Contemporary Greek Speculative Fiction: A Roundtable

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

By Phoenix Alexander 

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

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

Twitter: @FoxesandRoses

eugeniatriantafyllou.com

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

Twitter: @natalia_theodor

natalia-theodoridou.com

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

Twitter: @nomadological

eleannacastroianni.wordpress.com

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

Twitter: @ravenkult

cotronis.com

Continue reading “Contemporary Greek Speculative Fiction: A Roundtable”

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

Interviewed by Phoenix Alexander and Jo Lindsay Walton

This interview first appeared in Vector 295.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Five questions for SF Club of Athens

Interviewed by Hephaestion Christopoulos

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

By Marie Vibbert.

This article first appeared in Vector #294.

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

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

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

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

Methods

Choosing the Books

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

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

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

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

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

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

An Interview with Gautam Bhatia

First published in INTERMULTIVERSAL SPACE

By Gareth Jelley

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

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

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

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

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Well, I haven’t gotten COVID: Vector interviews Nick Mamatas

Nick Mamatas author pic. Taken from Wikipedia under CC license - credit Melinda R. HImel

Thanks for chatting! How are you? Are you working on anything at the moment?

Well, I haven’t gotten COVID and my son didn’t get COVID and my parents didn’t get COVID and my sister didn’t get COVID. I am purposefully not working on anything at the moment. I’m watching deadlines crumble like empires.

Back in the past, you wrote on Livejournal: “A subculture is not a counterculture. A consumer culture is not a subculture. We are not all in this together.” Recently there were ripples in SFF writer communities over the term “squeecore.” Raquel S. Benedict and JR talk about it on an episode of Rite Gud. They weren’t expecting their words to get fine-toothed, so their description of squeecore is a grab-bag of gripes and jibes, not some kind of elaborate legal case. But the core of squeecore, as I understand it, is something like a “subculture that thinks it’s a counterculture.” What do you think of the term?

Squeecore seems to be a name for the commercially published writing created by authors who got interested in writing by participating in post-fanfiction.net fan fiction cultures. So, it reads differently from previous writing, including previous fanfic-inflected writing from, say, the K/S photocopy generation. I think the podcasters were essentially right, but made the error of creating a taxonomy in order to dismiss a particular taxon as bad and their own stuff as good. 

Yes, there was a lot about the episode I liked — and I fully get why they would want to move from critique to pointing out alternatives — but I did find the recommendations list a wee bit less convincing. To their credit, they are upfront about the personal connections.

This is every new writer’s impulse. I was teaching at an MFA program a decade ago, and had to sit through a meeting of students pitching their academic theses. They had to write one academic thesis, and one creative thesis. Every thesis was “Why do all these books suck, except for the ones that inspired me?” I once asked Rudy Rucker why he created “transrealism” and he said that it was because he was just starting out and hadn’t been published much, so he wanted to get some extra attention. It works every time!

I used to invent a new genre every Wednesday, and none of mine caught on. So not every time. Can squeecore claim to any countercultural credentials? 

Continue reading Well, I haven’t gotten COVID: Vector interviews Nick Mamatas

Global Tolkien – A Roundtable

Following the interest generated by the Tolkien and Diversity panel at Oxonmoot 2020, (hosted by Sultana Raza), another panel on Global Tolkien was proposed and accepted by the Tolkien Society for Oxonmoot 2021. The idea for this panel was formed because of a troubling trend among some SFF and Tolkien enthusiasts against diversity in fandoms and interpretations of SFF writers. Luckily, the Tolkien Society doesn’t seem to ascribe to this view, and has been encouraging further dialogue on this topic.

The panelists included Sultana Raza (also the Moderator), Ali Ghaderi (Iran), María Fernanda Chávez Guiñez (Chile), and Gözde Ersoy (Turkey). Gözde Ersoy (assistant-professor of English Literature at Muğla Sıtkı Koçman University, Turkey) also briefly presented a video of an online event she had organized with school children in Turkey, on the Tolkien Reading Day, where they’d read an excerpt from The Hobbit in Turkish.

The following roundtable was written after Oxonmoot was over, and is an approximation of some of the points discussed during the Global Tolkien panel, which was accompanied by comments in the chat from the lively audience. A hybrid event, the Global Tolkien panel took place via Zoom (with 300+ viewers), while the organizers and a few participants logged in from Oxford where they were attending Oxonmoot in person. While there was quite a bit of interaction amongst the panellists, it’s not possible to re-create it in this written format, as the texts were sent in by email. The following roundtable contains spoilers for all of Tolkien’s stories mentioned below. Disclaimer: The opinions presented in this roundtable are those of the speakers, and not necessarily of the Tolkien Society.

