Saturday, 27 February 2021

Science Fiction-Music Interconnections: The Indie 90s

Whilst researching the various SF-related 90s topics which have informed recent posts, I began to explore the connections with one of my formative influences of the decade: Indie Rock. As a fan of all things ‘indie’ around the first half of the 90s (when I was a late-teenager and student), I had various memories and favourites from the genre’s heyday in that pre-Internet age. The affiliation is less immediate than with the ambient and rave scenes of the era, but various connections can be found. 

The associated English artists Spacemen 3, Sonic Boom/Spectrum, and Spiritualized (the best-known/most commercially successful of the trio) all explored otherworldly imagery and themes, often pharmacologically inspired. The Spiritualized albums Lazer Guided Melodies (1992) and especially Ladies and Gentlemen We Are Now Floating in Space (1997) epitomise these qualities. Among their contemporaries categorised as ‘shoegazers’, the band Slowdive ventured into similar territory with their second album, 1993’s Souvlaki, including collaborations with Brian Eno and the ambient-inspired ‘Souvlaki Space Station’. 

Sonic Boom, Spectrum (1990)Spiritualized, Lazer Guided Melodies (1992)

Stereolab, Space Age Bachelor Pad Music (1993)

Stereolab, Mars Audiac Quintet (1994)Stereolab, with French vocalist Laetitia Sadier, offered a combination of easy-listening sensibilities and avant-pop epitomised in the 1993 EP Space Age Batchelor Pad Music – a nod to the hi-fi test records and ‘space age pop’ of an earlier era. The following year’s Mars Audiac Quintet expanded on the formula, with ‘The Stars Our Destination’ a reference to Alfred Bester’s 1956 novel (itself seen as a precursor of Cyberpunk). Meanwhile ‘International Colouring Contest’ was a tribute to outsider musician Lucia Pamela, whose 1969 album Into Outer Space reports a trip to the moon. 

Ash, 'Girl from Mars' (1995)Northern Irish band Ash kicked off a series of successful singles with 1995’s ‘Girl from Mars’, and a later compilation, Intergalactic Sonic 7″s, reinforced their sci-fi influences. Less likely artists also touched on sf themes; the title and artwork of Suede’s B-sides collection, Sci-Fi Lullabies (lifted from an earlier lyric). A song by Swedish outfit the Cardigans, ‘Daddy’s car’, imagines a carefree European road trip turned cosmic: “From Luxembourg to Rome, From Berlin to the moon / From Paris to Lausanne, From Athens to the sun / Our car became a spacecraft, flashing through the world – Crashed down in Amsterdam.” 

Suede, Sci-Fi Lullabies (1997)

The ongoing rise of MTV in North America saw an expansion of indie content, notably 120 Minutes. Videos by artists drew on sci-fi themes, even where they were apparently unrelated to the song. The Smashing Pumpkins produced ‘Tonight, tonight’, directly influenced by Georges Méliès’ 1902 pioneering silent film A Trip to the Moon. Also in 1995, Norfolk band Catherine Wheel collaborated with Tanya Donelly (one of the decade’s most influential indie figures with Throwing Muses, the Breeders, Belly and as a solo artist) on ‘Judy Staring at the Sun’, with its kitsch sf imagery. 

Pixies, Bossanova (1990)The growth of US alternative/college rock music through the 1980s saw a spate of bands emerge in the Boston/Massachusetts area. Galaxie 500 produced a psychedelia-influenced sound with space-rock references. I continued to associate them with sci-fi even after discovering they were actually named after a car! Singer and lead guitarist Dean Wareham continued to explore this ‘dream pop’ territory with his next band, Luna, formed in 1991. The better-known Pixies also sprang from the Boston area, led by Black Francis and gaining acclaim by the late 80s for their combining an abrasive style with melody, and the quiet/loud dynamics which would influence Nirvana among others. Their early 90s albums Bossanova and Trompe le Monde saw Francis delve into sf-inspired lyrics, which developed further in his solo career as Frank Black. His 1997 album The Cult of Ray paid homage to writer Ray Bradbury (who Black also interviewed). 
Luna, Lunapark (1992)

Finally, a song that stands alone: Pop Will Eat Itself’s ‘X, Y and Zee’, 1991’s slice of ‘intergalactic punk rock hip hop’. Singer Clint Mansell later became a film composer, with credits including the soundtrack to Moon, directed by Duncan Jones in 2009.

