Monday, 27 December 2010

Becoming our own intelligent designers? A consideration of our possible cosmic development

As usual, it takes me a while to get back to topics I'd previously mentioned I might post on. Other commitments are always to blame. It was still quite a year for the Acheron team. We realized a dream of seeing Laurie Anderson performing live at the Sydney Opera House. We also took in China Mieville giving a live reading of selections from his latest book, Kraken. Fascinating as each was in their own right, for me it is always best when things can be brought together, rather than be treated as discrete episodes to be judged on their own respective merits.

Mieville mentioned how he uses Samuel Delany in his creative writing class at Warwick University. Derridata in turn leaked this information to one of Delany's confidants, and "Chip" himself was eventually tipped off! Great as that was, I was particularly interested in how Mieville briefly situated himself in relation to Lovecraft. He mentioned spending more time of late in Providence to get a "feel" for the place, so no doubt we'll soon see what dividends that yields for his upcoming "weird fictions". More forgivingly than was generally Lovecraft's want, Mieville also professed his atheism, while at the same time distancing himself from the "celebrity atheism" of Dawkins et al-- conceding that faith can play a positive role in some people's lives. In contrast, Lovecraft only begrudgingly allowed that Catholicism could inform aesthetics in a worthwhile sense.

Given Mieville's involvement in an upcoming academic conference called Spaces of Alterity, I'm wondering whether he or the other participants will be willing to build upon the aforesaid comments by considering how "the sacred" could inform conceptions of "counter-hegemonic space". I'm thinking here of those who have considered how our planet can be rethought by grounding "the possibility for a Global Ethic that will provide hospitality to all aliens, near and far". The relationship between "the sacred" and "astrobiology" appears set to become an ongoing concern. If you check out the website, you can see that Laurie Anderson was involved too. I mention this fact in part because it is suggestive of a certain consistency to the cultural tastes and interests of the Acheron team as well.

I would describe Anderson as a progressive artist, but whenever I find myself becoming more pessimistic about our prospects for venturing very far, I feel closer to Lovecraft. Afterall, his stories were predicated on panspermia bringing the human race into contact with higher civilizations that were indifferent to us. At no time did he suggest that we could ourselves learn to direct the process to progressive ends. In contrast, Meot-Ner and Matloff in effect follow Carl Sagan and Francis Crick by suggesting that panspermia could be used to create a "Noah's Ark" to save species threatened by changes to Earth's ecosystem, or even changes to the solar system, such as the death of the sun.

Once you start following these debates, you soon realize that any receptiveness to such notions is dependent on how you interpret "the sacred":

I find it ironic then (during my more optimistic, or rather, "utopian" moodswings) that even the proponents of the "selfish gene" theory will attempt to appear responsible by urging us to adhere to the cautionary principle: i.e. notwithstanding natural selection, we are not just driven by our genes, insofar as we are also cultural beings that must be held accountable for our choices and acts. But if the end result is merely a deferential attitude to the order of Nature, how desirable is it really? Surely the greater challenge is to think of how directed panspermia could forge cosmic development as a counter-hegemonic practice; a space irreducible to privatisation, commodification, homogenisation etc? I anticipate that the "Spaces of Alterity" conference will reference Nick Dyer Witheford's Games of Empire, which envisions gaming environments as an example of such spaces. That is fine, as far as it goes. But it stops well short of the ambitious economy of scale Kim Stanley Robinson has in mind when he presents terraforming as a utopian project. To my mind, this distinction makes Robinson the most important science fiction author working today.

For some, building on an impetus for terraforming/directed panspermia will mean hitching the Intelligent Design wagon to Fred Hoyle's The Intelligent Universe. I understand the basic reasoning, which would aim to show the continuity between us taking control of cosmic development and the will of God. In a comparable vein, the conjoining of Islam and science fiction is notable. Others, such as Robinson, are likely to be more muted so far as any specific privileging of religion per se is concerned.

Be this as it may, this group would probably, at least in principle, broadly assent to us collectively becoming our own "intelligent designers". This is light years away from the central message of Lovecraft (and arguably much of "weird fiction" as well) or what is for many the classic sci fi movie of all time-- 2001: A Space Odyssey. Just watch the Flash animation in Part IV and you'll see what I mean.

I won't speculate any further then about what I'd like to see featuring in the "Spaces of Alterity" conference. So I'll just reiterate that I enjoyed China Mieville's talk. Kraken inspired me to create an image of Cthulhu laying waste to Sydney. I'm also posting a few pics of China giving his reading.

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