Friday, December 15, 2017

Babyl-Escher

I just read the first story from Ted Chiang's Stories of Your Life and had a religious experience.  To read this story ("Tower of Babylon") is a bit (hyperbolically) like scanning an Escher, in which the eye follows the contours or the figure/ground (depending on which Escher), around and around. 

Or maybe it's a bit more like Magritte.  Either way, reading this story was a surreal experience.  It was surreal, but also like solid-construction carpentry, so well built as to be awe-inspiring. 

We are in the realm of metaphysics, but without leaving materiality behind for even a nano-second.  Herein lies the brilliance of the story.

The craft and level of precision in language mirrors the constructions in the story and, though the story is physically small (only a few pages), it reflects something very awe-inspiring.

This thing is a tower that takes a month to climb, and it circled helically by an up-ramp and a down-ramp.  Materials and sustenance go up, empty carts come down.

The people building the tower are doing so to literally find heaven.  Whole families and towns reside within and at the top of the tower, which as taken hundreds of generations to build.

You feel like you are part of the crew hauling the bricks to the top, walking and talking, your muscles building to ropy strength, fitness improving, fear being overcome.

This is the tale of a superman who falls upwards back to earth when the reservoir in the sky breaks.  The reservoir is captured internally to the white granite sky, based upon an ingenious construction.

That construction is a moving block of stone that acts like a safety lever held up by dissolvable material, and activated by the water/flood itself. 

I don't know the bible, but this story is absolutely biblical.  But it is also Babylonian sci-fi, and so it is genre-bending in the best possible way.

They watch the sun go down from a miles-high perspective, and the shadow of the (flat) earth rises up the tower.  They watch this too, sitting on the ramp's edge, or just peering over, lying flat.

I felt like I was with them too when they ate their meals of lentils and onions, with the children of the tower-towns playing around them in the gloaming.

"Tower of Babylon" exhibits a poetry that is, by definition, SF because it proceeds with a logical metonymy embedded within science-fictional/speculative tropes that take it to the next level.


Monday, December 11, 2017

Decolonizing the Map



Redrawing the "Decolonized Map"

With chapters on Mexico, Colombia, Guatemala, Egypt, South Africa, and India; and an introduction that goes extensively into North American decolonizing and postcolonial theory, Akerman's (edited) volume Decolonizing the Map is a game-changer.

The introduction, by Craib, covers counter-mapping theory, which really only shows up again in Culcasi's chapter on Egypt, but the book is as much an in-depth coverage of indigenous forms of counter-mapping and counter-hegemonic spatial discourses as it is a post-colonial handbook for mapping.  Indeed, it is both, and it would be very difficult to really separate the two things, but analytically this plays out in the index, which lists very specific places the counter-mapping occurs in the book; whereas post-colonial considerations occur throughout.

The book, as one comes to expect from cartography titles published by The University of Chicago Press, is full of maps, with every other page or so bringing another cartographic figure with meticulous sourcing and referencing/citation.  The various footnotes and bibliographies compiled by the authors' contributions to Decolonizing are a wonderful resource for future reference, and I anticipate utilizing this volume frequently in coming years.  It is right up there with Akerman's previous (edited) The Imperial Map; with After the Map; and with classic titles like A History of Spaces, The Power of Maps, or indeed (I was made to think of) The History of Cartography.

It is of a piece with all those titles mentioned above, and more.  The indigenous voices included here are many, and no other title does justice, all in one place, to the contributions of various 'native' voices to post-colonial and counter-mapping efforts across the global south, to the combined and distributed forces of this form of 'mapping from below.'  It does so within a solidly rigorous scholarly framework that provides a foundation for further case studies, theorisations, and emerging movements.

Several chapters explore the importance of toponyms: in the case of Egypt, which was formerly part of the larger United Arab Republic, a name that lasted only three years, to be replaced by "Arab Republic of Egypt" (page 269); in the case of Guatemala, a country whose outline ambiguously and quite unproblematically (it would seem) includes (or does not) Belize; in the case of South Africa, whose road maps are caught up in the logic of apartheid; and in general theorisations of nations, states, and various combinations thereof, in complex and overlapping imbrications and indications of history, space, war, peace, and cartographic controversy.

