Wednesday, April 1st, 2020
Monday, March 30th, 2020
Living Through The Future
You can listen to audio version of Living Through The Future.
Usually when we talk about “living in the future”, it’s something to do with technology: smartphones, satellites, jet packs… But I’ve never felt more like I’m living in the future than during The Situation.
On the one hand, there’s nothing particularly futuristic about living through a pandemic. They’ve occurred throughout history and this one could’ve happened at any time. We just happen to have drawn the short straw in 2020. Really, this should feel like living in the past: an outbreak of a disease that disrupts everyone’s daily life? Nothing new about that.
But there’s something dizzyingly disconcerting about the dominance of technology. This is the internet’s time to shine. Think you’re going crazy now? Imagine what it would’ve been like before we had our network-connected devices to keep us company. We can use our screens to get instant updates about technologies of world-shaping importance …like beds and face masks. At the same time as we’re starting to worry about getting hold of fresh vegetables, we can still make sure that whatever meals we end up making, we can share them instantaneously with the entire planet. I think that, despite William Gibson’s famous invocation, I always figured that the future would feel pretty futuristic all ‘round—not lumpy with old school matters rubbing shoulders with technology so advanced that it’s indistinguishable from magic.
When I talk about feeling like I’m living in the future, I guess what I mean is that I feel like I’m living at a time that will become History with a capital H. I start to wonder what we’ll settle on calling this time period. The Covid Point? The Corona Pause? 2020-P?
At some point we settled on “9/11” for the attacks of September 11th, 2001 (being a fan of ISO-8601, I would’ve preferred 2001-09-11, but I’ll concede that it’s a bit of a mouthful). That was another event that, even at the time, clearly felt like part of History with a capital H. People immediately gravitated to using historical comparisons. In the USA, the comparison was Pearl Harbour. Outside of the USA, the comparison was the Cuban missile crisis.
Another comparison between 2001-09-11 and what we’re currently experiencing now is how our points of reference come from fiction. Multiple eyewitnesses in New York described the September 11th attacks as being “like something out of a movie.” For years afterwards, the climactic showdowns in superhero movies that demolished skyscrapers no longer felt like pure escapism.
For The Situation, there’s no shortage of prior art to draw upon for comparison. If anthing, our points of reference should be tales of isolation like Robinson Crusoe. The mundane everyday tedium of The Situation can’t really stand up to comparison with the epic scale of science-fictional scenarios, but that’s our natural inclination. You can go straight to plague novels like Stephen King’s The Stand or Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven. Or you can get really grim and cite Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. But you can go the other direction too and compare The Situation with the cozy catastrophes of John Wyndham like Day Of The Triffids (or just be lazy and compare it to any of the multitude of zombie apocalypses—an entirely separate kind of viral dystopia).
In years to come there will be novels set during The Situation. Technically they will be literary fiction—or even historical fiction—but they’ll feel like science fiction.
I remember the Chernobyl disaster having the same feeling. It was really happening, it was on the news, but it felt like scene-setting for a near-future dystopian apocalypse. Years later, I was struck when reading Wolves Eat Dogs by Martin Cruz-Smith. In 2006, I wrote:
Halfway through reading the book, I figured out what it was: Wolves Eat Dogs is a Cyberpunk novel. It happens to be set in present-day reality but the plot reads like a science-fiction story. For the most part, the book is set in the post-apocolyptic landscape of Prypiat, near Chernobyl. This post-apocolyptic scenario just happens to be real.
The protagonist, Arkady Renko, is sent to this frightening hellish place following a somewhat far-fetched murder in Moscow. Killing someone with a minute dose of a highly radioactive material just didn’t seem like a very realistic assassination to me.
Then I saw the news about Alexander Litvinenko, the former Russian spy who died this week, quite probably murdered with a dose of polonium-210.
I’ve got the same tingling feeling about The Situation. Fact and fiction are blurring together. Past, present, and future aren’t so easy to differentiate.
I really felt it last week standing in the back garden, looking up at the International Space Station passing overhead on a beautifully clear and crisp evening. I try to go out and see the ISS whenever its flight path intersects with southern England. Usually I’d look up and try to imagine what life must be like for the astronauts and cosmonauts on board, confined to that habitat with nowhere to go. Now I look up and feel a certain kinship. We’re all experiencing a little dose of what that kind of isolation must feel like. Though, as the always-excellent Marina Koren points out:
The more experts I spoke with for this story, the clearer it became that, actually, we have it worse than the astronauts. Spending months cooped up on the ISS is a childhood dream come true. Self-isolating for an indefinite period of time because of a fast-spreading disease is a nightmare.
