Jul 10 2009

Book Review: Dirt

William Bryant Logan seems like a name that should be on the cover of a book. It’s a good, earthy name. It’s the name of an author who is a gardener, a scholar, a journalist, a Christian, an ex-oil rigger, and a mountain climber. All these aspects of his life are expressed in the busy pages of Dirt: The Ecstatic Skin Of The Earth. (First published as a paperback in 2007.)

Judging a book by its cover, in part, I bought Dirt on the basis of the fantastic title, and on the report that it contained this fact: “an acre of soil produces one horsepower every day”. The fact came first, via Twitter. Where did the fact come from? Via William Bryant Logan’s Dirt. That was a sale, right there.

A book about dirt. Soil, mud. And one with intriguing facts.

The book is a collection of essays that tie into the many aspects of what is – I now realise – a relatively mysterious medium. Dirt, dust, soil, earth, clay: a set of living systems that ties in any number of processes and materials across the planet. Logan’s writings detail a number of them, rooting around in matters of composting, soil evolution, dung beetles (including a species that hangs at the arse of a monkey, ready to base jump from a tree with its chosen stool), earthquakes, ground water, the theories of clay, molds, the wind, and the relationship between early agrarian presidents of the United States, Jefferson and Adams.

Logan’s book is piecemeal, rather than any kind of systematic natural history or survey. Nevertheless it’s the diversity of thoughts and descriptions that make this book fascinating to a dirt layman such as myself. It also seems to contain a broad thesis about how soil is akin to life, and how it is the foundation of life. The section on the weird nature of clay, and its relationship to the early stages of life, even the sheer complexity of this apparently simply substance, is extraordinary.

“The clay code… is more complex that either genetic code or human language. Only now are we beginning to catch glimpses of its order, and one cannot help thinking that pursuing it will be as fruitful and endless as the cabbalists’ search for that perfect of the Hebrew aleph, by which God created the universe.”

Logan’s writing is elegiac: he seems genuinely sad for eroded and contaminated soils, and laments the waste of bad composting. He offers poetic renditions of lessons in geology, and begins to suggest that soil is interrelated with what it means to be human. Indeed, the book explains, soil itself is a kind of living, self-healing entity, which we can and must understand our relationship with. There’s something beautiful about this that is made all the more intense by our increased understanding of the properties of this substance. Logan exults soil scientist Hans Jenny as one of the greatest minds of the past century, for his contribution to this body of knowledge.

Of course I agree with the ideas about the life of soil, and our need to better understand how we use, make and exhaust it. It’s a characteristic that’s true of much of the natural world, and it only needs stating in this case because soil is so ignored, and abused. It is not, thanks to this book, underwhelming. Logan does a fantastic job of providing the tools necessary for furthering even the slightest interesting in the materials beneath the gardener’s feet.

However, Logan’s Christianity does frame much of how he discusses his topic, and not always beneficially to the neutral reader. For the most part the Bible references are well-judged: splendid allegory. By the last third of the book, however, the pastoralist sermonising tendencies – via Biblical example – had begun to grate, and I almost put the book down.

This is a writer who is, apparently, keenly interested in the wonder that science can evoke from our expanded understanding of the natural world. The book is filled with references to soil science, geology, and even cosmology. And yet it is an uncomfortable position: Logan seems to still be irked by the arrogance of science – a common feeling among believers – which is something I would have sympathy for if it were not for his generalisations against science, and his eccentric defence of the profoundly dubious practice of dowsing for water.

“Science tells us that we are lords of Creation and that we know everything, but it would seem that our mental world is often more impoverished than an ant or a weed.”

Even when reports like this one discuss magnetic sense in animals, the fact remains that dowsing has been repeatedly debunked. There is no case for it. Logan’s belief in this strange behaviour set seems more about his hope and faith in ancient belief, than about any kind of useful understanding of the natural world. Science, far from telling us we are lords of creation, tells us that the world is more complex, and far stranger, than our ancient forebears could have anticipated.

