Physics for Amnesia: Horror Motifs in SF

“Physics for Amnesia: Horror Motifs in SF”
a talk given Thursday 8 May 2008
The Gresham College Symposium
“Science Fiction as a Literary Genre”

The remit I have been asked to address is broad, and I’m going to narrow it. I am going to eliminate from this discussion of “Horror Motifs in SF” any reference to that heavily populated category of tales in which supernatural figures or devices traditionally deemed horrific — vampires, werewolves, rings cursed by Egyptians, lamias, Liliths, Shes, Arks of the Covenant, ghosts, ravenous old gods — are translated into sf by some form of scientific explanation of their nature and origin. Over and above the convenience of eliminating at one stroke perhaps 90% of all sf stories that might be thought to contain some element of horror, there is a further consideration. If horror is to be described as the conveying of overwhelming affect, or (preferably) as an epiphany in which the true nature of things is grasped or recalled, then almost no traditional horror motif that has been coordinated into an sf frame will generate stories that could really be described as horror.

To rationalize horror is to tolerate it.

To explain vampirism, for instance, as an ancient mutation on human stock (or human stock as a mutation on the vampire) is to substitute history for revelation, dietary requirements for the desanguination of the soul. Good stories — good sequels, good sagas — can be written in this mode: but I think they are not horror.

So. Is there any form of horror capable of surviving exposure to forgiveness?

We need to get a running start. I would to like focus therefore on an sf novel published in the first decades of the last century. Like most sf novels, it is set in the future, and like most sf it displays the stigmata of the era in which it was written, a time when the trauma of World War One had intensified the ambivalence felt by many writers about the modernizing of the world. I do not believe this book has ever been described as horror.

We are in the year 2151, a century after the Second World War — fought between Germany and the Brotherhood of Man — has locked into a paralyzed stalemate which has persisted, entropically, ever since. A young chemist named Lyman de Forrest leads a team into a potash mine in Europe near the vast steel-coated impregnable city of Berlin, which continues to defy the rest of civilization. The mine itself had been subject a century earlier to a German gas attack, and is still shunned because of the poison which continues to seep from it and which has turned the surrounding region into “a valley of pestilence and death”. De Forrest hopes to dissipate this miasma with a device he has invented which applies “certain high-frequency electrical discharges” to the corrupt air. This sf solution seems to work. At the very lowest level of the now-accessible mine, however, De Forrest and his team discover a borehole out of which poison gas continues to seep from even further below. Beneath their feet, they can hear the sound of machinery. They neutralize the gas and drill downwards through the rock towards the sound. Eighty eighty metres down, the drill breaks through into a huge lower level. Gutteral shouts can be heard, so De Forrest and his team “heave . . . gas bombs” into the vacancy.

After two days, assuming nothing can remain alive down there, De Forrest descends the shaft alone; but the cable holding him snaps, and he falls several metres into the abysm, knocking himself unconscious. He awakens eventually in a huge and desolate cavern. It is dead silent in the bowels of the earth. The air is unnaturally cold. He must move or die, and forces himself to crawl through passage after passage, until he comes to a strange underworld barracks full of human corpses, great bulking creatures, all identical, their faces uniformly blanched. At the far end of this chamber he sees a desk, and a dead man in finery.
“The body was frozen. As I tumbled it stiffly back it fell from the chair exposing a ghastly face. I drew away in a creepy horror, for as I looked at the face of the corpse I suffered a sort of waking nightmare in which I imagined that I was gazing at my own dead countenance.”

In a kind of daze, De Forrest dresses himself in his Double’s strange clothing, which is woven from “cellulose silk”. He then discovers a document in German which identifies him in highly bureaucratic detail as a chemist named Armstadt, in the Imperial Office of Chemical Engineers. Fortunately, De Forrest speaks German with dreamlike fluency, and when troops finally arrive — it is at this point that the proto-Lovecraftian horror that has infused the tale changes into something else — he is able to impersonates Armstadt by faking a state of dazed amnesia. He is taken through a labyrinth of enclosed passages to a hospital, which is also underground, or far from the sun, and is soon released into the vast claustrophobic sunless hive of fortress Berlin. No one suspects him. No one in fact seems to know anyone else personally. He moves into his double’s flat, where he soon finds a map detailing the 60 levels of the catacombs, buried beneath the world, in which he has been imprisoned. He now explores the endless corridors of this termitarium, which contains nearly three hundred million inhabitants but seems infected by silence, by an uncanny vacancy. Every face he sees is blanched and blank and male.

“I now passed by miles of sleeping dormitories,” he tells us, “and, strikingly incongruous with the atmosphere of the place, huge assembly rooms which were labelled ‘Free Speech Halls’.”

