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Spacecraft

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Spacecraft by Timothy Morton is perhaps the most abstract of the Object Lessons series that I have read so far. While I think it works I also think many of the readers who want something with fewer meanings and more just about the object in question will be unhappy.

I think readers who have read at least one of Morton's other books will better appreciate what is attempted here. While I found the connections to the Millennium Falcon, and spacecraft in general, sufficient for inclusion in the series I also understand that those unfamiliar with Object-Oriented Ontology (OOO) may find some of the connections abstract at best and tenuous at worst.

I would carefully recommend this to readers who might want both an excursion into spacecraft as well as into OOO. Also readers who don't mind being challenged with ways of thinking about and viewing the world that may seem alien. If you simply want a factoid filled book about spacecraft, well, this ain't it, though there are plenty of factoids.

Reviewed from a copy made available by the publisher via NetGalley.
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Spacecraft by Timothy Morton is a free NetGalley ebook that I read in late September.

This book already had my admiration right away by wanting to explore our imagination and sci fi’s idea of hyperspace travel, instead of current, existing crafts within our Milky Way galaxy, through the philosophy of thoughts and ideas having concrete realities, i.e. that which can be is. Some might find the literary wanderings of Morton to be a little kooky, but just keep following them and see where this (astral) road goes.
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I’m sure there is an audience for Timothy Morton’s Spacecraft, one of the Object Lesson series titles.  Unfortunately, I wasn’t it. I’m also thinking that based on the title, a number of people might find themselves in my position, a problem perhaps more of expectations than substance.

The Object Lessons books, which I’ve generally been a big fan of, “start from a specific inspiration . . . and from there develop original insights and novel lessons about the object in question.”  And there lies the expectations problem because from the title, one would imagine the inspiration is, well, spacecraft. And at least at the start, it seems to be the case, as Morton offers up his youthful love of spacecrafts, his clear enduring enthusiasm, an insightful distinction between spaceships and spacecraft, and then delivers a compendium of spacecraft categories:  the ark, the fighter, the explorer, the yacht, and others, each concisely and evocatively explained. An example of an ark, for instance, is the ship in Silent Running, while X-wings and Tie Fighters are examples of the fighter type.  

Shortly after this generalized approach, though, Morton moves to a hyper-specific exploration of one ship in particular — the Millennium Falcon.  So the title is a bit of a misdirection, I’d say, and because of that Morton will probably end up with a lot of disappointed readers, those who wanted much more than glancing references (or note even that) to the Enterprise, the mother ship from Close Encounters, The Nostromo, Serenity, the flying saucers of all those 50s movies, the Thunderbirds ships, and others. The book would have been better off entitled the Millennium Falcon. Or the Millennium Falcon and Hyperspace, as that is the other topic Morton dives full-force into.

Even there though, the title would not prepare most readers for what is actually present in most of Spacecraft, which is an exploration of this particular ship (and its particular hyperspatial form of travel) via the language and through the prism of philosophy (especially object-oriented ontology/phenomenology) and feminist and anti-colonialist criticism employing a host of academic language and terminology. Again, the issue (at least at this point) isn’t so much with the content but with the expectations; I’m just not sure that someone picking up a book entitled Spacecraft is expecting a dive into Kant or Heidegger. a discussion of “the patriarchal binary of active and passive . . . the oppressive medieval neoplatonic programming”, or lines like, “” The Falcon is . . . also a vulva — a vulva rushing through the vulva-like realm of hyperspace . . . The vulva of hyperspace circludes the vulva of the Falcon which circludes the passenger pilots.”   So maybe a broad, one-word title wasn’t the best choice here.

As for the content itself, setting aside the expectations and the use of critical terminology that people will respond differently to, one of the problems I had was that the Object Lessons books are short, which means that Morton, in my mind at least, made a lot of pronouncements about things being representative of “fill-in-the-blank” not as an argument (i.e. a claim followed by supporting explanation) but as a given.  Could he have made the arguments stick? In some cases yes, in other cases I’m not so sure; several claims seemed a stretch at best to me.  But in any case, I rarely like being told what something is without some support as to why I should believe so. At one point, Morton himself seems to realize this, telling the reader, “I’m going to have to ask you to believe me.”

