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If you accept that loneliness is the great existential terror that we all, in our different ways, try to escape, it isn’t hard to apprehend the fraught relationship that this gives us to our own bodies, because it’s our bodies that keep us so basically and dreadfully apart. It’s interesting to note how often words used to express the value of literature (or art more generally) conjure up kinds of immaterialism: ‘seeing the world through different eyes,’ ‘being transported’, forging a ‘psychic connection’ with the author, ‘losing yourself’ in a book – all of these are expressions that run against what seems to be the brute material truth: that we are locked inside our skulls.

There was a time there where I could not have a conversation about books with a stranger at a party say, without them launching into a speech about how amazing Atomised by Michel Houellebecq was. This became increasingly annoying for me because these ‘fans’ seemed unable to describe exactly what the appeal of the book was. They were astonished by the sense of shock that the writer had elicited and sometimes a conspiratorial feeling of belonging to a fellow-traveler – yes that is how the world really is – but both of these reactions seemed entirely self-directed. My conversational partners were unable to enlighten me as to why I should read the book too. I suspect fans of Portnoy’s Complaint were similarly cultish back in the day, but that was another time and polite conversation so firmly stratified, that the risk Roth-fans ran of offending was far greater. By the late nineties this was less of a concern.

Ben Jeffery tackles the meaning behind Houellebecq’s writings head on, placing the fictional exertions of the French literary enfant terrible within a far broader context  in order to draw out exactly what the egotism of the author is aiming at. In effect, he has done a massive service to a writer occasionally dismissed as being a reactionary whose deconstruction of modern society as being nothing more than a series of sexual power exchanges lies somewhere between Foucault and a depressing Carry On.

Instead Jeffery runs the gamut from Schopenhauer to David Foster Wallace to properly situate the likes of Atomised and The Possibility of an Island, revealing that Houellebecq is investigating the relevance of any literary action at all. Engaging in fiction is in and of itself an ephemeral act, itself an echo of how we attempt to escape our own sense of mortality. What is most worthwhile about Anti-Matter is that Jeffery does not fall victim to the typical trap of Houellebecq critics. This is an intellectual salvage operation, that avoids rampant speculation about the personal life of the headline-bating writer, not to mention the rancorous testimonies of the author’s own mother.

What I am saying is I am grateful someone finally took the time to try and explain the point of Houellebecq to me. I have not had an easy time with the writer’s work myself. I thought his essay on Lovecraft bitterly disappointing for one, but Jeffery cites it prominently in Anti-Matter. The New England fantasist’s own ‘depressive realism’* is tied into Houellebecq’s, both arguing that life is essentially pointless. The latter’s own jaunts into sf utopias demonstrates his continuing interest in using imaginary worlds to illustrate how incomplete, fleeting and immaterial the engagement humans have with reality is. Fiction/fantasy are decadent acts that in Houellebecq’s assessment squander what is vital about life itself – hence his obsession with sex – but Jeffery’s astute addendum is that whatever sense of truth, or engagement with our existence that we enjoy is equally a ‘lie’. Realism is concerned primarily with seeming real and Houellebecq’s pessimism punches through the nadir point to the ‘truth’ – we need the lies.

Ben Jeffery has produced not only an excellent critical assessment of Houellebecq’s writings, but a fantastic think-piece in and of itself, refining the intentions of his subject, as well as opening up this erudite discussion of art to the act of living in the world.

With thanks to Zero Books for my review copy.

*Excepting your occasional ph’nglui mglw’nafh Cthulhu R’lyeh wgah’nagl fhtagn – of course.

Anti-matter: Michel Houllebecq and Depressive Realism

Desjani looked intrigued, checking the orders herself. “You’re sort of tacking the old Five Five onto the bottom edge of Five Four.”

Right.”

With the Seventh Battleship Division sticking below the edge of the old Five Four?” She smiled again. “I can’t wait to see it.”

