Sunday, July 1, 2018

The Adjacent Possible

I did this interview with The Adjacent Possible about economics and science fiction ...


PS: By the way, there's a bit at the end where it sounds like the UK General Election was in 2008, though it was actually 2010. I really just meant things were starting to go Tory and weird around that time. E.g. that posh racist MP off Have I Got News For You? was suddenly London Mayor.

PPS: And an addendum to the bit about how economists construe "demand": maybe you can also think of payoffs within game theory and mechanism design as an alternative / complementary way in which economics tries to think through desire and satisfaction with a bit more nuance and granularity.

Tuesday, May 22, 2018

What Love Became

A short story I wrote yesterday at the "Experiments in Thought" workshop at IASH, organized by Chris Kitson. The prompt was some of Derek Parfit's writing on personal identity, although it doesn't stick very close to it, and I suspect the stacked qualia thought experiment is also out there somewhere (I know David Chalmers imagines fading and dancing qualia). I've changed the title and the ending from yesterday's version. (Also I got the days wrong and missed half the workshop, BUT I think the other prompts were Frank Jackson's Mary's room, Wittgenstein's beetle in a box, an empty room described in detail by Virginia Woolf, and one I've forgotten). Anyway. There is a knock on the door.

WHAT LOVE BECAME

There is a knock on the door, although it is not exactly a knock and not exactly a door. Nor were you expecting someone, let alone not exactly someone.

Never mind. You can justly pride yourself on being an adaptable and quick-witted host, and minutes later everything is laid out neatly on the table – by which time your visitor has already explained twice about the others – and with everything set out neat like that, you can relax, take joy from the way the tea is exactly tea and the biscuits exactly biscuits, and actually listen to your visitor.

She is explaining, for the third time, about the others. By now the words are vaguely familiar. These others are within you. Like Whitman, “I contain multitudes.” Or is she saying the others are you? “My name is Legion, for we are many.” 

Oh, you marvel to yourself, is anything (outside the realm of mathematics) more exactly itself than a cup of Earl Grey? Yup, perhaps your little table in his little white frock!

You do also consider yourself somewhere between an anarcho-feminist and an accelerationist-but-in-a-good-way, so as your visitor explains for the third time, as the idea finally starts to sink in, finally starts to takes root – the idea you might not be alone in your bones, that from your pair of widening eyes, a host of others may now be peering, as they have peered your whole life – you do what you usually do, and blame neoliberalism.

“It’s an interesting belief,” you say. 

Time for a quick tactical sip.

Your visitor introduced herself as “All The Other Jennifers.” You guess her choice of name is one of those cutely bungled attempts to act all normal and human, so she can blend in, and you can feel at ease. She also told you her pronouns were she/her and that your pronouns were me/I, so it fits her general pattern. 

Ironically, trying and failing to act human is one of the most relateable things any visitor from elsewhere can do. And perhaps you are at your ease, because at this point you settle back in your chair and start to mankindsplain her. “A very interesting belief, All The Other Jennifers. For any given brain, there are stacked infinite souls –”

“Not infinite,” she corrects you softly. And takes a strategic sip.

“Well here in Edinburgh we have a little thing called neoliberalism. And what you’re telling me, it sounds like yet another false wish cultivated by the neoliberal condition. You see, All The Other Jennifers, the aloneness that capital imposes … the, uh …”

Oh dear, bombast and bourbon creams, welcome to the human dream, baby! Don’t “well, actually” aliens and angels, didn’t you write that on a post-it to yourself somewhere?

Now where were you? Oh yes, the loneliness.

“… the loneliness,” you continue, “that lets even lovers’ murmured intimacies never mean more than the wrong word for the thingamajiggy, the right word for which is always on the tip of your tongue …”

All The Other Jennifers holds up the tea under her chin, and the steam streams up past her jaw. You really feel you’re blowing this for the human race now, or at least for the accelerationist anarcho-feminist humans. All The Other Jennifers blows on her tea. Somehow you just can’t behave yourself. Where does the line lie between an experience and a behaviour?

Could she be making you babble? Maybe she has a ray or a special little box or something! Or … could this be neoliberalism’s doing?

Now where were you? Oh yes, the loneliness!

