Ashes to Ashes

I can remember exactly where I was the first time I saw this: a loungeroom in Engadine when it came on Countdown. I was mesmerised. It’s still one of my favourite songs and music videos. One of the first things I thought on hearing the news was to hope that my daughters weren’t too upset about it: it’s amazing that my reactions to one performer can span from when I was ten years old to having teenage kids of my own.

This is my favourite: a joyous, soaring anthem to love and mortality.

 

Black Streamers in the Firmament

lensman_astounding_5

Come, let us march against the powers of heaven,
And set black streamers in the firmament,
To signify the slaughter of the gods.
Marlowe, Tamburlaine

After I saw Star Wars VII: The Force Awakens, I wanted to write a follow-up to my original post on space megastructures: the superweapon. (This post contains spoilers.)

Many reviews of the film have commented on the repetition of elements from the 1977 movie, particularly Starkiller Base, which is an even bigger Death Star. It’s worth remembering that this repetition is a process which started in the third film, which ends with the destruction of the incomplete successor to the original moon-sized space station. I’m not here to venture on the picayune task of criticising the Empire’s war economy but to tease out some of the literary antecedents and cultural implications of this compulsive tendency to the Next Big Gun.

The megastructure in general is enigmatic, often abandoned, usually dangerous but in some sense neutral. It inflates architecture to cosmic scales in a way which excites our awe and consoles both our nostalgia for the heroic engineering feats of the past and our terror at just how large the universe is. Superweapons grow out of another aspect of architecture, which has always gone hand-in-hand with fortifications: just as the superhero magnifies the human figure in action so that it can scale up to respond to the violence of technology—faster than a speeding bullet, more powerful than a locomotive—the superweapon takes that very technological violence and brings it to bear on the heavens themselves, albeit in a way which is strangely retrograde.

The history of warfare up to the twentieth century is one of growth: bigger castles, bigger armies, longer supply lines, bigger fronts, and bigger guns. Although the very largest bombards in medieval siege warfare were reckless vanity pieces which fell on the far side of a trade-off between actual military efficacy, cost and safety, the general trend is clear. Two factors changed this: aircraft and modern explosives, which drastically warp the previously linear relationship between the size of a machine and the amount of destruction it could cause.

One of the more uncanny aspects of nuclear weapons is the sheer disproportion between their size and their effects. On the scale of a city, a fission bomb is a speck—it’s as if an ant were to detonate and destroy an entire meadow. The enormity of the forces which nuclear weapons unleash takes an effort to comprehend, which may be why Lucas’ superweapons don’t even bother to try. In a manoeuvre which matches the Star Wars universe’s blend of futuristic technology and ancient or medieval politics and cultural forms, the Death Stars and Starkiller Base don’t unleash the terrifying forces latent within the atom or unwind space-time or dissolve worlds into collapsing nuggets of strange quarks or anything like that. They’re just plain big, the spacegoing descendants of cannons like Mons Meg or Big Bertha rather than Fat Man and Little Boy.

As an aside: the avoidance of technobabble is a great strength of the Star Wars franchise. Literary sf has a flourishing roster of world-killing machines and substances which don’t rely on mere size, but on subtle reconfigurations of matter—Kurt Vonnegut’s Ice-nine, a polymorph of water ice which is stable and solid at room temperature, is my favourite—but the good Star Wars films never slow down enough to require the audience to comprehend anything more complicated than “great big laser beam” or “mystic energy”. The “midichlorians” of the prequels were a violation of this implicit deal with the audience. We find unseen and insidious world-killers a bit hard to get our collective head around in real life as well, as our reaction to the carbon dioxide output of our largest real-life megastructure, the global industrial, transport and energy network, shows.