That isn’t to say Morton doesn’t offer up some interesting points. A segment on the different interior plans of ships is both enlightening and fascinating: “When you see the interior of the Enterprise or the Death Star, you see people who resemble office workers. They are working in a gigantic open-plan office, often sitting at a desk . . . They are coded as ‘middle class’.” As is a segment on how “The Falcon transforms [those who fly her] into artisans . . . very different from the paper pushers in the Death Star … They aren’t following rules. They are in a way ‘playing’ the instrument panel like, well, an instrument.”  I just wish there had been more of these moments of insight and clarity, but all too often these moments are overwhelmed by academese, by metaphors/analogies that don’t clarify but muddle, by claims of imperialism or colonialism or misogyny etc. that may or may not be well founded but that lack any true support and so, thanks to being simply mentioned, feel more like buzz words than like critical exploration. To be clear, I don’t think Morton is not able to use them as a means of critical exploration; he is obviously a deep thinker, one who looks well beyond the surface representation of something to ask what else it is saying beyond the obvious.  It’s more that he is constrained by the length requirements here so that he is forced to cut his deep dives way too short.

In many ways, I realize I’m complaining Morton didn’t write the book I wanted instead of the one he wrote. And outside of the overly concise issue, that’s mostly true.  So best consider this not a review pointing out flaws, but a review trying to point the right sort of reader toward this book, and to point those looking for that book about “all those cool spaceships and what their different representation means” elsewhere.
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'I find your lack of coherence disturbing'.

The spaceship as metaphor – although what for isn't remotely clear from this dissertation-level work from the winging it school of 'This will either get a First for audacity or get totally binned'.

Thanks to Faber and NetGalley for this ARC. *
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I was granted complimentary access to Spacecraft via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. 

What is this? Spacecraft is billed as an exploration of spacecraft (plural, idea of, generalization) in the genre of science fiction. As a sci-fi nerd and aspiring author, I was excited to take a deep dive on the topic of space flight technology as imagined by the greats and lesser-known minds of our club. What I got was an overly sexualized love letter to the Millennium Falcon. While I concede that the Millennium Falcon is indeed one sexy ship, it is not the only ship in science fiction, and absolutely no one not writing sci-fi flavoured erotic parody needs to be describing the "vulva of hyperspace." (Help me step Captain, I'm stuck...)
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My thanks to NetGalley and the publisher Bloomsbury Academic for an advanced copy of this book.

Spacecraft by Timothy Morton, part of the Bloomsbury Object Lessons series, is I can say one of the  oddest books on science fiction, space travel, philosophy, politics and just objects that I have ever read. Even at the end I was conflicted on what to say and what to write. The book is about spacecrafts, the Millennium Falcon from Star Wars seems the nominal star. However, for such a small book, so many ideas are tossed out and shared, that the book gets confusing and seems to lack a purpose. 
Not that I didn't enjoy it, but it is a book that is hard to recommend as a read. Some ideas were interesting, some I wish that there was more follow-up. It is hard to gauge an audience for this book. For a small sized book, there is a lot going on in it.
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I was SO looking forward to this, but…
Author Timothy Morton and I were in perfect alignment in the opening chapter as he spoke of being 13, seeing Close Encounters and Star Wars and making up spacecraft in his head for his own amusement. Sadly, this nerdy bonhomie didn’t last long as I soon encountered the sentence “This is a feminist book about spacecraft and hyperspace”. 
Oh, dear. 
I soldiered on for a bit but when he referred to the Millenium Falcon (the ostensible subject of the book) as “a vulva rushing through the vulva-like realm of hyperspace” I had to call it a day. The points he makes are probably quite astute to someone who can work out what he’s going on about. There is a lot of rambling about how good Star Wars is, which I wouldn’t normally mind reading, but his analyses and conclusions are quite barmy. The kindest description I can give this book is pseudo-intellectual, word salad-ey claptrap. This book is not about whizz-bang spacecraft and sci-fi - it is about everything really being a vulva. 

Who signed off on this??
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1.5 stars.

