Utopian dreamers, other-worldly explorers, and psychonautic adventurers; scholars, activists, students, and critics: drawing inspiration from the online political ecology magazine Uneven Earth (http://www.unevenearth.org/) and following the success of our 2017 round of submissions (http://unevenearth.org/not-afraid-of-the-ruins/), we are excited to announce the 2019 call for submissions for the collaborative writing project Not Afraid of the Ruins. The goal for this year’s call will be to once again showcase new, original, creative, and critical reflections to foster intimate and productive conversations across the intellectual and creative arts.
The fertile ground between science fiction and social/environmental justice has long been an arena for speculation and exploration by academics, activists, and creative writers. From the academy to the field and beyond, the works of science fiction writers such as Octavia E. Butler, Ursula Le Guin and Margaret Atwood (among many, many others) have presented unique corollaries to the diverse worlds and experiences we encounter in political ecology and social/environmental justice research and activism. Our goal with this project is to create a space explicitly open to exploring such convergences, a space that is neither formally academic nor wholly creative fiction, but instead, in the true spirit of Ursula Le Guin’s The Dispossessed, seeks to tap the potential that exists in the liminal space between these otherwise isolated worlds of thought. We hope that such an endeavor will produce seeds for imagining that will go forward and populate unexpected places both far and near.
This year, we are asking for more focused submissions with the goal of highlighting people, places, stories and characters that are not typically represented in the traditional Science Fiction canon. We are particularly interested in exploring ‘local science fictions’ through pieces that engage with place-based histories and geographies. Some examples for inspiration:
Aliens landing in Soweto, South Africa
Solarpunk in Belgrade, Serbia
The development of a sharing economy in a post-mining community, Northern Sweden
Local revolution against the soy plantation industry in the Cordoba Province, Argentina
Space colonisation, inter-planetary mining and a water-based economy in Singapore
Anti-petroleum activism in Al-Ahsa, Saudi Arabia
While we are not strict about word count, we strongly encourage writers to limit their submissions to approximately 2,500 words. Submissions can be either fiction or non-fiction.
Not Afraid of the Ruins is a collaborative project and all submissions are vetted and edited by our friendly NAOTR comrades; it is not a peer reviewed academic journal. As such, we hope that both fiction and non-fiction submissions alike are written in a clear and accessible style and we discourage strictly academic writing and excessive jargon. While we are unable to provide funding or financial compensation for submissions, we are hoping to create the possibility for publication opportunities beyond the blog.
This year, we are accepting full submissions only (no proposals). To submit, please send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org by January 15th, 2019 which includes:
A short biographical paragraph about yourself (2 to 4 sentences)
A manuscript of the full submission
Any accompanying artwork or visuals (We highly encourage a number of visuals for each piece. These can be photographs, digital art, video, or anything else you can think of! Please be sure to follow proper copyright rules and cite sources when appropriate.)
If you are interested in submitting in a language other than English, we encourage you to contact us to check if we have the capacity to edit your piece.
In an age of unprecedented climatic, social and political change, we believe that such a project continues to be as relevant and urgent as ever. We feel compelled, as academics and activists and human beings, to not only critically reflect upon our shared human and ecological condition, but to dare to dream otherwise; to imagine things not only as they are, but to reimagine them as they could be. It is our hope that this blog will provide both space and motivation for doing just that.
Ideas about the importance of the imagination in an age of political and ecological crisis are popping up everywhere: in the arts, in activism and other forms of politics, and in a wide range of academic disciplines and fields. This blog is one example.
In addition to creative efforts to imagine other futures, we also need critical analyses of such visions. This is because imaginative responses to crises cover a broad spectrum of politics and worldviews—and even our dreams of a better future can be constrained by the political structure and ideologies of the present. A critical approach to utopian imaginaries is essential for any rethinking of political futures; without it, we risk being trapped in the same old stories even as we see ourselves as thinking outside the old story box.
Even our dreams of a better future can be constrained by the political structure and ideologies of the present.
In this essay, I discuss one category of future visions: techno-utopianism. There are plenty of techno-utopian fiction and nonfiction stories to choose from. Three that have caught my attention and that have some interesting similarities and differences are British campaigner and lobbyist Jonathon Porritt’s design fiction book The world we made, futurist Jacque Fresco’s The Venus project, and the movement for Fully Automated Luxury Communism.
To see how viable these visions are, I’ll analyze their narrative and argumentative logic and also connect the basic assumptions in these visions to the modernization hypothesis—the idea that human history is a process of evolution towards modernity through economic development and technological progress. Several schools of thought in the critical social sciences have emerged in reaction to this widespread conviction about progress. World-systems theory is one of them, and it retells the story of modernization (or of ‘the modern world system’) by taking the colonial expansion of Western Europe as a starting point. This expansion wasn’t driven by some automatic force of modernization but by the accumulation of resources in privileged areas and the consequent impoverishment of peripheries. This perspective should lead us to ask whether institutions and artefacts that are often taken for granted in attempts to reimagine politics—like the technologies that are central in techno-utopianism—are compatible with or inimical to environmental sustainability and social justice.
With this critical perspective in mind, we will now turn to the three stories and their connections to political movements.
The World We Made: Alex McKay’s Story from 2050
Jonathon Porritt, a British environmentalist with a background in the UK Green Party and Friends of the Earth, has written a 300-page design fiction imagining concrete steps from the year 2014 to an imagined sustainable future in 2050. Design fiction aims to inspire new forms of design and engineering (and sometimes also political policy), and its possible functions in relation to environmental issues are currently being investigated by researchers at KTH Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm, Sweden.
Porritt’s report from the future, which is divided into sections of a few pages each, is permeated by a positive rhetoric that emphasizes solutions and does not linger on conflicts. He motivates this in the postscript by stating that ‘yet more tales of doom and gloom are not going to make a difference’ (p. 275). Where ecological and political crises are acknowledged—for instance concerning droughts and mass protests in the once abundant Fertile Crescent (pp. 22-27), or issues with profit maximization (pp. 54-57)—the story always moves on to hopeful conclusions about how a united world comes to its senses and decides to act in the nick of time. The narrator Alex McKay, a male community college teacher in an unspecified anglophone country (presumably the UK), writes in the preface to the report that humanity has found ‘a renewed sense of purpose as a family of nations’ (p. 1). The book conceptualizes the agent of historical change, or the protagonist in a story of action for sustainability, as an abstract, united humanity which realizes its potential for goodness and acts through the existing political institutions of the 2010s. In terms of political change, we just need the general public to protest a bit (pp. 32-36) and ‘get today’s political classes to think beyond the next election’ (p. 275). Other institutions like the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, large corporations, and powerful industries—not to mention the underlying institutions of money and industrial technology, artefacts that are presented as natural phenomena and barely subject to cultural analysis—are conveniently tamed or turn out to work for the common good. This is emblematic of a tendency in many accounts of climate change (and is a central point of disagreement in the debate over the concept of the Anthropocene): to imagine a generalized human ‘we’ as first the villain causing climate change and environmental degradation and then the chastened hero who takes responsibility for the situation.
His wish to stay away from ‘doom and gloom’ means that he also stays away from a rigorous analysis of the political and ecological crises of the present.
In doing so, The World We Made fails to analyze the complex, intertwined political and economic causes behind global environmental change, climate change, global inequity, and the lack of transformative action in current political institutions. This is at least partly due to Porritt’s choice of rhetorical strategy. His wish to stay away from ‘doom and gloom’ means that he also stays away from a rigorous analysis of the political and ecological crises of the present. Consequently, as a work of fiction The World We Made can be criticized for poor characterization of both protagonists and antagonists and the lack of a coherent explanatory backstory. The cultural and material motivations of those who participate in ecological destruction and the exploitation of other people are absent, as are explanations for how institutions that are inimical to sustainability suddenly turn out to be useful tools for political change. To compare this to another well-known narrative in speculative fiction, it is as if Boromir in The Lord of the Rings were hailed for his brilliant idea of using the One Ring to do good and then everyone goes with him to Minas Tirith, they win the war with hardly any bloodshed—Sauron accepting to keep financial profits and slavery at a minimum—and the ominous aura surrounding the Ring turns out to be a stupid doom and gloom thing which luckily no one bought into.
The proposed solutions to ecological and political crises in Porritt’s design fiction take the form of leaps of faith—often faith in technology as a kind of magic—based on best-case scenarios. As six years have passed since The World We Made was published, some of those best-case scenarios have been literally disproven. The most absurd example is the contrast between Porritt’s imagined reformist and peaceful outcome of the Arab Spring (p. 22) and today’s situation with the Syrian civil war, ISIS, the political crisis in Libya after Gaddafi was ousted, enforced EU borders and the EU deal with Turkey to keep refugees out, and so on. To this criticism we can add a world-system understanding of the ‘green’ technologies which Porritt sees as our global salvation (pp. 15-21, 274-275): since industrial technologies in the past have been built on the exploitation of resources and labour in impoverished peripheries, we have no reason to believe that a non-exploitative force of technological progress will suddenly kick in and modernize us all out of this mess. As I will return to towards the end of this essay, these technologies need to be analyzed in connection to their role in the world system as a whole and not only on the basis of the local benefits they offer the people who control them.
The Venus Project
If there are tendencies to view technologies as magic in Porritt’s thinking, it is nothing compared to what is presented in the political vision of the Venus Project. The project was founded by futurist Jacque Fresco and is an important source of inspiration in some environmentalist circles.
The Venus Project is described on the website as ‘a single man’s vision of the future where war is obsolete, there’s no lack of resources, and our focus as a species is global sustainability and the preservation of the environment.’ The key to this is the progress of modern technology. In Fresco’s vision, humanity will use ‘the latest scientific and technological marvels’ to ‘reach extremely high productivity levels and create abundance of resources.’ The scientific method will guarantee progress in all areas, from energy to social relations. In an interview in The New American, Fresco explains how:
‘Nobody makes decisions in the Venus Project, they arrive at them,’ Fresco said. For example, a soil sample would go to ‘Central Agriculture’, which would analyze it, and make a determination as to what the best crop to grow in that soil would be. ‘We intend to use surveys to arrive at decisions rather than make decisions.’
This objective scientific analysis will unleash the full force of technological progress. It will give us clean nuclear power through the development of Thorium reactors. We can also expect a system of fully automated construction with gigantic 3D printers building everything humans need. We will live in circular cities planned and managed by computers and organised around a ‘central dome or theme center’ housing ‘the core of the cybernated system, … computerized communications, networking systems’ (which is reminiscent of the utopian tradition of imagining the ideal city). There will be permanent space stations, serving as gravity-free research environments and supplying information about the earth’s ecological status to the supercomputers which run human society. The complex transportation system of the united planetary civilization will include hovercars, hovering conveyors called transveyors replacing other vehicles in cities, and hovering aircraft ‘controlled by electro-dynamic means eliminating the need for ailerons, elevators, rudders, spoilers, flaps or any other mechanical controls.’
If the scientific method and technological progress are the heroes of Fresco’s story, the main villain is money. In an interview on the website of the Venus Project, Fresco says that he can’t see peace and equity happening ‘in a monetary-based system where the richest nations control most of the world’s resources.’ The proposed alternative is a ‘Resource Based Economy’ in which ‘all goods and services are available to all people without the need for means of exchange such as money, credits, barter or any other means.’ It will be achieved through the application of the scientific method and the declaration of all resources ‘as the common heritage of all Earth’s inhabitants.’
There doesn’t seem to be any need for rigorous arguments supporting the ability of technology to create resources or in other ways transcend the laws of physics. As a result, the Venus Project’s imagined technologies are a lot like the Star Trek Replicator: a machine creating matter out of pure energy, where neither the source of this energy nor the way the machine works is defined.
The term for this type of science fiction world-building, where no effort is made to prove the feasibility or viability of future technologies, is soft science fiction.
The term for this type of science fiction world-building, where no effort is made to prove the feasibility or viability of future technologies, is soft science fiction. On the pop-culture site tvtropes.org, soft science fiction is illustrated by how it would explain time travel: ‘You sit in this seat, set the date you want, and pull that lever.’ Techno-utopianism, it seems, is soft science fiction: you pull the lever of technological progress and post-scarcity comes about. In Global Magic: Technologies of Appropriation from Ancient Rome to Wall Street, the anthropologist and political ecologist Alf Hornborg describes this as a form of fetishism; he argues that ‘technology is our own [modern] version of magic’ as it is ‘widely imagined to have autonomous agency’. He also contends that this fetishism ‘serves to mystify social relations of exchange’. Only by disassociating modern technology from global relations of exchange, and viewing it as a quasi-living thing which can act and has a purpose in itself, can we conceive of globalized technologies as creating wealth rather than accumulating it for the few.
Fresco’s vision relies entirely on a fetishized conceptualization of technology and a disassociation of ‘technological marvels’ from the system of exchange which he sees as a root cause of injustice and environmental destruction. This is made possible by his viewing money as a social institution but technology as a natural—or even supernatural and magical—force. This ambiguous attitude to modern institutions, with a critique of modern political economy and a celebration of modern science and technology, makes the Venus Project a fascinating techno-utopian vision to study. Maybe Fresco’s critique of money can still be useful for environmentalist movement building?
Further research on similar political visions and the opinions of Fresco’s followers suggests otherwise: it seems Fresco’s cabalistic critique of the monetary system he would overthrow lends itself to conspiracy theories. The Zeitgeist Project, created by Peter Joseph, one of Fresco’s most passionate disciples, is a telling example. Peter Joseph has made three Zeitgeist films covering issues of debt, interest, and how banks create money—and affirming the conspiracy theory that the 9/11 World Trade Center attacks were an inside job. And that’s not the only connection between the Venus Project and conspiracy theories. In Sweden, where I live, many who swear allegiance to Fresco’s vision are involved in the movement Vaken (Awake) which believes in a number of conspiracy theories and is based on the idea that only a small group of spiritually enlightened people can access an ‘esoteric worldview’ and see through these conspiracies. Although neither the Zeitgeist project nor Vaken explicitly talk about banking and money in terms of a Jewish conspiracy, the step is not far from their combination of conspiracy theories and a critique of banking and money to the openly anti-semitic narrative told by many contemporary national socialists and ecofascists.
Fully Automated Luxury Communism
If we leave out the affinities with conspiracy theories, there are striking similarities between Fresco’s vision and the techno-utopian post-scarcity vision of a new trend in (predominantly Anglo-American) leftist thinking: Fully Automated Luxury Communism (FALC). The two basic premises for this vision are the concept of automation and, instead of Fresco’s critique of money, political change achieved through the seizing of the means of production by the working class.
The productive capacity of technologies is simply taken for granted—you just pull the lever.
In the same soft science fiction manner as in the Venus Project, the productive capacity of technologies is simply taken for granted—you just pull the lever. Aaron Bastani, co-founder of Novara Media and proponent of FALC, states matter-of-factly that ‘[t]here is a tendency in capitalism to automate labor, to turn things previously done by humans into automated functions’. In this same Guardian article, we learn that ‘[t]he ideology [of FALC] springs from a tangle of well-observed trends. Generally, the rate of technological progress and labour productivity is rising, but wages are stagnating and factories are shedding jobs’ (emphasis added). In a similar manner, an article in Forbes contends that ‘[t]he rate of technological progress and worker productivity is on the rise’ and that ‘[r]obots, AI, machine learning, big data, etc. could basically make human labor redundant and instead of creating even further inequalities it could lead to a society where everyone lives in luxury and where machines produce everything.’ In sum: technological progress is a fact, automation is a well-observed trend, and this is stating the obvious. We all know the Earth is not flat; we all know automation is coming and technology creates abundance.
But although ideas about automation and the end of work are spreading in Western and Westernized societies, these trends are in fact not as uncontested as it would sometimes seem. Both empirical research on the industrial energy technologies that are necessary for automation and theoretical analyses of ideas about the end of work and technological progress shed doubt on automation as an unstoppable natural force. I’ll return to the former topic in the next section.
Critical analyses of ideas about automation have been around since the concept began to spread in the 1990s. A central text is George Caffentzis’s ‘The End of Work or the Renaissance of Slavery? A Critique of Rifkin and Negri’ which argues that the ‘“end of work” literature of the 1990s … creates a failed politics because it ultimately tries to convince both friend and foe that, behind everyone’s back, capitalism has ended.’ Caffentzis concludes that this kind of politics is ‘hardly inspiring when millions are still being slaughtered’ by the same processes of accumulation that have supposedly been subverted by the liberatory power of industrial technologies. This analysis recasts so-called labour-saving technology as a tool for the control of labour rather than the liberation of it. In Fossil Capital, Andreas Malm identifies the same logic in the shift to steam power in the British empire: steam engines and fossil fuels were adopted by factory owners not because they saved labour but because they allowed for more efficient control of labour.
But FALC does not simply view technological progress itself as what brings about the end of capitalism—the movement demands socialization of the industrial means of production. In The utopia of rules: On technology, stupidity, and the secret joys of bureaucracy, David Graeber (though he subscribes to anarchist philosophy, not to statist luxury communism) provides a similar argument. He contends that capitalist ownership of the means of production means that automation has been used to save labour-time locally by displacing it to countries where unions are weaker and wages are lower. However, like FALC, he claims that it would be possible to use such machines to liberate labour if the means of production were owned collectively. The question is then whether the local benefits provided by industrial technologies can be made universally available.
The local accumulation of resources in places like Western Europe and North America becomes a universal historical trend of development towards ever more prosperous societies.
When the experience of automation and technological progress in privileged countries is situated in the larger context of the world system, there is reason to doubt this possibility. FALC relies on a Marxist version of the modernization hypothesis. It accepts theories about ‘post-industrial society’ as the stage of development that inevitably follows after industrialization and interprets the decline in domestic industrial production in privileged parts of the world as an indication that all countries can move to a post-industrial stage. The local accumulation of resources in places like Western Europe and North America becomes a universal historical trend of development towards ever more prosperous societies.
But to get a better idea of how feasible the visions of FALC, Fresco, and Porritt are, we need to unpack their ideas about societal production and reproduction. What gives life to these futuristic societies? By means of what energy are they constructed and maintained?
Three perspectives on change, one magical lever
Solar energy is one of the most central animating powers in all three imagined futures. Bastani’s thinking is a case in point:
A world which has completely decarbonised production at some point in the twenty-first century is not the wet dream of tech optimists, but seemingly inevitable when you look at the falling cost of PV and wind technologies as a consequence of experience curves,
‘the idea that the answer to climate change is consuming less energy—that a shift to renewables will necessarily mean a downsizing in life—feels wrong.’
Falling prices and Bastani’s intuitions are the arguments offered for the viability of solar PVs as a replacement for fossil fuels. It is assumed that PVs are a fossil-free and practically unlimited source of energy. Such an assumption relies on the belief that the process of transforming the flow of energy from the sun into an electric current, storing that energy, and putting it to use in industrial production is at least as efficient as (or more efficient than) photosynthesis. This is the dominant view of solar PVs and it has been around at least since the Brundtland report on sustainable development, published in 1987. A contemporary leftist version of it is developed in ‘Solar Communism’ by David Schwartzman. This perspective on solar PVs has traction across the political spectrum.
If we want to create a ‘hard’ science fiction story about a solar-powered future, we would need to base the world-building on something more than vague statements about how abundantly the sun shines on the surface of this planet and how the wonders of technological progress will harvest this energy and create post-scarcity. We should instead consider the net energy that can be derived from solar power—or the energy return on energy invested (EROI). We should trace the sources of the energy that goes into the construction of the technology, and follow supply chains to investigate the resource extraction that is necessary for the construction and maintenance of the technology.
There is plenty of scientific controversy regarding the EROI of photovoltaics. The EROI is commonly calculated to around 11-12 to 1, meaning that you can get 11-12 times as much energy back from PVs as you have put into the construction of them. Some calculations (one article by Ferroni and Hopkirk and one by Ferroni, Gueko, and Hopkirk) suggest the EROI of PVs to be much lower—perhaps even lower than 1 to 1, which would make solar PVs a so-called ‘energy sink’ that costs more energy to construct than you can get in return. By comparison, the first oil fields which fuelled the booming industrial expansion of the 20th century had a EROI of around 100 to 1. (The energy investment amounted to little more than poking the earth with a stick, and the return was a high-energy fuel.)
In addition to the EROI, our hard science fiction story about solar power should include the sites of extraction and processes of refinement of the materials needed for solar panels and batteries (such as silicon, lithium, and rare earth metals). This would indicate that the construction of PVs generates pollution and CO2 emissions and exploits large areas of land somewhere in the world system—generally just not in the backyard of the privileged. A horrible story about one of the central locations in this extraction is told in an article in The Guardian: in Inner Mongolia, ‘China’s second-largest coal producing region, the main global supplier of rare earths and the site of large natural gas supplies’ (emphasis added), traditional Mongolian herders and their sheep are getting sick from pollution and are being displaced. When herders have protested, Malm writes in Fossil Capital, Chinese authorities have cracked down on them brutally, even murdering at least one herder.
Our hard science fiction story about solar power should also factor in that there is no such thing as perfect recycling and that many of the necessary materials are scarce, and hence consider that extraction should be expected to peak very fast in a solar-tech-powered version of present global civilization. This means that a high-tech luxury solar utopia modelled on the energy-intensive lifestyles of privileged groups in the current world system is not feasible. Solar-powered industrial techno-utopias should not be understood as alternatives to the current system but rather, with Hornborg, as ‘an expression of the global processes of capital accumulation which fossil fuels have made possible.’
Looking for non-magical utopias
Such soft science fiction imaginaries of magical sustainability and equity are examples not of a liberated imagination but of an imagination limited by the same fossil-fuel dependent system that it seeks to criticize.
The ideological positions may be very different in Porritt’s pro-capitalist sustainable development thinking, the Venus Project with its critique of money and possible affinities with nazism, and the movement for Fully Automated Luxury Communism, but the device of the fetishized magical lever of solar power (along with other magical industrial technologies) is equally central in all three stories. These techno-utopian imaginaries are constrained by a mainstream view of industrial technology as detached from social relations and resource flows, and the offered visions of the future can thereby conceptualize industrial technology as emancipatory. Such soft science fiction imaginaries of magical sustainability and equity are examples not of a liberated imagination but of an imagination limited by the same fossil-fuel dependent system that it seeks to criticize. Sadly, this means that the three techno-utopian visions that I have discussed here can’t be used as inspiration for the creation of anything but an upper-class gated community sucking out resources and labour from peripheries and keeping the unfortunate poor out. Their putative but ineffectual concern for the wellbeing of all people and all life makes them nice apologetic narratives to turn to for those of us who live in privileged parts of world society.
While there is a need for visions of a better future, these types of techno-utopian imaginaries—regardless of how well-meaning—will ultimately do more harm than good. In the face of current political and ecological crises, it is not comforting or empowering to be told to pull a magical lever. The rise of fascism, expanding neo-colonialism and extractivism, and runaway climate change and mass extinction call for more complex strategies and stories of change.
Rut Elliot Blomqvist is a co-editor at Uneven Earth, a musician and songwriter, and a PhD student at the University of Gothenburg. Elliot’s research explores the intersection between fiction and political theory in utopian and dystopian thinking about global environmental change.
The usual refrains tumble from the pharmacist’s lips all delicate and light. She fills out a prescription for a daily pill. “I really think you have made the right choice”, she says. “It’s so easy. I’ve heard it’s great for improving your credit score”.
Rowan kicks an empty can of Lucozade off the step as she exits the surgery and struggles to breathe in the air all clammy and close. It’s a sullen day: the sun stays stubborn behind July’s haze. She drifts toward home through the corporate smell that thickens around the buildings all imposing and walks by the man who sits daily outside the coffee shop, reluctantly ageing. At the pharmacy there’s that lady in there again, arms up in the air, howling neurasthenia with the full bellow of her exhausted lungs. It should be comforting to medicate a throbbing anxiety, but not for her. She thwacks her hands on the counter rap-rap-rap demanding something new that will hide her sickness better. Rowan turns “hypochondriac” on her tongue and receives her cheerily patented Temperanelle®.
“Seven days”, the pharmacist says as she dispenses, folding the info-leaflet with peculiar precision. “Seven days before full effect, and remember it is not a contraceptive”.
There’s no place for erratic ups and downs these days.
There’s no place for erratic ups and downs these days. This pill is meant to remedy a lack of aptitude for emotional control. A well-behaved cycle makes the body verifiable, more investable, at the appropriate points. It’s supposed to be great for improving your credit score.
From a digital-distributor Rowan takes a newspaper that she probably won’t read and crumples it under her arm, thinking of the times she’s heard that women are too unpredictable. Like petulant schoolchildren—she’d been told—they brood around with their shoulders slumped and then, without warning, they become garrulous; incessant.
It sounds like rubbish but then she remembers “psycho Sarah” in year five who pretended to be her friend before running at her three weeks later with a pencil in art class, so maybe it’s plausible.
She picks a spider off of her cheap cotton dress, and ambles her way home.
How is it that Rowan ended up here alone, in this quietly miserable place? The paint flakes off the threshold of the front door where she used to sit, picking her mosquito bites. It wasn’t long before the green hills that tumbled down from the cottage had been replaced with a sprawling labyrinth of concrete.
Hestonmere Green had arrived uninvited, and it had unfolded violently quickly as a panicked response to London’s burgeoning finance sector. Now, towers engulf the space; their necks reaching proudly to swallow the sky above, and their staunch figures offset only by the delicate cranes that cradle the whole area. As machines that had borne the structures, the cranes had been left behind to stand as silent witnesses of a tech-savvy financial future.
A dazzling prospect, perhaps, but the landscape had become unpalatable. It was never designed to be residential, not really.
A dazzling prospect, perhaps, but the landscape had become unpalatable. It was never designed to be residential, not really. “Welcome to our town, where people and finance thrive” the sign lies, now mired in grime. Vacuous gestures had been made in attempts to soften the intrusion, with few amenities interrupting the otherwise homogeneous and colourless landscape. A poorly stocked off-licence here. A ropey café there. All serviced by outdated and, for the most part, malfunctioning Tier-1 chatbots.
In truth, the land had been appropriated for the development of new biometrics for assessment, identification, and tracking. Hestonmere Green the Profiling Machine. Transparency in the name of financial inclusion was the championed motto.
Everyone who was able soon fled to Henley, Goring, or further. “Not in my back garden”, they had said. With them they had taken their families, their councils, and their schools.
Now, the town is quiet save for the tannoy that screeches the start of the working day, and the perpetual hum of the I-Droids as they trudge through their meticulous production of wearable techs, microchips, and pharmaceuticals.
Yes, Hestonmere Green has become a sulky little corner of England. Isolated, the town is as much the revered lifeline for the country’s thirst for financial-technologies as it is considered a repellent, noxious space; the kind to threaten small children with when they misbehave. The dark walkways absorb the sunlight. There is an acrid smell after the rain.
“I like my back garden just fine”, Rowan comforts herself, absently fingering a root that pushes aberrantly through a crack in the tarmac.
Rowan; as belligerent and obstinate as the rosacea that has peppered her skin since the earliest she can remember, tormenting her with a hot and angry redness, and winning all the jeers of the playground. She had been staunch in her resolve to stay firmly where she was. We had all grown up in the same meddling world. Leaving wouldn’t change that.
Left behind like tired furniture, they spend their time tracing patterns in the dust on the walls.
The ageing, the infirm, and the insane are her only company now, although she refuses to speak to them. Left behind like tired furniture, they spend their time tracing patterns in the dust on the walls, muttering halcyon days. A reticent army of misfits, not considered worth the bother of the residential Intels, they lurch dolefully along the streets, pausing only to listen to the crackle of the power lines, and to the clickety-click of the ones that mediate their lives, working indefatigably in the towers above them.
The pregnant silence in the room is punctuated by the fan whirring stale heat. Rowan coughs heavily which reminds her that she should have asked for a repeat of Keflex whilst at the pharmacy.
Curling the bud of her Smart-Set into her ear, she watches apathetically as the field of the MixR-Lens unrolls in front of her eyes. Groping around in the middle-distance, she taps thin air to pair the set with her microchip. Ouch! The chip always pinches somewhere near her thumb. It wriggles, she’s sure. She’s had to have it re-adjusted so many times. “A wilful little thing”, the nurse jokes. The same nurse who told her it would be “just like having your ear pierced, sweetie, nothing to worry about”.
The lull of the algorithm throbs ba-dum ba-dum ba-dum. Ignoring the GIF that loops ad nauseum in her newsfeed, Rowan taps again to unfold a calendar where a small circle highlights day twelve of her cycle.
Taking a moment to stand with arms outstretched, she tries to size up the field that is in front of her. How is it that I can’t reach the edges when it seems so close up, she thinks. Despite being almost immersive, and quadruple the pixel density of the now obsolete HoloLens, the veneer of the field is diaphanous. Rowan’s focus oscillates between jiggling interactive memes and the hazy shape of the green velvet sofa that somehow has always smelled of her mother’s old perfume.
It surprises her how detached she feels despite being triangulated, and articulated, by such an invasive system of monitoring. She is adorned with a glittering array of payment chips, identification tools, and health trackers. A heart rate monitor disguised as a lace bra. An oyster-shell effect compact that approves payment when you smile into it. All the data are sent straight to the Fin-Authorities who, “committed to increasing the financial inclusion of women”, use it to oversee her credit account.
Without credit, you can’t do anything. And that’s a fact.
Possession of these items is, of course, a matter of warped choice. But it’s a choice between being captured within an image of the creditworthy hyper-feminine, and being thrown out into the cold. There’s no such thing as “cash transactions”; not anymore. Without credit, you can’t do anything. And that’s a fact. There was a woman down the road who tried to go it alone, planning to grow her own vegetables and patch together clothes from old curtains and bed linen, until she realized she needed credit just to access the allotment.
The gentle bzzt of Rowan’s memo-watch prompts her to look up at a holographic whose impossibly white teeth, framed by coral pink, is eager to tell her about the latest available accessory: a silicon vaginal rod- appropriate for daily wearing- that sends data to your smart-set regarding the health of your discharge and menstrual blood. It has the added benefit of serving as a pelvic-floor exerciser.
Rowan smiles wanly, cocking her right shoulder forward and dropping her left hip in a copycat stance, and wonders what it would be like to have breasts so irritatingly buoyant.
A moth panics in the corner of the room, catching its wing on a curling piece of wallpaper.
Butterflies aren’t that common here anymore so she catches moths instead.
Rowan enjoys preserving and mounting insects; it’s a cathartic and candid practice. Butterflies aren’t that common here anymore so she catches moths instead.
Peeling the moth from its wallpaper snare, she scoops its flickering wings into a cage of fingers. Death must be produced without disfiguring them, and that’s a skill no question. She did try to learn how to stun them by squeezing the thorax but they would gyrate and she would squeeze too hard. A clumsy end. “I find that they relax quickly with a dreamy dose of ethanol”, she says.
Pausing to place the moth in a net—acquainting the creature with its temporary confinement—Rowan stolidly prepares the killing jar, pushing ethanol-soaked gauze in to the glass mouth. The moth follows, dropping to the bottom with a surprising thud. A struggle ensues as it scours the base of the jar, feelers catching in the gauze, legs pressing pleadingly against the glass. There’s one last protest before it crumples; listless. She places the jar next to the others on a creaking bookshelf, all lined up like prized little coffins.
Sitting at a folding pine table, Rowan looks up at the dusky canvases that tile the wall with her unfortunate little trophies, stuck through with dress pins; wings frigidly splayed. She enjoys the way they fill the space with artificial flight; an awkward posture that makes their death seem comical. It is advised to keep the moths framed to prevent the growth of mould, but she doesn’t bother. She says it’s because nothing ever stays the same anyway.
Thoughtfully admiring her work, Rowan wonders where she has hidden her Twin Peaks VHS collection. She’s noticed that there are some tapes missing from the otherwise indulgently full sideboard.
Something happens. The jar—perhaps precariously placed on the edge of the shelf—topples. The glass shatters, releasing the moth on to the floorboards. A moment passes. The tap drips sporadically, and someone outside sneezes loudly. Finally, the small, intoxicated corpse lying before Rowan’s feet begins to twitch. Groping around in an addled haze (with a sense of humiliation, she imagines) the moth stutters to regain composure. Encumbered by shards of glass it jerks fiercely left and right, dragging its sodden wings from sticky fibres of gauze.
Summoning all courage, the moth valiantly collects its legs into an upright position and begins the long lope toward an uncertain freedom. Rowan watches, placidly. One laboured step is made; then two; then three. The wretched thing comes to rest no more than a centimetre from where it began. Exhausted by such a Herculean journey, it collapses; surrendered.
She leaves the moth to its pitiful deathbed and rises urgently to her feet, summoned by the sound of the telephone ringing.
Rowan retreats in her chair, suddenly repulsed by this display of hopeless perseverance. Resisting the urge to stamp out its final moments, she leaves the moth to its pitiful deathbed and rises urgently to her feet, summoned by the sound of the telephone ringing.
Vzzt-bzzt vzzt-bzzt the telephone bullies the worktop.
“Can I speak with Mrs. Hatfield?”
“Who? No one by that name lives here. Can I…?”
The monotonous voice continues.
“Hi, Mrs. Hatfield, I am ringing to tell you that you have been successful in your application for finance from LiteStart. At LiteStart there are no gimmicks or deferred interest, so you can get right on and buy those—“
Rowan puts the receiver down gently. Chatbots are still so stupid, even these days.
Returning to the moth with an unexpected level of curiosity, she crouches in a mourning position, gathering her legs underneath her to get a better look. She examines with a strange pleasure the lifeless critter and traces a deliberate finger over its body, pausing at the spiny ridges to enjoy the rather queer, crackly texture. Glass burrows its way into the skin of her knee as she leans closer to the moth, drawing a steady stream of blood that trickles, soothingly warm, down her leg to meet the floor.
Rowan notices her injury, turning her head to identify the source of a dull pain. And that’s when the doorbell rings.
While “July” discusses dystopian possibilities that shiver with a sense of the too-close-for-comfort, it is not limited to imagining a possible future. Principally, I created this little tale in order to bring to life the ontological approach that my research follows. I draw this approach from Gilles Deleuze and his philosophy of difference. For Deleuze, there is a need to move away from thinking in terms of representation and identity in order to distinguish between difference that is defined by the characteristics of two distinct objects (“I know this is a cat because it is not a dog”), and pure difference, that is, affective intensities that escape identification. By working through this, it is possible—tentatively—to approach the idea that bodies are mobile and fluid, and should not be captured within illusions of fixity.
As such, “July” is an attempt to pay attention to moments that might otherwise be unheard, and to the in-between spaces of more easily recognised events, in order to make more visible the seemingly banal and ordinary forces of life. Think of the root that pushes through the tarmac, the tap that drips sporadically, or the moth that is panicking in the corner, and think of how these moments might lend texture and expressivity to the changing landscape of the story.
The stilted end to the story and the slightly jarring beginning are intentional, partly because “July” is one of many fabulation-vignettes that comprise my thesis. It is one fragmented moment in many moments; part of a patchwork of experiments with writing techniques.
Freya Johnson is a third year PhD candidate in Cultural Geography at the University of Bristol. Her research uses the philosophies of Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari in order to explore the performativity and expressivity of creative writing, and to employ writing as a method for producing critically oriented, affective knowledges.
