Origin story: Lessing (1979), Shikasta

Shikasta was not entirely what I expected—or even partly what I expected at first, to be quite honest. Lessing’s first “science fiction” novel starts off as something of a clunky jumble, but eventually clarifies into a variant of the Shaggy God Story, the trope where the state of the modern world is explained as being in part down to alien intervention in deep history, and/or other cosmic malarky. On that basis I’m tempted to compare it to Julian May’s Saga of the Exiles, but the comparison is not hugely flattering to Lessing’s book, for reasons of technique (to which point I shall return below) as well as coherence and scope.

Perhaps most surprising to me were the distinctly New Age undertones. I’ve always pictured Lessing (on the basis of an admittedly slight familiarity with her work: The Golden Notebook, and a few collections of the later short stories) as a bitterly disappointed idealist-turned-realist/pragmatist… and there’s a lot of that in here, certainly, but the more wooish stuff still seems strange until you situate it historically. Written in the late Seventies, Shikasta is thus contemporary with the long boom of post-Sixties political cynicism, and the compensatory surge of pseudo-religions, occultism, UFO theory, and alternate megahistory: the age of Erich von Däniken and his ilk, of attempts to explain some of the stuff that archaeology had started to unearth, but which the rather sober positivist science of the time wouldn’t engage with at all through anything other than dismissal.

And so Lessing depicts deep history from the earliest days of life on Earth, an Edenic paradise of millennia-long lifespans and chummy megafauna, through to a a cataclysmic and dystopian end to what would be the C20th (by our own “Shikastan” count), as a derailed colonial experiment started by benevolent and superior aliens. The people of the Canopean empire (centered on Canopus) turned up first, with the aim of bringing on an already promising planet by introducing some alien chums as caretakers of the burgeoning biosphere, while a lesser and stranger allied empire (the Sirians, centered on Sirius) were permitted to play evolutionary games in certain parts of the southern hemisphere. All was going well until the worm-in-the-apple arrival of the agents of Shammat, the Manichean-caricature “evil” player on the galactic-imperial scene, who took advantage of an unexplained cosmic misalignment that disrupted the connection of earth to the Canopean good-vibes-and-plenitude network, resulting in a general slide into decay and degeneration. Canopus gets most (though not all) of the caretaker “giants” off-planet in preparation for the apparently inevitable aeons of misery, but its own agents keep a perpetual if diminished presence in order to (try to) keep things from backsliding too much into Shammat-sponsored misery and conflict.

Thus it turns out that legends of giants and other magical forebears, and of gods that come and go in flying chariots, are less myth than corrupted cultural memory, and that many of the great religious figures of human history were in fact Canopean agents trying to keep a lid on human affairs—but the cosmic bad vibes (or rather the surfeit of good ones, due to the “misalignment”), and the concomitant degradation of human minds and bodies (as well as of the web of life more broadly) resulted in said doctrines of good behaviour being twisted into dogma and hierarchical hegemony: ethics ossified into instrumentalised morality, if you like.

So far, so Seventies, I guess? That cultural-temporal distance shows up in more subtle ways, too; for instance, Lessing is clearly (and justly) concerned with the horrific legacy of racial and colonial exploitation in late human history, and at pains to depict this (in relentless and often horrifying detail) as indicative of our slide into misalignment with the cosmic good… but at the same time, the Canopeans are themselves ostensibly benevolent colonisers and meddlers in the fate of lesser beings, and there is much talk among them of “eugenism” and the preservation of “good genetic stock”, not on the basis of race, but rather on the basis of beneficial traits like psychic “capacities” and empathetic behaviours, implied to be the (very much intended) , legacy of the early colonial blending of native hominids and the caretaker aliens. From the vantage of 2021, this feels a little queasy, if clearly well-intentioned: it’s like watching someone try to argue their way out of the structures of racism, but using only the master’s tools in their attempt to dismantle the master’s house. The unintentional irony of a savage indictment of colonialism which is framed by a megahistory of earth as a benevolent colonial project intended to ensure the right mixtures of genetics and behaviour is… well, I don’t think it would float in the current publishing landscape, outside of the presses for whom toying with outdated ideas has become something of a badge of “anti-woke” pride and defiance. To be totally clear, with this book Lessing was on the right side of history in her own time; if anything, Shikasta should probably seen as stridently progressive in its own temporal context. But it also serves as something of a yardstick for how much change there has been in how we think about these issues.