Art & Design Credits:

Ash, ‘Girl from Mars’ (1995): Design – Carnage; Other [Girl from Mars] – Sarah From Islington; Photography – Roger Sargent
Luna, Lunapark (1992): Art Direction – Laurie Henzel; Studio Photography – Macioce
Pixies, Bossanova (1990): Art Direction, Design – Vaughan Oliver / v23; Artwork [Globe] – Pirate Design; Photography – Simon Larbastier; Design Assistance – Chris Bigg
Sonic Boom, Spectrum (1990): Artwork [Commercial Art] – Sonic, T + CP London; Lacquer Cut By – Porky; Photography [Sonic] – Steve Double; Photography– Andy Earl
Spiritualized, Lazer Guided Melodies (1992): Original Artwork – Mr Ugly; Logo Design – Albert Tupelo; Design – Andrew Sutton for Blue Source; Model Maker – Gavin Lindsay; Photography – Pete Gardner
Stereolab, Space Age Bachelor Pad Music (1993): Design – Magic Glue
Stereolab, Mars Audiac Quintet (1994): Layout – Trouble; Photography – Peter Morris 
Suede, Sci-Fi Lullabies (1997): Image ‘Hidden’ by John Kippin; Art Direction – Peter Saville; Design – Howard Wakefield

Saturday, 28 November 2020

Juana y la cibernética

November 2020 saw the online launch of a new Spanish-English parallel text translation of the science fiction story Juana y la cibernética (1963) by Elena Aldunate at Desperate Literature, Madrid, for La noche de los libros.

Elena Aldunate (1925-2005) was born María Elena Aldunate Bezanilla in Santiago de Chile, the daughter of the mathematician and engineer Arturo Aldunate Phillips, who was also a published author. She worked as a writer of stories, articles and radio scripts, from the 1950s onwards. An early pioneer of science fiction writing in Chile, Aldunate was one of the first women authors to become associated with the genre through her story anthologies, including El señor de las mariposas (1967) and Angélica y el delfín (1977). With Ilda Cádiz, Hugo Correa, Antonio Montero, Roberto Pliscoff and Andrés Rojas, Aldunate was also involved in the founding of the Club Chileno de Ciencia Ficción, which began in the 1970s. 

As critics have noted, Aldunate’s stories consistently explore psychological themes, such as loneliness, repressed desire and existential crisis, from the perspective of women protagonists. In a biographical essay on Aldunate by Barbara Loach, she quotes the author as saying that ‘one is constantly being filled with experiences and one has to know how to take advantage of what one sees, hears, lives [...] Only with this basis can the imagination be given wings: that is, make fantasy with a foot in reality, and with elements that will be difficult to refute’.  Aldunate’s literary influences include Jules Verne, Ray Bradbury, Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke, and the Chilean authors Hugo Correa, María Luisa Bombal, Marta Brunet and María Elena Gertner

Reflecting on the emerging legacy of Aldunate, Andrea Bell observes that, although she was ‘occasionally profiled and her books reviewed in the Chilean press, her work has only recently come to the attention of literary historians’. During the last decade, the re-publication of Aldunate’s stories in collections such as Cuentos de Elena Aldunate: La dama de la ciencia ficción has helped to remedy this situation, and introduced the author to a new generation of readers. However, little of Aldunate’s writing has been translated into English, an oversight we sought address through the production of this new bilingual edition of Juana y la cibernética. Among the most remarkable and disturbing of Aldunate’s stories, it narrates an ambiguously erotic encounter between the character Juana and her factory work station. 

The seeds of this idea for a translation were planted a while ago at the start of 2018, but the planning became more concrete because of my involvement in an event series at the University of Leeds: The Transcultural Fantastic (co-organised with colleagues Ingo Cornils and Sarah Dodd). The joint aims of the series were to open up the traditions of the Fantastic from a transcultural and interdisciplinary perspective, investigating utopian and dystopian thought in art, fiction and film, as well as science fiction, folktales and fantasy literature. A workshop on ‘Publishing the Transcultural Fantastic’, which took place on 15 March 2019, featured insights from Terry Craven, co-owner of Desperate Literature; researcher Ruth Kelly (University of Oxford), who has worked on publishing projects in Bangladesh and Uganda; and Sarah Dodd, who, in addition to her role at the University of Leeds, is co-editor of the online magazine of speculative fiction in translation Samovar. The workshop discussed methods for contributing to a body of scholarship that has concerned itself with recuperating the Fantastic from contexts beyond the Anglo-American tradition, as well as alternative approaches to publishing, through small presses, short editions and print on demand, which offer more responsive and dynamic publishing routes. The series also contributed funding for the print edition of Juana.

You can find out more about the translation here:

Saturday, 8 August 2020

Three SF Novels of the Early Nineties: Snow Crash, Virtual Light and Vurt

The early nineties were a fertile time for futurists, eyeing the new millennium at a time of rapid technological advances and refining the ideas of ‘cyberpunk’ into a more nuanced vision. William Gibson was already established as one of SF’s leading visionaries by the time 1993’s Virtual Light began his second major trilogy. The breakthrough novels of Jeff Noon (Vurt, 1993) and Neal Stephenson (Snow Crash, 1992), saw them join the decade’s most influential writers. 

