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UFOpunk: Mac Tonnies' Strange Blue WorldAuthor: Simon Sellars • Jul 3rd, 2007 •
Mac Tonnies is a Kansas-based writer of post-cyberpunk science fiction (recently published by the redoubtable Rudy Rucker). He’s also the author of the book After the Martian Apocalypse, a speculative search for life on the Red Planet, as well as the originator of a ‘cryptoterrestrial’ philosophy that ambitiously seeks to explain (with ‘balanced skepticism’) a phenomenon — UFOs — that’s been around at least as long as religion. He’s also the owner/operator of Posthuman Blues, an irreverent yet entirely serious blog examining, how shall we put it, ‘weird science’, imprinted with endorsements from Bruce Sterling and John Shirley.
A Ballardian philosophy ties it all together. Mac’s existential probing into the nature of the interface between man and machine, an analysis of the posthumanism which we have blundered into (the ‘blues’ part, it seems, derives from the fact that we’re not quite there yet), is based on respect for the work of J.G. Ballard.
It’s one of the more provocative excavations of a meme that remains largely unexplored in comparison to the more well-trodden trails in Ballard’s strange fictional jungle.
So, Mac, exactly how does a cryptoterrestrial ufologist pursuing transcendence of the flesh become interested in Ballard?
I guess my pat answer on this one is that I’ve never been comfortable with the veneer we’re asked to accept as ‘real’ because, ultimately, it’s a very shallow façade. So I’m open to subversion and transgression, whether literary, esoteric or in between. Ballard’s books nail that interzone between reality — our world of endless parking lots and fast cars — and the more primal, mythic substrate just underneath. I think Ballard, like William Gibson, is a literary shaman of our time. I’m just waiting to meet a character like Vaughan, a death angel of the cul-de-sacs and strip-malls who’s suffered some terminal breach.
Can you single out the Ballards that have had the greatest impact on you?
The short story ‘The Voices of Time’ is one of my favourites. It should be mandatory reading for anyone who professes to live in the 21st century. Ballard has the ability to take mundane scenery and make it seem prescient; he’s consciously reinvented the touchstones of the collective unconscious. When I encountered that for the first time I immediately knew I wanted more. ‘The Voices of Time’ was a sort of primer for me, a guidebook.
LEFT: Concrete Island (artist: Richard Clifton-Dey; Panther, London, 1976).
RIGHT: High-Rise (artist: Chris Foss; Panther, London, 1977).
Everything in Memories of the Space Age is a winner. Crash, of course, is inimitable. I really like High-Rise and Concrete Island, but I think I like The Day of Creation and The Unlimited Dream Company even more. Ballard writes with a surgical eye for detail that’s ideal for addressing some of his narrative concerns, but it works dangerously well when he’s at his most surreal.
You once blogged about how Bruce Sterling rejected some of your fiction, calling you ‘Mr Ballard’. Obviously Ballard is, or was, a big influence on your work.
I went through a phase in which I essentially attempted to channel Ballard’s style. I wrote an over-the-top story about machine-like beings that inhabit the margins of human perception. And another one that takes place in a shopping mall after a viral holocaust. Both were very Ballardian — and those are just the most explicit examples. I like to think I’ve been able to take what I needed, stylistically, from Ballard and moved on, but he’s a hard influence to completely avoid. I’m reading Our Ecstatic Days by Steve Erickson right now; it’s a book filled with echoes from Ballard’s apocalyptic fiction, a retelling of The Day of Creation in some ways.
It’s interesting to hear you champion Creation and Dream Company, as both are virtually ignored in the Ballard canon. I guess they’re hard to categorise, especially if you’re coming to him from Crash and his more machinic texts. Instead, there’s a lush beauty at work, a more phantasmagorical realm.
You’re absolutely right about Dream Company and Creation being overlooked; it’s a shame, as they’re actually rather pivotal. For instance, the presence of cameras is prevalent in both, suggesting that even Ballard’s phantasmagorical fiction shares the preoccupation with ubiquitous technology found in Crash and High-Rise.
:: Cover detail from The Unlimited Dream Company (artist: Bill Botton; Jonathan Cape, London, 1979).
Here in the States I have yet to find The Unlimited Dream Company in bookstores and the copy I checked out from a local library has since disappeared. Truthfully, I don’t remember the plot so much as the motifs, which is exactly the sort of relationship I have with my own dreams. So I think the book’s impact was largely subconscious, as Ballard probably intended. And you could argue that it invites readers to create the future anew by exploiting the mythical syntax of the 20th Century.
