Post-Masterclass

some masterclass students and tutors

So, this year’s SFF Masterclass is over. As with the first one I attended, a couple of years ago, it was both intense and rewarding; and as I was then, so I am now still digesting everything we discussed. Topics included: what makes a “classic”; examined and unexamined exclusions from narrative; is there such a thing as essentially science-fictional music; to what extent posthumanism is the central topic in contemporary sf that must be acknowledged or at least reacted to; the characteristics of science fantasy; the differences between UK and US New Wave; the politics of story; and in the course of the above, considerations of all the texts I’ve been blogging about over the past month or so from many different angles. But almost as important as the discussions in the class were the discussions outside, and the sense of community that the masterclass creates. Huge thanks, therefore, to the three tutors, Istvan Csicsery-Ronay, Jr, Roz Kaveney and Liz Williams, and to all the other attendees for such friendly, thorough, enjoyable and wide-ranging discussions.

And now what? Having spent a month on the reading list for this class, and before that a month on awards shortlists, and before that a month on reading for an essay for Vector, I’m itching to get stuck into the pile of 2010 books I’ve accumulated. (Paolo Bacigalupi’s Shipbreaker, Guy Gavriel Kay’s Under Heaven, Nnedi Okorafor’s Who Fears Death, Ian McDonald’s The Dervish House, Olga Slavnikova’s 2017, Anna Lawrence Pietroni’s Ruby’s Spoon, Francis Spufford’s Red Plenty, The Best of Kim Stanley Robinson … to name a few.) And I have several books I’ve already read that I still want to write about. So over the next couple of months, that’s what I’ll be doing here.

Reading List: Dead Channel Surfing

Another article, unfortunately, that makes heavier weather of its argument than is really necessary. Karen Collins sets out to convince us of, as her subtitle has it, “the commonalities between cyberpunk literature and industrial music.” Except, straight away —

Although cyberpunk began as a literary movement, it is often referred to as more than that — it is, rather, a concept reflected in many disciplines sharing a similarity of approaches and attitudes.

— and the argument she goes on to construct depends rather heavily on the inclusion of films, from the obvious (Blade Runner, The Matrix) to the slightly less so (The Terminator). Which is fine in principle, obviously; it’s just not what the title promises. There are other carelessnesses. In an initial list of characteristics associated with cyberpunk, Collins eyebrow-raisingly includes “technophilia”; but later in the article comes round to the more sensible “Cyberpunk, therefore, has an arguably ambiguous relationship to technology”. Mondo 2000 is described as “the original cyberpunk fanzine”, and Cheap Truth isn’t mentioned. Etc etc.

Some of the points made are actually more general than they need to be, to the point of banality. In describing shared influences on cyberpunk and industrial — focusing on “Dada, William S Burroughs and the punk movement” — Collins ends up pointing out that “Cyberpunk fiction similarly incorporates many references to popular culture”, and perhaps even better in terms of failing to establish a unique relationship, that both forms are “rife with neologisms”. This is despite the fact that the shared influences seem undeniable, based on the numerous specific examples from both cyberpunks and industrial artists that Collins is able to provide.

The section on “recurrent dystopian themes” is a bit more wobbly, I think, in part because Collins starts with this list of “themes fundamental to dystopia”:

Although these themes are not necessarily in every dystopia, at least one will always be present. The primary themes of a dystopia can be summarised as; the socio-economic system of the West will lead to an apocalypse. The apocalypse will lead to, or be caused by, a totalitarian elite controlling the masses through technology, which brings about a need for a resistance, usually led by an outsider-hero.

Personally, I’d have thought canonical cyberpunk texts fit this schema somewhat less well than the mainstream of dystopias — although they do fit, sure, particularly if you allow, as Collins does, that “in cyberpunk, the apocalypse is often a metaphoric one”. Collins also has less evidence on the industrial side, here, able to establish the anti-capitalist bona fides of the genre pretty easily, but not doing so well on the other points.

More interesting is the discussion of “unconventional sound-making devices” — that is, bits of discarded technology — used in industrial music, although a consideration of the use of robot voices seems like a sidetrack; it makes for an interesting contrast with the version of HipHop described in “Feenin“, but robots don’t seem to me a core concern of cyberpunk.

Lastly, and most entertainingly, Collins identifies a similar mood of “anguish, darkness and the future”, on the basis of lists of keywords, although it’s not clear whether the cyberpunk list is based on a spectrum of reader responses, or just the one guy:

Cavallaro links cyberpunk and gothic horror with a series of keyword similarities relating to the moods evoked by the narratives: decay, decomposition, disorder, helplessness, horror, irresolution, madness, paranoia, persecution, secrecy, unease and terror. [8] Similarly, my study of connotations of industrial music, using free-inductive methods of listener response tests on a selection of industrial recordings, found that the most common responses were sad, dark, anxious, futuristic, death, urban, violent, and anguish.

That footnote, incidentally: “Cyberpunk and industrial could also be argued to sometimes have an underlying humour that helps to lighten this mood.” Which, yes, that’s probably a good thing. And although Collins never quite says this explicitly, although each of these correspondences on its own is rather loose, all of them together do make the case that “these artists are branches on the same tree” fairly convincing.

