Digital Humanity: Collaborative Capital Resistance in Cory Doctorow’s Walkaway

This article originally appeared in Vector #288.

By Kirsten Bussière


Since the 2008 global financial crisis, social movements which once pursued scattered causes are increasingly united against a common enemy: capitalism. In his recent article “The New Combinations: Revolt of the Global Value-Subjects,” Nick Dyer-Witherford recounts how the “landscapes of globalized capital” are riven by scenes of political unrest. We have witnessed a decade crossed with an “ascending arc of struggles”: demonstrations across different cities “mark the convergence of a range of campaigns and activisms,” while coalitions of political groups “often exceed single issues and specific identities,” and find means to converge on shared anti-capitalist perspectives – pushing back against a society built on purposeful scarcity, a society that predicates the wealth of the few on the poverty of the many (Dyer-Witherford 156-158).

Capitalism, in spreading wealth at an unequal rate, “can set all its subjects in competition with each other.” This separation of the population ensures that the masses will not rise up against their oppressors. That’s why the mobilization of different political activism groups as one anti-capitalist multitude is particularly dangerous to the existing hierarchy. So what has changed? There are many factors, but one which stands out. Modern day demonstrations and protests take place not only in the streets, but also in the realm of cyberspace. Information technology allows resistance groups to communicate and co-ordinate as never before, and what starts as a hashtag can quickly sprout into a powerful movement for change. Plenty of cyberactivism isn’t even that overtly political, but nevertheless strikes a blow against capitalism by de-commodifying capitalist products through “piracy; open source and free software initiatives; peer-to-peer production; and gift economy practices” (Dyer-Witherford 175-180).

Building on the longstanding tradition of social science fiction, the 2017 novel Walkaway by Cory Doctorow explores the extension of the digital community beyond the realms of cyberspace and into the physical world. It imagines a symbiotic post-digital relationship between humans and machines. The communal nature of producing digitally rendered objects in the non-digital world provides a technotopian solution to the anti-utopian capitalist regime – unyielding in its commitment that there is no better world possible.

Continue reading “Digital Humanity: Collaborative Capital Resistance in Cory Doctorow’s Walkaway”

Economic Science Fictions reviewed: Speculate to innovate

This article originally appeared in Vector #288.


Reviewed by Madeleine Chalmers

Fantasies are things that can’t happen, and science fiction is about things that can happen.

Ray Bradbury, interview with Joshua Klein for The Onion (1999)

If self-proclaimed ‘not a science fiction writer’ Ray Bradbury ever needed an academic publication to bolster his sprightly quip, then Economic Science Fictions is it. In this bold and exciting collection, William Davies and his contributors offer us an unapologetic manifesto for the power of ‘can’, pushing Bradbury’s statement to its limit to issue a call to arms: economic science fictions are not just ‘about things’, they do things – and so can we.

Taking a firm stance amid the contemporary swirl of fake news and financial, political, and ecological hyperobjects, this major interdisciplinary contribution confronts the porosity between fiction and reality head-on, to interrogate the rigid boundaries we often impose, the assumptions we make, and the mental and social habits we forget to question.

As such, Davies’s collection is a welcome addition to a growing canon of post-2008 crash literature which seeks to combine critique and clear political statements with intellectual rigour, reconnecting academia with ‘the real world’. It takes its place alongside such titles as the late Mark Fisher’s Capitalist Realism (2009) and Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams’s Inventing the Future (2015). From Fisher’s luminous foreword, in which he posits economic science fictions as ‘effective virtualities’ (xiii), onwards, this collection aims to counter the fiction that is capitalism. It invites readers to turn from speculative finance and its logic of accumulation (with the permanent risk of catastrophe), to speculative fiction and its potential to write – and set right – the world. 

This title forms part of Goldsmiths’s PERC (Political Economy Research Centre) series, which defines itself as a ‘pluralist and critical approach to the study of capitalism’. This commitment to interdisciplinarity and dialogue between the academic and non-academic spheres is made absolutely manifest in the collection’s diversity. It has an echo of the democratic ecumenism of the underground 1990s zines, as theory-fictions intermingle with more canonical forms of academic writing. Indeed, the title of Judy Thorne’s ‘Speculative Hyperstition at a Northern Further Education College’ raises the spectre of that mid-1990s phenomenon, the Cybernetic Culture Research Unit. Today, in 2018, writers, artists, architects and musicians mingle polyphonically with founders of think tanks and consultancies, as well as journalists, early career researchers, and established academics. 