The abstract of Global Tolkien was sent to the panellists beforehand, in form of broad but poignant questions:

Why does Tolkien’s fiction have a global appeal? Why are people from all continents drawn to Tolkien’s stories? What does that tell us about common human values? Only works of depth and substance can garner such a massive following all over the world. Conversely, have the 6 Peter Jackson films, and various games drawn in fans who’re more interested in the action/adventure or violence, and war aspects of the films and games than in the core values embedded in the stories? Should we encourage diverse readings of Tolkien from different geographical locations? Can this coming together of readers from different countries foster an international fellowship, as outlined in his books? Or conversely, should his fans be confined to people of just one race or ethnicity? If the interpretations, readings, or ideas of POC readers are not acceptable by some fans, then should these POC readers be allowed to consume these books/films/games? Should POC fans be limited to being consumers, but not commentators or scholars of Tolkien? Is it even possible to limit POC fans from engaging with, and commenting upon Tolkien’s works? Due to the recent wave of cancel culture, to what extent can we re-read or re-contextualize Tolkien’s works to fit in with our fluctuating world view?

Continue reading “Global Tolkien – A Roundtable”

Mackenzie Jorgensen interviews Eli Lee (part two)

Mackenzie Jorgensen is a Computer Science doctoral researcher working on the social and ethical implications of Artificial Intelligence. We invited Mackenzie to chat with novelist Eli Lee about her debut, A Strange and Brilliant Light (Jo Fletcher, 2021), and representations of AI and automation in speculative fiction. This is part two. Part one can be read here.

A Strange and Brilliant Light, By Eli Lee

I wanted to ask about Janetta and her research into AI and emotion. There’s been a lot of research done into emotion detection, and a lot of critique. For example, what would it mean for a machine to ‘objectively’ know your emotions, when you may not even know yourself? 

Yes. In the novel, Janetta is aspiring to teach AI about emotions, but she’s learning about emotions herself. She’s had a break-up and a rebound with someone who inspires her, but destabilises her as well. This experience is difficult but it helps her come into her own. She was a very unemotional person before that – she tried not to have emotions; but it turned out that she did. 

So in that sense, the novel is more about Janetta being at peace with having emotions. Rather than the idea that emotional intelligence in auts is ever going to happen. I knew that it would be a novel about gaining emotional intelligence – but it was always meant to be in Janetta, someone who needed to do this.

You definitely see that growth throughout the novel. It’s such a hard thing to learn, but so important. Emotional intelligence, being able to be vulnerable, all of those things.

Thank you, that’s exactly it. Janetta has never been vulnerable. She’s used her work as a shield. I wanted this to be a story about being vulnerable, about screwing up, and about bringing yourself back from that.

“Do you think that AI can be taught to read emotions?”

Right, exactly. But it seemed like Janetta believed it could be done. So I was curious about your views.

I just don’t think it can be done at all, full stop. The research that’s been done, some based on facial recognition. One person could be smiling, but they could be desperately sad inside. Could an AI detect that? Humans don’t just detect emotions by observing from a distance. We interact, we probe, we learn. We use our own emotions to invite others how to feel theirs.

So yes, maybe AI can be trained in intersubjective standards of emotion recognition, enough to make reasonable ascriptions. Let’s say, to take a pretty clear emotion, in King Lear when Lear comes back on stage at the end, carrying the body of Cordelia, his beloved child. What does he say? “Howl, howl, howl, howl!” The majority of people can piece the evidence together and understand that he’s upset.

An AI could learn to do that. But in terms of the intricacies of people’s emotions, the depth and the context of them? No, I don’t think so. But what about you? Do you think that AI can be taught to read emotions?

I think researchers will continue to try, but I don’t think it’s really possible. Like you say, someone can be smiling yet struggling inside. And I think the attempts to develop that technology may do more harm than good – in relation to surveillance, for example.

I was thinking about care homes where they have companion AIs, seals and cats and things. That certainly has therapeutic potential. Otherwise, I don’t know how it could possibly read the nuances of human emotion. We don’t even understand our own behaviour sometimes!

I think with a lot of AI, the technology and the science behind it is very interesting. But at the end of the day, the real questions are around how it’s used. Who holds the power? Who has the data that it’s being trained on? That has a major, major impact.

Is that what you’re looking at in your PhD research?

