Dead Astronauts by Jeff Vandermeer is hard sci-fi. There’s no space opera grandeur here, it’s far more profound. It offers a tender and bleak vision of how humanity changes and fails.
Nina Allen’s review summarises the book and its challenges brilliantly. I would only emphasise that Vandermeer’s great achievement with this book is how he portrays the emotions that drive us, love to hate, in contexts utterly alien to our own. Three individuals, only one human, travel across different realities looking to destroy an enemy known only as The Company. It becomes clear there is a person, Charlie X, that has to be killed, although unlike Nina, I wasn’t so sure it was his destruction in particular that mattered, despite his agency in the nefarious activities of The Company.
The quest of the three astronauts seems to be what the book is about when you start out, but that quest, how it progresses, how it’s changed them and their relationships is brilliantly done. It’s the first time I’ve been made to contemplate how relationships, love, trust, even consciousness and meaning are fundamentally reconfigured to the extent that the world being depicted is itself removed from where we are now, in terms of time and technology.
There are other narrators as the book progresses, perspectives from damaged and alien minds that require patience. Towards the end, the enigmatic blue fox’s perspective breaks down as traditional narrative, while continuing to fill out a pattern of events, of an ending of sorts, that I feel I need to re-read to better understand. What is loud and clear is Vandermeer’s disgust for mankind’s purposing of the environment to corporate ends: “If the world is to live, we must make better things”, “I cannot see the destination sometimes. But the work must continue.” What Charlie X makes, what the Company makes, its purpose, are long beyond any consideration of ecological or ethical consequences, invulnerable and indifferent to anything other than the purpose of the corporation. Vandermeer explores, with the text and structure of the book, how differently a story is told, how differently a story has to be told where its conflict and its characters are so unlike us. This makes it, for me, a vital personal lesson and an important novel, regardless of genre.
For whatever reason, I chose to follow a stimulating and challenging read with another, a book that definitely requires more knowledge and understanding of cultural theory than I have.
Postcapitalist Desire is the transcript of a series of lectures Mark Fisher gave shortly before his untimely death, a series he didn’t get to complete.
In this short book there are acres of stimulating thought, a window into a world of theory and sociocultural ‘lens construction’ I’ve missed entirely. Below are some of the threads that might pique your interest and encourage you to pursue your reading further. Fisher has made far, far clearer to me the notions of class and capital I thought I was familiar with, made clearer to me why they still matter as concepts even though they are so easily associated, unsurprisingly, with being ‘outmoded’ or held up as the language game of the political classes of failed, dour, state autocracies and misguided idealists and radicals.
Identity and desire are shaped by capitalism. Left-wing models of any sort of revolution or transformation against capitalism will always fail if they ignore the desires of the capitalised and don’t accept them at the point of departure. We desire the fruits of capital, we are also conditioned to desire the suffering that comes with it, a ‘work ethic’, the importance of having to work to deserve something, or deprive oneself for something of value, making deprivation virtuous. We are shaped by capital.
(As an aside, if you have to frame the problem in the terms of paragraphs like the above or books like Fisher’s, and get everyone to parse the thought sufficiently and react accordingly (collectively), there’s a whole world of other problems the Left has and may always have when it comes to emancipation of the working class and humanity itself.)
In another lecture the discussion covers how identity politics is defining oneself by what one is, not what one could be. On the surface it seems both odd and strangely trivial. You are what you are, but while you stand up for that, to what extent are you conceiving of yourself anew? Can identity change? Identities do, they must do, for they exist in cultural continuums that themselves change. Has Capital, have the right-wing, grasped and weaponised this already?
You can retain your identity but you can become wealthier…Essentially, your cultural qualities – the way you speak, comportment, certain kinds of values, etc. – of your existing working class. These can remain the same and you can get a lot richer.
But that form of identitarian capture of class is exactly what was necessary to neutralise class consciousness.
Fisher elegantly captures here the game the Right is playing in neutering the standpoint of the ‘working class’ (standpoints are an intersubjective construct he values for its capability of sustaining truth against postmodern relativism). It creates a ‘body politic’ that is a mashup of aspects of identity and the associations with class and feeds it to us solely as class, solely as the relational construct that sits in opposition to other class mashups that are based on race or even behaviour (the single mother, the benefit scroungers). Capital is never the target. As always, the slave next to us is our enemy. Fisher offers up a fascinating thought regarding one’s identity, that it might be, or should be thought of as a practice. There is ‘being’ a woman, but then there is also the practice of ‘woman’, what is that? It is about acting on that knowledge, constantly, which, let’s say in a patriarchy, is work, it is ongoing activity, and as such, one can and must choose what activity should follow from this knowledge. It’s in this sense, I think, that Fisher is saying one can define themselves not only by what one is, but what one could be.
There is an interesting discussion, too, on ideology itself, and how consciousness must be practiced, it is not a given, a thing, like ideology is a thing, and what was particularly interesting was not just the outline of ideology as turning ‘becoming’ into ‘being’, reifying a process to a state, but how it never announces itself, that the totality of what is around you is not presented to you in your experience:
“Patriarchy is not going to come in here and announce itself, any more than ideology is…Capitalism itself is not given in experience! You have to construct it in consciousness. It isn’t given to you. Your work is given to you. What you do is given to you. Your little bit is given to you…Your experience is only your experience – and not even that. It doesn’t belong to you because you and your experience are already ideologically packaged.”
To be lifted out of experience is to be lifted out of ideology. You only have agency once you’ve done the work to lift yourself out of experience to see the totality. It’s this that helped me to understand, probably for the first time in my life, what the term ‘class consciousness’ really meant. Fisher’s book has had a big impact on me for the challenges of the above snippets and so many more here, such as how culture and the arts can allow us to conceive of a radically transformed world, but the artifacts of that culture can be cooled down, commodified and sold, despite the effect on us having made a tangible positive difference. Or how economic activity is always identified with capitalist activity, that it is ‘capitalocentric activity’, automatically rendering any left-leaning alternatives as ‘resistance’ narratives, as reactionary to some natural status quo, though in historical terms, capitalism as a social order is a fraction of 1% of our species’ existence.
I could go on :) You might rather I didn’t, but if you haven’t thought much about this stuff before, and particularly if you’ve never heard of Mark Fisher, I implore you to, like Dead Astronauts, get stuck in. Take your time with both books, they demand you work for their rewards and their rewards are, of course, the richer for it.
The featured image is by the artist Johnny Bull and is the cover art for my edition of Fisher’s book. It is reproduced here with Johnny’s kind permission, and I urge you to check out his site for more of his work.