The renaissance in written sf of wide-screen space adventure in the past few decades has seen a rebirth of superweapons. Alastair Reynolds’ Revelation Space series features a post-sentient machine species, the Inhibitors, who are practically connoisseurs of the different ways in which a spare gas giant can be reconfigured so as to sterilise whole systems, and the idea of forces hostile to life wielding weapons of galactic destruction also dominates the gaming franchises Halo and Mass Effect. However, the literary ancestors of the superweapons of Star Wars are much older: E. E. “Doc” Smith’s Lensman novels, originally published as serials in the 30s and 40s, which share with the Star Wars universe an Elect wielding quasi-magical psychic powers, a never-ending succession of bad guys who are mere puppets of more shadowy even-worse guys, and an ever-escalating succession of Brobdingnagian weaponry. Although atomic bombs are mentioned in passing, these are squibs on the scale of the vertiginous arms race in the Lensman universe, in which entire planets are shunted between dimensions, rendered “inertialess” and used as faster-than-light wrecking balls.

A crucial distinction between the two legendaria: Smith’s heroes (the antecedents of Green Lantern as well as the Jedi) have few compunctions about using these nightmarish devices, whereas in the Star Wars films, superweapons are strictly for the Sith, and are defeated not by bigger guns but by plucky saboteurs and pilots with help from the Force. Partly this is down to historical background: Smith has a can-do WWII attitude, as opposed to Lucas’ muddle-headed, if sincere, boomer antiauthoritarianism. But it also leads us to an idea which is entirely absent from Smith and only present in a halting or partial form in Lucas: the superweapon as blasphemy.

Combien de fois, sacredieu, n’ai-je pas désiré qu’on pût attaquer le soleil, en priver l’univers, ou s’en server pour embraser le monde? (How many times, by God, have I not wanted to be able to attack the sun, deprive the universe of it, or use it to set the world ablaze?)
—Sade, The 120 Days of Sodom

Since the beginning of time, Man has yearned to destroy the sun.
—Montgomery Burns

Building a weapon to destroy a planet or a star, or both at once—Starkiller Base almost exactly matches the dream of de Sade’s libertine, as a sun is consumed in order to fuel its planet-busting energy beam. This seems like the ultimate act of Promethean defiance, even after we have emerged from a closed pre-Copernican universe to one where the sun is not an unique object but one of a swarm of billions: going far beyond the crime of an individual murder, or even genocide, to the willed act of snuffing out the grounds of living existence itself, or like Marlowe’s Tamburlaine, impiously setting one’s sights on the heavens. However, despite the spacefaring civilisation in Star Wars being dependent on planets—the only permanent space-dwellers we see are the crews of the Death Stars themselves—and although the Jedi’s vague spirituality privileges life forms and some idea of cosmic balance, there’s no suggestion in any of the films that the ambition to destroy a world or its sun is an evil in itself, in addition to the billions of deaths which it can cause.

Near the beginning of The Force Awakens, we see a beautiful image: an enormous spacecraft which has been wrecked on surface of a desert planet, shimmering through the hazy air like a mountain of metal. Ruins are part of the inheritance which science fiction bought over from the Gothic, and they’re part of the “used universe” aesthetic of the original Star Wars trilogy (unlike the prequels, which are distinctly lacking in the picturesque and decrepit—their scenery is glistening and fresh from the CGI render farm). Almost all of the architectural spaces occupied by the good guys are a combination of the old, the futuristic and the natural: caverns in ice or creeper-covered temples, fitted out with shiny battle computers. The ruined Imperial Star Destroyer turns this blend of the natural and the artificial into something transcendent, which might be called the post-Anthropocene sublime. The same progression is also evident on the Dark Side. The Death Stars, large though they were, were still essentially big buildings with interiors like austere yet lush corporate headquarters. Starkiller Base, by contrast, is an entire world, with a rather romantic landscape of mountains, glaciers and pine forests surrounding its equatorial canyon and vast red maw. It’s not clear whether it’s a planet which was transformed into a weapon, or a monstrous machine which accreted a rocky crust, weather system and biosphere, and perhaps in the post-Anthropocene aesthetic this distinction doesn’t really matter. The series’ repetition of the Big Dumb Gun idea can be forgiven for the sake of the object’s sheer insane beauty. Starkiller Base is lovingly rendered with imagery that corresponds to the ISS astronauts’ view of Earth combined with genuinely Cyclopean architecture: an apotheosis of the Teutonic, as if a Caspar David Friedrich landscape were transformed into a killing machine beyond the darkest dreams of Albert Speer and the Organisation Todt.

