I’m sure there is an audience for Timothy Morton’s Spacecraft (2021), one of the OBJECT LESSONS 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, 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 mothership from Close Encounters of the Third Kind, 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 in Spacecraft, 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.