The champions of peace will always be vulnerable to the argument that since the enemy, too, is whetting his knife, talk of peace is unrealistic, even dangerous or treacherous. The quest for peace, like the struggle to arrest climate change, requires that we think of ourselves not just as states, tribes, or nations, but as the human inhabitants of a shared space. It demands feats of imagination as concerted and impressive as the sci-fi creativeness and wizardry we invest in future wars. It means connecting the intellectual work done in centers of war studies with research conducted in peace institutes, and applying to the task of avoiding war the long-term pragmatic reasoning we associate with “strategy.”
INTERVIEWER: Do you really think creative writing can be taught?
VONNEGUT: About the same way golf can be taught. A pro can point out obvious flaws in your swing.
And somewhat less flippantly:
VONNEGUT: I guarantee you that no modern story scheme, even plotlessness, will give a reader genuine satisfaction, unless one of those old-fashioned plots is smuggled in somewhere. I don’t praise plots as accurate representations of life, but as ways to keep readers reading. When I used to teach creative writing, I would tell the students to make their characters want something right away—even if it’s only a glass of water. Characters paralyzed by the meaninglessness of modern life still have to drink water from time to time. One of my students wrote a story about a nun who got a piece of dental floss stuck between her lower left molars, and who couldn’t get it out all day long. I thought that was wonderful. The story dealt with issues a lot more important than dental floss, but what kept readers going was anxiety about when the dental floss would finally be removed. Nobody could read that story without fishing around in his mouth with a finger. Now, there’s an admirable practical joke for you. When you exclude plot, when you exclude anyone’s wanting anything, you exclude the reader, which is a mean-spirited thing to do. You can also exclude the reader by not telling him immediately where the story is taking place, and who the people are—
INTERVIEWER: And what they want.
VONNEGUT: Yes. And you can put him to sleep by never having characters confront each other. Students like to say that they stage no confrontations because people avoid confrontations in modern life. “Modern life is so lonely,” they say. This is laziness. It’s the writer’s job to stage confrontations, so the characters will say surprising and revealing things, and educate and entertain us all. If a writer can’t or won’t do that, he should withdraw from the trade.
TCJ: I talked to a sci-fi editor at Tor in late 2016 about dystopias and their popularity in eras fraught with political disaster, and he said something that stuck out to me: “I think one of the underrated reasons that people read science fiction in particular is that it’s a great tool for figuring out what you think about how the world works.” Do you think that’s true? And if you do, what, after all these years, have you figured out?
WE: I do think that is largely true. Speculative fiction is an early warning station for heavy weather, that tests what might happen if lightning strikes at a certain place. In that operation, it exposes systems, from different angles, and asks you what you might think about them.
I could refer to [my] previous answer. I learned from fiction and from personal experience that systems are always more complex and more fragile than you think they are.
The thing about dystopias […] is that they also make more engaging stories than utopia. A utopia, by its nature, is absent conflict, and conflict, as everybody who ever wrote a book about screenwriting will tell you, generates drama. One thing about Transmetropolitan that I never got was that people called it a dystopia, whereas I just considered it the present day writ large, with joys and pains.
The important part of that quote of yours is that [speculative fiction is] a tool. Not the truth. Dystopias distort some central parts of the present condition so that we can see them better, and what they might swell into. But they’re still a distortion. You need to learn, for yourself, how to use the tool and avoid parallax error.
His comment re: Transmet is illuminating: I suspect that the ambivalence of that series is exactly what has made it such an enduring favourite, for me and for others. It’s neither threat nor promise — and that’s a difficult line to walk, in writing as in thinking.
Thanks to Cory Doctorow’s tendency to repub stuff from the past, I am reminded that it’s about five years since I gave my original Infrastructure Fiction talk at ImprovingReality 2013 in Brighton. It seems like a lifetime ago, but also like it was just yesterday. Studying for a PhD does weird things to your perception of time.
Anyway, there’s the video if you fancy a (re)watch; if you prefer slides and text (which I certainly do), there’s a full version of the thing still available on Futurismic, though some time soon I should probably move that to a site that actually belongs to me*.
I’m kind of amused to note how early I nailed down the ideas that ended up informing my doctoral work… though I’m far closer to actually developing those ideas now, not least because doctoral work can drift in unexpected and unintended directions, and mine certainly did so. And therein lies a story… but I’ll save that one until the adventure in question is properly finished, I think. (The protagonist is currently still a-wander in the hinterland of corrections.) In the meantime, I’ll remark only that my presenting skills have improved considerably since this, my first proper speaking gig… though on the evidence, it would have been hard for me to get much worse.
* — I handed the Futurismic domain name back to Chris East some time ago, but he’s plainly not yet had the time to do owt with it, as it’s still pointing to the legacy site as sat on my server.
A longread (at, er, Longreads) on pirates and maroons and freedom in the Caribbean during the time of the triangular trade. Like someone went out and did the research legwork on Hakim Bey’s Pirate Utopias.
I like the following paragraph in particular, partly (of course) because I agree closely with its analysis, but also because it’s a fine bit of writing, using Drake as a gateway to the system-of-the-world, and then stepping through the scales in one neat and logical paragraph, all the way out to the abstracts of ideology and economics. Good stuff.
The age suited [Francis Drake]. He exemplifies that entrepreneurial energy unleashed by Queen Elizabeth’s new, partially meritocratic society — energy that had lain dormant for generations under rigid hierarchies. Capitalism was walking on the lanky, jointy, and clumsy limbs of its adolescence, running wild all over the globe, round the Horn of Africa, across the mysterious Atlantic, and finally round South America’s treacherous wave-raising windy cape into the Pacific. Those historians of class conflict, Marx and Engels, thought that these oceanic explorers triggered the modernization of Europe. Capitalism “sprouted from the ruins of feudal society” only when ships opened up trade routes — and markets — between societies hitherto isolated from each other. One does not need to be a Marxist to agree that these bold mariners had to come before factory owners. Before new commodities and new means of producing commodities could be invented, the explorers had to open markets.