Every technology requires a physical infrastructure in order to operate. But this infrastructure depends on social institutions, which are frequently subject to breakdown. I made this point when I bumped into some ardent advocates of cryonic suspension in California in the 1980s. How long would it take to develop the technologies that were needed to resurrect frozen cadavers as living organisms, I wondered. Not much more than a century, I was told. I asked these techno-futurists to consider the events of the past hundred years or so – a devastating civil war and two world wars, a ruinous stock-market crash and the Great Depression, for example. Given this history, how could they be confident that their refrigerated cadavers would remain intact for another century? The companies that stored them would surely go bust, wars and civil disturbances would lead to power failures, and the legal system that protected the cadavers could disappear. The United States might no longer exist in a recognisable form. The cryonicists looked at me blankly. These were scenarios that they had not considered and could not process. Such upheavals might have happened in the past, but the future was going to be quite different. For these believers in technological resurrection, American society was already immortal.
It’s high time I collected up mentions of and responses to the manifold things I’ve been up to over the last year or more, having fallen rather out of the habit; the decline of G**gle Alerts meant I stopped paying attention, basically. I can’t even do vanity right!
Anyway, let’s start with fiction. I’ve not published anything since “Los Piratas…” went to MIT’s Twelve Tomorrows the year before last, but that story has had a second life on the review circuit thanks to its appearing in Gardner Dozois’s Year’s Best #32. Someone by the moniker of Reißwolf rated it a three-star story, but recognised the Sterling quote near the end, so I’mma count that as a victory; meanwhile John DeNardo of SF Signal rates it a mere point-five stars out of five, saying that “the story is so steeped in boring (to me) economics as to be a story killer”. Can’t win ’em all, I guess… but hey, Professor H Bruce Franklin thinks it’s worth including on a course module reading list. And apparently Ellen Datlow listed “A Boardinghouse Heart” in the recommendations list for Best Horror of the Year #7, so I’m winning on aggregate.
Now on to things from this summer’s Utopian Infrastructures tour. FutureEverything’s City Infrastructures Lab went pretty well: here’s parts one and two of a piece I wrote for them as a follow-up, here’s an event report from Spaghetti Jams (with the wonderful title “The Metasystemic Roadtrip”), and here’s a video summing up the day (complete with an appearance Yours Truly and his overactive eyebrows).
A little more recently, Leila Johnston invited me to be involved in her How To Live Forever project, which takes a sort of experiential design-fiction-esque look at transhumanist immortality tropes. My contribution mostly involved being interviewed for this video, which was screened during the exhibit/performance/show/experience:
(More recently still, I was invited to debate the ethics of transhumanism at an event in London; on discovering said event was actually the UK Transhumanist Party’s AGM, I declined as politely as possible. There is, it turns out, a limit to my stupidity.)
What else? Oh, yeah, academia — I’ve an essay in press at the Journal of Futures Studies on the role of utopian thinking in science fiction, urban planning and futurism, but I’m not sure what the street date is on that one yet. However, the paper I co-wrote with Shirin Elahi off the back off Oxford Futures Forum 2014 just went live at Futures… and it’s open-access, thanks to the EPSRC coughing up Elsevier’s blood-price, so anyone (in theory) can read it. If you do, please let me know what you think.
I can finally fully announce some very agreeable publications news: my story “Los Piratas del Mar de Plastico” appears in this year’s Twelve Tomorrows, which is MIT Technology Review‘s annual all-fiction special. (On Stateside newsstands in August, I believe — though I know next to nothing about UK/Europe/global availability. You can sign up on that page to be alerted when copies go on sale, though.)
It’s an astonishing list of names to see myself alongside, and no mistake: Bruce Sterling (who took the editorial chair, and shoulders any blame for inviting yours truly to play alongside the grown-ups), William Gibson, Lauren Beukes, Pat Cadigan, Chris Brown (no, not that Chris Brown), Cory Doctorow, Warren Ellis. Receiving the invitation to contribute prompted the most intense burst of Imposter Syndrome I think I’ve ever had; it’s still not quite faded away, either.
