This represents the first academic essay I had published, back when I was attempting my PhD for the first time. It was actually written in 1996 and delivered at the Speaking Science Fiction conference organised by the University of Liverpool, but remarkably the edited collection of conference papers wasn’t published until four years later.
Originally published in Speaking Science Fiction: Dialogues and Interpretations ed. Andy Sawyer & David Seed (Liverpool University Press 0-85323-844-8, Nov 2000.
CONFERENCE ABSTRACT: Who speaks Science Fiction? Science Fiction is a series of dialogues: between realism and the fantastic; between its “pulp” and “literary” wings; between “hard science” and harder philosophy, between its sub-genres from space-opera to cyberpunk. The debate continues: between practitioners and archivists; linguists and physicists, academics and fans. Existing within and between national traditions, science fiction speaks literally, as metaphor and narrative, and figuratively, as a reflection of the outer world and inner space, and is spoken by many who do not read it – merely live it in their everyday lives.
Is the attention given to science fiction by cultural theorists and the world of information technology a sign of health or is it a dialogue which ignores the genre’s past and undermines its future?
The narrator must be a metasubject in the process of formulating both the legitimacy of the discourses of the empirical sciences and that of the direct institutions of popular cultures. This metasubject, in giving voice to their common grounding, realizes their implicit goal. It inhabits the speculative university. Positive science and the people are only crude versions of it. The only valid way…to bring the people to expression is through the mediation of speculative knowledge.
– Jean-Francois Lyotard. The Postmodern Condition.
Can’t you see I’m making this up as I go?
“It seems then,” I said, “if pewter dishes, leaves of lettuce, grains of salt, drops of water, vinegar, oil and slices of eggs had been flying about in the air for all eternity, it might at last happen by chance that it would come a salad.”
“Yes,” responded my lovely, “but not so nice as this one of mine.”
– Johan Keplar, Die Stella Novae.
In seeking to answer the question “Who Speaks Science Fiction?” we should make some attempt at least to define this most knotty of categories and the assumptions underlying its usage.
As is well known, the “Father of Scientifiction” , Hugo Gernsback, envisioned his Amazing Stories publication as an outlet for “charming romance[s] intermingled with scientific fact and prophetic vision” (Stableford, Clute and Nicholls 1993, p. 311). The emphasis on science (or at least, the illusion of science) and a shared set of assumptions surrounding this type of knowledge endured, crystallising into a genre with its own codes and precepts for operation. For that initial heady mixture – the privileged will-to-knowledge previously unavailable, white-hot heat sandwiched between the tail-end of the Industrial Revolution and the imaginary landscapes beyond – seems to persist at the heart of much subsequent genre SF. This Golden Age represents an eternal adolescence, a bygone era when increased leisure was channelled into a few outlets, gleaming and magnificent in their singular devotion to a new evolution in thought. Its allure is understandable, perhaps even necessary, to our postmodern age, in which nostalgia and traditional values are pre-packaged as marks of authenticity in a secret-less world, a world without depth.
As Carl Freedman argues:
…much SF, especially of the more conformist sort, is a kind of historical fiction in disguise: witness the nostalgic reconstructions of the entrepreneurial in Heinlein’s novella The Man Who Sold the Moon or in the section on merchant traders in Asimov’s Foundation, both classic works of “Golden Age” SF which, however liberal in overt ideology, do find Utopian traces in the entrepreneurialism which the monopoly capitalism of the postwar US was, at the time of writing, rendering more and more obsolete.
…historical fiction, paradoxically, is the more vulnerable to an unhistorical fetishism of the past…in which the merely aesthetic relish of costume and exoticism triumphs over the genuinely conceptual issues of historical specificity and difference… (1987, p. 187).
Certainly, the popular perception of science fiction – as romantic retro-futurism – is tied to a superficial reading of the Gernsbackian formula.
A second original characteristic needs to be noted: namely, a shared belief in the power of the genre as a superior kind of cognition, from Gernsback to Dick to Ballard to Cyberpunk . However, it was cognition that rigorously sought to patrol its own boundaries, extrapolating from the mainstream methodologies and criteria for “reality” that must be applied to fantasy and speculation:
While a rigorous definition of “hard sf” may be impossible, perhaps the most important thing about it is, not that it should include real science in any great detail, but that it should respect the scientific spirit; it should seek to provide natural rather than supernatural or transcendental explanations for the events and phenomena it describes. (Nicholls 1993, p. 542).
