Worldcon75 schedule. Helsinki here I come!

I’m going to be on three panel discussions at the 75th World Science Fiction Convention at the Messukeskus Centre in Helsinki, August 9-13. The organisers caution that the programme is almost-but-not-quite finalised, so if anything else gets added I’ll update this post. However these are confirmed:

Are Utopias Worse than Dystopias?

Friday 11 August, 12:00 – 13:00, Pasila library (Messukeskus)

Utopias are supposed to be good futures, and dystopias bad futures. Yet utopias are by definition ‘best’, hence preclude the possibility of change and evolution. Also, any utopia described has no place for dissidents: they only work if everybody toes the line.
Utopias tend to be reflections of the time they were formulated in, and what might be seen as a happy society in one age might be seen as terrible places in a later age (just look at More’s “Utopia”). If a utopia can’t be changed, it will eventually turn into a dystopia. Dystopias, at least, include the possibility of rebellion and the hope for change.

On the other hand, utopian thinking as a phenomenon and mindset is notably a great advantage for human society. Take the contemporary standard of equality we are enjoying; for introducing that we have utopian-thinking people and groups to thank for, (for fighting slavery, feminism, etc.) Even if not a single consummated utopian theory has been proven to be completely workable in praxis (from the ones that have gotten the chance to be tried), utopian literature and art remains an efficent laboratory for trying out and comparing different social theories, and questions on what humanity is. Science fiction that plays ontologically with WHAT-IFs is a natural habitat of Utopia as an artform.

Klaus Æ. Mogensen (M), Tom D Wright, Stephanie Saulter, Jani Saxell, Maria Candia

The Future is Approaching Quickly: SF As An Alternative to Future-Oriented Think Tanks

Friday 11 August, 14:00 – 15:00, 204 (Messukeskus)

Earlier this year The Economist ran a feature on how people who want to figure out where society is heading should read Iain M Banks.They argue the Culture is “space opera that anticipates some of the challenges that technology is beginning to pose in the real world” and that science fiction serves as an idea library that informs tech industry.

What do you think the near future will look like? Do you believe in the singularity? Will we figure out reasonable security? Will big data ruin it all? Would block chains make for good SF material? Will people accept self driving cars?

Kristina K., Stephanie Saulter (M), Nick Price, Klaus Æ. Mogensen, Qiufan Chen

It’s More Complicated Than That

Sunday 13 August, 14:00 – 15:00, 203a (Messukeskus)

“There is always a well-known solution to every human problem — neat, plausible, and wrong.” When experts try to popularise science, and politicians pronounce about economics, is a little knowledge a dangerous thing? If the public think they don’t need experts, or prefer simple lies over complicated truths, can democracy survive?

Joe Haldeman (M), Ian Watson, Stephanie Saulter, Ian Stewart

§

As always, many thanks to the organisers for all their hard work and smart programming. I’m really looking forward to the con, catching up with old friends and new, and spending a couple of days getting to know Helsinki before it all kicks off. (Getting a head start with Adventures in Moominland this evening in London!)

 

BSFA/SFF Mini Convention

Less than a day to go before the Science Fiction Foundation and British Science Fiction Association hold their annual joint mini-convention. It’s free and open to the public (other than the annual general meetings at lunchtime, which are members-only), so please join us! The BSFA’s guest of honour this year is the wonderful Anne Charnock, while it’s my honour to fill that role for the SFF. The event will be held in Lecture theatre 1 at the Blackett Laboratory, Imperial College London, SW7 2AZ (entrance on Prince Consort Road, on the south side near Queens Gate Road). The schedule is as follows:

0930: Doors open
1000: Welcome and SFF interview (Stephanie Saulter interviewed by Professor Sarah Brown)
1055: Short break
1105: SFF “Fake News” panel: “Political discussion recently has been more and more dominated by discussion of ‘fake news’: did SF see this coming? And does science fiction provide us with any tools for better understanding the media and reality landscape we’re confronted with?” Stephanie Saulter, Anne Charnock, Chris Beckett and Graham Sleight (moderator).
1155: Lunch break (suggested venue: Queens Arms)
1200: BSFA AGM
1330: SFF AGM
1440: BSFA interview (Anne Charnock interviewed by Gerard Earley)
1530: BSFA panel:  “Is science fiction addressing the really big issues facing humanity?” David Gullen, Andrew Wallace and Donna Scott (moderator)
1630: End

Science Fiction Foundation | 2017 Masterclass and GoH

Applications are now open for the 2017 Science Fiction Foundation Masterclass in Science Fiction Criticism, and I’m delighted to be one of the Class Leaders this year. I’ve got a cracking reading list lined up and a few intriguing discussion topics in mind, so do click the link and get your applications in by 24 April. The Masterclass is held over three days, from Friday 30 June – Sunday 2 July. We’ll be at the glorious Royal Observatory in Greenwich, London.

I’m also deeply honoured to be the guest at this year’s Annual General Meeting of the Foundation, to be held on 17 June at Imperial College, London. The Science Fiction Foundation is a registered charity which aims to promote science fiction, and to bring together those who read, write, study, teach, research and archive it in Britain and the rest of the world. It publishes Foundation: The International Review of Science Fiction, a highly respected journal of SF criticism.

2084: Unsung Stories does an Orwell

Could there be any good news on this grim day? Well yes. Indie publisher Unsung Stories has announced the publication of 2084, a new anthology featuring leading science fiction writers including Christopher Priest, Dave Hutchinson, Anne Charnock, James Smythe and more, all looking ahead to what the world might be like a hundred years after the date George Orwell chose when he too decided to peer through the looking-glass into the future. Publisher George Sandison says the idea seemed pretty timely when they came up with it several months ago – it now feels downright urgent. A Kickstarter has been launched to fund the project, which I’ll be supporting just as soon as I finish with this post.

Unsung has emerged over the past few years as one of the most interesting and adventurous small publishers of speculative fiction in the UK. I’ve been hugely impressed by the work of Aliya Whitely, Oliver Langmead and Verity Holloway, all beautiful and challenging books that might have struggled to find a home in more traditional venues. I’ve no doubt that 2084 will be just as carefully edited, beautifully packaged and unsettlingly relevant.

2084-cover

Problem Daughters, a new feminist anthology

A few months ago at a gathering of friends and fans of The Future Fire in a London pub, I asked general editor Djibril al-Ayad if there were any new plans or projects afoot. I’d first become aware of their work with We See A Different Frontier, an anthology of postcolonial speculative fiction; Accessing the Future took as its theme disability and mental illness, and Outlaw Bodies looked at the norms and transgressions of embodied identity. Given that track record, I figured something provocative and interesting had to be up. ‘We’re thinking of doing a project around intersectional feminism,’ he said. ‘We haven’t quite worked out what it’s going to be yet, but too much of the conversation is still too conventional and mainstream, and leaves too many people out. We’d like to do something about that.’

Now we know what the something is: Futurefire.net Publishing and co-editors Nicolette Barischoff, Rivqa Rafael and Djibril al-Ayad are fundraising for a new pro-paying speculative fiction anthology. Problem Daughters will amplify the voices of women who are sometimes excluded from mainstream feminism. The editors are looking for beautiful, thoughtful, unconventional speculative fiction and poetry around the theme of intersectional feminism, with a specific focus on the lives and experiences of women of colour, QUILTBAG women, disabled women, sex workers, and any intersection of these.

Rivqa Rafael answers a few questions about Problem Daughters in the interview below. I urge you to support the fundraiser by pre-ordering a copy of the anthology or picking up another perk at https://igg.me/at/problem-daughters.

_____

Q: How did you come to be collaborating with Futurefire.net Publishing and your co-editors on this project?