William Davies’s shrewd editing allows these very different contributions to speak to one another and shine. His opening ‘Introduction to Economic Science Fictions’ grounds the discussion in classic liberal economic theories of value. Taking as his sparring partners Ludwig von Mises and Friedrich Hayek, Davies teases out how capitalism is constructed around the flexible ‘division between “real” and “imaginary” value”’ which, as he points out, ‘is how financial bubbles occur: when collective imagination starts to become mistaken for an empirical reality’ (23). Lucidly and compellingly, Davies reconfigures this instability as an opportunity, positing politically progressive economic science fictions as a means to engage with capitalism on its own oscillating ground, poised between the fictional and the non-fictional.

The four sections which follow – each with a clear and concise introductory overview – develop this core thesis. The texts within them move fluidly from theory to practice and back again, with examples which will be familiar (or at least not wholly alien) to non-academic and academic readers alike. While it is only possible to pick out highlights here, what consistently impresses is the interweaving of analyses of science fictions, evocations of personal practice, theories of global megastructures, and creative riffs. Interlocking in surprising yet harmonious ways, within and across the various essays, these texts probe disciplinary boundaries in provocative and illuminating ways.

The collection’s first section – ‘The Science and Fictions of the Economy’ – grounds us in the nuts and bolts of the dream-mechanics of economics, with contributions from distinguished academics on the corporate imaginary (Laura Horn), the anthropology of money (Sherryl Vint) and automation (Brian Willems). Alongside these, Ha-Joon Chang’s contribution (‘Economics, Science Fiction, History and Comparative Studies’) stands out – as much for its laudable inclusion in a collection overwhelmingly dominated by ‘non-economists’, as for its content. A second section on ‘Capitalist Dystopias’ gives us a whistlestop tour of different dystopias in which capitalism is pushed to its limits. Here, accelerationist nightmares rub shoulders with the more ambiguous vision of Dan Gavshon Brady and James Pockson’s gloriously-titled ‘Fatberg and the Sinkholes: A Report on the Findings of a Journey into the United Regions of England by PostRational’. Readers wary of discourse about discourse will find the ‘Design for a Different Future’ section refreshing, for its pragmatic yet playful turn towards architecture, urban planning, and design.

But it is perhaps in the final section, ‘Fumbling for Utopia’, that Economic Science Fictions offers the ideal meta-reflection on the collection as a whole. Featuring four economic science (theory-)fictions, it closes with Jo Lindsay Walton’s ‘Public Money and Democracy’ – a fiction with footnotes, which perfectly encapsulates the collection’s aspiration to break down the barriers between the real and the imagined.

This collection makes no secret of its political stance. Readers looking for neutrality, dry objectivity, or dissent from the valorisation of science fiction and its role in building a post capitalist future will not find it here. The voices of economists who – unlike Ha-Joon Chang – are not avowed SF fans, sceptical SF writers, or interviews between converts and sceptics might have helped to redress this balance, and add a new dynamism to what remains an invigorating discussion – but not really a debate. Greater granularity in the definition of capitalism as it manifests itself in different national contexts (including non-European and non-US contexts) would also have added even greater bite to a collection that seeks to cross wires between the abstract and the pragmatic.

Quibbles aside, this collection is stimulating for believers and dreamers, but also provides ample material to dig into and with which to productively disagree for those who are not quite converts. Its return to political and social commitment represents a passionate and urgent response to our contemporary situation, and an astute and convincing argument for – and illustration of – interdisciplinarity and the interweaving of theory and practice, inside and outside the academy. It is a collection which empowers us to speculate – to invest in fiction not just as a means to provoke but as a means to intervene in our confused and confusing world.

