Posts by Matthew Spencer

In Review: Y.T. by Alexi Nikitin

"At the heart of Y.T. is an obvious but nonetheless suitable message. The citizens of the former Soviet Union have been hustled."

“Play is older than culture, for culture, however inadequately defined, always presupposes human society, and animals have not waited for man to teach them playing.” This is how the Dutch historian Johan Huizinga begins Homo Ludens: A Study of the Play Element in Culture. Written in 1938, just prior to the Second World War, the book might have been wholly contretemps if the author hadn’t deftly considered how combat and politics are each shot through with elements of play and gamesmanship. Who are generals and politicians if not, at least in part, overgrown boys wagering the fate of nations? The stakes were outrageous and the rules inhumane, but then, as Huizinga put it, play doesn’t need humans, enlightened humans least of all.

The cruel aspects of play are made apparent in Y.T. a recent novel by the Ukrainian Alexi Nikitin, translated by Anne Marie Jackson and published this April by Melville House. The title is an initialism, shorthand for “your turn” a term used in a strategy game developed by bored students assigned to agricultural duty in the Ukrainian countryside. The action begins in 1984. Associations with George Orwell aside, the date is an unlucky one for the narrator Alexander Davidov and his four companions. The decrepitude of the Soviet system has become all too apparent for those living within it, but the reforms of Perestroika have yet to come. The students have gone to university to study radiophysics, but this is immaterial to their job helping peasants grow apples. As city kids, the students are wholly unsuited to the task. There is nothing to be done except play cards and dine on country cooking. Better entertainment is needed. Using algorithms learned in their university studies, they partition the Soviet Union into a set of fictional entities that vie with each other for military, economic, and political supremacy. READ MORE…

In Conversation with Chris and Ali Rodley: The Creators of the Magical Realism Bot

"A famous librarian discovers a painting that depicts every single owl in the world."

In his 1940 essay “Theses on the Philosophy of History” Walter Benjamin tells story of a chess playing automaton. Dressed as a Turk, with a turban and the obligatory hookah in its mouth, the machine would impress with feats of competitive ingenuity. Unbeknownst to the crowd, a dwarf was hidden within its workings. An excellent chess player, he guided the automaton’s hand by means of stings. Originally meant as a critique on materialist theories of history, Benjamin’s allegory has been extended to critique automatism in general. In this enlarged formulation, the internet, for instance, is not a self-directed entity with a fixed set of properties but rather an aggregate of people and institutions using computer networks to advance a divergent set of very human agendas. Beyoncé might periodically win it, but the internet is no more a sufficient reason for human phenomena than any other factor, or so the argument goes. No matter how sophisticated the automaton, the human is always in some sense at the controls.

But how would the allegory change if the Mechanical Turk wrote instead of played chess? This is not idle speculation. Last year, the Associated Press used automated processes to write quarterly earnings reports for 3,000 companies, roughly ten times the number produced by human counterparts previously. Automated writing is not limited utilitarian forms like business news and product descriptions. The results, however, are decidedly more mixed. NaNoGenMo, the programmer’s version of National Novel Writing Month, was started 2013 by the Portland, OR based web artist Darius Kazemi. The object of the project is to complete a 50,000 page book by the end of November, only it must be written with software rather than the human hand. The computer generated novels are, as their programmers freely admit, mostly unreadable. Sustained narrative remains a problem.

Automated writing of the creative variety becomes much more convincing on a small scale. One standout example is Magical Realism Bot, an automated text generating program on Twitter, developed by the brother and sister team of Ali and Chris Rodley. Magic Realism Bot generates a different 140 character story every two hours, using random combinations of the various elements that define the genre: academic characters, mythical creatures, philosophical disputations, etc. The output can be amusingly absurd, such as “A fortune teller turns over a tarot card with a Gummi bear on it. Your destiny is to become a psychiatrist,’ he says to you.” But it can also resemble the work of real authors, at least in summary. “A learned society of mathematicians meet once a year inside a ruined synagogue to decide the fate of life on earth,” reads more like the scene from an Umberto Eco novel than the instantiation of a simple computer program.

Magic Realist Bot points toward a complimentary relationship that can exist between the modernist experiment in literature of the 20th century and the digital culture of the 21st. Both modes of thing involve subjecting language to intense analysis, natural language or machine language, taking apart its most basic components in the search for new modes of representing reality. Identifiable people still remain at the controls of these writing automatons, working as programmers rather than puppeteers, but the speed and sophistication by which these automatons fulfil their commands represents a difference in kind from past experiments in replicating human culture. Perhaps a new allegory is needed to replace the Mechanical Turk. Magic Realism Bot might very well generate one.  

Ali and Chris talked to Asymptote about the technical basis for the Magic Realism Bot how that relates to how they engage with the practice of writing.


Matthew Spencer: Give us some background on yourselves. Specifically, I’m interested in how your efforts in social media, computer science and literature came to intersect.

