This is a transcript of a conversation at 356 Mission last month, between publisher (and author) Chris Kraus and one of her authors.
CHRIS KRAUS: I came prepared with some notes and questions based on our conversation last night. But after hearing you read, I’m struck by this strange literary system that you’ve invented. Sundogz is Part 3 of The System Series, and you’re describing a metasystem, for sure, but listening to you read, the rhythm feels so familiar, like crime genre fiction, making what you’re describing seem unfamiliar and strange. There’s an illusion of everything making sense, but you’re describing things that are completely unknown.
MARK VON SCHLEGELL: Well it’s a science fiction novel. And science fiction books — one aspect of them I particularly enjoy is neologisms and making up words. But you’re right; in a series, when I start a new story in that series, it’s like a homecoming or something. It’s like my own private language that I share with these books, books that I spent fucking months living inside of. And I don’t know. Yes, it’s supposed to be a place outside anywhere. I think escapist fiction is a place outside normal, outside the real. My work probably emphasizes that a little bit more.
People have a bias against classic sci-fi because it’s often so badly written — the most intricate technologies, but the characters are so cliché and lame. But what goes on in Sundogz is so interesting as prose.
They try to do that on purpose, a lot of science fiction writers, to cut out anything except the science.
Right. So they’d be describing a scene on Mars as 20th century Americana. Your books seem very poetic to me — the prose style and content are both floating a few inches above the ground — it’s one of the things about your work that’s always felt most special and important.
I do think it definitely makes my work slightly different from other science fiction of our time. I think it causes some hostility on the part of the larger science fiction community in a way, because you’re not supposed to engage with the poetry of language in the way that my work consciously does. Obviously there have been many great science fiction books that use a poetic style. But they haven’t been as popular since the ’70s. And I’m more in that tradition. And in Sundogz, this character, the Doll, he’s obsessed with poetry through most of the book.
Right. They’re hilarious together. It’s so funny. But okay, let me get to the script I prepared —
Okay. So that was the unplanned part.
Mark and I have been working together as editor and writer for 10 years. In 2005, we published the first book in the Series System, Venusia. It was followed by Mercury Station, in 2009, and now Sundogz in 2015. The series moves back and forwards across three planets. Venusia is set in 2250 when the system has already collapsed. Mercury Station is set in 2150 and Sundogz, set on the Moons of Your Anus, takes place in 2145.
Uranus: Mysteriously no science fiction writers write about this incredible system. Most of the moons are named after Shakespeare characters. I’m not joking. Puck and Miranda are from A Midsummer’s Night Dream and The Tempest, et cetera. And some are from the works of Alexander Pope, to throw in a little satire and realism. It’s true. And they also are incredibly water rich — they’re all just like snowballs, these moons. They’re all just waiting for the melting.
Your work is intensely narrative. Dozens of plots and subplots run through the books. But the main plots always entail a search for history: how things in the system came to be. People are looking for information that can only be found in certain texts spread out across the galaxy. Correct?
Well, not really galaxy. Solar system.
There’s a part in Sundogz where you lay it all out. The character Maudie de Lions is listening to a recorded text: Imagine a dark sphere that is all the time and space in the universe. Second time is the entire surface of this anti-sphere reflected backwards. Part of that, the unconscious part, could lift the forms and ideals reflected on the hollow shell we imagine at the edge of our universe. And it’s true. Here an artificial intelligence can precede any stream, and any stream within a stream. But only after the fact. A machine cannot read the future. Only human writing observes what the future may be. Just as in politics only direct human action proves an idea.
Thinking about your books, three questions came to my mind right away. What is the system?
What is the importance of the book?
What is the importance of dogs?
But maybe it’s better to talk about these things in a more lateral way. So going back to Venusia, which is also a book about LA. In it the Venusians live in a happy drunk stupor, unaware that the system they feared has already been destroyed. Plants are incredibly sexual and intellectual beings. People no longer know how to read. And the protagonist Rogers Collectibles discovers the pages of a missing text by the founder Melton called Brane World.
There’s such an elaborate technology and epistemology already in place. Can you talk about how you created this world in Venusia? Did you know that it was the first in a series of books?
I did not know it would be the first series in books. It took a long time in coming because when I wrote Venusia I transferred from trying to write mainstream, or I don’t know, not mainstream, but non-science fiction. Fiction, regular fiction. So it was my first major attempt to go science fiction-wise. And in that way it was a discovery, a book of discovering what I might do as a writer that I hadn’t done before.
