Monday, September 07, 2015

Science Friction

In the early 1970s, Samuel R. Delany and his ex-wife Marilyn Hacker edited four volumes of a little magazine, Quark. Original short stories and poetry. Speculative fiction. New Wave experiments in inner space. Stories by Thomas M. Disch, John Sladek, Joanna Russ, M John Harrison, Kate Wilhelm. An early piece by Christopher Priest. Cool stuff, and a nice little cross-section of science fiction at a certain node in its history. I have the first two volumes, and after a few years of failing to spot the other two at dealers' tables at SF conventions (not that I was looking very hard), I took the search online. A book dealer in New Jersey had a nice copy of Quark 3 at a keen price. I ordered and paid for it, he packaged and dispatched it . . . and somewhere between New Jersey and London, it went astray.

Translating an impulse into an order on some merchant's web page and arranging the paperless transfer of credit is largely friction free, apart from the mediation of touch pad or keyboard. But pressing the virtual BUY button sets in train a hugely complex set of processes in the physical world, involving two different postal services and two sets of customs, at least one air freight company and one of its planes and the plane's crew, a trans-Atlantic flight, various air traffic control systems, two airports . . . The kind of stuff glimpsed at the edges of the narrative of Castaway; the infrastructure hymned in John Kasarda and Greg Lindsay's Aerotropolis. We think about it when we shop online about as much as we think of abattoirs when we order a hamburger, which is to say hardly at all. Until something goes wrong, and the friction of actual things moving through the actual world makes itself known. And something did go wrong, in transit, with the copy of Quark 3 I ordered. I never did get the book, but because the transport system tracks objects via their unique codes I was able to find out that that it reached my local sorting office, which tried twice to deliver it . . . to a house number one digit different to mine.

It's a very twenty-first century experience, this kind of futile omnipotence: you can see where things went wrong, but only when it's too late to do anything about it. You have the information, but you can't use it to solve the problem because although the system allows you to be an observer, it doesn't allow you to be an agent. I know, because the bookseller kept a scan of the postage label, that the address was correct when he consigned the book to the maw of the machine. And I know that somewhere, somehow, the address changed. Perhaps either US or UK customs opened the package to check it, and slapped on a new label with a miskeyed address. Perhaps the label was subtly damaged, a smudge or rip changing the last digit of the house number from 8 to 9. Maybe, like the fly that falls into a teletype printer at the beginning of Brazil, and changes the name Tuttle to Buttle, there was an actual bug in the machine. In any case, no one was in on the two occasions, two weeks apart, when the postman tried to deliver the book to the wrong address. While-you-were-out cards were left, addressed to me; presumably, the home owner shrugged and threw them away. And when no one came to collect the book after the second delivery attempt, the sorting office sent it off to the depot that handles international mail, so that it could be returned to sender.

I know the dates of the attempted deliveries, and the date of return, but after that the trail goes cold. A month has passed. The book hasn't yet come back to the bookseller. I hope it does. It was - I hope it still is - a nice clean copy of a paperback more than forty years old. I wouldn't like to think that my stupid impulse to buy it consigned it like some hapless hero to a journey with no clear destination or way back; that the frictionless scratch of a little itch of desire, a momentary impulse that crossed the Atlantic at the speed of electricity, has been the undoing of a fragile innocent little memento of history and imagination.

2 Comments:

Blogger Brian said...

:(

September 07, 2015 8:23 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Its always good to see great books like this reissued, but I have to ask, what happened to sci-fi book covers, where's the effort, art and grace, in a picture of the Eiffel tower, probably taken on a publishers smart phone?

No offence Paul, your writing is utterly awesome, I just lament the disappearance of something that adds to a readers sense of wonder!

October 24, 2015 2:52 pm  

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