You’re Still Not Reading Enough Sci Fi, Pt. 4

Each day this week I’m looking at works of science fiction and fantasy which I think might be useful for organisations, institutions, companies and communities who are trying to get ready for the shape of things to come.

Yesterday we looked at stories about colonialism, labour, and the international order. Today? Spies and mongrels, gender, work, and poverty.


Could the love child of Len Deighton and H.P. Lovecraft write biting commentary on the kind of dull office jobs so many of us work in now? It looks that way from Charles Stross’ Laundry series, which offers a droll vision of a British secret service department dedicated to dealing with the occult.

The series is about to reach its seventh instalment: what began as a light-hearted genre mash-up, with individual books deliberately tipping the hat to the likes of James Bond and Modesty Blaise, has gradually become a dry account of the pain and compromise involved in climbing the management ladder of any public service.

Yes, there are zombies and space Nazis, brain-eating ancient horrors and killer violins, but these are really only there to add tension and spice to Stross’ depiction of the deep frustrations we all feel when office politics and bureaucracy stop us from getting a job done.

Stross, a former pharmacist and IT professional, is a compelling adventure writer, but his real genius lies in refusing to let the stories exhaust themselves in cathartic wish fulfilment. Whatever victories our heroes win against the forces of darkness, we never feel that they have escaped a world as murky and mundane as cold forgotten tea.

the-baba-yaga

 
Something similar happens with a very different kind of intelligence agency in Una McCormack’s The Baba Yaga, a space opera set in an interplanetary society which has just experienced a devastating terror attack.

McCormack offers unflashy genre adventure which simply takes it for granted that women are powerful, complicated, active characters, that they are heroes and more than capable of driving their own narrative. Where mainstream action heroes usually struggle with daddy issues (think of Luke and Darth!), McCormack puts motherhood front and centre, with a notion of heroes-as-family which is less patriarchal.

unnamed

The wonder of The Baba Yaga is that it feels as if the novel has drifted across from a parallel world which takes it for granted that action-adventure is the business of women.

If space opera is too far out for you, bring things back down to Earth with Stephen Graham Jones’ superlative Mongrels. Its narrator is a young boy being raised by his uncle and aunt in relative poverty, wandering the states of the American South.

mongrels_cover-678x1024

Born to a family of werewolves, the unnamed narrator takes us from childhood into his teens, as he and his kin move from town to town, taking odd jobs, scrabbling to survive. A bloody coming-of-age fantasy which eschews lore and mysticism for an unsentimental look at family life, Mongrels is really a way of talking about poverty and being an outsider in the rural US.

I’ve long dreamed about a literature that blends grit, wit, and stardust – somewhere between Roddy Doyle and Clive Barker? – and for me, Mongrels is itIt’s the fever dream of wild outsiders, stuffed with rage, hope, frustration, and glory.

Stay tuned for more sci-fi and fantasy tomorrow. You’re probably still not reading enough of it. And if you’ve got more suggestions, do let us know!

You’re Still Not Reading Enough Sci Fi, Pt. 3

So each day this week I’m looking at works of science fiction and fantasy which I think might be useful for organisations, institutions, companies, and communities who are trying to anticipate the shape of things to come.

Yesterday we looked at Matthew de Abaitua’s If Then – today it’s colonies, sailors, and cake.
 
De Abaitua’s novelwith its interest in the ongoing impact of the First World War, sits alongside a few recent sci-fi and fantasy works which all in different ways explore the legacy of colonialism and the changes wrought to the international order in the 20th century.

If we’re serious about moving beyond a colonial, Eurocentric viewpoint and considering other ways of living and looking at the world, science fiction and fantasy needs to be part of that.

As Beth Nowviskie said at the Insuetude Symposium, questions of who gets to dream the digital future are vital, and speak back to historic creative movements like Afrofuturism.

