D//E Guest Post: Nadja's Pessimistic Dystopian Reading List (With a Hint of Optimism)

We have written before that Luminous Rot is inspired by themes of first contact between human and non-human life, particularly in relation to science fiction novels by Cixin and Lem, but also touching on mathematics and astro-physics. Here, we offer a few more thoughts on some of the books that inspired our music (or at least what we were thinking about as we wrote the songs), as well as a few other favourites touching on similar themes:

Cixin Liu – The Three Body Problem

Cixin Liu's trilogy about an alien invasion of Earth (to put it very simply) is sprawling, complex, and challenging. It was most interesting as a philosophical work, both on a human level—how different human cultures and societies would react differently to the same thing—and in the sense of first contact. Not only how humans and extra-terrestrials would interact or attempt to communicate, but how those two groups would react differently to the same situation, who might value what and why.

Parts of the trilogy delve heavily into astrophysics and spatial mathematics—which made me think of some favourite other books like Edward A. Abbot's Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimensions, Rudy Rucker's (sort of) parody of Flatland, Spaceland, and Steve Tomasula's VAS: An Opera in Flatland. Somewhat synchronously, this related back to Leah's exploration and work in hyperbolic crochet, a methodology of modelling hyperbolic space created by Latvian mathemetician, Daina Taimiņa, and Margaret Wertheim's book on the subject, A Field Guide to Hyperbolic Space: An Exploration of the Intersection of Higher Geometry and Feminine Handicraft

This probably seems all very academic and highfalutin—and how might it inform writing an album?!—but we're not mathematicians or scientists or academics. It is more about how our individual interests and practices might converge around certain subjects and how this might make one think differently about things (the world, people, connections, and so on). Which seems especially pertinent in these culturally and politically fractious times.

Stanislaw Lem – Solaris

It is difficult to pick a favourite out of Lem's many works, but Solaris is one of the most interesting in relation to first contact themes. Lem tells the story of a planetary body attempting to communicate with a group of astronauts by manipulating their memories and emotions. It is creepy and unnerving, in places, and difficult, but also sort of beautiful—much like the film adaptations by Tarkovsky and Soderbergh (both of which have value, I think). And arguably a conceit that should be equally relevant in contemporary times to humanity's fractious relationship to the Earth itself, how we might be failing to probably understand the impact of our existence on the planet.

Arkady & Boris Strugatsky – Roadside Picnic (aka Stalker)

Another book adapted by Tarkovsky... and maybe the book is slightly less obtuse than the film, but it is equally vague or oblique... and less about actual contact between human and alien life—actual communication—than about humans digging around in the garbage, attempting to figure out what things are and do, left behind by an alien visitation to earth. An interesting take on anthropocentrism and humanity's self-importance and just how peripheral we might really be.

Joanna Russ – The Two Of Them

Russ is a recent discovery, an under-appreciated feminist SF writer from the 1960s and 70s. She is very acerbic and misanthropic (and quite militantly feminist), but her voice is compelling. The Two Of Them has some  problematic elements from a contemporary perspective, but it is about the impossibility of communication—both on a large scale, between groups of different religions with different value sets, and on a small scale, between individuals who are supposed to be progressive and enlightened. To be honest, The Two Of Them is not one of our favourites from Russ—maybe The Female Man or Picnic On Paradise instead—but it is thematically relevant and still an interesting read.

Samuel R Delaney – Dhalgren

Dhalgren also inspired an earlier EP of ours, Ruins of Morning, but we both finished it not too long before working on Luminous Rot (it is a long read). About an amnesiac drifter wandering through and attempting to find a place in a liminal, nebulous city in the American midwest, cut off and removed from the rest of the country by some unnamed catastrophe, the book is simultaneously surreal and mundane, hallucinogenic and prosaic. Very much about the nature of perception, from the individual to the collective—and apparently semi-autobiographical to Delaney's own experiences with dyslexia and dysmetria—Dhalgren can be disorienting and fragmentary...yet we sometimes found ourselves reminded of our adoptive city of Berlin, which felt (sort of antithetically) equally comforting and disconcerting... 

John Brunner - The Sheep Look Up

This novel is very much of its (1970s) time and a bit dated (linguistically, at the very least) but every time I read about America being on fire (whether literally from forest fires or figuratively from incidents of violence or infrastructural decay), I end up thinking about this book and it seems prescient in a number of ways. Set in a dystopian reality, it is about excessive consumerism and environmental collapse and the resulting rise in crime and civil unrest. A garbage man becomes a possible saviour, but as his cult-like followers turn to terrorism to advance their agenda, it becomes muddied whether the means do justify the ends...not a cheerful read, certainly, and an all-too realistic portrayal of our possible path if things do not start to change.

Octavia Butler - Parable of The Sower

Much like Brunner's novel, this is also about societal and environmental collapse, racial unrest, rampant fundamentalism, and unconstrained consumerism. Written in the 1990s, this is even more prescient than The Sheep Look Up (reality stars in political office, for one), and while equally bleak perhaps a bit more hopeful as the main character sows her parables, despite the brutality of human experience, attempting to create a new ideology or philosophy and re-direct human's path.

Steve Erickson - Shadowbahn

Something of a sequel to Erickson's harrowing My Dreams of You (but extant in and of itself), Shadowbahn presents an alternate reality in which the wrong Presley twin—Elvis instead of Jesse—dies at birth. Jesse's very existence not only changes the course of 20th century musical history (no Elvis = no Beatles, for example), but ultimately negates the very existence of music itself... although sometimes one can find, hear music again, if you end up on the titular 'shadowbahn,' a nebulous Route 66-ish freeway, only accessible when you fall asleep at the wheel...offering another alternate reality within an already alternate reality. This book is complicated and weird, both creepy and wonderful, steeped in Americana and pop/musical culture, but definitely makes one think about the value of music and its impact not only on culture but existence itself. 

Nadja photos by Janina Gallert

Luminous Rot, the newest album by Nadja, is out now through Southern Lord.

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