ST Picard, Republic Day, the values of Starfleet, and those left behind

ST Picard, Republic Day, the values of Starfleet, and those left behind

Today is 26th January. The Indian Republic Day. And I resume my blog in 2020. Before I get to the idea of what it means to be a republic, or indeed, what any of this means to me, I will turn to something that has been a key influence on my life. Star Trek: The Next Generation, and more specifically, Jean-Luc Picard.

Star Trek: Picard is now finally here with its global premiere. Patrick Stewart reprises his role of Jean-Luc Picard, now retired Starfleet Admiral. Picard is very much a show of its time, and the best few moments of an all too rapidly paced first episode are in the FNN interview scene where Picard does what Picard does best. Give a short, yet, strong speech about Starfleet’s core values.

Picard: “The Romulans asked for our help. And I believed we had a profound obligation to give it.”

Interviewer: “Many felt there were better uses for our resources than aiding the Federation’s oldest enemy.”

Picard: “Well fortunately the Federation chose to support the rescue effort.”

Interviewer: “Yes. Initially.”

Picard: “I have been known to be persuasive. But the Federation understood there were millions of lives at stake.”

Interviewer: “Romulan lives.”

Picard: “No. Lives.”

The interview continues. Picard mentions that the rescue effort’s historical analogy is not the Pyramids, but Dunkirk. And Picard tells us the real reason for leaving Starfleet: “Because it was no longer Starfleet! We withdrew. The galaxy was mourning, burying its dead, and Starfleet had slunk from its duties. The decision to call off the rescue, and to abandon those people we had sworn to save was not just dishonorable. It was downright criminal!” He then brings up Dunkirk again, berating the interviewer for her lack of historical knowledge, before his closure: “You are a stranger to history. You are a stranger to war. You just wave your hand, and, pfft, it all goes away. Well, it’s not so easy for those who died. And it was not so easy for those who were left behind.”

For those of us who happen to be migrants, or darker skinned, Dunkirk is a sour note in what should have been a great speech (and it perhaps is for many).[i] But Dunkirk has been in the news not that long ago, due to a grandiose Christopher Nolan film. Dunkirk in this Nolan imaginary is a moment that England, at the time of Brexit, global far-right and nationalist resurgence, can see as uniquely its own, a moment of its stellar heroism. Nolan was accused of whitewashing, raising “Englishness” and English-heroism when the many heroes of WWII narrative included the larger British Empire, which include the many Asians and Africans who were part of the Allied effort. [ii] Dunkirk the film is anti-Nazi in its historical sentiment, and profoundly English in its emotional landscape at the same time. Yet Dunkirk is not a story of Englishness or national exception. It wasn’t and shouldn’t be. It was the story of many multitudes of nations, other European, Asian, and African nations. But to see this one has to look outside the bubbles of nationalist space-time. As Churchill and his racism dictated policies that led to the devastation of the Bengal famine two years after the events of Dunkirk,[iii] soldiers of the “Empire” shed their blood fighting for the future of the planet, under whatever banner they could have had at the time. That Picard brings up Dunkirk is unsurprising. For those whose reference point is the film however, Picard’s reference to Dunkirk serves the opposite purpose. It recreates English exceptionalism in a narrative about the future. It endorses the English identity that stoked and continues to stoke its virulent anti-European, xenophobic, nationalist, sentiments.

But the reference to Dunkirk to me is not a sour note because of the film – although that contributes to it, but because Picard’s speech does something else – it also somehow sullies the very core of what is the best thing about Star Trek to someone who has been a Trekkie and a fan of Picard forever – the core values of Starfleet. Picard’s speech dismisses one example of human endeavour (one from ancient history and slavery) while using another form of human achievement as exemplary (one from modern history and the era of brutal colonialism). What is left behind in the former is the pyramids and the politics of glorified nostalgia, and Picard is right to dismiss it. What is left behind of the latter is nationalist ethnocentric exceptionalism, which has no place as an admirable time inside or outside the ST universe.

History is always more complicated. Look at who died, and who was left behind. Look at what is left behind.

