Andy Sawyer keynote speech

Delivered by Andy Sawyer, University of Liverpool
at Science Fiction(s): A Study Day on Science Fiction Film, Television, Literature and New Media , University of Nottingham, Friday, 19th August 2005

1: Recently, two unorthodox scientists, Simon Hollington and Kypros Kyprianou, began experiments with antigravity and other force fields, intending to create an impenetrable barrier around the ArtSway centre in Hampshire. An investigation into the project by the Scientific Accident Investigation Group (Southern England Division) suggests that certain anomalies need to be the subject of further enquiries. Relationships between the two had broken down, and what exactly happened during a crucial period of 45 minutes is not on record. Hollington and Kyprianou are still at large, possibly developing separate laboratories in Europe.

2: Two artists, Simon Hollington and Kypros Kyprianou, created an installation on the subject of experiments with antigravity and other force fields. They may or may not have attempted to create an impenetrable barrier around the ArtSway centre in Hampshire. The results of the experiment were at the ICA, London, in March.April 2005 and can be viewed on a dvd or website

Gosh. Is it true?

The rise of the novel, we are told, is linked to realism, to plausibility and creating the illusion of truth. Let’s look at a statement that worried me considerably at the age of 8:

I had this story from one who had no business to tell it to me, or to any other. I may credit the seductive influence of an old vintage upon the narrator for the beginning of it, and my own skeptical incredulity during the days that followed for the balance of the strange tale.
When my convivial host discovered that he had told me so much, and that I was prone to doubtfulness, his foolish pride assumed the task the old vintage had commenced, and so he unearthed written evidence in the form of musty manuscript, and dry official records of the British Colonial Office to support many of the salient features of his remarkable narrative.
I do not say the story is true, for I did not witness the happenings which it portrays, but the fact that in the telling of it to you I have taken fictitious names for the principal characters quite sufficiently evidences the sincerity of my own belief that it may be true.
The yellow, mildewed pages of the diary of a man long dead, and the records of the Colonial Office dovetail perfectly with the narrative of my convivial host, and so I give you the story as I painstakingly pieced it out from these several various agencies.
(Edgar Rice Burroughs, Tarzan of the Apes.)

What, exactly, was Burroughs saying here? Did he really have a “convivial” encounter with an indiscreet old “Africa hand”? If there are records in the British Colonial Office that confirm the story, that really ought to prove it – we can’t assume, surely, that someone as respectable as an author is lying, can we? But what does Burroughs mean by arguing that he has used fictitious names for the principal characters as evidence for his own belief in the possible truth of the story he recounts? What does a sincere belief that something may be true actually mean in fixing the event in the spectrum of true history and wild imagination? And even if the orphaned son of a British aristocrat ended up raised by apes somewhere in Africa, how did Burroughs get to know the facts that only Tarzan himself knew, such as the ape-language that seemed to be a lingua franca among the animal kingdom? Surely the young ERB didn’t share a convivial vintage with Tarzan himself? The thought of a washed-up, alcoholic Tarzan trying to convince a sceptical would-be American novelist of his existence seems somehow appealing.

Somewhat later in my reading career, I learned, of course, that all these are non-questions and became reasonably adept in the reading protocols of the novel as it developed through the 18th and 19th centuries. I came to understand, for instance, the problem given us by works such as Daniel Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year (1722), which sounds like a straightforward journalist account by someone who was there – but Defoe was born in 1660, far too early to have noted all these details of the great plague of 1665. As Anthony Burgess, introducing the 1966 Penguin edition says, “the casual reader of, or dipper into, A Journal of the Plague Year, uninformed as to Daniel Defoe’s date of birth or his literary aims and methods, may be forgiven for thinking it is a genuine book of memoirs. This is what it reads like and is meant to read like – a rapid, colloquial, sometimes clumsy setting-down of reminiscences of a great historical event that was lived through by a plain London merchant with a passion for facts, a certain journalistic talent, but – apart from that familiarity with the Bible assumed in restoration dissenting business-men – no literary pretensions whatever. In reality it is a rather cunning work of art, a confidence trick of the imagination.”

