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Book Review: Cyclonopedia by Reza Negarestani (2008)
A wacky book from a time of heated regional warfare
Also don’t forget that petroleum and fossil fuels exemplify another Telluro-conspiracy towards the Sun’s solar economy: trapping the energy of the sun accumulated in organisms by means of lithological sedimentation, stratification, anaerobic decay and bacteria in highly stratified sedimentary basins. In this sense, petroleum is a terrestrial replacement of the onanistic self-indulgence of the Sun or solar capitalism. Earth dismantles the hegemony of the sun on a subterranean (blobjective) level. If basking in solar economy overlaps with the annihilationist and nihilistic capitalism of the Sun, then how is it possible to dismantle the infernal hegemony without eradicating it?
Academic footnote commentary within “Cyclonopedia: Complicity with Anonymous Materials”
I’ve been wanting to pin that quote someplace for awhile now.
I ran across this book in a search for weird fiction. My wife gave it to me for Christmas as a stocking stuffer. I knew it would be strange, but it still surprised me..
If you want a summary with spoilers, that’s at the end of this post. But first I’ll give some preliminary thoughts on the book.
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Cyclonopedia follows in the tradition of other “found binder” stories, where a frame story surrounds a fragmented narrative of essays, summaries and Cliff’s Notes of other essays, footnotes within footnotes, marginalia, and ephemeral texts. House of Leaves, by Danielewski (2000) is probably the best book I’ve read in this style, which even involves a film analysis of a fictional documentary. House of Leaves also plays with the page, requiring you to turn the book upside down to read it in places. Another good one is Dictionary of the Khazars, by Pavic (1984/1988), structured like an encyclopedia, with multiple timelines running through each of the book’s three sections, each corresponding to one of the Abrahamic faiths - Christian/Red, Judaism/Blue, Islam/Green. The Dictionary is the odd man out here, much more of an academic fairy tale than Cyclonopedia and House, which are horror stories.
Cyclonopedia does have a frame story, but it’s cursory. The centerpiece of the book are the academic essays, which pull on a diverse set of sources: think John Carpenter’s The Thing, Deleuze and Guattari, and the Qur’an. You get an eyeful here. I’d put the genre somewhere in horror, science fiction, and fantasy. I wasn’t scared out of my mind, but a lot of it creeped me out in a cosmic sense.
Recommendation: It’s a good read
This is not a book for everyone. I didn’t understand half of it. But it was a heck of a ride. Just let it wash over you and don’t sweat the details.
A note on the late 2000’s
Reading the book a dozen years after publication brings me back to the fear and loathing in the Middle East at the time. In 2009, when the book was published, Obama arrived in office promising to end the Iraq War and intensify the Afghan war. The Iraq war had been a humanitarian disaster and a political embarrassment. The Obama strategy shift involved funding local Sunni militias to do the heavy lifting, the so-called “Sons of Iraq” program, AKA the Sunni Awakening.
Well, at least some of those militias ended up moving over to ISIS after the Shi’ite al-Maliki government disbanded them. Recall that the disbanding of the Baathist Saddam Hussein regime resulted in the incredible violence of 2003-2008. It turns out that disbanding an army doesn’t usually do you many favors unless you give them something else to do. We saw it in the United States as well, when disbanded Confederate army soldiers continued to terrorize the countryside during Reconstruction.
I remember when ISIS arrived on the scene in and around 2014. I told some folks, “This looks a lot like the Sons of Iraq gone rogue.” It turned out that was true. A lot of former, disbanded Sunni fighters had a stark choice: join the Islamic State/ISIS, or you and your family get murdered. The outsourcing strategy worked similarly in Afghanistan - get the locals to do the heavy lifting. The Afghan National Army folded in weeks when the US vacated the country. It’s always been a lousy idea.
In 2009, though, the Middle East warzone had the attention of the entire country. In 2023, Ukraine is the warzone, with the United States funding fighters to do the realpolitik work it wants to do against Russia. It’s possible that we’re in for another twenty years of war there.