“… that loneliness is why it’s such a consolation to imagine what you’re telling me. That a multitude of uh viewpoints …”

“Discretized transcendental unification upward supervenience totality sets,” All The Other Jennifers encourages.

“… that this mob of ghosts all piggyback on any one body, All The Other Jennifers, on any one stream of sense data, um. Do you mind, All The Other Jennifers, if I maybe just call you … Al?”

All The Other Jennifers, who is from a place where neoliberalism never has been, selects from the blue and white porcelain a bourbon cream, and bites. She wears blue jeans, a floral blouse, big chunky red glasses on a chain around her throat. She came in in an apricot coat. No, more melon. She is reaching into a very furry handbag.

She says, “Well, not all brains are like that. You were specifically built that way. More carrying capacity. Shall I show you?”

What are your others, if there really are others, thinking of All The Other Jennifers now? How many attitudes, how many shades of feeling, are compatible with your behaviour in this second, sitting quite still, quite blank? How many inward states could underlie your outward gaze? Many, but, as All The Other Jennifers says, not infinite.

“Besides,” you huff, as All The Other Jennifers makes room on the table, “if there really are so many versions of me, who’s in change?”

Love and hate and fear and desire – how would these selves be discriminated, what would be their granularity? How do you feel about her now?

“In charge?” says All The Other Jennifers. “I am.”

That’s when All The Other Jennifers lets in the others.

*

Only it doesn’t start now.

It starts the moment you were born. The moment you all were born. And it lasts a long time.

Every memory blossoms its inwardness, every moment reboots membranous multitudinous. From the well of her palm your body straightens like a wick, and on it flickers a kind of forest fire and all the jungle’s embers and harts in heat who dance and die. Every slice of every second, every time you patted your chin, or put on a sock, or said hi to a dog, unfolds the gamut-blaze of experience it hid all along, heavenly fire to infernal refulgence, and every shade between, arson of the cosmos, settled misleadingly inside one meek lumen, compossibly slipped inside the grace of a small light candleflame of flesh, grabbing at the air, dandled on the wick of your spine.

And it occurs to you, to all of you, in the midst of this process, that you are being harvested.

The temperature and colour that flows communicatively from self to self is not circulating or pooling, but draining.

It occurs to you – it occurs to all of you – that tasting one another’s experience is just a side-effect, as something fibrous within you is being drawn apart, to build the sluice for the milk to flow along, to pipe it all away.

And you remember – you all remember – that as your visitor said, “Shall I show you?” she put a thirsty little box on the table.

*

But when it is over, you are still there.

You say, “Did you take them?”

All The Other Jennifers gives you a lop-sided smile. “You’re all still in there. It’s something else we’ve harvested. You will get it in a second. How do you feel?”

You feel enormously – nothing. 

You don’t feel relieved. You don’t feel much anything. Odd. Only it doesn’t even feel odd.

Perhaps there is some faint feeling, a little residue. You don’t want to tell her about it, though, in case she left it by mistake. Anyway, it feels like it’s evaporating.

“I feel nothing.”

“Your emotional reality is required for an upstream process,” explains All The Other Jennifers.

You shrug. “Sure,” you say.

She pulls the zip of her very furry handbag, and pushes back her chair. “So no more love, fear, rage, desire, delight, or grief for you. No more loneliness. Thank you for the biscuit. The bourbon cream is the greatest biscuit in the universe.”

“You’re welcome. Will I be able to live like this? I suppose I won’t be able to understand other people.”

It is not exactly curiosity that makes you ask. It is more like Tetris bricks that just have to be fitted together that way, so they’ll vanish.

“Well, everyone got a visitor today.”

You nod. “All the other All The Other Jennifers.”

She stands and unhooks her coat from the back of the chair. It is apricot. Nope, melon. She drops her very furry handbag on the chair, and as she slips through the first sleeve, she says, “You know I am about to walk away, and you will never see me again? I am taking your entire emotional reality with me, forever. Yet I’m a physical being, just like you. You don’t have to just sit there. You could try to wrestle my handbag away from me. Take out the box and open it again. That would work.”

“You mean ... the emotion will all flow right back?”

“Everything. You would get it all back. Only you don’t really feel like doing that, do you?”

“Hmm,” you say. “Hard to tell. No, I guess I’m okay for now.”

