Annalee Newitz, The Future of Another Timeline

Annalee Newitz’s new science fiction novel, THE FUTURE OF ANOTHER TIMELINE, is about to be published – it comes out on September 24. Here is my review. I got to read an advance copy of the novel thanks to Netgalley, which asks me in return to write a review. I loved the novel, but in order to explain it I will need to be a bit nerdy. I will try to avoid too many spoilers, but give a warning when one I cannot omit discussing is about to come up.

The novel is set in a United States, and a world, that is similar but not identical to our own. In the world of the novel, time travel is a reality; there are five portals, in Canada, Jordan, Mali, India, and Australia, which allow people to travel into the past (but not into the future). Nobody knows who or what forces created the portals; they have existed for hundreds of millions of years, at least since the Cambrian and Ordovician periods. Time travel is an object of academic study, in the field of geochronology, which seems to combine geology and history.

There are two main protagonists in the novel. Tess is a geochronolgist and a professional time traveler; she is based in California just-past-the-present (in the year 2022), but spends a lot of time in the late nineteenth century. Tess is tough and resourceful, but also deeply troubled. Beth is a teenager in Irvine, California in 1993, who is fascinated by geochronlogy, and also likes to go hear riot grrl bands. Newitz gives us vivid descriptions of a number of such bands, which never actually existed but which really ought to have; this alternative-punk invention is one of the pleasures of the novel. Of course, Tess’ and Beth’s trajectories intersect over the course of the book; but in the interest of avoiding spoilers, I will not say anything more specific about how this happens.

Aside from the existence of time travel, the biggest difference between the world of the novel and our actual world is that, at least at the start of the novel, abortion is still illegal in the United States both in 1993 and in 2022. The timeline is also different in other subtle but important ways. Reconstruction was not brutally halted in the world of the novel as it was in our own world in the 1870s; and as part of the process, women were given the vote (half a century before they actually attained it) alongside black people. On the other hand, the Victorian backlash against women’s sexuality was even more brutal in the world of the novel than it was in ours.

But due to the existence of time travel, all this is subject to revision. Tess and her friends use time travel not just to do scholarly research, but also to change history in various ways. How this is done is one of the main innovations of THE FUTURE OF ANOTHER TIMELINE. Usually in science fiction, the paradoxes of time travel are sidestepped by using the multiple-worlds theory of quantum mechanics. If you change the timeline, in effect you create a new universe that diverges from the previously-existing one, without abolishing it. This allows you, for instance, to go back in time and kill your grandfather without thereby eliminating your own subsequent existence; you still exist in your own timeline, but you also create a different one in which you are never born. The trouble with this approach is that it means that you cannot really change anything; even if you go back and kill Hitler and create a world without the Holocaust, the world in which Hitler and the Holocaust happened continues to exist as well. This is unsatisfactory, because it means that you cannot really ever change things at all.

But THE FUTURE OF ANOTHER TIMELINE takes a different approach. Here, there is only one timeline. If you succeed in changing things in the past, then the present you return to is altered as well. Only the person who went back and intervened can remember the earlier state of the timeline; everyone else only remembers the past the way it was revised. At one point in the novel — WARNING: HERE IS A SPOILER THAT I CANNOT AVOID DISCUSSING — Beth gets pregnant, and has an illegal abortion. Later, after Tess has changed the timeline so that abortions became legal in the late 20th century after all, Beth instead remembers going to a Planned Parenthood clinic for the abortion, which she gets despite being vilified on the way by fundamentalist-Christian extremists. Only Tess knows that abortions used to be illegal in 1993, but became legal back then due to her own “edits” of the timeline. I enjoyed the mind-bending nature of this metahistorical revisionism.

What this leads to is a time-editing war, between feminists and misogynists. Both sides go back to the past in order to change historical outcomes. As the novel traces this history of revisions to history, we go back not only to 1993, but to the famous Chicago world’s fair (the Columbian Exhibition) of 1893, to the Nabataean Kingdom of 13 BCE, and even to the Paleozoic Era, when the world was dominated by trilobites. Along the way, Newitz drops a lot of vivid historical references, most of them more or less true of our own world. We meet a number of personalities who really existed in the late 19th century, including the notorious censor Anthony Comstock, and the really cool feminist anarchist Lucy Parsons.

You can read this book as an empowering feminist story — I don’t think I am really giving away a spoiler when I say that the good guys win — but also as an intensely thoughtful form of speculation (which is what science fiction at its best does). In the course of its rousing story, THE FUTURE OF ANOTHER TIMELINE asks us to think about a number of big subjects. For instance: how does history happen? To what extent do Great Men – or Great Women – make a difference, and to what extent does it depend on collective action? What is possible at any given time, and how are possibilities limited? Do small changes make a difference, as opposed to major historical events? Or another example: how do memory and history work in the case of individual personalities? In the course of the novel, Tess breaks one of her group’s main taboos, which is that you aren’t supposed to change your own personal timeline; as a result, she suffers greatly from extreme cognitive dissonance.

The novel also makes us think about contingency and precarity. Even when the feminists succeed in changing the timeline for the better, we remain aware that the bad guys could try to change it back. I think this speaks to one of the biggest issues that we are facing today. In order to keep hope alive, we need to have some sort of faith in the possibility of progress. The gains made by people of color, by women, by gays and lesbians, by trans people, and so on, over the past fifty years, give at least some credence to the hope expressed by Martin Luther King, that “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” But at a time of Trump and all the other fascistoid leaders in power around the world, and the renewed attacks in the US on fundamental freedoms like abortion rights and voting rights, we must also realize that these victories are precarious, that we can never totally guarantee that they will last, that we cannot take anything for granted, that we must continue struggling and remain vigilant. This is grim, but it is not a counsel of despair: and it is something that we really need to keep in mind in these troubled times. THE FUTURE OF ANOTHER TIMELINE is one of those not-common-enough novels that addresses important questions, and really helps us think about them.