Like most of my writing (yeah, yeah, I know), “Los Piratas… ” is not amenable to easy “what’s it about?” summary; that said, if you’ve read Keller Easterling’s Enduring Innocence, you’ll understand the choice of location (and the title ). As usual, I ended up trying to cram a novel’s worth of plot and ideas into a short story, and I’d have loved to have let it stretch out to novella length by expanding the aftermath section, which is necessarily summarised in broad strokes. But it was always intended as something of a polemic, and sometimes literary concerns have to take the back-seat when you’ve got a particular something to say to a particular audience. All that remains is to see how the audience reacts, I guess…
… and I expect I’ll get to find out at LonCon3 next month. (See? That’s how us pros make a segue, y’all.)
At the moment, it looks like I’ll be haunting the ExCel Centre (and, presumably, other significantly less monstrous venues in the same locale) in London from early afternoon Friday 15th August until the afternoon of Monday 18th. I’m on a handful of panels and giving a paper on the academic track, so if you want to come heckle a cyberhippy, these are the dates your diary needs:
- Saturday 12:00 – 13:30, Capital Suite 15 (ExCeL): “Body Modification – From Decoration to Medication and Augmentation”
“From piercings and tattoos to laser eye surgery, we now have a world where decorative or voluntary medical body modifications are common. Modifications that add to our capabilities are starting eg. magnets implanted in fingers provide a magnetic sense. What more is coming? Zoom lenses for eyes? Enhanced muscles? Who is going to be the first with these and why, and will anybody want to install Microsoft Windows for brains?”
[Justina Robson (M), Paul Graham Raven, Jude Roberts, Frauke Uhlenbruch; no prizes for guessing how I ended up on this one]
- Saturday 16:30 – 18:00, Capital Suite 15 (ExCeL): “50 Years After: Asimov predicts 2014 World’s Fair”
“In 1964, Asimov wrote a set of predictions for the 2014 World’s Fair. What did he predict, what did he get right and wrong, what did he say that was useful, and what did he miss completely?”
[Gerry Webb (M), Madeline Ashby, Stephen Foulger, Paul Graham Raven, Ben Yalow; I’m guessing this’ll be a bring-some-popcorn type of panel.]
- Sunday 09:30 – 11:00, Capital Suite 6 (ExCeL): “Science Fiction from the Outside (academic track)”
“Three academics each give a 15 minute presentation. This is followed by a jointly held 30 minute discussion with the audience.”
Dan Smith, “Science Fiction and Outsider Art”
Paul Raven, “The rhetorics of futurity: scenarios, design fiction, prototypes, and other evaporated modalities of science fiction”
Andrew Ferguson, “Zombies, Language, and Chaos”
[John Kessel (M), Paul Graham Raven, Dr. Dan Smith, Andrew Ferguson; one for the inside-baseball crowd only, probably.]
- Sunday 12:00 – 13:30, Capital Suite 16 (ExCeL): “Speculative Design”
“Assuming a new technology, like synthetic biology, works, what products might come out of it? Speculative design is both a new artistic approach and a way of looking at problems and issues in a different way.”
[Gary Ehrlich (M), Nic Clear, Scott Lefton, Paul Graham Raven, Sarah Demb; these are mostly new names for me, so I’m hoping to learn new things on this one.]
I’m sure I’ll attend a fair few other panels and things, too, but mostly I’m planning to keep my schedule open and flexible; I’ve done enough cons now to know how best to make them work for me, and it turns out that running around with a timetable isn’t it. Very much looking forward to this rare opportunity to see some long-term Stateside friends and colleagues in the flesh; if you’re one of them (or, indeed, one of anyone), do drop me a line so we can arrange to meet.
Otherwise, the best way to locate me on the fly will probably involve triangulating between Twitter, the bar, and the smoking area. See you there? Good.
One of the reliable bright lights in the gloom of my January is the annual Bruce Sterling and Jon Lebkowsky show, a.k.a. their State of the World conflab at The Well. All sorts of chewy futurism and near-field hindsight going on, as always, but sometimes it’s a minor aside that snags my mind, like this little zap at transhumanism:
“… you’re never going to put some magic cyberdevice inside your human body that has no human political and economic interests within its hardware and software. All human artifacts, below the skin or above them, are frozen social relationships. If you’re somehow burningly keen to consume a thing like that, you’d better, as William Burroughs liked to put it, have a look at the end of the fork.”
