An Apocalypse of Total Communication:
Utopian and Dystopian Perspectives in Star Maker (1937) and The Matrix (1999)
I assume the reader is familiar with The Matrix (1999); otherwise you can write on your computer’s web browser “Whatisthematrix”... and you will reach the film’s web page in the Warner server. Olaf Stapledon’s novel Star Maker
(1968 ) is less well known, though, and the question “What
is the Star Maker?” will puzzle us forever. I will therefore
begin with Star Maker.
Olaf Stapledon (1886-1950) was a British socialist philosopher and
novelist, interested in the future history of humankind, in the
development of human mental potentialities, and in space
exploration—he gave a lecture on “Interplanetary Man”
to the British Interplanetary Association as early as 1948. He was a
member of the Progressive Society and of the Society for Psychic
Research. His best-known novels, Last and First Men
(1930) and Star Maker (1937), are imaginative explorations of possible futures
for mankind. They are important and fascinating works that deserve to
be more widely read and known by those interested in science fiction,
in the human cosmological imagination—or in the fate of mankind.
Star Maker is the more
wide-ranging of the two novels. It is a meditation on community,
beginning with the narrator standing on a hill at night and looking at
the lights of his home, reflecting on his marriage, on private life, on
its place in the world and its relation with “the growing web,
the intricate, ever-proliferating pattern of mankind” (1968:
256). Marriage, with its balance of dependence and independence and its
loving mutual contact, is “a microcosm of true community,”
an actual example “of that high goal which the world
seeks.” The narrator speculates “whether man’s
blundering search for wisdom and love was a sole and insignificant
tremor, or part of a universal movement” (1968: 258). Looking at
the stars above him, the narrator experiences the vertigo of cosmic
immensity. Through some kind of vision or trance, the narrator soars
into the starry heaven. Looking at the Earth from space, he feels
“as never before, the vital presence of Earth as of a creature
alive but tranced and obscurely yearning to wake” (1968:
260). (Note 1).
The narrator abandons Earth and travels through the universe. Time and
space lose their earthly proportions, and a grandiose panorama of
cosmic dimensions opens to our vision.
The narrator has a telepathic vision of the future in which he contacts
the civilisations on other planets. He travels mentally through space
and time, watching the birth and death of thinking beings in many
galaxies, observing them attain a certain level of development before
they disappear. Some of these races of intelligent beings establish
contact with other races, and create powerful telepathic webs with
greater exploratory power. (Note 2). In the long run the whole universe
joins in a telepathic community. First it is only a galaxy that
achieves a quasi-utopian state of mental community:
world, peopled with its unique, multitudinous race of sensitive
individual intelligences united in true community, was itself a living
thing, possessed of a common spirit. And each system of many populous
orbits was itself a communal being. And the whole galaxy, knit in a
single telepathic mesh, was a single intelligent and ardent being, the
common spirit, the “I,” of all its countless, diverse, and
ephemeral individuals. (1968: 380)
For Stapledon the utopian socialist, the growth of communication and of
community is in principle good. It is associated to progress, insight,
and civilisation—like H. G. Wells, Stapledon called for a
socialist world state. (Note 3). Stapledon the philosopher, propounder of a
cosmical ethics, went farther, since in his view human actions must be
directed toward the universe becoming an organism. As Stapledon said in
A Modern Theory Of Ethics (1929),
our human endeavour … however microscopic its scope, must be
controlled in relation to that end. And clearly the only way for us as
a race to serve in this cosmical task is to strive to organize our tiny
planet and facilitate, if may be, the development of even richer,
subtler and more unified mind. (Quoted in Shelton 1989: 12)
Although there may be a cost to pay, a counterpart to that increased
mutual transparency, the focus in Stapledon’s novels is wholly on
the side of utopian communication. (Note 4). Communication is the necessary
condition to the integration of many selves in order to form superhuman
unified systems. Star Maker
carries to its logical conclusion an element which is present in many
utopian works: an increased uniformity and mutual transparency of
individuals to each other, which signals too the end of history
(utopias are notoriously static). (Note 5). These latent potentialities of
the genre are drawn to their last consequences, literalised and hugely
magnified in Stapledon’s novel. The universe moves towards an
apocalypse of total communication that is both historical and timeless.
This cosmic magnitude gives the novel an important religious dimension.
Throughout his mental travels, the narrator experiences many strange
worlds and barely understandable modes of being, but senses in all
forms of intelligence a common nature—a “kinship and mutual
intelligibility of the most alien beings in respect of the pure
spiritual experience” (1968: 427). Communication through the
voids of space is fraught with difficulties, but is justified in view
of “the great increase of mutual insight which it would produce
in the galaxies in the last and most difficult phase of cosmical
life” (1968: 383). Sometimes this search for unity involves the
sacrifice of whole worlds—the continuity of the cosmic society
requires “the euthanasia of the excess population of
worlds” (1968: 384). A period of cosmic catastrophes follows,
after which crisis the Universe achieves a higher level of mental
integration, as the inhabitants of the planets establish contact with
the minds of the stars.
