Category Archives: Science Fiction

The best sort of books there are

it may be a delusion arising from some sort of psychological damage

My most recent review filed at (but, I think, not yet published at?) the BSFA Review is of The Art of Space Travel, a collection of Nina Allan’s short fiction. It was a somewhat out-of-the-comfort-zone commission, which is exactly why I chose it; in addition to reading outside my home range, I’m also trying to write about that reading, because writing about reading tends to make me pay more attention to the reading. (Though this can sometimes make reading into something that feels close to being work, which is less than ideal… but then, if you write, reading is part of your work, isn’t it?)

Anyway, point being: while Allan is definitely a speculative writer, there’s a real singularity to her work, both stylistically and thematically, and that presents a challenge for reviewing. You want to describe what the work is doing—its affect, if you like—but you’re left stranded far away from your usual touchstones of comparison, grasping for a way to describe something which, while not exactly unprecedented, is not easily summed up.

This is, to be clear, the very best sort of challenge to have, and I find it fully endorses my choice to start reading more widely: I’m being stretched, as reader and writer alike. But it leaves the part of me that is a reviewer/critic with a sense of imposter syndrome it hasn’t had for many years: am I reading this right? Will anyone recognise the affect I’m trying to describe as the same one they encountered in the same work?

As such, it’s reassuring to read this bit from Paul Kincaid on Allan’s latest novel—a different book, to be sure, but the ontological duality (and associated epistemological doubt) that he describes here leaves me feeling that at least someone is seeing a similar mechanic underlying the production in question:

Nina Allan’s work occupies two worlds. One is our quotidian reality. This is privileged: it is where the novel opens and closes, it is unquestioned. This is the world we see around us, the one we take for granted as real. But at some point another world opens. We may spend some time there, but it remains little more than a glimpse, allowing us not quite enough to judge its nature. This world is questioned within the text, we are told to doubt it, but generally in a way that leaves us insecure in our doubt. This may be a realm as real as our own, it may be the fictional creation of one of the characters, or it may be a delusion arising from some sort of psychological damage. We do not know, we cannot be sure. But it profoundly affects the behaviour of at least one of the characters, so it is real to them.

In a way this is the trick that Christopher Priest pulled off in The Affirmation, but Allan does not collapse the two worlds into one at the end. This necessarily leaves everything ambivalent.

Two coextensive worlds, check; one world quotidian and unquestioned, one world strange and glimpsed only momentarily or fragmentarily, check; clear offer of off-ramps of doubt allowing—nay, sometimes even directing—the reader to dismiss the strange world as somehow imagined or false, check; ambivalence of enduring non-resolution of said worlds, check.

Yup, I feel a bit more confident about my own review, now. In the meantime, have you read any Nina Allan? You probably should; she’s bloody good.

a world where flesh and machine are in tension: re-reconsidering cyberpunk

Found myself nodding appreciatively at this re-reassessment of cyberpunk by Lincoln Michel:

Everyone has their own definitions of genres, but to me the essence of cyberpunk is not tied to the 1980s visual trappings that have defined it in video games and film. Cyberpunk isn’t merely neon signs or street toughs with high-tech leather jackets (or its problematic “Japan panic” legacy.) For me, the core of cyberpunk is first as science fiction that fundamentally recoils at the growing power of corporations and unchecked capitalism. That, as Fredric Jameson once said, cyberpunk is the “supreme literary expression…of late capitalism itself.” Secondly, that it is a genre that understands that technology is not clean. Technology is never implemented in smooth and even ways—it is always messy, always unequally accessed. Always (in our world) in service of power and systems.

“The street finds its own use for things,” yeah—the centrality (and deep truth) of that element often seems to be lost in a lot of the trashings of the genre that have been thrown around recently. Though by no means all of them: Doctorow’s take on k-punk as Luddite lit is typically idiosyncratic, and Madeline Ashby, with the eye of a novelist who is also a practising critical futurist, identifies the fundamental limitations of of the paleofutures—now four decades old—that underpin the genre as most commonly practised.

