Men in Space

[Image: Caspar David Friedrich, “Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog” (c. 1818).]

[NOTE: I have dozens of posts—from book reviews to news items—sitting in my drafts folder that I never published for some reason. In re-reading this, from summer 2019, I thought I’d publish it.]

The tone of a new piece by Matthew Walther in The Week hits just shy of satire, but it makes an interesting—and, I would suggest, valid—point about the Apollo moon landing as more of an art historical event, a direct extension of European Romanticism, than it was a scientific one.

“What Goethe began at Weimar in 1789 ended on August 15, 1969,” Walther writes. “Apollo 11 was the culmination of the Romantic cult of the sublime prefigured in the speculations of Burke and Kant, an artistic juxtaposition of man against a brutal environment upon which he could project his fears, his sympathies, his feelings of transcendence.” Note the use of the word man.

The primarily aesthetic nature of the first Apollo mission becomes clearer when one considers it from the perspective of both the participants and the spectators. The lunar landing was not a scientific announcement or a political press conference; it was a performance, a literal space opera, a Wagnerian Gesamtkunstwerk that brought together the efforts of more than 400,000 people, performed before an audience of some 650 million.

I’m reminded of Kathleen Jamie’s critique of Robert Macfarlane’s work, published in the London Review of Books several years ago. There, Jamie mocked the current state of nature writing as a genre of the “lone enraptured male,” in her words, who she instead portrays as a figure of mythic delusion seeking self-aggrandizing solitude amongst inhuman things.

“What’s that coming over the hill?” Jamie asks. “A white, middle-class Englishman! A Lone Enraptured Male! From Cambridge! Here to boldly go, ‘discovering’, then quelling our harsh and lovely and sometimes difficult land with his civilised lyrical words.” Of course, to boldly go is clearly a sarcastic reference to a particular kind of explorer’s impulse “to boldly go where no man has gone before.”

In this context, consider Walther’s own comment that much of modern expeditionary literature—such as Antarctic diaries or the records of long ship journeys—was often written by “hard men” who “put their will in the service of a literary mania for feelings of remoteness, hugeness, and brooding oceanic emptiness. What a shame that we have been able to produce no great lunar literature to succeed the writings by Byron, the Shelleys, Tennyson, and Melville that both immortalized and inspired the great hypothermic pioneers.”

Men sending themselves to the moon, men climbing mountains, men staring down glacial landscapes alone or moving into mountain huts and man-caves.

I remember waking up from a dream once, maybe ten or twelve years ago*, in which I had been the author of a novel called Space. In that dream, my (purely imaginary) novel was about a man who abandons his family—leaving his wife and kids without notice—to find “space” for himself elsewhere, an ill-considered quest for solitude that was emotionally and financially devastating for the people he left behind, but a feeling of “space” he valued so much that he could not bring himself to worry about the pain it might cause to others. In other words, it was space refigured as a kind of masculine cruelty, a weapon for solitude-seeking men who can afford to walk away—space as freedom from consequences masquerading as self-sufficiency. (I wrote a description of the dream down the next morning and thus still remember it.)

In any case, I will say—perhaps because I am blinded by my own demography—that the idea of expeditionary solitude as a kind of landscape project, something that can lure hikers into remote national forests or pull unaccompanied astronauts into deep valleys on the dark sides of distant worlds, needn’t necessarily be gendered and needn’t necessarily have any scientific value at all. Humans alone in an experience of awe, surrounded by geology, can have nothing more than aesthetic value—of course, whether it’s $152 billion worth of aesthetic value is another question entirely.

*UPDATE: Looking back at my notes, I actually had this dream in September 2014.

The Age of Horror

[Image: “Clouds, Sun and Sea” (1952) by Max Ernst, courtesy Phillips.]

