today tends to see evolutionary pyschology used as a means of suggesting that social arrangements (typically the sort of arrangements preferred by free-market conservatives) are literally hard-wired and not susceptible to any form of amendment or alteration; as the addage has it, it is easier to imagine the end of the world than a change to capitalism. Certainly, dystopian narratives that do depict such a calamity, such as those of Margaret Atwood continue to persist, while Houellebecq's extropian narrative in Platform is one of the few counter-examples that springs to mind (where genetic engineering resumes the sort of transformative character it held for HG Wells and his contemporary Fabians).

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posted by Richard 8:05 PM

Thursday, August 25, 2005

Charlie Stross writes about the current resurgence in British science fiction and the converse decline in American science fiction:

"During the 1947-79 period, an era of British political history dominated by the long shadow of the retreat from empire, there was a definite note of pessimism to SF's vision of the future. Margaret Thatcher's government was a polarizing force in British culture. It shook society to its core, closing off some avenues and opening up others. It was a period of deep uncertainty and stark division, during which the post-war consensus established by the One Nation Conservatives and the Old Labour Party evaporated as if it had never existed... The heavy industries -- coal, steel, shipbuilding, heavy engineering -- went to the wall. Those that survive today are much smaller specialists competing in global markets, not the archaic and historic legacy of the 19th century. And it was during the Thatcher years that the fate of the British Empire was finally sealed -- not with a bang but a firework show, as Chris Patten managed the hand-over of Hong Kong in 1996... Britain's future within the EU was becoming visible, and a new political epoch was dawning in which rather than being a retreating imperial power the culture of the UK would reflect its position as one of the poles of influence within a new, nascent superpower.

The American future is currently uncertain, unpleasant, polarized, regimented, and pessimistic. The American century that dates to VJ Day, August 1945, is more than half over. Much as the shadows lengthened over the coal-driven British Empire during the age of oil, so the shadows are looming over the oil-driven American Empire. Peak Oil is a spectre haunting the corridors of Washington DC, as it haunts the centres of power in every other nation. But the United States is unusual among the industrialized nations in its dependence on oil, and its vulnerability when the price of oil begins to rise. Transportation and climate militate against the easy adoption of other lifestyles, and the demand for stability in the oil market is leading the current administration ever deeper into the morass of Middle Eastern politics.

I'm not convinced. Firstly, Stross both complains that American science fiction was held back by too many certainties in a world where it was the only empire and history seemed to have ended. He also complains that it is currently held back by the vision of an uncertain and troubled future. It seems difficult to have that argument both ways. In practice, the prospect of a troubled future or present should be far from an obstacle to literature; that is after all precisely the conditions under which Brave New World, 1984 and We were produced; Margaret Atwood's Oryx and Crake proved that such dystopian themes can still create literature in the same way. Given that Stross alludes to him I'd also note that that post-war gloom proved a highly fertile ground for John Wyndham's dystopian imagination. Above all, I can't help but rather concluding that I find it rather difficult to understand why Stross seems to feel that Britain and Europe are excluded from the factors driving American pessimism and don't have reasons of their own to face the future with trepidation.

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posted by Richard 9:38 AM

Thursday, June 09, 2005

It's often been observed that the nineteenth century was the age of utopianism, from the politics of Owen and Marx to novels like News From Nowhere, Herland and Erewhon. Equally, it's often observed that the twentieth century was the age of dystopianism, from the politics of Stalin and Hitler to novels like Brave New World, 1984 and We. What then would the present age be recalled for?

Apocalyptic fiction of a religious bent has apparently been popular in the United States, but it has secular counterparts aplenty from The Clash of Civilisations to novels like Snowcrash or Oryx and Crake. Although some modern novels like The Handmaid's Tale could still be labelled dystopian, we no longer seem to believe in the possibility of society being decisively shaped, for good or ill. Although science continues to make advances, we no long seem to see them as controllable forces. Accordingly, I've been thinking about what possibilities fiction might consider in this category;

Climate change. Certainly the possibility to have gripped the popular imagination to the greatest extent; sea levels rise endangering countries like the Netherlands and any other low-lying coastal regions. The shift of the gulf stream leaves Britain with the same climate as Alaska, and countries like Portugal and Tunisia find themselves swamped by refugees from Britain and Scandinavia. Drought affects other regions, such as China, and war erupts over water.

