Tag Archives: Science Fiction

Review of Carl Abbot’s Imagining Urban Futures at Planning Theory & Practice

After a dozen years of writing book reviews, this is the first one I’ve had published in an academic journal*. Here’s the intro:

It’s long been a truism of science fiction (sf) scholarship that the genre has rarely dealt with the city as anything more than an engineering problem to be solved. I said as much in my Master’s thesis back in 2012, while justifying my own clumsy attempt to reconcile science fiction and psychogeography, but the sentiment was best and most thoroughly expressed by the redoubtable scholar Gary K Wolfe, who has argued that cities and the urban “are basically antithetical to the science fiction imagination” (p5).

Carl Abbott’s Imagining Urban Futures doesn’t exactly gainsay Wolfe’s theory, so much as it seeks to show that the genre’s attitude to the urban has in fact changed with time.

Click through to read in full, if you’ve got institutional access; if you don’t, drop me a line and I’ll hook you up in some completely legitimate and legal not-abusive-of-weird-academic-copyright-protocols type of way.

* Not, however, the first review I’ve written for an academic journal; one of my more lengthy and furious** anti-transhumanist screeds has been languishing for so long in the development hell of what was supposed to be a new journal that I’m pretty much presuming said journal ended up stillborn.

** If you’re wondering “why furious?”, the short answer would be “the book in question is a shameless attempt to rehabilitate eugenics and ‘race science'”; it’d be bad enough if that were all it attempted to do, but it’s not. (And yes, it’s an academic title by a tenured professor with a long reputation of going in to bat for morally repugnant positions.) Once I’ve determined for certain that the aforementioned journal is defunct, I’ll try to find somewhere else to publish it, even if it’s just here.

Represent the world without reproducing it

science fiction is fundamentally a metaphorical literature, because it seeks to represent the world without reproducing it. Now the structure of metaphor as such is the knight’s move, my favourite manoeuvre in chess: leading you in a certain metonymic direction, the logically correct A to B to C, and indeed sometimes it leads you quite a long way down that consecutive path, but only in order to leap suddenly, not arbitrarily, but poetically, expressively, marvellously, in an unexpected direction.

It’s the way the carefully world-built society of Asimov’s ‘Nightfall’ falls apart under stellar Sublimity, or the way the intricate anthropological detail of Le Guin’s Left Hand of Darkness is leavened by actual supernatural foretelling—a.k.a. magic—as a correlative to love, which is that novel’s wondrous theme, wondrously handled. It’s the way the scrupulously rational computational logic of Clarke’s ‘Nine Billion Names of God’ steps, in its last sentence, into amazing impossibilities. It can be the beautifully unexpected outgoing, as when Ellie Arroway enters the alien world-construct at the end of Contact, or it can be the beautifully unexpected homecoming, as at the end of Kij Johnson’s superb ’26 Monkeys, also the Abyss’. It is the famous jump-cut in 2001: A Space Odyssey, when the hurled bone that turns, unexpectedly, impossibly, yet somehow rightly, into a spaceship.

The thing is: this structure I’m describing here as formally constitutive of science fiction is also formally constitutive of the joke. The structure of a joke is a knight’s move: it leads you along a particular narrative trajectory only to finish with a conjurer’s flourish of the unexpected. The joke can’t be capped with a merely random or left-field unexpectedness, or it won’t be funny: but the flourish at the end must work. This is not to say that SF needs to be full of jokes to work. I am not talking content, I am talking form; and the point of this form is that the unexpected twist releases a quantum of joy. That’s why jokes are great, and that, although its content is very different, is why SF is great.

Adam Roberts on sf as a metaphorical literature. Mostly parking this for further thinking later on, when life is marginally less hectic; that form/content distinction he’s making seems like it could unpack in lots of interesting (and critically useful) ways.

I’m thinking in particular of an echo I’m getting from a riff of Clute’s in which he argues that capital-S Story “is inherently non-mimetic”; that Fantastika is coextensive with Story, and has “an inherent non-allegorical bent”, being a genre wherein the work “is a kind of representation of itself”; that Fantastika is “pure Story: not a lesson, but the thing told”. As I recall, Clute denies sf as being inherently metaphorical, but I think perhaps he and Roberts understand that term slightly differently; the form of the joke, after all, is also “not a lesson, but the thing told” (or so it seems to me).

