Wednesday, 27 April 2011

Ian Watson, Miracle Visitors (1978)

Or, Ian Watson, Critical Thoughts Part II (Part I is here).

Well, Miracle Visitors is superb. The story seems simple enough: comely young Michael Peacocke is abducted by a sexy alien in a glowing UFO over the Yorkshire Moors as a schoolboy; he recovers the memory of this encounter only later, under hypnosis by John Deacon, a scientist working with a ‘Consciousness Research Group’ at the ‘University of Granton’. Deacon becomes convinced that he has developed a new explanation for the larger UFO phenomenon, as a new mode of human consciousness rather than as actual alien spaceships from other stars; and investigating further he himself starts to see unidentified objects—a flying monster, a glowing ball of light that visits his house and decapitates his pet dog, and various other things. Deacon, Peacocke and an ex-USAF pilot called Shriver who specialises in hunting UFOs find themselves following an increasingly complicated extraterrestrial spoor: Peacocke’s girlfriend Suzie sees devils, and is harassed by some fairly incompetent Men in Black; Deacon is mysteriously transported to Egypt, where he meets a holy man; Peacocke himself is approached by bizarre-looking herbivorous aliens from Cassiopeia, who tell him that Deacon’s theories are right, UFO’s are a kind of materialised collective hallucination, or perhaps an emanation from the spiritus mundi, but that they—the Gebraudi—are not manifestations, and are rather actual EBEs, come to warn Earth of the terrible danger we are in, of which the UFO’s are a symptom. The plot and concepts involved get more complicatedly origami-folded as the book goes on—a genuinely impressive achievement, in terms of the structuring and pacing of the whole, I thought, since Watson never loses control of it. The complete novel demonstrates amazing aesthetic and conceptual coherence, despite being built around an ontology that is deliberately incoherent; repeatedly lurching adjustments of our sense of what is constituted by ‘reality’ à-la-Philip Dick, though Watson is a much better writer of English prose than PKD.

I haven’t read Ken McLeod’s Foundation article on the novel; but can only agree with him that “it's a puzzle why that novel fell off the radar”. It is a stone cold masterpiece. The thing I loved most about it, immediately upon finishing it, was the way it so boldly upended one of the major currents of SF as a mode of art—the move from uncertainty to knowledge, the problem that is solved, the engineer who draws the threads of the unknown and plaits them neatly into the Solved and the Certain. None of that shit. This is a novel that pounces upon the salient of the UFO experience in contemporary culture—its radical insolubility, the melty-crumbly nature of all the evidence deployed to back up the characters’ whacky stories.

Although, looking at it from another angle, it's not so hard to see why the novel has fallen off the radar. It denies SF fandom of many of the satisfactions many of them go to SF for. Plus UFO stories are infra dig as far as many SF bods are concerned. Certainly, many people just didn't like the book. For instance Nick Whyte (not an individual whose opinion I would carelessly discard) really hated it: “I thought this was a really silly book. Watson presents us with standard aliens out of UFO lore, combined with Jung's theory of UFO's (thus having his cake and eating it) and an Egyptian order of followers of Rūmī, and seems to take it all quite seriously and uncritically … Really one to avoid.” Now, I think this asssessment wrongheaded, but not because I disagree with its terms—on the contrary, I agree, this is a book centrally fascainted by the ‘silly’, and if Watson takes UFO lore ‘seriously’ he does so precisely in terms of its ‘silliness’.

The point, I'd say, is this: this is a novel that takes the uncertainty of the UFO experience not only as experientially radical (which I think is right) but as ontologically radical too. As Watson’s Sheikh Muradi puts it: ‘the bridge of science is supported by ninety-nine legs, which is enough for almost perfect stability—for practical purposes. There should still be another leg. Or perhaps there are already nine hundred and ninety-nine legs. There should still be another … the miracle leg, which is outside explanation.’ [93] For Muradi, this integral supercession is incarnated as an individual called ‘Khidr’—an actual, Qu'ranic Islamic individual, of course, but also a major character in the novel, actually. But the book also renders this in terms of the physics, or metaphysics, of the cosmos. It is a sort of material incompleteness theorem: ‘scientists of the very large must leave out the very tiny. Scientists of the very tiny must leave out the force that holds the stars together. This is necessary to reality. It isn’t a mere temporary shortcoming. If the whole world was known, it would cease to be’ [94]. At the novel’s end a key character is granted a vision of the nature of reality, the spatio-temporal cosmos spun out of and disappearing into the timeless non-spatial void. How does this universe sustain itself? ‘’By the split of subject from object, or observer from observed—which brought about cause and effect, and natural laws. By the indeterminacy of fundamental events. By the inaccessibility of light-years: whereby light, which allowed observation, at the same time denied it. … How did it rejoin the Void? By the very same process. For al these inaccessibilities caused a fierce suction towards ever higher patterns of organisation.’ [200-01] Watson posits the cosmos as ‘an immense simulation, of itself by itself’; I’ve come across this idea in other places, but I don’t know how many predate Miracle Visitors. On the other hand, the reason why ‘miracles’ are a needful part of this process made me wonder if the Wachowski brothers knew this novel; the two Matrix sequels play a similar conceptual game, the notion that the matrix simulation only maintains its coherence as a flawed, unbalanced equation, Canoe Reeves’ ‘the One’ being the miraculous, physical sum of the remainder of that flaw. Watson’s novel suggests that without radically inexplicable events, his titular ‘miracles’, the universe would ‘simulate itself perfectly’ and accordingly would ‘cease to be’.

