Saturday, February 20, 2021

Candide and the Utopian Enclave

Optimistic theodicy thrived briefly in the Eighteenth Century, and today is perhaps best-known as the target of Voltaire’s satire Candide (1759). Optimistic theodicy aimed to solve the problem of evil — if God knows everything, can do anything, and is infinitely good, how then can evil exist? — by proposing that evil in some parts of Creation is the necessary condition for greater good elsewhere. So the best of all possible worlds, reasoned optimistic theodicians, may still be filled with plenty of suffering and vice.

Voltaire’s Candide famously concludes with Candide’s words to his former mentor in optimistic theodicy, the indefatigable Pangloss, who is still trying to trace divine benevolence in their mutual history of brutal suffering. Cela est bien dit, répondit Candide, mais il faut cultiver notre jardin. All that is very well, but let us grow our garden. 

Out of context, the sentiment might be read as a conservative one, perhaps a kind of civil privatism: the world is an irredeemably evil place, and all we can do is count our blessings and defend whatever little patch of it will sustain us! 

But I think this reading neglects both the larger context of the narrative, and half of what Candide actually says. “All that is very well.” The liberal virtue of tolerance is being exemplified, sure. More broadly, this is an ending that celebrates the work of worldmaking. Candide tolerates and transcends rather than strictly speaking dismisses Pangloss’s disputation.

The whole little society entered into this laudable design, according to their different abilities. Their little plot of land produced plentiful crops. Cunegonde was, indeed, very ugly, but she became an excellent pastry cook; Paquette worked at embroidery; the old woman looked after the[Pg 168] linen. They were all, not excepting Friar Giroflée, of some service or other; for he made a good joiner, and became a very honest man.

“All that is very well,” says Candide: even Pangloss and his philosophizing have a place within this inclusive community, a found family of former slaves, forced migrants, survivors of traumatic violence, who work together to preserve and extend their small sphere of care and security. It’s sometimes forgotten that Candide does also include a utopia, El Dorado, apparently unironically a place of prosperity, generosity, and happiness, characterized by its muted hierarchy and its lack of a clerical class. That is, Candide is a narrative that has certain ambitions about how big a garden might grow.

Friday, January 15, 2021

Kim Stanley Robinson's Ministry for the Future

I liked and highly recommend Kim Stanley Robinson's The Ministry for the Future (2020), a big and miscellaneous quiltwork of a book, filled with vignettes, mini-essays, lists, and prose-poem riddles. It lays out a guardedly optimistic vision of the next few decades, and shows humans (and many other actors) mitigating and adapting to the climate crisis that is currently unfolding.

You could call it solarpunk, delivering a promise that genre intermittently delivers: gritty and realistic hope, integrating technological innovation with real economic and socio-political change. The Ministry for the Future is fiction, of course, but it often holds the interest in the same way non-fiction does. It is about us, it is about now. It exemplifies a kind of hard science fiction that is worth wanting, borrowing and synthesizing from across STEM, social sciences, arts and humanities, and other forms of expertise.

The Ministry for the Future gathers up numerous utopian sparks from contemporary radical and progressive projects and -- like a Magpie for the Future -- arranges them into a pleasing heap, rather than some rigid causal sequence. It is a novel filled with judicious gaps and uncertainties. About some ideas, the novel is enthusiastic, and about others it is lukewarm. For the most part, this is a book that doesn’t want to take things off the table. It does frame a few hopes as false hopes, perhaps: the notion that billionaires may start to show compassion and rationality if petitioned persuasively enough, for example. And while it has a lot of time for myriad diverse economy practices, including those of an anarchist cast, it ultimately sees governments, law, and central banks as key actors in any credible positive future. 

But not through their being seized. I'm especially interested in the novel's themes of violence and revolution. When we think of revolutionary violence (and maybe even when we try to put it into practice) we usually think of two things. There are protestors throwing things at lines of riot cops, as military vehicles rumble closer in the distance. And then there's the well-organised armed coup, seizing the state apparatus. So this sets up a lot of questions about how the two things might relate. But maybe these questions are sometimes red herrings. Because really, this is a rather narrow imaginary, one enthusiastically embraced by right wing media, but one which The Ministry of the Future tries in its own gentle way to dislodge. 