That manifests in another way, namely her portrayal of the practice of politics. For reasons well-known to anyone with even a passing familiarity with Lessing’s personal history, Shikasta is informed by her fervent rejection and ridicule of post-war organised leftism, here portrayed as a caricature of empty factional posturing and the ritual exchange of shibboleths that, in some respects, wouldn’t feel out of place in contemporary neoreactionary and conservative polemic. To be fair, fascism and capitalism and colonialism do not get any favourable coverage in Shikasta—far from it!—but nor do they get as much time on the stage. Rather, they are positioned as the backdrop, the perpetuation of Shammatean corruption and degeneration: an ever-more-chaotic context against which left activism throws shapes and spouts empty phrases that merely recapitulate and perpetuate the individualist mores of capital. But given Lessing’s experience, and further given the terror and turbulence of the Seventies, the caricature surely has some root of truth in it; indeed, there are still some leftists like this today, as a quick visit to the birdsite will ably confirm, and probably always will be.

But at the same time, the differences in contemporary left thinking—shaped, no doubt, by the increasing normalisation of post-colonial and intersectional thinking, and the internalisation of the postmodern rejection of grand projects of top-down liberation through force, framed in an increased awareness (and critique) of history and historiography—are thrown into relief by these caricatures. Things are far from perfect, to be clear, but in a period of prevailing left melancholia, it is oddly reassuring to see that lessons have been learned over the course of my own lifetime. Not yet enough, and not yet so thoroughly as is needful, perhaps… but nonetheless, it’s plain that four decades ago, the general grasp of sociohistorical dynamics in general, regardless of political alignment, was considerably cruder than it is at present. (Contemporary denial of these dynamics, while frustrating and damaging, is in effect a testament to the way that they’ve invaded the discourse.)

So, yes: an interesting (if very of-its-period) big picture story, told mostly through the experiences and observed actions of one Canopean agent incarnated as human, like some latter-day Christ. And therein lies my biggest gripe, from a purely literary perspective—or rather from a paraliterary perspective.I’m long past the stage of special pleading for genre-qua-genre, but Shikasta is a very clear demonstration of the extent to which a literary writer who decides to play in the speculative sandbox will often find themselves either reinventing the wheel in terms of technique, or—if you’ll excuse the overextension of the metaphor—relying on sledge-runners because they’ve never seen a wheel deployed effectively.

The first quarter of the book is basically one huge cascade of as-you-know-Bob, in which Johor (the Canopean who will later incarnate as George Sherban) rambles on about his first missions to Shikasta/Earth, back in the days of the impending misalignment of cosmic whatever-it-is, explicitly for an audience of other Canopeans who have at least a passing familiarity with the topic… but in which he steadfastly declines to use Shikastan names for places. This deliberate omission continues in other Canopean-drafted interjections all through the book, with the result that not long after you’ve had the minor piecing-it-together pleasure of working out that “the Isolated Northern Continent” is North America, and “the Northwest Fringes” are Western Europe, you’re rolling your eyes at what has become willful obscurantism that isn’t even justified by the narrative frame. Or, more plainly: if you were writing a history of the C20th for other members of your benevolent colonial empire, in which said empire had spent literal millennia being intimately involved as it attempted to prevent things going too tits-up, and you were doing so at the ridiculous lengths implied by the framings of these archival excerpts and “suggested further reading” links, you would surely have started using the native placenames for your own convenience as much as for the reader’s. (As I’ve already used a few terms from the Turkey City Lexicon, I might as well identify this as an unusual variant on “calling a rabbit a smeerp”.)

Things are much improved once Johor/George gets incarnated, because from then on events are mostly recounted through the epistolary or journalistic point-of-view of characters around him. (Johor-as-George doesn’t get to narrate himself, perhaps to avoid showing off his awareness of his being-in-mufti and his precognitive abilities.) Lessing’s superpower was always character through voice, and so the actual human narrators are variously vivid, tragic and infuriating (or some mixture of all three). The continued insertion of Canopean reports on particular subjects or people, meanwhile, seem to use a sort of polite incomprehension as a proxy for the alien positionality, which (as noted above) becomes frustrating and a little absurd after you’ve considered how long they’ve been involved with their accidentally and tragically botched colony… and it’s perhaps this issue of technique that really drew my attention to the unintentional irony of a critique of colonialism written from the perspective of benevolent alien colonisers. (Of course, we can’t help reproducing the ideologies in which we are embedded—that’s what makes them ideologies—so I don’t mean to rag on Lessing here; I just think it’s a really striking illustration of that phenomenon, made all the more particular by the lack of the standard sf-nal narrative toolkit.)

If you’re willing to take the annihilation of the majority of humanity in mutual all-out war on a ravaged planet, followed by the survival and return-to-harmonious-living of small enclaves of the formerly institutionalised and/or downtrodden, as a just desert—and given the catalogue of human failings and sufferings that Lessing stuffs into this book, I have to presume she was—then there’s a happy ending here, of sorts. On that basis, one might level an accusation of Malthusian dystopia at her, and there’s definitely some of that in the mix—again, this is a book of the mid-to-late-Seventies! But my feeling is that Lessing’s less concerned about the raw numbers of population than the inherently fallen or “degenerate” nature of the humans that make up those numbers. Interesting, though, that the cause of that fallenness is posited as a combination of cosmic misfortune (quite literally the wrong planet in the wrong place at the wrong time), and the meddling of a black-hat empire whose portrayal is so glancing a caricature of evil that it makes Frank Herbert’s House Harkonnen look like a a longitudinal sociological study into the unintentional reproduction of emotional damage and cruelty. In other words, it’s a very religious, and indeed quite a Christian way of looking at humanity’s original sin… which again brings us back to that Seventies surge of alternate belief systems, as people searched for a new prime mover on which to hang a re-badged but nonetheless comfortingly familiar moral-teleological system.

(It occurs to me that the Shammat caricature is so thin, so much like a pantomime villain forever off-stage, that one might very easily do for Shikasta what Kirill Eskov’s The Last Ringbearer did for Tolkein’s Lord of the Rings… though it’s not such an interesting proposition that I actually fancy writing it, and I dare say it would be a pretty hard sell even if you did. But if you like the idea, go for it—just credit me with the idea when you collect your Hugo, OK?)

All that aside, an interesting and unusual read–and the sort of thing that I’d probably have fallen for very hard as a younger reader, particularly during my own Graham Hancock/von Däniken phase. I had some hope that this first volume of a five-book series might just be setting the stage for further adventures in the utopian future of Shikasta/Earth, but a friend who’s familiar with it tells me that Lessing uses the other books to trundle off into more distant corners of her imagined universe, and into escalating levels of New Age weirdness and woo… which might be fun some day, but it’s not what I’m looking for right now.

Keep calm and carry on: Shute (1957), On the Beach

“No imagination whatsoever,” remarked the scientist. “It’s the same with all you service people. ‘That can’t happen to me’.” He paused. “But it can. And it certainly will.”

“I suppose I haven’t got any imagination,” said Peter thoughtfully. “It’s—it’s the end of the world. I’ve never had to imagine anything like that before.”

p89

Shute is one of those authors that I’ve always been aware of. He was part of the canon when I was doing my GCSEs at private school—for reasons that, in light of On the Beach, are now very obvious—and I’m pretty sure we read A Town Called Alice for GCSE study, though it’s remarkable that I can remember almost nothing about the book beyond its title.

(It may seem a strange thing for a writer to say, but I frequently bounced very hard off of the assigned Eng Lit texts at school, despite being an enthusiastic reader outside of the curriculum. This was less to do with the critical analysis that always seems to get blamed for putting kids off literature, and more to do with the books themselves seeming boring—perhaps because a thirteen-year-old is not in the best position to appreciate the subtle nuances of angst as portrayed in the bourgeois novel, no matter how notionally or aspirationally bourgeois their upbringing and circumstances. But why generalise? All I can say for certain is that I found a lot of it to be tedious tosh, taking up valuable time that could have been spent on Terry Pratchett, David Eddings or the endless unspooling of the Dragonlance franchise novels, which was about the extent of my sophistication at the time. I found Shakespeare to be a mixed bag, too. It probably comes as no surprise that a class privately-schooled of teenage boys loved Macbeth, me included—and our teacher had the savvy and the guts to show us the Polanski movie when we’d finished the play, which was memorable to say the least—but The Merchant of Venice went way over my head, perhaps because of a studious avoidance of the topic of antisemitism in that and every other subject taught at the school, history included. Selah. I should really read Shakespeare properly as an adult, I suppose. That might be a good project for a summer.)

Anyway: digressions upon unsuccessful educational tastemaking aside, I’ve long felt I should probably read some Shute, if only because he counts among the surprisingly generous list of authors that Portsmouth can claim among its famous sons, even if the majority of them, from Dickens onwards, made a point of getting the hell out of the town as soon as the opportunity presented itself. Shute was involved in aircraft engineering projects between the world wars, and ended up in special weapons development with the Royal Navy during the latter conflict, after which he emigrated to Australia, where many of his novels are set, On The Beach among them. What makes OTB unusual is its being set somewhat ahead of the time of its writing; I’ve seen it described as Shute’s “science fiction” novel, but that would really be to do both Shute and sf a simultaneous disservice. It does, however, share something with what Brian Aldiss famously dubbed the “cozy catastrophes” of John Wyndham and others—perhaps more so than the canonical examples of the category.

For Aldiss the cozy catastrophe was a novel of disaster and/or apocalypse in which “the hero should have a pretty good time (a girl, free suites at the Savoy, automobiles for the taking) while everyone else is dying off”; OTB, very much a novel of disaster and/or apocalypse, is thus notable for the fact that while its protagonists might have all of these things, they actually indulge in relatively few of them, or even actively decline and resist them. In the less-often-quoted part of Aldiss’s diss, he observes that the cozies were “anxiety fantasies” whose popularity was rooted in the ongoing fall of the British Empire—and in this sense OTB is perhaps the coziest catastrophe of them all, perhaps because written by someone very much on the side of that collapsing (or rather, as we now understand, already collapsed) empire, while Wyndham et al were a little more critical of it.

Enough preamble. The plot is pretty simple: at some unspecified date, which we might guess to be the mid-1960s, a multilateral international exchange of nuclear weapons has wiped out the entire northern hemisphere. Due to certain aspects of meteorological physics—the scientific veracity of which I am inclined to doubt, but leave that aside—the lethal fall-out and contamination is slowly and steadily making its way over the equator and into the southern hemisphere over the course of the year after the conflict itself, creeping steadily toward the Antarctic in a predictable and unhurried fashion. Our focal characters—for this is a book written in the now less fashionable omniscient third-person mode—are based in the Australian city of Melbourne, and are drawn mostly from the naval officer and landed gentry class. Most are citizens of what at the time was still considered a colony of the British Empire (to the extent that, at one point, the naval officers refer to themselves as British rather than Australian), though the closest thing to a central protagonist is a USian submarine captain, Dwight Towers, whose boat somehow avoided the nuclear war and ended up in the antipodes. The novel follows the characters as they go about the work of trying to keep the aspidistra flying in the face of a doom which is never in any serious doubt at any point: the war happened, the north is a wasteland devoid of human life, and the fallout is coming.

And for the most part, maintaining an increasingly absurd normality in the face of their impending deaths exactly what they do for the whole damned book, which is basically a paean to the imperial stiff upper lip, and to the not-unrelated sang froide and emotional discipline of naval officers in general—a behavioural stereotype which, as Shute would likely have claimed with pride, was quintessentially British in origin (and, as Shute might not have claimed, is about as close as you can get to a reification of the British class divide as seen from the vantage of the upper half thereof).

So, a cozy catastrophe in many regards, albeit absent any obvious sfnal trope playing the role of concretised metaphor. Though of course the concretised metaphor is there all along, at least for a modern reader: the nuclear war and its fallout, while almost certainly representing nothing-but-itself on one level, is also figuring the erasure of the world that empire(s) made thanks to the failure to sustain said empire(s). This is made very clear in a number of passages, notably this one near the end, in which Commander Peter Holmes explains to his wife Mary, as they both experience the escalating symptoms of radiation sickness:

“Newspapers,” he said. “You could have done something with newspapers. We didn’t do it. No nation did, because we were all too silly. We liked our newspapers with pictures of beach girls and headlines about cases of indecent assault, and no Government was wise enough to stop us having them that way. But something might have been done with newspapers, if we’d been wise enough.”

She did not fully comprehend his reasoning. “I’m glad we haven’t got newspapers now,” she said. “It’s been so much nicer without them.”

p302

(Shortly afterward this passage, as they prepare to take their suicide capsules, Mary exhorts Peter not to forget to turn off the electricity at the mains. At this point I was tempted to wonder if I’d been misreading all along, and perhaps OTB was a satire… but no, no it is not.)

Earlier in the book, a discussion between other navy types reveals that it is assumed that the international exchange of nukes was kicked off by (of all things) the Egyptian airforce deciding to drop one on New York, resulting in a cascade of assumed-enemy-identification that sees the US and Russia going full defcon-1 at one another, followed by the Chinese pitching in at Russia—or is it the other way round?— in the hope of depopulating some potentially useful territory for later; the cascade is apparently sustained by the early wipe-out of military top-brass on all sides, with strategic and tactical decisions thus falling to more junior (and hence inadequate-to-situation) officers. “Ah, a lament upon the tragic foolishness of nuclear weapons, then”, you might be thinking—but you couldn’t be more wrong. The error was not nukes themselves, you see, but rather the post-imperial error of allowing little tinpot nations to have them, not to mention peddling them military hardware that they just weren’t capable of playing with like the adults.

The premise is thus profoundly reactionary, and that sense of it being an artefact of a (gratefully) bygone era is maintained by the dialogue, which is full of stiff British archaisms, the tonal shibboleths of the last generation of the old officer class; it feels almost parodic, though it was clearly written with complete sincerity.

The action, such as it is, is likewise a stiff conservative fantasy of going out with dignity, with the last representatives of Anglo civilisation keeping up appearances and sustaining the rituals as the clock runs relentlessly down. Towers’s submarine, tacitly seconded to the Royal Navy on the basis that there is no other command structure to fit into any more, is despatched first on a short recce of Australian ports further north, which the fallout has already reached—conclusion: nothing’s moving, everyone’s dead—and later on a grand tour of major population ports in and around the North American landmass, with a particular focus on Seattle, from whence a sporadic and unexplained morse transmission has occasionally been received. On investigation, this is of course an unmanned comms station with its generators still running, the morse key being periodically nudged by a loose window frame. While in the area, one submariner for whom it was once home goes AWOL, and is later seen to have commandeered a motor launch, in order to get one last day of fishing in his home town at the expense of shortening his life expectancy by a few months. This is disapproved of, but—in a gentlemanly way—left unpunished.

(I feel this is the strangest note in the book, in that there was the opportunity here to contrast, favourably or otherwise, the officers’ dutiful sustaining of order and routine with the more wilful fuck-it-life’s-too-short attitude of the boys below decks… but it’s just kind of shrugged off as one of those things. I mean, sure, what punishment could you administer that a) didn’t involve getting his rad-soaked body back onto the boat, and b) would be any more horrific than leaving the guy to die from the radiation poisoning, just a few months before everyone else got to go the same way? But nonetheless, it feels tonally very strange to me, even within the context of a novel whose overall tone is buttoned up tighter than a colonel’s uniform. The same applies to the passage quoted at the top of this piece, which again suggests an awareness on Shute’s part, through his proxies on the page, that there’s something almost pathological about the refusal to think things through, but accompanied by the seeming assumption that the pathology is a worthy and noble one. And, now I come to phrase it like that, I suppose it’s something of a piece with the imperial-hauntological attitudes underlying Recent Political Events In Britain. Hmm.)

Once back in Melbourne, Towers’s boat—and indeed pretty much all substantive operations, naval or otherwise—is laid up, and he joins in with the general winding down of all things, which is where we start to get the full conservative cozy experience. To be clear, some folk are going off the rails: the streets of Melbourne are furnished with people spending the whole of their last months of life drunk, but they are mentioned only in passing, as if to illustrate the patrician generosity of the officer class in letting them indulge their weakness in the face of annihilation. (The old boys at the gentlemen’s club, making their steady way through the sherry cellar, are viewed with something close to approval; they’re getting on a bit, after all, they’ve earned it.) But mostly it’s a crescendo of extreme normality, with farmers fixing hedges and ploughing fields, new mothers planning next year’s flower borders, a vein-popping clutch at the pearls of continuity. That said, it’s not denial, at least not on the part of the chaps—here’s Holmes, indulging his wife’s insistence that they should really get a lawnmower:

She lived in the dream world of unreality, or else she would not admit reality; he did not know. In any case, he lover her as she was. It might never be used, but it would give her pleasure to have it.

p261

The closest thing to a counterpoint to all this is Moira, a young woman who, at the beginning of the novel, is implied to have been not just drinking relentlessly but shagging any man who will lay still for long enough, but who throughout the book—after having encountered the stolid practicality of Captain Towers, with his calmly sustained refusal to internalise the annihilation of his wife and children in a navy town back in the States, and naturally fallen head over heels for the chap who doesn’t want to sleep with her—gradually cleans up her act and adopts the appropriate stiff upper lip, right to the point of driving out to a headland beyond the city, incipient radiation sickness symptoms be damned, so she can wave goodbye to Towers as he sails off into the sunset to scuttle his boat and go down at the helm. The final weeks do feature some devil-may-care behaviour from various chaps, much of it revolving around a motor race standing in for a barely sublimated death drive: much more manly to mangle yourself and others in a pile of twisted metal at 100mph than to wait for the inevitable arrival of the radiation, to which you can’t even raise your fists! But otherwise it’s wall-to-wall keep calm and carry on, utterly devoid of irony, right to the end, fade to black.

As is presumably obvious, I found it absurd, risible and quite infuriating. It was interesting read from a technical perspective; as mentioned, few folk write in third-person omniscient these days, perhaps because it’s hard to do well without losing the reader (Gwyneth Jones is the only exemplar of this approach that leaps to my mind, though perhaps it’s more common outside the walls of genre?), and I feel I learned a few things about how to keep the reader on track during transitions from one POV to another without the use of line breaks or paragraphs. It’s also, as I hope I have shown, a fascinating work from a historical perspective: not even seventy years old, it feels like something from a far more distant epoch, though that sense of the alien can perhaps be ascribed to my own political positionality as the reader as much as to Shute’s as the author. I don’t regret reading it—life is too short for finishing books you can’t be bothered with, and frankly I’d rather rage-read something that pushes all the wrong buttons than plod through with something bland and unprovocative—but I doubt I’ll read it again.

I doubt I’ll be reading A Town Called Alice, either.

Experts in their own tomorrows: Placemaking for participatory climate futures

I get published, y’know? Here’s one that didn’t get a mention when it first dropped, because… well, because January, to be honest.

Sadly I can’t just send you to read the thing directly, either—because the thing in question is a chapter in the new Routledge Handbook of Placemaking (edited by Cara Courage, with Tom Borrup, Maria Rosario Jackson, Kylie Legge, Anita Mckeown, Louise Platt, and Jason Schupbach) and Routledge Handbooks do not (to my knowledge) ever go open access. And I’m sure Routledge will take it on the chin if I use my academic freedom of expression to point out that their Handbooks are not cheap, either… though they do make up very nice promotional flyers, like this one below, and if you click through on this link (or the one above, or on the image of the flyer) and use the code SMA02 at checkout, you can get it at 20% off the list price.

