Torque Control

Science Friction

This article originally appeared in Vector #288.

By Robert Kiely and Sean O’Brien

This article examines a series of near-future SF stories that offer snapshots of an immediate future dominated by the intensification of contemporary economic tendencies, including increased automation and the rise of digital platforms. Much twentieth century SF tends to traffic in a certain techno-optimism in its outlook, not so much to suggest that technological advances would produce positive outcomes but that they would continue to develop and expand in their complexity and productivity. Today this utopian legacy is carried forward both by literary science fiction studies and by the uses of science fiction within contemporary political theory. In a different vein, and in tension with this outlook, is what we call ‘science friction’: a literary practice of slowing down visions of technological and social progress.

econSF

Two recent collections, Futures and Fictions (2017) and Economic Science Fictions (2018), look to SF to counter the dominant cultural narrative of what Mark Fisher calls ‘capitalist realism’—the Thatcherite idea that ‘there is no alternative’ to capitalism—with alternative visions of the future based largely on emerging technological innovations [1]. To puzzle over this position, as we’ll do below, is not to be fatalistic or to concede political ground on the terrain of the imaginary. Rather, it is to question the capacity of capitalist technology to usher in a postcapitalist future, especially under contemporary conditions of stagnation and precarity. As these works of science friction suggest, further development of capitalist technologies are likely to offer more of the same, but worse.

F&F

Critics such as Simon O’Sullivan, William Davies and Peter Frase have argued that a visionary SF can offer much-needed screenshots of a postcapitalist future, challenging the neoliberal status quo and bolstering a left that suffers from a perceived poverty of imagination. [2] In the discussion that opens Futures and Fictions, for example, O’Sullivan argues that ‘future fictions have a more general traction on the real, not least insofar as they can offer concrete models for other ways of life in the present.’ [3] Several of the essays in the collection suggest that the intensification of late capitalist technological developments will provide the means to realize a postcapitalist utopia if the economy were managed by a socialist state. Here, full automation and universal basic income (UBI) constitute transitional demands on the way to what Aaron Bastani brands ‘fully automated luxury communism’ [4]. Continue reading “Science Friction”

BSFA Orbiters

Do you know about the writing groups operated by the BSFA?

It’s halfway through November; maybe you’re gazing enviously at all those #NaNoWriMo scribblers on their way to a first draft and starting to a story 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.

BSFA Orbit

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.

Con Report: Octocon

Ian Moore reports back on Octocon, Ireland’s national science fiction convention, which this year ran in the Blanchardstown Crowne Plaza hotel from 19 to 20 October. This write-up originally appeared at Secret Panda.

I recently attended Octocon, the exciting Irish national science fiction convention. Octocon is the other extreme to huge conventions like Worldcon, being an intimate affair taking place over a weekend rather than a five-day event involving thousands of attendees. If you have been to more than one Octocon you will recognise a lot of the attendees and panellists, with there being considerably more overlap between these two categories than might be the case elsewhere. The programme is multi-tracked but not massively multi-tracked. So Octocon is basically a boutique convention and would suit people who like neither crowds nor a surfeit of choice in the programming.

Due to unpleasantness Octocon this year has moved to the Crowne Plaza Hotel, just beside the Blanchardstown Shopping Centre. The location suits it as Blanchardstown Shopping Centre is itself a strangely artificial place, like something out of a JG Ballard novel; in the near future, we will all live in Blanchardstown Shopping Centre. The hotel meanwhile felt like a pretty swish spot, with well-appointed function rooms and a large open space that served as a light and airy dealers’ room. I don’t know what the two birds in the lobby made of the Octocon attendees but they probably see all sorts.

Day 1

A cat issue meant that I was late out on the Friday and missed the opening ceremony. I did however catch The Trance Mission Diaries, which was a performance piece by O.R. Melling with electronic music by Cha Krka. This was something of a work in progress as the goal is for it ultimately to include considerably more advanced elements like holograms and singing as well as the projected visuals and electronic music accompanying Melling’s narration. I enjoyed it but found the narrative difficult to follow, which I think was as much down to my own tiredness and it being the first thing I encountered at the con. Nevertheless, the narration and music worked well together and I look forward to seeing how this work develops.

