Tag Archives: Science Fiction

failure / retrieval

Strange vibes in me at the moment. Part of that is adjusting to the sudden (albeit welcome) structure of a full-time job, and with it the sudden proliferation of deadlines for projects in which a significant number of the moving parts are people, and hence priorities and possibilities shift suddenly in ways you weren’t necessarily planning or preparing for. No tiny violin, to be clear; just noting the novelty of this for someone who spent a real long time operating as a box-room annex to almost every organisation they were involved with. There’s a lot of logistical levelling-up to be learned, here, and it’s taking a lot out of me, despite my efforts to take time off and get good rest.

The ineffectiveness of the latter in particular leads me to suspect I’m under the weather in some physical way. There’s a lot of anxious talk at the moment about Long Covid, which—without meaning to demean that experience for anyone going through it—comes across a lot like heretofore fortunate people facing the prospect that maybe illnesses have a long tail. Post-viral fatigue syndrome never got much press before now, beyond a vague insinuation that its sufferers should maybe get their shit together, or take care of themselves better, or maybe both… and hey, remember the “yuppie flu”, now better known as chronic fatigue syndrome? It’s as if even the stories we tell around illness need some sort of identifiable (and, crucially, nameable) black-hat bad-guy, a clear linear causality, before we’ll start to take them seriously.

I had viral pneumonia back in 2016, and it took me literally months (and a mental breakdown, and an epochal fight with my mother) to realise that maybe it was something more than just a cold that would’t shift. The antibiotics I was given cleared it out, but also napalmed my intestinal biome in a fairly indiscriminate way—perhaps because I’d not taken antibiotics in, I don’t know, probably decades. So the pneumonia went, but for a year or more I was prone to every passing lurgy that I encountered, and would find that for months at a time I was tired in a way that sleeping couldn’t cure, hungry in a way that eating couldn’t sate, low for no concrete reason, fogged in the brain and frustrated by it. It comes back from time to time, too—just as it has at the moment.

Which is to say: I recognise the symptoms of Long Covid, and believe them to be both genuine and (likely) under-reported. But I don’t believe them to be unique to Covid. So perhaps one silver lining to the thunderhead weather-front of the pandemic is the prospect that we’ll start taking seriously the notion that the line between acute and chronic malaise is not so clear-cut as has tended heretofore to be assumed. We still understand so little about viruses—the ones outside of us, and the ones inside of us. Hopefully we still have time to learn. In the meantime, I’m trying to get over the self-accusatory sense of my being a lazy malingerer, and do the best I’m able to do given my current capacities. Comparisons are invidious, of course—but they’re also fundamental to a system in which the calculation of value is the unacknowledged starting point for almost every action we undertake. Something something material relations between people something.

At the same time, remembering that the mental and emotional can affect the physical just as much as the other way around is something I’ve literally made notes-to-self about, because it’s easy to forget that the world has its ways of laying you low. Not without a certain sense of guilt, I’ve largely cut myself off from UK-based media, but still the stories seep through nonetheless—and they in turn unlock echoing chests of memory, both recent and distant, and with them feelings of loss, regret, failure… and of lost opportunity, both individual and collective. So there’s a weird sort of comfort in seeing that someone else is having a similar experience.

Then also there’s the gifts of synchronicity, my watchfulness for which—yes, a form of magical thinking; so sue me—has become something of a lifeline, intellectually and emotionally. After my recent (and hugely gratifying) encounter with Kelly Pendergrast’s writings, I remembered that I’d stashed some earlier pieces of hers away to read when I had more time. And so I made the time this morning on my commute, and found…

Famously, the start-up world lives and dies on its storytelling. Pitch decks paint a picture to potential funders. Product websites disclose and obfuscate in equal measure. Most crucially, start-up founders need to be able to craft a personal narrative and backstory that will win over investors and early hires alike. These story formats tend to follow the contours of the Hero’s Journey as described by Joseph Campbell. In this narrative format, success cannot come easy: a trial by fire — a period staring into the abyss — is required before the hero returns victorious, killer app idea in hand. And so, founders learn to frame their stories in a way that highlights and valorizes their moments of past “failure” (a startup that fizzled, an acquisition that fell through, a co-founder that flounced).

… well, OK, first I found something self-aggrandizing, namely someone making an argument I’ve been making for quite some time—though the originary credit in my case (and perhaps also in Pendergrast’s?) is very much due to Saint Donna and the Starbear. But this piece soon goes off somewhere else, somewhere strange and (strangely) timely:

… a very different kind of “pro failure” theory and rhetoric emerged in the ’90s and 2000s. Queer writers, activists, and artists (often excluded from mainstream institutions and success for reasons listed above) have embraced and reclaimed failure, theorizing a specific modality of “queer failure” as art form and as survival tactic. In opposition to tech failure (narrativized as a painful-but-necessary station of the cross that fosters wisdom and tenacity), queer failure is deviant, risky, and oppositional, shaped by those who’ve found their future always-already nullified by capitalism’s normative demands. Queer failure is also utopian and visionary. Without the option to slot back into the mainstream, failure becomes a point of departure, a rupture, a sideways trajectory into something new. There are futures beyond no future.

