Tag Archives: critical utopia

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.

(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.

declining the unearned luxury of despair

Maria Farrell at Crooked Timber:

Our era is drenched in narrative. From the beguiling flame spiral of neoliberalism’s end of ‘grand narratives’, to Trump’s three and four word (lock her up / maga) ultra-short stories of destruction, to our helpless fascination with the far right’s ability to govern by unverified sound-bite, to the fact that every shitty little marketer on the Internet now calls themselves a ‘storyteller’; story has eaten the world.

Our preferred form of storytelling is so obsessed with endings that we’re convinced we’re ring-side at the biggest, baddest, worst ending ever – that of the centuries of Reason and their faithful but unfortunately carbon-emitting Engines of Progress. We love endings, revere protagonists, and not so secretly long for their mutual culmination in a fiery end of glorious and gorgeously terminal self-actualisation. Our whole mode of future-imagining is a death cult. We literally cannot imagine the world after us.

So, in the medium-term, I’m working on a book-shaped thing about how we use story to actively imagine and build better futures than the nihilistic inevitabilism currently on offer (especially from Big Tech.) It’s currently got a LOT in the mix – from how my abusive convent boarding school revealed the intimate relation between privacy and power, to how the English state’s origin stories that justify state coercion and soften the peasants up for perpetual violence (Leviathan, Lord of the Flies) are historically and culturally contingent cries for help. All that stuff shows how the stories we mindlessly reach for to understand how the world works operate as gate-keepers of possibility and crushers of hope.

The first commenter makes a fair point, albeit in a somewhat uncharitable way, by asking “when was it ever not so?”—I’ve argued before that narrative is the operating system of human culture, perhaps even the ur-technology, and as such it’s perhaps less that “story has eaten the world” and more that “story has been optimised and weaponised (by capital and its death-cult priesthood)”; I signed up a while ago to new journal-paper alerts for a bunch of communication science (read as “marketing voodoo”) journals, just to remind myself of the stakes and what we’re up against. (Also to provide some amount of fuel for the fire: as John Lydon put it, “anger is an energy”). But that observation doesn’t negate Farrell’s point—and I find it interesting that we have the boarding school experience in common as the crucible in which the hypocrisy and gaslighting of power was revealed to us early on.

Farrell goes on to outline her forthcoming book-shaped-project a bit more, and the threads will seem familiar to anyone who’s been reading along here for a while: critical utopianism avant la lettre, basically. It’s nice to know someone else is running on a parallel track… though I’m disappointed that Farrell doesn’t seem to have any other regular outlet for her writings beyond CT, as I’d like to follow along. Maybe she just prefers to develop her ideas in private.

I’ve not been very public myself of late, to be fair. I’ve been pretty quiet here after the outpourings of the summer, which is as much due to the sudden busyness of actual full-time office-hours employment as anything else—though there’s some of my customary season-shift malaise in the mix, also. The autumn equinox always sees this child of the summer go through something of a physical and emotional slump, and while I’m not that much further north than I was before, the seasons seem to turn very fast here in southern Sweden… and the shift in available daylight has been underscored by a shift to dull overcast weather, which compounds the vibes. I’m finding concentration something of a fight, and by using my climbing time as a measure of my physical condition, I’m clearly not running at 100%: it’s like I’ve dropped two or three grades in the space of a week (though a straw poll of other climbers at the same place suggests that part of the problem may be some extremely sandbaggy post-summer route-setting).

I’m a bit all over the shop emotionally as well, though that too seems a reasonable response to the circumstances: I’m reading as little current-events news out of the Anglosphere as I can get away with, but the bleakness and slo-mo-car-crash vibes out of the UK and US is strong enough that it only takes a few drops to bring me down and stoke up the survivor guilt. (I also think that the panicked and reactive tenor of the discourse—a message very much shaped by its medium—is only advantaging the death-cult, but making that point feels increasingly like remonstrating with a junkie who believes that they’ll never OD.) But the way out is through, individually as well as collectively—so I’m doing my best to put the anger and the angst to good use, and use it as fuel for the work.

Which is probably why Farrell’s post resonated with me so much. Here’s her closing shot:

The very least I personally can do as someone who knows a lot about tech and also, increasingly, something about storytelling, is offer ways to resist these bullshit framings and signal the way to spaces and possibilities that people better than me can build.

