Abel Ferrara, ZEROS AND ONES (2021)

I initially posted this on Facebook, but I thought it would be good to present an expanded version here.

I just watched Abel Ferrara’s new movie, ZEROS AND ONES, and I was totally blown away by it. Though I realize that almost nobody will like it, aside from diehard Ferrara fans like myself. It’s entirely incomprehensible and opaque in conventional terms, but at the same time emotionally compelling and utterly gorgeous.

Incomprehensible and opaque: every scene screams genre (war film or spy film), and yet nothing adds up to a discernible narrative. Ethan Hawke walks or rides through the empty streets of COVID-ridden Rome at night. He wears military fatigues, and carries a gun and a video camera. He has enigmatic meetings with mysterious people, from Chinese heroin dealers, to a Muslim mullah who gives him advice, to military commandos who waterboard a prisoner, to Russian gangsters who kidnap him and oblige him to have sex with a woman while they record the scene on video, to a silent motorcyclist who takes him to a bridge from which he launches a drone. He also visits various people, including an Italian woman with a young child, with whom he seems to have some sort of pre-existing connection. And he comes across a number of disturbing tableaus; at one point he enters and explores a building that is littered with the bodies of murdered young women, blood splattered across their bodies. All through the movie, Hawke’s character remains dour and mostly silent, his voice is gruff when he does speak. Occasionally, we hear him in voiceover; here his comments are enigmatic. I don’t remember the exact words, but there is something to the effect that, for instance, “Jesus was just another soldier, killed in a three-thousand-year old war. But on whose side?” And again: “The world is the hiding place of God. To understand what’s outside of you, you must use what’s in you. If we hear what we already know, nothing new happens.”

There is no way to make sense of all this diverse footage, nor to figure out why precisely Hawke’s character is in Rome, or what his mission is. My Facebook friend, the film critic Steve Erickson, wrote in a response to my posting that “it feels like the subconscious of a 24 episode or Tom Clancy novel, with a seething id using similar imagery but making no literal sense.” In other words, the movie is composed from all the fears and fantasies that have fueled the “war on terror”, but without the accompanying ideology that binds them into narratives of good and evil. COVID is only an additional dimension of these fears and fantasies. Hawke’s character sometimes wears a mask, and sometimes doesn’t, without any necessary explanation as to why and when (sometimes deliberate continuity violations show him both ways in succeeding shots). Several times, as for instance when the Russian gangsters kidnap him, he is told something to the effect of: “don’t worry, we have all tested negative.”

Hawke also plays a second character, the twin brother of the first one, an imprisoned revolutionary (imprisoned in the US? in Italy? it isn’t clear). He is angry and florid in his rhetoric, whereas Hawke’s first character remains entirely undemonstrative. The brother’s amazing rant under interrogation (he is even injected with drugs to make him talk) sounds like a cross between Walt Whitman and Bakunin. The first Hawke character asks about his brother’s fate, sees footage of the brother’s interrogation (which is how we see it too, mediated by technological transmission), and eventually is told that the brother has been killed.

The movie is also punctuated by explosions, and by commando formations of armed soldiers (both male and female) in fatigues, guarding checkpoints or running off one is never sure where. As the film’s title suggests, digital technology is everywhere in the movie; images are continually being multiplied, transmitted, distorted, and viewed on screens (not to mention the way the film itself calls attention to how it is shot on digital video — something to which I will return). One minor character, the independent filmmaker Stephen Gurewitz, playing himself, only appears on screens as he talks to Hawke’s character on the phone and on computer monitors. At one point, Hawke’s primary character breaks into a room, where Guerwitz, on a huge computer monitor, immediately starts yelling at him to “get out — it’s a trap” — Hawke’s character exits the room through a window and fire escape just as armed troops are breaking down the door. Later Hawke’s character is told (if I followed this bit correctly) that Gurewitz has been killed; murder via video link actually makes a weird sort of sense in the ultra-mediated, yet for that very reason overwhelmingly visceral, world of this movie. The night footage of Rome, and of Hawke making his way through it, is taken from varying angles, including from up above. This footage has an almost documentary feel to it, at the same time it is ostentatiously digitized — I am not sure how to explain this paradox, but it does feel both these ways. The movie’s soundtrack, which plays a lot over the shots of Hawke moving through a nearly empty city, combines techno with bombastic rock; it feels entirely appropriate to the movie’s combination of lurid action and strange emptiness.

Emotionally compelling and utterly gorgeous: My favorite Ferrara films have always been the ones that work the visual image in remarkable ways, from the crisp black and white of The Addiction to the neon overload blur of so many of his films. Even when he adopts documentary plainnness (as in Welcome to New York), the raw looks he gives us are disconcerting. All these reworkings of the image depart literalness, and give the movies their pervasive emotional tones, which vary remarkably from one film to the next over the course of Ferrara’s career. In Zeros and Ones, Ferrara experiments with the image in new ways. The digital cinematography is murky, often deliberately underlit, and filled with a lot of noise. Ferrara previously did something like this in New Rose Hotel, with its combination of blurred digital images in some parts, oversaturated colors in other parts, and haunting indirect lighting in still others, even as the film displayed the vapidity of postmodern business hotel architecture.

But in Zeros and Ones, Ferrara explores the ambiguities of the digital image as never before. If the content of the film is fragmented genre exploitation scenes, then the form is visuals that are dark and blurry almost to the point of abstraction — or should I say, of abstract expressionism? The image in Zeros and Ones is filled with glitches, always on the verge of breaking up. The often handheld camera roves around, continually and jerkily. Extreme closeups alternate with shots of dark, empty streets, sometimes with lit-up architectural landmarks emerging out of the murk. Instead of the overwrought, lurid lighting of movies like King of New York and Bad Lieutenant, here we have something on the order of Hito Steyerl’s “poor image”. These images are disorienting and disconcerting; but in their own way they are saturated with (mostly negative) affect, and they are (convulsively) beautiful.

Zeros and Ones is relentless, but actually quite short. It clocks in at less than an hour and a half; and even this includes the opening and closing credits, plus a prologue and an epilogue in which Ethan Hawke — speaking as himself, rather than as his characters — reflects on the movie. In the prologue, he says that he was excited to work with Ferrara, because he was blown away by the script. In the epilogue, interrupting the final credits, Hawke reveals that that prologue was actually shot before the movie, as a kind of teaser advertisement for investors. He adds that the pre-shooting script wasn’t really a script, and that even after making the movie and watching the final cut, he doesn’t really understand it. But he suggests that, just as he plays two characters, the revolutionary and the military operative of uncertain allegiances, so the movie dramatizes two opposing attitudes. One attitude is that everything is radically broken, the people who control the world are evil, and we are all going to die. The other attitude is that life is a miracle, and we should cherish it at every moment. He ends his epilogue by telling us that “this is part of the movie”; and then the final credits resume.

The entire movie takes place in a single night. It is dark when Hawke’s primary character arrives in Rome by train, and the night continues through most of the movie. Towards the end, he returns to the apartment of the Italian woman with a small child; he tells her that “it is finally happening” (though we have no idea as to what). Hawke’s character, the woman, and the child go up to the roof of her building, and watch troops assembling just as morning breaks. We are given no clues as to what the troops are doing; on the level of plot, nothing is resolved. As they daylight advances, we move from shots of the troops to shots of ordinary people watching whatever is going down (though we do not know what this is); and eventually to shots of children playing in the park. I guess that the dark night of the soul (understanding this both literally and figuratively) is finally over; though what succeeds it in the light of day is unclear.

In sum, I consider Zeros and Ones an amazing film. It comes out sort of like a collaboration between Samuel Fuller and Stan Brakhage — though I hesitate to make this comparison, because it is really pure Ferrara. You won’t like it if you are looking for any sort of coherent narrative. But if you have followed the arc of Abel Ferrara’s entire career, and see him as one of the greatest filmmakers of his generation, like I do, then you will probably appreciate this as a powerful expression of the now 70-year-old director’s extreme, yet oddly sober, “late style”.

Charlie Jane Anders, Even Greater Mistakes

Charlie Jane Anders has published three science fiction novels, all quite different from one another, and all great. All the Birds in the Sky deftly takes the tropes of fantasy and of science fiction, and sets them against one another (but also asks how they might positively relate). The City in the Middle of the Night is set on a planet tidally locked to its sun, so human beings can only live along the terminator (one side is too hot, the other side, too cold). Using this framework, it asks questions about social organization and political power, about misplaced love and sexual desire, and about what it means to confront the truly alien, and whether we would even be able to recognize an intelligence radically different from our own. Victories Greater Than Death is the first volume of a YA space opera trilogy; its a lot of goofy fun, and I wrote about it here.

