Remarks And Quotations On Science Fiction, Utopia And Roadside Picnics

Peter Lewis

(Photograph by Makiko Nagaya)

"I went closer, and when the next wave came I held out my own hand...the wave hesitated, recoiled, and then enveloped my hand without touching it, so that a thin coating of 'air' separated my glove inside a cavity which had been fluent a moment previously, and now had a flesh consistency."

[From the novel 'Solaris' by Stanislaw Lem]

Scene: In the car. Night. [Two Shot]


Whatever you want ...


You drive over to my place, bring the money, we'll kick back, drop some Death, maybe get some Tequila ...


Well alright...

[From the film of Philip K Dick's 1977 book, A Scanner Darkly; Linklater, 2005]

"Happiness for everybody! ... Free! ... As much as you want! ... Everybody come here! ... Happiness for everybody, free, and no-one will go away unsatisfied!"

[From Roadside Picnic, the Strugatsky Brothers, 1977]

"The whole process ... is hidden under the surface of our reality ... will only be revealed later ... and even then ... the people of the future. .our children's children will never truly know ... the awful time we've gone through ... and the losses we took ... well maybe some minor footnote in a minor history book ... a brief mention with no list of the fallen."

[From A Scanner Darkly, Linklater 2005]

Frederick Jameson writes in The Archaeology of the Future [the Desire called Utopia and other Science-Fictions]: 'What if the 'idea' of progress were not an idea at all but rather the symptom of something else?' Whether films are drawn from novels, for example Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, H.G.Wells' original, Things to Come who also wrote the screenplay for the cinematic interpretation [1936, Menzies] or, like Metropolis, co-authored and written as a novel after the film by Thea von Herbau, [1927, Lang / von Herbau] Utopia or Progress still looks suspiciously of and in historical time and place. Other markers of future time, Soylent Green [1973, Fleischer] and, Fahrenheit 451 [1966, Truffaut] adapted from the novel by Ray Bradbury, move ideas through Luddite mistrust of technocratic advance, to a generally agreed desire to reclaim the planet's ecology; yet swings the pendulum unawares, backwards, to paradisiacal, Garden myths of origin and return. Futureworld [1976, Heffron], following Michael Chrichton's book and film Westworld [1973] targets and demonises [out of] control robots designed for fantasies. And so on, progress is marked again as symptom in Kathryn Bigelow's Strange Days [1996, Bigelow / Cameron], pathological desire, fixation, and fetish, captive in cyber-space. [The film's central science-fiction idea is using high-tech equipment to record a person's experience, then distributing that recording to a second person who can re-live the experience over and over as 'virtual reality'. The idea was mined previously by William Gibson, who featured the squid-like simstim devices in his Neuromancer and other cyberpunk novels.

A cyborg is a cybernetic organism, a hybrid of machine and organism, a creature of social reality as well as a creature of fiction...This experience is a fiction and fact of the most crucial, political kind. Liberation rests on the construction of the consciousness, the imaginative apprehension, of oppression, and so of possibility. The cyborg is a matter of fiction and lived experience that changes what counts as women's experience in the late twentieth century. This is a struggle over life and death, but the boundary between science fiction and social reality is an optical illusion.

From Donna Haraway's A Cyborg Manifesto [1991]:

As in those novels, potential parallels are drawn between these recordings and addictive drugs. Also, the possibility of recording the experience of someone in the act of death brings forward metaphysical implications. This same set of ideas was previously explored in the 1983 film Brainstorm, [1983, Trumbull] and subsequently in Dennis Potter's 1996 TV drama Cold Lazarus. Cyber iconography develops arguably from what Marc Augé terms the 'non-spaces' of transition, [as spaces of invention] hotel rooms, service stations, airports, etcetera, that are the familiar settings for Philip K Dick's android cogito, and stigmata. Wrought in Raymond Chandler's prosaic realism of detection, Dick equalises the non-ideological with a salvational attitude, through the pure surface of America's trash culture, to visions of a future running out of gas. Contrarily, in art's newfound social practices, such as Marjetica Potrc's 'pragmatic utopias', [small land holdings for sustainable use], works are autonomous, architecture, art, and community, as affinities elected by local collectives. Utilising global technologies of high-end satellite transmission Potrc integrates a sci-fi aesthetic within a pre-modern narrative [agricultural or rural], or feudal settlement as part of the life of 'gated' communities. These projects might suggest a model utopia as the exception to the rule, setting up in for example Forest Rising at Xapuri, Acre, in the Brasilian rain forest: they could come out of a Dick novel such as _'Martian Time-Slip' _ [1964]. For sure, the hostility towards these isolated 'spaces of exception' from corporate and government agencies derives from paranoia fuelled sci-fi, but they are examples of a very real, and banal contemporary experience [the murder of a settlement leader for example].