I’m looking at Machine Learning classification settings. So an example of a binary classification setting might be, “Oh, we think this person will repay the bank if given a loan,” versus, “We think this person will default on the loan.” I’m exploring the potential delayed impact of a classification. For example, if you are a false positive, if an AI predicts you’ll repay but instead you default, then your credit score will probably drop. So there will be a negative impact on you too, even though you were given a loan. 

How do you investigate this? 

There isn’t much data, and it isn’t easy to track. It involves a lot of presumptions, and running simulations, and giving more weight to the false positives and the false negatives. I’m trying to understand, “Okay, maybe in these problems, we need to really focus on the false negatives, versus in these ones, the false positives.” Essentially, I’m exploring how we might mitigate the harm an AI decision has on a person. Also, I’m interested in investigating the impact on underrepresented or underprivileged groups, because we have a lot of issues with AI classification systems learning bias and perpetuating sexism and racism, for instance, from our society.

Is it a generally done thing? Say it was about applying for a loan – can the bank automatically exclude the people the AI doesn’t like, because they haven’t got enough income, or their credit’s bad, or because of some other factor?

“Algorithmic fairness has been a field that has really boomed recently, but it’s been around for a while.”

Sure. Algorithmic fairness has been a field that has really boomed recently, but it’s been around for a while. It came into the light in the  ’60s and ’70s, when a lot of Civil Rights work was being done. At the time, the focus was on education and employment settings. Nowadays, it’s still focused on those settings, but also in areas like finance and economics, and many others.

That’s really great, you’re actually doing something that’s potentially making a difference in people’s lives. People who do AI (rather than just write about it in novels!) blow my mind. It’s impressive to have a brain that can do data, logic and mathematics – I’m very jealous.

No, I mean, I think anyone can code and learn about it. I know it seems as if it’s unattainable, but…

That’s a good point. I could learn to code, potentially!

Well, we do need more women in this area, so … ?

I suspect I’ll never get around to it…

What’s your background? Did you do English?

Yeah, I did English at uni, and since then, I’ve worked in editing, comms and publishing. I wrote three novels before this one, but I never sent them to an agent because I thought they weren’t very good. All I ever wanted to do was become a writer, so I’ve ended up with a narrow range of competencies. Writing and editing, essentially. But if that gets automated … what’s it called, GPT-3?

One of the big language models?

Yeah. Janetta’s job, for example, is safe from automation. Right up until AI is able to start consciously self-replicating – like in the movie Her, that sort of singularity moment – Janetta’s job is safe. But in my day job, where I edit publications, how safe is that? My skills are going to become obsolete soon. I might give it fifteen, twenty years. But that’s all I’ve ever trained myself for. It’s not an everyday worry, but it is a distant worry.

I think creativity, especially with regards to novel writing, is not something I can see an AI doing. They most likely would only be re-making other people’s ideas that they were trained on. I think being a creative thinker is a great spot to be.

That’s definitely the pragmatic view! I think the kind of deeply pessimistic, slightly addled-with-dystopia view is that they’re going to be able to recreate Madame Bovary within thirty years, and then all writers will be out of a job. 

But yes, I think the greater question is around how AI might transform creative expression, rather than take it over. There will undoubtedly still be ways for us to bring our humanity to books and music and art.

Realistically, AI is everywhere.

“Realistically, AI is everywhere.”

Right, right. And going back to the novel, you really showcase auts in hospitality settings. Is that the main place that you see them potentially going? Or do you see them in other settings?

Realistically, AI is everywhere. It’s in our Netflix algorithms, and it’s in our traffic lights. So in that sense, I didn’t portray reality – I didn’t convey all the hidden AI that shapes everyday life. In terms of hospitality, I guess there’s already automation in the supply chains and the logistics, and places like the Ocado warehouses. I don’t know if you know about Ocado, the delivery company that went really heavily automated?

Yes.

Ocado has one of the most automated picking and packing systems in the world; these robot arms just picking up ketchup and putting it in bags! So I touched on that a bit, but yes, mostly cafés. Have you ever read Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell?

David Mitchell, the comedian?

Yet another uncanny double. There’s two David Mitchells. There’s the Peep Show comedian, and then there’s a novelist who doesn’t really write sci-fi, but he wrote a novel called Cloud Atlas, and there’s a chapter in a very futuristic setting. And I read it when I was quite young, and the imagery from it, where the utopia that masks a scary dystopia beneath, has stuck with me ever since.

