Monday, May 2, 2022

After Marina Tsvetaeva

like I say I’m in love with our unlovesickness,

with these feet never flitted out from under us.

how sweet to run my fool mouth, how sweet at each

accidental touch, the firelessness in my cheek.

I like that what hurts my heart is not you,

I like that what hurts your heart is not me.

that you can hook up with someone, or look at them,

and feel, at my no pain, no pain of your very own.

I love how what lives in my breast is mine,

how yours beats hardest and best within yours.

I love the word at your lips that’s not my name,

the void where no vow of ours ever flowers.

for nothing by moonlight, little by starlight, for dawns 

that draw far more than our limbs in fire, and for light I light 

solely in dreams, to you I'm unindebted, irredeemably.

for you are not, I am not, my heart’s, your heart’s, hurt. 

Saturday, April 2, 2022

Dreams in SFF

My essay 'Wages for Dreamwork' is up on Strange Horizons (thank you editor Gautam Bhatia). It looks at a quite specific intersection of speculative fiction and dreaming (the dream taken up by logics of quantification and instrumentality, or vice-versa). 

AI Generated by Walter Licinio

Here are some other snippets about speculative fiction and dreaming, some of which drift from that intersection. I will try to keep adding (might add some poems and philosophy and science too).

From Ursula K. Le Guin's The Word for World is Forest:

“But they only dream in sleep, you said; if they want to dream waking they take poisons so that the dreams go out of control, you said! How can people be any madder? They don’t know the dream-time from the world-time, any more than a baby does. Maybe when they kill a tree they think it will come alive again!” 

Greg Egan, 'Dream Factory.' James is observing the dreams of a cat, Pawpaw:

It was mesmerizing . . . but the household would be awake soon, and James needed to be sure that his changes to the library really could damp down the prodding from the electrodes. He injected a keyboard-cockroach into Pawpaw’s dream, at full strength, and saw the swipe response it evoked. Then he set the dial to zero and tried again; there was nothing. At fifty percent, the dreamer noticed the incursion, but the reaction was tentative. The apps would lose their grip slowly, their decay seeming more like natural causes than foul play.

From Kathleen Alcalá, 'Deer Dancer':

Tater dragged herself back to the waking world. She might have been having a True Dream, but if that's what it was, it would come back. She would need to let the others know if it did. [...] When she was a child of eight, it became clear that Tater got the Dreaming. When she was fourteen, she was given her aunt's journal. Ceci was an original Dreamer, born in Mexico, raised in the US in secrecy by her family.


Sometimes the dream was clear and direct; other times, they could only speculate at what it meant, and what they were expected to do with the information. But no one doubted the authenticity of the dreams.

From Sandra Newman's The Heavens:

Often, she dreamed in the dream—or the person she was sleeping as dreamed. These dreams were mostly of horses she was riding, which reared and threatened to throw her off or flew uncannily into the sky; or else she was playing a stringed instrument whose strings broke, lashing her fingers.

What might explain the rise of the opinion that dreaming is predominantly a black and white phenomenon? It will likely have occurred to the reader that the first half of the twentieth century was the pinnacle of black and white media. Black and white photography was first made public in the 1830s, and became increasingly popular through the early twentieth century. Although color photography was invented in the 1860s, color photos did not become easily attainable to the public until the 1940s. Motion pictures, invented around the turn of the century, were, from very early on, occasionally hand-painted with colors, and two-color filming was sometimes used in the 1920s (for example in Ben Hur). Nonetheless, motion pictures were overwhelmingly black and white until the late 1930s when a few ‘technicolored’ movies such as Gone with the Wind and The Wizard of Oz drew huge crowds. It was not until the 1950s that colored movies became commonplace, and even as late as 1960 a black and white film, The Apartment, was mainstream enough to win an Academy Award for best picture. Black and white television became widespread after World War II; color television did not become popular until the late 1960s. It is surely not chance that this flourishing of black and white media coincided with the flourishing of the opinion that dreams are a black and white phenomenon. The question is what to make of this fact.
From Theodor Adorno's Dream Notes:
Two giant, black triceratops, as if made of plastic, furious, horrifying animals whom I disliked. While one of them looked on, the other attacked an ankylosaurus in an unspeakably ferocious manner. The ankylosaurus lay spread out on the ground (‘a base animal’). The triceratops used its horns to slit it open at what might be called the suture where its lower and upper half had grown together like an edible crab. It then removed the upper half. The internal organs lay in the lower half neatly distributed in compartments, each with a different colour, like a dish of hors d’oeuvres. The triceratops fell upon it and began to devour the different parts, each of which represented a different taste (concretism) – once again just like an edible crab. I was just thinking indignantly: but the triceratops are vegetarians, when I woke up. 
 Max Richter Dream 13 (minus even)

From Yasutaka Tsutsui's Paprika:

“Come to think of it, I heard that rumor too,” said the social affairs correspondent who’d asked the very first question. “Her name was Paprika, that’s right. She called herself a ‘dream detective.’ She would get inside men’s dreams, then engage in some kind of sex act and thereby cure them of their mental hangups.”