As a fan of sci-fi, I had high hopes for Spacecraft, a new entry in the Bloomsbury Objects series. I felt that there was a huge amount of potential here: so much to unpack, not only in the way that classic spacecraft have made their way from the speculative fringe into mainstream culture, but also more broadly about the historical antecedents of science fiction. Spacecraft have grown out of other human desires and stories: after all, they’re the ultimate accomplishment of one of mankind’s most ancient desires: to fly. And we can trace a genealogy from the generation ships of science fiction back into antiquity, to Noah’s Ark. I was excited to learn about early ideas of what a spacecraft might be. What about the flying machine with rockets which launches Cyrano de Bergerac to the Moon in his 17th-century satirical novel The Other World? How do these fictional spacecraft compare to the real deal: the Space Shuttle or rockets? Does a spacecraft have to be manned? What about Arthur C. Clarke’s enigmatic Rama? Brimming with questions, I settled down and prepared to be transported to other worlds.

Unfortunately, I realised very quickly that I’d got completely the wrong idea about the book. I don’t believe I was unjustified in doing so. It started well. Morton does have a genuine, fanboyish love for his subject, and he struck a chord with me when he speaks, in the first few pages, of finding comfort in science fiction as an isolated child. Much of what he says in this book, honed down to its essentials, is true. Science fiction explores worlds that are more equal than the ones we have here in the real world. They show us society as it could, or should, be. Spacecraft are not only ways to escape, but agents of subversion and revolution. Morton explains that he is specifically interested in spacecraft rather than spaceships. ‘Spaceships are made by the state, and you have to earn the right to fly them. Spacecraft are stolen or won and you have to learn to fly them, on the fly.’

All this is fair enough. It doesn’t even matter that Morton isn’t really interested in spacecraft in general, but in the political and radical implications of one specific craft: the Millennium Falcon, from Star Wars, ‘a radically, even subversively, democratic spacecraft‘. He is passionate about the Star Wars universe too, insisting on several occasions that it is the ultimate science fiction creation: more sophisticated than Tarkovsky; more radical than Kubrick (‘Star Wars’ hyperspace is better than the room in Stalker’s Zone because it’s not alienating‘ and ‘The hyperspace of Star Wars is more progressive than that of 2001‘). Perhaps the book should have been titled ‘Millennium Falcon’, rather than ‘Spacecraft’ (or perhaps ‘Hyperspace’. He really likes hyperspace too. More on that in a moment).

There were moments which I found interesting. Morton amusingly compares the interiors of the Starship Enterprise or the Death Star to open-plan offices, places where people work in hierarchies, as part of a machine. That’s true, and it makes for a wonderful contrast to the gleeful, scrappy, egalitarian freedom of smaller spacecraft, like the ubiquitous Millennium Falcon. He also speaks of the ‘endless Saturday afternoon of hyperspace‘, that liminal space between worlds where time ceases to mean anything, and spacecraft crews can kick back and relax while they wait to emerge elsewhere. It was a nice turn of phrase that captures the in-between state of interstellar travel. I learned that the word ‘weird’ comes from the Norse ‘urthr’, ‘twisted into a loop‘, and that it’s connected with weaving, hence, the Norns, the Weird Sisters, the weavers of Fate – and the essence of spacetime. Equally fascinating, Morton suggests that the conceptual roots of hyperspace lie in African spirituality, where liquid is sometimes regarded as a liminal space, particularly the Kikongo idea of ‘kalunga’, which means ‘threshold between worlds.’ (Flashbacks to C.S. Lewis’s ‘wood between the worlds’ with its myriad pools.)

Despite these scattered moments, though, I really didn’t like the book. For me, there were two resounding problems. The first is that Morton kicks off the book with a lengthy section talking, not about spacecraft, but about one of his specialist fields of knowledge: object-oriented ontology. He delves into this in some depth, alluding to Derrida, Heidegger and Husserl, and also spending a considerable amount of space explaining the discipline of phenomenology. I felt like an undergraduate who’s suddenly realised that they’re in the wrong seminar. Essentially, I think the basic argument is that ideas, like a spacecraft, are just as real and valid as physical things, like the keyboard on which I’m typing. They exist independently of the mind that imagines them. I hope I’m not a completely ignorant person, but at the same time, I’m not a philosopher and found this entire section panic-inducing and alienating: a kind of briar-hedge that I had to hack my way through in order to access the book that I hoped I would find beyond it. (Imagine me: a small ball, whimpering, “But I only wanted to learn about spacecraft!”) Of course Morton is passionate about his subject. Of course he wants to share it with us, and make us passionate about object-oriented ontology as well. But this is not the place for it.

