John Cowper Powys, PORIUS (1951)

(this is a revision of something I first posted on Facebook).

I just finished reading John Cowper Powys’ PORIUS (1951, though the full text wasn’t available until 2007). It is a long novel — 450,000 words or so — and an absorbingly relentless one. Powys (1872-1963) was a contemporary of the great modernist writers, and his work represents an alternative form of modernism, and for me a quite inspiring one. PORIUS takes place over a week in October 499 AD; the eponymous character is the heir to a small princedom somewhere in Wales. He encounters, in addition to various relatives, rivals, and friends and/or lovers, such mythical Welsh figures as King Arthur and especially Myrddin Wyllt (who we know as Merlin). The novel occupies a strange place where naturalism, myth, and pantheist nature worship seem identical. We get modernist stream of consciousness of the various characters, except that the consciousness in question is entirely embroiled with and taken up by the natural world. We go seamlessly between the description of a gleam of sunlight on a mushroom, or for that matter a pile of dung visited by numerous flies, and the alienated self-consciousness of one or another character. The background is that of a society in flux. There is a Saxon invasion, that is reported to us but that we do not see directly. There are also ongoing factional disputes between the various ethnicities inhabiting pre-Anglo-Saxon Wales. Most of the groups are Celtic, more or less. The indigenous “forest people” seem to be Celtic, but Powys also suggests that they were originally from Morocco and Iberia. The Brythons, the ruling class to which Porius belongs, are also Celts; but they have intermarried with Romans from the former occupation, and picked up a lot of Roman customs. There are also the Gwyddylaid (Scots), and the Ffichtiaid (Picts).

The fractures are religious as well as ethnic. Christianity is in process of conquering Britain and exterminating all its rivals, but it hasn’t entirely gotten there yet. The priests, official representatives of the Roman Church, are loathsome bigots. But they have a lot of competition, both from milder more-or-less Christians, and from pagans of various sorts. The two extreme ideologies on display are mirror images of one another: militant Christianity on the one hand, and the extreme nihilism and hatred of life of Medrawd (known to us better in Arthurian tales as Mordred) on the other. In between, we encounter Mithraism, pagan nature worship, and the kinder gentler form of Christianity associated with Pelagius (he denied original sin, and is thereby regarded by the Church of the time, and ever since, as a heretic). Porius himself is not firmly committed to any religious faction. Instead, he is largely embroiled in the questions of political power, disputed among the many groups and tendencies, and in his marriage to his first cousin Morfydd, a move designed to solidify the dynasty. Morfydd in turn is in love with another man, Rhun, who is another first cousin to both Porius and herself. Despite flashes of jealousy, the three cousins work things out well enough. The drama of the book is largely metaphysical, and the emotions of the characters get subsumed within that.

The overall plot of the book is also somewhat picaresque. Though Porius is the most central character, the book also shifts focus numerous times and goes into the mentalities of a lot of the other characters. Porius is also diverted into other actions and adventures. Most interestingly, he has sex with a giantess (the last of a nearly extinct race of giants who inhabited the land before even the indigenous forest people arrived), and at the very end he rescues Myrddin Wyllt from his imprisonment by his lover Nineue (which is the last we see of Merlin in Arthurian legend). Powys not only gives Merlin a subsequent afterlife, but he also expresses considerable appreciation and admiration for his sorceress/destroyer, rather than treating her as a straight-out villainess as the traditional accounts do.

In the massive course of the novel, all of these odd happenings and strange contestations get subsumed within what might be called Powys’ post-Romantic nature worship. But that term is not quite right, since nature is not a single entity for Powys, but a vital multiplicity. It is composed of, or decomposed into, multiple instances: one particular tree, one particular mushroom, the special glint of sunlight behind cloud as it affects a small clearing in the middle of the forest, and so on.

Powys is a singular writer, and a marvelous one. I read another novel of his every two or three years, or so. Fortunately he wrote a lot, so I am in no danger of running out. PORIUS is so overwhelming that I would not recommend it as the first text of Powys to read, if you have never encountered him before. Though frankly, I am not sure which text is the best beginning place.

In any case, I will conclude with a few samples of Powys’ prose. These are just passages that stopped me cold when I was reading the novel, and that are relatively graspable without knowing the context, or the details of the plot.

  • Powys writes of the Welsh bard Taliesin’s poetry “whose peculiarity was that it was not only absolutely ‘a-sexual,’ or devoid of sex, but devoid of all the emotions connected with religion and piety where sex enters.” This poetry displays an “absolute immunity to all the human emotions where sex plays a dominant part, as it does in love, in hate, in race, in religion, and in almost all forms of cruelty; and the curious thrill of pleasure, as of a new exciting sensation that his poetry produced, showed what a mass of subjects is left when sex is cut out.” Taliesin’s poetry expresses “a quivering, vibrating, yet infinitely quiescent moment of real Time, a moment of Time so satisfying that it surpassed all the pleasures of sex, while it reduced to something unnatural, distorted, and perverted, every scruple of chastity.”
  • “Could you see the shadow of a thing and its reflection at the same time?”
  • Powys describing the fall of leaves: “the huge dark dumb mysterious process, reeking with sepulchre-sweet rot and fetid with lust-satisfying decay, of the enormous vegetable dissolution, out of which, autumn by recurrent autumn, the organic life of the earth is renewed.”
  • “The girl bent down as she crossed this little stream and stared steadily into one of these constantly growing bubbles; and this arbitrarily chosen eye of the whole inorganic world stared back at her—the eye of matter itself responding in subconscious or perhaps superconscious indifference to the eye in a human skull!”
  • “And yet there hung about the whole project something dreamlike and unsubstantial, not so much unreal as subreal, like a decision under water, or in the soft persistent falling of snow upon snow!”
  • “Active brutality rather than erotic cruelty was the worst thing into which the surging urge of the invisible force which swept him forward drove Gunhorst.”
  • “… though it might be impossible for the human brain to imagine such things it was still within the bounds of possibility that the ultimate reality was neither One nor Many, nor even a mysterious mingling of them both, however much helped out, so a few riverbed gurglings seemed to interject, by the Holy Trinity, but was something completely and absolutely different.”