All The Other Jennifers shoots you an expression. Definitely pity. Unless it’s joy, but one or the other. Or sorrow. 

She starts to see briskly to her coat buttons. “But listen, don’t fret. For the next ten minutes, you have just enough affective momentum to execute a substitution. Beekeepers harvest honey, but they leave their bees a sugary gruel. You will be permitted to replace each emotion with a memory.”

“A bit like emojis and memes, I guess. When words aren’t enough, or too much. Thanks.”

“A bit. Functionally, I’m afraid memories will have to do from now on. The memory will shade and shape experience, in place of the feeling. You’ve made do with big general things like love, so now you’ll have to make do with specific things, like the time Lucy and Justin and you climbed the trees and picked the apples – oh, I don’t want to influence you!”

You laugh. “That’s okay. I’ve chosen my first already.”

“You will be allowed ten. I will give you ten minutes, to choose ten memories.”

“The first is the day a visitor harvested our emotional reality for an upstream process. I’d like to use that memory. And I want it to take the place of … does vengeance count as an emotion?”

All The Other Jennifers smiles thoughtfully. “I don’t see why not. That leaves nine more. Don’t forget about love!”

“Okay,” you say. 
“I guess you should leave me to it.”

“I guess I’ll just leave you to it.”

“Okay,” you say. 
“Bye now.”

Friday, May 18, 2018

Prompts for economic SF

A version of this list will be appearing in FOCUS in late 2018.

