Since the 2008 global financial crisis, social movements which once pursued scattered causes are increasingly united against a common enemy: capitalism. In his recent article “The New Combinations: Revolt of the Global Value-Subjects,” Nick Dyer-Witherford recounts how the “landscapes of globalized capital” are riven by scenes of political unrest. We have witnessed a decade crossed with an “ascending arc of struggles”: demonstrations across different cities “mark the convergence of a range of campaigns and activisms,” while coalitions of political groups “often exceed single issues and specific identities,” and find means to converge on shared anti-capitalist perspectives – pushing back against a society built on purposeful scarcity, a society that predicates the wealth of the few on the poverty of the many (Dyer-Witherford 156-158).
Capitalism, in spreading wealth at an unequal rate, “can set all its subjects in competition with each other.” This separation of the population ensures that the masses will not rise up against their oppressors. That’s why the mobilization of different political activism groups as one anti-capitalist multitude is particularly dangerous to the existing hierarchy. So what has changed? There are many factors, but one which stands out. Modern day demonstrations and protests take place not only in the streets, but also in the realm of cyberspace. Information technology allows resistance groups to communicate and co-ordinate as never before, and what starts as a hashtag can quickly sprout into a powerful movement for change. Plenty of cyberactivism isn’t even that overtly political, but nevertheless strikes a blow against capitalism by de-commodifying capitalist products through “piracy; open source and free software initiatives; peer-to-peer production; and gift economy practices” (Dyer-Witherford 175-180).
Building on the longstanding tradition of social science fiction, the 2017 novel Walkaway by Cory Doctorow explores the extension of the digital community beyond the realms of cyberspace and into the physical world. It imagines a symbiotic post-digital relationship between humans and machines. The communal nature of producing digitally rendered objects in the non-digital world provides a technotopian solution to the anti-utopian capitalist regime – unyielding in its commitment that there is no better world possible.
In a change from recent custom, this year Vector will be holding our annual round-up right here online. So keep your eyes peeled, your noses twitching, and your statoliths shoogling for a series of posts throughout December and January. They’re going to be packed with all the highlights (and maybe a few lowlights) of 2018 in science fiction. We’ll kick off next week with Nina Allan‘s pick of 2018.
And — while we’re talking about SF that amazed and inspired in 2018 — don’t forget that nominations are now open for the BSFA Awards! As usual, there are four categories: novel, short fiction, non-fiction, and artwork. Anyone can suggest works on this eligibility spreadsheet. To nominate and vote in the awards you must be a BSFA member (join here). If you’ve recently joined and don’t yet have a membership number, don’t worry! You’re still eligible to nominate and to vote.
This article examines a series of near-future SF stories that offer snapshots of an immediate future dominated by the intensification of contemporary economic tendencies, including increased automation and the rise of digital platforms. Much twentieth century SF tends to traffic in a certain techno-optimism in its outlook, not so much to suggest that technological advances would produce positive outcomes but that they would continue to develop and expand in their complexity and productivity. Today this utopian legacy is carried forward both by literary science fiction studies and by the uses of science fiction within contemporary political theory. In a different vein, and in tension with this outlook, is what we call ‘science friction’: a literary practice of slowing down visions of technological and social progress.
Two recent collections, Futures and Fictions (2017) and Economic Science Fictions(2018), look to SF to counter the dominant cultural narrative of what Mark Fisher calls ‘capitalist realism’—the Thatcherite idea that ‘there is no alternative’ to capitalism—with alternative visions of the future based largely on emerging technological innovations . To puzzle over this position, as we’ll do below, is not to be fatalistic or to concede political ground on the terrain of the imaginary. Rather, it is to question the capacity of capitalist technology to usher in a postcapitalist future, especially under contemporary conditions of stagnation and precarity. As these works of science friction suggest, further development of capitalist technologies are likely to offer more of the same, but worse.
Critics such as Simon O’Sullivan, William Davies and Peter Frase have argued that a visionary SF can offer much-needed screenshots of a postcapitalist future, challenging the neoliberal status quo and bolstering a left that suffers from a perceived poverty of imagination.  In the discussion that opens Futures and Fictions, for example, O’Sullivan argues that ‘future fictions have a more general traction on the real, not least insofar as they can offer concrete models for other ways of life in the present.’  Several of the essays in the collectionsuggest that the intensification of late capitalist technological developments will provide the means to realize a postcapitalist utopia if the economy were managed by a socialist state. Here, full automation and universal basic income (UBI) constitute transitional demands on the way to what Aaron Bastani brands ‘fully automated luxury communism’ .Continue reading “Science Friction”→
Do you know about the writing groups operated by the BSFA?
