Category Archives: Science Fiction

The best sort of books there are

Solargoth

I keep telling myself I shouldn’t pass public comment on solarpunk, firstly because I haven’t done the reading and legwork, and secondly because I know a few people who really have done the reading and legwork (hi, Jay!), and as a good, responsible academic (cough, cough) I know better than to traipse across someone else’s disciplinary patch.

Buuuut… there’s an extent to which solarpunk abuts my own undisciplined domain of sociotechnical imaginaries, and as such I can’t entirely ignore it. Which is why I was intrigued by this piece from Lidia Zuin, in which, by riffing off the recent Multispecies Cities anthology, she seems to be seeking a way past the common critique (of which I have partaken in passing) of solarpunk-as-technological-utopia:

… in Multispecies Cities, we are able to discover that an ecological future is much more than that and it doesn’t need to assume a posture of naïve optimism and pure fantasy. In stories such as “Becoming Mars,” by Taiyo Fujii, or “In Two Minds” by Joel R. Hurt, it is possible to identify several references and tropes of a more pessimistic subgenre such as it is the case of cyberpunk. Still, the ideas discussed are innovative and they bring up technologies that have grown more popular recently, both among scholars and laymen. Bioengineering, for instance, is used in the anthology both as a means to adapt human beings to inhospitable places such as Mars, where a terraforming trial didn’t work as intended, or when people want to connect and communicate to animals and artificial intelligences.

This, Zuin seems to suggest, is an advance on the more purely aesthetic origins of solarpunk: a reintroduction of instructive failure to the deployment of technological solutions, which Zuin identifies as the legacy of solarpunk’s estranged parent genre, cyberpunk. The extent to which social and political change features in this tales is not apparent from this essay (and so, yes, I should really do the reading, given that tends to be my angle on the issue), but Zuin is heading in a different direction, or rather along a different axis, for her own critique:

The book Radical Botany analyzes how plants are used as political metaphors in fiction — from “The Yellow Wallpaper” to “Invasion of the Bodysnatchers” and, more recently, the book and the movie “Annihilation” (2018). It was this last title that made me consider how solarpunk could have a more bizarre, mysterious approach that would be closer to the new weird rather than an optimistic narrative with some shades of “greenwashing.”

Zuin also mentions the musical act Botanist, ‘a black metal band that doesn’t have guitars’ whose ‘visual identity is all about this “botanic supremacy,” with artworks that reveal corpses being consumed by plants, fungi and maggots, as if nature was charging back what was originally hers’; this, plus recent music and performance from Björk, points toward a darker direction for Zuin’s solarpunk. Most interestingly for me (as a sociotechnical imaginaries scholar, and a marginal scholar of Bruce Sterling’s work), she also connects the technological-utopian iteration of solarpunk to Sterling’s Viridian Green campaign during the Noughties—which only a few weeks back I myself connected to the market-oriented ecomodernist side of the ongoing dialectic of green hope, in a review of Garforth’s Green Utopias.

Which is not (only) to note that someone else has spotted a (fairly obvious) genealogy in this particular discourse, but rather to note that Zuin is interested in pushing the generic dialectic in the other direction somewhat: in literary terms, that’s the more Vandermeerean New-Weird direction, which in academic-theoretical terms is the (more posthuman) there-never-was-a-Nature antithesis to the (more transhuman) thrust of the Viridian/ecomodernist/tech-utopian thesis.

Zuin concludes:

Solarpunk could be a genre that is attractive even to the most pessimistic and grim fans of cyberpunk, because it doesn’t need to tell only naive stories of a post-apocalyptic optimism that aims to heal our current anxiety. In fact, solarpunk can also recover other tropes that address the transformation of humanity and its displacement from the center of everything to actually become part of the whole. So this is me venting to myself and to other authors who wish to approach this more “gothic” side of solarpunk — because nature could be as frightening as in the movies by Lars Von Trier.