Also, I love coffee shops. Coffee shops are so warm, cozy and human. I just knew that robot servers in a café were a way to have a real interface with humans coming in to get their coffees and being hit with, once again, uncanniness and unnerving futurity, and a slightly utopian, slightly dystopian vibe. In the novel, one of the characters, Van, sings while he works, and I imagined the coldness of that being replaced by auts.

I’m also someone who loves coffee shops. Their ambiance and conversations with the barista are two of my favourite things about them. They’re always in a very warm setting.

Coffee shops are a classic institution. You’re from Seattle, right?

Yes, I am.

The home of coffee shops!

Yup.

You have the best coffee – all of Seattle is like one big coffee shop. And then you know exactly; a good coffee shop is the most wonderful place. 

Can we expect a sequel?

Potentially! I’m curious, would you see it as a free-ranging AI utopia, where they’ve managed to create this benevolent AI that’s also autonomously functioning?

I guess I wondered about Lal’s decision in the last chapter, and seeing what that actually does to Tekna and their world.

That makes sense. To be honest, I found writing this novel so difficult. I’d written a sci-fi novel before, and I think the reason it was difficult was because, well … do you read a lot of sci-fi?

Honestly, this was my first sci-fi book! I’m usually a non-fiction person. Currently, I’m reading non-fiction, Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents by Isabel Wilkerson, which is really good. Very different from this though.

I read quite a bit of literary fiction – writers like Elena Ferrante, Alice Munro. But I feel almost compulsively drawn to sci-fi, like it’s where my imagination wants to go. I realised during the writing of this that it had to be driven by plot, and then the characters react to that. So the automation and conscious AI plots were the engines of the novel. 

Right.

And I wonder if I’m better suited to something where the engine is people living their lives in a more scaled-down way. I haven’t worked it out yet; I only know that when the Guardian called A Strange and Brilliant Light ‘character-driven’, they weren’t wrong!

Having written the novel, though, what are the major takeaways that you want readers to come away with?

I know it sounds potentially counterintuitive, because the novel is about AI. But I think to me, it is more about some of that more mundane, slow-burn stuff. It’s about figuring out who you are and allowing yourself to make messes and wrong choices, and then being able to do something about this. So all three of the girls do make pretty terrible choices, and then they manage to figure out who they need to be in order to make things better. So it’s that hokey stuff about being true to yourself, and having faith in yourself. Because even Lal shows she has faith in herself, in the end.

The other message is about vulnerability and emotional intelligence. Lal shows that at the end, because the person she needs to be vulnerable to is her sister. And Rose needs to stop being vulnerable to powerful men and put some boundaries down. Vulnerability and self-assurance are connected.

It’s a feminist novel. When you’re in your twenties, you go through a lot of self-doubt. Most people I know, unless they’re bizarrely confident, struggled quite a lot internally with who they should be and whether they’re doing the right thing, especially in their twenties. And I wanted to show some women who also struggle, but manage to figure things out.

“I wanted it to be about AI and automation, and I wanted to focus on class”

I loved that. Yeah, the emotional intelligence definitely was shining throughout. And yeah, it did seem like quite a progressive future, which was really cool to see, and very feminist as well.

I’m aware that there are other contemporary feminist issues it could have taken up. It could have contained more trans representation, for example – it could maybe have been more explicitly intersectional. I chose to not mention the main characters’ racial identities, too, beyond them being Iolran.

Yeah, I noticed that.

I think I knew that I wanted it to be about AI and automation, and I wanted to focus on class – you know: “let’s talk about class.” That doesn’t mean I wanted to ignore the other stuff, but not every book can be everything and this novel already packs so much in! And class and economics are deeply worthy of sustained focus, too.

Janetta is a queer character, but her sexuality is in no way definitive of her entire character.

I wanted it to not be an issue at all. There was a flashback scene that I ended up cutting, where she came out to her parents and they were totally unphased. Partly I felt like, as a straight person … it’s not that I can’t tell that story, but I asked myself: how qualified am I to tell this story?

And related to that, I was cautious of making it Janetta’s main thing. I really built her character around her genius. I wanted her to be a visionary and not be hampered by anything other than her own emotions, and her fear of her own emotions. So that’s why being lesbian was just part of her, and not a big deal.

I liked that she was still in love and dealing with those relationships throughout the novel as well.

Thank you. I worried I made her too involved in relationships. But then I thought, but that’s the point. Because she needs to learn how to love and how to grieve. That’s how she becomes the person she needs to be.

Well, speaking of vulnerability, it’s very brave of you to keep going and actually get it published. 

