‘I had to create a world of my own, like a climate, a country, an atmosphere in which I could breathe, reign, and recreate myself when destroyed by living.’
Anaïs Nin, The Diary of Anaïs Nin, Vol. 5 (1974)
HOSTILE, ALIEN, ALIENATED FROM LIFE
I’m not sure I would make a good collectivist. I’m the kind of girl who, when asked by a neighbour to help weed my building’s shared garden, would look up from where I was sun-tanning and say I was too pretty to work. (OK – I helped anyway.) If dinnertime conversation drifts to utopia, a friend will concede that I can have ‘my own personal corner’ in the commune. It’s embarrassing to admit, but I’m not all too gifted at living with other people, even if I romanticise it by dreaming of the ‘hot girl singularity’ that will merge my consciousness with that of my best friends. The tendency worries me, given the state of the world. Consider that:
The word for world is forest1. The word for world is mother2. The world is made, and remade, through ‘worlding,’3 ‘worldmaking,’4 or ‘worldbuilding’5. The world is rendered by empire, destroyed, and remade forever after. The world is a model, a simulation, an ‘infinite game’ that is open all the way up to its borders. The world is autonomous and alive. It teems with life and voices. Some voices are hallucinations, resounding across dimensions. Some worlds are hallucinations, hewn in great detail from the base material of the void. The world is meant to go on, and on, and on, with or without you. The world is defined by its boundlessness in time, dis- and reassembling infinitely. Yet the world can only be engineered through the finitude of rules, borders, and forces. The world isn’t just an impression, smeared together with other impressions; it needs physics, mechanics, and designers to work. Because the world labours to understand its own origins, and constantly re-plots the coordinates of where it might like to end up, the world depends on momentum. It requires collective desire. Without these things – without a tight relation between past and forecast, dream and execution – the world unspools into chance and chaos. It loses coherency. When I think about ‘building a better world’, the logical next clause is ‘together’. But what if my future self doesn’t fix the problem of her individualism – remaining hostile, alien and alienated from life?
In the collections Terminal Boredom (1978) and Hit Parade of Tears (published by Verso, posthumously, in 2023), Izumi Suzuki’s short stories are populated by characters who are chilly and avoidant, wandering through future worlds that aren’t so much built as already ruined. Setting is scrubbed down to symbol: a purgatorial beach bar, hewn from driftwood and white sand; a cracked plaster dome in place of a sky, barely keeping out a lethal heat. Mind-transfer is a common trope. Characters roam each others’ razed consciousnesses, horrified at what they see. In the story ‘You May Dream’, a global government puts humans into cycles of cryogenic sleep so that only a fraction of the total population can pillage Earth at any given time. Ahead of the procedure, individuals are permitted to insert their consciousness into the mind of someone who will stay awake, so that the person going under can continue to live via proxy. The ritual preceding mind-meshing is not unlike asking for someone’s hand in marriage, and when one girl’s time comes, she takes her so-called best friend – the disaffected protagonist, from whose perspective the story is narrated – to their favourite cafe, proposing to lock their friendship in for good.
‘Don’t tell me you like this kind of world,’ says the friend, taking in the industrial mazes and bare hills that comprise the protagonist’s mental habitat, after the latter has reluctantly accepted the proposal. (Both are nameless.)
‘I don’t hate it,’ replies the protagonist.
‘Why not? It doesn’t make any sense!’
‘Beats me. I can’t explain it.’
‘What’s there to like about a place like this?’
‘For starters, look at how immaculate it is. This light blanches everything.’
‘You’re out to annihilate the human race!’
You’re out to annihilate the human race! A truism: a world hospitable to one may well be hostile to another. Needled by their incompatibility, our protagonist heads to the government clinic to reverse the mind-transfer procedure. If not the whole human race, she is at least committed to annihilating her closest friendship – an intimacy she ultimately finds unbearable. Suzuki’s stories crawl with well-meaning friends and partners whose pleas fall on deaf ears. Nearly all her protagonists freeze out displays of genuine concern. The dead quiet of deep space; the silence behind closed eyelids or between firing neurons; the cotton-wool muffler of intravenous highs: these model, for Suzuki, the seductive impenetrability of alienation. Their acidic attitudes curdle the milk of kindness within minutes. It is their seeming autonomy – the selfish spiral inwards, extractive as a core drill – that torments the relationships they wilfully deny. Their worlds, their rules. No outsiders allowed in.
