G(r)eek Theatre: Reflections on Cyborphic & Greek Science Fiction Theatre

Christos Callow Jr

This article is a brief introduction to science fiction theatre by Greek artists based in Greece and the UK. I’m happy to have been asked to also discuss the theatre company I co-founded, Cyborphic, as the main case study. One would hope that science fiction theatre hardly requires an introduction: the genre has been on stage for at least a hundred and one years, since Karel Čapek’s R.U.R. (Rossum’s Universal Robots), which premiered in 1921 in Hradec Králové. However, science fiction theatre has been present as a largely invisible and underexplored category. In the 20th century, it not only included stage adaptations of Mary Shelley’s and H.G. Wells’s novels, or musicals such as Little Shop of Horrors or the Rocky Horror Show; it also included plays by Samuel Beckett, Caryl Churchill, George Bernard Shaw, Alan Ayckbourn, and Vladimir Mayakovsky. A foundational text by Ralph Willingham, Science Fiction and the Theatre (1993), remains one of the few studies that demonstrate the strength of the science fictional imagination in 20th century theatre.

The genre has proliferated in the 21st century, most notably in experimental and fringe productions. More and more artists and theatre companies appear happy to label their work ‘science fiction theatre,’ marking a change from the last century, in which dystopian and post-apocalyptic settings such as that of Beckett’s Endgame, or devices such as time travel or alternate history, could often appear on stage without terms like “sci-fi” appearing anywhere in the accompanying marketing. Notable exceptions to this included the Science Fiction Theatre of Liverpool (founded in 1976), and Ray Bradbury’s theatrical adventures in Los Angeles, where he led the Pandemonium Theatre Company and adapted several of his well-known science fiction stories for the stage.

More recently, Jennifer Haley’s The Nether, a crime/science fiction thriller set in a virtual realm, had its world premiere in California in 2013. Plays by Alistair McDowall, such as Pomona (2014), X (2016), and The Glow (2022), featured genre elements, from Lovecraftian horror to science fiction and the supernatural, and have been staged in the National Theatre and the Royal Court. Jordan Harrison’s Marjorie Prime was a finalist for the 2015 Pulitzer Prize in Drama, later adapted into a 2017 film. The first theatre festival to focus on science fiction was Sci-Fest LA in 2014; it included theatrical adaptations of works by Neil Gaiman and Clive Barker. California seems to be particularly friendly to the genre, as does New York, where the Untitled Theater Company #61 has staged new science fiction plays by Edward Einhorn and his adaptations of Ursula K. Le Guin’s and Philip K Dick’s work. Also in New York, Mac Rogers has presented his Honeycomb Trilogy (2012), a trilogy of science fiction plays based on R.U.R. Meanwhile, in the UK, science fiction plays and performances have been populating fringe festivals such as the Edinburgh Fringe, Vault Festival and others — including the Talos Science Fiction Theatre Festival since 2015. On that note, and to begin discussing where contemporary Greek theatre-making fits into this world, I will next reflect on a company and a festival dedicated to science fiction on stage.

I. On Cyborphic — or do Orphics dream of Cyber sheep?

Cyborphic is a London-based Greek and Science Fiction theatre company, founded in 2017, producing ancient and contemporary Greek theatre. The company is run by playwright and lecturer Dr Christos Callow Jr. and dramaturg and classicist Dr Andriana Domouzi. Its projects have included a reconstruction of Euripides’ fragmentary tragedy Melanippe Wise, and the solo performances Mayuri and Posthuman Meditation. Cyborphic has also run the TalosScience Fiction Theatre Festival of London (which predates the company, being founded in 2015). The festival has featured contemporary science fiction plays, including work by Greek theatremakers, such as Superhero by Andreas Flourakis. Cyborphic also organised the Performing Greece conferences on contemporary Greek theatre (including papers on Greek science fiction theatre) and the latest Stage the Future conference on science fiction theatre. The company runs a small network for science fiction theatre artists and academics, SF Theatre Network, and organised a network of Greek artists in London. 

Liza Callinicos as Mayuri

Of these projects, the most ambitious is Melanippe Wise. The completed text included Domouzi’s translation of the play’s surviving fragments and is based on Domouzi’s doctoral research into Euripides’ two lost Melanippe tragedies, Melanippe Wise (c.418-411 BC) and Melanippe Captive (c. 413-412 BC). It was first presented at the Hope Theatre in London in November 2019, funded by the Institute of Classical Studies and the University of Derby. The process for researching and reconstructing the play was explored in a workshop series titled “Lost Greek Tragedy: Staging the Fragmented and the Fantastic” (Domouzi 2020), and will be further explored in a chapter of Domouzi’s forthcoming edited volume Tragedy Resurrected. Reconstructing, Adapting and Staging Lost Greek Tragedy, to be published by De Gruyter.

Finally, Cyborphic aims to bring interdisciplinary research to theatre-making. Cyborphic’s website features an online database of 21st century science fiction theatre plays and performances, chronicling more than 100 plays with sci-fi elements, including Afrofuturist, contemporary fantasy, horror, and others. Currently, Cyborphic are planning Talos V, and a full production of Melanippe Wise.