I feel you can’t discuss Afrocentric sci-fi and fantasy without talking about the amazing Nigerian-American writer Nnedi Okorafor, whose Akata Witch I reviewed for the Brooklyn Rail a while back. Nnedi’s new novel Binti is also on my bedside table (or at least my Kindle), and her first adult novel Who Fears Death won massive acclaim, but for my money her masterpiece is still Zahrah the Windseeker, a wise and witty adventure set in a magical alternate world. You can read an interview with Nnedi Okorafor on my site here.

zahrah_pbhighres

Everfair by Nisi Shawl is a book I just downloaded to read on my phone. It’s set on an African continent which is not quite ours, where the Belgian Congo becomes a safe haven run by missionaries and Fabians. (Just next to it on my to-read list is another alternate history, China Mieville’s The Last Days of New Paris, in which Surrealist art come to life is being used by the French resistance against the Nazis).

B. Catling’s The Vorrh was recommended to me by Christchurch Libraries’ reliably stupendous blog and reviewed here in the Guardian. It’s a surreal voyage into an ancient magical forest located in an alternate Africa.

26840661

Ranging a bit more widely, you’ll get another interesting take on labour and empire from Nate Crowley’s The Sea Hates A Coward, an oddly wistful tale set in a thoughtfully constructed fantasy world.

Crowley’s novella has zombie slaves hunting sea monsters as foodstuff for the besieged city in which they once lived. It is…surprisingly less lurid than it sounds.

Less lurid still, but also very concerned with how we feed ourselves in the post-industrial age, is The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake, a Los Angeles-set piece of magic realism by Aimee Bender. Her novel is a powerful meditation on food and authenticity, and  a timely fantasy for an age when food production and consumption has come, for many in the developed world, to seem effortless.

Stay tuned for more sci-fi and fantasy tomorrow. You’re probably still not reading enough of it. And if you’ve got more suggestions, do let us know!

You’re Still Not Reading Enough Sci Fi, Pt. 2

So each day this week I’m looking at works of science fiction and fantasy which I think might be useful for organisations, institutions, companies and communities who are trying to get ready for the shape of things to come.

First up is Matthew de Abaitua’s If Then, a neat example of how sci-fi can speak to our present moment. It’s one you ought to read if you’re interested in the social implications of AI or the value of keeping our heritage alive in the digital age.

process truth

De Abaitua convincingly imagines a world which has survived the crash of our current, digitally-accelerating world order without quite devolving into Mad Max territory.

In the wake of a global collapse, the historic English town of Lewes has been given over to the Process, an algorithmic technology which seeks to maximise wellbeing for the community, monitoring its members via an implant. Life is not pleasant and many of today’s modern conveniences have been lost to the future folk living in the ruins of our time, but society has adapted to make the best of the situation.

process

This grim riff on the Smart Cities agenda is troubling enough, but things get weirder when the Process starts making automata resembling soldiers from the First World War. What is going on? What data has it obtained from the community to suggest that what they really need is a rerun of the War to End All Wars?

if then covere

De Abaitua deliciously smashes together today’s worst middle-class fears of economic catastrophe with the empire-fracturing legacy of the First World War.  He equates our surrender to a digitised society with the soldiers’ incorporation into the imperial war machine – and, through some clever attention to historical detail, he suggests that our past might yet hold the key to a weird and hopeful future.

Stay tuned for some more scifi and fantasy tomorrow.

You’re Still Not Reading Enough Sci Fi, Pt. 1

I bet it’s true.

I’m not even talking about reading for pleasure; I’m not worried about whether you’re a geek or not. Geeks have inherited the earth; look at movies and TV screens and, oh, here’s the New Yorker with a Harry Potter reference in a headline about Trump’s budget.

I’m talking about reading these things – both science fiction and fantasy – for work.

These genres are incredibly useful ways of writing about our world from an odd angle, of positing changes and exploring their implications, or making manifest things which in our everyday lives go unnoticed or unspoken.

qgw7dmd

I’ve always been pretty geeky, but I drifted away from this kind of reading for a while. I haven’t followed the genre trends or individual authors’ careers the way I might have as a teen.

