Thursday, March 3, 2016

One Way Out

Two hours on the bus took Hodos to work, where as usual he would remain for ten hours, nine and three-quarters of them paid. He depressed many keys that day, an untallied number but one no doubt approximately equaling that of any other day. We cannot know what was in his thoughts, but let us speculate: that he was aware, with that awareness which had been acute when he had first started the job but had dimmed progressively with each day he worked, that every key he depressed affected in some small way the movement of objects scattered throughout the world, throughout the solar system, and in some rare cases even elsewhere, further still. During his training, as he learned about the relevance of the speed of light to the keys he must depress, he had tried to engage his supervisor in a kind of low-level philosophical talk about other implications of that universal constant, but the supervisor had been uninterested or uncomprehending — at any rate had not responded in kind. Before long, it appears, Hodos himself grew similarly uninterested. Certain types of substances moved away from the Earth; certain others moved toward the Earth; both types, and others, moved between other locations without reference to the Earth, with the financially significant exception that their movement was governed, to some extent, by the Earth-bound keys Hodos and his coworkers depressed. Perhaps he wondered, less and less each day, what would happen if he refused to depress the keys, or even just one of them. But surely he knew even from the beginning that it would make little difference except, perhaps, to him, and this only negatively, as most likely he would simply be fired and replaced. We feel that we can report these thoughts with some degree of certainty, as there is nothing at all out of the ordinary about them. We must however recall that this report is sure to be incomplete, not least because of the change in his behavior that would be seen the following day, after the preparations of this evening. We begin with this day and not the evening, during which the first out-of-the-ordinary actions took place, in order to establish, however quickly and roughly, the norm from which the subsequent action departs.

Though there are many things we may feel are lacking in our lives, chief among the things we truly lack is necessity. The various having-tos with which we are meant to be satisfied in its place are, of course, simply not the same thing. Hodos took his lunch break and ate. After lunch he resumed depressing keys until it was time to leave; he then caught the bus. His lover was not to be at home that night or for the next several. We feel there is nothing to suggest that this had any psychological impact on what was to follow, and put forward instead the hypothesis that the forthcoming actions' coinciding with the temporary absence is nothing more than a matter of opportunity; after all it is easier to lay the ground for one's own death in solitude than in company, if at any rate that death is self-selected. On the way home Hodos got off the bus at a different stop than usual, as one result of which the bus missed a momentary clearing in the traffic. All the other passengers would have to wait; whether they were resigned to the fact was something only each one of them, individually, could know. Hodos, for his part, took advantage of the vehicles' paralysis to run across the street to his goal, a BigBox. Sliding doors open at mere presence, independent and certainly unaware of intention to enter, but it is their opening that makes entrance possible. After pacing the aisles for half an hour in what a perspicacious eyewitness might have described as a frustrated agitation caused perhaps by an inability to find what he was looking for mingled with an unwillingness or indeed an inability to ask for assistance, Hodos located and purchased two items that under ordinary circumstances would have been, considering his income, unimaginable extravagances. We shall see later on that an unusual freedom from the restraint imposed by limited resources will recur: a characteristic aspect of Hodos's final actions. On leaving the store he removed one of his purchases, an automatic, from its package and strapped the other, a robot still in its package, to it. This accomplished, he stepped into the automatic and programmed it with his home address; and as it must it lifted and carried him through the streets, weaving between the cars when possible, stopping and waiting when not. In summer the last of the day's sunlight is never so harsh and intrusive as it is in winter. Hodos did not exit the automatic until it stopped just outside of his home, whereupon he stepped out of it, opened the front door to the house, and allowed the automatic to float inside ahead of him. Inside, he unstrapped the robot, removed it from its packaging, and began depressing the keys that would accomplish the elaborate reprogramming required. He did not at any point consult the manual, which suggests that his preparations began some time before we have been able to establish: for there is nothing known in his history that would account for an expertise in unorthodox robot programming. No doubt some of the keys he had depressed during previous work days had called relevant information onto his screen, but the records of this, if they exist, have not been made available to us. All told the task took many hours, most of this time spent running simulations: it had, of course, to be right; and far into the night, finally it was. He had consequently little time for sleep. He ate a small breakfast and wrote a long note which we of course have not read — for some things should remain private; and he allowed the automatic to carry him back to work, the robot left behind, plugged in, charging. During the paid hours of his last day at work he depressed many keys, keys that, this time, mattered. His awareness, which would normally have been diffuse, of the consequences of these keys' depression, today was surely focused. One presumes that he found himself thinking of time, and of work. Though he might never have articulated it, perhaps his attitude toward the work day had always been that it may be a lot of time, but that it is only time — that all time passes and all things, even the work day, end. That, although the well-known phenomena associated with subjective experience might have caused the time at work to seem always to pass more slowly than time spent, for example, in solitude, or with his lover inside of him, nevertheless the time at work was less real, mattered less. This less-real time, however, would seem also more obviously spatial, physical; we propose that he felt himself always to be stepping through it, or perhaps up it, not climbing exactly, and not struggling precisely, but ascending as though on a flight of stairs, the resistance of gravity an unremarked obstacle, tiring but ordinary. Though little of this would have risen to the level of consciousness, at some points during that day he may have become aware that the passage of time felt no different than it did on any other day; if so, he must have wondered why this was. From time to time someone he worked with made a comment; he smiled or nodded or made a comment in return as appropriate. He ate on his lunch break and depressed more keys afterwards, keys determined now not by the needs of the company or the whim of his supervisor but by his own needs. These keys, when depressed in these particular combinations, communicated with relays in far-off places, places far-off enough that the communications, though composed of a frequency of light and traveling therefore at light's usual speed, nevertheless took humanly significant amounts of time to reach them, a result also of the multiple relays through which he had sent them bouncing. And though the messages never stopped moving at their enormous velocity we can without too much inaccuracy picture them as frozen, or trapped, awaiting the preordained moment at which they would be released to do their work. His preparations complete shortly before the ten hours were up, Hodos passed the remainder depressing keys that would from his employer's perspective seem more appropriate; then, at the usual time, he left.

