Kathe Koja, Dark Factory

Kathe Koja’s new novel, Dark Factory, is a gushing psychedelic cascade. The book is about artists and musicians and techies and entrepreneurs, who work to create, and to control, immersive, multisensory augmented and virtual realities — whether inside a computer game, or at an all-night dance club. But just reading the book is already a kind of artificially enhanced experience — to the extent that this is attainable just through prose. Koja’s sentences erupt and flow with scenes that dizzyingly metamorphose through gerundive constructions and paratactic additions, jumping in mid-sentence from one location, one action, into another. Everything seems to be glowing and melting and transitioning. The novel is all process rather than product. Even when the characters stop for a moment — say, to eat or to sleep, necessities that cannot be evaded — it is just an eyeblink and then they are off again, in breathlessly ever-changing configurations. Dark Factory takes that old modernist dream — to enact what you depict, to become what you represent — and pulls it into the twenty-first century.

Koja describes her book as an immersive novel. Part of the way that it draws us in — or better, invites us in, seduces us in — is through its blurry boundaries. Aside from the main text of the novel, there are extra, supplementary sections, which are presented as documents from the novel’s world. written by one or another of the characters, or by journalists and publicists observing them. You can read these extra sections as you go along, or wait until you have finshed the main novel, and then dig in. There are even more extra texts, together with audio recordings and videos, on the book’s website, https://darkfactory.club/. Readers are implicity encouraged to add their own materials to this collection. As we enter the world of the novel, that world enters into us. Every additional document makes it richer and more inclusive.

But immersion is not only the style of the novel; it is also what the book itself is about. Dark Factory draws the reader into its fictions; but its characters are themselves artists, in search of an immersive aesthetics. The Dark Factory itself is a key location in the first chapters of the novel: a dance club that stays open all night, a place of music and rhythm, of flashing lights and neon graffiti, together with additional elements of augmented, virtual reality, tailored to the desires of individual clients (or better, participants). It feeds on your desires while also feeding those desires, in an ever-expanding loop of intensities. The club closes down part-way through the novel, but the characters continue to pursue the high — or better, to themselves construct that high, even more intensely, with sensations heightened even further, in ever-more-dazzling soundscapes and lightscapes (and even. perhaps, smellscapes and touchscapes).

The novel is set in unnamed cities and landscapes: places unspecified, but definitely located in North America and in Europe. When we aren’t ensconced in the clubs or in the workshops, we follow along with the characters down the streets; there are rundown industrial areas, business districts, and gentrifying upscale neighborhoods with their cappuccino stands and artisanal boutiques. Some of the characters crash in unheated, abandoned lofts; others have temporary access to exquisite yuppie condos. Koja’s prose immerses us in smells and tastes, as well as subtle or grandiose forms of light, and above all insistent beats.

The book seems to be situated, in time as well as in space, just beyond the bleeding edge of the present. We have a VR technology called Y, that is slightly more convincingly immersive than what actually exists today. The novel also contains made-up slang that convincingly sounds like stuff people will actually be saying just a few years from now. Dark Factory does not proclaim its allegiance to any particular literary genre, but it reads to me like near-future science fiction, in its socio-technological inventions as well as in its visionary intimations.

Dark Factory switches back and forth between the POVs of its two main protagonists. Ari is a producer or scene-maker. He is all about setting up the best parties, the newest and most intense experiential zones. Max is an artist and writer, who envisions and builds multimedia installations. Ari and Max are sometimes rivals, more often collaborators and finally friends. At the start, Ari is managing everyone’s favorite nightclub, and Max is running an outdoors augmented-reality environment. They both get displaced from these initial projects, and over the course of the novel they end up collaborating on a mega-event that combines computer gaming (Max working with some programmers) with techno beats and crowds of dancers and listeners (Ari producing along with technical and artistic helpers). In between, we see the ups and downs of their own relationship, together with those of the people around them. Most notably, we meet Ari’s boyfriend, the genius DJ Felix, and Max’s sometime girlfriend, the ferociously intellectual journalist Marfa (yes, she is named after the famous Texas art site).

