Return To All Our Yesterdays

February 22nd, 2018

by Plok

Bono to vada, Bloggers!  It’s been a while, hasn’t it?

You know, writing something for the Mindless Decade has proved to be, for me anyway, an interesting challenge.  What do you get, for the blog that has everything?  Something thematic, probably…

But just what is the theme, of this multifarious 4D pink tentacled worm of a site?

Well, I may have just said it right there, eh?  Overarching all, is doubtless the endless candyfloss horizons of the Prismatic Age, but the lysergic goes deeper than that, here:  inevitably penetrated to through the transcendent 2D moments of arresting images, silly characters, the puzzle-pieces of origins and natures creeping through it all…seeping down the slope unseen, like water through grass.  Fractal storytelling has always interested me, to the point that I have a (doubtless annoyingly) well-worn maxim about it all:  that it will always expand to include what it implies.   So snaking through the grass here, in invisibly stretching fingers, is both the Function of the Filth, and the Dread Divinity of Suehiro Maruo …and are they not connected somehow, though years apart?  Just as the properly rotten baddie called the Green Goblin, no less than the trippy widescreen possibilism of Batman #666, are somehow “about” the very same thing that the image of V straddling a train is “about”:  the intimations that affect us, though we can’t always describe just what they are, descending to us from the sphere of art, or perhaps bubbling up at us out of its ground, or both at once.  Possibly even coming at us sideways out of a mirror, or rising through the pelagic layers of a painting, or assembling themselves out of the hiss and scratch of what we would ordinarily think is random noise.  Hatched out of the neural matrioshka inside our skulls.  Arthur C. Clarke, not a person you ordinarily go to for SF poetry, has a line in Imperial Earth, something to the effect of an outer-system human being coming to the home planet for the first time, and getting lost in our blue sky, somehow more limitless to the eye and the dreaming mind than even the far-vaster vistas of open space…the most flexible canvas of imagination that there ever was…

Uh…too much?

Maybe not enough, but sorry, sorry sorry, it was maybe a little off-point.  You know what made me think of it was Batman #666, right?  And “A Bande Apart”, boy I am really giving some mad props to Lord Nuneaton Savage today, I shall expect your cheque Monday sir, but anyway anyway let me just settle myself down and come to grips with the project at hand, which is to move on and not get caught in an eddy, no matter how entertaining the eddies around here can be.  You see, what this has always been, in my mind, is a full-on web magazine, the only one I know that’s truly worth the name…because the comics fan in me responds to it like Seventies Marvel, like 1963, like ABC…like a comics company, with a culture of its very own, and each post a floppy still warm from the printer, with a letters page and everything.  If I wasn’t Canadian I would probably liken it to 2000 A.D., right?  But we only know what we know…

…But so what do I know, I’ve been asking myself, that would kind of fit into this Giant-Size Anniversary Treasury Edition that men call February 2018?

I can’t just post links, for God’s sake…!

And I don’t know if it’s within my power to praise the thing more effectively than I’ve already done:  either the lysergic panegyric has been effective here or it hasn’t, and either way I’m unlikely to do any better by going on at any greater length…!

So, finally:  what do you get, for the blog who has everything?

I had a couple of ideas.

The first one was very Botswana, if you will:  it was the story of my personal journey through The Exegesis Of Philip K. Dick, and in my judgement it was very very Mindless Ones indeed.  But it was long, extremely long…I don’t know when, in fact, I will ever be capable of finishing it.  I don’t know if I should even really try?  From 2001 to 2009 I had the task of posthumously assembling, from his notes, a book of syncretic religious philosophy that my father’s friend had spent a decade or more writing.  If you want to know what it was like, you can read my Introduction…something very easy to do, because Jonathan Lethem’s Introduction to the Exegesis reads pretty much word-for-word like mine for pages.  When I got the thing, I eagerly picked it up, read a bit, then put it down like it had stung me.  Which it had.  Poor Jonathan!  He wasn’t really ready for it, you see.  Like me, when he started out on his commission he did not yet know that all fractal storytelling must inevitably expand to include what it implies…

Damn, I should call him.  It’s been a few years for each of us, maybe it’s time.

But anyway.  That was the first one.  Quite Botswana really.

Meanwhile, the second one — this one, I think — or at least parts of it will be –  was very Illogical, and no less a Mindless Ones sort of a joint, because it speaks of origins, and intimations, and oddly considering my recent dispatching of the Phil Dick one it speaks of fake fakes, Disneyland birds, and all the wrong steps we make in this world, that lead us peculiarly into a different universe.  Well, what is a different universe, anyway?

If not just a different arrangement of familiar textures.

