Book Review: Neil Rushton’s Set Controls for the Heart of the Sun

Neil Rushton’s Set Controls for the Heart of the Sun is a timely and accomplished first novel. It might seem odd to review this book at Skunkworks, but Rushton’s novel touches on shared concerns in its treatment of transhumanism, alternate realities, and the non-human intelligent entities, Faeries.

The book is timely, in the first instance, because of the character of the narrator-protagonist’s life. He is a broken soul, depressed and suffering a kind of PTSD following the sudden death of his mother and sister in a car crash. His unresolved grief culminates in a psychotic break while waiting in line in a shop landing him in a psychiatric ward. When the story proper begins, we find him released and living alone and friendless, eking out his life on a combination of government assistance and freelance webdesign, self-medicating with cannabis and, most importantly, psychedelics, given him by a shadowy, semi-official figure, Ober. Despite the extremity of his condition, the narrator is a Millenial type, depressed, medicated, and living precariously, whose typicality is reinforced by his remaining anonymous.

The novel is germane, further, because of its thematic concerns:  psychedelia and entheogens, transhumanism, nonhuman intelligences, and, more traditionally, because of their inescapability, suffering and mortality. Without giving too much away, the novel plots the narrator’s treatment with increasingly experimental psychedelics under Ober’s, and soon his colleagues’, care. As one might well imagine, as the treatment progresses, what is real becomes more precarious and amorphous. The deftness and delicacy with which this aspect of the narrative is dealt is one of the novel’s stylistic accomplishments.

The narrator’s treatment and attendant visionary experiences introduce another timely topic, transhumanism. But, unlike the simpleminded, techno-utopian version of Ray Kurzweil, Rushton envisions, or so it seems, given neither the reader nor the narrator are sure of what is real or not at any given time, a transcendence via entheogenically-driven evolution. The plot is haunted, too, not only by visions of the posthuman, but of the non-human. Weird, protean intelligences appear throughout, impish, defamiliarized versions of the folkloric Faery, here turned to a more modern or postmodern significance. Rushton’s uncanny re-imagined Little People bring to mind David Lynch’s unsettling, daemonic inhabitants of the Black Lodge. And anyone acquainted with the evergrowing body of entheogenic literature will be reminded of the entity reports that compose one part of it.

In more conventional, literary terms, the emotional heart of the book is the narrator’s unresolved grief and the attendant need to come to terms with mortality. Beneath the theatrical trappings remarked above (nevertheless, a not unimportant part of the novel’s architecture) is the process of the narrator’s painful and harrowing exploration of the painful frailty of human connection, familial and otherwise. One risk the novel takes is in its attempts to employ the extremes of the plot as a means to defamiliarize and so make new its heady thematic and emotional content.

And it’s just here in how ably this otherwise apparently unassuming novel carries off this difficult task that its more literary artistic achievements shine. Despite being a novel of first-person introspection and profound experience, psychedelic and emotional, the plot never bogs down, an accomplishment in its own right. The growing disorientation of the narrator over the reality of his experiences is deftly handled so that that confusion is vividly represented but without ever confusing or frustrating the reader. Despite the gravity and complexity of its concerns, the novel is constructed with a sly, intertextual irony, drawing on Shakespeare, Byron, Lewis Carroll, pop culture, folklore ancient and modern, and other sources to weave the plot’s materials, which, as they are slowly revealed, complicate, intensify, and lighten the reading experience.

In the wake of the French Revolution’s descent into the Terror, trust and hope in Progress or the sudden advent of a new world or age both faded. Writers, then, struggled to understand and render this new, obscure relation to time, history, and endings, composing in answer works without a clear ending or even, sometimes, beginning, novels and poems where reality and imagination, realistic prose, fairy tale, and dream, all served to blur the meanings of ‘vision’, most notably in those works of Romantic Irony, such as Novalis’ unfinished and unfinishable novel Heinrich von Ofterdingen, forerunners of those forays into postmodern undecidability, such as the novels of Thomas Pynchon.

Rushton’s Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun is a deceptively unassuming participant in this tradition, equally our condition. It combines the perennially, personally urgent matters of death and grief, the real material conditions of millenial life under neoliberal capitalism, a more overarching concern with the fate of humankind, and speculations about knowledge and reality all within a narrative equally introspective and plot-driven, woven of an ambivalent tissue of the present moment and the literary inheritance. Rushton’s book will find a home on the bookshelf, beside titles by William Burroughs, Terrence McKenna, and their fellow travellers.

Neil Rushton. Set Controls for the Heart of the Sun. London:  Austin MaCauley, 2016. 289 pp.

 

Neil Rushton is an archaeologist and freelance writer who has published on a wide rushtonvariety of topics from castle fortifications to folklore. Recently he has been exploring the confluence between consciousness, insanity and reality and how they are affected through the use of a wide variety of psychotropic drugs. His first novel, Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun, explores these issues to the backdrop of Syd Barrett and Pink Floyd. He also writes a blog-site devoted to the mythology and reality of the faeries:  https://deadbutdreaming.wordpress.com/

 

 

 

Jung’s Ufological Bookshelf: Gerald Heard, The Riddle of the Saucers: Is Another World Watching?

51hyugp-u1lGerald Heard. The Riddle of the Saucers:  Is Another World Watching? London:  Winter and Worsfold, 1950. 157pp.