Whenever I look up at the ISS passing overhead I feel a great sense of perspective. “Look what we can do!”, I think to myself. “There are people living in space!”
Last week that feeling was still there but it was tempered with humility. Yes, we can put people in space, but here we are with our entire way of life put on pause by something so small and simple that it’s technically not even a form of life. It’s like we’re the martians in H.G. Wells’s War Of The Worlds; all-conquering and formidable, but brought low by a dose of dramatic irony, a Virus Ex Machina.
Monday, December 16th, 2019
The goal in putting these stories together has never been to create a warm glow, or lull anyone into a false sense of complacency. The challenges facing the human family right now are big and scary and there’s no guarantee we will overcome them.
As millions of people have demonstrated in the past 12 months though, action is possible, better solutions are available and a better future can be built.
Tuesday, September 3rd, 2019
The new editorial project from David Byrne, as outlined in his recent Long Now talk.
Through stories of hope, rooted in evidence, Reasons to be Cheerful aims to inspire us all to be curious about how the world can be better, and to ask ourselves how we can be part of that change.
Saturday, August 3rd, 2019
Books in the public domain, lovingly designed and typeset, available in multiple formats for free. Great works of fiction from Austen, Conrad, Stevenson, Wells, Hardy, Doyle, and Dickens, along with classics of non-fiction like Darwin’s The Origin of Species and Shackleton’s South!
Thursday, July 4th, 2019
I mentioned how much I enjoyed Mike Hill’s talk at Beyond Tellerrand in Düsseldorf:
Mike gave a talk called The Power of Metaphor and it’s absolutely brilliant. It covers the monomyth (the hero’s journey) and Jungian archetypes, illustrated with the examples Star Wars, The Dark Knight, and Jurassic Park.
Ellen and I have been enjoying some great philosophical discussions about exactly what a story is, and how does it differ from a narrative structure, or a plot. I really love Ellen’s working definition: Narrative. In Space. Over Time.
This led me to think that there’s a lot that we can borrow from the world of storytelling—films, novels, fairy tales—not necessarily about the stories themselves, but the kind of narrative structures we could use to tell those stories. After all, the story itself is often the same one that’s been told time and time again—The Hero’s Journey, or some variation thereof.
I realised that Mike’s monomyth talk aligns nicely with my workshop. So I decided to prep my fellow Clearlefties for the workshop with a movie night.
Popcorn was popped, pizza was ordered, and comfy chairs were suitably arranged. Then we watched Mike’s talk. Everyone loved it. Then it was decision time. Which of three films covered in the talk would we watch? We put it to a vote.
It came out as an equal tie between Jurassic Park and The Dark Knight. How would we resolve this? A coin toss!
The toss went to The Dark Knight. In retrospect, a coin toss was a supremely fitting way to decide to watch that film.
It was fun to watch it again, particularly through the lens of Mike’s analyis of its Jungian archetypes.
But I still think the film is about game theory.
Sunday, June 16th, 2019
A collection of sci-fi short stories about oceans, featuring contributions from Madeline Ashby, Lauren Beukes, Elizabeth Bear, and more.
Thursday, May 23rd, 2019
After a fun and productive Indie Web Camp, I stuck around Düsseldorf for Beyond Tellerand. I love this event. I’ve spoken at it quite a few times, but this year it was nice to be there as an attendee. It’s simultaneously a chance to reconnect with old friends I haven’t seen in a while, and an opportunity to meet lovely new people. There was plenty of both this year.
I think this might have been the best Beyond Tellerrand yet, and that’s saying something. It’s not just that the talks were really good—there was also a wonderful atmosphere.
Marc somehow manages to curate a line-up that’s equal parts creativity and code; design and development. It shouldn’t work, but it does. I love the fact that he had a legend of the industry like David Carson on the same stage as first-time speaker like Dorobot …and the crowd loved ‘em equally!
During the event, I found out that I had a small part to play in the creation of the line-up…
Three years ago, I linked to a video of a talk by Mike Hill:
A terrific analysis of industrial design in film and games …featuring a scene-setting opening that delineates the difference between pleasure and happiness.
It’s a talk about chairs in Jodie Foster films. Seriously. It’s fantastic!
Marc saw my link, watched the video, and decided he wanted to get Mike Hill to speak at Beyond Tellerrand. After failing to get a response by email, Marc managed to corner Mike at an event in Amsterdam and get him on this year’s line-up.
Mike gave a talk called The Power of Metaphor and it’s absolutely brilliant. It covers the monomyth (the hero’s journey) and Jungian archetypes, illustrated with the examples Star Wars, The Dark Knight, and Jurassic Park:
Under the surface of their most celebrated films lies a hidden architecture that operates on an unconscious level; This talk is designed to illuminate the techniques that great storytellers use to engage a global audience on a deep and meaningful level through psychological metaphor.