Robin James, The Future of Rock and Roll

Robin James is a philosopher who writes about popular music. She is the author of, among other books, Resilience and Melancholy (about how Rihanna’s refusal of positivity undermines the neoliberal recuperation of feminism) and The Sonic Episteme (a warning against the neoliberal resonances of the ‘ontological’ turn in sound studies — I have taken to heart her critique of tendencies in ‘theory’ that I am otherwise too easily seduced by). Her latest book, The Future of Rock and Roll, is somewhat different from the previous ones — it is largely a history of 97X WOXY, an independent radio station from Oxford, Ohio that broadcast from 1983 until 2004, and then online until 2010, and that — under the slogan “The Future of Rock and Roll” — offered a broader variety of music than nearly all other US radio stations. I have never lived in that area of the country, and never heard of the station before. But in James’ account, it was far more diverse in the sort of popular music it played than “alternative rock” or “indie rock” stations ever are. WOXY refused to just repeat a small number of songs over and over, in the ways that nearly all commercial radio stations (regardless of genre) tend to do. James gives detailed information on just what music the station played — which gratified my inner music nerd, and made me sorry I had never heard the station in its heyday. But beyond that, James writes about how the station succeeded for several decades (before ultimately ceasing due to the neoliberal economic conditions that oppress us all) because it nurtured a community of listeners, and was grounded in a philosophy that understood true independence as being enabled precisely by serving and helping to sustain such a community. Instead of the neoliberal “freedom from” (the simple absence of regulations), the station emphasized “freedom to” — the sort of creativity that can happen when people support one another. This positive sort of freedom — “the idea that true independence is possible only if you practice it with and for other people” — is generally stifled by the alienating hyperindividualism of the mainstream American idea of merely negative freedom. Things like exciting musical creation, and exploration of new aesthetic forms, do not happen in a vacuum — they require the backing of a scene, a community of people who are open to and interested in such developments. Mainstream commercial radio, despite all its changes over the decades, is not open to or supportive of such a scene or community. WOXY was a for-profit business, but its owners and staff were committed to their vision of independence and diversity (rather than just seeking to maximize profit, regardless of content). Although WOXY eventually stopped broadcasting, its community of fans continued its activities in various formats (podcasts, online discussion boards, etc.). James both gives a detailed history of the station, explicates its philosophy, and the way its community worked, in great detail, and draws lessons from all this about the possibilities for continued projects of independence in our current neoliberal world, when nearly every activity, no matter how niche or how unusual, gets recuperated and milked for profit by the 1% at the expense of all the rest of us. The Future of Rock and Roll is inspirational in the way that it gives us hope, and even provides something of a blueprint for change, in a very unpleasant and otherwise despairing time.


Annalee Newitz’s new far future novel The Terraformers is about worldbuilding in a more literal sense than is usually the case in science fiction. Newitz gives us a vivid setting, or imagined world, in the planet Sask-E, where all the action takes place. But the novel, as the title indicates, is literally about transforming an alien, lifeless planet into a world in which human beings and other earthly life forms can thrive. This is a wonky book (of the type formerly known as “hard science fiction”) because of how it goes into the technology of altering a planet, so that it has suitable oxygen levels, and a self-sustaining environment or food web; and then, at a later stage, how cities can be built, lived in, and flourish economically. There’s a lot more detail than I ever thought I would want to know about transportation planning, for instance, and the differences between public and private systems. But — in contrast to most (if not all) of the hard science fiction of half a century ago — The Terraformers insists on the social, political, and economic dimensions of technological development. Technologies are not autonomous forces; they always depend upon issues of power and control. Who plans them, and who pays for them in the first place? Who uses them? Who maintains them? Who (if anyone) draws a profit from them? And are they privately owned, and marketed as a scarce resource? Or are they available as a common good? These questions are ceotral to the novel; they do not just come up after a technology is instituted, but influence technological growth and invention in the first place. Such issues seem obvious and commonsensical to me, but it is surprising how often they are ignored, both by technological determinists on the one hand, and by people who underestimate the radicality of technological change on the other. Newitz writes excitingly of (extrapolated, futural) inventions, but she insists on alway placing these developments in a social, political, and economic matrix.

The novel starts by presupposing several big utopian changes from life as we know it and experience it today. The first, and most important, of these is called the Great Bargain; it is a backstory that explains how Earth itself was saved from ecological catastrophe. The Great Bargain was “a way to open communication with other lifeforms in order to manage the land more democratically.” As a result of the Great Bargain, mammals, birds, and other animals become able to think at human levels, and to communicate through spoken or written language. Beings like moose and cats and naked mole rats, and eventually even earthworms, who do not have human-style vocal organs, are nonetheless able to communicate with one another and with human beings via something like wireless, telepathic text messages. The novel presents this as an ethical and political development above all: lands and environments can only be managed for the common good if all the stakeholders are able to enunciate their needs and desires, and participate in decision making. The result is a society in which a large variety of sentient beings, including humans and other sorts of hominids, mammals and birds and other sorts of animals, and AIs and robots of the most varied sorts, are all considered people, and all exist (at least in principle) on an equal basis.

Several other technologies exist in order to back up the Great Bargain. People (of all species) no longer reproduce sexually. Instead, they are “decanted” from genetic blueprints with the help of something like 3D printers or matter synthesizers. People of whatever species are “born” with fully developed adult bodies, although they still need a certain amount of guidance or education before they can be fully functioning and autonomous. Every new entity — human, animal, or robot — therefore has one or several “parents”, those these need not be organically related to the new individuals under their initial care. In addition, sentient entities have greatly extended lifespans compared to what actually exists today. Human beings live for hundreds of years, and in some cases well over a thousand. (This is actually one aspect of the book that I found a bit disturbing. I have worked as an academic for nearly forty years; I look forward to retiring in the next several years. The idea of working for an obnoxious boss continually for seven hundred years straight, as some of the characters in this novel do, is deeply upsetting).

When sexuality is freed from the chains of reproduction, it can flourish in all sorts of new and different forms. Newitz wrote about robot sexuality in her 2017 novel Autonomous, and she writes about it more here. Also, when human and other beings are “decanted,” their bodies can be constructed in different ways, not reducible to traditional gender binaries. Some of the human characters in The Terraformers use “he” or “she” pronouns, but a number of them also use “they”. There actually is not very much explicit sexual description in the novel, but one humanoid character (not Homo sapiens, but a different genetically engineered human lineage) is described as hermaphroditic, with genetalia containing both stamens and pistils (as with flowers).

