Torque Control

Economic Science Fictions reviewed: Speculate to innovate

This article originally appeared in Vector #288.

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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”

Conference Report: Sublime Cognition 2018

By Eli Lee

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Sublime Cognition, the second annual conference of the London Science Fiction Research Community, was held on 14-15th September at Birkbeck, University of London. Over two days, its attendees looked at the theme of science fiction and metaphysics from an enormous, and often highly original, variety of perspectives. As its organisers Aren Roukema, Francis Gene-Rowe, Rhodri Davies and Katie Stone outlined in the conference programme: ‘the functional and thematic relationship of the metaphysical to SF is now widely acknowledged, but the roles played by such phenomena – and their implications for a wider understanding of SF as genre or mode – have yet to be subject to significant interrogation or debate.’ Sublime Cognition set out to address this, by way of presentations and discussions that ranged from evolutionary metaphysics to satanic socialism to artificial intelligence, Buddhism and Chinese SF. It was a fascinating two days covering a huge amount of fertile ground – this conference report outlines at least some of it, with apologies to those whose presentations I missed.

When the LSFRC 2017-18 reading group announced the Sublime Cognition theme a year ago, the reference to Darko Suvin’s sense of the ‘cognitive’ was clear – Suvin understood SF as guided by a ‘rational empiricist epistemology that separates it from the spiritual, supernatural and numinous concerns of other literatures of the fantastic.’ The conference showed just how much this rational, empiricist epistemology is troubled by, as the LSFRC puts it, ‘a long history of engagement with myth, religious imagery, magic and mysticism’. The conference participants were looking to further unpack this relationship between the two, as well as investigate what might be in that ‘tertiary space’ that exists between their oppositional pulls.

Continue reading “Conference Report: Sublime Cognition 2018”

Chinese SF at the Southbank Centre

A couple snaps from the Changing China Festival in early October, where there were two items on Chinese science fiction. The first was a session devoted to discussing the work of Jin Yong, author of the Legends of the Condor Heroes wuxia series.

In the second item, two Chinese SF authors, Wang Yao (aka Xia Jia) and Chen Quifan (aka Stanley Chan), discussed their work with Nicky Harman.

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Right to left: Nicky Harman, Wang Yao, Chen Qiufan, and BSFA Membership Officer Dave Lally (photograph: Lyu Guangzhao)

Conference Report: Utopian Acts 2018

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By Sasha Myerson

Organised by Katie Stone and Raphael Kabo, ‘Utopian Acts’ was a one-day mix of art, activism and utopia hosted by Birkbeck at the beginning of September. The conference provoked us to explore ideas set out by Ruth Levitas in ‘Utopia as Method’ and consider utopia as an act. Aiming to challenge the dystopian pessimism of our current moment, it asked whether examining the intersection of academia and activism might provide a way forward, out of our current impasse, towards a better future. Such thinking informed the structure of the conference, which included a mix of interactive workshops alongside talks by artists, activists and more conventional academics. In a welcome break from the norm at conferences, the event was free and substantive effort was made to ensure inclusivity and accessibility. This included grants to reimburse speakers, step free access to the building, gender-neutral bathrooms, a policy on pronouns and encouragements to keep academic language clear and intelligible. Overall, the conference made an ambitious attempt to relate its content to its form, putting some of its ideas into practice.

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Continue reading “Conference Report: Utopian Acts 2018”