Tag Archives: Science Fiction

a new New Wave, if you like

I am beginning to perceive a pattern here, though. There is a loose group – a new New Wave, if you like – of British writers whose work might best be described as the natural successor to the ‘mundane SF’ of the early 2000s. These writers are less interested in the widescreen formats of space opera, MilSF and interstellar travel, focusing instead on stories set mainly on Earth in a recognisable near-future, with an emphasis on contemporary politics and class inequalities, the impact of new technologies on ordinary lives. I would include within this group Maughan himself, from way back, but also Simon Ings, Matt Hill, Matthew de Abaitua, Carl Neville and James Smythe (whose 2014-Clarke-shortlisted The Machine stands as a key example of this kind of writing). I have been asking myself for a while now why it is that these writers are so much less visible than they ought to be, given the contemporary relevance and literary excellence of their output. Their work is (surely) right at the cutting edge of science fiction. It is using science fiction to engage directly with social and political questions, demonstrating SF as the radical mode of literature it has always been.

For genre publishing imprints not to acquire and promote this kind of science fiction seems short-sighted and again, counter-intuitive. These writers are important and talented and they deserve recognition. You could argue that it is in this brand of politically engaged, intellectually curious stripe of SF that the future of the genre lies. Especially in our current moment, audiences who look to science fiction for inspiration, information or even a warning about where future developments could take us are hungry for novels and stories that tread that uneven, liminal path between the present as it is experienced and the future as it might be.

I agree with Nina Allan that there’s a real invisibility for some of the UK’s most enviable young* sf stylists, but I also think that the reasons she lists as an argument for their importance are also exactly the reasons for their invisibility. Put simply, sf has always been a deeply nostalgic genre, and the UK is deep in a period of nostalgic escapism more broadly—one that affects its soi-disant liberal left just as much as its Brexit-exceptionalist right, if not perhaps more so in some respects. Maughan and Hill refuse both British exceptionalist nostalgia and the comforts of technological utopianism; there is a market for that refusal, but it is probably too small for the already-struggling publishing houses of the UK market to gamble upon, when they can make more reliable returns with more traditional material. Ditto Ings, who is of course something of an old hand, and also—like de Abaitua—something of an experimental writer. (I am not familiar with Smythe’s work, and literally acquired my first book by Neville yesterday, so I can’t comment on either of them.)

It is meant as no insult to the book-buying public to observe that it seeks the comfortable escapism of familiar generic forms and nostalgic narratives of progress—indeed, this has probably always been the case, though the industry once had enough slack (and, perhaps, enough of a sense of mission in terms of artistic form and expression) that it could more readily support an avant-garde with the profits from the mid-list and the big hitters. But in terms of the genre in particular, I wonder whether the transition to what Clute has called “the new sf” (which rejects the technological utopian modality, and sometimes auto-critiques it in the process of that rejection) may never actually be a transition so much as a budding-off. If sf is what we point at when we say sf, then for the majority of sf readers these writers will never write “proper” sf; they are, if anything, actively opposed to doing so, which is what makes their work interesting (at least to Allan and myself).

Perhaps the slow self-retconning of the literary establishment into believing that it was actually always OK with speculative literatures all along will provide a space for this new form to grow… though that may of course be a vain hope, principally informed by the desire that the stuff I write might someday find someone willing to publish it.

[ * Young in writerly terms, rather than in strictly demographic ones. ]

an hollowed-out epistemology, an epistemic poverty

I’ll stop blockquoting Audrey Watters when she stops saying shit that needs saying.

The science fiction of The Matrix creeps into presentations that claim to offer science fact. It creeps into promises about instantaneous learning, facilitated by alleged breakthroughs in brain science. It creeps into TED Talks, of course. Take Nicholas Negroponte, for example, the co-founder of the MIT Media Lab who in his 2014 TED Talk predicted that in 30 years time (that is, 24 years from now), you will swallow a pill and “know English,” swallow a pill and “know Shakespeare.”

What makes these stories appealing or even believable to some people? It’s not science. It’s “special effects.” And The Matrix is, after all, a dystopia. So why would Matrix-style learning be desirable? Maybe that’s the wrong question. Perhaps it’s not so much that it’s desirable, but it’s just how our imaginations have been constructed, constricted even. We can’t imagine any other ideal but speed and efficiency.

We should ask, what does it mean in these stories — in both the Wachowskis’ and Negroponte’s — to “know”? To know Kung Fu or English or Shakespeare? It seems to me, at least, that knowing and knowledge here are decontextualized, cheapened. This is an hollowed-out epistemology, an epistemic poverty in which human experience and human culture and human bodies are not valued. But this epistemology informs and is informed by the ed-tech imaginary.

“What if, thanks to AI, you could learn Chinese in a weekend?” an ed-tech startup founder once asked me — a provocation that was meant to both condemn the drawbacks of traditional language learning classroom and prompt me, I suppose, to imagine the exciting possibilities of an almost-instanteous fluency in a foreign language. And rather than laugh in his face — which, I confess that I did — and say “that’s not possible, dude,” the better response would probably have been something like: “What if we addressed some of our long-standing biases about language in this country and stopped stigmatizing people who do not speak English? What if we treated students who speak another language at home as talented, not deficient?” Don’t give me an app. Address structural racism. Don’t fund startups. Fund public education.