And so that one — this one, very possibly — was to be an appreciation of Sinclair Lewis’ Babbitt, from 1922, as the ur-text of our modern SF dystopian futures…a harrowing glimpse into the apocalyptic world right outside our windows, arriving well in advance of Brave New World and 1984, ahead of The Third Policeman and The Man In The Grey Flannel Suit too, indeed ahead of A Clockwork Orange and The Squares Of The City and Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said and all the way up to Brazil as well…the which world (Babbitt’s world) notably was the world that would’ve still been within the horizon of sight for a young Phil Dick, of steel enamelled to feel like porcelain, yards of vinyl sheeting treated to look like cotton, painted formica, printed linoleum, the profusion of seemings and shout-outs that constituted the dawning dreams of the High Industrial Age.  Textures both Different and Same stood up everywhere, lovingly composed in Lewis’ mind’s eye so that you could almost see the lustre of their surfaces, almost run your hand down their smooth sides…the safety razor clanking in the sink, the sound of newly-minted surburbanites cranking their cars in the morning out your window, against the background of the merrily-chirping chickadees.  Chick-a-dee-dee-dee-dee-dee…

Snap-ah-ah, snap-ah-ah, snap-ah-ah…

Already different;  as already the same.

Do you think children of the 2010s will also be able to recognize the general weave of that material culture, Bloggers, when they grow up?  Or will it all just be soundless maglevs and VR helmets for them, against the backdrop of a hard Blade Runner rain?

Will it?  Will, it, at last?

Will they at last be totally, completely, absolutely different?

Or will they still be, fundamentally, at least in terms of their material culture’s logic, the same.  The world still within Phil Dick’s horizonal sight is still within mine too, I must confess:  as everything that ended up in the Terminal City where I live took such a long time to get here that in many ways the Twenties only stopped arriving, being fully unloaded and uncrated, by the time I was already in high school.  As a port city connected to everywhere, in some ways we raced ahead, but in others as a city at the tail end of a transcontinental land route we fell behind:  the houses of my grandparents presenting weird idiosyncratic collages of the old and the new, the Swingin’ Sixties nestled up against the Dirty Thirties, 1893 pasted on the wall next to 1979.  Meanwhile there was practically nothing on American TV that we could buy, though we were inundated with their images, though Seattle was right next door:  a ghost world of consumer products swirling around inside our heads, representing Futurity…

Or, instead of Futurity…maybe was it Eschaton?

There’s a difference there, that troubled me as young science-fiction reader, or rather it troubled me as I got older.  Raised on a distinctly Campbellian diet of imagination, when later in life I encountered a proposed future without Brave Scientists and Noble Rocket Men in it, I couldn’t help but stiffen against the suggestion, you know?  Ursula K. LeGuin and E.F. Schumacher haunted my dreams, and I fell between the two stools so neatly represented in J.G. Ballard’s “The Ultimate City”:  I could handle a post-apocalyptic world of neo-Puritan theocracies in the vein of Leigh Brackett, or any given episode of The Starlost, or Asimov’s Nightfall, just so long as there was at least somebody working heretically in secret to rediscover Euclid and Einstein, or something, even if their purpose in doing so was more fetishistic than it was (strictly speaking) visionary.  The ennobling post-adolescent wistfulness and decay of Earth Abides, and even the piercingly adult intelligence of Ballard I could handle;  but a world without science-heroes of any sort, not even of a querulous or questionable character, seemed to me to be a world without a future.  And now to look back on it, is to consider the sheer oddness of thinking there could only be one way up and out of the present, one window of escape that was forever closing.  “Futurity”, of course (and as Ballard pointed out), was the one thing that it wasn’t, for futurity is by its nature possibilistic…and the world I was desperate not to lose was, ultimately, a world of Last Things rather than Next Things.  Limitlessly heroic human expansionism, by a string of noble greater-good sacrifices inevitably producing such heavenly products as small businesses on Mars and cruel mining conglomerates around Jupiter…already different, already the same, and endlessly so.  Endless technological patches for a futuristic — note:  future-istic — expanse that no one had really bothered to design right in the first place.  And I’d be lying if I pretended there wasn’t some Cold War desperation in there too, eh?  Two great Moieties dominating the conceptual scene, each invisible to the other past Churchill’s famous Curtain.  That it was impossible to imagine a future, a true future, in such a set-up…well, it seems less than surprising to me now.  Modernity announcing the end of time, in gleaming skyscrapers shouting their mile-high size at one another, across the Wall.  “Farther forward/Few can see now/Than Odin fighting the Fenris-Wolf”

And afterward, for dessert:  you get Paradise.

If you’re good.