This blending of the natural and artificial may be what robs the superweapons of Star Wars of any Promethean transgression: if there’s no real difference between the two, then the ambition of Sade’s libertine to transmute mere individual crime into an absolute desecration loses its power. Even though Starkiller Base is inherently excessive—destroying a system’s sun would seem to be quite destructive enough without spewing the stolen fire back on all of its planets—and as much as it might suit the petulant, melodramatic character of Kylo Ren, the new trilogy’s villain, it’s only an instrument of mass murder, not cosmic blasphemy. Revealingly, the true test of his loyalty to the Dark Side is not the destruction of an entire inhabited solar system, but the murder of one man.

But even if Ren has the makings of a Sadean libertine, this would be too individualistic and aristocratic a role for the fascist bureaucracy he’s working within. The Dark Side can’t really defy the Universe or the Deity, because the Light Side it’s rebelling against never actually spells out its precepts, never says what rules it should break, apart from all the moralising about anger, fear and hatred. It would be like planning a Satanic revolt against cognitive-behavioural therapy. So all the Empire has to fall back on is the very un-Sadean concept of Order, and go back to the drawing boards for the next superweapon. Or does this very repetition betray the Sith’s darkest secret? The ennui of the Sadean libertine cannot be assuaged, after all, by taking the battle to the heavens, it’s the same story all over again, one planet is not enough, not even a whole system… Maybe next time, with a bigger gun

Music 2015

For someone who loves music, I’ve never felt like I was good at keeping up with it, and at this time of year peoples’ blog posts about their top ten new albums leave me feeling like a bit of an underachiever. I wonder if music fans fall into two categories, the ones who are always out there searching for the new stuff, and the ones like me who listen to records repeatedly, sometimes for years. One way out of this is to write up all the music which was new to me this year, because there’s always a lot of that. One of my daughters is currently digging through my vinyl with the carefree contempt for currency of the genuine teenage music fan, and I’m going to take a leaf out of her book. Although I’m not going to start buying vinyl again: this Christmas JB Hi-Fi is full of overpriced, 180-gsm gatefold-vinyl-reissues-with-mp3-download-of-your-post-punk-classics which I find simultaneously tempting and appalling: did we laugh at all those bad 90s CD remasters of the Boomer canon for nothing? This is the music I enjoyed the most in the last twelve months or so:

Autechre EPs box set – I was ridiculously late to Autechre, didn’t even own anything of theirs until after I saw them live in 2010, for reasons I still can’t really articulate but are to do with my own mood disorder and how it relates to alienating electronica. I’ve been playing catchup ever since. The only track on this I knew was the bleak/catchy “Gantz Graf” but it’s all really good, including the early, charmingly rave-y tracks. Ae completists should also check out the four-hour mix they did for a Dutch radio station – which not only confirms my theory that they’re still b-boys at heart, but also seems designed, with its onslaught of four-on-the-floor electro, to madden their symmetry-hating fans.

Charles Cohen: Retrospective and Brother I Prove You Wrong – quite a different sort of electronica. Cohen is a virtuoso of the Buchla synth, a strange analogue machine which looks like something Spock might have jammed on in Star Trek. He’s been performing around Philadelphia since the 70s but hardly released any recordings, apparently getting widely known by being sampled on various electronica singles starting in the 90s. One of my workmates tipped me off to his new album and I then got his retrospective collection off iTunes. This stuff is really warm, generous and textured, and quite funky at times, a long way from the panic-attack-inducing airlessness of Autechre. Great walking and programming music.

Tangerine Dream – I only found out that I liked Tangerine Dream thanks to John Coulthart’s post in honour of Edgar Froese,  who passed away in January. I like to rail against rock snobs so I have to confess that it has been the most dishonourable of motives, the desire of a nerdy fifteen-year-old to kick off his old Sky albums and be seen as cool, which has kept me from indulging my taste for prog and the spacier or hippyish aspects of Krautrock, and that I’ve only been able to overcome this in the last four years or so. It’s really terrible and obvious, I even gave a pass to Cluster just because they worked with Eno. Ahem: My name is Michael Lynch, and I love these mystical cosmic jams. (Except for when the singing starts. Prog vocals are still too much for me unless they’re being sung by the lady from Curved Air.)

