hunters, farmers, and time

In a wonderful review-essay in the most recent issue of The New Atlantis, Adam Roberts argues that farmers were the first time-travelers:

It is certainly possible to imagine our hunter-gatherer ancestors living in some bestial, continuous present of consciousness, their experience of time pricked out with moments of intensity — the chase, the kill, the satisfaction of a full stomach — but indifferent to the distant future.  

But it is quite impossible to imagine farmers prospering in such a frame of mind. Once we humans began to depend on planted crops and domesticated animals, our new mode of life absolutely required us to think ahead: to anticipate setbacks and think through solutions, to plan, to map out the future world — indeed, many potential future worlds.

Time travel as mental exercise must have begun at least that early. And that makes this focus on recent modernity look a little parochial. We are not so special. Indeed, thinking in this way of the future’s origins might make us rethink some of the metaphors we use to articulate our sense of time. Gleick is good on the limitations of these figures of speech — for example, time, as he shows, is not really “like a river.” Farmers, the original time travelers, are likewise prone to think of rivers not first as modes of transport but means of irrigation. Might time be the same for us — not a vehicle for taking us somewhere, as a horse is to a hunter, but a resource to make fertile what we have and hold dear?  

This view would imply that science fiction is at root a farming literature.  

I am intrigued by this idea, and responded to it in an email to Adam that I’m going to adapt for this post. (I should mention here that Adam and I are these days thinking together about fantasy.) If “science fiction is at root a farming literature,” could we not say that the Primal Scene of fantasy is the disruption of the lives of farmers by hunters? And that that disruption is (to stick with Freudian categories) a kind of return of the repressed, the nightmarish recurrence of something that the farmers thought had been banished by their forethought, i.e., their time travel?

It is not just fantasy, of course: when Horace retreats to his Sabine farm he is surely escaping the “hunters” of Roman politics; and when Machiavelli is exiled by the fierce hunters of Florentine politics to the countryside what does he do? He enters his study and practices the time travel of conversing with long-dead men. Maybe the founding myth of this particular pattern is Cincinnatus’s returning to his plow. (On the Lawn of the University of Virginia there is a statue of George Washington standing with the fasces, his plow behind him — and immediately across the Lawn there is another statue, of Jefferson sitting and contemplating this scene. It’s marvelously ambiguous.)

But what if the genre of fantasy uniquely finds its fons et origo in the fear of the return of the repressed hunters? Think of Odysseus’s encounter with the Kyklopes and his deep repulsion at the fact that they do not farm but just eat whatever comes up out of the ground — and then he immediately goes on to note that they have no politics either, and simply deal out whatever they think is justice to their own families. They are hunter-gatherers and therefore uncivilized, as are Penelope’s suitors of course, who behave in exactly the same way. And so the killing of the suitors and the subsequent purging of the halls of Odysseus are a prefiguration of the Scouring of the Shire.

So maybe science fiction is fundamentally about the hopes of farmers, and fantasy about their fears. If the history that David Graeber and David Wengrow sketch out  —the one I described in my previous post — is correct, and there was no smooth sequential abandonment of hunting and gathering in favor of farming but rather a very long period of mixed economies, mixed cultures, then the survival of these complexities into modern literature is not wholly surprising.

let joy be unconfined …

… because there’s a new Adam Roberts novel!

No one has yet said to me, “Of course you praise Adam Roberts’s novels, you’re his friend.” But if anyone ever did say that to me I’d reply that Adam and I have become friends in large part because I admire his novels — and his criticism as well. A few months back I commented to Adam that I couldn’t remember how we first connected, and he reminded me that it was in the comments section of a now-silent website called The Valve. His posts there intrigued me, I commented, he replied, I decided to read one of his novels — and a friendship was born, one that I greatly value.

So … am I prejudiced in his favor? Only in what we might call a Hazlittian sense, I would argue: I am prejudiced in favor of Adam’s writing because what I have read by him has consistently given me pleasure. And that is the right kind of prejudice to have.

Which brings me to The Real-Town Murders,which is a really good novel — you should read it. You should buy it. You also should support Adam’s completion of Anthony Burgess’s idea for a book, The Black Princeplease do, or the book won’t be published and I won’t get to read it.

But back to The Real-Town Murders. It’s a fantastic read, fast-paced, edge-of-your-seat stuff — but it’s also sometimes disorienting, and I want to emphasize the disorientation it produces, because that’s related to something Adam has written about before — with, I think, disarming honesty — which is, not to put too fine a point on it, his neglect by the SF world. Not complete neglect, mind you, but significant neglect, especially of a book with the ambition, profound intelligence, and emotional depth of The Thing Itself, about which I have written here. It’s in light of this neglect, and Adam’s understandable puzzlement at it, that I want to say something about The Real-Town Murders.

As I say, it’s a terrific thriller — Roberts writes masterful chase scenes — most of his books have chase scenes, and they’re always great — but it’s also kinda weird. For instance, it can be really hard in The Real-Town Murders to know if someone is dead. Sometimes you think people must be dead but they turn out not to be. At the risk of a spoiler, here’s an example:

‘You see,’ Pu said. ‘You see, you can’t reinvigorate the Real simply by decreeing it. You can’t make it happen by fiat. You have to make it more attractive than the Shine. More intriguing to the people who … Who …’ Her weight slumped away from Alma, and she struggled to continue holding her upright. But she had gone, and Alma was not strong enough. As slowly as she could she lowered Pu Sto’s body to the ground. The aircars banked overhead and came down into the turf fifteen metres away.