The novel also sports an additional cast of dancers, party people, nightlife denizens, and especially wealthy patrons. These rich people provide the money that the creative people need in order to realize their projects. But money men and women also jerk the creative people around in various obnoxious ways. The patrons range from megalomaniacal corporate types who want to control everything, to self-proclaimed entrepreneurs with dubious finances, unpredictable whims, and dangerous ties to Russian gangsters. The plot of the novel mostly consists in a series of negotiations between the various parties. Ari gets stuck in a number of unpleasant commercial arrangements, from which he continually needs to extricate himself.

But the real reason the novel works so well is because the ebb and flow of these relationships and arrangements is continuous with the creative activity of the main characters. Somehow nights at the club, or days in the engineered VR environment, are not all that different from the flow of interacting personalities, or the traversal of one urban regin after another — at least the ways in which they are described in Koja’s hallucinogenic prose. We are continually sliding from Ari’s having to manipulate, or else be manipulated by, various bosses and investors, and the delirium of the nighttime events he nonetheless manages to make happen. Similarly, Max negotiates between the highs and lows of his unstable mood swings, and the experiential richness of the VR game (or better, VR environment) that he manages to author. Dancers and graffiti artists bring their own delicate touches. Felix the DJ is almost supernatural in his talent: several times in the course of the novel, his playing triggers Dionysian orgies and even seismic activity. The novel brings us to the edge of what might be a life-transforming experience: sex and drugs and music and dancing, so intense as to rend the veil of Maya and give us glimpses of ultimate reality. But there are no final pronoucements; this amazing high might be nothing more than having a good time. In any case, the novel stops on the brink — we are left to continue the quest ourselves.

Kathe Koja started her writing career with a number of intense and innovative horror novels, such as The Cipher (1991) and Skin (1993). She has since written in a number of different genres, including YA as well as adult fiction. In a certain sense, Dark Factory brings her work full circle, albeit everything has been turned inside-out. Her horror fiction was about aesthetic transcendence and transformation, pushing beyond the limits of the human. In a sense, Dark Factory is much the same, returning to this terrain both in its prose style and in its theme. Except that here the dangerous process of exceeding human limits is suffused with love instead of hate, with hope instead of nihilistic rage and abjection, and with the sense of a potential community, rather than with one of atomization and alienation. We often want to believe the worst — and Koja’s early novels do lead us in this direction — but who is to say that such negativity is the ultimate? Dark Factory gives us a vision that is too fleeting to be redemptive — it is process and not product, and it is as fragile as it is overwhelming — but this vision is something that we desperately need in these otherwise horrendous times.

Guy Lardreau, Fictions philosophiques et science-fiction (1988)

A number of Franocphone philosophers have written interestingly on Anglo-American, or English lanugage, science fiction (henceforth sf). Isabelle Stengers discusses sf briefly yet penetratingly, in an interview here that has greatly influenced my own work. Jean-Clet Martin has written an excellent, and large and capacious, book reading Golden Age sf through the framework of Hegel’s Science of Logic: Logique de la science-fiction. And David Lapoujade has written a concise but rich and detailed book about the philosophical implications of Philip K Dick’s writings: L’Altération des mondes.

But the book I want to concentrate upon here is Guy Lardreau’s Fictions philosophiques et science-fiction, from 1988. Lardreau (1947-2008) was a French philosopher who started out as a Maoist militant and ended up as a kind of transcendental pessimist; his rejection of Maoism in favor of universalist ethics must be distinguished, however, from that of his contemporaries the so-called nouveaux philosophes, who movied all too easily from supposed Maoism to center-right pontification. Peter Hallward (see next paragraph) notes that Lardreau “Lardreau was always careful to distance himself from la nouvelle philosophie as an apparently ‘collective’ project, and still more as a media phenomenon.”