But he is forbidden entry to these Halls, learning later that only memorized slogans can be spoken there, in unison. The population as a whole is divided into several physical types, running from huge Percheron-like workers with small brains up to slender intellectuals like Armstadt, with larger craniums. All members of each class are essentially identical. Workers — for whom the Free Speech Halls are intended — almost invariably speak in unison.

“I was walking in Utopia,” De Forrest concludes, “a nightmare at the end of man’s long dream — Utopia — Black Utopia — City of Endless Night. . . ”

De Forrest continues for some time his covert role of visitor to Utopia, in the course of which he learns that women are chattels segregated into two classes: breeders, who service those declared fit for paternity according to eugenic precepts; and painted whores, with names like Bertha 34 R 6, who occupy the Weimar-like Level of Free Women — another Orwellian tag, as their only freedom is to charge for sex. All life in Berlin is ordered according to the demands of a rigid hierarchy; information is strictly controlled; there are almost no books in the entire world (except for the Bible); non-blond races are deemed subhuman. The only hint of sun comes at an annual event featuring the current monarch, the mildly Caligula-like scion of two centuries of Hohenzollern rule; he is a living God, according to the Bible, which has been rewritten to incorporate this claim. In a scene of frozen grotesquerie, the living God celebrates his birthday under the pale fire of a fake but blinding sunbeam that for an instant pierces the endless night that shrouds the 300,000,000 walking dead.

The novelty of City of Endless Night, by the American writer Milo Hastings — first published in True Story Magazine in 1919, and in book form by Dodd, Mead (1920) — resides in its first 150 pages, as De Forrest discovers the nature of the world within Berlin. Though told in a style that — except for the introductory sequence — lacks most of the instruments that most traditional horror writers employ to convey a sense of immanent abomination, De Forrest’s narrative more than adequately conveys the message that Berlin is a perversion of the utopian principle, with its lightless catacombs choked to the brim by vacant-eyed monsters, its governance exercised by the kind of bureaucracy which would soon come to be described as Kafkaesque, and the top of the political hierarchy occupied by a mad godling who rules by virtue of a kind of Necronomicon. Nor is it possible to avoid thinking of De Forrest himself — a man whose human impulses are palsied by priggishness — as an impostor in a dead face. A traditional horror tale — a story devoted to the exposure of some pre-existing terrible truth about its protagonist — might sooner or later rip De Forrest’s false face off, force him fatally to recognize that he and Berlin are identically vacant; and City of Endless Night might conclude with the implosion of the false Berlin, like the Fall of an enormous House of Usher, upon the doppelganger within.

But Hastings moves away from any dread isomorphy of the outer and the inner life, away as well from the line H P Lovecraft might have taken a few years later, with Berlin replaced by the house of Cthulhu. The second half of City of Endless Night segues fairly tamely into an adventure thriller with a princess and derring-do and gnashing teeth and a magic submarine and a Great Escape and, after the good guys split, the routine collapse, like a house of cards, of a Berlin no longer capable of fomenting its deadly dream of modernization. The tiresome conventionality of this climax may have contributed to the book’s subsequent obscurity, and I do not know if any other twentieth century writer of note ever actually read or was directly influenced by City of Endless Night. But all the same Hastings’s novel does vividly prefigure two forms of the argued fantastic, or sf, which flourished during the twentieth century; I would like here to treat both of these categories — non-exclusively — in terms of horror.

The first category is the dystopia, a term which did not come into common use until J Max Patrick, whose seminal Utopia course I remember taking at New York University, re-coined it in 1952. City of Endless Night seems to be the first extended negative utopia to appear in English after the end of World War One, and it therefore stands at the head of the parade of aftermath dystopias which has so heavily marked the past hundred years. Prefigurations in this nightmare tale of Evgeny Zamiatin’s We (written 1920), of Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World (1932), and of George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949), are obvious enough not to need underlining here, though I might emphasis a similarity in the telling of the Hastings and the Orwell texts — over and above the astonishing Free Thought Halls. The first 150 pages of the Hastings, as we’ve suggested, and the whole of the Orwell, are told in a heightened, suffocated, heated narrative voice whose primary effect, beyond intensifying the tale, is to create a sense of almost weird apprehension that some terrible revelation is about to shatter our hearts. As we’ve seen, Hastings eventually shies away from deep immurement in his world, though Orwell, as we know, certainly does not: but perhaps we should note the specific element they do both share: that both can be read as terror, that form of horror which anticipates things to come: that both hint at some deadly sublimity within the workings of their tales, some devastation to the grammar of the world.