Map-logos epitomise the idea that a nation's 'geo-body' stands in for the nation itself in a metonymic relationship of part-whole.  That boundaries are things to which to which we nominally "capitulate" (page 285) is an assertion that begs many questions.  Ramaswamy's chapter on India, Pakistan, Punjab, and sub-national identity does not accept that capitulation at face value.  Through the examination of a series of arresting images about India's rupturing borders and the production of art in support of cartographic questioning, Ramaswamy pushes back against any easy notion of cartographic over-determination.  "Art on the Line" is the penultimate chapter in Decolonizing, and it is a fascinating journey through cartographic, poetic (Auden's "Partition"), artistic, and various design discourses that circulate around the idea of a (dis)united India.

One of the great things about Decolonizing is the number of specific examples of the non-territoriality of the contesting (counter-hegemonic) vision.  Non-cartographic counter-maps are demonstrated to form a large (if not the majority) part of the 'vision' of counter-mapping 'itself' (if it can indeed be reified usefully in such a way).  Counter-mapping as a thing-in-itself, as a set of structures of beliefs about nations, states, and about belief itself, and as a subject of study, is thus taken to a whole new level of non-literal complexity.  Of course, it always plays out, in the end, in terms of the geo-body, the inscribed line (on the ground, on the map), and the map-logo.  The latter, we know, is a virtual requirement for the arousal of national sentiment.

But the non-logo map, the performed place-names, the mnemonics of apartheid, for example, are just as political and rouse as effectively into political ramification as any flag-waving construction.  These are the formative bits, and they are mapped out here with great precision, and within a framework of admirable diversity: of coverage, positionality, and of affective engagement.  The map is art-science, it is im/mutable assertion and hypothesis.  It is not going away, it is fading rapidly, it is here to stay, but gone tomorrow, like lines in the sand.  In all its a/political changeability, its immutable mobility the map remains a fascinating thing, ever-evolving, and I urge academics and interested others to read this book.






Cladistic poetry

The evolutionary metaphor at the heart of Clade works very well, acting as a structural linking device between several stories.  Action proceeds from one thing to the next metonymically, but the cladistic device really moves this novel to the next level, the metaphorical, revolving around an autistic child, and as the action moves forward young adult, named Noah (Roberts, 2017: http://amechanicalart.blogspot.co.uk/2017/08/how-i-define-science-fiction.html).

The 'everydayness' of the novel works very well, introducing a depth-sounding of emotions in real-time as relationships between the various protagonists develop.  This is a wholesome text: the only antagonists are natural disasters, the two most prominent being a massive flood that nearly takes out the young Noah, his mother, and grandfather in one fell swoop; and a global disease outbreak.

The latter lasts longer in terms of the novel's action, and as an event comes to structure it more.  Billions, it would seem, are wiped out by disease, and at the same time flood waters continue to rise, to the point where whole cities become islands, with buildings poking above the new global sea level like a true water-world.  It is this world into which Noah evolves, as a person.

The future, it would seem, was made for people like Noah, in a way.  This is because the new protagonists, nice uber-folk like Noah, need science and technology to make out the shape of things to come.  And also, to make contact with other-worldly intelligence, it just turns out.  We are not alone in the universe, thankfully, and this should hopefully be reassuring.

We never really know though, and the adumbrations of Clade are mostly left that way: shadows of a future full of AI, self-driving cars, and people acting ethically to inform each other when privacy might be breached by all-pervasive virtual/augmented reality feeds.  These really are standard fare now in sci-fi (see previous reviews of Roberts and McAuley).

This is a vision of now and it is a reliable guide to the current mood.  It works well at several levels: at capturing that mood; and what popular opinion thinks our world will look like in the future (climate changed, self-driving, virtually addicted or at least co-dependent).  It will probably look not much like this but I think the relationships might.

This is really where the novel shines. (Clade, by James Bradley, and published by Titan Books)

Thursday, November 30, 2017

The Grand Reset: Zero Degrees



The Problem of Longitude and the Prime Meridian

Distinguishing itself from books on the so-called 'problem of longitude' whose most popular exemplar is Dava Sobel's Longitude, Charles Withers' 2017 treatise Zero Degrees: Geographies of the Prime Meridian examines the problem of the starting, or zero, point for longitude and associated problems of the standardisation of global time.

It is a fascinating journey from ancient times to the 1884 International Meridian Conference, held in Washington DC, with special focus on the so-called 'afterlife' of 1884/Washington.  That afterlife led to the French adoption of standard (as opposed to universal, or 24-hour) time centred on Greenwich, and to the use of the metre in England to measure heights, a mutually beneficial arrangement for both the French and the English.

