Category Archives: fiction

Neural Streams of Consciousness

Style-extraction algorithms having reached the level of popular smartphone apps which could take the small-scale features of Hokusai’s wave or a Lichtenstein cartoon and apply them to a picture of one’s pet, it was only a matter of time before the technique was successfully applied to textual, rather than graphic, works. These first neural networks were mere mimics, more sophisticated versions of elementary Markov chains, which could produce plausible but nonsensical imitations of existing texts with no semantic content.

A breakthrough came with the Antal functor, which used a form of iterated adversarial machine learning algorithm to extrapolate multiple versions of a given text along many dimensions and then aggressively prune this ramifying cluster of words into “fixed points”, an unfortunate piece of mathematical jargon for what could be quite subtle and profound features of the source material. (The story of the functor’s use in extracting “virtual characters” from apparently objective and non-fictional texts, and the subsequent effects of this discovery on journalism and politics, have been told elsewhere.) Once this basic technique had been mastered, it could then be applied in an analogous way to that used in vision, sorting the qualities of a text on an approximate scale which ranged from such minutiae as idiosyncrasies of spelling or word frequency, to the characteristic syntactic patterns employed, and then on, with decreasing accuracy, into such large-scale qualities as extended metaphors, symbolic structures and plot.

The most famous application of this technique was the urDay service. The user registered his or her various social media accounts with urDay and allowed it to apply a battery of neural functors to the texts and images which flowed from them, taking these as a modern and technologically-mediated version of the stream of consciousness which had been pioneered in literature by Woolf and Joyce. The abstract versions of these could then be expressed in any number of ways: to generate wry or amusing animations with a cast of adorable algorithmically-generated mascots; inserted into an ever-changing roster of movie clips and viral videos as sarcastic commentary, witty cameo or heartfelt dialogues.

A set of textual plugins had been provided, more out of the curiosity of some of the development team and a sense of pride in their antecedence than any hope that urDay would have any serious impact on literary studies, much less kindle in its users a love of high modernism. With these, one could project the narration of one’s life in a kaleidoscope of styles and voices, just as Joyce had done in Ulysses: a cursory description of an annoying planning workshop or visit to a supermarket could be recounted in the language of high fantasy or science fiction. Use and abuse of these textual plugins became popular in certain literary circles, all the more because of the occasional thunderings against this digital prostitution of the art and craft of writing which came from the stodgier journals: although their output was, if anything, too facile and polished to really be groundbreaking as generated textual art, their use signalled that one was not above a certain populist bravado.

As is only natural, after a few years such collaborations seemed painfully dated, and the professional writers abandoned the field to those amateurs who enjoyed running an autoblog which gathered up and retold the output of their various encounters and days in the manner of, for example, a noir detective story, or an epic battle across frozen tundra, or a stylish psychodrama.

Their remained the matter of what became known as “the puzzles”. Certain scholars who had shifted from collaborating with the urDay plugins to analysing their outputs claimed that motifs and images seemed to be following patterns which, though elusive, could neither be attributed to the social media inputs, nor to the literary models used to generate the various styles. (The use of functorial analysis allowed this to be done with a degree of confidence.) For example, a week-long sequence from a university student’s autoblog, which alternated between a somewhat archaic translation of Sei Shonagon’s Pillow Book and Patti Smith’s memoirs, showed a striking affinity with certain of Pound’s Pisan Cantos, a work which neither the student nor her chosen electronic amanuenses had any connection. An archaeologist’s field notes, transformed into an elaborate science-fantasy scenario, spontaneously revealed a correspondence between certain ruins on the shores of the Persian Gulf and the galactic coordinates of active pulsars. Once one began looking for such patterns, it was said, they began to emerge everywhere, and perhaps it was this sense of ubiquity which explained the somewhat tepid response with which these demonstrations were greeted. While happy enough, at least in some circles, to let the false leads and teasing traps laid down by a legitimate genius like Joyce keep them busy for centuries to come, literary scholars saw the apparently limitless sea of neural “puzzles” as nothing more than an epiphenomenon of their computational origin, as uninteresting to them as the technical details of the programming languages used to create their word processors or functorial analysers.

Eventually, the “puzzles” became the hunting ground of that even more prolific realm of amateurism, the conspiracy theorists, to be added to their never-ending roster of patterns and coincidences, world without end.

