[Image: “Clouds, Sun and Sea” (1952) by Max Ernst, courtesy Phillips.]
There’s an interesting space where early modern, mostly 19th-century earth sciences overlap with armchair conjectures about the origins of human civilization. It’s a mix of pure pseudo-science, science-adjacent speculation, and something more like theology, as writers of the time tried to adjust new geological hypotheses and emerging biological evidence—Charles Lyell, Charles Darwin, etc.—to fit with Biblical creation myths and cosmogonic legends borrowed from other cultures. Was there really a Flood? If humans are separate from the animal kingdom, how did we first arrive or appear on Earth?
It is not those particular questions that interest me—although, if I’m being honest, I will happily stay at the table for hours talking with you about the Black Sea deluge hypothesis or the history of Doggerland, two of the most interesting things I’ve ever read about, and whether or not they might have influenced early human legends of a Flood.
Instead, there are at least two things worth pointing out here. One is that these sorts of people never really went away, they just got jobs at the History Channel.
The other is that impossibly long celestial cycles, ancient astronomical records, the precession of the Earth’s poles, and weird, racist ideas about the “fall of Man” all came together into a series of speculations that seem straight out of H.P. Lovecraft.
Take, for example, Sampson Arnold Mackey and his “Age of Horror.”
As Joscelyn Godwin writes in a book called The Theosophical Enlightenment, Mackey—a shoemaker, not an astronomer—was fascinated by “the inclination of the earth’s axis and its changes over long spans of time. Astronomers have known at least since classical times that the Earth’s axis rotates once in about 25,920 years, pointing successively at different stars, of which the current one is Polaris, the North Star. One result of this cycle is the ‘precession of the equinoxes,’ according to which the spring-point of the sun moves around the twelve signs of the zodiac, spending about 2160 years in each sign.”
Of course, the assumption that these signs and stars might somehow influence life on Earth is the point at which astronomy morphs into astrology.
Godwin goes on to explain that—contrary to “most astronomers” of his time—Mackey assumed the Earth’s precession was dramatic and irregular, to the extent that, as Mackey speculated, “the earth’s axis describes not a circle but an alternately expanding and contracting spiral, each turn comprising one cycle of the precession of the equinoxes, and at the same time altering the angle of inclination by four degrees.”
The upshot of this is that, at various points in the history of our planet, Mackey believed that the Earth’s “inclination was much greater, to the point at which it lay in the same plane as the earth’s orbit around the sun.”
This sounds inconsequential, but it would have had huge seasonal and climatic effects. For example, Godwin explains, “At the maximum angle, each hemisphere would be pointed directly at the sun day and night during the summer, and pointed away for weeks on end during the winter. These extremes of light and dark, of heat and cold, would be virtually insupportable for life as we know it. In Mackey’s words, it was an ‘age of horror’ for the planet.”
The flipside of this, for Mackey, is that the Earth would have gone back and forth, over titanic gulfs of time, between two angular extremes. Specifically, his model required an opposite extreme of planetary rotation in which “there would be no seasons on earth, but a perpetual spring and a ‘golden age.’ Then the cycle would begin again.”
None of this would have been recent: “Mackey dates the Age of Horror at 425,000 years in the past, the Golden Age about a million years ago, and its recurrence 150,000 years from now.”
Nevertheless, Godwin writes, “It was essential to [Mackey’s] system of mythography that the Age of Horror should have been witnessed and survived by a few human beings, its dreadful memory passing into the mythology of every land.”
For Mackey, the implications of this wobble—this dramatic precession between a Golden Age and an Age of Horror, between the darkness of Hell and the sunlight of Paradise—would have been highly significant for the evolution of human civilization.
In other words, either we are coming out of an age of eternal winter and emerging slowly, every minute of the day, every year of the century, into a time of endless sunlight and terrestrial calm, or we are inevitably falling, tipping, losing our planetary balance as we pass into near-permanent night, a frozen Hell of ruined continents and dead seas buried beneath plates of ice.
[Image: The August 2017 total eclipse of the sun, via NASA.]
One of the weirder aspects of all this—something Godwin himself documents in another book, called Arktos—is that these sorts of ideas eventually informed, among other things, Nazi political ideology and even some of today’s reactionary alt-right.
The idea that there was once a Hyperborean super-civilization, a lost Aryan race once at home in the Arctic north, lives on. It’s what we might call the cult of the fallen Northener.
What actually interests me here, though, is the suggestion that planetary mega-cycles far too long for any individual human life to experience might be slowly influencing our myths, our cultures, our consciousness (such as it is).
My point is not to suggest that this is somehow true—to say that astrologers and precession-truthers are right—but simply to say that this is a fascinating idea and it has within it nearly limitless potential for new films, novels, and myths, stories where entirely different ways of thinking emerge on planets with extreme seasonal inclinations or unusual polar relationships to the stars.
Think of the only good scene in an otherwise bad movie, 2000’s Pitch Black, where the survivors of a crash on a remote human planetary outpost discover an orrery—a model of the planet they’re standing on—inside an abandoned 爱博体育在线
Playing with the model, the survivors realize that the world they’ve just crashed on is about to be eclipsed by a nearby super-planet, plunging them into a night that will last several months (or weeks or years—I saw the film 20 years ago and don’t remember).
Just imagine the sorts of horrors this might inspire—an entire planet going dark perhaps for centuries, doomed by its passage through space.
In any case, the idea that the earliest human beings lived through something like this hundreds of thousands of years ago—an imminent night, a looming darkness, an Age of Horror that imprinted itself upon the human imagination with effects lasting to this day—would mean that what we think of as human psychology is just an angular epiphenomenon of planetary tilt. Call it orbital determinism.
“Japanese researchers are closing in on understanding why electrical storms have a positive influence on the growth of some fungi,” Physics World reported last month, with some interesting implications for agriculture.
These electrical storms do not have to be nearby, and they do not even need to be natural: “In a series of experiments, Koichi Takaki at Iwate University and colleagues showed that artificial lightning strikes do not have to directly strike shiitake mushroom cultivation beds to promote growth.” Instead, it seems one can coax mushrooms into fruiting using even just the indirect presence of electrical fields.
As the article explains, “atmospheric electricity has long been known to boost the growth of living things, including plants, insects and rats,” but mushrooms appear to respond even to regional electrical phenomena—for example, when a distant lightning storm rolls by. “In Takaki’s previous studies, yield increases were achieved by running a direct current through a shiitake mushroom log. But Takaki still wondered—why do natural electric storms indirectly influenced [sic] the growth of mushrooms located miles away from the lightning strikes?”
Whether or not power lines or electricity-generation facilities, such as power plants, might also affect—or even catalyze—mushroom growth is not clear.
For now, Takaki is hoping to develop some kind of electrical-stimulation technique for mushroom growth, with an eye on the global food market.
[Image: Nikola Tesla, perhaps daydreaming of mushrooms; courtesy Wellcome Library.]
It is quite astonishing to imagine that, someday, those mushrooms you’re eating in a gourmet pasta dish were grown inside some sort of wild, Nikola Tesla-like electrical cage, half X-Men, half food-technology of the near-future—underground shining domes of fungal power.
The opening image of this post, meanwhile, is from a surreal field trip I took back in 2009 with Nicola Twilley to visit the “mushroom tunnel of Mittagong,” a disused rail tunnel in southeast Australia that is—or, as of 2009, was—used as a subterranean mushroom-growth facility. Imagine this tunnel quietly pulsing with electricity in the darkness, humid, strobing, its wet logs fruiting with directed fungi.
Electrical mushroom-control techniques, or where the future of food production merges imperceptibly with the world of H.P. Lovecraft.
How on Earth could I drive past all that without stopping?
[Image: Caves everywhere! Photos by 爱博电竞APP
Being—perhaps to my Instagram followers’ frustration—an avid hiker, I spent far more time there than I should have, mostly looking down into jagged crevasses that extended past the roots of trees, carpeted in fallen leaves, often hidden beneath great, shipwrecked jumbles of boulders slick with the waters of temporary streams.
I crossed the bridge and was ready to hit the road again, when I saw another site of interest on the map. I decided to walk all the way down and around to something called the Widow Jane Mine.
Having visited many mines in my life, I was expecting something like a small arched hole in the side of a hill, probably guarded with a locked gate. Instead, hiking into the woods past some sort of private home/closed mining museum, the ground still damp from rain, I found myself stunned by the unexpected appearance of these huge, moaning, jaw-like holes blasted into the Earth.
