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Dioramas coverIn a second-season episode of the American sitcom Community (2009-2015), the study group that the show focuses on is making a diorama. “I can’t believe this is our twentieth and final anthropology diorama of the year,” says one character. “I can’t believe our assignment is making a diorama of us making our nineteenth diorama,” responds another. There’s something about the diorama—minuscule, artificial, toylike, and recursive—that invites ridicule. Dioramas is Blair Austin’s first novel, and in it he sets the lofty goal for himself of taking them utterly seriously. In doing so—and in succeeding remarkably well—he draws the reader into a strange world of unsettlement, climate catastrophe, and conservation. The book joins a number of other works that take a banal, faintly ridiculous aspect of our world and, by taking it seriously to an obsessive degree, elevate it to something grand and metaphorically articulate. Colson Whitehead’s The Intuitionist (1999) is perhaps the ur-example: an entire book about competing schools of thought among elevator inspectors.

Dioramas is a pretty sui generis book, a series of short pieces (the shortest is two lines, the longest a few pages) of ekphrastic description of dioramas in a post-post-apocalyptic future. It’s almost entirely lacking in narrative propulsion, the vignettes themselves sharing the static form of a diorama. One might call it Gormenghast (1950) by way of Invisible Cities (1972), a prose poem reflecting pools of great depth, incredible stillness, and increasingly uncanny visions—pithy koans with the barest connective tissue. I jotted down, I think, approximately twice as many notes for this review as I usually would for a novel: every page seems to hint at deeper meanings and connections, much as the mise-en-scène of a diorama might.

The narrator, Wiggins, is an elderly scholar in a far future world recovering from some sort of ecological catastrophe. Two towering historical figures dominate his discursions: Michaux, the great dioramist whose work catalysed his society’s widespread fixation on the form, and Goll, a dictator and the creator of the great Diorama of the Town—a Borgesian, life-size diorama so large that it takes Wiggins ten days to travel through. The first half of the book is Wiggins viewing Michaux’s miniature nature replicas from the outside, the second half his exploration of Goll’s maximalist creation from the inside, on a tour very precisely orchestrated by the government. That is, essentially, the extent of the plot. Hints of a narrative—mysterious clues for Wiggins in a diorama that appears to move, like a flip-book, as his subway car passes; a society-wide game whose approach excites everyone—surface and recede without resolution. Hints that Wiggins is unreliable or under the influence of various drugs abound. The closest thing to a narrative arc occurs in the book’s increasingly ominous hints, which eventually become explicit statements, that the Town is peopled not by statues but by preserved corpses. A reread might expose more of a narrative throughline, but it just as likely won’t. This is a book that resists that kind of totalization, I think. Either way, I intend to revisit it to find out.

The purpose of art, the Russian formalist Viktor Shklovsky argued a century ago, “is to impart the sensation of things as they are perceived and not as they are known […] to make objects “unfamiliar,” to make forms difficult, to increase the difficulty and length of perception because the process of perception is an aesthetic end in itself and must be prolonged.” This technique of defamiliarization—ostranenie in the original Russian—was intended as a criteria for producing and judging poetry, the language of which needs to be less common, less familiar, than standard prose. The German playwright Bertolt Brecht took a similar theoretical approach to what he called “Epic Theatre,” a Marxist concept by which the staging and action of a play is kept visibly artificial in order to draw attention to the materialist conditions of its production and of society at large. Etymologically, “diorama” is adapted from the Greek for “through that which is seen," and that’s exactly where Dioramas engages with both ostranenie and Brechtian artificiality: quite literally in the sense of the Town, as Wiggins moves through that which is seen, but also in the metaphorical ways that dioramas force the viewer (and reader) to re-apprehend scenes of familiarity, of the ways we treat animals, nature, and people. Austin is applying a braided, two-form approach of both techniques to emphasize the troubled relationships between humanity and nature and humanity with itself. [1]

Austin’s sentences, consistent with the structure and content of the book, likewise resist the commonplace and familiar, increasing the length of perception by means of diagonals and elisions and unexpected directions. “The goldenrod sags with the weight of flowers, and the lane narrows out of which some shape might be coming,” Wiggins tells us, or, “The buses are like superb land ferries, the blue of faces, as for a brief moment, all holding their breath within.” Here he describes a diorama of a rabbit warren, half above ground, half below:

Then down we go. Down deep into the tunnels. How lessened the scope of the cubbies and their round nests. A mother nurses six bald fingers in a cutaway nest. The blue half bulge of the eye, with its veins, but its seam hasn’t opened, is clearly visible beneath the pink. And the numbers! In all the similar nests. The whiskers have scarcely come out of the puckers, the holes in the little snouts. Taxidermy is very difficult to do at such scale.

It’s similarly difficult for SFnal work to function on both the formal level of estrangement of Shklovsky’s ostnanie and the more typical science fictional Suvinian sense of ontological estrangement-through-genre-tropes, but Austin succeeds at marrying the two brilliantly.

