Productive Futures conference

By Jo Lindsay Walton

I’m just back from Productive Futures, a three-day conference organised by the LSFRC (London Science Fiction Research Community1) at Birkbeck University.

Productive Futures was definitely an academic conference rather than a fan convention, but it was an academic conference with several twists: there were plenty of engaging presentations by non-academics; there was a little table with freebies and merch; writing workshops from Verena Hermann and  Oliver Langmead + Thomas Moules; discussion with Jordi Lopez-Botey about the Senate House Boycott and his other work with the IWGB (a new kind of union representing traditionally non-unionised workers such as low paid migrant workers and workers in the “gig economy”); a panel of publishers and literary agents discussing both economics in SFF and the economics of SFF publishing which was a lot better than it sounds2; an associated not-really-part-of-the-conference-but-kind-of event at the Science Museum; Sinjin Li‘s conference booklet and ephemera that added up to an immersive work of art; a roundtable with two SFF author Guests of Honour, Aliette de Bodard and Zen Cho3; and probably more I’m forgetting. The excellent keynote lectures from Joan Haran and Caroline Edwards reinforced the inclusive, outward-facing, and politically engaged ethos.

The theme of the conference was economics and SFF (coincidentally also the theme of a recent Vector (#288)). From the intro to the conference booklet:

The history of Science Fiction is a history of unreal economics. Spanning asteroid mining and interstellar trade, robotic workforces and post-scarcity futures, SF offers ways of reimagining the economics of this and other worlds. Oscillating between the tragedies of neocolonial technocapitalism and the utopian futures made thinkable by a radical redistribution of resources, the novels, films, exhibitions and thought experiments that we will discuss across these three days establish SF as a genre which can and must be understood in economic terms.

So yeah, you might be forgiven for imagining economics just means money and trade, but the conference put paid (pun intended) to that notion: ecology and climate also became a huge theme over the three days; so did work, including unpaid forms of work; so did kinship and family, including polyamory and consensual nonmonogamy; so did infrastructure, including the digital infrastructure of the internet.

If you have a twinge of FOMO, there is some good news: LSFRC also stands for the Live-tweeting Shockingly Fast in Real-time Community. The absolute virtuosos of the art of conference live-tweeting are … well, you’ll see: check out the #unrealE hashtag, with a smattering of tweets under #productivefutures and #lsfrc2019.

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Conference organisers Katie, Francis, and Tom, with other vital agencies lurking in the assemblage

A few more things:

  • We don’t have a conference report lined up for Vector, but if anyone would like to write one, or just share less formal impressions and thoughts, Vector will be very happy to host.
  • The LSFRC is an organisation of SF scholars and fans, led by graduate students based at Birkbeck and Royal Holloway. The LSFRC organises conferences, events with guest speakers, film screenings, and a monthly reading group in London. The best place to keep track of them is Facebook, and they’re also on Twitter, and have a website. LSFRC was formed in 2014 by Rhodri Davies, Andrea Dietrich, and Aren Roukema, and the current directors are Rhodri Davies, Tom Dillon, Francis Gene-Rowe, Katie Stone, and (as of now!) Sasha Myerson. In a short time LSFRC have really established themselves as an amazing force in SFF studies in the UK and around the world. Productive Futures was a seriously international conference, with attendees from the US, China, India, Germany, Finland, the Netherlands, and elsewhere, as well as one or two remote presentations from folk who couldn’t be there in the flesh. The organisers also worked to make the conference accessible and inclusive — although there is always more than can be done — with essentially a “pay what you or your institution can afford” approach to attendance fees.
  • The LSFRC’s theme for this year was political economy. The theme for the coming year is borders.


Footnotes

(1) AKA the Large Science Fiction Community, apparently. Also Lustrous, Livid, Lionhearted, etc. I should probably also mention that I played a very minor role in organising the conference, which mostly consisted of emailing “Haven’t read this properly but I agree” from time to time, and on one occasion messing up the travel budgets while very merry on Rhodri Davies’ homebrew.

