SFRA Conference Report: Futures from the Margins

By Guangzhao Lyu 

Oslo, 2022, co-hosted by CoFutures

“Futures from the Margins”—the theme of this year’s annual conference of Science Fiction Research Association (SFRA)—reminds me immediately of Paul Kincaid’s review of The Cambridge History of Science Fiction (2019) co-edited by Gerry Canavan and Eric Carl Link, published in Extrapolation 61.1. Kincaid claims that this anthology challenges the American-centric history of sf and re-writes it with a hope of amplifying the previously repressed voices from the “unseen” worlds—voices from China, South and South-Eastern Asia, Eastern Europe, Middle East, Latin America, and Africa. “Such cultural differences give this sf a different feel from the Campbellian hard sf we are used to, but it is sf nonetheless” (217), and they all respond in various ways to the socio-political condition in the related countries, regions, and nations at a specific moment. 

No matter how global or how planetary sf appears, it is always anchored in the soil of particular places. Although the diversity of sf has been disguised under the ostensible universality formed pretty much in accord with the American tradition, localised interpretations are waiting to be discovered. “Once the will was there,” writes Kincaid, “it didn’t really take long to start unearthing them” (216). In line with Kincaid’s comments, I believe the conference “Futures from the Margins” also indicates such a will of unearthing, of amplifying the previously muffled voices, and—as demonstrated in the programme—of foregrounding the issues of those whose “stakes in the global order of envisioning futures are generally constrained due to the mechanics of our contemporary world” (CoFUTURES). 

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Uncontrollable beast: The Cabinet by Un-su Kim reviewed

By Peter Zupanc

Isn’t capitalist system, which humans invented 200 years ago, growing into an uncontrollable beast that will devour human society?

Clock of Babel runs the whole world to the same rhythm of time.1] 

The Cabinet

The Cabinet starts with a description of the cabinet. Inside, there are files of amazing people. A man who is turning into a tree, a woman who is growing a lizard instead of a tongue, and many more. This is not regarded as much of a mystery, and we never learn what is the mechanism of their transformation. The fantastic simply exists, not to be questioned, though for sure, in other respects this is our world. The protagonist could have come straight from the pages of David Graeber’s Bullshit Jobs. When he is not describing the fantastic files, he is ranting about his predicament: “As long as you don’t ask yourself what you are doing, you can keep doing it until the end of life” or “the only thing that capitalism ever produced is anxiety”. Reading The Cabinet from the perspective of Bullshit Jobs seems appropriate in more senses than one. The Cabinet is a multipronged critique of capitalism disguised as a fantasy novel.

Continue reading “Uncontrollable beast: The Cabinet by Un-su Kim reviewed”

Dialogues Between Science and Fiction in the Creation of an Anthology

Emma Johanna Puranen

Introduction

As Le Guin famously put it, “science fiction is not predictive; it is descriptive”. Science fiction reflects what its writers see in the world around them—often from current scientific discoveries—and it sparks ideas for scientists. Scientists and SF writers endlessly inspire each other in a classic chicken-or-egg scenario. But little research has been done on how exactly this inspiration happens — on the dialogues and interactions between these two often-overlapping groups. Given SF’s reputation for applied speculation and future thinking, these dialogues are key to any studies of the same. I address this gap through analysing qualitative data on the experiences of scientist and writer participants in an SF anthology project which included significant interdisciplinary encounters. 

Around Distant Suns: Nine Stories Inspired by Research from the St Andrews Centre for Exoplanet Science (2021) is my recently-published SF anthologycontaining five short stories, two radio play scripts, and two poems. Each contribution was created by a pair of one scientist and one writer, and has a basis in the scientist’s research. The St Andrews Centre for Exoplanet Science produces research addressing questions about the origin of life, planet formation and atmospheric evolution, planet characterisation, which environments might be suitable for extra-terrestrial life, and more – questions that form some of the core themes of SF. Scientists and writers met virtually at least three times as a team in the process of creating their stories, and filled out detailed questionnaire responses after each meeting. My goal was to investigate how scientists and SF writers work together in creating science fiction stories, with a particular focus on the processes of deciding when to stay realistic, when to be plausible, and when to make things up.

I present results from qualitative analysis of the questionnaires, which asked about communication successes and failures, challenges encountered and solved, and when and how story decisions were made and inspired. These results point to a significant role for SF in science communication efforts – a role which introduces concepts and piques curiosity, but, in keeping with Suvin’s idea of estranging the worldviews of the readers (1979), also leaves room for the fantastic and the unknown.

