Monday, May 30, 2016

May: Executive Summary

PRIZES. One piece of news speeds its vast shadow into all crannies of all affairs current and upcoming: that is, the inaugural Sputnik Awards have arrived, and that means there's a shortlist here and the chance to vote here. (For the full effect, make sure you name your ballot and leave an e-mail address). Some general chitchat about it over at File 770. Results announced in October.

Meanwhile, procedures for the Hugos are being warmly debated again, and there's also a long interesting thread dangling from the Clarke. & here's Books & Pieces on bookish awards. & a bit earlier, Abigail Nussbaum on the Hugos, & a discussion at Making Light.

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I was a VICE vox pop on boat naming. Here's the long version, which starts to maybe touch on democracy, and has a little bit about Iain M. Banks in it. (There are some very interesting banks in Banks's novels, by the way. Mostly of the "slope" kind rather than the financial kind. Maybe one to add to the names series one day). I want to be in VICE constantly.

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BIDDING IS OPEN in Con or Bust's annual auction. Funds raised go to support people of colour to attend conventions.

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I finally took that stupid quiz. Griffindor.

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CONFERENCES ETC. I thoroughly and meticulously enjoyed the Fantasies of Contemporary Culture in Cardiff, and presented something there titled  "There Is No Cognitive Estrangement." Always the drama Jo. Should actually have been "We're Running Low On Cognitive Estrangement Must Remember That The Next Time I Pop Out." I got to share a panel with Kanta Dihal, whose paper "'This is Not Science Fiction': Communicating Science through Fantasy" touched on Flatland, Flatterland, and The Science of Discworld among others, and David Mellor, whose paper "Fallen Robots" explored cybersecurity and subjectivity via the android imagination (on the android imagination, more in a sec). And I totally missed the last train.

I've also been wistcontemplating some of Wiscon on Twitter, and especially Sofia Samatar's timeline. And there's going to be a special issue of the journal Foundation on science fiction and theatre (which I hope I will get round to submitting to. Always the drama Jo). Deadline for that's February, which appropriately enough, IS SET IN THE FUTURE. Registration has now opened for Science Fiction and the Medical Humanities in Glasgow on 4 July as well (clashes with Fantistika sadly). And it's CRSFSFRA in about a month, where I am going to give two papers, neither candid, and then immediately fall into a trance. Come! And I went to Brett Scott / Stir to Action's Alternative Finance workshop (Storify here), and happened to write some science fiction while I was there, which I hope to share soon. Right now it's called "Froggy Goes Piggy" but I think it might become "Zippety Doo-Da, Zippety Data."

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Meanwhile, read Brett's recent article on Intelligent Personal Assistants, "When You Talk To Bots, You Talk To Their Bosses."

And/or Charlie Brooker's on point Black Mirror: "The Waldo Moment" (snippet).

And/or Kibwe Tavares's likewise Robots of Brixton:

And here is ASUS's demo video for Zenbo, a sort of lovable tablet on wheels:

Yussus ASUS! While android aesthetics clearly has a strong working grasp of cute -- these designers are adept at skating safely across the phenomenology of homuncular companionship without getting sucked into its many uncanny valleys concealed by wicker-mesh and jungle foliage -- the atmosphere of uncanniness here is holy fucking shit intense

The closest I can come to describing the feel of this video is the certainly pointedly and perhaps therapeutically tedious pastoral scene in Shakespeare's A Winter's Tale, the one that follows the self-enclosed tragedy of Act One, crossed with the semi-successful attempts of late 90s British quasi-comedy like Blue Jam to synthesize the rhythmic sensibilities of drone music into its quasi-comic timing. 

What to make, for instance, of the super-emphatic enunciation that mom, pop, and grandpops use? Is it a deliberate decision, or did it just happen? The strange peppy briskness reminds me of Chris Goode et al.'s fascinating verbatim theatre piece Monkey Bars, in which the adult actors tasked with appropriating and elevating the words of children so often find themselves overcome by an ambient paedomorphic curse, mysteriously unable to access their adult voices, stuck between innocence and experience. Likewise in the ASUS vid, it's as if everyone lived under the ritual prohibition of some Lil Lacanian Name-of-the-Kiddo. As if Zenbo and everything connected with him were secretly organized around the desires of the child -- though perhaps only in the sense that the Holocaust of Roberto Benigni's It's A Beautiful Life is organized around the desires of the child? -- and yet we cannot quite admit this without breaking the spell. 

Or is it extrapolative futurism: is the idea that the pollution of our social world by voice-recognition interfaces and synthesized speech will soon nudge all our voices into this crisp, singsong barking? Of course that tone is also an awkward invocation of deafness and dementia, and more generally, of age, illness, disability, isolation, depression, and death. It's easy to laugh at the infomercial gizmos that are introduced with an unconvincing demonstration of everyday inconvenience accompanied by hyperbolic frustration -- and I LOVE ANY PARODY OF THAT, IT GETS ME EVERY TIME -- but it is potentially ableist to write off some of those products as self-evidently useless (and also, ambigously, potentially ableist to be euphemistically marketing them at Everyman). Maybe in the follow-up vid Zenbo will scoot around a hospice. As is, the grandpa is -- like the upleaping father of Kafka's tale -- preternaturally hale, bursting out of the frailness assigned to him by the story. 

Everybody is also retired, insofar as the video plays strongly on the theme utopian automation. The robot Zenbo emancipates Claire Lancaster from a half-lit claustrophobic nightmare of impossible and conflicting labour demands, but we never see exactly and specifically what Zenbo does. Well, of course not! ASUS don't know, and don't think they're supposed to know, what Zenbo exactly and specifically does. ASUS are in the business of creating a niche and a few fragments of techno-social practices to fill that niche with, with the not-implausible hope of tempting third party developers and early adopter ingenuity to fill in the details later. Zenbo is first and foremost a tablet. 

Meanwhile, the name Zenbo echoes zenbu: by way of doing nothing, Zenbo does everything. "Hey Zenbo, turn the lights on!" Zenbo is the light of the world. Zenbo is a chibi messiah, whose arrival heralds a  -- more Disney's (and Cory Doctorow's) Magic Kingdom than the Kingdom of Heaven -- uncanny world of labours shrunk to piffling puzzles. It's soccer, it's dressing up time, it's memorization games, and the big annual event is a family portrait ("but somehow, we always pull through in the end"). Even the labour of preparing a feast is reducible to a two step recipe and five minutes in a microwave. The palaver around the family photo-shoot, the introductory jazz, the worn old books, the retro-patriarchy of our protagonist's pre-Zenbo slatternly stresses, all betray the video's retro-futurism. (Come back Target Women, we need you!) Eric Lancaster, the sort-of-breadwinner, is described as a "Father, writer, and slacker." We don't even see him writing, just editing (with a quota of two pages): probably he skim-writes, infusing the outputs of algorithmic storytellers with that human touch for big cheques. A bit like how he gets Zenbo to tell stories to his daughter.

Weirdly, there's a paradoxical feeling of scarcity. It feels post-apocalyptic, except instead of a dwindling supply of candle-stubs and tuna-cans, there is a dwindling supply of incident, grotesquely distended across eleven minutes.