From Nancy Kress's Beggars in Spain:

Camden said, “What about the need to dream?” 
“Not necessary. A left-over bombardment of the cortex to keep it on semialert in case a predator attacked during sleep. Wakefulness does that better.” 

 From Harl Vincent, 'Master of Dreams':

Other apparatus there was, whose purposes and uses Stanley could only conjecture. Delicate mechanisms, these were, and like nothing he had ever encountered. Some held crystal balls like those of the so-called mystics and seers. All were well worth investigation and all had some- thing to do with this amazing system which had been developed by the Master of Dreams — all of absorbing interest to men of science. 

From Dimension 20’s D&D actual play podcast The Unsleeping City, ‘Timesquaremageddon Pt. 2’:

[...] you can see it has the button-up shirt and the slacks and is like, ‘I need an SUV and two and a half children’ […] it seems like Robert’s dream, a young rich handsome All-American thing that he has summoned through the Golden Door in New York City to form a realm here for his own.

From 'art in america' by Sophie Robinson:

fevery dream in which i see a drunk 
woman (me) doing shots & snorting coke from a key.
i tell her let me help you 
& then i open a wound on her arm 
& remove from the wound a giant plastic egg.
i crack the egg to reveal a small wooden sphere
& from it emerges a large white rat. don’t ask me how.
i put the rat on a leash & walk it back to my apartment.
i go to sleep in my dream petting the rat & wake up feeling good. 
i give the rat breakfast which she eats happily. 
i kiss her head. 
i go back to the bar & find the woman (me) sicker than ever. 
thin, sweating, with two black eyes & a purple arm. 
i say hey what happened 
& she says
you shouldn’t have taken what you took the way you took it.

From Theodor Adorno, Dream Notes:
Our dreams are linked with each other not just because they are “ours”, but because they form a continuum, they belong to a unified world, just as, for example, all Kafka’s stories inhabit “the same world”. The more dreams hang together or are repeated, the greater the danger that we shall be unable to distinguish between them and reality.
From Thomas Nashe, The Terrors of the Night:
A dream is nothing else but a bubbling scum or froth of the fancy which the day hath left undigested, or an after-feast made of the fragments of idle imagination.
From Theodor Adorno, Dream Notes:
Next Tuesday old Hahn has his eighty-fifth birthday. I dreamt: what can one give to old Hahn on his eighty-fifth birthday, something he might find useful? – Answer: a guide to the kingdom of the dead.
From Thomas Nashe, The Terrors of the Night:
There were gates in Rome out of which nothing was carried but dust and dung, and men to execution; so, many of the gates of our senses serve for nothing but to convey out excremental vapours & affrighting deadly dreams, that are worse than executioners unto us.
From Theodor Adorno, Dream Notes:
I was due once again to be executed – like Pierrot lunaire. This time, like a pig. I was to be thrown into boiling water. I was assured that it would be completely painless, since I would be dead before I realized what was happening. I was in fact quite free of fear, merely somewhat surprised by a technical detail: immediately after the scalding, cold water would be let in, as with a hot bath. So I was thrown into the cauldron. To my ineffable astonishment, however, I did not die right away, but nor was I in any pain. However, probably because of the additional water that had been let in, I did feel a pressure that seemed to increase inexorably. I realized that if I did not succeed in waking up right away, I really would die. Managed to wake up after huge efforts (physically in a poor state, bad neuralgia, in a condition between life and death, after dreaming of a visit from Luise Rainer that lasted until deep into the night).
From Thomas Nashe, Terrors of the Night:
How many sorts there be of them no man can rightly set down, since it scarce hath been heard there were ever two men that dreamed alike. Divers have written diversely of their causes, but the best reason among them all that I could ever pick out was this, that as an arrow which is shot out of a bow is sent forth many times with such force that it flieth far beyond the mark whereat it was aimed, so our thoughts, intensively fixed all the day-time upon a mark we are to hit, are now and then overdrawn with such force that they fly beyond the mark of the day into the confines of the night. There is no man put to any torment but quaketh & trembleth a great while after the executioner hath withdrawn his hand from him. In the day-time we torment our thoughts and imaginations with sundry cares and devices; all the night-time they quake and tremble after the terror of their late suffering, and still continue thinking of the perplexities they have endured. To nothing more aptly can I compare the working of our brains, after we have unyoked and gone to bed, than to the glimmering and dazzling of a man’s eyes when he comes newly out of the bright sun into the dark shadow.
From Theodor Adorno, Dream Notes:
I dreamt that I had to take the exam for the diploma in sociology. It went badly in empirical sociology. I was asked how many columns there are in a punch card, and, as a pure guess, I said twenty. Of course, that was wrong. The situation was even worse when it came to concepts. I was given a number of English terms and was asked to give their exact meanings in empirical sociology. One term was: supportive. I translated like a good boy, giving the German words for supportive, assisting. But it turned out that in statistics it meant the precise opposite, something altogether negative. Taking pity on my ignorance, the examiner then announced that he would question me on cultural history. He showed me a German passport of 1879. It ended with the farewell greeting: ‘Now out into the world, my little wolf!’ This motto appeared in gold leaf. I was asked to explain this. I took a deep breath and explained that the use of gold for such purposes went back to Russian or Byzantine icons. The idea of the prohibition on images had been taken very seriously in those parts; only gold had been exempted. Because it was the purest metal, an exception was made for it. Its use in illustrations was followed by baroque ceilings and then by furniture intarsia, and the gold lettering in the passport was to be the last vestige of that great tradition. The examiners were delighted by the profundity of my knowledge and I passed the exam.
From Thomas Nashe, Terrors of the Night:
Even as one’s eyes glimmer and dazzle when they are withdrawn out of the light into darkness, so are our thoughts troubled & vexed when they are retired from labour to ease, and from skirmishing to surgery.