So note Babbitt’s world here, and how it is permuted through time:  expanding to include.  I steal from the Little Genius now (no, not that one, the other one), hoping she won’t mind, because I’ve been waiting to appropriate this particular Hot Take for a few years now and finally the time seems right…for while we begin with this nascent consumerism’s shapely mod cons existing in a way “for themselves”, as representing Business and Modernity and Getting Ahead in a purely 1920s sort of context, that context also includes within itself later contexts, and as they emerge they encourage us to reify their antecessors.  Phil Dick, of course, would be unsurprised by that:  unsurprised that the empress of the mod cons in 1920, thirty years later becomes the Cold Warrior who also serves by washing and folding, helping to beat those darn Reds by giving up the mangle for the electric dryer, acquiring the better lemon-scented floor wax etc. etc. in a great show of superiority-of-system, a mobilization of the home economy on a war footing… and unsurprised that the 50s claimed the 20s, then, as not only part of their history but part of their teleology.  Which actually shouldn’t be surprising to us either, as way back when, in — oh look, the Twenties! — when the venerable R.H. Tawney coined the umbrella term “Industrial Revolution” (and, we shouldn’t forget, at the same time cautioned that it was a dangerously reductive and sloppy) (wait, that was him, right?) on his way to talk about Weber’s old Protestant Capitalism thing, it was already not too difficult to see that though someone like John Calvin might eventually recede from the spotlight of relevance, it would only be so his -ism could have more room to fret and strut upon that stage.  We go on buying and selling, getting and spending, absolutely senselessly were it not for our inevitable reward in Heaven…and of course sometimes we wonder why, but what good does that do, Paulibus?

What good could it possibly do, Georgie-boy, when our names are already inscribed in the Book of Life for good or ill, and can’t be altered?

You know, it struck me most oddly on opening up the Exegesis, just how similar Dick’s notebook-contents were, to those other posthumous notebooks I was so familiar with.  His reading was more organized, and his conceits far more writerly, and his apparent nuttiness more intriguing and perhaps therefore more remarkable, but the character of his Big Idea was so much the same as my father’s late friend that I often wonder how many more books of homemade twentieth-century philosophy like this there really may be, out there!  I will sketch what these guys do, for you, dear Bloggers:  they read widely and they strive mightily and they feel frustrated and then one day, each in their own way, they just HIT A WALL…and after that, nothing’s the same again.  A veil is lifted on True Desire, and all that’s been read and digested comes loose off the shelves and falls together into a Mystery Pattern on the floor.  A sign.  A symbol.  A cryptoamnesiac shadow of the Self.  What they want to know, you see, is:  what’s it all about, eh?  All their lives they’ve been hearing about how we were inevitably going to make it really off one stool, and really onto the next one, and at some point they look around and realize that this just isn’t happening…so if nobody else will do it, then maybe it’s up to them to finally essay the task everyone else has disdained.  This is distinctly Christian in accent, this stuff, but don’t mistake it for theology, or scientific inquiry, or philosophy, or anything else:  there’s nothing academic about this kind of effort, and in fact it breaks every rule of prudent analysis that we’ve got.  What it is, I’m afraid, is Art

Or to be precise:  it’s collage.

So, part of what Phil Dick believed — spoilers! — is that though the Logos is all around us it is outwith the universe of Time and Space, therefore it needs Avatars that can operate within that field.  Man has a choice, as exemplified by Christ, but he also has a need for guidance…and that guidance can only come from one place.  Away off at the end of the universe’s great flowing river, where the story’s all finally been fully told, off at the rightward pole of this immense magnetic field, the rightward semifocus of this orbital ellipse, is the Holy Ghost, whose influence bores back upstream as a counterwave, helping to shape Form retroactively by injecting it with opportunities for second chances at knowledge, mercy, grace.  If you are now thinking of Rupert Sheldrake and his morphogenetic field, or Frank Tipler and his Omega Point, or indeed Grant Morrison and Batman, then you are on the right track, but consider the enthusiasms of Jack Kirby as well, both earlier than these, and nearer:  the aggressive focus on evolution and on the Atomic Model, something very like a teleology of possibilism itself.  Comics fans are so used to this, know these ideas’ typical entanglement so well, and are so comforted by its textures, that we can be forgiven for overlooking just how very odd it is…Possibility fairly seethes out of Kirby’s drawings, the belief in it building up to an intoxicating pitch as his oeuvre moves along, until finally it becomes a kind of Necessity in its own right, as the principle of opposition inevitably, inexorably, becomes the principle of harmony.  As atoms plus evolution eventually equal evolutionary atoms, and it is all just so extremely twentieth-century that it ought to make your teeth hurt…

But then it just goes to show:  what could ever be more “twentieth century”, in any case, than a science-fiction story? What other kind of story could there be, that could so perfectly encapsulate the anxieties of our most immaculate modernism?  No matter when it may have been written, just so long as it had twentieth-century thinking in it;  but then, if that’s true, mightn’t its reverse be true as well?  Everything combines, here, and approaches its ultimate expression:  underneath the massive technoschatological dreams (heh) of reassuring conformity, SF’s darker elves still mine a deep seam of subversiveness that calls all into question, disproves all certainties in the hollow spaces beneath our feet.  Hear their hammers clanking away down there!   Babbit wastes his life in extolling Business and Modernity and Getting Ahead as higher principles of Americanism, his own private exegesis being to some degree in 1920 just a plain-and-simple snow job that almost everyone recognizes for just what it is…yet by the time he is (presumably) old, that snake oil will have transformed itself into an institutional reality that genuinely controls and directs American life, that genuinely imparts endless licence to endless outrages, by asserting its own virtues as “natural”:  as inevitable, inexorable.  Even though the status of the 50s housewife as Cold Warrior is, indeed, a completely accidental form:  there’s nothing about this world, that HAD to be, and we might just as easily have had another in its place.  And if we had, then it too would have looked like an inevitable, evolutionary development…

But then, that’s just in the nature of the Myth of Progress, isn’t it?

