The purpose of a book review, I suppose, is to tell the reader enough about the book to decide whether or not they would find it worthwhile.
What do you think would be in a book entitled Spacecraft? A catalogue of spacecraft, both real (e.g. Sputnik, Voyager, Apollo) and imaginary (the Enterprise, the Altair IV, the various ships in the recent Expanse novels and TV series)? A history maybe? Perhaps a focused discussion of, say, a dozen carefully chosen craft? Each of those implies criteria of judgment. Is the catalogue well-organized? Is the history coherent and easy to follow? Are the dozen examples well chosen, with each representing an important type?
Timothy Morton’s book, Spacecraft (Bloomsbury 2021), is none of those, though it contains aspects of all of them. What, then, is it?
The book might well be called Some Meditations on the Millennium Falcon. But how does one summarize and assess someone’s meditations?
What, by the way, IS a meditation? When I type “meditation” into a search engine, the return list includes, “meditations marcus aurelius,” “meditations in an emergency,” “meditations on first philosophy,” “meditations on the tarot,” “meditations book,” “meditations for anxiety”, and several others. If we combine emergency, first philosophy, tarot, and anxiety, with a discothèque and, I don’t know, Miss Piggy, and a fire cracker, we’ll be headed in the right direction.
The Child is Father to the Man
Let’s begin at the beginning, as Morton himself does. He talks about his childhood as an eleven year old boy coming from a family of limited means and walking to school in the morning, going “toward the … alienating land of a very posh private school” (p. 1). In that context he took comfort in “making up spacecraft. I would inhabit them in the cockpit of my mind, describing their specifications to myself, under my breath.” When I first read those words I merely read them on the way to what came next, which was about seeing Star Wars and, a bit later, Close Encounters of the Third Kind – both came out in 1977, when he was nine – about his collections of models, and books.
Yet, as I read Morton’s account of his childhood engagement with space flight, I thought of my own, which was a bit different as I am a generation older. For me the movie was Forbidden Planet. But the definitive event came early in October of 1957 when the Soviet Union launched Sputnik into space, thereby launching the so-called “space race” into overdrive. That’s when my personal imaginary met world history, though I certainly didn’t think in those terms at the time.
I’m wondering whether or not Morton’s childhood encounter with space-themed science fiction had a similar valence for him. And not only for him, but for many other children as well. Thus, after recounting that aspect of his childhood, Morton observes (p. 2):
I was using space craft as protection and escape vehicle in my head. And so, to this day, I’ve wanted to explore what that was all about. In particular that’s because I’m sure I’m not the only one.
No, he’s not. How many of us are there? Morton continues in the next paragraph:
This doesn’t mean that I’m not interested in Apollo or the Space Shuttle, or Soyuz, or Sputnik. Far from it. The whole point about those vehicles is that they also originated in some dream of a human being. The Space Shuttle bears a vivid resemblance to the shuttle as imagined by Stanley Kubrick in the film 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). And to design real spacecraft you need a big imagination.
In pursuing Morton’s childhood, I’m not attempting to shoehorn Spacecraft into old-fashioned biographical criticism whereby one seeks to explain a text by finding its secrets in the author’s autobiography. There’s nothing secret or hidden about Morton’s childhood introduction to spacecraft. He tells us about it the very first thing. It’s part of the story he’s telling, one common to many children whose imagination has been fired with visions of space travel. It’s a story born of a specific cultural imaginary common among children of the last decades of the previous century.
Such children couldn’t have existed prior to that time. Why not? Because the culture didn’t provide the materials on which such an imagination could feed itself. Sure, science fiction novels existed before then, as did magazines build on science fiction stories, and some science fiction stories did show up in the movies, But they weren’t so pervasive and readily available to children as they became in the 1950s and after. Nor did they exist in the context of an international competition, the Cold War, that made the conquest (a word I chose deliberately) of space a matter of national and international importance.
That competition reached an inflection point in the late 1960s, at about the time Morton was born (in 1968). Stanley Kubrick redefined science fiction when he released 2001: A Space Odyssey. The special effects were superior to those in any prior science fiction films. Moreover, by starting the film in the ancient past, when there were no humans on earth, Kubrick situated the mythos of spaceflight in the history of life on earth. Thus Kubrick situated space flight in the mythos and imaginary of the human, thereby freeing it from the trappings of the late industrial revolution.
