Warren Ellis’s Planetary is a great comic — good to read along with Grant Morrison’s The Invisibles as part of this vague 90s genre of psychologically-dealing-with-the-millennium (and much better than the Gaiman/McKean book literally called that). Furthermore, it’s as philosophically potent as Ellis has ever been, while engaging with the history of popular media the way Morrison’s work does. It’s the most Grant Morrison book Warren Ellis ever wrote, is my point — but with all the focus of The Filthor Flex Mentallo.

By playing with tropes as mythic figures, Ellis produces all sorts of interesting insights that would be difficult otherwise. One of these came to mind recently, while I was reading Fred Turner’s From Counterculture To Cyberculture.

Near the end of Planetary, the protagonist meets the New World Order — a collection of late nineteenth century figures whose shadow is cast over the whole of the 20th. For a book where the primary antagonists are the Fantastic Four, you might expect a much darker take on the New World Order — and indeed, the first member we see is Dracula. The second is H. G. Wells.

Our protagonist explains that the New World Order had the best of intentions, and their goal was to shape the myths of the 20th century to avoid the apocalypses they foresaw for it at the end of the nineteenth. However, they, with their accumulated power, had grown inflexible. The appropriateness of their plans had reached an end, and therefore, there relevance should too — but because they had accumulated this power, they continued exerting these same forces even as they became pathological. They had gone from being heroes to being villains simply by insulating their view of an ideal future from the changing state of the present — and thus, they were pushing the world backward toward the furthest reaches of what they could understand at the turn of the century. As a Century Boy (a nigh-invulnerable person born at the stroke of midnight 1st January 1900, destined to die in the year 2000, and steward of the age) it was up to the protagonist to free the 21st century from the characteristic myths of the 20th.

Turner describes Stewart Brand and the ‘new communalists’ in similar terms: a mid-century movement (shaped, stewarded, and carefully maintained and kept relevant by Brand and his cohort) characterized by a cybernetic attitude, an individualist ethos that denied the importance of broader society in favor of small groups, and a mostly-blind optimism toward technologies new and old when used by well-meaning people — particularly communications technology. Turner paints Brand as important not because he originated ideas but because he was good at bridging distinct communities and turning those bridges into sources of power (political and informational) for himself and his friends. Since the new-communalist ethos was specifically counter to both the counterculture (wherein individual enlightenment was supreme) and the new left (wherein traditional mechanisms of government were to be used toward revolutionary ends), it was uniquely capable of embracing traditionalist and even conservative currents: the California Ideology is essentially east coast republicanism transplanted to the west coast and given a fake tan.

In Planetary, one detail is interesting to note. It may not be intentional, but the depiction of Dracula matches neither the novel’s nor the more iconic Bela Lugosi version, but instead most closely resembles the famously canon-breaking 1920s stage play version! We can read into this: these myths are not wholly static, but merely static with respect to the world. They progressed along with the century, and at some point became static in pathological ways. We can still learn from the source texts, but we must read them with respect to our own future and be careful with the kinds of myths we import.

(There’s one other interesting note. In Planetary, the main goal is to keep the world weird. The Fantastic Four are our antagonists because they have a rapacious, perverse, colonial perspective: they use their superior technology to kill and stuff the strangeness they find and place it in a hidden museum, and once the realms they invade are dead, they use them to store weapons. The central conflict here is quite like the theme of John Higgs’ history of the 20th century, Stranger Than We Can Imagine, where he positions the beginning of the 20th century at the attempted bombing of the Greenwich Observatory. Higgs paints the central and defining conflict of the 20th century as reaction formations against the realization that indeterminacy is inescapable — that the world in some ways is neither ordered nor fully knowable, and as new sciences that try to quantify agnosis take on importance, new political systems either try to force even greater order or give in to structurelessness, and new art forms either embrace this or fight against it. Cybernetics, and particularly the embrace of cybernetics by Brand’s whole earth crew straight through the transition to Wired, typifies this schizophrenic attitude toward structurelessness.)

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Resident hypertext crank. Author of Big and Small Computing: Trajectories for the Future of Software. http://www.lord-enki.net

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