I read Snuff Memories by David Roden, who has written about “the posthuman”. I also read Ambiguity Machines by Vandana Singh. The latter is described as displaying “deep humanism”. So perhaps if we put the two side-by-side we might see a bit more in the post-humanist theorists by having a scientific humanist standing in contrast.
The 14 stories in Ambiguity Machines run across a range of science-fiction conventions. There are some set in the Earth’s future, some in the past, some in outer space. There are some involving time travel or mind-transference, and the opening of hidden aspects of material reality. There are sometimes aliens, sometimes human corporations with exploitative purposes. They are not all set in a single fictional universe, although some of them share features, for example the idea of the global warming leading to widespread flooding in the next 100 or so years. There is also a focus on India, in past and future, though only a tangential reference to present-day politics. The stories usually involve “scientists”, of some description, but they are not always the protagonists or even the most positive characters. There is nothing here is that is not unamenable to film adaptation for technical or taste reasons, though it might not all be family viewing; it might not be commercial material however.
Here are 5 of the stories in more detail:
“A Handful Of Rice” is set a few hundred years ago. Akbar Khan established himself as the king of a northern emirate after the legitimate line were all killed in battle against the advancing British. The dying act of Mirza Mughal was to pass the succession to the “madman” who appeared from nowhere and rescued him from the threat of a “yellow-haired youth with a bayonet”. Akbar’s reign is consolidated by eliminating all challengers.
The challenges were issued mostly by nobles outraged that a man without a lineage, let alone a proper Persian lineage, could sit upon the throne of Hindustan with such insouciant ease. Such challenges were the talk of the citizenry, because Akbar Khan received and accepted them in the public durbar. Sometimes the challenger wanted a game of chess; sometimes it was a duel by arms, but always it was the throne at stake, and always, failure meant death. The challenge itself was held in a private room off from the durbar, with only the king and the challenger present. And always, the challenger would be found dead the next morning, in the trash heap outside the city walls. There was no evidence of poison or other underhand means, only a bruising about the skin, and a neat swordcut to the throat. The victim didn’t bleed much, it was said. There were rumors of magic and other skullduggery, but the king, while contradicting these, did not work too hard to suppress the imaginations of the credulous. Always, he generously compensated the families of the victims.
Playing the regional power game and holding back the encroaching British, Akbar sets his country on the road to science and industry. He also institutes a national health service “employing a mishmash of traditions, from the European to the Yunnani” but at the same time suppressing the old Ayurvedic medicine concerned with the prana vidya, which he condemns as “quackery” and practice is punishable by imprisonment. Yet the King himself clearly still practices some special medicine, for how else could a man of 62 look no older than 25? Vishnumitra, an itinerant healer driven out of work by the health policy, comes to the capital and bribes his way in to avenge the death of a student who was killed raising a previous challenge. When he meets the king he finds he is his older brother Upamanyu, who travelled north to China to study and learn the secret of “the manipulation of the mahaprana itself”. This is the source of his everlasting youth, and superpower to defeat enemies… and of course why he has to prevent anyone else studying the subject and potentially learning the secret for themselves.
“Oblivion: A Journey” is set out in a far future similar to the one of The Expanse. Humanity has taken over many “world-shells” out amongst the stars, a process assisted somehow by the “nakalchis”, “a bio-synthetic being spawned from a mother-machine.” Special robots called “harvesters” are now tracking down the nakalchis and putting them in catatonic states. But that’s not even the worst thing that’s going on. Our narrator is an 83 years old interplanetary private investigator, who altered their identity with a sex change, and is now in pursuit of the bad guy who helped the Samarin Corporate Entity take over and enslave the worlds.
But to me he was also Hirasor, destroyer of worlds. He had killed me once already by destroying my world-shell, Ramasthal. It was one of the epic world-shells, a chain of island satellites, natural and artificial, that ringed the star Agni. Here we learned, lived, and enacted our lives based on that ancient Indic epic Ramayana, one of those timeless stories that condense in their poetry the essence of what it means to be human. Then Samarin had infiltrated, attacking and destroying at first, then doing what they called “rebuilding”: substituting for the complexity and beauty of the Ramayana, an insanely simplified, sugary cultural matrix that drew on all the pettiness in human nature. Ramasthal broke up, dissolved by the monocultural machine that was the Samarin, I suffered less than my fellow citizens – being a child, I could not contribute a brain-share to Samarin. I grew up a refugee, moving restlessly from one inhabited world to the next, trying and failing to find my center… When the Harvesters invaded the bar, I had been living the fashionably disconnected life that Samarin-dominated cultures think is the only way to be.