We tend to think of people of the future as inordinately pragmatic. We’re weaned on dystopian visions like THX 1138 and fear that we’ll lose our capacity to dream as we inexorably merge with our technology. But Dream Company challenges that idea by introducing a new psychic vocabulary that we might do well to emulate. The book’s filled with images of flight that are both transcendent and mechanical. It’s a nexus of memes culled from the squalor of the 20th century: recording gear, airplanes, the central role of science. But it doesn’t diminish our capacity for wonder so much as reframe it for a new era. A new species will still dream, but the bedrock of our collective unconscious is experiencing nothing less than a seismic shift. The Unlimited Dream Company anticipates this admirably, just as Arthur C. Clarke’s books prophecy our future as a multi-planet species.
You once wrote, ‘Ballard attacks our uneasy truce with the artificial…[plumbing] the apocalyptic interface between desire and environment’.
Ballard’s stories are as much about the worlds inside our minds as the worlds produced by our minds; he’s an inversion of typical gadget-oriented science fiction. He’s able to diagnose the human condition by examining what we’ve created. So while he writes about technology, his main concern is our collective psyche. And the portrait he paints is both grim and exhilarating, as in Crash, which depicts humans as eminently sensual but confined by technological fetishes. At first glance, Crash seems to be about a tiny subculture of people enamoured of car crashes, but the implication is that we’re all obsessed by technology. For Ballard, car crashes are a metaphor with the potential to shock us out of our stupor and see the millennial landscape from the perspective of clinical onlookers. Very few writers even attempt this, let alone succeed. William Burroughs’ Naked Lunch is an obvious exception to the rule.
Is this where Ballard slots into your understanding of posthumanism?
Ballard has written some of the key transhumanist texts and they’re incredibly valuable because he never consciously allied himself with any particular futurist ideology. Crash is a frightening look at the kind of posthuman future we don’t want. The people in Crash have embraced the posthuman notion that we’re inseparable from our machines. They’re effectively cyborgs, just without the cool Gibsonian neural interfaces. Ballard leaves it to the reader to decide whether they represent an improvement; he simply reports.
Stelarc: not this…
Yes — the posthumanism in Ballard’s work is subtle, insidious. Instead of presenting, say, a Stelarc figure with a robot arm and a third bionic ear, he paints an everyday posthumanism, where ordinary people have merged with technology without really knowing it. One of Ballard’s major achievements is to identify and fully develop the idea that a person living in a hi-tech gated community is as much posthuman as your average sci-fi cyborg. As he has said, ‘You switch on your triple security locks and your hidden cameras and you’re virtually switching off the world. But, in a sense, you’re also switching off the central nervous system that evolution provides us with.’
Exactly. It’s a shame the more politically strident transhumanists don’t seem to have caught on to him. Or maybe that’s a good thing. I’m bothered by the quasi-religious conviction with which many transhumanists have addressed issues like the Singularity. Is there a case to me made for an all-encompassing technorgasm sometime in the mid-21st century? Certainly. But we don’t know this. It’s not an issue to approach if you’re prone to blind faith or seek to define the human predicament according to what seems like solid temporal footing. When transhumanism is heavily politicised it becomes dogmatic, an echo of the very dystopian scenarios it seeks to remedy.
LEFT: …but this: Cronenberg’s Crash.
You say Crash portrays a ‘frightening posthuman future’. But after all the time I’ve spent with it I’m still not sure where I stand with it. I used to believe for a long time, for example, that it was actually a ‘positive mythology’ — a necessary evolutionary mutation.
The characters have taken an evolutionary step but lost something along the way. They’re analogous to the ‘Greys’ of UFO mythology: anaemic caricatures, needy and emotionally vacant. I think it’s imperative we learn how to take the next step in self-directed evolution while retaining some sense of individuality because that’s the sort of resource a computer-dominated leisure society is liable to relish. I foresee posthumans governed by insatiable curiosity. Having transcended their environment, they’re going to have the time and resources to undertake a comprehensive intellectual investigation of their heritage. Like archaeologists, they’ll want to interrogate their past.
You’ve referred to transhumanism a few times — is this a sexier term for posthumanism?
