Feminist science fiction criticism emerged in the 1970s through the work of critics and fans exploring contributions to science fiction that reimagine and reconceptualise gender, sexuality and the body. Advocates of feminist science fiction have often sought to secure the legitimacy of these contributions to the genre by providing an account of their literary heritage, namely, their descent from Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818).
Over time, feminist science fiction history-telling has gradually abandoned some of the detail and nuance of studies such as Pamela Sargent’s 1975 anthology introduction Women of Wonder. Instead such histories tend to favour generic shifts across decades, often repeating common narratives. By analysing how critics tell the history of feminist science fiction, I argue that a dominant story emerges. This origin story aligns the genre with a branch of late twentieth century feminism that carries uncomfortable echoes of the transphobia peddled by radical feminists such as Janice Raymond and Mary Daly.
Understanding the history of feminist science fiction is a useful project, which can give us an appreciation of undervalued authors or the development of key science fiction ideas. However, this particular narrative of the genre’s beginnings is problematic for a contemporary feminist politics engaging with transgender rights and reproductive justice.
Frankenstein versus Fantasy
Again and again, feminist science fiction critics have cited Frankenstein as the very first science fiction novel, with critics such as Debra Benita Shaw (2000), Robin Roberts (1993), and Jane Donawerth (1997) even referencing the novel in the titles of their works.[i] Texts produced earlier than Frankenstein that might be classified as science fiction – such as Lucian of Samosata’s A True History (1 AD), or Margaret Cavendish’s The Blazing World (1666) – are excluded as ‘ur-science fiction, fantastical rather than science fictional’.[ii] But this presumes a consensus on the boundary between science fiction and fantasy.
Such attempts to exclude other texts contending for the title of generic progenitor echo similar problematic moves by male critics to classify female-authored science fiction as fantasy because of a text’s ambiguity or use of magical realism.[iii] The arguments for the exclusion of works before Frankenstein are not elaborated, but instead the texts are simply dismissed, tarnished by the label ‘fantasy’.
We should remember that Shelley’s novel itself emerges out of the gothic literary tradition, inspired by ghost stories and the supernatural as much as by recent scientific experiments in galvanism.[iv] The novel’s eponymous protagonist Victor Frankenstein pursues an alternative, disparaged area of science, namely, the resurrection of the dead, in a way that critics such as Robin Roberts have linked to magic and witchcraft.[v]
Where science fiction is and is not allowed to blur genres thus appears inconsistent. The significance of the generic gerrymandering of science fiction for women and non-white science fiction writers demands further attention. Women writers may be dismissed for focussing on social rather than so-called ‘hard’ science. Writers of colour drawing on non-Western myth and folklore may find themselves excluded from the genre for handling magic or religion in their work.
Drawing specific boundaries around science fiction to position Frankenstein as the genre’s source also seems to neglect the historical specificity of the term ‘science fiction’, coined in 1929 by Hugo Gernsback, editor of the first science fiction magazine. Furthermore, this ignores the continuing debates around differences in terminology such as ‘scientific romance’, ‘speculative fiction’, and more recently ‘slipstream fiction’ and ‘feminist fabulation’.[vi] This matters because of the power dynamics behind generic categorisation: refusing the label can be read as a snub of ‘genre fiction’, while exclusion from the label has financial and social implications for the author.[vii]
The Gendering of Science Fiction
The tale of Frankenstein as science fiction’s first novel finds its earliest expression in Brian Aldiss’s Billion Year Spree (1973), a lengthy study of science fiction’s history.[viii] Eventually, Aldiss’s name stops appearing in citations though: critics begin describing Frankenstein’s status as simply ‘generally accepted’, or even ‘conventional’.[ix] The mythology of science fiction’s birth out of the mind of the daughter of renowned feminist Mary Wollstonecraft is gradually presented as common knowledge, an almost-but-not-quite indisputable fact.
As that last sentence might suggest, references to Frankenstein implicate Shelley’s work in a project of generic reproduction, sometimes even referring to this text as the mother or grandmother of the genre.[x] The significance of this is the implicit gendering of science fiction: through these descriptions, science fiction is endowed with woman’s power of reproduction, rather than a male patrilineage. The vocabulary of motherhood presents feminism, women and reproduction as central concerns of the genre from its outset, despite the focus on male characters in Shelley’s novel.[xi]
I don’t dispute that science fiction has proved a rich genre for creative experimentation with feminist ideas. However, we need to consider the implications of this generic gendering for future feminist study.
On the one hand, the claiming of Frankenstein as the origin of science fiction generates a sense of women – and especially feminists – belonging in the genre. In the 1970s and 1980s, this was an important move to secure the birth right of feminist science fiction authors and readers. During this period, female fans of science fiction broke new ground. Women authors won science fiction awards as they had never done before, while their readership fought for panels on women and science fiction at conventions and conferences.[xii]
On the other hand, this gendering of science fiction strengthens one particular reading of Shelley’s novel: as a prescient criticism of the masculine delusions of godlike power found in science. By positioning the novel as maternal, and a critique of masculinist science as its key thematic concern, this historically specific feminist critique appears as the heart of all science fiction. As I outline next, this dichotomy of reproductive/female and productive/male places feminist science fiction in uncomfortable alliance with transphobic feminist voices.
Frankenstein’s Monstrous Reproduction
The recognition awarded Frankenstein by feminist science fiction critics is often accompanied by readings of the text as a critique of science, technology and progress. As Anne Cranny-Francis writes:
Victor Frankenstein’s fault is not simply the pursuit of forbidden knowledge, but his failure to consider the consequences of his research, the dilemma faced by scientists in many areas of research today (for example nuclear technology, genetic manipulation, in vitro fertilization).[xiii]
Cranny-Francis connects Frankenstein’s thematic concerns to contemporary debates within feminism regarding the role of science in society, particularly with respect to the environment, the body and reproductive justice.
Beyond this criticism of the sciences’ myopic response to wider ethical and social consequences of research, feminist critics deploy readings of Frankenstein to explore ideas of male appropriation. These critics claim Shelley’s novel as a ‘critique of science as a form of male mastery’, ‘expos[ing] hierarchies of dominance embedded in the practice of science’.[xiv] Science fiction is shown to have a foundation in challenging not only the male dominance of literature – Mary Shelley being one of few women writers in her day – but also of science.
In one strand of feminist science fiction criticism claiming Frankenstein as science fiction’s mother, Shelley’s novel features as exemplary of the history of science fiction. According to Cranny-Francis:
In making his creature Frankenstein not only usurps the place of God, he also usurps the role of woman. Frankenstein’s creature therefore signifies the result of the masculinist attempt to appropriate and exploit this biological capability of women, which in a patriarchal society is their defining, and limiting, characteristic.[xv]
In this reading of the novel, Shelley launches a scathing attack on scientific production as the expression of male envy of women’s reproductive power. Likewise, Susan Gubar describes Frankenstein as a ‘satanic scientist who usurps female powers of procreation’.[xvi]
Frankenstein’s spawning of a new genre thus also bolsters a critical feminist position on reproduction and production. Just as Victor Frankenstein is seen to misappropriate the supposedly female reproductive role, so too are subsequent male science fiction writers seen to adopt and dominate the field of science fiction, failing to pay due respect to their maternal ancestry.
The language of ‘appropriation’ and ‘usurpation’ that these critics use echoes the transphobia peddled by radical feminists such as Robin Morgan, Janice Raymond and Mary Daly. Raymond (1979) infamously declared ‘all transsexuals rape women’s bodies by reducing the real female form to an artefact, appropriating this body for themselves’, while Daly (1978) described transsexualism as an example of the ‘Frankenstein Phenomenon’, an attempt by the male-dominated medical establishment to replace ‘real’ women with surgically produced Stepford Wives (Ira Levin, 1972).[xvii]
This reading of Frankenstein also consolidates the view of science as an inherently masculine realm, a false and shallow substitute for pregnancy and birth. As Sargent points out, this has problematic consequences for women’s engagement in science, technology and science fiction.[xviii] While Cranny-Francis suggests that it is patriarchy that reduces women to their procreative capacity, the language of appropriation in this context gives the impression of something women ought to feel has been wrongly stolen from them.
These feminist critics present women as inherently reproductive, and men as merely productive. In the current context of trans and non-trans women’s infertility, reproductive technologies such as IVF, trans men’s pregnancies, as well as intersex and non-binary identifications, this dichotomy poses difficulties for contemporary trans-inclusive feminism.
Our understandings of the relationship between reproduction and production may be even further complicated with the potential realisation of artificial wombs on the horizon, a technology that prominent feminist Shulasmith Firestone dreamed of liberating women from oppression and ending sexual difference.[xix] As feminist science fiction ideas become reality, we need to rethink how we conceptualise gender both within and without science fiction.
The supposed tainting of science – and consequently science fiction – by male desire to assume a role deemed proper only to women might suggest a contamination so strong that women cannot or should not participate. As Russ points out in her comic essay ‘The Clichés from Outer Space’ (1985), predominantly male science fiction authors have populated science fiction with bizarre and sexist tropes, often about reproduction.[xx] Certainly these clichés have dissuaded many women from participating in reading and writing science fiction, although as Sarah Lefanu highlights,
There have always been women readers of science fiction […] it would be simplistic to assume that a lack of female characters in the science fiction of the time automatically excluded a female readership […] why and how we read books is a more complicated business.[xxi]
How and why we read books as feminist science fiction is a complicated business too, irreducible to a linear genealogy or a single precursor. Thomas Bredehoft provides an alternative origin story which places C. L. Moore’s ‘Shambleau’ (1933) as a foremother of the feminist science fiction genre. He argues, ‘the contesting of origin stories through their revision and re-narration […] is a central feature of feminist sf [science fiction] in general’.[xxii] Rather than construct a singular origin myth, we might instead produce multiple contesting narratives that speak to the shifting boundaries and definitions of science fiction.
A key problem with the mythology of Frankenstein as feminist science fiction’s origin text is the use of (heterosexual) reproduction as a metaphor to describe the development of the genre. Rather than viewing science fiction’s history as a hereditary line, complete with black sheep and honoured ancestors, we might opt for something messier. Such a diverse genre whose authors often strongly disagree on its purpose, qualities and limits requires an alternative vocabulary. Perhaps like Donna Haraway’s concept of the cyborg, science fiction has no origin myth.[xxiii]
The significance of different feminist science fiction works may unexpectedly change as feminist theory and practice develops in new directions. Nowadays, claiming reproduction as a power only available or suitable for women is a problematic stance, particularly if as feminists we acknowledge trans men and women, and non-binary people, as their self-identified genders.
In 1975, Pamela Sargent argued that better, more thoughtful science fiction pays attention to the social and personal consequences of scientific developments or imagined alternative worlds.[xxiv] If we are to pay attention to the societal, medical and technological developments over the past fifty or so years, then maybe feminist science fiction will demand a different kind of criticism. Maybe there are other histories to tell.
[i] Anne Cranny-Francis, Feminist Fiction: Feminist Uses of Generic Fiction (New York, NY: St. Martin’s Press, 1990), p. 39; Eric S. Rabkin, ‘Science Fiction Women Before Liberation’, in Future Females: A Critical Anthology, ed. by Marleen S. Barr (Bowling Green, OH: Bowling Green State University Popular Press, 1981), pp. 9–25 (p. 9); Debra Benita Shaw, Women, Science and Fiction: The Frankenstein Inheritance, 2000, pp. 10–11; Sarah Lefanu, In the Chinks of the World Machine: Feminism and Science Fiction (London: The Women’s Press, 1988), p. 2; Robin Roberts, ‘Post-Modernism and Feminist Science Fiction’, Science Fiction Studies, 17.2 (1990), 136–52 (p. 139); Veronica Hollinger, ‘Contemporary Trends in Science Fiction Criticism, 1980-1999’, Science Fiction Studies, 26.2 (1999), 232–62 (pp. 235–36); Susan Gubar, ‘C. L. Moore and the Conventions of Women’s Science Fiction’, Science Fiction Studies, 7.1 (1980), 16–27 (p. 16); Robin Roberts, A New Species: Gender and Science in Science Fiction (Chicago, IL: University of Illinois Press, 1993), p. 1; Jane Donawerth, Frankenstein’s Daughters: Women Writing Science Fiction (Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 1997), p. xiii; Jen Green and Sarah Lefanu, ‘Introduction’, in Despatches from the Frontiers of the Female Mind, ed. by Jen Green and Sarah Lefanu (London: The Women’s Press, 1985), pp. 1–8 (p. 3); Pamela Sargent, ‘Introduction’, in Women of Wonder: Science Fiction Stories by Women about Women, ed. by Pamela Sargent (New York, NY: Vintage, 1975), pp. xiii–lxiv (pp. xvi–xvii).
[ii] Lefanu, p. 3. Sargent, for example, mentions authors such as Rhoda Broughton who blur the boundaries between science fiction and fantasy. Sargent, pp. xvii–xviii.
[iii] See for example: John Quill, David Ketterer, and Charles Heber Clark, ‘The Women’s Millennium’, Science Fiction Studies, 15.1 (1988), 82–87 (p. 83).
[iv] Maurice Hindle, ‘Introduction’, in Frankenstein or The Modern Prometheus (London: Penguin, 2003), pp. xi–l (p. xx).
[v] Roberts, A New Species: Gender and Science in Science Fiction, pp. 6–7.
[vi] Shaw, p. 3; Margaret Atwood, In Other Worlds: Science Fiction and the Human Imagination (London: Virago, 2011), pp. 1–8; Marleen Barr, Lost in Space: Probing Feminist Science Fiction and Beyond (London: The University of North Carolina Press, 1993), p. 11; Robin Roberts, ‘It’s Still Science Fiction: Strategies of Feminist Science Fiction Criticism’, Extrapolation1, 36.3 (1995), 184–97 (p. 193).
[vii] Ursula K. Le Guin, ‘The Year of the Flood by Margaret Atwood’, Guardian, 29 August 2009 <https://www.theguardian.com/books/2009/aug/29/margaret-atwood-year-of-flood>.
[viii] Brian W. Aldiss, Billion Year Spree: The History of Science Fiction (New York, NY: Antheneum, 1973).
[ix] Cranny-Francis, p. 39; Thomas A Bredehoft, ‘Origin Stories: Feminist Science Fiction and C. L. Moore’s “Shambleau”’, Science Fiction Studies, 24.3 (1997), 369–86 (p. 369).
[xix] Aarathi Prasad, ‘How Artificial Wombs Will Change Our Ideas of Gender, Family and Equality’, Guardian, 2017 <https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2017/may/01/artificial-womb-gender-family-equality-lamb>; Shulasmith Firestone, The Dialectic of Sex: The Case for Feminist Revolution (New York, NY: Bantam Books, 1972), p. 11.
[xx] Joanna Russ, ‘The Clichés from Outer Space’, in Dispatches from the Frontiers of the Female Mind, ed. by Jen Green and Sarah Lefanu (London: The Women’s Press, 1985), pp. 27–34. See also: Susan Wood, ‘Women and Science Fiction’, Algol/Starship, 16.1 (1978), 9–18.
[xxiii] Donna Haraway, ‘A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology, and Socialist-Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century’, in Simians, Cyborgs and Women: The Reinvention of Nature (New York: Routledge, 1991), pp. 149–81.
Cavendish, Margaret, The Blazing World and Other Writings, ed. by Kate Lilley (London: Penguin, 1992)
Lucian of Samosata, True History, ed. by David Lear (Firestone Books, 2013)
Shelley, Mary, Frankenstein, ed. by Maurice Hindle (London: Penguin, 2003)
The Stepford Wives, dir. by Bryan Forbes (Columbia Pictures, 1975)
Aldiss, Brian W., and David Wingrove, Trillion Year Spree: The History of Science Fiction (New York, NY: Antheneum, 1973)
Atwood, Margaret, In Other Worlds: Science Fiction and the Human Imagination (London: Virago, 2011)
Barr, Marleen, Lost in Space: Probing Feminist Science Fiction and Beyond (London: The University of North Carolina Press, 1993)
Bredehoft, Thomas A, ‘Origin Stories: Feminist Science Fiction and C. L. Moore’s “Shambleau”’, Science Fiction Studies, 24 (1997), 369–86
Cranny-Francis, Anne, Feminist Fiction: Feminist Uses of Generic Fiction (New York, NY: St. Martin’s Press, 1990)
Donawerth, Jane, Frankenstein’s Daughters: Women Writing Science Fiction (Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 1997)
Firestone, Shulasmith, The Dialectic of Sex: The Case for Feminist Revolution (New York, NY: Bantam Books, 1972)
Green, Jen, and Sarah Lefanu, ‘Introduction’, in Despatches from the Frontiers of the Female Mind, ed. by Jen Green and Sarah Lefanu (London: The Women’s Press, 1985), pp. 1–8
Gubar, Susan, ‘C. L. Moore and the Conventions of Women’s Science Fiction’, Science Fiction Studies, 7 (1980), 16–27
Le Guin, Ursula K., ‘The Year of the Flood by Margaret Atwood’, The Guardian, 29 August 2009 <https://www.theguardian.com/books/2009/aug/29/margaret-atwood-year-of-flood>
Haraway, Donna, ‘A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology, and Socialist-Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century’, in Simians, Cyborgs and Women: The Reinvention of Nature (New York: Routledge, 1991), pp. 149–81
Hindle, Maurice, ‘Introduction’, in Frankenstein or The Modern Prometheus (London: Penguin, 2003), pp. xi–l
Lefanu, Sarah, In the Chinks of the World Machine: Feminism and Science Fiction (London: The Women’s Press, 1988)
Prasad, Aarathi, ‘How Artificial Wombs Will Change Our Ideas of Gender, Family and Equality’, Guardian, 2017 <https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2017/may/01/artificial-womb-gender-family-equality-lamb>
Quill, John, David Ketterer, and Charles Heber Clark, ‘The Women’s Millennium’, 1Science Fiction Studies, 15 (1988), 82–87
Rabkin, Eric S., ‘Science Fiction Women Before Liberation’, in Future Females: A Critical Anthology, ed. by Marleen S. Barr (Bowling Green, OH: Bowling Green State University Popular Press, 1981), pp. 9–25
Raymond, Janice, The Transsexual Empire: The Making of the She-Male (London: Teacher’s College Press, 1994)
Roberts, Robin, A New Species: Gender and Science in Science Fiction (Chicago, IL: University of Illinois Press, 1993)
———, ‘It’s Still Science Fiction: Strategies of Feminist Science Fiction Criticism’, Extrapolation1, 36 (1995), 184–97
Russ, Joanna, ‘The Clichés from Outer Space’, in Dispatches from the Frontiers of the Female Mind, ed. by Jen Green and Sarah Lefanu (London: The Women’s Press, 1985), pp. 27–34
Sargent, Pamela, ‘Introduction’, in Women of Wonder: Science Fiction Stories by Women about Women, ed. by Pamela Sargent (New York, NY: Vintage, 1975), pp. xiii–lxiv
Shaw, Debra Benita, Women, Science and Fiction: The Frankenstein Inheritance, 2000
Wood, Susan, ‘Women and Science Fiction’, Algol/Starship, 16 (1978), 9–18
Sabine Sharp is a second year PhD Candidate in English and American Studies at the University of Manchester. Their research maps the emergence of the category ‘trans’ through feminist science fiction film and literature
A Craven is a floating island which, as some readers may know, is made up of debris and organic matter, largely held together by trees. Each Craven is home to about 200-600 Craveners, though there are some that house up to 5,000. The Craven Confederacy is made up of hundreds of thousands of floating islands dotting the Atlantic. Cravens breed fish, grow algae for ethanol, and harvest crops. They have an extensive trading network, being innovators in preserved foods, recycled microchips, and peer-to-peer wireless technology. The first Cravens were constructed—or rather, grown—about 300 years ago, in the first decades of the Climate Crisis. Named after an enigmatic figure referred to simply as ‘Craven’, it started as a politically-oriented, experimental farm on the Mains, close to what remained of New York City. It was then brought out to sea following a military crackdown on dissent. Since then, they have multiplied slowly, largely out of sight of global events. Today, while they may not rival the economic force of the Global Free Trade Company, or the military might of the Sino-Japanese, American, and Saudi empires, they represent a growing and significant power block in the world system.
And yet, for a first-time visitor, a Craven looks like a messy, unstructured place. There are barely any straight lines, nor does there seem to be much logic in where things are placed, or why. Plants grow all over, there isn’t too much coordination of who does what work, everything is incoherently cobbled together—not unlike a shantytown. In other words, there is no plan.
This was certainly my assessment when I first set foot on a Craven thirty years ago. I worked as an assistant on a trading skipper, dealing mostly in scavenged chips and rare metals. I had never grown my own vegetables, nor did I have any understanding of ecology—what Craveners refer to as ‘common knowledge.’
Trained as an engineer, I could only understand systems that approached order—inputs, outputs, scale, closed or open systems. My experience had told me the most productive industries were organized, clean, and depended on an economy of scale. What I saw on the island did not look like any of the models I had learned about, so I assumed Craveners knew very little about science, efficiency, or industrial design. Theirs was an undeveloped society, I thought, and their success over the past centuries has been largely accidental.
Despite my patronizing attitude, I found that, in business, Craveners were reliable, fair, and delivered quality products. So when I had saved up enough money to start my own skipping business I kept coming back. And as I got to deal with Craveners more I started seeing patterns. I got curious about what they were actually doing. Craveners aren’t very guarded, so I also learned to ask lots of questions.