In today’s cyber-culture the machinations and methodology of current technology are becoming increasingly invisible and unfathomable, “unnatural” in their process. Yet the Gernsback legacy (modified by John W. Campbell and others) appears intact. Indeed, the success of Star Trek, as a kind of “Melrose Space”, indicates the genre’s rude health; yet it remains a “trainspotter’s” pursuit (albeit with enormous commercial clout), where moral uncertainties and ethical dilemmas are flattened into simple dichotomies, usually revolving around good and evil. In part, this is an effect of the way visual renderings of science-fictional scenarios have come to displace their literary counterparts in the popular consciousness.
Paul Virilio writes of the proliferation of images in the electronic era of reproduction as:
…a kind of seeing without knowing; a bedazzlement, a pure seeing… Images contaminate us like viruses… They are not informative images which inform us in the sense of feedback, and of comprehension, but in the sense of an epidemic, in the sense of contamination. (Virilio, Baudrillard and Hall 1988, p. 5)
Virilio believes that this bedazzlement arises from an ever-sophisticated visual and virtual technology. Even if we temper some of the more apocalyptic aspects of his argument, it is clear that the concurrent advances in cinematic special effects perform a similar function, since the temptation is to privilege the image, to showcase it and fetishise it, as “science fiction” becomes a commodity, validated by the progressiveness of its means of production.
Consider the following advertisements, merely two of many in which the gleaming surface of technological progress becomes the newest currency. These were commissioned by Telstra, the Australian telecommunications concern. In the first a man is led into a room containing multiple banks of TV monitors. He watches computer-enhanced studio trickery, as the wonders of advanced telecommunications are demonstrated to him. Awe-struck, he comments: “This was all science fiction not so long ago.” In the second, two small children swing through trees and jump huge chasms – feats obviously beyond the capacity of their years – as they act out their Indiana Jones-type fantasies. Suddenly they happen upon the entrance to an underground Telstra facility, where they are greeted by a Telstra worker. Awe-struck, they wonder aloud about his actions. The worker proudly proclaims: “I’m laying cables for the information superhighway.”
These signify much more than the arrogance of a major conglomerate with advertising dollars to spare and unlimited cultural resources to plunder. Here the Telstra company, in one (thoroughly-researched) fell swoop, announces the death of science fiction as an extrapolative, speculative genre, by acknowledging that the tropes of estrangement and inversion typically utilised by SF are in fact reports from the coal-face of the media landscape, the air we reflexively breathe. Telstra acknowledges the evolution of the media-savvy consumer, armed with intimate knowledge of the methodology of the media landscape, while also legitimising the calm nihilism of critical theorists such as Virilio and Baudrillard. For the ads’ message is clearly this: we live inside a media-ted fiction, our only reference points those fictions we consume – why not trust someone, Telstra, whose fictions are more life-like, more wraparound, more real than any other? Passivity is presented as a choice, a loopback failure in which all roads lead to Telstra. Or do they?
Freedman writes that SF privileges:
…the telos of critical theory: the elaborate and powerful demystifying apparatus of Marxist (and Freudian) thought exist, ultimately, in order to clear space upon which possible alternatives to the existent can be constructed. (p. 188).
However, it should be clear by now that in the invasive realm of late capitalism the machine must be turned against itself. This represents the radical change from standard forms of socially aware science fiction, typically presented in films such as The Omega Man, Soylent Green, Rollerball and THX 1138. Such SF depicted a “one man against the system” scenario: typically, the hero’s rebellion was brutally crushed and his broken body used as a totemistic warning for the rest of society. Now the system fights back in very different ways: the time-lag between innovative culture and flaccid cliché is almost infinitesimal .
Accordingly, a kind of twice-removed SF has become the ideal paradigmatic form. Virilio comments upon key themes of “science-technology-other worlds”:
Science fiction narrative, in effect, shows most of us turning in circles like the blind before the very obviousness of the familiar universe. A kind of incompatibility between our physical presence in the world and the different degrees of nocturnal anesthesia of consciousness [lapsing] into short or prolonged, mild or serious states of absence which may indeed bring about…our sudden immersion in other universes – parallel, interstitial, bifurcating… (1981, p. 242).
