Last month I announced the coming release of The John Michell Reader, Inner Traditions' collection of essays by the late English counterculture icon. Well, the book is now available through all the major bookstores [Amazon US & UK] and it would definitely make a fine addition to any Fortean's library. "Radical traditionalist" is a spot-on way to describe Michell, who used his witty prose on his column at The Oldie --a humorous monthly magazine aimed for senior readership-- both to complaint about the loss of the traditional lifestyle in British rural areas, condemn modern Agriculture, rant about Darwinism, support the Monarchy system, as well as extolling the use of psychedelics to promote thought-provoking conversations at suitable parties. You can't get more "radical center" than that!
At the same time, Michell also directed his attention to a plethora of Fortean topics, including Sacred Geometry, Stonehenge, the Grail lore, Fairy legends and UFOs. It is on this last subject that I find Michell's ideas resonating heavily with my own, which is why with Inner Traditions' permission, I'm posting one of his essays concerning the most controversial aspect of the UFO phenomenon: Alien abductions.
UFO Abductions and the End of Innocence
The first UFO contactee I met was a young lad from a poor Protestant family in Northern
Ireland, named Ivor Brown. One evening he was walking along a dark country road toward a dance hall when he saw in front of him an ovalshaped object. Some creatures came out of it and took him inside, where he was seduced or whatever you call it by two strange but attractive females. Somehow Ivor got in touch with Desmond Leslie, the author of the very first UFO book, who took me to meet him.
We were inexperienced at that time, so were rather disconcerted by Ivor Brown. Our main concern was whether or not he was lying, and our ideas on how to tell a liar from an honest man were unimaginatively conventional. We had hoped to find the type of reliable witness who appeals to lawyers, firmeyed and rationalminded. That was not Ivor Brown. He was nervous, impressionable, uneducated, and prone to symptoms that are familiar to psychiatrists. Ever since his experience he had maintained psychic contact with his abductors and knew when they were near his house. His sensitivity spread to the rest of the family. Their minds and habits were changed and they left their home to go on psychically guided travels. The last I saw of Ivor was when he passed through London with old Mr. Brown and a younger brother, on their way to visit the grave of Matthew Hopkins, the fanatical witchfinder of seventeenthcentury Suffolk.
There is now a vast literature on the subject of “UFO abductions”— the modern folklore term for the kind of experience described by Ivor Brown. A large and growing number of similar encounters are reported all over the world, particularly in America. Opinions are divided about their meaning. Some say that they are to do with extra-terrestrial beings, while others believe they have a psychological origin. My own persuasion is that the sensible approach to the phenomenon of UFO abductees is by comparing it with past records—the records of folklore.
In any regional account of British folklore one can find stories about people who have been abducted by unworldly creatures, conventionally identified as fairies. The details in such cases are infinitely varied, but one detail is always the same. In every account of an abduction, whether by fairies, demons, or UFOcreatures, the abductee is mentally changed and acquires a new, spiritual perception. The results are not always of obvious benefit—abductees are likely to become lonely, melancholy, introspective. Some are persuaded that they have gone mad and there are always a few who think that God or the Venusians have chosen them to reform mankind.
In certain cases, however, a person who has undergone the abduction experience is awakened to life and gains the level of understanding, which, in ancient and tribal societies, was induced by a ritual initiation.
I now know that Ivor Brown was telling the truth, that he had a genuine, traumatic experience and that he naturally described it in modern, spaceage imagery rather than, as he would have done a generation or so earlier, in terms of demons and fairies. The actual cause of that experience is a mystery, which, I feel sure, will never finally be explained. Yet is has to be accepted as a real, effective phenomenon. To any sympathetic reader who has the slightest idea what I am driving at, I offer for contemplation the following suggested connections: violation of innocence by “UFO abductors”; by rumoured covens of “cult ritualists”; by tribal elders in the course of their initiation of adolescents. These are terrible things to undergo, but the victim may find certain compensations, such as maturity and a finer sensibility.
* * * * * * * * * * *
The John Michell Reader by John Michell, introduction by Joscelyn Godwin © 2015 Inner Traditions.
