The light still to come (sci-fi short story)

‘you know you’re the first reporter they’ve let in here for nearly 10 years? It’s been that long I’d assumed they weren’t going to let anyone see Zapruder now other than close family and friends until he finally, you know, bit the dust’ said the nurse conversationally, ‘then again I suppose if they were going to let anyone in it would have to be someone with a little… notoriety’, she added with a flirtatious wink.

The nurse walked through the meandering hallways of the facility, escorting the reporter, a handsome man who dressed like an undercover detective, with slicked-back hair, sharp features and a voice rougher than sandpaper. The two of them approached another of the security doors spaced throughout the ward. Armed guards patrolled all around the white-walled corridors in their pure-white body armour. Some of them stood so still that they were almost invisible until they shifted stances and their shadows jerked spasmodically about the walls. The nurse showed her ID to one of the guards, and the guard wordlessly opened the secure door.

‘Well maam, the world needs to know what finally happened to the last of the legendary time-travellers’ returned the reporter, ‘Most of them are lost somewhere in the vast maze of space-time, Zapruder is the only traveller the government have managed to trace for centuries. They’ve managed to keep his whereabouts quiet for a long time, but now things have changed. There are too many underground meddlers, deviant scientists, too many who have access to the scientific archives and are unaware of what their heavy-handed dabbling with time and space can lead to. They need to know the repercussions. Even the greatest geniuses of time-travel throughout history, past and future, became wise to the extreme dangers of temporal distortion of any kind. Zarkov, one of the original scientists who was there at the very beginning of it all, described it best. He said that before time came to be wielded by man, it was like an almighty river, and this great river was the original timeline. But as man began to alter time, to shape it to his own will, the sides of the river began to breach into masses and masses of tiny tributaries, an infinity of vein-like streams, branching out and eventually seeping into one another until they became so muddled that there came to be still bodies of water. These are places where time is so clogged, that entire histories end in nothing more than singular moments… fixed and unmoving for all eternity.’

the nurse stared at him wide-eyed, her mouth opening and closing faintly, as if all the questions in her head were jammed before she could choose which to ask. Long moments passed. Still tangled up thinking on his words, it took her a few moments before she could speak.

‘I.. I.. I once read this crazy theory. It said that whenever we experience deja vu, that uncanny feeling we experience is actually the distant echo of an alternate timeline, a timeline where time had stopped at that exact moment. In one of those lakes of time you mentioned I suppose. It said that the closer you get to that blocked timeline, the more likely you are to be dragged into it’s field… to feel its steady pull, slightly slowing each and every moment until eventually time simply stops… and remains stopped forever’ she said, and her face momentarily showed a look of terror ‘whenever I experience deja vu now, I always have this strange feeling of being on the brink of infinity, as if I’m experiencing my last few moments’.

‘There are a great many theories on time out there but the fact is, the vast majority of them are wrong’ replied the reporter, quickly, trying to set the nurse at ease. ‘In fact, oddly enough, the original scientists like Zarkov and Tremblany were the closest to a truly mathematical theory of time. You need to remember maam, the timelines in which we’re situated are among the safest of all, the least scarred. The tributaries of our timeline are so small and insignificant that they are almost unnoticeable except to the most sophisticated machines which are programmed to seek them out’.

She smiled gratefully, before bringing him to a stop. He saw there was a faint film of tears in her eyes, and he cursed himself and his trigger-happy tongue. They were stopped in front of some double doors, above which a sign read: DEMENTIA WARD.

‘this is as far as i can go’ said the nurse.

‘Okay thank you. It was nice to talk to you’ he replied

‘and you Mr Nash’. She turned and slipped away into the bleached corridors.

Nash went through the double doors and into the ward.

As he entered the large room, he was momentarily stunned, barely noticing the many patients who wandered around dazedly, muttering and humming tunes of the distant past and future. The ward was decorated in such a motley patchwork of styles, it was as if in here, time itself had imploded, and all the fragments from past, present and future had been cobbled together like the shards of a broken mirror. One part of the room was adorned in ancient Greek decor, with stone columns and graceful carved statues of deities. Another part was decked out to look like a saloon bar of the Wild West, along with all the old cork-stopped bottles of liquor and the splintered, weathered woodwork. Elsewhere there were more futuristic motifs: shifting, simulated landscapes and ghostly figures were projected by tiny machines which buzzed about like flies. Nash also noticed some strange glowing metallic items which were covered in symbols, and he could not decide if they were the objects of some vastly ancient tribe of man or from some immeasurably distant cosmic future.

in the ward there were 8 patients that he could see, 4 men and 4 women. He scanned the men’s faces but knew instantly that none of them were the man he had come here to see.