Here we have not only the usual story of capitalist expansion consuming and reducing all culture before it, but also the conservative narrative of the purity and authenticity of the previous world of closed and repeating traditional patterns. This tradition, of course, can only have been established in space through a huge advance of technology and the new lifeforms of the nakalchi and others. But once those are familiar, culture war can re-emerge on 21st century models, driven by an impulse to destroy the inhuman controllers who dehumanise their prey.
While the Harvester had me pinned to the floor, its long, flexible electrodes crawled all over my skin, as it violated my human-ness… I saw myriad reflections of myself in those dark, compound eyes, from which looked – not only the primitive consciousness of the Harvester, but the eyes of whoever manipulated it – the person or entity who, not content with finding their target, fed like a starving animal on the terror of a bystander. In those eyes I was a stranger, a non-person, a piece of meat that jerked and gibbered in pain.
The final climactic struggle against the dastardly baddie brings no closure or fulfilment, and our narrator can only continue in the same groove, unable to make a meaning out of the victory.
But when it came time to disembark I couldn’t manage to do it. I am still on the ship, waiting until the impulse comes (if it ever will) to step out under the skies of a new world and begin another life. What has passed for my life, my personal Ramayana, comes back to me in tattered little pieces, pages torn from a book, burning, blowing in the wind. Like patterns drawn in the dust, half-familiar, a language once understood, then forgotten.
…I want to die. But a curious inertia keeps me from it. The things of the world seem heavy, and time slow.
…[T]rying to infuse into my mind a sense of victory despite the loss of the chance for true revenge – but I no longer know what any of those words mean: victory, revenge. Still, there is a solidity about that moment when I shot him, small though it is against the backdrop of all the years I’ve lived. That moment – it feels as tangible as a key held in the hand. What doors it might open I do not know, although I am certain that Sita does not wait behind any of them. Perhaps it is enough that it tells me there are doors.
“Are You Sannata3159?” is set in a megacity in India in the near future, where we have reprised H.G.Wells’s division of humanity into the privileged Eloi and the subterranean Morlocks. In this case, the exploited masses are in the Undercities, gazing at the Upside lives in the great towers above them. Smartphones and trash TV still exist, and shows such as Reality Deep Down gather salacious footage of the lowly grunts. Work is available for those that are willing to do it. A new slaughterhouse opens, and various classes of unproductive people start to disappear.
There were other disappearances, even among the rat-folk, and the smoke people with their pipes and dried herbs, and the riff-raff and knife-wielding thieves and troublemakers, but who cared about them? People who worked at the slaughterhouse said that the streets had become easier to traverse, even in the deeper darkness of night.
The secret of the slaughterhouse, of course, is that the “protein shake” that the workers take before every shift is a mild hallucinogen to desensitize them to the agony and chaos as they slice up still-living creatures, and sometimes human bodies. This story is the nearest to body-horror in this collection, the setup and premise have appeared in sci-fi since the 70s. The most unusual variation in this in the central character’s glimpse of an alternative model of human-animal relations.
So Jhingur lay in the shop, viewed dream-vids and ate insta-meal strips. The best dream-vid of all was the one about the bisons. If he had been good at telling stories he would have told this one to his mother and sister. It would explain to them, he thought, how he felt about the slaughterhouse, even before the disappearance of his grandmother. He didn’t have the words to describe what he meant, what he felt. But the story told it all.
Long ago, the story went, there was a tribe of people in another part of the Earth who had once hunted bison, great god-like animals. These people had lived in the city for a while and forgotten their old ways, so one day they resolved to go back to the ide place under the sky where they had once dwelt… The people stopped before the bison herd and their chief drew his ancestor’s hunting knife…
After a while a young bull left the herd and came up to them, and bowed his head.
The tribe’s chief thanked the bull and raised his knife in the air. But just then an old bull came raging out of the herd, snorting and pawing at the ground. The tribe members leaped back in alarm, raising their weapons, but the old bull simply pushed the young one out of the way and bowed his head in his place….
The story always made Jhingur weep, and he wondered if it had ever been true. He wanted to eat the meat of such an animal, to become like him, to sacrifice himself for his tribe.
The power of the fable of life in a pre-urban, pre-technological society lies not in its purported authenticity but rather the image of a being existing-for the group in an individual choice, a new mode of relating to the group rather than a transformation of the physical body.
“Ruminations In An Alien Tongue” is told in a fragmented style, with key details of the “cosmic tree” universe filling in only after we have been some way in to the narrative. Birha is a linguist studying the relics left behind by an alien civilisation who were driven away by “human conquerors” in “a war she had forgotten when she was young”. This detail of imperialism is passed over quickly at the start. The aliens are absent and the humans are lost in the vast mysterious chambers they left behind.
