Imaginable alternatives

Tobias Revell takes the mic at AmateurCities to give a designer’s take on critical futures and the SmartCity!* shibboleth:

“Too often we are confronted with visions and stories of the future that say: ‘In the future everyone will live this way or that way. In the future everyone will have these things. In the future everyone will want that thing.’ This can often lead to acceptance of the idea that the future has been predetermined by powers greater than us. We need to imagine instead, what futures might bring. There are dozens of other small, niggling but significant alternatives that can challenge the theoretical basis for how the future might open up to a plethora of possible imaginable alternatives. Take for instance; domestic solar power, crypto currencies, end-to-end encryption or personal manufacturing. They are but a few that have the potential to either become incredibly empowering or to be sucked into our current continuous monument.”

In that essay linked above, Tobias is wrestling with a problem that I’ve been facing in two different settings, namely science fiction criticism and futures studies. I’m working on one paper for Futures and another for Foundation which are (at the nuts’n’bolts level) an attempt to explain and analyse the structural rhetorics of narrative as used to portray the future; what it’s really about is the telos of telling stories about the future — the purposes for which we create narratives of futurity, and the purposes for which those narratives end up being used. That distinction is important: the whole point of the argument is that even the most thoughtfully structured narrative will be read, by some audiences, in a manner orthogonal or outright opposed to that intended by its creator.

What interests me most about speculative design and critical futures are what happens when they are misparsed, or shorn of their original context. Dunne & Raby make the point that speculative designs usually require some sort of framing (e.g. by exhibition notes or labels) in order not to be “misread” as either a real product proposal or a purely artistic piece. I can remember plenty of times I cheerily blogged at Futurismic about some design-lab smartphone prototype as if it were a viable product, if not an actual production model, and I was far from alone in doing so; once those images were cut free from their original press releases or webpages, they became free-floating signifiers, which we would gamely situate into our (admittedly already hyperreal) cultural context. And therein lies the problem, in that it is human instinct to incorporate new narrative elements into  our own ontological metanarratives: to make new things fit into the world as we already understand it. In times of great change and upheaval such as these, this is a constant process of upgrade and change, like a *nix server automatically applying patches without ever needing to do a physical reboot.

That ontological integration effect is the thing that effective science fiction operates upon, I think — and, by extension, the thing that critical futures and speculative design operate upon; this is maybe what Suvin was on about with his “cognitive estrangement” riff – the jarring (thrilling? horrifying?) realisation that there is an ontological discontinuity between the world of the reader and the world of the reading. (Please note that Other Less Exclusive or Monolithic Theories of SF are Available; Suvin’s thing is just one piece of the puzzle.) Once the discontinuity is realised, it becomes a feature of the world of the reading, and thereby performs a sort of commentary or gloss on the reader’s world by proxy; this commentary is what we’re gesturing at when we try to describe what a science fiction novel or movie is “about”, at a level beyond a simple recounting of the main plot points.

This is also the mechanism by which the “flatpack futures” of glossy tech ads — and, in fact, almost all ads — work; in this case, the discontinuity created is the absence of the featured product or device in the viewer’s reality, a vacuum which is filled by a desire which assumes that possession of the diegetic prototype depicted in the foreground (e.g. a macbook as thin as a fag-paper) will necessarily reproduce the implicit background features of the world of the text (a spacious, airy and seemingly pristine open-plan Californian home in summer, populated by healthy happy white people with time to consume conspicuously) in the world of the viewer. Advertising is notoriously ineffective in terms of shifting specific products, but far less thought is expended on the cumulative psychosocial effects of swimming in an amnion of unattainable futures, as we all do; perhaps the contemporary struggle to even imagine utopia, as identified by Fredrick Jameson, is correlated with the sheer ubiquity of the utopian narratives of futurity with which we are bombarded perpetually, whether as ads, political manifestos, economic forecasts or whatever else.

So you see the problem, I hope: designers, critical designers, fiction writers, movie makers, copywriters and ad-makers, urbanists, architects and economists, futurists and critical futurists and manner of related professions all use exactly the same set of tools, but for very different ends. What I’m interested in is how the specific deployments of those tools, and the precise strokes or techniques with which they are applied, create desire and/or apprehension in the reader, regardless of intention. Answering this question will not only make it easier to choose the right tools to increase the likelihood of the desired reading, but also to identify exploitative narrative strategies; it’s the first analytical step toward an ethics of futurism, if you like.