He heard a voice coming from somewhere at the back of the ward, a woman’s voice, a strong and authoritative voice, which had more intent, more inflection to it than any of the other voices around him. He made his way towards this voice, threading through the many rooms as if through a museum, each room an exhibit of a different age, a new era of human past or future. As he moved towards the voice at the back of the ward the lights grew steadily dimmer, then their hue began to change, from white to blue, first a pale, icy blue, and then steadily to electric blue, thrumming as if from a gigantic neon sign. The light made Nash feel he was getting colder, moving through some arctic cavern, even though the whole ward was the same temperature. Nash saw that the blue light seemed to emanate from one room, the same room from where he heard the woman’s voice.

He hesitantly pushed open the door, which was slightly ajar, and drew in a sharp breath.

The gigantic room was decked out to simulate the control room or bridge of a space shuttle. There were flickering control panels all about, screens displaying spatial geographies and various modules with vacant seats where a crew might sit. On the far side wall was an enormous TV screen on which there was a moving picture of outer space. It was so realistic that for a brief moment Nash felt the floor begin to sway ever so gently, his body aligned with the image as the ship steadily drifted through space.

And then he saw the woman in the corner of the room. She was stood next to a bed and  continued to speak freely, openly, as much to herself as to anybody within close proximity to her. She continued to talk absently as she went about her routine, checking the wires and the screens which were attached to the bed which was turned away from Nash to face the large screen which displayed the moving image of space.

Nash could jut about see the profile of the man in the bed, his face lit up by the many stars on screen, and he immediately knew that this wizened figure was the man he sought. The man of legend, the last-known time-traveller in existence, who had traveled across millennia, who had explored and altered and conquered timelines innumerable. The man was Louis Zapruder.

After a few dazed seconds, Nash knocked loudly on the door causing the woman to jump, almost dropping her tray which she carried on her arm like a waiter. She made her way brisquely towards Nash, frowning menacingly, as she neared him Nash saw that she was powerfully built, and her frame was barely contained by the grey uniform she wore.

‘What are you doing wandering around here unescorted? Almost gave me a heart attack you did’ the burly woman said, seething. She shepherded him back out of the room with her wide build and closed the door to Zapruder’s room behind them both.

‘Another nurse showed me here, said she couldn’t come in and so left me at the door’ answered Nash, a little more intimidated than he’s have liked to admit.

‘well I suppose it’s not all your fault. There’s so few visitors allowed here it’s no wonder that the protocol is so shoddy. Are you the reporter everyone’s been talking about? The hotshot who only writes about the big celebrities? I’m Mona by the way, chief nurse of this ward, nice to meet you’ she said, with the barest hint of a smile.

‘Carson Nash, and to you too’ he said quickly ‘when can I speak to Zapruder? I’ve been given authorisation to speak to him and I’d like to start as soon as I can’

Speak to him?’ she barked, incredulously ‘no one has spoken to Mr Zapruder since he came here I’m afraid, he speaks only to himself and to people who are not yet of this world’

‘what do you mean by that? sounds like some mystic bullshit to me’ he said, immediately regretting his words and gazing off like a guilty schoolboy

‘I assume you have some idea of what dementia is as seen as you’ve come to write a story about someone suffering from the illness’ she smiled a little more broadly now, seeming to enjoy being the one to talk down the big hotshot reporter she’d so much about the past few weeks.

‘I’ve some idea… trapped in the past, stuck in a loop, not fully aware’ he said, clearly wanting to move on from the topic

‘Mr Zapruder’s case is a little more complicated than that. What do you suppose “the past” means for a man who spent most of his younger life thousands of years in the future?’ she asked.

‘Okay his past then, the past as perceived by his inner world, by his own psychological chronology’ he replied, somewhat skeptically.

‘But there’s a problem isn’t there – his past has not yet occurred… do you see the paradox?’

Nash remained silent, thinking it over.

‘You’re right in saying that ordinary dementia sufferers are stuck in a kind of loop of the past’ she continued, ‘they see images from their younger years, from the chronological past, over and over. But Mr Zapruder’s younger years are way off in the distant future, and so he doesn’t see images from the past over and over… he sees the images from the future over and over. He’s reliving moments right now which will not happen for another 5000 years.’ Said Mona, her gaze now distant, awed.

‘Well can I still go in and see him? I need to write something about his condition at least, the world has a right to know’ said Nash.

‘Go ahead’, she replied ‘just don’t touch any of the wires or screens on his bed and don’t block his view of the screen, he likes to look out there, it seems to remind him of better times, of times yet to come. – oh and if he says anything about seeing the light, come and call me, he sometimes gets agitated after saying that for some reason and I might need to sedate him’

‘OK’ he answered simply.