Printed with permission from the publisher Inner Traditions International. www.InnerTraditions.com
Bertha was a maiden fair
Dwelling in the old Minster-square;
From her fireside she could see
Sidelong its rich antiquity—
Far as the Bishop's garden wall
Where Sycamores and elm trees tall
Full-leav'd the forest had outstript—
By no sharp north wind ever nipt
So shelter'd by the mighty pile—
Bertha arose and read awhile
With forehead 'gainst the window-pane—
Again she tried and then again
Until the dusk eve left her dark
Upon the Legend of St. Mark.
From plaited lawn-frill, fine and thin
She lifted up her soft warm chin,
With aching neck and swimming eyes
And daz'd with saintly imageries.
- from "The Eve of St. Mark" by John Keats, 1819
The Christian martyr Saint Mark, or Mark the Evangelist, is the traditionally purported to be the author of the Gospel of Mark. He is said to have founded the Church of Alexandria, one of the most important episcopal sees of Early Christianity. His feast day is celebrated on the 25th of April (this coming Saturday as I type).
If you're in Britain over the next few days and happen to find yourself enjoying the warm weather near grassland, hedgerows, or woodland you might well encounter a small swarm of bulbous-eyed, black, hairy, dangly-legged flies. These are the males of the Bibio marci species and their dancing flight is intended to impress the smaller females which, if you look closely, you may find perched on nearby leaves. They are sometimes known as Hawthorn Flies, but more commonly and widely so as Saint Mark's Fly because of their uncanny habit of emerging out of the earth on, or around, the Saint's feast day.
The exact meaning of John Keats' unfinished 1819 poem "The Eve of St. Mark" (quoted in part above) remains a matter of debate among scholars and other interested parties, but the atmosphere of the piece is unmistakably gloomy and foreboding. Indeed, early in 1818 Keats had become convinced that he had only three years left to live, the themes of death and dying becoming more prevalent in his works in the year that followed (he did pass away on the 23rd of February, 1821 of tuberculosis). Isabella Jones (who also inspired his contemporaneous work "The Eve of St. Agnes," ) was Keats' lover at this time and it has been speculated that it was she who told the poet about the folk traditions attached to Saint Mark's Eve. According to Chambers Book of Days, 1869: "St. Mark's Eve appears to have enjoyed among our simple ancestors a large share of the privileges which they assigned to All Saints' Eve (the Scottish Halloween)". It seems equally likely that Keats would also have known of, and perhaps been deliberately alluding to, a poem published some thirteen years before he penned his own entitled "The Vigil of St. Mark".
"The Vigil of St. Mark" was one of twenty poems written by James Montgomery, published in his 1906 collection The Wanderer of Switzerland and Other Poems. Lord Byron, Keats' Romantic contemporary (though the pair did not get on), was a fan of the titular poem and Montgomery was successful and well known throughout the early 1800s. Montgomery's poem tells of Edmund "monarch of the dale" and his desire to wed (and bed) Ella "the lily of the vale". It just so happens to be the eve of Saint Mark's Day and, to prove his mettle and win Ella's hand in marriage, Edmund agrees to sit the vigil of Saint Mark.
" 'Tis now," replied the village Belle,
" St. Mark's mysterious Eve ;
And all that old traditions tell
I tremblingly believe ; —
" How, when the midnight signal tolls,
Along the churchyard green '
A mournful train of sentenced souls
In winding-sheets are seen.
" The ghosts of all whom death shall doom
Within the coming year,
In pale procession walk the gloom.
Amid the silence drear.
The custom of the vigil is explained in Chambers Book of Days as follows:
In the northern parts of England, it is still believed that if a person, on the eve of St. Mark's day, watch in the church porch from eleven at night till one in the morning, he will see the apparitions of all those who are to be buried in the churchyard during the ensuing year.
In some versions of the custom it is supposed to be necessary to sit three successive Saint Mark's vigils before the spectres of those yet to pass will be seen. (Three years, the span mysteriously yet accurately foretold by Keats in 1818).
Another Saint Mark's Eve custom is described, yet again, in Chambers Book of Days:
On St. Mark's eve, at twelve o'clock,
The fair maid will watch her smock,
To find her husband in the dark,
By praying unto good St. Mark.'
We presume that the practice was to hang up the smock at the fire before going to bed; the rest of the family having retired, the anxious damsel would plant herself to wait till the resemblance of him who was to be her husband should come in and turn the garment. The divination by nuts was also in vogue. A row being planted amongst the hot embers on the hearth, one from each maiden, and the name of the loved one being breathed, it was expected that if the love was in any case to be successful, the nut would jump away; if otherwise, it would go on composedly burning till all was consumed:
"If you love me, pop and fly,
If not, lie there silently.'