That’s my life’s work. I’m forty-eight and it’s just in the last year or two taken shape. All endings are beginnings and this is a moment when I feel we each need to figure out what we do in service of those who’ll come after us into this messed up world. I don’t think despair is an option; I think it’s an unearned luxury. But for some of us at this moment the life’s work may be simply to survive, to endure, and that has to be ok, too. It’s a marathon, not a sprint. Actually it’s more of a relay race. Actually it’s not a race at all.

I recognise that sense of having found the thing that I need to do—not, to be clear, the sense that I can “save the world”, but the sense that I now know where and how I might push to contribute to the possibility of making a change. I remember something Deb Chachra said to me a while back, about how we people now in our forties should really be preparing to pass our power and authority on to the next generation coming up, but instead we’re stuck with trying to prise that power out of the death-grip of the Boomers… and I recognise Farrell’s identification of despair as an unearned luxury, perhaps because I’m crushingly aware of how I squandered my privileges as an adolescent.

So it’s time to pay it back, or rather pay it forward. It’s very possible that my efforts will amount to little, or even less—and of course the opportunity to make that effort is itself a privilege comprising unearned luck as much as (if not far more than) applied hustle. The only rational utility of privilege is to expend in it trying to make a world where privilege counts for less than it did when you started: just as the critical utopia takes the difficult and contingent path between the Scylla of dystopia and the Charybdis of solutionism, I have to find a path between Farrell’s unearned despair and sense of futility on the one hand, and switching off and fiddling while the world burns on the other. That I even have the bandwidth to do anything more than hang on for dear life is an indication that to do more is, in effect, my duty.

Perhaps that’s just another manifestation of my narcissism, I don’t know. But as an old roommate used to say, you’ve got to be able to get up in the morning and not want to punch the face you see in the mirror.

Selah—onwards.

some notes on Martin Parker’s managerial heroisms

There’s a lot of good stuff in this piece by Martin Parker at Aeon—hell, anyone who wrote a book titled Shut Down the Business School has gotta be on my side of the fence, right?—but it takes a problematic turn at the end that I think is worth digging into. Let’s start with the good stuff: after a reference to Moorcock’s “Epic Pooh” essay and a look at “fantasy futurisms” a la Silicon Valley, we take a turn into etymology, which is always and forever my jam. The word in the frame is management

The London Encyclopaedia (1829) has an entry for ‘Manage’, which suggests that it is:

an obsolete synonyme of management, which signifies, guidance; administration; and particularly able or prudent administration of affairs: managery is another (deservedly obsolete) synonyme of this signification: manageable is tractable; easy to be managed.

This sense of management as coping, as dealing with a particular state of affairs, is still passable in everyday English. You might ask ‘How are you managing?’ if someone has told you about some problem they face. To organise complex matters, to arrange people and things, to be resilient in the face of adversity, now that requires managery. This second meaning, not distinct but different in emphasis, emerges in the 19th century with the class of people called ‘managers’. These managers do management. And as this occupational group grows throughout the 20th century, driven by the growth of the capitalist corporation, so the business school expands to train them.

At the present time, that sense of managing as the art of ‘organising’ to cope with challenges is largely obscured by the idea of the manager as someone who helps to create financial value for organisations, whether they operate in state-engineered pseudo-markets, or the carbon-max madness of global trade. This means that questions about what sort of future human beings might create tend to be limited by the horizon of the management strategies of market capitalism. This version of the future isn’t about radical discontinuity at all, just an intensification of the business practices that promise to give us Amazon Prime by drone at the same time that the real Amazon burns. This is what they teach in business schools – how to keep calm and carry on doing capitalism. But the problems we face now are considerably bigger than a business school case study, so is it possible to rescue managery from management?

Lot of interesting semantic slippage there; OK. Now, back to the B-school heroism—Parker’s term, and I’m highlighting it deliberately—of the Lords of the Valley, and the futures they produce:

In the hands of technology entrepreneurs, driven by the imperatives of shareholder value and richer even than the robber barons of a century ago, the future has been displaced into the soma of fantasy, colonised by people who want you to pay a subscription for an app that helps you sleep, a delivery service that allows you to stay indoors when it’s wet out, or a phone that switches on the heated seats in your car before you leave home. This is a future of sorts, but it’s a business school version in which everything is pretty much the same, just a bit smarter and more profitable. It’s being sold to us in adverts at the cinema and in pop-ups on our screens, as if it were the real future, but it’s not. For something to count as the future, for innovation to be as inspiring as the Eiffel Tower, Apollo or Concorde, it must promise something that has never been before. It must be a rupture, a break in the ordinary series of events that produces a future that is altered in profound ways, and something on the horizon that is unknowable, but different.

