Thursday, 19 January 2017

The Weird and the Eerie by Mark Fisher

By now, everyone's heard that Mark Fisher has died.

On Saturday, I sat down in the afternoon to start The Weird and the Eerie, but just before I did so I (habitually) checked Facebook, only to learn that his death had just been announced. There was something extremely disquieting about that, a cruel irony that his latest book became his last just as I was about to begin.

I didn't know him, I had never met him, and I'd only become aware of his work in 2015. I didn't read K-Punk back when it was the hub of incandescent blogging it was the in the 2000s. I still haven't even finished Ghosts of My Life, for the single reason that Fisher's knowledge of popular (and unpopular) culture was so much vaster than mine that every page would introduce me to another band I hadn't heard, a film I hadn't seen, a TV show I'd not watched, and a book I'd not read. What I did read, his essays on Joy Division and Burial in particular, was extraordinary. Elegant, readable, blisteringly intelligent and full of vision.

As such, I don't presume to write an obituary. I'm just going to review a cool book by a cool guy, who I wish I'd known.


In this short and efficient primer, Fisher takes us on a tour of the different manifestations of the weird and the eerie. These are aesthetic experiences most often associated with the horror genre, but Fisher shows us that horror has no monopoly over either. 

The book is split into two halves, one for each of the topics. The chapters, all short, come as a pleasing staccato as one reads. None hang around for long, the weirdness or eeriness of their subject being quickly (though not hastily) drawn out, followed by a leap to the next. Fisher rarely spends more than a few pages on any single book or film or album. Instead, he seems to have wanted to equip the reader which as much material as possible for their own research, not wanting to exhaust any particular vein of the weird or the eerie. Instead, he acts here more like a surveyor, producing a map that he wants us to make use of, and explore more thoroughly.

Thus, the book feels more like a prolegomenon to future works on the weird and the eerie. Indeed, Fisher begins by acknowledging his neglect of these topics. One gets the impression he wanted to get the groundwork out the way, so the real task could begin.

The definitions Fisher gives us are as follows: by weird, we designate 'that which does not belong' [p. 10]. The hybrid, the alien, the ancient, all these are potential sources of the weird. It is typically shocking, even terrifying. The weird 'exceeds our capacity to represent' [p. 61], it is overwhelming. By eerie, we designate 'a failure of absence or... a failure of presence. The sensation of the eerie occurs either when there is something present where there should be nothing, or there is nothing present when there should be something.' [Ibid.] The eerie, which is less typically shocking, is born out of something less overt than the weird. The eerie operates more by suggestion, by what is left unsaid. The weird has a note of grotesqueness, while the eerie has a note of lack. But I can't do justice to his definitions, they only come to light when we follow him through the examples he gives.

What is perhaps most striking in this book is the multiplicity of examples he uses to demonstrate the variant workings of weirdness and eeriness. The usual suspects are there (the weird as presented by H. P. Lovecraft, the eerie as presented by M. R. James), but there are many others who one would not approach in these terms: H.G. Wells' story The Door in the Wall is found to possess weird elements, as does the discography of The Fall, while eeriness is found in Nolan's Interstellar and John Glazer's Under the Skin.

What Fisher succeeds in doing is showing us that weirdness and eeriness are experiences that can, and do, occur in utterly unexpected ways, and in unexpected places. Nor must they always be horrifying, as both hint towards the possibility of radical alterity, to the idea that things are neither always what they seem, or fixed as they are right now. The unknown is not always unwelcome.

If you'd like to help support Mark Fisher's wife and son, you can do so with a donation here.

Tuesday, 17 January 2017


*In the interests of readability, I've upped the font-size from 'invisible' to 'whoa'.*

Auralux is a mobile strategy game. I was introduced to it the recently. It's a very simple game, the only controls being scroll, zoom, and select. 