In the commentary to the third dream Jung analyzes in his Flying Saucers, he writes:

A round metallic object appears, described as a flying spider….we are reminded of the hypothesis that Ufos are a species of insect from another planet and possessing a shell or carapace that shines like metal. An analogy would be the metallic-looking chitinous covering of our beetles. Each Ufo is supposed to be a single insect, not a swarm. (46)

The idea that the Ufo might be an extraterrestrial insect, the footnote to this passage tells us, is found in Sievers’ Flying Saucers über Südafrika that “mentions Gerald Heard’s hypothesis that they are a species of bee from Mars”.

If UFO reports constitute a “visionary rumour” then Heard’s book reads like a link in the chain of gossip, what Jung called “sensation mongering” in the case of ordinary rumours, despite Heard’s calling his book a “report” several times in the Foreward. Loosely written both in presentation of the cases and in their documentation (e.g., Heard refers to what Arnold saw as discs or saucers (12)) Heard’s book might seem a hack’s attempt to cash in on the public interest in the new phenomenon (written between late 1947 and late 1950), until one discovers what a widely-published and highly-regarded figure he was, a graduate of Cambridge, the author of thirty-eight books, and a friend of Aldous Huxley.

Nevertheless, despite being one of the earliest books on the topic Jung consults, it sets out both the (to us) well-known and well-worn history of the earliest years of the modern phenomenon as well as the more general lineaments of the myth with which readers today will be well familiar.

In the opening chapters, Heard recounts Kenneth Arnold’s inaugural sighting of 24 June 1947; the UAL sighting of 4 July 1947; the Maury Island incident; the Muroc sighting of 8 July 1947; and Fred Johnson’s Cascade Mountain sighting 24 June 1947, famously before Arnold’s and including the first association of magnetic anomalies with the presence of the saucers, the hands on Johnson’s compass spinning wildly while the discs he witnessed were overhead. Heard continues with the Chiles/Whitted case of 23 July 1948; the death of Thomas Mantell, 7 January 1948; and the Gorman Dogfight, 1 October 1948. Heard concludes the first, historical half of his volume detailing the efforts of Project Saucer. Heard then, tediously, turns his attention to the mystery of the nature, origin, and intent of the discs, concluding, first, that their technology, because of its performance capabilities must be non-terrestrial. He is thereby moved to reflect on those characteristics, shape, size (including terming the largest “motherships”), velocity, silence, and apparent intelligent behaviour, remarking, in the process, on the earliest photographic evidence, in this case, the Trent/McMinville photo. He goes on to propose mcinvillethe discs’ pilots, like we would soon be, are space explorers. He then ranges over the possible origins of the discs and concludes with the hypothesis Jung notes, that the pilots are likely “super bees”—from Mars. Further evidence of Mars’ being the discs’ homebase is the peculiar size, appearance, and orbits of Mars’ moons, Demos and Phobos, whose oddness prompts Heard to propose they are artificial, orbital launch platforms. Heard then, in classic, ufological style, detours into a catalogue of premodern sightings, from the Eighteenth Century to Foo-fighters and Ghost Rockets, before speculating that the Martian bees’ purpose is likely to observe our industrial, technological, and military development, and to determine what threat the earth might pose to Mars, drawn in the first instance by their witnessing the detonation of atomic bombs. Heard concludes by summarizing the classic argument that, since the flying dics are neither hallucination nor terrestrial they must therefore be extraterrestrial.

In the course of the above narration, he expresses ideas that will become commonplace. Already, in the forward, the flying saucers are “some sort of super flying-machine”. Reliable witness reports are debunked or suppressed by authorities, whether the press or “Air-authorities”. Evidence is murderously suppressed by the military or government, as evidenced by the B-52 crash and death of USAF officers Brown and Davidson August 1947 transporting samples of the Maury Island ejecta. Heard categorizes the dramatis personae of the mystery into three characters: the reliable, trained but mystified witness; the witness reluctant to report his experience; and the suppressing authorities. The haughty dismissal of the mystery of the saucers is compared to that of psychical research or  Eighteenth century reports of meteorites. The UFO is described as possessing what are now the classic shapes of discs or torpedoes and of making impossibly tight turns. Heard posits the explanation that the Flying Saucers were said to be U.S. secret weapons or feared to be foreign, that the public revelation of their extraterrestrial origin would result in a “War of the Worlds” hysterical reaction, their being extraterrestrial borne out by the Saucer’s technology being ahead of ours, likely relying on magnetism or antigravity. Finally, as noted, it was the flash of A-bomb blasts that piqued the Martians’ curiosity.

For all its turgid near unreadability, Heard’s book possesses at least two (almost) saving graces. For such an early work, it presciently identifies and describes salient cases that will become “classics” and reflects on them in a manner that will be repeated over the coming decades. Remarkably, Heard’s imagining the ETs are insectoid uncannily foresees the various mantid species that will make their entrance most markedly with the advent of the Abduction phenomenon. Most importantly, though, Heard’s “hypothesis” that the pilots of the flying discs are Martian bees is developed from his ruminations about terrestrial bees, concluding they are possessed of an intelligence equal to that of humankind, being social, and capable of both calculation and communication. That he does not anthropomorphize the extraterrestrial as too many will and still do but discovers a nonhuman intelligence in our own backyard makes Heard a radical, ecological thinker avant le lettre, decentering the ontotheological primacy of human intelligence and of humankind in the process.

bee face