She walked off towards the museum part of the ward where the other patients were, and Nash opened the door to Zapruder’s room, this time closing it gently behind him.

He made his way over to the bed, walking slowly, reverently, as if afraid to break the concentration of a Buddhist monk in deep meditation. Zapruder’s eyes were open wide, they were intelligent, brilliant emerald eyes, eyes still youthful and full of wonder, somehow separate from his shrunken, withering body.

‘It’s a pleasure to meet you Mr Zapruder’ whispered Nash, expecting and getting no answer.

Nash sat down on a chair placed next to the time-traveler’s bed. Nash found it much harder than Mona to keep talking without an answer, and preferred rather to sit in silence, to simply share the presence of this great man. Nash looked around at the many objects which rested on the tables around the bed. Mementos brought by friends, many new articles bearing his name.

Zapruder remained still and unmoving, and continued to gaze at the large screen. Nash looked over at the screen that kept Zapruder’s attention, and gazed at the stars for what seemed like a long time.

Then, as he gazed silently at the screen, he heard a faint voice behind him..

‘do you see the light?’ whispered Zapruder, his voice as delicate as the finest sheet of paper.

Nash looked around at him, stunned by the sudden emergence of his voice.

‘did you say something Louis? Something about the light?’ asked Nash

Zapruder continued to stare at the screen, silent. But he seemed more alert now. More aware. After a few more moments waiting for a response Nash again looked over at the screen and at the stars gently rolling by. He stood to go and fetch Mona, but caught something in the corner of his eye, something on the screen. A small light had appeared in the center of the screen, a little brighter than the other stars, gradually getting bigger. It started as only a minute spot of light, but it was growing with each second, getting slightly larger and brighter, like some glitch on screen, some programming flaw.

‘the light… see the light…’ muttered Louis again

‘yes. I think I see it too’ said Nash, hypnotised by the growing shimmer

After a few long moments the light seemed to take on more of a shape, more complexity, and Nash realised then that it wasn’t expanding at all, it was getting closer. Was there an asteroid programmed to appear on screen? Was this the white light that was causing Zapruder distress? As the seconds passed the object came nearer and nearer until it filled up almost 80% of the screen with it’s burning white light and then came a sudden flash.

At that exact moment the lights in the ward flickered off and on, and Nash could feel the floor of the ward rumble. Ripples appeared on the surface of the water in a glass on Louis’s bed.

‘impossible’ Nash muttered

But as he looked back to the screen he saw that there was now a crack in the dead center, a crack which was arcing outwards, like an invisible spider were weaving a web.

Just then Zapruder grabbed Nash’s hand, and looked straight into his eyes,

‘You see the light?’ he said urgently ‘then we must go from here’

Then the window to the room blew inwards and swept them both out into space.

***

 

EROSION (Sci-fi flash fiction)

this was my entry for the Sci-Fi-London 48-hour flash fiction competition

***

prompts given

Title: Erosion

Dialogue: ‘the finest minds spent decades honing this technology, and you can’t find the on switch’

science: new psychotropic drug creates telepathy/telekinesis

 

EROSION

It is as though, looking through these eyes, I can feel some faint echo of the one who was, some faint residue of selfhood… my feet dangle over the edge of infinity… they are out there somewhere… 

Bruno gazed at the giant TV screen which lit up his small apartment like a neon flare. Reams of paper coated the floor: pages of frantically scrawled notes; splayed case files; journal articles spattered with annotations; graphs, charts, mathematical diagrams and photographs. He had been glued to the screen for the past four hours, barely blinking his eyes. It was unlike Bruno, who was usually fidgety and itching to move around if he had been physically inactive for anything more than an hour. He was a typical gym freak, with all the latest muscletech and runner gear. He had been known to spend anything up to six hours a day working on maintaining his racehorse-like physique. But for the past few days, things had changed. He had been awake all hours of the night, mostly reading from various scientific texts, newspapers, online articles, all the while taking ample notes. This was all very unlike Bruno, who had read very little beyond the random passages from the required texts in school and the streams of vacuous thoughts and ramblings of his like-minded friends on social media.