[Image: An entrance to the Widow Jane Mine; photo by 爱博电竞APP
I walked inside and immediately saw the space was huge: a massive artificial cavern extending far back into the hillside. Excuse my terribly lit iPhone photos here, but these images should give you at least a cursory sense of the mine’s scale.
[Image: Inside the Widow Jane Mine; photos by 爱博电竞APP
Several things gradually became clear as my eyes adjusted to the darkness.
One, I was totally alone in there and had no artificial illumination beyond my phone, whose light was useless. Two, a great deal of the mine was flooded, meaning that the true extent of its subterranean workings was impossible to gauge; I began fantasizing about returning someday with a canoe and seeing how far back it all really goes.
[Image: Flooding inside the Widow Jane Mine; photo by 爱博电竞APP
Three, there were plastic lawn chairs everywhere. And they were facing the water.
While the actual explanation for this would later turn out to be both entirely sensible and somewhat anticlimactic—the mine, it turns out, is occasionally used as a performance venue for unusual concerts and events—it was impossible not to fall into a more Lovecraftian fantasy, of people coming here to sit together in the darkness, waiting patiently for something to emerge from the smooth black waters of a flooded mine, perhaps something they themselves have invited to the surface…
[Image: Lawn chairs facing the black waters of a flooded mine; photo by 爱博电竞APP
In any case, at that point I couldn’t be stopped. While trying to figure out where in the world I had left my rental car, I noticed something else in Google’s satellite view of the area—some sort of abandoned factory complex in the woods—so I headed out to find it.
On the way there, still totally alone and not hiking past a single other person, there was some sort of Blair Witch house set back in the trees, collapsing under vegetation and water damage, with black yawning windows and graffiti everywhere. I believe it is this structure in the satellite pic.
[Image: A creepy, ruined house in the woods, photo by 爱博电竞APP
Onward I continued, walking till I made it, finally, to this sprawling cement plant facility of some sort just standing there in a clearing.
[Image: Cement world; photos by 爱博电竞APP
I wandered into the silos, looking at other people’s graffiti…
[Image: “Born to Die”—it’s hard to argue with that, although when I texted this photo to a friend he thought it said “Born to Pie,” which I suppose is even better. Photo by 爱博电竞APP
…before continuing on again to find my car.
Then, though, one more crazy thing popped up, sort of hidden behind those kilns in the opening photo of this post.
There was a door in the middle of the forest! With a surveillance camera!
This was confirmed for me by a man sitting alone in a public works truck back at the Binnewater Kilns parking lot, near my rental car. He was smoking a cigar and listening to the radio with his window rolled down when I walked up to the side of his truck and said, “Hey, man, what’s that door in the woods?”
Given the right geological circumstances, brains can become glass. During the 1st-century eruption of Mt. Vesuvius, for example, one fleeing victim’s brain was allegedly vitrified, its soft, thinking tissues transformed into “small, glassy black fragments that were just attached inside the skull,” the Washington Post reports, like shards of a broken window.
These reflective fragments—little black mirrors—“contained proteins common in brain tissue, researchers found, and had undergone vitrification and transformed into glass.” That made this “the first time brains from any human or animal have been found fossilized as glass.” This, of course, could be because we haven’t been looking: what other deposits of obsidian lying around on the Earth’s surface are actually fossilized animal brains? Vitrified neurology.
In any case, I was reminded of an exhibition last summer at the Getty Villa here in Los Angeles called Buried by Vesuvius: Treasures from the Villa dei Papiri. Among the artifacts on display were these incredible “carbonized papyri,” or scrolls—ancient books—that had been turned into seemingly useless lumps of charcoal.
The amazing thing was that, by using advanced medical imaging equipment to peer inside the lumps, researchers discovered that these previously illegible objects could be made readable again, virtually unrolled using X-ray tomography and character-recognition algorithms, to reconstruct the scrolls’ lost content. They were “able to use the medical imaging technology, which is usually used to examine soft human tissues, to detect the tiny bump of ink on the surface of a scroll without damaging the fragile artifact.”
Stepping away from realistic technical applications for just a moment into the world of pure science fiction, it is fascinating to imagine a team of future researchers using 21st-century medical imaging techniques to scan, Jurassic Park-style, for lost thoughts lodged inside pieces of obsidian, black glass fossils of animal brain tissue, almost like the reader of unicorn skulls in Haruki Murakami’s novel Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World.
The idea that some of the rocks around us might, in fact, be glass brains—brainglass, a new mineral—neurological apocrypha awaiting decipherment, suggests a thousand new novels and storylines. Neurogeonomicon.
Black and ancient brains dreaming inside what humans mistook for geology.
[Image: Fish preserved in the eternal ocean of a closed jar at the American Museum of Natural History; old Instagram by Geoff Manaugh].
Although this is a classic example of something I am totally unqualified to talk about, a recent report over at ScienceNews caught my eye, about the 爱博手机app
origins of REM sleep.
In a nutshell, the paper suggests that “sleep may have originated underwater 450 million years ago,” which is apparently when “the cells that kick off REM sleep” first evolved in fish. “During REM or paradoxical sleep,” we read, “the brain lights up with activity almost like it’s awake. But the muscles are paralyzed (except for rapid twitching of the eyes) and the heart beats erratically.”
Dreaming, it’s as if ancient fish learned to pass into a different kind of ocean, a fully immersive neural environment coextensive with the one they physically swam within.
What’s so interesting about this—at least for me—is the implication that REM sleep, and, thus, by extension, the very possibility of animals dreaming, was made possible by immersion in an all-encompassing 爱博手机app
environment such as the sea. In other words, it took the vast black depths of the ocean to facilitate the kind of uninterrupted, meditative stillness in which REM sleep could best occur. Those ancestral cells then survived into our own mammalian brains, and, by dreaming, it’s perhaps a bit like we retreat back into some lost experience of the oceanic.
In any case, the study’s authors are probably rolling their eyes at this point, but so much comes to mind here—everything from H.P. Lovecraft’s marine-horror stories and their alien call of the deep—such as “The Shadow Over Innsmouth”—to the speculative idea that there might be other 爱博手机app
environments, comparable to the ocean, that, after long-enough exposure, could inspire unique neurological processes otherwise impossible in traditional environments.
I’m thinking of Jeremy Narby’s strange book, Cosmic Serpent: DNA and the Origins of Knowledge, about human culture amidst the impenetrable rain forests of the Americas, or even the long-running sci-fi trope of the human mind expanding in a psychedelic encounter with deep space.
In fact, this makes me wonder about the landscapes of other planets, and whether crushingly powerful gravitational regimes in alien superstorms or bizarre swirling ecosystems deep inside liquid rock might affect the neurological development of species that live there. What other kinds of sleep are environmentally possible? Does every planet come with a different kind of dreaming? Can the design or formation of new kinds of space catalyze new forms of sleep? Are there deeper or higher levels of the brain, so to speak, waiting to appear in radically different 爱博手机app
We already have astrobiology, astrogeology, even astrolinguistics, but I wonder what it would look like to study sleep on other worlds. Exosomnology.
[Image: Near Barren Island, Brooklyn, New York, via Google Maps].
I’ve always liked the story of Mary Anning, an amateur paleontologist who collected fossils along the cliffs of southwest England in the early to mid-1800s. Her work was greatly assisted by the coastal weather, as landslides, slumping, and severe storms helped to reveal the remains of extinct creatures in the rocks.
I love the tantalizing prospect here of as-yet unknown forms of life still hiding in the cliffside, awaiting future landslides or heavy rain, and the imaginative possibilities this implies—from straight-forward tales of scientific discovery to darker, H.P. Lovecraft-inflected horror fiction. A catastrophic future storm strikes Cornwall, and, as the townspeople walk stunned through the wreckage of their high street the next morning, they can’t miss the massive bulk of some thing “peeking through the surface” of a nearby cliff.
I was reminded of Mary Anning again this morning while reading about a place called Barren Island—“whose name apparently comes not from its long association with desolation but from the Dutch word for ‘bears’”—a coastal neighborhood in New York City that was demolished by the freeway-obsessed Robert Moses in the 1930s.
That same beach, of course, is well-known for its weathered glass bottles, but, we read, “Visitors usually assume that the refuse has washed up from the body of water still known as Dead Horse Bay, but most of it has actually washed down, from an eroding bank above the sand. ‘The bank is the outermost edge of a landfill,’ Nagle explained. ‘It keeps receding, and stuff keeps appearing.’”
