Mackenzie Jorgensen interviews Eli Lee (part two)

Mackenzie Jorgensen is a Computer Science doctoral researcher working on the social and ethical implications of Artificial Intelligence. We invited Mackenzie to chat with novelist Eli Lee about her debut, A Strange and Brilliant Light (Jo Fletcher, 2021), and representations of AI and automation in speculative fiction. This is part two. Part one can be read here.

A Strange and Brilliant Light, By Eli Lee

I wanted to ask about Janetta and her research into AI and emotion. There’s been a lot of research done into emotion detection, and a lot of critique. For example, what would it mean for a machine to ‘objectively’ know your emotions, when you may not even know yourself? 

Yes. In the novel, Janetta is aspiring to teach AI about emotions, but she’s learning about emotions herself. She’s had a break-up and a rebound with someone who inspires her, but destabilises her as well. This experience is difficult but it helps her come into her own. She was a very unemotional person before that – she tried not to have emotions; but it turned out that she did. 

So in that sense, the novel is more about Janetta being at peace with having emotions. Rather than the idea that emotional intelligence in auts is ever going to happen. I knew that it would be a novel about gaining emotional intelligence – but it was always meant to be in Janetta, someone who needed to do this.

You definitely see that growth throughout the novel. It’s such a hard thing to learn, but so important. Emotional intelligence, being able to be vulnerable, all of those things.

Thank you, that’s exactly it. Janetta has never been vulnerable. She’s used her work as a shield. I wanted this to be a story about being vulnerable, about screwing up, and about bringing yourself back from that.

“Do you think that AI can be taught to read emotions?”

Right, exactly. But it seemed like Janetta believed it could be done. So I was curious about your views.

I just don’t think it can be done at all, full stop. The research that’s been done, some based on facial recognition. One person could be smiling, but they could be desperately sad inside. Could an AI detect that? Humans don’t just detect emotions by observing from a distance. We interact, we probe, we learn. We use our own emotions to invite others how to feel theirs.

So yes, maybe AI can be trained in intersubjective standards of emotion recognition, enough to make reasonable ascriptions. Let’s say, to take a pretty clear emotion, in King Lear when Lear comes back on stage at the end, carrying the body of Cordelia, his beloved child. What does he say? “Howl, howl, howl, howl!” The majority of people can piece the evidence together and understand that he’s upset.

An AI could learn to do that. But in terms of the intricacies of people’s emotions, the depth and the context of them? No, I don’t think so. But what about you? Do you think that AI can be taught to read emotions?

I think researchers will continue to try, but I don’t think it’s really possible. Like you say, someone can be smiling yet struggling inside. And I think the attempts to develop that technology may do more harm than good – in relation to surveillance, for example.

I was thinking about care homes where they have companion AIs, seals and cats and things. That certainly has therapeutic potential. Otherwise, I don’t know how it could possibly read the nuances of human emotion. We don’t even understand our own behaviour sometimes!

I think with a lot of AI, the technology and the science behind it is very interesting. But at the end of the day, the real questions are around how it’s used. Who holds the power? Who has the data that it’s being trained on? That has a major, major impact.

Is that what you’re looking at in your PhD research?

I’m looking at Machine Learning classification settings. So an example of a binary classification setting might be, “Oh, we think this person will repay the bank if given a loan,” versus, “We think this person will default on the loan.” I’m exploring the potential delayed impact of a classification. For example, if you are a false positive, if an AI predicts you’ll repay but instead you default, then your credit score will probably drop. So there will be a negative impact on you too, even though you were given a loan. 

How do you investigate this? 

There isn’t much data, and it isn’t easy to track. It involves a lot of presumptions, and running simulations, and giving more weight to the false positives and the false negatives. I’m trying to understand, “Okay, maybe in these problems, we need to really focus on the false negatives, versus in these ones, the false positives.” Essentially, I’m exploring how we might mitigate the harm an AI decision has on a person. Also, I’m interested in investigating the impact on underrepresented or underprivileged groups, because we have a lot of issues with AI classification systems learning bias and perpetuating sexism and racism, for instance, from our society.

Is it a generally done thing? Say it was about applying for a loan – can the bank automatically exclude the people the AI doesn’t like, because they haven’t got enough income, or their credit’s bad, or because of some other factor?

“Algorithmic fairness has been a field that has really boomed recently, but it’s been around for a while.”