As long as we’re not talking about the likes of the literature of Holocaust denial, or of paedophilic samizdats presenting Josef Fritzl as the heroic victim of an immoral and corrupt state, then there really is no such thing as a guilty pleasure where the enjoyment of a work of fiction is concerned. We know this. Certainly there’s nothing in the slightest that’s immoral about Jack Campbell’s The Lost Fleet, an apparently never-ending series of novels concerning the attempts of “a rag-tag fugitive fleet on a lonely quest” for home, as Patrick Macgee’s opening voice-over for the first series of Battlestar Galactica used to put it. In truth, these books are marked by a deliberate and principled tone which might be thought to reflect the self-restraint of a patrician cynic and his compassionate misanthropy, and Mr Campbell’s epic seems obviously meant as a cautionary tale against the tendency of human beings to fail to heed the lessons of the past, or, indeed, those of the present day either. In that, The Lost Fleet is a profoundly conservative text in terms of the need to respect authority and retain the tested values of the past, but it’s written in such a way as to also deplore such recent examples of backsliding from the principles of Western civil society such as torture, the brutalization of civilians, and the general abandonment of respect for the human rights of supposed opponents.

Beyond the central and incorruptibly heroic character of Captain “Black Jack” Geary himself, who’s both unconvincingly irresistible to women and quite incapable of slipping up in his campaign against the dastardly Syndics, the Lost Fleet is almost exclusively peopled by thinly-drawn moral idiots. This is didactic fiction of the most well-meaning and clumsy fashion. On one side, anti-democratic and glory-obsessed ship’s Captains who’d like to see Black Jack return to Earth as their tyrant, and, on the other, anti-democratic and glory-obsessed ship’s captains who’d like to dethrone our hero because, quite frankly, he keeps winning battles while denying them their chances of individual acclaim. For the military of this far future is enraptured by an individualistic fighting ethos more in keeping with Captain Bluntschli than poor noble, sensible Captain Geary, and most everyone in The Lost Fleet is at best ethically and practically short-sighted, and, at worst, some combination of mad, corrupt, confused or stupid.

I recognise this world. If the characters are so broadly drawn as to be indistinguishable from their own ignorance, well, their ignorance is at least familiar. I’m certainly not ashamed to be consuming a product with such a world-view. And in a book that’s so obviously aimed at readers who love to lose themselves in the details of how hundreds of very big and very powerful spaceships can blow each other up, and in the context of a recognisably modern-day military structure transposed to a distant tomorrow, it’s also refreshing to note that political authority is here portrayed as being by necessity superior to that of any futuristic MacArthur’s, worthy or not.

But there’s little room that’s been made in these novels for anything but space battles and the broadest politics of the fleet, and each book’s plot is soon revealed to be an over-familiar and yet rather strangely relaxing variation upon that of its predecessors. The Lost Fleet, trapped behind the lines of the Syndics and desperate to return home after a disastrous defeat, will arrive at a new enemy star system, argue among themselves about who should be in charge, learn a new lesson about how to fight as a team under the leadership of the good and decent Captain, and then head off in the direction of another such situation. The formula is never substantially challenged, and the focus of the text never concerns itself with the lot or inner life of anyone who isn’t wearing a Captain’s uniform or carrying a politician’s brief. And, similarly, each book contains pretty much exactly the same minor notes to accompany the great and very long depictions of battle and grousing senior officers; Captain Geary indulges modestly in sex and the stiffest of philosophical debates with the perplexing and very loud Co-President Rione; Captain Geary sits in his captain’s chair and guides several hundred ships in their missions; Captain Geory gathers hints as to the existence of a secret and menacing alien race; Captain Geary attempts to convince the Syndics that their mortal enemies are jolly good chaps really; Captain Geary tries to remind his women and men about the forgotten decencies of his long-dead era; the same cards fall in almost precisely the same order every time.