The automatic, obeying the exigencies of its programming, flew, Hodos inside, only one moment of decision remaining to him, the rest belonging to languages more determinant than Sapir or Whorf ever dreamed and after that to nothing but natural law. The windows of automatics are set to opacity by default, and this Hodos never changed, though whether this was according to preference or indifference we cannot know. We do propose that he felt neither fear nor (conversely) happiness as he made the last of his decisions and opened the door to his house. In the end he had not trusted himself to do it and so the robot, following its programming, killed him as he stepped inside. We need not divert ourselves with macabre description of methods. It will suffice for our purposes to say that, once it confirmed that Hodos was indeed dead beyond the reach of any hypothetical medical attention, the robot lifted the body, the weight of which was well within its tolerances, and placed it back inside the automatic. The robot then climbed inside as well and depressed a number of keys, in response to which the automatic lifted and began to fly, maneuvering down the roads connecting the house with the main road, at which it stopped and waited for traffic to pass. The wait was not too long, as by now a fair amount of time had passed (how much we need not divert ourselves calculating) and the worst of the traffic had subsided. Individual trees exhibit a remarkable ability to grow seemingly healthy in the inclement environment provided by mere breaks in the pavement of cities, though no doubt the epoch in which such apparent health is possible is coming swiftly to an end. The automatic, true to its name, needed no further guidance, and the robot entered sleep mode, awaiting the moment when the irrevocable instructions it carried within would goad it back into wakefulness. By plotting its course against a zoning map we can determine that the automatic passed by buildings intended for both commercial and residential purposes, including many which had been constructed for the one purpose and later converted to the other. The motion described in the present paragraph continued for several hours, during which time the frequency with which the automatic encountered other vehicles decreased markedly. When the buildings grew sparse enough that the automatic's algorithms determined that to leave the road and approach its destination in a straight line, with some deviations, would not be inappropriate and would indeed be preferable in terms of the efficient uses of time and energy (the latter of which, though it had not any longer concerned Hodos, was a default consideration in the automatic's programming which he had had no reason to alter), the automatic left the road and flew its cargo through the abandoned wreck of the countryside, heading toward an airport serving not the city in which Hodos had lived and worked, but rather a different, neighboring city.