Reading Cyclonopedia feels like reading something slightly stale, for that reason. While the Syrian and Yemeni Civil Wars drag on, a lot of the conflict in the Middle East feels much more remote today than it did in 2009, when people you knew fought in that arid war zone. The book captures the feeling of the time really well.
So, what’s this book REALLY about? Well, it’s hard to describe without giving away spoilers, so…
"Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill - FSU Sampling Cruise - June 22, 2010" by SkyTruth is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.
The Upshot (SPOILERS AHEAD)
Maybe I can try to translate what’s being said in that wacky quote up above.
The text largely follows the frantic writings of Dr. Hamid Parsani, a Persian academic trained as an archaeologist. But he has turned into the world’s foremost geological conspiracy theorist. According to Parsani, Lovecraftian entities from an outer world are conspiring to create a dark reflection of the sun (cue Soundgarden - Black Hole Sun) in order to move into our reality. It’s an apocalyptic, trans-dimensional conspiracy involving language, violence, natural resources, and the solar system.
We’ll call these entities “the otherworldlies” for lack of a better word.
Humanity, through its own ignorance, is serving the otherworldlies through its addiction to energy consumption. Advanced civilization uses oil, the congealed biomass of epochs of life and death, to create heat and energy. And through the human civilization’s work at extracting, fighting over, and consuming oil, the otherworldlies have a golden opportunity to make a play at dimensional supremacy.
In Parsani’s conspiracy theory, oil has a life and intelligence of its own, and wants to be used by humanity to create heat output. Consumption of fossil fuels serves a greater “rebellion” by Earth, which is a sentient being in itself. As a thinking being, Earth is begging to start that inter-dimensional apocalypse. The Earth holds a sort of proud opposition to the sun, always in the sun’s light but desiring to be more. What results from the Earth’s rebellion and its summoning of otherworldlies is a sort of film negative of the self-consumptive sun.
The act of drawing oil, that congealed death-material, out of the Earth, plays a large part in the conspiracy. Part of the Parsani eschatology of oil also involves the repeated puncturing of the Earth to get at the fossil fuels. Humanity has to dig dig dig to get at oil and other mined materials. Every hole that humanity puts in the Earth furthers the puncturing of a membrane guarding us against the inter dimensional otherworldlies. That includes everything, from foundations for houses to uprooting trees, even the puncturing action of bullets, which mimic the mining processes. Humans poke holes in the terrestrial. The “holeyness” (Parsani’s play on words) created by human activities like mining and projectile weaponry and rocketry also serve as portals through which the otherworldly forces can enter our universe.
Wars in the Middle East are doing triple-duty: one, the Middle East wars are ultimately about resource control and extraction of oil; two, the resource control game is one involving a lot of killing, so lots of bullets and projectiles and puncturing; and three, the war machines of empire consume an inordinate amount of oil. The Middle East as an oil-soaked killing-field makes it a playground for the chthonic, occult forces behind the veil of our reality. The global War on Terror has accelerated the descent into apocalypse.
In Parsani’s writings, life is seeding its own destruction. Fossil fuels are using humanity for nefarious ends, and we’re too hungry to stop the process. The sun, too, created the circumstances for the entry of horrible things into our universe. Its energy fed the processes that created life, only for lifeforms to turn around and let in the baddies. This is because, in a way, the sun is narcissistic. It’s too obsessed with shining. “Solar capitalism” above is a self-destructive process that ultimately consumes the sun and the solar system, leaving all a burnt out husk in a few billion years or so. That is, if the otherworldly entities don’t get summoned here first, via the many holes created for them.
Parsani is warning humanity about the imminent end to all things, centered in a Middle East that boils in its own juices.
Wow, that’s something.
Yeah, I know. At least, I think this is what the book is about. If you’ve read it, write in, because I’m likely as confused as you were.