Defoe, like those 18th century writers of the epistolary novel or broadside “confessions” from the gallows (or, perhaps, contemporary tabloid journalists or reality tv shows) was concerned with giving the illusion of truth. We’re led into a suspension of disbelief, into not so much thinking that that we’re reading is historical fact (even at the age of 8, by the time I had got several chapters into Tarzan of the Apes it was clear enough that it was all made up: Burroughs’s knowledge of African fauna was no match for a child who read encyclopedias for pleasure) but that the contract we make with the author is to behave in our imaginations as if what we are reading is historical fact. No author of traditional literary fiction is asking a reader to believe that, for instance, George Eliot’s “Middlemarch” is a real place and that Dorothea Brooke was a real person, even though there is nothing in the novel that breaks the bounds of probability. As for more “improbable” fictions, Jonathan Swift, author of Gulliver’s Travels once wrote in a letter to Alexander Pope, that “A Bishop here said, that Book (Gulliver’s Travels) was full of improbable lies, and for his part he hardly believed a word of it; and so much for Gulliver.” (Swift in letter to Alexander Pope, 27 Nov 1726)

but in fact it’s highly debatable whether there actually was such a Bishop.

There are authors who do call for sincere belief in their fictions. They are the authors of pseudoscience. Many readers believed in Erich von Daniken and his “Chariots of the Gods” theories: debunkings by scientists only proved, after all, that conventional science was hidebound by rules and dogma, and that unconventional theories were unfairly ignored by a conspiracy of conservative old men who had everything neatly sewn up in reductive accounts and refused to look at the evidence before them. When science – as it does – admit that it doesn’t know the real function of an artefact, or archaeological excavation – as it does – comes up with a tool or a cave-drawing or even a few scattered bones that suggest that the history of humanity is longer or more complex than is thought to be the case, an alternative, more romantic, explanation is tempting. So the conventional “realistic” literary novel is only a genre of a wider stream of story that plays more complex games with suspension of disbelief. Certainly, in science fiction and fantasy, we are not asked to make quite the same contract as we do with George Eliot. We know that, say, J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings is not true. We know that time machines, ftl spaceships, and alien beings are not true. We may believe that in some circumstances they might come to be true, or that (say, in the case of the last) we haven’t come across them yet, but the pleasure of science fiction and fantasy is in the act of speculation. Science fiction is the literature of what if?: the construction of an imaginary world out of the building-blocks of the real. Tolkien says something similar about fantasy in his essay “On fairy-Stories”, talking about “Secondary Worlds” and “sub-creation”

True, science fiction is not immune from confusions between truth and reality. Some years ago, I was asked to talk to a group called the “Cardiff Space Society” at a science fiction festival. Someone mentioned Star Wars and I launched into my usual rant about how good the first film was as a film but what a pity about the mystical hogwash about the Force. Imagine my surprise when it became quite obvious that these people believed in the Force: that to them the pop-theology that I considered a manufactured part of the story to move the plot along and create a reasonably plausible deus ex machina at the end, was in some way a picture of the universe as it is. In the late 1950s John W Campbell, editor of Astounding/Analog from 1937- 1971 waxed enthusiastic about the “Hieronymous machine” and the “Dean Drive”, variations on the age-old quest for perpetual motion, as well as encouraging L Ron Hubbard to develop Dianetics. Part of his approach was frustration with conventional orthodoxy: “it is essentially unimportant whether or not Dean’s device works. It is important that it was not investigated.” (“Final report on the Dean Device”, Analog Dec 1960). But part was a devout wish that the laws of the universe somehow permitted machines operated by esp and other such violations of so-called “natural law”. If Campbell had been shown a demonstration of Hollington and Kyprianou’s device, no doubt there would have been an editiorial in Analog.

