Vector invites invites proposals for articles for a #298, a special issue on speculative fictionand libraries, as well as adjacent themes, e.g. speculative angles on archives, collections, repositories, simulations, antilibraries, catalogues, metadata, preservation, curation, media archaeology, literary publics, open access, search, big data, taxonomies, folksonomies, epistemes, architectures of knowledge, hypomnemata, the history and future of print, oral traditions, embodied knowledge, book stores, index cards, bibliographic management, scholarly apparatuses, indexes, performance archiving, back-ups, more-than-human knowledge systems, data futures, code libraries, toy libraries, tool libraries, etc.
I was at a massive mixer for members of the Science Fiction Writers of America, a group I had just joined, wondering how I could even talk with these big, important people. The question everyone asked when you walked up to them was, “What type of science fiction do you write?” After mumbling some self-deprecating responses like “bad” or “oh you know like … the kind with robots and spaceships?” I tried to express what made my work different. “I write working-class science fiction,” I told the next gentleman. “Stories with waitresses and janitors in space, you know? I feel like there’s too many stories about rich guys without real problems.”
I picked the wrong man to try this tactic on. He laughed condescendingly and said, “The opposite is true. Everything is about some worker everyman. There aren’t enough stories about rich characters!”
My first thought was, Ooookay time to start never talking to this dude ever again, but my second thought was a worried, Is he right? I had this gut feeling that a lot of the science fiction I had read didn’t represent my social class, but was I just biased?1
The only answer was, of course, to collect some statistics! This paper is the culmination of my efforts to answer the question for myself, “Is there a class bias in main characters in science fiction, and if so, are poor or wealthy characters more predominant?”
Choosing the Books
The first question I had to answer was, “How do I take a sample set of science fiction?” I limited myself to novels, because novels or their detailed discussions were easy to find, and that way I’d be comparing apples to apples.
Reading every science fiction novel ever would not be feasible, especially with a staff of just me. I searched for recommended reading lists, but which to choose? Many were simply “The Best of 2019” or such. While it would be interesting to look at a specific period of SF, I wanted a cross-section of what an average reader might have in mind, and that meant including recent books as well as old classics. I googled “Top Science Fiction Novels” in an incognito browser tab (so as not to bias the results with my search history) and took the first 50 novels the search returned. I liked that list better: it felt eclectic, and included recent novels as well as Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein. Of course, the Google search results, while incognito, still would be skewed toward my location in the Midwest United States.
The British Science Fiction Association’s magazine, Vector, announced a call for papers on class and science fiction. I could hardly contain my excitement (and imposter syndrome) as I typed and re-typed my email asking if this statistical analysis was the sort of thing that maybe they’d want to see? And so, my next data set was BSFA award winners. These would skew British to balance my American bias. How better to kiss up to the editors? I started my spreadsheet!
BSFA award winners include fantasy novels with no science fictional elements, however, maintaining genre purity would open up a can of worms (how to draw the lines? Who gets to say what is or isn’t SF?). I would keep the results of each list separate, to see if there was any bias.
On accepting the paper proposal, editor Polina Levontin suggested adding the titles from the Orion SF Masterworks book series, a somewhat curated list, limited only by what titles Orion had the rights to. So now I had three piles of representative works: award winners, a hodgepodge recommended by Google, and a curated list for a total of 194 separate titles. It seemed as close as I was going to get to a reasonable sampling of notable science fiction novels.
Scenario planning refers to methods used by decision-makers to enhance their strategic thinking, especially in situations characterised by turbulence, uncertainty, novelty, and ambiguity. Scenario planning is therefore particularly relevant in the context of climate change, which is complex, unprecedented, and potentially presents us with difficult-to-predict risk cascades and tipping points. Climate change may also present us with “feral futures”, in which our own interventions cause or exacerbate severe turbulence within a system or situation. In the face of such uncertainty, scenario planning enables users to generate new ideas, develop or test strategic options, establish monitoring and early warning processes for emergent issues, and enhance decision-making.
Scenarios are not forecasts that predict likely futures, but spaces in which unexamined assumptions can be confronted and potentially suspended or transformed. They are aesthetic depictions of plausible futures that enable us to re-examine our current understanding of our environment, appreciating the power of uncertainty and its capacity to inspire fear and wonder.
The affinity between scenario planning and science fiction has been widely remarked on in the literature, but in this paper we draw a novel connection between scenario planning and Gothic literature. In particular, we examine how scenarios, as Gothic narratives, provide conceptual resources to make sense of the experience of the “strategic sublime”: that which has been excluded from our frame of understanding. The art of scenario planning, like that of Gothic literature, lies in balancing anxiety, insight, and agency in our encounter with that which had previously seemed beyond discussion.
Review: This article underwent editorial review from three editors.
Facing the Strategic Sublime: Scenario Planning as Gothic Narrative
The earth is split open. A vast, blazing pit disgorges luminous gas over a barren landscape. The sky is deep blue, pale at the horizon; it could be dawn or dusk. From our vantage point, the fire could be bottomless. Look carefully: at the edge of the pit, a tiny human figure stands, palms raised to the heat.