Following that I attended a film-related panel featuring John Vaughan and Robert JE Simpson comparing and contrasting the 1960s gothic horror films of Hammer with the contemporary oeuvre of Blumhouse. The contention was that the business model of the two companies is similar: spewing out somewhat trashy films made on relatively modest budgets but hoping for at least some mainstream success, perhaps throwing in an occasional more serious film to gather some critical respectability. I was at something of a disadvantage here being almost entirely unfamiliar with the works of Blumhouse, and the big unanswered question for me was whether that studio has developed any kind of consistent aesthetic in the way that Hammer did. I was also left reeling by the panellists’ anti-Hereditary comments, which did remind me of some reviews that suggested it was a horror film for people who are not true horror fans.

For me Friday ended with a panel on how we as fans deal with things we like that have changed, particularly when the change moves things on from what we liked about them in the first place. This kind of thing is sometimes framed negatively (i.e. discussions of butt-hurt racists saying that they will never watch a Star Wars film again now that an Asian actor has appeared in one or people moaning about the Doctor becoming female). However, I think that there are times when fans are right to abandon a property (while obviously being wrong to harass persons involved in its production); e.g. two of the three Star Wars prequels were completely terrible and anyone who saw them and decided that they were done with Star Wars was making a reasonable decision, while no true Trek fan should waste their time with the recent Star Trek films. Also, people do just grow out of things sometimes.

Star_Trek_William_ShatnerThe changing canon panel also had me thinking about how much a thing has to change before it is no longer the same thing. The panel discussed whether the character of Iron Fist should have been portrayed by a white or Asian character in the recent adaptation of the comics (in which Iron Fist is white but playing a character that in our enlightened times might perhaps be more appropriately presented as Asian). I have no familiarity with Mr Iron Fist but I was reminded of the periodic discussion of whether James Bond could be played by a black or female actor; my own view on this matter is that in this case such changes would so far deviate from the core of the character as to essentially make it an entirely different one with the same name (though I must add that I do not give a shit about James Bond and his misogynist antics and would be happy for the character to be played by Leslie Jones, edgily re-imagined as an American ophthalmologist).

For me though the most fascinating thing that came out of the canon panel was C.E. Murphy mentioning the Kirk-Drift theory, this being the idea that the popular conception of original series Star Trek‘s Captain Kirk as an alpha male dipshit shagger is essentially a mass delusion. Further investigation brought me subsequently to Erin Horáková’s development of this idea and its consequences in a piece she wrote for Strange Horizons, which I encourage all readers to investigate.

Day 2

octocon-pandas
New friends

Saturday morning saw me first of all working on the Octocon reception desk, where we dealt with registering convention attendees as they arrived. If you arrived at Octocon on Saturday morning then maybe mine was the friendly face that greeted you (or the surly jobsworth who couldn’t find your reservation). I made friends with some pandas who had come to the convention to examine Octocon’s Hugo trophy.

Shady customers

The morning also saw me make my debut as an Octocon panellist. As part of my efforts to promote the World Science Fiction Convention that is coming to Dublin next year I took part in a panel intended to drum up enthusiasm for volunteering at Worldcon. It turned out we were rather talking to the converted as almost everyone present was already volunteering for Worldcon, but this did allow us to gang up on the others. If anyone reading this is not a Worldcon volunteer then I encourage you to get involved, as volunteering is fun, a way of meeting people, a way of giving something back to science fiction and a way of seeing the inside of what will be the biggest science fiction event to ever come to Ireland.

More time on the reception desk and then my own interest in lunch meant that the next event I attended was the guest of honour interview by Octocon chair Janet O’Sullivan with Pat Cadigan, an American science fiction writer who now lives in England. I was not previously familiar with her work (which is more a reflection on me than on her as I am a slow reader and am unfamiliar with most writers). I found the interview fascinating, as any question would set Cadigan off on a stream of anecdote that would lead very far from the initial starting point. I particularly liked her favourable recollection of Robert Heinlein, someone who now is perhaps unfairly and simplistically pigeon-holed as a right-wing ultra, but whom she recalls as a very generous character. I was also touched by the particularly star-struck question from a member of the audience and Cadigan’s gracious response.

Cadigan also mentioned having previously attended some class of event called a relaxacon. I don’t know what these are but I want to go to one.