Remembering Kathy Acker

This weekend is the Kathy Acker in Seattle symposium, exploring her visits to Seattle in 1980 and 1989, and the influence she had on younger writers, artists, and musicians. I was unable to attend, but I participated in the symposium via Skype. I read an essay/chapter that I wrote about Acker a long time ago, a text that I am still proud of – it is probably the greatest success I have ever had in not commenting on another writer, but mingling their prose with my own (thus mimicking Acker’s own technique as a writer). I am not sure how well it all went: there were sound issues with the Skype transmission, and I read much faster than I ought to have done, in order not to overrun my time slot.
But in any case, I prefaced the reading with a short remembrance of Kathy Acker, how I met her, and how I saw her both as a writer and as a person. I am reproducing this here:

I want to talk about Kathy Acker as a person, somebody I knew; but also about Kathy Acker as a writer. The two are not identical, though it is difficult to disentwine them. Indeed, Acker’s construction of her public persona as an avant-garde punk-feminist icon is certainly one part of her accomplishment as an artist.

But I still wish to put the emphasis where I think it belongs, which is in Kathy Acker’s accomplishments as a writer. There is something overwhelming about her fiction, which has to do with the way that it combines emotional intensity with rigorous and incisive intellectual abstraction. These qualities are generally considered to be entirely incompatible with one another. You can be raw and immediate, or you can be distant and reflective; but you aren’t supposed to be able to be both at once. And yet this is what Acker accomplishes in her writing. She conveys the urgency and excitement of sexual arousal, and the pain and rage that come from a lover’s betraying you. But she also takes us away from all these feelings — estranges us, as the old modernist critics would put it — in order to stop us from taking things for granted. Instead, her writing forces us to think, for instance, about how gender stereotypes work in our society today, and about how oppressive and constraining they are.

In literary terms — which always mattered to her, though they are not the only things that mattered to her — Acker is equally an emotivist and a formalist. She is widely known for being sexually explicit and vulgar in her writings, and for giving voice to womens’ feelings that were scarcely allowed to be expressed so openly before. But she deserves to be equally well known for the ways that she takes pre-existing materials, tears them apart and assembles them into new configurations. She makes new realities out of the debris of old ones. “Art is this certain kind of making,” Acker once wrote; “a writer makes reality, a writer is a kind of journalist, a magic one.”

Autobiographical material certainly plays a large role in Acker’s fiction, as Chris Kraus shows in her recent biography. But all sorts of other materials play a role too. Acker describes her writing method as piracy. She adapts, transforms, or “plagiarizes” a wide variety of sources, including novels, plays, movies, histories, philosophy texts, and so on. To give an almost random example, just because I happened to be reading it the other day: on page 16 of Pussy, King of the Pirates, Acker splices an account of how her biological father abandoned her mother when she was pregnant, with an account of the suicide of the French Romantic poet Gerard de Nerval. Both of these are then juxtaposed with a reading of the Hanged Man card from the Tarot deck, together with a passage lifted from James Miller’s biography of the French philosopher Michel Foucault, explaining why Foucault retained an interest in the German philosopher Martin Heidegger, despite the latter’s having been a Nazi.

The staggering result of these combinations is a vertiginous, unexpected new narrative. Tarot plus Foucault and Heidegger plus Nerval plus autobiographical trauma leads us to someplace we have never been before. Through this web of references, Acker invokes “the act of turning inside out, reversing, traveling the road into the land of the dead while being and remaining alive.” This is an impossible quest; but it is one that resonates throughout Western culture, from the ancient Egyptian Book of the Dead, to the Greek myth of Orpheus and Eurydice (the explicit subject of one of Acker’s last writing projects, left incomplete at the time of her death) to the writings of the 20th-century French avant-garde writer Maurice Blanchot (whose work was always a touchstone for Acker). All this from a single page from just one novel.

To put this more broadly and abstractly, Acker is accusing our contemporary American way of life of being a culture of death. And she is asking — here and throughout her fiction — if there is any way for us to remain alive, and to be open to life and love, even as we are unavoidably stuck in this culture of death. Nobody would call Kathy Acker a utopian writer; she is too acutely aware of all the obstacles we face, both from existing social and economic structures, and from the unruly passions of our own hearts. Neverthelss, she continually asks us to envision new ways of living and loving together: to imagine a time “when there’s human pleasure in this world” (Pussy, King of the Pirates), or when “there’ld be a human society in a world which is beautiful, a society which wasn’t just disgust” (Empire of the Senseless).

I started reading Acker’s novels at around the same time that I moved to Seattle, in the mid-1980s. The first book of hers I read was probably Great Expectations, which was published in 1983. It was also around this time that I first saw Acker give a reading, at an art space in San Francisco. I didn’t get to meet her in person then; but I become sufficiently obsessed with her writing that I tracked down and purchased everything that she had published up to that point. And I started buying and reading all her new books as soon as they came out: Don Quixote in 1986, Literal Madness in 1987, and Empire of the Senseless in 1988. Each of these was an important event for me: a communication from beyond, you might say.

I was thrilled, therefore, when Larry Reid invited Acker to come to Seattle in 1989. I wanted to hear her read again. But also, in order to meet her, I offered to interview her for the art journal Reflex. I scarcely remember the details, any more; and I don’t seem to have preserved a copy of the article I wrote. We met in somebody’s apartment on Capitol Hill. The interview went well; we hit it off. This was partly due to common literary interests; Kathy and I were both in love with the transgressive French writers of the mid-twentieth-century, like Georges Bataille and Jean Genet. In any case, though she was quite different from me, or from anyone else I knew, by the end of the afternoon I felt like we were soulmates. We chatted for several hours, indiscriminately, about life and art and books.

I should point out that Kathy didn’t make any distinction among these topics. She wrote from life, and she also wrote from books. She rejected those all-too-common cliches that would oppose life and art to one another. She was, among so many other things, a voracious reader; she knew a much wider range of books than I did, or than I ever will.