The Great Bargain has also solved environmental problems. Human and animal entities get their energy by consuming vegetal matter, and robots and AIs run on solar batteries. In either case, a planet’s sun is the ultimate source of energy, much more directly than is the case on Earth today (nearly all of our our energy comes ultimately from the Sun, but harmfully mediated in the forms of meat and fossll fuels). In Newtiz’s future world, there is only clean energy. There is also a technology called “gravity assist,” which allows both animals and robots to fly. I really enjoyed the flying moose (who save the day at one point in the narrative), as well as the sentient flying trains for mass transfortation.

It has become a cliché (but one that remains true for all that) that it is easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism. Although the technologies that I have described so far make a world of abundance rather than scarcity possible, it still takes a huge investment, including a huge amount of labor, to terraform a planet in the first place. And so the future society imagined in The Terraformers is still a capitalist one, despite all the broad bottom-up and more or less egalitarian social structures that the new technologies have made possible. One galactic-scale corporation initiates the terraforming of Sask-E, and another one comes in as a major landlord, building cities and tyrannically ruling large populations. Nothing would happen on Sask-E without the initiative of these corporations, but they are also the major impediments to human, animal, and robot flourishing throughout the novel. The protagonists of The Terraformers continually need to battle these corporations, which is something that they cannot do as individuals, but only as parts of communities, or as parts of something like what is often called ‘civil society’ (though this phrase is not used in the novel). There is no vision of total revolution here, but only one of continual struggle, of maneuverings to leverage the needs and wants of large numbers of people against the power of the corporations. Or to put it differently: the corporations have lasers from space that can wreak destruction, but the people on the ground (and in some cases, living in cities under the ground) are sufficiently numerous, and their organizations sufficiently robust, that the corporations have to negotiate and/or back down and/or be outmaneuvered in legal and procedural terms. (These three outcomes are what happens in the three main sections of the novel).

I have mostly described the presuppositions of the novel, rather than the characters and the overall narrative. This is because, in the grand science fictional tradition, the former really guides (and even determines) the latter. The novel is divided into three sections, hundreds of years apart (in order to convey the vast time scales involved in terraforming). The narration is in the third person, but the protagonists of the three parts are respectivly: 1) a Homo sapiens employed by one of the large corporations but whose basic loyalty is to the enivronmental action group of which he is a part; 2) a Homo archaea whose ancesters were supposed to have died after initiating terraforming, but who survived instead by living underground, inside a volcano; 3) a sentient flying train. All three central characters are quite empathetic; and all of them have to make alliances with others in order to accomplish anything.

In sum, I loved The Terraformers. It combines utopian speculation with a continued realistic sense of the impediments that movements towards liberation will still have to deal with. It’s knowledgably political, while at the same time it maintains a science-fictonal commitment to, well, scientific experiment and discovery rather than the magical transmutations of desire that are more explored in fantasy. (I like certain varieties of fantasy well enough, but my heart is still with science fiction, so Newitz’s focus was especially welcome).

Children of Memory, by Adrian Tchaikovsky

Adrian Tchaikovsky’s Children of Memory (2022; but published in the US on January 31, 2023) is the third science fiction novel in a series that started with Children of Time (2015), and continued with Children of Ruin (2019). The books are concerned with different varieties of sentience and intelligence. The background scenario for this far-future series is that human beings on Earth set forth with an ambitious project to terraform planets across the galaxy, but that the project and never completed. The terraforming project involves creating a livable climate, and stocking the planet with a diverse enough range of Earth organisms to create a functioning ecology. After this, either the planet can be inhabited by human beings, or else the world is seeded with a plasmid that provokes genetic mutations to raise another species to human-level intelligence. But due to troubles on Earth, the plan is never quite realized. In Children of Memory, instead of uplifting nonhuman primates, the plasmid creates a species of intelligent Portia spiders. The novel traces the stages of the spiders’ rise to civilization, and considers how their mentality might be different from a human one due to the intrinsic biological differences between the species. In Children of Ruin, octopuses on a water world are boosted to human-level intelligence; again, the novel explores how such a cephalopod intelligence would be different from either a primate or an arachnid one. In addition, in the second novel, the human beings, spiders, and octopuses also encounter an alien lifeform that is something like a parasitic slime mold. The slime mold assimilates, stores, and remembers the mentality and the experiences of any other living species that it encounters. This is at first a danger to the other sentient species: the slime mold transforms all the mindful entities that it encounters into more versions of itself. But eventually, this behavior is changed from a predatory, parasitic lifestyle into one of symbiotic mutualism. The slime mold craves novelty and new experiences; eventually it realizes (or is persuaded) that it can get more of these if it does not assimilate other organisms, but rather coexists alongside them and shares their experiences.

[WARNING: WHAT FOLLOWS CONTAINS SPOILERS] Children of Memory introduces an additional uplifted species: Corvids (the exact species is not specified; they seem to be a crow and raven hybrid). The Corvids do not get the plasmid that the spiders and octopuses got in the previous volumes; rather, they evolve greater intelligence on a partly-terraformed planet where they have become the dominant species. Once again, Corvid intelligence is qualitatively different than that of human beings and other species in the previous novels. The Corvids are able to speak, but their intellectual activity happens, not in individual birds, but only in pairs. One member of a pair gathers information, parses patterns in the information, and especially notices instances of novelty. The other member of the pair in effect collates this information and strategizes ways to act upon it. Neither of the pair can do much on its own; but in conjunction, the pairs are able to analyze large reams of data and operate complex technology. Whether they are capable of originality (as opposed to noticing and moblizing novelties that they discover in their environment) is uncertain. The Corvids deny that they are sentient; the actual situation seems to be that sentience inheres in their combined operations, but does not quite exist in either of their brains taken separately. In certain ways, the Corvids in the novel remind me of current AI inventions such as ChatGPT; they emit sentences that are insightful, and quote bits and fragments of human discourse and culture in ways that are entirely apt; but (as with our current level of AI) it is not certain that they actually “understand” what they are doing and saying (of course this depends in part on how we define understanding). Children of Memory is powerful in the way that it raises questions of this sort — ones that are very much apropos in the actual world in terms of the powers and effects of the latest AI — but rejects simplistic pro- and con- answers alike, and instead shows us the difficulty and range of such questions. At one point the Corvids remark that “we know that we don’t think,” and suggests that other organisms’ self-attribution of sentience is nothing more than “a simulation.” But of course, how can you know you do not think without thinking this? and what is the distinction between a powerful simulation and that which it is simulating? None of these questions have obvious answers; the novel gives a better account of their complexity than the other, more straightforward arguments about them have done. (Which is, as far as I am concerned, another example of the speculative heft of science fiction; the questions are posed in such a manner that they resist philosophical resolution, but continue to resonate in their difficulty).

