Monthly Archives: November 2015
Three Moments of an Explosion: Stories
Finished the last bit of China Miéville’s new collection, Three Moments of an Explosion: Stories, yesterday afternoon. I think the most succinct way I could explain how I feel is that I’ve been conned, but it was so effective that I don’t mind.
I’ll unpack that a bit – the collection contains 28 pieces in all, which cover several styles of narrative. There are longer, self-contained stories, as well as short pieces that only run a few pages, and little vignettes or breakdowns of imagined film trailers which are shorter still. I say it’s a con because a lot of them read more like self-indulgent exercises, especially the short pieces. Whimsy, which is enjoyable enough to read, but not a whole lot to sink your teeth into.
The longer works are better – Miéville has an estimable rendering of different voices, by which I mean that choice of tone, of language, of which details to gloss or hide are in themselves an effective way of characterising the various narrators. The individual pieces are well researched – there is enough appropriately-placed jargon to make believable that these should be the recollections of a New York psychiatrist, that a bourgeois English Doctor, and these others a sectarian Leftist, and so on and so on. He is also able to make use of an efficient development of feeling – with space constraints tight, the ability to get the reader to feel for the protagonist and their relations within the first page is laudable. Miéville achieves this with an economical rounding of his characters – you get a good sense of who these people are, and are thus able to understand their motivations and their reactions, developing a sympathetic attachment to them. They are believable, and, despite some surreal or fantastical situations, they behave in a human way.
Even the longer works, though, generally leave you hanging. I might be wrong, but I think that this is likely by design. Without assuming too much about intention, I want to say that the lack of a satisfying resolution, the failure to draw back the curtain on the mystery, to offer up the background details of the weird and sometimes horrific circumstances, this is meant to mirror the frustrations of actual life. More often than not, reality fails to provide a satisfying, full explanation for the oddities of life, so why shouldn’t fiction mimic this? It’s challenging, it can be a bit of a let down, and, in less capable hands, would fall flat pretty quick, but when done right does a good job at pushing the form forward.
Miéville’s sociological training comes to the fore in several of the pieces. His interest in systems, in the organisation of communities of people and in the flotsam of dead civilisations is on display throughout. Despite the brevity of each of the sections, this stratigraphic depth, this clutter of hidden lives and times gone by broadens out the feel. Without wasting costly words, one gets a sense of breadth, of something beyond the horizons. As I said in my review for The City & the City, it’s a good job that Miéville keeps the lens tight – the more surrealist and weird pieces, they work because everyone is in on the oddity, or because the fantastical is hidden well enough that it doesn’t overturn most everyone’s lives. This works especially well in short fiction, where you don’t have to account for the knock-on effects in the wider world, quick and dirty, you can cut in and out. The lack of exploration of these ramifications is a large part of my earlier grievance – the stories usually cut out before you get the satisfaction of how this is all meant to work, or what it means on a larger scale. Human, thy condition is disappointment.
So, on the whole, pick it up if you’re a fan of China or of challenging fiction. You won’t find much satisfaction here, not of the mundane variety, but, if you’re looking for something that will tease you, will leave you wanting more, this is a solid bet. There are moments of humour, certainly, and some of the longer reads, whether they be apocalyptic, tragic, or horrific in tone, can leave you feeling a bit troubled – a definite sign of effective writing. I found it clipped along fairly well, despite refusing to render up the fulfillment of easier fiction – the bite-size portions break up the 430+ pages nicely. Good for something before bed or a light commute.
White Supremacy at Western, Cultural Chauvinism at Ottawa: Against Identity Politics and Multiculturalism
Against Identity Politics and Multiculturalism
Over the past week or so, we’ve seen some frankly bizarre things coming out of Canadian Universities. I’m talking, of course, of the rash of “White Student Unions” opening en masse throughout Canada and to a much greater extent in the States, and the banning of a <free> yoga class, for students with disabilities, at the University of Ottawa. The two look dissimilar on the surface, but you don’t have to scratch very hard to see that they’re sourced from the same ugly place.
The student union shenanigans came to my attention by way of my alma mater, the University of Western Ontario – or as it calls itself now, “Western” (West of what, you may ask? It’s a mystery to me, situated as it is in decidedly the East of the country). It didn’t take long before the truth came to light, that this was a semi-elaborate hoax by a number of people via the more vile sections of the Internet. Initially, I didn’t think it worth writing on. With the second situation, though, it became worthwhile to at least highlight their mutual basis.
My initial reaction to news of the White Student Union – similar, I assumed, to the original example coming out of Maryland – was one of disappointment, and a bit of surprise. Don’t get me wrong, Canada is a deeply racist place, and somewhere like Western, with an incredible amount of privilege in stark contrast to the city it dominates (a city that is statistically above the national average, by every metric, when it comes to poverty), breeds a very particular kind of racism. But Canada’s history, and, flowing from that, its race relations are different than the United States’. We don’t have nearly as much organised white supremacy, certainly none so forthright as the KKK or an equivalent. While we certainly have our fare share of racial animus, particularly in the wake of the recent Paris attacks, racists in Canada seem much more secure in their societally-structured superiority than their American cousins. Content to continue their oppression behind the veil of the dominant culture, they are less strident, less vitriolic. So, why, all the sudden, this decidedly American turn? What threat did they feel that drove them out into the light?