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Human, All Too Human

Megastructures Revisited

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As metaphor, megastructures have the potential to be powerful: as explanations for real phenomena, they are petty, motivated by the same impulse which makes journalists always refer to Star Wars when writing a story about a planet with two suns, or crack feeble Doctor Who jokes when writing about the theory of time travel.

Tabby’s Star is a genuinely exciting mystery, and to read articles which rush through the halting attempts by scientists to provide an astrophysical explanation in order to get to the part where they can write about megastructures is to watch the scientific be eclipsed by the merely science-fictional.

The objects supposed to be eclipsing Tabby’s Star are always referred to as “alien megastructures”, an adjective which on first glance is redundant – the star is thousands of light years away, and humans don’t know how to build megastructures. As I argued in my megastructure post from last year, in science fiction we project the ability to construct artefacts on the scale of solar systems onto aliens or our own machine descendants to avoid the uncomfortable fact that even if we had the technology to build such monstrosities, we lack, or believe that we lack, the ability to muster the social and economic resources which they require. All megastructures are alien.

Considered in the light of what we actually know, however, the opposite is true. We don’t know if aliens exist, and we don’t know anything about what their societies and psychologies might be like. And the ability to imagine megastructures is not even a human universal: it arises from a very specific time and place, from the triumph and downfall of the dream of an ever-expanding rationalist civilisation. The megastructure is born in the communist galactic epics of Olaf Stapledon and the manic space operas of E E Doc Smith, takes flight on the dreams of Cold War theorists like Dyson and Kardashev, and begins to collapse under its own ironic weight in the middle of Larry Niven’s Ringworld series in the seventies and eighties.

When we start speculating about Dyson spheres as the explanation for astrophysical effects, rather that using them as metaphors in fiction, it’s worth listing the assumptions which underly them:

  • once a civilisation becomes industrial, it will remain in a state when energy capture and expansion are its absolute priorities;
  • the most plentiful source of energy in a typical solar system is the radiation from its star;
  • somehow, the economic and technical means to build a Dyson sphere or swarm are achievable;
  • our current knowledge of stellar astrophysics is total: in other words, there are no factors, unknown to us today, which would make building a Dyson sphere or swarm harmful or impossible

The shakiest of these assumptions seems to me to be the first. We can’t imagine alien psychology, by definition: in general, the aliens in sf are projections of racial stereotypes, whether they are warlike Hun/Klingons or austere, contemplative Vulcans. Even contemporary efforts to imagine truly inhuman aliens – the eusocial galaxy-spanning civilisation of Charles Stross’ novella “Missile Gap”, or the terrifying and asentient “scramblers” in Peter Watts’ Blindsight – are specific to the culture which created them: arising from a very early-twenty-first-century pessimism about human consciousness and society as fallible and weak, at the mercy of creatures who are better equipped to follow a biological imperative which is simply another version of the grow-expand-maximise-capture drumbeat.

The common failure in all of these dreams is the idea that we can know what aliens would do, what a civilisation with better technology or organisational skills or more ruthlessness could accomplish: this line of speculation leads to aliens who are insane caricatures or nightmarish parodies of the worst excesses of the industrial civilisation that gave birth to them.

The star AR Scorpii appears to be a binary pair of a red and white dwarf: the latter is blasting beams of electrons travelling very close to the speed of light, which, when they impact upon its companion’s surface on the side visible to Earth, cause its brightness to fluctuate violently. This explanation is only an hypothesis, like all of our ideas about the stars. I think that it’s better to contemplate the strangeness of what might be out there than to merely use these remote and strange lights as projector bulbs for the shadows cast by our human, all-too-human megastructures.

Worldbuilding

My guests, at that time, were greatly interested in literature and displayed a marked predilection for works of fantasy, especially those composed in English during the twentieth century. I informed them that such works, although they had always had their defenders, were not held in high regard. It was difficult enough to make my meaning plain without insult, for the very things which captivated my guests – the maps, glossaries of invented languages and scripts, annals of kings and migrations of peoples that never were, or which were cobbled together from mythologies or revived notions of the historical past – were exactly those which seemed to the eyes of literary criticism to be trivial and childish. Once I had politely pointed out that Tolkien and his epigones, despite their popularity, were not ranked among the foremost writers, my guests (employing a grammatical mood of their language which I had always found somewhat slippery and which indicated, I think, in this case, that the question was in fact sincere in spite of its superficially seeming to be a mere act of politeness) asked for examples from the higher literary traditions of this period which would be would be more worthy of their study. I spoke of the revolution in acceptable subject matter and style which came with Modernism; of the importance of literature which allowed itself to slip the confines of suburban morality and deal with subjects hitherto barred by prudishness from serious writing. Without concealing my personal tastes, I suggested that the works of James Joyce epitomised this artistic revolution.

