Speakeasy: Dream a little dream

Five writers weave a fine web of magic realism and try to catch the future of the real-world archive in it.

Written by Pratik Kanjilal | Updated: April 9, 2017 12:15:08 am
Writing the future: There’s a bit of Borges in most narratives of Invisible Libraries.

The shadow of Jorge Luis Borges falls full length across the dream-like pages of Invisible Libraries, Yoda Press’ contribution to contemporary speculative fiction. Sometimes, he appears as a character in a series of origin myths, as in the one written by Danish Sheikh. But in the first myth, by Lawrence Liang, he is the author himself, writing to Emma Bovary, Ibn Batuta and Italo Calvino. The first correspondent is fictional and the second is history. The third was a contemporary. Borges and Calvino died within a year of each other. The two reappear in Liang’s pieces later in the book, like ‘Copia’, in which, having read Borges on the translators of the Arabian Nights, his protege Calvino seeks unknown translators of the Iliad. He finds the work of one in the library of an Egyptian village of 500 souls. It is handwritten.

The collection has something of the atmosphere of @MagicRealismBot, the two-person Twitter team which dreams up a tiny sliver of magic every two hours. Like, “A prince is snoring in a porcelain jungle.” “A melancholy Japanese butler finds a tiny glass sphere that lets him sense the presence of tax law.” “A sultan catches a taxi to a marble forest.” The two humans behind the machine that makes ironic magic are Sydney digital culture student Chris Rodley (“I write things that write things.”) and “teacher and coder” Yeldora.

Invisible Libraries is a beautifully designed, printed and bound hardcover book which must have left Yoda’s accountant shaken, stirred and apoplectic. It has five writers hidden in the works, including a person tantalisingly known as Another. This author is advertised as “a purveyor of fine snake oils”.

Movingly imagined and written, the collection of fragments invites speculation about the future of the real-world archive. Borges retreated into the library on account of ill health, but technology will soon hurl us all into the wilderness of texts. Perhaps we are there already. At least, we go there every time we pull that phone out of the pocket and start surfing idly as we wait for something to happen in real time, whether it’s the arrival of the boss or the dentist.

Strip away the blather, the morally obnoxious news of vegetarians offering violence to non-vegetarians, the lists of the top ten wardrobe malfunctions, the top five bizarre things you can do with a Raspberry Pi, and the seven wonder foods guaranteed to strip you of belly fat in 72 hours, and what you are left with is the archive. This is knowledge which matters, which can change the world, and we are already, almost effortlessly, immersed in it.

Amy Trautwein takes off from current reality in ‘Spiderlight’, a “twilit hangar” containing all past and present works which have ever influenced each other. Opening a text causes the system to reach into related texts, but it can also be remotely accessed to trigger the opening of “all texts that make use of the phrase ‘Golgi apparatus’ (a cellular organelle), or all those that cite Troilus and Cressida.”

Soon, very soon, an act of the will no longer be necessary to access a knowledge network. The network will be omnipresent in the consciousness, somewhat like a RAM-resident computer program. What began as virtual reality in 1994, described in a paper presented at the First World Wide Web Conference, has paved the way to augmented reality — the senses in contact with the real world, overlaid with a data layer which is always there and does not require the user to look away. It is not very different from a military pilot’s head up display, which imposes radar and systems data onto the real field of view, and which traces its lineage back to the reflector and gyro gunsights of early World War II vintage. In peaceful use, similar technology can overlay texts onto the real field of view, and indeed of sensation — virtual reality games played in the laboratory use feedback with proprioception data, which is continuously generated by the body to tell itself of its orientation in space and in relation to gravity. It only remains to overlay the library.

Which presents a special challenge. What, precisely, is the library? Who is the librarian who sifts humanity’s slush pile? In a post-truth world, it is an important question. And it must factor in a degree of complexity which is not apparent in news, the primary domain of the study of post-truths. Almost every creative work which matters is a post-truth in search of the ultimate truth. The machine which can do the math which reflects this conundrum is still decades in the future. The human who could program it is yet unborn.

But in a society affrighted by disorienting cultural accelerations, other outcomes may be imminent. Refer to Lawrence Liang’s ‘Origin Myth 4’ in Invisible Libraries: “Just as other pessimists scan obituaries in the daily papers to see if anyone they knew (or — in extreme cases — themselves) were in it before deciding to start the day, Jorge Luis Borges had in the recent past taken to surveying newspapers for reports on the closing down of bookstores and libraries.” That’s not speculative fiction, actually. It has happened quite often. And nations which have been spared fear that it will happen yet again — to them, this time.

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