And here’s the other problem. You see, the Object Lessons books are small. They’re brief, they’re appetisers, intended to give you an interesting pop of insight into the title subject. There isn’t space for authors to digress too much from the topic. When they do, it doesn’t work. Take Coffee, in the same series, which missed out most of the things one would actually want to know about coffee, in favour of the author’s stream-of-consciousness. But at least Dinah Lenney was talking about things that happened when she was actually drinking coffee. The real problem I have with Spacecraft is that, for Morton, a spacecraft is not a spacecraft (unless it’s the Millennium Falcon). It’s a springboard for him to launch into extended digressions on a number of current left-leaning academic preoccupations: a showcase, perhaps, for his progressive credentials. And this is a problem because, if you’re an ordinary reader like me and you’ve picked up a short book about spacecraft, it’s likely that you actually want to learn about spacecraft, not to read a lengthy lecture on postmodernist political and philosophical theory. There is, however, scope to play buzzword bingo. To give you a fair picture of the style, I’m going to include a few of the sections I highlighted on my Kindle:

‘Beneath the seeming linear flow of time, which is always some imperialist or colonialist imposition, is the timeless bath of hyperspace‘

‘It’s about time we took a serious look at the activepassive binary.’

‘The Falcon making hyperspace is the truly utopian version of the energy-substance that the religiosity of the Jedi hides and turns into an invaluable commodity, creating class division‘

‘The irreducibly hidden, occult aspects of things lead to a consideration of how gender works with the binaries of subject versus object, master versus slave, tool-user versus tool.’

‘Hyperspace is radically democratic. One of the most potent things about how hyperspace circludes a spacecraft is that this can happen anywhere.‘

‘The Muppets are in some sense the posthuman beings we have been waiting for.‘ (Actually, I loved that one.)

Now, boys, girls and non-binary beings, let’s talk about hyperspace. I’m obviously very boring, because I’d always imagined hyperspace as a kind of cosmic Spaghetti Junction, but Morton reads it as a tremulous, semi-orgasmic sexual allegory. It’s ‘powerfully feminist and anti-racist‘ (a mark of definite approval) and Morton spends a lot of time exploring its quivering potential. Hyperspace, as a feminist, radical, democratic, positive (Star Wars) space is distinguished from warp drive, which is a patriarchal, imperialist, negative (Star Trek) space. ‘When we enter or “make” hyperspace,’ Morton explains, ‘it’s also like having an orgasm.’ Gosh. He attentively corrects people’s erroneous tendency to ‘think of spacecraft, for obvious patriarchal reasons, as phallic symbols penetrating the hyperspace tunnel’. In fact, entering hyperspace is like being gently ‘circluded‘ by another substance, like ‘a mouth around a nipple’. (There is a curious paragraph-long quote, following this, from the feminist author Bini Adamczak, discussing the physics of putting a condom on a banana.)

And yet I was slightly puzzled, because Morton seemed to be making an argument that was inconsistent with the explicitly penetration-like imagery he’d used some pages earlier, to describe the Millennium Falcon ‘making’ hyperspace, ‘as if swallowed in the vagina – or for that matter the anal sphincter – of its substance.’ (One must acknowledge the scrupulous gender-equality of the simile.) Later, he becomes excited by the idea of the ‘feminist‘ Millennium Falcon as: ‘a vulva rushing through the vulva-like realm of hyperspace… The vulva of hyperspace circludes the vulva of the Falcon which circludes the passenger pilots.’ And he immediately concludes, after this disconcerting flurry of vulvas, that ‘I think that the reason the political right appropriated Star Wars is because it doesn’t really fit their agenda.’ I couldn’t quite follow the argument, but I beg your indulgence: I think that by this point I’d been rather blinded by flying vulvas.

I’m a feminist. I’m pro-democracy and pro-equality in every possible way. My issue is not with Morton’s values. But I didn’t come to this book for a politico-philosophical seminar. I didn’t even come to it to learn that Star Wars is immeasurably superior to Star Trek – but I know some people who might passionately, vigorously argue with that. I came to it because I trusted Bloomsbury to have produced an engaging, exciting, wide-ranging book about spacecraft, and I wanted to learn about their historical, social and imaginative context. Instead I just feel drained and alienated. It needed a much, much tighter editorial hand, because at present it feels like a meandering, unevenly spliced, unfocused series of articles, veering on the edge of parody: less Arthur C. Clarke, and more Titania McGrath. Had I not felt obliged to review the book, I wouldn’t have finished it.