Not the Monster panel

As you know, this is the 200th anniversary of the publication of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and with it the birth of science fiction. Octocon had an entire programming strand engaging with Frankenstein’s legacy and I now found myself attending a panel discussion on the Monster’s perspective. This got a bit “could it be that we are the real monster?” but I was struck by the discussion of consent issues (e.g. Frankenstein’s Monster badgering him to create a Lady Monster for him, taking for granted that she will want to be his mate). More general discussion of how a simple shift of perspective can make monsters appear like victims led to an interesting recollection by one panellist of a story they read once about people in the remote past fighting Trolls, where the reader realises that the Trolls are the last Neanderthals being hunted to extinction; it occurs to me now that another work of this kind is I Am Legend, the 1954 novel by Richard Matheson, where the book ends with the protagonist’s realisation that he is a monster to the vampiric new humans (I wish I had thought of this at the panel and established my remembering-things-about-books-I-have-read credentials by mentioning it). I was also reminded of various works in 2000 AD by Pat Mills, where his writing was very evocative of the non-human mindset of dinosaurs and other monstrous creatures.

Of the panellists’ own works, Sarah Maria Griffin’s take on Frankenstein, in which a brainy teenage girl attempts to build herself a boyfriend, sounds like it might have a Christmas present date with my niece.

The last programme item I made it to on the Saturday was the Vault of Horror. This is always a highlight of Octocon but it is also an event that is hard to describe in a way that does not make it sound a bit rubbish if you have never experienced it. The Vault sees John Vaughan playing snippets from a terrible film and drawing attention to the film’s awfulness. He does this in a way that is actually funny rather than being some smug guy making fun of other people’s attempts at making films. This year he reported that he has almost run out of terrible films but then he had found a terrible Gerard Butler vehicle called Geostorm with which to delight us. He also provided us with the sad news that due to a progressive illness he will not be in a position to continue serving up the Vault indefinitely into the future, but he will next year be bringing the Vault to Worldcon and presenting one of the most terrible of the films with which he has previously charmed Octocon. Are you coming to Worldcon? Then you will come to the Vault, you will.

I sadly ate so much food for dinner at this point (a recurring theme for me at Science Fiction conventions) that I was too disgustingly full to enjoy the Monsters Ball and left early, thinking that next year is definitely the one where I find some kind of easy cosplay outfit to wear.

Octocon day 3 report coming soon.

Putting the ‘Irish’ into An Irish Worldcon panel image source (@jc_ie on Twitter)

See also:

Image sources:

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

This article originally appeared in Vector #288.

By Esko Suoranta

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 198090s 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”

Intelligent Futures: Automation, AI and Cognitive Ecologies

Maisie Ridgway reports on Intelligent Futures, an academic conference on the theme of AI, held recently at the University of Sussex. This post originally appeared on the Sussex Humanities Lab blog.

Intelligent Futures was a postgraduate and ECR conference, supported by CHASE DTP and Sussex Humanities Lab. Over the course of two days, the conference challenged researchers to find original, philosophical and cultural approaches to Artificial Intelligence. The interdisciplinary explorations spanned the social sciences, informatics, psychology, art, literature and more, promoting critical and speculative engagements with technical cognition.

Thomas Nyckel of the Technical University Braunschweig led the first panel, which sought to engage with AI from a philosophical standpoint. Nyckel’s paper fostered an alternative approach for understanding the processes of digital devices and computation through the variable definitions of the ‘rule of thumb’. Nyckel’s identified two categorisations of the rule of thumb – Frederick Taylor’s conception, concerned with exact scientific results, and Alan Turing’s interest in approximate computational methodologies. What materialised was a synthesis of ideas that challenged the nature and myth of scientific exactitude and complicated the binary of workman and machine, or the approximate rule of thumb and exact scientific methods. Mattia Paganelli followed Nyckel with a paper on the misnomer of ‘artificial’ when speaking of non‑human intelligence. Paganelli argued that the term shored up the binary between subject and object by attributing an a priori definition of the perimeter of possibility for a given system. Rather than artificial, Paganelli suggested the term ‘thinking machines’, understanding intelligence as a process of learning, plasticity and openness to name a few key attributes.

The next panel united speakers under the common theme of ethics. Camilla Elphick of the University of Sussex spoke about her ongoing project to develop an AI chatbot, named Spot, as a means by which victims of work place sexual harassment can report their experiences. Spot’s distinctly unhuman style of engagement meant that victims did not feel embarrassed, judged, scrutinised or pressured, garnering more accurate information. On an entirely different note, Marek Iwaniak’s paper explored how theologies and pre-technological religious imaginaries could engage with the novel challenge of AI. Iwaniak speculated on possible intersections between various religions and AI such as a Buddhist approach to technical cognition whereby the ultimate aim of developers could be an AI consciousness of pure bliss.

