Surveillance Capitalism and the Data/Flesh Worker in Malka Older’s Infomocracy

By Esko Suoranta

This academic article explores themes of algorithmic governmentality, data surveillance, labour and embodiment in Malka Older’s Infomocracy, drawing in particular on Shoshana Zuboff’s theories of surveillance capitalism.



The cyberpunk dystopia is already here, it’s just unevenly distributed. Western democracies appear to be in crisis. Populist nationalisms are on the rise, while an ever-so-free market tightens its grip on our everyday existence, building vast private siloes of personal data. Climate change is spurred on by the rise of new imaginary currencies, mined from pure mathematics and pumping tens of millions of tons of carbon into the sky. Technologies from space travel to nanotechnology take unprecedented leaps. Meanwhile, in fiction, nostalgia appears to be a prime directive. The imagined futures of the 1980–90s receive reboots which appropriate the aesthetics of the past, but often fail to update its politics in the process: see Blade Runner 2049 (2017) and Ghost in the Shell (2017). Against such future-washed conservatism, a counter-project is also emerging. Critics and authors like Monika Bielskyte and Nnedi Okorafor sound the clarion for new ways to imagine the future, and to pave the path for a more equal and sustainable world.[1]

Infomocracy

In this context, Malka Older’s debut novel Infomocracy (2016) explores progressive political and economic alternatives in a near-future setting. Part political techno-thriller, part thought-experiment on global micro-democracy, the novel follows four protagonists in the 22nd century as the third global elections loom. In the micro-democratic system, each geographic “centenal,” a unit of 100,000 people, chooses their representatives from a myriad of parties ranging from PhillipMorris and Liberty, to Earth1st and YouGov. Nation states have practically disappeared and the global election process is governed by Information, a descendant of the internet giants of yore, seemingly fused with something like the United Nations. The organization strives for neutral and truthful management of information and a fair administration of the micro-democratic process.

Predictably, political rivals try to play the system for their own benefit, and much of the plot revolves around such schemes. Through their twists and turns, Older highlights the precariousness of information labor in highly networked societies as workers become interfaces of bodies and computer networks, producing a distributed subjectivity. These themes become clear through an analysis of Older’s treatment of her protagonists and her depiction of Information’s custodianship of networked data. Infomocracy conducts an optimistic thought-experiment on the future of what Shoshana Zuboff calls “surveillance capitalism.” I aim to show how, for Older, there are two keys to diverting surveillance capitalism in a more optimistic direction. First, the democratization of skills related to information work. Second, the not-for-profit management of data.

Continue reading “Surveillance Capitalism and the Data/Flesh Worker in Malka Older’s Infomocracy

vN by Madeline Ashby

vN: The First Machine Dynasty by Madeline Ashby (Angry Robot, 2012)
Reviewed by Andy Sawyer

The robots in Canadian author Madeline Ashby’s novel are self-replicating artificial humanoids designed by a “global mega-church” as post-Rapture “helpmeets” for those humans left behind after the ascension of the just. Why, it’s not clear – though given what we learn about how these robots are conditioned to engage with humanity, something beautifully ironic and poignant could have emerged. That is not what we get but vN is an interesting though flawed work.

Amy is one such construction, the daughter of robot Charlotte and flesh-human Jack. vN robots like Amy and her mother eat special robo-food and are fitted with a “failsafe” – a kind of First Law which not only prevents them from harming humans but actually causes them to shut down if violence is observed. On Amy’s graduation from kindergarten, her grandmother Portia turns up and attacks Charlotte. Amy eats her in her furious attempt to defend her mother but Portia somehow survives as a consciousness linked to Amy’s. Fleeing, Amy encounters Javier, a “serial iterator” who has given birth (vN reproduction is not gendered and vNs exist in networks of identical clades) to a dozen unauthorised copies of himself and becomes involved in a rather hazy political plot. The revelation that in her the failsafe has broken down is key: each side, human and vN, sees her as a potential weapon to be used or destroyed.

The novel only takes us so far and like many sf futures, vN suffers from something of a lack of focus. The robot-world is well evoked, with vN vagrants living off junk and tensions between vNs and humans. There has been a violent quake on the USA’s West Coast and, somewhere, a (semi?)-autonomous city-state of Mecha exists as a possible sanctuary. But is this culture all world-wide? Does every country in the world “have” vN humanoids? All this may be explored in subsequent volumes but some generic flattening undermines the interesting things Ashby is doing with the “robot” icon.

