#NotEnoughSciFi: Ray Bradbury and The Rebirth of Imagination

#NotEnoughSciFi is an occasional series looking at works of science fiction and fantasy which I think might be useful for organisations, institutions, companies and communities which are trying to get ready for the shape of things to come. See previous entries here.

I stumbled on an essay by the late science fiction writer Ray Bradbury recently. It covers science fiction literature and the business of problem-solving, so of course it was right up my alley. You can find the 1980 piece, “Dusk in the Robot Museums”, collected in Bradbury’s Zen in the Art of Writingand there’s a copy of the text online right here.

Bradbury, writing in 1980, imagines a museum of the future, whose exhibits are all animatronic robots of historical figures. A boy sits with the robot analogues of Plato, Euripedes, and Socrates; they end up talking about how science fiction, a neglected genre, found favour among the teachers and librarians of the USA, “the country of Ideas on the March.”

Bradbury draws connections between science fiction and fantasy, practical problem-solving, and the history of ideas which are still useful to us in 2019. Let’s check them out together.

1: What’s in these books?

“Where have we been?” the librarians and the teachers asked each other […] “What’s in these books that makes them as irresistible as Cracker Jack?”

The History of Ideas.

Bradbury reminds us that “the first science-fiction writers were cavemen who were trying to figure out the first sciences — which were what? How to capture fire. What to do about that lout of a mammoth hanging around outside the cave. How to play dentist to the sabre-tooth tiger and turn him into a house-cat.”

Pondering those problems and possible sciences, the first cavemen and women drew science-fiction dreams on the cave walls. Scribbles in soot blueprinting possible strategies. Illustrations of mammoths, tigers, fires: how to solve? How to turn science fiction (problem solving) into science fact (problem solved).

My work also focuses on the business of plausible futures: the problems that may await us and the potential solutions we may figure out through play, storytelling, and discussion.

Canadian information professionals construct future scenarios

In Toronto last month, information professionals from across Ontario created and explored plausible future scenarios ten years from the present. These scenarios were characterised by extremes of scarcity and abundance, political strife from foreign or domestic sources, and technological changes. Imagined future settings allowed participants to examine their assumptions, explore their strategic blindspots, and stress-test their plans for the future.

In other events around the world, we’ve blended science fiction, strategy, and design thinking to explore the future of professions like occupational therapy, communities like the city of Ann Arbor, and technologies as taken-for-granted as the written word itself.

As Bradbury puts it,

Everywhere we look: problems. Everywhere we further deeply look: solutions. […] That Truth again: the History of Ideas, which is all that science fiction has ever been. Ideas birthing themselves into fact, dying, only to reinvent new dreams and ideas to be reborn in yet more fascinating shapes and forms, some of them permanent, all of them promising survival.

Though his essay is nigh-on forty years old, it, too, is worthy of revival and reinvention: a reminder that we must turn to the place where people dream wildly about a changed world, about futures they can only speculate about, in order to train our imaginations on the problems of our time.

Hence #NotEnoughSciFi: turning to the literature of the fantastic to think about asking the right strategic questions, free will and machines’ autonomy, or the self-awareness of artificial intelligence, feigned or otherwise.

2: A Note on Fake News

Bradbury’s essay also has a wise word for those of us concerned about the mix of propaganda, misinformation, and confused information-seeking which some label as “fake news”.

Bradbury writes:

Among librarians and teachers there was then, and there still somewhat dimly persists, an idea, a notion, a concept that only Fact should be eaten with your Wheaties. Fantasy? That’s for the Fire Birds. Fantasy, even when it takes science-fictional forms, which it often does, is dangerous. It is escapist. It is day-dreaming. It has nothing to do with the world and the world’s problems.

Today, once more, some people think that singular, solid facts will dispel the evil cloud which they perceive around popular understandings of political issues, from climate change to the anti-vaccination movement.

This is despite the suggestion that greater curiosity about evidence, rather than greater faith in “truthful” institutions, may be the necessary remedy.

Researchers like Australia’s Kate Davis are exploring the ways in which an empathetic, non-judgmental approach to people’s information experiences may be more useful to informed public decision making than an insistence on opposing the “true” and the “fake”.