Thank you. I think I reached a point where it was like, “Oh, this is the fourth novel, and it’s now or never.”

And you’re still interested in writing fiction?

Yes, definitely still speculative fiction. But I’m aware that when you write speculative fiction, you have to be open to your imagination going to unexpected places. At first the novel was only about automation. As I went along, though, I realised that when you write fiction about AI, you’re naturally drawn towards the idea of conscious AI – at least, I was. 

I could have written a smaller and more focused novel, but to me, the singularity is an irresistible part of the collective imaginary about AI! And this made things very complex, plot-wise. There was an arc about automation and the loss of jobs, and a second one about conscious AI, and interweaving them was hard!

Before we go – with conscious AI, do you think we should be striving for that, or should we not?

No. It’s fun for movies and books, but that would be a crazy world, no?

Agreed. Yup. We’ve got a lot of problems we need to solve already in the world today. Climate change, poverty, hunger. I don’t think we need a conscious AI to stir the pot even more.

Exactly. Do you think it’s ever likely to happen, though?

I think it could happen. I mean, people are working in that space for sure, but I don’t know if we’ll exactly know when it does. It would probably happen by accident, and surprise people. I think it’s a possibility, but I’m not keen for a world where that does happen.

I couldn’t agree with you more. 

Well, Eli, this has been wonderful speaking to you.

Thank you, it’s been really enjoyable. And your questions were excellent – it’s nice to have what you’ve written about reflected back at you by someone who asks such intelligent, thoughtful questions! So yes, thank you, that was great.

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“Do we want that?” Mackenzie Jorgensen interviews Eli Lee

Mackenzie Jorgensen is a Computer Science doctoral researcher working on the social and ethical implications of Artificial Intelligence. We invited Mackenzie to chat with novelist Eli Lee about her debut, A Strange and Brilliant Light (Jo Fletcher, 2021), and representations of AI and automation in speculative fiction. Should we fear or embrace the “rise of the robots”? Or perhaps the robots rose a long time ago, or perhaps that whole paradigm is mistaken? How might AI and automation impact the future of work? What would it mean for emotional work to be automated? How do human and machine stories intersect and blur?

This is part one of two.

A Strange and Brilliant Light, By Eli Lee

Hi Eli, I’m really excited to talk to you today. I gave myself plenty of time to read A Strange and Brilliant Light, but I ended up going through it super quickly, because I enjoyed it so much.

Oh, thank you! 

So I was curious – what made you decide to showcase three women’s stories?

Well, the genesis of the three stories was unexpected even to me. When I started, I wanted to write about a pair of best friends whose lives go in different directions. That’s based on my own relationship with my best friend, who became an incredible political activist whilst I just sat around and watched TV and read books. So that was the real kernel.

But as I wrote, it felt like something was missing. Lal and Rose came to me immediately – Rose was very passionate and active in the world whereas Lal had some of my own flaws – she was bossy, ambitious, and somewhat selfish.

But the dynamic needed a third person who was a contrast to both – and that’s when Lal’s sister Janetta came in. She works in AI, and she’s driven by her own hopes and fears. Once I had those three characters, it felt complete.

Did you see parts of yourself in Lal?

I did. I felt she was a good vehicle for the parts of me I’m less proud of – so she’s a bit selfish and insecure, and she feels belittled by her older sister, stuck in her shadow and ignored, but she’s still a decent person. She wants to work to make money for her family, but she’s just more … petty!

Got it!

And then I put what I would aspire to be in Janetta. Janetta’s very self-sufficient. She’s dedicated to her work and pure of heart. She has insecurities and flaws like the rest of us, but she always works for the greater good. So I kind of separated some of my worst qualities, and the qualities I wish I had, and put them in those two.

And you made them sisters, which works well in that sense.

I’ve got two brothers, but I don’t have a sister. Have you?

No, I have a younger brother.

I mean, this is the thing. Sibling relationships can be so gendered. I wanted to investigate what it’s like if there’s an older sister who is very successful and leaping ahead academically, and then you’re the younger sister in that dynamic. What’s for you? How do you stand out – how are you different, or memorable? So that was Lal.

“I kind of separated some of my worst qualities, and the qualities I wish I had, and put them in those two.”

How far into the future did you kind of picture the novel to be?

One of the get-outs of setting it in an alternate universe is that you don’t have to specify, “This is ten years in the future,” or, “This is fifteen years in the future.” I could choose the kind of technology that fit with the plot. They’re not mind-reading, they’re using mobile phones.