A year after that NASA landed Apollo 11 on the moon (1969). What Kubrick had depicted in fiction, in imagination NASA had made real. Space travel was no longer something that happened only in the cultural imaginary. It had entered the realm of the Real, of what Morton called the “future future. Futurality is the possibility that things could be different” (p. 73). Space travel is more than rockets and phasers, super-smart computers, aliens, and the possibility of faster-than-light travel. It is the possibility of radical transformation. As Morton says at the beginning of his last paragraph (pp. 110): “The millennium (as in falcon) is hyperspace, that post-apocalyptic moment at which a more just world is established.” NASA may have been funded out of a desire to score points against the nation Ronald Reagan would come to call an evil empire (1983), but it was never captive to, subsumed by, that intention. It played on a much larger stage.
The Millennium Falcon
Spacecraft, then, is a vehicle in which Morton meditates on futurality. The Millennium Falcon, along with hyperspace, is at the center of this meditation.
Morton distinguishes spacecraft from spaceships. Spaceships are generally larger than spacecraft; think, for example, of the hulking vessels of the Empire or, for that matter, of the Starship Enterprise. But size isn’t the only thing. The Millennium Falcon is a spacecraft but it’s roughly the same size as the Altair IV, the saucer from Forbidden Planet. The Altair is clearly a spaceship, however. Why? Because it is run by a crew with a hierarchal structure headed by a captain and with a cook somewhere near the bottom of the staff. Craft aren’t crewed in that way. The crew is small and more or less equal. Yeah, the Falcon is Solo’s vessel, but he’s not Chewbacca’s boss. They’re buddies.
We’ve also got “craft” as skill, and “craft” as in crafty (p. 13). These things matter in Morton’s thinking, but also in his style. And so he plays around with implications and connotations until we get a feel for the flow and then he offers a partial typology of space vehicles (p. 21):
The machine cum dea
First of all, I’m not going to attempt to explain what all those vessels are. You’ll have to read the book for that.
Morton does note, however, that “none of them are exactly the Millennium Falcon” and that “the Falcon can become any of these types of vessel. Moreover, “each of these vessels can become other ones.” What? To cap it off (21-22): “But none of them can be the Falcon. That’s because the Falcon stands for the irreducible uniqueness of how things are.” It may be irreducibly unique, but it’s also protean, though not quite a shape-shifter. It is what it is at the moment, and time changes.
And nothing is more entangled with change and fluidity than hyperspace. Let’s plunge right in with a passage near the end of the chapter on hyperspace (p. 85-86):
To the outside world you disappear when you enter hyperspace. But for you, it’s as if you’ve stepped out of the street into the lounge. Star Wars sensualizes hyperspace in this way too – hyperspace is not a place of cosmic speed and massive realizations, but rather a quiet lounge. There’s an achieved privacy. It’s soft and comfy. You can play chess. You can flirt. You can talk about boyfriends. Suddenly you arrive at your destination and your spacecraft floats a little. It’s as if you’ve been in a traveling lounge that can relocate anywhere. Then you have to get to work and do stuff like fighting or landing.
What do you think as you read that? Stepped out of the street into the lounge? What street, and what lounge? What’s this have to do with Star Wars?
Morton opens the chapter in the lounge area at the center of the Millennium Falcon where Chewbacca’s paying holographic chess (p. 53). So the chapter starts in a lounge. A bit later Morton will offer a brief disquisition on lounges in which he informs you, trickster that he is, that the Falcon is itself a lounge that contains a lounge much larger than it is – in the same way that the Tardis, from another science fiction franchise, contains within it much more than could possibly be fit inside a phone booth – and that this much larger lounge is hyperspace (p. 55). How do you get to hyperspace? By hitching a ride on the Falcon. Or you can watch the Tardis tumble through hyperspace at the beginning of a each episode of Doctor Who.
Honestly, it’s as though all those roads that lead to Rome? When you turn around and look at them all squinty-eyed, it turns out they lead to hyperspace as well — though you might have to click the heels of your red shoes to get the full effect.
Later (p. 56-57): “…hyperspace is definitely not an empty box. […] hyperspace has a feel. Hyperspace is ‘space-feel’ just like potato chips have ‘mouthfeel’ in the PR business. […] Hyperspace is a place.”
