Waistcoatpunk

The supposedly definitive speech for hopepunk is given by Samwise Gamgee in The Two Towers: “That there’s some good in the world”, and so on.  It’s a fine speech, and it would be churlish indeed to pick on good-hearted Sam. But recently I read (or possibly re-read) Michael Moorcock’s old essay on Tolkien, as well; the one that pegs Lord of the Rings as an armour-clad Winnie the Pooh.

I was never quite the Tolkien-maniac so many teenagers are, though I won’t claim it was out of social competence or any foresightful discomfort with JRR’s racial scheme. It was probably because I’d read too much trash fantasy before I got hold of The Fellowship of the Ring, and was hoping for more of the same. Even though I knew it was unfair, it seemed like Tolkien was plagiarizing himself. 

Underneath, I think the structure of the world and the story might have also got up my nose. I always sympathized more with elves than hobbits. More fool me, perhaps. All of the hobbits have a bit too much Forrest Gump in them, a much worse work of art whose magic moron morality I will continue to hate until my dying day.

I was certainly up for Moorcock’s pulp literary experimenta. My taste was much more for Melniboné than Bag End. And he’s a pretty good critic. He gets the politics of Middle Earth and Middle Hopepunk bang on:

While there is an argument for the reactionary nature of the books, they are certainly deeply conservative and strongly anti-urban, which is what leads some to associate them with a kind of Wagnerish hitlerism. I don’t think these books are ‘fascist’, but they certainly don’t exactly argue with the 18th century enlightened Toryism with which the English comfort themselves so frequently in these upsetting times.

Epic Pooh

It’s not that hopepunk is bad. Like Tolkien, it’s deeply anti-fascist, and pro-community, in a rural traditionalist way. But it’s as punk as a hobbit in a four button waistcoat. It’s comfortable to wear, but I remain skeptical it will change much.

Does Anne of Green Gables Dream of Electric Sheep?

Caroline M Yoachim – A Rabbit Egg For Flora 

Adam Berman – Egg Tooth

Philip K Dick – The Preserving Machine

In an early Philip K Dick fairy-tale, an eccentric scientist invents a machine for turning musical pieces into animals. It works quite well, at least when the animals are kept inside, as pets. The animals can be easily converted back into recognizable entries of the classical canon. Yet the point of the project is preservation for the ages, across scores of generations, and when released into the nearby forest, the animals change. Some are eaten. Some turn wild. When the pipe-organ-like machine is used to convert them back, the result is strange, disturbing, sounds, barely classifiable as music at all.

A Rabbit Egg For Flora, by Caroline Yoachim, feels like it is set in one of these PKD worlds, while telling a story that the great man seemingly never could. In The Preserving Machine, for example, the vivid clunking fact of the machine breaks down for the characters, while reality of the world grows for the reader. Character reality frays and reader reality intensifies. Rabbit Egg is not about fraying, but repair. A single parent and her daughter play a game, discovering artificial eggs. It’s Pokémon, but for nanotechnological wonders which restore ecosystems.

“What do you think it will be?”

“Bobcat!”

I laugh. “I don’t think our local ecosystem can support a predator that big.”

“Deer!”

“Lobster!”

The dark-haired boy snorts. “The sea-life expansion got pushed back three months because ocean acidity is still too high.”

Behind the children’s game, this is a world of catastrophic loss. It is perhaps decades or centuries in the future: probably billions of people died as supporting natural systems collapsed around them, before everything finally bottomed out. It is perhaps a few decades on from the dayglo dystopia of Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, where, unlike Blade Runner, Deckard had an obsessive hobby of trying to find pet animals, and where even dogs and cats are so rare they are fabulously expensive. Rabbit Egg, daringly, takes this place as the setting for a charming childhood romance. It’s in a solarpunk collection, and this is the solarpunk gambit, really: envisioning repair instead of doom. Eventually, in Androids, Deckard finds a frog, which he doesn’t recognize is actually a mechanical simulacra. He is always a childlike assassin. You can imagine him enjoying searching for eggs.

Egg Tooth, by Adam Berman, is an uneasy, meticulously crafted, story that doesn’t show its cards early. It could be set in a more orderly, Australian, corner of that same collapsing world, albeit without any androids. If the voice of Rabbit Egg is Anne of Green Gables, the voice of Egg Tooth is clearly Kafka. This is not the cartoon avatar of bureaucratic frustration found in popular culture. (Is it a red tape? Is it a show trial? No – it’s Kafkaman!) This is the baffled observer-protagonist of The Castle or the A Country Doctor, intensely moved, evicted from his own head.