The second category is the Hitler Wins tale, Hitler Wins being a descriptive rubric first used in The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction in 1993. The glaring sans-serif monumentalism of Hastings’s Berlin clearly prefigures Fascist dreams of urban planning of the sort partially enacted by Albert Speer, and the racial and eugenic theories held by the Germans are conspicuously proto-Nazi, as is the bureaucratic exactitude with which these theories are imposed. Moreover, remarkably, City of Endless Night prefigures three central motifs dominant in the first genuine Hitler Wins novel to reach print, the nightmarish and terrifying Swastika Night (1937) by Katherine Burdekin writing as Murray Constantine: 1) the treatment of women as whore/ breeders; 2) the hellish duration of the regime, for in both novels the horror seems to stop time dead for centuries; and 3) the deification of the Fuhrer in terms specifically parodic of the Christian god.

Texts like Nineteen Eighty-Four or Swastika Night clearly express deep unease about the nature of change in recent history, change which Orwell and Burdekin narrate in modes it is fair to describe in terns of horror or terror; their texts are central to our understanding of how to grasp the history of our times. Milo Hastings (1884-1957), on the other hand, could not be described as a significant figure in his own right; he is of interest partly because he comes so early in twentieth century sf, and partly because his seeming ignorance of any inconsistencies or ambivalences in his work only exposes them the more clearly.

In 1910, Hastings was an enthusiastic modernizer in cahoots with Thomas Alva Edison, and eagerly publicized a proposal fathered by the eccentric urban planner Edgar Chambless to construct a web of great Linear Cities. These “Roadtowns” — continuous structures hundreds of miles long but only as broad as two shops placed side by side — would be built over monorail lines, and each individual Roadtown would connect with its mates at ganglion-like intersections, creating a spiderweb utopia capable of lacing the whole of America into one endless suburb with shops; only malcontents could possibly demur, Roadtown’s supporters, like Hastings, claimed. Less than a decade later, of course, he was describing a not entirely dissimilar dream of modernization as “a world of rigid mechanistic automatism”, a world he could only conceive of entering through proto-Lovecraftian passages of horror.

But the ambivalences soon surface. Any negative analysis of the new world is restricted in City of Endless Night to an accusation that the morally deficient rulers of Berlin have engaged in the wrong kind of modernization. The horrific and universal incessancy of the principles that transform Berlin, an incessancy Hastings conveys with very vividly in the first 150 pages, is personalized into Hohenzollern arrogance. Once Berlin is destroyed, as Hastings makes clear, the rest of the world is freed from paralysis, and becomes a paradise subject to endless transformation at the hands of men like his hero, the modernizer De Forrest, a figure readers a century later are likely to think of as monstrous, as a man who gasses unseen foes on a whim; as a moralizing prig responsible, in the end, for the cleansing of Berlin at a cost in lives Hastings leaves primly untold; as a developer.

But Hastings built better than perhaps he could possibly know. His terror at the face of the fully modern world (a terror he cannot properly narrate) is too vivid to forget, too saliently emblematic to ignore. In its inescapable concreteness, his image of the poisonous incessancy of Berlin provides us with a very early example of the Serpent’s Egg, a term only really useful when the planet is in view; it may roughly be defined as an image which condenses the future. I take the term from Ingmar Bergman’s underappreciated sf horror film of 1977, The Serpent’s Egg, which is also set in Berlin, and which also focuses on the sighting of a diseased destiny. Hastings’s and Bergman’s images of Berlin are aliquot samples of things to come, proleptic visions of planetary terror.

They are, I believe, good physics for amnesia.

“Genres,” Jonathan Lethem tells us in his introduction to The Vintage Book of Amnesia (2000), are like “false oases, only visible in the middle distance.” He then reveals his discovery of a brand new one, which he has uncovered in the course of assembling his anthology: the genre of “fiction that, more than presenting a character who’d suffered memory loss, enter[s] into an amnesiac state at some level of the narrative itself.” Lethem is clearly having fun here; but I think we should keep in mind something he obviously knows, that genres (or oases) are indeed useful devices if you keep your distance; that they are only false if you think they are real; that they are tools for seeing, but that they are not what we ultimately see.

Lethem’s own new found genre is a convenient heuristic tool, a light to read his selection of tales by, from the proper distance. I make the same claim about my own use of genre vocabularies; and would only add that my own preferred description of twenty-first century horror (or terror), as a form of wrestling with the amnesias that characterize our era, points exactly to the kind of amnesia fiction that Lethem properly excludes from his remit, as he is interested mainly in bodily horror, in stories about the cavitation of individual souls. After instancing the counter-examples of Orwell, Huxley and Zamiatin, he excludes from consideration any “version of amnesia” that “points to theories of social or institutional knowing and forgetting, to theorists and critics like Michel Foucault, Marshall McLuhan, Frederic Jameson, Alan Bloom, and G W S Trow.” I would add, to this short list of thinkers who have shaped my own intuitions, the name of Marshall Berman, author of All That Is Solid Melts Into Air: The Experience of Modernity (1982); any hints I may drop that I understand the modernizing of the world over the past two centuries, in terms that Goethe, Marx and Baudelaire may have used to articulate that process, are coloured by a recent reading of his unfailingly intelligent study.

