Category Archives: Science Fiction

The best sort of books there are

Geology and empire : Jemisin (2015), The Fifth Season

So, N K Jemisin’s The Fifth Season. I’m going to have to try to restrict myself a bit here, because I can’t spend all day writing about a novel (or at least I can’t spend all day today writing about a novel), but it would be very easy to spend all day, or possibly more than one day, writing about this novel.

Confessions first, though: I didn’t think I was going to get much out of it before I started. I really hope that’s not some sort of internalised racism thing on my part, but I guess I shouldn’t discount the possibility, because, well, internalised racism? It’s a thing, and I have it, like pretty much anyone from my background has it, and the whole point is that you don’t realise you’ve got it until a teachable moment turns up. Mostly, though, I think it has to do with the way the book is dressed up, which looked to me to be very much a sort of secondary-world fantasy kind of vibe; also perhaps because I’d seen it listed many times as climate/ecofiction, but the blurb made it sound more like your average fantasy cataclysm. You’d think that by now I’d be well past the error of judging books by their covers… but then again, while marketing’s claims to being a science are merely meta-marketing, it nonetheless knows something about how we react to certain signs and stimuli. And it might well be the case that, running the numbers on these things, the marketing folk would conclude (and possibly conclude correctly) that making Fifth Season look more like a secondary-world fantasy cataclysm would shift more units than making it look like a work of very advanced (in both senses of that term) dying-earth science fiction. Point being: it’s kind of both of those things at once. But it’s also so much more than just that.

Already my attempt at brevity and concision is falling apart, so let’s try to break it down to a few main points. First up, as we’re already there, the worldbuilding here is… well, look, if I was blurbing this thing for an audience that was au fait with the sf canon, I’d say that it’s perhaps the most ambitious work of worldbuilding I’ve encountered since Aldiss’s Helliconia. And that’s no faint praise: Helliconia is one of the few books (or sets of books—I still have the old paperback trilogy version that I found in a Southsea second-hand shop back in the late Nineties, the spines of which are screwed by rereading to the point that the pages come out in sheafs if I’m not careful with them) that I re-read every couple of years, just to remind myself of what’s possible. The world of Fifth Season easily matches its imaginative scale, and there’s a certain consonance in the underlying conceits of both books: layered cycles of seasons. But the mechanics of that seasonality are very different… and while you can say that Helliconia is on some level a story of changing climate, Fifth Season is a novel of climate change in our more modern sense of the term.

But like I say, that wasn’t immediately apparent, in the way that it’s immediately apparent that, say, Parable of the Sower is a climate change novel; the displacement into a deep futurity of Fifth Season seems at first to detach it from any of the more immediate dynamics of climate change as we’re facing it. Sure, we’re facing temperature increases, changes in weather patterns, sea level rise… but runaway tectonics, vulcanism, five-year seasons of acid rain, continent-wide fungal blooms? This seemed at first too much, like a metaphor turned up not to 11 but to 50, 100, more. But then as you get sucked into the story—and this happens quickly, for reasons I will get to—you start to realise that Fifth Season is a climate change novel because it uses that overdriven environmental metaphor as the basis from which to build from scratch a long history of imperial/colonial politics that both produces and exploits environmental degradation and maintenance for its own reproduction. That this history is effectively detached from the one we know is a stroke of understated genius, because it removes the possibility of quibbling with interpretations of the history we know, and obliges that the reader engage with the history of the future that Jemisin has constructed here. And through that history it is made clear that not only are alterations to the environment made by human meddlings–sometimes deliberately, sometimes less so—but also that the power to make those meddlings, and the power to take advantage of their second-order consequences in such a way as to consolidate and expand power, is closely tied up to assumptions of entitlement and historically compounded advantage.

Also worth noting that the secondary-world/dying-earth ambiguity is actually a strategy in and of itself. There are very faint clues from the start that this might not be a secondary world after all, but it was probably only two-thirds of the way through that I could feel confident in coming to the dying-earth diagnosis, and even then I was left wondering what had happened (besides, y’know, humans doing the regular human stuff) to put the planet into that condition… and while I don’t normally hold much truck with the Spoiler Police, I will only note here that a) it’s not until the very last page of this book that you get a clear steer on one of the big things that messed up this particular future earth, and b) the reveal of that thing was a genuine sensawunda slingshot such as I’ve not had from a novel in a long, long time. I’d be looking forward to the rest of the trilogy even if seeing the worldbuilding get fully worked out was the only enticement.