The stars are discovered to be in some way alive and to have a
spiritual life, expressed through their motion through space, which
seems mechanical to us but seems to the stars a deliberate dance:
certainly, the star’s whole physical behaviour is normally
experienced as a blissful, an ecstatic, an ever successful pursuit of
formal beauty. . . .
There is good reason to say that the two over-mastering desires of all
stars are the desire to execute perfectly their part in the communal
dance, and the desire to press forward to the attainment of full
insight into the nature of the cosmos. (1968: 388-89)
Each star is telepathically aware of the others, and socially
cooperates with them; some of them even make love through physical
contact, but most stars are virgins—though many of them
masturbate and suffer from psoriasis (—I am referring to the
“salamandrian pest” which plagues most stars in secret and
introduces the idea of purity among them [1968: 392]. Not least among
the pleasures of reading Stapledon is the way he plays imaginative
variations on human affairs as he describes the multifarious cosmic
Although the early contacts between the minds of the planetary beings
and the living stars bring fear and strife, “[i]n due season a
symbiotic society of stars and planetary systems embraced the whole
galaxy” (1968: 394). New intelligent races develop and inhabit
the dying stars—some of these are intelligent swarms with a
collective mind, the individuals being mere instinctive animals when
isolated from their swarm. The universe reaches a quasi-utopian state
as it approaches entropic death:
at last the many kinds of spirit which composed the galactic society
were bound so closely in mutual insight that there had emerged out of
their harmonious diversity a true galactic mind, whose mental reach
surpassed that of the stars and of the worlds as far as these surpassed
their own individuals. (1968: 396)
This communal galactic mind establishes telepathic contact with other
galactic minds, near the end of the Universe. Here the novel’s
narration undergoes an important shift in narrative person, as the
fictional writer begins to refer to the Universe as “I,” in
the first person rather than the third: “to me, with my
composite, scattered body, space seemed no bigger than a great vaulted
hall” (1968: 397).
Notwithstanding its enormously developed intelligence and knowledge,
this universal being experiences existential anguish and the terror of
absolute loneliness. The cosmic mind has arisen as the cosmic body is
already approaching cold death: “I was the struggling embryo in
the cosmical egg, and the yolk was already in decay” (1968: 398).
In spite of its impending death, this cosmic mind manages to establish
mental contact with the Star Maker “in two aspects: as the
spirit’s particular creative mode that had given rise to me, the
cosmos; and also, most dreadfully, as something incomparably greater
than creativity, namely as the eternally achieved perfection of the
absolute spirit” (1968: 407). Through this mystical experience
the narrator is able to contemplate the creation of the cosmos—an
early version of the Big Bang theory in Stapledon’s novel.
It is nostalgia for the original unity of the cosmos that drives
Stapledon’s creatures to establish mental networks and communal
minds. Using as a motivating device the expanding mental power of his
focaliser, Stapledon manages to narrate the end and the beginning of
the cosmos simultaneously. Moreover, the novel, being a written text,
is like the Star Maker’s wheel of creations, both a sequential
process and an atemporal structure. The reading process, then, is
iconically modelled on the narrator’s growing comprehension of
the cosmos: “In my dream, the Star Maker himself, as eternal and
absolute spirit, timelessly contemplated all his works; but also as the
finite and creative mode of the absolute spirit, he bodied forth his
creations one after the other in a time sequence proper to his own
adventure and growth” (1968: 413).
The narrator’s vision has an eternally static as well as a
temporal aspect—is it because it has been textualised, or is it
in order to replicate the narrator’s approach to the Star Maker,
or is it rather because of the double nature of the Star Maker’s
being, temporal and atemporal? Stapledon’s use of narrative
structure and textuality manages to suggest all three in one, which
makes the experience of reading his book all the more compelling.
The narrator (in his avatar as cosmic mind) contemplates the activity
of the Star Maker. This is of course Stapledon’s version of God,
or at any rate of Plato’s Demiurge in the Timaeus—a
God who is not loving and caring and vindictive, like the
Judaeo-Christian God: the Star Maker contemplates the cosmic mind
facing him as an imperfect creation, and thirsts for further creation.
The narrator’s cosmic mind accepts his fate as a limited
creation, a mere chapter in a sequence of creations. With resignation,
he contemplates his own death in the future collapse of the universe.
The narrator also describes the overall activity of the Star Maker
creating other universes than his own—an insight achieved in the
moment he catches a glimpse of the Star Maker. (Note 6). The Star Maker
imagines one cosmos after another, each including greater complexity
and more lucid creatures: “In some the climax was a single
utopian society of distinct minds; in others a single composite
cosmical mind” (1968: 419). The Maker improves his works until he
creates “his ultimate and most subtle cosmos, for which all
others were but tentative preparations” (1968: 427), the last
movement of the cosmic symphony, the culmination of the universal drive
towards community and intelligence.