Alain Robbe-Grillet's novels such as the science fiction Projet pour une révolution à New-York [1970] also anticipate some of the darker aspects of cults and perverse communities, [with their 'good' intentions] undermined by Robbe-Grillet's disarmingly neutral prose. Subverting worthy endeavour by his own idiosyncratic visions of futuristic sexual scenarios, Robbe-Grillet intersperses 'passion' and 'belief' with the disarmingly neutral description of objects such as a tomato-wedge. Trained as an agricultural engineer, working as an agronomist in Martinique studying the diseases of banana trees, his apprenticeship lent itself well to later subversion of the novel, toward a visual lucidity more akin to dreams. His cinema and relationship to painting forms an autonomy that precipitates a new practice. [See Last Year at Marienbad 1961, made with Alan Renais, as an example] By a 'forensic' precision of style applied to imaginary states of mind, or sexual fantasy via descriptions of the objects and methods of torture Robbe-Grillet's visual style of the nouveau roman depresses the optimism of hierarchy in a conservative belle écriture, of the epic 'form and content' to common narration.

The shift from, say, Gilles Deleuze's subversive architectural 'rhizome' practice in philosophy, bears an odd relation. Accelerated technical miniaturization bears a resemblance to Deleuzian nomadology, dents Newtonian theories of spatialisation, yet equates badly, confirming progress as symptom. The utilization of aesthetic subversion put into political 'practice' [as for example aiding the design of military tactics of Israel's program of colonization] is pure science fiction, narrated in the [en] closure of the dreams of the 'New World'.

Is not science fiction now, precisely, historical? In fact sci-fi draws strength from its ironies of performance and redundancy, or malfunction, against the impossibility of imaging Utopias. Narratives need endings, even open-ended or bad ones; and so too technology, like writing, is well suited to speak of new technologies beyond its frame or closure - that's what defines the limit and extends it as genre at the same time. I am thinking of 'La Jetée', Chris Marker's 1962 ciné-roman; black and white stills, classical music and a visceral vision of an unknowable time-skewed future. It tells the story of a post-nuclear experiment in time travel by using a series of filmed [i.e. optically printed] photographs playing out as a photomontage of varying pace with no dialogue and a voice-over, ending darkly, and beautifully. It contains only one brief shot originating on a motion-picture camera. The stills were taken with a Pentax 24x36mm and the motion-picture segment was shot with a 35mm Arriflex.

Philip K Dick's 1977 novel 'A Scanner Darkly' recently transforms book into film [by avant-garde filmmaker Richard Linklater, 2006], in the appropriate style of a hybrid. The graphic novel enhanced through computer software, conjoins Pop Art's acid humour within a simulated ciné-realism, setting its action upon the hallucinated terrain of Orange County, in a vision of the near future [1994] Californian suburban sprawl. Scanner _ concerns the drug industry of 'Substance D', derived from a blue flower, the 'D' ultimately standing for Death or at the very least the _jouissance of taking illicit pleasure in the contract with it, and consequentially, the phantasmatic identification followed by disappointment. ''s not it'. [reference from J. Lacan Ce n'est pas ceci].

'D' distribution, surveillance and symptomatic paranoia are acted out at a level of back-yard familiarity seeded from counter -culture 60s radicals and drug-users [under surveillance] like Dick, [and now even the more tuneless derivative subject of Tony Scott's cinematic style] during the Nixon years. Recent history recorded by image technology develops from early American sci-fi in building scenarios for youth culture's sympathetic reading of lost sub-culture into a less romantic and over-determined contemporary experience. Hence the success story of Scott and many others.

'A Scanner Darkly' was originally shot live-action on digital video and then turned over to a core group of animators who painted over the scenes with RotoShop, the interpolated rotoscoping software developed for Linklater's innovative 2001 feature 'Waking Life'. Whereas 'Waking Life' presented a dream-like, painterly world, Scanner is more grounded in reality but tilts things just enough to immerse the viewer in a state of altered reality, much like its drug-addicted characters.