There’s something about this repetition which makes the many unconvincing aspects of the future of the Lost Fleet less distracting than it might otherwise be. It’s as if the form of the books has been designed to encourage us not to linger anywhere on the page, as if pausing in our skimming would be to defeat the purpose of the text in the first place. And so, the sheer implausibility of a legendary Captain freed from a hundred year’s suspended animation who’s immediately able to command a host of spacegoing warships in a superior fashion to their own crewfolk is actually quite easy to disregard. By the time the daftness of each daft premise becomes obvious, the reader has already learned not to pay too much attention to the strangely critically-applauded “realism” of these tales. If the politics of the future appear confused, as they are with the Syndics, a North Korean-like totalitarian state with relatively autonomous and affluent corporations, or if the much-praised realism of the space battles is undermined by the presence of get-out-of-jail-free cards such as jump gates, inertial dampners and an unconvincing lack of human/AI interfaces, well, we can just skip that aspect of the story and move on to another sequence which we can, similarly and in its turn, leap-frog our way across too.

Racing dreamily through the text is a process only encouraged by the fact that little on the human scale counts for anything much in these Lost Fleet novels at all. Even the extremes of wartime experience, the maiming and murdering of thousands of crew-members of the Alliance’s ships, always occur at a celestial distance and to a spectacularly deadening degree. The focus of the books is instead always upon the smallest core of cast members, who, untouched by suffering beyond angst and safely protected in the fleet’s flagship, watch on as this cruiser and that space station are bombarded and destroyed. As a reflection of the reality of war for the elite of the officer class in a technological era, it’s a choice on Mr Campbell’s part that’s hard to argue with. But as a way of helping the reader care about these terrible events, it’s problematical, because it reduces a book about war to the status of a tale about a man watching a war progress on a desk console.

With so few characters ever interacting with Captain Geary on any level beyond the giving and taking of orders, the Lost Fleet is reduced to a great convoy of ghosts. Thinly depicted Captains are summoned up now and then for plot purposes, but they never exist beyond the brief functions which they’ve been created to serve, and the reader can so easily picture them vanishing into thin air as soon as Black Jack turns his gaze elsewhere. Mr Campbell’s writing succeeds in delivering the details of his plot, but there’s no trace of individuality and character in his prose. Entire books can pass mechanically before the reader’s eyes without the flat consistency of Mr Campbell’s prose being violated by the presence of a single purposefully memorable phrase of any sort. His is writing which is utterly endearing in the lack of authorial ambition that it displays, and for all that it might be praised for a lack of pretension, it can also be damned for its lack of any quality that isn’t connected with the orderly progression of events from A to B and back to A again.

And yet, regrettably, there are moments when careless editing has allowed certain melodramatic and pseudo-poetical lines to remain in the text, a fact which destroys the flat consistency of what’s being read as well as shocking the reader into noticing how awful the writing can in places be. It’s a truth that might be illustrated with an example from “Courageous” of President Rione’s part in a private conversation with Captain Geary;

“The ancients thought the stars were gods, John Geary. So do we, though in a very different way. But we’re not so different from the ancients, who lived but a blink of an eye ago in the sight of this universe and spent their lives trying to understand why they were here and what they were supposed to do with the gifts of their lives. I try never to forget that.”

I feel confident that we might agree that this is ferociously bad writing, grandiose, stiff and quite unbelievable even as an example of a career politician’s private conversation. (Rione would surely need the lungs of a horse to get through that third sentence without beginning to collapse for air.) But it’s so typical of the books that these moments of great meaningfulness carry little that’s essential to the plot, and so they can be left behind in search of the beginning of the next space battle. Yet, the reader is advised not to race onwards and away from the purple serious-mindedness of the conversations between Rione and Geary in particular without first scanning for any heartfelt lines worth treasuring. My favourite of these conveniently follows on directly from the quote above;

“He nodded, wondering once again at the woman inside Victoria Rione.”

If only that were an acknowledgement that the Co-President was actually sharing the inside of her body with another woman, as the genre would surely allow.