The inhabitants of the ultimate cosmos are described as “those
most diverse and individual beings, awakened to full self-knowledge and
mutual insight” (1968: 428). Still, they do not seem basically
different from human beings, as many squander their spiritual powers
and suffer in darkness: “Though gifted with full power of
insight, their power was barren” (1968: 428). Even as the
narrator rebels against this perpetuation of suffering in the highest
universe, he is allowed a glimpse of the Star Maker’s perspective
on reality: he apprehends timelessly the whole sequence of creations.
He realises that the Star Maker contemplates the universe
dispassionately, that love and hate are phenomena to be contemplated
but not a part of the eternal perspective, which escapes human
comprehension but yet compels the narrator’s adoration.
The narrator, returning back to earth and awakening from his telepathic
trance, finds a new significance in his everyday experience, against
the backdrop of universal becoming. As Stapledon argues in his
philosophical work A Modern Theory of Ethics, such ecstasy provides a
new source of values: “though from our high out-look we can now
regard all familiar values with complete detachment, we at the same
time see them to be irradiated by the supreme excellence” of the
universe (quoted in Shelton 1989: 12).
The parallel between the creation and the text leads to a further
metafictional parallel, that between the author and the Star Maker. It
could be argued that, like the Star Maker, the author delights in the
sequence of partial creations until he reaches the final expression of
his creative urge, bringing the book to an end: “He objectified
from himself something of his own unconscious substance to be the
medium of his art, and this he moulded with conscious purpose. Thus
again and again he fashioned toy cosmos after toy cosmos” (1968:
414). Crossley has pointed out that the parallel between the artist and
the Star Maker was deliberately intended by Stapledon, as shown by a
lecture note on Star Maker which reads “fiction of the
Maker-artist” (1986: 45). Like the sequence of
Stapledon’s writings, each universe created by the Star Maker
contains unconscious potentialities that urge the author to create a
fuller, more articulate version the next time. Whether at the level of
writing or at that of cosmos shaping, the maker learns from his
creature and thereby outgrows it. The seeds of total communication are
already present in the Star Maker’s ground plan for our universe,
a medium “neither mind nor matter” rich in communicative
was a medium in which the one and the many demanded to be most subtly
dependent upon one another; in which all parts and all characters must
pervade and be pervaded by all other parts and all other characters; in
which each thing must seemingly be but an influence in all other
things; and yet the whole must be no other than the sum of all its
parts, and each part an all-pervading determination of the whole. It
was a cosmical substance in which any individual spirit must be,
mysteriously, at once an absolute self and a mere figment of the whole.
It is apparent that this substance is none other than the aesthetic substance which composes the novel Star Maker. The
narrator’s description reminds one of contemporary Formalist
notions of the organic work of art (e.g. Wimsatt’s essay on
“The Concrete Universal” (1958 ), and it has thus a
reflexive, metafictional import. (Note 7).
All the universes ever dreamt of by mythologies, religions, and
science, and many more, are generated by the Star Maker’s
activity: some universes are musical, others purely spatial, some are
Ptolemaic universes made of concentric spheres, others are inspired by
Hindu notions of reincarnation; some are diabolic, some Manichean and
some Christian-like, with a heaven and hell—a “crude
… barbaric figment” (1968: 420) the narrator finds
Whether Stapledon’s narrative represents “some important
truth” or is “merely a trivial dream fiction” (1968:
414), the narrator cannot tell—nobody can, indeed. The narrator
acknowledges that his cosmic experience is symbolic, not literal, an
anthropomorphic mythical version of the truth, but that “in spite
of its crudity, perhaps it does contain some genuine reflection of the
truth, however distorted” (1968: 423).
Beyond its debt to modern cosmological theories and to spiritualism, the plot of Star Maker
can be related to early twentieth-century technological developments.
If the imaginary of The Matrix is related to the development of the
Internet, personal computers and virtual reality in the 1990s, the
imaginary of Star Maker owes
much to the development of radio technology and broadcasting in the
1930s. Olaf Stapledon was deeply interested in telepathy, and belonged
to spiritual societies exploring paranormal phenomena. He was
interested in radio broadcasting as well, as a mode of communication
across distance, a kind of technologically assisted telepathy, and he
made broadcasts on the BBC. There is probably, as well, an unconscious
projection of imperial anxiety in Stapledon’s fiction: the
British Empire had reached its farthest limits as the
telecommunications which might ensure its continuing existence were
developing, but the forces of decay and dissolution which would finally
prevail were far advanced as well. It is significant that at the very
end of his posthumous and unfinished Letters to the Future (1989) Stapledon seems to renounce, or at least qualify, his dream of a higher-order organic community for mankind. (Note 8).
Before I go on to deal with The Matrix
I would like to point out the similarity between Stapledon’s
narrative and other narratives of redemption, based ultimately on the
Christian myth of creation and apocalypse. Star Maker offers
a science fiction version of secularised apocalyptic myths, although it
owes perhaps just as much to a philosophical analysis of developing
self-consciousness such as Hegel’s Phenomenology of the Spirit
(1807). (Note 9). Indeed, partial secularisations or rationalisations of
the Christian myth of creation and apocalypse are a hallmark of
modernity. One of the most telling parallels with the narrative of Star Maker is provided by the cosmic evolutionary theories of the French theologian Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (1881-1955).