Anders’ latest volume, Even Greater Mistakes, is a collection of her short stories. She has published a lot of them, and the new book provides the author’s selection of her favorites. The variety here is just as wide as among her novels, perhaps wider. The stories range from angry and despairing to utterly whimsical, with a lot of other in between tonalities as well. I had read several of them before online, but most of them I hadn’t. The stories include short semi-independent sequels to her first two novels, conceptual explorations, and just plain silliness. I was sad that one of my favorite of her stories wasn’t included: “The Fermi Paradox Is Our Business Model,” which I talked about this past summer at the (online) conference of the Science Fiction Research Association. But otherwise I have no complaints about Anders’ self-selection.

The longest piece in the volume is an amazing novella, Rock Manning Goes for Broke, which I have published an article about. It’s a story about a guy who just likes to make people laugh with idiotic slapstick routines; but these come to carry a deep political charge due to the times we live in. I see this novella as almost the definitive statement of what it was like to live under the regime of Donald Trump; but Anders reveals that she started writing it long before, at the start of the Iraq War; and in fact is was first published in 2016, that is to say, before Trump even took office. It just goes to show how science fiction works to think about futurity (which is not the same thing as actual prediction of the future).

Other stories deal with such politico-philosophical dilemmas as whether the future is fixed in advance, or open to multiple possibilities (“Six Months, Three Days”), the paradoxes of time travel (“The Time Travel Club”), and the relation between gender positions and social hierarchies, set in (“Love Might Be Too Strong A Word”). But Anders always embodies these issues in the dilemma of concrete and rich characters, who are sometimes poignant and sometimes just silly. She is rarely able to resist detours into goofiness, which is welcome when you consider the serious import that some of these stories would have otherwise. In “The Bookstore at the End of America,” she writes about the division between the two Americas, the Trump/Christian one, and the California/Queer one, with both an awareness that these divisions are artificalLY too extreme (there are many Christians who are not homophobic bigots, for instance), and the Rodney King-esque hope that somehow we can all get along. But she can also write, with equal care and attention, a story like “Fairy Werewolf Vs Vampire Zombie,” which asks the question (one that is certainly important to at least a certain subset of fanboys and fangirls), as to, if you are both a zombie and a vampire, which of these two identities will win out? Do you want to suck blood, or gobble brains? Most of these stories are funny, but a few of them are disturbing and even downright terrifying, like “Don’t Press Charges and I Won’t Sue, which envisons a world in which the transphobes completely take over, and medical technology has progressed to the point that the most sadistic forms of mind/body control are now routinely carried out.

Even Greater Mistakes is a triumph of queer and trans sensibilities; but the real point it makes is that such sensibilities are not ever just one thing. There is an incredible amount of variety and creativity in the world, which would be unleashed to a far greater extent than is the case now, if only we could free ourselves from the stupidities of binary-gender normativity. Several of Anders’ stories point toward such utopian possibilities, most notably “Because Change Was the Ocean and We Lived by Her Mercy,” which envisions the possibilties for creative, collective expression in a post-global-warming, post-sea-level-rise San Francisco, where the tops of some of the hills are the only parts of the city not permanently under water. This story, in particular — although it contains its share of conflict and shitty behavior — gives me a sense of hope, and even a poignant sense of community (rarely evoked in a misanthropic old-codger hermit such as myself) — in the face of the coming ecological and political catastrophes.

Billy Jack vs Dirty Harry

I am teaching a class this semester on the New Hollywood (i.e. American filmmaking in the 1970s). Since the class is being conducted entirely online, I am posting my lectures on discussion boards for the students to read (and respond to). The first three films I have shown this semester are Taxi Driver, Dirty Harry, and Billy Jack. Here are my comments on the latter, with some comparisons to the previous two films.

Billy Jack makes for an interesting contrast with Dirty Harry. Both films were released in the same year, and both films deal with the theme of vigilanteism in the context of the political, social, and cultural divisions of the time — with regard to which they take opposite sides. Both films were wildly popular at the time. Billy Jack seems to have slightly edged out Dirty Harry at the box office (this is unclear; some sources I have found online say Dirty Harry earned more; but in any case, both films had high grosses, and it was very close). However, today Eastwood’s Dirty Harry character remains iconic and well known, even among people who have not seen the actual movies; whereas Billy Jack has been nearly forgotten (the few online sites I found that mentioned Billy Jack at all are mostly all about how awful, unintentionally funny, and incompetent the movie supposedly is). (Though Quentin Tarantino seems to like it).

While Dirty Harry is a mainstream Hollywood product, Billy Jack is an independent film all the way. Tom Laughlin and his wife Delores Taylor basically made the movie all by themselves. They self-financed it, they wrote the screenplay together, they starred in the movie (Laughlin as Billy Jack, and Talyor as Jean Roberts, the director of the school), and Laughlin directed and produced it — as well as taking personal charge of distributing the movie after the original distributor did a poor job. The film was an enormous hit, and its sequel, The Trial of Billy Jack (Tom Laughlin, 1974) also did extremely well at the box office. The figure of the character Billy Jack also expanded beyond the movies to become a popular culture hero.

There are certain aspects of Billy Jack that admittedly do not play well today. Most notably, Laughlin, who is white, plays a character who is supposed to be half-Native; and the film in other ways appropriates Native American culture. Nonetheless, the movie is one of the first American movies to acknowledge the injusices done by white settlers to Indigenous people. (Several revisionist Westerns of the 1970s did so as well; but Blly Jack is the only 1970s movie I know of to show this in the present, not just in the Old West). Billy Jack focuses on Native people much more than on Blacks and other minorities, but it clearly takes the side of the 1960s/1970s counterculture, and the anti-War and anti-racism movements of the period. (The American Indian Movement is not as well remembered today as, for instance, the Black Panther Party, but it was equally militant and active at the time the movie was made).

Billy Jack, like Dirty Harry — and for that matter, like Travis Bickle — is a Vietnam veteran turned avenger back home. (His backstory is fleshed out more in the sequel, The Trial of Billy Jack, where we learn he was a Green Beret who grew disgusted at American massacres of Vietnamese people). But Billy Jack is not a police officer, and his concern is not to clear the world of “scum” or “punks”. Rather, he seeks to protect his people and their land, and especially to protect the experimental Freedom School and its children. (Laughlin and Taylor actually ran a Montessori School in Los Angeles for a number of years, before making this movie). The portrayal of the police in Billy Jack is also interestingly ambiguous — the Sheriff seems to be a fairly decent guy, but his Deputy is a racist who also abuses his daughter and serves as a lackey of Posner, the rich man who runs the town. We first get to meet Billy Jack when he stops Posner and the deputy sheriff from killing wild horses in order to sell the meat for dogfood.

Billy Jack carries a rifle, in contrast to the .44 Magnum favored by both Dirty Harry and Travis Bickle. He seems equally at home on a horse and on a motorcycle. But Billy is also an expert in martial arts. Billy Jack is one of the first American films to feature Asian martial arts; this came several years after Bruce Lee displayed his martial arts skills in the late-1960s TV series The Green Hornet, but before Lee’s movies, made in Hong Kong, were shown in the US and really popularized martial arts. Billy Jack also precedes the popular American TV series Kung Fu, starring David Carradine (yet another white actor playing a non-white character), that also did a lot to popularize Asian martial arts in the US during the 1970s).

I am very interested in thinking about how the figure of Billy Jack became such a cultural icon in the 1970s (and also about why he was forgotten in subsequent decades). Laughlin’s Billy, like Eastwood’s Dirty Harry, is a sort of throwback, a figure of pre-1960s masculinity: strong and fairly silent, keeping his own counsel, utterly righteous (though the films have vastly different definitions of righteousness), entirely courageous, and unbending in his commitment to his goals, which involves serving and saving other people (the honest citizens menaced by punks for Harry, and the Indians and schoolkids for Billy). They are both tightly reined in, but they both seem to get off on their own violence when they have the occasion to exercise it. One might even compare Eastwood’s “feeling lucky” speech to Lauglin’s speech to Posner before attacking him (“I’m gonna take this right foot, and I’m gonna whop you on that side of your face. And you wanna know something? There’s not a damn thing you’re gonna be able to do about it”). But Harry and Billy nonetheless feel utterly different from one another in terms of their screen presence. How can we describe this difference?