II. On Greek Science Fiction Theatre; Live or Leave your Myth in Greece

If we’re happy to consider proto-science fiction when discussing the underexplored Greek science fiction theatre, one may start as early as the fragmentary play Daedalus by Sophocles (likely a satyr drama) where the fragments “160 and 161 testify that the play contained something about Talos” (Sophocles, 1996), the artificial man of bronze. If we were to maintain this flexible approach to genre, we could consider several Greek adaptations of classical Greek drama that have used science fictional, futuristic and/or dystopian elements across the 20th century. One of the most interesting such texts is Medea by Vasilis Ziogas, written in 1995, which features a chorus of metahumans in addition to three goddesses, and blends ideas from Greek philosophy, Christianity and astronomy along with a posthuman take on Medea. The play is unpublished but there’s a copy in the library of the Department of Theatre Studies of the University of Athens. The following quote demonstrates well the style and attitude of the play: 

And you Metahumans, that the wisdom you achieved while you were living, rewarded you with the fourth level of galactic life. It is not Jason that elevated himself to the meadow of the fourth dimension, but it was me who descended to meet him. (Ziogas, cited in Domouzi, 2016)

What is of particular interest here — and this is an important theme that science fiction and ancient Greek theatre share — is the struggle of the individual with the cosmos, a struggle which takes mythical proportions. Domouzi argues that at the heart of the play is “the dual substance of Medea,” who is presented here as “some kind of human goddess,” and that the “meaning of the universe and the purpose of existence are central to the text, positioning the characters and the myth against a cosmic problem” (Domouzi, 2016).

Besides such adaptations of classical Greek plays, there have been in Greece — as is the case everywhere — several theatrical adaptations of science fiction films and novels, including quite a few takes on Clockwork Orange as well as We ; an adaptation of The Man from Earth was at Theatre Alkmini from 2013 to 2014, and theatre director Katerina Evangelatos had presented a new adaptation of 1984 in 2016.

But what of Greek science fiction on stage? The first co-production of the Greek National Theatre with the Greek National Opera, Galaxy, also premiered in 2016. The show combined ambitious visual effects, dance and performance, and explored, among other things, cosmic topics from the Big Bang to hopes of alien life elsewhere in the universe. Other examples include another production at Alkmini, Mars 1, by the theatre company “θεατρικό σωματίδιο πΟδήλατρΟν” (which might best be translated to “theatrical particle bIcycle”) and the dystopian drama 3% by Vily Sotiropoulou — set in 2040 — which first ran from 2016 -2017, and was presented again in early 2021. Even its pre-pandemic edition featured Skype connections with actors based in other countries. There was also Mission to Planet Earth by Sakis Serefas, produced by the National Theatre of Northern Greece in 2010 and concerning two alien beings that visit Earth. Home Greco by Vaggelis Alexandris and Odysseas Androutsos, which ran from December 2018 to March 2019 at Theatre Stathmos, was an intergalactic sci-fi comedy exploring the history of Greece through aliens. Another surreal but sf-relevant play is Blood Enemies by Arkas, published in 2007 and performed in 2008 at Neos Kosmos Theatre in Athens; the play features anthropomorphised organs in the body of a dying alcoholic shortly after an accident — the dialogue between the Small Intestine and the Colon is meant to be both funny and existential, as they’re stuck in a Beckettian scenario, with no luck being transplanted and thus surviving in another body, unlike other organs.

It is safe to assume that if Greek science fiction theatre is influenced by anything, it’d primarily be the Theatre of the Absurd and subsequently Science Fiction Cinema and Literature, rather than the lesser known tradition of science fiction on stage, such as in American or British theatre. I doubt that Alistair McDowall or Anne Washburn are well-known in Greek or Greek-Cypriot theatre; however there was a staging of Caryl Churchill’s A Number in Athens at 2005 and a staged reading of a Jennifer Haley’s The Nether directed by Evita Ioannou in October 2020 in Lefkosia, Cyprus.

Many of the performances mentioned above rely more heavily on surreal and absurdist elements than science fiction; what is exciting from an interdisciplinary perspective is how Greek theatre aesthetics can influence the exploration of science fiction in Greece, Cyprus and European theatre more broadly. Some of these plays explore what it means to be Greek, or to exist in modern Greece, from an alien or dystopian perspective. But what of Greeks abroad? 

When it comes to thinking about science fiction theatre and performance of the Greek diaspora, especially in the UK, identity issues related to immigration and isolation may be more dominant, alongside general concerns about the state of the world and/or of the planet.

An Ice Thing to Say by London-based Vertebra Theatre and directed by Mayra Stergiou, has involved several Greek artists in its production and has participated at several festivals (in London, Melbourne, Reykjavik, Stockholm and elsewhere), having had both digital versions for online events (that blended live and recorded performance) and live, in-person shows. The performance, blending elements of physical theatre and ice installation, explores the encounter between a human being and a polar bear, and engages with issues of the Anthropocene Era and anthropocentrism. It also featured in one of the Talos theatre festivals (at the Cockpit Theatre in November 2020) alongside another theatre project by Greek creatives, Genome Theatre’s Genesis 37, an immersive performance that involved audience participation both in-venue and online (via Zoom and thanks to a projector and live-streaming from a camera-person on stage), in a feminist story exploring the ethics of cloning.