This is how the conversation often went: I’d point at something, say, one of the many towers dotting one island, and they’d say, ‘That? It’s a pigeon tower.’ ‘What does it do?’ I’d ask. ‘The pigeons feed the soil.’ ‘They feed the soil?’ I’d ask, waiting for more explanation. The Cravener would pause, look at me, confused that this wasn’t self-explanatory. ‘Their dung has nitrogen and phosphorus, doesn’t it?’ they’d respond, ‘but that’s common knowledge,’ they’d add. I soon found that Craveners don’t really see what they are doing as complicated or requiring ‘expertise’. From their perspective, they aren’t doing anything special.
The difficulty of trying to describe Cravener production methods is that each Craven is so different. While many anthropologists have spent lifetimes living on a Craven, doing so does not provide a broad understanding of what techniques they use. Further, knowledge transfer is notoriously decentralized—they may host gatherings and conferences to exchange information, and there may be wikis on different technologies and practices, but there is no central repository, as far as I know at least, about all the practices and technologies that are actually in use. The problem is similar to that of being an Internet historian: you can’t know what is worth reading without some kind of wider knowledge of the Internet era; some theoretical framework by which to assess what is factual, what is useless, or what amounts to a conspiracy theory.
What’s more, Cravener production techniques don’t involve much prior planning. Many practices seem to require highly technical implementation and maintenance, an understanding of wider systems. And yet, construction seems to happen in a very hodge-podge manner, with no clear moment of decision-making. I have rarely witnessed a Cravener creating a model of what they wanted to build. Rather, Cravener infrastructure, with some exceptions, seems to be guided by a kind of vernacular ‘know-how’, instilled into a Cravener from the moment that they’re born.
For example, I’ll often see Cravener children touring the island with an adult, and they’ll stop by some kind of structure. The children will ask questions, and if the adult doesn’t know, they might ask someone working nearby. Children, even when young, might be asked to help build something—and so they learn how it works through practice. As they grow up, they engage in play where they build small versions of these technologies—the same way children on the Mains might build high-risers on the beach. When whole Cravens come together for a festival or a conference, children will travel with their parents to visit relatives and then learn about other Cravener practices. At these conferences, teenage Craveners are organized into teams and asked to come up with an invention, and those that come up with a creative design will be presented with an award. However, the models are not taught in a single ‘course’, the participants in the competitions base them on what they already know from a lifetime of experience. These experiences are not categorized into ‘fields’ but drawn from a kind of general understanding of ecology, design, or even their own society—necessary for knowing the extent to which a new technical practice can be reasonably adopted by their peers.
Of course, many Craveners do specialize as they get older, joining, for example, breeding and genetic modification labs, or spending years building and experimenting with new structures as part of what they call a ‘technical committee’. As many other researchers have documented, Craveners will also participate in a kind of ‘internal participatory ethnography’, where they move to another Craven known for a particular craft and learn from other specialists. And as goes without saying, their conferences can themselves be quite specialized, often focusing on a specific technology or even minutiae like the most ideal water dripping rate needed to grow tomatoes in an aquaponic system. But what they discuss at the conference is rarely implemented at scale or even adopted widely–and so the conferences cannot be seen as representative of Cravener means of production. They constitute more of a ‘best practices’ of what really happens ‘on the ground.’
Only repeated visits to multiple Cravens over a long time period, as well as multiple interviews of Craveners, can allow a researcher to deduce, from general visible patterns, the Cravener mode of production and the specific technologies that power it. I have been a Craven-approved merchant over three decades, which has allowed me to visit over 400 Cravens with a total of about 2,200 unique visits. I’ve also attended 43 Craven conferences. These experiences have provided me with valuable insight into Craven production processes, and the differences and similarities between Cravens. In fact, my research method can be seen as a kind of statistical ethnography, as my accumulated experience is somewhat representative of Cravener society as a whole.
In this book, I describe and catalogue the unique technologies that I believe represent the foundation of the Craven mode of production. I focus largely on specific techniques used in production that make up what Craveners call ‘island ecology’. Technologies can be seen as general ‘types’ that are somewhat isomorphic across Cravens. I hope that this book is useful for anyone who is interested in Craven society, or (even better) wants to start their own Craven society and is curious how they could do so. Further, I believe that understanding these technologies will help readers understand why Cravens have become so successful in a world dominated by insecurity, violence, and ecological collapse.
From a Cravener perspective, of course, ‘technologies’ barely exist. Tools, constructions, and techniques are embedded within their day-to-day lives, rituals, and even political system. They are, as such, indistinguishable from their society as a whole, in the same way that it is difficult to tell the difference between ‘culture’ and ‘religion’ in many other societies. For this reason, one might instead use the term ‘practices’.
Further, it is difficult to formalize these practices into a coherent field of study such as ecology, agriculture, engineering, or sociology. Following previous scholars in the field of Craven studies, I prefer to use the Craven term, ‘common knowledge’, connoting the scientific-social-ecological know-how that allows them to maintain their mode of production and has driven their success over time.
In any case, the reader should keep in mind that these practices are indistinguishable from Craven society as a whole—without their social norms, rituals, and political system, they would certainly not have come close to the kind of astonishing economic success that they enjoy today.
Of course, it’s impossible to write a book about all of Craven society, so I have chosen to focus on the technologies that drive their political economy. However, I hope that the reader will get a sense of how these technologies are integrated within an organic, but holistic, political system. Despite the seemingly disorganized nature of Craven production methods, underlying it is a coherent political system that ensures democratic, and open, economic participation.
As it turns out, what at first appeared to me to be an inefficient and unruly production method, with little centralized direction, is in fact a hyper-productive economic system that encourages constant innovation and experimentation. In other words, a society predicated on the natural abundance of the air, sun, water, and soil—rather than one that has regulated everyone into scarcity. Instead of an economy of scale, a political ecology of scale. The technologies highlighted in this book are an essential part of that ecology.
All photos by Aaron Vansintjan
Aaron Vansintjan is a co-editor at Uneven Earth and is currently pursuing a PhD at Birkbeck, University of London. He writes about gentrification, food politics, environmental justice, and contemporary politics.
“Remember to hold the staff firmly,” Doh’s father instructed, “And when you strike you must use your whole body, like this,” and he demonstrated several graceful, powerful thrusts with the fishing spear. Doh watched, anxious for her turn. Her father held out the spear and she curled her fingers around the handle, surprised at its texture, an artifact of many years and much use. It felt powerful, definitive, even in her small hands.
In the deep waters, in the rainy season, there are monsters in the Volta.
“You will not need to use this spear often, for most of the fish the net will do, but in the deep waters, in the rainy season, there are monsters in the Volta.” Doh practiced the technique, burying the tip of the spear into an old stump while her father watched.
Doh was an only child who lived in a small wooden home which her father had built on a steep hill along one of the many serpentine bends of the Lake Volta. The farming families in the community lived just north where the shoreline leveled out, allowing them to take advantage of the seasonal rise and fall of the lake to plant vegetables, potatoes and rice. Doh and her father worked their cassava farm from time to time, but were usually more preoccupied with fish. She helped her father haul in the catch each morning and smoke and salt the fish in the afternoons.
“Ewe people are a fishing people,” her father would tell her as they worked, “even though some of us have forgotten. But so long as there are fish, there will always be Ewe.”
From an early age, Doh’s father taught her how to fish with traps and lines and spears, how to read the lake’s underwater topography. He told her the stories about the lake and its people and its fish, always finishing by saying, “There are many things I can teach you, but there are many things that you will need to see for yourself,” which would leave Doh with an uneasy feeling.
“But not to worry,” he would quickly add, sometimes brushing the hair from her face so he could look into her eyes, “there are many things you already know.”
Doh had her reservations, and thus always paid careful attention to her father’s lessons, lest she not know quite as much as her father thought she did. She learned to be patient and determined, necessary qualities for any fisherman, and certainly any Ewe.
As the rains continued, it soon became clear that there was nowhere else to go, not here, not anywhere: the world had become water.
Doh was a small girl when the rains began. At first, the soil was dry as dust and it ran off towards the lake in great sheets until it stained the shallows like red-red stew. Soon though, it became evident that these were not just passing storms. Pools of water began collecting in the divots between houses and in the fields like lost children, asking any passerby where to go. But as the rains continued, it soon became clear that there was nowhere else to go, not here, not anywhere: the world had become water. Only in the few remaining refugia was land a thought to be had, and even then, it was land so logged with water as to make the distinction between ground and lake and sky rather arbitrary anyway.
As the heavy skies became a regular feature of every horizon, the elders in the village recalled the old days when water had once before reshaped their world. Only then, the water had come from below, creeping up behind the walls of a great dam until there was no other choice but to retreat to the hills. Thousands had left, abandoning the valleys, their homes, communities, and ancestral cemeteries to the elemental forces of both water and progress. A few had stayed, seeing no point in beginning again somewhere else. Whether stubborn or heartbroken, they were only ever heard from again by the fishermen who claimed you could find them still, wallowing in the deepest parts of the lake as fish.
This time, however, it was not the steadily rising dam waters that threatened to undo their world, but the deluge from the clouds that daily baptized this lonely refugia. The climate had changed from the steady, seasonal rise-and-fall that had cradled the quiet fields of groundnuts and yams to the oppressive drumming of raindrops upon every imaginable surface forever. The rains simply would not stop, and the waters everywhere just kept rising.
The villagers guessed at the reasons, though some claimed to have heard on the radio before the rains began that some distant humans had hurt the earth deeply with their poisons. In all their zeal and ardor and reckless hope, they had broken the sky, broken the seasons so that the only thing left for the earth to do was flood the world and begin anew. Doh had heard about these sorts of things from the Bible, which her father used to read by candlelight every night. But he had stopped once the rains began.
“God is no longer here with us,” he once said, blowing out the candle. “Humans have fashioned themselves into gods. Creators, destroyers of worlds.”
In the darkness, with the smell of smoke and wet earth surrounding her, Doh’s father leaned forward on his wooden chair and spoke quietly:
“For those who refuse to be humble, the earth has a way of insisting upon humility. Remember: so long as there are fish, there will always be Ewe.”
The rains continued to fall, but the sound had become invisible, like background static at the edge of everything in this new universe in which they now found themselves.
She could not see his face and his voice did not betray much emotion. But she imagined him with a smile lifting up the corners of his mouth, though she was not sure why. The rains continued to fall, but the sound had become invisible, like background static at the edge of everything in this new universe in which they now found themselves.
Doh’s father passed away after the first few months of the rains. A fever had taken to the village, killing many. Their passing was eyed enviously by the increasingly hungry few that survived. In this disfigured world, it had become impossible to live as a human anymore. It soon became clear that it was impossible to die as one as well. The ground proved too water-logged to bury the bodies and the wood too wet for the fires with which to cremate them. The few bodies that the surviving villagers had managed to cover with earth soon washed out only to tumble down the hillside. With few other options, the community decided to dispose of the bodies in the lake, allowing the newly deceased to join the ancestors, who themselves had long-since been interred beneath the waters of Lake Volta.
On the morning of his passing, Doh’s father, weak from fever, had gotten into his canoe, insisting on going out on the lake to fish. There was almost no salted fish left in the house, almost nothing left to eat. Doh was hungry, she could feel the tumble of nothing inside her stomach and could see the same feeling on her father’s face, despite the sickness.
“I should be back before long,” he said, before pushing off and sliding quietly onto the lake and into the rain. He did not return that evening, or the next. The villagers assumed that the fever had taken him while on the lake, a fate befitting a fisherman and an Ewe. It would save Doh the trouble, they remarked, of taking her father’s body out to be buried beneath the lake. But Doh thought better of it. Instead, she imagined him, far out on the lake, riddled with fever on the floor of his canoe as it slowly filled with rain, slowly began to sink. Doh waited on the shore most of the second day, looking out onto Volta for any sign of her father, but saw nothing except water in every direction.
When she returned home that evening, Doh sat down in her father’s wooden chair under the thatch-grass awning in front of her home. She lit a candle and opened her father’s Bible. The pages hung idly from the worn binding. Inside the book, she found the words illegible, meticulously blackened-out by a piece of charcoal so that each page contained heavy soot lines where the word of God had once been. She flipped through the thin pages with care, finding each one as dark and inarticulate as the last. Finally, she came upon a single un-blackened verse, a lone rhetorical fish in the sea of carbon.
She lifted the candle to illuminate the page and read:
Now the Lord provided a huge fish to swallow Jonah, and Jonah was in the belly of the fish three days and three nights. From inside the fish Jonah prayed to the Lord his God.He said:
“In my distress I called to the Lord,
and he answered me.
From deep in the realm of the dead I called for help,
and you listened to my cry.
You hurled me into the depths,
into the very heart of the seas,
and the currents swirled about me;
all your waves and breakers
swept over me. I said, ‘I have been banished
from your sight;
yet I will look again
toward your holy temple.’
The engulfing waters threatened me
the deep surrounded me;
seaweed was wrapped around my head.
To the roots of the mountains I sank down;
the earth beneath barred me in forever.
Those who cling to worthless idols
turn away from God’s love for them.
But I, with shouts of grateful praise,
will sacrifice to you.
What I have vowed I will make good.
I will say, ‘Salvation comes from the Lord.’
And the Lord commanded the fish, and it vomited Jonah onto dry land.
She wondered at the lines, like bags of tea steeping in her mind, reading them over several times before she noticed, scribbled in the margins, between these lines and the blackened ones that followed, her father’s handwriting:
“So long as there are fish, there will always be Ewe.”
She found the phrase, such a common refrain of her father’s, out of place, curious. Was he trying to send her a message? Did he perhaps believe he might still find salvation, if not in this world, full of water and ruin as it was, than in another? Is that why he had spared this story, of all stories, in a book he had otherwise abandoned?
She pictured her father’s body, floating somewhere among the raindrops on the surface of lake Volta. Or maybe he had already sunk below the surface towards the old cemeteries that had long ago been consumed by the rising dam waters as the rest of the village would soon be. Or maybe he had been eaten, eaten by a fish, some great, monstrous ancestor of their people, in anticipation of being spit out onto dry land.
Her father did not recognize this world anymore, he could no longer live in this loss, so he had gone on the only way he knew how.
The thought of dryness excited her. She closed her eyes and tried to remember dirt and how it felt when baked into her skin. She imagined a warm fire, a warm sun, simple pleasures that these rains had stolen. In that moment she understood: her father did not recognize this world anymore, he could no longer live in this loss, so he had gone on the only way he knew how.
Doh looked out into the forest and across the lake at the endless curtains of falling water and let herself speak aloud what she already knew: “Even this place too will soon be underwater.” The thought was heavy, but she felt light, hopeful for the first time. Maybe she was crazy with fever, or maybe the rains had just logged her mind as it had the land, but either way, there seemed few other options. Tomorrow, she would seek her own salvation.
It was a steamy morning on Lake Volta, though the rains were not as persistent. Doh had set out early. Water lapped at the side of the wooden canoe and spilled through the cracks between the boards, uneven as they were, cut by hand from the hardwoods that grew along the shore. Doh dipped her paddle below the surface and drew it across her body lengthwise, sinew and muscles straining silently. The sun pulled itself through a rare break in the clouds, rupturing the sky with splinters of yellow. The light clung to the droplets of sweat and water on Doh’s arms and torso, and she savored the hedonism of a fleeting sunshine. She realized how she had missed that star and every other since the rains began.
The heat rose as she paddled, drawing mist off the water. Soon, Doh could not tell whether the clouds had descended or the lake ascended, but she found herself embraced by walls of moisture and drowning in an impossible fog. Her lungs struggled to digest the viscous air until each breath became timid and shallow. The water continued to rise, or fall, she could no longer tell. The repetition of the paddle strokes, the sound of the rain, gradually pulled her into a lazy intoxication.
She came to with a start and a magnificent inhalation that made her chest stretch to the point of rupture. Something large had struck the boat with a dull thud, causing the hull to toss small waves across the water. She sat up straight and peered into the mist in time to see the fins of a massive fish drop below the surface.
Out of instinct and without much thought, she fixed her line with bait before moving on to ready her harpoon. The bait stunk like carrion and was warm and soggy from the long morning on the boat. Doh swallowed another lungful of watery breath and pierced the bait on the hook, burying the metal completely. She then lowered her line into the water and watched her bait descend until she could no longer see it and kept lowering it until she had no more rope, then fastened the line to the boat. She cradled the spear in her right arm as her father had showed her many years ago, tying off the loose end to the opposite side of the boat and coiling it loosely in her left.
She knelt on the floor of the canoe, careful not to tangle either line, and waited, unsure of exactly what she planned to do next.
“Will you deliver me from this world?!” she yelled, not sure if her words had landed anywhere in particular, nor if there was anywhere for them to land.
She felt a small tug on the baited line and the boat bobbed gently. Doh grabbed the line and when she felt another few bites, jerked it quickly upward, hoping to sink the hook deep in the fish’s throat. Then for a few moments, she felt nothing, saw no movement, and heard nothing but her own breathing and the rain, always the rain. She waited, patient and determined, a good Ewe, a good fishermen.
Time passed, she did not know how long, with the fog in air melding seamlessly with the fog of her thoughts.
When the water finally erupted with the fish, her senses rushed back into the front of her mind. Suddenly, she was leaning hard against the full weight and will of a massive animal, rope digging into her palm. It was the largest fish Doh had ever seen and she knew that neither herself nor the boat stood much of a chance against a creature of this size for very long.
“Use your whole body,” Doh implored herself out loud, and thought back to the lessons with her father. She closed her eyes and let loose her spear with all the intention she could muster from her tired muscles and tired mind. She did not hear it strike the fish, but immediately, blood billowed on the surface. The raindrops off the lake and the waves on the surface washed water into the canoe as she struggled with the dying animal. Soon Doh was standing up to her shins in bloody water. The spear must have struck the fish’s heart or bladder, because gradually the animal calmed and bled heavily and did not dive. Instead, it writhed half-heartedly on the surface before Doh could draw it up alongside the bow.
“Have you taken my father?!” She called to the animal, “Have you delivered him from this world onto dry land?”
No response, but an empty, black eye stared back at her not without recognition. It was inhuman, she thought, but she did not feel misunderstood. The fish blinked, its mouth half submerged grasping at the water as if searching for words. Then slowly, deliberately it spoke with the cadence of her father: “But I will sacrifice to you. What I have vowed I will make good.” and its voice trailed off, mouth still slowly articulating on the surface of the water.
She would not miss this place, she thought, but she would miss the place it was before.
The huge eye shuttered and opened again. The smell of blood and the weight of moisture in the atmosphere hung from Doh like a net that had been draped across her arms. She glanced once more at the world around her. The rains had picked up again with droplets like stones rising to a deafening pace. She would not miss this place, she thought, but she would miss the place it was before. But that old world was as much of a dream anymore as the salvation she sought, however foolishly and desperately.
As she stood in the canoe, she remembered her father from many years ago, before the rains, when he was still strong, a student of god, before the fever and the lake had taken him. “Remember:” she imagined him saying, with an unhurried smile crawling across his lips like a caterpillar, “so long as there are fish, there will always be Ewe.”
She leaned off the boat into the water and swam up to the front of the fish, prying its massive jaws open with her hands. The animal offered little resistance. Using its teeth like the rungs on a ladder, she pulled herself up until she was seated on its tongue. Doh wiped the blood from her eyes, turned, and began to squirm head-first down the creature’s throat.
It was quiet and warm as she made her descent. For the first time in many months, she could no longer hear the rain.
Mario Reinaldo Machado is a doctoral student in Geography at Clark University in Worcester, Massachusetts and fellow editor of Not Afraid of the Ruins. His research focuses on sustainable agriculture, landscape ecology and food systems in Cuba. He is also a musician, photographer and freelance writer whose work has appeared in outlets including the Huffington Post, National Geographic, and Organic Gardening Magazine.
Nudes aren’t allowed, cartoons or advertisements suggesting sex are not allowed, ads for any adult services aren’t allowed — all these get deleted. Sexual organs such as penises or breasts implied but not depicted (eg with bananas or sandbags) are flagged. Boobs. Woman laughing with a bowl of salad; a girl playing with her dog laughing; a woman smiling with a new set of knives, a flight attendant smiling and pouring coffee.Boobs. It was repetitive and monotonous. AI filtered most things correctly but there was the occasional mistake. Krishna liked the job. He didn’t have to think. He always worked with headphones on, listening to music until the siren blared, informing them that their shift had ended.
Back at home Krishna changed out of his work clothes, fixed himself a bowl of Maggi and turned on the TV. There was nothing interesting to watch. He put on Planet Earth and crushed some weed. Just as a brilliant pink sun set behind a lone polar bear floating on an ice floe, Krishna grabbed his jacket and headed out.
His first thought was a leech but there were no leeches where he lived.
The wind was too fierce to light the joint so he squatted behind a mango tree and cupped his hands. That’s when he first felt it. Krishna yelped like he hadn’t yelped since he was a child. His first thought was a leech but there were no leeches where he lived.
Though it was a full moon night Krishna turned on the torchlight on his phone to get a better look. There was something on his leg, attached to his calf, right below his knee, gulping his blood hungrily. The creature — whatever the fuck it was — was about two inches long and had no determinate shape. It quivered almost constantly and like a well used bar of soap it was misshapen, neither rectangular nor circular, but some odd shape that kept changing. It had no eyes, no ears and no face but it did have a mouth with which it had attached itself to Krishna’s calf. The mouth was at the end of an elongated snout that opened and retracted minutely every time the creature sucked Krishna’s blood, like a telescope. It had no legs but instead all over the surface of its body it had curlicueing strands of blue-green tentacle-antennae: tens of hundreds of these of various sizes and lengths. These tentacle-antennae seemed to have a sentience of their own — they moved any which way, independently of each other. Some reaching out, testing the air, others circling around his leg or trying to, while the majority seemed to wave and sway like palm fronds, simply feeling their way about. Most peculiar of all, the creature appeared to be colourless or rather it appeared to be translucent for you could see some of its organs. Krishna thought it was the most disgusting thing he’d ever seen.