Background

The genre of science fiction has a unique relationship with empiricism in its worldbuilding. This relationship is highlighted by theorist Darko Suvin’s definition of the genre, that SF relies on “estrangement and cognition” and features an “imaginative framework alternative to the author’s empirical environment” (1979, pp. 7-8). In other words, this means that SF features at least one significant change (estrangement) from reality, which is presented cognitively in a way that distinguishes it from fantasy – SF works must account for their worlds rationally within the text. Carl Freedman revises Suvin’s definition to include not cognition per se, but the “cognition effect”, that is, the attitude of the text towards the estrangements being performed must have a cognitive effect on the reader (2000, p. 18). In the worldbuilding of the text, the estrangements are treated as science (whether or not they are consistent with real-world science), rather than being left to magic and mystery. Put differently, the science need not be accurate, but the effect of it being accurate must be there – the cognition effect leaves room for some very ‘soft’ (scientifically inaccurate or implausible) science fiction.

I argue that this aspect of SF, the cognition effect, leads to a distinctive relationship between science and SF writers that is not found in other genres, as well as to the genre’s reputation for being at the forefront of scientific discovery. Sources of scientific inspiration and the degree of superficiality or robustness of the fictional science is as varied as the genre itself. Many scientists write science fiction – Isaac Asimov and E.E. Smith for example – and many SF authors are avid supporters of science programmes and science communication (Stepney, “Real Science”). Creators of SF literature and film and television often refer to science consultants for accuracy, and workshops like the NASA-funded Launchpad, which aimed to teach writers about science for their books, are not uncommon – the Hugo-award winning author N.K. Jemisin was inspired to write the Broken Earth trilogy at a Launchpad workshop (Khatchadourian, “N.K. Jemisin’s Dream Worlds”). Acknowledgements sections of SF novels are often filled with references to e-mail exchanges and similar with science consultants. Physicist Kip Thorne famously made real scientific advances in determining the optical-wavelength appearance of a black hole for the movie Interstellar (James, von Tunzelmann, and Franklin et al 486). However, unless the writer themself is also the science consultant, science consultants rarely play an equal role in story creation. As physicist Sean Carroll, science consultant on several Marvel movies, describes “You talk to the screenwriter or director or producer—whoever asked for your help—and you chat for a couple hours, and you do your best to give them advice, and then you never hear from them again” (“Being a Hollywood Science Consultant”).

What are the benefits of having a science consultant? How does science influence SF? What can SF do for science? Curious about all of the above and inspired by my research into the relationship between science and SF, I decided to set up an experiment to create SF with scientists and writers as equal partners, and to record their thoughts throughout the process. 

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The Living Infinite

Laura Pereira [1,2], Guillermo Ortuño Crespo [2], Silvana Juri [3], Patrick Keys [4], Hannah Lübker [2], Andrew Merrie [2], Edoardo Superchi [2], Naomi Terry [2], Bwalya Chibwe [2], Juliano Palacios-Abrantes [5, 6], Maria A. Gasalla [7], Erick Ross Salazar [8], Moriaki Yasuhara [9,10], Farah Obaidullah [11], Gabrielle Carmine [12], Salomão Bandeira [13], Diva J. Amon [14, 15], Ghassen Halouani [16], David E. Johnson [17], Lynne J. Shannon [18], Jean-Baptiste Jouffray [2], Colette C.C. Wabnitz [6, 19], Beth Fulton [20]

Introduction

Ever since humans ventured into the ocean to fish for the first time 40,000 years ago, the principle of Mare Liberum, an ocean without boundaries, prevailed (Corbyn, 2011). In 1982, the third United Nations (UN) Conference on the Law of the Sea successfully opened the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), the ‘constitution for the ocean’. For the first time in history, humanity had drawn a jurisdictional divide between the coastal ocean and ocean in the areas beyond national jurisdiction (ABNJ, referred to as the High Seas) at the 200 nautical mile mark from the coastline. Over the past four decades, various sectors, including shipping, underwater cable infrastructure, and fishing, as well as mining interests have expanded from the familiar sunlit waters of the continental shelf far into the open ocean, and into the deepest, most unknown corners of our blue planet (Jouffray et al. 2020). Despite the High Seas covering 40% of the surface of the planet, comprising nearly 95% of the ocean’s volume and being highly connected to coastal ecosystems and communities (Popova et al. 2019), the High Seas remain a distant concept that is out of sight and out of mind for most people.