Precision and Accuracy

This book makes some original claims about what it means to be accurate.  This overused term is here demonstrated to have meaning in reference to human activity, error, and effort directed at correcting the latter.  This effort is exemplified in the recurring motif of paired observers conducting measurements to compare longitudinal positions of prime meridians in both London and Paris, with the inevitable resulting error due to changing 'personal equations' in reference to reference stars and instrumentation associated with the cities' observatories.

And so, while accuracy is concerned with two or more meridians' attempts to reconcile, precision is focused more on fixing a baseline in and of itself.  The location of the prime meridian as we now know it to be at Greenwich, has moved in recent years due to gravitational anomalies in the locale of zero degrees itself.  This fact diminishes the precision of Greenwich mean time, but for humanity it ends up making no difference, because we now agree to use Greenwich mean time itself as our baseline, and it is the agreement itself that matters (i.e. the accuracy), and the fact that we now all agree to use this line and not the other makes all the difference.  Epistemology (how we know) is trumped by the fact that we know.

Neutrality and Science

Withers' also takes up the question of neutrality, a political concept, over and against that of non-neutrality, which is associated with the scientific outlook.  The non-neutrality position is associated with the fact that observatories are more readily able to conduct the precise measurements associated with their station; science itself and its practitioners are therefore not agnostic with respect to the location of the prime meridian.  They believe the meridian must be placed at an observatory; against this view, the neutralists would have placed the prime meridian at the opposite side of the globe to Greenwich, with the meridian in question running through part of Kamchatka.

The neutral option was championed by those of an anti-political stance, in essence, those believing that partiality with respect to nation in the placement of the prime meridian would somehow compromise its ability to do its job.  In retrospect, this must look absurd.  The non-neutralists, champions of science, and associates of observatories were very much in the right to highlight that the proximity of scientific instrumentation and traditions of practice and use were the best guarantors of both the precision and sought after accuracy (though non-neutral and based in one nation).

Sandford Fleming and William Parker Snow

There were some very interesting characters hanging around meetings such as that held in Washington, DC in 1884 to deliberate the adoption of a single prime meridian, and very importantly, the use of standard or universal time systems for the globe.  Sandford Fleming, a Scots-born Canadian, wrote a couple of very influential pamphlets on time, and these showed their influence in Fleming's contribution to the Washington meeting, but for the most part Fleming's universalist and neutralist stance was fairly consistently rejected.  He is a case, however, where being wrong was the rightest thing ever, because his work highlighted and articulated the precise opposite of what was in fact ultimately adopted.  Fleming's work was the counter-example needed in order the main theme to emerge, that of standard time centred non-neutrally and very firmly within England.  Fleming's own statistics proved the rightness of this choice, with the tonnage and numbers of ships over time using the port at Greenwich demonstrating overwhelmingly the emphasis and influence of the global shipping trade at this location

Withers begins his book by introducing a very curious character, one who was believed to be a psychic traveller in both space and time: William Parker Snow.  Snow also believed that Franklin, of the lost Franklin expedition, was still alive, though he had not evidence of this.  Snow's relevance to Withers' story is that he was an early champion of the idea of a global single prime meridian, and his eccentricity serves as an interesting inducement for the reader to continue further.  It certainly worked for this reader.

Measurement and Territoriality

Related to the question of neutrality (or lack thereof), is that of the size of things, and by extension the size of those things we call states.  One of the problems with fixing the prime meridian, and to agreeing to a single one, was the fact that measurement itself was subject to considerable disagreement and fluctuation.  The shape and size of the earth, its geodesy, was contested in part because scientists and surveyors could not agree amongst themselves what the standard of measurement was, and where it was to be centred.  A fraction of a millimetre less than a hair's width, compounded over several million inches or centimetres, will add up to a considerable difference when extended from the equator to the poles.  In terms of the triangulations that form the baselines for the measurement of whole nations, this fact will result in, precisely, their mis-measurement, whether shrinkage, expansion, or combinations thereof.  Therefore, it was crucial first for nations to agree to their units, and to how these would be rationed, precisely, over the very uneven and uncertain surface of the earth.

Spatiality and Temporality

Withers' book is about space and time, and here they are treated separately before their synthesis, in a kind of classical treatment that harks at times back to Kant.  Withers (2017, page 123) states: "Space in vital respects is a human construct. Even if it exists as an objective 'thing in itself,' the meaning we give it is at once social, temporal, experiential, and relational." It is his belief in the 'thinginess' of space, and its simultaneous social construction, with no real critique of this seemingly unresolvable binary tension, that gives this book its somewhat old-school flavour. The archival work and scholarship are impeccable, but the Kantian slant has the hint of positivism about it. This does not detract.