But that is far from being the only enticement, because Fifth Season also manages to be a novel about race and repression which, as it does with the question of climate, uses its deep temporal distance to totally remap those questions away from the white/non-white binary of our present politics, and build a whole new intersectionality based on ethnicity, social assumptions of inherited aptitude, and a seemingly magical ability to channel thermodynamic energy (which I think is going to turn out to be the only novum without a historical-technological backstory… though given how consistently this book has managed to subvert every expectation I had of it, I’m fully prepared for the sequels to prove me wrong on that point, too). But saying that Fifth Season is “about” race would be reductive, and to do it a great disservice; what it’s really about is structural repression, institutional abuse and trauma, the damage done to individuals by a social system built to sustain its own autopoeisis of power. Again, without wanting to blow the whistle on the story here, I found myself getting multiple shocks of recognition from the depictions of educational-institutional abuse (and consequent internalisation of self-loathing)—shocks which were less about the violence thereof, and more about the recognition of violences that disguise themselves as forms of care, or even love, for both abused and abuser.

So, yeah: probably pretty clear by now that this is not a cheerful happy-ever-after fantasy, I’m guessing. In fact, it’s pretty harrowing at times, though there are moments of peace and respite. But it is incredibly compelling, a tour de force of characterisation; it’s a reviewerly cliche to batter on about “having to know what happens to these people”, but Jemisin’s characters here spring so instantly to life on the page, in all their brokennness and persistence, that you have no choice but to follow them through the traumas of their psyches and the traumas of their world. I get the impression from the students I discussed it with that it was a more challenging read than, say, Parable of the Sower—and perhaps the digging into internal trauma, compared to Lauren’s cold bottling-up of it, makes it all the more emotionally harrowing. But it’s also technically challenging, and I know that a large part of my admiration for this book is rooted in its narratology. Three viewpoint characters, each approached with a different narrative POV modality, but not for the arbitrary sake of showing off a writerly skill-set; rather, the choice of POV mode is carefully tuned to and reflective of the character in question, and their circumstances and situation. (And as with the worldbuilding/dying-earth thing, your understanding of why those choices make sense, and who those characters are, slowly unfolds and blossoms through the book.)

I could gladly write an essay on each of these themes, and probably a few more besides—I haven’t really touched on the question of sociotechnicality, for instance, and an STS-centric reading of Fifth Season would be well worth doing. But time is short, and this isn’t a commission… so I’ll leave that work to others, who will likely make a better job of it (if they haven’t already; I’ve gotten rather out of the loop on genre criticism in recent years). The main point to make is that Fifth Season is a masterpiece, an sf gesamtkunstwerk for the 21st century, bleak and rich and incredibly involving. I’m ashamed for having prejudged it, but immensely pleased to have been proven so wrong in doing so.

Thirst, fear, faith : Butler (1993), Parable of the Sower

Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower is another canonical work of sf / dystopia / climate fiction which I’d never got round to reading. It was interesting to go through it with the LUCSUS Masters students, because they picked out things I might not have noticed, or would otherwise have passed over as a given thanks to my specialist knowledges.

For example, the cause of the escalating price and scarcity of water is (as far as I can recall) never remarked upon in the text. And of course there’s no reason the characters would think to discuss it: even for those of them who might have known the cause of Californian drought (i.e. basically decades and decades of over-abstraction), by the point they’ve reached in the process of collapse, there’d be little point (other than making yourself more angry, scared or frustrated) that you’d mention it; better to focus on where the next drink is coming from than why it’s hard to find. It’s not entirely clear from the text itself whether Butler was thinking of a drought specifically caused by agricultural practices, rather than one caused simply by a more general environmental decline due to increased temperatures; one might argue this is a missed opportunity for making a didactic point, but given the overwhelming moral content of Sower, even were you to add such material I doubt anyone would come away from the book thinking “well, we’d best get busy on water rights and agricultural reform!” It’s not that sort of sf, and Butler not that sort of writer.

Still, it was notable that the students questioned the cause of the high water prices, not as something that spoiled the story, but as something that nagged at them throughout—and perhaps, if we’re dabbling with the intentional fallacy, we might imagine that may have been one of the results Butler was hoping for. (Given the premium she places on self-directed curiosity and learning in the book, it doesn’t seem an unreasonable guess.) The cause was obvious to me, in part because I spent six years surrounded by people who live and breath water infrastructure, in part because some good friends have explored and discussed California’s water infrastructures in detail for exactly this reason, and also because I’d read and reviewed Bacigalupi’s The Water Knife (Interzone #260) when it was published. TWK was another of the books in the “club”, and they make an interesting pairing in the context of climate change pedagogy for exactly this reason; they’d also make an interesting pairing for sf-literary reasons, too. (Another essay to add to the ideas list, I guess.)