Cultivating a relationship to almost half of our planet is essential if we are to protect this vital ecological system – both for its own intrinsic value, and for our own culture and needs (Allison et al. 2020). However, inculcating such a connection is no simple task. One way to start to build such empathy is to envision a sustainable future for the High Seas — one that embodies both empathetic connections and hope (Blythe et al., 2021).

The COVID-19 pandemic provided a fortuitous opportunity to convene a diverse group of High Seas stakeholders virtually across multiple time zones to explore the ingredients and composition of more desirable futures. We used an adapted science fiction prototyping approach with inputs from artists to foster a space for creative reimagining. Below we share the science-fiction narratives that emerged from this process, drawing on knowledge ranging from technological innovations, like gene editing, to marine cultural connections that have been eroded by industrialisation. Governance was a central feature of all of the stories, accentuating how important upcoming negotiations are in setting out an international framework to steer humankind towards more equitable futures and away from current extractivist paradigms. Our aim is for these outputs to help inform alternative framings of what is possible in the ongoing UN Decade of Ocean Science for Sustainable Development, as well as negotiations for a new international legally binding treaty towards the conservation and sustainable use of biodiversity beyond national jurisdiction (BBNJ negotiations), and the Mining Code being developed at the International Seabed Authority, to advance pathways toward a thriving High Seas. We will also ensure the work feeds into the upcoming Intergovernmental Science-Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) Transformative Change Assessment to strengthen marine aspects of this initiative.

Method

A diverse group of 30 stakeholders, many of whom are co-authors of this article, joined an online workshop in three parts to undertake a creative process to define transformative visions for the High Seas. These participants ranged in terms of their expertise on marine issues, from fisheries experts, marine ecologists and modellers to practitioners and activists at all career stages, representing all six continents. Crucially, many of the participants play key roles in shaping the future of the High Seas, whether through participating in ongoing negotiations or undertaking scientific research that will inform these negotiations. The Nature Futures framework (NFF) from the IPBES expert group on scenarios and models (Pereira et al. 2020) was a starting point for the discussions. The NFF is a triangle space with each of the corners representing a different positive value perspective on nature and its contribution to people (Fig 1).

  • Nature for Nature: in which nature has value in and of itself (emphasising the intrinsic values of nature);
  • Nature for Society: in which nature is primarily valued for the benefits or uses people derive from it (focussing on instrumental values for nature);
  • Nature as Culture: in which humans are perceived as an integral part of nature (recognising relational values for nature).
Figure 1: The Nature Futures Framework illustrating the three main value perspectives (Source: Pereira et al 2020).

The aim of the NFF is to provide a simple way to illustrate a complex blend of values for appreciating nature, particularly in thinking about diverse desirable futures that recognise all of these values.

During the workshop, we combined the approach from “Seeds from the Good Anthropocenes” project (goodanthropocenes.net/; Raudsepp-Hearne et al. 2019) in conjunction with science fiction prototyping (Merrie et al. 2018). Using the ‘Seeds approach’, we asked each participant to submit their idea of a seed – ‘a process, initiative or way of seeing the world’ that was currently marginal, but that they thought could contribute to a better future for the High Seas (Bennett et al. 2016).

Participants were then allocated into the three groups formed around each corner of the NFF triangle to discuss a future, where either instrumental values for nature (Nature for Society), intrinsic values for nature (Nature for Nature) or relational values for nature (Nature as Culture) were emphasised. Each of the seeds (see Appendix in Chibwe et al. 2021) was allocated to a corner by the participant as they introduced the seed, but for purposes of keeping groups equal in size and mixed in terms of geography and expertise, the three groups did not always have all the people who had submitted seeds to that corner. As is outlined more fully in the method described in Chibwe et al. 2021, each group had rich discussions about their seeds, what they represented and how they could grow to contribute to better futures.  The result was a set of stories about the future of the High Seas focusing on each corner of the NFF triangle. To help with the development of the narrative, each group started their narrative journey on board the same ocean research vessel, the Manta. Additionally, to push for more transformative, creative thinking, a set of seven characters were defined prior to the workshop by the workshop coordinators and allocated to each story based on their corner and a throw of the dice (Figure 2). This allowed for common threads through the stories although not all original characters are in the final stories and some new ones emerged.