Shortly after Kathy left Seattle, I received a letter from her, saying basically, let’s keep in touch. And we did. Not long after her gig in Seattle, she moved to San Francisco, where she remained until 1996. Kathy seemed to thrive in San Francisco; in those days before extreme gentrification, the city was something of a multicultural, queer, feminist utopia. I had lots of friends and relatives in the Bay Area at that time; I would go down there a couple of times a year. Whenever I went, I made sure to get together with Kathy. Sometimes I would visit her at her apartment in the Haight; other times we would meet at a restaurant, and she would show up on her motorcycle. We had dinner, or went to clubs, or to the movies. I remember seeing Jean Claude Van Damme’s Double Impact with her, on the day that it opened in 1991. She told me that, as far as she was concerned, Van Damme had “the perfect male body”; but she was disappointed in the film, because (in contrast to his previous ones) he didn’t give sufficient recognition and respect to the Asian masters who had taught him martial arts.

During her years in San Francisco, Kathy taught creative writing at the San Francisco Art Instutute. She challenged and excited her students, and in turn she was invigorated by her contact with them. Acker inspired a lot of younger writers and artists — predominantly women — both as a role model and as a teacher. The downside to her job at the Art Institute is that she was horribly underpaid. In those years, she was always looking for a teaching job at a college or university, anywhere in the United States, that would give her adequate pay and medical benefits. But nothing ever turned up.

Kathy left San Francisco in 1996, shortly after she learned that she had cancer. The last time I saw her was once again in Seattle, during the Labor Day weekend 1996, when she came to perform with the Mekons at Bumbershoot. This was a live performance of the album that she did with them: a musical version of Pussy, King of the Pirates. Acker was a writer above all; but she was keenly interested in other media, and especiallly in the new multimedia environment that was just coming into existence at that time, due to growth of the Internet. She told me that she was interested in adapting Pussy into a virtual environment or a video game.

I do not want to claim any special insight here. I would not say that I knew Kathy Acker extremely well; she had broad social networks, and at various points in her life, lots of people were closer to her than I ever was. But I got to know her well enough; and I can confidently say that she was one of the most extraordinary people I have ever known. She was interested in so many things; she was curious about everything and everyone. Her thinking was fresh, independent, and idiosyncratic. With most people, alas, once you get to know them a bit, you can pretty much tell in advance what they will say about any given subject. But Kathy was one of those extremely rare people whose takes on things you couldn’t possibly predict. I was always surprised, and stimulated, by her insights and opinions.

Kathy was a very demanding person: she expected a lot from others, just as she expected a lot from herself. She could be quite imperious at times: even (or especially?) when she was also feeling vulnerable and desperately needy. This often led to fallings-out with people she had been close to; or in my case, to bouts of anger, eventually followed by reconciliation. To this day, I am not really sure what she saw in me, or why she valued my friendship. But I think her liking for me might have had something to do with what she accurately perceived as my social maladroitness; or even with what could be called (in contemporary terms) my mild gender dysphoria: my failure to adequately perform straight masculinity, even as I am unable to imagine myself in any other terms.

One final, possibly embarrassing, anecdote. When Kathy was on her deathbed, in an alternative cancer treatment clinic in Tijuana, I called her to say goodbye. But being, as usual, socially maladroit, I said just about the stupidest and worst thing I could have said under the circumstances. When I got her on the line, I said to her: “Kathy, I don’t know what to say.” She responded, in a weak voice, ravaged by her illness, that I could at least tell her whether or not I loved her. So I said to her, “Kathy, I love you.”

Gwyneth Jones on Joanna Russ

Crossposted from goodreads:

Gwyneth Jones’ book about Joanna Russ – one of the greatest contemporary science fiction writers discussing one of the greatest science fiction writers of the previous generation – is lucid and concise. And it is actually quite rich, even though it is relatively short. Jones goes through all of Russ’ published writing, including not only her science fiction novels and stories, but also her non-genre fiction, and her non-fictional prose as well, including everything from major essays to ephemeral book reviews. Jones cuts to the chase, with no wasted prose; but she is deeply insightful about everything she discusses. I appreciated the discussions equally of the Russ books I have read recently, of those I read a much longer time ago (Jones made me want to read them again), and of the essays and short stories that I have never previously read. The emphasis is on Russ’ published texts, with only a minimal amount of biography – though Jones speculates interestingly on how Russ’ life (as somebody who grew up at a time of extreme misogyny, and had to struggle as part of the second wave feminist movement of the 1960s and 1970s) is inscribed in her fiction, and also about how a lot of her fiction can be read as a working through of her love/hate relationship with science fiction itself (she read sf from the age of 12, and wrote sf as an adult, because it offered her visions of imaginative freedom and possibility; she encountered and suffered from the extreme sexism and misogyny that was engrained in the sf community, and much of the sf writing, of her time). All in all, this is a great book that taught me a lot about a writer I already loved and whose works I already knew at least in part.

The Deep, by Rivers Solomon

I published my review of THE DEEP, by Rivers Solomon, on Goodreads. But I thought it would be a good idea to post it here as well. I got access to an advance copy of this novella through Netgalley. The book is scheduled for publication on November 5, 2019.

Rivers Solomon recently wrote on their twitter feed: “me discussing writing today with a friend: i wanna be murdering ppl with every line… to clarify, i mean murdering readers. emotionally.” This applies, I think to Solomon’s new science fiction novella THE DEEP. The book just slays me. It is about about trauma and history, and about remembering and forgetting.

The book refers to the real history of the Atlantic slave trade, but also to an imaginative alternate history, or counter-mythology, that was invented by the Detroit techno band Drexciya. In a series of releases between 1992 and 2002, Drexciya tells us the story of an underwater realm in the mid-Atlantic, “populated by the unborn children of pregnant African women thrown off of slave ships during the Middle Passage who had learned to breathe underwater in their mother’s wombs.” These merpeople and their descendants establish a utopian society in the sea, free from the war and racism on the surface. In this way Drexciya imagines a partial escape from the horrors of modern history, and reclaims what the philosopher Paul Gilroy calls the “Black Atlantic.”

Other artists have further developed Drexciya’s vision. Ellen Gallagher’s ongoing “Watery Ecstatic” series of mixed media artworks (2001- ) offers a Black feminist, and also “posthuman and interspecies,” reworking of the Drexciya myth. More directly relevant to Solomon’s novella, the avant-rap band Clipping released a song called “The Deep” in 2017. This song is set in the world imagined by Drexciya, and brings its narrative into the present. The song envisions the underwater realm threatened, today in the 21st century, by global warming and undersea oil drilling, and imagines the Drexciyans’ apocalyptic response to these dangers.