Awesomely, Nagle points out that you can at least partially piece together the history an erased neighborhood from these traces:
Some of the exposed material, Nagle believes, originated in a Brooklyn neighborhood that Moses levelled to make way for one of his road-爱博体育在线
projects, more than a decade after Floyd Bennett Field had been supplanted by LaGuardia Airport. “We don’t know which neighborhood,” she said, “but we do know the period, because when we find remnants of newspapers the dates are between early February and mid-March of 1953.” The beach is a window into that era. She went on, “I tell people to imagine that they’re a props master for a film about a working-class Brooklyn family in 1953, and they have to fill their home with goods that would have been part of their everyday lives—shampoo bottles and cooking tools and car parts and flooring and makeup and children’s toys and furniture and electrical outlets. People say the beach is covered with garbage, but it’s actually covered with the material traces of homes that people had to abandon when Moses forced them out.”
Nagle, you might say, is a kind of Mary Anning of the Anthropocene, collecting the fossils of forgotten neighborhoods as the land in which they’re buried erodes away.
One of many things I love about writing—that is, engaging in writing as an activity—is how it facilitates a discovery of connections between otherwise unrelated things. Writing reveals and even relies upon analogies, metaphors, and unexpected similarities: there is resonance between a story in the news and a medieval European folktale, say, or between a photo taken in a war-wrecked city and an 18th-century landscape painting. These sorts of relations might remain dormant or unnoticed until writing brings them to the foreground: previously unconnected topics and themes begin to interact, developing meanings not present in those original subjects on their own.
Wildfires burning in the Arctic might bring to mind infernal images from Paradise Lost or even intimations of an unwritten J.G. Ballard novel, pushing a simple tale of natural disaster to new symbolic heights, something mythic and larger than the story at hand. Learning that U.S. Naval researchers on the Gulf Coast have used the marine slime of a “300-million-year old creature” to develop 21st-century body armor might conjure images from classical mythology or even from H.P. Lovecraft: Neptunian biotech wed with Cthulhoid military terror.
In other words, writing means that one thing can be crosswired or brought into contrast with another for the specific purpose of fueling further imaginative connections, new themes to be pulled apart and lengthened, teased out to form plots, characters, and scenes.
Thinking like a writer would mean asking why things have happened in this way and not another—in this place and not another—and to see what happens when you begin to switch things around. It’s about strategic recombination.
I mention all this after reading a new essay by artist and critic James Bridle about algorithmic content generation as seen in children’s videos on YouTube. The piece is worth reading for yourself, but I wanted to highlight a few things here.
In brief, the essay suggests that an increasingly odd, even nonsensical subcategory of children’s video is emerging on YouTube. The content of these videos, Bridle writes, comes from what he calls “keyword/hashtag association.” That is, popular keyword searches have become a stimulus for producing new videos whose content is reverse-engineered from those searches.
To use an entirely fictional example of what this means, let’s imagine that, following a popular Saturday Night Live sketch, millions of people begin Googling “Pokémon Go Ewan McGregor.” In the emerging YouTube media ecology that Bridle documents, someone with an entrepreneurial spirit would immediately make a Pokémon Go video featuring Ewan McGregor both to satisfy this peculiar cultural urge and to profit from the anticipated traffic.
Content-generation through keyword mixing is “a whole dark art unto itself,” Bridle suggests. As a particular keyword or hashtag begins to trend, “content producers pile onto it, creating thousands and thousands more of these videos in every possible iteration.” Imagine Ewan McGregor playing Pokémon Go, forever.
What’s unusual here, however, and what Bridle specifically highlights in his essay, is that this creative process is becoming automated: machine-learning algorithms are taking note of trending keyword searches or popular hashtag combinations, then recommending the production of content to match those otherwise arbitrary sets. For Bridle, the results verge on the incomprehensible—less Big Data, say, than Big Dada.
This is by no means new. Recall the origin of House ofCards on Netflix. Netflix learned from its massive trove of consumer data that its customers liked, among other things, David Fincher films, political thrillers, and the actor Kevin Spacey. As David Carr explained for the New York Times back in 2013, this suggested the outline of a possible series: “With those three circles of interest, Netflix was able to find a Venn diagram intersection that suggested that buying the series would be a very good bet on original programming.”
In other words, House of Cards was produced because it matched a data set, an example of “keyword/hashtag association” becoming video.
The question here would be: what if, instead of a human producer, a machine-learning algorithm had been tasked with analyzing Netflix consumer data and generating an idea for a new TV show? What if that recommendation algorithm didn’t quite understand which combinations would be good or worth watching? It’s not hard to imagine an unwatchably surreal, even uncanny television show resulting from this, something that seems to make more sense as a data-collection exercise than as a coherent plot—yet Bridle suggests that this is exactly what’s happening in the world of children’s videos online.
In some of these videos, Bridle explains, keyword-based programming might mean something as basic as altering a few words in a script, then having actors playfully act out those new scenarios. Actors might incorporate new toys, new types of candy, or even a particular child’s name: “Matt” on a “donkey” at “the zoo” becomes “Matt” on a “horse” at “the zoo” becomes “Carla” on a “horse” at “home.” Each variant keyword combination then results in its own short video, and each of these videos can be monetized. Future such recombinations are infinite.
In an age of easily produced digital animations, Bridle adds, these sorts of keyword micro-variants can be produced both extremely quickly and very nearly automatically. Some YouTube producers have even eliminated “human actors” altogether, he writes, “to create infinite reconfigurable versions of the same videos over and over again. What is occurring here is clearly automated. Stock animations, audio tracks, and lists of keywords being assembled in their thousands to produce an endless stream of videos.”
Bridle notes with worry that it is nearly impossible here “to parse out the gap between human and machine.”
Going further, he suggests that the automated production of new videos based on popular search terms has resulted in scenes so troubling that children should not be exposed to them—but, interestingly, Bridle’s reaction here seems to be based on those videos’ content. That is, the videos feature animated characters appearing without heads, or kids being buried alive in sandboxes, or even the painful sounds of babies crying.
What I think is unsettling here is slightly different, on the other hand. The content, in my opinion, is simply strange: a kind of low-rent surrealism for kids, David Lynch-lite for toddlers. For thousands of years, western folktales have featured cannibals, incest, haunted houses, even John Carpenter-like biological transformations, from woman to tree, or from man to pig and back again. Children burn to death on chariots in the sky or sons fall from atmospheric heights into the sea. These myths seem more nightmarish—on the level of content—than some of Bridle’s chosen YouTube videos.
Instead, I would argue, what’s disturbing here is what the content suggests about how things should be connected. The real risk would seem to be that children exposed to recommendation algorithms at an early age might begin to emulate them cognitively, learning how to think, reason, and associate based on inhuman leaps of machine logic.
Bridle’s inability “to parse out the gap between human and machine” might soon apply not just to these sorts of YouTube videos but to the children who grew up watching them.
One of my favorite scenes in Umberto Eco’s novel Foucault’s Pendulum is when a character named Jacopo Belbo describes different types of people. Everyone in the world, Belbo suggests, is one of only four types: there are “cretins, fools, morons, and lunatics.”
In the context of the present discussion, it is interesting to note that these categories are defined by modes of reasoning. For example, “Fools don’t claim that cats bark,” Belbo explains, “but they talk about cats when everyone else is talking about dogs.” They get their references wrong.
It is Eco’s “lunatic,” however, who offers a particularly interesting character type for us to consider: the lunatic, we read, is “a moron who doesn’t know the ropes. The moron proves his [own] thesis; he has a logic, however twisted it may be. The lunatic, on the other hand, doesn’t concern himself at all with logic; he works by short circuits. For him, everything proves everything else. The lunatic is all idée fixe, and whatever he comes across confirms his lunacy. You can tell him by the liberties he takes with common sense, by his flashes of inspiration…”
It might soon be time to suggest a fifth category, something beyond the lunatic, where thinking like an algorithm becomes its own strange form of reasoning, an alien logic gradually accepted as human over two or three generations to come.