Reading List: Bridging the Gaps: Science Fiction and Nanotechnology

Right, forget about the other article on sf and nanotechnology, and just read this one instead. It is a really good, solid piece of work. Its claims are precise, modest, well-argued and interesting. It does end up with some fairly jargon-heavy sentences — “The synchronic dimension of the chronotope is traversed by a diachronic or historical vector” — but by the time you hit them, Lopez has explained all the terms; and he only introduces specialised words that he actually needs.

His argument is a more limited, specific but clearly consequential version of that advanced in the Milburn piece: that the discourse about nanotech (or what he calls NST, “nanoscience and technology”) makes use of narrative techniques characteristic of science fiction in a way that damagingly restricts discussion of the field. Crucially, he notes that he is not questioning the credentials of nanotech researchers, nor the status of the field as a whole; and also that the strategies he is discussing are not specific to nanotech. He develops his argument through close reading of two texts — one from the margins of the field, one from its centre.

Briefly, Lopez suggests that writing about nanotech characteristically makes use of two of the strategies sf uses to construct a world, namely the intrusion of a novum, and the development of a future history. The “chronotope” mentioned above is the “literary space-time” constructed by a speculative narrative; and the chronotope of writing about nanotech is a reframing of the history of technology as having “the attempt to manipulate atoms, initially clumsily but increasingly with more precision” as its central issue. The novum in his first example, Drexler’s Engines of Creation, is the development of a molecular assembler; he explores how Drexler’s text creates a history that treats this development as inevitable, and then extrapolates from it. In his second example, a report from a 2001 American conference sponsored by the National Science Foundation and Department of Commerce, the novum is, slightly more subtly, “the integration and synergy of the four technologies (nano-bio-info-cogno) [that] originate from the nanoscale”. One of the successes of the article is its illustration that, actually, the rhetoric in this report — which predicts, for instance, that intelligent machines will eradicate possibility, and that nanotech will enable direct brain-to-brain communication that will allow a “more efficient social structure for reaching human goals” — is not significantly less heated than Drexler’s. The difference, perhaps, is that Drexler writes of a device-novum intruding into the real world, while the report describes a theoretical-understanding-novum intruding into the scientific world, so its predictions are less foregrounded.

This approach to writing about nanotech is problematic:

SF literature typically incorporates a historical account, or future history, that explains how the fictional world has come about. It normally contains the period before, during, and after the novum. If the narrated world is to be credible, the relationship between the three periods must be one of inevitability. This sense of historical necessity is also reproduced, as I have shown above, when the novum structures NST discourse. […] if the inevitability of these processes are accepted, then there is logically and discursively a rather limited role for ethical reflection or analysis of social implications.
[…]
The extrapolative structure of the novum erases the contingencies inherent in technoscientific development by projecting it along a linear developmental path that will most certainly be frustrated. […] This becomes particularly problematic when these developmental paths are invested, as they are within a technological determinist logic made possible by the novum, with the ability to resolve all manner of social, cultural, and political problems. Potential non-technological solutions become marginalized and are not pursued.

Essentially, writing about nanotech that treats it as a novum and models its likely effects on the world by its very nature simplifies and flattens the world: or, put another way, the world is not a single-novum story. Lopez then takes time out in his conclusion to emphasise that “the existence of SF narrative elements in NST discourse does not make the latter a work of literary SF”, and that actually because it is literary speculation — because it is imaginative play — “ironically, literary SF succeeds where NST discourse fails”. Sf can, Lopez argues, use a single-novum distortion to comment on precisely the ethical and cultural problems that nanotech writing attempts to obscure, because “whereas in SF the extrapolated future is a stepping-stone for critical reflection, in NST discourse the extrapolated future is the endpoint of the reflection”.

Ironically, it’s only in this defense of science fiction that Lopez manages to make me want to argue with him, and perhaps even then argue is too strong a term. I’d suggest, though, that one of the most significant trends in the sf of the last couple of decades is that single-novum works have fallen out of fashion, in part because, just as Lopez says of nanotech writing, they often seem to simplify and deform the world. (John Clute’s critique of some of Adam Roberts’ novels, for instance, takes this sort of line.) Instead, paradigmatically in the novels of Ian McDonald, we get (and encourage) futures where many novums collide, which purport to be more “realistic” extrapolations from the world as it is; or we get the William Gibsons of the world telling us that this is precisely why sf has become impossible, that all we have is the spinning of the given moment’s scenarios.

One last interesting point: Lopez suggests that one flaw in nanotech writing is that “totalizing utopian vision … invites similarly generated counter-visions”: that is, you can get a dystopia from the same novum, following the same logic, but changing some of the assumptions going into the model; and in so doing, you can open up a discourse space for the sort of ethical-cultural questions that the conventional nanotech narrative blocks. This makes me think of extrapolation to peak oil, or ecotastrophe, or some other catastrophic point, as a solution to Gibson’s bind: take those single novums far enough, and you clear a space to start doing sf again.