He stared at it for a full five minutes, watching its mouth squeeze and gulp hungrily, its tentacle-antennae swaying wildly.
He’d had enough. He tried at first to shake it off but that was no good. He then grabbed a stone and tried to scrape it off but that was no good either — he only ended up vigorously scraping his own knee. There was only one thing left to do. He stared at it for a full five minutes, watching its mouth squeeze and gulp hungrily, its tentacle-antennae swaying wildly. He prayed and waited, hoping that as suddenly as the creature had torn into him, it would just as suddenly tear off of him and go back to wherever it had come from. But seconds stretched into minutes and the creature continued sucking just as hungrily. He gave himself five more minutes. Then he gave himself another five minutes while he finished a cigarette. Finally he worked up the resolve to pull it out with his own hands. He lunged at it with his right hand, fingers bunched into a fist as if he were going to grab and yank it but he stopped. He lit another cigarette. This time he approached with just his thumb and index finger extended and pinched an especially long curlicueing tentacle-antenna, daintily trying to pry the creature off. It was awful, the tentacle-antenna squirmed and fought in his hand like a living thing. No sooner had he caught hold of it that he let it go, regretting ever having touched it. With the creature still firmly planted on his leg, Krishna started walking home.
The walk back home was long but it took longer still. The creature was relentless. It was sucking at him as if its life depended on it; maybe it did. It didn’t hurt as much as it was disconcerting. Every now and then Krishna would hear something distinct, difficult to describe — like the noise of twigs breaking underfoot or a zipper being pulled; evidently satisfied gulps as the snout released the blood it had sucked into the creature’s body.
Krishna considered stopping by Hakeem Saab’s house but it was well past midnight and he was afraid he would have a lot of explaining and talking to do. Krishna decided he would show himself to the doctor first thing tomorrow and so kept on walking.
The translucent creature bathed in the light of the TV. appeared gray-blue as it continued sucking his blood.
With every step now he felt himself weaken. Just as he thought he would collapse, Krishna saw his house up ahead. He fumbled with the lock twice before he got it opened. Inside he didn’t bother turning on the light and crashed on his sofa in front of the TV. which was playing yet another episode of Planet Earth. The translucent creature bathed in the light of the TV. appeared gray-blue as it continued sucking his blood.
When Krishna woke up the creature was gone. He didn’t look for it, he hoped it had gone for good. His leg had several tiny perforations, little pin-prick sized holes like those left immediately after an injection. The tiny holes were in no discernible pattern or at least no pattern Krishna could discern. Its teeth must have been pretty fucking sharp — it had bitten clean through a brand new pair of jeans to get to his calf. Krishna left the windows and door open in case the creature was still lurking and needed a way out.
Hakeem Saab twirled and untwirled the end of his long grey beard around his index finger as he regarded the tiny holes on Krishna’s leg.
Krishna left the windows and door open in case the creature was still lurking and needed a way out.
‘And this creature was about an inch long you said.’
‘Two inches’ Krishna muttered. This was harder than he had imagined.
‘What were you doing in the jangal alone in the middle of the night anyway?’
‘Sometimes…sometimes I go for a walk. It is peaceful there at night. I can be by myself.’
‘Don’t you live alone?’ To this Krishna said nothing.
‘Well as far as I can tell there seems to be no ill effects. But still it is better to get a toxicology test done seeing as you were bitten by something neither you nor I recognise. I have lived here all my life but who knows? Science discovers something new everyday,’ Hakeem Saab concluded skeptically.
Krishna nodded. ‘Go to G.B. Pant and ask for Dr. Ganga Ram. He will know what to do. He is a good friend of mine so he will keep me in the loop. In the meantime don’t exert yourself. Diseases sometimes remain dormant and the symptoms might not show for days, even years. Meet Dr. Ganga Ram at once. In the meantime, take rest and drink lots of orange juice to replenish the blood you have lost.’
‘Thank you doctor.’ Krishna had his hand on the door when Hakeem Saab spoke up again. ‘And beta don’t mind my saying this. I only say this out of concern and because I was a good friend of your father’s.’ Hakeem Saab paused. ‘It is good that you like walking but you shouldn’t smoke so much beta. It is not good for health. You have your whole life ahead of you, why throw it all away over nothing?’
They both knew Hakeem Saab was only politely referring to cigarettes. Krishna thanked him again, promised to return soon for a follow-up and left.
The sound again. This time he got up and found it. It was hiding in a hole in his wall behind the TV.
Sprawled on the sofa, Krishna was still in his work clothes. He was just about to load up another bowl when he heard that low sort of guttural sound again — difficult to place but unmistakable — like the snapping of twigs or the zipping of zips. His heart sunk. ‘Fuck’ he said but didn’t move. A quarter of an hour passed.
The sound again. This time he got up and found it. It was hiding in a hole in his wall behind the TV. Many of its tentacle-antennae had retracted: only a few remained. Its snout was opening and closing mechanically, its mouth was crowded with teeth.
Once again Krishna was faced with the unsavory prospect of grabbing it to throw it out. It didn’t look particularly hard or strong…maybe if he hit it forcefully enough with his cricket bat or his Dad’s old walking stick? But then, it quivered like it did and as he had known from the start Krishna felt incapable of dealing with it; for the same reason he had never had or wanted pets, even as a child. Animals were sentient yet could not speak. This had always bothered Krishna because he could never know what they wanted. Which to Krishna was the same as saying he did not know how to live with them.
After all he could clearly see the creature’s beating heart.
He considered the creature for a minute. He brought a knife from the kitchen and set it on top of the TV, where he could reach it easily. After all he could clearly see the creature’s beating heart. After some hemming and hawing Krishna prodded it ever so slightly. It responded. It unfurled some of its tentacle-antennae and two of them came searching for Krishna’s hand. Their touch was gentle but gross: icky and mucousy; how he’d always imagined the underbelly of a pond frog. Tonight it was not hungry. It merely advanced more of its tentacles that searched Krishna’s body as if to say ‘Hi!’.
Krishna gave in to it. With his one free hand he made a video of him being searched/ acquainted and snapped some photos. Finally when he felt as if his whole arm had been dipped in a vat, Krishna tried to jerk himself free. Almost immediately, perhaps instinctively the creature acquiesced. It withdrew all its tentacle-antennae and returned them neatly behind itself where Krishna couldn’t see.
Krishna gave in to it.
Krishna hated using voice command but tonight he was so excited that even as he took a long shower he commanded his home operating system to process the photos and videos he had just taken and search the internet. He had ordered the results by relevance, giving preference to academic journals.
Still dripping wet and with just a towel draped around him, Krishna turned on the TV.
‘Did you search non-english databases?’
‘And this is all you could find?’
‘This is all there is.’
Krishna stared at the three search results in front of him. Two were fan pages for an Iraqi TV show. One was a discussion forum for…something, he wasn’t entirely sure what. He uploaded the photos and videos and waited for people to respond (‘So I found this thing out in the woods last night….I have no idea what it is. Would anybody by any chance know? TY’)
‘OMG. WTF is that?’
‘That might be the FUGLIEST thing I’ve ever seen’
‘I think it’s kind of cute’
‘This shit is wack…they should use it in the Black Forest sequel’
‘Does it have a pussy? Maybe all it needs is love’
‘Where the Fuck did you find this thing?…My God the teeth….I don’t think I can sleep tonight’’
‘My GF said I was being gross..…So then I showed her this: ….Problem solved :P’
‘Wow.. .Does it have a name? Do you know what it’s called?”
‘Props to you for bringing it home man…I would have shot the sonuvabitch right in its ugly mouth’’
‘And I thought cockroaches are freaky’
‘Is this even real?…Please tell me it’s not real’
Krishna deleted his post. He asked the same question on a few different forums, including forums for zoology and biology hobbyists. He mostly got questions, no answers. On one of the forums a moderator flagged him: ‘I have 35 years experience with the Zoological Survey of India. This creature bears no similarity to any species I have read or even heard about. From the previous messages it would appear that most of my fellow zoologists concur. It is possible this is a species new to science but the photos you have posted clearly show an eight chambered lung which became extinct post the Cambrian explosion. This is a forum reserved for serious scientific discussion among professional zoologists and paleobiologists. Unless you can provide something more concrete than a handful of photographs and videos (i.e. anything not easily digitally renderable or manipulable) or any information beyond “I found this creature in the woods last night”, I doubt this forum can be of any help to you’.
A new day had broken. In the distance he could hear Majeed chacha calling the faithful to prayer. Allah hu Akbar! Ashadhu an la ilaha iIla Allah! Hayya ala s-salah!
Krishna had about three hours left before he had to report to work. The creature had not budged.
Krishna had about three hours left before he had to report to work. The creature had not budged. As far as Krishna could tell it was compressed and motionless with its snout withdrawn. Only a few tentacle-antennae swayed every now and then like wisps of stray hair. As before, because the tentacle-antennae moved independently, Krishna had difficulty imagining it as part of the same body, the same organism. He fell asleep naming and counting the different muscles and bones in his body, starting with his legs.
Krishna pulled out two 500ml Pepsi bottles from his bag: one each of chicken blood and goat blood. He had already tried feeding it most anything in his kitchen — blended fruits and vegetables, cow’s milk and goat’s milk, cottage cheese, rancid cottage cheese, mint leaves, rice beer, porridge, whiskey, wine, random chips packets, raw beaten eggs, soya chunks, but the creature showed no interest. He had also tried waving things he had specially purchased from the market in front of the creature’s snout – baby food, chicken liver and chicken feet, goat brain, raw fish, cooked fish, kebabs, goat tongue but again the creature barely moved. It was only then that he had reluctantly asked a bewildered Ismail Qureshi to give him some blood from his next batch of slaughterings; ‘I’ve been working on a slasher film. I tried ketchup but it didn’t look very convincing.’ Krishna didn’t sound convincing either, but that didn’t matter because Qureshi bhai knew him.
The tentacle antennae lit up a bright parrot green. He could see its heart pumping violently, straining against its membranous body, so much so that he was afraid it would leap out
Krishna emptied the Pepsi bottles into two ceramic china bowls. He placed them on the TV right next to the hole where the creature lived and waited. Three tentacle-antennae appeared. They hovered around one bowl, then the next. Then three more tentacle-antennae issued forth. Finally the creature squeezed itself out of the gap in his wall and by the aid of its tentacle-antennae pulled itself closer to the brim of the bowl containing chicken blood. Its snout opened, elongating like a ramp being lowered. Its mouth crowded with teeth yawned open and he heard that sound again. The tentacle antennae lit up a bright parrot green. He could see its heart pumping violently, straining against its membranous body, so much so that he was afraid it would leap out. But five excited minutes later, the mouth closed; the snout drew back; the tentacle-antennae retracted and the creature returned to its hole in the wall without having taken so much as a sip. Krishna sighed and sat down on the sofa. When he checked in on it in the morning the china bowls of blood were exactly as he had left them. On his way out, he threw them out along with the empty Pepsi bottles.
Thirty minutes into Myths and Shadows he heard that sound again. He tried to ignore it but it was persistent and mechanical this time, like an alarm clock. This was annoying because his team had all but cornered the orcs and taken the citadel, which would have upgraded his Mage to level 3. “I’m sorry guys I’m going to have to log off.” Mxcooky cussed and grondylion15 grumbled but he logged off anyway.
He did not know what it wanted. Krishna chewed his lip. He had a granola bar in his pocket. He dangled it in front of the creature but knew even as he was doing it that this was pointless. He did not like what he had to do next. He left and returned with oven mitts that he had to dust off first because he had not used them in over a year. He pulled down the sleeves of his shirt, put on the oven mitts and jabbed the creature in the one spot where he could not see a tentacle-antenna.
The creature slobbered forward, its tentacle-antennae pulling it along, leaving a trail of pus-coloured slime in its wake.
Several tentacle-antennae coiled around his extended arm like Medusa’s hair. The creature slobbered forward, its tentacle-antennae pulling it along, leaving a trail of pus-coloured slime in its wake. Krishna wished he had thought of putting a jacket on. He was in the middle of cursing himself for never having gotten his helmet fixed when he felt a sharp stab of pain; less severe than what he remembered from a week ago, maybe because he was expecting it this time. The creature, sitting on his oven mitts had sunk its teeth right beneath his palm.
At first Krishna fed the creature whenever it cried persistently like an alarm clock. But this was beginning to take a toll on him. He had already missed three days of work. He liked to use off days to travel: trek through the jangal or else go someplace he had never been. It rankled him that he was taking off days but only sleeping through them.
Regular feeding had also bloated the creature. It now filled the hole it lived in and its tentacle-antennae were no longer tucked neatly behind it. They spilled out like a mouthful of spaghetti.
Krishna put on the oven mitts. This time he applied castor oil on his arms before pulling down his sleeves. But the creature bit below his palm and drank as voraciously as ever.
This seemed to do the trick. It gulped hungrier than ever; he could feel its snout jackhammering as it pushed and pulled against his oven mitts; every organ in its body working double speed.
The following night Krishna applied both castor oil and chili powder to his arms. This seemed to do the trick. It gulped hungrier than ever; he could feel its snout jackhammering as it pushed and pulled against his oven mitts; every organ in its body working double speed. With every gulp it increased its intake, its mouth yawning. More hastily than it ever had before the creature withdrew and pulled back into the hole. For the first time in weeks he showed up to work on time. His boss complimented him, commenting that ‘he seems better’ and ‘hoped he would continue to be so.’
On his way back from work Krishna stopped by the pet store to buy a leash. Considering how thin the creature’s skin appeared, Krishna didn’t want to damage its organs. Despite its diet being laced with castor oil and chili powder the creature had steadily grown to the size of a pug or a chihuahua: it now hung awkwardly from the hole it occupied. He squinted his eyes but this hurt after awhile. He moved the TV away from the hole in the wall, pushing it to the corner of the room but this was no use because the room was quite small — even while sitting at the very edge of the sofa he could still see the creature’s blue-green tentacle-antennae flailing about out of the corner of his eyes. Finally he considered switching the sofa and TV so that his back would be turned to the wall but he didn’t like this idea at all because he would no longer be able to see the creature and he was afraid that it could sneak up on him.
He had avoided mopping all week because he knew that the creature would leave a trail of pus-coloured slime all over the floor.
He tied the leash into a loose knot around the creature. He had avoided mopping all week because he knew that the creature would leave a trail of pus-coloured slime all over the floor. The leash worked. The creature jiggled into different shapes as if it were trying out clothes until it found one that fit the knot. Krishna pulled and with a soft thud the creature fell to the floor, allowing itself to be lead to the puja room without any resistance whatsoever. Krishna now wished that he hadn’t put this off for weeks: the whole process of shifting the creature had taken less than a minute.
Later that night while smoking pot he pictured himself taking the creature out for a walk. He imagined what people would say. Krishna then burst out laughing because he knew exactly what they would say.
It sank its teeth deeper and deeper into his skin, drawing more and more blood despite the liberal concoction of chillies, pepper and castor oil that he now slathered before each session.
He no longer fed the creature the way he used to, allowing it to sit on his hand. It had grown much too big for that. Instead he held the door to the puja room slightly ajar — just enough for one of his hands to slip through. Although by now he found the creature harmless he couldn’t bring himself to hold it or touch it even. It sank its teeth deeper and deeper into his skin, drawing more and more blood despite the liberal concoction of chillies, pepper and castor oil that he now slathered before each session. He was running out of excuses at work so he had taken to feeding it only over the weekend.
A thin pool of the pus-coloured liquid had leaked beneath the puja room door which he had kept locked since god knows when. No sooner had he entered the room then the creature, now fluffed like a mattress, lurched forward; this was the first time in weeks Krishna had laid eyes on it. It was more than he could take. Instinctively praying out loud to no god in particular Krishna wheeled round and slammed the door shut. The creature’s tentacle-antennae scratched and banged frantically against the closed door. Usually Krishna tried to ignore these sounds, but on that day he stood on the other side of the door, not putting on any music until the creature stopped trying and the house became quiet again.
Seema repeated once again that this might be his last chance to see the creature.
Something had to be done. He had started exchanging emails with Seema Doval, the Zoological Survey of India scientist who had dismissed his post as a hoax. Further photos and videos he had shared had intrigued her. She had agreed to drive down with six other colleagues from the ZSI regional centre in Mussourie. He handed Seema the keys to his house and the puja room and told her that he hoped they would take the creature because he no longer wished to take care of it. He’d be waiting for her call at a tea shop about a minute’s walk from his house. After what felt like an hour Seema called. She told him that they had decided to take the creature and that it had been shifted without incident to the van; she asked Krishna if he wanted to see it before they took it to Dehradun. ‘No that’s alright, you can go ahead and take it’. Seema repeated once again that this might be his last chance to see the creature. ‘That’s okay. I have some important work to attend to. You can leave my keys with my neighbour, I’ll collect them later.’
Krishna had just finished purchasing Mithril armor for his level 9 Mage in Myths and Shadows when he spotted something out of the corner of his eye: flapping tendrils of blue-green tentacle-antennae. He paused the game and leapt up. He wasn’t imagining it. It was only about as big as a ping-pong ball now. Its tentacle-antennae were scratching the window, presumably waiting to be let in.
Krishna called up Seema. She picked up after the first ring. ‘Thank God it’s with you! We thought of checking with you but the idea seemed so ridiculous considering we had it locked in a lab so far away.’
Krishna opened the window and let the creature in.
Seema told him that a van full of zoologists would leave immediately from Mussourie, though it was the middle of the night. ‘This time I’ll make sure it’s monitored 24/7.’ After a split second pause she added, ‘Nobody has seen anything like this. This could be the single most important discovery of the decade.’
Krishna opened the window and let the creature in.
‘Okay,’ he said. ‘Okay. I’m sorry I sent you there. I thought they would know what to do with you.’ Even though he had no oven mitts on he let it lie on his hand. Gently he stroked it up and down, up and down along its body like it was a dog or a cat. The creature unfurled a few of its tentacle-antennae and tightened its grip on Krishna’s arm but did not extend its snout. It kept its mouth tightly closed. Krishna tried to coax it into drinking his blood, reassuring it in whatever way he could think of that it had his permission but the creature wouldn’t. It merely lay on his palm and allowed itself to be petted. He could see and feel the pus-coloured slime running down the length of his hand. The tentacle-antennae probed but Krishna continued to hold it.
Gently he stroked it up and down, up and down along its body like it was a dog or a cat. The creature unfurled a few of its tentacle-antennae and tightened its grip on Krishna’s arm but did not extend its snout.
He started walking towards the jangal, where he had first found the creature. He found a small cluster of deodar trees and stopped. He flicked open a pocket knife and nicked his wrist, allowing the blood to flow. But the creature still didn’t drink. Krishna again dug with the pocket knife into his flesh, cutting a deeper wound, allowing more blood to flow. This time the creature opened its snout and drank hungrily. It opened its mouth and bit into the wound Krishna had slashed into his hand, widening it further. It stayed like that for a long time, suckling hungrily.
Seema and the scientists would be arriving soon. Krishna tried to jerk himself free but the creature held fast. He flicked open his pocket knife and tried to pry himself away but the creature only strengthened its hold with more tentacle-antennae. Finally Krishna pulled out his lighter and brought it within singeing distance of the creature. He turned up the flame to make sure it felt the heat. The creature relented.
By the time Krishna got back, Seema and her colleagues were waiting for him. They were disappointed and angry that the creature had escaped but they couldn’t blame him. He promised to let them know if it ever came back.
But sometimes on windy nights Krishna thinks he hears a faint noise like twigs breaking underfoot, or at work he sometimes faintly hears something like a zipper being pulled.
Krishna cleaned out the puja room with all its accumulated slime and junk and put his parent’s things back where they belonged. He purchased new shirts, the punctures and cuts in his arms healed and Hakeem Saab once again gave him the all clear (and this time he didn’t ask him to stop smoking). Ismail Qureshi no longer teased him and asked to see his slasher film and Seema stopped emailing him every other week.
But sometimes on windy nights Krishna thinks he hears a faint noise like twigs breaking underfoot, or at work he sometimes faintly hears something like a zipper being pulled. Flagged. Delete.Teenagers laughing and jumping into a swimming pool; a smiling nurse about to administer an injection; a teacher smiling while writing on the blackboard; a woman laughing while talking on her phone. Delete. Krishna never looks up.
Maggi – a popular brand of instant noodles
Saab – a term of respect. Roughly translates to sir.
Jangal – forest
Beta – a term of endearment. Literally translates to son.
Chacha – Literally means your father’s brother but often also used for people around your father’s age.
Allah hu Akbar! Ashadhu an la ilaha iIla Allah! Hayya ala s-salah! – God is great! I bear witness that there is no god except the One God! Hurry to the prayer!
Bhai – Literally means brother. But it is a term used to address most anyone.
Puja room – the place in Hindu households where idols of deities are kept and worshipped.
Harshvardhan Siddharthan, or Harsh, was born and raised in New Delhi and is currently interested in pursuing socio-cultural anthropology. He has previously worked as a journalist and his articles have appeared in The Hindu, The Indian Express and The Andaman Chronicle. Harsh always welcomes feedback, assignments and criticism. He can be reached at email@example.com
I was eight when I found it. It was one of those long summer afternoons when everyone, drugged with heat, was fast asleep. Restless, I snuck out through the back door. I struggled over the garden gate and dropped quietly across the wall into the outer world.