Love and death seem to be the recurring themes here; this is neither a celebratory time of new life and rebirth (like Easter), nor a cursing, or driving away the death and darkness of winter (like Yule). The folklore surrounding Saint Mark's Eve seems (to me) to be about engaging with the fact that everyone and everything dies - everything is transient - a tragic, yet romantic notion which I'm sure Keats would have appreciated.
The St. Mark’s Fly has a very short adult life cycle - the males emerge first, the females a day or so later. After mating, they lay their eggs in the soil ("the deep-delvèd earth" as Keats might have it) and die soon after.
In October 1819 John Keats wrote the following in a letter to Fanny Brawne - a woman with whom he was passionately in love with but had never, and would never, be with:
I have been astonished that Men could die Martyrs for religion – I have shudder'd at it – I shudder no more – I could be martyr'd for my Religion – Love is my religion – I could die for that – I could die for you.
Yet, as the poet himself also once wrote "the poetry of the Earth is never dead"; the next generation of Saint Mark's Flies sleep beneath the soil, already doomed to live and love and die within a pre-allotted time span. Every Saint Mark's Eve the males keep their vigil, awaiting their brides and sealing their fates.
The world is increasingly unthinkable – a world of planetary disasters, emerging pandemics, tectonic shifts, strange weather, oil-drenched seascapes, and the furtive, always-looming threat of extinction. In spite of our daily concerns, wants, and desires, it is increasingly difficult to comprehend the world in which we live and of which we are a part. To confront this idea is to confront an absolute limit to our ability to adequately understand the world at all – an idea that has been a central motif of the horror genre for some time.”
~ Eugene Thacker, In The Dust Of This Planet
FORTITUDE is a British psychological thriller TV series that just concluded its first season. It presents as a straight-forward murder mystery, combining elements of classic British crime drama and the new, popular sub-genre of Nordic Noir; calling attention to that second element by featuring Sofie Gråbøl – from UR Nordic Noir, The Killing (Forbrydelsen)– as the Governor of the town that gives its name to this series. Proving the popularity of this type of television, it aired simultaneously in the UK and US, Canada and shortly thereafter in Australia and New Zealand. It is also full of demons.
This is a show about people haunted by their inescapable past and a town slowly infected by the new face of an ancient evil. And these are the aspects I am going to examine in this review. As the show concludes, the who-dunnit aspect becomes immaterial, but the why and the how of it are more than just a cleverly constructed plot device, they're a metaphor for the future of humanity and the planet.
Which is why I started with the opening paragraph of Eugene Thacker's In The Dust of this Planet. What creator Simon Donald has delivered to his audience is part human mystery, part cosmological puzzle. Connections between events beyond the core plot line are rarely explicitly stated or resolved, and most are only obvious in retrospect. To the frustration of many casual viewers, much is left unexplained. Everything isn't tied into a knot woven of simple causality. Instead, this is a drama about the ripples formed by one singular large scale event, which flows over each person in the town differently, affecting all elements of life, in fact all forms of life too. It is about how those waves are generated by a cold, uncaring universe completely dispassionately, that wash equally over the local citizens seemingly regardless of their character or past.
To paraphrase Thacker: “to watch FORTITUDE is to confront an absolute limit to our ability to adequately understand the world at all.” The innocent are made murderers, victims become killers, the flawed punish the corrupt, the wicked are left as witnesses seeking retribution, two tortured lovers come together only for one to be later shot by the other, and one hero's reward is permanent disfigurement.
I really liked this show. Spoilers follow.
Temperature constrains all life,
In the permafrost,
Hibernating for millions of years or
Decomposing for millions of years.”
My nickname for FORTITUDE's plot device is Checkhov's Mammoth. Events are set in motion by the most harmless of things ... Read More »
Saturday, December 20th. On the last weekend before the Christmas holidays, many people in Mexico are celebrating the traditional posadas: Festivities still clinging to some religious overtones, which for the most part have devolved into an excuse to eat a lot, drink a lot, and watch the kiddies beat the crap out of a star-shaped piñata, so they can afterward wrestle for all the candy and fruit inside of it once it finally breaks.
