It’s not about tomorrow, 2: Samuel Delany

In the Winter 2020 issue of The Yale Review, Samuel R. Delany gives twelve short responses to the question “Why I Write”.

Delany is a critic, teacher, and author of fiction both popular and transgressive, most famous for his science fiction writing.

The ninth of his twelve answers speaks to his love of the genre, and also the wider question of why imagining wild futures might make us wiser in the present.

Delany writes, of his preference for science fiction over stories of the everyday:

“I think what happens with mundane or naturalist fiction is that these characters succeed or fail in what they try to do, but they succeed or fail against the background of the real world so that their successes are always some form of adjusting to the real world. Their failures are always a matter of being defeated by the real world.”

For those of us who help people make better decisions by telling stories of the future, this “real world” is like the perspective of a decisionmaker who thinks themselves utterly pragmatic and realistic.

Their assumptions are those commonly held in their time and context; their decisions are based on the seemingly firm ground of evidence and data; they see the world through a frame which is widely held by their peers to be “right” for the present moment. They see their successes and failures as being a matter of how well or poorly they adjust to meet this reality.

Yet it cannot be the whole story. If everyone in your peer group is looking through the same frame, they will all have the same blind spot. If you rely on numbers – the reduction of complexity to countable simplicity – you will lose valuable information; quantitative indicators are, after all, not objective facts, but tools designed for specific functions, with all the benefits and limitations that implies. The practices which make you feel comfortable in your decisionmaking will also bind and limit you, both in terms of what you can see might happen and what you might choose to do.

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It’s not about tomorrow, 1: Ursula Le Guin

In the introduction to her book The Left Hand of Darkness, Ursula K. Le Guin writes that “Science fiction is often described, and even defined, as extrapolative. The science fiction writer is supposed to take a trend or phenomenon of the here-and-now, purify and intensify it for dramatic effect, and extend it into the future. ‘If this goes on, this is what will happen.'”

“A prediction is made”, she continues:

“Method and results much resemble those of a scientist who feeds large doses of a purified and concentrated food additive to mice, in order to predict what may happen to people who eat it in small quantities for a long time. The outcome seems almost inevitably to be cancer. So does the outcome of extrapolation. Strictly extrapolative works of science fiction generally arrive about where the Club of Rome arrives: somewhere between the gradual extinction of human liberty and the total extinction of terrestrial life.”

Le Guin writes that “it’s lovely to be invited to participate in Futurological Congresses where Systems Science displays its grand apocalyptic graphs, to be asked to tell the newspapers what America will be like in 2001, and all that, but it’s a terrible mistake. I write science fiction, and science fiction isn’t about the future. I don’t know any more about the future than you do, and very likely less.”

The same might be said for those of us whose work includes scenario planning. It’s not about knowing what will happen tomorrow, or even having a sense of what’s probable. What you’re really doing is imagining different tomorrows in order to change your perspective on today: informing decisions in the here and now.

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2266 and All That: Chris Beckett, Two Tribes

As the British House of Commons is recalled to debate the new agreement with the European Union, it’s time to look at one last book in 2020: Chris Beckett’s Two Tribes, published just five months ago, during the summer of COVID lockdown.

In this novel, historians from far-future London find two archived diaries which chronicle a romance blossoming across the Brexit divide of 2016-17. Harry, a Remainer architect, is stranded in a rural Norfolk town when his car breaks down. He finds himself renting a spare room for the night from Michelle, a local hairdresser who voted to leave the EU. They forge a deep and unexpected connection which troubles and compels Harry, leaving him torn between Michelle and Letty, an arts administrator from his own North London milieu.

Harry and Michelle’s private journals are being examined in the year 2266 by Zoe, a researcher affiliated to the elite Guiding Body which now governs an impoverished, climate-ravaged, postdemocratic England, slowly emerging from a spell as a Chinese protectorate. Running water, motor cars, and twenty-four hour electricity are things of the past for Zoe’s world, as is the EU itself, and a vast shanty town has developed within the ruins left by a brutal civil war.

Two Tribes is a swift, compelling read. Efficiently drawn characters map out the polarisations of the Brexit debate, and Beckett deftly charts the unsteady progress of Harry and Michelle’s romance. The passages set in 2016-17, presented as fragments of a historical novel being written from the primary sources by Zoe, skirt and skewer Pygmalion fantasies of love across a class divide.

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Interview with Nate Crowley, Part 3: A jaunt outside the fantastic

In the final weeks of 2020, I spoke with the writer Nate Crowley, videogames journalist and author of works including The Death and Life of Schneider Wrack, 100 Best Video Games (That Never Existed), tie-in fiction for the Warhammer 40k universe, and the infamous Twitter thread Daniel Barker’s Birthday.