Yet if The Lost Fleet clearly doesn’t work as anything other than the most reliably wooden of genre fiction, it’s certainly a well-constructed, sincere and decent-hearted example of it. And so, the reason for my feeling somewhat ashamed of being half-way through the fourth of this seemingly never-ending re-mix of the same over-familiar elements is nothing to do the books themselves. They’re not sold as high literature, they make no claims for their own poetic virtues, and they’re not designed for anyone who’s not already seriously predisposed towards “military science fiction”. They’re respectful, populist and humane. No, my shame is directed, of course, at myself, and at the fact that I’m somewhat hesitant to admit to the business of reading my way through The Lost Fleet. As I write this, with the last of the light of a English Sunday afternoon in March slanting through the window behind me, and with a blackbird starting up its twilight song, The Lost Fleet feels as if it’s got no part in my life at all, and it’s as if reading these pedestrian epics would be a serious waste of the relatively limited book-reading time that I have left to me.

It’s not that I’ve any time for the Bloomsbury stance on what is and what isn’t art, and I no more believe under typical circumstances that what we read reflects our soul and our moral worth than I accept the premise that Jeanette Winterson shouldn’t be constantly mocked for her ignorance, arrogance and pretension. It’s just that there’s so little time and so much to get done, and it’s hard at 5.30 in the afternoon to justify a standing order for each new volume of The Lost Fleet.

But when it’s gone midnight, and as I crawl as surreptitiously as I can in beside the long-since-sleeping Splendid Wife, and with just ten minutes or so to go before I too pass out beside her, The Lost Fleet will be the most appropriate read that I can imagine. Utterly undemanding in its content, I need never worry about finding precisely where I left off the night before. It just doesn’t matter at all. Wherever I am, Black Jack will be eternally tragic, misunderstood, potent and entirely wonderful. (He’s every shy boy’s dream of sexual potency; a man who can win women without ever having to woo them through nought but his gentle soul and military prowess.) The fleet will be at terrible risk, Captain Desjani will adore Black Jack and defend his back against all-comers, the battleship captains will loathe him, the Syndics will be closing, and I’ll briefly if sleepy-headedly be a boy again. Spaceships will blink out of jump points, scanners will identify enemy targets, relativistic effects will complicate communications, and while little will make much sense to my clouding mind, the genre conventions of a dozen spaceship TV shows and a childhood spent reading little but Sci-Fi will step in to carry the sense of the story forward for me.

I have the fifth volume of The Lost Fleet waiting beside my bed and the sixth on order from Amazon too. It’s not that these books will be used to send me off to sleep, but rather that they’re good and decent and kind and undemanding companions as I decline into an unconsciousness which was already rolling towards me in the first place. And even the titles themselves might inspire the most comforting of slumbers if recited over and over again in order of publication; Dauntless, Fearless, Courageous, Valiant, Relentless, Victorious…….

Colin Smith ,

TooBusyThinkingAboutMyComic


I am D-503. I am the Builder of the Integral. I am only one of the mathematicians of the One State. My pen, more accustomed to mathematical figures, is not up to the task of creating the music of unison and rhyme. I will just attempt to record what I see, what I think – or, more exactly, what we think.

I have a curious relationship with the work of George Orwell. I love his essays, his war-time journalism. I have even reviewed some of his fiction here on the blog. When I was in my teens however, Orwell’s writing, particularly 1984 but also in this respect Animal Farm, seemed to me to be something of a sacred cow. He had achieved the apex of dystopian fiction, the very pinacle of any allegorical take on communism and much like with  the sweeping claims of Fukuyama’s The End of History – this was a subject that was no longer relevant. Socialist theory was anachronistic and its era already long-gone before I had read a word of Marx.

So naturally I signed up to be a fan of Aldous Huxley instead, whose Brave New World I announced to (bored) friends was the far better book, more prophetic, more cleverly insidious in its soft dystopia. Of course I was wasting my time. Before Huxley, before Orwell, there was Yevgeny Zamyatin.