The final panel of the day explored changing ideas of writing, asking whether an anthropocentric conception of literary creativity obscured other forms of nonhuman creative generativity from view. John Phelan of the Open University investigated if AI could ever critically appreciate poetry or poetic significance outside of large sample readings of rhyme schemes for example. Emma Newport, from the University of Sussex, considered digitised end-of-life writing via the unusual case of the popular Mumsnet contributor IamtheZombie, whose posthumous in memoriam comments from fellow Mumsnet users formed an innovative kind of obituary, a cellular tissue of text that democratised the death process and made end-of-life writing a collaborative act.

Joanna Zylinska’s keynote speech, entitled ‘Creative Computers, Art Robots and AI Dreams,’ drew together the prevalent themes of the day, excavating the myth of the robot to determine that humans, especially the great artists amongst us, have always been technological. Zylinska used various art-AI projects, including Taryn Southern’s AI generated music and The Rembrandt Microsoft Project (involving AI creating an imitation Rembrandt painting), in order to interrogate the value of AI artistic production, delineate how our senses construct the world we inhabit, and ask what it means that seeing, for example, no longer requires a human looker. The result was a critique of AI as that which exponentially amplifies our desires and therefore marketability, as well as an optimism for the possible joys of robotic and AI art, described by Zylinska as ludic creation.

Day two began with a panel on epistemology. Emma Stamm of Virginia Tech presented a paper on the renaissance of psychedelic science and the implications this field could have for AI. Stamm described the importance of qualitative over quantitative methods of research, arguing that qualitative research into psychedelic drugs problematises the positivist and generalising principles of machine learning as a basis for AI. Juljan Krause from the University of Southampton followed with his thoughts on representations of quantum computing in popular science discourse. Krause offered an interesting overview of how the emerging technology of quantum computing functions differently from present modes of computation. He then explored media representations of quantum computation, which portray an ongoing quantum computational arms race (led by China).

The penultimate panel revolved around the theme of aesthetics. In his paper on art and artificial intelligence Michael Haworth reconfigured the relationship between human and machine as an equal coupling, a functional interdependence manifest in the example of AARON, the painting and drawing robot. Haworth relayed how the creativity of AARON rests in the relation between the program and programmer, an interplay that performs a structural shift from the human as tool user to the human as engineer and organiser. Following Haworth, Dominique Baron-Bonarjee presented a performative lecture during which she enacted Liquidity, an embodied, meditative practice that she designed to explore ideas of free time in an increasingly automated age. Baron-Bonarjee monitored the activity of her brain throughout the lecture using a MUSE headband which measured her brain waves.

Memory and Time formed the focus of the final panel, offering an eclectic range of thoughts on automation and redundancy, logistics and inscribed narrative time. Kieran Brayford discussed the possible ramifications of mass technological unemployment and forced leisure time, coming to similar conclusions as Phelan with regards to the limitations of automated agents as unable to explain significance. Eva-Maria Nyckel’s followed Brayford’s more general overview with a specific example of automated industry in the form of Amazon’s anticipatory shipping method. Nyckel used a patent for the shipping method as the basis to unpack the potentially huge impact it could have on the temporality of logistical processes. In a change of topic, Daniel Barrow of Birkbeck University turned to contemporary experimental fiction and the technological, inhuman agency of Big Data, which finds its form in a static and autonomous narrative time.

To close the conference a number of notable Sussex based academics and researchers came together for a round table discussion. Taking part were Caroline Bassett, Peter Boxall, David M. Berry, Beatrice Fazi, Simon McGregor and Michael Jonik, all of whom were asked to choose one key word that would explain their research. Boxall chose the word ‘artificiality’ as a recourse to explore its supposed opposite- the human. He offered the idea of the Augustinian human as somewhere between beast and angel, a figure made legible according to taxonomies that we map onto it. McGregor’s word was ‘alien’. As a cognitive scientist McGregor explained that the world is full of minds that cannot be reduced to their materiality and are eternally separated by an unbroachable void. Any attempts to understand these minds would aid efforts to predict their behaviour but would also bring us further away from other humans. Other keywords included intelligence, contingency, mastery, and critical reason, with final thoughts settling on the infinitude of computation, the passive intellect of algorithmic infrastructure, and the potential for the world to continue in the absence of humans.

