This issue’s cover was created by an AI. Or … was it?
Machines have made art for a long time. In the mid 19th century, John Clark’s Eureka machine was dropping perfectly okay Latin hexameter bars on the daily. Harold Cohen’s AARON began scribbling in the 1970s and sketching plants and people in the 1980s.
But with the likes of MidJourney, DALL-E, Stable Diffusion, Disco Diffusion, Imagen, and Dream by Wombo, 2022 marks the start of a new era. These AIs accept natural language prompts and produce often startling images. Suddenly the conversation has shifted from what little the AIs can do to what little they can’t do.
The AIs can’t paint complex scenes with many parts, for instance. You’re better off generating the pieces separately and then jiggling them together in Photoshop or GIMP. They can’t paint eyes terribly well, unless your subject happens to be a stoner ghoul. If the moon shines behind your subject’s head, it often bulges strangely, bearing ominous tidings for tonight’s high tide.
Still, the AIs are getting better all the time. Some online art forums are already inundated with spam. There have been instances of AI users setting themselves up as freelance artists, claiming to create the images themselves using traditional methods (Photoshop is now ‘traditional methods’! We are definitely in the future).
Worse still, the rise of AI art has led to the rise of the AI Art Bro. These combat philosophers, who perhaps recently cut their teeth extolling NFTs, love nothing more than to troll freelance artists nervous about next month’s rent. Yet it would be unfair to write off AI art just because it has some disagreeable advocates. Luckily, as science fiction writers and fans, we’re well-equipped to make more nuanced assessments.
Or … are we?
The uncomfortable fact is that science fiction hasn’t been amazingly good at illuminating the ongoing AI revolution. With notable exceptions, we focus on questions like, ‘Can an AI think? Feel? Love? Dream? What does the way we treat machines tell us about how we treat one another?’ These are enchanting and perhaps important questions. But they tend to overshadow AI as it exists within data science and critical data studies, and the huge role it is already playing in everyday life. So maybe science fiction writers could do more to infuse our work with an appreciation of AI as it actually exists?
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?
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!
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.
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.
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.
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!”
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 Civilisationin 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.
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.
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?
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.
This talk was first delivered at Novacon 9, in November 1979, and is reprinted from Vector 98, June 1980.
I have borrowed the title of my talk today from the Armenian mystic Gurdjieff, who wrote a semi-autobiographical account of his quest for knowledge and understanding. He sought out a number of philosophers and mystics, became their disciple, and absorbed their wisdom. I’m telling you this in the hope that it will set a high intellectual tone to this convention. In fact, it sets the intellectual tone of this talk exactly … because I’m bluffing. Not only have I not read Gurdjieff, but I haven’t even seen the film. However, it’s a good title, and it’s somewhere to begin.
When I first started to go to science fiction conventions I did so for very simple motives. I was a fan of science fiction. Or, to put it more accurately, I was a fan of certain writers who had published science fiction. When I went to Peterborough in 1964 I did so in the hope of meeting John Wyndham, Ray Bradbury, J G Ballard, Robert Sheckley, Brian Aldiss … even, if I was very lucky, H G Wells. I wanted to be a science fiction writer, and I hoped that by rubbing shoulders with people like this that some of their talent might rub off on me. I soon discovered that if you rub shoulders with science fiction writers the only thing that’s likely to rub off on you is dandruff.
When I first thought about what I should say to you today I felt a slight sense of panic. It might come as something of a surprise to some of you, but this is the first time that I have ever given a talk at a convention. I’ve often taken part in panels — usually the sort where we set out to talk about literature and end up arguing about money — but never before have I been given a whole hour of the convention’s time.
I started to go to sf conventions because I was a fan, and to a large extent I continue to come to cons for fannish reasons. They are above all fannish events, and any writer who comes along has to do so more or less on fannish terms. I’m proud of the fact that I have maintained fannish links for more than fifteen years, and it was this that gave me a clue as to what I might be able to talk about today. I saw myself as a sort of latter-day Gurdjieff, passing through the sf world for fifteen years, in contact with the great minds. Perhaps, I thought, I could give you a series of anecdotes about the remarkable men I have met over the years, passing on to you what grains of wisdom, or dandruff, I have picked up. So, with this in mind, I started making a list. Isaac Asimov, Arthur C Clarke, Brian Aldiss, John Wyndham, John W Campbell, Frederick Pohl, Rob Holdstock … all these I have met. And, because in these liberated times remarkable men should really be called remarkable people, Ursula Le Guin, Vonda McIntyre, Leigh Brackett, Anne McCaffrey, Judith Merrill. The list extended indefinitely, easily filling an hour of your time.