The students were also curious about the broader causes of the “boiled frog” collapse that forms the setting for Sower; they couldn’t understand how things could have gotten so bad without something having been done about it. With no criticism or malice intended, I think this can be put down in part to their comparative youth and European perspective: not to put too fine a point on it, but the actual USA right now is providing a grim demonstration of exactly how things could be allowed to get so bad, which is less a case of everyone ignoring the problem, and more a case of a slight majority being susceptible to the message that the problem is Someone Else’s Problem, and/or a market opportunity for good ol’ fashioned American entrepreneurship. These are also students for whom climate change is more than just a given, it’s the thing that’s driven them to do the course they’re on—and as such I’m going to infer that they’ve probably been raised in households where “doing something” is a daily occurrence. However, they’re also young enough to perhaps not fully understand that sorting the recycling and turning off the tap while you brush your teeth is not really enough to make a dent in the systemic extractive/emissive paradigm; hell, it’s really only in the last ~10 years that I’ve come to understand that myself. The problem is still addressable for them, in a way that gives me hope even as it makes me sad; if anything is going to “be done about it”, it’s their generation that’ll (have to) do it.

(And as such, us X-ers and Millennials had best make a good show of trying to get the Boomers out of the driver’s seat before it’s too late, because the kids have got more than enough reason to lament our generational futzings already.)

What was exciting for me was how easily they latched onto the characterisation and POV. I had primed them a little on this narratological stuff in a lecture the week before we discussed it, but they weren’t just parroting ideas back at me, they’d actually thought it through. They observed that Lauren is cagey and judgmental, even a bit conceited at times (which is all implication, given the first-person modality), and they also identified the paradox of her hyperempathy: yes, she feels the pain of others, and that encourages her to be cautious about surrounding herself with pain and conflict, but it also makes her cold and distant, an outsider even within the group she ends up leading. Perhaps that would change in a context where hyperempaths were in the majority, but then again, perhaps not… and reading Sower has reinforced the feeling I had when reviewing the Ecotopian Lexicon (for the SFRA, due out summer 2021) that Rebecca Evans had taken a rather too optimistic read on hyperempathy, partly because she treated it more as a phenomenon whose existence might make the world a better place than as a concept whose introduction into the lexicon would help advance the climate discourse (though, to be fair, this conflation of concept and term kind of haunts that whole book, which is both its greatest strength and its greatest weakness); all the evidence in Sower, to me at least, suggests that quite the opposite. Sure, a a culture in which empathy was not considered as correlative with (female-coded) weakness would be a fine thing… but unless hyperempathy were effectively universalised instantly, it would make community clusters of hyperempaths incredibly vulnerable to explotation by the less- (or indeed non-)empathic majority, just as hyperempathic individuals already are in the story.

From my own perspective as a writer/reader, I was struck most forcefully by the incredibly direct and simple style of Butler’s prose—there’s a staggering mastery of the epistolary/diaristic first person mode on display here, which goes a long way to explaining how easily the students parsed Lauren’s complexities. But it’s also Lauren’s nigh-clinical detachment that strips the story of any sense of spectacle, with the arguable exception of the fire-by-the-highway scene that acts as the transition into the final stage of the book, which is all the more striking for its vividness on the page after so many pages of seemingly normalised and dispassionately-described dystopian events and scenery. As with Oryx & Crake, there’s a hint of the biblical about the last part of Sower, but it’s dome very differently to Atwood’s structural satire. Of course, Butler is herein playing a much straighter game with the question of faith than Atwood—straighter, and more subtle. Butler has more compassion for the necessity/inevitability of faith, particularly among oppressed communities, as well as a more nuanced eye on the way it eventually twists into dogma (and makes dogmatists of its adherents); I’m given to believe this comes out a lot more clearly in the sequel Talents.

But damn, the bleakness of this book—more than once I found myself wondering how a book so grim in its inevitabilities could be so readable, even compulsive. (It’s not quite up to the same level as, say, Primo Levi’s If This Is A Man, but it’s in a comparable league.) This can’t be put down to any thriller/horror dynamic, either: there’s no titillation, no spectacle. You also know immediately that Lauren is going to survive. As Clute has noted, the first person mode implies that the narrator survives the plot in order to tell the tale (though the epistolary/diaristic form can break that rubric easily enough), but even that aside, you just know: right from the get-go, her status as a stubborn, capable survivor is never in doubt, and presents an interesting blackening and feminising of the Competent Man trope so common to sf and dystopian thrillers alike. But it’s made more complex by her categorical inability to play the “kick-ass heroine” archetype: she can’t just Mad-Max it out due to her hyperempathy, so she has to be survivor, strategist, orator, leader. She quite literally inherits the loquacity of her preacher/teacher father, the skill for framing familiar stories and ideas as homilies, parables… and so it’s ironic that her anti-religion is destined (in Talents) to become a religion much like all the others, but that dynamic is dealt with far more carefully and insightfully by Butler than it might have been by someone from a more secular or outright atheistic background (viz. Atwood).

