Posts tagged literature

Here’s to Unsuicide: An Interview with Richard Powers

literature, review, interview, LARB, Richard-Powers, overstory, trees, HPI, nature, 2018

One of our great errors in thinking — another aspect of that unfortunate idea of human exceptionalism that makes it so hard for us to be at home in this world — is that the natural and the man-made are distinct entities. Like all other parts of the branching experiment, we make and are made by the living environment, and we have done so since before we were us. Without the forests of the Santa Cruz mountains, there would be no Silicon Valley. But Silicon Valley will make or unmake the forests of the future. No nature story, no account of environmental struggle would be complete without bringing on-stage all the human technologies that are to us what the invention of flowers and nuts and chlorophyll and mycorrhizal networks are to the forest superorganism. Just as the emergence of tree intelligence forever changed the planet, so the emergence of consciousness (which long predated humans) forever changed the nature of evolution. Cultural transmission is orders of magnitude faster than genetic transmission, and digital transmission has accelerated the speed of culture a hundredfold or more. We may soon seem, to our artificial intelligence offspring, as motionless and insentient as trees seem to us. And here we live, trying to make a home between our predecessors and our descendants.


Jorge Luis Borges’ well-known quip on metaphysics being a branch of fantastic literature… requires that the converse be true –…

literature, metaphyics, mythophysics, Borges, THE ENDS OF THE WORLD, Anthropocene

“Jorge Luis Borges’ well-known quip on metaphysics being a branch of fantastic literature… requires that the converse be true – fantastic literature and science fiction are the pop metaphysics (or the “mythophysics”) of our time.”

in THE ENDS OF THE WORLD, by Déborah Danowski& Eduardo Viveiros de Castro, translated by Rodrigo Guimaraes Nunes.

The New Fantastic: The Carnival of the World

fantastic, economics, politics, literature

Politically the fantastic would give voice to the oppressed, the excluded, the marginal – to all those who were deemed outside the sublime world of economic security, the illusory world of the powerful, the rich, the visible. The poor and outcast of society had become invisible and it was the power of the fantasist to make visible what was now invisible in the social body, what had been rejected and left to fend for itself in the darkness of societies morbid, and obscene slums and decaying systems of crime and punishment. One can see this in many of the stories of Dostoevsky, Gogol, Kafka, Lovecraft, Machen, and on through those such as Borges, Bioyes, and later authors too numerous to name here. Against the realism of society one will discover in the fantastic terms such as the impossible, the unreal, the nameless, formless, shapeless, unknown, invisible. As H.P. Lovecraft famously noted, “the oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is the fear of the unknown.”


Systems fiction: a novel way to think about the present

literature, systems-fiction, fiction, writing

Weirdly enough, science fiction is not the best lens through which to examine science fiction. In the 80s, critic Tom LeClair came up with an alternative category for all the weird literary novels that veered into speculative territory: the systems novel. These books pick apart how the systems that keep society chugging along work: politics, economics, sex and gender dynamics, science, ideologies – all can be explored through fiction, especially experimental fiction. LeClair applied this tag specifically to Don DeLillo, but it can be expanded more widely: think Thomas Pynchon, Margaret Atwood, David Foster Wallace, Jonathan Franzen, Jennifer Egan and Umberto Eco, among others. That may seem like an eclectic bunch to unite under one banner, but the systems novel is ultimately a space for ambitious thinkers, the ones who want to weave complex thoughts into a tastier parcel than some impenetrable academic tome.


Modern China is So Crazy It Needs a New Literary Genre

literature, fiction, china, corruption, CQWG, chaohuan

What are we to make of contemporary Chinese reality? Political scientists have their way of looking at things, as do economists, historians, sociologists, and philosophers. Make no mistake, we fiction writers have our way of looking at the world too. Only the fiction writer’s way of looking at the world is not just one more to add to our list. The fiction writer incorporates all ways of looking at the world into one. It is a compound eye. If Magic Realism was the way in which Latin American authors presented their view of their reality, then Ultra-Unreal Realism should be our name for the literature through which the Chinese regard their reality. The Chinese word “chaohuan” (ultra-unreal) is something of a play on the word “mohuan” (magic), as in “mohuan xianshizhuyi” (magic realism)— “mohuan” is “magical unreal,” and “chaohuan” is “surpassing the unreal.”


