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Category: fiction

Angry Optimism in a Drowned World: A Conversation with Kim Stanley Robinson

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by José Luis de Vicente
 

Reflections from a science-fiction angle on the scenarios posed by climate change and the defence of the imagination to help find real solutions.

Kim Stanley Robinson is one of the world’s most highly reputed science-fiction authors and one of the key exponents of climate fiction. His work, set in the near future, brings us face-to-face with concepts such as the Anthropocene, terraforming and post-capitalism. With him we analyse the link between the ecological crisis and the economic one, placing the emphasis on the need for new political economics. We also explore the role of art and literature when formulating possible futures, the importance of the imagination for finding solutions and the defence of optimism and humour as we deal with the scenario confronting us. This interview, conducted by José Luis de Vicente, forms part of the catalogue for the exhibition After the End of the World, in which the writer is participating with an audiovisual prologue.

It is said that your Mars Trilogy of novels (Red Mars, Green Mars and Blue Mars, 1992-1996) is perhaps the most successful example in science fiction of the use of the notion of “terraforming”: the idea that man can transform a whole planet to make it habitable and reproduce Earth-like conditions. The Mars trilogy explores the idea that any terraforming project would necessarily be not only technical, but also political. As McKenzie Wark writes in Molecular Red: A Theory of the Anthropocenein your version of Mars, “questions of nature and culture, economics and politics, can never be treated in isolation, as all levels have to be organized together.

What is terraforming in the Mars trilogy as a political project, and what was it telling us about the transformation of Earth itself by the hand of man? 

About 20 years ago, I began to read in the technical literature of the planetary science community that Mars is unusual. It is on the outside of the sun’s habitable zone, and because it has water and other frozen volatile gases that we need for life on Earth, it might be possible to heat up Mars and release those gases to essentially recreate an atmosphere, and then introduce Earth’s genetic heritage, life forms and biosphere into the Martian context. In combination, you might get something new that would be like the High Arctic or Siberia; a human space that would be habitable without wearing space suits. Carl Sagan was actually the astronomer who was really important in pointing this out. It’s essentially a kind of science-fiction idea that was achievable in the real world.

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The Women Men Don’t See

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by James Tiptree Jr. (Alice Sheldon), 1973

I see her first while the Mexicana 727 is barreling down to Cozumel Island. I come out of the can and lurch into her seat, saying “Sorry,” at a double female blur. The near blur nods quietly. The younger one in the window seat goes on looking out. I continue down the aisle, registering nothing. Zero. I never would have looked at them or thought of them again.

Cozumel airport is the usual mix of panicky Yanks dressed for the sand pile and calm Mexicans dressed for lunch at the Presidente. I am a used-up Yank dressed for serious fishing; I extract my rods and duffel from the riot and hike across the field to find my charter pilot. One Captain Estéban has contracted to deliver me to the bonefish flats of Belize three hundred kilometers down the coast.

Captain Estéban turns out to be four feet nine of mahogany Maya puro. He is also in a somber Maya snit. He tells me my Cessna is grounded somewhere and his Bonanza is booked to take a party to Chetumal.

Well, Chetumal is south; can he take me along and go on to Belize after he drops them? Gloomily he concedes the possibility—if the other party permits, and if there are not too many equipajes.

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Time capsule found on the dead planet

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by Margaret Atwood

1. In the first age, we created gods. We carved them out of wood; there was still such a thing as wood, then. We forged them from shining metals and painted them on temple walls. They were gods of many kinds, and goddesses as well. Sometimes they were cruel and drank our blood, but also they gave us rain and sunshine, favourable winds, good harvests, fertile animals, many children. A million birds flew over us then, a million fish swam in our seas.

Our gods had horns on their heads, or moons, or sealy fins, or the beaks of eagles. We called them All-Knowing, we called them Shining One. We knew we were not orphans. We smelled the earth and rolled in it; its juices ran down our chins.

2. In the second age we created money. This money was also made of shining metals. It had two faces: on one side was a severed head, that of a king or some other noteworthy person, on the other face was something else, something that would give us comfort: a bird, a fish, a fur-bearing animal. This was all that remained of our former gods. The money was small in size, and each of us would carry some of it with him every day, as close to the skin as possible. We could not eat this money, wear it or burn it for warmth; but as if by magic it could be changed into such things. The money was mysterious, and we were in awe of it. If you had enough of it, it was said, you would be able to fly.

3. In the third age, money became a god. It was all-powerful, and out of control. It began to talk. It began to create on its own. It created feasts and famines, songs of joy, lamentations. It created greed and hunger, which were its two faces. Towers of glass rose at its name, were destroyed and rose again. It began to eat things. It ate whole forests, croplands and the lives of children. It ate armies, ships and cities. No one could stop it. To have it was a sign of grace.