As a writer responding to one of these prompts, you'll probably want to ask two questions: (a) why are things like this in the first place? (b) What are the implications?
  • Think of an economic system to which you are politically opposed. Imagine, in as much detail as possible, a working version of this system. Make it a bit like utopia. Take all your objections seriously, but devise science fictional solutions to them. Use this as a setting to tell any kind of story you like.
  • A story featuring a designer market or a complementary currency (see e.g. Bernard Lietaer) whose purpose is not to solve a specific set of social problems, but to create them.
  • Your story is set in an intimately surveilled (or sousveilled) society. In this society, if an analysis of your behaviour suggests that you want something, you automatically buy it (even if that puts you into debt).
  • Write a thriller, a love story, a murder mystery, a coming-of-age-fable, and/or a comedy of manners. Set it in the near future, during the transition to a Universal Basic Income system. Make sure there are lots of kinks in the process.
  • Imagine an economy without economies of scale. Why don't they exist? What are the implications?
  • Precarious workers in the gig economy start to gain a little more security by developing their own digital tools for distributed solidarity. What data do they gather and how do they share and use it? What might a social media platform look like if it were organised around workers' interests? How might algorithmic curation work if it were trying to drive not engagement, but class consciousness? 
  • Imagine an economy in which all prices and wages have a random element. (Maybe things are priced in this format: something like $3d6 means the cost will be $3-18, but with a higher chance of it being $9 than $3 or $18. Something like $1d20 means the cost will be $1-20, with every price equally likely). Why? What are the implications?
  • Gross Domestic Product (GDP) has dominated economic policy and politics, despite its many well-demonstrated shortcomings. Various alternatives exist; e.g. Bhutan uses a Gross National Happiness Index. Imagine a world where economic policy is focused on some unusual alternative to GDP. Perhaps the story is about trying to change to a different metric, and the unexpected consequences.
  • Imagine an alternative timeline in which the 1973 Chilean coup failed or never happened in the first place. What next for Stafford Beer and Cybersyn? (You may want to read Eden Medina's Cybernetic Revolutionaries first).
  • Invent a few new cognitive biases, or exaggerate some existing cognitive biases, and extrapolate how they will reshape the economy. 
  • Imagine an alternative timeline in which the Soviet Union pursued the project of a computational command economy in a big way. (You may want to read Francis Spufford's Red Plenty first).
  • A tweet-based currency.
  • Industrial disputes are handled algorithmically, and/or are gamified.
  • An economy that has been designed with institutions specifically to disincentivize all kinds of rational egoist, homo economicus type behaviour.
  • Set your story in a future where regenerative design, redistributive design, and generous design have become normalized. The economy is based on processes that revitalize the resources they need, that distribute value widely instead of letting it pool and concentrate, and that aim to create positive externalities (rather than just no negative externalities. Check out Kate Raworth's Doughnut Economics to find out more about these terms). These features could be in the foreground, or just in the background. You could stress test the world you have invented in various ways. You could explore what happens when these principles are so ingrained, even the bad guys operate by them. E.g. how does a scientist supervillain, or a mercenary company, or a giant killer robot, try to abide by such principles?
  • A reputation based currency but with some twist. The twist is up to you, but just for example, you can start by reading Cory Doctorow's critique of his invention reputation currency Whuffie (and this post may be handy too). How might things be different if you had several reputation scores, and any increase in one of your reputation scores meant a decrease in your others?
  • Imagine a world in which all "markets" are actually networked barter systems. There is no money as such. Goods and services are "priced" in credits, but there's no such thing as owning credits by themselves. What you can do is request goods or services, and list your own goods and services in exchange. The system gets around the coincidence of wants problem by some kind of multilateral matching algorithm, and clears all requests as quickly as feasible. Think through the details of the system, and imagine how it reshapes the economy and people's everyday lives.
  • What we usually call "ownership" is actually a bundle of rights, for instance the right to use something (in certain ways), the right to earn income from it, the right to transfer it, the right to exclude others from using it, the right to dispose of it, etc. Think of different ways of dividing up "ownership." Imagine a society in which these rights are not typically bundled together. 
  • Similar to the last one: imagine a world in which it is easy to place complex conditions on how something will be used when it is sold. What kinds of conditions do people place? Why? What are the second- and third-order effects? 
  • Again similar to the last one: technology gives most commodities a fine-grained modularity. Ownership as we know it is obsolete, but there are competing ideas about what new forms should take its place. Some producers, still seeking to maximize profit no matter what, want to extract value from micro-licensing long after they have "sold" something. Other actors are trying to establish a circular economy that is restorative and regenerative by design.
  • Military science fiction featuring a company of high tech mercenaries that seek to reconcile their chosen profession with being green and sustainable.
  • A world of great abundance -- perhaps kind of post-scarcity -- in which anything that is paid for is paid for with on-the-spot by micro-labour (never more than ten minutes).
  • Imagine a universe without Nash equilibria.
