The science fictional project is mainly a historical project, and to the extent there is any such thing as a futurological project, that would also be a historical project, so this isn’t a good distinction to try to make. I don’t think there are any valid futurisms or futurologies. I think most people who describe themselves as futurists or futurologists are claiming too much, almost to the point of being scam artists, especially if they charge people fees for them to come in and do consultations, as sometimes happens in the business world, or as a form of “edutainment”. Because the future can’t be predicted […] it’s best to leave all this at the level of science fiction, which for me is mainly a literary genre.
For me, science fiction has a kind of double action as a genre, and the image I use to convey this thought is the 3-D glasses you wear at 3-D movies to create the false impression of three dimensionality. Through one lens, sf tries to describe one possible future in great detail; not a prediction, but a modeling exercise or scenario. Not “this Will happen,” but “this Could happen.” Then the other lens is simply a metaphorical or symbolic portrayal of what’s going on right now. “It is as if we are all zombies being predated on by vampires”—this is my current candidate for the best metaphor for our times, even though people are too scared to write that one down, it seems. Anyway more traditional examples are “it is as if the working class are robots who may revolt,” or “it is as if cities are spaceships detached from Earth,” both older sf metaphors. Cyborgs are great images of us now, as Donna Haraway showed long ago. On it goes that way through that lens, symbolist prose poems of great power. Then, when the images coming through the two lens coalesce to a single vision in the mind’s eye, what pops into visibility is History itself, often deep time, casting into the future as well as back to the past. That’s how science fiction works and what it does.
Science fiction has been a marvelous escape from the dead end much “literary fiction” is in now, stirring the dead ashes of the great modernist works, and getting caught up in the narcissism of late capitalist bourgeois neurosis. SF is outsider art, looked down on by official literary culture, and that’s such a great place to be. It’s outside the MFA system, outside postmodernism, it’s even replacing the postmodern with the Anthropocene, historicizing and politicizing everything, able to take on science and use science’s exploding new vocabulary— well, there are many reasons why science fiction is the great realism of our time, and some of them are because of the traps it has avoided, either by its own efforts or by others misunderstanding and rejecting it.
I’m not sure what they’re calling it these days.
In my time you were “gouching”, “nodding out”;
there’ll be some other name for it, no doubt,
as language shifts its shape. But this malaise
remains unchanged: that head-down slump betrays
the use of morphine (or her daughters) like a shout
for help in silence. Mud-caked knees bent out,
his fingers blackened, burned, the way he lays —
like sleep released him from the pain of fear’s
reflection in the eyes of passers-by,
rejection every moment of the hour,
each hour of the day, the month. The years
slipped through those fingers, somehow — who knows why?
His fall was his, perhaps. His landing’s ours.
A few days back a colleague linked me to this editorial at Nature about the use of full narrative forms in critical/speculative foresight work, which they link back to the establishing work of Brian David Johnson, who was at Intel at the time but now splits his labour between Arizona State U, consulting, and a fellowship with “a visionary innovation company that’s focused on growth”.
That latter vector of Johnson’s current employment probably sums up most of the issues I had with soi disant “science fiction prototyping” (SFP): it was framed quite explicitly as a product/service visioning process, was virtually devoid of methodology (let alone rigour), and made absolutely nothing of the critical potential of science fiction’s narrative toolkit. As such, it really didn’t stand too apart from long-established design paradigms, except for perhaps being a bit more honest about the “making stuff up and seeing where you might profitably take the ideas” aspect. My frustration with this rather shallow engagement with the potential of the narrative tools specific to science fiction has informed much of my academic work right from the start, arguably beginning with my first solo paper (Raven, 2014).
The Nature editorial largely rotates around a more recent paper in Futures (Merrie et al, 2018) in which the authors have taken the SFP idea and
… applied it to a topical environmental concern: the fate of the world’s oceans. The project paints four scenarios for 2050–70, each of which builds on current trends in oceans governance and the fishing industry, as well as ongoing development of marine science and technology. More-uncertain outcomes — the possible collapse of ice sheets and the formation of deep-sea dead zones as a result of onshore pollution — play out differently for better and worse.
