Category: CoFutures

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.

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

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Cape Town, South Africa