Pu Sto had fainted.

Fainted?? You said “she had gone,” and we know what that means! You said “her body”! Damn you, Roberts! So a little later on, when someone else seems to have been killed, I the reader am waiting, waiting, waiting for the revelation that my assumption was wrong … again … but no. This time the assumption is correct. (Isn’t it?)

Here’s another thing: sometimes in this book human language goes awry. That is, certain characters temporarily lose the ability to speak grammatically coherent sentences. Sometimes this happens to automated systems, bots, as:

‘Relevant company documentation and answer any question to podscrip pending in your legally permitted break for lunch,’ said the receptionist. It had been prodded into a less secure margin of its response algorithm.

‘Furious green ideas?’ Alma asked.

‘Profitability supersedes itself in a company atmosphere of positivity and,’ said the receptionist, smiling.

‘Realising that nothing changes,’ Alma tried, ‘change everything.’

‘Happy to leverage all options and drill down to the next level.’

‘Let me ask you a direct question: are you, in fact, not the Ordinary, but rather the Extraordinary Transport Consultancy?’

‘Thank you for your input,’ beamed the receptionist.

‘Teleportation?’ Alma tried. ‘Instant transportation devices?’

‘No comment,’ the receptionist replied, rather too rapidly, and shut down.

But it happens to human beings too — and Roberts never explains why. He just throws us into this weird world where sometimes humans, like digital machines, develop linguistic glitches — and perhaps for the same reasons, given that the future society he describes draws human beings closer and closer to as purely digital a world as can be managed. And there are people who just speak oddly, by my standards, for reasons that might be related to the online world called the Shine or because they have a regional accent that I don’t know about or…?

‘I know he works in the world, but his free time is all online. All of it! And you need to own dare stand – I make sure he eats. He has always ate. He used to weight a hefty number. Loves his food. He comes to mine, and I feed him till his stomach bulges. Then it’s o mama and gut-ache mama and I see it shrink down.’

There’s even a (relatively minor) character — one whose language is still more distorted — whose name seems to change: for most of the book he’s called “Lester” but there’s a period where he’s called “Ernest,” and I don’t know what to make of that, because, though I’m tempted to say that it’s just a copy-editing oversight, there’s another minor character whose name changes repeatedly through the handful of pages in which we see her. (So I’m thinking: is Ernest someone different? Did I miss something? Surely I missed something. But I’m caught up in this story here and don’t want to go back to be sure.)

With Roberts, you never know — this is my point. Roberts likes making fictional knight’s moves, which is another way of saying that he is a perverse rather than an accommodating writer. To me, this is endlessly delightful; I enjoy having my legs taken out from under me, from time to time, as I read. I laugh at how Roberts sneaks in a line from Pynchon here, a line from Shakespeare there. I love this novel’s extended, multi-faceted homage to and riff on Hitchcock — another guy who was good at chase scenes — who makes an uncredited appearance here, as he typically did in his own films, but whose name is never mentioned except as the provider of an epigraph for the novel’s second part: “Puns are the highest form of literature.”

It’s all enormous fun. But I suspect that there is a kind of reader — a quite common kind of reader — for whom it would be rather too much. Many readers like their fictional moves to be straight, like those of a rook, or (when they’re in an adventurous mood) on a diagonal, like those of a bishop. This starting out on one path and then suddenly veering off — well, it’s rather disorienting, isn’t it? Rather perverse. I say: let Roberts do his thing! Take a ride! But many readers will simply prefer writers who are willing to do more to accommodate the most typical readerly expectations. It’s the way of the world. And this, I think, is why Adam Roberts hasn’t won a major SF award, though he has written several of the very finest SF novels of this millennium.

In addition to the pleasures it provides, The Real-Town Murders is also an extremely thoughtful meditation on one of the classic forms of literary pleasure. People have long asked “Why does tragedy give pleasure?”, which is a very good question — but one might equally well ask why thrillers give pleasure, why mysteries do — why death does, the sudden appearance of death in the midst of life. (In tragedies the most important death comes at the end; in mysteries it comes at the beginning.) It’s a question you might expect both Adam Roberts and Alfred Hitchcock to have some thoughts about. And they do. We could talk about those thoughts once you’ve read the novel.

Topsy-turvy, Tono-Bungay

In his blog-through of the works of H. G. Wells, Adam Roberts has reached Tono-Bungay, and there’s much food for thought in the post. Real food, not patent medicine like Tono-Bungay itself. Much of the novel, in Adam’s account, considers just that relationship: between the real and the unreal, the health-giving and the destructive, the truly valuable and mere waste — all the themes that Robertson Davies explores in The Rebel Angels and that are also, therefore, the chief concern of my recent essay on Davies, “Filth Therapy”.

Here I might quote Adam quoting some people who quote some other person:

Patrick Brantlinger and Richard Higgins quote William Cohen’s Introducing Filth: Dirt, Disgust, and Modern Life to the effect that ‘polluting or filthy objects’ can ‘become conceivably productive, the discarded sources in which riches may lie’, adding that ‘“Riches” have often been construed as “waste”’ and noting that ‘the reversibility of the poles — wealth and waste, waste and wealth — became especially apparent with the advent of a so-called consumer society during the latter half of the nineteenth century’ [‘Waste and Value: Thorstein Veblen and H. G. Wells’, Criticism, 48:4 (2006), 453].

This prompts me to want to write a sequel to “Filth Therapy,” though I clearly need to read Introducing Filth first.