There’s an interesting space where early modern, mostly 19th-century earth sciences overlap with armchair conjectures about the origins of human civilization. It’s a mix of pure pseudo-science, science-adjacent speculation, and something more like theology, as writers of the time tried to adjust new geological hypotheses and emerging biological evidence—Charles Lyell, Charles Darwin, etc.—to fit with Biblical creation myths and cosmogonic legends borrowed from other cultures. Was there really a Flood? If humans are separate from the animal kingdom, how did we first arrive or appear on Earth?

It is not those particular questions that interest me—although, if I’m being honest, I will happily stay at the table for hours talking with you about the Black Sea deluge hypothesis or the history of Doggerland, two of the most interesting things I’ve ever read about, and whether or not they might have influenced early human legends of a Flood.

Instead, there are at least two things worth pointing out here. One is that these sorts of people never really went away, they just got jobs at the History Channel.

The other is that impossibly long celestial cycles, ancient astronomical records, the precession of the Earth’s poles, and weird, racist ideas about the “fall of Man” all came together into a series of speculations that seem straight out of H.P. Lovecraft.

Take, for example, Sampson Arnold Mackey and his “Age of Horror.”

[Image: Diagram from The Mythological Astronomy in Three Parts by Sampson Arnold Mackey.]

As Joscelyn Godwin writes in a book called The Theosophical Enlightenment, Mackey—a shoemaker, not an astronomer—was fascinated by “the inclination of the earth’s axis and its changes over long spans of time. Astronomers have known at least since classical times that the Earth’s axis rotates once in about 25,920 years, pointing successively at different stars, of which the current one is Polaris, the North Star. One result of this cycle is the ‘precession of the equinoxes,’ according to which the spring-point of the sun moves around the twelve signs of the zodiac, spending about 2160 years in each sign.”

Of course, the assumption that these signs and stars might somehow influence life on Earth is the point at which astronomy morphs into astrology.

Godwin goes on to explain that—contrary to “most astronomers” of his time—Mackey assumed the Earth’s precession was dramatic and irregular, to the extent that, as Mackey speculated, “the earth’s axis describes not a circle but an alternately expanding and contracting spiral, each turn comprising one cycle of the precession of the equinoxes, and at the same time altering the angle of inclination by four degrees.”

The upshot of this is that, at various points in the history of our planet, Mackey believed that the Earth’s “inclination was much greater, to the point at which it lay in the same plane as the earth’s orbit around the sun.”

This sounds inconsequential, but it would have had huge seasonal and climatic effects. For example, Godwin explains, “At the maximum angle, each hemisphere would be pointed directly at the sun day and night during the summer, and pointed away for weeks on end during the winter. These extremes of light and dark, of heat and cold, would be virtually insupportable for life as we know it. In Mackey’s words, it was an ‘age of horror’ for the planet.”

[Image: Diagram from The Mythological Astronomy in Three Parts by Sampson Arnold Mackey.]

The flipside of this, for Mackey, is that the Earth would have gone back and forth, over titanic gulfs of time, between two angular extremes. Specifically, his model required an opposite extreme of planetary rotation in which “there would be no seasons on earth, but a perpetual spring and a ‘golden age.’ Then the cycle would begin again.”

None of this would have been recent: “Mackey dates the Age of Horror at 425,000 years in the past, the Golden Age about a million years ago, and its recurrence 150,000 years from now.”

Nevertheless, Godwin writes, “It was essential to [Mackey’s] system of mythography that the Age of Horror should have been witnessed and survived by a few human beings, its dreadful memory passing into the mythology of every land.”

For Mackey, the implications of this wobble—this dramatic precession between a Golden Age and an Age of Horror, between the darkness of Hell and the sunlight of Paradise—would have been highly significant for the evolution of human civilization.

In other words, either we are coming out of an age of eternal winter and emerging slowly, every minute of the day, every year of the century, into a time of endless sunlight and terrestrial calm, or we are inevitably falling, tipping, losing our planetary balance as we pass into near-permanent night, a frozen Hell of ruined continents and dead seas buried beneath plates of ice.

[Image: The August 2017 total eclipse of the sun, via NASA.]

