Skip to content

Future Interrupted – Five (Profound and Beautiful Lies)

August 7, 2014

Interzone #253 is now a thing in the world. I would have recognised this fact a trifle sooner but for the presence of Men with Tools and Serrated Gadgets giving the innards of my woodland habitat a damn good seeing to. I know that this is the 21st Century and we’re all supposed to interact with the internet via smart watches and digital nipple clamps but I still find it difficult to do anything of substance without a proper screen and a decent keyboard.

The July-August of IZ boasts, as ever, a plurality of wonders including short fiction by James Van Pelt, E. Catherine Tobler, Andrew Hook, Neil Williamson and Caren Gussoff as well as the James White Award-winning story by D.J. Cockburn entitled “Beside The Damned River”. Non-fiction includes an interview with the editor John Joseph Adams, film columns by Nick Lowe and Tony Lee as well as reviews by Maureen Kincaid Speller, Jack Deighton, Stephen Theaker, Ian Sales, Paul Graham Raven, Ian Hunter, Andrew J. Wilson, Duncan Lunan, Simon Marshall-Jones and Jim Steel.

There’s a lot of nice stuff in this magazine but I was particularly charmed by Nick Lowe’s opening homage to the much-overlooked medium that is science fiction theatre:

There’s an old misperception that theatre is a medium in competition with film, and doomed to try to mimic its art of illusion. But theatre is above all a space of suggestion and implication, where embodied physicality can conjure worlds with a gesture or line. In that respect, it’s far closer to what sf does with the written word, only kissed with the spell of live mimesis and response. The moment that wrote the grammar of western theatre was the young Aeschylus’ staging of the Iliad with two actors, no set, and a single location. It’s a moment that theatre re-enacts nightly.

Last and almost certainly least is my column about Robert A. Heinlein, or rather the (to my mind deeply problematic) campaign to see him restored to his one-time position of prominence thanks to a sudden and unexpected flurry of biographies and (overwhelmingly positive) critical re-appraisals. Personally, I think there are far more attractive and deserving bodies to uncover. I will be republishing that column here in a few months but if you need to get your Heinlein Hatin’ fix right this minute, you can either visit the TTA Press shop or Amazon, which seems to sell electronic copies.

*****

Now, on with this month’s reprint! My Fifth Future Interrupted Column is entitled ‘Profound and Beautiful Lies’, it considers science fiction’s often quite confusing relationship with truth and goes on to reclaim Reza Negarestani’s Cyclonopedia as a work of science fiction. Those of you who are interested in a slightly different take I had on Cyclonopedia, might want to take a look at my original review.

 

*****

ASM

There’s a wonderful scene in the Coen Brothers’ film A Serious Man where a student confronts his physics professor about what he feels is an unjust failing grade. The student argues that while he may not have coped particularly well with the mathematical stuff, he did understand the stories about the dead cat and didn’t this suggest that he understood the physics? The professor replies that the mathematical stuff is the whole point of physics, the stories are nothing more than fables designed to help us visualise what the mathematical models reveal about the nature of the universe. The stories, though useful, are not true.

 

Back in the early 1980s, the philosopher of science Nancy Cartwright produced a book entitled How the Laws of Physics Lie. One of the many lines of argument pursued by Cartwright is the idea that while the Coens’ professor may have been right to distinguish between truth and useful falsehood, most of the laws of physics are themselves nothing more than mathematical abstractions dreamed up to help physicists isolate and study different parts of a single phenomenon. For example, people involved in sending robots to other planets often use Newtonian physics to calculate orbital trajectories because, while everyone knows that Newton’s vision of the cosmos is incomplete, his system for flinging stuff from one planet to the other works pretty damn smoothly. The laws of physics, though useful, are not true.

Despite the fact that science itself is littered with useful lies and non-existent theoretical objects, many devotees of science fiction remain convinced that science fiction must adhere to scientific fact. For example, when seeking to describe the unique challenges of writing science fiction, fans of hard SF are prone to reaching for a tennis metaphor: Fantasy writers may create entire universes but these universes are only ever accountable to the whims of the author and the needs of their stories. By contrast, the worlds of science fiction must be accountable to the laws of physics and so the difference between writing fantasy and writing science fiction is like the difference between hitting a ball around and playing tennis with the net up. Aside from being a superannuated cliché, this metaphor is a grotesque and fundamental misunderstanding of what makes science fiction so unique.