D-503 is a cipher, a member of One State, the perfect human civilization. As a mathematician he sees perfection everywhere, the angles of buildings and the shapes formed by a human mouth more real to him than any person, or archaic emotional response. D has begun a log of his day-to-day activities, as a demonstration of how One State has accomplished its utopia. He is a function of that mathematically precise machinery of society (at one point he recalls how as a child he was driven to despair by the idea of the negative square root of one – irrational numbers are something he finds terrifying.).

Daily life is strictly regimented, in order to ensure that each cipher contributes as much as possible. Work time, sex time, even ‘Personal Time’, is alotted to each member of One State according to a schedule. D has been allocated a romantic partner named O-90, whom he shares with his friend the poet R-13. This state sanctioned love triangle lumbers along pleasantly, with the only privacy afforded to either couple them by sex time, which allows the right to pull a curtain – all homes and structures in One State are transparent.

D’s life changes when he meets I-330. Temptatious, where O is demure, with no interest in sex for procreative purposes, or indeed any other responsibility ordered by One State, she slowly introduces D to concepts from ancient times long made taboo. As he becomes increasingly obsessed with her, his mathematical certainty crumbles and he begins to think about what he wants, what is good for him, instead of the state.

One thing that struck me while I was reading was that each of D-503’s log entires opens with a selection of ‘keywords’. So not only can we credit Zamyatin for inspiring the likes of Orwell – did he invent Livejournal as well?! There is much that feels surprisingly anticipatory here. The prose is spare, elliptical, oddly similar to the disjunctive abbreviated manner of online discussions today. This edition’s translator Natasha Randall quotes the author as having said ‘Old, Slow, creaking descriptions are a thing of the past; today the rule is brevity – but every word must be supercharged, high-voltage.’

I also like how ahistorical the setting for the novel is. It occurs in some unknowable future, with the spirit of humanity long since crushed. There is a haunting passage where D wanders deserted, glass streets, with all the other ciphers having congregated by the command of the state. Zamyatin theorises the eventual elimination of the organ of imagination itself, with the human ideal of becoming like unto a machine the most desirable outcome.

Bitter, acerbic and oddly witty, a classic dystopian work.

Tark peered through the undergrowth at the cave.  All seemed peaceful and quiet. But appearances could be deceptive, especially in the Forest.

Tark had never taken on a dragon before. He’d never even seen one. He was just a common thiever and dragons were well out of his league. No one below a knight, second class, would attempt such an encounter. And yet, here he was.

‘Oi!’ Tark shouted as he approached the cave.

‘Dragon! Ya in there?’

Years ago when people still spoke about the Matrix films with an air of awed respect, I tended to be the one curmudgeon in the room who would pronounce Mamoru Oshii’s Avalon the far better film. Actually, now that I think about it, I am still saying this, except exchange The Matrix for Inception and it is pretty much the same argument.

Anyway, the reason I chose the more obscure film about characters attempting to escape from a virtual gaming world, was because I felt Oshii was far braver in his approach. In keeping with the Cartesian split between what is and what is fantasy, sf stories that deal with unreal worlds often insist that it is possible to return to an original ‘real world’. Oshii turns away from that and presents us with an infinite series of virtual worlds. ‘Reality’, is nothing more than a different perspective.

To find similar themes in a work of Young Adult fiction was certainly a great treat for me.

Tark and Zyra are thievers, trapped in a game-world that mixes medievil monsters with hi-tech artistocrats. The opening has Tark stalking a company through a dark forest, confident that the guards he sees protecting the company of travellers are little more than holograms. Instead his attack quickly goes wrong. Turns out the guards are quite real, their swords equally so and instead of the hoped for chest of gold, they are protecting a spoiled princeling named Galbrath. Through a combination of sheer luck and a refined ducking ability, Tark survives the encounter and even makes away with a powerful weapon – a power sword of pure light.

