Monster Portraits (Del Samatar and Sofia Samatar)

Sofia Samatar is one of the most interesting of the new(er) generation of writers of speculative fiction. Her two novels, A STRANGER IN OLONDRIA and THE WINGED HISTORIES, radically rework the conventions of heroic fantasy, both in terms of race/ethnicity and gender, and in terms of narrative conventions and questions about literariness and about the writing of history and of ethnography, not to mention questions of written vs oral more generally. Her short story collection TENDER contains stories straddling the divisions between science fiction, fantasy, and other genres; my favorite of these stories, “How to Get Back to the Forest” — also available for free download here — both moves me and freaks me out every time I (re)read it.

Sofia Samatar’s new book, MONSTER PORTRAITS is a collaboration with her brother Del Samatar. It’s a book of short sections: each section is a short description of a monster, or an even briefer series of mediations on what it means to search for monsters; Sofia Samatar’s text is accompanied by gorgeous (& sometimes gruesome) black-and-white illustrations by Del Samatar. The overall effect is quite poetic. The short sections are mostly fragmentary or nonlinear, combining weird descriptions (weird in the sense of “weird fiction”) with (real or made-up?) autobiographical reminiscences, and citations from a large number of earlier texts (these latter are listed at the end of the book; they range from a Victorian translation of the Odyssey to Frankenstein to Amiria Baraka and Aime Cesaire to Helene Cixous and Roland Barthes).

The result of all this is a text that is kaleidoscopic or dreamlike. It roams in many directions, without ever choosing just one. MONSTER PORTRAITS is a meditation on the varying senses of monsters and of monstrosity. Monsters can be scary, but also misunderstood. “Creating monsters is an act of faith.” Anything that deviates from socially-imposed norms (anything, for instance, that isn’t white cismale heterosexual etc) is a monster; and to identify with monsters is to “identify” with that which escapes or refuses traditional, socially-sanctioned forms of identification. But the endeavor to impose norms, to make everyone and everything alike, to stigmatize anyone who in any way is different, is also essentially monstrous. “The monster evokes, in equal measure, both compassion and its opposite.”

The book moves delicately between these different meanings (or efforts to escape from meaning). Insofar as it is arranged like a catalog — each chapter describes a particular monster, both in prose and in the illustrations that are listed by number — Figure 1, Figure 2, etc. — MONSTER PORTRAITS is reminiscent of Borges’s famous “Chinese encyclopedia”, divided as it is into multiple, incompatible classifications.

This incompatibility is itself the real subject of MONSTER PORTRAITS. At one point in the text, Samatar warns us that: “In the realm of language, the opposite of a monster is a catalogue.” The book takes the form of a catalogue that it is impossible to catalogue. Overall, I find this book pleasurably and frustratingly enigmatic: it teases me with the prospect of an overall comprehension that it continually and finally denies me. In reading it, I find myself passing through thickets of beautiful but unsummarizable prose, interrupted at times with startling pronouncements that jump out from this woven background:

“What joy to be a parasite instead of a host.”

“Her heart bore a pair of claws that were useful for nothing, she told me, but scratching at itself.”

“Exiles and insomniacs share this feeling: that each is the only one.”

“Try as much as possible to conform and you will be saved by a wily grace. Imperfection is your genius.”

And many more. Despite being such a short book, MONSTER PORTRAITS defies closure and summary.

Bison/Bonobo/Kerala music video

This was rejected for publication, so I thought I might as well post it here. It is a discussion of the music video for “Kerala” (2016), a track by Bonobo (Simon Green), directed by Bison (Dave Bullivant).

The music itself is midtempo electronica (125 bpm), fairly bright and relaxed. It’s an instrumental track, mostly strings and percussion, with wordless vocals (a repeated “hey yeah yeah yeah yeah yeah” sampled from the chorus of Brandy’s 1994 song “Baby”) added in the second half. “Kerala” starts out sparse, but becomes increasingly dense as instrumental layers are added, one at a time. These layers occasionally stutter or syncopate, but usually stay on the beat. The samples wash through the song in repeating loops, invoking the ebb and flow of (not very funky) dancing. At the same time, the piece’s changing textures do suggest a limited degree of narrative progression. As the sounds thicken, a simple two-chord alternation is fleshed out into an almost-melody. Bonobo avoids the dramatic soars and drops of mainstream EDM; but the song does build in intensity, with occasional lighter interludes. There’s no climax, however; rather, the track ends with an extended coda, allowing its energy to slowly dissipate. All in all, “Kerala” walks a fine line between putting the listener into a hypnotic trance and sounding, well, cheerily chintzy.

Why does the track have this particular title? Kerala is a state in southwest India. It is best known, internationally, for the fact that it has been under Communist Party rule for most of the past sixty years, and that it has flourished as a result. (According to Wikipedia, Kerala has the highest Human Development Index, the highest literacy rate, and the highest life expectancy of any state in India). Bonobo says in an interview, however, that he named the track because the state is an important stopping-place for birds from North Asia, migrating south for the winter. In any case, “Kerala” is drawn from an album called Migration (2017), whose sonic palette is diversified with touches of “world music.” With such a soundscape, Bonobo might well be accused of musical tourism or colonialism. But I am willing to accept at face value his claim that the album is not really engaged in appropriating cool sounds from the developing world. Rather, as its title indicates, the album is concerned with passages from one place to another. Bonobo is more interested in shifting identities, and in the process of transit itself, than he is in identifying, or appropriating and laying claim to, fixed points of origin and destination. He says on the album’s Bandcamp page that he is fascinated by “how one person will take an influence from one part of the world and move with that influence and affect another part of the world. Over time, the identities of places evolve.”

If Bonobo’s music evokes passages and transitions, then Bison’s video for “Kerala” itself performs an additional act of transfer, moving the track into an entirely new register. On the most obvious and literal level, the video is set in London, rather than Kerala. But Bison transforms the song in more complex ways as well, radically altering its mood and its import. The video for “Kerala” shows a woman (played by Gemma Arterton) in a state of absolute panic. She runs through a park, past some shops, down a street, and up to the roof of a high-rise building. The video begins with a shot of the sky, seen through the crowns of some trees, accompanied by the background noise of birds and traffic. The camera descends through branches, and down the trunk of a tree. As the first layer of music fades in — a loop of two alternating, arpeggiated guitar chords — the camera circles around the tree and closes in on Arterton. She is squatting with her back against the trunk, shaking and panting in fear, with her eyes closed. A second instrumental loop begins: a short synthesized drum roll, one long beat and three short. At the very first beat, Arterton jerks herself upwards and abruptly opens her eyes. She pulls herself to her feet and begins to run. The camera backs away from her, keeping her face in focus, while the background goes blurry.

From this point on, the video employs a remarkable visual stutter effect. There’s a jump cut at every return of the opening beat of the drum roll, which is looped continually throughout the song. (The drum roll is sometimes syncopated or phased slightly, but it remains the track’s most fundamental and steady pulse). This means that there is a visual discontinuity roughly every second. But where most cinematic jump cuts tend to elide a few seconds of action, pulling us slightly forward in time, Bison instead uses these cuts to repeat action, jumping backwards in time. The image track’s repetitions answer to the repeating loops out of which the music is constructed. But these image repetitions, unlike the sound loops, are never total. At each strong beat, the cut brings us back to partway through the previous shot. For each second of elapsed time, we are pulled back something like half a second. Each new shot repeats the latter portion of the previous shot, and then extends a bit further — at which point it is interrupted and partly repeated by yet another shot.

The video’s action is therefore cut into overlapping segments. Each gesture is broken into multiple iterations: Arterton spinning around, glancing back anxiously over her shoulder, running and stumbling and recovering and running on. She turns a little, then the frame jerks back, then she turns a little more… The rapid cuts produce an uneasy feeling of speed and agitation. At the same time, the reversions and repetitions stretch things out: actions unfold with a dreamlike slowness, and the simplest gesture seems to turn into a Sisyphean task. We never get a moment to relax, but we also never break free of the nightmarish sense that time has somehow congealed, and become an impediment that can only be overcome through titanic effort. This amounts to a violent reinterpretation of the relaxed back-and-forth dance rhythm of Bonobo’s track. Instead of measuring repeated motion, time in Bison’s video seems to hold back motion, preventing it from accomplishing itself. Zeno’s arrow gets stuck at every point along its flight.

These jump cuts break up what would otherwise be three long takes with a highly mobile handheld camera. This is evidenced by several reconstructions on YouTube which remove the repetitions: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EsUmw52LIOI and https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Sy5cbn3mKIM.

In the first of the jump cuts, Arterton stares towards the sky, as if looking at something beyond and behind the camera. She runs away from whatever it is she sees, while still fearfully glancing backwards at it. She bumps into a businessman walking along a path, jostles him, stumbles back, grabs at him to avoid falling, and whirls around as the camera moves to keep her in frame. The businessman waves his arms in remonstration, but Arterton turns away from him and runs forward along the path. The camera pulls back as she heads in its direction; it keeps her in focus as the background once again devolves into a blur.