To me, this says it’s not that far in the future? Eight or ten years, perhaps. I’d be interested to hear what you think, as an AI researcher, about when it could plausibly be set? When that early, deep automation of jobs is filtering through?

Eight to ten years, yeah. End of the 2020s.

Then again, part of me thinks maybe that’s too soon! You know when you watch Back to the Future II, and there’s a flying car. It’s set in 2015. We all watched it in the late ‘80s, early ‘90s, and there was this sense that 2015 would look futuristic like that. Now we’re past that date, and the changes don’t seem that drastic.

Right.

So in ten years’ time, maybe things will look the same as they do now? Maybe AI will still be in our lives, but in a way that’s similar to what it is now – essentially under the surface and hidden. Ubiquitous, but hidden. The robots still won’t be serving us coffee! So I’m willing to be proved completely wrong with my timeframe.

I think you’re good! I feel like oftentimes AI is portrayed, especially in media and films, as taking over everything in the very near future. It’s often a dystopian presentation. But actual AIs right now, they’re always just good at one thing. They’re very task-specific. We don’t really have anything like what Janetta was trying to work on, like emotional AI.

Exactly.

And there’s another question: do we want that? Because I feel like emotion is something that makes us human. At the end of the day, AI and tech are a bunch of zeros and ones. You can’t really instill that with real human emotion and experiences, in my opinion. There are scientists out there who disagree though.

I should say that, in terms of eight to ten years, I’m not talking about emotional intelligence and AI. Consciousness is way off, if it ever will happen. I think probably it won’t. But in terms of AI and automation …

Automation, yeah. No, definitely.

My friend works for an AI start-up. He often looks at stuff in my novel, and says, “What the … This is crazy!” And I say, “I know! It’s not meant to be real!” When you watch Ex Machina or Her, there’s a suspension of disbelief. But I guess as an AI researcher it must be even harder, not to just say, “Come on, come on now. That’s not going to happen!”

“Maybe AI will still be in our lives, but in a way that’s similar to what it is nowー essentially under the surface and hidden. Ubiquitous, but hidden.”

And that question of whether AI can be human is just such a long-running, fascinating topic, isn’t it? We just can’t let go of it. That uncanny other self, reflected in an AI.

Yeah, definitely. I agree with you that I can see automation coming more into play in the near future, especially with big companies like Amazon. Which is scary, because people do rely on those big corporations for jobs. We’ve seen recently that unionizing doesn’t necessarily work in those scenarios. That’s one reason Rose’s character is very interesting to me. She explores the future of social justice activism, in a near-future world increasingly dominated by automation.

I knew that you can’t talk about automation without talking about Universal Basic Income. But I didn’t want someone who straight out of the gate was like, “You guys, UBI: I’m going to sort it out.” I wanted to make sure that Rose’s activism wasn’t disconnected from the rest of her life.

So much of the novel is about these three women in their early twenties, figuring out who they are, especially who they are in their relationships. With Rose, an important part of this is how she relates to men of power, or men who have power. There’s her father, her brother, and this other guy Alek, and initially she’s unable to get out from under them.

And so she needed to come into her own power. So I thought, Rose is going to be this activist, but she’s also going to be not sure of herself initially. So a lot of it was their inner struggles, intersecting with those larger economic, social, political, or technological stories.

There was a quote I made note of. ‘Alek said, “True leisure, true creativity and true freedom are within our reach for the first time in human history. And so we must set up source gain and welcome the auts.”’ This seemed quite ironic to me because relinquishing more control of the world could seem like the opposite of freedom. And Rose did realize this as time went on, which was cool to see, as she was learning and growing. 

So Alek was with these other two academics at that point in the novel. Alek’s initial point of view is: “Auts are bad, AIs are bad. We need to just destroy this stuff.” But then when these two guys come along, one of them mentions post-work utopias. John Maynard Keynes wrote about something similar in the 1930s, an essay called ‘Economic Possibilities for our Grandchildren’, and Herbert Marcus wrote Eros and Civilisation in the 1950s, and there has been lots of writing about post-work more recently. 

Maybe machines can do everything, and then you can sit around and play all day, and not have to do things you don’t want to. This idea floats past Alek this evening, and suddenly he’s like, “Oh, wait! Yeah, we can just be free, because auts will do the boring stuff!” 

But that’s obviously not a realistic suggestion, because if you take it a step further, like Rose does, the question is, “Who owns those auts?” Well, if it’s the corporations, that’s not freedom. So that brings Alek back to his original idea: we need source gain. We need some kind of UBI. So in that moment when he talks about post-work leisure, he’s speculating. He’s not thinking about what’s necessary now.