Thus when Picard brings us to the question of Starfleet values, in what would be the perfect moment for the return of a long admired figure, all I had was the question: did Starfleet ever actually have those values to begin with? Indeed, Starfleet has been notoriously callous to the rights of other species, which has also been at the heart of some of the best Trek episodes. Picard’s speeches – the best of them, have been in defense of principles that Starfleet has mouthed in principle but been indifferent to in practice. The Prime Directive’s Vietnam War roots are well known. But the reason Star Trek has always been my show – and will continue to be – is something that is in spite of Star Trek perhaps. If on the one side there is Dunkirk, on the other there is the defense of an idea that makes Picard say Lives instead of differentiating between Romulan and Human or Federation lives. If Dunkirk is a political statement, so is this. At a time of geopolitical crises, where it seems we are all too quick to dismiss some lives over others, or value some lives over others, it is the sole purpose of this statement to challenge any form of exceptionalism. And rightly so, for this exceptionalism is yet again (as it always has) leading to the new aggressive politics of oppression and violence from one corner of the globe to another. One ethnicity over another, one nation over another, one religion over another, one gender over another. The ostensible core ideals of Starfleet, howsoever they may perform, are an attack on this politics. It is also the one that is at the heart of Picard’s first appearance in the Star Trek universe in TNG, and why Picard remains “my captain” and has served as an inspiration for all my life. It’s a form of possible politics, where we are not perfect but where we must always strive to be better than we are, a quest without an endpoint. A form of politics that is needed more than ever at a time when the planet is burning and these exceptionalisms take increasingly more efficient genocidal forms. And these genocides are based on a politics of nostalgia enmeshed in the logic of technocapitalism. We chain many possible futures with the ghosts of pasts. Because, like the mythos of Dunkirk, the empire never ends. Historical details and history are profoundly important. But we must not elevate a politics of nostalgia and instead look upon history as the record of us that is consistently necessary and shameful, as the artefact whose mistakes we must consciously grow beyond.

And this brings us to the Republic Day, 26th January, to the idea of India. To many, the idea of India is always under attack by outside forces as often as by internal ones. But the events of the recent past, countrywide protests seem to have made our fissures and unities visible around the world yet again. I have grown up with this. With the politics of unities, diversities, hatreds, and reconciliations. All descendants of the partition people – the refugees – in the subcontinent have. The politics of nostalgia for another time, before “we” lost our lands and lives, our homes and livelihoods, before the lines between us and them were clearly drawn for the first time shaping the experience of every one of us in the whole subcontinent. But for the partition people our home is never one we can envision ever returning to. Permanent refugees in the world locked in the traumatic birth of nations. Or one might just as easily call it the xenophobic geno/xeno-cidal moment where we decided that our identity was to be imprisoned in the confines of whatever identity our ancestors imprinted on us as that which would be forever ours, for generations, and many generations, to the end of whatever time we could imagine. The exact politics that shapes us to this day.

Like any such national celebration, the Republic Day also celebrates a foundational moment. It is a moment of pride, of independence, of becoming a nation, it is a moment of celebrating the sacrifices of those who came before us. It is also a profoundly nostalgic moment for the absolute beauty of our constitution and the rules, rights, and duties, to which we are bound. Yet the truth is that the Constitution of India is as much an open document as any, it can be changed, amended, and transformed, as time progresses. It is at the mercy of time, and its values and principles are not absolute, but temporary, and we who are the citizens that are bound by it are also the agents of its change. Our populist politics may determine what changes happen to the constitution, including changes that may be profoundly against any idea of peace and happiness and the healthy coexistence of all people that live on a patch of land. When we thus celebrate the Republic Day, and the constitution of India, we are celebrating an interim document. And perhaps we must defend it again and again, its best values, just as we defend the values of Starfleet, and raise it as a slogan and as mantra, but that’s not where we can stop. Our ideas of coexistence must exist beyond the constitution – we must shape the constitution to accommodate more realms of the possible rather than letting the constitution alone determine our possibles. But before we can imagine or make this future constitution, we must shape our politics towards a future that is not based on nostalgia or purity or nationalism. Unhappy is the land that needs a hero. Brecht wrote these lines sandwiched between the Nazis and Hiroshima. Unless we can see the need to think beyond heroes and heroism (even if the hero is a Picard), beyond the exceptionals to the everyday, whether pyramids or Dunkirk or republics or independence or nations or soldiers or wars, can we ever get there?

I am not sure all this makes any sense to anyone other than me, and this is a personal blog after all. And it is perhaps an all too simple position. It is the kind of position one sees from Don Quixote when he sees the chained criminals and sets them free. Quixote simply believes that it is his duty is to get rid of oppression. That duty extends to one and all, and it does not matter if the oppressed are criminals. In our troubled times it seems to be a ridiculous perspective. And perhaps the most necessary one.


[i] Some of Picard’s best speeches are defenses of the rights of other beings, including Data (“The Measure of a Man”), and this particular speech echoes the famous one from Star Trek: Insurrection (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_cXBy1SbPgk)
[ii] https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2017/aug/01/indian-african-dunkirk-history-whitewash-attitudes
[iii] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Churchill%27s_Secret_War
Begumpura by Ravidas (aka the first Indian utopia)

Begumpura by Ravidas (aka the first Indian utopia)

This came up during the desert lab project, so I thought it would be a good idea to have a place where the original and the translation could be seen alongside each other. Begumpura by the Bhakti poet Sant Ravidas (c.1450 – c.1520)  is not the first utopia from India (that belongs to the mythological realm), but it can certainly be considered one of the first speculative utopian places from the subcontinental imagination.

