Conference Report: Utopian Acts 2018

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By Sasha Myerson

Organised by Katie Stone and Raphael Kabo, ‘Utopian Acts’ was a one-day mix of art, activism and utopia hosted by Birkbeck at the beginning of September. The conference provoked us to explore ideas set out by Ruth Levitas in ‘Utopia as Method’ and consider utopia as an act. Aiming to challenge the dystopian pessimism of our current moment, it asked whether examining the intersection of academia and activism might provide a way forward, out of our current impasse, towards a better future. Such thinking informed the structure of the conference, which included a mix of interactive workshops alongside talks by artists, activists and more conventional academics. In a welcome break from the norm at conferences, the event was free and substantive effort was made to ensure inclusivity and accessibility. This included grants to reimburse speakers, step free access to the building, gender-neutral bathrooms, a policy on pronouns and encouragements to keep academic language clear and intelligible. Overall, the conference made an ambitious attempt to relate its content to its form, putting some of its ideas into practice.

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Continue reading “Conference Report: Utopian Acts 2018”

BSFA London Meetings: Interview with Tade Thompson

The Pause That Makes You Human

Tade Thompson interviewed by Liz Williams

Write-up by Andrew Wallace

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Tade Thompson is the author of acclaimed SF novel Rosewater, which won the 2017 Nommo Awards for African speculative fiction. His short story The Apologists was nominated for a BSFA Award in 2017, and his novel Making Wolf won the Kitschies Golden Tentacle. Liz Williams is a novelist whose Philip K Dick Award-nominated novels include The Ghost Sister and Empire of Bones, while Banner of Souls was shortlisted for the Arthur C Clarke Award.

 

As a child in Nigeria, Tade Thompson read whatever he could find. Often, the texts were mashups of American comics like the Fantastic Four, or British reprints made of cheap newspaper. He quickly graduated from comics to novels, although his genre tastes were not restricted to SFF – at one point his sister convinced him to get into romance, after which Tade read forty Mills & Boon novels. After that he read Ian Fleming, the Saint and tried War and Peace when he was about ten, although part-way through he fled back to the fantastical, devouring works by Frank Herbert and Lewis Carroll. Tade also wrote his own versions of these stories, many of which featured the Mock Turtle in a kind of Alice-inspired Extended Universe. He got back to Russian literature in his teenage years, starting with Dostoevsky.

At times, his mother would only allow him to buy two books at a time, which was a problem if you were reading a trilogy. Tade solved the problem by purchasing book two and three while writing book one himself, and the imaginative discipline required to keep such long narratives in mind was a valuable introduction to story structure. It enabled him to make choices regarding linear narrative, which he believes is over-rated, preferring thematic or other structural links to hold a story together.

During the BSFA interview, Tade explained that this approach extends to the belief that science fiction is best when people work harder to understand a book. He disagrees with editors who want him to be kind to the reader, because he has faith in the reader’s intelligence. Tade wants his books to stay in the reader’s mind, as books do when people put maximum thought into understanding them. In his novel Rosewater, for example, the protagonist is presented as two separate characters: one young and the other old. The story looks at similarities found in each life stage, and the inevitable bleed-over.

Rosewater has an authority figure in the person of the Section Head, who is female.The Section Head’s gender is of interest. During the interview, Tade said he felt women had more of a grasp of what is going on: a capacity to perceive and understand the bigger picture. He grew up in a house of women. The women around Tade were competent at a lot more things, from the social relationships that keep a family together to the responsibilities men are conventionally associated with, such as the time Tade’s mother put out a fire in the house before the fire brigade got there. When creating such female characters, Tade says: ‘I am writing what I know.’

This concept of diffused but effective power finds another expression in the alien entity of Rosewater, which was inspired in part by The Andromeda Strain. Michael Crichton’s novel describes how an extra-terrestrial virus is collected by accident by an orbital probe and then released on Earth with devastating results. Tade liked the idea of aliens who don’t arrive by spaceship, ascribing agency to the alien spores, and considering what kind of bugs they would be. Rosewater depicts a biological invasion: a cellular preparing of the way. It is delivered with a scattershot approach to include as many worlds as possible, rather than choosing Earth specifically; indeed, the aliens might not even know Earth exists.

At the BSFA, Tade explained he was not interested in traditional ‘fight the invading aliens’ narratives. He believes war stories reflect earthly rather than alien concerns, particularly the failure to imagine a scenario involving a meeting of cultures that does not end in fighting. Perhaps the idea of the devastating alien invasion comes from history, because our first contact narratives have always been evil; in Nigeria for example, the British wiped out entire villages. The War of the Worlds scenario is an expression of guilt as much as paranoia.

