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Genesis Explication

Genesis Explication

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Published by Frederick Turner

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Published by: Frederick Turner on Feb 27, 2009


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Flight and Interpretation:Reconstructing a Science Fiction Poem
Frederick TurnerIn this essay I propose to do something rather peculiar: that is, to take a section of "my"poem
and, as a literary critic, perform on it a close literary analysis. Thephilosophical subject of 
is time, and the theory of time it explores is one inwhich time is constituted of and by the process of reflexive iteration in both the sentientand the pre-sentient world. Thus to perform an exegesis of one's "own" poem is itself toextend the domain of time by further reflexion.But this formulation already will not work. For a poem, if it is any good, is alwaysalready a better reading of its critic and of its own critical exegesis than they are of it.And, as the quotation marks suggest, the poem is not "my" poem. The experience of writing the poem was of someone (rather fumbling with the transmission and frustratedwith the result)
the poem to me: someone who is, or rather will be, a poet inone of the many possible futures that fan out from the present.The Anthropic Principle of the physicist John Archibald Wheeler implies a sort of weak backward causality, in which the initial conditions of the universe are, because of theobserver effect of quantum mechanics, partly determined by the kind of observers, if any,that they will end up producing. But since every moment is the initial conditions for allof its futures, all those futures are dimly present, clamoring for existence, or perhaps forquietus, as angels standing behind our shoulders when we make decisions, especiallyartistic ones. One of those angels was my poet, who, though he was very reticent aboutwho he was, I have imagined as living in New York during the twenty-second century,under the gentle censorship of the Ecotheist authorities, composing his poem in secretabout the great historical events of the twenty-first century, about a hundred years beforehis own birth.His poem
is an epic poem in unrhymed iambic pentameters, with occasionalsections in rhyme. It is exactly 10,000 lines long, and is divided into five Acts, each of which contains five Scenes, of exactly four hundred lines each. This severelyconstraining form, with enormous variations of tone and texture and style within it, isitself part of the meaning of the poem: closure, and the further appetite for closure that istriggered by closure, is the dynamic driving force of time, that which makes newbeginnings possible by drawing a line under, and summing up, what has come before.Closure is to poetry what death is to a human being: the gift of being to all successors, the
definition of the specific life and meaning of an individual, the basis of all sharing. Openforms seek immortality and omnipotence and are thus essentially adolescent in meaning.The action of the poem covers the major historical events of the period from about 2015to about 2070. A group of scientists and technologists, led by Chancellor ("Chance") VanRiebeck, is charged by the United Nations with the scientific survey of the planet Mars.Using theories derived from the Gaia Hypothesis, they clandestinely introduce hardygenetically tailored bacteria into the Martian environment with the intention of transforming the planet into one habitable by human beings. The Earth has at this timefallen under the theocratic rule of the Ecotheist Movement, which divides human beingsoff from the rest of nature and regards all human interference with nature as an evil.Chance and his followers are captured and put on trial, and war breaks out between theMartian colonists and the home planet. Though Chance and others lose their lives, thecolonists are able to gain their independence by threatening to drop a moonlet on Earth.After a bitter renewed struggle led by the hero Tripitaka the colonists obtain a completeinventory of Earthly lifeforms, sometimes called the Ark, or elsewhere the Lima Codex.With the help of this inventory, and led by Beatrice Van Riebeck, they complete theterraforming of the planet. A religious leader, the Sibyl, is born to the colonists; herteaching reconciles the ancient mystical wisdom of the Earth with the new science andcultural experience of Mars.The scientific and technological material of the poem constitute not only a large part of its content but also a gigantic metaphor of its very structure and form. In other words, theunwritten poem is the barren planet, and the composition of the poem is its cultivation byliving organisms. But the word "metaphor" fails to capture the dimensions of the tropewhich is the poem. For the gardening of Mars by the code (or "codex") of life is act,theme, myth, argument and form at once. The forking tree of evolutionary descent is theforking tree of grammatical and logical construction, the forking tree of plot and story, theforking tree of esthetic form, the forking tree of family descent, and the forking tree of human moral decision; and those trees are in turn connected as branches to the stem of the great tree of the universe itself.Such self-similar forms are now known as fractal geometries: the plot of 
is itself fractal, with many small branchlets of event connecting hierarchically and heterarchicallywith larger actions which are in turn tributary to the one epic action of the whole poem,the founding of a new world. The parable of the swan's wing in V. ii., which I shall quotebelow, is itself a branch or wing of this structure, as well as being a miniature version of it.2
The tragic element of the poem is also related to this deep trope. For if one path ischosen, then others must be rejected--or better, "set aside;" the German word
might express it, with its implication of the cancellation of a debt. The future is a sort of wave-function, a probability curve expressing the relative likelihood of many possibleevents. The decisions that constitute the present and the very continuance of time mustcollapse that wave function and prune off the branches not chosen. This is a violent act,as all creation is violent. Mars and Earth constitute two historical choice-pathways in thepoem. Both have much to recommend them, but the poet must choose to prefer one, andthe conflict between them is tragic. This procrustean choice is symbolized and expressedby the very rigid technical parameters of the poem, the strict iambic pentameter linerelieved only by a proportion of feminine endings (many of them "paid for" by succeedingheadless lines, in a kind of 
), and the equal and round numbers of the lines in eachsection. These rigidities compel the action again and again to come to a point, a focus, tocollapse the wave function of possibility, to choose one path of plot.In a larger sense still the narrator is an alternate branch of the future of the redactor of thepoem, that is, myself, and the world of the poem an alternate branch to "this" one.Possibly the future the poem describes will not come about precisely because the poemwas passed to me and I chose to publish it. The relationship between the actual branchand its ghostly alternates constitutes the richness and meaning of time, just as therelationship between the metrical structure of the poetic line and the actual rhythm of itsspoken presence constitutes its musical richness. In the broadest sense we may thus saythat the content of existence is essence, that being is the sacrifice of alternatives, thatfreedom is the rejection of choices. The Anthropic Principle postulates that fullconsciousness of the origins of the universe may ontologically privilege those originsover any others, and that thus the choice of moral being, conscious knowledge, and aboveall of beautiful unified complexity, is the logos that creates the world. In this sense theworld is a kind of drama, brought into being by its own choices; and this is perhaps onereason why the poet named the divisions of his poem by the theatrical terms he did.As I have suggested, the poem may be designed as a warning to past ages of theconsequences of their fear of the future; on the other hand the action of the poem may bea kind of performative invocation designed to bring about the new choices it describes.The work of terraforming is the work of making air, an atmosphere, the Atman or spirit,the breath in which the poem may be spoken, the first breath of the newborn. The poemis the Lima Codex, or Ark of the Covenant, the book of information for the constructionof a new world; and the struggle of its composition, both by its its original future narratorand by its present-day scribe, against its enemies, historical and technical, is thefundamental drama of the work.3

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