There is not much English-language writing on Lardreau; the most extensive overview of his thought and career comes in two articles by Peter Hallward, available here and here. I haven’t read any other of Lardreau’s writing aside from his book on science fiction; I will concentrate here, less on giving any form of meta-critique, than just on trying to get his arguments right. I read French almost-fluently, but I find it harder to reproduce the sense of what I have read in French, compared to things I read in English; my main purpose here is just to get straight in my own mind the overall structure and sense of Lardreau’s arguments. My account inevitably involes a certain number of misstatements and misunderstandings, but hopefully it will be not too misleading. But in any case, my reading of Lardreau was very helpful for me. I am trying to think through my ideas about the potentiality that is represented and expressed in science fictionality, and also why I have come to embrace a Leibnizian approach to science fiction (as opposed to the ultimately Spinozian approach favored by Fredric Jameson and people influenced by him).

Lardreau’s book begins with a “Retroduction” (instead of an Introduction), and ends with an “Introclusion” (instead of a Conclusion). I think he does this in order to emphasize the circular (or better, labyrinthine) structure of his overall argument, which does not proceed to an uncovering of truth, but rather insists that truth can only remain intertwined with fiction, and that science fiction is the form of literature that best communicates with philosophy’s own need to resort to fiction. The Retroduction states that the whole book arose out of Lardreau’s noting an “astonishing homology” between the fictions deployed by Leibniz in order to explain his ideas about possible worlds, and the way that science fiction imagines parallel worlds. Science fiction develops conjectures that are grounded in science, but that touch on areas that science cannot reach.

After this, the first major chapter is about “fiction as a philosophical experience.” Lardreau starts with some dilemmas in early modern philosophy, involving questions about the nature of experience, and the adequacy, or inadequacy, of empirical sensations for understanding the nature of reality. Thinkers in the 17th and 18th centuries proposed thought experiments. Molyneux asked if somebody blind from birth, suddenly given the power of sight, would be able to correlate what they saw with what they had previously only felt. Condillac imagined a statue suddenly brought to life, but with only one sensory impression at a time, and asked whether this being would be able to comprehend the world in its full multi-dimensionality. Such fictions, Lardreau argues, construct imaginary objects, or entire imaginary worlds, in such a way as to “constrain a philosophical doctrine” to acknowledge all its presuppositions, and thereby to demonstrate its “coherence” and “the extent of its validitty”. By varying the conditions given in the fiction, one can see how well the doctrine performs in different circumstances. (I myself compare philosophical thought experiments to science fiction narratives, in the first chapter of my book Discognition. I am exploring this further in a current manuscript in progress. So I particularly welcome Lardreau’s focus on this).

Variation is thus the central principle of philosophical fictions — and of science fiction. Everything can be varied imaginatively, and thus made the subject of a fiction, as long as the fiction does not involve logical contradiction. But the avoidance of logical contradiction is a very low bar; some fictions are better than others, more powerful than others, more reasonabe than others, more plausible than others: in short, some fictions are more possessed of vraisemblance than others. This insistence on Lardreau’s part seems to me to be vitally important (it relates to my attempts, in my work in progress, to distingish meaningful potentiality from mere logical possibility, with the help of both Whitehead and Deleuze Lardreau is a valuable ally in this attempt).

We can put the matter this way. Both American analytic philosophers, and a number of continental ones — most notably Quentin Meillassoux — insist that anything not logically contradictory is therefore possible. But this is an extremely impoverished definition of possibility. Unless you believe (as both Meillassoux and David Lewis apparently do) that no point in spacetime is related in any positive way to any other point, so that every punctual state of affairs is unrelated to any other, then actually-existing connections and disconnections constrain potentiality much more strongly than the mere criterion of logical non-contradiction allows. To use Leibniz’s language (as Lardreau does later in his book, albeit not here), it is not enough that something is possible; it must also be compossible with other things and circumstances. This is what Lardreau is getting at with his insistence that some philosophical fictions are more plausible or meaningful than others.