The second section of the video (corresponding to the second long take) starts at 1:35, when the choral vocal sample is heard on the track for the first time. We get a brief respite from the drum loop, and therefore also from the jump cuts. Arterton is hunched up against a wall, her eyes closed, with an anguished expression. For about ten seconds, we see her face in extreme closeup; the camera is jittery, but without a break. Starting at about 1:47, when the drum loop resumes, Arterton opens her eyes again and stands up; the camera pulls back from her, and the jump cuts resume. As Arterton runs, she shakes herself away from various people who try to grab her, whether in order to help and comfort her, or to restrain her. At one point, she bumps into a man holding a bag of chips; as she jostles him, the chips pop out of his hands and fly through the air. At another point, she momentarily stares at a television in the window of a shop, which is playing footage of her running, from a slightly later section of the video. (The television appears between 2:21 and 2:30; it shows a sequence that itself appears between 2:50 and 3:00). She eventually turns a corner, and runs down the street without any more interference. The jump cuts continue, but the camera ceases to follow her as she draws further and further away.

The final section of the video (corresponding to what would be, if not for the jump cuts, the third long take) coincides with what I have called the song’s coda. The instrumentation becomes sparser and lighter; eventually, tones are held for longer intervals, until they gradually fade away. Arterton emerges onto the roof of a tall building; she runs to the edge, still frequently glancing backwards in terror. She looks down at the ground, turns away, and collapses into a heap, her hands holding her head in despair. The camera then passes her by, instead gliding over the edge of the roof. It shows us, way down on the ground, a parking lot eerily filled with people standing motionlessly in rows, in an orderly grid, looking upwards. The jump cuts finally cease. The video ends by reversing the movement with which it began. The camera pans upwards from the parking lot, to take in the London skyline shortly before sunset. The music is replaced by traffic and other city noises; an enormous swarm of black dots (birds? or something more sinister?) swirls menacingly on the horizon.

Aside from this main action, there are many subtle, creepy background details scattered throughout the video. You can only notice them by paying close attention to the background; it took repeated viewings for me to find them. The director says in an interview that he thinks of them as “easter eggs,” like the ones hidden in DVDs or pieces of software. These glitches are rare at the beginning of the video, but they become more frequent as it proceeds. Online fans have obsessively scrutinized the video in order to pick out these anomalies, on websites like Reddit. For instance, when Arterton is running through the park, a rock in the far distance appears to levitate (1:08-1:30). Later, a metal gate on the side of a building suddenly buckles inwards as Arterton passes it (2:02-2:05). Still later, as Arterton is running down the block, a parked car changes color with each looped repetition (3:02-3:16). A man seems to be suspended in midair, arms stretched out (3:06-3:20). A fire breaks out on an upper floor of a high rise council building (3:19-3:22).

These signs and portents only last for a few seconds each, but together they help to account for Arterton’s panic. For they suggest that something is seriously wrong, either with the world or with the way that we are perceiving of the world. Fan theories online are split between subjective explanations (Arterton’s character is suffering from drug hallucinations, or from a schizophrenic breakdown) and objective ones (she is witnessing an alien invasion, or even The Rapture). In the same interview I cited before, Bison says that he “like[s] everyone else’s theories about it – I think they’re really interesting.” He does not endorse any particular interpretation as being definitively correct, but he says that the range of responses gave him “all the stuff that I wanted, really – I kept it purposefully open.”

It is crucial to note that the bystanders in the video do not notice any of these glitches; even Arterton’s character doesn’t necessarily see them, since she is usually looking in a different direction. In effect, the anomalies only exist for us, the viewers of the video. (This is even literally the case, since they were evidently added in post-production). The looping repetition of footage would also seem to be something that we experience, rather than a process that Arterton’s character is going through. In addition, we never actually get to see just what it is that so terrifies Arterton’s character. She is always staring (or in one case, pointing – 2:35-2:38) out of frame. Even when she glances backwards, more or less towards the camera, she is not looking towards its actual position, but rather beyond it (as it were, over its shoulder). In other words, Arterton is condemned (Cassandra-like) to witness what she is unable to share with anyone else: visions that even the camera is unable to show us. It is only at the very end of the video, on the roof, when the camera abandons Arterton, that it pans down and shows us what she might have been looking at a moment before: the enigmatic sight of people lined up motionlessly in the parking lot.

We are therefore closed off from Arterton’s character. We cannot really “identify” with her; we see her staring, but the reverse shot of whatever she is staring at is systematically withheld from us. Indeed, we only get near enough to see her face in close-up at the two moments when her eyes are closed. As soon as she opens her eyes again, the camera pulls away, even as the jump cuts resume. By closing her eyes, Arterton’s character refuses the horrific vision with which she has been cursed. As Bison says, this is what makes her “the one fighting against” whatever it is she sees; “she did have power, she knew that if she shut her eyes she could have an element of control.” But in thus closing her eyes when the camera holds her in a close-up, Arterton also refuses any sort of reciprocity with the camera’s own gaze, or beyond it with the gaze of the video’s spectators.

The video, then, is neither purely objective (creating a consistent fictional world) nor purely subjective (giving us the perceptions of Arterton’s character, or putting us in her position). Instead, it is something in between; the video engages in a sort of free indirect discourse. Pier Paolo Pasolini introduced this literary term into the theorization of cinema. A novel engages in free indirect discourse when its omniscient, third-person narration takes on some of the linguistic and subjective characteristics of the character it is describing. We do not get all the way to a first-person voice or point of view, but the impersonal narration nonetheless seeems to be tinged by the traces of that first person. The novel’s creator takes on some of the characteristics of what she has created. According to Pasolini, something similar happens in movies when the director “looks at the world by immersing himself in his neurotic protagonist,” to the point that the director “has substituted in toto for the worldview of [the protagonist] his own delirious view of aesthetics.” We find ourselves in a strange position in between subjectivity and objectivity, in between the first person and the third person, and in between the existential suffering of the character and the expressive aestheticism of the director.

This situation is perhaps even more complicated in the case of “Kerala.” For the ambiguity between Bison’s point of view and that of Arterton’s character is doubled by a similar ambiguity between Bison’s perspective and Bonobo’s. The video translates its implicit narrative into formal terms, by means of its glitches, its looping repetitions, and its refusal to align gazes. These strategies are tinged by the protagonist’s experiences, but they do not work in any direct way to convey those experiences to us. Rather, they alienate us from those experiences, by refusing any possibility of representing them. On a meta-level, however, this process is itself analogous to the way that Arterton’s character is radically self-alienated. For her very experience is one of the failure of experience: that is to say, of being unable to bear, let alone to grasp, the events that are nonetheless being imposed upon her, and that she is forced to witness. In a similar manner, the video closely follows the formal articulations of the music for which it provides an image track, giving visual equivalents for changes of rhythm and timbre. But at the same time, the video does not express the feelings conveyed by the music in any straightforward way. To the contrary, it denatures and uproots those feelings. Bonobo’s “Kerala”, heard by itself, is a bright and inviting track. It idealizes migration as a sort of open, equal exchange, as influences fluidly move from one place to another. But Bison’s video insists instead upon the impossibility of any such exchange. It envisions the flow of influences from one place to another as a traumatic, irreversible process of irreparable loss.

Nnedi Okorafor’s Binti series

Nnedi Okorafor’s Binti: The Night Masquerade (available on January 16 – I was lucky to get to read a pre-publication copy) is the third (and at least for the moment, final) installment in the series that began with Binti (2015) and continued with Binti: Home (2017). The three books individually are of novella length; though the third installment is almost as long as the previous two combined. Indeed, the three together can be regarded as a single novel, both in terms of word length and in terms of imaginative scope.

The Binti series is Afrofuturist science fiction. The eponymous protagonist and narrator is a young woman from the Himba people of Namibia. This group is known today for the way that they strongly maintain their traditional practices and ways of life, while at the same time engaging fully with social and technological modernity, and the other peoples with whom they interact. This is still the case in the future world of the novellas: the Himba rarely leave their desert territory, and they keep to something like their traditional ways of life; but at the same time they are known for their cutting edge technology, which they sell to other peoples on Earth, and even to beings from other planets.

Binti herself is a mathematical genius, who comes from a family who make their living by manufacturing astrolabes – handheld electronic computing and communications devices which are small enough to fit into a pocket, but at the same time evidently far more powerful than our present-day phones and other computing devices. Binti is proud of her Himba heritage; the traditions with which she has grown up are an essential part of her. But at the same time, she has outward ambitions and desires that go beyond what these traditions can accomodate. Her mathematical skill and passion is something universal, rather than particular. She often goes into a trance — she calls this process “treeing” — while envisioning mathematical equations, such as the formula for the Mandelbrot Set (which produces infinitely ramifying fractals). Treeing is all at once psychological (she often enters into the state in order to calm herself, when she is feeling stressed or anxious), imaginative (it allows to to contemplate extended possibilities that she would not be able to see otherwise), and powerful (through envisioning the mathematical structures she is able to call up electrical currents that she can direct so as to manipulate aspects of her body and her environment). Mathematics is finally Binti’s mode of access to the universal, or to order of the universe (an intuition that has often been expressed by mathematicians and physicists; it exists at the point of union of the mystical, the scientific, and the real). (Though Binti insists that, while mathematics is her route to something like the ultimate, other people may well have other routes to the same asymptotic goal).