रविदास : बेगमपुरा   /  /  Ravidas : Begumpura

बेगम पुरा सहर को नाउ।।
दूखु अंदोहु नहीं तिहि ठाउ।।
नां तसवीस खिराजु न मालु।।
खउफु न खता न तरसु जवालु।।1।।
अब मोहि खूब वतन गह पाई।।
ऊहां खैरि सदा मेरे भाई ।।1।। रहाउ।।
काइमु दाइमु सदा पातिसाही।।
दोम न सेम एक सो आही।।
आबादानु सदा मसहूर।।
ऊहां गनी बसहि मामूर।।2।।
तिउ तिउ सैल करहि जिउ भावै।।
महरम महल न को अटकावै।।
कहि रविदास खलास चमारा।।
जो हम सहरी सु मीतु हमारा।।3।। (पन्ना 345)
The regal realm with the sorrowless name:
they call it Begumpura, a place with no pain,
No taxes or cares, none owns property there,
no wrongdoing, worry, terror, or torture.
Oh my brother, I’ve come to take it as my own,
my distant home where everything is right.
That imperial kingdom is rich and secure,
where none are third or second – all are one;
They do this or that, they walk where they wish,
they stroll through fabled palaces unchallenged.
Oh, says Ravidas, a tanner now set free,
those who walk beside me are my friends.

Source for the original: https://www.punjabkesari.in/dharm/news/sri-guru-ravidas-jis-prakash-utsav-746842

Translation: Songs of the Saints of India, edited by Hawley and Juergensmeyer, page 32, sourced here: http://roundtableindia.co.in/lit-blogs/?p=1968

Doing Things with SF and Speculation

Doing Things with SF and Speculation

There is a perception that SF is about predicting the future. While that may be the case for some SF, far more common is SF that deals with trends, and buried in those trends, possibilities, while other SF is more in the nature of what-ifs and general speculation. SF thus may or may not be technological, although to maintain a semblance of difference from garden-variety fantasy it often has the veneer of the technoscientific as a distinguishing feature. I have discussed SF previously as a composite of technological futurism, epistemological futurism, and conditions of possibility, in other words that takes the future as a starting point for thinking about possible presents, but that description works only for a certain kind of SF, as all descriptions do. More specifically, that description of SF works for the kind of SF that I find interesting as a researcher, as this kind of SF helps me think through certain problems and questions I am dealing with.

This kind of SF has been seen as useful by any number of organizations, including think tanks and governments, who think that SF provides particularly fertile grounds for speculating about future societies and technologies. Both NASA and ESA have had numerous projects drawing upon SF.[1] Just a few months ago, newspapers widely reported the French Government recruiting SF writers for assistance in military strategy (the truth is a little more complex than that, but not by much).[2] There are any number of websites out there which focus on what SF got right and what it didn’t (or hasn’t yet) when it came to predictions about future technologies.[3] Within natural science domains, SF often turns up as a general thinking tool, allowing the kind of gee-whiz excitement about possible technologies and ideas that may or may not be feasible. In many cases, people and organizations also actively work towards making such ideas real, or at least exploring the possibilities of translating some ideas into reality.[4] A whole bunch of innovations literature has used SF to think with possibilities in technoscientific development. University centers such as the Arthur C Clarke Center for Human Imagination at UC San Diego,[5] and the Center for Science and the Imagination at Arizona State University[6] have done an incredible job thinking with the science and science fiction model, dealing with a wide variety of imaginative responses to global problems such as climate change. Such responses have also spawned new tools and methodologies such as prototype fiction, coined by Intel’s Brian David Johnson, which encourage prototyping both ideas and effects of SFnal technologies that are within the realm of possibility.

Yet, when talking about SF, three main problems remain. First, how does one create a process for such speculative thinking that can be used by people with SF or non-SF interests, such that speculation itself is seen generally as a positive activity: an essential part of rather than dissociated from reality. This is not a problem unique to SF, it is a problem for other speculative genres such as fantasy or fairytale and folklore. But the problem is particularly acute when discussing SF, since folklore and fairytale at least have a certain cultural claim which SF lacks in most parts of the world. Second, how do we encourage speculation that is geared towards more positive possibilities. Much speculation today is dystopic, which is unsurprising given the state of the world, where climate change, demographic change, and technological change cause numerous anxieties about the future. but one of the advantages of speculation is that it can help us think past those mental and social blocks. As Samuel Delany put it in his Paris Review interview, “Science fiction isn’t just thinking about the world out there. It’s also thinking about how that world might be—a particularly important exercise for those who are oppressed, because if they’re going to change the world we live in, they—and all of us—have to be able to think about a world that works differently.”[7] Third, how do we ensure that those who most need it to think of possibilities use such tools and strategies effectively: the marginalized, the oppressed, and the suffering. By effective, I mean to say that these speculations are seen, heard, and taken seriously, and such speculations are not co-opted into technocratic or technofascistic views or co-opted into top-down managerial visions.

There are no easy answers to these, but luckily I can at least work on some of these problems in the next years. I also intend to investigate strategies used by others to address these same problems, and explore if some of these strategies can be scaled up or distributed when talking about the globe.