Over its two days, Intelligent Futures gathered a range of richly provocative critical interventions, and created spaces for stimulating discussion of Artificial Intelligence. It demonstrated the importance of further critical, interdisciplinary study of Artificial Intelligence, as it continues to inform, and to transform, the societies we live in.

Maisie Ridgway is a CHASE funded PhD student at the University of Sussex. Her research interests include ideas of pre-digital poetics from Joyce to present, the viral vitality of language and the points at which science and literature intersect, mutually informing each other.

Economic Science Fictions reviewed: Speculate to innovate

This article originally appeared in Vector #288.

econSF

Reviewed by Madeleine Chalmers

Fantasies are things that can’t happen, and science fiction is about things that can happen.

Ray Bradbury, interview with Joshua Klein for The Onion (1999)

If self-proclaimed ‘not a science fiction writer’ Ray Bradbury ever needed an academic publication to bolster his sprightly quip, then Economic Science Fictions is it. In this bold and exciting collection, William Davies and his contributors offer us an unapologetic manifesto for the power of ‘can’, pushing Bradbury’s statement to its limit to issue a call to arms: economic science fictions are not just ‘about things’, they do things – and so can we.

Taking a firm stance amid the contemporary swirl of fake news and financial, political, and ecological hyperobjects, this major interdisciplinary contribution confronts the porosity between fiction and reality head-on, to interrogate the rigid boundaries we often impose, the assumptions we make, and the mental and social habits we forget to question.

As such, Davies’s collection is a welcome addition to a growing canon of post-2008 crash literature which seeks to combine critique and clear political statements with intellectual rigour, reconnecting academia with ‘the real world’. It takes its place alongside such titles as the late Mark Fisher’s Capitalist Realism (2009) and Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams’s Inventing the Future (2015). From Fisher’s luminous foreword, in which he posits economic science fictions as ‘effective virtualities’ (xiii), onwards, this collection aims to counter the fiction that is capitalism. It invites readers to turn from speculative finance and its logic of accumulation (with the permanent risk of catastrophe), to speculative fiction and its potential to write – and set right – the world. 

This title forms part of Goldsmiths’s PERC (Political Economy Research Centre) series, which defines itself as a ‘pluralist and critical approach to the study of capitalism’. This commitment to interdisciplinarity and dialogue between the academic and non-academic spheres is made absolutely manifest in the collection’s diversity. It has an echo of the democratic ecumenism of the underground 1990s zines, as theory-fictions intermingle with more canonical forms of academic writing. Indeed, the title of Judy Thorne’s ‘Speculative Hyperstition at a Northern Further Education College’ raises the spectre of that mid-1990s phenomenon, the Cybernetic Culture Research Unit. Today, in 2018, writers, artists, architects and musicians mingle polyphonically with founders of think tanks and consultancies, as well as journalists, early career researchers, and established academics. 

William Davies’s shrewd editing allows these very different contributions to speak to one another and shine. His opening ‘Introduction to Economic Science Fictions’ grounds the discussion in classic liberal economic theories of value. Taking as his sparring partners Ludwig von Mises and Friedrich Hayek, Davies teases out how capitalism is constructed around the flexible ‘division between “real” and “imaginary” value”’ which, as he points out, ‘is how financial bubbles occur: when collective imagination starts to become mistaken for an empirical reality’ (23). Lucidly and compellingly, Davies reconfigures this instability as an opportunity, positing politically progressive economic science fictions as a means to engage with capitalism on its own oscillating ground, poised between the fictional and the non-fictional.

The four sections which follow – each with a clear and concise introductory overview – develop this core thesis. The texts within them move fluidly from theory to practice and back again, with examples which will be familiar (or at least not wholly alien) to non-academic and academic readers alike. While it is only possible to pick out highlights here, what consistently impresses is the interweaving of analyses of science fictions, evocations of personal practice, theories of global megastructures, and creative riffs. Interlocking in surprising yet harmonious ways, within and across the various essays, these texts probe disciplinary boundaries in provocative and illuminating ways.