The relationship between philosopher Harry Frankfurt’s notion of “bull” (a collapsed distinction between truth and lies) and more “nutritious” information experiences is also useful here.

Science fiction may not be factual or “true” in that sense, but it can still be nutritious: inspiring, provocative, encouraging of those who wish to solve problems and change the world for the better.

In the same way, we should not cleave too rigidly to belief in a single and authoritative Truth, but rather foster principles of critical thinking, diversity, and problem-solving. “Fake news” will not be dispelled by deeper faith in a singular truth, but by robust criticism and a refusal of political deceit.

 

3: Zen and the Feral Future

The collection which includes Bradbury’s essay is called Zen in the Art of Writing: it emphasises the joy and zest which Bradbury experienced by understanding, and acting on, his own essential nature as a writer.

Zen also makes an appearance in the academic literature of scenario planning: in 2011’s “Feral futures: Zen and aesthetics“, Rafael Ramirez and Jerome Ravetz explore the ways in which an informal understanding of the Zen approach may benefit strategic thinkers.

The authors focus on “feral” situations, in which ill-informed attempts to address a situation exacerbate its problems. Futures which were once thought to be predictable then prove otherwise, as human actions weaken or undermine underlying systems; Ramirez and Ravetz give the Deepwater Horizon blowout and the Sub-Prime Crisis as examples.

When attempts to predict and control the future by conventional means fail, scenario planners offer an approach akin to Zen practice: mindful attention to the present situation, surrender of habitual thinking and assumptions, challenges to received wisdom and the taken-for-granted.

Ramirez and Ravetz write that “forcing people to work through a scenario that […] experienced managers consider implausible or threatening, does indeed challenge their common sense”, but in doing so “scenarios could help people bypass the defences whereby early warnings are rejected or even kept out of consciousness.”

Bradbury’s science-fiction-as-problem-solving offers a similar approach to the future, which is, after all, unknowable and impossible to gather data or evidence from.

In place of extrapolating on the basis of our assumptions, it dares us to dream more wildly.

Instead of looking at our situation through habitual lenses, it encourages us to reframe our perception of the world to come.

It encourages us to meditate on our essential nature – who are we? what do we do? what difference are we trying to make in the world? – and then challenge our responses by posing new premises on which to act in the future.

4: A good idea should worry us like a dog

In the concluding section of his essay, Ray Bradbury reminds us that intellectual labour must include an element of fun, so that it remains lively and does not become drudgery:

I hope we will not get too serious here, for seriousness is the Red Death if we let it move too freely amongst us. Its freedom is our prison and our defeat and death. A good idea should worry us like a dog. We should not, in turn, worry it into the grave, smother it with intellect, pontificate it into snoozing, kill it with the death of a thousand analytical slices.

Let us remain childlike and not childish in our 20-20 vision, borrowing such telescopes, rockets, or magic carpets as may be needed to hurry us along to miracles of physics as well as dream.

This kind of problem-solving approach jumps with agility from science fiction to strategy, from philosophy to pragmatic decision-making, always with a focus on the plausibility of the future scenarios and their usefulness as a challenge to our deepest held assumptions. It is lively, provocative, discursive, engaging: it is fun.

Bradbury’s final injunction applies to good strategists and good leaders as much as it does to readers of science fiction, to students, or to the boy he imagines in the halls of a Museum of Robots:

[L]et Plato have the last word from the midst of his electro-machine-computerized Republic:

“Go, children. Run and read. Read and run. Show and tell. Spin another pyramid on its nose. Turn another world upside-down. Knock the soot off my brain. Repaint the Sistine Chapel inside my skull. Laugh and think. Dream and learn and build.”

“Run, boys! Run, girls! Run!”

And with such good advice, the kids will run.

And the Republic will be saved.”

#NotEnoughSciFi : Strategy, Scenarios, and “Annihilation”

#NotEnoughSciFi is an occasional series looking at works of science fiction and fantasy which I think might be useful for organisations, institutions, companies, and communities which are trying to get ready for the shape of things to come.

This week’s entry focusses on Jeff Vandermeer’s “Southern Reach Trilogy”, the first book of which was adapted into the Netflix movie Annihilation last yearSee previous entries from #NotEnoughSciFi here.

