Category Archives: Science Fiction

The best sort of books there are

the worst has been averted, at least temporarily

Steven Shaviro on KSR’s new joint:

[Kim Stanley] Robinson is juggling many threads, but he has no interest in combining them all into a tightly organized narrative. This is in part, at least, because the world we live in doesn’t work that way. It is unimaginably complex, and it is at least potentially open. The Ministry for the Future is dedicated to Fredric Jameson, and it offers an elegant and effective solution to the dilemma that Jameson outlined in his discussion of postmodernism several decades ago: how to “endow the individual subject with some new heightened sense of its place in the global system,” when this system is dense and interconnected in ways that defy ordinary forms of representation. Robinson knows that a Spinozian understanding of this system sub specie aeternitatis, or a Hegelian grasp of the system in its dialectical totality, is impossible — the world system cannot be captured experientially, nor can it be cognized completely. Therefore, Robinson gives us multiple, and only loosely interconnected, perspectives — each of them is grounded in particular, incomplete sorts of experiences; but all of these actions and passions have global ramifications, well beyond the immediate experiences of the people who act and undergo them. The novel is filled with close descriptions of places and of actions, that are filled with local detail — but that also have implications that reach well beyond their immediate contexts. The book as a whole is discontinuous rather than synthesized into a perfectly shaped whole — but part of Robinson’s demonstration is that anything that were so well-shaped, would be, by that very fact, representationally inadequate. It is precisely this sort of open, indefinitely extensible, and never-completed endeavor that makes science fiction writing into “the realism of our time,” as Robinson insists in numerous essays and interviews.

(Side note: I find this sort of approach much better than the more common one that sees science fiction as utopian and/or dystopian. Fiction like Robinson’s doesn’t estrange us from contemporary social reality; rather, it gives us a “heightened sense,” to use Jameson’s words of that social reality, both in its hard actuality and in its still-open potentiality).

I’m going to have to read this, and I’m sure it won’t be a chore—but as I remarked to a friend by email yesterday, I’m pretty sure (on the basis of Adam Roberts’s take) that I’m going to find the execution a bit frustrating. KSR’s is a champion worldbuilder, and the oft-repeated critique of his Mars books (which goes along the lines of “if you want to read 500 pages of people arguing about how to run a meeting, it’s pretty good stuff”) bothers me not a whit; if anything, that’s exactly the magic of the Mars trilogy, to have made so good a story out of that side of human action. But nonetheless, the man is not a prose stylist, I think it reasonable to say—and as Roberts points out, the very instrumentalist telos of Ministry has provided an opportunity for some of the very worst literary devices of sf to come out of retirement (though perhaps not without some wry self-awareness, given Roberts’s quoting of an exemplary as-you-know-Bob-ism being delivered by a character called Bob). This doesn’t bother Shaviro, who “prefer[s] straightforward genre writing, like Robinson’s, to most varieties of more ‘literary’ science fiction”, but me, I’m picky; I read fiction for the pleasure of reading in addition to any didactic/future-explorative malarky, and my tastes have trended much more toward yer actual bourgeois interiorities and/or (post)modern experiments these days.

(That’s the thing, see; you do a Masters in creative writing, you get yourself some pretensions. Or perhaps just more pretensions than before, at least in my case.)

Perhaps more to the point, though, I’m not sure how many of the people we most need to think more hopefully about the future are readers of novels of bourgeois interiority or infodump-heavy sf in the old-school mode. While it’s no reason not to write the stuff (for Robinson, me or anyone else), utopian fiction is probably limited to an audience which is already onside with the need for things to be done differently. The reason I’m excited to do more work like the Rough Planet Guide is that it uses the utopian and design-fiction toolkits to produce something that might actually get read by someone who doesn’t read novels, sf or otherwise. (And for that same reason, the next version of the Guide might well be web-based first and foremost; the book-as-artefact retains a magic for me and other bookish types, but for many folk it’s just a bulky boring thing that they might reasonably assume to contain nothing they want or need to know.)

Back to Shaviro:

All in all, The Ministry for the Future gives us a best-case scenario. It is not without loss — there are also policy setbacks, murders and bombings by revanchist rightwing terrorists and venal governments, and so on. But nevertheless, by the end of the novel, the world seems to have drawn back from the precipice of climate catastrophe — although the improvements in both the climate situation and the social situation, remain precarious. The world has not been saved, and hard work and massive international solidarity will still be needed for an indefinite future. But the worst has been averted, at least temporarily. Arguably, we need more quasi-optimistic (but not mindlessly optimistic) speculation like this, if only as a counterweight to our seemingly endless diet of dystopian horror.