My own science fiction play, Mayuri; or, The New Human, was performed as part of the Kensington + Chelsea Festival and online for Edinburgh Fringe in August 2021, and explored issues of robotics, posthumanism and immigration. I’d rather not talk about it in my own words here; but according to Geraint D’Arcy in a lovely review in Foundation 140 (Winter 2021 issue), the play is centred “on the triumph and anguish of abandoning the body in favour of a technological and philosophical unknown.”

III. A Conclusion; or, perhaps, a Cliffhanger

One of the challenges of science fiction theatre-making is the creation of work that succeeds both as theatre and as science fiction. Willingham noted that most of the science fiction plays he catalogued in Science Fiction and the Theatre “are the work not of science fiction writers, but of independent dramatists schooled in the old playwriting formulas” (Willingham, 1994, 3). The ideal perhaps here is that, as the cultures of science fiction and theatre continue to explore each other, we have in the 21st Century more plays that build on both traditions. My hope for the future of Greek science fiction theatre is that it engages with both the more-developed science fiction theatre traditions beyond Greece, and with contemporary science fiction literature by Greek writers — rather than operating in a vacuum or reacting mainly to classic dystopian texts. Another hope is that it interacts more with the speculative fiction — and proto-sci-fi themes — of Greek myth and classical theatre.

In any case, I hope that this article has demonstrated that — for better or worse — Greek science fiction theatre exists, and that it has a growing (and perhaps a glowing) presence.

Bibliography

D’Arcy, G, 2021, “Review of Mayuri, or the New Human,” Foundation, vol. 140, no. 50.3, pp.130-132.

Domouzi, A, 2016, “The Metahuman in Modern Greek Theatre: science fiction motifs in Medea by Vasilis Ziogas.” Performing Greece II: Conference on Contemporary Greek Theatre, 3 December, London.

Domouzi, A. (2020) “New life for lost Greek drama: reflections on reconstructing and staging Euripides’ Melanippe Wise.” Institute of Classical Studies blog. July 2020. Available from: ics.blogs.sas.ac.uk/2020/07/09/new-life-for-lost-greek-drama-reflections-on-reconstructing-and-staging-euripides-melanippe-wise. Last accessed 2 February 2022.

Sophocles (1996). Fragments. Edited by Hugh Lloyd-Jones. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. P.64

Willingham, R. (1994). Science Fiction and the Theatre. London: Greenwood Press.

Christos Callow Jr is a Greek British Playwright and Lecturer in Creative Writing at the University of Derby. He has founded the Talos: Science Fiction Theatre Festival and has written several science fiction plays which have been presented at Being Human Festival 2021, Kensington + Chelsea Festival and Edinburgh Fringe.

Mikhail Karikis: Activism and audiotopia

Phoenix Alexander interviews Mikhail Karikis

All images are part of No Ordinary Protest project, with permission from Mikhail Karikis.

Please briefly introduce yourself.

I am a Greek-born artist based in London and Lisbon. I work mostly in moving image, sound and performance. I develop projects through collaborations with individuals, collectivities and communities that are often located beyond the circles of contemporary art. In recent years, I have been working extensively with children, teenagers, young adults and people with disabilities. 

Since the early stages of my practice, the politics and materiality of the voice have been key concerns, while at the same time engaging with themes that give voice to different ways humans relate to the environment. There has been an instinctive journey that I began with films exploring voicing conditions of labour in the context of extractivist practices. This moved forward by looking at models of sustainability and eco-feminism, and more recently eco-activism and emerging forms of labour that service nature. 

I would say that my works prompt an activist imaginary and rouse the potential to imagine possible audiotopias (i.e. speculative places invoked through sound) and desired futures. I employ listening as an artistic strategy to help determine the content of my projects with the aim to highlight alternative modes of human action and solidarity, and to nurture critical attention and tenderness.

To what extent do you consider your work and practice to be ‘science fictional,’ if at all? Do you actively think about genre in your work, or do the labels come after the fact? (Surrealism, social realism, performance etc.)

I find science fiction and fantasy literature inspiring, but I do not think of my own artistic work through the lens of a specific genre. Perhaps where some science fiction literature and my art practice align is the way I employ my work to imagine and propose different worlds. I often start projects by embedding myself in different community contexts, and as such, social realism is always my starting point. Reflection, imagination and fantasy play an important role as I develop the themes and the projects mature and take shape. A decade ago and after I’d spent several years producing work that was furious and acutely critical, I took the decision to go further and invest my energy and imagination to proposing ‘better’ alternatives. My use of the word ‘better’ here implies a world with social and environmental justice, egalitarianism and practices of care. 

Sounds plays a central role in much of your work. Can you say a little bit more about how you see the relationship between the sonic and visual aspects of a new project?