We could perhaps summarise Teilhard de Chardin’s theories as the
convergence of Christianity, Hegelianism and evolutionary theory.
Teilhard de Chardin contemplated human history as the gradual
development of spirituality, from inanimate matter, through living
forms and incipient consciousness to the full development of the
spiritual potential of mankind. Teilhard’s is thus an optimistic
theory of progress: the development of civilisation, science and
thought will ultimately give rise to the Godhead that Christian and
other mythologies place both at the beginning and the end of
history—and in Teilhard there is indeed a seed of the Godhead
even in the primitive universe, as it teleologically strives towards
consciousness and unity. Such anthropocentric illusionism is, of
course, the mythical side of Teilhard’s theories—as has
been pointed out by Stephen Jay Gould (1990). (Note 10). The directionality
of history is for Gould a perspectival effect, a retrospective illusion
created by the vantage point of human observers.
Teilhard presents in an attractive way a theory of globalisation which,
in spite of its pseudo-science, is for many an aesthetically (and
ethically) satisfactory conciliation of progressivism, evolutionary
thought and Christian spirituality. In The Formation of the Noosphere (1947) Teilhard wrote:
one can deny that a network (a world network) of economic and psychic
affiliations is being woven at ever increasing speed which envelops and
constantly penetrates more deeply within each of us. With every day
that passes it becomes a little more impossible for us to act or
think otherwise than collectively. (Quoted in Fusionanomaly 2002). (Note 11).
As the word “network” in the previous quotation may suggest, there exists indeed a contemporary offshoot of cybernetic Teilhardianism
which sees in computer technology and in the development of the
Internet and cell phones the road towards a spiritual integration of
mankind in an overmind. The reflections on “Gaia Theory, the
Noosphere and GaiaMind” by the New Age essayist Jim Fournier
(2002) may serve as an example of the Teilhard/Ecology/Internet
connection. (Note 12). It is worth noting that the Internet sites dealing
with these New Age concerns abound in spelling mistakes and in links to
Teilhard’s vision, or that of these New Age visionaries, is a
utopian dream of perfect communion in God or Nature. But a symmetrical
line of reasoning has also given rise to dystopian, or nightmarish
versions of globalisation and of the communicative apocalypse. Total
communication becomes total alienation or totalitarian control in
dystopias such as Zamyatin’s We (1924) or Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949).
The alienation effect is perhaps even greater if the dystopian
controller is not a human being, not even a living being, but some sort
of machine. The “robotic takeover,” the rebellion of
intelligent machines and the replacement of mankind by robots, has long
been a staple science fiction motif, but it acquires more threatening
overtones after the fin de siècle, as computers have indeed
invaded our personal space, and the machinery which is bound to
dehumanise the world quickly spreads a web connecting the human and the
non-human, luring us into the cybernetic interface, and in fact
transforming human society into one vast cyborg.
An outstanding vision of the cybernetic nightmare can be found in the 1999 film The Matrix,
written and directed by the Wachowski brothers. I will only recall the
basic plot line: a computer hacker, Neo, discovers that what he took to
be the real world in the late twentieth century is actually an illusion
generated by The Matrix, a virtual reality programme which perfectly
mimics that urban world. The Matrix is run by a twenty-second-century
computer system that controls the earth and has enslaved the human
race. The Machines grow human bodies by means of robots, raising them
somewhat like battery hens, or, more accurately, keeping them as unborn
foetuses inside an artificial womb (the Latin word is matrix) in order
to use them as power sources. To keep these humans in working order, it
feeds virtual reality into their brains through an umbilical
cord—what they think they see is a replica of late
twentieth-century advanced capitalist society (which after watching the
film looks quite insubstantial and illusory). Neo’s real body is
rescued from the power plantations by a group of rebels, and once he is
wide awake he learns he is a chosen leader prophetically destined to
free the human race. The rebels fight on a double plane: as physical
beings in the material sewers of the robotic world, and as virtual
bodies, invading hacker-like the Matrix, the virtual reality system
designed by the computers. Neo wins the first round against the Matrix
by rescuing Morpheus, a fellow rebel, from the clutches of the
Matrix’s FBI-like virtual agents. The film ends as he broadcasts
a message through The Matrix giving the game away and announcing future
redemption (This millennial ending is belied by the compromise with the
Machines at the end of Matrix: Revolutions—which arguably forecasts a long future of globalization and mass television as the new century slouches ahead).
The Matrix is a contemporary reworking of the Myth of the Cavern in Plato’s Republic.
