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Tricia Sullivan – Occupy Me

Thursday, January 28th, 2016

Tricia Sullivan has long been one of my favorite contemporary science fiction authors. Her past books include the amazing MAUL. It has two plot lines: in one, set in present-day New Jersey, teenage girls engage in gang warfare at the mall; in the other, set in the far future, men are almost extinct due to a plague that kills nearly everyone with a Y chromosome; scientists are busy trying to find a cure by conducting experiments on the few remaining human males who are apparently immune. There is also the DOUBLE VISION / SOUND MIND diptych, which includes among its elements martial arts, the autism spectrum, interplanetary war, corporations testing the effectiveness of TV advertising campaigns, aspects of (I think) the author’s autobiography (from when she was an undergraduate at Bard College), and displacements of the spacetime continuum.

Her new novel, OCCUPY ME, is equally heady and thrilling. The book has just been published in the UK. (There doesn’t seem to be an American publisher at present; I ordered a copy of the paperback directly from the UK). It has a gripping action plot, but at the same time it has ontological implications that I haven’t entirely grasped after just an initial reading. I use the word “ontological” deliberately; as Sullivan says in her blog posting on the book, her aim was

to move beyond what I’d written in the past. Most of my books are about consciousness, which is an ontological subject in its own way, but not the same kind of ontology as cosmology–or so I thought at the time.

Actually, I think that OCCUPY ME is about both consciousness and cosmology. I’ll try to summarize what is at stake without too many spoilers, but [SPOILER WARNING] some account of what happens in the book is unavoidable.

OCCUPY ME seems to start out in the genre of dark paranormal fantasy; but the magical elements — an angel; a briefcase at least as mysterious and potent as the one in Pulp Fiction — are subsumed into what turns out to be much more of a science fiction framework. There are three narrative strands, conveying the points of view of three main characters. But one of the strands is first person, one is second person, and one is third person. This turns out to correspond to the differences among the three protagonists. The first person narrator, Pearl, is the one who seems to be an angel; she has wings and superhuman powers, though she initially works as a flight attendant, and seems ultimately to be some sort of artificial intelligence construct. The third person narration focuses on Alison, a 60-something Scottish veterinarian who is the only character in the novel possessing what might be called (non-pejoratively) common sense; she provides the human anchoring for what is largely a transhuman or posthuman story. The second person narration addresses its “you” to Doctor Sorle, a surgeon working in the US but originally from Africa, haunted by a strange double who takes over his body in the service of an alien agenda. I presume that it’s because of this possession, so that he is impelled by forces that are both strangely intimate and beyond/external to himself, that he is narrated in the second person.

The first background to the story involves a rapacious energy company that wreaks destruction in the developing world in its search for oil to extract, and an equally rapacious businessman, now on his deathbed, who used to work for the oil company, but detourned some of its profits in order to set up his own financial empire. Appropriately for today, we have a world dominated by petrochemicals and derivatives — and it is clear that governments and police forces are subordinated to corporations dealing in these commodities, rather than the reverse. In this sense, the novel is embedded — as much SF is — in the actual social conditions of the time in which it is written.

But there is also a second background, and this is where the cosmology comes in. We have cosmic forces located in the higher dimensions that contemporary physics gives us hints of. We have the power of informatics, in the way that organisms, environments, and subjectivities can be sampled for their quantum “waveforms,” and thereby preserved in virtual form (though never completely — the data are never vast enough to encompass the totality of an organism together with its conspecifics and its environment). We have organic encryption — not just in DNA, but more significantly in carbon nanostructures that introduce higher-dimensional gates hidden in crude oil. The oil that corporations extract today was formed out of organic matter from the Cretaceous — and in OCCUPY ME, the Cretaceous data is still encrypted in the oil, which allows for reversions from the deep geological past to manifest themselves in present day reality (in the novel, this takes the form most notably of a predatory pterodactyl, whose actions are crucial to the plot). And we have the forces or entities that have gathered this data — which becomes a way to suggest influences beyond the present, or beyond our current consensual spacetime reality, without introducing any sort of supernatural authority (whether in traditional religious or in vaguely spiritual new-agey format).