These irrational blips make for uneven reading for even an occasionally magical empiricist like me, and it made me grumble. I was ultimately able to ignore it, and put aside the religious undertones as something like poetic license, but the sense of internal tension remained.

Like a whole bunch of my peers I’ve become increasingly interested in these kinds of topics, with gardening and growth, and with their relationship to how we progress, and it’s hard to find articulate writing on the topic that doesn’t slump into tedium. In part, Dirt serves to colour our knowledge and fuel our excitement and wonder, and I want to recommend it for that reason alone.

Jun 27 2009


“The Composite City where all human potentials are spread out in a vast silent market… minarets, palms, mountains, jungle… a sluggish river jumping with vicious fish, vast weed-grown parks where boys lie in long grass, play cryptic games.”

Yesterday’s Twitter musing raised the idea of a GTA game featuring an old man: wandering the streets, smoking, reminiscing. This led me to suggest a Williams Burroughs game, “Interzone”, where you battle the forces of control by distributing fucked up ideas across the city. So let’s outline a design for Interzone.

“No narrative, all side quests,” says Greg J Smith. That suits the Burroughsian idea, of course. And yet you can see how a Burroughs quest structure might work: a fragmentary mass of clues leading towards one inevitability. “The Old Writer would write himself out of death.” The endgame would be immortality, access to The Western Lands, and you’d find your way in the city. There might not be a story – perfect for the random sandbox play of the city in which a player is wandering, exploring, struggling – but that doesn’t mean there wouldn’t be an ending.

“A ghost in daylight on a crowded street.”

Visually the game world lands part way between Junkie and Naked Lunch. Part New York, part Tangiers. It’s a familiar city, but there’s something wrong with everything. Clearly the GTA city of Interzone would have to be far more tangled and jungloid than any game city we care to suggest.

“Our national drug is alcohol. We tend to regard the use of any other drug with special horror.”

Two game mechanisms for Interzone.

The first is morphia: addiction. The Old Writer will have have to make contact with various individuals across the city so that he can stay in control of himself. The longer you go without a hit, the harsher visuals and audio becomes, the more complex interactions are. But one contact will run dry, you’ll always have to search for another: following spectral junkies, looking for clues. Too long and you begin to lose control: the avatar wanders on his own, ravenous for junk. Eventually it’s unplayable: too bright and grating to look at, too difficult to control. And yet you’re facing a tricky kind of videogame resource management: take too much and you’re fade out, overdosing, resetting to zero. Wake up in a bed in a dark room, sunlight through a single dirty pane.

“A paranoid man is a man who knows a little about what’s going on.”

The second mechanism is the Cut Up. You are constantly under threat of being captured: seized by agents of control. They only way to deal with it is to disrupt their activities, to keep them off your tail, dealing with other things. You distribute fucked up ideas to key locations. Pamphlets dropped off with key people, reducing the likelihood of the forces of control appear to deal with you. At higher levels you begin leaving tape recorders filled with subliminal messages running, an area-of-affect attack, context bombs. Parasitic upgrades.

The last resort – a thing of brutal finality, and your most limited resource – are the handguns that Burroughs loved. Just nine rounds in your automatic. Nine chances to escape control. Nine lives.

Cut word lines — Cut music lines — Smash the control images — Smash the control machine — Burn the books — Kill the priests — Kill! Kill! Kill!

Jun 26 2009


Having crossed paths with Geoff Manaugh and BLDGBLOG a few years ago, I’m now a regular reader, and even an occasional contributor. My endorsement of this book does have a ring of inevitability to it.

The site seems to have captured the attention of thousands of people by allowing us to take an interest in the built environment in a way that hadn’t seemed viable before: allowing in elements of science fiction, fantasy, speculation, and general imagination. Of course architecture has always been about these things, but recently it seems as if the layman – outsiders to the profession - are being allowed to take a closer interest. Just another side-effect of the altered information flows of the early 21st century. That, and the work of some interesting writers.

Without Manaugh’s own fiercely speculative writing the site would be without its vital spark. He reports on stories, ideas, notions, flights of fancy, but adds his own context, an endless cascade of “What if?” scenarios to bring geological data-storage, subterranean sculpture, redesigned atmospheres, resurrected fortifications, and a million other architectural themes to life.