This essay is the second in a “mini-series” of two essays on the critical potential of science fiction. The first essay considered how science fiction can function as social critique and discussed different literary techniques and devices. This second one will expand the story in reference to concrete examples—works by Enki Bilal and Aleksa Gajić, grounding the analysis in the Balkan context. (And if you continue reading to the end, there may be a surprise waiting for you there … )
In an article (“Vreme kao ključna odrednica SF žanra”) written in the midst of the Yugoslav Civil War (1991-1995), the Serbian science fiction (SF) writer Milovan Milovanović stated that most local SF stories seemed disconnected from the everyday situation of most people in the Balkan region at that time. According to him, in order for elements of novelty in SF stories to be accepted by readers, you need a realistic historical background and not just escapism. Even though SF imagines the future and diverges from the present, it always springs from specific places and histories (see also this chart of how historical trends in SF have changed over time):
For example, when the threat of nuclear war hung over the world during the 50s of this [20th] century, what else could the favorite topic for SF writers have been? Later on, at the beginning of the 70s, it was raising ecological awareness, due to the widespread knowledge that the world was mostly disappearing into a vortex of a biological catastrophe. This is not just related to the frequency of specific topics at specific times; it refers to a way of thinking that was totally different at the beginning of the [20th] century, the 40s, 60s, or today. The world today is not the same as it was five or ten years ago and that is strongly mirrored in SF literature.
Belgrade, as the capital of all versions of the union of South Slavs in the twentieth century, holds a prominent place in representations of state power and as a battleground for diverse imaginings of the future.
This is where Belgrade (and the Balkans in general) enters the story. Belgrade, as the capital of all versions of the union of South Slavs in the twentieth century, holds a prominent place in representations of state power and as a battleground for diverse imaginings of the future. This text will discuss its images and interpretations through two contemporary comic book authors working in the SF genre—Enki Bilal and Aleksa Gajić. Whilst the former has been based in France for a long time, with Yugoslav heritage, the latter lives in Serbia. Both feature Belgrade in their comics and films, and both work predominantly for the French market. The artworks in question are Bilal’s Bunker Palace Hôtel (1989) and Le Sommeil du monstre (The Dormant Beast in English, aka the Hatzfeld tetralogy, 1998-2007), and Gajić’s Technotise (comic, 2001) and Technotise: Edit & I (film, 2009).
The prominence of Belgrade as a setting in the authors’ works has been recognized by Gajić himself. In an interview with Deborah Husić from 2011 (in English), the use of Serbian language in the film Technotise: Edit & I was mentioned as one of the novelties (or what Darko Suvin would call novum), because, as the artist noted, “usually everything happens in Tokyo, Paris, Berlin or New York.” Aleksa Gajić responded that he did not want to make compromises for the market:
Usually, authors have this strong need to flatter the audience in order to be accepted. Meaning, they will answer to all ‘expected’ patterns from the public. As a matter of fact, most of the films we are watching today are made having these patterns in mind. I really wanted to run away from these things with Technotise. I wanted Belgrade to be like that, let them talk in Serbian, and let them express local jokes and natural urban expressions in an SF story (emphasis added).
Why are there no UFOs in Lajkovac?
SF was mostly associated with western geography and popular culture.
Zoran Živković, one of the pioneers of modern SF in Yugoslavia during the second half of the 20th century, famously stated that “leteći tanjiri ne sleću u Lajkovac”, meaning that UFOs do not come to a typical Serbian village. This came to be know among the sci-fi community as “Zoran’s law”. This metaphor indicates both that SF set in a local context was rare (or non existent) and that SF was mostly associated with western geography and popular culture (for a further discussion, check out Milovanović’s guide to SF, in Serbian). This, unfortunately, does not take into account contributions from the former USSR/Russia, or other non-western countries. In this geographical (or geopolitical) discussion the worlds of manga and anime, which originated in Japan but have spread to other parts of Asia, also play an important role today.
The world depicted and the context (reality) from which it departs (or reacts to) are tied together.
The lack of grounding in local history and settings—or the lack of UFOs in Lajkovac—pinpoints the escapist nature of many SF works of former Yugoslavia and Serbia. However, this “law” started to change in the late 1980s and early 1990s, simultaneous to the breakup of the SFR Yugoslavia (which is discussed in “Leteći tanjiri ipak sleću u Lajkovac” by Ivan Đorđević, and “American Science Fiction Literature and Serbian Science Fiction Film: When Worlds Don’t Even Collide” by Aleksandar B. Nedeljković). The example of UFOs in Lajkovac highlights two aspects of SF I consider relevant to this analysis. First, that SF narratives have their own internal structures and logic; and second, that there is a dynamic and productive connection to be made between a narrative and its author—and potentially between a narrative and its local historical and geographical origin as well. That is to say that the world depicted and the context (reality) from which it departs (or reacts to) are tied together.
This is closely related to the discussion in the previous essay, “Science fiction between utopia and critique,” of how authors can employ different perspectives and literary traditions—utopian, dystopian, alternative histories—to both imagine a different society and show a (critical) reflection of our own. With these concepts in mind, we will now look at the oeuvres of the two artists.
The dystopias of Enki Bilal
Enki Bilal’s work in general features darker SF topics and overtones, which could be identified as dystopian, often tackling issues such as totalitarian regimes (theocracy and fascism), colonialism, corruption, identity crisis, schizophrenia, and despair, but often with an ironic tone. A great source (in Serbian) on Bilal’s work is a special issue of the magazine Gradac, edited by Miroslav Marić; in the following, references to critical discussions and quotes from interviews with Bilal, unless specified differently, are derived from this special issue of Gradac.
Bunker Palace Hôtel (1989) is the first feature film Bilal directed, co-written with his long time collaborator Pierre Christin. It is set in Belgrade in an alternative reality, or the no-time of uchronia, with a combination of French and Yugoslav actors, but targeting the French market. Some commentators characterize this film as a critique of the socialist regime in Yugoslavia (which Bilal has denied), as well as an announcement of the overall breakup of the Eastern bloc in Europe. Initially, Bilal wanted the film to take place in the USSR, with Belgrade as his second option. In an interview from 1988, he clarifies his choice:
If you insist, the film talks about a [political] system that mostly resembles fascism. I wanted the film, where one cannot see which country or time is in question, to be filmed in a somewhat oriental, extraordinary setting for the French [audience]. To have a bit of exoticism. And I am very happy to film here, because the Yugoslav actors contribute to that exotic impression.
He also incorporates a fictional Slavic language, used by the rebel characters, in this “exotic” feeling. People’s names vary between western and Slavic (Holm, Clara, Nikolai, Zarka, etc) however, there is no explicit naming within the narrative of the film of the rebels, the state, the city, languages, ideologies, nationalities or time. The film follows the SF trend of alternative histories (uchronia), with dystopian elements and an exploration of the question: What if the Nazis had won the Second World War (WWII)? (a question echoing in SF since Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle). If we accept this line of thinking, using the image of (the then) socialist Yugoslavia as a mirror/reference society becomes more complex and troubled.
Everything is retro, or “retro-futuristic”, which is a familiar setting within certain SF subgenres.
We need to understand the alternative history setting of the Bunker Palace Hôtel itself. Any reference to the then contemporary society is mostly avoided—cars, technology, architecture, clothing. Everything is retro, or “retro-futuristic”, which is a familiar setting within certain SF subgenres. In the film we can see well-known buildings from the pre-WWII decades, such as eclectic, art nouveau and modernist architecture: mainly the French Embassy, Svetozara Radića street, Savamala’s train system, and the BIGZ and Geozavod buildings. Additionally, one can see anachronistic technological inventions, post-dating the actual society, one of which is humanoid androids. Researcher Jelena Smiljanić calls this vision an “(…) onirist post-socialistic Belgrade, intermingled with Bodriarian (sic) simulacrums (…) creating a simulated hyper-reality” (Onirism was a surrealist literary movement in Romania during the 1960s, while in psychiatry it refers to a mental state in which visual hallucinations occur while fully awake). All of this taken together creates the retro-futuristic and surrealist setting of Bunker Palace Hôtel.
Different visions are present in Le Sommeil du monstre, or The Dormant Beast in English, also known as the Hatzfeld Tetralogy, which is one of Bilal’s latest comic series produced between 1998 and 2007. Set in 2026, it portrays what seems to now be a near future with advanced technologies in a dystopian, global setting. The narrative is revealed through two intertwined processes. Three main protagonists—Nike Hatzfeld, Leyla Mirković-Zohary and Amir Fazlagić, all orphans from the Yugoslav civil war—are trying to reunite with each other. The second narrative is Nike’s recollection of his childhood, taking us from the day of his birth in 1993 to the midst of the siege of Sarajevo. Bilal’s position shifts from one of the insider to a broader cosmopolitan global perspective; but it is his portrayal of the Balkans that I will primarily address here.
Belgrade and Sarajevo are two of the dystopian locations featured in Le Sommeil du monstre, presented (as in Bunker Palace Hôtel) in a retro-futurist mix where the old and the new are messily joined together. All cities in the series have a strong feeling of decay; as comic book author Zoran Penevski said related to Bilal, “it is the world of a narrative apocalypse.” In an interview for Serbian magazine Vreme, Bilal stated that Belgrade had changed little since when he moved to Paris in 1960. When he was asked in another interview why he avoided presenting contemporary times (war scenes in Croatia and Bosnia and Herzegovina or the NATO bombing of Belgrade), he answered:
It is strange but when I’m portraying a brutal scene, I feel very uncomfortable placing it in the present. While if I position myself 20-30 years [into the future], then I can enjoy the creative process (…) I am visiting the future in order to come back to the past and the present. (emphasis added).
The narrative of a painful past and a not so optimistic future unwinds in the series, while the breakup of SFR Yugoslavia is still fresh.
The narrative of a painful past and a not so optimistic future unwinds in the series, while the breakup of SFR Yugoslavia is still fresh. Just after the Hatzfeld Tetralogy came out in 1998, Bilal said that his interest in Yugoslavia was triggered by the violent events of the war, the violence that triggered a “monster of remembrance”. The concept of reflective nostalgia coined by Svetlana Boym could be applied here, a nostalgia that does not tend to reconstruct the past but to instead be skeptical or critical of it, since the return to a imagined better past is impossible. In this case, it was the author’s creative way of purging the disturbances caused by the war.
A dystopian mode is prevalent in the Hatzfeld Tetralogy, where the future brings a continuation of conflicts, but there are also some utopian sparks. Among those, Bilal also plants a powerful image of human segregation according to religious affiliation (and nationalism). According to an essay by Aurélie Huz and Irène Langlet, the avoidance of national or religious categorization of the main heroes (storytellers) in this comic pinpoints not only a state of uncertainty about identities after the dissolution of the joint state, but also Bilal’s own critique of segregation. If one accepts the argument that those very divisions contributed to the violent dissolution of multicultural life and shared space in SFR Yugoslavia, embedding similar divisions into a future society, for example in Paris (“Catholics only”, “Salafists only” in the comic), Bilal voices concern and a warning that history may repeat itself. This is why the question “Are you Serb, Croat or Muslim?”, posed several times, remains unanswered in the story.
The utopias of Aleksa Gajić
In contrast to Bilal, Gajić’s work has more humorous and light tones, a trademark of both his comics and animation work. He mostly works in the epic, fantasy, cyberpunk and SF genres, or something he calls “optimistična futuristika” (optimistic futuristic). These aspects of his work are discussed by Pavle Zelić and Anica Tucakov. Gajić’s bachelor degree project was a comic titled Technotise, with Darko Grkinić as a writer, and this later served as a starting point for Technotise: Edit & I (in Serbian: Tehnotajz: Edit i ja), which became known as the first Serbian feature-length animated film. In both works a utopian vision prevails, providing a predominant insider viewpoint of the portrayed societies.
The adolescents portrayed lead a hedonistic, middle-class life, centered around sex, drugs, hoverboard competitions and going out.
The Technotise comic (created in 1998, published in 2001) pays attention to two different time periods, both of which deviate from the present. At the very beginning there is a short episode from 1739, but most of the comic is set in 2074. It traces the adventures of a group of adolescents, led by Edit, in Belgrade. It is mostly set on the Great War Island (Veliko ratno ostrvo), a natural reserve between rivers Sava and Danube which are surrounding the city from two sides, and in Zemun, an old municipality where Gajić lives. The adolescents portrayed lead a hedonistic, middle-class life, centered around sex, drugs, hoverboard competitions and going out. Their names are a combination of foreign (Edit, Broni, Herb, Woo) and local (Sanja, Bojan), their looks and habits are seemingly typical of (western) teenagers but they are also contextualized through Serbian language, backgrounds and references. The film Technotise: Edit & I (2009) kept the main characters and semi-utopian quality with a more developed retro-futuristic, cyberpunk image of Belgrade. Real locations were shot and then futuristic details were added. In an interview (in Serbian) for B92 portal Gajić explains:
Belgrade 2074 is a city where the future came without an urban plan. Yes, the buses are floating above the streets, but also run late, so there are traffic jams. Facades are futuristic but also run down. The locations are altered, but still recognizable, so you cannot mix our capital with some other city. I made an effort to give this SF film a dose of plausibility, because I think that’s the way for the viewers to believe the story (…) That’s why the main hero is a regular girl with common problems that anybody can identify with and understand. At the same time, I haven’t given up my desires—I made a film I would like to see myself.
Recalling the different “gaze” positions I developed in the previous essay in this mini-series, the worldbuilding technique used in the film can be seen as an example of the present projecting itself directly into the future. A not-so-perfect setting reveals the social awareness of the film, pushed to another plane. Whilst it triggers humor, it can also remind viewers of the unresolved issues present in the Serbian and Belgrade society of 2009: Roma people collecting garbage in the city (here competing with robots), robots begging for new graphic cards, “eternal students” using tricks to pass exams (“bubice”), adolescents living with parents, telenovelas, old buses and police cars (Zastava 101 models), a rural grandfather yelling that children need to go back to the countryside and so on. Gajić draws attention to these references to the present in interviews by Sonja Ćirić and Ivana Matijević. Through its projection of present issues into the future, the film turns these present issues into a heritage that weighs down on the future and shows that the future does not automatically free itself from the problems of the present. However, optimistic tones are still prevalent, echoing a tendency in feature films of the New Belgrade School in post-2000 Serbian society, where authors are grasping the “(…) opportunity of this new start, constructing a virtual city made up of cultural and genre idioms”, as Nevena Daković shows in “Imagining Belgrade: The Cultural/Cinematic Identity of a City on European Fringes”.
Belgrade’s transformations triggered by the social upheavals of the 1990s and a feeling of a new start in the 2000s are most visible through film. Daković states that this cinematic cityscape is closely linked to space, time and matters of (transcultural) identity:
The cinematic cityscape is thus a complex identity performance. In the case of Belgrade, it presents a rich succession of identity conflicts and shifts, encompassing identities spanning from exotic Orientalism to virtual cosmopolitanism, with a nodal contrast articulated as Orient-rural-Balkan vs. Occident-urban-Europe. Belgrade’s city identity constantly vacillates between these poles, spilling over borders, moving between and among the times and spaces of the various identity constituents (emphasis added).
The cityscape changed from a socialist idyll, through the ghetto of the 1990s, to a “pure locus of the possible”—a cosmopolitan identity after the democratic elections in the 2000s.
In the context of post WWII Yugoslavia, and then Serbia, the cityscape changed from a socialist idyll, through the ghetto of the 1990s, to a “pure locus of the possible”—a cosmopolitan identity after the democratic elections in the 2000s. SF imaginings of Belgrade can therefore provide an understanding of contemporary positions and identities when the author’s projection is deeply grounded in the local context of Belgrade and Serbia, but also provide a means for temporary escape from the reader’s (or viewer’s) own body and society.
One of the major criticisms of Technotise in Serbia was that the film treated SF in a more humorous way, which was also a creative break with the majority of SF productions. Another critique was that it used youth slang and references to contemporary Serbian society. This situating of the film’s narrative, according to the author, was both a personal choice and a break from acknowledged patterns and habits of the genre, especially SF that is mostly set in highly developed technological societies in the West or Japan. A Serbian film critic, Dimitrije Vojnov, said in an interview that “in a (Serbian) cinematography so loaded with the past, the future rarely manages to reach the screen, and when it does, it is an ironic reflection of the present or past”, thus noting how Gajić diverged from a mainstream.
In preparation for his next film, Prophet 1.0 (Prorok 1.0), Gajić said that he wanted to present “the future in a Serbian, not American or Japanese, way.” And in explaining what is “Serbian” about Edit & I, he referred to the collaborators, financing, language, and topics. To this list, I would also add the Serbian locations. Curiously enough, this seemingly patriotic declaration does not include any loaded traditional or nationalist topics or statements within the artworks’ narratives. This mix between an international outlook and national (or local) grounding is connected to the affinity between SF and both “escapist” and critical situated knowledge, as I discussed in “Science fiction between utopia and critique.”
The identity of the (future) city—the identity of its ma(r)kers
These two dimensions of SF—the escapist and the critical—are present in the works of both Bilal and Gajić. Around two decades have passed between the UFOs that do not land in Lajkovac and the emergence of locally grounded SF in a Serbian context. In the cases of Bilal and Gajić, it is important to understand why they decided to contextualize their narratives in locations that they are physically and/or emotionally attached to. In both cases the topics were mostly a matter of personal preferences, which led to works that differ from the ones that the two artists do for the (mostly) French market. Bilal had already made a name for himself in the 1970s and 1980s, allowing him to treat contemporary, more politically engaged and personal topics with greater ease. But Gajić’s work for the French market differs from Technotise, which departs from and clashes with the market’s popular tropes, and this made him pause his international work during the film’s production. In facing many challenges while making the film, he said: “If the film doesn’t succeed, the repentant son will go back to France. After all, swords, magic, slaughter and the rest… it’s not so bad at all!” and “If I wanted money, I would have probably made a movie about little animals and wizards” (interviews with Peđa Popović and for Domino magazine, in Serbian).
Bilal and Gajić, in the narratives and messages of their artworks, have found ways to resist the official nationalist rhetoric that is so prominent in Serbian politics.
I would argue that both Bilal and Gajić, in the narratives and messages of their artworks, have found ways to resist the official nationalist rhetoric that is so prominent in Serbian politics. They are not, however, hiding their national identities in their work about Belgrade and the Balkans, into which they bring a strong sense of engagement and lack of concern for market pressure. The question then becomes: whose eyes are we looking through? What differentiates people from one another? The contextualization of stories takes place through specific characters, names, settings, cities, histories, and references, but at the same time avoids demonstrative national images, such as flags and other national symbols, religious affiliation of heroes and so on. In Bilal’s case, as already mentioned, characters refuse to identify with the causes of war, in protest, whilst Gajić finds politics overwhelming in Serbian society and prefers to find ways to create artworks that entertain and make people laugh. He views this as a more noble and honorable cause than being serious and scared.
Could this escapism embed in itself any Balkanism, as defined by Maria Todorova? In academia, the concept is defined as a discourse where the Balkans were (and sometimes still are) presented and constructed as the“other” of Europe, a negative stereotype, inverted mirror. In her book Imagining the Balkans, she states that creators of Balkan images from the Balkans itself are very self-conscious of the imposed discourse:
Unlike Western observers who, in constructing and replicating the Balkanist discourse, were (and are) little aware and even less interested in the thoughts and sensibilities of their objects, the Balkan architects of different self-images have been involved from the very outset in a complex and creative dynamic relationship with this discourse (…).
Another researcher, Maria Palacios Cruz states that “the Balkans seen from the Balkans” in film seem more concerned with being accepted than subverting the West’s images of the Balkans itself, thus reproducing criteria, stereotypes and divisions. Gajić’s escapism in the futuristic Technotise does not eliminate reality bites of SF Belgrade, nor does it avoid a sense of cosmopolitanism; after all, it provides a sort of hope. Bilal made a somewhat exotic Belgrade setting in Bunker Palace Hôtel, whilst in the comic series it is clear that the main characters are resisting nationalist narratives and paving an unstable road of their own, avoiding stereotypical media discourses. In Bilal’s own words:
I am not rejecting my own roots. When I say that it is dangerous to look inside oneself too much, in your own past, memories, remembrances, nation, religion, your territory, it is. That gaze is dangerous but I find it necessary. It is crucial to carry it with oneself and move with one’s own roots.
Conclusions: SF as cosmopolitanism?
Daković characterizes new film directors in post-2000 Serbia as employing escapism, cosmopolitanism and postmodernism. The cinematic cityscape of Belgrade is based on a “‘glocal’ identity [which] is made up of local elements with global appeal, local themes in a global expression and local events of inevitable global consequences”, quoting the definition by Paul Virilio. Or, as a beer ad in Serbia says: “global, but ours”.
Binarisms (local – global, national – international, patriot – cosmopolitan) come with a whole set of contextualized inclusions and exclusions. One’s attachment to a local stance might be seen as conforming to nationalism, even xenophobia, or as a resistance to the processes of globalization – or simply as staying faithful to the politics of location, as outlined by Donna Haraway in her theory of situated knowledge. Thus, one’s identification with a city might even be a means of resisting national identity (for more on this topic, see this study by Ivana Spasić in English). On the other side of an imagined pole stands cosmopolitanism, which is grounded in openness and universalism, criticized for being an elite stance associated with pro-Western and pro-European political ideologies in the Balkans.
In the Serbian context, after a global phase during socialist (or Tito’s) Yugoslavia, SF entered a (re-)traditionalist period grounded in nationalist political projects and imaginarium from the mid-1980s. This more traditional aspect of the genre contains many elements previously mentioned as characteristic of fantasy. Anthropologist Ivan Đorđević in his “Antropologija naučne fantastike: tradicija žanrovskoj književnosti” (Anthropology of Science Fiction: a Tradition in Genre Literature) says this production is in essence local, where certain traditional elements, taken selectively and strategically, create an image of how a culture sees itself at certain times (This perspective could be compared to Andrew Liptak’s article about nationalism in militaristic SF). Đorđević notes that a crucial distinction is made between Us and Them (Europe, the West, or the world in general), revealing the central gaze of traditional narratives as being nationally tailored. In this way, SF visions carry fears of losing one’s “roots”, or allowing cultural assimilation; that is, if the future is generally understood as cosmopolitan, with universal (most likely western) tendencies for humankind. This view of the imaginative role of SF echoes antiglobalization discourses.
The imagining of science-fiction Belgrade operates between tensions and opposites.
Overall, the imagining of science-fiction Belgrade operates between tensions and opposites. Just as in general SF, it provides universal knowledge claims about the future (and our global present), while at the same time situating the narratives in local history, social issues and geography. On a geopolitical level, it it susceptible both to Balkanism—accepting the Balkans as the “other” of Europe—and to Europeanism or Westernism—the construction of universalist global imaginaries. However, it is also a space for personal narratives and alternative visions, offering locally grounded stories, enriching the SF field. As such, it offers utopian and dystopian settings, escapism and social critique.
As Nevena Daković writes, “The transcultural identity and imaging of Belgrade is the result of a fusion of Balkanism and Europeanism, of local and global aspects in a city that is multi-layered and multi-faceted”. Which identity of the city will be used, in which setting and time (dystopian or utopian), heavily depends on the need to escape or construct alternatives in the present moment.
Technotise and Technotise: Edit & I courtesy of Aleksa Gajić.
Bunker Palace Hôtel from Pinterest.com and WorldCinema.org.
The Hatzfeld Tetralogy from TapaTalk.com, JogLikesComics.blogspot.com, Passion-Estampes.com, and Pinterest.com.
For more info on SF in Serbia (and Yugoslavia) available online:
Project Rastko’s database on contemporary Serbian and South Slav fantasy literature (in Serbian).
Texts on SF by Zoran Živković (in Serbian and English).
Belgrade Cooperative building—the center and mirror of city visions
Hey! (waving) Are you here for… HELLO! Are you guys here for the time travel tour?! Glad I found you so quickly, this place is crowded, follow me. Is it just you or are we expecting others to join us as well? Okay, good, we’ll have some extra space for us then, c’mon. Dobar dan – welcome to Experience Belgrade Through Time, the most popular time travel tour you can find in Serbia. As a promotional tour, we offer taking you to a selected point in the city and watch it how it changed during time. Once you book one of our full tours, you will be able to choose among other exciting programs going all the way back to the Roman times. Now please give me the vouchers, take a seat and put on the security bells. You learned a bit of Serbian already? Ah, rakija, of course. This tour will last for two hours and this time I’ll take you to a wonderful building you could find at Savamala district. Been there? Oh, it’s a must! Let’s go!
Stop 1: 1907
This is one of the city’s pearls, look at the beauty of it—decoration, monumentality, how it voluptuously imposes itself to the area, charming everyone. Let us have a glimpse inside… This building we usually call Geozavod, was actually made for the Belgrade Cooperative bank, by our famous architects Andra Stevanović and Nikola Nestorović, whose other works you could see in the area. It is one of the prime works of architecture in this period, mixing academic and Art Nouveau styles, Renaissance and Baroque decoration, and the first one using reinforced concrete in Serbia. Just move aside, izvinite… Saw these workers? The area was surrounded with new buildings, ponds and beaches, as one of the entry points where both merchandise and people arrived in Belgrade. Alas, after World War II, the cooperative bank was no more, the building had different and changing tenants, and underwent architectural changes. Luckily, it was never bombed! Speaking of bombs, let us go the our next stop
Stop 2: 1989
Čoveče, do you recognize this one? How could it be? The building really underwent a bit of a deterioration, like the whole Savamala district, becoming a place filled with old glory, noise, shady characters and almost forgotten. Or simply unpopular to hang out to. But this one is actually from a surreal movie by a French artist born in Belgrade, do you know who he is? I’ll give you a tip, he made comics… Nikopol? Immortel? (beep beep) What’s this? Nevermind, the movie Bunker Palace Hotel took place in an alternative reality, at the very end of socialism of Yugoslavia, Belgrade being its capital. In the movie, it’s a hotel, but actually a bunker for members of a ruling regime, hiding from a mysterious threat… I won’t tell you more, please do see the movie, and if you like film history, check out Kinoteka’s tours as well!
Stop 3: 2012
Look at the old lady, all run down, but still standing proudly. Nostalgic gem, memory of times passed, but not too long so nobody would remember its past glory. Ah, the building was used for rave and techno parties from the 1990s, imagine that – marble and electronic music, glass paintings and stroboscope. Somewhere from late 2000s, artists started coming to the area, making it present and interesting for Belgraders again. Do you hear the music? That’s one of the festivals, happening just behind the corner, do you see all the young people? Is the area coming back to life? I remember those times when I was young, thankfully nowadays we could live longer to testify about it. We were a bit afraid back then, afraid of the specter of gentrification, an army of yellow machines tearing down the area we we trying so much to nurture… Let us not interfere here, we need to follow the laws of time travel—stay unspotted, do not change anything.
Stop 4: 2016
After years of being neglected, finally rise and shine! In 2014 the building underwent a major redevelopment as part of Belgrade Waterfront project, which has its seat there. What do you think, do you like the neglected charm or new life? During these years the area started changing drastically—many buildings were torn down and streets disappeared, while others, like Belgrade Cooperative gain a new chance, as part of the investment plan. These skyscrapers behind it are blocking the view towards the river, and many inhabitants found it very controversial—who would live here, when gentrification made it so expensive for all the local people? We… who? Security guard? Oh, do not pay much attention to that guy at the corner, there’s always a busybody at the corner… but we may still go further up the street a bit.
(beep beep) Why is this beeping again? Sranje, look at that mass of people, full trust upward… Huh, I’m sorry, I haven’t paid attention to what lies ahead. It seems I took us right in the middle of the protest against Belgrade Waterfront! These people are supporters of Don’t Drown Belgrade initiative. Yes, we’re safe on this altitude. And this was not a violent protest. You can find some data about it in the hand-outs. And that big yellow duck over there – that’s their symbol! “Duck” in Serbian could mean a joke, a scam. Let us move away from here, I can hear the helicopters approaching, and I need some space to maneuver to the next station.
Stop 5: 2074
Huh, peaceful again. Watch out for the tram. You see, we’re in animated setting! Another artist, comic book author Aleksa Gajić, made a vision of Belgrade which is both old and new, with old-fashion, socialist trams, early 20th century architecture and futurist inventions. The trains are levitating, Belgrade Cooperative has a virtual reality dome, and the Belgrade looks… what do you think, familiar, nostalgic? Nicer than it really is? This was made in 2009, it is interesting to see how people back then imagined our times. (beep beep beep beep) Ok, this is it, the promo tour is ending, I wish to have spend more time with you, for that please do check our full tours, we’ll be able to travel for a whole day, there’s so much to tell about this city… If you have a half of minute of your time, check out the evaluation form and rate me as your guide… thank you, you too, vidimo se neki drugi put!
I would like to thank professor Nevena Daković at the University of Arts in Belgrade for her help in writing the original paper, Charlotte E. Whelan for proofreading and Rut Elliot Blomqvist for excellent editing.
Srđan Tunić is an art historian, freelance curator and cultural manager based in Belgrade, Serbia. A fan of science fiction, this is his first text about it. Contact: srdjan.tunic[at]gmail.com
This essay is the first in a “mini-series” of two essays on the critical potential of science fiction. The first part considers how science fiction can function as social critique and discusses different literary techniques and devices. The second part will expand the story in reference to concrete examples—works by Enki Bilal and Aleksa Gajić, grounding the analysis in the Balkan context.
Science fiction: offering critical possibilities or escape?
Science fiction (SF) as a genre of speculative fiction serves as a powerful tool in imagining different realities. Its creative potential lies in “estrangement and cognition”, creating a novum, in ideas and/or practical possibilities for the future, as defined by Darko Suvin. It also has potential to create narratives as mirror images and critique of our own societies, whether shaped as utopias, dystopias or alternative histories. It can trick us by thinking we went somewhere else in order to look back upon our own world with different eyes; therefore, this imagining is both real and contextualized. While many academics and writers, artists and critics have discussed the interconnectedness between our “real world” and (science) fiction, this text is primarily inspired by the works by Suvin, a prominent academic and critic, and the anthropologist Ljiljana Gavrilović.
According to Gavrilović, SF “worlds” talk about possibilities. In her book “Svi naši svetovi: o antropologiji, naučnoj fantastici i fantaziji” (All Our Worlds: About Anthropology, Science Fiction and Fantasy), she writes: “That is why observation of imagined worlds does not differ from observing ‘the real world’, the one that we live in. They may be even clearer, mirror all assurances, fears, hopes, dreams, constructions and prejudices which shape human behavior in the real world, their vision of that world, as well as that world itself”. What is real and what is imagined is connected in an interplay, demonstrating mutual dependence. Apprehension of the fiction often requires that the reader knows the context from which it came. One of the questions might then be: but why depart from the real world to begin with?
Fiction can offer both an escape to another world and inspire change in this world.
In a lecture, “Why our future depends on libraries, reading and daydreaming”, the fantasy writer Neil Gaiman suggests that fiction can offer both an escape to another world and inspire change in this world: “Fiction can show you a different world. It can take you somewhere you’ve never been. Once you’ve visited other worlds (…) you can never be entirely content with the world that you grew up in. Discontent is a good thing: discontented people can modify and improve their worlds, leave them better, leave them different.”
On a different (but not faraway) note, Darko Suvin has defined the genre as characterized by “the presence and interaction of estrangement and cognition” and the creation of “an imaginative framework alternative to the author’s empirical environment”. In other words, SF shows us something that is at the same time strange and feels real. SF, argues Suvin, needs to have a cognitive novum, a novelty that enables (scientifically plausible) innovations that also, I would add, provide grounds for curiosity. Therefore aliens, robots, different planets, time travel, genetics, and so on are central means for the creation of an alternative world—but should not be ends in themselves. A story with robots may philosophize on the limits of humanity or a future form of slavery, intergalactic travel could bear dangers of new colonialism, while dystopias tend to warn us about where we might find ourselves in the future if we continue with our current habitual ways.
Overall, much of SF aims to discuss alternatives and create a social critique, supporting (imaginary) escapism, quenching the thirst of our discontent and a desire for difference. Tom Moylan has explored this potential of SF labelling it “critical utopia”, standing somewhere between dreaming and criticizing the status quo, in Demand the Impossible: Science Fiction and the Utopian Imagination. I would argue that the function of SF is twofold, as it transports the reader to other places while simultaneously grounding that same reader in a familiar context. In a restless neurosis, it both imagines and situates. In other words, by projecting itself into the future, it more or less visibly indicates what we are trying to depart from—contemporary society.
Imagining different realities—in this case, via SF—is never “objective”, ”universal”, but rather grounded in a certain context.
Whether we explore SF authors’ or their characters’ statements, here I find the feminist concept of situated knowledge useful in understanding a subject’s place in a more reflexive manner and with a better account of the world, avoiding claims of universality. In Donna Haraway’s words: “I am arguing for politics and epistemologies of location, positioning, and situating, where partiality and not universality is the condition of being heard to make rational knowledge claims. These are claims on people’s lives. I am arguing for the view from a body, always a complex, contradictory, structuring, and structured body, versus the view from above, from nowhere, from simplicity. Only the god trick is forbidden”. Imagining different realities—in this case, via SF—is never “objective”, ”universal”, but rather grounded in a certain context (and author), which is reflected in the narrative itself. While there are of course also common elements in imaginings of the future through SF (AI, extraterrestrials, space travel, etc), I would emphasize that grounding SF can prove to be productive in social critique and prevent it from becoming mere escapism.
Grounding and contextualizing SF demonstrates that an imagined space is always a social space, meaning that space is a complex social product and construction. Philosopher Henri Lefebvre in The Production of Space mentions that even technological utopias, simulations of the future or of the possible, are framed within existing modes of production: “The technological utopia [in question] is a common feature not just of many science-fiction novels, but also of all kinds of projects concerned with space, be they those of architecture, urbanism or social planning.” Architecture, urbanism and social planning in SF may be used as by-products of the story, but still visually and socially organize a given setting.
On literary techniques and perspectives
But not all SF stories mirror the real world in the same way; authors employ many different perspectives and literary techniques. One could understand some of the differences as built on different types of gazes, outlooks, or perspectives, commonly corresponding to the point of view of a story’s main characters (as storytellers) and contexts or settings in relation to the reader’s reality.
In film and visual studies, there has been a lot of theoretical discussion on spectator’s gazes. Gaze theory situates and provides critical edge towards how we see what we see, and how what is seen is presented to us and constructed visually. Through a museum or cinema as setting, a painter or director as our “eyes”, a film or photography camera as a tool, we as spectators are guided through the images in front of us. In SF, various gazes (or perspectives) provide starting points for fictional journeys and can help us ground and contextualize the story in question. I wish to propose three different “gazes” as structuring how SF worlds relate to the present. Two of these gazes occur in both utopian and dystopian stories, while the third is specifically related to alternative histories.
The utopian tradition has left a strong mark in the SF genre. Suvin finds SF and utopian fiction to share many key positions, stating that: “All imaginable intelligent life, including ours, can in the final instance only be organized more perfectly or less perfectly: there is no value-free wonder or knowledge. In that sense, utopia and anti-utopia are not only literary genres, but also horizons within which humanity and all its endeavours, including SF, is irrevocably collocated”. Utopia (Greek u-topos, no-place) although imagined, requires the construction of a believable community, space and laws, an “other world” immanent to the human one, but made more perfect.
The SF genre is still dominated not so much by utopias and visions of a better future as by a tendency to illustrate dark aspects of human futuristic ambitions.