In an odd way, all this makes the novel sort of self-reflexive: a science fiction narrative about the powers and effectiveness of science fiction itself. We know that, to quote Faulkner, “the past is never dead. It’s not even past.” This is true of historical time: the colonialist depredations of the oil company are still active twenty or thirty years later in the present time of the novel. But it is equally true of deep time: which the novel dramatizes in the form of the resurgence of the Cretaceous (from which the oil derives) within the moment in which we extract and use the oil. But if the past still subsists within the present (despite our American tendency to dismiss things by saying that they are “history”), then we can equally say that the future already insists within the present moment: its potentialities glimmer in the form of premonitions, and also in the form of alternative outcomes — according to the “butterfly effect,” the way that tiny shifts can have disproportionate consequences.

The novel reflects at one point that these shifts disrupt our pretensions to control the future:

The idea that this principle should work makes it sound like the universe is made of Swiss clockwork, not fickle electrons that might as well be leprechauns. The butterfly effect isn’t real in the sense that people think it is; chaos is chaotic, right? You can’t manipulate it by flapping a particular butterfly on a particular day. The only way you could make the butterfly effect work, to interfere in a chain of events, would be to run against the grain of time. And that really would be resistance to entropy.

In other words, not only can we not calculate the future from the present in a deterministic or Hari Seldon-esque way, we cannot even calculate the broad outcomes of our own small interventions into initial conditions. But the novel also suggests that, under some circumstances at least, it is possible to go against entropy. This reminds me, among other things, of Erik Schneider and Dorion Sagan’s argument that the negentropic organization of living systems is possible because on the larger, more cosmic scale, it works to increase entropy or energy dispersion. In OCCUPY ME, Pearl makes a similar suggestion; just after the passage I quoted above, she says that

the funny thing about entropy is that it loves order. Entropy loves order because more order burns everything down faster…

The novel’s speculations about entropy, together with its citation of higher-dimensional acausal quantum networks, allows some elbow room for a nondeterministic account of futurity (of how it insists in the present, in my language) and of the possibility, therefore, of nudging future events, after all. The physics of this is admittedly speculative (and therefore, unavoidably dodgy). In the blog post I cited earlier, Sullivan lists as her scientific sources for this speculation books by the physicists Lisa Randall (Warped Passages) and Michio Kaku (Physics of the Impossible). Both these books are already somewhat speculative; Sullivan’s extrapolations from them are therefore speculative squared.

Such speculation propels the overall narrative of OCCUPY ME, and especially Pearl’s own quest — which she only discovers in the course of her experiences through the length of the novel. Towards the beginning of the book, we are introduced to a shadowy group called The Resistance, which tries to nudge the future in better directions, as unobtrusively as possible. This falls apart, however, in the course of the novel’s plot, which involves revisions of the past as well as the future, through a recursive feedback process. (I don’t want to be more precise here, because that would involve rehearsing the book’s narrative more than I want to here — although it is very much to the point that part of what makes the novel so powerful is that its narrative, from the point of view of thrills, twists, and character identification, resonates with and is inextricable from its conceptual argument, which is what I am trying to disentangle here). But by the end of the novel, Pearl comes to another, perhaps less fragile, formulation of the same process by which it is possible to nudge causality without violating it. (This also involves how the higher dimensional implicate order is related to the linear order of spacetime as we experience it — but this is one aspect of the novel’s extrapolative argument that I don’t feel ready to work out yet. It also involves elements of both informatics and energetics, which are brought out in some other plot strands).

All this is consistent with my own general claims, that I have been trying to formulate in different ways, about science fiction. In the first place, though SF is not scientifically accurate (its extrapolations involve inventions that will never be experimentally verified, hence that will never come true), it nonetheless performs legitimate acts of metaphysical (or, let’s here say ontological) speculation. In the second place, SF is precisely a “realism”, not of present social and ecological conditions per se, but of the future potentiality that insists or resonates within this present (of course, this does not mean that SF claims to predict the actual future). If Pearl, the first-person narrator, is the most important of the three persons (in both a grammatical and characterological sense) populating the novel, this is because she increasingly discovers, thoughout the course of the novel, how her subjectivity (and her substantial physical power) is a matter (or a function) of waveform data that are virtual rather than actual, or that extend beyond the simple present to more complex and convoluted temporalities. In this way, the novel’s account of cosmology is also its account of consciousness: a double ontology which is not inconsistent with the double plots of some of Sullivan’s earlier novels.