Reading List: Space Oddities: Aliens, Futurism and Meaning in Popular Music

I get the feeling I should have read this one first. Academic Ken McLeod (so noted to distinguish him from Author Ken MacLeod, unless the latter has taken to Banks-style additional letter obfuscation to keep separate his literary and scholarly careers) provides a basically chronological overview of “space, alien and technofuturistic themes” — science fictionality, basically — in popular music between the start of the space age and the turn of the century. As such, it’s not hugely revelatory, but it ranges widely and lays out a framework within which some of the other articles I’ve already discussed can be understood. For example:

Music is heavily involved in both the creation and literal colonisation of space — music creates an embodied but imaginary space that mediates our internal space (feelings, desires, dreams) with external space (the physical, the experienced) […] Thus music, in general, connects listeners to fantasy, pleasure, and an ever-elusive future.

While I might take issue with that “literal”, this is clearly the sort of understanding of music that underlies approaching it as a site for posthumanism. McLeod talks usefully about what you might call sonic nation-states, affinity groups supported by a musical genre, which is relevant to black music in America; about a political understanding of raves as seeking an “idealised raceless, classless and genderless plurality” on the dance floor; and about sampling as “aural time travel”. He also draws a distinction between the use of technology in hip-hop and its use in prog-rock, with the latter allegedly emphasizing “the desire to master, to dominate and to, in effect, colonise new and uncharted realms of technology and musical experimentation”. Perhaps that one is stretching a point.

McLeod also makes the point that so frustrated me in my reading of “Mozart in Mirrorshades“, that technology can be considered as natural:

For example, the use of technology, alien and futuristic imagery in various forms of African-American music seems, on first appearance, antithetical to the commonly held view of ‘authentic’ black music as natural, funky, or soulful. However, such images can also be interpreted as merely the result of human interaction with their environment.

Some of what Weheliye says also approaches this conclusion, but it’s never stated quite so clearly. At the same time, Lysloff offers a useful corrective to some of McLeod’s assumptions, when the latter writes that “the use of digital sounds and samples creates a synthesised global melange in which race, class, gender and ethnicity melt away”.

In general there’s less to argue here simply because there’s less argument. I did wonder at the assertion that —

As rock became a global phenomenon of the information cyberspace-age, space and alien themes were more prevalent than ever in the 1990s and into the new millennium — particularly in the realms of alternative rock and electronica/techno dance music.

— since McLeod goes from discussing Davie Bowie, George Clinton and Pink Floyd to offering as examples “Shonen Knife, Spacehog, Gwar, Star Kicker and I Mother Earth”, who aren’t really on the same level of influence. I wondered whether this narrative of increasing prevalence (increasing science-fictionality) was really accurate, when it comes to music. I suppose the evidence in favour is that we have Muse now.

Reading List: Feenin: Posthuman Voices in Contemporary Black Popular Music

There’s a lot of interesting material in here, with an admirable purpose. Taking as a starting point a history of posthumanism by N Katherine Hayles, Alexander Weheliye sets out to address what he identifies as a lack of attention to racial construction and formation, by arguing that contemporary R&B is “a pivotal space for the coarticulation of black subjectivity and information technologies”. Or, as he also puts it, “to realign the hegemony of visual media in academic considerations of virtuality by shifting emphasis to the aural”. There’s nothing like a good hegemony-realignment.

As in virtually all the other articles I’ve been reading, there are some eyebrow-raising moments. For example:

Even when giving examples of paradigmatic posthumans, Hayles falls back on white masculinist constructions by citing the Six Million Dollar Man and Robocop […] It seems that one has to be always already “free from the will of others” (or think that one is) in order to mutate into the fusion of heterogeneous agents comprising the posthuman state of being.

The first part is surely a fair criticism; but suggesting that the creation of Robocop is an example of posthuman creation centered on being free from the will of others seems a bit odd. Similarly, at times Weheliye seemed to me to cross over the line from arguing that the use of information technology in contemporary R&B has a unique meaning to arguing that the use of information technology in contemporary R&B is unique. Given that much of his article explores the use of more-or-less mechanized voices, at times you start wondering how such use differs — in terms of constructing a virtual self — from, I don’t know, “Fitter Happier” (or “Karma Police”, or indeed quite a bit of Radiohead), or work by other not noticeably black American artists.

Still, there are probably less such eyebrow-raises than average, and in broad terms Weheliye is quite convincing. The first half of the article establishes that “human has had a very different meaning in black culture and politics than it has enjoyed in mainstream America”, having to do with the disqualification of blackness from the category of human for so long; and further establishes that this understanding of human is not well-integrated into posthuman theory (at least in 2002). The second half of the article has the more challenging task, in that it has to establish that “incorporating other informational media … counteracts the marginalization of race” in posthuman theory, and further that “sound technologies” are in this sense a meaningful informational media.

Whether or not you ultimately buy all this, I think, depends on whether you accept the construction of “posthuman” in the article. Weheliye is good on his contention that “black popular musical genres make their own virtuality central” by, for instance, foregrounding the role of producers, and employing the aforementioned voice-alteration effects. (He also manages to write about popular music without sounding like he’s trying too hard.) “Feenin” is brought in as a term for a sort of industrial mechanisation of desire, the implication being this is a central affect of contemporary R&B, which also seems like a solid point.

