Yesterday’s Technological Tomorrows?

By Paul Kincaid

A review of Futures of the Past: An Anthology of Science Fiction Stories from the 19th and Early 20th Centuries, with Critical Essays, edited by Ivy Roberts. McFarland, 2020, 196pp. 978-1-4766-7810-8.

For a literature supposedly intent upon the new, the inventive, the futuristic, science fiction seems inordinately interested in its own past. I am as guilty as anyone of this, which may be why I notice the phenomenon so much. But the question is: what are we looking for in the past, and (a very different question) what are we finding? Generally, the past is assumed to hold the key to where we are now and what we might become. That, however, is far from always being the case. The history of science fiction is extraordinarily full of false trails, dead ends, U-turns, twists, side tracks, abrupt changes of direction, and so on. Somehow, where we are today emerged out of the mess of what we once were, but in retrospect the route is neither clear nor consistent. Simply diving willy-nilly into the science fiction of days gone by, shining a light at random onto a story over here, a novel over there, offers no clue as to how or even if those writings are connected. And it offers even less of a clue about the evolution of what came after.

That, in a nutshell, is my problem with this latest selection of hoary tales from the dusty and neglected by-ways of science fiction’s infancy. Or rather, since the various contributors seem wedded to Gary Westfahl’s bizarre argument that true science fiction only came into being with the launch of Amazing Stories, this is science fiction from before there was science fiction. There are seven stories and three novel extracts gathered here, the earliest of which was written in 1826 (though not published until 1863), and the most recent published in 1923. Ten pieces of writing drawn from near enough a century of science fiction, each accompanied by an introduction (to call them “critical essays” as the subtitle does is, to my mind, to over-inflate their role); there should be enough here to forge a narrative, give us a perspective from which to consider where we come from and where we might be going.

Continue reading “Yesterday’s Technological Tomorrows?”

Facing the Strategic Sublime: Scenario Planning as Gothic Narrative

By Matt Finch and Marie Mahon.

Scenario planning refers to methods used by decision-makers to enhance their strategic thinking, especially in situations characterised by turbulence, uncertainty, novelty, and ambiguity. Scenario planning is therefore particularly relevant in the context of climate change, which is complex, unprecedented, and potentially presents us with difficult-to-predict risk cascades and tipping points. Climate change may also present us with “feral futures”, in which our own interventions cause or exacerbate severe turbulence within a system or situation. In the face of such uncertainty, scenario planning enables users to generate new ideas, develop or test strategic options, establish monitoring and early warning processes for emergent issues, and enhance decision-making. 

Scenarios are not forecasts that predict likely futures, but spaces in which unexamined assumptions can be confronted and potentially suspended or transformed. They are aesthetic depictions of plausible futures that enable us to re-examine our current understanding of our environment, appreciating the power of uncertainty and its capacity to inspire fear and wonder. 

The affinity between scenario planning and science fiction has been widely remarked on in the literature, but in this paper we draw a novel connection between scenario planning and Gothic literature. In particular, we examine how scenarios, as Gothic narratives, provide conceptual resources to make sense of the experience of the “strategic sublime”: that which has been excluded from our frame of understanding. The art of scenario planning, like that of Gothic literature, lies in balancing anxiety, insight, and agency in our encounter with that which had previously seemed beyond discussion. 

Facing the Strategic Sublime: Scenario Planning as Gothic Narrative

The earth is split open. A vast, blazing pit disgorges luminous gas over a barren landscape. The sky is deep blue, pale at the horizon; it could be dawn or dusk. From our vantage point, the fire could be bottomless. Look carefully: at the edge of the pit, a tiny human figure stands, palms raised to the heat.

Julian Bell, Darvaza, 2010

The earth is split open. A vast, blazing pit disgorges luminous gas over a barren landscap
From Bell, Julian. (2013). Contemporary Art and the Sublime. Tate Gallery

This is Julian Bell’s 2010 painting Darvaza. It depicts a site the artist visited in Turkmenistan; its name, in Persian, means “the door to hell” (Garzemi & Garsanti, 2019). As Bell (2013) recounts, the blazing pit was inadvertently created by Soviet engineers in 1971 while seeking oil drilling sites. Striking a gas-filled cavity, the engineers chose to burn off its contents, only to find the resulting inferno beyond their control. It has burned ever since.

Bell locates his painting in a tradition of artists seeking to convey a sense of the sublime, an intense aesthetic experience in which “the self becomes a mere ingredient in the landscape, feeling insignificant, overwhelmed and humbled by nature” (Brady, 2013, p.199). 