It occurs to me that these are matters of longstanding interest to Adam, whose early novel Swiftly I have described as “excresacramental” — it was the first novel by Adam that I read, and given how completely disgusting it is, I’m rather surprised that I kept reading him. But he’s that good, even when he’s dirty-minded, as it were.

These themes make their way into fiction, I think, because of an ongoing suspicion, endemic now in Western culture if not elsewhere, that we have it all wrong, that we have valued what we should not have valued and vice versa, that we have built our house only having first rejected the stone that should be the chief cornerstone. As the old General Confession has it, “We have left undone those thinges whiche we ought to have done, and we have done those thinges which we ought not to have done, and there is no health in us.” This suspicion, which is often muted but never quite goes away, is perhaps the most lasting inheritance of Christianity in a post-Christian world: the feeling that we have not just missed the mark but are utterly topsy-turvy.

Christianity is always therefore suggesting to us the possibility of a “revaluation of all values,” a phrase that Nietzsche in The Antichrist used against Christianity:

I call Christianity the one great curse, the one great intrinsic depravity, the one great instinct for revenge for which no expedient (i.e. A means of attaining an end, especially one that is convenient but considered improper or immoral) is sufficiently poisonous, secret, subterranean, petty — I call it the one immortal blemish of mankind… And one calculates time from the dies nefastus on which this fatality arose – from the first day of Christianity! Why not rather from its last? From today? Revaluation of all values!

But Nietzsche issues this call because he thinks that Christianity itself has not set us right-side-up, but rather turned us upside-down. It was Christianity that first revalued all values, saying that the first shall be last and the last first, and he who seeks his life will lose it while he who loses his life shall find it, and blessed are the meek, and blessed are the poor in spirit…. Nietzsche’s call is therefore a call for restoration of the values that Christianity flipped: rule by the strong, contempt for the weak. It is, when considered in the long historical term, a profoundly conservative call.

Whether or not Nietzsche’s demand for a new paganism is right, surely it is scarcely necessary: for rule by the strong and contempt for the weak is the Way of the World, always has been and always will be; Christianity even at its most powerful can scarcely distract us from that path, much less set us marching in the opposite direction. Because that Way is so intrinsic to our neural and moral orientation, because we run so smoothly along its well-paved road, it is always useful to us to read books that don’t suggest merely minor adjustments in our customs but rather point to the possibility of something radically other. Such books are at the very least a kind of tonic, and a far better one than the nerve-wracking stimulation of Tono-Bungay.

things and creatures, conscience and personhood

Yesterday I read Jeff VanderMeer’s creepy, disturbing, uncanny, and somehow heart-warming new novel Borne, and it has prompted two sets of thoughts that may or may not be related to one another. But hey, this is a blog: incoherence is its birthright. So here goes.


A few months ago I wrote a post in which I quoted this passage from a 1984 essay by Thomas Pynchon:

If our world survives, the next great challenge to watch out for will come — you heard it here first — when the curves of research and development in artificial intelligence, molecular biology and robotics all converge. Oboy. It will be amazing and unpredictable, and even the biggest of brass, let us devoutly hope, are going to be caught flat-footed. It is certainly something for all good Luddites to look forward to if, God willing, we should live so long.

If you look at the rest of the essay, you’ll see that Pynchon thinks certain technological developments could be embraced by Luddites because the point of Luddism is not to reject technology but to empower common people in ways that emancipate them from the dictates of the Capitalism of the One Percent.

But why think that future technologies will not be fully under the control of the “biggest of brass”? It is significant that Pynchon points to the convergence of “artificial intelligence, molecular biology and robotics” — which certainly sounds like he’s thinking of the creation of androids: humanoid robots, biologically rather than mechanically engineered. Is the hope, then, that such beings would become not just cognitively but morally independent of their makers?

Something like this is the scenario of Borne, though the intelligent being is not humanoid in either shape or consciousness. One of the best things about the book is how it portrays a possible, though necessarily limited, fellowship between humans and fundamentally alien (in the sense of otherness, not from-another-planet) sentient beings. And what enables that fellowship, in this case, is the fact that the utterly alien being is reared and taught from “infancy” by a human being — and therefore, it seems, could have become something rather though not totally different if a human being with other inclinations had done the rearing. The story thus revisits the old nature/nurture question in defamiliarizing and powerful ways.

The origins of the creature Borne are mysterious, though bits of the story are eventually revealed. He — the human who finds Borne chooses the pronoun — seems to have been engineered for extreme plasticity of form and function, a near-total adaptability that is enabled by what I will call, with necessary vagueness, powers of absorption. But a being so physiologically and cognitively flexible simply will not exhibit predictable behavior. And therefore one can imagine circumstances in which such a being could take a path rather different than that chosen for him by his makers; and one can imagine that different path being directed by something like conscience. Perhaps this is where Luddites might place their hopes for the convergence of “artificial intelligence, molecular biology and robotics”: in the arising from that convergence of technology with a conscience.


Here is the first sentence of Adam Roberts’s novel Bête:

As I raised the bolt-gun to its head the cow said: ‘Won’t you at least Turing-test me, Graham?’