I am currently developing a project which explores our relationship to weather phenomena. I am approaching it from three sonic perspectives: folk songs that call out to the elements, capture and transmit traditional knowledge about seasonal change and meteorology; a second angle is that of music instruments that imitate the sounds of weather and bring the environment into the concert hall through sound, like, for example, wind machines and thunder sheets; and a third perspective is the acoustics of resistance generated through eco-activism and protest. I am working with folk singers, professional experimental musicians and young school children on this project to bring together these three different forms of auditory culture that are testimony to our profound connection and entanglement with the weather. As is common in my work, the performance of these different forms of sound will determine the visual dimension of the project. Be it on a macroscopic or microscopic dimension, all my films capture acts of communal sound-making, resonance and vibration, and document the power sound has to set into motion the material universe, activate our sentiments and mobilise political thinking and action. 

Are there any works of science or speculative fiction (in any medium!) that have particularly inspired you?

Every child and teenager should read The Iron Woman by Ted Hughes for its environmental focus, for empowering children heroes with activist ecological thinking and rebelling against adults, and for the central role listening and noise play in the story as superpowers that activate empathy toward more than human beings. The Dispossessed by Ursula Le Guin is a book everyone ought to read for its acute reflections on capitalism, gender politics and anarcho-communism. 

“Gypsy in Space”: A Note on the Representation of the Roma in Contemporary Hungarian SF Short Stories

By Áron Domokos

The representation of marginalized communities is extensively explored in both academic SF studies, and popular discourse around SF, particularly since the second half of the 1960s. Themes such as to what extent and by what means the living conditions, adversities, modes of resistances, worldviews, etc. of such communities are represented in SF narratives, as well as the role that individuals identifying themselves as community members play in the production/consumption/reception of SF, have been investigated by practitioners of quantitative and qualitative research. To date, however, there appear to be no studies that address the representation of the Roma in contemporary Hungarian SF speculative fiction. The present paper aims to do the following: (1) to introduce contemporary Hungarian SF short fiction and its readership; (2) to briefly explore the politics of “integration” and “reverse integration” as a means to contextualize the Roma within contemporary Hungarian society; (3) to give an outline of those “semiotic” means by which Roma characters in the short stories under scrutiny are identified; (4) to characterize the particular Roma representations from “invisibility” through “genocide” to “social mobility” that are present in the narratives in question. The texts used for my investigation are the relevant pieces of those submitted in 2014-2018 as candidates for the Péter Zsoldos Award, a national annual prize awarded for the best (published) Hungarian SF novel and short story.

  • Review: This article underwent one anonymous peer review and editorial review from three editors.
  • License: CC BY-NC-ND 4.0.
  • Citation: Domokos, Áron. 2022. “Gypsy in Space”: A Note on the Representation of the Roma in Contemporary Hungarian SF Short Stories. Vector. 28 May 2022. 
  • Keywords: Roma; Hungarian SF; representation
  • DOI: Forthcoming

Gypsy in Space”: A Note on the Representation of the Roma in Contemporary Hungarian SF Short Stories

Together and apart: that is the definition of fraternity. The one we love is another. But the one we love is as close to us as we are to ourselves. So what is needed is not to see the Roma as only a ‘problem’ – and especially not as a ‘problem’ of the white majority – but to act according to the well-known rules of human love, which as a sentiment is not so simple (I have also described it as a contradiction), but in my humble view it is the only right one.

(Tamás 2017)

“Well, white folks ain’t planning for us to be here.”

I want to begin by mentioning that it is comparatively easy to notice the lack of Black representation in mainstream American SF up to the 1970s. Observing that there was not a single Black character in the now legendary 1976 dystopian film Logan’s Run, stand-up comedian Richard Pryor commented: Well, white folks ain’t planning for us to be here. That’s why we got to make movies” (Pryor 1976). As for the Roma,1 science fiction literature in English and other languages since the 19th century had very few Romani characters, and even fewer narratives were written by Romani authors. Let us now take a closer look at the Hungarian-language SF scene.

My study considers nearly 300 pieces of short fiction shortlisted for the 2014-2018 Péter Zsoldos SF Award, and takes a brief look at works in other media. I am going (1) to place the discourses on the representation of the Roma in a social-philosophical framework; (2) to problematize the issue of Roma representation and its “semiotic” aspect; and, in light of this, (3) to classify different ways in which Romani people are represented in contemporary Hungarian SF.

Continue reading ““Gypsy in Space”: A Note on the Representation of the Roma in Contemporary Hungarian SF Short Stories”

Contemporary Greek Speculative Fiction: A Roundtable

With Natalia Theodoridou, Eugenia Triantafyllou, Eleanna Castroianni and George Cotronis

By Phoenix Alexander 

Hi everyone. Let’s start by introducing ourselves to readers / each other!

ET: Hello! I am Eugenia Triantafyllou, a writer and artist currently based in Athens. My fiction has appeared in places like Uncanny, Strange Horizons, Apex and has been nominated for Ignyte and Nebula awards.I am also a Clarion West 2019 alumna. My preferred genres are dark fantasy and horror, although I do like to mix genres and switch it up a lot. 

Twitter: @FoxesandRoses

eugeniatriantafyllou.com

NT: Hi! I am a speculative fiction writer and game designer. Originally from Thessaloniki, Greece, with roots in Russia, Georgia, and Turkey. I now split my time between Greece and the UK. I’ve published over 100 short stories in places like Clarkesworld, F&SF, Kenyon Review, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, and Nightmare, among others, and have three games/interactive novels out by Choice of Games. If you want a taste of my work, I’d recommend starting with “Ribbons” in Uncanny Magazine, “The Birding: a Fairy Tale” in Strange Horizons (which won the World Fantasy Award for Short Fiction), or my Nebula-nominated game, Rent-a-Vice. My work is queer and dark, and I tend to overstep genre boundaries. 