Here’s the conclusion, though:

Eshun provides a singular account of nonhumanist black popular music as it explosively interferes with sound technologies, but in doing so he fails to take in the ramifications of these discourses in genres that do not explicitly announce themselves as Afrofuturist, such as R&B. Hayles’s conclusions seem indicative of numerous studies of virtuality and/or cyberspace, where race is heard in a minor key, and computer-mediated communication is the sole melody of the song we know all too well: the virtual. I hope I have shown that any theory of posthumanism would benefit from making race central to its trajectory, not ancillary, as well as venturing beyond purely visual notions of subjectivity.

As in Colin Milburn’s article, I find myself struggling with this understanding of “posthuman” — a word whose meaning is largely taken for granted in both pieces. Specifically: in what way is it meaningful to consider the sort of audio virtuality discussed in Weheliye’s article as evidence of posthumanity?

Consulting Wikipedia, I see that there is more than one definition of posthuman in use, which clears things up somewhat. The first definition given is that “the posthuman is a speculative being that represents or seeks to enact a re-writing of what is generally conceived of as human”. That’s the understanding in this essay, with the “general conception” of human being specifically identified as the Enlightenment conception from which black people were excluded: the use of virtuality in contemporary R&B challenges this conception, and therefore is posthuman. My reservation, then, is that what Weheliye is outlining is itself a virtual re-writing: it has no transformative effect on the experience of an actual human in the way that becoming Robocop does, or being uploaded into cyberspace does. Perhaps that’s not necessary for the academic/theoretical understanding of posthumanism under discussion here; but this is part of the reading list for a class on science fiction criticism, and within science fiction such an understanding of posthumanism strikes me as pretty marginal.

Reading List: Machineries of Joy

Subtitled “I Have Seen the Future and It Is Squiggly”, and available for you to read online here. This is rather fun; a self-consciously “outsider” take on “a form of music created at the end of the 20th century by Northern Europeans”, which scrupulously locates said music’s characteristics in the local environment and culture:

The geography and climate in Northern Europe (see Fig. 2) has historically necessitated the development of unusual personal mental stamina and perseverance — qualities evolved no doubt in order to survive the harsh months in the isolated villages and hamlets in that region. The long and dark winters favored a people who could look inward for months at a time and not go crazy. It would also favor intense social cooperation — rules and sets of elaborate prescribed behaviors — all designed to maintain the delicate social balance during those long difficult months. In addition, the inhabitants became accustomed to a monotonous diet and sporadic social contact. Naturally, all of this led to the evolution of a rather extreme but focused frame of mind.

Rather brilliantly, this is kept up right to the very last line of the piece, and even then all that is allowed is that it may be taken as “semiserious”, so that you’re forced to consider which bits of it you do take seriously. The actual argument of the piece is that a subgenre of electronic music labelled “blip hop” is “meant to be perceived as humorous and ironic”, and that its “imitation of machine processes and languages” are meant not to be taken at face value. To this end, three supposed characteristics of blip hop are offered: attraction to non-natural sounds, preponderance of “herky-jerky” rhythms, and an attraction to “structures and effects only possible through the use of the computer”.

Encountering this as an sf reader, it reads like nothing so much as a send-up of an introduction to the sort of territory-defining anthology so beloved in the genre: think of the Kessel/Kelly slipstream, post-cyberpunk and “secret history of sf” books, plus the two volumes of Interfictions and the VanderMeer steampunk and new weird books. So it’s somehow not a huge surprise to discover that it appeared first as the liner notes to “The Only Blip Hop Record You Will Ever Need, Vol 1“; both album and text being orchestrated by David Byrne, about whom I really know very little other than that he was in Talking Heads. Although blip hop exists in the urban dictionary, most of the google hits for the term feed back to the album in one way or another (complete with the sorts of reviews that those sorts of sf anthologies tend to receive, debating what exactly blip hop is and why it’s not what the work under review says it is), so I’m left none the wiser as to whether it’s something Byrne created out of whole cloth, or simply promoted. And I’m not actually unhappy about that.

Reading List: Nanotechnology in the Age of Posthuman Engineering

Oof. Much like “Train Tracks”, this strikes me as an article that carries on for far longer than its insight warrants, and that in the process “develops” its arguments to some quite impressively dumb conclusions.

The first part of “Nanotechnology in the Age of Posthuman Engineering: Science Fiction as Science” [pdf], which provides an overview of what nanotechnology is and how it presents itself to the world, is good, usefully highlighting how inflated the rhetoric of the field can be:

Scientific journal articles reporting experimental achievements in nanotech, or reviewing the field, frequently speak of the technical advances still required for “the full potential of nanotechnology to be realized”, of steps needed towards fulfilling the “dream of creating useful machines the size of a virus”, of efforts that, if they “pan out … could help researchers make everything from tiny pumps that release lifesaving drugs when needed to futuristic materials that heal themselves when damaged”. These texts – representative of the genre of popular and professional writing about nanotech that I will call “nanowriting” – incorporate individual experiments and accomplishments in nanoscience into a teleological narrative of “the evolution of nanotechnology”, a progressivist account of a scientific field in which the climax, the “full potential”, the “dream” of a nanotechnology capable of transforming garbage into gourmet meals and sending invisible surgeons through the bloodstream, is envisioned as already inevitable.

