Speech given at The Science Gallery, Dublin, May 2015. Which I was reminded of today by the morning news.
I just got back from Berlin, where I was talking about the future, after having just got back from Manchester, where I was talking about the future. Talking about the future is one of the things I do now. The future and the past. The folklore of tomorrow. I come from a place on the Essex coast in England, that once was all forest and colonized by the Vikings. The village I grew up in was a Viking settlement. It’s called Thundersley, derived from an older name meaning Thor’s Clearing. Which sounds pretty good, until you discover that Dublin, which was also a Viking colony, comes from an ancient term meaning Dark Pool. That’s actually pretty nice. I like that.
I can’t help but approach science and history from the standpoint of language. Because I’m a writer, sure, but also because that’s where those things truly live. Science can produce the greatest poetry of the age. Even headline writing at otherwise sober institutions like phys.org take on mad poetry, just because that’s the way things are now. Actual headline: “Multifractals suggest the existence of an unknown physical mechanism on the Sun.” An UNKNOWN PHYSICAL MECHANISM ON THE SUN. Just let that sink in. Because that bit alone is some demented Lovecraftian genius. Which may only be topped by THIS actual headline about the NASA NuStar satellite: “NuStar captures possible ‘screams’ from zombie stars.”
This is the real music. “Cosmology in ghost-free bigravity theory with twin matter fluids: The origin of “dark matter”.” And, a personal favourite: “Crystals May Be Possible In Time As Well As Space.”
Science is beautiful, and mysterious, and a source of constant wonder. It is our new wilderness landscape, the new forest full of weird animals and spirits sliding in and out of view on the edge of the clearing and the pool. Now we have, and here’s another headline: “NASA Funds Electricity-Harvesting Robotic Space Eel With Explosive Jet Thrusters and Electroluminescent Skin.”
Once, that was all folklore, the stories we told ourselves in order to try and understand the world around us. And we still do it today, for the same reasons. Science and magic used to be a single field, and they only split definitively around three hundred and fifty years ago. Isaac Newton was an alchemist. Plato was a mathematician and mystic, who gave us the word “daemon” to describe the intercessionary spirits who in his conception guided our action, a term that survives today as a computing process.
It’s no wonder we both come from drinking cultures. Think about explosive glowing robot space eels for a minute and you will probably need a drink. Eels. Even that MIGHTY BOOSH episode about eels wasn’t that weird. This is where we live now. We live in the point where science fiction is actually written by science. Science fiction is broken. Science fiction fell in a ditch years ago, when the real world started getting weirder than writers could be, and faster. Writing near-future science fiction is a mug’s game, now, because any extrapolation we come up with on the current state of the world is outdone by a science news website five minutes later. Seriously. You pat yourself on the back for having thought of, say, a clever twenty-minutes-into-the-future bit about drone technology, open your web browser to have a quick look at the news, and it’s robot space eels and zombie stars all the way down. Science got to the strange, chilly term “gene editing” before science fiction did. “Genetic engineering” sounds archaic and stupid now.
Even philosophy has been dragged into the dark pool by the madness of the science fiction condition we now live in. I remain oddly fascinated by a fantastically bleak enterprise generally referred to as “speculative realism.” The most optimistic and forward-thinking strains of this movement tell us that we live in a cold and uncaring cosmos where life means nothing and we are a temporary infection smeared across an unremarkable rock hurtling through the blackness, amid the radio howls of zombie stars. Furthermore, we have no more claim to existence or dreams than the rock itself, and the rock, generally, is of more import and use to the universe than we are. It is the philosophy of understanding the presence of things rather than people, in some doomy Lovecraftian mode of looming leviathan forces we cannot comprehend. Happy books, these are, with happy names, Eugene Thacker’s IN THE DUST OF THIS PLANET, a title so snappy that it immediately got appropriated and stuck on a clothing line. Extinction Aesthetic.
To me, it always has the sense of being on the verge of a connection with the industrial economy, where humans are nothing but the reproductive organs of the massive machines that both loom over us and haunt us, for now they extend into the unseen digital planes of electromagnetic fields. It can almost tip over into a philosophical underpinning for accelerationism, the notion that capitalism should be unchained and allowed to run riot until it destroys itself. Let the wheels of industry crush everything until there’s nothing left to crush but themselves. You can array any number of arguments against what is, as Benjamin Noys said, a capitalism fetish, but the main one is still that it really doesn’t work like that. Not until we’re all dead, and, frankly, probably not even then. Speculative realism says that our lives and deaths don’t matter anyway. It’s the systems of the world and the orreries of the universe that are the story.
So there’s the latest news from philosophy, the saviors of the human condition: nothing actually matters and building a future is pointless because time is a flat circle that is also a crystal, the robotic eel that will eat its own tail as Mission Control is subsumed in the dust of this planet.