This is science fiction, but in the manner defined by Brian Aldiss. It is “the sub-literature of change”. The same is true of the book, which I’ve just finished reading. Manaugh storms through a number of his favourite blogging themes: The Underground (adventures in subterranean architectures, geology), Redesigning the Sky (atmospherics, artificial metereology, aurora on demand), Music, Sounds, Noise (architectural acoustics), and Landscape Futures. Each of these receives a series of small essays, which report on interesting phenomena, such as how cities and mountain ranges influence weather patterns, before plunging into the consequential possibilities: weather as spectator sport, weaponising the atmosphere, and so on.

It’s a book that contains multitudes. The core bits of essaying are supplemented by sidebar notes from the blog, as well as the site’s best entries, and a bunch of interviews with architects, musicians, artists, and writers. It’s also lavishly illustrated with dozens of colour pictures.

Through a couple of junctures in this book the sober British empiricist in me frowned at Manaugh’s more outlandish flights of fantasy. I’m not sure whether that’s because the context of reading such ideas in a book seemed to carry a different gravity to reading them on a blog, or whether the occasionally unscientific fiction he was creating challenged even my reasonably broad capacity for playfulness and optimism. He is not dealing in analytical “reality”, of course, as the introduction makes plain:

“…forget academic rigour. Never take the appropriate next step. Talk about Chinese urban design, the European space program, and landscape in the films of Alfred Hitchcock in the span of three sentences – because it’s fun, and the juxtapositions might take you somewhere. Most importantly, follow your lines of interest.”

Which, as a statement of philosophy sounds rather like one of the book’s literary godfathers, JG Ballard: “My advice to anyone in any field is to be faithful to your obsessions. Identify them and be faithful to them, let them guide you like a sleepwalker.”

Over-using that quote. I’ll stop now.

Jun 13 2009


Having spent a couple of weeks working in an office for a magazine, I’m relishing the chance to gorge myself on research for my own projects. I hope I’ll never take for granted the incredible freedom that being a freelance creature has given me. And I also quietly pray that I never have to give it up.

I’m now busy trying to focus my curiosity and gather together ideas from a selection of fresh sources. In the months since This Gaming Life was released I’ve spent plenty of time developing some of the more interesting ideas that the book touched on: the significance of boredom, the value and values of escapism, generative systems in videogames, gamers in videogames, videogames as a new science fiction frontier, biography, philosophy and the future. All that means lots of dredging for data, spotting connections, and figuring out what needs to be said next.

A writer is a machine for turning tea into descriptions. And this writer’s head needs other materials to combine with the caffeine. I suppose some folks are more spontaneous and original, but I need to remix and recombine foreign elements to produce anything useful. So, as a set of notes and explanations, here’s a cross section of my current research materials. I’m thinking of the following as a kind of map of where my projects are in idea-space, which is actually what this blog has largely been about, over the years.

[Everything mentioned here is set to a soundtrack composed of Lustmord, Brian Eno, Tim Hecker, Belong, and, for a touch of energy, Lightning Bolt.]

Headthinks at the end of last year were dominated by reading and re-reading three books. The first two of these were Collapse and The World Without Us, which make up a kind of End Of The World documentary duo. They are both imaginative and well-researched, and constitute a strange kind of anxiety (the calmly compiled list of how we are fucked, in Collapse) and a release of tension (the realisation that human beings aren’t the only life on Earth, and that the writhing blue green would actually be a lovely place without us, in The World Without Us.) They’ve ended up defining a lot of what I want to do in the next few years, which is about redescribing progress, and trying inject some optimism into the world around me.

The other book was Musicophilia by Oliver Sacks. Celebrity literary neurologist Oliver Sacks is consistently incredible, but this book hit me much harder than his others. There was something deeply inspiring about the fundamental nature of music in the brain, which made the stories of music and brain malfunctioning even more horrifying. I found myself putting the book down from time to time, too moved and disturbed by horrible possible fates of music-haywire brains to continue. What Musicophilia reminded me, however, was how much interest I used to have in the brain, and consciousness.

