the m john harrison blog

Tag: empty space

ruby dip on kitsch & trash

Ruby’s unreasonable anger at Renoko, it turned out, stemmed from an argument she had with him one lunchtime in the Faint Dime diner. It concerned the nature of kitsch. Renoko felt that kitsch was a product of an event he named “the postmodern ironisation”, prior to which it could not exist: before that, the objects you could now describe as kitsch were actually trash objects. “Without the operation of irony on trash,” he maintained, “there would be no kitsch.” To him, the postmodern ironisation was like the Death of History or the coming Singularity. “Everything was changed by it. Nothing could be the same again. It had the irreversibly transformational qualities of a Rapture.”

He believed it had those qualities even now.

Ruby’s committment to body-art and collectible tambourines couldn’t let this go unchallenged. Prior to the age of irony, she thought, kitsch was already established. “It was low art’s idea of high art,” she said–the aesthetic of people with no taste. Its keynote was sentimentality, not simply in conception but in use. Trash, for her, was another thing altogether, and it was with trash she found herself at home. A true low art, trash was the aesthetic of people who had no aesthetic, and in use it could almost be described as utilitarian. “In all its forms,” she insisted to MP Renoko, “and across every media platform, trash is the art of demonstrating, celebrating–and above all getting–sex. It is a Saturday night art.”

Fat Antoyne scratched his head.

“What happened when you told him that ?”

”What happened then was that a fist fight followed, which it soon drew in the entire lunchtime clientele of the Faint Dime diner, becoming a legend in its own time.”

“It doesn’t seem enough,” he said.

“That, Fat Antoyne, is the big difference between us.”

Because of the weird grimness of the work they do, Ruby believed, quarantine dogs live their opinions hard and proud: so it was predictable Antoyne wouldn’t see such things as intensely as she did. Perhaps because of that it was good that their liaison retained its temporary nature.

–Empty Space, 2012

a million-year-old starship from another galaxy

He was thinking about these things when the shadow of his friend fell across him. One monitor wasn’t enough to display her; she hung there in high aspect ratio across three of them, allowing the K-tract to paint her tip feathers mint blue and rose-pink.

“Hey,” Imps breathed.

“What do you want,” she said.

“You look beautiful today.”

“You broadcast every frequency. You call me up. You stare into the dark until you find me there. What do you want from me?”

Imps thought.

He felt he should tell her, “My day is crap when we don’t talk,” or, “I think you’re lonely too,” but both of those were too close to the truth. So he decided to say the next thing that came into his head.

Sometimes he made lists of the places he might have come from. For instance he liked the sound of Acrux, Adara, Rigil Kentaurus and, particularly, Mogliche Walder. But Motel VI was his favourite. Motel life, as he understood it, wasn’t too demanding. It was a lot closer-in than empty space, but still comfortably on the edge of things. It sounded like a good compromise between what he experienced now and some sort of full humanity. He wanted to ease himself into that. He had downloaded a brochure entitled Mobile Homes of the Galaxy, which also featured dwellings based on the classic Moderne hamburger joint–all pastel neon, pressed and ribbed aluminium–set against sunsets and mountain dawns. He showed her some of these.

“I want you to help me go back,” he said.

“You came here of your own accord.”

“Did I?”

She considered this. “Now you want to go back where you came?”

“I came too far,” he said.

“You thought this was what you wanted.”

“Peer pressure brought me here. It would be too much to suffer the disapprobation of my friends.”

Rig and Emil and Fedy von Gang, hacking busily away at the mysteries in Radio Bay; Ed Chianese who, it was rumoured, had himself plugged into a K-ship, as dumb a thing as anyone had ever done. The entradistas, the sky-pilots like Billy Anker and Liv Hula. People who called their ship Blind by Light, or Hidden Light, or 500% Light, or anything with Light in it. People who left a note by the bed, a message in the parking orbit: Torched Out. Who were wired up wrong from the first. Whose engines cooked with hard X-rays. Who went out unassuagable and came back rich or mad, towing a million-year-old starship from another galaxy. Rocket jockeys the Halo knew by their first names. Imps shrugged. He excused himself and got a beer. When he came back to his seat she was still there, and he said: “Out here thirty years, and I find I was never like them. Whoa! What’s this? Imps, you want to go back, find your home? Stop loooking in the dark for stuff no one’s ever going to understand?”

“You came too far,” she mused.

van Sant didn’t know if she was agreeing with him, or what. When he looked up at the monitor again, she had vanished.