Meanwhile his partner Zyra is engaged on a job of her own, stealing a much-prized ‘key’, to Designer’s Paradise from a rival thiever named The Cracker. The key allows players within the gameworld to escape and can usually only be afforded by the very rich. Tark and Zyra have been stealing gold in order to purchase one, but now they have a key of their own they can leave this dangerous world of treacherous assassins and dragons behind.

Except little do they know, but both thievers have intruded upon the plans of the evil Fat Man. Sending his agents in pursuit of the two, they discover there is no safe place for them to hide, even beyond the borders of Designer’s Paradise.

I was mightily impressed by this book and am eagerly looking forward to the upcoming sequel, Gamer’s Challenge. Yes this is a book for teens, but it does not stint on its own ambitious themes as a result. One aspect I loved was the near religious worship of the Designers, who instilled certain moral laws into the games these characters are trapped in. Tark and Zyra are in love, but the rules prevent them from any physical contact.

The story is quite fast-paced and introduces a series of increasingly outlandish villains and monsters as it progresses. An early stand-out is the ‘rat-mage’, a hivemind of underground tunnel rats who can create convincing illusions. The Fat Man himself is a diabolical force within the game, attempting to corrupt the gameworld to his own designs.

What I most enjoyed about the book is how Ivanoff has presented his readership with ideas and fictional concepts that they are no doubt familiar with due to the gaming industry – but they have perhaps not encountered before in books. Tark and Zyra even speak in the same kind of pidgin Old English familiar to those who have played any of the generic Fantasy RPGs of recent years. The closest comparison to this book in literature that I can think of is Charles Stross’ Glasshouse which was reviewed early on in this blog and dealt with similar material.

Exciting, imaginative and forward-looking, a real treat.

With thanks to the author for my review copy.

We were flying in a strange part of the sky,’ said Handsome, ‘and we thought we’d hit a meteorite shower, ship spinning like a windsock in a gale. I took a three-hundred-and-sixty-degree shot of the ship, and I saw that what we were flying through was a bookstorm – encyclopedias, dictionaries, a Uniform Edition of the Romantic poets, the complete works of Shakespeare.’

‘Yeah, I heard of him,’ said Pink, nodding.

It has been a number of years and I am still fuming about Margaret Atwood‘s little rant: “Science fiction has monsters and spaceships; speculative fiction could really happen.” Yes it was years ago. Yes she has been backpedalling ever since and why should I even care?

Really though it comes down to marketability. Science fiction is a publishing ghetto. Literature that dabbles in ‘speculative’ fancies is far more respectable and ensures the authors still get invited to the important parties.

To my mind this is the definition of pretentiousness. A rather literal kind of pretension, but it asserts the dominance of one genre of literature over another.

The Stone Gods opens in a immoral far-future dystopia. Humanity has exhausted their home planet, known as Orbus. The atmosphere is filled with deadly dust-storms. Civilization is completely broken down, with different ideological enclaves controlling their own territories across the globe. The Eastern Caliphate is consumed by religious fundamentalism; the SinoMosco Pact is an extrapolation of the most corrupt form of communism; and finally the Central Power has realized the deepest desires of free market capitalism, with state government replaced by a hierarchy of corporate institutes.

Billie Crusoe is a scientist trapped in a thankless and soul-destroying media job, covering the discovery of a new planet that represents a possible hopeful future for the human race. Completely disenchanted with humanity, Billie can see that if the wealthy elite transfer themselves to this ‘Planet Blue’, history will simply repeat itself. Once the native species of dinosaurs are artificially wiped out, conversion will begin. Injustice against the lower classes will be repeated; the wealthy will sink into even more immoral depravity; and when the planet itself is stripped of all vegetation, humans will simply find another planetary body to infect.

While covering the story Billie meets the robo-sapiens Spike, an emotionless gynoid who is more than capable of reading human emotion. After Billie is forced to return to Planet Blue with a new crew, composed of scientists and a lucky celebrity, she falls in love with Spike.