These books share a central theme of an escape from dystopian futures into alternate worlds, and display an interest in altered states, shared hallucinations and virtual realities. In Vurt and Noon’s related novels, the titular magical realm – a shared hallucination or fantastic place – is reached via ingesting feathers. Snow Crash posits a form of virtual reality as a fully-formed location (the ‘Metaverse’), populated by avatars, as an alternative to daily life. Virtual Light begins the ‘Bridge’ trilogy, grounded in a recognisable California shaped by corporate technology, with a view through virtual reality glasses.

Neuromancer and Gibson’s other early work (the ‘Sprawl’ trilogy) charts the vast uncharted territory of data-information he designates as ‘cyberspace’. The ‘Bridge’ trilogy (Virtual Light, Idoru, All Tomorrow’s Parties; 1993-99) is set in a more identifiable near future than Neuromancer and the cyberpunk novels and stories which built Gibson’s reputation. The author himself described these novels as “my take on the 1990s” but commented that “lots of people assumed I was still writing about the capital-F future.”

Combining elements of post-apocalyptic and dystopian imagery with a characteristic eye on the effects of technology, Virtual Light follows marginalised characters through a fractured California. San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge, no longer used for vehicles but colonised by the disenfranchised, is the book’s emblematic location. The novel grew from Gibson’s short story, ‘Skinner’s Room’, commissioned by the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art for a 1990 exhibition, Visionary San Francisco. Architects Ming Fung and Craig Hodgetts created an installation envisaging the transformation of the Bridge in response to the story.

Untitled (The Bridge, a shanty-town on the remnants of the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge) by Ming Fung and Craig Hodgetts in Visionary San Francisco

The disintegration of the social structure, the privatisation of public bodies (and spaces) of Virtual Light are taken one stage further in Snow Crash, also set in California. The central characters, as in Gibson’s work, are trying to find a niche in this unforgiving society, working in security, as couriers, or operating as hackers. Here, the state has almost entirely ceded control to corporations which own portions of land as autonomous commercial republics, or ‘Franchise-Organised Quasi-National Entities’. Private citizens, or those who can afford it, live in the anodyne gated communities of ‘Burbclaves’, guarded by their own security forces.

Where Gibson’s plot revolves around a stolen pair of Virtual Reality goggles (the Virtual Light of the title) but remains in a familiar landscape, Stephenson’s Metaverse is “a computer-generated universe”. Information and power are concentrated in the Metaverse, where the digital/neuro-linguistic virus of the title is unleashed with consequences for the ‘real world’. Visitors to this virtual world are represented by their avatars, while still constrained by spending power and status. In recent months the Metaverse has become particularly topical, a process accelerated by the need for ‘virtual’ spaces in a world locked down by Covid-19. Big tech and media conglomerates see popular multi-player games such as Fortnite and Roblox as potential platforms, where concerts and films can be hosted (and paid for in digital currency), building on earlier virtual reality concepts like Second Life. Many articles on the goal of creating a Metaverse explicitly reference Stephenson and Snow Crash

A rendering of Snow Crash's Metaverse

Informed by developments in virtual worlds and rave culture’s hedonistic escapism, Noon conjures an imagined, transitory utopia from the lawless, rain-swept streets of a near-future Manchester. Vurt’s action follows Scribble, Beetle and the gang of ‘Stash Riders’ riding their van in search of the differently-coloured feathers which unlock the key to other worlds. The dream-scape of the ‘Vurt’, like the Metaverse, has its casualties, brings real dangers, and poses philosophical questions reminiscent of Philip K. Dick alongside its escapist thrills. Less preoccupied with technology than pharmacology, Vurt draws on post-rave subcultures in its depictions of the various human and mutant variations which fall under the intoxicating spell of the feathers, enigmatic portals to alternate worlds. Noon’s creation has also lent itself to virtual role-playing games.

Vurt: the role-playing game

Noon has ‘retro-engineered’ a sequence of novels in the Vurt series and spoken of his affinity with the electronic music scene, especially the techniques of re-mixing in what he calls ‘dub fiction’. The depictions of a rave/techno drug-based subculture supplement the theme of escape; nightclub characters Inky MC and Dingo Tush (the man-dog, “presented by Das Uberdog Enterprises”) illuminate a phantasmagorical Manchester. Snow Crash too draws on elements of dance and indie music which were already blending and metamorphosing in pop culture at the time. The vivid depictions of Vitaly Chernobyl & the Meltdowns’ experimental ‘nuclear fuzz-grunge’ gig under the freeway, and the stylings of ‘Nipponese rap star’ Sushi K, show Stephenson’s wry humour. 

Where Gibson’s earlier ‘Sprawl’ trilogy was peppered with pop-cultural references from William Burroughs to Steely Dan, Virtual Light is more restrained, content to include the iconoclastic band Chrome Koran. However Idoru (1996), the next novel in the series, focusses on the computer-simulation pop star Rei Toei, an Artificial Intelligence idoru or ‘idol’; Gibson continues to weave music-based themes into his work, not least in All Tomorrow’s Parties (1999), which completed the ‘Bridge’ trilogy. 