Twitter: @natalia_theodor

natalia-theodoridou.com

EC: Hi, I’m Eleanna, a writer and poet with work in Clarkesworld Magazine, Strange Horizons, Fireside, Beneath Ceaseless Skies and elsewhere. My usual setting is literary science fiction or fantasy where the repercussions of war and oppression feature prominently. I draw a lot from my background as a human geographer and, in particular, from Anthropocene humanities and landscapes of de-industrialization and decay. I am also heavily inspired by contemporary Greek history with its share of complex politics and violence, by the pagan darkness of folk traditions, and by the fragility and cruelty of childhood.

Twitter: @nomadological

eleannacastroianni.wordpress.com

GC: Hello! I’m George Cotronis and I’m a writer and illustrator from Greece by way of Sweden, where I was born. I’ve created book covers for authors like Stephen Graham Jones, Livia Llewellyn and Harry Connolly. When I’m not illustrating, I write short stories. I’ve sold a handful of stories mostly to anthologies like Lost Signals, Robots & Artificial Intelligence and places like Pantheon Magazine and Tales to Terrify. 

Twitter: @ravenkult

cotronis.com

Continue reading “Contemporary Greek Speculative Fiction: A Roundtable”

“Part of the attraction was fear…” an interview with Alexis Panayiotou

Interviewed by Phoenix Alexander and Jo Lindsay Walton

This interview first appeared in Vector 295.

Hi Alexis. Could you introduce yourself and say a little bit about your background?

Hello, my name is Alexis Panayiotou. I’m a fine artist and a drawing tutor on the BA: Fashion course at Central St. Martins.

As you know, this is a special issue of Vector focused on Greek SFF. So our first question is: do you consider yourself a Greek artist?

I think of my identity as mixed or somewhere between cultures. I was born and raised in London. My parents are both Greek, from Cyprus, both came to London very young, my mum nine and dad fourteen. They have lived here ever since. I have never been to Cyprus so I only have a vicarious idea of the place, through my parents and other relatives, and a bit from TV and radio. 

I grew up in a Greek household, eating Greek food, hearing Greek music every day. Greek was my first language until I started school, although now I only have a rudimentary grasp. At home I was steeped in Greek culture and as a young man I would have described myself as solely Greek, and I remember feeling very lucky and proud to be so.

As for ‘artist,’ I’ve only recently started being comfortable using the term — it comes with lots of lofty aspirations! When I was young I drew a lot, like most kids, so there were always parents or teachers telling me I was an artist, or that I would be one. 

Mother pinching her baby affectionately while breastfeeding
Continue reading ““Part of the attraction was fear…” an interview with Alexis Panayiotou”

Five questions for SF Club of Athens

Interviewed by Hephaestion Christopoulos

Instead of introducing you to one or two artists, interviewing them thoroughly, I chose to present here a number of them, as I think they are all noteworthy and you should definitely get to know them. Besides, their work speaks for itself. So I gave ten authors plus one visual artist a limited space to answer the same set of questions:
  1. Name one of your works that is special to you and briefly explain why.
  2. It’s often said that artists have a central theme their work revolves around. Can you spot such a theme in your work?
  3. What do you consider your greatest success in your creative career and what was your greatest frustration, if any?
  4. What have been the challenges in getting your work known? What are the pros and cons of your local market vs getting your work abroad? Do social media really help?
  5. Finally, please tell us what your next plans are.
I sincerely hope their answers will intrigue you enough to check them out.
Lina Theodorou. J-scape, 102 cm X 222 cm, acrylics on canvas, 2021.
Continue reading “Five questions for SF Club of Athens”

Make Shift

Make Shift: Dispatches from the Post-Pandemic Future. Edited by Gideon Lichfield. The MIT Press, 2021.

Reviewed by Ksenia Shcherbino

In my head, collections of short stories are proof of the many-world interpretation of quantum mechanics – once an experiment with different possible outcomes is performed, all outcomes are obtained, each in a different newly created world. To a certain extent, this is the starting point for the Twelve Tomorrows project – an annual anthology of science fiction short stories, published by MIT Technology Review – but unlike in physical experiments, it allows us to observe all of the alternative worlds. Make Shift: Dispatches from the Post-Pandemic Future is the 2021 addition to this project, and it appeared in the most difficult times. The world, having gone through all types of lockdowns, quarantines, social restrictions, furlough policies, has irrevocably changed, and eleven contributors to the book led by the editor Gideon Lichfield are trying to chart out those changes into newly opened futures. 

It’s a great challenge to prepare such a collection of short stories still in the midst of the pandemic (May 2021). It takes the honed instinct of a veteran of MIT Technology Review and, currently, WIRED editor to make sure that these stories still ring pitch-perfectly a year later. When Lichfield wrote in the preface how coronavirus “has ripped open a gaping hole in [capitalist liberal democracy] that may never be closed up,” he could not have possibly known that a year later Europe would be plunged into a war, and that the future would seem even darker, even more dystopian than through the lens of the pandemic alone. Now the world is once again lost in dis-es and mis-es of discord, displacement, dysfunction, misunderstanding, mistreatment and misery, and we struggle to see our place in it.