Still, there are fascinating things here in what is implied about families here – notably the relationship between Amy and her artificial-humanoid mother and human father and between her and Portia, the predatory grandmother. There’s also a skilful creepiness. It’s clear that these robots are – as ‘real’ robots may well be – used as sex toys. The term helpmeet does not necessarily have (in its original Biblical context) a sexual implication but it certainly derives this as a term for marriage partners and equally certainly New Eden Ministries, Inc. means this. The ungrown “child” vNs are of course tempting for those whose interests lie that way. The development of the ability in Amy’s clade to overcome their failsafes is ingeniously linked to her family history and the darker side of desire for robot sextoys that will do whatever you want.

There is, though, a lot about the nature of love (not all sexual) in the novel: obsessive love, the kind of love that may be simply exploitative. And here the most interesting figure may be Jack, Amy’s father: “Charlotte didn’t do drama… now he suspected he’d find human women too warm, too loud, too mobile.” Or, on the same page, “at one point [Amy] and Charlotte would be indistinguishable. Jack worried about that sometimes. What if one day, years from now, he kissed the wrong one as she walked through the door?”

This review originally appeared in Vector #271. vN has been shortlisted for the 2012 Golden Tentacle Award for debut novel that best fits the criteria of progressive, intelligent and entertaining. The winners of this award and the rest of The Kitschies will be announced on Tuesday, 26 February 2013.

Why Zoo City won the Clarke Award in 2011

Why did Zoo City win this year’s Clarke Award?

The jury isn’t allowed to tell us, but the entrants into the contest to guess the winner of this year’s Clarke Award can.

David Rowe:

Zoo City because if it doesn’t win then the judges are wrong.

Weirdmage:

I haven’t read any of the books, but that is the one I keep hearing the most positive things about. Also, she’s the most active on Twitter.

Adam Christopher:

Zoo City by Lauren Beukes. One of the most extraordinary books I’ve read in the last ten years or so. Hopefully the Clarke Award is just a stop-off point on the way to the Hugos.

Chris:

Zoo City by Lauren Beukes – any book recommended by William Gibson as a favourite stands a very good chance!

Laurian Gridinoc:

Because [it] made me realise how much I missed devouring a book.

theforgottengeek:

Zoo City by Lauren Beakes – like nothing you’ve read before. A true original.

Yagiz [Between Two Books]:

I haven’t read it yet but many people speak very highly of it and it’s been on my TBR pile. So I think it’s going to win the award and this will make me read it soon after.

adamjkeeper:

Zoo City by Lauren Beukes, because its a shoe-in.

Yidya:

Zoo City by Lauren Beukes because it’s as good a guess as any, seeing as I haven’t read any of these.

Emil:

For it’s originality and true grit, countermanding old-school cyberpunk without puerile braggadocio

Not Cas:

Zoo City. I like the cover and the title.

Pretty Little Things To Fill Up The Void

Pretty Little Things To Fill Up The Void by Simon Logan (Prime, 2008)
Reviewed by Martin Lewis

Fade in across the Hackney skyline, sirens and the smell of Vietnamese food filling the air. Cut to a man in an overpriced flat reading a novel. Zoom in as his lip curls up in distaste on discovering it is written as a pseudo-shooting script.
Cut.

Films aren’t books and an author who is a frustrated director usually makes for a frustrating reading experience. The directions are an infuriating affectation which is a shame because Logan is a good – albeit uneven – writer. One notional reason for his stylistic choice is the fact that one of the characters is a documentary maker but it is a pretty thin justification. The artifice extends as far as calling the chapters “scenes”. This grates as well but perhaps, given their slender length, it is right name for them.

Logan has previously published three short story collections and it initially shows in the rather fragmentary nature of his debut novel. (Or, as he irritatingly styles it, “n*vel”.) It chops rapidly back and forth between his cast of characters: Elisabeth, the aforementioned film-maker; Catalina, a teenage thrill seeker; Auguste and Camille, artists and lovers; and Shiva, a freelance terrorist. Of course, their lives are all intertwined and over the course of the novel they are pulled together for a transformative conclusion. It is much to his credit that this spiralling inwards seems natural and unforced, a grasp of structure that is unusual for a first time novelist. In fact Logan is good on all the fundamentals. For someone who clearly fancies himself as a prose stylist, most of his misfires, such as describing pylons as “fascist metal weeds”, come when he is striving to attain a level of industrial poetry. Instead it is his characters, and more specifically their interaction with each other, where his strength lies. It is the sixth character – the city itself – that makes the novel so confounding though.