 


 

[1] For instance, check out this cool project Innovative Technologies from Science Fiction for Space Applications, edited by David Raitt (https://www.esa.int/esapub/br/br176/br176.pdf)

[2] https://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-49044892

[3] Perhaps the most comprehensive source of such hits and misses is the technovelgy database: http://technovelgy.com/

[4] NANORA, the EU Nano Regions Alliance that focuses on nanotechnology, has done cool things with nanotech ideas in science fiction literature. http://www.nanora.eu/nano-dimension-science-fiction

[5] http://imagination.ucsd.edu/index.html

[6] https://csi.asu.edu/

[7] Delany, Samuel R. “The Art of Fiction No. 210.” Interview by Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah. The Paris Review, Issue 197, Summer 2011. https://www.theparisreview.org/interviews/6088/samuel-r-delany-the-art-of-fiction-no-210-samuel-r-delany.

Oslo School of Environmental Humanities: Opening Conference

Oslo School of Environmental Humanities: Opening Conference

So yesterday I was at “Nordic Environments,” the opening conference of the Oslo School of Environmental Humanities.

Oslo School of Environmental Humanities (OSEH)[i] is the Faculty of Humanities and UniOslo’s flagship 5 year research and education initiative for the environmental humanities (EnvHum). While OSEH has been in operation for nearly a year, under the leadership of director Ursula Muenster (Associate Professor at the Department of Culture Studies and Oriental Languages) and some of the coolest people at the Faculty of Humanities, UniOslo, the opening conference[ii] was a celebration of the different kinds of initiatives and dialogues that OSEH has facilitated or participated in both at the university level and the wider public level over this year, as well as a statement of its goals and projects over the next years. The conference was held at SALT,[iii] which was an unusual location for an academic conference for those outside Scandinavia, being a “nomadic art project”, sauna, and exhibition space. However, it fit well with the Norwegian celebration of nature, the environmental focus of OSEH and its desire to promote interdisciplinary knowledge production including the arts, as well as the general academic goal of increasing public participation and bidirectional knowledge transfer. OSEH has also been doing it with a number of cool events, such as their EnvHum lunchtime discussions (check out the OSEH webpages for more!), so in that sense having a venue outside the university space made sense.

Due to other commitments, I was unable to attend the post-lunch panel, but I did manage to attend the morning sessions as well as the full evening program. So what follows are some general and haphazard thoughts on the event, and some of my takeaways from the opening day.

* Heather Swanson’s keynote: this was an amazing keynote, not only because Swanson is an engaging speaker, but because the topic was “failure”, which is an increasingly relevant theme for our times. The failure ranges from the personal (managing precarity; reviewer two etc., themes that came up during the Q&A session as well), to the disciplinary (true “interdisciplinary” exchanges between humanities, natural sciences, and social sciences; having an actual impact on the state of affairs in the world etc.), to the academic-political (increasing corporatization of public sector institutions; failure to facilitate meaningful and progressive political change in these times of political crisis; balancing research responsibility with other kinds of political activity, balancing environmental, queer, and left activism, etc.). Swanson’s talk brilliantly and beautifully captured all these failures, and went beyond them.

There was one issue for me however and that was the notion of genre and breaking genre. But it was “more a comment than a question” so it was better to write it out than bring it up in the conference space. From my literary training standpoint, genres are always already broken. There is no such thing as a “pure” genre, and therefore breaking genre doesn’t make sense. This goes as much for an academic lecture as it does for academic writing, or self-presentation, or performance. It also brings up another issue, as visual anthropologist and my friend Moumita Sen puts it: there are many occasions where it makes no sense to subvert the subversion, because it only serves to bring us back to the status quo. This is particularly an issue when constant subversion becomes the norm to such an extent that the only way one can “subvert” is by being apolitical, or by being strongly against political correctness. In the last few years, we have seen some strong instances of “breaking genre,” such as dressing informally for an academic talk which have been nothing more than reinstatement of the status quo in different forms. Take as example Matt Taylor’s misogynist t-shirt which sparked quite a debate a few years ago – because on the one hand it did subvert the genre of serious academic talk, while reinforcing the general misogynistic problem within STEM and academia.[iv] At what point do we set the limits of subversion, at what point is breaking genre a valid exercise, and when does it become yet another capitalist way of marking the path of progress: innovation as the continuous breaking of genre? The question of failure can also lead one down the same path – what really constitutes a failure if it is a “productive failure” (after all, science and knowledge progress through failures), or if it is the seed of something else (particularly true of political revolutions, when we talk about the “failure” of Occupy or the Ukrainian Orange Revolution or the Arab Spring)?