You must give a wounded man leave to groan while he is in dressing: dreaming is no other than groaning while sleep, our surgeon, hath us in cure.
From Selwyn Cudjoe's interview with Jamaica Kincaid:
I don't really think I make these distinctions between dreaming and waking. This, again, goes back to my childhood [...] Your dream could tell you things about your waking life; it illuminates your waking life. [...] I used to be quite afraid because they could tell me things I didn't want to know, and I really believed all my dreams and took them very seriously. I still do, in quite the same way. So when I write about dreams, it's not really a dream, it's something that happens, but in this way.

Le Guin being interviewed by Bill Moyers about The Lathe of Heaven movie:

Ernst Meumann, 'On Reading and Writing in Dreams':
I dreamt that I stood in an auditorium before the students and wrote on the board the results of a long development. They were the words, “The result o f a disposition is being announced.” This was the very vividly spoken conclusion of a long exposition by which I believed myself to have summarized everything in a most poignant manner. In the dream, the words greatly impressed me.
From Emil Kraepelin's dream corpus, trans. Heynick:

Jacques Derrida, Writing and Difference:
Madness, theme or index: what is significant is that Descartes, at bottom, never speaks of madness itself in this text. Madness is not his theme. He treats it as the index of a question of principle, and epistemological value. It will be said, perhaps, that this is the sign of a profound exclusion. But this silence on madness itself simultaneously signifies the opposite of an exclusion, since it is not a question of madness in this text, not even to exclude it. It is not in the Méditations that Descartes speaks of madness itself.) What must be grasped here is that from this point of view the sleeper, or the dreamer, is madder than the madman. Or, at least, the dreamer, insofar as concerns the problem of knowledge which interests Descartes here, is further from true perception than the madman. It is in the case of sleep, and not in that of extravagance, that the absolute totality of ideas of sensory origin becomes suspect, is stripped of 'objective value' as M. Guéroult put it.
Michel Foucault, 'My Body, This Paper, This Fire':
Distinct from dreams? I put it to the test: I remember dreaming that I was nodding my head. I will therefore nod my head again, here and now. Is there a difference? Yes: a certain clarity, a certain distinctness. But, and this is the second stage of the test, can this clarity and distinctness be found in the dream? Yes, I have a clear memory that it was so. Therefore what I supposed was the criterion of difference (clarity and distinctness) belongs indifferently to both dreams and waking perception; so it cannot make the difference between them.

Walter Benjamin, 'Dream Kitsch':

The history of the dream remains to be written, and opening up a perspective on this subject would mean decisively overcoming the superstitious belief in natural necessity by means of historical illumination. Dreaming has a share in history. The statistics on dreaming would stretch beyond the pleasures of the anecdotal landscape into the barrenness of a battlefield. Dreams have started wars, and wars, from the very earliest times, have determined the propriety and impropriety -- indeed, the range -- of dreams. 


Names in SFF

 "People often ask how I think of names in fantasies, and again I have to answer that I find them, that I hear them. This is an important subject in this context. From that first story on, naming has been the essence of the artmagic as practiced in Earthsea. For me, as for the wizards, to know the name of an island or a character is to know the island or the person."