I don’t want to assume Zuin’s concern here is merely about broadening the market for solarpunk in a world where grimdark is an enduringly popular aesthetic—though there’d be nothing wrong with an author taking that position. (Writers, after all, want to be read, and perhaps also to pay the bills.) But it seems to me that there’s an aesthetic rebellion implicit in Zuin’s position, here, that reads fairly well as a figuration of a more theoretical/philosophical rebellion against solarpunk’s well-intended (but, IMHO, politically naive) techno-optimism. That Zuin mentions Le Guin and Delany as possible inspirations to be drawn upon underscores my point: that this reaching toward a more gothic iteration of solarpunk is—or at least could be—a reaching toward a more critical-utopian mode for the genre.

And that, as regular readers here will be very aware, is of much greater interest to me, in both the literary-aesthetic and critical-theoretical senses.

to be always asking questions

In a nicely serendipitous coda to yesterday’s post, here’s the mighty Sherryl Vint talking about the equally (if not more) mighty Ursula le Guin at FiveBooks.com, taking a little aside into the theory of critical utopia, and summing it up in a manner so succinct that it’s obvious why she’s a serious boss in the field, and I just a minor spear-carrier:

This emphasis on questioning utopia as a model of perfection is not an idea that’s original to me. This comes from Tom Moylan’s work, which gave us a new and more complicated vocabulary for thinking about the utopian tradition in science fiction. Le Guin is one of the writers he talks about as what he called ‘the critical utopia,’ a utopia that still has its problems as this one clearly does. What you actually learn is that utopianism is not the model of how the society should work, but rather a commitment to the values a society should uphold, even though you are always in progress in trying to manifest this in a concrete way. But it’s what Le Guin refers to in this novel as ‘permanent revolution.’ That what is utopian is always asking questions, never letting society sediment into these rigid roles.

Precisely what goes wrong with the anarchists [on Annares] is that the bureaucracy they need to manage distribution and scarcity solidifies into a power structure, and then they’re not as anarchist anymore, as their ideals would have it. The sense is that utopia is never a place you arrive at, but it’s a journey you’re on.

Amen.

(A sudden thought, riffing off that “always asking questions” line: do we associate utopianism with immaturity because children are so endlessly curious about why things are the way they are? And have we perhaps got that entirely the wrong way round?)

subjective and iterative magratheanism / the whys and wherefores of worldbuilding

It’s always nice to get an insight into the creative process from an expert, and this short bit on worldbuilding by Paul McAuley is exactly that. Worldbuilding as a concept is having a bit of a moment, or so it feels, having jumped out of genre fiction theory and metastasised more widely, following in the wake of fantastika as a dominant mode of storytelling; video games have helped a lot, but it’s bigger than that, I suspect.

Anyway, that’s a discussion for another day—let’s look at what McAuley’s actually saying, here. As I understand both positions, this is less of a counter to Mike Harrison’s legendary salvo against the “clomping foot of nerdism” than a demonstration of the way in which a better—or perhaps better to say less generic—creator approaches the problem of worldbuilding, so as to avoid said clompiness. And that way is iterative and subjective:

Worldbuilding is hard only if you pay too much attention to it. Less is almost always better than more. Use details sparingly rather than to drown the reader in intricate descriptions and faux exotica; question your first and second thoughts; set out a few basic parameters, find your character and start the story rather than fleshing out every detail of the landscape, drawing maps, and preparing recipe cards and fashion plates before writing the first sentence. Wherever possible, scatter clues and trust the reader to put them together; give them the space to see the world for themselves rather than crowd out their imagination with elaborate and burdensome detail.

Now, the purposes to which people working in my field of endeavour are putting worldbuilding are rather different to the primarly entertainment-driven concerns of a novelist—but nonetheless, a lot of these suggestions still hold fairly well. With the Notterdam guide, for instance, the speculation had to be bounded by the goals of the Paris Accords because that was how the project of which it was a part was bounded; but even were that not the case, we’d have still needed some sort of bounding scenario to start from. Indeed, I’m in the process of contributing to the structure of a set of design research workshops to be (hopefully) staged later this year, and the same challenge applies: the parameters of the bounding are up to you, of course, and if you want them to be really way-out crazy, well, that’s fine, but you still need to have them, however far out they may be. Creation requires friction and limits, and that applies just as much to the notionally more realistic creative practices of engineering: as I put it many years ago, the valorisation of “thinking outside the box” is counterproductive, resulting in placeless technological utopias which can’t be reached.

