Category Archives: Science Fiction

The best sort of books there are

(failed) states of exception

I’ve been an admirer of Christopher Brown’s fiction ever since I bought a two-handed piece for Futurismic that he wrote with Chairman Bruce (“Windsor Executive Solutions”, which is still up and available to read, amazingly enough). I finally got my hands on one of his recent novels back in the spring, and found myself thinking two things, both of which I attributed in some part to the sort of seemingly serendipitous reflections of one’s own ongoing interests that can emerge from a habitual tendency toward overreading—or, to put it more plainly, the tendency for the things that’s you’re reading and thinking about to leak into each other as your forebrain does its work of pattern imposition.

But sometimes, the forebrain gets it right, as with my instinctive tagging of Rule of Capture as a critical-utopian fiction. Here’s Brown in (machine-transcribed?) conversation with Andrew Liptak in the latter’s newsletter:

I come at this from kind of a background of political economy and political theory. I’m really interested in the idea of utopian thinking, I think that most of the political history of the Western world — from the Enlightenment forward — is guided in large part by a series of aspirational utopian visions of how society could be reengineered to create healthier and happier and more just communities, that provided a balance against pragmatic conservatism that sort of sees the world as it is, and assumes as it’s that way for a reason. And that balance produces a certain kind of forward movement around the idea of progress. You saw some of that in our science fiction as well, especially peaking in the 1970s. But then with the so-called End of History, and the collapse of the Soviet Union, the arrival of the boom boom years in the 1990s, I think that the only utopian vision that was left was the utopian vision that was also the vision of conservative pragmatism, which was the vision of neoclassical economics and perfect markets — the kind of whiteboard fantasy of how that could be the path to universal improvement of social welfare.

So I was interested in resuscitate in the idea of utopia, of just what would — especially in a moment where I feel like in the current moment, we can’t even get a handle on the present, and the idea of the future is mostly just kind of a amorphous and scary, especially when you factor in climate. And so, what would a future you would actually want to live in look like? And so that’s sort of the problem it’s trying to tackle as a narrative problem. It is, in many respects, much more challenging than writing dystopias for a lot of different reasons, including the fact that as a writer, utopia is kind of like the Talking Heads song “Heaven”: a place where nothing ever happens.

“[W]hat would a future you would actually want to live in look like?” is exactly the question that informed the recently-released Rough Planet Guide to Notterdam 2045 (about which I keep meaning to write in greater detail, now that it’s actually out in the world); to put it another way, I’m trying to port that understanding that Brown describes (and which shows up in le Guin and others, and in utopian thinkers both prior and subsequent to them) into the rhetorics of (social) science communications, in order to get away from the solutionist and information-deficit paradigms of talking about climate adaptation and mitigation and instead describe plausibly flawed futures in which we haven’t fixed everything, but we’ve nonetheless fixed something, even though we’ve likely uncovered more problems along the way. Which we might think of as science fiction with a sense of political economy, as Brown puts it above… which is also by implication science fiction with a sense of history, a discipline with which the genre more broadly has had a rather instrumentalist relationship, in such cases as it has had a relationship with it at all.

The other thing that I thought about Rule of Capture, to the extent of writing it in my margin notes a number of times, was that it was very engaged with the Agembenian state of exception, albeit quite possibly avant la lettre. Elsewhere in this interview Brown talks about the long legacy of the (still ongoing) state of exception instigated as a response to 9/11 in the US, which is the canonical example (and the one which effectively made Agamben’s career, albeit in a way I expect he’d have preferred to have never happened); given his stated interest in political theory, it doesn’t seem unreasonable to assume that Brown’s at least passing familiar with the same theoretical edifice which, for an assortment of reasons, I was exploring with an online reading group of former colleagues from Sheffield over the summer. Maybe I should just drop him a line and ask him…

Also worth a read is Brown’s recent essay at Tor.com, a slightly more generalist take on the same themes… which offers a polite rejoinder to the blaming of dystopian fictions for dystopian outcomes.

One reason the real world feels yoked to our dystopian imagination may be the failure of other science fictional futures to deliver the goods. The techno-utopian Tomorrowland 20th century science fiction promised us this century would bring turned out to be something much darker. Real life never lives up to the movie version our popular culture and politics teach us to expect. The “End of History” and the birth of the World Wide Web promised us a cyber-utopia of peace, progress and prosperity just around the corner, but the first two decades of the 21st century delivered a very different story, from 9/11 and its dark aftermath to the financial crisis and the resurgence of ethno-nationalism. Now our response to the pandemic has the world looking at the U.S. as a declining nation with some of the characteristics of a failed state. You can’t blame science fiction dystopias for all that, any more than you can blame the mirror for how you look in the morning

Then there’s the novels themselves, which I can confidently recommend on the basis of Rule of Capture alone. Brown’s newsletter is also well worth the sub; less pessimistic than unflinchingly realistic, but leavened with an attentive eye for the environment, as well as hints of that critical-utopian yearning. It’s one of the few newsletters that reliably gets read on the day it arrives in my inbox.

cyberpunkish pontifications

Over the weekend I iterated my Extremely Minor Public Intellectual routine once again, at the invitation of Mark Everglade, who interviewed me as part of World Cyberpunk Day (which is, or at least was, apparently A Thing*).