By now the light from the origin city had dimmed enough, and that of the destination city had not yet increased enough, that the sun's reflected light began to filter down from space to such an extent that the moon could have been observed by any system possessing both a visual apparatus roughly equivalent to the human average and an interest in making such observations. Were such a system present (and we cannot be certain that one was not, though neither the body, nor the robot, nor the automatic, were one such at that time, and while once animals capable of observing the moon had lived in that area, it is fruitless to speculate what they might have thought of it, for by this time they had all been dead many long years), it would have detected what Hodos, for example, would no doubt have called a full moon. Had the robot been active and recording impressions, it would have been more precise: for there exists, overlaid over the older everyday meaning of the phrase, an exact, scientific sense in which the moon is full only for that fraction of a second during which its waxing has completely ceased and its waning has yet to begin (indeed some would insist, with perhaps even greater exactitude, that one should not speak of the moon's phases at all, the concept being an essentially meaningless byproduct of the limited viewpoint from which humanity has historically observed the moon). There are many such relatively recent scientific senses of older, traditionally less precisely deployed words and phrases, and the overlaying of these meanings, sometimes to the point of their total replacement, is ever an ongoing process — one of many by which languages change over time. In such fashion did the "foot," once a rough but usually sufficient unit of measure varying from person to person, come to coexist and eventually be superseded by the "foot," whose dogmatic definition of "just this long and never any longer or shorter" was enforced by systematic structures to which adherence was not elective; that more recent invention, the meter, is generally thought of as meaning "the length of a meter stick" though a specialist will insist that its more accurate and therefore truer meaning is the distance that light travels in a vacuum in one 299,792,458th of a second, and though we may scoff at the apparent arbitrariness of this figure surely we have no right to do so at the authority of the specialist. The opposite trajectory, from more to less precise, also occurs, as exemplified by the many meanings of the word "aspiration," trace evidences of a time in which the metaphorical association of breathing with hoping was clearer — and consequently less metaphorical — to the ordinary user of language than it is to us today, an association which in turn once brought explicitly to light the connections, now all but inaccessible to us, between breath, life, the present moment, and that elusive conceptual construct called "the future." Research suggests that, although at that moment the moon would have been visible had anyone capable been looking for it, the stars by and large would not, which was of course a normative situation. Hodos, in fact, never saw the stars during his life. Once, long ago, the stars were the only objects seen regularly which exhibited repetitive circular motion, the cyclical paths they drew across the sky contrasting markedly with, for example, the generally linear, haphazard, and/or pumping movements of animal life. In the span of human existence this has changed drastically, first with the celebrated invention of the wheel, whose first spinnings must have wreaked inconceivable changes upon the minds of its earliest witnesses, who would surely have connected this motion with the slower and more inexorable spinning of the heavens above them; then much later with the aforementioned light pollution, which ultimately severed the experiential link between the two rotations. It was only after the inability regularly to see the stars became a quotidian, if not yet all-pervasive, aspect of human life that humanity began to launch objects, and sometimes itself, into space, in which all motion is parabolic or elliptical — conic sections aspiring to the cyclical. From this the notion suggests itself that the source of humanity's relatively new urge to travel to the stars may be not, as is often assumed, the merely practical fact of the technological ability to do so, but rather this severing of the visual link connecting humans to the experience of this sort of motion, and perhaps too the absence of the simple daily fact of the stars themselves. Such speculation, however, is irresponsible. The automatic that Hodos had purchased when still living obeyed his programming and conveyed his body, already beginning to be overtaken by the fungal and bacterial populations which once had lived mostly in harmony with those cells we are more comfortable thinking of as his, through the night air. Of this much we can be certain. The automatic encountered no other mechanical devices and no living creatures during this part of its voyage. This is not surprising; indeed, as it was traveling through that region still referred to as "the countryside," though the associations called up by the term have changed radically in recent decades, it would have been more surprising had the automatic encountered any activity whatsoever. To attempt to draw some picture-in-words of the silent progress of the automatic through the moon-lit ruin that had once been an ecosystem, a way of life for countless members of countless species, is tempting; but such would be pathos. The reader who so desires is welcome to it, but we, on whom the facts press, shall note only that what had been Hodos, though we are accustomed to think of it as dead flesh, was itself more thriving an ecosystem than the dead countryside through which it was carried. To conceive this as irony is to remain locked to the anthropocentric perspective; to avoid such conceptions, we shall carry on. The conveyance flew on; and though we too must carry on there is scarcely a thing to do now that is not some form of looking away. Were Hodos still alive, we could perhaps occupy ourselves with reconstructions of his thoughts and feelings; but he was not alive; even had we had some fantastical access to his consciousness when he was alive, he was no longer, and so if we are to busy ourselves with anyone's thoughts, they can only be our own. But we have had too much of them already. We ourselves are not experiencing this flight; as such we have the luxury to say "several hours later..." should we give in to such temptation. Feeling, however, that this is an irresponsible distortion, we have tried thus far to stay with the automatic through the duration of its flight. Such a thing is of course impossible, as evidenced by our many divergences into equally irresponsible speculation and pontification: these, too, a looking away. There is no way for anyone who was not there, ourselves included and consequently our readers as well, to know truly what this journey was. Indeed even for someone who was there — had anyone been there — such direct knowledge would only be available at the moment itself, and even then only in limited form. At any experiential spacetime coordinate off of the journey itself, knowledge of the journey is indirect at best. And who can say, too, what experience, what knowledge is, to an automatic?