The Roberts riff on the magician’s flourish above also opens up the possibility of rereading Priest’s The Prestige as a work of metagenre… though I suspect that doing so would only incur the writer’s wrath.

It’s about data and smugness.

In practice, I don’t know that mainstream economists really care that much about the “ends” side of things. For instance, when they talk about “demand,” they aren’t talking about how many people actually want something or how badly they want it. For these guys, “demand” is the quantity of a commodity that people are willing and able to pay for, at a given market price. If ten thousand people in a wasteland are dying of thirst, and they have no money and no way of getting any money, what’s the “demand” for a sip of water in this particular market? It’s zero.

I’m talking about mainstream economics here. Since the so-called marginalist revolution at the end of the nineteenth century, the discipline has tended to ignore idle speculation about why we value this or that. There are exceptions, like hedonic shadow pricing, or research on entrepreneurship, or maybe some market design stuff. But mostly we’re just too weird and ornery. And besides, everybody’s different! Friedrich von Hayek is the big cheerleader for this perspective. And that shift was part of a bigger shift whereby mainstream economics became increasingly mathematical and “scientific.” The word “science” appears in Robbins’s definition, for instance. Much of the discipline, some would argue, also became increasingly less grounded in reality.

By contrast, science fiction — and other kinds of literature — is obviously extremely interested in getting inside people’s heads and hearts, and figuring out not only what people desire, but also why and how, and what it feels like. And how desires might change. And the deeper significance of those changes. When you write a novel, you’re not going to start off saying, “Okay, I am going to assume that my characters preferences will remain fixed.” So maybe that’s one reason the meeting between science fiction and economics can be quite fruitful. Science fiction has the same love for abstraction and modelmaking, and shares a certain sense of what “rigor” is … but it’s fundamentally about actual human experience in a way mainstream economics just isn’t.

The inestimable (and brilliant, and loquacious) Jo Lindsay Walton, interviewed on the intersection of economics and science fiction by Rick Liebling for The Adjacent Possible; a long read, but full of gems.

The above recapitulates, albeit in JLW’s own style, the argument I’ve been making for narrative prototyping in my own academic work: a model must be exposed to the social dimensions which it has necessarily externalised. Human behaviour is inherently unquantifiable — and indeed, the more we attempt to quantify it (and “manage” it on that basis), the more inhumane the results become.

What applies to economics applies equally to infrastructures; it’s wicked problems all the way down, and solutionism is a wicked problem in and of itself (as Keller Easterling also appears to be arguing). Until we understand the role of desire — in the DeleuzoGuattarean sense, but also to some extent in the weaponised-behavioural-psychology-AKA-marketing sense — in sociotechnical change, we will achieve nothing but an accelerating accretion of “solutions” which turn out to be new and intractable problems in their own right.

(See also Tainter on increasing complexity as a strategy for addressing problems arising from existing complexity; to paraphrase very broadly, it works, but it works ever less effectively every time, and only until it no longer works, at which point you’re wandering around the ruins of your civilisation wondering where it all went wrong.)

Starship Titanic now boarding; destination, Mars.

In her overview of the political and economic dimensions of Iain M Banks’ fictional output for Lawyers, Guns & Money, Abigail Nussbaum makes this typically insightful aside:

This also brings us to our second reason for talking about the Culture in 2018, the fact that Amazon has recently announced the acquisition of the rights to the series, and is planning to make a miniseries of Consider Phlebas […] as someone who values Banks for the politics in his writing, it feels positively Black Mirror-esque for Amazon to try to use the Culture as yet another plank in its planned takeover of the world’s economy, the ultimate in how capitalism co-opts revolutionary ideas. That Jeff Bezos—who might have been a Banks-ian villain if he weren’t so depressingly ordinary—has called the sequence “a huge personal favorite” without any apparent sense of irony just feels like confirmation that Banks’s ideas are now completely beside the point.