The stories are not chronological, they are intended as parallel futures, but it is possible to see potential links and pathways between them. Due to the level of technology and progress in each of the stories, the reader may pick up a temporal logic to the order in which each of the stories is presented here. This is more for ease of reading than to put them on any single timeline. However, it may help if the reader jumped ahead a few decades in their mind in-between reading each narrative. This is, however, not essential as each should also be able to stand alone and read in any order. These stories are not intended to be utopian, but they hopefully offer a pause to reflect on where we want to go and how we might get there…

(Please see the slides)

Figure 2: Short description and image of each of the seven characters © Care Creative

*Take a deep breath* As you read this, realise that some of the oxygen that is now flowing through your veins was generated from the High Seas. Embrace that connection.

–-

Continue reading The Living Infinite

22 Ideas About the Future

Reviewed by James Woudhuysen

22 Ideas about the future, edited by Benjamin Greenaway and Stephen Oram (Cybersalon Press: 2022)

On Sky Arts, over some months, they’ve been playing Alfred Hitchcock Presents. This was a schlocky but nevertheless highly entertaining series of spooky psychodramas, each just 25 minutes long, interrupted by its sponsors, Bristol Myers. Running from 1955 till at least 1957, the films featured stars such as Ralph Meeker, Charles Bronson, Thelma Ritter and the unimpeachable Claude Rains. Hitchcock would appear comically – from inside a space helmet, or at the centre of an enormous spider’s web – in a short spoof before the plot; also, in a splenetic, dour diatribe at the back end.

Perhaps numbered after the 22 in the year 2022, this collection of very short sci-fi stories has the same scary, translucent tone to it as those old Hitchcock shorts. While Hitch directed other directors to capture the southern, sinister and sardonic brightness he later gave us with Psycho, editors Benjamin Greenaway and Stephen Oram have wrung something similar from their contributors here. These are forecasts of the future in fictional form. Not all are successful, but some are fun. 

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Mosquitoes, mushrooms, magic: Africanfuturist SF for nature’s futures

Charne Lavery [1,2], Laura Pereira [3,4], Bwalya Chibwe [4], Nedine Moonsamy [1], Chinelo Onwaulu [5], Naomi Terry [4].

1 Department of English, University of Pretoria, South Africa

2 WiSER, University of the Witwatersrand, South Africa

3 Global Change Institute, University of the Witwatersrand, South Africa

4 Stockholm Resilience Centre, Stockholm University, Sweden

5 Independent author and editor of African speculative fiction

  1. Introduction

The future is African: by 2100 one in three people are projected to be from the African continent (Council on Foreign Relations 2020). And yet the stories that the world tells itself about this future are decidedly not African — or at least not of a prosperous, plausible future Africa (Pereira et al. 2021). In a post-colonial world, Africa continues to be colonised by dominant perspectives that dictate what to aspire to and which values are important (Oelofsen 2015). This is to the detriment not only of the continent but the world. It misses the diverse possibilities that local cultures and traditions could offer in terms of preferable futures, drawing on pasts that are deeply connected to the land and ancestors. Addressing this marginalisation of knowledge systems and the people who practice them is of critical importance in the shift towards a more equal development agenda that values diversity (Tengo et al. 2014). The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are a set of objectives set up by the United Nations to improve quality of life around the world, protect the environment, and promote peace and prosperity. There are seventeen SDGs, including the eradication of poverty and hunger, the spread of health and wellbeing, quality education, gender equality, and climate action. Governments, businesses and non-profits use the SDGs as a framework for understanding their broader purpose and impact. Are the SDGs fit-for-purpose? It’s a controversial question, but one thing is for sure: as the world struggles to meet these goals, fresh ideas, and bold pathways away from current trajectories, need to be explored.

Speculative fiction has a role to play in this. How we think about and imagine the future is an important aspect of decision-making in the present (Vervoort and Gupta 2018). As Lao Tzu says, “if you don’t change direction, you may end up where you are headed.” When we are continually confronted by stories of doom and gloom, these can often be self-fulfilling (Evans 2016). We end up where we are headed.  We are currently experiencing overlapping global environmental crises. The most recent is the  Covid-19 pandemic (zoonotic diseases are fundamentally linked to human-environment interactions). The most existentially threatening is climate change. The most ethically compromising is, arguably, the human-induced sixth mass extinction. A business-as-usual trajectory is suicide for humanity. However, what are the futures towards which we do want to navigate? And how might we begin to imagine them?