Discovering how to enter the final “alien stronghold” by triggering the acoustical entry system, Birha is the first investigator to see that the interior is not full of “broken, decayed bodies” by contains a fantastic “probability machine” which can be related to descriptions deciphered from alien manuscripts. This machine enabled transit to ay other possible universe in the great “cosmic tree”. But it also enables transit from elsewhere in to this world. Soon after it was discovered, a human female Ubirri came through searching for her lover Rudrak, who had travelled in previously. After her death Rudrak also appears, and asks for Ubirri. He is sent back to his universe via the machine, but this seems to have created a loopback, and he has returned to play out the same role 9 times.
In between the excerpts of this story we hear Birha’s “ruminations” on the alien civilisation under examination, and the other worlds it has opened up contact to.
What do we know about them? We know now that they are not dead. They went through the great probability machine, the actualizer, to another place, a place we’ll never find. The old pictures show that they had pale brown, segmented bodies, with a skeletal frame that allowed them to stand upright. They were larger than us but not by much, and they had feeders on their heads and light-sensitive regions beneath the feelers, and several limbs. They knew time and space, and as their culture was centred around sound, so was their mathematics centered around probability. Their ancient cities are filled with ruined acoustical devices, enormous poeticas, windchimes, and Aeolian harps as large as a building.
The title story is presented as an examination script for special applicants.
Intrepid explorers venturing into Conceptual Machine-Space, which is the abstract space of all possible machines, will find in the terrain some gaps, holes, and tears. These represent the negative space where impossible machines reside, the ones that cannot exist because they violate known laws of reality. And yet such machines are crucial to the topographical maps of Conceptual Machine-Space, and indeed to its topology.
And so we get “three accounts of the subcategory of Ambiguity Machines: those that blur or dissolve boundaries”, which the candidate taking the exam must read about before contemplating the mysteries and structure of the conceptual space. This will lead to the final instruction on the exam:
To take inspiration from human longing, from the organic, syncretic fecundity of nature, the candidate must be willing to consider and enable its own transformation.
The machines are structures or patterns that blur away boundaries and distances in space, and merge together separate consciousnesses. They can only be found in marginal places in the world, amongst marginal people, such as a nomadic group in Mali who disappear as the lines of the war occurring around them shift.
Snuff Memories is shorter, composed of a series of vignettes each no longer than a few pages. The style of each section mixes declarative, impersonal statements of general and theoretical content, with first-personal interactions. Dialogue is not distinguished textually so it is never clear what is thought and what is said, or what is seen and what is imagined. It is never established if these sections are occurring in differentiated consciousnesses or a single narrator, or if transitions between those options are occurring.
Names and designators of characters appear in the narrative, and actions and events are described. There are footnotes, collected at the end to make up a bibliography of theoretical and aesthetic sources. This may be a parodic allusion to The Waste Land – another fragmentary work with an unclear centre of consciousness – but there are no other traces of Eliot or any modernism elsewhere. The visual resources used in this book take in Cronenberg’s Videodrome as well as Maya Deren, J.G.Ballard, H.P.Lovecraft and apparently Clive Barker. A different Barker who could be present may be Howard Barker, whose middle-period works such as The Castle and The Bite Of The Night also depict struggles of power and desire in out-of-time zones, that consume the material of classical drama and Shakespeare but project them in to fables from Foucault.
A metaphysics underlying all this can be found in the first few pages: the breaking and disturbance of forms in a vortex of change, and apparent chaos, is the basis of a comprehending conscious union of the universe. This is an inversion of Kantian philosophy: rather than coherence in the phenomenal world being a requirement of the apperceiving subject, in this view it is incoherence that provides a unity of subjectivity. This has close similarities to the ideas of Quentin Meillasoux in After Finitude, though not exactly his arguments as I remember them.
The body is distended and precipitate, forcing open its wound with yet more bodies, thronging together in a crush, then as a roll. That is, not a utopia but an ectopia: continuous iterated displacement from the margins. Somehow, you make all this sing and riff in your way, until it all stops on that beach of bone before the all-corroding wave of the Angel…
This You or It or Non-I or Thing that unlistens finally set alone to audit our memories. Stage right, Mouth agape in black yolk, moving wordlessly. It ‘needs one time, another, then another; a discrete quantity providing articulation with a space of time, or a place.’ It amasses ‘tension, vibration, modulation, colour, cry, or song,’ a timbre or woof.
The image of the “mouth agape in black space” is from Beckett’s Not I, whose directions are cited from the beginning.