Also notable for me was the paucity of white characters—not, to be clear, in a “hey, what’s up with all these minorities?” way, but rather in the way that the very unshowy but direct foregrounding of the ethnicities of the cast made me realise (much to my discredit) how rarely I read anything in which the whiteness of a white character is remarkable from the purview of the others. The (almost-all-white, almost-all-Euro) students didn’t remark on this, though they literally cannot have missed it—and they definitely picked up on the slavery theme, and understood where that concern came from for the characters and the author alike. They’ve grow up with a somewhat more diverse media landscape than I did; I’m tempted to take this as en encouraging sign that such things really can make a difference, but again I probably need to correct for the intersectional aspects of the group. (If you wanted a caricature of trainee SJWs, these kids are probably it—and amen to that.) For me, it was probably that threat of (corporatised/company-town) slavery that made the thing feel most relevant to present events, quite beyond the eerie alignment of the dates in the storyline.

It’s a sad thing that this book should (still) be so timely, but that’s where we are. In a telling and somewhat tragic synchronicity, it was announced while I was halfway through the book that Sower had just given Butler her first appearance on the NYT Bestseller list. I strongly suspect that’s down to it having been placed on a very large number of college and university reading lists for the fall semester, by teachers who figured that—under circumstances featuring water shortages, massive fires, vigilantism, mob violence, and the seeming evacuation of even the pretense of democracy from the USian experiment in favour of naked commerce and white supremacy—forewarned might be somewhat forearmed. It’s hard to conclude that they weren’t right to do so.

Fear of a blank planet: Atwood (2003), Oryx & Crake

I ended up running a hybrid book-club-seminar thing with the students on the LUCSUS Masters course earlier this semester, for which I was asked to suggest a list of “cli-fi” books that the students could choose from. (Yes, I know, “cli-fi”; I’ll return to that bone of contention some other time.) Long story short: the list went out, the students selected their titles, and I was confronted with the necessity of reading three canonical works of climate-related sf which I’d never gotten round to reading before. The first of these was Atwood’s Oryx & Crake.

“How had you never read that before?” asked a friend, which was a reasonable question. I suspect it had to do with my identifying with a much more limited notion of what science fiction was about back then—and, relatedly, to do with the rather sniffy reception that O&C, and indeed Atwood in general, received from the sf critical establishment at the time. Part of that stems from a chauvinism that has been beaten back somewhat in the wake of the Blog Wars of the Noughties and Teens, but which is far from dead; Atwood has long delighted in twitting sf’s generic parochialism, not least through her staunch insistence that what she writes isn’t science fiction but rather speculative fiction. (Hence the notorious “talking squids in outer space” beef, which is indicative of just how successful an act of trolling that statement was on her part—and, more positively, of the extent to which things have changed; Stephen Baxter’s “get a life, woman” riposte at the time would likely not be reported in implicit approval today, f’rex). To put it another way, sf culture had yet to forgive Atwood for playing with the toys without asking to be allowed into the clubhouse; some parts of it probably still haven’t. That she doesn’t seem to care—and that she not only rags on sf for its perceived limitations, but (perhaps more importantly) gets the opportunity to do so in publications that rarely ask sf writers for their opinion on anything other than their own latest book, if that—serves only to amplify the resentment.

But reading O&C, a lot of other reasons for its rejection from the sf canon at the time become apparent. The foremost of these is its relentless mockery and exposure of an escapist technofetishism which was still pretty prevalent at the time: sf still saw itself as a serious literature concerned with the merits of technological progress, which might well be critical of the particulars, but certainly wasn’t going to throw out the Enlightenment-humanist baby with the unevenly-distributed bathwater. O&C is many things, but one of those things is a scathing indictment of better-living-through-technology scientism—and whether consciously or not, sf is (or at least still was in the early Noughties) a colleague of scientism, when it wasn’t its unashamed cheerleader.

(Yes, this is a massive recent-historical generalisation of sf, but hey, this is a blog post; fund me to write a book on it and I’ll gladly dig into the nuance.)