Rivqa Rafael: Who hasn’t made rash promises early on a weekend morning on Twitter? It started as a virtual con (I can’t even remember which con we were having FOMO about, but Djibril was a very charming host for our pretend kaffeeklatsch). The conversation turned to the limitations of the Bechdel-Wallace test, but quickly became bigger… and it kept seeming like a good idea. This will be my first time editing fiction, and I can’t think of a better place to start.

Q: Is there a serious problem with some categories of women being excluded from mainstream feminism? Apart from publishing fiction, what can we do to address this?

RR: If you’ll indulge me an anecdote… Although I’m no longer religious, I used to be, and as part of that I covered my hair. Years ago, I was stunned into silence when an Anglo woman informed me that hair covering was a way for men to control women. At the time, I didn’t have the vocabulary to respond at all adequately. This (and many other microaggressions) made me feel excluded from fighting patriarchy kyriarchy because I didn’t fit the expected mould, and it took years of (informal) learning for me to find the words to examine the nuance and diversity that simply must exist within feminism for it to succeed.

I think that education and conversation are our best tools for building an inclusive movement, and fiction is one of our assets. Effective conversations will involve people acknowledging their privilege, not letting white/cis/straight/abled/etc guilt take over, and really listening—primarily to the voices that are already speaking eloquently on the movement’s deficiencies, rather than demanding education from marginalised people. That said, some of this should probably be taught formally, and some is just part of an ongoing process that can happen over time (how organically or disruptively I think that should happen really depends on the day…)

Q: Why is SFF a particularly appropriate medium for telling intersectional feminist stories?

RR: I see SFF as a combined microscope and telescope: it can help us zoom in on minutiae, or it can allow us to see the bigger picture. By magnifying a threat or challenge, whether it’s an evil monarch or zombies, we can illuminate the human response in a way that realism can’t achieve. I think this works best when those fantastical elements have their own meaning, rather than standing in for a challenge within our world (I never want to see aliens = POC again), because then the “what if” has more impact.

Q: Do you have any ideas for what you will do if the fundraiser exceeds its initial goal?

RR: So many! A bigger book—while we wouldn’t want a bloated anthology, it will be really hard to exclude beautiful works because we have to cull. Some short comics would be awesome. A Braille version, an audio version, translations—anything that increases access, really, because we want to reach as many people as possible.

_____

2016-11-03-14-51-31Rivqa Rafael is a queer writer and editor based in Sydney. She started writing speculative fiction well before earning degrees in science and writing, although they have probably helped. Her previous gig as subeditor and reviews editor for Cosmos magazine likewise fueled her imagination. Her short stories have appeared in Hear Me Roar (Ticonderoga Publications), The Never Never Land (CSFG Publishing), and Defying Doomsday (Twelfth Planet Press). When she’s not working, she’s most likely child-wrangling, reading, playing video games, or practising her Brazilian Jiujitsu moves. She can be found at rivqa.net and on Twitter as @enoughsnark.

Hopes and Resolutions

I don’t go in for new year’s resolutions. I’ve always thought the greater challenge, and reward, is simply to be resolute in oneself; not for any particular year or endeavour, but as a way of living and engaging with life. My view has not changed. But given the real and present dangers that 2016 made clear to us, the challenges not only of the age but of my own advancing years, the insults and assaults to which so many are increasingly subject, the victories of parochialism and the triumph of mediocrity, I think it’s time to reiterate some of the principles  by which we hold to our own truth and become our better selves. They are not British or Jamaican or American values; they are not wedded to politics or geography or religion or language or nation; they are not better suited to the young or the old or the rich or the poor. They are human values and I commit to upholding them, this year and every year.