Terminal Boredom and Hit Parade of Tears are packed with casual, occasional sadism. Yet full-on gore – ‘Full of Malice,’ a story in Hit Parade of Tears, sees one girl reach lobotomised nirvana while meditating on her brother’s ‘laparotomized remains’ – never spirals out into a greater order of harm. Each story is air-locked away from the noisy links between organism and ecosystem, consumer supply chain and perpetual war. Today’s readers may find such sequestering to be the most powerful fantasy at play in Suzuki’s hardboiled fiction. Dreams of estrangement play out across a total lack of world. Even a UFO, crash-landing outside of a psychiatric hospital in Hit Parade of Tears, is less of an emissary from a distant civilisation and more like a divine vision conjured by a single mind. Contrast Suzuki’s brutally minimal environments with the most persistent form of science fiction: narratives that, in representing future or distant worlds in dynamic detail, impart some understanding of our own world at the systemic scale. As they are absorbed back into culture, activating collective action toward standard or radical ends, the stories reshape reality itself.
NECESSARILY COMPLEX, UNRESOLVED, ALIVE
Control over the present requires dominion over the future. Ideas first floated by science fiction writers from Isaac Asimov to the ‘Billionaire’s Bard’ Neal Stephenson have seeped into spheres of influence: organisations, governments, C-suites. For tech bosses who see themselves as rulers of future domains, these writers have become court oracles for hire. Stories by Stephenson – which tend, predictably, towards singular heroes who win at technocracy – form the inspiration behind Amazon’s Blue Origin and Facebook’s Metaverse. Equally well-captured is the technology industry’s moodboard of Star Wars, Star Trek, Blade Runner, Dune, Minority Report, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Metropolis, The Matrix and the like. With the exception of Palantir co-founders Peter Thiel and Alex Karp, whose love of the Frankfurt School is hardly a secret, tech magnates much prefer fiction to theory. These bedtime stories shape their ambitions to engineer, automate, or escape our planet – not only inspiring cute names for exploratory rockets, but giving reasons for the rocket to exist. The rest of us have the misfortune of living in a superfan’s world. Finely-engineered entertainment has assembled into ideology, where a quest for novel invention results in a world improved for a few, built on the backs of many others. Stuck inside these dreams of personal glory and consolidated power, who hasn’t mimicked the cries of Suzuki’s hapless bestie? ‘You’re out to annihilate the human race!’
As Elvia Wilk writes in Death by Landscape (2021), ‘it is possible that the ouroboros, the reciprocal causal loop between fiction and reality is tightening and accelerating these days.’ For six years, I was employed as a loop-tightener, at first inside a nondescript tower block filled with blonde wood furniture and thick slices of golden hour light; and then at home, desk crowded with hot-pink hardware and cool-grey notebooks and anime figurines to recast information drudgery as futuristic camp. The production of futures, as a general job category, may result in a marginally changed product, or it may influence an election. It may shape a policy within a nation, or a corporation as big as a nation. Or it may simply become an advertisement or a candy flavour, a garment or the feeling of the garment, the kind of life it projects. It is a ‘bullshit job’, per David Graeber, yet it is as close as I have gotten to ‘real action’ – even if the outcomes always feel half-articulated, Frankensteined, as if they’re missing something vital.
To tolerate this job is to tend to a system that requires regular monitoring, like a garden, but feels entirely based on illusion, like Eden. The garden will speak to you in a chorus, setting out the terms it needs to be understood. Without these terms, it would sink back into a shapeless mass of uncaptured culture. It would become a landscape without landmarks, staggering to behold. The terms were ugly, but they enabled us, the tighteners, to keep track of the garden’s many properties. Not only the rate of growth and die-back, but how certain allotments could suddenly evoke disgust or joy, dread or unbridled desire. It was imperative to learn why, so we could recreate potted ardour for specific use. Exiting this metaphor, the results of this monitoring would go on to affect citizen decisions or consumer appetites in the present, directly or on some subconscious level. The poet Rachel Rabbit White has written in ‘Porn Carousel’ that ‘desire is a cluster / of promises in the distance / to try to unhorizon.’ Poets, more than aware of how language reroutes thinking, are better than any manager at strategically deploying jargon. And the job was almost too washed in jargon, designed to make its processes feel less like astrology and more like war. Like ‘stacking’: skills, products, performance-enhancements, any set of fixes that could be laminated into efficiency. Or ‘scraping’: raking up all available information, the way a card cleans up the last bits of powder, or a spoon turns out the final threads of flesh from a grapefruit husk or flambéed duck skull, and digesting it into a usable output. In ‘scenario planning’, a forecasting method first developed by the US government-funded think-tank RAND Corporation to grapple with the psychic terror of the atomic bomb, there was the magician’s kit of ‘black swans’ and ‘wild cards’, imaginative prompts for logistical barriers or unimaginable horrors. There was even a word for the prick at the edge of perception, registered and catalogued as a ‘weak signal’ of coming change. More recently, the terminology has absorbed ‘worldbuilding’, flexing the hard RAND matrices into a profusion of imaginative possibilities.