I also recall O&C being criticised for its over-the-top style, which was perceived as unserious; I particularly remember dismissals that focussed on the names Atwood gave to technologies and products and companies, which were supposedly absurd and sophomoric. Which they are, of course; that’s the point. There was probably more than a bit of projection here, given that the clunky punning neologism was a staple of the technological-utopian texts of the so-called “golden age”, but mostly it strikes me as a huge misparsing of what the book is trying to do. I mean, it’s so obviously a work of satire, with a lineage that stretches through Vonnegut and back to Swift, and perhaps even as far as Voltaire; it’s thus no surprise that attempting to read it as a serious “consequences of technology” novel in the limited sense that sf has tended to deal with such questions would result in bouncing off it pretty hard. Plus it’s not as if it wasn’t obvious that Atwood was capable of writing in a much more serious and realistic register, even if you’d only read The Handmaid’s Tale. The style was not a limitation, it was a very deliberate strategic choice—and I wonder if it wasn’t calculated, at least in part, as an extension of the talking squids critique, a very pointed thumbing of the nose at the generic self-conception.

What was somewhat alarming to me was how relevant it still seems—even setting aside the grim recognition of reading that final section during an actual global pandemic (and the arguable irresponsibility of positing a pandemic that is released deliberately by an (anti)humanist megalomaniac). Some of the social trajectories in O&C‘s USA—particularly the whole gated-communities and educational-elites set-up—are very on-point.

But the thing that really stuck me most powerfully was the characterisation. For me, O&C is as much about the hubris of a narrow and positivist/quantitative intellectualism and toxic masculinity as it is about climate change or genetic engineering in particular. I found myself remembering that when it was published, the New Atheists were still very much in the ascendant, and that they were a precursor to the whole men’s-rights-G*mer*Gte-Pepe-NeoReo-LessWrong cult of rationality which… well, yeah.

That said, Atwood doesn’t spare the lash on the left or the arts, either; the story’s few feminists, refuseniks and avatars for the arts and humanities are depicted at least as monstrously as their notional opponents. That’s in no small part due to Atwood’s unwavering fidelity to Jimmy/Snowman as the narrative focaliser: the cynicism he was raised with—that he was raised in—is relentless and cruel, and he has internalised it almost completely. Everything we see is filtered through that nihilism and privilege… and that, I think, is what makes it feel oddly contemporary, because that perspective (and its consequences) are writ very large in the world as it is right now.

But perhaps the most incredible trick is that, despite Jimmy’s clear monstrosity, he somehow remains a sympathetic character: as warped and broken as he is, the making of him is shown sufficiently clearly that even through his own eyes—even filtering for the self-pity that is fundamental to his identity—the horror of being Jimmy, of being Snowman, is always apparent. Atwood frames this as an isolation from “nature”, and an immersion in an extrapolation of the early internet which is, again, alarmingly proleptic with hindsight: Jimmy and his peers are immersed in system that is always ready to gratify their worst hungers and impulses. It’s our familiar friend the Dopamine Machine, but notably not as a tech-determinist intrusion: the impulses were there long before the positive-feedback loop of gratification served to amplify it into a howling screech of nihilism.

(I’m reminded also of Porcupine Tree’s “Fear of a Blank Planet”, which I believe was influenced by Easton Ellis’s Lunar Park; there’s an interesting essay to be written there, perhaps, given the vast gulf of positionality between those two authors.)

What hasn’t aged well is Atwood’s portrayal of the East/West binary, as manifest through Oryx and her backstory; this is uncomfortably Orientalist, or so it feels to me, and while you can argue that Oryx’s passivity and acceptance of her lot acts as an avatar of the female As Jimmy perceives it, it nonetheless results in a rather essentialist ying-yang look at the world. I strongly suspect it was well-intentioned, to be clear, with Atwood looking to present the East as the counterpoint to the privileges and of the Western male elite, and as the externality upon which that privilege draws for its sustained advantages. But even as an avatar for the acceptance of a systemic and inevitable suffering, Oryx feels a little too much a stereotype for comfort, and Jimmy’s POV doesn’t really provide a get-out for that.

Discussing O&C with the Masters students, I was somewhat surprised to find that none of them had picked up on the biblical allusions, particularly in the final phase of the book; this may have something to do with the secularism of predominantly European middle-class Zoomers, and likewise something to do with the rarity of reading as an entertainment medium. (Maybe half of the students claimed to be regular readers, but none of them had ever read anything that they had identified as science fiction before.) Perhaps because I did have quite a bit of exposure to biblical themes and story-forms in my youth—and perhaps because I’ve long been extremely bookish in general—the grotesquely twisted new-creation-story vibe of the book’s final stages were almost telegraphic for me: the hubris of the (new-)atheistic scientist-genius Crake mutating into a sort of secular self-apotheosis, the fall from grace, the exit from Eden (or Paradice, rather)… and a bit of Old Testament Cain and Abel, as well. (Worth noting, perhaps, that O&C came out not long after Negotiating With the Dead, whose Cain-and-Abel theme left something of a mark on me when I read it in 2011.)