Ursula K. Le Guin, 'Dreams Must Explain Themselves'

SFF names #19: Sexbot interlude

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

Monday, December 27, 2021

2021 Wrapped

This was going to be a list of 'non-work' stuff, but those lines have blurred quite a bit. 

Science fiction

Vector, the critical journal of the British Science Fiction Association. We did two issues, with me settling into my new role of editor-rumored-to-be-at-large. Editing #293 (Chinese SFF) was mostly the work of Polina Levontin and guest editors Yen Ooi and Regina Kanyu Wang, and #294 (SFF and Class) mostly that of Polina and guest editor Nick Hubble.

Cover art by Cao Fei.

Cover art by Sinjin Li.

To check these out, become a BSFA member. (Some 2019-2020 issues are also now available to download open access).

On my flying pink sofa, I zoomed around to some conferences and things. At the LSFRC conference on Activism and Resistance I gave a paper called 'Abolish Money': the text is here. And Francis Gene-Rowe and Avery Delany and I gave two versions of a panel about games, frames and flames: one at Eastercon and one at the SFRA conference. My bit was called 'Liliputopia' and was about post-scarcity and being small (like Ant-man is, sometimes): slides and notes here

ConSpire was an online mini-convention collaboration between the BSFA and the Science Fiction Foundation; sessions are on the Vector YouTube

I reviewed Kim Stanley Robinson's climate change novel The Ministry for the Future, TWIIIIICCCCEEE. Once for Aargh with some emphasis on violence, once for STIR magazine, with some emphasis on political economy.

Tuesday, December 21, 2021

Kim Stanley Robinson's The Ministry for the Future

This review is published in STIR. Consider supporting them with a purchase, donation, or subscription. I also wrote another review here.

Kim Stanley Robinson. The Ministry for the Future (Orbit, 2020). 

In contemporary science fiction, Kim Stanley Robinson is something of a titan. His books tend to be a little titanic, too: big in themselves, and about big disasters involving humans, nature, and technology. His characters are more often scientists, policymakers, and bureaucrats than space pirates or rampaging AIs, but the stakes are as high as in any multi-dimensional sci-fi caper. Sometimes those characters might save the world. Sometimes they rearrange the deck chairs.

Robinson is probably still best-known for the Mars trilogy, published in the 1990s. In good utopian fashion, it’s a tall tale in an exotic locale which, rather than being mere escapist fun, probes pressing problems in the real world. What happens on Mars doesn’t stay on Mars. No, it defamiliarises the world around us, and hopefully helps us to see its possibilities anew: if we could start from scratch (sort of), what laws and institutions would we choose? The more recent Aurora (2015) feels like a pained clarification: OK I know I wrote all the stuff about terraforming Mars, but we do only have one planet! Robinson’s chonkiest book is Green Earth (2015) originally three chonky books which adroitly explores the intersection of science, policy, and climate. It paved the way for his latest, The Ministry for the Future (2020).

The Ministry for the Future is a fizzling cornucopia pouring forth vignettes, micro-essays, lists, fictional eye-witness accounts, notes from meetings, and even prose-poem riddles, to peer ahead into the coming decades. It really tries to tell the story of the whole planet refugees, billionaires, protestors, policymakers, partygoers, carbon atoms, caribou, all of us while confessing that task to be impossible. The two threads that tie it all together are climate change, and the titular Ministry for the Future, established to

advocate for the world’s future generations of citizens, whose rights, as defined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, are as valid as our own. [...] [The Ministry] is furthermore charged with defending all living creatures present and future who cannot speak for themselves, by promoting their legal standing and physical protection [...] 

The vision laid out is guardedly optimistic. It is also evasive. Sometimes, a commitment to realism means finding ways to leave things out. Novels often tell us, “This happened, so that happened.” But this novel more often tells us, “This happened. Then that happened. Maybe they’re connected?” Nevertheless, I’ll plunge in with a summary, however crude. This novel definitely won’t be everyone’s cup of tea. The more summaries the better.

So what does Robinson’s positive vision of the future look like? I think it involves six main factors. First, Robinson imagines a proliferation of diverse economic models, at many different scales, adapted to local settings. Within that pluralism, there is an overall trend toward re-commoning and democratising. He argues that there is a postcapitalism already rooted in a patchwork of existing movements: “a rearrangement of various elements of old plans [...] Mondragón, Kerala, MMT, blockchain, Denmark, Cuba, and so on: all the elements had been out there working all along.” But he also points to the importance of planning alternative economic arrangements in the abstract, even if many details must be provisional. When a crisis strikes, there must be models to turn to. 