A video like this is a useful provocation to the discourse swirling around design fiction and diegetic prototyping. Is design fiction about provoking the future? Does design fiction really create the socio- bit of a socio-technological novum, and drag the tech kicking and screaming into reality behind it? Is design fiction really -- or solely -- a way of testing things out cheaply? Is design fiction really about testing and expanding the limits of the imagination? Well, maybe. But I'm more interested in the relationship of design fiction texts to genres such as the legal contract, the financial instrument, and the sovereign promulgation. "I have placed my Zenbo in the clouds. It is a sign of my covenant with you and all this earth." Might design fiction sometimes work, paradoxically, not despite its lack of imagination, but because of it? Might not a brutal and ostentatious celebration of imaginative mediocrity also prove an excellent instrument for provoking the future into a desired formation? In the ASUS video, for instance, we might decipher an insistence that the bar to this future is low, so low that you (yes even you, parent, pioneer/early adopter, and Slacker) can probably find some way to feed off it. The point is not to say, "Behold the bold idea!" so the money flows toward it. The point is to say, "Look how much money is already bound up in, and bound toward, this idea, without it even being bold." The point is not to innovate gracefully, to extrapolate cunningly, and to strenuously exercise the imagination against the inertia of everyday existence: it is to withhold the imagination, to say, this fragment of future is so inevitable that it does not even depend on innovation, vision, or imagination.

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What would it be like to Tinder swipe-left on a Zenbo? 

Would ubiquitous Zenbos change the nature of faces?

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NEOLIBERALISM IS SO LAST HEGEMONY. IMF says so. This makes me really uneasy. Your friendly reminder that domination (or capital or whatever) is as it were cunning; it reinvents itself, occupies new discourses. In recent years the condemnation of austerity, of course, has put the left into a rather weird alignment with many voices in mainstream neoclassical economics. So if you're a leftist or radical or progressive or something even better, now might be a good time to think about what's coming next.

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ALL OF WHICH REMINDS ME. It was Towel Day recently, celebrating the life and work of Douglas Adams, work which I think has held up really pretty astonishingly well. I put up this HIGHLY SIGNIFICANT NEVER-BEFORE-SEEN CORRESPONDENCE. [Fill in clickbait.]

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PLUS. There was a lot of controversy this month and some seriously inspiring oratory to do with a panel in which Captain America says, "I'm with her!" (or something like that. To do check). Abigail Nussbaum and Martin McGrath share different thought-provoking and well-supported perspectives about it. Kate Elliott's sort-of related tweets about pacing, patience, & inevitable climb down (& expectation thereof) were interesting. But I gotta say they're among the exceptions: a lot of what I stumbled across just seemed to be a tragicomedy of fans ramblingly over-rationalizing their dismay at having a very simple pleasure threatened? Because you see Captain America is good and is actually not a HYDRA agent, so.

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AND. Paul Cornell launched his novel Who Killed Sherlock Holmes? and I caught a snippet at BristolCon fringe (he read alongside Martyn Waites AKA Tania Carver. See Cheryl Morgan's blog). One thing I really enjoyed about the Sherlock excerpt was a very contemporary-feeling little twist on the venerable fantasy trope of collective beliefs, fears, dreams, wishes or memories taking on reality. In Who Killed Sherlock Holmes?, the ghost of Holmes is a looping composite that can accommodate slightly contradictory versions of the detective. ('Skyping Ze Executive Producer on Xmas Eve' could be another for Kraftwerk Kristmas album btw). (From earlier: 'Names in SFF #13: Benedict Cumberbatch.') (Also: guest post at Peter Sutton's blog).

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On a more personal note Morticia will be sitting her grade-four quail-egg ocarina exam on Tuesday so keep us in your prayers, and your tusks ever-jutting should our faction fall.

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For Griffindor!

Names in SFF interlude: GSU Boaty McBoatface

Hi Jo, what did the name Boaty McBoatface symbolise for you?

Hi Soph, the name Boaty McBoatface perfectly captures the equivocal nature of scientific seafaring in the public imagination. The name has the virtue of reminding us that the object in question is a boat. Yet it also acknowledges our need to personify it, to give it a face. Perhaps on some level we recognize that the ocean is just as scared of us as we are of it: in making our vast machines in our own likenesses, we express our desire to meet monsters and gods on their own terms.

Sure. In the grand scheme of things, was "Sir David Attenborough" a better name choice than Boaty McBoatface?

I think the public are probably ahead of the curve on this one. I'm an academic researching the science fiction work of Iain M. Banks, and I'm intrigued by his approach to spaceship-naming. Different classes of warship are given nasty names - Murderer, Gangster, Torturer - as a reminder that what they DO is nasty. Banks was always suspicious of giving things dignified names. Banks was keenly aware of the complex relationships between exploration, scientific research, and military conquest. In his utopia, which is called "the Culture," spaceships always have strange and provocative names. They're called things like Big Sexy Beast and Unacceptable Behaviour and Very Little Gravitas Indeed and Someone Else's Problem. Whether or they're dignified or not, honourable or not, is a matter of what they ACHIEVE, not what they're called. Maybe on balance it's better to have silly names. I don't know.

I would definitely say that the Sir David Attenborough is probably the worst possible name. Why is nature so weird? One theory is that David Attenborough's gravel-and-syrup voice is so trustworthy, nature itself changes to conform to his delirious ramblings. Have you seen an aye-aye's thumb?

I haven't actually. If you had a boat, what would you call it? 

I would be tempted by RRS Sir Jo Lindsay Walton. One of its smaller remotely operated sub-sea vehicles could be called Dave in honour of the government's suggestion. In light of the kind of data the vessel is likely to gather, another possibility would be to call it We're Fucked. Or there could be a compromise between sovereign and popular power, such as Davey McDaveface. The point is that every suggestion that I or anyone thinks of off the top of my head is better than the RRS Sir David Attenborough. Although it will probably cheer him up which is nice.

What angers you most, if anything, about the entire ordeal? 

Well, it would have been good if they had actually called it Boaty McBoatface. They sure missed a trick.

But what does the government’s decision say about democracy?

As many stakeholder engagement theorists will tell you, it is no good engaging people unless you also empower them -- and you know what, that means actually figuring out how to DELEGATE some power IN ADVANCE. No backsies. I suspect people are especially cynical about government consultations of all kinds. Often the policy direction has been pretty much already decided, and the consultation is just a bit of cheap market research, to figure how best to sell it.

Actually, it can be WORSE than that -- the consultation can start to market the policy, by hinting that they're going to do even more horrific stuff, raising fears, lowering expectations, and mopping up the energy of resistance. Then they can "compromise" by doing whatever they wanted to in the first place. That's why I don't think anybody is really surprised about Boaty McBoatface, except that we probably thought they'd let us get away with a bit of trivial silliness so that we could at least feel empowered.

So what's next for the Boaty McBoatface movement? Is this the end? Or do you foresee more petitions? Protests? Etc. 

Tactics must suit the context. In one sense, perhaps a name is a rigid designator which flares into existence at the baptismal moment, permanent and real. In another, a name is just what people call something - never mind what letters are printed on the side of the thing. Think about the Boris Bikes: sorry, Barclays! It's another bank that sponsors them now, isn't it? I can't even remember. Maybe they'll be Sadiqycles soon. The point is, the ship is called Boaty McBoatface, because that's what we'll call it. I'm sure if it comes up again in the news -- if it sinks or something -- VICE will respect the will of the people in its coverage.

OK, thanks Jo.

It's interesting we get this announcement just as the local election results are rolling out. Sometimes when things are opened up to a popular vote, you get bizarre results, like the continued election of Conservatives. Sometimes the public just perfectly nails it, as with Boaty. There is a lot of scary and exciting work to be done on what popular sovereignty means in a digital networked era. We know as a collective we can be brilliant or fucking stupid. To me it's pretty obvious that a secure welfare system and substantive economic equality are totally necessary prerequisites for democracy to even slightly work. Otherwise, everybody is too busy trying to stay alive and sane to work out who to vote for -- except for flashes of brilliance like Boaty, obviously.