Empty Space, 2012

a kind of careful rage

‘Anna Kearney, meanwhile, her mood still elevated, loitered a moment or two on the consulting-room steps, watching the tide sidle upriver like a long brown dog; then, with the whole afternoon in front of her, made her way by two buses and a train to Carshalton. September, the greenhouse month, wrapped discoloured, vaporous distances around Streatham Vale and Norbury, where silvery showers of rain–falling without warning out of a cloudless blue-brown haze–evaporated from the hot pavements as quickly as they fell. Nothing relieved the humidity. At the other end, Carshalton dreamed supine under its blanket of afternoon heat as Anna made her way cautiously back to the house on The Oaks, approaching this time from the direction of Banstead, crossing the Common on foot–past the prison compounds which lay as innocuous as gated housing in the woods–and entering the maze of long suburban streets at a point halfway between the hospital and the cemetery. 121, The Oaks remained empty, with no sign of the boy who had disturbed her on her previous visit. When she tried the back door it proved to be unfastened as well as unlocked, opening to a push. Inside, economics–as invisible as a poltergeist, a force without apparent agency–was dividing the place up into single rooms. Evidence of its recent activity was easy to come by: stairs and hallways smelling of water-based emulsion and new wood. Bare floors scabbed with spilt filler, power cables lying patiently in the broad fans of dust they had scraped across the parquet, ladders and paint cans that had changed places. Anna wandered around picking things up and putting them down again, until she came to rest in what had been a large back bedroom, split by means of a plaster partition carefully jigsawed at one end to follow the inner contour of the bay window. In this way, the invisible hand generously accorded its potential tenants half the view of the garden–flowerbeds overgrown with monbretia and ground-ivy, rotting old fruit nets on gooseberry bushes, a burnt lawn across which the damp, caramel-coloured pages of a paperback book had been strewn. Anna blinked in the incoming light, touched the unpainted partition, drew her fingers along the windowsill. Sharp granular dust; builders’ dust. Nothing can hurt in these unfinished spaces. Life suspends itself. After a minute or two, an animal–a dog, thin and whippy-looking, brindled grey, with patches of long wiry hair around its muzzle and lower legs–pushed its way through the hedge from the next garden and went sniffing intently along the edge of the lawn, pausing to scrape at the earth suddenly with its front paws. Anna rapped her knuckles on the window. Something about the dog confused her. Rain poured down suddenly through the sunshine, the discarded pages sagged visibly under the onslaught as if made of a paper so cheap it would melt on contact with water. Anna rapped on the window again. At this the dog winced, stared back vaguely over its shoulder into the empty air. It shook itself vigorously–prismatic drops flew up–and ran off. The rain thickened and then tapered away and passed. Out on the lawn, humidity wrapped about her face like a wet bag, Anna collected up as much of the book as she could and leafed through it. It was the novel the boy had recommended to her, Lost Horizon, ripped apart, perhaps, because it had finally failed to deliver on its promises of the world hidden inside our own. None of the pages were consecutive. Anna could assemble only the barest idea of the story. A crashed nuclear bomber pilot, perhaps American, finds himself in a secret country, only to have it–and his heart’s desire–snatched away from him at the last; paradoxically, that very loss seems to endorse the reader’s hope that such a country might exist. The front cover had been torn down the middle in a kind of careful rage. Anna read: “The classic tale of Shangri-La”. A telephone, its ringer set to simulate an old-fashioned electric bell, started up inside the house.’ —Empty Space, 2012.

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.

whoa

03.10.2009–

There’s no such thing as character, D says. There’s only behaviour. We’re memes but we’re careful not to admit it–so careful with one another! That shouldn’t be taken, he’s quick to add, to mean that we exist in some state aside from materiality. We’re subject to material forces but won’t allow ourselves to see that either. The whole West, D says, is in massive denial of both these ideas. He suggests we have more bourbon. He likes the Bulleit bottle–it looks, he thinks, like a bottle you’d see behind the bar in an episode of Deadwood. Memes, he says, in a complex, randomly-shifting flow of other memes. Turbulence gives the flow that aching sense of depth or meaningfulness.

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retrospective

Things I have bought over the years to convince myself I was happy: a brass lizard; a wire lizard; two small boxes, one in some featherweight lacquered wood, the other ceramic and half glazed with a stylised picture of the local architecture; a bowl in striking fire and earth colours now faded; various earrings; two belts and some peculiarly sordid- and pre-used-looking suede shoes; Italian things; Canary Island things; Spanish things. All these things bought out of a mistaken elation or assumption, all this unwarranted semiosis, all these unmemorable memories and tokens from moments unviable from the very start. You can’t quite call them kitsch, but they don’t have a quality of personal nostalgia either. It was weird being a romantic and living in a constant aura or vibe, a “dream” I suppose, or at any rate a sense of something happening when nothing, in retrospect, was. Luckily, age lifts you out of that, enabling a proud shiny new impulse control in boutique, fleamarket and gallery shop; freeing you up to buy the rubbish you actually like. (Something resembling a small wormy stone brain picked up on a beach does not belong to this class of objects.)