If becoming a cyborg is a kind of reaching down into the realm of the inanimate for resources to supplement the deficiencies inherent in being made of meat, what do we call this reaching up? — this cognitive enhancement of made objects and creatures until they become in certain troubling ways indistinguishable from us? Or do we think of the designing of intelligent machines, even spiritual machines, as a fundamentally different project than the cognitive enhancement of animals? In Borne these kinds of experiments — and others that involve the turning of humans into beasts — are collectively called “biotech.” I would prefer, as a general term, the one used in China Miéville’s fabulous novel Embassytown: “biorigging,” a term that connotes complex design, ingenuity, and a degree of making-it-up-as-we-go-along. Such biorigging encompasses every kind of genetic modification but also the combining in a single organism or thing biological components with more conventionally technological ones, the animate and the inanimate. It strikes me that we need a more detailed anatomy of these processes — more splitting, less lumping.

In any case, what both VanderMeer’s Borne and Roberts’s Bête do is describe a future (far future in one case, near in the other) in which human beings live permanently in an uncanny valley, where the boundaries between the human and the nonhuman are never erased but never quite fixed either, so that anxiety over these matters is woven into the texture of everyday experience. Which sounds exhausting. And if VanderMeer is right, then the management of this anxiety will become focused not on the unanswerable questions of what is or is not human, but rather on a slightly but profoundly different question: What is a person?

mobility, bicycles, cyborgs

I’ve mentioned that Adam Roberts is blogging his way through the voluminous works of H. G. Wells, and I’ve found myself thinking often about this post, on Wells’s early book The Wheels of Chance: A Bicycling Idyll (1896). At one point in the post Adam engages in helpful ways with Paul Smethurst’s recent book The Bicycle: Towards a Global History (2015):

Smethurst’s account of the rise of the bike argues for speed as the salient, something he equates with a new mode of mastery that is both spatial and sexual. ‘Pedestrian travel is more embodied and place-bound than bicycle mobility, but mastery of space is more limited,’ he suggests. ‘Ground gained step-by-step can be less expansive: there is little sense of speed and motion is absorbed into the surrounding space. … Bicycle mobility has a greater potential for transgression than walking because the cyclist can more readily breach the boundaries of social space.’ [Smethurst, 64] He concedes that the motor car ‘has displaced the bicycle as a figure of speed’ nowadays, but maintains that bicycling involves the actual penetration of space in a way that the spectator-like experience of driving does not.

Then Adam quotes Smethurst:

As modernity advanced in the West in the late 19th century, the idea of existential spatiality was beginning to supersede attachment to traditional place-bound community, in both theory and practice. … Humans are said to be able to cope with severing ties to traditional place-bound communities through a capacity to objectify the world by setting themselves apart, by creating a gap. While this is sometimes represented in modernism as a negative sense of alienation, bicycle mobility re-engages the subject through narcissistic projection and a mastery of space en passant.

And comments:

It’s a particular kind of machine, in other words. Wells pitches the narcissistic projection (as it were) as comic, and his take on the mastery of space is tied, I am going to argue, as I freewheel down the hill of this post, with a sensibility we would nowadays call cyborg. Not just the fusion of man and machine in the context of modernity, the fusion of male and female, and their respective modes of sexual desiring.

You should read the whole post. It’s really good.

I think both Roberts and Smethurst are onto something quite important here. Reading them together you discern that the bicycle as a technology occupies a distinctive point where embodiment and crossing meet. (I say “crossing” rather than “transgression” because I don’t want to confine myself to morally or politically freighted uses, and though the root of “transgress” means simply to “step across,” we now use it exclusively to describe bold, risky crossings that defy something or someone, either for good or ill. That’s too freighted a set of connotations for my purposes. Smethurst often uses the term “crossing” for similar reasons.) The appeal of the bicycle lies in its power to enable crossings of space, including politicized social space, that would be frustratingly time-consuming on foot, but to do so in a way that requires your embodiment, that demands your full physical engagement. And if Adam is right, this particular nexus of possibility is powerful enough that people can become in a sense fused with their bicycles and thereby become proto-cyborgs.

As Adam notes in another post, this one on the 1905 book A Modern Utopia, the question of mobility is an essential one for Wells:

Not for the first time in Wells’s career, the ability to move freely about is the real index of utopian desire. His alt-world, with its globe-spanning networks of rapid electric trams and trains, and its happily nomadic population, is one vision of that possibility. Where Thomas More sequestered his utopia on an island against the hostility of the larger world, Wells inverts that model: his whole world is perfect except for ‘the Island of Incurable Cheats‘’, ‘Islands of Drink’ and so on. But this larger logic of inversion reveals itself as, actually, an ideological shift. For just as Wells’s Utopians zoom here and there with ideal and total mobility, so they are surveilled with an ideal and total surveillance. Every Utopian is assigned ‘a distinct formula, a number or “scientific name,” under which he or she could be docketed’, and every single citizen is included in this database: ‘the record of their movement hither and thither, the entry of various material facts, such as marriage, parentage, criminal convictions and the like’.

This, provocatively, suggests a proportional relationship between a given person’s mobility and his or her legibility (to borrow a term from James Scott You are free to move about insofar as the state can “read” you, can know who you are no matter where you are. As mobility goes up, privacy goes down; one freedom comes at the expense of the other.

In this context we might note that in the (benevolently?) panoptic world described by Iain M. Banks in his stories of the Culture, those who commit crimes are not imprisoned but rather are followed everywhere they go by a drone, which in turn leads to social ostracism. Mobility is not restricted because the prerogative of the state of punish does not, in circumstances of unlimited surveillance, require the restriction of mobility. But for the person who gets “slap-droned,” freedom of movement may not have much point.