Apart from Thomas More’s classical work Utopia which gave the genre its name, examples from SF include Arthur C. Clarke’s and Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward, Ursula LeGuin’s Left Hand of Darkness, and Kim Stanley Robinson’s “Mars trilogy”. An interesting current development is the solarpunk genre and movement, inspired by the idea that new utopias are needed in a time of ecological and political crisis. However, the SF genre is still dominated not so much by utopias and visions of a better future as by a tendency to illustrate dark aspects of human futuristic ambitions.
Dystopia (“bad place”)—a second variant of the literary template of utopia—is at the same time its polar opposite. Both words derive from Greek and follow the same structural assumptions. More critical viewpoints towards imagining utopias can take place in this “bad place”, like in the animated movie WALL-E by Walt Disney studios which builds on the thread of present ecological threats and people stupefied by technological comfort, clearly sending a warning to our present selves. Other examples include our problematic relations with machines/robots/cyborgs (the Matrix trilogy by the sisters Wachowski, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick and Bladerunner by Ridley Scott, the Ghost in the Shell media franchise, the Terminator series), space colonialism (The Word for World is Forest by LeGuin), the gaps between social classes and creating an ideal society (Elysium by Blomkamp, the Dispossessed by LeGuin, Divergent by Roth), among other. Dystopia is closely related to imaginings of our future downfall as humanity and apocalypse (Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind by Studio Ghibli, etc).
Both utopia and dystopia can employ two different perspectives or “gazes”. It can be the present which is looking towards / imagining / projecting a certain future (were the utopian story template anticipates positive change and the dystopian one cautions the present about possible future consequences of present actions). Or it can be a future which is looking back at its past, our contemporaneity in a reversed gaze (criticizing the present for its flaws in relation to a possible utopia, or berating the present for leading to dystopia). I would argue that some of the best SF works are those that are based in the reader’s present and look forwards from there, often tricking the audience into believing that they have been transported somewhere else. Authors using this perspective often employ the mirror effect, juxtaposing imagined worlds with our own.
There is also a third variant of utopia, often taking the form of a kind of middle ground between utopia and dystopia, namely uchronia—meaning literally “(in) no time” and presenting a hypothetical parallel to our world and time. It corresponds to alternative histories. This perspective is based on “what if” assumptions from a certain point in time in the past. It often creates retro-futurist settings like for example in the steampunk genre, or cyberpunk which is situated in a more dystopian setting. Some examples are The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick, District 9 by Neill Blomkamp, Laputa: Castle in the Sky by Hayao Miyazaki, Roadside Picnic by the brothers Strugatsky, Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea by Jules Verne, etc.
This third literary technique can be related specifically to a third gaze position, which could be termed a hypothetical parallel to contemporary society. As such, it can however feature both utopian and dystopian themes. In most cases, it is easily recognized when anachronistic and technologically very advanced elements are present side by side – swords next to tanks, 1930s cars and cyborgs, 19th century Victorian age fashion and time travel machines, and so on.
SF as blank canvas of possibilities?
We would do well to remember that the worlds and perspectives presented in SF are situated knowledge springing from specific contexts, and that any escape—via fantasy or science fiction—can be a double-edged sword.
These different forms of SF could be said to be united by the way in which their imagined worlds are constructed, namely through cognitive estrangement, as I have previously suggested. In discussions of literary genres, SF is often seen as based on science and technology, in contrast to the fantasy genre which is seen as regressive, historical and myth-orientated, discussing questions of race, magic, destiny and gods. This division could be summarized as one where humans are at the mercy of supernatural agents outside of themselves (fantasy), vs. “everyone is the architect of their own fortune” (SF). Gavrilović argues that although seductive, this binary does not address how SF could replace old myths with new (technocratic) ones, or how technology becomes a new god. Even though it makes sense to some extent to view SF as united by the overall technique of cognitive estrangement, I therefore also have some reservations about this definition. We would do well to remember that the worlds and perspectives presented in SF are situated knowledge springing from specific contexts, and that any escape—via fantasy or science fiction—can be a double-edged sword.
From imagined to politically charged visions, SF, just as the media its authors use, is a global phenomenon and can have many different messages and usages. It provides grounds for imagining different realities, and sometimes also for discussing our own. This process of imagining other worlds and Others can’t be immune to politics (left or right, futuristic or retrograde). However, as Suvin contends, SF based on cognition has the potential to critique and clarify “mystified and obscured relationships”, “permit[ing] us a better orientation in our common world”. A given society (or city, as I will discuss in the next essay) provides a set of references and possibilities, serving as a canvas for projections of our own dissatisfactions and desires.
In relation to this discussion, my second text in this two-essay mini-series will consider the spatial and temporal dimensions of the artworks of two comic book authors from the Balkan region—Enki Bilal and Aleksa Gajić. While Gajić’s work constructs an optimistic future of a cosmopolitan, post 2000 Belgrade, less troubled with the past and very similar to the present, Bilal’s work takes both identity and past as its cornerstones. Their works will be used as regional examples that negotiate both the future and (g)local identities in a comparative analysis where I consider SF’s powerful potential in imagining futures and providing a critical lens for our present.
I would like to thank professor Nevena Daković at the University of Arts in Belgrade for her help in writing the original paper, Charlotte E. Whelan for proofreading and Rut Elliot Blomqvist for excellent editing.
Srđan Tunić is an art historian, freelance curator and cultural manager based in Belgrade, Serbia. A fan of science fiction, this is his first text about it. Contact: srdjan.tunic[at]gmail.com
I scanned the horizon—the faint outlines of hills in the dusk, above the rising waters—trying to focus, to concentrate. I fixed my gaze on a point in the near distance: a foamy scum had formed at the edges of the new outline of the river. It had become black, full of silt and debris from the land and buildings slowly subsiding into it. The swelling waters had easily shot over the Thames Barrier, and it still grew and sank with the tides, sometimes revealing the wrecks of car frames, broken fences and scattered bricks at its lowest levels.
I felt a hand softly steadying my forearm, and a lulling voice: ‘now, take a deep breath…’
Previously, we were hyperconnected—the flicker of screens waking up, eyes re-adjusting, then scrolling through information, piecing together what was happening to my family in different time zones of Beirut, Cairo, and friends in Athens. The background murmur of news from the wider world was reassuring, but it also made me keenly aware of being hyper-localised—stuck in one place, wedged in behind the computer desk, simmering in anxiety. Until I panic-bought a flight to go over and try to do something, however small.
I wanted to reach into the simulacra of high-definition images of people herded behind militarised borders; I wanted to be a counter-response to the states that were withdrawing and tightening, shrinking-themselves-small in defence.
My cousin Aziz seemed confused as to what help I could really be to the surge of refugees entering the Beqaa Valley, seeing as I wasn’t a doctor and could only communicate in broken Arabic. I had a sincere, but possibly misguided, sense of urgency. I wanted to reach into the simulacra of high-definition images of people herded behind militarised borders; I wanted to be a counter-response to the states that were withdrawing and tightening, shrinking-themselves-small in defence.
However, after I arrived, the British Embassy issued a warning not to enter the region after fights broke out between factions in the camps, and aid workers had got caught up in-between. So, I waited in the apartment in Beirut for more information, hemmed in by the mountains, the sprawl and the heavy air punctuated by clusters of beeps from below. I could see across the piles of garbage in Mar Mikhael to the new buildings with double-glazing and air-conditioning, left empty after their owners from the UAE returned back home. The sticky juice had saturated all permeable surfaces, and the litter that was swept into the sea had started to return. It piled up until it spilled over into even the private beaches with sea walls and concrete tetrapod breakwaters, and had to be removed each morning before they opened. Even if you didn’t have to wade through the festering rubbish directly, people were getting worried about the toxins leaking into the groundwater and the fish that people consumed caught from the sea. The price of bottled water had increased sharply, with people constantly refilling their tanks on the roofs, which started to evaporate after only a few hours. The random power-cuts meant I had to re-shift my workplace to somewhere with a generator, a micro-scale manifestation of the things that were possible-but just-out-of-reach. After searching the backstreets with a fellow student and journalist in the same apartment building also looking for Wifi, we finally found a cafe ready to capitalise on our addiction to connectivity. After scouring for networks, I managed to book a flight and re-routed my trip to Lesvos.
There were no official signposts as the situation was always changing, and no loudspeaker announcements other than the Greek police telling the crowds to push back.
People queued for days to register at the Moria camp, and even slept there overnight to hold their place, shivering in too-thin sleeping bags. Some had come overland as far as from Somalia and Pakistan, traversing the mountains of Iran and Turkey, soaked from clambering down from the boats onto the pebble shores. It was strange to see it up-close, in the always-hurried interactions at night: in the dark, dipping between torn-down fences, pitched tents and burning plastic. Other than death, starvation, or hypothermia, it seemed that the lack of information was the clincher: not knowing how long they’d be there, where they’d be sent next, and who gets chosen or why. There were no official signposts as the situation was always changing, and no loudspeaker announcements other than the Greek police telling the crowds to push back. I only saw once a piece of card tied to the razor-wire fences with the categories ‘Iran, Iraq, Syria, Pakistan’ hand-scrawled in English, and then in their respective languages; but the red ink started to spread and splinter in the torrential rain.
We’re not sure how long we’d spent underground at that point. We had crowbarred up the creaking floorboards of the living room, and piled up old mattresses and turned-over tables in an attempt to seal ourselves in. Compulsively clicking through live news updates of world leaders threatening imminent attacks fuelled a moment of paranoia in which I’d purchased a small amount of foil blankets, 5 litre bottles of water and canned food. They’d been kept at the back of my bedroom cupboard, obscured by clothes on hangers, embarrassed at what my housemates might think.
There was a small sense of relief at having thought ahead; though, now, in the dark, in what must have been three days after the torch batteries gave out, we realised exactly how little we knew. No matter how much we tried to insulate the space, there was a far-reaching dampness pervading this area beneath the house: a gap, a link to the outside. Sheer terror had blocked all rational decision-making immediately after we heard the announcement, so we’d rushed and panicked, and were stuck underneath without a can-opener. We stabbed open cans with a pair of old scissors and scooped the cold contents out with our hands. The three of us could only lie horizontally, raising our heads a little before hitting or snagging them, shuffling along and crawling to the bin bags in the farthest corner, which was our makeshift bathroom.
It was hard to know diurnal the rhythms in the darkness, how many days or weeks had passed, but the stench was becoming unbearable.
We tensely debated the options of emerging: Who would go first? What had even happened? If there was radiation, an outfall, how would we be able to discern the invisible symptoms, the chemical miasma?
Eventually, somehow, we made the decision.
Did they all have pre-paid bunkers? The ones we’d read about in newspaper columns, that elites had secured amidst threats of a social uprising; though these were in the back pages, buried deep under the fanfare of celebrity scandal and political controversies.
When we emerged, we felt ridiculous for having even tried to do anything at all. After the initial wave of relief that we were still alive and that our belongings were intact, we tentatively wandered through the shells of houses, mostly empty, cars gone. Did they all have pre-paid bunkers? The ones we’d read about in newspaper columns, that elites had secured amidst threats of a social uprising; though these were in the back pages, buried deep under the fanfare of celebrity scandal and political controversies. We rode around on bikes to scout out what was happening, but were met with days of silence.
I thought I was used to watching known worlds and delicately constructed identities collapse. Through infrequent childhood visits to extended family in the near-mythical homeland. It was built-up and given such emphasis and importance; then, simultaneously, over a lifetime, we watched it fall apart from afar: explosions tearing through homes and districts, mediated and abstract. I remember glancing to the side to see the suppressed emotions of family members staring tensely at the screen as the British newsreader gave a terse summary of events. The anticipation of crackling phone-lines checking if they were still alive, —alhamdilluh— sighs of relief; but then agitations and gesticulations as if it were somehow their fault for incidentally living nearby the site of the bomb. Tracing the routes of spectacular wide-angle newspaper shots of places we’d once been, now obliterated. A slow grief.
Eventually, we heard some sirens. We approached cautiously with an ingrained distrust of authority, but also with hope, possibly of rescue, or at the very least, information. They didn’t have much. We’d caught up with the hazard cleaning truck as it was turning the corner to leave the neighbourhood. They’d been painting large black crosses on most of the houses with a thin, dripping paint, though they couldn’t reveal what this was for. They seemed surprised and impressed at our staying put; though as they stood there in biohazard suits replete with breathing apparatus and chemical resistant boots, we looked down at our sullied clothes and felt ridiculous. They mentioned that there was a help centre uphill of where south Croydon used to be. It was in the old London Biggin Hill airport which until then, I was unaware had even existed.
We went back to the house to look at what we could take, packing any remaining essential food, safety blankets, and thermals. I went back into my room, and saw an olive tree wooden bowl that my grandmother had taken across the border, fretting and worrying that they’d be seized by customs. It had made it across continents and decades, and was now sitting on my desk. It was positioned next to palm tree leaves, an ornamental camel figurine and an ankh necklace, the accretions of multiple lives over the years; but they all had to be left behind this time. I settled on taking a small cluster of photos that didn’t take up as much space, and got up to head out.
We followed the half-memorised directions, and were co-directed by other people that we met along the way. Some were better equipped, driving cars with stacks of belongings on the roof bound together with rope and cords, with some chair legs and pot handles poking out. One was a black van with a peeling plastic Zipcar sticker, either taken by the person currently renting it, or stolen from the street. Others were walking by foot, starved out from their hiding places.
We arrived at a site that we presumed to be the help centre, where people gathered in the flat, grassy areas of the take-off strip, now full of tents. New ones were being constructed, despite the strong winds leaving the thick tarpaulin sheets flapping and gasping in turns. The portaloos overflowed, uncontained by the shallow channels carved out to serve as makeshift drainage. The remaining cars were stuck in the mud, tracks gouged out and deepened by tires revving to leave.
We split to each join a different queue, where we stood for a few hours, each one hardly moving. We felt the disquiet growing, tensions spilling out into arguments, and looked up to see people shouting with a megaphone, not knowing how to handle the crowds, and looking more distressed than us. Someone was throwing small plastic containers off the back of a parked truck, many of which became stuck in the sludge. Inside were provisions: small packets of biscuits, cheese, shortbread, and some bottled water. It reminded me of primary school trips and packed lunches, the same herding of people with barks and exclamations to stand in line or hold hands to cross the road. It started to rain heavily and people dispersed back into the tents. They perched inside, necks tilted up at the skies, waiting until it ceased to start queuing again.
For the first week the queues remained orderly. There were people who’d waited years for referrals to doctors for life-saving treatments, to be rehoused to an accessible flat, or to get their asylum status granted: a patient tolerance with a quiet, hopeful desperation.
After the South Coastal Wall was built, numbers had dropped rapidly, and most people were sent to be processed on the Isle of Wight. To have made it to London means that they must have come far in the process of their application—near hope, but once again, out of reach.
There were many people in the queue that had been trying to register at the Croydon Immigration and Asylum Support Service (IASS), who were now two or three-times displaced. Though after the South Coastal Wall was built, numbers had dropped rapidly, and most people were sent to be processed on the Isle of Wight. To have made it to London means that they must have come far in the process of their application—near hope, but once again, out of reach. Their quiet acceptance was in contrast to the permanently-outraged middle classes, seemingly unused to inefficiency or disorganisation, and gesticulating and shouting with entitled demands. This was ignored by the bored youth, who made music by beat-boxing, or improvising instruments from discarded plastic water and oil drums.
Once every three days there was some hot food: a bland, anglicised curry. We couldn’t enter the kitchen, but from the small section I could see through the exit, it looked like those of homeless shelters and camps I’ve been in previously. These had giant metal pots, human-size sacks of lentils, whole crates of onions and garlic chopped and swept in and swirled with spoons requiring whole-body movements, steadying yourself on the sides of the large metal vats, at least a metre wide each way. Any food when cooked on such a large scale inevitably became reduced to the same consistency. We all slept in the largest tent, huddled on the floor, sleeping with our belongings tied round us and under our clothes, held close to our bodies as if in rigour mortis.
It took a few weeks of hearsay to figure out what the process might be. We were waiting to be accepted as refugees in Iceland, the only country left in the region with stable electricity from their geothermal resources, and the only place that would take UK citizens after many years of isolationist foreign policies since Brexit. I heard the same kind of statements that I had made to those newly arriving in Lesvos only a year before: ‘We don’t know exactly what’s happening… the situation is changing everyday… we’ll know later… we’re waiting for another aid delivery to arrive…’
Within the camp, a kind of self-sorting was occurring. Despite being stripped of a material base and all belongings, people moved towards others who were of a similar socioeconomic background, forming different niches. Somehow, the petite-bourgeoise politeness and niceties continued: a want of familiarity, a semblance of normality, the internalised body language and intonation. We caught the eyes of some squatters and ravers, who used the premise of talking to us about our bikes and our tools, among other signifiers that we may possibly be similar, if not the same. Over the months, once we’d built some basic trust, we were allowed into their discussions. We knew that some groups would be prioritised: the ill, families with young children… which none of us were. As supplies dwindled and tensions increased, they’d been considering moving farther out, to set up a community. Cynical, hardened, but also desperate, we went with them.
Soon after, the waters rose again, and all the camps had to move farther out, uphill, and re-settle.
Soon after, the waters rose again, and all the camps had to move farther out, uphill, and re-settle. I remember how we’d learned about the earlier settlers locating next to natural water sources in my primary school geography class, with pencil-shapes diagrammatically outlining the proximity of the shelter (round) to the river (parallel waving lines in blue). We built structures on elevations, slowly learning which ones would withstand the elements, aided by some anarcho-engineers who helped at the Calais Jungle before it was flattened. As a group of anarchists, squatters, artists and a nurse, we could mostly make and fix things ourselves. We had some basic knowledge of the woods we were surrounded by, and some basic medical supplies. We’d scavenged further necessities from the camp, and by sifting through the water when we forayed down to the new edge of the Thames.
Occasionally, we could still smell the back-wind. It was hard to stand the stench of the dispersed water becoming marshy with dead bodies, building remains, abandoned vehicles, and giant flocks of seagulls pecking at the slimed surfaces. It easily stretched across to the former-Netherlands, and sometimes the EU boats came with emergency supplies they’d been safeguarding in waterproof warehouses. They were equipped with solar panels, and things that looked clean, neat and technical. Though they were often mobbed, so now they just threw parcels off the sides, which bobbed along until they reached the shore of hysteric crowds.
We spent a lot of the time learning to wait. There was no longer an abundance of white-noise-images filling the gaps, the seconds were hanging, minutes turning into frustration. We had to double-back and go over old memories, to retrieve nostalgic go-to stories stuck in deeply sedimented neural pathways. Thinking about the boats reminded me of relaxation, leisure, holidays… things that were once within reach. How the clear, salty water had trickled underneath the hulls in the ports, the smell of sun-warmed concrete and tarmac, soft to stand on.
I read that veterinary scientists were slicing open the stomachs of dead camels they’d found by the roads, and had extracted from the slopping organs large balls of plastic debris.
I thought of my uncle who lived in Dubai, who I’d last seen during my shortened trip to Beirut. I’d visited him 5 years earlier: cruising along endless highways that by bad design circled around and back into each other. They passed disconnected sites and vague signs—‘Internet City’— that promised different kinds of pre-packaged progress. You could see the burnt grass by the highways under the 45 °C summer heat, where newly implanted patches of soil had shrivelled up already, shrinking back from the squared templates. He prided himself on not living in the extra-luxury high-rises or highly-guarded gated communities, though he was still complicit; I guess that now I was too. In the more expensive end of town there were fake islands constructed by dredging the shores and dumping sand from the desert, forcing them into the shape of a palm tree (only visible from helicopters and private jets I imagine). However, in between the fake-sand palm-fronds the water had started to stagnate without a natural flow to clear it, so sea snakes had proliferated and populated these tiny lagoons. I’d smiled inwardly when I imagined the starts and shouts of entitled people being bitten or taken aback, that despite the glossy real-estate brochures and censored-media versions they could afford, this hadn’t worked out for them. Despite these clear signs of slow-implosion, there was still mass migration to the UAE, the supposed source of stability and employment in the region, but the sandy city of glass towers and construction sites gave way. I read that veterinary scientists were slicing open the stomachs of dead camels they’d found by the roads, and had extracted from the slopping organs large balls of plastic debris. They’d been nibbling on shreds of plastic bags piled up in rubbish heaps, covered by sand outside the city, which had cumulatively tangled and calcified inside them like weights.
Remembering riding a camel as a child in Giza, I asked my uncle how my second-cousins were in Cairo, where he’d recently been. He was initially confused why they hadn’t moved out of the cluttered centre with teeming traffic, to the newer, better satellite cities: New Cairo in the east, or outside of the ring-road in the south-westerly sprawl. But now that the pipes stopped pumping and their cars ran out of petrol, people were already walking in hoards back into the centre, thirsty and starving. Some had driven most of the way on emergency petrol, and then had to push the vehicle for the remaining amount: the hot metal frame slicing through their outwardly spread palms as they gave their whole bodyweight into moving it a few metres more. Others rode bicycles only previously used by their children and domestic staff, struggling with the downsized frames or the unfamiliar physical actions. They stopped over in the half-built apartment blocks for shelter, and looked out onto empty frames of advertising billboards along the motorway; most of the metal had been scavenged, and the once-glossy paper burning on open fires producing an acrid smoke. Some scraps had been hurled by winds into the desert and onto arterial roads, re-grounded in sand or skewered on small rusted fences; they were faded, bearing the faint outlines of cosmopolitan young families enjoying their new villas in the exclusive private compounds. The group finally arrived at the ashwa’iyat in the centre, a dense network of dwellings. Many of the people that lived here had once constructed those isolated compounds. Whole families were employed to construct foundations, crossing slivers of timber that looked like balsa splints to make temporary cages, and laying bricks and plaster to surround them, packing them in tight. They were not happy to see the return of the elites who had unceremoniously abandoned them years ago.
This was all reported back to the shocked heads of the Emmar construction company in Oct 6th City, Dubai. They’d been able to fly their most senior staff back to the UAE, and this information was kept from going public, citing unspecified political reasons for their withdrawal if required. After the achievement of the global corporate monument of the Burj Khalifa, this was hard to take. ‘But,— insh’allah—that wouldn’t happen here, not in the much more developed, politically stable Dubai’ they’d said. The seeds of colonial modernity accelerated by oil production produced a disordered, mismanaged growth of atomised communities. It ate into all corners of life, relentlessly; until no one knew how to survive the sweltering heat outside of these air-conditioned, serviced apartments.
I remember hearing all this, scattered among other things, and spoken of casually as if it were interchangeable, replaceable with other hearsay and minutiae that didn’t affect them directly. While I was leaving for the airport to fly back to London, I saw a series of loader trucks tipping clumps of soil into square excavations, with palm trees to be planted held on standby. They were trying to make the barren landscape seem ordered and pristine, though you could already tell from how the dirt fell loosely, with a fine, powdery dust, that it was drying-out fast in the desert heat.
A young child had come up to the nurse next to me, ‘It’s the dirt again’. ‘The dirt’ was contact dermatitis, thousands of tiny blisters that swelled on the skin of her hands and arms, sometimes seeping a sticky, clear fluid. Perhaps some tree sap or another irritant caused it, and strangely it made a similar-looking substance through reacting on human skin, generating until it swelled, burst and flaked off over the next few weeks.
A number of years must have passed, though even the people meant to be marking the time had slacked; either through apathy, or a reluctance to accept this as the situation, a refusal: this was only temporary. We tried to bide the time in a way that could be useful; making paper out of compounded substances, mashing and drying different fibres, flattening them with heavy objects, and learning to not be impatient and flick up the corners just to see if they were ready. We washed everything in the upper part of the river, but despite rinsing over and over again an oily residue coated everything that could never be gotten rid of. Things were never really clean—not like before. We spent most of daylight hours outside, as people had either forgotten or didn’t seem convinced by the previous public health warnings, and because of the effects of these dangers were immediate.
My own drawing reminded me of book illustrations and graphic novels of the monstrous: the unreal and unflesh. But here it was in front of me; so I added a few figurative lines to indicate movement of the face, eyes, and body, gently tugging in different directions.
One day, I was requested to draw, with precision. What I was drawing were medical conditions, what may have been considered ‘oddities’, which reminded me of 18th century anatomical drawings, stretched out and skewed, next to over-stylised botanical depictions and foetuses in jars at the museum. ‘Can you draw?’, would previously have felt like a conservative and anachronistic comment, but was now a genuine question. I was unused to it and it felt like I was learning my fine motor co-ordination skills all over again. I tried to be impartial in the way that they wanted, but to draw the baby as a dumb, inert object seemed unfair. Its eyes were wet and moving, lolling around in its head as it made slight movements and jerks that the neck and back couldn’t support, instantly falling back to how it was before. Looking back between the child and the drawing there was a disjuncture. The baby’s head did have three eyes, a congenital deformity, but it still seemed much more live, curious, in need of being nurtured, and it was hard to see outside of that as it looked directly at me with a wonky smile. My own drawing reminded me of book illustrations and graphic novels of the monstrous: the unreal and unflesh. But here it was in front of me; so I added a few figurative lines to indicate movement of the face, eyes, and body, gently tugging in different directions.
The mother seemed to want something to be done about the extra eye, even though we all knew this was highly improbable as major surgery was life threatening in itself. We sent the drawing to another commune we were in contact with, to be sent along the chains until it reached somewhere that perhaps had a doctor or surgeon. We drew the plants we now knew to be poisonous and placed them on the trees for all to see. I was embarrassed at my own lack of artistry, and how the ink spread through and blotted the bumpy paper, so their outlines were sometimes indeterminable. I don’t truly believe that I could have identified any of these plants from the drawings I’d just made, but it was all we had left after the Big Electric went down.
It was a sharp tug at the skin that made me look back at my hand. By now I’d spent so long—hours, days—dissociating and practising switching my mind to a different channel.
They were trying to extract an xNT bioglass capsule that had been subdermally embedded. It no longer worked to open doors as most buildings had collapsed or their systems were down, my old passport had by now expired, and the smartphones and tablets we’d been charging by portable solar power panels had broken. A capsule injector had punctured the surface and shot it into place, to where it now nested under a pinch of skin between the forefinger and the thumb. But it had missed the mark by a hairline and was too close to the bone, which had now begun to grow around it. The physical labour of repairing the roofs of the shelters, cleaning pipes and filtering wastewater had made it gratingly painful, and rendered me less useful; as comparatively younger and able-bodied person I was required to undertake basic tasks to maintain our collective survival. They had scraped the rust off another tool, boiled it to sterilise it, and tried to sharpen it as much as possible to try and disentangle the capsule from my hand. The deep pit in the skin pooled with blood, and I looked away again—trying to concentrate, focussing on elsewhere— looking out over the horizon.
Sophie Hoyle is a writer and artist currently based in London, UK. Their artwork and research explores an intersectional approach to post-colonial, queer, feminist and disability issues. They work in text, moving-image and installation to look at the relation of the personal to (and as) political, individual and collective anxieties, and how alliances can be formed where different kinds of inequality and marginalisation intersect. Recent projects include: Constellations (between UP Projects and Flat Time House, 2017-18), Sheer-Naked-Aggression, Chalton Gallery (2017), Off to Mahagonny, Rye Lane, London, a text for The 3D Additivist Cookbook, Inner Security for Transmediale (2016), We Cannot Unsee (no.w.here, BFI and Wellcome Trust), and Psychic Refuge for The New Inquiry (2015).
Grandpa’s voice was weak, forced. I’d never heard him like this, not in the first round of chemo, nor in the weeks after he’d decided that enough was enough and he would let the cancer take its course. Years later, after advanced radiation therapies and hormone treatments and inexorable time, he and I were talking together for what would become the last time.
‘I’m working on a story,’ I told him. I had never told him about any of my writing before. ‘It’s sort of a re-telling of Cherokee history but fictionalized. There’s a seed of a story this anthropologist recorded, and I want to dive into it a little bit.’
‘I always thought the story of Louis Riel would make a good movie,’ he told me. That script would be one of the last that my grandpa would work on before he passed away.
Raoul McKay was a documentarian, historian, and a champion of Indigenous education in Canada. He was also Metis, and passionate about sharing our people’s stories with the world. Time was, you could see an exhibit he helped put together at the Smithsonian in Washington, DC. I would make the pilgrimage every other month or so, from my home in the northwest of the city. There’s a new exhibit there now. I haven’t been.
What I have been doing is continuing on my grandfather’s work from a different perspective. Over the past few years, I have been blessed enough to pursue passions in both fantasy worldbuilding and Indigenous representation via prose, tabletop game design, and conversations in conferences and forums like this. Through it all has run a single thread: while the culture and history of native North America has been repressed, it cannot be forgotten.
We can imagine the stories of Indigenous peoples burning like bonfires across the Americas. Each one distinct, with its own fuel, smoke, and flame. Many have been dashed to embers when colonists rolled across the continents like a wave. But despite displacement, forced assimilation, and even genocide, there are embers yet alive. They have been handed down from elder to child, again and again – and now, they are being relit.
But from time to time, just as a fire is starting to go, someone powerful comes in, admiring the flame and wanting to make it their own. So, in it goes, into a great heap of other torches, and a unique glow is lost amidst a pyre of a hundred thousand stories.
When Indigenous stories are separated from the communities that made them, they often lose what made them special in the first place.
To the untrained eye, the act of appropriation might look like salvation. A tiny flame is coaxed into something much bigger, even more significant and impactful by western standards. But a closer look betrays the truth: when Indigenous stories are separated from the communities that made them, they often lose what made them special in the first place.
JK Rowling illustrated this for us in 2016, when she published a brief history of magic in the Americas on Pottermore. The most controversial part of the passage had to do with Skinwalkers, or as they are known to the Diné (Navajo), yee naaldlooshii. The Diné have traditionally taught their people about this shape-shifting witch as a stark contrast to what is held as good and proper in Navajo society. In JK Rowling’s retelling, she writes:
The legend of the Native American ‘skin walker’ – an evil witch or wizard that can transform into an animal at will – has its basis in fact. A legend grew up around the Native American Animagi, that they had sacrificed close family members to gain their powers of transformation. In fact, the majority of Animagi assumed animal forms to escape persecution or to hunt for the tribe. Such derogatory rumours often originated with No-Maj medicine men, who were sometimes faking magical powers themselves, and fearful of exposure.
The outcry was instantaneous. Dr. Adrienne Keene, a Cherokee academic who writes on Indigenous appropriation summed up the general outcry well:
What you do need to know is that the belief of these things has a deep and powerful place in Navajo understandings of the world. It is connected to many other concepts and many other ceremonial understandings and lifeways. It is not just a scary story, or something to tell kids to get them to behave, it’s much deeper than that… What happens when Rowling pulls this in, is we as Native people are now opened up to a barrage of questions about these beliefs and traditions (take a look at my twitter mentions if you don’t believe me)–but these are not things that need or should be discussed by outsiders. At all. I’m sorry if that seems “unfair,” but that’s how our cultures survive.
Navajo writer Brian Young responded to the Pottermore piece with anguish, tied to the vital role traditional Navajo culture has played in his survival:
I’m broken hearted. Jk Rowling, my beliefs are not fantasy…. my ancestors didn’t survive colonization so you could use our culture as a convenient prop.
Young responded with more than critique. He also took the moment as an opportunity to self-reflect and live out a best practice, writing:
I’ve decided to seek advice from the diné medicine men association for their opinion on how I depict my culture in my young adult book.
Young demonstrated the antithesis of what Rowling practiced. Rowling’s writing lumped the hundreds of nations, tribes, and bands Indigenous to North America into a single people group, and took a vital piece of their culture out of context without consultation. Young went to the source of the stories. Doing so allowed him to ensure that when he took real cultural practices into a fictional setting, he was doing so with humility and respect.
Of course, JK Rowling hasn’t been the only one to take a stray step in terms of appropriation. Last year, when Firaxis announced the inclusion of the Cree chief Poundmaker in Rise and Fall, the latest expansion to the 4x strategy game Civilization 6, a headman from Poundmaker’s own band responded in force. In an interview with the CBC, Milton Tootoosis lambasted the game, saying that it ‘perpetuates this myth that First Nations had similar values that the colonial culture has, and that is one of conquering other peoples and accessing their land. That is totally not in concert with our traditional ways and world view’. He also noted that Firaxis hadn’t approached Cree peoples as they developed the character and associated nation, but didn’t seem surprised, saying ‘This is not new. Hollywood has done a job for many decades of portraying indigenous people in a certain way that has been very harmful’.
To understand Tootoosis’s critique, you need to understand a little bit about the Civilization franchise, and the 4x genre. 4x games are strategy games, built on four core mechanics: exploration, expansion, exploitation, and extermination. Civilization plays this out by having players control a nation, exploring a blank map, conquering rogue barbarian tribes, extracting resources, and developing a network of cities that allow the nation to exert cultural, scientific, religious, or military dominance over the world. To many Indigenous observers, these mechanics are rooted in the same colonial mindset that brought European colonizers into ‘the New World’, and lead to the breaking of treaty bonds in pursuit of oil extraction in places like the Athabascan oil sands in Canada’s Treaty 8 land today.
For Tootoosis, placing Poundmaker in this genre was inherently counter to the man’s legacy of striving against colonialism. Although the game’s mechanics encourages a player controlling Poundmaker to develop alliances with other players, those alliances are still created in the context of the 4x genre, and lead to eventual global domination.
However, there were in fact positive aspects to the portrayal, which were done via a process of consultation. Each civilization is given a unique, unfolding, soundtrack that develops over the course of the game and is rooted in a traditional song of the nation. In order to develop the Cree theme, Geoff Knorr worked with the Poundmaker Singers, including one Clyde Tootoosis. The CBC reports that Clyde saw his work with Knorr as ‘an awesome experience’, though he ‘felt sorry that certain people were offended’. In contradiction to Milton, Clyde sees the game as an opportunity to share the name and culture of Poundmaker and his Cree – a clear sign that consultation can go a long way towards making a people feel heard and respected.
The balance between Clyde and Milton’s views has led me to the unique challenge of attempting to tell my own stories inspired by the cultures of the Americas, while still respecting the communities who made them in the first place.
Atohi and Nanye
The story I told my grandfather about has grown into my own story of Atohi and Nanye. In this work, I seek to retell a traditional Cherokee story, but in the fantasy genre (a similar pattern was followed by George RR Martin when he plopped the War of the Roses into Westeros). In it, a woman named Nanye roots out a corrupting force at the heart of the priestly clan’s power, and her beloved Atohi starts a revolution to bring her safely home. I first learned of this bit of history through American anthropologist James Mooney, who in turn learned it from the Cherokee:
The people long brooded in silence over the oppressions and outrages of this high caste, whom they deeply hated but greatly feared. At length a daring young man, a member of an influential family, organized a conspiracy among the people for the massacre of the priesthood. The immediate provocation was the abduction of the wife of the young leader of the conspiracy. His wife was remarkable for her beauty, and was forcibly abducted and violated by one of the Nicotani while he was absent on the chase. On his return he found no difficulty in exciting in others the resentment which he himself experienced. So many had suffered in the same way, so many feared that they might be made to suffer, that nothing was wanted but a leader. A leader appearing in the person of the young brave whom we have named, the people rose under his direction and killed every Nicotani (Ni-go-ta-ni), young and old. Thus perished a hereditary secret society, since which time no hereditary privileges have been tolerated among the Cherokee (Myths of the Cherokee, James Mooney, p. 393).