With all that said, I feel that despite its frequent inclusion in the canon of climate fiction, O&C is less a serious look at climate change as a scientific phenomenon (though perhaps less unserious than we might like it to be) than a look at the culture of technocratic hubris and arrogance that sustains the extractive/emissive externalisation of consequences that is the causal root of climate change. It is dark, relentless and very, very sad—and as such, perhaps the OTT satirical style is the only way that Atwood, or anyone else, could pull it off.

the worst has been averted, at least temporarily

Steven Shaviro on KSR’s new joint:

[Kim Stanley] Robinson is juggling many threads, but he has no interest in combining them all into a tightly organized narrative. This is in part, at least, because the world we live in doesn’t work that way. It is unimaginably complex, and it is at least potentially open. The Ministry for the Future is dedicated to Fredric Jameson, and it offers an elegant and effective solution to the dilemma that Jameson outlined in his discussion of postmodernism several decades ago: how to “endow the individual subject with some new heightened sense of its place in the global system,” when this system is dense and interconnected in ways that defy ordinary forms of representation. Robinson knows that a Spinozian understanding of this system sub specie aeternitatis, or a Hegelian grasp of the system in its dialectical totality, is impossible — the world system cannot be captured experientially, nor can it be cognized completely. Therefore, Robinson gives us multiple, and only loosely interconnected, perspectives — each of them is grounded in particular, incomplete sorts of experiences; but all of these actions and passions have global ramifications, well beyond the immediate experiences of the people who act and undergo them. The novel is filled with close descriptions of places and of actions, that are filled with local detail — but that also have implications that reach well beyond their immediate contexts. The book as a whole is discontinuous rather than synthesized into a perfectly shaped whole — but part of Robinson’s demonstration is that anything that were so well-shaped, would be, by that very fact, representationally inadequate. It is precisely this sort of open, indefinitely extensible, and never-completed endeavor that makes science fiction writing into “the realism of our time,” as Robinson insists in numerous essays and interviews.

(Side note: I find this sort of approach much better than the more common one that sees science fiction as utopian and/or dystopian. Fiction like Robinson’s doesn’t estrange us from contemporary social reality; rather, it gives us a “heightened sense,” to use Jameson’s words of that social reality, both in its hard actuality and in its still-open potentiality).

I’m going to have to read this, and I’m sure it won’t be a chore—but as I remarked to a friend by email yesterday, I’m pretty sure (on the basis of Adam Roberts’s take) that I’m going to find the execution a bit frustrating. KSR’s is a champion worldbuilder, and the oft-repeated critique of his Mars books (which goes along the lines of “if you want to read 500 pages of people arguing about how to run a meeting, it’s pretty good stuff”) bothers me not a whit; if anything, that’s exactly the magic of the Mars trilogy, to have made so good a story out of that side of human action. But nonetheless, the man is not a prose stylist, I think it reasonable to say—and as Roberts points out, the very instrumentalist telos of Ministry has provided an opportunity for some of the very worst literary devices of sf to come out of retirement (though perhaps not without some wry self-awareness, given Roberts’s quoting of an exemplary as-you-know-Bob-ism being delivered by a character called Bob). This doesn’t bother Shaviro, who “prefer[s] straightforward genre writing, like Robinson’s, to most varieties of more ‘literary’ science fiction”, but me, I’m picky; I read fiction for the pleasure of reading in addition to any didactic/future-explorative malarky, and my tastes have trended much more toward yer actual bourgeois interiorities and/or (post)modern experiments these days.

(That’s the thing, see; you do a Masters in creative writing, you get yourself some pretensions. Or perhaps just more pretensions than before, at least in my case.)

Perhaps more to the point, though, I’m not sure how many of the people we most need to think more hopefully about the future are readers of novels of bourgeois interiority or infodump-heavy sf in the old-school mode. While it’s no reason not to write the stuff (for Robinson, me or anyone else), utopian fiction is probably limited to an audience which is already onside with the need for things to be done differently. The reason I’m excited to do more work like the Rough Planet Guide is that it uses the utopian and design-fiction toolkits to produce something that might actually get read by someone who doesn’t read novels, sf or otherwise. (And for that same reason, the next version of the Guide might well be web-based first and foremost; the book-as-artefact retains a magic for me and other bookish types, but for many folk it’s just a bulky boring thing that they might reasonably assume to contain nothing they want or need to know.)

