Purple Magazine
— F/W 2012 issue 18

Metaphysics and Fiction about the Worlds Beyond Science

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essay by QUENTIN MEILLASSOUX
illustration by GIANNI OPRANDI

 

According to Gilles Deleuze, true philosophers create new concepts and open new perspectives on the present. QUENTIN MEILLASSOUX is one of them. In this text, he explains his hypothesis of a new kind of science fiction, called “Fiction Beyond Science.” This revolutionary idea challenges the vision of the future: a world no longer controlled by the domination of science.

This text was originally transcribed from a lecture given on May 18, 2006, at the Ecole Normale Supérieure (Paris-Ulm). It was first published in French as Métaphysique et fiction des mondes hors-sciences by Aux Forges de Vulcain, Paris, 2012. This shortened version is translated by Sara Sugihara.

I plan to present in this lecture the difference between two kinds of fiction, which are both important from a metaphysical point of view. The two varieties deal with experimental science, and I will give them two names, one of which is quite well-known and the other I have invented: science fiction (SF) is the first and the second is what I call “Fiction Beyond Science” (FBS).

[…]

My thesis is that these FBS novels, if they exist — even though they are technically part of the SF genre — are actually quite distinct from regular science fiction and should be singled out: they are their own genre within the genre, an “empire inside another empire.”

I. Fiction beyond science and science fiction.

Let us examine the differences between the two genres, SF and FBS.
The relationship of fiction to the science in science fiction generally seems to be about imagining a fictitious future of science, which modifies — often expanding significantly — the possibilities of our knowledge and our command of what is real. The relationship of Man to the world is then changed because of this modification of scientific knowledge, which in turn creates new possibilities. These future possibilities, however earth shattering they may be, stay, as science fiction, within the orb of science. All of science fiction implicitly supports this axiom: in the anticipated future there is still the possibility of subjecting the world to scientific knowledge. Science will be metamorphosed by its new power, but it will still exist as such. This, of course, explains the generic name for this literary genre: fiction may produce extreme variations, but it is still part of a science which is always present, even though it is not always recognizable.

So what do we mean by “fiction about the worlds outside science,” or “fiction beyond science?” By the term “world beyond science,” we are not speaking of worlds deprived of science, in other words, worlds in which experimental sciences do not exist, for example, worlds in which Man has not, or not yet, developed a scientific relationship to what is real. And by “world beyond science,” we mean worlds where experimental science is legally not possible, but not unknown. Therefore fiction beyond science is defined as that particular area of the imagination in which one conceives of structured — or deconstructed — worlds, in which experimental science can neither deploy its theories nor form its objects. The main question of FBS is: what would a world be like, what would
it look like, if it were not entitled to access to scientific knowledge, if it could not be established as the object of a natural science?

[…]

II. The possibility of worlds beyond science

[…]

We can think of three types of worlds beyond science, of which one corresponds to what Kant described and of which the two others derogate from his imagination:

a. Worlds which we shall call Type 1: these are all the possible worlds that are irregular, but not enough to seriously affect science as conscience. They are the worlds that are not literally beyond science because they allow it to be used, to exist. But they are worlds that would contradict the thesis positing the strict necessity of laws as a condition for the possibility of science as well as of conscience.

These worlds allow for events seemingly without cause, but whose application is too rare, too “spasmodic” to endanger science as conscience: these events would consist of observable causal breaks, which are impossible to re-create in a regular fashion.

[…]

b. Type 2 worlds: these are the worlds in which irregularities are enough to abolish science, but not conscience. And they are the real worlds beyond science.