(2) I have been to some boring publishers’ panels, okay? This one was great: it was deftly moderated; most of the panellists arrived well-prepared; there was nimble hat-juggling as pretty much everyone spoke both as professionals and as fans of SFF; there was nuanced consideration of different kinds of publishing; there wasn’t the assumption you sometimes get that the audience is hungry for tips on “success,” or that commodified and commercially successful SFF is the SFF that really matters. For me, the only bum note was Jo Fletcher’s response to a question about the representation of working class voices in speculative fiction, which didn’t really address the specific question, and also definitely edged toward disheartening “I don’t see colour” territory. It was however good to hear from Jo about Hachette’s Changing the Story initiative, which is reflecting critically on the industry’s lack of diversity and creating concrete opportunities for BAME people and others. (Diversity, of course, isn’t yet decolonising, and diversity-oriented thinking can even sometimes impede decolonisation! But the tensions between diversity and decoloniality should be seen on a context-by-context basis, and my hunch is within contemporary publishing a focus on diversity is still extremely useful to the wider and deeper projects of decolonisation).

(3) The third Guest of Honour, Tade Thompson, had to drop out. Maybe next year?

“Maybe, just maybe, humanity is worth saving”: Stu Jones and Gareth Worthington interviewed

Image result for it takes death to reach a star

Stu Jones and Gareth Worthington are authors of It Takes Death to Reach a Star (2018) and In the Shadow of a Valiant Moon (2020) — fast-paced, action-packed, post-apocalyptic thrillers set in the 23rd century — as well as various solo works. It Takes Death to Reach a Star was a Dragon Award Finalist, a Cygnus Award First Place Ribbon recipient, an IPPY Award Winner, a New York Book Festival Sci-Fi Award Winner, and a Feathered Quill Gold Award Winner. Vector caught up with Stu and Gareth to ask them about their collaboration …

In the Shadow of a Valiant Moon is out early next year, is that right? Tell us a little bit about it. 

Gareth: Moon — as Stu and I refer to it — is the sequel to It Takes Death to Reach a Star. It’s set four years after the events in Star. Star was dark, but Moon is darker. Even the team at Boilermaker Entertainment — they’re the ones we’re working with to bring this series to the screen — commented on how much darker it is, compared with the first book. 

Stu: And yet, even with all the bleakness and despair, there is this central thread of hope. Just the flicker of an idea that maybe, just maybe, humanity is worth saving. 

Lads, why so bleak?

Continue reading ““Maybe, just maybe, humanity is worth saving”: Stu Jones and Gareth Worthington interviewed”

The Astounding Award

With admirable swiftness, what was the John C. Campbell Award for Best New Writer has been re-named The Astounding Award for Best New Writer.

Named for Campbell, whose writing and role as editor of Astounding Science Fiction (later renamed Analog Science Fiction and Fact) made him hugely influential in laying the groundwork for both the Golden Age of Science Fiction and beyond, the award has over the years recognized such nominees as George R.R. Martin, Bruce Sterling, Carl Sagan, and Lois McMaster Bujold, as well as award winners like Ted Chiang, Nalo Hopkinson, and John Scalzi.

However, Campbell’s provocative editorials and opinions on race, slavery, and other matters often reflected positions that went beyond just the mores of his time and are today at odds with modern values, including those held by the award’s many nominees, winners, and supporters.

The full statement can be found here. Jeannette Ng’s acceptance speech, which sparked the change, can be found here. It began something like this: Continue reading “The Astounding Award”

In Conversation: Passing the Baton of Egyptian Science Fiction, Post-Arab Spring 

Organized and translated by Emad El-Din Aysha. Emad comments:

This is a roundtable discussion among several members of لجمعية المصرية لأدب الخيال العلمي‎, the Egyptian Society for Science Fiction (ESSF). The ESSF was founded in 2012 shortly after the Egyptian January 2011 revolution. In that moment, a group of people who had largely lost hope of all change in Egyptian life—scientists, academics, artists, writers, poets—felt that everything had changed, and that they could now make a constructive contribution towards building the future. This conversation took place in late 2018, and was conducted predominantly in Arabic. Discussants were Manal Abd Al-Hamid, Ahmed Al-Mahdi, Emad El-Din Aysha, Hosam El-Zembely, Muhammad Naguib Matter, and Kadria Said.

