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The Dream in the Machine: On Germán Sierra’s The Artifact

By Javier Padilla.

Gemán Sierra, The Artifact (Inside the Castle, 2018)

“The earth,” he said, “has a skin; and this skin has diseases. One of these diseases for example is called: ‘Human being.’”
– Friedrich Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra

 Is the machine dreaming us, or are we dreaming the machine? This a question which kept nagging at me as I read Germán Sierra’s The Artifact, the Spanish author’s first work of fiction written in English. Admittedly bizarre, this question gave birth to even more strange and unsettling ones: Are we inside or outside? Are we approaching the prospect of Artificial Intelligence, the holy mother Singularity, from the wrong temporal end of things? What if—dare I write such a thing—AI has already happened? What if we are mere bio-figments emanating from a machine within the bowels of the earth; a mere bio-rash on the suffering skin of a planet bathing in the light of an artificial star?

I don’t pretend to know the answer to these questions, nor is my aim here to provide a “play by play” of Sierra’s narrative or plot, if such a thing is the right way to designate what is unraveled by The Artifact. Let us eschew these stable literary terms and use a more fraught contemporary typology: Sierra’s The Artifact takes the form of a cryptic conspiracy, or to borrow from Reza Negarestani’s subtitle to his Cyclonopedia: it is a “conspiracy with anonymous materials.”

Which materials? Well, namely one, “the one,” or borrowing a from a pathological dialect, the carrier of the artifact. It is not altogether clear who or what this artifact is, or what gave rise to its existence. Like Jorge Luis Borges’s Aleph, the artifact is a “fold in reality.” And here, Borges himself might help delineate what concerns us:

The Aleph’s diameter was probably little more than an inch, but all space was there, actual and undiminished. Each thing (a mirror’s face, let us say) was infinite things, since I distinctly saw it from every angle of the universe. I saw the teeming sea; I saw daybreak and nightfall; I saw the multitudes of America; I saw a silvery cobweb in the center of a black pyramid; I saw a splintered labyrinth (it was London); I saw, close up, unending eyes watching themselves in me as in a mirror; I saw all the mirrors on earth and none of them reflected me. . .

The passage goes on and on, semi colon upon semi colon, in what is perhaps one of the finest examples of literature’s attempt at capturing reality in a single glimmer; a minute engraving of all elsewheres and nowheres inscribing the totality of the universe.

Another of Borges’ stories, indeed his first proper short story, “El Sur,” hangs in the background of Sierra’s text, appearing as in a flash. Like the narrator of “El Sur,” who is injured when an open window is blown open across his face, the protagonist or carrier of the artifact experiences an accident when his vehicle is hit by unmanned drone. The accident is an echo of a later flash or crash: a blue bird crashes against the protagonist’s window, and it this incident which launches The Artifact.

What is not accidental, given Sierra’s Hispanic background, is this influence of Borges who, for all intents and purposes, one might call the one of the “founding fathers” of theory-fiction. As a member of what critics have dubbed the “Nocilla generation,” Sierra is part of a group of Spanish writers whose aesthetics veer more towards playfulness, the experimental or avant-garde, however loosely defined. It is also worth pointing out that he is a neuroscientist, and his scientific training is evident in The Artifact. Crucially, one of the five chapters is titled ‘MRI,’ and the aesthetics of ‘machine imaging’ glow darkly through the pages of Sierra’s text:

For creating an image, hydrogen atoms, particularly from water molecules, are most often used to generate detectable radio-frequency signals that are received by antennas surrounding the body. MRI scans essentially map the distribution of water in body tissues. They paint the human body as a labrynth of waterholes. . . .  Pulses of radio waves excite the nuclear spin energy transition, and magnetic field gradients localize the signal in space. Like 3-D printing a ghost. My body as the shadow of others.

It is the galvanizing of these scientific asides with the elements of a conspiracy, a veritable blend of theory and fiction, that makes The Artifact stand out. This is literature that shimmers like the soft glow of a tumor in a CAT scan, an electron glitch pulsating like waves of a techno-fever.

In addition to Borges, other influences can be detected in Sierra’s “theory-fiction.” As Dan Mellamphy writes in the book’s frontispiece, J.G. Ballard and Phillip K. Dick are both ghostly presences in Sierra’s prose. One might also mention in passing names like Conrad and Nabokov, authors who often burrow into the English language like viruses from the outside, weaponizing the “Imperium of Anglophony.”  And yet, the elements which make The Artifact a “theory fiction” are also what make it a wholly original and idiosyncratic work, a blend of musings on science—biology, physics, computer science—along with an impressionistic montage of fictive tales. For instance, the main narrative is punctuated by the mysterious CONTROL SUBJECT, a non-character who seems to be piece of human software designed to visit places of amusements—human zoos—for vampiric AI entities:

Body to science, this was the soft-sadistic alien abduction he’d been dreaming of, in the semi-nude among disjointed machine robo-vamps bleeding colorful cables, submitting his normalcy to statistical hell, being no-one but a lost dream-number in a pixel-parked graph, his own flesh and entrails re-drawn by the atomic mixer, code-corrupting  demi-god.

It is unclear if CONTROL SUBJECT is also the protagonist, or put another way, where the fictive experiment begins and the “real” CONTROL SUBJECT ends. In this sense, like mirrors or MRI scans, The Artifact is populated by doubles, as if so-called reality were warped and bisected, rendering time and space undefined yet altogether present; the ghost in the machine:

But what if the artifact was caused by a non-detectable brain-originated interference in the machine? What if the software was trying to read beyond our desired limits, representing and re-coding some unexpected signals as a shadow of matter? A matter of shadows. All machines carry human diseases.

I could go on and offer more electrifying particles from Sierra’s work but I do not want to give much away, and in case this would be impossible, since The Artifact—beautifully designed by John Trefry—is a book which needs to be experienced as much as it needs to be read.

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Perhaps it was merely a coincidence –a temporal lark of time, or a jointing of knotted space—but around the time I started to read The Artifact I came across a previously published work of experimental fiction: Eugene Wildman’s Nuclear Love. Whereas Wildman’s text, published in 1972, is shot through with Cold War anxieties over isotopic annihilation, Sierra’s work is seared by contemporary anxieties over dehumanized machinic horizons. And yet both books seem to resonate on the same wavelength, with both authors choosing pastiche over traditional narrative modes, or as the backmatter of Nuclear Love eloquently puts it, these texts are “very much about living in the everyday—a world where the only acceptable fantasy is fear. . .”  and both are composed of many voices, “lyrical, prophetic, angry, whimsical, practical, direct.”

When it comes to The Artifact, I would go one step further: Fear itself becomes a fragile refuge when we longer know where fantasy, the dream, begins and where the body, the machine, ends.

 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Javier Padilla is Assistant Professor of English at Colgate University. His current research project, The Poetics of the Instant, examines the work of several 20th century poets, philosophers, artists and thinkers around the discourse of immediacy and temporality. His articles and translations have appeared in The Capilano ReviewLiterary ImaginationRevista IberoamericanaThe Journal of Modern Literature, and Cuadernos Hispanoamericanos.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Wednesday, January 16th, 2019.