From our archive: An interview with Saul Williams by Richard Howard

slamSaul Williams is a poet, hip-hop M.C., producer and actor who first came to prominence through his victory at the poetry Grand Slam at the Nuyorican Poets Café in 1996. This event kick-started an acting career for Williams with the lead role in the feature film Slam in 1998, and a music career in which Williams began to blend his poetry with his love of hip-hop. What makes Williams’ work interesting from a science fiction standpoint is the obvious affinity he has with the genre, evident in his lyrics and the soundscapes that he chooses to rhyme over. From the outset, Williams wrote and produced with a speculative bent. In the song ‘Ohm’ from 1998’s Lyricist Lounge compilation, Williams announced ‘I am no Earthling, I drink moonshine on Mars/And mistake meteors for stars ‘cause I can’t hold my liquor/But I can hold my breath and ascend like wind to the black hole/And play galaxaphones on the fire escapes of your soul’. The glimmering production on ‘Ohm’ is no less science fictional, especially as it accelerates at around the three-minute mark.

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Vector #269

This issue of Vector is dedicated, in part, to revisiting the subject of women writers of science fiction. Few female UK-based science fiction authors currently have contracts, but worldwide, there’s a great deal going on, a geographic, cultural, and linguistic diversity which Cheryl Morgan surveys in this issue. I came away from reading it with a massively expanded to-read list, and I hope it inspires you similarly. Tony Keen examines the roles of death and transformation in Justina Robson’s books Natural History (one of the books on last year’s list of the previous decades best science fiction by women) and Living Next Door to the God of Love. In contrast, Niall Harrison examines a very different author, Glasgow-based Julie Bertagna. Her post-apocalyptic trilogy, which begins with Exodus, provides an intriguing comparison with Stephen Baxter’s current series of prehistoric climate change novels which began with Stone Spring.

The second part of Victor Grech’s three-part series on gender in science fiction doesn’t focus on women science fiction authors, but does deal with quite a few of them in the process of discussing the variety of single-gendered world in science fiction. In particular, he examines the in-story reasons, the biological explanations for their existence, and the degrees to which those mechanisms are found in the ecologies of our own world.

Shana Worthen

Out of this World: Last Day / Gift Shop

One of the things that the British Library does fairly well is providing a decent range of things to buy in conjunction with a given major exhibit.  Thanks to Out of this World: Science Fiction but not as You Know It, for the last several months, the British Library has been selling a good range of science fiction novels and criticism; “Destruction of Earth” magnets; War of the Worlds tote bags and posters; and lots of posters of mostly out-of-copyright science fiction illustrations and book covers.

There’s Mike Ashley’s book which accompanies the show, but the same name, and, from the BL venture The Spoken Word, CDs of interviews with modern science fiction authors and H.G. Wells.

There was also, to my surprise, a postcard of the cover art for an early Rondò Veneziano album, an album not otherwise represented anywhere in the show as far as I noticed. Rondò Veneziano was a group I discovered by wandering into a shop in the late ’80s, being struck by the baroque-electronica-rock music playing, and asking what it was.  For years afterward, I would buy their cassettes whenever I ran across them. I ended up with 12-15 albums, but only realized this week, after running across that postcard, that they’d gone on to do around 70 (!) albums in total so far.

The ’80s cover art of Venezia 2000 shows a pair of humanoid robots, dressed up in baroque finery, playing their stringed instruments in a gondola while an entirely unfamiliar, presumably futuristic Venice, overshadows them across the waves. It was absolutely in keeping with the range of old predictive prints and books on display in the exhibit. If you like old future predictions and don’t already know it, you should be reading the blog Paleofuture.

Today is the very last day to catch Out of this World: Science Fiction but not as You Know It at the British Library.  It’s open until 17:00.

Out of this World: Two Days Left / A Signal from Mars

Inamongst all the books in display cases in Out of this World: Science Fiction but Not As You Know It at the British Library were things which which were not books: K-9, a space ship crashing into the wall, works of science fictional art work blown up to a large scale, snippets from movies and documents, and a fairly large number of headphones.

Listening to pieces of music or interviews takes several minutes at a time. It’s a commitment which the majority of visitors to the exhibit didn’t make. And so they missed out how things like a recording of the original Dr. Who theme song; an excerpt from an experimental music/voice album called Return to the Centre of the Earth (1999); and a 1910 recording of John Lacalle’s band playing Raymond Taylor’s tune, “A Signal from Mars”, set next to its sheet music.

If you have the time today or tomorrow to see the exhibit before it closes, you can listen to these yourself. If not, here’s the John Lacalle band playing “A Signal from Mars”; and a modern piano cover of it.

It’s fascinating to think of this as founding science-fictional in its time, and how much our conception of science fictional music has changed since then.

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: 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.