SFF names #16: Alice interlude
SFF names #15: eggs interlude
SFF names #14: YA interlude
SFF names #13: Benedict Cumberbatch
SFF names #12: Luke Skywalker interlude
SFF names #11: Catherine Rhoeas-Papaver
SFF names #10: Bobby Shaftoe
SFF names #9: Justice of Toren One Esk Nineteen
SFF names #8: Ged
SFF names #7: Shevek
SFF names #6: Buhle
SFF names #5: Parva "Pen" Khan
SFF names #4: Beth Bradley
SFF names #3: Rumpelstiltskin
SFF names #2: Lucy
SFF names #1: Winnie

Elsewhere: VICE: "We Spoke to Some of the People Upset about 'Boaty McBoatface' Losing to David Attenborough"

Thursday, May 26, 2016

Bookish Awards / Clarke Award Readalong

Books & Pieces on speculative fiction awards:

Con or Bust

Con or Bust provides financial assistance to people of color to go to conventions. Which is something you want to help with anyway, but also: they raise funds by auctioning stuff and the auction is open, with loads of books, including ARCs and rare editions and signed copies, and bundles, tuckerizations, a bookmark that says "Social Justice Warrior," a chunk of Farscape's Moya, story critiques from Alyssa Wong, Yoon Ha Lee and others, project management time, and other coruscating desiderata. Go have a browse.

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Happy Towel Day

Just the other day in Cardiff, after the Fantasies of Contemporary Culture conference, I suddenly remembered Douglas Adams once sent me a really beautiful and kind of wise little e-mail. I think it would have been about 1996 or 1997. I'd written to him and said something like, "I bet you get loads of mail, but you must have some standard response you send to all your fans, right? Will you send it to me too?" I was at that awkward age. The e-mail itself is long vanished, but it's easy enough to remember. Here it is.
Dear [fill in name], 
[Fill in message.]
[Fill in joke.] 
Best wishes, 
Douglas Adams

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Popping My Cogs

A few links:

(1) I went to a really lovely one-day conference at Cardiff yesterday, Fantasies of Contemporary Culture. I've just uploaded the uncut version of my paper to, as y'edu. It's very much research-in-progress. It's called "There Is No Cognitive Estrangement," but really it's way more sympathetic to Darko Suvin's work than it is to, for instance, some of the uses to which it's been put, or to the criticisms and refinements offered by Simon Spiegel.

(2) My sort-of-paranormal-romance novel Invocation is free on Kindle today.

(3) I am loving see the Sputnik battleballots roll in like the Severn tide. Have you cast your vote yet? (See also: The Sputnik Award and the Hugo Awards at File 770).

(4) Many academics are on strike on Wednesdays and Thursday. Here's the official reason. And for a bit more context, here's a Guardian article by Nina Power and a blog post by Plashing Vole. Of course the strike is not just about pay. Almost every academic I know is concerned about this government's efforts to close down the spaces where free and critical thinking can take place, accompanied by a steady, glazed-eyed construction of the most babyish incentive structures, of a kind that would barely make sense in any market, let alone in the provision of education. Calling it neoliberalism is almost too kind. It's more like jocks v. nerds.

Sunday, May 22, 2016

Sputnik PS

Btw: I've received some really touching enthusiasm, warmth and wise counsels and offers of support, as well as a pretty significant amount of "eh?" "baroo?" "mph?" "wha-?", which tbh is also kinda gratifying. One thing I'd love to hear more of is unwise counsel. The best I've heard so far is the suggestion that we do the Dungeons of Democracy for real.

Just imagine, ripping it from the Excel and into the streets, playing out the entire vote as a vast LARP, cosplaying Daleky Phoenixes and Hedgehoggy Thing Itselves . . .

Sputnik Awards

Quick Sputnik Note

It's really exciting to see the votes rolling in!

This year is kind of a trial run, and if it works, we'll make it a recurring thing. Perhaps next year it might work like this:
  • Eight places decided by an open nominations process in March and April
  • Eight places decided by a jury
Perhaps the jury could be asked to give special consideration to any science fiction and fantasy that embodies values of social and ecological justice, and/or thinks critically about the relationship between individual and collective freedom.

(Image: Munchkin)

By the way, it's tucked away at the end of the FAQ, but you can vote for books that are not on the shortlist. (At your peril: democratic processes tend to be a kind of "strength in numbers" thing). If you want to submit a Wandering Monster Ballot, with any four books of your choice, get in touch by email or DM me on Twitter (@jolwalton). The rules around WMBs have changed a little: originally it was going to be a sort of celebrity cameo thing, and there will still be an element of that. But actually it also makes sense, especially since there hasn't been an open nominations process, that anyone can submit a Wandering Monster Ballot. So please do!

Update: Tweaked the submissions form to include a "What's missing from the shortlist?" question, which will also be used as the basis for some Wandering Monsters. The larger the base Ballot population, the more predatory Monster Ballots it can support, so in the interest of biodiversity, get the vote out.

Friday, May 20, 2016

Inaugural Sputnik Award Shortlist Reveal!

Voting is open for the inaugural Sputnik Award!
  • Jim Butcher, The Cinder Spires 
  • Becky Chambers, The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet 
  • Berit Ellingsen, Not Dark Yet 
  • N.K. Jemisin, The Fifth Season 
  • Emma Newman, Planetfall 
  • Peter Newman, The Vagrant 
  • Nnedi Okorafor, The Book of Phoenix 
  • Naomi Novik, Uprooted 
  • Adam Roberts, The Thing Itself 
  • Kim Stanley Robinson, Aurora 
  • Neal Stephenson, Seveneves 
  • Fran Wilde, Updraft
No membership is required to vote. The voting system is unlike anything you've ever seen (well, unlike anything you've ever seen in a voting system). Go and exercise your right as a citizen of the speculative!

Thursday, May 19, 2016

Notes on cognitive estrangement

1. Estrangement is a term that Suvin adapts from Brecht. This is pretty well-known. What gets mentioned less often is that cognition also comes from Brecht: or at least, if you look at the way Brecht uses that word, it makes Suvin's ideas a lot clearer.

2. More generally, I think it's really important to keep the context of radical theatre and dramaturgy connected with the concept of cognitive estrangement. Suvin in 'Estrangement and Cognition': "I want to begin by postulating a spectrum or spread of literary subject matter that extends from the ideal extreme of exact recreation of the author's empirical environment [...] to exclusive interest in a strange newness, a novum."

Of course the chief thing that Suvin is getting at here is a distinction, always a vague and complicated one, between mimetic and non-mimetic literature. But we could read the sentence in another way. It's very interesting that the proposed continuum extends from an act of material worldbuilding -- an "exact recreation" of an environment, presumably, would not be ink on a page or pixels on a screen, but furniture and walls and timbers and pipes and trees -- to a merely mental attitude, a way of looking, an "exclusive interest."

You could say it extends from the entirely real to the entirely simulated, presumably traversing all kinds of complex future-bearing material performativities. Somewhere in that complex territory, tangled together with visions, pranks, prototypes, drills, manifestos, folk tales, thought experiments and intuition pumps, war games, terms of incorporation, reparations invoices, spec sheets, white papers, victim impact statements, projected P&L statements, and design fictions, perhaps we may find science fiction.

Then we should stick a flag in it, right? Except, of course, that the territory must exhibit movement, because Suvin's spectrum is also reversible: what I just said was the material end is also only a phantasm, an "ideal," and all the way across the continuum lies a core Marxist keyword for capturing the objective materiality of a situation, whatever its participants happen to think about it: that is, an "interest."

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Re-Post: My Proposed Hugo Voting System

Note: This was the system I proposed, tongue-in-cheek (I missed), last year for the Hugos (for the noms process, not the actual vote). It's the basis for what we've ended up doing with the Sputniks, although it's a little different.