In these worlds, there would no longer be any event spheres preserved from the a-causal disorder. Laboratory experiments would give the most diverse results, abolishing the possibility of constituting a natural science.
But in this kind of world there is a supreme inconsistency: daily life might still consist of quite relative stabilities, strong enough to allow for conscious existence. This would be a world in which there would be certain accidents, sudden “skidding off the road” of material objects, too rare to effectively destroy all human life, but also too rare to allow for repeatable scientific experimentation or explanation. A world whose margins would be somewhat capricious, but without any hidden agenda in that caprice — a world in which one would have to keep a chronicle of these and other things. We would say, assuming we expressed ourselves with the vocabulary of our own theories: “from this date to this other date, “laboratory” nature ceased to be relativist, regressing toward a more Newtonian dynamic,” or: “from such and such a date to such and such a date, there was instead a veritable renewal of quantum physics, but especially in the laboratories of the Southern Hemisphere,” etc. We would no longer be able to separate the universal laws — the truly scientific ones — from the course of nature, only record the variations of actions that many diverse theories, valid only at specific times and places, might be able to describe.

But let us be even more precise: in reality, no manifest irregularity can ever suffice to show that there is no hidden law underlying the apparent disorder. Whatever this manifest disorder may be, one may find there, as Bergson said after Leibniz, an unknown order, or one that does not correspond to what we expect. One might, in a world beyond science, imagine that a hidden law exists, underlying the apparent disorder of these nature chronicles. But it would be a world in which those who insist on looking for such a secret law underlying the absurd variations of nature would seem as farfetched and vain as those who are still trying, in our own world, to find a quantitative law likely to explain and predict the course of human history.
In such a world, to use our previous metaphor of “accidents,” we would be in the middle of many strange objects, a little like a driver in the midst of many other vehicles: we could build on a reasonable action of the real, but we would never exclude an absurd action of nature, as we would not be so surprised to encounter a driver who did not respect the driver’s code of conduct. A heightened vigilance would be the result, one that is likely to slip from time to time but that is in general “regular.” Road accidents can be subjected to the laws of frequency, and it is of course these frequencies upon which our vigilance may intuitively build, even when we do not have immediately at hand the exact percentages of risk analysis. It is the same in Type 2 situations: the plausibility of real action should be sufficient to establish general empirical statistics, to act upon them, and to live with them, although perhaps in a painfully uncertain fashion — since general frequency does not exclude devastating exceptions. Natural regularity would be analogous to social regularity: stable enough to allow for daily existence, but too unpredictable to allow for exact predictions or to avoid sudden catastrophe.

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But to grant a certain “statistical” constancy to the world of Type 2, would that not be, in spite of everything, also to admit that a beginning of natural science — whether only frequent and embryonic — might still be possible? In order for the analogy between the two regularities — the nature of Type 2 and society — to be more precise, thereby allowing us to conceive of a world not subject to any experimental science, it is necessary to add a historical dimension. Let’s suppose that a man in the late 18th century tried to evaluate the approximate frequency of horse-drawn carriage accidents in the Paris of his time. If this man had known that the number of horse-drawn carriage accidents in 21st century Paris would be very close to zero, he might deduce that the progress in horse security had become extraordinary from one century to the next. But the fact is that he could not have predicted the near-complete extinction of horse-drawn carriages and their replacement by a means of transport that did not exist during his time. Social regularity allows us to build, in the short and medium term, on the quantifiable probability of the actions of others, in spite of its individual unpredictability, which goes hand in hand with the possibility of a historical change on a major scale: an unpredictable change in the deeper sense, because this time it is impossible to subject it to any quantitative law. And yet, these changes from another time, impossible to attribute to the causal laws of the experimental type, did not suppress all traces of social regularity, even during times of historical upheavals, and the transitions from one era to another. We could also say, in the same fashion, that the “men” of the worlds of Type 2 would know that the “changes of natural eras” are linked to the progressive transformation of daily constants — but are radically unpredictable, eluding any frequency studies. But this time, contrary to what we might guess about historical change, these transformations would be entirely without attestable causes: they would introduce “epochs” into nature whose long-term modifications would be added to the short-term “rumblings of things.” In this world, events without cause would create — against all healthy probability — strange, moving regularities, in which Man would try as best he could to continue his individual existence.