Sure. Algorithmic fairness has been a field that has really boomed recently, but it’s been around for a while. It came into the light in the  ’60s and ’70s, when a lot of Civil Rights work was being done. At the time, the focus was on education and employment settings. Nowadays, it’s still focused on those settings, but also in areas like finance and economics, and many others.

That’s really great, you’re actually doing something that’s potentially making a difference in people’s lives. People who do AI (rather than just write about it in novels!) blow my mind. It’s impressive to have a brain that can do data, logic and mathematics – I’m very jealous.

No, I mean, I think anyone can code and learn about it. I know it seems as if it’s unattainable, but…

That’s a good point. I could learn to code, potentially!

Well, we do need more women in this area, so … ?

I suspect I’ll never get around to it…

What’s your background? Did you do English?

Yeah, I did English at uni, and since then, I’ve worked in editing, comms and publishing. I wrote three novels before this one, but I never sent them to an agent because I thought they weren’t very good. All I ever wanted to do was become a writer, so I’ve ended up with a narrow range of competencies. Writing and editing, essentially. But if that gets automated … what’s it called, GPT-3?

One of the big language models?

Yeah. Janetta’s job, for example, is safe from automation. Right up until AI is able to start consciously self-replicating – like in the movie Her, that sort of singularity moment – Janetta’s job is safe. But in my day job, where I edit publications, how safe is that? My skills are going to become obsolete soon. I might give it fifteen, twenty years. But that’s all I’ve ever trained myself for. It’s not an everyday worry, but it is a distant worry.

I think creativity, especially with regards to novel writing, is not something I can see an AI doing. They most likely would only be re-making other people’s ideas that they were trained on. I think being a creative thinker is a great spot to be.

That’s definitely the pragmatic view! I think the kind of deeply pessimistic, slightly addled-with-dystopia view is that they’re going to be able to recreate Madame Bovary within thirty years, and then all writers will be out of a job. 

But yes, I think the greater question is around how AI might transform creative expression, rather than take it over. There will undoubtedly still be ways for us to bring our humanity to books and music and art.

Realistically, AI is everywhere.

“Realistically, AI is everywhere.”

Right, right. And going back to the novel, you really showcase auts in hospitality settings. Is that the main place that you see them potentially going? Or do you see them in other settings?

Realistically, AI is everywhere. It’s in our Netflix algorithms, and it’s in our traffic lights. So in that sense, I didn’t portray reality – I didn’t convey all the hidden AI that shapes everyday life. In terms of hospitality, I guess there’s already automation in the supply chains and the logistics, and places like the Ocado warehouses. I don’t know if you know about Ocado, the delivery company that went really heavily automated?

Yes.

Ocado has one of the most automated picking and packing systems in the world; these robot arms just picking up ketchup and putting it in bags! So I touched on that a bit, but yes, mostly cafés. Have you ever read Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell?

David Mitchell, the comedian?

Yet another uncanny double. There’s two David Mitchells. There’s the Peep Show comedian, and then there’s a novelist who doesn’t really write sci-fi, but he wrote a novel called Cloud Atlas, and there’s a chapter in a very futuristic setting. And I read it when I was quite young, and the imagery from it, where the utopia that masks a scary dystopia beneath, has stuck with me ever since.

Also, I love coffee shops. Coffee shops are so warm, cozy and human. I just knew that robot servers in a café were a way to have a real interface with humans coming in to get their coffees and being hit with, once again, uncanniness and unnerving futurity, and a slightly utopian, slightly dystopian vibe. In the novel, one of the characters, Van, sings while he works, and I imagined the coldness of that being replaced by auts.

I’m also someone who loves coffee shops. Their ambiance and conversations with the barista are two of my favourite things about them. They’re always in a very warm setting.

Coffee shops are a classic institution. You’re from Seattle, right?

Yes, I am.

The home of coffee shops!

Yup.

You have the best coffee – all of Seattle is like one big coffee shop. And then you know exactly; a good coffee shop is the most wonderful place. 

Can we expect a sequel?

Potentially! I’m curious, would you see it as a free-ranging AI utopia, where they’ve managed to create this benevolent AI that’s also autonomously functioning?

I guess I wondered about Lal’s decision in the last chapter, and seeing what that actually does to Tekna and their world.