Madeleine Chalmers is studying for a DPhil in French at the University of Oxford, funded by the Oxford University AHRC Doctoral Training Partnership – Sir Ivor Roberts Graduate Scholarship at Trinity College. Her research project on ‘unruly technics’ explores how avant-garde French literature of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries negotiate the increasingly tight imbrication of technology into human life, and the challenge it poses to how we think about ourselves, our relationship to others and to our world. It seeks to place these texts of the past in dialogue with current philosophical reflections on technology, to explore how this encounter can help us to think about our technological present, and future.

Group-Reading the Guardian Reviews Section

The best part about being in a bookstore at midnight when the latest Harry Potter book was released wasn’t having the first opportunity to read the latest installment. It was the joy of the yearly enterprise of group-reading the same book at the same time, of knowing that a blogged reaction would appear on my feed as soon as any given friend had finished reading it. It showed me the sheer, astonishing speed with which some people were able to skim the entire volume (two hours!) and the steady chipping away at it required by those unable to take time off from the rest of their lives. It was a momentary community of joint reading I have not even found in formal book groups, because for them, the reading is not the synchronous part; the having-read is.

In honor of the exhibit on the history of science fiction opening at the British Library later in the week, the Guardian has dedicated its Saturday Reviews section to the subject of science fiction. It released the first few articles a few days early, beginning the resulting group discussion which percolated across my feeds, which was spurred especially by mixed reactions to Iain M Banks and his irritation over those writing in genre who have never read it.

Today, the reviews section came out. One by one, commentators went to their local news agents to pick up a copy, which made it comment-worthy when at least one had sold out. (Those who have ongoing subscriptions, and thus automatic delivery, have not mentioned it. Why would they?)

To state the very obvious, one advantage of the newspaper section is that it is made up of articles. Small units enable more immediate reactions, such as just how apt or not the top 10 list of the best aliens in science fiction was, or noting the cumulative tendency of respondents in the initial survey of the best books or authors of science fiction (as picked by “top SF writers”) as being oriented towards books written long ago by men.

When it comes down to it, it is a small swathe of geographically-limited internet which is reading and responding to the Guardian today, especially about science fiction. But it is a group of whom many have gone out today specifically or in part in order to hunt down the paper version of a collection of critical works to read together.

Perhaps others of you have encountered it before, but I have never noticed a simultaneous effort to group-read science fiction criticism before, complete with physically tracking down the  publication on the same day as others, and I’m delighted that it’s happening today.

BSFA Nominees So Far: Best Non-Fiction

Slightly later than planned, here’s the current list of works which have received at least one nomination in the Best Non-Fiction category.

  • The The Wonderful Future That Never Was: Flying Cars, Mail Delivery by Parachute, and Other Predictions from the Past by Gregory Benford (Hearst)
  • Blogging the Hugos” parts 1-4 by Paul Kincaid (Big Other)
  • Review of With Both Feet in the Clouds: Fantasy in Hebrew Literature, edited by Hagar Yanai and Danielle Gurevitch, by Abigail Nussbaum
  • From Utopia to Apocalypse: Science Fiction and the Politics of Catastrophe by Peter Y Paik (University of Minnesota Press)
  • The Outer Alliance Podcast 1, Julia Rios
  • Packing for Mars: The Curious Science of Life in Space by Mary Roach (Oneworld Publications)
  • Review of The Wheel of Time by Robert Jordan, by Adam Roberts (Punkadiddle)
  • Red Plenty by Francis Spufford (Faber)
  • The Notes From Coode Street podcast, by Jonathan Strahan and Gary K Wolfe
  • Chicks Dig Time Lords ed. Lynne M. Thomas and Tara O’Shea. (Mad Norwegian Press)

Some interesting nominations there, notably Red Plenty and the podcasts. Wonder if any of them will make the ballot? But also a relatively small selection compared to some previous years. What’s missing? There’s still time to send your nominations to

Science Fiction Foundation Masterclass 2011

The details about next year’s event, which looks as enticing as ever:

Science Fiction Foundation announces SF Criticism Masterclass for 2011

Class Leaders:
Paul McAuley
Claire Brialey
Mark Bould

The Science Fiction Foundation (SFF) will be holding the fifth annual Masterclass in sf criticism in 2011.