So, what kind of fiction is The Invisible Force Field Experiments? Because it is, despite its unusual format, fiction. (At least, I hope it is. A tiny part of me, though, quite longs for its creators to look at me with spaniel eyes and say “But it’s all true. Every bit of it.”) Certainly, fiction of an unusual type. While the seduction of the printed word allows us to play games with our imagination, the visual components of the website and the gallery strengthen the illusion. Edgar Rice Burroughs says of his informant that “he unearthed written evidence in the form of musty manuscript, and dry official records of the British Colonial Office to support many of the salient features of his remarkable narrative.” This particular “remarkable narrative” goes one step further than Burroughs. It shows us the evidence. Like the naïve or child reader of a printed text that claims authenticity, we’re involved in the world we’re presented with. The IFFE installation demands that the “reader” plays a part in constructing the narrative. We are shown “evidence” and clues, both textual and visual. Is this an installation, with “artists” pretending to be scientists? Is it a dramatisation? Is it a deconstructed (to be constructed) novel?

Let’s think, again, about the beginning of Tarzan and rewrite it in terms of what we’re looking at now.

I heard about the Invisible Force Field Experiments through an email from someone I knew by reputation as a writer in a region of the Fantastic. I was urged to attend an exhibition at the ICA, London, and directed to a website which made some startling claims: that a pair of maverick scientific investigators had achieved some uncanny effects with force fields.

Stories can be told in different forms. The traditional British disaster sf story can be a novel (John Wyndham) or a television serial (Nigel Kneale). But new narrative forms demand new narrative techniques. I’m certainly aware that I am not sure what to call this particular form. In conversation with others, and with one of the creators of this particular work, I have used the word “conceptual art”, but I’ve uneasily come to realise that this is shorthand for “some form of genre that I don’t know the name of”. Turning in haste to the nearest available source (Wikipedia, accessed 12/08/05) to find out what other people actually mean by the term “conceptual art”, I read:

Conceptual art, sometimes called idea art, is art in which the ideas embodied by a piece are more central to the work than the means used to create it. It was described by the artist Sol LeWitt like so:

In conceptual art the idea or concept is the most important aspect of the work. When an artist uses a conceptual form of art, it means that all of the planning and decisions are made beforehand and the execution is a perfunctory affair. The idea becomes a machine that makes the art.

“Perfunctory” is hardly the word for this presentation, although “machine that makes the art” might be a useful phrase to use to describe it. In an email from one of the team, I am told:

As for the conceptual art tag, I don't think we would consider ourselves as such-but that could be an interesting talking point. half the time I just see myself as a song and dance man.

What, I wonder, does he see himself as the other half of the time?

Every distinct form of writing, I’ve suggested, has various protocols through which we come to understand that it is science fiction, or fantasy, or a hard-boiled detective story. Sometimes these protocols take the form of distinctive clues in the first few sentences:

“HARI SELDON -- ... born in the 11,988th year of the Galactic Era: died 12,069.”
“I rubbed depilitory soap over my face and rinsed it with the trickle from the fresh-water tap.”

Or more subtle indicators that something strange is going to happen:

“It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.”

“When a day that you happen to know is Wednesday starts off by sounding like Sunday, there is something seriously wrong somewhere.”

(Although what are we going to make of “The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.”?)

At other times we are lead through a maze of diversions, as in Philip K. Dick’s Time Out of Joint with its slow, apparently conventionally mainstream-realist opening in a 1950s America where the estrangement depends on models of car, movie starlets and whether a room has a light-pull or wall-switch. Sometimes we understand our fiction through specialist vocabulary or narrative style: the readers of Spenser’s Shepherds’ Calendar (1579), with its complex apparatus of emblematic pictures, verse, and glossary understood how the poem storied the world they were living in through the conventions of pastoral poetry from Theocritus and Virgil onwards, just as readers of cyberpunk in the 1980s understood the “consensual hallucination” of cyberspace – “The matrix has its root in primitive arcade games” (67) – and the fetishisation of technology -- “I saw you stroking that Sendai – it was almost pornographic.” Of course, no genre is pure. Often, the most exciting experience is precisely through these clashes of genre. Is China Mieville’s Perdido Street Station fantasy or sf or some higher brand of the fantastic: the “new weird”? Can we actually have a science fiction ghost story?