That makes sense. To be honest, I found writing this novel so difficult. I’d written a sci-fi novel before, and I think the reason it was difficult was because, well … do you read a lot of sci-fi?

Honestly, this was my first sci-fi book! I’m usually a non-fiction person. Currently, I’m reading non-fiction, Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents by Isabel Wilkerson, which is really good. Very different from this though.

I read quite a bit of literary fiction – writers like Elena Ferrante, Alice Munro. But I feel almost compulsively drawn to sci-fi, like it’s where my imagination wants to go. I realised during the writing of this that it had to be driven by plot, and then the characters react to that. So the automation and conscious AI plots were the engines of the novel. 

Right.

And I wonder if I’m better suited to something where the engine is people living their lives in a more scaled-down way. I haven’t worked it out yet; I only know that when the Guardian called A Strange and Brilliant Light ‘character-driven’, they weren’t wrong!

Having written the novel, though, what are the major takeaways that you want readers to come away with?

I know it sounds potentially counterintuitive, because the novel is about AI. But I think to me, it is more about some of that more mundane, slow-burn stuff. It’s about figuring out who you are and allowing yourself to make messes and wrong choices, and then being able to do something about this. So all three of the girls do make pretty terrible choices, and then they manage to figure out who they need to be in order to make things better. So it’s that hokey stuff about being true to yourself, and having faith in yourself. Because even Lal shows she has faith in herself, in the end.

The other message is about vulnerability and emotional intelligence. Lal shows that at the end, because the person she needs to be vulnerable to is her sister. And Rose needs to stop being vulnerable to powerful men and put some boundaries down. Vulnerability and self-assurance are connected.

It’s a feminist novel. When you’re in your twenties, you go through a lot of self-doubt. Most people I know, unless they’re bizarrely confident, struggled quite a lot internally with who they should be and whether they’re doing the right thing, especially in their twenties. And I wanted to show some women who also struggle, but manage to figure things out.

“I wanted it to be about AI and automation, and I wanted to focus on class”

I loved that. Yeah, the emotional intelligence definitely was shining throughout. And yeah, it did seem like quite a progressive future, which was really cool to see, and very feminist as well.

I’m aware that there are other contemporary feminist issues it could have taken up. It could have contained more trans representation, for example – it could maybe have been more explicitly intersectional. I chose to not mention the main characters’ racial identities, too, beyond them being Iolran.

Yeah, I noticed that.

I think I knew that I wanted it to be about AI and automation, and I wanted to focus on class – you know: “let’s talk about class.” That doesn’t mean I wanted to ignore the other stuff, but not every book can be everything and this novel already packs so much in! And class and economics are deeply worthy of sustained focus, too.

Janetta is a queer character, but her sexuality is in no way definitive of her entire character.

I wanted it to not be an issue at all. There was a flashback scene that I ended up cutting, where she came out to her parents and they were totally unphased. Partly I felt like, as a straight person … it’s not that I can’t tell that story, but I asked myself: how qualified am I to tell this story?

And related to that, I was cautious of making it Janetta’s main thing. I really built her character around her genius. I wanted her to be a visionary and not be hampered by anything other than her own emotions, and her fear of her own emotions. So that’s why being lesbian was just part of her, and not a big deal.

I liked that she was still in love and dealing with those relationships throughout the novel as well.

Thank you. I worried I made her too involved in relationships. But then I thought, but that’s the point. Because she needs to learn how to love and how to grieve. That’s how she becomes the person she needs to be.

Well, speaking of vulnerability, it’s very brave of you to keep going and actually get it published. 

Thank you. I think I reached a point where it was like, “Oh, this is the fourth novel, and it’s now or never.”

And you’re still interested in writing fiction?

Yes, definitely still speculative fiction. But I’m aware that when you write speculative fiction, you have to be open to your imagination going to unexpected places. At first the novel was only about automation. As I went along, though, I realised that when you write fiction about AI, you’re naturally drawn towards the idea of conscious AI – at least, I was. 

I could have written a smaller and more focused novel, but to me, the singularity is an irresistible part of the collective imaginary about AI! And this made things very complex, plot-wise. There was an arc about automation and the loss of jobs, and a second one about conscious AI, and interweaving them was hard!

Before we go – with conscious AI, do you think we should be striving for that, or should we not?

No. It’s fun for movies and books, but that would be a crazy world, no?