One of the weirder aspects of all this—something Godwin himself documents in another book, called Arktos—is that these sorts of ideas eventually informed, among other things, Nazi political ideology and even some of today’s reactionary alt-right.

The idea that there was once a Hyperborean super-civilization, a lost Aryan race once at home in the Arctic north, lives on. It’s what we might call the cult of the fallen Northener.

[Image: “Cairn in Snow” (1807) by Caspar David Friedrich.]

What actually interests me here, though, is the suggestion that planetary mega-cycles far too long for any individual human life to experience might be slowly influencing our myths, our cultures, our consciousness (such as it is).

My point is not to suggest that this is somehow true—to say that astrologers and precession-truthers are right—but simply to say that this is a fascinating idea and it has within it nearly limitless potential for new films, novels, and myths, stories where entirely different ways of thinking emerge on planets with extreme seasonal inclinations or unusual polar relationships to the stars.

[Image: From Pitch Black, via Supernova Condensate.]

Think of the only good scene in an otherwise bad movie, 2000’s Pitch Black, where the survivors of a crash on a remote human planetary outpost discover an orrery—a model of the planet they’re standing on—inside an abandoned 必威手机版 .

Playing with the model, the survivors realize that the world they’ve just crashed on is about to be eclipsed by a nearby super-planet, plunging them into a night that will last several months (or weeks or years—I saw the film 20 years ago and don’t remember).

Just imagine the sorts of horrors this might inspire—an entire planet going dark perhaps for centuries, doomed by its passage through space.

[Image: Adolph Gottlieb, courtesy Hollis Taggart.]

In any case, the idea that the earliest human beings lived through something like this hundreds of thousands of years ago—an imminent night, a looming darkness, an Age of Horror that imprinted itself upon the human imagination with effects lasting to this day—would mean that what we think of as human psychology is just an angular epiphenomenon of planetary tilt. Call it orbital determinism.

(Very vaguely related: a planet without a sun.)

Tax Incentives and the Human Imagination

[Image: Der Wanderer über dem Nebelmeer by Caspar David Friedrich (c. 1818).]

It would be interesting to look at locations of the American popular imagination, as seen in movies and TV, mapped against regional tax breaks for the film industry.

There was a brief span of time, for example, when rural Pennsylvania stood in for authentic Americana, a kind of Rust Belt imaginary, all pick-up trucks and hard-drinking younger brothers, stories framed against the hulking ruins of industrial landscapes—I’m thinking of Out Of The Furnace or Prisoners, both released in 2013, or even 2010’s Unstoppable. Whereas, today, Georgia seems to have stepped into that niche, between The Outsider and, say, Mindhunter (season two), let alone Atlanta, no doubt precisely because Georgia has well-known tax incentives in place for filming.

My point is that an entire generation of people—not just Americans, but film viewers and coronavirus quarantine streamers and TV binge-watchers around the world—might have their imaginative landscapes shaped not by immaterial forces, by symbolic archetypes or universal rules bubbling up from the high-pressure depths of human psychology, but instead by tax breaks offered in particular U.S. states at particular moments in American history.

You grow up thinking about Gothic pine forests, or you fall asleep at night with visions of rain-soaked Georgia parking lots crowding your head, but it’s not just because of the aesthetic or atmospheric appeal of those landscapes; it’s because those landscapes are, in effect, receiving imaginative subsidies from local business bureaus. You’re dreaming of them for a reason.

Your mind is not immaterial, in other words, some angelic force waltzing across the surface of the world, stopping now and again to dwell on universal imagery, but something deeply mundane, something sculpted by ridiculous things, like whether or not camera crews in a given state get hotel room discounts for productions lasting more than two weeks.

Of course, you could extend a similar kind of analysis way back into art history and look at, say, the opening of particular landscapes in western Europe, after decades of war, suddenly made safe for cultured travelers such as Caspar David Friedrich, whose paintings later came to define an entire era of European and European-descended male imaginations. That wanderer over a sea of fog, in other words, was wandering through a very specific landscape during a very particular window of European political accessibility. Had things been different, had history taken a slightly different path, Friedrich might have been stuck in his parents’ house, painting still-lives and weed-choked alleyways, and who knows what images today’s solo hikers might be daydreaming about instead.

