“Get out into the open. Sit outdoors if possible,” reads the script of a “growth game,” a game people play. Shall we play? Imagine “getting it together” at a scale sufficient to the fact that we are everywhere. World-build a global network of people caring and tending to needs. A place like Whileaway, the cybernetic feminist utopia from Joanna Russ’s novel The Female Man. Shall we revive the tradition of cybernetic socialism, essential to many of the hippie utopias of the 1960s and 1970s? Better that than Silent Running. But to be honest, I’d rather be gardening. Callenbach lacks the sheer linguistic inventiveness and wit of a writer like Russ. Maybe we should read Michael Reynolds’s book about Earthships and Eden Medina’s book on Project Cybersyn. Anyway, Russ is the author on my mind this week, for work if not for play. As a character of hers says of Whileaway, “the ecological housekeeping is enormous” (14).
Nap-time on a rainy afternoon, rain a surprise, though no bother, for we know it, too, will pass. Plus it affords the occasion for the baby to nap and for me to write. I look back at Samuel R. Delany’s The Einstein Intersection and study his depiction of telepathic communication between mutant beings, posthumans who have grown new organs and developed special powers, abilities that reveal themselves over time. Why does a Christ figure, a character named Green-eye, ride peripherally in this narrative, his life and death a mere subplot? And why does another of these mutants, a character named Spider, evoke the ideas of two twentieth-century mathematical philosophers, theoretical physicist Albert Einstein and logician Kurt Gödel? One expresses mathematically how “the condition of the observer influences the thing he perceives” (111). The other introduces uncertainty back into systems, phenomena in excess of all immutable laws, logics, and equations. When Einstein and Gödel intersect, says Spider, humans disappear into another continuum. Something else arrives to take over: the mutants, the posthumans. (Delany, by the way, deliberately avoids both of those terms.) What are we to make, though, of the fact that the character who informs us of this is Spider, the novel’s Judas Iscariot? And why is Lobey, the novel’s protagonist, both Orpheus and Ringo Starr? In a 2017 reassessment of “the fourth Beatle” for the Guardian, Ben Cardew claims that the public viewed Ringo as “a non-musician who got lucky, a journeyman alongside three musical geniuses.” Perhaps Ringo is meant to serve, then, as the “faux-Orpheus” within the symbolism of Delany’s novel, making Lobey neither Orpheus nor faux-Orpheus, but some irreducibly “different,” variant, third term, uncapturable by existing terms or by any binary logic that precedes him.
The world can become different in a variety of ways. It needn’t become “Area X” — so why imagine it that way? Picture instead the differences imagined by Samuel R. Delany in books like Dhalgren, The Einstein Intersection, and Heavenly Breakfast. Events occur prompting ontological transformations — changes in the nature of reality — at which point language adjusts accordingly.
Songs from baby toys replay in my thoughts as I think about Samuel R. Delany’s character Lo Lobey, the Orphic hero in his novel The Einstein Intersection, who performs songs telepathically overheard from the minds of those around him. Delany’s novel is set in a far future among beings who have replaced humans of ancient times, but who inhabit and perform the roles, live out the narratives and myths, of those past peoples. Delany interrupts this narrative with excerpts from a “Writer’s Journal” kept during a several-month tour of Mediterranean cities in the fall of 1965. Why is the Orpheus character of ancient Greece reinvented, re-imagined, reinterpreted as Delany’s character Lo Lobey? Orpheus is famous for his musicianship and his poetry. He’s one of the Western tradition’s archetypal figures, portrayed and alluded to in countless works of art, music, and literature across the centuries. Why does Delany reactivate this figure on a posthuman Earth of the far future? What might this setting tell us about what we can now recognize in hindsight as Delany’s emerging Afrofuturist sensibility?
Children of Men is a panic-pitched end-times vision, a film about fear, all of twenty-first century humanity’s worries in quick succession: terrorism, environmental collapse, wars waged between states and nonstate actors, inequality, infertility, banditry, you name it. “Theo,” the Clive Owens character, wanders traumatized, cynical and half-numb, through a kind of hell-house morality tale, until his arrival at the miracle of the nativity. His job thenceforth is to shepherd Kee, the film’s Mary, a refugee whose body houses future life, toward the hope of the film’s Utopia, a legendary community said to exist on an island in the Azores, led by a group called the Human Project. “Everything’s fine,” people keep saying, “all part of a bigger thing!” With death and danger all around them, punctuated by moments of great beauty, Kee persists, and Theo follows, protecting her and the baby from harm. Members of the Human Project arrive to the rescue by film’s end, floating toward Kee and her baby in a boat called Tomorrow.
I perambulate the lush pages of Gerald Heard’s AE: The Open Persuader (1969), a work of gay transhumanist utopian science fiction — surely one of the most peculiar books I’ve yet encountered, published under a pseudonym (“Auctor Ignotus”), read I’m sure by at most only a few hundred people planetwide. In certain ways, the narrative is fairly straightforward. As is common to the genre, a traveler arrives to a previously occulted utopia and, after being sketched in biographically in a bewildering first chapter titled “The Interviewer Interviewed,” receives a tour from a mysterious host. Heard’s prose is so maximally cultured and so mannered, however, that one has a difficult time determining who’s who. The guest character, in his relative innocence a stand-in for the reader, responds to the name “Ulick Stackpole” (or, later in the novel, the name’s abbreviated form, “L”), his initials reflecting his county of origin, while the more experienced “host” character, dialoguing at length on the workings of the utopian creation, answers to several titles: Preter Praetor, the Lord Persuader; Arbiter Elegantiarum; AE. Because utopias are inherently political, consensus reality encircled, relativized, compared and contrasted with another, I find myself wondering at Heard’s aims. What is the nature of this utopia? In trying to imagine the evolution of humanity toward what he calls “total uprightness” (in which one should also hear “erection”), Heard seems to have crafted a secret gay separatist demimonde, home to a race of immortal or at least semi-immortal elites. As AE’s various titles indicate, there’s no great fondness for democracy or self-rule in this utopia. One should thus be wary as one reads, noting questions and concerns. Why is the utopia set in Uruguay, for instance? Why has the book’s author invented elaborate fictions about money manipulation featuring European refugees fleeing to South America during WWII?