Agreed. Yup. We’ve got a lot of problems we need to solve already in the world today. Climate change, poverty, hunger. I don’t think we need a conscious AI to stir the pot even more.

Exactly. Do you think it’s ever likely to happen, though?

I think it could happen. I mean, people are working in that space for sure, but I don’t know if we’ll exactly know when it does. It would probably happen by accident, and surprise people. I think it’s a possibility, but I’m not keen for a world where that does happen.

I couldn’t agree with you more. 

Well, Eli, this has been wonderful speaking to you.

Thank you, it’s been really enjoyable. And your questions were excellent – it’s nice to have what you’ve written about reflected back at you by someone who asks such intelligent, thoughtful questions! So yes, thank you, that was great.

Green Utopias: Environmental Hope Before and After Nature reviewed by Paul Graham Raven

Lisa Garforth, Green Utopias: Environmental Hope Before and After Nature (Polity Press, 2018)

One grows accustomed, as someone working on one facet of the challenge of climate change, to keeping an anxious and wary eye out for one’s opponents. 

I don’t mean climate change deniers—who it seems may always have been a lot rarer than their well-funded PR campaigns made them appear, and in any case were always fairly scarce in academia. We are now into a different and more difficult struggle, namely the struggle over what to do and how to do it. 

To put it another way, while there is broad unity on the challenge itself, there is prodigious disunity on the matter of the response. This has arguably been brewing for a while—ever since the splintering (around the time of the UN’s Brundtland report of 1987) of “sustainable development” (SD) into two conceptual camps, ‘strong’ and ‘weak.’ The camp that elected to hollow out the “sustainability” bit while firmly emphasising the “development” part, predictably enough, has proven far more popular with the worsted-clad elves of the policy machine and the Davosean clades of Business Thought Leadership. Strong SD demanded hard limits on development. Weak SD implied soft limits, so soft that they, along with the evacuated and increasingly unqualified concept of sustainability itself—“sustainable” for exactly how long, and with exactly what consequences, to exactly whose benefit, one might well ask—might be stretched like warm caramel in the hands of a dextrous accountant. (For a more thoroughgoing look at the Strong / Weak split, still very much a live conflict, this briefing paper toward the UN’s 2015 Global Sustainable Development Report sets it out fairly concisely from the perspective of the Strong camp).

We might see this as a struggle between two paradigms of response to anthropogenic climate change—though as with most such binaries, it’s probably better thought of as a spectrum strung out between two extreme positions that almost no one holds as such. Their difference might be illustrated by the current spat over carbon capture and storage (CCS) technologies. Are CCS technologies a necessary and shovel-ready slab in the path to successful mitigation, or a vaporware accounting fudge from the business-as-usual (BAU) crowd that very deliberately leaves the door open for continued fossil fuel usage? From my phrasing, the reader may well be able to deduce which side of that particular fence I am positioned, though how far from the fence I’m stood is more a matter of perspective, as well as of time: the fence has moved many times. Indeed, if somewhat paradoxically, BAU seldom wears the same outfit twice, and corporations today are feverishly at work implementing their novel Net Zero strategies, no doubt innovating exciting new forms of heel-dragging, buck-passing, subterfuge, and slipshod dei ex machina as they go. For BAU has never really been a synonym for “do nothing”; doing nothing is anathema to the busyness of business. Rather, BAU refers to a tacit refusal to consider that the fundamental rules of the game are the problem, rather than the fouls of any particular player(s): new approaches to extraction and production in light of the reality of anthropogenic climate change are more than welcome, so long as opportunities for the accumulation of surplus value are left intact.

To reiterate: the struggle between two different paradigms of social and environmental transformation is an old one, with the role of CCS being only one of its latest battlefields. Yet though venerable, it is not timeless. The stakes have been ever-changing, as emissions pump out and temperatures rise. The upper hand has changed many times, and so too have the terms of engagement. And it is this dialectic of green hope that Garforth so thoroughly delineates in Green Utopias: Environmental Hope Before and After Nature in policy, in philosophy, in climate science, and in science fiction. 