The player is confronted with a system of stars (planets in the second game), surrounded by points of energy. The stars generate these points of energy every second; the larger the star, the more energy points they produce. You use the energy points to upgrade your stars, defend them, and attack your opponents stars with. The aim isn't conquest, it's annihilation. You don't need to claim every star, you just have to be the last player standing. This is a game that prioritises annihilation over conquest. 

Of course, in order to be in a position to defend oneself, and to attack, you need to conquer territory first. Annihilation is something to be prepared for, once sufficient resources have been gathered. Although turtling is theoretically possible, it's difficult to make it work as the game rewards swiftness. Take too long to build up your defences, the opponents (never fewer than two) will claim enough territory for them to easily overcome one another, and then you. The game rewards decisiveness, but punishes stupidity. Over-reach your abilities, you'll be unable to hold onto territory and will have to retreat, a step that almost inevitably results in defeat. Strike too soon, you'll find you haven't the forces to knock either opponent out, and in the time it takes you to reinforce your numbers, you've fallen behind the race for territory. 

None of this is especially unique, one can apply all of this any RTS game. What is striking about Auralux is how stripped back it is, how minimalist it is. There is nothing of the baroque or excessive to it at all, just shapes, colours, and sounds. It's as if Kraftwerk designed it. Although it wouldn't be strictly accurate to call it a highly abstract 4X game (eXplore, eXpand, eXploit, eXterminate) as there is no element of exploration, the other three Xs are present. You must expand your territory, exploit it, and exterminate the enemy. There is something very bloodless about it. Despite the focus on annihilation, the absence of anything overtly military or imperialist in its aesthetic leaves us just with the mechanics of a 4X strategy game, without anything that's directly suggestive of death.

The abstraction and minimalism is, of course, what makes it attractive. Cold, clean, bloodless, with 'spacey' ambient music as a soundtrack. When different clusters of energy attack one another, there is just a flash of light and a pleasant tinkling sound as they destroy each other, complementing the music. 

As it so happens, I was about halfway through The Dark Forest when I was introduced to this game. The emphasis the novel has on abstracting about possible interactions between cosmic civilisations, and the cold, precise elegance of the prose, very much chimes with the game. 

Auralux is the kind of game appropriate for the age of drones and cyber-warfare, for body counts, computer aided grand strategy, and the digitisation of combat. War as a game where you no longer need to break a sweat.

Sunday, 15 January 2017

The Dark Forest by Cixin Liu


The Dark Forest is in that great tradition of speculative fiction that deals with ideas and concepts over everything else. Make no mistake, this is hard SF, by thankfully Liu is a masterful storyteller, and the many long digressions on (among other things) axiomatic cosmic sociology, space propulsion, asymmetric warfare, and the impact of nuclear proliferation on geopolitics from the perspective of small countries, are all engrossing.

The story picks up where The Three-Body Problem left of, though only with a smattering of return characters. The focus is on Luo Ji, a failed academic (specialising in astronomy, moonlighting as a sociologist), who at the beginning of the novel is given the foundational axioms for a sociology of cosmic civilisations. 
First: Survival is the primary need of civilisation. Second: Civilisation continuously grows and expands, but the total matter in the universe remains constant.
As well as these axioms, there are two other principles at the heart of cosmic sociology: the chain of suspicion, and the technological explosion. How these fit together only becomes obvious at the end of the novel. Luo Ji is given these by Ye Wenjie, who readers will recall brought the doom of Trisolaris upon humanity in the first novel. This is an interesting move as it will eventually be the axioms of cosmic sociology that bring humanity (apparent) salvation at the end of the novel.

Why, though, is cosmic sociology axiomatic? Because of the absence of evidence from which we could build an empirical sociology. Thus, in order to build a sociology of cosmic civilisation, one must reason from acceptable first principles. Luo Ji does precisely this.

I said above that this is hard SF, and it is, but the focus is less on science or technology than one might think. Liu spends much of his time considering strategy. Indeed, the novel feels almost like a puzzle that he has set himself, and the progress of reading it is us following him towards a solution.

