Tag Archives: narrative

Future fuels and fuel futures

A commendable long essay by Iwan Rhys Morus at Aeon, which should perhaps be added to the list of works that have something to say about #solarpunk, even if it isn’t talking directly to that genre-complex: it’s in part a call for an understanding of “innovation” as a collective endeavour, rather than something individual entrepreneurs (might) do (when suitably incentivised). Definitely repays reading in full, but these were the moneyshot paragraphs for me:

We have been imagining the future of energy and the worlds it will generate for more than two centuries, and the cross-fertilisation between inventors and their literary counterparts continues to shape our imaginings, more often than not by invoking a pervasive individualism. It’s as if we struggle to get away from the notion that energy technologies have a single origin point and so these origins have to be located in specific individuals. Such individualism is often accompanied by the suggestion that only one fuel, be it hydrogen, wind or solar power, will dominate our futures, real or imaginary. Just as coal and steam powered the 19th century, or oil and electricity the 20th century, our stories about future fuels assume that one principal form of energy – solar, wind, nuclear – will monopolise the future. too.

If we want to overcome these imaginative limitations, we need to rethink the sorts of stories and histories we tell about energy, its origins, and its cultures. Though we’re conditioned to see energy revolutions coming about through individual rather than community action, the danger of this narrative – seductive and potentially useful as it is – is that it presents the future and its energies as belonging to someone else. To overcome that, we need to recognise that the expertise needed to make sure that the future is powered how we want is collective.

Here Morus seems to be working in a space where my obsession with the persistently heroic nature of innovation narratives collides with my interest in using narrative writing (and in particular the tropes and tools developed for, but no longer exclusive to, science fiction literature) as a practical and interdisciplinary method for exploring and critiquing potential sociotechnical futures, whether of energy or anything else [external link to an academic paper, but it’s open access, so anyone can read it].

As an almost-but-not-quite postdoc, I’m frequently asked “what is your discipline?”, to which my usual response is “I’m not sure what it’s called, as it appears to be a discipline containing only one scholar, but I can describe it if you’ve got ten minutes to spare”; this piece points at pretty much the space where it resides, though I’m probably coming at it from somewhat more of a bastardised and interdisciplinary STS/sociological perspective than is Morus, who is a proper historian.

(Of related interest would be Karen Pinkus’s Fuel: a Speculative Dictionary, which I reviewed for New Scientist a while back.)

Ersatz moralities

It’s no coincidence that good guy/bad guy movies, comic books and games have large, impassioned and volatile fandoms – even the word ‘fandom’ suggests the idea of a nation, or kingdom. What’s more, the moral physics of these stories about superheroes fighting the good fight, or battling to save the world, does not commend genuine empowerment. The one thing the good guys teach us is that people on the other team aren’t like us. In fact, they’re so bad, and the stakes are so high, that we have to forgive every transgression by our own team in order to win.

Catherine Nichols on the false moral dichotomy of modern narrative at Aeon.

Hype cycles, heroic journeys and the wizards of innovation

I think of the Gartner Hype Cycle as a Hero’s Journey for technologies. And just like the hero’s journey, the Hype Cycle is a compelling narrative structure. When we consider many of the technologies in use today, we tend to recall that they were overhyped when they first arrived, but eventually found their way to mainstream usage. But … is that really how technologies emerge and gain adoption? After analyzing every Gartner Hype Cycle for Emerging Technology from 2000 to 2016 – all seventeen years of the post dotcom era – I’ve come to believe that the median technology doesn’t obey the Hype Cycle. We only think it does because when we recollect how technologies emerge, we’re subject to cognitive biases that distort our recollection of the past…

I normally wouldn’t link out to L*nkedIn, but on this occasion it’s worth it: a bona fide hi-tech vencap who, after crunching the actual data, reveals that technology forecasting is about as scientific as cosmic ordering, and arguably even less effective.

Not at all incidentally, the Hero’s Journey is ubiquitous in the narratives of innovation studies and corporate foresight, and dominates the discourse in sociotechnical systems research. To quote briefly from my (very nearly finished) thesis, on the matter of the innovation model known as the Multi-Level Perspective:

… the MLP is, in effect, a generic story-form that relies on pre-established permutations of certain archetypal characters, set-
tings and events. Much as with an airport thriller novel or superhero movie, you always end up with the same basic arc of plot: in the case of the MLP, that generic story is known as “transition”, and it follows the journey of a hopeful young innovation on its adventures through the sociotechnical landscape, struggling against the incumbent regime until it finally achieves the “market dominance” which was its destiny and birthright.

In other words, every new gadget is Frodo, setting out to disrupt the oppressive sociotechnical hegemon of Sauron. The corollary is that every “change agent” and “innovator” sees themselves as bloody Gandalf.

The power of narrative

… narrative is the specific form taken by a written history to counter the permanence of vision. […] Narrative asserts the the power of men [sic] to be born, develop, and die, the tendency of institutions to change, the likelihood that modernity and contemporaneity will finally overtake “classical” civilisations; above all, it asserts that the domination of reality by vision is no more than a will to power, a will to truth and interpretation, and not an objective condition of history. Narrative, in short, introduces an opposing point of view, perspective, consciousness to the unitary web of vision; it violates the serene Apollonian fictions asserted by vision.

From Orientalism by Edward W. Saïd; quote on p.240 of the 2003 Penguin edition.