Can you see a world where AI grows in importance alongside human creativity and freedom? Or are they opposing forces?

In a post-work scenario, the AIs are doing the grunt work, doing the kind of cleaning and tidying, and fixing things, and all the behind-the-scenes organisational work, so humans can play and fulfil ourselves. So that’s what Alek would mean by welcoming the auts, I think. But do you mean in terms of AI more as an equal?

I guess, or at least AI growing in social importance, and taking on more and more roles?

The way Alek envisions AI, in that moment, they would be this kind of sub-caste. They’d work away in the background, and you wouldn’t need to worry about them because they wouldn’t be conscious. But I think for us, even without AI consciousness, this could still be a very unsettling and unnerving vision.

We’re already seeing that when AI creeps into more and more areas of life, that ideal of true leisure and creativity gets compromised. You’re surrounded by stuff that’s monitoring you, surveilling you, collecting and analysing your data, perhaps even filtering your reality, and steering you in various ways. It’s almost like the more AI we have, the more inhibited we might feel.

Right, and the more potential problems we might face. On the surveillance point, there’s that moment where Janetta and Taly discuss helping the government with docile spy dogs —

This is one of my cringe moments. I read it now and think, “Spy dogs? What?”

Well Boston Dynamics has a robotic dog. The New York City Police Department had a test run, and there was a huge backlash. So they said, “Okay, actually, no. We are not going to use this.” But about Janetta and Taly’s conversation, I was curious: were you critiquing how governments and the private sector collaborate over surveillance? How do you feel about that? 

Attitudes about surveillance are deeply personal. I’ve got one friend who just does not care about his privacy – he’ll happily give all his data to everything and everyone. It’s not because he believes that it might make society better; he just doesn’t care. I suspect he’s not alone in that.

“We’re already seeing that when AI creeps into more and more areas of life, that ideal of true leisure and creativity gets compromised. You’re surrounded by stuff that’s monitoring you, surveilling you …”

The bird on the front of the novel, illustrated by Sinjin Li, is a CCTV bird. If you look closely, it’s got a little robot-y eye. Taly’s company, Mutants, is all about making stuff that looks friendly and cutesy, but it’s actually spying on you.

Personally, I think we should be very scared about surveillance. And not just visual surveillance, but also the amount of data that we’re giving up to companies more generally. So yes, the book definitely includes a critique of DARPA and agencies like that, who are using AI to further cement their military power.

Early in the book, there’s a humanoid robot that looks like Lal. I wondered if you could talk about that choice? It felt like it might be symbolic of Lal’s almost robotic existence at that point.

That’s a fantastic interpretation of it! Even my editor asked me why I did that. Basically, I just wanted one of the main characters to get the experience of the uncanny valley. It was nothing more than that – a moment of AI spookiness.

It definitely was.

I wanted Lal to have that experience of gazing at a factory produced version of herself.

Another reason for Lal to have that experience is that she hasn’t quite figured out how she feels about the auts. She wants to be part of that world, so this is saying: “Here are versions of you who are part of that world … but they’re just auts. They’re just nothing. They’re also praised and loved by everyone. But they’re still soulless machines. Do you really want to be a soulless machine, Lal?” So you’re right, it does touch on the idea that she becomes a bit of a soulless machine.

Okay.

People ask about that moment, and whether it’s a clue to a big conspiracy. But it’s not there for plot reasons. It’s more about Lal herself, and about the social experience of sharing a world with these uncanny others.

It was an intriguing thing to include early in the novel.

Well, I learned a lot about novel plotting during the writing of this book. And there are some things I’d probably change, because I think that ended up feeling like a red herring.

Lal goes to Tekna and gets absorbed into that world. She expects it’s going to be this shimmering, exciting experience. But actually it’s quite dreary.

Dhont is like an industrial estate. The Tekna Tower is where all the glamour happens, where Taly works, and where the conferences are. Lal sees that and she thinks, “That’s where I’m going to work! That’s where it’s going to happen for me!” 

And then she’s deposited in the backend of nowhere instead. Dhont is meant to imply precarity and being low down on the chain at Tekna; it’s the opposite of the Tekna Tower.

Dhont has also been denuded of people, because of the automation. I don’t know if you saw the Richard Ayoade film, The Double?

I haven’t.

