Wednesday, February 21, 2024

Science fiction, police and prison abolition

Prison and police abolition aim to replace the current criminal justice system with alternative solutions to violence and harm. These movements are international, but their heartland is in the USA, where rates of incarceration are much higher than in most countries, and with prisons filled with disproportionately many Black and Hispanic people. Police in the USA also carry firearms as standard, and the rates of people killed by the police are among the highest in the world.

The broader ambit of the abolition movement opposes many other forms of surveillance, control, and punishment. This includes the carceral infrastructures that sustain national borders in their current forms. There are also substantial overlaps with anti-carceral feminism. Anti-carceral feminism recognises how the criminal justice system frequently fails to provide effective and just solutions for gender-based violence, especially for people of colour and trans and gender non-conforming people.

In 'Two Ideas of Justice' (2022), Gautum Bhatia writes:

It is my impression [...] that as a genre, SF still remains overwhelmingly focused on issues around corrective justice. That is not to suggest that these issues are unimportant or uninteresting; however, as we enter a time in which the climate crisis reveals to a greater and greater degree the unsustainable bases of our current society and political economy, it will therefore be interesting to see if science fiction will respond with a greater, sharper focus on questions of distributive justice.

Is there much science fiction which engages seriously with prison and police abolitionism? Which imagines futures in which carceral infrastructure has been dismantled? Or has particularly intriguing ideas about justice, either corrective, or distributive, or both, or neither? In truth, I have not been able to find all that much. And what I have found (and my own short story, 'Seven Non-Abolitions', published in Phase Change) often seems quite preoccupied with science fiction about science fiction: what stories, rituals, games might exist in a world without police and prisons?

But what am I missing? Let me know.

I am especially interested in the relationship of police and prison abolition with capitalism. Some prison and police abolitionists are explicitly anti-capitalist; Bettina Aptheker describes the need to ‘mount a struggle to abolish the present functions and foundations of the prison system, an effort which can finally succeed only with the abolition of capitalism.’ Even when this is not the case, however, there are powerful resonances between abolitionism and postcapitalist thought. In particular, many abolitionists are interested in understanding the Prison-Industrial Complex as an underlying system which makes reforms to the criminal justice system ineffective. 

One way of looking at the Prison-Industrial Complex is as 'the interweaving of private business and governmental interests, serving to increase the profitability of private corporations and at the same time expand social control, while the pronounced rationale lies with crime fighting' (Papageorgiou and Papanicolaou, 74). Private companies have economic interests in profiting from construction,  utilities, catering, and healthcare for prisons. Private investors buy bonds to finance prison construction. Prison populations may form literally captive markets, forced to pay high prices for services like e-messaging, to stay in touch with loved ones outside prison. Prisoners themselves are often exploited as a source of cheap labour. 

But more broadly, the Prison-Industrial Complex can be seen as a set of mechanisms which filter and contain potential threats against the smooth functioning of capitalist accumulation. By and large, the more you are harmed by capitalism, the more you are likely to also be punished for it: your lived experience of the hypocrisy of the capitalist dream makes you dangerous. These mechanisms are the more painful and punitive counterparts to the disciplinary aspects of the welfare state. 

At the same time, some fierce critics of the criminal justice system are unpersuaded by the usefulness of the concept of the Prison-Industrial Complex. The sociologist Loïc Wacquant dislikes (among other things) how the concept tends to emphasise an economic logic at the expense of a political logic:

namely, the construction of a post-Keynesian, “liberal-paternalistic” state suited to institute desocialized wage labor and propagate the renewed ethic of work and “individual responsibility” that buttress it. Profiteering from corrections is not a primary cause but an incidental and secondary consequence of the hypertrophic development of the penal apparatus [...]

Abolitionism is also crucially about building alternatives. Mariame Kaba writes:

While some people might think of abolition as primarily a negative project—“Let’s tear everything down tomorrow and hope for the best”—PIC abolition is a vision of a restructured society in a world where we have everything we need: food, shelter, education, health, art, beauty, clean water, and more things that are foundational to our personal and community safety.

As Fred Moten and Stefano Harney point out, building those alternatives would likely also shift our perceptions and understandings about exactly what it is we are abolishing.

What is, so to speak, the object of abolition? Not so much the abolition of prisons but the abolition of a society that could have prisons, that could have slavery, that could have the wage, and therefore not abolition as the elimination of anything but abolition as the founding of a new society. The object of abolition then would have a resemblance to communism that would be, to return to Spivak, uncanny. 

Alternative forms of safety and justice take time to build. Prison abolitionists are not against incremental changes. But they support incremental changes that are not reforms. Instead, such incremental changes need to be real steps toward post-carceral futures, which also accomplish concrete benefits in the present. For example, abolitionists work to raise consciousness and strengthen solidarity among prisoners. In Blood in My Eye, George Jackson writes, ‘The sheer numbers of the prisoner class and the terms of their existence make them a mighty reservoir of revolutionary potential’ (108). Abolitionists also campaign to halt or reverse the growth in numbers of prisons and police officers, and to invest instead in social welfare, healthcare, education, and other public services. This goes hand-in-hand with cultivating community-based transformative justice. Transformative justice seeks to keep people safe, to hold perpetrators accountable, and to resolve conflicts without involving the state. Mariame Kaba, for example, envisions ‘a different society, built on cooperation instead of individualism, on mutual aid instead of self-preservation. What would the country look like if it had billions of extra dollars to spend on housing, food and education for all?’ 