Lardreau goes on from considering these various early modern philosophical fictions to look in depth at the most far-reaching of these: Descartes’ hypothesis of the Evil Demon. It is only by proposing this fiction that Descartes can get beyond the doubt with which he begins, and establish the cogito and the existence of God. This is because it is only by means of such an extravagant fiction, that Descartes is able to break from the presuppositions of “common sense” that he otherwise would unwittingly continue to take for granted. This fiction is necessary in order to transform Descartes’ doubt from a merely psychological condition into a properly ontological one. In this sense, fiction-making is a necessary condition of possibility for philosophy itself. Moreover, Lardreau argues, such fiction-making is not merely imaginative; by disrupting the way that imagination merely recombines and plays with previous sensory impressions (i.e. previously given images), Descartes’ procedure of fictionalizing pushes thought beyond imagination to the more abstract level of understanding.

This leads further to one of Lardreau’s main themes throughout the book, one that he places within the framework of the history of Western philosophy. Even though Descartes wishes to deduce everything about the world a priori, from first principles, he also discovers that such an ideal is impossible for us to attain. Only God could successfully make such a deduction; in actual human practice, we need empirical observation as well as logic, and fictionalizing is necessary in order to bridge the gap between empirical particulars and first principles. In terms that get repeated throughout the book, Lardreau claims that one of the most essential dividing lines in Western philosophy is the question of whether the Real is Rational, or whether the Real always exceeds the Rational. Descartes insists on the latter, even though he seems to start out with the former. Lardreau never mentions Levinas, but this seems to me to resonate with Levinas’ reading of the idea of infinity in Descartes, which always exceeds the subject.

More generally, according to Lardreau, philosophers who proclaim the ultimate coincidence of the Real and the Rational include, not only Hegel, but also Spinoza (both in his geometric method, and since he posits the third kind of reason as able to know everything from first principles) and Bergson (because he sees the power of intuition as able to surpass the limitations of scientific rationality and of the pragmatic basis of natural perception). For thinkers who claim that the Real coincides with the Rational, fictions can have no place (and it is for this reason that Spinoza denounces the falsity of the power of imagination). But if the Real exceeds the Rational — as Descartes, Leibniz, and Kant all maintain — then fiction is necessary to philosophical reflection. Even as such philosophy tries to move from imagination to the surer process of understanding, it cannot eliminate imagination, and in fact needs to rely upon it. If the Real exceeds Reason or Rationality, this means that fiction is necessary. For Spinoza, since the Real and the Rational ultimately coincide, fiction has no place. But for Descartes, since Real and Rational do not coincide, this means that (echoing Lacan) “truth is not all” (la vérité n’est pas toute), and therefore fiction becomes a necessary tool of the understanding. Lardreau goes on to restate this explicitly in terms of Lacan’s three orders: Imaginary, Symbolic, and Real. The Real exceeds the Symbolic, and is not reducible to it.

The book’s second chapter is about “fiction as experience of philosophy.” Lardreau works through what today we might call the dilemma of correlationism (though that term hadn’t been invented yet in 1988). In its most obvious terms, this is the problem posed by Hume: how do I know that an object that disappears from view (because I close my eyes, or look in a different direction, or simply walk away) is still there, and will be in the same place when I return to it? Lardreau sees this as another instance of the non-coincidence of the Rational with the Real — nothing in the former can guarantee the persistence of the latter. Lardreau develops this in Lacanian terms. Even as language allows us to designate real things, it also sets up a “wall” or a barrier beyond which the Real is sequestered. Our everyday reality cannot be equated with the Real, because it is structured by language (the Symbolic) and by images (the Imaginary). In Lacan’s terms, we are stuck in these registers, just as in Kant’s terms we only experience phenomena, not things in themselves. Lardreau adds that Philip K. Dick explores the same dilemma in his late novels (he refers specifically to The Divine Invasion). The Real remains radically Other, radically out of reach, radically irreducible to representation.