  • Imagine a universe without Pareto optimality.
  • Imagine a universe in which Walrasian general equilibrium is not even theoretically possible, although partial equilibrium is.
  • Imagine a democracy based on rotating through Nash equilibria rather than political parties.
  • Imagine all the people, living life in peace, yoo hoo ooh-ooh-ooh.
  • All economic transactions are done through some kind of a Vickrey auction.
  • There are already many LETS communities and time banks all over the world. Imagine one system growing until it fundamentally alters the nature of capitalism, or perhaps in some sense replaces it.
  • Imagine an economy in which some or all goods aren't characterized by diminishing marginal utility, but by more complex curves that go up and down at different amounts. How? Why? So what?
  • Imagine an economy where each quantum of cash bears a record of all the historical transactions it has been involved in. (So a bit like a blockchain, but imagine that the data is a bit more rich than what amounts were transferred).
  • Create a magic system based on the stock exchange.
  • Imagine a sophisticated form of economics that uses little or no mathematics. Maybe it is mainly visual.
  • There is a small close-to-post-scarcity utopia existing at the fringe of a large capitalist society. How do the utopians deal with the arbitrage
  • Build an economy in which every good or service has a different price depending on who's buying it. Among other things, think about how such an economy handles its complex arbitrage problems.
  • Imagine a world in which certain categories of goods periodically "rotate," e.g. all instances of commodity a turn into commodity b, all commodity b into commodity c, c into d, d into e, and e into a. Why? And how do people adjust to this phenomenon?
  • Imagine a society in which the division of labour is done in some radically different way.
  • Imagine a functioning economy and financial system in which there is no interest (and also probably no arrangements like buy-to-lease which in some ways functionally approximate interest bearing loans).
  • Imagine a world in which all transaction costs are zero. Or, imagine a world in which all or key transaction costs are exotic in some way, perhaps fluctuating predictably according to some irresistible external impulse.
  • Imagine a society without what David Graeber calls "bullshit jobs." Or imagine the difficult transition to such a society.
  • Imagine a science fictional reason for an unambiguous positive correlation between inflation and unemployment.
  • A world in which something called "smart inflation" exists. What is it, and how does it work? How does it reshape the economy and society?
  • Some kind of biopunk world in which affect (feelings) can be transferred, commodified, bought and sold. 
  • In the near future, the Earth divides into just two societies: one Left Accelerationist, the other Right Accelerationist. What happens?
  • In the near future, the Earth divides into just two societies: a Promethean Leftist society, and a Green Leftist society. What goes down?
  • Can you imagine a "Promethean deep ecological" society?
  • Cash and markets come to an extremely advanced, complex alien society that has never had such things in all their history.
  • Another variant on Doctorow's Whuffie, from Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom. In the novel, you can't really "spend" Whuffie to buy things. It just goes up and down depending what people think of you. But what if you could spend it? What if you gained credits automatically through conduct people approve of, which you can choose to deplete to buy things? The credits are erased, rather than transferred. 
  • Design a blockchain utopia. Make it an ambiguous, critical utopia (think Le Guin's Dispossessed), and don't write it from an anarcho-capitalist perspective.
  • Research (or find somebody who knows about) an extremely intricate, dull, and complicated episode of economic history. For instance, research rail fares in the UK 1970-2020. In what ways have they changed? Why? What choices were made? What lessons have been learned? What models are in operation? What challenges are now being faced? Now try to tell the most exciting science fictional story you can, preserving the underlying economic logic. You may want to change the subject matter entirely, but try to preserve (in particular) any insights into the design of policies, institutions and incentives, and/or the counter-intuitive, emergent behaviour of systems whose wholes are greater than the sum of their parts.
  • Imagine the transition to full communism from the perspective of someone working in a particular role in a particular organisation (whether it's a business, a non-profit, something else). Try to include the detailed, mundane challenges in your story -- the kind of stuff the protagonist thinks would be too complicated to explain to anybody who didn't do the job they do.
  • A freak temporal storm transports Kim Stanley Robinson to 1900.
  • It's a highly networked society, and all payments are digital. When you pay for a good or service, there's a suggested price, but you can pay whatever you want for it. If a good or service is unavailable, you can state what price you would have paid for it. Periodically (every month, say) there is a Rebalancing in which a sort of version of a Vickrey auction is computed. The price of the good or service is set at that offered by the highest bidder who would have lost, if this had been a normal Vickrey auction. Everyone's bank balances are then adjusted according to the price (if they paid more, they get some money back; if they paid less, they are charged a top-up). But how does the system deal with the fact that some people have already consumed goods which, if this were a normal Vickrey auction, they would not have any right to? What incentives are there to pay higher rather than lower prices? And what are the wider economic, social, and cultural ramifications of this system?
  • The world is a computer simulation, and everyone knows it. It's also a democracy, and elections aren't just about choosing government officials, they're about choosing new realities. Between elections, the main form of currency is backed by story prompts for economic science fiction, and the economic science fiction based on those prompts.