What narratives do we construct when we see pictures of men in white coats and slides of monitor screens?

They could be “real” pseudoscientific narratives, and this is an enterprise in which two eccentric people actually think, or claim, that they can create force fields, backed up by even loopier pseudoscience and (even loopier) evidence from science fiction. Such use of science fiction as evidence, is, of course, not actually new. Hugo Gernsback, founder of Amazing the first magazine dedicated to the new form of “scientifiction”, championed the literature of “extravagant fiction today: cold fact tomorrow” (as he proclaimed in Amazing) claiming “prophetic fiction is the mother of scientific fact” (Wonder). The references to science fiction in these “experiments” here are clues to the way unorthodox science could turn to the extravagances of sf for inspiration. Pawels and Bergier’s The Morning of the Magicians argued for an occult interpretation of history in part by means of citing science fiction as being unconscious depictions of this hidden truth. One sf writer once remarked of this book “I know it’s bollocks because they use me as evidence.” Or, we have two artists who are pretending to be white-coated scientists and this is a satire on the scientific project. Or we have a kind of science fiction narrative, a kind of adaptation of a novel that has yet to be written.

But what happens to any of these narratives if, for instance, we recognise the name of the Scientific Accident Investigation Group Chief Investigator? “Lucas Parkes” was the co-author of and technical collaborator for John Wyndham’s somewhat atypical fix-up novel The Outward Urge. Not many people, as the saying goes, know that, but those who do are not only those who share acquaintance with what Australian critic Damien Broderick calls “the sf megatext” (the shared set of images, vocabulary and reading strategies by which we have learned to recognize a text as “science fiction” which we develop by reading lots of sf itself), but who are aware of some of the self-referential tricks sf can play on its readers. For “Parkes” is also is, of course, John Wyndham himself: John Wyndham Parkes Lucas Beynon Harris (1903-1969), better known for just the first two of those names as the author of the most celebrated catastrophe stories in modern British sf.

The plot of the “story”?

We are faced with a number of pieces of evidence: a box of slides, personal logs, an official report from the mysterious “Scientific Accident Investigation Group, a folder labelled “technical research” that appears to describe other investigations into force fields and anti-gravity. We can access them in any order. The slides show blurred images of a room full of electronic equipment, two (white-coated) men taping out an area in a wood, mysterious lights – is one a bonfire, or an explosion? Are we observing something supernatural? The last slides show something apparently floating in the taped-out area in the room and a cloud of dust (or haze) behind the taped-off area in the wood (the tape across the road reminds us of John Wyndham’s Midwich “dayout” as seen in Village of the Damned) The final slide is a man running, his back to us. There is space in the folder for one more slide. Has something been removed?

A video gives us more clues. The two men are fiddling with machinery. Waves undulate on a screen. The men and a woman are playing boules – and suddenly we see one of the boules actually floating. The barrier tape across the road is waving (or is it the wind) , and one of the researchers seems to be drawing attention to a small metal object suspended – or floating – between his finger and thumb. We see the space in the wood, and activity in the taped-off area. Another clip (CCTV1) is a series of eerie night shots – houses, a wood, traffic – building up to what seems to be a flash of light.

When we turn to the printed word we see clues that flesh out these visual hints (it should be clear by now that I have taken one way into this story). There seems to be conflict from the beginning. The two men offer different versions of events. Travelling down by different means, Kyp “was lucky and pulled the long straw” in travelling by train (Simon’s account) or “pulled the short straw and cycled from Southhampton” (his account). [It’s assumed that he travelled to Southhampton from London by train – the point here is different interpretations.] Other viewpoint differences come out of the account: one piece of equipment is the “magnetron” (Kyprianou: “high voltage supplies, which Simon mistakenly keeps referring to as the magnetron”.)