The place of the book is some derelict coastal area, with Naval dockyards and shipyards, as well as beaches, whose history is unclear but is presently derelict and now mainly a resource for mining the titular memories. There are allusions to “the Disaster” and special Clinical Dead Zones and Quarantine areas. Perhaps they are being scooped and saved by a digital search engine operating over degenerated neural structures; perhaps it is reading the brain tissue of the dead. The world remembered has political dislocations and migrations. Martin Bax’s The Hospital Ship is another analogous text, along with Blake Butler’s Scorch Atlas.
The road led back to the Harbour behind the clubs and malls, where you were confused and drawn by their formal reality. There was something better and more degraded about the strips where you found me again, now a yelloed bone resampling their songs into saveable, violent apostasies. My skin still aches, preferring anything to these testy vitroids.
The migrants smell of sea when they breathe, not animal, and their faces are hollowed by immense distances. You respected their failure as a necessity, speaking to them with hope for some quasi-memory of Jesus Town. They were tolerant, unable to resent your inducing them into this barely considered new world, doomed as it already was.
You sipped your nettle tea while I tried to make them care. You prevailed upon yourself, I suppose. I saw someone else then, in a happier place.
In this world the inhabitants are subjected to forces of transformation whilst they are regimented in a cycle of discipline akin to concentration camp rules.
Above us, the vast dome billowed out in clouds of torn and ruptured matter; the blackened bodies of posits and priests suspended in a canopy of curling, spiral thorns; a vastness occluded in vapour from the floor. As if from an internal explosion, rivulets of the same oily material scabbed around the rents in the visible areas of wall and dome, now reinforced by sheets of hard Syndic steel…
…Had I been a person he would have been engorged with excitement and self-pity. But it is impossible to abuse a device. And I am and feel like one. It is good to be a Thing, I told him. He looked up at me with his tongue out like a puppy.
But it is possible to abuse a device – using or overusing it for a purpose it is not intended form, according to a rather traditional notion of “perversion”. Although Snuff Memories is a world of subjective memory, it is without any kind of history or extended cultural recollection: the narrators cannot say where places and tribes came from or went to. These are damaged minds from lives and societies that were existing in a specious Present before the Disaster and dislocation overtook them.
Here is something that was available to the Singh’s characters but not the ones in this world: a sense of cultural memory. But it’s not a magic trick. The narrator of “Oblivion: A Journey” cannot return to the closed loop of re-enacting the traditional mythology, and gets no satisfaction from simply avenging its destruction. Once the pattern had been broken the circle cannot be recreated; the reality that life can spin freely outside of it cannot be suppressed once it is revealed. But the existence of life by some pattern cannot be forgotten either.
Patterns are formed and broken throughout history; the reforms of Akbar Khan in Hindustan, abolishing traditions whilst instituting new ones, is a manoeuvre taken by many monarchs in different times and places. Improving lives can be dislocating as well, since removing a burden accepted for its inevitability creates a new conceptual void of freedom, as well as the regret and bitterness that it was endured at all.
Is it true that the technological changes that may be occurring soon, driven by AI and neuroscience, represent a significant break with what exists now? To consider this we have to appreciate the changes technology has already worked: we are already post-human with respect to what we were 300 years ago. All the diseases that no longer kill or handicap thousands; the capacities to communicate and record messages; above all the defining innovation, detested by conservatives and traditionalists: birth control. That above all puts the shape of life out of their control by removing the sense of urgency and need to defer to patriarchal structures. The decisive cultural break has already occurred, and we now have the fluid society of virtual environments, where individuals curate their selected authorities rather than defer to “natural” or conventional choices, at least in theory.
If there is anything marking Singh’s stories as “humanist” in contrast to the post-humanist grimoire, it is that it still expects the continuation of old forms of continuity and solidarity outside of the virtual world, and that the possibility will be remembered even in the automated charnel-house that Jhingur gets trapped in, of course it may not win against the encroaching corporate empire. If there is a magic ingredient in “being human” it is a quality extrinsic to the individual body, which has existed in societies up till now. It is not an “essential quality” in any biologically-grounded sense, since it has already survived revisions to human biology and the conditions in which it survives in the world.
It is not a difference of optimism and pessimism. Singh’s stories open a universe of unfathomable geometric mysteries and infinite depths. Traces of aliens can be inscrutable and only markers that some other form of life is possible but not comprehensible. But we also have traces of the previous humans, and can have the dialogue with the older generations passing away as they see the new world coming in. One kind of connective tissue, a very faint gestalt being, already exists in the pre-posthumans, and could still be available to their descendants.
The picture in the banner is the Earth’s surface in the far future, when all the continents have regrouped back together. Nobody knows whether human eyes will gaze down on this world from any angle, although there are species that have survived for many millions of years.