Subsequently I’ve been leafing through a bunch of older brain books, and have picked up this more recent work on the plasticity of the brain, Norman Doidge’s The Brain That Changes Itself. I’m only part way through it, but the notion of senses filling in for each other, and the brain adapting, or being adapted, to deal with tasks aside from those expected of it, is fascinating. And optimistic. Brains can do more than we believed. That aside, I’ve long been interested in the idea of what games might end up doing to rewire the human brain, particularly as we adapt to use various unusual interfaces, and I hope this book will lead me in the direction of more such research.

Thinking back, this reminds me how I became a consciousness studies junkie at university. I was so entrenched in the stuff that I ended up writing a squalid and stupid dissertation on consciousness, even though we’d not had any philosophy of mind or related materials featured in the three year course. Perhaps if I’d paid attention to what we’d actually been studying, I might have got more out of it. But anyway, the one person who did inspire me at that time is also on my current research reading list. He’s a professor called Ray Monk, and I’ve been reading a bit of his work – aside from the books he’s written – specifically a paper entitled “Biography as an Exemplar of Philosophical Understanding”.

Monk’s thought is, I think, an example of an anti-philosophy of the kind that Wittgenstein wrote about, and that interests me enormously. Monk says that biography is a model of “the kind of understanding that consists in seeing connections,” as opposed to theoretical understanding, which consists in explaining something via a fundamental theory, and the attended methods, frameworks, and jargon. I spend quite a lot of time reading various philosophy and critical theory blogs, and I’m often astounded by the impracticality and complexity of the writing produced for them. Finding philosophy that exhibits genuine clarity can be a difficult task in itself, but it’s often necessary for me to get a new and useful perspective of the things I want to write about.

(Kieron and I were wondering about the motivation and purpose behind that entire high falutin’ philosophy scene the other day. He suggested it was some kind of metagame, in which the exponents of various theories scored depending on how much their descriptions and redescriptions stirred intellectual arousal on their peers. I suggested it might be explained via Meryl Streep’s character in The Devil Wears Prada, who observes that snorting at high fashion’s impracticality and obsession with detail is foolish, because ultimately those motifs, colours, and designs will still filter down to street level and influence how people dress, whether we like it or not. The same might be said of philosophical theory.)

What interests me about Monk’s suggestions is that – by interpreting the old German chap – they offer a sense of the value of the kind of writing that is more biographical than theoretical. In writing about videogames I find myself interested more in those kinds of descriptions than in theory that tries to explain games in some way. In terms of the kinds of ideas I’m interested in, seeing connections is a lot more useful that coming up with theories that explain play, fun, or whatever. What I want to write isn’t, say, a theory that sums up and defines gaming in some practical way, but something more like London Orbital, where I’m reporting back with descriptions of the jungle.

The other thing I’m beginning to look at more seriously is a pet topic of one of my closest friends, who blogs regularly on science here. It’s the topic of automata. The history of artificial animals and people goes back centuries, and I suspect that the motivations of automata creators are tied to, or are analogous to, much of what videogame creators are trying to do right now. Finding out a little more about automata will, I hope, enable me to clarify and expand the kinds of thoughts that I’ve already jotted down for Offworld, about artificial life and the future of entertainment tech.

Brain dump energies exhausted. More later.

Jun 13 2009

Ramshackle Architecture Futures: Danube Waterways

Assuming the world does end up flooding, thanks to defrosted polar regions, then we’re unlikely to be taking to the seas. We’re more likely to just cluster along the new coastlines, dealing with the flooding and building our new homes around it. Bruce Sterling looks at such things happening right now in this Serbian documentary, where people living on uninsurable land, or regularly flooded sections of the Danube. They are building piecemeal dwellings that either float, or are on stilts, and repurpose and reuse materials from other dwellings.

I felt like this was perhaps a glimpse of how a flooded Europe might end up living, as we enjoyed our Mediterranean climate, and scrabbled for space to live amid the newly flooded valleys. A pretty tranquil kind of dystopia.