Thank you all for participating. First off, how did you learn of the ESSF and the Shams Al-Ghad [‘Sun of Tomorrow’] series of anthologies?

Muhammad Naguib Matter: Via the internet! I saw an advert for an ESSF salon and I attended it, and since then I haven’t missed an event. For me, something like the ESSF, such a group, used to be pure fantasy. The literary scene here in Egypt is completely void of SF workshops. Yes, there are some cultural salons, like the one in Giza, dedicated to the memory of Nihad Sharif, the dearly departed pioneer of Egyptian science fiction. There’s also a salon for science fiction in Aswan, in southern Egypt. But these events are lacking: they essentially do one thing, which is to host big names in the world of literature to talk about their works. They leave no room at all to learn something. There are no workshops. So that’s what drew me straight away to the ESSF. It’s filling that gap.

Continue reading “In Conversation: Passing the Baton of Egyptian Science Fiction, Post-Arab Spring “

Focus

The BSFA is looking for a new team member to work on Focus, especially handling the layout. Someone with experience of InDesign or Publisher would be ideal, but we can help you to learn the ropes. It’s a great opportunity to gain some entry level editorial experience, and to be part of a future-facing fan association, encouraging and promoting SF in all its forms. For more information, contact Donna at chair@bsfa.co.uk.

Get Out

By Dev Agarwal. This review first appeared in Vector 287.

Get Out premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January 2017, and was theatrically released in the United States a month later. The film was well-received by critics and audiences, with particular praise for Jordan Peele’s writing and directing and for Daniel Kaluuya’s performance. Get Out was chosen by the National Board of Review, the American Film Institute, and Time magazine as one of the top 10 films of the year, and received four Oscar nominations.

The film is both its own unique story and part of a canon of socially relevant horror films. It blends social commentary, comedic elements, drama and genuine scares to bring together a coherent narrative about exploitation and the black experience in America today. 

Besides being the highest grossing feature debut for an original screenplay, the film made Peele the first black writer-director to reach $100 million on a feature debut. And at $162.8 million, it’s the biggest domestic hit from a black director. It cost $4.5 million dollars but it now grossed $175 million in the USA and 254 million worldwide. It is the third highest ranking for an R rated horror after IT and The Exorcist.  

In fannish circles, Get Out arrives at a time when some loud voices are decrying diversity as “virtue signalling” and “message fiction.” Message fiction, they claim, puts politics ahead of all other considerations, especially storytelling and entertainment. As science fiction writer Larry Correia puts it: “Let’s shove more message fiction down their throats! My cause comes before their enjoyment!” This little schism in science fiction reflects a greater schism in western society itself. For the first time in decades, the neoliberal consensus is under serious pressure, both from the left and from the alt right. Long held certainties are in question. Brexit has wobbled the postwar European project. Nuclear Armageddon is being credibly imagined once more. There are actual Nazis everywhere; Marine Le Pen of the Front National brushes against the French presidency while White Nationalists run down protesters in Charlottesville. And, of course, looming over everything is the still remarkable phrase: President Donald Trump.

And none of this is fiction. Not even the most outlandish science fiction. Into this volatile, surreal world comes the movie Get Out

Get Out posits the story of a black man, Chris, driving from his comfortable middle-class home in Brooklyn to upstate New York. But just before we get to Chris and his story, there is a pre-credit prologue. A black man is lost in a prosperous white suburb … a ‘nice’ part of town. We have, for many years and regardless of our own origins, been invited to follow the story from the default setting of white protagonists navigating white society. Get Out invites us to instead follow black protagonists navigating white society, and horror proves a relevant genre. As this prologue unfolds, the terror mounts, and racial identity become an increasingly urgent matter. 