It’s not a struggle unique to academia, by any means—and for all the accusations of tribalist spats within the ivory tower, I doubt it’s any worse in here than it is elsewhere (particularly given that the remunerative stakes are far higher outside). Besides, the obligatory interface of climate change academia with “policy”—which the more cynical among us might define as the escheresque process that has come to replace governance in the neoliberal era—means that many researchers are far closer to the political machinery than they might prefer, particularly the hard-science types (who are justifiably somewhat leery of being dragged out into the kangaroo court of public scrutiny, thanks to underhanded exploits such as Climategate, way back in 2009). As Bruno Latour has so elegantly argued, the sciences were somewhat themselves to blame for this, having enjoyed and profited from a closeness to policy during an earlier period when policymakers were glad to encourage a deliberately distorted perception of science as a process by which “truth” (and thus policy itself) might be rubberstamped with an inarguable sense of impartial authority. That relationship started to sour when scientific “truths” began to misalign with policy goals already chosen for other reasons. Climate change is perhaps the most significant and obvious arena in which this ugly public break-up played out.

Continue reading Green Utopias: Environmental Hope Before and After Nature reviewed by Paul Graham Raven”

Call for Submissions: Prediction, Innovation, & Futures

Vector and Focus invite proposals from academics of all disciplines, and from industry, policy, and practice backgrounds, on the theme of speculative fiction in relation to prediction, innovation, and futures. Please see here for the full call.

The principal output will be a special issue of Vector, guest edited by Stephen Oram, and relevant proposals will also be considered for publication in Focus (ed. Dev Agarwal), and/or for online publication. Prospective contributors are encouraged to move conversations forward; to challenge received wisdom; to historicise the use of speculative fiction within science communication, policy, foresight, innovation, education, and research contexts; and/or to reflect in detail on your own personal experiences of using speculative fiction. Contributions may take the form of:

  • articles of any length;
  • snapshots / key findings / lightning summaries of your research or activities;
  • methods and tools, and/or reports on their use;
  • interviews, roundtables;
  • other formats — be as innovative and imaginative as you like!

We especially welcome proposals from BIPOC contributors, and/or proposals which connect applied speculative fiction to themes of diversity, decoloniality, and social, environmental, and economic justice. Priority fields of interest include futures studies, innovation studies, Science and Technology Studies, applied ethics, and the history and philosophy of science. Topics might include prediction, modelling, decision analysis and decision support, hacking and makerspaces, speculative design, critical design including Critical Race Design, anthropological futures, design fiction, diegetic prototyping, strategic foresight, wargaming, anticipatory governance, predictive data analytics, algorithmic governmentality, speculative fiction as technology, speculative fiction and aspects of methodology such as reproducibility and validation, user stories as a form of speculative fiction,  science communication, protoscience, exploratory engineering, design futurescaping, experiential futures, serious gaming or participatory scenario workshopping, financial modelling and financial activism, creative disruptions, future fabbing, the use of speculative fiction to engage communities and stakeholders, the ethical obligations of the speculative fiction writer, the use of speculative fiction to facilitate interdisciplinary encounters, the use of speculative fiction to model risk and uncertainty, issues around speculative fiction and Intellectual Property, the sci-fi-industrial complex, Indigenous futurisms, energy futures, education futures, all kinds of futures, and the history and future of the future. 

Submission details

Please submit proposals by 5 September 2021 to vector.submissions@gmail.com. Very early proposals very welcome. A proposal should typically contain:

  • a 150-500 word proposal;
  • an estimated word count; and
  • some information about you, e.g. a 50-100 word bio or a CV.

We seek contributions that are carefully grounded in research, while also being clear, engaging, and suitable for a broad audience (including non-academics). Articles will be due by 1 February 2022.

Links

Speculative Fiction Studies

Some resources that may be especially of interest to academics studying speculative fiction. Feel free to suggest more.

Journals:

Other:

SFF and Justice

UPDATE: Deadline extended to July.

Vector and Focus invite submissions on the theme of SFF and Justice. The call is open to all, but we have an explicit preference for hearing from authors from BIPOC backgrounds and other historically marginalized voices. Please send your proposals to vector.submissions@gmail.com by 9 May 9 July. Vector will be publishing a special themed issue, with Stewart Hotston as guest editor. For more information see the Call for Submissions, and the supplementary list of suggestions and inspiration.

Iain M. Banks: Some critical resources

Elsewhere:

The Science Fiction and Fantasy Research Database.

An excerpt from ‘Forceful and Fuzzy Games in the Novels of Iain [M.] Banks’

By Jo Lindsay Walton. This is an excerpt from a chapter published in The Science Fiction of Iain M. Banks, eds Nick Hubble, Esther MacCallum-Stewart and Joseph Norman (Gylphi, 2018).