Part of it has to do, of course, with the difference between the big-city environment of Dirty Harry (and also of Taxi Driver), and the largely rural environment of Billy Jack (which was shot in New Mexico and Arizona). (Though as a lifelong urban person, I myself tend to see big cities as places of multicultural vibrancy, rather than as places of danger and decay). But it also has to do with the ways the characters’ surroundings are depicted. In Dirty Harry’s San Francisco (and also in Travis Bickle’s Manhattan) there seems to be no sense of community or of interpersonal contact. Everybody is completely alone, or at most part of a couple (like Harry’s partner and his wife). Crowds of people go down the street with complete anonymity and no real interaction. At best, Harry knows the owner of the joint where he gets the exact same lunch every day, and the guy who lend him surveillance microphones. There’s also the liquor store owner who carries a gun because he has been robbed so many times; Scorpio pretends to be friendly and sympathetic, only to rob him yet again.

The situation in entirely different in Billy Jack. The school is an interdependent community; and the town seems to be so to some degree as well. Even the ugliest actions, like the way Bernard (the son of the rich guy who controls the town) abuses some of the kids from the school has much more of a social context than the interactions between total strangers in Dirty Harry. I think that this is emphasized by the activities engaged in by the students from the school. Even if you don’t enjoy their frequent forays into folk singing and improv theater, you have to accept that these are forms of engagement and interaction. They even include the Sheriff and the members of the city council in these activities; they are anxious to show the straight world that they are sincere and creative, and just want to live and let live. I read one online review that criticized the movie on the grounds that Jean’s “no drugs” policy at the school was completely unrealistic; but in fact this is addressed within the movie itself, when the students do a skit about dope smoking and parental disapproval of it, in which the young people take on the role of parents and cops, and city council members are inveigled into playing the disaffected, dope-smoking teens.

Also, the vigilanteism that is uncritically celebrated as necessary in Dirty Harry is itself overtly scrutinized in Billy Jack. There’s the time when Billy Jack is going to beat up Bernard, but Jean convinces him to just force Billy to drive his car into the lake instead. When Bernard abuses the non-white kids in the ice cream parlor, Billy Jack comes to their rescue, but he forces Bernard to back off without beating him up. We then have the martial arts set piece in the city park, where Billy Jack solo uses his martial arts skill to defeat close to a dozen of Bernard’s friends, before finally being overwhelmed by sheer force of numbers. That seems a lot cooler to me than Harry’s .44 Magnum. It’s true that we root for Billy Jack when he finally kills Bernard — because Bernard has both raped Jean, and is having sex with an underage girl. But even this is not unambiguous, since Jean retains her pacifism and calls Billy to account for the killing.

A lot of critics, both when Billy Jack was originally released, and more recently, have criticized the movie for trying to have it both ways: giving us lectures about pacifism, yet at the same time giving us the gratification of seeing Billy beat up the bad guys. But this seems to me to be an unfair criticism, since again the movie explicitly sets up a kind of dialectic between pacifism (argued for mostly by Jean) and vigilante revenge (which motivates Billy). Billy keeps on saying that he is trying to be a pacifist, but not succeeding, and feeling guilty as a result. And then there is the moment during the siege of the building where Billy is making his last stand. Billy tells Jean that she has a peaceful soul, in contrast to his anguished and violent one. But Jean responds that this is a load of crap. She has no equanimity or acceptance of having been raped; she says that she has been fantasizing continually about making Bernard pay for what he did. But she held back, she says, because her taking revenge would ultimately harm the young people in the school, and their welfare is her biggest responsibility.

All this is exemplified by the movie’s ending. It isn’t what we expect from this genre of movie. Billy neither holds out singlehandedly against numerous assailants, nor goes out in a final blaze of glory. Instead, he surrenders, and allows himself to be taken away by the police, in return for promises that the government will continue to fund the school and leave Jean as its head. He mentions that the government has again and again broken all its promises to Native Americans, but hopes that this time it will be different. And as Billy is taken away, all the students from the school stand up and raise their fists in the Black Power salute (which was still a highly controversial gesture in the United States at this time). The movie leaves us with a grim but nonetheless hopeful assessment of what is to come, rather than indulging in myths of either redemption or destruction (myths which are invoked ad nauseam in American culture, and which are arguably fascistic in their implications).

Billy Jack is admittedly fairly pedestrian in its cinematography and editing; there is nothing here on the level on Don Siegel’s finely honed action editing in Dirty Harry, let alone the formal mastery of Scorsese in Taxi Driver. But there is still much to admire in Billy Jack, including its earnest vision of political hope, its rather dialectical approach to issues that are treated much more one-sidedly even in aesthetically more accomplished Hollywood films, and the way Laughlin’s Billy Jack functions as an iconic figure of masculinity (but in startling contrast to such contemporaneous figures as Eastwood’s Harry and to Robert De Niro’s Travis Bickle). As little tolerance as I have for improv theater, nonetheless I cannot regard Billy Jack as incoherently over the top, or as camp — which seems to be the main way it is regarded today, by the few people who remember it at all. Billy Jack deserves a far better place than it currently has within the history of American film; and I would even say that it is worthy of consideration, and indeed emulation, by those who are still thinking about the possibilities of making politically progressive art today.

Cadwell Turnbull – No Gods, No Monsters

Cadwell Turnbull’s new novel, NO GODS, NO MONSTERS, will be published in a few weeks (September 7). Via NetGalley, I got to read an advance copy, in return for providing an honest review.

Cadwell Turnbull was previously the author of THE LESSON, a parable about colonialism in the form of a story about aliens (from a planet technologically far superior to ours) establishing a presence in the US Virgin Islands (where the author is actually from). That novel excelled at combining vignettes of everyday life with its sf premise, which worked both allegorically (as a representation of colonialism) and intimately and realistically, in terms of the characters and their interactions.

This combination of everydayness with weird/uncanny premises works even better in NO GODS, NO MONSTERS, which makes sense entirely on its own, but which is also announced as the first volume of a trilogy (the “Convergence Saga”). The speculative premise here is one that might more readily be characterized as urban fantasy than as science fiction: there are “monsters” among us in the world as we know it now, shapeshifters (werewolves etc), psychics of various sorts, soucouyants (people from West Indies folklore who can cast off their skins and move about invisibly), and many others.

NO GODS, NO MONSTERS, however, has a far different feel than any other urban fantasy I have read. And this has a lot to do with the everydayness I mentioned. There are magical powers, and there are people using these powers both for good and ill; but for the most part, these powers are just another part of the life circumstances of the people who wield them, and who just want to get on with their lives, pursue activities of value, have romances, and so on — just like everybody else.

This in itself is a brilliant commentary on our social myths and fantasies. All too often, both in works of fiction and in what might be called the social imaginary, a distinction is made between ordinary folks and people with extraordinary powers, who become either heroes/saviors or villains (or both, depending). This type of story itself depends upon a bigoted set of assumptions; since the “ordinary folks” are generally assumed to be straight white men. Think of how the newspapers distinguish between everyman and so-called ‘special interests’ — the “average” American is always somebody like a white male working-class midwesterner who is mad as hell about immigrants and people of color allegedly getting ahead at his expense, and who therefore supports Trump. Why is such a person any more ‘ordinary’ than, say, an unmarried Black lesbian mother of two kids who has to work backbreaking jobs with long commutes just to make ends meet?

Anyway, one of the great things about NO GODS, NO MONSTERS is that it simply ignores such bigoted assumptions. Among the many characters we meet in this book, an ordinary person just trying to get along with their life might well be, say, a biracial trans man who is married to a woman but who generally considers himself asexual, and who is an anarchist activist devoted to organizing bottom-up cooperative enterprises owned and run by their workers (rather than by a capitalist boss). Or an ordinary person just trying to get along with their life might be an ex-drug addict now trying to repair relations with estranged family members, but who is also a werewolf, and who has been able to go straight and pull themselves together due to his bonds with his werewolf community. Or an ordinary person just trying to get along with their life might be somebody like the novel’s narrator, a failed academic who leaves the US mainland and goes back to his home in the Virgin Islands; he isn’t quite sure what he wants, or where he is headed, but he has the imaginative power to enter other peoples’ lives and observe them silently, which is where the material of the novel comes from.

In other words, there are lots of ways of being ordinary; most people just want to get along. It is this wanting just to get along that turns them into social activists, because our society is set up in such a way as to block their flourishing. There are many instances of this in the novel, having to do with racism, economic inequality, heterosexism, and so on. But most strongly, in this novel, it has to do with people having to hide their feelings and their very existence because they are “monsters.” Early in the novel, one of the main characters has to deal with how her estranged brother was murdered, a Black man shot and killed by a cop. Except it also turns out that her brother was a werewolf, and the cop shot him when he was in animal form. Werewolves keep to themselves, and do not harm ‘ordinary’ human beings, but who not part of the magical/monster underground is going to believe this?