My understanding of the literatures of the fantastic in general — what I like to call fantastika, for reasons of concision and point — is built from an assumption many of us share: that they begin to take on conscious and subversive shape somewhere between 1750 and 1800, a span of time during which the inhabitants of the West begin to understand that the world is in fact a planet, and begin almost immediately to develop the planet they have grasped. The world we who are their children can no longer affirm may have been sacred; the planet we have come to inhabit is a site.

The various genres of fantastika — gothic, supernatural, sf, fantasy, horror — dance attendance upon this brave new world, for it is inescapable. Sf can be seen as a set of melodramatic enactments of the transformation of the matter of things into manipulable information. Fantasy may be seen as a set of enraged enactments of the dream that the holy land can be recovered. Horror, the blanket term I started with, can be seen as a set of insider enactments of the fear that sooner or later we’re going to be fragged by the souls we have left behind. “The Fall of the House of Usher” (1839) by Edgar Allan Poe is perhaps therefore the paradigm horror story. I think the term may currently best describe the work of a writer like Stephen King, whose main subject is the encased soul, and whose stories test to the uttermost the blood body.

The central distinction for me between horror so described and contemporary terror is that, in the latter, the planet replaces the body. A paradigm tale of terror would therefore be something like “The Last Flight of Doctor Ain” (1972) by James Tiptree Jr. Terror, as I’ve been using the term here, dramatizes the struggle to remember ourselves and our history in a planet whose meaning for humans has been evacuated by the engines of incessant transformation. Terror is about the planetary amnesias that are disappearing our home. It is what City of Endless Night shies from embracing. It informs the dystopia, and the Hitler Wins story, and the tale of apocalypse or post-apocalypse or Ruined Earth, and any story written since the year 2000 or so which is set in the near future.

Physics? Or placebos?

A wrestling with planetary amnesia — whether or not articulated in such cartoonish terms — marks a recent novel like W G Sebald’s Austerlitz (2001), which I described at some length in a talk I gave last year called “Fantastika and the World Storm” (a version of this talk can be seen at, and a final version has been printed in Foundation  #102). In this tale about the psychic suicide of Europe after the Zero Hour of 1945, two protagonists search through edifice after edifice — prisons, castles, encampments, spas, rail termini, state libraries — in their search for a central epiphanic onrush of memory, some madeleine cake of anamnesis, which will recoup the true story of their lives as Europeans. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the edifice they are seeking within all the other edifices is Auschwitz. More interesting perhaps is the fact that the labyrinthine heart of each vast construction they visit is in fact a monument or tomb for something which is not there: Europe remembering itself through monuments whose exteriors proclaim sacred meanings but whose insides are empty of memory. The increasing terror they feel in their traversal of a Europe thus transformed into cenotaphs, a Europe built to lock absence from view, is a terror of amnesia we should be able to share whenever we enter a shopping mall, or read about Josef Fritzl.

A list of recent novels which evoke the cenotaph at the heart of planetary terror might include David Britton’s Lord Horror (1989) and its sequels, J G Ballard’s Super-Cannes (2000), William Gibson’s Pattern Recognition (2003), Thomas Pynchon’s Against the Day, or The Book of Dave by Will Self, or Michel Houellebecq’s The Possibility of an Island (all 2006); or Brian Aldiss’s HARM –almost a tale of body horror in its description of the British government’s torture of an innocent Muslim — or Jamestown by Matthew Sharpe, or The Carhullan Army by Sarah Hall (all 2007); or David Herter’s The Luminous Depths (2008), which sees the fate of Europe in 1942 as so terminal that the spiritus mundi cannot face continuing that far up the century.

These novels are haunted by and wrestle to make us perceive the meaning of our time: malls, monuments, Millennium Domes, motorways circling the husks of evacuated cities, war memorials to unfound soldiers, marriotts, camps, monitors: darkening gardens from which the salitter has drifted, salitter being a term that designates something like the quintessence of the salt of the earth, God-salt, the divine substance of God as expressed through the entities of the world. It is a word Cormac McCarthy uses in a stunning passage from The Road (2005), an sf tale of terminal planetary terror set in a world which is entirely cenotaphic; his protagonist sees

“Something imponderable shifting out there in the dark. The earth itself contracting with the cold. It did not come again. What time of year? What age the child? . . . The silence. The salitter drying from the earth. The mudstained shapes of flooded cities burned to the waterline. At a crossroads a ground set with dolmen stones where the spoken bones of oracles lay moldering. No sound but the wind. . . . He is coming to steal my eyes. To seal my mouth with dirt..”

But no one comes, of course. The silence of salitter drying from the earth condenses the future into one sight. There is no home. The mouth is sealed with dirt. Though the story wrestles with the void, there is no physic here.

The Serpent’s Egg of terror in 2008 is the cenotaph.

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