I liked this very much; it strikes me as both ingenious and deep. More: the Wachowskis render their derived version of this idea in terms of kung-fu and superhero logics (the ‘excess’ that Canoe’s ‘the one’ manifests frankly supernatural abilities, what with his fists of steel and superman shenanigans). Watson reaches for a different idiom: Romanticism. This struck me as both classier, and more effective—connecting the novel to the philosophical debates of the Romantic Sublime both conceptually and formally. Peacocke’s initial UFO encounter includes various details and names from William Blake’s prophetic poetry, and the epigraph to the novel is quoted from The Four Zoas:
aghast the Children of Man
Stood on the infinite Earth & saw these visions in the air,
But many stood silent, & busied in their families.
And many said, "We see no Visions in the darksom air.
"Measure the course of that sulphur orb that lights the darksom day;
"Set stations on this breeding Earth & let us buy & sell." (1: 121-29)

Mighty was the draught of Voidness to draw Existence in. (II. 11-18)
These relate on the level of content to the things that happen in the novel, but also point to a carefully worked-through formal structure (four key characters embodying different flavours of ‘zoaic’ life, a broadly four-part narrative structure). And there are lots of specific echoes and allusions and quotations, that point in particular, and appropriately enough, to fragmentary Romanticism. Here’s a chunk of Keats’s incomplete Hyperion:
He enter’d, but he enter’d full of wrath;
His flaming robes stream’d out beyond his heels,
And gave a roar, as if of earthly fire,
That scar’d away the meek ethereal Hours
And made their dove-wings tremble. On he flared,
From stately nave to nave, from vault to vault,
Through bowers of fragrant and enwreathed light,
And diamond-paved lustrous long arcades,
Until he reach’d the great main cupola;
This also has parallels in Watson’s book, from the larger storyline—the flaring journey of a space car to the moon, to meet aliens in their brilliant cupola—to little touches: that ‘on he flared’a—the last words of Keats’s incomplete revision “The Fall of Hyperion”—are alluded to not once (the end of chapter 13 is the single sentence paragraph: ‘on she fled’, 90) but twice (‘On sped the Thunderbird’, 111). I know the Romantic period pretty well, and I spotted scores and scores of echoes and allusions like this as I read; a systematic study would surely identify many more. The point, though, is that Watson is reconfiguring the ‘sublime’ excess of Romantic poetry, formally and conceptually, as science fiction; plugging the roots of the genre (to be found, according to one, popular critical narrative, in Romantic popular-sublime Gothicism) into contemporary cultural manifestations of precisely an ontological inherent fragmentariness or incompletion. It’s refreshing. UFO narratives have long been infra dig as far as mainstream SF culture goes; perhaps because the phenomenon is so resistant to the satisfactions of scientifically rigorous closure. Watson very niftily makes a virtue of this necessity, captures the flavour of UFO cultural weirdness and harnesses it to some brilliant thought experimenting.


Al R said...

"UFO narratives have long been infra dig as far as mainstream SF culture goes"

My recollection is that Miracle Visitors was one of David Pringle's 100 Best Science Fiction novels, which was pretty much my roadmap into serious SF reading in the mid-eighties. But of Watson's earlier novels it's one I avoided, simply because of a strong aversion to the UFO theme.

I'm still patchy on the novels as a whole, but I think I've read all the collections, and I'd agree that Watson merits more discussion and recognition than seems to be the case at the moment. Alien Embassy blew the top of my head off, and his story "The Emir's Clock" is mind-wrenchingly good.

umberto rossi said...

While I don't give a damn about UFOs, I find this novel a serious candidate to being Watson's masterpiece... as good as Alien Embassy, maybe even better, and luckily less bleak and dystopian.