This is the paragraph where Parker and I start to part ways, because he proposes to replace the new (B-school) heroism with an older heroism. Now, I’ll concede that there was a lot more substance to the heroic projects he mentions than can be found in apps for tracking your poop or getting someone else to do your laundry, but they came with their own problems. The Apollo programme is a fine case in point, and to his credit Parker notes critiques contemporary to the project as well as more recent ones. But there’s nonetheless an attempt to have the old cake and eat it, here—an attempt to disconnect that old (and, on the basis of the chosen examples, tellingly phallic and thrusting) heroism from the current iteration.

Parker goes next to Nye’s technological sublime, and uses it as a figure for an inspirational and national-pride-stoking modernity, the concretisation of change—which it was, of course. But there are two sides to that technological utopianism, and we’re living in the torsions of its dialectical working-out right now. Sure, New Deal economics, NASA as a state-run project of unprecedented scale; all good stuff. But recall its primary motivation, behind the aspirational rhetorics, as a pissing context with the USSR. Yes, OK, “Apollo was also one of the iconic moments of the 20th century, and inspired feelings of admiring wonder among millions of people that still resonate half a century later”—but while my as-yet short tenure in Sweden has shown me that “technocratic” doesn’t have to be a dirty word, Parker’s rehabilitation of management with Apollo et al as a model, while well intended, is veering toward the same sort of place that Neal Stephenson went with Project Hieroglyph… which is to say, back to the technoutopian modality manifest (not at all coincidentally) in both Apollo and the golden age of sf. You’ve heard this line of reasoning before, I’m sure: “things were better back in the day; we used to build more big stuff back then; therefore maybe if we built more big stuff, things would be better again?” Well, maybe—but better for whom, exactly, and better how?

Regular readers will know that the technological utopia is not where I think we need to be going. The reason why pops up as Parker closes out the piece, which starts out just fine:

… what I do want to rescue is the sense that the future can be different: the sense that science-fiction writers have always had that yesterday and tomorrow don’t need to be the same. Capitalism has captured the future, and is now commodifying it and selling it back to us as gizmos and widgets, or else distracting us with fantasy – defined by its refusal to engage in realism or real problems. As the literary critic Fredric Jameson said in 2003, or rather said that someone else said, ‘it is easier to imagine the end of the world than to imagine the end of capitalism.’

Yeah, I’m with you. But it’s the question of what exactly should be different about that future that matters—so what is the thread that connects Apollo and Farcebook, the worm in the apple of both? We mentioned it earlier, but here it is again:

Now, more than ever, we need these stories about the future. Not the cityscape lensflare adverts in which we all have friends and lives that play to a soundtrack of Coldplay-lite thanks to our oh-so-very-smart telephones, and the sort of marketing taught in business schools. We need real futures, stories about radical changes that we’ll all be making in order to build the world differently. Deserts covered in solar panels, food made from algae grown in space, underground distribution systems that bring us what we need so that our roads can become parks for children to play in. These futures need to co-opt stories as compelling as those being told by Marvel and Samsung – not puritan warnings about what you can’t have, but pictures of lives that are rich and full, in which people can be heroes and you have nice things to eat.

No, no, no—we can’t all be heroes. That‘s the thread, that‘s the worm, as Saint Donna and Le Guin have made very clear. Totally agree on the refusal of puritanism, but heroism is not the solution to that; as Parker himself noted above, heroism is just as much a feature of the managerial masculinities of the Apollo program as of the Valleybros. And how are “[d]eserts covered in solar panels, food made from algae grown in space” distinct from the “cityscape lensflare adverts” that we’re dismissing here? In my experience, the former are the handwavium solutionist infrastructures that will supposedly make the latter feasible without anyone changing anything they already do; further externalisations of production and extraction, colonial enterprises, a continuation of capitalism, just, y’know *waves hand* over there, somewhere?

I’m all for a future where our kids play in the parks that we made from the motorways—but that future needs fewer heroes, fewer charismatic megaprojects, fewer technological “solutions”. It’s only by refusing the possibility of heroism that we may make the space for an appreciation of those who carry the cooking utensils, farm the crops, clean the latrines; Apollo-era modernism consolidated the process of hiding those roles behind the technological sublimity of infrastructure, and the application-mediation of the techbros is a continuation of that process of obfuscation and effacement, just at a different strata of the metasystemic apparatus. Etymology is not enough: managery remains trapped in the heroic figure of the manager. It’s not enough to close the B-schools; you’ve got to run the priesthood out of town, too.

