Jul 14, 2012
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.
Jun 06, 2012
Speculative Realism and Object-Oriented Onology are the new buzzwords in philosophy. They are what my work has been about all along
Thirteen years ago, I began my first published novel with the following words:
...Frankenstein's monster speaks: the computer. But where are its words coming from? Is the wisdom on those cold lips our own, merely repeated at our request? Or is something else speaking? --A voice we have always dreamed of hearing?
So begins Ventus, which of course is about nanotech and terraforming; but is also about something else, for which I didn't have a name at that point. I made one up: I called the concept thalience. Thalience is what you get when you find (or deliberately create) entities that are clearly objects, but which behave in ways that are supposed to only be possible for subjects. A thalient entity is neither object nor subject, or perhaps it's both. The book explores this tension (though not without a few swordfights, battles, betrayals, and romances).
I mention this because, now that Bruce Sterling has talked about Graham Harman's 'object-oriented philosophy' in Wired, this meme appears ripe for becoming a new intellectual fashion. Perhaps it's petty, but I'd like to put a stake in the sand here.
Two terms, speculative realism and object-oriented ontology, have very recently given a name to the thing that I've been thinking and writing about for nearly two decades now (it took seven years to write Ventus). It's been unbelievably gratifying for me to discover these kindred spirits--people like Jane Bennett, Ian Bogost, Andy Clark, Timothy Morton, Graham Harman and Bruno Latour. Latour's been at this for decades, and I confess to only recently discovering him--but the others in this cadre seem to have undertaken their intellectual investigations at about the same time as myself. They are all scientists, theorists or philosophers, of course; as far as I know, I'm the first person to have explicitly built science fiction novels around these new areas of inquiry.
After Ventus, the novel where I jumped in with both feet was Lady of Mazes. In it, the anti-Ariadne, Livia kodaly, wages a one-woman war against what Quentin Meillassoux has now helpfully labeled as correlationism. Correlationism is the belief that the only reality is the object-subject pair--that all I can ever say about anything is that is like such-and-such for me. I can never say what it is in itself; Kant made that impossible. In Lady of Mazes, Livia begins with this belief; as she puts it, "reality is always mediated."
That may be true, but Livia is unsatisfied with the conclusion everybody else has drawn--a conclusion that has direct political and emotional consequences for her and her people. The artificially intelligent systems that create and sustain the consensual realities in which Livia's people live, called manifolds, do not interface with them through speech, or any normal communications medium--they do so by observing our values. At one point in the story, a manifold has become empty because all its human citizens have died. Yet the manifold still exists, because its creators built it around the value of music, and they have left a single drum beating, its tapping driven by water dripping from a rain-catchment barrel. Livia's peers want to retire the manifold and take over its resources--but late one night, she sneaks into the drummers' reality and replaces the ailing drum with a fresh one.
drumbeat sounded clear and distinct.
Each one rolled out into the night, reaching nobody’s ears, but real
nonetheless. It was a tremble of air,
nothing more, yet in that tremble the drummers lived. In that tremble of air was something not of
Westerhaven, not preserved by your Government or to be found in the
narratives. Call it the Song of
Ometeotl, if you wish. It remained in my
ears as I stole back through the forest, and returned in secret to my home.”
...“At the time I didn’t know why I did it. It was one of those actions that you can’t reconcile with the person you think you are. But now I understand. I was honoring the existence and dignity of a reality independent of my own."
This is one of the purposes of object-oriented philosphy (or speculative realism if you prefer): to honour the existence and dignity of a reality independent of our own. For me, to have written the above words in 2003 was to expose a nerve that I thought at the time was entirely private and personal--it was to confess to a unique mania that I felt no one else would understand or sympathize with. While the critical reception to Lady of Mazes was very kind, I did get that sense: the book was good, the topic... odd. What is most odd is that now, in 2012, the issues I brought up in the book seem utterly current, even obvious. (I suppose that's one reason why The Atlantic just reviewed Lady of Mazes.)
Livia never abandons the idea that reality is always mediated, but she does abandon the idea that there is nothing real outside of the human-world correlation. She imagines the relationship I called thalience, and it sets her free. She uses her new knowledge to in turn free her people from a correlationist tyranny personified in the novel by the culture known as the Archipelago, and an idealist AI named 3340.
Messianism aside, this pair of ideas--rejection of correlationism and commitment to a necessary mediation between the things of this world--locates me rather precisely in the current landscape of speculative realist thinkers. To be exact, it puts me in substantial agreement with Graham Harman, whose new book The Quadruple Object is compatible, I guess you'd say, with Livia Kodaly's stance. (Of course Harman is doing philosophy, and I am not: my explorations are artistic, though they allow me to create some odd quasi-philosophical entities, such as artificial intelligences designed to make the cracks in correlationism obvious.)
With people like Bennett and Bogost and Morton and Harman writing about this stuff, I'm suddenly overwhelmed with ideas and new perspectives. You can see it in my recent work, in particular two recent stories, "To Hie from Far Cilenia" and "Deodand." There'll be more.
In 2003 I thought I was alone in wanting to wage what Blake called 'mental fight' for what I'd come to call the dignity of the real. Somehow (surely without my influence) an army is coalescing around the issue.
It's great to have discovered kindred spirits.