The dilemma of the Corvids and their degree (or not) of sentience is encased within a much broader story or unsuccessful terraforming, or of the mismatch between human organisms and their re-created environment. The novel mostly takes place on and around a planet that has been only incompletely terraformed; thousands of years later, a generation starship containing thousands of human beings in cryonic suspension arrives with the mission to found a new society on this planet. The attempt is tragically unsuccessful, for a number of reasons. I don’t want to give away all the plot twists here, so I will just say that the novel envisions a series of interactions between Earth-born colonists and their descendants and an unforgiving environment that only includes a limited number of transplanted Earth species, as well as these baseline humans’ interactions with the various transformed species (including but not limited to human beings who have themselves been boosted by their encounters with the other intelligent species and with the advanced technologies arising from their encounters), and also with an even more powerful technology left behind by an unknown alien species. There are multiple levels of simulation and speculation, as well as even more complex and self-reflexive levels of both intelligence and sentience (with the relation between these never becoming entirely certain). There is a lot here that deserves unpacking at much greater length than I am capable of, after writing this brief review from just one reading. The entire Children series, and this third volume in particular, exemplifies how science fictional fabulation, at its best, can lead us to reflect upon vital issues in ways that simplistic pro- and con- arguments are unable to do.

Jason McBride on Kathy Acker

It is difficult to write a biography — to assmeble the traces that somebody has left behind them, and use those traces to reconstruct, in words, the person in question. It is very difficult to get to know another person, even if they are still alive and you are close to them. It is even more difficult, once the person is dead. But it is equally difficult, albeit for different reasons, to know oneself. The immediate acquaintance I have with myself, in the first person, is always filled with distortions and blind spots. The attempt to know myself is inevitably bound to fail — although the effort might in fact lead me to transform myself, which is perhaps a more important thing than to know myself.

These dilemmas are central to Kathy Acker’s writing; and they are also central to Jason McBride’s new biography of Acker: Eat Your Mind: The Radical Life and Work of Kathy Acker. There are many reasons why Kathy Acker, who died just about twenty-five years ago, was one of the greatest writers of her time, and why her work remains so relevant today. One of them is that Acker’s novels involved cotinual explorations of, and challenges to, the very idea of personal identity. Acker understood our world to be one in which originality of any sort is rare and difficult (a situation which is ironically expressed through the exaltation of originality and innovation in every domain of social and cultural life). This is part of the reason why Acker’s own texts are continually engaged in the appropriation, remixing, and reworking of previously existing texts; but the “texts” in question here are not just books that Acker had read, and movies that she had seen, but also her own familial and personal history. None of these fragments are “true” and “authentic” in their own right, but the very process of working through them produces something that, in its very provisionality and mutability, might be described as truer and more authentic than any more literally accurate statement could have been. For all of Acker’s mystique as a punk feminist rebel, she was also deeply literary, deeply committed to and embedded in the processes of reading and writing. The hard thing is to grasp how these two aspects are not in fact radically opposed, but different aspects of the same molten process (in something of the same way that, for Spinoza, mind and body are two aspects of the same substance). Acker’s tattoos and bodybuilding and sexual adventures were forms of writing, and her writing was a form of being embodied in the world.

Acker’s novels and other texts still exist for us, and they certainly haven’t been taken up, appreciated, and reworked in their own terms as they deserve to be. Bur I cannot dissociate them, at least in my own mind, from the person who Kathy Acker was, and who passed a quarter of a century ago. I only knew Kathy Acker casually, and not deeply or well; but she is the only person I have known in person (writer/artist or not) of whom I could say (as Norman Mailer said of William Burroughs) that she “may conceivably be [or, in this case, have been] possessed by genius.” The phrse is right, because genius is not something that anybody has, but something that a few rare people may be possessed by, at certain occasional moments in time. It is tied up, not with identity — there is a reason why Acker titled one of her novels In Memoriam To Identity — but with how it slips aside and transforms, so that it is never whole and accomplished, but also never negligible or inexistent either. It is not a something, but not a nothing either (as Wittgenstein might say). It is always both consolidating and slipping away; it cannot be grasped substantially, but it also cannot be grasped dialectically — but only obliquely. To quote Wallace Stevens (a poet in whom, as far as I know, Acker was not in the least bit interested), the author must escape from being “too exactly himself” [sic], and instead somehow manage to utter “speech we do not speak.”

In all this, I am saying both too much, and not enough. I think that what I have written above is fairly accurate, as far as it goes, about Kathy Acker; but it only says the tiniest part of what she was about, or what she made, what her texts do and say. Though I have written about Acker’s texts before, this is not a task to which I feel adequate. Yet I think that Jason McBride’s book definitely helps in this regard. It is hyper-aware of all the issues that I have been raising — issues that are front and center in Acker’s own texts — and yet it gives us some sense of who Acker was, what she was like — despite the acknowledged difficulties of apprehending either other people or oneself. It seems to get the facts mostly right, as far as I am able to be aware; my only corrections are extremely picayune. Beyond that, it does give me something of a sense of Acker’s living presence (even if that phrase can only hold partially and ironically, for reasons that I have already said).

If Kathy Acker had not died twenty-five years ago, she would be seventy five years old today. While I do not believe that wisdom somehow comes with age (at least not in my own case), I cannot help missing what Acker might have said, had she still been among us in this schizophrenic time. Not a month goes by when I do not think of her (or think of her absence), and McBride’s biography has made me feel this all the more intensely.

Ray Nayler, The Mountain in the Sea

Ray Nayler’s new science fiction novel The Mountain in the Sea is a dazzling exploration of the prospects for nonhuman sentience, and of the difficulties we would have in understanding it and relating to it. The main premise (or science-fictional novum) of the book is that a species of octopus has attained a human level of intelligence and consciousness. The octopuses have a language (expressed in varying chromatophore patterns running across their bodies); and together with this basic linguistic ability comes a social structure, a culture with practices preserved across generations, an ability to fix linguistic statements in material media (i.e. forms of writing and what seems to be artistic and/or religious expression), and an ability for both individuals and groups to form and carry out projects over extended periods of time. All of these other abilities are made possible by language. The existence of sapient octopuses is not all that big an extrapolation from actuality, since octopuses are already known to be the smartest invertebrates, with an intelligence level seemingly equal to that of many mammals and birds; and octopuses already use their ability to change color for purposes of simple communication, as well as for camouflage.