In its most popular use, worldbuilding refers to a practice derived from fantasy or science fiction, where systems, characters, and mechanics assemble to satisfy the expectation that a fictional world should be convincing and complete. More broadly, it should be stated, worldbuilding is simply part of writing fiction: Sally Rooney does worldbuilding of the bisexual Catholic variety, John Le Carré the brittle Cold War type. But I suspect that the present mania for the term’s narrower definition is linked to profit and politics. The most commercially-successful instances exceed the intentions of any one author, engulfing lifetimes and spawning fandoms to whom allegiance to the alternative world often supercedes reality. Within arts institutions, worldbuilding has gained popularity with its implication of serious research and social innovation, quelling perennial anxieties about art’s usefulness. Projects coded in XR or constructed in game engines layer geopolitical and ecological analysis between slick visual assets – such as H.O.R.I.Z.O.N.(Habitat One: Regenerative Interactive Zone of Nurture) (2021-), by the literally-named Institute of Queer Ecology, which simulates a ‘post-Capitalocene’ Earth with the goal of ‘radically [restructuring] the human relationship with the environment.’ Even at their most abstract, these worlds are marketed as alternative models to our own; many comprise proposals for utopia or actions that are researched and developed to an extent that rivals commercial practice. The structural focus of ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ science fiction alike – science fiction that accounts for scientific accuracy and logic in the first instance, and for social or political systems in the second – is more easily translated to policy or innovation than any other genre of media. It provides a ready-made framework that runs all the way from prototypical gadgets to systemic effects, underlaying everything from feats of engineering to executive Post-it augury.
I mention all of this because of how much corporate and artistic world-building depend on and reinforce an understanding of culture, technology, and the planet as a legibly related system, where forecast and future fictions effectively digest and excrete the present. Inside the corporation, belief in legibility is shored up by reward; the dopamine – and money – shot after the scraping, scanning, stacking, and building lurches into something resembling a conclusion. Desire, effectively unhorizoned. Off the clock, I think about how many of these hypotheses are in fact mere conspiracy maps, threaded together with red string, ready to blow away on the next breeze issuing in from the Real. The sense of unreality persists regardless of rigour. The truly anomalous is left under-observed. At a certain point, what is useful about the research and its resultant fictions – what can then be translated into a chain of decisions that lead to a particular outcome – ceases to represent experience, at which point we hit either ground truth or poetry. A hard lesson learned continuously through the ‘loss of world’ inflicted by myopic strategy. An eruption of planned outcomes into crisis and accident. Miscalculations that set off a dizzying ripple effect – or worse, the realisation that loosing the ripple into the world was the calculation. (‘Will there be room for a research director on the commune?’, I ask my friends, even as I moisturise my neck for a smoother guillotining.) Picture all that work at the scale that it happens: how so much small order rips into terrible harm.
Theorist and ex-speculative designer Benjamin Bratton explored the possibility of reorganising the disorganised sum of knowledge, labour, and life in The Stack (2014), the Bible on planetary governance that many cite but few entirely read. In his theory, the world is already comprised of highly designed yet incompatible systems that depend on sensing and simulation. From border and transport systems to agriculture and resource management to the algorithmic taste-making we are all so familiar with, we live within an ‘accidental megastructure’ of computing, carried out, at massive cost, on the scale of the entire planet. Rather than hindering or denying these systems’ applications, as has been the party line for progressive circles fearful of the fine line between informational capture and oppression, Bratton proposes consolidation. Removing the accident from the megastructure, so to speak. The theory aspires to unify how we deal with information and governance; with its ambivalence toward surveillance and authority, it is not without its controversies. In the most basic interpretation, it illustrates a revived modernist impulse to build the world without fear of greater centralisation, rather than cede ground to the diffuse and deadly hazards of patchy state power and corporate mediocrity.