It’s based on a Dostoyevsky novella, I think. Jesse Eisenberg goes to work at this very grim, dystopian factory. But after a while, he’s kind of struggling. Then there’s a double, like another version of him that turns up and aces everything. The film is about their conflict. It’s really good, and the surroundings are very grim and derelict. So I had that industrial dystopian feel in mind. With automation on the rise, and Lal fighting for her survival, I wanted her to realise that working for a glamorous company might not be so glamorous after all. Work in an Amazon warehouse is horrible. So I wanted to pull the rug out from under her.

And she could see the Tower from afar.

From her sad little room!

She does work her way up. But it doesn’t feel like she’s happy with that.

All that glitters isn’t gold. When she does get promoted, she’s aware that there’s something lurking underneath. Something’s not right. She thinks, “Well, okay. This is great, and I’ve got loads of money, loads of time. But things are a bit off…” But then, she’s also competitive, especially with her sister, so she also wants to believe everything’s great. I wanted capitalism to pull her in with all its glories, and then wring her dry.

Yes, it definitely did. At the end, we don’t quite know for sure what she decided. I got the impression she made the right decision.

I’m glad you think she made the right decision. 


Keep your surveillance apparatus peeled for part II, coming soon.


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Dan Byrne-Smith in conversation with Gordon Cheung

Published as part of Vector 293 exploring Chinese SF.

Born in London to Chinese parents, Gordon Cheung is an artist who will, whenever possible, talk to people who want to know more about his work. I’m very grateful for all of the occasions when he has given his time to discuss his work with me, conversations which often turn to the topic of science fiction. This interview took place on 4th March 2020, as the impact of COVID-19 was beginning to be recognised in the UK, as the streets of central London started to look very quiet, and elbow bumps had replaced handshakes as the acceptable greeting among friends. Before the interview, we discussed COVID-19 and the strange sense of fear that was taking hold. We talked about whether perhaps there was a sense of xenophobia attached to it, relating specifically to China.

The context of the interview was his exhibition ‘Tears of Paradise,’ held at Edel Assanti Gallery in London from 17th January to 18th March 2020. The interview was a chance to explore Cheung’s fascination with science fiction, the ways in which his practice becomes a lens through which to view some extreme conditions of modernity, and the nature of his work as a series of speculative forms. It was also a chance to talk about these interests in the context of an exhibition that very much looked towards China. The show was presented as a reflection on the continuing emergence of China as a global superpower, an act of witnessing which looks towards futurity as well as to historical narratives, such as the Opium Wars. The five paintings in the exhibition offered aerial views of landscapes, equal part actual and prophetic. These relate to sites of infrastructure projects on an enormous scale. Using a combination of methods, including paint and hardened sand, floating cities coexist with the proposed outlines of new urban realities. These paintings shared the gallery with Home, a sculptural installation made using bamboo and paper from the Financial Times. These sculptures, suspended from the gallery ceiling, were recreated forms of traditional Chinese windows, evoking homes demolished as part of the ongoing process of rapid urbanisation. 

Since graduating from the Royal College of Art in 2001, Gordon Cheung has built a practice around painting, while sometimes making use of sculpture, video and elements of installation. He is best known for his paintings, often large in scale, created on a paper laminate surface made up from stock listings cut from the Financial Times. His 2009 exhibition ‘The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse’ brought together these elements to create a hallucinatory overview of the present, through evocations of both histories and futures. The exhibition demonstrated the extent to which Cheung’s work had become a visual practice of cognitive estrangement. There is not just a demonstration of an interest in science fiction but rather the construction of a science fictional set of operations manifested in a body of extraordinarily rendered imagery, offering a contested arrangement of the future in a form that demands engagement. 

Cheung’s work beguiles and seduces, alluding to the terror of the sublime while exploiting the seductive potential of images and surfaces. He is captivated by the ongoing history of the twenty-first century. Earlier work was preoccupied with his own memories of the promise of a technological revolution, a future that was never to arrive. The hopeful things to come, both social and technological, that Cheung was once led to believe in have been superseded by wave after wave of catastrophe, played out as forces of global capitalism, perpetual conflict, and environmental destruction. Within Cheung’s work, the apocalypse is happening right now. 

The thematic and symbolic territory has moved on since Cheung’s ‘Four Horsemen’ exhibition over a decade ago. For some time he developed something of an obsession with tulips, both as a trope of Western painting and as the embodiment of the first speculative economic bubble. As evidenced in the exhibition ‘Tears of Paradise,’ his practice in recent years has increasingly looked at imagery and narratives derived from his fascination with China as global superpower. 

Gordon Cheung, String of Pearls, courtesy of Edel Assanti gallery, 2020   
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