Chris Rodley: I’ve wanted to be a writer since my early teens, and my literary heroes were the great experimental modernists like Woolf, Joyce, Brecht. Of course many contemporary writers of fiction and playwriting have turned away from this kind of bold, free-wheeling experimentation, maybe in part because where do you go after Finnegans Wake? This would sometimes frustrate me! READ MORE…

The Orbital Library: Interviewing Ken Liu

“All writers are writing science fiction in a certain sense in so far as they explore concepts of alienation and modernity.”

Ken Liu is a Chinese-born American writer whose body of translations and original fiction is helping shed light on the current boom of science fiction and fantasy writing in China to English-speaking audiences. A lawyer and programmer by profession, he made his publishing debut with “The Paper Menagerie,” a short story about a mail-order bride and her son coping with cultural alienation through the care of sentient origami animals. The story swept the science fiction and fantasy establishment, garnering the Hugo, Nebula, and World Fantasy Awards in a stroke. Many more stories and translations were to follow.

Liu first came to my attention through his translation of The Three-Body Problem, the first book in a trilogy by the bestselling author Cixin Liu, popularly regarded as the key figure in China’s science fiction community.

The novel is made up of two interwoven narratives, one set in near-future China (no concrete dates are given) and the other during the height of the Cultural Revolution. Ye Wenjie is an astrophysicist and engineer whose father is brutally murdered during an uprising of the Red Guards. Branded a reactionary because of her family ties, she is sent to  a rural labor camp. Her troubles are compounded when the authorities learn of her interest in the nascent environmental movement.


What We’re Reading in March

Experimental contemporary novelists, classic science fiction, and not-to-be-missed writings on art: Asymptote recommends!

Rosie Clarke (marketing manager): Last month I found that “torturous” reading need not mean “badly written.” I inadvertently spent February with books fixated on death, mourning, poverty, and disturbing desires. In anticipation of her new novel Gutshot, I raced through Amelia Gray’s AM/PM and Threats, in addition to a difficult digestion of Jane Unrue’s Love Hotel, and finally a more peaceful meander through Swiss-German proto-modernist Regina Ullmann’s The Country Road. Together, the intensity of these works had a simultaneously invigorating and exhausting effect.

Gray poses a rather exciting figure to me—of her own fragmentary and boldly inventive fiction, she commented in a recent interview with the New Yorker that “life is such a natural mix of horror and humor that it lends itself easily to the form.” AM/PM is a collection of interconnected vignettes: single page scenes and observations, made on relationships, loneliness, madness, all set in unsettling scenarios of ambiguous reality.

Threats extends Gray’s use of dark humor coupled with a troubling sense of dread. It takes you to a dark place, where loss and solitude manifest in ways almost too real to take. The novel begins with its protagonist, David, watching his wife bleed to death, then sitting with her body for days before intervention. His fragile mental state dissolves, and he loses all concept of time, with short chapters mimicking this to great effect. The titular threats are paper scraps inscribed with poetic, surreal warnings, which David tries to understand. I have never read a book that so effectively communicates the desolation and emotional destruction death can have on a person. This, interwoven with the mystery of his wife’s death and the anonymous notes, makes Threats bizarre and intoxicating.


A Message from Space

In his latest installment from The Orbital Library, Matthew Spencer tackles translation and alien communication

Since the beginning of the genre, science fiction writers have speculated on what it would be like to communicate with beings from another world. For the most part, these scenarios don’t depart much from how we humans communicate with each other. Both literal and literary devices are introduced to smooth over differences. Someone sets up a machine, usually called a universal translator, which seamlessly renders alien speech intelligible. A galactic lingua franca—some sort of space English—is another related convention.

These are efficiencies, meant to push along the plot or prevent awkward assumptions on the part of the reader, such as aliens speaking English or Hebrew or whatever language in which the story happens to be written. In the days when the genre consisted primarily of short fiction, such quick and dirty means were also necessary to shepherd the reader as quickly as possible into the adventure, without too much digression into the subject of linguistics.

Advances in machine translation, such as Skype’s new instantaneous voice-to-voice translation service, have borne out, at least in part, the speculations of the hack magazine writer. But universal translation hasn’t always seemed plausible. Writing in 1960, Kingsley Amis called it “blatant pseudoscience.” In his survey of science fiction, New Maps of Hell, he makes an apology for the reliance on UT as a plot device, believing that its use might stretch the credulity of the general reader to the breaking point. Scenarios of faster-than-light travel were much more feasible, Amis thought—and with good reason, writing as he did in a time when aerospace was the vanguard technology.


From the Orbital Library: Isle-to-Isle

Interviewing project collaborators Berny Tan and Sher Chew on the intersections of design, literature, and data visualization

Isle-to-Isle is a collaborative data visualization project by Sher Chew and Berny Tan. Each week, the two read 10 pages from Jules Verne’s classic “scientific romance,” The Mysterious Island, and seperately make a graph representing the book’s content. Their work is published on the project’s website, alongside the corresponding passage by Verne.