Part of the answer lies with how we value nature. Calls are growing to reimagine transformative futures for nature using more than just positivist science (Wyborn et al. 2020). Traditional environmental policy has often treated nature as a realm whose laws we can know and master, to maximise its economic benefits to humans. In recent years, there has been more recognition that economic benefits are interconnected with social, cultural, and even spiritual benefits. The beauty and abundance of nature give inspiration and solace to humans in ways that are hard to quantify, let alone control, ways that are grounded in the diverse values that people find in nature. Yet perhaps this still doesn’t go far enough. There is now growing interest in futures that value nature in its own right, independent of the many benefits that nature provides to humans.

Continue reading “Mosquitoes, mushrooms, magic: Africanfuturist SF for nature’s futures”

Old and New Worlds in Octavia Butler’s Parable Novels and Jeanette Winterson’s The Stone Gods

By Lois Eastburn

From the holding cell was it possible to see beyond the end of the world and to imagine living and breathing again? 

Saidiya Hartman, Lose Your Mother: A Journey Along the Atlantic Slave Route[1]

It’s after the end of the world. Don’t you know that yet? 

  The Last Angel of History[2]

 

In science fiction writing, the future is both a territory for extraction and a site of resistance. Through what cultural theorists Kodwo Eshun and Mark Fisher have called ‘sf [science fiction] capital’, capitalism extracts value from futurity.[3] The financialisation of the economy is one way that sf capital colonises the future.[4] The hyper-commodities of the Star Wars franchise are another.[5] At the same time, the future of the planet — the future of the human species — is threatened by the rapacious extractivism that capital demands. Further, the futures of the peoples most subjugated and exploited under capitalism have always already been under threat. Kathryn Yusoff writes that the ‘Anthropocene might seem to offer a dystopic future that laments the end of the world, but imperialism and ongoing (settler) colonialisms have been ending worlds as long as they have been in existence’.[6] This dual vision — both proleptic and retrospective — is present in the novels Parable of the Sower (1993) and Parable of the Talents (1998) by Octavia Butler and The Stone Gods (2007) by Jeanette Winterson. Both authors envision futures of the Anthopocene that are discursively (and recursively) engaged with colonial pasts, a conception of the future that finds it is, as Henriette Genkel argues in her anthology Futures and Fictions, ‘already implicated in the different dimensions of time’.[7] Both Butler and Winterson’s texts unsettle the narratives of empire and capital by orienting themselves in the alternative temporalities of speculative fiction.[8] They fiction futures to produce a ‘significant distortion of the present’, something that Samuel Delany considers a central technique of science fiction.[9] Their texts wonder at the possibility of other worlds and other futures, while grappling with the neoliberal fiction that such possibility is already foreclosed, that we are at the ‘end of history’.[10] 

In science fiction writing, the future is both a territory for extraction and a site of resistance.

        In John Akomfrah’s The Last Angel of History, his documentary-cum-science-fiction film about afrofuturism and the entanglements of ‘space, music, and the future’ in late-twentieth century black culture, the time-travelling narrator declares that the:

first touch with science fiction came when Africans began playing drums to cover distance. Water carried the sound of the drums, and sound covered the distance between the Old and the New World.[11] 

Butler, who features in the film, writes from a similar position of awareness that, since the violence and displacement of the Middle Passage, science fiction has been a black technology of resistance, of establishing relationships with the ‘Old and the New World’, and of sense-making beyond the end of the world.

Continue reading Old and New Worlds in Octavia Butler’s Parable Novels and Jeanette Winterson’s The Stone Gods

Viking Fever – Vikings in Fantastika

By Kevan Manwaring

Ink: when Viking Fever goes viral

The Northman (2022) – Director: Robert Eggers; Writer: Sjón/Eggers.

Vikings are very much in vogue again, with a slew of releases in recent years reaching fever pitch in 2021-2022, many of which draw laterally, rather than literally, upon Viking culture: MCU’s Loki and Thor: Love and Thunder; Vikings: Valhalla; The Last Kingdom; The Northman; The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power... Readers and viewers are perhaps more adept at perceiving the loose historicity of such retellings than scholars credit them; and are drawn to the new tales largely because of the storytelling, the characters, and the aesthetic. For some, such texts are a ‘gateway drug’ to the hit of history, the fix of the source material, the Gothic allure of the archive. 