Coda: [déjà-vu] Fred: 'whatever you want' Donna:' you drive over to my place, bring the money, we'll kick back, drop some Death, maybe get some Tequila...' Fred: 'Well alright'...

Jameson writes, 'Science fiction does not seriously attempt to imagine the 'real' future of our social system. Rather, its multiple mock futures serve the quite different function of transforming our own present into the determinate past of something yet to come'. Susan Buck-Morss, drawing heavily on Walter Benjamin's work, has written about the failed Utopias of state communism in her book 'Dreamworld and Catastrophe: The Passing of Mass Utopia in East and West' [2002] from a similar yet oblique optical angle. Nostalgia, not for the unrealised dream, but for the very possibility of having a dream to realise, is what might be transformed in the present by our view of the past's future image of what that present might be.

The title 'La Pensée Sauvage' [translated as The Savage Mind], taken from Levi-Strauss' 1962 book of that name (surrealistically, uncannily a pun on 'Wild Pansies' in the French, or wild flowers, not unlike Substance D) connotes also for Jameson a double-meaning; the shared political unconscious that might narrate mythical, archetypal and projective, surrealist material yet that does not depart from the scientific idea. It impacts and colludes with it in a transformational, social sense of technological progress, which will want to affirm the priority of fantasy as knowledge and belief in theory and praxis alike, beyond its symptom. In the archaeologies of utopia, which have no real a priori, in the traces of time and the history of science-fiction, a double-bind is narrated and pictured, as in early noir visions of metropolis, of Japanese manga and anime, of the avatars of ideology, satirised lurching out of electronic light, never completely restrained and dismantled, endlessly re-animated. They multiply robotically, like schizoid car ads from the 50s, into any-space-whatever, as Deleuze writes of the cinematic wastelands of the post-war. It is also unsurprising then that the new marketing of sci-fi technologies of cyber modes of interactivity suggested of the inaccessible spaces of nanoart or banal ones of second life reveal conservative values and traditional ideas of space / time geared to masculinity and warfare, in games generated from movies. Netart and netwar enact cyberwar imaginaries to subvert representations by deepening their simulation [a distinction is to be made between what is called netwar, societal-level conflicts waged in part through internetted modes of communications, and cyberwar at the military level. The Rand Organisation, on this basis, is employed by the US government to research and locate the new monadic operators, referring back to the ancient art of information in warfare, for example the intelligence operations of Mongolian armies of the 13th Century, for a legitimate cause. I am thinking of the series of books Dune by Frank Herbert, [1965] made into the movie by David Lynch [1984] and their mutual, marketable, transfer to computer game.

What might be offered by such imaginary scenarios to that 'something else' of ideology and the uses of history and science, is the simulacrum offered of sci-fi, as the 'something else' reflected - the fear felt that the other's fear is mirrored, whether passage a l'acte or l'act propre, as a fabulation, turning either against the other's control or dissolving it. Edward Said writes, how, in changing viewpoint, what is enforced to be regarded from a fixed position has as its destination the standard assumption of 'alien'. The counter-shot, is arguably aimed through the African 'lens' focused from its subject. For example, Conrad's 'Heart of Darkness' is not aimed in vengeance in the writing of the Nigerian, Chinua Achebe]. It presents a non-restrictive logic in l'acte propre distinguished from Conrad's restrictive logic. Coppola's version of such vision may present itself as fantastic and science fiction-as-fact, not at all a fabulation, [Apocalypse Now! 1979] in his depiction of genocidal American soldiers surfing to a background of the indifferent mass bombing of civilians mixing into the buoyant sound of the Beach Boys. [Coppola's Redux version adds anti-colonial import to offset and critique the 'Western' gung-ho! machismo tendencies in his work. Seen as a dystopian sci-fi / realist horror / psycho / war / gothic / cross-genre Hollywood picture, it marked not an ending, but the beginning of a disturbingly revitalised Catholicism in how 'redeemed' futures are drawn out from their confession in l'acte propre. A return as figured in the character of Fritz Lang's spectral Dr Mabuse, the Lord of Misrule, is enacted in a passage a l'acte, to chaos. [As befits pulp influences, Mabuse is a master of disguise like the shadowy Fantômas and a master of telepathic hypnosis not unlike the Ur-hypnotist Dr. Caligari. Fantômas was championed by the Parisian avant-garde, first by the young poets gathered around Guillaume Apollinaire, who, together with Max Jacob, founded a Société des Amis de Fantômas in 1913, and then later by the surrealists, as a figure, for the bourgeoisie, of terror.]

