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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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.

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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.

Writing the Digital Future: Dispatches from Bundaberg

I’m joining the team from Queensland University of Technology’s Writing the Digital Futures project to deliver a two-day creative writing event in Bundaberg next month.

It’s part of the broader Digital Futures season at the State Library of Queensland this year.

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“Dispatches from Bundy: Visions from the Future, Stories From the Past” will blend digital media, oral storytelling, play, speculative fiction, and archival materials to help local people explore the past, present, and future of their town.

You can join in the fun on 4th-5th March, and check out the flyer here..

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.

Science and Belonging at Brisbane Writers Festival 2016

1: Anti-panels

On Sunday, I hosted the Science and Belonging panel at Brisbane Writers Festival.

Scientists Tamara Davis and Maggie Hardy joined writers Ellen van Neerven and Maree Kimberley for a conversation about their work and the crossovers between art, science, storytelling, and identity.

We wanted the people attending our event to be participants, not just an audience – so I helped the library devise an “anti-panel” session inspired by our Broadband and Heritage workshops earlier this year.

In the “anti-panel”, the audience split up into four groups. Each group got to spend ten minutes in conversation with each of our four guests. At the end of that forty-minute session, we held a plenary panel where our guests reflected on the discussions they’d had, and more questions could be fielded from the floor.

The aim was to change audiences’ experience at a festival panel from “sitting watching VIPs have a conversation, with maybe a few questions at the end” to full interaction and engagement.

Our tools weren’t digital devices or social media apps, but wheelie chairs and a stopwatch.

And we learned as we went – adapting, for example, to the acoustics of the space during group discussion.

The experiment in event design was part of a broader conversation I’ve been having with David Robertson around audience participation and public engagement. You can read more of his work at the Beyond Panels website, a great one-stop shop for alternative event formats.

2: We Need To Talk About Kelvin

The 2016 Brisbane Writers Festival will be notorious for Lionel Shriver’s controversial keynote, which challenged notions of cultural appropriation, and the powerful response to it from Yassmin Abdel-Magied.

Festival organisers quickly organised a right-to-reply for Yassmin and other writers, which you can watch on Yassmin’s Facebook page. (The live stream was filmed by Yen-Rong Wong, whose account of the dispute is also worth reading).

Our Science and Belonging event, presented by the State Library of Queensland for the Festival, was part of the library’s year-long theme of Belonging – an exploration of many different Queensland identities and experiences.

During the event, we were asked if we had deliberately chosen an all-women panel of experts. We hadn’t – we simply wanted outstanding practitioners of science and science-fiction – but we also acknowledged the importance of bringing together women, migrants, and Indigenous people as experts on a panel which was not “the token diversity panel”.

I’m proud that the Library and the Festival were able to deliver this special celebration of science and speculative fiction with a distinctive Queensland flavour. See more from Brisbane Writers Festival via the #bwf16 hashtag on Twitter.

“Sorry, sweetheart, you have to help Daddy pay for his mistakes” – Una McCormack vs. Ant-Man

Busy times here at Finch Towers, both at home and work. My head was full of stuff and I needed a quick summer read. I was supposed to be reading John Tomb’s Head, a New Zealand novel about postcolonial heritage, but it was too intense. Then I stumbled on The Baba Yagaby Una McCormack and Eric Brown.

The Baba Yaga Una McCormack cover

I know Una vaguely from Twitter and I heard her speak once, brilliantly, on Doctor Who so I gave the book a whirl. Read more

Celebrate All Monsters! Emmet O’Cuana, Carol Borden, Frank Collins

It’s a beautiful Sunday morning in Parkes, and life is grand, so I thought it might be a good day to share three great writers with you. These are all pop-culture pundits whose essays make excellent weekend reading.

Emmet O’Cuana – Challenger of the Unknown

From "The Suburbs" by Emmet O'Cuana, Sean Rinehart, and Tim Switalski, in Outre 3: Xenophobia
“The Suburbs” by O’Cuana, Rinehart, and Switalski

Emmet is a Melbourne-based comics writer, critic, and occasional radio host who has interviewed me on a couple of occasions. Each time he forced me to question my opinions and raise my thinking to a new level. The first time our chat ranged from Star Crash to Kierkegaard; the second he asked smart and challenging questions about the live-action zombie games I’d been running in Australia and New Zealand.

My favourite pieces by Emmet are still forthcoming – he wrote an insightful chapter on comics creator Grant Morrison in Darragh Greene and Kate Roddy’s Grant Morrison and the Superhero Renaissance, plus a great essay for the comics site Sequart which made me re-evaluate James Robinson’s Starman, a comic which I love and thought I knew everything about. Watch out for them next year.

In the meantime, you can read Emmet’s work and find links to all he’s published and recorded over at his own site.

Carol Borden – Nothing Ape Is Strange To Her 

Planet of the Apes image from Monstrous Industry

Carol has featured on my site a few times before. She quietly produces meticulous, poetic criticism, taking apart icons from the past and present to examine what it means to be human. I’ve previously raved about her writing on Mario Bava’s Danger:Diabolik (“If we had a lesbian cinema that took Danger: Diabolik as its starting point, I, for one, would be much happier”) and on Superman as a positive burlesque of masculinity:

I’ve come to see Superman’s greatest powers as not his strength or heat vision, but his restraint and his theatricality both in restraining that power while pretending to fight as hard as he can and in passing as Clark Kent. As I see him now, Superman is always performing one way or another.

Carol is an editor at The Cultural Gutter, a website devoted to “disreputable art in all its forms”. In pulp fiction, old movies, cartoons, and comic-books, she excavates nuances of gender, identity, and cultural power. She compares Adventure Time’s hapless Lemongrab with Frankenstein’s monster; to discuss Planet of the Apes, she paraphrases the Roman playwright Terence: “I am Ape. Nothing Ape is strange to me.” Her latest piece in this vein looks at Dracula and even finds something new to say about the near-exhausted topic of vampires…

Frank Collins – May Not Be Used Where There Is Life

Sapphire and Steel - from Frank Collin's MovieMail column

Frank writes on classic television for British site MovieMail, and at his own site Cathode Ray Tube. I’ve long had a fondness for old television shows, but through Frank’s chronicle of twentieth century telly I discovered obscure gems like the fourth-wall-breaking Strange World of Gurney Slade.

Frank’s current MovieMail series tracing the history of British TV sci-fi showcases his critical strengths: erudition, insight, and elegance. Frank can capture the essence and wider resonance of a TV show in a single descriptive paragraph, as he does here for the wildly different Red DwarfSpace:1999, and Sapphire and Steel:

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That’s all for today: three clever souls thinking out loud about the stories we tell ourselves on the page and screen. Go check them out, if you’re looking for a Sunday read. And have a great weekend!