But then, the more I thought about it, none of my meetings with remarkable men were all that remarkable. I could have told you about how my father-figure, Harry Harrison, cuffed me about the ear and said, “Get out of the way, you fucking fan.” Or how the very first words ever spoken to me by Arthur C Clarke were, “What about the variable albedo?” … something which to this day is worrying me. I could tell you how I stood next to Harlan Ellison, and loomed over him. Come to that, I could tell you how Douglas Adams stood next to me, and loomed over us both.
A reader’s experience of science fiction is, in a sense, a meeting with remarkable minds. It was this that first surprised me when I encountered sf. Through their work, I met, for the first time, writers who could show me a different way of seeing things, who were way above the mundane things in life and were getting on with a kind of fiction that made me think for myself. Years later, I came across a passage in an essay by George Orwell, which describes this feeling exactly. Orwell was describing the effect on him of reading H G Wells as a boy:
It was a wonderful experience for a boy to discover H G Wells. There you were, in a world of pedants, clergymen and golfers, with your future employers exhorting you to “get on or get out”, your parents systematically warping your sexual life, and your dull-witted schoolmasters sniggering over their Latin tags; and here was this wonderful man who could tell you about the inhabitants of the planets and the bottom of the sea, and who knew that the future was not going to be what respectable people imagined.
Orwell always has the ability to pinpoint a feeling exactly, and this describes the effect science fiction as a whole can have on people who come to it with open minds. I myself came to it with the open mind of adolescence, as many of us do. The ideas of science fiction work on two levels. Firstly, there is the element of surprise or novelty, and secondly there is the less specific quality of making us think for ourselves, of applying a freshness of approach to our own lives.
Published as part of Vector 293 exploring Chinese SF.
In this cross-interview, we have two prominent writers interview each other about their respective debut novels. Maggie Shen King is the author of An Excess Male, one of The Washington Post’s 5 Best Science Fiction and Fantasy Novels of 2017, a James Tiptree Jr. and Lambda Literary Award Finalist. Chen Qiufan (a.k.a. Stanley Chan) is the author of Waste Tide, which has been praised by Liu Cixin, China’s most prominent science fiction author, as “the pinnacle of near-future SF writing.”
Maggie interviews Stanley
Maggie: For those of us who recycle diligently, it’s easy to become complacent and forget about the magnitude and consequences of our consumption. I really appreciate that Waste Tide brings to the fore the sheer volume of the Western world’s electronic usage and creates in the process a twenty-first century waste land in its electronic recycling center. I understand that you grew up near Guiyu, the town that inspired your novel. What do you hope to accomplish in elevating this issue to center stage? As China becomes a superpower and increasingly begins to turn away this sort of work, what are your thoughts and hopes for the emerging nations of the world?
Stanley: I try to stir up the awareness of the truth that all of us are equally as responsible for the grave consequence of mass pollution happening across the globe. In China, the issue escalated during the last four decades along with the high speed of economic growth. We try to live life as Americans, but we have 1.4 billion people. China has already replaced the USA as the largest producer of e-waste simply because we are so after the consumerism ideology. All the trash that China fails to recycle will be transferred to a new trash yard, perhaps somewhere in Southeast Asia, Africa or South America. If we continue to fall into the trap of consumerism and blindly indulge in newer, faster, more expensive industrial products, one day we may face trash that is untransferrable, unavoidable, and unrecyclable. By then, we would all become waste people. Technology might be the cure but fundamentally it’s all about the lifestyle, the philosophy and the values we believe in.
By Regina Kanyu Wang et al. Published as part of Vector 293 exploring Chinese SF.
According to Science Fiction World, the concept of “science fiction (SF) industry” was first proposed in academia in 2012, when a group of experts were brought together by the Sichuan Province Association of Science and Technology to comb and research SF related industry, and put together the Report of Research on the Development of Chinese SF Industry. Narrowly defined, the SF industry includes SF publishing, SF films, SF series, SF games, SF education, SF merchandise, and other SF-related industries, while a broader definition also includes the supporting industries, upstream or downstream in the industry chain.
