What would it be like to walk out into space? That was the question I was thinking about when I took my daughter to Space Explorers: The Infinite, a virtual reality space immersive on the Richmond waterfront a couple of weekends ago.
It’s an exhibit housed in a gigantic drafty warehouse by the water, a space that makes you feel, at least if you’re suburban, as if you’ve been transported from a solid, certain environment, into an ethereal one. After you get through the queue, staff members give you heavy VR helmets to put on. The heaviness and pressure of the VR helmet hugging your head is the last you have for an hour.
Whoever you came into the immersive with—in my case, my daughter—is in your pod. Inside the visual world of the helmet, those you travel are outlined, and have a heart that glows one color, while strangers’ hearts glow another. This is how you find your people, bonding through a simple glow, and how you distinguish those alien to your group, too.
You’re released into an illusion of outer space—for many stretches of the experience, you step out onto a black empty nothingness, unsure, at least initially of whether it’s safe to step. Tiny, acutely bright stars flood the path just ahead of you, filling in as your feet come down, but not far ahead. It’s disturbing. It’s wondrous. It’s like that apt E.L Doctorow quote that compares writing a novel to driving at night in the fog, “You never see further than your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.” In the immersive, you stop feeling your feet on the ground unless you focus on trying to feel that solidity, toes in shoes on concrete, I am here.
The movement into nothingness hammers home how much of a mental construction our universes are. You start with shimmering water and fog outside the warehouse, but inside, it’s a clear vast black emptiness. Maybe there is nothing before the something that is a life in relation to another life.
In the dark starry outer space your mind believes it’s in, you can walk into bright spheres that take you into a range of VR experiences, including one that features an astronaut mechanic, and another a space station hovering in outer space. For a portion of the experience, you enter the station and are surrounded by astronauts hanging out together inside a ship, closer perhaps than we have stood in the last few years of the pandemic, and my mind, at least, was alarmed by the closeness to these excitable virtual astronauts in a way it never would have been before.
The whole experience is wild, not least because it is a simulation that tricks your brain into believing, in that moment, you’re essentially Major Tom out in space, standing still, then moving forward through stars, but at any rate perhaps never coming down again. There are those of us with spongy minds, who respond a little too strongly to acid trips and mescaline and immigration and being alone, for whom an illusion, an estrangement from the actual physical world, is more than enough. I wouldn’t say yes to a trip to Mars, at least not in the present day.
A similar extravagant alienation fueled, I think, David Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust phase. I’ve been streaming a hallucinogenic, visually splendid, sound-struck documentary about Bowie, Moonage Daydream. I would have preferred to see it in an IMAX theater, but instead, sapped by brain fog these last few week, I streamed it from the comfort of my living room couch. A number of movie frames portray Bowie floating along, dancing, as a darkened silhouette through a slightly blank environment tinted in a particularly intense color, green for instance, orange. The videotaped shots are cut with kaleidoscopic animated images of dancers in block colors dancing, kissing.
Layered over the top of this is the sound of Bowie talking about his own experience—his love for Iman that beat out his love for work, for instance—before we cut to another photograph or disco-bright work of art.
I discovered Bowie during the period of life (so far) in which I felt the weirdest and most alienated and also most keenly observant of other people potentially another species whose rules need to be deciphered in a lifetime of feeling that way. Spring of sixth grade, and losing touch, a little with my friend K, two years older than me. She went to the middle school I would go to the following year, and she had psychologically left behind the make-believe games in a world we called Caslom, which had cemented our friendship when we were both little kids. I didn’t know it then, but it would go on being like that, trailing behind her; I followed her, not on purpose, to UC Berkeley, and I also inherited her apartment in college. It was in that apartment I had my first psychedelic experience many years after that Bowie/Doors mixed tape.