Then I got working on projects which explore the borderland between fiction and reality: the time travellers, the island of librarians, the inevitable zombies. I got serious about finding ways to use games and roleplay to help communities and institutions think about the world to come.

That could be future-facing writers’ workshops in regional Australia, or games of The Thing from the Future, or toy robot case studies for health professionals – it could even be Escher-inspired 3D biographical comics – but in each case it brought me back to the delights of speculative fiction, the simultaneously wild and disciplined genre of stories asking: what if things were different?

Wild and disciplined at once? Well, yes; doesn’t the best of this writing posit a fantastic change and then carefully follow through the consequences and implications of that change?

An underrated example of this is Joss Whedon’s TV show Dollhouse, which imagined a technology for rewriting and overwriting people’s personalities and then worked its way, episode by episode, through all the possible uses, abuses, and inadvertent consequences of such a device.
 
TV sci-fi is great and the drama can be both compelling and relevant – there’s a reason we’re all watching Westworld just as anxieties surge about artificial intelligence and human identity – but I also enjoy the thoroughness of a good piece of prose sci-fi – and sometimes a writer from the past can prove more useful than you’d expect.

So this week on the blog, each day I’m going to point you towards some speculative fiction from the past or present which might be useful when we think about the shape of things to come. Get ready to get stuck in…

giphy

Let’s Do Something Awesome

I’m off to the Australian capital Canberra tomorrow to work with Libraries ACT on their annual training day.

awesome

We’ll be looking at creative approaches to community engagement, and sharing some neat little tools from my team, including the WELCOME Toolkit for programme design. Read more

Marvellous, Electrical returns

My newsletter Marvellous, Electrical is back, after a brief pause to get sorted with my next job.

img187

In this instalment, we’re joined by a quiet triathlete who was once the highest ranked openly gay civilian in Australia’s Defence Intelligence Organisation.

From beer-fuelled military ventures to haunted television shows and the strange world of endurance sport, check out Marvellous, Electrical: The Artists’ Rifles here.

What’s next

From May, I’ll be joining the University of Southern Queensland for six months supporting “proactive, strategic, and sustainable engagement with key stakeholders and communities internal and external to USQ.”

Working with Professor Helen Partridge and her fab team in USQ’s Scholarly Information and Learning Services division, I’ll be acting as a coach and catalyst to raise awareness, understanding, and capacity in maintaining a sustainable community engagement program.

I visited USQ last year to talk about community engagement, healthcare, storytelling, digital media, and what really listening to people and technology in Australia might entail.

This new adventure is going to be cracking good fun – but there’s still a few more exciting things to come out of my extended residency with the State Library of Queensland, so watch this space.

Curiosity vs The Post-Truth World

Among my weekend reads was Tim Harford’s Financial Times piece “The Problem with Facts“.

We’re big Harford fans around these parts, not just for his podcast More or Less but also his book Messy, which I’ve been inflicting on various colleagues and friends around Australia.

Screen Shot 2017-03-12 at 21.19.28

In the FT piece, Harford takes us back from the fake news and false claims of political debate in the age of Trump and Brexit to the history of “doubt manufacture” in the 20th century, and the tobacco industry’s attempts to blur the links between smoking and cancer.

He examines the limits of fact-checking as a response or a rebuke to those who cloud public discourse with lies.

He tells us that scientific literacy is not necessarily the answer, that it “can actually widen the gap between different political tribes on issues such as climate change — that is, well-informed liberals and well-informed conservatives are further apart in their views than liberals and conservatives who know little about the science.”

Rather, he points to a paper “Scientific Curiosity and Political Information Processing” by Dan Kahan, Asheley Landrum, Katie Carpenter, Laura Helft and Kathleen Hall Jamieson.