Between the apartments were skyscrapers in varying styles and states of decay. Whereas the oldest buildings tended to be the most complete, more recent projects appeared unfinished, with large black tarps covering jagged upper floors. The older buildings paid their penance in other ways, being covered in higher concentrations of graffiti and torn nylon banner advertisements. 

I am cagey about sharing the details of Egg Tooth, lest I inadvertently pick apart its fine weave. There are plenty of stories about the future being horrible, and they generally don’t interest me. What makes Egg Tooth compelling, and a little sickening, is the implication that among the collapse, this society is a relative success: a place of orderly utilitarian kindness among more general chaos, with famine and death just off-screen.

Both of these stories appear in collections of solarpunk science fiction, though Egg Tooth is by far the glummest boat in the sunny tech nouveau solarpunk regatta. Despite the revolutionary names of solarpunk, or even Extinction Rebellion, green politics is often forced to be conservative, or even reactionary – stop doing this, stop killing that, restore what was good and beautiful and pure. Flora wants rabbits back; in Egg Tooth the platypus may just be saved. Indeed, we need to stop and restore! But this is also why, politically, it’s so easy to slip from green to ecoreactionary; to the idealization of past social and technical forms. (And from there, ecofash is but a short goosestep away.)

Solarpunk is a countermovement of repair. It does not idealize feudal peasant tech and social mores, but puts the technology of the sun in its name. If we need romanticism, well, this is a far better romance. I hope Flora gets her rabbit egg, given she lives in North America, where it is not a pest. But the clever nanites that build the rabbits are also little conservatives, rebuilding what once was. Though both of the stories I’ve talked about here are great, and take risks in their own ways, most solarpunk plays it safe. Solarpunk is usually solarcozy. Quite a lot of it is secretly Egg Tooth wearing sunglasses – the literature of the precautionary principle and managed decline.

Most solarpunk I’ve seen – and much of these two collections – is good at the local, the relational, and the romantic – the Mrs Brown stories of the Turkey City Lexicon. This is a strength where science fiction traditionally had a weakness. It is good to have stories like this. The two stories I’ve named don’t span all of the weird creatures of the subgenre. But I wonder, based on what we’ve seen so far, whether this cozy vision can encompass the radically changed, and the truly planetary.

There are two and a half stories I imagine could only be written if solarpunk writers stopped playing it safe. The half is Fully Automated Planetary Solarpunk, a setting with Green Stack crisis management and universal basic services, which writers like Kim Stanley Robinson have at least had a crack at. The second is a Neo-Edwardian High Tory Solarpunk, with Art Nouveau aesthetics, solar industrialists, plucky aristocratic Indian adventuresses, and imperial confidence in multi-generational stewardship. I have to admit I name this one partly for the joy of the cognitive-political dissonance it implies in a community which can be painfully earnest at times. But beyond that, stories which deal with the age of Dadabhai Naoroji and the first National Parks also ask what it means to wield and abuse power across global networks, to preserve ecosystems, and to valorize traditional and indigenous continuity. The third, often quite incompatibly with the other two, would be a xenofeminist solarpunk, a solarpunk of unprecedented scale, cunning, and vision, a tech-subverting, wilderness-unleashing liberatory force, that like punk, would celebrate the strange, wild things that hatch from future eggs.

A Rabbit Egg For Flora by Caroline M Yoachim is published in Multispecies Cities. Egg Tooth by Adam Berman is published in And Lately, The Sun.

Ancillary SYN-ACK

Ancillary Justice is a cyborg soldiers and AI spaceships novel (with complications) in a space opera setting, built around a soldier called Breq. Think Iain M Banks but with the Roman Empire instead of plush toy communism. The complications are both cool and fundamental to the characters, and I won’t spoil the slow reveal of the first book here, even though it’s all over the web.

The trilogy is completed with Ancillary Sword and Ancillary Mercy. After the galaxy-spanning wandering of the first book, racing towards the capital, the second and third books focus back on a particular system. Breq muscles in as a fleet captain of a capital ship. Aliens, ships and stations join the cast of characters. Interpersonal and gunboat diplomacy ensue.

The heavy Space Roman Empire vibe of the first volume evolves into something a bit more Space Girls Boarding School Naval Academy in the later books. Though both have their virtues, I always tend to favour first books, and the thick vertigo of new ideas is denser in Ancillary Justice than the other two volumes. I still devoured all three at speed and with pleasure.

The Ancillary trilogy is, at some level, network space opera, about synchronization, replication, latency and packet corruption. The empire exists because it successfully replicates itself over distance and time. And then it stops: packet loss and fragmentation.