Assuming I have read Bridle’s essay correctly—and it is entirely possible I have not—he seems disturbed by the content of these videos. I think the more troubling aspect, however, is in how they suggest kids should think. They replace narrative reason with algorithmic recommendation, connecting events and objects in weird, illogical bursts lacking any semblance of internal coherence, where the sudden appearance of something completely irrelevant can nonetheless be explained because of its keyword-search frequency. Having a conversation with someone who thinks like this—who “thinks” like this—would be utterly alien, if not logically impossible.
So, to return to this post’s beginning, one of the thrills of thinking like a writer, so to speak, is precisely in how it encourages one to bring together things that might not otherwise belong on the same page, and to work toward understanding why these apparently unrelated subjects might secretly be connected.
But what is thinking like an algorithm?
It will be interesting to see if algorithmically assembled material can still offer the sort of interpretive challenge posed by narrative writing, or if the only appropriate response to the kinds of content Bridle describes will be passive resignation, indifference, knowing that a data set somewhere produced a series of keywords and that the story before you goes no deeper than that. So you simply watch the next video. And the next. And the next.
As cities like New York prepare for “permanent flooding,” and as we remember submerged historical landscapes such as Doggerland, lost beneath the waves of a rising North Sea, it’s interesting to read that humanity’s ancient past—not just its looming future—might be fundamentally maritime, rather than landlocked. Or oceanic rather than terrestrial, we might say.
In his recent book The Human Shore, historian John R. Gillis suggests that, due to a variety of factors, including often extreme transportation difficulties presented by inland terrain, traveling by sea was the obvious choice for early human migrants.
This focus on seas and waterways came with political implications, Gillis writes. Even when European merchant-explorers reached North America, “It would be a very long time, almost three hundred years, before Europeans realized the full extent of the Americas’ continental character and grasped the fact that they might have to abandon the ways of seaborne empires for those of territorial states.” In fact, he adds, “for the first century or more, northern Europeans showed more interest in navigational rights to certain waterways and sea tenures than in territorial possession as such.”
At the risk of anachronism, you might say that their power was defined by logistical concerns, rather than by territorial ones: by dynamic, just-in-time access to ports and routes, rather than by the stationary establishment of landed borders and policed frontiers.
Gillis goes much further than this, however, suggesting that—as 130,000 years of seafaring history seems to indicate—humans simply are not a landlocked species.
“Even today,” Gillis claims, “we barely acknowledge the 95 percent of human history that took place before the rise of agricultural civilization.” That is, 95 percent of human history spent migrating both over land and over water, including the use of early but sophisticated means of marine transportation that proved resistant to archaeological preservation. For every lost village or forgotten house, rediscovered beneath a quiet meadow, there are a thousand ancient shipwrecks we don’t even know we should be looking for.
Perhaps speaking only for myself, this is where things get particularly interesting. Gillis points out that humanity’s deep maritime history has been almost entirely written out of our myths and religions.
In his words, “the book of Genesis would have us believe that our beginnings were wholly landlocked, but it was written at the time that the Hebrews were settling down to an agrarian existence.” That is, the myth of Genesis was written from the point of view of a culture already turning away from the sea, mastering animal domestication, mining, and wheeled transport, and settling down away from the coastline. It was learning to cultivate gardens: “The story of Eden served admirably as the foundational myth for agricultural society,” Gillis writes, but it performs very poorly when seen in the context of humanity’s seagoing past.
Briefly, I have to wonder what might have happened had works of literature—or, more realistically, highly developed oral traditions—from this earlier era been better preserved. Seen this way, The Odyssey would merely be one, comparatively recent example of seafaring mythology, and from only one maritime culture. But what strange, aquatic world of gods and monsters might we still be in thrall of today had these pre-Edenic myths been preserved—as if, before the Bible, there had been some sprawling Lovecraftian world of coral reefs, lost ships, and distant archipelagoes, from the Mediterranean to Southeast Asia?
This is where this post’s title comes from. “In short,” Gillis concludes, “we require a new narrative, one with, as Steve Mentz suggests, ‘fewer gardens, and more shipwrecks.’”
Fewer gardens, more shipwrecks. We are more likely, Gillis and Mentz imply, to be the outcast descendants of sunken ships and abandoned expeditions than we are the landed heirs of well-tended garden plots.
Seen this way, even if only for the purpose of a thought experiment, human history becomes a story of the storm, the wreck, the crash—the distant island, the unseen reef, the undertow—not the farm or even the garden, which would come to resemble merely a temporary domestic twist in this much more ancient human engagement with the sea.
“Hunters in a remote community in Nunavut are concerned about a mysterious sound that appears to be coming from the sea floor,” the CBC reported back in November. “The ‘pinging’ sound, sometimes also described as a ‘hum’ or ‘beep,’ has been heard in Fury and Hecla Strait—roughly 120 kilometres northwest of the hamlet of Igloolik—throughout the summer.” One of many concerns is that, “whatever the cause, it’s scaring the animals away.”
To find out exactly what it is, the Canadian military has sent “two acoustic specialists to investigate the sound.” Oddly, however, “the specialists will not be visiting the actual area of Fury and Hecla Strait, but rather spending a week in Igloolik to gather information about the sound.”
In any case, if this was a novel, I wish I had written it—with slight variations. Two acousticians, carrying sensitive recording equipment and some personal baggage, are sent at short notice up to a tiny fishing hamlet in the far north to investigate a mysterious sound in the water.
No one has any idea of what it is or what’s causing it. It could be a unique natural effect of changing undersea currents, oceanographers suggest; it could be an adversarial foreign power sonar-mapping the strait for future navigation, a military advisor warns; it could be, one of the acousticians quietly begins to fear, supernatural; but the two of them continue researching nonetheless, engaging in sometimes eerie nighttime conversations with locals about a wide range of northern folklore, of vast Lovecraftian things waiting in the ice to thaw and stories of now-vengeful, thousand-year-old revenant hunters lost at sea.
[Image: The hamlet of Igloolik, Canada, visible on the left].
The acousticians return to their spartan accommodations every evening—an old creaking 爱博体育在线
whose sole resident passed away the year before, although no one will tell them how—where they put on headphones and listen back through their daily recordings, this weird lurch of aquatic noise, as if they’ve wiretapped the drain of the world.
One of them becomes convinced he can hear something—a signal amongst the reverb—but the other can’t hear it, and, either way, it’s almost time to head south again.
A day before they’re set to leave, however, there is a commotion outside near the jetty as three people are rushed into the village. They are hypothermic and dehydrated—and, strangely, carrying U.S. passports despite the fact that one of them has been babbling in Russian. They were found in the strait, half-drowned, their fishing vessel sinking.
And so on. If you want to read the rest, buy me a coffee some time.
It has been incredibly exciting to listen-in on partial conversations and snippets of overheard interviews in our home office here, as people like KipThorne, Rainer Weiss, and David Reitze, among a dozen others, all explained to her exactly how the gravitational waves were first detected and what it means for our future ability to study and understand the cosmos.
All this gloating as a proud husband aside, however, it’s a truly fascinating story and well worth mentioning here.
LIGO—the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory—is a virtuoso act of precision construction: a pair of instruments, separated by thousands of miles, used to detect gravitational waves. They are shaped like “carpenter’s squares,” we read, and they stand in surreal, liminal landscapes: surrounded by water-logged swampland in Louisiana and “amid desert sagebrush, tumbleweed, and decommissioned reactors” in Hanford, Washington.
Each consists of vast, seismically isolated corridors and finely calibrated super-mirrors between which lasers reflect in precise synchrony. These hallways are actually “so long—nearly two and a half miles—that they had to be raised a yard off the ground at each end, to keep them lying flat as Earth curved beneath them.”
To achieve the necessary precision of measurement, [Rainer Weiss, who first proposed the instrument’s construction] suggested using light as a ruler. He imagined putting a laser in the crook of the “L.” It would send a beam down the length of each tube, which a mirror at the other end would reflect back. The speed of light in a vacuum is constant, so as long as the tubes were cleared of air and other particles, the beams would recombine at the crook in synchrony—unless a gravitational wave happened to pass through. In that case, the distance between the mirrors and the laser would change slightly. Since one beam was now covering a shorter distance than its twin, they would no longer be in lockstep by the time they got back. The greater the mismatch, the stronger the wave. Such an instrument would need to be thousands of times more sensitive than any before it, and it would require delicate tuning, in order to extract a signal of vanishing weakness from the planet’s omnipresent din.