All three books share a preoccupation with misfits and outsiders navigating a grim urban landscape, struggling to find a place in an increasingly alienating society, often only to be found in alternate or virtual realms, drug-induced or computer-generated. Nearly thirty years on, we appear to be increasingly living in the world/s they anticipated.


Wednesday, 17 June 2020

The Gernsback Continuum

I posted about the Transcultural Fantastic seminar series at the University of Leeds last year and, a few weeks ago, the latest in this series of events took place as an online talk, 'The Ekphrastic Fantastic' by Dr Richard Brown. The talk explored the ekphrastic - understood as a verbal evocation of the visual - in contemporary writing, drawing from selected works by J.G. Ballard, China Miéville and Ali Smith.

There were some also fascinating SF connections made in relation to the William Gibson short story The Gernsback Continuum, which I'd never come across before. Hugo Gernsback, the writer, inventer and SF magazine publisher, has featured more than once on this blog in the past, so the title of the story immediately piqued my curiosity. The story is told in the first person, from the perspective of a US photographer, who's commissioned by a British 'trendy trade paperback publisher' to photograph examples of futuristic American city architecture of the Thirties and Forties. It transpires that this book project - working title The Airstream Futuropolis: The Tomorrow That Never Was - is the brainchild of fashionable pop art historian Dialta Downes. The narrator's mild contempt for the idea is evident in his initial encounter with Downes:

There’s a British obsession with the more baroque elements of American pop culture [...] In Dialta Downes this manifested itself in a mania for a uniquely American form of architecture that most Americans are scarcely aware of. At first I wasn’t sure what she was talking about, but gradually it began to dawn on me [...] She was talking about those odds and ends of ‘futuristic’ Thirties and Forties architecture you pass daily in American cities without noticing: the movie marquees ribbed to radiate some mysterious energy, the dime stores faced with fluted aluminium, the chrome-tube chairs gathering dust in the lobbies of transient hotels. She saw these things as segments of a dreamworld, abandoned in the uncaring present; she wanted me to photograph them for her.

The connection to Gernsback becomes clearer when the photographer is shown a collection of Downes' favourite examples of this architectural style, what she calls 'American Streamlined Moderne':

I saw a dozen shots of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Johnson’s Wax Building, juxtaposed with the covers of old Amazing Stories pulps, by an artist named Frank R. Paul; the employees of Johnson’s Wax must have felt as though they were walking into one of Paul’s spray-paint pulp utopias. Wright’s building looked as though it had been designed for people who wore white togas and Lucite sandals.

Interior of Johnson's Wax Building

Here, we see a reference to Amazing Stories, published by Gernsback, and the cover art of Frank R. Paul, an artist closely associated with this magazine's visual style, who trained as an architect himself. Downes says that we might think of these images and designs 'as a kind of alternate America: a 1980 that never happened. An architecture of broken dreams'. The narrator starts to warm up to the project, and he tries to re-imagine the environment around him according to this aesthetic:

I thought myself in Dialta Downes’s America. When I isolated a few of the factory buildings on the ground glass of the Hasselblad, they came across with a kind of sinister totalitarian dignity, like the stadiums Albert Speer built for Hitler. But the rest of it was relentlessly tacky: ephemeral stuff extruded by the collective American subconscious of the Thirties, tending mostly to survive along depressing strips lined with dusty motels, mattress wholesalers, and small used-car lots. I went for the gas stations in a big way.

As the photographer tunes in more and more to this 'shadowy America-that-wasn’t', the images begin to take on real forms, a phenomenon his journalist friend Kihn calls 'semiotic phantoms, bits of deep cultural imagery that have split off and taken on a life of their own'. Driving back to Los Angeles, he reflects on this explanation but it troubles him and, exhausted and agitated, he pulls over the car to sleep. Upon waking, he finds a phantom futuristic city looming before him; this is the ekphrastic element Richard highlighted in his talk:

Then I looked behind me and saw the city. The books on Thirties design were in the trunk; one of them contained sketches of an idealised city that drew on Metropolis and Things to Come, but squared everything, soaring up through an architect’s perfect clouds to zeppelin docks and mad neon spires. That city was a scale model of the one that rose behind me [...] You could hide the Empire State Building in the smallest of those towers. Roads of crystal soared between the spires, crossed and recrossed by smooth silver shapes like beads of running mercury. The air was thick with ships: giant wing-liners, little darting silver things (sometimes one of the quicksilver shapes from the sky bridges rose gracefully into the air and flew up to join the dance), mile-long blimps, hovering dragonfly things that were gyrocopters...

Even more troubling is the appearance of a couple, 'white, blond', the 'children of Dialta Downes’s ’80-that-wasn’t', framed by the illuminated shadow city. The narrator imagines the city populated by these creatures 'orderly and alert, their bright eyes shining with enthusiasm for their floodlit avenues and silver cars', deciding 'it had all the sinister fruitiness of Hitler Youth propaganda'.