Rivers Solomon picks up Clipping’s scenario, and once more reimagines it. (In an Afterword to the book, the band compares the transmission from Drexciya to Clipping to Solomon as like a game of Telephone, in which each reiteration of a phrase creatively expands and transforms it). Solomon gives us the story of Yetu, the official Historian of the merpeople, who are here called wajinru rather than Drexciyans. Her job is to remember their past. She hoards the memories of these aquatic human beings, all the way back to their ancestral origins, when their first generation was born underwater from the wombs of kidnapped African women thrown from slave ships into the open ocean. By remembering, in excruciating detail, everything that has ever happened to the wajinru, Yetu grounds them in history. On the one hand, she uses her knowledge to remind them who they are. On the other hand, by remembering for all the others, she frees them from the burden of their history, allowing them to forget, and thereby to enjoy life in the present.

The history of the slave trade is deeply traumatic, and Yetu suffers mightily from being forced to remember it. She experiences directly, in mind and in body, the tensions that animate her whole society. On the one hand, to forget your history is to become unmoored, to feel a kind of hollowness, a cavity (a word the novella uses several times). Without some sense of growth and development across time, there can be no feeling of accomplishment or achievement. On the other hand, to remember your history is to be traumatized by it anew, and to feel unable to escape it. As Karl Marx famously wrote, “the tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living.”

Yetu is literally trapped by this dilemma. Her job of remembering and preserving the past makes it impossible for her to function in the present — let alone to enjoy it. But by taking the task of remembrance upon herself, she allows her people both to have fulfilling lives in the present, and to maintain the historical background that they need to thrive. She is torn between the need for self-care, and the need to hold things together for her people and for the ancestors. THE DEEP is really about how Yetu negotiates between these two needs, both of which are crucial to her survival, and yet which seem to contradict one another. It’s a powerful and affecting book; you can’t read it without being deeply shaken by the conflicts that it depicts in such vivid prose.

Richard K Morgan, THIN AIR

I put this review up on Goodreads, as it is more slapdash and less coherent than what I usually post here, and a lot of things I should have said are missing (either I’m too lazy or too busy). But I guess it is worth placing here as well anyway, considering how lame Goodreads is as a platform.

Richard K Morgan has long been one of my favorite science fiction writers. This book marks his return to science fiction after writing a fantasy trilogy. That trilogy was pretty good, but I found it intrinsically less interesting than his science fiction work, so this new novel is a welcome return to form. Thin Air takes place in the same universe as Morgan’s last SF novel, THIRTEEN (US title; it was originally called BLACK MAN in the UK), but it is not a sequel; the two books are entirely independent from one another. Morgan pulls off a difficult feat in all his texts: he gives us a central character who is essentially an ultra-macho superman (due, in the sf novels, to different varieties of technological body enhancement, as well as character), yet combines this with a degree of sensitivity to social and political concerns that one would not usually expect in this subgenre. For instance, Veil, the narrator and protagonist here, is emphatically not in the least misogynistic, even though this usually comes with the territory of ultra-violence and frequent sexual opportunities. The women he meets have agency, and sometimes the sex is… just bad. All of Morgan’s sf novels have interesting takes on the way neoliberal economics and governance work, extrapolated into various futures. Here Morgan again pulls off an impressive and difficult feat: he is sufficiently clear-eyed not to gild the lilly to the slightest extent, but instead to present financial domination and corporate/governmental impositions without even the slightest hint of redemptiveness; he wants to give us neoliberal capitalism in its full feral horror, even to rub our noses in it. There is nothing in this world besides rich people, and the corporations and governments they control, willing to go to any degree of destruction, torture, murder, and oppression in order to augment their profits. There is no line between criminal corruption, grand political manipulation, and totalitarian control; they are all the same thing. Yet at the same time, he resists the all too common temptation whereby this would slide into total cynicism. Morgan suggests that the worst speculations of Machiavelli and Hobbes are correct in how they view politics; and yet he maintains a sense of outrage about it all. His protagonists enjoy perpetrating violence, and their skills are largely for sale to the highest bidder; they don’t really have the stubborn integrity of those hardboiled noir detectives in novels and movies of the mid 20th century; and yet they aren’t simply amoral monsters, but suggest that there is at least a slim hope of getting beyond the atmosphere of atrocities that they inhabit (and do their bit to perpetrate). In Thin Air, Veil doesn’t really have a conscience, and yet he remains convinced (even if he himself doesn’t quite understand why or how) that something better than given social world is still possible. I am being vague here to avoid spoilers; this pattern is one that we see in all of Morgan’s science fiction in different ways. I am not sure Thin Air is quite as good either as the Takeshi Kovacs trilogy (with its surprising meditations on the slim but not entirely in existent possibilities of socialist revolution in this neoliberal capitalist hell, or as Thirteen, with its fascinating meditation on the powers and limitations of genetic engineering as a technology of capitalist control; but it is still a powerful book because of the way it posits the worst, almost revels in it, and yet allows us to think about the possibilities of things being otherwise than the way the text depicts them… which I take to be Morgan’s overall accomplishment as an SF novelist.
It may sound as if I am describing Thin Air as a cyberpunk novel, but it’s not. Cyberpunk is long dead and gone, and this is what comes after: the deglamorized residue. Most specifically, Thin Air is about neocolonialism under neoliberal conditions, or about what has been called Combined and Uneven Development . It takes place on Mars, in the aftermath of the Earth attempt to populate a new world. Things are grim and rundown; despite over 200 (Earth) years of colonization, Mars is still a crappy place to live, though there is a lot of money to be made from exploiting it. Of course, this rundown state, with the project of terraforming having been abandoned, rather than a glorious new settlement, is what we can actually expect if Elon Musk or Jeff Bezos ever should succeed in their projects for colonizing Mars. Capitalist cosmopolitanism always requires backwaters. Capitalism always needs to underdevelop the very places it milks or exploits for profit, and the people there are just collateral damage (if they aren’t among the very few who are joined with the corporations back in the center – Earth in this case – in skimming off the surplus). Veil, the protagonist of Thin Air, is a former corporate goon who now sells his labor (and the corporate implants for killing and surviving that the corporation didn’t manage to deprive him of when they got rid of him) as a mercenary to the highest bidder. It’s the only work he can get on Mars, and he doesn’t have the money to get back home to Earth. Under such circumstances, everything is a set-up of which we are right to be suspicious – every bit as suspicious as Veil himself is. The novel succeeds because it already anticipates, pre-empts, and discounts in advance whatever we might be tempted to think about it. The novel shows us that everything is in fact even worse than we were prepared to think; and in continually outrunning us in this way, it also earns the barest whiff of the possibility of an at least slightly less awful world with which it entices us, but withdraws from whenever we get too close.

