Alien Phenomenology, Object Oriented Ontology, and Ventus
Ha ha! Yes, I'm getting more and more abstract lately. But it's high time we dug into the deeper subtext of my novels
I started reading Ian Bogost's latest book last night. Alien Phenomenology, or What it's Like to be a Thing seems an unlikely excursion for a theorist whose major work so far was a literary theory for video game criticism. (I used the ideas in Bogost's book Unit Operations as a major theoretical framework for the scenario-fiction writing technique I outlined in my Master's thesis.)
It's not often that I have the experience of hopping up and down, gnashing my teeth and shouting "well of course!" but I've been having it since starting Alien Phenomenology. But I don't mean that in a bad way; I had the same experience when I dove into Jane Bennett's Vibrant Matter, and more recently exploring the work of philosopher Graham Harman. It's the frustration of a long-delayed recognition of kindred minds. I talked a little about that recently, and here's that same new feeling again.
So, as I'm reading Bogost and I come across statements like
That things are is not a matter of debate. What it means that something in particular is for another thing that is: this is the question that interests me. The significance of one thing to another differs according to the perspective of both.
...I am forcibly reminded of, how, nearly fifteen years ago now, I imagined Jordan Mason sitting on the shore of a lake, and listening as the smart-dust nanotech that pervaded the entire surface of the planet Ventus tried to figure out what it was:
He could hear the song of the lake. It was deep and powerful, belying the tranquility of the surface. Thin grass grew here, but the soil beneath his feet was shallow, quickly giving way to sand. Below that... rock? He couldn’t quite make it out, though it felt like there was something else down there, a unique presence deep below the earth.
There was no indication that anything supernatural dwelt here.
He sat down, mind empty for the first time in days, and watched the water for a while. Gradually, without really trying, he began hearing the voices of the waves.
They trilled like little birds as they approached the shore. Each had its own name, but otherwise they were impossible to tell apart. They rolled humming towards Jordan, then fell silent without fanfare as they licked the sand. It was like solid music converging on him where he sat. He had never heard anything so beautiful or delicately fragile.
He didn’t even notice the failing light or the cold as he sat transfixed. His mind could not remain focussed forever, though, and after a while he made up a little game, trying to follow individual waves with both his eyes and his inner sense.
He tried to follow the eddies of a particular wave as it broke around a nearby rock, and in doing so discovered something new. It seemed like such an innocent detail at first: as the wave split, so did its voice. From one, it became many, then each tinier individuality vanished in turbulence. As they did, they cried out, not it seemed in fright, but in tones almost of... delight. Urgent delight--as if at the last second they had discovered something important they needed to tell the world.
This quote from my year-2000 novel Ventus presents a vision of the self-definition of the world becoming visible for the first time to a human being. The designers of the Ventus terraforming system imagined a technology that would dissolve into everything in the world and actively investigate it. The nanotech in and on a tree would figure out that it was a tree; a rock would know it was a rock, a hill that it was a hill. And each of these objects would be able to communicate to the human settlers of the planet what it could do for them. "I am flint, you can build a fire with me." "I am mint, you can eat me." The only problem was, this magnificent system for identifying things had to be able to invent its own categories in order to do its job; and it did that too well. When the human settlers arrived, it quickly decided what they were--but on its own terms, and using its own ontology and semantics. As far as the humans were concerned, the nanotech didn't recognize them. But something far more interesting had in fact happened: it saw them, not as they wanted to be seen--not through their filter--but as it had come to see things.
And so the nanotech (which later generations of humans called the Winds) destroyed all the settlers' competing technologies, knocked them back to the stone age, and went about integrating them efficiently into the artificial ecosystems of Ventus.
Ventus was far more than a cautionary tale about technology run amok--in fact it wasn't really that at all. I wanted to talk about how objects see other objects; but back then, I had nobody to talk to about it. Bogost's new book is another indication that the hourglass has turned, and that these ideas are finally current.
I've since moved on to next steps--but I would recommend Alien Phenomenology because Bogost also senses the need to go from discussing OOO in the abstract, to working out what it means in practice. Alien Phenomenology is the first book I've seen that explicitly challenges its readership to employ and deploy the ideas of speculative realism. This will be no mean feat, and I've already spent five years planning how to do that for my as-yet unwritten third novel in the Ventus/Lady of Mazes series, a book I've tentatively titled The Rewilding.
Because now that an entirely new world--new universe, in fact--lies open to us, it's time to stop pointing at it, and time to start exploring it.
And building in it.