Fantômas is the Lord of Terror, the Genius of Evil, the arch-criminal anti-hero of a series of pre-WWI French thrillers written by Pierre Souvestre and Marcel Allain. He carries out the most appalling crimes: substituting sulphuric acid in the perfume dispensers at a Parisian department store, releasing plague-infested rats on an ocean liner, or forcing a victim to witness his own execution by placing him face-up in a guillotine. Fantômas is the master of a thousand disguises and the leader of a vast army of 'apaches' (street thugs). Very cool, the origin of subversive youth culture. His spies and henchmen are everywhere, spreading the seeds of chaos and terror. Fantômas is anyone and no one, everywhere and nowhere, waging an implacable war against the very bourgeois society in which he moves with such ease and assurance.

The encounter with Kurtz in Apocalypse Now! precedes and exceeds both as linear narrative framing, story within story, within the story, in Conrad's Heart of Darkness since it is encountered again as historical, schizoid, and without cause, therefore ostensibly 'post-historical'. Heart of Darkness, A Filmmaker's Apocalypse, the documentary released in 1991 by Eleanor Coppola adds further quotation marks around 'history' to reduce fact to science fiction and simulate it back again. A further aesthetic categorial shift occurs with the publication of 'Notes on the Making of...'

March 4, Baler

'It was the first time any of us had seen water buffalo, rice paddies and nipa huts. We crossed the bridge at the edge of a little village and entered deep foliage. Sofia said, "It looks like the Disneyland Jungle Cruise".'...I could here the wind in the tall palm trees, but layers of sound seemed to be missing. There were no people.'

Simple special effects, such as a liquid mirror, provide the transport, poetically visualized, in Jean Cocteau's film 'Orphée' [1949], for an image of an unknown technological and mythological intelligence to be registered. We may pass with Orpheus through Death and beyond Heaven and Hell, Good and Evil, to an inhuman awareness, and to final incomprehension of the image of an encounter. The alien dread / ecstatic confrontation with any new consciousness [evil, or at least something beyond comfortable notions of life and death] is staged in the real as if 'somewhere else'. In both the novel and film Solaris [by Stanislaw Lem and Andrei Tarkovsky respectively], the alien is the ocean, Solaris, who vividly conjures, without any explanation, fantasies of undeniable awe, complexity and terror for its observers. Solaris is a negative proof of our own 'human' limit, as what Brian Massumi might advocate as the moment of 'something else' non-human, for a revolution in the here and now, fomenting discontent in the 'oceanic' brain'; simulative, undreamt, of the melt-down of past and future. The immensity of that imaginary, a kind of mega-Babylonian universe of unknowable effects upon effects without original cause, is to be made palpably iridescent, as an intelligence in colour, beyond language: there is no writing, no message, and the sentient ocean, Solaris, merely activates immeasurable traces within our own glow-boy brains and projects them back to its observers as an 'unknowability' thesis'. Its private expressions [such as identified and given names as the 'mimoids', or 'extensors'] may be either lucid signals, or sonorous envelopes, dissonant echoes of an encounter's misread, bad timing. We cannot speak of what we know not. Or can we listen? Science fiction speaks of a deficit economy in this sense; it kicks into activity an affective memory of something lost, or being lost, by getting lost. The very effort to negate that 'lostness', to imagine utopia, and furnish it, unhappily ends up betraying the impossibility of doing so.

