Friday, December 15, 2017


I just read the first story from Ted Chiang's Stories of Your Life and had a religious experience.  To read this story ("Tower of Babylon") is a bit (hyperbolically) like scanning an Escher, in which the eye follows the contours or the figure/ground (depending on which Escher), around and around. 

Or maybe it's a bit more like Magritte.  Either way, reading this story was a surreal experience.  It was surreal, but also like solid-construction carpentry, so well built as to be awe-inspiring. 

We are in the realm of metaphysics, but without leaving materiality behind for even a nano-second.  Herein lies the brilliance of the story.

The craft and level of precision in language mirrors the constructions in the story and, though the story is physically small (only a few pages), it reflects something very awe-inspiring.

This thing is a tower that takes a month to climb, and it circled helically by an up-ramp and a down-ramp.  Materials and sustenance go up, empty carts come down.

The people building the tower are doing so to literally find heaven.  Whole families and towns reside within and at the top of the tower, which as taken hundreds of generations to build.

You feel like you are part of the crew hauling the bricks to the top, walking and talking, your muscles building to ropy strength, fitness improving, fear being overcome.

This is the tale of a superman who falls upwards back to earth when the reservoir in the sky breaks.  The reservoir is captured internally to the white granite sky, based upon an ingenious construction.

That construction is a moving block of stone that acts like a safety lever held up by dissolvable material, and activated by the water/flood itself. 

I don't know the bible, but this story is absolutely biblical.  But it is also Babylonian sci-fi, and so it is genre-bending in the best possible way.

They watch the sun go down from a miles-high perspective, and the shadow of the (flat) earth rises up the tower.  They watch this too, sitting on the ramp's edge, or just peering over, lying flat.

I felt like I was with them too when they ate their meals of lentils and onions, with the children of the tower-towns playing around them in the gloaming.

"Tower of Babylon" exhibits a poetry that is, by definition, SF because it proceeds with a logical metonymy embedded within science-fictional/speculative tropes that take it to the next level.

Monday, December 11, 2017

Decolonizing the Map

Redrawing the "Decolonized Map"

With chapters on Mexico, Colombia, Guatemala, Egypt, South Africa, and India; and an introduction that goes extensively into North American decolonizing and postcolonial theory, Akerman's (edited) volume Decolonizing the Map is a game-changer.

The introduction, by Craib, covers counter-mapping theory, which really only shows up again in Culcasi's chapter on Egypt, but the book is as much an in-depth coverage of indigenous forms of counter-mapping and counter-hegemonic spatial discourses as it is a post-colonial handbook for mapping.  Indeed, it is both, and it would be very difficult to really separate the two things, but analytically this plays out in the index, which lists very specific places the counter-mapping occurs in the book; whereas post-colonial considerations occur throughout.

The book, as one comes to expect from cartography titles published by The University of Chicago Press, is full of maps, with every other page or so bringing another cartographic figure with meticulous sourcing and referencing/citation.  The various footnotes and bibliographies compiled by the authors' contributions to Decolonizing are a wonderful resource for future reference, and I anticipate utilizing this volume frequently in coming years.  It is right up there with Akerman's previous (edited) The Imperial Map; with After the Map; and with classic titles like A History of Spaces, The Power of Maps, or indeed (I was made to think of) The History of Cartography.

It is of a piece with all those titles mentioned above, and more.  The indigenous voices included here are many, and no other title does justice, all in one place, to the contributions of various 'native' voices to post-colonial and counter-mapping efforts across the global south, to the combined and distributed forces of this form of 'mapping from below.'  It does so within a solidly rigorous scholarly framework that provides a foundation for further case studies, theorisations, and emerging movements.

Several chapters explore the importance of toponyms: in the case of Egypt, which was formerly part of the larger United Arab Republic, a name that lasted only three years, to be replaced by "Arab Republic of Egypt" (page 269); in the case of Guatemala, a country whose outline ambiguously and quite unproblematically (it would seem) includes (or does not) Belize; in the case of South Africa, whose road maps are caught up in the logic of apartheid; and in general theorisations of nations, states, and various combinations thereof, in complex and overlapping imbrications and indications of history, space, war, peace, and cartographic controversy.