In the course of the novel, the existence of monsters is revealed to the general public (or to straight people), in an event called The Fracture. Many of the monsters are more relieved than disturbed by this; they are anxious to come out of the closet and go public with who they are – a civil rights movement arises. But there are also forces seeking to suppress the evidence, and to make the monsters disappear from public view once again. The videos that proliferated across the Internet, showing the transformation of werewolved back into human form, mysteriously get erased. This itself seems to be a supernatural act. For there are also secret societies of monsters with their own hidden agendas, who seek to manipulate events for their own power and profit. And some of the monsters do in fact have scary supernatural powers. And there is also a lot of bigotry against monsters on the part of other people, even otherwise progressive other people. And there is still a lot of violence; this is a book that does not shy from representing murder, mutilation, and other ugly forms of abuse. Some of this violence is of the sort that we expect from the supernatural-with-elements-of-horror subgenre that this book belongs to. But more of the violence comes from straight people killing monsters by shooting guns — a form of violence that monsters are just as susceptible to as any other human beings. Monsters, like other outsider minorities, are much more often the victims of violence than its perpetrators.

NO GODS, NO MONSTERS does not have a single narrative focus; the narrative will stay with one character or set of characters for a few chapters, then switch attention to other ones. This back-and-forth seems to have disturbed some of the more simpleminded advance readers who posted on Goodreads; but it is essential to how the book works. This is a sort of networked novel. Human beings, ‘monsters’ or not, are social beings; nobody is an island unto themselves. What happens to people happens in the context of their relationships to other people. The different characters and plot strands scattered through the novel ultimately turn out to be interconnected — albeit interconnected often by what network theorists call ‘weak ties’, rather than through some grandiose and paranoid design. I have already said that the novel focuses on everydayness, and that it absorbs its supernatural and ‘monstrous’ visions into this everydayness; well, loose entanglements and interconnections are part of this everydayness. The novel gives us a powerful sense that, although nobody is unequivocally in control, nobody is insignificant either. This is one of the novel’s gifts, and part of what makes it so moving.

This sense of interconnection also pertains to the narrator. Though often he is recounting, in the third person, what happens to other people, he also has his own story, and his own emotional problems — his failed relationships, although entirely mundane, resonate strongly with the failures and problems experienced by the other characters, who are either monsters or the straight people who love them. The narrator’s insight into the lives of these other characters is itself something of a monster-like power; his “I” is there, although invisible, when things happen to other people. Mostly he is unnoticed, but sometimes the monsters, with their supernatural powers, are able to detect his presence, He seems, therefore, to be able to travel through time and space via astral projection; there are also references to the many-worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics, and the sad life of that theory’s inventor, Hugh Everett, itself becomes a strand in the novel interwoven with the entirely fictional ones. It is noteworthy how the special status of the narrator who says “I” does not seem like a metafictional/postmodern conceit, but is itself woven into the textures of the novel’s world of networked interchanges, mirroring situations, and general drift. Throughout the book, existential crisis and everydayness also interpenetrate one another.

The novel’s title, NO GODS, NO MONSTERS, is itself a play on the old anarchist slogan, “no gods, no masters.” This is an egalitarian hope, something that cuts against the structure of the system of patriarchal racial capitalism in which we actually live. But such an “axiom of equality” (to cite something that has been formulated in varying ways by such theorists as Jacques Ranciere and Alain Badiou) is essential both to what it means to be human, and now to what it might mean to be posthuman or more-than-human. It is essential to anybody’s flourishing. In the novel, there are both gods and monsters. But the slogan “no gods, no monsters” is chanted by the monsters themselves, and their supporters. The “monsters” we meet do not want to give up being monsters — which is who they are, or what it means to be themselves — but they want to abolish the sense that “the monster” is an absolute other, an aberrant category, designating people (or sentient beings) who cannot be admitted into society. Isn’t this the dilemma faced by so many insurgent groups today (people of color, women, gays and lesbians, trans people, disabled people, and so on) who are always getting accused of “identity politics” when they point up how they are being excluded and victimized precisely on the basis of their perceived “identity”?

In short, NO GODS, NO MONSTERS is a reflection on some of the most crucial issues and social conditions that we are faced with today. At the same time, it is quite singular — different from just about anything else I have read. Its combination of detached drifting and fascination makes for a unique reading experience, a tone I have not found anywhere else.

Rivers Solomon, Sorrowland

Here is my review of Rivers Solomon’s new novel, Sorrowland. The book will be published on May 4th. I received an advance copy, courtesy of NetGalley, in return for providing an honest review.

Rivers Solomon is the author of two previous books: An Unkindness of Ghosts, a space opera crossed with a neo-slave narrative, and The Deep, a narrative elaboration of the hip hop group clipping.’s reboot of the Detroit techno band Drexciya’s mythology of an underwater civilization composed of the descendents of kidnapped Africans who were thrown overboard during the Middle Passage. Both of those books were powerful and thought-provoking, but Solomon’s new novel, Sorrowland, is even better. The book feels like science fiction to me, even though it might more likely be categorized as gothic horror, or even magic realism. Solomon’s writing is one more instance of the genre hybridity and emotional and conceptual reach of speculative fiction writing in the twenty-first century, especially by writers of color.

It is difficult to discuss Sorrowland without giving away lots of spoilers, but I will do my best to keep these to a minimum. The reason it is hard to avoid spoilers is that the narrative works by continual expansion. It starts out with a very narrow focus, but continually opens up, or spirals outward, to new dimensions and new contexts. What starts out as a grim survivalist tale about isolation, loneliness, and deprivation ends up as a much broader account of the United States as a repressive hierarchical state founded upon racist terror. The writing is tightly focused on naturalistic detail, even as it offers up the most unsparing judgments, and even when it opens up to the most fantastical happenings.

At a number of points throughout the book, the narrative reaches a crux, a confrontation. Each time this happens, you think about what might take place next; you imagine the most extravagant possibilites, and wonder if the author will dare to go there. And each time, Solomon does not so much go there as go even further, to an outcome (or a new stage) that exceeds even my most delirious expectations. (Of course, my inability to imagine such happenings in advance is part of why I am not a creative writer, but a critic-scholar who seizes on books like Sorrowland as opportunities for reflection and expansion). At each of these cruxes, it feels like I have had the rug pulled out from under me, and I am forced to realize that, ‘no, this is vaster and more horrifying than I had previously imagined.’ I should note too, though, that every time these developments are given fictively scientific explanations, rather than supernatural ones; this is part of the reason that the book feels science fictional to me, despite the fact that its tropes have more in common with gothic fiction. Even as we discover and feel forces that are cosmic in scope, and disproportionate with our commonsensical understandings, they still ultimately have empirical roots and explanations. There is no rupture or bifurcation here between the natural and the social, or between the material and the spiritual.

Sorrowland gives us the story of Vern, a young albino (and apparently intersex) Black woman. When we first meet her, she is 15 years old and pregnant. She is extemely nearsighted, and does not know how to read. She is hiding, alone, in the woods, having run away from the only home she has known, a Black nationalist commune called Cainland, somewhere in the US Deep South. Cainland is all about Black pride, education, and self-sustaining independence for its community; but it is also extremely patriarchal and puritanically religious. Life in Cainland involves a seemingly endless series of chores, prayers, punishments, and medical exams and injections. Vern, still a girl, was forcibly married to, and impregnated by, its stern leader, Reverend Sherman.

But all this backstory is only filled in gradually, over the course of the book (and with revelations placed strategically at unexpected points in the course of the narrative). At the start of the book, Vern gives birth to twins, unassisted, in the heart of the forest. The novel has a great and compelling opening sentence: “The child gushed out from twixt Vern’s legs ragged and smelling of salt.” Vern immediately thinks of drowning this child, to preserve him from a worse fate. But instead, she cares for him “with what gentleness she could muster, and it wasn’t enough to fill a thimble.” Though the child is referred to as “he” (together with his sibling, born an hour later), Vern raises them without any ascription of gender. Their names are Howling and Feral. Vern and her babies remain in the forest, apart from any human contact. They subsist as hunter-gatherers. Conditions are harsh, rather than idyllic; Sorrowland is no robinsonade. But Vern’s survivalist skills are sharp enough that they make do.