Also of note above is McAuley’s injunction to trust the reader. This is probably what many writers mean when they trot out the (well-intentioned but nonetheless not-always-helpful) admonition “show, don’t tell”; while there are clearly people who greatly enjoy having a richly elaborated Tolkeinean world handed to them as a finished orrery, effective worldbuilding exploits both the innate human capacity for sense-making and a culturally inculcated capacity for extrapolating imaginary worlds from telling details. My argument here is that we’ve learned to do the latter in increasingly more sophisticated ways, and that fantastika across a variety of media has been the training ground for that skill. Furthermore, that skill is what my academic work hopes to operationalise in the service of sociotechnical reconfiguration: if we want to build a world in which we do things differently, we have to be able to imagine it first. And that’s my argument against the technological utopia, too: the technological utopia is all tell and no show, the clomping foot of the notionally-objective god’s-eye-view.

But the utility of story goes further than that. McAuley again:

Discovering details essential to the story as it rolls out gives space and flexibility to hint at the kind of random, illogical, crazy beauty of the actual world; the exclusionary scaffolds of rigid logic too often do not.

You can’t just deliver a future (or a past, or a secondary world) in one big package; rare is the person who will just sit down with an encyclopedia and read the whole thing end to end. A future is a world, a timespace, and the human way of relating to timespaces—not an entirely unproblematic one, historically speaking, but nonetheless—is exploration. Now, a novelist has the challenge of making a guided tour feel like exploration, because the novel—with the exception of some liminal high (post)modernist experiments with form—is a linear thing, a single route through the imagined world preprepared by the author. But what’s notable here is that, for McAuley at least (and I believe for many other writers of sf, though certainly not all of them), that preprepared route is prepared through the writer themselves exploring rather more spontaneously. As such, serendipity and the happy creative accident are important—you need the initial bounding parameters, as mentioned above, but the detail emerges from responses to that initial set of constraining parameters. The writer explores the possibility-space defined by the bounding parameters, and compiles from their meanderings what they hope will be an exciting tour.

Furthermore, those responses are generated through the drives and subjectivity of the characters of the story: the sense that it’s an exploration rather than a tour is formed by the world’s being filtered through the limited (i.e. non-omniscient) point-of-view of the character who, while they know some things about some parts of the world, doesn’t know everything about it, even though the author (by the end of the process, at least) does:

… because the novel is written in close third person, everything is filtered through the sensibility of the main character, focusing on things that he would think important or memorable or odd, evoking the mundane stuff of his life by allusion or by borrowing the perspectives of others.

This is why I think that using the narratological toolkits of fiction can be a more effective and appealing way of depicting futures than the future-tense-passive-voice mode of corporate and policy futuring: it exploits the human desire to explore a timespace from a relateable (if not necessarily human) positionality, and it does so with devices and strategies which have evolved to make the best use of that instinct.

Of course, there are issues of teleology and intentionality that complicate this comparison—and I dare say that many creative writers might see this as cheapening of the art, just as many more “rational” futures people might see it as frivolous and artsy dilettantism. (I’d be lying if I claimed I don’t have days where those doubts haunt me, too, from both directions.) But it seems clear that we are going to continue to collectively imagine and advocate and dispute futures, not least because we’ve been doing it for yonks—at least since the fall of eschatology as the primary relationship to futurity in the so-called West. And if we’re going to do it anyway, and if—as seems equally indisputable—some folk are going to step up with futures (whether political, sociotechnical or otherwise) that we don’t want, then we have to get good at presenting the ones we do want.

It’s a war of stories; perhaps it always has been. While there are certainly ways of prosecuting that clash of narratives which are morally repulsive and destructive—*gestures at, well, everything*—I have come to the conclusion that refusing to counter the darkness with some sort of light is to let the darkness triumph. Utopia as method, innit?

contract/bridge: Auger (2013), Speculative design: crafting the speculation

  • Auger, J. (2013). Speculative design: crafting the speculation. Digital Creativity, 24(1), 11-35.

This justly well-cited paper is in some respects a tour through the work of Auger and others (mostly RCA-aligned, I think?) in the decade prior to its publication in 2013. My purpose in writing it up is to extract and summarise the methodological concept at its heart, which has utility in other forms of speculative work that have mutated from these design-specific practices, including recent work by my colleagues and myself here at Lund. As such, I’ll for the most part be skimming over the actual examples presented in this paper, but it’s really worth your time to read the whole thing if you want to get a good eye on where speculative design / design fiction was at before it properly metastasized throughout the late Teens.

