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. 

Continue reading “Dialogues Between Science and Fiction in the Creation of an Anthology”

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

Dimension 20’s The Unsleeping City: Fantasy and Play as Means of Claiming Agency in Modern Dystopias

By Emma French

Although the degree to which a game of Dungeons & Dragons (D&D) is required to contain a meaningful narrative differs amongst player groups, D&D’s facilitation of storytelling is now widely acknowledged.[1] According to Jennifer Grouling, ‘something about the TTRPG [tabletop roleplaying game] invites a narrative response’.[2] This is especially true of livestreamed, podcasted, or edited ‘actual play’ D&D – games that often include actors, comedians or other creative professionals, and that are consciously performed, recorded, produced, and distributed as a serialised fictional narrative for their audiences.

If ‘play’ is often associated with make-believe and the unreal, could there be something oxymoronic about the term ‘actual play’? It implies some kind of authenticity, but the nature of this claim cannot be easily summarised. Evan Torner traces the term’s origin to indie game design discussions in the 2000s on the influential forum The Forge. During this time, ‘actual play’ referred to written reports, used for ‘seeing the system in action through the lens of a game facilitator or player […] public, critical probing of a game’s text and rules through play.’[3] More recently, the term has come to refer to TTRPG gameplay as a kind of performance: players still enjoy a game amongst friends, but the act of play is also ‘geared toward an outside audience who become invested in the characters, narrative, storyworld, and meta-play behaviours of the players.’[4] These actual play broadcasts tell two stories at once, the story set in an imaginary world, and the story of that story being created. The blurring of these two kinds of stories can open up new creative possibilities. While any D&D game can provide an avenue for storytelling, Matthew Mercer – whose own livestream Critical Role is perhaps the most famous game of its kind – argues that games are often broadcast when ‘people […] find something that’s lacking in the space of storytelling, that they want to convey’ (10:17-10:22).[5] The known presence of an audience and ‘reader’ means that some streams use D&D for the creation of narrative with deliberate authorial intent, for instance to address real world issues and political concerns.

Continue reading “Dimension 20’s The Unsleeping City: Fantasy and Play as Means of Claiming Agency in Modern Dystopias”

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

Citadel of Chaos: an art practice to materialise an alternate present

By Mark Rohtmaa-Jackson & Allan Hughes / Blue Mountain Arcturus

When not in the tower he haunted the room where he had set up his War Tables – high benches on which rested models of cities and castles occupied by thousands of other models of soldier. In his madness he had commissioned this huge array from Vaiyonn, the local craftsman. […] And Dorian Hawkmoon would move all these pieces about his vast boards, going through one permutation after another; fighting a thousand versions of the same battle in order to see how a battle which followed it might have changed.

Michael Moorcock, ‘The Champion of Garathorm’[1]

In Moorcock’s The Chronicles of Castle Brass, Hawkmoon is consumed by a madness to commission his miniature armies, and finds their permutations and predictions more absorbing than the fine day outside his room of tables. Rather than turning inward like Hawkmoon, we, under the guise of the parafictional games company Blue Mountain Arcturus, find ourselves examining tabletop gaming as a means to turn our inward selves toward the wider world: as a language through which we try to alleviate our anxieties of the fine day. This text is a summary of how we hope to achieve alterations to our conditions through an experimental practice. It hopefully points towards areas of study that might be useful to others working with tabletop games as a means to learn strategies for survival: the challenge to critical games design in the wake of Guy Debord and Alice Becker-Ho’s Game of War (1987).

Citadel of Chaos (2019) is our case study for this article, an artwork made for the exhibition Polymorph Other at Queens Hall Arts Centre, Hexham, that same year. It was conceptualised, designed and built as a large piece of scenery or terrain for a hypothetical wargame table. It is a background rather than a focus; something that gives a place an environment that enables other things to happen. As such it is about the possibilities of things happening because of what we might have made. But this is not just on the small scale (a piece of scenery allows a story to be told between players through a game being played) but in the belief that this kind of work can change things outside of the system in which their world is contained (that such stories can lead to possibilities elsewhere).