Each nominator gets four slots in each category. They're not ranked, exactly, but they are classed. It might be:

Hedgehog: 25 HP, +5 damage vs. witch
Dalek: 25 HP, +5 damage vs. hedgehog
Witch: 25 HP, +5 damage vs. dalek
Mithril Mech: 30 HP, begins in herald slot

... so for best novel, my ballot might look like this:

Hedgehog: Jeff VanderMeer, Southern Reach
Dalek: Cixin Liu, The Three Body Problem
Witch: Adam Roberts, Bete
MM: Ann Leckie, Ancillary Sword

With each round of voting, each party is randomly paired with another. If the heralds are the same (i.e. in round one, if my ballot encounters another Ancillary Sword mithril mech) then both ballots survive intact and unchanged into the next round. Otherwise, a champion is randomly selected from the non-herald party members of each ballot. 


(1) if the champions happen to be the same (e.g. my Southern Reach bumps into another Southern Reach) then the champions move into the heralds slots, but no damage is inflicted, and both ballots survive otherwise unaltered into the next round.

(2) otherwise, both nominations take damage according to their class. For example, say my Southern Reach hedgehog gets paired against a John Scalzi Lock In dalek. My nomination loses fifteen Hit Points, and the Lock In nomination loses ten (my quills aren't much use against the dalek's armour plating and selfie-stick).

Nominations that have fallen to zero Hit Points are eliminated, and a new round begins.

The cycle continues until all except five novels have been eliminated, comprising the short list.

Each nominator also receives an automated personalised chronicle of their ballot's encounters and deeds. Nominators may also opt to make their ballot non-anonymous, so that their names come up in the battle reports of other nominators with whom they have friendly or warlike encounters. ("I literally met Hoyt in the fourth round! Her Correia Witch kicked my Leckie Dalek's ass.")

Earlier: full post.

Monday, May 16, 2016

J.G. Ballard's CONCRETE: Thoughts on High Rise and Concrete Island

By Lara Buckerton.

First appeared in BSFA's Vector Winter 2009, ed. Niall Harrison et al.

Prefatory note: a bold attempt to tease some Marxism out of Ballard the quintessential postmodernist. One big problem with this article, in my considered view, is how uncritically it accepts the idea that welfare state modernist architecture "failed" under its own energies and potentialities. That's the story spread by the neoliberalism that deliberately sabotaged and dismantled it. "Oh this? It was broken when we got here!" Yeah right.

(1) Paradise

J. G. Ballard died on the 19th of April 2009. You are the promising young angelic architect commissioned to design his eternal paradise; time to step/flap up.

The seraphic refulgence favoured by so many of your colleagues feels inappropriate. A scrunched-up, half-hearted sketch of a cumulo-nimbus caryatid bounces from the rim of the bin. Far too much like some nexus of crystallized flora and fauna from Ballard’s 1966 apocalyptic novel, The Crystal World.

Unsettled, you tear a new sheet and begin to explore an Edenic concept. But your garden reveries are infiltrated by great, sail-backed lizards. Boiling malarial lagoons breach the levees. You remember Ballard’s 1962 apocalyptic novel, The Drowned World.

Maybe you should approach this differently. What about amenities? Every intimation of luxury or convenience evokes High Rise (1975), Cocaine Nights (1996) and Super-Cannes (2000), novels in which ultra-comfortable, designer living arrangements become a catalyst to ambiguous savagery, fetishism and sociopathy. “Over the swimming pools and manicured lawns seemed to hover a dream of violence” (Super-Cannes, p. 75).

Maybe he could learn to love great slabs baked to a malevolent glitter? Their service pipes and water towers exposed, as though every solicitous euphemism, and comforting illusion, were fallen victim to weird evisceration?

Oh boy. Did Ballard like Brutalism? You’re not sure. “I have always admired modernism and wish the whole of London could be rebuilt in the style of Michael Manser’s brilliant Heathrow Hilton,” Ballard once wrote [1]. Was he kidding?

Brutalism thrived from the 1950s to the mid-1970s. Its signature material was concrete. It took its name from concrete, specifically béton brut, that is, raw concrete. It took its cue, or its cube, from the heroism of early High Modernism, except now all heroes were tragic heroes.

Concrete, jutting, rough-hewn stone, brick, glass and steel: Brutalism has always baffled me a bit. It feels like anti-architecture posing as architecture. Serving the only nine crisps you own at your dinner party, trying to pass it off as the principled minimalism of an austere populist. I’m pretty sure that’s ignorance and prejudice on my part. But it’s widespread ignorance and prejudice. Brutalist tower blocks soon came to both embody and symbolise the failures of the welfare state. You know the deal. Heroin tinfoil twirling, leaflike, in puddles of piss. In High Rise Ballard wrote, “In principle, the mutiny of these well-to-do professional people against the buildings they had collectively purchased was no different from the dozens of well-documented revolts by working-class tenants against municipal tower-blocks that had taken place at frequent intervals during the post-war years” (p. 69).

I guess Brutalism should be seen against the background – literally – of its prehistory. Brutalist structures seem less antagonistic where they rise against archictecture of a finnickier and more coy sort. Where Brutalism is a sparse elaboration upon a crinkle-crankle, tumbledown backdrop, its ahistoricism seems good-humoured – at least, a tantrum we can indulge.

Furthermore, in the post-war period, impatience with frilly bits had a stronger rationale than mere Enlightenment iconoclasm. Cunning, indirection, camouflage, nobility, glory, ambition, cultural and traditional particularity and partiality – all these were tainted by association with their equivalent martial “virtues.” The prevailing spirit melted exhaustion with determination. The two world wars had been bullshit. Openness, accountability, stability, clarity, functionality, universality, neutrality, democracy were “in.”

That meant honesty in materials. That meant that, in post-war France, Le Corbusier’s multi-functional super-structures came more and more to resemble Medusa-stricken Decepticons. In Britain, the gentle, humanist, compromise Modernism of the welfare state compromise was increasingly confronted by the principled austerity of Alison and Peter Smithson. At the same time, the Smithsons resisted certain trajectories of continental Brutalism. Their chief beef was (ironically, in light of – well, in the shadow of – High Rise) that urban planning should foster community spirit. “‘Belonging’ is a basic emotional need,” they wrote. “From ‘belonging’ – identity – comes the enriching sense of neighbourliness. The short narrow street of the slum succeeds where spacious redevelopment frequently fails.” [2]

Reyner Banham, the architectural theorist and critic, dubbed the British Brutalism of the Smithsons and their crew the “New Brutalism.” Banham characterised the style by its formal legibility of plan, or memorability as an image; its clear exhibition of structure (including exposed service features – “Water and electricity do not come out of unexplained holes in the wall, but are delivered to the point of use by visible pipes and conduits”); and its valuation of materials for their inherent qualities as ‘found’. And he added:
“In the last resort what characterises the New Brutalism in architecture as in painting is precisely its brutality, its je-’en-foutisme, its bloody-mindedness, and that the Smithsons’ work is characterized by an abstemious under-designing of the details, and much of the impact of the building comes from ineloquence, but absolute consistency, of such components as the stairs and handrails” [3].
So we have an architectural philosophy which prioritizes function and in some degree aestheticises it. Though it is often received as anti-humanist, it has a commitment to the human which is revealed negatively, like someone painstakingly avoiding mentioning his or her big crush. Space and material are enslaved to an implicit ensemble of human needs. Every autonomous flourish is treated with the utmost suspicion.

To entirely rationalise an environment according to the real needs of its inhabitants requires you know those real needs, intimately. But that implies the risk that unquantifiables will be shoehorned into categories, and imperfection and idiosyncracy will be met with intolerance. Moreover, a utopia designed for the desires of one kind of person could transform that kind of person into a new kind of person, for whom the utopia is – well, something else, un-utopian, perhaps dystopian.