In this regard, it is instructive to note a mid-’80s manifesto from Bruce Sterling, where the central themes of cyberpunk science fiction are identified as “body invasion” – prosthetics, implants, gene splicing, and “mind invasion” – artificial intelligence, mind-machine interfaces. Again, the focus on a type of post-humanism is depicted as resulting from technological advance. Crucially, however, Sterling roots this identification in experience:
The cyberpunks are perhaps the first SF generation to grow up not only within the literary tradition of science fiction but in a truly science-fictional world. For them, the techniques of classical “hard SF”…are not just literary tools but an aid to daily life. They are a means of understanding, and highly valued (1988, p. xi – my italic).
Clearly, there are still valuable lessons to be learnt from SF’s passage into public consciousness. The cyberpunk movement, such as it was, self-destructed with the release of the William Gibson-scripted Johnny Mnemonic, a film which lazily drew upon media-ted versions of cyberpunk for its stylistic and thematic basis_, becoming in effect a simulacrum – a copy with no original . This outcome was always assumed in Sterling and Gibson, intensely media-savvy writers. Yet their imaginings became trapped within their own rhetoric: the extrapolative, hard SF techniques employed by the cyberpunks have become so much a part of Western lore, with the technological future collapsing into the ever-accelerating present_, that it becomes increasingly difficult for Gibson in particular to write without reading as a parody of himself. If anything, the cyberpunks were too aware, becoming victims of their own iconic power . Accordingly, Gibson yearns to produce a different kind of fiction:
On my tour for Virtual Light, I was…saying that the next logical move was to write a novel that would do everything that you would expect a William Gibson novel to do, but would be set in the real world and would involve no fantasy elements whatsoever. On second thought, I decided that it would be awfully hard to do… (Redd & Nervegna 1995, p. 84).
Despite best intentions then, there is reason enough to argue that the term “science fiction” has become meaningless, merely a marketing category, a quaint throwback to a romantic, bygone era. Just as obviously however, in this culture there is a real need for a literature of ideas, translatable into the action and practice of everyday life. Indeed, the “attention given to science fiction by cultural theorists and the world of information technology” signifies a collective cultural desire to make sense of the rapid changes occurring around us, replacing the flights of fancy which once obsessively rocketed us into space.
In an essay on the similarities between “postmodernist fiction” and SF, Brian McHale argues that these “two ontological sister-genres…have been pursuing analogous but independent courses of development” (1987, p. 65), obliterating SF’s past as a medium for scientific extrapolation, undermining its future, according to that particular track, but at the same time claiming relevance for the genre by returning to Darko Suvin’s well-known formulation of SF as a “literature of cognitive estrangement.” (59).
This is a useful starting-point, for genre-policing is in itself a pointless pursuit, available to those unwilling or unable to confront the fluidity of a discourse that threatens to envelop us, at the same time as it liberates. Advertising and the media explosion have taught their receivers to become a writerly audience, through the targeting of precisely such stimuli , but only according to a framework tightly controlled by the designers of these fictional worlds. “Choice” must still conform to stricture. Just as performance artist Perry Hoberman utilises a “karaoke” mode, or participatory model in his installations (as opposed to the standard “interactive” paradigm) so cultural improvisation must be encouraged, rather than mapping or navigation. The user must be allowed to remould existing forms practically in order to envisage, in Suvin’s words, “…an imaginative framework alternative to the author’s empirical environment.”
As Carl Freedman reminds us, critical theory-aligned-with-SF is well-equipped to articulate these strategies. Yet the “cultural theorist” branch of SF remains a hermetically-sealed environment, much like its generic cousin.
Consider Veronica Hollinger:
While I do not at all mean to suggest that postmodernist cultural production cannot also be an effective means of political resistance and perhaps even of political change, it would seem that the particular allegorical formula that produces specular SF arises from an impulse to negate such effectiveness.
…This quality of numbness is…evident in the final moment of Ballard’s Crash, in which the narrator, mesmerized by the iconography of violent, technologized death, and “already…designing the elements of [his] own car crash,” meditates on the image of “a thousand crashing cars.” (1992, 33).
Hollinger continues, subsequently quoting and commenting upon Zoe Sofia’s description of our “contemporary science-fiction culture”:
…Sofia’s analysis bears significant resemblances to Baudrillard’s theoretical allegorization of contemporary sociopolitical reality as SF catastrophe. However, the point of her analysis is not passive acceptance but an aggressive feminist resistance to and rejection of those science-fictional aspects of the present that threaten to foreclose the future. (34).