Of course the myth is not used here for the same purposes as Plato. It
was originally a parable used by Plato’s spokesman Socrates, in
order to explain the difficulty of making ordinary people understand
the philosophical implications of the theory of Ideas. The equivalent
lesson for the film is a matter of interpretation: it may be taken as a
warning against cybernetic control of individuals by the State
machinery, or more generally, against the illusions generated by
consumer capitalism. If the meaning conveyed through the parable is
different in The Republic and in The Matrix,
the basic structure of the parable is the same: most individuals live
in a false reality in which things apparently real are mere
representations, insubstantial images (shadows in the cavern, for
Plato), and it is a moral duty to face the truth and see through the
false world of appearances, facing the reality outside the cavern,
whatever the cost. The myth provides a convenient vehicle for the
expression of a spiritual insight restricted to an illuminated
individual or a restricted group of illuminati who contemplate with
detachment the benighted behaviour of the masses, drugged by their
everyday existence. As such, it provides a pattern not just for
authentic prophets, assuming there are any, but also for countless
cranks, terrorists and cult millennialists, and, more significantly,
for the cultural critic who sees through the illusions of consumer
culture and its ideology-generating mechanisms. It is a very powerful
and versatile myth indeed, and probably many a cultural critic will
feel the compulsion to identify with Keanu Reeves in his fight against
technocracy and cybercapitalism gone rampant. The hacker became a
glamorous figure in the popular literature and film of the
1990s—there used to be in the nineties a brand of perfume for men
called “Hacker” which portrayed its user as independent,
intelligent, rebellious, humorous and daring (though the trinity
starring in the film are anything but humorous).
The film The Matrix is a
powerfully articulated intertextual node, in which modern mythologies
generated around the media echo ancient myths and tap on powerful
undercurrents of the cultural imaginary. The energy factories
controlled by machines are on one level a powerful poetic rendering of
a Marxist theme, a fantasy of total alienation, or, to echo Althusser,
an image of a world in which the relationship of the workers’
bodies to their social function is mediated by an imaginary construct,
an all-pervasive ideology. On the other hand, this image also echoes
religious myths of redemption. Some are as old as Plato, others are
Christian, and perhaps more specifically related to the American
Protestant imagination, a strand which may surface in otherwise
different religious traditions, ranging from the more popular and
emotional “born-again” Evangelical movements to the more
philosophical and secularising theology of Unitarianism. As an
instance, we may consider the imaginative parallels between the Matrix
and the following sonnet, written by the mid-nineteenth century
Unitarian poet Jones Very:
The prison-house is full; there is no cell
But hath its prisoner laden with his chains;
And yet they live as though their life was well,
Nor of its burdening sin the soul complains;
Thou dost not see where thou hast lived so long, –
The place is called the skull where thou dost tread.
Why laught’st thou, then, why sing the sportive song,
As if thou livest, and know’st not thou art dead.
Yes, thou art dead, the morn breaks o’er thee now, –
Where is thy Father, He who gave thee birth?
Thou art a severed limb, a barren bough,
Thou sleepest in deep caverns in the earth.
Awake! Thou hast a glorious race to run;
Put on thy strength, thou hast not yet begun.
The motif of the virtual reality generated by the Matrix is also a
latter-day version of the Rationalist debates on the duality of mental
and bodily reality, on solipsism and on the possibly illusory nature of
reality—ideas found in Descartes, and especially in the
“Occasionalism” of his disciples Geulincx and
Malebranche. (Note 13). An echo of these can be found as well in some of the
worlds imagined by Stapledon in Star Maker:
the Star Maker fashioned a cosmos which was without any single,
objective, physical nature. Its creatures were wholly without influence
on one another; but under the direct stimulation of the Star Maker each
creature conceived an illusory but reliable and useful physical world
of its own, and peopled it with figments of its imagination. These
subjective worlds the mathematical genius of the Star Maker correlated
in a manner that was perfectly systematic. (1968: 418)
The inhabitants of the Other Earth, the first planet visited by the narrator of Star Maker,
experience the benefits of advanced radio communications, which are
used to directly stimulate the brain and produce virtual experiences:
virtual sex, virtual sports, food, etc. These enhanced communications
are used by the governments as a medium of control, and there are plans
to replace reality by an automatised virtual world in which dreamers
would spend their lives in bed connected to life-preserving machines
and enjoying the pre-recorded experiences of previous generations
(1968: 280)—which gives us the ground plan of The Matrix and a sarcastic warning of the alienating potential of mass communications.
The hypothesis of reality being an appearance, the result of a perfect
correlation which is engineered behind the scenes, was for the
rationalists Geulincx or Malebranche a metaphysical experiment. But in
postmodern culture, as a result of the technology of representation and
of the manipulation of images, everyday experience becomes partly
virtual and engineered. As in the Arnold Schwarzenegger film Total Recall
(dir. Paul Verhoeven, 1990), the cybernetic plot of The Matrix has
metafictional implications for the film’s treatment of form. In
both Total Recall and The Matrix,
the cinema screen is used as a subjectivized medium. The screen does
not always represent the physical reality of the narrated world but
rather a cybernetic construct generated in that world by a
computer—or rather, the two become indistinguishable, as shown by
the undecidable ending of Total Recall.