These scenes are all set in a nameless, placeless and, most puzzlingly, timeless city. The novel is deliberately anachronistic and obsolete: characters use payphones, pagers, VCRs and joysticks. One character is referred to as having a “Soviet jaw line” and then later “jagged Soviet features”. Whatever this description means (and I am not sure) it seems likely that some of Logan’s prospective readership weren’t born until after the collapse of the Evil Empire. Pretty Little Things To Fill Up The Void clearly harks back to the early days of cyberpunk but it is too redundant even to be the future as envisaged in the Eighties. In fact, this is almost pre-cyberpunk and shares more in common with Hubert Selby Jr than with any current SF writers. It is clearly a conscious choice but I’m not sure exactly why or to what end. One thing is for certain; this isn’t science fiction but nor is it purely mimetic because is so strongly abstracted from the real world. The city is a sort of fantasy sinkhole, a playground for malcontents, and this robs it of its power.

This review originally appeared in Vector #256.

Short Story Club: “Miguel and the Viatura”

I can’t see any coverage for this week’s story in either the print Locus or the online one, so it’s left to the SSC stalwarts to kick things off. Matt Hilliard:

My reaction to the story is similar to how I felt about “A Serpent in the Gears”. That story was steampunk and this one is cyberpunk (or post-cyberpunk, or whatever it’s called this week) but both stories spend almost their entire length on introductions. We are introduced to the titular Miguel and his brother, but, like “Serpent”, the emphasis is on introducing the world. Also like “Serpent”, this story assembles a set of tropes common to its subgenre almost as if it is ticking off boxes: poverty-stricken non-first world setting, telepresence, nanites, environmental problems, evil corporations, and a technofetishist cult, just to name some of the big ones. Like “Serpent” it does a good job with these things, and is in fact tied together with what I thought was somewhat stronger writing, but alas it has a final similarity with “Serpent” in that I found the plot to be incomplete and unsatisfying.

Pam Philips:

Maybe I missed some clues or unstated assumptions, but it’s not entirely clear to me why Joaõ asks Miguel to help him find their father. Joaõ is so vague about the situation that he manages to hurt Miguel deeply without even touching him. Miguel is almost entirely on the receiving end of the action, but the powers that be leap to the conclusion that he is to blame. Mostly things happen to Miguel, and all he can do is protest. Sure he’s a kid, and he grows up a little, but I was left with no idea what he was going to do in the end. There’s also a “torture is pointless and cruel” scene that goes on way too long, but I suppose it wouldn’t be torture if it stopped when you got tired of it.

As for the technology, this comes off as one of those nano-can-do-anything stories. I was also jarred by the term “nanite”, which I mostly associate with Star Trek. Finally, what we see of nanotech seems to be confined to making people into monsters. What’s the point? These people sure as hell don’t need technology to act monstrously.

Chad Orzel:

I don’t recognize the author’s name, but this story is very much in the same vein as the stuff I’ve read by Paolo Bacigalupi and others. I’m not sure if there’s really a formal literary movement in this, a la “cyberpunk” or the “New Weird,” but it’s tempting to think of this sort of story in those terms, as a part of the Recent Unpleasantness. Because, really, that’s the defining trait of these stories: every aspect of the thing, from the setting to the characters to the actions that drive the plot, is chosen to make the result as unpleasant as possible.

Is there more to it? The floor is open.

Reading List: Dead Channel Surfing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

BSFA Survey Response: Richard Morgan

Survey coverRichard Morgan is the author of six novels: the cyberpunkish Takeshi Kovacs trilogy beginning with the Philip K Dick Award-winning Altered Carbon (2002); standalone near-future satire Market Forces (2004), which won the John W Campbell Memorial Award; Black Man (2007), which won the Arthur C Clarke Award, and fantasy The Steel Remains (2008). All are notable for their engagement with masculinity, and with forms of oppression; also for being violent, action-driven thrillers. He has also written two volumes of Black Widow for Marvel Comics. Morgan was one of more than 80 writers to respond to the 2009 BSFA survey, and his responses are reproduced below.

