Our science correspondent, Claire L. Evans, reviews a wildly funny new sci-fi collection of tall tales about Henry Ickles, architect of quantum structures and “huckster of the highest order”.
The late Arthur C. Clarke was famous for, among other things, a set of axioms known as “Clarke’s Laws”. The most frequently-cited of these is undoubtedly the third, which states that “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic”. This idea has been roundly exploited throughout the history of science fiction, but rarely quite as subversively as in Ickles, Etc., a new collection of short stories by the science fiction writer Mark von Schlegell.
Ickles, Etc. concerns the practice of a largely inept “info-architect” in a future New Los Angeles named Henry Ickles. His trade is building with mathematics, and his structures are quantum; they are summoned from some terrible Lovecraftian void of pure physics. As such, they are highly unstable. Introduced to a single errant particle, an Ickles pavilion is prone to slip back into the irrational chaos from whence it came, driving to madness anyone foolish enough to broach its doorways.
As a consequence of one of his failed building experiments in non-Euclidean space, Ickles has no direct awareness of self. He is unable to perceive or to refer to himself in the first person, and von Schlegell indulges his protagonist’s handicap with a litany of shifting appellations: our Henry is sometimes Henries, Ickles etc., or “one named Ickles”.
Our Ickles manages to keep his architecture practice open despite his projects’ consistent lack of structural integrity. This is perhaps due to the diligence of his put-upon mathematician aide, Ms. Violet Reeves, or perhaps because he is a huckster of the highest order, selling invisible buildings to millionaires and curators of international art fairs. As with the emperor and his new clothes, Ickles’ patrons are frequently too embarrassed – or too addled by their journeys into implausible architectural space – to hold him liable.
The operating conceit of Ickles’ info-architecture is a perversion of Clarke’s Third Law: instead of sufficiently advanced technology being indistinguishable from magic, sufficiently advanced magic is here indistinguishable from technology. Or rather, at a certain point the two are indistinguishable, and they are both invalidated, like matter and anti-matter, like two improbable particles sharing the same pinpoint.
Ickles woos his clients with talk of quasicrystals and quantum entanglements. His theoretical physics – and by extension, von Schlegell’s – are magician’s patter. The clues are quite apparent to any patient investigator of the book’s neologisms; in one passage, Ickles explains the concept of “Hendy-Freegard Space” to one of his clients as a “mathematical decision wherein one can describe dimensions from without as if one were within, and vice-versa”. The real Robert Hendy-Freegard was a British con artist – a man who masqueraded as an MI5 agent and forced unwitting marks underground for decades for fear of IRA retribution.
Von Schlegell is a con artist too, which is the highest compliment one can pay a professional fantasist. He is peerless: both extremely good and without true contemporaries. He’s too arty for the science fiction ghetto, and too bluntly committed to genre to fully naturalise as an institutional arts writer, academic, or critic. Although all of the stories in Ickles, Etc. were originally written for arts publications and exhibition catalogues, they are all savagely critical of the art world.
The final story in Ickles, Etc., “Theory of Everything”,presents a kind of contemporary art that has evolved into a baroque pastime called “kulturnautics”, a “hybrid of all the essentially harmless activities of the Western cultural tradition”. This circus interferes rudely and constantly in the lives of the working class. Von Schegell’s relationship to contemporary art, he explains, is as a “confused witness” to the scene’s “comic absurdity”.
Von Schlegell’s stories are refugees, and they cannot claim asylum in the embassy of science fiction. His audience is not receptive to conceptual piss-takers; they prefer Transformers, battalions of marauding aliens, and superheroes. Once a medium for genuinely critical avant-garde thinking, the genre has ebbed, in recent years, back to its blandly commercial roots. As Noah Berlatsky wrote in a recent essay for The Atlantic, in contemporary science fiction, “tomorrow isn't a potential where things might be better, or even different; it's just a place to rearrange the robots on a Titanic that never sinks”.
As such, von Schlegell is most appreciated by other liminalists without permanent address. Besides as subversive supplements to art catalogues, he publishes his short stories, speculative essays, screwy criticisms and inspired undefinables in underground newspapers, zines, and amateur periodicals. His novels – Venusia, Mercury Station, and the upcoming Sundogz – are published by a rare convergence of MIT Press and Semiotext(e). Ickes, Etc comes to us from Sternberg Press, a Berlin-based publisher of art criticism, theory, fiction, and artists’ books.
If an intellectual genealogy can be traced, I’m tempted to posit von Schlegell as inheritor to the New Wave science fiction writers of the late 1960s, the men and women who bound science fiction and modernism, then postmodernism: J.G. Ballard, Michael Moorcock, Fritz Leiber, and Joanna Russ, who also had trouble with first-person pronouns. But von Schlegell’s own influences confound this pat set of comparisons. He accurately describes Ickles, Etc, as a kind of fan-fic of P.G. Wodehouse and early-career Robert Heinlein. Ickles is as feckless and ridiculous as any Wodehouse character, tippling whiskey in his own comedy of errors.
As for Heinlein, von Schlegell borrows a few strands of Ickles’ DNA from the 1940 novella Waldo, in which it’s discovered that technology is powered by magic, and the 1941 story “– And He Built a Crooked House –” about a mathematician-architect, Quintus Teal, who builds a house shaped like the unfolded net of a tesseract. Teal is referenced multiple times in Ickles, Etc, as though he were a real historical character. “The line that hooked me from Quintus Teal”, explains von Schlegell, “was when he mocked Schindler and Neutra as being con men pretending they were scientific”.
Show magic is the art of distraction. A magician draws the viewer’s eyes away from the mechanics of the trick; a good magician does it seamlessly, concealing physical machinations with language. Con men work much the same way, incanting false truths into existence, like a house made of tesseracts. At the end of the show, we cheer – until we realise our pockets have been picked.
Ickles, Etc. is a pick-pocketing science fiction book. It is also wildly funny. It resists categorisation because there is no shelf shaped oddly enough. Von Schlegell proposes speculations – drone museum docents, translation pills, the unexplained but contemptible ruins of a Frank Gehry building – in the offhand manner of a science-fiction writer with more ideas than stories. Each is a gem. And the mathematical architecture, somewhere far beyond the confluence of reality and illusion, is a grandiose impossibility held together by the lies of an expert magician.
– Claire L. Evans is a writer and artist working in Los Angeles. Her “day job” is as the singer and co-author of the conceptual disco-pop band YACHT. A science journalist and science-fiction critic, she is the Futures Editor of Motherboard and its sister science-fiction magazine, Terraform, as well as a regular contributor to Aeon Magazine, Vice, and Grantland. A collected book of her essays, High Frontiers, is now available from Publication Studio. www.clairelevans.com
Mark von Schlegell
ed. Nikolaus Hirsch & Markus Miessen
Sternberg Press, 2014