Alone for the first time in the lane behind my house, I walked further along it than I ever had before. I passed houses with shades drawn, old trees murmuring quietly with crickets and turtle doves. And suddenly, I found it: an open plot of rough scrub, a square not more than half a football field along each side.
I had never seen such a place. It was not a garden, nor a field, nor a park.
I had never seen such a place. It was not a garden, nor a field, nor a park. There were no flowerbeds, and the ground was broken up with rocks, and patches of gravel. I looked at the empty lane behind me, expecting someone to be standing there, calling me back. But I was alone. I felt a brief thrill of fear and then I walked in. This is the story of what I found there; what I took with me and carry with me still.
I grew up accustomed to green, and to growing things. A good piece of land was lush, fecund, greens of every shade punctuated by flowers of fuchsia, scarlet, saffron, violet. A good garden had flowers, fruit, herbs, vegetables, medicine, and sacred elements too: holy basil, an auspicious mango tree, the Brahma Kamal that flowers shyly at midnight.
Across the road lay my grandmother’s farm and fields. On her grounds grew trees hundreds of years old. There was a grove of Sandalwood, slender trees with profusions of tiny deep green leaves. A row of Australian Acacias, with curly brown seed pods inside which hid black seeds wrapped in a startling yellow scarf. A Gulmohar that carpeted the ground beneath it with thousands of orange orchid-like flowers. And my favourite: a towering Peepul, under whose branches stood a tiny white tumbledown temple. At the center of the farm, Raintrees canopied so much ground that it took my eight-year-old legs half an hour to walk from one edge of the shade to the other. In her gardens, my grandmother had a shaded square for ferns, and a dark green pond in which guppies flashed their jeweled tails amongst the water-weeds. Indoors, every table, cabinet and shelf held a vase, bowl or tray of flowers cut from the beds outside.
At home, we had Silk-cotton with buttery-yellow blossoms and a wild almond and a laburnum. We even had a sort of strange, out of place Pine, that someone had rescued from a Christmas tree shop and planted. It grew twenty feet high. Outside my bedroom window, a shrubby Raat Rani—Queen of the Night—had ghost-pale, star-shaped flowers that filled the darkening garden with perfume in the evenings. I had a tiny patch for myself, and into it I crowded ferns and a climbing vine that frothed with strawberry-pink flowers. My father called it the ice-cream plant. We grew vegetables one year, all along the perimeter wall, and every summer we planted flowers for the butterflies. Decades later, when we moved, we carried the trees with us, and every precious bulb, bush and creeper. They flower now in my mother’s new garden and we know them as old friends.
To garden is to knit oneself into the earth. The longer you know a garden, the closer the knit, and the finer the patterns you can see.
To garden is to knit oneself into the earth. The longer you know a garden, the closer the knit, and the finer the patterns you can see. On my hands and knees amongst the flowerbeds, I saw startling forests of moss, like bright emerald pine in miniature. The birth of velvet-smooth black caterpillars that fed on the monsoon crocuses. The funeral processions of crickets lying on their backs, their arms neatly folded, being carried off to the underworld by ants. The more I gardened, the closer I came to the mud. Nose-level, until I could smell it. Dirt under my fingernails, inside my pores, and in my blood too, after I decided to stop washing every cut. (Sorry, Ma).
As we gardened, my grandmother, my parents, and I, I think we found ways to conjure up new patterns on our patches of land. We made shade against the white-hot sky; we drew in birds and flowers, butterflies, moths and bees. We perfumed the night with star-shaped flowers. That is a form of wizardry. And perhaps, that is why I have often heard it said, of untamed plots or open countryside: There is nothing there. There were two ways we talked about unfarmed, unplanted places: either as grand wilderness, where we’d have a picnic or go on holiday, or as a wildwaste. But I think there’s another way. Nature is also knitting, all the time, everywhere. There is no nothing.
I spent ten years going up the lane to the scrub-plot. I saw it in all weathers and at all times of day.
I spent ten years going up the lane to the scrub-plot. I saw it in all weathers and at all times of day. Without the constant stream of a garden hose or the attentions of any gardener the plot stayed dry most of the year. Where I grew up in India, we use dry to mean dead.
But this land was not dead.
A group of short thorn trees, which I now suppose were Indian Acacia. A stunted Karvanda—Conkerberry—bush, amongst whose thorny green foliage grew sour berries, ruby-red when raw. Under every crumple of rock, using what water I can’t imagine, the tiniest flowering plants emerged in a palette of rust and gold. You’ve seen them too. Tiny yellow flowers, green or rust-coloured leaves like clover, creeping along the ground. They grow everywhere on land that was once disturbed, then abandoned.
At sunset, the dry grass was turned suddenly into a wash of honey and caramel. My favourite time, a sudden throwing back of the veil of the day in a flash of gold, before everything turns blue. I watched these things for many hours, doingabsolutely nothing.
And that, I think, is what people really mean when they say there’s nothing there. They mean nothing is going on there.
And I think about that often. Not once did it occur to me to transfer some of my fevered gardening onto the scrub-plot; to make a flower bed, plant seeds. I knew how. But I didn’t want to. Nor did I ever take my nature journal, a constant companion when I walked through the farm. What I saw in the garden and field, I spoke of and wrote of. I named, labeled and drew. I dried, pressed and catalogued. I traced bark patterns and the outlines of leaves and stuck feathers next to pictures of birds, and once I took three days to try to draw the mouse skull I found under an owl’s tree-burrow (no good, that sketch. I kept the skull though).
On the scrub-plot, there was no name, no rank, no serial number.
But on the scrub-plot, there was no name, no rank, no serial number.
Instead, there were palettes and canvasses, large and small. There was the sunset gold-dust hanging over everything. Or blue mist curving around the thorn trees early on winter mornings. When I lay back on the rocks there was an open sky, un-fringed by friendly trees. But there was comfort too. I fell asleep often, against a gently rising rock in the middle of the plot. I frequently woke with my arms around it. A habit I shudder at today, after I have learnt about cobras and kraits and scorpions, all of whom I’m sure habited my plot but strenuously avoided me.
Coming from a world of greens and bright flowers, I was surprised at how fiercely I came to love the palette of pale sand, grey grit and gravel, exposed rock, dry grass and dusty sage. The colors of ringed doves, and sparrows, and a dozen other pale birds with backs of grey, silver, fawn and camel.
Behind the walls, in the neighbours’ gardens, was another world, where English ferns grew in moss-crusted terracotta pots. Even orchids, in hanging baskets. And I loved them. But I also loved this world, here, with those nameless thorn trees and that baked earth that scalded my hands.
To sit for long enough on a scrub-plot is to rest. To rest is to suspend judgment. You just watch. The alchemy of such places is in how just looking becomes enough; suddenly a dusty old scrub-plot turns to gold.
Suddenly a seedling has taken hold that ten years from now will be a tree.
How many scrub-plots there are in the world, great and small! Cracks in the pavement, the borders of parking lots. Abandoned railway stations, and quarries and construction sites. The quietest corner of a garden, where you were too tired to plant, dig and hoe, or even to water. And still, suddenly a seedling has taken hold that ten years from now will be a tree. Some patches last longer than others. In India, legal disputes over some sites can last decades. So in the middle of the city, in the pits where foundation-stones would have been, tiny forests grow.
Not all patches are forsaken as wilderness. Some feed families. Thorn-scrub gives fodder and firewood. For some it is the only shelter they can access, to—quite literally—commune with nature. Closer to the curbsides, tiny flower beds can appear, with mint, parsley, and lemongrass for tea. Papaya, banana, pomegranate or lemon trees that sprout on sidewalks will feed anyone who tends them, and we have dozens of sacred trees—usually climax species—that become living shrines by the roadside.
But not all patches can be tended or used. Those where nothing useful grows are Jungli, connoting something both wild and empty. Perhaps, in India, to appreciate them only for their beauty is to betray a deeply privileged upbringing. But there it is. I had the luxury of sitting on Jungli land, and watching it move from gold to blue as the day passed. To me, the scrub-plot formed a magical counterpoint to our gardens, fields and grand landscapes. It was where I was an audience, watching the world forming itself. And with or without me, the thorn-trees grew, and sparrows nested in them. The rocks gathered grains of dust, and flowers grew in them that could not grow on watered ground, and moths drank their nectar.
Now, decades later, I read about connection to nature and how to foster an ethic of care. Gardens are vital to this, as is reconnecting people to farms. It is on gardens and farms that most of us have our first encounter with all manner of beings other than human. And many of us have our first sensation of awe when looking up or out into a panoramic landscape. Many of us work very hard indeed just to escape away to an immense openness: a valley from on high, the night sky, swathes of forest, a deep canyon, the murmuring ocean.
Let’s not forget, nature is everywhere and even now it is doing what it does, with or without us.
But let’s not forget, nature is everywhere and even now it is doing what it does, with or without us. What does a weed, flowering in the pavement, or a thorn-forest in a scrub-plot teach?
That there are no empty spaces. Everywhere is filled with the dream of what could grow, slowly coming true.
It is a truism, repeated to the point of banality, that ‘nature abhors a vacuum’. But wait. Do we know what that really means? There are a million little pinpricks, and some great gaping wounds, and all of them are being knitted back together by tiny flowering foot-soldiers. To me, they are what resilience looks like. Just look, really look, at the little thorny thing that is pushing its way through the concrete. Could you do that?
To experience this matters more and more in this world which lies at the brink. We need to see how life constantly covers over everything with more life. To sit out on a Jungli scrub-plot is to marvel at it, to be heartbroken, a little, over how quickly, how beautifully, how relentlessly, any empty patch is taken over by life. Seen in this way, the thinnest sliver of green and gold, the finest crusting of moss, becomes precious: nature cupping her hands over every tiny ember, and letting a spark take.
Zareen Pervez Bharucha is a Research Fellow at the Global Sustainability Institute (GSI) at Anglia Ruskin University and a Visiting Research Fellow at the University of Essex. She leads the Global Risk and Resilience strand of research at the GSI. Her research explores issues of resilience, vulnerability, and climate change adaptation amongst small farmers in India. She also works on the concept of sustainable intensification of agriculture, and has a growing interest in the links between nature and well-being.
James Cameron’s blockbuster Avatar (2009), to which four sequels have been announced, was generally praised for its cutting-edge special effects yet criticized for the simplistic narrative by both film reviewers and scholars. Sukhdev Sandhu, reviewer for The Telegraph, puts it effectively when he writes, “It’s an achievement to make 3D look as good as it does here, but that counts for little if the characters are all in 1D. The film is a triumph of effects over affect” (Dec 2009). It is a rather formulaic take on the histories of western colonialism and environmental destruction. The alien Na’vi on planet Pandora are meant to mimic the pre-industrial Native Americans, who worship the Goddess Eywa and live in harmony with their environment until the mechanized human colonizers arrive to extract “unobtanium” and obliterate everything in their way. The main protagonist Jake Sully joins the Na’vi and forms a romantic bond with the native princess Neytiri, and ultimately discards his paraplegic, ex-Marine, white body to become a non-white, feminine-coded, abled, environmentally attuned Na’vi body. The scenario rehearses two of the most powerful American frontier myths: the Pocahontas and Mohican stories, adapting them to the 21st century where they no longer function only “as an exercise in romantic regret, but to expiate guilt over the genocidal nation building” (Howe 2016, 125). The seeming postcolonialism and ecofeminism of Avatar can be read as a symptom of white guilt: one that reinforces the ultimate stereotype of a heroic white warrior leading through the justified violence the oppressed to freedom, which remains very problematic in terms of race, gender, ability, and the idealized version of nature.
The film remains a worthwhile cultural phenomenon to examine for its particular staging of post/modernity that underlies environmentalist politics.
Considering these controversial assumptions of the narrative, the massive box office success and the widespread fascination with the film’s CGI effects, as well as the announced four sequels in the upcoming years, is it worth revisiting Avatar and with what aim? I wish to suggest yes; the film remains a worthwhile cultural phenomenon to examine for its particular staging of post/modernity that underlies environmentalist politics. This has so far generated an interesting scholarly discussion to which I would like to contribute in this essay. Bruno Latour, well known for his view that the European modernity in the 17th century installed what he calls the Great Divide(s)–between nature and culture, self and other, human and nonhuman–surprisingly reads the film in a rather positive way (Latour 2010), although we could argue that Avatar continues to enact precisely these divides. More recently, ecocritical scholar Timothy Morton has argued that the film gestures towards non-binary postmodernity, but it is unable to actually take us there (Morton 2014). That is, the environmentalist message that celebrates the pure, organic, pre-technological Nature on Pandora is undermined at the level of the film medium, which glaringly speaks to us through the luminescent screen images its reliance on the highly advanced digital technology. In this paper I wish to build further on these scholarly readings of Avatar and, following Morton, argue that the film does not seem to take its own propositions seriously enough. It not only unconsciously undermines its ideology through the level of the medium, but also on the level on the narrative itself. Through a close reading of a dialogue from the film I will show that, if taken seriously from a postcolonial anthropological lens, the dialogue signals a decolonization of the hierarchical divide between western sciences and Indigenous knowledges, which the film overall remains unable to articulate.
For Latour, Avatar “is the first popular description of what happens when modernist humans meet Gaia. And it’s not pretty” (Latour 2010, 471). As he argues, since the 17th century nature has been understood as no longer spirited and actively interfering with human affairs, but in terms of passive objects to be demystified through scientific knowledge. All those living on the wrong side of the epistemological divide were considered irrational because they believed in a world animated by all sorts of entities rather than reducing materiality to the cause and effect relations. A model of mechanism was posited as a paradigmatic model, within which the Christian God was reinterpreted as a clock maker who had created the world and then left it to unfold by itself according to mechanical laws. (Carolyn Merchant in The Death Of Nature (1980) explicated this scientific model in detail, and showed has it was entangled with the histories of patriarchal colonialism and capitalism.) For Latour, this model can no longer be upheld (if it ever was) as it becomes ever more visible in the current age of climate change that nonhuman materiality has agency and that effects exceed their causes. Both humans and nonhumans are actants, and their agencies are much more evenly distributed, which means that we need to consider “the tricky question of animism anew” without the usual scorn that has been poured onto the concept: “Consider Lovelock, for instance, with his ‘absurd idea’ of the Earth as a quasi organism – or the Na’vis with their ‘prescientific’ connections to Eywa” (Latour, 2010, 481). Latour aligns James Lovelock’s Gaia theory of the Earth as a living super-organism, which in the past was criticized for being unscientific by the scientific community, and the animist beliefs of non-western Indigenous peoples as they are staged in Avatar. He suggests that both should be taken much more seriously by us “moderns”. In fact, in recent decades Lovelock’s theory has been revalued considerably in the environmentalist movement, while the indigenous models of sustainability have been increasingly explored in anthropological scholarship. Instead of constantly policing the epistemological border of what proper science and what pseudo or non-science is, it is necessary to look carefully into how well a certain model is assembled, how efficient of a “handle” to stage nature it is (Latour 2010, 483).
The film’s gesturing towards postmodernity crucially entails a gesturing towards decolonizing epistemology.
It seems that Latour casts Avatar in a rather positive light despite its clichéd narrative and very controversial take on colonialism. Bruce Clarke notes that the film resonates for Latour with his agenda of deconstructing the nature-culture divides and redistributing the worldly agencies in a “nonmodernist fashion” (Clarke 2014, 160), yet for Clarke, “At every level, Avatar is self-contradictory and wrapped up in its own paradoxes” (Ibid, 177). This really captures well the film’s modus operandi, which is, I suggest, that of failing to take seriously its own propositions. It is this ambiguity that enables us to interpret certain moments in the film as possibly questioning the Great Divides between western sciences and indigenous knowledges, while understanding the film on the whole as enforcing these divides by privileging the spiritual belief over the scientific-technological outlook. While the biology and neurology of the Pandoran/Gaian living system are shown to resonate well with the animist forest spirits, yet at the same time, the nature on Pandora is strangely purified from the contamination by capitalist technology. Morton approaches the ambiguity of Avatar by arguing that the narrative of the purification of Nature from modern technology fails at the level of film medium, which heavily relies on the advanced digital technology. For him, “What Avatar gestures toward, then, is a genuine ‘postmodernity,’ a historical moment after modernity,” where no extrication of the organic from the technological is possible, “without ever being able to tell us to go there, or even wanting with all its heart to push us there” (Morton 2014, 222). I wish to push Morton’s idea further and argue that the film’s gesturing towards postmodernity crucially entails a gesturing towards decolonizing epistemology: questioning the hierarchical divide between western sciences and indigenous knowledges, which unfolds at the level of the narrative. An intriguing dialogue along these lines develops between the Na’vi-friendly scientist Grace, played by the sci-fi heroine Sigourney Weaver, and the merciless corporate manager named Parker, played by Giovanni Ribisi:
Grace: Those trees were sacred to the Omaticaya in a way you can’t imagine.
Parker: You know what? You throw a stick in the air around here it falls on some sacred fern, for Christ’s sake!
Grace: I’m not talking about pagan voodoo here – I’m talking about something real and measurable in the biology of the forest.
Parker: Which is what exactly?
Grace: What we think we know is that there’s some kind of electrochemical communication between the roots of the trees. Like the synapses between neurons. Each tree has ten to the fourth connections to the trees around it, and there are ten to the twelfth trees on Pandora.
Parker: That’s a lot, I’m guessing.
Grace: That’s more connections than the human brain. You get it? It’s a network – a global network. And the Na’vi can access it – they can upload and download data – memories – at sites like the one you just destroyed.
What is at stake is not to rebrand non-western knowledges as scientific, but rather to make us think how and what discourses and practices, and not others, get to be authorized and legitimized as scientific in the first place.
The animist Na’vi view that trees are imbued with the spirit of Eywa is presented crucially as compatible with, and not opposed to, the biological and neurological constructions of synapses and neurons in living organisms. One way to understand Eywa is in terms of Gaia, or as Clarke suggests, in the neocybernetic terms of “a self-referential cognitive system producing self-maintaining regulatory dynamics without having to assume the agency or anima of a conscious system” (Clarke 2014, 162). This does not mean, however, that Grace’s aim is to simply translate the spiritual belief into the scientific idiom in order to legitimize it. Importantly, she respects both the animist and neurological worldviews, unlike Parker for whom the translation between the two is needed. Grace’s perspective encourages us to think how both models, each on its own terms, successfully stage materiality, and though for Clarke this “conveys the perennial Western muddle between science and spirituality, physics and metaphysics, energy and anima” (Ibid, 170), I suggest that it also gestures towards a decolonisation of knowledge. In the above quote the borders that police the temporality–primitive vs. modern–as well as seriousness–superstition vs. truth–of the two ways of knowing are put in question. Why would we not think of shamanic practices as scientific, or of the concept of the neuron as animist? What is at stake is not to rebrand non-western knowledges as scientific, but rather to make us think how and what discourses and practices, and not others, get to be authorized and legitimized as scientific in the first place. “Muddling” this border would mean to inhabit epistemologically the space which Gloria Anzaldúa terms “borderlands”, an undetermined and vague state created through the deconstruction of a historically enforced border (Anzaldua 1987, 3).
Recent postcolonial anthropological research in the Amazon region can take us further into decolonial directions. Jeremy Narby publishes in popular rather than academic media, but some of his insights can precisely shed more light on the quote above. (In comparison, Eduardo Kohn’s research of the Amazon in How Forests Think (2013) is more rigoruosly academic, but his conclusion to understand the Amazon forest spirits as semiotic actors resonates strongly with Narby’s view.) Based on his research with both Ashaninca shamans and biologists, he argues for a striking compatibility between the shamans’ and the biologists’ understanding of life. Intriguingly, he suggests that what the Amazonian shamans see in their hallucinogenic visions induced by plant brews, which is the images of giant fluorescent serpents, corresponds to what biologists see as the double helix structure of DNA through their instruments. A he puts it: “My hypothesis suggests that what scientists call DNA corresponds to the animate essences that shamans say communicate with them and animate all life forms” (Narby 1999, 132). As in Avatar, the spirits in the Amazon forest correspond to the scientific model of reality; the hallucinogenic plants are an equally good method to approach nature as the scientific instruments; and the shamans use their vision-induced knowledge to heal people same as the medical doctors use the knowledge of molecular biology. In the film, both the scientific and spiritual forms of knowledge are imagined to not only theorize life, but also construct it successfully on a practical level. While the human scientists use advanced biotechnology to construct avatar bodies, which are then operated through a psionic link with the genetically matching human minds, the Na’vi at the end of the film transport the mind of a human completely into his avatar body by using shamanic techniques. Such staging makes it hard to delineate science from non-science, or indeed faith from science, in the way that Narby argues: “…it is of utmost importance to respect the faith of others, no matter how strange, whether it is shamans who believe plants communicate or biologists who believe nature is inanimate” (Narby 1999, 145). Whether or not we subscribe to Narby’s conclusion that the visions of serpents and the DNA double helix correspond on the ontological level, what his approach foregrounds is that both shamans’ and biologists’ models of life are equally efficient handles to stage nature, and therefore should be equally respected.
Traditional ecological knowledge is based on collaboration rather than appropriation, spiritual interconnectedness rather than a taxonomic set of categories and facts.