Swanson did distance herself from the problems I raise here, especially during Q&A when she emphatically asserted that her objective to bring up “failure” was not a call to abandon political struggle, or academic work, or any of those things, nor was her call for productive failure a Silicon Valley-esque call for innovation. And I agree with her that they are not, but they are connected and the problems raised by using the same strategies towards progress and conservative ends are not easy to ignore.  This, and the problem of genre and breaking genre, are also at the heart of the CoFutures argument, so a lot of these are thoughts that came up due to my own preoccupations rather than Swanson’s talk alone, but I raise them to point to the richness of her talk and the concerns she brought up. I am not sure some of these contradictions can be resolved. I will just mention in context the epigraph by Nic Pizzolatto in Caitlín R. Kiernan’s Agents of Dreamland, which is on top of my tbr pile at the moment, that an answer isn’t the same thing as a solution.[v]

*Another question that Swanson raised was the point about “Environmental Humanities” as a problem term, and how “environment” serves as a boundary object that allows negotiations with other disciplines, while humanities serves to exclude interdisciplinary collaborations. Somehow, she argued, we are stuck with it, even though EnvHum should perhaps be called not- environment, and not-humanities. This was a fun idea to think with, because a lot of us have similar problems with the term science fiction.

*Speaking of SF, Muenster ended her introduction with a list of six powerful women who have transformed our way of thinking, and she included two people those of us in the SFF field are proud to think of as our own in some ways: Ursula Le Guin and Donna Haraway.[vi] SFF and EnvHum have never been far apart, and CoFutures will also focus on these connections, including eco-fiction, environmental literature, climate fiction, anthropocene fictions, etc. There is a lot to say and I will write about it at some other point, but it was really wonderful that she brought it up.

*Interventions: the evening programme is worth focusing on. Muenster and OSEH created a packed but extremely engaging programme with speakers from public organizations, artists, architects, and finally, a concert with Sami Joik artist Vassvik.[vii] In brief presentations, we learnt about GrowLab which stages urban interventions in the Oslo city space, marine creatures in the inner Oslo fjord, the popping and crackling sounds of oxygen escaping the slowly declining iceshelves of the Arctic from the Future North project, about Natur og Ungdom and the anti-oil drilling climate lawsuit brought about by children, youth, and others against the Norwegian government, a supremely tragicomic performance by Kristy Kross (dressed as a fish) about extinction adapted to “Don’t Worry Be Happy”, and a presentation of the weird Anthropocene Cookbook. The broad range of topics and presentations, with the common theme of anthropogenic climate change but focusing on it from a variety of lenses from legal perspectives to aesthetic concerns to overconsumption to neoliberal capitalism to settler colonialism, offered us a snapshot of academic, political, and artistic ways of strategizing for a common cause, and the ambition of OSEH to work across disciplines and initiate different kinds of discussions going forward. And the concert that brought it all to a close was out of this world.

Altogether, it was a perfect day. Many congratulations to the organizers and OSEH putting this amazing event together! I am really excited about the next years!

 


[i] https://www.hf.uio.no/english/research/strategic-research-areas/oseh/

[ii] https://www.hf.uio.no/english/research/strategic-research-areas/oseh/news-and-events/news/opening.html

[iii] https://www.salted.no/

[iv] https://www.theguardian.com/science/2014/nov/13/why-women-in-science-are-annoyed-at-rosetta-mission-scientists-clothing

[v] https://www.amazon.com/dp/0765394324

[vi] https://people.ucsc.edu/~haraway/PilgrimAward.html

[vii] https://grappa.no/en/artist/vassvik/

 

The “Origins” of the CoFutures project

The “Origins” of the CoFutures project

CoFutures originates in the different strands of engagement with future fictions and science fiction that have emerged in the last couple of decades. These new future fictions are a response to the predominantly Anglophone, predominantly ethnic white, imaginaries of the future that have been common in future oriented fictions and science fiction. This limitation in the availability of possible futures can be seen in the works that are available internationally, in the more prominently highlighted non-fiction narratives about the future (including scenario, policy, and strategy documents), the theorizations of the future, and theories and criticism of future fictions more broadly. If postcolonial studies eroded the general sense of certainty about the qualities of canonical Euro-American literature, then it failed to go past its implicit valorizations of alternate canons based on the works produced in these formerly colonized locations. Genres such as science fiction, or fantasy, broadly, had to fight out their own battle on a pop cultural battlefield, on separate terms from the postcolonial battlefield. The postcolonial struggle was the academe reasserting its rights to determine what was to be studied and what qualified as high literature; the pop-cultural struggle was about the everyday, the fandoms, the communities: it was about the people who had grown up reading other people’s visions of the future over and again and wanted to see themselves in the futures they read.