They set up with their dodgy equipment, battling hold-ups and blithely overlooking possibilities of lethal voltages. Simon agonises about the heat and the nature of fringe science, and they quarrel over the collapse of the grid in the north-east states of America. Kiprianou begins to think that someone is tampering with equipment, recalling various conspiracy theories. Some of the experiments seem to be working, but that only seems to increase the paranoia: Simon notes Kyp taking elaborate safety precautions, while Kyp suspects that Simon is altering his figures. A small explosion seems to confirm – in his own mind – Kyp’s feeling that someone is trying to wreck the project, but it is Simon who discovers a note from a mysterious “Lucas Parkes”. The ArtSway director passes on a complaint from people whose horses are acting strangely around the centre – “You don’t fuck with the pony club.” Another note from “Lucas Parkes” makes Simon think that Parkes is in league with Kyp, maybe even is Kyp. Simon’s notes eventually cease after an apparent warning from “Parkes” that others are taking an interest in the experiments.

The official report from SAIG, by “Lucas Parkes”, talks of a confrontation between the two and notes that the team had been called in by the ArtSway director. The laboratory seems to have been abandoned hurriedly, in the midst of an experiment. Sections of the report are withheld: in particular there is a missing 45 minutes from the video record. Hollington and Kyprianou are rumoured to be in Russia and Finland, up rival laboratories. The SAIGSED team recommend the reopening of the case.

What happened?

Stories involving secret experiments that somehow go wrong are frequent in science fiction, as are fictions of, essentially, mystery. Nigel Kneale’s “Quatermass” series and related sf such as “The Stone tapes” are profoundly anxious explorations of scientific investigation. In Wyndham’s The Midwich Cuckoos the whole point is that we never come to understand exactly what happened in Midwich on that fateful “dayout”. John Wyndham, for example, seems extraordinarily unwilling to explain what is really going on in his novels. The Day of the Triffids has the blindness-inducing “meteor shower”: but is it actually a meteor shower, or, as some of the characters suggest, the accidental or deliberate triggering of weapons of mass destruction which are circling the Earth in satellite form? The triffids themselves are of shady origin, probably the result of Lysenkoist biological experiments in the USSR. What we know from Bill Masen’s account (and this is not direct evidence, merely privileged information gained “in the course of my work” as an expert on triffids) is full of expressions like “it is my guess”, “And I think, too”, “Perhaps “, “I am sure that”, “That is, I repeat, conjecture” (36).

Less emphasised, but certainly given weight (the suggestion appears at least twice in the novel and is often assumed as fact by its readers) is the possibility that the triffids have, if not a kind of intelligence, then the ability to sense and communicate. Masen’s colleague Walter, in Chapter 2, offers this as a very real possibility when Masen misinterprets his observation “They’re talkative tonight” (46) as a simple metaphor. Later, Susan, the young girl rescued by Bill and Josella, makes a similar remark and attributes the presence of the triffids to the fact that they “hear” the shotgun, the tractor and the generator (233-4). Are we given this as fact ? It hardly seems so, yet there is plenty of other evidence to suggest that Bill Masen is not the brightest spark in the fire. In short, we can only weigh up the evidence as we see it through careful reading and make our own decisions. John Wyndham himself is not saying.

This avoidance or evasion of hard information is to be found in most of Wyndham’s major novels. In The Kraken Wakes we can only assume that the xenobathites which come out of the oceans are linked to the meteor showers with which the book starts. In the Midwich Cuckoos there’s what appears to be a spacecraft (a ufo sighting before the event, a dent in the ground after it, and a “pale oval outline” photographed from the air during it) at the centre of Midwich’s “dayout”. But if the “cuckoo” children are fully aware of their origins they are not saying and most of what we think we know about them is Gordon Zellaby’s conjecture. Origins are suggested but not confirmed. This of course is what makes them true science fiction: all we have is hypothesis built from what limited evidence there is, but that is what science builds upon. Wyndham plays fair as a science fiction writer, but what he gives us by what his limited characters speculate is a much more chilling story than an omniscient narrator would have offered. This approach may not quite what we consider a science fiction narrative to be. We expect to know whether the world of the story is another planet in an imagined location in the universe we live, rather than a neverworld of fantasy. We expect to know whether our aliens are “real” aliens rather than ghosts or demons, however unnatural they may seem.

