Red Reader #2 : Guess What's Coming To Market?
After all, counsel is less an answer to a question than a proposal concerning the continuation of an unfolding story.
To seek this counsel one would first have to be able to tell the story itself. -Walter Benjamin
Guess What's Coming to Market ?
Product Placement in The Sovereignties of Invention
I can't remember how I first chanced across The Sovereignties of Invention, even though it was less than three months ago that this happened. I must have made my way to the Red Lemonade site and started sifting through its pages, but the precise path leading up to this collection of stories is now perfectly obscure.
Such workaday neglect is entirely natural, of course, and serves to make the online world navigable. Without it there would be no closing in on sites of genuine interest, nor any chance of retaining what I know of them. And so my attention span operates in a Darwinian flurry, making its selections on the fly, flashing past the digital way stations in order to make good progress and barrel through all those incidental gigabytes. But while I recognise that this same flightiness is necessary, there's still something unsettling about the scope of this neglect, and the speed at which I collapse whole pathways behind me. In its way, it makes for a mode of transportation which echoes Gothic horror stories and tales of lost weekends: replete with blackouts, abrupt shifts in perception, and hazy recollections of time ill-spent.
It seems fitting that I should start out by speaking of such things in light of Matthew Battles's own literary preoccupations. And it feels equally legitimate to reference my sense of disquiet, given that there are a whole host of warning signs in The Sovereignties of Invention – chemical, digital, temporal, arboreal – making themselves known after the fact, for want of closer inspection. This lack of scrutiny, in the context of these fictions, is entirely credible and looks all-too-familiar. There is also ample evidence here of another modern tendency: to consider entropy as less a law of nature, despite the overwhelming evidence, and more of a dubious shibboleth to be cast aside at will. This skewed sense of human potential is most acutely rendered in three of the stories – The Sovereignties of Invention, The Gnomon, and Time Capsules – all of which optimise their sense of foreboding by taking place in the very near future.
In the title story we encounter a tale of wish-fulfilment, with a search engine taking up the slack and standing in for the accommodating genie, and the object of desire bought and paid for and then FedExed to the home (although the resulting Beta mishaps are anything but prosaic). The desire itself, meanwhile, turns out to be another product of the age: to refashion time as a leisurely pursuit.
On receipt of this strange device, the provenance of it – as with its operability – proves a mere distraction to the narrator. It's quite sufficient for him that the little black box has been accredited by the latest “buzz”. This laissez-faire attitude on the part of the consumer is nicely conveyed:
Instructions were printed in a confusion of languages and scripts on an intricately-folded sheet of onionskin; he tossed it on the table. He knew from the buzz on the tech blogs how the thing worked (or at any rate how it was to be worked; its inner workings, its clusterfuck of byzantine intellectual property and nondisclosure agreements and blackboxed kluges—like the evolved plumbing of the brain itself—were all but irrelevant).
Instead it's left to trial and error to close in on the empirical truth: that the technology at hand is able to apprehend consciousness in the minutest of details. What we have here, in effect, is Zeno's Arrow as phenomenal thrill-ride, with the narrator strapped in for the duration, beholden to the scenery, lost amongst 'the whole perceptual libraries of triggers and reaction-states and responses'. No perception, however minor, is exempt from this cataloguing; and taken together they constitute a sensory pointillism, building up a portrait of exquisite self-involvement from which the subject cannot look away. Under such conditions, even the memory of a cough is worthy of intense consideration, while the recollection of perspiring gets refashioned as a tone-poem.
A trickle of moisture, conducted along the surface tension of a saline layer of water mere molecules deep, made its way from follicle to follicle down the hollow of his back. As it flowed downward it left a trail of water behind, of which he could detect the minutest variations in salinity and specific gravity as the individual water molecules gained the energy for evaporative liftoff.
And so an afternoon, in retrospect, becomes the project of a lifetime.
All of which begs the wider question – in light of ongoing developments – of what will happen when our effective capabilities become strikingly at odds with our lower brains? (And, on a more prosaic note, how do you go about seeking a refund when you've become an ecstatic basket-case?) Here, as elsewhere in the collection, one can easily imagine this work being ransacked by futurologists – in search of actionable ideas – as there is plenty to plunder.
In The Gnomon we once again encounter “buzz”as the prime mover, cold-calling on the multitude, as evidenced by the opening line.
Inside the conference hall, it was all buzz and business.
Only this time the mystique of the marketplace is so pronounced that delegates at the conference can't decide what The Gnomon does, or even what this strange cube signifies other than its own totemic allure.
Throughout this story, the spirit of Lovecraft is afoot, although it's tellingly updated (with less tentacles and more plug-ins). The set-up here is The Elder Ones As Start-Up Venture, with Arkham (and the Fordism of menace) replaced by Silicon Valley (and the customisation of dread). A situation in which the chilling, geometrical absurdities of an alien mindset are replaced by the intuitive flair of the latest 3D printer. As a consequence, the prevailing anxiety is not focused on what lies beneath the depths, or beyond the reaches of our solar system, but rather what the hell is in the pipe-works as a consequence of applied R&D?
The truth is out there already, up in the cloud.
In the story Time Capsules, we enter the realm of future shock in its purest form. And whereas the title story concerns itself with the intensification of a single afternoon, here it is the moment's ceaseless reiteration which leads to a curtailment of actual possibility. As elsewhere in the collection, Borges is a discernible influence in the way these spatio-temporal ramifications are followed through to that point where the protagonist starts to run out of spool. Similarly, what Matthew's writing does is to make a virtue of succinctness: the foundational premise that far from seeking to mirror those endless proliferations laid out in the narrative, the short story is best deployed in countering its own prolix conceits.
What gives these fictions added poignancy is that they are posited in an era when such questions are either being asked of us already, or will be before we know it. And how to respond when these conceits move from imaginary premise to actual possibility? More disruptive yet, what happens once the possibilities become common-places? And how can we retain our sense of wonder under such duress? This book is shot through with these questions.
And still we're only tearing at the late edges of the opening gambit.
Neil Fraser Addison was born on Merseyside in 1970. His most recent poetry chapbook, Apocapulco, was short-listed for the 2011 Michael Marks Award. After years spent in Berlin and Rio De Janeiro, he is currently back on native soil. A novel, The Contenders, is available from his own publishing wing, go-Subsist.