The collection’s first section – ‘The Science and Fictions of the Economy’ – grounds us in the nuts and bolts of the dream-mechanics of economics, with contributions from distinguished academics on the corporate imaginary (Laura Horn), the anthropology of money (Sherryl Vint) and automation (Brian Willems). Alongside these, Ha-Joon Chang’s contribution (‘Economics, Science Fiction, History and Comparative Studies’) stands out – as much for its laudable inclusion in a collection overwhelmingly dominated by ‘non-economists’, as for its content. A second section on ‘Capitalist Dystopias’ gives us a whistlestop tour of different dystopias in which capitalism is pushed to its limits. Here, accelerationist nightmares rub shoulders with the more ambiguous vision of Dan Gavshon Brady and James Pockson’s gloriously-titled ‘Fatberg and the Sinkholes: A Report on the Findings of a Journey into the United Regions of England by PostRational’. Readers wary of discourse about discourse will find the ‘Design for a Different Future’ section refreshing, for its pragmatic yet playful turn towards architecture, urban planning, and design.

But it is perhaps in the final section, ‘Fumbling for Utopia’, that Economic Science Fictions offers the ideal meta-reflection on the collection as a whole. Featuring four economic science (theory-)fictions, it closes with Jo Lindsay Walton’s ‘Public Money and Democracy’ – a fiction with footnotes, which perfectly encapsulates the collection’s aspiration to break down the barriers between the real and the imagined.

This collection makes no secret of its political stance. Readers looking for neutrality, dry objectivity, or dissent from the valorisation of science fiction and its role in building a post capitalist future will not find it here. The voices of economists who – unlike Ha-Joon Chang – are not avowed SF fans, sceptical SF writers, or interviews between converts and sceptics might have helped to redress this balance, and add a new dynamism to what remains an invigorating discussion – but not really a debate. Greater granularity in the definition of capitalism as it manifests itself in different national contexts (including non-European and non-US contexts) would also have added even greater bite to a collection that seeks to cross wires between the abstract and the pragmatic.

Quibbles aside, this collection is stimulating for believers and dreamers, but also provides ample material to dig into and with which to productively disagree for those who are not quite converts. Its return to political and social commitment represents a passionate and urgent response to our contemporary situation, and an astute and convincing argument for – and illustration of – interdisciplinarity and the interweaving of theory and practice, inside and outside the academy. It is a collection which empowers us to speculate – to invest in fiction not just as a means to provoke but as a means to intervene in our confused and confusing world.

Madeleine Chalmers is studying for a DPhil in French at the University of Oxford, funded by the Oxford University AHRC Doctoral Training Partnership – Sir Ivor Roberts Graduate Scholarship at Trinity College. Her research project on ‘unruly technics’ explores how avant-garde French literature of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries negotiate the increasingly tight imbrication of technology into human life, and the challenge it poses to how we think about ourselves, our relationship to others and to our world. It seeks to place these texts of the past in dialogue with current philosophical reflections on technology, to explore how this encounter can help us to think about our technological present, and future.

Con Report: Fantasycon 2018

Fantasycon 2018 19-21st October 2018, The Queen Hotel, Chester

By Eliza Chan

The world isn’t a great place right now. It feels like everyone is yelling at each other across social media soap boxes. With the news more like the elevator pitch from a dystopia, it was a relief to get away from it all at Fantasycon 2018. Chester was a dream location with its unique mediaeval Chester Rows, a cathedral, city walls and history oozing out at the seams. But the Queen Hotel was not to be outdone—replete with gladiator armour, golden arched doors, animal statues and giants chairs— every corner was a story prompt waiting to be noticed.

The launches were overwhelmingly skewed towards horror: from Great British Horror 2 (Black Shuck Books), New Fears 2 (Titan Books), Best British Horror 2018 (Newcon Press), This Dreaming Isle (Unsung Stories) and much, much more. It made me wonder how much was a direct reaction to the events of the world, a way to deconstruct the uncertainty we are living through right now.

Despite the horror content, the atmosphere was immediately friendly and warm. Allen Stroud and Karen Fishwick did a great job pulling it all together and, as always, the volunteer army of Redcloaks led by Alasdair Stuart and Marguerite Kenner were always on hand, cheery and helpful. A ‘New to Fantasycon’ panel set this up from the get-go, giving newbies a chance to chat and feel part of the community. The hotel layout certainly contributed, but it was the well-planned programme that stood out for me. The theme of the weekend was welcome and diversify. This shone through in a range of panel topics but also the effort made to include a mix of genders, races and experiences throughout.