Clearly prison and police abolitionism are closely entwined. ‘Who you gonna call?’ asks Ray Parker Jr. in the Ghostbusters theme song. Abolitionism is also an invitation to reimagine how labour is divided in society, especially who does what when it comes to safety, care, and truth-seeking. For instance, Roge Karma points out how police officers are ‘trained in military-style academies’, are ‘equipped with lethal weapons at all times’, and ‘operate within a culture that takes pride in warriorship, combat, and violence’. They are then ‘mainly called upon to be social workers, conflict mediators, traffic directors, mental health counselors, detailed report writers, neighborhood patrollers, and low-level law enforcers’.

Abolitionism and postcapitalism also involve shared concern for what is imaginable. It has been said that it is easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism. Jackie Wang adds, ‘it is easier to imagine the end of the world than it is to imagine a world without prisons.’ Kaba writes, ‘when we set about trying to transform society, we must remember that we ourselves will also need to transform. Our imagination of what a different world can be is limited. We are deeply entangled in the very systems we are organizing to change.’ Police and prison abolitionism draw on a powerful history to demonstrate how what may seem unimaginable (or unimaginable to some) can quickly become real. As Angela Davies writes:

Slavery, lynching, and segregation are certainly compelling examples of social institutions that, like the prison, were once considered to be as everlasting as the sun. Yet, in the case of all three examples, we can point to movements that assumed the radical stance of announcing the obsolescence of these institutions. (Are Prisons Obsolete?, 24)

However, when science fiction explores alternative justice, it is often more fascinated with gruesome and bizarre punishments, than with police and prison abolitionism, or with restorative or transformative (or distributive) justice. In Franz Kafka's ‘In the Penal Colony’ (1914), a machine tortures the accused to death by carving the relevant law into their flesh. In James Tiptree Jr.'s ‘Fault’ (1968), the protagonist Mitch is sentenced to be ‘slipped’ for having torn off the ‘feelers’ of an alien. His movement through time gradually de-syncs with everybody else’s, an agonizing form of social death. The Quantum Thief (2010) by Hannu Rajaniemi features a virtual prison called the Dilemma Prison, where Jean le Flameur forced to play out endless variations of the Prisoner's Dilemma. 

Science fiction is also interested in speculative forms of rehabilitation — or transformations that go well beyond mere rehabilitation. Anthony Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange (1962) follows the story of Alex, a violent youth who undergoes an experimental psychological conditioning. In Iain M. Banks’s Walking on Glass (1985), Quiss and Ajayi are war criminals from opposing sides, imprisoned in a purgatorial castle of puzzles and games until they can solve the riddle, ‘What happens when an unstoppable force meets an immovable object?’

Prisons may also enact more ambiguous and ambivalent transformations. A character Adrian Tchaikonvsky’s Dying Earth novel Cage of Souls (2019) features a penal colony, the Island, where the protagonist encounters the monstrous and marvellous sentience of the more-than-human world.

I have a vision of the world in several centuries’ time. There are no human beings in my vision but there are the web-children who evolved, or were evolved, in our image, and they have prospered. They have made a civilisation that does not rest on energies and weapons. Instead they use the powers of their minds to build and create, and they work together.

A related theme is the grotesque exploitation of prisoners’ bodies. Cordwainer Smith's ‘A Planet Named Shayol’ (1961) portrays a penal world where prisoners are used to grow transplantable organs. In Larry Niven’s A Patchwork Girl (1980), convicted felons are broken up for organ transplants.

As medical techniques improved and spread to the have-not nations, demands on the public organ banks had grown. The death penalty was imposed for armed robbery, rape, burglary. A plea of insanity became worthless. Eventually felons died for income tax evasion or driving while high on funny chemicals.

Some science fiction has envisioned the unbundling and distribution of criminal justice across space. Iain M. Banks’s Culture series, a “slap-drone” is a robotic escort assigned to somebody who has committed a violent crime, to make sure they don’t do it again. Larry Niven’s ‘Cloak of Anarchy’ (1972) is set in the Free Park where no law exists save a technologically-enforced injunction against direct bodily violence. Intriguingly, the ‘copseyes’ don’t really bother with who started it:

There was only one law to enforce. All acts of attempted violence carried the same penalty for attacker and victim. Let anyone raise his hand against his neighbor, and one of the golden basketballs would stun them both. They would wake separately, with copseyes watching. 

Such thought experiments explore how the unjust justice system might be shrunk to some useful minimum — perhaps in line with the harm principle set out by John Stuart Mill in his 1859 essay On Liberty. However, today they also resonate with reactionary, techno-carceral appropriations of police and prison abolitionism. 

Some science fiction explores technology from the perspective of restitution rather than deterrence or disciplinarity. In Tochi Onyebuchi's ‘How to Pay Reparations: A Documentary’ (2020) an algorithm is developed to deploy reparations for slavery. It doesn’t quite work out — the story offers a critique of a techno-solutionist approach to reparations, one that is unaccompanied by true collective deliberation and reflection. Yet it does not entirely dismiss the idea that algorithmic governmentality might be mobilised for purposes of social justice and liberation.