The great joy of my first semester of my PhD has been being formally introduced to the basics of sociological theory, and thus discovering that a lot of the woolly notions I’d come to independently have been thought far more thoroughly and comprehensively before, by smart people who gave those ideas proper names. Through this lens it’s even more apparent than before that the echoing lacuna at the heart of Movement Transhumanism — the canonical ‘philosophy’ expounded by Dr Max Biggerbetterfastermore and friends, rather than the more personal morphological meddlings of the grinders and back-alley self-modders — is the notion of any system of social relations beyond the mechanisms of soi-disant anarchocapitalist “free market” economics.
If nothing else, it goes some way to explaining the overlap between MT and the Neoreactionaries: both seem to assume that inconvenient truths might be moved aside by merit of resetting the sociopolitical clock to a time before anyone had formulated them. Not just a river in Egypt, eh?
It occurred to me that, although I mentioned it at Futurismic, I didn’t plug my induction to the hallowed Locus Roundtable blog here at VCTB. So consider this an attempt to redress the issue: should you be interested, you can observe me firehosing my overly verbose and underinformed opinions around in the company of people far more knowledgeable, well-read and concise than myself, covering such topics as the aesthetics of science fiction, sf’s troubled relationship with the (un)foreseeable future, and the travails of genre taxonomy. You can also read my very own “origin story” about how I found my way into the scene (which is a high-water mark of self-indulgent introspection, even for me; selah).
The real purpose of this post, though, is to take the opportunity to post the full text of my response to the “SF vs The Future” question, which – thanks to its prodigious wordcount and numerous digressions – was shaved down somewhat before being included in the final article. To be clear, I had no objections to it being shortened, especially as, in light of the other responses, some of my points were inverted or rendered redundant; I include the full copy here primarily for the sake of adding it to my online archive of critical writing (which I mean to expand with a lot of my as-yet-uncollected reviews and essays in the months to come, time permitting). So, feel free to get stuck in – comments, curses and cries of “what the hell are you on about” are – always – more than welcome. 🙂
OK, so: those of you who follow cyberpunk’s very own apostate chairman-in-voluntary-exile Bruce Sterling with even a shred of the obsessiveness with which I do so (fanboy is as fanboy does, after all) will have encountered his word for the “problem” that sf (and almost every other sphere of human endeavour) is having at the moment: atemporality.
Paraphrasing somewhat (and confessing to considering myself to have the open licence on rewriting the concept to suit my needs that said concept implicitly embeds within itself): atemporality is basically end-case po-mo (and has also been labelled as “altermodernism”). It’s what the world looks like when the conceptual space you inhabit is – and always was – saturated with po-mo’s erasure of metanarrative; when you’ve learned from birth that if you don’t construct your own narratives pretty fast, someone else will construct them on your behalf. (And then charge you for the privilege of featuring in them, most likely, unless you’re on the lower tiers of their freemium package, in which case you’re getting some sort of intangible and easy-to-scale benefit in exchange for reinforcing said narrative. But I digress… which is very unlike me, I know, and your indulgence is appreciated.)
The Future (caps deliberate) was old-school sf’s metanarrative; The Future used to be somewhere awesome and clean which we could either build, conquer or travel to. But the closer we got to the real (uncapitalised) future, the more it looked like… well, a lot like today, really, or even yesterday, only faster, more ruthless, more worn at the corners, and packed full of grim new threats alongside a remarkably persistent cast of old classics (Teh 4 Horsemen Haz A Posse). The future isn’t somewhere that anyone – except possibly the more hardcore transhumanists, who are getting intriguingly vocal and self-assured of late – wants to escape to. Indeed, I think most of us, at some level or another, are more interested in escaping from the future.
So there’s your crisis… and to paraphrase the late Doug Adams, it’s a difficult crisis for us to see for the very same reason that a tourist in Trafalgar Square struggles to see England. What’s interesting is the schism between the two responses to it, which I’m going to hastily label Consolatory Nostalgia and The Future As Engineering Problem (and doubtless regret the choice of labels later, but hey, this is how the altermodern critic works – it makes sense to me at the moment I’m writing it, and that’s pretty much the best I can hope for).
Interestingly, you can see these same responses cropping up in a lot of other arts, though sf’s history of speculating about the future gives it a set of tools which, while available to many other types of artist, it has a unique familiarity and aptitude with. As such, Consolatory Nostalgia pretty much rules the world of music right now: a pandaemonium of subsubsubcultures, all based on reappropriating the nice idealised aspects of bygone eras (and, of course, glossing over the nasty bits, which tend to be spookily mirrored by events in The Now) by mimicking the sounds of that moment. (Interesting, though, how the 80s revival in music and fashion started long before anyone but the smarter economists saw our latest financial shitrain nudging its way over the horizon; a smart person with time on their hands could probably learn to read these things like tea-leaves… though monetising it – as always – would be the real challenge.)