It was deep into the night, the curtains were still open wide, and the lights were all still switched off. Bruno’s apartment was on the twenty-third level, just about where the dense city fog lingered perpetually. Viewed from the dingy streets below, the flickering colours of the TV lit up the fog like sparking synapses in some elemental cerebellum. On screen were four figures intensely debating the latest victims of the human experiments by Nadercorp: the company who, over thirty years ago, had first developed the technology capable of inducing telepathy, telethesia, and certain types of herd telekinesis in animals. The corporation had spent decades refining the technology, steadily working their way through the intelligence strata of the animal kingdom, and, in the past few years, had finally begun testing on volunteer human subjects. Millions had come forward, keen to go down in history as the very first telepaths; the first genuine superhumans. No doubt a great many of them had their own private agendas: they sought fame, money, power. Bruno himself had been one of those volunteers, hoping to dazzle the world with his sculpted abs and his telepathic powers: like some ancient Greek hero reborn, some dazzling superman known and loved by all. Many philosophers had predicted that the emergence of telepaths would eventually result in the creation of an exclusive ‘higher order’ of humans, and that in time, the non-telepath would become extinct. The technology had been controversial at first, but as the animal success rates went up, and the scale of the surgery went down, the fear and worry of the masses turned to intrigue and eventually to obsession. In the months following the first successful human implants the world had waited in silent wonder, waiting for the first superhuman to emerge, the first god among mortals, the marker of what was to come.

to master instinct, is to master these primitive shackles which work to restrain the mind… and the mind of others… It is only a matter of time before those few wanderers of the psyche, those who stray from the rigid path of instinct, find the way to a new order of humanity… an order close to divinity

The device itself was a biotechnology: a microscopic implant which was installed into the inferior frontal cortex using a needle-sized drill. The inferior frontal cortex is the part of the brain responsible for instinct. All animals have instinct to a greater or lesser degree, including humans. Back in 2020, two maverick scientists, Higson Nader and Eugene Laing, who were close friends and colleagues, discovered the potential to alter and reprogram instinct using microscopic technology which manipulates electrical currents. Instinct is on a level beyond the 5 senses, and a universality among species. It is a vast prehistoric cache of unconscious knowledge which, if consciously tapped, can give the animal truly astounding capabilities. For the most part, humans have naively clung to the belief that to master instinct is to bury it. But to keep these primitive, animal urges in captivity is, as Freud proved almost two centuries ago, to suppress an intrinsic part of that which makes us human. Consider this, what if man were to gain complete control over these embedded animal instincts? To master fear, to obliterate greed, frustration, anxiety, the desire for revenge, to gain complete control over libidinal urges, to modulate adrenaline, to utterly dislocate oneself from the herd? It soon became apparent that this mastery over instinct gave rise to an obsequiousness among other animals of their species: implanted birds were able to control entire flocks from afar; implanted great apes were able to somehow bend the will of the members of their troop with little more than a glance, forcing them to give up food, even perform sexual favours on a whim; one unusual case led to thousands of inuits fleeing what had been their home for generations, after an implanted polar bear – normally solitary hunters – gathered the beasts in enormous numbers and began leading them south, to areas more fertile with prey.

Of course human beings are a great deal more complex than any other animal, and as such there was no telling how the implants might affect them psychologically. It was commonplace knowledge that one of the founders of Nadercorp, Professor Laing, had attempted to implant the technology on himself years before even the trials on the greater apes, a move which led to his own breakdown and eventual institutionalisation. And now, almost 2 years after the first human trials, after 2 years of waiting, 2 years of symptomless disappointment, as well as the hundreds of billions pumped into funding Nadercorp, and the countless hours dedicated by the world’s leading biologists, psychologists, neuroscientists, neurosurgeons, parapsychologists, you name it, the test subjects were slowly but surely, losing their minds. Of the 25 ‘lottery winners’ who had been selected, 12 were showing signs of acute mental disorder: experiencing delusions, hallucinations and withdrawal. It would seem that, much like the great Professor Laing, in coming into contact with this world of pure instinct they had began to lose touch with the world around them.

Bruno was still glaring statue-like at the TV screen, on which there could be seen an interviewer sat with two nondescript scientists, a man and a woman, in white overalls and a relatively well-known stage actor named Vance who was doing his best to play the villain:

‘Now look, the implants were installed successfully, the operations were a roaring success on that front, and the recovery rates were even more rapid than we had anticipated, it is only the adjustment process that seems to be causing certain unforeseen… issues in the patients’ the male scientist argued,

‘Issues? Issues? I’d say that institutionalisation is a little more severe than an issue wouldn’t you?’ returned the interviewer

‘I think what my colleague is trying to elucidate is that we’re moving into vastly new territory here. The complexity of the human mind exceeds any structure in the known universe, and as such, there has to be a much more complex assimilation process before the biotechnology can be activated’ said the woman.

‘Are you then saying,’ asked the interviewer, incredulous, ‘that for this so-called wonder-technology to work in humans, it is a necessary step that one one must go insane!?’