4. In the fourth age we created deserts. Our deserts were of several kinds, but they had one thing in common: nothing grew there. Some were made of cement, some were made of various poisons, some of baked earth. We made these deserts from the desire for more money and from despair at the lack of it. Wars, plagues and famines visited us, but we did not stop in our industrious creation of deserts. At last all wells were poisoned, all rivers ran with filth, all seas were dead; there was no land left to grow food.

Some of our wise men turned to the contemplation of deserts. A stone in the sand in the setting sun could be very beautiful, they said. Deserts were tidy, because there were no weeds in them, nothing that crawled. Stay in the desert long enough, and you could apprehend the absolute. The number zero was holy.

5. You who have come here from some distant world, to this dry lakeshore and this cairn, and to this cylinder of brass, in which on the last day of all our recorded days I place our final words:

Pray for us, who once, too, thought we could fly.


source: The Guardian, 2009

‘Make It So’: ‘Star Trek’ and Its Debt to Revolutionary Socialism

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by A.M. Gittlitz (nytimes)

H. G. Wells’s foundational work of political science fiction, “The Time Machine,” predicted a future in which a small utopia of sprightly elites is kept running by a subclass that lives below the ground and is reduced to bestial violence. This prediction, carried to a horrifically logical extent, represented the intense wealth disparity of the Victorian England in which Wells wrote the novel. Judging from the major political narratives of the fictions of our era, films like “The Hunger Games,” “Elysium” and “Snowpiercer,” the certainty of a future rendered increasingly barbarous by class division remains essentially the same.

But this was not always the case. In 1920, Wells met Vladimir Lenin, a fellow world-building visionary who planned “the inauguration of an age of limitless experiment” to rebuild and industrialize his country from ruination by years of war, abolishing class society in the process. Wells was impressed by the pragmatic revolutionary and his planned “utopia of electricians.”

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Twin Peaks and Neoliberalism

twin-peaks-e1412698162766Trapped in the Hysterical Sublime: Twin Peaks, Postmodernism, and the Neoliberal Now”  by Linnie Blake (2016) 

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Watching Twin Peaks again, from the perspective of 25 years, a great deal has become apparent to me that was simply not “there” at the time. I am considerably more troubled by the program’s regressive class and gender politics, for example. I am less seduced by its bedazzling epistemological indeterminacy, generic hybridity, and often-absurdist pastiche of available styles. Mostly, I have come to question the ideological function of such representational practices—and this has led me to explore the links between postmodernism’s rejection of the certitudes of the Enlightenment and the social malaise of the new millennium. For, as Graeme Wearden reports, ours is now a world in which the polarization of wealth has never been greater—a recent OXFAM report demonstrating that the world’s richest 85 people now control as much of the planet’s wealth as “the poorest half of the global population put together.” As an avowedly postmodern text from the period in which neoliberalism came to dominant global economics, Twin Peaks proffers us a superb exemplification of the relation between postmodern representational practice and the coming into being of our own horrific world.

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Twin Peaks was first broadcast, then, in a world in which the certainties of state and nation, society and self, were being changed utterly by the radical energies of neoliberalism. This is the world we inhabit today, both periods being characterized by a conceptual adherence to the principles of postmodernism. This I define as a relativistic skepticism that challenges the instrumental rationality of post-Enlightenment humanism and all that it holds dear, including truth, justice, progress, the rights of the individual, and the social responsibilities of us all. In celebrating the dreamlike nostalgia of Twin Peaks, in reveling in its generic hybridity, its interstitial setting, and highly individuated yet strangely interchangeable characters, we the original audience became part of this postmodern project. We thrilled at the novelty of a series that so insistently foregrounded its stylish artificiality. We were carried along not by social or emotional realism, but by glittering cleverness: the ways the series foregrounded the surface and repudiated depth. And what a transgressive surface it was: rape, murder, incest, teenage prostitution, drug dealing, adultery, and more. Anything went in Twin Peaks and we were happy to go with it.

At the time, it was argued that “postmodern aesthetic experimentation should be viewed as having an irreductible political dimension” being “inextricably bound up with a critique of domination” (Wellberry 235). Certainly Twin Peaks was characterized by a sense of transgressive danger. Yet, even as postmodern thinkers affirmed the liberating dimensions of the postmodern turn, the world was becoming increasingly dominated by an economic model that brought exponential increases in wealth to the richest “even as it plunged billions into poverty” (Dean 67). And so, I have come to believe, as programs like Twin Peaks reveled in postmodernism’s critique of the positivistic order, first-generation viewers, such as myself, became gradually inured to neoliberal economics’ erosion of civil society, placated somewhat by cornucopia of goods and services that emerged during this period—including increasingly inventive TV.

We the original audience of Twin Peaks were, then, the children of a form of disorganized capitalism that manifested itself in the cultural products of postmodernism. For while the deregulation of the cultural sphere championed by postmodernism echoed neoliberalism’s deregulation of the markets, both postmodern relativism and laissez-faire capitalism disavowed transcendent meaning in favor of contingent and eminently revisable representations of the individual and the world. In both models, the individual was center stage, a consumer of goods and images possessed of the right to choose between them but not to choose otherwise (there is no outside this particular text) and bearing no responsibility for the impact of either choice on others.