Because, to be sure, those estranging generic tropes abound. Even outside of the hyperreal artificiality of the titular structures, Austin emphasizes the unsettling, ever-so-uncanny nature of much of Wiggins’s world, replete with automatons, doubles, and preserved un-life. (One particularly worrisome display is a taxidermied taxidermist preserved in the midst of taxidermying another taxidermist; elsewhere one finds “birds made up of other birds.”) Michaux, Wiggins tells us, recorded in his journals a feeling of existing in two places at once, inhabiting a doubled reality. (Within and without a diorama, one wonders?) Goll, meanwhile, had an army of doubles at his disposal, mechanical men to distract potential assassins, and has infused scenes of the Town with his own likeness, adults and children alike bearing his features. While the book rarely outright approaches the affects of horror or even terror, Austin’s approach to the constant, underlying strangeness of Wiggins’s world relies more on the unsettlement of that genre than of the expected strangeness of the novum of most science fiction.

Take, for example, the diorama which opens the book, the Bower:

Here is a glass case, green dark like a bottle, enclosing the interior boughs of a tree (a simulated hornbeam, I think). On the branches perch hundreds of canaries taken out of the mines. The lemon coats are muddied with coal dust and appear oily. Their eyes stare.

Some specimens have decayed. They have been taken out of the diorama. One can see where they used to be; they seem to have been used to make repairs on others. Up close, the birds have the stitched-together look of people living under bridges who have lost all sense of their surroundings. Glass beads painted to look like the berries of the mountain ash bulk in cascading clusters, striking the viewer as odd because canaries don’t eat them, being strictly seed-eaters. Many of the birds have been eaten by mice and dust mite larvae, which have caused them to slip their skins and to show their cork molds, on which wine stains can just be seen if you look closely.

Remember, on a zoomed-out, familiarized level, this is a diorama of canaries perched on a tree. From this very first page of the novel, though, Austin is doing everything he can to emphasise a defamiliarized, uncanny reading: the absence, the simulation, the staring eyes, the idea that what might strike the viewer as odd is the false food selection. Huge amounts of attention are paid throughout to the conservation and physical upkeep required, the rods and sutures, the glue and glass enclosures; this offers a reminder of the human labor needed to maintain these illusions, this constant struggle against entropy to maintain the convincing artificiality of the dioramas. Outside of the struggle to distinguish the artificial and the real, a mirrored struggle between interior-diorama and exterior-reality is that between static and dynamic. Michaux, now preserved and frozen in one of his own dioramas, was perpetually on the move while alive, when he “wore through countless shoes” and “saved them all in a closet, curled up in a pile like animals who had been shot.”

The narrative itself shows similar signs of artificiality and caginess. Scant pages in, the narrator issues a directive (“Slide please, Jeffrey”), revealing the vignettes to be parts of a presentation Wiggins is giving. This cuts back and forth with scenes of him settling into his new retirement home, or occasional interludes of huge clouds of passenger pigeons that are unclearly narrated and are in some way associated with an oft-hinted-at War. The pigeons are perpetually on the move, another stark reminder of the dynamism outside the dioramas, and—like almost all (or entirely all?) of this world’s fauna and flora—are artificial creations of an organization called the Farmer’s College. The College is busily trying to repopulate the “natural” world, which has been wiped out in that unspecified disaster. In other words, this world is a very literal Anthropocene, human subjectivity having overwritten everything else.

Goll’s Diorama of the Town literalizes this further by enlarging the sense of estrangement from the specific visions of the dioramas to an all-encompassing vista: Wiggins fully enters into it and is surrounded by the artificial. Everything here is oriented toward the gaze of the observer, and nothing else—in a fishing village, Wiggins is struck by the lack of any smell, and the fact that the mannequins’ faces have only been constructed where the viewer can see. Features not oriented toward them have been removed. When Wiggins begins to see and/or hallucinate and/or theorize a giant eye observing him (just as he is observing the dioramas), the gaze feels inevitable, as does his paranoia that the train in which he is traversing the town is actually static, being shaken by outside forces to simulate movement, lights and backdrops rolled into place outside his windows. As his guide reassures him that the train and town are real, Wiggins tells the reader that the great dioramist Michaux once said, “The most valuable things aren’t for the eye, but for the imagination, but in order for the unease to set in—the unease of the imagination—the knowledge that things exist—they must really be there.”

Austin delightfully peppers the text with Michaux’s aphorisms and theorems, and one of the most fascinating is a phenomenon that he called “the alchemy,” in which phantom dioramas exist outside of the sight of the viewer in their own “cognition,” and in which the preserved creatures live in a state of slow time. Wiggins thinks this philosophy is in error, Michaux using the “common materials of the diorama, thing and display, place and context, as a metaphor to suggest something else entirely which is occurring outside the diorama, is to confuse perception and reality. Nothing stays in its container, ever, he seems to say.” Michaux is more right than Wiggins lets on. As a critic, I’m increasingly drawn to applications of unsettlement and estrangement, and Dioramas is a master class in both. Indeed, there’s little else to the book—this is a work that’s going to appeal incredibly strongly to people interested in those concepts, and very little to people more interested in character, setting, plot, etc.—your generic SFF reader, if you will. But, like the estrangement of Brecht’s artificial theater, and of Shklovsky’s difficult perception, the unsettlement of Dioramas refuses to stay in its container, reminding us that we view our current world of human-made climate catastrophe through a strange lens.


[1] My discussion of these concepts is indebted to Simon Spiegel’s “Things Made Strange: On the Concept of ‘Estrangement’ in Science Fiction Theory” in Science Fiction Studies Vol. 35, No. 3. [return]

Zachary Gillan is a critic residing in Durham, North Carolina. He blogs infrequently at and tweets somewhat more frequently at @robop_style.
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