In the novel, a group of Americans, led by the railroad engineer Cyrus Harding, hijack a balloon to escape imprisonment by the South during the American Civil War. The balloon drifts to an uncharted island in the South Pacific, where the men create their own microcosm of 19th century civilization. A century and a half after its publication, The Mysterious Island continues to influence literature and popular culture, with numerous adaptations and spin-offs in print, movies, and television, including the computer game Myst.

Isle-to-Isle evolved out of a shared interest in design and a desire to explore different ways reading and interpreting text. In that sense, the project’s inception resembled Verne’s fictive voyage into unknown territory. Neither Sher Chew nor Berny Tan had read the book before. The novel was chosen at random, based on its length and conventional narrative structure. Other parallels emerged. The two designers moved from Singapore to that other insular powerhouse of commerce, Manhattan. Isles to isles—the homophonic word pair also reflected the search for suitable material. The Mysterious Island was discovered, so to speak, by browsing New York’s famous Strand bookstore, the name itself being another name for level, sandy shore.

As of this writing, Isle-to-Isle is halfway finished. I corresponded with Sher Chew and Berny Tan to find out more about the project and get their take on recent developments in the technology of reading, writing, and designing. 


From the Orbital Library: “Another Man’s City” by Ch’oe In-ho

“As he progresses on his quest, K comes to realize that a vast intelligence, inhuman but capable of taking human form, is guiding events.”

God often plays an outsized role in science fiction, if only by not showing up. In H. G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds, for example, the narrator encounters a deranged curate—that’s an assistant to an Anglican priest—in the turmoil following a Martian invasion. The two hide in a ruined house, where the holy man rants on how the extraterrestrials are God’s punishment for a fallen world. The narrator must incapacitate him with a shovel to prevent the enemy from detecting them. Later, as the Martians fall prey to a virus benign to humanity, the irony becomes clear: Matter, not spirit, drives the universe.

But the genre can’t quite leave Christianity, and many SF writers have speculated in ways much more commodious to the religion. In November 1974, Philip K. Dick received a mystical vision that would later become a legendary episode in the history of the genre. At home, recovering from an operation on an impacted wisdom tooth, he received a visit from a strange and beautiful woman wearing an ichthys, the Christian symbol of the fish, as a gold pendant on her neck. Dick then described a “pink laser” shooting from the symbol directly into his mind and imbuing him with divine logos. This included the author catching a glimpse into a parallel life as Timothy, a persecuted Christian living in 1st-century Rome. The vision set off a torrent of creative activity, which included Dick’s later novels VALIS, The Divine Invasion, Radio Free Albemuth, as well as an 8,000-page journal of philosophical speculations, selections of which were published in 2011 as The Exegesis of Philip K. Dick.


From the Orbital Library: “Definitely Maybe”

Russian science fiction goes claustrophobic in this work by the Strugatsky brothers—a review

There’s something disconcertingly contemporary about Definitely Maybe, a novella by the masters of Russian science fiction, brothers Arkady and Boris Strugatsky. The book was first published in the Soviet Union in 1974 and has every appearance of taking place in that world. Earlier this year, Melville House brought out the first unexpurgated English translation, a task impossible before the dissolution of the Marxist-Leninist state in 1991. This may seem like ancient history to those born into a world of ubiquitous, instantaneous digital communication. But within this slim volume, there are hints of the frustrated ambitions and pervasive distraction that define our present.

Dmitri Malianov, an astrophysicist, is on the cusp of a discovery, one that in his estimation might very well bring him a Nobel Prize. His wife and child are away, visiting family in Odessa. With nobody but his pet cat to take care of, Malianov has the time and freedom to make a breakthrough. But soon come anonymous deliveries of expensive food and alcohol. Then friends and colleagues start calling him out of the blue, first by telephone and then in person, nervously asking questions about the progress he’s made. A woman unexpectedly shows up at Malianov’s door, a school friend of his wife, beautiful enough to drive the scientist to distraction. Events are conspiring to keep him from his discovery. READ MORE…

From the Orbital Library: Gert Jonke’s “Awakening to the Great Sleep War”

"In the morning, the walls blow their noses, hanging their bleary eyed bedding out of the windows."

In the science fiction of movies and television, the future looks more or less uniform. Digital technology is (somehow) even more omnipresent than it is today. A continuous mosaic of audio and video spills across every available surface. A glass skyline stretches toward the horizon with sleek automobiles gliding past the frame. If human culture has existed, say, for more than a few decades, the evidence of that is not visible.

This kind of scenario is a reflection of contemporary reality, of course. Science fiction has traditionally dressed up the future in contemporary styles. And this presentism seems justified today. In our swiftly urbanizing world, the built environment often appears as if it had emerged overnight, without precedent. The megalopolises of Asia and Latin America, with their endless high-rise apartment blocks and elevated thoroughfares, seem to presage something universal for humankind, at least while we can keep industrial civilization going.

But there is another kind of future city, one defined by the accretion of time, where reality is defined by the weight of history rather than its absence. The late Austrian polymath Gert Jonke made a career evoking such places. His complex, often bizarre novels explore how the past continually impinges on the present, particularly in Awakening to the Great Sleep War, first published in 1982 and brought to English last year by Dalkey Archive Press.