Within Gwyneth Jones’s overall Aleutian cycle, “The Universe of Things” focuses upon one of the most striking differences between the aliens and ourselves: the fact that their technology, unlike ours, is intrinsically alive. The Aleutians’ tools are biological extrusions of themselves: “they had tools that crept, slithered, flew, but they had made these things. . . They built things with bacteria. . . Bacteria which were themselves traceable to the aliens’ own intestinal flora, infecting everything.”
The living world of the Aleutians stands in sharp and bitter contrast to the way that we remain trapped by our sad Cartesian legacy. We tend to dread our own mechanistic technologies, even as we use them more and more. We cannot escape the pervasive sense, endemic to Western culture, that we are alone in our aliveness, trapped in a world of dead, or merely passive, matter.
The story therefore posits something like what Jane Bennett calls vital materialism: the recognition that “vitality is shared by all things,” and not limited to ourselves alone (Bennett 2010, 89).
Whitehead thus agrees with Husserl, Heidegger, and Harman that I do not encounter things just as bare packets of sensa, or as present-at-hand bundles of qualities. Rather, we should say that things proposition me, or that they offer me a certain “promise of happiness” (to cite Stendhal’s famous description of beauty). The qualities of a thing – or more precisely, what Whitehead calls the “eternal objects” that are incarnated in it – are only the bait that the thing holds out to me, in order to draw me toward it.