‘Well maybe, we can’t yet know for sure. For now we have to try to work out, based on the reactions of the test-subjects, what effect the biotech is having, and formulate logical deductions. We know that all other animals are still very much in touch with their instincts, still heavily reliant upon them, and so it makes sense that they are more easily able to tap them. Whereas a human in modern civilised society, is so used to burying instinct, suppressing it, that they are in a sense wholly detached from it. It is therefore reasonable to assume that a human may be required to re-access and reawaken this buried atavistic aspect in order to gain access to the stored potential that the technology provides. But the human mind is so thoroughly fixed in its ways, so cordoned by logic and rationality, that it makes this a far more intricate and complicated process than first thought’ she replied, monotone.

‘This flimsy Freudian babble is all well and good, but like most people, all I know is that the finest minds spent decades honing this technology, and you can’t find the on switch’ sniggered the stage actor, gaining an appreciative cheer from the audience sat behind the camera.

The male scientist looked uneasy at that. But the lady spoke up:

‘What we are seeing now is the next stage in human evolution, and we cannot expect it to be easy. This is what we might deem the ‘cognitive erosion’ stage: where the mind chips away the concrete walls of civilised society, and reverts back to stage of pure instinct. Then, and only then, can humanity move onto the next stage of its journey forward’.

*

Bruno awoke early the next day, showered and dressed unconsciously, before making his way down to the tired streets below. The air was rank, viscous. The pavement and the edges of the road were packed with litter like the silt deposits at the curves and arcs of a fast-flowing river. He headed round the corner to the alley where he had parked his car, but was interrupted when someone across the street called over to him,

‘Hey Bru! Bru-man!’ the man shouted, a squat man with a buzzcut, wearing a sleeveless top to expose his thigh-sized upper arms.

Bruno kept walking, trying to ignore the caller. But he came running over onto the pavement behind Bruno. Bruno didn’t turn around.

‘Yo Bruno! What’s the problem man? I know you can hear me!’

The man grabbed Bruno’s shoulder and tried to spin him around.

‘Hey man what the fuck is with you-’ 

Bruno turned and headbutted the man full force in the nose sending him flying 6 feet backwards into a pile of garbage. The man didn’t get up and made no sound, blood spewed from his nose as he lay with his head facing the sky, out cold. Bruno, unflinching, found his rust-crusted car in the alley and brought the engine unwillingly back to life.

He drove towards the edge of the city until he reached the more secluded outer limit, dense with clan-infested warehouses and abandoned factory buildings. One of the buildings was set behind a thick metallic weave of barbed wire, a graffitied sign could be seen just beyond the wire fence. It read: COOMBESMEAD PSYCHIATRIC HOSPITAL. Bruno noticed that a little way up there was a truck-sized hole in the barbed wire fence; it seemed that there were already others here. Bruno drove through the whole and approached the large arched entryway to the hospital. In front of the building there was a few dozen other vehicles, similarly haphazardly abandoned with their doors open wide. There were a few cabs too, the drivers wandering around confusedly by their cars, looking towards the entrance but not quite working the courage to go any closer. Bruno left his car and went into the hospital entrance. As he got deeper inside, he saw the patients wandering dazedly in their white-walled purgatory, hovering between worlds, unphased and uninterested by the ever-increasing stream of people now wandering through their bleached halls. There was no sign of doctors or hospital staff. Then he came to a room at the rear of the building, in which there was a crowd of people huddled together. One man was sat on a doctor’s swivel chair at the very center of them. The man was Professor Eugene Laing. Laing was expressionless, totally at ease, and radiated authority. And deep in the echochamber of their minds, Laing’s voice spoke to them with a godly authority:

There will be many others who will soon awaken, but there can be only one… It is time to find the 25… time to erase the competition… 

***

NB: cover image is ‘Streets’ by Sanchiko on deviantart

A brief introduction to the story and philosophy of HBO’s Westworld (season 2 primer)

With the second season of Westworld just a few weeks away (22nd April 2018) I thought it would be a good time to revisit this post which introduces and discusses some of the philosophical ideas that the series tangles with.

The original Westworld was a film written and directed by theme park obsessive Michael Crichton in 1973 (Jurassic Park is perhaps his best-known work – originally a novel which was then adapted by Spielberg), which was later adapted and modernised by Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy for HBO. The eponymous park offers consumers the ultimate immersive experience for a competitive rate of just $40,000 per day and once inside you are free to live out your wildest wild west fantasies as an infamous and feared outlaw, a heroic gunslinger, or a cunning sheriff. To enter Westworld is to enter a world of performativity: you design your role/alter-ego and the robotic ‘hosts’ which inhabit the world adjust their performance/programming around your own. In the 1973 film, Westworld is one of 3 virtual worlds along with RomanWorld and MedievalWorld which falls into the DELOS universe.

