The Gernsback Continuum, Bruce Sterling, The Ship who Sang, Anne McCaffrey, The Ones who Walk Away from Omelas, The Left Hand of Darkness & A Non-Euclidean View of California as a Cold Place to Be, Ursala K. LeGuin.
A certain type of 70’s sci-fi, built on the pulp of the 50’s and 60’s, with a tab of sunshine acid on top and some slippery sexuality via Bowie reminds me of Omni magazine (Bob Guccione, really?) and Fantasy & Sci-Fi magazines. There was a super concentrated period where I would buy them by the pound at garage sales, flea markets, antique shops. I would buy them in stacks. Each different decade was described more by the cover rendering technique (gouache, airbrush, abstraction) than the recurring desolate space scenes, strange beasts, robots & loinclothes.
The rendering methods were the clue into the age of the story and the tone of the volumes of sexy utopias, twisted logics, and future technology fantasies. They were cheaper than comic books (collectors kept those prices up) and the sheer massive amount of narrative was something to chew through week to week. More often than not, the stories that dominated the 50’s and 60’s were tweaks of the successful Robert Bloch formula. The horrific twist, the trippy brain tickler, the mega fantastical worlds of strange mores were the hallmarks.
The 70’s stories were distinguished because they focused on the body: there was more sex to it, and occasionally a genuine conversation about how queer we are in our bodies sometimes via an extra appendage. The transhuman and posthuman were teased at through these stories. They were about the interpersonal, they dug into the way we could interact, sex was a conversation, and these stories described a future that looked a lot like soma induced orgies but everyone was cool with it.
Brave Nude World was swinger culture, pot logic, Scientology, hot tubs, psychedelic foods, booming beach front real estate with a view of two moons, silicone sisters, fiberglass future vehicles, electronics that bent space. Reality was simulated for hacked bodies, with every pleasure that total consciousness could afford, all while dancing in a pansexual space disco. Plato’s Cave with a view out to the stars was the vaseline on this lens looking towards the future. We went from fighting aliens to fucking them.
And that’s some good Nyborg man.
What changed? Was modernity and its many holocausts far enough in our rear view mirror for us to look forward to the spaces yet to be explored? Was technology no longer an atomic wasteland but a personal revolution? Telecommunication turned to teledildonics and morality was less about the divisions of individual differences and more about individual revisions and plastic surgeries. The cyborg’s flesh seduces in a way that the cold robot never could.
In “The Ship Who Sang” the wholeness of the posthuman experience is described. The rewards for our obedience are the synthesis of a broken body into the bionic shell, social instruction, the technology and augmentations to offer ultraconsciousness, and platonic sensuality with the stars. Cosmic responsibility and pragmatic moral certitude is deployed by a trained logic as reward for the sacrifice of our feebleness. Helva is born a flawed being, yet she can be employed by the grand operational system to service the skies of the multitude. She is perfect for the program — so broken and unable to function within the constraints of her society (as determined by her society) — but her mind is able and willing.
Deformity is her origin and de-forming is her destination. As she sings, her form is no longer, she is the soul within the machine, her new form: the formal system that built her and the form of the void. What else is there to do but sing in space when you are faced with death? There is an existential lilt in the posthuman. Now that we are perfected and God-like beyond belief & ability, what is left? I believe for McCaffery this is an elegy for her father, the broadcast of an echoed memory that collapses into the fabric of infinity but still sounds.
Another extrapolation in science fiction’s system of extrapolations: We throw it off as a flight of fancy but the exercise of exploring logical conclusions to alternative realities is rarely escapist fantasy. It can’t be. It is bound by its time which places its politic. And still even with the politic lodged in the rhythmic tide of power structures, the moment can be situated in the history of political shifts. It can position itself and represent new politics. It can speak a truth within the guise of genre.
In Le Guin’s work there is a bridge that is built between the paranoid repercussive tendencies of civil violence and modern technology’s destructive power and more fluid notions of identity that mark the transhuman conversation. “The Ones who Walk Away From Omelas” walks away from the stark morality plays that define the pulp sci-fi genre for a more nuanced conversation around the stakes of our own humanity and individual and collective identities. It pushes onward to the physical boundaries of human expression. This future understands our ability to shift in gender, desire and moral committment. We compute our queerness with our bodies.
The Left Hand of Darkness is defined by worlds that ask for an understanding of unique mores and codes. The more we listen to them the more alien we feel. We question our own material — our own construction — and it is mutable. In this profound dislocation there is the offer of space, a potential: the space inside for the reinterpretation of one’s own mechanism. Our body can be revolutionary.
This body of text becomes texture, less allegory and immediately metaphor. We are in the bodies and beings that Le Guin describes. They are inside us and we are inside them and it is an embodied identity. Describing the controls of modernity is not her project, but transforming our relationship to our being is. The utopia/dystopia polarity isn’t the point, the fluidity of its construction is. We are free to walk away, and the beauty of it is that we are our own conscious worlds. That is what freedom could look like.
On the other side of the 70’s — post the hangover — Sterling’s infinity is focused on the cultural codes that forcibly break into our consciousness. We can no longer contain our conscious world. There is no body and he don’t mind. Psychosis is for breakfast and hallucinations are for lunch. This is the classic post-modern pastiche.
Our historical futurity is mediated by our now and forever collapse into the junk heap of referential reverential totality: a real LA landscape, a themepark within a themepark, to infinite regress. “My god, it’s full of stars” and they will sign your autograph book. I am in Star Wars World in Disney Land in Anaheim in Southern California. It is all fabrication and it is breaking apart in the photographer’s lens. These adjacent experiences push on each other until locale is lost.
Mediated histories and politics are horning in on our one grand vista (Tomorrowland), threatening us with their broken visions and ulteriority, reclamation. These frameworks of the Grand Project — The New World, Manifest Destiny, New Frontiers — marched along until they fell into the ocean of images. They were subsumed by the representational field. The fascism of past futurities marks utopias yet to collapse into new dystopias. The everyday object is the artifact of our social polemics and it is very, very confused.
Still… hold tight and take the ride, jam it up with more garbage, feed the outputs back into the inputs and hope for the best. Maybe you’ll get paid to do it again, space cowboy.
Present past future.
Speaking of which, I had no idea that J.G. Ballard wrote an essay entitled “Why I want to Fuck Ronald Reagan” in 1968 which was handed out by pro-Situationists in 1980 at the Republican Convention as research commissioned by a pro-Republican think tank. Now that is the future.
Sexual Fantasies in Conjunction with Ronald Reagan
The genitalia of the Presidential contender exercised a continuing fascination. A series of imaginary genitalia were constructed using (a) the mouth parts of Jacqueline Kennedy, (b) a Cadillac, (c) the assembly kid prepuce of President Johnson…In 89% of cases, the constructed genitalia generated a high incidence of self-induced orgasm. Tests indicate the masturbatory nature of the Presidential contender’s posture. Dolls consisting of plastic models of Reagan’s alternate genitalia were found to have a disturbing effect on deprived children.