Lardreau also explores this in terms of an opposition he sets up between philosophy and science. By “science”, Lardreau seems to mean both physics and other physical sciences, and social sciences like that of historical materialism. (Here I sense echoes of Althusser’s discussion of how we can never step out of ideology, and of how science can only exist to the extent that it is radically asubjective. But Lardreau does not mention Althusser — this is unsuprising since Althusser is radically Spinozian, and Lardreau is rather Leibnizian). Where philosophy sees a wall separating us from the Real, which remains radically Other, science both denies that the wall exists, and tries to account for how the ideological illusion that such a wall exists is produced nonetheless. I am not sure that I am getting this quite right, but I think Lardreau’s point is that where philosophy sees the Real as radically Other, science dissolves this otherness, and in the course of doing so also dissolves ourselves as subjects (since we are no different, for science, than other natural phenomena). Where philosophy insists that at least some sort of opacity exists, science denies this opacity. Science “demands that every shadow, every obscurity can be dissipated, every incomprehensibility expelled, that there is absolute intelligibilty.” In this way, science is aligned with philosophies of totaland evidently Deleuze’s as well, though Deleuze, like Althusser, is never mentioned by Lardreau). Lardreau maintains the Lacanian distinction between reality and the Real; whereas for science as for the philosophies of immanence, there is no radical Otherness, and hence no Real (but only the small-r “reality).

As a semi-Deleuzian, I find this disturbing; my more Deleuzian friends will no doubt throw up their hands and reject Lardreau altogether at this point. But I think there is something worthwhile in continuing to pursue the argument further. Lardreau concedes that science has chipped away at philosophy, indeed parochialized philosophy to the point where philosophy cannot contest science any longer. Instead, philosophy can do one of two things. Either, in a positive sense, philosophy can accompany science, rescue it from the dangers of positivism by organizing and synthesizing its findings. Or else, in a negative sense, which is the one that Lardreau himself favors and practices, philosophy can perform the task of reminding science of the not-all. For Lardreau, science is true (vrai). but it is not The Truth (la verité). Science does not, and cannot, encompass everything; thereby, philosophy can maintain “the insistence of the Real” beyond the limits of science, or at least in the margins of the territory that science has imperialistically annexed.

All this means that, while philosophers can strive either to clarify science or to limit it, in either case they “no longer know how to make worlds” (faire des mondes). And this is where Lardreau comes to science fiction. Given the weakness of philosophy with regard to science, it is now science fiction that navigates between them, science fiction that “takes up the double task of adjusting our vision of the world to the advances of science, and of making us still feel the weight of the Real.” Philosophy can no longer negate the findings of science, but sf can probe the Beyond that science has not yet reached, and never will. If classical philosophers like Descartes, Leibniz, and Kant deployed fiction to bridge the gap between the Rational and the Real, then sf at once indicates, widens, and bridges the very gap that science claims to have already filled in.

This reminds me — to refer to a text that comes several decades later than Lardreau’s — of Quentin Meillassoux’s reference to the “Great Outdoors” (or great outside — le grand dehors). Meillassoux argues that physical science alone is able to describe this outside. Lardreau would reject this, since he argues that science fails to grasp the outside, precisely by turning it into an inside. Where metaphysics insists that there is a wall, and that therefore there is both an inside (dedans) and an outside (dehors), in contrast “science is the discourse that says that the outside is actually, for whomever understands, the inside (la science est ce discours qui dit que le dehors est, pour qui sait voir, le dedans.).