Pogromon Go

It’s not fair to blame it on Pokémon, really. They weren’t the worst of it by far, though the limited edition Pikajew did echo the unfortunate spirit of the times.

The Pure Tribe had their own apps, monsters and backends. Variations. Innovations. Memes and games catch on and evolve. The whole time they were annotating and mapping. Highlighting targets in bold colours: signs, shrines, grandmothers, foxes. Sharing high scores on the day. Trading in parts. People and drones had got in plenty of practice beforehand. “Gotta catch ‘em all!”

Fads come and go.

The Consensus Reality Based Community

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1. There’s a concept from science fiction criticism which has become a favourite of mine. Indeed it seems fundamental to this 21st century glocal postmodernity of ours, the concept of consensus reality.
1.1 It is worth remembering that this consensus often refers to the beliefs of the society in the work under criticism, in which marmalade may be money, spaceships may fly faster than light, and handheld communicators with vid screens may be ubiquitous.

2. The idea of consensus reality neatly captures several insights.
2.1 Reality proper, what Kant called the unsynthesized manifold, is unavoidably mediated by our senses and brain.
2.2 Our model of the world is socially constructed by a group we live in.
2.3 Powerful institutions of mainstream thought – like large newspapers – work within certain parameters of perception.
2.3.1 The first page of search engine results are representative. They are consensus reality engines. Common sense engines, in Bruce Sterling’s words.
2.4 Something in the consensus is inevitably and always wrong.
2.4.1 The consensus contains arguments with known for and against positions.
2.4.1.1 The argument itself can be wrong, irrelevant, meaningless side effect, not resolvable as either pro or con, etc.
2.5 Broad consensus realities often have enduring correlations with events.
2.6 Consensus is reinforced by breadth.

3. Kuhn’s concept of a scientific paradigm resembles a consensus reality, but is far more systematic.
3.1 Consensus reality includes cultural convention and everyday discussion including obvious internal logical contradictions.
3.2 Consensus reality is intuitive.
3.3 Consensus reality may be surprising – chance events – but not unanticipated ones.
3.3.1 “Black swans” are demonstrations of consensus reality.
3.3.2 Commuting to work is also demonstrative.

4. A reality based community responds to empirical sense-data.
4.1 Measures.
4.2 Adjusts in response to changes in data.
4.3 Follows technique.
4.3.1 Technique may be systematic. It may have a model.
4.3.1.1 The model may be tested empirically and systematically.
4.3.1.2 One might use a randomised controlled trial, or survey, or historical data source, or blind peer review.
4.4 Reality based communities survive by adaptation.
4.5 Strongly reality based communities would necessarily be scientific communities.
4.5.1 No serious political community today is also a scientific community.
4.5.1.1 Establishing professional pools of expertise for these processes is necessary but not sufficient.
4.5.1.1.1 Any such group analysing a public problem is inherently political.
4.5.1.1.2 This is technocracy.

5. The consensus reality based community is always broad, often well-established and always vulnerable to disruption of its reality.
5.1 This is the nature of Karl Rove’s insult.
5.1.1 By always anchoring themselves in well established consensus reality, Rove’s opponents fail to react to events initiated by his faction which change the broad understanding of reality.
5.1.2 Rove’s faction has since, with amusing consistency, repeatedly showed themselves to not be reality based.
5.1.2.1 This faction acts as an alternative consensus reality based community.
5.1.3 In rejecting the dominant consensus reality, and its rhetoric of objective evaluation, they went straight on and also rejected a reality base for their community.
5.1.3.1 This is not a survival technique.
5.1.3.2 On the day of the 2012 US Presidential election, both major parties expected to win.
5.2 The consensus reality based community may even tacitly acknowledge it is not reality based.
5.2.1 This is a society in which the consensus ritual detaches from its social meaning.
5.2.2 Incongruence between political consensus reality and reality manifests in scandal.
5.2.2.1 Fin de siècle Vienna.
5.2.2.2 Late Ming China.
5.2.3 Incongruence between social consensus reality and geophysics and biology manifests in natural disaster.
5.2.3.1 The Aral Sea.
5.2.4 Incongruence between financial consensus reality and economic and psychological reality manifests in financial crisis.
5.2.4.1 CDOs and CDSs.
5.2.4.2 South Sea Bubble.
5.2.4.3 Louisiana.
5.2.4.4 Tulips.

6. The siblings of consensus reality are the consensus future and the consensus past.
6.1 Revision is the change of the consensus past.
6.2 Changes to the consensus future feel like betrayal or relief.