A book-review meditation-musing by David (Jhave) Johnston on a multimodal science fiction by Johanna Drucker. The story is told from the point of view of a distributed organism, Archaea that was discovered in the 1970s. "Structurally similar to bacteria but chemically-distinct," this entity suggests what a born-digital literature for the posthuman era might look like: "an epoch when human-level consciousness drifts down into animals, insects, fish" and many other others.
Too often science fiction ignores science, or concentrates on technology: spaceships, lightsabers, lasers. Typical sci-fi alien films are usually army invasion films: uniforms, jeeps, helicopters, weapons.
Yet occasionally books arise that explore unique and provocative universal potentialities, books that are provoked by scientific research and grow into speculative knowledge. Johanna Drucker's DownDrift (2018) is such a book. Its narrator is a distributed organism, Archaea, -- Archaea? Relatively few people, besides biologists, have heard of archaea. But it is genuine science, not fiction. Archaea is a third distinct branch of life, structurally-similar to bacteria but chemically-distinct, discovered in the 1970s. DownDrift's archaean narrator chronicles an epoch when human-level consciousness drifts down into animals, insects, fish, etc… While the premise may be improbable and the implementation satirical, DownDrift insightfully and rigorously explores questions of consciousness, processes of biological evolution, and the transformative impact of shifts in communication on society. Sound familiar? DownDrift is about our time, now, as human beings, navigating extreme turbulence and destabilized subjectivity: surveillance capitalism, populism, memes.
"The hummingbirds have gone south, but they have court orders staying the destruction of their hanging baskets."
-Johanna Drucker, DownDrift , p115
In conversation with sympathetic friends, I often inadvertently and unwisely, exclaim: "The universe is corrupt. Nothing will change." My apathy at a socio-political level is motivated by a sense that substantive equitable societal change would require an extreme modulation not just in human metabolism, but a shift in the greater ecological-ethical network of behaviors between animals, insects and molecules. Predation precludes ubiquitous harmony. We need a mutation.
DownDrift is one partial mytho-farcical (hilarious, astute, and perverse) response to such musings. Before I finished even the first chapter, I already began to rant, at some length, to others about it. It is that astounding.
"The records of the changes are legion. So many versions of what occurred have been produced that it will take lifetimes to read through them all. The titmice prick their tales into dried leaves, lacework Braille, delicate filigree texts for which one has to have the code. The penguins etch their stories into the air through exhalation and catch it on flat pieces of glass to produce fine ice patterns on the newly frozen panes."
-Johanna Drucker, DownDrift , p263
Radical inexplicable change provokes hedonistic excess, philosophical and legislative disputes, bewilderment and despair. Even as radioactive bouquets of innovation sprout, and radical invocations of unprecedented technologies emerge, there is a chaotic sameness to ideologies, a futile churn in the optimisation of self-augmentation. Each of us feels the tug of inexplicable instincts, subliminal impulsions for display, communication, and survival. Utopia is a fossil, perpetually revived, much discussed, yet only rarely and briefly existing.
"...the bees begin to think like bison and the giraffes set up permanent stands along the roadsides near the hotels, selling CDs under their own labels. Acute sensory disorder is setting in. The visual acuity of the raptors is migrating to the rodents and the sniffing skills of the dogs have gone into the primate populations..."
-Johanna Drucker, DownDrift , p90
In most novels, humans are the centrepiece. In DownDrift, animals gather around doing human-exclusive things in non-human-exclusive ways. The ground, once frozen by winter now thaws, and in the creek mud, flatworms discuss the philosophy of flow. The sinuousness of their bodies acting as repositories for ideas whose subtle incalculable strength reverberates through their collective mind.
Occasionally Drucker, with the deftness of someone who is an omnivorous reader, and has attended innumerable conferences, displays interdisciplinary vocabulary as if it were plumage.
A runaway domestic calico cat named Callie is the central character. Callie is evidently authorial foil, -- internally restless, an archivist, occasionally listless, resilient, vain, acutely observant. Callie wanders around watching INSERT LIFEFORM HERE doing STUFF NORMALLY DONE BY HUMANS in ways that are significant, absurd, excessive, yet precisely right.
"The Macaws make liberal use of their claim on tradition to exercise the insect exemption for risk fare."
-Johanna Drucker, DownDrift , p.139
Eating is a dilemma in DownDrift. Is it ok to eat, if everything is sentient? Instincts overwhelm logic. Appetites trump ethics. Callie (the cat) begins to feel guilt as she kills. The absurdity of ethics is that existence demands that we eat, and eating usually involves eating other beings, -- beings who would prefer (one assumes) to continue to exist without being eaten.
"The fate of the wild and the future of domesticity cannot be reconciled, not in them as individuals, but neither can they succeed independently."