This involves issues of both ontology and epistemology. An octopus will experience the world in a vastly different way from how a human being does. “What is it like to be an octopus?” is a much more difficult question than Thomas Nagel’s “what is it like to be a bat?” Octopuses live in the water, rather than on land in an atmosphere; due to their water environment they do not experience the pull of gravity in the same way that we do; they have flexible bodies, without the backbone and skeleton of human beings and other vertebrates; both human beings and octopuses have strong senses of sight, but the other sensory modalities are quite different; octopuses do not have their neural networks centered in their heads in the way human beings and other vertebrates do, but rather their ‘brain’ is decentered, stretched through their entire bodies, with significant concentrations of neurons in their eight arms. For all these reasons, octopuses do not think the way human beings do, and would not have a language easily translatable into human terms. Nayler’s octopuses are aliens, in science fictional terms; we would be wrong to assume either that they lack our mental complexity, or that such complexity can be mapped out in terms of human understanding. The novel shows how difficult understanding an alien intelligence can be. It is a matter of embodiment and emotion, as well as of ideas and “conceptual schemes.” Human beings will not be able to understand such a different sort of intelligence by mere objective scientific observation alone.

The Mountain in the Sea is about the wondrousness of discovering (and potentially contacting) another sentient species, but it is also about the difficulties involved in such a discovery. The novel’s protagonist, Dr. Ha Nguyen, is a scientist specializing in cephalopod intelligence. She comes to a small archipelago off the coast of Vietnam, in whose waters the sapient octopus colony has been found. The archipelago is an oceanic wildlife preserve; all the human inhabitants have been relocated elsewhere, and fishing vessels are not allowed to come near. Ha’s only companions on the islands are Altantsetseg, an ex-military woman in charge of security, and Evrim (pronouns they/them), a genderless android who is the world’s only AI with fully human-level (or higher) intelligence. There is also a Buddhist monastery on the main island, inhabited by robot monks. Over the course of the novel, Dr. Ha attempts to establish contact with the octopuses; she doesn’t want to just decipher their language and map the structure of their society, but most importantly to communicate with them. Indeed, the novel strongly makes the point that understanding, without communication and empathy, is impossible.

The novel is not just about scientific research, however, because such research is never independent from the rest of the world. The archipelago is maintained as a nature reserve by the corporation that owns it, DIANIMA, a multinational primarily involved in the manufacture and improvement of artificial intelligence. Dr. Ha rightly worries that DIANIMA has less than benevolent motives; it wants to study this new form of intelligence in order to profit from it, by transferring its lessons to AI design and construction. For now, the octopuses are under the corporation’s protection; but Dr. Ha worries that at some point DIANIMA will want to vivisect them in order to understand the neural basis of their cognition. For that matter, Evrim is an entirely unique entity, confined exclusively to the archipelago, because their sheer existence has resulted in laws against making any more AIs with a humanlike or human-exceeding degree of cognitive power. Neither the corporation that manufactured Evrim, nor the authorities and populations that fear them, is able to grasp that Evrim themself is an embodied entity with emotions and desires, just as human beings, sapient octopuses, and indeed all other living entities are.

In exploring all these entanglements, the novel considers multiple forms and degrees of sentience and intelligence. Evrim speaks English, but Dr. Ha still must concern herself with their otherness as well as with that of the octopuses. Other, subsidiary plot stands bring in additional complications. DIANIMA also sells other sorts of artificial minds (both embodied and not) with varying capacities. One of their products is virtual companions, known as “point fives” (or halfs), who are tailored to the needs of the particular people who purchase them. You get a sort of friend or partner, who you can make visible whenever you want via 3D projection, who looks and sounds human, and who is smart enough that you can confide in them and discuss problems with them. It’s just like having an intimate partner, except that they never have demands and desires that contradict, or exist independently of, yours. Then there are economically motivated AI systems, that again can understand spoken language, and that run things like factories and fishing ships. One subsidiary thread of the novel concerns Eiko, who has been kidnapped by human traffickers and set to work as a slave on an AI-controlled fishing vessel. Even if you successfully rebel against your human oppressors, you may well still be stuck under the control of such an AI. Another thread of the novel concerns Rustem, a hacker who is skilled at breaking into AI systems; he is hired by mysterious forces who want to hack into and take over Evrim. His work is premised on the idea that AI systems, no matter how organized, intelligent, and advanced, are always programmed with “portals” or backdoors that allow them to be taken over and controlled — any sense of freedom is just an illusion.

The Mountain in the Sea does not answer all the dilemmas that it poses; it is all about probing the questions it asks as fully as possible, and also about the limits of our ability both to understand and to act. It is also about the extent and the limits of empathy, and how it can survive against the background of a human society still dominated by greed and by severe power imbalances. Have human beings ever encounter a different society that they did not destroy, or at least subsume? If Europeans have done this to other human ethnic groups, the what can we expect in the case of an encounter with an intelligence, and a collective society, that is not human at all? All the narrative strands are woven together, and the novel reaches a point of narrative culmination and conclusion — if not an intellectual conclusion to complex issues that it works hard to keep open. The novel is quite lucid, and at the same time beautiful and strange. It demonstrates the point that I first learned from Seo-Young Chu’s important book Do Metaphors Dream of Literal Sleep?: that the “cognitive estrangement” central to science fiction is a matter of content, rather than one of form. The Mountain in the Sea is emotionally compelling, but its ideas continue to reverberate in your mind after you have finished reading it.

Neon Yang, The Genesis of Misery

Neon Yang’s The Genesis of Misery is an intriguing and twisty space opera. Yang is a nonbinary speculative fiction writer from Singapore.

The book is apparently the first volume of a trilogy, the idea behind which Yang has described on twitter as “Joan of Arc, BUT GUNDAM”. That is a pretty accurate characterization. We have a galactic empire, with travel between star systems provided by wormholes. But it all has a basis that seems more religious than scientific — in this way, the novel tends more towards what is sometimes called “science fantasy” than towards “hard” science fiction.