Nonetheless, the authors gathered under this cover are not new to imagining futures that embody resistance, resilience and hope. They are, in Lichfield’s words, “known for their ability to imagine a plausible future in realistic detail,” and they carve out new possibilities from the minutest details of our everyday life. Professional futurists, skilled world-builders and word-weavers, the volume’s writers are also journalists, sociologists, biotech consultants, activists, lawyers – they both shape the world, and care for the future with an intensity that burns through their words. More than once I finished reading a story in this collection with my eyes wet and my heart beating fast – a testament that the writing is wholehearted, earnest, relevant. It strikes a fighting chord with me despite the fact that there are no wars in these narratives, no large acts of heroism or self-sacrifice. Through the stories of ordinary people, in undramatic settings, they give you hope that, quoting Lichfield again, “the new normal, though forged in pain and suffering, could be a healthier, more robust, and in some ways more creative society.” They give you hope that your life matters. 

“No one is more important than you are,” says Chela in Malka Older’s “Interviews of Importance.” Chela works as operator for a new digital technology that records the memories of the elderly. Her job is to talk to them about their past. But what Chela wants most is to talk to her own mother, and to learn the story she never shared. Chela’s clients love talking to her, she is good at her job, yet somehow she can’t find the right words for the one person who is so important to her. She is afraid that she will never know her mother’s life story, and “there is a difference between knowing the outlines and understanding why things had happened and what it felt like.” COVID had an enormous impact on all emotional bonds that hold us together. Due to travel restrictions, I haven’t seen my mother for over two years now. I know how it feels – the slow erosion of intimacy, the blinding worry that you will be too late to say the right words. 

Family relationships are in the centre of Indrapramit Das’s “A Necessary Being,” a beautiful and sad story about bonding and parting. Our ruined world is being slowly tended back to life by giant omnipotent robots, doing all the menial tasks to make the planet livable again. They are operated by people who inhabit their mechanical bodies and give up on all human connection. But one day one of the operators rescues a little girl. She has nowhere to go, so he adopts her and lets her live with him inside the machine and pilot it. Together they become “heart” and “soul” of the robot. But is this life too much or not enough for a human child? The fragile ecosystem of father-daughter relationship unfurls against the background of the recovering world, and raises questions about gratitude, loyalty and our future survival. 

Stories like this are read through empathy and contemplation instead of adrenaline, as befits a collection of stories about futures after pandemics. Little happens in terms of the plot, or even character development. Yet they can still connect emotionally, and they are a treasure trove of inspirational ideas for the tech-savvy reader. The quadratic voting system in Karl Schroeder’s Sherlockian “The Price of Attention” is presumably unhackable and ensures fair votes by making people invest in the issues that matter the most to them; the system evolved out of the same mechanisms as COVID track-and-trace system. The Nene Huddle network in Ken Liu’s palimpsestic “Jaunt” allows people to establish a secure, yet anonymous and hard-to-trace connection with a telepresence robot and enables virtual travel in a world where conventional travel is extinct, and governments try to lock down and control population in the name of the common good. Such innovations are explained in exhaustive and plausible detail, which gives the stories a certain solidity, while serving as a reminder for us to pay attention to science and technology developments, spurred on by pandemic.

Some of the stories ring hilariously – and dangerously – true to our early pandemic experiences. Confusion, anger, and victimization were part of our initial reaction to COVID, and they are not easy to dispense with. Madeline Ashby’s “Patriotic Canadians Will Not Hoard Food!” recall empty shelves in London supermarkets during the first lockdown and anti-mask riots, as in her post-pandemic Canada, a farmer participates in a government ration exchange program and is persecuted by her neighbours for putting disposable masks on her scarecrows. Lockdowns gave us a chance to rediscover our creative side – and D.A. Xiaolin Spires picks up on this surge of DYI and innovation. In her “Mixology For Humanity’s Sake” the main protagonist is a sake brewer who helps with vaccination delivery – a story that acquires new layers of meaning once you remember the volunteers who were part of the NHS vaccination campaign. Ken Liu’s story with its xenophobic surveillance-obsessed president Bombeo and his anti-immigration policies holds a distorted mirror to both Priti Patel’s and Donald Trump’s agendas, while Adrian Hon’s “Little Kowloon” addresses the challenges faced by Hong Kongers settling in the UK after the 2021 Chinese crackdown on civil rights. Yet through those dark glimpses of our reality shines an unshakeable belief in humanity – in our ability to overcome our troubles without losing our feelings of compassion. It does not matter that our future may not literally resemble the worlds portrayed in Make Shift, since there’s one thing that the collection aptly and truthfully demonstrates: human beings are not neat pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. We never fully fit into any imaginary world, but are constantly adjusting and looking for solutions: political, technological, and above all emotional. 