Not surprisingly, there is much common ground between these films and
another sub-genre which has thrived in the nineties, the paranoid
conspiracy film (Note 14)—e.g. The Truman Show (dir. Peter Weir, 1998, with Jim Carrey), the Sandra Bullock film The Net (dir. Irwin Winkler, 1995), 12 Monkeys (dir. Terry Gilliam, 1995, with Brad Pitt), Conspiracy Theory (dir. Richard Donner, 1997, with Mel Gibson), or the Michael Douglas film The Game
(dir. David Fincher, 1997). These films feature at the heart of their
plots a conspiracy the limits of which are uncertain to the audience or
to the characters, so that they do not know whether they are caught in
a vast charade or whether the reality they experience is innocent and
uncontaminated by a malicious plot. This, in turn, makes us think of
the postmodernist use of such charades and parodic plots by novelists
such as Pynchon (The Crying of Lot 49, 1965) or Fowles (The Magus, 1965,
rev. version 1977). Conspiracy, retrospective illusionism, narrative
coherence, apocalyptic closure and the well-made plot are ingredients
which go together well—in novels, in films, and in evolutionary
It is perhaps a relevant coincidence that both narratives of a communicational apocalypse, Star Maker and The Matrix,
use the phenomenal structure of their medium (the book and the film
screen) as a metafictional formal device that provides for the
reader/spectator an analogue of the virtual reality experienced by the
protagonists. The power of the medium in a way reaches out of the text
and involves the receiver in the apocalyptic experience of total
communication being narrated. Both of these apocalyptic narratives
show, also, a remarkable intertextual power: part of their fascination
lies in the way they reuse previously existing myths, motifs and
materials in a radically rearranged fashion. One thinks, in the case of
Stapledon, of Timaeus plus Frankenstein; of Hegel plus Darwin plus telecommunications plus globalisation plus spiritualism; or, in the case of The Matrix, of
the convergence of Plato and William Gibson (Note 15); of Kung Fu movies
and video games; of paranoid terrorist subcultures plus rites of
passage narratives plus New Age versions of Christianity plus perfect
crime plots. Connexion seems to breed connexion, and the connexion of
minds in the cosmic web which is narrated in these fictions seems to
promote intertextuality as well. (Note 16)
In The Matrix, the virtual
reality technology, which at a fictional level provides the rationale
for the plot, is also the real enabling medium that has given the film
its spectacular special effects and its ready-made aura of cult movie.
Many of the seemingly real images of the film were computer-generated,
both for Neo inside the film and for the spectator outside. The Matrix
is exemplary as a sign of the times, its sophisticated use of narrative
reflexivity making it a powerful postmodern phenomenon. (Note 17). In an age
of rapidly expanding technology (the 30s, the 90s, you name it), the
development of total communication always appears to be well under way,
and it is no wonder it should inspire both utopian and dystopian
visions and force us to rewrite many previous narratives.
Now, to end, let me just note that some of the ideas for this paper
were actually researched through our own incipient matrix of total
communication. I used the Google web browser, based on automatic
combinatory processes: try searching Matrix+Stapledon, or Stapledon+SETI, or Teilhard+Stapledon, and you are bound to trigger an unforeseen mental connexion. In Howards End
(1910), E. M. Forster made famous the phrase “only connect”
(Note 18)—perhaps his contemporaries Stapledon or Teilhard would see in
the Internet browsers a vindication of some of their theories. The
intertextuality/hypertextuality interface is a rapidly developing
field—possibilities for connexion seem greater than ever now the Gutenberg galaxy has gone nova. And the medium is still a part of the message no matter which galaxy we inhabit.
Abbagnano, Nicolás. 1978. Historia de la Filosofía. Vol. 2. Barcelona: Montaner y Simón.
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the Corners of Reality. Website. http://www.geocities.com/freeyourbrain/
(consulted Dec. 2001).
Aubrey, James R. 2002. “‘Reality Games’ in Postmodern
Anglophone Cinema: The Magus, The Game, The Matrix, Being John
Malkovitch.” In Beyond Borders: Redefining Generic and
Ontological Boundaries. Eds. Ramón Plo-Alastrué and
María Jesús Martínez-Alfaro. Heidelberg: Carl
Barthes, Roland. 1977 (1971). “From Work to Text.” In Barthes, Image-Music-Text. New York: Hill and Wang. 155-64.
Baudrillard, Jean. 1983. “The Ecstasy of Communication.” In
The Anti-Aesthetic: Essays on Postmodern Culture. Ed. Hal Foster.
Trans. John Johnston. Seattle: Bay. 126-34.
Borges, Jorge Luis. 1986 (1937). “Star Maker, de Olaf
Stapledon.” Rev. of Stapledon’s Star Maker. In Borges,
Textos cautivos: Ensayos y reseñas en EL HOGAR. Eds. Enrique
Sacerio Garí and Emir Rodríguez Monegal. Barcelona:
Crossley, Robert. 1986. “Olaf Stapledon and the Idea of Science
Fiction.” Modern Fiction Studies. Vol. 32 Spring: 21-42.
