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Science Fiction Isn’t About The Future (or the past)

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I would like to share the short introduction Ursula K. Le Guin wrote for The Left Hand of Darkness, which I’m beginning to read. It’s a powerful statement about the vocation of the writer, the nature of science-fiction and even fiction as such. She makes a devastating case for science fiction not being about the future, which is hard to say is always the case. In Star Trek, for example, much effort is expended to build a believable continuity between their fictive future and our actual present; Roddenberry wanted us to believe in Star Trek as a possible future, while also clearly using it as a way of describing the present.

A great example of what Le Guin means by “science fiction isn’t about the future” is the 2008 b-film, Outlander.

WARNING: SPOILERS.

Outlander is set in 8th Century northern Europe, where a space-craft crashes carrying a lone surviving hominid (Kainan) and a monster worthy of Grendel’s name. The twist is that the extra-terrestrial hominid is actually a human, or rather, humans on Earth are an unwitting seed-colony of that parent species. The monster (Moorwen) is really a creature from one of the many planets these space-faring humans have brutally attacked to clear space for their own colonies.

When Kainan runs into Norsemen, who are suspicious of him after finding him passing through a village the Moorwen destroyed, he tries to appeal (it seems) to their primitive sensibilities and claims he’s hunting a dragon. Though it’s actually somewhat ambiguous: all he really does, when they ask him what he’s hunting that could destroy the village, is points to a dragon ornament and says “that.” Whether he cleverly thinks he’s appealing to their beliefs-qua-mythology or naively thinks similar creatures exist on Earth is unclear. He says this though, and the Norsemen are incredulous Realpolitikers. They already suspect he was part of a raid from a neighboring community, and laugh at him for appealing to and maybe trying to trick them with “children’s stories.”

By correlating these children’s stories with a material support in the form of the Moorwen “dragon,” the film isn’t giving something like a historical materialist account of dragon-stories—or dare I say of dragons. To do so would be to believe in the film, itself a work of fiction made in 2008 and not 709, just as the Norse deride Kainan for believing in “what everyone knows” are children’s stories.

In this way, science fiction (when minding its own business, to borrow Le Guin’s language) cannot explain our past any more than it can predict our future. In the Star Trek The Original Series episode, “Who Mourns For Adonais,” the ship is captured by a being that claims to be Apollo. The being seems to have unassailable powers and otherwise appears to be who he says he is, and even explains that he and the other Olympian gods were a band of travelers who happened upon earth 5000 years ago. The point is very clear: the ancient gods were real, but they weren’t really gods. Kirk at one point, balking at Apollo’s demand for worship, asserts: “Mankind has no need for gods. Our One will do.”

The key to the episode is destroying a temple-structure on the planetoid that apparently accompanies Apollo. It’s explained to be a power-source, but its mechanics are left completely unexplored and unexplained. It’s not really a scientific perspective on the nature of this being nor its claims to divinity. Destroying the temple with the phasers does cause Apollo to lose his powers, but the cause and effect are as magical as any mythological understanding this whole Apollo’s-really-an-alien is supposed to dispel. In the end, the mythological fiction, with its “scientific” underpinning, is presented as true and we feel like we’ve been 5000 years in the past than 300 in the future.

At any rate, here’s Le Guin:

Science fiction is often described, and even defined, as extrapolative. The science fiction writer is supposed to take a trend or phenomenon of the here-and-now, purify and intensify it for dramatic effect, and extend it into the future. ‘If this goes on, this is what will happen.’ A prediction is made. Method and results much resemble those of a scientist who feeds large doses of a purified and concentrated food additive to mice, in order to predict what may happen to people who eat it in small quantities for a long time. The outcome seems almost inevitably to be cancer. So does the outcome of extrapolation. Strictly extrapolative works of science fiction generally arrive about where the Club of Rome arrives: somewhere between the gradual extinction of human liberty and the total extinction of terrestrial life.