You look at this guy in Moonage Daydream: rail thin, gawky, covered in makeup and baroque glitter, with his songs that are all basically elaborate metaphors for what it is to be deeply, profoundly different and unmatched to the built environment in which you find yourself. You might first think yes, this is the crush I had as a teenager, all of my own fragilities and hang ups and lusts and elaborate metaphors for loneliness. But it wasn’t Bowie’s physicality, the intensity of his form, not quite Giacometti-level emaciated, but perhaps moving towards that, which made him lustable, the way you’d lust after people when you were much older.
It was his undeniable and outside presence as this gigantic weirdo, bold enough to put the inside of his mind on the outside. Like you, he had a need to express himself, and it was the fulfillment of his expression that was alluring, somehow made you feel less alone. It’s the same presence and costuming that generate many comic books, many fantasy children’s books as love objects when you’re little. All the things you had to suppress to have some semblance of normal in a screwed-up reality—all that you had to estrange yourself from within yourself—were given physical form. Elements he was able to turn into visual splendor and put out there into the world as a self.
He performed a gesture, I thought, that captured a feeling so many immigrant—so many of-color kids—have about their displacement into environments designed to create belonging for other people, but not for them. Alien. Is there any better metaphor for the immigrant’s dilemma? It’s a word drawn from Latin by way of Old French: “of or belonging to another,” a stranger. There is an alienation writers of color repeatedly explore, the sense of always being an alien to the reality in which they find themselves, not one of their own making, and one in which the rules that constitute the reality—there is no floor, though another part of the mind can sense feet on the floor, the way in which what is visually distinct about us can turn us into an alien immediately.
Earlier this year, I read a novel by an author Mat Johnson whose genre-mashed novels I’ve been a fan of since the publication of his book Pym in 2011. This one, Invisible Things, hinges on a society built on Europa, one of the moons of Jupiter, a society that has numerous metaphoric resonances with our own American society, not least in connection with racial construction. In Mat’s novel, we arrive on that moon seeing the trip through the eyes of space explorers, not unlike Ziggy, and not unlike me as a kid befuddled by people who belonged to the American liberal suburb in which I grew up.
I interviewedMat for Alta. We wound up talking a lot about race because that’s a key element of his books, but it was later, away from the subject of the interview that I thought about a tiny, trace link between his book and the one I’d workshopped with him. In my novel, there was a helmet, a device similar to the VR helmet I put on at the space immersive, and I was reminded again of it when I encountered the real one in the warehouse.
The mind is spongy—some of us have a sponginess that is potentially self-destructive. Even as we try to assimilate to a new perceptual construction, we can’t fully disengage from the old one. That sensation of toggling back and forth between constructions, of being stuck in a liminal space between realities, feels dangerous. One part of the mind struggles with the perception that the ground is, at least, visually, disappeared. Your heart and stomach drop if you give in too readily to this perception: pure terror.
That’s not a floor you see beneath you, but a vast black space and you are stepping into nothingness and stars, and it’s terrifying. The something before the nothing could also be nothing.
What was abandoned on the cutting room floor of the interview was a portion of Mat’s commentary in response to my question about whether the cross-genre aspect of his work might be bound up with having a mixed identity. This is a question I’ve been mulling for a decade—is this arbitrary? I’m driven by that question—how, when you live in that liminal space between cultures, all the genres, categories, taxonomies in either of those cultures feel random. They define our experiences of a story, what we expect, how we are satisfied, or not satisfied, or not satisfied in a satisfyingly interesting way, but they are not truly real. So I asked Mat, “Do you think the cross-genre aspect of your work is bound up with your identity?”
He commented on the conservatism of aesthetic in literature, and noted, “I think honestly, the idea of wanting to play… that's actually normal. It’s storytelling. You want to tell stories. Stories throughout time have always been at some level fantastic. The idea that you just want to tell stories about things exactly the way they are and that, that is the real genre? That is really an exception of human storytelling.”
