Foresight & The Environment of Democracy @ 2022 Council for European Studies Conference

I’m presenting twice at the online portion of the Council for European Studies’ conference in June.

First, National University of Ireland, Galway’s Marie Mahon, Monash Sustainable Development Institute’s David Robertson, and I will talk about “Reimagining Environmental Futures” based on the IMAJINE scenarios for the future of European regional inequality.

Then Malka Older of Arizona State University and I will present a paper on “Agency, Accountability, and Imagined Futures: Exploring Democracy and Environmental Stewardship Through Speculative Fiction and Foresight”.

Early bird registration continues until April 11th and the last day to register is May 10th. Find out more at the conference website.

Facing the Strategic Sublime: Scenario Planning as Gothic Narrative

Marie Mahon of NUI Galway and I are in Vector with a new piece taking a literary approach to strategy, scenarios, and foresight.

In “Facing the Strategic Sublime: Scenario Planning as Gothic Narrative“, we investigate how constructing plausible future scenarios can help people to test their assumptions, suspend preconceptions, and engage with issues and information that they had previously framed out of consideration.

In doing this, we argue, scenarios are akin to Gothic literature, offering what Leila Taylor calls “a means of working through the discomfort of a changing world through the safety of fiction”.

Treating scenarios in this way “restores both our humility with regard to external forces that may seem almost unbearable to face, & the troubling sense that our own desires may not be pure or uncomplicated…”

See more at the Vector website.

The collective hero?

In Uncanny magazine, Ada Palmer and Jo Walton write about “the protagonist problem“. In stories, who has “the power to save the day, make the difference, solve the problem, and change everything?” Who possesses that quality which makes them the one to lead the action, to advance the plot?

“Think of the formula for an action team,” they write. “There might be five characters: the smart one, the strong one, the kid, the love-interest, and…the protagonist, whose distinguishing feature may be described as courage, or a pure heart, or determination, but really comes down to writing, that they’re the one who always lands the final blow.”

(One of the ways we know that Mad Max: Fury Road is the story of Charlize Theron’s Furiosa is that she is the one to kill the principal villain. Max, imprisoned as the start of the film as a “blood bag” for his valuable universal donor’s Type O blood, serves the same purpose at the film’s end, when his transfusion prevents Furiosa’s hard-won victory from costing her life).

Palmer and Walton argue that it’s “harmful when people see themselves as not protagonists, and differently harmful when people see themselves as protagonists.”

If we feel that we are not protagonists in a world which has them, we may experience

imposter syndrome, feelings of powerlessness, inaction, cynicism, and despair. It leads to the belief that if you personally don’t resemble a protagonist (if you falter, have undramatic setbacks, mundane problems, job hunting, laundry, rent) then you can’t be one of the special few whose actions matter.

This feeling also causes us, Palmer and Walton argue, to believe that mundane activities such as grassroots organising and even voting lack the power to truly change things, as they do not seem “heroic”. To believe real life has protagonists is to succumb to talk of heroes and villains, the conspiracy theorist’s belief that some secret plan underpins the state of the world, and the notion that acting like a character in a book, film, or videogame is the right way to address the world’s problems.

For those who not only accept that there are real-life protagonists, but believe themselves to be cast in that role, the consequences can be even more troubling: “recklessness, power trips, and […] the expectation that breaking rules is okay so long as it’s you.” Palmer and Walton give the example of people who were not COVID deniers yet felt that their gathering wouldn’t be the one to cause a problem; the rules didn’t apply to them.

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I’m Your Man: Memory, Desire, Artificial Life

I just caught up with Maria Schrader’s excellent new movie I’m Your Man (Ich bin dein Mensch), which came out in the UK last month.

Archaeological researcher Alma (Maren Eggert) is cajoled by her boss into serving as a participant in a scientific trial. Using interviews, studies, and brain-scans, a team of designers will create a lifelike robot intended to be her perfect companion. The result is Tom (Dan Stevens), an English-accented android programmed to meet her every emotional and physical need. Tom will live with Alma for three weeks, at the end of which she’ll write a report informing the decision on whether androids like him are allowed out into German society.

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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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