The photography for Downes' book ends up being a great success. But, desperate to return to some kind of normality, the story ends with the photographer rushing to the nearest newsstand to buy a paper and read about the petroleum crisis and the nuclear energy hazard:

[Newsstand proprietor] ‘Hell of a world we live in, huh?’ [...] ‘But it could be worse, huh?’ 

‘That’s right,’ I said, ‘or even worse, it could be perfect.’

Overall then, Gibson takes a cynical view of the technophilia and optimism of the 1930s and 1940s, epitomised in the cover of Gernsback's SF magazines. As Bruce Sterling has commented, 'The Gernsback Continuum shows [Gibson] consciously drawing a bead on the shambling figure of the SF tradition'. Nevertheless, his evocative rendering of the 'semiotic phantoms' lurking in American architecture throws a sharp critical and visual lens on one of the country's many futures past.

Saturday, 18 April 2020


Guest post by Peter Martin, see also Old Rope blog:

A comic about an alien family on the lamb in a flying tree in space? You had me at comic, but yes, obviously I want to read that. It’s been going since 2012? Why has no one told me about this sooner? My dear friend Giro recommended me the curious tale of the Saga, er, saga. Yeah, it’s not a great name I grant you, but to quote Lisa Simpson, it’s apt – APT! At the time of writing, the 54 issues of the series have been collected into nine volumes, with six comics comprising each story arc. The series is planned to finish at 108 issues or 18 volumes. I have read four so far and it is these that inform the below.

Drawn by Fiona Staples and written by Brian K Vaughn, Saga follows the plights of Alana and Marko, a couple who are on the run from both sides of an intergalactic war. Their crime is falling in love with the enemy and having an interracial baby, a political affront to the two extraterrestrial species embroiled in the long-standing conflict. They hop from planet to planet, hunted by soldiers, hired assassins, irate parents and disgruntled exes, all the while just trying to live a normal family life.

Saga is no ordinary comic and not just because it is narrated by a baby. Though it would be disingenuous to say that the medium is all unsubtle macho superhero fodder – and also conceding that I am no expert – it’s rare to get something so rich and varied in the mainstream (it’s published by Image, one of the big three publishing houses). Saga’s themes of family, motherhood, racism, war, politics and sex, while by no means unique to this book, are a rich and refreshing blend. Not only are the heroes young struggling parents, they are actively refusing to fight in the war that rages around them, setting this story apart from much of the work we might wish to compare it to. Pacifism is seldom at the forefront of popular sci-fi, bristling with blasters, troopers, space-battles and laser-swords, nor its fantasy counterparts with whopping big blades, magic and monsters. That’s not to say that Saga doesn’t have its fair share of any of the above – it does in spades – and barely an issue goes by without some form of gratuitous, albeit funny, violence.

Our protagonists are basically sexy alt-rock tattoos come to life. Alana, with her dyed fringe and unlikely post-natal smoking bod, is from the planet Landfall where the locals sport delicate insect-like wings. Her beau is Marko, all brooding brows, trench coats and a massive pair of curly goat horns. Phwoar! Don’t worry, they regularly go at it like hammer and tongs, as if unable to resist the collective yearning of hundreds of thousands of swooning readers. Sex is never shied away from throughout the pages of Saga, be it the impossibly hot and passionate form in the early days of Alana and Marko’s relationship, the lovesick longing of the hit man loner reminiscing of his time getting it on with an armless spiderwoman (armless not harmless, she too is a deadly hired assassin) or the seedy underbelly of alien sex work where anything goes. Taboo is a strong undercurrent, from forbidden love in the prism of societal racism lived by our heroes or the homophobia experienced by journalists Upsher and Doff, to alien fetishism, subversive literature and indeed the belief in peace in a time of war.

Taboo also bleeds into real life with several instances of censorship affecting the book. As a young mother, Alana is regularly shown breast-feeding Hazel – tolerable until it graced the cover of the hardback edition prompting squeamishness from retailers. Digital editions of the book were also briefly censored for an act of homosexual fellatio, shown on a blurred TV screen. The American Library Association included Saga in its 2014 list of the ten most frequently challenged books that year, for containing nudity, offensive language and for being “anti-family, … sexually explicit, and unsuited for age group.” And people wonder why it sold so well.

Like many endearing works of serialised fiction, one of Saga’s strengths is its cast of thousands. Alana and Marko may be recognisable lead characters – fit, loveable, morally right – but they are ably supported by a bonkers, imaginative and genuinely diverse bunch: Izabel the disembodied severed-at-the-waist war casualty teen baby-sitter, a sort of floating ghost with hanging entrails; Prince Robot IV, from a breed of royal androids with TVs for heads; the Freelancers, with their distinctive definite articles, The Will, The Stalk, The Brand; Marko’s relatably in-the-way mum and dad, but doting grandparents to Hazel; Lying Cat – a giant feline who speaks only to tell if someone is fibbing or not; whatever the heck loveable fan-favourite Ghüs is; and of course D. Oswald Heist, author of the dangerous polemic that ‘radicalised’ Alana and Marko.