Holden – From the same work colleague who got me onto Charles Cohen: I really like his 2013 album The Inheritors, a set of vastly enjoyable Stone Age modular synth stompers. Here’s a live performance of the whole album.

Tom Ellard: Rhine – I can’t think of an act besides Severed Heads who have such an advanced case of “I like their old stuff better than their new stuff” antagonism between fanbase and artist, to the extent that old Sevs fans are called “Cliffords” after the early compilation Clifford, Darling, Please Don’t Live In The Past. I’ll admit to having bought more remastered old albums off Tom’s Bandcamp than new ones, but this album of new songs, which I got in the fancy “hardback” edition on a USB stick with bonus material, is brilliant. Severed Heads are usually talked about in terms of their pioneering role in electronic music and video art, but Tom is also a great songwriter – ‘Recall’ is as heartfelt and moving a tune as I’ve heard all year. Also recommended: Better Dead Than Head, a compilation of reworkings of old Sevs tracks from the succession of last-ever-shows they’ve played over the past five years, and Terse Greetings, a free compilation of cut-up and droney electronic pop from labelmates on the revived Terse Tapes.

Evan Parker’s Electro-Acoustic Ensemble: The Moment’s Energy – wild and free improv with beautiful strings, insane Cecil-Taylor-esque piano, signal processing and electronics, which alternates between feral squalls of noise and passages of microtonal textures which seem to freeze time: “drones” is an inadequate term. I’ve still got this on high rotation and it’s the kind of music which takes me repeated listens to explore and understand, which as it’s a live recording raises interesting questions about the difference between what it would be like to hear once and once only.

Hiatus Kaiyote: Choose Your Weapon I love this crew of soul-funk-astronauts from Melbourne: this and their first album, Tawk Tomahawk, are some of my favourite Australian albums of the last decade. Blissful, off-the-cuff slices of polyrhythmic wonderland. I think “Atari” is my favourite.

Wire: The Perfect Copy – Got into a big Wire kick, thanks to @timsterne posting a link to this playlist, and finally got around to buying a copy of their 1988 album, which I’d not liked much at the time because I’d just fallen in love with their first three records and tracks like “A Head” seemed a bit too much like a lot of other dance-inflected pop on JJJ by comparison. “A Madman’s Honey” is one of their transfixing, gorgeous lyrical songs, in the vein of “Outdoor Miner”. Googling the lyrics led me to Nemrut Dagi, an astonishing ancient tomb in Turkey:

The western terrace contains a large slab with a lion, showing the arrangement of stars and the planets Jupiter, Mercury and Mars on 7 July 62 BC.

The really good bands can keep teaching you things after twenty-seven years.

Blu Mar Ten: From The Vaults “The 90s are back” has become a Twitter in-joke but this collection of cassette mixtapes of jungle and drum & bass from 93 to 97 has been my productivity soundtrack for the past few weeks. I never thought that dropouts or the dull fuzz of iron oxide not coping with heavy bass would sound so evocative, but thinking about it, a lot of what I like about jungle is the primitive sampling, the way each break seems caught in its own “window” of sonic texture, of which the track is a collage.

Amon Tobin: The Foley Room, Dark Jovian

I picked the first of these up at Repressed Records in Newtown, who seem to be flogging off a lot of Title’s more avant-garde stock (the price stickers were still on some of them) – this is also where I got the Evan Parker record. I’ve only been aware of Tobin from a couple of excellent early tracks on y2k-era compilation albums: this one, from 2008, is the first on which he used recorded sound. There’s a DVD with a featurette documenting him recording radar domes, motorbikes, ants and lions – it’s delightfully like the episode of The Mighty Boosh where the lads record the sound of a crab committing suicide and pump it out through a shoe “for the oaky timbre”. Dark Jovian is an EP from earlier this year, mostly beat-free, inspired by ‘60s and ‘70s space soundscapes – there are echoes of Tangerine Dream here, but also Ligeti, at once vast and delicate.