At our next conversation, my guests, who had absorbed the works in question with that speed and comprehensiveness which was one of the disquieting reminders that they were not, despite appearances, human, were full of enthusiasm for Joyce and particularly for Ulysses. (I did ask them, at a later date, for their opinion of Finnegans Wake, but confess that I could not grasp it, and was left with the same feeling as I have always had when an aficionado of cryptic crosswords attempts to induct me into their cult.) We talked of the stylistic brilliance and daring of the work, on the initimacy of characterisation made possible by the stream-of-consciousness technique, and of the relish which the author had for the least details of quotidian life. “And the world-building!” said one. “We now percieve that our admiration for Tolkien was ill-placed. How could one compare Minas Tirith with the marvellous city of Dublin, where the evidence of millennia is present at every turn? How delicately Joyce’s exposition hints at a whole world beyond its borders! We marvel at the subtlety and skill of his creation.”

Somewhat taken aback by what I took to be a display of naïveté, I objected that Joyce’s Dublin was no fictional creation: on the contrary, like Proust’s Paris, Dostoyevsky’s St Petersburg, or Flaubert’s Rouen, it was a transfiguration of the marvellous reality of an actual time and place into a great work of literature. I was rebuffed with what I understood to be one of my guests’ rare attempts at humour.

“Why, then, Joyce is no mere genius, but a thaumaturge of rare power, able to create real persons, a real city, an entire country with its painful and bitter history! These cities of which you speak, Paris, St Petersburg, Dublin: do you imagine that even the most obsessive novelist could represent but a shadow of their true immensity? For all that Bloom’s Dublin has an original in what your race are pleased to call ‘reality’, it is nothing more than a finely wrought tissue of words. But with such great artistry, it is understandable if you forget that even Joyce has given us only appearances.”

—from Hearn, The New Arcana Cœlestia: A Memoir of My Time with The Visitors

The Weirdness

Jeremy Bushnell

This is a really enjoyable combination of literary satire and supernatural fantasy in which an aspiring but more-or-less unpublished Brooklyn writer is offered a guaranteed best-seller, in exchange for certain services, by Lucifer himself: a Faustian beginning, but things get more twisted than this might suggest. The tone is light and enjoyable but doesn’t stint the darker aspects of the characters or story: in this it reminded me of Robert Sheckley’s blackly comic sf stories. Also, I want the cover design on a t-shirt:

The Weirdness

Open City

Teju Cole

Russell Hoban has one of his characters say of  the weather in Amsterdam that “one would be ashamed to draw badly in that light”, and Teju Cole’s novel makes me feel that my clunking prose can’t do it justice. Narrated by a psychiatrist of Nigerian and German parentage who practices at a hospital in New York City, its meditative style is reminiscent of W. G. Sebald, and its moral seriousness (that’s too pompous a phrase, but I can’t think of any other way to put it) and artful use of omissions and silence made me think of Henry James. There’s a patience and strength to this novel that stay with the reader.

Necessary Errors

Caleb Crain

I’ve been a regular reader of Caleb Crain’s blog, Steamboats are Ruining Everything, for a few years now, and it’s even better than its title suggests, so I was looking forward to reading his first novel. Necessary Errors traces the life of its central character, a young, gay American who’s been drawn to Prague just after the fall of Communism. It’s beautifully written and evokes the place and time remarkably well. The interplay between the young community of expatriates who are Jacob’s colleagues at an English-language training school and the Czechs who are coming to terms with the end of the Cold War is fascinating.

Crain has been posting illustrations to accompany the novel in a section of his blog, in a revival of a practice originating in the 18th century known as extra-illustrating or grangerization: readers would collect illustrations and insert them into their own copy of a book.

Materiality: Precious

The third issue of Materiality: PRECIOUS is available now from the Pinknantucket Press!

Along with many other good things, it includes my story “The Faithful Alchemist”, set in the fabled and impeccably pretentious city of Louchébem.

In honour of the occasion, I’ve added an index to those fragments of the Louchébem corpus which have already appeared in these pages.