But in our imperfectly surveilled world, one of the primary ways that citizens become legible to the government is through having homes, domiciles, permanent addresses. A legal system like the Schengen Agreement is meant to apply to people whose governments are sure to know where they live; when it’s made to deal with refugees and others who are homeless, confusion ensues. For those who make, and most completely benefit from, the rules by which the state sees us, mobility might seem to be an unalloyed good, which is why Emmanuel Macron’s campaign slogan was En Marche! — On the Move! On the way! To where, one might ask, but it doesn’t matter, the point is simply that we picture ourselves as mobile people, unconstricted by place.

But if you’re a Syrian refugee, being en marche can become a curse. It is good, indeed, to reduce one’s chances of being bombed or gassed or shot, but it is also harrowing to have no idea when one can stop being on the move, can rest — can, maybe, even have a home. We might here offer a thesis: The value of mobility is relative to the option of stability.

In this recent essay on displaced persons, past and present, Peggy Kamuf writes,

What, then, of the right to move, the right to migrate? Is it not the most fundamental human right, presumed by every other right that can be claimed as a human right? … Although the Universal Declaration of Human Rights recognized in 1948 that everyone has “the right to leave any country, including his own,” none of its 30 articles says anything of the right to migrate to elsewhere. As for freedom of movement, the Declaration envisions it solely “within the borders of each state” (Article 13, “Everyone has the right to freedom of movement and residence within the borders of each state”). As conceived by the UN, then, freedom of movement is a right limited by the sovereignty of the nation state. Writing in the same year, Hannah Arendt pointed to just this limitation of the “best-intentioned humanitarian attempts to obtain new declarations of human rights from international organizations.”

Freedom to depart means very little if there is not also the freedom to arrive.

In a few days I’ll be going to Wheaton, Illinois — a thousand miles from where I now live, in Texas — to visit my old friends, and I’ve decided to drive. I’ll not try to do it in one day; I’ll have to stop overnight; it’s not exactly a scenic drive; and yet I’d rather put up with those inconveniences than with the multiple indignities of commercial air travel. That is, in this particular case, I would rather accept restricted mobility than accept the multiple ways that the TSA and the airlines demand that I become what Michel Foucault calls a “docile body.” (I might feel different about all this if I could afford business- or first-class travel, but I can’t.)

All of which should serve as a reminder that it is not only mobility that we are discussing here. Flying does not give me more mobility, it gives me greater speed: that is to say, it uses less time. If I were wholly unconcerned about time I could ride a bicycle or walk to Illinois. But if I were more concerned about time than I am — if, for instance, I were in the middle of a school term and could only spare a couple of days — then I’d simply have to accept the indignities of being the airline’s docile body. Or stay home. But I’m not in school right now, I have no pressing deadlines, and my wife and son are happy to share his car for a few days; so I’ll be driving.

Publicists and salespeople speak of “the romance of travel,” but not all travel is romantic, and among the kinds that could plausibly be so described, there are multiple sources of appeal. Crossing the Atlantic on the Queen Mary, or Europe on the Orient Express, or Route 66 in an old Mustang, may all be romantic, but in radically different ways. (Is flying first-class to Europe also romantic, or just luxurious? I’m not sure.) We might experience the romance of being served, the romance of novelty, or the romance of … well, what is the driving-cross-country romance, the On the Road romance? It has a good deal to do with making your own decisions, driving as long as you want to drive and stopping when you want to stop. The romance of novelty can still be had in an automobile, but can be more readily had if you stay off the interstate highway system, which promises (and delivers) the complete absence of novelty.

Because you drive the automobile yourself — a situation that will last for the next few years at least — a fairly high level of physical as well as mental engagement in the act is possible, especially if (a) your car has a manual transmission and (b) you’re not on the interstate. As Nick Carr points out in his book on the powers and limits of automation, The Glass Cage, it’s even possible when driving a car to enter into the state of flow celebrated by Mihály Csíkszentmihályi — and that sense is what enables the cyborg-feeling that Adam talks about in his post on bicycles.

So any serious understanding of mobility will require that we map our experiences on a complex set of axes:

  • slow/fast
  • embodied/disembodied
  • independent/docile
  • impoverished/luxurious
  • rooted/rootless (or secure/insecure, or sameness/novelty)

Typically, people emplaced in the world as I am — i.e., wealthy people in safe and stable societies — have control over at least some of these dimensions, while the further you descend the social scale the fewer options will be available. And those who can choose will choose rather differently, because they will have different “sweet spots”: for some the conservation of time will be paramount and will therefore fly whenever flying takes less time than driving; others will prefer to stay local so they can be on their bicycle, or on their feet, as much as possible; and so on. We’ll have different preferences in different circumstances, of course; but each of us, I think, has an “all things being equal” default preference when it comes to being en marche.

Please look again at the binaries listed above. In general, I think we’ve seen over the past century or so a dramatic shift of preference towards the right-side options: willing to be more docile and disembodied in exchange for speed, luxury, and rootlessness. Which is why, even if the most important thing an individual can do for the environment is to stop flying, that’s simply unthinkable even to the most bien-pensant among us.

But I wonder if that could change, given (a) the increasing unpleasantness of air travel, (b) increasing reports of the unpleasantness of air travel, or (c) both. I have always hated long-distance driving, but the more time I spend in airports the better driving looks to me, thus my decision about this week’s trip. And next month, when Teri and I head to Biola University in Los Angeles for me to lead a faculty seminar there, we’ll also be automobiling there — certainly a more interesting drive than the one from Waco to Chicagoland, but also a longer one. And then maybe those who now drive can recover the pleasure of bicycling … Well, it’s something to hope for.