Elkins, Charles. 1989. “‘Seeing It Whole’: Olaf
Stapledon and the Issue of Totality.” In The Legacy of Olaf
Stapledon: Critical Essays and an Unpublished Manuscript. Eds. Patrick
A. McCarthy, Charles Elkins, and Martin Harry Greenberg. Westport, CT:
Fournier, Jim. 2002. “Gaia Theory, the Noosphere and
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(consulted Jan. 2002).
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la narración reflexiva. Zaragoza: Prensas Universitarias de
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The Matrix. Film. 1999. Dir. Andy and Larry Wachowski. Cast: Keanu Reeves,
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Pantoliano. Costume designer Kym Barrett. Co-producer Dan
Cracchiolo. Music Don Davis, special effects supervisor John Gaeta.
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Jim Fournier, “Gaia Theory, the Noosphere and GaiaMind”:
Gaia Theory was originally proposed as The Gaia Hypothesis by James
Lovelock in 1972 in a paper titled, Gaia as seen through the
atmosphere, and popularised in the 1979 book, Gaia: a new look at life
on earth. The scientific hypothesis proposes that the whole Earth
behaves like one self-regulating organism wherein all of the geologic,
hydrologic, and biologic cycles of the planet mutually self-regulate
the conditions on the surface of the Earth so as to perpetuate life.
I coined the term GaiaMind in 1996 to describe a variation on an idea
first suggested by Teilhard de Chardin in 1955 in "Le Phenomene
Humain", namely that the whole of the Earth is conscious, or more
accurately, is in the process of becoming self-conscious, and that
collectively we and our technology essentially are that process.
Teilhard called this phenomenon the noosphere - derived from the same
root as the words biosphere, lithosphere etc. However, that version of
the idea, as first put forward by Teilhard, often tended to emphasize
our separation and departure from nature, as if each stage transcends
and supersedes the previous one. This version of the idea of emergent
global consciousness has become widespread with the advent of computers
and the Internet, but has also often been criticized as focusing on
technology at the expense of nature, as if the two are inherently
antagonistic. By contrast, the term GaiaMind is intended to emphasize
our continuing connection to nature and that the whole process is
fundamentally an expression of the living Earth, as a totality,
becoming self-aware and self-conscious rather of man, or humanity
alone, doing so through technology.
The GaiaMind Project is dedicated to exploring the idea that we,
humanity, are the Earth becoming aware of itself. From this
perspective, the next step in the evolution of consciousness would seem
to be our collective recognition that through our technological and
spiritual interconnectedness we represent the Earth growing an organ of
self-reflexive consciousness. While we believe that the Earth is alive,
and we are part of it, we also affirm the Great Spirit of Oneness found
at the heart of all the worlds [sic] great spiritual traditions. What
is most important may not be what we believe, but what we find we all
share when we put our thoughts aside to go into meditation and prayer
(1) Some of Stapledon’s ideas prefigure the Gaia hypothesis outlined by J. E. Lovelock (1988; 1995).
(2) It is a fitting tribute to Stapledon’s
pioneering work that the Internet SETI project, which coordinates many
volunteer personal computers to analyse data patterns from
radio-telescopes in a communal Search for Extra-Terrestrial
Intelligence, was first inspired by the telepathic networks in
Stapledon’s novels (Villarubia 2001). See (12 November 2003)
(3) H. G. Wells, The Open Conspiracy: Blueprint
for a World Revolution (1928); Stapledon, Waking World (1934). See
Shelton’s commentary (1989: 13-15). “There are dark corners
in [Stapledon’s] philosophy,” as Shelton suggests (1989:
15), but his alarm at Stapledon’s defence of eugenics seems
trivial when one imagines further practical implementations of
Stapledon’s conception of an inhuman cosmic ideal as a basis for
ethical and political action.
(4) In his review of Star Maker, Jorge Luis Borges
notes: “No en vano es socialista el autor: sus imaginaciones
(casi siempre) son colectivas” (1986: 160). A caricatural
shorthand refutation of such dreams of communal utopianism can be found
in Vladimir Nabokov’s description of Eric Wind’s group
therapy in Pnin (1957): “progressive, idealistic Wind dreamed of
a happy world consisting of Siamese centuplets, anatomically conjoined
communities, whole nations built around a communicating liver”
(1989: 52). Huxley’s Brave New World (1932) represents another
answer. But these caricatures would not do justice to Stapledon’s
ideal of “personality-in-community” as expounded in Saints
and Revolutionaries (1939) (in Shelton 1989: 19). This is not, by the
way, the superhuman—or inhuman—ideal of A Modern Theory of
(5) The communicational apocalypse I describe in Star Maker or The
Matrix could be approached in terms of Baudrillard’s
“ecstasy of communication,” in which “all secret
spaces and scenes are abolished in a single dimension of
information” (1983: 131).