It’s one chonky volume! Here’s the official marketing blurb:

This Handbook is the first to explore the field of placemaking in terms of the recent research, teaching and learning, and practice agenda for the next few years. Offering valuable theoretical and practical insights from the leading scholars and practitioners in the field, it provides cutting edge interdisciplinary research on the placemaking sector.

Placemaking has seen a paradigmatic shift in urban design, planning and policy to engage the community voice, This Handbook examines the development of placemaking, its emerging theories, and its future directions.

So perhaps your institution or organisation would be interested in making the investment? My guess is that, if you’re at all familiar with the term “placemaking” already, you might actually find this wide-ranging, critical and timely collection of essays to be of considerable utility and interest!* Perhaps you’re an academic in a discipline adjacent to planning, urbanism, or the more social/human ends of geography or sociology? Perhaps you work in local government, or in the consulting sector, around issues of redevelopment, social inclusion or neighbourhood identity? Or perhaps you’re involved in social practice arts, whether as a practitioner or a commissioner or a funder?

If you are any of those things, then the question of what placemaking is and has been, but also the question of what placemaking might yet be, is potentially relevant to you. Put it this way: I’m a scholar of climate futures and theorist of sociotechnical change, and what I learned about (and from) placemaking theory and practice truly revolutionised the way I think about my work—and indeed influenced the design of my current project.

(Admittedly the placemaking aspects of my current project are completely on hold due to prevailing pandemic suppression measures, but the point remains: if you’ve ever wondered what a collision between critical ethnography, action research, design futures interventions and contemporary arts practice might look like, then placemaking—and this book about it—can provide some answers.)

My chapter is titled “Experts in their own tomorrows: Placemaking for participatory climate futures”; given that abstracts don’t end up in this sort of handbook, I guess I can just share the one I wrote with you here, can’t I?

This chapter is concerned with the potential of placemaking for catalysing community adaptation to a climate-changed future, and with how researchers might support placemaking practitioners in that work.

The first section discusses the unfolding climate crisis as an urgent mandate for the reconfiguration of sociotechnical practices, and describes one way in which we might conceptualise and model those everyday activities in terms of their tangible and intangible elements.

The second section argues that placemaking might be seen as a methodology for extending that model into futurity, thus allowing for the extrapolative exploration of reconfigurations. This positions placemaking as a living laboratory for the participatory production of new practices, as well as for the reconstitution of the places in which those practices are situated.

The final section asks what might be offered to placemaking by researchers concerned with the sociotechnical transformations mandated by the climate crisis, whether in terms of theory or practice. What knowledges might we provide to make the consequences of a changing climate situated and legible for communities and placemaking practitioners? How might we better analyse and describe the relationships between the abstract of complex infrastructural systems and the concrete of local ways of life? And what arguments might we make to encourage placemaking, and integrate it into the greater project of adapting to the anthropocene?

But there’s much more than just my five-dollar-words malarkey in there; click on through for a look at the TOC and the structure. Seven sections! Forty-five chapters! The biggest names in social practice arts and scholarship! It’s a landmark publication, and I’m privileged and humbled to have been a part of it.

If you really can’t afford a copy—and hell knows I would sympathise with that—but you nonetheless think you’d like to read my chapter, and have a good professional and/or academic reason for doing so, well, drop me a line. Maybe we can work something out! But otherwise, please hassle your institutional or organisational library to order a copy; it ain’t cheap, but if you know the field, I dare say you’ll get the money’s worth. Plus it’s probably tax-deductible!

[ * — See, I could have been a copywriter. Maybe if I hadn’t gotten mixed up in this academic stuff? But I think copywriting is probably better off for my absence, on balance. As to whether the academy is better off for my presence, well, that hypothesis is still undergoing experimental evaluation… watch this space, wot? ]

science fiction / social theory / infrastructural change / utopian narratology