That anything would wind up looking like that, no matter what it was.

Meanwhile the dark elves labour on, and the last thing SF will do is let you forget their ineliminable presence, no matter how big of a progress-booster you are or how much you prefer the cozy stuff.  Most smarty-pantsish people these days will tell you that SF is secretly all really “about the Present”, meanwhile only a very few will dare to say that, no, it is double-secretly “about the Future” after all somehow…an advanced view indeed, and one close to my heart…but if you ask me, heart-feelings aside I think it’s probably mostly more accurate to say it’s “about the Past”.  So many textures on offer there, that we could remix and reappropriate, if we only didn’t have to worry about them matching up correctly with a known “what came after”!  So much we could learn, if we just filed the serial numbers off the Roman Empire, or Great Zimbabwe, or Victorian London, and let their consequences all find a new arrangement undetermined by what actually happened.  And, perhaps there is no difference really, between talking about that and talking “about the Present”?  Or indeed “about the Future”?

Since, after all, this is exactly the sort of thing we do every day inside our own heads?

Expanding to include, as context hatches new context, spiralling up the evolutionary chain:  and not Progress but Accident, however that doesn’t mean things don’t actually happen, doesn’t mean they can’t be understood as being actually about something!  The cold glassy brick of Ultimate Modernity stands with monolithic perfection in every landscape and every time-period, equally impossible, equally inhumane — an end to history, the tallest and most magnificent building, the very Last Thing, implicit from the very beginning.  Right there in front of you, in every instant, and on every page.  In a sense you’ve already reached the top, and you just can’t get any higher.



That might not actually be the only way to look at it, is what I’m saying.  Because isn’t it still true, that even in Arcadia we still (for want of a better word) “are”?

…And so, finally, return again with me, Bloggers, to those thrilling days of yesteryear!  To the days of science-fictional subversiveness, that do not start with Dick, nor even with Huxley, but do indeed go all the way back to that ultimate booster of gee-whizzery, that utter slave to the Chamber of Commerce, known to the burgeoning new city of Zenith as one George F. Babbit.  Any novel worth the name is (probably) about imaginary people who live on an imaginary street next to your own, who probably would be there if the Town Planners had just stuck the street in…people just like you, only they just happen to not be real.  But real or not, they see the same things you do:  the rise of King Coal, the matter of the virgin and the dynamo, the railroad schedules and the new ideas represented by the advertising of consumer products.  That’s your basic novel, a radical work of extreme ordinariness, set within a sliver of extra space and time on the map that you can only see from above.  But something begins to happen to it, doesn’t it, over time:  the stereoscopic view starts to not match up perfectly.  There’s friction between what’s seen and what’s felt, and that’s a novel too.  Peel away everything but the ironic nature of that perception, and you pretty much have SF in a nutshell:  a literature so naturally conducive to double meanings that even Ayn Rand couldn’t prevent readers from leaving Atlas Shrugged with an idea that maybe all land should be held in common, and all plutocrats permanently relocated to ice floes.  Why, it’s how at a young age I formed the idea that Charlton Heston was a left-wing individualist!  It’s why comics made in sweatshops slyly challenged the status quo, and thus became popular with children…and why they don’t do that so much anymore.  Uh, any of it.  And it’s why sometimes there is a blurry transitional ground between categories like “mainstream novel” and “SF novel”.  You may not find a very good example of it in Margaret Atwood (you won’t, really), but you will find it in Sinclair Lewis…and you’ll find it in Ursula LeGuin too, though I’m not really talking about Ursula today…

And you’ll find it in Phil Dick, naturally.

Textures:  right.

You gotta be willing to actually feel them.

So consider Babbitt now as though you dreamt, somehow, that our world was still that one.  Hey, it’s only a couple of generations away!  Just imagine somebody wearing a T-shirt with a picture of an elk on it comes to your door and mentions something about how the business of government should be business, and imagine suddenly understanding, as in a flash of pink light, that it is really (for all intents and purposes, anyway) still 1922 in the savvy suburbs of Zenith… just, now that particular part of the past’s future, the one with all the mod cons, happens to be more evenly distributed.  So in a way it might as well be our own world that Babbitt is wandering through, eagerly embracing the buzzwords of the advertisers that sell to him, yet all the while feeling that if there were just some other way of expressing himself, he might possibly have something to say in it.  And that’s the tragedy of this novel, that he can’t:  his ordinary human feelings can find no purchase on the world’s walls, in his environment of heavily-determined, perhaps even highly-technologized, language.  He has feelings, but he can’t put any names to them.  He has desires, but since he can’t really articulate them then he can’t really understand them.  He wants to fit in, but in his world he is already fitting in as much as anyone is ever permitted to;  he wants to get ahead, because “getting ahead” is all you have left, when fitting in isn’t possible to do anymore than you’re already doing it.  Babbitt searches in vain for a way of living that simply isn’t there, that no one admits even should be there, and it makes him moody, prone to great and sudden bouts of frustration, wordless rage, intemperate pettiness.  He will do anything, believe in anything, betray anything, and embrace anything just so long as he thinks it may let him get what he wants, so it’s easy to look at Babbitt as a garden-variety hypocrite, trapped in his own hypocrisy, and call it as simple as that.  But it’s not.