Sci-fi vernacular, from the infinitely subjective and variegated futurist-demotic lexicon invades so-called high culture, for example in Deleuze and Guattari's geo-political lingua franca of 'desiring machines', pursuing an aesthetic that has everything other than to do with art as we know it today; though, Jameson writes, we can find a strange pleasure in these peculiar formations of words, images and ideas as if we already have some recollection of its future utopia [and simultaneously, in negative bonding, dystopia] within their infinite excess. That excess breeds best in the normative, to loosen a hold, as the affective technology of fantasy. Future visions of Capital [government/corporate] converging with Resistance [underground groups as 'terrorists'] do so in a numbingly real and troubling way since they are already locked in together without the fluidity of symbolisation. Their convergence logs clearly the places in which our own ideological universe as the limits that are the most surely inscribed as hard data, contained in representational forms of science fiction [i.e. those that merely extend existing systems and technological conditions into a 'future' place and time, as a symbolic reinforcement]. Utopia is, we recall in song, an impoverished place where nothing will ever be permitted to happen.

'This first movement of our world-reduction, of the destruction of the idols and the sweeping away of an old world [in violence and pain], is itself a precondition and premonition of the reconstruction of something else.' Jameson writes in The Seeds of Time [1993] of the need to undream and forget the corruption of the puritan 'relational' and 'collective' set to moralise utopia; the symptom compromises everything, making no apology of colonisations of new worlds: a substitution applauded by the old, hideous, and most ardently sung in enthusiasm by the young. Ursula K Le Guin's Legend of Earthsea would also deconceal these limits vis a vis seductions in the censorship of her work. [A Whitewashed Earthsea, How the Sci Fi Channel wrecked my books, Ursula K. Le Guin, 2004]

There is an argument that fantasy in the endorsement of the return to universal truth itself is the driving and divining force of the genre of sci-fi, an invasive action that has surreptitiously entered every aspect of ordinary urban life; the ideology of progress and science; infinite precedence registered on the time-scale of the moment, the present, the everyday. It might be argued [for better or worse] not to exclude the so-called mythologising as a desire within a collective, political unconscious.

In framing sci-fi productions as neither high-art nor philosophy nor politics, but as meta-generic fictions, in universal, popular stories, a paradox beyond the binary structures held firmly in place is disclosed as a last symptom, the dissociation of public from private, subject from object, personal from political, etcetera.

The future, invoked in these narratives, architectures, paintings, animations and cartoons, pulp novels and commercial movies and so forth, is nevertheless just a product of the 'now', even something purile, as an acknowledged event that has already taken place. As such science fiction either over-determines or destroys an aesthetic as a political unconscious, the rapidly altering consciousness of today, beyond the facile and obligatory references to the rival social systems and their technological determinism, in class and culture, East and West. A proselytised science fiction exists in the present tense, that's a given, but what about tomorrow, really, will we still wish to imagine written or pictured, a fiction for, and of 'tomorrow', however briefly glimpsed? That the condition of an unknown possibility is also at once, the condition of impossibility? Or is proselytism manufactured, endorsing a science fiction product to be conflatable with utopianism and therefore a lost cause for concern? Jameson's thesis is only workable if there were to be a subtraction, or restriction from its mandate made conspicuous, at the very least by its absence.

The alien 'Zone', from Tarkovsky's film, Stalker, [1979] which Chris Marker, in his 1982 film Sans Soleil, references as a space of exception to describe the 'somewhere else' in which images and their attached memories are made possible, and transformed, is an aporia, a place of impossibility. It is announced quietly l'acte propre, when the protagonist pauses, to recite a poem inspired from the rather unpleasant feeling of impasse within an encounter:

'...It's still not enough...'


I became aware that I was holding something at bay, or shutting something out. Or, if you like, that I was wearing some stiff clothing, like corsets, or even a suit of armour, as if I were a lobster. I felt myself being, there and then, given a free choice. I could open the door or keep it shut; I could unbuckle the armour or keep it on. Neither choice was presented as a duty; no threat or promise was attached to either, though I knew that to open the door or to take off the corset meant the incalculable. The choice appeared to be momentous but it was also strangely unemotional. I was moved by no desires or fears. In a sense I was not moved by anything. I chose to open, to unbuckle, to loosen the rein. I say, "I chose," yet it did not really seem possible to do the opposite. On the other hand, I was aware of no motives. You could argue that I was not a free agent, but I am more inclined to think this came nearer to being a perfectly free act than most that I have ever done. Necessity may not be the opposite of freedom, and [...] most free when, instead of producing motives, he could only say, 'I am what I do.' Then came the repercussion on the imaginative level [...] the melting was starting in my back---drip-drip and presently trickle-trickle. I rather disliked the feeling.

[From Surprised by Joy, C.S. Lewis, 1955]