Dystopia could already be here. Current levels of global inequality are vom-provoking, if you have anything in your belly. One response to dystopia is to distinguish “real needs” from luxuries. (The term “real needs” appears at least twice in High Rise. “Real illusion,” another Marxist term, also pops up. I doubt whether these were conscious allusions). Selecting some real needs is the first step of the commonsense approach – more-or-less the Human Rights approach. Next you struggle, righteously, to fulfil everyone’s real needs. Above all, you fight to revoke any luxuries which are based on denying someone her or his real needs.

But commonsense runs into problems. As Karl Marx pointed out, an axiomatic anthropological division between “real needs” and luxuries could set us on the path to . . . well, the Marxian version of utopianism. That’s utopianism in a pejorative sense, implicated with false consciousness, especially with “ideology.” An updated term for what Marx usually meant by “ideology” is “idealism” – a kind of sublimation of class struggle, a transfer of its forms to the infinitely hospitable media of language and thought.

In essence, if we declare in advance what are “real needs” and what are luxuries, we’re likely to superimpose abstract reconciliations on a material world still riven with conflict, then look cross-eyed, constipated, yet smug. Our utopian project, founded in dogmatic anthropology, would have no resources against an equally dogmatic counter-anthropology, one positing domination as an ineradicable feature of human nature. (“Domination” can use various proxies – self-interest, will to life, or the propensity for people to form efficient markets at the drop of a hat).

In fact, the first move of such conservative opponents will be to point out how falsely conceiving of material antagonisms as errors of thought – idealism – can exacerbate those antagonisms, and raise their stakes. Battlemechs do not respect peace treaties, only other battlemechs. This is political Realism through and through.

So “commonsense” and “ideology” are joined at the hip, as are “utopia” and “idealism.” Marx’s response to this quandary was complex and, let me be square, a bit over my head. It had centrally to do, I think, with why Marx had to claim his approach was both dialectic and scientific. But more urgently – for our purposes -- where does all this leave Ballard and Brutalism?

Imagine you’re strapped into a hair-cutting machine, which insists you’re an inch shorter than you actually are.

Brutalism inclines towards anthropological dogmatism. It never lets you forget which bits of the shebang are the humans. In Brutalism’s dogged insistence on serving those humans, it crops anything jutting outside of its idea of what is human.

Nobody, on the other hand, could call Ballard anthropologically dogmatic – and in the next bit I’ll say why.

(2) Soul

So anyway, which Ballard wings his way hither? In Christian tradition, resurrection is of the flesh, since the soul, which can’t die, can’t be said to live again. Saints get special bod mods: impassibility, glory, agility, subtility. But which Ballard – or what of Ballard is on its way? Could it be Jim, the little squirt tearing around a Japanese prison camp in WWII? Or the dashing young RAF pilot in Canada? The enfant terrible, centre of a controversial obscenity trial? The middle-aged father, sitting in Shepperton, watching too much TV and writing out High Rise and Concrete Island long-hand? The dying Ballard? Some strange council or admixture or Matryoshka?

In his 2008 memoir Miracles of Life Ballard wrote:
“To return to Shanghai, for the first time since I was a boy, was a strange experience for me. Memories were waiting for me everywhere, like old friends at an arrivals gate, each carrying a piece of cardboard bearing my name. I looked down from my room on the 17th floor of the Hilton and could see at a glance that there were two Shanghais – the skyscraper city newer than yesterday and at street level the old Shanghai that I had cycled around as a boy [...] I was on an errand, though I had yet to grasp the true nature of my assignment. I was looking for my younger self, the boy in a Cathedral school cap and blazer who had played hide-and-seek with his friends half a century earlier. I soon found him, hurrying with me along the Bubbling Well Road, smiling at the puzzled typists and trying to hide the sweat that drenched my shirt ” (p. 266)
Was Ballard suggesting that he had a deep authentic core, a private continuity underlying his life’s vicissitudes and forgetfulnesses, which could be haphazardly accessed via an evocative taste, or fragrance, or snatch of song?

If Ballard’s books don’t exactly advertise a clear concept of paradise, then they’re even cagier when it comes to “deep authentic cores.” Ballard was far too sensitive to how authenticity today – like any moral concept – is mediated by representation, how it turns and twists to suit the courses of swift flows of capital and glamour. Only a lie for cash could be so convincing, so seductive, as authenticity.

Ballard fed his characters to his themes. You can watch his characters writhe and transmogrify in the guts of those themes. What survives from one phase of a character to the next is often what the earlier phase would categorize as trivial, peripheral. In High Rise, for example, when the well-educated residents start to vandalise their luxury tower block with quasi-tribal graffiti, their territorial sigils are witticisms, wordplays, acrostics and palindromes.

In a way, Ballard probably couldn’t write “good” characters – that is, “well-developed” or “believeable” ones. At least, he was never too interested in those networks of corroborative detail from whose densities could spring George Eliot’s Dorothea Brooke, or Henry James’s Isabel Archer.

“Today naturalism has completely faltered,” Ballard said in a 1990 interview. “You only find it in middle-brow fiction.” [4]

Rather, Ballard’s characters are nailed to agendas as though to racks. The roboticist Masahiro Mori coined the term “Uncanny Valley” to describe how people respond more and more warmly to robots (and cute anthropomorphic animals and things) the more humanlike you make them – until they’re near-perfect facsimiles, when suddenly our responses swerve into disquiet or revulsion. (The Valley itself is the steep plunge when you plot these responses as a line graph). The inner lives of Ballard’s characters resemble the outer rictuses of those overly-lifelike droids. These characters seem to experience in extended similes. “Now and then, the slight lateral movement of the building in the surrounding airstream sent a warning ripple across the flat surface of the water, as if in its pelagic deeps an immense creature was stirring in its sleep” (High Rise, p. 22). The bits of the similes that “aren’t there” in the story – what linguists call the “vehicles” or “figures” or “sources” – are so self-sufficient and suggestive, it feels like they are there; and sometimes, in Super-Cannes, say, they accumulate so thickly as to compose the novel’s Unconscious. The characters’ casual drifts of chat swirl into brutal prophesies, or miniaturised anthropological lectures, as though some impatient Aspect of the authorial deity commandeered their mouths.

Obsession with pyschoanalysis part-substitutes for the carefully-evolved realist practices of pysche-counterfeiting. Subjectivity isn’t patted into great homunculi like Dorothea and Isabel; rather it gusts at the reader in huge flakes of human life, which mix fragments of action and perception specified at psychoanalytic, anthropological, architectural, biological, discursive and socio-cultural levels, as well as at the level of the personality system, all arranged in unpredictable proportions and configurations, and all constantly and kaleidescopically disseminating and auto-dissecting. Characters are made into media workers, doctors, psychiatrists and architects, and into versions of Ballard (like “James Ballard,” the protagonist of Crash) to further mystify and enrich this reflexive, chaoplexic onslaught of psyche. Discourse has never been so free and indirect.

The counterintuitive fault-lines along which characters can shed characteristics are pretty interesting. They comprise a poetics of startlement and discontinuity, a kind of memento mori that isn’t concentrated upon one terminal limit of a lifespan, but strewn throughout it. But Ballard, as usual, was up to something more equivocal. The regressions which his characters undergo also create new continuities. They re-establish continuity with infantile drives, for example – drives which have been repressed, or otherwise desultorily socialised. Sometimes, a psychic flyover springs up which exceeds the individual lifespan. Racism, violence and perversity rescue characters from modern anomie and isolation, and weave them into quasi-feudal patterns of ingroup harmony. “For the first time it occurred to Wilder that the residents enjoyed this breakdown of services, and the growing confrontation between themselves. All this brought them together, and ended the frigid isolation of the previous months.” (High Rise, p. 60). Sometimes – in The Drowned World, for instance – these eruptive continuities stretch even further back, foaming freak solidarity with prehistoric homo sapiens, or with their hominid or even reptilian forebears.