Kindness

Courage

Creativity

Optimism

Fortitude

Clarity

Rigour

Compassion

Inclusion

Empathy

Communication

Perspective

I’m Running Low on Hope Today

I’ve always been aware of how lucky I was to be born in the 1960s and not the 1930s; how privileged to arrive into a family and cultural milieu which took post-war progressive politics and social equality for granted; how fortunate to be part of the resulting generation of educated liberals. I’ve always known how different and how much more grim my life would have been had any of those things not been true. I used to feel that it was my great good fortune to be in the world at a moment of humanitarian, social and intellectual evolution that rejected dehumanisation and division, that had egalitarian ideals and honoured the social compact, that holds that whoever and wherever we are, we are all equally important. Like the rest of my cohort, I never doubted the narrative of our own inevitability; that the world and worldview we represented were the leading edge of what would eventually be a generational, global transformation.

Only in the last few years did it begin to occur to me that this moment may prove to be just that – an instant, an anomaly, an aberration. That the mood of the 1930s is far more easily reproduced than that of the 1960s. That culture tends more towards conservatism than progress, and that adherence to social hierarchies may be too ancient and ingrained ever to be abandoned. That education is easier to resent than to pursue. That freedom of thought is less valued than a licence to hate. That we are as a species too inherently tribal and territorial to truly wish for others what we expect for ourselves.

I have chastised myself for thinking this way, without ever quite being able to convince myself that my fears were unfounded. Now, in the era of President-elect Trump, and the Brexit rejection of post-war political alliance (which, let’s not forget, was intended to prevent future wars), and a sweeping populism that is more comfortable with foreign children dying rather than living next door, and a populace that appears to positively revel in its own ignorance of facts … it may be time to confront the folly of my own optimism.

In a weird way I feel luckier than ever. I still have my education and my privilege. I’ve got a little money in the bank (though my US$ account is going be to worth a hell of a lot less once the markets open). I’m a respected writer. I’m fifty years old; if this is the end of a story we believed in, at least I got to spend the better part of my life living in it.

But there’s my brown gay nephew in Florida. There’s my sister and her husband and their three small boys, also brown, also in Florida. There’s my filmmaker brother now doing post-production in California, already an easy target for harassment when he travels because with that colouring and beard and accent and all this fancy equipment, something just doesn’t smell right. Their friends and colleagues and classmates, the kids on the corner and in the nightclub and on their way to the mosque.

I could go on, but you get the picture. I have other sisters and brothers, other nephews and nieces. I always took it for granted that the younger members of my family, and yours, could look forward to at least as good and safe a life as mine. I believed that being born in the 1980s and 90s and the 21st century was even better than the 60s; that those generations would also live my story of progress. I believed that the momentum was with those of us who cherish and uphold that vision of humanity. I can no longer convince myself that this is true.

I’m running low on hope today. I’m going to do what I do, what educated liberal progressive intellectuals do: read, think, write. Debate, argue, engage. I won’t stop fighting for the kind of life I believe everyone is entitled to. But for the first time – and I cannot express how hard it is for me to write this – for the first time, I am no longer certain that we’re going to win.

Reading Hard: The Golden Bough

I’ve been neck-deep in preparatory reading, ahead of writing my next book. I hesitate to call it ‘research’ because I’m not exactly studying; this process isn’t about acquiring precise knowledge of any one thing. Instead I’ve been steeping myself in mythology and folklore from multiple historical sources – everything from Icelandic sagas to Yoruba folktales to the Mabinogion to the Bible – trying to pack my head full of potential reference points. This isn’t going to be a fantasy novel, but it is going to require a rich seam of diverse cultural narratives if I’m to have any hope of pulling it off.

One of the books I thought I’d skim through, and ended up reading cover to cover, is The Golden Bough by James Frazer, a seminal work of early comparative anthropology. My edition is a 1981 reissue of the original 1890 text, which I bought well over twenty years ago; Frazer’s work had been referenced during my own undergraduate studies in anthropology in the late 80s, and I thought that I should some day acquaint myself with it more fully. It became one of those books that I’ve packed up and moved from house to house and country to country, never quite knowing why, but with a nagging sense that I might one day find it useful.