Maybe you’re gazing enviously at all those #NaNoWriMo scribblers on their way to a first draft, and a story is starting to stir inside you. Or maybe you’ve been looking around for a while for a community to support your writing.
The BSFA runs the Orbit groups, a series of online workshopping groups. You can pay a lot of money to sign up to online workshops or writing courses, but the Orbit groups are free to BSFA members. If you are a BSFA member and are interested in participating, get in touch with our Orbit Co-ordinator Terry Jackman. If you’re not yet a member, you can join here.
What is an Orbit group?
BSFA Orbit groups are made up of about five writers, who keep in touch via email. Each writer shares their work with the other members of the group and, in turn, reads and comments upon the stories of the others – offering comments and suggestions about how the writing might be made better.
All Orbit groups are open to writers of science fiction, fantasy and horror stories. There are separate groups for those concentrating on short fiction and those who are working on novels.
Members make their own decisions about how they’d like their particular Orbit groups to work, so groups are free to make decisions that suit their needs.
What do you do?
By becoming part of an Orbit group you’re committing to give other members’ work the same care and attention you’d like your own stories to receive. You commit to read carefully, and to comment thoughtfully, honestly, and constructively. And, even if you don’t include a story in every round, you commit to respond to every story and to stick to deadlines. Orbit groups are cooperative, and Orbiters tend to get out of the groups what they put in.
What do you get?
Most obviously you get different viewpoints on your work. You get the opinions of a group of unbiased readers who, like you, are interested in what makes a strong genre story. You get a range of ideas about what works in your writing and what does not. And, unlike some face-to-face writers’ groups, you get time to mull over the comments in private – so there’s no posturing or point-scoring, just writers working together to make their work better.
But it isn’t just the feedback you receive that helps you improve as a writer. The process of critiquing itself can nourish skills applicable to your own writing. By exploring what you think works (or doesn’t work) in someone else’s story, you can learn how to improve your own. Members can also share experiences, suggest markets, and offer more general advice and support about being a writer. And, of course, writing can be a lonely business, but in an Orbit you always have someone to share ideas with.
Who will be in my group?
The Orbit groups are open to writers of all levels. Orbit groups can be made up of writers at a wide variety of stages in their careers. Some may be unpublished and just starting out, others may have been published many, many times, there are even some orbiters who are editors or who work in publishing.
Do Orbits work?
They do, and Orbit groups include members who have been published professionally but who stay in the groups because they believe that they continue to benefit from sharing their work with other writers.
Orbit groups let you see your work through the eyes of others. They give you the kind of feedback most editors simply don’t have the time to provide and the honest feedback you won’t get from friends and family. Members are encouraged to be polite but honest even if, sometimes, the truth can hurt. Orbit groups don’t try to make you feel better; their goal is to make you a better writer.
How do I join?
If you are already a BSFA member, contact the Orbit coordinator Terry Jackman.
BSFA membership is £29 standard UK, £20 for students and unwaged, £31 joint and £45 international. You can join the BSFA here (and feel free to get in touch with Terry as soon as you have sent your membership fee).
History of the Orbits
The original Orbit groups operated by post. Members circulated an envelope containing printed manuscripts and in each “round” a member received comments on their previous story, read and commented on new material from the other authors, and added a new story. Until a few years ago, there were still groups that preferred this method. Nowadays, however, all the active Orbiters operate via email.
Ian Moore reports back on Octocon, Ireland’s national science fiction convention, which this year ran in the Blanchardstown Crowne Plaza hotel from 19 to 20 October. This write-up originally appeared at Secret Panda.
I recently attended Octocon, the exciting Irish national science fiction convention. Octocon is the other extreme to huge conventions like Worldcon, being an intimate affair taking place over a weekend rather than a five-day event involving thousands of attendees. If you have been to more than one Octocon you will recognise a lot of the attendees and panellists, with there being considerably more overlap between these two categories than might be the case elsewhere. The programme is multi-tracked but not massively multi-tracked. So Octocon is basically a boutique convention and would suit people who like neither crowds nor a surfeit of choice in the programming.
Due to unpleasantness Octocon this year has moved to the Crowne Plaza Hotel, just beside the Blanchardstown Shopping Centre. The location suits it as Blanchardstown Shopping Centre is itself a strangely artificial place, like something out of a JG Ballard novel; in the near future, we will all live in Blanchardstown Shopping Centre. The hotel meanwhile felt like a pretty swish spot, with well-appointed function rooms and a large open space that served as a light and airy dealers’ room. I don’t know what the two birds in the lobby made of the Octocon attendees but they probably see all sorts.