The automatic, with its cargo of robot and body, flew on through a land in which nothing of any consequence could live. Struggling enclaves of plant life began to crop up, one here, one there, painstakingly maintained, through robotic intervention, by scientists whose methods, it is safe to say, will have only temporary success. The automatic came upon a road, the use of which its algorithms judged desirable. The road soon became a canyon passing between buildings: first shallow and spaced out, then taller and closer, then taller still: the automatic had entered the next city. Other vehicles began to be present on the roadways. The buildings, like those in the previous city, crowded in so close that there was no horizon to speak of; it would therefore be inappropriate to refer to sunrise, but the ambient light, scattered by molecule after molecule, began to increase and change in quality in ways not attributable solely to the artificial lighting of the city (more than capable of drowning out any other star, but not our own). It was still too early for the first major rush hour and so the other vehicles, though numerous, were at first only minor obstacles in the automatic's course; equally it was only a minor obstacle in the other vehicles' various courses, which we have not had occasion to research. The average height of the buildings peaked, plateaued, and began to decline again, as the airport, like most such, was located not in the heart of the city but some distance outside of it. In the course of a single sentence, perhaps, the automatic traversed this distance. It approached one of the commercial gates to the airport, presented its credentials to the sensor, and, once the latter raised the barrier, entered the airport grounds. It took its place at the rear — soon to become the middle — of a queue of various automatic conveyances awaiting a spot on the next ascending car. The robot within, in accordance with its programming, resumed functioning. The line, being wholly automated, moved at a rate describable for our purposes as quick, and soon the automatic arrived at the elevator door. The robot took the body into its grasp. The doors to the automatic and to the elevator both opened and the robot exited the former, traversed the distance between, and entered the latter. The now-cargoless automatic departed, to be found somewhere else entirely, much later, quite by accident.

Meanwhile the elevator car began its long ascent, and here we really must apologize, for at this point both the time and the space traversed by our narrative begin to expand exponentially, to a degree which we simply cannot recreate in the form of our story. The problem, as we shall see, will quickly become wholly insurmountable. The time spanned by the just over thirty-five hundred words which precede those which, we presume, you are now reading, is approximately fifty hours; the space, perhaps five hundred kilometers. The elevator car in which the robot and the body now rose would continue rising, first in a greatly inclined manner taking it also roughly southward and then, when the tributary cable joined the so-called Quito Ascender (more accurately the ascender operated under the jurisdiction of the Quito Elevator Authority), very nearly straight up, for over a hundred times that distance before reaching its apex; the time, too, must be scaled upward in similar proportion. But as you will notice if you skip to the end of this narrative (as perhaps you have already), much less remains than has passed. Would the story be told, there seems no way around this distortion; by calling the reader's attention to it, we hope in some small way to correct for the fault. And indeed in this paragraph we have already given most of the significant events of this portion of the journey: the robot was once more deactivated; the body continued to decay, though slowly (for the elevator car, as Hodos had planned when alive, was refrigerated); and meanwhile up and over landmass, water, landmass, water they rose until, some perhaps ten days later, they paused momentarily high above Ecuador Territory, the elevator car awaiting its turn to attach itself to the cable tethered to Chimborazo's flattened peak so as to continue the ascent to the artificial satellite in geostationary orbit, nearly 37,000 kilometers above the mountaintop. An opening in the ascent schedules allowed the car to hook itself onto the ascender and, detaching itself from the tributary, it began the final, much longer leg of its climb into orbit. The air around it was distinctly thinner than it had been at the beginning of the journey, and colder — altogether inhospitable to human life, which surely could not have lasted long if exposed at that elevation. This is however irrelevant, for no living human was so exposed, and the only death we shall encounter within this narrative has already occurred. In fact, our even mentioning the possibility is a clear symptom of the sickness diagnosed earlier in this paragraph. For what remains to say of this portion of the journey? The car ascended. The body's decay, though greatly arrested and not effecting during this period any changes detectable by any but the most sensitive of instruments, continued nevertheless. The robot remained deactivated. Time and space passed, the former lending some of its irrevocability to the latter. Eventually (a word indicating not, as its construction might suggest and as it in fact did at an earlier point in its history, an action occurring in the manner of an event — a redundant, yet somehow curiously suggestive notion — but rather a failure, on the part of whoever may have resort to it, to face the reality of time as it passes) the car reached its destination: the anchor satellite, referred to by the serial number 983AEQ 55197-39. The car hooked itself to this 983AEQ 55197-39 and unhooked itself from the cable, then stowed itself in one of the satellite's bays, awaiting processing. Almost a day passed. The Earth indulged in nearly a full rotation on its axis; people lived and died; species continued along their paths to extinction; and the body, decay still slowed, and the robot, still deactivated, awaited, with neither patience nor impatience, their turn. Many sentences would have to fill this space, were we to be faithful to the event.