Personal panel highlights for me included ‘Feminism and Feminist Themes in Genre Fiction’. Although this may seem like well-trodden ground, the panelists made some succinct points about supporting the indie presses that have the financial freedom to “take risks” on female and non-binary projects. Also that male allies should call out sexism so that others can get on with creating than spending time defending themselves. ‘Invisible People’ explored a range of hidden disabilities and differences from dyspraxia to Asperger’s. They discussed the merits and pitfalls of describing versus outright naming (for example, Jamie Lannister’s dyslexia) and the fetishisation of mental health difficulties in manic pixie dream girls. In the ‘Fantastic Inspirations’ panel we discussed the difficulty of researching oral folktales, how all cultures were superstitious in their own way, and the ethnocentrism of half-elves in Fantasyland tropes where the other half is nearly always human.

Of course there was still time for silliness at a con, my favourite being ‘Dungeons and Disorderly: Sheep on the Borderland’ moderated by David Thomas Moore and Nate Crowley, the improv RPG with an improved costume budget. Ghoastus the Roman Ghost made an appearance, as did Lee Harris riding a gorilla, nineteen lemurs, a flatulent cabbage and a ‘death death death’ dice made especially for Anna Spark Smith. I may also be biased since I participated as an incendiary fart-wielding teddy bear. The ‘Breaking the Glass Slipper live podcast’ was also great fun, with regular presenters joined by Claire North and RJ Barker, presenting very different ways of writing a genre mystery. Useful tips included taking a koala with you when you are planning murder, and not crowbarring in the magical goat sword that will suddenly becoming useful later in the novel.

I also managed to attend some lovely readings which gave me quieter moments to appreciate the range of genre writers in the community today. There were many many more panels — four simultaneous streams in fact — and I unfortunately could not attend everything I wanted to. But cons are not all about the panels. So karaoke may have ended too early but barcon continued for as long as you wanted it to: in my case, into the wee hours.

The British Fantasy Awards epitomised my overwhelmingly optimistic feelings of the weekend. Celebrating current talent has always been crucial to the awards but it was more than just a tagline this year. From Jeannette Ng’s rousing battlecry on crushing Nazis and Laura Mauro’s raw heartfelt acceptance speech to the well deserved nods to NK Jemisin and Jen Williams, the Hamilton lyrics ran through my head “how lucky we are to be alive right now”. British fantasy, science fiction and horror may have an imperfect past, but looking around the room, it has a very bright future.

See you all in Glasgow for Fantasycon 2019.

Eliza Chan

Eliza Chan writes about East Asian mythology, British folklore and madwomen in the attic, but preferably all three at once. Her work can be found in Asian Monsters (Fox Spirit Press), Fantasy Magazine, Tale to Terrify and New Writing Scotland. Find her on Twitter @elizawchan or her website www.elizawchan.wordpress.com.

Laurie Penny interview

In August we caught up with Laurie Penny at Nine Worlds in London.

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How’s your con?

Oh, well, I’ve always liked Nine Worlds! I missed last year, but that’s the first year I’ve missed. This year, there have been some fantastic panels – the Hidden Histories panel was a favourite. But probably my highlight was playing four hours of The Good Society. It’s a Jane Austen based tabletop RPG. And it was really intense.

Who were you?

I played the heiress, the daughter of the lady of the manor. You know, beset by suitors, having to choose the one that was least awful … and you can’t choose nobody.

Oh my God. What happened?

Well, the misconception is that in Austen novels nothing happens. But imagine if you watched somebody trying to defuse a bomb, and you didn’t know what they were doing …

You’d assume they were doing nothing?

Yes! Every tiny movement in Austen is immensely high stakes. Everything is life or – okay, if not death, then at least permanent disgrace and penury. It’s massively mercenary and exciting. What’s really interesting was watching people who are used to playing swords‑and-sorcery games adapt to those mechanics. And we had a fantastic game as well.

That sounds so cool. I wanted to ask you, actually, about the role of conflict when you write fiction. In a lot of writing advice, we’re told how important conflict is. I wonder what you think about that from a craft perspective?

I mean, I’m not the most accomplished fiction writer. We’re sitting at Nine Worlds here, and I guarantee you that within this three-hundred square metres, there are people …

We stare in quiet awe at a nearby group of people.

I don’t know these people here, but I absolutely guarantee you that there’s probably somebody better to ask just sitting around.

We’re all fucking brilliant.

Everybody’s fucking brilliant. But to answer your question, I guess ‘tension’ is as good a word as ‘conflict.’ If you’re writing about something that’s problematic, something that’s tense …

Continue reading “Laurie Penny interview”

Florence Okoye interview

In August we caught up with Florence Okoye at Nine Worlds in London.