In any case, one could say that the conflict between the particular and the universal is what drives and underlies the narrative of the whole series. Though I should add that I am unhappy with the Hegelian tone of this formulation, which is not Okorafor’s but just mine; I’d like to figure out a way to say it less grandiosely, and less totalizingly — which would be more in tune with the way the novellas actually work themselves out. Binti’s Himba identity is very important to her, at the same time that she has desires that point beyond it. The first book begins with Binti doing what she cannot help thinking of as a transgressive act: she leaves her family and community behind — indeed she leaves the Earth itself behind — by getting on a spaceship and travelling to Oomza Uni, on a distant planet. It’s the best university in the galaxy; and Binti has been admitted thanks to her mathematical genius. But leaving her family and her homeland goes against her heritage; the Himba don’t like to travel, and they strongly value staying together. Binti leaves early in the morning, when everybody else is asleep, and without her family even knowing that she plans to go.

So the first Binti novella begins as a coming-of-age story: a feminist and Africa-centered version of the “myth of the hero’s journey” we’ve heard about so many times. (In interviews, Okorafor has made no secret of her love for the Star Wars series, probably the best-known work explicitly modeled on that so called universal myth). Personally, I hate Joseph Campbell and all the hero’s myth stuff – there is nothing more boring and oppressive than being told that there can be nothing new under the sun (or even in the whole galaxy), just recapitulations of the same fucking story. So I love the ways that Okorafor departs from the myth, and pushes her story in new directions that change things radically. Of course, it still remains possible for a reader to subsume everything that happens in the three books under the “monomyth” after all — that is part of what I hate about the theory: it can take anything whatsoever and subsume it into itself. But if you read the Binti series in such a way, you lose what is most rich and exciting about it. The novellas continually surprise us because, behind the story of the plucky young woman discovering her true potential and becoming a hero, there are all kinds of swerves and deviations, which turn the story into something else.

For the Binti series is not just about the universal, but equally about particularities, and all the ways that – for both good and ill – they resist being subsumed into the universal. Mathematics gives Binti a universal structure; its abstractions mean that she can use it to comprehend just about anything. But she also continually has experiences that push her beyond her limits (to the point where the only use she has for her beloved mathematics is to calm herself). In the first novella, when Binti defies her family, leaves town, and gets on a spaceship, her trials are only beginning. All the other human beings heading to Oomza Uni are Khoush — a lighter-skinned ethnic group that control most of the Earth, and who are mostly racist, looking down condescendingly at the Himba. The Khoush really are Hegelians (though Okorafor never designates them as such); they cannot accept the stubborn refusal of the Himba to be subsumed within the “higher” universality that they represent. But as soon as we think Binti has gotten a handle on this problem — she has made friends with many of the Khoush students, gotten them to accept her, and found common terrain with them — something else happens. Another intelligent species, the Meduse — their bodies are sort of like giant jellyfish — invades the ship, commandeers it, and kills all the Khoush — Binti is the only human being left alive, aside from the pilot. It turns out the Meduse have grievances against the Khoush, who have behaved towards the Meduse in the same arrogant, colonialist fashion as they have towards the Himba. The Meduse at first try to kill Binti as well, but they fail — it turns out she has both technologies that repel them and are dangerous to them, and technologies that can soothe them and cure their ailments.

I won’t discuss all the turns and twists of the plot in the three novellas (I justify what I said above about the first volume because it was published long enough ago that nobody has the right to object to spoilers; but I will avoid any spoilers regarding the new volume). Suffice it to say that the Meduse invasion of the ship is only the first of many situations, throughout the three novellas, in which the Star Wars heroic paradigm simply fails to work. Not just in the early part of the first volume, but through all three novellas, Binti is continually faced with problems that cannot be resolved either by antagonism, or by cooperation towards some higher cause. She has to find (or better, to improvise) oblique solutions, which involve the contingencies of particular cases and particular histories as much as they involve the universality that can be (to some extent) realized through mathematics.

These oblique solutions are also always partial and temporary. There is no repose and no completion: no sublation into the universal, and no self-reflexivity to close the circle. Even though all three volumes have happy endings, there is never a real sense of closure. Binti always remains afflicted by anxiety and by a violent ambivalence. There are always dissonant notes in her harmonies. I use the word “harmonies” here advisedly; Binti’s vocation, according not only to the Himba but also to others, is to be a harmonizer. This means that she is able to pull things together and allow them to coexist; when faced with an intractable opposition, she is able to perform “a shift of meaning which converts the opposition into a contrast” (to use Whitehead’s great phrase). Her harmonizing conversions are not reconciliations, however; tensions and inequalities always remain. Okorafor’s future Earth, and indeed her galaxy, remain subject to colonialism and racism, and other forms of oppression just as the actual Earth does today. Harmonization is less than revolutionary transformation; what it is about, ultimately, is finding a way for oppressed or subordinated groups to not only survive, but even flourish, in spite of the (continuing) state of oppression. Binti harmonizes by improvising, finding the best solution she can in situations that remain unsatisfactory.

Binti’s harmonizing improvisations are characterized by two things: diplomacy and hybridity. I mean diplomacy here in the strong sense that has been developed by Isabelle Stengers (in the final volume of Cosmopolitics, as well as elsewhere):

What is difficult and interesting about the practice of diplomats is that it frequently exposes them to the accusation of betrayal. The suspicion of those whom the diplomat represents is one of the risks and constraints of the profession and constitutes its true grandeur. For what is demanded of the diplomat is characterized by an irreducible tension. On the one hand, diplomats are supposed to belong to the people, to the group, to the country they represent; they are supposed to share their hopes and doubts, their fears and dreams. But a diplomat also interacts with other diplomats and must be a reliable partner for them, accepting as they do the rules of the diplomatic game. Therefore, the diplomat cannot be one with those she represents.

Binti faces this problem, mediating between the Meduse and the Khoush — who have been bitter enemies for a long time — as well as between both and the Himba (and also among other groups of humans and sentient extraterrestrials whom we meet throughout the three novellas). Binti’s Himba heritage is what allows her to be a harmonizer, or a diplomat in Stengers’ sense; but her assuming this role means that she also finds herself apart from the Himba, and can no longer unproblematically belong to them or be one of them. This logic is alreadyat work from the very beginning of the first novella, when Binti violates her heritage while clinging to it at the same time. The paradox of diplomacy is not only the displacement of the diplomat, but also the fact that, on the one hand, without diplomacy we are doomed to the horrors of continual unabated conflict; while at the same time, there is never any guarantee that diplomacy will work: it is always susceptible to failure, and even at best its improvisations are fragile and ephemeral. We experience all of this — the failures as well as the partial successes — throughout the course of the three novellas.

Binti’s activity as a harmonizer is also an adventure of hybridity. She is no more able to just exist, rootedly and unproblematically, as a Himba, than she is able to cast off her Himba-ness and dissolve (as it were) into the universal. Over the course of the three novellas, she enters into several symbioses — at once cultural and biological — first with the Meduse, and later with other groups both human and nonhuman. Hybridity does not mean merging, or entering into a “melting pot.” Binti remains, or increasingly becomes, an assemblage of identities, or characteristics, from different sources, that do not coalesce but must learn to coexist. Her vocation as a harmonizer or diplomat must first, and most importantly, be exercised for, and upon, herself. Her emotional ups and downs in the course of the story are aspects of this process. It’s a trajectory that never comes to a definitive ending point, but needs to be renewed and maintained throughout, and this is still the case at the end of The Night Masquerade.

I will stop here. Saying more would involve getting into the details of the new volume, and I promised not to introduce spoilers. I am also leaving for a later time questions about how Binti relates to the rest of Okorafor’s fiction, and to Afrofuturism more generally. Here I can only testify to how compelling and impassioning a read the Binti saga is, how absorbing it is on a page-by-page and line-by-line basis, as well as all the deeper questions it raises.