Tanarive Due draws a comparison with ‘The Comet’ by W.E.B. DuBois, observing that DuBois was writing horror from the heart. And, of course, what he’s trying to counteract with that story is a different horror […] There were moments in the DuBois story where he’s nervous about where he goes and how he’s seen from the outside. It’s similar to the opening of Get Out, being lost in a strange, white neighbourhood. That’s so real.”

Manohla Dargis, reviewing in the New York Times observes that “Peele briskly sets the tone and unsettles the mood. He’s working within a recognizable horror-film framework here (the darkness, the stillness), so it’s not surprising when a car abruptly pulls up and begins tailing the man […] when this man anxiously looks for a way out, the scene grows discordantly disturbing because you may, as I did, flash on Trayvon Martin.”

The film soon introduces our main character, Chris, played by Daniel Kaluuya. A staple of horror is that things begin very “normally.” Chris is a black man in Brooklyn, living a comfortable middle-class life with his white girlfriend, Rose, who is played by Allison Williams. So things may seem normal, even humdrum. Chris has been invited to meet Rose’s family, who live upstate on a huge estate. At the outset, the implication is that Rose’s family are part of the wealthy white middle classes, post-racial, egalitarian, liberal, and welcoming. Chris’s attempts to anticipate any racial awkwardness are met with disarming humour by Rose. This premise could be lifted from Poitier’s Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner from 1967, but then projected through the amplifying lenses of both horror and science fiction.

As we journey closer to Rose’s family, things begin to steadily deviate from anywhere near “normal.” On the drive upstate, Rose and Chris hit a deer – a jump scare and also a distressing and bloody encounter. A white policeman arrives on the scene and his reaction to the traffic accident is to demand Chris’s ID. It’s a moment designed to outrage a liberal audience. But it also reveals how both characters react. Chris is pragmatically compliant, whereas Rose, the one who was actually driving the car, confronts the officer. Following this tense, ambiguous encounter, Chris affirms Rose’s act – “that was some ride or die shit, baby; I like that” – but it’s a remark with many layers, and even below those layers, we sense that there is a lot he isn’t saying. This film doesn’t just talk about race, but also about silence: about all the ways race isn’t talked about.

By the time he arrives on the estate, Chris has been through two unnerving events, the death of an animal and the threat of a police officer. Neither incident is fantastical, and yet they add to the accumulation of tension and discomfort. Now, the family who awaits him ranges from the patronisingly liberal to the loutish and offensive. It’s just the welcome Chris appeared to fear at the outset. 

In this sense, the film is experimenting with the use of ‘normality’ in the standard horror arc. As Tananarive Due points out, “Horror is a great way to address this awful, festering wound in the American psyche, the slavery and genocide that was present during our nation’s birth.” The possibility of being arrested or murdered whenever he meets the police is part of Chris’s reality that Rose is shielded from. Likewise, the awkwardness of managing the family’s creepy behaviour is ‘normal’ for Chris. 

Nevertheless, at this stage, the story may seem more social drama than horror. However, Peele has already skilfully slipped in cues which will resonate later in the film. The narrative’s details continue to accrete like coral. The black characters on the estate are mostly servants, and they remain distinctly uncommunicative with Chris, or weirdly out of sync in their behaviour. Indeed, it is these few black characters who create the gateway into the horror genre proper. Their uncanny presence, and the reactions of the white characters to their disturbed behaviour, is the chief source of tension in this part of the film. The smallest details imply warnings of the looming terror, as the ‘minor’ characters start to leak their secrets, and bit by bit the skin of the genteel peels back to expose a brutal, fantastically horrific foundation.

I’ll avoid any big spoilers, but this is a film you can run your mind over afterwards, admiring the many small, clever details that reveal its careful construction. Many audiences may be satisfied with the jump scares and plot surprises, while more schooled genre viewers will take the extra pleasure in their anticipation of horror and SF tropes. Peele engages established genre elements – hypnotic suggestion, out-of-body experiences, experiments on human subjects that would fit within David Cronenberg’s body horror films. We even get grainy video footage of the 1980s that looks like the Dharma Project from Lost, or recalls that moment in Quatermass where a major plot development is explained by silent film footage. 