Mark describes me as “a post-doctoral scholar of sociotechnical futures who works with science fiction tools and ideas to render sociological insights”, and sums up with the claim that “we discuss[ed] utopia, dystopia, cyborgs, and the relationship of technology and culture”, which is about right. Perhaps we should also add that, for all my academic advancements, he’s clearly far better at producing a concise abstract than I am!

[ * Interesting to note that cyberpunk is the genre, or at least the aesthetic, that refuses to die, no matter how much its progenitors might have preferred it to; one could easily be sniffy about what seems to be at least in part a network of self-pub authors and creators keeping the generic ball in the air, but the counterpoint would be to argue that’s exactly what cyberpunk’s musical namesake has managed to do so successfully since the late 70s. Sure, there’s dreadful derivative “punk rock” music still being made, but there’s also plenty of work that draws on the energy, the attitude or the style of that heritage and does something new with it. Seismic echoes, innit? Furthermore the scholarship around cyberpunk is undergoing something of a reconstitution, perhaps because it’s easier to understand it as a historically contingent cultural phenomenon with the benefit of ~35 years of political and sociotechnical hindsight… but also because, gratifyingly for me, there’s a growing sense that what was missed in much of the at-the-time scholarship was an analysis of the infrastructural. While the cyberpunk-as-aesthetic thing is easily dismissed—perhaps a little too easily, given its popular endurance—the ontological and epistemological attitudes that it brought to sf are, I would argue, more relevant than ever. The “speculative turn” in the social sciences, for instance, is as much reliant on cyberpunk’s focus on sociotechnical and/or class relations (a legacy of its inheritance from film noir?) as on, say, the critical utopianisms of the New Wave. The widespread discomfort with cyberpunk’s persistence might thus be tied to the way in which it signals that the neoliberalism in which it was forged is still with us now; to argue that it is somehow to blame for propagating or sustaining said neoliberalism is to displace a complicity that we all carry with us to some extent. Mirrors are always discomforting devices. ]

failure / retrieval

Strange vibes in me at the moment. Part of that is adjusting to the sudden (albeit welcome) structure of a full-time job, and with it the sudden proliferation of deadlines for projects in which a significant number of the moving parts are people, and hence priorities and possibilities shift suddenly in ways you weren’t necessarily planning or preparing for. No tiny violin, to be clear; just noting the novelty of this for someone who spent a real long time operating as a box-room annex to almost every organisation they were involved with. There’s a lot of logistical levelling-up to be learned, here, and it’s taking a lot out of me, despite my efforts to take time off and get good rest.

The ineffectiveness of the latter in particular leads me to suspect I’m under the weather in some physical way. There’s a lot of anxious talk at the moment about Long Covid, which—without meaning to demean that experience for anyone going through it—comes across a lot like heretofore fortunate people facing the prospect that maybe illnesses have a long tail. Post-viral fatigue syndrome never got much press before now, beyond a vague insinuation that its sufferers should maybe get their shit together, or take care of themselves better, or maybe both… and hey, remember the “yuppie flu”, now better known as chronic fatigue syndrome? It’s as if even the stories we tell around illness need some sort of identifiable (and, crucially, nameable) black-hat bad-guy, a clear linear causality, before we’ll start to take them seriously.

I had viral pneumonia back in 2016, and it took me literally months (and a mental breakdown, and an epochal fight with my mother) to realise that maybe it was something more than just a cold that would’t shift. The antibiotics I was given cleared it out, but also napalmed my intestinal biome in a fairly indiscriminate way—perhaps because I’d not taken antibiotics in, I don’t know, probably decades. So the pneumonia went, but for a year or more I was prone to every passing lurgy that I encountered, and would find that for months at a time I was tired in a way that sleeping couldn’t cure, hungry in a way that eating couldn’t sate, low for no concrete reason, fogged in the brain and frustrated by it. It comes back from time to time, too—just as it has at the moment.