Because the actual histories of successful radical social change usually reveal a much more diverse array of tactics. If there must be a default way of thinking about the role of violence in revolutionary activity, maybe a good candidate is "militant self-defense." Many activities in Ministry's optimistic narrative fit this definition. I.e. one way the people in this book defend themselves is by conducting their paramilitary operations in secret. So secret, in fact, most of the time even the reader doesn't find out about them! They don't storm in trying to seize state power. Another way they defend themselves is by targeting the infrastructure and logistics the enemy is using to kill them. They presumably have fierce debates about what is and isn't acceptable (rejecting nonviolence doesn't mean "anything goes"). 

State power is still absolutely crucial to Robinson's optimistic vision, but he doesn't foresee seizing it. There are two prongs here. One, there is a vast and plural uprising which doesn't attempt to unify itself, but rather embraces a diversity of tactics, including paramilitary action aimed primarily at multinational corporations. Two, there is an intense, grinding badgering of states, and especially their central banks, to begrudgingly take more radical action than they otherwise would have. This sometimes involves gritting our teeth and putting things in terms they can understand. How can you have stable currencies if you don't have civilisation? Let them put the cart before the horse, if it will stop us all from riding off the cliff.

Sometimes representations of nationality feel a bit cringe. Especially Ireland. The novel seems to have a sense of Irishness, or of a plausible Irish person's sense of their own Irishness, which I don't recognise anyway. I'm also not sure how credible I find Mary mentioning "some good" in the British Empire, and perhaps Stan's not aware what a right-wing talking point that is in these isles? But the grinding insistence on the reality of nations, ethnicities, and cultures is admirable, even if it sometimes generates awkwardness.

A longer review will appear in Stir magazine, focusing a little bit more on the novel's political economy.

Wednesday, January 6, 2021

From a work-in-progress

By Reason Alone 

From The Tragedy of Beyonce Knowles / Interpellation (working titles?)
Arthur is to meet his girlfriend's family for the first time

‘An invite to Mannerly Manor? If it were just Katie and her mum!’ I sighed. ‘But the cousins are sure to be there. And the groundskeeper, who has a gun, and chambermaid and scullery chef, and the grouse, who may all have guns for all I know of the world. And all the butlers in all their siller finery. I am just so nervous. I am not sure who will be there. No one's explained the event.’

‘Lunch,’ said Tam.

‘But is that . . . tea?’

Tam treated me to a gaze of his gravest sympathy. ‘If you do it one way and they do it the other,’ he offered, ‘you are by definition wrong. And there is simply no way to know what they will do nor how they will do it.’

‘Save Reason,’ I said.

Together Tamburlaine and I attempted to formulate the customs of the upper classes by Reason alone.

‘Give me some task, Tam.’

‘Say you are to pick your nose, Arthur.’

‘Which finger does one use?’

‘Where do the other nails point while the principal is busy? Start simple.’

We tried every finger we could find, falsifying the pick itself so as not to run out of matter.

Thus laughing, we lay contentedly in each other arms. ‘Perhaps they leave it in the ground,’ Tam muttered. But soon we were frowning again.

‘Aye,’ I added softly, ‘or it doesn’t even matter which fingers? It’s which nostril. Nor are nostrils the only niches.’

Tam shrugged me off, leapt up and began to pace. ‘No they’re not! Well then! Reason man! Think! Do the upper classes of Britain sit at their feast-laden tables manually disimpacting earwax or is it sometimes poop? Think! Think!’

He looked aghast and I didn’t know how to calm him down. He was right. Did they reach one slimy arm down their gullet, shortly having swallowed their meal, as some pythons are said to do, and pull it intact back onto the siller plate?

Soon it was mid-morning. My train would soon be leaving for Katie’s country estate. We had got nowhere. And then suddenly, as Tam helped me into my scarf and mittens, it all came pouring together. An avalanche of reason alone.

First, a good bully always maximizes cognitive load. For example, pick on your prey by presenting insoluble puzzles and palpably false attributions. The pot shoving the kettle up against the lockers and sneering at its searing, and so on.

Thus for many years the upper classes have been evolving tells and shibboleths that make them out to be simple, dumpy, down-to-earth folk. 

They say we are the posh ones! 

In years gone by, for instance, the upper classes would not have the ostentation to say serviette when they might say napkin. Poor and humble, they would not go horse riding, merely riding. As if they hadn't got one. This principle is broadly applicable, and applicable in particular to ...