Generation Anthropocene

environment, literature, Anthropocene, WIPP, longnow, Solastalgia, semiotics

The New Mexico facility is due to be sealed in 2038. The present plans for marking the site involve a berm with a core of salt, enclosing the above-ground footprint of the repository. Buried in the berm will be radar reflectors, magnets and a “Storage Room”, constructed around a stone slab too big to be removed via the chamber entrance. Data will be inscribed on to the slab including maps, time lines, and scientific details of the waste and its risks, written in all current official UN languages, and in Navajo: “This site was known as the WIPP (Waste Isolation Pilot Plant Site) when it was closed in 2038 AD … Do not expose this room unless the information centre messages are lost. Leave the room buried for future generations.” Discs made of ceramic, clay, glass and metal, also engraved with warnings, will be embedded in the soil and the shaft seals. Finally, a “hot cell”, or radiation containment chamber, will be constructed: a reinforced concrete structure extending 60 feet above the earth and 30 feet down into it


Introducing Humdog: Pandora’s Vox Redux (1994)

humdog, 1994, cyberspace, Beaudrilliard, language, mass, gender, utopia, literature, editing, censor

i suspect that cyberspace exists because it is the purest manifestation of the mass (masse) as Jean Beaudrilliard described it. it is a black hole; it absorbs energy and personality and then re-presents it as spectacle. people tend to express their vision of the mass as a kind of imaginary parade of blue-collar workers, their muscle-bound arms raised in defiant salute. sometimes in this vision they are holding wrenches in their hands. anyway, this image has its origins in Marx and it is as Romantic as a dozen long-stemmed red roses. the mass is more like one of those faceless dolls you find in nostalgia-craft shops: limp, cute, and silent. when i say “cute” i am including its macabre and sinister aspects within my definition.


Weird Shit

werid, weirdness, high weirdness, Erik Davis, Boing Boing, art, literature, margins, fringe, otherwi

Weird is a wayward word: though it describes a set of singular effects that link the cultural fringe with peculiar personal experiences, it remains an elusive and marginal term. The similar notion of the uncanny is, on the other hand, basically an establishment term, a well-established literary effect with a sophisticated psychoanalytic pedigree. Weirdness, we might say then, is the uncanny’s low-brow doppelganger, a demotic country cousin that races hot-rods, wears mis-matched socks, and inhabits the strange borderlands between this world and the beyond.

Genre Evolution Project

research, systems, genre, complexity, literature, evolution, sci-fi, science fiction

Biologists study how organisms evolve and adapt to their environments. In the Genre Evolution Project, we approach literature in a similar way. We study literature as a living thing, able to adapt to society’s desires and able to influence those desires. Currently, we are tracking the evolution of pulp science fiction short stories published between 1926 and 1999. Just as a biologist might ask the question, “How does a preference for mating with red-eyed males effect eye color distribution in seven generations of fruit flies?” the GEP might ask, “How does the increasing representation of women as authors of science fiction affect the treatment of medicine in the 1960s and beyond?”

CliFi < Digitalmethods

climate change, cli-fi, near future, fiction, reading, literature, distant reading

This project explores cli-fi—fiction about climate change—in order to understand and categorize fictional scenarios about the future, and the role of human actors in those scenarios. This project uses digital methods to gather data from Amazon and Google Books, in conjuction with manual classification, in order to understand the current zeitgeist of climate change in fiction. Mainstream discourse suggests that the cli-fi genre aims to humanize the apocalyptic scenarios associated with climate change, and make relatable their potential outcomes:

Three Body and Chinese Science Fiction

china, science fiction, sci-fi, qing, 20th century, literature, tor

Chinese science fiction was born at the turn of the 20th century, when the Qing Dynasty was teetering on the edge of ruin. At the time, Chinese intellectuals were entranced by and curious about Western science and technology, and thought of such knowledge as the only hope for saving the nation from poverty, weakness, and general backwardness. Many works popularizing and speculating about science were published, including works of science fiction. One of the leaders of the failed Hundred Days’ Reform (June 11-September 21, 1898), the renowned scholar Liang Qichao, wrote a science fiction story called “A Chronicle of the Future of New China.” In it, he imagined a Shanghai World’s Fair—a vision that would not become true until 2010.

