Tuesday 3 December 2019

Retrospective on Sepulveda Baron

Guest post by J. Rama Stephens

Acclaimed futurist Sepulveda Baron, 62, has died suddenly, while transiting a full-body-scanner at Kuala Lumpur airport en-route to speak in Tokyo. The world has lost an intellect described by Locus Magazine as “a piercing searchlight into the darkest corners of dystopian fiction.”

Baron was the third child of Robert and Artemisia Baron. Her mother was a Republican survivor of the retirada following the Spanish Civil War, recruited from the Argelès refugee camp in France as an SOE courier, then as a clerk for MI6 from 1945. There, she worked with (and married) Sepulveda’s father, MI5 section head Robert Baron.

Sepulveda Baron’s early life was (by her account) happy. In a 2005 interview in the Guardian (the only time she talked to the press) she described a family home at Bletchley giving onto woodlands and the Grand Union Canal: “long summer walks on the towpath with my father gave me an early fascination with Victorian-era engineering and morality. That fascination never left me, but I did become more interested in digital tech—the kind that really gets under your skin.” Through her early years her mother often hosted a motley gathering of expat Republicans. Baron would sit in, sipping rioja. Her mother’s civil war stories and heart-on-sleeve politics would shape Baron’s approach to cyberpunk as “literary expression of late capitalism.” She refused to set foot in what she called “Franco’s neoliberal Spain,” but was plugged in to a network of expatriate connections, online and off.

Baron left home (and the South) to study Literature at Manchester, graduating to a Masters with first class honours. After a long correspondence she traveled in 1985 to Budapest to meet Laszlo Antal, a fiery literary critic at Eotvos Lorand faculty of arts. They married immediately and honeymooned at Lake Sevan in Armenia. The same year, the Hungarian regime declared Antal a “reactionary writer.” They fled together on a night train to Vienna (with the last of her US dollars Baron bribed the guard to let she and Antal ride in the conductor’s car, so they avoided the AVH secret police at the border), and they flew to the US, where Antal had the offer of a teaching job at Brown.

Ivy League America suited Baron. She took a PhD in European literature at Brown, and worked as a research assistant to Antal. Her early papers hint at later dominant themes—a relentless focus on the avant-garde, and fearless literary and genre juxtapositions. From 1984 Baron corresponded with (later) cyberpunk luminaries, including Cadigan, Vinge, and Gibson. I first met Baron at Brown, and she began to develop a following long before she had tenure—students and faculty would gather at her modest house for cheap Californian wine, readings, and (sometimes raucous) discussions. Baron was loud, forceful, and usually right.

In 1989 Antal’s affair with a grad student ended their marriage abruptly. Baron’s employment record shows she had applied for maternity leave the following year, so she’d likely arranged an abortion before walking out and flying home to England. The same year that Baron divorced Antal, she was employed as assistant professor (acting chair, SF Studies) at Liverpool. The next few years were almost impossibly productive—Baron published over 20 papers in 48 months, and most racked up citations at academic rock-star speed.

A fateful meeting with Zoltan Istvan at a futurist convention in Santa Clara in 1994 diverted Baron’s (stellar, but mainstream) academic career into something far stranger and more life-threatening. Istvan and the transhumanist community made a powerful impression on Baron. She embarked upon a year of “deep anthropology” at the Extropia Ranch, home to a well-funded transhumanist community in the New Mexico desert. The ranch was a self-contained world where smart drugs flowed freely, top surgeons performed implants, and (if their website was to be believed) novel couplings between machines, women and men were explored. One year became two, then five.

Baron became romantically involved with the Extropia family. In 1997 she married into the family as a whole in an unofficial transhumanist ceremony. She stayed on at the ranch writing and helping to raise the children who had the run of the compound. Baron claimed to have a large number of transhumanist modifications and body-implants over these years, but (unusually) none visible in everyday clothes; despite many rumours, she refused to talk about her body mods, citing a political commitment to ethical privacy and body autonomy. She often spoke publicly about one modification, however. Baron had early on augmented her vision, and continued to explore this area as the technology developed, splicing drone and webcam feeds into custom AI lenses, and often projecting the resulting combined feed in talks and lectures. This led to a collaboration with the machine-vision team at Cal Tech for her controversial 2004 foray into political sciences, darksight. This gem of tech-dystopian criticism cemented her reputation, with a prescient (pre social-media boom) take on privacy: “remote surveillance technologies are the ayahuasca of dieselpunk. From radar to CCTV, from packet sniffing to online ad-placement algos. Their history shows that the ageless dream of seeing further, expanding our vision into new wavelengths, inevitably collapses into a militarised panopticon, scrutinised by Telescreens and banishing transgressors to (real or virtual) island prisons.”

When Baron returned to Liverpool in 2004, her classes continued to explore the boundary between the individual and the network, and the implications for privacy and autonomy. Her 2007 class, cryptically entitled “the body electric—impossible bearings” has become apocryphal legend. Professor Steve Wright, a grad student that year, describes it as “psychedelic, atavistic and brutal. So confronting that many walked out, and many didn’t finish the year.” He also affirms that semester’s ideas shaped his life and work: “Baron could quote at length from books, films, and papers, and would do so freestyle, segueing from one writer to another, joining the threads into a tapestry of our darkest futures, a gleaming thread running back down through Mary Shelley, grounded in the golem of Prague, and Promethean clay.”

A second burst of productivity followed. This time the papers came slower, but two longer works were published in quick succession. In this period Baron finally engages with feminist literary theory. She is perhaps best known for her pithy quote ”cyberpunk and pregnancy are similar—they’re both about how a foreign thing inside your body changes who you are and gives you a new relationship with the future, which you couldn’t imagine before,” from the introduction to settler colonialism in cyberspace—the massacre of the digital natives (2008).

Baron continued teaching into the early ’10s, but her health declined, perhaps due to the number of implants (she flew twice to California to have some surgically removed), and perhaps due to long-term microdosing of LSD, which many Extropia alumni blogged about.

Baron taught until 2014, and 2015 saw her last monograph, the short (but often cited) Atavism in SF: character arcs recapitulate genre descent into dystopia.

Baron is survived by her older brother. She has bequeathed her manuscripts, correspondence, and considerable collection of late 20th century home computing hardware to the Swedish Internet museum, with an endowment to host a permanent online “Basilisk defence archive.”