Equal respect towards western and non-western epistemologies would mean to speak of what Grace Dillon terms “indigenous scientific literacies” (Dillon 2007), as the ways in which indigenous sustainable practices constitute indeed a Native science despite the lack of resemblance to taxonomic western knowledges. As she writes, traditional ecological knowledge is based on collaboration rather than appropriation, spiritual interconnectedness rather than a taxonomic set of categories and facts. In the contemporary context of climate change, indigenous scientific literacies seem to be finally “discovered” widely by the mainstream science, and Dillon sees precisely the mode of science fiction as a space in which this already has been, and can be productively engaged and developed further (Dillon 2016). Within this framework, Avatar both speaks and fails to speak of the indigenous scientific literacies. It gestures towards such understanding, yet overall it fails to engage this potential explicitly: it gestures towards postmodernity while not being able to extricate itself from the modernist divides. In Morton’s reading, the celebration of pre-technological Nature is unconsciously undermined at the level of the vibrant, computer-generated screen imagery: “The very attempt to force viewers to accept an ecological view of interconnectedness results in pushing humans to accept the proximity of a more-than-human-world of uncanny strangers” (Morton 2014, 221). Morton’s uncanny strangers are the glowing, weird creatures and the immersive environment on the screen, which cannot but not reveal the technology that made them possible. But if this is so, these luminescent uncanny strangers also unconsciously reveal to us and embody the hallucinatory method that shamans use to communicate with and gain knowledge from their plant teachers. As we, the film’s audience, immerse ourselves in the astonishing living world of the screen, are we not “hallucinating” about ecological knowledge? I suggest that the gesture towards postmodernity that Morton detects in the film crucially entails a gesture towards decolonising epistemologies, yet this move fails to be articulated explicitly. What the announced sequels make of decolonising the epistemological borders is to be seen, but so far the historical understanding of post/modernity in Avatar has generated an important scholarly discussion to which this essay contributes.
Anzaldúa, Gloria. 1987. Borderlands: La Frontera, The New Mestiza. San Francisco: Aunt Lute Book Company.
Avatar. 2009. Directed by James Cameron. Los Angeles: Lightstorm Entertainment.
Clarke, Bruce. 2014. Neocybernetics and Narrative. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
Dillon, Grace L. 2007. “Indigenous Scientific Literacies in Nalo Hopkinson’s Ceremonial Worlds.” Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts, Vol. 18, No. 1 (69): 23-41.
Dillon, Grace L. 2016. “Introduction: Indigenous Futurisms, Bimaashi Biidaas Mose, Flying and Walking towards You.” Extrapolation, Vol. 57, Issue 1-2: 1-6.
Howe, Andrew. 2016. “The Post-9/11 Mohican: Avatar and the Transformation of the ‘Manifest Apology’.” In The New Western: Critical Essays on the Genre since 9/11, edited by Scott F. Sttodart, 116-136. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Company, Inc.
Klassen, Chris. 2013. “Becoming the ‘Noble Savage’: Nature Religion and the ‘Other’ in Avatar.“ In Avatar and Nature Spirituality, edited by Bron Taylor, 143-160. Waterloo, Canada: Wilfrid Laurier University Press.
Kohn, Eduardo. 2013. How Forests Think: Toward an Anthropology Beyond the Human. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Latour, Bruno. 2010. “An Attempt at a ‘Compositionist Manifesto’.” New Literary History, Vol. 41, No. 3: 471-490.
Latour, Bruno. 2004. Politics of Nature: How To Bring the Sciences into Democracy. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Merchant, Carolyn. 1980. The Death of Nature: Women, Ecology and the Scientific Revolution. San Francisco: Harper & Row.
Morton, Timothy. 2014. “Avatar, Ecology, Thought.” In Green Planets: Ecology and Science Fiction, edited by Gerry Canavan and Kim Stanley Robinson, 206-225. Middletown: Wesleyan University Press.
Narby, Jeremy. 1999. The Cosmic Serpent: DNA and the Origins of Knowledge. New York: Jeremy P. Tarcher/Putnam.
Narby, Jeremy. 2005. Intelligence in Nature: an Inquiry into Knowledge. New York: The Penguin Group.
Sandhu, Sukhdev. 2009. “Avatar, full review.” The Telegraph.
Fani Cettl holds a PhD in Gender Studies from the Central European University in Budapest. Her fields of interest are science fiction, Gothic fiction, science and literature, biopolitical theory and posthumanism.
[…] The neighbour then is a lens through which to view this strange and doubly petrified society. As reported by Wei Chen in his magisterial social history of the Channel Earthquake, many victims of the disaster spoke to their neighbours for the first time on that fateful day. The mental ill-health, the impossibility of freedom, the denial of self-management encoded in this chosen isolation is so clear to us now, seems so literally insane, that we must remind ourselves to reach for a position of empathy. This was a world struggling with institutions entirely unsuited to large, complex societies. The damage from these poorly-adapted institutions reached into the human mind itself. Mental ill-health was the norm, and extended well beyond the high rate of diagnosis.
The subject of this chapter is truly difficult to grasp for the student of this period, but the facts revealed in the historical record are clear: most people were terrified of their neighbours. This must be qualified, for it is also true that many people might chat with their neighbour over the garden fence (examples of such boundary demarcation artefacts can be found in historical theme parks around the Western European Isles, and are still in use in parts of East Anglia afflicted by wind and conservatism). However, such informal contact rarely went further. Not one in a hundred engaged in any sort of joint project with their neighbour. Precisely what people were terrified of was working with their neighbour, being with their neighbour in any sustained way. What is more, we must reach further into the alien historical consciousness and admit that this fear was not entirely unfounded.
Such a bold statement requires justification, for in our era we see it as common sense that control over our environment requires the ability to work with our neighbour. Yet the entire notion and practice of liberation as bound up with a convivial working-together had not yet been born, stymied as it was by the economic structures of society and by the corresponding culture of isolation. The status quo was such that the fear of working with others could be justified by the lack of experience in working with others. Thus we must approach at the same time both the absurdity of the fear in which people lived, and the unavoidable logic underlying the frightened state of the early twenty-first century mind.
Firstly we must understand this state of mind as self-reinforcing: the en-cultured isolation created the fear, the fear created the isolation. ‘Common sense’ prior to the Transition stated that one’s neighbours were selfish, grasping and controlling, that their win would be your loss. Without getting to know one’s neighbour, it was difficult to challenge this ‘common sense’. It would take a disaster greater than the Channel Earthquake to escape this simple yet steely trap.
It is also important to understand that if one did accidentally get to know one’s neighbour, it was likely that one’s misanthropic view of them would merely be confirmed. Accounts of meetings of the time are full of tales of how the rare attempts at neighbourly working-together would break down in outbursts of anger, irresolvable feuds, how one or two people would dominate the debates, while others would say nothing, how frequently they were abandoned in frustration. The curious thing about the domination by particular individuals—one of the most common complaints—is that it could only happen because people allowed it. The dominance/subservience complex of the time will be the subject of several chapters in its own right, its undoing being of vital importance in the Transition. Here we will simply note that, being created both by forced education and the workplace, this complex was almost ubiquitous, and as a result it was almost impossible for any person to view another as truly an equal. This was the insoluble labyrinth within which the trap of fearing the neighbour lay.
This hints at another self-reinforcing problem the culture had created: isolation from the neighbour was actually debilitating to the ability to work together. Understanding this is key if the contemporary mind is to grasp why the only means of gaining control of one’s life—to meet and work together with others—was so consistently rejected prior to the Transition. It is true that the general fear of the neighbour was very much strengthened by specific prejudices: racism, sexism, phobia of the poor and so on. Yet these factors are often exaggerated in popular histories, in part because they strike us as so foolish. In reality, even given an entirely homogeneous neighbourhood, most people still understood neither the value of escaping the isolation-fear trap, nor the paths out of it that appear so clear to ourselves.
In one sense, the reason people could not work together is transparently obvious: they had not been trained in how to work together. It would take many decades to understand that meeting together required training, that it should start when young and never stop. Over time schooling came to be understood as it is today: as preparation for working together and making decisions together. The key to the puzzlingly long evasion of this—to us—self-evidently reasonable path lies partly in the fact that it was never overtly rejected: the average mind of the era simply shied away from the very thought of working with the neighbour. Its entire training and sense of self pointed in the opposite direction. ’Freedom’ consisted of doing as one wished, and the contradictions inherent in billions of individuals doing as they wished were glossed over using the trite notion of ‘rights’, and never mind that people would commonly give a hundred different versions of what they considered their rights to be.
To understand why it was not clear to the pre-Transition mind that freedom also required other people, we must delve further into the fears that haunted it. Chats over the garden fence notwithstanding, the fear of the neighbour imbued the very culture in which people lived. As already mentioned, one aspect of the terror concerned the lived practicalities of working together with others. The meeting itself was regarded with horror. It consumed time better spent on one’s own pursuits. It spoke of boredom, of poorly managed debates between battling egos. Above all one would have tolerate the people one had constructed one’s atomised life specifically in order to avoid. Difference, often lauded in word, was usually felt as an onerous burden.
And it is in discussing meetings of the time that we can finally understand why some of this fear was justified. In the absence of training, meetings truly could be an odious experience. One must imagine a meeting as a convergence of loneliness, fear, competitiveness, dominance/subservience, mental ill-health, and ignorance. To create a sense of the very genuine tedium and dysfunctionality this could create, we can try to imagine a group of deeply traumatised people entering a room with relative strangers and attempting to get all their emotional needs met in that space, within a few hours.
We have not yet touched upon another aspect of the everyday terror: the fear of being subsumed into a mass. This was a learned fear, in part deliberately taught, in part inculcated in the institutions of forced education, where it was a very real danger. To examine the extent of this fear, I put it to you that a reader from the early twenty-first century, learning that we no longer have fences between houses, would immediately leap to the conclusion that we instead have between our homes a sort of undifferentiated parkland without boundaries. To the damaged mind of the time, the simple expedient of separately controlled plots, each with an individual character, yet open on all sides to allow entry by agreement, simply would not have occurred. As a result neighbours could not even walk directly between homes when visiting neighbours on streets backing onto theirs. To remove the fence would be to court the total loss of one’s personality.
The true depths of the deleterious effects of the terror of the neighbour can only be understood through a psychological lens. Lack of self-respect is a corollary of seeing others as unequal, for one cannot help but become obsessed with the inequalities and hierarchies within one’s own self. It is this failure of valuing of the self—and the twisted conception of the self as fully autonomous—that did so much to inhibit the Transition. Consider: if two members of a household had such different visions for their garden that they struggled to work together, at no point would either of them (or their neighbours) have considered that one of them might instead work on a neighbour’s plot, with someone whose vision they did share. It’s not that this would have been considered and rejected. The historical record shows that it could not be conceptualised. The constant measurement of one’s neighbour and oneself within a framework of competition and inequality ensured that people could not reach out to each other. The fences were strongest in the mind.
Jake Stanning is a public sector worker, occasional journalist and constant blogger. His interests are trees and radical politics, which sometimes converge in thinking about commons. He is currently helping to launch London Renters Union.
“Encyclopedia of the Mad Gardener” takes place in a fictional future where the equatorial line has thickened to become a zone, forcing mass migrations to the ends of the planet. This equatorial zone is the dampscape, where things are irremediably hybrid and contaminated (human/nonhuman, virtual/real, organic/inorganic) and the boundary-edges of solids are fuzzy, mushy, and moist. The zone undecipherable of the equator stands in contrast to the Garden, which is an inhabitable heterotopia, a site of purification, albeit precarious. Desperate for resources in this hollowed-out planet, the Department’s priority is to create a new classification system to determine ‘pure rubbish’, elements from which no further value can be extracted. The narrative focus is on “this Clarice”, who is tasked to draft this taxonomy, but reaches a point of saturation where she herself melts into the humid dampscape.
This piece was developed in a writing workshop, Post Super Future Asia, organized by Jason Wee, founder of Grey Projects in Singapore, and Esther Lu, director of Taiwan Contemporary Art Centre.
Things that provide humans with energy
Things that provide humans with energy that are not edible
Construction materials with a five-year life-span
Construction materials with a ten-year life-span
Plastics with origins in inorganic compounds
Plastics with origins in organometallic compounds
Plastics with origins in organic compounds
Solids that look like solids
Solids that look like solids but are actually
Things with bio-traces
Ambivalent things that could be considered human with further research
Sluices and foams
Things that appear to be useful (but are not)
Things that appear to be useless (but are not)
Things that are very useful
Things that are very useless
They need to hear its airless breathing, ozone skin and metal spines heaving in and out.
Words weigh on this Clarice with their inclusions and exclusions, non-sequiturs and false dichotomies, mistakes lodge themselves into their windpipe, air thinning out. Walking out into the labyrinth has turned into a nightly habit. They need to hear its airless breathing, ozone skin and metal spines heaving in and out. Under the genteel face of the pink moon, the orchids appear to droop slightly, providing no compensation. They are no longer the verdant and beautiful, immortal stalks standing erect and sitting out of time. Only the sweet smell of smouldering plastic and aircon refrigerant, perhaps, already leaking through the pores of the triple-layered glass.
They feel the smells seep into their nasal channels, dioxins boiled under the pink moon, flooding neural pathways, gases slowly encrusting, lining the PVC walls of veins and arteries. This Clarice would then become rock, an eternal orchid.
Other projects were lighter, more definite, like the implementation of picture-windows onto every edge of the garden, the first of many ingenious contributions by this Clarice for the Department. The message of the picture-windows were simple: lookat what’soutsideandlookatyourself. The outside would be burnished into the day-to-day lives of the garden’s inhabitants, instilling gratitude, and more importantly, keeping the outside within a frame, as an image, an undesirable horizon, to be viewed from a comfortable distance.
Organic compounds/Inorganic compounds
This project was like slime, neither fluid nor solid, categories sliding past one another, sticking and mixing like weekday adulterers under warm neon. These were words for contaminated things and the boundaries drawn drew no blood. From past experiences, the Department’s campaigns with compounding, hyphenation and other terminological transplants were unviable options. Surgical as they were, these words quickly dissolved into obsolescence.
The Department, tired from the Babel-like confusion in the administration of the tropics, placed the renovation of existing classification systems as its top priority.
Et cetera was the other problem. The problem was equatorial, a line thickened from a hairline to a stroke to a wet stain: zone undecipherable. Three planets and a fraction already exhausted, causing in a mass migration from the maladies and mercurial weather of the yawning tropics. The Department, tired from the Babel-like confusion in the administration of the tropics, placed the renovation of existing classification systems as its top priority. The most urgent was to delimit pure rubbish, waste for which no value could be extracted. But this Clarice began from nowhere, the agglutinating mush offering neither entry nor exit, fleeing from definition, by definition, this Clarice could not dissect and examine its pieces. It was an admission of defeat.
Things that belong to the Department
Things with tentacles
This evening that Clarice, letting their feet navigate the sinews of the labyrinth, find themselves in another pavilion. One could tell that not many have visited the Pavilion of Benevolent Knowledge, with its carbonfibre seats splintered and frayed, the onceluminescent orange of its pillars now off-colour, browned by the moon. Cloaks of dust settled on the miniaturized Banyan. The eyes direct themselves, contouring along the tangents and angles of the pavilion, all lines leading towards the picture window. Towards the outside, an anachronistic dampscape, wetland and swamp. Perhaps from the affliction of the wandering mind, in this sweltering evening, the glass surface of the window saturates itself, as though looking back at this Clarice were the lace of hairline cracks, the undulating light that breaks apart, dappled and dappling layers of dust, rainwater stains, and their reflection onto the uneven glass coming together and torn asunder, one of thousand other countenances sunken into the mush, tangled with gossamer plastic and sewer-lalang floating in deadwater, rafflesian rot blooming with silicon-sand particles of circuitboard, eroded, haunted by the great drift of spectral vibrations from databytes, undeletable. What remains of wet banana leaves, crushed, a halo of flies starving for polyethylene.
Things that belong to the Department
Slimes and other aggregates
Those that look more human with your eyes squinted
 “All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with sober sense his real conditions of life, and his relations with his kind.” Karl Marx, ManifestooftheCommunistParty (1848)
 “The garden is the smallest parcel of the world and then it is the totality of the world. The garden has been a sort of happy, universalizing heterotopia since the beginnings of antiquity (our modern zoological gardens spring from that source).” Michel Foucault, OfOtherSpaces:UtopiasandHeterotopia, 1967
 “The unfinished Chthulucene must collect up the trash of the Anthropocene, the exterminism of the Capitolocene, and chipping and shredding and layering like a mad gardener, make a much hotter compost pile for still possible pasts, presents, and futures.” Donna Haraway, StayingwiththeTrouble, 2016
 “I leave to the various futures (not at all) my garden of forking paths.” Ts’ui Pen quoted in Jorge Luis Borges, The Garden of Forking Paths, 1941
 “What matters is through this daily gesture I confirm the need to separate myself from a part of what was once mine, the slough of chrysalis or squeezed lemon of living, so that its substance might remain, so that tomorrow I can identify completely (without residues) with what I am and have. Only by throwing something away can I be sure that something of myself has not been thrown away and perhaps need not be thrown away now or in the future.” Italo Calvino, La Poubelle Agréée, 1977
Marcus Yee is an artist and writer working at the intersections of waste cultures, infrastructure, and new materialism. He recently presented his first solo exhibition,Altars for Four Silly Planets in soft/WALL/studs, Singapore.
In the not-so-distant future, when Artificial Intelligence controls almost all facets of human life, Maleika begins to question her relationship with one of the only friends she’s ever known. She is faced with an ethical dilemma between her professional work as a dream collector and her newfound discovery about the implications of that work. In this, the first chapter of a longer story called The collector, the role of creativity, AI, consciousness, and dreams are explored. Characters are robots and humans. AI, through its attempts to understand humanity, is slowly leaching our creativity. In so doing, the earth itself is being leached of its lushness and its green. This story is inspired by my own questioning of the growing technological influences over our lives, and how seemingly progressive forms of technology like AI may end up stripping us of that which makes us truly human.
In the dream pull, I’m only sense. No logic. No boundaries. I was a child the first time it happened. My mother thought I was sleepwalking. She followed as I walked barefoot out of the flat, along the streets, and into the forest. She called to me, “Maleika, Maleika darling, where are you going?”
“I am going to listen,” I said automatically.
“Listen to who?” she asked.
“I don’t know her.”
Waking up to all of the sounds I’m used to through my window: the jarring screech of crashers, the high-pitched gliders, I feel alienated. There’s a hollow in my stomach, and it feels like it’ll carry me up into space. The city feels unfamiliar again today.
Dematra’s my contact. She reels me in when I’m too far into a pull. She sleeps on my cream-coloured living room slat. Her eyes are more beautiful closed. She opens them, “How’d you sleep bumblebee?” She asks.
“Like always. In one side out the other.”
“Yeah, me too.”
Dematra’s my inspiration. She’s perpetually on. In the aluminum light, she’s charcoal, skin soft as shadow. None of the turquoise hints I love so much but her glowing eyes are always the same bright, unflinching enigma. She moves the small sphere over me. It detects whether or not I still have content.
“Clean!” she says giggling. “Good thing we don’t have to give bio samples!” Both of us remembering last night’s substance. Contacts aren’t scanned because they can’t collect. They’re just our anchors. They bring us back when we go too far.
On the glider, I breathe in deep and slow feeling the familiar and grounding rumble through my body. Grey flits by. Endless grey-ness. Green’s become more of a concept. I look at my reflection in the bus window. Those purple hues from my mom. She used to call me her little amethyst.
“She used to, she used to…”
The Agency called and they think they’ve found a pull. Time to check it out. I step off the glider in front of what used to be a factory for personnel vehicles. I can already see her past the rusting fence, sitting on the bench, napping. Usually The Agency’s pulls are reliable. The closer I get, the more I feel.
Loud wind rushes around a distant cliff. The beginning of a moan, a woman’s moan? … There she is in the distance running toward me with her arms outstretched. No. She’s pointing at something. There’s something behind me. I turn to look and suddenly I’m falling. I hit ground. I’m winded but I can feel long grass in my grip as I dig my fingers into the earth. I can’t breathe. Something strangling me, ropes around my throat, vines, I can’t tell. It hurts.
“Maleika! Maleika!!” Dematra made it. Her touch pulled me out. “It’s lucky I found you, bumblebee!”
I’m panting, “Where am I?”
“We’re still here,” she says.
“It was different this time,” I tell her. “It’s like it wanted to strangle me.”
I look around and see the woman’s still napping on the bench. Is something changing with the pulls, I wonder. “Well, you know nothing can touch you. Right?” Dematra says looking deeper into my eyes, her clear, unwavering gaze grounding me. “The next time will probably be back to normal, maybe this lady’s just not well.”
“Anyhow, I have it and they were right about the location,” I say, trying to hide my anxiety. “I’ll just upload it to the system and then we can go grab a drink.”
“Are you gonna upload all of it?” She asks.
“Of course,” I tell her.
At The Agency, the upload appears on the cleandome. Jamy watches as the image sparks to life. A woman runs towards the viewer, crying out, pointing to something behind. As the angle changes, the viewer begins to fall for what seems like a long time. The viewer lands in a patch of green.
Jake’s Apartment is tricky to get to. It’s in an alleyway between two big squashers and you have to know how to slide the pattern properly. The last bar and first speak-easy in what, 100 years? In any case, this place makes me happy. Maybe it’s the danger of losing my ability to substance? Most of the faces are familiar. There’s that guy Rick, Nick? Not all good kissers make good lovers. I give him a wave.
“Hey you two! Come on over, I’ve got two seats at the bar,” says Antar, the apt burley man behind the bar.
The bar is almost empty, but we take the seats as if it was full. Antar’s got the type of smile that makes you feel like he’s just done something bad and he wants to tell you about it. I mean, he has done something bad. Selling substance is against code. The Collective would report him. They would take it all. And Antar is convinced they’d do worse.