Paul McAuley is the author of eighteen novels, many of which have been nominated for the Campbell, BSFA and Clarke Awards, including the Arthur C. Clarke Award winning Fairyland. His most recent books are The Quiet War and Gardens of the Sun.

Claire Brialey is co-editor of the Nova award-winning and Hugo-nominated Banana Wings, has been an Arthur C Clarke Award judge, and contributed critical articles to Vector and other fanzines.

Mark Bould is the co-editor of Science Fiction Film and Television and author of The Cinema of John Sayles: Lone Star and Film Noir: From Berlin to Sin City. He has co-edited The Routledge Companion to Science Fiction, Fifty Key Figures in Science Fiction and Red Planets: Marxism and Science Fiction and other projects, including several issues of Science Fiction Studies.

Dates: 1st to 3rd July 2011

Location: Middlesex University, London (the Hendon Campus, nearest underground, Hendon Central).

Delegate costs will be £180 per person, excluding accommodation.

Accommodation: students are asked to find their own accommodation, but help is Golders Green Hotel, and the King Solomon Hotel, both in Golders Green, a short bus ride from the University.

Applicants should write to Farah Mendlesohn at Applicants will be asked to provide a CV and writing sample; these will be assessed by an Applications Committee consisting of Farah Mendlesohn, Istvan Csicsery-Ronay Jr. and Andy Sawyer.

Completed applications must be received by 28th February 2011.


Bearings coverA traditional divide drawn through the history of science fiction criticism is that between the amateur and the professional; so you have the tradition of fanzine-originated criticism, as exemplified by Damon Knight and James Blish, and the academic tradition, with Darko Suvin as an equally central figure. But if we have to break things down, I wonder whether it might be as helpful, or at least not any more unhelpful, to draw a line between those who review and those who do not. Let’s be clear, this is an act of naked advocacy for the review on my part, because at its best – for a definition of which I take John Clute’s suggestion of a first response to a book that’s worth re-reading ten years later – it is the form of critical writing I enjoy most, and because such a division allows me not just to keep Knight and Blish, but to arrogate to my camp such entertaining writers as Joanna Russ and Adam Roberts. But at the same time it’s undeniable that reviews have made a significant contribution to sf criticism over the years, and to generalise wildly I tend to find that the essays and studies I enjoy most are written by those whose critical skills have at some stage been deployed to the front line. Such writers seem to be more likely to talk about the field of fantastic literature as it is, rather than as they would like it to be. As good an example of this as you’ll find anywhere is Gary K Wolfe, whose essay collection Evaporating Genres will be out later this year from Wesleyan, and whose review collection Bearings, published by the much smaller press Beccon, I have just finished.

Bearings collects review-columns published in Locus between 1997 and 2001; like the earlier Soundings (2005), it is a rewarding and not a little awe-inspiring book. It’s no mean feat to turn out up to half a dozen reviews month in, month out, and say in almost all of them something worth re-reading ten years later, particularly when many of the pieces are only a few hundred words long. Wolfe claims in his introduction that he has no real rules for reviewing except to let the book under consideration guide the terms of engagement, but he certainly has some strategies, and if over the course of several hundred thousand words these become slightly more obvious than they are on a month to month basis, they don’t become less effective. The most characteristic Wolfe reviews open with a lump of discursive contextualisation that’s always worth thinking about – indeed in some cases you feel Wolfe is on the verge of breaking out into a full-blown essay – even if there’s the occasional sense that he’s teasing the reader by making the case for a proposition that only occurred to him fifteen minutes ago. This is followed by a concise and often witty summary of the plot and/or other salient facts about the book on the table; once that’s out of the way, Wolfe tends to deftly dissect his subject into its constituent parts and consider the strengths and weaknesses of each, before offering a conclusion that weighs up how those parts work together or don’t. It’s an approach that emphasises description over evaluation, which is perhaps one reason why Wolfe probably should take his share of responsibility for the myth that Locus never publishes negative reviews. Given the volume of work he considers, limiting himself mostly to cases where there’s at least something to praise is probably a sanity-preservation measure as much as anything else, but it still carries the obvious danger that it could end up providing a rather partial view of the field. One way Wolfe gets around this is by being very good at finding something to praise. He’s mastered the art of picking out the specific aspect of a novel most worthy of admiration or simply the one that’s new, even in cases where the whole is a failure. Sometimes this is used to place a book in the context of its author’s oeuvre — Bearings includes considerations of Stephen Baxter’s “most unalloyed thriller” (Moonseed), Connie Willi’s “most courageous” book (Passage), and Distraction, which is “easily more fun than any Bruce Sterling novel to date” — but it can soften the sting of criticism. Wolfe is, as Peter Straub notes in his introduction, a deliberately open-minded reviewer, one who always starts out on the author’s side, and usually ends up there as well. “Purely as sf”, for example, Walter Mosley’s Futureland “has to be regarded as something of a blunt instrument”, but “as a book about discovering the uses of SF, it may be more clever than it first appears”.

