“We can only transform ourselves as fast as we can transform our language.” –Terrence McKenna
I have been processing this post by James Bridle, Network Realism: William Gibson and new forms of Fiction, since seeing it re-tweeted by Matt Jones of BERGLondon fame the other night. Between this, and Paul Raven’s post yesterday on Futurismic on the same subject, I am glad to see I am far from the only person quite taken by Gibson’s latest. It tickled my brain in a way I haven’t felt since first watching Richard Kelly’s Southland Tales. (But that’s another story for a different blog.) What these two share are reminders that is the twenty-first century and we do things differently here.
As Bridle says early on, what Gibson has been doing with the Bigend trilogy is “Just-in-time futurism.”:
Zero History is happening right now. It’s as if all of his writing has been concertinaed down into today. Liveblogging the present.
Given publishing’s long lead times, this is quite an achievement. But writing anything that feels so explicitly now, almost to the day, is an achievement in itself. I’d go as far as to say that you have to have been writing future Science Fiction for 25 years in order to write so convincingly about the present.
Some people have complained about the predominant use of iPhones in the novel, but I agree with Bridle where he says that what Gibson is doing is time-stamping the period. In five, ten, twenty years iPhone will mean what horse-drawn carriage does today; immediately establishing the context for the story taking place.
But it’s more than just that. Everyone knows what an iPhone is. Everyone. But the smaller details Gibson includes changes the reading experience depending upon their knowledge of them. Because Futurism is still expected. For Bridle that’s the Festo, saying “their strangeness seemed something truly of the future, authentically Gibsonian—but only a couple of days later someone twittered a link to the manufacturer’s video.”
Now, as our long time readers know, that was posted here early last year. But who bothers remembering things any more? We export our memories online and need only recall the keywords we tagged them with. Twitter and forget. When in doubt, Google. Via Paul’s Futurismic post, we get this quote from Alex Vagenas’s take on Zero History:
The amount of googlable details is actually staggering. It creates a vertiginous impression that the novel, in a more heightened sense than traditional realism, acquires and maintains a truly reciprocal relationship to the world as it is filtered through the web, in a Borgesian continuum of mediation. Zero History springs from and redirects to myriad cultural minutiae that Gibson has been assembling and which will take on their arbitrarily imposed narrative significance once again, when the reader looks them up.
A new Realism for a new age. Bridle appears to agree, as he continues:
In “Zero History” we have an echo of “No Future”: everything compressed into the present. This idea is what Zero History is really about. (This is the Order Flow: the future is defined by the present; who pinpoints the present controls the future.)
…it’s undeniable that something is happening, a network effect produced by the sudden visibility of just how unevenly distributed those futures are.
I want to give it a name, and at this point I’m calling it Network Realism.
Continuing still; and this is the part that formed new connections in my brain, that felt so instantly true (and that all the above has really been to contextualize):
Network Realism is writing that is of and about the network. It’s realism because it’s so close to our present reality. A realism that posits an increasingly 1:1 relationship between Fiction and the World. A realtime link. And it’s networked because it lives in a place that’s that’s enabled by, and only recently made possible by, our technological connectedness.
Zero History is Network Realism because of the way that it talks about the world, and the way its knowledge of the world is gathered and disseminated. Gibson seems to be navigating the spider graph of current reality as wikiracing does human knowledge.
He goes on to name several works that also fit within this category, but the only one I am familiar with is Makers – except it was called Themepunks then, when it was serialised on Salon.
To bring this all back to the Terrence McKenna quote at the beginning – living, as we are, in a time of ever increasing change necessitates that we modify our language through the invention of new words (neologisms) and re-appropriate existing ones to form new concepts – as fast as we can, really. Grabbing onto whatever’s nearest and hacking it to fit, so that we have placeholders to tweet with and can start using them to discuss building whatever comes along next.
Language is Humanity’s oldest technology; it must be continually upgraded. If our fiction doesn’t reflect and include that, then it’s useless. And that’s why everyone is so excited about Zero History.
Or, as Bridle ends:
We live in strange, new times. New eras require new forms, as Sydney Harbour Bridge reminds us—in fact, they produce them, out of themselves, out of their conditions. Network Realism feels, to me, like something genuinely new in literature, and we’re only just seeing the edges of it.
Thank you James.
Hah! You thought I’d talk about Zero History without mentioning Atemporality. Well, instead, I’ll quote straight from Paul, who’s, as always, spot-on (speaking on SF by any other name):
If we ever manage to define sf in a way that everyone can agree on, it’ll probably ossify and die within months. And you might even argue that it follows logically (in a way that Darwin might recognise) that sf has become interested in atemporality because atemporality is the best survival strategy available to it.
(Also, Southland Tales really is a very good movie; ignore the reviews and see for yourself.)