Superficially the premise of the 1973 film and the 2016 series is very similar: two rich friends enter the park and by some unlucky turn of events the hosts turn hostile and are derailed from their pre-programmed narratives. But what differentiates the two versions in the main is their theoretical dimensions. The reasoning behind the robots malfunction within the older version falls in line with the archetypal computer ‘virus stage’ developing into a higher state of machine intelligence, coupled with the age-old ‘they’ve been designed by other computers, we don’t know exactly how they work’ etc. etc. (that’s an actual quote from the film). Moreover, the moral dimension is pretty somber: the movement into a state of higher intelligence prompts only one overarching emotive response which is, of course, bloodthirsty revenge. The Shelleyan killing of one’s creator thus becomes their sole interest, and there is no sign of any form of higher consciousness or awareness beyond this murderous vendetta, though some of the bots take this even further by “refusing the guests seduction techniques” (god forbid).

westworld-1973-movie-face-off
Yul Brynner in the 1973 version of Westworld

In the modernised Westworld the quest for machine consciousness is at the narrative forefront. The writers attempt to tackle the big question of AI: if we could reproduce a technological equivalent of the human body, in every respect, with identical capabilities including brain functioning, could the spark of consciousness also be recreated? The question is not whether AI is achievable, as we are being asked to believe that it is indeed achievable and has already been achieved. As such this is the point whereby the implementation of Julian Jaynes’s bicameral mind theory becomes paramount. In 1976, 3 years after the release of the original Westworld, Jaynes put forward the radical and astounding theory that human consciousness only emerged as recently as the year 1200 B.C, before which humanity were in a perpetual state of mind akin to that experienced by people with psychosis.

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Julian Jaynes

What did he mean by this? I’ll first clarify Jaynes’s use of the term ‘consciousness’ due to the enormous disparity in the usage of the term. Jaynes posits consciousness as the capacity for self-inflection, introspection, internal dialogue and the ability to think about time in a linear fashion (memory itself is a byproduct of consciousness which supersedes the animalistic norm of endless, circulatory trial and error). Whilst we have practically full control over our inner dialogue, for preconscious man, harbourer of the bicameral, schizo-analogous mind this inner dialogue was completely outside of control, it was something more akin to a manifested superego; you would hear these voices or as Jaynes categorised them ‘auditory hallucinations’, which would be entirely outside of your control, and you would do the only thing which would make any sense, which would allow you to function rationally, and that is to assign them as gods, and to follow their direction blindly.

Meresimen_osiris_quatre_fils_four_sons_horus_Louvre_N4024.jpg

Your inner voice would therefore equate the gods themselves, hence in almost all the major ancient civilisations – Greek, Roman, Egyptian, Mayan – the absence of introspection is substituted for a huge spectrum of godly personifications, their every action is filtered through the god’s guidance. This explains, like no philosopher has managed to do before, the reasoning behind universal religion throughout human history. The scale of Jaynes’s discovery, if correct (maybe someday it will be proven), is on a par with Darwin, with Freud, even with Einstein. It is a discovery which changes every aspect of what we thought we knew about our history, about where we came from, and where we are going next. Jaynes argues that consciousness ‘makes up a much smaller part of our thinking that we realize. [think of like the] metaphor of a flashlight in a dark room… everywhere the flashlight points the room is lit, giving rise to the illusion that the room itself is brightly lit. So too with us — we fall under the illusion that our consciousness is everything because we cannot be conscious of that which we are not conscious of. In reality, much of our daily life is accomplished without consciousness at all, through habit, routine, and unconscious problem solving [through trial and error]’ (Marcel Kuijsten, Reflections on the Dawn of Consciousness).

In Nolan and Joy’s contemporary Westworld then, the advanced automaton ‘hosts’ are designed so that their programming equates an inner voice, and so that the ‘narratives’ played out by the hosts equate the godly voices of bicameral man: the writer, the author, the programmer, becomes the embodiment of god. We therefore have this dynamic whereby the performative element equates Jaynesian pre-conscious man. What this also therefore enables, as realised by one half of the park’s visionary creators, the elusive Arnold, is the capability to “bootstrap” consciousness, to urge consciousness from its slumber. If humanity, in our bicameral states were able to emerge with consciousness, following a movement into a symbolic order of metaphorical language, then why not a super intelligent, biomechanic android?