Hollinger, like many of her contemporaries, has a political agenda to serve, a border to patrol. Her reading of J.G. Ballard’s 1973 novel Crash is an ideological decision, serving no useful purpose once outside this domain: it deceitfully renders the text inert by the very act of plundering its resources, its world-view, in order to spruce up a parallel text. To paraphrase Freedman, she privileges “aesthetic relish” over “conceptual issues of specificity and difference” by refusing to acknowledge and work through the shifting nature of postmodern cultural production. The rest of this essay will demonstrate that such a reading can be of no interest to those who do not read science fiction, merely live it in everyday lives.
It is worth looking at Crash in further detail, since it is a text which encapsulates much of the aesthetic and philosophy of the cyber-culture (the “present”) that has come to replace the imaginings of science fiction (the “future.”) Like the hyperreal landscape in which it is set, Crash occupies an ambiguous space, somewhere between critical theory and cyberpunk SF; the psychological impact of the writing leaves it open to various interpretations. In the hands of Mark Pauline’s Survival Research Laboratory, for example, Crash is depicted as a cyborg fantasy, a Benjaminesque sense of the destruction of the self conceived as aesthetic pleasure of the highest order_ . Concrete Island (1974) and High-Rise (1975) have been written about in similar terms. Yet, these works – Ballard’s “urban disaster” trilogy – are about accepting the implications of post-industrial society, and of evolving an imaginative response to the resulting technological and societal relations. In this mode, Crash avoids the various limitations normally imposed by science fiction’s passage into popular consciousness. In an essay on William Burroughs, Ballard identifies the generic weight which so often stifles SF. Still struggling under the expectations of the Gernsback legacy, the vocabulary of the genre long ago passed into the collective popular imaginary. Superseded by the high-tech grandeur of the Space Age, these fictional elements are, according to the author, “now valid only in a kind of marginal spoofing” (1964, p. 107).
Here Ballard is prescient: as we have noted, hard SF is destined to be overtaken by the technological developments of the real world, refiguring itself again and again as a future that never happened, a victim of our postmodern society and its peculiar focus on the present: a compressed moment devouring the past and future, and regurgitating it as mere surface texture, at the whim of the vogue. Taking his cue from Burroughs, Ballard’s own work utilises these self-satirizing figments to construct an alternative mindspace, drawing upon the recombinant power of the imagination and its ability to construct a kind of hypertextual key to our fractured and displaced technological identity. His use of SF metaphor clears ground for positive action, linking this imaginative response to new technologies: simulacra become ripe for inscription with brand-new auratic powers, as SF provides a language for understanding technology, rather than being seen merely as a product of this technology. Thus the characters in High-Rise are presented with:
…a model of the world into which the future was carrying them, a landscape beyond technology where everything was either derelict or, more ambiguously, recombined in unexpected but more meaningful ways (Ballard 1975, p. 147).
Ballard’s trilogy inhabits the space between perception and recognition. The author has always been fascinated by the view of reality which our mental and nervous systems perfect for us: the simple fact of objects appearing smaller as they recede distance-wise would make absolutely no sense to a blind person suddenly given sight. To sighted people it is a commonplace, barely given a second thought. Clearly the media landscape plays upon this instinctive tendency to compress reality into manageable frames, neatly flattening difference and co-opting diversity_. Numerous commentators, including Ballard and the theorists mentioned previously, have refigured the television screen as a “third eye”, perceiving images and processing information on our behalf. In this sense, it is difficult to disagree with Fredric Jameson, who notes that:
The postmodern viewer…is called upon to do the impossible, namely, to see all…screens at once, in their radical and random difference…and to rise somehow to a level at which the vivid perception of radical difference is in and of itself a new mode of grasping what used to be called relationship: something for which the word collage is still only a very feeble name.[These] cultural products…[stand] as something like an imperative to grow new organs, to expand our sensorium and our body to some new, yet unimaginable, perhaps ultimately impossible dimensions (1991, p. 31, 39).
This view of postmodern existence aligns itself to the universe of Crash – Ballard’s introduction to the French edition of his novel identifies the “death of affect” as the “most terrifying casualty of the twentieth century” (November 1975, p. 45). This demise of feeling and emotion is linked to the demise of the self, as Jameson describes it , and the same process is inscribed in the values and stylings of the motor car, a twentieth-century advertising phenomenon, and its attendant technology. In a recent article, architect Steve Whitford described his intentions when designing two retaining walls forming part of a road link:
Our first important contribution to the discussion about the design of road hardware was to argue that concerns for human scale were irrelevant when these elements were being viewed from a scale modifier; a fast moving vehicle. The car makes large distances small, steep hills flat, and compresses events isolated in time and space into connected events occurring almost simultaneously (1992, p. 40).
