- Infotopia: A Report from the Future
Information is not taken into the human organism so much as it is created from the strong association of external and internal perceptions. These associations are called knowledge, insight, belief, understanding, belligerence, pig-headedness, stupidity.—Samuel R. Delany (1984)
The cyberpunks got there first, and in their hip, dystopian way created a vision of the world to come (which has come) in which information sets the terms for life. William Gibson gave us the word “cyberspace” and with it a vocabulary to describe a global culture in which transnational corporate capitalism rules with a digital grip the negligible lives of the post human masses. So persuasive was this vision that Fredric Jameson labeled cyberpunk “the literature of late capitalism” (1990, 329), largely for the verve and precision with which it describes what another acute observer calls “the Informatics of Domination” (Haraway 1990, 161). The same year as Gibson’s publication of Neuromancer (1984), the book that put cyberpunk on the map, another novel appeared, similarly obsessed with the coming culture of information, Samuel R. Delany’s Stars in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand (1984). Set centuries and not decades in the future, it explores what that culture might become in a universe of over 6,000 inhabited worlds, woven together by a an interplanetary Web of information. This space-opera scope makes Stars in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand much harder to read than most cyberpunk, which is spangled with action and awash in Goth cool. Willfully literary and meticulously imagined, the novel crosses science fiction with ethnography, a generically risky hybrid about as interesting to sci-fi geeks as Levi-Strauss on the Winnebago. Needless to say, it fell into eclipse. But as a report from the far future on the long-term effects of information on life, Stars in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand offers an alternative vision to the stylized malaise of cyberpunk that bears pondering in our globalized present.
Jameson might call that vision utopian. His monumental Archaeologies of the Future: The Desire Called Utopia and Other Science Fictions (2005) approaches [End Page 63] science fiction generally as a utopian cultural practice that confronts the present with the prospect of a different, perhaps impossible, future. Stars in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand certainly fits the bill. Its multiple worlds, weird aliens, bestial sex, and shifting political formations make a life lived under the economic and cultural conditions of globalization look pretty passé. There are of course connections. Information configures life in Delany’s far future, managed by an interplanetary and non-governmental guild of administrators collectively called the Web. Humanoids remain at the center of his vision, however vast their mobility or violent their sexual habits. Delany’s world(s) to come do(es) not float completely free of its distant terrestrial history. In this Stars in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand illustrates Jameson’s claim, in an essay from 1982 entitled “Progress versus Utopia, or, Can We Imagine the Future?” (included in Archaeologies of the Future), that science fiction’s “multiple mock futures serve the quite different function of transforming our own present into the determinate past of something yet to come” (2005, 288). Our present is the past of a better future. Such is the logic of science fiction as a utopian enterprise.
Jameson complicates this logic by suggesting, à la Adorno, that utopian attempts to posit a better future are bound to fail, particularly given the tendency of capital to colonize the future in advance by reducing its difference to the same old prospect of perpetual profit. Thus, the truest science fictions are the ones that prove the impossibility of their better futures. In this desperate but familiar formulation, science fiction shares with the autonomous art of high modernism the capacity to promote a negative image of a better world whose impossibility becomes an index of utopia. Jameson works the trick here of linking a commodified product of the culture industry (science fiction, at least in its American avatar) to a modernist aesthetic that this pulp entertainment seems perfectly happy to live without. The results are dire, at least for...