Julian Bell, Darvaza, 2010
This is Julian Bell’s 2010 painting Darvaza. It depicts a site the artist visited in Turkmenistan; its name, in Persian, means “the door to hell” (Garzemi & Garsanti, 2019). As Bell (2013) recounts, the blazing pit was inadvertently created by Soviet engineers in 1971 while seeking oil drilling sites. Striking a gas-filled cavity, the engineers chose to burn off its contents, only to find the resulting inferno beyond their control. It has burned ever since.
Bell locates his painting in a tradition of artists seeking to convey a sense of the sublime, an intense aesthetic experience in which “the self becomes a mere ingredient in the landscape, feeling insignificant, overwhelmed and humbled by nature” (Brady, 2013, p.199).
Yet, in Bell’s account, this hellish phenomenon was created by human, technocratic actions, and his story of Darvaza also serves as an example of what Ramírez and Ravetz (2011) have called “feral futures”. Drawing an analogy to domesticated animals that revert to the wild, Ramírez and Ravetz describe how “human intervention create[s] an unwanted unfolding situation that could not have occurred in the wild” (p.480), offering examples such as the nuclear incident at Three Mile Island and the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.
The idea of the “feral future” is useful in helping us understand how wicked, complex problems can stem from our own actions. In the Anthropocene, feral futures are increasingly prevalent. Even the impact of something as apparently “wild” as COVID-19 has feral aspects, as the ways in which the pandemic has played out are entwined with globalisation, climate change, urbanisation, and wide variations in responses by governments, institutions, and communities.
In this paper, we explore scenario planning as a tool for coping with the “strategic sublime” in feral situations characterised by turbulence, uncertainty, novelty, and ambiguity. Scenarios are not forecasts, but plausible stories of the futures which we may face (Spaniol & Rowland, 2019). We follow Ramírez and Wilkinson (2016) in understanding them as assessments of the future context for a given question or issue, designed to contrast with the way that context is currently being framed. As a brief case study, we include the four IMAJINE scenarios exploring the future of European regional inequalities.
By offering thought-provoking future contexts, such scenarios enable their users to generate new ideas, develop or test strategic options, establish monitoring and early warning processes for emergent issues, and enhance decision-making. Ramírez and Wilkinson argue that, by challenging current assumptions and offering alternative framings from the vantage point of multiple imagined futures, scenarios support good judgement across the three areas identified by Geoffrey Vickers (1965): What is really going on around us? What are we able to do about it? And what does the issue mean for us?
Gautam Bhatia is a science fiction writer, reviewer, and an editor of the award-winning STRANGE HORIZONS magazine. His duology THE WALL and THE HORIZON tell the story of Mithila and her quest to discover what lies beyond the impassable Wall that surrounds the city of Sumer.
In the afterword of The Wall you thank your parents for setting you down a lifetime’s science fiction journey. And you mentioned Golden Age stories, and you mentioned The Hobbit and Foundation. Which early influences had the biggest impact on you as you were growing up?
So, quite a bit, actually. I think the really interesting thing about growing up in India in the mid-nineties, in a big city—I grew up in Delhi—in an upper-middle class family where both parents were academically oriented, was that you ended up getting exposed to a whole range of influences. So as I spoke about in the acknowledgements of The Wall, my dad and mum got me The Hobbit and Foundation when I was 10 or 11 years old, which set me down the path of science fiction and fantasy. They also got me a set of books on Greek mythology, Roger Lancelyn Green’s retelling of the Greek myths. So I grew up reading stories about Icarus, which you may have seen some influence of that in The Wall. Although that particular story is more in the domain of Indian myths—there is a very similar story in the Indian mythology, it’s in The Rāmāyana. And the story in The Wall involving flying up to the sun is based more on that than on Icarus. But it’s an interesting how different cultures end up with very similar myths. It’s just impossible to grow up in an Indian house without being immersed in The Rāmāyana and The Mahābhārata. You just know those stories so well because they are part of everything you know growing up.
And at around the time I was born, the Soviet Union hadn’t yet collapsed, its collapse was still a couple of years away. And the Soviet Union had this kind of cultural exchange program with India where Soviet books, story books and fairy tales, were available at extremely cheap prices in Indian book shops and in book fairs. So when I was born, my mom basically bought a huge stack of Soviet books and I grew up reading that. And there were lots of fairy tales. And the one thing that I remember is that along with Baba Yaga there was always this royal family with three sons, the elder two being fine and strapping young men, and the third being a fool, and the fool always thrives at the end. And of course in any post-colonial Commonwealth country, you know, Enid Blyton, English books. So there was always a melange of influences that I was exposed to when I was growing up and all of it basically pointed towards really loving fairy tales, and escapist literature, like borderline fantasy, magical realism, of different traditions, and just always being steeped in that. And that translated into a desire to write that kind of stuff.