But we are very close now; and perhaps we are right after all to leave behind us the strictures of time as humans merely experience it — for what is human time to a celestial body? And so we shall attempt to convey in one final paragraph what happened to the matter that had been Hodos, and what, we suggest, Hodos himself had been up to in ensuring that it would in fact happen to him although — in some senses precisely because — he was no longer he. Divergences now are a luxury we cannot afford; and time: time has slipped, finally, out of our control. The vessel Hodos's final labors had conjured forth arrived and parked itself within the satellite, in the same bay in which the car awaited it; and the robot, as programmed, awoke. It took the body into its manipulators, approached the doors of the car, and opened them, revealing the vessel simultaneously opening its own doors. The moment the robot was fully out of the car the latter withdrew from the bay and joined a swiftly-moving queue with other cars waiting to be filled with various cargoes and begin the descent back to Earth; though what cargo and destination this particular car took on, we may never know, as record-keeping in this decadent age is unreliable at best. The robot conveyed the body to the vessel, a small one with just enough room for one human-sized body and a great deal of compressed fuel, then withdrew and deposited itself in one of 983AEQ 55197-39's waste-processing facilities, from which only a small portion of its data log would, some time later, be retrieved. In the meantime, the vessel positioned itself on one of the pads on the exterior of the satellite. What is still sometimes called the "vacuum" of space, we now know, is a frothing effervescence of subatomic particles continually passing from potentiality to actuality and back again. When the time came, the vessel released its docking clamps, fired maneuvering thrusters until it was far enough from the satellite to engage its primary engine, and then, at precisely the moment Hodos had calculated, added its full burn to the momentum its orbit around the Earth already imparted. The course and speed of most interplanetary voyages is plotted according to a complex cost/benefit analysis factoring in the locations and movements of the various bodies in the solar system, the cost of fuel, and the cost of time, among other considerations; but as we have already noted, the uniquely final nature of Hodos's journey allowed him to escape many of these merely practical concerns; and he had planned things so that this early, vulgar stage of the journey would be over as quickly as possible; in a word, he had ordained that the vessel burn all its considerable fuel resources immediately, at the highest possible rate, propelling itself and its cargo at what would not have interested him to learn was a record-breaking rate of acceleration. The vessel escaped the Earth's gravity well and continued adding energy to its own orbit so as to break from the path the Earth traces around the sun and enter into a new parabolic course. By the time it exhausted its fuel it was irrevocably set upon a new trajectory; and here we have reached what we believe to have been Hodos's goal. The vessel crossed the orbit of Mars, which was at that moment quite elsewhere; it passed through the asteroid belt, coming near no object of consequence. By now, what had been Hodos was under the sway of no influence other than that of gravity. In its vessel, it traveled in an unfathomably long curve across the orbit of Jupiter, which planet was in fact rather nearby, close enough that the curve along which the vessel traveled bent considerably, as had been Hodos's plan. The eternal storm bands slid across the visible surface of that vast globe, engaged in no one knows what business; there is no reason to suspect that whatever lives under the icy crust of its startlingly hospitable moon Europa was in any sense aware of the vessel's passage, or, if these inhabitants are capable of such observation, that they regarded it with any particular feeling. We have, with the assistance of several experts, projected the course the vessel will be traversing; barring any unforeseen encounter with some object not on our charts — which, extensive as they may be, can never be complete — it appears that Jupiter and its moons were the last objects it will come close to in any foreseeable amount of time or distance. And though the body that had been Hodos and the vessel that carries it are still, these years later, quite firmly within our solar system — the experts assure us that they have not yet crossed the orbit of Saturn, which planet they will miss by a large margin — it is nevertheless appropriate to call it an interstellar object, one subject no longer to the everyday requirements of life, business, personal whim, but only to the higher order of gravity and the pure necessity it enforces. For as the vessel travels through the universe, it will do so not in some Earthly straight line, nor in some distracted zig-zagging from point to point, but rather in a great parabola, most noble of figures, wending its way according to the dictates only of that force which has given structure to the universe itself, bending here under the influence of a distant star, there under that of some globular cluster, elsewhere, far later still, should it make it so far (and we believe that it will), perhaps answering, in its magisterial way, only to the call of distant galaxies. Considered thus, we find, contrary to prevailing opinion, that there is no mystery to Hodos's final actions; and we feel that even now, were he still able to regret, he surely would regret only that in order truly to submit to the call of necessity, to eliminate the arbitrary, his death was required so soon; that were he still able, he would regret only that he could not have delayed the time of this death even just a little, that he could not have allowed himself to experience this wonder, if only for an hour, a day, a month, a year!