[Image: From The Outsider, courtesy HBO; I should mention that The Outsider was set and filmed primarily in Georgia, a departure from Stephen King’s novel, which was primarily set in Oklahoma.]

In any case, the humid forests of rural America, the looming water towers and abandoned industrial facilities, the kudzu-covered strip malls and furloughed police stations—picture the Louisianan expanses of True Detective (season one)—have come to represent the dark narrative potential of the contemporary world. But what if, say, North Dakota or Manitoba (where, for example, The Grudge was recently filmed) had offered better tax breaks?

My own childhood imagination was a world of sunlit suburbs, detached single-family homes, and long-shadowed neighborhood secrets, but, as to my larger point here, I also grew up watching movies like E.T., Poltergeist, Fright Night, and Blue Velvet—so, in a sense, of course I would think that’s what the world looked like.

[Image: From David Lynch’s Blue Velvet (1986), specifically via the site Velvet Eyes.]

So, again, it would be interesting to explore how one’s vision of the world—your most fundamental imagination of the cosmos—is being shaped for you by tax breaks, film incentives, and other, utterly trivial local concerns, like whether or not out-of-state catering companies can get refunds on expenditures over a certain amount or where actors can write off per diems as gifts, not income, affecting whether crime films or horror stories will be shot there, and thus where an entire generation’s future nightmares might be set.

Or, for that matter, you could look at when particular colors, paints, and pigments became affordable for artists of a certain era, resulting in all those dark and moody images you love to stare at in the local museum—e.g. the old joke that, at some point, Rembrandt simply bought too much purple. It wasn’t promethean inspiration; it was material surplus.

We see things for a reason, yet, over and over again, mistake our dreams for signs of the cosmic. Or, to put this another way, we are not surrounded by mythology; we are surrounded by economics. The latter is a superb and confusing mimic.

A Vast Array of Props

[Image: Thomas Scholes, Sketch a Day series; view larger].

Rock, Paper, Shotgun has posted an interview with artist Thomas Scholes about “how concept art is made.”

Scholes refers to himself as “an environment specialist,” and he describes how he develops the architecture and landscapes for games such as Guild Wars 2, Halo 4, Gigantic, and many others.

[Image: Thomas Scholes, Sketch a Day series; view larger].

One of his many strategies is to develop what RPS calls “a vast array of props”: Scholes, we read, has “constructed huge asset sets from which he can plunder. A previous month-long project of his was to create a vast array of props, which he can now deposit in his images and rework to give a sense of clutter.”

These include architectural motifs—arches, walls, stone monoliths, ruins—that are often just reworked from previous backgrounds. For these, he will “repurpose bits of previous paintings, manipulating their shape to suggest a receding wall, ceiling or floor.”

[Image: Thomas Scholes, Sketch a Day series; view larger].

Scholes recently embarked on a “sketch a day” project that produced the images you see here. The sketches are left rough, or, as RPS suggest, they “resist the instinct to over-define, to steer them away from pedantic perfectionism.”

This often makes his images both impressionistic and painterly, emotive explorations of gothic terrains and environments.

[Image: Thomas Scholes, miscellaneous work; view larger].

Many of these images are frankly gorgeous, including vibrant forest landscapes that would not look out of place in an exhibition of 18th-century landscape painting—or even alongside examples from the Hudson River School or the work of Caspar David Friedrich.

[Image: Thomas Scholes, miscellaneous work; view larger].

These being games, of course, rather than the Rückenfigur of Friedrich, you’ve got cloaked figures peering into hostile and mysterious landscapes, looking not for aesthetic solace but for hidden strategic advantages, ready for combat.

[Images: Thomas Scholes, Oppidum; view larger].