Though I don’t think the trajectory can be reversed: speed and neophilia (the love of novelty) are, I think, sufficiently desirable to most people who have choices that they’ll gladly accept docility and disembodiment in exchange for them. And that exchange is one of the key paths to the posthuman.

Text Patterns is back from the dead!

I’m back and probably not any better than ever!

This post is a bit of a catch-all catch-up before I write a longer one explaining what I’ve been thinking about these past few weeks.

One. My next book, How to Think, will be appearing in October from Convergent Books here in the U.S. and Profile Books in the U.K. I’m very happy with both publishers, who seem genuinely to get what I’m trying to do — and to see the value of it.

Two. I have also effectively completed The Year of Our Lord 1943: Christian Intellectuals and Total War, but in order to avoid competition with How to Think, it’ll come out in 2018. The book had been contracted with Harvard University Press, but over the past few months it has gradually become clear to me that that wasn’t an editorial fit, so I have moved to Oxford University Press, where I will get the chance to work again with the excellent Cynthia Read, who edited my Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction.

Three. I’ve got an essay in the new issue of National Affairs, “When Character No Longer Counts,” on Christians and the 2016 election.

Four. My friend Adam Roberts will be writing a biography of H. G. Wells — something I am very much looking forward to — and in preparation for that he is undertaking the Herculean, or perhaps Sisyphean, task of reading all of Wells’s published work and blogging about it. That blog is here, and so far it’s been really fascinating.

Five. Another dear friend, John Wilson, has a new endeavor in the works that will go public in the next couple of weeks. When it does, I’ll announce it here and on Twitter. One of the early posts will be my review of Jessica Riskin’s remarkable book The Restless Clock.

Six. Now, putting those previous two items together: I’ll also be writing for John about a wonderful little event I got to experience in London two weeks ago, featuring that Adam Roberts guy again moderating a conversation between Francis Spufford — who has a new novel about 18th-century New York — and Kim Stanley Robinson — who has a new novel about 22nd-century New York. Caroline Edwards of the University of London’s Birkbeck College wrote a nice report on the convo, if you’d like an overview. Adam began the conversation by asking a very provocative question about the relationship between the historical novel and science fiction — an appropriate inquiry indeed from someone whose most recent novel has scenes set in both the past and the future — and roughly the same periods covered by Spufford and Robinson. Much more about this anon.

Seven. In preparation for that event, and for writing about it, I not only re-read Golden Hill — which is simply marvelous — and read New York 2140 for the first time, I also went back and re-read Robinson’s novel Aurora, which I wasn’t crazy about when I first read it but was encouraged by Adam to re-think. My second reading has led me to wonder what in the world I was thinking the first time around. The book is superb, one of KSR’s very best, and I am very sorry that I didn’t see that before.

Eight. I haven’t yet been able to escape the clutches of Apple — something I’ve been contemplating and even working at for some time — because I have massive investments of money and time in both its hardware and software, but if I stay with it I may have to end up a full-time iOS user: the last three releases of MacOS have been a mess, though in varying ways, and now that I’m on Sierra my Mac freezes solid at least once a day. That hasn’t happened to me in years and years. I am convinced that the Mac is a dying platform. It’s dying very slowly, but it’s dying. Which is sad.

the fragility of platforms

In a comment on my previous post, Adam Roberts writes:

In terms of human intermediation, facebook and twitter are radically, fundamentally ‘thin’ platforms, where things like the church or the family are deep-rooted and ‘thick’. FB/Twitter-etc are also transient—both relatively recent and already showing signs of obsolescence. The sorts of institutions we’re talking about need to endure if they’re to do any good at all. Doesn’t this very temporariness magnify the volume of the reaction? People have been living with quite profound changes to social and cultural mores for decades, much longer than there has been such a thing as social media. When they take to Twitter they are trying to express deep-seated and profoundly-contextualised beliefs in 140 characters. It’s not surprising that what emerges is often just a barbaric yawp.

I think this is a very powerful point, because it reminds us that when we replace institutions with platforms, especially now that those platforms are uniformly digital, we’re moving from structures that, if not altogether antifragile, are relatively robust to structures that are either palpably fragile or untested.

Thought experiment: What if Twitter actually does as many have suggested and bans Donald Trump? They would be perfectly within their rights to do so — he would have no one to appeal to — so what would he do? The very platform he uses to howl his anger and outrage would be denied him, so where would he go? Facebook? But the architecture of Facebook doesn’t lend itself quite as well to his preferred tactics of engagement (for reasons I wish I had time to explore but do not). Trump’s ability to disseminate his messages in unedited form, and more particularly to change the subject when things aren’t going his way, would be dramatically curtailed. He would be dependent on others to share his message, others whose voices don’t reach as far as his now does. Could his Presidency survive his being exiled from this platform that he has made his own?

Tolkien’s riddles

The Riddles of the Hobbit is a riddling book about a riddling writer, a philological exercise concerning the works of a philologist. I wish there were more books like this. Literary critics tend to stick firmly (ruthlessly) with the standard critical idiom even when the texts they’re writing about are fundamentally incompatible with that idiom. I admire Adam for letting Tolkien’s habits of mind pull his (Adam’s) prose into an eccentric orbit. There’s a very funny imaginary dialogue between the Sphinx and Oedipus in which Oedipus refuses the Sphinx’s interpretation of its own riddle (“your riddle mixes metaphor and literal application in an inconsistent manner”); and an especially nice turn near the end where Adam comments that “the early medieval romance Ringe describes its hero as ’ane hubbity-duppety fellowe yclepit Fraodo, þat wiþ greete heorte did þe Ringe of powre destrowe” — to which he adds, in a helpful footnote, the information that “There is, of course, no actual medieval romance entitled Ringe.”

