The Future Always Wins

Paul Raven @ 22-02-2012

Soooooo, yeah – I’ve been busy. Did you miss me? New job, Masters degree… doesn’t leave a lot of spare time, so it doesn’t. But it’s been quiet here too long, so it’s time to dust down the soapbox and run a mic-check. One-two, one-two.

The Future Always Wins

OK. So you may have caught wind of the launch of ARC, which is a new sf and futurism e-magazine from The People Who Bring You New Scientist; issue 1.1 was launched on Monday, and the various ways you can buy it are listed on its masthead website. Yes, it comes via an app or via the Kindle, and as a result it’s DRM’d; this is not ideal, I know, but this ain’t an ideal world. You can buy a POD dead-tree version, too, but it’s fairly pricey by comparison.

Why would you want to buy it? Well, it contains fresh new fiction by Margaret Atwood, Stephen Baxter, M.John Harrison, Hannu Rajaniemi and Alastair Reynolds, and non-fiction essays and articles by Simon Ings, China Miéville, Sumit Paul-Choudhury, Leigh Alexander, Simon Pummell, Adam Roberts and Bruce Sterling… oh, and some guy called Paul Graham Raven, too, but don’t let that put you off.

ARC is being touted as something a bit like OMNI reborn. The important thing to note here is that this is a proper paying market for both fiction and non-fiction, and it’s a professional Big House magazine publishing fresh stories by Big Name science fiction authors. So here’s my request, which I’d be making even if I weren’t enjoying the privilege of being on that TOC: buy a copy.

Seriously. If you’ve ever lamented the dwindling number of venues for professional sf sales, or the editorial policies of the Big Three magazines, or if you’ve ever thought that you’d like to read a magazine that took a long professional look at the sort of stuff Futurismic talks about – buy a copy of ARC, and keep buying them. £4.99 in Airstrip One money, which is maybe eight of your Yanqui Dollah; that’s not a bad quarterly price for what you’re getting, I hazard to suggest, and comparable to the prices of extant magazines. So support a brave new market, why don’t you? By doing so, you also support writers and the sf short fiction scene in general.

OK, plug over. :)

There’s No Tomorrow

My article in ARC1.1 is about the Collapsonomics crowd – those voices online and on the ground who’re insisting that Capitalism1.0 is nothing but a shambling zombie of a thing, and trying to map a way forward into a very uncertain future. (Long-term followers of this here blog will certainly recognise some of the names and ideas that get mentioned.)

Due to the nature of the publishing process, most of the research took place in the latter half of last year, in the aftermath of the London riots and the emergence of Occupy, and all the other upheavals that will make 2011 a banner year for the historians of the future… provided, of course, that we actually get a future wherein “historian” means what we currently think it to mean, rather than “addled bard with vague handed-down memories of life before The Fall”.

Ah, it’s still so easy to joke blithely about imminent civilisational collapse… but it feels more and more like gallows humour every time. As a species, as a race, as an ecosystem, a civilisation, a genome, however you want to categorise it – we’ve grown right up to the edge of the petri dish. Everything is running out, including – or perhaps especially – time. Peak Oil is just the start, but it’s an exemplary start. The assumption that infinite exponential growth is not only possible but laudable is very close to running into the brick wall of reality, if it hasn’t already.

I want you to watch this [via ClubOrlov]. It’s not cheerful, but that’s why it needs to be watched. We can’t pretend this stuff isn’t true any more.

I’m sure some of you will have refutations of things that get mentioned in that video; if so, I’m happy to see them in the comments, but they’ll need to be supported by links and citations. Any “[x] is a Liberal Leftist Conspiracy OMFG!!!” stuff will be deleted without prejudice; I’m all done tolerating scientific myopia and wilful ignorance in the name of politeness and deference to the shibboleth of “balanced debate”. This isn’t about left and right any more. It’s about what Bill Hicks memorably referred to as “working out this whole food/air deal”.

One planet, folks. That’s all we’ve got. The way I see it right now, that leaves us two basic choices: either we stay here on the mudball, which means we need to sort our shit out with respect to the distribution of resources before the ecosystem around us takes population adjustment into its own hands (which won’t be any more pleasant than a global war for survival), or we scramble out of the gravity well to an environment where our greatest addiction – energy – can be sustained for (maybe) long enough to solve said addiction.

Make no mistake: if you want a future humanity that has all the fun things and glorious technologies we enjoy at the moment, and if you want that future humanity to last for more than a couple of centuries, then we have to recognise the limits of our environment, and either work within them or work to transcend them.

The universe doesn’t care whether we live or die. I don’t want to hear that any more than you do, but that doesn’t make it any less demonstrably true.

There is no “business as usual” any more. Deal with it.


How long do we have?

Paul Raven @ 16-08-2011

How far are our necks from the afore-mentioned Grim Meathook Future? When will the magical thinking at the core of economics finally be revealed for the hand-waving bullshit it actually is?

When is soon, probably. We could keep rolling sixes and spin it out another 22 years, but we’re getting to the point where relatively small system shocks could propagate uncontrollably like a fat man falling through ice on a pond. I can’t tell you when, but I can tell you that the US is in trouble, Europe is in trouble, they’ve printed insane amounts of money and it hasn’t stabilized things, assets are being devalued in complex processes which hide inflation and still there are no new jobs. People kick around terms like “stagflation” but what’s happening is simple and subtle: nothing.

We’re treading water. We’re like a shark that’s stopped swimming. We’re a cartoon character, all flailing legs, hovering above the abyss.

And at the bottom of it are those poor bastards in Africa, in rural India, South America, Asia, eating rice and bugs because there’s nothing else to eat. And you’ve ignored them your entire life as the money poured from “we know not where” into the First World Lifestyle, which squandered the wealth which could have fed and housed every human being on earth on an extractive economy which wastes 40% of the food produced and has a billion fat people, including me.

Vinay Gupta says the stuff no one else is willing to say – not the political “unthinkables” that are ricocheting around the media at the moment, as the left/right dichotomy struggles to keep relevance in the face of the destruction it has engineered, but the true unspeakables: that we are screwed, that it might be unfixable, that those onto whom we’ve foisted off our responsibilities are caught in a tailspin, and that we can’t see it for the distractions we built to keep us in the soma-bliss of ignorance.

That‘s the future I’m going to try to peer into. I have no particular expertise or training that makes me ideal for the job. So far as I can tell, my only qualification is my willingness to admit it has to be done, that it may be a doomed effort, and that trying is the only thing that’s going to let me get to sleep at night.

I can’t ignore my complicity any more. And part of what I’m going to be doing here going forwards is making it as hard as possible for you to ignore yours.


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.