The most common source of management mistakes is not the failure to find the right answers. It is the failure to ask the right questions. Nothing is more dangerous in business than the right answer to the wrong question.

– Peter Drucker

After a mysterious event, an unknown force takes over a backwater of the southeastern US coast. Warded from the outside world by a barrier that defies physicists’ understanding, the so-called “Area X” begins to distort the environment in ways which are difficult to study, record, or comprehend.

Still from the Netflix movie

Over a period of years, a government agency tasked with understanding and controlling the zone sends in countless expeditions, to little avail. The latest group, composed entirely of women, also succumbs to the zone’s weird dangers. The sole returning survivor, a taciturn biologist, is compromised by her encounter with Area X – but what has happened to her? And what does it mean for the affected zone – or for life as we know it on Earth?

This is the world of Jeff Vandermeer’s “Southern Reach Trilogy” –  Annihilation, Authority, and Acceptance – the first instalment of which was filmed by Netflix, with Natalie Portman in the lead role, last year.

Netflix’s Annihilation is a visually sumptuous adventure which challenges sci-fi’s traditional gender imbalances by following an all-women team of explorers into the mysterious zone. But there are even richer pickings to be found in Vandermeer’s trilogy.

The “Southern Reach” books offer a complex exploration of institutional and personal encounters with unknown or uncontrollable phenomena. Their refusal to offer easy answers, their dissection of office politics and power relations, and their critique of the structures by which we seek to make sense of and control the world, all make them valuable fodder for a special edition of #NotEnoughScifi.
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#NotEnoughSciFi: Time of the Clockwork Dutchmen

It’s been a while since the last #NotEnoughSciFi, an occasional series looking at works of science fiction and fantasy which I think might be useful for organisations, institutions, companies, and communities which are trying to get ready for the shape of things to come. See previous entries here.

I had a glorious time with a book last week. Something that hadn’t happened since I was a kid.

I was busy at work and didn’t have much time for leisure reading. So when I started Ian Tregillis‘ novel The Mechanical, I only expected to manage a half-hour or so a night before falling asleep.

Instead, I stayed up through the night to finish the book. The next evening, I started the second volume of the trilogy which The Mechanical begins. On the third night, bleary but compelled, I finished Tregillis’ series. I spent my nights lost in his world. It was heaven on earth.

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The series – called The Alchemy Wars trilogy – is a work of fantasy, not science fiction. It is set in an alternate version of the year 1926 which owes as much to the 17th century as the 20th, where the Dutch and French are the warring European powers whose conflict has shaped global history.

So why does it have anything to teach us in 2019? Read more

#NotEnoughSciFi: Feels, Facts, and Reason

#NotEnoughSciFi is an occasional series looking at works of science fiction and fantasy which I think might be useful for organisations, institutions, companies and communities which are trying to get ready for the shape of things to come. See previous entries here.

These days, it can feel as if reason, facts, and truth themselves are under assault. As if the institutions and professions – the academy, journalism, research, librarianship – which have allowed many of us to understand and discuss the world on common ground are beleaguered.

In pop culture, can we find new ways of imagining these figures for the coming world? Do science fiction, fantasy, and the study of our society overlap and can this overlap help us?

I’ve just finished a couple of books which turned out to converge in weird and useful ways: William Davies’ Nervous States: How Feeling Took Over the World and Una McCormack’s production history and critical response to a 1980s BBC TV serial, The Curse of Fenric. Read more

Postcards from the Future: Behind the Scenes at Wondrous Strange #notenoughscifi

Imagine letting your community dream wildly of the world to come.

Imagine collaborating on a future history spanning millennia.

Imagine turning public space into something that was wondrous and strange.

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As part of our time-travel themed festival of weirdness, storytelling, art and science at Ann Arbor District Library, we asked visitors to write postcards from the future.

We collected over 80 tales stretching from 2018 to the year 5000.

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Wondrous Strange at Ann Arbor District Libraries

I’m just back from a week delivering training and community engagement for Ann Arbor District Libraries, an acclaimed public library service in Michigan, USA.

The micro-residency culminated in an all-ages half-day event called “Wondrous Strange”, blending play, history, prophecy, technology, art, craft, science fiction, time travel, and storytelling.