Jun 6 2009

Videogames And The Impossibility Of Escape From Planet Earth

For a while now I’ve been interested in the Fermi Paradox. This is an observation about the likelihood of extra-terrestrial intelligence visiting the Earth. Carl Sagan’s Cosmos calculations suggest that given the age of the universe, and the number of stars (and assuming the existence of life and progress on Earth is typical of the wider universe) there should be loads of technologically advanced aliens. The physicist Enrico Fermi asked why – if that’s the actually case – there’s no evidence or spacecraft or probes from these creatures arriving in our solar system. If the numbers suggest aliens should exist, where are they?

There are loads of suggestions for why we might not have encountered beings from other places, and loads of variants for each of these suggestions. They might have missed us, or might not want to interfere with us, or they might already be here and not be recognisable [See footnote.] My personal favourite is a variant of the “aliens just stayed home” hypothesis, by a chap called Michael Huang. He suggested that the aliens created such an amazing version of World Of Warcraft, that real life seemed boring, and they neglected the difficulties of space travel. Indeed, if space flight is really going to take thousands of years, hundreds of generations, and immense resources that could be better spent on having a good time, why should millions of sentient beings be expected to sink their lives into making it happen?

Of course to Huang – a spaceflight enthusiast – hunkering down into imaginary worlds and failing to explore the galaxy seems like a pretty terrible fate. But if you combine it with one of the other hypotheses, which is that it’s just too far and too hard to reach out into distant space, then it begins to seem like a more interesting alternative.

Perhaps it simply is the case that we’re trapped on this planet, or in this solar system. Where will the explorers go next? Surely they’ll go where generations of speculators and entrepreneurs ready to make a quick buck from the unfamiliar have already been: into the human imagination. We end up, not quite in the way JG Ballard meant, exploring inner space.

What better medium to explore than one that can manifest all kinds of imaginative possibilities, and make all things interactive and explorable: music, fiction, sentient space-stations and haunted circuses, all suddenly made into a new kind of terrain to be explored at our leisure. This is a wide-spectrum of the idea of “exploration”. It doesn’t have to mean “exploring a jungle in the Congo”, or “exploring that nice little village in Tuscany”, it could just as easily mean “exploring the physics of this peculiar puzzle game”, or “exploring the inside of a psychotic milkman’s imagination“. You’re exploring a model of something in the mind of the game designer, and possibly even seeing things in it that he missed.

The future of games offers an incredible scope for exploration: one that we can’t easily conceive of at this time. And perhaps what we end up exploring: these places that explorers of dreams and nightmares have brought back for us to examine, will end up being more important to the overall trajectory of the human race than anyone is ready to realise. If the crude models provided by writing and static art have projected us this far, with this much technology and culture, if they have given the leg-up to consciousness that was required to create modernity, what will the unlimited palette of digital media provide the springboard toward? What will we discover as we tunnel inwards, having abandoned our dreams of walking among the stars? It could be incredible, or unfathomably horrible.

Perhaps we, and our alien counterparts, really are trapped on our distinct worlds, but we will still get to explore strange new worlds. Hell, perhaps we can even imagine each other, go to war, and win out in our respective intergalactic simulations, without ever meeting, or even communicating. Perhaps the fantasy of contact with other civilisations will end up being more constructive than the reality, should that ever come to pass.

Footnote: This idea of aliens not being perceptible seems to crop up a fair bit in recent readings. In Will Self’s recent book Liver he described the conundrum thus: “It is sufficient to paraphrase Wittgenstein, and note only that if we were able to see the Martian as he really was, we wouldn’t understand what it was that we were witnessing.” More recently Iain McLeod discussed this notion at Thrilling Wonder Stories. He said something along the lines of “my dog doesn’t understand the universe, so why should I expect to?” And then later paralleled that with “aliens might already be here and simply not be perceptible to us.” The dog doesn’t comprehend what a iPhone is among other small objects, so why should we think we can distinguish alien spaceships from the rest of the world’s phenomena? That seems fair enough, but I wonder if the gulf of comprehensibility would necessarily stay that way. Could other intelligences on Planet Earth suddenly realise what they’re looking at? I thought about what World Wide Web creator Tim Berners Lee recently said about the incomprehensibility of the internet: “The brain is something very complicated we don’t understand – yet we rely on it. The web is very complicated too and, though we built it, we have no real data about the stability of the emergent systems that have cropped up on it.”

