Friday, March 28, 2008

Heterotopia and the Myth-Science of Science Fiction, pt.1

When one takes imagination as a starting point, the habitual boundary between sense perception and rational (or irrational) thought becomes infinitely permeable. Like some industrial-strength acid, refusing to accept any natural limit, it seeps all the way down through the subcategories of both fields: memory, sensuous dreaming, and hallucination blur together along with ontology, epistemology, ethics, an all-encompassing uncertainty that at its height melts away even the logic by which such categories are given to us in the first fplace. Assuming, of course, that 'logic' is where they come from, and that some version of it ultimately serves as the proper medium of their relation.

But where a certain sort of philosophy arguably must make such an assumption (and from this perspective Leibniz, Kant and their successors can be seen as fighting a rearguard battle against the accumulation of contrary evidence, though always in the guise of a preemptive strike) , fiction is under no such obligation. If it can at all be usefully differentiated from fantasy, then science fiction's distinguishing feature (now that, as Ballard and Gibson fans never tire of saying, the present reality is science fictional) is that it at least takes this metaphysical question seriously. One might even say that, far more than the practical forecasting of techno-scientific advancement, metaphysics marks science fiction's intellectual vocation as a genre, and its means for answering the question that concerns all fiction: the relationship between the imagination and reality.

Which is why its forays into politics can't help but prove interesting -- and why, just when at its most extravagantly imaginative (when it's just shy of fantasy) it is at its most political. Perhaps more explicitly than any other work, Olaf Stapledon's Star-Maker (1937) demonstrates that the political, biological, and technological imaginaries typical of science fiction are not only intertwined, but can be understood together as something like an applied metaphysics. Nor can this really be understood in terms of aesthetics, since its aim is always to go beyond volition and anything resembling human causality, even if, as we will see, this is perhaps doomed to failure. I would say that it is the compulsion to metaphysical speculation which drives the novel forward in the absence of a conventional suspense or romance plot (and why, from the perspective of genre analysis, it appears as a compendium of sorts).

The novel's form is that of the travel narrative, as an everyday Englishman gets a free tour of the cosmos. He does so through the accumulation of other, alien individuals into a communal mind, a a narrative movement from individual, to collective, to cosmic bildungsroman in which each earlier stage is subsumed without being lost on the road to enlightenment. It's a long road, populated by an astonishing variety of life forms, cultures, and civilizations, and we watch their struggles, their fleeting moments of utopia, and their horrific, agonizing collapses as they occur along the same temporal line. Travel narrative has been the political imaginary's preferred point of departure at least since The Odyssey, and like the ancient epic, Star-Maker's peregrinations are finally rounded off by a desire for home. But like everything else in the novel, this desire occurs on multiple 'levels' -- the narrator's wish to return to his wife; the cosmic mind's desire for union with its creator, the dark other whose spectral presence is recurrently felt throughout the novel; and the eroticized scene of this union (between feminine universal soul and masculine creator of universes) which marks the novel's climactic regression into anthropomorphism. Unlike The Odyssey, and more like More's Utopia, the narrator of Star-Maker plays no active role in the worlds he visits, but is condemned to passively observe (it's astral, or dream travel, not physical). This is perhaps inevitable in a world where human action is seen to be dominated by an active force outside it, unknowable yet also the site of true knowledge which is the objective of the novel of discovery. Unlike either The Odyssey or Utopia, the end of the journey is motivated not only by yearning and not at all by satisfaction, but by the overwhelming terror experienced upon at last meeting the furthest reaches of the imagination, the end of the universe, an encounter immanent with a reflection on the unimaginable suffering that had been necessary to achieve it.

There are neither gods nor any personal God to know for us, except in myth. And it is myth that the narrator must resort to in order to narrate the end, the moment when the force of creation force is finally personified as creative spirit: "All I can do is to record, as best I may with my poor human powers, something of the vision's strange and tumultuous after-effect on my own cosmical imagination when the intolerable lucidity had already blinded me, and I gropingly strove to recollect what it was that had appeared. For in my blindness the vision did evoke from my stricken mind a fantastic reflex of itself, an echo, a symbol, a myth, a crazy dream, contemptibly crude and falsifying, yet, as I believe, not wholly without significance" (412). The leap into myth (is it a leap forward or backward?) is cast as a reaction to the failure of the human imagination to comprehend its own limits, a futile projection into a void that is itself hypothetical. But this myth is hardly an escape -- it carries with it its own horrors, not least of which is the adulation it compels, since this sublime feeling, the satisfying conclusion necessary to end the novel, the completed circle, serves to justify all the agony and death that occurred within it, and without the narrator's consent. Finality is something inflicted upon the unknown in response to the limitations 'it' 'inflicts' on us, figured in the former instance as a kind of cosmic rape:

"And now, as through tears of compassion and hot protest, I seemed to see the spirit of the utlimate and perfected cosmos face her maker. In her, it seemed, compassion and indignation were subdued by praise. And the Star Maker, that dark power and lucid intelligence, found in the concrete loveliness of his creature the fulfilment of desire. And in the mutual joy of the Star Maker and the ultimate cosmos was conceived, most strangely, the absolute spirit itself, in which all times are present and all being is comprised; for the spirit which was the issue of this union confronted my reeling intelligence as being at once the ground and the issue of all temporal and finite things.