It’s turned out to be a treasure trove of information and inspiration, albeit one that’s very hard to read from a modern perspective. Nominally an investigation into the succession rites of the priest-kings of a sacred grove in ancient Italy, The Golden Bough is where Frazer sets out his overarching theories about folklore and the development of religion, and notes the similarities between the practices and beliefs of widely disparate peoples. It’s as jam-packed as a Victorian curio cabinet with details of customs, beliefs and ritual practices from around the globe, and interesting (though not always accurate) connections, comparisons and parallels are drawn between them.

Unfortunately, however, Frazer’s otherwise sharply analytical mind fails entirely to scrutinise his own presumptions of social and cultural superiority. The assertion of a civilisational hierarchy, in which the educated European or Briton occupies the top tier, is never questioned. The terminology of “savages”, “rude peoples” and the “peasantry” to refer to the indigenous peoples of Africa, Asia, Australia, North and South America, as well as the rural working classes of Europe and Britain, is employed casually and unselfconsciously throughout.

And yet many of his insights, despite the hugely problematic context within which they’re presented, and the fact that much of his theoretical analysis has since been soundly disproved, remain powerfully evocative. Take this observation on the transition from the supernatural to the empirical:

But when, still later, the conception of the elemental forces as personal agents is giving way to the recognition of natural law; then magic, based as it implicitly is on the idea of a necessary and invariable sequence of cause and effect, independent of personal will, reappears from the obscurity and discredit into which it has fallen, and by investigating the causal sequences in nature, directly prepares the way for science. Alchemy leads up to chemistry.

Or this surprisingly sympathetic – and acute – commentary on the worldwide phenomenon of taboos, in which certain classes of people are segregated from the wider community:

Thus the rules of ceremonial purity observed by divine kings, chiefs, and priests, by homicides, women at child-birth, and so on, are in some respects alike … the common feature of all these persons is that they are dangerous and in danger, and the danger in which they stand and to which they expose others is what we should call spiritual or supernatural, that is, imaginary. The danger, however, is not less real because it is imaginary; imagination acts upon man as really as does gravitation, and may kill him as certainly as a dose of prussic acid.

Indeed, Frazer’s rather wry conclusion that religion derives not from some initial revelation, but develops over time to explain already extant cultural practices, seems to me both audacious and unexpectedly modern:

The history of religion is a long attempt to reconcile old custom with new reason; to find a sound theory for an absurd practice.

Whether he applies this reasoning equally to religion as practiced by the academic elite of Trinity College, Oxford, is not addressed. But for all his errors of fact and arrogance, Frazer acknowledges the kinship between his own civilisational cohort and those whom he otherwise observes with condescension; and acknowledges too that the presumptions on which he now relies for his analysis may one day prove just as false as he considers their ancient beliefs to have been. It’s a moment of empathy and self-awareness that I frankly didn’t expect.

For when all is said and done our resemblances to the savage are still far more numerous than our differences from him; and what we have in common with him, and deliberately retain as true and useful, we owe to our savage forefathers who slowly acquired by experience and transmitted to us by inheritance those seemingly fundamental ideas which we are apt to regard as original and intuitive … Therefore in reviewing the opinions and practices of ruder ages and races we shall do well to look with leniency upon their errors as inevitable slips made in the search for truth, and to give them the benefit of that indulgence which we may one day stand in need of ourselves.

It struck me that I – geneaologically, culturally and intellectually an equal descendant of both the “savages” and the elites, and a woman to boot – am precisely the sort of unknown, unfathomable inheritor from whom he foresaw that forbearance might one day be required. Across the centuries of bitter colonial history, it’s a strange moment of connection.

Con Schedule: Nine Worlds 2016

(Updated 11 August 2016)

Nine Worlds is less than three weeks away, and the programme is finally out. I’m on three panels this year, all of which look excellent:

Friday 12 August, 10-11am (Bouzy)

World-Building: No One Sells Happy Life Day Cards

Economics, geography, infrastructure – it’s the background stuff that, like concrete breeze blocks, comes off as the dull, uninteresting graft of world creation. But what makes it come alive and make sense for the reader? What makes people care, and what makes a fictional culture viable?