This irony-free misparsing of science fiction is not unique to Bezos among the entrepreneurial titans of the Valley. Par example, in this interview from 2013, Elon Musk cites Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide as an inspiration:

“I guess when I was around 12 or 15…I had an existential crisis, and I was reading various books on trying to figure out the meaning of life and what does it all mean? It all seemed quite meaningless and then we happened to have some books by Nietzsche and Schopenhauer in the house, which you should not read at age 14 (laughter). It is bad, it’s really negative. So then I read Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy which is quite positive I think and it highlighted an important point which is that a lot of times the question is harder than the answer. And if you can properly phrase the question, then the answer is the easy part. So, to the degree that we can better understand the universe, then we can better know what questions to ask. Then whatever the question is that most approximates: what’s the meaning of life? That’s the question we can ultimately get closer to understanding. And so I thought to the degree that we can expand the scope and scale of consciousness and knowledge, then that would be a good thing.”

After a few readings, I’m not sure quite how many times the cart and the horse change places in that logic-pretzel; surely more times than are necessary to reach such a banal conclusion. But it is nonetheless totally beyond me as to how you could come to that conclusion after reading a series of books in which no plan is ever made that doesn’t go massively awry in a manner totally unforeseen by its progenitors, and which are ultimately about the ineluctable meaninglessness and absurdity of both the universe and our existence therein*. Wikipedia’s summary of the mid-section of Restaurant at the End of the Universe illustrates my point rather well, I think:

Ford and Arthur […] end up on a spacecraft full of the outcasts of the Golgafrinchan civilization. The ship crashes on prehistoric Earth; Ford and Arthur are stranded, and it becomes clear that the inept Golgafrinchans are the ancestors of modern humans, having displaced the Earth’s indigenous hominids. This has disrupted the Earth’s programming so that when Ford and Arthur manage to extract the final readout from Arthur’s subconscious mind by pulling lettered tiles from a Scrabble set, it is “What do you get if you multiply six by nine?” Arthur then comments, “I’ve always said there was something fundamentally wrong with the universe.”

Well, quite.

Just as Nussbaum easily sees Bezos as a sub-par Banks villain, Musk appears to me less inspired by Hitchhiker’s, and more a character discarded from early drafts of it for being that little bit too absurdly on-the-nose a satire of human hubris.

* – This is my blog, and the Intentional Fallacy can piss right off.

There are no valid futurisms or futurologies

The science fictional project is mainly a historical project, and to the extent there is any such thing as a futurological project, that would also be a historical project, so this isn’t a good distinction to try to make. I don’t think there are any valid futurisms or futurologies. I think most people who describe themselves as futurists or futurologists are claiming too much, almost to the point of being scam artists, especially if they charge people fees for them to come in and do consultations, as sometimes happens in the business world, or as a form of “edutainment”. Because the future can’t be predicted […] it’s best to leave all this at the level of science fiction, which for me is mainly a literary genre.

For me, science fiction has a kind of double action as a genre, and the image I use to convey this thought is the 3-D glasses you wear at 3-D movies to create the false impression of three dimensionality. Through one lens, sf tries to describe one possible future in great detail; not a prediction, but a modeling exercise or scenario. Not “this Will happen,” but “this Could happen.” Then the other lens is simply a metaphorical or symbolic portrayal of what’s going on right now. “It is as if we are all zombies being predated on by vampires”—this is my current candidate for the best metaphor for our times, even though people are too scared to write that one down, it seems. Anyway more traditional examples are “it is as if the working class are robots who may revolt,” or “it is as if cities are spaceships detached from Earth,” both older sf metaphors. Cyborgs are great images of us now, as Donna Haraway showed long ago. On it goes that way through that lens, symbolist prose poems of great power. Then, when the images coming through the two lens coalesce to a single vision in the mind’s eye, what pops into visibility is History itself, often deep time, casting into the future as well as back to the past. That’s how science fiction works and what it does.


Science fiction has been a marvelous escape from the dead end much “literary fiction” is in now, stirring the dead ashes of the great modernist works, and getting caught up in the narcissism of late capitalist bourgeois neurosis. SF is outsider art, looked down on by official literary culture, and that’s such a great place to be. It’s outside the MFA system, outside postmodernism, it’s even replacing the postmodern with the Anthropocene, historicizing and politicizing everything, able to take on science and use science’s exploding new vocabulary— well, there are many reasons why science fiction is the great realism of our time, and some of them are because of the traps it has avoided, either by its own efforts or by others misunderstanding and rejecting it.

Kim Stanley Robinson interviewed at Big Echo.