Pierre Boulez and Karlheinz Stockhausen – New Directions in Music
Anton Webern: Complete Works (Boulez, Sony)
Ute Lemper: Three Classic Albums

Finding a CD copy of this – a 2010 reissue of a late 50s recording of early works, including Stockhausen’s Zeitmasse and Boulez’ Le Marteau sans Maître – spurred me on to finally get into Webern, whose complete works conducted by Boulez are available on iTunes for a pretty decent price. Le Marteau is not what I expected from its reputation: it is intricate, but the light intstrumentation and female vocals make its complexity seem nimble and delicate rather than dense. Stockhausen’s Zeitmasse is an achingly beautiful work for five woodwinds. Webern is a revelation: there are more musical ideas per minute in these three CDs’ worth than just about anything else I own. I wish he had not been so fond of songs for soprano: for some reason I find these peculiarly grating. As decompression from these, I’d revisit the Ute Lemper box set, three albums from the 80s of Weill/Brecht and assorted 30s cabaret numbers which I got with a gift voucher last Christmas.

Madlib – Medicine Show, Beat Konducta vol 5-6, Dil Cosby and Dil Withers Suites
Jackson Conti – Sujinho
Jaylib – Champion Sound
De La Soul / J Dilla – Smell the D.A.I.S.Y.

I spent about two months towards the end of the year listening to nothing but hip-hop, after my brother Tim (who is always my best source of good new music) loaned me a heap of Madlib’s Medicine Show mixtapes and albums, including his collaborations with J Dilla and Brazilian percussionist Ivan Conti. Madlib is a genius and the Medicine Show is like a seed-bank of American genres. Sujinho is a beautiful, delirious cross-fertilisation of Brazilian and LA beats. The Beat Konducta session, a tribute to J Dilla, is a really moving record which feels like a heartfelt response to Dilla’s Donuts, and it’s hard to beat Champion Sound, where the two producers tag-team rapping over one another’s beats. I listened to so much impenetrable and abstract stuff earlier in the year that I needed to come back to earth.

[Addendum: I forgot to mention another great tribute: De La Soul released a mixtape of some of their old flows over J Dilla beats.]

The Forever War

Joe Haldeman

I’ve read and enjoyed lots of Haldeman’s short fiction, but when I came
across this recent interview it reminded me that I hadn’t read The Forever War, although I had a kind of ghostly memory of it which might have been the result of reading it at an age when I was too young to really get it, or of having read an excerpt or a review long ago. So I downloaded the e-book, which is available from SF Gateway – if you’re my age and an sf nerd, you’ll have a Pavlovian response to the Gollancz-yellow typographic covers.

The novel more than lives up to its reputation as cracking military sf, although that’s not a genre I’ve really read much of – the descriptions of combat could have been written yesterday, although if they were there would probably be much more stuff about computer viruses and all-purpose nanotechnology, which is all to The Forever War’s advantage as I’m bored with the “computational turn” of sf. This is a seventies novel, so it uses the genre toolkit of its time, that peculiar bow-shock of plausible tech and recent astrophysics which actual science and technology pushes before it into its fictional amanuenses: low-temperature physics, “collapsars” (stellar-mass black holes), stasis fields and relativity played with the net up. The combat and training are as numbing an alternation of boredom with haphazard brutality as any actual modern battle, and the succession of alien worlds on which war with the Taurans plays out are free from the contrivances and cliches of planetary romance. (They also include two of my favourite astrophysical objects, Epsilon Aurigae and the giant star S Doradus.)

The most famous feature of the novel is the dislocation caused by time dilation, which stretches the main characters’ subjective timelines out over what become centuries back on Earth. Haldeman was in Vietnam, but the disjunction between the main character and his home planet isn’t played out in the political clichés of home-front contempt which have come to dominate how we think about that war: they feel like they would be applicable to any combat veteran. The most dated aspect of the novel is its treatment of homosexuality, which is promoted by the world government as a remedy for overpopulation. It’s not that it’s homophobic, Haldeman giving the impression of a decent open-minded straight dude doing his best, but its assumption that orientation is completely malleable, or that a majority-gay society would mirror our society’s homophobia, aren’t credible.

Another aspect of the novel’s treatment of sexuality which I disliked is the baseline 1990s military culture at the start: mixed-gender troops with mandatory partner-swapping which amounts to a form of enforced prostitution. This is the occasion of some fairly unpleasant humour and is on the whole no more convincing than the broader social changes later in the novel. (I ended up wishing that all the sex stuff had been written by another writer, Samuel Delany, for instance.)