In short: such a nature, which is capable of such marginal caprices and epochal modifications, is effectively plausible — and with it a social unbonding of the conditions of possibility in science and of conscience. A world under which the conditions of science would disappear is not necessarily a world in which the conditions of consciousness would also be abolished. Consciousness without science is not the ruin of thought.

c. Finally, the third type of universe, deprived of necessary law, would not really be a world at all: it would be a universe in which disordered modifications would be so frequent, that as in the example described in Kant’s objective deduction, conditions of science like those of consciousness would be abolished.

[…]

My idea is to examine the “literary” interest of these worlds beyond science, given that they do not come from the same imagination that gives us science fiction. Can we conceive of FBS as a storytelling genre that might compete with SF?

III. Fiction beyond science and narration

Can there be novels in the FBS genre, and, if so, under what conditions? In fact are there not already novels in this genre, branded as “science fiction” but that really belong to a different genre?
a. Three processes

The difficulty in developing FBS novels — which at first would seem to condemn them as isolated singularities — is that we would depart from what is normally banned from narration: not only the purely arbitrary, but the arbitrary that may repeat itself at any moment. If the science fiction reader is prepared to grant these novels certain fantastic departure postulates, he or she also demands that the writer stick closely to these postulates and not introduce into the world(s) he has created unreasonable, unexplainable ruptures, which would seriously diminish any interest in the narration in any case. We need to understand that if Hume’s hypothesis were ever to take place in a world, events would exist that are engendered by nothing, events would happen ex nihilo (out of nothing). We would have to imagine a change in laws that is not itself engendered by a law or caused by a superior order, in which case we would still be in a world governed by constants and/or by a specific rationality, whether by physical constants or by demiurgical or even divine rationality. Transposed into the framework of a story, it would be like introducing gratuitous caesurae here and there, which remain inexplicable by the series of events that are recounted. In other words, the mistakes of the novice narrator become ontologically founded and characteristic of the genre. So how can we build a story in this situation? Is there an interest in following the adventures of an FBS 2 world?

Let us understand what precisely would go into an FBS story. It would have to fulfill two criteria: a) things happen that no “logic” can explain, real or imaginary; b) the question of science is present, although in a mostly negative perspective. We would be dealing with a world in which science is suddenly impossible or is becoming impossible, either entirely or partially (in whichever discipline: chemical, physical, biological) 1. Or, an even more radical possibility would be that we present a world in which science, having always been excluded because of the frequency of its aberrant events, continues to haunt the universe so that its absence is intensely felt. These two characteristics suffice to distinguish FBS from heroic fantasy or from Lewis Carroll-esque nonsense. In these two genres, science does not appear as something missing, because it is replaced by another logic or a different regime of phenomena that saturate the tale and its situations and which intrinsically create a certain coherence: either the magic of a proto-medieval world as in a heroic fantasy, or the paradox and parody as in the Alice novels. FBS novels do not have this “heterodoxical continuity”: they do not offer any exchangeable coherence, and they are often constrained to destroy the fabric of their plotlines with breaks and unjustified strangeness, while still needing to build a story around these continuous hiccups.

To deal with this difficulty, it seems to me that there are three kinds of solutions, but my list is hardly exhaustive. These solutions (which we may interpret as “resolutions” and “continuity solutions”), I have found in three SF stories thanks to the erudite assistance of Tristan Garcia, but only in sketch form, because these novels — precisely because they are “science fiction” — finish each time by incorporating apparently absurd events in a revived causal logic. We do encounter the possibility and idea of SF exploited by FBS, to the point where the story — instead of returning to the bosom of causality like the examples I will cite — may finally change literary genres.

1. The first solution would be to introduce a single rupture, a single physical catastrophe, which from one moment to the next would plunge the protagonists into a world where this inexplicable phenomenon happens.