In other words, they’ve balanced out the speculative/imaginative aspect of science fiction with the critical/contraPanglossian side — and it was extremely gratifying to find another of my papers (Raven & Elahi 2015) cited in their literature review, because frankly it’s felt like I’ve been beating my head against a brick wall on this stuff, at least as far as the mainstream futures scene is concerned (which, like BDJ’s employers, maintains an uncritical worship of the suitcase word “innovation”, and is focussed on delivering growth — or at least the immediately plausible prospect thereof — to corporate clients).
The Nature editorial continues:
Narrative has an important role in the communication of science, but can it also help in the pursuit of research? Purists may baulk, but stories already feature heavily, from the promised potential of work pitched in grant applications to the case studies of impact that funders increasingly ask for when projects finish. Climate-change science has long relied on emissions scenarios that diverge according to how future societies might behave. These rely not on extrapolation of current trends, but on imagined differences in, for example, whether nations come to cooperate or opt to pursue their own agendas. And climate-change policies are being planned on the basis of stories of future technology — carbon capture and negative-emissions equipment included — that many argue are pure fiction and will never materialize.
It’s a huge relief to see that said in such a well-known and well-read scientific organ, and not just for the sake of self-aggrandizement: I’ve been pushing those ideas for five or six years, but many others have been pushing them for at least twice as long, and it feels like all that effort might finally be paying off.
Solutionism, it turns out, is not exclusive to Silicon Valley — though I suspect that the Valley’s financial and political clout are complicit in its mainstreaming throughout the global policy scene, as well as the science and engineering ends of the academy (which, in the UK at least, have slowly been drawn into the gravity well of bloated full-service consultancy-and-outsourcing parasites like Carillion and its ilk). But also complicit are the Panglossian flatteries of corporate foresight consulting practices: after all, if you don’t tell them what they want to hear, you probably don’t get invited back to next year’s “visioning retreat”. It’s investor storytime all the way down.
But the cracks in that metanarrative are starting to show… which is all the more reason to keep chiseling.
Rejecting the traditional Marxist idea that the working classes were the seedbed of change, [Deleuze and Guattari] wanted a broader umbrella under which to unite all marginalised groups. They claimed that those oppressed by patriarchy (women), racism (people of colour) and heteronormativity (what we’d now call the LGBT community) were all suffering thanks to the same machinery of despotic and imperial capitalism. It’s only by bringing together these ‘minoritarians’ that an anti-capitalist revolution could succeed. Because the philosophical image of the individual is based on the apparently autonomous figure of the white male subject, it is through a process of ‘becoming-woman’, and of ‘becoming-minoritarian’, that the spectre of individuality can finally be banished.
Instead of treating different fields of enquiry as cut off from one another, Deleuze and Guattari tried to show where one discipline seeps into another, challenging the centrality of any one of them. Ultimately, they aimed to open thought onto its outside, pushing against the tendency for theoretical work to close in on itself.
Short-ish essay at Aeon. For all the word-salad spilled in the name of “interdisciplinarity”, the academy — or rather, more fairly, the bodies which govern the academy through the distribution of funding — are still pretty determined to prevent that seepage between silos; D&G’s work makes it easy to understand why that might be the case.
(Well, OK, not easy, because reading D&G isn’t easy… but nothing worth doing ever is.)
Or “what I did on my mid-week day off”: The River Don Engine, now housed at Kelham Island Museum, Sheffield, UK. The largest working steam engine left in Britain, and quite possibly in the world.
I was surprised by how quiet the engine itself was, though I imagine that’s partly down to it now being powered by a gas-fueled boiler in another part of the complex, rather than a big ol’ firebox like it had back in the days when it was used for rolling steel plate as thick as your hand is wide for battleship armour, reactor shielding etc etc. The audience of kids are pretty loud, though.
A few stills included below, for those who I’m sure would have rather seen the crankshaft moving… but that would’ve meant getting in the way of the school-trip audience, and I’m not quite that much of a dick.
Posting this well-tuned engine largely because a well-tuned engine is the exact opposite of what today is turning out to be. Sympathetic industrial magic, innit.