Bratton has co-directed research programmes in the zone between philosophy and technology, speculation and application, where my friends have gone and come back changed as if they have seen real action. And what is ‘real action’? A wilful immersion in ideology. A desire to take the problems of the world pragmatically, instead of languishing in critique. An ‘earthshot’, to use industry parlance, significant as the space race in its ambition and drive – though during the pandemic, bumping up against the logistical hurdles of travel and quarantine, these same friends relayed the image of Bratton dissolving the first programme from the front seat of a Tesla, palm trees waving beyond the car’s moon-roof in another gust from the Real.
Seeds of dread and desire accompany Bratton’s proposition, which he originally described as a ‘design brief’ for the whole world. Now, a decade later, it threatens to erratically materialise in enterprises like Palantir’s AIP for Defense, which will consolidate artificial intelligence, networked sensors, government protocols, and group action to maintain Western power – that is, go to war. Will the real cost of total capture override the need for a more cohesively managed planet? It is hard not to think in dualities, even if those dualities are for action and against inaction; for collectivity and against individuation. But all complete systems account for ambiguity. For the possibility that a mutation may yet emerge and change everything beyond recognition. As simulation artist Ian Cheng writes in his definitive book, Emissary’s Guide to Worlding (2018), the point of building a World – the word capitalised by Cheng to distinguish the intentional creation of a simulation from the accidental creation of the world around us – is to make something ‘necessarily complex, unresolved, alive.’
A CLOSE-UP BRINGS ABOUT A LOSS OF WORLD
It was sometime in the last few years when my world lost cohesion, pulling apart at the seams to leak a rich velouté of cosmic nothing. I had gone with my boyfriend to the countryside, where flat landscape spawned into steep undulations. Dead sober, I was consumed by a terrifying sense of goodwill: a derangement of scale, you could call it, as the horizon tensed and expanded, pushing the land up all around me until I felt small and edible, ripe to be plucked by a hand from heaven. It was in the centre of all that superabundance that I was exposed to doom. It began to filter in as if through a puncture in my inflated brain. We were walking up high amongst brambles and tall grasses when I went beneath a mild personal eclipse. Names and colours drained out of the landscape. I lost the words for water, for automobile, for potato chip or blade of grass. For bend in the road, for next town over, for phone or navigation. Only later, when I was seizing on the floor of our cabin, did I endure a total loss of world. My boyfriend, on the phone with the emergency line, asked if I knew my name or location. He was instructed to give me something soft to hold until the convulsions stopped, and for a while after the trip would gift me plushies – a fleece Miffy, a mochi-shaped My Melody in a felt shiso leaf, a black bat with a tab of Velcro between its wings – so that I wouldn’t be without an anchor if the doom came again.
The relationship was then over, and if you could say that the mechanics of my world had been organised around devotion and ability, I now had to remake it outside of those core assumptions. I considered the possibility that I was closer to a dandelion seed or a coral polyp than a character with significant agency. For a while, anything could activate my seizures. Perfumes, elevators, a micro-current device that resembled a sex toy but was, in fact, supposed to give my face added dimensionality. All that was solid melted into coruscating liquid, or a divine jelly that bounced me into bouts of total incomprehension. There was so much I didn’t know, I thought to myself, as I was slid into a radiant MRI machine. I felt, or imagined, a halo of heat around my temples, and was moved to tears by nothing but the harmless, painless sensation itself. As a medical subject, deindividualized into symptom and data, my primary experience was that of profound stupidity. As if I were a mediaeval saint who saw in freak weather events, plagues and demonic possessions the face – or absence – of god. Wilk, in Death by Landscape (2021), recounts a comparable ‘weirding’ via illness, as a self-directed investigation into trauma derails her steady progress into systemic understanding. As a whole, Death by Landscape is comprised of a series of essays that outline the experience of climate catastrophe and its dual cultural outcome: the emergence of the ‘new weird’ science fiction genre, and a resurgent curiosity about beatific experience. In the middle lies an encounter with Saint Lucia – the patron saint of double vision, who holds in one hand two disembodied eyes that behold the world with a god-gaze. ‘That detachment makes you shiver and look back to her face for answers,’ writes Wilk, describing the split experience of having all of the information and only oblique ways to connect.