Darwinia 2, by Robert Charles Wilson, presents an opening sequence similar to this: in March of 1912 Europe and its inhabitants disappear overnight, leaving behind a continent of exactly the same shape but inhabited by an entirely unknown flora and fauna, like an alternate result of ancestral evolution. This event defeats all scientific explanation, particularly the Darwinian ones, hence the ironic name of “Darwinia” is given to the new continent. And the meaning of the catastrophe is finally revealed: the Earth where this substitution took place is not our planet but an Archive of Earth that is engendered by a sort of galactic noosphere (a sphere of human thought) — the sum of all living beings in their most evolved state — which seeks to deepen the memory of its own past, striving to resist the thermal death threatening the entire Universe. It is this Archive of Earth, which a machinic (non-human) and malevolent form has tried violently to change, seeking favorable terrain for its destructive incarnation. The characters find that they are archives, equipped with consciousness, who have faced the partial erasure of their own data.

2. A second solution: create multiple ruptures and create a form of nonsense, veering more toward the pure gag rather than the subtle paradoxes presented by Lewis Carroll. We can in fact adapt to multiple arbitrary events, more than to a single catastrophe, if the writer uses them to produce unexpected and absurd situations. In fact the Type 2 worlds have a certain vis comica (comic power), a certain exploitable, even burlesque power.

Here I will refer to The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams, a droll, psychedelic, beatnik SF novel, in which there is the delightful Infinite Improbability Drive: a machine that produces at will the most absurd events, which can transform missiles into pots of petunias or into a meditative sperm whale, all the while falling toward the closest planet. But it is a machine that is still subject to the laws of chance (it produces infinite “improbabilities”), and the drive was invented with the help of a probabilistic thought process. A process, if it is as joke-filled as the novel, which is still quite coherent 3. Finally, the machine can be started and stopped at will, like any other machine; so it is not associated with events that do not have a cause, which are by definition uncontrollable.

3. The third solution: novels of uncertain reality, in which reality splits into pieces, progressively becoming less and less familiar to us. As in the burlesque solution, this kind of story would multiply the breaks and changes, following a progressive through-line of oppressive disintegration.

Now let us look at one of Philip K. Dick’s masterpieces, Ubik 4, in which reality escapes little by little from its structure and coherency. In the novel, the characters have to face two different series of events, which conflict with the laws of physics and are subject to two heterogenous sets of “logic.” On one hand, things and people are aging or regressing — the phone book is suddenly out of date, coins currently in use turn into those of another time, plants wilt as soon as they are purchased, the body of a young woman is mummified overnight. On the other hand, the portrait or the image of a recently assassinated man is found in bizarre places and situations: his face appears on coins, his name is written on matchboxes or spoken on television. This deconstruction of the world creates a terrifying, nightmarish ambience, which happens to work, just as well as the burlesque stuff does, in the Type 2 worlds of FBS. However, again there is a causal explanation for these events. It turns out that there is a psychic world of individuals who discover that they have been assassinated, that they are living a cryogenically maintained “half-life,” slowly being devoured by an adolescent who is in a coma, and endowed with frightening mental powers.

So, there are three solutions for possible FBS novels: sudden catastrophe, the burlesque nonsense, and a nagging uncertainty in a novel of ambience. But each time these little beyond-science beginnings are caught up in a heterodoxical process of cause and reason, which is characteristic of SF narration.