When I was writing the book, I was living in Los Angeles, and I had this little shack in a beautiful little garden where I could work. And I used to see Venus all the time. And I think my idea — I think when I was writing it, I wasn’t quite sure at first it was on Venus — but this star really was calling for me. And I don’t know, I got into Venus. And the problem is that anyone who has a modicum of scientific knowledge about our solar system has been told that Venus is the least possible of all planets for human settlement. Literally. Which struck me as rather odd, because it’s also the closest to earth and it’s a possible earth twin. It just seemed odd that it would be so extremely hostile to human life. I thought perhaps there was something on Venus telling our robot probes that information. That was one of the founding ideas of it.
But with latest probes, the place looks less hostile. People are discussing living in the clouds there already, as our Venusians do, though they don’t realize it. Their reality is so long augmented — I mean the Soviets dropped a probe on Venus in the ’70s and took photographs of the surface. And there’s no ocean. There is no plant life or anything for the series to use to take shape. The books go back in time; each one shows how this future history could be created — a kind of alternate reality where Venus was a place humans could imagine themselves leaving Earth as refugees to settle.
You’re saying because Venus was the most improbable of all the planets to support human life, you had to really imagine an elaborate structure of systems —
Yes, I had to make that possible somehow. The subtitle of Venusia is “A True Story.”
Because you invent some technology in Venusia. Some of the devices are almost in common use a decade later – the Iye is the Google Glass, for instance. The LP (Lung Protector) is the E-Cig. But in Venusia, it’s a very elaborate world.
Yes. And a lot of the technology is discussed in the other books — you see the history of that technology getting perfected. In Sundogz there’s a theater performance where they used homemade helmets so that the audience and performers join in a group unconscious space. And that space will later become — what’s it called — the “neuroscape” — or whatever it’s called in Venusia. I can’t even remember. But where they wear these helmets and can go into the cultural unconscious and travel around.
The three books all describe pockets of survival and existence within a larger, impenetrable, collapsing system. The system finally doesn’t matter that much. It’s hazy. What matters more in these books are micro cultures of parallel life. And that’s why your books are read so much in the art world.
Perhaps. They’re written from the art world in a way. I mean, I often publish chapters of them in art publications before they become books, et cetera. So they begin — or my writing in general has been kind of forced into — or maybe not forced, but less fully accepted into this micro world of the art world, which in some ways has allowed it to exist.
But as to larger ideas of collapsing systems, the idea is that in general humans got off earth enough to settle space. But earth was, in the meantime, almost in that effort destroyed, certainly is collapsing totally. And the question is, will these colonies that have been in space now for less than 100 years by the time Sundogz is starting, will they survive the collapse of earth itself? Not without madness, no doubt. Not without poetry. And so each book finds a different colony and traces out its possible survival.
Last night in the bar we were talking about the Oan — it’s one of the many invented systems in Sundogz. Oa is like the ocean, but you say it’s against the concept of the anthropocene — that the anthropocene misses the connection and inescapability of all systems of life. Like “hating” capitalism —
I mean I never heard of that term — the anthropocene — when I was writing it. I only heard it recently, I guess within the last year. Oa? In all the books there’s sort of this intergenerational time traveling revolution happening in the service of O.A., against its enemies simultaneously. Or Oa, it’s sometimes pronounced. It’s not quite clear what it is in different ways each time. And in this book it becomes clearer than ever. And yes, it has to do with the ocean, the earth’s ocean, where our life came from.
And so the idea of Oa, that these characters believe in in the future, it’s not something I would plan to talk about. I kind of write cheesy fiction so I can talk about it there. But since you asked me — yes, it’s an idea of earth life as a whole, not separating into humans as anything different than the trees that support them and give them air, and the bacteria in them that make them walk around, et cetera. So you can’t divide it. The concept of Oa is a whole. There’s no idea of the separating entities in this philosophy of the future, only conjoinings.
And so (closer to the sun) the plants themselves in Venusia gain a really clear sense that they see humans as a project of their own that went wrong, for instance. That plants helped humans develop our brains with mushrooms, and the like, in order to get earth plant life back into space. But they didn’t plan that it would go so wrong that their own homeworld was made hostile in the process.
Mercury Station is set on a penal colony, actually a juvenile detention center, where one youth named Eddie Ryan has been left behind. Eddie’s Irish. There are many allusions to the history of the Irish Republican Army. His only chance for escape is through time travel. And he ends up in the high middle ages.
Yes. His mind prints are cast into a dying young girl’s body, who is being executed as a witch in 1345. And as she dies, she literally gets hit by lightning. And Eddie Ryan’s mind patterns take over her body. And she/he can’t quite remember what he is or she is in the book. But years later, in this prison, where everyone else has abandoned him, Eddie Ryan finds a copy of a book by her/him. So it’s an idea that, again, books are the only way to time travel.