Science is not the Enemy of the Humanities

science, humanities, art, literature, technology, enlightenment (the)

Science has also provided the world with images of sublime beauty: stroboscopically frozen motion, exotic organisms, distant galaxies and outer planets, fluorescing neural circuitry, and a luminous planet Earth rising above the moon’s horizon into the blackness of space. Like great works of art, these are not just pretty pictures but prods to contemplation, which deepen our understanding of what it means to be human and of our place in nature. And contrary to the widespread canard that technology has created a dystopia of deprivation and violence, every global measure of human flourishing is on the rise. The numbers show that after millennia of near-universal poverty, a steadily growing proportion of humanity is surviving the first year of life, going to school, voting in democracies, living in peace, communicating on cell phones, enjoying small luxuries, and surviving to old age. The Green Revolution in agronomy alone saved a billion people from starvation. And if you want examples of true moral greatness, go to Wikipedia and look up the entries for “smallpox” and “rinderpest” (cattle plague). The definitions are in the past tense, indicating that human ingenuity has eradicated two of the cruelest causes of suffering in the history of our kind.

hysterical literature

hysterical literature, clayton cubitt, art, literature, photography, portraits, hysteria, orgasm

Women are seated with a book at a table, filmed in austere black and white against a black background. They have chosen what to read and how to dress. When the camera begins recording, they introduce themselves, and begin reading. Under the table, outside of the subject’s control, an unseen assistant distracts them with a vibrator. The subjects stop reading when they’re too distracted or fatigued to continue, at which point they restate their name, and what they’ve just read. The pieces vary in length based on the response time of the subjects.

Book of Lamentations

dystopia, fuction, psychiatry, DSM, DSM-5, Borges, review, literature

Just as Borges’s system groups animals by seemingly aleatory characteristics entirely divorced from their actual biological attributes, DSM-5 arranges its various strains of madness solely in terms of the behaviors exhibited. This is a recurring theme in the novel, while any consideration of the mind itself is entirely absent. In its place we’re given diagnoses such as “frotteurism,” “oppositional defiant disorder,” and “caffeine intoxication disorder.” That said, these classifications aren’t arranged at random; rather, they follow a stately progression comparable to that of Dante’s Divine Comedy, rising from the infernal pit of the body and its weaknesses (intellectual disabilities, motor tics) through our purgatorial interactions with the outside world (tobacco use, erectile dysfunction, kleptomania) and finally arriving in the limpid-blue heavens of our libidinal selves (delirium, personality disorders, sexual fetishism). It’s unusual, and at times frustrating in its postmodern knowingness, but what is being told is first and foremost a story.

In Soviet Union, Optimization Problem Solves You

red plenty, communism, economics, planning, literature, cosma, mathematics

Attention conservation notice: Over 7800 words about optimal planning for a socialist economy and its intersection with computational complexity theory. This is about as relevant to the world around us as debating whether a devotee of the Olympian gods should approve of transgenic organisms. (Or: centaurs, yes or no?) Contains mathematical symbols (uglified and rendered slightly inexact by HTML) but no actual math, and uses Red Plenty mostly as a launching point for a tangent.

E.O. Wilson on the origins of the arts

language, writing, literature, E.O. Wilson, evolution, nature, humanities, music, art, science

RICH AND SEEMINGLY BOUNDLESS as the creative arts seem to be, each is filtered through the narrow biological channels of human cognition. Our sensory world, what we can learn unaided about reality external to our bodies, is pitifully small. Our vision is limited to a tiny segment of the electromagnetic spectrum, where wave frequencies in their fullness range from gamma radiation at the upper end, downward to the ultralow frequency used in some specialized forms of communication. We see only a tiny bit in the middle of the whole, which we refer to as the “visual spectrum.” Our optical apparatus divides this accessible piece into the fuzzy divisions we call colors. Just beyond blue in frequency is ultraviolet, which insects can see but we cannot. Of the sound frequencies all around us we hear only a few. Bats orient with the echoes of ultrasound, at a frequency too high for our ears, and elephants communicate with grumbling at frequencies too low.