The problems begin when Milburn starts to dig into the fact that “many critics have claimed that nanotechnology is less a science and more a science fiction”. To be clear, I don’t actually doubt that this is the case. But here’s how Milburn characterises the words of one such critic:

Gary Stix, staff writer for Scientific American and a persistent critic of nanotech … maintains that nanowriting, a “subgenre of science fiction”, damages the legitimacy of nanoscience in the public eye, and that “[d]istinguishing between what’s real and what’s not” is essential for nanotech’s prosperity.

Here’s what Stix actually wrote:

Less directly, Drexler’s work may actually draw people into science. His imaginings have inspired a rich vein of science-fiction literature [see “Shamans of Small,” by Graham P. Collins, on page 86]. As a subgenre of science fiction-rather than a literal prediction of the future-books about Drexlerian nanotechnology may serve the same function as Star Trek does in stimulating a teenager’s interest in space, a passion that sometimes leads to a career in aeronautics or astrophysics.

The thrust of Stix’s piece is indeed what Milburn says it is – an argument that the improbable rhetoric around nanotechnology obscures the reality of the field – but at this point, Stix is not asserting that nanowriting is a subgenre of science fiction, as Milburn suggests, but rather that when nanowriting filters into science fiction it may serve the same inspirational function as other sfnal transformations of real science. For an argument centrally concerned with the distinction between speculative fiction and speculative science, that seems quite important, and for an article that often turns on paraphrase or interpretation of key texts, a little worrying. Here’s how he summarizes the relationship:

Succinctly, science fiction assumes an element of transgression from contemporary scientific thought that in itself brings about the transformation of the world. It follows that nanowriting, in positing the world turned upside down by the future advent of fully functional nanomachines, thereby falls into the domain of science fiction.

No, it doesn’t. There is a clear relationship between the two things. There are depictions of nanotechnology in science fiction, and science-fictional claims by nanotechnologists. But these two things are not the same, not in source or form or intent or effect. At the very least, if you’re going to argue otherwise, you have to show that they are the same by comparing examples of each, and while Milburn dissects several articles about nanotechnology at no point does he perform a similar dissection on a science-fiction text. (Although it’s noticeable that he doesn’t tackle actual nanotechnology research articles, but rather general commentary on the field and its potential, which for the most part is held to stand for the whole; when he does mention “celebrated experimental results”, they are presented “in no particular order”, rather than the logical, chronological order, which rather demonstrates Milburn’s lack of interest in the non-fictional side of nanotechnology.) Absent such analysis, no amount of assertion or appeal to Baudrillard will make nanotechnology “simultaneously a science and a science fiction”, such that “only a more sutured concept – something like ‘science (fiction)’ – adequately represents the technoscape”. (At this point my print-out of the article has “Oh, come on!” written in the margin.)

This is not to say the article is without good bits, although at times it’s hard to shake the feeling that Milburn is just on a mission to add “nano” to as many words as possible — nanotech, nanomachine, nanowriting, nanorhetoric, nanofuture, nanoscientists, nanological, nanosystems, nanofanciful, nanonarratives, and so forth. The analysis of the rhetorics of nanotechnology is interesting, such as the observation that so many of the “dreams” it promotes are drawn from golden age sf. There’s an intriguing, if not nearly as definitive as Milburn seems to think, suggestion that Richard Feynman’s 1959 talk, “There’s Plenty of Room at the Bottom”, owes a debt to Heinlein’s 1942 story “Waldo”, and an exploration of the ways in which Feynman’s talk is a much woollier affair than it is often presented as. And there’s a useful presentation and critique of the strategies nanotechnology advocates use to distinguish between their theorising and science fiction.

But much of the article is undermined by that failure to distinguish between the presentation of nanotechnology and the practice, or indeed just between informed and uninformed speculation. Here is the issue in microcosm, perhaps: Milburn writes that “despite many determined critics, nanotech managed to secure its professional future by combining fantastic speculation with concerted attacks on science fiction”, completely missing the point that the attacks are on claims that nanotechnology is sf, not on sf as a thing in itself. This leads to Milburn arguing for equivalence between a golden age sf story that imagines an application that could be achieved through nanotechnology – miniature surgery, for instance – and a contemporary nanotechnological speculation, and further that this equivalence “destabilizes” the division between theoretical science and science fiction. I would suggest that the relationship between the fiction and the science in the two cases is different, and that the division remains clear.

The final section of the article, having established to its satisfaction that nanotechnology is science fiction, takes a bit of a left turn into discussion of what our inevitable nanotechnological future will look like, summed up as follows:

As these scenarios suggest, nanotechnology has unprecedented effects on the way we are able to conceptualize our bodies, our biologies, our subjectivities, our technologies, and the world we share with other organisms. Whether positing the liberation of human potential or the total annihilation of organic life on this planet, nanologic demands that we think outside the realms of the human and humanism. Nanologic makes our bodies cyborg and redefines our material experiences, redraws our conceptual borders, and reimagines our future.