Which is to say: I recognise the symptoms of Long Covid, and believe them to be both genuine and (likely) under-reported. But I don’t believe them to be unique to Covid. So perhaps one silver lining to the thunderhead weather-front of the pandemic is the prospect that we’ll start taking seriously the notion that the line between acute and chronic malaise is not so clear-cut as has tended heretofore to be assumed. We still understand so little about viruses—the ones outside of us, and the ones inside of us. Hopefully we still have time to learn. In the meantime, I’m trying to get over the self-accusatory sense of my being a lazy malingerer, and do the best I’m able to do given my current capacities. Comparisons are invidious, of course—but they’re also fundamental to a system in which the calculation of value is the unacknowledged starting point for almost every action we undertake. Something something material relations between people something.

At the same time, remembering that the mental and emotional can affect the physical just as much as the other way around is something I’ve literally made notes-to-self about, because it’s easy to forget that the world has its ways of laying you low. Not without a certain sense of guilt, I’ve largely cut myself off from UK-based media, but still the stories seep through nonetheless—and they in turn unlock echoing chests of memory, both recent and distant, and with them feelings of loss, regret, failure… and of lost opportunity, both individual and collective. So there’s a weird sort of comfort in seeing that someone else is having a similar experience.

Then also there’s the gifts of synchronicity, my watchfulness for which—yes, a form of magical thinking; so sue me—has become something of a lifeline, intellectually and emotionally. After my recent (and hugely gratifying) encounter with Kelly Pendergrast’s writings, I remembered that I’d stashed some earlier pieces of hers away to read when I had more time. And so I made the time this morning on my commute, and found…

Famously, the start-up world lives and dies on its storytelling. Pitch decks paint a picture to potential funders. Product websites disclose and obfuscate in equal measure. Most crucially, start-up founders need to be able to craft a personal narrative and backstory that will win over investors and early hires alike. These story formats tend to follow the contours of the Hero’s Journey as described by Joseph Campbell. In this narrative format, success cannot come easy: a trial by fire — a period staring into the abyss — is required before the hero returns victorious, killer app idea in hand. And so, founders learn to frame their stories in a way that highlights and valorizes their moments of past “failure” (a startup that fizzled, an acquisition that fell through, a co-founder that flounced).

… well, OK, first I found something self-aggrandizing, namely someone making an argument I’ve been making for quite some time—though the originary credit in my case (and perhaps also in Pendergrast’s?) is very much due to Saint Donna and the Starbear. But this piece soon goes off somewhere else, somewhere strange and (strangely) timely:

… a very different kind of “pro failure” theory and rhetoric emerged in the ’90s and 2000s. Queer writers, activists, and artists (often excluded from mainstream institutions and success for reasons listed above) have embraced and reclaimed failure, theorizing a specific modality of “queer failure” as art form and as survival tactic. In opposition to tech failure (narrativized as a painful-but-necessary station of the cross that fosters wisdom and tenacity), queer failure is deviant, risky, and oppositional, shaped by those who’ve found their future always-already nullified by capitalism’s normative demands. Queer failure is also utopian and visionary. Without the option to slot back into the mainstream, failure becomes a point of departure, a rupture, a sideways trajectory into something new. There are futures beyond no future.

I’m no scholar of queer theory, let alone queer failure; nor am I one of Black utopias (to the extent that I may be mislabelling an entire school of thought in my ignorance, here, though with what I believe to be good intentions). But I nonetheless leapt instantly from this riff to Ryan Oakley’s retrospections, which seem to be a lament for the loss of a science fiction informed by (or perhaps just parallel to) the Black utopias of early Detroit techno, and perhaps also by the unruly chaos of what Simon Reynolds and others refer to as the hardcore continuum of 90s (post-)rave music:

I wanted and expected some SF publisher to release a series of cheap-ass pulp paperbacks set in the Deltron universe. Another series for Kool Keith. Like everyone kept talking about science fiction dying and I was like — the fuck? There’s plenty of drugged up kids who love the shit and are listening to sci-fi music all the time. Get in on that.

[…]

Like, I just kind of took it for granted that written sci-fi would be part of that. Took it for granted that sci-fi was some weird counter-cultural drug product. Like, there was the straight and square nerd shit, your hard sci-fi and space operas, which was like exotica or whatever and okay in their own right, but you had your hippie sci-fi, then your glam and punk and goth sci-fi. Sci-fi was dime store surrealism. Just vulgarized high art and I like that.

I just really thought there was just going to be some sort of punky-rave, hip-hop sci-fi. Abrasive and social and shit but with some funk, you know? It just seemed natural. Seemed inevitable. There were even some indications that it might even be incoming. Coyote Kings by Minister Faust, Brown Girl in the Ring by Nalo Hopkinson. They kinda had the sensibility and perspective. It was about people, outsiders, the city, and it felt modern.