According to the 2020 Chinese Science Fiction Industry Report, the gross output of the Chinese SF industry in 2019 sums up to 65.87 billion RMB (about 7.4 billion GBP), among which games and films lead the growth, with publishing and merchandise following (check out more in Chinese here). The SF industry plays an important part in China’s cultural economic growth.
We have invited sixteen organizations, companies, and projects that play a role in China’s SF industry to introduce themselves to the English readers. You can see the diversity and vigour from the texts they provided. We’ve tried to keep editing to a minimum in order to show how they posit and define themselves in the SF industry. Here they are, ordered alphabetically.
Guest editorial by Yen Ooi. Published as part of Vector 293 exploring Chinese SF.
Chinese science fiction’s (CSF) growth in popularity has followed the rapid development trend of China itself. In his interview with fellow writer Maggie Shen King, Chen Qiufan (a.k.a. Stanley Chan) highlights that China has over the last four decades achieved the technological and economic advancements that countries in the West achieved in the last century. The speed of modernisation and urbanisation is a remarkable thing to behold, with 100 million people lifted out of poverty just since 2013. China’s rise has been subject to international scrutiny and criticism, which is to be expected. The most unfounded of which plumbed new depths in the past year — 2020 — through the pandemic. While the previous president of the United States of America (among many) used the term “Chinese virus” in his description of Covid-19, East Asian diaspora communities living in Western countries experienced increased instances of racism. What is the connection?
Genres are in general difficult to define, but CSF is especially complicated. Both the terms Chinese and science fiction defy any clear definition, yet are used so commonly that every user has their own pre-assumed definition. One popular assumption in the West is that CSF should always be read in terms of political dissent or complicity with state power. As much as that might be true for some, it is an unhelpful generalisation. After all, we do not assume that British SF is only about Brexit, or American SF only about Trump. In one sense, all storytelling is inherently political, and within Anglophone SF especially, the racist and queerphobic attack on representational diversity is often disguised as a demand to “remove the politics” from our stories. However, the necessarily political nature of storytelling is complicated in the case of the Anglophone reception of CSF. The insistence of many Western readers on interpreting CSF exclusively in relation to government censorship can itself have a paradoxically censoring effect. Some CSF authors have even resisted writing stories set in China, or allowing the translation of their work into English, for fear that readers will ignore its actual aesthetic and intellectual qualities, while using it as material for simplistic speculation: Whose side are you really on? To quote Ken Liu — for what is a publication on CSF without mentioning the writer who, it feels like, has single-handedly brought CSF to Anglo-American readers? —
Like writers everywhere, today’s Chinese writers are concerned with humanism; with globalization; with technological advancement; with development and environmental preservation; with history, rights, freedom, and justice; with family and love; with the beauty of expressing sentiment through words; with language play; with the grandeur of science; with the thrill of discovery; with the ultimate meaning of life.
Ken Liu, Invisible Planets, 2016.
Chinese means many things: culture, ethnicity, nationality, language, people, food, celebrations, traditions, dance, art, tea, etc. It is impossible to talk about all things related to CSF, but we hope that we’ve managed to introduce some key ideas and concepts in this issue, and that you’ll find areas that particularly excite you — as a writer, researcher, or reader — to want to learn more.
Guangzhao Lyu, Angela Chan and Mia Chen Ma. Published as part of Vector 293 exploring Chinese SF. If you’d like to receive the issue, join the BSFA.
This is a transcription of Chen Qiufan’s public talk at Goodenough College, London, invited by London Chinese Science Fiction Group (LCSFG), on 12th August 2019, which is followed by a conversation with Angela Chan and Mia Chen Ma. This was originally published in Chinese on LCSFG’s WeChat account.
The London Chinese Science Fiction Group (LCSFG) is a community for people interested in Chinese languages (sinophone) science and speculative fiction. Since it was founded in April 2019, LCSFG has been organising monthly reading groups focusing on short stories available both in Chinese and English and has been inviting established/emerging Chinese SF writers to participate in online discussions following the pandemic lockdown since March 2020. During our meetings, we explore the story’s themes, literary styles and even translation techniques and choices, as a way to better understand the piece, as well as the evolving field of contemporary Chinese SF.
Firstly, many thanks to the London Chinese Science Fiction Group for inviting me here, and to Goodenough College for providing such a gorgeous place. Today, I would like to talk about my debut novel, and only novel to date, Waste Tide. And don’t worry, there won’t be any spoilers. Before I discuss the story itself, let me give some general background information and my inspiration, that is, why I wanted to write a science fiction novel about China’s near-future in conjunction with e-waste recycling.