It’s still a great book – one of the best of that subgenre of sf which uses relativistic time-dilation as a powerful metaphor for the friction between time as lived experience and time as history, something which gets to us all these days, soldiers and civilians alike – and deserves its reputation.

Five Fantasies about Tony Abbott

The fantasy about distributism

Abbott’s relationship with B A Santamaria, still a compulsory mention in every op-ed about his political character, implying that he represented some strain of mainstream Australian conservatism which opposes free-market neoliberalism. Look, I like G K Chesterton as much as the next guy (if I were to meet Abbott, my first question would be, “do you like Chesterton?” and my second would be “what do you think of his anti-semitism?”) but this idea is as much a fantasy as The Man Who Was Thursday. The last positive traces of distributism in Australian political life were probably the soldier’s settlement schemes of the twentieth century: intended (by Santamaria and others) to breed a race of stout yeomen capable of resisting the corruptions of modern life, actually resulting in some of eastern Sydney’s drearier tract housing.

In reality, there’s no Australian conservative movement of any significance which opposes capitalism. (This is why I don’t like to call them ‘Tories’: Australian conservatism starts with Locke, and any attempt to pretend otherwise is just cosplay.)

The fantasy about social conservatism

Speaking of B A Santamaria, much of his later career was devoted to plaintively challenging the huge, progressive shift in the ability of the state to police sexual behaviour which took place in the last two decades of the twentieth century. This rout of social conservatism was so dramatic that we’re still in the swirling confusion after the battle, and the stupider members of the right are still running around with Cory Bernardi, unaware that they’ve lost.

All that Abbott could do in this field was shore up Howard’s rearguard action against marriage equality, which is doomed anyway, as eventually we’ll need to recognise marriages ratified by other jurisdictions. There’s no suggestion that the LNP at a State level are going to change anything in this regard.

There’s a really interesting story to tell about how mainstream conservatism came to a rapprochement with the decriminalisation of homosexuality, a reform which up until the 80s they (and a large part of the ALP) had been firmly against, but a conservative tradition as unreflective as Australia’s is unlikely to tell it.

The fantasy about the boats

The fantasy about what’s actually happening under the veil of operational secrecy; the fantasy that the Dickensian legal trickery of extraterritorial detention won’t eventually fall apart at the seams; the fantasy (from the nice left) that all of this is somehow a radical degeneration of Australian law and morality, rather than a continuation of its traditional racialised brutality.

The fantasy about an Oxford education

The English, when they speak of Oxford, talk mostly about class. Australians, of either political persuasion, talk about brains, despite the fact that the Rhodes Scholarship has no particular academic entry standard above what’s normally required. It’s rather touching. One thinks of the Rhodes Scholar as a stock comic character in such nostalgic entertainments as Max Beerbohm’s Zuleika Dobson, and wonders what Max would have made of Tony.

The fantasy about ‘economic management’

Here’s a scary thought: Abbott and Hockey weren’t exceptional, the remnants of an otherwise competent and sane conservative party at the end of some dreadful process of Faulknerian decline. They were perfectly representative Libs, running on nothing but half-inarticulate social prejudices and Baden-Powellish ‘character’. Turnbull had to get rid of them before they completely wrecked the fantasy of the Liberals (also based on half-inarticulate social prejudices) as the party of (stop laughing up the back there) fiscal responsibility and (look here) reform.

Castles in the Sky

The Bridge Over the Stars, Philippe Druillet, 1972

The Bridge Over the Stars, Philippe Druillet, 1972

The Kepler satellite, tasked with the meticulous examination of thousands of stars to detect the minute dips in intensity which are caused by the transits of their planets, has detected something odd about the light curve of KIC 8462852. (It’s customary in popular journalistic accounts of this sort of thing to make a sarcastic crack at the fact that the star is known by a catalogue number rather than a name, to which I want to respond, ok, you think up names for the 2.5 million or so stars now known to science, if you’re so smart.) The objects orbiting KIC 8462852 are more numerous than is expected of planets, but inconsistent with the star’s observed age: young stars are surrounded by swarms of dust and rubble, but this star’s spectrum indicates that it’s mature. The objects might be debris from a planetary collision which we are just lucky enough to observe before all the fragments have dispersed, or they might be a large family of comets – the hypothesis favoured by the scientists who, with the help of amateur observers, brought the phenomenon to the press’s attention. But the idea that’s got the article retweeted is far more engaging: alien megastructures.

