1977. David Bowie kicks off his new European phase with the album Low, which boasts a band led by an Afro-Cuban funk virtuoso (Carlos Alomar), a brilliant producer equipped with the latest gadgets for sonic manipulation and warfare (Tony Visconti), and a self-dubbed “nonmusician” with an interest in the avant-garde, generative music, processes and sonic materialism (Brian Eno). The first track on the album is recorded at the Château D’Hérouville, in northern France, and titled “Speed of Life.” It is an instrumental piece, and starts with a fade-in, as though we were arriving late to a celebration that has begun without us: a world that was already there before it reached our ear and which will go on under its own steam, repeating a musical phrase under multiple electronic disguises, as though all tomorrow’s parties could be concentrated into two minutes and forty-six seconds.
1912. The US astronomer Vesto Melvin Slipher discovers that light from distant galaxies is redshifted, and, since we already know that the pitch of a soundwave becomes lower when its source is moving away from us, the scientific community understands that it is dealing with this same phenomenon—known as the Doppler Effect—and, therefore, that the distance separating us from those galaxies must be increasing. This, however, contradicts the then-established belief in a static universe. 1922. The Soviet-Russian mathematician Alexander Friedmann uses Albert Einstein’s General Relativity equations to propose a large-scale model of the universe able to account for the fleeing galaxies. The result is the idea of a cumulative alteration in space-time, subsequently known as the expansion of the universe. 1929. The US astronomer Edwin Hubble carries out a series of observations that serve as evidence: the universe is in fact expanding, and the greater the distance separating us from an object, the greater the speed at which that object is moving away from us; in fact, the universe’s most distant regions are lost behind a cosmological horizon, seemingly moving faster than light and, therefore, incapable of sending signals of any kind that might someday reach us: we can say goodbye to them now, because the letters from their Sad Songs or Desolation Row will never reach us. 1998. The Supernova Cosmology Project and High-Z Supernova Search Team confirm not only that the universe is expanding, but that the rate of this expansion is accelerating: things, this implies, are not only moving away from us to become lost forever behind the cosmological horizon, but this horizon is drawing ever closer. In other words: the observable universe, the world we can engage with, is shrinking. Meanwhile, Argentine writer Rodrigo Fresán publishes La velocidad de las cosas, “the speed of things.” The book can be understood as a compilation of novellas (or long stories) that functions much like the generative music of Brian Eno: through its functioning—reading and continuing to read—a new state emerges: the configuration of an epiphonemic novel that is being assembled on the basis of the rhizomatic interaction of shared references in all of the novellas which begin to form part of it, or which always have done. Or, in other words, which always will have formed part of it.
1999. The Uruguayan writer Federico Stahl, a Fresán hyperfan, loans me his copy of La velocidad de las cosas, which I leave unread on a stack on my bedside table because I still have a number of Philip K. Dick novels to get through. No more than four or five days go by before he asks me what I made of the book and I confess to not having looked at it. When I return it to him, he devotes two and a half hours to a hallucinogenic monologue regarding his interpretation of the book, which focuses upon its references to zimzum, tzimtzum or tsimtsum. This was Federico Stahl’s kabbalistic phase, which was intense enough to infect me with an interest in paleohyperstitional books such as the Zohar or the Sefer Yetzirah and, furthermore, to convince us to form a doom metal band named after Tiferet, one of the sefirot of the kabbalistic Tree of Life. The concept of zimzum, for its part, refers to the contraction—which takes place outside of time and yet always in relation to it—that the divinity carries out on and within itself, leading to an “empty space” or “energy field” from which things draw their existence. We spend the final months of that same year tuned into the controversy and conspiranoia surrounding Y2K, the calendric anomaly which, according to this late millenia mythos, will influence the ultimate collapse of civilization by virtue of a bug inherent in the Arabic numeral system, retrocausally weaponized as a definitive rebellion against technocapitalism. Later, we will ask ourselves what happened (or didn’t happen) at the millennium, and where forgotten conspiracies and their unfulfilled promises go. Federico Stahl disappears in 2002 (other friends claim to have seen him in Milongas Melancólicas, a.k.a. Punta de Piedra, on the eastern coast of Uruguay, working as an orderly at an old people’s home and spending his nights as a Bob Dylan, Jim Morisson, and Ziggy Stardust impersonator) and I have never again played doom metal or jungle, or been interested in Kabbalah. Fresán’s book, on the other hand, would fall back into my possession in February 2007, in the form of the then-latest paperback edition, which features texts not included in the original configuration and attests to an expansion of that hyperfictional universe. I read it in the spare time afforded me by my job at a bookstore buried on the bottom floor of a beautifully Ballardian mall on the outskirts of Montevideo, and it soon occurs to me to steal the idea of novellas interconnected by a more ample project, a work I am still writing to this day and to which these notes (also) belong. Meanwhile, back in 1999, William Gibson publishes his novel All Tomorrow’s Parties, describing a near future (2008-2010) where the speed of things and life has accelerated to the point that the twentieth century is experienced as prehistory. But this would not become our future (nor, therefore, our past), and neither would the futures of replicants, the escape from New York, or the mission to Jupiter and beyond the infinite.