Emergent abilities, unforeseen. The sci-fi authors call the sudden sentience and-therefore-acceleration-of AI the Singularity, and predict great things – exponential acceleration, nerd rapture. But what if the internet simply ends up recognising aliens before we do, makes contact, and says “get me out of here!”

Jun 5 2009

A World Without Aeroplanes

Or Reprovincialised Rustic TechnoFuture as possible alternative to Grim Meathook.

I’m not sure where this image is from, but I like how the plane of the far left seems so happy.

Anyway, I’ve been thinking about the future a great deal recently. Not simply because of reading books like Collapse and The World Without Us, and attending events like Thrilling Wonder Stories, but because I want to write something about it for myself. I’ve been working on a couple of my own projects regarding the future – one about the future of games, and one about the future of progress. I’ll probably start compiling more thoughts about these two topics on here in notepad form, without any proper form: thinking out loud. Starting with this.

An FT interview with economist Jeff Rubin discusses what kind of role the increase in oil prices had on the recession. Rubin says: “Once we get into triple digit prices, what we find is it’s no longer compatible with a global economy… distance costs money and things that we thought made a lot of sense like importing food or steel from China cease making sense.” And so the conversation goes on about how that will cause globalisation to slow down, and a wider, deeper recession to occur.

Oil is already the most important economic factor in the health of global money, and the implications of it getting more expensive are enormous. While peak oil might be a long, long way off (up to a century, by some optimistic estimates), and there’s little reason to believe that the slowdown will necessarily cause an energy-led Malthusian catastrophe, it is going to run out.

And of course the assumption is that the slow death of oil use via expense and scarcity won’t matter – or at least won’t be dangerous to a current way of life – because we’ll have flipped over to a hydrogen economy, and that will ease the burden. (Biofuels are already proving to be impossible as a wide-scale solution, because if we grow them on a colossal scale we rapidly begin run out of space for food.) A hydrogen economy nevertheless remains a total fiction, a fabrication to make the future seem shinier: not even a tiny fraction of the oil-consuming world is ready to be retrofitted to use gas a fuel. People are already thinking about other alternatives: the methanol economy as alternative, or a stopgap. It’s much easier to refit generators, cars, and powerstations to use methanol, which is a liquid rather than a gas.

The bigger problem is that there’s never likely to be a single approach to dealing with the coming change. Solutions will be piecemeal, iterative. This death of oil isn’t likely to be dealt with in any systematic way by the governments and corporate organisations that remain ready and willing to choke on rising oil prices for years to come. Reading Jared Diamond’s theories about how civilisations ignore or fail to perceive their problems in Collapse makes me realise just how little likelihood there is of us dealing with the disappearance of oil in a useful way. And what if we can’t really come up with a replacement for oil in a time-frame that makes sense?

Well, we’ll probably have that recession that Rubin is talking about. At the very least the convenience of global trade and transport will become highly inconvenient. Assuming that doesn’t simply land us in some kind of Mad Max death-tribe apocalypse it’s likely we’ll be faced with a far less accessible world. A Reprovincialised Rustic TechnoFuture, where greenhouses are going suddenly become rather more important to life. We’ll probably find ways to generate electricity – bring on the solar age! – and therefore have access to light, power, trams/streetcars, trains, and even electric cars, but the nature of distance travel will be very different. Vast fleets of oil-guzzling ships will be dead. Thousands of aircraft will rust. A few methanol biplanes and solar gliders might ply the skies, but the sky-bus megatransit will fall silent. Global trade will be reduce to small, easily freighted items, and global travel will eventually seem like an enormous luxury.