But these are not mere jokes, though they’re good jokes: they’re also ways of reflecting on riddling and the pursuit of riddles (including the kind of riddle-pursuit that in humanistic scholarship we call “source-hunting”). The book offers much more sober insights into Tolkien’s tale-telling and language-playing habits, too, but it always wears its critical hat at a rakish angle. I loved it and felt that it did more to get me thinking tolkienially (to coin a term) than almost anything I’ve read about old JRRT, Tom Shippey’s wonderful work alone excepted.

Here I just want to take up one of the secondary themes in the book, which is the relation between Tolkien’s preference for riddles and his deep commitment to a religion, Catholic Christianity, which has at its heart certain mysteries. Adam is quite clear that riddles and mysteries are not the same, but he doesn’t say what I’m going to say here, which is that each is the mirror image of the other. The proper relation between riddle and mystery is absolute opposition.

We can start with two points. First, Adam quotes Robin Chapman Stacey’s claim that “riddles function, in almost every culture in which they appear, as a means by which one person lays claim to power over another”; and second, at one point he pauses to comment that “one of the things this book is trying to do is … to engage imaginative ingenuity as the proper idiom of riddles.” Putting these two points together we see that in contests of riddles ingenuity is the form that power takes: especially since, as Adam also points out, the stakes of riddle-games are so often life and death, to pose a riddle to someone — and equally to accept a riddle-challenge — is to bet your life than you are more ingenious than the other person.

When Oedipus solves the riddle of the Sphinx, the creature flings itself off a cliff to its death; conversely, his inability to solve the riddle of his own birth leads to his mother’s suicide and his own self-blinding and exile. Similarly, when in The Libation Bearers Orestes comes to kill his mother Clytemnestra and a servant cries out “The dead are killing the living!” — because Orestes was believed to be dead — Clytemnestra replies, “Ah, a riddle. I do well at riddles.” But she hasn’t done well: she never penetrated the riddling words of Cassandra, or she would not have acted as she did. And now her understanding of her own peril arrives too late to save her life.

The word there translated as “riddle” is ainigma. A form of that word appears also in the New Testament — only once, but in an especially famous verse, 1 Corinthians 13:12: “For now we see in a mirror dimly” — en ainigmati, in obscurity, enigmatically, as though riddled to — “but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known.” The key point here, I think, is that this is not a condition we can remedy through our own efforts — not even the most ingenious. In order to “see face to face,” to “know fully,” we must wait along with the whole Creation which (paraphrasing the second half of Romans 8 here) awaits its deliverance from enslavement to decay. When we are all delivered, redeemed, when the expectation of the children of God is realized, when the “great mystery” — Ephesians 5:21, not just a mysterion but a mega mysterion! — of the marriage of Christ and his church is consummated in glory, all of that will happen as an unveiling, a revelation: apokalypsin (Romans 8:21).

Paul returns to this theme in the very last verses of the letter to the Romans, where he looks forward again to the apokalypsin mystēriou — the unveiling of the mystery, the sacramentum. And when will this happen? In 1 Timothy 6 we learn that God the Father will bring the “manifestation” or “revealing” of Jesus Christ, kairois idiois, in his own good time, at the opportune moment. And that cannot be forced or hurried or even known by anyone else.

It sounds like I’m preaching a sermon here, but I’m actually trying to lay out a semantic field, one part of which is occupied by riddles, enigmas, which human beings can at least in principle solve, and the other part of which is occupied by mysteries that are not even in principle soluble, by obscurity that we cannot dissipate: rather we must wait for God to unveil those mysteries in his own time. This is the sense in which I claim that riddles and mysteries oppose one another.

I said in my previous post that Pynchon is a riddling writer, but he is also concerned with those insoluble obscurities that cannot be fought but must simply be waited out. Thus in the last paragraph of Inherent Vice Doc Sportello is simply waiting out a thick California coastal fog — and hoping that when it clears there will be something else there, something other and better than the world he knows. At the end of The Crying of Lot 49 Oedipa Maas — Oedipa! — simply takes a deep breath and awaits what the “crying of Lot 49” will reveal. And in one of the most beautiful passages in all of Pynchon’s fiction, the passage that I think will give my book on Pynchon its title, we hear a (relatively minor) character say:

“It is always a hidden place, the way into it is not obvious, the geography is as much spiritual as physical. If you should happen upon it, your strongest certainty is not that you have discovered it but returned to it. In a single great episode of light, you remember everything.” … He did not pause then so much as wait, as one might before a telegraph sounder, for some affirmation from the far invisible.

Waiting — waiting “for some affirmation from the far invisible” — not striving. No ingenuity here; just patient hope.

After all this it is interesting to return to The Hobbit, and especially the conclusion of the riddle contest between Bilbo and Gollum. Bilbo wins “more by luck (as it seemed) than by wits,” Tolkien says in his Prologue to The Lord of the Rings, and in more than one way. First of all, he can only even get his last chance to stump Gollum because, in trying to ask for more Time to think, he stumbles on the answer to the game’s penultimate riddle. (He finds the answer but never knows the answer.) And then, of course, “What have I got in my pocket?” is even more problematic, within the rules of the game, than the Sphinx’s inconsistencies. Again from the Prologue to LOTR: “The Authorities, it is true, differ whether this last question was a mere ‘question’ and not a ‘riddle’ according to the strict rules of the Game; but all agree that, after accepting it and trying to guess the answer, Gollum was bound by his promise.” And by so accepting Gollum put himself in a position where his power over Bilbo — his superior physical strength and shrewdness of riddling — are trumped by … well, by something else.