Science fiction and other speculative fiction sometimes gestures toward the role of the criminal justice system in bringing forth the very behaviours which it polices and punishes. In the old story, told by Rumi among others, the protagonist glimpses the Angel of Death giving him a look of wrath, and flees to India to escape his fate. But the Angel was not angry, it is revealed, merely surprised to see the man here in Jerusalem — when he had an appointment with him very soon in India. Philip K. Dick's 'The Minority Report' (1956), the vocalisations of prophetic ‘precog idiots’ are analysed to arrest would-be criminals before they commit their crimes. Peter Watts' ‘The Eyes of God’ (2008) features an airport security system that uses neural scanners to detect potentially harmful thoughts or intentions in passengers, also raising questions about privacy, pre-emptive justice, and the nature of crime. The cyberpunk anime series Psycho-Pass (2012-) imagines a surveillance dystopia, where citizens are constantly scanned and evaluated for supposed latent criminality. Psycho-Pass also features Enforcers, individuals whose latent criminality metrics have crossed critical thresholds, but who are permitted to work on the side of the law. 

These science fiction works about pre-crime resonate with recent developments in predictive policing and its critiques, including racist and classist bias, and the risk of predictive policing creating self-fulfilling prophecies. Such works also tend to explore the relationship between harms and crimes. How can someone be punished for something they have not done, even if they were (supposedly) definitely going to do it? At the same time, while the distinction between ‘harm’ and ‘crime’ is undoubtedly useful for abolitionist thought and practice, the two concepts may be more entangled than is sometimes recognised. A crime may legally codify an alleged harm that has no real basis in experience, or whose basis is wildly disproportionate. But abolishing crime and organising society around harm instead is far from straightforward. How should society equalise access to the means of expressing and redressing harms? Is every claim to have experienced a harm equally legitimate? If not, what factors should legitimate or de-legitimate a claim to have experienced harm? If certain harms become conventionally recognised and associated with certain forms of address, is there a risk of the emergence of a new taxonomy of informal crimes?

Some science fiction may shed light on transformative justice in oblique ways. In 2017, Alexandra Rowland coined the term ‘hopepunk,’ contrasting it with the nihilism and pessimism of grimdark fantasy. The term quickly became cluttered and incoherent, and drew criticism especially from outside the US and from left-wing commentators. ‘Part of the problem of hopepunk is its class blindness,’ writes Adam Turl. However, one potentially positive aspect of some hopepunk writing might be its intermittent interest in groups figuring out minor conflicts among themselves, and preempting major ones. This is also of course a preoccupation of a great deal of literary fiction. But in the work of science fiction writers such as Becky Chambers, the wholesomely optimistic futuristic setting can leach in interesting ways into these stories about emotions, expectations, compromise and communication.

Other science fiction does touch on futures beyond prisons and the police more directly. Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Dispossessed (1974) features a group of children from a post-carceral society discovering the concept of ‘prison’ and, fascinated, turning it into a game. What they eventually discover horrifies them. Marge Piercy’s Woman on the Edge of Time (1976) imagines a post-carceral society that also has a kind of death penalty:

“Assault, murder we still have. Not as common as they say it was in your time. But it happens. People still get angry and strike out.” 

“So what do you do? Do you put them in jail?” 

“First off, we ask if person acted intentionally or not—if person wants to take responsibility for the act.” 

“Suppose I say, ‘No, I didn’t know what I was doing, judge.’” 

“Then we work on healing. We try to help so that never again will person do a thing person doesn’t mean to do.” 

“Suppose I say I’m not sick. I punched him in the face because he had it coming, and I’m glad.” 

“Then you work out a sentence. Maybe exile, remote labor. Sheepherding. Life on shipboard. Space service. Sometimes crossers cook good ideas about how to atone. You could put in for an experiment or something dangerous.” 

She stared. “You’re telling me that when I smashed Geraldo’s face, I’d tell you what I should do to . . . atone?” 

“How not?” Parra stared back. “You, your victim, and your judge work it out. If you killed, then the family of your victim would choose a mem to negotiate.” 

“If I killed a bunch of people, then I’d just sign on as a sailor or herd sheep?” “You mean a second time? No. Second time someone uses violence, we give up. We don’t want to watch each other or to imprison each other. We aren’t willing to live with people who choose to use violence. We execute them.”

Abolition Science Fiction (2022), edited by Phil Crockett Thomas, is a collection of stories by activists and scholars involved in prison abolition and transformative justice in the UK. Three short vignettes in particular offer glimpses of worlds without prisons. Ren Wednesday's 'Walk Out' imagines a mixture of revolutionary excitement and conservative moral panic, as prisoners all over the world start to learn simply to walk through walls. In Chris Rossdale's 'The Parc,' the protagonist Alex braves the People’s Activity and Recreation Centre, a place physically completely transformed from the prison it once was, yet haunted by a traumatic carceral aura. 'The Monument' by Dave gives us a glimpse of Christopher, a Municipal Heritage Warden, getting ready for work at a new location. It is intriguingly ambiguous, as Christopher feels uneasy with his own somewhat police-ish behaviours,  “scanning for damage or dereliction, spotting dangers to public safety, and keeping an eye on all the people that came and went.” Christopher also happens to be policing a monument which seems to simultaneously celebrate the abolition of the police, and the police officers themselves:

This lavish recognition, like the generous severance packages and comprehensive retraining schemes negotiated by the Police Federation in the final months of its existence, before it was forced to transform into a retirees’ social club, is by way of a compromise. It indicates, very clearly, that no personal condemnation of the police, or of those who took their side, was implied by the success of the Abolitionists.

