Tag Archives: utopianism

subjective and iterative magratheanism / the whys and wherefores of worldbuilding

It’s always nice to get an insight into the creative process from an expert, and this short bit on worldbuilding by Paul McAuley is exactly that. Worldbuilding as a concept is having a bit of a moment, or so it feels, having jumped out of genre fiction theory and metastasised more widely, following in the wake of fantastika as a dominant mode of storytelling; video games have helped a lot, but it’s bigger than that, I suspect.

Anyway, that’s a discussion for another day—let’s look at what McAuley’s actually saying, here. As I understand both positions, this is less of a counter to Mike Harrison’s legendary salvo against the “clomping foot of nerdism” than a demonstration of the way in which a better—or perhaps better to say less generic—creator approaches the problem of worldbuilding, so as to avoid said clompiness. And that way is iterative and subjective:

Worldbuilding is hard only if you pay too much attention to it. Less is almost always better than more. Use details sparingly rather than to drown the reader in intricate descriptions and faux exotica; question your first and second thoughts; set out a few basic parameters, find your character and start the story rather than fleshing out every detail of the landscape, drawing maps, and preparing recipe cards and fashion plates before writing the first sentence. Wherever possible, scatter clues and trust the reader to put them together; give them the space to see the world for themselves rather than crowd out their imagination with elaborate and burdensome detail.

Now, the purposes to which people working in my field of endeavour are putting worldbuilding are rather different to the primarly entertainment-driven concerns of a novelist—but nonetheless, a lot of these suggestions still hold fairly well. With the Notterdam guide, for instance, the speculation had to be bounded by the goals of the Paris Accords because that was how the project of which it was a part was bounded; but even were that not the case, we’d have still needed some sort of bounding scenario to start from. Indeed, I’m in the process of contributing to the structure of a set of design research workshops to be (hopefully) staged later this year, and the same challenge applies: the parameters of the bounding are up to you, of course, and if you want them to be really way-out crazy, well, that’s fine, but you still need to have them, however far out they may be. Creation requires friction and limits, and that applies just as much to the notionally more realistic creative practices of engineering: as I put it many years ago, the valorisation of “thinking outside the box” is counterproductive, resulting in placeless technological utopias which can’t be reached.

Also of note above is McAuley’s injunction to trust the reader. This is probably what many writers mean when they trot out the (well-intentioned but nonetheless not-always-helpful) admonition “show, don’t tell”; while there are clearly people who greatly enjoy having a richly elaborated Tolkeinean world handed to them as a finished orrery, effective worldbuilding exploits both the innate human capacity for sense-making and a culturally inculcated capacity for extrapolating imaginary worlds from telling details. My argument here is that we’ve learned to do the latter in increasingly more sophisticated ways, and that fantastika across a variety of media has been the training ground for that skill. Furthermore, that skill is what my academic work hopes to operationalise in the service of sociotechnical reconfiguration: if we want to build a world in which we do things differently, we have to be able to imagine it first. And that’s my argument against the technological utopia, too: the technological utopia is all tell and no show, the clomping foot of the notionally-objective god’s-eye-view.

But the utility of story goes further than that. McAuley again:

Discovering details essential to the story as it rolls out gives space and flexibility to hint at the kind of random, illogical, crazy beauty of the actual world; the exclusionary scaffolds of rigid logic too often do not.

You can’t just deliver a future (or a past, or a secondary world) in one big package; rare is the person who will just sit down with an encyclopedia and read the whole thing end to end. A future is a world, a timespace, and the human way of relating to timespaces—not an entirely unproblematic one, historically speaking, but nonetheless—is exploration. Now, a novelist has the challenge of making a guided tour feel like exploration, because the novel—with the exception of some liminal high (post)modernist experiments with form—is a linear thing, a single route through the imagined world preprepared by the author. But what’s notable here is that, for McAuley at least (and I believe for many other writers of sf, though certainly not all of them), that preprepared route is prepared through the writer themselves exploring rather more spontaneously. As such, serendipity and the happy creative accident are important—you need the initial bounding parameters, as mentioned above, but the detail emerges from responses to that initial set of constraining parameters. The writer explores the possibility-space defined by the bounding parameters, and compiles from their meanderings what they hope will be an exciting tour.