Of course, the fact that this whole thing seemed so weird showed it up for what it was – a hoax. My feelings on this are mixed. First, and mostly, I’m glad that it is a hoax, as it’s not especially good to have an organised hate group with free reign on a campus, let alone a society. Make no mistake, White Student Unions are hate groups, and it’s only a fool or provocateur that says otherwise. My second, lesser, reaction is one of regret – while, as I said, it’s not beneficial for these groups to be able to present their misinformation under the assumed imprimatur of a University, it would at least be useful to know who they are, and to have their existence underlined in the eyes of the public. It’s too easy for groups like this to remain in the background, out of sight, and for the rest of society to carry on in ignorance. If this were a legitimate front, at least it couldn’t be ignored, swept away like a bogey-man. At least then Canadian society would be forced to look in the mirror and reckon with its reflection.
Before wrapping up the first issue, I’ll turn to the second. Seemingly on grounds of cultural appropriation, a free yoga class has been cancelled at the University of Ottawa. This has come to light only in the last week or so, as it has been under discussion since September, the start of the semester. The ridiculousness of this has been picked up internationally, it’s so preposterous. It’s been a while since I read anything in-depth on Indian culture or history and I’m hesitant to tread without the requisite research, but as others have pointed out, the appropriation of Yoga in particular is a pretty absurd target for moral outrage. Yoga, as we know it today, was developed specifically for export and cultural miscegenation centuries ago. To turn around now and blame white practitioners for its uptake? It’s this kind of bleeding-heart, shoot-from-the-hip, ill-educated foolishness that deserves mockery of all and sundry.
This calls to mind the recent flare-up at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, where kimonos were provided during a Monet exhibition for visitor photo-ops. People, mostly uni-aged students, protested this as racist appropriation. In a turn of the surreal, a counter-demo was held, mostly comprised of elderly Japanese immigrants, in defence of the kimono use. Hilarity ensued. Once again, the group protesting was incredibly ill-informed on the subject they were inveighing over. Kimonos, much like the practice of Yoga, were and continue to the reserve of the upper echelon of their respective societies. Throughout their history, the vast majority of Japanese people were unlikely to see a kimono in their lives, let alone wear one. All those mystics and swamis that so typify the Orientalist conception of India? A slice of a strata in a horribly oppressive caste system. Find me the suicidally debt-burdened farmer in Uttar Pradesh that opens his day with a salute to the sun, and I’ll let you have your little (mis)appropriation lockout.
To wrap up, I’ll try to show how, while ostensibly distinct, the two originate from the same place. Both of these events, very clearly, come by way of Identity politics. The White Student Union in Maryland was initiated using the same rhetoric and motivations as other sectarian student groups. The difference being, rather glaringly, that the majority of American society is a White Student Union, whereas minority groups to a degree require and benefit from clear delineations of intent and representation. The recent hoax, the mushrooming of fake White Student Unions, served a dual purpose – both to stir up anger and distress within the progressive portion of society, and to disseminate the ideas of white supremacy. The yoga class debacle too comes from Identity politics, which often sees the policing of dialogue, of space, and of conduct to the point of choking all discourse. This, and the kimono case, are just single passages in an incredibly tawdry book. Racism needs to be opposed, and past wrongs redressed, but to do this by way of cultural chauvinism or dilettantish victim pageantry is a gross misstep.
Identity politics, whether employed by white racists or misguided social justice warriors, even multiculturalism itself, they are products of divisive, obscurantist ideology. Writing in the wake of Zizek’s racist remarks on the Euro migrant crisis, Sam Kriss sums up the failings of multiculturalism:
“Multiculturalism is a profoundly antihumanist discourse: its basic unit is not the distinct and individual subject but the distinct and individual culture. And while there’s a case to be made for antihumanism…any discourse that takes culture rather than class (or even race, sexuality, or any of the other axes of oppression) as its basic unit strays into murky, fascoid territory.”
As Kriss says, multiculturalism flattens out the terrain of relations. Abstracting from the realities, the complex, contradictory, nuanced facts that make up individuals, multiculturalism instead looks at people, every person, as no more than a token carrier of their larger culture, itself divined by some mystical, spurious process. It should be little wonder that Canada is split into so many little enclaves, gated communities and self-imposed ghettos following this dogma. Merkel was right – the experiment of multiculturalism has utterly failed. She was wrong about the reasons, though. It was always doomed to failure.
Adolph Reed Jr. goes further than Kriss, arguing against any of the alternate options provided above. Reed has expounded on this multiple times, arguing that Identity politics is nothing more than Neoliberalism. Picking out the hypocrises involved in the acceptance of Caitlyn Jenner and the castigation of Rachel Dolezal, Reed writes
“…race politics is not an alternative to class politics; it is a class politics, the politics of the left-wing of neoliberalism. It is the expression and active agency of a political order and moral economy in which capitalist market forces are treated as unassailable nature. An integral element of that moral economy is displacement of the critique of the invidious outcomes produced by capitalist class power onto equally naturalized categories of ascriptive identity that sort us into groups supposedly defined by what we essentially are rather than what we do.”