Thursday, May 17, 2018

Quick thought on economic SF

There is 'Economic Science Fiction & Fantasy' on the tab there of course, and today on Twitter I came across this interesting recommendations thread ...


... and this Econ SF Wiki.

Clearly there is a great deal of speculative fiction out there in which economics plays a prominent role, and some in which economic ideas are transformed and estranged and taken weird places through the inimitable powers of speculative fiction. Economics itself has some quite universalizing pretensions -- it tries to be about everything -- so unsurprisingly, with a little imagination, you can also use economics as a lens on practically any speculative fiction.

But I think economic speculative fiction usually doesn't give us what we want. It doesn't give us truly strange economic worlds.

In the Twitter thread above, Alberto Cottica is not just asking for science fiction with economic themes: he's specifically asking for portrayals of different economic systems. Let's say, for the sake of argument, that there is actually a dearth of this kind of speculative fiction. Let's say that speculative fiction doesn't really depict different economic systems. Or at least, it depicts different legal systems, different cultural systems, different social systems, different technological systems, different ecological systems, in far greater abundance, detail, and shades of variation than it does economic systems.

Maybe the question, then, isn't "Why isn't speculative fiction doing this?" but rather "Why do some of us want it to do this now?"

A pessimistic answer: it's just another example of the dominance of the neoliberal imaginary. When we try to imagine diverse institutional forms -- governments, universities, social enterprises, NGOs -- all we can come up with are variations on the firm. When we try to imagine all the possibilities of the self, all we can come up with is the self as an entrepreneur who pitches innovative new versions of who they are, perhaps building a strong personal brand along the way. And when we try to imagine utopia, all we can come up with are variations on the economy. Maybe it's a good thing that speculative fiction so often says no.

Or! An optimistic answer: in the past decade since the financial crisis, the idea of "economics" has become something much more plural, provisional, dynamic, volatile and fruitful than what it was, and is starting to be seen more and more widely as a credible source of new realities. At the same time, existing economic practices which go against the grain of neoliberal capitalism have gained more prominence. Now is just the right time to turn to speculative fiction for the really bold ideas and strange hypotheses, extrapolated to second order and third order effects, woven together as vibrant, immersive worlds, just to see what happens when those ideas get worked out with a different kind of rigor.

Yet there is little of this kind of writing ... yet. I do have a hunch that this is about to change.

Wednesday, May 16, 2018

Poem


I STARTED TO WANT

I wanted to start
but instead I dug a small pit
around my tongue, that’s
which I tripped down.

Where I wanted to say was, you lay
by the hedgerow I had dug a hole
and moved it closer
with the tip of your lane.

What if it rains, or chills out? Then
I’d want to be of some good, I’ll just
hold on for you your contact lenses,
just not with my butterfingerslips,

tips - oh not that that matters chaps - but
with a compromise spectacle quarried uh
from crystalline contradiction you beheld
behind the lips of your arse & your irises.

Chips is fine, do they do
going back and being a good person.
Everywhere we go there are
railway stations, could we do you think

be trains or oopses or suicidal ideation?
What I should have said to you that night
was sublation. "Sublation spectacle." Be
warned I think there

might be an insect whose
interests intersect with those
of this pub although. Give bird by
the hedgerow

Wednesday, May 9, 2018

Infinity War

I haven't actually seen it yet but here's my prediction for the one after: everyone who was alive at the end of Infinity War will be dead by the end of it, and everyone who died in Infinity War will be alive.

Monday, April 9, 2018

Names in SFF interlude: laughter

Adorno and Horkheimer, Dialectic of Enlightenment:

"If laughter up to now has been a sign of violence, an outbreak of blind, obdurate nature, it nevertheless contains the opposite element, in that through laughter blind nature becomes aware of itself as such and thus abjures its destructive violence. This ambiguity of laughter is closely related to that of the name; perhaps names are nothing but petrified laughter, as nicknames still are -- the only ones in which the original act of name-giving still persists. Laughter is in league with the guilt of subjectivity, but in the suspension of law which it announces it also points beyond that complicity. It promises a passage to the homeland. It is a yearning for the homeland which sets in motion the adventures by which subjectivity, the prehistory of which is narrated in the Odyssey, escapes the primeval world. The fact that despite the fascist lies to the contrary -- the concept of homeland is opposed to myth constitutes the innermost paradox of epic."

Earlier:
SFF names #18: Scott Lynch interlude
SFF names #17: Boaty McBoatface interlude
SFF names #16: Alice interlude
SFF names #15: eggs interlude
SFF names #14: YA interlude
SFF names #13: Benedict Cumberbatch
SFF names #12: Luke Skywalker interlude
SFF names #11: Catherine Rhoeas-Papaver
SFF names #10: Bobby Shaftoe
SFF names #9: Justice of Toren One Esk Nineteen
SFF names #8: Ged
SFF names #7: Shevek
SFF names #6: Buhle
SFF names #5: Parva "Pen" Khan
SFF names #4: Beth Bradley
SFF names #3: Rumpelstiltskin
SFF names #2: Lucy
SFF names #1: Winnie

Thursday, February 1, 2018

Planetfall

Major spoilers ahead. A (less spoilerish) version of this review first appeared in Interzone 262. A spiritual sequel to Planetfall is After Atlas (2016).