There is a telling point in the “traveller’s tales” recounted` by the narrator’s Uncle Axel in The Chrysalids. Returning sailors have brought back stories which their audiences find hard to believe, of “deviations” (mutations) which have turned the skin-colour of humans black, even of mutations which have resulted in beings that have “dwindled to two feet high, grown fur and a tail, and taken to living in trees” (p. 62). We, of course, know exactly what is being referred to, and know perfectly well that this is not “mutation” but a perfectly natural description of ordinary, mundane men and monkeys. But within the world of the story there is no way of knowing that, and as Uncle Axel points out, even the most bizarre deviations from the norm consider themselves to be the true pattern of humanity. Here, Wyndham has reversed his usual approach to allow us readers a rare moment of privilege. Frequently, however, he presents phenomena which may or may not have explanations within the world of the story, but which often have a thoroughly Fantastic feel about them because there is no way either we or the characters in the story can tell which is the truth.

And this certainly creates more interesting science fiction, full of suspense. I am using “Fantastic” in a particularly specialist sense here. The literary theorist Tzvetan Tordorov considers several areas of the Fantastic, including the “true” Fantastic as “hesitation” between “real” and “supernatural” interpretations of the events of the story. The Fantastic exists where we are unable to choose between interpretations. If the apparently supernatural event or intrusion has, in the end, a rational explanation, within what we see as the laws of nature, it is what Todorov characterises as the “uncanny”; if it accepts explanations beyond the laws of nature, it is the “marvellous”. Todorov uses different “tendencies” of the Gothic novel to explain this distinction: the novels of Clara Reeves and Ann Radcliffe are full of spooky and terrifying effects which in the end are explained away as tricks or illusions, while those of Horace Walpole or M. G. Lewis accept explanations beyond the world as we know it. The Fantastic exists as far as we, the readers, are unable to come down on one side or another, up to the moment when we are sure that the apparently supernatural events either can or cannot be explained. A few rare works remain at this point at their conclusion: there is no resolution.

The examples I’ve used are prose fiction, using the techniques of prose fiction. Once we’ve considered other techniques – the deliberate fakery of official-looking reports, video clips, plausible-looking backstory and a confusion between interpretations of the same events – we can have more complex interactions of the real and the fictional, which can only invite us to hesitate as we interpret what we see on the screen before us. As someone versed in the way writers of prose fiction play mind-games with readers, and in the way science fiction novels are constructed, some of this is easy for me, but the unfamiliar form in which this is presented, and presented in the context of an “art installation”, means that I am constantly having to challenge my assumptions. I am prepared, at time of writing, to consider that I am going to be meeting two men called Simon Hollington and Kypros Kyprianou, but I am less convinced that I know what they consider they have created. To me, it is a conventional science fiction novel, but conventional in -theme and (the important part) highly unconventional and interesting in form. The Invisible Force Field Experiments is not a narrative, but the pieces from which a narrative is constructed, which allows us to build up our own interpretation of it. I’m prepared to believe that two men in white coats conducted scientific experiments in an arts centre in Sway, Hampshire (incidentally the county where Wyndham retired to and died), just to see what games they could play with the idea, and I’m prepared to believe that two artist/pranksters with an interest in 1950s British science fiction wondered how they could retell some of those wonderful stories of stiff-upper-lip paranoia using multi-media narrative techniques. Just don’t ask me to point out the exact point where either one of these alternatives becomes the “real” story.

15 August 2005

Works cited

Edgar Rice Burroughs, Tarzan of the Apes. John W. Campbell, “Final report on the Dean Device”, Analog Dec 1960.
Daniel Defoe, A Journal of the Plague Year ed. Anthony Burgess
Simon Hollington and Kypros Kyprianou, The Invisible Force Field Experiments.
Jacques Pawels and Louis Bergier, The Morning of the Magicians.