Introduction: What’s in a Game?

On an estate belonging to the Ancraime family, at the edges of Stonemouth, a Scottish coastal town, a group of boys gather to play paintball. They come from a range of economic backgrounds: Stonemouth is not large enough for the boys to be segregated according to class. The poorest member of the group is Wee Malky. As dusk draws in, the boys begin the last game of the day, a hunting scenario in which, in consequence of a “complicated arrangement of scoring across the various [earlier] skirmishes” (Banks 2012: 146), Wee Malky finds himself the quarry, and the rest of the group, hunters.

Eventually, “near the furthest western extent of the house gardens […] [on the edge of] the rest of the estate and the grouse moors and plantation forests beyond,” (ibid. 149), the scattered group begins to converge. Wee Malky is making a perilous crossing along the round-topped, weed-slicked stone of the top lip of a reservoir, which feeds various water features in the gardens. He has the undertow-prone, peaty reservoir water to one side, and the steep, slimy slope of the overflow, dotted with concrete pillars, on the other.

George Ancraime, “the older brother, nearly twenty at this point but with a mental age stuck at about five” (ibid. 142), suddenly appears near the bottom of the slope. He has been back to his parents’ mansion and retrieved a large antique sword, which he brandishes smilingly at Wee Malky. If Wee Malky can make it across, he wins the game. But if he loses his balance, he loses his life. 

The scene, a suitably cruel allegory of class violence, is in many ways typical of how games often appear in Banks’s fiction. It raises the question of what makes a game a game, and at what point it stops being a game. Game studies theorists Katie Salen and Eric Zimmerman, after a survey of existing definitions, define a game as “a system in which players engage in an artificial conflict, defined by rules, that results in a quantifiable outcome” (Salen and Zimmerman 2003: 96). Another good starting point is the philosopher Bernard Suits’s succinct formulation: playing a game is “a voluntary attempt to overcome unnecessary obstacles” (Suits 2005 [1978]: 55). […] Banks’s games resist both definitions. There is a sustained interest in Banks’s work in involuntary games, necessary games, games-within-games, games that burst their boundaries, games that overcome their players, games with hidden purposes, fragmentary games, games that arise spontaneously, games whose rules change, and games whose outcomes are nebulous and defy calculation. More generally, there is a fascination in Banks’s writing with ludic affordance: the capacity of any situation to absorb and be transformed by play.

Continue reading “An excerpt from ‘Forceful and Fuzzy Games in the Novels of Iain [M.] Banks’”

Intimate Earthquakes: An interview with Sensory Cartographies

This interview originally appeared in Vector 292.

We’re lucky to be talking today to Jonathan Reus and Sissel Marie Tonn, whose collaborative work appears under the name Sensory Cartographies. Their work includes, among other things,  the creation of wearable technologies that explore the nature of sensation and attention. […] So like many great collaborations, there’s quite an interdisciplinary aspect to Sensory Cartographies, is that right?

Sissel: Yes, we both have our different backgrounds. Jon really comes from a music and performance background, as well as instrument building and media archaeology. And my background is more in visual arts and arts research.

So tell us how Sensory Cartographies came to be.

Sissel: It started in 2016, when we got an opportunity to do a residency together in Madeira. Sensory Cartographies really grew out of that residency. I’d been to Madeira before in 2013, and started this drawing project, to do with Madeira’s position in the Age of Exploration, which you could really call the Age of Colonization. 

Continue reading “Intimate Earthquakes: An interview with Sensory Cartographies”

Fission

The BSFA publishes Vector (the critical journal), Focus (the magazine for writers), and The BSFA Review (reviews of the latest SFF). This year we’ll also launching something new: Fission, an anthology of original SFF.

Submit your short stories of up to 3,000 words to Allen Stroud at chair@bsfa.co.uk. This submission window closes 15 February 2021. The anthology will focus on science fiction; other than that, there are no particular constraints as to theme or style, so go wild!

Fission is something of an experiment: let’s see where it leads. The plan is to publish on an annual basis. Fission will also be a collaboration with Celsius 232: it will bring work of Spanish SFF writers to an Anglophone audience, and one story from the Fission anthology will be chosen to be translated into Spanish and published in Celsius.

Multiple submissions and simultaneous submissions are just fine, but please mention it in your email.