A Night Time Smoke, the fictional novel by Heist, is shown in glimpses through the perspectives of characters on all sides of the war. From what we know of it, at face value it’s a fairly trashy affair, akin to pulp fiction or throwaway romance of the Mills and Boon ilk. Coursing through its pages, however, is the outrageous message that war is – get this – ‘bad’ and worse, the cover art shows us that the principal characters, Contessa and Eames the rock monster are from different races.

I’ll admit it, I’m a sucker for a text within a text. From The Grasshopper Lies Heavy, by Hawthorne Abendsen (Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle), to K/L. Callan’s Marx, Christ and Satan United In Struggle (Stewart Home’s Red London), to The Benefit Of Christ Crucified (Luther Blissett’s Q), to The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy (Douglas Adams’s The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy), to the endless quotations of Stewpot Hauser and Out To Lunch (Ben Watson’s Shitkicks and Doughballs), to the book within the book within the book within the book neo-pulp madness of Bobo the Monkey (Steven Well’s Tits Out Teenage Terror Totty). It’s all good baby and super meta.

Returning briefly to the issue of diversity, something that many well-known comics have struggled with in recent years. Though I am sure there are plenty of books telling stories other than those of hetro-normative, mostly white massive ab-ed and big boobed superheroes, it’s fair to say that many of the medium’s biggest sellers still have room for improvement. Clumsy attempts to make minor characters ‘come out’ still result in shitfits from keyboard warriors lamenting the fact that writers can’t make new, minor, LGBQT or POC heroes that they can ignore. Saga shouldn’t need to be lauded for starring loads of women (including breastfeeding mums), gay characters and every kind of alien-sexual preference you can think of, but it does feel uncommonly vibrant.

It’s not all politics, proxy wars, racism towards ‘horns and wings’ and baby McGuffins. Much of the story is about how hard it is to be a parent, the challenges of keeping relationships afloat and the pressures of daily life. There is much that is relatable despite the fantastical settings. Gun for hire The Will munches space-cereal and sulkingly blanks his ex’s calls. There are translation problems (the Horns speak some sort of Latinate, Esperanto language). Alana gets an acting gig on a space soap opera. Marko takes their toddler on play-dates. Unions struggle against employers. Mums – albeit ones with TV screens for faces – take their kids to the beach. People have baths. This is key to making the world of Saga appealing and enduring. It’s not all decapitations and saggy-testicled ogres, there’s hues of real life in all its humorous mundanity. And it does make you laugh. Liar Cat and the Royals with TV heads are the gifts that keep on giving and Staples’ artwork veers between heart-string tugging poetry and mischievous comedy.

Vaughn has made clear that much of the inspiration behind the narrative of the book came from the birth of his own child. Let’s leave the final word to him:

I realized that making comics and making babies were kind of the same thing and if I could combine the two, it would be less boring if I set it in a crazy sci-fi fantasy universe and not just have anecdotes about diaper bags … I didn’t want to tell a Star Wars adventure with these noble heroes fighting an empire. These are people on the outskirts of the story who want out of this never-ending galactic war … I’m part of the generation that all we do is complain about the prequels and how they let us down … And if every one of us who complained about how the prequels didn’t live up to our expectations would just make our own sci-fi fantasy, then it would be a much better use of our time.

Saturday, 1 February 2020

The Misleading Book Covers of Philip K. Dick

Though today widely admired for their psychological complexity and visionary insights, the novels of Philip K. Dick were published in his lifetime as standard science fiction. That is to say, cheaply and with no regard to the artwork – the generic formula of ray-guns, rocket-ships and space-battles was applied indiscriminately to his work. In the late 1950s, his first books were issued in then-popular double editions; two novels ‘back-to-back’ with interchangeable artwork by anonymous artists. Even when published individually, their packaging remained in the cost-saving pulp tradition, as befitted their status as genre fodder in the years before Dick’s critical acclaim. This applied to the UK as well as the US paperback industry, with British imprints such as Granada and Grafton, Pan and Panther turning out re-issues using the same regulation artwork.

While the pulp SF market was resistant to change, having employed the same methods successfully since the inception of the genre, Dick’s work gradually gained more literary credibility, especially in Europe. The production values of several foreign-language editions suggested an attempt to capture some of the depth which critics were beginning to detect. By the end of the 1960s and early 70s, though Dick himself had already written the bulk of his novels, the seeping of the counter-culture, the esoteric and the experimental, into the mainstream was apparent. The influences of pop-art, psychedelia and surrealism began to be manifested on book covers, with Philip K. Dick ripe for such treatment. The US Daw edition of 1965’s The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch, a favourite of John Lennon’s, is a classic of its type; no wonder the German translation of the same book was rendered as LSD-Astronauts

Sadly Dick died in 1982, on the cusp of wider recognition, shortly before the release of Blade Runner brought his work to a whole new audience. Based on his 1968 novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, the film’s success gave rise to an ongoing succession of lavish Hollywood adaptations. From Total Recall to Minority Report, several of the novels and stories which inspired them have since been given the ‘movie tie-in’ cover. Richard Linklater’s 2006 film of A Scanner Darkly, an ambitious ‘rotoscope’ animated version of Dick’s dystopian vision of societal breakdown and drug-induced paranoia, was also issued as a graphic novel. However, since his death, few publishers have surely even considered issuing Philip K. Dick’s novels with illustrations of rocket-fire and spaceships.