Because he knows his world isn’t right.

And yet he can’t escape it, and so precisely to the same extent that he also can’t escape himself, that the formulation actually manages to exceed the status of cliche.  He visits the Green World and he visits the ageless social limbo of the demimonde and he visits adventurous lost weekends with the boys in the capital city (it is called Galop du Vache, by the way, in a particularly cheeky bit of business from Lewis), and he even flirts with (shudder) accidental socialism, while just looking for someone to like him…to help contextualize him in a way that will permit him to grope his way forward…to something…but either the structures of power and organization hammer him back down whenever he starts to rise up, or if they were to let him go then he’s got nothing to regain anyway, no “freedom” as you might call it, not even in the sky:  trapped in the moment where it just doesn’t matter what kind of world this really is, because whatever it might be it’s not like you can get what you want from it anyway.  Lewis shepherds us along so skilfully that he never even spills a clue about what moral is here, just shows us the intimate textures and then moves on, shows us the distant irony and continues on down…the whole edifice wobbles between continuum and episode, elastic, kaleidoscopic, and Babbitt is always in the middle of it, he cannot be extracted from it, either he is pinned down by the butterfly gaze of history or we are seeing through his eyes and know history only as an enigma, a shoreline passing by the ship while all our energies are bound up in attempting just to sail the damn thing.  I have no idea, still, if George Babbitt is a “good” man deep down.  It’s possible he could be, but you’d have to get through the bluster and the whining and the deeply-absorbed aggression to test it.  Sometimes it appears as though the appalling disjunction between the parts of his life is something he himself has authored, and so he just is this lonely, jumpy, chirping histrionic now, and couldn’t so much as be finally really happy in the world of peace he thinks he longs for…yet at other times he can be clever, humble, humane, even (improbably) honest.  And seemingly satisfied.  Seemingly through it all, to the other side, whatever that other side might be.

It never lasts.  Babbitt’s life is simply one of irresistible fluctuation, and so he can never be settled.  He can never understand what he is, or who;  can never fully rise, can never fully sink.  It isn’t progression and it isn’t retrogression, no matter how it looks or what Babbitt wants or what we do:  but it’s only precession, endless precession around a pole, and so there is no moral to the story, absolutely none, only a dyspeptic vacillation, bursts of high anxiety which a normal person would not control unless using medicinal THC carts, a character at the end of his author’s chain, being jerked around to see what he will do in a variety of situations.  Babbitt doesn’t understand any of it, and never will, no matter if it went on forever:  it’s simply not his area of expertise, to translate the feeling of his life into meaning, tidy or otherwise.


He does, at least, feel it!

Give him that, anyway!

As he freezes, trapped halfway between the stools, caught eternally in the act of falling.


…And so then at the end we just have Teenage Me again, trying to work it all out too, only from a slightly higher perspective.  No caprice of a Puckoon-like author in my reality!  Yet I had still become convinced by a kind of idea resembling Fate:  thinking that when the souls finally got sorted that it would obviously be better to be counted with the Good Rational Science-Heroes, as against the Bad Superstitious Reactionaries, because I naturally figured that when the Last Things came they would be, well, Last.  I definitely didn’t think of it that way, but that’s what I was thinking, and I was utterly convinced that that’s what the future meant:  some kind of victory, for some kind of Progress.  But is that ever really how it goes?  Georgie Babbitt, like any hero of a well-drawn futuristic (future-istic) world, can do anything he’s capable of except know what the hell he is doing…because in the end all the meanings will just be monoliths anyway. IF!!  If, that is…

…You choose to look at it that way.

But, you don’t have to.