‘They won’t ostentatiously thrust the fingers in?’ suggested Tam, grinning avidly. ‘They’ll wait till it pokes out of its own accord!’

‘They love all the creeping beasts of the earth,’ I agreed. ‘They’ll wobble the philtrum to and fro till it plops out, without any fuss. It is not for them to pick which noses.’

But there was more. At the top, power frequently acquires the morphology of an 'overlapping consensus.' Not always, but among the upper classes of Britain, Tam and I reckoned that it did. That is, ceteris paribus, the upper class will prefer manners that they can agree upon for many different reasons, without recognising that they are so doing.

Tamburlaine and I did a few quick calculations. Around three-quarters of toffs believe they are looking down their noses at everyone else. We uppity and grasping plebs are hilarious with our shabby fool’s gold, and so on. Their idea (which when it gets out of hand is genocide) is: Look at those fools! If the situation were reversed, they would do the same as we do

But around a quarter of toffs truly think of themselves a simple, plain people, staring up their noses at us, staring up that cleared-out tunnel, whose rubble they are too simple and plain to clear, being unpretentious, down-to-earth sorts who accept their lot, which just so happens to have a main facade of twelve bays of classical sash.

Understanding now its underpinning logic, I felt confident I would be able to reason out all the etiquette that lay ahead of me this afternoon and evening. Which salad spoon. How to greet the groundsman. Anxiety diminishing, my crush on Katie revealed itself once more, raw and pink with a new lustre of lust.

After all, do not the upper classes of England simply love duels where only one fighter is allowed oxygen? Thrust! Parry! Look at that footwork! Da da da da da! Ta ta ta ta! Look at those chaps dance, two consummate artists, equally matched! The flashing silver! On the side-lines, variegated princesses simper and swoon! And that will be me in a couple of hours. My starlight white frock with the flared silhouette that bells when I spin, my golden locks done up with bright red ribs and bins.

‘Oh, Arthur,’ squawked Tamburlaine, and tied my scarf, and my heart, in a complex knot.

Thus equipped I went to Mannerly Manor, to meet my betters.

Tuesday, January 5, 2021

From Alice's Adventures Through the Looking Glass

Like nature's recommendations algorithm, Tenet (2020) made me revisit this, by Lewis Carroll:

‘The rule is, jam to-morrow and jam yesterday—but never jam to-day.’

‘It must come sometimes to “jam to-day,”’ Alice objected.

‘No, it can’t,’ said the Queen. ‘It’s jam every other day: to-day isn’t any other day, you know.’

‘I don’t understand you,’ said Alice. ‘It’s dreadfully confusing!’

‘That’s the effect of living backwards,’ the Queen said kindly: ‘it always makes one a little giddy at first—’

‘Living backwards!’ Alice repeated in great astonishment. ‘I never heard of such a thing!’

‘—but there’s one great advantage in it, that one’s memory works both ways.’

‘I’m sure mine only works one way,’ Alice remarked. ‘I can’t remember things before they happen.’

‘It’s a poor sort of memory that only works backwards,’ the Queen remarked.

‘What sort of things do you remember best?’ Alice ventured to ask.

‘Oh, things that happened the week after next,’ the Queen replied in a careless tone. ‘For instance, now,’ she went on, sticking a large piece of plaster on her finger as she spoke, ‘there’s the King’s Messenger. He’s in prison now, being punished: and the trial doesn’t even begin till next Wednesday: and of course the crime comes last of all.’

‘Suppose he never commits the crime?’ said Alice.

‘That would be all the better, wouldn’t it?’ the Queen said, as she bound the plaster round her finger with a bit of ribbon.

Alice felt there was no denying that. ‘Of course it would be all the better,’ she said: ‘but it wouldn’t be all the better his being punished.’

‘You’re wrong there, at any rate,’ said the Queen: ‘were you ever punished?’

‘Only for faults,’ said Alice.

‘And you were all the better for it, I know!’ the Queen said triumphantly.

‘Yes, but then I had done the things I was punished for,’ said Alice: ‘that makes all the difference.’

‘But if you hadn’t done them,’ the Queen said, ‘that would have been better still; better, and better, and better!’ Her voice went higher with each ‘better,’ till it got quite to a squeak at last.