In any case, check out the interview over at Rock, Paper, Shotgun or, even better, click around Scholes’s website for a lot more images like these.

[Image: Thomas Scholes, miscellaneous work; view larger].

[Previously on betway必威 : Game/Space: An Interview with Daniel Dociu].

Offworld Glaciology

[Image: Photo by Gerco de Ruijter, via but does it float].

A short article by Sam Kean for the Chemical Heritage Foundation in Philadelphia explores the world of “bizarro ice—ice that burns, ice that sinks instead of floating, ice literally out of this world.” For the most part, these are ices that have formed under extraordinary pressure, whether naturally or artificially applied, which “forc[es] H2O molecules into rhombuses, tetragons, and other alternative geometries.”

In some cases, the pressure is so great that the resulting ice “can stay solid at temperatures of thousands of degrees—a true freezer burn. If you could somehow plop chunks of these ices into a glass of liquid water, they’d vaporize it.” Incredibly, we read that, “at super-high pressures, some chemists predict that ice transforms into a metal.”

There is an ice “that’s structurally similar to diamonds,” Kean explains, that “probably exists in the upper atmosphere.” And there are exotic ices on other planets: “The dense, hot interiors of Neptune and Uranus probably contain chunks of nonhexagonal ices, as do exoplanets around distant stars, a potentially important consideration as we search for life beyond our solar system.”

[Image: The Sea of Ice by Caspar David Friedrich].

This latter remark brings to mind a book I downloaded in my recent PDF binge called The Science of Solar System Ices, edited by Murthy S. Gudipati and Julie Castillo-Rogez. It’s a mammoth book—more than 650 pages—that explores exotic ices found in comets, on exoplanets, on moons, and elsewhere in our solar system.

“The largest deposits of carbon dioxide ice,” we learn, “is on Mars. Sulfur dioxide ice is found in the Jupiter system. Nitrogen and methane ices are common beyond the Uranian system. Saturn’s moon Titan probably has the most complex active chemistry involving ices, with benzene and many tentative or inferred compounds,” including a long list of chemicals I can’t even pronounce let alone recognize or describe, forming ices with “unusual colors and spectral shapes.” There are even “organic” ices made of hydrocarbons.

[Image: The Monk by the Sea by Caspar David Friedrich].

How these ices produce landscapes is by far the most interesting aspect here, at least from the point of view of betway必威 : how they glaciate, experience gravitational tides and weathering, melt from below due to volcanoes, reflect the alien skies shining down on them in distorted shapes and angled echoes, and even how they tectonically fracture into karst-like networks of sinkholes and caves.

Imagining snow storms of frozen methane on other planets while thinking about, for example, human artistic traditions of landscape representation, from the Hudson Valley School to Caspar David Friedrich—picturing massive and extraordinary widescreen scenes of glacial hills and valleys steaming in the outer darkness of the solar system and the paintings or photographs or even animated GIFs that might result—would extend the idea of the sublime to non-terrestrial landscapes and the sights they might someday reveal to human explorers.

[Image: Walking into a glacier: “Grindelwald Grotto, Bernese Oberland, Switzerland,” courtesy of the Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Division].

Art historians would gaze in awe at offworld glaciers of carbon dioxide ice and howling massifs of frozen nitrogen, where volcanoes erupt not with liquid rock but with “ice slurries” and groundwater exploding onto the landscape with the force of a Kilauea.

Perhaps someday you’ll be able to get a degree in the field of exploratory xenoglaciology, the study of rare and incredible landforms made of frozen chemicals in space.

(“Wild Ice” story spotted via @nicolatwilley).

The Right Printhead

I was excited finally to pick up a copy of Icon’s February issue today; it is, in its entirety, an exploration of how fiction can be used to explore architectural ideas and the future of the built environment.

Contributors range from China Miéville, Bruce Sterling, and Cory Doctorow to Ned Beauman, Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg & Oron Catts, and Will Self, with microfiction contributions from Tim Maly of Quiet Babylon fame and Simon Sellars of Ballardian. I was also very happy to see that “Landscapes of Quarantine” participant Scott Geiger appears with a short review, and there is much else besides.