Even in Arcadia, there we are:  even in this modernist moment, that contains Omega within it, we still are, and maybe that suggests that even if it’s taller than us, we’re still wider than it.  We may cower, sure!  But it definitely wobbles.  Babbitt’s stay on this Earth is concluded on about his 300th page with a weirdly-jarring note of hope, confession, torch-passing:  there might be more to life than Getting Ahead, and he makes the admission (more like a concession) even though he still can’t see it himself, still doesn’t really know what it is.  His little Zenith is a world unto itself, in a galaxy of similar worldlets, and everything’s the same everywhere you look but the nature of the story is that it smacks of polysemy even so.  Same things can’t be different, and different things can’t be the same, but they still are that way somehow, and so uncertainty is woven-in to this reality and can never be escaped, a bit like sin.  And, maybe that’s the point?  Babbitt does nothing but what he figures out he’s “supposed” to;  and whatever he can figure out in that way, he then automatically does. That’s all the rhyme and reason to it that there is!  When he breaks free to do what we would call “the right thing”, he is no more doing it freely and unconsciously then when he does what we think is the wrong thing:  nothing is as-such calculated, but it’s all relatively determined, in the system which contextualizes George F. Babbitt even as he in his turn exemplifies it.  He’s both a villain and a victim, just because he can never gain any self-awareness, never accept that his principles are all phantasms, never allow how he has lodged his whole identity in the matter of how he appears, whether it’s how he appears to others, or how he appears to himself.  Irony’s definition, as it appears in my old trusty copy of Fowler’s, is that of a single utterance meant for two distinct hearings;  but they don’t suggest what to call it when, like Babbitt, you hear it both ways every day without a clue what it’s actually saying.  Jesus, no wonder he’s such a goddamn crank!  I tell you, Bloggers, the man is all but unbearable.  Imagine knowing someone like that, as prickly as that, someone who can be so suddenly and primally moved as that, to tyrannical aggression, to the tear-soaked regret of an innocent child, to brainless bleating laughter and good-fellow-ism, to deep juddering nervousness and insecurity…it’s always the same Zenith, but it’s all different Babbitts, all the time, and it TIRES YOU OUT.

But at least, unlike Georgie, you can always put the book down for a while and go do something else.

And when you come back, he’s always still there.

Science fiction, hmm.  Is this science fiction?  I can’t help reading it like it is, and my copy is blurbed by H.G. Wells saying he wishes he’d written it, but as I said:  there’s a blurry transitional ground.  The thing about it is, is that contexts tend to birth other contexts they contained within themselves all along…but, it’s up to us to decide whether or not we can accept them, and their attendant implications.  Trailing clouds of coal-smoke as they come?  I read an article not long ago, that somewhat stupidly asked “where are all the modern science fiction stories, that might talk about climate change?”  Laughing, I extended a finger and simply pointed towards…well, you know.  The public library, innit?  Stories of off-course Generation Ships descended “back” into theocracy (uh, from a high-tech future?) (so how does that work, exactly?) were old already by the time Captain Kirk started stumbling across the things, making big speeches at their reactionary funny-hatted High Councils while Mr. Spock repaired the navigation systems to keep them from plummeting into a sun, and we expand to include:  it’s only half a century later that David Cameron walks away from the podium humming a grisly tune.  It would all be fine, if Captain Kirk was actually coming!  But of course he’s already been here.  We’ve all heard the speeches.  They’ve already been made, for heaven’s sake!  It’s just that we continue to cling to a context for them, that was outpaced and overrun many decades ago…

(And as for the Doctor, he’s already been here at least twice before too, providing the cautionary tale about the evil vampiric Prime Minister-puppet sitting on the end of a huge alien tentacle snaking out of the Thames from a downed spaceship…I mean what was it, two times inside five years, that this happened…?)

In the blurry transition zone, conformity and subversiveness draw swords from their respective walking-sticks, and face off at the falls:  if we look around, we really should be seeing climate-related anxiety everywhere now, simply going hand-in-hand with climate-related politics, which in 2018 just means “all politics everywhere and also everything else“, it must inevitably mean that, just as there was no thing (we now recognize) that nuclear anxiety did not inform and alter back in the pre-2000s, from Pop-Tarts to parachute pants, from punk to poetry.  Maybe it’s even the same anxiety now too, reshaping itself like John Calvin’s monster (Calvin actually the name of the scientist, natch), driving events and aspects and feelings in that old familiar way, only with a new face, and a new realization.  But maybe people don’t particularly like to see that, because if we once admit that it really is the same, then we’ll see there’s maybe not much point in writing new cautionary tales about it, if we are actually already here?  The ship already run into the iceberg, as sure as any UK ever hit a looming Brexit in the dark, and dead-eyed Prime Ministers pretty much at elbow and foot by this point…and the wind came ’round the corner, quick as a cab…as the wave of the present overruns that of the future and so how odd is it, really, that anyone should want more of the old stuff, the old interpretations, all things considered?  Unless that’s really all they want…just the comfort of it, the texture of nostalgia…the reassurance of a crisis long since solved. therefore the endless re-taking of a test that can’t be failed…only and always over-and-over-again passed

So I laughed, because I thought of how the dark elves just will never, no never, stop clanking away in the caverns beneath our solid-ground feet:  laughed to think that, hey, maybe the most really really “up-to-date” SF that we’ve got, is probably…uh…

…That Geostorm movie, with Gerard Butler in it?

“Dear God, how did the terrorists turn this godlike weather control system against us, Mr. President?”

Well I don’t know, friend:  how do you weaponize a machete?


Now this is a real challenge to coziness, isn’t it?