Analyses

For fun I put some random blog entries through I Write Like, which told me I write like: Jack London, JRR Tolkien, Chuck Palahniuk (twice), Arthur Clarke (for the “Earth Advengers” post), Cory Doctorow, Gertrude Stein, Dan Brown (for the first paragraph of a review of a Peter Ackroyd novel), Ray Bradbury, David Foster Wallace (twice, once for “Keep Smiling With Great Minutes”), and HG Wells. After that, deciding that my samples must have been generally too short to give a consistent result, I tried the whole of “Imaginary Reviews” and got Isaac Asimov; a 4000 word English ghost story, set mainly at the seaside and featuring an ageing middle class woman called Elizabeth, and got Isaac Asimov again; and then “Cave & Julia” & got HG Wells again. For the whole of Empty Space I got Arthur Clarke; but for its final chapter, which ends with that memorable sentence of crawling Cosmic horror, “First she would separate Dominic the pharma from his friends, take him upstairs, and fuck him carefully to a tearful overnight understanding of the life they all led now,” I got HP Lovecraft.

a little bit of empty space

“Have you ever been inside a quarantine hulk ?”

This voice belonged to MP Renoko, a man you often met at The East Ural Nature Reserve, where he would begin a conversation by saying: “You agree there’s no neccessity to confuse a practical tool with a theory of the world ?” Renoko came and went, but always bought rounds of drinks.

“I’m relieved to see you,” Antoyne said. “Considering this.”

“Considering what ?”

“That,” Antoyne said, pointing above his head; but the baby was gone. He looked up, around, behind him: nothing.

Gravuley Street offered no aid. To the left lay darkness and the empty planet; to the right, the savagely lighted window of the Faint Dime. He could see every item of interior decoration, pressed-out and perfect in candy colours. Someone was drinking Ovaltine with rum. Someone else was getting a big-size ham on rye sandwich with fries. Antoyne wiped his mouth. The hair went up on his neck. One o’ clock in the morning, and a light wind blew dust in ribbons down the middle of the street.

“Something was here,” he asserted. “Why don’t we get a drink ?”

“I’m buying,” said MP Renoko. “It seems to me you’ve had some sort of shock.”

Renoko looked like a photograph of Anton Chekhov, if Chekhov had aged more and come to favour a little white chin-beard. Otherwise his look sucessfully teamed used raincoats with grey worsted trousers five inches too short. His hair–white, swept back to a grubby collar–always seemed full of light. He was smallboned, and intense in manner. His clothes came spattered with outmoded foods such as tapioca and “soup”. On his feet he wore cracked tan wingtips without socks, and it was a feature of this careful image that his ankles went unwashed. As soon as he and Fat Antoyne had settled themselves in the comparitive safety of The East Ural Nature Reserve, he returned to his original subject as if he had never left it:

“‘Everyone their own evolutionary project,’ we tell each other here in the Halo. Excuse me, this can only be an element of cultural self-dramatisation, even in times like ours.” His smile meant he was prepared to forgive that. “But if there is a new species,” he said, “perhaps it’s up there in those quarantine hulks.”

Fat Antoyne said he didn’t get it.

Renoko smiled. “You get it,” he said.

Leaked navigational nanoware or eleven-dimensional imaging code slips up someone’s anus at night and discovers it can run on a protein substrate. In a similar way, ads, memes, diseases and algorithms escape into the wild. They can run on your neurons, they can run inside your cells. They perform a default conversion. Suddenly the cops are out with the loudhailers, “Stay inside! Stay Indoors!” but it’s too late: on your street, in your house, everything collapses suddenly into an unplanned slurry of nanotech, half-tailored viruses and human fats–your husband, your two little girls in their identical dresses, you. “Entire planetary populations,” Renoko said, “are converting to this stuff. Is it an end-state ?” He threw up his little hands. “No one knows! Is it a new medium ? No one is willing to say! It’s as beautiful as water in strong sunlight, yet it stinks like rendered fat, and can absorb an adult human being in forty seconds. The hulks are full of it, the quarantine orbit is full of hulks. Men like you keep it safe.”

Obsolete pipeliners that worked the Carling Line, decommissioned Alcubiere warps the size of planetisimals, anything with a thick hull, especially if it’s easy to reinforce further: Fat Antoyne had a sudden clear image of those pocked relics in the interplanetary darkness–used-up ships mysterious with the dim crawling lights of beacons and particle dogs, pinwheeling around on near-chaotic operator-controlled trajectories.

He shook his drink and watched it settle.

“Not me,” he said. “I got a six month contract to move some of it around, that’s all.”

From Empty Space.

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“Before she could speak he walked straight out through the window, vanishing the other side & leaving her with the impression that the view from her room was painted on the glass. As if the world fabric was a style of art to which only Gaines and people like him had the secret.” One problem […]

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