Behold, there in the basket of keys and letters beside the door like an object in a memory palace: mirror-shade sunglasses, like the ones invested with allegorical meaning by the cyberpunks. Pardon the group tag, the literary label. Anthologies have that effect on people. And as Bruce Sterling once said, label-mongering can be “a valid source of insight — as well as great fun.” For instance, it is to Samuel Delany that he credits the Mirrorshades crew’s “visionary shimmer” (x). During the Sixties and Seventies, a new movement gained recognition within SF, the New Wave. Delany was one of the stars of this movement. Let us dip back into his 1967 novel The Einstein Intersection. Think of Delany as an important component of a single distributed consciousness attempting to communicate to itself across the ages. Who are these “others,” these posthumans who come to populate the remains of our myths and dreams in the future that Delany imagines for us in his novel? As Neil Gaiman notes in the book’s Foreword, “They inhabit our legends awkwardly: they do not fit them” (The Einstein Intersection viii). Why, then, do they need them? What do myths and legends do, either for us or for them? How does dream and fancy come to play an active part in our being? Prior to the loss of a loved one, the book’s protagonist Lo Lobey herded goats with his friends. Like the rural communards, the back-to-the-landers of the 1960s, Lobey and his friends were out there “on the Beryl Face: looking for pasture” (3).
Worry not: Look outward upon a radiant new environment loaded with hidden Easter eggs. Go out and listen. There is great peace of mind to be had by exhaling and breathing silently along a calm evening walk. I walk in wonder, staring up at chirping birds on lofty branches, a clear cold sky lit for sunset. “Breathe,” I tell myself, “and concentrate mind in the present.” It’s been a tiring past couple of weeks, this conclusion of autumn and entry into winter. To cheer myself, I throw on the Flamin’ Groovies album Teenage Head — but something’s off, the album fails to suit the mood. I fail to find in it the significance suggested by its title, minus that great line at the end of the song from which the album gets its name: “I’m a child of atom bombs / and rotten air and Vietnams; I am you / you are me.”
The band also released a single the following year, an anti-drug song called “Slow Death” — the same phrase used as the nickname for Substance D, the fictional drug in Philip K. Dick’s doper dystopia A Scanner Darkly. I wonder if Dick was a Flamin’ Groovies fan.
The stories we read and tell one another compose us collectively into an intersubjective multiverse linked by each consciousness holding up to the Other its mirror. Philip K. Dick’s A Scanner Darkly is a hard novel to end a course on, hard because it contains so many prior horizons of psychedelic-utopian possibility in the uncertainty and despair of its narrative universe. I worry that the book inspires in its readers an excess of aversion to chemical modification of consciousness. The book is too unqualified in its denunciation of drug use; the book’s fictional Substance-D operates allegorically (most vividly via its street name “slow death”) as an emblem, a universal shorthand for every drug — drugs in general. Dick leaves readers without a positive alternative to the “straight” world’s miserly, hypocritical relationship to mental health, where “sanity” equals mind-numbing adherence to pre-established norms, and all are expected to board what Margo Guryan called “The 8:17 Northbound Success Merry-Go-Round.”
I prefer to focus instead on collecting recipes for a cookbook. The cookbook was a great utopian art form of the late 1960s and 1970s, from The Grub Bag and The Tassajara Bread Book to Ant Farm’s INFLATOCOOKBOOK of 1971. To my cookbook I add a recipe for “Vegan Cream of Mushroom and Wild Rice Soup” from the Food 52 website.
“Me with nothing to say, and you in your autumn sweater,” go the words to a song of my late teen years by the New Jersey band Yo La Tengo. I heard it the other day, only to be reminded of it again midafternoon as Sarah and I, bundled in hats and scarves, set out on a brief walk through our neighborhood. By the evening, though, I’m back to re-reading Philip K. Dick’s A Scanner Darkly, a book I’m teaching next week. Dick’s dystopian future depicts widespread, near-universal dehumanization as a consequence of prolonged multi-decade domestic drug war. A pair of narcotics officers review horror stories involving consequences of addiction to the novel’s fictional drug Substance D: rapid aging, blown scholarships, a sister raped by her amoral drug-dealing brothers, babies born addicted, spread of STDs. Yet Dick also shows the lack of humanity among the cop side of this nightmarish future. When speaking to each other, Dick writes, these two narcotics officers, Fred and Hank, “neutralize” themselves; they assume “a measured and uninvolved attitude,” repressing feelings of warmth and arousal and cloaking themselves in anonymity. No one is likeable in this future. In order to live in it, one has to be willing to negate the humanity of others. “In this day and age,” says a character named Barris, “with the kind of degenerate society we live in…every person of worth needs a gun at all times” (61). This is a slight exaggeration; on the next page we learn of a character who has never owned a gun. But Dick’s future is one where gun violence is a commonplace (a world, in other words, much like our own). Everyone’s paranoid; everyone’s depressed, depraved, anxious, neurotic, confused. Indeed, to the extent that novels undergo cathexis when written, this one feels strangely anhedonic, borne of a period in Dick’s life of deep psychological crisis. For more on this period, see The Dark Haired Girl, a posthumously released collection of Dick’s letters and journals.