My own family is also gathered in one of those parties, but I'm not with them. I'm standing instead on a small circle with other people I've just met today, just a stone-throw away from the ancient city of Teotihuacán, whose massive ruins are now being shrouded by the darkness; on the circle's center there is a timid fire straining to illuminate the congregation, who is attentively listening to the voice of a short, elderly man, dressed in a white-cloth suit brightly adorned with colored patterns on the sleeves and the of bottom of his trousers. The words are an almost unintelligible mix of Spanish and indigenous dialect, spoken in a soft yet commanding tone. Standing next to him is his wife, his 18-year-old son, a teenage girl -- the son's girlfriend-- and a cheerful boy who couldn't be more than 7 years old, who is also the child of the elderly man.
The name of the man is Don Clemente, and he is a Marakame --a shaman or medicine man among his people, the Wixárika indians who are also known as Huicholes. His words, which were later translated by his oldest son --also with the same name-- are a salutation to all of us who have gathered around the circle on this fateful evening.
We are gathered here to celebrate a Winter Solstice ceremony ministered by the Marakame, and I am about to ... Read More »
Irish poet William Butler Yeats is perhaps the most well-known member of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, the influential secret magical society which originated in the late 19th century (and still exists in a number of forms today). Yeats was initiated into the order in 1890, taking on the magical name Demon est Deus Inversus—"the Devil is God Inverted." As the order fell into chaos in the early 20th century, Yeats struggled to keep it intact, but he eventually left the offshoot Stella Matutina temple in 1921.
In 2009, noted Tarot author and scholar Mary K. Greer blogged about an exhibit at the National Library of Ireland showcasing a number of Yeats's Golden Dawn tools and writings, including pages from his private magical journal. The exhibition is still online and I encourage you to view it here (although it is build in Flash and employs a clunky navigation system). Navigate to "Interactive" then click on "The Celtic Mystic" to see the showcase.
I also recently acquired a copy of the out-of-print and rare book, Yeats, the Tarot, and the Golden Dawn by scholar Kathleen Raine (The Dolmen Press, 1972), and was astonished to find it contained several black-and-white photos of Yeats's hand-crafted elemental weapons (magical tools).
In the above image, clockwise from top left, are: the chalice (representing the element of Water); dagger (representing the element of Air) and lotus want (a general "all-purpose" wand); magical sword and sheath; and the Fire Wand.
Another photo, this one from the National Library of Irelands exhibit, shows Yeats's hand-constructed and painted Pentacle, which represents the element of Earth. You can see his magical motto, Demon est Deus Inversus, painted on the pentacle. All of the magical tools are inscribed with Hebrew names of angels, and some (noticeably the cup) feature the sigils constructed from their names (the odd geometrical figures). This image comes from the collection at the National Library of Ireland:
It is still quite thrilling to see Yeats's drawings in the notebook illustrating his progression through the grades of the order. Here, he has sketched and painted the angel
Michael Auriel. [An earlier version of this article stated the angel was the Archangel Michael, but someone on a Golden Dawn forum caught the mistake.]
And a beautiful gallery of pages from a Golden Dawn notebook from Yeats's uncle, George Pollexfen, can be found on Flckr, too.
The full story of Yeats and his involvement with magic and the Golden Dawn is covered in a number of books and online, but seeing these magical tools and drawings—carefully constructed and painted by the great poet himself—really brings the tradition alive.
In a field in England, in the East Riding of Yorkshire to be more precise, amid the grass and nettles there stands a lone curious 24 foot (7.3 metre) red brick obelisk. Constructed more than 200 years ago, the column has, appropriately enough, something of a cartoon space-rocket about it. A plaque set into one face reads
Here On this Spot, Decr. 13th, 1795 Fell from the Atmoſphere AN EXTRAORDINARY STONE In Breadth 28 inches In Length 36 inches and Whoſe Weight was 56 pounds.
The "EXTRAORDINARY STONE" arrived during a thunderstorm and landed two fields from Wold Cottage, which was at the time home to a magistrate named Major Edward Topham. It was Major Topham who would go on to have the obelisk constructed in 1799. The stone created a hole 3.2 feet (1 metre) in diameter, embedding itself firmly into a layer of chalk bedrock beneath the soil. Topham's shepherd was within 450 feet (137 metres) of the point of impact. Nearer still was labourer John Shipley, who signed a deposition published alongside a reprinted letter by Major Topham in the Gentleman's Magazine for July 1797 stating that
He was within eight or nine yards of the stone when it fell, saw it distinct seven or eight yards from the ground, and then strike into the earth, which flew up all about him, and which alarmed him very much.