Yet for many, it is perhaps something more visceral. Martin Amis said novels come from the ‘base of the spine’, but maybe the appeal of narrative flights of fancy do also. 

It is perhaps not surprising that tales of warriors and their warrior gods are in favour in such tumultuous times (it could be argued we live in a new Viking Age, where the mask of civility has been forsaken and the strong take what they wish from the weak, or at least try), but Viking culture and Norse mythology has had an especial appeal to writers of Fantasy for a long time. Mike Ashley defines ‘Nordic Fantasy’ as ‘That body of FANTASY which draws its heart from the MYTHOLOGY of the Scandinavian and Teutonic races and incorporates the stories retold in the SAGAS.’ (1999: 691) 

In this article (from an author and academic who has written two Viking-inspired novels of his own), I explore this phenomenon. What is Viking Fever? When and how did it go viral? And is this latest ‘wave’ just a variant of a long-running cultural mutation that originates in the birth of Scandinavian and English literature, and perhaps even in the very foundations of storytelling?

Continue reading Viking Fever – Vikings in Fantastika

First-Class Flights: The Class Politics of Labour and Flight in Sylvia Townsend Warner’s Elfin Stories

By Tam J Moules

Kingdoms of Elfin, Sylvia Townsend Warner’s 1977 short story collection, is one of her oddest and most fantastical works, the culmination of “a progressive shifting away from realism toward the explicitly anti mimetic modes of allegory and fable” (Castle, 1993), a departure which “seemed calculated to irritate and confuse a great many readers.” (Harman, 2015, p. 312) The tales were written over a period of several years, originally published separately in the New Yorker, before being published as a collection about a year before Townsend Warner’s death in 1978. They are loosely satires of class systems and aristocracy, as Harman describes: “She used Elfindom as a mirror to society, although all the satire in her elfin stories is very casually arrived at; she seems too uninterested in human dealings to aim at them with any care” (Harman, 2015, p. 313). Elfin (or fairy, the terms are often used interchangeably by both author and critics) society is portrayed as deeply decayed and corrupt, with a rigid class structure and archaic rituals dependent primarily on the whims of the powerful, disintegrating under the weight of their own isolationism and greed, and in opposition to the mortals of the tales, who are “almost universally working class”. (Priest, 2010)

There are two main layers to the class division in these stories. The most prominent is the division within Elfin society, between “flying servants [and] strolling gentry” (p.93). The division between Elfin and human society is also stratified along class lines, with the aforementioned working class mortals forming the main part of the human characters. The intersections between both of these stratifications will serve as the basis for my exploration of Warner’s treatment of class.

Claire Harman, in her 1989 biography of Sylvia Townsend Warner, describes the Elfins as “anarchic [and] amoral”. Harman is likely using ‘anarchic’ in the colloquial sense, to mean ‘chaotic’, however, in contrast to the literal sense of the word, we see that Elfin society is deeply hierarchical, and the power of flight, through the possession and usage of wings, is frequently employed as a symbol of the delineation of those hierarchies. It’s a physical power, an inherited characteristic, a visual marker to differentiate between Elfins and those they consider to be their human inferiors. It serves as a marker of the differences between Elfins and humans, a demonstration of Elfin superiority that is tied in with human religious symbolism. It also serves as a class marker within Elfin society, between the working classes who must rely on flight for labour and transport, and the upper classes who consider it beneath their dignity. We are told quite flatly of the theoretically simple social position of flight: Elfins “fly or don’t fly according to their station in life”, and the aristocrats “marked their social standing by scorning to use their wings” (p. 66). The stories frequently concern themselves with instances in which these social rules are transgressed.

I am resisting the impulse here to taxonomise every symbolic function of the power of flight in these stories, to fit them all into some universal system, since this runs counter to the playfully and deliberately contradictory nature of these stories. Partly this is due to their being written over a long period of time, changing style and tone to suit the needs of particular stories, and partly it is an artefact of the stories’ function as social satires. Though some critics have discussed her “attempt to construct a typology of fairies” (Simons in Davies & Malcolm eds. 2006), I would disagree that she makes any such attempt. It is possible to read a typology into the book, but I’d argue that this requires flattening a lot of the apparent contradictions. Flight is forbidden, except when it’s not. Contact with humans is forbidden, except when it’s not. Religion is irrelevant to them, except when it’s not. She sets out a theoretical typology, then throughout the collection she explores the complications and violations and contradictions of this typology. It might be more accurate to say that the book is a typology of contradictions, and in laying out the Elfin contradictions we are led to consider the human ones.