LIGO is the most sensitive instrument ever created by human beings, and its near-magical ability to pick up the tiniest tremor in the fabric of spacetime lends it a fantastical air that began to invade the team’s sleep. As Frederick Raab, director of the Hanford instrument, told Nicola, “When these people wake up in the middle of the night dreaming, they’re dreaming about the detector.”
Because of this hyper-sensitivity, its results need to be corrected against everything from minor earthquakes, windstorms, and passing truck traffic to “fluctuations in the power grid,” “distant lightning storms,” and even the howls of prowling wolves.
When the first positive signal came through, the team was actually worried it might not be a gravitational wave at all but “a very large lightning strike in Africa at about the same time.” (They checked; it wasn’t.)
[Image: “Newton” (1795-c.1805) by William Blake, courtesy of the Tate].
The big deal amidst all this is that being able to study gravitational waves is very roughly analogous to the discovery of radio astronomy—where gravitational wave astronomy has the added benefit of opening up an entirely new spectrum of observation. Gravitational waves will let us “see” the fabric of spacetime in a way broadly similar to how we can “see” otherwise invisible radio emissions in deep space.
Virtually all that is known about the universe has come to scientists by way of the electromagnetic spectrum. Four hundred years ago, Galileo began exploring the realm of visible light with his telescope. Since then, astronomers have pushed their instruments further. They have learned to see in radio waves and microwaves, in infrared and ultraviolet, in X-rays and gamma rays, revealing the birth of stars in the Carina Nebula and the eruption of geysers on Saturn’s eighth moon, pinpointing the center of the Milky Way and the locations of Earth-like planets around us. But more than ninety-five per cent of the universe remains imperceptible to traditional astronomy… “This is a completely new kind of telescope,” [David] Reitze said. “And that means we have an entirely new kind of astronomy to explore.”
Interestingly, in fact, my “seeing” metaphor, above, is misguided. As it happens, the gravitational waves studied by LIGO in its current state—ever-larger and more powerful new versions of the instrument are already being planned—“fall within the range of human hearing.”
If you want to hear spacetime, there is an embedded media player over at The New Yorker with a processed snippet of the “chirp” made by the incoming gravitational wave.
In any case, I’ve already gone on at great length, but the article ends with a truly fantastic quote from Kip Thorne. Thorne, of course, achieved minor celebrity last year when he consulted on the physics for Christopher Nolan’s relativistic time-travel film Interstellar, and he is not lacking for imagination.
Thorne compares LIGO to a window (and my inner H.P. Lovecraft reader shuddered at the ensuing metaphor):
“We are opening up a window on the universe so radically different from all previous windows that we are pretty ignorant about what’s going to come through,” Thorne said. “There are just bound to be big surprises.”
The work of novelist ChinaMiéville is well-known—and increasingly celebrated—for its urban and architectural imagery.
In his 2000 novel Perdido Street Station, for instance, an old industrial scrapyard on the underside of the city, full of discarded machine parts and used electronic equipment, suddenly bootstraps itself into artificial intelligence, self-rearranging into a tentacular and sentient system. In The Scar, a floating city travels the oceans, lashed together from the hulls of captured ships:
They were built up, topped with structure, styles and materials shoved together from a hundred histories and aesthetics into a compound architecture. Centuries-old pagodas tottered on the decks of ancient oarships, and cement monoliths rose like extra smokestacks on paddlers stolen from southern seas. The streets between the 爱博体育在线
s were tight. They passed over the converted vessels on bridges, between mazes and plazas, and what might have been mansions. Parklands crawled across clippers, above armories in deeply hidden decks. Decktop houses were cracked and strained from the boats’ constant motion.
In his story “The Rope of the World,” originally published in Icon, a failed space elevator becomes the next Tintern Abbey, an awe-inspiring Romantic ruin in the sky. In “Reports Of Certain Events In London,” from the collection Looking for Jake, Miéville describes how constellations of temporary roads flash in and out through nighttime London, a shifting vascular geography of trap streets, only cataloged by the most fantastical maps.
And in his 2004 novel Iron Council, Miéville imagines something called “slow sculpture,” a geologically sublime new artform by which huge blocks of sandstone are “carefully prepared: shafts drilled precisely, caustic agents dripped in, for a slight and so-slow dissolution of rock in exact planes, so that over years of weathering, slabs would fall in layers, coming off with the rain, and at very last disclosing their long-planned shapes. Slow-sculptors never disclosed what they had prepared, and their art revealed itself only long after their deaths.”
has always been interested in learning how novelists see the city—how 爱博手机app
descriptions of things like architecture and landscape can have compelling effects, augmenting both plot and emotion in ways that other devices, such as characterization, sometimes cannot. In earlier interviews with such writers as Patrick McGrath, Kim Stanley Robinson, Zachary Mason, Jeff VanderMeer, Tom McCarthy, and Mike Mignola, we have looked at everything from the literary appeal and narrative usefulness of specific 爱博体育在线
s and 爱博体育在线
types to the descriptive influence of classical landscape painting, and we have entertained the idea that the demands of telling a good story often give novelists a more subtle and urgent sense of space even than architects and urban planners.
Over the course of the following long interview, China Miéville discusses the conceptual origins of the divided city featured in his recent, award-winning novel The City and The City; he points out the interpretive limitations of allegory, in a craft better served by metaphor; we take a look at the “squid cults” of Kraken (which arrives in paperback later this month) and maritime science fiction, more broadly; the seductive yet politically misleading appeal of psychogeography; J.G. Ballard and the clichés of suburban perversity; the invigorating necessities of urban travel; and much more.
: I’d like to start with The City and The City. What was your initial attraction to the idea of a divided city, and how did you devise the specific way in which the city would be split?
China Miéville: I first thought of the divided city as a development from an earlier idea I had for a fantasy story. That idea was more to do with different groups of people who live side-by-side but, because they are different species, relate to the physical environment very, very differently, having different kinds of homes and so on. It was essentially an exaggeration of the way humans and rats live in London, or something similar. But, quite quickly, that shifted, and I began to think about making it simply human.
For a long time, I couldn’t get the narrative. I had the setting reasonably clear in my head and, then, once I got that, a lot of things followed. For example, I knew that I didn’t want to make it narrowly, allegorically reductive, in any kind of lumpen way. I didn’t want to make one city heavy-handedly Eastern and one Western, or one capitalist and one communist, or any kind of nonsense like that. I wanted to make them both feel combined and uneven and real and full-blooded. I spent a long time working on the cities and trying to make them feel plausible and half-remembered, as if they were uneasily not quite familiar rather than radically strange.
I auditioned various narrative shapes for the book and, eventually, after a few months, partly as a present to my Mum, who was a big crime reader, and partly because I was reading a lot of crime at the time and thinking about crime, I started realizing what was very obvious and should have been clear to me much earlier. That’s the way that noir and hard-boiled and crime procedurals, in general, are a kind of mythic urbanology, in a way; they relate very directly to cities.
Once I’d thought of that, exaggerating the trope of the trans-jurisdictional police problem—the cops who end up having to be on each other’s beats—the rest of the novel just followed immediately. In fact, it was difficult to imagine that I hadn’t been able to work it out earlier. That was really the genesis.
I should say, also, that with the whole idea of a divided city there are analogies in the real world, as well as precursors within fantastic fiction. C. J. Cherryh wrote a book that had a divided city like that, in some ways, as did Jack Vance. Now I didn’t know this at the time, but I’m also not getting my knickers in a twist about it. If you think what you’re trying to do is come up with a really original idea—one that absolutely no one has ever had before—you’re just kidding yourself.
You’re inevitably going to tread the ground that the greats have trodden before, and that’s fine. It simply depends on what you’re able to do with it.
: Something that struck me very strongly about the book was that you manage to achieve the feel of a fantasy or science fiction story simply through the description of a very convoluted political scenario. The book doesn’t rely on monsters, non-humans, magical technologies, and so on; it’s basically a work of political science fiction.
Miéville: This is impossible to talk about without getting into spoiler territory—which is fine, I don’t mind that—but we should flag that right now for anyone who hasn’t read it and does want to read it.
But, yes, the overtly fantastical element just ebbed and ebbed, becoming more suggestive and uncertain. Although it’s written in such a way that there is still ambiguity—and some readers are very insistent on focusing on that ambiguity and insisting on it—at the same time, I think it’s a book, like all of my books, for which, on the question of the fantastic, you might want to take a kind of Occam’s razor approach. It’s a book that has an almost contrary relation to the fantastic, in a certain sense.
