An Interview with Jacek Dukaj: The Current Acceleration is a Precursor to Even Stronger Ones
#language & literature
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One of Poland’s premier science fiction writers, Jacek Dukaj, discusses how the COVID-19 pandemic has changed the world – and the ways it could change even more. With the recent publication of his latest book, ‘Imperium Chmur’ (Empire of Clouds), he also reflects on the state of being a writer today, his creative process as well as his upcoming and ongoing projects.
Rafał Andrzejczyk (RA): Before the pandemic, we might have had the impression we were living in a slightly milder spin-off of your ‘Czarne Oceany’ (Black Oceans) – a world of hypercapitalism, celebrity worship and widespread, voluntary surveillance. Another literary reference that comes to mind is ‘Linia Oporu’ (Line of Resistance) from the short story collection ‘Król Bólu’ (King of Pain). Has the crisis distanced us from the velvet hell of procrastination that you describe there? Now, the pandemic has altered the course of history, as you write in your essay ‘Tak Wymienia Się Rdzeń Duszy’ (This Is How the Soul’s Core Is Replaced), published in May 2020. After the recent turbulent weeks, has anything changed in the way you perceive the situation? If you were forced to make an assessment, what would you say (most likely) awaits us in the next two or three years?
Jacek Dukaj (JD): Two or three years isn’t the future, just an extension of the present. The EU budget is planned for seven-year periods. Public investment is planned five to 10 years ahead. The production cycle of a film is two to four years, and of a video game – sometimes six to eight. None of the frontier models to which you refer have a chance of being realised in this timeframe.
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The upcoming months and years will be, above all, a normalisation of changes resulting from the acceleration brought by the virus. Note that the processes which have been accelerated, even before were at least partly opposed, so it isn’t possible to sum up these changes in one neat slogan. For many years, people have been describing a clash between two civilisational and cultural models in the West as well as a clash between the West and the Chinese model; now, these tensions have been accommodated by the mass imagination. For many years, people have also been talking about the growing influence of the giants of the Digital World, influence distorting the very playing field for democratic politics and ending the era of freedom of speech. Now we can just see more clearly what the end result is: the desubjectification of man. An individual gradually loses the ability to make rational decisions, to narrate his own life; the human agency no longer matters.
I would never use literary visions as a substitute for foresight. They serve to show the extremes of ideas, to model liminal situations, to work out a language for the conversations of laypeople. In my political and economic analyses, I rely on long-term trends, and over time, I’ve been focusing more intensively on the trends of ideas than numbers.
RA: You recently rereleased ‘The Old Axolotl’ (originally: Starość Aksolotla) – the impetus was given by the premiere in May of a Netflix series based on this short novel, but the coincidental alignment of what you describe and the current global crisis is clear. Not when it comes to the size of the apocalypse – the one in the book is incomparably larger – but a similar mechanism triggers the crisis: the protagonists of ‘The Old Axolotl’ must reformulate their axioms and challenges for a new type of life in which their biological nature is just another variable and not at all the most important one. After the first wave of the pandemic, we, too, found ourselves in a situation somewhat like that of these mechas, transformers with human consciousness transferred into mechanical bodies: we can’t see each other’s faces behind masks, so we can’t recognise emotions, we can’t touch each other or feel touched by others. After the experience of recent months, would you write ‘The Old Axolotl’ differently today? What surprised you the most in the reactions to the pandemic, both in Poland and worldwide?
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JD: The ease of radical changes of values on the scale of entire societies.
It seems to me that the coronavirus pandemic will be remembered from the perspective of the entire history of the 21st century as a test for great cultural, economic and political revolutions. Even if it was not planned this way, governments and corporations have learned a great deal by observing the reactions of people, institutions and markets. For this reason, too, I think that the current acceleration is a precursor to even stronger accelerations. They’ve learned that it’s possible to do things like these, and they won’t hesitate to use this knowledge.
Stories such as The Old Axolotl that model an ‘escape from the body’ are born out of a sense of progress as a process of ‘de-animalising’ human beings through science. This has its origin in the pre-Enlightenment intuition of ‘liberation from nature’. For one of the last shackles of nature is corporeality itself, the limitations of our physicality. And so, what remains in the end should be a kind of pure spirit. The current era captures it in the language of digital technologies – this is almost the religion of Silicon Valley.
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And the more we rely on technology built towards such an ideal, the more deeply we accept the values represented by that ideal. After months of life reduced to contact through digital media, we also long for a return to ‘corporeal normality’ – and at the same time, we have a much better understanding of how the life of a ‘pure spirit’ is possible, liberated from the prison of physicality by technology.
RA: Readers have been saying that you ‘no longer write’, but this seems like an exaggeration. If anything’s missing here, it’s a lengthy epic in the spirit and size of ‘Inne Pieśni’ (Other Songs) or ‘Lód’ (Ice) [coming to English readers soon, thanks to translator Ursula Phillips]. Can a sci-fi writer in the 21st century still write in this convention, or does he prefer to ‘write his novels in the world’ – that is to say, be active where he can have the greatest cultural impact (business, VOD)? What’s it like in your case?
JD: You’re demanding from me a self-awareness I don’t possess. You assume that there’s a plan. That I have a narrative in my mind about my life and work that goes on for years to come.
We’ve become accustomed to such narratives about writers because writers, themselves, willingly create and propagate such narratives in the media. To a large extent, this is due to the subordination of books to the media that make the experience of reading obsolete. For it’s much more important how a book functions in the mediasphere (or even in the memosphere) than what kind of reading experience it offers – for very few will experience it compared to all those who will submerse themselves in audiovisual emanations of the book. The choice of motif, subject matter and symbols that are meant to fuel the book’s PR, as well as the writer’s own narrative about the book and about himself as its author, are therefore becoming a key act of literary creation. This is the very essence of literature nowadays. And I don’t only mean success connected to the number of copies sold, but also success in the prestige distribution systems. A book ‘becomes an event’ – usually even before anyone has read it.
If you don’t play this game, it means you don’t care, so how can you be taken seriously? Then all you can do is repeat your sincere ‘I don’t know’. I don’t know why I wrote what I wrote; I don’t know what a specific scene, plot or character is supposed to mean; I don’t know what I will or won’t write in the future. What kind of narrative is this? What kind of advertisement and meme?
But there’s much more behind your question. The assumption, or accusation, is as follows: you’re a writer, so why aren’t you writing? What does it mean that someone ‘is a writer’? The accusation seems to make sense if we think of people as machines or tools. You’re a hammer, so why aren’t you hitting a nail? What kind of a car is it if it’s not being driven? And so on. That’s the contemporary writer-as-a-machine: a new book and a press tour every year or every two years; and the writer’s image and name treated as a brand, Facebook and Instagram being regularly fed with details and images from the writer’s life; and each book has to remain within a strictly defined genre, theme and convention – preferably all featuring the same main character. This is the contemporary template of ‘being a writer’.
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However, if you start by thinking about the human being, then ‘being a writer’ will only reveal itself to be a label for a certain sphere of life, a certain type of mental activity and participation in culture. For various expressions of curiosity about the world and games of the imagination. As far as I’m concerned, there has been no break, no change: I’m constantly absorbed by something to the brink of obsession, I ruminate over it in different ways, sometimes in my head, sometimes in writing, sometimes creatively, sometimes only analytically. Then the realities of culture and business intersect with my way of living and thinking – and that’s how a book or something else appears. Or nothing appears – because obsession and rumination are ends in themselves.
If there has been any change here, it’s most likely that, having become aware of these mechanisms, I’ve stopped worrying about what people will say.
When I wrote in Po Piśmie (After Writing) that life itself is man’s last art, one of the things I had in mind was this original meaning of ‘being a writer’: what precedes the writing of a novel’s first sentence.
Of course, as a showbusiness practice, classic ‘science fiction writing’ makes sense as long as, firstly, there’s a demand for such a cultural product and, secondly, the text retains an advantage over other media at least in one respect. For the time being, it seems to me that it still retains an advantage in three areas: the cheapness of production (writing doesn’t really cost anything, and publishing a book requires a microscopic budget compared to producing a film); the absence or near-absence of a pre-selection process (as a last resort, you can publish a book yourself by releasing it as an e-book on Amazon, while in all other types of media you must first pass through a screening process: whether the corporation wants to invest in the project, whether market research promises sufficient profit from it, whether you’ll find willing collaborators, and so on); and finally – the ability to convey abstract content such as ideas, scientific theories and non-visual metaphors.
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That’s an answer to the question of whether classic, text-based science fiction makes sense anymore. However, it can’t be denied that it no longer fulfils the role it used to. One reason for this is because whole literature is overshadowed by audiovisual media. But in the case of science fiction, there’s also the question of the ‘atrophy of the future’. In two aspects: the possibility of implementing the same ideas in reality on a micro-scale (‘the future is already here – it’s just not evenly distributed’) and the lack of a vision of the future on a macro-scale. It seems that the only thing our Zeitgeist gives birth to is negative visions or copies of past visions.
RA: A question about these ‘current obsessions’ should immediately follow at this point… But first I’ll ask about ‘Imperium Chmur’ (Empire of Clouds), which has just been published by Wydawnictwo Literackie. On the one hand, it contains the aesthetics of retro-feudal Japan, makes reference to ‘The Doll’ by Bolesław Prus and plays around with steampunk conventions. On the other hand, it reflects on the technological progress that is happening in spite of, or rather alongside human life. So, what came first – old-new fascinations, or the works of Jakub Różalski, which originally illustrated ‘Imperium Chmur’?
JD: I gain some self-awareness thanks to the passing of time itself, and it has been a few years since I wrote Imperium Chmur, so I think I know more or less where it came from.
The sequence of obsessions is like this:
Rekursja (Recursion), one of the main themes of which is (was) going beyond symbolic communication. →
Rumination over the whole process of transition to post-literacy, and an outline of the concept of humanity as defined by the dominant methods of the transfer of experiences. Which resulted in, among other things, Po Piśmie. →
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A question about the differences between the reality perceived by a mind conditioned by alphabetical, phonetic script (such as Latin) and the reality perceived by a mind conditioned by ideographic, significative script (such as Chinese or Japanese).
These are the things I was thinking about when the SQN publishing house asked me to write a story for their anthology. Różalski’s pictures were solely a pretext – it was enough for me to notice Japanese motifs there.
Such proposals are also a psychological trap: firstly because without being pushed from the outside, I would never take up a new project (there are always too many of them) and, secondly, because an imposed deadline creates a challenge and gamifies the whole process.
Of course, the sequence of obsessions doesn’t end here, because by thinking ‘through’ Kiyoko, and reading about the history of Japanese literature and the reforms of the Meiji era, strongly linked to the adoption of Western scientific methodology developed with non-significative script – I started to dive into further riddles.
Under what conditions would a mind directly ‘reading’ reality by means of networks of meanings taken from ideographic script gain an advantage over ‘Western’ minds? Wouldn’t this advantage be a kind of ‘cognitive surplus’, similar to the surplus provided by mathematics that is surprising to scientists and philosophers? For nobody knows why mathematics actually ‘fits’ the real world. Indeed, how come it can be ahead of the real world? First, something emerges from the pure combinatorics of symbols, and then it turns out that it’s the language of a physical theory explaining the material world.
Certain things also emerge for Kiyoko from the combinatorics of her signs-meanings. And she doesn’t know why. It’s this very system of signs that is the ‘discoverer’ of new rules, new laws of nature. Just as mathematics itself doesn’t need a human being to move forward – it’s already largely ‘practised’ by computer programs.
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But look: isn’t this all just a typical ‘author’s story about the story’? What am I doing here? I’m relieving this interview’s readers from the need to read the book itself.
There’s no way out of this trap. You can only refuse to play such a game – and then, of course, you lose at the very start.
RA: Another point of civilisational crisis is the reactivation of space dreams, which is currently happening. The alternative version of the future which futurologists and writers dreamed of in the 1960s didn’t come true, because it was impossible with the technology available at the time. Has anything changed in that respect? In your opinion, are Elon Musk and others like him indeed a foreshadowing of the building of a new economy aimed at exploring the Solar System, or is it just a fading echo of those aspirations from the mid-20th century, and humanity will have to face other challenges for at least the next few decades?
JD: This renaissance of interest in outer space and the change in its exploration model to a private, commercial one started around 10 years ago, as a result of a decision made by Obama. Today, Elon Musk is the face of the entire space business, but even without Musk it would be moving full steam ahead.
There are three different spheres: Earth’s orbit, the Moon, Mars.
The Earth’s low orbits have already become clogged up with satellites for commercial and military use. Musk’s Starlink is a good illustration of how strong the connection is between orbital business and our lives.
Satellite Internet will never be as fast as cable, but it will bring a ‘conclusion’ to the informatisation of all mankind and will create competitive pressure for network providers all over the world. More forward-looking orbital businesses are primarily in the energy sector: the development of solar energy collectors and transmitters. I wouldn’t be surprised if this were to become part of some new supranational Green Deal. And, at the same time, the military significance of space is growing. By setting up the American Space Force, Donald Trump has formalised decisions that were made inevitable long ago.
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Every major armed conflict on Earth is resolved nowadays primarily at the level of communication, reconnaissance of the battlefield and blocking of that reconnaissance, as well as manipulating information. Hence the first step in the plan to ‘blind’ the enemy is to destroy their satellites. In order to protect your satellites, therefore, you must be able to pre-emptively destroy the enemy’s means of orbital warfare and maintain ‘high ground’ – that is to say, control over higher orbits, because they are, in this type of battle, what low orbits are for battles on Earth. This logic of war strategy then leads to competition for control over Lagrange points and, finally, over the Moon, as it completes and brings to an end geopolitics centred on Earth. The Earth and the Moon are a fixed physical system; their mutual positions can be mapped out and the Moon can be treated as the ultimate ‘high ground’. Mars and other planets don’t play a role here – they’re too far away and in an overly variable spatial relationship with the Earth. A permanent base on the Moon is an inevitable first bridgehead.