It bears noting that I was way behind this curve in two senses: the closest I came to that sort of sf in the 90s was Jeff Noon, and maybe that’s as close as the publishing world got to it back then, too; furthermore, while I was splashing around enthusiastically in the more downtempo end of breakbeat electronica at the time, I was and still am (and likely always will be) a hoary old rocker at the core. But I nonetheless recognise (by its absence in sf) that sense of outsiderdom Ryan’s talking about; the early cyberpunk stuff had some of that, and even some of the later stuff (like Paul McAuley’s late-Nineties novels, f’rex), but—like any subgeneric style—it soon became reduced to an aesthetic, reproducible, bought from the rack. (And I’m reminded now of perhaps the most scathing book review I’ve ever had published, whose tone I still regret somewhat, but whose take I stand by to this day.)

That said, there are signs that, much as the musical aesthetics of the 90s are being revisited and retooled by younger generations, cyberpunk is being dusted off and re-punked by writers dissatisfied with both its past and the present alternatives; and I know a lot of scholars in the field are going through a process of radically reassessing the established readings of the genre and its canonical texts. Tim Maughan’s work wouldn’t exist without cyberpunk as a problematic precursor, nor M T Hill’s, nor Carl Neville’s, nor Annalee Newitz’s, nor Charlie Jane Anders’s, nor nor nor… and that most or all of these writers wouldn’t self-describe as cyberpunk rather illustrates the point. The aesthetic is brittle enough to be re-decomposed into its constituent tropes once again, which means that the underlying structures can be built in new shapes.

The outsider status of many of these authors—whether in terms of class, gender, race, sexual orientation, or some intersectional mix-up thereof—is thus perhaps no mere coincidence. Pendergrast again:

For those stuck outside of the normal, queer failure offers instead to explode the normal and to explore modes of being beyond capitalism, in ecstatic temporalities or alternative kinships or in refusing to work. To embrace failure is a vulnerable act that demonstrates solidarity with other “failed” people — from radical crips to refugees — and builds space to imagine an identity, and a life, outside the structures that would punish you for your transgressions. Maybe, suggests Halberstam, “in losing we will find another way of making meaning,” one in which “no one gets left behind.” Queer failure imagines a future beyond the current regime, and a life where failure can be ecstatic, collective, and radical.

And what is that current regime? Oakley:

I can kind of picture the world where sci-fi went the way I wanted it to go and the way I thought it would go. About now, we’d be getting shows in Deltronverse or at least totally infused with that sensibility instead of more Trek, more Star Wars, George fucking Martin, and the rest of it, sound-tracked by David Bowie’s 1970s musings about Mars. And I’m not even really against these things. But, holy shit, it would be nice to be able to see these people and their works as respected ancestors. We can’t even do that. We have to labor forever under their senile rule. I mean, I feel like Del and others showed us the way. The way was squandered. Just totally fucking squandered.

I’d be the first to say that generational theory is, if not utterly useless, then for the most part a marketeer’s way of thinking about demography that causes as many problems (or more) than it solves. But when I catch those stories leaking across the North Sea from the UK, and the ones from the US, and then I read a sentence like “labor forever under their senile rule”, I’m like, yeah. That’s where we’re at. We’re still dreaming those futures beyond The Future, but for so many people there’s so little space for dreaming, so little slack in the capitalist-realist circumstance. Hauntology is thus less a failing or a mode of nostalgia than it is the only game in town. What else can you do with the ruins of The Future than populate them with ghosts of other futures foreclosed upon?

Of course, such a circumstance cannot persist forever, in the truly eternal sense. Demography is destiny, and the Boomer hegemony—in sf, as in the world more broadly—will eventually fade away for the most obvious of reasons (though not without a fight, I fear). In both cases, however—though surely more pressingly in the latter—the question is what will remain to the rest of us once we finally slip the reins.

an eminent domain

An old bit of advice from the days when I was still working seriously on trying to get short fiction published went along the lines of: submit your work to the venues you read most regularly. (I got some fairly prestigious rejections, obvs.)

I’ve broadly kept to that dictum with my writings, fictional or otherwise, which is why I’m distinctly chuffed to have placed a book review at The Quietus—a site I read very regularly, even when they’re reviewing things that I’ve never heard of and/or don’t think I’ll actually like. I like their editorial positionality, and I like that they have a big roster of writers, some of them quite random, who are broadly left to their own devices in terms of style and attitude.

The review is of Carl Neville’s latest novel Eminent Domain, which… well, you should click through and give tQ the benefit of your eyeballs in exchange for the thrilling verbiage of my prolix hot-takery, because that’s how the business works these days. Suffice to say I found it a brilliant and sui generis science fiction story that’s frustratingly hobbled by some of its narrative strategies, at the levels of both sentences and structure; strongly recommended, but with strong caveats.

Maybe I should have gone easier on it? After all, it appears that Neville and I share a fondness for Screaming Trees… though that seems to surprise Neville himself even more than it surprises me.