Stirring stuff! Although you start to wonder at that present tense, given that Milburn seemed to be arguing that nanotechnology remains science fiction, i.e. not yet real. And then you hit:

Accordingly, even before the full potential of a working nanotechnology has been realized, we have already become posthuman.

Oh dear. There’s not really any way to walk that back, is there? Unless … yes, I’ve got it! This article, which draws on science fictional imagery and techniques in its distortion of reality, is itself science fiction! I’m a genius.

(Some days, postmodernism makes me feel very tired.)

Reading List: Train Tracks: How the Railroad Rerouted Our Ears

Well, so much for schedules. I’ve been getting through the reading OK, but writing time has been scarce. Today the catch-up begins, and first up is Michael Jarrett’s 2001 article “Train Tracks: How the Railroad Rerouted Our Ears”. He proudly notes that it’s an expansion of an article that first appeared in the Tower Records in-house magazine Pulse, and that it is thus “a hybrid form of writing — a theoretically informed feature or popularized theory”, and while it’s true that it’s fairly digestible, I’m afraid bits like this —

Rather than speak of what I already know about railroads, I plan to interrogate, in this case, the sound of railroads as a possible site of my own sonic knowledge. Or to adapt a phrase coined by music critic Kodwo Eshun, I want to listen to the levels of science that inhere in railroads (1999, p. 70). What do trains already know about me, about my biases and prejudices regarding sound? How do I hear because of trains? Or more generally, How did trains train or even create modern ears? People, get ready; here are a few speculations.

— remind me of nothing so much as the proverbial Dad dancing at a disco. It also has nothing explicitly to do with sf, although Jarrett does frame his description of the perceptual shift introduced by trains as that most familiar sfnal operation, “literaliz[ing] the railroad-as-musical-instrument metaphor”. It’s easy enough to brainstorm a list of significant fantastic works that feature literal trains, and you might speculate as to whether the presence of the train shapes reader or character behaviour in the ways Jarrett talks about here. Mind you, whether such works have anything in common beyond that motif is another question: China Mieville’s Iron Council, Lucius Shepard’s “Over Yonder”, Ian McDonald’s Desolation Road, Geoff Ryman’s 253, Patrick Tilley’s Amtrak Wars books and One Hundred Years of Solitude, for instance, are a pretty diverse bunch.

There’s also a slight overlap with Lysloff’s article; when Jarrett notes that “The railway brought noise — the sound of machinery — into rural and wilderness environments”, and that “What counts as music is all a matter of framing”, there are echoes of Lysloff’s concern with “natural” and “artificial” sounds. And if Jarrett was only making the small claim that “The railroad’s noise — its surfeit of stimuli — demanded that traveler’s adapt new modes of perception”, there wouldn’t be much to argue with in his article; it’s a rather obvious point that new types of experience promote new types of engagement. Where he falls down a bit is in trying to extend that argument. Without trains, he asks,

Would we have rock ‘n roll? Not likely, answers Albert Murray in his novel Train Whistle Guitar. His protagonist bluesman, Luzana Cholly, played guitar like “an engineer telling tall tales on a train whistle, his left hand doing most of the talking including the laughing and signifying as well as the moaning and crying and even the whining, while his right hand thumped the wheels going somewhere” (1974, p.8).

For starters, offering a novel as an answer to a sociohistorical question in this way is a pretty dodgy move, but more importantly, it’s not even a good start to an answer: the fact that one novel compares a guitar player to a train engineer in no way indicates an essential connection between train engineers and guitar players. He goes on to cite Houston Baker writing, in 1984, that “The dominant blues syntagm in America is an instrumental imitation of train-wheels-over-track-junctures“, which is a bit more useful, but a lengthier quote from Baker in which he ruminates that “Only a trained voice can sing the blues” seems almost parodic. (Jarrett’s comment that “groove is a way to declare that, while human beings always possessed the body part, asses were built by the railroad” surely is parody, but by that point I couldn’t really tell.)

There are useful, or at least interesting, or at least entertaining, observations scattered throughout the piece, and some of them do engage in the sort of riffing I’m digging at above; but the best bits of the article are the less flighty:

A number of scholars have explored how the railway prompted or, at least, reinforced distinctly modern ways of seeing (Schivelbusch, 1977; Stilgoe, 1983; Kirby, 1997). In brief, they note that all 19th-century railroad passengers, accustomed to pre-industrial modes of transportation, seemed to agree on one matter: “travelling becomes dull in exact proportion to its rapidity” (Schivelbusch, 1977, p. 58). Put even more analytically, the velocity that atomized and automated objects — making them dart or roll past train windows — mechanized and diminished perception. […]

The visual challenge of high velocity rail travel prompted a choice, actually two possible methods of coping with the new technology. Passengers could develop modes of perception adequate to the new form of transportation, or finding prolonged window-gazing exhausting, they could direction their attention inward.

Again, however, at least to my mind, Jarrett undermines his piece by making larger claims than his evidence warrants:

Upon the ears of its passengers, trains imposed new ways of hearing analogous to panoramic perception. In place of the focused, engaged listening espoused by partisans of the symphony and institutionalized by concert halls, the railroad’s incessant refrain prompted “deconcentration” or “dispersal of attention” (Schivelbusch, 1977, p. 69). Ears conditioned by the sound of trains are neither attentive nor inattentive. […] Encased in a womb of steel, a sonorous envelope, the chronically distracted rail passenger bathes in patterned noise: adrift, blissed-out, “enraptured with the inescapable” (1941, p. 27). This is, in fact, the mood habitually summoned by electronic ambient and dance musics.