Reed goes on to point out that the society that shifted ever so slightly, where the infamous 1% that own and direct the wealth of our world, when changed to reflect the “racial” and “gender” makeup of the greater body politic, would have to be found just by the arguments of the Identitarians. The obvious error of this underscores the failings of the position, the failure to both aim at the goals they espouse and the failure of the strategy to get them there.
At the end of it all, there are very few things that are fixed in our lives, really fundamentally stable, I mean. So much of what we are – our race, our gender, our culture, to a degree, even our sex – is socially determined. What cuts across all of those, though, is class and the power relations that determine it. All those that live and struggle under the banner of the progressive, we’re nominally on the same side. It’s time we start acting like it. We can’t let stupid, misinformed, impassioned bullshit, puerile Identitarian nonsense, continue to divide us. We have too much to lose.
If you’re actually interested in change, in winning the fight, stop and think for a minute about your tactics. Are they really aimed at victory, or are they just there to carve up your pile of the shit-heap, making you feel good in your safe corner of the midden?
Aesthetics – Fumbling towards a Theory of Art
What does a religion of art, art for art’s sake, what does it actually look like? Can you be a materialist, as I am, and still believe in the primacy of stories? Does a belief, a fervent belief, in the strength of narrative and its ability to interact with the physical world require of us that we become idealists? If one intends to take up a life of art, a creative life, in a thought-through manner, it does seem necessary to come to grips with these questions…I was about to write, as a conciliatory move, that ‘there is nothing wrong with the unexamined artistic life, the raw push to create,’ to preclude any criticisms of elitism or snobbishness. However, truthfully, I don’t think that this is the case. I won’t say that the premeditated art work is superior to the spontaneous, amateur or naïve – that’s demonstrably false. I will stand my ground when it comes to the “continuous work-ing,” though. It is one thing for a discrete article, an isolated piece, to succeed by accident, it is quite another for the tenor of the mind, over the course of a life-work, to be in a continuously uncritical state. To make an art-work because you enjoy the process, that’s fine, but to do it for more systematic reasons than this, to know that it is worthwhile beyond the scope of your immediate gratification, I suppose that that is what I’m driving at.
Grasping at this higher level, if we want to conceptualise it as such, does it carry a raft of metaphysics with it? Can it be developed without having to import any number of unverifiable, mysterious teleologies?
It is a severely impoverished materialism that couldn’t account for these things – while one may allow that the world is made up of only physical things, and that we are no more than crude matter, the arrangement thereof is still of overwhelming importance. Even amongst hard-line materialist theories, this position has been held for the last several centuries of modernity. As our knowledge of our own bodies deepens, it becomes ever more apparent that our interactions – which we have no reason to suspect of the failure to obtain – are filtered. Everything we know points towards an external world that we can interact with, but, we are also fairly certain that the way this experience plays out, our own interpretation of it, that’s internal to us. This then is where the compulsion of aesthetics enters. Aesthetics – whether we have a comprehensive theory of it, a handle on it, or otherwise – is the go-between, mediating our relations with the external world. I underline the lack of need for a full conception because, much like political economy, while aesthetics comes from us, i.e., it is something that we “do,” it nonetheless gets on with its work irrespective of our knowledge of it. Just as the Capitalist is shunted into a particular set of behaviours by the logic of valorising capital, so too are each of our experiences guided by aesthetics. I’m not sure I’m yet comfortable saying that there is a law-like behaviour in play, so the analogy may fall apart there, but it seems illustrative despite this. Of course, I’m not saying that the mediation between us and the external world is aesthetics full-stop. Rather, aesthetics, art – that is how we make sense of the raw material our senses provide us. The patterns we discern, the way we play with qualia, especially the things that we fail to notice or ignore automatically, aesthetics is the way we form and change these interactions.
On these grounds then, that aesthetics should be a set of emergent properties of our own makeup, both determined by and determining our own actions, it seems that a robust materialism should have no issue in allowing of it. Nothing could be more apposite to a materialism than the recognition of complex systems, built up out of small interactions. It’s true that the leap from “hard” science to the “soft” sciences is one that is fraught, but this is not because the social sciences are inherently flawed – more than likely, it is because their subject matter is much harder than that of the hard sciences. It would be a difficult task to tease out internal laws of a subject like aesthetics, for the same reasons that it is difficult to pin down the ramifications of systematic oppression. Complex, not easy to model.
Nor is it really necessary to do so, merely to have support for the belief that there is a mechanism by which artistic things can make a difference. Don’t even need to know that they do. Of course, as is usual with these sorts of things, the common sense approach has already arrived at the answer long before any philosophical examination. Does Art make a difference, you ask the average person. Yes, of course, they answer – it makes me feel things. Does it really need to be taken further than that? Not if we’re looking for the reason for the discrete art-work: reason-in-itself, the creation thereof is enjoyably, external reason, it makes people feel (the reasons for which I have some ideas, but that is another topic). However, if we want something bigger, a reason to dedicate ourselves to the labour of it beyond the instrumentality of enjoyment, then, yes, it does help to have an idea of how and why it does the things we already know that it does. Another brute example, beyond the rather moderate titillation of an artistic experience: the sorry state of the world today, and the majority of known history. You need look no further than religion (it should be noted that I’m not blaming religion for all the ills of the world, mind. It is both a source of them and resultant of other, more abstract, affairs) to see the power of art – the ability to convince people, most people, throughout most of history, that something impossible exists. It’s the answer to the Riddle of Steel, after all.
