Category Archives: Science Fiction

The best sort of books there are

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.

partially-automated bi-utopian communism

I’ve been quietly impressed by the ubiquity of Aaron Benanav across a variety of venues as he promotes his recently-published book Automation and the Future of Work, of which I received a copy a while back. Benanav’s been a guest on blogs and podcasts aplenty, and I’m glad to have read and listened to some of them, despite not yet having gotten round to the book itself. I suppose it’s a mark of a successful promotion drive that these encounters have encouraged me to bump the book higher in my TBR queue—though that of course assumes that the message of the book itself is of interest.

Which it very definitely is. His main point, which is made all the more persuasively (for me, at least) for its lack of spectacle and hyperbole, is that the very commonplace thesis that “robots are coming for our jobs!” is wrong. Benanav’s refutation starts from the erroneous use of unemployment rates as a proxy indicator for lack of labour demand; the latter is very real, he argues, but the former misframes the issue in a way that leads to mistaken conclusions, via a focus on the technoutopian spectacle of OMG ROBOTS. The actual situation, he says, is “that 45 years of economic stagnation and welfare state retrenchment, rather than workplace automation, are the forces making for a severe global jobs problem. It is a problem that long predates recent high tech innovations.” But there’s an interesting bit of intellectual judo, here, in that Benanav then goes on to say that we can achieve something like the fully-automated-luxury utopia promised by the automation evangelists without the need for the automation: instead, we reorganise and redistribute the work that still needs doing.

What I didn’t expect—but maybe should have?—was that Benanav draws a fair bit on utopian theory (an interest rooted in a life-long interest in science fiction). He talks about two models for workers’ emancipation, the first being the old autonomy/worker-controlled-workplace vision, and the second being the perhaps more modern (and more utopian?) vision of being free of work in the sense of being able to quit and do something else “beyond work”. The former is more appealing to those of us who do what we might call non-bullshit jobs, who value what we do, but wish we were able to do it for a reasonable number of hours a week, without being steered by MBAs who don’t understand the work they’re trying to manage; the latter is more appealing to someone loading the dishwasher at Wetherspoons, or pushing pedals for thin tips on Deliveroo. Benanav’s point is that a successful vision of a reconfigured society needs to accommodate both of these utopian urges:

People within emancipatory politics are going to have to think about these two visions of emancipation and the way that they relate to work and the possibilities within them. The inspiring vision of the future will likely be one that speaks to both experiences: on the one hand, transforming meaningful work to be done better—with greater worker (and consumer) control—and, on the other hand, working less. There is a connection, although not a direct one, between these different concrete experiences of work and the sorts of places people find it easier or more meaningful to engage in struggle and conflict. My sense is that engaging with utopian literature, even the misguided techno-utopianism of the automation literature, is worthwhile as a way to build a stronger emancipatory movement.

Further on in this interview, he hints that this distinction is mirrored in a comparison of Morris’s News from Nowhere and Kropotkin’s The Conquest of Bread: in the former, work becomes the true fulfillment of life, while in the latter, the lack of work provides the space for fulfillment to be found (or created).

So, yeah: while I can’t yet recommend the book on the basis of direct experience, I’m pretty sure that I will be able to do so once I get round to reading it. In the meantime, maybe take the opportunity to listen to the man make his own arguments? This episode of New Left Radio is ideal:

whole sets of social and experiential differences

Chip Delany, in just two paragraphs, nails to the wall the very best and worst aspects of science fiction:

You can put together more interesting combinations of words in science fiction than you can in any other kind of writing—and they actually mean something. You can say things like, “The door dilated” (as Heinlein did in Beyond This Horizon), and it implies both design and technology, as well as whole sets of social and experiential differences. When you say things like, “Her world exploded,” you are not just giving a muzzy metaphor for a female character’s mental state. You reserve the margin for the words to mean that a planet belonging to a woman blew up. Thus SF is sensually pleasing to work with, simply at the level of language. 

I think what happens with mundane or naturalist fiction is that these characters succeed or fail in what they try to do, but they succeed or fail against the background of the real world so that their successes are always some form of adjusting to the real world. Their failures are always a matter of being defeated by the real world. So in a funny way the only thing that mundane fiction can talk about is either madness or slavery—those people who adjust to the world and therefore are slaves to it, or those people who are defeated by the world and are therefore mad because they shouldn’t have tried in the first place. But I do think there’s something else: in science fiction, because success or failure is measured against a fictive world that is itself in dialogue with the real or given world, that dialogue is much more complicated, richer, than in realist fiction. Of course, we all know that there are many things about science fiction that are predictable. One of the problems—now that I’ve given this account of SF’s potential—is that, for a long time, SF was a kind of marginal writing, with many hard and fast conventions. You can do absolutely anything in it. But when you can do absolutely anything, you tend to fall back on the conventions.

the ubiquitous fictionality of narratives of futurity

Doing that thing where one quotes a famous and respected person saying things one has been saying for years, in the hope that it’ll be more palatable coming from someone famous and respectable. Once again, it’s yer man KSR, of course:

All attempts to speak of the future are science fiction stories, and thus bound to be wrong. The polling done for the recent election, which turned out once again to be notoriously wrong — that seems weak and unprofessional until you consider that in evaluating the present to suggest what will happen in the future, polls too are science fiction stories, so it shouldn’t be surprising when they get it wrong. The future just can’t be predicted. Anyone who says they can do that is operating some kind of scam, even if they believe it themselves. In finance, for instance, you have futures markets; these and many other financial instruments gamble on predictions, and of course try to hedge their bets, being so uncertain. Once you have to put your money where your science fiction story is, the uncertainty gets very obvious.

I made this claim in one of my earliest papers (co-written with Shrin Elahi), and I still get push-back on its supposed universalism now; most people seem willing to accept that some narratives of futurity are fundamentally fictional, but anything that retains a sheen of quantitative science and/or technological magic—finance being a prime example—has a rhetorical tenacity which is incredibly hard to shake off.

But the advantage of having had the claim accepted for publication (though not without some classic “Reviewer B” vitriol, mind you) is that I’ve been able to refer back to it for re-use in subsequent work. If you’d like to do the same, you’d be very welcome! And if you want a gloss on this particular claim from the author themselves, allow me to state it as succinctly as possible: any description of a chain of events whose timeline extends into time which we have yet to encounter—regardless of medium, authorship, political intentionality or moral position—is a fiction, and can be critiqued and analysed as such.

(Ironically, that paper picks up a fairly regular stream of citations, but rarely for this particular claim, and quite frequently for claims upon which it has no bearing at all. Academia, amirite?)

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.