Contrary to what some would have us believe, science fiction is not about being correct. It isn’t about doing your research, checking your equations and ensuring that none of your ideas are contradicted by the latest scientific journals. Science fiction is born of the same mistake made by the student in A Serious Man, it is about trying to understand the world by creating lies so beautiful and so profound that the light they cast helps us to visualise the truth. This is a column about a tissue of lies so grotesque and transparent that it tells us more about the world than the collected works of Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke and Greg Egan. This is a column about Reza Negarestani’s Cyclonopedia.

 

Cyclon

Cyclonopedia presents itself as a series of nested documents. The outermost layer tells of an editor who is lured to Turkey by a mysterious online correspondent. Once in Turkey, the editor comes across a manuscript purporting to be the reactions of a group of radical academics something written by a dissident Iranian thinker prior to his disappearance. This type of set up will be instantly familiar to horror readers as similar techniques feature in both Mark Z. Danielewski’s House of Leaves and Caitlin R. Kiernan’s The Red Tree. The reason these techniques are popular with horror writers is that they allow the author to play with the boundaries between truth and fiction and make their stories far more unsettling. For example, films like Wolf Creek and Texas Chainsaw Massacre claimed to be based upon real events because suggesting that our world contains deranged killers is far more unsettling than even the best-written stories about fictional monsters. Similarly, works like Philip K. Dick’s A Scanner Darkly often feature nested stories and lies because allowing those stories to bleed into one another is a really effective way of recreating what it feels like to confuse reality with psychotic delusion. What distinguishes Cyclonopedia from works like House of Leaves and The Red Tree is that rather than blurring the lines between madness and sanity, Negarestani blurs the lines between outright fiction and useful theory.

The theory contained within the nested texts of the Cyclonopedia is that the region historically known as Mesopotamia has acquired a form of alien consciousness and plans to expand its boundaries to the point where they encompass the entire planet; an event referred to by Negarestani as the “dry-singularity”. Cyclonopedia then goes on to explain how seemingly unconnected phenomena such as ancient cults, rogue Special Forces units, peak oil and the War on Terror are all secretly part of the same process of desertification.

 

Desertification

Though Negarestani certainly acknowledges the influence of genre writing on his ideas (the book is littered with oblique genre references including a wonderfully unhelpful definition of the term “Cthuloid ethics”), the true genius of Cyclonopedia lies in the way that it encourages us to take these ideas entirely at face value. Indeed, the most striking thing about this book is that it looks and reads exactly like the kind of stuff churned out by academic presses the whole world over: Written in almost impenetrable jargon punctuated only by fragments of dead languages and illustrative diagrams that make absolutely no sense, Cyclonopedia radiates precisely the kind of self-satisfied inaccessibility that we are conditioned to associate with intellectual substance. Like Pavlov’s dogs, the university-educated see the run-on sentences and the verbs used as nouns and try to extract meaning from what is essentially little more than page after page of paranoid gibberish.

All of Cyclonopedia’s structural devices and stylistic quirks help to set up an ambiguity over whether the found document at the centre of the book deserves to be taken seriously as an attempt to make sense of the West’s continued involvement in the Middle-East. What makes this ambiguity so difficult to resolve – aside from Nagerestani’s flawless pastiche of academic writing – is that while the book may posit the existence of an ancient god in order to explain the War on Terror, this kind of paranoid worldbuilding is really not all that different to the kind of thought underpinning most political theories. For example, when Marxists attempt to explain how society keeps re-shaping itself to ensure that the rich get richer and the poor get poorer, they often invoke the interests of ‘Capital’ even though the term ‘Capital’ does not apply to any single group of individuals or institutions. The same is true for the way in which feminists talk about the ‘Patriarchy’ and Mrs Thatcher refused to talk about ‘Society’: None of these terms refer to real-world objects like tables or chairs, they are instead intended as short-hand for patterns of thought and behaviour that exist (to a greater or lesser extent) in all of us. None of these theoretical objects exist, they are little more than ghosts in our intellectual machinery… profound and beautiful lies that help us to understand the world and visualise the impossibly complex truth. Negarestani’s Mesopotamian desert god is really no different to Capital or the Patriarchy… it is useful fiction.