Things happen around Vern and her children, however; she is not truly isolated, but submerged in the world, or in nature. The novel has an ecological vision, according to which all things are entangled. Vern has a living connection to the trees, and more generally to the animals and plants and fungi. But there are more disquieting things, as well. Vern is stalked by a “fiend,” who continually taunts her, sometimes by setting fires, and otherwise by leaving murdered animals hanging from the trees, often adorned with baby clothes or toys. In addition, Vern is frequently tormented by hauntings, visions of the dead who sometimes speak to her, and other times just appear mutely before her. They include people she remembers from her time in Cainland, but also people from deeper (ancestral, community) levels of memory, like lynching victims she sees hanging from trees. And on top of all this, Vern starts to notice strange changes in her body…

Saying more, with any detail, would involve those spoilers I said that I would try to avoid. So I will just note that Vern lives with her babies in the forest for four years; and then — at not quite a third of the way through the novel — she has to return to, and deal with, what most of us know as the outside world (and what she mostly encountered in the past during short supervised trips outside Cainland itself). Surviving in contemprary America without any form of ID, or any money or credit cards, is in some ways more difficult that surviving in the forest. But Vern finds allies and helpers, as well as persecutors and enemies. She and her children are gifted with greater resources, as well as assaulted with wider and more articulated dangers. And Vern herself continues a metamorphosis (both physical and mental) that at once debilitates her, gives her strength, and puts her in danger from forces that want to control her. She is no longer entirely human, though in some ways this also ties her more concertedly to human histories and communities. (Again, I must be vague in order to avoid giving away too much).

Like Solomon’s other novels — only even more so — Sorrowland is at times overwhelmingly distressing, though it manages to eke out a bit of hope by the end. A lot of what happens in the course of the novel really hurts. The pain is both inflicted by others, and also self-inflicted, as Vern has to some extent internalized her own oppression — this is part of how she was educated, as well as how she experiences the world. Though Vern ultimately becomes something like a superhero, she also continually has to face her own limitations, an existential finitude that would exist in any context whatsoever, but that is massively amplified by social injustice. This is still another way in which the novel feels science-fictional to me; it combines a daring cognitive scope with a careful parsing of how it feels to be caught up in, and very nearly swamped by, powerful social and technological currents.

The prose of Sorrowland is deeply affective and intellectually cutting at the same time, a combination few writers can manage. Concrete physical and sensory details, and a deep sense of corporeal being, coexist with tremendous leaps of abstraction, not to mention citations of such authors as James Baldwin, Langston Hughes, and Jacques Derrida. There’s even a joke about a book supposedly called A Poststructuralist Critique of Embodiment (which is entirely silly, and yet at the same time deeply apropos to what is going on over the course of the novel). The novel starts out with a harshly delimited horizon, but it ends in a sort of cosmopolitics.

Sorrowland is an extraordinary novel. it is continually and astonishingly inventive, while at the same time (I don’t know how to better express this) it has the force of necessity, of something that just has to be. It begins with the harshness of childbirth; and it ends with “the night calls of one thousand living things, screaming their existence, assuring the world of their survival.” The book is itself a deep and ferocious expression of survival; and — perhaps, even, we may at least hope, beyond its final pages — of flourishing.

Thoughts on transgression in the 21st century

This posting should probably be called Thoughts on “Transgression” — since it is difficult to think of transgression today without using air quotes or scare quotes of ironic distancing or whatever. Transgression was an important move in 19th and 20th century Euro-American aesthetics; from the Paris bohemians shocking to bourgeoise, through surrealism in Europe and the Beats in the USA, on to much of the LGBTQ art of the late 20th century. But what remains of this today?

Transgression, like so many other things, has largely been commodified and corporatized in the 21st century. What used to seem subversive is now no longer so. There is no sexual kink so extreme that you cannot find an internet community devoted to it. Of course, transgression always had different political valencies. If anarchism, extreme sex, and psychedelic drugs were transgressive, so were the eruptions of violence and destruction that the Italian Futurists loved, and that culminated in fascism. There’s always been a large degree of uneven development (to borrow and detourn a Marxist term) involved. For instance, I am second to no one in my admiration of Georges Bataille’s deeply transgressive critique of bourgeois capitalism (including of how it prepared the ground for, and then accomodated, fascism). My first book was half about Bataille. But what can be more stupid, boring, and old-fashioned to read today than Bataille’s pornographic fiction, with its extreme (and all too typical of male intellectuals of Bataille’s generation) gynophobia? — as in his ludicrous description of the female genitalia as “hairy and pink, just as full of life as some loathsome squid… that running, teeming wound.”

Even more seriously, perhaps, transgression today is largely a phenomenon of the ultra-right. Bari Weiss urges us to embrace the daring of the “intellectual dark web,” where people express such “dangerous” and “taboo” ideas as white supremacy, normative heterosexuality, male superiority, and the attribution of all differences among human beings in social power and wealth to the inexorable effects of genetics. This is what happens when large corporations, in order to maintain their sales, pay hypocritical lip service to “diversity” and “multiculturalism.” Yesterday’s mainstream ideology, which still has widespread support throughout society despite polite surface disavowals, is now packaged as a rebellious and transgressive refusal to conform. This is the basis of websites like 8Chan, and of the appeal of Donald Trump, whose supporters love him precisely because he violates the norms of social and political propriety.

I am not really bothered by the loss of transgression as a gesture, or as a self-aggrandizing form of display. I am happy to get beyond that, to stop being impressed by that sort of grandiosity. What I do wonder about, however, is the existence of ideas that really are disturbing — not just ‘disturbing’ to liberal opinion because we don’t say such things (even when we really believe them) in polite white society. Neither the race-baiting of the alt-right, nor even something like Nietzsche’s whole-hearted advocacy of enslaving the large majority of human beings, is all that shocking today: we have a whole history in which such positions were hegemonic (and, beneath hypocritical disguises, they still actually are, more or less).

What I am thinking of, instead, is some propositions that are raised, often indirectly, in science fiction novels and stories. Take, for instance, the idea that perhaps it would be better if human beings were to go extinct, leaving the planet to other (and hopefully less rapacious) organisms. This idea is raised at least as far back as 1969, in the short story “The Last Flight of Doctor Ain” by James Tiptree, Jr. (Alice Sheldon), and it has been taken up by many science fiction and environmental fiction writers since. Such a contemplation of complete human extinction is genuinely disturbing, in a way that neither Georges Bataille’s sexual fantasies, nor the alt-right’s sadistic imaginings of domination, could ever be.

But perhaps the very totalization of imagining human doom makes things a bit too simple. There are other suggestions I have found in recent speculative fiction that are not quite as extreme, but perhaps even more unsettling. In my forthcoming book Extreme Fabulations, I write about several science fiction texts that pose the question of human extinction in a somewhat different way. WHat these texts propose is that, from an ethical and political standpoint, complete human extermination might well be less bad that a catastrophe that allows the wealthy to survive the doom they have inflicted upon everyone else. None of the texts I have in mind quite state this, but they do raise it as a question. The best known of these is the two most recent novels by William Gibson: The Peripheral (2014) and Agency (2020). Both of these novels envision a 22nd century in which something like 80% of all human beings have killed off as a result of multiple ecological catastrophes; but the affluent have survived the damage, along with enough people to be their servants, and enough technology to make their lives pleasant. Though Gibson does not raise the point directly, he raises in the reader’s mind (or at least in my mind) a question of justice. I find it intolerable that a group or class of people who have essentially committed genocide should get to enjoy the fruits of what they have done. This is not far from a real-world situation: it is obvious that, today, the international billionaire class is aware that we are headed to ecological ruin, but that they are unwilling to spend even a small part of their wealth, let alone undergo discomfort, in order to alleviate it. They have decided, instead, to bunker down and outlive it (or, in the case of Elon Musk, escape it by moving to Mars): they anticipate that eventually they, or their descendants, will be able to emerge from hiding, and resume ownership of a world from which most other human beings, together with innumerable other species, will have been eliminated. This may well be a ridiculous fantasy; perhaps there will not be enough left for them ever to resume their privileged lives. But am I wrong to feel an ethical revulsion at this prospect? Is it not more ethical to have total human extinction, than to allow the perpetrators of mass death to survive and get away with it?