China Miéville’s story, “The Rope is the World,” takes place amidst “the space elevators, the skyhooks, the geostationary tethered-dock haulage columns” of a planet bound to its lower atmosphere by giant pieces of astral infrastructure. However, these elevators, in Miéville’s telling, are doomed to become fantastic aerial ruins, turning the Earth into “an irregularly spoked wheel” studded with abandoned elevator shafts, each “longer than Russia.” Derelict chain-cities hang flaccid in the skies. What might Caspar David Friedrich have painted in such a world?

Bruce Sterling, meanwhile, presents us with a world in which nothing seems to exist but broadband access—and that world is far from exhilarating. The story’s accompanying photograph shows us a Windows-powered laptop sitting alone on a plaster-flecked apartment floor, plugged into the wall of a room that otherwise has nothing in it; this solipsistic interior, void of anything like human presence or culture, reminded me of an old Peter Lamborn Wilson interview in which Wilson launches into an amazing rant against the rise of home internet use (even if I don’t agree with his conclusions):

Yes. You’re slumped in front of a screen, in the same physical situation as a TV watcher, you’ve just added a typewriter. And you’re “interactive.” What does that mean? It does not mean community. It’s catatonic schizophrenia. So blah blah blah; communicate communicate; data data data. It doesn’t mean anything more than catatonics babbling and drooling in a mental institution. Why can’t we stop?

In Sterling’s fictional world, these empty interiors freed of all personal possessions, with not even a place to sit, pulsate with instant access to Gmail; you can check your Twitter feed even if you can’t cook a decent meal.

But when the story’s protagonist obtains a mail-order 3D printer (“This sleek and sturdy overnight parcel contains everything one might need for do-it-yourself, open-source digital home fabrication,” Sterling writes), he or she gains an ability to produce objects—which then seems to be greeted with hipster disillusionment, rather than with ecstasy.

Indeed, the story ends on a low note; its final line: “I have to print my bed, so that I can lie in it.”

I have to admit to having already read that final sentence courtesy of Matt Jones’s Twitter feed a few weeks ago, and I had imagined, between then and now, a totally different story. I had pictured Sterling’s story, called “The Hypersurface of the Decade,” set in a world where personalized 3D printers create everything from our furniture to our food; today we might print our boarding passes at home before getting on an airplane, but tomorrow we will print our hamburgers, TVs, and even bedspreads.

Maybe we’ll print dogs and subway passes and prescription medications. Maybe we will even print our children.


[Image: MIT’s Fluid Interfaces Group’s Cornucopia 3D food-printer].

Maybe it’s just a question of having the right new infrastructure of pipes—no, not those pipes. Maybe we need to forget ink cartridges; we’ll just subscribe to personal flows of speciality ingredients, chemical mixtures that come to us through a radically retooled infrastructure of pipes embedded in the walls of our cities. As unsurprising to someone in 50 years as piped water is to residents of New York today, anyone will simply print a pill of Prozac when they really need it or even print themselves a birthday cake.

Forget killer apps; all you need is the right printhead. Plug it into a nozzle on the wall and voilà.

In any case, I had pictured a story set in some strange Dr. Seuss world of instantly-printed objects. Forget furniture and clothing and utensils. Forget the Apple Tablet; instead you’d carry portable printheads, emitting on-demand, dissolvable realities of the present moment. Trapped in a room, you’d simply print a hammer and attack the wall. Of course, in many ways that is exactly what Sterling has described in his story, but it takes till the last three or four paragraphs to get a glimpse of this malleable world.

But, speaking only for myself, I’d love to spend more time inside this strange fever-dream in which instantly realizable objects appear left and right. I would hold something not unlike a gateway in my hand—some fabulous new printhead—spraying forms into the world of human beings.

Pick up a copy of Icon’s Fiction Issue before it disappears.