[ * Readers in the academy will be aware that “Smart” (whether referring to cities, or seemingly anything else) is approaching the status of Infuriatingly Ubiquitous Funding-Call Buzzword, to the point that even the people promoting the funding streams in question end up making self-deprecating jokes about its inclusion. As frustrating as this is in the short term, it suggests that its lifespan may nearing an end; however, it further suggests that Smart has every potential of becoming the new Sustainable — a knee-jerk password, a hollowed sign with everything (and hence nothing) to signify. Selah. ]

An attenuating peninsula of possibility

Via @dronemodule, a Kim Stanley Robinson joint on utopia as transgenerational revolutionary project, in which he gets more than a little Harawayian:

“… the seven billion people we have, and the nine to ten billion people we’re likely to have, exist at the tip of an entire improvised complex of prostheses, which is our technology considered as one big system. We live out at the end of this towering complex, and it has to work successfully for us to survive; we are far past the natural carrying capacity of the planet in terms of our numbers. There is something amazing about the human capacity to walk this tightrope over the abyss without paralysing fear. We’re good at ignoring dangers; but now, on the attenuating peninsula, on the crazy tower of prostheses — however you envision it, it is a real historical moment of great danger, and we need to push hard for utopia as survival, because failure now is simply unacceptable to our descendants, if we have any.”

KSR’s position on most things existential tends to align with my own, at least when I’m in a bright and optimistic phase. If he’s the good angel a-whisper on my shoulder, telling me I’m not wasting my time, I guess @bruces is as good a figure as any for the other one who mutters “well, sure, those goals are pretty admirable and all, but look at where the rubber hits the road — ain’t no utopian scientific process leaving those skid-marks, son”. Between those two voices, I guess have a pretty solid explanation for my insomnia and existential malaise…

As mentioned in the linked piece, utopia and history are hard concepts, if not outright contradictory concepts, to consider simultaneously… but if one was to achieve such an act of high-wire cognitive dissonance in a communicable way, then literature — the novel, or something like it — would surely be the space in which one was most likely to do it. (Pretty sure cinema lacks the sophisticated handling of interiority required for the task; that medium may stimulate emotional response well, but cannot stage the nuanced dramatic conflict that powers any form of politics beyond Scarcity Wars 101.)

Question is, would anyone read it? And if they did, would it make a difference? Probably not… but maybe the same tools might be applied elsewhere, to greater effect.

Worth a try while I’m waiting to die, I reckon.

Gimbal Lock (Degrees of Freedom)

It isn’t unpredicted, more unplanned.
This failure-state inheres in poor design
a limitation in my arm, my hand
my robot heart. This space, now undefined
degenerates, dimensions folding in
collapsing down to null infinitudes;
the target sweeps through zenith, and I spin
rotating through the same old attitudes.
My wrist is bound by singularities:
a universe of moves that I might make
but which is right? No way to tell. Degrees
of freedom: roll, or pitch, or yaw to break
the gimbal-lock paralysis of fear?
Now thoughtless thinking turns me to nadir.

Year’s End / Year’s Best

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Well, this has been a memorably weird and hectic year. I’m tapping out this post in an old apartment in the middle of Cambridge, Mass., US of A, having decided (for diverse reasons) that I’d rather be here with friends for the holiday season than back in Blighty, stuck out in the Sheffield badlands with the usual “let’s shut the country down for a fortnight” folderol. (A brief scan of UK news organs suggests my instincts were sound on that front; public transport chaos, quelle surprise.) Knowing a little about seasonal weather patterns on the East coast of the US, it’s strange to be sat here on the day after Boxing Day with clear blue skies outside, scrolling through Instagram images of Western Europe acquiring a thin but definite blanket of snow. (I am, however, not complaining; snow is charming for the first 48 hours, but for someone who lives a fair distance from Minimum Viable Food Retail and relies on public transport to get around, it utterly lacks any long-term appeal.)

It would have been a hectic year if I’d been up to nothing other than rattling through the first year of my PhD; the confirmation-of-candidacy process ended up being protracted and painful (due to my own foolish choices, to be clear, or at least as much as anything else), but I got through in the end, which means my research proper begins when I get back to my desk in January. After struggling hard to get over that hurdle, I’m looking forward to getting stuck into it; it feels like I’ve made the grade, somehow (though the real making of the grade is yet to come, of course).