Here is another science fictional scenario, that I will discuss more briefly. Several sf texts that I have read recently — Carl Neville’s novel Eminent Domain, and Benjanun Sriduangkaew’s short story “Courtship in the Country of Machine-Gods” — both suggest that the continuing existence of the United States of America makes the achievement of any degree of freedom and prosperity, or any sort of humane socialism, in the rest of the world impossible. Sriduangkaew’s story pretty much explicitly advocates the destruction of the USA and the violent extermination of its people. While Neville’s novel neither envisages nor advocates any such thing, it nonetheless makes it clear that the continuing existence of the USA is an absolute stumbling block to any hopes for liberty, equality, and general well-being anywhere else in the world. This seems to me to be the inverse of the situation I described in the previous paragraph. As a comfortable, affluent, and generally privileged citizen of the USA, I don’t really want anything to happen that will harm my own way of life, of those of my children, friends, and relatives. Nonetheless, I find the ethico-political claim made by these works of fiction to be compelling and largely true: that the maintenance of American power across the world, and of affluence for a smaller group of Americans among whom I must include myself, is contingent upon the immiseration of a large majority of human beings, and only the complete elimination of the American imperium and the American threat can possibly alleviate this situation.

So these are some of the uncomfortable thoughts that are too extreme even to call “transgressive,” that will never be entertained by the proponents of the Dark Web, whose right to be expressed will never be a cause celebre for the opponents of so-called “cancel culture,” but whose logic I find it hard to counter, much to my own distress.

Charlie Jane Anders, Victories Greater Than Death

Here is my review of Charlie Jane Anders’ new science fiction novel, Victories Greater Than Death. The book will be published in two and a half weeks. I received an advance copy, courtesy of NetGalley, in return for providing an honest review.

Charlie Jane Anders’ new novel, Victories Greater Than Death, the first volume of a projected trilogy, is great fun. It is Anders’ first book for a YA (Young Adult) audience, which means that it has teenage protagonists, who are shy and moody and nervous about their infatuations. It is perhaps less conceptually audacious than some of Anders’ other work; but this is only a relative observation. There’s still a lot going on in Victories Greater Than Death, even if its main purpose is to entertain.

Victories Greater Than Death is about a bunch of human teenagers, of various gender identities and ethnicities, who find themselves transported onto a starship, and e in a galactic war. A multi-species and relatively non-hierarchical federation, the Firmament (ultimately guided by benevolent computers like those of Iain Banks’ Culture novels) is engaged in struggle against a fascist counterforce, which we can think of as an analog to the contemporary Earthly movements behind Trump, Bolsonaro, Modi, Orban, Duterte, Netanyahu, and so on, only expanded to a galactic scale. In the course of the novel, we get everything that we expect from space opera: exciting interstellar battles, majestic discoveries, last-minute escapes, daring rescue missions against great odds, and the sociology of navigating interspecies differences. We also get everything we expect from YA fiction: the emotional ups and downs and intensified agonies and ecstasies of teenagers who are geniuses but misfits, struggling to define themselves, to do something meaningful in the world, and to make sense of their own emotions. What we do not get, thankfully, is the overdone template of YA dystopian fiction today, in which a plucky teen girl, all on her own, overthrows a totalitarian world order. Anders has something much more imaginative in mind.

Victories Greater Than Death deftly combines teen interiority with galactic socio-politics. The narrative focuses upon six teens who leave the Earth behind and venture into space. They are gay and straight, female, male, and trans, and from different continents and ethnic and racial groups. Their multiplicity is echoed by the crew of the warship the HMSS Indomitable, who are drawn from different humanoid species originating across different planets. Anders’ worldbuilding feels solid and well-thought out, although she definitely puts wacky imaginative detail ahead of plodding sociological plausibility.

In its worldbuilding, Victories Greater Than Death entertainingly subverts many of the expected genre clichés. For instance, the HMSS Indomitable belongs to the Royal Navy. We all know how space opera is obsessed with galactic empires. But it turns out that the Queen, ostensibly at the head of this interplanetay society, “isn’t a monarch,” but rather “more like a librarian”; she interfaces with gigantic AIs, “gathers the knowledge of a million worlds,” and “shares it with everyone in the Firmament.” She is more Barbara Gordon or Rupert Giles than she is Elizabeth Windsor. Learning this is a great relief to one of the teens, an Afro-British gay man who hates his memories of “being forced to sing ‘God Save the Queen’ as a small child.” I give this detail as only one small example of how the novel continually plays with the tropes of both the space opera and the teen romance, and twists them into delightful new forms.

Tina, the narrator and protagonist of the novel, is a white American teen girl who is actually, under disguise, the genetic clone of a legendary Firmament starship captain from a planet of purple-skinned humanoids. She is supposed to have the captain’s memories implanted into her own brain as well, but the operation backfires. She gains her predecessor’s procedural and semantic memories, but not her personal ones. Tina now knows how to fire a “positron cloudstrike gun,” and she knows cultural details about the various galactic species, but she does not know what her predecessor actually did, or what sort of person she was. This turns out to be a good thing rather than a bad thing, because Tina reaps the rewards as well as the confusions of hybridity, without having her own personality swamped by that of her supposed ‘original’. In any case, this extra-human or post-human layer of doubt works to intensify the romance aspect of the novel, which has Tina pining for one of the other teens, a dark-skinned trans woman from Brazil.

In giving Tina this divided and incomplete heritage, Anders also undermines the tiresome narrative stereotype of the Chosen One. As a result of her incomplete transformation, Tina cannot be the one who saves the world; more broadly, she cannot be “The One” (like Neo in The Matrix) at all. This is, first, because such a savior figure does not exist; and second, because any such figure would be a nasty, megalomaniacal dictator if he or she did in fact exist (that would be the novel’s antagonist, Marrant, who leads the fascist rebel forces: fascists have leaders, but egalitarian democrats don’t).

Instead, Tina learns a number of things. In the first place, although Tina picks up the powers and abilities of her predecessor, and therefore is a superb warrior, she finds that she cannot live with herself after killing people. This is the case even though she only kills people in self-defense, in order to stop them from killing her and her friends. She becomes a pacifist, and hopes to defend the Firmament and oppose the fascists while maintaining “non-offensive status.” It remains to be seen, in the other volumes of the trilogy, just what this will entail.

In the second place, Tina learns that she can only help to save the world by joining up with her friends. The group of Earth teens integrates successfully into the larger galactic community aboard the Indomitable, but they also stick together and have one another’s back. Defeating the bad guys is a group effort, in which everyone has their individual roles. Nobody can go it alone, but also nobody can substitute for the uniqueness of anybody else.

Multiculturalism is replicated on multiple levels throughout the novel. There’s the multiplicity among the group of Earth teens, and there is the larger multiplicity of the humanoid races existing in harmony on the starship, and throughout the Firmament. But beyond this, there is a looming, still broader level. We gradually learn the backstory behind the Firmament. An older, now vanished species, known only as the Shapers, went through the galaxy ages ago, aiding the growth of humanoid sentient species on many planets, while at best stymieing the development, and at worst exterminating, all the sentient non-humanoid (and especially non-vertebrate) species they found. These crimes stand behind the current splendor of the Firmament, as much as slavery and genocide stand behind the United States of America. The fascist antagonists in Victories Greater Than Death embrace this ugly heritage, as much as right-wing forces in contemporary America (with analogs across the world) do. But even the good guys, the Firmament, are not free of this history. In principle, the Royal Navy is supposed to cross the galaxy, aiding the helpless and oppressed. But in practice, this doesn’t always happen — the Firmament has a long history of broken promises and calculations based on realpolitik. And this, too, is part of the legacy our teens have to deal with.

The end of Victories Greater Than Death gives us something of a cliffhanger, preparing us for the later installments of the trilogy. Most of the plot strands are resolved, and the immediate bad guys are defeated. But there is a cost — Tina’s best human friend, and one of the alien good guys as well, are left in a coma — and there are intimations of greater dangers to come, as well as the lingering, unresolved issues that I have already mentioned. I look forward to the sequels; but for now, Victories Greater Than Death is a fun, satisfying, and also thought-provoking read, which I can happily recommend to an adult, as well as a YA, audience.

NFTs

Here are some thoughts about NFTs and the art market. NFTs — “non-fungible tokens” — have become the latest art world craze; The New York Times explains them here.

My question is how we might think of NFT’s in the context of what Walter Benjamin called mechanical reproduction or technological reproducibility (depending on which translation you use). Benjamin says paintings have an aura because they are unique objects: the photo, postcard, or other reproduction of the Mona Lisa is not equivalent to the actual painting. But this is no longer the case with mass-reproduced objects, like cinema for Benjamin. And this was why Benjamin saw a revolutionary potential in cultural forms without an aura (the opposite position to Clement Greenberg’s rejection of kitsch).