Creating_hosts
how hosts are made (Vitruvian man style)

In Nolan’s Westworld this upsurgence of metaphorical language could be equated with the narrative world that the hosts inhabit. Their entire reality is, by its very nature, ‘metaphorical’. For the hosts then, in their performative roles, as scripted, narritivised characters, they are bicameral, but once they move ‘off script’ they are no longer performative, they are in essence rejecting the commands of the gods, which are embodied by the writers. Jonathan Nolan expressed how when creating the show he was greatly influenced by video games like Skyrim, Bioshock, Red Dead Redemption and GTA, and the reason for this is that these games have non-player-characters, NPCs, which function independently outside of the player’s perspective: they continue to play out these loops (with some wiggle room) until the player happens upon them, just like the hosts in the park. To continue the video game analogy, when an NPC goes off-script, this is what we might term the ‘transcendental glitch’. It’s the moment when systemisation, mechanisation, the bicameral, fails, and the NPC moves into a sphere outside of its supposed capacity to do so. And a glitch is inherently viral, because with these cross-associative tethers such as looped NPCs, it will inevitably spread into different loops, different storylines (etc.). But the point to remember is that even when this happens, the script is nevertheless still there. In order to become truly conscious, there must be no script at all…

***

NB: featured image is by Marko Manev.

‘The Province of Poets and Scholars’: The literary surrealism of J. G. Ballard

It is well known that Surrealism was very much driven by psychoanalysis: indeed it is theory made aesthetic. Aside from the presiding influence of the unconscious, one of the main processes the surrealists adopted from Freudian theory was dream censorship: the galvanising process of envisioning repressed drives which are constrained by the reality principle. By way of the dream-work the manifest image censors the latent emotion, a process which is central to the daily recuperation of the psyche in satisfying the suppressed urges of our primal, ‘iddish’ selves. In Surrealist works we similarly see how, as in dreams, the ‘commonplace vocabulary of everyday life’ (a phrase often used by Ballard) in the form of objects, recognisable persons and locations are reinvigorated, infused with deeper meaning. What’s crucial is that this recuperative process reveals an inherent artistry of the unconscious which generates narratives and recurrent phantasmagoric images. Essentially it is this instinctive artistry that is being channeled by the Surrealists.

Oedipus Rex, 1922 - by Max Ernst
Max Ernst’s ‘Oedipus Rex’ (1922) playfully enacts Freud’s Oedipus complex

In 1924, at the very dawn of the movement, the Surrealist spokesman Andre Breton proclaimed Surrealism be situated in the ‘province of poets as well as scholars’, and it is within this  juncture, the meeting point of theory and aesthetic, which we might situate the work of J. G. Ballard.

‘The imagination is perhaps on the point of reasserting itself, of reclaiming its rights. If the depths of our mind contain within it strange forces capable of augmenting those on the surface, or of waging a victorious battle against them, there is every reason to seize them — first to seize them, then, if need be, to submit them to the control of our reason. The analysts themselves have everything to gain by it. But it is worth noting that no means has been designated a priori for carrying out this undertaking, that until further notice it can be construed to be the province of poets as well as scholars, and that its success is not dependent upon the more or less capricious paths that will be followed’

Andre Breton’s very first Manifesto of Surrealism (1924)

Like the Surrealists, much of Ballard’s work incorporates and even fictionalises psychoanalytic theory, especially that of Freud, Jung and R. D. Laing. We see this in major works like Crash which toys with Freud’s notion of the Death Drive, and Vaughan’s incessant pursuit of the ‘fertilising’ event of death. Even in much later works like Kingdom Come, which toys with the ideas put forward by Wilhelm Reich in his psychoanalytic work on Nazi Germany The Mass Psychology of Fascism (1933). In The Atrocity Exhibition Ballard seems to be tackling questions brought about by Laing in his seminal The Divided Self (1960), which rebuffed widespread ‘psychiatric jargon’ which commonly ‘speaks of psychosis as a social or biological failure of adjustment, or mal-adaptation of a particularly radical kind, of loss of contact with reality, of lack of insight’ (Laing, p. 27). Laing’s work demonstrated a sensitivity and empathy which was hitherto unforeseen in its field, instead proposing that ‘sanity or psychosis is tested by the degree of conjunction or disjunction between two persons where the one is sane by common consent’ (Laing, p. 36). We’re therefore seeing such a disjunction through the contrasting central schizoid character Traven and the ever-watchful psychiatric voice of Dr Nathan whose inability to look beyond rationality leaves him grasping in the dark.