The events described here are ripe for fiction. There is romance, corruption, and revolution. A chosen one defeats his enemies utterly and brings lasting salvation for his people. A story grows out of such fertile ground quickly. But it has never been my goal to simply tell a good story. I want to tell a good story that illuminates the better story about the people behind it. I want to guide readers towards the living people who have inherited the legacies of my inspirations, and let those people speak for themselves. To do so, I must avoid stereotype and colonialist tropes. As much as possible, I must allow the Indigenous worldview to seep in, breaking apart the frameworks I learned from my favorite fantasy authors. To achieve my goals, it is not enough to tell American stories in the European tradition. I have to go beyond. And to go beyond, I go to the community.
In 2016, I was connected through the Smithsonian with the archivist of the Cherokee Nation, a bright and caring storyteller named Jerry Thompson. As I pitched the idea of my story and goals to Jerry, he was patient in explaining to me the various aspects of Cherokee culture he wished others would focus on, and places where Mooney and others had gotten the story wrong. He introduced me to the Cherokee concept of lying – or storytelling. In Cherokee culture, the word does not necessarily have the same negative connotations that it has for us. Instead, it offers up a unique paradigm on narrative and truth, and admits the two may diverge, and it is up to the listener to determine where they do, and how that affects him or her. It’s also a tool of respect, and a way to safeguard precious knowledge. For example, a young boy may come to his grandpa many times before his persistence is rewarded with the “real story”. Even many of the formulas for ceremonies that Mooney recorded simply aren’t accurate. They are true in form, but the specific medicines are held as property of the families, so as not to be shared with outsiders. They told Mooney the truth about the general form and function of the ceremonies, and “lied” about the details.
Paradigms like this offer us a unique insight into the culture of the Cherokee, and they help me as a content creator. Given this knowledge, I can layer it in with my own ideas. This led to me fleshing out the concept of another race I’ve developed – the Aghazi nomads. The Aghazi travel my world to bear witness to disaster and atrocity and record the stories of those they meet. When they travel to Tsalagi lands (inspired by Mississippian cultures like the Cherokee), they find themselves called – what else? Liars. From that small seed grows a whole bevy of questions that must be answered as Tsalagi and Aghazi collide. Can the Aghazi be trusted? Are their auguries genuine, or just tall tales? How might the priestly class use this appellate to discredit them, and how might that backfire?
As I continued to investigate Cherokee culture, I stumbled across the practice of a young man learning his clan’s skills and role from his mother’s male relatives. Parallel research for a tabletop RPG setting (looking to the Lakota, Pawnee, and Kiowa for reference) brought me to Plains Sign Language. The byproduct of interviews with Thompson and this research brought me one of my favorite characters: Rayoteh Hanging-Jaw, Atohi’s uncle, and a veteran of wars with a neighboring nation. In those wars, he both learned the art of his enemy’s sign language, and found need to use it when his face was mangled by a brutal attack. A brief excerpt with him in focus follows:
Rayoteh Hanging Jaw wrapped a scarlet scarf around his old war wound, and set to preparing a fire as the first rays of light came darting in through the cracks in the daub walls. A few coals still glittered in the pit in the middle of his home, and there was still wood enough for the day’s needs.
Rayoteh prayed that his portion would be fair today, and began to work.
In minutes, a fire was lit, and sage leaves tucked in the coals let off opaque white smoke that danced in the motes of the morning’s first sunbeam. The smell of char filled the home, and the old warrior knelt in the earth by the fire. He breathed the scent in, and closed his eyes. The moment Rayoteh’s eyes shut, smoke billowed out the door, and his nephew stormed in.
Dustu sputtered and wiped his eyes as smoke rolled over him. He feigned a salute, and quickly crouched under the smoke. “Uncle, Athoi is- “
Rayoteh swept Dustu’s legs, and he went sprawling. Crouching next to Dustu, he signed: Do not move to sit before your elder bids you welcome.
“Of course, Uncle,” Dustu said.
Now, how can I help you? Rayoteh patted the ground next to him, bidding his nephew to sit under the smoke.
Dustu paused, and took in a deep breath. He coughed, and started again. “Atohi’s gone. He was out on hunt with Nanye this morning, and I think,” he cradled his head in his hands. “I think they took her.”
Rayoteh’s eyes flared, and his hands moved furiously. They? He signed each letter individually now, slowly and methodically. K-A-T-U-N?
Dustu nodded, and Rayoteh groaned, his voice rasping with years of disuse. Standing, he motioned towards the door. We need to be clear-headed, he signed. Atohi will be rallying for warriors. If he strikes now, they will roll off the mounds like a wave breaking on stone.
“Atohi’s a fine warrior, uncle.” Dustu stood opposite Rayoteh, feet planted, arms crossed.
I didn’t say he wasn’t.
The two men stood in silence for a few moments. “We can’t let him stand alone.”
We can’t let him stand at all. Not yet.
“But what about Nanye?”
Rayoteh stopped and slumped. His fingers began moving, once, and once again. His shoulders sagged, his eyes fell. I don’t know, he finally signed.
“That’s not good enough,” said Dustu. “We can’t- “
Rayoteh’s hands snapped up, and his nephew stopped cold. He finished the sentence for Dustu. We can’t do anything.
“I won’t accept that.” Dustu had wheeled around to Rayoteh, standing in the old warrior’s face. Dustu was young, taller than Rayoteh had been at his age. He had the same fire in his eyes, and a reckless edge to his voice. Rayoteh dropped his eyes.
There is nothing for you to accept. There is only what is, and what cannot be.
Rayoteh’s hands were still moving when his nephew turned his back and stomped out from the hut, war club unslung and ready in his hand.
Though this is still in rough form, I know Rayoteh will play a vital role in the story to come, in no small part because of research and consultation. Not only did consultation help me avoid a trite adaptation of Cherokee culture, it actually made my world more complete and led me to characters I wouldn’t have otherwise considered. Thompson’s help wasn’t relegated just to culture, but also to historical knowledge that’s almost impossible to find anywhere else. Thompson himself has done a great deal of research into the history of the Ani-Kutani and the similarity to legends found far away from the Cherokee’s homeland in the Appalachian foothills.
Not only did consultation help me avoid a trite adaptation of Cherokee culture, it actually made my world more complete.
Ani-Kutani, according to Thompson, translates to something along the lines of ‘People of the Dragon’. Dragon might be better translated to horned serpent, a crucial figure in Cherokee mythology. As it happens, similar creatures are found in stories throughout North America. Thompson indicated that the oral tradition regarding the migration of the Ani-Kutani maps well to the existence of the stories of horned or flying serpents elsewhere, particularly in regarding the feathered Quetzecoatl of Mayan and Aztec mythos. Similar mythological migration can be found with tropes like Spider Grandmother, shared by Navajo and Aztec cultures (though expressed in different ways), or the figure of the coyote trickster, found in Ojibwe and Yakama cultures. These bonds have inspired similar bonds in my constructed world and have led me down paths to create content inspired not just by the Cherokee, but by the Navajo, the Lakota, the Pawnee, the Olmec, the Aztec, and the Ojibwe.
These cultural exchanges help illustrate that stories from one culture can be told in a different setting. They push against the idea that any one people group truly owns a story. At the same time, they reflect a different paradigm than what’s commonly practiced now. These cultural exchanges were just that – exchanges. People told each other their stories and received stories or shelter in turn. There’s a deep network of respect and relationship that lies behind these common figures, and there’s not a 1:1 representation of that in the modern day. It’s impossible to compare googling about a culture on the internet and slapping traditional beliefs into colonial settings with the ancient patterns of trade and reciprocity that led to stories being shared far and wide. It is possible to mimic those patterns, enter into genuine relationship, and enrichen the narratives authors and designers create. Those same relationships can guide us to aspects of culture that can and should be shared and proclaimed and guide us away from teachings that are sacred and require protection and custodianship by the community. Though it can be difficult to hear that a piece of culture is off-limits, the cost to the content creator is much lower than the risk the community is concerned with.
Because of the relational nature of the process and the potential risk for creative constraints, cultural consultation is often depicted as a painful, expensive, and unnecessary step, foisted on creators by a PC culture run amok. I’ve found that it’s almost entirely the opposite. Consulting with the communities you find yourself inspired by is not only a way to build relationships and mutual respect, it’s a way to improve the product. And when content grows richer, communities feel respected, and stories guide readers to Indigenous peoples on their terms. Everybody wins. Consultation isn’t a burden, it’s a blessing – and one that basic human decency demands.
Travis McKay Roberts is a writer and public health social worker in Washington, D.C. Born in Canada, Travis is a citizen of the Manitoba Metis Federation. You can find more of Travis’s writing at callingallwayfarers.wordpress.com and at Relevant.com, and can reach him on twitter @TravisWMRoberts.
I’m writing to you from a future. I’m doing this, because I don’t know any other way. I need to speak to someone who might understand.
You see, my grandfather wants to die. You might think “Oh no, that’s sad, but maybe he is old and tired, has lived enough and is ready to die.” Well you are not wrong about that. It is sad, and yes, he is old and tired and he has had a long life and he is ready to die. But being old and tired and dying don’t go together like that anymore. And that’s the problem.
In 2017 some researchers found a protein called TIMP-2 that stimulates body cells to rebuild and keep healthy.
The quest for endless life is an old one. In 2017 some researchers found a protein called TIMP-2 that stimulates body cells to rebuild and keep healthy. A protein which all humans have in their blood when they are young. Babies have a lot of it, but as we age, the production decreases. Having less and less of this protein allows us to age, but if you keep this protein at a consistently high-level, you stay young. In 2017, some newspapers reported this research for the first time, but it didn’t really cause much of a stir. By now, those results have changed humanity “for the better” – at least this is the conclusion that pours out of the mainstream.
Back to my grandfather: he is 130-years old now and thinks he has seen enough. He remembers how it was when old people just died. He told me a lot about it. Sounds quite nice, I have to say. Granddad started the protein treatment when he was already 60. I started when I was 21, which is the normal starting age now. It is considered the best physical age to stay in: one is fertile, has high-brain capacity, yet is physically fully grown and strong. It is considered the best age to stay in for work and reproduction. We call it “starting”. You are born and then, 21 years later, you “start”, almost like you hadn’t even lived before. As if you were maturing and then, when you are ripe, you get your preservatives. There are also early starters, some choose to do that as well. Looking like a teenager had been a trend some years ago. And there are all those who started later in their life, when the whole thing went mainstream. That was about 60 years ago.
Granddad was among the first to try the treatment. He had this panic, he says, that life would be over too soon and that there were so many things left undone. He wanted to travel and still be fit when he retired so he could go hiking and fishing with his grandchildren. At the time, he and grandma had well paid jobs and could afford trying this new, promising forever-young therapy that some companies had started to offer.
Things have gone wild since those days.
Back then, most people just went to a private hospital once a month for a transfusion. You remember, the TIMP-2 concentration in the blood is higher the younger you are, so people initially got blood transfusions from newborn, healthy babies. This blood was voluntarily donated in doses that would not harm the baby, or so it was said. But you can imagine the treatment being available only for a limited amount of people and at a high cost.
Granddad and grandma were real adventurous in those days, ready to try something radical. People around them thought it was a bit crazy, but many secretly wished they could afford it themselves. As time went on, it became more and more prominent and more affordable. It was especially popular among affluent people in their late fifties. The idea of “starting again” once the children had grown-up and moved-out sounded wonderful. Having more time to do all the things left undone. Having time to find yourself again. That was the mood back then, or so my granddad says.
It turned out that poor families in Latin America were being tricked to believe that their babies had died shortly after birth, when in reality, those babies had been farmed for blood.
Then the first scandals happened. It turned out that poor families in Latin America were being tricked to believe that their babies had died shortly after birth, when in reality, those babies had been farmed for blood. That was, of course, a huge controversy. The run for the treatment declined for a while. But the wish to live forever was too strong and such stories are easy to forget if forgetting is convenient. Similar crimes happened again and again, but nobody really wanted to know about it. They are very likely still there, the baby farms that is, just more well-hidden.
In Europe the whole thing took off much later. It was illegal for a long time. Some rich people traveled to the US or Asia for treatment, but in Europe it went mainstream only when laboratories could generate the protein. No babies involved. But even if available cruelty-free, the treatment remains expensive.
For granddad and grandma, it got expensive anyway. You can imagine the treatment like an addictive drug: it is not something you do once and pay for once, but you need to keep doing it again and again. It is easy to afford when you have a well-paid job, but it requires that you maintain your income in order to maintain your standard of living. So in the end, my grandparents needed to keep working in order to afford the treatment. The idea of a long retirement soon dissolved. Of course, having time had been the original promise. Live long enough to live all your dreams, or so the advertisements said. Reality is more of a nightmare. Work longer and harder and dream forever of those days spent traveling, playing with your grandchildren, having time for an endless bucket list. I actually grew up with my grandparents being fit and healthy, spending wonderful Sundays hiking. But during the week, they worked just like my parents.
One way to stop the cycle is to die. But that is not that easy either.
Many people take out loans nowadays to afford the treatment. Like my parents, they also took out a loan for me. It’s like investing in education: by keeping young, healthy and fit, you hope that you’ll earn enough to pay back the loans. Breaking out of that cycle should be possible, shouldn’t it? It’s actually very difficult. One way to stop the cycle is to die. But that is not that easy either. You will not just die after taking that stuff for ages, at least not of natural causes. Suicide is becoming an option, but doing that before you are debt-free is a huge taboo. I mean, you wouldn’t need to mind people talking once you’re dead, but you don’t want to leave your family with all that grief or all that debt.
For those who just can’t or don’t want to commit suicide, having a mortal accident is really the only other option for dying early. My grandmother died in a car accident on her way back from work, she was 118. Granddad retired the same day and stopped taking the medicine a couple of years later. It was a wakeup call. A bad one. He did some traveling without really enjoying it. But for the past 10 years he has wanted to die. He is fed up. It didn’t turn out like he had wanted. Killing himself is not an option for him though. And the strategy of taking high risks, doing things like rock-climbing without safety measures or driving into hurricanes and tornadoes, more often than not leaves people paralyzed or otherwise injured but not dead.
You might still be wondering what the fuss is about. Life is longer, you get more time to do stuff. Even if you have a longer working life, you still get more holidays more weekends and life’s rush-hour is stretched out over a longer period of time. All this is possibly true, but what if long life only equals longer drudgery, longer suffering? We live long, but for what?
Life is very, very stressful. You have endless to-do lists. Grandpa said back in the days you could always say “No I won’t do this now, I only got 24 hours every day, I can’t do everything”. That doesn’t work anymore. The day still has only 24 hours, but there are so very many 24 hours. People feel rushed, all the time, pressured to do all they can imagine doing. This is not how I wanted to live when I started the treatment at 21.
Competition is also very high. There are a lot of people who need to and are able to work. There is high unemployment and many homeless people as well as a panic not to end up in such a situation. Without a job, you can forget about the treatment, which means you’ll age, which means you are less likely to get a job. It’s a downward spiral. And consequently people do anything to keep their jobs, like working crazy hours for bad pay with almost no holiday. And the debt for the treatment is not the only financial burden many take on: people also take loans for education, houses, and cars. If you want a loan to buy a house, the bank will make you sign a document that you’ll take the treatment until you’ve paid off the loan.
Just imagine your life, but longer. A very long struggle of not getting worse.
Nowadays, life has become a struggle against things getting worse. How does that sound? Familiar? Just imagine your life, but longer. A very long struggle of not getting worse. I imagine, that when you know you’ll age, you might get to a point where you manage to change something. I imagine there might be a point when you realize that this is not how you want to spend the rest of your limited days. That must be so empowering. But now, there is always another day to start changing your life. And changing is uncomfortable, so most never change.
All that I have described so far concerns only the most affluent. A common belief is that those poorer countries need to develop and grow their national GDP so that more people can access health care and the endless-life treatment, which will further grow the economy. The same old song, just with another verse added. There is a company that got rich with an endless-life businesses that has since started a foundation that runs programmes in Africa to help people to afford the treatment. They call it charity and development aid. You could also call it a cruel investment.
Despite all of this madness, there are some who don’t take the treatment anymore or who never took it at all. They are called “oldies” and are treated like outcasts. Most of them live together in villages in the countryside. The oldies don’t make an effort to isolate themselves, but they end up quite isolated simply by the way they choose to live. I’ve thought about it myself, but it would require leaving my friends and family behind. And somehow, for some reason, I want to stay connected with what is going on, even if I don’t like it.
Back then you were fighting for a life within ecological and social limits. Now we are fighting to get limits to life itself.
I am part of a movement that calls itself STOP. We criticize the idea that life is all about longer and more, drawing ideas and inspiration from sources on post-development, degrowth, and social justice, which is what brought me to your blog. After all, the Internet doesn’t forget. Back then you were fighting for a life within ecological and social limits. Now we are fighting to get limits to life itself.
I have recently stopped the treatment myself. It is very new for me. I’m 54 now, but still have around seventy years to live, seventy years to dedicate myself to a world in which we can learn to die once again.
Corinna Burkhart is a PhD candidate at the Department of Human Geography in Lund, Sweden. She is active around degrowth since 2012 and tries to think outside the box, sometimes through writing fiction.
Officer Adkins puts the receiver back into its slot on the dashboard of his patrol car. He’s driving down a red dirt road with his windows down.
The air outside is arid. Desert dry. It’s sapping Officer Adkins’s sweat through his pores, causing it to pool in the crook between his nose and his glasses and around the bags under his eyes. Red dust clouds erupt in the wake of the patrol car, hanging in the air as long as possible. Some of the dust will blow over to the sides of the road, coating the otherwise hyper-green ditch weeds.
The heat plays tricks. Ahead of the car, Officer Adkins can see shimmering heat waves, making the dirt road ahead look like broken glass. In the rearview mirror, the reflection looks like the road’s closing in on itself like a tunnel, warped at the edges and pulling into itself.
The heat plays tricks. Ahead of the car, Officer Adkins can see shimmering heat waves, making the dirt road ahead look like broken glass. In the rearview mirror, the reflection looks like the road’s closing in on itself like a tunnel, warped at the edges and pulling into itself.
Not paying attention, he hears a sickening thump under the front passenger side tire. From the side mirror, he can see that he ran over a rattlesnake, at least six feet long and a few feet round. A huge one. In a few minutes it’ll be sucked dry by thirsty crows, which don’t ever seem to far away these days.
Officer Adkins reckons the snake won’t even be there on his way back. He reaches across the car’s center console, taking special care not to touch the cracked hot leather with his bare skin, and flips the lid off his small styrofoam cooler. He plunges his hand into the ice and pulls out a cube, which he quickly brings to his forehead before it melts. He draws little circles across his face, making especially sure to cool the bags under his eyes.
“Let’s see… 18 miles down this road. Then turn left at the oak with the branches that touch the ground. Go a few more miles and look for the patch of cattails on the right.”
It’s a ways more, so he starts humming old hymns to himself to still his beating heart.
Lay aside the garments that are stained with sin,
And be washed in the blood of the Lamb;
There’s a fountain flowing for the soul unclean,
O be washed in the blood of the Lamb!
No one wants the job. No one likes kicking people out of their homes. But he’s the newest one on the force, and he has to do it. He wouldn’t be as worried if he were going after a murderer or kidnapper. But these are just old women. Two old sisters. They used to be a part of the community, years ago. So long ago that people can only tell tales, and even those tales feel older than they should. Like memories of memories. Or like looking at pictures of old ancestors you’ve never met.
The two sisters – Odetta and Odessa – used to play music in town before Prohibition. They also used to skin and process venison. Some people used to buy cane syrup from them. No one remembers when really, just that they did those things.
Their music was especially well remembered. They’d post up at a local whiskey joint and play for hours, sometimes days, without stopping. Their songs would make people do strange things.
They played the blues faster and louder than anyone had heard before. One played the guitar, and the other played the trumpet. They’d take turns singing. Their voices were harrowing and unforgettable. They never made eye contact and sang to the floor. People’d stay at the joint the whole time they played. Then, they’d stumble back to their homes in the early morning. After playing, the sisters would disappear for months; maybe years. They’d go back to their cabin in the woods and into the backs of everyone’s minds.
No one really remembers the last time they were seen. It’s like someone mentions their names, and then their names are carried off by the wind. Lost in the woods. Simultaneously remembered and forgotten. Their tax record, however, was another story.
Thumbing through the records a few weeks back, Ms. Olive found their file. She asked around the office, but no one knew the file existed. It’s like it had always been in the filing cabinet, nestled neatly between other tax records. Ms. Olive read over the paper multiple times, forgetting what she was reading until it finally registered that there were no payment records. The sisters had never paid land taxes for their property. Ms. Olive called the police, and they sent out Officer Adkins the next day to investigate. He had no choice but to tell them that they needed to pay their land tax or be kicked out of their home.
He hideth my soul in the cleft of the rock
That shadows a dry, thirsty land;
He hideth my life with the depths of His love,
And covers me there with His hand,
And covers me there with His hand.
Officer Adkins misses the turn by the cattails the first time. Then, he misses it a second time after turning around. He stops in the middle of the road, drumming his fingers on the steering wheel for a few minutes to collect his thoughts.
With his car at a standstill in the middle of the road, Officer Adkins racks his brain. He thinks about his wife at home. He thinks about the sticky buns she made earlier. He thinks about the children they’re going to have. It brings a smile to his face. He adjusts himself in his seat and rubs the crown of his nose between his index finger and thumb. One more time. He backs the car up and finds the path through the cattails only a few yards down the road.
The path is nothing more than ruts cutting through a nearly impenetrable wall of cattails. Officer Adkins lines his tires up with the ruts the best he can before proceeding, taking special care not to drive off the path and into the feverish swamp on either side. The tips of the cattails are fraying, as they beat against one another in a sudden gust of wind. White cottony seedpods are fluttering around the car, twirling downwards in perfect circular patterns.
The air outside is getting inexplicably wetter. Not cooler but definitely wetter. It feels heavier. Wiping his forehead with his sleeve, Officer Adkins can’t tell if the dampness is his sweat or condensation. Before he had a hard time breathing because of the dry heat, now he feels like he is drowning in the air around him. The pressure of the humidity pushes down on his skull, giving him a headache. He takes a sip of water from the cooler only to find out that it’s just as hot as the air in his car.
Inch by inch, he makes his way along the path through the cattails. Out of the corner of his eyes, he sees bright flashes of color. He imagines them as brightly colored birds. He can’t quite focus on the colors, but he knows he sees something. It’s like the experience of the color is a memory, like something hiding just out of sight of his mind’s eye. He chalks up the colors to the heat. It’s just his mind playing tricks on him.
The path is getting more solid and a bit wider. Up ahead, he can see a clearing where the path ends. Officer Adkins pulls his car into the clearing and turns his car off, immediately pulling up his undershirt to wipe his face and eyes. He’s still having a hard time breathing and the headache is sinking further into his skull. Just up ahead, he can make out the warped outline of the sisters’ cabin.
He kicks open his door and slides his legs across the cracked leather bench seat of his patrol car. Heaving and out of breath, he adjusts himself again, pulling up his pants and patting down his sweat-stained shirt over his stomach.
The house is only a couple hundred feet ahead, but it feels impossibly far away. The sweet scent of blooming honeysuckles fills his nose, but it’s mixed with something sour. He looks around and sees rows of wild blackberries, burst open and rotting in the heat. The smell makes his stomach queasy and settles at the back of his throat. The grabby briars of the blackberry bushes wrap around his ankles as he makes his way towards the cabin.
Officer Adkins, after what might have been a few minutes or a few years, stops within yelling distance of the cabin’s front porch. The cabin itself is humble, made of graying pinewood. The roof is a little sunken and covered in brightly colored mosses and lichens. The vinyl lattice around the base of the home is slightly moldy at the bottom but bleach white at the top. One side of the home is blanketed in a honeysuckle blooms.
His words hang in the air like a fog. Maybe the sound never made it to their ears. It’s almost like the words are too saturated by the humidity to move past his lips.
The front porch is screened in, making it impossible to see inside. He can hear the porch creaking under the weight of some movement. After a few minutes, he can make out that the sound is a pair of rocking chairs, rocking slightly off-kilter from one another. Realizing that they’re home, and right in front of him, Officer Adkins nearly vomits in his mouth. After taking a few minutes to steady himself, he yells to the sisters on the porch.
“Mornin’ ladies… Can I have a word?”
No response. Just rocking.
“I’ve been sent by Town Hall on account of y’all not payin’ your land taxes… Seems like y’all haven’t paid up.”
No response. Just rocking, steady and off-kilter.
“Town Hall says you can’t live here anymore… Not unless you pay your taxes. They’ll be needing some sort of deposit next week or the banks’ll come demanding it.”
He thinks he can hear quiet coughing, but still no response. Just rocking.
His words hang in the air like a fog. Maybe the sound never made it to their ears. It almost like the words are too saturated by the humidity to move past his lips. He wonders if he is even speaking, if anything is coming out of his mouth at all. After another indiscriminate amount of time, Officer Adkins kicks his boots on the ground, knocking away some of the blackberry briars that seem to have crept up his leg.
“M’ams… I… I’ll have to come back next Tuesday for that deposit.”
“I hate to do it… I really do… but I’ve got no choice in the matter. My job depends on it. G’day to both of you.”
Officer Adkins turns and walks back to his car. He gets in and backs down the cattail path without looking back, keeping his eyes on the clearing ahead. In a few minutes, he is near town without any recollection of the minutes that passed between the cattail path and now. The air’s hot again and he reaches for another ice cube. He smiles to himself, thinking about his wife and unborn children. Twins.
They can hear the car coming from miles away. It’s an unusual, mechanical sound that cuts through the otherwise undisturbed swamp noise. A man’s driving, smiling to himself and humming songs. A happy man; a nice man. The sisters can hear every pebble crushing beneath his car like tiny explosions. He can’t come here.
They should’ve listened harder. They should’ve kept him from even finding the old oak tree that touches the ground. They’re getting forgetful and complacent in the summer heat. It’s been so long.
So they send out a snake, one of their pets. She’s large enough to be a distraction. She’ll at least slow him down for a few minutes while the sisters stitch the entrance to the cattail path closed.
She dies, crushed beneath his car. She hissed her last breath into the sisters’ ears. It echoed across the swamp, crashing through the trees like a cold wind. The man didn’t even notice her until after she had been killed. The sisters send crows to make the death swift and meaningful.
He’s still coming. Still singing. Still smiling. A nice man. The sisters don’t want to hurt him, but he can’t find them.
They begin to stitch the cattail path closed. Odessa grabs a handful of chicken knuckles and rattles them in her palm. She blows into her closed fist, causing a stout wind to blow through the cattails. They’ll fray at the tips, sending their seedpods through the air. When the pods land in the mud, new stalks will sprout, cloaking the path.
While Odessa rattles the chicken knuckles, Odetta grabs her tarnished brass trumpet. When she blows, it doesn’t sound like a trumpet. Instead, a deep, guttural whisper spreads from the horn’s mouth. It sneaks along the ground and will eventually catch up to the man. It’ll sneak into his ear, causing him to miss his turn while the path grows closed.
The two sisters get wrapped up in their work – Odessa rattling chicken knuckles in her palm, stitching the path closed, and Odetta whispering illusions through her trumpet to blind the man to their path. They don’t realize that he notices he’s missed the path and is trying to clear his head. They only realize he’s found their path when they hear his car breaking through the cattails.
Odessa grabs another handful of chicken knuckles, trying to close the path. Odetta plucks out on her hairs and pulls it taut across her lips and hisses with her teeth closed. The sound she creates is something between a whistle and a hum. Immediately, she can hear them crashing through the branches, coming to her aid. Birds of paradise, thousands of them. Some are cerulean. Some are candy red. No two are alike. She’ll send them to distract the man, keeping him occupied. It’ll give her enough time to come up with another illusion.
They don’t want to harm the man. They just don’t want to be found.
Odetta’s birds don’t tie him up long enough, and Odessa failed to stitch the path closed before the man reached the clearing. She drops the chicken knuckles and grabs a bottle of whiskey. She takes a long draught and spews it through her lips, creating a fine mist. The mist will create a drowsy humidity, making the man move slowly and unsurely. It’ll give him a headache, at least.
Odetta digs through a basket beside her chair. The basket is made from hair and contains dried weeds, branches, flowers, and leaves. She puts a plume of honeysuckle in her mouth, chewing them to a pulp before spitting them on the walls of their cabin. This’ll cloak the home in honeysuckle, making their cabin look like an overgrown thicket.
Still chewing and spitting honeysuckle onto the walls, Odetta stuffs a tuft of blackberry bramble into her right house slipper. She slides her foot back in, scratching the ball of her foot and drawing blood. She doesn’t want to hurt the man, but this should slow him down. She takes a few steps, the briars sticking her in between her toes. She winces while she continues to spit honeysuckle on the walls. Outside, blackberry bramble creeps towards the car. As he steps out of his car, it begins crawling up the back of his ankles. Combined with the whiskey humidity, the briars will slow him down.
The man is still determined and making his way to their porch. Odessa sprays more whiskey into the air, and Odetta starts stomping on the bramble in her slipper. She’s still stuffing honeysuckle into her mouth and spitting it onto the walls. He’s moving slower, but he’s still coming.
Just before he’s within yelling distance of the front porch, the two sisters drop what they’re doing and move into their rocking chairs. They begin rocking at a pattern that will stop the man in his tracks.
The sisters understand time. The further off-kilter they are from another while they’re rocking, the slower time becomes. They can’t stop time entirely; that’s too dangerous. But they can slow it to a grinding halt, making the atmosphere too heavy for the man to get any closer.
He’s yelling something. His words don’t travel through undulating time. They fall right out of his mouth and are ancient by the time they make it to the sisters’ ears. He seems panicked; uncomfortable.
Odetta and Odessa can barely make out the words, “I’ll be back next Tuesday… G’day to both you.”
A nice man, but he can’t come back next Tuesday.
The sisters slow their rocking and let the man walk back to his car. When he closes the door, the sisters look into each other’s eyes, and grasp each other’s gnarled root hands. Sadly, they know what has to be done to keep the man away.
As soon as the man bends his head to put the car in reverse, the sisters get up from their chairs. By the time the man starts to edge his car backwards, the sisters are already off the porch and winding their way up a creek bed. The bed is coated in a layer of slick mud, pockmarked by worm and snake trails.
The sisters keep their heads low in reverence. The creek bed empties into a gully, and on the other side there’s a perfectly circular pond, surrounded on all sides by a dense thicket of cypress trees. Their knobby roots tangle around one another, making an impenetrable wall. The sisters both reach out their left hands and touch the nearest root, causing it to unfurl into an opening to the water’s edge.
The pond is covered in a blanket of lime green algae. It looks solid enough to walk across. Odetta and Odessa slide out of their house slippers and hike their dresses above their knees before wading into the water, cutting a triangular wake into the pond’s algae-covered surface. The sisters walk carefully, taking small steps to not disturb the sediment on the bottom. The water is painfully cold and black beneath the shade of the algae. Its pitch surface curls like tar around the sisters’ legs, roiling up and over their knees.
By the time their up to their waste in water, nearly a quarter of the way to the middle of the pond, they let their dresses go. The ruffles of their dresses sit on the water a few minutes before sinking below the surface, algae closing in around them. Deep breaths. Steady breaths. He’s a nice man.
Odetta holds out her boney right hand, and Odessa grips it firmly in her left. Standing side by side, they raise their free hands into the sky just above their shoulders. In a few moments, a mosquito lands on the top of Odetta’s hand, digging into her skin and filling with her blood. A few moments later, a couple more mosquitos land on Odessa’s hand. Then, swarms of mosquitos land on their hands. Thousands, millions. The mosquitos make their way down the sisters’ arms to their shoulders.
When they get light headed from blood loss, the sisters submerge their raised arms into the water, pulling them back up slowly. There’s a large, blood-filled mosquito in each of their palms, still sucking. They close their fists, crushing the mosquito. Blood seeps through the spaces in between their fingers. It trails down their wrists. They release their clasped hands and turn towards one another. With their clean hands, they start tracing the lines in their bloody palm, making sure to get blood in every crease and wrinkle.
After tracing the lines in their hands with blood, the sisters put their palms together. With their other hands, they scoop some of the algae from the pond’s surface and put it into their mouths. They fill their mouths until they can hardly breathe and begin chewing, drinking down their saliva mixed with the algae’s juice. When the algae is dehydrated in their mouths, they spit it into their free hands and crush it into a poultice with their fists. Then, they place their algae covered palms together.
Now, standing face to face with their hands together and stretched above their heads, the sisters put their foreheads together and begin to sing one of their old songs.
Their voices don’t resonate; there’s no timbre. Instead, it sounds like dried leaves being crushed underfoot. It sounds like mud bubbling from a spring. Like the sound animals make when they’re mating. It vibrates, reverberating across the pond, sending long ripples beneath the algae. The sisters breathe in each other’s air, singing into each other’s chest. Their bloody palms feel like they’re on fire. Their eyes roll back in their heads, and they lean into each other’s weight.
The woods are getting louder. Around the pond, the cypress trees rattle against one another. Life and death blending together. Tears roll down the sisters’ cheeks from the pain in their hands, but this is the price they pay to be forgotten.
Then, the sound stops. The song ends. Odessa and Odetta release their hands and let them fall into the water. They look at each other. They’re both older. Their skin is looser, hanging like shingles from their boney cheeks. Their eyes are rheumy. Their hair is longer, whiter. They never wanted to hurt anyone. He is a nice man. They just need to be left alone.
After taking a few minutes to collect their breath, the sisters wade out of the pond. They pass through the hole in the cypress roots and find their way back down the creek bed. Their cabin is the same. Their porch is the same. They settle back into their rocking chairs and listen to the tune of the swamp, tapping their feet.
Would you be free from your passion and pride?
There’s power in the blood, power in the blood;
Come for a cleansing to Calvary’s tide;
There’s wonderful power in the blood.
Rubbing the cool ice on his head, Officer Adkins starts humming hymns again. He’s wondering what he’ll have for lunch. It’s a little late for lunch. Maybe he’ll just grab some pie and a coffee. The diner next to the station will be open. It’s always open.
When he pulls into the parking lot, he notices that no one turns to see his car. When he walks to the counter, he can’t seem to get the waitress’s attention. She smiles and looks at him but doesn’t acknowledge him. He touches her shoulder and she smiles and shrugs it off. He chalks it up to a misunderstanding and walks across the street to the station.
The sisters slow their rocking and let the man walk back to his car. When he closes the door, the sisters look into each other’s eyes, and grasp each other’s gnarled root hands. Sadly, they know what has to be done to keep the man away.
The station is running business as usual. No one seems to pay him any attention. He’s new here, so he doesn’t mind. There’s a fresh pot of coffee boiling. Officer Adkins pours a cup and walks across the hall to the deputy’s office. Eager to prove himself, he walks up to his and slams down his hands.
“I seen the sisters. Told ‘em they had to pay up.”
No response. The deputy stares down at his desk, rustling through reports.
“I seen the sisters…”
Officer Adkins leaves the station. He’s got a sick feeling churning in the pit of his stomach. The world doesn’t feel right. He trots to his car and immediately drives home.
When he pulls into his yard, bouncing over the curb, he honks his horn twice. The sprinkler’s spraying his new garden. He gathers his things, secures the lid on the cooler, and opens his car door in one quick motion. He unlocks the white vinyl fence beside his home and makes his way through the backyard. From behind a wall of gardenias, he can see his wife sitting on the back patio. She’s staring off in the distance with a cigarette hanging limply between her lips.
