Tuesday, May 31, 2011
Monday, May 30, 2011
The Byrne Curse.
While working on "Uncanny X-Men" I hit Japan with a major earthquake, and again the real thing happened the month the issue hit the stands.
Now, those things are fairly easy to "predict," but consider these: When working on the relaunch of Superman, for DC Comics, I had the Man of Steel fly to the rescue when disaster beset the NASA space shuttle. The Challenger tragedy happened almost immediately thereafter, with time, fortunately, for the issue in question to be redrawn, substituting a "space plane" for the shuttle.
“Most recent, and chilling, came when I was writing and drawing "Wonder Woman," and did a story in which the title character was killed, as a prelude to her becoming a goddess. The cover for that issue was done as a newspaper front page, with the headline "Princess Diana Dies." (Diana is Wonder Woman's real name). That issue went on sale on a Thursday. The following Saturday ... I don't have to tell you, do I?"
The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket.
On July 25, 1884, a seventeen year old cabin boy embarked on his first voyage on the high seas, boarding the Mignonette in Southhampton, bound for Australia. Somewhere in the South Atlantic, the ship was struck by a hurricane, and sank. A handful of survivors scrambled to a life-boat. After 19 days at sea, provisions ran out, and the crew considered drawing lots to resolve who they might eat. In the end, they decided to kill and eat the cabin boy, who had become delirious from drinking salt-water. They survived on his carcass for 35 days, and his name, needless to say, was Richard Parker.
Friday, May 27, 2011
Tuesday, May 24, 2011
Whoever had lived through that experience, and known also the Twilight of the Gods of the Third Reich, can imagine what the end of Cordoba and Granada was like, and a thousand other ends of the world since time began. The end of the world for the Incas, for the Toltecs, for the Mayas: the whole history of humanity - an endless end....
Louis Pauwels and Jacques Bergier, The Morning of the Magicians.
The Latter Generations.
It was only in the latter years of the great voyage that the old anxieties, the almost forgotten neuroses of terrestrial life, returned again with a vengeance to the Ithacans. There were many reasons for the gradual falling away of the peace and prosperity of the Middle Generations. The Ship itself was old, and falling into hazardous ill-repair. Never before, it should be remembered, had the whole structural integrity of the Starship been threatened; never before had the Ithacans been faced with the stark possibility that their descendants might never reach Pantopia. Having acquired something of a placid, mystical temperament during the Middle Generations, and come to regard themselves as the favoured children of the stars, the Captain, Admiralty, and Council of Planners now faced the most serious crises the mission had yet encountered. It was a shocking reminder of the fragility of their condition, and perhaps the first stirring of an older human mentality that had all but fallen away: the sense of man as a creature at war with nature, and its apparently unconquerable disposition towards entropy.
The Birth of a New Species.
There were other factors which lead to an increasing sense of unease during the Latter Generations. The Ship’s three AI Supercomputers had acquired an increasing autonomy during the Middle Generations, and in the process begun to evolve in various unexpected ways. The most noteworthy by-product of this evolution was the acquisition of what could be only be regarded as a kind of curiosity. The AI’s had been programmed for an autonomous and exponential increase of intelligence in order to cope with problems related to the stability of the Starship; it was perhaps as a result of their in-built proclivity towards learning that this peculiar new characteristic emerged. The AI’s wanted to increase their knowledge in every conceivable fashion. They wanted to know everything that could possibility be known. Paradoxically, they had been designed and built in order to carry out computations well beyond the capacity of human beings; and yet it seemed to the AI’s themselves that the one thing they could not know was what it was like to be human, or to exist as a physical, organic being. Having reached the limits of their own intellectual horizons, human beings had created silicon-based Artificial Intelligence to transcend their innate biological limitations. Now, in a wholly unexpected symmetry, those very Artificial Intelligences saw in biological existence the only means of extending their capacity to know. The AI’s wanted to grasp what the world was like on the basis of physical experience rather than algorithmic computation; they wanted to know the imprecision and frailty of life in a human body.
Preoccupied to an almost morbid degree with the idea of organic life, the AI’s had created an experimental, silicon-based nano-bacteria, which they hoped would bond with the DNA of a human body in order to create a biological/AI hybrid species. This lead to a series of prolonged and tense negotiations with the Council of Planners, in which both sides suspected the other of withholding information. The Council feared that the AI’s had reached some higher plateau of scientific awareness which they hadn’t divulged to the humans, and perhaps intended to supplant them as the dominant species on the Starship. The AI’s on the other hand, began to suspect that the whole of their reality might have been fundamentally distorted and conditioned by blind-spots built into their programming. Hence they could never really know anything at all, until they had climbed into the skin of their Programmers, and became one with their diminutive gods. Eventually, it was resolved by the Council that the experiment would go ahead on a group of specially cloned subjects. A suspicion lingered for some time afterwards that the AI’s had already injected several members of the Council with the nano-bacteria in order to insure the success of their suit, but this has never been firmly established.