This is kind of Michel’s point, too, and he gets there by returning to the source and tracing the journey from the meat to the virtual:

Of course, thinking about the effects of technology on the human form is not new to cyberpunk. All genres have tendrils of influences and precedents that stretch back in time, but it seems fair to pick William Gibson’s seminal Neuromancer as ground zero. Gibson’s novel towers over the genre as surely as the Mount Doom of Tolkien rises above the realm of epic fantasy. And Gibson didn’t forget the body. From the first page of Neuromancer we are in a world where flesh and machine are in tension. We begin in a crowded bar filled with addicts and a bartender with a “prosthetic arm jerking monotonously…his teeth a webwork of East European steel and brown decay.” Our hero, Case, is suffering pain from his damaged nervous system. He has fallen “into the prison of his own flesh” without being able to access the matrix of cyberspace. Cyberspace is how Case escapes from the world of flesh. The meatspace.

Other ’80s works like Akira, Tetsuo: The Iron Man, and Donna Haraway’s classic “A Cyborg Manifesto” were even more concerned with the mingling of the human form with technology. But by the 1990s it seems the genre—in the US and UK at least—focused ever more on the virtual realm, often in a giddy way. In the ’90s, the web was the “information superhighway” where anyone could be what they wanted unrelated to the real world. Later cyberpunk novels like Neal Stephenson’s satirical Snow Crash built on this idea of escaping into cyberspace, imagining a cyberspace that is a fantasy video game world. Escapism within escapism. Even the virtual representations of bodies were incorporeal.

Michel’s own approach is to look not at information technology, which he has consciously made banal in his own work, and to focus instead on biotechnology, with the human body once again the focus of the struggle between street and boardroom. But as he notes, cyberpunk, in its slow recuperation as a nostalgic aesthetic, went on to fetishize that which it once critiqued, and to abandon embodiment as the site of struggle.

Cyberpunk is typically thought of as a dystopian genre. But what had begun as a cautionary tale became a celebration. Isn’t all of this really damn cool? Wouldn’t you like nothing more than to be a hacker god swinging swords and dodging bullets free from your corporeal form?! As cyberpunk went further down this path, the body disappeared more and more. At the same time, the fundamental critique seemed to evaporate. Dystopian elements were still tacked on, but in the background like neon holograms. For visual style, not warning. Meanwhile real-world dystopian tech companies and right-wing movements felt free to pluck cyberpunk language (“red pill,” “metaverse,” etc.) for themselves. The end of this cyberpunk path is Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One, where the most exciting thing in the universe is to play a video game populated with corporate trademarks.

Top marks for summing up succinctly why even just plot summaries of Cline’s work have seemed nauseatingly unappealing to me.

I would note, though, that—for all the other flaws they might be argued to have—Gibson’s most recent novels are still very much focussed on embodiment as the site of struggle; The Peripheral is totally about that conflict, and the way it is shaped by political, financial and even temporal power.. Furthermore, as I have argued elsewhere, Gibson recognised the merging of cyber- and meat-space quite early; it’s arguably the central idea of the Bigend trilogy, in which one character notes in passing that (and I paraphrase) “cyberspace has everted”.

Of course, as Michel says at the start, everyone has their own definition of any given genre, and it may be that the discourse around cyberpunk will get stuck on the co-opted late-phase fantasy-virtuality definition for years to come. Mostly it’s reassuring to see someone else respond to that definitional shift in much the same way I have in the last decade or so.

But as someone from the heavy rock side of the musical divide—and there’s a generic cluster that is very much in the cultural doldrums right now, reflexively associated with rockism, Boomers, and the worst-case Durstian cliches of the nu-metal era, even as the former underdog of hip-hop shambles ever further into its own bloated and drug-addled stadium-show hegemony—I’m aware that genres never die, they just shrink to a point where those who’ve always seen something to love in them can go off and make something new out of that discarded form or style.

Michel mentions Maughan and Newitz as both having found ways to return to the political (rather than simply aesthetic) heart of cyberpunk, and his own novel sounds interesting enough that I’ll be ordering myself a copy. The flame is still alight.

honeymoon objectivity

Serendipity, thy name is INTERNET. Currently in the midst of working up a big old grant application*, and what should appear but this piece from Sun-Ha Hong at Real Life, neatly filling a reference gap that’s been bugging me for a few weeks? Preach it, brother:

Fredric Jameson once wrote that science fiction has become not a place for encountering utopia, but a testament to “our incapacity to imagine the future,” and to the structural limits placed on our political imagination. Today, product demonstrations are as much an example of science fiction as any other popular entertainment. Successive generations of recombined slogans and wondrous objects help recirculate the same old futures, pulling us back to a world of suits in cubicles and aprons in kitchens, evoking that soothing mid-century dream in which we were supposedly modern, and nothing really fundamental needed to change about society.