Friday, November 24, 2017

Honourable mentions

Another three books that didn't make my top five for 2017 probably should have.  These are:

Clade, by James Bradley. Published by Titan Books (@cityoftongues)

Darwin's Unfinished Symphony, by Kevin N. Laland. Published by Princeton University Press. (@PrincetonUPress)

A Game of Ghosts, by John Connolly.  Published by Hodder & Stoughton.

My goal is to produce a review of each of these books (in addition to the actual top five) by 1 Jan 2018.

The Gate to BSF



Reading Nina Allan's The Rift represents the moment in time that I came to favour British Science Fiction over any other genre/place.  This was, of course, a gradual conversion, occurring between my reading of Adam Roberts' The Thing Itself, and the point in The Rift when I nailed down what its novum is.  The latter occurs not early on in the action of the novel, one that is psychological in the same sense that Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse Five is.  We are not quite sure if the science fictional action is actually occurring, or if it just a figment of the protagonists' warped senses of reality.  Mind you, these warps themselves are very real, having origins in painful traumatic events in their personal histories.

So, the verisimilitude is very fine, and lends the reading an urgency that a non-psychological approach might find, in a different context, very difficult to do.  But the way the characters Allan creates interact, the richness and emotional complexities they possess, and ensuing irrational, unexplainable phenomena they create, lies at the heart of a novel like The Rift's success.  This, as much as the literal and main novum I am about to describe, is equally as new as any of the novel's other successes, and is, as far as I can tell, a novum unto itself.

A complex of objects, feelings, and reactions revolve around what I can only describe as a 4-dimensional geographical time-slip that takes the form of a remote lake in a forest.  The contents of the lake are actually catalogued in one of many sections that take the form of alternate representations of the world Allan describes: a sort of shopping list of detritus at the bottom of the lake that is dredged after Julie (Selena's sister, and we are never really sure if there are actually two of them) disappears.  Others include writings of a person of some standing in a world to which Julie has somehow teleported (either literally or schizophrenically as it were), in the form of a book into which the narrative dips periodically; and descriptions of a creature called a cleef, that seems to be the cause or source of some kind of inter-world infection that may also somehow 'lubricate' or activate the time-slip.

It is without a doubt a very complex novel, but I didn't find it difficult to read, and the fact that its psychology worked so well helped immensely.  My mother also read the novel this autumn, after I had returned from a summer interviewing tourists around the Culloden battlefield near Inverness Scotland (where I read the book in the evenings after watching Outlander some nights), and while she had some difficulty with the alternating alternative representations, told me she was deeply affected by this book.  We've been having a great time re-discovering science fiction together (see the photo above for some of our foundational texts).

What happens in The Rift is really very hard to follow, but the emotion is not.  The latter is mapped with such precision and clarity (despite the very muddiness of the subject matter itself), that I felt at times like I was inhabiting another life.  Despite all its angst and unhappiness, I didn't want it to end (like life itself), and this is a sign of an elevated (high, even) art, one that rises above all the rest, and exists on a plane of its own.  The Rift is a revelation, one that has infected my view of British Science Fiction as a whole, very much for the better.  There is before The Rift, and then there is after The Rift, and there is no going back after.   I kind of feel this way about BSF as a whole, actually, no small thanks to Nina Allan.

Antarctic End-of-the-World Blues, or, How to Train Your Husky



There's something very clever about how Paul McAuley puts his books together and, in Austral, McAuley makes it look almost easy, such is the skill with which its threads are woven.  As with The Real-Town Murders (see previous post on Adam Roberts' novel) we are projected into the not-so-distant future, into a de facto surveillance state.  In both novels, when a drone is not actually present in the action, one is not far off.  These may be controlled by friends or foes, by state or non-state actors, or by their own (artificial) intelligence.

The specific role, or problem, of the drone in Austral is one of agency.  Can this or that eye in the sky help or hinder the actions that will further the protagonist's progress through a landscape very much filled with danger and all sorts of blockages to the fulfilment of a goal.  The title of the book takes its name from a part-human protagonist, a genetic hybrid of human and something very much other.  This makes her a double outcast because she is also descended from a cultural group known as the ecopoets, responsible in large part for the transformation of the Antarctic peninsula, where most of the action takes place, into a forested ecosystem capable of sustaining large populations of humans and other mammals, as well as other species.  In the story, the ecopoets are outlawed because their vision is essentially anarchic, and thus anti-state.  In the future, we come to know (and as we know from a lot of dystopian fiction), dissidence will not be tolerated, especially of the kind that takes such an active and positive (independent) form.