The Wold Newton Meteorite was the largest ever observed to fall in Britain, and is the second largest recorded in Europe (the largest being the Ensisheim meteorite which in 1492 landed in a wheat field in what was then Alsace). The great scientist and occultist Sir Issac Newton - not yet seventy years in his grave when the stone landed in Yorkshire -had famously stated that
To make way for the regular and lasting motions of the planets and comets, it is necessary to empty the heavens of all matter.
In other words, that there was no room in his model of space for free floating objects such as meteorites. Having formulated the Law of Universal Gravitation, Newton's ideas were generally taken pretty seriously. Consequently when the Wold Newton Meteorite was put on display in London in 1797 many took pleasure in deriding it as a fake, or at best a piece of debris thrown into the air by a volcanic eruption (which was, needless to say, unlikely in Yorkshire). The then president of the Royal Society of London, Sir Joseph Banks, was interested, however. Working with the chemist Edward Howard, Banks ... Read More »
HENRi is an emotionally powerful short film, which explores human existence at the most fundamental, personal level—what it means to be a conscious individual.
Hundreds of years in the future, a derelict spacecraft, controlled and powered by a human brain, floats aimlessly in the outer reaches of space. HENRI, the name of the ship's power system, is an acronym which stands for Hybrid Electronic / Neuron Responsive Intelligence, and was the first of Earth’s Neuro-Tech space exploration research vessels. Trapped in the cold, mechanical prison of the vessel, the “brain,” which has no recollection or concept of self, gradually begins to experience disjointed images of its former life—images it cannot understand. Carrying the remains of a crew long dead, and becoming increasingly self-aware, HENRI experiences the instinctual desire to be free. Yearning for freedom and yet unable to move, the brain devises a plan to build itself a mechanical body from parts of the ship. Maybe then it will understand the images it is seeing—maybe then it will feel alive.
This twenty minute and change short film will bring all the feels if you've developed any empathy for the machines. Perhaps, like me, you are longing for the arrival of a proper Culture universe, as written of by the great prophet, Iain M. Banks. Maybe you've long internalised the directive that “the only way out is through”; that there is no Rise of the Machines style apocalyptic scenario coming, only the next stage in the hominid line's continual coevolution with its tools.
If you're like me, these are the things that come to mind when watching this short. That it, along with other great recent online videos, Wanderers and Ambition, serve as recruitment material for the Great Extropian Adventure, just as Silent Running was said to have been the unofficial video for Earth First! back in the 1970s. A vision to help chart a course through the current extinction crisis towards a twenty-second century full of sentient beings in space; a living universe populated with the physical and virtual, human, machine and animal, and multiple combinations of them all. And that's just for starters. Science only knows what comes after that. Which might seem like quite a burden to place on what's really just one person's high concept Foundation universe fan-fic.
Let's assume by this point you've watched the short film. A properly observant and literate sci-fi fan will note this video features several elements that suggest ... Read More »
Erotic Encounters in the Borderlands of Consciousness
In October 2012, the pop star Kesha claimed she once had sex with a spirit. Her report was conveniently announced along with the promotion of her new song, Supernatural, which happened to coincide with the weeks before Halloween and was quickly dismissed as a headline-attracting media trick. But there may be something to her claim, as her account is very much in line with the experience of millions of contemporary dreamers. Kesha’s amorous ghost is probably a subset of the incubus encounter, a nocturnal meeting with an otherworldly creature that sits on your chest or otherwise gets all up in your business while you lay in bed. The entity can take the shape of known mythological figures, ghosts, demons, or weird human-animal hybrids. Often, the encounter is fearful, and is described as supernatural assault. Part of the assault has to do with the fact that sometimes feelings of paralysis (and victimhood) are felt when sleep paralysis mingles with the vision. But for others it’s pleasurable, resulting in orgasm and bliss. We live in a time that tries to ignore the visionary moments of life, yet the experiences keep happening anyway.