But this year also saw me reach a point where I could tell myself that I’ve (somewhat unexpectedly) passed a benchmark in my decade-old “become a writer” project. Sure, I’ve been writing and publishing for a while, fiction and non-fiction — but selling “Los Piratas…” to Twelve Tomorrows felt like some sort of non-trivial level-up, especially on the fiction side of things. And it turns out that story will be appearing in Gardner Dozois’s Year’s Best SF 32 [Amazon UK pre-order; publication date July 2015]; full TOC follows, via Gareth L Powell.

The Fifth Dragon, Ian McDonald (Reach for Infinity)
The Rider, Jérôme Cigut (F&SF)
The Days of the War, as Red as Blood, as Dark as Bile, Aliette de Bodard (Subterranean Online)
The Burial of Sir John Mawe at Cassini, Chaz Brenchley (Subterranean Online)
The Regular, Ken Liu (Upgraded)
The Woman from the Ocean, Karl Bunker (Asimov’s)
Shooting the Apocalypse, Paolo Bacigalupi (The End Is Nigh)
Weather, Susan Palwick (Clarkesworld)
The Hand Is Quicker, Elizabeth Bear (The Book of Robert Silverberg)
The Man Who Sold the Moon, Cory Doctorow (Hieroglyph)
Vladimir Chong Chooses To Die, Lavie Tidhar (Analog)
Beside the Damned River, D.J. Cockburn (Interzone)
The Colonel, Peter Watts (Tor.com)
Entanglement, Vandana Singh (Hieroglyph)
White Curtain, Pavel Amnuel (F&SF)
Slipping, Lauren Beukes (Twelve Tomorrows)
Passage of Earth, Michael Swanwick (Clarkesworld)
Amicae Aeternum, Ellen Klages (Reach for Infinity)
In Babelsberg, Alastair Reynolds (Reach for Infinity)
Sadness, Timons Esaias (Analog)
West to East, Jay Lake (Subterranean Online)
Grand Jeté (The Great Leap), Rachel Swirsky (Subterranean Online)
Covenant, Elizabeth Bear (Hieroglyph)
Jubilee, Karl Schroeder (Tor.com)
Los Piratas del Mar de Plastico (Pirates of the Plastic Ocean), Paul Graham Raven (Twelve Tomorrows)
Red Lights, and Rain, Gareth L. Powell (Solaris Rising 3)
Coma Kings, Jessica Barber (Lightspeed)
The Prodigal Son, Allen M. Steele (Asimov’s)
God Decay, Rich Larson (Upgraded)
Blood Wedding, Robert Reed (Asimov’s)
The Long Haul, from the Annals of Transportation, The Pacific Monthly, May 2009, Ken Liu (Clarkesworld)
Shadow Flock, Greg Egan (Coming Soon Enough)
Thing and Sick, Adam Roberts (Solaris Rising 3)
Communion, Mary Anne Mohanraj (Clarkesworld)
Someday, James Patrick Kelly (Asimov’s)
Yesterday’s Kin, Nancy Kress (Tachyon)

Feels very strange to see my name alongside not just writers I’ve watched rising through the ranks around me, but writers I’d read and idolised long before I even thought getting published was a possibility. Strange, but also inspiring and humbling at once — which is surely a fitting suite of emotions for the season, and for a newly-upgraded postgrad.

So on we go, then. Happy new year, folks.

The Naked Lunch: Christmas and capitalism

Here’s a great opening ‘graph for a seasonal cyberpunk satire:

“I heard my first Christmas music of the year in District 1. It was the 1st of August, 27ºC outside and All I Want For Christmas was drifting out of a market stall dedicated to selling Santa hats.”

Only it’s not from a piece of fiction at all; it’s from the first installment of @iamdanw’s account of his travels across China with the Unknown Fields expedition. Having talked to others who were on the same adventure, the megamarket of Yiwu is likely the least weird part of the story.

Bill Burroughs used the phrase “naked lunch” to describe “[the] frozen moment where everyone sees what’s on the end of every fork”. Dan’s essay above, then, is Naked Christmas — where everyone sees what’s on the end of every supply chain.

 

Science fiction, science fact, and all that's in between …