In one sense, the opening conversation between Wade Roush (a technology journalist and editor of the 2018 edition of Twelve Tomorrows) and Ytasha L. Womack (author, filmmaker and Afrofuturist scholar) stands apart yet defines the tone of the book. Not only does it put this quantum multi-world experiment into the context of racial and social injustice, it also brings out hope for rebuilding from within, or, using Womack’s apt description, for “collective acknowledgement of life.” And this is probably the book’s most important message.

Jobs and Class of Main Characters in Science Fiction

By Marie Vibbert.

This article first appeared in Vector #294.

I was at a massive mixer for members of the Science Fiction Writers of America, a group I had just joined, wondering how I could even talk with these big, important people. The question everyone asked when you walked up to them was, “What type of science fiction do you write?” After mumbling some self-deprecating responses like “bad” or “oh you know like … the kind with robots and spaceships?” I tried to express what made my work different. “I write working-class science fiction,” I told the next gentleman. “Stories with waitresses and janitors in space, you know? I feel like there’s too many stories about rich guys without real problems.”

I picked the wrong man to try this tactic on. He laughed condescendingly and said, “The opposite is true. Everything is about some worker everyman. There aren’t enough stories about rich characters!”

My first thought was, Ooookay time to start never talking to this dude ever again, but my second thought was a worried, Is he right? I had this gut feeling that a lot of the science fiction I had read didn’t represent my social class, but was I just biased?1

The only answer was, of course, to collect some statistics! This paper is the culmination of my efforts to answer the question for myself, “Is there a class bias in main characters in science fiction, and if so, are poor or wealthy characters more predominant?”

Methods

Choosing the Books

The first question I had to answer was, “How do I take a sample set of science fiction?” I limited myself to novels, because novels or their detailed discussions were easy to find, and that way I’d be comparing apples to apples.

Reading every science fiction novel ever would not be feasible, especially with a staff of just me. I searched for recommended reading lists, but which to choose? Many were simply “The Best of 2019” or such. While it would be interesting to look at a specific period of SF, I wanted a cross-section of what an average reader might have in mind, and that meant including recent books as well as old classics. I googled “Top Science Fiction Novels” in an incognito browser tab (so as not to bias the results with my search history) and took the first 50 novels the search returned. I liked that list better: it felt eclectic, and included recent novels as well as Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein. Of course, the Google search results, while incognito, still would be skewed toward my location in the Midwest United States.

The British Science Fiction Association’s magazine, Vector, announced a call for papers on class and science fiction. I could hardly contain my excitement (and imposter syndrome) as I typed and re-typed my email asking if this statistical analysis was the sort of thing that maybe they’d want to see? And so, my next data set was BSFA award winners. These would skew British to balance my American bias. How better to kiss up to the editors? I started my spreadsheet!

BSFA award winners include fantasy novels with no science fictional elements, however, maintaining genre purity would open up a can of worms (how to draw the lines? Who gets to say what is or isn’t SF?). I would keep the results of each list separate, to see if there was any bias.

On accepting the paper proposal, editor Polina Levontin suggested adding the titles from the Orion SF Masterworks book series, a somewhat curated list, limited only by what titles Orion had the rights to. So now I had three piles of representative works: award winners, a hodgepodge recommended by Google, and a curated list for a total of 194 separate titles. It seemed as close as I was going to get to a reasonable sampling of notable science fiction novels.

Continue reading “Jobs and Class of Main Characters in Science Fiction”

Facing the Strategic Sublime: Scenario Planning as Gothic Narrative

By Matt Finch and Marie Mahon.

Scenario planning refers to methods used by decision-makers to enhance their strategic thinking, especially in situations characterised by turbulence, uncertainty, novelty, and ambiguity. Scenario planning is therefore particularly relevant in the context of climate change, which is complex, unprecedented, and potentially presents us with difficult-to-predict risk cascades and tipping points. Climate change may also present us with “feral futures”, in which our own interventions cause or exacerbate severe turbulence within a system or situation. In the face of such uncertainty, scenario planning enables users to generate new ideas, develop or test strategic options, establish monitoring and early warning processes for emergent issues, and enhance decision-making. 

Scenarios are not forecasts that predict likely futures, but spaces in which unexamined assumptions can be confronted and potentially suspended or transformed. They are aesthetic depictions of plausible futures that enable us to re-examine our current understanding of our environment, appreciating the power of uncertainty and its capacity to inspire fear and wonder. 

The affinity between scenario planning and science fiction has been widely remarked on in the literature, but in this paper we draw a novel connection between scenario planning and Gothic literature. In particular, we examine how scenarios, as Gothic narratives, provide conceptual resources to make sense of the experience of the “strategic sublime”: that which has been excluded from our frame of understanding. The art of scenario planning, like that of Gothic literature, lies in balancing anxiety, insight, and agency in our encounter with that which had previously seemed beyond discussion. 

Facing the Strategic Sublime: Scenario Planning as Gothic Narrative

The earth is split open. A vast, blazing pit disgorges luminous gas over a barren landscape. The sky is deep blue, pale at the horizon; it could be dawn or dusk. From our vantage point, the fire could be bottomless. Look carefully: at the edge of the pit, a tiny human figure stands, palms raised to the heat.