 

AFUTD

While Negarestani’s methods may be new, his use of divinity as a political metaphor actually has a number of recent fictional precursors. For example, Vernor Vinge’s stodgy Hugo-winning space opera A Fire Upon The Deep opens on an entire civilisation being taken over by a rogue artificial intelligence. To the casual observer this act of cultural possession is indistinguishable from a society tumbling into totalitarianism. Similarly insightful is Adam Roberts’ much under-rated New Model Army in which a mercenary company that crowd-sources all of its decision-making in real time slowly transforms into a new form of life, an emergent collective consciousness whose values are as inhuman as its perspective. If Roberts and Vinge can compare political entities to supernatural ones, why not Negarestani?

The tragedy of Cyclonopedia is that while it may create big, beautiful genre-friendly lies and use them to generate surprising insights into the world around us, the book seems to exist in a class entirely of its own. Released by a tiny academic press and written by an obscure Iranian philosopher (who may not actually exist except as a pseudonym), Cyclonopedia slipped through the cracks of a literary culture and publishing industry that have become hopelessly addicted to their own narrow and reductive labeling systems. Neither entirely fictional nor entirely theoretical, Cyclonopedia occupies a niche equidistant between Olaf Stapledon’s character-free future history Last and First Men and works of gonzo scholarship like Robert Graves’ White Goddess and Julian Jaynes’ book about ancient Greeks hearing gods thanks to their differently-shaped brains. Some critics have taken to calling Cyclonopedia ‘theory fiction’ but I call it science-fictional as fuck.

2 Comments
  1. August 18, 2014 8:04 pm

    I liked the review of Cyclonopedia but did it really need the introductory point-scoring? If one group of people insist that “science fiction must be accountable to the laws of physics” (thus ensuring that they won’t be able to appreciate genre works which don’t accept this accountability), can it be right to respond by insisting that science fiction must be “about trying to understand the world by creating lies so beautiful and so profound that the light they cast helps us to visualise the truth”? Maybe there’s no single thing that science fiction must be about?

    Also, I’m not sure you’ve accurately described Cartwright’s point of view. You say that she concludes that physical laws are “nothing more than mathematical abstractions” (my emphasis) but surely the sense in which “the laws of physics lie” according to Cartwright is that in order to apply them to real-world situations you need to know their domain of applicability, and how to combine them. (You can use the equation F=Gmm/r² to compute a good approximation to the movement of a planet around the sun, but not to compute a good approximation to the movement of water in a pipe.) So laws in the form of equations don’t describe the world by themselves, there’s a bunch of implicit additional knowledge about how to use them embedded in the physics and engineering professions.

    Like

  2. August 19, 2014 4:53 pm

    Hi Gareth :-)

    I’m resistant to your suggestion that science fiction lacks a central essence because if anything can be science fiction then science fiction might as well be nothing. Dilute the meaning of a word to the point where it includes everything then you might as well not bother using the word in the first place.

    I think you’re putting a Quinean spin on Cartwright which, though interesting, is quite a bit more narrow than I tend to view her as being. I read Cartwright as making a much more general claim about the literal falsity of the laws of physics. As you suggest, they are practical instruments designed to be used in particular contexts and with caveats that limit both the scope and shape their applicability but all of these caveats and contexts add up to the fact that the laws of physics do not state the literal truth and in this respect they are useful lies. The usefulness comes from the fact that they reveal things about the world when combined with the contextual and background knowledge that you speak of.

    I agree that reducing that down to the idea that the laws of physics are just mathematical abstractions is perhaps too broad an interpretation of Cartwright (on reflection it’s a lot closer to Van Fraassen) but I had 1500 words in which to present my idea and a focus that was primarily on a wonderfully weird piece of academic fiction :-)

    So mea culpa but also NEEEERD!

    Like

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: