In Serge Brussolo’s novel The Deep Sea Diver’s Syndrome, abstract objects known as “ectoplasms” have displaced all traditional forms of art. Faintly glowing, radiating well-being, and somehow evocative of transcendent yet sensuous flesh, these ectoplasms are retrieved by dreamers known as “mediums” from their own unconscious realms. Museums have emptied their halls of painting and sculpture, the better to house the massive administrative and medical bureaucracy that oversees the dreamers, policing their health and selling their work. Exploring, with his usual warped despair, the role of the artist in society, Brussolo gives us a world that is only a metaphor (and a metamorphosis or two) away from our own.
In conjunction with Melville House’s publication of Serge Brussolo’s stateside debut, here are five works of speculative fiction that ponder the fates of art and artists in the futures that await.
The Thrawn Trilogy by Timothy Zahn
Not to rub salt in a wound made fresh by the success of J.J. Abrams’ latest blockbuster, but… Long, long ago, in an expanded universe now officially demoted to non-canonical status, there was a blue-skinned, red-eyed Grand Admiral of the evil Galactic Empire named Thrawn. Author Timothy Zahn’s villain debuted in an early ‘90s trilogy—Heir to the Empire, Dark Force Rising, and The Last Command—set after Return of the Jedi and later to bear the Grand Admiral’s name, a testament to his enduring popularity among fans. A master strategist, Thrawn gleaned the insights that would help him defeat alien cultures from close study of their art, a defining character trait that informs his final words. Thrawn’s evil was of an repulsively civilized sort, reminiscent of the Nazi officer of stereotype who could go from murdering babies to appreciating Beethoven.
“The Wall of America” by Thomas M. Disch
We may, rightly or not, be suspicious of the highbrow, but there are other ways to approach the ineffable. The late Thomas Disch’s story “The Wall of America,” which lends a late-career collection its name, takes a “dirty realism” approach to its titular conceit: a wall on the US-Canada border whose blank expanses are rented out to painters. Disch’s hero, a former Iowa drywall salesman, awakens to his own unspoken ambitions after a beery night of chatting with a young collector. Disch gets sidewise at what these regular joes never could or would admit to feeling: What We Talk About When We Talk About Art. A darkly comic dig, maybe the story’s most “speculative” element, is that the Wall is a joint project between Homeland Security and the NEA. The most farfetched is that a similar project to transform the Berlin Wall stalled for lack of funding.
“The Cloud Sculptors of Coral-D” by J.G. Ballard
After all, Europe is generally known to funnel more money into arts funding. The Deep Sea Diver’s Syndrome is one of three works informally known as the “the delirious arts of the future” trilogy. In another, Aussi lourd que le vent (Heavy as the Wind), Brussolo posits the word instantaneously made object: a process that allows us to create porcelain-like vocal statuary simply by speaking. These sculptures, inevitably fleeting, find an echo in J.G. Ballard’s story “The Cloud Sculptors of Coral-D,” whose daredevil pilots carve clouds with “silver iodide.” The achingly beautiful tale combines Ballard’s clear boyish love of barnstormers with his alchemically altered, blasted landscapes: in this case, the decadent desert resort Vermilion Sands.
2312 by Kim Stanley Robinson
Speaking of blasted landscapes, in Brussolo’s Mange-Monde (World Eater), the earth is all archipelagos after the “seismic bombs” of an apocalyptic war have shattered the continents. Art school grad Mathias, trained in the aesthetic applications of explosives, plies the waters in his gunboat, looking for client islands who want their coastlines artfully blown away to resemble the remembered shapes of nations. This aggressive demolition seems simply the nightmare twin of that utopian standby, terraforming, or the “ascensions” of Kim Stanley Robinson’s 2312: hollowed-out asteroids, used for spaceflight, that also play terraria to endangered species. Robinson’s virtually immortal Swan Er Hong, currently a hermaphrodite, once created ascensions, and now is an artist of “goldsworthies”: ephemeral, noninvasive outdoor installations sited to specific geographical features. Here, Robinson bets scattered contemporary tendencies in earthworks will coalesce into genre. Is there anything more titanic than sculpting entire environments? Than being Slartibartfast?
Spook Country by William Gibson
Of The Deep Sea Diver’s Syndrome, Robinson has said, “What’s interesting here is that the surrealism of dream logic is merged with a scientific technology; and that’s where we all live these days, so it feels right.” No one is better at conveying the slippery SFnal feel of where we live these days, or will live in the next five minutes, than William Gibson. In Spook Country, his musician-turned-journalist Hollis Henry is investigating locative artists. Less land art than a localized virtual layer, LA artist Alberto Corrales’s celebrity death scenes projected onto real-life locations give information, in the form of history, felt presence, reminding us that esse is percipi. In an age when creativity is rapidly relocating from the traditional arts to edges of technology—garage startups, the self-taught tinkering of maker faires, the pop-up colony of Burning Man—Gibson accurately depicts the two it increasingly takes to tango in the person of Corrales’s IT guy, Bobby Chombo, a geospatial tech expert who once handled US military navigation systems. The only thing more monumental than moving heaven and earth may be shifting our perception of it.
Edward Gauvin is a translator from the French. His work has won multiple prizes and has appeared in The New York Times, Tin House, Subtropics, World Literature Today, and Weird Fiction Review. The translator of more than two hundred graphic novels, Gauvin is a contributing editor for comics at Words Without Borders. His translation of Serge Brussolo’s The Deep Sea Diver’s Syndrome, available January 19th from Melville House, marks the first English-language publication of the French master of the fantastic.