If what Bilbo has is luck it is extraordinary luck — too extraordinary for Gandalf to accept that explanation, as he says to Frodo: “Behind that there was something else at work, beyond any design of the Ring-maker. I can put it no plainer than by saying that Bilbo was meant to find the Ring, and not by its maker. In which case you also were meant to have it.” In fact, then, the riddle-game is resolved not by ingenuity (which Bilbo lacks), and not even by luck, but by some unnamed force who has decided that the kairos moment, the Appointed Time, has come. What we have in Bilbo’s discovery of the Ring is not cleverness or skill or bravery or any other human virtue, but an apokalypsin mystēriou, the unveiling of a mystery. The riddle-game marks the end, in this tale, of the sovereignty of riddling.

Pynchon’s riddles

In the opening chapters of Against the Day Pynchon hints at certain oddities in the space/time continuum of the book. Consider this:

The Chums of Chance could have been granted no more appropriate form of “ground-leave” than the Chicago Fair, as the great national celebration possessed the exact degree of fictitiousness to permit the boys access and agency. The harsh nonfictional world waited outside the White City’s limits, held off for this brief summer, making the entire commemorative season beside Lake Michigan at once dream-like and real.

As though the Chums come from some other world, some (to us) fictional world, and cam only have “access and agency” in a place as fanciful and make-believe as the White City of the World’s Columbian Exhibition.

Just a couple of pages later we are introduced to the detective Lew Basnight:

Lew looked around. Was it still Chicago? As he began again to walk, the first thing he noticed was how few of the streets here followed the familiar grid pattern of the rest of town— everything was on the skew, narrow lanes radiating starwise from small plazas, tramlines with hairpin turns that carried passengers abruptly back the way they’d been coming, increasing chances for traffic collisions, and not a name he could recognize on any of the street-signs, even those of better-traveled thoroughfares … foreign languages, it seemed. Not for the first time, he experienced a kind of waking swoon, which not so much propelled as allowed him entry into an urban setting, like the world he had left but differing in particulars which were not slow to reveal themselves.

“Like the world he had left” but somehow not that world. It is a theme which recurs throughout the novel, which seems particularly interested in thin places conceived not on the model of Celtic spirituality but arising from the creation of modern physics, from the theories of relativity to the multiverse hypothesis. And as he had done in Mason & Dixon Pynchon seems to be suggesting that the work of science does not reveal the world we live in but actually brings it into being — with somewhat different worlds being brought into being in the universes next door, into which and out of which his characters sometimes slip.

The language I’m using here — “suggest,” “seem,” “hint” — indicate that this is a riddling sort of book, and indeed Pynchon is a riddling sort of writer. I think of a verse from Auden: “When have we not preferred some going round / To going straight to where we are?” Pynchon seems always to prefer “going round” because “where we are” is also where we might not be. Perhaps more apt still would be the great conclusion of Wallace Stevens’s “An Ordinary Evening in New Haven”:

                                             A more severe, 

More harassing master would extemporize 

Subtler, more urgent proof that the theory 

Of poetry is the theory of life,

As it is, in the intricate evasions of as, 

In things seen and unseen, created from nothingness, 

The heavens, the hells, the worlds, the longed-for lands.

The intricate evasions of as — evasions which are also revelatory, for those with eyes to see and ears to hear.

And then as I was reflecting on Pynchon as the great Riddler what should turn up in my mailbox but a copy of Adam Roberts’s The Riddles of the Hobbit? I shall comment on that in my next post.

accommodation and perversion

I wrote recently that I see world-building in SF and fantasy as coming in two chief varieties, the speculative and the meticulous, and that those varieties offer different kinds of literary interest and pleasure. Ursula K. Le Guin’s Earthsea falls on the speculative end of the spectrum, Tolkien on the meticulous end. Here’s another binary: the accommodating and the perverse.

The distinction applies to all kinds of writing, but I think it especially evident in SF or fantasy or any other kind of writing that evades the constraints of standard-issue realistic fiction. The accommodating writer is one who is content to work within the common shapes of story, the expected arcs and structures of human tale-telling throughout history and across cultures, while the perverse writer suspects those arcs and structures and strives to avoid or subvert them when possible. (So when I recently called Adam Roberts “perverse” I was describing, not criticizing. I think Adam’s fiction is very usefully perverse.)

It strikes me that these two binaries may usefully be juxtaposed to each other. These are distinctions of degree, not kind, so some Cartesian plotting is required, thus:

I’m not sure that I’ve placed any of these texts with precision, but it’s a start. Most of them will be familiar to most of my readers, but perhaps not China Mieville’s Bas-Lag series and Steven Erikson’s Malazan Book of the Fallen. I was tempted to identify Gene Wolfe’s Book of the New Sun series as strongly meticulous and strongly perverse but then decided that both of those designations are potentially misleading. I’ve also been re-reading Thomas Pynchon lately, and was tempted to mark Gravity’s Rainbow as strongly speculative and off-the-chart perverse, but that needs more thought also.

I’m happy to entertain any corrections or suggestions in the comments below.