The homologies between Ballard’s childhood internment and his perennial themes – atavism, regression-sublimation, hallucinogenic stupor, normalised violence, the State of Nature, Eden, Empire and entropy – are so absolutely in-your-face that they’re bound to attain exaggerated significance in Ballardian criticism. My hunch is that most quasi-autobiographical writing, especially writing as speculatively-spirited as Ballard’s, works precisely by minutely muddying its connection with experience. (When I brood on a fact of my existence, it starts to suggest mutually incompatible modes by which it could be processed. The fact is incorporated into me in one way, and sublimated into art or shouting in an incompatible way. Experience also has a uniquely misleading relationship with the writing it generates.)

That caveat aside . . . Ballard once described Lunghua internment camp as “where I spent some of my happiest years”. That’s in an excerpt from Miracles of Life published in The Times [5] – interestingly, the phrase disappears in the published volume (p. 270). In an 1982 interview his expression is more circumspect: “I have – I won’t say happy – not unpleasant memories of the camp,” [6] remarking on the casual brutality, and on the many games the children enjoyed.

In Drowned World Ballard wrote, “For some reason, however, this inverted Crusoeism – the deliberate marooning of himself without the assistance of a gear-laden carrack wrecked on a convenient reef – raised few anxieties in Kerans’ mind” (p. 48). In the 1994 novel Rushing to Paradise, as in The Drowned World, characters withdraw from the wider world, pursuing a conscious – or quasi-conscious – agenda of enislement. Ballard’s characters are often seen to endorse or solicit transformations which are – in a knee-jerk kinda way – hideous.

Yet even alienation, isolation and injury have a certain appeal. In Concrete Island, Maitland constantly wonders whether he somehow, on some level, arranged to maroon himself, whether in the shape of a primeval concrete succubus he seduced himself. A quiet but clear echo of this aspect of Concrete Island can be heard in High Rise: “It was here that Anthony Royal had been injured when his car had been crushed by a reversing grader – it often struck Laing as ironic, and in a way typical of Royal’s ambiguous personality, that he should not only have become the project’s first road casualty, but have helped to design the site of the accident” (pp. 36-7). The affluent, culturally-elite cave-dwellers of High Rise use their last vestiges of civilisation to assure prying outsiders that everything’s all right, lest their “dystopia” be confiscated. And of course in Crash, well, these aren’t exactly car accidents.

In the short story, “The Intensive Care Unit” (1977) (one of the prophetic ones – this time it’s webcams, Skype and stuff), Ballard got his narrator to muse:
“True closeness, I now knew, was television closeness – the intimacy of the zoom lens, the throat microphone, the close-up itself. On the television screen there were no body odour or strained breathing, no pupil contractions and facial reflexes, no mutual sizing up of emotions and disadvantage, no distrust and insecurity. Affection and compassion demanded distance. Only at distance could one find that true closeness to another human being which, with grace, might transform itself into love” (p. 9).

In High Rise, the building begins to generate a sinister new social type:
“a cool, unemotional personality impervious to the psychological pressures of high-rise life, with minimal needs for privacy, who thrived like an advanced species of machine in the neutral atmosphere. This was the sort of resident who was content to do nothing but sit in his over-priced apartment, watch television with the sound turned down, and wait for his neighbours to make a mistake […] people who were content with their lives in the high-rise, who felt no particular objection to an impersonal steel and concrete landscape, no qualms about the invasion of their privacy by government agencies and data-processing organizations, and if anything welcomed these invisible intrusions, using them for their own purposes. These people were the first to master a new kind of late twentieth-century life. They thrived on the rapid turnover of acquaintances, the lack of involvement with others, and the total self-sufficiency of lives which, needing nothing, were never disappointed. // Alternatively, their real needs might emerge later” (p. 36).
One could draw the lesson that any mode of human existence can develop the faculty to joyfully authenticate itself. That would be good news for you, angelic architect – suggesting that every soul lugs around its utopia like its snailshell.

But I don’t think it’s the right lesson. Ballard was interested in what made abhorrent subject positions appealing from the inside – what equillibrialised them, harmonised them – but we don’t have to take these systems’ self-understandings uncritically. For one thing, often Ballard was exploring a quite recent commodification of ontology. Cost-benefit analysis (with a dash of Yippee-ish, gap year-vintage permissiveness) is how “homo capitalist” might articulate encroaching violent rebirth to her- or himself . . . but it doesn’t prevail universally over all such violent rebirths. It’s only because we’re so accustomed to varying forms and levels of alienation that we can coolly appraise extreme forms of alienation and reconciliation like articles rummaged from a bargain bin.

Besides, even when the multitude are content with their (parking) lot, there are outliers who are not. “The Disaster Area” (1957, originally “Build-Up”) is set in a probably-infinite urban space, the kind of platform shooter Möbius would have designed if he hadn’t been into strips. Most of its residents are down with that, but not the protagonist, and he grows unhappily obsessed with the exotic concept of “free space.”

The utopia-enabling scapegoat is a perennial theme of moral SF, of course. Check out the New Testament (65-150), or Ursula LeGuin’s “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas,” (1974). Sometimes not one or two, but whole swathes are brought under regimes of torment. There are plenty of signs in High Rise that, for some residents, adaptation to a new way of life is psychically harrowing:
“Helen moved silently around the apartment, barely aware of her husband. After the fit of compulsive laughter the previous evening, her face was waxy and expressionless. Now and then a tic flickered in the right apex of her mouth, as if reflecting a tremor deep within her mind. She sat at the dining-table, mechanically straightening the boys’ hair. Watching her, and unable to think of what he could do to help her, Wilder almost believed that it was she who was leaving him, rather than the contrary” (p. 60).
When the uneven misery begins to follow contours of gender, class or race, questions of justice creep into the picture. Before the high society disintegrates into a freakshow of lonesome copings, it goes through a period of explicit class struggle. The top five floors wear fancy pants and balkanize the middle twenty-five floors, guarding their own privilege by playing off class fractions one against the other. The bottom ten floors are muddled scum, abused, sullen and sickly.

There are hints that the sexual violence against the high-rise’s neo-cavewomen is only a minor insult, that the cultural form of rape is wrenched out of recognition . . . but Ballard didn’t come out and say that, and he was an author who could unflinchingly come out and say things. I think that High Rise strongly implies mass war rape, experienced as such. I think Ballard avoided first-person testimony (the book has three main characters, all male) because the sexual victim, as a matter of patriarchal cultural form, invites pity, indignation, craving of custody and thirst for reprisal. These responses are all part of the same system of gendered and sexualised violence which High Rise is wrestling with on the dissection table. There is a subtext to the high-rise’s pervasive all-women groupings. In the world of High Rise, where possible women live without men.

Justice, then, emerges as an important makeshift division between utopia and dystopia. The idea of justice lets that division go beyond determination by individual subjects. But justice is part of bourgeois morality, and implicated in that morality’s indifference to injustice. As such, Ballard seldom if ever introduces justice as clear-cut concept. It is always peripheral, always vanishing, the lines to invoke it coinciding with those to banish it.

(3) Islands

Could there be such a thing as just architecture?

As the security situation in High Rise begins to deteriorate, the hard-drinking film critic Eleanor Powell exults, “For the first time since we were three years old what we do makes absolutely no difference” (p. 40).

Architecture in a broad sense denotes more than buildings, more than physical stuff.

Architecture is about the structures which confront us and channel our lives down their various courses. Those structures limit our free will, but they also play a part in making free will something worth wanting. They delimit the ways in which what we do can make a difference – or determine that it makes “absolutely no difference.”