1. Do you consider yourself a writer of science fiction and/or fantasy?

Yes, I do. I can rattle on about noir crossover and slipstream with the best of them, but in the end, what I’m writing is quite recognizably SF (and more recently Sword and Sorcery), and pretending otherwise would just be deeply sad!

2. What is it about your work that makes it fit into these categories?

Well, take your pick – space travel, alien worlds, dystopian futures, jacked up gene engineered super-soldiers, exotic weaponry and tech … It’s all in there somewhere.

3. Why have you chosen to write science fiction or fantasy?

It’s funny because I don’t remember ever actually making that choice at a conscious level. I think it was simply a case of writing the kind of books I wanted to read. At the time I took my first tottering steps towards writing publishable material, I was also wedded well and truly to the SF&F genre. I just never thought to change. And to be honest, SF&F is still my first love, even now. There’s really no other type of fiction out there that gives you the same latitudes of discretion with regard to the reality you’re creating.

4. Do you consider there is anything distinctively British about your work, and if so what is it?

A pervasive sense of cynicism and despair, maybe?

To be honest, I think the overall flavour of my work probably owes far more to American templates than it does British. Noir is largely a US invention (with a little focal help from the French), violent anti-heroes have had their modern testing bed in American fiction since at least the thirties, and so really has science fiction as a mass market dynamic. And what’s often forgotten these days is how dynamically subversive all of that stuff was. Currently, we have this perception of American SF as a bit staid and conformist/conservative, while the UK is the powerhouse of brutal malcontent genre work full of edgy political and cultural content. But most of us included in that stable are actually mining the rich seams of style and subject matter laid down by former practitioners on the other side of the Atlantic – guys like Sheckley, Heinlein, Bradbury, Bester, Pohl and Kornbluth, and of course the whole cyberpunk crew, who in turn owe a huge debt to old style American noir. I don’t think there’s anything specifically British in my influences that can stack up against all that.

5. Do British settings play a major role in your work, and if so, why (or why not)?

No – though British protagonists have, a couple of times. I think my problem with British settings is that I find most of the UK just too comfy to be useful as landscape. An American once said to me, on the subject of wilderness, Yeah, you guys don’t really have any of that, do you. The whole country is just like this big park owned by the Queen. A little harsh, maybe, but I know what he means. Give me the deserts of Arizona, the mountains of the north Norwegian coast, Istanbul and the Bosphorus, the Peruvian altiplano or western Australia’s coral coast; there’s an exotic appeal to these places, a drama of place even before you start to tell a story located there. And then, of course, there’s off-world, which is even better because it can be anything you want it to be. What I’m interested in exploring in my fiction is human intensity, whether that be via a dynamic plot or desperate characters or both. And I find that intense landscapes or exotic cities work best as backdrop to that kind of story-telling. Of course, there’s no reason you can’t tell an intense, dynamic tale in a British setting – many authors do, and I’ve even done it once myself – but for me the inspiration of place just doesn’t hit as often or as hard on my home turf.

6. What do you consider are the major influences on your work?

In genre, William Gibson, Poul Anderson, Bob Shaw, M. John Harrison and Robert Sheckley, probably in about that order. Out of genre, the whole of the American hard-boiled crime writing tradition right back to Chandler and Hammett, but most notably Lawrence Block’s Matt Scudder novels, James Ellroy’s LA Quartet and American Tabloid, and James Lee Burke’s early Dave Robicheaux novels. To that you’d also have to add the influence of cinema, but that covers everything from Bladerunner to Jesus of Montreal, and it’s very hard to play favourites.

7. Do you detect a different response to your science fiction/fantasy between publishers in Britain and America (or elsewhere)?

Not really – I’ve been lucky in both cases to get publishing houses and editors who are quite content to let me do my own thing and apply only the necessary minimum of professional oversight when the manuscript comes in. I keep hearing horror stories out of the US about massive editorial pressure to mutilate manuscripts so that they fit better into this or that template or demographic appeal, but I have to say from a personal point of view I’ve never suffered even the hint of that. Both Gollancz and Del Rey have always been behind me a hundred percent.

There was of course the briefly (internet) famous Black Man/Thirteen controversy, but what got lost in the flurry there was the fact that – though I was, and remain, somewhat bemused about the why of it – I really wasn’t bothered about changing the name; my books, after all, are often re-titled in European translation, and even the original UK name sometimes changes from the working title (Altered Carbon was originally called Download Blues, Black Man started life as Normal Parameters, and so forth…) so bitching about the US change would have seemed a little hypocritical. Thirteen was my own idea as an alternative title, and the conversations I had with my New York editor about it were very much along the same lines as the ones I had with my London editor about dumping Normal Parameters in favour of Black Man. My only real concern when my books are published is that the content should remain unadulterated, and in that, I’ve detected no measurable difference in attitude anywhere I’m published.