Plant. That’s what we all call it. I know that it must have had a name, like Lilly, Anthurium, Aloe… But no one knows the names of plants anymore.
But selling substance isn’t as bad, as keeping a plant alive without reporting it to The Agency. Green has to be reported or uploaded to The Agency for their ongoing efforts to solve lack of green, or “the drought” problem, as it is known.
Plant. That’s what we all call it. I know that it must have had a name, like Lilly, Anthurium, Aloe… But no one knows the names of plants anymore. I doubt anyone born after me even knows what a real plant looks or feels like—especially this plant with its long tentacle-like stems that curl out purple hued leaves. Up close you can see there’s this soft fur framing the moist leaves. The mix of emerald green and purple makes them effervescent, its many tentacles reach for the light spilling out of the small cut-out window in the wall.
Come to me, come closer come … Not now! This isn’t an assignment. I shoot back substance to numb the pull. The bar clicks under my ring as I tap for another, and another. This is the shortcut.
“So what’s my favourite collector been up to these days?”
“I’ve been trying to deny that this is my job by refusing contracts, going in late, giving them poor uploads,” I say ironically. “This society is so obsessively punctual, you know? Not me right? Not you and me, hey Ant.”
“What? That’s a change,” Antar says, surprised. “you always loved your job.”
“Tsk tsk,” Dematra wags the finger using just her voice, looking at me and Antar. “You both know that’s a lie! This bumblebee loves it! And they love you! I mean they need you, it’s so obvious…”
“At least you got a job with the collective,” he replies, “You should be happy, we should all be so lucky.” Antar gestures with his left hand to show me all of the other miserable people out there.
“I didn’t ask for this,” I say as the substance finally kicks in.
And then it goes dark, if only for a moment. It’s what I’ve been waiting for. This cold unthinking and unreceptive state.
I don’t know how long I’ve been gone. Dematra is talking about The Agency. “It’s so great!” She shrieks. “They keep on saying that they’re working on a prototype to bring back the green. That the collectors will help.” I laugh like I’ve been here the whole time. Then we all look at the plant in the room.
“So, Antar,” says Dematra, a barely perceptible edge in her voice. “How is it that you keep this one alive?”
Antar never answers this question. We never tell The Agency because there is this unsaid agreement between us three. We keep each other’s little secrets.
It’s midnight, and I’m tired. I left Dematra at Jake’s, and I’m on my way home. Walking is rare for us. There are the relayers but I choose to be old fashioned. The air is clear, and gliders are the only thing up at this hour. It’s off-time for shipping deliveries to the Collective. Some people are still in a phase of work-related transit. I sense the penumbra in the distance. It can’t be a pull, though, because I’m full of substance.
It seizes me, I’m in it, and I mount a relayer. There are fewer and fewer people in the streets. After a while, I find myself on another part of the grid where stand-alone homes are sparse. I dismount and the pull gets stronger, unstoppable. I know I should contact The Agency, that I should get my contact, but this is elating and I’m losing logic.
I know I should contact The Agency, that I should get my contact, but this is elating and I’m losing logic.
An ancient looking woman opens the door standing alone, her long hair reaching down to her waist. There’s a look in her eyes that I’ve never seen. It’s unguarded and warm. Memories start to flood my mind, the jingle of someone’s bracelets, the smell of apples, sunshine illuminating my mother’s smile. She hugs me and whispers in my ear, “You must feel, my child, you must feel it all.”
The main room is large and the walls are covered in vines and pictures… They aren’t pictures, they’re something else that show people. A young girl putting her fingers in different colours and making marks on walls, someone my age throwing their hands with grace, hips thrust to the side. I’m pulled up the wooden stairs of the old house—moonlight seeps through the windows and fills the rooms. On a bed, there’s someone dreaming.
A little boy speaking to an old woman. In front of the boy, a multi-faced sculpture of faces. The faces are singing. The boy asks the older woman about the music, she looks at him with pride.
“All you have to do is listen, to be. All you have to do is dance, to be.”
“But what if I don’t want to listen?” asks the boy.
“Then you will become like them,”
She points behind the boy. I turn to look at a large sphere pulsating like the dream detectors.
I come to, by myself and unusually unconfused, like when I’m with Dematra. The boy is awake and staring at me. His black hair is almost invisible in the dark room. He looks disappointed. I’ve never spoken with one of the dreamers after collecting.
“They always said that this would happen.” He says with a blank expression.
“That a collector would come to steal my dreams.”
I explain to him that I don’t steal dreams, I just upload individual ones. Despite being younger than me, it’s clear that I am speaking with someone more familiar with the pull. He gives me a sad smile, “Is that what you’ve been told?”
“What do you mean, what I ‘ve ‘been told?’ I work for The Agency, my work is official, Collective sanctified,” I reassure him. He smiles sadly. As he uncrosses his graceful arms, I see they’re covered in symbols I don’t recognize.
“Have you sent it?” he asks.
“No, not yet. It doesn’t take long though.”
“If I tell you, will you promise not to send it?”
“Protocol?” He interrupts. “Who’s protocol? Why is there a protocol in the first place?” He’s not angry, just sadly amused, “do you ever ask yourself these questions?”
“No, I don’t need to. I’m doing good work…” I question myself as I say it.
“You don’t sound convinced,” he’s so calm and gentle that I can’t help but be curious. As he tells me the story, the room comes alive. His name is Nilo. Nilo’s hair dances around his face, undulating like dark water. His hands illuminated at moments by moonbeams tracing what was once “a magical world.”
“You see, Maleika, when you upload the dream, I cease to be a dreamer…” He looks at the paintings and I follow his gaze. Painted in a larger piece, is a lithe man with long hair, “dancing.”
“Why are you the only Creative I’ve ever met?” I ask.
“I don’t know. Mom thinks the Collective is threatened by Creatives so they collect. Worse, actually. Look at her paintings.”
The boy takes her downstairs to the paintings:
People wearing standard issue gear are zipping and beating people dressed like Nilo and his mom. Behind the people like him are colourful pieces of furniture, plants, flowers.
As Nilo explains “art”, behind Maleika and the endless grey, an oddly familiar glance pierces her thoughts.
A woman’s soothing voice, singing into her ear, crying… A classroom with three colourfully dressed children lined up against a wall. The cold touch of the instructor’s fingers against her forehead; her metallic gaze, unwavering, grounding, staring at her over and over again.
“Do you believe me?” he asks.
“Yes.” I say, feeling lightning.
Walking back by the last of the supposedly abandoned old homes, each with unusually-painted window frames, barely perceptible lights are on in the rooms. The shifting lace curtains reveal something else. There is something ancient inside of me. Colourful, greyless, loud… it is awake.
It’s 2AM, I’ve only been to Dematra’s commonblock once before and I have more questions than ever. Her building’s recom scans my voice and utters an approving “Authorized“. I knock on her door, it creeks open.
“Dematra, I know it’s late, I need to talk!”
Her flat is minimal. The light from the street spills through the kitchen window, like mercury. A single upturned glass sits on the counter next to the sink in the empty kitchen.
I move through the living room toward the bedroom. There’s a soft pulsing light coming from the darkness. I push the door open and take a seat on the metal bench. Her body is there, limp, head over one shoulder pulsing with a cold, soft glow. Her hair, usually a deep oak brown, is off. Scalp entirely exposed, a labyrinth of metallic threads running through her skin. Her eyes are open but instead of the warmth I’m used to, they’re off.
“Come on, come on, I’ve got something I need to talk about!” I say hoping this will quicken lumibration.
I reach out and touch her shoulder. It’s a cold object but slowly the pulsing glow subsides and the brushed silicone softness I’m so fond of returns to her skin. I grab her hair and place it back onto her head, brushing it to the side in the style she likes.
Her eyes blink once and there. “It took you long enough!” I shout.
“Whatcha doin’ here honey?” She asks, visibly surprised.
Seated side by side, I recount the events of my evening. The boy, the art, the homes, and the horrible revelation.
“Am I a thief?”
In the subsiding glow of Dematra’s lumibration, she looks at me with something new. I think that I see her pupils dilate, that grounding gaze opens up to me and reaches out like a plant to light.
“I don’t know, bumble bee. I understand that you perform for The Agency, and for the good of us all,” Dematra’s neck twitches and voice distorts, “T-that’s all, al…” Her voice trails off into her empty room, her empty kitchen, her grey flat.
“You can’t just keep telling me to perform and collect. It’s not enough anymore. I really need you to be my friend right now.”
I turn toward her as she shudders spastically.
“Look.” She says.
All of a sudden I see my mother’s eyes in hers and I’m taken over by a pull.
A small child appears sleeping in a garden. She is being watched by another small, perfect child. I’m my mother watching the children.
Fire surrounds us as those eyes that don’t belong to her look deeper into mine and ask, “Why can’t they dream, Maleika?
Dematra snaps back, the fire is gone. “”Whatcha doin’ here, bumble bee?”
Vera-Maria Zissis is a soon-to-be first-time mom, avid science fiction reader, nurse, and creator. She has a BFA in Sculpture from Concordia University and has always written poetry and short stories.
This essay is both a critical reflection and review of two books: the edited volume, Arts of Living on a Damaged Planet, from University of Minnesota Press (Tsing et. al. 2017) and Jeff VanderMeer’s (2017) Borne. When read diffractively together, these two texts map onto one another as a simultaneously troubling and inspiring thought experiment about what it means to accept and live with the premise of the apparent Anthropocene.In the shade of this epoch, the politics of scale – of space and time – are up for debate, inviting new forms of thought that, when taken seriously, have drastic implications for the art and practice of existence/survival on this planet.
When read diffractively together, these two texts map onto one another as a simultaneously troubling and inspiring thought experiment about what it means to accept and live with the premise of the apparent Anthropocene.
Arts of Living on a Damaged Planet is divided into two smaller books: Ghosts and Monsters. On Ghosts – ‘The winds of the Anthropocene carry ghosts–the vestiges and signs of past ways of life still charged in the present’ (2017: G1). On Monsters–‘Monsters ask us to consider the wonders and terrors of symbiotic entanglement in the Anthropocene’ (2017: M2). These two theoretical mechanisms work together ‘in a dialectical fashion… to unsettle anthropos…from its presumed center stage in the Anthropocene by highlighting the webs of histories and bodies from which all life, including human life, emerges’ (2017: M3). In sum, this work engages with the emergent truth(s) of the Anthropocene, namely that Nature, as something separate from civilization, is dead. In this epoch, every facet of Nature–from plastics and soot in the Earth’s crust to molecular-level species interference–has been implicated in the human regime in some form or another. This is not meant to imply that all humans share the same responsibility for these shifts in the earth system, or that the impacts of these shifts are equally distributed among human and non-human populations. Still, when considering that Nature is and always has been co-produced with civilization (even if some civilizations produce more intensively than others), the implication of humanity in this geologic moment ignites a sense of speculation and wonder that inspires a geologically oriented reconsideration of what constitutes ‘us’ and the world we inhabit.
The approaches taken in this book vary between physical and social sciences to the arts and humanities in an attempt to open up new spaces for intellectual and political praxis between otherwise discreet epistemological traditions. While there is certainly room for critique in this edited volume–especially given the sometimes sporadic and disparate connective threads between the chapters–this book is written in direct response to developments in critical and social theory that have wrestled with the Anthropocene. These theories have done much of the hard work of critiquing, deconstructing, and displaying the inequalities and disparities of this moment. Though imperfect (this book consistently refers to an undifferentiated ‘we,’ for example), this book is one of few that attempts to rearticulate and empiricize our new reality. Moreover, this collection of works pays attention to the stories ‘we’ tell about the Anthropocene: ‘Some kinds of stories help us notice; others get in our way’ (2017: M8). As a piece of speculative fiction, Jeff VanderMeer’s Borne is a story that does both: it helps us notice the implications–the trace impressions–of our actions in the future, and it gets in our way–confronts us–by not allowing us to ignore our place in the Anthropocene’s actualization.
Borne’s central character, Borne, is a symbiont, a creature (monster? weapon? person?) that consumes genetic material. He/she/it represents both a ghost–something that embodies and alters previous and present genetic material–and a monster, in that it also represents an entanglement of salvaged pieces and bodies. Borne is found and raised by Rachel, a scavenger woman, in the ruins of a futuristic city wrecked by catastrophe and lorded over by a giant, venomous flying bear named Mord. While ecological collapse is a peripheral component of Borne’s world, biotech is centered in the book as the culprit for much of the city’s destruction. The city is inhabited and ravaged by botched biotech experiments and human and non-human survivors. However, the book should not be considered necessarily dystopic. While it may appear so to readers sympathetic to the human characters, who are certainly central to the book’s plot, the world of Borne is teeming with new, unexpected life. This is signaled when Borne encounters a poisoned river near Rachel’s home; a river she considers dead and ugly but that also serves as a site of contemplative beauty for Borne. Throughout the book, Borne struggles with its identity–whether it is a thing, a person, a weapon, or a monster. There is hardly any resolution to Borne’s existential crisis, as these framings of its existence stem from a humanistic point of view. Further, Borne is both an individual and a community, a singular being symbiotically imbricated in its surroundings. It is an iterative version of itself, a concocted mesh of genetic material. Though Borne seems to be more or less in control of its being, it is driven by a desire to consume genetic material, which highlights the agentive nature of genes, namely that they are constantly becoming and emergent. In this way, Borne, and the world Borne inhabits and consumes and alters (and is altered by), is representative of much of the work outlined in Arts of Living on a Damaged Planet.
The breadth of topics covered in Arts of Living on a Damaged Planet is too wide to cover here. However, there are certain pieces that are especially relevant when read with Borne. With regards to ghosts, Karen Barad uses the silhouettes left behind of human bodies vaporized by the detonation of the atomic bomb in Hiroshima to extend her conceptualization of post-humanist performativity. She argues that time itself died in the blast, but that its loss, though indiscernible, is profoundly tangible. In sum, the ‘photographs’ taken by the demoleculuarization of human bodies illustrates the agentive capacity of molecules, highlighting the ways in which the world is inhabited, haunted, represented, and built by forces beyond the human. Similarly, Jens Christian-Svenning’s contribution illustrates the way in which the contemporary global landscape is haunted by trace impression of the past. Entire ecologies are built upon and fundamentally shaped by large-scale extinctions, for example, and these ghosts continue to emerge and build new worlds around us. Though the name Anthropocene centers the human as a species-wide disturbance in the geologic record, it is, as Dorion Sagan discusses in his contribution, one geologic moment of many mapped onto and nested into one another. These ghosts live in the present, contributing to the global ecology of the current world. Further, they haunt the future, of what will come.
The landscape of Borne is similarly haunted by ghosts. Borne’s city is pockmarked by the extended failures of capitalist development: toxic rivers, burnt-out buildings, creeping desertification. These landmarks frame the plot of Borne much in the same way the collective story of the Anthropocene is framed by eerily similar ghosts. Like the molecules that make loss tangible in Barad’s work, there is an emergent world of possibilities lurking in the background of Borne. While the landscape itself is ghostly in the novel, the character Borne is also phantasmagoric. It is a specter that looms outside of human control, despite Rachel’s best efforts. As it consumes more genetic material, it is simultaneously haunted and haunting. It is haunted by the genes it is forced to ingest, as they develop and alter Borne’s biophysical structure. And, it is haunting, as Borne grows it becomes increasingly unknowable and uncanny. Further, as a piece of biotech–as an experiment of late-stage capitalist development–Borne represents a loss of control in this world, haunting this present reality from a speculative future, which resonates with Tsing et. al.’s (2017) notion that the Anthropocene can be understood as a future that looks back on the present. This monstrous future, however, is also framed by the monstrosity of the present, which is another tack taken by Arts of Living on a Damaged Planet.
Speculative fiction provides an alternative world in which it is possible to envision monstrosity.
If ‘Monsters are bodied tumbled into bodies’ (Tsing et. al., 2017: M10), Scott F. Gilbert’s chapter in Arts of Living on a Damaged Planet highlights that life itself is monstrous. He uses the term holobiont–‘an organism plus its persistent communities of symbionts’ (2017: M73)–to engage with developments in biology that troubles the concept of an individual. He uses a cow as an example. A cow is unable to survive on its own, as it is unable to digest its food. Instead, ‘It is the population of gut symbionts that digests the grass and makes the cow possible’ (2017: M73). Even human birth would be impossible without symbionts. Gilbert’s chapter highlights one thing: all life is symbiotic, dependent upon complex relationships for survival. Extinction, however, has become a trademark of the apparent Anthropocene. As species disappear, so do their microbial legacies, as Margaret McFall-Ngai writes in her chapter. This creates a vacuum in which symbiotic survival becomes questionable. There is no analogue for lost species and lost microbial universes. However, as species disappear, these symbiotic entanglements are amplified outside of microbial worlds. As Peter Funch shows in his chapter about the intertwined lives of horseshoe crabs and red knot birds, loss affects global ecologies. Horseshoe crabs and red knot birds are mutually dependent upon one another for their collective survival. In an era of mass extinctions, this realization raises the question of how to do entangled conservation, and, when doing conservation, what is at stake. It is here, at the edge of loss, that this book’s dialectical schematic of ghosts and monsters come together. What trace impressions of loss will influence the future? Further, what does it mean to live in a time and place where these changes are taking place?
Speculation becomes a powerful tool when thinking through these questions, and speculative fiction provides an alternative world in which it is possible to envision monstrosity.The monstrous implications of the Anthropocene are centered in Borne. Borne’s existence is sustained and mediated by symbiotic relationships. In this sense, Borne represents an ideal monster (a body tumbled into bodies), a case study in what Arts of Living on a Damaged Planet seeks to outline. Yet, Borne is not the only monster in the novel. The human characters in the novel are also holobionts, using variations of biotech–from intravenous medicine to external traps–for survival. These complex relationships play out through the books plot as Rachel encounters other human-esque characters. Finally, the backdrop of the novel is scattered with monsters, symbiotic creatures living and dying in the ruins of the city. Flying bears, bioengineered fish, and disappearing foxes are among these monsters. However, these creatures exist and survive through complex relationships with one another and the landscape. Like microscopic symbionts discussed in McFall-Ngai’s work, or the speculative loss discussed in Funch’s work, the monsters in Borne allow its readers to envision and imagine a monstrous world haunted by the Anthropocene.
As this moment continues to unfold at multiple spatial and temporal scales it is critical to remain grounded in the shifting sands of empirical reality while also continuing to think and imagine about what reality may, can, and will look like in the future.
But, what is the Anthropocene? When did it start? Are we in it or entering it? What do we call it? Whose fault is it? As a concept, what does it ‘do’? What sort of politics or ideas does it enable or disable? The answer to these questions have been pushing thought and work on the Anthropocene for decades, despite its more or less recent rise to fame in the social sciences. While Arts of Living on a Damaged Planet is a foray into answering these questions with empirical and experimental work, these questions remain largely unanswered. Partly because some of them are unanswerable, and partly because there remains much thought work to be done. Speculative fiction, like Jeff VanderMeer’s Borne, puts in the thought work. It gives readers something to grapple, to do the hard work of thinking and imagining the full political, ethical, and moral implications of a geologic humanity. What does it mean to be human? Who is considered human? The questions continue. In sum, these pieces work well together, and are both important works in the context of the apparent Anthropocene. As this moment continues to unfold at multiple spatial and temporal scales it is critical to remain grounded in the shifting sands of empirical reality while also continuing to think and imagine about what reality may, can, and will look like in the future.
Dylan M. Harris is a PhD candidate in the Graduate School of Geography at Clark University. He studies the stories we tell (and don’t tell) about climate change and comes up with his own stories from time to time.
The streets around the station had caught a glitter from the early morning rain, and as sunlight poured between the towers, every surface sparkled. In the puddles between the tracks, the city was shattered into shards of the 21st century ambition that built it.
Stillness prevailed—a coiled anticipation. The only permanent denizens idled, ready to serve: law enforcement drones hovered at the end and beginning of their patrols; auto-kiosks stood, shutters open, steam curling from espresso bays; city-roombas lurked in alleys ready to suck up litter; adverts lay ready to broadcast targeted pitches to the coming rush. Behind every wall, floor, and pillar programs and machinery hummed in neutral—an orchestra held by the raised hands of its conductor.
Keith watched the city swell to engulf the train, staring out as the avenue of towers rose around the tracks. His morning music—slow sitar overlain by a duet in Hindi and Portuguese—played languidly, barely drowning out the murmur of the carriage behind him. Normally, this was his favourite part of the day—a meditative peace that washed from his commute through his day, providing him deep, enduring comfort—but, today, it was little comfort. He twisted at his hair and gnawed at his nails.
Marriage, he thought. It was a terribly old-fashioned idea, but it felt right. He wanted to commit—to declare his intention publicly amongst his friends and family. To tell his truth. But before that lay the question, and the answer. That morning, something had fallen away within him and he’d realized he was unsure what Surinder would say. Surinder, his Surinder: the man who ate tangerines without peeling them and always got juice everywhere; who talked about chemistry the way others talk about movies; who he’d whisked away to Zanzibar for a beach holiday just four months into their relationship only to find him driving them into Stone Town to explore the old slave markets. Surinder with his cross-eyed grins and his irritating way of turning every dinner party into a political brawl. Surinder who was out of his league; Surinder who might say No.
The train jerked to a halt, pulling Keith from his thoughts.
Shimmying and sidling between his fellow commuters as they extracted bags from overhead compartments, he stepped out into the full-bodied petrichor.