There is a lot more to say than this rough outline; but that will probably have to wait for a rereading of OCCUPY ME. For now, I can just say that the novel both confirms my overall sense of what science fiction can do, and extends this in directions that I haven’t quite been able to work out yet.

Talk on Whitehead

Friday, July 22nd, 2005

A quicktime movie of “Without Criteria,” a talk on Alfred North Whitehead that I delivered at the Sense Lab of Concordia University, in November 2004, is now available online here.

Running Out of Time

Sunday, February 1st, 2004

Running Out of Time (1999) is another brilliant film by Johnny To (whom I’ve written about before). A man with just a few weeks left to live (Andy Lau) plans and executes an elaborate robbery/scam, motivated ultimately by honor and revenge, the need to settle scores with the gang leader who betrayed his father. In the course of events he develops a kind of emotional bond with the cop who is trying to catch him (Ching Wan Lau).
The themes might seem familiar from John Woo, but this is a very different sort of film. To’s fractured action editing and oblique lighting, together with the way he has of inserting odd digressions into the plot without slackening the pace, create a kind of jittery poetry, both frenetic and cool, never quite settling down into any sort of fixed and recognizable sentiment (I think this is yet another example of what Jenny calls “emotionless affect”).
This sort of not-quite-feeling is a quality of To’s elaborate visual style; but it’s also perfectly embodied in Andy Lau’s charismatic outlaw, charming us even at the point of death. Knowing that he will be gone soon, periodically spitting up blood, he seems detached from his own ferocious desires, machinating his plot with an insouciance worthy of Cary Grant. Indeed, the way an insistent consciousness of mortality somehow comes across as insouciance is a big part of what makes the film work for me: such a connection or transformation seems utterly outrageous, yet at the same time it seems so perfectly right. The prospect of death is a source of dread and mystery, perhaps, only because death itself is so shallow; there’s nothing behind the curtain.
I don’t mean to say that Running Out of Time is a philosophical film: it’s too committed to the thrills of the action genre to have any such pretensions. (It also has some of the attributes of a video game). But To’s images, and Lau’s performance, nonetheless do embody a kind of thought. And a new thought at that. A thought that could only be thought in our age of globalization, of multiplying images, and of the ubiquitous electronic extrusion of our brains. Not profound thought, but lateral thought, networked thought, thought that is visceral yet superficial, skidding across the surfaces of our eyes and ears and minds.

New Hampshire Primary

Tuesday, January 27th, 2004

I still think, even more, that we are doomed if Kerry is the Democratic nominee. In his victory speech tonight, Kerry looked and acted like he had a stick up his ass (a common metaphor, but in this case it seemed almost literally apt). Not only did he obviously not believe any of the things he was saying, he didn’t even seem capable of pretending to believe them. He’s too lame even to be phony.
Dean, on the other hand, was emotionally involved, with his people, and also with the larger TV audience. Not that this will do him much good. I agree with Jacalyn that Dean is in trouble in large part because the media read things like his now infamous whoop as that he is “acting too ‘lower-class’/ too black/too much like white trash.”
It’s not that I am saying that any show of emotion is automatically good. After all, who was more emotional (and thereby more crassly manipulative) in his political speeches than Hitler? I am saying, rather, that it’s more on an affective level than an ideological one that elections are won and lost. And too few political commentators notice this, or are willing to admit that they are aware of it.
It may be that nobody the Democrats have can compete with what Jenny, who writes very well about the politics of affect, describes as Bush’s display of ” feeling that doesn’t slip over into ‘a’ feeling….Bush is the conservative/political cousin to the iPod commercials, insofar as they both tap into emotionless affect in order to ‘work.’ ”
Now, I think that Bush is able to appear this way, precisely because he is a sociopath, as Mark Crispin Miller cogently argues. But that doesn’t make the task of beating him any easier; and though I still think that the career military man, General Clark, is the one most likely to be able to do it, I remain uncertain as to whether he can pull it off. But I know that Kerry doesn’t stand a chance.
Most idiotic comment of the evening, by somebody on CNN: “Women like Kerry because they feel protected by him.”
Most outrageous claim by a candidate: Lieberman, claiming his 5th place showing as a victory, because he was almost in a tie for third place (Kerry and Dean, he said, don’t really count, because they come from states directly adjoining New Hampshire. It’s a good thing nobody reminded Lieberman that, even if Connecticut doesn’t border New Hampshire, it, too, is part of New England).
Sharpton brilliantly one-upped Lieberman when he said he was thrilled to get a few hundred votes in New Hampshire, when he didn’t even campaign there.