In anthropology, the term ‘leveling mechanism’ refers to cultural practices that seem to work to prevent the emergence of power hierarchies. Science fiction imagining post-carceral futures seem to often be interested in leveling mechanisms in a broad sense. In this way it becomes, strangely, a kind of science fiction about science fiction. The prison game which the children play in The Dispossessed, like the strange monument in ‘The Monument’ which seems to both celebrate and condemn the police, imagine the kind of cultural memory that might be necessary to ensure that an understanding of carceral violence is not lost in a post-carceral world. In Woman on the Edge of Time, the inhabitants of the future utopia Mattapoisett engage in similar rituals and games:

“How is Bee?” 

“Look!” Luciente pointed. “Bee is explaining about agribusiness, cash crops, and hunger.” 

“He’s teaching a class?” 

“A memorial. Tonight.” Luciente waved at the booths, the tables, the holies and exhibits. “It’s winter games. . . . Traveling spectaclers are visiting us this week. We all played roles. Divvied into rich and poor, owners and colonies. For two days all us who got poor by lot fasted and had only half rations two other days. The rich ate till they were stuffed and threw the rest in the compost. I know in history they didn’t, Connie blossom, but it’s not right to destroy, we just can’t do it. We’ve been feeling a class society where most labor, others control, and some enjoy. We had prisons, police, spies, armies, torture, bosses, hunger—oh, it’s been fascinating. Now we’re discussing to know better before they go on.”

Wednesday, September 27, 2023

From The Iliad

Vaunt Lament

To the man I have mortally wounded, as I strip him naked

Never mind your pride. Forget how you never grow too tired to fight. 

Even so. You show how you Torys shall quit the ships of the Achæans, 

by every disgrace with which you’ve ever tried to tar us described. 

Wolfbitch cowards yet you wouldn't cringe and follow Zeus, would you?

Not Zeus who punishes bad guests and one day's going to butcher your city.

When you stayed with me you took my wife, you stole such a lot of treasures,

after all she did to make you feel at home,

now you want our ships on fire and to kill us all.

Still there will come a day on which, despite your zeal for Ares,

you’ll be stopped. Oh father Zeus, you are the wisest

of every god and human, this is all your fault.

You favor them I kill, why, so boastful and bloodthirsty?

After a long spell, a person can tire of anything at all.

Of sleep, love, song, dancing, still these are things whereof 

you’d always want more than you’d want of war.

Yet they never tire of wanting more war.

Saturday, August 19, 2023

Tuesday, July 4, 2023

Tuesday, June 20, 2023

Utopian Heists

From a glossary-in-progress.

Utopia may conjure up the notion of a perfect society, or perhaps an apparently perfect society with a dark secret (so actually a dystopia, or anti-utopia). Within utopian thinking and practice, however, utopia is a much more flexible term. Sometimes it refers to communities that attempt a better way of life, or plans for such communities, or stories about such communities. But often it refers to something more like a method, a way of thinking about the world around us, and perhaps about how we live within its constraints, and what we can change in the short term as well as the long term.

Heist scenarios in TTRPGs involve players working together to plan and execute a high-stakes theft or robbery. Players will typically gather information, develop strategies to overcome obstacles, execute their plans, and then (when nothing goes according to plan) improvise. Typically each member of the caper crew is both exceptionally skilled in their field, and also a kind of eccentric and maverick; for Fredric Jameson, this is how the heist plot becomes a ‘distorted expression of the utopian impulse insofar as it realizes a fantasy of non-alienated collective work.’

There are plenty of variations on the heist model, including smuggling, spying, scouting, seige-breaking, hijacking, sabotage, kidnaps, rescues, jailbreaks and exfiltrations. A ‘reverse-heist’ scenario involves sneaking something into a secure location. Often, as in Christopher Nolan’s film Inception (2010), it’s not enough to get in and out again safely, since the reverse-heist will fail if anyone finds out that the package has been planted. A red / blue team exercise is a sort of officially sanctioned fake heist (see Red / Blue Team Exercise). We might think of critical utopias, in the tradition of Ursula K. LeGuin’s novel The Dispossessed (1974), as a kind of prefigurative red-teaming, seeking to improve the robustness of a system that has not yet even been built (see Critical Utopia).

One influential TTRPG centred on heists is John Harper’s Blades in the Dark (2015), where players are a crew of daring scoundrels seeking their fortune in a gritty, industrial-fantasy city. Many other heist-ready games spring from the shadows of its Forged in the Dark system; examples include John Leboeuf-Little and Stras Acimovic’s Scum and Villiany (2018), Kienna Shaw and Jamila R. Nedjadi's Songs for the Dusk (2021), and Andrew Gillis’s Girl by Moonlight (2024). Grant Howett’s Honey Heist (2017), at just one page, is another influential heist TTRPG, in which the players portray bears. Howett is fond of capers: in Royal Blood (2020), you effectively play a living Tarot card on a heist-like mission; One Last Job (2014) assembles a crew of washed-up criminals (or “WW2 commandos, ageing punk rockers, zombie apocalypse survivors, Wild West cowboys, and so on” (p. 3)), with character creation embedded in gameplay through improvised reminisces and banter. Jason Morningstar's Fiasco (2009) is another fiction-first game that lends itself to bungled capers of all kinds, and some of its playbooks are specifically heist-themed. Beyond the TTRPGs that revolve around heists, a heist episode may turn up in any campaign. San Jenaro Co-Op’s The Roleplayer’s Guide to Heists (2019), for example, an anthology of system-agnostic heist scenarios.