This may explain why people who do not read science fiction describe it as ‘escapist,’ but when questioned further, admit they do not read it because ‘it is so depressing.’

Almost anything carried to its logical extreme becomes depressing, if not carcinogenic.

Fortunately, though extrapolation is an element in science fiction, it isn’t the name of the game by any means. It is far too rationalist and simplistic to satisfy the imaginative mind, whether the writer’s or the reader’s. Variables are the spice of life.

This book is not extrapolative. If you like you can read it, and a lot of other science fiction, as a thought-experiment. Let’s say (says Mary Shelley) that a young doctor creates a human being in this laboratory; let’ say (says Philip K. Dick) that the Allies lost the Second World War; let’s say this or that is such and so, and see what happens . . . . In a story so conceived, the moral complexity proper to the modern novel need not be sacrificed, nor is there any built-in dead end; thought and intuition can move freely within bounds set only by the terms of the experiment, which may be very large indeed.

The purpose of a thought-experiment, as the term was used by Schrodinger’s and other physicists, is not to predict the future—indeed Schrodinger’s most famous thought-experiment goes to show that the ‘future,’ on the quantum level, cannot be predicted—but to describe reality, the present world.
Science fiction is not predictive; it is descriptive.

Predictions are uttered by prophets (free of charge), by clairvoyants (who usually charge a fee, and are therefore more honored in their day than prophets), and by futurologists (salaried). Prediction is the business of prophets, clairvoyants, and futurologists. It is not the business of novelists. A novelist’s business is lying.

The weather bureau will tell you what next Tuesday will be like, and the Rand Corporation will tell you what the twenty-first century will be like. I don’t recommend that you turn to the writers of fiction for such information. It’s none of their business. All they’re trying to do is tell you what they’re like, and what you ‘re like—what’s going on—what the weather is like now, today, this moment, the rain, the sunlight, look! Open your eyes; listen, listen. That is what the novelists say. But they don’t tell you what you will see and hear. All they can tell you is what they have seen and heard, in their time in this world, a third of it spent in sleep and dreaming, another third of it spent telling lies.

‘The truth against the world!’—Yes. Certainly. Fiction writers, at least in their braver moments, do desire the truth: to know it, speak it, serve it. But they go about it in a peculiar and devious way, which consists in inventing persons, places, and events which never did and never will exist or occur, and tell about these fictions in detail and at length and with a great deal of emotion, and when they say they are done writing down this pack of lies they say, There! That’s the truth!

They may use all kinds of facts to support their tissue of lies. They may describe the Marshalsea Prison, which was a real place, or the battle of Borodino, which really was fought, or the process of cloning, which really takes place in laboratories, or the deterioration of a personality, which is described in real textbooks of psychology, and so on. This weight of verifiable place-event-phenomenon-behavior makes the reader forget that he is reading a pure invention, a history that never took place anywhere but in that unlocalizable region, the author’s mind. In fact, while we read a novel, we are insane—bonkers. We believe in the existence of people who aren’t there, we hear their voices, we watch the battle of Borodino with them, we may even become Napoleon. Sanity returns (in most cases) when the book is closed.

Is it any wonder that no truly respectable society has ever trusted in its artists?
But our society, being troubled and bewildered, seeking guidance, sometimes puts an entirely mistaken trust in its artists, using them as prophets and futurologists.

I do not say that artists cannot be seers, inspired: that the awen cannot come upon them, and the god speak through them. Who would be an artist if they did not believe that happens? If they did not know it happens, because they have felt the god within them use their tongue, their hands? Maybe only once, once in their lives. But once is enough.

Nor would I say that the artist alone is so burdened and so privileged. The scientist is another who prepares, who makes ready, working day and night, sleeping and awake, for inspiration. As Pythagoras knew, the god may speak in the forms of geometry as well as in the shapes of dreams; in the harmony of pure thought as well as in the harmony of sounds; in the number as well as in words.