Lardreau expands this line of thought, by saying that, just as philosophy can no longer keep up with science, so also it can no longer keep up with what he designates by various names, including religion, theology, spirituality, and ethics. The only form in which philosophy subsists today is as Philosophy of History; but such philosophy is unequal to face the horrors of the modern world, like Nazi concentration camps and the killing fields of Cambodia. If there can be, to paraphrase and extend Adorno, both no poetry and no philosophy after Auschwitz, then here science fiction can take up the task that philosophy is no longer capable of performing (la science­ fiction relève la philosophie). Here Lardeau cites, in particular, Thomas Disch’s The Genocides and Camp Concentration.

The book’s third (and longest) chapter is called “Two Preliminary Studies, in the Form of Applications”. The first of these two studies is focused on Leibniz, and the second on Frank Herbert’s Dune saga (Lardreau includes all six volumes written and published by Herbert, not just the first). These both have a lot to say about science fiction, drawing upon the formulations developed in the prior chapters.

Lardreau sees Leibniz as the most pleasurable philosopher to read, as well as the most science fictional. This is because Leibniz displays “the marvelous richness, the mad generosity, the entire liberty of a thought that does not refuse itself any object, that does not reject any question, that does not judge any reference to be valueless or any knowledge to be unworthy (indigne). A thought without exclusivity, without principle of authority…” Lardreau insists that this is radically different from the way that Hegel incorporates and integrates everything into a totalizing framework. “There is no ‘dialectic’ in Leibniz, no labor of the negative, no Aufhebung“. Rather, for Leibniz, “it is in what it affirms, in what it offers purely positively, that every thought can be welcomed as a particular case or particular development.” Indeed, I could quote Lardreau on the greatness of Leibniz at much greater length; the rhapsody goes on for pages. The insistence on positivity and affirmation has a Deleuzian ring to it; but once again Lardreau does not mention Deleuze, probably because Deleuze applies this sense of affirmation to thinkers Lardreau rejects (i.e. Spinoza, Bergson, and Nietzsche). Instead, Lardreau cites Deleuze’s friend Michel Serres on Leibniz. In his joyous pursuit of affirmation, Lardreau continues, Leibniz develops “strange narrative machines, ‘possible fictions’ that he often develops, not without a sort of literary obligingness/indulgence (complaisance, a word that does not have negative connotations in this context), in which science fiction fans may discover the original mold (le moule originel) of many of the topoi that delight them.” And Lardreau quotes Leibniz himself on this matter; in his New Essays on Human Understanding, after pondering such weird, proto-science-fictional matters as how we would treat a person who came from the Moon, Leibniz wonderfully writes: “still these bizarre fictions have their uses in abstract studies, as aids to a better grasp of the nature of our ideas” (3.6.22) (It should be noted that Leibniz’s original French, quoted directly by Lardreau, uses the word spéculation for what is translated into English here as “abstract studies”).

Lardreau here returns to his earlier claims that fictions are crucial to philosophy, because the Real and the Rational do not coincide, or because there is “a separation between the Real and our power to apprehend it, no matter what one calls this power.” For Leibniz, the sort of intuition upon which Descartes relied is inadequate; it is only through fictioning that we can approach the truth. Projecting a Kantian vocabulary back on Leibniz, Lardreau writes that “there are objects that we are unable to not think about, but that we cannot think about otherwise than in the mode of fiction (no matter how imperfect and insufficient fiction might be compared to other forms of truth).” Fiction, in Leibniz’s sense (which we today understand as science fiction) is not only metaphysically legitimate, but even metaphysically indispensible. The only way to consider and judge between multiple possibilities is to fictionalize each possibility as a possible world. We need to project these fictions, because of “the finitude of human reason”; unlike God, we cannot comprehend all the truth directly and intuitively. Yet at the same time, finite human reason “stubbornly refuses to accept as true anything that it cannot explain and verify through its own powers.” This is what makes science fiction not only legitimate, but metaphysically necessary.