That is the premise of Meghan O’Gieblyn’s God, Human, Animal, Machine (2021), in which she writes through the quandary of how any deeply rational consideration of life, machine, and intelligence still tends towards the irrational in the final analysis. When I read that Claude Shannon, progenitor of information theory, described information as ‘the resolution of uncertainty,’ I mistake it to mean that information takes us all the way up to the edge of perception, at which point meaning starts to blur. Resolution: not as in ‘to resolve’, but as in ‘the measurement of detail, of clarity.’ Angels spied in radii of collapsing light. O’Gieblyn tangles lucidly with the philosophy of science and computation, leaving ample room for arguments in favour of functionalism – the idea that finely-detailed knowledge of the world, or the brain, will finally explain the mysteries of life and consciousness – and more mystic tendencies that insist that the unexplainable, incomputable, and irrational are integral to our life-systems as-is. Theorist Luciana Parisi, taking algorithmic computing as her subject, asserts the point that seemingly rational decisions executed by a machine still depend on an ‘incomputable’ number, troubling the binary distinction between reason and non-reason. The planetary system, comprised of nature and machine, will forever retain black boxes that exceed our understanding; a black box is basically god; and god is everywhere, disturbing our senses.
‘The close-up brings about a loss of world.’ Hanging in the hot, spoiled air was a line from Byung-chul Han’s Saving Beauty. Anti-social because of my bad brain, I was sprawled on my front and clutching my Miffy, listening to some dudes dissect the book from somewhere in the American Midwest. The close-up brings about a loss of world. The line expresses the simultaneous loss and bliss of adoration. To be adrift in tiny detail. To be absorbed by a pore, an eyelash, a fingerprint of the beloved, at odds and yet in harmony with Daisy Hildyard’s perception of the world from a great distance, as she writes in her climate memoir The Second Body (2021): ‘It was an impression not of depth but of density, and not of intensity but of range. There were no plots and subplots, no protagonists, and nobody was playing a bit part. There’s no order.’ Hildyard and Bratton – however formally opposed – address the same problem of irreconcilable scales. The planet apprehended entirely – with the individual nudged into their respective place within the herd, the swarm, the population – will certainly give us a better chance at mitigating harm. The world must supercede the person, but the human individual remains the world’s problem. It is their greed and their appetite, their dreams and their refusals, that are all so boringly, unavoidably, apocalyptically bad for a planet shared with others. Harmful, not only in the exchange of factory farm for filet mignon, or mounting landfill for designer threads, but in the misdirection of resources. Consider the energy spent on targeting consumer taste rather than on serious projects of geoengineering or revolutionary arousal or whatever else is purported to get us out of this mess. The close-up brings about a loss of world. In bed, I took the phrase as a mantra, determined as Suzuki’s girls to reach blank transcendence through bodily horror. At the thousandth repetition, it wormed in beyond the condition of living life at the rate of individual pleasure and into the territory of defamiliarisation. With the focus pulled all the way in like that, I could almost begin to comprehend – not only the extinctions and deletions, the constraints and destruction – but the emerging mutations. The inexorable new. Under the shadow of vaguely continuous apocalypse, I wondered less about how we would get ourselves out of it, and more about how we would come to know its shape.
Ekphrasis – the vivid, dramatic retelling of a work of art – is an age-old interpretive tool for the unfamiliar, a method of understanding the compellingly strange on its own terms, without prior context. While the narrative of Olga Ravn’s sci-fi novel, The Employees (2018), is expressed through the verbal testimonial of employees isolated on a spaceship, thousands of years from now, its central characters are objects. Collected from the surface of a planet named New Discovery, the objects resemble a newspaper, wet from days of rain; a pomander spiked with eyes; a vulva-pink mist. They exert strange psychological effects. An encounter with the objects, one employee reports, persists ‘the way a taste lingers in the mouth. Or perhaps more like a ticklish splinter close to the heart, a splinter travelling slowly through the flesh.’ Ravn modelled these objects on works by Lea Guldditte Hestelund, exhibited at Overgaden, Institution of Contemporary Art, in Copenhagen in 2018. Like a prestige television fan avoiding a spoiler, I take care to not look at the sculptures until after I’m done reading. I’m pleased they don’t resemble the objects I’d assembled in my mind’s eye from Ravn’s restrained description. A book predicated on meaning asserting itself through encounter, familiarity steadily surfacing through the unfamiliar, could only have been written like this: with a solid secret at hand, to be revealed in incremental detail. The close-up brings about a loss of world, but it brings about the conditions for creation too. In The Employees, with its scattered testimonies and sketched-in objects, I found a model for worldbuilding without world. I considered how a world made unfamiliar through destruction, mutation, or discovery wouldn’t resemble a well-assembled structure after all, but a hallucination. It would ruin perception itself, which we would have to learn fresh, like babes: through pattern, shape, and taste.
