Category Archives: Science Fiction

The best sort of books there are

“Aesthetic & ethical urbanisms”: Dobraszczyk (2019), Future Cities

  • Dobraszczyk, P. (2019). Future Cities: Architecture and the Imagination. Reaktion Books.

Good, passionate arguments here from my friend Dobraszczyk, making a case for future urban imaginaries as a necessary component of our collective coping with an uncertain future. Note his explicit disavowal of the predictive mode, and the arguments in favour of the imagination as not only (ultimately, eventually) productive of more realistically liveable cities, but also as a kind of ideological prophylactic against totalitarian ideologies. (Thus we might see Paul’s proposals here as a defence mechanism to be deployed against the totalising and black-boxing corporate narratives of “smartness” described in Sadowski & Bendor, 2019.)

Cities are always a meld of matter and mind, places that we are rooted in both physically and mentally […] rather than cleave the imagination from reason, should we not explore how the two are entangled – how together they can open up rich possibilities in terms of how we think the future?

(p. 8)

Here Dobraszczyk realises what has become a familiar truism of science fiction criticism: “Images of the future [as in science-fictional cities], no matter how fantastical they may be, are really about the present” (p. 8); I’d go further, and argue that the more fantastical the vision, the closer to the zeitgeist are the deep truths contained within.

… we now experience London as a product of Dickens’s texts [thanks to many years of Dickensian tourism opportunities… a] similar transference of imagined to real is now happening in the Blade Runner tours currently being offered to tourists in Shanghai.

(p. 10)

Against the hoarding render and the maquette: “Architectural visualization – especially in the digital age – relies upon images as tools of persuasion that effectively present something that is essentially a speculation, a fiction” (p. 10); Dobraszczyk notes that there’s often an absence of affect or feeling in these images, as they attempt to paper over “the gap between fantasy and reality”, but that absence “alerts us to the difference between fiction and fact, between the world as we find it and the world as we wish it to be.” (p. 11)

Noting the way in which the Burj Khalifa echoes an old Frank Lloyd Wright proposal for Chicago from the grand era of USian skyscrapers: “Past precedents will always be important because they almost always form the basis for more recent urban plans, no matter how unprecedented they may seem” (p. 11); see also, IMO, the way in which the “smart city” with driverless cars recapitulates the classic Futurama exhibit, in function if not in aesthetic.

“We must recognise that the imagination is key in how we ‘pre-experience’ alternative futures – how we can prepare ourselves for what might be coming. [These efforts] will not be primarily predictive – believable outcomes based on what we know already – but rather a range of stories that allow us to feel what it might be like to live in the future.”

(pp. 13-14)

“… humans need narrative to make sense of a whole range of possible outcomes that can never be predicted with any degree of certainty”; here, Dobraszczyk is advocating a “story-based approach to imagining the future [which] encompasses the metaphorical, the ethical, the aesthetic and the speculative.”

(p. 14)

Linking out to Latour, A-NT and flat-ontology positions more broadly, in the context of ecological crisis: “In thinking of buildings and cities as primarily about connections, we can open our minds to an almost infinite array of possibile futures for them – futures that will be defined by how we connect up all manner of things […] such futures can never be predictive, but they can empower us because they will release us out into worlds beyond ourselves.” (p. 15) That last phrase being perhaps the most concisely poetic argument in favour of object-oriented thinking I’ve encountered in quite some time.

Finally, an argument for the imagination amid the shared contexts of fictions and imaginaries as capable of fostering a radical resilience beyond the banal socioeconomic and/or post-disaster “bounce-backability” that the term tends to devolve to in planning discourses: a shared narrative of futurity, even when contested, “forges a link between how we imagine the future city and how we relate to it as a real place”; promoting and defending an “ecology of the human mind”, which is “vital in resisting the tendency of contemporary capitalism – or any dominating worldview – to constrain the human imagination […] imagination is already politicised because, as a faculty that only flourishes when set free, it inherently resists such subjugation”; the result is a radical conception of urban resilience that extends to a sort of plural political collectivity, akin to an ideological immunisation against totalitarian/authoritarian visions. The shared notion of the very possibility of possibility acts against its pre-emptive foreclosure by fascism, sort of thing… though I should probably note that Dobraszczyk doesn’t actually drop the f-bomb himself, here.

Treehouse cootie exclusion notice

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: Literary author writes book dealing with sf tropes and themes; author is asked if said book is science fiction; author insists it certainly isn’t, while describing it in terms ubiquitous in science fiction critical discourse; science fiction fandom predictably loses its shit and goes on to demonstrate exactly why anyone outside the treehouse does everything they can to disavow having ever considered setting foot in it.

Nina Allan nails it:

I’m sure I’m not alone in finding it ironic that a writer who purportedly has no interest in science fiction is able to come up with such a neat and tidy description of what science fiction is and sets out to do. But if it’s dull and annoying to hear these misconceptions about SF trotted out yet again, it is equally tedious to witness another windy bout of performative outrage from the science fiction community, most especially when it is obvious that few, if any of those doing the yelling have actually read the text they’re so pissed off about.

[…] the literary/SF divide is and always has been a war of two armies. For all those writers such as McEwan who refuse to touch the monkey wrench for fear it might be contaminated with genre radioactivity, there are an equal number of writers behind the SF barricades who continue to insist that science fiction is their monkey wrench, that no one else should be allowed to use it unless they want to be exposed to ridicule for using it wrong, and that they should especially not be allowed to use it unless they can tell you where the metal it is made from was mined, write a three-page essay on the smelting process and cite bibliographical sources attesting the canonical uses of monkey wrenches from Golden Age times.

Something something literature of change and futurity something.

This could be Rotterdam

An excellent day in Rotterdam yesterday, ending with this appropriately Bladerunner-esque sunset shortly before a screening of Alien, which in turn was tied to the ongoing Science Fiction: a Journey Into the Unknown exhibition at the Kunsthal, which I recommend wholeheartedly. It’s rare to see an exhibition aimed at a general audience on your own field of interest that doesn’t make you angry, and this felt genuinely well conceptualised, if a little canted toward the rationalistic/”hard” formulation of the genre (wot no New Wave/New Weird?)

A lot of cinema props in the catalogue, but fewer than I expected, and some excellent paleofuturological material that serves to remind us just how long a flogging that some dead horses have been enduring. And of course these images made great bonus gimmicks for highly addictive products like cigarettes:

The Kunsthal is a fine and recent neo-brutalust edifice, and excellent value: €12 gets you into everything, and there’s lots to see. A fine addition to a very walkable city; set aside a full afternoon for it.

Bonus sfnal sublime: the new floodproof archive building currently under construction next to the New Institute, a vast concrete boat/bowl/spaceship dropped onto an empty plain.

And it wouldn’t be a proper trip to Rotterdam without a portrait of the notorious Buttplug Gnome, would it?

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.