8. Do you detect a different response to your science fiction/fantasy between the public in Britain and America (or elsewhere)?

Well, yes and no. You do see some minor cultural hiccups sometimes when my work crosses the Atlantic – for instance, there were a number of comments criticising the amount of foul language used by the characters in my last novel, and these complaints were almost exclusively American in origin. The British (and Australians and Norwegians and French and Italians and just about everybody else) just took it in their stride. Ditto complaints about the explicit sex in my books, and bad reactions to the explicit political commentary in a couple of my nearer future scenarios. So it would certainly appear that, in general terms, there is within the US SF&F readership a group of people who are far more uptight and tender in their expectations than any you’d find on this side of the Atlantic. Sort of controversy virgins, I guess you could call them, going to the literary marriage bed in the expectation that it’s all going to be dewy-eyed candle-lit, air-brushed cuddles.

That said, I think my books have found a readership in the US which is very much at ease with the kind of fiction I’m writing and relates to it every bit as enthusiastically as my British readers. And it has to be said that it was the Americans who started garlanding me with awards first. I picked up the Philip K Dick and John W Campbell awards a long time before I got the Clarke. So clearly I was speaking at least as effectively to the American readership (or at least a portion thereof) as I was to anyone in the UK. And there is maybe a more whole-hearted, passionate enthusiasm in play across the Atlantic, which embraces new things in a way the rather more conservative British literati take longer to do. Maybe. Truth is, in the end, I think it doesn’t do to make too much of this cross-Atlantic cultural divide – there are, of course, substantial cultural differences between the UK and the US, and I think anyone who’s been paying attention is probably aware of them; but within both populations, there is also quite sufficient variance of taste and mindset for a writer to find his or her audience and flourish in both countries.

9. What effect should good science fiction or fantasy have upon the reader?

That’s a bit of a minefield question, to be honest. I’m extremely wary of making prescriptive templates for literature, cinema, drama, genre, what have you, not least because hard on the heels of prescriptive comes proscriptive, and after that we’re all just down to tribal fucking squabbling and beating our sad little chests for attention in our particular corner. I have an instinctive dislike of the kind of person who can turn on a dime and give you a cut-and-dried answer to questions of this sort – science fiction should do X, good fantasy is Y, literature must be Z, and so forth.

That said, the project of creating fiction requires a skill set, like any other activity, and like any other activity, you can do it better or worse. So it’s not unreasonable to lay out some broad guidelines for best practice, and I don’t believe in special dispensations for genre here. A good SF or fantasy novel must be, first and foremost, a good novel full stop. That means engaging characterization, convincing sense of milieu, compelling story – in short, the salients of any good fiction. I have no sympathy for (or, really, understanding of) the mindset that says sure, the writing style is for shit, the characters cardboard, the settings unconvincing, but hey it’s a cool concept or a good fast moving story, so who cares? To me that’s like ordering a meal and saying you don’t mind the fact the steak is burnt to a crisp, the sauce cold, and the salad unwashed, because, hey, the chips are good. I mean, come on, people.

As to what all this adds up to in terms of effect upon the reader, I quite like Kafka’s “a book must be an ice axe to break the seas frozen inside our souls”. Good fiction moves you, I think, forces you to feel something when the storm of experience and day to day existence very often dulls that ability in us, especially as we grow older. And then there’s Bradbury’s argument for “telling detail”, as specified in Faber’s speech in Fahrenheit 451: “The good writers touch life often….[books] show the pores in the face of life.” Those two quotes balance out quite nicely, I think – you’re looking for something that provokes emotional responses and engagement, but from a basis that’s anchored enough in reality to convince. Without the latter, you’re just not going to buy into the fiction enough to care, but without the former you’re not going to care enough to buy in. So, as regards genre writing, I’d say that if your imagined future or fantasy landscape and the characters that inhabit it feel real and emotionally engaging enough to care about, then you’ve done your job well.