The next stage is the self-sufficiency of such bases: so that the enemy can’t threaten them by simply cutting off supplies from Earth. The Moon is an alien environment for us, so self-sufficiency means building substantial infrastructure there: they must be able to produce everything they need from scratch. And for this, there will be a need for sufficiently numerous communities of lunar colonists. Due to the difference in gravity, returning to Earth after a long stay on the Moon isn’t advisable; such a journey would certainly be a great challenge for life forms born on the Moon. A sense of distinctiveness and sovereignty develops in lunar communities much faster than in colonies on the Earth (such as European settlements in North and South America, Australia and South Africa). For lunar colonists are different also on a biological level.
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In fact, why should they continue to ‘serve’ the Earth? The only effective argument on a historical scale is a cultural one: look at the USA and Europe, how they share a common cultural code, even a language code. This, then, is what the fight is about: in the civilisational sense, will the Moon be a colony of the West or of China? Even after gaining independence, it will remain the ‘patron’ of that (Western or Eastern) geopolitical order.
At the moment, Mars serves primarily as an enticing idea. It has no commercial significance, no military significance. Musk justifies the necessity of its colonisation with responsibility for the fate of Homo sapiens as a species: if we set up self-sufficient colonies on Mars, the human species will survive no matter what happens in the Earth-Moon system. However, I don’t know of any serious analyses that would take this reasoning into account in state strategies (that if we colonise Mars, we can ‘afford’ a nuclear war on Earth etc.).
RA:The question of the future of culture seems to be a parallel issue. The title essay in ‘Po Piśmie’ deals with this – has anything changed in your view on this issue after the pandemic? It would seem that instead of accelerating the trend, the pandemic has distorted it slightly: people have started picking up books again, the consumption of audio content has increased, and closed cinemas have left more time for the consumption of other types of content. At the same time, of course, the demand for video games and VOD series has increased, but books have once again appeared in large numbers in public space. Or do you think this is just a feint, an accidental fluctuation in the graph? When there is any information about your current activities, it also mainly concerns the television industry and related spheres. So, in conclusion, will you shed some light on what currently occupies the highest rungs on your ladder of projects waiting ‘to be realised’?
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JD: It’s not true that ‘people have started picking up books again’ – unless you include audiobooks, which have indeed seen a leap in growth. But of what – not of reading, but rather of listening.
When you follow conversations about trends in culture, led not by artists or critics, but by decision-makers – owners and managers of major cultural and entertainment companies – it’s hard not to come to the conclusion that the front line has shifted completely beyond the horizon of literature. Books don’t even appear as a digression. The struggle takes place between passive audiovisual experiences (TV series, films, YouTube, TikTok) and active audiovisual experiences (computer games). How deeply and how often we engage with the first or the second type of entertainment, and how much money is spent on them. And the pandemic has only intensified this competition, because the competitors now have a bigger cake to divide among themselves, since people spend more on digital entertainment, trapped in front of screens in their homes.
The nature of the movie industry is that the ‘current activities’ you ask about are largely out of sync with the media coverage. By the time a series or film is announced (not to mention its premiere), the conceptual work and the role of the writer are usually over. And before the announcement, you can’t count on leaks. Moreover, I’m not a scriptwriter for hire – I rather try to push various original projects towards production, and this is very similar to work in start-ups: it’s impossible to predict which one will take off, you have to accept a high percentage of rejected projects as a cost of doing business. The relationship between the current work and the results you can see in the media is quite tenuous.
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Few people will believe me, but I’m still working intensively on Rekursja (in its successive reincarnations). I don’t treat it as a book to write, but as a project exploring the boundaries of textual literature. And I’m unable to predict what will be born from this – just as I didn’t know, when I was getting started on Rekursja, that Po Piśmie and Imperium Chmur would result from it.
Regardless of the above, as soon as I find the time, I’ll collect various short stories scattered across anthologies and magazines, finish a few stories that I’ve been working on for a long time and put them all together as a collection. I also have a few lengthy essays suspended between thought and text.
But most likely something entirely different will come up.
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Interview conducted by Rafał Andrzejczyk in Polish, Sep 2020, translated by Scotia Gilroy, Nov 2020