But it is words that make the trouble and confusion. We are asked now to consider words as useful in only one way: as signs. Our philosophers, some of them, would have us agree that a word (sentence, statement) has value only insofar as it has one single meaning, points to one fact that is comprehensible to the rational intellect, logically sound, and—ideally—quantifiable.

Apollo, the god of light, of reason, of proportion, harmony, number—Apollo blinds those who press too close in worship. Don’t look straight at the sun. Go into a dark bar for a bit and have a beer with Dionysios, every now and then.

I talk about the gods; I am an atheist. But I am an artist too, and therefore a liar. Distrust everything I say. I am telling the truth.

The only truth I can understand or express is, logically defined, a lie. Psychologically defined, a symbol. Aesthetically defined, a metaphor.

Oh, it’s lovely to be invited to participate in Futurological Congresses where Systems Sciences displays its grand apocalyptic graphs, to be asked to tell the newspapers what America will be like in 2001, and all that, but it’s a terrible mistake. I write science fiction, and science fiction isn’t about the future. I don’t know any more about the future than you do, and very likely less.

This book is not about the future. Yes, it begins by announcing that it’s sent in the ‘Ekumenical Year 1490-97,’ but surely you don’t believe that?

Yes, the people in it are androgynous, but that doesn’t mean that I’m predicting that in a millennium or so we will all be androgynous, or announcing that I think we damned well ought to be androgynous. I’m merely observing, in the peculiar, devious, and thought-experimental manner proper to science fiction, that if you look at us at certain odd times of day in certain weathers, we already are. I am not predicting, or prescribing. I am describing. I am describing certain aspects of psychological reality in the novelist’s way, which is by inventing elaborate circumstantial lies.

In reading a novel, any novel, we have to know perfectly well that the whole thing is nonsense, and then, while reading, believe every word of it. Finally, when we’re don with it, we may find—if it’s a good novel—that we’re a bit different from what we were before we read it, that we have been changed a little as if by having met a new face, crossed a street we never crossed before. But it’s very hard to say just what we learned, how we were changed.

The artist deals with what cannot be said in words.

The artist whose medium is fiction does this in words. The novelist says in words what cannot be said in words.
Words can be used thus paradoxically because they have, along with a semiotic usage, a symbolic or metaphoric usage. (They also have a sound—a fact the linguistic positives take no interest in. A sentence or paragraph is like a chord or harmonic sequence in music: its meaning may be more clearly understood by the attentive ear, even though it is read in silence, than by the attentive intellect.)

All fiction is metaphor. Science fiction is metaphor. What sets it apart from older forms of fiction seems to be its use of new metaphors drawn from certain great dominants [domains?] of our contemporary life—science, all the sciences, and technology, and the relativistic and the historical outlook, among them. Space travel is one of these metaphors; so is an alternative society, an alternative biology; the future is another. The future, in fiction, is a metaphor.
A metaphor for what?

If I could have said it non-metaphorically, I would not have written all these words, this novel; and Genly Ai would never have sat down at my desk and used up my ink and typewriter ribbon in informing me, and you, rather solemnly, that the truth is a matter of the imagination.

Written by Joe

February 15, 2011 at 11:39 pm

Posted in Fantasy, Film, Lit Crit

I don’t know man, I don’t know…

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Where is the Real in this image?

These are babies, pretending to be stupid animals; see how the one on the right has a human ear. It is somehow significant that we only see one, but are likely to assume there are two. This is what babies would say if they could really talk, and this is how they would appear to us if we really heard them.

Written by Joe

December 2, 2009 at 6:24 pm

Zizek’s Notes Toward A Definition of Communist Culture

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Thanks to Mariborchan, that master archiver of videos related to Zizek, Lacan and Badiou (among other things) online.

