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Monday, April 13, 2020

Review: 'The Future Starts Here'

Review: The Future Starts Here: Adventures in the Twenty-First Century by John Higgs.

By Gregory Arnott
Special guest blogger

“We made it!” he said. “We did it! The future is ours. We rebuilt the cities, freshened the small towns,  cleaned the lakes and rivers, washed the air, saved the dolphins, increased the whales, stopped the wars, tossed solar stations across space to light the world, colonized the moon, moved on to Mars, then Alpha Centauri. We cured cancer and stopped death. We did it—Oh Lord, much thanks—we did it. Oh, future’s bright and beauteous spires, arise!” - Ray Bradbury “The Toynbee Convector” 

At the beginning of the past decade, Alan Moore helmed a project that was a revival of underground publishing -- the product was titled Dodgem Logic. It was glorious and contained material from Kevin O’Neill, Steve Moore, Melinda Gebbie, Robin Ince, Mitch Jenkins, Josie Long, and Steve Ayelett, and that’s just who I can think of off the top of my head. I have to say material because in the spirit of experimentation those nine issues showcased the art of those involved as well as their writing; the second issue contained a photo-shoot collaboration between (Alan) Moore, Jenkins, and Gebbie that was the background for an article by Gebbie which ended up becoming the basis for Moore and Jenkins’ film series The Show. It also contained a wonderful chapbook fully penned and illustrated by Moore titled Astounding Weird Penises. Lovely stuff. 

I bring up Dodgem Logic at the beginning of a review of John Higgs’ The Future Starts Here for a few different reasons. Firstly, because the last chapter of The Future Starts Here revolved around a visit with Daisy Eris Campbell and her notion of a “mycelium network” which Higgs compares to Brian Eno’s concept of scenius. (Scenius is an idea that I can best paraphrase as that the individual “genius” is rather part of a “scene” that produces various types of excellence because of its cross-communication of ideas leading to fertility. ) Dodgem Logic was an expression of this ethos that captured some of the spirit of the brave new world of the twenty-first century.

 The ‘zine seemed ready to grab whatever parts of culture it could by the horns and see what shapes the bloodstains made on the ground. And each issue crackled with energy: I’d open up the first page to find a collection of some of the most fabulous examples of humanity, the Moore-curated “Great Hipsters in History,” and an always hilarious editorial -- past that it was anyone’s guess. There were always standard features such as recipes, obscure-music reviews, and a special Northampton-specific insert that spoke to the magazine’s local origins and the practical side of art.

I bring up the ‘zine  secondly because of the crossover between the scenes represented in the magazine and the scenes and personalities Higgs introduces us to in his book: for example, The Future Starts Here is graced with illustrations by Gebbie. Thirdly, because the book reminded me very much of an essay penned by Moore in the penultimate issue titled “Life on another World.” 

Startlingly poignant and gentle given its grim assessment of The Way Things Stand (or Stood considering it was published in 2010), Moore’s essay calmly points out that This Is It. That this planet is probably the only one we’re going to have and hoping for any outside influence to swoop in and change us for the better is a fool’s game. That instead of acting out Waiting for Godot or Goaliens or Whathaveyouot, humanity should put our queer shoulders to the wheel and make this world one worth having a future in. Moore proposes ideas about the advancement of communication making democracy more applicable while emphasizing the need for a reorientation of focus towards the local. Most excitingly, for this reader at least, Moore proposes his “two-state solution” wherein the physical world would be left to the empirical sciences while the interior world would be left to art, magic, and religion. We’ll return to that. 