Tade also explores the subject of a territory as defined by porous boundaries in his novella The Murders of Molly Southbourne. Instead of projecting problems psychologically, which everyone does all the time, the book is about what happens when these metaphors come to life and try to kill us. The story concerns our daily mental battles, and an unwillingness to confront difficult psychological truths.

These ways of defining individuality relate to Tade’s views on world building. At the BSFA, he explained how he thinks the SFF community fetishizes world building because of the success of JRR Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, despite the book’s problematic depiction of subjects like race. In his own work, Tade prefers to focus on character, building each person’s subjective world around them instead of imposing a single over-arching realm.

He believes the ways we are treated by society change how we see that society, and his experience bears this view out. In Nigeria, he is not part of an ethnic minority; in London, he is the same person, but needs to be careful where he goes, particularly on match days. There is a shift in perspective that is not a choice he makes, but which is imposed upon him. In America, these conditions are even harsher; Tade describes merely existing there as a black person is an ‘extreme sport’.

The next Rosewater book deals with the US, or rather the lack of it given that in a previous volume the country was wiped out. Tade describes the difficulty of reaching an audience that cannot conceive of a situation where it is not the centre of everything. Even negating America is talking about America, not least because the book features American refugees.

He plans to write a novel set in a future Africa – a contemporary fantasy based on Yoruba creation myths, whose Earth Magic-inspired stories have not yet been represented in genre fiction.

In the interview, he said that selling any kind of fiction is about educating the audience, and the audience is better educated now than in 2001. He recalls the cringeable scene in Independence Day with the alien spaceship in flames behind some Africans who were carrying spears, as if they’d used those instead of nukes to bring the invader down. We are less likely to get that kind of scene now, so there has been some progress, and SF readers are happier to look at genre stories inspired by different Earth cultures.

There is inevitable pushback due to what Tade said is a result of the old conservative guard feeling threatened; that old atavistic behaviour will spike before it changes. He feels this process is quite normal, and is not worried about it. He explained how the opinion that black people don’t read and write SF was prevalent as recently as 2009, even though writers like Nnedi Okorafor had already published a significant body of work.

Attitudes like these seem to Tade to be part of the same ‘there can be only one’ narrative. In 2008 Tade was told that although his submission was good, the editor already had work by eight black people and, by implication, that was enough. This experience stopped Tade writing for a while; fortunately, Lavie Tidhar contacted Tade and requested the inclusion of a story in the World Science Fiction Blog. It is significant that Tade’s way back was a blog, because technology has democratised publishing and enabled a wider variety of voices, rather than the tokenistic inclusion of a small number of ‘representatives’.

Challenges remain, however, not all of them in the West. At the BSFA, Tade described how the publishing industry in Nigeria can be neither fair nor supportive of new writers. A friend sent him a contract and asked for advice; the contract was atrocious, with the publisher retaining all rights including subsidiary rights in perpetuity for a tiny advance. The decision was not straightforward, however, because Tade could not think where else the work could be sent. If you write professionally, then whoever is selling your book dictates what you write, so the West still influences what African authors write simply by controlling a large share of the market through its more established publishing system.

The audio recording of the interview is on Soundcloud and the full video recording can be found here.

The BSFA’s Monthly London Meetings are FREE!

Where:  The Artillery Arms (upstairs), 102 Bunhill Row, London, EC1Y 8ND

 

 

Virtual Futures: Tomorrow’s Wars

Losers
Losers by Phil Jones

Virtual Futures: Tomorrow’s Wars – 17th April 2018

Inspiration & Terror by Andrew Wallace

Virtual Futures began in the early 1990s, when writers, thinkers, performers and scientists got together at Warwick University to grapple with the implications of technological changes sweeping society. Now that we are in that feared and fabled future, a new incarnation of Virtual Futures has been taking place in London. At the inception, one of the most popular elements of the events, or ‘salons’ as they are known, proved to be a short piece of science fiction written and read by science fiction author Stephen Oram. These pieces were so popular that science fiction got its own night within Virtual Futures, with Stephen as the curator. Mixing fiction specially written around the evening’s theme with keynote introductions by noted speakers often prominent scientists in the relevant field, the nights are unlike any other science fiction event in London.