Eugen Bacon is an award-winning writer of speculative fiction and non-fiction. Her works include Claiming T-Mo (Meerkat Press 2019), Writing Speculative Fiction: Critical and Creative Approaches (Macmillan 2020), Inside the Dreaming (NewCon Press, 2020) and Hadithi and The State of Black Speculative Fiction, a forthcoming collaboration with Milton Davies (Luna Press, 2020). In this essay, she reflects on some of her favourite black speculative fiction.
As an African Australian who’s grappled with matters of identity, writing black speculative fiction is like coming out of the closet. It’s a recognition that I’m Australian and African, and it’s okay—the two are not mutually exclusive. I am many, betwixt, a sum of cultures. I am the self and ‘other’, a story of inhabitation, a multiple embodiment and my multiplicities render themselves in cross-genre writing. As a reader, writer and an editor, I’m increasingly noticing black speculative fiction, and it’s on the rise.
Do you know about the writing groups operated by the BSFA?
Maybe you’re gazing enviously at all those #NaNoWriMo scribblers on their way to a first draft, and a story is starting to stir inside you. Or maybe you’ve been looking around for a while for a community to support your writing.
The BSFA runs the Orbit groups, a series of online workshopping groups. You can pay a lot of money to sign up to online workshops or writing courses, but the Orbit groups are free to BSFA members. If you are a BSFA member and are interested in participating, get in touch with our Orbit Co-ordinator Terry Jackman. If you’re not yet a member, you can join here.
What is an Orbit group?
BSFA Orbit groups are made up of about five writers, who keep in touch via email. Each writer shares their work with the other members of the group and, in turn, reads and comments upon the stories of the others – offering comments and suggestions about how the writing might be made better.
All Orbit groups are open to writers of science fiction, fantasy and horror stories. There are separate groups for those concentrating on short fiction and those who are working on novels.
Members make their own decisions about how they’d like their particular Orbit groups to work, so groups are free to make decisions that suit their needs.
What do you do?
By becoming part of an Orbit group you’re committing to give other members’ work the same care and attention you’d like your own stories to receive. You commit to read carefully, and to comment thoughtfully, honestly, and constructively. And, even if you don’t include a story in every round, you commit to respond to every story and to stick to deadlines. Orbit groups are cooperative, and Orbiters tend to get out of the groups what they put in.
What do you get?
Most obviously you get different viewpoints on your work. You get the opinions of a group of unbiased readers who, like you, are interested in what makes a strong genre story. You get a range of ideas about what works in your writing and what does not. And, unlike some face-to-face writers’ groups, you get time to mull over the comments in private – so there’s no posturing or point-scoring, just writers working together to make their work better.
But it isn’t just the feedback you receive that helps you improve as a writer. The process of critiquing itself can nourish skills applicable to your own writing. By exploring what you think works (or doesn’t work) in someone else’s story, you can learn how to improve your own. Members can also share experiences, suggest markets, and offer more general advice and support about being a writer. And, of course, writing can be a lonely business, but in an Orbit you always have someone to share ideas with.
Who will be in my group?
The Orbit groups are open to writers of all levels. Orbit groups can be made up of writers at a wide variety of stages in their careers. Some may be unpublished and just starting out, others may have been published many, many times, there are even some orbiters who are editors or who work in publishing.
Do Orbits work?
They do, and Orbit groups include members who have been published professionally but who stay in the groups because they believe that they continue to benefit from sharing their work with other writers.
Orbit groups let you see your work through the eyes of others. They give you the kind of feedback most editors simply don’t have the time to provide and the honest feedback you won’t get from friends and family. Members are encouraged to be polite but honest even if, sometimes, the truth can hurt. Orbit groups don’t try to make you feel better; their goal is to make you a better writer.
How do I join?
If you are already a BSFA member, contact the Orbit coordinator Terry Jackman.
BSFA membership is £29 standard UK, £20 for students and unwaged, £31 joint and £45 international. You can join the BSFA here (and feel free to get in touch with Terry as soon as you have sent your membership fee).
History of the Orbits
The original Orbit groups operated by post. Members circulated an envelope containing printed manuscripts and in each “round” a member received comments on their previous story, read and commented on new material from the other authors, and added a new story. Until a few years ago, there were still groups that preferred this method. Nowadays, however, all the active Orbiters operate via email.
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.