You can listen to all five classes at Backdoor Broadcasting:

“The master class analyses phenomena of modern thought and culture with the intention to discern elements of possible Communist culture. It moves at two levels: first, it interprets some cultural phenomena (from today’s architecture to classic literary works like Rousseau’s La Nouvelle Heloise) as failures to imagine or enact a Communist culture; second, it explores attempts at imagining how a Communist culture could look, from Wagner’s Ring to Kafka’s and Beckett’s short stories and contemporary science fiction novels.”

The above link is to the first class, but with side-bar links to the other four. From Verso’s UK Blog, the five main themes, which roughly correspond to the lectures, are:

1. Architecture as Ideology: the Failure of Performance-Arts Venues to construct a Communal Space
2. Narrative as an Ideological Category: Literary References in Hegel’s Phenomenology
3. The Failure of Nietzsche’s Critique of the Hegelian Narrative
4. Wagner’s Ring as a Communist narrative
5. Narrative Germs of Communism: from Kafka, Beckett, Sturgeon

Written by Joe

June 26, 2009 at 10:28 pm

Leaping Clear of the Many of the One

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In another conversation with Jon, I broach the subject of polyamory.

Me: I wonder how many polyamorist are open not only to their partners having other partners, but to having partners who only have them (the polyamorist) as their partner.

Jon: ??

Me: Do you know what polyamory is?

Jon: yup

Me: Recent interest in polyamory in the wake of my breakup. Josh and I had a lengthy conversation about it, which I reproduced on my blog.

Jon: ahh

Me: I go back and forth between which I am comfortable with, and it has slowly dawned on me that polyamory taken to its logical, ethical ends is not about having multiple partners or just one.

I think people approach it this way, and they get caught in the same game of possessiveness that is usually the exact thing polys claim to avoid.

Jon: agreed

Me: This way being: either monogamy or not, either one person or many – no in between.

From Dogen’s “Genjo-koan,” or “Actualizing the Fundamental Point.”

The buddha way is, basically, leaping clear of the many of the one; thus there are birth and death, delusion and realization, sentient beings and buddhas.

Yet in attachment blossoms fall, and in aversion weeds spread.

To carry yourself forward and experience myriad things is delusion. That myriad things come forth and experience themselves is awakening.

“The One” what? A possible answer is the ideal couple. The ideal couple is the mOther and child, who form the ideal-ego. Their unity is a torn one, and their independence really a co-dependence. “The many of the one” would thus be the world qua imaginary identifications, the world of drifting clouds: in a word, fantasy. Does this mean that Dogen anticipated Lacan’s “traversing the fantasy” and Freud’s “working through”?

Written by Joe

June 13, 2009 at 9:59 pm

Posted in Buddhism, Fantasy, Lacan, Love, Zen

Obama as Parody of Stalin

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If Stalin said, “from each according to their ability; to each according to their work,” Obama formulates the flip-side of the State Capitalist ideological creed as “from each according to their ability; to those according to what they can afford.”

Written by Joe

August 28, 2008 at 9:45 pm

Traversing the Fantasy: Where Do I Go?

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If we follow Descartes, we cannot be certain of things “outside” the mind, which are otherwise “objectively present,” though the subjective content of the mind qua mind is minimally certain. Cogito ergo sum. 

How is it that I know I am not psychotic, then, if the only content of my mind to speak of appears to me as objectively present? In other words, where is the minimal distance that separates truth from illusion, real from unreal, inside from outside?

Let’s make it clear by thinking of how people usually talk about The Matrix. They talk about being-in-the-Matrix as being different from being-not-in-the-Matrix, or rather, the kind of being of being-in-the-Matrix is different from the kind of being of being-not-in-the-Matrix. Where/what is the difference, but more difficultly where am I going when I traverse the fantasy of that difference?