The second factor is speculative climate technologies. Negative emissions tech draws carbon out of the atmosphere; scientists and engineers pump water out from under glaciers in an attempt to slow their slide into the sea; planes trail aerosols into the atmosphere like plumes of artificial volcanic ash; and vast tracts of the Arctic Sea are dyed vivid butteryellow to bounce more sunlight: 

Geoengineering? Yes. Ugly? Very much so. Dangerous? Possibly. [...] Necessary? Yes. Or put it this way; the international community had decided through their international treaty system to do it. Yet another intervention, yet another experiment in managing the Earth system, in finessing Gaia. Geobegging.

The novel is careful not merely to cheerlead for geoengineering. It’s very clear that techno-fixes are no substitute for deep political and economic system change. But nor does the novel dramatise any of the worst-case geoengineering scenarios, nor explore, in the words of Climate Engineering in Context, “the unequal capacity between states to research and deploy the technologies,” or how to empower “countries and demographics that will suffer from the changed environmental conditions that result from engineering the climate.” For what it’s worth, I think Robinson is far too soft on geoengineering. The unintended consequences of climate technology (or attempts at novel technology) is an area where hard science fiction could have a lot more to say.

Third, with palpable reluctance, Robinson gives state power a leading role. Another recent novel, Cory Doctorow’s Walkaway (2017), arrives at an optimistic future via a more anarchist route. Robinson’s Ministry for the Future might be read as a tacit rejoinder, saying: some things we can’t walk away from, however much we want to. Instead, Robinson has a consortium of central banks roll out a novel financial technology. They issue a “carbon coin,” initially valued at one coin per tonne of CO2 sequestered. Robinson imagines plain old carbon taxes too, to make market prices better reflect the real social and environmental cost of goods and services. However, it’s carbon coin that gets the limelight:

[...] the proposal for a carbon coin was time-dependent, like a budget, with fixed amounts of time included in its contracts, as in bonds. New carbon coins backed by hundred-year bonds with guaranteed rates of return, underwritten by all the central banks working together. 

The logic here is that of money creation. These carbon coins are created out of nothing to pay for decarbonisation projects. The complexity of certifying decarbonisation, including the temptation to deceive especially whenever you can get paid to not do something! gets noted, but not really dwelled upon.

The fourth factor is dethroning Big Tech, and adopting its tools for new purposes. The Ministry for the Future rolls out “YourLock,” a kind of socially-owned data trust platform: “a single account on YourLock, which was organized as a co-op owned by its users, after which you had secured your data in a quantum-encrypted cage and could use it as a negotiable asset in the global data economy.” This sounds a bit better than Andrew Yang’s recent Data Dividend proposal (“Yang’s data dividend would ultimately reinforce existing inequities by playing corporations’ own game,” writes Edward Ongweso Jr. in Vice), although the devil’s in the details. The novel is also keen on blockchain, especially as a tool against tax evasion. However, it doesn’t dwell much on the carbon footprint of blockchain at scale (the Cambridge Bitcoin Electricity Consumption Index would be a good reference here), or how useful a cashless society can be to authoritarian surveillance and control (something Brett Scott has written about eloquently).

Rewilding and ecological restoration, including the creation of huge wildlife corridors, is the fifth major factor in this optimistic narrative. In a way, the novel itself is mimicking the goal of the Ministry for the Future. It seeks to uplift voices, to unstop the myriad strange throats strewn throughout nature. A vast and varied polyphony is assembled here, encompassing the human and more-than-human world. The novel even plays with non-human first person narration. These chapters are gleefully, nuttily anthropomorphic. It's not a sober, philosophical search for “what it is truly like to be a carbon atom”; it’s more like the carbon atom popping up like Clippie: “It looks like you’re trying to make the planet unlivable! Would you like some help?” 

I think there are two wolves inside Kim Stanley Robinson. There is a strong reverence for the sanctity of the more-than-human universe. And there is the reverence for the extremely human scientific and bureaucratic nature-based solutions that rewilded those two damn wolves in the first place. One inspiration is the Half-Earth Project, “working to conserve half the land and sea to safeguard the bulk of biodiversity, including ourselves.” So while there is a chapter about what might be the founding of a new religion “to express our love, to take the responsibilities that come with being stewards of this earth, devotees of this sacred space, one planet, one planet,” it’s really in this preoccupation with wildlife corridors plus a few scattered scenes of natural description, as characters skirt over Antarctic ice, or observe the revelry of marmots amid Alpine wildflowers that Robinson conveys a sense of nature’s inherent value.