[Image: The marbled intra-national sovereignties of Baarle-Hertog].
: In some ways, it’s as if The City and The City simply describes an exaggerated real-life border condition, similar to how people live in Jerusalem or the West Bank, Cold War Berlin or contemporary Belfast—or even in a small town split by the U.S./Canada border, like Stanstead-Derby Line. In a sense, these settlements consist of next-door neighbors who otherwise have very complicated 爱博手机app
and political relationships to one another. For instance, I think I sent you an email about a year ago about a town located both on and between the Dutch-Belgian border, called Baarle-Hertog.
Miéville: You did!
: I’m curious to what extent you were hoping to base your work on these sorts of real-life border conditions.
Miéville: The most extreme example of this was something I saw in an article in the Christian Science Monitor, where a couple of poli-sci guys from the State Department or something similar were proposing a solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict. In the case of Jerusalem, they were proposing basically exactly this kind of system, from The City and The City, in that you would have a single urban space in which different citizens are covered by completely different juridical relations and social relations, and in which you would have two overlapping authorities.
I was amazed when I saw this. I think, in a real world sense, it’s completely demented. I don’t think it would work at all, and I don’t think Israel has the slightest intention of trying it.
My intent with The City and The City was, as you say, to derive something hyperbolic and fictional through an exaggeration of the logic of borders, rather than to invent my own magical logic of how borders could be. It was an extrapolation of really quite everyday, quite quotidian, juridical and social aspects of nation-state borders: I combined that with a politicized social filtering, and extrapolated out and exaggerated further on a sociologically plausible basis, eventually taking it to a ridiculous extreme.
But I’m always slightly nervous when people make analogies to things like Palestine because I think there can be a danger of a kind of sympathetic magic: you see two things that are about divided cities and so you think that they must therefore be similar in some way. Whereas, in fact, in a lot of these situations, it seems to me that—and certainly in the question of Palestine—the problem is not one population being unseen, it’s one population being very, very aggressively seen by the armed wing of another population.
In fact, I put those words into Borlu’s mouth in the book, where he says, “This is nothing like Berlin, this is nothing like Jerusalem.” That’s partly just to disavow—because you don’t want to make the book too easy—but it’s also to make a serious point, which is that, obviously, the analogies will occur but sometimes they will obscure as much as they illuminate.
[Image: The international border between the U.S. and Canada passes through the center of a library; photo courtesy of the Center for Land Use Interpretation. “Technically, any time anyone crosses the international line, they are subject to having to report, in person, to a port of entry inspection station for the country they are entering,” CLUI explains. “Visiting someone on the other side of the line, even if the 爱博体育在线
is next door, means walking around to the inspection station first, or risk being an outlaw. Playing catch on Maple Street/Rue Ball would be an international event, and would break no laws presumably, so long as each time the ball was caught, the recipient marched over to customs to declare the ball.”].
: Your books often lend themselves to political readings, on the other hand. Do you write with specific social or political allegories in mind, and, further, how do your settings—as in The City and The City—come to reflect political intentions, 爱博手机app
Miéville: My short answer is that I dislike thinking in terms of allegory—quite a lot. I’ve disagreed with Tolkien about many things over the years, but one of the things I agree with him about is this lovely quote where he talks about having a cordial dislike for allegory.
The reason for that is partly something that Frederic Jameson has written about, which is the notion of having a master code that you can apply to a text and which, in some way, solves that text. At least in my mind, allegory implies a specifically correct reading—a kind of one-to-one reduction of the text.
It amazes me the extent to which this is still a model by which these things are talked about, particularly when it comes to poetry. This is not an original formulation, I know, but one still hears people talking about “what does the text mean?”—and I don’t think text means like that. Texts do things.
I’m always much happier talking in terms of metaphor, because it seems that metaphor is intrinsically more unstable. A metaphor fractures and kicks off more metaphors, which kick off more metaphors, and so on. In any fiction or art at all, but particularly in fantastic or imaginative work, there will inevitably be ramifications, amplifications, resonances, ideas, and riffs that throw out these other ideas. These may well be deliberate; you may well be deliberately trying to think about issues of crime and punishment, for example, or borders, or memory, or whatever it might be. Sometimes they won’t be deliberate.
But the point is, those riffs don’t reduce. There can be perfectly legitimate political readings and perfectly legitimate metaphoric resonances, but that doesn’t end the thing. That doesn’t foreclose it. The text is not in control. Certainly the writer is not in control of what the text can do—but neither, really, is the text itself.
So I’m very unhappy about the idea of allegoric reading, on the whole. Certainly I never intend my own stuff to be allegorical. Allegories, to me, are interesting more to the extent that they fail—to the extent that they spill out of their own bounds. Reading someone like George MacDonald—his books are extraordinary—or Charles Williams. But they’re extraordinary to the extent that they fail or exceed their own intended bounds as Christian allegory.
When Iron Council came out, people would say to me: “Is this book about the Gulf War? Is this book about the Iraq War? You’re making a point about the Iraq War, aren’t you?” And I was always very surprised. I was like, listen: if I want to make a point about the Iraq War, I’ll just say what I think about the Iraq War. I know this because I’ve done it. I write political articles. I’ve written a political book. But insisting on that does not mean for a second that I’m saying—in some kind of unconvincing, “cor-blimey, I’m just a story-teller, guvnor,” type-thing—that these books don’t riff off reality and don’t have things to say about it.
There’s this very strange notion that a writer needs to smuggle these other ideas into the text, but I simply don’t understand why anyone would think that that’s what fiction is for.
: There are also very basic historical and referential limits to how someone might interpret a text allegorically. If Iron Council had been written twenty years from now, for instance, during some future war between Taiwan and China, many readers would think it was a fictional exploration of that, and they’d forget about the Iraq War entirely.
Miéville: Sure. And you don’t want to disavow these readings. You may think, at this point in this particular book, I actually do want to make a genuine policy prescription. With my hand on my heart, I don’t think I have ever done that, but, especially if you write with a political texture, you certainly have to take readings like this on the chin.
So, when people say: are you really talking about this? My answer is generally not no—it’s generally yes, but… Or yes, and… Or yes… but not in the way that you mean.
[Image: “The way a cop inhabits the city is doubtless a fascinating thing…” Photo courtesy of the NYPD].
: Let’s go back to the idea of the police procedural. It’s intriguing to compare how a police officer and a novelist might look at the city—the sorts of details they both might notice or the narratives they both might pick up on. Broadly speaking, each engages in detection—a kind of hermeneutics of urban space. How did this idea of urban investigation—the “mythic urbanology” you mentioned earlier—shape your writing of The City and The City?
Miéville: On the question of the police procedural and detection, for me, the big touchstones here were detective fiction, not real police. Obviously they are related, but they’re related in a very convoluted, mediated way.
What I wanted to do was write something that had a great deal of fidelity—hopefully not camp fidelity, but absolute rigorous fidelity—to certain generic protocols of policing and criminology. That was the drive, much more than trying to find out how police really do their investigations. The way a cop inhabits the city is doubtless a fascinating thing, but what was much more important to me for this book was the way that the genre of crime, as an aesthetic field, relates to the city.
The whole notion of decoding the city—the notion that, in a crime drama, the city is a text of clues, in a kind of constant, quantum oscillation between possibilities, with the moment of the solution really being a collapse and, in a sense, a kind of tragedy—was really important to me.
Of course, I’m not one of those writers who says I don’t read reviews. I do read reviews. I know that some readers were very dissatisfied with the strict crime drama aspect of it. I can only hold up my hands. It was extremely strict. I don’t mean to do that kind of waffley, unconvincing, writerly, carte blanche, get-out-clause of “that was the whole point.” Because you can have something very particular in mind and still fuck it up.
But, for me, given the nature of the setting, it was very important to play it absolutely straight, so that, having conceived of this interweaving of the cities, the actual narrative itself would remain interesting, and page-turning, and so on and so forth. I wanted it to be a genuine who-dunnit. I wanted it to be a book that a crime reader could read and not have a sense that I had cheated.
By the way, I love that formulation of crime-readers: the idea that a book can cheat is just extraordinary.
: Can you explain what you mean, in this context, by being rigorous? You were rigorous specifically to what?
Miéville: The book walks through three different kinds of crime drama. In section one and section two, it goes from the world-weary boss with a young, chippy sidekick to the mismatched partners who end up with grudging respect for each other. Then, in part three, it’s a political conspiracy thriller. I quite consciously tried to inhabit these different iterations of crime writing, as a way to explore the city.