In fact, heists have a lot in common with a classic staple: the dungeoncrawl. Both dungeoncrawls and heists are a kind of breaking-and-entering. Both revolve around the central theme of embarking on a mission filled with mystery and peril, where the primary goal is to obtain something of value. They often feature complex environments with many opportunities for players to work as a multidisciplinary team of specialists, formulating and enacting cunning strategies. We might even imagine a kind of spectrum, or some other visualisation, of these two primary modes of tabletop thieving.

So what is the difference? Well, we might say that crawls place more emphasis on combat, and that heists are about stealing something in specific, rather than accumulating whatever treasure is lying around. Then again, heists frequently include or degenerate into bloodshed; moreover, dungeoncrawlers may well have a final treasure in mind (the Amulet of Yendor in the digital game Nethack, for example).

Perhaps crawls have some affinity with epic fantasy settings, and heists with modern urban settings. Heists may involve a ticking clock, whereas crawls are more relaxed — ‘relaxed’ in the sense of dragging your bloodied bodies back to town for a long rest before attempting the next raid. Heist crews are often assembled by a mastermind, and might not have previously known each other (let alone trusted each other) — dungeon adventurers are often drinking buddies. Perhaps the dungeoncrawl also has a certain ideological tie with colonial conquest, which the heist does not: some dungeoncrawls are genocidal. But none of these are hard-and-fast distinctions either.

One difference is between the intricately interlinked challenges predicted in the heist plan, vs. the diverse and unknown dangers of the dungeon. This is reflected in subtly different kinds of division of labour. The heist and the crawl both demand a mix of specialists, of course. But the trope that only so-and-so can perform vital task x is more characteristic of the heist. Heist crews are made up of supremely respected workers. Should any one of them withdraw their labour (perhaps even for a few seconds), it could send out shockwaves like a general strike. In ‘A Global Neuromancer’ (2015), Fredric Jameson contrasts the familiar picture of the division of labour (à la Adam Smith) with heist-divided labour:

[...] specializations are certainly present—we need someone to open safes, someone acrobatic enough to get through windows, someone capable of neutralizing the alarm system, someone to drive the car, someone to secure the plans on what is probably going to be an inside job, and finally the brains or the mastermind, who is also the political leader so to speak. But each of these characters will be idiosyncratic: it is a collection of interesting oddballs and misfits, all of them different, and many of them in serious personality conflict with each other. The technological features of the object have thus been humanized and personified if not altogether sublimated [...]

Jameson suggests that heist plots are therefore allegories of production (and he adds, a little mysteriously, that they are allegories of the inner divisions of the psyche too). Why then are there not more heist-like narratives about making things? Perhaps because it would be too on-the-nose. Jameson also offers another reason.

Here I think we face the dilemma of any literary or artistic representation of labor: it is very rare indeed that the content of the industrial product can have any necessity. The production process itself is always interesting: but [...] the nature of the object cannot have any real aesthetic necessity without turning into a symbol of some kind.

Why can’t the nature of the object have any real aesthetic necessity, except by turning it into a symbol of some kind? Because whether the fictional characters are creating chamber pots, or machine parts, or sausages, we know that “[a]nything that can produce a profit is equivalent when it comes to generating surplus value,” i.e. what they are really making is money.

This is a very Jamesonian preoccupation with large-scale material conditions constraining, and being reflected in, what artworks can and can’t do. Jameson does think that the heist plot gives it to us straight. It does this either by making the macguffin very macguffiny, or by simply making it a large sum of money. The score needs to be divisible, after all — the heist team wouldn’t share. In this way, for Jameson, the heist genre “short-circuits the search for a meaningful object by simply positing the cash, the gold, the bearer bonds, or whatever else. So this is, as it were, the negative or critical, the demystifying side of the caper form.”

There is a related factor that also distinguishes the heist from the crawl. It’s a controversial word within utopian discourse: planning. A heist is all about meticulous planning. The thrill of a may can come from improvisation as these flawless plans fall apart. But it can also come from things going off without a hitch. By contrast, the dungeoncrawlers just equip themselves as best they can, and venture into the unknown. They may even invent some mini-heists when they’re down there, but they haven’t spent weeks trapped in a planning montage.

It’s worth dwelling on planning for a bit. The word means a lot of things. In architecture, “planning” pertains to designing physical spaces to meet both functional and aesthetic requirements. With respect to political economy, “planning” might mean defining clear parameters for the production and distribution of goods and services. Broadly speaking, in a market economy, the interaction of economic supply and demand determines what goods and services are produced, and who gets to benefit from them; in a planned economy, these decisions are made by the government (if you want to make it sound sinister) or by the people (if you want to make it sound optimistic). The socialist calculation debate, which emerged in the 1920s, stemmed in essence from the attempts of various neoliberals (such as Friedrich Hayek) to prove from first principles that a complex modern economy is unplannable, and that any planned economy is a contradiction in terms and a catastrophe waiting to happen. Of course, the crude distinction between “market economies” and “planned economies” does not reflect the complexities of real-world economies, and is also heavily shaped by the ideological presuppositions of mainstream economics. Taking a more nuanced and interdisciplinary perspective, market economies also include plenty of planning, and planned economies have many elements of distributed decision-making.

For example, governments play a fundamental role in creating, maintaining, and shaping market mechanisms and forces. They establish the legal and regulatory frameworks that define the ‘rules of the game’ within which markets operate. These cover areas such as banking and finance, employment law, property law, contract law, competition policy, and sector-specific regulations. Governments also maintain markets through regulatory oversight and interventions to ‘correct market failures,’ such as monopolies, information asymmetries. They run themselves ragged trying to internalise externalities, including the greenhouse gas pollution driving climate change. Furthermore, governments shape market forces through their policy decisions, e.g. fiscal policy (taxing and spending) and monetary policy (e.g. interest rate adjustments by central banks).