That there is a line to be drawn between immersion in a technological environment and electronic music of various kinds I have no problem with; as Jarrett notes, there is a comparison to be made between listening to music for structure or texture/timbre. That trains are, as Jarrett seems to suggest at times, at one end of this line, rather than a point on it, seems rather more tenuous. It’s hard to believe, for instance, that the mill or factory worker whose ears were conditioned by their environment were not, in a comparable way, chronically distracted, that the railroad was truly the first instantiation of “the technological sublime” shaping music.

Reading List: “Science Fiction and This Moment”

For someone used to spending most of their time reviewing, dealing with specific texts, rather than thinking about sf in general, there’s a small shock to be gained from the abstractness of the thought in the opening chapter of The Seven Beauties of Science Fiction. Some words are impressed on the brain by their repetition: technoscience, critical, utopian, play, which define Csicsery-Ronay Jr’s angle of attack. I note this sentence, from the section justifying the book’s subject as being worthy of study:

Since the late 1960s, when it became the chosen vehicle for both technocratic and critical utopian writing, sf has experienced a steady growth in popularity, critical interest and theoretical sophistication. (4)

And a parallel one slightly later, from the section about the giants on whose shoulders Csicsery-Ronay stands:

Darko Suvin, Fredric Jameson, Peter Fitting, Marc Angenot, and Carl Freedman, among others have established a major body of Marxist sf criticism connecting sf with ideology-critique and utopian theory. (9)

He goes on to list other notables in other traditions of sf criticism (postmodern, feminist, queer, structuralist, and so on), but it’s surely significant that this one comes first. Not that there’s anything wrong with it, of course.

I don’t want to say too much about the Beauties themselves, because hopefully I’ll get to post about each of them in turn, and the brief summaries of them here are necessarily partial, even with, or because of, the gloss that these are “beauties of a mind incapable of making itself up” (8). But in case I don’t, it’s worth saying that my first impression of them, at least, is that they make up an extended phenotype for sf that I recognise. The least convincing is “The Technologiade”, Csicsery-Ronay’s attempt to describe narrative shapes that sf stories take, because sf wriggles around too much to be so pinned. The others are all hard to argue with as vital characteristics of sf: neology and novums are straightforward; the description of sf as a “future-oriented” genre that creates “micromyths of historical process” (6) rings true; the suggestion that science is always transformed by sf for “cultural myth and aesthetic play” (6) is worth thinking about (and comparing and contrasting with Eric Van’s proposed taxonomy of science in sf); and if the technologic sublime is obvious, the technologic grotesque (sensahorror, if you will) is its insufficiently discussed counterpoint.

What this chapter covers, though, is the foundation on which this approach to sf is all built: an argument about the way the world is today, specifically that “the world has grown into sf” (1). This is the familiar argument that stuff that used to be sf has become the stuff of everyday life. (For another riff on this, see here.) In turn — as a response — this has lead, Csicsery-Ronay argues, to the mainstreaming of sf entertainment; and “This widespread normalization of what is essentially a style of estrangement and dislocation has stimulated the development of science-fictional habits of mind” (2) as when Csicsery-Ronay suggests that sf is culture’s “primary source” of neology, and that its use of novums engages our awareness of novums in the real world. These habits of mind are a way of dealing with unexpected technologically-related intrusions into our “normal” lives; or, in the book’s terms:

So it is that, encountering problems issuing from the social implications of science, and viewing dramatic technohistorical scenes in real life, we displace them into a virtual imaginary space, an alternate present or future that we can reflect on, where we can test our delight, anxiety or grief, or simply play, without having to renounce our momentary sense of identity, social place, and the world. (5)

This process is driven, the argument goes, by two “linked forms of hesitation”, the distance between what is conceivable and what is possible, and the distance between what is possible and what is moral.

The questions here, I guess, are: is this an accurate description of how we react to certain aspects of life; are those aspects of life distinct to the present historical moment as compared to other historical moments; and is science fiction an expression of this behaviour and a vehicle that encourages it? (I don’t think it can be one and not the other.) My answers are yes (but it would have to be, since I am indelibly shaped by umpteen years of reading sf); don’t know; and “I’m willing to buy that for the sake of argument”.

How much hangs on that “don’t know”? Not too much, I think. If what Csicsery-Ronay is arguing about our moment is accurate (and I think it’s certainly one way of looking at the situation, although he does threaten to head off into a dead end when he starts talking about how the advent of information culture has replaced existing standards with “an as yet inchoate worldview of artificial immanence” [4]), for the macro-scale success or failure of his book it’s not hugely important whether or not it’s generalisable or unique.

That is to say, here —

In this book, I shall approach sf on the one hand as a product of the convergence of socio-historical forces that has led to the current global hegemony of technoscience, and consequently as an institution of ideological expression; on the other, as a ludic framework, a wide-ranging culture of game and play in which that hegemony is entertained, absorbed, and resisted. (10)

— I’m more interested in the latter than the former; the understanding of sf as “a wide ranging culture of game and play” does not seem to me to be dependent on a particular socio-historical understanding.