The novel also commendably pulls together the perspectives of slaves, prisoners, refugees, the displaced, the grief-stricken, the heat-scarred. At the same time, I do wonder about weighting and emphases here. For instance, refugees are an important part of the story, but a passive one. A new generation of Nansen passports are introduced, as international protection for the world’s vast and growing refugee population. But we don’t really see them in use. Similarly, popular protest and grassroots activism is declared every bit as significant as the politicking of politicians and non-government organisations ... but don’t quite get the column inches to prove it, notwithstanding some euphoric revolutionary fervor in France, plus some amazing stamina from Hong Kong. Automation and post-work imaginaries don’t really feature at all.

Then there are the paramilitary actors. And here we have this optimistic vision’s final puzzle piece. Blowing up things and often people. These paramilitary campaigns aren’t Leninist vanguards trying to seize state power. Rather, they aim to change the environment in which commercial power operates. “After several years of container ships being sunk on a regular basis, taken out by drone torpedoes of ever-increasing speed and power, the shipping industry had finally begun adapting to the new situation.” At the same time, this violence isn’t just about incentive design. It’s also about self-defense, desire, justice, and revenge. It is personal.

It was a question of identifying the guilty and then finding them and getting to them. The research and detective work was done by another wing. A lot of the guilty were in hiding, or on fortress islands or otherwise protected. 

The paramilitary action happens mostly off-stage, like the battles of Ancient Greek tragedies. Mainly the novel focuses Mary and Frank, two characters at the edges of this underground war. At first I strongly disliked that decision.  For a novel usually so intent on solutions, however uncomfortable and uncertain, it didn’t feel right to depend so much on these paramilitary operations, yet say so little about them: like they were someone else’s problems. But I think the decision has grown on me. Frank and Mary are at least what Vicky Osterweil calls “not-non-violent.” Frank seeks to join a paramilitary cell and is rejected; he tries to operate as a lone wolf but flounders. Mary heads up the Ministry, and approves the finances for its black ops wing, although she has no real idea what they’re up to. These are perhaps stories that don’t get told often enough: the stories of folks who don’t find themselves on the front lines, yet who also don’t distance themselves psychologically, politically, or ethically from those struggles. They do what they can. 

If this is an optimistic vision of the future, let’s remember what counts as optimistic in 2020. This is still a future which contains almost unimaginable suffering and loss. Robinson gives us a glimpse of that, quite early on. Then he largely sets it aside. That early glimpse lingers throughout the book, and beyond. 

There is plenty to quarrel with in this book. It is a book about blundering on with as much wisdom and hope as you can muster, and it puts its carbon coin where its mouth is. A book like this is meant to spark conversation. I hope some sparks fly.

Slightly tweaked from published version.

Sunday, December 12, 2021

Conjurations #1: Reliquary

Conjurations is a new free TTRPG zine from Conjured Games, and the first issue, Reliquary, has a loose theme of relics. I contributed curator's notes on some cursed objects, drawn by Ewerton Lua for last year's Inktober challenge.

Applied Hope games jam

A slow games jam Sad Press Games and Vagrant Ludology ran this summer, acting as a strange attractor for an amazing cluster of utopia and solarpunk themed tabletop roleplaying games and miscellaneous other things. Check them out.

Sunday, November 28, 2021

Abolish Money

This was originally given as a paper at the London Science Fiction Community's Activism and Resistance conference in 2021.

By money, of course, I don’t just mean coins and banknotes. I mean money itself. This paper is, like much science fiction studies, and much science fiction, about what is unthinkable, and what is thinkable. And it's about what conditions sustain the thinkability of the thinkable, and how those conditions transform over time.

I propose that until quite recently, the abolition of money has been unthinkable

This may come as a surprise to some of us. For instance, to Fredric Jameson, whose genealogy of Utopia begins with the fact that Thomas More could fantasize the complete elimination of money from social life: money for Jameson leading an “enclave existence” in More’s early modern moment.

I don’t think this is quite right, because I suspect Jameson exaggerates the limited and sporadic presence of money in early modern rural England, if we identify money not only with coin, but more broadly with transferable credit. 

But also, more significantly, I don't think this is quite right, because I'm not convinced that money really is completely erased from More’s Utopia

More represents Utopia within a world system, and he states pretty straightforwardly that the Utopians keep reserves of gold and silver to pay for mercenaries, to place bounties on the heads of belligerent princes, or to bribe those princes. Within Utopia, gold and silver are prominent in the material infrastructure that extracts forced labor from incarcerated bodies, since it is from these precious metals that the Utopians fashion the fetters for their slaves. Out-of-town Utopian merchants also enslave and import condemned criminals, and More is quite clear that they pick up a bargain or two. 

So is this money erased? Or is this money demystified? Money shown, very clearly, doing what money does?