Because subversiveness can come at you in a lot of different ways, see:  and sometimes it’s parody.  Just as those Generation Ships that Capt. Kirk once knew merely used environmental catastrophe as a figure for Cold War issues of destruction and enlightenment, whereas now we can see those Cold War issues as just a subset, really, of issues surrounding environmental catastrophe…well, so too in this silly movie I will probably never actually sit through, right in your face at the beginning of the Stupid is something that is only made acceptable because it’s too absurd to take seriously.  The biggest trick the Devil ever played, perhaps, was convincing people that it makes them look smart to say that technology is morally neutral?  That technology is just a tool.  Well, what a comforting tautology that is!  But unfortunately only a stick or a stone lying on the forest floor is “neutral” in that way;  whereas a stick or a stone in a human hand straight-up absorbs a moral dimension by being touched.  It never goes the other way around!

Human beings never absorb the helpful moral neutrality of the objects that they touch, by picking them up…!

But, wouldn’t it be pretty to think so?  David Cameron walks away with a spring in his step from ecological catastrophe — for that’s what it is! — wearing the big funny black hat of the Council of Assholes while he’s dusting off his hands, and Theresa May steers right into the iceberg, correcting course as she needs to to make sure it gets hit, yammering on about the will of the people like some sort of zombie anti-Lincoln, as we once again, and for the last time, expand to include.  Why do you think The Dark Knight seems so damn dated now?  It was so fresh and provocative, back in the era of George Bush!  Also, try watching the Simpsons episode from 2011 when Homer becomes Glenn Beck and endorses Ted Nugent for President, I dare you.  There’s a reason it seems painfully old and stupid, and mean and dumb.  Everything has just turned so very eerie, as though we have passed through a veil of some kind, have exited the galaxy at superluminal speed and turned around just in time to see our old TV shows’ radio signals catching up with us, and now we are watching them again and time seems strangely twisted, unreal…so maybe now is the time to confess that we probably need something as undoubtedly-terrible as Geostorm, at this fragile, crucial moment in time and popular consciousness — need its absurdity! — because the time to worry about somebody weaponizing the H-bomb is kinda over, really (hey, it always was!) and also the weather is already coming to destroy great swathes of the human world, which makes all the devices of Bond villains rather superfluous anyhow.

And meanwhile, that Zeus Machine in Geostorm is actually working perfectly, you know:  doing exactly what it’s supposed to.  Just executing its code.  Tip-top stuff.  Just flying along.

So…how do you weaponize an intention, eh?

Or how do you weaponize a capitalism.  Well, that one’s actually pretty easy, HA!!  You just start firing it off, is all:  eventually, don’t worry, you’ll hit something.

Skynet sold separately;  John Conner not included.

In a sense we are there already, having already slipped over the event horizon:  gone elastic, kaleidoscopic, as the new context emerges.  We can no more see the pattern of it all, right now, than Babbitt could;  all we know is that something’s happening around here, and it just feels a whole lot like environmental collapse, somehow.  Mind you, we probably couldn’t swear to it — if it’s happening, then it’s happening in a multi-seeded kind of way, stealthily, coming at us not like a B-52 but like erosion — but it feels like something, and it feels like everything.  Rise of far-right fascist groups?  Environmental collapse.  North Korea and the U.S. playing King Kong Vs. Godzilla?  Environmental collapse!  Redistricting and gerrymandering?

Uber and Twitter and AirBnB?

Iraq and Yemen and Syria?

The existence of Elon Musk?

And these all seem so different, yet they all feel so much the same, like one thing splitting itself up into many fragmentary pieces, glass slivers of space and time spreading out, like a whiskey glass smashed down bad-side-up, littering the map table like a puzzle of reflection…

…As meanwhile back in Zenith, George F. Babbitt lives inside a tiny sliver of extra space and time, feeling the textures that will soon, like Danny the Street, unfold to encompass the entire globe.  In a way, it’s happening right NOW — which is to say, and just give me a few sentences to clarify this:  it’s happening still.  Up the line a ways from there, Ursula’s future humanity inhabits an Earth so ruined for human beings that it isn’t even necessary to know exactly what the Past People did to make it that way, only that this is, indeed, how it’s all turned out.  Whatever it was that they did…well, they did it.  LAST THINGS.  They’re going on all around us.  But, at the same time…on the other hand…

…The thing to remember, seriously, is that it really is just a cautionary tale.  SF stories are always cautionary tales in some way or other, wouldn’t be properly Menippean otherwise!  Yet to fully appreciate the satirical effect, you have to remember that their apparent historical conclusions are really just momentary observations, dressed-up to play the part of Christmas Future in the school pageant, uh I guess the weird school pageant.  Commentaries, and not conjurings;  psychoanalyses, not prophecies.  And what, after all, is the reason I would have attached such feelings of desperate hope to the idea of untrammelled human expansionism in the first place, as a young SF reader?  What was I being told (or sold!) about everything else around it, that made me so strangely psychologically reliant on it?  We won’t even get Red Mars in real life, let alone Elon Musk’s deluded variation on Total Recall, and The Martian is just some kind of heteronormative centrist-dad survivalist porn, I mean what would anybody even want from all this, what could they be so much as made to want, and by what?  I look at Babbitt and see, perhaps, where my dissatisfaction with all the gee-whiz pure-technophilia Campbellian America stuff first takes root…and, hell, you call this a buffet, man?