Without yet having provided a proof for it, I want to argue for the idea that aesthetics is more than just some airy-fairy facile affair. It not only obtains, but it is fundamental to our experience of the world, to our lives. As such, it is as valid a pursuit as something ostensibly more immediate, such as engineering or finance, perhaps even more so than these. Bears more thinking on, certainly.
Reflections on Aurora
I concede, I may have been a bit over-zealous in my recommendation of Robinson’s Aurora in weeks previous. I think I ought to get a pass due to the dazed, sleep-deprived state I was in, though.
I actually first heard about the book via a review over on BoingBoing, one that I didn’t finish reading until I was through the book itself (I noticed it at my library, and picked it up on name recognition). They, BoingBoing, actually hosted a bit of commentary by Robinson, where he details some of the thought processes and research that went into Aurora, further developing on the major theme of the book.
Generally, unlike most places on the ‘net, BoingBoing is pretty good when it comes to their comment threads – people are generally civil and on-topic. It helps that they have a Don’t-Press-Your-Luck Dragon that swallows anyone who strays too far from the acceptable. As of writing this, the thread for Robinson’s article is clocking in at 203 comments. I read through them a couple days back, so I’m not sure exactly where the tenor of the conversation has gone since then. The parts I did see went about as anticipated – plenty of folks coming out to denounce Robinson for being a Luddite and a downer, someone who has fallen into Deep Ecology and won’t pull himself out again. Quite a few of the comments seem to be misreading the gist of the argument completely, focussing on the hard problems of physics which Robinson explicitly says are really the easier set of issues. Not unexpected, as there is a large portion of SciFi fans who are that way inclined, all crunch and no fluff.
Two of the points in particular gave me pause for thought. There were valid criticisms spliced in amongst the hand-wringing – the reliance on bog-standard agriculture when there are other, well-advanced technologies available, especially that this becomes a major issue in the narrative, seemed a bit weird. Also that we’d not apply a skill-set acquired from generations of space-life within the Solar System to interstellar travel – the idea that we’d be coming at this operation with an Earth-centric perspective – seems like a justifiable criticism. Again and again, though, people harped on about how tech was going to save us in every way. They generally accepted that Faster-than-Light travel is not an option, in that, you know, everything we know says it’s impossible, but then proposed folding space as an alternative. While not precluded by our current models, the amount of energy need to do that is literally astronomical. Larger than the amount in the Solar System. So that seems to me to be impracticable. Another response was that we can stick to sub-relativistic speeds, but we’ll just turn ourselves into robots.
I know the sums involved here are so small as to be microscopic, but there is that adage regarding amount of anger as inverse to relative pay-out, so, I’ll stick with venting my frustration. This whole “we’ll upload ourselves to computers and live forever” thing – ain’t gonna happen. Any – honest – person working in cognitive science, that unlikely combination of neuroscience, comp-sci, philosophy and anthro, would tell you straight up that we barely have an understanding of the human mind, let alone any way of replicating it. Sure, we have our models and approximations, we have neuroscience doing a good job at categorising, and fiddling with, the wetware – but an understanding of how it all hangs together? What motivates and energises it? No clue. We’re as far away from that as was Descartes with his pineal gland-theory.
Furthermore, if we haven’t got it by now, with all the wealth we’ve amassed and the relative stability we’ve enjoyed these past 70 years, we’re not going to get it any time soon. Future’s not looking especially conducive to long-term, multi-national research projects. Unless something major changes up, our societies are about to fragment, and we’re all about to be living in a much more austere place. You can already see it playing out – the response to migrants and refugees in the wake of the recent attacks in Paris, the referendum on EU membership here in England set for 2017, the nativist, xenophobic government recently elected in Poland (and not so recently in Hungary). We’ve needed the cooperation of almost every “leading” country to keep the ISS running, and that’s child’s play to something like setting up a colony on Mars, or, more to the point, figuring out how that three-pound block of soap we all carry in our heads actually works. Despite what some Americans would like to tell you, scientific research has always been a multi-national effort. Even during the Cold War, there were cross-bloc exchanges. If this liberal social-order breaks down amidst mutual recrimination and suspicion, you can kiss that goodbye.
Stop trying to make AI happen. It’s not going to happen.
Aside from those considerations, would we even want to call like that, a conscious machine, human? Even if that consciousness was original housed in a meat-suit? Assuming that the thought processes of a person could be replicated by machine – and there are absolutely no reasons to do so, mind – what we define as human goes beyond the mere intelligence or personality. Every society I know of, throughout all of history, has defined humanity in terms of its excellence, its bodily perfection. We are inextricably embodied individuals. We exist in the world embodied, our minds are (as best we can tell) emergent properties of that body – there is no person without the body. Not by definition, not by material fact. So, no, you transhumanist dorks, there’s never going to be a Singularity. Also, for you ‘Effective Altruists’ out there, take off the blinders and cut it out with the self-congratulatory, STEM focussed wank. Stop trying to make AI happen. It’s not going to happen.