On Lisa Adkins, The Time of Money

Lisa Adkins’ new book, The Time of Money, is brilliant and, I think, extremely important. But I also find it quite perplexing in terms of its overall stance and motivation.

The basic argument of the book is that speculative financial operations are central to social life and experience today. Capitalism has moved from an extractive regime (generating surplus from exploiting labor) to a speculative regime (generating surplus from speculative financial transactions). In this way, finance is in no sense superstructural or extrinsic to the “real economy”; rather, it directly and entirely makes over the entire realm of the social. And in particular, financial speculation makes over our concept and experience of time. Under industrial capitalism, we experience time as a uniform and extrinsic measure: labor power is a commodity measured in units of time, and commodities in general are subject to universal equivalence through the socially necessary time of their production. But we are now, instead, subject to speculative time:

Time is not a thing that simply passes or that contains and orders events, nor is it something that moves in one direction or another, proceeding, for example, chronologically, progressively, or sequentially, with the past standing behind the present and the future unfolding from the now. Speculative time is a time in which pasts, presents, and futures stand not in a predetermined or pre-set relation to each other but are in a continuous state of movement, transformation, and unfolding. It is this form of time that belongs to the time of securitized debt. Thus, in the time of securitized debt, futures may remediate not only the present but also the past; the present and its relation to the past and the future may be reset in one action (via, e.g., index rolling); pasts and presents can be forwarded and futures and presents backwarded. It is, moreover, along the flows of these nonchronological pasts, presents, and futures, including their reordering and resetting and even their suspension, that channels for profit are yielded. In short, in the time of securitized debt, the time of profit lies in the nonchronological and indeterminate movements of speculative time.

This new sort of time is not only the time of derivatives and other arcane financial instruments; for it completely penetrates and transforms everyday experience as well. Individuals and households are now subjected to speculative time. It is no longer the case that wages compensate labor, and provide the basis for social reproduction (the old, Keyensian-Fordist model, under which the man’s labor provided for the commodity needs of the household, like food and shelter, while women worked inside the home in uncompensated domestic labor). Instead, wages are no longer sufficient to meet household needs, even if women as well as men enter full time into the workforce. Similarly, so-called “welfare reform” means that the state no longer provides necessities for the unemployed, but instead forces even people without jobs to engage in incessant, uncompensated labor.

For both the employed and the unemployed, and for both men and women, wages today do not provide enough to get by (enough for social reproduction), as they used to do in the Fordist era; instead, we are all required to use our wages for speculative investment, by accumulating debt as well as by enlisting what money we supposedly have in speculative schemes from which banks, realtors, etc. can draw more and more surplus. We are now continually indebted for life; financial institutions lend us more than we will ever be able to pay back, because they make their money not so much on the ultimate repayment of their loans as on the packaging and sale of these obligations in the form of derivatives, credit default swaps, etc. etc. I will never get my Visa debt, or my mortgage, down to zero; for one thing, I do not earn enough to pay down these debts in my lifetime, and for another thing, I am continually offered the prospect of rolling over and renegotiating these debts, which serves to perpetuate them ad infinitum. None of the financial institutions to which I owe these debts is interested in my paying them off and becoming debt-free; they would rather that I continue to pay them off without ever fulfilling my “obligation.” They make more money by buying and selling such accumulated debts, and their associated income streams of continual payments, than they ever would by getting me to pay back the principal.

In this way, the everyday experience of individuals and households, and the everyday money we use to buy basic goods and services, are entirely subsumed by, and subjected to, the speculative time of finance. This means that in the current regime of debt time is not emptied out, or deprived of a future, in the way that Lazzarato and other critics have claimed; rather, our experience of temporality is more intense and convoluted than ever before. We are compelled to live according to the speculative time of finance; we cannot simply remember the past and anticipate or project into the future, but must micro-organize every aspect of our lives, and of our temporal experience, in accordance with the never-completed and continually-reshaped necessities of debt servicing:

Such [repayment] schedules—operating for the waged, the employed, the unwaged, the jobless, the underemployed, and the unemployed—have not only rewritten the relationship between household and personal debt and income but tie populations across whole lifetimes to the movements of speculative time, a time in which the relationships between the past, present, and future are not fixed but open to constant adjustment. Contemporary debt, then, does not destroy time by tying populations to futures that can never be their own but opens out a universe in which they are tied to the indeterminate movements of speculative time. This is a time through and in which the productivity of populations is maximized via the flows and movements of money.

I find Adkins’ account compelling. She makes a powerful argument for the claim that speculative finance entirely and massively “rewrites the social.” This is clearly in tension with Marxist claims that are based in the primacy of roduction, and that understand financial instruments as “ficticious capital.” But in a broader sense, I find Adkins’ account still congruent with the larger Marxist understanding that social processes are based, “in the last instance,” upon the extraction and expropriation of a surplus generated in the course of human life activity (or what Marx called “species being” in his early writings, and specified in terms of productive activity in his later writings). I think that the expropriation and accumulation of a surplus is the most crucial point – which is why, for instance, I have never been troubled, as many orthodox Marxists have been, with something like Sraffa’s understanding of surplus extraction and accumulation. It is the extraction (or theft from the public) of the surplus that is crucial, whether this is understood in terms of labor commodified as labor power (Marx), of physical production (Sraffa), or of financial speculation (in Adkins’ model). And in the contrary case, it is this failure to recognize the expropriation of a surplus, in any of these modes, that characterizes bourgeois economics. [Right-wing populism sometimes denounces “parasites,” who can be bankers (presumptively Jewish), as well as welfare recipients (presumptively Black) and violent criminals (presumtively Latino), but it never offers a social and systematic account of surplus expropriation].