Imagine there was a just architecture, an architecture which could ensure the virtue of its residents. What effect would it have on their free will?

Of course, the networks of pathways which confront us all are, in part, free will – the free will of others. They are “built” out of the choices everyone else has made, in millennia or milliseconds gone by, or can be expected to make. (For this reason, it’s often been thought that the terminal unit of virtue is the polity, not the individual. Sometimes the architecture enveloping particular person affords no opportunities for the good life).

When I heard the premise of Concrete Island – I was a kid, my dad described it to me – I had a quite different image of the island. It was a tiny little thing, maybe enough to sustain one concrete coconut tree. The marooned man stood in tatters waving his briefcase at an endless torrent of traffic. Every driver saw him, every one sped grimly by. Eventually, he sat down. His sitting down, I dimly reasoned, might be one of the best bits of the book.

A friend of mine had exactly the same experience: heard about Concrete Island, envisioned the pared-down set-up q.v., years later was both disappointed and dazzled when she read the book. Maybe Dad just went around giving little girls misleading summaries of Concrete Island, I dunno. But I think that the distorted premonition does tell us something about the emotional and thematic mush that inevitably bursts, like restaurant waste from a black bag behind a mesh wire fence, when you change Crusoe’s lagoon for a line of lorries. Hundreds of thousands of people queue up, although only by chance, to confirm that they don’t care about you at all. If they have nothing to gain in helping you, then there is no natural sympathy, no moral law, which will compel them to.

Why didn’t someone stop for him? Could there really be no break in the flow, 24/7? Too weird. It manifested the precision of science, as humane affect was subjected to rigorous physical demonstration and encoded as statistics. Percentage love in universe: 0.000%. Simultaneously, mists of allegory enveloped the fabled isle. Clearly, this could not be a realist work.

Structural flaws pervade this allegorical monument to modern nihilism and ambivalence. It’s cemented together with its own counterfactuality. Its genre is not satire, but nightmare. It relies for its force or the reader’s conviction that this is all wrong, that one should stop, that she or he would stop. Our moral universe cannot be so badly damaged. Even as it denounces the isolation and heartlessness of modernity, it whispers, “Things aren’t so bad.”

The actual island of Concrete Island is quite different, a sunken wasteground some two hundred yards long, cut off by steep embankments and three massive motorways. Maitland’s injuries make it difficult and dangerous to climb up onto the motorways. Most drivers don’t see him at all, or see him for only a moment, like some subliminal image in a movie roll. Like the figure glimpsed from a train in a Ford Maddox Ford memoir, he’ll take delivery of a multitude of interpretations. He is perhaps the object of a small, faint calculation – the possibility that “something is wrong,” weighed against the danger of pulling over.

“He stood up and turned to face the oncoming traffic. Three lines of vehicles sped towards him. They emerged from the tunnel below the overpass and accelerated along he fast bend [...] His jacket and trousers were stained with sweat, mud and engine grease – few drivers, even if they did notice him, would be eager to give him a lift. Besides, it would be almost impossible to slow down here and stop. The pressure of the following traffic, free at last from the long tail-backs that always blocked the Westway interchange during the rush-hour, forced them on relentlessly” (p. 17).

The Kitty Genovese effect is also in play. Every individual driver judges it absurd that no driver would stop – there are thousands! – so no driver does. The physical architecture, in short, integrates with the psychic architecture in such a way that Maitland’s neglect does not entail an unrealistic world of ethical egoist sociopaths.

If it is rational, is the architecture around the island then just? The walls of concrete and conventions of traffic safely channel the potentially lethal machines and their occupants. The architecture rationalises the behaviour of the motorway, in the sense that it forcibly aligns private and public virtue. Whoever endangers another in this hum of high-speed metal also endangers her- or himself. Yet clearly this architecture is unjust for those who fall outside its remit.

One boingy spring-board for utopian (and counter-utopian) thought is the premiss that when archictectures of action prove themselves unjust, all their contingencies could be imaginatively cleared away, and they could be rebuilt from scratch. Somewhere on the continuum between cobweb and support strut, you draw a line. You chuck away what is contingent, mere convention, the product of evolutionary eccentricity. You keep what is essential to the human condition. In the society of bare bones, in this State of Nature, is there such a thing as justice? Is there “natural law”? Are there trade-offs between potential moralities? Can we create, and not just evince, virtue?

Whatever the State of Nature is, whatever laws it sports or lacks, it can be used to benchmark real societies, to detect where they are malformed and could be healed, or to recognise the limits of reform. The tradition linking the State of Nature with tales of island adventure is long and illustrious. But the priority which Ballard gave to the mediatization of experience led him to contest the reality of reality and the naturalness of nature. It’s odd, therefore, that his books should invest so heavily (if seldom explicitly) in this tradition. Power relations in Ballard’s (quasi?) State(s) of Nature are complex, certainly irreducible to “hard” power (direct control of resources), and probably irreducible to hard and “soft” power (charisma, tricks). Power is intricately bound up with identity-formation and maintenance. “Real needs” are dubious, since even the will to life needn’t underwrite all possible subjectivities. Concrete Island thematizes the Hegelian master-slave dialectic, probably. Maitland’s successes in subduing the other inhabitants are somewhat incongruous. He is injured, crazed; he relies on them for food and mobility. He uses sex and money, and piss and booze, but it always feels as though he achieves more than he ought to, that there is a discrepancy between his resources and his status.

I was deftly summarizing High Rise for someone – it’s like, this TV executive, he’s covered in lipstick warpaint, his camera is practically a mace, catching sight of his own heavy, brown penis in the mirror calms him down, he can only grunt, it’s been like a month or something, – and this person asked me, quite reasonably, what happens to seal the high-rise off.

I drew breath.

Because that’s the template for these stories, right? Seal off a dinner party of anesthetists, social workers, et al., give it ten minutes and voila abattoir with yetis. Sealing off the nice people, or stranding them somewhere, does two things. It separates them from abundance (Capitalist abundance, typically), and it separates them from state institutions of law and order.

“Everyman is a gory savage, and his latent violence is closer to the surface than we think” – that’s the moral, or the cliché, which this genre trusts us to anticipate and rewards us with in the end. We are Them. We are Them.

It is the convergence of science and pornography. Although it is, by itself, not exactly an authoritarian sentiment, it sports flanges serrated to dovetail perfectly with the ass-dags any charismatic demagogue who happens to goose-amble by. Because if Man (and it usually is “Man” by this point) is inherently a juggernaut of atrocity, his civil manner, but a dissembling gauze, then we need strong leadership to keep us in check.

Only the Hobbesian formula of protection-obedience will do. We are Them. But for the Grace of omnipotent authority, there go I. Never mind, like, separation of powers, checks and balances, constitutionalism; that never happened. Justice (or, second-best, security) must be built into a governmental architecture, since the “sealing off” experiment has shown it is not a natural feature of Man.

In High Rise, nothing seals them off! Nothing triggers the regression; initially there are some tensions about dog-owners, and a bit of a question mark over when kids should use the pools. This is our clue that Ballard was up to something quite different.

Are We, according to Ballard, Them? Almost. Leap to the lead in the hic et nunc cocobananas carousel, and you’re one of them.

Almost, but I think, not quite. Ballard was abstemious in laying the causal foundations of the high-rise tribalism. In Brian Aldiss’s Non-Stop (1958) it takes several generations aboard a dodgy starship to regress. But High Rise is gently, and deliberately underdetermined. It requires of its readers a suspension of disbelief something in excess of what The Portrait of a Lady wants, though not quite the level demanded by, “In the Mirror Universe, the shapeshifter Odo is the supervisor of the mining complex at Terok Nor. He is a brutal taskmaster over Terran slaves there [...]” etc.