The realistic encounter with nonhuman—or supernatural—entities has been recorded as early as Babylonian times. Some sexual imp traditions include the Sumerian sex demon Lilith and the ancient Greek god Pan. More often than not, these encounters were interpreted as demonic possession. But not always. For example, the Greek dream interpreter Artemidorus wrote that a sexual Pan encounter “foretells a great profit,” especially if he “does not weigh a person down,” referring to the more common paralysis sensations.1
In modern populations, a significant minority has erotically-charged hypnagogic experiences despite the lack of cultural prompting. Those who feel safe enough to “go with the flow” and not fight the ecstasy are sometimes rewarded with bliss. Physiologically, this shouldn’t be too surprising, as REM sleep is a sexually-active brain state. It’s quite common for both men and women to have multiple periods of genital engorgement during the night—usually these are not remembered, but clearly visible when men wake up tenting the sheet.
By way of example, one young woman wrote to me, “When I was younger I used to get paralyzed in my sleep and I use to think that the devil was coming in me. It made me scared. Now I’m 28 and started feeling like I was having the best sex. . . . I had no clue this happened to other people.” She went on to describe how she has had visitations since she was a child, and they were not always welcome. “Now that I am older and it’s been happening for so long…I always climax…I really want him there with me.2
Other nocturnal encounters mix pleasure and horror in a bizarre way. A reader of my blog Dream Studies Portal who goes by Nox Influx sent me the following narrative that mixes hypnogogia with sleep paralysis:
I was [sleeping and] lying on my stomach, on top of this beautiful woman, having sex, she was saying things, and the sex got more intense, at the point near orgasm I awoke to sleep paralysis, and I hallucinated me on top of a white skinned, blue-lipped dead body. It stayed a few seconds while I couldn’t move and then vanished when movement returned. It sounds negative, but I found it to be exciting in an odd way.3
So how does the positive incubus encounter take place, even when the dreamer does not have a previous understanding that these things are even possible? Taboo is a big part of visionary consciousness, but cultural influence is not the only influence. In my opinion, the cross-cultural nature of sexual incubi points toward a neurobiological constant, an ancestral legacy.4 David Hufford suggests that not only are extraordinary events normal, but “better knowledge of each [event] strengthens that belief rather than weakening it (e.g., learning that others have had virtually the same experience; information regarding possible physiological triggers is irrelevant to the assessment of the reality of the experience).”5 It’s simply a natural part of being human, but of course like all visionary experiences they can reflect our health and dis-ease as well as our relationship to the unknowable.
Case Study: Lucy Liu's Visitation
Kesha is not the first celebrity to announce supernatural hanky-panky. In 1999, actress Lucy Liu admitted in an interview with US Weekly that she had had sex with a heavenly figure. She was lying down on the couch for a nap, and felt an unknown presence on top of her. What followed was a pleasurable spell of lovemaking. “It was sheer bliss. I felt ... Read More »
This is the first teaser trailer for the long anticipated Max Mad reboot, Fury Road, directed by George Miller.
An apocalyptic story set in the furthest reaches of our planet, in a stark desert landscape where humanity is broken, and almost everyone is crazed fighting for the necessities of life. Within this world exist two rebels on the run who just might be able to restore order. There's Max, a man of action and a man of few words, who seeks peace of mind following the loss of his wife and child in the aftermath of the chaos. And Furiosa, a woman of action and a woman who believes her path to survival may be achieved if she can make it across the desert back to her childhood homeland.
A couple of little things first. This story is set on “the furthest reaches of our planet”... far away from what? A place where life goes on as it was before, where the Empire never died? Is it like the post-Collapse world of Cloud Atlas? Is there another instance of humanity across the ocean, that has kept the high tech life of those that came before intact, but are dealing with their own set of uniquely horrifying problems? What is the geography of the end of the world? To further abuse a much abused phrase, a future planet where “the Apocalypse is already here — it's just not very evenly distributed." No one single Dark Age for all people, but local variants with different extremes.
Obviously we don't know, can't know and that's not the point of the George Miller's movie. And this is, of course, just a trailer. But the topic of ‘post-apocalyptic’ futures is fascinating to explore, and the Mad Max world provides a good jumping-off point. What is the meaning of this film? Another apocalyptic tale for a dying world? Can it mean something more? What can we read into it? What if we look at it through the lens of the new novel by one of the founding fathers of cyberpunk, who's been imagining the bleak dystopia to come for us since the early 1980s.
SPOILER WARNING: plot details of The Peripheral by William Gibson are discussed from here on in, in far more detail than my original review.