Likewise, even if we take the example of the “material balances” planning of the early Soviet Union — as close as you’ll get to a textbook planned economy — what the central agency Gosplan did, strictly speaking, was to calculate interactions of supply and demand in order to produce and distribute goods and services. It is not normally described in these terms, but it should be. Yes, these determinations of supply and demand via demographic data, statistical calculations, political priorising, and other non-monetary means, were often wildly out of touch with people’s real needs, desires, capacities, risks, and so on. But the same can absolutely be said of supply and demand determined by financial allocations in a market economy.

Then there is “planning” at the organisational level, which will typically be differentiated from “strategy,” “governance,” “management,” “risk management,” as well as future-oriented processes like “horizon-scanning,” “anticipatory governance,” “Research & Development,” “stakeholder engagement,” “investor relations,” “cost-benefit analysis,” and so on. It will also be differentiated from vaguer terms like “commitments,” “promises,” “vision,” “ambitions,” “scoping,” and so on, whose meanings tend to be less specified by legal and regulatory practices. Planning tends to imply relatively detailed thinking about implementation of pre-given goals; it might be thought to sit “below” strategy and governance but “above” more day-to-day management. Nonetheless, despite effort at differentiation, planning overlaps with all of these. Perhaps what is most striking, at the organisational level, is the the division of anticipatory labour. Does this fragmentation of anticipation imply that, just like a party of adventurers can achieve more than the sum of its parts, an organisation is able to imagine possible futures more boldly and precisely than it otherwise would? Or, in line with the old adage “never split the party,” is such fragmented anticipation more restricted in the futures it can envision and steer towards? Probably both things are true, in different ways. There are also intriguing questions around what a different division of antcipatory labour might accomplish.

Then there is urban planning, which is particularly entwined with utopian discourse (along with architecture). Urban planning is inherently transdisciplinary, drawing on many strands within public policy and social science, and in this sense may have some affinity with the sometimes totalising aspirations of utopian thinking. Urban planners may consider issues of sustainability, development, health, economic growth, quality of life, crime and policing, social cohesion, and so on. But these are clearly all contentious terms — and some contemporary planners may well be interested in postgrowth rather than growth, or postdevelopment rather than sustainability, or police abolition rather than crime and policing. The history of urban planning is also the history of a variety of practical utopian experiments. For example, in the postwar period in the United Kingdom, the ‘new town’ movement embodied a similar mix of energies to the emerging welfare state. According to Rosemary Wakeman, these new towns, garden cities, cities of science, etc., were

both a reflection on and a critique of mid- to late twentieth-century society. A steadfast belief in physical determinism was shared across the architectural and planning professions. An ideal social atmosphere could be achieved by carefully planning all the physical elements of the city. Designing the physical fabric would change individual behavior, social relations, civic life, and community. The assumption was that the ideal city could be mass-produced for a mass cultural age. Life would be balanced and harmonious.


To this rudimentary survey of planning discourse — planned economies, planning within organisations, urban planning — we can add heists and dungeoncrawls. Heists and dungeoncrawls make implicit claims about what can legitimately be planned for and what cannot, about how to do so, and about how and why the best-laid plans often go awry.

The degree and type of organisation within the target stronghold is also worth mentioning. Heist and caper crews, despite their superlative skills, are often framed as underdogs. The players’ power comes from stealth, deception, and cunning: they are unlikely to succeed at blasting or hacking their way into that stronghold. But a party at the dark mouth of the dungeon stands on another kind of threshold. True, they are also underdogs, in the sense that the army of monsters massed down there could probably easily overwhelm them. Except that it is not really an army. Unlike the guards in the stronghold, the dungeon denizens are typically fragmented. They may be antagonistic or indifferent to one-another, and their interests and activities do not constitute a joined-up defense of the territory. Perhaps to the extent that the dungeon does mount a dynamic, coordinated defense, the crawl becomes less like a crawl and more like a heist, raid, or siege.

Occasionally the desire to serve up the dungeon in digestible chunks may become an absurdity, something we are expected to suspend our disbelief about, as a convention of the genre. Monsters may even chivalrously attack one at a time (“It’s called class, Rick, it’s called class,” as one self-aware comic puts it. TTRPGs in which dungeon dwellers acquire a kind of class consciousness could be interesting to explore). Many TTRPGs, such as Grant Howitt’s TTRPG Goblin Quest (2015), as well as Grunts! (1992) by Mary Gentle, Dungeon Crawl Inc. (2021) by Dakota Krout, Dungeon Keeper Ami (2005-ongoing) by Pusakuronu, Ralph Breaks the Internet (2018), The Order of the Stick (2003-ongoing) by Rich Burlew, Henchgirl (2015-2017) by Kristen Gudsnuk, etc., explore the inner lives of mooks and minions, sometimes highlighting these convention.

A few other distinguishing features are worth considering. Heists often involve an insider; a less frequent trope for a dungeoncrawl, although one with considerable potential.