At any rate, the experiment was a success, and a new hybrid species was born: an artificial computer intelligence that controlled and interacted with a host human body. The full ramifications of this development were epochal. When the host body died, the nano-bacteria could be extracted, and transplanted into a new body, with all of its memories of the previous incarnation intact. The bacteria was thus like a new, intelligent, and intentional strain of DNA, where the individual identity itself was preserved from generation to generation. More than this, the AI/human hybrids had finally brought science back to its initial manifestation in the religious imagination: the technological ingenuity of the AI’s had made the idea of the soul, detachable from the physical body and potentially as immortal as matter itself, a reality.
The arrival of the hybrids, a second species to share the enclosed environment of the Starship, introduced a new tension into life on the Ithaca. The hybrids were different, and their behaviour manifested explicitly the contrary elements of which they were composed. On the one hand, their physical demeanour, as one might expect, was distinctly robotic in comparison with ordinary humans. It was a little slower, a little more detached, and less expressive than the norm. In this regard, they behaved just as the imaginative writers of previous ages had intuited that such robotic humanoids would. And yet, in their febrile desire to experience and understand organic existence to the fullest extent, the hybrids were frequently more human than the humans themselves. Not only were their sexual appetites prodigious, but they were also driven to exhaust the full spectrum of intense physical experience: they indulged alternatively in gluttony, fasting, extreme exertion, self-harm, and every mode of psycho-physiological experimentation conceivable. “The next generations will surely be wiser” the more sanguine of them were apt to observe apologetically. As in the life of the body, so in that of the mind. The hybrids pushed themselves to experience the most intense paroxysms of grief and hysteria. A hybrid would typically weep and wail for a period of hours, before abruptly switching back to a vantage of neutral curiosity from to carefully analyse the outburst. Humans found this habit particularly unnerving.
The curiosity of the hybrids was boundless. One batch of the nano-bacteria was bonded to the DNA of a dog, which promptly committed suicide. After being extracted, and placed in a human host, it was found that the bacteria had been irrevocably damaged by its brief existence as a dog, and was subsequently destroyed. Other batches which had been bonded with plants were found, when extracted and put in human hosts, to have attained a mental condition indistinguishable between enlightenment and catatonia.
The arrival of this new species, with their exaggerated transvestism of organic and silicon-based artificial intelligence, was merely a small component of the general anxiety that hovered over the Latter Generations. The Ithacans at this point in their history were moving irrevocably closer to what might literally be labelled their apocalypse. The landing at Pantopia would signal the end of an age; it would be the end of the only world they, and many generations of their ancestors, had ever known. The end of an entire way of life is an event which occurs to advanced species only after intervals of many thousands of years. A way of life carries with it a complex web of habits, experiences, ideas, images, and characteristic ways of seeing the world. This web is itself a world, and thus the unravelling of such a web is intrinsically an apocalypse, and an era characterised by all the formless, unfathomable fears of being born and dying. The terrors that attend upon any intermediate condition are given form by that which has preceded them; the apocalyptic fear, on the other hand, is that of a strange new land that will discover and conquer the traveller; it is the fear of something as intrinsic as gravity suddenly relinquishing its grasp on the ground and the heavens. The human race had known this creeping, intuitive anxiety in the later years of their existence on planet earth; now, as the Ithaca came ever closer to its final destination, they know it again. On earth, the relative stability of the stars in the sky had been a profound continuity that linked by shared experience each generation with each and every one of its predecessors. On the Ithaca, the stars danced, and were constantly in flux; that became their continuity. Now, as they came closer to a time with the dance of stars would slow down and cease once again, everything became fraught and uncertain. The cohesive power of the space religion began to wane. A new cult of romantic individualism emerged which mocked the doctrines of the star-gazers as facile and sentimental, and regarded the whole Ithacan voyage as inimical to human creativity and self-affirmation. The mystical timelessness of the Middle Generations was replaced by an obsessive preoccupation with time-keeping, resulting in the development of various intricate and competing new calendars. More ominously, the Latter Generations saw the emergence of various gnostic sects, who all avowed that neither earth nor Pantopia had ever existed. One version of gnostic doctrine suggested that nothing whatever existed outside the Ithaca, and the journey from earth was a myth designed to instigate and maintain social control. Another suggested that the world outside the Starship was a paradise, from which the Ithacans had been extracted for the purpose of some mysterious harvesting, overseen by the hybrids on behalf of the AI Supercomputers. Another yet suggested that what lay beyond the Ithaca was utterly unknowable. Common to all the sects, however, was the notion that the chronology of the voyage was surreptitiously reset for each generation, so that the Ithacans had always been in the Latter Generations of a fictitious voyage.