The novel’s backstory is that, centuries ago, when human beings first explored interstellar space, they became mentally and physically ill as a result of contact with, or contamination by, what they call the “nullvoid”, which seems to be something like the “quantum foam” or “dark energy” of spacetime itself. The nullvoid first foments madness, and then causes physical deterioration. The first human beings to explore interstellar space were also betrayed by their spaceship’s AI. which (HAL-like) sought to pursue the mission by killing all the human beings conducting it.

But the human explorers were saved by the intervention of some apparently godlike agency called the Larex Forge or the Demiurge. The survivors of the mission, now remembered as “Saints”, or as the eight Messiahs, were blessed by dream visions, which taught them how to manipulate certain materials known as “holy” stones to fend off the nullvoid. The various types of holy stones now run nearly all human technology; AIs of any sort are banned. The result is a despotic galactic empire dominated by the two (secretly conflicting, or jockeying for power against one another) authorites of Church and State. There are also enemies, known to the Faithful as Heretics, who deny the divine and seek to find scientific explanations for all these phenomena (and also seem to be less phobic about AI). The Faithful and the Heretics are engaged in a perpetual war.

As for the spaceships — or at least the space warships — in the novel, they are all more or less giant mecha (hence the Gundam premise). The are described, at least on the Faithful side of the confilct, as “seraphs” or “archangels.” A pilot is ensconced in a ship, and binds with it so that they feel like the the ship’s limbs are extensions of their own (except they often have six or eight limbs instead of four). Space battles (of which there are a good number in the course of the novel) are an odd sort of physical combat. Nothing happens at a distance. Instead, the mecha ships grapple with one another, their limbs physically bashing and trying to cut into one another. Not having been a gundam/mecha fan in my childhood, I am not really sure about the emotional resonances of all this; I am sure there are aspects of it that I am not catching. But the space battles are described grippingly enough that it still works for me without this extra layer of understanding.

The novel’s protagonist is a young woman named Misery Nomaki, presumably the novel’s Joan of Arc analogue. I love the twist of having her first name be “Misery”. She’s a young queer woman from a mining colony moon in some distant star system. She starts hearing voices and hallucinating apparitions that claim to be divine, and that prophesy her status as the next Messiah. She also has the power of being able to manipulate, with her mind, all the “holy” stones on which the civilization runs. Initially, Misery is really punk in sensibility. She’s been screwed over by everyone, and she hates it. She comes to the capital of the Empire, cynically determined to use her special abilities to get ahead. She assumes that her hallucinations and powers are a fraud, the result of nullvoid contamination; this means that her life will not be long, but in the meantime she hopes to do as much as she can.

In the course of the novel, however, Misery has a conversion experience. She has a mystical vision of union with the cosmos, and as a result comes to believe that all the things she has cynically pretended to be are in fact literally true. She is now confident that she actually is the Ninth Messiah, called by the Larex Forge to liberate the Empire from the destructive threats of the nullvoid and of the Heretics. United with her archangel mecha, she thinks she is invulnerable and can win every space battle. She and her lover Lightning (the ferocious sister, and bitter opponent, of the current Emperor) resolve to save the world (or worlds) together.

And this is where questions of narration come into play. Misery’s story is told in the third person, but very vividly, in the present tense, and with the narrator closely identifying with Misery and expressing her inner feeelings. (There are short sections called Interludes, narrated more objectively, and containing information that Misery doesn’t necessarily know; but these constitute less than 5% of the text). The narrator is themself a character in the narrative, however, as is revealed in a Prologue and Epilogue framing the main story. To avoid spoilers, I won’t reveal who the narrator is, though this does prove consequential for the narrative as a whole).

When Misery has her conversion experience, the content of her thoughts changes, but the style of narration does not. So, as we move from Misery’s punk cynicism to her absolute militant fervor, we are inclined to still give her the credit that we did from the beginning. We are strongly seduced into completely identifying with Misery’s zealotry; but at the same time, I also started to feel an uncomfortable, nagging sense of doubt. Things just don’t feel quite right. Indeed, Misery herself starts at some point to feel that things aren’t quite right — albeit for different reasons than the reader feels this. Misery never doubts her religious certainty, but she begins to doubt to what extent the universe really conforms to that certainty. I cannot be more specific about this without recounting the ending of the novel in detail; there’s a surprising shift of perspective there that puts a new light on everything — but that I remain uncertain about, and that will only be resolved one way or the other by the succeeding volumes of this trilogy. The official publicity for the book states that the trilogy as a whole is “a story about the nature of truth, the power of belief, and the interplay of both in the stories we tell ourselves.” This self-reflexivity is entirely merited in the current volume, since the novel both solicits our belief in the protagonist and in her beliefs, and yet steps back and makes us question that at the same time.

I will end with some more general points. The Genesis of Misery — like a lot of recent speculative fiction — presents a world, or a cosmos, in which queerness is taken for granted and not stigmatized. A good number of the characters are (by our early-21st-century standards) queer or trans in one way or another, but (unlike today) this is entirely normal or expected within the world of the diegesis. I am inclined to see this as a kind of utopian element; however these novelistic worlds are messed up and oppressive in all sorts of ways, gender identity and sexual orientation are not parts of the problem. Writing speculative fiction in this way does two (seemingly incompatible) things at once. On the one hand, it gives readers plenty of opportunities for identification, rather than demanding default identification with a white, cis, heterosexual protagonist as older genre fiction all too often tended to do. At the same time, and on the other hand, struggles for gender equity and sexual equality are not in any way the focus of these novels, because the struggles have already been resolved, and in an entirely liberatory way; this leaves the author free to both be affirmatively queer, trans, or non-binary, and yet at the same time to address all sorts of other issues as well.

This leads me to larger questions as well. My friend Jason Read wrote on Twitter, just this morning, that: “The cultural domination of fantasy over science fiction that we are currently living through just seems to be symptomatic of the broader turn towards fascism.” He is especially thinking, I suppose of current television blockbusters like the prequels to Lord of the Rings and Game of Thrones. I am inclined to agree with Jason for the most part: it just seems reactionary to me that so many speculative fiction works focus on Kings and Emperors, rather than on bureaucracies and spy systems, as both forces of oppression and ideals. I will always prefer science fictional approaches. But at the same time, this domination of fantasy over science fiction in recent years does not just apply to hegemonic media, but also to written speculative fiction by so many queer, trans, and nonbinary authors, and to many nonwhite authors as well. I am not sure what to make of this. I do not accept the explanation that this simply means the rejection of dominant Eurocentric instrumental reason in favor of older and non-Western ‘ways of knowing.’ But I do not have a good counter-theory, either. The Genesis of Misery deals to a certain extent very thoughtfully and self-reflexively, but my questions remain.