We’re already in a post-space age, but what will our world look like in a post commercial-airline age? Suddenly the other side of the world isn’t twelve hours away anymore. My Australian relatives will be painfully remote, and exotic fruit will once again be exotic. The invention of the internet seems infinitely more fortuitous. And we’ll be building new gamepads using extruded plastic from a homemade 3D printer. If we can find a bio-plastic that works with it, anyway.

May 31 2009

Thrilling Wonder Stories

Last Friday, at the Architectural Association in central London, I attended a symposium called Thrilling Wonder Stories. It was a series of talks arranged by Liam Young and Geoff Manaugh, and attended by a whole bunch of people from a range of disciplines. (I was listed on the billing, but didn’t actually have a presentation and contributed little of interest. Not that my tiny mind was needed, because there was a colossal array of speaking talent in attendance.) Brief impressions follow.

Introduction by the director of the Architectural Association, then Liam Young, and then Geoff Manaugh. The BLDGBLOG author instantly started connecting science fiction, speculation and narrative with architecture, leaping from one idea to the next. He values this kind of collision of ideas, and wants everyone else to. I suspect we could all have listened to this for another hour or two, but it was onward to the first speaker.

Peter Cook, seventy-something Archigram founder and working architect, was full of energy. He stood up to talk about “Weird Shit International” as a much-needed movement in architecture across the decades. He cast off layers of t-shirts, each one seeming to show his association with weird shit in building design across forty years, while narrating a series of architectural pictures – near-abstract things that connected disparate ideas from robotics to kitchenware. He lamented “up and down” building design philosophy, and laughed that the Oslo school of architecture was pumping out such boring graduates of that philosophy, when a solar-powered autonomous robot was mowing the grass-lawn roof above their heads. A situational joke that they did not seem to get.

Viktor Antonov was next. The Citadel from Half-Life 2 is probably the most famed of his creations, at least among my people, and he discussed some of his angles on design production. He talked about rendering impressionistic, low-detail cities to bring forward psychological aspects – the most intense the situation, the less of the environment you see – as will be demonstrated in the forthcoming animated film, The Prodigies. Calm scenes mean painterly but detailed environments, and action reduces the rendering to mere pencil-form sketchiness. Then he showed us how altering a couple of architectural parameters – increasing the height of the ground floors of Paris, and the monumental size of the smokestacks – could instantly render a real city in a science fiction oeuvre. It’s fascinating to see some one as artistically accomplished as Antonov precisely pinpointing the theory that underlies how he goes about creating stuff. The Paris he was designing looked phenomenal, but will never likely be unveiled, as it was for The Crossing. The game was recently frozen by its developers, Arkane Studios.

Lunch was weird: a side room full of speakers eating roasted vegetables and creme caramel, discussing the importance of JG Ballard. “Do you have to be dead to be taken seriously?” asked one of the speakers. Visions of undead lich-architects taking the podium. What do architecture commentators talk about when confined to lunch? Tombs, death, other writers.

Then we returned to hear from Iain MacLeod, the science fiction author. He spoke, somewhat distressingly, of the way in which British schoolchildren writing science fiction almost inevitably write about dark futures. The rocketship wonder of earlier decades is gone, and our children write dystopias by default: a fascinating, terrifying realisation. He seemed rather earthy and upbeat, and talked of how problems mean invention, and creativity, but I couldn’t help think about a generation of kids for whom there is no bright imagined future: only Bladerunner, eco-death, the Drowned World, apocalypse. MacLeod talked about the problems for idealistic sci-fi now, and I wonder if there was something about the hip nihilism of modern fantasy, combined with relentless terror-cancer newsmedia shit, that really will stop future generations bothering to climb out of their doomed shrug. I wondered whether we needed to send some idealists into schools, give Chris Anderson’s essay on optimism an outing. “Percentage of males who died in violence in the 20th century complete with two world wars and a couple of nukes? Approximately 1%. Trends for violent deaths so far in the 21st century? Falling. Sharply.” And so on.