April’s Salon explored the future of warfare, asking these crucial questions:

War has, so far, been inevitable throughout human history but what will the future of conflict or cooperation look like? Will the discoveries of the future lead us to a world without violent disagreement, or just result in us killing one another in more creative ways?  Continue reading “Virtual Futures: Tomorrow’s Wars”

Near Future Fictions Salon: Virtual Persons

Extruded Bodies & Phantom Flesh by Andrew Wallace

Virtual Futures’ March 2018 Near Future Fictions Salon explored the theme of Virtual Persons

Virtual Futures grew out of a series of conferences in the mid-90s that sought to develop a new discipline that would confront the technologisation of culture. Its latest incarnation is a regular ‘Salon’, where philosophical, scientific and creative thinkers combine discussion, performance and fiction to explore current and potential technological extensions of the human condition.

The Near Future Fictions Salons place science fiction centre stage, with previous guest participants including Alan Moore, Pat Cadigan, Gwyneth Jones, Hari Kunzru and Geoff Ryman.

Monday’s event explored the theme of ‘Virtual Persons’:

The digital world is a personality playground that offers us an unprecedented ability to curate and create a public persona – but what does this ability mean for the future of personhood? [from http://www.virtualfutures.co.uk]

Opening keynote by performance artist Stelarc

Stelarc took part in the original Virtual Futures conferences at Warwick University in the 90s. His work explores alternative anatomical architectures, interrogating issues of agency, identity and the post-human. He has performed with a mechanical third hand, a stomach sculpture and a six-legged walking robot; while Fractal Flesh, Ping Body and Parasite are internet performances that explore remote and involuntary choreography. Most recently, he has harnessed surgery and stem-cell technology to grow an ear on his arm.

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Stelarc and Andrew Wallace

Continue reading “Near Future Fictions Salon: Virtual Persons”

Virtual Futures: Near-Future Fictions Vol. 5 ‘Virtual Persons’

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Near-Future Fictions Vol. 5 ‘Virtual Persons’ will take place on March 20, 2018, at The LIBRARY London. You can register here

By Stephen Oram

The digital world is a personality playground that offers us an unprecedented ability to curate and create a public persona — but what does this ability mean for the future of personhood? As the digital world expands around us and the Internet of Things combines the physical and virtual do we have a moral obligation to represent ourselves with truth and integrity in the digital realm, or should we view it as an opportunity to explore new and radical ontologies?

Join us for an evening that incorporates original reading, performance and live art as Virtual Futures continues its mission to reassert the significance of science fiction as a tool for navigating the increasing technologization of society and culture.

Keynote Presentation by Laurie Penny, Writer

Laurie Penny is an award-winning journalist, essayist, public speaker, writer, activist, internet nanocelebrity and author of six books, including Unspeakable Things (Bloomsbury 2014), Everything Belongs To The Future (Tor, 2016) and Bitch Doctrine (Bloomsbury, 2017). Laurie writes essays, columns, features and gonzo journalism about politics, social justice, pop culture, feminism, technology and mental health. When she gets time, she also writes creepy political science fiction.

Authors & Contributors

  • A C Tyger: “Aldebaran”
  • Anne McKinnon: “Memory Inc.”
  • Britta Schulte: “iDentity”
  • C R Dudley: “The Test”
  • Jamie Watt: “Conjugal Frape”
  • Jane Norris: “Beautiful Mirror Being”
  • Marc Böhlen: “With a robot on the last day”
  • Sophie Sparham: “Concrete Genocide”
  • Stephen Oram: “From Dust to Digital and Back”

Curators

Britta Schulte is a PhD student by day and a science-fiction writer at night. She thinks about the technologies we have, those we are likely to get and those we might not want. She publishes on wattpad.com as well as in zines online and in print.

Stephen Oram writes science fiction. He’s been a hippie-punk, religious-squatter and a bureaucrat-anarchist; he thrives on contradictions. He has two published novels, Quantum Confessions and Fluence and is in several anthologies. His recent collection, Eating Robots and Other Stories, was described by the Morning Star as one of the top radical works of fiction in 2017.

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Virtual Futures’ Near-Future Fictions was born after a salon event sometime in early 2017. Although Virtual Futures has embraced science-fiction since its inception, with Pat Cadigan, Alan Moore, Gwyneth Jones, Hari Kunzru and most recently Geoff Ryman all having graced its stage in its near-twenty-five years of existence, this represents the first time that fiction has been the central focus.

The inspiration came from a desire to provide a creative counterbalance to the theoretical and technical discussions of Virtual Futures’ salon events. Our first movement toward this creative fusion was inviting Stephen Oram to be our Author in Residence for a year; presenting a theme-inspired story before audience questions at expert panels discussing near-future issues such as Neurostimulation or Prosthetic Envy. The synthesis was a success. Stephen’s stories grew ever more stimulating, we thought we heard whisperings of something a little larger in the audience’s applause and Stephen has since become the lead-curator of Near-Future Fictions.