Wednesday, 20 November 2019

Computing Utopia

[The following is a draft excerpt from an article written with Jo Lindsay Walton called 'Computing Utopia: The Horizons of Computational Economies in History and Science Fiction', which appeared in this month's issue of Science Fiction Studies]

In speculative and science fiction, computation is often represented as morally ambiguous, at odds with human concerns or not entirely explicable within human frames of reason. One notable example can be found in the trope of the supercomputer, wherein anxieties about artificial intelligence and automation combine to produce an entity capable of superseding or displacing humankind. For example, Kendell Foster Crossen’s Year of Consent (1954) features the totalitarian supercomputer SOCIAC, who manipulates the “consenting” population via forms of social control. Likewise, Isaac Asimov’s short story ‘The Last Question’ (1956) centres on the human-created supercomputer Multivac (and its successors) and their obsession with the question of how to reverse entropy. They work on the answer over a hundred billion years, long after the end of humankind and the universe itself. 

The imaginary of the supercomputer, then, is entangled with both positive and negative impulses. These impulses crystallize in the tension between computational utopia’s promise of superior knowledge and reason, and the threat of an oppressive and dystopian calculative order. The history of cybernetics is laden with comparable tensions. In popular culture, cybernetics has frequently been conflated with robotics or computer science, an association that was formed through early media reactions to it. The 1948 publication of Cybernetics: Or Control and Communication in the Animal and the Machine by the American mathematician Norbert Wiener, one of the originators of the field, gained enormous press attention and led to response articles such as ‘Will Machines Replace the Human Brain?’ (American Monthly 1953) and ‘Man Viewed as a Machine’ (Scientific American 1955). 

In fact, cybernetics refers to a far broader set of concerns, which can be glossed as the study of systems governance, including organic, machinic, and socio-economic systems. It also includes the study of self-governance: how systems constitute and stabilize themselves, how they adapt to changes in their environments and how they survive or fail to survive damage or the introduction of new elements. It is the study of communication, feedback and control that came to define cybernetics as a field of inquiry. 

This interest in feedback, and the maintenance of equilibrium through feedback mechanisms is also the thing that most clearly connects cybernetics with economics. In particular, there are links between cybernetics and neoclassical models of markets and economies as self-governing systems, entities which accomplish an optimum distribution of resources through the self-stabilizing interactions of supply and demand. These principles were at the heart of what came to be known as the “Chicago school” of economics through figures such as George Stigler and Milton Friedman. Both worked for the Statistical Research Group (SRG), funded by the US National Defense Research Committee during World War II, and links have been traced between cybernetic experiments in defense systems carried out in the SRG and Friedman’s later work (Mirowski, 205-206). Mike Featherstone foregrounds this link in his study of the underpinnings of contemporary capitalist thought: 

Friedman’s free market economics presented a computational vision of freedom and social relations, which transformed economy into an apolitical closed space defined by machinic interactions, cold strategic decision making, militarised risk assessment and management, and a complete lack of empathy for the other who was similarly imagined through the lens of cybernetics. (94) 

The characterization of “machinic interactions” is central to Featherstone’s argument that “it is possible to understand the development of late capitalism through its embrace of techno-science and specifically cybernetic theory over the course of the 20th century” (82). This view, while valid, rests on a partial interpretation of the cybernetic field. Historian Ronald R. Kline has argued for the disunity of cybernetics, not only in its multiple meanings, but also with regard to “the different paths cybernetics took in different countries” (7). To some extent, these histories have been obscured by dominant narratives, which inform ideas – in both science fiction and contemporary politics – about the inseparability of cybernetic theory from capitalism. Yet the uptake of cybernetics in countries with distinct social and political trajectories presents a challenge to such ideas. 

An important, if unrealized, project that marks a chapter in the diverse history of cybernetics is Project Cybersyn (or Proyecto Synco in Spanish), a Chilean initiative funded under the socialist government of Salvador Allende between 1971 and 1973. Cybersyn was directed towards the development of a cybernetic system to manage the economy and communicate with factories that had come under government control as part of Allende’s nationalization efforts. The project was a collaboration between Chilean technical experts and Stafford Beer, a British research scientist in management cybernetics. Beer was interested in cybernetics as “the science of effective organization” and how it could be applied to the field of industrial management (Beer, Decision and Control, 425). 