Julian Bell, Darvaza, 2010

The earth is split open. A vast, blazing pit disgorges luminous gas over a barren landscap
From Bell, Julian. (2013). Contemporary Art and the Sublime. Tate Gallery

This is Julian Bell’s 2010 painting Darvaza. It depicts a site the artist visited in Turkmenistan; its name, in Persian, means “the door to hell” (Garzemi & Garsanti, 2019). As Bell (2013) recounts, the blazing pit was inadvertently created by Soviet engineers in 1971 while seeking oil drilling sites. Striking a gas-filled cavity, the engineers chose to burn off its contents, only to find the resulting inferno beyond their control. It has burned ever since.

Bell locates his painting in a tradition of artists seeking to convey a sense of the sublime, an intense aesthetic experience in which “the self becomes a mere ingredient in the landscape, feeling insignificant, overwhelmed and humbled by nature” (Brady, 2013, p.199). 

Yet, in Bell’s account, this hellish phenomenon was created by human, technocratic actions, and his story of Darvaza also serves as an example of what Ramírez and Ravetz (2011) have called “feral futures”. Drawing an analogy to domesticated animals that revert to the wild, Ramírez and Ravetz describe how “human intervention create[s] an unwanted unfolding situation that could not have occurred in the wild” (p.480), offering examples such as the nuclear incident at Three Mile Island and the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

The idea of the “feral future” is useful in helping us understand how wicked, complex problems can stem from our own actions. In the Anthropocene, feral futures are increasingly prevalent. Even the impact of something as apparently “wild” as COVID-19 has feral aspects, as the ways in which the pandemic has played out are entwined with globalisation, climate change, urbanisation, and wide variations in responses by governments, institutions, and communities.

In this paper, we explore scenario planning as a tool for coping with the “strategic sublime” in feral situations characterised by turbulence, uncertainty, novelty, and ambiguity. Scenarios are not forecasts, but plausible stories of the futures which we may face (Spaniol & Rowland, 2019). We follow Ramírez and Wilkinson (2016) in understanding them as assessments of the future context for a given question or issue, designed to contrast with the way that context is currently being framed. As a brief case study, we include the four IMAJINE scenarios exploring the future of European regional inequalities.

By offering thought-provoking future contexts, such scenarios enable their users to generate new ideas, develop or test strategic options, establish monitoring and early warning processes for emergent issues, and enhance decision-making. Ramírez and Wilkinson argue that, by challenging current assumptions and offering alternative framings from the vantage point of multiple imagined futures, scenarios support good judgement across the three areas identified by Geoffrey Vickers (1965): What is really going on around us? What are we able to do about it? And what does the issue mean for us?

Continue reading “Facing the Strategic Sublime: Scenario Planning as Gothic Narrative”

An Interview with Gautam Bhatia

First published in INTERMULTIVERSAL SPACE

By Gareth Jelley

Gautam Bhatia is a science fiction writer, reviewer, and an editor of the award-winning STRANGE HORIZONS magazine. His duology THE WALL and THE HORIZON tell the story of Mithila and her quest to discover what lies beyond the impassable Wall that surrounds the city of Sumer.

In the afterword of The Wall you thank your parents for setting you down a lifetime’s science fiction journey. And you mentioned Golden Age stories, and you mentioned The Hobbit and Foundation. Which early influences had the biggest impact on you as you were growing up?

So, quite a bit, actually. I think the really interesting thing about growing up in India in the mid-nineties, in a big city—I grew up in Delhi—in an upper-middle class family where both parents were academically oriented, was that you ended up getting exposed to a whole range of influences. So as I spoke about in the acknowledgements of The Wall, my dad and mum got me The Hobbit and Foundation when I was 10 or 11 years old, which set me down the path of science fiction and fantasy. They also got me a set of books on Greek mythology, Roger Lancelyn Green’s retelling of the Greek myths. So I grew up reading stories about Icarus, which you may have seen some influence of that in The Wall. Although that particular story is more in the domain of Indian myths—there is a very similar story in the Indian mythology, it’s in The Rāmāyana. And the story in The Wall involving flying up to the sun is based more on that than on Icarus. But it’s an interesting how different cultures end up with very similar myths. It’s just impossible to grow up in an Indian house without being immersed in The Rāmāyana and The Mahābhārata. You just know those stories so well because they are part of everything you know growing up.

And at around the time I was born, the Soviet Union hadn’t yet collapsed, its collapse was still a couple of years away. And the Soviet Union had this kind of cultural exchange program with India where Soviet books, story books and fairy tales, were available at extremely cheap prices in Indian book shops and in book fairs. So when I was born, my mom basically bought a huge stack of Soviet books and I grew up reading that. And there were lots of fairy tales. And the one thing that I remember is that along with Baba Yaga there was always this royal family with three sons, the elder two being fine and strapping young men, and the third being a fool, and the fool always thrives at the end. And of course in any post-colonial Commonwealth country, you know, Enid Blyton, English books. So there was always a melange of influences that I was exposed to when I was growing up and all of it basically pointed towards really loving fairy tales, and escapist literature, like borderline fantasy, magical realism, of different traditions, and just always being steeped in that. And that translated into a desire to write that kind of stuff.

Continue reading “An Interview with Gautam Bhatia”