b. An FBS prototype

I finally found a real FBS novel, wrongly classified as science fiction, Ravage 5 by René Barjavel, which proves on its own that this literary genre can indeed exist and even be successful in the long term.
As in the previous examples, Ravage starts off in an SF context, which it immediately screws up with an impossible logic. But unlike the three other aforementioned novels, it is not wrapped up at the end with a logical explanation, which would bring it right back into the science fiction department.
In this story, which takes place in 2052, electricity ceases to exist from one day to the next, or at least it seems to. But, remarkably, Barjavel does not try to explain the phenomenon: he only describes its cataclysmic consequences in Paris and in France, as well as the way the hero and the principal protagonists try to survive it. The characters present theological and scientific hypotheses about the disappearance of electricity (divine punishment, sunspots?), but nothing confirms their guesses, which are in any case rather sketchy. What is important are the destructive effects of this event on the “Ville Haute” (a part of Paris dominated by giant towers): fires, falling spaceships, a lack of water, scenes of panic, pillaging. And these catastrophes spread throughout the country, which the narrator describes as the principal characters are fleeing the cities. Barjavel’s talent is to make the story so suspenseful that the reader doesn’t have the time or the wherewithal to ask about the nature of the phenomenon or the characters, overwhelmed by the unexpected consequences of electrical annihilation.

The two principal theses about this event reveal their basic ignorance, while advancing hypotheses typical of an FBS 2 world. The first is delivered by Professor Portin, an exemplary, even famous but fallen individual. He speaks in the street to a crowd, which, caught in its own panic, recognizes him and tramples him to death shortly afterward. “It is by violating all the laws of Nature and logic that the electricity has disappeared. And dead electricity is even more unlikely than the fact that we are alive. It’s all crazy. It is an anti-scientific, anti-rational nightmare. All our theories, all our laws are reversed.” 6 The second theory is delivered to the hero by Doctor Fauque, who, in the novel, personifies an element of “good sense,” which is maintained at the center of the disaster: “But the electricity has not disappeared, my young friend. If it had disappeared, we would not exist, we would be returned to the void, us and the universe… What is happening is a change in the manifestations of electrical fluid… Is it a caprice of Nature, a warning from God? We live in a universe which we believe is immutable, because we have always seen it obeying the same laws, but that doesn’t mean that everything may not change suddenly, that sugar becomes bitter, lead becomes feather-light, rocks sail high as opposed to falling when the hand throws them. My friend, we are nothing, we know nothing.” 7

So nothing is excluded, all hypotheses are maintained by these declarations, which are neither corroborated nor invalidated by a narrator, whether they are a scientific aberration or a caprice of nature, which does not exclude the intervention of a still-unknown rational order. As I’ve noted, it is pretty much impossible, in an FBS 2 world, to formally exclude the presence of laws, since, as Leibniz reminds us regarding the “sudden miracle,” apparently contradicting the idea of a Providence premeditated by God, all accidents seeming to belong to a given order are legally compatible with the existence of a more complex order 8. Even the idea of an explanation is essentially worthless, as is the fact that the inhabitants of this world are consumed by the vagaries of an environment that has become both unpredictable and unrecognizable.

We know that this novel, finished in 1942 and published in 1943, reminds us painfully of the “return to the land” as promised by Pétain during those years. The novel is transparent in this sense: the city and its giant towers represent a Babylon, a corrupt city, opposed by the morally pure man of the country, from Provence, whose very name is rather patriotic: “François Deschamps” (literally, “François of the fields”). The suppression of electricity and of its science is not presented as an unequivocal disaster; on the contrary, it is perceived as a regeneration. Ravage is an ambiguous title; it is a word that never appears in the novel and may designate the effects of a declining civilization, the seism of its collapse. Deschamps, after having led an exodus at the head of a group of escapees, returns to his native soil to found a rural community in which a healthy ignorance keeps the inhabitants from returning to corrupted knowledge.

