Overweening Generalist

Thursday, April 7, 2016

17 Disparate Riffs on Science Fiction

Disparate in the book-drunk weed-sodden time-jog of my mind, at least...

My blogging colleague Tom Jackson has posted on the Prometheus Awards finalists, with nice summaries of all kinds of books that sound fascinating, none of which I've gotten around to reading yet. The last post the OG received comments about science fiction fans and conventions and how SF writers tend to be - some - more open to meeting their fans. Sooo...

1. I recently read about Hong Kong roboticist Ricky Ma making his first prototype robot that looks very very much like Unistatian bombshell actress Scarlett Johansson. He used 3-D printing and it cost about $50,000. He'll no doubt make "better" versions. Aside from what we think about his project (I wonder what "Scarjo" makes of it?), it reminded me of SF writer Ray Faraday Nelson's 1978 book Revolt of the Unemployables, which pointed out that his collaborator and friend Philip K. Dick was the first SF writer to realize the purpose of making robots look like people. Eventually we meatware beings will have an ontological problem distinguishing what it means to be human. And these robots are going to get better and better, obviously...and the aesthetic behind the assertion of "better" of course means: "more like us." In a book of interviews with Philip K. Dick, What If Our World Is Their Heaven? PKD asserts that the android that thinks it's human idea is his own unique contribution to SF, since 1953's "Imposter."

2. William Gibson said that "What interested me most in the sci-fi of The Sixties was the investigation of the politics of perception, some of which, I imagine, could now be seen in retrospect as having been approached through various and variously evolving ideas of the cyborg." - Distrust That Particular Flavor, p. 248 (Maybe worthsomewhiles: Do yourself a favor and nonchalantly drop "the politics of perception" into your next dinner-party conversation. Note any and all reactions. I've noticed the phrase has legs: watch it be interpreted in many different ways. "Is" perception "political"? My gawd, how can it not be? And yet this topic only seems to get discussed among weirdos like us. - OG)

3. Thomas Pynchon has influenced many SF writers, but had the idea, in his introductory piece to his old essays in Slow Learner that SF evades the issue of mortality. Or it had as of the writing of that Intro, c.1984. It's an interesting idea...and ideas are, it seems to me, what make SF cool. It's as if Pynchon went looking for a possible Achilles Heel of SF and came up with the riff on mortality. Is it true? I don't know. Pynchon for me belongs along with SF books in the Novels of Ideas.

4. In Dennis McKenna's memoir Brotherhood of the Screaming Abyss he writes about how he and his famous brother Terence loved SF - especially Heinlein, Asimov, Blish, Sturgeon, and Arthur C. Clarke. Later: PKD. As I read Dennis's book I made notes on all the sources he cited that he and Terence filled their imaginations and knowledge banks with, because I knew Dennis's account of the Experiment at La Chorrera was coming up. At one point he reproduces his own field notes, written while he was in a monthlong quasi-para-schizophrenic break from "reality" due to constant heroic doses of psilocybin mushrooms and DMT and incessant pot smoking, add to that being with three other people, in the Amazon, missing sleep for days, and doing ceremonial magic on top of this. It's one of the great insane travelogue accounts. 41 years later Dennis says his alchemical science-y sounding "attempt" to "trigger an end to history, throw open the gates of a paradise out of time and invite humanity to walk in," was acting "on our obsessions to an appalling degree." (p.285) Of the science fiction books that possibly subconsciously framed the McKenna Brothers' experience, Dennis admits of a "mash-up" of Arthur C. Clarke and PKD. (p.286) I'll say! I'd say add heaps of Jung, alchemy, cosmology, their own rejected Catholic upbringing in a stultifying small town, and a high school music teacher who taught Dennis about sympathetic vibrations of strings. At minimum.

5. Writing about the time before La Chorrera (reading about or listening to Terence recount this epically gonzo drug experiment always gives me a major contact high), Dennis writes, "Science fiction is good for the mind. It keeps one open to possibilities and, more than any other fictional genre, helps one to anticipate and prepare for the future. In fact, science fiction creates the future, by articulating a vision of what we as a culture imagine for ourselves." (p.119, op.cit) He then goes on to list a handful of SF predictions that came true, some that didn't, and some science fiction-y things that did come true, although maybe never predicted in SF, coming to the conclusion that "reality" is stranger than fiction.