If this can just occasionally create the impression of a cat toying with its food, in the vast majority of cases Wolfe’s critical distance from the texts he discusses is a thing to be admired. That distance carries through the book on a broader level, as well. In addition to his preference for separating out the various elements of a book (as opposed to, say, Clute’s tendency to find a single organising principle around which virtues and flaws are constellated), Wolfe shows a marked reluctance to impose narratives on the field as a whole, despite the fact that he’s probably in a better position than just about anyone else to do so, and the fact that arguably one of the pleasures of collections of reviews is gaining exactly that sense of shape. (It was certainly something I hoped for from this particular collection, which covers precisely the period during which I became a more serious sf reader.) There’s some commentary within the compass of individual reviews, but this is always tentative and often has tongue at least partly in cheek. Moreover in this book – in contrast to Soundings – Wolfe has deliberately omitted the year-end summaries he writes for Locus and almost all of reviews of the various Year’s Best anthologies. His rationale is that all these too often “strained to identify ephemeral trends of relatively little interest from the broader perspective of several years later” (10), which seems a bit of a spoilsport way to go about things, and a significant loss in the case of those anthologies, since it cuts out a lot of useful commentary on how different editors approach the task of corralling a year’s best short fiction (not to mention a lot of worthwhile commentary on the stories themselves), and leaves some columns looking distinctly anemic. This is, however, the only major cavil I have about what is an extremely useful and lucid book; above all, this showcase of the generous Wolfean method stands as an ample demonstration of the utility and scope of the short (ish) review, and could stand to be more imitated.


some masterclass students and tutors

So, this year’s SFF Masterclass is over. As with the first one I attended, a couple of years ago, it was both intense and rewarding; and as I was then, so I am now still digesting everything we discussed. Topics included: what makes a “classic”; examined and unexamined exclusions from narrative; is there such a thing as essentially science-fictional music; to what extent posthumanism is the central topic in contemporary sf that must be acknowledged or at least reacted to; the characteristics of science fantasy; the differences between UK and US New Wave; the politics of story; and in the course of the above, considerations of all the texts I’ve been blogging about over the past month or so from many different angles. But almost as important as the discussions in the class were the discussions outside, and the sense of community that the masterclass creates. Huge thanks, therefore, to the three tutors, Istvan Csicsery-Ronay, Jr, Roz Kaveney and Liz Williams, and to all the other attendees for such friendly, thorough, enjoyable and wide-ranging discussions.

And now what? Having spent a month on the reading list for this class, and before that a month on awards shortlists, and before that a month on reading for an essay for Vector, I’m itching to get stuck into the pile of 2010 books I’ve accumulated. (Paolo Bacigalupi’s Shipbreaker, Guy Gavriel Kay’s Under Heaven, Nnedi Okorafor’s Who Fears Death, Ian McDonald’s The Dervish House, Olga Slavnikova’s 2017, Anna Lawrence Pietroni’s Ruby’s Spoon, Francis Spufford’s Red Plenty, The Best of Kim Stanley Robinson … to name a few.) And I have several books I’ve already read that I still want to write about. So over the next couple of months, that’s what I’ll be doing here.

Reading List: Dead Channel Surfing

Another article, unfortunately, that makes heavier weather of its argument than is really necessary. Karen Collins sets out to convince us of, as her subtitle has it, “the commonalities between cyberpunk literature and industrial music.” Except, straight away —

Although cyberpunk began as a literary movement, it is often referred to as more than that — it is, rather, a concept reflected in many disciplines sharing a similarity of approaches and attitudes.