 

One such battle was the Racefail ’091 which among other things highlighted the poor representation of POC voices in fandom communities, including producers, consumers, and critics. For me, sitting in India far from these debates, trying to write up a PhD proposal on studying Bangla science fiction or kalpavigyan written in the colonial period, postcolonial theory was one of the key entry points in the discussion, as it is for most Indians studying EngLit. While I had been planning my PhD project since 2006 on the same subject, it was really John Rieder’s already classic study Colonialism and the Emergence of Science Fiction2 that gave me the perspective I was looking for. Rieder’s fantastic work did not include the colonized parts of the world, certainly not India, but it did make me wonder why that was so, given that the Indian history of future histories begins in the colonial period as well, and for much of the same reasons as highlighted by Rieder, only sometimes in the reverse. I learnt about Racefail in 2010, after I moved to Norway for my PhD, but I spent the next few years buried in archives and lit-crit. But fandom environments, including in Norway. were rapidly transforming in those years. By 2013-14, there were full blown crises, with Gamergate3 and Puppygate4 in the gaming industry and the SFF fandom communities respectively. What I call my first CoFutures essay (“Recentering Science Fiction And The Fantastic: What Would a Non-Anglocentric Understanding of Science Fiction and Fantasy Look Like?”, published in Strange Horizons in September 2013)5 came at the end of my PhD, just when these crises were completely taking over fandom discussions.

 

With the crises we have clarity, new assertions, and strength. Cixin Liu’s Hugo for The Three Body Problem in 2015, and N. K. Jemisin’s consecutive victories are the most easily visible signs of this strength. The process of naming that marks the edges of a new aesthetic formation has also already begun. New histories and new excavations of the past show the global origins of future fictions, while new strategies are being carved for the future from the crises of the present. This trend began with Afrofuturism to a large extent, but the work of a whole generation of scholars has highlighted the scope of the phenomena from one corner of the globe to the other, but especially in the context of the global South from South America to South East Asia. Creators have brought forth new strategies and coined new terms to represent different experiences of the future, such as in the Middle East with Fatima Al Qadiri and Sophia Al-Maria’s chrome-pastiche Gulf-futurism,6 or the possibilities for the future offered in Grace Dillon’s Indigenous futurism.7 There are other labels floating about in the recent years. Some of these are geographically inflected while others thematically oriented, such as Lawrence Lek’s Sinofuturism8 and Yudhanjaya Wijeratne’s Ricepunk.9 These changes also highlighted the strong Anglocentric (and to a certain extent Francocentric) biases of the producers and consumers when it came to recognizing future fictions in other languages and other geographical regions, for instance even within Europe, such as Eastern and Northern Europe. Rachel S. Cordasco’s brilliant project Speculative Fiction in Translation has done much to raise general awareness of these fictions from everywhere around the world, in many different languages.10

 

Not all developments have been positive, and I plan to discuss some of these in more detail at a later time.

 

CoFutures is the result of all these discussions. It is as much about the personal journey as an Indian working on things far away from home and about the different experiences that have shaped my own work, as it is about global fandom and academic debates on gender, ethnicity, Anglocentrism, translation, and other related topics. In the next few years, the project hopes to bring in numerous academics and creators, from writers to artists to games designers, to discuss better ways for envisioning the future. CoFutures is not a solo project. It is a community project: community is where it comes from, to which it contributes, to which it seeks to give back. This was the reason I wore my shiny Star Trek TNG combadge even to the ERC interview in Brussels, taking the risk that they wouldn’t fund me because of my refusal to dress “properly” for the interview. But perhaps they saw it for what it is: that CoFutures is about the community, the fandom, many possible futures, and more than anything else, hope. LLAP! 🖖


http://annsomerville.net/a-themed-summary-of-racefail-09-in-large-friendly-letters-for-those-who-think-race-discussions-are-hard/
2 Rieder, John. Colonialism and the Emergence of Science Fiction. Wesleyan UP, 2008.
https://www.vox.com/2014/9/6/6111065/gamergate-explained-everybody-fighting
https://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2015/04/the-culture-wars-come-to-sci-fi/390012/
http://strangehorizons.com/non-fiction/articles/recentering-science-fiction-and-the-fantastic-what-would-a-non-anglocentric-understanding-of-science-fiction-and-fantasy-look-like/
https://www.dazeddigital.com/music/article/15037/1/al-qadiri-al-maria-on-gulf-futurism
7 Dillon, Grace. Walking the Clouds: An Anthology of Indigenous Science Fiction.  Arizona UP, 2012
https://vimeo.com/179509486
http://yudhanjaya.com/2019/05/the-ricepunk-manifesto/
10 https://www.sfintranslation.com/
Global Future Fictions and the CoFutures Project

Global Future Fictions and the CoFutures Project

I’m giving a talk at the University of Bergen on 24th October, which is the first post-ERC talk on the CoFutures idea. I have presented on the general theme of CoFutures several times before already, including in January at the Center for Advanced Study Oslo, and in Paris in February this year (CoFutures Comment #3). The difference here is that I am focusing on a part of the project I haven’t presented on before (WP2 Subproject 5).

“In this talk, Bodhisattva Chattopadhyay will present his ERC Starting Grant project “CoFutures: Pathways to Possible Presents” and its core ideas related to global future fictions, and how these fictions offer us ways of speculating, imagining, and in some cases even anticipating multiple possible futures by opening up the multiplicity of presents. He presents some of the broader discussions within the field of global future fictions and how these are distributed in the different parts of the CoFutures project, and how some of the fundamental steps of the CoFutures project invoke and combine ideas from different digital storytelling technologies and speculative design practices.”

