- The Universe of Things
I begin with a short story called “The Universe of Things,” by the British science fiction writer Gwyneth Jones.1 The story is about an encounter between a human being and an alien. It is part of Jones’s “Aleutian” cycle: a series of novels and stories set in a near-future Earth that is visited, colonized, and ultimately abandoned by an alien humanoid race. The Aleutians (as these aliens are called) have technologies that are superior to ours. Also, they are of indeterminate gender; human beings tend to be discomfited by this. If anything, the Aleutians vaguely seem to be more “feminine” than “masculine”; but human beings usually refer to them with the pronoun “it.” For both of these reasons, the Aleutians’ presence on our planet is traumatic and humiliating. It’s not that they do anything particularly nasty or unpleasant; but their very existence somehow diminishes us. We find ourselves in a position of abject dependency; even the most affluent white male Westerners must now count themselves among the ranks of the colonized.
The Aleutians’ presence on Earth undermines our inveterate anthropocentrism. “Man” is no longer the measure of all things. We can no longer think of ourselves as being special, much less take ourselves as the pinnacle of creation. Modernity is often seen as a long series of displacements and decenterings of the human; just think of Copernicus, Darwin, and Freud, or for that matter of Deep Blue defeating Garry Kasparov. Jones’s Aleutians mark the ne plus ultra of this tendency; their effortless superiority leaves us blank and at a loss. And this is not just a matter of First Contact, so frequently mythologized in science fiction narratives. Jones’s aliens stay on the Earth for centuries. The fact of their existence never loses its disturbing edge, even as it comes to be woven into the habits and assumptions of everyday human life. In this way, the Aleutian cycle is a narrative about – among other things – the adjustments forced upon us as we enter a posthuman era.
Within Gwyneth Jones’s overall Aleutian cycle, “The Universe of Things” focuses upon one of the most striking differences between the aliens and ourselves: the fact that their technology, unlike ours, is intrinsically alive. The Aleutians’ tools are biological extrusions of themselves: “they had tools that crept, slithered, flew, but they had made these things… They built things with bacteria… Bacteria which were themselves traceable to the aliens’ own intestinal flora, infecting everything.”2 In effect, the Aleutians literalize Marshall McLuhan’s thesis that all media are prosthetic extensions of ourselves. The Aleutians exteriorize themselves in every aspect of their environment. Their networks extend far beyond their own bodies and immediate surroundings. They are even able to share feelings and memories, as these are chemcially encoded in the slime that they exude, and exchange with one another. In consequence, “the aliens could not experience being a-part. There were no parts in their continuum: no spaces, no dividing edges.”3 They are alive in the midst of an entirely “living world.”
The living world of the Aleutians stands in sharp and bitter contrast to the way that we remain trapped by our sad Cartesian legacy. We tend to dread our own mechanistic technologies, even as we use them more and more. We cannot escape the pervasive sense, endemic to Western culture, that we are alone in our aliveness, trapped in a world of dead, or merely passive, matter. Our own machines, Jones writes, “promised, but they could not perform. They remained things, and people remained lonely.”4 It seems to some of the people in Jones’s stories that, in contrast to this situation, “the aliens had the solution to human isolation: a talking world, a world with eyes; the companionship that God dreams of.”5
“The Universe of Things” tells the story of a human auto mechanic whom an alien hires to fix its car. The mechanic, like most human beings, both regards the aliens with awe, and at the same time feels a bit afraid of them. He is honored and humbled, but also made extremely anxious, when the alien...