Alice was just beginning to say ‘There’s a mistake somewhere—,’ when the Queen began screaming so loud that she had to leave the sentence unfinished. ‘Oh, oh, oh!’ shouted the Queen, shaking her hand about as if she wanted to shake it off. ‘My finger’s bleeding! Oh, oh, oh, oh!’

Her screams were so exactly like the whistle of a steam-engine, that Alice had to hold both her hands over her ears.

‘What is the matter?’ she said, as soon as there was a chance of making herself heard. ‘Have you pricked your finger?’

‘I haven’t pricked it yet,’ the Queen said, ‘but I soon shall—oh, oh, oh!’

‘When do you expect to do it?’ Alice asked, feeling very much inclined to laugh.

‘When I fasten my shawl again,’ the poor Queen groaned out: ‘the brooch will come undone directly. Oh, oh!’ As she said the words the brooch flew open, and the Queen clutched wildly at it, and tried to clasp it again.

‘Take care!’ cried Alice. ‘You’re holding it all crooked!’ And she caught at the brooch; but it was too late: the pin had slipped, and the Queen had pricked her finger.

‘That accounts for the bleeding, you see,’ she said to Alice with a smile. ‘Now you understand the way things happen here.’

‘But why don’t you scream now?’ Alice asked, holding her hands ready to put over her ears again.

‘Why, I’ve done all the screaming already,’ said the Queen. ‘What would be the good of having it all over again?’

Friday, December 18, 2020

SF and public health policy

 Are there hopeful representations of public health policy in speculative fiction? Are there, for example, visions of a well-governed biomedical commons?

Within SF, dystopia and public health policy go hand-in-hand. In fact, SF seems practically incapable of imagining any holistic stance on the myriad factors that inform the happiness and flourishing of populations, unless the interested party is some sinister elite: a paternalistic and unaccountable dystopian government, as in Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, or perhaps a clandestine sect of eugenicists like the Bene Gesserit of Frank Herbert’s Dune. Perhaps there are some partial exceptions. In threads of transhumanism and biopunk traceable through works by Iain M. Banks, Octavia Butler, Ted Chiang, Samuel R. Delany, Cory Doctorow, Greg Egan, Gwyneth Jones, Nancy Kress, Yoon Ha Lee, Annalee Newitz, Kim Stanley Robinson, Justina Robson, Bruce Sterling, Charles Stross, Jeanette Winterson, and others, the somatic becomes vividly tractable to speculative technologies. Bodies and consciousnesses become the raw material for design and experiment. Bodily distresses, diseases, disorders, disabilities, and limitations may be eradicated altogether, or transformed or recontextualised to de-pathologize them. Often such SF goes beyond crudely fantasizing medical techno-fixes, and examines how notions of ‘healthy’ and ‘normal’ are constructed in the first place. But what such SF almost never does is offer any account of the democratization of medicalized desire, expertise, techniques, and resources. There are mavericks who work outside of the medical-industrial complex, or there is its wholesale displacement by biomedical abundance supremely responsive to individual desire … and that’s it.

Names in SFF interlude: sexbot

From Jeanette Winterson's Frankissstein:

Naming is power, I say to her.

It sure is. Adam's task in the Garden of Eden.

Yes, indeed, to name everything after its kind. Sexbot ...

Pardon me, sir?

Do you think Adam would have thought of that? Dog, cat, snake, fig tree, sexbot?

Earlier:

Names in SFF



Wednesday, December 2, 2020

The Sunken Land Begins to Rise Again

Just finished this and skimmed a few reviews (Nina Allan's is really great). Quite rightly, reviewers are reluctant to treat this gorgeous soggy prose-poem like it's some mere Christopher Nolan headfuckery.

But!

What is actually going on?

For example, Shaw never figures anything out. What doesn't he figure out?

Sure, the whole narrative is wrapped in luminous uncertainty. Sure, it insists on the absurd and the fantastical within the everyday. This is a universe where great chunks of memory go missing without explanation; where people take turns blurting unintelligible messes of language and pretend that they are 'conversing'; where a plague of hyperactive pattern-recognition risks turning you into an obsessive automaton endlessly scrolling, peering, and posting; where ghosts and figments endlessly sparkle and cavort at the edges of everything; where you might any moment be seized by strange forces and compelled to action you can't understand; all under the rubric of realism and sharply observed Menippean satire. 