Back to Shaviro:

All in all, The Ministry for the Future gives us a best-case scenario. It is not without loss — there are also policy setbacks, murders and bombings by revanchist rightwing terrorists and venal governments, and so on. But nevertheless, by the end of the novel, the world seems to have drawn back from the precipice of climate catastrophe — although the improvements in both the climate situation and the social situation, remain precarious. The world has not been saved, and hard work and massive international solidarity will still be needed for an indefinite future. But the worst has been averted, at least temporarily. Arguably, we need more quasi-optimistic (but not mindlessly optimistic) speculation like this, if only as a counterweight to our seemingly endless diet of dystopian horror.

Regular readers will know the hope/optimism distinction of old, so I’ll not rehearse it again here; I think Shaviro is getting at the same thing, or at least something similar. I’m also a lot less bullish on the technological plausibility of the stuff I’ve seen mentioned in reviews of Ministry so far; I share with Roberts an instinctive distaste for “blockchain” (sorry, Jay!), and I’m close enough to the technical side of transitions research to know that carbon-capture-and-storage (CCS) exists only as the handwavium aporia which holds a lot of the two-degrees scenario spreadsheets together, despite being little more than vapourware papered over with research underwritten by our friends in the fossil fuel companies. (See also “the hydrogen economy”; never going to happen!) But nonetheless I find myself unexpectedly at odds with Shaviro’s closer, here:

And yet, and yet… I called The Ministry for the Future a best-case scenario. If precarious survival is the best that we can hope for, what will we face in a non-the-best case? It remains extremely unlikely that as many things will go right as the novel needs to have going right in order for it to present its case. The novel demonstrates that a better world is truly possible, and attainable, on the bases of the resources and technologies we have now. But I cannot help also realizing that without all these technologically possible, and yet all-too-politically-unlikely developments, we are, in fact, well and totally fucked.

Without having read Ministry, this point might be a bit off the mark, but nonetheless: those developments are always going to look politically impossible if they’re portrayed from the perspective of the bureaucratic and technocratic strata, because those strata have internalised (and indeed propagated) the idea of the impossibility of political change; capitalist realism, innit? Ministry, as far as I can tell, is still a top-down telling, even if it tours the sociotechnical trenches; it’s a story of systems, a supply-side story. And sure, we need those stories, we need those systems—but we also need stories of lives lived and practices practiced; we need interiorities, bourgeois and otherwise, down on the demand-side. Because politics with a small ‘p’ is nothing but interiorities writ large—and if 2020 has taught us anything, it should surely be that. It’s kind of amazing to me that so many of us left-of-center folk can sit around dismissing the possibility of political upheaval while at the same time lamenting the massive political upheavals of the last five years; it’s as if the fact that said upheavals went in the opposite direction to what we wanted somehow allows us write them off as something other than political upheavals, and continue to lament the impossibility of change.

Which, given how often that rather dystopian take on the actual situation is accompanied by the “too many fictional dystopias” grumble, strikes me as rather ironic.

rough guidance: some reflections on the making of travel guides to places that don’t (yet) exist

Somehow I haven’t really talked much about the Rough Planet Guide to Notterdam here at VCTB; I think that’s partly due to an anxiety about “crossing the streams”, getting my day-job stuff tangled up in what is very much a scratch-pad-pub-booth-talking-to-myself sort of website these days, but also to some extent the same anxiety that keeps me from talking in too much detail about, say, a fiction project: sometimes the act of telling people about what you’re intending to do drains the impetus to actually, y’know, do it.

(But then again, sometimes talking about what you intend to do can light a fire under your easily-distracted arse, so, I dunno.)

But the Guide has been out for a while, we did the formal launch event earlier this month, hardcopies are starting to appear in various people’s mailboxes across the world, and promotional bits and bobs are starting to appear as well, so I guess it’s long past time to dis-embargo myself.

As the title presumably suggests, the Rough Planet Guide to Notterdam is a tourist guide to an imaginary future city which has a fair bit in common with an actual city whose identity you might well be able to infer. There’s a pretty decent summary of what we did and why we did it, with a non-academic bent, over at the Rapid Transition Network blog; the Guide itself (which can be downloaded gratis from here in PDF form) contains a more detailed and theoretical explication of the methodology, for them as wants such as thing.