The old wisdom said that we were accelerating into a singularity. Everything getting faster and faster and weirder and weirder until there was some big bang and we emerged into new territory that we don’t have maps for, and everything will have changed. That’s not how it’s going to happen. Things will certainly continue to accelerate, until we reach some awful terminal velocity. Running riot without a wall at the far end of the track to crash into.
I’m here in Dublin to commemorate the launch of the comics series INJECTION, created with artists Declan Shalvey and Jordie Bellaire. And this is what INJECTION is about. The Science Fiction Condition, the future at high speed, accelerating – not towards a singularity where we exit into a perfect new world, but to an endless gathering of speed until we live inside a continuum of hardcore weirdness.
In the book, of course, this is a terrible, exterminating thing that the characters must try to thwart before the earth becomes too weird to live on. And there are elements of magic and folklore in it that fictionalize this particular view of the Science Fiction Condition.
I like it. It’s a terrible thing to admit, I’m sure. I don’t always recognize the things people point at and call dystopias as bad things.
I was always terrified of JG Ballard’s dictum that the future will be boring. I know what he was getting at. Marshall McLuhan said, back in the Sixties, when the world was in the grip of all the authentic-seeming future narratives that turned out not to be real: “We look at the present through a rear-view mirror. We march backwards into the future. An environment becomes fully visible only when it has been superseded by a new environment; thus we are always one step behind in our view of the world.” So, from one perspective, everything seems kind of banal and chewed-over and not good enough.
When I rattle around Europe talking about the future, I like to try and refocus people’s vision.
We’ve fired a camera at Pluto that’s travelling at fifty eight thousand kilometers an hour this week. We can now see thirteen billion years into the universe’s past. There’s now a 2D material that appears to decompose within a couple of days but actually remains solid – it just becomes almost completely invisible. Researchers in Paris can stop and store light. A space drive is being tested that appears to break the laws of physics. The PH of a geyser plume on the moon of Enceladus has been identified. Dolphins have social networks. There are six people living in space today, and we have five space robots around Mars right now. At least six new species have been discovered in the last few days. Artificial muscles have been constructed from gold-plated onion cells.
This is all in the last WEEK. This is just the FUN stuff. That’s more serious, important, charged newness than happened in entire years, a millennium ago. Perhaps even ten years.
In the last ten years, we’ve discovered two previously unknown species of human. We can film eruptions on the surface of the sun, unknown mechanisms be damned. There are people printing prototypes of human organs, and people printing nanowire tissue that will bond with human flesh and the human electrical system. We’ve photographed the shadow of a single atom. We’ve got robot legs controlled by brainwaves. There are satellites the size of coffee mugs that are be controllable by mobile phone apps.
This last week, in Trinity College Dublin, a self-healing bioluminescent gel was reported on, with application in medicine, science and technology. The future isn’t happening in far-flung places. It’s happening everywhere. Right here. You’re part of it. It belongs to you to. This is where we live. This is our magic, here in the Science Fiction Condition, and we are damned good at it.
And if, sometimes, we can only describe these things to each other as unknown physical mechanisms on the Sun, then that’s okay. If we’re brought back to poetic license and the language of folklore to be able to talk about what’s happening… then maybe that’s only right and proper. We can be both scientists and alchemists if we want. It is, perhaps, a sign of common sense that we reach back into the past for language to decode the future for each other. If we tend towards the hyperbolic, or even see story where there technically is none… then that’s just how we’re wired. The stone circles and earthworks that litter these islands were put there to dramatise the landscape. Specifically, to create stories out of the world around us in order to explain the world to ourselves.
I’m standing inside a Science Gallery. A place you built to tell stories about the world to each other. Look at it. You saw the place when you were coming in. We used to build stone circles to explain the landscape, but now we build places like this. I once saw a presentation by the architect Peter Cook, where he showed a building that looked like a spaceship and said, “Look. It’s landed.” I can’t decide if this place is a spaceship or a time crystal.
The future is coming fast, and zombie stars are screaming at us across thirteen billion years and there are robot space eels waiting in the toilets for us, but these are not intrinsically bad things. Apart from the eels, and I kind of wish I hadn’t thought of that line. They are what we make of them. We just need to keep telling the folklore. Using the language. Tell the stories. There’s no such thing as future shock. It turns out that we’re all much stronger than we ever gave ourselves credit for. We dealt with gods and monsters, so by god we can deal with the space eels. We adapt. Everything tells us that we should be overwhelmed by our accelerating future that’s happening faster than we can prepare for. But Stewart Brand said “we are as gods and might as well get good at it,” and he said that forty-seven years ago, the year I was born. And we are monsters, and might as well admit it: we’re pursuit predators who can heal almost any wound, show up just when you think we’ve gone away, and we’ll attempt to have sex with pretty much anything in the universe. Don’t be afraid of the future. We will never die, we can do everything we ever want, and we love stories more than anything. Stories are magic, magic is science, and science is what makes us human. Don’t be bored, and don’t be afraid. Have a drink. Sit around the pool in the clearing. The future is coming, and we’re going to win.
Thanks for your time.