More, I think, could not think the abolition of money, though it’s true he tried. This pattern of fudged and bungled and half-hearted abolition appears again and again in utopian literature and then in speculative fiction. 

I want to give you some examples. In Edward Bellamy’s late nineteenth century Looking Backward: 2000-1887, a time traveller visits a future United States where all forms of production and distribution are governed as one big commons. In Bellamy’s post-capitalist economy, each of us contributes equally onerous labor, and each of us receives an equal credit allowance, to claim from the national cornucopia. ‘Prices’ are algorithmically generated, as a rough estimate of the relative difficulty of producing each good. So is this a post-money future? 

The more closely you inspect Bellamy’s credit book system, the more you suspect that this is not money abolished, but money metamorphosed. For example: 

“By the way,” said I, “talking of literature, how are books published now? Is that also done by the nation?”

Any author, it turns out, if they self-publish from their allocated credit, may collect and live off royalties. But Bellamy did not anticipate buyer motives beyond aesthetic pleasure, and so he let slip into his design the seeds of an entire regime of speculation and accumulation based on the legal form of the literary work. Just to give you a glimpse, imagine the oligarch who can buy 10,000 copies of any book to welcome its author to join their elite stratum, and who plies this power to string along hundreds of thousands of readers slash budding authors slash investors. 

Or take Samuel R. Delany’s 1970s ambiguous heterotopia, Trouble on Triton, which is very consciously and explicitly post-money. Yet what Delany calls “money” turns out to be more or less “cash,” coins and banknotes. The protagonist receives digital “credit” which they seem to be able to transfer freely for goods and services. The material shift from money objects strewn throughout the hands and coats and sofas of users, to a digital infrastructure where users have far less control over the legibility of their transactions to powerful actors (including but not limited to the state), is certainly not incidental, but it does not amount to money abolition. Consider that most money, upward of 90%, is already numbers on bank spreadsheets.

Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower and Parable of the Talents are near future dystopian works which I think are notable for their portrayal of money’s resilience even amidst the collapse of rule of law. 

On the one hand, Butler verges on the absurdity of a video game where in the midst of hyperviolent Hobbesian bellum omnium contra omnes you can always stumble over to a friendly shopkeeper with a stock of context-appropriate healing potions. Putting Parable uncomfortably close not to right libertarianism per se, but to sharing right libertarianism’s rejection of money as a creature of the state.  

On the other hand, Butler’s work is still keenly aware of money as set of tools within history, whose significance is not predetermined. Money is never transcendentalized as a feature all functioning human societies above a certain complexity threshold. This awareness comes money’s mixed relationship with one of the duology’s main concerns -- slavery, both of the chattel kind, and indentured servitude whereby slaves formally receive wages which go right back to their ‘employers’ for room, board, and interest on unpayably large debt.

In Iain M. Banks’s post-scarcity Culture series I would suggest that drones and ship’s avatars allegorically enact monetary logic, and in his Look to Windward as soon as there is a scarce resource, coveted tickets to a music concert, a system of liquidity suspiciously like money is immediately invented.

These many noble failures to fully imagine the end of money find their counterparts in mainstream macroeconomics’s more ignoble failure even to fully imagine what money is. In brief, money is (a) elucidated via three or four functions, which conflate is and ought, behavior and purpose; (b) defined to exclude innumerable more-than-capitalist indigenous moneys, media, and social technologies; (c) given an incoherent origin story which smuggles capitalist subjectivities and norms into a conjectural primordial barter society.

Money abolition is becoming more thinkable in Cory Doctorow’s 2003 Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom, which imagines a modest and limited economic hierarchy based on techno-magically mutualized knowledge of how grateful everyone is to everyone else; a sort of ideal meritocracy. But it is on the one hand, quite rightly, a very ambiguous utopia, with prescient reservations about surveillance, and about generalized incentive to cultivate a personal brand. And secondly, what fascinates me, is one moment, a key plot point, when it breaks its own rules and portrays its fantastical system temporarily behaving just like money.

Still, I think something profound is shifting here. More recently Karen Lord’s The Galaxy Game, Adam Roberts’s By The Pricking of Her Thumb, and Tochi Onyebuchi’s ‘How to Pay Reparations: A Documentary’  work at similar points of tension; Lord envisioning a dual sphere gift economy which fails to feel at all liberating, Roberts picturing incumbent elites scheming to find a new source of scarcity and therefore money and power, as Virtual Reality threatens us with peace and paradise; Onyebuchi imagining not a failed attempt to abolish money but something nearby: an attempt to recode money’s circulation to complete the abolition of slavery via algorithmic reparations.