— and the argument she goes on to construct depends rather heavily on the inclusion of films, from the obvious (Blade Runner, The Matrix) to the slightly less so (The Terminator). Which is fine in principle, obviously; it’s just not what the title promises. There are other carelessnesses. In an initial list of characteristics associated with cyberpunk, Collins eyebrow-raisingly includes “technophilia”; but later in the article comes round to the more sensible “Cyberpunk, therefore, has an arguably ambiguous relationship to technology”. Mondo 2000 is described as “the original cyberpunk fanzine”, and Cheap Truth isn’t mentioned. Etc etc.

Some of the points made are actually more general than they need to be, to the point of banality. In describing shared influences on cyberpunk and industrial — focusing on “Dada, William S Burroughs and the punk movement” — Collins ends up pointing out that “Cyberpunk fiction similarly incorporates many references to popular culture”, and perhaps even better in terms of failing to establish a unique relationship, that both forms are “rife with neologisms”. This is despite the fact that the shared influences seem undeniable, based on the numerous specific examples from both cyberpunks and industrial artists that Collins is able to provide.

The section on “recurrent dystopian themes” is a bit more wobbly, I think, in part because Collins starts with this list of “themes fundamental to dystopia”:

Although these themes are not necessarily in every dystopia, at least one will always be present. The primary themes of a dystopia can be summarised as; the socio-economic system of the West will lead to an apocalypse. The apocalypse will lead to, or be caused by, a totalitarian elite controlling the masses through technology, which brings about a need for a resistance, usually led by an outsider-hero.

Personally, I’d have thought canonical cyberpunk texts fit this schema somewhat less well than the mainstream of dystopias — although they do fit, sure, particularly if you allow, as Collins does, that “in cyberpunk, the apocalypse is often a metaphoric one”. Collins also has less evidence on the industrial side, here, able to establish the anti-capitalist bona fides of the genre pretty easily, but not doing so well on the other points.

More interesting is the discussion of “unconventional sound-making devices” — that is, bits of discarded technology — used in industrial music, although a consideration of the use of robot voices seems like a sidetrack; it makes for an interesting contrast with the version of HipHop described in “Feenin“, but robots don’t seem to me a core concern of cyberpunk.

Lastly, and most entertainingly, Collins identifies a similar mood of “anguish, darkness and the future”, on the basis of lists of keywords, although it’s not clear whether the cyberpunk list is based on a spectrum of reader responses, or just the one guy:

Cavallaro links cyberpunk and gothic horror with a series of keyword similarities relating to the moods evoked by the narratives: decay, decomposition, disorder, helplessness, horror, irresolution, madness, paranoia, persecution, secrecy, unease and terror. [8] Similarly, my study of connotations of industrial music, using free-inductive methods of listener response tests on a selection of industrial recordings, found that the most common responses were sad, dark, anxious, futuristic, death, urban, violent, and anguish.

That footnote, incidentally: “Cyberpunk and industrial could also be argued to sometimes have an underlying humour that helps to lighten this mood.” Which, yes, that’s probably a good thing. And although Collins never quite says this explicitly, although each of these correspondences on its own is rather loose, all of them together do make the case that “these artists are branches on the same tree” fairly convincing.

Reading List: Bridging the Gaps: Science Fiction and Nanotechnology

Right, forget about the other article on sf and nanotechnology, and just read this one instead. It is a really good, solid piece of work. Its claims are precise, modest, well-argued and interesting. It does end up with some fairly jargon-heavy sentences — “The synchronic dimension of the chronotope is traversed by a diachronic or historical vector” — but by the time you hit them, Lopez has explained all the terms; and he only introduces specialised words that he actually needs.

His argument is a more limited, specific but clearly consequential version of that advanced in the Milburn piece: that the discourse about nanotech (or what he calls NST, “nanoscience and technology”) makes use of narrative techniques characteristic of science fiction in a way that damagingly restricts discussion of the field. Crucially, he notes that he is not questioning the credentials of nanotech researchers, nor the status of the field as a whole; and also that the strategies he is discussing are not specific to nanotech. He develops his argument through close reading of two texts — one from the margins of the field, one from its centre.