Ellen Gallagher

Thursday, January 15th, 2004

An exhibit of works by Ellen Gallagher just opened at the Henry Art Gallery. The artist was present to give a talk about her work. I’ll have to go back for a more extended look, but what I saw (and heard) was quite interesting. Gallagher’s work is fascinatingly oblique, giving a kind of formalist take on the history and position of black people in America. Gallagher took advertisements for wigs from old copies of Ebony and other African American magazines (her archive extends from 1939 to the late 1970s). She obsessively reworked these images in various ways, replacing the depicted wigs with plasticine blobs, effacing the faces of the models, organizing the resulting tiny images in huge grid patterns.
Gallagher is tracing a careful path between the Scylla of identity politics, and the Charybdis of universalizing abstraction. She is not representing “black identity” or even black history in any straightforward way; but neither are her abstract patterns – which is what you first notice of her work from a distance – abstracted from history, or from the history of that (contingent, non-essential, but also perfectly concrete and real) “identity.”
Wigs are a prosthetic amplification of the body, even when (or especially when) it is claimed (as is the case in many of the ads Gallagher appropriates) that they are “natural.” (They are also part of the larger history of the cultural meanings of hair – remember Madame C. J. Walker). As dubious fashion accessories. wigs themselves have a history in the years of Gallagher’s archive (witness the differences between the straight ones of the 1940s and the Afros of the late 60s and 70s).
But Gallagher is not just memorializing a history. Neither is she making a critique (as might well be done, for instance, from the point of view of looking at the various ways that African Americans have often sought to make their hair straigher, more like white people’s hair). Rather, she is exploring a tricky middle ground, where identity, an artifice to begin with, becomes blurred by memory, time, and loss, but is never entirely obliterated. Her images of prosthetics of the body are themselves prosthetic images: images which replace, or extend, previous images. This suggests an endless progression of simulacra, perhaps; but it does NOT suggest any sort of Baudrillardian thesis that the “real” has been obliterated. This is because, far from being “hyperreal,” Gallagher’s images are troublingly concrete: indexical presences rather than achieved absences, residues rather than effacements of their dubious “originals.”
In her talk, Gallagher linked these residual presences, uneffaced despite the violence with which she works over her appropriated images, to the themes of Afrofuturist science fiction. That is to say, she sees the Middle Passage as the true and ultimate form of alien abduction: people taken away from their homes and families, brutally dragged by strangers through an unfamiliar, blank space, and enslaved in an utterly alien environment. She suggested that the Middle Passage itself, rather than any fantasy of Mother Africa, is the one “origin” back to which black Americans can refer. And she cited the conceptualizations of Samuel Delany, and the SF mythologizings of George Clinton and especially Drexciya, with their wonderful vision of an underwater Atlantean realm, inhabited by the women and children who perished during the Middle Passage. Gallagher said that she felt close to Drexciya both in terms of this mythology, and in terms of the oblique, abstract way that they present it, in enigmatic techno music without vocals.
Gallagher is a brilliant artist of the in-between, in many different senses.


Wednesday, January 14th, 2004

My office. This is a test of MFOP2, which allows me to post photos directly from my new Nokia futurephone. Yes, I have a new phone, with a camera and email, so that now I can post images directly to this blog, to my regular photoblog Macular Hole, or to the new, occasional moblog I have created, Missed Encounters. These multiple blogs should keep me busy…