If, like me, you've recently had your brain re-wired by the latest William Gibson book, The Peripheral, then you are already thinking about the world we're occupying now as being set within “the pre Jackpot Years”. That though darker times lie ahead, rays of light are already leaking through for those that might survive what amounts to an extinction event. A whole new world awaits, completely unimaginable from our vantage point, equal parts horrible and wonderful. An idea of the course we're on that reframes the current techno-utopic future of the Singularity, by emphasising the pain and cost involved of such a societal transition. Pointing out that it doesn't just magically get all post-scarcity and mind upload cities, especially if that's all that's focused on.
Before Kurzweil & co re-branded it, the Singularity was never pitched as desirable. The influential Vernor Vinge originally described the post-human era as a dangerous place to be for those that didn't get upgraded in the process (that didn't win the Jackpot). He had some advice for the inhuman inheritors of the Earth, that applies equally to us today:
Though none of these creatures might be flesh-and-blood humans, they might be the closest things in the new environment to what we call human now.
I. J. Good had something to say about this, though at this late date the advice may be moot: Good proposed a "Meta-Golden Rule", which might be paraphrased as "Treat your inferiors as you would be treated by your superiors."
Gibson doesn't elaborate upon “the Jackpot Years” until over halfway through the novel. But by then he's made it clear that the events that separate the two time lines in his story have been very, very dark indeed. When Wilf, the future posthuman, finally explains it all to Flynne, the near future human, and thus to us reading it too, it's basically everything bad we ever imagined might happen, short of total annihilation, in a big climate chaos wrapped bundle:
No comets crashing, nothing you could really call a nuclear war. Just everything else, tangled in the changing climate: droughts, water shortages, crop failures, honeybees gone like they almost were now, collapse of other keystone species, every last alpha predator gone, antibiotics doing even less than they already did, diseases that were never quite the one big pandemic but big enough to be historic events in themselves. And all of it around people: how people were, how many of them there were, how they’d changed things just by being there.”
The future most of can see coming that aren't too distracted to be paying attention. The road we could still be on in the decades to come before things get bad as in feral cities and people dying by the billions. As the survivors run out of room to stack the corpses.
So now, in her day, he said, they were headed into androgenic, systemic, multiplex, seriously bad shit, like she sort of already knew, figured everybody did, except for people who still said it wasn’t happening, and those people were mostly expecting the Second Coming anyway.”
Do we want to talk about why the Singularity is known to its critics as the “Rapture of the Nerds”? Vinge continued in his dire revelation:
I have argued above that we cannot prevent the Singularity, that its coming is an inevitable consequence of the humans' natural competitiveness and the possibilities inherent in technology. And yet ... we are the initiators. Even the largest avalanche is triggered by small things. We have the freedom to establish initial conditions, make things happen in ways that are less inimical than others. Of course (as with starting avalanches), it may not be clear what the right guiding nudge really is”
As another movie once said, “no fate but what we make”. Mad Max: Fury Road will show us a glimpse into the full Collapse future. (Let's be honest, we know exactly how this movie will play out, it's highly unlikely that it will have a twist ending with it all occurring in a VR simulator as a generation of posthumans kill time in some fan-fic recreation of the past, on their way to seeding a new galaxy.) Again.
It's worth pointing out that the original film was created in reaction to the early 1970s oil crisis, but that we're now living in the days of Peak Oil proper. Where another energy catastrophe and subsequent societal collapse is being held off in large part by frakking the planet; a word that sounds bad enough, without it already being a pejorative from a fictional scifi timeline (BSG). That's already triggering earthquakes. And the western democracies are doing it on their home turf too; though mostly in territory deemed politically expendable to their current administrations. Where land grabs on an unprecedented scale are being termed geoengineering.
We are a worldwide civilisation coasting with the fuel gauge nearing empty, thinking there must be another service station just over the horizon. So crank up the radio, let's sing along to some tunes, it'll be just fiiiiiiiine.
Many peak oil bloggers contend that the real moment to do something to prevent the Collapse so graphically rendered above was after the preview first given in the 1970s. That Mad Max should've been a guardian of a road not taken. Instead, here we are. Celebrating him again. And the doomed world he's a patron saint of leaks out all over the place. Like the entire plot of the excellent UK series Utopia. Like the grim prophecy of this scene in Newsroom on the reality of Climate Change.
