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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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?

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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.

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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…

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Let’s Do Something Awesome

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

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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

Beyond the Wall of Sleep

Melbourne-based digital artist Peter Miller, who featured in last month’s Library as Incubator piece on the links between libraries and musicians, has released a new piece: Beyond the Wall of Sleep.

The piece blends H.P. Lovecraft, NASA recordings, and a reading of the rules and regulations of the Insane Asylum of California, drawing on material from Librivox and Prelinger Archives.

You can read more about the history of Beyond the Wall of Sleep at Peter’s website, and read about how libraries, archives, and multimedia artists might work together in Library as Incubator’“Sing Me A Library”.

Or just enjoy the spooky video, above.

Marvellous, Electrical: Play Both

“I want to see technology used for good, but I’m fascinated by the possibilities for destruction!”

Joel Edmondson, CEO of Queensland’s QMusic network talks digital technology, music beyond entertainment, mysterious orchestras in the middle of the ocean, and the “nefarious, sulphuric beginning of life” in this week’s Marvellous, Electrical.

David Cronenberg's VIDEODROME

Read “Play Both” here.

Digital Inclusion Forum, Sydney, 16 November

On Wednesday 16th November, I’ll be moderating panels and giving a short plenary at GoDigi’s Digital Inclusion Forum in Sydney.

Sydney Opera House
Sydney Opera House, by Wikipedia user Hpeterswald – used under a CC BY-SA 3.0 licence

We’ll hear about innovation and equity, digital technology and social housing, and accessibility in the information age – from speakers like Rachel Thomson of Australia Post, Ishtar Vij of Google, and Laurie Patton of Internet Australia.

You can find out more about the Forum, and the accompanying Expo and Pop-Up Festival, at the GoDigi website.

It’s free to attend, so if you’re in Sydney and interested in our digital future, come along and say hi.

Losing control in digital space: Liberact 2016

Last month I spoke at the Liberact conference of digital interactive experiences.

My paper was ‘Play, Chance, and Comics: Losing Control In Digital Space’.

Annotated whiteboard at a Brisbane gym

We explored comics, creativity…and what digital designers could learn from the noticeboard at a gym.

You can see an annotated PDF download of my presentation here.

Hope and Holodecks

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Like anyone, I worry about the future.

Right now we’re on the cusp of Trumpocalypse. Even if Donald J. doesn’t get to power, the US – and the world – will have to face the consequences of his campaign. The US election is the second scary vote in the English-speaking world this year, after Brexit – and look at how riven that’s left British culture and society.

And yet – I feel hopeful.

I’ve just been reading Digital Identity 3.0 (PDF download), a report from the Chair of Digital Economy at Queensland University of Technology.

Read more