Sunday, November 16th, 2003

Julie Talen’s Pretend, which I saw tonight at the Seattle artspace Consolidated Works, is a powerful and formally innovative no-budget film (actually shot on digital video, not film). Pretend tells an emotionally wrenching story, about a nine-year-old girl who stages the fake kidnapping of her six-year-old sister, as a ploy to prevent their parents from breaking up. Children spend a lot of time playing make-believe, but what happens when their fantasies cross over into actuality? With its unreliable narrator and presentation of multiple possibilities, the film offers no easy answers.
But what really makes Pretend a remarkable film is its use of multiple frames and screens-within-screens. Split screens are used now and again in Hollywood films; Andy Warhol experimented with multiple images projected at once in the 1960s; Mike Figgis’ Timecode divided the screen into four quadrants, projecting the simultaneous output from four synchronized cameras; and Peter Greenaway has done a lot with frames-within-frames. (Talen herself gives a detailed history of the use of multiple frames in an article that appeared last year in Salon).
But no narrative film (and probably no avant-garde film either) has ever done anything on the order of what Talen accomplishes in Pretend. The screen is continually being divided into three, five, nine, twelve, or as many as forty-two frames; sometimes there is a checkerboard pattern, other times the screen is split top and bottom, or left and right; still other times, frames of different sizes appear as boxes floating in front of an image that would otherwise cover the entire screen. Sometimes the various frames show different but simultaneous scenes; sometimes they show the same scene from different angles; sometimes they depict variations, or metaphorically associated scenes, or fantasies that somehow relate to the action in other frames. The movements and arrangements of the multiple frames often seem to be organized according to musical principles; speaking about the film, the director spoke of some of these sequences as “fugues” of images. Other times, the visual arrangement of the frames seems more directly motivated by the narrative.
Of course, none of this could have been done before the arrival of digital video, and programs like Final Cut Pro. In addition, Talen makes much of the visual properties (and limitations) of digital video. Sometimes different frames are given different color balances; sometimes some of the frames are blurry, or shot with a slow shutter speed, or blown up so much that individual pixels appear on the screen.
While the effect is sometimes close to abstract, the film as a whole never loses sight of the narrative in which it is anchored. The result of all this is extraordinary: at times, while I was watching Pretend, I felt that I was perceiving things in an entirely new way, as if the very process of vision had been reinvented. (But it’s important to note that Talen’s radical visuals never interfered with the narrative, but made total sense as a way of conveying it, just as more familiar cinematographic and editing techniques do).
The sort of fragmentation of the visual field that is evident in Pretend is really just a way of moving cinema, that quintessential 20th-century art form, fully into the 21st century. Marshall McLuhan said that technological changes, the invention and dissemination of new media, results in changes in the “ratio of the senses,” mutations in the human sensorium itself. McLuhan , writing in the 1960s,was concerned with the way that television was different from movies. Today, under the impact of computers, and more generally the information and communications revolutions of the last thirty years, our minds have become more accustomed to multi-tasking, and our visual experience has become ever more heterogeneous and fragmented. Think of the multiple windows on our computer screens, or for that matter of the multiple windows, with text ticker at the bottom, of a station like CNN Headline News. Pretend is the first film I have seen that does full justice to these changes in our everyday visual experience; what’s more, it doesn’t just mimic these changes as a formal exercise, but deploys them in a way that is intellectually challenging and emotionally resonant.

Babylon Sisters

Wednesday, September 24th, 2003

Paul Di Filippo is one of the most wackily inventive of contemporary science fiction authors; his latest short story collection, Babylon Sisters and Other Posthumans, envisions scenarios ranging from human beings genetically reengineered to be parasites living within the bodies of enormous spacefaring organisms, to designer drugs that filter your perceptions so that you seem to be living within the paintings of great artists, to living books which are genetically spliced and selectively bred to generate new texts (and thereby, new ideas). The collection is a bit uneven. Some of the stories are little more than throwaways, or the short-story equivalent of standup comedy one-liners; but even these are quite amusing as they ring changes on standard SF tropes. At his best, however, as several times in this volume, Di Filippo is what I can only call a comic visionary, as he proposes radical transformations of (most interestingly) biotech to outrageous and hilarious effect. When it comes to imagining the possible transformations that new technologies offer us, Di Filippo gives us a welcome alternative to the grandiloquent, self-aggrandizing fantasies of the Transhumanists.

The Biggest Gangsta

Saturday, March 22nd, 2003

What this war is really about is George W. Bush showing the world that he is the biggest, baddest gangsta of them all. The war is a message, sent to everyone on the planet, and written in Iraqi blood: “I can do whatever the fuck I want, and you are powerless to stop me”…

Aphorisms To Live By

Thursday, January 30th, 2003

“You’ve got to play the cards you’ve been dealt.” — William Burroughs.

“You can’t win with a losing hand.” — Bob Dylan