The plaza beyond the station was a labyrinth of queues for coffee, dappled by the shadows of drones overhead. Keith walked with purpose, tuning out the adverts that squeezed in between songs and scuttled over every flat surface declaring promises of weekend escapes, resorts, cleaner shaves, and fragrances that might seduce impossibly handsome men.
Faces surfaced briefly from the crowd, throwing up snatches of public profiles—recent Facebook photos, instagram posts, dating, and hook-up profiles. But, caught in his head, Keith avoided eye contact, paying just enough attention to avoid collisions, and headed for the subway.
He clicked through the turnstiles, stepped onto the escalators, and let the ground swallow him. As he stood through his descent, his contact lenses expanded to seize his peripheries. A moment of darkness ensued. Then he was somewhere else. Immersed in an advert—one of his—promoting the newest dating app.
Before him, a full moon hung over mountains bristling with stone pines. He could almost feel the warm summer breeze. A restaurant enfolded him—Italian, Spanish, maybe Greek. Across the table sat a well-muscled white man, slight stubble grazing a square jaw. His new companion laughed inaudibly, biceps tensing as he slapped the table, and a woman’s voice whispered over the pantomime ‘Find your bliss.’
Keith’s feet found solid ground; the advert dissipated, his contacts shrinking back into transparence. Standing at the base of the escalator, he found himself smiling; it was oddly comforting that the targeting systems hadn’t picked up his intentions, hadn’t known. He’d heard so many stories of the algorithms turning prophet, informing people of their pregnancies, impending breakups, and firings. But what if it knows he’ll refuse, a rogue thought like a bull through the streets, could it know?
He got off the subway a stop early to visit the retail district. Mind still stuck in Surinder, he emerged into sunlight onto a broad boulevard cut by stripes of lush vegetation. Ranks of restaurants lined the street. Suited servers hovered around the breakfast crowd, ready to swoop in to replenish any emptying glass. Artisanal bakeries bustled with personal shoppers of the wealthy, homemakers returning from dropping off the kids, and others— foot tapping, heads cocked or on their phones checking their feeds, email, the time—treating themselves before work. Above them hung a haze of reviews, posts, selfies and pictures, each set in a colour-coded square and sized by their influence, likes, and reach. They formed a digital smog that vaulted from eve to eve, and roiled as new posts puffed up to join the old.
No adverts pestered him. And, if he looked down, he could pretend he was in a city of old. Still the spreads behind the glass were whispered temptations—a seduction that he feared his diet would not survive. So he kept his eyes down or ahead, looking at the plants and the drying tarmac, tunnel-gaze only flickering as the shadows of drones blinked over the street.
Gradually, the delis, bakeries, and restaurants gave way to boutiques selling reconditioned vintage clothes, artisanal crockery, and antique furniture. Still, he kept his eyes down until his destination towered over him: a four-story building with sleek black walls and gaping displays of white silk and scattered with red pillows. A single piece of jewelry was draped over each pillow, each was a statement of simple, elegant, opulence.
Keith tried the door. It was locked. Shit, he hadn’t checked. Of course he hadn’t; too wrapped up in his doubts as always. He winced to himself, imagining Surinder’s sardonic smile—the smile that would wrap itself around his man’s face if—when—he told him. Sheepishly, he looked for opening hours on the storefront. There were none displayed on the door, or on the windows: just a simple logo in gold. Keith pulled his phone from his pocket, and searched for the hours: 11:30, guess I’m coming back at lunch.
Gripped by his mistake, he paused, looking at the windows full of jewels and up over the edifice—camera-bulbs, gold skirting, water stains on the black-clad wall. Gradually, he became aware of a presence beside him.
A man stood to his right, hunched, head down. He was dressed—anachronistically—in the loose coveralls of the city’s old waste management service, a department that had been given over to machines a little over a decade before. He noticed the splitting, ragged rubber of the man’s boots, and the dirt beneath his nails before he averted his gaze, frowning. Homeless, he thought, I thought they shipped them all off. Guilt guttered in him. Still, he studiously ignored the man as he struck off to work.
Keith found his intern, Ndidiamaka, in their shared office. She was standing perfectly still in the middle of the room, back to the door. A detached camera-bulb, its cords looping up into the ceiling socket, lay on his desk like a gouged-out eyeball.
Amused and more than a little curious, he lingered by the doorway, watching her.
Alongside her work as his intern, Ndidiamaka was an engineer and a masters student in the sociology of technology; in exchange for her seemingly inexhaustible labour, his firm—AdSight—provided her the data she needed for her thesis project on automation in advertising. Over the months she’d shared his office, he’d seen her devise dozens of bizarre side-projects. More often than not, they failed.
After a minute stood stock still, she checked a tablet beside the camera. Whatever it showed elicited a stream of frustrated muttering.
Keith cleared his throat; Ndidiamaka jumped.
“Shit! Sorry, sorry—I expected to have this mess cleared up long before you came in!”
“It’s quite alright Ndidi, I didn’t mean to startle you… but what, exactly, are you doing?”
“Well, uh, I stayed late last night crunching data for my thesis—it’s due in two weeks can you believe it? And the lights kept on going out—I’d have to jump around every ten minutes to keep them on! So I tried to fix it, and it kind of spiralled from there…”
“…Oh-kay,” Keith stepped around her to slide his briefcase onto the other side of his desk, “well, I’m going to need my desk back at some point.”
“Right, of course—this camera is refusing to see me when I stand still anyways, something to do with the contrast settings. I can’t seem to get around the firmware, been trying for the last three hours—”
“Ndidi, did you go home last night?” At this question, her face became a rictus of guilt, “Ndidi! We talked about this! Am I going to need to start kicking you out of the office when I leave? It’s not healthy!”
“Right, right… I’m sorry, mum. I won’t do it again…” she rubbed the bridge of her nose, “could you help me get the camera back into the ceiling?”
He sighed, “Alright.”
He had to stand on a chair to feed the wires back into the gut of the ceiling. It took several attempts to get it to loop just right and, all the while, Ndidiamaka stood behind him, nervously holding the chair and occasionally giving him ‘helpful’ directions. Finally, with a satisfying click, it twisted in. He clambered down to solid ground and, installing himself at his desk, pulled on a VR headset.
Keith’s livelihood was sandwiched between an ocean of algorithms and a ceiling of decision-making programs. Beneath him, programs ran through a century of footage shot on phones, cameras, and whatever other recording equipment. They pulled out anything relevant, trying to find anything that might go viral or enhance the immersive advertising experience. The way the light hit a building, a fragment of graffiti, the sunset over Mount Cameroon, the ranks of cans at a supermarket: everything would be spliced together.
But the programs were not perfect. They did not, for instance, understand the unspoken rules of society, and what rules they did understand they applied mercilessly. For instance, early in his career, Keith had had to press refresh on an entire campaign for Cutesie, a makeup manufacturer’s new line of products for high-school children when the software started spitting out nothing but hardcore porn. Similarly, he’d had to press reset on the campaign for Gladiator Razors after their request for a ‘martial aesthetic’ caused some rogue element to make SS officers the protagonists of every clip.
Thankfully, those extremes were exceptions. Mostly he dealt with the ten percent of adverts that were jumbled mishmashes that made no sense and the other ten percent that, while coherent, accidentally undermined the clients’ brands. When forced to discuss his job at parties, Keith would tell people that the most interesting part of his job was the subtle art of negotiating the borders of offense. Many of the best advertisements pressed right up against the lines: they threatened transgression. The rules were of marketing were a morass of contradictions that few programs could untangle, none efficiently. Which was lucky, because that was why Keith still had a job. So he sat, VR glasses on, flickering from ad to ad, pushing some through to the automated decision-making processes above him and deleting others.
Most days he felt as though he was trapped between rising flood waters and an impermeable ceiling.
That morning, Keith was faced with a raft of adverts prepared for his agency’s newest client: Saber Security Solutions, a provider of anti-crime systems for supermarkets, homes, and corner stores. He fell into the first ad.
A woman stood before a rack of diapers, grainy in the ancient footage. The scene resolved itself, shedding a century’s baggage to become crisp. It was as though he was there, looking over her shoulder, pondering her choice. She looked a little over forty; a slight grey had snuck into her undyed hair. Hefting a large handbag, she held a box in her hand—a hypoallergenic brand—scrutinising the price. Keith could almost see the calculations writ over her lined face. She sighed, and slid the box back onto the shelf and turned to leave. Then, as though seized by some invisible force, she hesitated. She turned back, lifted the box from the shelf, slipped it into her bag, and walked towards the doors. Alarms blared. Lights flashed. A black tube, terminating in two prongs snaked from the ceiling. Tzack. It jabbed the woman. She collapsed, juddered by the surge of an electric shock. The interlinked triple ‘S’ of Saber Security Solutions descended over the scene, ‘Saber Security Solutions: Presenting the Integrated Anti-Theft System,’ said a stern, male voice.
Not a chance, thought Keith as he emerged from the advert, who wants to see someone’s mother get tased?
The next advert wasn’t much better though it skewed in a different direction. This time the thief was a young, black man dressed in what could only be described as a pastiche of late-20th century ‘urban’ gangster. Wayyy too racist, thought Keith. He nixed it three seconds in.
Of the three ads that followed, only one passed—a gang of rubber-Nixon-masked thieves shaking on a tiled floor.
“Uh, Keith?” He pulled off his goggles. Ndidiamaka stood beside his desk holding two grease-stained paper bags, “my data analysis just finished and it’s given me results that support my thesis so I bought some treats to celebrate.”
“Ndidi! You know I’m on a diet!”
“Hey, I’m not going to eat donuts alone! I got you a dumpling from that Jamaican place, that one you say makes the food better than your grandfather.”
Keith took the paper bag with a smile, “you are such a bad influence.”
“Someone’s got to be—everyone else around here eats like birds.”
She sat on the edge of his desk, pulled down the paper, took a bite of her donut, and released a satisfied sigh. She didn’t bring up her results until they were both halfway through their respective pastries.
“So, Keith, my analysis raises some questions.
“Yeah, you know I was looking at bias in advertising, right?”
“Yeah, of course.”
“Well I’ve been applying Implicit Bias testing methods—” he shot her a blank look, “—they were originally used to demonstrate unconscious biases in humans—on the adverts this agency produces. Well, I inverted the test and…”
“And it shows that darker skin is strongly linked to more negative images and subjects in this agency’s adverts and lighter skin has a slightly weaker association with positive images and subjects.”
“So the programs are racist?”
“That’s what I thought… but…”
“But?” he said, trying to keep the frost from his voice.
“Well, when I looked at each step of the process, I found bias in the programs but the skew gets slightly worse—not better—after it passes your desk. The average, I mean. You do cut out the worst of it, the outliers.”
“I see,” Keith tried his best not to sound offended; Ndidi’s only real devotion was to pure data, “What about the decision-making levels above me?”
“They’re much, much worse—they account for over a third of the skew alone. I don’t mean to cause offense—”
“No, Ndidi. You didn’t do anything wrong—the data is the data. I guess I have some work to do on myself.” he smiled but knew it looked hollow, “I’m a black man—a gay man—even in this day and age, I’ve had to face prejudice.”
“Right. I, uh, just thought you should have a heads up before I submit my thesis.”
“Good call… Could you send me your results so I can review them?”
They finished their food in silence, disturbed only by the passing drones and the mutter of the city.
Afterwards, she sent him her results—a mess of tables and statistics. His first instinct was to prove her wrong. But, try as he might, he couldn’t find anything to undermine her results. When he eventually plunged back into his work, her words pursued him. As he passed through advert after advert, he began to question himself, seeing bias in every decision.
Gradually, he started acting against his instinct, letting ads through which he’d normally delete and deleting some he’d have let go. He let two white children get sprayed with mace for fiddling with the window of a suburban home; allowed an elderly woman get doused with restraint foam for stealing a bag of skittles; approved a gaggle of twenty-something women being tased for shoplifting. The elderly south asian man stealing beer no longer had to suffer a light dusting of pepper spray; the light-skinned black youth avoided getting blasted by a noise cannon. Finally, he deleted a video of a black man in a balaclava shoving jewels into a bag only to be shocked again and again as he struggled towards the open door.
His second job for the day was sorting through adverts made for Matcher, a dating app. Here, his fight began to get interesting. His adversary was his own aesthetic and as such he experimented with its opposite. He waged war on defined muscles, manicured hands, crisp hairlines, and well-groomed beards; he fought youngness, smooth skin, smouldering looks, and his predilection for hooked noses. Out went the elegant plates, cocktails, romantic vistas, and foreign-language films. He cut and cut. Reaching down within his decisions to tear out any remnants of his biases.
The adverts that survived were ungainly, pockmarked by awkward silences and the hubbub of shabby joints. Two women haltingly discussed tax policy over plates of congealing curry. A woman tried to convince her date that the dilapidated dive they sat in ‘wasn’t always like this’ as an ever-expanding bar fight threatened to engulf them. A series of stand up comedians in a small, smokey club threw terrible jokes into deepening silence and then at jeers. Hugs met crossed arms. Drinks spilled. Teeth collided. But still, there were smiles, genuine smiles, fake smiles, laughter—nervous, pitying, and redemptive—conversations about nothing, coy flirtation, long-suffering weariness, moments of profound joy.
By lunchtime, Keith felt triumphant.
On his way back to the jewellery shop, Keith called Surinder, as was his habit. Though as the phone rang, he hoped that the man he had already begun to label as his fiance would not answer. Therefore, it was a slight disappointment when Surinder picked up on the fourth ring.
“Hey babe,” came his deep, calm voice, “perfect timing. Just sat down in the staff room… Claire’s here, she says hey!” Someone said something faint in the background as Keith tried to remember exactly who Claire was. Then he heard Surinder shift and he knew he was getting up to go to the window and stare out onto the road and do what Surinder always did when he was on the phone with someone he cared about: pace unendingly.
“I missed you this morning,” Surinder said, “you were shifting about all night, and then out of bed like a shot when your alarm went off. Is something wrong?”
“Just stressed about work,” Keith lied, “I… uh… well you know how it is.”
“Yeah…” Surinder did not sound convinced, “But you owe me cuddles!”
Despite himself, Keith smiled. It was the exact kind of cutesy behaviour he’d have told anyone he hated, but, coming from Surinder, he felt nothing but delight. Not least because it was a side of the man that few ever saw; no, no-one who knew the grave, sincere professional Surinder would believe just how much of a softie he could be in private.
“So, how’s your day going?” Keith asked, “How was remedial Chem?”
“Oh, fantastic,” Surinder’s voice dripped with sarcasm, “just how I wanted to spend two hours of my life. Today there was almost a fight, so at least something happened to break the monotony of re-teaching kids a bunch of stuff they don’t want to know and will never use—little fuckers will probably all end up on basic.”
“I know, I know: I shouldn’t say that,” Surinder interrupted before Keith could get out his criticisms, “it’s just so frustrating. But I hear that Gregson is finally retiring this year, so there might be a spot teaching the advanced placement program…”
“Yeah,” Keith grimaced, the principal had been dangling advanced placement in front of Surinder for three years; Gregson, a flinty-eyed octogenarian and the teachers union rep had showed no interest in ever stopping. Keith half expected her to pass away giving some high-strung overachiever the B minus that would define their personality for a decade. His mind digested what Surinder had said previously, “Wait, did you say a fight?”
“Wow, you really are distracted today,” Surinder chuckled, “Yeah, the Chen twins were picking on Gus Ramotar again and I guess he’d had it. He flipped his table—”
“Gus the bus flipped a table.”
“Hey, don’t call him that… and it was a mistake, I think, they were poking him, calling him Gus the bus and he flipped out, had enough, stood up… and you know how big he is and how small those ancient desk-chair combos are. Almost took half a row with him.”
“Oof,” Keith winced, “I’m guessing that only encouraged them.”
“Everyone started laughing.”
“He was halfway down the hallway before I caught up,” Surinder sounded unusually bitter—irritatingly but brittly superior despite his terrible grades, Gus was far from Surinder’s favourite student, “He was crying Keith. I asked him what was going on—even if everyone knows he hates them, he’s generally controlled enough not to give the Chens a show. He showed me his news feed using that app—you know that one that lets you share your stream—”
“Yeah, that. Well, he showed me his stream. It was all dieting supplements, workout tapes, fitbits. Every advert.”
“Fuck. That’s horrible. They’re not meant to be able to market that stuff to kids.”
“Yeah, well, they do…”
Keith had ground to a halt on a corner a few blocks from the jewellery store. In the silence, he became aware of his surroundings for the first time. Across the road, a blank expanse of concrete had been overtaken by a view out onto a white sand beach. Waves lapped and, in the midground, two men faced each other under an awning—a South Asian man with a heavy beard who looked nothing like Surinder and a black man who looked creepily like Keith.
Keith flinched. Immediately, he tried to suppress his reaction. The anxiety that had subsided during his chat with Surinder washed back up his throat and quite suddenly, the last thing he wanted to be doing was be talking to Surinder.
“Listen,” he said, “I should go…”
“I wasn’t criticising your work… it wasn’t your stuff—”
“I know, I’m not hanging up because of that,” Keith said, “I just got back to the office…”
“Ah… well… thanks for calling and listening to me rant. I’ll see you this evening?”
“Can’t wait! Love you.”
“Love you too babe.”
Keith hung up and stood staring at everything except the beach. He hoped his stifled reaction had not been captured, logged as one of the thousands of factors that made his profile. But he’d been too slow and, as he strode towards the store, ads for suits, registries, ministries supplanted the normal barrage of food, beverages, sex, phones, and cologne. He felt naked. He sweated, picking up his pace—head down—even as the auto-ads gave way to the pitches of the well-dressed, beautiful men and women proffering plates of free samples from doorways. An overwhelming awkwardness pressed at him as they tried to appeal to him—it was best not to make eye contact. He kept his focus ahead, at the plants. He cranked up the music, and tried to ignore the promotional messages that shoved themselves between the songs which told him: book now and save 50 percent.
He fled to the jewelers’.
Bam. Someone jerked away from him, falling back. Keith reached out to steady the man. Calloused hands rasped across his. He caught him before he fell, pulling him upright.
“Are you okay?! I’m so sorry!” he blurted, looking earnestly at the man only to find his gaze avoided, “I wasn’t looking—I’m sorry.
“It’s okay,” mumbled the man, straightening his shabby suit. Before Keith could say another word, the man was off, limping into the rising lunch rush. Shaking his head and feeling a little embarrassed, Keith turned back to the door.
The interior of the jewelers’ was a large, low-lit room with an archipelago of glowing display cases scattered across it. A man in a suit stood behind one these cases, waiting patiently a few feet away from two women—who were looking at the displays the way one might look into a cage at the zoo. The clerk turned to Keith with a calculating look, glanced down at the tablet in front of him, and did an approximation of a smile — it looked as though some puppeteer had tugged on strings hooked to the edges of his mouth.
Keith nodded at the man and then looked down at the display cases, skimming over them.
“This way, sir” said the clerk, motioning towards a large bank of glass in the middle of the room.
Keith frowned and walked over, skimming the contents of each display case. The one the clerk had indicated was full of rings. How did he know, Keith thought and then; he probably bought some sort of consumer-information package.
Innumerable jewels glittered back at him; yellow, red, blue, pink, lines of diamonds, rubies, and other stones, stones that he did not recognize; square, oval, hexagon, rectangular; bevelled, smooth, a few rough. The metal of the rings were a whole other phylum: plain bands; metal like knotted rope; chains of circles and squares; gold, platinum, silver in all their shades. Panic seized him. He felt as though he was staring down at an ocean of eyes.
“Do you know what kind of ring you are looking for?” said the clerk softly, “Does the lucky man have a stated preference?”
“No diamonds,” Keith replied, trying to shake his shock at being so unceremoniously outed. Pushing aside one part of his anxiety, Keith looked down at the rings once more, “I think he’d prefer rubies—it’s his birthstone. He also says he’s allergic to gold…”
“I see,” the clerk unlocked a drawer behind the display, pulled out a black felt tray, and pushed it across the top of the display case. Ranks and columns of silvery rings set with red stones glimmered in the dim light, “this is our selection of rubies set in platinum.”
Keith peered down at the rings, reached towards them, and then hesitated, “may I?
He left the store empty handed, though his visit had not been in vain. Of the multitudes of rings, he’d found three or four that he thought Surinder would love, though their price tags gave him pause, despite the clerk’s insistence that the payment plans were affordable. He excused himself, telling the clerk he had to think, and left for his office.
Outside, the midday sun had thickened the air. Sluggish currents shuffled through the streets, disturbed only by the buzz of passing drones. Sweating in his suit, Keith paid for a reprieve from the audio-adverts and tried to focus on his music. Still, the logos of department stores offering discounts on registry as well as sweeping shots of fridges, blenders, tables, stoves, and microwaves called out from bus-stops and billboards, crowding his peripheries. He ignored them until he reached the intersection in front of his office. There, he stood looking up at the collage of videos above, massive images that rippled down the sheets of glass and concrete, a salesman’s rain.
In a way, he supposed, they were good omens.
Back in his office, he found Ndidi trying to fit the camera bulb back into the ceiling. He wondered, vaguely, how she’d managed to get it down again, before taking over from her. This time, it only took three attempts before it clicked back into the socket.
“Sorry,” she said as he sat down behind his desk, “It’s been bothering me all day.”
“Well, kind of?” she looked at him guiltily, “I confirmed that the problem is contrast; it has problems recognising stationary black hair and skin as a living person rather than an inanimate object. I found that I could trick the camera into thinking the room was darker than it is so that it registers my skin as lighter. I don’t understand why they didn’t just program this thing to focus on temperature—you only need like 2 degrees either side of 37.5 to detect every single living human.”