You don’t need to be a member of the BSFA to submit a story.

Submissions of reprints are also welcome.

Fission is not currently a paying market.

Settling the World: Selected Stories 1970-2020 by M. John Harrison

Settling the World: Selected Stories 1970-2020, by M. John Harrison (Comma Press, 2020) 

Reviewed by Gwilym Eades

Settling the World: Selected Stories 1970-2020 (Comma Press)

Reading a book by Harrison is invariably, and this despite the highly variable nature of his output (horror, sci-fi, fantasy), like wandering through a landscape with no map. Or, if there is a map, it’s an Escher-like one, the circular waterfall endlessly recycling back into itself, ever elegant, and fringed with weird and wonderful vegetation and architecture. Or map-like objects; or symbols; or systems that constantly jump out of themselves and elude their own logic; or elude their own ‘logics,’ for they are multiple, ever-multiplying. 

A face is a map, a photograph part of an array in a system of objects that becomes a map; bodies ‘map’ into each other desultorily and then with vigour. If there is a philosophy that inheres in this remarkably coherent body of work, represented in Settling the World through a selection of short stories (at least one of which is derived from a larger work, namely Viriconium), perhaps it’s most closely allied with the base materialism of Bataille, and all that flows from that kind of commitment to constant and unrelenting transgression of limits of all kinds: transgression of boundaries between genres; of body/bodies, in collision; of thought itself. 

Surprising (to me) are the affiliations I see here with H.G. Wells’s haunted short stories, a continuity I had not expected to find between ‘original’ scientific romance (pre-pulp/Golden Age) and New Wave fantastics. This affiliation with Wells makes apparent just how English a writer Harrison is, evidenced by a constant nostalgia for summers past, evoked in their residual dusts in grey drizzling winters; it makes apparent too a certain London-centrism, especially in “The Incalling”, where Eastern (European) mysticism and magic become autochthonised to the Lower Camden/King’s Cross borderlands. Wells’s “The Door in the Wall” transmogrifies here into a mirror in a pub (“A Young Man’s Journey to Viriconium”). Everywhere, people are dying in different ways, fading into beautiful negatives of themselves next to weed-filled lots itemised, named and outlined in descriptive passages of luminous beauty, always-already faded photographs torn from magazines and books, bodies fetishized, traded, stacked and torn, thrown together and consulted in every conceivable way. Books cause madness, yet we are in one, therefore we are insane, like various friends of these protagonists: cultists, geniuses, climbers, the self-deluded.

In some mystic, agnostic equation, there is a link between degradation and the fantastic: here is the grim, dark, sea of the possible. No Marxian dialectic could hold for long the degraded landscape of particulars, the sea of shards waiting to cut the feet of the inevitable transgressor: the system-builders’ blood flows freely in such a sacrificial setting. The pre-injured, inured, will survive these cuttings, arranged like mocking, flowering, mirror-shards for the sick, the becoming-sick, and the sickness unto death that ends many a tale told here. These are simple observations of the overlays that hold sway across the maps that comprise Settling the World.

The sun looks down on all things equally, unblinking, and knows it will die; it, and all things, therefore, become negatives of themselves in time and thought. This is the overarching cognitive estrangement operating, at work, labouring behind the scenes, behind the clouds of these stories. The various novums that crop up, when they do, are all variations layered into the soil of that master-estrangement of being from itself and others. We behold the community of those without community; they are abject who inhabit these stories. The Climber himself is the one who holds the only possible hope: that of moving beyond himself to become one with the landscape. There is no novum there, in the climbing, it knows only itself, being and becoming on ice and rock (though “The Ice Monkey” too, ends in death and disfigurement).

“Cicisbeo,” a story about a husband, Tim, who spends a very long time converting a loft, could have been written by Philip Roth or Tom Waits: but that unlikely combination is all Harrison. It is also very late-style Harrison, and we see the evolution of his style through this selection. There is a maturity, but also a self-conscious concern and critique of the idea itself and its implications for expectations of the bourgeois male. The homeless, the hopeless, are still there, even centre stage, but the ability to keep at arm’s length comes to the fore. The surrealism of tunnels in the sky is long-lasting and that image will not soon fade like a sunset behind the air traffic circling Heathrow.

Continue reading “Settling the World: Selected Stories 1970-2020 by M. John Harrison”