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Wondrous Strange was an opportunity for the Ann Arbor community to venture into an imagined world blending fact and fiction, and to create their own shared stories and experiences stretching from recorded history into the distant future.

More on my Michigan visit soon, but for now here’s a short video from last Sunday’s session.

#NotEnoughSciFi – Hope and Holodecks Revisited

This week in Michigan, I’m leading a series of talks, workshops, and pilot sessions on immersive play and live-action experiences in libraries and other community settings.

To tie in with these sessions, I’ve written a little piece about Hope and Holodecks – incorporating Blade Runner, Star Trek, Captain America….and Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion.

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Look, I think one day we’ll get holodecks.

That was what Star Trek: The Next Generation called the interactive, fully immersive spaces where crew members could conjure ultrarealistic, AI-driven virtual experiences of play, sport, storytelling, historical research, or even technical experimentation.

I think one day they’ll arrive.

I think that whatever the library becomes or is replaced by in the future will look a lot like the holodeck. Instead of summoning information in containers like books or web pages, it will feel like an immersive, flowing sensory and social experience.

It won’t be libraries or other knowledge institutions that develop them, though – it costs too much money.

What’s interesting about how Star Trek imagines that experience is not the pseudoscientific technology behind it. It’s how fluent all the characters are in its use.

They walk into that magic space, summon a story or game or simulation, and tailor it to their requirements. Read more

Artists Ettamodern & Scribbletronics visit University of Southern Queensland

As part of this week’s Astronomy Festival at the University of Southern Queensland, we’re joined by Melbourne artists Wendy Catling and Peter Miller, aka Ettamodern and Scribbletronics.

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Wendy is an artist, designer and teacher who employs light to create works on paper and fabric – particularly blueprint-style ‘cyanotypes’. Her prints are held in the collections of Warrnambool Art Gallery, the Australian National Gallery, and private owners.

Peter is a composer, sound designer, and audio-visual artist whose work includes sound design for films The Ring and Rango and additional design for Mad Max: Fury Road, as well as a sound installation in the Qantas first-class lounges in Sydney and Melbourne.

I’ve previously worked with Ettamodern and Scribbletronics on the Time Travel Detectives roleplay, which was built around two of Peter’s digital artworks. This children’s event blended steampunk adventure, optical illusions, and tablet technology to help kids explore Australia’s past and the scientific method.

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On this visit, Wendy and Peter will join USQ staff, students, and the wider community to explore new opportunities to work at the meeting point of art, science, and community engagement. Find out more at the University of Southern Queensland’s website.

#NotEnoughScifi: John M. Ford & the Funny Business / Coda

We come to the final instalment of this series on the forgotten but brilliant science fiction writer John M. Ford.

Over the last few posts, we’ve looked at how he made nifty comedy out of the Star Trek franchise, and how his interest in games allowed him to lend nuance to the usual goodies-vs-baddies-in-space shenanigans when he was playing in other people’s universes.

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We also thought about why thinking science-fictionally matters when we try to find new ways of doing things for our communities, our organisations, ourselves. And we considered how good ideas move between the world on the page and the world beyond it.

I wanted to end by coming back to Ford’s actual life in Minneapolis. Read more

#NotEnoughScifi: John M. Ford & the Funny Business / Part 3

I started reading obscure author John M. Ford’s Star Trek books recently and I was blown away by how good they are.

I mentioned this online and other Ford fans started coming out of the woodwork:

Then I picked up a rulebook for a roleplaying game – GURPS Infinite Worlds – to research a time-travel-themed event I’m working on with a client.

Of course, whose name did I find among the co-authors?

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Ford wasn’t just a novelist or poet – he also worked on role-playing games, devising scenarios and background material that other people could use to play out their own stories.

The past couple of years I’ve been working on ways to use such games for professional development, so I was pretty excited to have Ford come back into my life so soon.

Not only did he work on Infinite Worlds – a time-travel/parallel universe setting which, as the title suggests, can encompass almost any other scenario or genre – but he created an award-winning caper for the game Paranoia, and a manual for people who wanted to play as the traditionally villainous Klingons in the Star Trek game.

And here’s where we come back round to Ford’s novels, and to the making of fun and brilliant things in the cracks and spaces of big-money enterprises.

Here is where we talk about The Final Reflection.

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