Anyways, enough tilting at windmills. I mentioned above that there were two concepts that got under my skin. The second, more an off-hand number than the above, was that Robinson set up the elements of his story to arrive at a pre-determined result, and that this was in someway reprehensible. Already, this is pretty rich, given that, even with the above detailed faults, Aurora is a much more comprehensively “hard” SciFi than the usual fare. But, really, what the hell is that even supposed to mean? Of course the author set the premise up to arrive at a pre-determined result! What the hell else was he supposed to do? What does every author do? How else do you tell a story? What a ridiculous position to take.
Sure, the fiction is meant to be speculative in character – it’s in the name, after all. But the very nature of the work is seeing where things go from pre-set circumstances. A sub-set of that, welcome and acceptable, is seeing what particular spread of circumstances get us to particular results. Why would it ever be different? Sure, Aurora is a set-up. But, as Corey Doctorow’s review states,
…what Robinson’s furtive scenery-arranging points out is that the easy times all our other science fiction stories have given to their colonists were every bit as contrived.
All our stories are contrived. They have to be. Robinson makes no claim that his story is the way things must run, even in the supporting article. What he does do, however, is present a plausible tale within the parameters of what we know to be hard fact. That’s the goal of speculative fiction – to get people to look at, to think, about the options and choices in front of us. Part of that is showing what happens when things go wrong. If that means you can’t have your interstellar empire and your sex ‘bots, soz.
The early days
where we are tentative:
Each with diffident regard
for the other – not yet honest,
still wrapped up in the allure of the foreign.
At arms length we eye one-another,
unsure of the way ahead.
Easily abashed, we shy from
the bold and dangerous claims of our hearts
their true pealing tones.
when hinted at,
or fallen into
met with words of support!
Ah, then the rush of emotion;
the desire to forge new commonalities;
to root out the remaining similarities;
it is strong.
The growth of it, it depends on
moments like this
where we rush roughshod
over our own timidity.
Where we drop our guard,
forgetting the earnest hopes
and bare ourselves.
Self forgotten in a moment of
Only this way can we grow –
grow to be true friends.
The Modality of Illness
What does it mean to be ill?
To be dying?
What is the meaning of violence?
How can one tell when the shift from
dying to dead happens,
from health to un-health?
When it comes time to hit to mean it,
how do you avoid pulling the punch?
Where does the sickness enter in,
and how can it be known,
in the moment,
that you shift from living to dying?
Life doesn’t happen
While the time-slice might
the lived experience is continua.
You can’t switch between the two,
completely in one or the other.
So, how do you effect the shift?
Our media, our lessons, our culture
provide no easy solution.
At our bases, we are all
The act of the will
and allows of no
At point A
a thing is 0,
and point B
a thing is 1.
And the gulf between the two,
Where is the room for life?
His face was dominated by the nose – it was a nose that Rushdie would have described as the genesis of a patriarchy. Beneath it, enshrouded in thick, close-cropped beard, was an expressive mouth shielding strong teeth. Between the two, here was much for the eyes to feast on. It would be easy to stop there, to spend a goodly amount of time watching the way the mouth formed its words, the cast of the shadow off that patriarchal prow.
Spend more time on it, though, more time gazing at that face, and you would eventually find your way to the eyes. The delay is an honest one, getting there, as the detailed features deserve the attention bestowed. The eyes, though – they redefine the rest of the face. Deep-set, ringed in an already dark face, they express an honesty. If there is pride in that face, the eyes show that it is a pride not over-ambitious, a pride that knows its own limits. It is the eyes that make sense of the halting, stuttered way that the words come from the mouth. It is the eyes that transmute the nose from something comedic to something dignified. The eyes, then, cast the face in a diffident power. A human face.
Like many of his kind, the ones who gibber, a constant stream of half-way enunciated words, resorting to verbal tics one in three, the weight of verbiage stands inverse to the skill in conversation. There is no enjoyment in interlocution there, no savouring of the play of words nor the animated exchange. No – like cannon fire, each utterance stands alone, signifying only by way of its volume and presence. Tangential at best, responses flow of almost their own accord, the pressure of personal silence building until they are peremptorily ejected. Unless the opposite number can dispel the new volley, batting it back faster than any racquet could muster, this is usually followed, once more, by a stream of sound. It gurgles, it hums and haws, and it is continuous.
A heavy-set face – cheeks saggy with weight – weight that didn’t belong: the rest of the body, what little could be seen, thin. Lines in the forehead, pocky and deep – prematurely aged. Face covered in a greasy, several-day beard. Frenetic movements as he rushed about, neglecting his immediate surroundings and focussing on his own tasks. Haughty in his movements, but not purposefully mean-spirited. You hate him immediately. That doughy self-importance, so inappropriate for the station. Lack of humility through idiocy, rather than intent.
Several days later, you see him in public. As anticipated, trackpants, t-shirt. He looks you in the face, unrecognising. Your earlier impression is affirmed, his lack of regard for others extends to five hours’ shared presence. Schmuck.