For me, this was a disappointing misstep in a series that otherwise, for the most part, explores its title subjects with wit, charm and a wide range of creativity.

For the review, please see my blog:
https://theidlewoman.net/2021/06/01/spacecraft-2021-timothy-morton/
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I normally love books like this one. However, Morton's book was a bit too abstract for my tastes. In speaking about an object, I expect it to be tethered to reality in some way. This book bounced all over the place, flirting between different philosophical modalities. 

The book wasn't my cup of tea, but it was extremely well written.
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This is a lively, sharp-witted philosophical investigation of the specific status spacecraft have as objects. Morton treats spacecraft as imaginative, emotive entities (toys, concepts, and dreams) that have long been taking us to new time-spaces and generally transforming our lives. It is written in an engaging manner and explains everything you need to know to ‘get onboard’ - just don’t expect a sci-fi Haynes manual!

Morton calls spacecraft ‘spiritual, sensuous liquids’ (p.10) and this reflects his re-deployment of 70s feminist philosophy, how it bypasses the masculine-monumental take on the body, instead treating it as something vulnerable, exposed to contact, and generally self-divided, multiple and in various states-of-process. This becomes his guide to the way spacecraft (more modest than the spaceship) flow in time-space, appearing and disappearing, connecting, slipping away, and transforming. Morton shows how thinking through spacecraft-objects makes more sense in our post-Einsteinian, post-patriarchal cosmos.

The author writes in a conversational tone, aiming to avoid academic critical one-upmanship instead seeking to convey ideas directly - naive, simple and sincere, as he puts it. It might feel casual, but he is a creative thinker, brimming with lively intelligence. His thinking is boldly ethical, forward-looking and I hope this book finds its way to the right readers, who should find this as enjoyable and thoughtful as I did. Those who have read Morton’s philosophical books will recognise his trademark style, ideas and attitudes - it most reminded me of Hyposubjects, with its sense of improvised embrace of complexity, and its idea of ‘subscendence’ in which ‘the whole is always less than the sum of its parts’.

My description above is a bit rough-and-ready - he tweaks and sharpens up most of the points I made. I will let you find out which ones, how he twists them and why, so you can enjoy reading the book for yourself. Many thanks, author!
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This was not the book I was looking for.  Book?  It's just a semi-academic deconstruction of the Millennium Falcon.  But who knew that when you travelled 'to infinity and beyond', doing the Kessel Run in 12 parsecs en route, you didn't find Trillian's 'normality', and certainly no Star Child, but Pseuds Corner?
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Disclaimer: I received an ARC of this book in exchange for an honest review. Thanks to Bloomsbury and NetGalley for the ARC!

Onto the actual book... What on earth was this? I wanted to abandon it halfway through, which is sadly impressive for a book of this short length, but ended up powering through. I was expecting a fairly surface-level exploration of spacecraft in fiction and popular culture, and got... a book focusing for the most part on the Millenium Falcon from Star Wars (which the author seems to be in love with), with lots of rambly thoughts- all over the place.

This book mostly attempts to explain why the Millenium Falcon is such an amazing spacecraft and the tens of special meanings it has which has made it so adored by people all over the world! It goes from analysis of Star Wars to weird Freudian sexual comparisons (describing the way the Falcon enters hyperspace as being swallowed by a vagina or anal sphincter, and there's a whole part about the "vulva of hyperspace" too), philosophical ramblings and lots of ideas on life, American culture, economy, ecology, feminism, stream of consciousness, Gaussian geometry, how spacecraft are penises penetrating hyperspace (yes, it never stops with the weird sexual analogies), left-wing cynicism, but most of all, Star Wars.

Much of this book is just about how great Star Wars/the Millenium Falcon is, how it is even philosophically and politically more sophisticated than any Kubrick or Tarkovsky film. 

It's a baffling book, almost feels like false advertising, and definitely made me go "what is this guy even going on about" multiple times throughout reading it. Hard pass.
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