Aligned with the advertising of lifestyles which invariably accompanies the car, and the result is a kind of virtual reality, in which the consumer becomes enmeshed within the signs and values of the communications landscape, and the flattened space that remains. Similarly in Crash, the characters are defined by this metallised skin; the body is fragmented and subsequently held together by signs and symbols, as in the following excerpt, which describes the aftermath of a road accident:
His hand had struck some rigid object as he was hurled from his seat, and the pattern of a sign formed itself as I sat there, pumped up by his dying circulation into a huge blood-blister – the triton signature of my radiator emblem (Ballard 1973, p. 20).
Automotive advertising consistently reminds us that cars can buy status, wealth, power, respect, attraction to the opposite sex, peace of mind, and so on. At the same time, violent, thrill-a-minute, State-sanctioned mini-dramas (in Australia, at least) warn us of the underside of this technological construct – the seductive, destructive power of speed. What of the unfortunate consumer, flattened into the non-space connecting these simultaneous universes? To make the conceptual leap from “violent weapon” to “sexy accessory” requires us to disregard our “traditional” sense organs in true Jamesonian fashion and to accept the type of oxymoronic information so often disseminated through advertising media, in which “fresh frozen”, “light, yet filling” and “virtually spotless” products abound. Such tactics exhort us to suspend disbelief: “Your reality will be superseded by ours” .
For Jean Baudrillard, “true SF” must therefore “…seek to revitalize, to reactualize, to rebanalize fragments of simulation – fragments of this universal simulation which our presumed “real” world has now become for us” (1991, p. 311). Crash fulfils this function: indeed, Baudrillard perceives in Ballard’s work a vision of humanity simultaneously fascinated and numbed by its technological environment, emptied of all value judgement.
These arguments are persuasive. In a culture in which surveillance cameras betray our secrets to the public sphere, everyone from hooligan footballers to shoplifters expresses surprise and outrage when their actions are relayed to a wider audience. Caught In the Act, a new British TV program, has spent months buying surveillance film from various operators: gas-bagging grannies in the street and semi-naked women in change-rooms share air-time with vicious thugs conducting smash-and-grab raids… Mick Jagger, onstage with the Stones at some monstrously large and impersonal stadium, catches a glimpse of himself on the Sony Jumbotron to his left. For the first time, he sees what the audience sees, a hyper-active stick-figure engaging in the most ludicrous prat-falls. For an instant, his face ripples and stains with bewilderment. But the show must go on… On air, chat-show host Oprah Whinfrey refers to her televisual persona as the “Oprah-Oprah Thing”, and wonders aloud why an audience would confuse “it” with “me”. As Ballard observed early in his career, Earth is truly the alien planet.
Thus, the elements in Crash explicitly couched in SF mythology are stripped of finality, of a finite futurism, the real world becoming “rebanalized” by their metaphoric invocation, as in the following excerpts:
The distant headlamps, refracted through the soap solution jetting across the windows, covered their bodies with a luminescent glow, like two semi-metallic human beings of the distant future making love in a chromium bower.
The bones of my forearms formed a solid coupling with the shift of the steering column, and I felt the smallest tremors of the road-wheels magnified a hundred times, so that we traversed each grain of gravel or cement like the surface of a small asteroid (Ballard 1973, pp. 161-162, 196-197)
Ultimately such passages, with their language of alien-ation and disruption, remind the reader of the irreal nature of the media landscape and of ourselves, as technology-infected subjects: once this position is recognised, the automobile is then refigured by Ballard as a prosthesis, a technological object under human control.