These metaphysical considerations bring us, in a somewhat surprising way, to the heart of Lardreau’s understanding of science fiction. Lardreau says that the ultimate vocation of sf is to be anti-utopian. In other words, Lardreau’s thesis seems to be the exact opposite of the most common understanding of English-language sf scholarship, which is — following Darko Suvin and Fredric Jameson — to identify science fiction as a utopian discourse par excellence. This difference can be explained, in part, by Lardreau’s intellectual history. Like other French intellectuals of his generation, Lardreau started out as an ultra-leftist. But his disillusionment with the failures of the Left in the late 1960s and early 1970s led him to adopt, instead, a kind of tragic view of history (expressed in its most extreme terms, supposedly, in the 1976 book L’Ange that he co-wrote with Christian Jambet, which I have not read). In the current volume, Lardreau phrases this by saying that, while negative attempts to fight and resist oppression are always praiseworthy, positive attempts to create a better world most of the time (le plus souvent) end up making things worse. But Lardreau still says this with a different inflection than that adopted by his better known contemporaries, the nouveaux philosophes such as Bernard-Henri Lévy and André Glucksmann. Where the latter leverage their new-found anti-communism to become prominent spokespeople for colonialism and imperialism, as well as other sorts of fatuous stupidity, Lardreau instead maintains what Hallward calls a kind of “ascetic withdrawal” from politics. This is combined with continued fidelity to the pseudo-Maoist dictum of the French Left in 1968, that “it is always right to rebel” (on a toujours raison de se révolter).

Though I do not wish to defend Lardreau’s ant-leftist political quietism, I think that I can understand his anti-utopianism, and indeed justify it to some extent, by returning to Leibniz. In his novel Candide, Voltaire famously mocks Leibniz in the figure of Doctor Pangloss, who continually proclaims, in the face of unspeakable horrors, that “all is for the best in this best of all possible worlds.” Lardreau responds to this portrayal by noting that Leibniz is anything but sanguine in the face of catastrophe. Rather, it is precisely by “facing the desolating spectacle of the world, confronting it, and not at all by turning away from it, that Leibniz pronounces that all is for the best.” Lardreau proposes that we should understand Leibniz to be saying, not that the world is marvelous, but rather that it is, under the circumstances, “the least bad of possible worlds.” We can always imagine something even worse, though we lack God’s power of envisioning all the possible alternatives. I am reminded here, at least to some extent, of Karen Lord’s excellent (and insufficiently recognized) science fiction novel The Best of All Possible Worlds, a space opera that begins with the horror of a nearly total genocide, but nonetheless manages, not only to continue on in the face of such catastrophe, but even to transform itself into a romance novel with a happy ending.

Lardreau’s explanation of Leibniz’ optimism also reminds me Alfred North Whitehead’s discussions of Leibniz in Process and Reality. At one point, Whitehead remarks that “the Leibnizian theory of the ‘best of possible worlds’ is an audacious fudge produced in order to save the face of a Creator constructed by contemporary, and antecedent, theologians’ (47). Later in the text, however, Whitehead enunciates an oracular formulation that is quite Leibnizian in spirit:

This function of God [in providing the “initial aim” for every actual occasion] is analogous to the working of things in Greek and in Buddhist thought. The initial aim is the best for that im­passe. But if the best be bad, then the ruthlessness of God can be personified as Atè, the goddess of mischief. The chaff is burnt. What is inexorable in God, is valuation as an aim towards ‘order’; and ‘order’ means ‘society permissive of actualities with patterned intensity of feeling arising from adjusted contrasts.’ (244)

Both Lardreau and Whitehead seem to be making the point that, far from proclaiming that things are perfect, Leibniz takes pain and suffering quite seriously. Whitehead’s God seeks to increase, as much as possible, the quantity and quality of “actualities with patterned intensity of feeling.” Leibniz’s God, the philosopher’s “audacious fudge” aside, similarly operates according to what Lardreau calls “the law of maximum and minimum… the production of the maximum of worlds (and not only of the maxiumum of effects in each world), following from the minimum of principles.” This is an aesthetic principle no less than it is an ethical one; Leibniz, Lardreau, and Whitehead all refuse to belittle either the ethical or the aesthetic by separating them from one another. (It is only be means of such a separation that there can be anything like the fascist “aestheticization of politics” decried by Walter Benjamin). Lardreau drives this point home by quoting a maxim of Leibniz’s that is too delightful for me not to repeat it here:

My great principle, as regards natural things, is that of Harlequin, Emperor of the Moon, … that it is always and everywhere in all things just like here. That is, that nature is fundamentally uniform, although it varies as to more and less and in degrees of perfection. This results in the simplest and most intelligible philosophy in the world.