Grant Morrison, LUDA

I have followed Grant Morrison’s work, on and off, for something like three decades now – ever since Kathy Acker told me I had to read him. Morrison’s run on the comic DOOM PATROL became the template and inspiration for my own first attempt to think about “postmodernism” in the 1990s – I titled my own book DOOM PATROLS. Since then, I have read a lot of Morrison’s creator-owned comics titles, and some of his revised versions of canonical (and corporation-owned) superheroes. I also liked the tv series HAPPY!, based on Morrison’s comic of that name, and made by the director Brian Taylor in collaboration with Morrison. (I think I may be the only academic who has published book chapters about both Morrison and Taylor; though I didn’t write anything about their collaboration).

LUDA is Grant Morrison’s first novel — their first narrative consisting of words only, without illustrations — i.e. formatted as prose fiction rather than as a comic or a “graphic novel.” I got an advance copy from NetGalley, with the obligation to write an honest review. This is it, though it is hard to be objective and judgmental about a book like this. I found it utterly delightful, but it is not easy to explain why.

LUDA is a novel about drag queens. The first-person narrator, Luci LaBang, is an aging drag performer, trying to come to terms with the brute fact that you aren’t as glamorous and beautiful at 50 as you were at 25. (As somebody who is close to 70, all I can say about this conceit is, 50 still seems relatively youthful to me). We get all her reflections about her life and career, her past and her present, with scenes ranging from her childhood infatuation with women’s garments, her stint as a glam rock star, her brief attempt to go straight in a heterosexual relationship, her later career as a washed-up ex-star on a reality/game show hybrid television series, and her present as a drag performer in a “pantomime” (which seems to mean, in the UK, a live musical theater entertainment mostly for kids). Luci is a lifelong resident of “Gasglow” (which I presume is a deliberate misspelling or re-spelling of the Scottish city of Glasgow; I have never been there, and I do not know how the novel’s cityscape relates to the actual cityscape, but the city is certainly a major character, as it were, in the novel).

The eponymous character of the novel, Luda, is a much younger drag queen who sort of becomes Luci’s protégée, though actually it is much more complicated than that. Luci does give Luda advice about drag performance, about magic, and about life. They meet because they are supposed to be costarring together in a pantomime called “Phantom of the Pantomime” (which sort of combines “Phantom of the Paradise” with “Aladdin”). But their relationship is also one of a continual, and usually underhanded, power struggle. The novel suggests multiple frames of reference (the “All About Eve” plot of a younger diva supplanting an older one is one of them), but it always manages to subvert, or to turn inside out, the conventional genre twists that you cannot help expecting.

The novel is dense with nested narratives: we get Luci’s life story, Luci’s attempt to uncover Luda’s life story, the story of the pantomime being rehearsed, the story of the continual problems that come up in the course of rehearsing it, and so on. These all resonate with and echo one another. Drag is not presented as exotic or weird, but just as something that the narrator and her object of fascination do.

Evidently we are in the realm of fantasy and pretense, but part of the novel’s point is that pretty much everything than any of us do is really driven by fantasy and pretense. Desire is never simple and straightforward, it is rather why human beings in general most emphatically are never simple and straighforward. It is a case of universalizing, not by generalization, but precisely by emphasizing the particular in all its minute particularity. We get the ins and outs of Luci’s life and career, in both its glamorousness and its abject failures, in its everydayness but also in its extremities. We also get Luci’s cares and worries, her misunderstandings and illusions, her pain and depression as well as her episodes of happiness and enjoyment. It is this insistent particularity, or singularity, that makes it possible to “identify” with Luci (though I am not sure that “identify” is the right word here, or indeed ever).

LUDA is often quite funny. Its extravagances and outrageous twists of reality (such as one would always expect from Morrison) are themselves often quite funny. But there is also a lot in the novel that is quite disturbing, and even horrific. I don’t ever like describing a narrative as a “romp”, as some reviewers tend to do. But if you go into this expecting a romp, then after being flattered into enjoyment in this way for a while, you will eventually find yourself in for a bumpy ride. This is a novel about frustrated desires, about alienation, about unrealistic fantasies, and ultimately about horrific abuse. None of this is freakshow-like, in the sense of something that puts unconventional lifestyles on display for straight delectation. No, the straight people in the book are really the ultimately most horrifying ones. Drag is a desire as straightforward AND as twisted as any other, but not more so.

The book left me with both a keen sense of enjoyment, and with a depressive sense of desolation, both at the same time. Morrison is masterful in the way they reel out twists and surprises, and in the way they sneakily insinuate things you weren’t expecting, yet that seem inevitable once they are revealed. The narrator is both narcissitic and deeply self-deprecating; both charismatic and exposing herself to our contempt and disgust. She is always talking directly to her audience, aware of the reader’s presence, teasing and alluring us, only to end with a sucker punch (or several) of desolation — only to follow that by tying everything together with a dazzling series of ironic (?) postmodern flourishes that pull the ground from under us (even after we thought we had had the ground pulled from under us and reached the lowest level of bedrock possible already).

I said that this is a novel about drag queens. I found myself delighted by its total rejection of gender norms — without even having to mention it or make an argument about it. But– AND THIS IS CRUCIAL — I do not know how it will read to readers who are trans, or genderqueer, or already far less normative than I am. I am unable to step away from my own predilections enough to even guess.

Ruthanna Emrys, A Half-Built Garden

I have previously known Ruthanna Emrys for her revisionist Lovecraft fiction series, which sees the ‘fish people’ of The Shadow Over Innsmouth as a persecuted minority, and tries to imagine life from their point of view. (I also saw an interview with Emrys, in which she pointed out that her own grandparents, Jewish emigrants from Eastern Europe who came to Brooklyn in the 1920s, were precisely the people about whom Lovecraft expressed his racist revulsion. I immediately identified with her comment, since my maternal grandparents were Jews who emigrated to Brooklyn in the 1920s as well).

A Half-Built Garden is quite different from Emrys’ previous work. It is a semi-utopian first contact novel. (She also describes it in the concluding acknowledgements, somewhat humorously, as ‘diaperpunk’.)