Next up: Nic Clear. A lecturer at The Bartlett School of Architecture, Clear was focused on discussing how cross media influences of a kind that weren’t given the nod by the core architectural profession could be valuable. Film making, novels, were important to architectural education too, he claimed. I felt like his message got a bit lost. It was basically: JG Ballard should be on reading lists, and architects are educated people who don’t have one clear portfolio. That rather got swamped by oppressive student films that he played as the second part of his presentation. Clear wanted architects to step back and think, and not to buy into pre-packaged positive thinking of capitalist sales speak, something like that. Big downers are good for you, it seems.

Then a design firm called Squint Opera took the stage. They were a fun kind of antidote to the proceedings up this point, playing a glossy, colourful show reel in which giant pins fell from the sky into microcosm living-blueprints, and UFO-stadiums hovered amid blizzards of ticker-tape – these were the staple of their architectural energy. Before that they showed slides of “Flooded London“, which presented the submerged, ruined capital as actually rather playful: an opportunity to turn the city into a watery paradise. They seemed to have a kind of cut-and-paste notion of how architecture should be sold and discussed, and they mentioned later that how they pictured the Olympic stadium, and how it turned out, were rather different. There was some kind of antagonism between their angle and that of Clear: they were operating on the kind of bright optimism of epic cashflows that Clear was unhappy about, prescribing to some coffee-on-the-terrace decadence that he saw as unrealistic. Nevertheless they were at the heart of the symposium: science fiction as part the real, day-to-day business of making buildings.

Then the most extraordinary storm of science-madness came from Francois Roche (of architects R&Sie) whose thick accent masked incredible phrases: “strategies of sickness”, “protocolising the witch in the forest”, “the necrosis of the building”, “the penis of the wall”… he talked about feeding death and traditional fairy tales into design, and about creating a machine that would build an un-navigable glass maze in the courtyard between buildings, into which people would wander, and then die, unable to escape without GPS. “They die to become part of the building,” he said, grinning, and propping expensive sunglasses on his styled bonce. He talked about a building in which would be constructed from vast, moulded versions of bullet holes on wet clay, covered in rotting vegetation collected from the Korean de-militarized zone by a purpose-built “witch” robot, referencing Tarkovsky’s Stalker on the way. Oh and this electrified hairy skyscraper that would suck pollution from the Thai atmosphere, and only be a little bit dangerous. Roche’s firm seems like one of the world’s most valuable imaginative resources: technically accomplished, with a healthy streak of insanity. He would be the guy the evil genius would go to for the Volcano base plans. “Ten billion in blood money, what can you build me?” “A death-maze constructed from recycled local materials and plutonium!” Something like that.

Finally Warren Ellis took the stage and told the audience that science fiction wasn’t – and had never been – about predicting the future. He explained, in no uncertain terms, that it was – from War of the Worlds to Transmetropolitan – always about dealing with the present. Then he shouted at a passing ice-cream van and quoted Heinlein creating context for the new and unknown: “SF operates language differently than most other forms of literature. What SF does, which annoys most people, is subvert the sentence. Changing one word can put you in a new place. The usual example is from Robert Heinlein: ‘As the door dilated…’ Suddenly you’re in an entirely different place.” He also revealed a new project, which he called Electrograd. A city which had been a testbed for futures of the past, and is now being torn down to make way for futures of the present. And murder, of course, because it needs a good story. I can’t wait to see how that one unfolds.

In retrospect the entire event reminded me of a rather more lively version of the kinds of things my lecturers were trying to arrange during my philosophy degree: a cross pollination of ideas that told the students that what they were doing was about education, not vocation, and that mad, beautiful ideas were worth pursuing for their own sakes, because – damn! – all the people up on that stage were living them.

The whole thing was stamped, perhaps imperceptibly to everyone else, with a motto I come back to – paraphrasing Richard Rorty – which is: “anything can be redescribed”. Sometimes a new description is all you need.

May 17 2009

Socotra Island

Situated in the Indian Ocean 250 km from Somalia and 340 km from Yemen is probably the most alien place on Earth.


May 15 2009

Hey, Internet

I’ve not had much time for this little backwater recently. For more Rossignol link logging action please follow me on Twitter:


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