But this has all just been a long-winded way of saying that I would not pretend or presume any kind of real policing knowledge of the way cities work. I suspect, probably, like most things, actual genuine policing is considerably less interesting than it is in its fictionalized version—but I honestly don’t know.
[Images: New York City crime scene photographs].
: There’s a book that came out a few years ago called The Meadowlands, by Robert Sullivan. At one point, Sullivan tags along with a retired detective in New Jersey who reveals that, now that he’s retired, he no longer really knows what to do with all the information he’s accumulated about the city over the years. Being retired means he basically knows thousands of things about the region that no longer have any real use for him. He thus comes across as a very melancholy figure, almost as if all of it was supposed to lead up to some sort of narrative epiphany—where he would finally and absolutely understand the city—but then retirement came along and everything went back to being slightly pointless. It was an interpretive comedown, you might say.
Miéville: That kind of specialized knowledge, in any field, can be intoxicating. If you experience a space—say, a museum—with a plumber, you may well come out with a different sense of the strengths and weaknesses of that museum—considering the pipework, as well, of course, as the exhibits—than otherwise. This is one reason I love browsing specialist magazines in fields about which I know nothing.
Obviously, then, with something that is explicitly concerned with uncovering and solving, it makes perfect sense that seeing the city through the eyes of a police detective would give you a very self-conscious view of what’s happening out there.
In terms of fiction, though, I think, if anything, the drive is probably the opposite. Novelists have an endless drive to aestheticize and to complicate. I know there’s a very strong tradition—a tradition in which I write, myself—about the decoding of the city. Thomas de Quincey, Michael Moorcock, Alan Moore, Neil Gaiman, Iain Sinclair—that type-thing. The idea that, if you draw the right lines across the city, you’ll find its Kabbalistic heart and so on.
The thing about that is that it’s intoxicating—but it’s also bullshit. It’s bullshit and it’s paranoia—and it’s paranoia in a kind of literal sense, in that it’s a totalizing project. As long as you’re constantly aware of that, at an aesthetic level, then it’s not necessarily a problem; you’re part of a process of urban mythologization, just like James Joyce was, I suppose. But the sense that this notion of uncovering—of taking a scalpel to the city and uncovering the dark truth—is actually real, or that it actually solves anything, and is anything other than an aesthetic sleight of hand, can be quite misleading, and possibly even worse than that. To the extent that those texts do solve anything, they only solve mysteries that they created in the first place, which they scrawled over the map of a mucky contingent mess of history called the city. They scrawled a big question mark over it and then they solved it.
Arthur Machen does this as well. All the great weird fiction city writers do it. Machen explicitly talks about the strength of London, as opposed to Paris, in that London is more chaotic. Although he doesn’t put it in these words, I think what partly draws him to London is this notion that, in the absence of a kind of unifying vision, like Haussmann’s Boulevards, and in a city that’s become much more syncretic and messy over time, you have more room to insert your own aestheticizing vision.
As I say, it’s not in and of itself a sin, but to think of this as a real thing—that it’s a lived political reality or a new historical understanding of the city—is, I think, a misprision.
: You can see this, as well, in the rise of psychogeography—or, at least, some popular version of it—as a tool of urban analysis in architecture today. This popularity often fails to recognize that, no matter how fun or poetic an experience it genuinely might be, randomly wandering around Boston with an iPhone, for instance, is not guaranteed to produce useful urban insights.
Miéville: Some really interesting stuff has been done with psychogeography—I’m not going to say it’s without uses other than for making pretty maps. I mean, re-experiencing lived urban reality in ways other than how one is more conventionally supposed to do so can shine a new light on things—but that’s an act of political assertion and will. If you like, it’s a kind of deliberate—and, in certain contexts, radical—misunderstanding. Great, you know—good on you! You’ve productively misunderstood the city. But I think that the bombast of these particular—what are we in now? fourth or fifth generation?—psychogeographers is problematic.
Presumably at some point we’re going to get to a stage, probably reasonably soon, in which someone—maybe even one of the earlier generation of big psychogeographers—will write the great book against psychogeography. Not even that it’s been co-opted—it’s just wheel-spinning.
: In an interview with Ballardian, Iain Sinclair once joked that psychogeography, as a term, has effectively lost all meaning. Now, literally any act of walking through the city—walking to work in the morning, walking around your neighborhood, walking out to get a bagel—is referred to as “psychogeography.” It’s as if the experience of being a pedestrian in the city has become so unfamiliar to so many people, that they now think the very act of walking around makes them a kind of psychogeographic avant-garde.
Miéville: It’s no coincidence, presumably, that Sinclair started wandering out of the city and off into fields.
[Image: Art by Vincent Chong for the Subterranean Press edition of Kraken].
: This brings us to something I want to talk about from Kraken, which comes out in paperback here in the States next week. In that book, you describe a group of people called the Londonmancers. They’re basically psychogeographers with a very particular, almost parodically mystical understanding of the city. How does Kraken utilize this idea of an occult geography of greater London?
Miéville: Yes, this relates directly to what we were just saying. For various reasons, some cities refract, through aesthetics and through art, with a particular kind of flamboyancy. For whatever reason, London is one of them. I don’t mean to detract from all the other cities in the world that have their own sort of Gnosticism, but it is definitely the case that London has worked particularly well for this. There are a couple of moments in the book of great sentimentality, as well, written, I think, when I was feeling very, very well disposed toward London.
I think, in those terms, that I would locate myself completely in the tradition of London phantasmagoria. I see myself as very much doing that kind of thing. But, at the same time, as the previous answer showed, I’m also rather ambivalent to it and sort of impatient with it—probably with the self-hating zeal of someone who recognizes their own predilections!
Kraken, for me, in a relatively light-hearted and comedic form, is my attempt to have it both ways: to both be very much in that tradition and also to take the piss out of it. Reputedly, throughout Kraken, the very act of psychogeographic enunciation and urban uncovering is both potentially an important plot point and something that does uncover a genuine mystery; but it is also something that is ridiculous and silly, an act of misunderstanding. It’s all to do with what Thomas Pynchon, in Gravity’s Rainbow, called kute korrespondences: “hoping to zero in on the tremendous and secret Function whose name, like the permuted names of God, cannot be spoken.”
The London within Kraken feels, to me, much more dreamlike than the London of something like King Rat. That’s obviously a much earlier book, and I now write very differently; but King Rat, for all its flaws, is a book very much to do with its time. It’s not just to do with London; it’s to do with London in the mid-nineties. It’s a real, particular London, phantasmagorized.
But Kraken is also set in London—and I wanted to indulge all my usual Londonisms and take them to an absurd extreme. The idea, for example, as you say, of this cadre of mages called the Londonmancers: that’s both in homage to parts of that tradition, and also, hopefully, an extension of it to a kind of absurdity—the ne plus ultra, you know?
: Kraken also makes some very explicit maritime gestures—the squid, of course, which is very redolent of H.P. Lovecraft, but also details such as the pirate-like duo of Goss and Subby. This maritime thread pops up, as well, in The Scar, with its floating city of linked ships. My question is: how do your interests in urban arcana and myth continue into the sphere of the maritime, and what narrative or symbolic possibilities do maritime themes offer your work?
Miéville: Actually, I think I was very restrained about Lovecraft. I think the book mentions Cthulhu twice—which, for a 140,000 or 150,000-word novel about giant squid cults, is pretty restrained! That’s partly because, as you say, if you write a book about a tentacular monster with a strange cult associated with it, anyone who knows the field is going to be thinking immediately in terms of Lovecraft. And I’m very, very impressed by Lovecraft—he’s a big presence for me—but, partly for that very reason, I think Kraken is one of the least Lovecrafty things I’ve done.
As to the question of maritimism, like a lot of my interests, it’s more to do with how it has been filtered through fiction, rather than how it is in reality. In reality, I have no interest in sailing. I’ve done it, I think, once.
But maritime fiction, from Gulliver’s Travels onward, I absolutely love. I love that it has its own set of traditions; in some ways, it’s a kind of mini-canon. It has its own riffs. There are some lovely teasings of maritime fiction within Gulliver’s Travels where he gets into the pornography of maritime terminology: mainstays and capstans and mizzens and so on, which, again, feature quite prominently in The Scar.
[Image: “An Imaginary View of the Arsenale” by J.M.W. Turner, courtesy of the Tate].