Hopefully, unlike previously ignored attempts by the Hollywood machine at eco-catastrophe fiction – I'm looking at you, Waterworld – this very grindhouse film will focus attention and serve as more than a distraction. An over-the-top, cathartic outlet against a background of equally disturbing events – from the crackdown on Occupy Hong Kong to the CIA Torture Report, and every protest turned police action across North America in between. Whatever this all mutates into in the coming months. We don't need that.
Thinking about this as “the pre Jackpot Years” helps us reframe the narrative. Something better can come out of all this. This doesn't have to be the prelude to a future high-speed, nightmarish post-apocalypse, worse than the slow motion one we're in now. We don't have to wait for it to accelerate into an unavoidable crash and collapse. There is no techomagical Singularity that will save us. We must wake up behind the wheel and plot a new path on the map of the possible. Our civilisation survived the twentieth century and everyday Fear of the Bomb. We can make it through this too, and build something better. All the pieces are here already, waiting to be recombined. From advances in automated factories and 3D Printing to basic science and amazing speculations on the origins of life.
What comes next is up to us. In many ways we're limited only by our imagination. Why books from In The Dust Of This Planet to The Blood Of The Earth argue strongly for a change in consciousness in how we view both the world now and to come. What we make out of the building blocks we already have is for us to choose. Buckminster Fuller once said: “whether it is to be Utopia or Oblivion will be a touch-and-go relay race right up to the final moment.” We just have to decide how to build a future worth living for all of us, correct our direction away from Oblivion and towards whatever version of Utopia we can agree upon. Or plan for life amidst the chaos and barbarity of Bartertown.
According to an online survey conducted in 2010, 20% of British adults had at least one tattoo.  The statistic crops up again and again if you're reading tattoo related articles online, but has been upped ever so slightly in more recent pieces to “more than 20%”, just to be on the safe side. A corresponding 2013 survey of US adults found that 14% had at least one tattoo.  So, taking into account the fact that I failed maths GCSE twice, I think that means that between Brits and Americans, roughly one in six people who are of legal age to get one has a tattoo. That seems like a pretty believable statistic to me. In 2014 tattoos are normal, passé even. Right?
I got my first tattoo when I was nineteen years old: a 2p coin sized yellow smiley with horns, surrounded by red flames (my children now refer to it as “Mr. Happy, on fire”). Seventeen years later I have again opted to have ink inserted via needle into the layer of dermal tissue underlying my epidermis. This time however, I thought things through rather more carefully. Because this time my tattoo is magical.
One of the most ubiquitous kinds of tattoo I see on a daily basis here in Liverpool – on the street, at the shops, at the school gates, in the pub – are those of names and/or dates. While there are of course exceptions, the majority of these name/date tattoos are in commemoration of births and/or deaths. Commonplace as they may be, these inscriptions are a perfect example of everyday magical thinking.
Choosing to have these characters etched permanently into your flesh is not rational. The name/date might be rendered in an aesthetically pleasing way but simply looking good is not the reason for having a name/date tattoo. The sentiment behind the commemoration may be summed up as “I will never forget”, but there is more to it than that. The promise of never forgetting is one the individual has made to the world at large, but more than that it is made to a realm beyond our own. A promise made to the place we speak to when we ask an empty room where the hell our keys are, or why we drank so much last night; the region we wish and we hope into. This is the domain of the omniscient, omnipresent other; the elusive Higher Self whose wisdom we all appeal to, regardless of spiritual beliefs (or lack thereof). Most importantly of all then, the fallible everyday you makes the oath to the inerrant all-knowing you. “I will never forget, and somehow, in some way, I will be better for it”. Those who see the name/date tattoos might not realise it (indeed some who have them might not even know it) but those indelibly embedded characters are literally magical.
There is some confusion as to what magic actually is. I think this can be cleared up if you just look at the very earliest descriptions of magic. Magic in its earliest form is often referred to as 'the art'. I believe this is completely literal. I believe that magic is art, and that art – whether that be music, writing, sculpture, or any other form – is literally magic. Art is, like magic, the science of manipulating symbols, words or images, to achieve changes in consciousness [...] to cast a spell is simply to spell; to manipulate words, to change people's consciousness. This is why I believe that an artist or writer is the closest thing in the contemporary world to a shaman. 
I'm not usually one for quoting my father-in-law in my writing but, honestly, I'd be hard pushed to find a better, clearer explanation of magic than the one Alan Moore gave a decade or so ago in an interview with Dez Vylenz. Tattoos are an art-form, tattooists artists, and the tattooed person is ... Read More »