I remembered you talking about the YA fantasy genre, when you were working on it. Sci-fi being for boys; fantasy, with its unicorns and rainbows and medieval décor, being for girls —
Well, as it was then marketed.
At the time you were talking about doing a whole digression into writing fantasy literature.
I did write some, separately from the system series, a little bit. Mercury Station was this fantasy attempt. But yeah, I think all my work is science fiction. But girls read more, and this is also science fantasy. One reason is that it’s intended more for women readers than male readers. At the first convention I went to some years ago, they were literally saying the average science fiction book sells maybe 1,000 copies. The average fantasy sells 10,000. So I was like, well I should put in some more fantasy. Now I sell about 1,200.
Each of your books contains thousands of references and allusions to things in the culture. But it strikes me that each of these novels is also ghosting a master book. With Venusia, I think of Orwell’s 1984, Winston Smith trying to decipher the book that he’s found that will explain it all. Mercury Station’s a bit like William Gibson – the book Eddie finds is like the Cornell box floating around the galaxy in Mona Lisa Overdrive. Sundogz feels like 20th century crime fiction. You gave me piles of these amazing paperbacks that I’m still making my way through. Who do you feel closer to, Raymond Chandler or Dashiell Hammett?
Definitely Dashiell Hammett. I actually have a lecture, you haven’t heard it, called Against Raymond Chandler. Everyone — he is so beloved by our culture. He’s just accepted because he’s an incredibly great stylist, Chandler. But he is sort of the beginning of a collapse of American crime fiction’s potential. I also write literary theory, and in that work I claim that American pulp fiction of a certain era had a kind of incredible revolutionary, specifically paperback revolutionary potential. And that something happened to that tradition.
And one of the things was Raymond Chandler. He took this incredible American novel that was arising and transformed it into a reactionary story of a perfect detective sent unironically down these mean streets. A man must go who is not me, whatever. And it’s a man who is not me. So, beginning there, are all the horrible reductive tropes of American suspense — violent stories, where the detective is a sort of fascist, like Batman in these movies today.
Hammett, in his first book Red Harvest, implicates his detective with the violence. I think The Op solved the murder on page 20 and he just stays around to get revenge. And then all sorts of bad things happen. And also, by the way, Hammett was a committed socialist who was arrested, put in jail, for not naming names, which he didn’t even know. He just did it for his pride, and because you weren’t supposed to rat on strangers. And he was put in jail. He never wrote again.
And Chandler didn’t write a book until he was my age. And before then he was a CEO of oil companies, every one which failed before the crash of 20. He was just a horrible CEO. And when the great depression happened, he looked at Hammett and just sort of stole the idea and transformed the whole genre. That’s stuff from my lecture.
Last question: Bruce Sterling, whom you served as a librarian when you were both working at Art Center, recently complained that no one today imagines the 22nd century. And this is understandable because the future gets closer and closer. In Sundogz, radical spacers have created a pioneer colony separate from earth. Since the space elevator was blown up in 2133, the Oan bubble has essentially given up hope that anything survived beyond its skin. How close are the spacers to us?
I’m not sure who us even is anymore. I live in Germany now. I recently was at a conference about cyberpunk at USC where the refreshing Claire L. Evans was speaking. And I noted that people were so dismal about culture here and rather hopeless. Even the cyberpunk writers themselves, the classics, like Bruce Sterling was there, and Rudy Rucker. They see — I think they’re half ashamed that their books helped make this world we live in seem cool. They are unhappy with how technology occurs today in our world.
I have said critically that I’m tired of everyone always saying science fiction is really about the present. Because to me it’s usually about the future. That’s one thing that basically defines it. But in this case I must say that I didn’t think when I was writing these Oan Bubble people, I didn’t think of the fact that we are all already in our bubbles. I do think that we are quite, in this place, in a kind of idea of our own little paradise — in our little bubble.
It’s so cornball-sounding. But in fact, outside of our bubbles there’s really nothing anymore. It’s just like this image a lot of our culture is carrying around of itself. I mean I don’t know if that’s true, but it seems that way to a lot of us. And maybe Sundogz, the Oan Bubble, will resonate for that reason.
But what happens in the story is that they’re trying to hide as well because they know that the surviving corporations of earth, if they find this incredible water world that’s hidden away in the Uranus system, that they will exploit it, eat all the fish, and destroy the place within years or within months. So they’re discovered in the story. And they have to try to keep that news from spreading. That’s sort of the plot of the first pages.
Ahh, I see. But it’s getting late. Maybe we’ll get to the Dog Question next time. Do people want to ask questions?