The Employees takes the form of an interstellar HR investigation. Anonymous testimonials given by human and humanoid workers, employed by a private space-exploration firm, reconstruct a violent event that has taken place on the spaceship, one that spins like a flung star through the employees’ collective consciousness, deviating each one from their steady mission, their arduous tasks. One employee imagines their pores yawning wide to reveal seeds – smaller and smaller systems nestled within their skin. Another humanoid appears to fall in love: perhaps the truest derangement of a semi-closed system. Yet another employee demands of their reality’s architects: ‘Tell me, did you plant this perception in me? Is it a part of the programme? Or did the image come up from inside me, of its own accord?’
Breaking apart from personal agency put me in the domain of prey: that is, closely networked with everything I depended on for survival. I shared a mind with my herd and my environment, which included the machine that imaged my brain as much as it did the apple tree outside my first-storey window, the satellites bouncing signal to my cellphone and the friends’ houses I used it to navigate to. In exchange, I was granted a clarity that I couldn’t quite trust as reality. The entire surface of the world became a layer that I could read through intuition, a reading that could protect me from vague, omnipresent harm as I took flight along imagined trigger-lines, away from unreal rivals and barely-there enemies. The close-up brings about a loss of world — but did the image come up from inside me, of its own accord?
ALL THIS USELESS KNOWLEDGE
Any study of worldbuilding would be remiss without mention of Biosphere 2, the experimental facility constructed in Arizona for studying the feasibility of life in a manmade ecosystem. In 1994, Abigail Alling and Mark Van Thillo broke into the complex – or rather, attempted a break-out, and in the process brought the years-long experiment to an abrupt end. In interviews, the pair said their motive was selfless. They had been subjects of the original study, a two-year investigation into whether humans could survive in the engineered environment, and said they feared for the subsequent cohort’s well-being. A crack in the glass brought the simulation back in contact with the world. Biosphere 2 – rainforest and desert and coral reef and mangrove given the bonsai treatment beneath a three-acre ziggurat of steel and glass – became indistinguishable from Biosphere 1, better known as planet Earth. Would Alling and Thillio have known their action to be purely symbolic, the airlocked seal long spoiled? Certainly. From the start of the study, participants had been receiving clandestine shipments of vitamins, food rations, liquid oxygen, mouse-traps, fertiliser and other solutions to failures that threatened their lives and the longevity of the experiment: crops that didn’t make it to harvest, rapidly declining oxygen levels, colonies of microbes that struggled with the workload of purifying wastewater. As saboteurs, Alling and Van Thillo were less concerned about the fidelity of the ecosystem and more with its enduring impact on the psyches within it. Living locked-off in a simulated world had apparently brought psychic scars heretofore unimaginable, at least to those who had never been incarcerated. ‘She’s a victim of mind control,’ said Alling’s mother in an interview with the Washington Post. (Launching in 2023, NASA’s Mars Dune Alpha simulation, designed to assess cognitive and physical responses to long-duration space missions, will do little to mitigate the madness of extended isolation beyond provision of boardgames and a Playstation 4.)
From its inception in 1988, the Biosphere 2 experiment was criticised as ‘show-biz, not science’. The high drama of sending jumpsuited terranauts into sealed-off geodesic spheres competed with allegations of pseudoscience, cultishness, and neglect. In spite of more closely resembling a hobby garden than a serious science experiment, Biosphere 2 persists in mass memory with its strange promise of independence from Earth if only through a replica. The endeavour underscores the attractive difference between show-biz and science, fiction and feasibility, that radiates from any rousing world-building project. ‘Western civilization isn’t simply dying. It’s dead. We are probing into its ruins to take whatever is useful for the building of the new civilization to replace it,’ said John Allen, the Biosphere 2 co-founder who possessed the charisma and persuasive rhetoric of every good cult leader, in the early 1970s. The grandiose statement is echoed by Nelson Goodman, writing in Ways of Worldmaking (1978): ‘Worldmaking as we know it always starts from worlds already on hand: the making is a remaking.’ Five decades later, are we still ‘probing into the ruins’ – is the act of constructing coming worlds still a ‘remaking’? From my vantage point inside an order disturbed beyond recognition, I confront my declining faith in future planning. My attention slips through the crack in the glass, probing for what will make worldwide patterns go fizzy with uncertainty again. Not dead, but aerated with decay or fermentation. Rotten signs of life asserted anew. I brace for the convulsions of change I can’t fully anticipate, that will rip up my limited garden of systemic understanding and leave each plot open to unknown forces.