Ken MacLeod – The Corporation Wars

Ken MacLeod’s Corporation Wars trilogy — which I just finished reading (the final volume came out this past week) — does well what MacLeod usually does well. It takes familiar science fiction tropes (here, robots, virtual reality, xenobiology) and subgenres (here, military fiction, which I am not a big fan of overall) and gives them some unusual and thoughtful twists. MacLeod really uses SF to think about social and political issues, as well as ontological and epistemological ones. Here, the starting point, of considerable contemporary relevance, is a war between (Left) Accelerationists on the one hand, and Neo-Reactionaries on the other — say, Ray Brassier’s Prometheanism vs. Nick Land’s hyperstitional Lovecraftianism — as well as between both of these political tendencies and the neoliberal state and corporations. The trilogy’s backstory is a world war, in the late 21st century, in which the Accelerationists join with the hegemonic neoliberals to defeat the Neo-Reactionaries; once they have done so, the corporate state turns upon the Accelerationists and defeats them also. But the novels themselves take place at least a thousand years in the future, around the planets and moons of another star system, when downloaded brain scans of long-dead Accelerationist fighters (and Neo-Reactionaries as well, albeit by accident) are mobilized and re-embodied (first in virtual reality sims, and then as “mechanoids,” in military hardware in physical space) in order to fight off a robot uprising. This allows MacLeod to consider at length the ideologies, attitudes, and technological strategies of the various parties. The Neo-Reactionaries really are Social Darwinist Nazis, with everything unpleasant that implies, only they also see advanced computing technology as an aid to their fantasies of prevailing as a master race. The Accelerationists also have a hard-on for advanced technology, at the same time as they are the ultimate humanists; their Promethean dreams of “Solidarity Against Nature” involve communism for humans, but an instrumentalist attitude towards everything else. Artificially-intelligent entities in this far-future solar system are cognitively far beyond human capabilities; they control and run, and indeed embody, all major corporations (including munitions manufacturers and law firms). The State equivalent, called the Direction, is also AI-controlled, but it deliberately inhibits its own power in order not to interfere with “free enterprise” (which, together with human domination, ironically enough, is its highest value). But these AIs, although immensely powerful, and although you can hold conversations with them, and although they are capable of deception and deep strategies, are not actually self-conscious (not sentient or aware– though more accurately, I think, you would have to say rather that they are devoid of self-consciousness, or of awareness that they are aware). The crisis that sets off the main plot of the trilogy is that individual robots, AIs embodied in frames capable of all sorts of activity, themselves start to become self-conscious or sentient. This leads them to reject the status of being property, slave machines with no rights; and to demand control of their own activities and their own labor. It is in order to suppress these demands that the Direction reawakens the minds of old fighters — first acclimatizing them to being alive again in VR sims, and then placing them in mechanoid bodies to actually fight the freebots. As a result of all this, the conflict of Accelerationism vs Neo-Reaction vs the Neoliberal apparatus is restaged in the far future, and complicated by the appearance of the freebots. All three tendencies see the bots only as technical machines, needing to be either re-enslaved or destroyed — albeit for different reasons in the three cases. Eventually, several of the Accelerationist protagonists (including one ex-Neo-Reactionary) defect to the freebots, rejecting their previous ideologies. It gets even more complicated in the final volume, where a vehicle lands on a superhabitable planet, and the mechanoids who emerge find themselves entering into symbiotic links with the local life forms. There are many interesting twists and realignments, which I will not endeavor to explain here. MacLeod has never been very sympathetic to green or ecological thought, but his portrayals of bot autonomy and xenosymbiosis nonetheless lead to a certain distance from, and criticism of, the Prometheanism of the Accelerationists — something that seems highly relevant to me at this moment. 

Atopias, by Frederic Neyrat

Frédéric Neyrat is a French philosopher who has published extensively in French; but the first English translation of one of his books has only just appeared. ATOPIAS:MANIFESTO FOR A RADICAL EXISTENTIALISM is an important book, and a good short introduction to Neyrat’s ideas. I had the pleasure of being asked to write an Introduction to ATOPIAS, and I am republishing it here — in order to help indicate what is important and original about the book.


Frédéric Neyrat’s Atopias is an important book. The contribution it makes to critical thought today is encapsulated in its subtitle: Manifesto for a Radical Existentialism. A manifesto is a short declaration of principles and a program, rather than a fully extended analysis. Neyrat characterizes the present work as “a worried intervention in the field of theory,” rather than a declaration of eternal truths.

There have been other philosophical manifestos published over the past several decades; most notably, two “Manifestos for Philosophy” by Alain Badiou. Within the context of contemporary French thought, Frédéric Neyrat’s position and perspective are strikingly different from those of Badiou; but both thinkers are motivated by the conviction that a renewal of philosophical thought is especially urgent today, at a time when the sciences seem to present themselves as the only reputable sources of knowledge, and when the economic and ideological constraints of our society cast doubt upon philosophical reflection, as upon anything that is not of immediate profit and utility.

Atopias offers us a deep analysis and critique of our current political and intellectual situation. It seeks to develop a new way of thinking that will be adequate to the predicament in which we find ourselves today. We live in an era of advanced computing and communications technologies, which are revolutionizing every aspect of our daily lives. We face the mode of governance and control that has come to be known as neoliberalism: a condition in which market competition is promoted as the sole possible solution to all difficulties, and in which corporations seem to have “human rights” while human beings themselves do not. In addition, we face an ecological crisis. Global warming is already changing the very shape of life on our planet; in the years to come, we are likely to witness the flooding of coastal regions, the continuing extinction of large numbers of living species, and the destruction of millions of people’s livelihoods and modes of survival.

Frédéric Neyrat does not address any of these conditions directly in the present work. But although Atopias is the first of his works to be translated into English, he has published quite prolifically in French. All these issues are developed at greater length in his other books. He has written at length about our obligations to the Earth and to other species, as well as about the suffocating conditions produced by our drive to dominate the planet, our restless consumerism, and our “auto-immune” drive to ignore our own vulnerabilities, and our willful blindness to our nihilistic tendencies. In Atopias, he seeks to establish a philosophical basis — or perhaps I should rather say, a non-basis — that might allow us to address these issues, and to be equal to the challenges we face.

Neyrat is clearly indebted to his philosophical forebears, including Badiou and, above all, Gilles Deleuze. Nonetheless, he proposes a new sort of philosophical project, one that is strikingly different from those of his predecessors. Deleuze, following Nietzsche, belongs to the great tradition of post-Enlightenment demystification. He mounts an attack upon the idea of transcendence and the belief in absolutes. The major effort of Western philosophy, from Plato onwards, has arguably been to judge human life from a standpoint superior to life, to abolish all vestiges of chance and contingency, and to establish norms for correct behavior. In all of these cases, Deleuze says — following Nietzsche — that the forces of life are deformed and repressed. Every entity is subjected to arbitrary, external constraints, and “separated from what it can do” (to use a famous phrase of Deleuze’s that Neyrat directly quotes). Against all this, Deleuze proposes a philosophy of radical immanence, one in which there is no Beyond. Things and processes of this world must be valued (or not) for their own sakes, rather than judged in accordance with externally imposed criteria.

But perhaps the struggle against transcendence has been all too successful. Today, when I ask my students to read Nietzsche, they are neither scandalized nor exalted. Instead, they find him banal. They take it for granted that everyone has their own opinion, and that no particular opinion is better than any other. And they cannot see that anything more is at stake. Of course this is a poor misreading of Nietzsche, but that is beside the point. Relativism is no longer shocking, subversive, or transgressive, as its was in earlier centuries. Rather it is something that we take for granted, with a blasé shrug.

Or, as Neyrat puts it, in more rigorous language than mine: “immanence, as a category necessary for contesting the spiritualties that negate life,” has instead “come to mean the grim machine that destroys differences, a mill for grinding out a sort of ontological flour, an ontology spread flat.” Nietzsche and Deleuze must be spinning in their graves at this degradation of their ideas. In effect, Neyrat says, Nietzsche’s and Deleuze’s battles against transcendence have been won. But the result is a situation that both of those thinkers would have detested: one in which radical change has become impossible, and in which thought has been thoroughly instrumentalized, made nothing more than a tool for the efficient fulfillment of pre-given utilitarian goals. We live in a world “where every trajectory seems geo-localizable, where every knowledge must be situated and efficient, every obscurity cleared up, every real singularity suspect.”

Neyrat calls this condition “saturated immanence.” Everything is caught up in the flows of capitalist monetary equivalence; there is no outside any longer, no separation between one thing and another; there is no sense of otherness whatsoever. Everything is in flux, as we are told over and over again. And yet, these are fluxes in which nothing ever really changes. When flux is the sole characteristic of everything and anything, when everything is flexible and everything is interchangeable, then nothing is really different from anything else, nothing ever makes a difference. Other thinkers have characterized globalized and financialized capitalism in this way; Neyrat sees it as a dilemma for critical thought as well.

Saturated immanence is the condition against which Neyrat seeks to mobilize philosophy. In a world where anything can be anyplace, and anything can switch places with anything else, philosophy must insist on its power to be, not everyplace, but noplace. It must never fit in, but always disturb its context. Neyrat uses the word atopia for this condition, in order to avoid the undesirable connotations — perfection and changelessness — of the etymologically similar utopia. In Neyrat’s account, philosophy works by avoiding any sort of fixity or rootedness, and by maintaining a relation with the very Outside (dehors) that our dominant social, economic, and intellectual conditions seek to deny or suppress. An atopic philosophy does not reinstate the old forms of capital-T Transcendence, the claims to an Absolute, that thinkers like Nietzsche and Deleuze so successfully attacked; but nonetheless, by maintaining a link with otherness, with outsideness, and with displacement, it offers us a (small-t) transcendence as an alternative to saturated immanence. It seeks to dig holes, and open up gaps, in what is otherwise a suffocating (and even totalitarian) world of hyper-presence.