10. What do you consider the most significant weakness in science fiction as a genre?

A preparedness to accept very poor levels of quality in fiction (as discussed above) so long as the gosh-wow factor is cranked up sufficiently high. Recently I was asked in an interview if I watched much TV and in response I cited The Wire as the finest TV drama around. This wasn’t what the interviewer was after, so he rephrased the question and asked me if I watched much SF&F TV. But the way he prefaced the remark was, I think, very telling. Of course they’re not in the same class as The Wire, he said, but have you seen the new Battlestar Galactica or Heroes?

Now my question is why isn’t there any SF&F TV drama in the same class as The Wire? There could be – look at movies like Bladerunner or Alien, novels like Geoff Ryman’s Air or Peter Watts’ Blindsight, comic-book work like Alan Moore’s From Hell or Shaun Tan’s The Arrival. It’s not that the talent isn’t out there – it’s that the genre as a consumer demographic assigns negligible value to that talent. We would rather wallow in threadbare franchise mediocrity and clichéd visions thirty years past their sell-by date. So sure, Watts and Ryman are in print – but set their sales against those of the latest interchangeable pastel-shaded elf or magician-in-training brick or the interminable Halo/Star Wars-type franchises. There’s just no comparison. Moore, on his own admission, can’t make a living out of stuff like From Hell – he’s forced back time and again to the superhero template. There never has been another SF movie to touch Bladerunner, and the Alien franchise has degenerated, god help us, into Alien vs Predator Requiem. People would – apparently – rather watch the same old same old: Spider-man 5, Iron Man 3, Batman Again, and yet more bloody Star Trek and Star Wars. And the sci-fi channel can get away with cranking out product that HBO would blush to be associated with. To briefly paraphrase the movie Trainspotting it’s a shite state of affairs, Tommy, and all the CGI in the world won’t make any fucking difference.

11. What do you think have been the most significant developments in British science fiction and fantasy over the past twenty years?

Hmm – tough one. Would depend a lot on your defining parameters. In purely demographic terms, of course, you’re talking about the re-launch of Doctor Who and the advent of Harry Potter. Both of those have unquestionably sown the seeds for a massive influx of fresh, young readers and viewers into the genre, and we should all be very grateful for that. But taking a more quality-based and adult approach, I suppose I’d prefer to cite Iain M Banks’ re-invention of space opera in his Culture novels and China Mieville’s paradigm-shifting Bas-Lag fantasy trilogy – both those sequences have been a huge tonic for the genre in terms of imaginative power and reach; in many ways you could say that they were the base building blocks for the so-called British SF&F Renaissance.

10 Notes From An Evening With William Gibson

[I’m not going to do a more formal writeup of the event because a video of the whole thing should be going up on the SciFiLondon website in the next week or so.]

1. Audience demographics were pretty much as you’d expect: mostly male, mostly white, and mostly fond of black t-shirts.

2. John Sutherland was not a terribly good interviewer. His questions where peppered with obsequious cliches along the lines of, “I think your books teach us new ways of reading” and “the technologies you include are really about new ways of being human”. My favourite, however, was when Gibson mentioned that he’d revised the paperback of Pattern Recognition to incorporate technical and other fixes pointed out by eagle-eyed readers, and Sutherland opined that this sort of obsessive nitpicking was also something new. I can’t help feeling that Sutherland isn’t terribly familiar with fan culture.

3. The second chapter of Spook Country (Tito) was originally the first; in fact, all he started with was a “floating point of view” that “congealed” into the character of Tito.

4. Gibson is “agnostic” about fanfic.

5. There was one fairly major revision between the proof of Spook Country and the final published edition, which is that Cory Doctorow pointed out that some of the GPS tricks in the book couldn’t be done indoors. And then suggested a fix involving triangulating off the three nearest mobile phones. Or something.

6. The first time Gibson went into Second Life (anonymously and alone) it reminded him of the worst aspects of High School.

7. It was quite noticeable that there was a gap between what most of the audience was reading Gibson for (the tech, the loners, the “cool”) and what Gibson is actually interested in trying to talk about in his books (the ways people experience the modern world, and political implications of that).

8. That said, Gibson talked about his sense that the difference between now and 1984 is that in 1984 offline was the default and online was somewhere you went; now, online is the default and offline is somewhere you go. One of the characters in Spook Country describes this as cyberspace “everting”.

9. This is not really related, but a proof of Rewired arrived here yesterday. That’s a hell of a TOC.

10. Neil Gaiman would “whip” William Gibson in a fight. Apparently.

Vector #158

As a utopia, the Culture’s a utopia that needs this ruthless edge: Special Circumstances, manipulation of other societies and so forth.