-Johanna Drucker, DownDrift , p.274
In a more meticulous universe (governed by symmetrical sanctimonious ethics) I, -- as a vegetarian-- might be able to claim DownDrift as a book of divine authority, proving the righteousness of my dietary choices. I refuse to eat animals because the pain receptors and neurological modules devoted to affective reasoning (play, nurturance, lust, etc... ) are preserved across the vertebrates. "Cross-species affective neuroscience studies confirm that primary-process emotional feelings are organized within primitive subcortical regions of the brain that are anatomically, neurochemically, and functionally homologous in all mammals" Unfortunately for me in my quest for ethical superiority, the truths proposed or exposed by Drucker are subtle, nuanced, reflective, refractive, contextual, hilarious, and problematic.
DownDrift refuses to be claimed as a repository for moral indignation.
No stance is given a pure line. Hybridization complicates hunting.
"A nursing mother whale, just a little offshore, pulls her calf tight to her teat. She is passing the knowledge of their classification systems to her offspring through thick milk, fatty and rich with cells that contain nucleic bits of inventory."
-Johanna Drucker, DownDrift , p.231
Emotional Toxicity & Social Instability
DownDrift depicts a universe where finance, laws, fashion, philosophy, education and sciences are all convulsing. Ironies and misalignments erupt next to epiphanies. Toxic by-products of subjectivity arise: existential alienation, vanity, regret, and rage. At one point, a gang of fashionably-attired racoons, deranged by new societal powers and pressures, rampage.
"... They cannot stop until their vocal instruments go raspy, their lungs exhausted, their pointed faces streak with tears squeezed like the juice of pressed spirits against the insides of their black-masked eye. Too hideous to behold, they drop, one after another, done in by the passionate exhalation of their energies. … They seem to be screaming from the sheer agony of being, crazed at the absolute pain of existence."
-Johanna Drucker, DownDrift , p.96-97
DownDrift parallels (and implicitly references) the other book Johanna Drucker published in 2018, a thin theoretical volume mysteriously-entitled: The General Theory of Social Relativity. Both books speculate about the quirky influence of quantum sociality. Fixed laws grown fluid.
"Dark forces are gaining strength. This time, the threat comes not from bacteria, viruses, or prions, or even destructive humans, but from social forces that cannot be kept at bay."
-Johanna Drucker, DownDrift , p.211
Surreal junctures align into networks. Tinctures become tornadoes. The smallest scale becomes vast. Bodies permeate each other. The archaea narrator is an extremophile slime, a metaphor for the internet, a meta-mind who survives in a delocated subjectivity, and a being awakening within all beings.
"None of my cells, nor all of them together, accept a place in the hierarchy of being. We are too diverse and diffuse, too much a part of too many other things -- in their guts, between their toes, in the walls of their caves, and underground where they walk."
-Johanna Drucker, DownDrift , p.123
The Anthropocene Mirror
The fable-mirror that Drucker holds up for the reader (the informed engaged educated active critical and navigational reader) reflects contemporary debates, preoccupations, scandals, memes, hypocrisy, and misery. Despair and craving up-sift from newly-perceived desires. A whiff of the anthropocene arrives on a swirling wind. Imagine The Secret Life of Pets re-written by Donna Haraway and Bernard Stiegler.
"The worms' breathing is affected profoundly by having to filter the melancholy in the soil."
-Johanna Drucker, DownDrift , p.125
One of the signatures of complex writing is shifts in register. At times, DownDrift delivers elegies to joy and love. It offers an ode to the forgotten smudged blurred continuum of corpses that make evolution's teeming path. All is (or will be) lost. Even the flick of light in the eyes of creatures as they fall in love. Even the odor that rises from sleepers twisting in dreams. In this sense the book is an advanced instruction method on the virtue of non-attachment, an ethics of lived beloved ephemeral forms.
At one point, lizards sing while nearby tortoises rearrange creek stones into historical records. There is the sense of an ineffable poignant encounter with a complex spontaneous momentary and conscious grace.
"Then the lizards burst full-throated into an uncanny melody, and the gentle tortoises … set about making a new configuration of classifying stones. Let there be from this day, a testimonial to the remarkable moment we have witnessed."
-Johanna Drucker, DownDrift , p.118
A Bright Darkness
DownDrift is also a book about emotional immaturity: rampant ubiquitous rantings, tantrums, scandals. Occasionally I felt uneasy, as if the light emanating from the mirror cast by DownDrift was illuminating an aspect of myself I'd prefer hidden. It made me aware of my mistakes, arrogance, foolishness, fakery. It exposed layers of vanities, formalities, banalities, and rituals. So many pragmatic choices, so much inadvertent impulse. Hypocrite! Beauty is mere display. Consider me one of the "super sensitive" monkeys.
"Slight a monkey and it sulks for days, falls into a depression, lies on its side curled up and crying."