…the dignity of ugliness in old age. Gum-line grey, teeth directed back and in, too large, too long. Sprightly eyes deep-set in a horsey face. Hair, receding and thin, thatching a flushed head. Voice stentorian, accent received. Near-constant susurrations of ‘mmm, yes, mmm,’ as if his own deepening deafness might be delayed by a steady utterance. Neck a snarl of folds, his chin disappearing into the mess of his throat whenever he draws his head back.
A few poems I’ve had sitting around for a while. Thought I might as well post them. Some are newish, others I don’t even recall writing, but they all have a similar through-line. In no particular order:
Filled with energy,
but eager to return to bed.
yet sickly – on a tilt
with my seinous too full.
Caffeine taking hold
with the work-day yawning before me
eager to swallow all my liveliness.
I know not whether to shout the start of the day
or to crawl back beneath the sheets.
Of a Sunday
It is a small thing.
but the immediacy of it,
on the day,
makes it loom large in the eye.
Time runs quicker,
and the running, with the
rush of speed and compression of air,
adds to the stress.
Each hour attended to by
a mounting frustration,
itself a source of deprivation.
Finally, Night seeps in.
Night is a thin fabric, fit only
for the savouring of that
bitterest of rumens,
Soon enough, the body is thrown back in.
And the mind, forever(?) shackled to it,
is dragged to the bottom just as inexorably.
Now, the regret comes
and with it,
the souring of future opportunities,
ushered in, compelled, by the
As we all know,
as we all know.
Time is merely relative,
and the experience of it,
it’s up to us.
How, then, to shake ourselves free,
and live as we wish to live?
Post Work Partum
The desire to crawl up inside yourself.
Not tired, but too burned through to care
even though you know you’ve eaten enough
Strung out on caffeine, jittery, short
Even the internet has run out of new things
surrounded by people
with their inanities
and their posturing
and you just
fucking care about it all anymore.
The frustration of
scenes, and descriptions
and interactions left
uncaptured for want of
foresight or strength of
The irritation of
plans and stories
and plots conjured on
the cusp of sleep, filling
you with excitement and
energy, only to fade
to ridiculousness, to
inexpressibility, to the
mundane by morning light.
The ever-present anxiety
at being illegitimate, at
wearing un-earned names,
at pinning too much of
yourself on something
ephemeral, on something
that doesn’t fit you.
A gasp escapes your mouth as you shuffle a few feet forward on the dusty path, your arms straining against their load. It’s bulky form obscures your vision, and the angular, illogical lines strain your hands as you try to find a more comfortable way to hold it. The thought doesn’t even occur to you anymore, to put it down for a moment. You know from previous experience that you wouldn’t be able to.
Sky a troubled grey, dirty chalk of the path set in a dun field, there isn’t much to be said of the scenery. You look around, again, at the people alongside in the queue. It’s true, the mass you struggle with nearly blocks out all sight ahead – in fact, it towers a good few feet above your head – but, if you shift just there, and balance the weight against your hip for a second like that –
From around the side of the load, you can just make out the people immediately ahead of you. Their own objects, their presence just as obligatory as yours, look like they’re smaller, that they’re easier to manipulate and transport.
The man two spots ahead of your own, he can manage it with just one hand, though the arm that holds it strikes you as oddly stiff. He shifts, looking out into the barren middle distance, and you see what it is he is carrying – a block, about half-a-metre cubed, remarkable more than anything for its colour. The object is a mix of red and white, run through in irregular striations ten centimetres wide at points. The combination reminds you of a mint candy, the sharp division between the different bands, the concentration of the shade, but the sight of it leaves you faintly nauseous. Looking at it compulsively, drawn to it, you realise that you’ve seen the colours before – the white is the tint of brittle bone, the red that of raw meat. The bands themselves don’t look as if they’re composed of these materials, they both display a uniform sheen, smooth, maybe porcelain? You notice the hand that carries the object – too static. Wrong colour. Matte. Plastic. Startled, you pull your head back behind your own load.
Ahead, some unknown distance away, you can hear swells of noise, periodic. It is as if a great host raise their voices at once, then abruptly cut off. It is not a sound that carries with it an emotion, no victory yell nor shout of terror. Appropriately for this place, it simply is. Lacking more characteristics than the necessary, it simply is.
Flowing, congealing, with the queue, you clear more of the unremarkable, identical path. Always forward, sometimes a curve, but always forward. Like a tide, the tiredness you feel pulls in and out. There are times when your arms are set to shuddering, the struggle to keep the object aloft overwhelming all other consideration. At times like these, you nearly cast it aside, unburdening yourself in a dramatic and self-conscious single act. Even then, though, you know it would be impossible. It’s been tried before, why would it be different this time?
Those are the worst times, where you’re pushed to the breaking point, with every part of your body, your mind, enveloped in the struggle. And always, at the base of it, you know that it will go on and on, unending. Mercifully, the very severity of these moments is sourced from their rarity. More often than not, you experience a mild uncomfort, a burning in tired muscles and a nagging in the back of the mind. It is during one of these periods, more bored than driven, you decide to snatch another glimpse of your fellow travelers.
