Tag: sf

it’s Palmer Eldritch’s world, we’re just living in it

I’m teaching Philip K Dick’s The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch right now, and in my introductory comments I mentioned that one of the curious things about this book so full of fear and anxiety is the complete absence of what would have been, at the time of the book’s publication in 1965, the most common source of fear and anxiety: the Cold War, and the possibility that it would erupt into a very hot nuclear one. As Dick imagines the world of 2016, all of that has somehow been resolved or faded into insignificance. What has happened instead is a kind of unspoken and largely unacknowledged collaboration between the United Nations, which seems to be the only government that’s functioning, and what we have recently learned to call surveillance capitalism. It’s the UN that forces people to leave the overcrowded and overheated earth to live at a subsistence level on colonies elsewhere in the solar system, and it’s also the UN that turns a blind eye to the “pushers” who sell to the colonists the drugs they need to make their miserable experience tolerable. Symbiosis. 

When people talk about Dick as a prophetic writer, this is the kind of thing they have in mind: an ability to envision from 1965 not a continuation of that time’s politics but instead a tacit union between the interests of government and the interests of the world’s most powerful corporations.

But Dick takes his anticipations to another level, a level that I am especially interested in. It is of course famously difficult to say exactly what happens in this novel, because the essential question that the major characters have is always: What is actually happening? But at least one major potential timeline, perhaps the most likely timeline, tells a story like this: Palmer Eldritch is a titan of capitalism, in many respects the Jeff Bezos of this world, and he travels to Proxima Centauri on a quest that is ambiguous in character but certainly involves financial motives. Eldritch discovers on Proxima Centauri a substance that the sentient beings of that solar system use in their religious rituals — a substance he thinks he can manufacture and sell and thereby win a victory over the currently dominant corporation called PP Layouts. But on his return from the Proxima system he is — well, perhaps the word is possessed by a sentient creature from some other part of the galaxy. And this creature is at least for a time interested in distributing its consciousness, through the mediation of Palmer Eldritch and the substance he has discovered, into the consciousness of human beings.

I said in an earlier post that I am interested in demonology, and that adds to my fascination with this novel. Because Dick is imagining what might happen if an unprecedentedly powerful union of government and surveillance capitalism is taken over by what might fairly be called a demonic power. Now, you might say that what Dick describes is not a demon, but simply a creature dramatically more powerful than we are and capable of imposing its will upon us. I call that a distinction without a difference. This is, it seems to me, a sort of Foucauldian image a few years ahead of Foucault’s key works on power and domination, a picture of a world in which powers that we may be tempted to call supernatural are disseminated through the existing structures of the neoliberal order. And it doesn’t look pretty.

Of course, this is not the only possible explanation of what is happening in the book. It is certainly possible that there is no alien being possessing Palmer Eldritch; rather, Eldritch himself has, through a combination of economic leverage and biotechnology, assumed equivalent powers. That is, it may be possible for surveillance capitalism to generate its own demons. Whether this is a better or worse fate than the one I previously described I leave as an exercise for the reader.

“in fact the mind was poorly understood”

Astounding, really, that Michel could consider psychology any kind of science at all. So much of it consisted of throwing together. Of thinking of the mind as a steam engine, the mechanical analogy most ready to hand during the birth of modern psychology. People had always done that when they thought about the mind: clockwork for Descartes, geological changes for the early Victorians, computers or holography for the twentieth century, AIs for the twenty-first…. and for the Freudian traditionalists, steam engines. Application of heat, pressure buildup, pressure displacement, venting, all shifted into repression, sublimation, the return of the repressed. Sax thought it unlikely steam engines were an adequate model for the human mind. The mind was more like — what? — an ecology — a fellfield — or else a jungle, populated by all manner of strange beasts. Or a universe, filled with stars and quasars and black holes. Well — a bit grandiose, that — really it was more like a complex collection of synapses and axons, chemical energies surging hither and yon, like weather in an atmosphere. That was better — weather — storm fronts of thought, high-pressure zones, low-pressure cells, hurricanes — the jet streams of biological desires, always making their swift powerful rounds…. life in the wind. Well. Throwing together. In fact the mind was poorly understood.

— Kim Stanley Robinson, Blue Mars

Le Guin’s golden age

Between 1968 and 1974 Ursula K. Le Guin published

A Wizard of Earthsea
The Left Hand of Darkness
The Tombs of Atuan
The Lathe of Heaven
The Farthest Shore
The Disposessed

— along with a series of classic stories, including “Vaster than Empires and More Slow,” “Winter’s King,” and “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas.” That would be quite a literary career. She did it in six years.

Wars, hot or cold, are also missing from standard science fiction versions of the future. Interplanetary wars don’t count, and neither do wars with robots or zombies. I mean wars among nation-states or global alliances or regional blocs. George Orwell’s 1984, inspired in part by James Burnham’s The Managerial Revolution, imagined a world divided among three totalitarian blocs: Oceania, Eurasia, and Eastasia. I can’t think of any other well-known examples of geopolitics in science fiction.

Michael Lind. Everything that Lind says is missing from SF may be found in, to cite just one example among many possible ones, the work of Ursula K. LeGuin. Given that LeGuin is one of the most famous SF writers in the world, and Lind appears not to be familiar with her work, then perhaps his declarations about what SF does and does not do should be taken with a truckload of salt.

If we contemplate the lives of the Teletubbies, questions start to pose themselves. These four creatures are evidently infantile beings, unable to look after themselves (hence their elaborate environment of technological attendants). We wonder: where are their parents? Have the Teletubbies been abandoned by their families? Are the ’tubbies alien creatures, or are they post-humans, genetically altered?

I prefer a different reading, one that folds the surface logic of the text back into the underlying logic of ‘entertainment for toddlers’. It seems clear from the world of the Teletubbies that, whether alien or posthuman, they come from a technologically advanced culture. Like the Borg they have assimilated technological devices into their own bodies, but unlike the wholly technological/artificial worlds of the Borg they have chosen to inhabit an environment shaped largely by the aesthetics of the natural world. We have, then, a disparity between (on the one hand) the high degree of intelligence and technological know-how needed to build the ’tubbies home, their automated toasters and vacuum-cleaners, the periscopes, the broadcasting tower and all that; and (on the other) the evident puerility and immaturity of the Teletubbies themselves.