Continue reading Citadel of Chaos: an art practice to materialise an alternate present

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”

The Rules of Utopia: The Procedural Rhetoric of The Book of Cairn

By Tyler Brunette

In ‘Back to the Future: Wells, Sociology, Utopia, and Method,’ Ruth Levitas argues:

[…] we would be better served both as sociologists and as citizens by a more utopian method, one which embraces the Imaginary Reconstruction of Society (IROS) as an active device in reflexive and collective deliberations about possible and desirable futures.[1]

Few activities dovetail better with Levitas’ proposal, one of collective deliberation and active imagination, than tabletop roleplaying. Indeed, both utopianism and tabletop roleplaying are often derided by their detractors as mere frivolity, and unworthy of serious consideration. However, as an interactive medium based on cooperative imagination of the possible, tabletop roleplaying games (TTRPGs) offer a unique opportunity for analysis of the practice of the IROS.

Cover of The Book of Cairn. A hooded anthropomorphic mouse gazes over the hilt of a sword, which they are holding by the top of the blade.

In this article, I analyze one such game: SoulJAR Games’ The Book of Cairn (Cairn). While at first glance, Cairn appears to be little more than yet another ‘fantasy heartbreaker,’ I argue that Cairn’s combination of unique rules and use of a pastoralist utopian setting function as a method of critique, of both contemporary social conditions, and of the themes embraced by the TTRPG industry more broadly.[2] Specifically, I argue, two interlocking rhetorics are built into the rules of Cairn, producing through play of the game both a sense of what would be necessary to maintain (albeit imperfectly and abstractly) a small pastoralist utopian society, and also an enactment of those activities around the gaming table. Before turning to my analysis of Cairn and the implications of its rules, I first address the theoretical underpinnings of my approach. After my analysis, I conclude by discussing the limits of Cairn’s IROS.

Continue reading “The Rules of Utopia: The Procedural Rhetoric of The Book of Cairn

Post-it Utopia: The Promises and Pitfalls of Arium’s Lean Worldbuilding

By Nicholas L. Stefanski 

Arium: Create

The worldbuilding TTRPG Arium: Create by Adept Icarus promises a utopian procedure for creating gameworlds that are generative, safe, and liberating environments for roleplayers, an undertaking animated by recent debates over the prevalence of harmful, stereotypical, or simply repetitive tropes throughout the TTRPG industry. While the shift away from these problematic tropes is admirable and perhaps overdue within the industry, Arium’s approach to addressing this issue is also notable for its enthusiastic endorsement of creativity techniques stemming from the world of corporate management and innovation consulting. Specifically, Arium’s Lean Worldbuilding approach shares many commonalities with the Lean management philosophy that emerged in the 1990s, largely inspired by Toyota’s operating model. Both Arium’s Lean, and Lean as it is now understood in business, are associated with the pervasive use of Post-it notes for ideation and collaboration.

Image Credit: Shutterstock

This article explores how Arium’s utopian solutionism and endorsement of a signature technique of post-Fordist management presents both pitfalls and opportunities for inventive, utopian roleplay. Beginning in the critical mode, I suggest that by adopting techniques that reduce the art of imaginative worldbuilding to a ritualized formula, Arium: Create risks building worlds that are creative merely for the sake of creativity, and consensual mainly in their appeal to the lowest common denominator. Inspired by Adorno and Horkheimer’s critiques of jazz and the culture industry, and following Eitan Wilf’s ethnography of Post-its and critiques of the innovation and creativity industry, the first movement of the article asks whether such strategies of routinized, commodified creativity can only ever produce the ‘freedom to choose what is always the same.’[i] Nevertheless, while this danger should not be ignored, I argue that it would be wrong to dismiss Arium or to label it as utopian in only the pejorative sense. Taking cues from theorists responding to Adorno’s pessimistic stance toward popular culture, notably Adorno’s Frankfurt School colleague and interlocutor Walter Benjamin, the second movement of the article suggests that despite its embrace of corporate solutionism, Arium’s collaborative worldbuilding contains a generative kernel, revealing an additional movement in the dialectic between oppressive technologies of control and the utopian impulse.

Continue reading “Post-it Utopia: The Promises and Pitfalls of Arium’s Lean Worldbuilding”

“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.

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