As the thing starts to recede into the realms of personal history, I’ll presumably talk about it a lot more—particularly as the core idea of the travel guide format as a vehicle for climate futures will be carrying through into my Marie Curie postdoc project (which technically started a month ago but, hahaha, academia). However, a lot of that talk may end up on the project website that I need to get set up fairly soon; documenting the thing as process as well as “deliverable” is something I feel I want to do for my own sake, but also because I think this stuff needs to be reflexive when you’re trying to do it the way I’m intending to do it. But for now, I think I need to start that process here—and besides, it’s a great way to procrastinate from working on the paper I’m supposed to be drafting today!

So, yeah: there are two big differences between the Notterdam Guide and the (tentatively-titled) Rough Planet Guide to (Zero-Carbon) Skåne, and the first difference is that while the former is set in an imaginary location, the latter is tied to actual geographies (and histories). In a sense, then, and somewhat contrary to my claims, the Notterdam guide is something of a classic utopia: it is a no-place. The unreality of Notterdam was a two-fold convenience, in that it gave us a template for a European city big enough to contain all the sorts of change we wanted to look at, while it also gave us a chance to hand-wave away details that we didn’t have time to deal with while staying within the scope of the work-package that the Guide was meant to fulfill. The REINVENT project somewhat predetermined the sorts of change we were looking at: the theme was decarbonisation, but tied to particular industries (steel, plastics, meat’n’dairy, pulp’n’paper), and while we went beyond those sectors (because to make an imaginary city hang together, particularly from the POV of a would-be tourist, you need some infrastructure going on), showing the consequences of successful decarbonisation in those industries was the brief.

Well, actually, it wasn’t the brief at all, as I obliquely suggest in the methodology: the brief was a “handbook of best practice for innovation”, which was something of an oxymoron even before the project research clarified the obvious, namely that trying to be programmatic about innovation is the sort of absurdity that only people who’ve been huffing the B-school nitrous for a long, long time could ever come up with. It took a lot of drafts for me to find a polite way of putting that! But we’re very pleased to have twisted the thing around to a focus on practices in something closer to the social-practice-theory sense of things, and to have produced a document that has almost certainly already been read by more people than would ever have so much as downloaded the originally-proposed “handbook”.

And that broadening of the audience for transitions research outputs was very much the point of the operation, or at least one point. Again, as I argue in the methodology (and the article linked above, and in a seminar I’ll be doing, virtually, for the University of Liverpool’s climate science school next month—watch this space, that one may be public-access), decarbonisation should be everyone’s concern, but it’s (somewhat by necessity) an elite/expert discourse; shifting the focus from the “how?” of decarb to the “what if we?” makes for a perspective where the issues take on an immediacy and relevance that is all to often absent from the abstractions of climate policy (“two degrees of warming”, reduced emissions”, etc etc.). Producing something that is both legible to non-experts and (we hope) attractive and engaging enough that they’ll actually read it… well, we’re pretty sure that there’s little (if any) climate and/or transitions research-comms work that has done that, at least not to this extent.

This leads us to the second big difference between the Notterdam guide and the Skåne guide: the Notterdam guide is almost entirely produced by experts for a non-expert audience, while the Skåne guide (at least as proposed in my funding bids) will be co-produced with communities (of both location and practice). This approach has some connection to action research, and in particular to the experiences of a good friend in one of her early projects, but it also has a lot to do with the influence on me of social-practice placemaking, and socially-engaged arts more generally; I spent a lot of time with someone whose thinking in this space really changed the way I thought about the matter of publics and expertise, and I want to stay true to that, and to an idea that is perhaps best summed up by the statement that “people are experts in their own lives”. To put it another way: a great deal of climate futurism involves clever experts like yours truly telling people how the future will be, and how they should deal with that; the Skåne guide, by contrast, will start by telling people how we think their context will look at a particular moment in the future, and then asking them how they think they might live in that situation.

This will be challenging in all sorts of ways—not least among them the way in which it will essentially involve me learning on the fly how to do a sort of arts-and-design-based ethnography-of-the-future with communities in whose dominant language I can barely order a meal and a beer without writing myself a script ahead of time. Another challenge is that we are going to get a bunch of answers that we probably don’t want to get: answers that don’t seem relevant, or that don’t represent what we think of as the “right” response to the reconfiguration of sociotechnical practices. That this prospect worries people is already implicit in discussions I’ve had about the project as it starts to begin; hell, it worries me, too.

But that’s exactly why it needs doing. We’ve spent too long giving people the futures we think they should want; it’s long past time we ask them what they actually want. Because unless we can present people with a post-transition future they can actually see themselves in, however well-intentioned we may be about it, we’ll just end up imposing the next technological utopia in a long chain thereof.