Category Archives: Science Fiction

The best sort of books there are

Distort some central part of the present condition

Some wisdom from Uncle Warren:

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.

The Greimas square-dance

More KSR on anti-anti-utopianism, this time at Commune Magazine:

Clearly we enter here the realm of the ideological; but we’ve been there all along. Althusser’s definition of ideology, which defines it as the imaginary relationship to our real conditions of existence, is very useful here, as everywhere. We all have ideologies, they are a necessary part of cognition, we would be disabled without them. So the question becomes, which ideology? People choose, even if they do not choose under conditions of their own making. Here, remembering that science too is an ideology, I would suggest that science is the strongest ideology for estimating what’s physically possible to do or not do. Science is AI, so to speak, in that the vast artificial intelligence that is science knows more than any individual can know—Marx called this distributed knowing “the general intellect”—and it continually reiterates and refines what it asserts, in an ongoing recursive project of self-improvement.

That’s the dovetail I didn’t know I was looking for  that connects to this recent NYT longread on Oncle Latour:

Crowded into the little concrete room, we were seeing gravity as Latour had always seen it — not as the thing in itself, nor as a mental representation, but as scientific technology allowed us to see it. This, in Latour’s view, was the only way it could be seen. Gravity, he has argued time and again, was created and made visible by the labor and expertise of scientists, the government funding that paid for their education, the electricity that powered up the sluggish computer, the truck that transported the gravimeter to the mountaintop, the geophysicists who translated its readings into calculations and legible diagrams, and so on. Without this network, the invisible waves would remain lost to our senses.

Pessimism of the Intellect / Optimism of the Will

KSR’s angry optimism [CCCBLab, Barcelona]:

The way that we create energy and the way that we move around on this planet both have to be de-carbonized. That has to be, if not profitable, affordable. Humans need to be paid for that work because it’s a rather massive project. It’s not that it’s technologically difficult (we already have the solar panels, the electric cars, we have the technical problems more or less solved in prototype) but the mass deployment of those is a huge human project, equivalent of everybody gathering together to fight World War II. Everybody agrees that, yes, this is important enough that people’s careers, lives, be devoted to the swapping out of the infrastructure and the creation of a de-carbonized, sustainable, physical plan for the rest of civilization.

Well, this isn’t the way capitalism works, as currently configured; this isn’t profitable. The market doesn’t like it. By the market I mean – what I think everybody means, but doesn’t admit – capital, accumulated capital, and where it wants to put itself next. […] It’s just the way it is and there is no control over that except for nation-state governments, each one looking at its own responsibility and power and feeling in competition with others, not wanting to lose its differential advantage.

Nobody can afford to volunteer to be extra virtuous in a system where the only rule is quarterly profit and shareholder value. Where the market rules, all of us are fighting for the crumbs to get the best investment for the market. And so, this loose money can go anywhere in the planet without penalty. The market can say: “It doesn’t matter what else is going on, it doesn’t matter if the planet crashes in fifty years and everybody dies, what’s more important is that we have quarterly profit and shareholder value and immediate return on our investment, right now.” So, the market is like a blind giant driving us off a cliff into destruction.

No further comment. BUT —

… I think there is a difference between cruel optimism and angry optimism, where you have the Gramscian pessimism in the intellect but also optimism of the will. Use the optimism as a club, to beat the crap out of people who are saying that we are doomed, who are saying let’s give up now. And this “let’s give up now” can be very elaborated academically. You can say: “Well, I’m just into adaptation rather than mitigation, there’s nothing we can do about climate change, all you can do is adapt to it.” In other words, stick with capitalism, stick with the market, and don’t get freaked out. Just adapt and get your tenure because it is usually academics who say it, and they’re not usually in design or architecture, they aren’t really doing things. They’re usually in philosophy or in theory. They come out of my departments, they’re telling a particular story and I don’t like that story. My story is: the optimism that I’m trying to express is that there won’t be an apocalypse, there will be a disaster. But after the disaster comes the next world on.

Cf. the good work they’re doing at Into the Ruinsclimate change (and concomitant political, economic and sociotechnical change) as inescapable but nonetheless survivable, storyable. Solarpunk is in a similar space, but more over on the utopian side of the spectrum, which is likely why its proponents have produced so little so far: they’re not yet testing their dreams hard enough to generate storyable worlds from them.

(By “storyable” I mean “more than a mere backdrop or set-dressing; a world/context which plays as generative a role in the plot as any of the characters do, if not significantly more so”. None of which is to say that solarpunk is no good; more to observe that it’s a young scene of predominantly young artists, and is still finding its feet in aesthetics and technique alike. Writing science fiction is not uniquely hard, but it is hard in a unique way, and the speculative toolkit has evolved many of its conventions through necessity as much as ideology; it’s a cliche, and I resisted it myself, but you have to learn the rules before you have any chance of challenging them successfully and systematically.)

Red Planet Blues

A fine piece of speculative journalism from the redoubtable Geoff Manaugh: crime and policing on the off-world colonies. Full of chewy gems and story-starters, alongside the existential stuff that proponents of such neocolonial projects either ignore or lack the imagination to consider:

In the precarious Martian environment, where so much depends on the efficient, seamless operation of life-support systems, sabotage becomes an existential threat. A saboteur might tamper with the oxygen generators or fatally disable a settlement’s most crucial airlock. When human life is so thoroughly entwined with its technical environment, we should not consider these sorts of acts mere petty crimes, he explained to me. In a literal sense, they would be crimes against humanity—even, on a large enough scale, attempted genocide.

“I think the fact that tyranny is easier in space is a foregone conclusion,” he explained to me, precisely because there is nowhere to escape without risking instant death from extreme cold or asphyxiation. In other words, the constant presence of nearly instant environmental lethality will encourage systems of strong social control with little tolerance for error. Orders and procedures will need to be followed exactly as designed, because the consequences of a single misstep could be catastrophic.

This is, I’ve always felt, the point that Chairman Bruce was trying to make in Schismatrix: once human beings start living in habitats other than the one they evolved in, they effectively stop being “human” and become something else — a difference marked not only by the technological/biological adaptations to said environment, but also (and perhaps more so) by the social adaptations. As such, the notion of “crimes against humanity” might look like a useful precedent for Martian policing from an Earther’s perspective, but Martians would likely consider themselves to be beyond that jurisdiction, if only implicitly.

The particular gift

It is the particular gift of genre fiction to assume a different background to the mainstream and so delineate character from a different angle. Science fiction carries this change of perspectives to extremes. By changing what counts as figure and what as background, the characters can be seen in ways otherwise impossible – and so, ultimately, we can understand ourselves in ways that would otherwise be impossible. These novels are a gift to the whole of our culture.

From a Graun editorial bit responding to N K Jemisin’s Hugo hat-trick. While I doubt we can say that the culture war has been won, it does at least look like the campaign that has torn the world of genre to shreds over the last decade or so has come to a conclusion: the redoubt has held. As Jemisin said in her acceptance speech, the stars are a little closer for all of us. The genre world, with hindsight, was something of a bellwether for the broader culture conflict that still rages around us; I’m going to cling to the hope that it might be a bellwether for its ending, also.