Yes, that’s me bending over backwards to be fair and not make the Culture look so goody-goody. The idea that this is something of the Culture that occurs very very rarely indeed, the fact that it’s the most interesting thing that I can write about, is probably more an indication of my failings as a writer than any possible failings of this totally theoretical civilisation.

Is it possible that there’s nothing interesting that can happen in a utopia?

When actually there is. Even in a utopia you still have heartbreak, you still have unrequited love, you still have ambition that’s unfulfilled; so there’s lots of things, all the sort of human things you can write about in a utopia. But in what I’ve been wanting to write about for the last few years, you have to go to the outside edge of the Culture where there’s the interface between Culture and non-Culture, as it were, where interesting things are happening. It’s the old Chinese curse, “May you live in interesting times.” They’re good to read about but hell to live through and that’s – the very fact that they’re good to read about – what I want to write. And the Culture has always got a good reason for what it wants to do. It claims that it actually is doing it not for its own – not for imperialistic reasons or anything, but things which have to be done. Basically it’s a utilitarian argument.

Iain M. Banks interviewed by Andy Sawyer

One question remains unasked (and thus unanswered) – the subject of this article: given that sf uses the future to reflect today’s preoccupations, why did the appearance of a major new technology evoke such a trivial response? Because the use of computers in cyberpunk is trivial. This technology is, today, evolving so rapidly that it is possible to look at a machine built only ten years ago and describe it in terms of archaeology. Current research in virtual environments and nano-technology is threatening to render reality itself obsolescent within a time scale of two to five decades. The possibility of creating a true artificial intelligence remains questionable, but the question is still fundamentally an open one. Surely the cyberpunks, with their position somewhere between the poles of rigorous techno-extrapolation and humanist self-scrutiny, should have been able to identify and address these questions. But why didn’t they?

Charles Stross

But how did I come to this though? There are several reasons. I was brought up during the war; as a child there wasn’t any food to speak of. A treat for us was a slice of potato and onion done in the oven in Oxo gravy. Any meat that come into the house went to the father, I remember one slice of bacon on a Sunday morning if we were good, as an absolute treat, and so on. Windfalls, of plums and pears in Autumn, were a much looked-forward to treat, and so when food started to come back into the shops and then lots of foreign influences came into play. I also had dreams, I don’t know where these came from, of being a great hostess of fantastic banqueting entertainment, and I just got very very interested. I was just astounded to realise that there was actually such a thing as SPaghetti outside of a Heinz tin, and it’s just been a long voyage of discovery. And then I found out that I was in fact a very excellent cook, so when I got a family and also started doing dinner parties, it was just a very creative thing. I just enjoyed it. I’ve also been very interested in vitamins and biochemistry. I was in school when I realised that health could possibly be got by the right diet, so between all these influences, and also liking describing them in detail, it was inevitable that all my work should include food. My greatest discovery about food, paradoxically, is that the cleanest zen macrobiotic diet is the one which makes you feel absolutely wonderful if you stick to it.

Josephine Saxton

[…] It’s all a bit heavy really, but there’s no reason why this shouldn’t be done with lots more humour. As I said, we should lighten up, it doesn’t have to be a miserable world.

Well, Queen of The States does have some very funny scenes though I’m not sure if it’s a happy ending.

Well she escapes, she escapes both from the aliens and from her husband.

Yes, but it is a neutral ending in that it comes down to “Right I’m free… Now what?”

True, but that is quite a good place to end a novel about the struggle to straighten your head out, get your strength together, and not be dominated by society or whatever.

To go back to your being picked up by The Women’s Press, they’ve labelled your first two books for them as Science Fiction, but you say you aren’t a Science Fiction writer.

Well, I’m not, if you look at Robert Heinlein and say that is Science Fiction. I’m not that well up on it, but to me it is the same scenes and the same things all churned out every time by hundreds of authors all writing the same thing. I do read all the time, I’ve just read Peter Ackroyd’s Chatterton, yet another history of the Brontes and an Australian writer whose name eludes me. A few years ago I was doing some reviewing for The New Statesman, and I had to read a lot of Science Fiction for them, and it was the hardest piece of work. You have to read them all, you can’t discard the things you don’t like.

Josephine Saxton, Thank you very much.

You’re very welcome.

Josephine Saxton interviewed by Kev McVeigh