A cat issue meant that I was late out on the Friday and missed the opening ceremony. I did however catch The Trance Mission Diaries, which was a performance piece by O.R. Melling with electronic music by Cha Krka. This was something of a work in progress as the goal is for it ultimately to include considerably more advanced elements like holograms and singing as well as the projected visuals and electronic music accompanying Melling’s narration. I enjoyed it but found the narrative difficult to follow, which I think was as much down to my own tiredness and it being the first thing I encountered at the con. Nevertheless, the narration and music worked well together and I look forward to seeing how this work develops.
Following that I attended a film-related panel featuring John Vaughan and Robert JE Simpson comparing and contrasting the 1960s gothic horror films of Hammer with the contemporary oeuvre of Blumhouse. The contention was that the business model of the two companies is similar: spewing out somewhat trashy films made on relatively modest budgets but hoping for at least some mainstream success, perhaps throwing in an occasional more serious film to gather some critical respectability. I was at something of a disadvantage here being almost entirely unfamiliar with the works of Blumhouse, and the big unanswered question for me was whether that studio has developed any kind of consistent aesthetic in the way that Hammer did. I was also left reeling by the panellists’ anti-Hereditary comments, which did remind me of some reviews that suggested it was a horror film for people who are not true horror fans.
For me Friday ended with a panel on how we as fans deal with things we like that have changed, particularly when the change moves things on from what we liked about them in the first place. This kind of thing is sometimes framed negatively (i.e. discussions of butt-hurt racists saying that they will never watch a Star Wars film again now that an Asian actor has appeared in one or people moaning about the Doctor becoming female). However, I think that there are times when fans are right to abandon a property (while obviously being wrong to harass persons involved in its production); e.g. two of the three Star Wars prequels were completely terrible and anyone who saw them and decided that they were done with Star Wars was making a reasonable decision, while no true Trek fan should waste their time with the recent Star Trek films. Also, people do just grow out of things sometimes.
The changing canon panel also had me thinking about how much a thing has to change before it is no longer the same thing. The panel discussed whether the character of Iron Fist should have been portrayed by a white or Asian character in the recent adaptation of the comics (in which Iron Fist is white but playing a character that in our enlightened times might perhaps be more appropriately presented as Asian). I have no familiarity with Mr Iron Fist but I was reminded of the periodic discussion of whether James Bond could be played by a black or female actor; my own view on this matter is that in this case such changes would so far deviate from the core of the character as to essentially make it an entirely different one with the same name (though I must add that I do not give a shit about James Bond and his misogynist antics and would be happy for the character to be played by Leslie Jones, edgily re-imagined as an American ophthalmologist).
For me though the most fascinating thing that came out of the canon panel was C.E. Murphy mentioning the Kirk-Drift theory, this being the idea that the popular conception of original series Star Trek‘s Captain Kirk as an alpha male dipshit shagger is essentially a mass delusion. Further investigation brought me subsequently to Erin Horáková’s development of this idea and its consequences in a piece she wrote for Strange Horizons, which I encourage all readers to investigate.
Saturday morning saw me first of all working on the Octocon reception desk, where we dealt with registering convention attendees as they arrived. If you arrived at Octocon on Saturday morning then maybe mine was the friendly face that greeted you (or the surly jobsworth who couldn’t find your reservation). I made friends with some pandas who had come to the convention to examine Octocon’s Hugo trophy.
The morning also saw me make my debut as an Octocon panellist. As part of my efforts to promote the World Science Fiction Convention that is coming to Dublin next year I took part in a panel intended to drum up enthusiasm for volunteering at Worldcon. It turned out we were rather talking to the converted as almost everyone present was already volunteering for Worldcon, but this did allow us to gang up on the others. If anyone reading this is not a Worldcon volunteer then I encourage you to get involved, as volunteering is fun, a way of meeting people, a way of giving something back to science fiction and a way of seeing the inside of what will be the biggest science fiction event to ever come to Ireland.
More time on the reception desk and then my own interest in lunch meant that the next event I attended was the guest of honour interview by Octocon chair Janet O’Sullivan with Pat Cadigan, an American science fiction writer who now lives in England. I was not previously familiar with her work (which is more a reflection on me than on her as I am a slow reader and am unfamiliar with most writers). I found the interview fascinating, as any question would set Cadigan off on a stream of anecdote that would lead very far from the initial starting point. I particularly liked her favourable recollection of Robert Heinlein, someone who now is perhaps unfairly and simplistically pigeon-holed as a right-wing ultra, but whom she recalls as a very generous character. I was also touched by the particularly star-struck question from a member of the audience and Cadigan’s gracious response.
Cadigan also mentioned having previously attended some class of event called a relaxacon. I don’t know what these are but I want to go to one.