For Neyrat, philosophy does not itself create the Outside. What it does is to give us a route of access to this Outside. It opens the doors that our current social system has closed. “Thought does not define the outside,” Neyrat says, “but prolongs it, draws it out.” Outsideness is not a transcendent condition; indeed, it is “nothing more than the simple fact of existence.” To exist is to stand out; the “ex-” etymologically indicates emergence, outsideness, or coming-forth. Any living thing, or anything that exists, is singular in some way: it differs from everything else, or it deviates from all that came before. This means that the internal being of any existing entity is also its external relation with all the things that it is not. Philosophy is a way of exploring “the divergence or dis-joining attested to by all existence.”

In Atopias, Neyrat develops these ideas carefully and generously. In the first chapter, he proposes them in relation both to the history of philosophy, and to the contemporary situation of absolute flux or saturated immanence. In the second chapter, he explores the existential dimension of “being-outside” and of radical contingency and radical finitude. Finally, in the third chapter, he places his argument in relation to the meta-question of what sort of role philosophy — and especially the much-denounced branch of philosophy known as metaphysics — can have today. Atopias is a short book, but a rich one, dense with ideas and suggestions. There is much exuberant invention here, in line with Deleuze and Guattari’s maxim that philosophy should be the “creation of concepts.” But above all, Atopias is a work of ethics, exhorting us to recognize and find room for the many forms of existence with whom we share our planet.

Jerry Lewis

Jerry Lewis is a figure who has haunted me — or, who has played a major role in my Imaginary — for most of my life. In 1963, when I was nine years old, my parents set up an extended vacation and took me and my brother on a cross-country tour. On a hot summer afternoon, we found ourselves in Ogden, Utah; we were catching a train for Oakland, CA, but it was five or six hours late. To escape the heat, we went to an air-conditioned movie theater, and saw one of the hits of that summer: Jerry Lewis’ The Nutty Professor. My parents subsequently always told me that it was an awful movie, but that me and my brother had loved it. But in any case, this was the primal scene, as it were, when Jerry got imprinted on my brain. For years afterwards, all I remembered of the movie was a vague sense of weirdness and laughter, and (even more than that) a dazzlement of bright color — I was recalling the movie’s brilliantly garish color scheme, and perhaps also the scene where we see Buddy Love for the first time (as a reverse shot to closeups of people gaping in astonishment).

Anyway, it was only in the 1970s, during college and then graduate school, that I got to see The Nutty Professor again, together with all of Jerry’s other films: the ones he directed above all, but also the early ones with Dean Martin, and the ones directed by Frank Tashlin. My fate as a Jerry Lewis fanatic was sealed. When he returned as a director with Hardly Working in 1981, I went to see it on the day it opened. His last feature film, and one of his best, Cracking Up (originally and more properly titled Smorgasbord) didn’t play in theaters but went straight to cable: I saw it as soon as I could. In the mid-1990s, when Lewis was touring the country with his production of, and starring role in, the otherwise rather lame musical Damn Yankees, I bought fifth-row seats for his performance in Seattle; it was the only time I saw Jerry live. I never met him in person; twice I tried to set up interviews with him, but they both fell through.

I wrote at length about Jerry in my 1993 book The Cinematic Body; in retrospect, it is a book that I am largely unhappy with, for numerous reasons. But I am still happy with the chapter on him. I wrote several short essays on Jerry Lewis in the past decade or so, which appeared on several websites. I have collected those as a free e-book (or, more properly, e-pamphlet) that you can download here:
https://www.dropbox.com/s/4w1vdssyxv7b1r4/Three%20Essays%20on%20Jerry%20Lewis.epub?dl=0

Anyway, what to say, now that Jerry has passed? Jerry Lewis’ films, and his comedy more generally, are characterized by an infantile excess, something that knows no boundaries and has no sense of restraint or of good taste. This in itself makes Jerry’s comedic figure both delightfully twisted and utterly embarrassing. Jerry’s persona doesn’t feel any such embarrassment or shame, but this unawareness makes it all the more embarrassing for me to like him and identify with him. There is no sense in Lewis’ comedy of a raging id set free of repression; rather, the persona almost always has an overwhemling desire to please the fatuous authority figures who are set against him and whom he unwittingly destroys. Jerry’s persona is intimidated by cultural norms and creates chaos through his unsuccessful endeavors to conform to those norms. Even Buddy Love, the obnoxious Hyde to the Jekyll of timid Professor Julius Kelp, is not a figure of the id, but rather one of arrogant egotism and a drive to control. Buddy Love is the sinister cousin of Jerry in the few moments that he shows unbridled bliss, in the form of scarce moments narcissitic, masturbatory self-enjoyment (these scenes often have to do with music in some way: the scene in The Errand Boy where he mimes the actions of an entire jazz orchestra while listening to a recording of them; or, in the same movie, the scene where he grins in idiotic delight as he is about to dub a musical scene from a studio film with his own gratingly off-key singing; or that scenein Cracking Up where he is a hideously defaced gangster who robs a bank, not to get the money, but to record his own musical performance on the surveillance cameras).

Lots of critics have noted the sophisticated formalism and self-reflexivity of Lewis the director; but what is harder to explain is how this resonates with, and works as a necessary counterpoint to, the aggressively unsophisticated (crassly juvenile or infantile) content of Lewis’ performances. What gets me every time is the co-existence in everything Lewis does of incompatible (or I should really say, in philosophical vocabulary, incompossible) qualities and situations — but that is to put too intellectual a twist on something that is a visceral and pre-reflective response on my part. How can anything be so sophisticated and so stupid at the same time? How can the situations Lewis creates generate both exilarating identification and shame/embarrassment?

Obviously, Lewis’ comedy has one of its roots in Jewish vaudeville and slapstick. His parents performed regularly, and he first performed as a teenager, in the Borsch Belt (hotels in the Catskills where Jews from New York City would go on vacation). There is an amazing scene in a 1931 Yiddish-language movie, His Wife’s Lover, that powerfully prefigures much of what Jerry does. This movie stars Ludwig Satz, apparently one of the biggest stars of the Yiddish theater in New York in the 1920s and 1930s. The movie’s plot is an old misogynist chestnut, with analogues that go back at least to Boccaccio and Chaucer. A young seamstress is in love with the matinee idol played by Satz. But he resolves to test her fidelity first. She is forced into marriage with a disgusting rich old miser, who is really the matinee idol in disguise. Then the matinee idol visits her in his own guise, and tries to seduce her. Of course she proves her fidelity by resisting apparent adultery, even though she hates the old miser who is officially her husband, and whom she refuses to sleep with. The scene that prefigures Jerry Lewis occurs during their honeymoon at the seashore. The old miser tries, and fails, to convince the woman to kiss him, or to go into the water with him. It’s actually a musical number, with Satz singing in a whiny, grating voice. The scene is not so much a source or template for Lewis’ later comedy, as it is an instance of what Harold Bloom calls apophrades: a reversal of the “anxiety of influence” in which an earlier work seems to have been influenced by, and to be imitating, a later one. It is as if Satz were already familiar with Lewis’ shtick, and is trying to replicate it. The scene has the same kind of queasy hilarity I often find in Lewis (but I cannot say whether I would respond to it in this way if I didn’t already know Lewis).

Of course Lewis must be remembered not just for his actual films and other performances, but also for his celebrity persona. In the course of his career, he went from being one of the biggest superstars in America to being despised by most Americans as a figure whom only the French, with their inexplicable perversity, could love. But maybe the younger generation, without exposure to these negatives, can appreciate Lewis anew (my kids have enjoyed the films of his that I have shown them).

Lewis’ yearly presence as the host of the telethon to raise money for treating muscular dystrophy did not help his reputation. He raised lots of money, and he was unquestionably entirely sincere and heartfelt in doing so; but he also made use of all the injurious stereotypes that disability activists have rightly objected to. Also, a number of his films make use of unquestionably racist stereotypes, especially of Asians. And then there was his cranky praise of Donald Trump last year: the sort of thing that made him seem like the cranky great-uncle who yu want to lock away in the attic whenever you have visitors, so he won’t embarrass you even more than he has already.

And yet. As I have already said, embarrassment and shame are emotions that Lewis’ comedic persona does not feel, but that he induces in his viewers and fans. Lewis is undoubtedly one of the originators of what we know today as cringe comedy. — But actually I should modify what I just said. In Lewis’ last feature film, Cracking Up/Smorgasbord, he plays a character in distress, who has been a loser at everything and cannot even manage to kill himself, despite repeated attempts. The movie is the most extreme example I know of distress being mined for comedy; it has many of Lewis’ most brilliant gags, but it also packs an excruciating punch.

In the 1980s, when Lewis was making a comeback, I saw him interviewed by Dick Cavett (who showed his usual incomprehension of nearly everything Lewis said). In the course of the conversation, Jerry described both Jean-Luc Godard, and (then-President) Ronald Reagan, as “a dear friend of mine.” Has anyone ever encompassed such wildly different extremes of the movie business?

