the m john harrison blog

Category: nova swing

in real life, postscript

If you’re interested in the epistemology, phenomenology, and existentialist issues of adventure, and you like science fiction too, you couldn’t do better than read a novel called Rogue Moon by Algis Budrys. It is a much less woolly and more concise analysis of ”exploratory values” than either Roadside Picnic or Stalker, and preceded both. Aesthetically, I prefer the latter two, obviously (and I am aware of Budrys’ problematics, so please don’t @ me). But he makes his points—about exploration and the learning curve–in a more clinical manner than the Strugatsky Brothers or Tarkovsky, while artfully using the metaphor they rediscovered to do double duty: his set-up also allows him to examine the repetition-compulsions on which risk sports are founded. (Also worth a look in that context is the movie Flatliners, in which, as in Rogue Moon, killing yourself repeatedly becomes both the exploratory method and the basis for a game.)

edith plays

Late one evening six or seven weeks after Vic Serotonin’s disappearance, Edith Bonaventure squeezed into the costume she had worn at seventeen years of age and took herself to the gates of the Raintown corporate port. There, she opened an accordion case on the cement sidewalk, strapped on the instrument it contained, and began to play. Cruise ships from all the major lines were in, towering above her like a mobile downtown, their ablated, seared-looking hulls curving gently into the low cloudbase.

That time of night it was both raining and mist. The port halogens shone out blurry white globes, the pavement was black, slick, cut with transitory patterns of rickshaw wheels. Edith’s costume, stiff faux-satin a fierce maroon colour, still fitted; though it made her look a little stocky. Unaccustomed excitement reddened her cheeks and bare thighs. For once, Edith had left her father to his own devices. He could choose to fall out of bed or he could choose to stay there: this evening, she had informed him, that was up to him. It was everyone’s right to choose.

“Emil, you can watch the tour ships lift off, or maybe enjoy throwing up on yourself. Me, I am off to World of Today to pick up a man.”

“If it’s convenient, the two of you can bring me back a bottle–”

“You wish.”

“–then do what you do quietly for a change.”

Emil seemed well, perhaps he was getting over Vic’s defection. Why she told him such a lie, she didn’t know. All she was sure of, she wanted this other thing, she wanted to play. She had picked an accordion to match the outfit, maroon metalflake blends under a thick lacquer finish, with stamped chrome emblems of rockets and comets, which caught the spaceport light like mirrors. Sometimes, as a child, Edith had less wanted to own an instrument like this than to be one, to find herself curled up inside one like a tiny extra dimension of the music itself. Uniz played Abandonada. She played Tango Zen. She played that old New Nueva standard, A Anibal Lectur.

She was quick to merge with the night, to become part of its possibility for the paying customer. Rickshaw ads fluttered round her the colours of fuschia. The rickshaw girls called out requests as they passed; or stood a moment listening despite themselves, puzzled to be still for once, their tame breath issuing into the wet air. While up and down the rickshaw queues, the offworld women shivered–as the sad passionate tango songs made, in cheap but endlessly inventive language, their self-fulfilling prophecies of the entangledness and absurdity and febrile shortness of life–and pulled their furs around them. It was the briefest mal de debarquement.

Raintown! Its very name was like a bell, tolling them back to their true, complex selves! They laughed to wake up so far from where they started, so momentarily at a loss in the face of night and a new planet, yet so in control of the brand new experiences awaiting them there. In search of a gesture that could contain, acknowledge and celebrate this inconsistency, they threw money into the salmon pink silk interior of the fat, odd little busker’s open accordion case.

Sometimes the banknotes they threw floated around Edith herself like confetti at the marriage of earth and air, while she played I Am You, Motel Milongueros, and an uptempo version of Wendy del Muerte she learned in a pilot’s bar on Pumal Verde. She had no idea, really, why she had come to the gates. She was forty two years old. She was a black-haired woman with wide blunt hips who couldn’t afford to be anyone but the self she had chosen at eleven, and who, consequently, blushed up quickly under her olive skin. She was a woman of focus, a woman of whom men said to each other:

“You can’t blame Edith. Edith understands her own needs.”

When the stream of rickshaws had abated, and she felt she had had enough, she gathered up the money, packed the instrument in its case. Shuddered suddenly, struggling into her old wool coat. “The winds of memory,” she misquoted to herself, “approach this corner of my abandonment.” At least it wasn’t far along the sidestreets to the bar they called World of Today, by then, a little like herself, just a lighted yellow window from which all custom had fled. Edith pulled up a stool and counted her cash. It was more than she hoped, less than she imagined when she saw those fur coats, the cosmetics by Harvard and Picosecond, the Nicky Rivera luggage custom-stitched from alien leathers.