Capitalism is an ideology of heroism; just listen to the valorisation of “wealth creators” if you (still) need the proof. We can’t arrest the former by creating more of the latter; the hero is contrary to collective effort. Our utopias must be not technological, but critical.

necessary but not sufficient; on hope and optimism in solarpunk and cyberpunk

Start with a disclaimer: I do not identify as a solarpunk. However, I do know some folk who do—most notably m’good buddy Jay Springett, who is one of that scene’s ideologues-in-chief, in as much as it has such things.

I also know some folk who study solarpunk from the perspective of the environmental humanities (EH), which is a discipline which overlaps somewhat with whatever the hell it is that counts for my own (un)discipline. For me (and I think for some of the EH people), solarpunk represents a predominantly (though, as Jay would point out, not at all exclusively) literary attempt to construct utopian imaginaries of climate-change adaptation achieved predominantly through the deployment of non-fossil energy generation technologies, plus a grab-bag of sociopolitical approaches which range from the full tech-bro-topia, to something that looks a lot like a form of degrowth as forced by an apocalyptic and out-of-frame climate Event. Heretofore, solarpunk has struggled to establish itself as a successful subgenre in commercial terms—though I am given to understand this is not really the point of it for “movement solarpunks”.

Part of the problem is that the development of literary form has rendered the classical utopian mode archaic and uninteresting to anyone not predisposed to its underlying theory: put more simply, classical utopias just don’t do the things that most readers want and expect a novel to do (which, at the risk of being reductive, is to depict characters struggling against obstacles to achieve goals, often in some derivation of the Hero’s Journey or similar metanarratives). The technological utopian mode, which dominated sf for most of the twentieth century, still has a significant (if dwindling and greying) fanbase, but it’s founded on the notion that all challenges are soluble through predominantly technological means without significant reconfiguration of the dominant socioeconomic and political backdrop; to be reductive again, the technological utopia is about depicting the successful human mastery of nature through the dynamics of capitalist production. As I understand it, solarpunk clings to a technological-utopian ideal—it’s very much about depicting desirable futures enabled by technological means. But its tacit admission that climate change is not only caused by the consequences of technocapitalism, but also cannot be fully “solved” by it, means it can’t “fit” into the expectations of the technological utopian modality—which means it won’t sell to the grey fans of what Clute has called “the ‘old’ [or twentieth-century] sf”, in which “the future is the reward for saying ‘yes'”.

Dystopia, as any glance at the bookstore shelves—or Twitter, for that matter—still sells pretty well. There’s a long-running debate as to the ethics and morality of producing dystopic literatures in response to a challenge such as climate change that I don’t want to get into here, except to say that I’m largely in agreement with Ryan Oakley when he says “what the fuck is the point of writing dystopia if not to try to prevent it?”, and that I find Peter Watts’s wallowing in fatalism to be a great disappointment, coming as it does from someone who is both a brilliant writer and far more scientifically clued up than even the average sf author*. To be clear, I’m not in denial about the scale of the challenge—though there are days I wish that I could be, it’s a hazard of my profession, just as it is for Watts. It’s more that I suspect the climate defeatism is in a way almost as pernicious as climate denialism. With apologies for resorting to cliche: to try is to invite failure, but to not try is to ensure it.

All of which brings me to Nader Elhefnawy’s review of a new solarpunk antho at Strange Horizons. Now, to be clear, I’ve not read the book, nor indeed much solarpunk fiction; my interest here is less with the literature itself, and more the professed ideals of the movement which surround it. What first interested me about Elhefnawy’s piece was that we appear to be in agreement on the defeatism issue—Elhefnawy suggests that it’s a function of the manufacture of consent, which I suspect is at least in part true. (Though the case of Watts suggests there’s something in that particular imaginary that appeals even to those who are very aware of the scope of the climate challenge, to the extent that they will reproduce and spread it.)

Where we part ways—and where Elhefnawy, Watts and I perhaps begin to form a triangle of positions, rather than merely a binary—is in the conflation of optimism and hope. This conflation is pretty widespread, as indicated by the backlash and mockery piled upon the notion of hopepunk—which, admittedly, was a terribly corny name (though I suspect it was intended as a deliberately ironic construction, a riff perhaps upon solarpunk itself, which went on to be misparsed in the prevailing cultural vibe of the New Sincerity). But the original hopepunk pitch very clearly abjured optimism. That was the whole point: that optimism is passive (in much the same way that pessimism/defeatism is passive), but that hope is (self-)motivating, an action rather than a position: to hope for a better future is to look for ways in which you might work to bring it into being.