In writing about Warner’s treatment of animals in her fiction, Mary Sanders Pollock discusses Warner’s project to “suggest ways that Marxist thinking might permeate and complicate the boundaries […] between the “human” and the other lively beings” (2015), which I would suggest applies equally to her treatment of the Elfins as it does to her treatment of animals. We see a convergence of these two concepts in the tale ‘The Mortal Milk’, which concerns “the Royal Pack of Werewolves” (p. 68) in the Court of Brocéliande as they sicken and die. They are described as both men and beasts, as both unnatural and mortal, as a liminal state between sapient and animal, and their treatment mirrors the treatment of the human children raised in Elfin. Permeability is a recurrent symbol in these stories, be it the permeable geographical boundaries between the two worlds, the permeable species boundaries between humans and Elfins, or the resisted permeability of class boundaries.

Continue reading “First-Class Flights: The Class Politics of Labour and Flight in Sylvia Townsend Warner’s Elfin Stories”

Telling the Acrobats which way to Jump: Irrigation Gaming and Utopian Thinking

Maurits W. Ertsen

“I mean I can book the acts, but I can’t tell the acrobats which way to jump!”

James George Hacker (portrayed by Paul Eddington)—Yes Minister, Series 2, Episode 2: ‘Official Secrets

Utopia and Irrigation

This is an article about The Irrigation Management Game (IMG), reflecting on my own use of the game in educational settings, and drawing some links with utopian and dystopian thought. The relationship between water and human wellbeing has been extensively studied and debated. Perhaps the most famous overarching theory is that of Karl Wittfogel. Wittfogel argued that certain climates imply certain forms of irrigation, which in turn imply certain political and social institutions.[1] In particular, Wittfogel thought that ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia, Hellenistic Greece, Imperial Rome, the Abbasid Caliphate, Imperial China, the Moghul Empire, and Incan Peru, were all ‘hydraulic societies,’ whose despotic character arose from the need to manage complex irrigation infrastructures. Although Wittfogel’s environmental determinism has since been discredited, his work remains a great reminder that water management is seldom simply a set of technical problems. Instead, water management is intimately linked with power, labor, knowledge, discipline, control, and utopian and dystopian possibilities. Anyone who has read George Orwell’s 1984 or Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World—or is a fan of Michel Foucault—will surely recognize such themes.[2] Irrigation is one of many domains where governments have attempted to improve collective welfare without undue interference in individual freedoms.

Irrigation was on many development agendas, in states as diverse as the Neo-Assyrian empire[3], colonial states in the 19th and 20th centuries[4] and modern settings[5]. In these developmental settings, irrigation—including its aspects of control—was often associated with utopian futures, at least within state propaganda and planning discourse. In colonial Africa, for example, European powers imposed irrigation regimes on communities they treated as ‘historyless’, while perceiving themselves as creating an ideal, rational order.[6] After the Second World War, with many colonized countries gaining independence, irrigation systems that had been constructed and/or planned became part of post-colonial international development.[7] Former colonial experts became international experts, and new experts were trained within irrigation approaches developed in colonial times.

In the first decades of post-WWII development, the main focus was on building new and rehabilitating existing irrigation infrastructure. From the 1970s onwards, more attention was paid to issues of managing these infrastructures—including relationships between managers, farmers, and other water users. These discussions intensified in the 1980s, if only because results lagged behind the expectations (sometimes too optimistic—utopian!—expectations) of governments and engineers. New methods of design and management began to emerge, and slowly began to adopt more participatory processes, to accommodate stakeholders’ knowledge and wishes. The main topic of this article, the Irrigation Management Game (IMG), is a result of these intensified efforts.

The IMG was initially developed to support discussions among irrigation managers on farmer strategies and water delivery problems, especially in the larger systems in South and South-East Asia.[8] After positioning the IMG within a gaming context, I will examine how the game reflects the realities that I study—both in practical and theoretical terms. I will conclude by suggesting that the IMG allows us to explore how utopia and dystopia are in the making, and not fixed in advance by a given environmental setting and management system. Especially in irrigation, I will suggest, the margin between utopia and dystopia can be thin.

Continue reading “Telling the Acrobats which way to Jump: Irrigation Gaming and Utopian Thinking”