We understand that Barjavel’s manner of going beyond science fiction emerged from a broad political landscape, which was hostile to science because it was hostile to all of modernity. I looked for and found another possible reactionary source for the novel, Léon Daudet’s Le Stupide XIXe Siècle (The Stupid 19th Century). In this
well-known 1922 pamphlet, the polemicist of Action Française attempted to rip apart the conquests of the previous century — political, but also artistic and scientific — which, in his eyes, were unworthy and lame. In order to significantly devalue the science of that time, Daudet dug into the most extreme depths of his disdain, in two parts: a) science has always existed: sailing, the weaving of cloth, making bread, making wine — all these traditional techniques are already part of science, in fact they are “essential and consubstantial to civilized existence,” but b) none of the discoveries of the 19th century has the same character of “permanence and consubstantiality.” In other words, Daudet considered these very recent discoveries as precarious because they were somehow outside the factual base of our civilization, his point being that “we feel that the science of electricity could fizzle and then disappear by an intellectual short circuit, like electricity itself.” 9 Whether or not Barjavel read this rant, we see that the idea and the barely disguised fantasy of the disappearance of modern science, symbolized by electricity, had already been in the air — or in the air in certain areas — for at least 20 years.

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We must not ignore this less-than-glorious context for this FBS 2 tale. But we may add that a successful book goes beyond the sum of the prejudices of its time and of its writer. But what makes Ravage an adventure novel more interesting than its reactionary concepts, is that Barjavel, wisely, never actually explains the reason for the cataclysm, he does not interpret the phenomenon according to his own ideological preferences. The fact that science remains possible is shown at the end, when a certain Denis Papin reinvents the steam engine and is assassinated for this “crime” by Deschamps, now the patriarch of the non-science clan. The possibility of knowledge also exists, as a threat — the possible rediscovery of the laws of nature or even the reinvention of electricity. Divine punishment is also not excluded, given the rather Biblical aspect of the event as narrated — nor is it ever confirmed. A pure “caprice of nature” remains another possibility, overshadowing the doomed world with its ultimate absurdity.

The novel is remarkable because it also transposes into nature a timely historical catastrophe, the debacle of May 1940 (the invasion of Belgium, France and Paris) as well as one of the events that followed it: the blackout imposed on Occupied Paris starting at 4:00 PM daily. This ties in with the comparison I posit between the Type 2 world and the radicality of historical unpredictabilities: the soft ground of the vanquished nation is transfigured into the soft soil of a changing nature. The political idiocy of the plot hardly matters: it cannot cancel out the originality of the story, which is an authentic example of FBS, a commanding story in a world without substance.

* * *

It would seem to be a good idea that FBS become its own genre, as it has several processes capable of supporting narration in spite of the rampant disorder of the world(s) it depicts; it also possesses a real prototype that already conforms to the requirements I have laid out. But can this genre go beyond the realm — honorable, but limited — of the adventure novel and a young audience? It seems to be that we should be able to go further: starting off with traditional science fiction, changing it into the beyond-science world, and continuing the process of “degradation” toward a world which is less and less inhabitable, making the story itself progressively more impossible, isolating a few individuals who cling to their very lives.

Life becomes an auto-administered mental experiment without science, but in this widening gap we may find something unexpected concerning one or the other. An eidetic variation pushed to suffocation — self-experimentation in a world in which experimentation does not exist, a precarious intensity plunging infinitely into a pure solitude, with no environment other than a small pile of rocks, in order to explore the truth of an existence without a world.


1 Given that it is absurd that science might survive only “partially,” without being somewhat affected by the destruction of one of its domains: that it maintain itself partially without maintaining itself fully is another way of saying that it is completely falling apart in general.
2 TOR, 1998.
3 Adams explains that they only knew how to create finite probability drives when a student — who used to sweep the lab where the experiments took place — had the idea of calculating the finite probability of an infinite improbability drive. Which was great, and the student in question was first congratulated, then lynched by the respectable physicists who were jealous of his success (p. 116-118).
4 Doubleday, 1969.
5 English edition, Ashes, ashes, Doubleday, 1967.
6 Translated from Ravages, Gallimard, 1996.
7 Translated from Ravages, Gallimard, 1996.
8 Critique de la raison pure (A 100-101).
9 Léon Daudet, Le Stupide XIXe Siècle, in Souvenirs et Polémiques, Robert Laffont, 1992, p. 1191.

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F/W 2012 issue 18

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