We are in a post-climate-disaster dystopian world that has seen through various failed experiments in geoengineering, from the introduction of reflective diamond-crystals into the atmosphere to reflect light and heat away from earth, to attempts to insulate glaciers with blankets of material designed to impede their shrinkage.  This places Austral in the genre of climate fiction, alongside works like Clade (James Bradley) and New York 2140 (Kim Stanley Robinson).  These are books that get reviewed by the likes of Robert MacFarlane or The New Yorker because they tap into a set of societal fears about what the future holds, with specific reference to the idea of climate change and global warming, and consequences thereof.

Because of this (and for no other reason I can see) books of this genre coming to be known as climate fiction (or clifi) have a potentially popular appeal that more literary and specialised books like the ones Roberts writes don't necessarily have.  People want to think about what the future holds in environmental terms, in other words in broad and exotic landscapes and in terms of charismatic megafauna.  Like Austral herself, who in terms of the metonymic, action-oriented aspect of the book, drives it forward; but who also, in terms of the metaphoric dimension that gives this book its stratospheric sense of something really extraordinary, is the moral anti-hero and transgressive, anarchic, type many readers in this genre might readily identify with, but not-so-easily be.

Herein lies the drawback.  The Nietzschean uber-woman is so exotic and otherworldly, existing as she does in the action taking place in a future Antarctica so almost beyond imagining, that comes to represent the impossible (barred) access to the real, that of actual climate change in the here-and-now.  Because (I said this about Roberts too) Austral is about now!  Moreover, it is about here in the sense that McAuley has had the good sense not to place the action on another planet, but on the part of our planet that most resembles one.  Does this really make a difference?  I would argue not.  And because not, it means that we are inhabiting a sort of blurry no-mans-land that has dogged science fiction from its emergence in the decades before and contemporaneous with when Wells was writing The Time-Machine and War of the Worlds (Rieder, 2008)

Climate change scientists and theorists have a funny way of reifying not only the present but the future, of regarding that future as a thing, one that can be visited almost as easily as the past.  Because, for example, a quaternary scientist can visit the past to examine the sedimentary record, from which evidence and observations about past climate states can be mapped.  They then tend to extrapolate or predict into a future trajectory, but, crucially, without distinguishing between the past as fact and the future as speculation.  My contention here is that observations about the future, no matter how well grounded in empirical evidential foundations, are always speculative.  We have almost no way of knowing what the future holds.  The critique of enlightenment thinking is one about breaking apart reifications of the moment whether that is of a present or future shape.

I am no climate-change denier.  I think the problem is one of representation.  A book like Austral succeeds exceptionally well in offering a vision and thus a representation of the future that, like the work and thinking of the very forward looking (and even at times predicting) Wells, looks admirably accurate.  But let's not forget that we actually have very little idea what the shape of things to come actually will be.  The crucial struggle is one of imagination, of being able to think so boldy as to literally (by which I mean metaphorically) go where none have gone before.  McAuley does this.  He imagines that climate change has, for all intents and purposes, ended the world as we know it, and he maps out what the social implications of that realisation are (or might be).  There is, however, a very literal sense to the action that unfolds, in the sense that we are there, beside Austral and her little friend/enemy, a child whom the protagonist has kidnapped both opportunistically and with moral intent.

McAuley is no ideological fantasist.  A previous work of his, Fairyland, is one of my personal favourites because of the way it combines hard-scientific insight with speculative realism.  It is rooted in McAuley's own training as a biologist, with connections between biology and culture couched in terms I can relate to.  For example, the idea of a meme, or unit of culture, is a dominant trope in Fairyland, as is the sense that its characters and various hybrid/genetically-engineered creatures are following some kind of map with neural/real-world correlates that are threaded just beneath its surface.

This kind of high-level artistry is also at work in Austral, but I do think the latter represents a significant advance over the earlier work just in terms of straightforwardness of the action.  I know Fairyland won the Arthur C. Clarke award, but I think this newer work is equally worthy of similar accolades and/or praise.  At any rate I can personally recommend it very highly.

References:
Rieder, John.  2008.  Colonialism and the Emergence of Science Fiction.  Middletown, Connecticut: Wesleyan University Press.