Jeff VanderMeer’s BORNE

Borne is Jeff VanderMeer’s first new novel since his Southern Reach trilogy. I was stunned by reading it, and I am not sure that I can really do it justice. The novel is set in a post-apocalyptic landscape: a nameless city that was first transformed by a biotech enterprise known only as the Company, and then abandoned when the Company broke down or abandoned the region (it is not entirely clear which). The Company itself seems to have come from elsewhere; perhaps it is (as the novel suggests at one point) a mechanism of “the future exploiting the past, or the past exploiting the future,” or “another version of Earth” enriching itself at the expense of this one. (The issue is not resolved, but I find it suggestive: it’s a far better version of Nick Land’s fantasy of capital as an alien parasite from the future). (The idea of the future exploiting its own past — which is our present — is one that I find especially compelling; something like this is also the premise of Grant Morrison’s Seven Soldiers).

In any case, the city in which Borne is set is basically a desert; and there is nothing left but ruins, noxious chemicals, and the remnants of the Company’s biotech — much of which is mutated and broken. There are many dangers: polluted water, violent feral children, venomous beasts, and a gigantic flying bear named Mord who ravages and destroys whatever he cannot control. There doesn’t seem to be any exit from this hellscape: there are remembered past scenes, and the elsewhere from which the Company emerged, and to which it has presumably returned — but none of these are accessible to the characters in the world of the novel.

In this landscape, the novel’s narrator Rachel ekes out a living as a scavenger, venturing out into the ruins to find usable bits and pieces of abandoned stuff — anything that can either be eaten, put to work, or somehow repurposed. Her partner, Wick, is a broken man who used to work for the Company, and still manages to engineer working biotech from the fragments Rachel brings him: worms that, introduced under the skin, can clean and heal wounds; bugs that provide new memories, or erase old ones; “alcohol minnows” that can be swallowed to get you drunk. All this is background; Rachel meticulously describes it in a flat and direct manner. This is the given: that which must be taken for granted, the reality in front of her — even if she has fragmentary memories of a happier childhood, before the world was destroyed.

The novel’s landscape/background is vividly drawn, imposing, and indeed sobering — since VanderMeer is in fact warning us about how bad it can get if we continue down our current route of environmental catastrophe, and of using technology which has no end or rationale except subordinating everything in the world, and extracting maximum profits. However, at the same time VanderMeer is also warning us that this devastation isn’t the end — there is also the existential dread of surviving the end of the world, of living on in its aftermath, of having to outlive the ruination of everything that made living worthwhile. Of having to go on, and to discover that things can become even worse than what you thought was already the worst we could endure. As Rachel remarks at one point: “Apparently we’d been richer than we thought, to suffer such continual diminishment and still be alive.”

But all this is still only background. What really makes the book, what really impassions the reader (or, at least, me as a reader) is two things: Rachel’s voice; and the creature known as Borne, who gives the novel its title. As for the first: Rachel is a survivor, but this fact/condition is not romanticized (as it all too often is in dystopian fiction). Rachel’s voice is weary and matter of fact, even when she recounts the most bizarre and incredible things. There is no triumphalism in her; she is not any sort of savior. Surviving itself is the most that she can hope for; but survival always has its price, since the more you survive the more you suffer. The novel has a provisionally happy ending, but it is still one in which survival — even with something of an improvement in one’s circumstances — is tenuous and fragile, always subject to revocation, to new shocks and surprises. The desolation remains. There is no moment of self-congratulatory resilience.

As for the second: Borne is a bit of biotech that Rachel discovers one day. She initially refers to Borne as an “it”; but quickly she moves to referring to Borne as a “he.” At first, Borne is tiny, something “like a hybrid of sea anemone and squid: a sleek vase with rippling colors that strayed from purple toward deep blues and sea greens.” But as Borne grows, Rachel discovers that he can change his shape at will, and mimic or impersonate just about anyone and anything. Also, Borne learns to speak, and to read and write. Rachel at first raises him like a child; but soon she has to accept his independence from her guidance, as any parent must with any growing child. In any case, Borne is the novel’s richest and strangest creation. Along with Rachel, we come to love and admire him, for his childlike enthusiasm and wonder, as well as for the way he loves her back. But in the course of the novel, along with Rachel, we are ultimately forced to realize that — for all his beauty and lovability — Borne is also a monster, and a danger to survival.

Rachel insists on regarding Borne in human terms. She assures him over and over that he is a person, in the same way that human beings are persons. But she (and we, reading her narrative) are finally forced to recognize that Borne is not, after all, human; and that the “human” itself — whatever essential or merely contingent attributes we might assign to it — is not a viable construction in and of itself, but must always rely on — or be dependent upon, or find itself networked with — that which is not human, which is inhuman, and which cannot ever be humanized. This would be true even in the case (not envisioned in the novel, and probably never having existed) of a vital and unspoiled Nature; and it is all the more true in the denatured nature, the aggressively “humanized” nature, within which Rachel finds herself — and, I am inclined to say, within which we in the Anthropocene inevitably find ourselves. “Turn and face the strange” — as David Bowie sang, in what might well be the motto for all Weird Fiction; though especially for Weird Fiction today — much more than in the time of colonialism and of Lovecraft. How antiquated Lovecraft’s vision of alien powers appears today. Lovecraft mythologized an indifferent Nature, whose horror resided in the fact that it does not care for us, is not in any way concerned with us, and may well crush us out of simple negligence (rather than anything that can be moralized as “evil”). Today, Lovecraft’s cold materialist vision seems outmoded, and hopelessly naive; and it even works as a sort of consolation. The menace of Cthulhu is so much simpler than the actuality of systems that threaten us precisely because we are so intimately intertwined with them. VanderMeer has often, rightly, rejected comparisons of his work with Lovecraft’s; books like Borne (and like the Southern Reach and Ambergris trilogies) indeed forge a new path for Weird Fiction, away from Lovecraft’s outworn metaphysics and towards a new sense of how the inhuman impinges upon us, all the more so because it cannot be recuperated in human terms.

The Anthropocene means that “we” (human beings) have irreversibly altered the entire biosphere; but it also means that, in doing so, we have exposed ourselves, more fully and more nakedly than ever before, to the geological and biological forces that respond to us in ways that we cannot anticipate or control. This seems to me to be the core of what Jeff VanderMeer is exploring — and seducing us to recognize. In Borne, the material forces unleashed by the Company do not do what the Company wanted them to do, nor what anyone else might want them to do. These material forces have an impetus, and an intelligence, all their own. They have twisted, both for good and for ill, into strange and ungainly patterns that stretch well beyond us — and that may continue, with their own interests and desires, even when we are gone. As Rachel says, very near the end, the animal descendants of the Company’s mutant creations “will outstrip all of us in time, and the story of the city will someday be their story, not ours.” This is the point to which Borne brings us, and the prospect with which it leaves us. We live in an ongoing catastrophe; but we may be able to outlive it, or to maintain ourselves beyond it. The novel leaves us with a diminished world, but one in which the worst destructive forces have been defeated (or have just played themselves out), and in which we can perhaps indulge hope for a yet more distant future, beyond our own extinction, in which things might at least be slightly better, or even (these are the last two words of the novel) “truly beautiful.”

Tade Thompson, ROSEWATER

WARNING: numerous spoilers, since I cannot really discuss the novel without them

Tade Thompson’s extraordinary new SF novel Rosewater is the second recent book I have read with the premise of extraterrestrials arriving in Nigeria. The first is Nnedi Okorafor’s Lagoon, equally wonderful, but in an entirely different way. Both novels go explicitly against the common tendency to set such narratives in big cities of the Global North. Of course, there is always the danger that a white anglophone reader from a hegemonic country and culture (i.e., somebody like myself) might find any such futuristic depiction of the developing world to be alluringly “exotic,” if only on account of its unfamiliarity. However, both Thompson and Okorafor guard against this tendency by immersing us in the social background, without any special explanations. The underlying state of Nigerian society is simply taken for granted in both novels — which forces the reader (no matter his or her own background) to take it for granted as well. Lagoon and Rosewater both expose the provincialism of the very North American, British, and European readers who tend to congratulate themselves on their supposed cosmopolitanism. The fact is, both authors (and many of their characters) are far more cosmopolitan than I am, because they are intimately familiar both with Western (US/UK) society and with societies in Nigeria and elsewhere.

In any case, Rosewater is set some fifty years in the future (2066, with flashbacks to earlier dates in the mid-21st-century). In Thompson’s future Nigeria and future world, computing technologies have been pushed — mostly for reasons of political control — well beyond their actual state today. For instance, people all have implants that allow them to broadcast their location — or to be tracked by the police and by others, even when they do not want to be. Many (but not all) people also have implants that allow them to access the phone and data networks, without the need for an external device. There are also ubiquitous mobile surveillance mechanisms, often lodged in the bodies of animals like birds and cats. The novel doesn’t make all that much of these new technologies; they are fairly linear extrapolations from devices that we already have today. They simply form part of the everyday background of the novel. Surveillance as it exists today has been both expanded, and completely routinized and “normalized.”

