The future of Futurismic

Paul Raven @ 16-08-2011

I’ve been thinking about the future.

Time forms a frame for our narratives about ourselves, a scale for organising coherence out of a formless flow. Thinking in terms of months, years, decades is a convenience that I’ve come to suspect actually keeps us from understanding the true causality of things until we get a significant distance from them and don the Magic AR Glasses of Hindsight +2. That observation isn’t hugely germane to this post, I suppose, but it acts as a qualifier for the following statement:

This has been an eventful year so far, on both personal and global levels, and shows little sign of becoming less so.

You don’t need reminding of the global stuff, I’m sure, but the personal stuff has some bearing on the running of this here website.

First things first, though: Futurismic will continue. It’s too much a part of my life and thinking process to give up easily, for one thing, and furthermore I want to keep running work by my columnists. I even intend to reboot it as a fiction venue once money and time allow.

Money and time, of course, are always an issue. Money has been tight for a while, hence the fiction closedown at the start of this year; this has a lot to do with me having exchanged a steady income for the time to do the work I wanted to do (much of which was writing at Futurismic, ironically enough). But I’m now rapidly approaching a phase where the opposite situation may pertain. Some of you may already be aware that I’ve been accepted onto a Masters degree in Creative Writing at Middlesex University starting this autumn, which I’m very chuffed about indeed. But if I’m going to do it, I’ve got to do it right first time and commit myself to it, so I’m going to have to shift my writing priorities strongly toward fiction in the coming year.

Furthermore, I’m in the process of hunting down a ‘proper’ part-time job to support me financially during my studies, too; the erratic income of my freelance work is not conducive to the state of not-worrying-about-where-the-next-meal-is-coming-from that I find encourages me to write good material. Depending on what sort of work I get, there may be more or less time available to me for noodling about the future right here, though I have to assume the most likely scenario will include less time.

But like I said, I can’t just give this stuff up; not only is it a source of great intellectual pleasure, but current events suggest that we need to be thinking even more clearly about the future than ever before – not predicting, but probing, groping ahead through the temporal fog, trying to find a safe way through the existential minefield. How much I can contribute that will be of genuine use to the global discourse is for others to determine, but I feel the need to contribute nonetheless.

All of which is a long way of saying that I’m going to have to start approaching my writing here in a more efficient and effective way. It’s time to stop posting every day for the sake of posting, and to take the time to work on fewer better articles (as well as trying to place said articles at other venues); to only post when there’s something that needs to be discussed, and to discuss it properly

It’s time to pay less attention to the Shiny Gimcrack Future and more attention to the Grim Meathook Future; the future will be full of gadgets and weird stuff, for certain, but they’re a sideshow or sub-plot to the big stuff: politics and economics; the contrapuntal narratives of science and technology; social shifts, network culture and the cultural Zeitgeist. All stuff I already talk about, sure, but I think I need to do more than point at interesting stuff and say “hey, look – interesting stuff!” if I’m to actually add any value to the discourse. The internet’s full of folk flapping their lips, and I worry that I’ve spent too long talking loud but saying little; focussing on quality rather than frequency will, I hope, go some way to amending that.

Oddly enough, this is a conscious counter-response to a deep instinctive flinching from the future; as both a writer of stories and someone with a more general curiosity about the path ahead, it feels like it’s getting harder and harder to look more than a few years ahead with even the slightest degree of clarity, let alone hope, and the temptation is to retreat into a wilful ignorance and refusal to think about anything other than myself.

And everything’s interlinked: the broken economies of the former First World winding down to be overtaken by the BRICs and others; food shortages and price hikes; the mutation and metastasis of the post-national corporation and the continuing slump of the nation-state as unit of power in realpolitik, complicated by heel-dragging refusals to acknowledge the increasingly global nature of most of our civilisational problems; even the youth of America, once that most optimistic of nations, are now resigned to their future as the inheritors of the comedown and cost of imperial hubris… and if you managed to read the riots here in the UK, in Greece and across the Arab world as anything else other than a seismic rumble of big turbulence coming down the pipe, then you’re either possessed of an enviable yet largely unfounded optimism, or completely naive.

And the more I think about it, the more I think utopianist future-hucksters like Ray Kurzweil are part of the problem; the more I feel that Singularitarianism (much like some other emerging cults of the atemporal and altermodern End Times) is a refuge for privileged intellectuals who can’t face the future without believing they get some sort of personal get-out-of-Apocalypse-free card; the more I think that science fiction and other speculative forms of communication (design fiction, essays, mixed media, whatever) have great potential to help us understand where we’re going, but that the potential is wasted by that same desperate search for a personal escape hatch with the phrase “I’m all right, Jack” stencilled on it by some notoriously anonymous marginal celebrity street artist…

And so it goes. Futurismic has always been about peering ahead in various forms, but it’s time to look in smarter ways, and think more carefully about what we see.