Like Moore, Higgs isn’t convinced of humanity’s interplanetary, let alone interstellar, ambitions. Oh, he gives unto Caesar and acknowledges the depths of human ingenuity and offers a round examination of Elon Musk that fascinates nearly as much as the man himself. If you’re someone who longs for space, his chapter on our Martian dreams can almost come across as a personal attack until he assures you that he shares your disappointment. Higgs writes movingly about the cognitive switch of having been raised in the late-twentieth century when the future seemed to lay amongst the stars versus the reality of trying to have humans inhabit cramped enclosures deep beneath the irradiated Martian surface. My emotional reaction was similar when I read the “Space” chapter of Stranger Than We Can Imagine, Higgs’ history of the twentieth century: his account of the life of Sergei Korolev, the naive deviltry of Jack Parsons, and the American (with some guest-starring ex-Nazis) space program’s struggles really paints a portrait of how dire and tenuous humanity’s baby steps outside the atmosphere are and have always been. (It should be noted that Stranger Than We Can Imagine is absolutely essential and I almost think of it as a companion to The Future Starts Here -- or vice versa.) 

And Higgs has an agenda to clear the stars out of our eyes: refocusing on Earth, which does seem important when we consider it is the only home we’ve ever known and will most likely continue to be the only place where humanity can thrive. And, as we’re all well aware, the Earth isn’t doing so hot right now. Or it’s getting too hot right now. Things aren’t great. But Higgs has a vision for a future that corrects the mistakes of the past and argues convincingly about increased awareness and the already shifting morals and priorities of our new century. Higgs extrapolates from a conversation with Andrew O’Neill about gender (non)conformity over the years towards a vision of Gen Z that produces more empathetic and interconnected ways of living. He does this in a long, convincing chapter that examines what he calls the “meta-modern” generation.

Amongst the parade of personalities, including Hilaritas Press illustrator Scott McPherson, and technological possibilities Higgs is constantly working on the scaffolding for his vision of the Future. In the clear-eyed manner of Stranger Than We Can Imagine Higgs disabuses the reader of many preconceptions; I learned more about AI from the first two chapters of the book than I have from any of the hysterical articles I’ve read online. Between conversations about virtual reality and Skinner Boxes, Higgs is able to point out the constant struggle that occurs regardless of whatever technology humans can dream up: power and wealth disparity. It isn’t Skynet that the public needs to fear from AI, but rather the programmers who direct it (an idea readers of Schroedinger’s Cat, with the Steven Moon/GWB-666 dynamic, should appreciate) and that the environment isn’t going to be stabilized without shifts in approach to economics. Speaking of economics, Lionel Shriver’s incredibly stimulating future history The Mandibles is listed in the bibliography for the book but I couldn’t find a mention of her in the text. Like Robert Anton Wilson in Stranger Than We Can Imagine, to a much lesser extent, her influence is, I believe, palpable a couple of times. 

(Back) in conversation with Daisy Campbell, the author and the playwright discuss the philosophy of the (somewhat-infamous) Peter Lamborn Wilson: specifically the Temporary Autonomous Zone and Immediatism. While the m-word isn’t mentioned in the book, I became aware of Hakim Bey (Wilson’s pseudonym) during my first forays into occultism: and the works of Daisy Eris Campbell smack of magic. Unlike in Stranger Than We Can Imagine, Robert Anton Wilson does make a couple of direct appearances -- as a supporter of Universal Basic Income and as the author of Cosmic Trigger. A thread of magical habituation runs through that final chapter and brings me back to Moore and his “two-state solution.” 

At the end of Stranger Than We Can Imagine, Higgs seems to advocate for model agnosticism as the best attitude for the world that the Twentieth Century gave birth to; his approach in The Future Starts Here is certainly influenced by a questioning mind. So in a way it would seem that his history makes up the Solve part of the alchemical credo whereas his survey of the new century makes up the beginning of the Coagula process. Of course the process of dissolution and reconstitution is happening forever in an endless cycle but there is great hope in the fact that we have such an erudite messenger of this perspective. After chapters on technological advance and societal change, I find it telling that a dialogue with Daisy Eris and later the inner thoughts of John on the beach end the book.