Now, one of the things Benjamin didn’t quite get was that, in an economically unequal society, the privilege of the aura is recreated in other ways. Benjamin dismisses the “phony aura” of the movie star; but I would argue that, say, Marilyn Monroe’s aura is no more or less “fake” than the aura of the Mona Lisa. Benjamin failed to grasp how celebrities themselves actually do have an auratic presence, in the same way that unique paintings do. Even today, there are also still auratic fetishes about technological differences: things like film vs video (e.g. Quentin Tarantino still insists in making his movies on photographic film, and snobbishly considers that you aren’t really seeing the movie unless you see them projected on an analog projector in 70mm). More generally, every time technology destroys the aura, or destroys the distinction between original and copy, the “culture industry” finds ways of bringing the distinction back. Digital files can be reproduced indefinitely without any degradation of quality, but often the files are degraded anyway, in order to maintain the prestige of the original. e.g., mp3s use compression, lowering file size by degrading quality, so they actually aren’t exact copies of the master recordings. So-called “digital rights management” also restricts the circulation of electronic texts (as well as audiovisual works) in order to maintain an artificial scarcity; the reason for this is to increase revenue, but to the extent that it makes a work unavailable or irreproducible, it once again creates an aura.

Benjamin was interested in aura as a form of elitist cultural prestige; for him, it was more like something for the old aristocracy than something for the bourgeoisie. But in today’s financialized capitalism, this distinction falls away. Anyone with enough money can buy a Picasso, a Warhol, or a Basquiat; the snobbery of the old-rich art connoisseurs becomes less relevant, when (for instance) rappers can hire (white and impeccably aristocratic) art advisors to tell them which canvases to buy. Or to put this all another way: aura and prestige have traditionally been tied to access: as long as there is inequality of access, the work has an aura, and the people with access to the work have prestige and power in a way that people without access don’t. There are only a certain number of Warhols or Basquiats in the world, and reproductions don’t quite do them justice; so these works retain their aura, and their owners retain a measure of prestige. But Benjamin was right that movies don’t have quite this level of aura or social prestige as paintings did: I can watch a Tarantino movie on my computer, even though Tarantino himself scorns this and sees it as an inferior form of access. Widespread piracy of written texts, circumventing DRM and making the books available for free, not only harms publisher profits, but denudes the book of its aura as well. (This also explains why some books are published in limited numbers in high-production-value formats, even though there is no change in the actual text).

As far as I can tell, the brilliant thing about NFTs is that, for the first time ever, it completely separates ownership and auratic prestige from the work itself. I cannot really appreciate Basquiat’s brushstrokes when I see a digital or photographic reproduction of one of his paintings, in the way that I could if I had the painting itself. But I can download, essentially for free, the exact same digital file created by Beeple that just sold for $69 million. NFTs entirely separate prestige, ownership, and bragging rights from access. Some rich asshole just paid an enormous sum for the aura of Beeple’s file, and presumably this will be re-sellable indefinitely, perhaps at a profit. But this unique ownership, embedded in the digital “token” that records it, has no longer has any relation to the possibility or the difficulty of actually looking at the work in question. The aura is a different file from the file of the work itself. The separation of monetary value from the object is very much like what happens with financial derivatives, which float free from their “underlying”. There is a unique, and therefore expensive, prestigious, and auratic “essence” to the work, but this “essence” no longer has any relation whatsoever to questions of access, or to the actual availability of the experience of the work.

I think this would be a great model to apply to other cultural forms as well. Writers are worried about selling their works, and nervous about piracy, because their royalties are the only way they get paid. At the same time, most writers would like to be read as widely as possible. NFTs offer an escape from this dilemma. If I were to write a novel, and if I could sell an associated NFT of the novel to somebody like, say, Martin Shkreli for a million dollars — then I would be paid for my work, and I could still let everybody else download the novel for free. Shkreli could “own” my novel in the same way as he owns that never-released Wu Tang Clan recording. In 2014, before NFTs became widely accepted, RZA sold Shkreli the exclusive rights to the recording itself; nobody else gets to hear it. If RZA had been able to sell Shkreli an NFT instead, Shkreli would have the same bragging rights, and the Wu Tang Clan would have gotten the same money, but everyone in the world could hear the music.

Nicky Drayden, Escaping Exodus and Escaping Exodus: Symbiosis

I just finished reading Nicky Drayden’s just-published Escaping Exodus: Symbiosis (2021), the sequel to the first Escaping Exodus (2019). These books are absolutely bonkers, and I mean that in the best possible way. I haven’t absorbed enough from just one reading of these novels to be able to draw out their rich implications as fully as I would like. In what follows, I will mostly avoid spoilers as I write about what these novels offer in a fairly abstract way.

The Escaping Exodus books are space opera of a sort. The Earth is nothing more than a distant memory. Human beings live, not precisely in spaceships, but rather inside the bodies of the Zenzee, enormous (moon-sized) living animals that travel in herds through outer space. Inside each Zenzee is a complex array of parasitic or symbiotic microfauna, and an equally complex human society. These societies differ radically from one another, after thousands of years apart. The people in the novels have to negotiate their own social worlds, together with the biophysical challenges of their host environments.

That’s the basic premise of the novels. What really brings the books alive are their rich, world-building details, including a lot of gross and squishy macro-anatomy, odd foods that range from delicious to repulsive, complicated sex/gender/family/class systems that are as inescapable as they are arbitrary, and Machiavellian political infighting. These societies aren’t easily described along a utopian/dystopian axis. In the main world of the novel, for instance, same-sex relationships are just as common, and just as accepted, as heterosexual ones. Women are pretty much in control of everything; men are mostly expected to remain in the domestic sphere, and when they appear in public their appearance is beautified through makeup and revealing garments. There is a rigid class system, with a powerful aristocracy who can get away with pretty much anything, and workers who have almost no rights or privileges. Families are rigid institutions, but they are nothing like the nuclear families of our own society. Instead, these families are composed of multiple spouses, all of whom are consigned to pre-determined roles, and with child-bearing heavily policed as well. Of course, the way these structures are taken for granted within the society, to such an extent that the characters are nearly unable to think their way outside them, can be seen as a cognitively estranging ways of reminding us that our own gender and family arrangements are equally arbitrary and constraining. But the florid proliferation of these arrangements makes an impressive point in its own right; and it is further relativized by the brief glimpses we get of social arrangments inside the other Zenzee worlds (my favorite, perhaps, is the insane world in which there is no gender inequality, but children from a very young age are trained to be warriors; the result is a heavily hierarchical society filled with paranoia, as everyone is full-time engaged in trying to betray and undermine their superiors, while at the same time policing their inferiors to prevent the same thing from happening to them; assassination is common).

The overall effect of all this world-building is quite amazingly delirious, even though in logical terms it all hangs together, and makes at least as much sense as the more humdrum world-building arrangements projected by other sf writers (let alone the world-building arrangements that we ourselves inhabit, and take for granted more than we should). The social relations that I have just described are overlaid by ecological ones, based on the relation between the human beings in general, and the organisms that they inhabit. The human beings initially exploit their Zenzee as resources to be plundered; when the weight of human activities saps the energy of the Zenzee and kills it, the human inhabitants simply transfer themselves to another one. But gradually it becomes clear, not only that this environmental pillaging is unsustainable (making the books into ecological parables), but also that the Zenzee themselves are sentient and feeling organisms, whose own needs and desires need to be taken into account and respected.

Indeed, the novels are concerned above all with various forms of intertwinings and co-dependencies that exist on multiple scales and levels, moving from particular sexual relationships among human individuals, to social arrangments and exploitative class structures, all the way to large-scale ecological dependencies such those between the human beings and the Zenzee. On all these levels, people and communities need to negotiate between their own needs and those (often quite different ones) of the others they encounter. These negotiations can be understood anthropologically and sociologically, of course, but also physically in terms of energy flow and biophysical resources.

The novels thereby suggest — without spelling things out too explicity — an ontology that is very different from anything we are accustomed to. Our most basic categories break down, and it becomes evident that we need different ones. This is both intriguing and difficult, because the characters in the world(s) of the novels never articulate their primary assumptions systematically. They are unaware of their presuppositions in the same way we are all too often unaware of our own (ultimately in the same way that, as McLuhan said, fish are unaware of water). The result is a kind of exciting indeterminacy. For instance, the traditional binary between biological and social simply makes no sense in these novels. Neither of these terms is reducible to the other, or can be explained in terms of the other; but the social and the biological are nonetheless so inextricably intertwined that we cannot find a stable boundary between them. Recent feminist and ecological thinkers have addressed this sort of situation by means of linguistice coinages like Donna Haraway’s naturecultures or Karen Barad’s intra-activity; but in Drayden’s world(s), somehow these hybrid words/concepts don’t seem quite right either. This is yet another one of those cases where even our most advanced theoretical articulations have yet to keep pace with the constructions of speculative fiction.