: In the context of the maritime, I was speaking to Reza Negarestani recently and he mentioned a Russian novella from the 1970s called “The Crew Of The Mekong,” suggesting that I ask you about your interest in it. Reza, of course, wrote Cyclonopedia, which falls somewhere between, say, H.P. Lovecraft and ExxonMobil, and for which you supplied an enthusiastic endorsement.
Miéville: Yes, I was blown away by Reza’s book—partly just because of the excitement of something that seems genuinely unclassifiable. It really is pretty much impossible to say whether you’re reading a work of genre fiction or a philosophical textbook or both of the above. There’s also the slightly crazed pseudo-rigor of it, and the sense that this is philosophy as inspired by schlocky horror movies as much as by Alain Badiou.
There’s a phrase that Kim Newman uses: post-genre horror. It’s a really nice phrase for something which is clearly inflected in a horror way, and clearly emerges out of the generic tradition of horror, but is no longer reducible to it. I think that Reza’s work is a very, very good example of that. As such, Cyclonopedia is one of my favorite books of the last few years.
: So Reza pointed me to “The Crew of the Mekong,” a work of Russian maritime scifi. The authors describe it, somewhat baroquely, as “an account of the latest fantastic discoveries, happenings of the eighteenth century, mysteries of matter, and adventures on land and at sea.” What drew you to it?
Miéville: I can’t remember exactly what brought me to it, to be perfectly honest: it was in a secondhand bookshop and I bought it because it looked like an oddity.
It’s very odd in terms of the shape of its narrative; it sort of lurches, with a story within a story, including a long, extended flashback within the larger framing narrative, and it’s all wrapped up in this pulp shell. In terms of the story itself, if I recall, it was actually me who suggested it to Reza because it has loads of stuff in it about oil, plastic resins, and pipelines, and one of the characters works for an institute called the Institute of Surfaces, which deals with the weird physics and uncanny properties of surfaces and topology.
Some of the flashback scenes and some of the background I’ve seen described as proto-steampunk, which I think is highly anachronistic: it’s more of an elective affinity, that, if you like retro-futurity, you might also like this. At a bare minimum, it’s a book worth reading simply because it’s very odd; at a maximum, some of the things going on it are philosophically interesting, although in a bizarre way.
But foreign pulp always has that peculiar kind of feeling to it, because you have a distinct cultural remove. At its worst, that can lead to an awful kind of orientalism, but it’s undeniably fascinating as a reader.
: It’s interesting that depictions of maritime journeys can maintain such strong mythic and imaginative resonance, even across wildly different cultures, eras, genres, and artforms—whether it’s “The Crew of the Mekong” or The Scar, Valhalla Rising or Moby Dick.
Miéville: The maritime world in general is an over-determined symbol of pretty much anything you want it to be—just fill in the blank: yearning, manifest destiny, whatever. It’s a very fecund field. My own interest in it comes pretty much through fiction and, to a certain extent, art. I wish I had a bit more money, in fact, because I would buy a lot of those fairly cheap, timeless, uncredited, late 19th-century, early 20th-century seascapes that you see on sale in a lot of thrift shops.
You also mentioned Goss and Subby. Goss and Subby themselves I never thought of as pirates, in fact. They were my go at iterating the much-masticated trope of the freakishly monstrous duo, figures who are, in some way that I suspect is politically meaningful, and that one day I’ll try to parse, generally even worse than their boss. They often speak in a somewhat odd, stilted fashion, like Hazel and Cha-Cha, or Croup and Vandemar, or various others. The magisterial TV Tropes has a whole entry on such duos called “Those Two Bad Guys.” The tweak that I tried to add with Goss and Subby was to integrate an idea from a Serbian fairy-tale called—spoiler!—“BasCelik.” For anyone who knows that story, this is a big give-away.
Again, though, I think you have to ration your own predilections. I have always been very faithful to my own loves: I look at my notebooks or bits of paper from when I was four and, basically, my interests haven’t changed. Left to my own devices, I would probably write about octopuses, monsters, occasionally Tarzan, and that’s really it. From a fairly young age, the maritime yarn was one of those.
But you can’t just give into your own drives, or you simply end up writing the same book again and again.
[Image: Mapping old London].
: Along those lines, are there any settings or environments—or even particular cities—that would be a real challenge for you to work with? Put another way, can you imagine giving yourself a deliberate challenge to write a novel set out in the English suburbs, or even in a place like Los Angeles? How might that sort of unfamiliar, seemingly very un-Miéville-like landscape affect your plots and characters?
Miéville: That’s a very interesting question. I really like that approach, in terms of setting yourself challenges that don’t come naturally. It’s almost a kind of Oulipo approach. It’s tricky, though, because you have to find something that doesn’t come naturally, but, obviously, you don’t want to write about something that doesn’t interest you. It has to be something that interests you contradictorally, or contrarily.
To be honest, the suburbs don’t attract me, for a bunch of reasons. I think it’s been done to death. I think anyone who tried to do that after J. G. Ballard would be setting themselves up for failure. As I tried to say when I did my review of the Ballard collection for The Nation, one of the problems is that, with an awful lot of suburban art today, it is pitched as this tremendously outré and radical claim to say that the suburbs are actually hotbeds of perversity—whereas, in fact, that is completely the cliché now. If you wanted to do something interesting, you would have to write about terribly boring suburbs, which would loop all the way back round again, out of interesting, through meta-interesting, and back down again to boring. So I doubt I would do something set in the suburbs.
I am quite interested in wilderness. Iron Council has quite a bit of wilderness, and that was something that I really liked writing and that I’d like to try again.
But, to be honest, it’s different kinds of urban space that appeal to me. If you’re someone who can’t drive, like I can’t, you find a lot of American cities are not just difficult, but really quite strange. I spend a lot of time in Providence, Rhode Island, and it’s a nice town, but it just doesn’t operate like a British town. A lot of American towns don’t. The number of American cities where downtown is essentially dead after seven o’clock, or in which you have these strange little downtowns, and then these quite extensive, sprawling but not quite suburban surroundings that all call themselves separate cities, that segue into each other and often have their own laws—that sort of thing is a very, very strange urban political aesthetic to me.
I’ve been thinking about trying to write a story not just set, for example, in Providence, but in which Providence, or another city that operates in a very non-English—or non-my-English—fashion, is very much part of the structuring power of the story. I’d be interested in trying something like that.
But countries all around the world have their own specificities about the way their urban environments work. I was in India recently, for example. It was a very brief trip, and I’m sure some of this was just wish fulfillment or aesthetic speculation, but I became really obsessed with the way, the moment you touched down at a different airport, you got out and you breathed the air, Mumbai felt different to Delhi, felt different to Kolkata, felt different to Chennai.
Rather than syncretizing a lot of those elements, I’d like to try to be really, really faithful to one or another city, which is not my city, in the hopes that, being an outsider, I might notice certain aspects that otherwise one would not. There’s a certain type of ingenuous everyday inhabiting of a city, which is very pre-theoretical for something like psychogeography, but it brings its own insights, particularly when it doesn’t come naturally or when it goes wrong.
There’s a lovely phrase that I think Algernon Blackwood used to describe someone’s bewilderment: he describes him as being bewildered in the way a man is when he’s looking for a post box in a foreign city. It’s a completely everyday, quotidian thing, and he might walk past it ten times, but he doesn’t—he can’t—recognize it.
That kind of very, very low-level alienation—the uncertainty about how do you hail a taxi, how do you buy food in this place, if somebody yells something from their top window, why does everyone move away from this part of the street and not that part? It’s that kind of very low-level stuff, as opposed to the kind of more obvious, dramatic differences, and I think there might be a way of tapping into that knowledge, knowledge that the locals don’t even think to tell you, that might be an interesting way in.
To that extent, it would be cities that I like but in which I’m very much an outsider that I’d like to try to tap.
• • •
Thanks to China Miéville for finding time to have this conversation, including scheduling a phone call at midnight in order to wrap up the final questions. Thanks, as well, to Nicola Twilley, who transcribed 95% of this interview and offered editorial feedback while it was in process, and to Tim Maly who first told me about the towns of Derby Line–Stanstead.
Miéville’s newest book, Embassytown, comes out in the U.S. in May; show your support for speculative fiction and pre-order a copy soon. If you are new to Miéville’s work, meanwhile, I might suggest starting with The City and The City.