Another common feature of heist narratives is the twist: the double-cross, the mole, the apparent slip-up that was actually part of the plan all along. Maybe the thing we thought we were stealing is really something else, or never existed in the first place. The improvisational nature of TTRPGs might present challenges for such storytelling, insofar as a truly impressive twist is typically carefully prefigured. Of course, the significance of past events can always be retrospectively altered, in service of a twist. Moreover, a Blades in the Dark mechanic allows most of the heist planning to take place ‘off screen’, and to be revealed when it is narratively salient via a flashback:

A flashback isn’t time travel. It can’t “undo” something that just occurred in the present moment. For instance, if an Inspector confronts you about recent thefts of occult artifacts when you’re at the Lady’s party, you can’t call for a flashback to assassinate the Inspector the night before. She’s here now, questioning you—that’s established in the fiction. You can call for a flashback to show that you intentionally tipped off the inspector so she would confront you at the party—so you could use that opportunity to impress the Lady with your aplomb and daring.

The Rick and Morty episode ‘One Crew over the Crewcoo's Morty’ (2019) satirises contemporary Hollywood heist cinema with a Heistcon, a heist-off, and the trivial automation of the supposed novelty and surprise of heist-style twists and turns. It plays with various ways of extrapolating heist norms beyond their usual scope. One scene imagines what might happen if everyone (hundreds or thousands of people) were part of a heist crew. Another scene is a long back-and-forth between the Rick and the Heistotron machine devised to automate heist design and delivery. This scene lampoons the imaginative poverty of at least one kind of heist ‘twist’: I knew that you would do A, so I did B, except you knew that I would do B, so you did C, except I knew that you knew that I would do B and you would do C, so I did D, and so on. There is a certain psychological unbelievability to this kind of twist. It takes a style of thinking characteristic of ruminative, anxious obsession, and imagines it having purchase on social reality. We also might detect a kind of neoclassical economic logic, one which emphasises the utility-maximising behaviours of individuals given the the information available to them, behaviours conceived of as relatively independent of institutions, norms, cultural practices, and so on. The messiness and uncertainty of how others desire and act is removed, and all it takes to understand what someone will do is to have enough information about the information they have access to. Yet I knew that you knew that I knew is also a kind of quasi-erotic fantasy of cognitive intimacy, albeit antagonistic, which resonates with utopian themes, and stands in some tension with such neoclassical logic.

Dystopian societies, including fake utopias, are obvious targets for heists. But what about other types? Is utopia ripe for a heist? What is there to steal? Clearly it depends on the utopia. Many utopias have abolished money, or perceive value according to some novel scheme. In Voltaire’s Candide (1759), Candide leaves El Dorado with a hundred pack-sheep, fifty of them laden with gold and jewels, materials which are not prized in El Dorado. It might be considered an extremely easy heist. Unless it is an extremely difficult one: did Candide fail the heist by deciding to leave this blessed place, partly motivated by love of arbitrage? Was Candide a victim of a kind of switcheroo?

Many classic utopias have a quasi-heist-like structure, in that utopia is very difficult to get into, and contains something very precious (a set of marvellous institutions and norms) which the visitor takes away with them … or do they? In a twist, the priceless haul of Bellamy’s Looking Backward: 2000-1887 (1888), or of Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s Herland (1915), may evaporate when you try to unpack it back at the den. There is plenty of narrative potential in the notion that the same thing might have a very different significance within a utopia or outside of utopia (see Doug Geisler’s interview in this volume).

A crew of daring scoundrels might attempt to steal the source or secret of a utopian society’s flourishing and happiness. But norms and institutions are nonrivalrous, that is, taking them from utopia does not mean depriving the utopians of them — right? Perhaps this is not always the case; the functioning of norms and institutions may sometimes depend, in subtle ways, on their material scope, on their borders, their neighbours, their rivals, their others. Or imagine if the task of the players were to ‘steal’ their entire worldview and mode of societal organization, requiring the group to fully immerse themselves in another way of life to understand and to embody its functioning … and yet somehow not stay there forever.

There is also the theme of contamination of utopia, e.g. as explored in N.K. Jemisin’s ‘The Ones Who Stay and Fight’ (Lightspeed, 2020). There is perhaps resonance here with the reverse-heist or inception: the visitor who brings a catalyst of catastrophe, usually in an anti-utopian fable about the supposed frailty and perhaps futility of building a society substantially better than whatever the author is using as a baseline.

The emphasis on stealth in Doug Geisler’s union organizing game Beat the Boss (2020) gives it a somewhat heist-like aspect. More broadly, TTRPGs offer a space for creating dialogue between heists, crawls and a range of politically-inflected models of taking what you want: enclosure, expropriation, seizure, occupations, squats, appropriation, liberation, recuperation, arrest and de-arrest, incarceration and decarceration, wage theft, rights erosion, extraction of surplus value, mass trespass, or leaving the country you live to go set up a new country. What would it mean to crawl the means of production? To claim the right to roam within the framework of a heist narrative?

Friday, June 9, 2023

After Jean-Joseph Rabearivelo

ay you

stood there nude

you’re mud 

& you won’t forget

only really

you’re a foetus

of labouring dark,

on lunar milk


by this low wall

inch by inch

into full bole life

crossed over

by flowers’ dreams

& summer sleeps’

perfumes, just

to feel, believe that

from your feet

push out, race & 

worm roots,

& snakelike 

seek your deep 

& wet 

source to slake, &

& already 

bind you to it, you,

O tree alive unknown


who forms the fruit

you will yourself forage

the bone of your crown

within your hair

that the wind plays with

hides a nest

of immaterial birds

and when you come to bed

and I acknowledge you

my errant brother

your touch, your breath

will awaken the flutter

of mysterious wings

right up to the edge of death


Tuesday, May 30, 2023

Why isn't science fiction interested in AI?