The aim of these live reading events are: to assert the significance of fiction as a valid means of navigating the changes instigated by emerging technologies; to find new sci-fi talent in and outside London, with a stress on diverse authors who are atypical of the scene; and to offer science fiction fans speculation on the future in a venue that reflects the vibrancy of the authors and their stories.

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The 2018 series started in February with The (Dis)ease of the i-Mortal and will be closely followed by Virtual Persons on 20 March, Tomorrow’s Battles on 17 April and Post-Brain on 15 May.

Fantasy Fiction with Vic James, Anna Smith Spark & Lucy Hounsom. A SciFi Sessions conversation, hosted by Glyn Morgan at Gower Street Waterstones in London.

IMG_0283By Andrew Wallace

January’s Sci-Fi Sessions was a conversation between three very different contemporary fantasy authors. Each one has a trilogy in progress. Lucy Hounsom has just released the final book of her acclaimed Worldmaker series (Starborn, Heartland and Firestorm). Tarnished City, the second novel in Vic James’s Dark Gifts trilogy, was published last year. It follows the success of book one, Gilded Cage, as a BBC 2 Book Club Choice. Finally, Anna Smith Spark’s Court of Broken Knives, the opening volume of her Broken Empire sequence, has already been nominated for numerous awards for best fantasy novel of 2017, with second and third volumes yet to follow. Continue reading “Fantasy Fiction with Vic James, Anna Smith Spark & Lucy Hounsom. A SciFi Sessions conversation, hosted by Glyn Morgan at Gower Street Waterstones in London.”

SF and the future of security: an interview with Ping Zheng

Defiant Today
‘Defiant Today’ Phil Jones

In late December 2017, a group of writers and scholars of SF, scientists and technologists, and defence analysts and policymakers, gathered at Dstl (UK government’s defence science and technology laboratory) in Salisbury to explore science fiction’s contribution to defence policy. Vector caught up with Dr Ping Zheng from Canterbury Christ Church University Business School, to ask her about her impressions of the day, and a few other things …

During the first breakout session, you were in the Human Behaviour in Smart Environments group. How did that go?

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Dr Ping Zheng

We had some inspiring discussions about how humans may react in smart environments. I think the group dynamics probably extended the scope of planned discussions, and allowed us to engage in more diversified discourse, ranging from individual perspectives, to emergent impacts at a societal level, and also to policy perspectives. For example, two prominent issues were debated: national and cultural differences, and ethical concerns such as privacy.

Perhaps the value of events like these is that you might discover that your original questions can be re-framed, or that your stakeholders are not precisely who you imagined them to be. Your other breakout session was ‘Defence (In)efficiency: What Does the Future Hold?’?

Continue reading “SF and the future of security: an interview with Ping Zheng”

LSFRC event: Brian Stableford–Le Roman Scientifique

sabBrian Stableford will be speaking about the evolution of an important early science fiction form, the French roman scientifique, supported by the London Science Fiction Research Community (LSFRC).

Monday, February 12th, from 6:30 pm until 8pm, at The Keynes Library, 43 Gordon Square, London.

Brian’s lecture will map its way according to several signposts: Beginning with the origins of the roman scientifique in the illicit “philosophical fiction” of the eighteenth century, he will also discuss the after-effects of the French Revolution on utopian thought and the future impact of technological advancement on society; the development of “travelogue fiction” before and after Jules Verne; the preoccupation with future wars after 1870; the development of “scientific marvel fiction”; and the particular influence of WWI on French writers and their speculative fiction.

In addition to critical studies of science fiction, Stableford has authored more than 70 novels and translated even more, most from French to English. His work on the development of the roman scientifique in the long nineteenth century has vital significance for understanding later manifestations of science fiction in France, the Anglo-American setting, and around the globe. We hope you can join us for what is sure to be a fascinating evening with one of the most influential and prolific figures in science fiction.

#SciFiSessions: M John Harrison & Gary Budden

A SciFi Sessions conversation, hosted by Glyn Morgan at Gower Street Waterstones (London).  Click here for details of future events,  #SciFiSessions return in January 2018 with a special three author event showcasing British fantasy talent. 

 Weird Fiction for Weird Times by Andrew Wallace

HSMike John Harrison, a veteran of the 60s New Wave SF scene, and Gary Budden, an award-nominated short story writer whose first collection Hollow Shores (Dead Ink Press) is out now, discussed how weird fiction is indispensable for processing contemporary political realities.