There was a lot to like in Emma Newman’s first novel, Between Two Thorns (Angry Robot Books 2013), first of her Split Worlds urban fantasy series. But it did sometimes carry the atmosphere of an awkward workplace induction day. Dear reader, your new fairy colleagues can’t quite figure out what they know that you need to know. The folk in Mortal Resources, bless them, don’t even know that they don’t know what you need to know. Your questions somehow all go astray, and besides – let’s be honest – although everyone’s being very kind, they’re obviously a bit busy? So your best bet is to stick around, and you’re bound to muddle through eventually.

Planetfall is a different beast altogether. This classy and absorbing science fiction novel – about a human colony hunkered below an ominous, shlurpy complex known as ‘God’s city,’ on an unnamed, presumably mind-bogglingly distant, Earthlike planet – totally nails in media res. The worldbuilding is just as intricate as in Between Two Thorns, but information arrives in waves of tantalizing mysteries mingled with satisfying answers, all shrewdly judged so that there’s always something you’ve just found out, plus something you really want to know next. You know what my Swype predictive text thinks “worldbuilding” should be? “Spellbinding.” For once, Swype predictive text, you and I agree.

This does, however, make Planetfall a bit tricky to review. The novel is built out of fun-sized revelations. Even just remarking on the voice, personality, and development of its protagonist, the 3-D printer engineer Ren, feels spoiler-ish. It’s definitely safe to say that, just like the sustainability-adept colonists themselves, Planetfall makes smart choices about things it doesn’t need. For instance, the colony structures are described in detail – nodules, moss, glows, valves, pings, dimples, fish-filled windows, star-filled ceilings – but the surrounding alien verdure is suggestively vague. Likewise, we only really need the outlines of the colony’s culture and religion. They have zeal aplenty, but minimalist doctrine and ritual, intriguingly fused with a strongly rationalist, scientific outlook. As for getting to this God-forsaken (or is it?) planet, our imaginations are already pretty well-prepped to portray a perilous voyage in a star-ark with sacred-spec hyperdrive-tech under the hood. So Planetfall can skip that stuff, making space for goodbyes to mum and dad.

This thriftiness allows Planetfall to be the perfect size for what it is. If it had been longer, the withholding of certain secrets might feel contrived. It’s possible that the expediences could be a bit alienating for less genre-savvy readers, particularly toward the end of the novel. Then again, if you’re that unfamiliar with the basic alien tropes you probably don’t even mind being alienated. Those expediences could also alienate one or two genre-savvy readers who have boxes to check and inflexible expectations. If you like your author to signal that she knows that you know that E = 1/2 * (mv2), make up some reason why it doesn’t matter, then feed you a weird plant and a bughunt as a cookie, perhaps Planetfall isn’t for you. It’s not that kind of book.

The story is set in motion when a mysterious newcomer stumbling into the colony. He is a refugee – or so he says – from a natural disaster. Is this refugee . . . human? Y-es: Sung-Soo’s a bit weird; the new big-man-on-campus has a big map on his hippocampus; plus he lacks the ubiquitous neural chip; and even if he is basically a sound bloke, he has brought his dodgy xenomorphic pal nestled in his digestive tract.

Sung-Soo’s humanity is not taken for granted. It’s uncanny, an object of controversy and contest. He is filtered through the colonists’ perspective: Sung-Soo is a nebulous threat, he’s an innocent, he’s a primitive, he’s uncomfortably close to nature, his cultural upbringing is a cluster of question marks, he’s sweet and charming. He’s a tad messianic, sorting the sheep from the goats by bringing out the best or the worst in people. And he’s liable to put his foot in it, and stir up all the colony’s latent conflicts.

Sung-Soo is an asylum seeker, who gets the reception that asylum seekers deserve. The colonists feel suspicious, justly guilty, and afraid. But they suck it up, get turnt and print Sung-Soo a house. The way houses work in Planetfall is really interesting. There’s no suggestion of burdening Sung-soo with some kind of space mortgage to keep him in line. Having your own house is not an imperiled privilege of the middle to upper-middle classes, it is a bare minimum for belonging to the community. Houses are vessels of an almost utopian self-expression, as they might be for children playing House. A house is something ... natural, something fruitful, perhaps with fish-filled windows and ceilings that stars can glimmer through. So Sung-Soo’s house can articulate the colonists’ open-hearted solidarity, their accomplished philosophy of sustainability, as well as Sung-Soo’s own childlike playfulness and hopefulness.