Transhumanism seeks to modify and improve the human condition through technology. It’s a transitionary stage between ‘human’ and ‘posthuman’, the latter denoting a stage beyond human. Of course, it’s arguable that we’ve always been transhumans to some degree. The mere act of creating something — be it a simple tool or something more in keeping with industrial society — can be meaningfully viewed as an effort to enhance or augment the human condition. Stanley Kubrick captured the essence of this perfectly in 2001′s ‘Dawn of Man’ sequence. So while transhumanism isn’t new, it’s recently become much more intimate, with plans to tweak our very genome and replace our organs with synthetic counterparts that, for the first time, are actually better than the originals. We’re suddenly feeling transhumanism in a fundamentally new way as we invent better prostheses that blur the already-tenuous boundary between ‘self’ and ‘environment’.
Early transhumanism: Kubrick’s Dawn of Man.
We became transhuman sometime last century, and I’m interested in what we do in the meantime, while retaining human traits and gravitating toward newfound posthuman abilities. We’re going to have to endure a great deal of psychological friction. We’ve blundered into an existential interzone of instantaneous wireless communication, blogs, Mars probes, big-box stores, freak weather, artificial life, and high-tech warfare. Whatever emerges from this will be something significantly new, maybe even ‘postsingular’. Ultimately, I wonder if we really want free will. Is it worth the effort? Considering how accustomed we’ve become to a numbed, automated existence, the phenomenon of consciousness could be on the brink of fading out or becoming vestigial. The science-fiction writer Peter Watts, in Blindsight, shows us how evolution might select for something for which the very concept of ‘I’ is literally unimaginable.
I’m personally interested in transhumanism because the human species won’t survive unless we take it seriously. A species that stubbornly refuses mutation won’t last long.
Are there any current signs pointing towards this evolutionary mutation? Or is the situation hopeless?
We either evolve or we die off. Right now the overwhelming trend is toward smarter, smaller machines and increased understanding of our genetic source code. But that’s not to say that trend will continue indefinitely. A climate catastrophe, for example, could easily derail Kurzweilian evolution.
Tell me about extropianism.
The Extropians were a more formalized transhumanist movement that flourished in the 1990s and went extinct in the early 21st century. They were very good at marketing the idea and developing the lexicon that continues to preoccupy transhuman thought. I used to consider myself an extropian with a lower-case ‘e,’ as I’m generally wary of -isms. Even -isms I sympathise with. Especially the -isms I sympathise with.
Thanks. You know, I’m not fully up to speed. The last time I deeply engaged with posthumanist theory, Donna Haraway’s cyborg manifesto was the key text and cyberpunk the key art form. Obviously things have moved on from then.
The latest thing is the ‘Singularity’ and the general expectation that we’re in for a huge and relatively sudden technological change in approximately 30 years because of breakthroughs in genetics and computation. I find a lot of ‘Singularitarian’ arguments naively optimistic — sort of like extrapolating flying cars from the 1950s state of the art — but I’m willing to play along because it’s fun to see where that might lead.
But Haraway’s work is probably more relevant than ever, with or without the Singularity. Humans have always craved mutation, and it will take a lot more than a single failed techno-prophecy to put the brakes on.
The writer Andres Vaccari has been scathing of the transhumanist and extropian movements. He writes, ‘There is a most crucial question absent from this wet utopian dream: What for? Why do you want to live forever? So you can watch more TV? Read more crappy science fiction? Find yourself? Be more productive in the office? Improve your social skills?’
Any thoughts on that?
Vaccari seems unable or unwilling to look the future in the eye. His argument is the temporal extension of ‘Who cares if we discover extraterrestrials?’ Most of us can’t get past the idea that the alien is merely a skewed version of the familiar. I predict the future will be very alien.
If the Singularity crowd if right — and I have little doubt they’re right about at least some of the implications of exponential technological progress — then the art of prediction, always difficult, becomes effectively impossible. Technology will have come into its own, perhaps even achieving a kind of sentience. Given that sort of milieu, who speaks for humanity? A human-built AI, or an AI built by another AI, will be an effectively alien form of intelligence, every bit as weird and unaccountable as an extraterrestrial. And if we decide to persist in anything like our present form, we’ll necessarily cede some of our autonomy to machines, who might have some fascinating agendas in store. For the very first time, we’ll be sharing the planet with a technologically robust nonhuman intelligence.
Unless, of course, I’m right about living geographically shoulder-to-shoulder with cryptoterrestrials.
Well, you might well be, given that your work, from what I gather, shares similarities with one of the more forceful and convincing ufologists, Jacques Vallee. A fair assessment?
LEFT: Jacques Vallee.