I’m no scholar of queer theory, let alone queer failure; nor am I one of Black utopias (to the extent that I may be mislabelling an entire school of thought in my ignorance, here, though with what I believe to be good intentions). But I nonetheless leapt instantly from this riff to Ryan Oakley’s retrospections, which seem to be a lament for the loss of a science fiction informed by (or perhaps just parallel to) the Black utopias of early Detroit techno, and perhaps also by the unruly chaos of what Simon Reynolds and others refer to as the hardcore continuum of 90s (post-)rave music:

I wanted and expected some SF publisher to release a series of cheap-ass pulp paperbacks set in the Deltron universe. Another series for Kool Keith. Like everyone kept talking about science fiction dying and I was like — the fuck? There’s plenty of drugged up kids who love the shit and are listening to sci-fi music all the time. Get in on that.

[…]

Like, I just kind of took it for granted that written sci-fi would be part of that. Took it for granted that sci-fi was some weird counter-cultural drug product. Like, there was the straight and square nerd shit, your hard sci-fi and space operas, which was like exotica or whatever and okay in their own right, but you had your hippie sci-fi, then your glam and punk and goth sci-fi. Sci-fi was dime store surrealism. Just vulgarized high art and I like that.

I just really thought there was just going to be some sort of punky-rave, hip-hop sci-fi. Abrasive and social and shit but with some funk, you know? It just seemed natural. Seemed inevitable. There were even some indications that it might even be incoming. Coyote Kings by Minister Faust, Brown Girl in the Ring by Nalo Hopkinson. They kinda had the sensibility and perspective. It was about people, outsiders, the city, and it felt modern.

It bears noting that I was way behind this curve in two senses: the closest I came to that sort of sf in the 90s was Jeff Noon, and maybe that’s as close as the publishing world got to it back then, too; furthermore, while I was splashing around enthusiastically in the more downtempo end of breakbeat electronica at the time, I was and still am (and likely always will be) a hoary old rocker at the core. But I nonetheless recognise (by its absence in sf) that sense of outsiderdom Ryan’s talking about; the early cyberpunk stuff had some of that, and even some of the later stuff (like Paul McAuley’s late-Nineties novels, f’rex), but—like any subgeneric style—it soon became reduced to an aesthetic, reproducible, bought from the rack. (And I’m reminded now of perhaps the most scathing book review I’ve ever had published, whose tone I still regret somewhat, but whose take I stand by to this day.)

That said, there are signs that, much as the musical aesthetics of the 90s are being revisited and retooled by younger generations, cyberpunk is being dusted off and re-punked by writers dissatisfied with both its past and the present alternatives; and I know a lot of scholars in the field are going through a process of radically reassessing the established readings of the genre and its canonical texts. Tim Maughan’s work wouldn’t exist without cyberpunk as a problematic precursor, nor M T Hill’s, nor Carl Neville’s, nor Annalee Newitz’s, nor Charlie Jane Anders’s, nor nor nor… and that most or all of these writers wouldn’t self-describe as cyberpunk rather illustrates the point. The aesthetic is brittle enough to be re-decomposed into its constituent tropes once again, which means that the underlying structures can be built in new shapes.

The outsider status of many of these authors—whether in terms of class, gender, race, sexual orientation, or some intersectional mix-up thereof—is thus perhaps no mere coincidence. Pendergrast again:

For those stuck outside of the normal, queer failure offers instead to explode the normal and to explore modes of being beyond capitalism, in ecstatic temporalities or alternative kinships or in refusing to work. To embrace failure is a vulnerable act that demonstrates solidarity with other “failed” people — from radical crips to refugees — and builds space to imagine an identity, and a life, outside the structures that would punish you for your transgressions. Maybe, suggests Halberstam, “in losing we will find another way of making meaning,” one in which “no one gets left behind.” Queer failure imagines a future beyond the current regime, and a life where failure can be ecstatic, collective, and radical.

And what is that current regime? Oakley:

I can kind of picture the world where sci-fi went the way I wanted it to go and the way I thought it would go. About now, we’d be getting shows in Deltronverse or at least totally infused with that sensibility instead of more Trek, more Star Wars, George fucking Martin, and the rest of it, sound-tracked by David Bowie’s 1970s musings about Mars. And I’m not even really against these things. But, holy shit, it would be nice to be able to see these people and their works as respected ancestors. We can’t even do that. We have to labor forever under their senile rule. I mean, I feel like Del and others showed us the way. The way was squandered. Just totally fucking squandered.

I’d be the first to say that generational theory is, if not utterly useless, then for the most part a marketeer’s way of thinking about demography that causes as many problems (or more) than it solves. But when I catch those stories leaking across the North Sea from the UK, and the ones from the US, and then I read a sentence like “labor forever under their senile rule”, I’m like, yeah. That’s where we’re at. We’re still dreaming those futures beyond The Future, but for so many people there’s so little space for dreaming, so little slack in the capitalist-realist circumstance. Hauntology is thus less a failing or a mode of nostalgia than it is the only game in town. What else can you do with the ruins of The Future than populate them with ghosts of other futures foreclosed upon?

Of course, such a circumstance cannot persist forever, in the truly eternal sense. Demography is destiny, and the Boomer hegemony—in sf, as in the world more broadly—will eventually fade away for the most obvious of reasons (though not without a fight, I fear). In both cases, however—though surely more pressingly in the latter—the question is what will remain to the rest of us once we finally slip the reins.

all that mattered was sensation

Much delayed by pandemic disruptions of international mail, here’s a transcript of a heretofore unpublished J G Ballard interview, originally done for an Italian VHS video zine (!) in the Nineties. Comes in both Italian and English, with an accompanying essay by yer man Simon Reynolds… which is presumably where I heard about it, shortly after (or was it before?) relocating. Copies still available, it seems.

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.