The room looked like it had not been touched in a decade. Cobwebs danced lazily in the air blown by the air conditioning vents. The walls were dingy white, not sunshine yellow. There was no crib.
Officer Adkins didn’t know she smoked. She especially shouldn’t be smoking while she’s pregnant. In any case, he wants to sneak up behind her and kiss her on the neck. He quietly drops his things behind the bushes and makes his way to the wicker chair where she is sitting with her legs crossed.
He touches her shoulder lightly, running his fingers across the lower part of her neck just above her shirt collar. He leans in slow enough to hear his bones creaking. When he kisses her neck, she just shrugs it off like a mosquito. She shifts in her seat and sucks on her cigarette. He realized that he must’ve done something wrong. He decides he’ll go inside and make some coffee and a sandwich to bring out to her.
“Honey, I’ll be right back. You stay right there.”
He kicks off his shoes near the backdoor and notices that his other shoes have disappeared. His wife must have moved them earlier that day. He always was a little messy. Maybe that’s why she’s not talking to him. In the kitchen, he puts down his cooler and opens the refrigerator. There’s hardly anything to eat in there, so he puts on some coffee and makes his way back to the bedroom to change his clothes.
The bed’s unmade. The sheets are tangled in a rat’s nest, the blinds are drawn. Although the room’s dark, he notices that there are no photos of him around. There are no photos at all.
Unsettled, Officer Adkins walks across the hall to the nursery he and his wife spent so much painting and decorating. He carved the crib from the cedar tree out back. He spent so much time sanding and oiling the wood, delicately carving its corners often into the night. When pushing open the door, it got caught on something. He pushed harder, rustling paper and plastic and knocking over boxes. The room looked like it had not been touched in a decade. Cobwebs danced lazily in the air blown by the air conditioning vents. The walls were dingy white, not sunshine yellow. There was no crib.
His head began to pulse. The headache from earlier began to boil in the back of his skull. He walked back through the hallway and looked through the kitchen blinds onto the back patio. His wife had started a new cigarette. Her hair was limp, unwashed. She sat with her legs underneath her, staring across the backyard. He followed her gaze to the cedar tree he had cut for the crib. There it was, standing as tall as ever.
Head still pulsing, Officer Adkins grabs a cigarette from his wife’s box. No response. He walks into the yard and sits beneath the cedar tree. With his back against its gnarly bark, he leans his head back, watching as his cigarette smoke disappears in the dense canopy. He closes his eyes and listens. He can hear a tune and starts humming along.
Dylan M. Harris is a PhD candidate in the Graduate School of Geography at Clark University. He studies the stories we tell (and don’t tell) about climate change and comes up with his own stories from time to time.
In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth. And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters.
And God said, Let there be light: and there was light.
And God saw the light, that it was good: and God divided the light from the darkness.
And God called the light Day, and the darkness she called Night. And the evening and the morning were the first day.
She sleeps fitfully. Every light creak of the cottage wakes her, her body in its semi-conscious state always uncomfortable no matter which way she turns. It is her first night out of the Build in months, and though she knows well to expect it now, the uncomfortable encumberment of physicality is always a shock to the system; particularly on the first night, after so long free of form.
She has never been patient with her body – one of the things that had most attracted her to Building in the first place – and when she wakes again not an hour later she slips frustrated out of bed and shuffles to the kitchen before her tired body can mount a protest. Teabag, water, a splash of milk, the plucking out of the teabag by the fingertips, hands curved soft around the cup – the ritual, she had to admit, had been missed in an incorporeal world where hands simply didn’t exist.
Stepping out into the tiny garden, she feels the light wind lift the hem of her nightgown and press soft fingers through the holes of the shawl around her shoulders. A sea black as tar reflects the almost-full moon like an oil slick, far off the edge of the cliff where she stands; the reflection is cut up by the ghostlike pillars of the turbines, tiny from this distance. Of course, she knows well their towering enormity from sea level – she had led her team in the design of their formation to ensure optimal wind-harvesting efficiency. It had been her first time as Lead Builder – she had been younger than many of the team, but her experiential knowledge of the area had swung the decision in her favour. She has lived on these cliffs, in the same small house, since her memory began. She knows the force of the waves and the flow of the wind like a mother knows the changing moods and caprices of her own child.
She’d often complained that their team neglected housing in favour of the more highly publicized, ‘sexier’ Builds like solar and wind farms.
The night is uncharacteristically calm, and she feels her mind slipping into retrospect, combing over the past month’s work as it always did in the first few days after a major Build. Her partner Jese had taken the lead: her speciality was tall housing structures, and she’d often complained that their team neglected housing in favour of the more highly publicized, ‘sexier’ Builds like solar and wind farms. She was right, of course, and under her direction they’d created a particularly beautiful enclave of houses near the coast, set in a titanium-alloy structure that descended the cliffs with elevator capsules flowing up and down its sides like cascading water.
She often tries to imagine how projects of this magnitude might have worked in the past. Of course, all Builders had studied the history of architecture – how the building process had been divided into so many groups, the designers and the constructors bizarrely separate from one another’s work, usually never even communicating – but it was almost impossible to imagine how it might have worked in practice, everything constructed by hand and constrained by the limitations of human labour. Their only constraints now were the limitations of imagination.
The scale and precision of the welding was beyond the scope of either human hands or the workshop’s capacity
It had been discovered by accident – quite out of the blue. Every Builder knew the story by heart: a junior architect at a small firm (in Iowa, of all places) working late one night on a complex model, hooked up to the industry-standard electrode set to promote clarity and transmission of thought between brain and design interface, had dozed off thinking about earthquake-proof structures. When she awoke minutes later from running through a forest of glinting skyscrapers waving in the breeze, there they were, scattered around her feet and thick on the desks of the lab: little foot-high models of the same structure she had seen in her dream. She had, understandably, concluded that she was going mad and, having convinced herself that it was an elaborate prank by some telepathically-gifted colleague, swept the models into the bin and left. But the next morning, when someone fished one of the things out of the bin and promptly discovered the scale and precision of the welding was beyond the scope of either human hands or the workshop’s capacity, it quickly became impossible to pretend that nothing had happened. From there, it had snowballed. Hundreds of thousands had been poured into studies trying to recreate what had happened that warm night in Iowa when something had defied every known law of physics to appear out of thin air. And the studies found two things: first, in a very specific dream state as hard to consciously maintain as hovering between two layers of the atmosphere whilst falling down through it to earth, there existed some kind of hugely powerful neurogenerative potential. And second, this potential was available uniquely to women.
The second part got just about as much attention as the first. The public, faced with one of the most unbelievable discoveries of human ability in the past millennium, chose to disbelieve primarily that a woman could do what a man couldn’t. On daytime TV and at scientific conferences, arguments raged about what this meant for feminism; whether political correctness had biased the studies into overlooking men with the same potential; if the whole thing was faked, somehow part of an engine to sway voters towards – nobody was quite sure, but definitely something. But by this time a handful of other women, designers and housewives and doctors, had come forward to report that sometimes when they woke up they’d find a piece of their dreams sitting incongruously on the bedside table. Some of them wanted it gone. Some wanted to know how they could make money. Most, though, wanted to know if, and how, they could help: do something bigger, change the world, the whole bit. Many apologized for being hopelessly idealistic. Few realised that, with a talent like theirs, idealism could stand to be desperately encouraged.
The world’s cities had needed something new, and they had needed it desperately
Because the world’s cities had needed something new, and they had needed it desperately. Urban populations were skyrocketing, and they were leaving energy and housing and food in the dust. It wasn’t about a lack of money so much as a lack of imagination – weather patterns were getting harsher, cities were growing fuller, and still buildings were being built in the same way as they always had been – only with more floors stacked on top of each other, each high-rise flimsier than the last. The world needed an architectural revolution. And, within ten years – the time it took to gather and rigorously train women from across the world in how to Build – it had one.
The moon is unusually bright tonight, hitting the blades of the turbines sharp and clear as they turn with regal stateliness out above the ocean. She remembers the building of them with a keen pleasure – working overnight, pulling the towers up and then the blades out, skating formlessly on the surface of the water like a dragonfly – it was one of her favourite Building memories. But the simulated moon in the Build hadn’t a patch on the pale glow of the real thing: piercingly soft, an eye gazing steady on its shadowed domain, patient.
Nobody – yet – has been able to understand how Building works. There are theories, accepted and contested; countless academic articles; even conferences, now, usually hugely oversubscribed. And still nobody knows; and still it works. How can a person enter an interface (the Build, a virtual platform with unlimited user capacity designed soon after the whole thing had begun) designed to mimic the real world, and make things inside it, and exit to find that those things now existed? It defies logic, people would argue, and she has to acquiesce that yes, it still – even to a Builder as experienced as herself – seems ridiculous. And yet, although she hardly knows how to articulate it to herself, there is a sense to Building that often overwhelms her. Creation is an urge so natural, so powerful, that she can scarcely believe it hasn’t been happening in the nooks and enclaves of human civilisation since the dawn of time. And as for why only women are capable of it – well, privately, that has always been for her the least mysterious element of the whole thing. To her, to be a woman is to be creative: to feel potentiality thrilling through one’s bones. Art, dance, song, science, new life – there is nothing a woman’s mind and body cannot fashion. So, in the disembodied world of the Build – entering, Builders are represented by the interface as small glowing shapes to allow them to move through and within their structures with ease – the last of the limitations slips away. Creation becomes infinite.
Nobody – yet – has been able to understand how Building works. There are theories, accepted and contested; countless academic articles; even conferences, now, usually hugely oversubscribed.
She had argued with Jese about this, not long after they’d met. Infinite creation is dangerous, Jese had said, because infinite anything is dangerous – ‘that’s why God made the world, because the nothing was infinite and she was scared’ – and she was shaking her head at the utter ridiculousness of the argument when Jese had said, eyes holding hers, ‘but dangerous doesn’t have to mean bad. Dangerous can be anything you want it to be.’ Had she known, then, that they would end up together, weaving their lives into a partnership of more than just work, of love – she could scarcely imagine the disbelief she would have felt at the idea. But that’s why they work, she thinks – the questioning and the surprises and the curiosity of them both, for each other, for the world. And they make a bloody good team, flowing around each other in the Build even more seamlessly than in real life, enhancing each others’ work subtly; neither’s style overpowering the other’s, but complementing it as sea complements sky. She often indulges a fantasy of sneaking into the Build late at night, meeting Jese under a night sky that would always be cloudless, and Building with nothing to stop them. They’d create towers of glass and gold and cover them with flowers, write their names in metals light as air and hang them from the sky, build galleon ships on dry land and palaces in the shallows of the sea, and when there was nothing left to create they’d run together to find what they had made, and marvel. They’d never leave. They’d run in the echoing halls of their creations forever.
It was a beautiful dream. But there was work to be done in the real world. The sky has been lightening as she has been dreaming, and now the edges of the sea glow as if lit from beneath by a flame, the moon hanging pale at the zenith. Above her she hears wings beat, the first gull of the morning cry sharp and wild, and she smiles, turning, hands curled around the still-warm mug; stepping back inside the house that waits behind her, will always wait. The world is moving, and they all must move with it.
Imogen Malpas is a 22 year old human. Recently graduated from University College London with a degree in literature and neuroscience, she lives and works in London but dreams of other times, places and realities frequently.
Feminist science fiction criticism emerged in the 1970s through the work of critics and fans exploring contributions to science fiction that reimagine and reconceptualise gender, sexuality and the body. Advocates of feminist science fiction have often sought to secure the legitimacy of these contributions to the genre by providing an account of their literary heritage, namely, their descent from Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818).
Over time, feminist science fiction history-telling has gradually abandoned some of the detail and nuance of studies such as Pamela Sargent’s 1975 anthology introduction Women of Wonder. Instead such histories tend to favour generic shifts across decades, often repeating common narratives. By analysing how critics tell the history of feminist science fiction, I argue that a dominant story emerges. This origin story aligns the genre with a branch of late twentieth century feminism that carries uncomfortable echoes of the transphobia peddled by radical feminists such as Janice Raymond and Mary Daly.
Understanding the history of feminist science fiction is a useful project, which can give us an appreciation of undervalued authors or the development of key science fiction ideas. However, this particular narrative of the genre’s beginnings is problematic for a contemporary feminist politics engaging with transgender rights and reproductive justice.
Frankenstein versus Fantasy
Again and again, feminist science fiction critics have cited Frankenstein as the very first science fiction novel, with critics such as Debra Benita Shaw (2000), Robin Roberts (1993), and Jane Donawerth (1997) even referencing the novel in the titles of their works.[i] Texts produced earlier than Frankenstein that might be classified as science fiction – such as Lucian of Samosata’s A True History (1 AD), or Margaret Cavendish’s The Blazing World (1666) – are excluded as ‘ur-science fiction, fantastical rather than science fictional’.[ii] But this presumes a consensus on the boundary between science fiction and fantasy.
Such attempts to exclude other texts contending for the title of generic progenitor echo similar problematic moves by male critics to classify female-authored science fiction as fantasy because of a text’s ambiguity or use of magical realism.[iii] The arguments for the exclusion of works before Frankenstein are not elaborated, but instead the texts are simply dismissed, tarnished by the label ‘fantasy’.
We should remember that Shelley’s novel itself emerges out of the gothic literary tradition, inspired by ghost stories and the supernatural as much as by recent scientific experiments in galvanism.[iv] The novel’s eponymous protagonist Victor Frankenstein pursues an alternative, disparaged area of science, namely, the resurrection of the dead, in a way that critics such as Robin Roberts have linked to magic and witchcraft.[v]
Where science fiction is and is not allowed to blur genres thus appears inconsistent. The significance of the generic gerrymandering of science fiction for women and non-white science fiction writers demands further attention. Women writers may be dismissed for focussing on social rather than so-called ‘hard’ science. Writers of colour drawing on non-Western myth and folklore may find themselves excluded from the genre for handling magic or religion in their work.
Drawing specific boundaries around science fiction to position Frankenstein as the genre’s source also seems to neglect the historical specificity of the term ‘science fiction’, coined in 1929 by Hugo Gernsback, editor of the first science fiction magazine. Furthermore, this ignores the continuing debates around differences in terminology such as ‘scientific romance’, ‘speculative fiction’, and more recently ‘slipstream fiction’ and ‘feminist fabulation’.[vi] This matters because of the power dynamics behind generic categorisation: refusing the label can be read as a snub of ‘genre fiction’, while exclusion from the label has financial and social implications for the author.[vii]
The Gendering of Science Fiction
The tale of Frankenstein as science fiction’s first novel finds its earliest expression in Brian Aldiss’s Billion Year Spree (1973), a lengthy study of science fiction’s history.[viii] Eventually, Aldiss’s name stops appearing in citations though: critics begin describing Frankenstein’s status as simply ‘generally accepted’, or even ‘conventional’.[ix] The mythology of science fiction’s birth out of the mind of the daughter of renowned feminist Mary Wollstonecraft is gradually presented as common knowledge, an almost-but-not-quite indisputable fact.
As that last sentence might suggest, references to Frankenstein implicate Shelley’s work in a project of generic reproduction, sometimes even referring to this text as the mother or grandmother of the genre.[x] The significance of this is the implicit gendering of science fiction: through these descriptions, science fiction is endowed with woman’s power of reproduction, rather than a male patrilineage. The vocabulary of motherhood presents feminism, women and reproduction as central concerns of the genre from its outset, despite the focus on male characters in Shelley’s novel.[xi]
I don’t dispute that science fiction has proved a rich genre for creative experimentation with feminist ideas. However, we need to consider the implications of this generic gendering for future feminist study.
On the one hand, the claiming of Frankenstein as the origin of science fiction generates a sense of women – and especially feminists – belonging in the genre. In the 1970s and 1980s, this was an important move to secure the birth right of feminist science fiction authors and readers. During this period, female fans of science fiction broke new ground. Women authors won science fiction awards as they had never done before, while their readership fought for panels on women and science fiction at conventions and conferences.[xii]
On the other hand, this gendering of science fiction strengthens one particular reading of Shelley’s novel: as a prescient criticism of the masculine delusions of godlike power found in science. By positioning the novel as maternal, and a critique of masculinist science as its key thematic concern, this historically specific feminist critique appears as the heart of all science fiction. As I outline next, this dichotomy of reproductive/female and productive/male places feminist science fiction in uncomfortable alliance with transphobic feminist voices.
Frankenstein’s Monstrous Reproduction
The recognition awarded Frankenstein by feminist science fiction critics is often accompanied by readings of the text as a critique of science, technology and progress. As Anne Cranny-Francis writes:
Victor Frankenstein’s fault is not simply the pursuit of forbidden knowledge, but his failure to consider the consequences of his research, the dilemma faced by scientists in many areas of research today (for example nuclear technology, genetic manipulation, in vitro fertilization).[xiii]
Cranny-Francis connects Frankenstein’s thematic concerns to contemporary debates within feminism regarding the role of science in society, particularly with respect to the environment, the body and reproductive justice.
Beyond this criticism of the sciences’ myopic response to wider ethical and social consequences of research, feminist critics deploy readings of Frankenstein to explore ideas of male appropriation. These critics claim Shelley’s novel as a ‘critique of science as a form of male mastery’, ‘expos[ing] hierarchies of dominance embedded in the practice of science’.[xiv] Science fiction is shown to have a foundation in challenging not only the male dominance of literature – Mary Shelley being one of few women writers in her day – but also of science.
In one strand of feminist science fiction criticism claiming Frankenstein as science fiction’s mother, Shelley’s novel features as exemplary of the history of science fiction. According to Cranny-Francis:
In making his creature Frankenstein not only usurps the place of God, he also usurps the role of woman. Frankenstein’s creature therefore signifies the result of the masculinist attempt to appropriate and exploit this biological capability of women, which in a patriarchal society is their defining, and limiting, characteristic.[xv]
In this reading of the novel, Shelley launches a scathing attack on scientific production as the expression of male envy of women’s reproductive power. Likewise, Susan Gubar describes Frankenstein as a ‘satanic scientist who usurps female powers of procreation’.[xvi]
Frankenstein’s spawning of a new genre thus also bolsters a critical feminist position on reproduction and production. Just as Victor Frankenstein is seen to misappropriate the supposedly female reproductive role, so too are subsequent male science fiction writers seen to adopt and dominate the field of science fiction, failing to pay due respect to their maternal ancestry.
The language of ‘appropriation’ and ‘usurpation’ that these critics use echoes the transphobia peddled by radical feminists such as Robin Morgan, Janice Raymond and Mary Daly. Raymond (1979) infamously declared ‘all transsexuals rape women’s bodies by reducing the real female form to an artefact, appropriating this body for themselves’, while Daly (1978) described transsexualism as an example of the ‘Frankenstein Phenomenon’, an attempt by the male-dominated medical establishment to replace ‘real’ women with surgically produced Stepford Wives (Ira Levin, 1972).[xvii]
This reading of Frankenstein also consolidates the view of science as an inherently masculine realm, a false and shallow substitute for pregnancy and birth. As Sargent points out, this has problematic consequences for women’s engagement in science, technology and science fiction.[xviii] While Cranny-Francis suggests that it is patriarchy that reduces women to their procreative capacity, the language of appropriation in this context gives the impression of something women ought to feel has been wrongly stolen from them.
These feminist critics present women as inherently reproductive, and men as merely productive. In the current context of trans and non-trans women’s infertility, reproductive technologies such as IVF, trans men’s pregnancies, as well as intersex and non-binary identifications, this dichotomy poses difficulties for contemporary trans-inclusive feminism.
Our understandings of the relationship between reproduction and production may be even further complicated with the potential realisation of artificial wombs on the horizon, a technology that prominent feminist Shulasmith Firestone dreamed of liberating women from oppression and ending sexual difference.[xix] As feminist science fiction ideas become reality, we need to rethink how we conceptualise gender both within and without science fiction.
The supposed tainting of science – and consequently science fiction – by male desire to assume a role deemed proper only to women might suggest a contamination so strong that women cannot or should not participate. As Russ points out in her comic essay ‘The Clichés from Outer Space’ (1985), predominantly male science fiction authors have populated science fiction with bizarre and sexist tropes, often about reproduction.[xx] Certainly these clichés have dissuaded many women from participating in reading and writing science fiction, although as Sarah Lefanu highlights,
There have always been women readers of science fiction […] it would be simplistic to assume that a lack of female characters in the science fiction of the time automatically excluded a female readership […] why and how we read books is a more complicated business.[xxi]
How and why we read books as feminist science fiction is a complicated business too, irreducible to a linear genealogy or a single precursor. Thomas Bredehoft provides an alternative origin story which places C. L. Moore’s ‘Shambleau’ (1933) as a foremother of the feminist science fiction genre. He argues, ‘the contesting of origin stories through their revision and re-narration […] is a central feature of feminist sf [science fiction] in general’.[xxii] Rather than construct a singular origin myth, we might instead produce multiple contesting narratives that speak to the shifting boundaries and definitions of science fiction.
A key problem with the mythology of Frankenstein as feminist science fiction’s origin text is the use of (heterosexual) reproduction as a metaphor to describe the development of the genre. Rather than viewing science fiction’s history as a hereditary line, complete with black sheep and honoured ancestors, we might opt for something messier. Such a diverse genre whose authors often strongly disagree on its purpose, qualities and limits requires an alternative vocabulary. Perhaps like Donna Haraway’s concept of the cyborg, science fiction has no origin myth.[xxiii]
The significance of different feminist science fiction works may unexpectedly change as feminist theory and practice develops in new directions. Nowadays, claiming reproduction as a power only available or suitable for women is a problematic stance, particularly if as feminists we acknowledge trans men and women, and non-binary people, as their self-identified genders.
In 1975, Pamela Sargent argued that better, more thoughtful science fiction pays attention to the social and personal consequences of scientific developments or imagined alternative worlds.[xxiv] If we are to pay attention to the societal, medical and technological developments over the past fifty or so years, then maybe feminist science fiction will demand a different kind of criticism. Maybe there are other histories to tell.
[i] Anne Cranny-Francis, Feminist Fiction: Feminist Uses of Generic Fiction (New York, NY: St. Martin’s Press, 1990), p. 39; Eric S. Rabkin, ‘Science Fiction Women Before Liberation’, in Future Females: A Critical Anthology, ed. by Marleen S. Barr (Bowling Green, OH: Bowling Green State University Popular Press, 1981), pp. 9–25 (p. 9); Debra Benita Shaw, Women, Science and Fiction: The Frankenstein Inheritance, 2000, pp. 10–11; Sarah Lefanu, In the Chinks of the World Machine: Feminism and Science Fiction (London: The Women’s Press, 1988), p. 2; Robin Roberts, ‘Post-Modernism and Feminist Science Fiction’, Science Fiction Studies, 17.2 (1990), 136–52 (p. 139); Veronica Hollinger, ‘Contemporary Trends in Science Fiction Criticism, 1980-1999’, Science Fiction Studies, 26.2 (1999), 232–62 (pp. 235–36); Susan Gubar, ‘C. L. Moore and the Conventions of Women’s Science Fiction’, Science Fiction Studies, 7.1 (1980), 16–27 (p. 16); Robin Roberts, A New Species: Gender and Science in Science Fiction (Chicago, IL: University of Illinois Press, 1993), p. 1; Jane Donawerth, Frankenstein’s Daughters: Women Writing Science Fiction (Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 1997), p. xiii; Jen Green and Sarah Lefanu, ‘Introduction’, in Despatches from the Frontiers of the Female Mind, ed. by Jen Green and Sarah Lefanu (London: The Women’s Press, 1985), pp. 1–8 (p. 3); Pamela Sargent, ‘Introduction’, in Women of Wonder: Science Fiction Stories by Women about Women, ed. by Pamela Sargent (New York, NY: Vintage, 1975), pp. xiii–lxiv (pp. xvi–xvii).
[ii] Lefanu, p. 3. Sargent, for example, mentions authors such as Rhoda Broughton who blur the boundaries between science fiction and fantasy. Sargent, pp. xvii–xviii.
[iii] See for example: John Quill, David Ketterer, and Charles Heber Clark, ‘The Women’s Millennium’, Science Fiction Studies, 15.1 (1988), 82–87 (p. 83).
[iv] Maurice Hindle, ‘Introduction’, in Frankenstein or The Modern Prometheus (London: Penguin, 2003), pp. xi–l (p. xx).
[v] Roberts, A New Species: Gender and Science in Science Fiction, pp. 6–7.
[vi] Shaw, p. 3; Margaret Atwood, In Other Worlds: Science Fiction and the Human Imagination (London: Virago, 2011), pp. 1–8; Marleen Barr, Lost in Space: Probing Feminist Science Fiction and Beyond (London: The University of North Carolina Press, 1993), p. 11; Robin Roberts, ‘It’s Still Science Fiction: Strategies of Feminist Science Fiction Criticism’, Extrapolation1, 36.3 (1995), 184–97 (p. 193).
[vii] Ursula K. Le Guin, ‘The Year of the Flood by Margaret Atwood’, Guardian, 29 August 2009 <https://www.theguardian.com/books/2009/aug/29/margaret-atwood-year-of-flood>.
[viii] Brian W. Aldiss, Billion Year Spree: The History of Science Fiction (New York, NY: Antheneum, 1973).
[ix] Cranny-Francis, p. 39; Thomas A Bredehoft, ‘Origin Stories: Feminist Science Fiction and C. L. Moore’s “Shambleau”’, Science Fiction Studies, 24.3 (1997), 369–86 (p. 369).
[xix] Aarathi Prasad, ‘How Artificial Wombs Will Change Our Ideas of Gender, Family and Equality’, Guardian, 2017 <https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2017/may/01/artificial-womb-gender-family-equality-lamb>; Shulasmith Firestone, The Dialectic of Sex: The Case for Feminist Revolution (New York, NY: Bantam Books, 1972), p. 11.
[xx] Joanna Russ, ‘The Clichés from Outer Space’, in Dispatches from the Frontiers of the Female Mind, ed. by Jen Green and Sarah Lefanu (London: The Women’s Press, 1985), pp. 27–34. See also: Susan Wood, ‘Women and Science Fiction’, Algol/Starship, 16.1 (1978), 9–18.
[xxiii] Donna Haraway, ‘A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology, and Socialist-Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century’, in Simians, Cyborgs and Women: The Reinvention of Nature (New York: Routledge, 1991), pp. 149–81.
Cavendish, Margaret, The Blazing World and Other Writings, ed. by Kate Lilley (London: Penguin, 1992)
Lucian of Samosata, True History, ed. by David Lear (Firestone Books, 2013)
Shelley, Mary, Frankenstein, ed. by Maurice Hindle (London: Penguin, 2003)
The Stepford Wives, dir. by Bryan Forbes (Columbia Pictures, 1975)
Aldiss, Brian W., and David Wingrove, Trillion Year Spree: The History of Science Fiction (New York, NY: Antheneum, 1973)
Atwood, Margaret, In Other Worlds: Science Fiction and the Human Imagination (London: Virago, 2011)
Barr, Marleen, Lost in Space: Probing Feminist Science Fiction and Beyond (London: The University of North Carolina Press, 1993)
Bredehoft, Thomas A, ‘Origin Stories: Feminist Science Fiction and C. L. Moore’s “Shambleau”’, Science Fiction Studies, 24 (1997), 369–86
Cranny-Francis, Anne, Feminist Fiction: Feminist Uses of Generic Fiction (New York, NY: St. Martin’s Press, 1990)
Donawerth, Jane, Frankenstein’s Daughters: Women Writing Science Fiction (Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 1997)
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Gubar, Susan, ‘C. L. Moore and the Conventions of Women’s Science Fiction’, Science Fiction Studies, 7 (1980), 16–27
Le Guin, Ursula K., ‘The Year of the Flood by Margaret Atwood’, The Guardian, 29 August 2009 <https://www.theguardian.com/books/2009/aug/29/margaret-atwood-year-of-flood>
Haraway, Donna, ‘A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology, and Socialist-Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century’, in Simians, Cyborgs and Women: The Reinvention of Nature (New York: Routledge, 1991), pp. 149–81
Hindle, Maurice, ‘Introduction’, in Frankenstein or The Modern Prometheus (London: Penguin, 2003), pp. xi–l
Lefanu, Sarah, In the Chinks of the World Machine: Feminism and Science Fiction (London: The Women’s Press, 1988)
Prasad, Aarathi, ‘How Artificial Wombs Will Change Our Ideas of Gender, Family and Equality’, Guardian, 2017 <https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2017/may/01/artificial-womb-gender-family-equality-lamb>
Quill, John, David Ketterer, and Charles Heber Clark, ‘The Women’s Millennium’, 1Science Fiction Studies, 15 (1988), 82–87
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Raymond, Janice, The Transsexual Empire: The Making of the She-Male (London: Teacher’s College Press, 1994)
Roberts, Robin, A New Species: Gender and Science in Science Fiction (Chicago, IL: University of Illinois Press, 1993)
———, ‘It’s Still Science Fiction: Strategies of Feminist Science Fiction Criticism’, Extrapolation1, 36 (1995), 184–97
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Sabine Sharp is a second year PhD Candidate in English and American Studies at the University of Manchester. Their research maps the emergence of the category ‘trans’ through feminist science fiction film and literature.
A Craven is a floating island which, as some readers may know, is made up of debris and organic matter, largely held together by trees. Each Craven is home to about 200-600 Craveners, though there are some that house up to 5,000. The Craven Confederacy is made up of hundreds of thousands of floating islands dotting the Atlantic. Cravens breed fish, grow algae for ethanol, and harvest crops. They have an extensive trading network, being innovators in preserved foods, recycled microchips, and peer-to-peer wireless technology. The first Cravens were constructed—or rather, grown—about 300 years ago, in the first decades of the Climate Crisis. Named after an enigmatic figure referred to simply as ‘Craven’, it started as a politically-oriented, experimental farm on the Mains, close to what remained of New York City. It was then brought out to sea following a military crackdown on dissent. Since then, they have multiplied slowly, largely out of sight of global events. Today, while they may not rival the economic force of the Global Free Trade Company, or the military might of the Sino-Japanese, American, and Saudi empires, they represent a growing and significant power block in the world system.
And yet, for a first-time visitor, a Craven looks like a messy, unstructured place. There are barely any straight lines, nor does there seem to be much logic in where things are placed, or why. Plants grow all over, there isn’t too much coordination of who does what work, everything is incoherently cobbled together—not unlike a shantytown. In other words, there is no plan.
This was certainly my assessment when I first set foot on a Craven thirty years ago. I worked as an assistant on a trading skipper, dealing mostly in scavenged chips and rare metals. I had never grown my own vegetables, nor did I have any understanding of ecology—what Craveners refer to as ‘common knowledge.’
Trained as an engineer, I could only understand systems that approached order—inputs, outputs, scale, closed or open systems. My experience had told me the most productive industries were organized, clean, and depended on an economy of scale. What I saw on the island did not look like any of the models I had learned about, so I assumed Craveners knew very little about science, efficiency, or industrial design. Theirs was an undeveloped society, I thought, and their success over the past centuries has been largely accidental.
Despite my patronizing attitude, I found that, in business, Craveners were reliable, fair, and delivered quality products. So when I had saved up enough money to start my own skipping business I kept coming back. And as I got to deal with Craveners more I started seeing patterns. I got curious about what they were actually doing. Craveners aren’t very guarded, so I also learned to ask lots of questions.
This is how the conversation often went: I’d point at something, say, one of the many towers dotting one island, and they’d say, ‘That? It’s a pigeon tower.’ ‘What does it do?’ I’d ask. ‘The pigeons feed the soil.’ ‘They feed the soil?’ I’d ask, waiting for more explanation. The Cravener would pause, look at me, confused that this wasn’t self-explanatory. ‘Their dung has nitrogen and phosphorus, doesn’t it?’ they’d respond, ‘but that’s common knowledge,’ they’d add. I soon found that Craveners don’t really see what they are doing as complicated or requiring ‘expertise’. From their perspective, they aren’t doing anything special.
The difficulty of trying to describe Cravener production methods is that each Craven is so different. While many anthropologists have spent lifetimes living on a Craven, doing so does not provide a broad understanding of what techniques they use. Further, knowledge transfer is notoriously decentralized—they may host gatherings and conferences to exchange information, and there may be wikis on different technologies and practices, but there is no central repository, as far as I know at least, about all the practices and technologies that are actually in use. The problem is similar to that of being an Internet historian: you can’t know what is worth reading without some kind of wider knowledge of the Internet era; some theoretical framework by which to assess what is factual, what is useless, or what amounts to a conspiracy theory.
What’s more, Cravener production techniques don’t involve much prior planning. Many practices seem to require highly technical implementation and maintenance, an understanding of wider systems. And yet, construction seems to happen in a very hodge-podge manner, with no clear moment of decision-making. I have rarely witnessed a Cravener creating a model of what they wanted to build. Rather, Cravener infrastructure, with some exceptions, seems to be guided by a kind of vernacular ‘know-how’, instilled into a Cravener from the moment that they’re born.
For example, I’ll often see Cravener children touring the island with an adult, and they’ll stop by some kind of structure. The children will ask questions, and if the adult doesn’t know, they might ask someone working nearby. Children, even when young, might be asked to help build something—and so they learn how it works through practice. As they grow up, they engage in play where they build small versions of these technologies—the same way children on the Mains might build high-risers on the beach. When whole Cravens come together for a festival or a conference, children will travel with their parents to visit relatives and then learn about other Cravener practices. At these conferences, teenage Craveners are organized into teams and asked to come up with an invention, and those that come up with a creative design will be presented with an award. However, the models are not taught in a single ‘course’, the participants in the competitions base them on what they already know from a lifetime of experience. These experiences are not categorized into ‘fields’ but drawn from a kind of general understanding of ecology, design, or even their own society—necessary for knowing the extent to which a new technical practice can be reasonably adopted by their peers.
Of course, many Craveners do specialize as they get older, joining, for example, breeding and genetic modification labs, or spending years building and experimenting with new structures as part of what they call a ‘technical committee’. As many other researchers have documented, Craveners will also participate in a kind of ‘internal participatory ethnography’, where they move to another Craven known for a particular craft and learn from other specialists. And as goes without saying, their conferences can themselves be quite specialized, often focusing on a specific technology or even minutiae like the most ideal water dripping rate needed to grow tomatoes in an aquaponic system. But what they discuss at the conference is rarely implemented at scale or even adopted widely–and so the conferences cannot be seen as representative of Cravener means of production. They constitute more of a ‘best practices’ of what really happens ‘on the ground.’
Only repeated visits to multiple Cravens over a long time period, as well as multiple interviews of Craveners, can allow a researcher to deduce, from general visible patterns, the Cravener mode of production and the specific technologies that power it. I have been a Craven-approved merchant over three decades, which has allowed me to visit over 400 Cravens with a total of about 2,200 unique visits. I’ve also attended 43 Craven conferences. These experiences have provided me with valuable insight into Craven production processes, and the differences and similarities between Cravens. In fact, my research method can be seen as a kind of statistical ethnography, as my accumulated experience is somewhat representative of Cravener society as a whole.
In this book, I describe and catalogue the unique technologies that I believe represent the foundation of the Craven mode of production. I focus largely on specific techniques used in production that make up what Craveners call ‘island ecology’. Technologies can be seen as general ‘types’ that are somewhat isomorphic across Cravens. I hope that this book is useful for anyone who is interested in Craven society, or (even better) wants to start their own Craven society and is curious how they could do so. Further, I believe that understanding these technologies will help readers understand why Cravens have become so successful in a world dominated by insecurity, violence, and ecological collapse.