Re: “it’s special effects”—it’s also concretised metaphor, which, in the spectacular narrative logic of the cinematic, amounts to much the same thing. Part of this is a kind of meta-literacy problem, in that the deconcretisation of metaphor is a hard-won skill, and (I would guess) related to critical thinking: not something that can be taught, as such, but a strategy of parsing whose acquisition can be supported by a patient and less didactic form of pedagogy. Which is, I suppose, a way of saying that the ed-tech forms generated by the ed-tech imaginary work to sustain a form of education that ensures that the imaginary itself is unlikely to be questioned. Systemic imaginaries, much like actual systems, have a sort of autopoiesis of self-preservation: they work to counter entropic externalities.

Also:

There are other stories, other science fictions that have resonated with powerful people in education circles. Mark Zuckerberg gave everyone at Facebook a copy of the Ernest Cline novel Ready Player One, for example, to get them excited about building technology for the future — a book that is really just a string of nostalgic references to Eighties white boy culture. And I always think about that New York Times interview with Sal Khan, where he said that “The science fiction books I like tend to relate to what we’re doing at Khan Academy, like Orson Scott Card’s ‘Ender’s Game’ series.” You mean, online math lectures are like a novel that justifies imperialism and genocide?! Wow.

This is not the first time I’ve ranted about the way in which the pajandrums of the Valley claim inspiration from books that they clearly haven’t understood in any but the most shallow and uncritical way, and I doubt it will be the last.

charismatic megaprojects / Infrastructure fictions elsewhere

I recently republished the text and slides of my 2013 talk “An introduction to Infrastructure Fiction” here on VCTB (under the Essays heading, which isn’t entirely accurate, but better than nothing for now).

I was reminded of this (and thus prompted to remind you) by yesterday encountering a post at good ol’ Metafilter which mentioned a couple of what are definitely infrastructure fictions: one is a recent Dutch proposal to enclose the North Sea using two massive dams, one between Scotland and Norway, another between Cornwall and France; the other was an earlier proposal to raise an island out in Doggerland and populate it with wind turbines and so forth.

While the Doggerland notion may well have been at least in part serious — it bears some relation to similar projects I’ve seen doing the rounds on the continent in recent years — the Dutch proposal, from the Royal Netherlands Institute for Sea Research, is quite upfront about its rhetorical purpose. It’s trying to say “OK, look, we could take a gamble and spend all this money and effort and skill on a batshit engineering project like this in the hope of making things more environmentally stable over the next however-many years… or we could, like, reduce our carbon emissions, which is comparatively cheap and really bloody easy?”

I still think there’s a value and utility to the infrastructure fiction approach. But much like BoZo’s many bridges, the risk of proposals like this is they attract the excitement of people who want to have their concretised metaphor and eat it, so to speak. Charismatic megaprojects are an easy sell (and very science-fictional), whereas the sociotechnical project of reconfiguring consumptive practices, while arguably even bigger in true scale, lacks the glamour of building a big exciting thing, and worse still smacks of effort and/or privation on the part of the audience, rather than some imagined engineer.

Forestalling that misinterpretation, insofar as it’s even possible, is one of the challenges of the form — one that it has, of course, inherited from design fiction itself.

The future is not a static thing

Le Guin’s work is distinctive not only because it is imaginative, or because it is political, but because she thought so deeply about the work of building a future worth living. She did not just believe that a society free of consumerism and incarceration, like Shevek’s homeworld, could exist; she explored how that society could be built and understood the process would be hard work, and probably on some level disappointing. The future is not a static thing; to its architects, it is always in motion, always mid-creation, never realized.

Sarah Jones at Dissent Magazine.

Thick skein

You can’t talk about every possible future in one work of science fiction—that would be crazy. But what you could do is tell a bunch of stories that are relatively plausible, that are set in the near future, and that describe a course of action that readers can imagine in a kind of “thick” texture. Where you really feel like you’re there. There’ll be some contingent events and some characters that are representative, but they are also individual characters with their own quirks. There’ll be a story, and yet the reader will also say: “Well, yeah—this could be one way forward.” This way, you have the utopian strand of describing things going right. Do we have a sense that things could go right? Even if it’s physically possible, the question is: Is it politically possible, and is it humanly possible?

[…]

I would invite everybody to think of the Green New Deal as it currently exists (a document which is quite impressive in its amount of detail and substance) as a science-fiction story. It’s a utopian science-fiction story written in the form of a proclamation or a blueprint for action. In my short-story collection, The Martians, I experimented with all kinds of formats, including a short story in the form of the Martian Constitution and a short story in the form of an abstract in a scientific journal. In the case of the Green New Deal, and in the best possible way, I want to suggest that seeing it as a kind of science-fiction story is what we need. We need that kind of vision.

Kim Stanley Robinson

Re: the upper paragraph of this quote, cf. my piece for The Sociological Review (originally posted back in 2016) in which I argued for sf as a tool for speculative ethnography, providing a “thick description” of reconfigured sociotechnicalities; that argument was extended in my (open-access) paper for Energy Research & Social Science from 2017.

Regular readers will know I’m not a fan of the blueprint utopia per se, but note that KSR is here advocating specifically for multiple such blueprints, rather than simply advancing a single vision; that plurality is one way of avoiding the pitfalls of the solutionist technotopia. But it’s interesting to hear a fiction writer arguing for the treatment of policy documents as fictional forms, even if only in part; that understanding of the transposability of narratological approaches into political imaginaries is something my colleagues and I are working to develop further, and it’s good to have someone with the profile (and, let’s be honest, the charm and candour) of KSR arguing the same case.