So why might money abolition be becoming more thinkable? In a moment I will propose why. But first, I wonder if you are wondering: Why should money be abolished? How can money be abolished?

Why should money be abolished? 

Money should be abolished because it unfairly favors the wealthy over the poor.

But that sounds a little flippant. Let's try again. Why should money be abolished? 

Maybe I don’t want to answer this question right now. But I do want to resist answering it in two quite distinct ways.

First I want to reject thinking of money abolition as any kind of panacea. There are certainly post-money futures which are straightforwardly dystopian. 

But second, I'd argue that motives for abolishing money are incredibly pervasive.  Money has been subject to fierce moral criticism for centuries. But because money abolition has been for so long unthinkable, we steer these criticisms, expressively and interpretatively, in a different direction. 

Why not fund global access to Covid vaccines? Why do the cleaners get paid less than I do? Why fund fossil fuels exploration, instead of renewables, negative emissions technologies, and mitigation and resilience initiatives? I’d encourage us, for the moment, to think of money as a technological tool. It is a tool whose specific uses are frequently criticized. Did you actually buy that sweater? Did you actually commission those nuclear warheads? The point is that any of these criticisms can be reimagined: not, “Is the tool being used incorrectly?” but “Is this even the right tool?” Dissatisfaction with the tool is so widespread, across the political spectrum, I suspect that it is usually not. 

How should money be abolished? I can try to do it by myself, but I’m very busy. But three points. 

One, let’s acknowledge the more-than-capitalist world. Gift economies, kinship economies, mutual aid, more or less democratic and/or deliberative bureaucracies, material balances accounting, decision support tools, alternative and complementary moneys, time banks and LETS schemes, Indigenous moneys, the accounting practices of Net Zero transitions and the biometric practices of wellbeing interventions, the speculative currencies of science fiction, the avant-garde financial experiments of artists and activists. 

In connection with this first point I can offer, in a bewitching concoction of euphoria and grumpiness, two challenges. I would like speculative fiction writers to weave their futures with a greater variety of mechanisms for organising desires and resources. Would like to see more post-money and more alternative money futures. And I would like to see more utopian and SF studies scholars take advantage of the extraordinary leeway our discipline gives us, to surface and strengthen the radical post-money potentials in books and media and in everyday experience. For example, every game is a miniature economic system, and harbors potential that can be subjected to design and scaling. Too often, in practice, SF studies simply observes how a science fiction text exemplifies some theory, supposedly estranging or questioning some hierarchy or norm or binary. 

Two, let us acknowledge reversibility. Things can be done in more-or-less monetised ways, with complex implications; captured in the difference between driving yourself or cadging a lift with a friend or hitchhiking vs. calling a taxi or an uber. So when areas of social life have been financialised, they can be de-financialised, perhaps not back to what they were, but to new forms. 

Sticking with money as a technology, there is already a rich body of literature exploring how we might step back from harmful technologies; for example, Langdon Winner’s epistemological Luddism and Ivan Illich’s tools for conviviality are starting points for practical analyses of the use of money in a given context. Maybe money has, all along, been a kind of AI. That opens the possibility of reprogramming it.

Three, let us acknowledge the possibility of incremental progress. Police abolition theorists and activists encounter plenty of hostility and disbelief from folk who have simply never considered that the safeguarding functions that police are supposed to do and sometimes do do can be distributed in different ways across society. Post-work gets scoffed at by those who have not yet discovered, altering the culture of shame around non-monetised. Money abolition, like police abolition and like work abolition, is not so much about subtracting something from the world, as multiplying and cultivating what already exists in the more-than-capitalist world around us. Indeed I suspect these are all aspects of the same project.

So finally, why do I think that money abolition has become more thinkable? Well, because perhaps it is happening. I’m not sure whether it’s useful to contest whether techno-capital’s recent changes represent a radical break, a new regime of accumulation, or merely an inflection or intensification of post-Fordist or post-industrial or neoliberal dynamics. The specific labels aren’t that important. But there are certainly features of contemporary capitalism, with its myriad digital value forms including cryptocurrency and commodified big data, with its ongoing data-driven wave of AI and automation, that are not well-captured by, say, earlier critical theory’s emphasis on reification and alienation. The archetypal subject of capitalism is not homo economicus the isolated, atomic, utility-maximising agent whose inner life can only be vaguely inferred from its economic behavior, but rather a richly connected and reflective social being whose inner life and sociability are at least ostensibly legible in the vast amounts of available data. We cannot straightforwardly call the decisive steering media of contemporary capitalism ‘de-linguistified,’ as Jurgen Habermas did almost half a century ago. In short, perhaps capitalism no longer needs money. 

We might say, then, we need to abolish money, before it abolishes itself.