But to me this mystical and remote perfection was nothing. In pity of the ultimate tortured beings, in humane shame and rage, I scorned my birthright of ecstasy in that inhuman perfection, and yearned back to my lowly cosmos, to my own human and floundering world, there to stand shoulder to shoulder with my own half animal kind against the powers of darkness; yes, and against the indifferent, the ruthless, the invincible tyrant whose mere thoughts are sentient and tortured worlds.

Then, in the very act of this defiant gesture, as I slammed and bolted the door of the little dark cell of my separate self, my walls were all shattered and crushed inwards by the pressure of irresistable light, and my naked vision was once more seared by lucidity beyond its endurance."

In this passage theology is manifested through the personification of metaphysics, which philosophers in their professional capacity are supposed to resist lest their discipline tumble from its Archimedean heights down to the rather embarrassing idioms of science fictional mysticism and psychoanalysis. But giving in to this 'temptation' puts us inevitably in the realm of ideology ("invincible tyrant"), of misogyny ("his creature"), racism ("half animal kind," "powers of darkness"), alienation ("little dark cell of my separate self"), and the memory of shared suffering, figured here in the synechdochal form of the primal scene, but also distributed throughout the narrative as its very subject and content. It's everything that happens in the midst of metaphysics without ceasing to be metaphysics. And when we find that metaphysics is the author, how can we help but be disgusted? Nevertheless, according to a logic externalized as destiny or unconscious compulsion, we advance to final closure and its affirmation:

"It was with anguish and horror, and yet with acquiescence, even with praise, that I felt or seemed to feel something of the eternal spirit's temper as it apprehended in one intuitive and timeless vision all our lives. Here was no pity, no proffer of salvation, no kindly aid. Or here were all pity and all love, but mastered by a frosty ecstasy. Our broken lives, our loves, our follies, our betrayals, our forlorn and gallant defences, were one and all calmly anatomized, assessed, and placed. True, they were one and all lived through with complete understanding, with insight and full sympathy, even with passion. But sympathy was not ultimate in the temper of the eternal spirit; contemplation was."

The narrative's drive to this moment of total submission to the God's-eye perspective happens through episodes of wild inventiveness that critics, readers, and assorted fans of contemplation tend to prefer to its telos. With good reason. But what if, from our late perspective, Star-Maker's status as the ultimate compilation of all science fiction's possibilities were no longer a testament to the inventiveness of the genre (as is usually claimed), but the exposure of its limitations? If there's one thing that is clear from the novel's conclusion, speculation as the attempt to think Being (whether political or metaphysical) in excess of reality -- but not, as is the case with fantasy, in spite of reality -- still demands closure, in whatever language happens to be available. One is forced to admit that in this context the uninhibited imagination of otherness which might result from the erasure or deferral of The End simply amounts to the infinite recombination of tropes. This is the true death of any genre, no matter how often it's spiced up through new scientific discoveries. Or even, dare I say it, new developments in politics or world affairs. Do we need another critical dystopia? A more detailed utopian fantasy? Another allegorical space opera? All of these forms are included in Star Maker, a novel written at a time when the technology of today had only just been introduced and when politics still looked like the arbiter of human destiny, and yet they all end the same way.

And at what cost! For perhaps the first time in history, the sheer price of contemplation, of (re)producing the vantage point from which it is possible on a universal scale, had become readily apparent to anyone with a radio and some common sense. The view from the top only revealed just how high the bodies were stacked. Enough perhaps to drive any sensitive man to find solace in the vision of an infinite future. But in Star-Maker, even new logics of Being, the possibility of which is examined in what I found to be the most hopeful section of the book -- the part chronicling the Star Maker's creation of multiple universes, each with its own distinct physical, temporal, and ontological laws -- fail to negate their negation. The novel's end is the horizon of speculation, not of satisfaction or knowledge, and by ignoring it the imagination must settle for spinning its wheels indefinitely. The terms given allow for no true escape.

So what happens when the horizon of knowledge exceeds that of speculation? When the possibility of extinction is not only imaginable but imminent, when we know what will happen after the end? After the Atomic Age, after the threat of global warming and resource depletion, we can in fact know this, probablistically, on a worldwide, species-level scale. Knowledge of our material limits has almost entirely surpassed our ability to imagine their transcendence (excepting a few lingering technofetishists and alien abductees). The death of God followed by the death of Man, etc. If this isn't simply the end of the speculative imagination, then don't we at least require a different approach? One not organized around some version of the progress myth or its ethical-messianic and nihilist-evolutionary critiques? For those who think imaginative fiction is still worth the indulgence, what are the alternatives to utopia, dystopia, or apocalypse?

Next time I'll consult the '70s answer to that question (I'll give you a hint, it has to do with human agency).