Furthermore, those responses are generated through the drives and subjectivity of the characters of the story: the sense that it’s an exploration rather than a tour is formed by the world’s being filtered through the limited (i.e. non-omniscient) point-of-view of the character who, while they know some things about some parts of the world, doesn’t know everything about it, even though the author (by the end of the process, at least) does:

… because the novel is written in close third person, everything is filtered through the sensibility of the main character, focusing on things that he would think important or memorable or odd, evoking the mundane stuff of his life by allusion or by borrowing the perspectives of others.

This is why I think that using the narratological toolkits of fiction can be a more effective and appealing way of depicting futures than the future-tense-passive-voice mode of corporate and policy futuring: it exploits the human desire to explore a timespace from a relateable (if not necessarily human) positionality, and it does so with devices and strategies which have evolved to make the best use of that instinct.

Of course, there are issues of teleology and intentionality that complicate this comparison—and I dare say that many creative writers might see this as cheapening of the art, just as many more “rational” futures people might see it as frivolous and artsy dilettantism. (I’d be lying if I claimed I don’t have days where those doubts haunt me, too, from both directions.) But it seems clear that we are going to continue to collectively imagine and advocate and dispute futures, not least because we’ve been doing it for yonks—at least since the fall of eschatology as the primary relationship to futurity in the so-called West. And if we’re going to do it anyway, and if—as seems equally indisputable—some folk are going to step up with futures (whether political, sociotechnical or otherwise) that we don’t want, then we have to get good at presenting the ones we do want.

It’s a war of stories; perhaps it always has been. While there are certainly ways of prosecuting that clash of narratives which are morally repulsive and destructive—*gestures at, well, everything*—I have come to the conclusion that refusing to counter the darkness with some sort of light is to let the darkness triumph. Utopia as method, innit?

An audience with Saint Donna

At Logic Magazine, an interview (by, I think, Moira Weigel?) with none other than Donna Haraway. It’s a good long read, so you should go tuck in to the full thing, but I’mma pull some excerpts here for my own purposes.

On being accused of encouraging “relativism”, and thereby birthing “post-truth”:

Our view was never that truth is just a question of which perspective you see it from. “Truth is perspectival” was never our position. We were against that. Feminist standpoint theory was always anti-perspectival. So was the Cyborg Manifesto, situated knowledges, [the philosopher] Bruno Latour’s notions of actor-network theory, and so on.

“Post-truth” gives up on materialism. It gives up on what I’ve called semiotic materialism: the idea that materialism is always situated meaning-making and never simply representation. These are not questions of perspective. They are questions of worlding and all of the thickness of that. Discourse is not just ideas and language. Discourse is bodily. It’s not embodied, as if it were stuck in a body. It’s bodily and it’s bodying, it’s worlding. This is the opposite of post-truth. This is about getting a grip on how strong knowledge claims are not just possible but necessary — worth living and dying for.


We were at this conference in Brazil. It was a bunch of primate field biologists, plus me and Bruno [Latour]. And Stephen Glickman, a really cool biologist, a man we both love, who taught at UC Berkeley for years and studied hyenas, took us aside privately. He said, “Now, I don’t want to embarrass you. But do you believe in reality?” 

We were both kind of shocked by the question. First, we were shocked that it was a question of belief, which is a Protestant question. A confessional question. The idea that reality is a question of belief is a barely secularized legacy of the religious wars. In fact, reality is a matter of worlding and inhabiting. It is a matter of testing the holding-ness of things. Do things hold or not? 

Take evolution. The notion that you would or would not “believe” in evolution already gives away the game. If you say, “Of course I believe in evolution,” you have lost, because you have entered the semiotics of representationalism — and post-truth, frankly. You have entered an arena where these are all just matters of internal conviction and have nothing to do with the world. You have left the domain of worlding. 

On socialist solutionisms, and/or Fully Automated Luxury Asteroid-Mining:

I’m very pro-technology, but I belong to a crowd that is quite skeptical of the projects of what we might call the “techno-fix,” in part because of their profound immersion in technocapitalism and their disengagement from communities of practice.