In any case. we need to infer the consequences of Drayden’s world-building — together with those arising from the wild twists of her plots — indirectly. This is of course one of the main characteristics of science fiction narratives in general; but Drayden carries this “cognitive estrangement” to an extent, and with a meta-referential skill, that is quite unusual. I am tempted to say that, where we expect science fiction to introduce a novum that induces cognitive estrangement, the Escaping Exodus novels present the experience of cognitive estrangement itself as the novum. The books continually force us to reconsider whatever we have already accepted and agreed to. The novels present us with a series of ethico-ecological imperatives, and work to convince us that these imperatives are both urgent and entirely rational. But whenever we get to some degree of acceptance and resolution, the narratives then up the ante in startling and outrageously hyperbolic ways. The Escaping Exodus volumes are immediately gripping and entertaining; but they also push us inexorably into a series of increasingly crazy WTF moments, whose imperative logic we nonetheless have to accept.

Arkady Martine, A Desolation Called Peace

Here is my review of Arkady Martine’s new science fiction novel, A Desolation Called Peace, her sequel to the Hugo-winning A Memory Called Empire. The book will be published in three weeks. I received an advance copy, courtesy of NetGalley, in return for providing an honest review.

Arkady Martine’s new science fiction novel A Desolation Called Peace is a sequel to her Hugo-award-winning debut, A Memory Called Empire. Like its predecessor, Desolation is a far-future space opera. Martine carries over her exquisite world-building, and some of the same characters, from the previous volume, and gives both world and people a series of new challenges. The galaxy-spanning Teixcalaan Empire — reminiscent of both the Byzantine Empire (the subject of Martine’s scholarly work as a historian) and the empire of the Aztecs — regards itself as the epitome of civilization. All outsiders are disparaged as “barbarians.” The Empire is at once aesthetically dazzling, enormously wealthy, bureaucratically vast, and politically ruthless. Its accomplishments in art, literature, and architecture are unparalleled. It dominates galactic trade and commerce, and controls access to the “gates” (presumably wormholes) that allow for travel between distant planetary systems. With its fearsome military might, the Empire slaps down anyone and anything that dares to challenge its worlds-spanning dominance. Teixcalaan is something like a science-fictional analogue of the United States (at least in the period after we “won” the Cold War but before our recent decline), though its overtly totalitarian political structure bespeaks a franker acknowledgment of aspects of the American Empire that we tend to dissimulate, even to ourselves.

A Desolation Called Peace switches fluidly among multiple points of view; but like its predecessor, its main character is an outsider (a so-called “barbarian”): Mahit Dzmare, from the small independent space colony Lsel Station. The Station is fully in the Teixcalaanli sphere of economic influence, but it has so far managed to preserve its political independence. Mahit has grown up studying, and loving, all things Teixcalaanli, while maintaining her Lsel cultural identity. In A Memory Called Empire, Mahit is sent as Lsel’s ambassador to the Empire. Coming to the Teixcalaan capitol planet and city, she fully indulges her love for its culture; but her ambassadorial charge is to preserve Lsel Station from the Empire’s imperialist designs.

Immediately upon arrival, Mahit is thrown into a world of complex and treacherous political scheming (that fully merits the adjective ‘Byzantine’ in its looser metaphorical sense); at the same time, she is forced to recognize that, no matter how well she integrates herself into Teixcalaanli cultural life, she will never fully be accepted by it. She will never escape being regarded as an inferior barbarian. Mahit acutely feels the same post-colonial dilemma that so many people of color and people from elsewhere than Western Europe or North America have had to face in our actual world today: how to negotiate between their having been shaped by, and having come to love, certain aspects of Euro-American culture, and their inescapable awareness that this culture has systematically devalued and exploited them.

A Desolation Called Peace inverts the situation of the previous novel. Now, several Teixcalaanli legions find themselves at the edges of the Empire, engaged in low-level space combat with a nonhuman but sentient alien species. If the Teixcalaanli regard human beings from other cultures as barbarians scarcely worthy of recognition, how can they deal with this far more deeply alien presence? The aliens’ technology is at least equal, and in some ways superior, to that of the humans; but their communications, both among themselves and when they address themselves towards humans, don’t seem to be categorizable as anything we can recognize as language. Given the inscrutability of the aliens, together with their mastery of stealth guerrilla warfare, it seems that the Empire is faced with an alternative between humiliating withdrawal, or genocide of the alien species on a planetary scale (with the latter still not guaranteed to end the war for good).

In this situation, the linguist and spy Three Seagrass — Mahit’s Teixcalaanli contact and semi-love-interest from the first novel — is called to the space frontier to try to find a way of negotiating with the aliens. Three Seagrass asks Mahit to come along and help her. Mahit agrees, because she is in political hot water back home at Lsel Station; although she preserved the Station from direct annexation by the Empire, she is still regarded by her own people as overly pro-Teixcalaanli and therefore untrustworthy.

What follows is another story of (sorry) Byzantine political intrigue, combined with the ontological uncertainties of a First Contact novel. A Desolation Called Peace is rich on a personal-is-political level, as Mahit must negotiate her way among many stresses: the distrust and disdain of the Teixcalaanli in general, the condescension of Three Seagrass despite the mutual sexual attraction between them, and the ill-will of her Lsel compatriots — not to mention the difficulties of grasping the desires and beliefs of civilized beings who nonetheless look grotesque and menacing to human eyes, and whose vocalizations (which they think of as singing) literally cause nausea due to infrasonic vibrations when heard by human ears in human bodies.

I should probably be a bit more circumspect in the rest of this review, so that I do not give away too many spoilers. I will just say that the novel’s resolution comes about through Martine’s other great theme, besides questions of borders and negotiations and cosmopolitanism. This other theme has to do with the nature of individuality, and of possible connections among minds and bodies. The major science fictional novum of A Memory Called Empire, alongside its broad political and cultural vision, is a key technology that Lsel Station has, but the Empire does not. This is what the novel calls the imago — a prosthetic computational device that contains the memory and personality of ancestors or predecessors. Upon reaching adult maturity, every Lsel citizen is implanted with an imago that is suitable for their personality, and for their chosen career. Mahit is given the imago of Yskandr Aghavn, her predecessor as Lsel ambassador to Teixcalaan, and who shared many of her cosmopolitan interests and even (to some extent) sexual proclivities. An imago often contains a multi-generational line of predecessors, and its personality is supposed to integrate with that of the host. For various reasons, Mahit finds such integration difficult, over the course of both novels. The technology is supposed to be a Lsel secret; but when the Teixcalaanli find out about it they tend to be both fascinated and horrified.

Questions about the integrity of the self, and of personality connection and integration, are central to both novels. Mahit is genuinely helped by Yskandr’s imago, and mostly values their integration, but she also sometimes has difficulties with having what is ultimately another person “inside her endocrine system.” Similarly, after Mahit finally has sex with Three Seagrass (maybe this is a spoiler, but after we’ve been teased about this prospect over the length of two long volumes, it just had to happen eventually), she worries about what it means to say that “this person has had their hands inside you.” So it is not too much of a stretch to see the technological forms of personality integration imagined by Martine as extensions of sexual connection — just as First Contact tropes in science fiction generally are extensions of actual worldly problems of connection among people of different cultures and belief systems. In all these cases, questions of intimacy — of welcoming someone who in one sense combines with you but also at the same time remains other than you — are combined with questions of freedom and coercion, and of unequal power relations between the partners.

A Desolation Called Peace imagines an expanded range of technologies of connection among separate bodies and minds — alike among the Lsel Stationers, the Teixcalaanli, and the aliens. I will just mention that these exist, on several levels, without going into description and analysis of all of them. It is quite beautiful the way in which these prospects of connection nicely resolve the narrative, and lead to at least a certain possibility of peace, beyond the alternatives of either continual skirmishing or violent annihilation — while at the same time, things remain open, complicated, and unresolved on a broader, philosophical level, and in terms of future prospects for the characters and their societies. A Desolation Called Peace gives us so much of what I look for in science fiction: deep and cogent worldbuilding, characters who definitely intrigue us and grab our attention, whether or not we actually like them, and deep conceptual speculation, which opens up new prospects for thought.