More details here at the UiB website

Johannes H Berg Memorial Prize lecture (21 September 2019)

Johannes H Berg Memorial Prize lecture (21 September 2019)

I am thankful to the board of the Johannes H. Berg Foundation Memorial Fund for this award, and to the Norwegian SF fandom communities for having been a home for me for several years now. This award comes at a particularly happy yet difficult time for me, personally, and for the kind of work that is represented by Johannes H. Berg as I understand it. On the one hand, there has perhaps not been a better time for science fiction and fantasy as genres, which have gone mainstream, no longer the domain of the nerdy few but of fans from across ages and times. On the other the divisions between what communities seek have never been more stark, with fans split into many different fandoms of their own, and what is worse, divisions on an international scale on gendered, ethnic, and other kinds of lines personal and political. Just this last month, years after Gamergate, Racefail, and Puppygate, yet another one of these situations has erupted, which is being called the Gaming Industry’s #MeToo moment, with numerous accusations, multiple concrete proofs of abuse, general acrimony, and which has even led to a suicide. 

As perhaps the first Alien to receive this prize, I must acknowledge that I have always seen my work on SF as a double-outsider inside the field. Working on the one hand on Indian SF at a time when there were hardly any people working on Indian SF, and working in Norway, which does not have an active academic SF community and which is outside the Anglo-American world, I have represented this double-outsider position consistently to the international communities of SF wherever I have been, trying to answer the questions “Why Norway?” and “Why Indian SF” one after the other to many. This double outsider-ness allowed me to navigate multiple domains of belonging and non-belonging in all the places in the world my work has taken me.

Luckily, this double-outsider status has never made me an outsider here at home in the Norwegian SF community, whether it is among the Aniara community, or among other friends and family who are part of that community. Indeed, this double-outsider status has been critical to my work here in Oslo and the University of Oslo, where I have always felt welcome and been able to work with peace and joy, even though I insist on walking the hallways of the University and the streets of Oslo wearing a Star Trek Next Gen combadge as a symbol of both fandom and of perpetual hope. It is being the double-outsider everywhere else but belonging to the SF fandom and community here that makes me care about the future of SF here in Norway, which leads me to work obsessively on everything from organizational revivals to fandom digitization projects, and deal with materials in a language that I can read yet speak but haltingly. 

And to a certain extent, perhaps that should be the true spirit of fandom, a perpetual belonging wherever one travels in space or time, a choice of home, rather than a place one is born to and in. And the spirit of this prize, a fandom contribution prize in the memory of a tireless community organizer of fandom here in Norway, Johannes H. Berg, is one of ever expansive belonging. In that expansive belonging, the alien and foreign may also find a place to belong, a fandom they can call home. So once again, thanks to SF fandom and the SF community. For many homes, shared futures, cofutures, skål!

The Johannes H. Berg Minnepris 2018 prize plaque
Science Fictionality and Speculative Futures / Workshop

Science Fictionality and Speculative Futures / Workshop

Title: Science Fictionality and Speculative Futures / CoF Workshop

Instructor Bodhisattva Chattopadhyay

Location MMAG Art Foundation / Amman

Date 19-26 August 2019.

Objective The objective of the workshop is to discuss ways of working with the speculative imaginary and speculative futures with artist residents. A secondary objective is to introduce some thematic concerns related to The Kalpana collective’s ongoing project Speculation: Desert / Maps and Prototypes of Science Fictional Presences and discuss the desert imaginary in speculative fiction.

Structure The workshop unfolds as five half day (3 hours each; total 15 hours) thematically structured sessions. On the final day (3 hours) participants will be developing extended new speculations. On all days, participants will also be invited to play specially selected boardgames in the evenings that will push them to think with speculative futures.

The sessions are arranged as follows:

Day 0 / Introduction / General introduction to the course, participant backgrounds, and workshop expectations.

Day 1 / Speculating / The first introduces the theme of speculation, and what role speculation can play in imagining alternative and more egalitarian futures. Through a series of readings and viewings of classic and contemporary speculative texts, our goal will be to explore, identify and find reasons for why we might wish to think with a genre such as speculative/science fiction for our creative practices.

Day 2 / Prototyping / The second shows different contemporary strategies of prototyping futures, and building a toolkit to work with the speculative for arts and research.

Day 3 / Imagining / The third takes us through several works and manifestos that can serve as cues for our creative practices.

Day 4 / Building / To make is to know, so the fourth session will be used to develop and critique several starting speculative scripts, or incorporate speculative themes in existing projects.

***

Workshop participants are expected to have gone through the assigned materials before the workshop starts. During the workshop, participants are invited to comment on one or more of these materials, discuss the themes, what worked for them and what did not, and how these ideas connect to other things they have read or worked with.