Reflections

It’s nearly three weeks since I submitted my dissertation and effectively finished my Masters. This is the seventh attempt I’ve made to write about what that means. I suspect it won’t be the last, though this one is actually going to make it past the draft stage; I realise I’m hesitating, and I want to step on that habit.

So, there’s a hook: what have I learned about hesitation in the last year? I’ve learned the extent of my fears and insecurities, certainly (and it wasn’t much fun at the time), but I’ve also learned something that it feels like I’ve been waiting my whole life to learn: that the fear can be beaten.

This is a lesson more general than just writing, though. This isn’t the time or place to rake through my past like the entrails of a sacrificial goat, in search of kinked loops or lesions that might auger how I became what I am become, so suffice to say that self-confidence and I are only recently acquainted. (Hardly unique among writers, or artists in general, of course.) To have been pushed to the edge of what I thought I was capable of, and then some way beyond that, and to have come through and delivered in the face of my own fears… “revelatory” is probably a shade too strong a word, but it’s close enough if you can stomach the cliché.

I find myself wishing I’d been pushed like that before, but realising at the same time that I wasn’t ready for it before now. The push is important (and in my case almost certainly vital), but the choice to allow myself to be pushed, to bend to the yoke willingly (if reluctantly and fearfully at times) – that was the most important thing, perhaps, and it had to come from inside of me.

I’m not used to valuable things coming from there. But damn, it’s fucking sweet when they do, isn’t it?

But enough with the wide-eyed self-discovery moments of an emotionally-underdeveloped introvert: what did I learn in terms of writing?

That’s a trickier question than it initially appears, which is why this is the seventh attempt at answering it. The obvious solution would be to list the module topics: I learned of voice and narrative, of character and of place; I learned of the short form, and of the long! But those topics are inherently fuzzy, more like a closely packed Venn diagram, crosshatched and overlapping like the petals of an orchid… and to be honest, they all revolve around teaching you how to read properly, how to read with an eye for certain types of effect (or affect) in the text, and how to see where and how such techniques might be reused in works of your own. A long, long way from “when [x], a good writer should [y]!”, then.

This is a good thing. (Or it was for me, at least.)

If anything, then, we might say that the most important lesson I took away from the course is that technique – or what I think Nick Mamatas means when he snipes at “craft” as a writerly shibboleth – is important only inasmuch as it supports the greater edifice of creation; that there’s sod all point in crafting lovely precise sentences if you’ve not got a story to tell with them, in other words.

But I also misunderstood story itself, I think, albeit in a way that’s remarkably hard for me to put into words. I guess the closest I can get would be to say that I used to think story was almost entirely what I now think of as plot, but now realise that plot is actually subservient to story, which is also inextricably bound up in narrative and character; that story is, in a way, everything but the words you see on the page. With hindsight, I’ve come to suspect that all those writerly advice books and blog posts that talk about how fiction is “driven by conflict” contributed to this problem; I was thinking of story as sequences of unfortunate events, rather than as characters experiencing the turbulent flow of their own lives.

Obvious in hindsight, sure. But internalising that old saw about characters “needing to be just as real as the people you know outside your head”, realising that it’s a description not of some sort of winsomely artsy manifestation of multiple personality disorder, not of hearing voices, but of a process of imagination infinitely more thorough than “oh, let’s say blonde, early thirties, works in a bank in West London, that’ll do”… it’s harder than you might think. Perhaps it’s even a subset of cognitive dissonance: learning to imagine the subjective experience of an imaginary intelligence while simultaneously taking into account your own subjectivity in observing them and the world in which you’ve created around them.

To be clear, I suspect this is a crystallisation of stuff that I’ve been absorbing for some time; doing the Masters has been like adding a catalyst in the final stages of a reaction. I also realise it reads a little like “ZOMFG narcissist discovers empathy!”, which wouldn’t be an utterly unfair way of looking at it; put it this way, I think it no coincidence that the last few years have also seen me becoming more politicised. (Opinions on whether that’s a change for the better are, I believe, somewhat divided. Selah.)

So, yeah: I learned a whole bunch of profound-seeming metastuff about fiction and subjective experience that I can’t yet explain very clearly, but which make me feel a) much more engaged with my art, and b) more confident in my ability to do worthwhile art (for values of worthwhile as defined exclusively, at least at the moment, by yours truly.)

I learned that I am capable of completing big and challenging projects, which makes me feel like I can do it again, and do it better.

These are valuable things. I feel like I got what I needed from the course, even though what I needed wasn’t quite what I thought I needed. I signed up for the course with the attitude that I wasn’t really bothered about grades, and at this level, I’m still not; I am a better writer, which is why I came. That said, I’d like to take home a top score, too, not just a mid-list pass. But if I don’t, well, what the hell. With my dissertation, especially, I had to take the decision that rather than worrying about what the assessors would want to read, I had to focus on doing something I felt was worthwhile, something I could be proud of on its own terms, no matter how it got marked.

And I did – but that’s probably another post (or three) for another time. For now, I have vague ideas for two novels fighting for position in my backbrain, an imminent moving-of-house to Sheffield to arrange, and an academic paper on sf prototyping to finish… so I’d best be getting on with it, hadn’t I?

**

Oh, yeah: I also learned just how far I can take procrastination and displacement activity in the face of intimidating deadlines: while in the middle of doing my dissertation, I somehow managed to research and write a ~10k piece on Nordic LARP, the first part of which is now up at Rhizome.org