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How are you enjoying the con?

I loved how you get a proper introduction to everything when you come in. They’re so considerate of every single thing, from pronouns, to whether you want to be spoken to, whether you want to be photographed – like, every single thing! And also accessibility allies, which is a fantastic concept. So I’m actually very impressed.

I came fairly late, so I’ve only had time to get to one panel before the one I was on. That was ‘Let The Past Die: Sacrificing Sacred Cows in Star Wars The Last Jedi.’ It was a really interesting panel – a lot of unexpected connections being made by the panellists, some great questions being asked.

So tell us about Afrofutures UK.

It’s a very informal collective I started up in 2015 with some friends, back when I was living in Manchester. We were just like, ‘Well, we’re really interested in Afrofuturism, and nobody around us really talks about it … so let’s just do a thing about it.’ We started with a conference in October 2015, where over a hundred people turned up, which was amazing. It was just the power of Black Tumblr and Twitter at work to be honest.

Since then Afrofutures UK have done conferences and events, working with other organisations, trying to raise discussions at that intersection of race, technology, and speculative fiction from a variety of different perspectives. We tend to make sure that there are practical things like workshops – Arduino and programming or zine making workshops, for instance – really going for an approach that is intersectional, holistic, and creative.

Creating cultural infrastructure, as well as talking about culture that already exists. Awesome. So the theme of our next issue of Vector (#288) is economics. Would you like to talk a bit about Afrofuturism and economics?

I think at some point you realise how much everything is dependent on economic infrastructure. So you might say, okay, we want more Black people to be writers. Then you think, hang on, this is also to do with funding, this is also to do with levels of education attainment, this is also to do with just having spare time. I know plenty of creative people who have literally no time to do their creative work. So if the funding isn’t there, could Black communities provide funding ourselves? Oh, but we don’t have the money either, because we’re historically disenfranchised! And so very quickly you come back to this question of economics and the impact of institutionalised racism.

One thing I’ve found really interesting – really through Tumblr at first – was how Black people have been really good at taking advantage of digital infrastructure. So that might be someone using Patreon to fund their education, for example. And that can be a very practical quid pro quo: ‘You’re giving me money to help with my education, I’m going to make sure I write this number of books, and share them.’ Or that might be somebody using Etsy, and saying clearly, ‘Look, this is a Black-owned business, this is how we work, come and support us.’ So there are all of these interesting things that have happened through the internet. It’s really about people saying, ‘Okay, how do we support each other, in financial terms?’

Circumventing structures that might have systemic bias.

Well, yes, even though we’re still all using those systems in a sense. It’s about doing what we can. And maybe one day, as we have more amazing software developers specialising in financial software, maybe there will be like, say, a Black, co-operative version of PayPal. So we can be like, ‘Actually, yes, this is the right infrastructure to use to share our work.’ Personally, I like to think what you’re seeing now are prototypes.

Right, because the big tech companies that provide this infrastructure are still problematic. They’re still bound up in various ways in systemic racism. But the model is there.

Exactly. The co-operative model is there.

So tell us about what you’ve been working on recently.

Continue reading “Florence Okoye interview”

Dave Hutchinson interview

In August we caught up with Dave Hutchinson at Nine Worlds in London. 

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Are you enjoying the con so far?

I always enjoy Nine Worlds. It’s different to Eastercon of course. The emphasis isn’t quite so much on fiction – it’s more multimedia and general culture. Just saw a panel about villains, which was good … that was Adrian Tchaikovsky, Jeannette Ng, Anna Stephens and Mike Brooks.

Oh yeah, I saw that. That was good.

There was some conversation there about the Bond franchise, and the way the villains are frequently ‘othered,’ whether that’s a racialized other, or what-have-you. It struck me that it’s always been that way. Bond was always fighting the Russians, it was always the West versus the East. The Russians disappeared as the geopolitical other, although perhaps that dynamic has returned to some extent. But we are sort of looking for different ‘others.’

And meanwhile, there are increasingly plausible rumours about getting our first Black Bond.

Idris Elba? He’s a terrific actor. He’d be really good. One of the many reasons I hated Prometheus is that it totally wasted him.

I’ll watch anything that’s got him in it.

Y-y-yeah …

Haven’t seen Prometheus though! Maybe that’s …

You may want to draw the line with Prometheus. [Laughs]. It really is a terrible film.

What else do you plan to see at Nine Worlds? Continue reading “Dave Hutchinson interview”