Tag Archives: Science Fiction

Corona Solaris

The sun's corona seen during a solar eclipse

The sun’s corona seen during a solar eclipse

In “Corona” by Paul Celan:

“we love one another like poppies and memory,
we sleep like wine in a seashell,
like the sea in the moon’s bloody rays.”1

Even in the present tense and indicative mood, the speaker’s words contain a distance and an “if only.” The poem inhabits the utopia of a moment, whose impossibility is felt as a lament in the comparison of the retro-future and the present. We know which one we make now.

The poem’s imagery of coronae and red water reminds me of Lem’s Solaris: “The wave-crests glinted through the window, the colossal rollers rising and falling in slow-motion. […] Thick foam, the color of blood, gathered in the troughs of the waves.”2

1 Paul Celan, “Corona,” in Selections, ed. Pierre Joris (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005), 44.
2 Stanisław Lem, Solaris, trans. Joanna Kilmartin and Steve Cox (San Diego: Harvest, 1987), 8.

The Engines of God vs Deepsix

Covers of McDevitt's Deepsix and The Engines of God

Covers of McDevitt’s Deepsix and The Engines of God

The story of Jack McDevitt’s novel Deepsix takes place about 20 years after the events of The Engines of God, to which it is a sequel. They’re both fun reads. They could both be described as energetic science fiction novels. And yet, Deepsix lacks something that appeared in The Engines of God—namely, a sense of awe. In Engines, the characters are struck by archeological clues in a mysterious universe, while in Deepsix the story arc is based upon a race against the clock to engineer an escape of some people out of a dangerous environment, which—oh yeah—has some scattered remnants of alien civilization, but we don’t have time to look at it so forget it. The story of Deepsix could easily have been set in Alaska with a few variables replaced.

A Retrospective Form of Appearance

[Left:] Cover of Stanisław Lem's His Master's Voice, trans. Michael Kandel (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1999); [Right:] Portrait of G. W. F. Hegel (1831) by Jakob Schlesinger

[Left:] Cover of Stanisław Lem’s His Master’s Voice; [Right:] Portrait of G. W. F. Hegel (1831) by Jakob Schlesinger

The narrator of Lem’s His Master’s Voice (1968), reflecting on the publishing of his thesis, speaks of a former rival in mathematics. I chuckled at his comparison of the rival to philosopher G. W. F. Hegel:

And yet, when I received from the publisher the fresh, stiff copies of my articles, bright as if bathed in new glory, I would have lucid moments; before me would appear Dill, dry, thin as a beanpole, inflexible, his face like a portrait of Hegel—and I hated Hegel, I could not read him, because he was so sure of himself, as if the Absolute Itself spoke through his lips for the greater glory of the Prussian state. Hegel, I realize now, had nothing to do with it; I had put him in the place of another person.1

I know this is a work of fiction, but it expresses (lucidly) a symptom of the 20th century’s thinkers’ difficulty in understanding Hegel. This incomprehension at Hegel’s confidence isn’t just restricted to fictional characters. It can be seen in many thinkers of today. This incomprehension is a necessary form of appearance which comes about due to the qualitative divide between the 20th century and the time of Hegel. As can be seen even in the decade after Hegel’s death, the split into Left- and Right-Hegelian philosophy almost immediately began to show signs of trouble in grappling with the world. Was Hegel simply wrong, “too idealistic,” too “teleological”? No. What if bourgeois society had entered into a crisis that subsequently sent tremors through an architecture set up to comprehend a different world?

In “Marxism and Philosophy” (1923), Karl Korsch points out the trouble that bourgeois historians of philosophy have with this period of the 1830s-60s.2 Marx and Engels understood that the appearance of the false certainty of Hegel is not due to a thought-error by Hegel, but rather by a fundamental change in society, namely the crisis of bourgeois society that is expressed in the Industrial Revolution. Marxism picks up the Hegelian dialectic, rather than rejecting it, which was seen in the rise of neo-Kantianism in the 1860s.

1 Stanisław Lem, His Master’s Voice, trans. Michael Kandel (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1999).
2 Karl Korsch, “Marxism and Philosophy” (1923), in Marxism and Philosophy, trans. Fred Halliday (New York: Verso, 2012), 37-38.

Re-watching GitS: SAC

Lately I’ve been re-watching the first two seasons (Gigs) of Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex, and I’m disappointed to find that it’s not as good this time. I knew it had its flaws before, but now they seem even more glaring. Perhaps the new Ghost in the Shell: Arise season is worthwhile though.

Unsettling Corporeal Movements

In Stanisław Lem’s Solaris (1961), a pilot is interviewed after a flight on an alien planet, as a part of a scientific investigation:

BERTON: […] While I was still some distance away, I noticed a pale, almost white, object floating on the surface. My first thought was that it was Fechner’s flying-suit, especially as it looked vaguely human in form. I brought the aircraft round sharply, afraid of losing my way and being unable to find the same spot again. The shape, the body, was moving; sometimes it seemed to be standing upright in the trough of the waves. I accelerated and went down so low that the machine bounced gently. I must have hit the crest of a huge wave I was overflying. The body—yes, it was a human body, not at atmosphere-suit—the body was moving.
QUESTION: Did you see its face?
QUESTION: Who was it?
BERTON: A child.
QUESTION: What child? Did you recognize it?
BERTON: No. At any rate, I don’t remember having seen it before. Besides, when I got closer—when I was forty yards away, or even sooner—I realized that it was no ordinary child.
QUESTION: What do you mean?
BERTON: I’ll explain. At first, I couldn’t understand what worried me about it; it was only after a minute or two that I realized: this child was extraordinarily large. Enormous, in fact. Stretched out horizontally, its body rose twelve feet above the surface of the ocean, I swear. I remembered that when I touched the wave, its face was a little higher than mine, even though my cockpit must have been least ten feet above the ocean.
QUESTION: If it was as big as that, what makes you say it was a child?
BERTON: Because it was a tiny child.
QUESTION: Do you realize, Berton, that your answer doesn’t make sense?
BERTON: On the contrary. I could see its face, and it was a very young child. Besides, its proportions corresponded exactly to the proportions of a child’s body. It was a … babe in arms. No, I exaggerate. It was probably two or three years old. It had black hair and blue eyes—enormous blue eyes! It was naked—completely naked—like a new-born baby. It was wet, or I should say glossy; its skin was shiny. I was shattered. I no longer thought it was a mirage. I could see this child so distinctly. It rose and fell with the waves; but apart from this general motion, it was making other movements, and they were horrible!
QUESTION: Why? What was it doing?
BERTON: It was more like a doll in a museum, only a living doll. It opened and closed its mouth, it make various gestures, horrible gestures.
QUESTION: What do you mean?
BERTON: I was watching it from about twenty yards away—I don’t suppose I went any closer. But, as I’ve already told you, it was enormous. I could see very clearly. Its eyes sparkled and you really would have thought it was a living child, if it hadn’t been for the movements, the gestures, as though someone was trying … It was as though someone else was responsible for the gestures …
QUESTION: Try to be more explicit.
BERTON: It’s difficult. I’m talking of an impression, more of an intuition. I didn’t analyze it, but I knew that those gestures weren’t natural.
QUESTION: Do you mean, for example, that the hands didn’t move as human hands would move, because the joints were not sufficiently supple?
BERTON: No, not at all. But … these movements had no meaning. Each of our own movements means something, more or less, serves some purpose …
QUESTION: Do you think so? The movements of an infant don’t have much meaning!
BERTON: I know. But an infant’s movements are confused, random, uncoordinated. The movements I saw were … er … yes, that’s it, they were methodical movements. They were performed one after another, like a serious of exercises; as though someone had wanted to make a study of what this child was capable of doing with its hands, its torso, its mouth. The face was more horrifying than the rest, because the human face has an expression, and this face … I don’t know how to describe it. It was alive, yes, but it wasn’t human. Or rather, the features, as a whole, the eyes, the complexion, were, but the expression, the movements of the face, were certainly not.
QUESTION: Were they grimaces? Do you know what happens to a person’s face during an epileptic fit?
BERTON: Yes. I’ve watched an epileptic fit. I know what you mean. No, it was something quite different. Epilepsy provokes spasms, convulsions. The movements I’m talking about were fluid, continuous, graceful … melodious, if one can say that of a movement. It’s the nearest definition I can think of. But this face … a face can’t divide itself into two—one half gay, the other sad, one half scowling and the other amiable, one half frightened and the other triumphant. But that’s how it was with this child’s face. In addition to that, all these movements and changes of expression succeeded one another with unbelievable rapidity. I stayed down there a very short time, perhaps ten seconds, perhaps less (80-83).

A Quick Note on Dune

I’m sad to write that it turns out Frank Herbert’s Dune series is actually terrible. The cover of the first book makes a bold statement when it calls itself the supreme masterpiece of science fiction. The book has inspired several film and television mini-series. So how could it be worthy of such reverence? I’m not sure.

The first book literally begins with a scene in which the main character, Paul, learns that he’s the messiah of a powerful cult. The next 800 pages, in addition to the second book, is spent listing off things he does that are messianic in nature. There is no real conflict in any of these situations because his success is always inevitable due to his godlike abilities. What his role actually means for the universe is never explained. What does the messiah do? Nothing. I don’t expect action from science fiction novels, but the entirety of the second book Dune Messiah is made up of Paul thinking out loud about how he doesn’t know what to do.

Yes, the books have a couple interesting moments, but the Dune universe remains completely unexplored. There are the briefest mentions of things like a guild of space-faring people who are able to see the future. But that’s pretty much all that’s said of them. Nothing about what they’ve seen, or why they live and work as they do. Nothing.

I recommend never reading this series because it is absolute dreck.

Imagery in Dune

Detail of cover of Dune

Detail of cover of Dune

Here are just a few moments in Frank Herbert’s science fiction novel Dune (1965), whose imagery is striking:

“Paul stepped past her, lifting his binoculars. He adjusted their internal pressure with a quick twist, focused the oil lenses on the other cliff, lifting golden tan in morning light across open sand” (408).

The night is a tunnel, she thought, a hole into tomorrow . . . if we’re to have a tomorrow” (425).

“Paul continued to stare across the basin. He inhaled, sensed the softly cutting contralto smell of sage climbing the night. The predatory bird—he thought of it as the way of this desert. It had brought a stillness to the basin so unuttered that the blue-milk moonlight could almost be heard flowing across sentinel saguaro and spiked paintbush. There was a low humming of light here more basic in its harmony than any other music in his universe” (434).