Category: Science Fictionality

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.

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