In a fictional setting, I like a megastructure as much as the next guy: the Death Star, the Other, Larger, Death Star, that big cloud or whatever in the Star Trek film that started out as a space probe. Not to mention the even more grandiose offerings of science fiction novels: Larry Niven’s Ringworld and its descendants in Iain M Banks’ Culture novels, Arthur C Clarke’s Rama, down to the drastic reconfigurations of the Solar System undertaken in Charles Stross’ Accelerando and Hannu Rajaniemi’s Quantum Thief trilogy.

Megastructures, however, straddle that strange territory between science fiction and, if not exactly science fact, then at least science I’ve-got-tenure-so-let’s-see-how-big-these-brain-farts-can-get. The theoretical musings of physicists such as Freeman Dyson, whose eponymous Sphere is a shell constructed in order to capture the entire energy output of a star. Or the Anderson Disk: a circular plate the size of the orbit of Mars, with a hole conveniently placed in the centre in which a sun suffers the indignity of bobbing up and down to provide a day-night cycle. The epitome of this mindset is the Kardashev Scale, formulated by a Russian astronomer in 1964, which rates civilisations on their ability to marshal the energy output of their entire planet (I), their star (II) and their home galaxy (III).

This mode of speculative cosmic architecture is usually recounted with a poker-faced seriousness which goes beyond the fun of science fiction into something stranger and more touching: a deep and unrequited nostalgia for that Heroic Age of Insane Infrastructure, the twentieth century. In a world where both sides of the Cold War contemplated using fission bombs as the world’s least environmentally-friendly earthmoving technology, reprocessing the planet Mercury as the raw material for a sun cosy is just the logical next step. It’s also a displacement of the colonial engineer’s ambitions, thwarted by environmentalism on this world, set free to rend asunder the rest of the Solar System without restraint.

Leaving aside the fact that no known or even hypothetical material has the strength to throw hoops around stars or build artificial moons, none of the scientists, and very few of the science-fiction writers, ever address the social or economic transformations which would be needed to organise any of this. The further we get from the fever of the Cold War, the more the prospect of industrial societies organising any project larger than a cluster of skyscrapers seems to dwindle; on a planet where the nation with the largest economy seems to be forgetting how to maintain its road bridges, it’s hard to imagine, even if we were given the technology and an unlimited budget, how we could sustain the focussed attention required to build even a modest space elevator before we got bored and switched over to Netflix.

Which is why, of course, megastructures are almost always built by aliens (or, in the admirable works of Finnish sf author Hannu Rajaniemi, a particularly brutal and industrious clade of post-humans). Tatlin’s Monument to the Third International stands as the minatory architectural ghost of utopian communism, and it could be that the space-entrepreneurial plans of Elon Musk and Richard Branson will serve future generations as a virtual memorial of capitalism. But aliens—who, like robots, are a sort of dumping-ground of wistful but incorrect ideas about our own capacities—never faced these disappointments; their Tatlin’s Towers reach all the way to the stars.

In fiction, megastructures are usually abandoned, enigmatic and perilous, and when we read pop-sci articles which treat them as a serious possibility, we should remember their true nature as aesthetic objects: the grandest incarnation of the statue of Ozymandias that our culture has yet produced. In his novel The Pastel City, M John Harrison wrote of the empires that preceded his beautiful and melancholy city of Viriconium:

The last of them left its name written in the stars, but noone who came later could read it.

Chesterton on Fascism

That in my normal journey towards the grave this sudden reappearance of all that was bad and barbarous and stupid and ignorant in Carlyle, without a touch of what was really quaint and humorous in him, should suddenly start up like a spectre in my path strikes me as something quite incredible. It is as incredible as seeing Prince Albert come down from the Albert Memorial and walk across Kensington Gardens.

As someone who pored over SPY in the late 80s, I feel the same way about Donald Trump.