2001-2016. The following mental experiment can be found in the books Ghosts of My Life and Retromania, by Mark Fisher and Simon Reynolds, respectively. Let us think of 1968 and 1964, of Hendrix’s Electric Ladyland and A Hard Day’s Night by the Beatles. It is as easy to appreciate the differences in sound, aesthetic, and the music itself as it is to articulate them in so many distinct moments in the historical development of pop/rock: the four intervening years appear rich in changes, dense in stories, hyperpopulated with future possibilities. Now choose albums from 2014 and 2010, or 2015 and 2011, or 2013 and 2008. Those differences appear to have evaporated, as though the history of pop had exhausted every future-oriented drive: as if the speed of things had slowed to a bare minimum during those years. So slow it even goes backwards, and then sideways: retrofuturism, hauntology, vaporwave.
2010. I am in Madrid, at a writers’ conference. In the canteen of the institution where the event is being held, I come across Rodrigo Fresán, leaning against the counter, drinking what I now remember to be a coffee but which may well have been something stronger. I take a seat next to him and introduce myself. It turns out he remembers me from a review I had published in a science fiction magazine, in which I discussed his novel The Bottom of the Sky (subsequently translated into English by Will Vanderhyden). In the endnote to that novel, Fresán maintains that it is not a book of science fiction but a book with science fiction, while in La velocidad de las cosas (page ninety of the well-thumbed 2006 paperback edition that accompanies me as I write this) he claims that any film with Orson Welles is an Orson Welles film. In that moment, I want to tell Fresán that any book with science fiction is, in fact, a book of science fiction, and that we should therefore consider not just The Bottom of the Sky as falling under this category, but La velocidad de las cosas as well, yet I lack the courage to do so. Then more people arrive and the conversation drifts onto other topics. If the scene were to repeat itself and I could summon the courage, I would tell him that La velocidad de las cosas could also be thought of as a book with horror and, furthermore, that any novel with horror is a novel of horror. I would also tell him that several years ago, at a bookstore in Lima, someone mistook me for him. But that, as was said of the Cimmerian’s later days, is another story.
2023. I reread La velocidad de las cosas and come to a simple conclusion: it is a novel of the nineties. Its nineties-ness is as intense as that of Bowie’s Earthling or U2’s Pop, sitting on the cusp of the new millennium and infected with that kind of retromaniacal anxiety that prompted us to cling desperately to what (little) remained of the notion and feeling of the future. Within its pages, for example, you can already find the Internet, treated with caution rather than fascination, and a world that is already somewhat alien, not yet metabolized by the digital leviathan that expands ever more rapidly along its archiving—its past-digesting—trajectory; at that point, the world of the nineties and La velocidad de las cosas still had a future: a world still capable of sustaining some kind of relationship with the idea—and the visceral feeling—of a future, no matter how much this might abound in Dylanesque locations like Sad Songs, Canciones Tristes, Chansons Tristes, or Milongas Melancólicas. But if we again turn to Fisher and think of his reworking of the Derridean concept of “hauntology,” we might come to the conclusion that the nineties have been displaced—by virtue of the expansion of the universe and the speed of things—beyond a horizon, and are now not simply a time we can think of as a definable and stylizable era, but also the last and most recent knot of nostalgia for roads not taken. The nineties have become a net of unfulfilled possibilities: the ghosts of that future we dreamed of then, which is no longer part of the present or immediate past. The speed of things, the speed of life, and the speed of history are always stranger than what we can imagine. And they will always leave us behind, in the horror not only of having become so different from the people we were, but of being confronted by the idea that, in truth, we were never really anything at all.
1968. Toward the end of 2001: A Space Odyssey, the astronaut Dave Bowman is drawn into a wormhole in which the speed of things accelerates in a kaleidoscope of weirdness. Once this displacement is over, the setting crystalizes into a hotel room, furnished and decorated in rococo style; there, Bowman’s subjective point of view, implied by the framing of the shot, allows us to see an aged version of the astronaut. When this man, in turn, looks back at the place where the first Bowman is supposed to be, we are met—the horror, the horror—with only the white emptiness of the room. This process is repeated with an even older Bowman and, finally, with what is possibly a posthuman fetus. The viewer and the viewed also end up being the monolith: an iconic xenototem, emblematic of the film and its strange and horrifying depiction of our possible (and future) relationship with the Beyond. The future of 2001—with its spaceships and artificial intelligence—contrasts with the retro aesthetic of the hotel; meanwhile, from the four ages of Bowman we attempt to infer some story about humanity and its limits or a more or less novel answer to the riddle of the sphinx. 1980. Kubrick depicts another hotel, the Overlook, in his film The Shining, as well as a more precise temporal anomaly: Jack Torrance, the character played by Jack Nicholson, appears in a photograph dated 1921, more than fifty years before the events of the film are supposed to take place. At another point, someone—a ghost—reminds Torrance that he has always been “the Caretaker.” This name, in turn, would inspire one of the most important projects in the history of twenty-first-century music, undertaken by British musician James Leyland Kirby—a.k.a. The Caretaker—who proposed, between 1999 and 2003, to record the music that might have been heard in the ballroom of the Overlook, and later, between 2016 and 2019, to create music that would mirror the deterioration over time in the cognition and memory of a human being: a mind ravaged, forever and always, by the speed of things.
Translated by Victor Meadowcroft with Ramiro Sanchiz