Since the century began, there has been a remarkable surge in AI research and application. This has mostly involved AI of a particular kind: Machine Learning (ML), especially Deep Learning. In brief, ML tends to place much less emphasis on carefully curated knowledge bases and hand-crafted rules of inference. Instead, ML usually uses a kind of automated trial-and-error approach, based on a little statistics, a lot of data, and a lot of computing power. When we hear of AI transforming journalism, healthcare, policing, defence, finance, agriculture, law, conservation, energy, development, disaster preparedness, supply chain logistics, software development, and many other domains, the AI in question is typically some form of ML. 

Despite the click-bait title to this post, AI is extremely prevalent theme of recent science fiction. Isn't it? Well, that depends which AI. Science fiction has been curiously slow, even reluctant, to reflect the ML renaissance. Until quite recently, ML research has tended to de-emphasise anthropomorphic Artificial General Intelligence. Instead it has emphasised domain-specific AI applications. Examples include Snapchat’s AR filters, Google Translate, Amazon Alexa, Tesla Autopilot, ChatGPT, MidJourney, platformized markets like Uber and Airbnb, the recommendation engines that drive Netflix and YouTube, and the curation of social media feeds. 

As a comparison, in May 2023, Science Fiction Encyclopaedia entry for AI still tellingly states: “Most writers would agree that for a computer or other machine of some sort to qualify as an AI it must be self-aware.” Over the past decade, science fiction about AI has continued to coalesce around questions such as: Is it possible for a machine to be sentient, to experience emotions, or to exercise free will? Between humans and machines, can there be sex, love, and romance? Will our own creations rise up against us, perhaps by departing from the rules we set them, perhaps by applying them all too literally? Could an AI grow beyond our powers of comprehension, and become god-like? And what might the oppression of sentient AIs teach us about colonialism, racism, misogyny, ableism, queerphobia, and the systemic treatment of some lives as morally more valuable than others? 

Whether or not these questions make for good stories, or are interesting questions in their own right, they are not tightly integrated into the realities of AI research. This disconnect between science fictional AI and real AI is also reflected in science fiction scholarship. AI Narratives: A History of Imaginative Thinking about Intelligent Machines (2020) is a recent collection of critical essays on AI and literature. While frequently compelling and insightful within its chosen scope, it barely mentions Machine Learning. Terms such as bias, black box, explainability, alignment, label, classifier, parameter, loss function, architecture, or supervised vs. unsupervised learning, appear seldom or never. (I think there are two, maybe two-and-a-half chapters that are clear exceptions). 

Of course, there are some stories that engage deeply with Machine Learning as it is actually practiced. My impression is that these stories remain rare overall, and that they have yet to coalesce into their own richly intertextual conversation about Machine Learning. Some promising counterexamples emphasise 'the algorithm' or 'the platform,' rather than AI as such. They find some storytelling space where a new discourse intersects with an old one: where Critical Data Studies meets the old science fictional delight in robots rigorously following rules, and the humans that might get ground up in those unstoppable cogs. However, even in their more critical moments, many such stories are prone to reinforce the political and ethical framings preferred by tech companies. We can speculate why this might be the case. The economic conditions of their production are worth noting — is there a preponderance of storytelling funded by think tanks, academia, tech companies and tech media, perhaps? Or perhaps there is a sort of discursive predisposition at play, related to the amount of energy it takes to speak outside of the established science fiction tropes. Having laboriously disentangled themselves from questions like, “Please may I have an AI girlfriend?” and “Crikey will I get an AI God?”, are these stories too exhausted to escape from questions like, “How can we balance the need for training data at scale with the privacy rights of individuals?” and “How will the widespread adoption of AI and automation impact jobs and the economy”? Such questions may need to be posed in some contexts, certainly. But they also carry deep techno-solutionist and techno-determinist assumptions. Science fiction could do better!

Writing in mid-2023, there are signs that some aspects of this situation may soon shift. A more recent critical collection, Imagining AI: How the World Sees Intelligent Machines (2023), which does solid and timely work in challenging Eurocentrism in literary and cultural AI, does pay a little more attention to Machine Learning. Even if writers have been ignoring Machine Learning, Machine Learning has not been ignoring writers. And now OpenAI’s ChatGPT is creating an unprecedented level of conversation in online writing communities around Machine Learning. Very recently, Science Fiction Writers of America collated on its website over fifty articles and posts written by its members on the topic of using AI in creative work. Prominent science fiction magazine Clarkesworld recently closed to submissions after getting inundated with ChatGPT-generated stories. The window for limiting global heating to 1.5 degrees, agreed in the 2015  Paris Agreement, is more-or-less closing now, and questions are being asked about the carbon cost of computationally intensive Machine Learning (Vicuna is being touted as a lightweight ChatGPT alternative). Hollywood writers are on strike about, among other things, AI. And in the midst of a messy public rivalry between Google and Microsoft, we are witnessing a sort of convergence of discourse about (the social implications of) Machine Learning with older sci-fi tropes: AGI, Singularity, superintelligence, x-risk. 

Whether or not we are at a turning point, it is certainly a moment to take stock of the last decade of science fiction about AI and ask: Is it possible that the few narratives that engage fruitfully with Machine Learning do so despite, rather than because of, the distinctive affordances of the genre? Compared with most other discourses, has science fiction been good at thinking about Machine Learning, okay at it, or maybe especially bad at it?