Clearly Veronica Hollinger errs in dismissing the role of the imagination in this universe-without-secrets. The character Vaughan is obsessed with planning a car crash involving the actress, Elizabeth Taylor, with altering and transforming her public persona mediated through the world’s camera-eye. Previous celebrity automotive deaths involving Jayne Mansfield, Albert Camus and James Dean also preoccupy Vaughan; his aim is to restage these accidents, in a way that will make sense to his disordered consciousness. As Baudrillard highlights, the camera dictates the intensely visual language of Crash – accordingly, Vaughan’s perception of these events is couched in the terms of the media landscape, in the paradoxical “nightmare marriage of sex and technology.” As the filmed version of Crash reminds us, James Dean’s violent death forever froze him as an icon of youthful rebellion and lust; he now exists as a kind of digital ghost, cruising the media terrain, at the beck and call of whomsoever chooses to call up his image. Thus the sexual act in Ballard’s work, so often invoked in film and literature as a guide to “essential” humanity, becomes merely a commodity, free-floating, a violence imposed on the absent body:
Elements of her body…were framed within the cabin of the car. As I pressed the head of my penis against the neck of her uterus, in which I could feel a dead machine, her cap, I looked at the cabin around me. This small space was crowded with angular control surfaces and rounded sections of human bodies interacting in unfamiliar junctions, like the first act of homosexual intercourse inside an Apollo capsule (1973, p. 80).
Couched in unemotive, abstracted biological-medical terminology, descriptions of this most intimate of acts are explicitly linked to a kind of pornographic reality. As TV-news presents violent acts as fetishised emblems of humanity – human behavioural patterns unencumbered by moral or social obligations, just “televisual”_ – so too, sexuality becomes fused with its machines, an artificial response to an artificial situation . Seduced by this miasma, Vaughan seeks to construct his own “celebrity death” and in the process plummets to destruction and apparent failure:
…he died on the flyover as he tried to crash my car into the limousine carrying the film actress whom he had pursued for so long. Trapped within the car after it jumped off the rails of the flyover, his body was so disfigured by its impact with the airline coach below that the police first identified it as mine (Ballard 1973, p. 220).
Vaughan’s dream of resurrection, on the news-loops which would have captured the proposed crash with Taylor, is dashed. However, in reaching this point he re-asserts a long-lost subjectivity, as he negotiates a landscape “without limits, without referentiality”. In this mortal shock, this body-rending event, Vaughan and his symbolic car-crash confronts, and maintains escape-velocity from, the disempowering death of affect underlying the tensions in Crash. For Ballard, the absence left by the simulation model – by the destruction of technology as it traditionally appears to us (refracted through scientific models and therefore “Frankensteinian”, threatening) is seen as a chance for joyous reclamation of a techno-body previously thought to be erased forever:
The destruction of this motor-car and its occupants seemed, in turn, to sanction the sexual penetration of Vaughan’s body; both were conceptualized acts abstracted from all feeling, carrying any ideas or emotions with which we cared to freight them (Ballard 1973, p. 129).
More and more we find ourselves within a literal media landscape, bombarded by icons of film, television, the presence of digital technologies and the changing nature of info-transmission. “Fictionalised” and “real” world events commingle with gleaming sexuality in advertisements, politics, and entertainment – all products of a system, a model of reality, which has imploded, and is haemorrhaging uncontrollably. Stretched to infinity, invading the imaginary. Global events couched in the logic of dreams, mediated by cinematic, visual language; angles and fields of vision alternated, transmitted via textual pans and zooms, a multi-televisual universe.
Acceptance of media fictions requires a certain willingness to accept the rhetoric of the image and the natural inclination of the imaginative realm to conventionalise reality, to blend the illogical with the familiar. Ballard’s work blends several levels: public, personal and fantastical, and according to the author, allows the simultaneous examination of “the different strata that make up our own experience of the actual world” (November 1975, p. 51). Although written in linear fashion, Crash is as demonstrative of the process as its “cut-and-paste” predecessor The Atrocity Exhibition. Couched within a realist form, the work undercuts the psychological expectations normally derived from this type of structure. For realist literature operates within a self-referential articulation of form – referring back to itself or similar narratives. Crash, however, is stripped of narrative omniscience. In its mingling of frames – scientific, medical, pornographic with realist techniques, and the reader-reception each requires – Crash avoids finality. As Baudrillard would observe, it is without referentiality, without limits. But Crash is more than simply “without”. It is transformed as a subversive agenda, the negative value seeping in and invading the commercial, that is conventionalised, shell.
Clearly the implications are important and far-reaching: in an age in which technology is geared to capturing and re-working information and data (digital sampling, photo-shop, morphing, multi-media systems), a new form of expression arises – one which alters what it means to be “original” and externalises reality as a playground for the imagination. To paraphrase Ballard, in a world in which any original response to experience has been pre-empted, the most effective method for dealing with that world is to assume that it is a complete fiction – our task must therefore be to invent the reality. These are strategies gaining much currency today, from the Alt. X and Avant-Pop manifestoes on the World Wide Web to the gushing tomes of media analyst Douglas Rushkoff, with his “media viruses” and infected “datasphere.”