Those authors argue that it is worth exploring further whether a person’s curiosity about science can counteract our tendency to view the world through the lens of political bias.

Their initial findings prompt them to explore whether

individuals who have an appetite to be surprised by scientific information—who find it pleasurable to discover that the world does not work as they expected—do not turn this feature of their personality off when they engage political information but rather indulge it in that setting as well, exposing themselves more readily to information that defies their expectations about facts on contested issues. The result is that these citizens, unlike their less curious counterparts, react more open mindedly and respond more uniformly across the political spectrum to the best available evidence.

As Harford puts it, “Curiosity is the seed from which sensible democratic decisions can grow. It seems to be one of the only cures for politically motivated reasoning but it’s also, into the bargain, the cure for a society where most people just don’t pay attention to the news because they find it boring or confusing.”

All of this is great news for those of us working at the odd intersection of knowledge and culture, where communities meet institutions like galleries, museums, libraries, universities, and healthcare providers.

I’ve been worrying for a while now, even with events as warm and cuddly as the annual Fun Palace celebrations of art and science, about the times we choose to take scientific claims on faith.

I worry too about what part libraries have to play in the battle against fake news and egregiously false claims in the media. Is the library a trusted dispenser of facts and information? A repository of the truth? Or, rather, a safe place for you to indulge your curiosity, to wander as you see fit through all the contested claims and different visions of human knowledge and culture?

Harford’s take on that research paper returns us to the notion of each individual’s curiosity and exploration as the basis of scientific endeavour and the quest for truth. It returns us not to blind faith in science or reliance on fact checkers, but a sense that we must always actively challenge and revise our beliefs.

It reminds me why, in the last few years, we’ve allowed kids to sketch time-travelling creepy crawlies from a steampunk world to encourage scientific observation; why we spent last week in the Aussie town of Bundaberg to help rural writers speculate  about the future of society; why we’ve been training health professionals using far-fetched and fantastic case studies like the Immortal Sock Monkey. It’s because these activities each became a matter of curiosity and wonder, rather than a mere transfer of facts from a person in authority. Curiosity and wonder might just be the best antiseptic for the spread of fake news.

If the formal research into scientific curiosity proves fruitful, it could guide and nuance our attempts to encourage  a world where people are free to learn, explore, create, and play as they wish to, not just in accordance with curriculums and constraints.

It wouldn’t just be about science, either. For isn’t art, too, a matter of curiosity about materials, expression, and representation? And don’t those of us who find ourselves on colonised lands need, as Columbia anthropologist Beth Povinelli has been arguing, to become more curious, too, about Indigenous ways of knowing and understanding the world?

This is a difficult moment for those of us who value the truth in public life and wish to push back against those who maliciously sow doubt and deliberate misinformation. But Tim Harford’s article reminds us that there are ways forward for those of us unwilling to embrace a post-truth world  – and that, wonderfully, those ways might even be incredibly exciting, incredibly adventurous, and incredibly good fun.

Visions from Bundaberg

Last weekend I was the guest artist at “Dispatches from Bundy”, a writing workshop in the Queensland town of Bundaberg.

Working with staff from Creative Regions and Queensland University of Technology, our team took a group of local writers and storytellers through a two-day session aimed at engaging with stories from the past, exploring visions of the future, and nurturing regional literature.

One of our activities saw participants creating science fiction stories and postcards from future worlds. We stitched these stories into a timeline of future history stretching a thousand years hence.

Check out the result via YouTube, incorporating images by Peter Miller aka Scribbletronics and music from Disasteradio.

Lake Mac GLAM

I’ll be speaking at the inaugural Lake Mac GLAM Symposium for museum, gallery, library, arts, and culture professionals in Lake Macquarie, New South Wales next month.

Lake Mac Glam logo

On 10th April, join me and other GLAMourpusses from across Victoria, Queensland, and New South Wales to look at trends, challenges, and opportunities for Australia’s cultural sector.

Find out more & get your tickets here.