Briefly, Lopez suggests that writing about nanotech characteristically makes use of two of the strategies sf uses to construct a world, namely the intrusion of a novum, and the development of a future history. The “chronotope” mentioned above is the “literary space-time” constructed by a speculative narrative; and the chronotope of writing about nanotech is a reframing of the history of technology as having “the attempt to manipulate atoms, initially clumsily but increasingly with more precision” as its central issue. The novum in his first example, Drexler’s Engines of Creation, is the development of a molecular assembler; he explores how Drexler’s text creates a history that treats this development as inevitable, and then extrapolates from it. In his second example, a report from a 2001 American conference sponsored by the National Science Foundation and Department of Commerce, the novum is, slightly more subtly, “the integration and synergy of the four technologies (nano-bio-info-cogno) [that] originate from the nanoscale”. One of the successes of the article is its illustration that, actually, the rhetoric in this report — which predicts, for instance, that intelligent machines will eradicate possibility, and that nanotech will enable direct brain-to-brain communication that will allow a “more efficient social structure for reaching human goals” — is not significantly less heated than Drexler’s. The difference, perhaps, is that Drexler writes of a device-novum intruding into the real world, while the report describes a theoretical-understanding-novum intruding into the scientific world, so its predictions are less foregrounded.

This approach to writing about nanotech is problematic:

SF literature typically incorporates a historical account, or future history, that explains how the fictional world has come about. It normally contains the period before, during, and after the novum. If the narrated world is to be credible, the relationship between the three periods must be one of inevitability. This sense of historical necessity is also reproduced, as I have shown above, when the novum structures NST discourse. […] if the inevitability of these processes are accepted, then there is logically and discursively a rather limited role for ethical reflection or analysis of social implications.
The extrapolative structure of the novum erases the contingencies inherent in technoscientific development by projecting it along a linear developmental path that will most certainly be frustrated. […] This becomes particularly problematic when these developmental paths are invested, as they are within a technological determinist logic made possible by the novum, with the ability to resolve all manner of social, cultural, and political problems. Potential non-technological solutions become marginalized and are not pursued.

Essentially, writing about nanotech that treats it as a novum and models its likely effects on the world by its very nature simplifies and flattens the world: or, put another way, the world is not a single-novum story. Lopez then takes time out in his conclusion to emphasise that “the existence of SF narrative elements in NST discourse does not make the latter a work of literary SF”, and that actually because it is literary speculation — because it is imaginative play — “ironically, literary SF succeeds where NST discourse fails”. Sf can, Lopez argues, use a single-novum distortion to comment on precisely the ethical and cultural problems that nanotech writing attempts to obscure, because “whereas in SF the extrapolated future is a stepping-stone for critical reflection, in NST discourse the extrapolated future is the endpoint of the reflection”.

Ironically, it’s only in this defense of science fiction that Lopez manages to make me want to argue with him, and perhaps even then argue is too strong a term. I’d suggest, though, that one of the most significant trends in the sf of the last couple of decades is that single-novum works have fallen out of fashion, in part because, just as Lopez says of nanotech writing, they often seem to simplify and deform the world. (John Clute’s critique of some of Adam Roberts’ novels, for instance, takes this sort of line.) Instead, paradigmatically in the novels of Ian McDonald, we get (and encourage) futures where many novums collide, which purport to be more “realistic” extrapolations from the world as it is; or we get the William Gibsons of the world telling us that this is precisely why sf has become impossible, that all we have is the spinning of the given moment’s scenarios.

One last interesting point: Lopez suggests that one flaw in nanotech writing is that “totalizing utopian vision … invites similarly generated counter-visions”: that is, you can get a dystopia from the same novum, following the same logic, but changing some of the assumptions going into the model; and in so doing, you can open up a discourse space for the sort of ethical-cultural questions that the conventional nanotech narrative blocks. This makes me think of extrapolation to peak oil, or ecotastrophe, or some other catastrophic point, as a solution to Gibson’s bind: take those single novums far enough, and you clear a space to start doing sf again.