The point of these formulations about the maximum and the minimum, and about the ruthlessness and inexorability of God, is that change always happens, but it is never simple. We must reject the idealist theory according to which evil and oppression can be eliminated just by changes in personal attitude — which amounts to believing that you can eliminate bad things in reality by the simple expedient of thinking them away. Things in the world are intricately inteconnected; and even if we could change any one thing, this change would have ramifying effects upon everything else. This vision leads Lardreau to reject what he sees as a facile utopianism. But it equally leads him to reject, and to warn us against, what he calls the “lazy” and cynical underside of such utopianism: the idea, popular among the nouveaux philosophes and other conservatives, that “we must never change anything, for fear that this will cause everything to collapse, without warning, into horror.” For Lardreau, revolutionary utopianism and anti-revolutionary Burkean conservativism are bad ways of understanding what Leibniz tells us.

So when Lardreau says that science fiction is anti-utopian, he does not mean this in anything like the Burkean sense. Rather, he finds in science fiction the Leibnizian virtues of variation and compossiblity. Science fictional speculation seeks to explore — or better, to express — as many and as various worlds as it can. In this way, it works to expand possibility. But the possibilities of science fictional world building cannot just be abstract logical possibilities. That they are non-contradictory, and therefore not logically impossible, is not enough. The changes envisioned by a science fiction narrative must not only be possible in themselves, but compossible with other circumstances. If you make worlds by introducing particular changes (if you introduce a novum, as Suvin would say), then you need to work on as wide a scope as you can, in working out how this one change also changes other things. What other developments are compossible with the novum?

I won’t discuss Lardreau’s reading of Herbert’s Dune cycle at any length. It is an interesting and powerful reading, but it doesn’t add much, for my purposes, to what Lardreau says in the earlier portions of the book. The central argument is that Dune considers, in fictionalizing mode, the ultimately theological question of predestination versus contingency, or of fate versus free will. The discussion includes digressions on Kierkegaard and St. Augustine, and especially on the question of Manichaeanism and Augustine’s conversion from that to Christian orthodoxy. It also spends several pages on the significance of the Mule in Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series — another prime science ficitonal example of how contingency disrupts the apparent laws of history.

Finally, the “Introclusion” to Lardreau’s book returns to the question of the Real, and how it exceeds all measures of intelligibility. This leads Lardreau back to the way that his insistence upon a negative philosophy makes for a necessary counterpart to the positivity of Leibnizian and science fictional invention. Late modern philosophy seems incapable of making grand conjectures any longer. The power of science fiction is that it generates and explores metaphysical conjectures more powerfully than any other discourse. Lardreau differentiates between science fiction and fantasy, and he seems to dislike the latter as much as Darko Suvin does, albeit for entirely different reasons. Lardreau suggests that world building in fantasy works to shut down conjectures and speculations, in contrast to science fiction that opens them up. (I have to confess that I am largely in accord with Lardreau about this, even though there are plenty of individual works of fantasy that I love, including those by Mirrlees, Peake, Mieville, Le Guin, and even — despite the ridicule I often receive from my Marxist friends for this — Tolkien). In any case, Lardreau celebrates the capacity of science fiction to open up conjectures, rather than shutting them down; this is why he says that sf is anti-utopian, and why he hopes that sf can be a stimulus to some future philosophy, whose task would be to transform (science fictional) imagination into (philsophical) understanding.

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 Bernard 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.