Spacecraft (2021): Timothy Morton

★½

As a fan of sci-fi, I had high hopes for Spacecraft, a new entry in the Bloomsbury Objects series. I felt that there was a huge amount of potential here: so much to unpack, not only in the way that classic spacecraft have made their way from the speculative fringe into mainstream culture, but also more broadly about the historical antecedents of science fiction. Spacecraft have grown out of other human desires and stories: after all, they’re the ultimate accomplishment of one of mankind’s most ancient desires: to fly. And we can trace a genealogy from the generation ships of science fiction back into antiquity, to Noah’s Ark. I was excited to learn about early ideas of what a spacecraft might be. What about the flying machine with rockets which launches Cyrano de Bergerac to the Moon in his 17th-century satirical novel The Other World? How do these fictional spacecraft compare to the real deal: the Space Shuttle or rockets? Does a spacecraft have to be manned? What about Arthur C. Clarke’s enigmatic Rama? Brimming with questions, I settled down and prepared to be transported to other worlds.

Unfortunately, I realised very quickly that I’d got completely the wrong idea about the book. I don’t believe I was unjustified in doing so. It started well. Morton does have a genuine, fanboyish love for his subject, and he struck a chord with me when he speaks, in the first few pages, of finding comfort in science fiction as an isolated child. Much of what he says in this book, honed down to its essentials, is true. Science fiction explores worlds that are more equal than the ones we have here in the real world. They show us society as it could, or should, be. Spacecraft are not only ways to escape, but agents of subversion and revolution. Morton explains that he is specifically interested in spacecraft rather than spaceships. ‘Spaceships are made by the state, and you have to earn the right to fly them. Spacecraft are stolen or won and you have to learn to fly them, on the fly.’

All this is fair enough. It doesn’t even matter that Morton isn’t really interested in spacecraft in general, but in the political and radical implications of one specific craft: the Millennium Falcon, from Star Wars, ‘a radically, even subversively, democratic spacecraft‘. He is passionate about the Star Wars universe too, insisting on several occasions that it is the ultimate science fiction creation: more sophisticated than Tarkovsky; more radical than Kubrick (‘Star Wars’ hyperspace is better than the room in Stalker’s Zone because it’s not alienating‘ and ‘The hyperspace of Star Wars is more progressive than that of 2001‘). Perhaps the book should have been titled ‘Millennium Falcon’, rather than ‘Spacecraft’ (or perhaps ‘Hyperspace’. He really likes hyperspace too. More on that in a moment).

There were moments which I found interesting. Morton amusingly compares the interiors of the Starship Enterprise or the Death Star to open-plan offices, places where people work in hierarchies, as part of a machine. That’s true, and it makes for a wonderful contrast to the gleeful, scrappy, egalitarian freedom of smaller spacecraft, like the ubiquitous Millennium Falcon. He also speaks of the ‘endless Saturday afternoon of hyperspace‘, that liminal space between worlds where time ceases to mean anything, and spacecraft crews can kick back and relax while they wait to emerge elsewhere. It was a nice turn of phrase that captures the in-between state of interstellar travel. I learned that the word ‘weird’ comes from the Norse ‘urthr’, ‘twisted into a loop‘, and that it’s connected with weaving, hence, the Norns, the Weird Sisters, the weavers of Fate – and the essence of spacetime. Equally fascinating, Morton suggests that the conceptual roots of hyperspace lie in African spirituality, where liquid is sometimes regarded as a liminal space, particularly the Kikongo idea of ‘kalunga’, which means ‘threshold between worlds.’ (Flashbacks to C.S. Lewis’s ‘wood between the worlds’ with its myriad pools.)

Despite these scattered moments, though, I really didn’t like the book. For me, there were two resounding problems. The first is that Morton kicks off the book with a lengthy section talking, not about spacecraft, but about one of his specialist fields of knowledge: object-oriented ontology. He delves into this in some depth, alluding to Derrida, Heidegger and Husserl, and also spending a considerable amount of space explaining the discipline of phenomenology. I felt like an undergraduate who’s suddenly realised that they’re in the wrong seminar. Essentially, I think the basic argument is that ideas, like a spacecraft, are just as real and valid as physical things, like the keyboard on which I’m typing. They exist independently of the mind that imagines them. I hope I’m not a completely ignorant person, but at the same time, I’m not a philosopher and found this entire section panic-inducing and alienating: a kind of briar-hedge that I had to hack my way through in order to access the book that I hoped I would find beyond it. (Imagine me: a small ball, whimpering, “But I only wanted to learn about spacecraft!”) Of course Morton is passionate about his subject. Of course he wants to share it with us, and make us passionate about object-oriented ontology as well. But this is not the place for it.

And here’s the other problem. You see, the Object Lessons books are small. They’re brief, they’re appetisers, intended to give you an interesting pop of insight into the title subject. There isn’t space for authors to digress too much from the topic. When they do, it doesn’t work. Take Coffee, in the same series, which missed out most of the things one would actually want to know about coffee, in favour of the author’s stream-of-consciousness. But at least Dinah Lenney was talking about things that happened when she was actually drinking coffee. The real problem I have with Spacecraft is that, for Morton, a spacecraft is not a spacecraft (unless it’s the Millennium Falcon). It’s a springboard for him to launch into extended digressions on a number of current left-leaning academic preoccupations: a showcase, perhaps, for his progressive credentials. And this is a problem because, if you’re an ordinary reader like me and you’ve picked up a short book about spacecraft, it’s likely that you actually want to learn about spacecraft, not to read a lengthy lecture on postmodernist political and philosophical theory. There is, however, scope to play buzzword bingo. To give you a fair picture of the style, I’m going to include a few of the sections I highlighted on my Kindle:

Beneath the seeming linear flow of time, which is always some imperialist or colonialist imposition, is the timeless bath of hyperspace

‘It’s about time we took a serious look at the activepassive binary.’