More substantially, musician Brian Eno has cited the example of classical Thai music. To the untrained Western ear, it will be quite an experience to learn that certain parts of these scores are designed to be “melancholy” or “uplifting”, when they sound merely baffling or utterly discordant, infused with no emotion whatsoever (1994, p.42). In order to sever this golden noose, Eno advocates found-sound samples or alternative rhythm and melody lines in what can be an often totally random juxtaposition. If the listener approaches it with an open mind, then hopefully the parts can re-assemble themselves into a meaningful whole, based directly on the experience of the listener. The thrill of recognition when hearing a sample from one’s cultural imaginary – a chart-topping song, for example – can be superseded, or illuminated, when that same bite is sped up or aurally stretched to breaking-point. Or, replaced by the jarring grate of an inept bass-line and poorly-constructed drum rhythm, the thrill of recognition, and therefore of enjoyment, is wrenched from its warm womb. The consumer is invited to reflect upon their relationship to commodity-culture: how can one decide which is “good” or “bad” music? Certainly, these types of strategies may tap into something completely beyond such dichotomies.
Musicians practising techno and drum ‘n’ bass stylings up the ante by reflecting the hyper-kinetic nature of inner-megacity life, stretching and distorting the spatial and temporal dimensions of this environment through similar techniques. The so-called distance senses, seeing and hearing, extend the body out perceptually; they are now in danger of being lost forever, caught amidst a welter of cross-signals. In these forms of music, everything is equal in the mix, inviting the listener/viewer/consumer to fight afainst sensory fascism. In denying access to the normal modes of sensorial alignment, the body is brought back into play, feeling and groping its way around a strange, yet hauntingly familiar space.
Recording artists Negativland discuss the psychological impact arising from the act of selection and juxtaposition, as their music recontextualises fragments from the media landscape, “chewing them up and spitting them out” as “a new form of hearing the world around us”. For Negativland, this is the inevitable consequence of the “electronic age of media saturation” and the technology of reproduction available on a wide-spread basis (1995, p. 121, 129).
Psychologists are now identifying ailments and strains which arise from “information overkill”, attacking and debilitating the body: Information Fatigue Syndrome is a recent coinage. The sum total of all printed information doubles in increasingly shorter amounts of time, as the human cost arising from the processing of this material increases exponentially. As Ballard writes: “Science and technology multiply around us. To an increasing extent they dictate the languages in which we speak and think. Either we use those languages, or we remain mute” (November 1975, p. 47). These musical examples represent positive and practical applications of this philosophy, countering the “Black Shakes” of information overload.
In the attempt to define the essence of SF, we should remember the words of Michel Foucault:
…as our society changes…polysemic texts will once again function according to another mode…one which will…have to be determined or, perhaps, experienced.
We would no longer hear the questions that have been rehashed for so long: “Who really spoke?…With what authenticity or originality?” Instead there would be other questions, like these: “What are the modes of existence of this discourse? Where has it been used, how can it circulate, and who can appropriate it for himself? What are the places in it where there is room for possible subjects? Who can assume these various subject-functions?” And behind all these questions, we would hardly hear anything but the stirring of an indifference: “what difference does it make who is speaking?” (1969, p. 210).
Applying a similar philosophy to a mass-cult aesthetic – the popular genre of science fiction – Ballard reclaims the techno-body, fused with technology as an aid to perception. In the broken-down community of his high-tech high-rise, where social order has dissolved into apparently primitivistic tribal warfare, the residents use their hyper-bodies as a cognitive map, each with its individual beacons of pain and desire guiding them across the thin, reflective surface of the techno-sphere:
As he inhaled the stale air he was refreshed by his own odor, almost recognizing parts of his body – his feet and genitalia, the medley of smells that issued from his mouth. He stripped off his clothes in the bedroom, throwing his suit and tie into the bottom of the closet and putting on again his grimy sports-shirt and trousers. He knew now that he would never again try to leave the high-rise (1975, p. 104).
In the turn from the outer space of Ballard’s early career as a science fiction writer to the inner space of today, Crash and The Atrocity Exhibition – with their formulation of an alternative mindscape within the framework of SF – remind us that we all speak science fiction, and that questions regarding the health of the genre are trivial, at best: better left to the fanboy networks and the coded precepts found in films such as Star Wars.
For the rest of us, there is work to do.
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