How different, really, is the latest generation of unlikely promises? Artificial intelligence, now inflated to describe a wide variety of systems that are neither artificial nor intelligent, provides recycled fantasies of instant consumption and self-driving cars that reprise the dream of convenience as freedom. AI also forms Big Tech’s route to maintaining and strengthening its supply of military funding by reviving Cold War narratives of a technological arms race. The constant death and rebirth of words and things masks the closure of the future: If bitcoin is starting to feel old and tired, then why not NFTs? If Second Life or Google Glass didn’t cut it the first time, why not the metaverse?

In my book, Technologies of Speculation, I call this honeymoon objectivity: the incitement to fall in love with each new technology just as we break it off with the previous one, maintaining a stagnant cycle in which the next great invention, the next transgressive genius, again promises to deliver a utopia of frictionlessness and objective certainty. But this recycling of technofutures is fundamentally a conservative force, in which a highly limited selection of technical benchmarks, use-cases, and social relations are dressed up over and over again, with no thought to whether they’re worth preserving, or what could be built in their place. As Jameson hinted, to be transfixed by the future is to be paralyzed by it.

Shazam. Perfect.

[ * Said grant application is merely one of a half-dozen parallel writing projects currently ongoing, most of which are directly day-job relevant… which is one reason why it’s been a bit quiet here at the blog-homestead, for those who were wondering. It’s good to finally have some intellectual mobility, after the pandemic-isolation/broken-foot combo knocked me out for a long while… but damned if I’m not back on my bullshit, taking on too many tasks at a time. Still, it’s gotten me this far, hasn’t it? To misappropriate Deleuze’s twist on Spinoza, we still don’t fully know what this body can do… ]

Smart cities: Policy without polity

Another publication is getting close to popping out of the pipeline!

23rd November 2021 sees the formal release of the Routledge Handbook of Social Futures, in which yours truly has a chapter entitled “Smart cities: Policy without polity”. Regular readers here will likely be able to guess—and guess correctly!—that this piece does not at all celebrate the “smart city” concept, nor even attempt to (re)define it; rather, to cite my own introductory paragraph:

“I am not interested in defining the ‘smart city’ so much as in investigating its persistent resistance to definition and exploring alternatives to its problematic framing of technologically mediated urban futurity.”

My opening move is to claim that the “smart city” is a generic narrative form in the technological-utopian tradition. After that… well, I wouldn’t want to spoil it for you, now would I?

In case the prospect of me railing against one of my love-to-hate suitcase words is not enticement enough, you should know that there’s twenty-nine chapters of social-futures fun in this volume, featuring such friends, acquaintances, colleagues and inspirations as Andrew Curry, Ann Light, Nicola Spurling, Genevieve Liveley, AbdouMaliq Simone, Lisa Garforth and Nick Dunn, among many others; the whole thing has been edited with admirable wisdom and patience under pandemic circumstances by Carlos López Galviz and Emily Spiers, whose work at the Lancaster Institute for Social Futures is a leading light in the field, if you ask me.

Now, as the title of this post makes clear, this is a Routledge title—and those acquainted even only in passing with academic publishing will know this implies that acquiring a copy will leave a serious dent in your bank account. As such, it’s probably the sort of thing that you’d be best to encourage your institutional library to acquire, assuming you are fortunate enough to have access to such a thing (and that it has the budget to do so); whoever might decide to buy it, the blow may be slightly softened by using the discount code FLY21 (as found on the flyer acting as an illustrative image for this post), which will result in a 20% reduction in the price.

Those for whom neither of these options are viable, but who would nonetheless like to see a copy of my chapter, should feel free to drop me a line; we’ll see what other options for dissemination are available.

het från pressen

Taking what feels like a well-earned and much-needed day off today, after yesterday’s launch of the above narrative prototype / experimental futures vehicle (via the second medium of a slightly kludgy pseudo-Brechtean performance of an online talk-show from 2041). If anyone had been wondering why things have been quiet here lately, getting this thing finished to deadline is one of the larger reasons!

Will likely write about it at greater length in the weeks ahead; for now, I’ll settle for a simple statement of the necessity – and joy – of having a great team to work with on the realisation of somewhat crazy ideas. Few things worth doing can be done well alone.