Certainly, throughout the 1980s, our cultural life had become more fragmented and pluralistic, but the changes wrought to self and society were not merely, as Scott Lash and John Urry have argued, reflected in the rise of postmodernism; they were advanced by it. For “in reifying culture” in this manner, “attention is diverted from both institutional change and class dynamics” (Wexler 165). This was particularly true, I would argue, in the case of television programming, which even at the time was being theorized as “the real world of postmodern culture” with “ entertainment as its ideology . . . electronic images as its most dynamic, and only, form of social cohesion” and “the diffusion of a network of relational power as its real product” (Kroker 270). From the perspective of 25 years on in time, the television programs of this period can indeed be seen to be characterized by the free market’s “network of relational power,” brokered through organizations like the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, and brought into our homes through a corporatized media.

And so, having hunted high and low for the meanings of Twin Peaks over a period of a quarter of a century, I am now inclined to argue that they are not to be found in the Red Room, in the dreams of Agent Cooper (Kyle MacLachlan), or in the Giant’s (Carel Struycken) gnomic portents. They lie, I believe, in a retrospective awareness that the program came into being at the moment at which neoliberalism was refashioning society as a Darwinian survival of the fittest, postmodernism was reconceptualizing the self as a mutable contingency, and the Enlightenment narrative of social progress was going rapidly out of style. This awareness now gives meaning to Twin Peaks’s self-conscious repudiation of meaning. This explains how intelligent people such as ourselves could have been so seduced by the ethical relativism of Lynch’s dark illogicality that we celebrated a cultural artifact that was at best politically conservative and replete with dangerous representations of already marginalized groups.

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Looking at Twin Peaks 25 years on, in other words, I am less excited by its postmodern innovations than troubled by them. Standing in the ruins of the British Welfare State and surveying a culture in which the weakest are persecuted for the demands they place on the public purse while the furtherance of corporate interests appears to have become the primary role of government, I cannot help but think that my generation was seduced by the way postmodern representation subsumed the social to the cultural through the replacement of truths with images. Distracted by its cleverness we came to believe that a rejection of Enlightenment rationality promised a liberation of the self. Reconstituted as consumer-subjects unable to position ourselves within social history we came to accept the inevitability of the free market and the total global dominance of a neoliberal world-view. In the years since Twin Peaks’s initial broadcast, neoliberalism has created a world in which, OXFAM argues, “dynamic and mutually reinforcing cycles of advantage that are transmitted across generations” have become the norm. Neoliberalism’s legacy of pain and suffering, proffered in the cupped hands of postmodern discourse, has become the garmonbozia of the world.


Return to Twin Peaks: New Approaches to Materiality, Theory, and  Genre on Television  edited by Jeffrey Andrew Weinstock and Catherine Spooner (2016)

 

The Lottery (Shirley Jackson, 1948)

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by Shirley Jackson

The morning of June 27th was clear and sunny, with the fresh warmth of a full-summer day; the flowers were blossoming profusely and the grass was richly green. The people of the village began to gather in the square, between the post office and the bank, around ten o’clock; in some towns there were so many people that the lottery took two days and had to be started on June 26th. but in this village, where there were only about three hundred people, the whole lottery took less than two hours, so it could begin at ten o’clock in the morning and still be through in time to allow the villagers to get home for noon dinner.

The children assembled first, of course. School was recently over for the summer, and the feeling of liberty sat uneasily on most of them; they tended to gather together quietly for a while before they broke into boisterous play, and their talk was still of the classroom and the teacher, of books and reprimands. Bobby Martin had already stuffed his pockets full of stones, and the other boys soon followed his example, selecting the smoothest and roundest stones; Bobby and Harry Jones and Dickie Delacroix– the villagers pronounced this name “Dellacroy”–eventually made a great pile of stones in one corner of the square and guarded it against the raids of the other boys. The girls stood aside, talking among themselves, looking over their shoulders at the boys, and the very small children rolled in the dust or clung to the hands of their older brothers or sisters.

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‘This is the Hell that I have Heard of’: Some Dialectical Images in Fossil Fuel Fiction

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by Andreas Malm

How can the realities of global warming be made visible in literary texts? After the rise of ‘cli-fi’, it might be time to return to a trove of literature written long before the discoveries of climate science: fiction about fossil fuels. It is filled with premonitions of disasters, such as extreme heat and terrible storms. Focusing on two texts – Ghassan Kanafani’s Men in the Sun and Joseph Conrad’s Typhoon – this essay makes a case for developing ‘dialectical images’, in Walter Benjamin’s sense of the term, from fossil fuel fiction. Such images might contribute to a critical understanding of our current epoch, fracturing the narrative of the human species as a united entity ascending to biospheric dominance in the Anthropocene. The miseries of global warming have been in preparation for a long time. Some have felt the heat from the start.

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