I hope you’ll stick around for the journey. Some of it’s gonna be rough, some of it’s gonna be glorious… but it’ll all be made more bearable by having intelligent company along the way. Talking to you people for all these years has taught me a great deal, but I reckon you’ve probably got more to teach me yet.

Thanks for reading.

Science fiction’s cultural cringe; the ideal of “ideas”

Paul Raven @ 11-02-2011

From Jared of Pornokitsch:

Science fiction (and by this, I mean science fiction, fantasy, speculative fiction, whatever… dragons seem just as keen to jump on this bandwagon as the starships) is no more or less about “ideas” than any other type of fiction. This isn’t staking a claim, it is chucking fence posts into the ocean. I might be bored shitless reading Moby Dick or The Grapes of Wrath, but I’m not going to argue they didn’t have ideas in them.

Clearly, those two make for a hyperbolic extreme, but flipping through the titles that clog up the top 50, they aren’t suffering fora lack of ideas. If a non-sf author chooses to ruminate about the minutae of a courtroom, the machinations of family life or the shenanigans of Cold War hardmen, that may not be our particular choice of in-flight reading, but their books still have ideas. There’s speculation involved. Imagination. An author making things up. The “literature of ideas”? That’s just fiction.


“The literature of ideas” is also an inherently poisonous aspiration. When I hear Peter Hamilton and Clive Thompson praise the “literature of ideas”, it puts world-building on a pedestal. It is wonderful that we have a genre that can hypothesize about AIDS on the Moon or explore identity problems in a world without eyes, but the roadsides of sf are littered with great ideas. Having a compelling idea is just one part of the puzzle, no more important than any of the other pieces (and often, much less so) . Setting a book on Venus doesn’t give it permission to have paper-thin characters. And the mere existence of dragons doesn’t preclude the presence of plot.

Our literature has enough ideas, it is time to work on how they’re expressed. If there is something unique and magical about sf, it may be that no other genre seems to be as consistently forgiving of poor characterisation and predictable plotting. Like comics, sf has consistently maintained a desperate relevance by feverishly plinking the same, narrow, adolescent band over and over and over again. “The literature of escapism” is a more accurate, if back-handed, definition of sf’s current state. For the genre that has given us timeless characters, brilliant stories and great ideas, that’s simply not good enough.

Your thoughts? Personally I don’t see escapism as a necessarily bad value for any literature to possess (though I’m very leery of consolatory escapism – Baen Books, I’m looking at you), but I think you could argue successfully that there is an urge within science fiction wherein the thing being escaped from is the very future it claims to engage with.

The future’s alright

Tom James @ 01-09-2009

futureThe role of science fiction vis a vis the future and predictions thereof has always been a target of lighthearted mockery. However Centauri Dreams articulates, with the help of futurist Peter Garretson, what science fiction can offer, even if predictions aren’t always on the mark:

Many forays into fictional futures, then, can give us alternative ways to make a new concept real. We can try on those futures by reading stories that make them come alive, seeing what effects these changes would have on society. And we can do more. By placing futuristic concepts in a tangible, fictional context, we can encourage their growth and dissemination.

Science fiction explores how human beings respond to change and disruption, and as such helps us explore ourselves. It can also offer pictures of how the world could be, so as to encourage us to actualise these images and build a better future.

[from Centauri Dreams][image from doug8888 on flickr]


Paul Raven @ 01-09-2009

If you asked me for three words to describe this month’s Futurismic fiction offering, I’d give you “short, sharp and timely”. Genevieve Valentine wastes no words in revitalising (and spoofing) the classic sf dystopias in this brisk story of an all-too-plausible tomorrow. “Is This Your Day To Join The Revolution?” Read on and find out…

Is This Your Day To Join the Revolution?

by Genevieve Valentine

When Liz left her building, Disease Control workers were standing on the corners, handing out pills and little paper cups of Coke.

“Do you need one?” the old lady asked, holding up a handful of paper masks stamped with ads for Lavender Fields Sterile-Milled Soap. Liz pulled out the one she kept in her bag, and the lady smiled.

The TV in her subway car showed “What You Can Do on a Date.” The young man and woman went to the fair twice – once where he screwed everything up, and again where he helped her into the Ferris Wheel and handed her a paper mask before he put on his own.

The movie closed with swelling music and a reminder in cursive: ARE YOU DUE FOR A DATE? CHECK WITH YOUR DOCTOR. Continue reading “NEW FICTION: IS THIS YOUR DAY TO JOIN THE REVOLUTION? by Genevieve Valentine”

Wisdom in strange places – Dinosaur Comics on predicting future technology

Paul Raven @ 06-03-2009

Dinosaur Comics - 5th March 2009Some of you may already follow Ryan North’s Dinosaur Comics; those who don’t should give it a go for a few weeks. The po-mo mock philosophy isn’t to everyone’s taste, but it usually gets at least one genuine LOL a week out of me.

The latest iteration made me grin, because it seemed so apposite to yesterday’s post about the Stross/Anissimov disagreement. So click through and see the whole thing. Philosophy and dinosaurs – what more could you ask for on a Friday?

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