So from this point of view, I see Adkins’ understanding as a useful one, and indeed as a way of showing that financial activities are fully material processes, as against “the ongoing identification of money and finance as immaterial or superstructural phenomena,” as other Left theorists, such as Mauricio Lazzarato, have tended to claim:

contra Lazzarato, the emergence of such everyday forms of money as a nonrepresentational surface that must be put in motion and practices that ensure that the productive capacities of populations are maximized toward such speculative activities is neither immaterial nor does it operate outside of the coordinates of the social world.

I think Adkins is right that financial speculation is a fully material process, not a parasitic superstructure to the economy. Just as I find Sraffa as a useful supplement to Marx with his emphasis on physical production, I see Adkins as useful for her emphasis on speculative movement. This is despite the fact that, just as my worry with Sraffa is that his theory seems to offer no place for contemporary finance (circulation as itself a productive activity), so my symmetrically opposite worry with Adkins is that, even if we accept her contention about the centrality of financial speculation, she seems to write as if physical production didn’t exist at all any longer. When wages no longer allow for social reproduction of the individual or household, condemning people therefore to enter into endless speculative spirals of debt, isn’t this because people still need to obtain physical stuff in order to survive, or in order to maintain what Marx saw as the socially-defined level of subsistence (which is not the same as minimal physical subsistence, since it also includes, in the US for instance, such things as mobile phones)?

This limitation of Adkins’ theory is not in itself fatal — I accept that what she is writing about is indeed crucial, even if it is not total — but it leads me to the perplexity I mentioned at the start. Adkins’ tone is polemical, even vitriolically so, when she denounces other accounts of neoliberal economy and of financial speculation. She continually attacks “normative assumptions” such as the way that “the expansion of finance has been taken to be destructive of the future, to interfere with the proper flow of time, and to threaten to return us to previous, unenlightened eras.” While I understand Adkins’ desire to get away from “normative” ideas about temporality, I don’t see why she needs to make so extreme an opposition. I don’t think want to try to subsume these opposed images of time in some sort of Hegelian sublation, but I also don’t think they exclude one another as absolutely as Adkins says (I prefer to see it in terms of a Kantian antinomy, in which the opposed terms are mutually implicated, in a way that refuses any possibility of Hegelian sublation). She is quite positive in denouncing these other visions of futurity, but frustratingly vague in explaining the contrasting details of the speculative time of finance. Sometimes Adkins refers to the schedules of speculative time as “calendrics”; this puts me in mind of Yoon Ha Lee’s Machineries of Empire space opera trilogy, in which calendrics are the basic tools of imperial domination. As is so often the case with science fiction, Lee’s trilogy is much more detailed in its consideration of oppressive calendrics and how they might operate, than Adkins’ sociological text dares to be.

Adkins shows how time is produced in the current neoliberal regime of financial speculation, so that we are bound to a very powerful, if indeterminate and continually shifting and changing, sort of futurity. This is entirely in line with Foucault’s (and Deleuze and Guattari’s) idea that power is generative rather than repressive. But such an ordering — an enslavement, really, to contingency, possibility, and irreducible risk — is not really opposed to the idea of capitalist realism (Mark Fisher), according to which we cannot imagine a future that is in rupture from the ongoing neoliberal present. Rather, the two are conjoined. In what Deleuze calls the society of control (rightly cited by Adkins), we are continually indebted (rather than serially imprisoned in a series of institutions as was the case in the disciplinary society), but this perpetual indebtedness, while it binds us to a very particular set of obligations that entirely determine our future, can also be said to be denying us any difference in the future. We cannot imagine anything different from financial capitalism, because we cannot imagine anything different than a regime of continually metamorphosing futures which, for all their uncertainty, generate a surplus that financial institutions expropriate from us, while leaving us exposed to risks for which there is no social remedy (since the structures of the welfare state have been systematicaly dismantled). Our binding to complex nonlinear regimes of futurity is precisely what makes other senses of futurity impossible.

My puzzlement grows even further when I reflect how Adkins suggests that the speculative time of finance is closely akin to the speculative accounts of time that we find in contemporary feminist and new materialist philosophy (she specifically mentions Karen Barad, Elizabeth Grosz, and Iris van der Tuin, among others). But though she mentions this, she doesn’t follow up on the observation. The speculative temporalities advanced by these thinkers are intended to offer us liberatory alternatives to the oppressions of normative, linear clock time. Should we think instead that they are just accurate descriptions of our current mode of oppression? I have sometimes made this move with regard to Deleuze and Guattari; for instance, I have suggested that their notions of the rhizomatic, of smooth space, of micropolitics, etc., are not forms of liberation, but precisely the tools that allow us to apprehend how neoliberal power and exploitation operate. Nothing is more rhizomatic than contemporary finance capital, and nothing is more exploitative. Should we say the same for feminist and new materialist temporal speculation? Is there any alternative temporality at all, if it turns out that these supposedly liberatory accounts are really just mechanisms of finance capital? That is what Adkins implies. But she never quite comes out and says this. And of course, convinced as I am by her arguments, I nonetheless do not want to accept this grim conclusion. And we should also consider — although Adkins does not — the alternative, speculative temporalities proposed by Afrofuturists from Sun Ra to Rasheedah Philips, which refer both to the past and the future, against an oppressive present and against enslavement to linearity. Are these too merely expressions of the logic of financial speculation? Can speculative fiction be disentangled from speculative finance? This is the biggest question that Adkins leaves me with, and to which she does not offer any sort of answer.

Sweet Dreams by Tricia Sullivan

I loved SWEET DREAMS, Tricia Sullivan’s most recent science fiction novel, published last year. I am not sure I can give as good an account of it as I would like – there is a lot of stuff there to disentangle. The story is about a dreamhacker – Charlie, the protagonist/narrator, has the ability to enter other peoples’ dreams, and alter what happens in them. She tries to make a living at this, but finds herself caught up in dangers and apparent conspiracies that challenge her abilities. It’s really a speculative novel about the coming collision between computer networks and neurobiology. What happens when the Internet enters intimately into our brains, and it becomes possible to hack our minds/thoughts/neural architecture directly? The novel explores the possibilities, which are both dystopian/scary and also possibly hopeful. The narrator gains her dreamhacking powers as the result of a medical trial gone wrong – she is a lucid dreamer who is now able to lucidly enter the dreams of other people as well. But the experiment also leaves her with narcolepsy (the propensity to fall asleep without wanting to, especially at inopportune moments.

The book is both a gripping thriller and a deeply intriguing and thoughtful speculative fiction. The protagonist/narrator is endearing, in the way that she is absolutely out of her depth and making costly errors all the time and letting herself be manipulated by others and suffering from extreme self-doubt; yet at the same time she is empathetic to others, and she has a strong will not just to survive, but to set things right. The novel deconstructs the kickass-heroine trope while at the same time rejecting the misogyny which so often holds women who are the slightest bit femme in contempt. I strongly identified with her, across gender, because she is a new sort of hero/heroine figure for people who feel socially awkward and confused and unfulfilled, etc., and who have to deal with a world that utterly exceeds their ability to comprehend and control it, and who manage to pull through nonetheless (and even perhaps to triumph). The fact is, the world really is that complicated and unfair (rigged to favor the rich) and beyond grasping (cf Jameson on how the complexity of globalized late capitalism exceeds our powers of representation). And this is in fact everybody’s position today — with the possible exception of a small number of overly entitled pricks with a lot of money/power (several of whom Charlie has the misfortune to meet in the course of the novel).

Speculatively, the book is so rich that I haven’t really been able to process it yet. There are questions about how recent neurobiological discoveries, together with the ways that the network is reaching ever more powerfully into our minds and subjectivites, change many of our commonsense assumptions of how the world works, of what it means to be a self, of private vs public experience, and so on. The novel has a traditional setup where the heroine is on the track of a hidden but very powerful antagonist; but the antagonist turns out to involve more twisted and complicated processes than can be encompassed by a traditional villain in a thriller. The book makes for an exciting narrative, but at the same time it twists the very structure of narrative into a new form, because these new discoveries and technologies are changing what it means to be a subject or an agent, what it means to act, how our buried unconscious (not-quite) selves are related to our overt selves, and so on.

The only other book I can think to compare it to is Nick Harkaway’s GNOMON, which has more dazzling literary pyrotechnics, but whose treatment of a similar set of issues in our digital near-future is not quite as profound as Sullivan’s.

(Note: the book is only in print in the UK, not in the US. You can buy a UK hardcopy via Amazon, Book Depository, and other retailers. The lack of US publication means that I was not permitted to buy the Kindle version, which is UK-only).

Footnote on Dawkins

An outtake from a work in progress:

DNA-centrism, as formulated in Crick’s “central dogma of molecular biology,” may well be mechanistic and reductive in theory; but in practice it turns into something else. According to Jessica Riskin’s revisionist account of the idea of mechanism in biological thought, the real issue dividing biologists has never been one of mechanism versus vitalism; the struggle has always been between two different accounts of mechanism, each of which is shadowed by its own sort of vitalism. One account sees mechanism as entirely passive and reactive, because its animating force comes from the outside (the human craftsman who makes a clock, or God as the originator of the clockwork of life). The other account sees the mechanisms of life as themselves intrinsically endowed with “various forms of agency: living forces, sensitive capacities, vital fluids, and self-organizing tendencies,” all or any of which “originate within the natural form in question” (The Restless Clock). The first account sees matter as intrinsically lifeless, and entirely passive and reactive, but at the price of positing a external, transcendent principle of order, as in the eighteenth- and early-nineteenth-century “argument from design.” The second account embraces immanence; matter itself is already at least potentially agential or vital. Today, however, biologists find themselves in the paradoxical position of endorsing the first alternative while also seeking to deny any sort of transcenence. As Riskin puts it, contemporary biologists generally agree that

naturalism precludes treating agency as an elemental feature of the natural world, or indeed as anything beyond an irresistibly compelling appearance. To violate this ban has seemed tantamount to lapsing right out of scientific explanation into a religious or mystical one. Yet we have seen this core principle of modern science—banning agency from natural processes—emerge historically from a tradition that denied agency to nature in order to ascribe it instead to a designer God. (The Restless Clock)

This paradox is evident, for instance, in the writings of Richard Dawkins, probably the best-known biological theorist working today. Dawkins convincingly argues that no driving force of life is necessary, because natural selection is only a “blind watchmaker,” making the clockwork mechanisms of life without intending to (The Blind Watchmaker). and animal bodies are little more than “survival machines — robot vehicles blindly programmed to preserve the selfish molecules known as genes” (The Selfish Gene). Dawkins’ lurid metaphor is often taken as the ne plus ultra of scientistic reductionism; but it has always struck me as having more in common with the novels of William S. Burroughs and the early films of David Cronenberg than with any sort of scientific naturalism. That is to say, Dawkins’s vision, even against his own intentions, is unavoidably a sort of vitalism — albeit one centered on viral contagions and zombie reanimations, rather than on the supposed generosity of some superabundant life force.

Monster Portraits (Del Samatar and Sofia Samatar)

Sofia Samatar is one of the most interesting of the new(er) generation of writers of speculative fiction. Her two novels, A STRANGER IN OLONDRIA and THE WINGED HISTORIES, radically rework the conventions of heroic fantasy, both in terms of race/ethnicity and gender, and in terms of narrative conventions and questions about literariness and about the writing of history and of ethnography, not to mention questions of written vs oral more generally. Her short story collection TENDER contains stories straddling the divisions between science fiction, fantasy, and other genres; my favorite of these stories, “How to Get Back to the Forest” — also available for free download here — both moves me and freaks me out every time I (re)read it.

Sofia Samatar’s new book, MONSTER PORTRAITS is a collaboration with her brother Del Samatar. It’s a book of short sections: each section is a short description of a monster, or an even briefer series of mediations on what it means to search for monsters; Sofia Samatar’s text is accompanied by gorgeous (& sometimes gruesome) black-and-white illustrations by Del Samatar. The overall effect is quite poetic. The short sections are mostly fragmentary or nonlinear, combining weird descriptions (weird in the sense of “weird fiction”) with (real or made-up?) autobiographical reminiscences, and citations from a large number of earlier texts (these latter are listed at the end of the book; they range from a Victorian translation of the Odyssey to Frankenstein to Amiria Baraka and Aime Cesaire to Helene Cixous and Roland Barthes).

The result of all this is a text that is kaleidoscopic or dreamlike. It roams in many directions, without ever choosing just one. MONSTER PORTRAITS is a meditation on the varying senses of monsters and of monstrosity. Monsters can be scary, but also misunderstood. “Creating monsters is an act of faith.” Anything that deviates from socially-imposed norms (anything, for instance, that isn’t white cismale heterosexual etc) is a monster; and to identify with monsters is to “identify” with that which escapes or refuses traditional, socially-sanctioned forms of identification. But the endeavor to impose norms, to make everyone and everything alike, to stigmatize anyone who in any way is different, is also essentially monstrous. “The monster evokes, in equal measure, both compassion and its opposite.”

The book moves delicately between these different meanings (or efforts to escape from meaning). Insofar as it is arranged like a catalog — each chapter describes a particular monster, both in prose and in the illustrations that are listed by number — Figure 1, Figure 2, etc. — MONSTER PORTRAITS is reminiscent of Borges’s famous “Chinese encyclopedia”, divided as it is into multiple, incompatible classifications.

This incompatibility is itself the real subject of MONSTER PORTRAITS. At one point in the text, Samatar warns us that: “In the realm of language, the opposite of a monster is a catalogue.” The book takes the form of a catalogue that it is impossible to catalogue. Overall, I find this book pleasurably and frustratingly enigmatic: it teases me with the prospect of an overall comprehension that it continually and finally denies me. In reading it, I find myself passing through thickets of beautiful but unsummarizable prose, interrupted at times with startling pronouncements that jump out from this woven background:

“What joy to be a parasite instead of a host.”

“Her heart bore a pair of claws that were useful for nothing, she told me, but scratching at itself.”

“Exiles and insomniacs share this feeling: that each is the only one.”

“Try as much as possible to conform and you will be saved by a wily grace. Imperfection is your genius.”

And many more. Despite being such a short book, MONSTER PORTRAITS defies closure and summary.

Ken MacLeod – The Corporation Wars

Ken MacLeod’s Corporation Wars trilogy — which I just finished reading (the final volume came out this past week) — does well what MacLeod usually does well. It takes familiar science fiction tropes (here, robots, virtual reality, xenobiology) and subgenres (here, military fiction, which I am not a big fan of overall) and gives them some unusual and thoughtful twists. MacLeod really uses SF to think about social and political issues, as well as ontological and epistemological ones. Here, the starting point, of considerable contemporary relevance, is a war between (Left) Accelerationists on the one hand, and Neo-Reactionaries on the other — say, Ray Brassier’s Prometheanism vs. Nick Land’s hyperstitional Lovecraftianism — as well as between both of these political tendencies and the neoliberal state and corporations. The trilogy’s backstory is a world war, in the late 21st century, in which the Accelerationists join with the hegemonic neoliberals to defeat the Neo-Reactionaries; once they have done so, the corporate state turns upon the Accelerationists and defeats them also. But the novels themselves take place at least a thousand years in the future, around the planets and moons of another star system, when downloaded brain scans of long-dead Accelerationist fighters (and Neo-Reactionaries as well, albeit by accident) are mobilized and re-embodied (first in virtual reality sims, and then as “mechanoids,” in military hardware in physical space) in order to fight off a robot uprising. This allows MacLeod to consider at length the ideologies, attitudes, and technological strategies of the various parties. The Neo-Reactionaries really are Social Darwinist Nazis, with everything unpleasant that implies, only they also see advanced computing technology as an aid to their fantasies of prevailing as a master race. The Accelerationists also have a hard-on for advanced technology, at the same time as they are the ultimate humanists; their Promethean dreams of “Solidarity Against Nature” involve communism for humans, but an instrumentalist attitude towards everything else. Artificially-intelligent entities in this far-future solar system are cognitively far beyond human capabilities; they control and run, and indeed embody, all major corporations (including munitions manufacturers and law firms). The State equivalent, called the Direction, is also AI-controlled, but it deliberately inhibits its own power in order not to interfere with “free enterprise” (which, together with human domination, ironically enough, is its highest value). But these AIs, although immensely powerful, and although you can hold conversations with them, and although they are capable of deception and deep strategies, are not actually self-conscious (not sentient or aware– though more accurately, I think, you would have to say rather that they are devoid of self-consciousness, or of awareness that they are aware). The crisis that sets off the main plot of the trilogy is that individual robots, AIs embodied in frames capable of all sorts of activity, themselves start to become self-conscious or sentient. This leads them to reject the status of being property, slave machines with no rights; and to demand control of their own activities and their own labor. It is in order to suppress these demands that the Direction reawakens the minds of old fighters — first acclimatizing them to being alive again in VR sims, and then placing them in mechanoid bodies to actually fight the freebots. As a result of all this, the conflict of Accelerationism vs Neo-Reaction vs the Neoliberal apparatus is restaged in the far future, and complicated by the appearance of the freebots. All three tendencies see the bots only as technical machines, needing to be either re-enslaved or destroyed — albeit for different reasons in the three cases. Eventually, several of the Accelerationist protagonists (including one ex-Neo-Reactionary) defect to the freebots, rejecting their previous ideologies. It gets even more complicated in the final volume, where a vehicle lands on a superhabitable planet, and the mechanoids who emerge find themselves entering into symbiotic links with the local life forms. There are many interesting twists and realignments, which I will not endeavor to explain here. MacLeod has never been very sympathetic to green or ecological thought, but his portrayals of bot autonomy and xenosymbiosis nonetheless lead to a certain distance from, and criticism of, the Prometheanism of the Accelerationists — something that seems highly relevant to me at this moment.