Lacking a response, Keith shook his head sympathetically. The few times he’d stayed late at work, he’d often removed his VR goggles to find himself sitting in darkness. It was irritating, but his work hardly required the light, which buzzed on if he got up to stretch his legs or visit the toilets. It hadn’t occurred to him that the problem was fixable, much less that its cause might lie in the colour of his skin. Still, it seemed a minor problem—not worth the effort Ndidi had put into the solution.
He picked up his VR goggles but a message from his aunt appeared in his vision, projected on his contacts:
Can I see you in my office?
With a sigh, he put down the goggles.
His aunt’s office was down the hall from his. It was a sizeable room—easily twice the size of his—with an arresting view of the city subsiding into the suburbs, farmland, and then mountains. Framed prints of late 20th century adverts crowded the walls, an audience for the single desk and the elliptical the room contained. There was only one chair: his aunt’s.
His aunt was running on her elliptical, sweat glistening on her freckled skin and her unruly red-frizz pulled back, straining against elastics. He stood, waiting for her to finish. It was a long five minutes before she hopped off the machine, pulled a large tablet off the display and, towel handing over her neck, slid into the seat across the desk.
“Keith!” she said, brightly, “Are you okay?”
“I’m fine, thank you.”
“Nothing happened recently?” He noticed a slight edge in her voice, “this morning, perhaps?”
“Not that I can think of,” he kept his voice neutral.
“Well then,” she smiled, “can you account for the precipitous fall in your stats this morning?”
“Please do not interrupt.” she swivelled her tablet to face Keith revealing his name atop a column of numbers, “until about eleven this morning, you were among my top-performing employees with over seventy percent of your approved ads moving onto at least the final stage of production. Then, after a break of about ten minutes, you fall to thirty percent. What’s more, when I reviewed your reject feed there were a number of adverts that were clear winners. So you can understand my concern that something might have happened.”
“I’m sorry, Siobhan. I—”
“Don’t be sorry, be better. I’m not going to lie; your mother’s pestering helped you get this job but you are a talented, reliable, and competent person, which is as much why I hired you over the thousands of other qualified applicants. We all have bad days but you need to communicate if there’s a problem…” she looked at him expectantly.
“I… well…” he fidgeted with his trouser pocket and tried to work out whether telling her about Ndidi’s findings would help—whether she’d do anything about it.
“Listen Kee,” she said sweetly, “communication is really important…”
“Ndidi showed me her results,” he blurted, “they showed racial bias in our advertisements.”
“I see,” she sat back, looking unsurprised, “I thought that might be it. Listen, Kee, I’m not going to sit here and tell you there’s no problem, but we’re not the problem. We are subject to the realities of the market and, quite frankly, people’s biases affect their desire to buy. In the end, we only reflect our culture’s issues.” She pulled out her phone and jabbed at it for a few seconds.
“Our only aim is to help our clients show their product in the best possible light. Sometimes, that task is going to come with some cultural baggage.”
The door opened behind him. Keith turned to see Ndidiamaka sidle into the room. She looked nervous. Sorry, he mouthed at her. Her eyes narrowed.
“Ah Deedee,” continued Siobhan, “Keith was telling me you have some results from your study.”
“Yes,” Ndidiamaka replied timidly, “but they’re only preliminary.”
“I understand,” Siobhan replied sympathetically, “but you can understand how results such as those Keith described might put this agency in an awkward position.”
“I’m not going to name the agency in my thesis.”
“Yes, but you will in your resume and, with me as one of your references, it’s not going to be that hard to put two-and-two together—”
“What are you asking me to do? I can’t change my results.”
A silence unspooled; Siobhan’s jaw clenched. Keith could almost hear her calming herself down.
“The last thing I want to do is tell you what to write in your thesis,” Siobhan said in a brittle, sugary tone, “but aren’t there a lot of ways this data could be interpreted?”
“So your results are infallible—no uncertainty?”
“Well… there’s always some uncertainty.”
“Exactly,” Siobhan smiled and it was genuine this time, “You’d be remiss not to mention that uncertainty. For instance is the racial bias worse than that in our society? How do you measure bias? Are there problems with such measurements? How does this agency compare with others? Is there data for that? See, those are just off the top of my head and I’ve never studied sociology.”
“But my thesis—”
“Listen, Deedee” Siobhan’s good humour evaporated, “over half of this agency’s employees are women and a full third are people of colour. I can tell you that no other agency comes close to matching our levels of diversity. Smearing us will only result in us losing clients to other agencies and may force us to lay people off. I would never tell you what to write, but think carefully about the potential impacts of your work. Don’t make us pay for systemic problems.”
“I’m sorry,” Keith said as soon as they left the room but Ndidiamaka hurried down the hallway ahead of him, barely acknowledging he’d said anything. He jogged after her, catching up just as she turned into their office, “wait, I’m sorry… you know how she is—she bullied it out of me.”
“I’m not angry at you, Keith. I’m frustrated that months of work is going down the drain for PR reasons.” She pinched the bridge of her nose, “how did she even find out?”
“I tried to be less biased and it tanked my numbers; my aunt figured something happened.”
Ndidiamaka stared at him for a few seconds.
“To be honest,” she said eventually, “I’m surprised you changed your behaviour so quickly. I expected you to do something… But I thought I’d have weeks—enough time to have already submitted my thesis. By then, even if your aunt complained, it would have been out of my hands. ”
She sat at her desk and stared blankly at her computer, lost in thought. Similarly silenced, Keith sat down at his own desk, pulled on his goggles, and found himself immersed in a series of adverts for electric razors. Square-jawed men with rippling abs stood in hyper-modern bathrooms, shaving foam slathered on hairless faces. Waiflike women caressed faces, rubbing chins, cheeks, necks with perfectly manicured hands. He flipped through the ads, allowing his instincts to take over. It was easier than he’d ever admit.
After several torturous hours listening to gravelly voices describe at length just how close a shave could be, Keith stepped out of the office into a cool evening. The package holidays had returned in force, packing the buildings with glimpses of silhouetted palms, densely forested mountains, and vineyards. Though the sky was a pale blue, the dusk in the adverts gave him the impression of gathering clouds. He hunched over as he wove through the rising commuter rush.
As he approached the jewellery store, the package holidays gave way to adverts for credit cards and banks. Men and women smiled from the walls, gold watches peeked from the cuffs of immaculate suits, children frolicked around sleek kitchen islands. Skies were a cloudless blue; the grass was green.
By the time he walked into the cool, dimness of the shop, he felt calmed and assured. His smile returned by the clerk, he strode over to the display of rings, and asked for the three most likely wedding bands. The clerk—who had set them aside for him—slid them over the glass on individual white satin pillows.
One was a simple circle of platinum with a large, bevelled-rectangle ruby, its deep red glittered ostentatiously even in the low light. It was beautiful but, seeing it again, Keith realized that it was far too showy for Surinder’s tastes.
Tiny rubies snaked around the second ring, oscillating across a broader band of platinum. He picked it up and slipped it onto his left hand. He thought the rubies caught the light beautifully, but the broadness of the metal felt cumbersome; he liked the idea of Surinder forgetting he was wearing the ring, of the admiration of others drawing his attention. He wanted the compliments to be a trail of gifts in the days ahead like petals leading to a bedroom.
The third was perfect—as thirds are wont to be. The ring itself was made of four thin strands of bright platinum twisted together. The metal half-swallowed the stones. They peeked from within as though the metal swaddled a ring of pure ruby. He slipped it on. It was surprisingly light, almost gossamer. He raised his hand peering at it in the gloom. The door behind him opened and the ring caught the flood of evening light, sparkling. This is it, he thought, this—
“Get down on the ground!” yelled a hoarse voice.
He turned, confused and found himself staring down the barrel of a pistol. He froze. His world turned on that point of darkness. At its edge, he had a dull awareness of chaotic motion—the clerk scrambling back towards the cash.
The barrel turned away. Panic overtook him. He dived sideways, landing on a display case. Glass shattered.
“Don’t try anything!” yelled the voice.
But Keith was already stumbling towards the door.
“Put it in the bag!”
A familiar hum awoke the air. Tendrils unfurled from the ceiling. The door was just a few feet away.
“I’m warning you”.
His hands felt the cool glass of the door. Something moved in his peripheries.
Two things happened at once; there was a loud bang and Keith felt a force course through him. Propelled forwards, he spilled from the shop and out onto the street. He fell, the pavement thwacking into his palms. An acrid stench—burning hair—filled everything. Another gunshot resounded behind him. Help, he tried to say, but he could barely croak.
“Citizen, halt. Surrender yourself.” buzzed a voice from above.
Keith struggled to his feet, stumbling forwards, pushing himself away from the store. The world seemed distant. His heart pounded. He collided with someone, and then someone else. Then suddenly, it seemed the street was clear. He tried to catch his breath. He forced himself to keep moving.
“Citizen, this is your final warning.”
The approaching sirens were a salve to his panic. They promised salvation—an end to the madness that had overrun his evening. How could anyone possibly think they’d get away with such a brazen robbery, he thought, his first clear thought since it had all started.
A shadow flicked over him. There was an crackle of electricity. He looked up. There was barely time to register the taser-barbs lancing from the wasp-like form of the law enforcement drone, before a surging current pushed him into darkness.
His face was pressed against cold metal, its bitter smell mingled with the pungency of saliva. His legs and arse felt leaden, asleep. He tried to push himself up, to get comfortable and found he was handcuffed to a bar in the middle of the metal table.
The walls surrounding him were featureless expanses of brushed metal. On the other side of the table, two empty chairs faced him. A camera bulb sat next to the lone light on the ceiling. Confusion. He had a vague recollection of a jerking passage in a van; of rough hands pushing him through a brief outside into another darkness; of hands taking his phone, his watch, even his contacts; of a flash as he stared dazed; of questions answered automatically; and then of a silent room and the return of the all-embracing darkness.
“Hello?” In the echoes he felt a stab of panic, “hello?”
An outline of a door appeared on the wall across from him. Silently, it slid back and then sideways, revealing two figures silhouetted by the harsh light of a hallway. Sounds of walking feet, typing, and indistinct conversations spilled into the room.
“I think there’s been a mistake—” Keith began
“Keith Higgins,” rumbled a baritone, “of 32 Pineview Drive?”
“Yes that’s me, but I think there’s—”
“You’ve been read your rights,” said the other figure in a flinty, peremptory tone, “you are facing charges of armed robbery, grievous bodily harm—escalating to first degree murder, if the clerk does not survive surgery.”
The two of them stepped into the room, revealing themselves.
The first voice belonged to a large—but not fat—man. The arms of his suit ended prematurely, revealing shirt cuffs and a hint of a tattoo on his forearm. Stubble speckled his face around a ragged blonde goatee, merging into a crew cut that was about a week overdue for a haircut.
The owner of the second voice was a tall, thin woman wearing a charcoal grey suit, and a blue shirt with a yellow stain on it. Her hair was pulled back into cornrows ending in blue beads that, Keith noted, were the same colour as her shirt. She was holding a tablet under left arm. Her fingernails were bitten to the quick.
“Mr. Higgins,” continued the woman, “I am Detective Beckford and this is Detective Strauss.”
Detective Strauss sat heavily in the seat across from Keith. Detective Beckford leant on the back of the other chair.
“Please, there’s been a mistake, I didn’t do anything!”
Detective Beckford’s jaw clenched. She leaned over and slid the tablet towards Keith, “Mr. Higgins, we have your accomplice in custody. He’s being questioned in the next room.”
“Accomplice? I didn’t have anything to do with the robbery, please believe me.”
“If that’s the case,” said Strauss gently, “I’m sure things will be cleared up soon. But it will be cleared up more quickly if you work with us.”
Detective Beckford tapped on the tablet. The screen flickered and displayed an aerial shot of a street. Two men stood staring at a window display filled with jewellry. With a rising sense of dread, Keith recognised himself.
“Is this you?” asked Detective Beckford
“Standing outside the scene of the crime this morning.”
“Why did you go to the store before opening hours.”
“I made a mistake, I wanted to buy an engagement ring—”
“You went to buy an engagement ring but didn’t check the opening hours of the store?”
“It was a mistake.”
“Right. And the man standing next to you, who is he?”
“I don’t know.”
“You had never met him before?”
“No. I didn’t even talk to him.”
Detective Beckford’s eyes glinted and her mouth curled up into a sneering smile, “Mr. Higgins this will be easier if you tell us the truth,” she flicked the screen, changing the display to footage of the store. Keith, head down except for occasional furtive glances, collided with a man, pulled him back to his feet, and then said a few words to him, “here we have you talking to that same man—”
“That’s just a coincidence—I didn’t even realise that was the same person. Maybe he was staking out the store.”
“Yet, he looks at none of the cameras and you look at every single one and then…” she flipped to another set of footage—a man, his face hidden by a cap, walking into a store,“he avoids every single camera on his entry. Do you know a man named Quentin Jones?”
“No…wait, maybe… the name sounds familiar.”
“It should, you went to highschool with him. You were both on the Rugby team.”
Detective Beckford tapped on the tablet and a yearbook photo popped up. Beneath it was the name Quentin Jones, a few words and a signature which, with a sinking heart, Keith recognised as his own. “Now, Mr. Higgins, we can place you both at the store on three occasions today. Your agency works with Saber Security Systems, so you have the knowledge necessary to identify the alarm. You also have the technical background to disable the system. You pulled the clerk away from the silent alarm, but Mr. Jones came in before you had a chance to disable the system.”
“I did not!” Keith protested, “I was not involved in any way. I only went to the store to buy an engagement ring. Ask the clerk.”
“We would, but he is currently undergoing surgery due to the fact that your accomplice shot him.” retorted Detective Beckford, “You’re looking at 15 years in prison, you understand that? 25 minimum if the clerk dies. Longer, if your friend testifies against you. Ask yourself: how much do you trust Quentin?”
“Mr. Higgins,” Detective Strauss’ voice was calm and reasonable, “you left the store with a ring during the robbery, a $20,000 ring—six month’s wages for you, right? We’ve run your financials and there’s no way you could afford that ring. Hell, the cheapest rings in the store would be a stretch with your outgoings, even with generous financing. Now, I don’t think you expected Mr. Jones to shoot the clerk and, when he did, you ran. We have footage of the two of you; we have footage of you running; we have footage of you disobeying lawful commands from a law enforcement drone. We have predictive data that flagged your behavior as suspicious, evasive, and conspiratorial from the start of the day. You’ve been caught Mr. Higgins; you’re going to jail. But, if you work with us, we might be able to get you a deal, particularly if you cooperate before the clerk passes. After all, you did not pull the trigger; is it fair for you to face the consequences of Mr. Jones’ actions?”
Keith stared at the two detectives. For a moment, he was convinced, caught in a web of circumstances that reeled him towards the deal. A future hunched over him like a gargantuan spider, mandibles distended. Then it all vanished under the pure heat of the truth; he was not guilty. He had done nothing but flee danger. It seemed impossible that a jury would convict, that anyone would believe this story. He knew all about reasonable doubt.
“No,” he said flatly, “I was not involved in any way. I want a lawyer.”
Detective Beckford clenched her jaw and snatched up her tablet; Detective Strauss gave him a look a pure disgust and stood. As a unit they walked to the door, which slid open as they approached. At the door, Detective Strauss paused and looked back at Keith.
“A lawyer won’t help you.” he spat, “your accomplice has already confessed to everything.”
The door closed, leaving Keith alone in the sterile light of the interrogation room. He tried to remember Quentin Jones, his teammate twenty years before, but could not recall anything except a few fragments—the motions of play, the feeling of a rugby ball in his arms, the smell of mud and turf. Quentin was a vague shape—a blur at the peripheries of his memory. He didn’t even remember having a five minute conversation with him. He had no idea where the man had been for the past two decades. He tried to imagine what he would do if, with one, small lie, he could claw back a decade of life from the threat of incarceration. He shuddered. There’s still the trial, bail—it’s not all lost. It was a glimmer of hope. But, as the incessant buzz and inscrutable walls stretched the minutes, that hope faded like the mouth of a well above a falling child.
Time dissolved. The slight and random flicker of the light, the only change except Keith’s shifting: hunched, slouched, upright and expectant, arms crossed, slumped back. His legs crossed and uncrossed—up and down—sliding back under the chair and forward under the table. He tried to think of anything but his predicament. But it sat, a black hole at his centre, no matter what he turned his mind to to escape it, to skirt its edges, the gravity of his anxiety made every orbit a decaying one. The room seemed to tighten. It crushed the breath from him. His jaw locked. Fingernails broke as he raked the table. He tasted blood.
The door slid open, revealing two figures—Detective Strauss and Detective Beckford. They strode across the room towards him. Detective Strauss rumbled something, but Keith could not make out his words.
“Please,” he managed to croak, “I didn’t…”
Detective Beckford came to a halt beside the table. She did not meet his gaze. He tried to catch Detective Strauss’s eye, but the man seemed just as unwilling to look him in the eye. Detective Beckford leant towards him. He flinched. She grabbed his hands, pulled them towards her and fiddled with the handcuffs.
Suddenly, he was free. They pulled him to his feet and shepherded him down a hallway, through a bullpen thronging with uniformed officers, and out to a desk where they handed back his phone, keys, wallet, and contacts.
“Again, Mr. Higgins,” said Detective Strauss, “We were acting on the information we had available. We released you as soon as the clerk confirmed that you were a customer, and we verified there had been no electronic communication between Mr. Jones and yourself.” he hesitated and seemed to be selecting his words carefully, “I hope this experience has not affected you adversely.” he said, eventually.
Keith stared at them, both looked away, down at their boots. With a grim, sarcastic laugh, he turned away from them. This seemed to release them from whatever duty they felt to him and they bustled away. Alone beside the desk, he pushed his keys and phone into his pocket and then put in his contacts. That done, he felt less naked. But still tears welled in his eyes. He wanted to be home.
“Keith!” he turned. A familiar figured strode across the atrium beyond the desk. A tall, broad shouldered man whose stubble was edging on unkempt and whose cross-eyed smile was weighed on by anxious hours of wait and anger. Wordlessly, he walked to Surinder and let his arms pull him in, enfolding in the smell of tangerines and home. Against that chest, he began to sob, “It’s okay,” Surinder said, “you’re safe…come on, let’s go home.”
Outside, the mid morning sun had just begun to dry the rain. The few cars in the car park glittered like damp beetles. The adverts had not yet loaded. Expanses of empty rain-stained wall stared down, a crowd of impassive faces. Then, in unison, they flickered. A horde of men and women in suits strolled into view. Arms crossed, they stared down at him with fierce, determined gaze. Most he did not recognize, but a few were clients—the towering figure of Margaret Anderson of Anderson Litigation smiled reassuringly, Venance Owuor of Mendelson, Ramirez & Owuor stood straight faced. Make a Claim, demanded one advert, Don’t Pay Unless We Win, Fast Case Review, Experience You Can Trust, Personal Injury Litigation, No Win No Fee, Reclaim your Life… The city screamed at him silently, I know; I see.
He fumbled at his eyes—at his contacts. Circuitry tore between his fingers. Shreds of tiny machines falling away, disappearing into the dirt beneath his feet. He blinked back his tears and looked out over a quieted city with naked eyes. Traffic throbbed; trains rattled; indistinct shouts, tone, and alarms rose into the air: it all combined into a threatening mutter.
With a sigh, Keith opened the car door, swung in, and pulled on his seatbelt. Surinder keyed in their home address and sat back as it rumbled to life. They sat in a heavy silence as it pulled out of the car park and struck along a route towards the motorway, Keith staring out at the city as it swept past; Surinder watching Keith, probingly.
“I got a call from your aunt—your phone is off—” said Surinder eventually, “I told her now’s not a good time—I said you were sick—but I thought you should know.”
“I’ll call her back.”
“Babe, you don’t have to—take a break…”
“No,” Keith said, “I need to focus on something else, I need to do something, I need—”
“Okay,” Surinder handed him a phone, “but you’re not going into work today. Today I get you to myself. We’re going to drive to the mountains and go for a good long hike”
“That sounds perfect,” they shared a smile and Keith felt as though he was sloughing off a brittle layer of anxiety. He dialed his aunt’s number, she picked up on the third ring.
“Ah, Kee! Just who I wanted to talk to!” Though slightly out of breath, she seemed unusually chipper, “I heard you were sick. Well, get well soon because I have a lot more work for you! You’re a genius, you know that?”
“Your ads—those god-awful ads—went viral!”
“The security ones?”
“No, those were a trainwreck—nothing we could do—the ones for Matcher! Those awkward, awful dates. Well, eight of the ten that made it through final review have over 30 million hits—30 million in less than a day! Holy shit Kee, you’re getting a bonus this year, shit we all are. So get well!”
She hung up.
“Good news, I take it?” asked Surinder.
“Yeah,” said Keith, staring out the window—the towers had given way to strip malls and parking lots, “some ads I chose went viral.”
“That’s amazing, Babe! Really exciting!”
“I guess.” Keith shifted uncomfortably. They lapsed into silence again.
“Keith?” Surinder looked over at him carefully, “I know why you were at that shop.”
“Well,” Surinder’s smile was the sun rising on a new day, “the answer’s yes.”
I would like to thank Dylan, Hannah, Lauren, and Solomon for making this story better and more comprehensible than I could have done alone.
Nathaniel McKenzie is a proud citizen of nowhere seeking to turn his writing compulsion into an effective means of stealing time from other people. He enjoys avocados, paying rent, the smell of books new and old, trailing off in the middle of sentences, and