However, as Captain Handsome reminds them, history has a habit of repeating itself. The book is split into four sections that reveal that these events are being recycled through a form of eternal recurrence. At times Billie becomes Billy, a sailor on Easter island, or a near-future scientist who encounters an account of the destruction of Orbus, titled The Stone Gods.

I mentioned Margaret Atwood above, because like her work, this book treats of a ‘speculative fiction’, scenario that smacks of science fiction tropes, but evidently wishes to be counted among more refined literary fellows. References to Samuel Beckett, including his ‘begin again‘, absurdist nihilism abound. Spike is threatened with being recycled to avoid her falling into the hands of rebel forces. Her knowledge and experience of the Planet Blue is intended to be extracted from her, but as the overall story hints, minds undergo a form of evolution ensuring that they are not simply limited stacks of data. Spike ultimately survives, even as Billie will be reborn, or simply return to life over and over again.

Yet this book apes science fiction, while at the same time pretending to philosophical profundity. A swing and a miss I am afraid, one that leaves the text perilously suspended between two stools. In fact at times it resembles bad sf!

Where the book excels, however, is its shocking description of a futuristic dystopia obsessed with sexual depravity. Genuinely unsettling and disturbing, these early passages of The Stone Gods vibrate with anger towards the sexual domination of women by men. There are also moments of surreal humour, such as Spike’s disembodied head performing cunnilingus. The book swings between extremes of righteous anger, attempted profundities and comical humour.

I could not help but be reminded of David Mitchell’s superior novel, Cloud Atlas, which introduces similar themes to greater effect. A disappointment.

Is there – and this is the question, the real question – is there one girl, just one, whether she be called Bea or Eva or Djemia, who has not experienced the war? Just one who has not made war with her body, with her gentle face and moist eyes, with her mouth and teeth, with her hair? Just one who has been neither prey for the hunter, nor hunter herself? On all sides are watchful gazes, darts bristling from loop-holes. On all sides, breastplates, shields, scabbards, arrows, machine-gun barrels.

Stephanie gave me this book as a gift. “Here’s a nice short one”, she said, an easy read that would not take up too much of our time during the weekend. Oh how wrong she was.

I have gobbled down some fat books well under a day. As I tell people, this is usually because I have an interest in the material. If I am having a good time reading, my speed increases. If I am having a hard time, my reading speed crawls to a halt. Please don’t misunderstand, I am not saying today’s book was poorly written – I do not have the courage to go up against the judges of The Nobel Prize for Literature – but it certainly belied its slim size.

This book is something very special.

For a start, from the book’s beginning the tone is quite similar to a long-form prose poem. War is described as an onrushing event, an already present eschaton, indeed the inevitable death of humanity itself that is prophesied by modernity. Bea B and her lover Monsieur X are the nominal protagonists of this book, witness to the dehumanising influence of ‘war’. The ruining of a face is revealed to be symbolic for the destruction of a cityscape. Bea B imagines herself becoming electricity and infusing a simple light-bulb with energy. War is the chaos of clashing forces, the impossible to predict outcome of humanity’s desire to destroy itself.

Le Clezio extrapolates this same desire from every innocuous element in life. Each chapter opens with a seemingly random quote from science, literature and science fiction. A particular favourite was a long quotation from Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series, describing a world entirely covered in artificial, man-made structures. Le Clezio shines a new light on this most anachronistic of science fiction authors, identifying a Ballardian aspect to his writing that has perhaps gone unnoticed. Ballard is largely credited as a prophet of urban nihilism and War certainly evokes a similar style. This is a comparison that, thankfully, others have noticed.

I also found his vision of the apocalypse, an absurdist eruption of meaninglessness, reminiscent of Antonin Artaud, where the apocalypse is simply a breakown in our sense of what is real, what is normal. Le Clezio mines a similar theme, such as when Bea B. finds herself involved in a ‘man hunt’, or Monsieur X’s description of events in Vietnam. That he can describe such war crimes in such a matter of fact manner once again underlines the omnispresence of horror and destruction in today’s world. So who is to say that the ‘war’, has not already begun?