Sure, any reader who wants to puzzle it all out will find themselves gently trolled by the possibility that they are just like the novel's own conspiracy theorist Tim Swann. But there is a speculative-fictional plot here. There are clues and connections, and the novel also invites a certain amount of cobbling things together, even if the sturdiest possible outcome is a bit wonky.

So I'll put this out there, for starters: it seems likely that Shaw's 'crisis' or 'rough patch' was his birth, and his memories of the period before that time are in some sense artificial. At least, if I were Shaw, that's what I'd be wondering. 

Does that ring true?

PS: Some Contexts

  • The Water Babies
  • Nova Swing
  • Annihilation
  • Blade Runner
  • The Drowned World
  • Rick & Morty
  • Pincher Martin
  • The Shadow Over Innsmouth
  • On the Origin of Species
  • Creative Evolution
  • Russian Doll
  • Vurt
PPS: I think one of the things the novel does superbly is poke at the political underpinnings of the trope of the goopy cheaply jury-rigged human (see e.g. Annihilation), and expose that trope as a function of social atomisation and the malevolence of classist, ableist, and racist gaze. I think the spirit that animates it is more critical humanist than posthumanist. But I also think it deploys this trope, and I am wondering exactly how.

Sunday, November 29, 2020

2020 Stuff

Fiction

'Oh God, the Dogs!' is a short story written in response to the Chilean SF author Elena Aldunate's 'Juana y La Cibernética,' translated into English for the first time by Ana Baeza Ruiz and Elizabeth Stainforth and published in a dope little Riso zine from Desperate Literature and Do the Print in Barcelona. Cover design by Terry Craven. 'Oh God, the Dogs!' is also a companion (species) piece to 'Cat, I Must Work!' (Big Echo, 2016).

'Please Don't Let Go' is a short story about worker's comp, medico-legal reporting, and super powers. It was published this year in Fireside Fiction, with an audio version by Hollis Beck. Thanks also to Kate Dollarhyde and Chelle Parker.

Nonfiction

Foundation 137, 49.3 (Winter 2020) contains my essay about Cory Doctorow, credit theories of money, and the entrepreneur considered as a kind of cryptid. 'Estranged Entrepreneurs and the Meaning of Money in Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom.'

Visualising Uncertainty: An Introduction (AU4DM 2020) by Polina Levontin, Jana Kleineberg, me, et al. 

Games

Sad Press Games. The Shrike is a game about fantastical voyages aboard a skyship. It's in early access. There's also a voyage generator and a solo playtest tool for The Shrike. The Sorcerer Sends for a Sandwich is a mini-RPG about snacking while you conquer the world (see also 超级大坏蛋召唤零食). Heterotopia Hooks is set of roll tables for generating ideas for postapocalyptic and/or solarpunk settlements. It was made for the David Graeber memorial games jam, and is partly a spin-off of Fury Road Trip, another mini-RPG forthcoming in early 2021.

Editorial

Two issues of Vector, 291 (co-edited with Polina Levontin) and 292 (co-edited with Polina Levontin and Rhona Eve Clews, a special issue on SF and contemporary art).

Publishing

Sad Press poetry published chapbooks by Vahni Capildeo, Mai Ivfjäll, Helen Charman, and Nicky Melville. We might just squeeze in another before the end of the year, but more likely we'll have two more books out in early 2021.

Sunday, November 15, 2020

Algorithmic governance fiction

 This is a question really. I have written some fiction on the theme of algorithmic governance (algorithmic governmentality, algocracy), like:

These are stories that are trying to explore the friction you experience living in automated processes that have a particular model of who and what you are, and creates affordances and nudged based on that model. I'm sure there are lots of works like this out there and I'd like to make a list. Suggestions welcome, and/or I'll expand this when I think of more.

For example:

There is also another SFF trope that is adjacent to this, which you might call AI takeover, which is much more to do with automated processes behaving in unexpectedly anthropological ways. There are obviously overlaps, but I think mostly I'm interested in something else here. As Janelle Shane of AI Weirdness puts it (I'm paraphrasing), the risk is not that AI won't do what we ask, but that it will do exactly what we ask. I think what I'm looking for is Algorithmic Governance Weirdness, a subset of AI weirdness.