In John Higgs's recent history of the 20th century, Stranger Than We Can Imagine, he traces science fiction as a clue to individual, then collective longing for something fantastic. SF is an "early warning system" and points to collective minds in our future. How can this not be? (see op cit, pp. 129-143)

6. My favorite writer about drugs is Dale Pendell. In his Pharmako Gnosis he has an entire chapter on DMT, "The Topology of the Between: DMT," pp. 227-240. Along with Dr. Rick Strassman and the greatest 20th century alchemist, Sasha Shulgin, DMT is still probably most associated with the McKennas, and probably Terence more than Dennis, probably owing to Terence's legendary poetic gifts and mesmerizing idiolect. Pendell spends four pages comparing written accounts of various truly otherworldly DMT trips, and notes how science fiction and DMT trip reports seem quite similar. The "contact" with machine-like alien beings who want to teach the tripper something very important is a very common part of the DMT experience. Of DMT-inspired art, Pendell writes, "There are transparent bubbles and pods and extraterrestrial landscapes. Dendritic forms are common, as is x-ray vision. Crystals are also frequent. Much of the art is illustrative, has a commercial feel to it, and finds its way onto book and album covers. And, of course, movies - DMT can have a cartoon quality. Science fiction themes are common. Sometimes visionary artists are able to capture the movement and churning of DMT experience." Here's a choice quote from Terence McKenna, about DMT:

Under the influence of DMT, the world becomes an Arabian labyrinth, a palace, a more than possible Martian jewel, vast with motifs that flood the gaping mind with complex and wordless awe. Color and the sense of a reality-unlocking secret nearby pervade the experience. There is a sense of other times, and of one's own infancy, and of wonder, wonder and more wonder. It is an audience with an alien nuncio. In the midst of this experience, apparently at the end of human history, guarding gates that seem surely to open on the howling maelstrom of the unspeakable emptiness between the stars, is the Aeon. - from Food of the Gods (Pendell: p. 232; Food of the Gods p.258)

7. I was introduced to the idea of the history of cultural anthropology and "first contact" by a great Anthropology professor named Sam Sandt. Some of us had our imaginations captured by the idea that there really were "first contacts" between European and American "first world" people and people still living in rain forests or deserts or other marginalized areas of the Earth. And once you read about one, you want to read others. Professor Sandt told me there's a cross-over between Cultural Anthropology and ethnographies and science fiction, which often features human contact with peoples or other humanoids who seem Wholly Other. So I guess what I'm saying is you DMT smokers might enjoy reading Anthropology, and those Anthropology majors who still haven't tried DMT...read science fiction to prepare? What am I saying? I see from my diffuse notes on this topic that Harlan Ellison once placed Carlos Castaneda's books "among the preeminent in the genre," of SF. - Wake Up Down There!: The Excluded Middle Anthology, p.226

See also, maybe?:
First Contact: New Guinea's Highlanders Encounter the Outside World (thrilling)
Recreating First Contact: Expeditions, Anthropology and Popular Culture

8. In 1948 a writer sometimes considered to "be" SF wrote about a future dystopia in which there was "Thoughtcrime." Only eight years later, PKD coined "pre-crime" and it's been with us now for at least 10 years in "reality." One of the main problems with the urgent need for police reform in Unistat is to keep the police from surveilling the poor - especially African-Americans - in anticipation of crime. PKD minted "pre-crime" in 1956's relatively short piece "Minority Report." I recall telling a friend who didn't like SF that it was an important genre that is all about ideas. Then we went to see Spielberg's 2002 film of PKD's Minority Report. I thought the "pre-crime" aspect was probably just around the corner as something we'd actually have to contend with; my friend thought it far-fetched. I think this speaks to Dennis McKenna's argument that SF helps us prepare for the future.

9. Science fiction has a relationship with new religions that's obvious, and we can go down any number of tributaries here. Writing in the neo-pagan magazine Green Egg on April 4, 1975, Robert Anton Wilson (influential in more new religions than perhaps anyone else in the Roaring 20th century) argued that all new religions need to be science fiction-y. Earlier he'd given talks in which he deliberately provoked old New York-type intellectuals by asserting that the only literature that's current is James Joyce and science fiction. (At the time, SF was still part of what William Gibson called the "Golden Ghetto": it made money for its publishers and writers, but wasn't taken seriously at all by mainstream intellectuals.) A scholar of new religions, Prof. Carolyn Cusack, notes, "Both Aiden Kelly and Isaac Bonewits, key figures in the Pagan revival, attribute their personal wholeness to the reading of science fiction. They view it as a moral literature and argue that 'the only authors who are coping with the complexity of modern reality are those who are changing the way people perceive reality, and these are authors who are tied in with science fiction.'" (Cusack, Invented Religions, pp.78-79; quote about Kelly/Bonewits from Margot Adler, Drawing Down The Moon)