Yet, in Bell’s account, this hellish phenomenon was created by human, technocratic actions, and his story of Darvaza also serves as an example of what Ramírez and Ravetz (2011) have called “feral futures”. Drawing an analogy to domesticated animals that revert to the wild, Ramírez and Ravetz describe how “human intervention create[s] an unwanted unfolding situation that could not have occurred in the wild” (p.480), offering examples such as the nuclear incident at Three Mile Island and the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

The idea of the “feral future” is useful in helping us understand how wicked, complex problems can stem from our own actions. In the Anthropocene, feral futures are increasingly prevalent. Even the impact of something as apparently “wild” as COVID-19 has feral aspects, as the ways in which the pandemic has played out are entwined with globalisation, climate change, urbanisation, and wide variations in responses by governments, institutions, and communities.

In this paper, we explore scenario planning as a tool for coping with the “strategic sublime” in feral situations characterised by turbulence, uncertainty, novelty, and ambiguity. Scenarios are not forecasts, but plausible stories of the futures which we may face (Spaniol & Rowland, 2019). We follow Ramírez and Wilkinson (2016) in understanding them as assessments of the future context for a given question or issue, designed to contrast with the way that context is currently being framed. As a brief case study, we include the four IMAJINE scenarios exploring the future of European regional inequalities.

By offering thought-provoking future contexts, such scenarios enable their users to generate new ideas, develop or test strategic options, establish monitoring and early warning processes for emergent issues, and enhance decision-making. Ramírez and Wilkinson argue that, by challenging current assumptions and offering alternative framings from the vantage point of multiple imagined futures, scenarios support good judgement across the three areas identified by Geoffrey Vickers (1965): What is really going on around us? What are we able to do about it? And what does the issue mean for us?

Continue reading “Facing the Strategic Sublime: Scenario Planning as Gothic Narrative”

Out of this World: Four Days Left / Frankenstein

Until I started reading up for my short presentation on Lucian and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein for the “Science Fiction and Religion” panel* at Bradford the other weekend, I had no idea that Shelley had notably revised the text between its first 1818 edition and the better-known 1831 edition.

Small, frequent amendations and revisions** altered the text’s focus towards a much greater concern with Christianity, in particular, giving Victor Frankenstein a greater religious consciousness. Frankenstein, in the later text, refers at various points to a guardian angel, and to an angel of destruction leading him on. Although these need not necessarily have come at the cost of sacrificing descriptions of Frankenstein’s scientific practice, they have, such as a youthful scene in which he experiments with electricity, cut from the later version. Even the references to historical practices of natural magic are revised, in order to cast them in a more negative light.

I was conscious that there were many versions of Frankenstein simply because it has been memorably reworked in film numerous times over the years. I hadn’t realized how much the focus of the story was adjusted in Mary Shelley’s own revisions as well.

Some edition of Frankenstein (offhand, I cannot tell you which one!) is currently on display at the British Library as part of the Out of this World: Science Fiction But Not As You Know It exhibition. You have four days left, including today until 18:00, to see it.

*  See also the contents of the talk which Una McCormack gave, on sf and religion in Dr Who and Star Trek, for the same panel.

** I used the Oxford World’s Classics edition of the 1818 text with its list of changes by Marilyn Butler in Appendix B.

Speaking To The Mysterious Fears Of Our Nature

Earlier in the autumn, the Bodleian Library hosted a one day event to mark the publication of The Original Frankenstein:

… a ground-breaking new edition of the first and most popular work of science fiction, allowing Mary Shelley’s pure authorial voice to be heard for the first time since 1817, when the book was initially written. The Bodleian publication uses the unique handwritten draft of 1816-17, held at the Library, to distinguish Mary’s own words from the additions written in by her husband, Percy Bysshe Shelley.

I didn’t manage to make it to the event, but thanks to Vulpes Libris I (and you) can now read Brian Aldiss’ closing speech:

A teenager! She was a teenager, you know?! Not the sort of female teenager today’s newspapers would have us believe in. Mary came from a civilized — a crowded but civilized — home. Literature, science and politics were regularly discussed there; Coleridge read his poetry there. (To see and to hear Samuel Taylor belting out ‘The Ancient Mariner’ might not have been to everyone’s taste — a bit like early Dr Who — but it is something to have a living poet rampant in the parlour, even if aided and abetted, I might say, by ‘a substance’ …) Anyway, Mary would have been aware that new things had developed and that the world was opening up, in the same way that we’re aware now that we’re closing down the shop — victims of our own cult of greed.

(There’s more substantive stuff about Shelley’s writing and significance, too.)