Map-logos epitomise the idea that a nation's 'geo-body' stands in for the nation itself in a metonymic relationship of part-whole.  That boundaries are things to which to which we nominally "capitulate" (page 285) is an assertion that begs many questions.  Ramaswamy's chapter on India, Pakistan, Punjab, and sub-national identity does not accept that capitulation at face value.  Through the examination of a series of arresting images about India's rupturing borders and the production of art in support of cartographic questioning, Ramaswamy pushes back against any easy notion of cartographic over-determination.  "Art on the Line" is the penultimate chapter in Decolonizing, and it is a fascinating journey through cartographic, poetic (Auden's "Partition"), artistic, and various design discourses that circulate around the idea of a (dis)united India.

One of the great things about Decolonizing is the number of specific examples of the non-territoriality of the contesting (counter-hegemonic) vision.  Non-cartographic counter-maps are demonstrated to form a large (if not the majority) part of the 'vision' of counter-mapping 'itself' (if it can indeed be reified usefully in such a way).  Counter-mapping as a thing-in-itself, as a set of structures of beliefs about nations, states, and about belief itself, and as a subject of study, is thus taken to a whole new level of non-literal complexity.  Of course, it always plays out, in the end, in terms of the geo-body, the inscribed line (on the ground, on the map), and the map-logo.  The latter, we know, is a virtual requirement for the arousal of national sentiment.

But the non-logo map, the performed place-names, the mnemonics of apartheid, for example, are just as political and rouse as effectively into political ramification as any flag-waving construction.  These are the formative bits, and they are mapped out here with great precision, and within a framework of admirable diversity: of coverage, positionality, and of affective engagement.  The map is art-science, it is im/mutable assertion and hypothesis.  It is not going away, it is fading rapidly, it is here to stay, but gone tomorrow, like lines in the sand.  In all its a/political changeability, its immutable mobility the map remains a fascinating thing, ever-evolving, and I urge academics and interested others to read this book.

Cladistic poetry

The evolutionary metaphor at the heart of Clade works very well, acting as a structural linking device between several stories.  Action proceeds from one thing to the next metonymically, but the cladistic device really moves this novel to the next level, the metaphorical, revolving around an autistic child, and as the action moves forward young adult, named Noah (Roberts, 2017:

The 'everydayness' of the novel works very well, introducing a depth-sounding of emotions in real-time as relationships between the various protagonists develop.  This is a wholesome text: the only antagonists are natural disasters, the two most prominent being a massive flood that nearly takes out the young Noah, his mother, and grandfather in one fell swoop; and a global disease outbreak.

The latter lasts longer in terms of the novel's action, and as an event comes to structure it more.  Billions, it would seem, are wiped out by disease, and at the same time flood waters continue to rise, to the point where whole cities become islands, with buildings poking above the new global sea level like a true water-world.  It is this world into which Noah evolves, as a person.

The future, it would seem, was made for people like Noah, in a way.  This is because the new protagonists, nice uber-folk like Noah, need science and technology to make out the shape of things to come.  And also, to make contact with other-worldly intelligence, it just turns out.  We are not alone in the universe, thankfully, and this should hopefully be reassuring.

We never really know though, and the adumbrations of Clade are mostly left that way: shadows of a future full of AI, self-driving cars, and people acting ethically to inform each other when privacy might be breached by all-pervasive virtual/augmented reality feeds.  These really are standard fare now in sci-fi (see previous reviews of Roberts and McAuley).

This is a vision of now and it is a reliable guide to the current mood.  It works well at several levels: at capturing that mood; and what popular opinion thinks our world will look like in the future (climate changed, self-driving, virtually addicted or at least co-dependent).  It will probably look not much like this but I think the relationships might.

This is really where the novel shines. (Clade, by James Bradley, and published by Titan Books)