The Rise of fundamentalisms. Perhaps the most obvious possibility, as this is already evident in many respects. The collapse of traditions in the face of economic pressures and globalisation produce backlashes, both in the Muslim Middle-East and in Christian America. The ensuing violence leads to the further decay of concepts of liberty and privacy in favour of surveillance.

Economic inequality. The trend towards sacrificing social cohesion and equality for economic growth currently shows every sign of continuing, the likely result being increased crime and social unrest, counterparted with the rise gated communities and private security forces.

Changing economic patterns. In historical terms, the two largest economies were India and China. With these two countries increasingly able to draw on the same skills and resources as Western nations but at lower costs, a shift in 'economic gravity' from America and Europe back to India and China, with the economies of the former countries undergoing a partial collapse.

Dwindling oil supplies. As oil supplies either dwindle or fail to increase in line with burgeoning demand, the costs of transportation, energy generation and the production of plastics become increasingly impratical. The forces that have driven economic growth for the last century begin to falter, with few viable alternatives waiting in the wings. Access to remaining oil supplies increasingly defines government's military and foreign policies.

Genetic modification and eugenics. The ability to engineer forms of life is matched with the likelihood of the genetic changes becoming naturalised, opening up new prospects for ecosystems to be unbalanced, similar to the introduction of the cane toad into Australia. Genetic modification of people begins to further entrench social inequalities. On a related note, there is the rise of antibiotic resistant diseases suggests the possibility of new pandemics, while rising sea levels and global warming would also give additional impetuses to diseases like malaria.

Artificial lifeforms. Computing technologies become sufficiently advanced for the creation of sentient lifeforms that are entirely artificial. Since such technologies are used for functional reasons, issues of the rights of artificial lifeforms begin to emerge, creating the possibility for conflict.

Update: One idea that I hadn't considered in my introductory paragraph was whether or not utopian and dystopian fiction would survive themselves. These genres are in many respects products of rationalism, a belief in man's ability to order the world. Morris and Gilman held such views in the same manner that Marx and Owen did. Much of dystopian fiction rests upon the assumption that man is a blank slate that can be rewritten by totalitarian forces, just as the Sovet Union sought to create a form of new man that was not bound by tradition and history. By contrast, the present age is one where science has been increasingly questioned and fundamentalisms appear resurgent.

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posted by Richard 5:20 PM

Thursday, February 10, 2005

I seem to recall commenting sometime ago that the French film Delicatessen had a very European view of a post-apocalyptic future, where the descent into barbarism takes place behind a quite facade of respectability. Of course, in Britain the apocalypse is likely to be quite different; so I think it really would require a heart of stone not to be enthralled at this glimpse of such a future:

"Ikea had not predicted that up to 6,000 people would descend on the new store, in Edmonton, with a stampede to get in resulting in a frightening crush... Thousands had been lured by bargains - some of which were only available until 3am even though a 24-hour opening was planned - such as 500 leather sofas for only £45. Cars were abandoned on the roadside as shoppers attempted to reach the store in time to secure the best offers... at around 10pm, the staff disappeared and, slowly but steadily, madness descended on the crowd."

The religious frenzy of the Hajj is replaced with the agonies of conspicuous consumption. I trust that this event will form the basis for JG Ballard's next novel:

"Living out in Shepperton gives me a close-up view of the real England – the M25, the world of business parks, industrial estates and executive housing, sports clubs and marinas, cineplexes, CCTV, car-rental forecourts… That's where boredom comes in – a paralysing conformity and boredom that can only be relieved by some sort of violent act; by taking your mail-order Kalashnikov into the nearest supermarket and letting rip."


posted by Richard 6:48 PM