Mat elaborated on genre as a potential judgment of value, rather than a purely descriptive word for classification: “I had a professor who I respected a lot tell me—a colleague tell me—there's no really good novel on the science fiction, or science fiction fantasy spectrum. No? I said. Well, what about 1984? Oh, yeah. Well, that's, that's not that's not really, you know, that's fiction.What about Slaughterhouse Five? But what about Handmaid's Tale? What was happening was that the second the book was considered good it was taken out of the pile of mixed-genre and given this kind of a special showcase that was beyond examination.”
In literature, of course, all of those social constructions, the solid and still earth we think we see under our feet, are ones we absorb from when we’re tiny—as a parent, I watch my kids absorbing them, changing gradually. I have to focus in to follow the thread of which story caused which belief. But is there a something underneath that ground they form perceptually by living on this planet?
More and more, I think, no.
Yet there is some thread of me that feels it knows when something is good, that feels justified in writing criticism though it’s a construction-upon-a-construction, and who knows what’s underneath that (most recently, these reviews of Percival Everett’s Dr. No and Namwali Serpell’s The Furrows, and newsletters about Kim Stanley Robinson’s The Gold Coast).
With the new novel, I find myself returning, almost against my will, to the urge to break forms and reinvent them from the shatter. That’s what is exciting, I think, in literature and politics right now. The reconfiguration of all the familiar shapes of novels, the familiar cliches of identities, released back into the fiery ether of other people’s present-day perceptions, the build-up of all the constructions they’ve accumulated over the course of their lives, in an unfamiliar shape that still, hopefully, has a kind of meaningfulness to a reader, despite being alien.
David Bowie said, “If you feel safe in the area you’re working in, you’re not working in the right area. Always go a little further into the water than you feel you’re capable of being in. Go a little bit out of your depth. And when you don’t feel that your feet are quite touching the bottom, you’re just about in the right place to do something exciting.” While he framed the risk as one involving water, he could have transposed the same emotions of art making, good art making, to the context of Ziggy, the Spiders from Mars, Major Tom.
So, some news in that regard: I’m under contract with the small press Fiction Advocate to write a tiny book of criticism about Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things—identities and categories, mixed identities, especially. The God of Small Things is the book in my personal trail of breadcrumbs that perhaps in its very existence led me to believe I could write this current novel—and the last, and the last, and the last, and the last into infinity, my infinity anyway. It’s a book I’ve had on my mind ever since I started reading Fiction Advocates Afterwords series.
Why should this perceptual construction, this interpretation of events, be more real than that? Why not a space station? Why not aliens? Why would art, why would language, why would books even be important except as a vehicle to upend our sense of reality, a vehicle that whisks us somehow beyond the solid stuff immediately around us, which we can, after all, experience purely for ourselves through the lonely prism of our own minds?
Aldous Huxley’s The Doors of Perception, from which Jim Morrison took the name of his band, details one of the most striking translations of what it feels like to be on hallucinogens I’ve read. He wrote about the perplexity of a human condition constituted by the ping-ponging of different perceptions, each of us essentially alone with what makes us, yet somehow able to gather (through the things we make, the language and images we do) the circumstances of those experiential isolations,
“We live together, we act on, and react to, one another; but always and in all circumstances we are by ourselves. The martyrs go hand in hand into the arena; they are crucified alone. Embraced, the lovers desperately try to fuse their insulated ecstasies into a single self-transcendence; in vain. By its very nature every embodied spirit is doomed to suffer and enjoy in solitude. Sensations, feelings, insights, fancies—all these are private and, except through symbols and at second hand, incommunicable. We can pool information about experiences, but never the experiences themselves. From family to nation, every human group is a society of island universes.”
I think that’s the weird playful thing that Bowie was able to do. Make it seem like Major Tom’s alien emotional universe was yours, too. This illusion wound up as an interesting metaphor in the real-life experience of the VR space immersive: you see someone glowing and it seems like it’s someone who might belong to your same island universe. You’re there, tripping on all these absurd circumstances, turning and facing the strange—plainly not what the culture claims is the real and the realistic—together.
Until next time,