Why, I’ve seen more meat on a xylophone.

Somewhere John Calvin’s very biggest -Ism is closing his big Book of Life:  it was just a stage prop all along, you know?  And even Phil Dick figured there had to be more to it than that:  something saner to it, than that.  So that Holy Ghost of his is out there somewhere, a life-buoy beyond the Moon, reminding us that somewhere past the apparent inevitability of a boring science-fictional Judgement, extending its same-old-same-old values infinitely into boosterish nothingness, there’s also the open, blue-skied possibility of a true Future, capable of reifying all the old reifiers into a teleology that fractures far more interestingly than that.  Or maybe that future’s even here right now, and it’s simply that men do not see it.

Hatching like a Russian doll.

Happy Birthday, Mindless.

I didn’t know what to get you, so I got you this big ol’ pile of ME.

No you can’t return it.

That is, unless you have a time machine you can’t.

138 Responses to “Return To All Our Yesterdays”

  1. plok Says:

    Just to give credit where it’s due: the “xylophone” line is from Slim Keith, though how I wish wish wish that I’d thought of it…

  2. plok Says:

    Also, I was knocking myself out there trying to find the correct words for Babbitt’s most essential character detail…yesterday receiving a text that simply said:

    Primordial irritability.

    And naturally that’s exactly what it is. Damn it! Might as well have replaced the whole post with just those two words…

  3. Illogical Volume Says:

    Phenomenal stuff as always Plok, and having your writing in the mix does something to invoke the networks that were there around the site for the first half of its existence.

    Sorry I buggered up a couple of the links while transferring your post to the site by – they should be fixed now but let me know if you spot any other errors!

  4. Bastard Tweed Says:

    Are you still without a blog of your own, sir.

    I do rather miss this wanton prolixity; it’s rather like if Wallace Shawn read comic books.

  5. plok Says:

    High praise, Tweed! I was wondering the other day if it would be possible for me to pinpoint the exact moment when I said “fuck it, it’s blogging, I’m gonna have at least ONE AREA IN MY LIFE where concision isn’t King!” Like: at what point did I start thinking of Kenneth Smith’s TCJ column as “how I should try to write about comics”?

    God how I loved that thing.

    If I had WordPress software circa 2010, then I’m sure I’d still be doing the blogging thing, but I don’t, so I’m not. On the other hand I just this week plunked down about a thousand bucks on having a website made (two linked ones, actually) for a not-so-secret project that I still hope to launch this year, and that will have a blog on it, and there is definitely a way in which that will be a massive relief, not just for me but for my overstuffed Drafts folder and many put-upon e-interlocutors. Not so easy, when you discover you’ve given your email address to a compulsive generator of text…! Absent 2010 blogging software, I am gonna have to try to come up with some idea of how to communicate that my hired gun can implement without a whole lot of needless aggravation, but I’m looking forward to getting it up by December, if the Lord is willing and the crick don’t rise.

    This one was nice and insane though, wasn’t it? I’m really pleased with the, er, gonna say supererogatory word count!

    And I’m really glad you liked it.

  6. plok Says:

    Illogical One, I think those were the only broken links. The one that cut the deepest was (obviously) the first one, I love that damn post and glad it’s fixed! Don’t you dare aw-shucks it, it’s a favourite.

    Also I am re-reading Batman #666 now, obviously. Damn if it isn’t just like I remembered it!

    Bloody brilliant!

  7. plok Says:

    I’m having a glass of wine now, and just feel I ought to say…

    To me, Dave Sim is obviously another one of those guys, like my father’s friend and like Phil Dick, who saw all the mental books fall off the shelves and rearrange themselves lot-castingly on the floor. Magnetized to the logic of Christianity, they can’t help but inhabit any other ground but the specifically-heretical, as though the Christian cosmology was some sort of fact, but an inadequate fact in light of modern-day knowledge, and so one that needs updating, augmentation…the elimination of the epicyles. In a way I feel like all these twentieth-century white dudes are trying to play Copernicus to Christianity, to “math it out” if you like. And the thought has crossed my mind that this is because Christianity is (as I’ve said before) uniquely insane in its insistence that the connotative is NO, REALLY DENOTATIVE, THESE AREN’T METAPHORS, and thus becomes a world-system uniquely tolerant of paradox, a world-system in which paradox cries out for someone to saddle it with a rational explanation, for some chosen one to have a brainflash that will finally let it make sense to itself.

  8. plok Says:

    Science fiction might be something much the same.

  9. plok Says:

    But I am seriously not fucking around when I say that if you are even a little bit like Illogical Volume, you need to be aware of a fully bizarre movement in contemporary Christianity.

  10. plok Says:

    Which could be a cure for all Dave Sims, maybe.

  11. plok Says:

    Sorry, these last few comments were written while a bit DRONK.

    Signing off now!

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