Indeed, music seems to be going through its own double-dip creative recession; even the traditionally futurist field of electronica is deep in a trough of retro. Electronica was pop music’s High Modernist moment, the point after which the ultimate experimental possibilities were, if not actually exhausted, then at least demonstrated to be little more than intellectual curiosities. There’s only so much you can do with words of English on a page and still have it entertain and fascinate the average non-academic reader; in the same way, there’s only so many different things you can do with the frequencies between 40Hz and 40kHz, which is why pop music is increasingly homogenous, retro revivalism (ironic, faithful or otherwsie) and genre mashups are ubiquitous, and the only true groundbreaking steps being made in music are – quite literally – painful to listen to.
But back to sf, where the Consolatory Nostalgia approach gives us steampunk, increasingly baroque space opera and increasingly violent mil-SF. It’s nostalgia for The Future, for a future we now know we’re never going to get: a future where the imposition of White Western Male-brand hierarchy and order (and maybe a bit of empire, even if only economic in nature) automatically led to Better Things (if only for People Like Us).
Now, what’s interesting to me is that the writers and editors who stand accused by the traditionalists of breaking (e.g. Jetse de Vries) or abandoning the genre (e.g. Bill Gibson) are the ones cleaving most closely to the underlying impetus (if not the intellectual machismo and cryptoracism) of the original Cambellian vision of competent folk solving existential risk problems… or, in other words, of The Future As Engineering Problem. Now that it’s become plain that strong-jawed men with toolkits going places in rockets won’t change much for anyone but the strong-jawed men themselves, then that dream of strong-jawed manliness becomes Narcissus’ reflection. Why look at the real future when The Future we dreamed up before was so much more user-friendly? Much space opera and much mil-SF, as has been pointed out by far smarter folk than me many times before, is actually fantasy with rayguns, and is becoming more and more so; steampunk is fantasy with, er, steam. It is escapism. And there is nothing wrong with that, either; diff’rent strokes, and all that.
But you can get a fairly decent idea of what the future will look like if you stop staring into the mirror of The Future and turn your eyes to The Now. It’s not a pretty picture, granted, but from a writer’s perspective it’s packed full of interesting and genuinely terrifying ways to place your characters – and the rest of their species – in some very deep shit indeed, and without the need for any of the implausible aliens or FTL-powered empires or other stuff from The Future. But the sort of inquisitive mind that spots those potholes in the turnpike is probably the sort of mind that finds itself wondering if there’s a way to swerve and avoid them… or even take another road (the ultimate Route Less Travelled) entirely. We’re going to end up in the future whether we like it or not… so why not think about how we can make it slightly less terrifying? Or, like jaggedly gloomy gadfly Paolo Bacigalupi, become a sort of mudlark prophet, digging around in the slimiest recesses of our planetary psyche for the end-games of our wilful ignorances. “If this goes on…” is another classic sf riff, but the guy plays it on a guitar strung with cheesewire.
(I should note at this point that it seems eminently possible to use classic widescreen skiffy tropes to examine The Now in pertinent ways, and I would offer David Marusek as an example thereof; likewise, I’m sure there’s steampunk that does more than yearn for a past when the future was still full of promise, and that there’s small-m mundane sf that falls into every consolatory drinking-den it passes. These patterns are observed generalisations rather than proscriptive divisions, so tell the villagers to douse the torches and put away the pitchforks, mmmkay?)
So, to answer – at long last – Karen’s question: is sf struggling to catch up with the future we’ve found ourselves in? I don’t think it is; I think a non-mathematical half of it has lost all interest in the future (because it doesn’t look like The Future, refunds are not forthcoming, and re-runs are as comforting for the viewer as they are cheap for the broadcasters), while the other half is doing its best to not get sucked across the singularity and into the future before managing to come up with a way to survive the experience (with being able to walk away afterwards considered a definite bonus).
Sf isn’t struggling to catch up with the future; on the contrary, it’s schism’d and reeling from having met the future in person, unexpectedly and with some considerable threat of violence, in an alley behind a franchise restaurant in downtown Mumbai.