Core claims and definitions

Auger’s main claim here is effectively teleological (though not in the Hegelian sense of that term):

Speculative design serves two distinct purposes: first, to enable us to think about the future; second, to critique current practice.

p11

(I think the “us” being used in the first purpose is what I think of as the “social first-person plural”, which is to say it extends beyond the narrower “practitioner-us” which is implicit in the second purpose—not that it makes much difference to this analysis, mind you! I’m just interested in the narratology of academic writing.)

The paper’s “key concept is the ‘perceptual bridge’—the means by which designs engage their audience” (p11), and it’s these mechanics of engagement which I want to extract and summarise in order to deploy the concept outside of the design domain; I also see a bunch of crossover with the implicit bargain or contract of suspension-of-disbelief inherent to speculative literature.

Auger begins by listing the many practices—already proliferating and contested, back in 2013!—overlapping with the one he sees as his own, namely speculative design. What they all share is a strategy of “remov[ing] the constraints of the commercial sector that define normative design processes; use [of] models and prototypes at the heart of the enquiry; and [using] fiction to present alternative products, systems or worlds” (p11). Auger chose speculative design [SD hereafter] over e.g. ‘design fiction’ due to concerns about the latter’s foregrounding of the fictive nature of the work in a manner which might undermine its intended effects: “the choice of ‘speculative’ is preferable as it suggests a direct correlation between ‘here and now’ and existence of the design concept” (p12), thus advancing Augers project “to shift the discussion on technology beyond the fields of experts to a broad popular audience” (ibid).

However, Auger acknowledges that the term is not without “etymological baggage”; the first example he provides is that of “a strong leaning toward conjecture”, as manifest in the OMG JETPACKS!!!1 genre of future-vision, which end up “playing to spectacle and technocentric dreams” rather than producing more grounded extrapolations (p12); avoiding these excesses makes it “possible to to craft the speculation into something more poignant […] tailored to the complex and subtle requirements of an identified audience” (ibid, emphases added).

Auger continues, defining the second bit of baggage in the negative: “[SD] is not only to encourage contemplation on the technological future, but can also provide a system for analysing, critiquing and re-thinking contemporary technology”; as such, the imagining of “near-future products and services” can “act as a form of cultural litmus paper” for sandboxing potential business propositions (p12). In addition, however—and of more interest to non-designers, perhaps—“alternate presents are design proposals that utilise contemporary technology but apply different ideologies or configurations to those currently directing product development” (ibid); this is related to alternate historical literature and the counterfactual, “but rather than focussing on asking ‘what if’ of historical events and imagining the effect on the here and now, it shifts the emphasis onto artefacts” (ibid; cf. that old Bruce Sterling riff about how design fiction “tells worlds rather than stories”.)

A methodology of speculative design

The rest of the paper is a sort of exploartory taxonomy of methodological strategies in SD, which Auger overviews with the governing principle of careful constraint of the speculation:

… if it strays too far into the future to present implausible concepts or alien technological habitats, the audience will not relate to the proposal, resulting in a lack of engagement or connection. In effect, a design speculation requires a bridge to exist between the audience’s perception of their world and the fictional element of the concept.

p12; emphasis added

Six such “bridging techniques” are explored; I’ve (Roman) numbered them for my convenience, and provided my own one-word labels (in parenthesis) to supplement Auger’s originals (in double-quotes), again for my own convenience in subsequent (re)use.

I—“the ecological approach” (Adaptation)

The designer must consider the environment and context in which speculative future products or services would exist; this could be a specific space such as the home or the office or a cultural or political situation based on current developments or trends.

p13

Auger uses the novel The War of the Worlds and the 2005 Spielberg movie thereof to discuss which presentation of the Martians seems “most likely”, concluding that Wells’s original depiction of them suffering from maladaption to the Earth’s environment is the more grounded speculation; he also discusses some classic Dunne & Raby works.