You are perhaps confused? From hyperspace to mouthfeel to place, that’s just how it goes. How about Claude Monet’s water lilies, Einstein’s spacetime, stream of consciousness (Woolf and Joyce), “Space…has contours…is creamy…a kind of roaring blue and white curdled ocean” – I’m not making this up. I’m just collecting things as I leaf through the book. Then: Hyperspace is the ecological niche of spacecraft – their habitat.” Finally we land, with Morton telling us that the term hyperspace was coined in 1967 (p. 61). Then right back out, we’re off into Gauss and non-Euclidean geometry and “reference mollusks” (Einstein) and then Wham! Han Solo tells us: “Traveling in hyperspace ain’t like dusting crops boy” (p. 62). It sure didn’t feel that way, zipping all over the map in Morton’s prose.
It’s time to regroup. Stop, take a deep breath, and let’s return to childhood.
Pigs in Space
The late-60s conjunction of Kublick and NASA also saw the original Star Trek on television (1965-1969). A decade later The Muppet Show ran on British and American television between 1976 and 1981. It had a running segment entitled “Pigs in Space,” which was a parody off 1960s and 1970s space operas, including Star Trek. That is to say, by that time space travel was established well enough that it could evoke and support parodies in a television show aimed at children (the kind of children’s show that appealed to adults as well). Morton watched it “all the time” he tells me (I asked him in the Twitterverse) and he discusses it at both the beginning and the ending of Spacecraft.
He introduces The Muppet Show by talking about talking (p. 18):
There is a naïve, sincere way of talking that is a part of OOO talk. It’s quite like Star Wars or Sesame Street or The Muppet Show, which are all related, to the extent that Star Wars has always been Muppet Star Wars.
“OOO,” as you may know, is an acronym for “Object-Oriented Ontology,” the philosophical movement with which Morton is associated. And here and there Morton explicitly talks philosophy, but Spacecraft is not an explicit philosophical argument about the future, or space travel, or the imagination. Though it is about all those things the philosophy exists as much if not more in Morton’s language and style – that naïve sincere, and slippery (allusive and elusive), way of talking – as in explicit argumentation. Spacecraft is a mediation on futurality and futurality is a way of thinking and talking.
Having introduced Muppets into the book, Morton notes that Frank Oz voices both Gonzo, a Muppet, and Yoda. Moreover (18-19):
…both projects are about using seemingly naïve, simple, sincere things to make profound philosophical points. Both are about democracy, the idea that anyone can have access to these points, that anyone can make them. They are also about expanding democracy to include more than humans.
Skipping through the book to the end – via hyperspace? – we find Morton suggesting parallels between characters in Star Wars and Muppets: Yoda with Gonzo (obviously), Darth Vader with Rowlf (not so obvious), the Sith with Stadler and Waldorf. But then (p. 108): “I will cease this line of thought because, really it’s way too far out, even for me. But it’s an interesting game, isn’t it? Can you match characters in Star Wars with Muppets?” He continues on doing so. But that’s beside the point, what’s interesting is Morton’s assertion that this “interesting game” has gone “way to far out, even for me.”
Is that his mode through the whole book, game mode? Start with the Millennium Falcon and see where it leads, by association, generalization, abstraction, conflation and whatever else. Futurality is a game one plays with spacecraft in hyperspace. Futurality is a mode of being where Muppets and humans are the same.
* * * * *
This review is based on a series of blog posts from New Savanna.
I reviewed Morton’s Hyperobjects in 3 Quarks Daily back in 2014: Sing Me a Song of Hyperobjects: Starting Over with Humans and Other Creatures in the 21st Century CE.
Leanne Ogasawara reviews Morton’s All Art is Ecological in this issue of 3 Quarks Daily.
Finally, George Lucas has commented on the relationship between Star Wars and Muppets.
At about 33:22 Lucas is talking with a couple of the animators about digital Yoda. Observing that Yoda is a frog-like creature, Lucas wants to combine the movement styles of Kermit and Miss Piggy in Yoda for the big light saber battle. He quips that Yoda is (c. 33:44) “the illegitimate child of Kermit the frog and Miss Piggy. […] We’ve never discussed this before, and don’t let it get out because if that hits the National Enquirer we’re all dead.”