What is the puzzle? The puzzle rests on how to fulfil the first axiom, namely, how does one assure the survival of one's civilisation? The following conditions are what Liu sets himself to work with.

  1. Humanity cannot make any fundamental scientific progress beyond what it had at the beginning of the 21st century. 
  2. Humanity has roughly 400 years to prepare itself for war with a foe who are substantially more technologically and scientifically advanced (including in fundamental science) than humanity.
  3. The foe can monitor any and all events that take place within the Solar System in real time, but cannot interfere above the atomic level. They can, however, communicate with individuals and groups of individuals. 
  4. The foe cannot read minds. Thoughts remain unknown.
  5. The foe is ignorant of strategy and deception, as the foe's natural form of communication is such that thought and speech are one-and-the-same.

In order to counter the threat from Trisolaris, and aware of the fact that Trisolaris cannot read minds, the UN establishes the Wallfacer Project. The Wallfacers are four individuals who are entrusted with huge resources, and instructed to use them to save humanity. They are never required to explain or justify themselves, and are encouraged to conceal their true strategy from everyone, both allies and enemies. The reason behind this is that, although humanity cannot hope to defeat Trisolaris technologically, they can hope to exploit their enemies poor comprehension of strategy and deception to outsmart them. 

Luo Ji is one of the Wallfacers, the other three are Frederick Tyler, an American military tactician and former Secretary of Defence; Rey Diaz, the former president of Venezuela (a more competent Hugo Chavez who defeated the US when they invaded his country); and Bill Hines, a British neuroscientist. 

Trisolaris is deeply concerned about the Wallfacers, and their agents on Earth establish the Wallbreakers, whose task it is to guess the strategy behind the Wallfacers' projects and reveal them to the world. Eventually, all but Luo Ji's strategies are unmasked and their plans fail. Eventually, we learn what Luo Ji's plan is: threatening to reveal the location of the Trisolaran homeworld to the rest of the galaxy. 

His strategy is born out entirely from the axioms of cosmic sociology. Assuming the first two principles, and the chain of suspicion and technological explosion, Luo Ji realises that any cosmic civilisation that reveals itself to the rest of the galaxy will be destroyed by any civilisation that learns of its presence, and has the means to destroy it. Why is this? Because each civilisation will pursue its own survival above all else, each civilisation grows but there is only a finite amount of matter in the universe, and any contact with another civilisation will immediately fall into the chain of suspicion. That is, due to the sheer otherness of alien life, and the impossibility of direct and meaningful communication over interstellar scales, it is impossible to determine the motivation another cosmic civilisation will have in alerting others to its presence. Further, the exponential growth of technology (the technological explosion) means that it is possible for a small and primitive civilisation to become advanced and powerful in a (cosmically speaking) short amount of time. As such, it is always more reasonable to assume that attempted contact is a trap, and a trap necessarily implies hostility, and hostile entities must be eliminated (in accordance with the first axiom).

As such, Luo Ji realises that if he reveals the location of Trisolaris to the rest of the galaxy, he will bring inevitable doom upon them (and also the Solar System, as the proximity of the Trisolaris system to our own will almost certainly mean that humanity is detected). This is his grand strategy, and with this he is able to outsmart the invaders.

Like I said, it feels like a puzzle, a challenge Liu set himself to solve over the 550 pages of the novel, and its very rewarding to follow his reasoning. If you're thinking that this makes the novel very cold... you're mostly right. Although the writing is very elegant throughout, characterisation is almost non-existent. We hear only what characters do, and very little about their inner life (which may very well be the point: the novel is itself a Wallfacer). 

In the end, The Dark Forest is more like a beautiful piece of clockwork than anything else, both precise and oddly chilling.

Check out this deeply haunting fan film, depicting the 'Droplet' sequence from the novel.