The concept of adaptation here informs the design process, delivering objects that display an existential logic (or not, in Wells’s case) in their intended environment. Any experience that challenges a preconception will at first appear odd, but here the detail and the finish of the [Dunne & Raby] artefacts, combined with the short explanations describing their functions and modes of interaction, entices the audience into exploring the concept further […] we could imagine living with these robots due to their compatibility with the domestic habitat.

p14

II—“the uncanny” (Provocation)

If a design proposal is too familiar it is easily assimilated into the normative progression of products and would pass unnoticed. However, proposals dealing with sensitive subjects such as sex or death can quite easily stray too far into provocative territory, resulting in revulsion or outright shock.

p14

Auger here mobilises the Freudian uncanny, the “paradoxical reaction humans have that invoke[s] a sense of familiarity whilst at the same time being foreign” (p14), and connects this to the social-psychology concept of cognitive dissonance; I would extend that connection to Suvin’s classic description of science fiction as the literature of cognitive estrangement.

Provocation is a tricky strategy to get right, however, as it is a direct tap on the emotions: horror books and movies can crank up the dial “to elicit maximum psychological effect; however, for a speculative design project a more careful approach is required.” (p15) Examples are provided.

III—“verisimilitude” (Deception/Hoaxiness)

… the term speculation can take the viewer too far away from the here and now, making the proposed design concept seem unreal or far-fetched. The problem lies in the range of possibility for a fiction—from simply impossible to bordering on reality.

[…]

But in the domains where [design] fictions ply their wares and meet their audiences, it is preferable for the concept to pass as real, described better perhaps as design factions; a form of verisimilitude where truths are blurred and disbelief is suspended.

p19-20; emphases in original

Here Auger mentions the Orson Welles radio play of The war of the Worlds, which adjusted the story to better fit with the cultural context of the time, to (famously, if somewhat overstated and in itself fictional) spectacular effect: “taking advantage of contemporary media, familiar settings and complex human desires or fears” (p20). Auger then compares SD to the usual delivery systems of science fictional material, whereby the contract with the audience is deliberately (if only implicitly) entered into.

Speculative designs, however, are played out in real life. the presence of the designed artefact in popular culture allows for the viewer to project its presence into his or her own life. Then they effectively become the protagonist in the story, playing out individual and informative roles. Their reactions become the true products of this form of design research.

p20; emphasis added

This section ends with an extended discussion of the highly-successful pioneering SD project, the Audio Tooth, which—despite being entirely speculative—blazed a trail through print and digital media reports in 2001 and 2002. This was achieved in part through the adoption of familiar product design and marketing language in the presentation materials: the narrative compensated for its implausibility my dressing itself up as plausibly as possible in every other regard. But Auger does not the hazards of the successfully hoaxy design: “A possible problem with this approach is that it allows for little control once a project is in the public domain and concepts can quickly mutate as facts become embellished.” (p21)

IV—“observational comedy” (Familiarity)

Auger here notes the stand-up comedy strategy of starting from a recognisable and relateable scenario (e.g. the grotty back seat of a family car)and building upon it to enable the introduction of an idea which would be preposterous if introduced immediately (e.g. seagulls following the car as it passes a landfill site).

By utilising the mundane, the familiar and the small, unnoticed details the designer can provide spectacular, even preposterous proposals with a tangible link to our contemporary sensibilities and understanding. It roots them in known contexts, limiting the need for complex explanations. The spectacular narratives that stem from the comedian’s effectively represent the designer’s technological future, made palatable through familiar elements.

p24

A related technique is to rely upon “stereotypical or commonly-held assumptions about a specific subject” to effectively skip over the need to explain the complex technological aspects, but this obviously requires a knowledge of the target audience and its understanding of the field in which the intervention is being made. (p26)

V—“alternate presents” (Alterity/Historicity)

Alternative presents are intended to question and critique contemporary use of technology in domestic and everyday habitats, so some conflict is helpful for attracting attention. However, for the proposal to have a less visceral impact, it is necessary for the audience to see beyond its conceptual oddness and understand the logic behind it.

p27

This can be achieved by leveraging a suitably poignant counterfactual history as a frame for the intervention:

… by choosing a topical and well-understood issue or theme in contemporary everyday life and finding a relevant or connected historical moment that could have a perceptible connection, the designer can develop a series of imaginary outcomes that instigate reflection on our current situation.

p28

The key here is the careful and considered selection of what sf theorists sometimes refer to as the “jonbar hinge“. While the themes of the counterfactual may be very broad, the successful engagement of such concepts lies in the fine details thereof (p29). The background, in other words, should be implied by the foreground as much as possible; this is a bit like the well-used (and not always useful) creative writing dictum “show, don’t tell”.