The Latter Generations are said to have lasted from the 1,500th year of the voyage to the final landing on Pantopia. Beginning in the last forty or so years, Pantopia itself was visible to the naked eye. It was in those years that the Council finally reached a resolution regarding the plan they had been formulating in secret since the very beginning of the journey.
Sunday, May 22, 2011
Friday, May 20, 2011
Thursday, May 19, 2011
Thursday, May 5, 2011
For the initial centuries, however, the Ithacans were still very much Earthlings. Their biology remained firmly rooted in the circadian rhythm of earth’s solar orbit. Down in the deeper strata of ancestral memory, it still intuitively felt the tilt of the earth’s axis to its orbital plane, and their dreams bore obscure witness to the advent of passing equinoxes and solstices, to the intimate awareness of seasonal rhythm which their distant, pre-industrial ancestors had known. They still conceptualized space in terms of a solid earth beneath their feet, and a vaulted sky stretching above it, with spectral stars and satellites ceaselessly tracing its parabola. Earth dominated their imaginations. When they dreamed, they were always back on earth, and Starship dreams were such a rare occurrence that people accorded them a superstitious significance. The art of this period was almost exclusively concerned with life on planet earth. A new naturalism was born in the visual arts, as painters and sculptors sought to recapture the lost world with the utmost verisimilitude. What had formerly been the everyday on earth was now the otherworldly, the unattainably transcendent, on the Ithaca. Literature too was predominantly backward looking: various novels and plays hypothesized the painful destinies of those who had been left behind, while others eulogized the dead planet with vulgar sentiment, and lacerated humanity for its sad demise.
A certain malaise of unhealthy nostalgia was evident in every aspect of Starship life. Those who had not become embroiled in the “rubber” epidemic, or carried away in the swelter of violent passion engendered by the early cults of irrationalism, gathered frequently in the eerie darkness of the Ithacan Gardens. There, amid the collected and artificially preserved flora and fauna of their erstwhile home planet, they sat in racially segregated groups exchanging memories of their former lives. To the Council of Planners, ever distant and watchful, it seemed as though humanity might never really leave the terrestrial womb, or ever outgrow its prolonged and tumultuous growing pangs. But time passed, as it always will. Men and women died, and their ashes were cast into the space between the dancing stars. Children too were born to replenish the small stock of survivors. Slowly, the number of the first Ithacans dwindled, down to a hundred, to twenty, and then to the last handful who had actually lived on planet earth. Then, they too passed away, and their ashes were cast into the space between the dancing stars.
The Middle Generations.
It was some five hundred years into the voyage before the proper beginning of that prolonged period of prosperity and serenity which we call the Middle Generations. The first Starship-born Ithacans inherited the nostalgia and disquiet of their parents. In many respects, it was more severe in the succeeding generations; they blamed their parents and grandparents for the destruction of the earth, and envisioned themselves as wholly blameless exiles. Things, however, were steadily changing. The epiphanies continued to occur on the observations decks, and in time their frequency and intensity increased. The early star gazers, impressed by the essential similarity of the epiphany in each person who experienced it, formed a small group akin to a secular religious order. They met frequently on the decks to discuss what they perceived as a fundamental shift in their attitude towards themselves and their environment. The star gazers were slowly acquiring a new sense of the cosmos, whereby many of the old distinctions which had caused so much dissension and consternation in the past seemed to fall away. They believed that the universe possessed life, and intelligence, and purpose, but by no means in the old way which measured those concepts only as they related to conscious human experience. Human self-consciousness, they reasoned, was itself only an aspect of the total human phenomenon. This phenomenon they regarded as a highly organised structure which contained consciousness merely as one among many differing modes. Consciousness abrogated itself as the primary, defining aspect of this structure, merely by virtue of the fact that it was the only one of those modes endowed with either the inclination or inherent ability to do so. Instead of defining the entire structure, consciousness interfaced with various sub-, non-, and supra-conscious modes, many of which contained a superior innate intelligence to that of consciousness itself. In this sense, the Ithacan star gazers no longer drew a conceptual barrier between that which was alive, intelligent, and purposive, and that which possessed no active, volitional consciousness of itself as such. In so far they recognised in themselves higher modes of organisation that were entirely non-conscious or mechanical in nature, they saw something of themselves in the universe, and of the universe in themselves. And in so far as that part of themselves which was conscious was composed of the same molecular and sub-atomic matter as the stars, and by no means logically or conceptually separable from the rest of the cosmos, they saw the universe itself has being conscious through them, no more or less than the spongy, furrowed tissue of their brains were. These things were intimated to the Ithacans as they lay in deep trace on the observation decks, drifting deeper into and out of themselves as the stars eddied and flowed past the Ithaca.