The chapter ends with a couple of notes on method, or, if you like, laments for what could not be included. Csicsery-Ronay repeats that “a study of science-fictionality should not restrict itself to one medium only”, but notes that his bias in this book is for the literary form; and, a little more frustratingly, he notes that he has gathered “the usual suspects” in terms of “texts, styles, artists and themes”. This choice, he argues, is to avoid obscurity, that it’s better to test new arguments on works people are familiar with, and there’s something to that, even if it reinforces existing imbalances. But at the same time, he raises a tantalizing prospect:

Other national traditions of scientific fantasy have existed parallel to the Anglo-Saxon mainline, and they should be included in an overview of the genre, not as evolutionary exceptions or atavisms, but as legitimate cultural expressions and, indeed, as possible alternate lines along which the genre may develop in the future. However, that must wait for another book. (11)

I’d buy it.

(I realise I’ve failed to reply to comments on several posts, by the way; I’m hoping to get to them over the weekend.)

Reading List: Mozart in Mirrorshades

After a slight schedule adjustment, I’m onto the first of the articles: “Mozart in Mirrorshades: Ethnomusicology, Technology, and the Politics of Representation”, by Rene TA Lysloff.

The first thing to say is that the Sterling/Shiner story is used as a frame, not the article’s central concern. How it’s used is interesting, though:

To summarize the story, Mozart’s life is radically and irrevocably altered with the arrival of rapacious time-traveling technocrats (ostensibly from America’s near future).

The actual viewpoint followed by the story is that of one of the said rapacious time-traveling technocrats, Rice. Mozart is arguably the protagonist — he’s ultimately revealed to be the driver of the story’s climactic events — but it’s surely significant that he’s in the background of the tale, particularly since what Lysloff is primarily concerned with is not the position of the exploited culture, not the Mozarts, but the position of those who exploit, the ethnomusicologists and musicians, the Rices.

To summarize: Lysloff presents an argument for the need for ethnomusicology to take account of technoculture (a word I have a feeling I’ll be encountering a lot over the next few weeks): “social groups and behaviours characterized by creative strategies of technological adaptation, avoidance, subversion or resistance”. Much hay is made out of the use of recording technology, and in particular “the implicit and often contested notions of authenticity and authority related to such technology”; Lysloff is equally critical of “romanticized” attempts to capture authentic versions of “native” (his scare quotes) music by including the whole soundscape, and of the use of samples of such music, either self-consciously or unselfconsciously, that reduces the originators to “unknowing collaborators in an Orientalistic narrative of cultural exoticism”. He insists:

The pleasure of listening to recordings like these is not in cultural advocacy, despite the rhetoric of the Deep Forest project; nor is it to provide the listener with a kind of “authentic” aesthetic experience, as with many New Age music compositions employing world musics and/or natural sounds. Instead, the pleasure of such techno ambient music lies in the technological artifice itself — in “natural” sounds (and music) being made “un-natural” through sequencing in the context of synthesized rhythms and sounds.

It cannot, apparently, be either/or. The suggested resolution is, it seems, sufficiently advanced sampling technology — it’s impressive how much more normalised some of the language in the article has become since it was published in 1997 — which enables the creation of “audio simulacra”.

What the article doesn’t really address, to my mind (although it does feint in this direction early on), is the presumed distinction between “natural” and “artificial” music. I suppose the concept of an audio simulacrum is in part a suggestion that the artificial has become natural, within our technoculture (see, I’m getting the hang of this), but Lysloff doesn’t ever pay much attention to the obvious counter, that the whole distinction is bogus to start with, that all musical instruments are technologies. Of course, this may be the danger in reading one article that is outside my field of interest: it may be that this point is so obvious that it’s assumed before the debate is begun. But I didn’t feel that Lysloff was arguing for the translation of music between two technocultures so much as its importation from outside into a technoculture.

What has all this to do with science fiction? Certainly sf writers are influenced by music, as in the case of, say, Ian McDonald, who sought out Indian and Brazilian music as research for River of Gods and Brasyl, respectively (although wrote the climactic sequence in the former, if I remember rightly, with Godspeed You! Black Emperor on a loop); or as in the case of Tricia Sullivan, who responded to the question about influences in the survey (in part) by noting that she thinks she thinks more like a musician, and draws inspiration and ideas out of music. And those influences are filtered through a technologically-structured perspective. Lysloff suggests the following “lessons” for ethnomusicologists from the Sterling/Shiner story, if Mozart is seen as a trickster figure (he notes he could equally be seen as tragic):

(1) That “native” is not necessarily a naive and passive recipient of media technology; (2) that media technology may be especially empowering for those people with little or no political or economic power; (3) that people may use media technology in radically new and surprising ways, and infuse it with meanings specific to such use; and (4) the social meanings associated with particular technologies often change as these technologies traverse cultural boundaries.

You could, I’d suggest, strike out every instance of the word “media” in that paragraph, and re-read it as a list of issues sf writers should bear in mind.