The videos from Beyond Tellerrand are already online so you can watch the talk now.
In this talk, we’ll discuss how the language we use affects our users and the first steps towards writing accessible, approachable and use case-driven documentation.
While the talk was ostensibly about documentation, I found that it was packed full of good advice for writing well in general.
I had a thought. What if you mashed up these two talks? What if you wrote documentation through the lens of the hero’s journey?
Think about it. When somone arrives at your documentation, they’ve crossed the threshold to the underworld. They are in the cave, facing a dragon. You are their guide, their mentor, their Obi-Wan Kenobi. You can help them conquer their demons and return to the familiar world, changed by their journey.
Monday, May 20th, 2019
Ted Chiang has new collection out‽ Why did nobody tell me‽
Okay, well, technically this is Joyce Carol Oates telling me. In any case …woo-hoo!!!
Saturday, February 23rd, 2019
It’s not funny, cause it’s true.
Tuesday, February 19th, 2019
An Interview with Nick Harkaway: Algorithmic Futures, Literary Fractals, and Mimetic Immortality - Los Angeles Review of Books
Nick Harkaway on technology in fiction:
Humans without tools are not magically pure; they’re just unvaccinated, cold, and wet.
SF is how we get to know ourselves, either who we are or who we might be. In terms of what is authentically human, SF has a claim to be vastly more honest and important than a literary fiction that refuses to admit the existence of the modern and goes in search of a kind of essential humanness which exists by itself, rather than in the intersection of people, economics, culture, and science which is where we all inevitably live. It’s like saying you can only really understand a flame if you get rid of the candle. Good luck with that.
And on Borges:
He was a genius, and he left this cryptic, brilliant body of work that’s poetic, incomplete, astonishing. It’s like a tasting menu in a restaurant where they let you smell things that go to other tables and never arrive at yours.
Sunday, January 6th, 2019
Monday, July 9th, 2018
A collection of sci-fi short stories, featuring Becky Chambers and Madeline Ashby …and it’s free!
Tuesday, June 26th, 2018
Prompted by his time at Clearleft’s AI gathering in Juvet, Chris has been delving deep into the stories we tell about artificial intelligence …and what stories are missing.
And here we are at the eponymous answer to the question that I first asked at Juvet around 7 months ago: What stories aren’t we telling ourselves about AI?
Friday, June 1st, 2018
I’ve been enjoying the stories over on Upsideclown so it’s great to get a peak inside Matt’s writing brain here.
I also happen to really, really like his four stories:
I wouldn’t say I’m great at writing fiction. I find it tough. It is the easiest thing in the world for me to pick holes in what I’ve written. So instead, as an exercise—and as some personal positive reinforcement—I want to remind myself what I learnt writing each one, and also what I like.
Sunday, December 10th, 2017
Visions, Ventures, Escape Velocities: A Collection of Space Futures – Center for Science and the Imagination
A collection of short stories and essays speculating on humanity’s future in the solar system. The digital versions are free to download.
Tuesday, September 26th, 2017
Anecdotes about the development of Apple’s original Macintosh, and the people who made it.
Like a real-life Halt And Catch Fire.
Saturday, September 23rd, 2017
This forthcoming sci-fi quarterly publication looks intriguing:
Each issue contains a part of a previously untranslated novel as well as essays looking at the world through the lens of different writers.
I’m loving their typeface. It’s called Marvin. It was specially made for the magazine, and available to download and use for personal use for free.
Marvin gets its distinctive voice not only from its Art Nouveau vibe but also from its almost geometrically perfect construction. Its roundness and familiarity with Bauhaus typefaces shows its roots in geometric sans serifs at the same time.
Thursday, July 6th, 2017
Here’s a fun premise for a collection of sci-fi short stories:
Flight 008 through a temporary wrinkle in the local region of space-time. What these passengers will soon find out as they descend into SFO is that the wrinkle has transported them 20 years in the future, and the year is now 2037.
Read the stories of the passengers from Flight 008, imagined by the world’s top science fiction storytellers, as they discover a future transformed by exponential technologies.
Authors include Bruce Sterling, Madeline Ashby, Paulo Bacigalupi, and Gregory Benford.
Thursday, February 2nd, 2017
It strikes me that Garrett’s site has become a valuable record of the human condition with its mix of two personal stories—one relating to his business and the other relating to his health—both of them communicated clearly through great writing.
Have a read back through the archive and I think you’ll share my admiration.