You have little desire to see the broken man and his strange cube once more – even in the depths of your boredom, you have little interest in the frightening oddity of that sight. Instead, you focus on your most proximate neighbour, a woman, directly ahead of you. To your surprise, she doesn’t appear to be carrying anything at all. In fact, though you’re not quite sure how to describe it, you get a sense of a sort of…absence…about her. Outwardly, she seems like anyone else here in this non-place – she walks at the same pace, eyes ahead, she is dressed in the same drab grey everyone else is. You’ve come to another slight curve in the road. Brought on by no discernible geographic feature, the road curves nonetheless. You can see others ahead, all of them have their own objects. The woman ahead of you is aberrant in her lack of a carried thing, something that sets her apart from the rest and consumes her attention.
Watching her more carefully now, you notice that she does seem to be weighed down by something – she periodically stumbles in her steps, her body looks like it has been pressed down, shoulders sloped, head lolling with tiredness. You realise she is carrying that strange nothingness, that absence, just as physically as you struggle with your own burden. You’re not sure what brought it on, you certainly uttered no sound, nor can you think of what else may have drawn her attention, but the woman in front of you turns her head, just as you’re looking at her. Only for a moment, a single motion in fact, does she look at you. Through you. Startled, you stop in your tracks. Luckily, this is during one of the intermittent ebbs in pace, and no one bumps you from behind. It takes several seconds to register what you just saw – the blankness of the woman’s expression, it was total. A complete lack of animation left it neither at rest nor showing any emotion you had a name for. All the right features were there, two eyes, nose, thin-lipped mouth, but it was more mask than face. There was no life in the eyes, no movement to nostrils or twitch in the mouth that might signal some inner awareness. Nothing. You were glad that the frozen thing was only directed at you a moment. Without knowing why, you found the lack of animation disturbing.
It looms ahead of you. The goal of this long slog, coming up at last. A set of scales, monstrous in proportion, big as a building. Inornate, they are of this place, belonging, as implacable as the passage of time. You can see the people ahead, each placing their burden onto the receiving dish. With the movement of the balance, the crowd beyond the scales lets out their deadened bellow, clipped short before it can swell to a roar.
Though the pace is unhurried, it is soon time those immediately ahead of you to test their pieces, their offerings. The plastic man approaches, ascending the graven stairs to the dull brass dish. The dish is huge, wider in diameter than the man is tall. Shallow, it hangs at about the man’s shoulders, forced up by the weight of the other arm. You look at the load of the other arm, the counter-weight exuding mass. A solid block of cast iron, larger than an automotive, rust flaking at the edges of its pyramidal form. Despite the way you’ve seen the man struggle with his strange cube, there’s no way it’ll shift that immense measure.
And yet, lifting it with clear effort straining his face, he heaves the white and red thing into the dish. Quickly, smoothly, the balance shifts. The brass dish closest to the man, the three slim chains supporting it gone taught, lowers, lowers, until it is just below the man’s midriff. It dips a moment, descending to his knees, and then bobs back up to its position below the waist. As it comes to rest, the crowd beyond the scale’s pedestal open their mouths in unison, and the anticipated, momentary, shout issues forth. Three nondescript members detach themselves from the larger group, gaining the plinth from the other side. The plastic man picks up his cube, and the others assist him with it, all four making their way down onto the path and off towards the horizon. Before he passes out of view beyond the crowd, you can see the change in the man’s expression – he still struggles with the unknown weight of the cube, but it seems less, as if the assistance of the others makes an easier going, despite the awkward manner of travel.
The woman with the inert face is the next to climb. Despite the scene that played itself out moments ago, you still doubt anything the woman has will shift the weight of the pyramid. If she herself feels similar doubts, nothing about her body betrays it. She sets her feet wide to gain leverage – she is short, about two and half feet shorter than the earlier man – and lifts the nothingness she’s carried all this way with both arms. The scene would be comic, absurd, if not for the seriousness to which all present attended it. The moment seemed to hang as she strained against this invisible weight, looking as if her arched back might break under the effort. Finally, she gained the lip, spilling whatever it was into the dish. Unlike the previous weighing, where the equilibrium was determined sedately, casually, the shift here was violently immediate. The iron pyramid shot up, as if it were the dish holding nothing, and set to swaying. The chains supporting it showed evidence of the tension they were under – it was clear that the counterweight did in fact have a ponderous mass. And yet, the opposing dish, empty to the eye, scraped the hewn pedestal beneath the woman’s feet. The customary yell is issued, perhaps a sliver longer than the last. This time, five of the nondescript, genderless individuals join the woman on the platform. Together, they gingerly lift the absence from the dish, which raises as they relieve the weight. Together, negotiating the steps down, they struggle off into the distance.
With the events that have run up to your own weighing, the comparative difference between your load and theirs, you approach scale with a degree of confidence. As you’ve already held your object at waist height this long time, it’s an easy enough job to tilt it into the dish. The relief as you set it down, even for the few moments of the weighing, is immediate and stark. You stand back –
and nothing happens. Not entirely true. As you look in disbelief at the scale, you see it shift, late, ever so slightly. Several centimetres, if that.