We are in the late 21st century. The Earth has undergone a big reorganization, for the better. Though nation-states and large corporations both still exist, they have been displaced from much of the Earth’s land surface by “watershed networks,” ecological communities that are more or less anarchist and communal in organization, each of which is responsible for the watershed in which they live, and which have succeeded — over the past half century, since the mostly nonviolent revolution that allowed them to be set up — in slowing down, and even to a certain extent reversing, the ecological damage that had been done to the planet by the two previous centuries of unbridled capitalism.

The watersheds are characterized by a mesh of extended families, tied together by nonhierarchical computer networks using automated (computerized) comment moderation, designed to maximize democratic discussion, and weighted according to the core values of the communities: shared resources, volunteer work sharing, and concern for the broader environment (so that the rivers, trees, etc. have their interests represented as well). Ubiquitous computing allows people to access and participate in the network through unobtrusive technological prostheses (mesh nets over their heads, projection into their glasses, etc.). Decisions are made by consensus, but without the annoyance of having to attend hours of meetings all the time. All this is beautifully presented, both in terms of the way that the writing conveys it (through community/environmental description without excessive infodumps) and in terms of being down to earth and deidealized (people are not any more perfect in such a setting than they are in capitalist America today, it is just that authority is decentralized and decisions are made better).

We get the point of view of Judy Wallach-Stevens, a woman who lives in the Chesapeake watershed. She has an extended family: she and her partner have a baby, and they live with another couple who also have a toddler. This enlarged household is also tied to other, surrounding ones (both through family relatedness, and simply through geographic proximity). Gender is refreshingly fluid and changeable; though some people identify themselves as “male” and “female,” many do not. Multiple sets of pronouns are used, and in terms of both physical presentation and community expectations, nobody is tied in to a single identity — they can stay as they are, if they are happy with that, but they can also shift if and when they want. There is no assignment of gendered responsibility for childraising; at a minimum, both adults identified as the parents share equally in childcare, and the other adults in an expanded household pitch in as well. (It is considered rude to enquire as to which parent actually physically bore the child in their womb).

Nation-states (like the US government) still exist, but they seem to have greatly reduced authority. Corporations exist too, but they have been exiled from the mainland of all continents, and exist only on artificial islands that they have constructed. The corporations still manufacture certain high tech goods that they can sell to the watersheds. The way financing works is not entirely clear, but in the watersheds most things are commonly available without money; and whatever monetary basis the corporations work with does not have the universal reach that finance does today. The corporations are evidently still very hierarchical, and they are always seeking to extend their power and regain the control they had in the 20th and early 21st centuries — so the watersheds still need to exercise vigilance with regard to them. However, the corporations as much as the watersheds have rejected traditional gender roles, and have replaced gender binaries with continually shifting forms of self-representation. These forms are central to the jockeying for dominance that is a major feature of corporate cultures, but again it is completely free of and apart from what we take for granted as male/female binaries.

All the world building in the novel is convincingly and vividly done. And it is solid enough that I was not bothered by questions of how the unaddressed portions of social organization and technological infrastructures might work.

At the same time that the background of Emrys’ world is conveyed, the narrative is mostly about how this organization and way of life is disrupted by First Contact. An alien spaceship lands in the Chesapeake region. The crew consists of two separate sentient species, originally from two separate planets, who have lived in symbiotic communities with each other for more than a thousand Earth years. There are ‘plains people’ who are sort of like human-sized arthropods on twelve or more legs; and ‘tree people’ who have mammal-like fur but look more like giant spiders (though again, they have a lot more limbs than actual spiders do). The aliens have learned to speak English from watching all the movies and television series that we have inadvertently beamed into space for decades. The aliens are organized into cross-species extended families, with gender systems that are a bit different from ours (I mean from the more liberated one that humans have in the novel’s future setting), but not unintelligibly so. They aliens place a very high value on their children, whom they take with them everywhere; part of the initial bond that the novel’s narrator makes with them is that she is nursing her own child when she first meets them.

The aliens are friendly, but they have an agenda. In the course of their technological development, both species destroyed the environments of their home planets. They now live in huge constructed orbital habitats around a single sun, all of which are kept in ecological balance around a planned, controlled, and limited ecosphere. They live in company with numerous trees and other plants, and with some nonsentient animal species; but this is (by their own admission) a rather limited environment compared to those of their original native planets. They are flourishing, but only because they have constructed an ecosphere that is basic enough for them to manage.

The aliens now seek to rescue other sentient species from ecological catastrophe. They are unhappy about having reached three planets in other solar systems too late, when the species in question had already exterminated themselves through self-generated environmental catastrophe. They are happy to have reached the Earth in time. What they want to do is rescue Homo sapiens by having us all abandon Earth en masse, and taking us instead to share their artificial space habitats. They hope to convince us by reason and persuasion to join them. But they are not averse to using force if they cannot get us peacefully to agree. They believe that if we refuse to abandon Earth we are endangering the lives of our children, so they have to force us for the children’s sake. (What would Lee Edelman say about this scenario?).

This creates confusion and disunity on Earth. The corporations love the idea of forcible removal. They see it as a way to increase their markets and their power, and maybe even to return to the practice of continual expansion that is no longer allowed on Earth, but that could be renewed on other planets throughout the galaxy. The nation-states are also attracted to the idea, for less extreme but somewhat similar reasons. But the narrator, and most of the people in the watersheds, unsurprisingly resist the idea of leaving Earth forever. They feel that they have made considerable progress in healing the Earth, and that as they continue to do so they will be able to live in reasonable harmony with a large and vibrant ecosystem, rather than with the severely reduced one that they aliens have created for themselves. Judy initially gets along well with the aliens — having been the first Earth person to meet them, and sharing their insistence on the importance of children — but tensions arise because of the aliens’ ultimate aims. But there are also a number of additional contributing factors that complicate and enrichen the narrative, including both interspecies sex between humans and aliens, and tensions that arise because the corporations deploy computer viruses to disrupt the watersheds’ networks.

So the novel has substantial dramatic tensions as well as great worldbuilding and great aliens. Things are semi-resolved (there is a reason why the “garden” of the title is only “half-built”) over the course of the book, mostly through complex negotiations among all the various parties. Discussions, arguments, shifting of locations and of background assumptions. One of the great things about the book is that it makes these negotiations as exciting and as emotionally compelling as violent conflicts are in other speculative novels. (I also appreciated all the specifically Jewish stuff in this book. Unusually for American literature, this is a book that is essentially non-Christian — by which I mean there are no traces of either a Christian or an anti-Christian sensibility).

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, 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.