UPDATE: Being-not-in-the-Matrix is, as far as I’m concerned, an absurd way to talk. Rather, for the sake of having a coherent sense of the world, we should talk about not-being-in-the-Matrix. There is a structural ambiguity here though: how are we to understand the difference between NOT being-in-the-Matrix and NOT-BEING (that is) in-the-Matrix? Is this difference simply a replay of the one I already considered. If the difference alludes you, think of at least two different ways to understand “he saw her with binoculars.” If that alludes you, you’re on the wrong blog.

Written by Joe

May 3, 2008 at 9:25 pm

Obscene Supplement: A Reaction

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At Salon.com, Cary Tenis, in his advice column of sorts, he responds to a letter by a woman complaining that her and her boyfriend, while they both make good money, have radically different relationships with money. She spends what she implies is a “normal” amount, while he lives “frugally” and in something of a vow of miserly poverty. Miserly, because he “earns a decent income as a teacher and has investment income.”

In other words, he takes the oldest and most central rules of the Capitalist game so seriously—above all, save and work hard—to the detriment of the Superego injunction to enjoy (i.e. consume). What’s more is he, in a certain sense, wins the game according to the given rules, but not according to the unspoken ones of late Capitalist ideology. More amazingly is the way he gets criticized for being a miser, when what really bothers everyone complaining on the Letter Writer’s behalf is that he himself takes on the poverty that they need someone else to take on for them. It also doesn’t help that the guy seems to be satisfied with his way of life. In other words, there is an other way to experience jouissance.

Here it seems to be an Otherly jouissance, because the discipline with which he lives his life is focused on holding back the pleasure of consuming. It is this holding back, but especially in the dimension that he can tap into this comparatively (though not actually) infinite source of pleasure (i.e. consumption), that he has mastered in order to enjoy bearably. In other words, his enjoyment is not genital at all, but in a certain sense psychotically grounded in an anal pre-genital phase of development. To this end, inasmuch as he always risks being consumed by the Other’s jouissance should he partake in it as others do, he probably doesn’t know how to consume without being over-whelmed, which is why his life depends as much on not spending as it does making money. Money being the fiat of all commodities, which is to say obscured social relations of stolen surplus labor/jouissance, in a Capitalist society money (qua capital) is a libidinal and economic intensification. Only through the Symbolic mediation of the consuming practices of ideological identities are members of Capitalist society normally able to handle the intensity of social labour/desire. For the boyfriend, he doesn’t ascribe to the ideological identity of the age, the all-enjoying consumer, and therefore don’t know the first thing about what to do with money.

This identity is only commanded from off-the-scenes, as it were, while the official line of the Capitalist subject is: save and work hard. The guy is successful not because he hears the obscene superego injunction to consume, which creates an ambiguous meaning to money, commodities and things of consumer enjoyment; he’s successful because in the absence of such an external injunction telling him what to do with his money, and in the world of an otherwise operating Symbolic order, he knows how to take literally what others take metaphorically.

His impulse to save is really an impulse to hold off the unbearable pleasure he risks in consuming it should he let it invade him the way Cary Tenis and his commenters seem to endorse. The difference between him and the CEO or the more traditional miser, is that he has no ideological supplement to make his practices coherent to him, which directs a mode of consumption. Not having been installed in the Symbolic order properly, so it seems, which makes itself clear here in the absence of a (capitalist) subjectivity, his lack of a consumer-identity means he lacks the ability to consume except directly through work.

What’s also interesting is vis-a-vis this psychotic relationship to money, there is a certain kind of feminization insofar as the female sexuation has been reproduced as a literal character of poverty as well as having access to the Other’s jouissance, normally under the care of a male’s endorsement. The LW is more typical of the sort of masculine subject that enjoys her much jouissance in this mediated way, and feels threatened by not only the Other’s jouissance, but the one who knows how to deal with it directly. If her enjoyment is, as it were, achieved through a certain kind of will to Nothingness, then the boyfriend enjoys by not-willing. If only the LW talked more about what was so great about the actual sex!

Written by Joe

April 28, 2008 at 10:36 pm