Some folks – the feminist political theorist Carol Pateman is a good’un – have criticised the State of Nature as a myth which legitimates existing power relations. But Ballard combined the State of Nature with cutting criticism of existing power relations. Rather than showing us the dystopia which underlies and legitimates the status quo (like Hobbes – or like John Locke, showing us the minimal model which clarifies the status quo’s rationality), Ballard’s States of Nature showed us the weird dystopian-utopian spaces which already exist within the status quo.

Ballard wasn’t just interested in what the contrived spaces of a lab experiment, or the aftermath of a disaster, can tell us about human nature and big social trends. For Ballard, they weren’t just allegories, thought experiments, or models. He was also interested – I really think there is a difference here – in the spaces themselves, which he suspected appear more frequently and pervasively than we care to admit.

Though Ballard’s work is cautionary, it has a lot of good things to say about utopia. Especially if you think how relatively unpopular the concept has been recently: the concepts of utopia and dystopia are fused. It is quite impossible to speak of a radically better world without alluding to the utopianisms of Hitler and Stalin. You can argue, again in a Marxist vein, that it is Late Capitalism itself that has grotesquely glued gulags, artifical famine and Aushwitz all over the pure and sweet concept of universal justice. You can argue that It does so to protect Itself from criticism. You might be right, but this stuff is nonetheless still objectively glued together. Utopia-dystopia is a “real illusion,” like the commodity form – it is an illusion we can’t dispel by piercing it through thought and exposure with language, since the “illusion” is invincibly reiterated every moment by our lived social relations; it is reborn from everywhere, it is more logical than logic.

And yet. Utopia has been a dirty word for so long . . . it’s sort of cleaned itself, a bit. Like dirty hair which they say secretes its own shampoo, or an abandoned piece of laundry that’s ambiguously wearable again. Ballard never treated this utopia-dystopia hybrid as a weird limit condition, or latent dynamic, or bogey-man. With a science fiction novelist’s perogative, he showed it as something that was already here. He submitted its events to standards of justice, however problematic, and he traced possible trajectories of subjectivity through it.

Every time utopian thought is criticised for ignoring some latent real need, we slightly enlarge our idea of what it is to be human. Have our ideas of real needs simply needed more paranoia and more imagination? Nothing could be more dogmatic than ruling out utopia forever.

Post-script: Manaugh

So I’ve made three small suggestions about Ballard. First, his work is supremely conscious of the dynamic connection between environments and their inhabitants, and thus critical of efforts to “perfect” environments on the basis of a particular idea of the human. Second, despite his disdain for received notions of intrinsically superior modes of life, Ballard resisted moral relativism, and submitted the flux of subjectivity he depicted to standards of justice. Third, Ballard was drawn to segregated, normatively autonomous spaces, but not only as experiments, or models, whose use lay in extrapolation or generalisation or allegory. He was also fascinated by the possibility that much of society already takes place in such spaces.

It would be nice to get some closure on the J. G. Ballard’s celestial resting place question q.v., even if it was just a thought experiment gradually revealing its own patent absurdity.

Did Ballard like Brutalism? Bollards, ballustrades, pallisades, flyovers, cloverleaf junctions, on-ramps, traffic islands, artifical lakes, storm tunnels, multi-storey car parks, business parks, military camps, edge-of-town mega-malls, abandoned cinemas, opulent, derelict hotels, ruined swimming pools quarter-filled with yellow water, an Alsatian bobbing, or bone dry and piled with human bones. Stairwells barricaded with chic utilitarian furniture, shadows moving behind them; did Ballard like this stuff?

My friend Posie Rider told me a joke; she told it wrong (Posie could fluff the punchline of an e-mail forward), but using Habermasian reconstructive science, I think this East German guy is applying to emigrate to West Germany. This state bureaucrat says, “Listen, why do you want to emigrate? Here, you have a large, well-serviced apartment overlooking the park. Will you get such a nice apartment in the West?” It may be an old joke. The would-be emigrant says, “Oh, can’t complain.” “And you finally got that car you’ve been applying for?” “Oh, can’t complain.” “And you have a good, safe job at the shoe factory!” “Oh, can’t complain.” “So why do you want to move to the West?” “There I can complain!”

OK, so it’s about freedom of expression and of political dissent. But I imagined hyper-democratic authorities in Western Germany taking those complaints seriously. I imagined them reconstructing the mortified immigrant’s old situation around him.

Some subjects are deeply invested in resisting their own conditions of possibility. It is a deep problem for progressive politics of all kinds. It is the kernel of truth in the conservative slur that grassroots activists and other political volunteers are troublemakers and attention-seekers. By the end of Concrete Island, Maitland seems to be this kind of subject. Crudely, he doesn’t want to escape from the island, he wants to be someone trying to escape from the island. (This explains the apparent hypocrisy of hiding from a police car and then, a paragraph later, thinking with delight of imminent escape).

The social critic, the cautionary visionary, implicated with his subject matter, is similarly constitutively conflicted. Did Ballard like this stuff, well, yes, in a terribly complicated iterative way, it was what he loved to hate to love to hate to love to hate . . . etc., with new cognitive angles materializing with each iteration.

So I guess if I were the angel architect (I’m not – it’s you) I might build Ballard a limitless flux of only-ever-provisionally-distinguished subjectivity and environment, in intricate and glorious iteration, more or less laissez-faire but with safeguards against the evolution of infinite loops and other cul-de-sacs of dei-diversity. Plus bunting because that would kind of be my signature thingy. A cop-out based on free market indifference and fetishization of choice, you say; I say, the bunting’s not; also Plan B is consult with other mortals. Nic Clear and Simon Kennedy have started a course on Ballardian architecture at the Bartlett School of Architecture in London. Maybe Geoff Manaugh is the mortal for the job. He has recently published a book, The BLDGBLOG Book, based in part on his speculative architecture blog, BLDGBLOG ( The project is probably way too big for any one of us. But if we collectively came up with a utopia good enough for Ballard, I bet it would be good enough for any one of us.

Works cited

Brian Aldiss (1958): Non-Stop, London: Faber & Faber
J. G. Ballard (1957): “The Disaster Area,” (a.k.a. “Build-Up” / “The Concentration City”) in The Complete Short Stories, London: Harper (2006)
J. G. Ballard (1962/2008): The Drowned World, London: HarperCollins
J. G. Ballard (1973/2008): Concrete Island, London: HarperCollins
J. G. Ballard (1975/2006): High-Rise, London: HarperCollins
J. G. Ballard (2006): Super-Cannes, London: HarperCollins
J. G. Ballard (2008): Miracles of Life: Shanghai to Shepperton, an Autobiography, London: HarperCollins
J.G. Ballard (1977/2006): “The Intensive Care Unit” in High-Rise “P.S.” (q.v.)
George Eliot (1874): Middlemarch
Henry James (1881): Portrait of a Lady
Ursula LeGuin (1974) “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas” in The Wind's Twelve Quarters, New York: Harper & Row (1975)


[1] J. G. Ballard (2006): “A Handful of Dust,” The Guardian.
[2] Alison and Peter Smithson, CIAM Congress 1953 (over-cited sound-byte)
[3] Reyner Banham (1966): “The New Brutalism: Ethic or Aesthetic?” in As found: the discovery of the ordinary (2001): ed. Claude Lichtenstein and Thomas Schregenberger, Springer, p. 130
[4] Jeremy Lewis interviews J. G. Ballard, Mississippi Review, Volume 20, Numbers 1 & 2, published 1991 by the Centre for Writers, The University of Southern Mississippi, online at
[5] Excerpted in The Times Online, 20 January 2008,
[6] Quoted in BBC obituary, online.

Elsewhere: TTCAS draft / rushes / WIP.