From a Cravener perspective, of course, ‘technologies’ barely exist. Tools, constructions, and techniques are embedded within their day-to-day lives, rituals, and even political system. They are, as such, indistinguishable from their society as a whole, in the same way that it is difficult to tell the difference between ‘culture’ and ‘religion’ in many other societies. For this reason, one might instead use the term ‘practices’.
Further, it is difficult to formalize these practices into a coherent field of study such as ecology, agriculture, engineering, or sociology. Following previous scholars in the field of Craven studies, I prefer to use the Craven term, ‘common knowledge’, connoting the scientific-social-ecological know-how that allows them to maintain their mode of production and has driven their success over time.
In any case, the reader should keep in mind that these practices are indistinguishable from Craven society as a whole—without their social norms, rituals, and political system, they would certainly not have come close to the kind of astonishing economic success that they enjoy today.
Of course, it’s impossible to write a book about all of Craven society, so I have chosen to focus on the technologies that drive their political economy. However, I hope that the reader will get a sense of how these technologies are integrated within an organic, but holistic, political system. Despite the seemingly disorganized nature of Craven production methods, underlying it is a coherent political system that ensures democratic, and open, economic participation.
As it turns out, what at first appeared to me to be an inefficient and unruly production method, with little centralized direction, is in fact a hyper-productive economic system that encourages constant innovation and experimentation. In other words, a society predicated on the natural abundance of the air, sun, water, and soil—rather than one that has regulated everyone into scarcity. Instead of an economy of scale, a political ecology of scale. The technologies highlighted in this book are an essential part of that ecology.
All photos by Aaron Vansintjan
Aaron Vansintjan is a co-editor at Uneven Earth and is currently pursuing a PhD at Birkbeck, University of London. He writes about gentrification, food politics, environmental justice, and contemporary politics.
“Remember to hold the staff firmly,” Doh’s father instructed, “And when you strike you must use your whole body, like this,” and he demonstrated several graceful, powerful thrusts with the fishing spear. Doh watched, anxious for her turn. Her father held out the spear and she curled her fingers around the handle, surprised at its texture, an artifact of many years and much use. It felt powerful, definitive, even in her small hands.
In the deep waters, in the rainy season, there are monsters in the Volta.
“You will not need to use this spear often, for most of the fish the net will do, but in the deep waters, in the rainy season, there are monsters in the Volta.” Doh practiced the technique, burying the tip of the spear into an old stump while her father watched.
Doh was an only child who lived in a small wooden home which her father had built on a steep hill along one of the many serpentine bends of the Lake Volta. The farming families in the community lived just north where the shoreline leveled out, allowing them to take advantage of the seasonal rise and fall of the lake to plant vegetables, potatoes and rice. Doh and her father worked their cassava farm from time to time, but were usually more preoccupied with fish. She helped her father haul in the catch each morning and smoke and salt the fish in the afternoons.
“Ewe people are a fishing people,” her father would tell her as they worked, “even though some of us have forgotten. But so long as there are fish, there will always be Ewe.”
From an early age, Doh’s father taught her how to fish with traps and lines and spears, how to read the lake’s underwater topography. He told her the stories about the lake and its people and its fish, always finishing by saying, “There are many things I can teach you, but there are many things that you will need to see for yourself,” which would leave Doh with an uneasy feeling.
“But not to worry,” he would quickly add, sometimes brushing the hair from her face so he could look into her eyes, “there are many things you already know.”
Doh had her reservations, and thus always paid careful attention to her father’s lessons, lest she not know quite as much as her father thought she did. She learned to be patient and determined, necessary qualities for any fisherman, and certainly any Ewe.
As the rains continued, it soon became clear that there was nowhere else to go, not here, not anywhere: the world had become water.
Doh was a small girl when the rains began. At first, the soil was dry as dust and it ran off towards the lake in great sheets until it stained the shallows like red-red stew. Soon though, it became evident that these were not just passing storms. Pools of water began collecting in the divots between houses and in the fields like lost children, asking any passerby where to go. But as the rains continued, it soon became clear that there was nowhere else to go, not here, not anywhere: the world had become water. Only in the few remaining refugia was land a thought to be had, and even then, it was land so logged with water as to make the distinction between ground and lake and sky rather arbitrary anyway.
As the heavy skies became a regular feature of every horizon, the elders in the village recalled the old days when water had once before reshaped their world. Only then, the water had come from below, creeping up behind the walls of a great dam until there was no other choice but to retreat to the hills. Thousands had left, abandoning the valleys, their homes, communities, and ancestral cemeteries to the elemental forces of both water and progress. A few had stayed, seeing no point in beginning again somewhere else. Whether stubborn or heartbroken, they were only ever heard from again by the fishermen who claimed you could find them still, wallowing in the deepest parts of the lake as fish.
This time, however, it was not the steadily rising dam waters that threatened to undo their world, but the deluge from the clouds that daily baptized this lonely refugia. The climate had changed from the steady, seasonal rise-and-fall that had cradled the quiet fields of groundnuts and yams to the oppressive drumming of raindrops upon every imaginable surface forever. The rains simply would not stop, and the waters everywhere just kept rising.
The villagers guessed at the reasons, though some claimed to have heard on the radio before the rains began that some distant humans had hurt the earth deeply with their poisons. In all their zeal and ardor and reckless hope, they had broken the sky, broken the seasons so that the only thing left for the earth to do was flood the world and begin anew. Doh had heard about these sorts of things from the Bible, which her father used to read by candlelight every night. But he had stopped once the rains began.
“God is no longer here with us,” he once said, blowing out the candle. “Humans have fashioned themselves into gods. Creators, destroyers of worlds.”
In the darkness, with the smell of smoke and wet earth surrounding her, Doh’s father leaned forward on his wooden chair and spoke quietly:
“For those who refuse to be humble, the earth has a way of insisting upon humility. Remember: so long as there are fish, there will always be Ewe.”
The rains continued to fall, but the sound had become invisible, like background static at the edge of everything in this new universe in which they now found themselves.
She could not see his face and his voice did not betray much emotion. But she imagined him with a smile lifting up the corners of his mouth, though she was not sure why. The rains continued to fall, but the sound had become invisible, like background static at the edge of everything in this new universe in which they now found themselves.
Doh’s father passed away after the first few months of the rains. A fever had taken to the village, killing many. Their passing was eyed enviously by the increasingly hungry few that survived. In this disfigured world, it had become impossible to live as a human anymore. It soon became clear that it was impossible to die as one as well. The ground proved too water-logged to bury the bodies and the wood too wet for the fires with which to cremate them. The few bodies that the surviving villagers had managed to cover with earth soon washed out only to tumble down the hillside. With few other options, the community decided to dispose of the bodies in the lake, allowing the newly deceased to join the ancestors, who themselves had long-since been interred beneath the waters of Lake Volta.
On the morning of his passing, Doh’s father, weak from fever, had gotten into his canoe, insisting on going out on the lake to fish. There was almost no salted fish left in the house, almost nothing left to eat. Doh was hungry, she could feel the tumble of nothing inside her stomach and could see the same feeling on her father’s face, despite the sickness.
“I should be back before long,” he said, before pushing off and sliding quietly onto the lake and into the rain. He did not return that evening, or the next. The villagers assumed that the fever had taken him while on the lake, a fate befitting a fisherman and an Ewe. It would save Doh the trouble, they remarked, of taking her father’s body out to be buried beneath the lake. But Doh thought better of it. Instead, she imagined him, far out on the lake, riddled with fever on the floor of his canoe as it slowly filled with rain, slowly began to sink. Doh waited on the shore most of the second day, looking out onto Volta for any sign of her father, but saw nothing except water in every direction.
When she returned home that evening, Doh sat down in her father’s wooden chair under the thatch-grass awning in front of her home. She lit a candle and opened her father’s Bible. The pages hung idly from the worn binding. Inside the book, she found the words illegible, meticulously blackened-out by a piece of charcoal so that each page contained heavy soot lines where the word of God had once been. She flipped through the thin pages with care, finding each one as dark and inarticulate as the last. Finally, she came upon a single un-blackened verse, a lone rhetorical fish in the sea of carbon.
She lifted the candle to illuminate the page and read:
Now the Lord provided a huge fish to swallow Jonah, and Jonah was in the belly of the fish three days and three nights. From inside the fish Jonah prayed to the Lord his God.He said:
“In my distress I called to the Lord,
and he answered me.
From deep in the realm of the dead I called for help,
and you listened to my cry.
You hurled me into the depths,
into the very heart of the seas,
and the currents swirled about me;
all your waves and breakers
swept over me. I said, ‘I have been banished
from your sight;
yet I will look again
toward your holy temple.’
The engulfing waters threatened me
the deep surrounded me;
seaweed was wrapped around my head.
To the roots of the mountains I sank down;
the earth beneath barred me in forever.
Those who cling to worthless idols
turn away from God’s love for them.
But I, with shouts of grateful praise,
will sacrifice to you.
What I have vowed I will make good.
I will say, ‘Salvation comes from the Lord.’
And the Lord commanded the fish, and it vomited Jonah onto dry land.
She wondered at the lines, like bags of tea steeping in her mind, reading them over several times before she noticed, scribbled in the margins, between these lines and the blackened ones that followed, her father’s handwriting:
“So long as there are fish, there will always be Ewe.”
She found the phrase, such a common refrain of her father’s, out of place, curious. Was he trying to send her a message? Did he perhaps believe he might still find salvation, if not in this world, full of water and ruin as it was, than in another? Is that why he had spared this story, of all stories, in a book he had otherwise abandoned?
She pictured her father’s body, floating somewhere among the raindrops on the surface of lake Volta. Or maybe he had already sunk below the surface towards the old cemeteries that had long ago been consumed by the rising dam waters as the rest of the village would soon be. Or maybe he had been eaten, eaten by a fish, some great, monstrous ancestor of their people, in anticipation of being spit out onto dry land.
Her father did not recognize this world anymore, he could no longer live in this loss, so he had gone on the only way he knew how.
The thought of dryness excited her. She closed her eyes and tried to remember dirt and how it felt when baked into her skin. She imagined a warm fire, a warm sun, simple pleasures that these rains had stolen. In that moment she understood: her father did not recognize this world anymore, he could no longer live in this loss, so he had gone on the only way he knew how.
Doh looked out into the forest and across the lake at the endless curtains of falling water and let herself speak aloud what she already knew: “Even this place too will soon be underwater.” The thought was heavy, but she felt light, hopeful for the first time. Maybe she was crazy with fever, or maybe the rains had just logged her mind as it had the land, but either way, there seemed few other options. Tomorrow, she would seek her own salvation.
It was a steamy morning on Lake Volta, though the rains were not as persistent. Doh had set out early. Water lapped at the side of the wooden canoe and spilled through the cracks between the boards, uneven as they were, cut by hand from the hardwoods that grew along the shore. Doh dipped her paddle below the surface and drew it across her body lengthwise, sinew and muscles straining silently. The sun pulled itself through a rare break in the clouds, rupturing the sky with splinters of yellow. The light clung to the droplets of sweat and water on Doh’s arms and torso, and she savored the hedonism of a fleeting sunshine. She realized how she had missed that star and every other since the rains began.
The heat rose as she paddled, drawing mist off the water. Soon, Doh could not tell whether the clouds had descended or the lake ascended, but she found herself embraced by walls of moisture and drowning in an impossible fog. Her lungs struggled to digest the viscous air until each breath became timid and shallow. The water continued to rise, or fall, she could no longer tell. The repetition of the paddle strokes, the sound of the rain, gradually pulled her into a lazy intoxication.
She came to with a start and a magnificent inhalation that made her chest stretch to the point of rupture. Something large had struck the boat with a dull thud, causing the hull to toss small waves across the water. She sat up straight and peered into the mist in time to see the fins of a massive fish drop below the surface.
Out of instinct and without much thought, she fixed her line with bait before moving on to ready her harpoon. The bait stunk like carrion and was warm and soggy from the long morning on the boat. Doh swallowed another lungful of watery breath and pierced the bait on the hook, burying the metal completely. She then lowered her line into the water and watched her bait descend until she could no longer see it and kept lowering it until she had no more rope, then fastened the line to the boat. She cradled the spear in her right arm as her father had showed her many years ago, tying off the loose end to the opposite side of the boat and coiling it loosely in her left.
She knelt on the floor of the canoe, careful not to tangle either line, and waited, unsure of exactly what she planned to do next.
“Will you deliver me from this world?!” she yelled, not sure if her words had landed anywhere in particular, nor if there was anywhere for them to land.
She felt a small tug on the baited line and the boat bobbed gently. Doh grabbed the line and when she felt another few bites, jerked it quickly upward, hoping to sink the hook deep in the fish’s throat. Then for a few moments, she felt nothing, saw no movement, and heard nothing but her own breathing and the rain, always the rain. She waited, patient and determined, a good Ewe, a good fishermen.
Time passed, she did not know how long, with the fog in air melding seamlessly with the fog of her thoughts.
When the water finally erupted with the fish, her senses rushed back into the front of her mind. Suddenly, she was leaning hard against the full weight and will of a massive animal, rope digging into her palm. It was the largest fish Doh had ever seen and she knew that neither herself nor the boat stood much of a chance against a creature of this size for very long.
“Use your whole body,” Doh implored herself out loud, and thought back to the lessons with her father. She closed her eyes and let loose her spear with all the intention she could muster from her tired muscles and tired mind. She did not hear it strike the fish, but immediately, blood billowed on the surface. The raindrops off the lake and the waves on the surface washed water into the canoe as she struggled with the dying animal. Soon Doh was standing up to her shins in bloody water. The spear must have struck the fish’s heart or bladder, because gradually the animal calmed and bled heavily and did not dive. Instead, it writhed half-heartedly on the surface before Doh could draw it up alongside the bow.
“Have you taken my father?!” She called to the animal, “Have you delivered him from this world onto dry land?”
No response, but an empty, black eye stared back at her not without recognition. It was inhuman, she thought, but she did not feel misunderstood. The fish blinked, its mouth half submerged grasping at the water as if searching for words. Then slowly, deliberately it spoke with the cadence of her father: “But I will sacrifice to you. What I have vowed I will make good.” and its voice trailed off, mouth still slowly articulating on the surface of the water.
She would not miss this place, she thought, but she would miss the place it was before.
The huge eye shuttered and opened again. The smell of blood and the weight of moisture in the atmosphere hung from Doh like a net that had been draped across her arms. She glanced once more at the world around her. The rains had picked up again with droplets like stones rising to a deafening pace. She would not miss this place, she thought, but she would miss the place it was before. But that old world was as much of a dream anymore as the salvation she sought, however foolishly and desperately.
As she stood in the canoe, she remembered her father from many years ago, before the rains, when he was still strong, a student of god, before the fever and the lake had taken him. “Remember:” she imagined him saying, with an unhurried smile crawling across his lips like a caterpillar, “so long as there are fish, there will always be Ewe.”
She leaned off the boat into the water and swam up to the front of the fish, prying its massive jaws open with her hands. The animal offered little resistance. Using its teeth like the rungs on a ladder, she pulled herself up until she was seated on its tongue. Doh wiped the blood from her eyes, turned, and began to squirm head-first down the creature’s throat.
It was quiet and warm as she made her descent. For the first time in many months, she could no longer hear the rain.
Mario Reinaldo Machado is a doctoral student in Geography at Clark University in Worcester, Massachusetts and fellow editor of Not Afraid of the Ruins. His research focuses on sustainable agriculture, landscape ecology and food systems in Cuba. He is also a musician, photographer and freelance writer whose work has appeared in outlets including the Huffington Post, National Geographic, and Organic Gardening Magazine.
Nudes aren’t allowed, cartoons or advertisements suggesting sex are not allowed, ads for any adult services aren’t allowed — all these get deleted. Sexual organs such as penises or breasts implied but not depicted (eg with bananas or sandbags) are flagged. Boobs. Woman laughing with a bowl of salad; a girl playing with her dog laughing; a woman smiling with a new set of knives, a flight attendant smiling and pouring coffee.Boobs. It was repetitive and monotonous. AI filtered most things correctly but there was the occasional mistake. Krishna liked the job. He didn’t have to think. He always worked with headphones on, listening to music until the siren blared, informing them that their shift had ended.
Back at home Krishna changed out of his work clothes, fixed himself a bowl of Maggi and turned on the TV. There was nothing interesting to watch. He put on Planet Earth and crushed some weed. Just as a brilliant pink sun set behind a lone polar bear floating on an ice floe, Krishna grabbed his jacket and headed out.
His first thought was a leech but there were no leeches where he lived.
The wind was too fierce to light the joint so he squatted behind a mango tree and cupped his hands. That’s when he first felt it. Krishna yelped like he hadn’t yelped since he was a child. His first thought was a leech but there were no leeches where he lived.
Though it was a full moon night Krishna turned on the torchlight on his phone to get a better look. There was something on his leg, attached to his calf, right below his knee, gulping his blood hungrily. The creature — whatever the fuck it was — was about two inches long and had no determinate shape. It quivered almost constantly and like a well used bar of soap it was misshapen, neither rectangular nor circular, but some odd shape that kept changing. It had no eyes, no ears and no face but it did have a mouth with which it had attached itself to Krishna’s calf. The mouth was at the end of an elongated snout that opened and retracted minutely every time the creature sucked Krishna’s blood, like a telescope. It had no legs but instead all over the surface of its body it had curlicueing strands of blue-green tentacle-antennae: tens of hundreds of these of various sizes and lengths. These tentacle-antennae seemed to have a sentience of their own — they moved any which way, independently of each other. Some reaching out, testing the air, others circling around his leg or trying to, while the majority seemed to wave and sway like palm fronds, simply feeling their way about. Most peculiar of all, the creature appeared to be colourless or rather it appeared to be translucent for you could see some of its organs. Krishna thought it was the most disgusting thing he’d ever seen.
He stared at it for a full five minutes, watching its mouth squeeze and gulp hungrily, its tentacle-antennae swaying wildly.
He’d had enough. He tried at first to shake it off but that was no good. He then grabbed a stone and tried to scrape it off but that was no good either — he only ended up vigorously scraping his own knee. There was only one thing left to do. He stared at it for a full five minutes, watching its mouth squeeze and gulp hungrily, its tentacle-antennae swaying wildly. He prayed and waited, hoping that as suddenly as the creature had torn into him, it would just as suddenly tear off of him and go back to wherever it had come from. But seconds stretched into minutes and the creature continued sucking just as hungrily. He gave himself five more minutes. Then he gave himself another five minutes while he finished a cigarette. Finally he worked up the resolve to pull it out with his own hands. He lunged at it with his right hand, fingers bunched into a fist as if he were going to grab and yank it but he stopped. He lit another cigarette. This time he approached with just his thumb and index finger extended and pinched an especially long curlicueing tentacle-antenna, daintily trying to pry the creature off. It was awful, the tentacle-antenna squirmed and fought in his hand like a living thing. No sooner had he caught hold of it that he let it go, regretting ever having touched it. With the creature still firmly planted on his leg, Krishna started walking home.
The walk back home was long but it took longer still. The creature was relentless. It was sucking at him as if its life depended on it; maybe it did. It didn’t hurt as much as it was disconcerting. Every now and then Krishna would hear something distinct, difficult to describe — like the noise of twigs breaking underfoot or a zipper being pulled; evidently satisfied gulps as the snout released the blood it had sucked into the creature’s body.
Krishna considered stopping by Hakeem Saab’s house but it was well past midnight and he was afraid he would have a lot of explaining and talking to do. Krishna decided he would show himself to the doctor first thing tomorrow and so kept on walking.
The translucent creature bathed in the light of the TV. appeared gray-blue as it continued sucking his blood.
With every step now he felt himself weaken. Just as he thought he would collapse, Krishna saw his house up ahead. He fumbled with the lock twice before he got it opened. Inside he didn’t bother turning on the light and crashed on his sofa in front of the TV. which was playing yet another episode of Planet Earth. The translucent creature bathed in the light of the TV. appeared gray-blue as it continued sucking his blood.
When Krishna woke up the creature was gone. He didn’t look for it, he hoped it had gone for good. His leg had several tiny perforations, little pin-prick sized holes like those left immediately after an injection. The tiny holes were in no discernible pattern or at least no pattern Krishna could discern. Its teeth must have been pretty fucking sharp — it had bitten clean through a brand new pair of jeans to get to his calf. Krishna left the windows and door open in case the creature was still lurking and needed a way out.
Hakeem Saab twirled and untwirled the end of his long grey beard around his index finger as he regarded the tiny holes on Krishna’s leg.
Krishna left the windows and door open in case the creature was still lurking and needed a way out.
‘And this creature was about an inch long you said.’
‘Two inches’ Krishna muttered. This was harder than he had imagined.
‘What were you doing in the jangal alone in the middle of the night anyway?’
‘Sometimes…sometimes I go for a walk. It is peaceful there at night. I can be by myself.’
‘Don’t you live alone?’ To this Krishna said nothing.
‘Well as far as I can tell there seems to be no ill effects. But still it is better to get a toxicology test done seeing as you were bitten by something neither you nor I recognise. I have lived here all my life but who knows? Science discovers something new everyday,’ Hakeem Saab concluded skeptically.
Krishna nodded. ‘Go to G.B. Pant and ask for Dr. Ganga Ram. He will know what to do. He is a good friend of mine so he will keep me in the loop. In the meantime don’t exert yourself. Diseases sometimes remain dormant and the symptoms might not show for days, even years. Meet Dr. Ganga Ram at once. In the meantime, take rest and drink lots of orange juice to replenish the blood you have lost.’
‘Thank you doctor.’ Krishna had his hand on the door when Hakeem Saab spoke up again. ‘And beta don’t mind my saying this. I only say this out of concern and because I was a good friend of your father’s.’ Hakeem Saab paused. ‘It is good that you like walking but you shouldn’t smoke so much beta. It is not good for health. You have your whole life ahead of you, why throw it all away over nothing?’
They both knew Hakeem Saab was only politely referring to cigarettes. Krishna thanked him again, promised to return soon for a follow-up and left.
The sound again. This time he got up and found it. It was hiding in a hole in his wall behind the TV.
Sprawled on the sofa, Krishna was still in his work clothes. He was just about to load up another bowl when he heard that low sort of guttural sound again — difficult to place but unmistakable — like the snapping of twigs or the zipping of zips. His heart sunk. ‘Fuck’ he said but didn’t move. A quarter of an hour passed.
The sound again. This time he got up and found it. It was hiding in a hole in his wall behind the TV. Many of its tentacle-antennae had retracted: only a few remained. Its snout was opening and closing mechanically, its mouth was crowded with teeth.
Once again Krishna was faced with the unsavory prospect of grabbing it to throw it out. It didn’t look particularly hard or strong…maybe if he hit it forcefully enough with his cricket bat or his Dad’s old walking stick? But then, it quivered like it did and as he had known from the start Krishna felt incapable of dealing with it; for the same reason he had never had or wanted pets, even as a child. Animals were sentient yet could not speak. This had always bothered Krishna because he could never know what they wanted. Which to Krishna was the same as saying he did not know how to live with them.
After all he could clearly see the creature’s beating heart.
He considered the creature for a minute. He brought a knife from the kitchen and set it on top of the TV, where he could reach it easily. After all he could clearly see the creature’s beating heart. After some hemming and hawing Krishna prodded it ever so slightly. It responded. It unfurled some of its tentacle-antennae and two of them came searching for Krishna’s hand. Their touch was gentle but gross: icky and mucousy; how he’d always imagined the underbelly of a pond frog. Tonight it was not hungry. It merely advanced more of its tentacles that searched Krishna’s body as if to say ‘Hi!’.
Krishna gave in to it. With his one free hand he made a video of him being searched/ acquainted and snapped some photos. Finally when he felt as if his whole arm had been dipped in a vat, Krishna tried to jerk himself free. Almost immediately, perhaps instinctively the creature acquiesced. It withdrew all its tentacle-antennae and returned them neatly behind itself where Krishna couldn’t see.
Krishna gave in to it.
Krishna hated using voice command but tonight he was so excited that even as he took a long shower he commanded his home operating system to process the photos and videos he had just taken and search the internet. He had ordered the results by relevance, giving preference to academic journals.
Still dripping wet and with just a towel draped around him, Krishna turned on the TV.
‘Did you search non-english databases?’
‘And this is all you could find?’
‘This is all there is.’
Krishna stared at the three search results in front of him. Two were fan pages for an Iraqi TV show. One was a discussion forum for…something, he wasn’t entirely sure what. He uploaded the photos and videos and waited for people to respond (‘So I found this thing out in the woods last night….I have no idea what it is. Would anybody by any chance know? TY’)
‘OMG. WTF is that?’
‘That might be the FUGLIEST thing I’ve ever seen’
‘I think it’s kind of cute’
‘This shit is wack…they should use it in the Black Forest sequel’
‘Does it have a pussy? Maybe all it needs is love’
‘Where the Fuck did you find this thing?…My God the teeth….I don’t think I can sleep tonight’’
‘My GF said I was being gross..…So then I showed her this: ….Problem solved :P’
‘Wow.. .Does it have a name? Do you know what it’s called?”
‘Props to you for bringing it home man…I would have shot the sonuvabitch right in its ugly mouth’’
‘And I thought cockroaches are freaky’
‘Is this even real?…Please tell me it’s not real’
Krishna deleted his post. He asked the same question on a few different forums, including forums for zoology and biology hobbyists. He mostly got questions, no answers. On one of the forums a moderator flagged him: ‘I have 35 years experience with the Zoological Survey of India. This creature bears no similarity to any species I have read or even heard about. From the previous messages it would appear that most of my fellow zoologists concur. It is possible this is a species new to science but the photos you have posted clearly show an eight chambered lung which became extinct post the Cambrian explosion. This is a forum reserved for serious scientific discussion among professional zoologists and paleobiologists. Unless you can provide something more concrete than a handful of photographs and videos (i.e. anything not easily digitally renderable or manipulable) or any information beyond “I found this creature in the woods last night”, I doubt this forum can be of any help to you’.
A new day had broken. In the distance he could hear Majeed chacha calling the faithful to prayer. Allah hu Akbar! Ashadhu an la ilaha iIla Allah! Hayya ala s-salah!
Krishna had about three hours left before he had to report to work. The creature had not budged.
Krishna had about three hours left before he had to report to work. The creature had not budged. As far as Krishna could tell it was compressed and motionless with its snout withdrawn. Only a few tentacle-antennae swayed every now and then like wisps of stray hair. As before, because the tentacle-antennae moved independently, Krishna had difficulty imagining it as part of the same body, the same organism. He fell asleep naming and counting the different muscles and bones in his body, starting with his legs.
Krishna pulled out two 500ml Pepsi bottles from his bag: one each of chicken blood and goat blood. He had already tried feeding it most anything in his kitchen — blended fruits and vegetables, cow’s milk and goat’s milk, cottage cheese, rancid cottage cheese, mint leaves, rice beer, porridge, whiskey, wine, random chips packets, raw beaten eggs, soya chunks, but the creature showed no interest. He had also tried waving things he had specially purchased from the market in front of the creature’s snout – baby food, chicken liver and chicken feet, goat brain, raw fish, cooked fish, kebabs, goat tongue but again the creature barely moved. It was only then that he had reluctantly asked a bewildered Ismail Qureshi to give him some blood from his next batch of slaughterings; ‘I’ve been working on a slasher film. I tried ketchup but it didn’t look very convincing.’ Krishna didn’t sound convincing either, but that didn’t matter because Qureshi bhai knew him.
The tentacle antennae lit up a bright parrot green. He could see its heart pumping violently, straining against its membranous body, so much so that he was afraid it would leap out
Krishna emptied the Pepsi bottles into two ceramic china bowls. He placed them on the TV right next to the hole where the creature lived and waited. Three tentacle-antennae appeared. They hovered around one bowl, then the next. Then three more tentacle-antennae issued forth. Finally the creature squeezed itself out of the gap in his wall and by the aid of its tentacle-antennae pulled itself closer to the brim of the bowl containing chicken blood. Its snout opened, elongating like a ramp being lowered. Its mouth crowded with teeth yawned open and he heard that sound again. The tentacle antennae lit up a bright parrot green. He could see its heart pumping violently, straining against its membranous body, so much so that he was afraid it would leap out. But five excited minutes later, the mouth closed; the snout drew back; the tentacle-antennae retracted and the creature returned to its hole in the wall without having taken so much as a sip. Krishna sighed and sat down on the sofa. When he checked in on it in the morning the china bowls of blood were exactly as he had left them. On his way out, he threw them out along with the empty Pepsi bottles.
Thirty minutes into Myths and Shadows he heard that sound again. He tried to ignore it but it was persistent and mechanical this time, like an alarm clock. This was annoying because his team had all but cornered the orcs and taken the citadel, which would have upgraded his Mage to level 3. “I’m sorry guys I’m going to have to log off.” Mxcooky cussed and grondylion15 grumbled but he logged off anyway.
He did not know what it wanted. Krishna chewed his lip. He had a granola bar in his pocket. He dangled it in front of the creature but knew even as he was doing it that this was pointless. He did not like what he had to do next. He left and returned with oven mitts that he had to dust off first because he had not used them in over a year. He pulled down the sleeves of his shirt, put on the oven mitts and jabbed the creature in the one spot where he could not see a tentacle-antenna.
The creature slobbered forward, its tentacle-antennae pulling it along, leaving a trail of pus-coloured slime in its wake.
Several tentacle-antennae coiled around his extended arm like Medusa’s hair. The creature slobbered forward, its tentacle-antennae pulling it along, leaving a trail of pus-coloured slime in its wake. Krishna wished he had thought of putting a jacket on. He was in the middle of cursing himself for never having gotten his helmet fixed when he felt a sharp stab of pain; less severe than what he remembered from a week ago, maybe because he was expecting it this time. The creature, sitting on his oven mitts had sunk its teeth right beneath his palm.
At first Krishna fed the creature whenever it cried persistently like an alarm clock. But this was beginning to take a toll on him. He had already missed three days of work. He liked to use off days to travel: trek through the jangal or else go someplace he had never been. It rankled him that he was taking off days but only sleeping through them.
Regular feeding had also bloated the creature. It now filled the hole it lived in and its tentacle-antennae were no longer tucked neatly behind it. They spilled out like a mouthful of spaghetti.
Krishna put on the oven mitts. This time he applied castor oil on his arms before pulling down his sleeves. But the creature bit below his palm and drank as voraciously as ever.
This seemed to do the trick. It gulped hungrier than ever; he could feel its snout jackhammering as it pushed and pulled against his oven mitts; every organ in its body working double speed.
The following night Krishna applied both castor oil and chili powder to his arms. This seemed to do the trick. It gulped hungrier than ever; he could feel its snout jackhammering as it pushed and pulled against his oven mitts; every organ in its body working double speed. With every gulp it increased its intake, its mouth yawning. More hastily than it ever had before the creature withdrew and pulled back into the hole. For the first time in weeks he showed up to work on time. His boss complimented him, commenting that ‘he seems better’ and ‘hoped he would continue to be so.’
On his way back from work Krishna stopped by the pet store to buy a leash. Considering how thin the creature’s skin appeared, Krishna didn’t want to damage its organs. Despite its diet being laced with castor oil and chili powder the creature had steadily grown to the size of a pug or a chihuahua: it now hung awkwardly from the hole it occupied. He squinted his eyes but this hurt after awhile. He moved the TV away from the hole in the wall, pushing it to the corner of the room but this was no use because the room was quite small — even while sitting at the very edge of the sofa he could still see the creature’s blue-green tentacle-antennae flailing about out of the corner of his eyes. Finally he considered switching the sofa and TV so that his back would be turned to the wall but he didn’t like this idea at all because he would no longer be able to see the creature and he was afraid that it could sneak up on him.
He had avoided mopping all week because he knew that the creature would leave a trail of pus-coloured slime all over the floor.
He tied the leash into a loose knot around the creature. He had avoided mopping all week because he knew that the creature would leave a trail of pus-coloured slime all over the floor. The leash worked. The creature jiggled into different shapes as if it were trying out clothes until it found one that fit the knot. Krishna pulled and with a soft thud the creature fell to the floor, allowing itself to be lead to the puja room without any resistance whatsoever. Krishna now wished that he hadn’t put this off for weeks: the whole process of shifting the creature had taken less than a minute.
Later that night while smoking pot he pictured himself taking the creature out for a walk. He imagined what people would say. Krishna then burst out laughing because he knew exactly what they would say.
It sank its teeth deeper and deeper into his skin, drawing more and more blood despite the liberal concoction of chillies, pepper and castor oil that he now slathered before each session.
He no longer fed the creature the way he used to, allowing it to sit on his hand. It had grown much too big for that. Instead he held the door to the puja room slightly ajar — just enough for one of his hands to slip through. Although by now he found the creature harmless he couldn’t bring himself to hold it or touch it even. It sank its teeth deeper and deeper into his skin, drawing more and more blood despite the liberal concoction of chillies, pepper and castor oil that he now slathered before each session. He was running out of excuses at work so he had taken to feeding it only over the weekend.
A thin pool of the pus-coloured liquid had leaked beneath the puja room door which he had kept locked since god knows when. No sooner had he entered the room then the creature, now fluffed like a mattress, lurched forward; this was the first time in weeks Krishna had laid eyes on it. It was more than he could take. Instinctively praying out loud to no god in particular Krishna wheeled round and slammed the door shut. The creature’s tentacle-antennae scratched and banged frantically against the closed door. Usually Krishna tried to ignore these sounds, but on that day he stood on the other side of the door, not putting on any music until the creature stopped trying and the house became quiet again.
Seema repeated once again that this might be his last chance to see the creature.
Something had to be done. He had started exchanging emails with Seema Doval, the Zoological Survey of India scientist who had dismissed his post as a hoax. Further photos and videos he had shared had intrigued her. She had agreed to drive down with six other colleagues from the ZSI regional centre in Mussourie. He handed Seema the keys to his house and the puja room and told her that he hoped they would take the creature because he no longer wished to take care of it. He’d be waiting for her call at a tea shop about a minute’s walk from his house. After what felt like an hour Seema called. She told him that they had decided to take the creature and that it had been shifted without incident to the van; she asked Krishna if he wanted to see it before they took it to Dehradun. ‘No that’s alright, you can go ahead and take it’. Seema repeated once again that this might be his last chance to see the creature. ‘That’s okay. I have some important work to attend to. You can leave my keys with my neighbour, I’ll collect them later.’
Krishna had just finished purchasing Mithril armor for his level 9 Mage in Myths and Shadows when he spotted something out of the corner of his eye: flapping tendrils of blue-green tentacle-antennae. He paused the game and leapt up. He wasn’t imagining it. It was only about as big as a ping-pong ball now. Its tentacle-antennae were scratching the window, presumably waiting to be let in.
Krishna called up Seema. She picked up after the first ring. ‘Thank God it’s with you! We thought of checking with you but the idea seemed so ridiculous considering we had it locked in a lab so far away.’
Krishna opened the window and let the creature in.
Seema told him that a van full of zoologists would leave immediately from Mussourie, though it was the middle of the night. ‘This time I’ll make sure it’s monitored 24/7.’ After a split second pause she added, ‘Nobody has seen anything like this. This could be the single most important discovery of the decade.’
Krishna opened the window and let the creature in.