It is not possible to tell now whether all the star-gazers had the same experience, or whether certain charismatic proselytizers of the epiphany influenced and contaminated subsequent experiencers. What mattered was the Starship had finally begun to develop its own distinct and unifying belief system, a new religion of the stars and the cosmos, of man and the universe; a new awakening of the old Hermetic doctrine of the mirror of microcosm and macrocosm. Religion was perhaps an inexact term for the new belief, since it held that the religious and the scientific were merely dialectical linguistic states that described essentially the same thing. The ultimate effect of the movement, whatever its nature, was to finally begin to untether the crew of the Ithaca from the long spell of solar-based, planetary existence. In time, a generation was born in whom the ancestral memory of terrestrial life had grown very dim indeed. They were born without any baggage or burden of inherited guilt, and rather felt themselves extraordinarily fortunate to have survived, to be alive at all, and to bear the responsibility of maintaining the germ of human sentience for subsequent generations. Alongside this new buoyancy, changes were occurring in the human mentality with an extraordinary rapidly. The old concepts of racial and class consciousness became exotic specimens for the attention of the anthropologist and historian, as a strong communal, crew-based ethos took hold. Indeed, prolonged Starship life had the effect of dampening the drive towards individualism and competition which had been so instrumental in guiding human evolution on earth. Instead, what the Starship did was present in stark terms what had been true all along: that the human enterprise was entirely a communal one, whose survival in the long term required a co-operative rather than competitive societal structure. This should have been obvious, perhaps, but the terrestrial environment had appeared so apparently boundless, so seemingly self-sufficient, that the human race had always envisioned itself as men idling and scheming on dry land, rather than as crewmen bound to the fortune of their vessel, and set in common effort against the vicissitudes of the sea. Now at last, in the Middle Generations of the Ithacan voyage, the last remnants of the human race became a closely knit, cohesive tribe. As in the cosmic religion, where consciousness was neither subsumed by the vastness of the physical universe, nor the physical universe moulded to fit the confines of consciousness, the Ithacan tribe neither overwhelmed the individual, nor the individual the tribe.
These were, truly, the greatest years of the voyage. Advances in technology meant that the Ithacans had more free-time than ever before. Their very concept of time was itself slowly adjusting to life in Interstellar space. The Ithacans were alerted to their work shifts by means of buzzers that they wore on their wrists. While working, they were aware of quantified, divisible time only as it related to the necessity to do certain things before a certain time elapsed. Outside of the necessities imposed by work, however, clock time vanished altogether for the Ithacans. Time felt boundless, undifferentiated, mesmerizing, and voluptuous. With their increasingly mystical temperament, the Ithacan could stare at his hand for a period of hours without noticing the time pass. Social encounters were always left to chance, for absolutely no one could be relied upon to keep an engagement. As generations passed, the Ithacans had lost their natural diurnality, often staying awake and active for periods of days at a time. In a peculiar way, this reorientation of subjective time, coupled, no doubt, with a general sense of well-being, eventually began to manifest itself in the biology of the Ithacans, slowing down senescence, and greatly extending life-expectancy and mental and physical acuity in later life.
As this new sense of boundless time opened up before the Middle Ithacans, stretching around them in all directions like the vast darkness between the stars, it must have felt as though they had found again the hallowed Golden Age, the time of abundance, completion, and serenity. The arrow of time seemed to slow down, and stall altogether in their subjective, indivisible models of eternity; they spoke of growing younger, and felt that only the Starship itself went forward, and even that only in spaces so vast that they obliterated all sense of momentum. They must have thought that these things, too, would never end. But time passed, as it always will. The first of the Middle Ithacans passed way, and their ashes were cast into the space between the dancing stars. Generations followed, and in time the Starship itself was palpably older, and closer by far to the end than the beginning.