Not the Monster panel
As you know, this is the 200th anniversary of the publication of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and with it the birth of science fiction. Octocon had an entire programming strand engaging with Frankenstein’s legacy and I now found myself attending a panel discussion on the Monster’s perspective. This got a bit “could it be that we are the real monster?” but I was struck by the discussion of consent issues (e.g. Frankenstein’s Monster badgering him to create a Lady Monster for him, taking for granted that she will want to be his mate). More general discussion of how a simple shift of perspective can make monsters appear like victims led to an interesting recollection by one panellist of a story they read once about people in the remote past fighting Trolls, where the reader realises that the Trolls are the last Neanderthals being hunted to extinction; it occurs to me now that another work of this kind is I Am Legend, the 1954 novel by Richard Matheson, where the book ends with the protagonist’s realisation that he is a monster to the vampiric new humans (I wish I had thought of this at the panel and established my remembering-things-about-books-I-have-read credentials by mentioning it). I was also reminded of various works in 2000 AD by Pat Mills, where his writing was very evocative of the non-human mindset of dinosaurs and other monstrous creatures.
Of the panellists’ own works, Sarah Maria Griffin’s take on Frankenstein, in which a brainy teenage girl attempts to build herself a boyfriend, sounds like it might have a Christmas present date with my niece.
The last programme item I made it to on the Saturday was the Vault of Horror. This is always a highlight of Octocon but it is also an event that is hard to describe in a way that does not make it sound a bit rubbish if you have never experienced it. The Vault sees John Vaughan playing snippets from a terrible film and drawing attention to the film’s awfulness. He does this in a way that is actually funny rather than being some smug guy making fun of other people’s attempts at making films. This year he reported that he has almost run out of terrible films but then he had found a terrible Gerard Butler vehicle called Geostorm with which to delight us. He also provided us with the sad news that due to a progressive illness he will not be in a position to continue serving up the Vault indefinitely into the future, but he will next year be bringing the Vault to Worldcon and presenting one of the most terrible of the films with which he has previously charmed Octocon. Are you coming to Worldcon? Then you will come to the Vault, you will.
I sadly ate so much food for dinner at this point (a recurring theme for me at Science Fiction conventions) that I was too disgustingly full to enjoy the Monsters Ball and left early, thinking that next year is definitely the one where I find some kind of easy cosplay outfit to wear.
This academic article originally appeared in Vector #288.
By Esko Suoranta
The cyberpunk dystopia is already here, it’s just unevenly distributed. Western democracies appear to be in crisis. Populist nationalisms are on the rise, while an ever-so-free market tightens its grip on our everyday existence, building vast private siloes of personal data. Climate change is spurred on by the rise of new imaginary currencies, mined from pure mathematics and pumping tens of millions of tons of carbon into the sky. Technologies from space travel to nanotechnology take unprecedented leaps. Meanwhile, in fiction, nostalgia appears to be a prime directive. The imagined futures of the 1980–90s receive reboots which appropriate the aesthetics of the past, but often fail to update its politics in the process: see Blade Runner 2049 (2017) and Ghost in the Shell(2017). Against such future-washed conservatism, a counter-project is also emerging. Critics and authors like Monika Bielskyte and Nnedi Okorafor sound the clarion for new ways to imagine the future, and to pave the path for a more equal and sustainable world.
In this context, Malka Older’s debut novel Infomocracy (2016) explores progressive political and economic alternatives in a near-future setting. Part political techno-thriller, part thought-experiment on global micro-democracy, the novel follows four protagonists in the 22nd century as the third global elections loom. In the micro-democratic system, each geographic “centenal,” a unit of 100,000 people, chooses their representatives from a myriad of parties ranging from PhillipMorris and Liberty, to Earth1st and YouGov. Nation states have practically disappeared and the global election process is governed by Information, a descendant of the internet giants of yore, seemingly fused with something like the United Nations. The organization strives for neutral and truthful management of information and a fair administration of the micro-democratic process.
Predictably, political rivals try to play the system for their own benefit, and much of the plot revolves around such schemes. Through their twists and turns, Older highlights the precariousness of information labor in highly networked societies as workers become interfaces of bodies and computer networks, producing a distributed subjectivity. These themes become clear through an analysis of Older’s treatment of her protagonists and her depiction of Information’s custodianship of networked data. Infomocracy conducts an optimistic thought-experiment on the future of what Shoshana Zuboff calls “surveillance capitalism.” I aim to show how, for Older, there are two keys to diverting surveillance capitalism in a more optimistic direction. First, the democratization of skills related to information work. Second, the not-for-profit management of data.