(6) The narrator insists that this is a mystical experience that can
only be communicated figuratively, through a metaphor or a myth;
therefore, the status of these last chapters is doubly, or reflexively,
(7) These reflexive elements in Stapledon’s fiction would seem to
warrant McCarthy’s contention that Stapledon’s literary
technique shows many underlying affinities with the modernist
aesthetic, which is often opposed by critics to what many consider to
be Stapledon’s belated Victorianism (McCarthy 1989).
(8) “The stone is a crowd of very simple beings, each of which is
indeed an expression of the others and of all else in the world, but is
not dominated by any unity of the stone. The sparrow is multitudinous
‘clay’ organised into one life. A man is another such but
far richer and more unitary; for he acts in relation to things
inconceivable to a sparrow, and he brings to bear upon each situation
far wider regions of the past. A society of men is, like a stone, a
crowd of beings, but of biological beings” (Stapledon 1989: 119).
Society, then, is (so far) a “stone” rather than an
organism, even though it is made of organisms.
(9) On Stapledon’s Hegelianism, see Elkins (1989). The issue of
“total communication,” like other aspects of
“totality” discussed in Elkins, is bound to challenge the
limits of representation and of significance. Stapledon’s work
could be profitably analysed from the point of view of an aesthetics of
(10) Teilhard belongs with other Providential evolutionists, rife in
the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, who regard evolution as a
one-way avenue towards man and the development of consciousness. On
this line of thought, see Gould (1991). Gould forcefully argues for an
alternative view of evolution, more faithful to Darwin’s original
insight, in which there is no such directional drive. Significantly,
when Stapledon describes the creation of our cosmos in Star Maker, he
is at pains to underline (like Teilhard) that the seeds of
consciousness were at the basis of the Star Maker’s ground plan
for this cosmos traced in the Maker’s creative time (as distinct
from the cosmic time internal to the creation): “Not till he had
blocked in unmistakably the most awakened phase of the cosmical spirit
did he trace any of the variegated psychological trends which, in the
cosmical time, should lead up to it” (1968: 424). This passage
places Stapledon squarely among the providentialists—in the
weakest sense of “providence,” though.
(11) Stapledon’s speech to the British Interplanetary Society is
also quite Teilhardian: “Perhaps the final result of the cosmical
process is the attainment of full cosmical consciousness, and yet (in
some very queer way) what is attained in the end is also, from another
point of view, the origin of all things. So to speak, God, who created
all things in the beginning, is himself created by all things in the
end” (1997: 241). Cf. Teilhard (1982: 348, 374).
(12) See Appendix.
(13) See f.i. the account of Occasionalism in Abbagnano (1978: 201-10).
The connection between Geulincx and the solipsistic nightmares of
Samuel Beckett’s The Unnamable (1953) has been pointed out by
several critics, and Beckett’s work offers also a parodic and
metafictional version of paranoid creation myths. See my Samuel Beckett
y la narración reflexiva (1992).
(14) See Aubrey (2002).
(15) The concept of “the matrix” as a virtual space and of
the double plane of action, physical and virtual, derives largely from
William Gibson’s Neuromancer (1984).
(16) Cf. Barthes’ definition of the text as a space criss-crossed
by a multiplicity of discourses (1977). Not surprisingly, a complicity
with the discourses of pop culture and the critical ambivalence typical
of postmodernist products (noted by Linda Hutcheon ) is
especially noteworthy in the case of The Matrix. It was only to be
expected that the film should become a cult object too in some moronic
circles of New Age paranoid subculture. The “Artificial
Synchronicity” web page is a particularly extreme instance of
such latter-day folk Americana. But the dividing line between sense and
nonsense is fuzzy everywhere, not just in the Internet.
(17) As this paper was originally written, only the first instalment of
The Matrix trilogy had been issued. The sequels closing (?) the trilogy
in 2003 (The Matrix Reloaded and The Matrix Revolutions) do not
significantly alter the first film’s aesthetic or ideological
conceptions. At the end of The Matrix Revolutions the virtual universe
resulting from the fictions of ultimate globalization becomes a livable
space for totally virtual individuals, while those few rebels who
choose to remain outside the system are allowed to do so—a nice
balance by which the film allegorizes its own ambivalent attitude to
corporate capitalism, acknowledging thereby as well its own dependence
on that mode of production and the ideological duplicity it generates.
(18) In Heisenberg’s words, “[i]t is probably true quite
generally that in the history of human thinking the most fruitful
developments frequently take place at those points where two different
lines of thought meet. These lines may have their roots in quite
different parts of human nature, in different times or different
cultural environments or different religious traditions: hence if they
actually meet, that is, if they are at least so much related to each
other that a real interaction can take place, then one may hope that
new and interesting developments may follow” (quoted in
paper was read at the conference "Memory, Desire and Imagination"
(Department of English and German, University of Zaragoza, Spain,
2002), and was first published in the collective volume Memory, Imagination and Desire in Contemporary Anglo-American Literature and Film (ed.
Constanza del Río-Álvaro and Luis Miguel
García-Mainar; Anglistische Forschungen, 337), Heidelberg: Carl
Winter, 2004, 253-68.