“Give me a bottle of Black Heart to go,” she suggested to the barkeep; then, “In fact why don’t I drink it here.”

“It’s your party,” the barkeep said.

 

–Nova Swing, 2006

the kidlington visitors

This was my favourite mystery–apart, perhaps, from amputated feet in running shoes washed up on some beach in the Americas–until solutions clustered round like flies and obscured the mystery itself. That people should arrive constantly out of nowhere to take selfies in a pleasant but unexceptional little suburban street. That they should be well-dressed & clearly enjoying their exotic visit. That no one should be able to identify their language, or speak it well enough to ask them why they came. That reports should differ, rumours compound. That it should be a slow, long-running thing. That initially no one seemed puzzled enough, & nothing about it seemed urgent enough to attract media. The moment we try to interact with an event like this by making sense of it, it’s gone. Vanished. Why don’t we see? The moment you explain a situation it’s something else. The actual thing, the thing that happened, retreats shyly and vanishes, decohering into the classical discourse that now stands in for it, and for every other object or event farmed & corralled into reliable useful behaviour by human anxiety. We have our explanation but we spoiled our mystery. It’s just not worth it to know.

a life in bullet point

This reminded me of this theme in Nova Swing, which at the time seemed like a bit of a punt–

When Emil Bonaventure arrived in Saudade thirty years ago, everyone was writing on paper.

It was one of those things. They loved paper suddenly. The nostalgia shops were full of it, all colours of cream and white, blank or with feint lines, or small pale grey squares, shining softly from the lighted windows which were like religious cubicles or niches. There was every kind of notebook in there, paper between covers you could hardly believe, from wood bark to imitation grey fur to holographic pictures from the narratives of Ancient Earth religious figures, with their fingers and their bovine eyes uplifted, who smiled and raised a cross as you turned the book in your hands in the retro shop light.

As artificial as the textures of the paper itself–an Uncle Zip product franchised out of some chopshop on another planet–these notebooks came in all sizes, fastened any way you could think, with clasps, hasps, magnets, combination locks or bits of hairy string you wrapped around and did up in a beautiful knot. Some were fastened in more contemporary ways, so you could see a little flicker in the air near the edge of the pages–if you’re the wrong person don’t get your fingers near those!

Everyone was buying these books because it was cute to write your thoughts in them–thoughts, a shopping list, those kinds of things.

People wrote, “Who do I want to be today ?”

They wrote diaries.

Everyone suddenly loved paper, no one could say why, and soon they’d love something else.

–and on. (I love the fact that the key to the site doesn’t lie in Emil’s notebooks filled with random data, but in Elizabeth’s achey desperate journal of her unknown self.)

nova swing playlist

knife chase/tom waits; narigon/melingo; baby i don’t care/buddy holly; candy land/cocorosie; o deserto/mariza; let’s go out tonite/craig armstrong; clandestino/manu chao; chun li’s swinging bird kick/arctic monkeys; it takes a lot to laugh/bob dylan; on falling/stina nordenstam; vuelvo al sur/mercedes sosa; lowdown/tom waits; lucullus/matt howden; metropolitan/emmanuel santarromana; sweethearts on parade/m ward; you wont fall/lori carson & the golden palominos; libertango/la camorra; tekno love song/cocorosie; love is strange/buddy holly; sailor song/regina spektor; surround me with yr love mental overdrive remix/3-11 porter; waltz for goddess/soil & pimp sessions; desire/ryan adams; primavera/mariza; goodnight irene/tom waits

In that order. Leave a pause then play Harmonium by Stereolab, really, really, really loud….

teeming with duration

Dr Sarah Dillon’s upcoming seminar on “Alife & Maternity in Empty Space” made me think of Richard Doyle, obviously, so here’s Stephen Dougherty on Wetwares: Experiments in Postvital Living

For the self to dissolve (a fortuitous dissolution), for the novelty of the future to present itself, we must let the knots of the sovereign ego loose themselves and open up to the strange invasion of objects that are themselves dissolved into parts, or swarms. As Bergson taught, and as Deleuze clarified, such a hospitality to objects in their constitutive multiplicity requires the method of intuition rather than intelligence (the trick is not in thinking). Intuitive perception puts us into matter, as Bergson famously put it, and it allows us to use our own duration, the rhythm of our own lived experience, in order ‘to recognize the existence of other durations’ (1991: 33). By intuitively entering into matter, we recognize that things have their own durations–that they are, in a sense, teeming with duration. [My emphasis]

–from “The Future of Seduction”

bulletin

Lot of ghosts here, most of them your own. This mirror’s not cracked so much as on holiday from itself & you’re bored with the personal lives of the detectives & the footsteps in the hall. & someone was just now saying, At the corner of the stair! & someone else goes, Sure you were. Sure you were. & so she says, It’s been an eye opener this whole situation. The fact is you’re on the short side of everything now, where all you get’s the sound of a man scraping the end of a piece of pipe & there’s a minute’s worth of change every minute & it puts you a long way from the things you felt were near.