10. The pessimistic intellectual Morris Berman has been writing books about how Western civilization is entering a "new dark age" and he's got hundreds of reality sandwich reasons why. It's dark stuff, and horribly compelling to me. Those of us who love reading books and making things? We need to do things like the Irish monks did in the Dark Ages: preserve our cultural heritage until a new dawn, which we will not be there to see. We are like intellectual "preppers" it seems, with none of the Mad Max struggle to survive visions. Berman would call us New Monastics. He thinks SF is valuable preparation from the new dark ages to come, and cites as preparatory texts A Canticle For Liebowitz, Fahrenheit 451, and This Perfect Day. I was surprised at first to see that Berman liked SF. He values its counterfactual speculation and alternative histories, like PKD's The Man In The High Castle. Here's a line from Berman's Twilight of American Culture: "The 'mind' of the 21st century, for most people, will be a weird hybrid of Bill Gates and Walt Disney, as so-called cyberpunk novelists such as William Gibson [Neuromancer] or Neal Stephenson [Snow Crash] have already recognized." (p.54)

11. It's been clear to me for around 20 years now - maybe 23 to be precise - that the acceleration of technology and its dizzyingly diverse effects on human nervous systems, the biosphere and the world economy - that we inhabit a science fiction world, right where you are sitting now. If you don't often frame it this way for yourself - especially if you've never looked at your current "reality" this way - I urge you to do an experiment and "see" your world this way for seven days. I now teach guitar to some young people who know it's true but think it's sorta weird that people my age once lived in a world in which you couldn't carry the Internet around in your back pocket. Frankly, this fact staggers me every single day. I'm getting a chill right now, just watching what I'm writing...

12. If you read widely, you will note some people like to claim a very ancient history for science fiction. I remember having a nasty flu, with a temperature high enough to give me "fever dreams." Once I started to recover, I had my girlfriend take a trip to the library for me to pick up a bunch of classic literature for my recovery. One thing was Voltaire's short piece from 1752, Micromegas, and it was asserted in an introduction by a 20th century person that this was a science fiction piece. At the time, I thought SF came in with Jules Verne, maybe Mary Shelley. But yea: a 23 mile high being from one of the planets that orbited Sirius? Pretty wild stuff. "Sirius" and "23" meant nothing to me as reference at the time; I was too young. Later...

13. Marshall McLuhan looked at his fellow Wild Catholic, the French Jesuit paleontologist Teilhard de Chardin, and saw him as a science fiction thinker. Teilhard (d.1955) had a theory about our electrical technology, which was destined to envelop the Earth (it did, he died long before the World Wide Web was a glimmer in Berners-Lee's eye). This envelopment was an aspect of the "Christic force" and would lead to parousia, the Second Coming of Christ. McLuhan's media theories have much ado about how we are externalizing our nervous system in electricity and electrical gadgets, and this was leading to a re-tribalization of humans, away from codex-reading, solitary, Gutenbergian individuals. Away from people like myself, it seems. (O, I have a SmartPhone: you have to in Unistat, April, 2016!) Around 1968 McLuhan was talking of the computerized Logos, and seemed for awhile perpelexed about how to "probe" this new idea. Eventually he saw Teilhard as "science fiction" but he didn't mean this in a positive sense; for McLuhan a science fiction writer was probably a futurist with little insight, or as one of his biographers, Philip Marchand wrote, "devoid of genuine perception." How odd that McLuhan survives as a SF thinker himself, on the cover of the first copy of Wired, Terence McKenna constantly riffing off McLuhan's insights, etc. I see this as "odd" in an ironic sort of science fiction-like narrative sense. (see Marshall McLuhan: The Medium and the Messenger, pp.216-217)

14. Regarding SF as the epicenter of the Novel of Ideas since around the end of WWII, and as propaedeutic for our living in the future (or now): around 1980 Robert Anton Wilson was asked by Dr. Jeffrey Eliot, "Are you concerned that your work have didactic value, that people learn from it?"

Here's RAW's answer:
Absolutely! Didactic literature is very much out of style these days; if one is suspected of having a message, it's almost regarded as some kind of secret vice. I think, however, that all first-rate literature leans toward  the didactic. The classic Greeks regarded Homer as didactic and allegorical to boot. Dante seems didactic. Shakespeare seems didactic. Melville seems didactic. Science fiction is the most didactic literature around; that's why I enjoy it so much. 

All writers function as teachers, whether they're conscious of it or not, or whether they'll admit it or not. For example, take Mickey Spillane. He used to give interviews in which he said he only wrote books for money. However, if you look at his work, he has strong beliefs. He's always pitching them to the reader. They're rather fascist beliefs, but they're beliefs nonetheless, and he's a teacher, just like every other writer. Unfortunately, he's only teaching a violent, fascist morality. - collected in Email To The Universe, p.217

Were there ever more thrilling teachers for young introverts in the 20th century than people like Asimov or HG Wells?

15. Revisiting Voltaire and Father Teilhard de Chardin: in John Glassie's book on the 17th century Jesuit weirdo intellectual Athanasius Kircher, Man of Misconceptions, the last man to Know Everything, Kircher, is placed by Glassie as a writer of proto-science fiction with his book Ecstatic Journey. Johannes Kepler wrote an SF-like book, Somnium/The Dream, and Glassie even says Cicero's The Dream of Scipio qualifies here. Meanwhile, when I read the Bible's book Revelation it seems like proto-HP Lovecraft, or a really bad mushroom trip. In Jennifer Hecht's book Doubt: A History SF is traced back to rhetorician/satirist/Syrian Lucian, who died around 180 CE. Hecht links Lucian to the agnosticism/skepticism/atheism/doubt of the whole (well, most?) history of science fiction. Of course, if we allow Cicero in here, he wins as oldest SF by dying in 43BCE. And what a death. Bernard Field, in his History of Science Fiction, agrees that Cicero wrote a forerunner to SF. (Yea, but what about Plato's conjuring Atlantis?)

16. I don't see much mention of Olaf Stapledon these days. Here's a science fiction writer of enormous erudition, who combined aspects of the historical novel approach to the novel of ideas with science. In 1989 Robert Anton Wilson told Rebecca McClen and David Jay Brown, "I'm a mystical agnostic, or an agnostic mystic. That phrase was coined by Olaf Stapledon, my favorite science fiction writer. When I first read it, it didn't mean anything to me, but over the years I've gradually realized that "agnostic mystic" describes me better than any words I've found anywhere else." (Mavericks of the Mind, p.114) In piece collected in The Next 50 Years, Sir Martin Rees says that "Many Worlds Hypothesis" in quantum mechanics originated with Stapledon. Wikipedia credits Stapledon with the idea of "swarm intelligence," which now resonates with "crowdsourcing."

17. Dr. John Lilly, one of the 20th century's great multidisciplinarians, who wrote an essay at age 16 about how the human mind can be rendered sufficiently objective in order to study itself, studied neurophysiology at CalTech, trained as a medical doctor, studied aeronautics and cybernetics in the Air Force, became a cetologist, and became known as a dolphin expert. He was also one of the great self-experimenters in history, including psychedelic research. So he may have some insight into the McKenna Brothers' experiences. He refused to accept science as "better" than religion, because they pertain to different domains of human thought. Religion has to do with out greatest desires, as Lilly saw it. Both science and religion were "meta-theoretical" positions on knowledge. However, if we were to encounter "real organisms with greater wisdom, greater intellect, greater minds than any single man..." we must be "open, unbiased, sensitive, general purpose, and dispassionate. Our needs for fantasies must be analyzed and seen for what they are and are not or we will be in even graver troubles than we are today." (Programming The Human Biocomputer, pp. 74-75.) Superior beings encountered are usually written off by scientists as, as best religious weirdness, at worst, as "superstitions" or "psychotic beliefs." "Other persons present these beliefs in the writings called 'science fiction.'" Lilly says most scientists will say the human biocomputer generates these visions - all the phenomena - by itself. Having had experiences like the McKennas, Lilly seeks to remain agnostic. This is eventually what Robert Anton Wilson did after having numerous bizarre contact-experiences with superintelligences from Sirius, or...something like that. Philip K. Dick had overwhelmingly strange experience with Something Other too, and tried to be agnostic, but it seems he mostly gave over to this experience's an ontological status close to "real." Possibly more real than "real." I don't know what "really" happened at La Chorrera, but tens of thousands of other humans have had similar experiences. I wonder how I'd react if I had a similar experience. I simply don't know. And I'm not ready to debunk anyone else's wild phenomenological experience.


Eric Wagner said...

Terrific piece, as usual. I have almost finished my second David Foster Wallace book, Girl with Curious Hair. I enjoy his writing, but he seems a little tone deaf to the world of science fiction. His survey of fiction about media omits any reference to sf writers like Wilson, Dick, etc. He miscalls "Philip Jose Farmer" "Jose Philip Farmer" in another essay. (I don't think he did it on purpose. Shame on the editor who missed that.)

The Grateful Dead learned a lot from science fiction. Sturgeon's notions of collaboration in More than Human had a big impact.

I've read 1 - 8. I will read the rest later and comment more. I hope.

Eric Wagner said...

I do not have a smart phone.

I have written before about how reading Bob Wilson made me lose my sense of feeling at home in the science fiction world. I felt less connected with SF fandom when I attended the 1983 WorldCon in Baltimore. SF thinking started to seem too conventional to me after a little over a year of serious RAW reading.

I think one can view Dante as a science fiction writer. He incorporated the science of his day into his speculative vision.

My science fiction class just started reading Phil Dick's Ubik.

Thanks for the terrific piece.

Bob Campbell said...

Another spectacular mindmeld w/ the OG!

The last two books I read have been Brotherhood of the Screaming Abyss & Stranger Than We Can Imagine, 2 great tastes that go great together!

I’m now reading what is probably my first full on sci-fi book “Babel-17” by Samuel R Delany, which has been amazing! I’ve enjoyed numerous sci-fi comix and movies, but the features of plain text really seems to be elevating the otherworldly futuristic/alien verisimilitude of this book . (It probably doesn’t hurt that the book is working from the Sapir–Whorf Hypothesis and is consciously playing with the language/thought/perception/reality continuum) In visual media the worlds depicted kind of have a production value limit to the amount of pure strangeness they can achieve before it becomes either too expensive to render or too aesthetically bizarre for audiences to decipher. I guess it’s the most obvious thing in the world, but sometimes leaving the special effects to the user’s imagination really can transcend the limits of movie magic.

Although, literary VR narratives/games will make things very interesting indeed! It’s as mainstream as mainstream can get but watching James Cameron’s Avatar in 3D on the big screen was, in some parts, a striking approximation of the general atmosphere of my DMT experience. Advance that tech a few decades, add the right artistic intent, and well… like McKenna said the only difference between computers and psychedelics is that computers aren’t small enough to swallow, and our best people are working on that! (indeed they did and do and you just about could these days!)

I remember there being quite a bit of concern years ago about RAW being forgotten over time, and the need to ‘keep the lasagna flying,’ but as things turned out he is doing just fine, but I think maybe John Lilly has begun to fall through the cracks a bit. I absolutely adore his books and would love to see his ideas circulating more prominently. I just found out there’s a float tank place down right around where I live! I’ve only done it once before, like 10 years ago, and even just the benefits of that singular experience seem to be persisting still. I look forward to what a regular practice might do.

Just to throw it out there, the politically thrilling sci-fi graphic novel Transmetropolitan by my fav living futurist Warren Ellis, (a well regarded enough comic to very probably be available at local libraries) is always just the thing to read during US presidential elections.


michael said...


RAW was turned on to Wm Gibson by a gay friend. He liked Gibson a lot. It seems SF has expanded (gone supernova?) into all kinds of sub-genres since around 1985. The Gamer world seems - much of it, it seems to me - intensely immersive in aspects of SF. Video gaming takes in more money per year than all professional sports, at least in No. America and this stat is at least five years old.

Meanwhile, PKD went from a cult writer to one of the biggest writers in Hollywood.

Speaking of the Dead, a bunch of virtuoso rock players love PKD and Vonnegut and a few others. Hamm's first solo record was titled _Radio Free Albemuth_ and Satriani has a piece called "Ice Nine."

Sorry I took so long to get back to you here. I can now go for three-five days without surfing the Net 'except for quick searches for "facts" or reading certain articles I'd saved.

michael said...

@ Bob:

Oh man, now I really want to read Transmetropolitan by Warren Ellis.

I remember Delaney saying once that SF allowed for the most unique sentences possible in literature, and something about "syntagmatically startling points." I think it was "syntagmatically" that stuck with me.

The discussion about Avatar and psychedelia never made it into mainstream discourse, but EVERYONE I've talked to about it brings it up.

Let us resolve to do our little part in keeping Lilly from obscurity?

Eric Wagner said...

Tim Leary also encouraged Bob to read Gibson. I remember taking Bob to the Phoenix airport in 1988. He had just started his first Gibson book, Neuromancer, and he planned to read it on the plane. I wondered what he would think of the ending, which suggests contacts with extraterrestrials in the early 1970's. I considered that ending a shout out to Wilson, Leary, Dick, etc.