VI—“domestication”

The final strategy is based on the practice of selective breeding in horticulture and animal husbandry: forced evolution, in other words. It’s quite a specific technique, limited as it is to a narrow range of possible (organic) subjects, and it’s skipped over rather quickly here at the end of the paper (perhaps due to space restraints).

Conclusion

Auger’s project has been to explore, through these techniques and examples, “a more general attitude or approach towards the subject of speculation, specifically, how it must be managed and crafted to conect to a specific audience’s perception of the temporal world around them. Once established these perceptions can be stretched or manipulated in precise and informed ways.” (p31-2) The point about knowing the audience is particularly relevant, I think, and connects back to the hazards or the hoax gone rogue; speculative designs and other such fictions can escape their intended context quite easily, particularly if they’re made very well. This might be something to consider taking advantage of, though it comes with the hazard of blowback (and of a phenomenon of worldbuilding that I was discussing with Jay Springett earlier today, and I want to name here now in order to lay claim to it: “dark forks”).

Auger ends with a point about the (am)bivalence of the method which I think worth quoting in full:

[Speculative designs] can inspire an audience to think not only about what they do want for their future selves but also what they do not want.

p32

Amen to that. A good chewy paper, if a little hurried toward the end. Canonical, and well worth your time.

being quite serious, the future may be boring

Offered without comment, but with the contextualising note that the interview took place in 1984, some thoughts from J G Ballard on what we might now identify as the formation of European post-Fordist neoliberalism:

The young people of Western Europe since the sixties have grown up in a remarkably uniform environment, both in terms of the postwar architecture of high-rises and motorways and shopping malls, and also in terms of fashion in clothes and pop music, beach holidays in Spain and Greece, and their attitudes to society as a whole and their place in it—to the place of Europe between the two superpowers (both of whom, the U.S.A. and the U.S.S.R., are tolerated but not trusted). I think for the first time in Western Europe, one sees a generation which finds itself living in sane, just, and largely humane societies—the welfare-state social democracies west of the Iron Curtain—and is deeply suspicious of them, while in fact sharing all the values for which those societies stand. Young people who take for granted that the state will provide free university education, free medical treatment, and prosperous consumer-goods economies, but who nonetheless seem to suspect that behind all this lies some unseen conspiracy. One sees the most extreme example in the Baader-Meinhof group in West Germany, whose terrorist acts seem totally meaningless and irrational. But, of course, that is the very point of those acts—in a totally sane society, madness is the only freedom. I think a lot of my own fiction—Atrocity Exhibition, Crash, High-Rise, for example—taps these feelings of paranoia and desperation. As well, there are all the enormous institutionalized divisions between the social classes, between the meritocratic elites and those on the dole who will never work again, between those making their way into the Silicon Valleys of the future and those left behind in the dead end of the twentieth century. A lot of the youngsters who come to see me and talk about Atrocity Exhibition see it as a political work. To them, the voracious media landscape I describe is a machine for political exploitation.

[…]

The sixties were a time of endlessly multiplying possibilities, of real selflessness in many ways, a huge network of connections between Vietnam and the space race, psychedelia and pop music, linked together in every conceivable way by the media landscape. We were all living inside an enormous novel, an electronic novel, governed by instantaneity. In many ways, time didn’t exist in the sixties, just a set of endlessly proliferating presents. Time returned in the seventies, but not a sense of the future. The hands of the clock now go nowhere. Still, I’ve hated nostalgia, and it may be that a similar hot mix will occur again. On the other hand, being quite serious, the future may be boring. It’s possible that my children and yours will live in an eventless world, and that the faculty of imagination will die, or express itself solely in the realm of psychopathology. In Atrocity Exhibition I make the point that perhaps psychopathology should be kept alive as a repository, probably the last repository, of the imagination.