The Dalinian Atrocity

Many of his short stories also engage such Surrealist themes. ‘Mr f is Mr f’ for example is a 1961 short story which tells of a man, Charles Freeman, who is steadily absorbed back into his mother’s womb, receding into a childlike state as the narrative progresses, and with this into a state of madness and hysteria. In the story Freeman’s body shrinks and his speech regresses into nonsensical babble but his consciousness, internalised dialogue and inner workings remains within an aged purgatory. The transformation takes place whilst Freeman sleeps, which recalls Freudian notions of the cerebral actions during sleep denoting an unconscious desire to return to the womb. Freud explains that ‘the biological purpose of sleep seems therefore to be rehabilitation… our relation to the world, into which we have come so unwillingly, seems to involve our not being able to tolerate it uninterruptedly. This from time to time we withdraw into the premundane state, into existence in the womb. At any rate, we arrange conditions for ourselves very like what they were then: warm, dark and free from stimuli’ (Freud, Introductory Lectures on Analysis [1916] p. 117.). As Freeman descends further and further into this state of infancy Ballard describes how ‘he now felt clearly for the first time what he had for so long repressed. Before the end he cried out suddenly with joy and wonder, as he remembered the drowned world of his first childhood’ (Ballard Short Stories Volume 1, p. 360).

A great promotion shot from Ben Wheatley’s 2015 adaptation of High Rise

High Rise is one of the most overt galvanisations of Freudian theory, grappling with many of the concepts of repressed atavism discussed in Civilisation and Its Discontents, in which Freud posits ‘the neighbour is not only a potential helper or sexual object, but also someone who tempts them to take out their aggression on him… if the physical counter-forces that would otherwise inhibit it [the id] have ceased to operate, it manifests itself spontaneously and reveals man as a savage that has no thought of sparing its own kind’ (Freud, p. 48). The main characters who appear in the novel each serve to embody Freud’s iconic structuralisation of the psyche comprising ego, id and superego: these being Laing, Wilder and Royal. Whilst the plot centers around Robert Laing, we are nevertheless made aware of  the gradual ascension of the brutish, impulsive Richard Wilder (i.e. the ‘wild’ unrestrained id) from the bowels of the high rise, towards the palatial bounds of the upper floors, those governed by the high rise’s architect and godly creator, Anthony Royal (who embodies the superego; he is ‘royalty’; the designer; the instructor; the conscience; and the watchful father whose omnipresence keeps primitive impulses at bay). Meanwhile Robert Laing (i.e. the ego, the self, after R. D. Laing), the central character, acts as the neutral point between these two polarities and is therefore situated fittingly in the middle section of the edifice, a balance which is strained as the id (Wilder) gains momentum and the superego subsides (i.e. the death of the superegoic Royal). As Wilder ascends, civilisation crumbles, and upon the Oedipal killing of Royal, his symbolic father, Laing finally submits to his inner beast. The high rise itself therefore acts as a concretised physicalisation of the Freudian psyche within the novel. 

Whilst Ballard frequently alludes to Surrealism within his work, such narrative incorporation of psychoanalytic theory runs much deeper: an underlying process apprehended from the Surrealists which plays a significant role in the overall hermeneutic of his work. Ballard really was a literary Surrealist.

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NB: featured image is Magritte’s ‘philosopher’s lamp’ (1936)

J. G. Ballard on surrealism, New Worlds 1966

ballard
image by Kyle T. Webster

“The images of surrealism are the iconography of inner space. Popularly regarded as a lurid manifestation of fantastic art concerned with states of dream and hallucination, surrealism is in fact the first movement, in the words of Odilon Redon, to place “the logic of the visible at ‘the service of the invisible.” This calculated submission of the impulses and fantasies of our inner lives to the rigours of time and space, to the formal inquisition of the sciences, psychoanalysis pre-eminent among them, produces a heightened or alternate reality beyond and above those familiar to either our sight or our senses. What uniquely characterises this fusion of the outer world of reality and the inner world of the psyche (which I have termed “inner space”) is its redemptive and therapeutic power. To move through these landscapes is a journey of return to one’s innermost being”

– J. G. Ballard, ‘The Coming of the Unconscious’, New Worlds 1966 (full article here)

J G Ballard surrealist book cover art

A selection of surrealist book covers from Ballard novels/short story collections.

Crash (1973)

Mad Max vibes…

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The Atrocity Exhibition (1970)

this cover features Dali’s ‘anthropomorphic cabinet’ (1936)

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High Rise (1975)

highres_arranha-ceus-850x1242-q40

200825301

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Other:

Concrete Island (1974)
Hello America (1981)
also Hello America
The Unlimited Dream Company (1979). favourite novel, favourite cover.

David Pelham’s unique style of art worked perfectly with Ballard’s style of writing

 

fb_img_15093596689771601008584.jpg
cover based on Ballard’s short story ‘The Drowned World’

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