-Johanna Drucker, DownDrift , p.189
It's not only wounded vanity and sulking that afflicts the animals, but torture, cruelty, and murder-as-deterrent that erupt from them as the DownDrift of consciousness transforms instinct into turbulent social apparatus. DownDrift reflects:
"... deeply on the nature of the universe, the limits of justice and judgement, the causes and effects of behavior, and the need for a civil society … [dedicated] to reform and regulation, and to the higher order of compassion as the only route to justice. The time for real transformation is almost upon us, pressing."
-Johanna Drucker, DownDrift , p.194
I have one problem with the book. Estimates of the global biomass of mammals find that more than 60% of mammals are livestock, which should mean that DownDrift is populated predominantly by liberated pigs and cows. Humans are 30%. Wild animals are estimated to comprise only a meagre tiny 4% of the global biomass of mammals. Similarly, it is estimated that 70% of birds are poultry or chickens; only 30% are wild. Yet there is not a single pig or chicken in DownDrift; instead there is a vast menagerie of exotic critters: javelina, platypus, rosella, antelope, cockatoo, weasel, flamingo, dolphins, armadillo, pheasant, otter, and stork drift thru a world of poodles, chihuahuas, terriers, collies, and labs … it is as if a zoo escaped, or a nature show did the casting, while an off-leash park got a disproportionate set of supporting roles.
Pets and blue planet are that part of nature most urban humans know. Drucker leverages the bias. I can forgive her for it. The statistics I cite above came out after the book went to press. And besides there's almost no reference to humans in DownDrift. I like that.
But just for a moment, envision a DownDrift based on statistical reality, where about 60% of the animals are escapees from factory farms: tattooed, clipped, ears punctured, de-beaked, addicted to antibiotics, traumatized, uneducated, unnurtured, orphans, jailed at birth, limbs stunted from no exercise, obese, depressed, over-anxious, fragile, conditioned to live in huge overcrowded cages, commodities engineered to produce meat. The chaos would not be as charming. The pithy weight of the mirror would veer toward the abyss. There would need to be more therapy. Perhaps reparations.
"As the aardvarks explain their scheme, the lion finds the whole situation a bit odd." -Johanna Drucker, DownDrift , p.143
What Came Before?
A very incomplete list of speculative precursors: Clifford D. Simak's dog narrator in City (1952) described how humans became alien, and other creatures (dogs, ants) became human. Doris Lessing's superb under-estimated sobering Canopus in Argos: Archives series (1979-1983) occurred because aliens incarnated here as humans; the Archives are alien diaries and reports of a slow diplomatic war conducted invisibly through words and ideologies. Samuel R. Delany's voluptuous writing in Stars in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand (1984) -- and his many other works -- flowed sexually into alien forms, allowing expanded sensuality to narrate. And of course, the extremely-vivid astonishingly-prescient genius 1987-89 Xenogenesis trilogy of Octavia E. Butler, re-published as Lilith's Brood (2000), depicts an expanded emotionally-raw, yet contemplative, view of consciousness and embodiment.
"Between the trees, long bars of sunlight filled with dust motes cut across the golden air. Again, the quiet is disturbed by a riot of noise. In a small clearing, a live mouse is dancing, picking its way with stealthy terpsichorean accuracy across the crispy surface of a piece of toast."
-Johanna Drucker, DownDrift , p.13
Conclusion: Read it.
DownDrift belongs to that category of esoteric art which won't appeal to everyone, but for those with a taste for it, it is extreme nourishment, provocatively proposing many ideas (coated for ease-of-digestion in a sly deft lithe almost-imperceptible irony). As with much of the strongest speculative fiction, seeds here provoke much thought.
DownDrift is about social change, calamitous shifts in behavior, and the glistening persistence of narcissism. It is a tale about ecologies of phenomena, equilibrium populations, and txting done by insects. It is a meditation on sustenance and the uneasy compromises involved in eating anything that once lived.
Take a heap of gossip magazines, rom-coms, a few academic conference proceedings, and replace all the subjective references to humans with a list of eukaryotes. DownDrift is reminiscent of the best parts of Burroughs, Lispector, Pynchon, DeLillo, Patchen. And one hears residues of the poets: Charles Bernstein (for humor), Lorie Graham (on elegies), Lisa Robertson (in The Weather).
The quantum world is strange. The human pinnacle of dominance, precarious. DownDrift's plot tension is lite. Its intellectual recruitment, high. Insight, agility, style, and humor far above average. I like it.
Abandon the ray guns, helicopters, bombs, magic potions, and war propaganda.
Exit the alien horror film clichés.
Enter the DownDrift.
Consider the owls:
"The texts they choose to work on are esoteric, obscure things. They have no tolerance for trivia. The fragments of ancient poetry or snippets of legal documents they channel are often of importance to only a tiny handful of scholars. Still they persist."
-Johanna Drucker, DownDrift , p.129