Syllabus

Day 1 / Speculating; or why to do what is to be done

Margaret Atwood. 2009. “Time Capsule Found on the Dead Planet.” The Guardian. 26 September 2009. https://www.theguardian.com/books/2009/sep/26/margaret-atwood-mini-science-fiction

Ursula LeGuin. 1973 (1991). “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas (Variations on a theme by William James).” Utopian Studies 2 (1/2):1-5. https://www.jstor.org/stable/20719019

N. K. Jemisin. 2018. “The Ones Who Stay and Fight.” How Long Till Black Future Month? Orbit.

J. G. Ballard. 1962. “Which Way to Inner Space?” New Worlds Science Fiction 118 (5/1962): 2-3 & 116-118.

Vandana Singh. 2008. “A Speculative Manifesto.” The Woman Who Thought She Was a Planet and Other Stories. Zubaan Books.

Stanislaw Lem. 1981. “Metafantasia: The Possibilities of Science Fiction (Metafantasia: Les possibilités de la science-fiction)”. Translated by Etelka de Laczay and Istvan Csicsery-Ronay. Science Fiction Studies 8(1): 54-71. https://www.jstor.org/stable/4239383

Historical Turns // Ken Liu. 2011 (2016). “The Man Who Ended History: A Documentary.” The Paper Menagerie and Other Stories. Head of Zeus. https://kenliu.name/binary/liu_the_man_who_ended_history.pdf

Historical Turns // Larissa Sansour and Søren Lind. 2015. In the Future They Ate From the Finest Porcelain. Film.

Historical Turns // Vandana Singh. 2015 (2018). “Ambiguity Machines: An Examination.” Ambiguity Machines and Other Stories. Small Beer Press.

Day 2 / Prototyping; or how to think up what to do

Bruce Sterling. 2009. “Design Fiction.” Interactions May-June 2009: 21-24. http://interactions.acm.org/archive/view/may-june-2009/cover-storydesign-fiction1

Brian David Johnson. 2011. Science Fiction Prototyping. Morgan & Claypool Publishers. Extract.

Anthony Dunne and Fiona Raby. 2013. Speculative Everything: Design, Fiction, and Social Dreaming. The MIT Press. Extract.

Stuart Candy & Kelly Kornet. 2017. “A Field Guide to Ethnographic Experiential Futures.” https://www.researchgate.net/publication/317837102_A_Field_Guide_to_Ethnographic_Experiential_Futures

Stuart Candy & Kelly Kornet. 2019. “Turning Foresight Inside Out: An Introduction to Ethnographic Experiential Futures” Journal of Futures Studies 23(3): 3–22. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/331857932_Turning_Foresight_Inside_Out_An_Introduction_to_Ethnographic_Experiential_Futures

Rebecca Onion. 2008. “Reclaiming the Machine: An Introductory Look at Steampunk in Everyday Practice.” Neo-Victorian Studies 1(1): 138-163. http://www.rebeccaonion.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/02/OnionSteampunk.pdf

Desert Discussions // Anonymous. 2011. Desert. Armin Press. Extract. http://theanarchistlibrary.org/library/anonymous-desert

Desert Discussions // Corey S. Pressman. 2018. “Divided Light.” The Weight of Light: A Collection of Solar Futures. Edited by Joey Eschrich and Clark A. Miller. 141-155. https://csi.asu.edu/books/weight/

Desert Discussions // Paolo Soleri. 1969 (2006). Arcology: The City in the Image of Man. Cosanti Press. Extract. https://www.organism.earth/library/document/76

Day 3 / Imagining; or how to do what is to be done

Samuel Delany. 1978 (2009). “About 5750 Words.” The Jewel Hinged Jaw: Notes on the Language of Science Fiction. Wesleyan University Press. 1-15.

Geoff Ryman. 2004 (2006). “The Mundane Manifesto.” New York Review of Science Fiction 226 (June 2006): 4–5. https://sfgenics.wordpress.com/2013/07/04/geoff-ryman-et-al-the-mundane-manifesto/

Martine Syms. 2013. “The Mundane Afrofuturist Manifesto.” Rhizome 17 December 2013. https://rhizome.org/editorial/2013/dec/17/mundane-afrofuturist-manifesto/

Ursula LeGuin. 1977 (1982). “Do-it-yourself Cosmology.” The Language of the Night: Essays on Fantasy and Science Fiction. Berkeley Books. 118-122.

Futures and Futuring // John Akomfrah. 1996. The Last Angel of History. Film.

Futures and Futuring // Wanuri Kahiu. 2009. Pumzi. Film.

Futures and Futuring // Biju Vishwanath. 2014. Shadow Tree. Film. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_1WOWbgi-wU

Futures and Futuring // Jason Wishnow. 2014. The Sandstorm. Film. https://vimeo.com/104436803

Day 4 / Building; or verum ipsum factum

Participants will be introduced to the primary elements of story and plot development, and then encouraged to produce a new work of flash fiction.

Theme: Overlay by Kaira Extra Text
Cape Town, South Africa