Nate’s new book, Notes from Small Planets,is a fictional travel guide which takes the reader through nine archetypal worlds of fantasy and science fiction, poking fun at well-worn tropes and questioning some of the assumptions which underpin the lands of make-believe.

In the first and second instalments of our conversation, Nate talked about world-building, map-making, piracy, capitalism, and what it’s like to “play with other people’s toys”, writing for a licensed franchise.

In today’s final part, Nate talks about the seductions of fantasy, escaping a career in financial journalism, and finding satisfaction in more mundane genres.

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Are there any fictional worlds which have seduced you, until you found something dark about them which you had to question or critique?

Loads – but the easiest answer to this is Tolkien. If anyone so much as says, “Orcs are a bit racist, aren’t they?” – Tolkien’s orcs being black-skinned generic enemies – then people swarm from all over social media to defend him. Now, it’s not like Tolkien invented this. Soldiers in the Iliad are described just as Tolkien describes orcs; they’re dehumanized so they can be slaughtered. 

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Interview with Nate Crowley, Part 2: “Theft, but wet” and other people’s toys

In the final weeks of 2020, I spoke with the writer Nate Crowley, videogames journalist and author of works including The Death and Life of Schneider Wrack, 100 Best Video Games (That Never Existed), tie-in fiction for the Warhammer 40k universe, and the infamous Twitter thread Daniel Barker’s Birthday.

Nate’s new book, Notes from Small Planets, is a fictional travel guide which takes the reader through nine archetypal worlds of fantasy and science fiction, poking fun at well-worn tropes and questioning some of the assumptions which underpin the lands of make-believe.

In the first part of our conversation, Nate and I talked about world-building, map-making, gateways to fantasy, and the political choices woven through genre fiction. In today’s instalment, we talk about piracy, capitalism, empire, and what it’s like to “play with other people’s toys” in franchises such as Warhammer 40k.

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Interview with Nate Crowley, Part 1: First worlds, imaginary maps

In the final weeks of 2020, I spoke with the writer Nate Crowley, videogames journalist and author of works including The Death and Life of Schneider Wrack, 100 Best Video Games (That Never Existed), tie-in fiction for the Warhammer 40k universe, and the infamous Twitter thread Daniel Barker’s Birthday.

Nate’s new book, Notes from Small Planets, is a fictional travel guide which takes the reader through nine archetypal worlds of fantasy and science fiction, poking fun at well-worn tropes and questioning some of the assumptions which underpin the lands of make-believe. In our conversation, Nate and i talked about world-building, map-making, gateways to fantasy, and the political choices woven through genre fiction.

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What were the first fictional worlds that you fell into? I know that elsewhere you’ve mentioned Stephen Baxter’s The Time Ships, which itself was playing with H.G. Wells’ existing universe from The Time Machine. What made that your gateway to fantasy and science fiction?

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Neill Cameron: Panels to Draw and Worlds to Build, Part 1

In this interview, I’m joined by the British comics creator Neill Cameron, whose books for young readers include Pirates of Pangea, Tamsin of the Deep, Mo-Bot High, How To Make Awesome Comics, and three volumes of the acclaimed Mega Robo Bros – as well as an ongoing daily webcomic for older readers, X365, which has been appearing throughout 2020.

We talked about creating convincing future and fantasy worlds, getting to know imagined places by drawing them, and the contrasts between the vision of 2020 we were promised as children – and the turbulent realities of the year as we’re experiencing it.

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Post-normal science in the time of COVID-19: Discussion with Jerome Ravetz

Over the last few weeks, I’ve been speaking and exchanging e-mails with the philosopher of science Jerome Ravetz, one of the originators of the notion of Post-Normal Science. This is an approach to science which addresses the wider social context in which scientists and their institutions operate, intended to serve in situations where high-stakes decisions must be made and the environment is characterised by deep uncertainty.

JerryRavetz
Jerry Ravetz, by Wikipedia user Saltean – CC BY-SA 4.0

Given that definition, what could be more “post-normal” than our experience of 2020? Jerome and I had a long chat which covered the pandemic and our response to it, warring traditions of folk and elite science, philosophy, gender, science fiction, truth & reconciliation, and electoral politics.

You can read the full transcript of our chat as a PDF download here, but some extended highlights appear below.

Matt:
So, what does an exponent of post-normal science make of the current pandemic?

Jerry:
For a while, the uncertainties and complexities diagnosed by the post-normal science approach have been coming in from the margins, until right now they’re almost in the mainstream of thought and discussion. Once that happens, it will open new possibilities – and new problems. Read more

#NotEnoughSciFi: To Write Like A Woman

#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.

Girls who loved the strangeness of pulp SF have grown up and seen that strangeness as a tool for inventing futures where women are free (or become free).

– Joanna Russ

I was excited to discover that Gwyneth Jones has just written a book about the American feminist scholar and science-fiction writer Joanna Russ.

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#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.”