An Apocalypse of Total Communication:

Utopian and Dystopian Perspectives in Star Maker (1937) and The Matrix (1999)

University of Zaragoza, 2002
Online ed. 2008

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 [1937]) 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:

Each 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),

[a]ll 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:

Almost 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 races).

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:

Now 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 potential:

It 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. (1968: 423-24)

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 [1947]), 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 disgusting.

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:

No 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 astrological websites.

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

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:

Sometimes 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 cosmology.

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.

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The Matrix. Film. 1999. Dir. Andy and Larry Wachowski. Cast: Keanu Reeves, Laurence Fishburne, Carie-Anne Moss, Hugo Weaving, Gloria Foster, Joe Pantoliano.  Costume designer Kym Barrett. Co-producer Dan Cracchiolo. Music Don Davis, special effects supervisor John Gaeta. Photography Bill Pope. Prod. des. Owen Paterson. Editor Zach Staenberg. Exec. prods. Barrie M. Osborne, Andrew Mason, Andy Wachowski, Larry Wachowski, Erwin Stoff and Bruce Berman. Prod. Joel Silver. Warner Bros / Village Roadshow Pictures and Groucho II Film Partnership / Silver Pictures Production.

McCarthy, Patrick A. 1989. “Stapledon and Literary Modernism.” In The Legacy of Olaf Stapledon: Critical Essays and an Unpublished Manuscript. Eds. Patrick A. McCarthy, Charles Elkins, and Martin Harry Greenberg. Westport, CT: Greenwood. 39-51.

Nabokov, Vladimir. 1989 (1957). Pnin. New York: Random-Vintage.

Shelton, Robert. 1989. “The Moral Philosophy of Olaf Stapledon.” In The Legacy of Olaf Stapledon: Critical Essays and an Unpublished Manuscript. Eds. Patrick A. McCarthy, Charles Elkins, and Martin Harry Greenberg. Westport, CT: Greenwood. 5-22.

Smith, Curtis C. 1989. “Diabolical Intelligence and (Approximately) Divine Innocence.”  In The Legacy of Olaf Stapledon: Critical Essays and an Unpublished Manuscript. Eds. Patrick A. McCarthy, Charles Elkins, and Martin Harry Greenberg. Westport, CT: Greenwood. 87-98.

Stapledon, Olaf. 1968 (1937). Star Maker. In Stapledon, Last and First Men and Star Maker: Two Science Fiction Novels. New York: Dover. 247-438.

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Villarubia, Arturo. 2001. “El teatro de los sueños.” Generación xxi. No. 59 (December): 3.

Wimsatt, W. K. 1958. “The Concrete Universal.” 1947. Rev. version in Wimsatt, The Verbal Icon. New York: Noonday. 69-84.


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 together.


(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) http://setiathome.ssl.berkeley.edu/
(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 Ethics.
(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, figurative.
(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 the sublime.
(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 [1989]) 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 Fusionanomaly 2002).

This 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.



More essays by José Angel García Landa