Bubbling time and potemkin corporealism in speculative worlds

I’ve recently noticed a bizarre exotemporeal tendency—for lack of a better word—in science fiction (and other speculative fictions, for that matter). Perhaps the best/most egregious example of this is in the movie i, Robot, Will Smith’s character comments on his “vintage 2004 Converse”.

Bear with me. Obviously, beginning with i, Robot is a little unfair, but this example is nearly the Platonic ideal of what I’m trying to identify and critique.

Though the reasons for this particular bit of commodity fetishism are likely reducible to the transfer of money from Converse’s accounts to some Hollywoodian entities’, this type of historical pandering is present constantly throughout SF (to borrow Haraway’s excellent encapsulation, SF can be any type of speculation here). In i, Robot’s case, the simple mention of the vintage 2004 Converse seems immediately absurd—in a world that is populated with a flaccidly post-Gibsonian ethos and autonomous/sentient A.I., it seems unbelievable that Converse from 2004 would have any cachet. Taking into account technological advances present in the world, it would be analogous for me to wear solid-rubber boots, mold-poured (or some similarly absurd, outmoded, and useless anachronism)—sure I could do it, and I’m sure someone would, but it would seem immediately strange. Meta-textually, of course, the presence of the Converse immediately destroys any sort of cohesive world-building. i, Robot’s entire future milieu is revealed as highly, parasitically dependent on our own present reality, sharing the same brain, connected tenuously by corporately-privatized dendrites.

Of course i, Robot is ultimately just a shitty, overproduced mid-aughts film, and should not be discussed further. But exploration of this throwaway line brings me to my argument, which is: there is a serious lack of imagination, in most SF works, in producing the worlds they depict. By producing, I don’t mean setting up a Potemkin corporealistic terminus-world that is umbilically and clearly derived from our own—such is a hallmark of SF. The issue lies in the creation of believability by entertaining an interim history; if not fully formed, at least loosely sketched and hauntingly contoured, like shining a flashlight onto mist. (I’m reminded here of Thacker’s concept of the black illumination, an occulted unveiling that remains unnamable, peripheral, contingent, and largely unseen – revealed through persuasion rather than perception.) The works of Kim Stanley Robinson and the novel A Canticle for Liebowitz both perform this excellently, though arguments for their disqualification can be made due to the sprawling extensibility of both, which use epochal time to construct narratives.

Obviously most works of SF get a pass through either time or spatial distance. No one expects The Culture novels or Dune to offer a history with its novum in our present day (though in some ways, Dune does exactly that). Heinlein’s novels don’t need a history, because they obviously occupy a Fallout-style alternity of perpetual American Empire, and to a degree, a sort of cosmopolitanized flavor of white supremacy and shitty gender politics that can be seen as the obvious ouroborous-vomit of the post-war era. The important thing with most SF is that they don’t frame the window between our time and the time they depict—a distinction which places the SF firmly in a temporal bubble.

Neal Stephenson’s Seveneves sits at opposite sides of this type of bubble. First set in our current day, normalcy is interrupted when the moon is destroyed. The Kessler Syndrome-style fallout results in a ‘Hard Rain’ as the moon’s debris liquifies the Earth’s surface, killing all of humanity save those that fled into LEO in the ISS and an ark-swarm of habitats. The survivors of the survivors—seven of them, all women—land on the largest chunk of moon and rebuild civilization by birthing new races mitotically. These are, obviously, the Seveneves.

Title card from Neal Stephenson’s Seveneves
At this point the novel jumps 5,000 years.

5,000 years after the seven Eves used themselves as the genetic foundation for a new race, the resulting neo-humanity has fought back. Though constrained by the hard vacuum and limited resources, the population arising from the Eves has produced wonders, foremost being a continuous ring of habitats around the earth, the Eye (a roving satellite), and the nascent stages of a massive terreforming project in the wake of the Hard Rain’s subsiding.

But in this fertile new environment, Stephenson constantly looks backward, working up a secular hagiography of the new humans that is hopelessly dilated upon the actions of the Eves 5 millenia ago. The geopolitics of the day is entirely a reproduction on societal scales of the same rifts and allegiances that existed between the original 7. Visits to spaces around the ring include long passages tying them back to the actions that took place in our present day. To do the same now would be analogous to defining our modern lives by the actions of ancient Sumerians.

Seveneves, and other fictions, are engaging in Janus-worshipping SF that is not content to create a world, but must similarly ratify it by placing it in the present. This is not a praxis of world-building—a world is generated, must grow like a fungus. It is this which SF sometimes misses, and what to me would be most exciting. Showing point A and point B is not enough anymore. The long arc of history, the new understanding of the world as an autocatalytic, messy system of processes, creates new possibilities of an SF that nurtures itself, that teases itself hyperstitionally into existence. Within the vacuum of the temporal bubble—the lacuna between the present and the present-spore future—lies the possibility of true speculative fictions. With opposing termini, writing here would be like writing through a maze, albeit one hand-drawn by a drunk. There is a potential here for fictions that serve as connective tissues. Populate the rhizome.

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