At the same time, Peele never resorts to mere pandering allusions or cheap tricks. He asks us to emotionally invest in the characters’ lives, and that means understanding how they feel in specific settings or situations. The film draws on the history of slavery and exploitation, as well as the racist stereotypes about the ‘physical vitality’ of black bodies. The allegory has resonated so widely that a UCLA course in African-American Studies has now been named after a key conceit of the film: ‘Sunken Place: Racism, Survival, and Black Horror Aesthetic.’ The course is now made available to anyone online. The trick that Peele pulls off is to make the message mesh with his story in such a way that they become synergistic and ultimately indivisible.

Get Out cost $4.5 million dollars to make and took $33.3 million on its opening weekend. It’s now surpassed the $175 million mark in the US alone, putting it behind The Exorcist and It for R-rated horror. In financial terms, Get Out is a success.

And, in cultural terms, the film is already earning the sobriquet “revolutionary.” In an interview with Evan Narcisse for io9, Tananarive Due said that, “just recently, we were talking to some network execs about a pilot we were developing […] and they were like, “Oh, like in Get Out.” And it’s not that it’s anything similar to Get Out, it’s just that was now the new framework. That’s what black horror looks like: Get Out. They can now have a reference point and you can continue with the conversation. Because before, you could barely even get that conversation started.”

Any work that is discussed as revolutionary resists pigeon-holing, especially if categorisation itself is symptomatic, as in the case of Get Out being nominated in the “comedy” category at the Golden Globes. Peele himself has said that “[t]he reason for the visceral response to this movie being called a comedy is that we are still living in a time in which African-American cries for justice aren’t being taken seriously. It’s important to acknowledge that though there are funny moments, the systemic racism that the movie is about is very real. More than anything, it shows me that film can be a force for change. At the end of the day, call Get Out horror, comedy, drama, action or documentary, I don’t care. Whatever you call it, just know it’s our truth.’’

References:

  1. https://www.nytimes.com/2017/02/23/movies/get-out-review-jordan-peele.html
  2. https://www.nytimes.com/2017/12/20/magazine/jordan-peeles-x-ray-vision.html?
  3. https://io9.gizmodo.com/how-get-out-inspired-a-new-college-course-on-racism-and-1801027341
  4. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Get_Out
  5. https://themuse.jezebel.com/a-chat-with-actor-betty-gabriel-about-get-out-white-co-1794312117
  6. https://io9.gizmodo.com/get-out-almost-had-a-much-bleaker-ending-according-to-1792959724

Space Age: Mapping’s Intelligent Agents

Navigational chart from the Marshall Islands, made of wood, sennit fiber, and cowrie shells. [Wikimedia/UC Berkeley]

With the stakes so high, we need to keep asking critical questions about how machines conceptualize and operationalize space. How do they render our world measurable, navigable, usable, conservable? […] In a coming age of robot warfare and policing, we could see designers specializing in the creation of robot-illegible worlds rather than machine-readable ones […]

Shannon Mattern: ‘Mapping’s Intelligent Agents’ at Places.

Sputnik Award: The Final

By Jo Lindsay Walton.

Some time in early 2016, I and a few others decided to set up an award for speculative fiction, the Sputnik Awards. The idea was to do things a little differently, and to spark thinking about what literary awards can and should be. Or, um, shouldn’t be. Because we are so very scrupulous in our awarding, we are only now ready … almost ready! … to announce the winner. So without any further ado, here is some further ado, giving the story so far:

And the winner is …

Elsewhere:

Trivia:

The Sputnik Award 2016 was primarily a popular award (voted for by about 200 fans, mostly courtesy of File 770’s signal boost) with just a tincture of a juried award (I chose the shortlist, mostly guided by the shortlists of other then-major awards).

The name Sputnik, by the way, came courtesy of Ian Sales, although he had something a bit different in mind and is blameless in this affair. The notion that the Sputniks could do this genre-jump for its final showdown, from dungeoncrawl to duel, came from Zali Krishna and Christina Scholz. Christina happens to be published here this week: check out her article, “Superhero_ines: Rebooted Comics and Trans* Identity.”