‘Okay,’ he said. ‘Okay. I’m sorry I sent you there. I thought they would know what to do with you.’ Even though he had no oven mitts on he let it lie on his hand. Gently he stroked it up and down, up and down along its body like it was a dog or a cat. The creature unfurled a few of its tentacle-antennae and tightened its grip on Krishna’s arm but did not extend its snout. It kept its mouth tightly closed. Krishna tried to coax it into drinking his blood, reassuring it in whatever way he could think of that it had his permission but the creature wouldn’t. It merely lay on his palm and allowed itself to be petted. He could see and feel the pus-coloured slime running down the length of his hand. The tentacle-antennae probed but Krishna continued to hold it.
Gently he stroked it up and down, up and down along its body like it was a dog or a cat. The creature unfurled a few of its tentacle-antennae and tightened its grip on Krishna’s arm but did not extend its snout.
He started walking towards the jangal, where he had first found the creature. He found a small cluster of deodar trees and stopped. He flicked open a pocket knife and nicked his wrist, allowing the blood to flow. But the creature still didn’t drink. Krishna again dug with the pocket knife into his flesh, cutting a deeper wound, allowing more blood to flow. This time the creature opened its snout and drank hungrily. It opened its mouth and bit into the wound Krishna had slashed into his hand, widening it further. It stayed like that for a long time, suckling hungrily.
Seema and the scientists would be arriving soon. Krishna tried to jerk himself free but the creature held fast. He flicked open his pocket knife and tried to pry himself away but the creature only strengthened its hold with more tentacle-antennae. Finally Krishna pulled out his lighter and brought it within singeing distance of the creature. He turned up the flame to make sure it felt the heat. The creature relented.
By the time Krishna got back, Seema and her colleagues were waiting for him. They were disappointed and angry that the creature had escaped but they couldn’t blame him. He promised to let them know if it ever came back.
But sometimes on windy nights Krishna thinks he hears a faint noise like twigs breaking underfoot, or at work he sometimes faintly hears something like a zipper being pulled.
Krishna cleaned out the puja room with all its accumulated slime and junk and put his parent’s things back where they belonged. He purchased new shirts, the punctures and cuts in his arms healed and Hakeem Saab once again gave him the all clear (and this time he didn’t ask him to stop smoking). Ismail Qureshi no longer teased him and asked to see his slasher film and Seema stopped emailing him every other week.
But sometimes on windy nights Krishna thinks he hears a faint noise like twigs breaking underfoot, or at work he sometimes faintly hears something like a zipper being pulled. Flagged. Delete.Teenagers laughing and jumping into a swimming pool; a smiling nurse about to administer an injection; a teacher smiling while writing on the blackboard; a woman laughing while talking on her phone. Delete. Krishna never looks up.
Maggi – a popular brand of instant noodles
Saab – a term of respect. Roughly translates to sir.
Jangal – forest
Beta – a term of endearment. Literally translates to son.
Chacha – Literally means your father’s brother but often also used for people around your father’s age.
Allah hu Akbar! Ashadhu an la ilaha iIla Allah! Hayya ala s-salah! – God is great! I bear witness that there is no god except the One God! Hurry to the prayer!
Bhai – Literally means brother. But it is a term used to address most anyone.
Puja room – the place in Hindu households where idols of deities are kept and worshipped.
Harshvardhan Siddharthan, or Harsh, was born and raised in New Delhi and is currently interested in pursuing socio-cultural anthropology. He has previously worked as a journalist and his articles have appeared in The Hindu, The Indian Express and The Andaman Chronicle. Harsh always welcomes feedback, assignments and criticism. He can be reached at email@example.com
I was eight when I found it. It was one of those long summer afternoons when everyone, drugged with heat, was fast asleep. Restless, I snuck out through the back door. I struggled over the garden gate and dropped quietly across the wall into the outer world.
Alone for the first time in the lane behind my house, I walked further along it than I ever had before. I passed houses with shades drawn, old trees murmuring quietly with crickets and turtle doves. And suddenly, I found it: an open plot of rough scrub, a square not more than half a football field along each side.
I had never seen such a place. It was not a garden, nor a field, nor a park.
I had never seen such a place. It was not a garden, nor a field, nor a park. There were no flowerbeds, and the ground was broken up with rocks, and patches of gravel. I looked at the empty lane behind me, expecting someone to be standing there, calling me back. But I was alone. I felt a brief thrill of fear and then I walked in. This is the story of what I found there; what I took with me and carry with me still.
I grew up accustomed to green, and to growing things. A good piece of land was lush, fecund, greens of every shade punctuated by flowers of fuchsia, scarlet, saffron, violet. A good garden had flowers, fruit, herbs, vegetables, medicine, and sacred elements too: holy basil, an auspicious mango tree, the Brahma Kamal that flowers shyly at midnight.
Across the road lay my grandmother’s farm and fields. On her grounds grew trees hundreds of years old. There was a grove of Sandalwood, slender trees with profusions of tiny deep green leaves. A row of Australian Acacias, with curly brown seed pods inside which hid black seeds wrapped in a startling yellow scarf. A Gulmohar that carpeted the ground beneath it with thousands of orange orchid-like flowers. And my favourite: a towering Peepul, under whose branches stood a tiny white tumbledown temple. At the center of the farm, Raintrees canopied so much ground that it took my eight-year-old legs half an hour to walk from one edge of the shade to the other. In her gardens, my grandmother had a shaded square for ferns, and a dark green pond in which guppies flashed their jeweled tails amongst the water-weeds. Indoors, every table, cabinet and shelf held a vase, bowl or tray of flowers cut from the beds outside.
At home, we had Silk-cotton with buttery-yellow blossoms and a wild almond and a laburnum. We even had a sort of strange, out of place Pine, that someone had rescued from a Christmas tree shop and planted. It grew twenty feet high. Outside my bedroom window, a shrubby Raat Rani—Queen of the Night—had ghost-pale, star-shaped flowers that filled the darkening garden with perfume in the evenings. I had a tiny patch for myself, and into it I crowded ferns and a climbing vine that frothed with strawberry-pink flowers. My father called it the ice-cream plant. We grew vegetables one year, all along the perimeter wall, and every summer we planted flowers for the butterflies. Decades later, when we moved, we carried the trees with us, and every precious bulb, bush and creeper. They flower now in my mother’s new garden and we know them as old friends.
To garden is to knit oneself into the earth. The longer you know a garden, the closer the knit, and the finer the patterns you can see.
To garden is to knit oneself into the earth. The longer you know a garden, the closer the knit, and the finer the patterns you can see. On my hands and knees amongst the flowerbeds, I saw startling forests of moss, like bright emerald pine in miniature. The birth of velvet-smooth black caterpillars that fed on the monsoon crocuses. The funeral processions of crickets lying on their backs, their arms neatly folded, being carried off to the underworld by ants. The more I gardened, the closer I came to the mud. Nose-level, until I could smell it. Dirt under my fingernails, inside my pores, and in my blood too, after I decided to stop washing every cut. (Sorry, Ma).
As we gardened, my grandmother, my parents, and I, I think we found ways to conjure up new patterns on our patches of land. We made shade against the white-hot sky; we drew in birds and flowers, butterflies, moths and bees. We perfumed the night with star-shaped flowers. That is a form of wizardry. And perhaps, that is why I have often heard it said, of untamed plots or open countryside: There is nothing there. There were two ways we talked about unfarmed, unplanted places: either as grand wilderness, where we’d have a picnic or go on holiday, or as a wildwaste. But I think there’s another way. Nature is also knitting, all the time, everywhere. There is no nothing.
I spent ten years going up the lane to the scrub-plot. I saw it in all weathers and at all times of day.
I spent ten years going up the lane to the scrub-plot. I saw it in all weathers and at all times of day. Without the constant stream of a garden hose or the attentions of any gardener the plot stayed dry most of the year. Where I grew up in India, we use dry to mean dead.
But this land was not dead.
A group of short thorn trees, which I now suppose were Indian Acacia. A stunted Karvanda—Conkerberry—bush, amongst whose thorny green foliage grew sour berries, ruby-red when raw. Under every crumple of rock, using what water I can’t imagine, the tiniest flowering plants emerged in a palette of rust and gold. You’ve seen them too. Tiny yellow flowers, green or rust-coloured leaves like clover, creeping along the ground. They grow everywhere on land that was once disturbed, then abandoned.
At sunset, the dry grass was turned suddenly into a wash of honey and caramel. My favourite time, a sudden throwing back of the veil of the day in a flash of gold, before everything turns blue. I watched these things for many hours, doingabsolutely nothing.
And that, I think, is what people really mean when they say there’s nothing there. They mean nothing is going on there.
And I think about that often. Not once did it occur to me to transfer some of my fevered gardening onto the scrub-plot; to make a flower bed, plant seeds. I knew how. But I didn’t want to. Nor did I ever take my nature journal, a constant companion when I walked through the farm. What I saw in the garden and field, I spoke of and wrote of. I named, labeled and drew. I dried, pressed and catalogued. I traced bark patterns and the outlines of leaves and stuck feathers next to pictures of birds, and once I took three days to try to draw the mouse skull I found under an owl’s tree-burrow (no good, that sketch. I kept the skull though).
On the scrub-plot, there was no name, no rank, no serial number.
But on the scrub-plot, there was no name, no rank, no serial number.
Instead, there were palettes and canvasses, large and small. There was the sunset gold-dust hanging over everything. Or blue mist curving around the thorn trees early on winter mornings. When I lay back on the rocks there was an open sky, un-fringed by friendly trees. But there was comfort too. I fell asleep often, against a gently rising rock in the middle of the plot. I frequently woke with my arms around it. A habit I shudder at today, after I have learnt about cobras and kraits and scorpions, all of whom I’m sure habited my plot but strenuously avoided me.
Coming from a world of greens and bright flowers, I was surprised at how fiercely I came to love the palette of pale sand, grey grit and gravel, exposed rock, dry grass and dusty sage. The colors of ringed doves, and sparrows, and a dozen other pale birds with backs of grey, silver, fawn and camel.
Behind the walls, in the neighbours’ gardens, was another world, where English ferns grew in moss-crusted terracotta pots. Even orchids, in hanging baskets. And I loved them. But I also loved this world, here, with those nameless thorn trees and that baked earth that scalded my hands.
To sit for long enough on a scrub-plot is to rest. To rest is to suspend judgment. You just watch. The alchemy of such places is in how just looking becomes enough; suddenly a dusty old scrub-plot turns to gold.
Suddenly a seedling has taken hold that ten years from now will be a tree.
How many scrub-plots there are in the world, great and small! Cracks in the pavement, the borders of parking lots. Abandoned railway stations, and quarries and construction sites. The quietest corner of a garden, where you were too tired to plant, dig and hoe, or even to water. And still, suddenly a seedling has taken hold that ten years from now will be a tree. Some patches last longer than others. In India, legal disputes over some sites can last decades. So in the middle of the city, in the pits where foundation-stones would have been, tiny forests grow.
Not all patches are forsaken as wilderness. Some feed families. Thorn-scrub gives fodder and firewood. For some it is the only shelter they can access, to—quite literally—commune with nature. Closer to the curbsides, tiny flower beds can appear, with mint, parsley, and lemongrass for tea. Papaya, banana, pomegranate or lemon trees that sprout on sidewalks will feed anyone who tends them, and we have dozens of sacred trees—usually climax species—that become living shrines by the roadside.
But not all patches can be tended or used. Those where nothing useful grows are Jungli, connoting something both wild and empty. Perhaps, in India, to appreciate them only for their beauty is to betray a deeply privileged upbringing. But there it is. I had the luxury of sitting on Jungli land, and watching it move from gold to blue as the day passed. To me, the scrub-plot formed a magical counterpoint to our gardens, fields and grand landscapes. It was where I was an audience, watching the world forming itself. And with or without me, the thorn-trees grew, and sparrows nested in them. The rocks gathered grains of dust, and flowers grew in them that could not grow on watered ground, and moths drank their nectar.
Now, decades later, I read about connection to nature and how to foster an ethic of care. Gardens are vital to this, as is reconnecting people to farms. It is on gardens and farms that most of us have our first encounter with all manner of beings other than human. And many of us have our first sensation of awe when looking up or out into a panoramic landscape. Many of us work very hard indeed just to escape away to an immense openness: a valley from on high, the night sky, swathes of forest, a deep canyon, the murmuring ocean.
Let’s not forget, nature is everywhere and even now it is doing what it does, with or without us.
But let’s not forget, nature is everywhere and even now it is doing what it does, with or without us. What does a weed, flowering in the pavement, or a thorn-forest in a scrub-plot teach?
That there are no empty spaces. Everywhere is filled with the dream of what could grow, slowly coming true.
It is a truism, repeated to the point of banality, that ‘nature abhors a vacuum’. But wait. Do we know what that really means? There are a million little pinpricks, and some great gaping wounds, and all of them are being knitted back together by tiny flowering foot-soldiers. To me, they are what resilience looks like. Just look, really look, at the little thorny thing that is pushing its way through the concrete. Could you do that?
To experience this matters more and more in this world which lies at the brink. We need to see how life constantly covers over everything with more life. To sit out on a Jungli scrub-plot is to marvel at it, to be heartbroken, a little, over how quickly, how beautifully, how relentlessly, any empty patch is taken over by life. Seen in this way, the thinnest sliver of green and gold, the finest crusting of moss, becomes precious: nature cupping her hands over every tiny ember, and letting a spark take.
Zareen Pervez Bharucha is a Research Fellow at the Global Sustainability Institute (GSI) at Anglia Ruskin University and a Visiting Research Fellow at the University of Essex. She leads the Global Risk and Resilience strand of research at the GSI. Her research explores issues of resilience, vulnerability, and climate change adaptation amongst small farmers in India. She also works on the concept of sustainable intensification of agriculture, and has a growing interest in the links between nature and well-being.
Most technocenters and settled asteroids of the inner verse have at one time or another been found to harbor this enigmatic parasite. First documented on the trash moons of the Antillean arc, it appears to propagate through the dispersal of microscopic spores, light enough to waft on interstellar currents and armored against the vacuums of deep space and the heat of the inner atmosphere.
The metal-molds are an overlooked group of pioneering bioforms, commonly found embedded on the non-motive components of robionic organisms. Similar to the lichens of Old Earth, they often form symbiotic bonds with air-borne algae or other bioforms, exchanging the one’s ability to photosynthesize with the other’s capacity for synthesizing caustic acids. Protomunculus appears to represent a divergence from the typically benign metal-mold clan due to its startling adaptability and potential for destructive growth.
Initial stages of infection by Protomunculus closely resemble those of other metal-molds: surficial growths characterized by circular discolouration, yellowish-green if the symbiont is of the Old Earth orders or reddish-violet if it originates from beyond the Promethean Divide. During this stage it can only be differentiated from the traditional metal-molds by its preference for colonizing the motive joints and hinges of robionic shells, especially those proximal to the great electrovenic channels of the system.
After a period of time, the length of which is dependent on resource availability and light, Protomunculus sheds its habit for horizontal growth and delves deeply into the robionic host, seeking out the functional heart of the organism. As it begins to tap the host’s electrovenic channels, associations with the external bioform are cut, and all visible signs of parasitism disappear. Detection at this phase is dependent on meticulous analysis of the suspected host’s energetic budget to seek out the most minute of functional anomalies. Infected organisms will display increasing divergence from programmatic tasks and a phenomenon known as ‘feedback static.’ Even at this stage, all but the most wary of systemic administration units will likely attribute the anomalies to overdue maintenance or expected obsolescence.
Long before these external signs become visible, Protomunculus will have crept along the electrovenic channels to whatever constitutes the host’s nexus of power, as the grain of pollen grows slowly downward toward the waiting ovary. Once embedded, the mold begins to subvert the operative principles of the organism, utilizing its own power source to erode and reform its physical components. Using whatever plastico-silicate or metallic materials might be available, Protomunculus begins to fashion and armor the spores that will bring about its next generation.
After a significant portion of the host has been subverted and transformed, the mold fully overrides the organism’s programming and issues its final commands. To facilitate the widest possible dispersal of its spores, the parasite directs its host into a position that will bring it into contact with a strong fluid current. Depending on the physical capabilities of the host’s robionic body, this final command may take the form of an injunction to launch itself into or past atmospheric rotation, to scale and cling to a starscraper, or even to plunge itself into a pelagic stream. Once proximity to the desired current is achieved, total dissolution of the host’s body occurs as Protomunculus sporulates, sending millions or perhaps billions of fragments of itself to replicate this process in new and fertile ground.
The nature of the protomunculean parasite is such that an infection can quickly spread throughout and overcome even the most well-defended of technocenters. Its arrival has necessitated the abandonment of entire stellar bodies, and catastrophes have followed its trail through the stars. If an infected robionic is discovered at any stage, universal mandate requires its immediate incineration. Regional guidelines often recommend the incineration or quarantine of any other robionics it may have been in contact with. The spores have proven difficult to isolate and destroy, but they are large enough to be apprehended by the standard regulation air filtration systems of domed cities.
Given its viral nature, most of the prospective cures developed for Protomunculus infections have resulted in even more virulent strains of the mold, so attempts to combat it have resorted largely to preventative measures. We recommend regular physical examinations for all robionics and the application of certain oil-gels that inhibit the initial growth of metal-molds. Luckily for the robionic community of inhabited stellar bodies, the incidence of Protomunculus is rare and erratic, as it tends to rapidly burn through potential hosts and then mysteriously subside. To aid in visual detection of Protomunculus, study the attached illustrations carefully. For questions, observations or more specific information about analysis and detection, contact your regional consul of RIDO, the Robionic Infectious Disease Office.
NOT FOR GENERAL DISTRIBUTION
Alex Greene grew up hoping to become a 19th century naturalist. Finding that this vocation has gone extinct, he has turned to field biology, environmental education, organic farming and anthropology to make a living. Foraging wild plants, watching birds and hiking in the wilderness are his ways of participating in the great mystery of being.
James Cameron’s blockbuster Avatar (2009), to which four sequels have been announced, was generally praised for its cutting-edge special effects yet criticized for the simplistic narrative by both film reviewers and scholars. Sukhdev Sandhu, reviewer for The Telegraph, puts it effectively when he writes, “It’s an achievement to make 3D look as good as it does here, but that counts for little if the characters are all in 1D. The film is a triumph of effects over affect” (Dec 2009). It is a rather formulaic take on the histories of western colonialism and environmental destruction. The alien Na’vi on planet Pandora are meant to mimic the pre-industrial Native Americans, who worship the Goddess Eywa and live in harmony with their environment until the mechanized human colonizers arrive to extract “unobtanium” and obliterate everything in their way. The main protagonist Jake Sully joins the Na’vi and forms a romantic bond with the native princess Neytiri, and ultimately discards his paraplegic, ex-Marine, white body to become a non-white, feminine-coded, abled, environmentally attuned Na’vi body. The scenario rehearses two of the most powerful American frontier myths: the Pocahontas and Mohican stories, adapting them to the 21st century where they no longer function only “as an exercise in romantic regret, but to expiate guilt over the genocidal nation building” (Howe 2016, 125). The seeming postcolonialism and ecofeminism of Avatar can be read as a symptom of white guilt: one that reinforces the ultimate stereotype of a heroic white warrior leading through the justified violence the oppressed to freedom, which remains very problematic in terms of race, gender, ability, and the idealized version of nature.
The film remains a worthwhile cultural phenomenon to examine for its particular staging of post/modernity that underlies environmentalist politics.
Considering these controversial assumptions of the narrative, the massive box office success and the widespread fascination with the film’s CGI effects, as well as the announced four sequels in the upcoming years, is it worth revisiting Avatar and with what aim? I wish to suggest yes; the film remains a worthwhile cultural phenomenon to examine for its particular staging of post/modernity that underlies environmentalist politics. This has so far generated an interesting scholarly discussion to which I would like to contribute in this essay. Bruno Latour, well known for his view that the European modernity in the 17th century installed what he calls the Great Divide(s)–between nature and culture, self and other, human and nonhuman–surprisingly reads the film in a rather positive way (Latour 2010), although we could argue that Avatar continues to enact precisely these divides. More recently, ecocritical scholar Timothy Morton has argued that the film gestures towards non-binary postmodernity, but it is unable to actually take us there (Morton 2014). That is, the environmentalist message that celebrates the pure, organic, pre-technological Nature on Pandora is undermined at the level of the film medium, which glaringly speaks to us through the luminescent screen images its reliance on the highly advanced digital technology. In this paper I wish to build further on these scholarly readings of Avatar and, following Morton, argue that the film does not seem to take its own propositions seriously enough. It not only unconsciously undermines its ideology through the level of the medium, but also on the level on the narrative itself. Through a close reading of a dialogue from the film I will show that, if taken seriously from a postcolonial anthropological lens, the dialogue signals a decolonization of the hierarchical divide between western sciences and Indigenous knowledges, which the film overall remains unable to articulate.
For Latour, Avatar “is the first popular description of what happens when modernist humans meet Gaia. And it’s not pretty” (Latour 2010, 471). As he argues, since the 17th century nature has been understood as no longer spirited and actively interfering with human affairs, but in terms of passive objects to be demystified through scientific knowledge. All those living on the wrong side of the epistemological divide were considered irrational because they believed in a world animated by all sorts of entities rather than reducing materiality to the cause and effect relations. A model of mechanism was posited as a paradigmatic model, within which the Christian God was reinterpreted as a clock maker who had created the world and then left it to unfold by itself according to mechanical laws. (Carolyn Merchant in The Death Of Nature (1980) explicated this scientific model in detail, and showed has it was entangled with the histories of patriarchal colonialism and capitalism.) For Latour, this model can no longer be upheld (if it ever was) as it becomes ever more visible in the current age of climate change that nonhuman materiality has agency and that effects exceed their causes. Both humans and nonhumans are actants, and their agencies are much more evenly distributed, which means that we need to consider “the tricky question of animism anew” without the usual scorn that has been poured onto the concept: “Consider Lovelock, for instance, with his ‘absurd idea’ of the Earth as a quasi organism – or the Na’vis with their ‘prescientific’ connections to Eywa” (Latour, 2010, 481). Latour aligns James Lovelock’s Gaia theory of the Earth as a living super-organism, which in the past was criticized for being unscientific by the scientific community, and the animist beliefs of non-western Indigenous peoples as they are staged in Avatar. He suggests that both should be taken much more seriously by us “moderns”. In fact, in recent decades Lovelock’s theory has been revalued considerably in the environmentalist movement, while the indigenous models of sustainability have been increasingly explored in anthropological scholarship. Instead of constantly policing the epistemological border of what proper science and what pseudo or non-science is, it is necessary to look carefully into how well a certain model is assembled, how efficient of a “handle” to stage nature it is (Latour 2010, 483).
The film’s gesturing towards postmodernity crucially entails a gesturing towards decolonizing epistemology.
It seems that Latour casts Avatar in a rather positive light despite its clichéd narrative and very controversial take on colonialism. Bruce Clarke notes that the film resonates for Latour with his agenda of deconstructing the nature-culture divides and redistributing the worldly agencies in a “nonmodernist fashion” (Clarke 2014, 160), yet for Clarke, “At every level, Avatar is self-contradictory and wrapped up in its own paradoxes” (Ibid, 177). This really captures well the film’s modus operandi, which is, I suggest, that of failing to take seriously its own propositions. It is this ambiguity that enables us to interpret certain moments in the film as possibly questioning the Great Divides between western sciences and indigenous knowledges, while understanding the film on the whole as enforcing these divides by privileging the spiritual belief over the scientific-technological outlook. While the biology and neurology of the Pandoran/Gaian living system are shown to resonate well with the animist forest spirits, yet at the same time, the nature on Pandora is strangely purified from the contamination by capitalist technology. Morton approaches the ambiguity of Avatar by arguing that the narrative of the purification of Nature from modern technology fails at the level of film medium, which heavily relies on the advanced digital technology. For him, “What Avatar gestures toward, then, is a genuine ‘postmodernity,’ a historical moment after modernity,” where no extrication of the organic from the technological is possible, “without ever being able to tell us to go there, or even wanting with all its heart to push us there” (Morton 2014, 222). I wish to push Morton’s idea further and argue that the film’s gesturing towards postmodernity crucially entails a gesturing towards decolonizing epistemology: questioning the hierarchical divide between western sciences and indigenous knowledges, which unfolds at the level of the narrative. An intriguing dialogue along these lines develops between the Na’vi-friendly scientist Grace, played by the sci-fi heroine Sigourney Weaver, and the merciless corporate manager named Parker, played by Giovanni Ribisi:
Grace: Those trees were sacred to the Omaticaya in a way you can’t imagine.
Parker: You know what? You throw a stick in the air around here it falls on some sacred fern, for Christ’s sake!
Grace: I’m not talking about pagan voodoo here – I’m talking about something real and measurable in the biology of the forest.
Parker: Which is what exactly?
Grace: What we think we know is that there’s some kind of electrochemical communication between the roots of the trees. Like the synapses between neurons. Each tree has ten to the fourth connections to the trees around it, and there are ten to the twelfth trees on Pandora.
Parker: That’s a lot, I’m guessing.
Grace: That’s more connections than the human brain. You get it? It’s a network – a global network. And the Na’vi can access it – they can upload and download data – memories – at sites like the one you just destroyed.
What is at stake is not to rebrand non-western knowledges as scientific, but rather to make us think how and what discourses and practices, and not others, get to be authorized and legitimized as scientific in the first place.
The animist Na’vi view that trees are imbued with the spirit of Eywa is presented crucially as compatible with, and not opposed to, the biological and neurological constructions of synapses and neurons in living organisms. One way to understand Eywa is in terms of Gaia, or as Clarke suggests, in the neocybernetic terms of “a self-referential cognitive system producing self-maintaining regulatory dynamics without having to assume the agency or anima of a conscious system” (Clarke 2014, 162). This does not mean, however, that Grace’s aim is to simply translate the spiritual belief into the scientific idiom in order to legitimize it. Importantly, she respects both the animist and neurological worldviews, unlike Parker for whom the translation between the two is needed. Grace’s perspective encourages us to think how both models, each on its own terms, successfully stage materiality, and though for Clarke this “conveys the perennial Western muddle between science and spirituality, physics and metaphysics, energy and anima” (Ibid, 170), I suggest that it also gestures towards a decolonisation of knowledge. In the above quote the borders that police the temporality–primitive vs. modern–as well as seriousness–superstition vs. truth–of the two ways of knowing are put in question. Why would we not think of shamanic practices as scientific, or of the concept of the neuron as animist? What is at stake is not to rebrand non-western knowledges as scientific, but rather to make us think how and what discourses and practices, and not others, get to be authorized and legitimized as scientific in the first place. “Muddling” this border would mean to inhabit epistemologically the space which Gloria Anzaldúa terms “borderlands”, an undetermined and vague state created through the deconstruction of a historically enforced border (Anzaldua 1987, 3).
Recent postcolonial anthropological research in the Amazon region can take us further into decolonial directions. Jeremy Narby publishes in popular rather than academic media, but some of his insights can precisely shed more light on the quote above. (In comparison, Eduardo Kohn’s research of the Amazon in How Forests Think (2013) is more rigoruosly academic, but his conclusion to understand the Amazon forest spirits as semiotic actors resonates strongly with Narby’s view.) Based on his research with both Ashaninca shamans and biologists, he argues for a striking compatibility between the shamans’ and the biologists’ understanding of life. Intriguingly, he suggests that what the Amazonian shamans see in their hallucinogenic visions induced by plant brews, which is the images of giant fluorescent serpents, corresponds to what biologists see as the double helix structure of DNA through their instruments. A he puts it: “My hypothesis suggests that what scientists call DNA corresponds to the animate essences that shamans say communicate with them and animate all life forms” (Narby 1999, 132). As in Avatar, the spirits in the Amazon forest correspond to the scientific model of reality; the hallucinogenic plants are an equally good method to approach nature as the scientific instruments; and the shamans use their vision-induced knowledge to heal people same as the medical doctors use the knowledge of molecular biology. In the film, both the scientific and spiritual forms of knowledge are imagined to not only theorize life, but also construct it successfully on a practical level. While the human scientists use advanced biotechnology to construct avatar bodies, which are then operated through a psionic link with the genetically matching human minds, the Na’vi at the end of the film transport the mind of a human completely into his avatar body by using shamanic techniques. Such staging makes it hard to delineate science from non-science, or indeed faith from science, in the way that Narby argues: “…it is of utmost importance to respect the faith of others, no matter how strange, whether it is shamans who believe plants communicate or biologists who believe nature is inanimate” (Narby 1999, 145). Whether or not we subscribe to Narby’s conclusion that the visions of serpents and the DNA double helix correspond on the ontological level, what his approach foregrounds is that both shamans’ and biologists’ models of life are equally efficient handles to stage nature, and therefore should be equally respected.
Traditional ecological knowledge is based on collaboration rather than appropriation, spiritual interconnectedness rather than a taxonomic set of categories and facts.
Equal respect towards western and non-western epistemologies would mean to speak of what Grace Dillon terms “indigenous scientific literacies” (Dillon 2007), as the ways in which indigenous sustainable practices constitute indeed a Native science despite the lack of resemblance to taxonomic western knowledges. As she writes, traditional ecological knowledge is based on collaboration rather than appropriation, spiritual interconnectedness rather than a taxonomic set of categories and facts. In the contemporary context of climate change, indigenous scientific literacies seem to be finally “discovered” widely by the mainstream science, and Dillon sees precisely the mode of science fiction as a space in which this already has been, and can be productively engaged and developed further (Dillon 2016). Within this framework, Avatar both speaks and fails to speak of the indigenous scientific literacies. It gestures towards such understanding, yet overall it fails to engage this potential explicitly: it gestures towards postmodernity while not being able to extricate itself from the modernist divides. In Morton’s reading, the celebration of pre-technological Nature is unconsciously undermined at the level of the vibrant, computer-generated screen imagery: “The very attempt to force viewers to accept an ecological view of interconnectedness results in pushing humans to accept the proximity of a more-than-human-world of uncanny strangers” (Morton 2014, 221). Morton’s uncanny strangers are the glowing, weird creatures and the immersive environment on the screen, which cannot but not reveal the technology that made them possible. But if this is so, these luminescent uncanny strangers also unconsciously reveal to us and embody the hallucinatory method that shamans use to communicate with and gain knowledge from their plant teachers. As we, the film’s audience, immerse ourselves in the astonishing living world of the screen, are we not “hallucinating” about ecological knowledge? I suggest that the gesture towards postmodernity that Morton detects in the film crucially entails a gesture towards decolonising epistemologies, yet this move fails to be articulated explicitly. What the announced sequels make of decolonising the epistemological borders is to be seen, but so far the historical understanding of post/modernity in Avatar has generated an important scholarly discussion to which this essay contributes.
Anzaldúa, Gloria. 1987. Borderlands: La Frontera, The New Mestiza. San Francisco: Aunt Lute Book Company.
Avatar. 2009. Directed by James Cameron. Los Angeles: Lightstorm Entertainment.
Clarke, Bruce. 2014. Neocybernetics and Narrative. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
Dillon, Grace L. 2007. “Indigenous Scientific Literacies in Nalo Hopkinson’s Ceremonial Worlds.” Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts, Vol. 18, No. 1 (69): 23-41.
Dillon, Grace L. 2016. “Introduction: Indigenous Futurisms, Bimaashi Biidaas Mose, Flying and Walking towards You.” Extrapolation, Vol. 57, Issue 1-2: 1-6.
Howe, Andrew. 2016. “The Post-9/11 Mohican: Avatar and the Transformation of the ‘Manifest Apology’.” In The New Western: Critical Essays on the Genre since 9/11, edited by Scott F. Sttodart, 116-136. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Company, Inc.
Klassen, Chris. 2013. “Becoming the ‘Noble Savage’: Nature Religion and the ‘Other’ in Avatar.“ In Avatar and Nature Spirituality, edited by Bron Taylor, 143-160. Waterloo, Canada: Wilfrid Laurier University Press.
Kohn, Eduardo. 2013. How Forests Think: Toward an Anthropology Beyond the Human. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Latour, Bruno. 2010. “An Attempt at a ‘Compositionist Manifesto’.” New Literary History, Vol. 41, No. 3: 471-490.
Latour, Bruno. 2004. Politics of Nature: How To Bring the Sciences into Democracy. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Merchant, Carolyn. 1980. The Death of Nature: Women, Ecology and the Scientific Revolution. San Francisco: Harper & Row.
Morton, Timothy. 2014. “Avatar, Ecology, Thought.” In Green Planets: Ecology and Science Fiction, edited by Gerry Canavan and Kim Stanley Robinson, 206-225. Middletown: Wesleyan University Press.
Narby, Jeremy. 1999. The Cosmic Serpent: DNA and the Origins of Knowledge. New York: Jeremy P. Tarcher/Putnam.
Narby, Jeremy. 2005. Intelligence in Nature: an Inquiry into Knowledge. New York: The Penguin Group.
Sandhu, Sukhdev. 2009. “Avatar, full review.” The Telegraph.
Fani Cettl holds a PhD in Gender Studies from the Central European University in Budapest. Her fields of interest are science fiction, Gothic fiction, science and literature, biopolitical theory and posthumanism.
[…] The neighbour then is a lens through which to view this strange and doubly petrified society. As reported by Wei Chen in his magisterial social history of the Channel Earthquake, many victims of the disaster spoke to their neighbours for the first time on that fateful day. The mental ill-health, the impossibility of freedom, the denial of self-management encoded in this chosen isolation is so clear to us now, seems so literally insane, that we must remind ourselves to reach for a position of empathy. This was a world struggling with institutions entirely unsuited to large, complex societies. The damage from these poorly-adapted institutions reached into the human mind itself. Mental ill-health was the norm, and extended well beyond the high rate of diagnosis.
The subject of this chapter is truly difficult to grasp for the student of this period, but the facts revealed in the historical record are clear: most people were terrified of their neighbours. This must be qualified, for it is also true that many people might chat with their neighbour over the garden fence (examples of such boundary demarcation artefacts can be found in historical theme parks around the Western European Isles, and are still in use in parts of East Anglia afflicted by wind and conservatism). However, such informal contact rarely went further. Not one in a hundred engaged in any sort of joint project with their neighbour. Precisely what people were terrified of was working with their neighbour, being with their neighbour in any sustained way. What is more, we must reach further into the alien historical consciousness and admit that this fear was not entirely unfounded.
Such a bold statement requires justification, for in our era we see it as common sense that control over our environment requires the ability to work with our neighbour. Yet the entire notion and practice of liberation as bound up with a convivial working-together had not yet been born, stymied as it was by the economic structures of society and by the corresponding culture of isolation. The status quo was such that the fear of working with others could be justified by the lack of experience in working with others. Thus we must approach at the same time both the absurdity of the fear in which people lived, and the unavoidable logic underlying the frightened state of the early twenty-first century mind.
Firstly we must understand this state of mind as self-reinforcing: the en-cultured isolation created the fear, the fear created the isolation. ‘Common sense’ prior to the Transition stated that one’s neighbours were selfish, grasping and controlling, that their win would be your loss. Without getting to know one’s neighbour, it was difficult to challenge this ‘common sense’. It would take a disaster greater than the Channel Earthquake to escape this simple yet steely trap.