—North Providence
December 2013 - March 2014


William Squirrell said...

I enjoyed that very much. The list of reasons why would be lengthy: the ambition above all, the rigor, the deliberateness of the frame-shifting, the way Hodos haunts the whole thing without ever being made a character-we-can-relate-to, the way emotion is smuggled in regardless, but there is more to it than that. It reminded me for some reason of this educational film from the seventies: And Robbes-Grillet although its a long time since I read him.
I have some questions about it:
What do you see as its literary antecedents?
Did you try to get this published with any of the usual suspects?
Do you have a manifesto?

Ethan Robinson said...

Oh, thank you! I really appreciate this.

Powers Of Ten! Interesting! And I actually haven't (yet) read Robbe-Grillet, but from what I've read about his work... "Robbe-Grillet meets Powers of Ten" is a pretty delightful description, hah.

As to your questions, in some ways I should probably just not answer, the reticence proper to the writer etc, but I have a hard time keeping my mouth shut, so here's some misguided, overlong pretension...

Antecedents - who knows, right? Everything I've read, probably, and a bunch of things I haven't. (Robbe-Grillet, for example!) I've said elsewhere that Rendezvous with Rama lurks behind everything I've written, and that feels very on the surface here, to me. (2001 too, the novel more than the movie (though I think the movie is the better work qua work) especially with its attention to orbital mechanics; and I have no idea if the outer solar system and space elevators would, or could, feel so poetic to me if not for Clarke's creepy influence.) The entire body of the American magazine science fiction tradition, in my own weird, misguided misreading. Russ and Delany, who show that it's possible to work in that tradition through rupture. Pollack and Simak who are what I love and can't be; the abhorrent CIA agents Cordwainer Smith and James Tiptree, whose importance to me I now loathe. Beckett's trilogy, though I hadn't read any of it when I wrote this and still haven't quite finished it yet. I doubt I would have known that it was possible to write this story if not for Gabriel Josipovici and Maurice Blanchot (who would both probably roll their eyes at this talk about "influences") and the bloggers Steve Mitchelmore and Richard Crary (I've written about this gratitude). Silvia Federici, probably, though I can't see how. The spreadsheets I stare at under overkill fluorescent lighting in the windowless office I work in. My disgust with the short paragraphs of contemporary short sf stories Some otherwise terrible article I read in SF Studies years ago that for some reason I don't remember compared the windmills in Don Quixote (a book the article was imperialistically seizing for science fiction) to the spinning of the night sky. James C. Scott on meaning-defined-by-use versus meaning-defined-by-authority. The bike path that's no longer part of this story or (much more unfortunately) my daily life. Or none of that, y'know, who knows? A million little tweaks in the direction of thinking about authority and necessity, that turned into some pressure.