singular

From “On Singularities, mathematical and metaphorical” at Soft Machines, the blog of Richard Jones, Professor of Physics and the Pro-Vice Chancellor for Research and Innovation at the University of Sheffield:

The biggest singularity in physics of all is the singularity where we think it all began – the Big Bang, a singularity in time which it is unimaginable to see through, just as the end of the universe in a big crunch provides a singularity in time which we can’t conceive of seeing beyond. Now we enter the territory of thinking about the creation of the universe and the ultimate end of the world, which of course have long been rich themes for religious speculation. This connects us back to the conception of a technologically driven singularity in human history, as a discontinuity in the quality of human experience and the character of human nature. I’ve already argued at length that this conception of the technological singularity is a metaphor that owes a great deal to these religious forbears.

He goes on to talk about the singularity central to the KT trilogy–also the book’s centralising of human rather than post- or transhuman problems.

jack & elizabeth in the site

“It was a hypermarket of the meaningless, in which the only mistake–as far as Jack could discern–was to have shopping goals. The idea that you might map things in there in terms of your needs was what had so entrapped and confused Emil Bonaventure’s generation. It was safer to learn how things worked, then assemble the portfolio of habits, behavioural tics just this side of the psychotic regime, that stood in for having a clear frame of reference and kept the travel agent from harm. “Everything smells of sulphur,” Elizabeth said. “Does it smell of sulphur to you?” She said, “Do you ever go into a building while you’re here? Jack, let’s go in one of these buildings! We could fuck in a building, wouldn’t that be nice? Wouldn’t you be excited by that?” Eventually they were driven off the streets by the rain and the approaching dark. Jack wasn’t keen to enter any unfamiliar space–they could so quickly become the arena of your worst expectations. But it was night as Saudade knew it, and Elizabeth was cold. She looked up into the rain, which seemed to fall towards her through layers of unsourced light, then down at her clothes. “I’m shivering, Jack,” she said in a surprised voice. Everywhere they tried was full of cats, facing into the corners, lined up along the walls, balancing on the arms of chairs, pressed together too tightly to move. Jack was relieved to find them at such densities. “It means we aren’t too far in yet.” The ground floor of the building he chose had no internal walls, although you could see the stub brickwork where they had been.” —Nova Swing, 2006.

in the simulator

This amazing browser fluid simulation made me think of the Light trilogy’s conscious dialogue with both Tarkovsky and the Strugatsky Bros about what individuals can “know” in their context. I think that stumbling about in what is essentially your own head, with indifferent epistemological tools at your disposal, is less of a big deal than it seemed to be to them. (It’s like life. It’s a world, you make no sense of it, then you die. Any sense has been made prior to conscious perception by all the non-conscious systems that run you, in conjunction with an environment. A broth of algorithms gets stirred up. You try to see that as a meaningful structure. Sometimes it can seem satisfying–even sublime–but most of it is just dull and unfulfilling.) The only way to keep the encounter with the Zone fulfilling is as an adrenalin sport. Imagine the Nova Swing event site two hundred years in Vic Serotonin’s future. It’s been fully colonised as an adventure playground. (See the little sun-diver theme that links Liv Hula and Ed Chianese; also the idea of “maze running” which refers neither to the Strugatskys nor Tarkovksy, but to Algis Budrys’ 1960 existentialist novel Rogue Moon, in which one explorer’s repeated death in an alien maze stands in for the human process of learning an envirnoment.) In two hundred years, all the hard problems have been solved. The death rate has dropped right off. Everything that seemed so doomy and weird to Vic is now packaged and sold on as an “experience” of danger. Vic should be seen as the beginning of that, an early crude attempt at replacing the exploratory value with a tourist value–thus Emil Bonaventure’s contempt for him. If you want to know about the inevitable end-state of all zones & event sites (including that of the Kefahuchi Tract itself), you only need look at the development of the Alps (& now the Himalaya). What was a nightmare is controlled by learned skillsets into a form of play. What used to kill you is now so well understood that you can enjoy it. Or, to put it another way: what used to kill explorers first begins to kill only experts who push their skillset too hard, then winds up only killing the tourist the experts usher up the mountain for money–and even then only often enough to keep up the activity’s reputation as an experience. What began as a challenge ends as a “challenge”.

Anyway, run the Fluid Experiment for a moment or two, then select “reset particles” while it’s still going and just watch for a few minutes: that will fully explain to you the plot of the Light trilogy (along with a plot of its overarching implied context). Or you could read the books & have a laugh about how Ed’s body ends up.