Humor and the Abject

View Original

Concrete Science Fiction: Daniel J Glendening's New Novel and Approach to the Studio

In September, Brooklyn-based artist book imprint Small Editions published The Gardener, The Visionary, and The Traveller, a science fiction novel by Portland artist and writer Daniel J Glendening. During an interview with Glendening for episode 19 of the Humor and the Abject podcast he explicitly referred to the book--his first novel--as a sculpture. Typically, we don’t “judge a book by its cover.” I know; I'm sorry. LOL. What’s inside absolutely counts, and we’ll get to that. But if Glendening is going to run his mouth about a novel being a sculpture, we’re going to begin by looking at it as one.

Produced in a humble edition of just 100 copies, it is for sure an alluring object; its very scarcity is part of that allure. Glendening knows the value of object-ness, and Small Editions is celebrated for their project-specific approaches to bookbinding and multiples. The book feels appropriately pulpy; a modest 216 pages of Risographed text on non-archival newsprint, chopped to a pocket-friendly 4.25” x 7”, then bound with a Mohawk Curious Metallic cover featuring quietly psychedelic art. Designed by Glendening, the cover art is, from a contemporary art standpoint, almost goofy. He’s illustrated an expanding mind meditating over the first experimental human colony on Mars. Hand-rendered title text, reminiscent of late 1960s Haight-Ashbury music posters, pops cartoonishly in gold. But these aesthetic choices aren’t at odds with the seriousness of the book’s narrative. Considering genre history, they’re quite salient. The Gardener is an unironic homage to the cheap, ubiquitous science fiction paperbacks adorned with eldritch covers that populate the discount and used bins at steadfastly old school independent bookstores around the United States.

Photo courtesy of Small Editions

Each copy is accompanied by the essay “Notes on Science Fiction,” printed on a gold accordion book-as-bookmark tied with silky, braided black tassels. Therein, Glendening discusses the boom of mass-produced science fiction novels, notions of sustainability in studio art practices, and a proposed alternative--albeit a personal one--to traditional studio work. It also includes some context for Glendening’s decisions, in collaboration with Small Editions, for the book’s size and cover. Writing about the massive amounts of books lining his parents’ shelves while growing up, he notes:

Scattered among the shelves were small, hand-sized paperbacks. The pages yellowed and dog-eared, but the covers vibrant--almost luridly so--and depicting worlds and people at once alien and familiar… These books--books that my dad had read many times over--seemed to promise, via those painted hallucinatory covers, some esoteric knowledge, some glimpse into an alternative, confusing, perhaps truer version of the world. Science fiction, as gospel.

Photo courtesy of Small Editions

Glendening is just one of numerous artists who have turned to the novel-as-form, preceded by Chris Kraus’s I Love Dick, Larry Rinder’s Revenge of the Decorated Pigs, Miranda July’s The First Bad Man, or Heather Guertin’s Model Turned Comedian, amongst others. But what’s worth noting about Glendening’s contribution to this growing field is that The Gardener’s narrative essentially eschews any relationship whatsoever, literally or stylistically, to contemporary art or art history. Hand off a copy--sans the bookmark essay--to any science fiction nerd, and it’s doubtful that they’d infer, without reading Glendening’s brief bio on the interior back cover, that the author is anything but a genuine science fiction nerd himself. The narrative had nods to Le Guin, Bester, Sloane, Dick, Butler, and even Stephen King. Like the fanboy cover art, the interior content pays earnest tribute to genre.

In “Notes on Science Fiction,” Glendening later references artist David Robbins’s assertion that he is not an artist, but a concrete comedian; a maker of comedy. Reflecting on his own practice, Glendening presents the aforementioned personal alternative to studio work: concrete science fiction. As Robbins seeks to make work that isn’t about comedy, but is comedy, Glendening now asserts himself as a maker of science fiction, be the product a sculpture, a video game, or this recent novel. Having known his work for years at this point, I find his new position legitimate. Hereafter in this review are included examples of Glendening’s various projects since around the time he began writing this novel. Click through the caption links to explore.

Preview of Gale Crater (2015), one of two video games designed by Glendening

[Warning: Some plot exposition follows, but I promise I’m not ruining the experience of reading the book for the first time whatsoever.]

Two primary storylines drive The Gardener. In one, a cold, omnipotent narrator logs joyless play-by-plays of a group of four individuals--referred to only as #1, #2, #3, and #4--living and working in the TerraNext Martian Settlement, the first human colony on Mars. Periodically, the narrator also describes the activities of a pair of rovers traversing the red, dusty surface as they collect soil samples and perform mundane labor tasks for the microcolony. The four colonists' lives are broadcasted back to Earth 24/7 as interplanetary reality television, though their day-to-day is far more banal and sexless than a season of Jersey Shore. In these periodic early chapters of the book, Glendening writes in a matter-of-fact, administrative tone that might very well be that of an emotionless artificial intelligence program tasked with the visual transcription of physical movements. #4 walks to the airlock door… #1 spreads a topographical map onto the table… #2 lies in bed. At some unnamed point since the beginning of the broadcast, the audio accompanying the video feed from Mars shorted out. But with the viewing public’s interest dwindling and a subsequent loss of ad revenue, no one has bothered to fix it.