Project Cybersyn was intended to manage economic production using the feedback of data from the factories. Statistical software programs were designed to model factory performance scenarios, based on analysis of the data, enabling the Chilean government to regulate production and pre-empt crises with effective action (Medina, 6). Despite limited technological resources, consisting of one central computer and a network of telex machines, the project went some way towards developing this system (Pickering, 250). The main objectives of Cybersyn were to maximize economic production while also facilitating self-regulation of the factories. It thus represented an attempt to incorporate devolved decision-making and worker autonomy into a cybernetic management system. For Beer, the design constituted “a weapon against state bureaucracy” (see Medina, 170). 

Cybersyn control room

A comprehensive history of Project Cybersyn is the subject of a 2011 book by Eden Medina. Her study focuses on the relationship between computer technology and politics, and the difficulty of embedding political values in systems design. In the case of Cybersyn, she argues that this can be seen in the frequent mischaracterization of the project as a tool for centralized government control of the economy, despite its outwardly decentralized approach. Indeed, in January 1973, when The Observer broke the news of Cybersyn to the English-speaking public, the headline simply ran “Chile run by computer.” In an allusion to Nineteen Eighty-Four, Cybersyn, the “first computer system designed to control an entire economy” had allegedly been “assembled in some secrecy so as to avoid opposition charges of ‘Big Brother’ tactics.” Later that year, Allende’s government was overthrown by a military coup and Project Cybersyn was never completed. Under the subsequent dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet, economic policy was remodelled by a group of Chilean neoliberal economists called the Chicago Boys, some of whom trained under Friedman. In the decades that followed, information technology became increasingly integrated into global finance and financial markets were rapidly expanded, deregulated, and diversified. 

In his novel Synco (2008), the Chilean SF writer Jorge Baradit offers an alternative history of Project Cybersyn. It opens six years after the coup of 1973 which, in a parallel version of events, is dismantled with the assistance of Pinochet. The completion of Synco – “the hidden leviathan [...] the mechanical eye of socialist Chile” (Baradit, 29-30) – has transformed Chile into a fully-fledged cybernetic state. The country’s capital of Santiago provides the backdrop for the main action of the story and it is here that the protagonist Martina returns after some years in Venezuela. She is startled at the changes wrought by Synco but she soon becomes disquieted after witnessing the full extent of its political influence and surveillance. While the circumstances that lead to this totalitarian regime are never fully explained, it is implied that a cybernetic model of government is inextricable from centralized state control, and the collaboration between Pinochet and Allende serves to bolster the system. Synco’s power grows and by the end of the novel its network begins to effect changes in the language and geography of Chile. In the final scenes, as Martina is flown out of the country, she sees military jets heading the other way for a final showdown with this “god made of wires” (230). 

The novel’s bleak view assumes the inevitability of Cybersyn’s techno-totalitarian trajectory. The actual project, by contrast, was fragile and fledgling. Its computing resources were minimal. Devoted to a broadly “decentralizing, worker-participative and anti-bureaucratic” form of economic management (Beer, Brain of the Firm, 257), it was tantalizingly poised between a model and the thing itself. Along these lines, Medina maintains that “there is historical value in studying innovative technological systems, even if they are never fully realized” (Medina, 10). The recognition that systems like Cybersyn cannot be measured only by the logic of ‘what happened’ is an important one and highlights the question of making visible alternatives to dystopian economic computation.


Asimov, Isaac. “The Last Question.” Science Fiction Quarterly (November 1956): 6-15. 

Baradit, Jorge. Synco. Madrid and Barcelona: Ediciones B, 2008.

Beer, Stafford. Decision and Control. London: Wiley, 1966. 

---. The Brain of the Firm. London: Allen Lane, 1972. 

Crossen, Kendall Foster. Year of Consent. New York: Dell Publishing Company, 1954. 

Featherstone, Mike. Planet Utopia: Utopia, Dystopia, and Globalisation. London: Routledge, 2017. 

Fliegers, Serge. “Will Machines Replace the Human Brain?” American Monthly. 76 (1953): 53-61. 

Hawkes, Nigel. “Chile Run by Computer.” The Observer, 7 Jan 1973. 

Kemeny, John G. “Man Viewed as a Machine.” Scientific American. 192 (April 1955): 58-67. 

Kline, Ronald R. The Cybernetics Moment: Or Why We Call Our Age the Information Age. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins UP, 2015. 

Medina, Eden. Cybernetic Revolutionaries: Technology and Politics in Allende’s Chile. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2011. 

Mirowski, Philip. Machine Dreams: Economics Becomes a Computer Science. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2002. 

Orwell, George. Nineteen Eighty-Four. London: Secker & Warburg, 1949. 

Pickering, Andrew. The Cybernetic Brain: Sketches Of Another Future. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 2011. 

Wiener, Norbert. Cybernetics: Or Control and Communication in the Animal and the Machine. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1948.