I’m somewhere in the Vallee camp in the sense that I don’t think we’re dealing with anything as simple as ‘mere’ extraterrestrials in cool spaceships, although that very well might be part of the mystery. I suspect the human species is interfacing with something much more secretive and considerably more alien than what we’re conditioned to expect. I actually waffle quite a bit when it comes to UFOs. On one hand I’m convinced we’re dealing with an authentic unknown, but I’m open to different ideas about its origin. Are we seeing some kind of ‘reified metaphor’? Actual ETs? Tulpas?
Lately I’ve been developing what I call the ‘Cryptoterrestrial Hypothesis’, which attempts to dispense with the extraterrestrial angle altogether. If you take a long look at the phenomenon’s complexity and psychosocial impact, it’s tempting to speculate that we’re interacting with an intelligence native to this planet. If so, where are they hiding? What are they up to, and why do they show themselves to us in the most baffling manner possible? It’s plausible we’re the victims of a long-term psychological engineering campaign designed to keep us in check lest we discover we have neighbours.
If I’m right — and I don’t pretend for a moment that I am — then maybe the idea’s testable. We should be able to use existing technology to monitor anomalous activity in our airspace and oceans. If the ‘cryptoterrestrials’ are humanoid, as they seem to be, it’s likely we share a common ancestor, so perhaps a careful look at the human genome is in order. Paranoid? Certainly. But I don’t think the idea is any more outlandish than the phenomenon itself, which has proven quite durable and tenacious over the last 60 years — and that merely encompasses the so-called ‘modern’ UFO phenomenon. I think it’s likely that some, if not many, UFOs are deliberate diversions to make us think we might be dealing with space-faring visitors: in effect, special effects displays enacted for the benefit of strategically selected witnesses.
Disappointingly, I’ve never had any striking paranormal experiences. I think I became fascinated with UFOs and related subjects when I realized just how portentous the subject could be, how absolutely devastating it could prove if validated. Ufology is a rich psychosocial breeding ground, and it’s always interesting to watch the latest memes worm their way into the mainstream. The MJ-12 mythos, for example, is now positively ancient. Everyone ‘knows’ that the government is hiding alien bodies and that the Roswell incident was the crash of an alien ship. Everyone’s familiar with black helicopters and abductions and malevolent alien/government treaties. Collectively, we’re waiting for the sequel to all of this and hoping it has better special effects and bigger explosions.
Just the simple fact that so many people believe, or want to believe — regardless of whether the phenomenon is ‘real’ or not — surely demands it be taken seriously as a socio-cultural, investigative, psychological phenomenon.
While I’m convinced UFO encounters have a basis in the material world, I think the ‘psychic’ aspect that accompanies many experiences has been marginalized for fear of contaminating the much sexier ‘aliens from space’ meme. We’re still wrestling with the very definition of consciousness, all the while naively assuming that nonhuman intelligence will abide by the same behaviours of Apollo astronauts. Until we shed that sort of dogmatic approach we have little or no chance of making sense of the UFO experience. The state of ufology being what it is, I think it’s probable the nature of the UFO/contact experience will be discovered by researchers outside ufology altogether.
Britain’s premier UFO group, BUFORA, recently announced that they were virtually shutting up shop; they say ‘the halcyon days of ufology are over’, that there’s ‘a lack of material’ these days. But that seems to fly in the face of the work that researchers such as yourself and Nick Redfern are conducting.
BUFORA’s demise is due less to a lack of UFO activity than intellectual stagnation. Researchers have succumbed to the idea that ‘real’ UFOs must necessarily be extraterrestrial craft, and when that belief fails to be validated it’s all-too-tempting to want to stop looking. But the phenomenon is far richer than lights in the sky. As Vallee has made clear, we’re dealing with something of profound psychological importance. As such, the search for UFOs neglects other avenues for research such as ‘anomalous cognition’ and DMT studies. Investigators like Redfern and Greg Bishop seem to understand this; they bring a much-needed ‘punk’ mentality to UFO research.
Call it ‘ufopunk’.
What’s next for you?
Possibly some television writing. I’m also conceptualising a cyberpunk stage-play for a Canadian theatre company; it will be interesting to see where that goes. In late October or early November I’ll be in Halifax, Nova Scotia delivering a presentation on the cryptoterrestrial idea and taking part in a ‘para-science’ DVD project for Paul Kimball’s Redstar Films, which should be incredibly fun. And I’ve got a reading list that’s long since escaped the bounds of Earth’s atmosphere. I’m really eager to read William Gibson’s Spook Country, among others.
But the future is such an inherently strange place that it’s difficult to predict much farther with any hope of accuracy — and that’s not a bad thing.
..:: MORE INFO
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