Regular readers will know the hope/optimism distinction of old, so I’ll not rehearse it again here; I think Shaviro is getting at the same thing, or at least something similar. I’m also a lot less bullish on the technological plausibility of the stuff I’ve seen mentioned in reviews of Ministry so far; I share with Roberts an instinctive distaste for “blockchain” (sorry, Jay!), and I’m close enough to the technical side of transitions research to know that carbon-capture-and-storage (CCS) exists only as the handwavium aporia which holds a lot of the two-degrees scenario spreadsheets together, despite being little more than vapourware papered over with research underwritten by our friends in the fossil fuel companies. (See also “the hydrogen economy”; never going to happen!) But nonetheless I find myself unexpectedly at odds with Shaviro’s closer, here:

And yet, and yet… I called The Ministry for the Future a best-case scenario. If precarious survival is the best that we can hope for, what will we face in a non-the-best case? It remains extremely unlikely that as many things will go right as the novel needs to have going right in order for it to present its case. The novel demonstrates that a better world is truly possible, and attainable, on the bases of the resources and technologies we have now. But I cannot help also realizing that without all these technologically possible, and yet all-too-politically-unlikely developments, we are, in fact, well and totally fucked.

Without having read Ministry, this point might be a bit off the mark, but nonetheless: those developments are always going to look politically impossible if they’re portrayed from the perspective of the bureaucratic and technocratic strata, because those strata have internalised (and indeed propagated) the idea of the impossibility of political change; capitalist realism, innit? Ministry, as far as I can tell, is still a top-down telling, even if it tours the sociotechnical trenches; it’s a story of systems, a supply-side story. And sure, we need those stories, we need those systems—but we also need stories of lives lived and practices practiced; we need interiorities, bourgeois and otherwise, down on the demand-side. Because politics with a small ‘p’ is nothing but interiorities writ large—and if 2020 has taught us anything, it should surely be that. It’s kind of amazing to me that so many of us left-of-center folk can sit around dismissing the possibility of political upheaval while at the same time lamenting the massive political upheavals of the last five years; it’s as if the fact that said upheavals went in the opposite direction to what we wanted somehow allows us write them off as something other than political upheavals, and continue to lament the impossibility of change.

Which, given how often that rather dystopian take on the actual situation is accompanied by the “too many fictional dystopias” grumble, strikes me as rather ironic.

rough guidance: some reflections on the making of travel guides to places that don’t (yet) exist

Somehow I haven’t really talked much about the Rough Planet Guide to Notterdam here at VCTB; I think that’s partly due to an anxiety about “crossing the streams”, getting my day-job stuff tangled up in what is very much a scratch-pad-pub-booth-talking-to-myself sort of website these days, but also to some extent the same anxiety that keeps me from talking in too much detail about, say, a fiction project: sometimes the act of telling people about what you’re intending to do drains the impetus to actually, y’know, do it.

(But then again, sometimes talking about what you intend to do can light a fire under your easily-distracted arse, so, I dunno.)

But the Guide has been out for a while, we did the formal launch event earlier this month, hardcopies are starting to appear in various people’s mailboxes across the world, and promotional bits and bobs are starting to appear as well, so I guess it’s long past time to dis-embargo myself.

As the title presumably suggests, the Rough Planet Guide to Notterdam is a tourist guide to an imaginary future city which has a fair bit in common with an actual city whose identity you might well be able to infer. There’s a pretty decent summary of what we did and why we did it, with a non-academic bent, over at the Rapid Transition Network blog; the Guide itself (which can be downloaded gratis from here in PDF form) contains a more detailed and theoretical explication of the methodology, for them as wants such as thing.

As the thing starts to recede into the realms of personal history, I’ll presumably talk about it a lot more—particularly as the core idea of the travel guide format as a vehicle for climate futures will be carrying through into my Marie Curie postdoc project (which technically started a month ago but, hahaha, academia). However, a lot of that talk may end up on the project website that I need to get set up fairly soon; documenting the thing as process as well as “deliverable” is something I feel I want to do for my own sake, but also because I think this stuff needs to be reflexive when you’re trying to do it the way I’m intending to do it. But for now, I think I need to start that process here—and besides, it’s a great way to procrastinate from working on the paper I’m supposed to be drafting today!