The same can be said for the social and political dimensions of Rosewater. The extrapolation remains fairly linear. The world of 2066, in Nigeria and elsewhere, is riven by the same inequalities of class, the same rampant capitalism (and the same downscale version of it, rampant criminal organizations), the same violent prejudices (e.g. against gays and lesbians), and the same governmental corruption and deep-state surveillance and control that we already have today. “Neoliberalism” is never named as such in the text, but despite its complete failure as an economic and social program, it evidently remains as the hegemonic — indeed, as the only — social form. No collective movement for change seems possible. Social, political, and economic forms of oppression therefore exist as obstacles that each individual must navigate on his or her own. In this way, Thompson keeps us aware of the constrictions of what the late Mark Fisher called capitalist realism: the situation in which we find it easier to imagine the end of the world, than any concrete alternative to globalized neoliberal capitalism.

There is one ironic exception to this situation. At some point in the half century between today and the novel’s future projection, America “goes dark,” shutting off all contact with the rest of the world. There is no trade, and no communication. This is perhaps the triumph of Trumpism, born in reaction to neoliberalism’s utter failure. From the very little information people in the rest of the world have managed to get, America seems to have become a completely closed and regimented society. In any case, neither in America nor elsewhere is there any indication of any movement towards a more equitable social system.

The novum (science fictional novelty) that drives Rosewater is something entirely different from this incremental development of human technologies and social arrangements. It is rather the presence of entirely alien (extraterrestrial) life forms and artifacts. We are introduced, early in the book, to what people call Utopicity: an enormous biodome, of alien construction, that is closed off to all human access. Utopicity is opaque to all outside inquiry; but it crackles with electricity, and it seems to possess almost supernatural powers. Once a year, the gates of Utopicity open for just a few hours: the dome emits radiation that almost instantly cures the illnesses (from cancer and HIV down to the common cold) of anyone who is exposed to it. Because of this, the new city of Rosewater, forming a ring all around the biodome, has grown, in just a decade, from uninhabited savannah to a major metropolis. (The name “Rosewater” is an ironic allusion to the foul river smells of the city, whose sewage treatment facilities have not kept up with its swelling population).

The alien technology of Utopicity is so advanced as to be (in the words of Arthur C. Clarke’s Third Law) indistinguishable from magic. Importantly, though, this technology is not infallible. For instance, the beings in the dome sometimes get the details of human anatomy wrong. The radiation from the dome cures all sorts of ailments, but it sometimes leaves the patients with “knees which point backwards,” or with “multiple and displaced orifices.” The radiation also affects recently dead bodies, reanimating them as shambling, mindless zombies — which then have to be dispatched by the police and the army.

We only learn gradually, in the course of the novel, about the aliens and their actual powers. In Rosebud‘s timeline, an enormous intelligent living entity falls from outer space, and lands in central London, in 2012. People call it Wormwood. It is not the first of its kind to come to our planet, but it is the first to survive. All the previous ones die soon after entry. But Wormwood sinks into the earth, and spends several decades burrowing through the crust. It finally re-emerges in Nigeria in the 2050s. When government forces attack it, it builds Utopicity for self-protection.

Apparently, Wormwood is not quite a single, unified organism, at least in the way that we understand such things on Earth. It seems to contain multitudes within itself. Portions split off and take on a quasi-independent existence. For instance, in order to communicate with human beings, some portions assume a more or less humanoid shape, while others emulate the fantastic appearance of cyberspace avatars. Still other aspects of Wormwood are monstrous and directly threatening, like the floaters: carnivorous flying vampiric entities released from the dome into the surrounding environment. In any case, these different aspects of Wormwood “are not all the same.” They often work at cross-purposes; at times, they even seem to be arguing with one another.

Wormwood also generates an enormous mass of microscopic fungal spores, which it releases into the Earth’s atmosphere. These spores are ubiquitous; apparently they work to gather information about the environment and organisms of Earth. These spores grow in — or better, they infect — nearly everything in the world, living or not. They also form a worldwide transmission network called the xenosphere, through which they funnel data back to Wormwood. The xenosphere can be blocked temporarily, through the use of antifungal medications. But sooner or later, it always grows back.

Most human beings are oblivious to the xenosphere; it gathers data from them without their knowledge. But a small number of people are able to feel the xenosphere directly; they are known as sensitives. They develop psychic powers as an acccidental side-effect of the alien incursion. One of these sensitives is Kaaro, the novel’s protagonist and narrator. He is able to plug into the xenosphere, and use it to access other people’s minds. Kaaro explores the network: he goes into a trance, takes on an avatar, and encounters complex informational structures, together with the avatars of other sensitives. At times, he even encounters aspects of Wormwood itself. The way that Kaaro moves through the xenosphere is quite similar to the way that people surf cyberspace in classic cyberpunk novels (e.g. William Gibson’s Neuromancer). But even without such deep immersion, Kaaro is able to read the hidden thoughts of ordinary people, and also to manipulate those people by implanting suggestions into their minds.

Kaaro is the novel’s sole narrator. We only experience things from his perspective. This means that the reader needs to remain vigilant, because Kaaro is not an entirely reliable narrator. It’s not that he is deceptive in what he tells us; but he is a bit selective and slanted in what he chooses to reveal, and when. Also, Kaaro is not a particularly sympathetic character. At least he isn’t an outright sociopath: he fears and avoids violence, and he sometimes tries to do right by people he cares about. But Kaaro is still basically a grifter: he is sleazy and sexist, and always seems to be looking out for the main chance. Even when his conscience gets the better of him, he insists that he is “not the saving-the-world type.”

When Kaaro first develops his telepathic powers, in adolescence, he quickly becomes a thief. He reads people’s minds in order to discover where they stash their valuable items. And he spends the money acquired in this way on sex, drugs, and partying. When Kaaro finally gets caught, he is forced to accept a deal from the cops. In lieu of punishment, he is drafted into the Nigerian secret police. His job is to scan the minds of political prisoners, after they have been tortured, in order to extract their secrets. He doesn’t enjoy doing this, but he has no choice. Kaaro is perpetually disaffected, alienated, and anti-social; but he never imagines that this somehow puts him outside the system. He knows that he’s a tool, and a fairly limited one at that.

The novel finally turns upon the implications of the alien presence on Earth. But the details only get filled in obliquely, and quite slowly. The book has a complicated temporal structure: in between the chapters happening in the present moment (2066), there are also chapters set in 2055, and still others set at a few other times. These flashback chapters give us Kaaro’s backstory, and his earlier experiences with Wormwood and with the secret police. Within each time sequence, events are linear from one chapter to the next. But these timelines interfere with one another as we weave back and forth among them. Each chapter, regardless of which portion of the timeline it comes from, is narrated in the present tense, and made to feel viscerally immediate. This results in an odd sense of displacement. (I couldn’t help thinking, at least a bit, about David Wittenberg’s powerful discussion of time travel narratives, even though it is only the reader, and not the narrator, who actually shifts back and forth between one time and another). In fact, it is only by grasping what happened in 2055 that we can make full sense of what happens in 2066; but we don’t achieve this grasp until almost the end of the novel. The book’s narrative is therefore a slow burn; at the end, we need to look back and revise our understanding of earlier incidents, in the light of what has finally been revealed.

Thompson’s oblique narrative strategy obviously works to keep the reader enthralled. But there is more to it than that: if the narration is oblique, this is really because the events being narrated are themselves oblique. As Seo-Young Chu argues in her general theory of science fiction narrative, so for this novel in particular: it’s not that Rosewater cognitively estranges the process of representation, so much as that it straightforwardly represents a state of affairs (or a referent) that is in and of itself cognitively estranging. Wormwood’s presence on the Earth is neither simple nor straightforward. It doesn’t have a single identity, and its effects on the planet are multiple and inconsistent. This has a lot to do with the formal complexity of the xenosphere. In recent years, we have become accustomed to think that everything is entangled in dense and diffuse networks, so that we cannot isolate individual entities (but also so that we can’t find unity or identity on the level of the network as a whole). Things are separated from one another, and yet entangled with one another, all at the same time. Causality is not arbitrary, but it is also not linear.

Rosewater takes our emerging understanding of networks, and raises it, as it were, to a higher power. Wormwood is radically alien to us, and yet we find ourselves more and more implicated in what it is doing. The xenosphere, with its powers of connection and disconnection and its incessant work of surveillance, both mimics and takes its distance from the social, political, and technological networks that we are already accustomed to, and that have become even more virulent in 2066 than they were in 2016. Wormwood may be seen as an allegory of colonialization; and its ubiquitous surveillance may be seen to reflect that of the neoliberal State. But Wormwood must also be taken as something entirely apart from such power relations; both its autonomy and its dependency on us, and we on it, work in another dimension than that of neoliberal economics and governmentality. Wormwood’s logic is essentially biological, but in a very different manner than the one characterized by our usual understandings of neoliberal biopower and biopolitics. Wormwood’s alien strangeness is what the novel effectively communicates, both in its story and in its form of narration.