Did I try to get this published - aha, haha, did I. Rejected by something like 25 magazines, along with at least one anthology (going by vague memory here).

Do I have a manifesto - hah! Well. I'm constantly discovering that everything I care about and believe in is revolting, so either "no" or "everything is revolting" IS my manifesto. Or - this story is my manifesto, even though it's full of assertions I vehemently disagree with (and others I vehemently agree with). Or - the post before it. Or - this excruciatingly long review I wrote. Or - the post I wrote a while back about "transgressing genre boundaries" that I now find revolting, though I still think the way people talk about that is insufferable and smug and misguided. Or - I don't know. I love a good manifesto but I discover that I'm horribly wrong too often to have one myself. Somewhere (multiple places) Steve talks really well about the ongoingness of a blog, and I think that ongoingness maybe is manifesto enough for me. (That is, when I'm not disgusted by blogging.) So - this blog?

Ethan Robinson said...

And as I re-read Claudia Rankine's Don't Let Me Be Lonely - which, I just checked, I first read no more than six months before I started writing this story - goddamn if it wasn't a huge influence, without me realizing it.

William Squirrell said...

Disgust and revolt are great spurs for creativity, I can certainly relate to that “fuck this shit” feeling, everything can be so boring, seem so boring, even one’s own reactions to how boring everything is gets boring, it’s such a Johnny Rotten attitude, or Andy Warhol. “I know I said that yesterday, but today it seems so boring.” And there is such a mass of boring out there it pulls everything interesting into it, everything gets crushed and flattened out. I’m continually staggered by how boring not just SF is but narrative in all its various contemporary forms. Not that I’m particularly prone to fetishizing originality, or capable of it, I quite like repetition (with a difference), but to think of the freedom one has when writing, the endless horizon, and the best one can manage is something poorly recycled is always such a surprise. I’m constantly walking out of movie theatres, and turning off the TV, and closing books, and staring at my own computer screen, thinking really? That’s it? You can construct whatever universe you want to and you give me The Martian? Or Interstellar? Or a revision of any number of stale, exhausted patriarchal tropes strung together in predictable sequence and tarted up with proficient set-design. It doesn’t make one a particularly good date I suppose, to always be clutching your forehead and saying “holy crap that was trite” but it does get one one trying to figure out what wouldn’t be. And why.

I discovered your project through your review of my piece and wondered at the time how it would be for you, submitting yourself to all that science fiction over the course of a year, whether the weight of it wouldn’t ultimately diminish your response to things, make you see them in very structural and technical terms, like Levi-Strauss analyzing all that myth and producing incredibly clever and utterly disinterested accounts of the human mind. I’d just spent a lot of the last year trying not to read too much for precisely such paranoid reasons, reaction to grad school maybe, I had been wondering if the need to process all that narrative efficiently wouldn’t tend to strip everything of its idiosyncrasy, cause me to miss the asides and extraneity, all the little fuck ups and accidents where the really interesting shit sometimes happens, to start thinking strictly in terms of type and function and getting published and lose the pleasure and anxiety of it all, the frissance I guess they call it now, or did so until recently. I guess I suspect that of criticism in general, that the necessity of creating categories, of slotting things into columns and forms, is itself part of the homogenization process, the banalization of the imaginary. But good to think with. Even a question of antecedent does that I suppose, I ask that question and to answer it you have to organize your relationship with other texts, construct a canon, or at least a genealogy. That you included phantom bike paths and fluorescent lighting in your accounting of things does destabilize it all rather nicely though. And nice that you can blow it up if you don’t like it: “It’s revolting!” Not a bad manifesto, really. Might be better as a verb though: Revolt. The Revoltists? Revoltniks? Revoltinistas?

I read that review by the way (the long one) and liked it very much, rang true for me, was reassuring to see such a through and political engagement. Was there a response to it all? I should hope at the very least it got you a drink thrown in your face. It is a funny thing the critic does with hate, to take something that appalls them and think with it, reverse engineer it to get back to an idea they may or may not have had before they were appalled. Criticism is a negative theology. Maybe. Whatever. And Josipovici’s book on Modernism, picked that up, very inspiring, so thank you for the name drop. It got me thinking of failure, something you talk about occasionally, and I’m wondering what you mean by it. Failing at what? Failing how? Aesthetically? Philosophically? Existentially? I’ve always been fond of failure myself. Just curious.