James Barclay, Genevieve Cogman, Edward Cox, Al Robertson, Stephanie Saulter, Chris Wooding

Friday 12 August, 1:30-2:30pm (Bouzy)

Science Fiction and Science Fact

Normally bending the rules is a bit of a dangerous act, but in fiction the laws of science are bent to breaking point all the time – so what’s going on behind all that? What famous popular concepts work, and which are entirely unreasonable? What are we close to making happen, and – really! – does scientific accuracy even matter for the sake of a good time? I mean, how far can you get on science alone*, I mean, haha, honestly.

* Probably, like, quite far. The distant edge of the solar system, probably.

Anne Charnock, Ian Hocking, Stephanie Saulter (moderator), Jamie Sawyer, James Smythe, Adrian Tchaikovsky

Saturday 13 August, 8:30-9:30pm (Bourg)

Inspiring Futures: The Ada Lovelace Day conversation

Can SF inspire a life in science and technology? Do women write a different kind of SF? Should we celebrate that 4 of the last 5 winners of the Arthur C. Clarke Award were books by women SF writers?

Anne Charnock (moderator), Yen Ooi, Anne Perry, Stephanie Saulter, Stephanie Troeth, Aliya Whitely

The convention is being held at the Novotel London West in Hammersmith this year, and tickets are still available at the late rate.

On Stories and Endings

So, I’ve got two books out this week. Actually it’s the same book and it’s already been published, but there you go. Welcome to the temporally asymmetric world of international publishing, where the hardback first US edition of Regeneration drops in North America on 3rd May, and the UK edition mass-market paperback (MMP if you want to sound like an insider) lands elsewhere in the English-speaking world on the 5th. The MMP is the smaller, cheaper print copy that fits in your bag and costs about the same as your workday lunch, conveniences that the publisher and I hope will entice lots and lots of you to check it out.

It feels like a lifetime since I got the call that led to this moment: my agent had secured a preemptive offer for three novels, based on the Gemsigns manuscript and outlines of two further books that I’d hastily sketched at his insistence. I hadn’t planned a trilogy. Now, five years later and with the last of those three books about to be available throughout a good chunk of the planet, with me thoroughly embedded in the world of publishing and the life of a writer, it’s worth taking a moment to feel just slightly awestruck.

I made up a story, and in so doing changed my own story.

That’s some kind of magic.

And so I find myself thinking about the magic of stories: how they change and how they grow, where we join them and where we leave, and what happens when we’re not looking. How they seem to have their own reality and logic – whether or not we are living them, whether or not we are writing them.

I’ve always loved the Tolkienesque idea of the neverending story, an endless tale that the characters – and by extension the reader, and indeed the writer – inhabit only for a little while. One of the things I wanted to achieve in the ®Evolution novels was that sense of continuity: of a tale that had begun long before the writer started writing or the reader started reading. That both would visit for a time, and depart at some point of the writer’s choosing, rather than come to the end of. That had enough weight and heft for me, the writer – and you too, dear reader – to feel almost incidental to its existence.

Stories are real. We spin them out of dreams and desires, fears and hopes, moments of inspiration and confusion. We turn the electricity in our fingertips into bits and bytes, and somehow it all becomes actual. Solid. A tangible object full of the crumbs and stains of workday lunches, bearing a kinked spine and edges frayed by the passage of time; familiar yet somehow, hopefully, undiminished.

Not unlike ourselves.

The best stories tell us the truth about the real world. The best stories stay with us, even when we have left them behind. The best a writer can do is try to write that kind of story.

And so this is my hope for Regeneration, and all of the ®Evolution: that it will feel no less real for having been made up, and that its ending will be for you, as it is for me, a departure rather than a conclusion.

  • I love stories.
    My new novel, Sacred, is all about them. Publication info will be posted as soon as I have it.

    In the meantime check out Gemsigns, Binary and Regeneration, available wherever good books are sold.

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