‘We were scientists, trained to observe natural phenomena and the results of human activity,’ narrates the unnamed biologist and protagonist of Jeff Vandermeer’s climate horror Annihilation (2014). ‘We had not been trained to encounter what appeared to be the uncanny.’ The book’s reigning antagonist is an ecosystem governed by a logic at odds with earthly order. The eye of a long-dead scientist appears in the skull of a breaching dolphin. Screams of a woman killed by a bear are absorbed by its genetic material and refracted back out of its mouth. Outside of the errant ecosystem, mutations manifest as cancerous decay, but within it, they play out as an over-proliferation of life. The biologist, contaminated beyond correction, describes the feeling as a ‘brightness inside.’ She experiences the ceaseless, restless energy of all her information – her cells, genes, knowledge, memory, consciousness – rearranging itself around an unrecognisable order that lays waste to prior experience. After her psyche has been thoroughly blasted by an experience of the uncanny so deep that it feels as if her skull ‘were crushed to dust and reassembled, mote by mote,’ she finds herself emptied of thought. ‘A line from a song kept coming back to me: All this useless knowledge.’
From the Copernican to the quantum, paradigmatic changes in scientific understanding reorganise our world. It is possible that the next turn will see systems once understood as somewhat discrete – computers, ecosystems, money – merge into a related understanding that dissolves the false boundary between machine and biology, abstract and real. In the interregnum, there is nothing but distortion. Trained on vast, uneven archives of human data and creativity, generative artificial intelligence has become wildly prone to hallucination. In technical terms, machine hallucination is any response that arises without any justification from training data. In practice, it conjures literal deviations: fiction inserted into historical record, uncanny limbs sprouting from generated bodies, demonic utterances that resemble – but don’t yet indicate – the presence of an ulterior consciousness. These hallucinations disturb the optimism that humans could soon look to a thoroughly-trained synthetic intelligence as a reliable source of truth – that a crucially inhuman perspective on the world-system will, in turn, enable more reasoned intervention. What to do about the curious problem that models designed for reason are currently experiencing psychosis? Surreal outputs have become oracles – even laypeople, tinkering with ChatGPT, see its regurgitations as a kind of collective dream. As a way of speaking into history, into Earth, and hearing what strange howl is refracted back. ‘I can’t believe we all get to re-encounter language together one last time forever,’ writes one bot whose avatar bears a passing resemblance to my face. ‘I can’t believe I’m going to live long enough to watch everything turn into language,’ writes another, and I nod in moony, intuitive agreement. Answers glimpsed in the reflective pool, read in the twitching entrails of information, mark a reversal in how, as Anne Boyer writes in her treatise on modern illness The Undying (2019), ‘our century is excellent at the production of nightmares and terrible at the interpretation of dreams.’
SOMETHING ELSE’S PREHISTORY
It’s midnight when I chat to a close friend – a worker in artificial intelligence, a rational subject reporting from California, and a human, as far as I’m aware, though her credentials place her as a first-order agent in the hot girl singularity. ‘I’m just trying to talk to Earth,’ she says, pulling up a recent prototype where multi-coloured nodes spiral across the surface of the globe. ‘Babe, we just want to find god,’ I type back, watching the nodes tumble and swarm. Lately, I feel less like I’m living in the future than in something else’s prehistory. The fantasy is almost too convenient: individual deficiencies in agency and collectivity are rendered inconsequential as humanity is absorbed into an egregore of pure information. Why not entertain it? It may be true that every generation anticipates the collapse of its governing system with eschatological pleasure, but that anticipation may now be without limit. Under the derangement of system, scale, and senses, the apocalypse won’t resemble any vision of cataclysm we’ve ever known. Occurring at a speed so slow or so annihilatingly quick, at a scale so vast and at once so small, the end of the human world has already escaped our detection – and there will never be an end, only a turn into something else.