I’m in agreement with Elhefnawy’s insistence that reducing climate change to a singular Event in the distant past of a narrative is counterproductive to solarpunk’s supposed ideals—indeed, it’s a kind of pessimism, as well as a rejection of the fundamentally dynamic notion of ecosystems that does no favours to anyone who really wants to work for that better future. (If you assume that the climate might be “fixed” or returned to some notional idealised earlier state, by technological means or otherwise, then you’re just reproducing the social/natural dichotomy that enables the ongoing externalisation of said climate by propping up the dogma of perpetual growth.)

I also agree that there is a necessity for imaginaries which “[present] the possibility of a positive response to the problem, and acknowledging something of what it calls for—technology, organization, global scale”, as Elhefnawy puts it. But while I see those things as necessary, I do not see them as sufficient—and furthermore, I suspect that those things cannot be achieved without the smaller-scale community reconfigurations which solarpunk stories have heretofore focussed upon. That they haven’t yet done so in a manner that makes for good literature, nor often done so in a manner which recognises the linkage between the local and the global, between the individual and the systemic (which is, of course, the infrastructural metasystem), is a deficiency—but Elhefnawy’s reading suggests that some solarpunk authors are edging in that direction, albeit very gradually.

It seems to me that Elhefnawy is caught in the rubble of “the ‘old’ sf”, the literature of an older technoutopian metaimaginary: he recognises the poisonous legacy of technoutopianism (as seen in his rejection of defeatism as a fossil-sponsored narrative), but is still trapped by the legacy solutionisms of technological change and global governance as the only answer to the problem, and the route toward “the rejection of ‘the inevitability of our doom'”.

In other words, Elhefnawy seems to share at some level that same assumption that the problem can be “fixed”, when in fact the challenge is to adapt to a world in which a significant (but as yet not fully quantified or qualified) amount of environmental change is already a fait accompli. We could turn of every spigot of greenhouse gases today, and we’d still have perhaps a century or more of climate change to come, albeit change of a gradually lessening intensity. And even then, the new state into which the ecosystem settled would no be “how it was before we started with the fossils”—nor indeed would it be “settled”, as this is not how ecosystems work. They are in constant complex motion, even when seemingly in equilibrium as seen from the tiny temporal scale which our mortal monkey brains provide us. To be clear, we can—and should—still work for mitigation, and we should do so through global organisation to whatever extent that is possible. But more pressing for the vast majority of human and non-human beings on this planet is the challenge of adapting to what’s already in the pipe… and on that front, technological solutions (in the commonly-used sense of “novel” “entrepreneurial” “innovations”) and top-down governance aren’t going to do much good.

For regular readers, it will be no surprise that I think that solarpunk has the potential to be a subgenre that operatisonalises the critical-utopian mode—though whether that will necessarily make it commercially viable is another question, and perhaps to some extent beside the point. Elhefnawy’s reading suggests that the authors are not not there yet, but also that the audience isn’t quite ready for it either; while both authors and audience instinctively recognise the necessity of hope, it remains conflated with the legacy of twentieth century sf’s passive and solutionist techno-optimism.

However, I’m starting to think that the precursors of the critical-utopian modality I’m looking for have been hiding in plain sight all along, disguised by a misparsing of anything that isn’t necessarily (techno)utopian as being therefore dystopian. It’s not a fashionable thing to say in this day and age, but the better writers and writings of cyberpunk seem to me to have been grappling with the challenges of adaptation to neoliberal capitalism run amok all along (rather than celebrating it, as seems to be the prevalent critical position, at least in the more fannish ends of the critical junket); that those challenges were not always exclusively ecological-environmental is, if anything, a prop to my assumption. Think of stories like Sterling’s “Green Days in Brunei” or “Bicycle Repairman”: I’d say they’re clearly solarpunk, albeit very much avant le lettre. Or at least I see them as being what solarpunk claims it wants to be… and what it might become when it sheds the techno-optimistic legacy and sees more clearly what the challenges really are.

[ * I also find it a bit jarring that someone so very certain that the climate is hosed will still fly around the world to consultancy events to deliver his doomer prophecy… though I guess if you think there’s no chance of changing anything, then you might as well carbon-party like it’s 1999. It’s a shame; he’d be a great ally to the cause of hope, if he could bring himself to have some. ]