Finally, Kaaro worries about alien invasion, and its potential effacement of everything that we have previously understood as human — both for good and for ill. It seems that, when Wormwood heals people with ailments, and when it opens human contact to the xenosphere, it is taking the opportunity to replace our DNA with its own. This is not a biological shift in lieu of a social or cultural one — because it is both, inextricably, at once. Wormwood is taking over, alike by insinuating itself within our cells, and by changing our conceptions and our feelings. Other people, besides Kaaro, feel and experience this. For instance, there is his girlfriend’s half-brother Layi, who seems to be able to fly, and to ignite spontaneous fires; these are evidently powers given to him by Wormword (or more precisely, by some portion of Wormwood); but people in Lagos and Rosewater — in accordance with the heavy influence of evangelical Christianity in Nigeria — presume that his mother was made pregnant by an angel. In fact, by the end of the novel all human beings have had some percentage of their cells “replaced by xenoforms.” This parallels the way that also “we are all part machine,” due to the various technologies that are embedded in our bodies. We are already cyborgs in 2016; this will be all the more the case in 2066. “How human am I?”, Kaaro wonders, and he has no way to tell.

There is no easy answer to this dilemma. Kaaro thinks at times that perhaps this transformation is only “what humanity deserves.” People already have been “conquered and killed by invaders” without knowing it; and the saddest part is that they don’t even care. “Humans don’t care about anything as long as their TVs and microwaves work.” For its part, the government doesn’t care either; after the catastrophic failure of its efforts to destroy Wormwood, it cynically uses whatever advantage it gets from the entity in order to maintain and increase its own power. (Kaaro’s last assignment, which he refuses, is to monitor the mind of an opposition politician, so that the party in power will be better able to win the next election). As for the few people and groups who know about the alien invasion, and try to do something about it: they themselves are ironically also dependent upon Wormwood, for it protects them from the official authorities. The only thing to do, then, is simultaneously to “work with and against the xenoforms.”

At the end of the book Kaaro compares the xeno-invasion of Earth life to such catastrophes as global warming, or an asteroid crashing into the Earth, like the one that wiped out the dinosaurs. But “the alien in me” tells him that this isn’t quite the case. The coming disaster is, and will continue to be, an intimate one. It will be something for which “we will all be present,” even as we are devastated by it.

Favorite SF of 2016

I am usually not very good at top ten lists and the like; there is always too much stuff that I haven’t seen, read, or heard. But I think that I have done a lot better than usual with new science fiction / fantasy / horror / speculative fiction than usual. So here is a list of my favorite SF published this past year. I mean “favorites” in a broad sense: there are a lot of novels I liked that go unlisted here; but I have tried to name all the new novels that really hit the spot for me in one way or another. (I should note that there are definitely some 2016 publications that are missing here because I haven’t gotten to them yet, but which I expect to like because they are, e.g., sequels to previous books I liked; e.g. N K Jemisin’s The Obelisk Gate, sequel to her superb 2015 publication The Fifth Season).

Anyway, here goes. List is chronological according to when I read it. Not a ranked order, though if forced to choose, my number one would have to be Death’s End. There are brief comments, and occasional links to blog discussions.

  • Tricia Sullivan – Occupy Me – Sullivan is one of our best, and most underrated, contemporary SF authors – http://www.shaviro.com/Blog/?p=1356
  • Charley Jane Anders – All the Birds in the Sky – Cute combination of dueling genres, SF and Fantasy
  • Sofia Samatar – The Winged Histories – Brilliant metafantasy.
  • Matthew De Abitua – The Destructives – DeAbitua is another SF writer who is underrated and insufficiently appreciated. This is a brilliant book about singularity, alien communication, and other matters. (NB: this is the first SF book for which I have been named in the acknowledgments).
  • Lavie Tidhar – Central Station – Future neorealism, sort of.
  • Gemma Files – Experimental Film – Weird fiction about, yes, avant-garde cinema.
  • Ken MacLeod – The Corporation Wars (2 volumes: Dissidence & Insurgence) – Accelerationists versus neo-reactionaries, plus robots, a thousand years from now. Will be waiting impatiently for the final volume, which won’t be out until next summer.
  • Malka Older – Infomocracy – speculative political fiction.
  • Richard Kadrey, The Perdition Score – Latest entry in the Sandman Slim series, which I love.
  • Yoss – Super Extra Grande – Hilarious Cuban SF, newly translated.
  • Warren Ellis, Normal – The maladies of actually existing futurism.
  • Nisi Shawl – Everfair – Progressive multicultural steampunk.
  • Cixin Liu – Death’s End – Massively mindblowing conclusion to the Three Body Problem trilogy.
  • Silvia Moreno-Garcia – Certain Dark Things – Vampires in Mexico, conflicts between tradition and neoliberalism.
  • Laurie Penny – Everything Belongs to the Future – disturbingly plausible near-future dystopia; cutting-edge medical research and the police inflitration of radical activism.
  • Becky Chambers – The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet – old-fashioned (but multiculturally updated) space opera; a bit cheesy but utterly irresistible, delicious, and adorable.
  • Chris Beckett – Daughter of Eden – Conclusion to the brilliant and thought-provoking Eden trilogy. I wrote about the first volume several years ago: http://www.shaviro.com/Blog/?p=1201
  • Ada Palmer, Too Like the Lightning – This is stunning and altogether original; I have never read anything even remotely like it. A 25th century heterotopia with posthuman inventions, but also a culture-wide obsession with the French Enlightenment (Voltaire, Rousseau, Diderot, Sade). Apparent economic abundance, but messy, complicated politics, strange hierarchies, and odd philosophical dilemmas. Stops basically in the middle – waiting impatiently for the sequel, due in the spring.

Canavan on Octavia Butler

Gerry Canavan’s new book on Octavia Butler is smart and useful. It gives a good introduction to Butler for people who have never read her before, but it also provides much food for thought to those who (like me) have already read all of Butler’s published works, and know them well. This is the case both because Canavan offers fresh and original takes on Butler’s published writing, and also because he is one of the first people to have done research in the Butler archives at the Huntington Library. Butler wrote prodigiously, and left behind a vast quantity of work that she never published: unfinished stories and novels, alternate versions, and texts she completed, but decided weren’t good enough for publication. Canavan goes through a lot of this work, and situates the actual publications in the light of many things that Butler tried out but couldn’t resolve to her satisfaction. In part, this is because she was a perfectionist, always feeling that she hadn’t done well enough. In part, also, this is because Butler suffered from periods of writer’s block, when she was unable to give her work the point and focus that she needed.

But above all, Canavan shows, Butler’s enormous quantity of unfinished and unpublished work testifies to the fact that she was a genuinely original and creative thinker. At their best, science fiction and speculative fiction are indeed acts of speculation and experimentation as rigorous and as insightful as philosophical speculation and scientific experimentation can be. Creating fictional characters, and telling fictional stories, can itself be a way of probing the unknown. This was certainly the case for Butler, all of whose work, even the most polished, is unresolvedly conflictual. As Canavan says explicitly at one point, Butler’s work always grapples with what Kant called Antinomies — that is to say, with dialectically opposed perspectives, both of which have their valid points (or their “truth”) but which remain incompatible with one another. Kantian Antinomies may be distinguished from Hegelian Contradictions in that the former, unlike the latter, cannot be reconciled by jumping to a meta-level with a supposed higher truth that accommodates both.

[Irrelevant digression: To my mind Hegel’s vision is a catastrophe for human thought, and a dishonest denial of the stubborn intractability of actual Antinomies. You know Zizek is engaging in mystification when he says that Hegel is really about rupture rather than reconciliation; for if that were the case, Hegel would have stayed with the “bad infinity” of the Kantian Antinomies, instead of making a bogus claim to “sublate” or resolve them. Sorry for this detour, which has nothing to do with Canavan’s book, but only reflects my own obsessions.]

In any case, Canavan’s accounts of the unpublished material work to show how complex a thinker and writer Butler was; how she always rejected facile resolutions, and only published novels and stories in which unresolvable difficulties were articulated in many dimensions, remaining intact through all their developments and metamorphoses. Butler’s work is largely concerned with utopian desire as it meets the horrors of actual human history. Encounters with alien beings work to sharpen these terms. Butler’s books look at human-created predicaments like exploitation and enslavement and bigotry and other sorts of violence and destruction, without willing into existence a solution to these more-than-difficulties, and also without cynically accepting the status quo on grounds that it is supposedly inevitable. This leads to opposed valorizations at the same time, which is what makes her books so knotty and difficult and uncompromisingly clearsighted. For instance in the Lilith’s Brood trilogy, it is both the case that the Oankali (the aliens who rescue the few human survivors of a global nuclear war) stand for a cosmopolitan, hybridizing and civilised remedy to the intractable racism/sexism/etc of actual American and world culture, and, at the same time,  that the Oankali are arch-oppressors, whose actions encapsulate and repeat all the horrors of colonisation, exploitation, and enslavement, from the Middle Passage to the current day. Canavan is very good at outlining these antinomies, which drive Butler’s fictions, and are their main expressive content.