You look out at the crowd before you. The customary cry is absent. The faces staid. Not menacing, but neither are they merely neutral. The nearest to the scale lifts a hand, pointing to the right. You follow the appendage, noticing for the first time the road that runs perpendicular to the main. It bisected the road just after the scale, and, unlike the path you’d trodden this long while, made of some crushed unknown, white stone, this second road was dug into the ground, about a foot. It explained why you didn’t notice it before. Looking down at it now, from the added height of your vantage, you understood the unvoiced command of the pointing individual.
Stretched out along the road, much more intermittently than the ones who took the main route, were solitary figures, struggling along with the burdens that, you can only assume, were likewise refused. A sense of unfairness rises in your breast, but only for a moment. There is no one to complain to here – the crowd will not hear it, and the scale is as impartial a judge as ever there could be, even if it does behave idiosyncratically.
Stoically, you hoist your burden once more, descending the same set of stairs you climbed moments ago. As you set off down the sunken path, you can feel the old pains rising anew, the tired muscles returning to their accustomed ache. The object you bear is no lighter now, you reflect. But neither has it grown heavier.
This is what science fiction is meant to be.
I read this book so aggressively, I’ve come down with a cold. I’ve slept minimally for several days. And I don’t regret it at all.
Don’t even finish reading this piece. Go out and get a copy now.
Still here? You’re loss.
Kim Stanley Robinson’s Aurora was fantastic, I highly recommend it.
I’ll try not to give too many plot points away, though it wouldn’t really matter if I did – it is the way it’s told that makes it worth the while.
The story focuses around an ark ship; when we join her crew, she is nearly arrived at the destination of her nearly two-century journey, the star Tau Ceti, 11.9 light years from our own system. Tau Ceti has planets within the habitable zone, that intermediary space where you’re not so close to the star to have the flesh ripped from your quickly vapourising bones by cosmic rays, nor so far as to freeze instantaneously, the oxygen desublimating while still in your lungs. Two of the planets have moons similar to planets we know here – a moon with a 78% similarity to Earth, with liquid water in large abundance, and another planet’s moon, a Mars analogue, rocky and dry. Seven generations have lived their lives out on the way, knowing little more than the inside of their mobile world. The ship itself, two tori connected by a central spine, is separated out into twelve distinct biomes, mimicking the disparate environments of Earth. Each area holds ~300 people, with a population capped just north of 2000 all told. They also have an assortment of terran flora and fauna, and all the micro-organisms that come along with. Even sizeable, alpha predators share the false environment, sequestered in remote areas of their natural habitats.
The narrative style is a clever one – the tale is relayed to us by way of the ship-board AI, or, proto-AI, after it is told as an exercise/research effort to report the story of the people of the ship and their travels by one of the head engineers. Artful, this provides for many asides as the computer struggles with meaning – in language, in life, in consciousness – that augment the actual goings-on of the struggle to reach a new home. Under direction, the ship focuses this tale on the life of the engineer’s daughter, without zeroing in solely on her. Thus, we have our protagonist, as well as the ability to examine important, synonymous events she wouldn’t be privy to. The tone is sometimes bemused, sometimes sombre, always earnest. Profundities abound, without ever slipping into the maudlin.
One of the best elements of the story, at least for my lights, is the unabashed acceptance of just how difficult this kind of venture would be. The crew leave the Sol system mid-way through the 26th century, after humanity has spread out to the gas giants, have workable quantum computers, and the technology to both accelerate to and protect a massive space station at 0.1 c. The scientific realities are never dictated to the reader, though – there is no talking down. The science serves the narrative, not the Verne-way round. The intricate things that, unplanned for, spell almost instant disaster, the larger, inescapable issues of life suspended in an enclosed environment for two centuries, the bizarre, unheimlich nature of seemingly-barren, alien worlds. This isn’t your grandfather’s space opera. Every interstellar inch this crew are flung through, they travel it a hair’s width away from death. It’s not a matter of if, but of when and how. And they know it.
Robinson may reiterate some concepts, retreading the notion of island biogeography, the losing struggle against metabolic rifts and uneven evolution, the preponderance of psychological biases, to the point of near-tedium. But this, too, serves the narrative, building up the tension the crew feel, confined as they are in an artificial environment that, on a very basic, indefeasible way, they were never meant to live in. The ship is huge, a scaled model of Earth itself, albeit a trillion to one. And yet, the reader can feel how cramped it is, and how it gets continually tighter as systems are strained to and past their breaking points, as tempers flare and order falls apart.
While the narrative structure might prevent us from accessing the inner lives of the human characters, this should not be taken as an assertion that all are cut paper. There are no mobile tropes here – the motivations are understandable, uncontrived. An extraordinary situation, but ordinary, human reactions. It is rounded characters that drive the story forward, just as much as any external circumstance.
Whether the crew are successful in their mission or not is immaterial – this is the best of all possible worlds. Humanity, performing one of the most integral, elemental acts known to us – the use of our intelligence, our ability, our empathy, to overcome. If our species is able to get to the point described by Robinson within the next millennia, it would be the most incredible success. Things will be dark, and dangerous, and unforgiving, but that is reality, especially beyond the comforting gravity well of Terra. As the novel ultimately shows, our worst problems will always be the ones we bring with us, wherever we might be. Alongside our struggle, it may be stories like Aurora that sustain us. I exhort you to read this book.