So, yeah: there are two big differences between the Notterdam Guide and the (tentatively-titled) Rough Planet Guide to (Zero-Carbon) Skåne, and the first difference is that while the former is set in an imaginary location, the latter is tied to actual geographies (and histories). In a sense, then, and somewhat contrary to my claims, the Notterdam guide is something of a classic utopia: it is a no-place. The unreality of Notterdam was a two-fold convenience, in that it gave us a template for a European city big enough to contain all the sorts of change we wanted to look at, while it also gave us a chance to hand-wave away details that we didn’t have time to deal with while staying within the scope of the work-package that the Guide was meant to fulfill. The REINVENT project somewhat predetermined the sorts of change we were looking at: the theme was decarbonisation, but tied to particular industries (steel, plastics, meat’n’dairy, pulp’n’paper), and while we went beyond those sectors (because to make an imaginary city hang together, particularly from the POV of a would-be tourist, you need some infrastructure going on), showing the consequences of successful decarbonisation in those industries was the brief.

Well, actually, it wasn’t the brief at all, as I obliquely suggest in the methodology: the brief was a “handbook of best practice for innovation”, which was something of an oxymoron even before the project research clarified the obvious, namely that trying to be programmatic about innovation is the sort of absurdity that only people who’ve been huffing the B-school nitrous for a long, long time could ever come up with. It took a lot of drafts for me to find a polite way of putting that! But we’re very pleased to have twisted the thing around to a focus on practices in something closer to the social-practice-theory sense of things, and to have produced a document that has almost certainly already been read by more people than would ever have so much as downloaded the originally-proposed “handbook”.

And that broadening of the audience for transitions research outputs was very much the point of the operation, or at least one point. Again, as I argue in the methodology (and the article linked above, and in a seminar I’ll be doing, virtually, for the University of Liverpool’s climate science school next month—watch this space, that one may be public-access), decarbonisation should be everyone’s concern, but it’s (somewhat by necessity) an elite/expert discourse; shifting the focus from the “how?” of decarb to the “what if we?” makes for a perspective where the issues take on an immediacy and relevance that is all to often absent from the abstractions of climate policy (“two degrees of warming”, reduced emissions”, etc etc.). Producing something that is both legible to non-experts and (we hope) attractive and engaging enough that they’ll actually read it… well, we’re pretty sure that there’s little (if any) climate and/or transitions research-comms work that has done that, at least not to this extent.

This leads us to the second big difference between the Notterdam guide and the Skåne guide: the Notterdam guide is almost entirely produced by experts for a non-expert audience, while the Skåne guide (at least as proposed in my funding bids) will be co-produced with communities (of both location and practice). This approach has some connection to action research, and in particular to the experiences of a good friend in one of her early projects, but it also has a lot to do with the influence on me of social-practice placemaking, and socially-engaged arts more generally; I spent a lot of time with someone whose thinking in this space really changed the way I thought about the matter of publics and expertise, and I want to stay true to that, and to an idea that is perhaps best summed up by the statement that “people are experts in their own lives”. To put it another way: a great deal of climate futurism involves clever experts like yours truly telling people how the future will be, and how they should deal with that; the Skåne guide, by contrast, will start by telling people how we think their context will look at a particular moment in the future, and then asking them how they think they might live in that situation.

This will be challenging in all sorts of ways—not least among them the way in which it will essentially involve me learning on the fly how to do a sort of arts-and-design-based ethnography-of-the-future with communities in whose dominant language I can barely order a meal and a beer without writing myself a script ahead of time. Another challenge is that we are going to get a bunch of answers that we probably don’t want to get: answers that don’t seem relevant, or that don’t represent what we think of as the “right” response to the reconfiguration of sociotechnical practices. That this prospect worries people is already implicit in discussions I’ve had about the project as it starts to begin; hell, it worries me, too.

But that’s exactly why it needs doing. We’ve spent too long giving people the futures we think they should want; it’s long past time we ask them what they actually want. Because unless we can present people with a post-transition future they can actually see themselves in, however well-intentioned we may be about it, we’ll just end up imposing the next technological utopia in a long chain thereof.

(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. ]