Mike recounts JG Ballard at a party held by seminal SF magazine New Worlds predicting how the world would become ever more fantastical and psychopathic. At the time, everyone thought Ballard was overstating the case; now, Mike says, his own ferocious, mythic engagement with the culture feels redundant. Indeed, far from our culture inhabiting an exciting new realm of limitless possibility, some reality would be rather welcome. Gary says that the current fractured, nonsensical nature of the world means that weird fiction is resurgent; that the genre is merely reporting on the psychological state of our culture. Indeed, a contemporary writer of ‘realist’ fiction would now need to accommodate the weird simply to reflect what is going on.

Both writers engage with landscape in ways that challenge its conventional certainties. For example, Gary read a short piece about the actor Peter Cushing, who lived in Whitstable. In the story, the actor is referred to via his greatest roles, like ‘the Vampire Hunter’, as he wanders around the seaside town accompanied by his best friend, ‘the Vampire’ (presumably Christopher Lee). They meditate on their great fictional battles, surrounded by the everyday bustle of modern life, and meditate on an uncertain future. This blending of myth and reality has personal note: Gary grew up in Whitstable and the area has a strong folkloric identity. He writes weird fiction because that is the only genre that reflects his understanding of this familiar landscape. One way to reconcile the desire for his home space to be closer to its mythical – but not idealised – identity, and further from its proximity to prime UKIP country, is to use techniques of psychogeography, or as Gary calls it ‘landscape punk’. The Hollow Shores are a real place; the name is drawn from history like some treasure previously submerged that has slowly come to light.

However, the stratification of the English landscape brings political peril. The online Hookland project, which explores a fictional English county using folklore, spent the day of the discussion fighting off an English neo-Nazi who wanted to use the site to justify national/racial purity. Mike says that writers should make their position on landscape politics clear, and maintain awareness that landscape itself has no sentimentality at all. It has its own language, often weird, that should be used with full awareness to avoid the descent into easy nationalism.

Gary is interested in the fringe elements of our island; how its marginal landscapes change over time in a way that seems arbitrary, even absurd. For example, Whitstable would not even have been on the coast when the area now known as Doggerland linked Kent to mainland Europe 10,000 years ago. Doggerland was flooded at the end of the last Ice Age, a prospect we face on the attenuated landmasses of our own time. But for a few degrees’ variation in temperature, the Britain we know would not have existed and neither, in our current form, would we. There is a sense of possibility, only just missed, that folkloric weird fiction reflects so well.

harrisonCreation of a fictional Doggerland-like continent lay behind one of Mike’s projects for New Worlds, in which elements of a series of seemingly unconnected narratives would reveal that a new continent had appeared. Although the book never came to fruition, the stories evolved and formed part of his new collection, You Should Come With Me Now, published by Comma Press. He read a story from the collection called Psychoarcheology. Ostensibly a satire about the unending discovery of royal remains beneath car parks, it also looked at how the royals themselves are as trapped by their DNA into a life of rule they may not want, as their bodies are trapped beneath tarmac. This layering is an example of one of the different narrative techniques Mike uses to draw the reader through stories that do not have conventional narrative plots. Another is ‘reframing’, in which characters are moved through different landscapes as if on a journey, placing them in unfamiliar locations to accentuate the essential quality of strangeness. The weird, then, is as much to do with the way the story is told as its subject matter.

2018 Science Fiction Foundation Masterclass in Science Fiction Criticism

Applications are now open for the 2018 Science Fiction Foundation Masterclass in Science Fiction Criticism. The 2018 Masterclass, the Eleventh, will take place from Friday 29 June to Sunday 1 July. This year we will be at Anglia Ruskin University.

The 2018 Class Leaders are:

Nick Hubble (Brunel University) – Nick is co-editor of the Science Fiction Handbook (2013) and London in Contemporary British Fiction (2016)

John J. Johnston (Egypt Exploration Society) – John is co-editor of the mummy anthology Unearthed, his introduction for which was shortlisted for the BSFA Award for Non-Fiction.

Stephanie Saulter (author) – Stephanie is the author of Gemsigns and its sequels

Price: £225; £175 for registered postgraduate students.

To apply please send a short (no more than 3,000 words) piece of critical writing (a blog entry, review, essay, or other piece), and a one page curriculum vitae, to farah.sf@gmail.com.

Applications received by 1 March 2018 will be considered by an Applications Committee. Applications received after 30 March may be considered if places are still available, on a strictly first-come first served basis.

A deposit of £50 will be payable within a week of acceptance.  This deposit is only refundable in the event of another student taking your place

Past Masterclass students are encouraged to apply again (though we will prioritise applications from those who have not been previous students).

Information on past Masterclasses can be found at http://www.sf-foundation.org/masterclass. Please direct any enquiries to masterclass@sf-foundation.org.