I found this to be a very difficult read, but a nonetheless incredible piece of writing. Sublimated poetry, with a philosophical tone, a literary revelation.


There is a maxim about the universe which I always tell my students: That which is not explicitly forbidden is guaranteed to occur. Or, as Data said in the episode “Parallel’s,” referring to the laws of quantum mechanics, “All things which can occur, do occur.” This is the spirit with which I think one should approach the physics of Star Trek. We must consider the distinction not between what is practical and what is not, but between what is possible and what is not.

I used to think my inability to understand secondary school physics was due to my having to learn it in Gaelic for four years. Then I switched to an English language school and was quickly disabused of that notion. I just have no head for science.

Science fiction, now that I can understand, as the various technobabble and scientific theories introduced into the plot is only so much garnish on a narrative unbound by realism. An ad hoc explanation or two allows the readers to understand the story being told. Star Trek is that rare thing, a work of science fiction that can be enjoyed by both those more academically inclined (ie, not me) and those who simply enjoy a good story.

This is something Lawrence M. Krauss takes full advantage of with his book, a discussion of physics as applied to the fictional universe of Star Trek. As a professor of physics, Krauss is obviously excited to be able to pass on his insights into scientific theories without having to resort to ‘Idiot’s Guide To...’

Interestingly Krauss admits that it was the notion of a transport, that cornerstone of Trek, that initially piqued his interest in writing the book. In order to facilitate a stylistic choice – creator Gene Roddenberry apparently was forced to figure out a way of allowing his characters to visit alien worlds without landing the ship, as it resembled a fountain feature – the writers of the original show hit upon the notion of matter transportation. A special effect of swirly lights, having a continuity person on hand to make sure the actor hit the same mark when on a different set and the conundrum was solved. However, because Star Trek was such popular show with science geeks – and one which, lest we forget, pitched itself as an attainable future utopia for all of mankind – the show’s creators eventually felt that an explanation for transportation machines, replicators, warp drives etc. would have to be provided and would need to be, at least theoretically, explicable in real scientific terms. This is where Krauss comes in.

His assessments of the different levels of plausibility can make for amusing reading. One example of how, in his opinion, Star Trek managed to anticipate actual physics through its own creative efforts (no doubt dreamt up in a rush to meet a script deadline) is the concept of the black hole. Krauss points out that mere months before Archibald Wheeler first coined the term, Star Trek portrayed a very similar phenomenon, though in the series it was termed a ‘black star’.  Then there are examples of scientists “just for fun”, attempting to look into concepts pioneered by the show, such as when Miguel Alcubierre attempted to formulate a theory for warp travel.

Personally one aspect of Star Trek that always fascinated me was the concept of a holodeck. Krauss points out that the crew of the Starship Enterprise are unusually coy about how they use the facility to create any virtual environment they can imagine (oo look at this!). Like John Zerzan, whose Why I Hate Star Trek I recommend as an alternative discussion of the series, Krauss wonders if the crew were sexless drones, incapable of using the holodeck to fuel baser interests. Happily British show Red Dwarf had no such scruples.

Where I find myself becoming the traditional Star Trek geek, and thusly enraged to a nonsensical hysteria so much that I ignore the very worthy and informative project of The Physics of Star Trek, is Krauss’ repeated references to the character of William Riker as a ‘Lieutenant’. He was the Commander dammit! When Krauss himself becomes tellingly pedantic – such as sneering that Deanna Troy had no understanding of anti-matter containment – that only made my geek-rage worse. The ship runs on anti-matter, sure, but I wouldn’t know how to fix a car engine. Why should she know the in’s and out’s of how the ship runs?

Caveats aside this is ultimately a very entertaining discussion of physics.


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