The Falcon making hyperspace is the truly utopian version of the energy-substance that the religiosity of the Jedi hides and turns into an invaluable commodity, creating class division

The irreducibly hidden, occult aspects of things lead to a consideration of how gender works with the binaries of subject versus object, master versus slave, tool-user versus tool.’

Hyperspace is radically democratic. One of the most potent things about how hyperspace circludes a spacecraft is that this can happen anywhere.

The Muppets are in some sense the posthuman beings we have been waiting for.‘ (Actually, I loved that one.)

Now, boys, girls and non-binary beings, let’s talk about hyperspace. I’m obviously very boring, because I’d always imagined hyperspace as a kind of cosmic Spaghetti Junction, but Morton reads it as a tremulous, semi-orgasmic sexual allegory. It’s ‘powerfully feminist and anti-racist‘ (a mark of definite approval) and Morton spends a lot of time exploring its quivering potential. Hyperspace, as a feminist, radical, democratic, positive (Star Wars) space is distinguished from warp drive, which is a patriarchal, imperialist, negative (Star Trek) space. ‘When we enter or “make” hyperspace,’ Morton explains, ‘it’s also like having an orgasm.’ Gosh. He attentively corrects people’s erroneous tendency to ‘think of spacecraft, for obvious patriarchal reasons, as phallic symbols penetrating the hyperspace tunnel’. In fact, entering hyperspace is like being gently ‘circluded‘ by another substance, like ‘a mouth around a nipple’. (There is a curious paragraph-long quote, following this, from the feminist author Bini Adamczak, discussing the physics of putting a condom on a banana.)

And yet I was slightly puzzled, because Morton seemed to be making an argument that was inconsistent with the explicitly penetration-like imagery he’d used some pages earlier, to describe the Millennium Falcon ‘making’ hyperspace, ‘as if swallowed in the vagina – or for that matter the anal sphincter – of its substance.’ (One must acknowledge the scrupulous gender-equality of the simile.) Later, he becomes excited by the idea of the ‘feminist‘ Millennium Falcon as: ‘a vulva rushing through the vulva-like realm of hyperspace… The vulva of hyperspace circludes the vulva of the Falcon which circludes the passenger pilots.’ And he immediately concludes, after this disconcerting flurry of vulvas, that ‘I think that the reason the political right appropriated Star Wars is because it doesn’t really fit their agenda.’ I couldn’t quite follow the argument, but I beg your indulgence: I think that by this point I’d been rather blinded by flying vulvas.

I’m a feminist. I’m pro-democracy and pro-equality in every possible way. My issue is not with Morton’s values. But I didn’t come to this book for a politico-philosophical seminar. I didn’t even come to it to learn that Star Wars is immeasurably superior to Star Trek – but I know some people who might passionately, vigorously argue with that. I came to it because I trusted Bloomsbury to have produced an engaging, exciting, wide-ranging book about spacecraft, and I wanted to learn about their historical, social and imaginative context. Instead I just feel drained and alienated. It needed a much, much tighter editorial hand, because at present it feels like a meandering, unevenly spliced, unfocused series of articles, veering on the edge of parody: less Arthur C. Clarke, and more Titania McGrath. Had I not felt obliged to review the book, I wouldn’t have finished it.

For me, this was a disappointing misstep in a series that otherwise, for the most part, explores its title subjects with wit, charm and a wide range of creativity.

Buy the book (publication date 23 September 2021)

I received this book from the publisher via Netgalley in return for a fair and honest review

3 thoughts on “Spacecraft (2021): Timothy Morton

  1. robertday154 says:

    Puts a whole new universe of meaning into the phrase “making the Kessel run in less than twelve parsecs.”

    But how can you take seriously someone who writes about spacecraft and phenomenology and who does not reference ‘Dark Star’?

    • The Idle Woman says:

      You clearly know far more about all this than I do, Robert! Thank you so much for the reference: I toddled off to look up Dark Star and it sounds completely mad (classic student humour), but how funny that the plot genuinely combines spacecraft and phenomenology 😂 I don’t remember it being mentioned, I must confess, or at least not in any great detail. It’s the kind of thing that would stick in the mind!

  2. DPM says:

    Glad to see Morton returning to her loop-form as a representation of his ideas. He develops this sufficiently in ‘Dark Ecology’, which is where he first explains the etymology for weird.

    I understand your panic when confronted with a treatment of object-oriented ontology, but it isn’t all that scary. I think it is more unfamiliar to our way of perceiving the world and takes a certain re-orientation of perception to get to grips with. To fully GET Morton it is pretty imperative to understand.
    To put give it the short treatment, what object-oriented ontology is, is an awareness that a “world” is nothing but objects. Moreover, that objects are radically themselves and have withdrawn, potentially unknowable powers. I like to use the example of lugworms in the North of England, who have little attention paid to them, however, their production of their own environment is also the foundation that stops a whole city being washed away. A poet I wrote my MA dissertation on brought this to my attention, and I ended up writing about landfills and hyperobjects.

    OOO is a radical objectification of the world where even subjectivities (our ideas and thinking) become objects. The reason for this is that it collapses all potentials for hierarchisation, which OOO calls ‘flat ontology’. Rather than hierarchies, object-oriented ontologists are more interested in intensities. Different objects can be more intense, i.e. more complex, but this doesn’t mean that a less intense object should be less important. What OOO enables is closer observation. Moreover, it stops us taking objects for granted, as it imbibes them with a fresh sense of agency and importance.

    Great to see people reviewing Morton. He changed the way of think about pretty much everything.

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