Those communities may need other kinds of technologies than those promised by the techno-fix: different kinds of mortgage instruments, say, or re-engineered water systems. I’m against the kind of techno-fixes that are abstracted from place and tied up with huge amounts of technocapital. This seems to include most geoengineering projects and imaginations.

So when I see massive solar fields and wind farms I feel conflicted, because on the one hand they may be better than fracking in Monterey County — but only maybe. Because I also know where the rare earth minerals required for renewable energy technologies come from and under what conditions. We still aren’t doing the whole supply-chain analysis of our technologies. So I think we have a long way to go in socialist understanding of these matters.

On the Stewart-Brandean techno-utopians:

They remain remarkably humanist in their orientation, in their cognitive apparatus, and in their vision of the world. They also have an almost Peter Pan quality. They never quite grew up. They say, “If it’s broken, fix it.” 

This comes from an incapacity to mourn and an incapacity to be finite. I mean that psychoanalytically: an incapacity to understand that there is no status quo ante, to understand that death and loss are real. Only within that understanding is it possible to open up to a kind of vitality that isn’t double death, that isn’t extermination, and which doesn’t yearn for transcendence, yearn for the fix.

There’s not much mourning with the Stewart Brand types. There’s not much felt loss of the already disappeared, the already dead — the disappeared of Argentina, the disappeared of the caravans, the disappeared of the species that will not come back. You can try to do as much resurrection biology as you want to. But any of the biologists who are actually involved in the work are very clear that there is no resurrection

So much to chew over. I now want to go back and re-read everything of hers I’ve ever read, and all the stuff I’ve yet to get round to… though I think I might start by watching Fabrizio Terranova’s recent documentary, of which I was heretofore not aware.

Roadtrips and brickbats

It’s high time I collected up mentions of and responses to the manifold things I’ve been up to over the last year or more, having fallen rather out of the habit; the decline of G**gle Alerts meant I stopped paying attention, basically. I can’t even do vanity right!

Anyway, let’s start with fiction. I’ve not published anything since “Los Piratas…” went to MIT’s Twelve Tomorrows the year before last, but that story has had a second life on the review circuit thanks to its appearing in Gardner Dozois’s Year’s Best #32. Someone by the moniker of Reißwolf rated it a three-star story, but recognised the Sterling quote near the end, so I’mma count that as a victory; meanwhile John DeNardo of SF Signal rates it a mere point-five stars out of five, saying that “the story is so steeped in boring (to me) economics as to be a story killer”. Can’t win ’em all, I guess… but hey, Professor H Bruce Franklin thinks it’s worth including on a course module reading list. And apparently Ellen Datlow listed “A Boardinghouse Heart” in the recommendations list for Best Horror of the Year #7, so I’m winning on aggregate.

Now on to things from this summer’s Utopian Infrastructures tour. FutureEverything’s City Infrastructures Lab went pretty well: here’s parts one and two of a piece I wrote for them as a follow-up, here’s an event report from Spaghetti Jams (with the wonderful title “The Metasystemic Roadtrip”), and here’s a video summing up the day (complete with an appearance Yours Truly and his overactive eyebrows).

Then there was Tomorrow Today at the ICA, a write-up of which can be found at Disegno; one Liam Healy took notes, but I clearly didn’t interest him very much. Selah!

A little more recently, Leila Johnston invited me to be involved in her How To Live Forever project, which takes a sort of experiential design-fiction-esque look at transhumanist immortality tropes. My contribution mostly involved being interviewed for this video, which was screened during the exhibit/performance/show/experience:

(More recently still, I was invited to debate the ethics of transhumanism at an event in London; on discovering said event was actually the UK Transhumanist Party’s AGM, I declined as politely as possible. There is, it turns out, a limit to my stupidity.)

What else? Oh, yeah, academia — I’ve an essay in press at the Journal of Futures Studies on the role of utopian thinking in science fiction, urban planning and futurism, but I’m not sure what the street date is on that one yet. However, the paper I co-wrote with Shirin Elahi off the back off Oxford Futures Forum 2014 just went live at Futures… and it’s open-access, thanks to the EPSRC coughing up Elsevier’s blood-price, so anyone (in theory) can read it. If you do, please let me know what you think.