I read this book during one of the weeks leading up to the United States’ outbreak of COVID-19; reports had been coming in from Italy and Iran but the rest of the world seemed to be holding its breath just hoping it would only go so far. I imagine if this book had been published a couple years later there would be a chapter on pandemic. (I’m talking about the board game of course, which is excellent.) Higgs’ latest message indicates that he sees this as a possibly larger societal shift than 9/11 insofar as our attitudes and relationships may change. Interestingly, his book does end ruminating on a disease running its course before healing can begin. For Higgs this is the disease of unchecked, un-self-reflective individualism and paranoia that has led to the rise of Brexit and Trump. 

At the end of Stranger Than We Can Imagine, Higgs warns against corporations and the disaster that Citizens United spelled for democracy; like Alan Moore’s characters in the final installment of The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, the solution seemed to be to retreat to a higher artistic and intellectual ground. To try to exercise model-agnosticism in the Robert Anton Wilson manner and use it to draw strength from empathy, not hatred or superiority, and to Create. Now it seems like Change, that magnificent always-expect-the-unexpected force, has stepped in again to make the job a little easier. After these months of solitude, disaster, death, and seeing how incompetent and selfish much of our leadership is, perhaps people will begin to reexamine their values more expeditiously than Higgs expected. Who knows? 

Oh, future’s bright and beauteous spires, arise! 


Oz Fritz said...

The last line of this review is my favorite, reminds of lyrics from I Dreamed I Saw St. Augustine:

"Arise, arise, he cried so loud
In a voice without restraint
Come out, ye gifted kings and queens
And hear my sad complaint"

Overall, this review inspires me to read this book. Admittedly, I'm not a huge Higgs enthusiast, but have only read the Leary book and an Introduction to a RAW book he wrote. This review made me curious to check out the two JH books mentioned, the new one and the previous one to see what I'm missing out on. I also enjoyed the context given, the comparison with Moore's zine, etc.

Perhaps going against a more recent trend, I remain enthusiastic and hopeful about Space Migration though it might take much longer than originally thought, perhaps a few hundred years after we emerge from the current Dark Age. I suspect making this planet work is one key to Space Migration. In a Universe of billions of galaxies and untold worlds, I question the human-centric notion that this is the only planet we have to work with, though, unlike the majority it seems, I consider inner space exploration equally as valid and the contacts there equally as real and actual as outer space exploration. I remain agnostic about it all.

Rarebit Fiend said...

The line is Bradbury's, to my chagrin- have you read "The Toynbee Convector" Oz? It's my favorite story of his and makes me tear up every time. I actually hadn't read it until the first week I was student teaching in a high school class where they were reading it and I got really enthusiastic about the ideas in the story. Made the kids think I was crazy from the get-go.

I would also recommend checking out his book on the KLF. I imagine as a music connoisseur, RAW and magic enthusiast you'd appreciate it. It's a very exciting read. And I don't think you'll be disappointed by either book.

I am torn: like you I don't want to give up hope of humanity's fate amongst the stars but I don't believe it's happening anytime soon. That said I try to watch as many SpaceX launches as I can and made sure to watch the original Moon Landing with my daughter this past summer. Higgs does show a clear admiration of Musk's achievements, while addressing the more obnoxious/bourgeois parts of his personality. One more of the fascinating ideas in the book that I didn't mention in the review is his thoughts on how SpaceX's two robotic retrieval ships are named after Ian Banks' AI minds in The Culture novels. He goes to lengths to point out the feedback loop between science fiction/fantasy and our measurable advancements and how semi-autonomous ships retrieving reusable rockets is something that no one really banked on being possible anytime soon.

For me, and I know I'm just an old toy keyboard that only plays so many notes, the best portrayal of the continuation of SMI2LE I have encountered are the Utopians in Ada Palmer's Terra Ignota series. Their efforts are measured but determined in a setting *only* a few centuries in the future. Away from death and towards the stars.

Thanks as always for reading Oz.