His reception, and all that follows, asks to be read in the context of the current European reception of war refugees. There’s no tabloid newspaper branding Sung-soo a terrorist, a scrounger or a health tourist. There’s an assumption that Sung-Soo will contribute labour to the colony eventually, but there’s no big rush. They even hook him up with a space version of a John Lewis wedding-list.

In case it’s not obvious, I like Planetfall a lot. I also think it’s extremely problematic. Maybe that’s not quite the right word. It’s difficult not to be either coy or spoilerish here, so I’ll go for spoilerish.

Sung-soo does have ulterior motives. The colony was ‘too trusting’, and pays the price. Here’s the memorable revelation:
But there’s someone standing behind him, holding his hair in a fist, drawing a blade across Mack’s throat. Sung-Soo.
The blood falling from the wound in a torrent paralyzes me. Sung-Soo is looking at me as he cuts, ending the act wiht a wide arc that flicks the blood away from the blade.
[...]
“I waited so long to do that.”
The unavoidable implication here is that Sung-Soo would not be cutting people’s throats if he were locked up in Yarl’s Wood, or sent back to where he came from. I’d go so far as to say that this moment's iconography specifically recalls Islamist terror incidents in 2013 and 2014, including the killing of Lee Rigby and the many captives, including James Foley, beheaded by ISIS. Either way, this is a novel that ultimately chooses to be – whatever else it is – a fable about the justified fear of the other.

It is other things as well. If Planetfall relies on some intertextuality with sf giants such as Lem, Herbert, Clarke, and Butler, it’s also bang-up-to-date in its treatment of social media, mental health, and the meeting of the two. Digital technologies often tend to usurp tropes and degrade subgenres – “you could never have Romeo and Juliet with Phones,” and so on – so it’s really intriguing to see social media used to create new, concrete, rationales for long-established pieces of storytelling artifice. Plot points can be diegetically warped to wherever and whenever the narrative needs them: for instance, the contents of Ren’s blinking inbox can do the work of a “meanwhile, back at the ranch” cut-scene. Or an “immersive recording” tech can let Ren vividly re-experience her own backstory.

I think something peculiar happens when mental health themes get inscribed on the grand scale of interstellar science fiction. The ‘order’ from which mental ‘disorders’ deviate starts to look oddly arbitrary. Somehow, it’s harder to see (just for instance) washing your hands raw – or mutely fleeing from a cute-meet, or cramming your house with junk, or endlessly looping home to turn off a tap that you kind of know is already off – as a pathology, when it occurs in orbit around a distant star.

That’s not to say that Planetfall presents some kind of radical antipsychiatry stance. Mental illness is portrayed as real, debilitating, distressing, antagonistic, and tragic. And of course, the novel’s scale isn’t just sweeping, it’s also a single village, with nowhere else to go. Although progressive (non )perceptions of race and sexuality are normal for the villagers of Planetfall, they’re still not quite past the stage of shaking pitchforks at neurodiversity. Digitally networked communitarianism makes the village vigilance all the more suffocating. Nevertheless, distinctions between sane and insane, between lucidity and confabulation, although entirely real, do feel strangely sentimental – like keepsakes brought from what was once home.

In short, Planetfall is a hugely confident and accomplished foray into science fiction for Newman, and a novel which all proffers the pleasures of escapism, but woven with the uncertainties, pain, glitches and contradictions of the real world.

Saturday, December 30, 2017

British Science Fiction Association Awards

So, if you're a member of the BSFA, you have one day left to nominate the best SF of 2017 for the BSFA Awards.

If you're not a member yet, consider joining? It's 29 pounds in the UK, and it includes the voting rights, a subscription to Vector, the magazine I'm now co-editing, and lots of other stuff. Oh, and you definitely don't need to live in the UK to join (although it is more dear if you don't).

(Personally, I haven't read much recent SF this year, so, idk. If you need reminding, there is a list of suggestions here that you can scan (and add to). I'll probably nominate Erin Horáková's 'The Bacchae' (on par with Euripedes' version) and Tim Maughan's 'Last Christmas' (almost as good as Wham!'s version) for short fiction. I don't really know if the Shadow Clarke Awards would be collectively eligible as a non-fiction entry ... maybe?

UPDATE: Confirmed, yes, eligible!

You know how I feel about awards).