Installation view from We May See a Great and Unrecognizable Future (2011), Glendening's MFA thesis project at Pacific Northwest College of Art, Portland, OR 

A less stoic narrator relays a seemingly simultaneous story. On Earth, floundering prole John Shepard is one of the remaining few who still tunes in obsessively to the TerraNext broadcast. Living alone in an unremarkable apartment on the outskirts of an unidentified metropolitan area, he sips beer, eats processed soy-cheese soy burgers, and binges the televised feed. In half-hearted attempts to break up the monotony, he occasionally takes out his pocketcom and scrolls AllyNet, an aggregated social web timeline. On Tuesdays and Saturdays, John takes an 80-minute bus ride into downtown to his part-time job scanning and filing a never-ending stream of documents. He’s never met any of his coworkers, and doesn’t seem to know for whom he actually works. John’s meaningless task-based labor and addiction to escapist media--media that’s just as boring as his own life, but in a different setting--feels depressingly familiar.

Installation view from Neverland (2011), a collaboration with artist Michael Welsh at Appendix Project Space, Portland, OR (now American Medium, New York, NY)

Apropos of nothing on one of his many days off, John decides to take a series of bus transfers to the end of the line. He’s dropped off near the Forest Sector, a practically-forgotten “park” area that serves as a buffer between the unseen wealthy citizens of the “Green Zone” and the gig-ant-like worker colonies spread throughout the metropolis. It begins raining, so he hops a bus back to town without entering the woods. Upon leaving work a couple of days later, he is suddenly struck by a memory: his grandfather used to tell tales of camping and fishing with his father and uncles when they were boys. John himself has never been camping; in the automated and mediated present, time spent in the natural world is a forgotten quaintness. Uncharacteristically motivated by this memory, John locates a derelict antique store on one of the far edges of town. He visits it and tentatively forms a casual friendship with its shopkeep, Philip, who outfits him with the supplies he’ll need to spend nights in the Forest Sector. Philip, whose motivations seem vaguely suspicious, also encourages him to try out “imagining.”

Signal (2013) video performance in the Sitgreaves National Forest as part of High Desert Test Sites

The novel moves forward, switching between the TerraNext Martian Settlement’s increasingly hostile reality contrasted by John’s own that’s becoming exponentially enlightened as he tunes out their broadcast and tunes in to nature. On Mars, one of the members of the colony has disappeared and another has fallen gravely ill. A brutal Martian storm has buried parts of the colony in thick red dirt and they’ve begrudgingly accepted the likelihood that nobody back on Earth has any incentive to provide them with assistance. Meanwhile, in the Forest Sector, John has discovered that he’s in possession of some very unique abilities in the realm of imagination. Following a series of ostensibly chance encounters with a young woman named Valentina, he’s introduced to a variety of people operating outside the general social contract who wish to integrate him into their movement as a sort of guru. Having only recently discovered parts of himself--parts that might well be dangerous--John grows wary and expontentially paranoid of their intentions.

Beacon (2017), a solar-powered radio transmission station produced for Spaceness at the Sou'wester in Seaview, WA

For a first novel, it’s a great piece of pulpy-but-heady science fiction. Be forewarned: it does start awfully slow, but I question whether to fault Glendening for that. The repetitious language and the starkness of the environment in the first half of the book, while sometimes feeling like a small chore to get through, do lend themselves to a relevant feeling of agitation. Longer passages of technical language about the rovers on Mars or the sequencing of DNA aren't exactly sexy, but certainly interesting. Throughout the first half, I found myself empathizing with John’s lived experience under super-late capitalism; I was less bored than I was aching for something--anything--to alter his predetermined path to nowhere. The novel does pick up halfway through, thereafter ramping up intensely in the final 30 pages. Ultimately, the pacing does make sense, providing an experiential read in lieu of easy entertainment.

1000 Images Related to L. Ron Hubbard (2015), data-filled flash drive

Glendening impresses with his ability to write in necessarily compartmentalized voices. The differences in narrators are somewhat subtle, but important. Regardless of which all-seeing orator is guiding the story, he maintains a certain economy of language befitting of a dystopian future where the spectacle is that practically nothing is spectacular. As John’s journey develops, Glendening allows himself a gradual, poetic unfolding of the of story. While initially clinical, as John’s senses become stimulated, the writing quietly follows suit. Texture becomes important. Ambient and concentrated sounds become clearer. New tastes and smells are introduced. And concepts of what can be “seen” expand like fractals. Think of it as a chopped-and-screwed version of Dorothy opening up the door of the Gale farmhouse after the tornado in The Wizard of Oz, sepia-toned black-and-white into technicolor. Except in this story, there's a third chromatic act that unsettlingly sucks out the calming blues and greens. A fascination with technical language, a steadied trickling out of cosmic horror, and a Vonnegut-worthy ho-hum attitude towards the inevitability of an Orwellian future combine to make The Gardener, The Visionary, and The Traveller a solid science fiction debut. Further, Glendening’s measured and serious undertaking offers an argument against the “conceptual” artist-as-amateur approach. He is indeed a serious, studied maker of science fictions. For the majority of the time that I was reading the story itself, I completely forgot that an artist wrote it.

The Gardener, The Visionary, and The Traveller is available for $17.96 plus shipping from Small Editions. Order here