It is also important to understand that if one did accidentally get to know one’s neighbour, it was likely that one’s misanthropic view of them would merely be confirmed. Accounts of meetings of the time are full of tales of how the rare attempts at neighbourly working-together would break down in outbursts of anger, irresolvable feuds, how one or two people would dominate the debates, while others would say nothing, how frequently they were abandoned in frustration. The curious thing about the domination by particular individuals—one of the most common complaints—is that it could only happen because people allowed it. The dominance/subservience complex of the time will be the subject of several chapters in its own right, its undoing being of vital importance in the Transition. Here we will simply note that, being created both by forced education and the workplace, this complex was almost ubiquitous, and as a result it was almost impossible for any person to view another as truly an equal. This was the insoluble labyrinth within which the trap of fearing the neighbour lay.
This hints at another self-reinforcing problem the culture had created: isolation from the neighbour was actually debilitating to the ability to work together. Understanding this is key if the contemporary mind is to grasp why the only means of gaining control of one’s life—to meet and work together with others—was so consistently rejected prior to the Transition. It is true that the general fear of the neighbour was very much strengthened by specific prejudices: racism, sexism, phobia of the poor and so on. Yet these factors are often exaggerated in popular histories, in part because they strike us as so foolish. In reality, even given an entirely homogeneous neighbourhood, most people still understood neither the value of escaping the isolation-fear trap, nor the paths out of it that appear so clear to ourselves.
In one sense, the reason people could not work together is transparently obvious: they had not been trained in how to work together. It would take many decades to understand that meeting together required training, that it should start when young and never stop. Over time schooling came to be understood as it is today: as preparation for working together and making decisions together. The key to the puzzlingly long evasion of this—to us—self-evidently reasonable path lies partly in the fact that it was never overtly rejected: the average mind of the era simply shied away from the very thought of working with the neighbour. Its entire training and sense of self pointed in the opposite direction. ’Freedom’ consisted of doing as one wished, and the contradictions inherent in billions of individuals doing as they wished were glossed over using the trite notion of ‘rights’, and never mind that people would commonly give a hundred different versions of what they considered their rights to be.
To understand why it was not clear to the pre-Transition mind that freedom also required other people, we must delve further into the fears that haunted it. Chats over the garden fence notwithstanding, the fear of the neighbour imbued the very culture in which people lived. As already mentioned, one aspect of the terror concerned the lived practicalities of working together with others. The meeting itself was regarded with horror. It consumed time better spent on one’s own pursuits. It spoke of boredom, of poorly managed debates between battling egos. Above all one would have tolerate the people one had constructed one’s atomised life specifically in order to avoid. Difference, often lauded in word, was usually felt as an onerous burden.
And it is in discussing meetings of the time that we can finally understand why some of this fear was justified. In the absence of training, meetings truly could be an odious experience. One must imagine a meeting as a convergence of loneliness, fear, competitiveness, dominance/subservience, mental ill-health, and ignorance. To create a sense of the very genuine tedium and dysfunctionality this could create, we can try to imagine a group of deeply traumatised people entering a room with relative strangers and attempting to get all their emotional needs met in that space, within a few hours.
We have not yet touched upon another aspect of the everyday terror: the fear of being subsumed into a mass. This was a learned fear, in part deliberately taught, in part inculcated in the institutions of forced education, where it was a very real danger. To examine the extent of this fear, I put it to you that a reader from the early twenty-first century, learning that we no longer have fences between houses, would immediately leap to the conclusion that we instead have between our homes a sort of undifferentiated parkland without boundaries. To the damaged mind of the time, the simple expedient of separately controlled plots, each with an individual character, yet open on all sides to allow entry by agreement, simply would not have occurred. As a result neighbours could not even walk directly between homes when visiting neighbours on streets backing onto theirs. To remove the fence would be to court the total loss of one’s personality.
The true depths of the deleterious effects of the terror of the neighbour can only be understood through a psychological lens. Lack of self-respect is a corollary of seeing others as unequal, for one cannot help but become obsessed with the inequalities and hierarchies within one’s own self. It is this failure of valuing of the self—and the twisted conception of the self as fully autonomous—that did so much to inhibit the Transition. Consider: if two members of a household had such different visions for their garden that they struggled to work together, at no point would either of them (or their neighbours) have considered that one of them might instead work on a neighbour’s plot, with someone whose vision they did share. It’s not that this would have been considered and rejected. The historical record shows that it could not be conceptualised. The constant measurement of one’s neighbour and oneself within a framework of competition and inequality ensured that people could not reach out to each other. The fences were strongest in the mind.
Jake Stanning is a public sector worker, occasional journalist and constant blogger. His interests are trees and radical politics, which sometimes converge in thinking about commons. He is currently helping to launch London Renters Union.
“Encyclopedia of the Mad Gardener” takes place in a fictional future where the equatorial line has thickened to become a zone, forcing mass migrations to the ends of the planet. This equatorial zone is the dampscape, where things are irremediably hybrid and contaminated (human/nonhuman, virtual/real, organic/inorganic) and the boundary-edges of solids are fuzzy, mushy, and moist. The zone undecipherable of the equator stands in contrast to the Garden, which is an inhabitable heterotopia, a site of purification, albeit precarious. Desperate for resources in this hollowed-out planet, the Department’s priority is to create a new classification system to determine ‘pure rubbish’, elements from which no further value can be extracted. The narrative focus is on “this Clarice”, who is tasked to draft this taxonomy, but reaches a point of saturation where she herself melts into the humid dampscape.
This piece was developed in a writing workshop, Post Super Future Asia, organized by Jason Wee, founder of Grey Projects in Singapore, and Esther Lu, director of Taiwan Contemporary Art Centre.
Things that provide humans with energy
Things that provide humans with energy that are not edible
Construction materials with a five-year life-span
Construction materials with a ten-year life-span
Plastics with origins in inorganic compounds
Plastics with origins in organometallic compounds
Plastics with origins in organic compounds
Solids that look like solids
Solids that look like solids but are actually
Things with bio-traces
Ambivalent things that could be considered human with further research
Sluices and foams
Things that appear to be useful (but are not)
Things that appear to be useless (but are not)
Things that are very useful
Things that are very useless
They need to hear its airless breathing, ozone skin and metal spines heaving in and out.
Words weigh on this Clarice with their inclusions and exclusions, non-sequiturs and false dichotomies, mistakes lodge themselves into their windpipe, air thinning out. Walking out into the labyrinth has turned into a nightly habit. They need to hear its airless breathing, ozone skin and metal spines heaving in and out. Under the genteel face of the pink moon, the orchids appear to droop slightly, providing no compensation. They are no longer the verdant and beautiful, immortal stalks standing erect and sitting out of time. Only the sweet smell of smouldering plastic and aircon refrigerant, perhaps, already leaking through the pores of the triple-layered glass.
They feel the smells seep into their nasal channels, dioxins boiled under the pink moon, flooding neural pathways, gases slowly encrusting, lining the PVC walls of veins and arteries. This Clarice would then become rock, an eternal orchid.
Other projects were lighter, more definite, like the implementation of picture-windows onto every edge of the garden, the first of many ingenious contributions by this Clarice for the Department. The message of the picture-windows were simple: lookat what’soutsideandlookatyourself. The outside would be burnished into the day-to-day lives of the garden’s inhabitants, instilling gratitude, and more importantly, keeping the outside within a frame, as an image, an undesirable horizon, to be viewed from a comfortable distance.
Organic compounds/Inorganic compounds
This project was like slime, neither fluid nor solid, categories sliding past one another, sticking and mixing like weekday adulterers under warm neon. These were words for contaminated things and the boundaries drawn drew no blood. From past experiences, the Department’s campaigns with compounding, hyphenation and other terminological transplants were unviable options. Surgical as they were, these words quickly dissolved into obsolescence.
The Department, tired from the Babel-like confusion in the administration of the tropics, placed the renovation of existing classification systems as its top priority.
Et cetera was the other problem. The problem was equatorial, a line thickened from a hairline to a stroke to a wet stain: zone undecipherable. Three planets and a fraction already exhausted, causing in a mass migration from the maladies and mercurial weather of the yawning tropics. The Department, tired from the Babel-like confusion in the administration of the tropics, placed the renovation of existing classification systems as its top priority. The most urgent was to delimit pure rubbish, waste for which no value could be extracted. But this Clarice began from nowhere, the agglutinating mush offering neither entry nor exit, fleeing from definition, by definition, this Clarice could not dissect and examine its pieces. It was an admission of defeat.
Things that belong to the Department
Things with tentacles
This evening that Clarice, letting their feet navigate the sinews of the labyrinth, find themselves in another pavilion. One could tell that not many have visited the Pavilion of Benevolent Knowledge, with its carbonfibre seats splintered and frayed, the onceluminescent orange of its pillars now off-colour, browned by the moon. Cloaks of dust settled on the miniaturized Banyan. The eyes direct themselves, contouring along the tangents and angles of the pavilion, all lines leading towards the picture window. Towards the outside, an anachronistic dampscape, wetland and swamp. Perhaps from the affliction of the wandering mind, in this sweltering evening, the glass surface of the window saturates itself, as though looking back at this Clarice were the lace of hairline cracks, the undulating light that breaks apart, dappled and dappling layers of dust, rainwater stains, and their reflection onto the uneven glass coming together and torn asunder, one of thousand other countenances sunken into the mush, tangled with gossamer plastic and sewer-lalang floating in deadwater, rafflesian rot blooming with silicon-sand particles of circuitboard, eroded, haunted by the great drift of spectral vibrations from databytes, undeletable. What remains of wet banana leaves, crushed, a halo of flies starving for polyethylene.
Things that belong to the Department
Slimes and other aggregates
Those that look more human with your eyes squinted
 “All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with sober sense his real conditions of life, and his relations with his kind.” Karl Marx, ManifestooftheCommunistParty (1848)
 “The garden is the smallest parcel of the world and then it is the totality of the world. The garden has been a sort of happy, universalizing heterotopia since the beginnings of antiquity (our modern zoological gardens spring from that source).” Michel Foucault, OfOtherSpaces:UtopiasandHeterotopia, 1967
 “The unfinished Chthulucene must collect up the trash of the Anthropocene, the exterminism of the Capitolocene, and chipping and shredding and layering like a mad gardener, make a much hotter compost pile for still possible pasts, presents, and futures.” Donna Haraway, StayingwiththeTrouble, 2016
 “I leave to the various futures (not at all) my garden of forking paths.” Ts’ui Pen quoted in Jorge Luis Borges, The Garden of Forking Paths, 1941
 “What matters is through this daily gesture I confirm the need to separate myself from a part of what was once mine, the slough of chrysalis or squeezed lemon of living, so that its substance might remain, so that tomorrow I can identify completely (without residues) with what I am and have. Only by throwing something away can I be sure that something of myself has not been thrown away and perhaps need not be thrown away now or in the future.” Italo Calvino, La Poubelle Agréée, 1977
Marcus Yee is an artist and writer working at the intersections of waste cultures, infrastructure, and new materialism. He recently presented his first solo exhibition,Altars for Four Silly Planets in soft/WALL/studs, Singapore.
In the not-so-distant future, when Artificial Intelligence controls almost all facets of human life, Maleika begins to question her relationship with one of the only friends she’s ever known. She is faced with an ethical dilemma between her professional work as a dream collector and her newfound discovery about the implications of that work. In this, the first chapter of a longer story called The collector, the role of creativity, AI, consciousness, and dreams are explored. Characters are robots and humans. AI, through its attempts to understand humanity, is slowly leaching our creativity. In so doing, the earth itself is being leached of its lushness and its green. This story is inspired by my own questioning of the growing technological influences over our lives, and how seemingly progressive forms of technology like AI may end up stripping us of that which makes us truly human.
In the dream pull, I’m only sense. No logic. No boundaries. I was a child the first time it happened. My mother thought I was sleepwalking. She followed as I walked barefoot out of the flat, along the streets, and into the forest. She called to me, “Maleika, Maleika darling, where are you going?”
“I am going to listen,” I said automatically.
“Listen to who?” she asked.
“I don’t know her.”
Waking up to all of the sounds I’m used to through my window: the jarring screech of crashers, the high-pitched gliders, I feel alienated. There’s a hollow in my stomach, and it feels like it’ll carry me up into space. The city feels unfamiliar again today.
Dematra’s my contact. She reels me in when I’m too far into a pull. She sleeps on my cream-coloured living room slat. Her eyes are more beautiful closed. She opens them, “How’d you sleep bumblebee?” She asks.
“Like always. In one side out the other.”
“Yeah, me too.”
Dematra’s my inspiration. She’s perpetually on. In the aluminum light, she’s charcoal, skin soft as shadow. None of the turquoise hints I love so much but her glowing eyes are always the same bright, unflinching enigma. She moves the small sphere over me. It detects whether or not I still have content.
“Clean!” she says giggling. “Good thing we don’t have to give bio samples!” Both of us remembering last night’s substance. Contacts aren’t scanned because they can’t collect. They’re just our anchors. They bring us back when we go too far.
On the glider, I breathe in deep and slow feeling the familiar and grounding rumble through my body. Grey flits by. Endless grey-ness. Green’s become more of a concept. I look at my reflection in the bus window. Those purple hues from my mom. She used to call me her little amethyst.
“She used to, she used to…”
The Agency called and they think they’ve found a pull. Time to check it out. I step off the glider in front of what used to be a factory for personnel vehicles. I can already see her past the rusting fence, sitting on the bench, napping. Usually The Agency’s pulls are reliable. The closer I get, the more I feel.
Loud wind rushes around a distant cliff. The beginning of a moan, a woman’s moan? … There she is in the distance running toward me with her arms outstretched. No. She’s pointing at something. There’s something behind me. I turn to look and suddenly I’m falling. I hit ground. I’m winded but I can feel long grass in my grip as I dig my fingers into the earth. I can’t breathe. Something strangling me, ropes around my throat, vines, I can’t tell. It hurts.
“Maleika! Maleika!!” Dematra made it. Her touch pulled me out. “It’s lucky I found you, bumblebee!”
I’m panting, “Where am I?”
“We’re still here,” she says.
“It was different this time,” I tell her. “It’s like it wanted to strangle me.”
I look around and see the woman’s still napping on the bench. Is something changing with the pulls, I wonder. “Well, you know nothing can touch you. Right?” Dematra says looking deeper into my eyes, her clear, unwavering gaze grounding me. “The next time will probably be back to normal, maybe this lady’s just not well.”
“Anyhow, I have it and they were right about the location,” I say, trying to hide my anxiety. “I’ll just upload it to the system and then we can go grab a drink.”
“Are you gonna upload all of it?” She asks.
“Of course,” I tell her.
At The Agency, the upload appears on the cleandome. Jamy watches as the image sparks to life. A woman runs towards the viewer, crying out, pointing to something behind. As the angle changes, the viewer begins to fall for what seems like a long time. The viewer lands in a patch of green.
Jake’s Apartment is tricky to get to. It’s in an alleyway between two big squashers and you have to know how to slide the pattern properly. The last bar and first speak-easy in what, 100 years? In any case, this place makes me happy. Maybe it’s the danger of losing my ability to substance? Most of the faces are familiar. There’s that guy Rick, Nick? Not all good kissers make good lovers. I give him a wave.
“Hey you two! Come on over, I’ve got two seats at the bar,” says Antar, the apt burley man behind the bar.
The bar is almost empty, but we take the seats as if it was full. Antar’s got the type of smile that makes you feel like he’s just done something bad and he wants to tell you about it. I mean, he has done something bad. Selling substance is against code. The Collective would report him. They would take it all. And Antar is convinced they’d do worse.
Plant. That’s what we all call it. I know that it must have had a name, like Lilly, Anthurium, Aloe… But no one knows the names of plants anymore.
But selling substance isn’t as bad, as keeping a plant alive without reporting it to The Agency. Green has to be reported or uploaded to The Agency for their ongoing efforts to solve lack of green, or “the drought” problem, as it is known.
Plant. That’s what we all call it. I know that it must have had a name, like Lilly, Anthurium, Aloe… But no one knows the names of plants anymore. I doubt anyone born after me even knows what a real plant looks or feels like—especially this plant with its long tentacle-like stems that curl out purple hued leaves. Up close you can see there’s this soft fur framing the moist leaves. The mix of emerald green and purple makes them effervescent, its many tentacles reach for the light spilling out of the small cut-out window in the wall.
Come to me, come closer come … Not now! This isn’t an assignment. I shoot back substance to numb the pull. The bar clicks under my ring as I tap for another, and another. This is the shortcut.
“So what’s my favourite collector been up to these days?”
“I’ve been trying to deny that this is my job by refusing contracts, going in late, giving them poor uploads,” I say ironically. “This society is so obsessively punctual, you know? Not me right? Not you and me, hey Ant.”
“What? That’s a change,” Antar says, surprised. “you always loved your job.”
“Tsk tsk,” Dematra wags the finger using just her voice, looking at me and Antar. “You both know that’s a lie! This bumblebee loves it! And they love you! I mean they need you, it’s so obvious…”
“At least you got a job with the collective,” he replies, “You should be happy, we should all be so lucky.” Antar gestures with his left hand to show me all of the other miserable people out there.
“I didn’t ask for this,” I say as the substance finally kicks in.
And then it goes dark, if only for a moment. It’s what I’ve been waiting for. This cold unthinking and unreceptive state.
I don’t know how long I’ve been gone. Dematra is talking about The Agency. “It’s so great!” She shrieks. “They keep on saying that they’re working on a prototype to bring back the green. That the collectors will help.” I laugh like I’ve been here the whole time. Then we all look at the plant in the room.
“So, Antar,” says Dematra, a barely perceptible edge in her voice. “How is it that you keep this one alive?”
Antar never answers this question. We never tell The Agency because there is this unsaid agreement between us three. We keep each other’s little secrets.
It’s midnight, and I’m tired. I left Dematra at Jake’s, and I’m on my way home. Walking is rare for us. There are the relayers but I choose to be old fashioned. The air is clear, and gliders are the only thing up at this hour. It’s off-time for shipping deliveries to the Collective. Some people are still in a phase of work-related transit. I sense the penumbra in the distance. It can’t be a pull, though, because I’m full of substance.
It seizes me, I’m in it, and I mount a relayer. There are fewer and fewer people in the streets. After a while, I find myself on another part of the grid where stand-alone homes are sparse. I dismount and the pull gets stronger, unstoppable. I know I should contact The Agency, that I should get my contact, but this is elating and I’m losing logic.
I know I should contact The Agency, that I should get my contact, but this is elating and I’m losing logic.
An ancient looking woman opens the door standing alone, her long hair reaching down to her waist. There’s a look in her eyes that I’ve never seen. It’s unguarded and warm. Memories start to flood my mind, the jingle of someone’s bracelets, the smell of apples, sunshine illuminating my mother’s smile. She hugs me and whispers in my ear, “You must feel, my child, you must feel it all.”
The main room is large and the walls are covered in vines and pictures… They aren’t pictures, they’re something else that show people. A young girl putting her fingers in different colours and making marks on walls, someone my age throwing their hands with grace, hips thrust to the side. I’m pulled up the wooden stairs of the old house—moonlight seeps through the windows and fills the rooms. On a bed, there’s someone dreaming.
A little boy speaking to an old woman. In front of the boy, a multi-faced sculpture of faces. The faces are singing. The boy asks the older woman about the music, she looks at him with pride.
“All you have to do is listen, to be. All you have to do is dance, to be.”
“But what if I don’t want to listen?” asks the boy.
“Then you will become like them,”
She points behind the boy. I turn to look at a large sphere pulsating like the dream detectors.
I come to, by myself and unusually unconfused, like when I’m with Dematra. The boy is awake and staring at me. His black hair is almost invisible in the dark room. He looks disappointed. I’ve never spoken with one of the dreamers after collecting.
“They always said that this would happen.” He says with a blank expression.
“That a collector would come to steal my dreams.”
I explain to him that I don’t steal dreams, I just upload individual ones. Despite being younger than me, it’s clear that I am speaking with someone more familiar with the pull. He gives me a sad smile, “Is that what you’ve been told?”
“What do you mean, what I ‘ve ‘been told?’ I work for The Agency, my work is official, Collective sanctified,” I reassure him. He smiles sadly. As he uncrosses his graceful arms, I see they’re covered in symbols I don’t recognize.
“Have you sent it?” he asks.
“No, not yet. It doesn’t take long though.”
“If I tell you, will you promise not to send it?”
“Protocol?” He interrupts. “Who’s protocol? Why is there a protocol in the first place?” He’s not angry, just sadly amused, “do you ever ask yourself these questions?”
“No, I don’t need to. I’m doing good work…” I question myself as I say it.
“You don’t sound convinced,” he’s so calm and gentle that I can’t help but be curious. As he tells me the story, the room comes alive. His name is Nilo. Nilo’s hair dances around his face, undulating like dark water. His hands illuminated at moments by moonbeams tracing what was once “a magical world.”
“You see, Maleika, when you upload the dream, I cease to be a dreamer…” He looks at the paintings and I follow his gaze. Painted in a larger piece, is a lithe man with long hair, “dancing.”
“Why are you the only Creative I’ve ever met?” I ask.
“I don’t know. Mom thinks the Collective is threatened by Creatives so they collect. Worse, actually. Look at her paintings.”
The boy takes her downstairs to the paintings:
People wearing standard issue gear are zipping and beating people dressed like Nilo and his mom. Behind the people like him are colourful pieces of furniture, plants, flowers.
As Nilo explains “art”, behind Maleika and the endless grey, an oddly familiar glance pierces her thoughts.
A woman’s soothing voice, singing into her ear, crying… A classroom with three colourfully dressed children lined up against a wall. The cold touch of the instructor’s fingers against her forehead; her metallic gaze, unwavering, grounding, staring at her over and over again.
“Do you believe me?” he asks.
“Yes.” I say, feeling lightning.
Walking back by the last of the supposedly abandoned old homes, each with unusually-painted window frames, barely perceptible lights are on in the rooms. The shifting lace curtains reveal something else. There is something ancient inside of me. Colourful, greyless, loud… it is awake.
It’s 2AM, I’ve only been to Dematra’s commonblock once before and I have more questions than ever. Her building’s recom scans my voice and utters an approving “Authorized“. I knock on her door, it creeks open.
“Dematra, I know it’s late, I need to talk!”
Her flat is minimal. The light from the street spills through the kitchen window, like mercury. A single upturned glass sits on the counter next to the sink in the empty kitchen.
I move through the living room toward the bedroom. There’s a soft pulsing light coming from the darkness. I push the door open and take a seat on the metal bench. Her body is there, limp, head over one shoulder pulsing with a cold, soft glow. Her hair, usually a deep oak brown, is off. Scalp entirely exposed, a labyrinth of metallic threads running through her skin. Her eyes are open but instead of the warmth I’m used to, they’re off.
“Come on, come on, I’ve got something I need to talk about!” I say hoping this will quicken lumibration.
I reach out and touch her shoulder. It’s a cold object but slowly the pulsing glow subsides and the brushed silicone softness I’m so fond of returns to her skin. I grab her hair and place it back onto her head, brushing it to the side in the style she likes.
Her eyes blink once and there. “It took you long enough!” I shout.
“Whatcha doin’ here honey?” She asks, visibly surprised.
Seated side by side, I recount the events of my evening. The boy, the art, the homes, and the horrible revelation.
“Am I a thief?”
In the subsiding glow of Dematra’s lumibration, she looks at me with something new. I think that I see her pupils dilate, that grounding gaze opens up to me and reaches out like a plant to light.
“I don’t know, bumble bee. I understand that you perform for The Agency, and for the good of us all,” Dematra’s neck twitches and voice distorts, “T-that’s all, al…” Her voice trails off into her empty room, her empty kitchen, her grey flat.
“You can’t just keep telling me to perform and collect. It’s not enough anymore. I really need you to be my friend right now.”
I turn toward her as she shudders spastically.
“Look.” She says.
All of a sudden I see my mother’s eyes in hers and I’m taken over by a pull.
A small child appears sleeping in a garden. She is being watched by another small, perfect child. I’m my mother watching the children.
Fire surrounds us as those eyes that don’t belong to her look deeper into mine and ask, “Why can’t they dream, Maleika?
Dematra snaps back, the fire is gone. “”Whatcha doin’ here, bumble bee?”
Vera-Maria Zissis is a soon-to-be first-time mom, avid science fiction reader, nurse, and creator. She has a BFA in Sculpture from Concordia University and has always written poetry and short stories.
The Government has concluded that it does not see a strategic case to bring forward a tidal energy scheme in the Severn estuary at this time, but wishes to keep the option open for future consideration
– British government, 2010
The project anticipates that the Bristol area will likely experience a sea level rise of 7m by the year 2275
– Alfie Hope, Sea Rise City art project in collaboration with the UN department of Water and Climate Change, 2015
One of the most urgent tasks that we mortal critters have is making kin, not babies
– Donna Haraway, 2016
Were I a man, or had I a woman as partner, I might have made very different choices about marriage and children
– Rebecca Solnit, 2016
The rain was light, but effective in its endeavour. The unwaxed fabric of the marquee roof was starting to give in to the pressure above, and beads of liquid formed and dropped on the sombre faces of the huddled gathering like teardrops. Oh well, thought Esta. Water is a core element of the ceremony.
Esta loosed her attention from the preparatory notes that Mera, the officiant, was delivering to her friends, family and colleagues. Although attentive, they were more focused on playing their parts in this just-familiar ritual than they were on what this might mean for Esta herself, the initiate. Had her mother been honest when she described this as a happy day for all the family, or was she merely playing a new role? Esta wondered if her choice was really worthy of this hub of support and celebration.
She looked over the valley at Avon, both town and river of the same name. For half the year the town was the river and the river was the town, for the bounds of the waters surged dramatically from the dry to wet seasons. With the season of Iver finally drawing to a close, the waters were due to subside, and Esta had hoped today might offer the first signs of Estate, the season for which she was named, and with it, some sun. But no, hopefulness and horizons were not to be hers today it seemed. Instead a weary grief flowed from the clouds.
Where Avon’s waters brought power and plenty, they also continually took more land and homes.
In the years since the Division, Esta found hope and loss to be increasingly contingent: avenues explored and dead-ended. Possibilities denied and resolve found only in their void. Where Avon’s waters brought power and plenty, they also continually took more land and homes, making stilt-house residents keen to reach ever-higher ground, and making all citizens cautious of the transient valley. Her own boat-home sufficed whatever the shoreline level, but the waters calmed the lower they flowed.
Mera now stepped closer, drawing Esta’s gaze away from the skyline of boat-decks and rooftops above the waters and back to the fountain at the centre of the marquee.
“It is now. The moon has come through. The meeting of light and dark begins.”
Mera offered Esta and the others glasses of the red wine that poured from the fountain, imported from the neighbouring country of Greater Thames no doubt. It was meant to signify the last blood tasted and lost. Esta’s parents were given chocolates, a condolence of sorts, for where the ceremony was meant to be celebratory for her and the many other women who underwent the Commitment, there was no forced suppression of the grief at the loss of a matrilineage that is felt by many parents when their daughter’s time comes. Esta’s own mother had not been offered this opportunity to choose between having or not having children, and Esta had so far failed to ask how she might have considered it.
Mera pressed her forehead to Esta’s, and she awakened to her own presence in the ritual. She felt herself surfacing from below water, from the darks of a river pool into the light of a bright moon. She had chosen this path, and now it was carrying her forward into territories unknown. Mera poured water over their hands and faces from a silver pewter jug engraved with Sheela-na-gigs, a sexuality goddess mistaken as fertility queen from millennia past in the region. Together they began the incantation:
Of fruit that bears seed
Will now the tender corn yield
Of fruit that may flower
Comes now the greater power
All men now find femme
Parental duality within them
For my country’s greater need
I shall not breed.
Hearing her friends speak the words before had half-shocked half-thrilled Esta. It was as if the women became more powerful in rejection of their natural potential to bear offspring than in its enactment, like lionesses refusing to eat a kill. Power withheld is more potent than strength spent. Yet in this moment, giddy with the first alcohol she’d tasted in months, a deeper pain stabbed her from inside, and she didn’t find herself exuding the empowered grace she’d been told to expect.
She glanced at Yannick, once her lover, who was at that moment tending to his belligerent toddler alongside his partner Khalil.
She glanced at Yannick, once her lover, who was at that moment tending to his belligerent toddler alongside his partner Khalil, a cooing calamity erupting from the warm glow of their familial cocoon. Esta wondered whether the sharp pang she felt high in her chest was for Yannick himself or for what he shared with Khalil and their son. Ever since the Division which split Greater Thames, Avon, Mercia and Cumbria into separate countries, Avon and its shires had been declared formal matriarchies. In practice, however, it was wealth not gender that determined power and influence at the very top, just as before.
The reformation into a matriarchal society came in defiance of the further entrenchment of patriarchy in Greater Thames. When the richer, more powerful Greater Thames cast the rest of the island off from its financial prosperity, the regions-turned-countries sought to define themselves in the negative image of their former ruler. Mercia and Cumbria were now ruled by farmers and miners; Avon was ruled by women, who were mainly engineers. In this matriarchy, the decree that men must nurture and bear full responsibility for child rearing had initially been seen as a rebalancing of respect for care work, one which suited men like Yannick and Khalil who were already partnered in the eyes of the state under the old systems. But Esta, who had not partnered in that way but navigated brief intimacies with women she met through work, or men who lived around her moorings, increasingly felt the men basked in a greater glory for their parenting than ever afforded to women in the past.
Her own parents embraced the change willingly but not wholeheartedly, happy that their only daughter would rise in the ranks of her profession. The decision to employ only women in all areas of public works had proved successful for the recovering economy, post-Division. The female workers remained more efficient, even on better pay, and productivity was unprecedented. Esta was proud of the contributions she had made to the overhaul of energy production following the total destruction of their offshore renewable power infrastructure in the 24 hour military attack by the States some twelve years ago as punishment for Avon’s refusal to sign a trade deal. The ten years since Esta had graduated as an engineer at the age of 17 had scattered around like leaves in a gust of wind, butterflying her from homestead power to geo-thermal projects across the city.
Water-power had its season, and solar likewise, and it was her designs that helped bridge the transition from the lifestyle and rhythms of energy use that went with one generative source to the next. Still, getting power to the outer reaches of the shires was hard outside the protections of the town. In the shires, local transmission was not an option and infrastructure had to be imported, risking theft en route by the smugglers feeding the insatiable hunger of the elites in Greater Thames. Having spurned the regions lack of economic contribution it was joylessly ironic to see what was once a self-sufficient capital city rely on the resources of neighbouring countries via the smuggler’s market.
Esta swallowed the last blood-red drops in her tin cup. A cloying aftertaste remained, sticky as bloodied knickers and used condoms, the trappings of which she’d now have no need. Women still took male lovers, although many men chose to parent. Those men that did not had no prospect of public work since parenting was only an option supported by the state if within a long-term partnership with another man. The ones that chose not to parent lived productively, but quietly, hosting events for workers, tending to small-scale farming and other arts. Theirs was a quiet masculinity which neither translated to Avon’s new traditions nor maintained power in the old ways.
With a façade of the initiate’s readiness for change, Esta mimicked Mera moving along the line of guests echoing the codes of the republic with each of three kisses on the left cheek, “Independence. Productivity. Sisterhood.” The same words screamed at political rallies in years past, now hollow with repetition instead of bursting with resistance. When she reached Yannick in the line, the flushing weight of the wine in her face forced a pause and she accepted his steady gaze.
“You’re scared Est. It’s ok.”
His squeeze of her shoulder was too tempting a warmth in the cool air, which was drawing heat from her skin as the evening closed in and the rain crescendoed.
“It’s not the operation…it’s the expectation. Like I’ve got to fill this supposed void with a thousand other achievements.”
“You’d do everything you do either way. This should be about what you want, not what’s expected of you.”
She thought of all she’d worked for over the past decade of political upheaval.
“All I expect is another surprise.”
Mera had reached the end of the line, her eyes calling Esta onwards, closer into her new self. Her mother’s kiss, the last in line, was simple and forgiving, unquestioning of any choice Esta made with the body she had birthed to her. Suddenly Esta longed to more fully understand the gift her mother had given her. The carriage, effort and majestic trauma necessary to create her own being. This would be an appreciation she could never truly know without sharing in its drama. From a frail emptiness at the base of her spine came a new determination, like a resurgent kite striking high in the sky on a fresh wind. The incantation Mera began breathed into this space inside her.
A new role
A new body
A new meaning
The female eunuch revisited
In sexless, seedless, flowerless power
From milk and honey to muscle and mind
We loose the limits of your body
Elsewhere in Greater Thames at this very moment, women her age would be celebrating pregnancies and embracing the charms and challenges of a life involuntarily devoted to motherhood.
Elsewhere in Greater Thames at this very moment, women her age would be celebrating pregnancies and embracing the charms and challenges of a life involuntarily devoted to motherhood, prohibited them from any other form of work until the children were 17. Where in Avon parenting was a male duty, in Greater Thames women bore the labour alone, but without glory or credit, simply out of custom and expectation.
Esta recalled the look of condescension and disbelief in the eyes of her colleague’s father during the only ever trade visit to Greater Thames when she told him her and her friends were not, nor did they intend to become mothers. In that moment she held his first grandson at six weeks, his latent fear that her inexperience might at best hurt the child and at worst curse him. She herself was sure the baby quieted like a trusting puppy at her lack of panic about being perceived as a failed woman, palpable in the new mothers present. There was so much expectation on them, yet no emergence in success. Could it be that women on both sides of the border, whether esteemed as mothers or matriarchs were doomed to feelings of perpetual insufficiency? She looked to her own mother once more, and felt the familiar reassurance of her knowing gaze: neither route provided assurances.
The rain had begun in earnest now, and pounded on and through the cloth roof, already soaked and heavy with uncertainty and expectation of waters breaking. Esta’s eyes set on the red tent awaiting her across the hilltop where they stood. Mera’s slender fingers were holding back the curtain from within. It was time to wave goodbye to the possibility of an unworkable surprise. She hugged Yannick one last time, absently kissed his baby’s forehead, and headed down the slope towards the red tent’s opening.
Mel Evans is an artist and activist. Mel has written one non-fiction book (Artwash, Pluto, 2015), contributed to various academic journals and books, and had several pieces of creative writing published (A Woman Alone, with The Dangerous Women Project and poetry in the Poppies edition of Brain of Forgetting).
This essay is both a critical reflection and review of two books: the edited volume, Arts of Living on a Damaged Planet, from University of Minnesota Press (Tsing et. al. 2017) and Jeff VanderMeer’s (2017) Borne. When read diffractively together, these two texts map onto one another as a simultaneously troubling and inspiring thought experiment about what it means to accept and live with the premise of the apparent Anthropocene.In the shade of this epoch, the politics of scale – of space and time – are up for debate, inviting new forms of thought that, when taken seriously, have drastic implications for the art and practice of existence/survival on this planet.
When read diffractively together, these two texts map onto one another as a simultaneously troubling and inspiring thought experiment about what it means to accept and live with the premise of the apparent Anthropocene.
Arts of Living on a Damaged Planet is divided into two smaller books: Ghosts and Monsters. On Ghosts – ‘The winds of the Anthropocene carry ghosts–the vestiges and signs of past ways of life still charged in the present’ (2017: G1). On Monsters–‘Monsters ask us to consider the wonders and terrors of symbiotic entanglement in the Anthropocene’ (2017: M2). These two theoretical mechanisms work together ‘in a dialectical fashion… to unsettle anthropos…from its presumed center stage in the Anthropocene by highlighting the webs of histories and bodies from which all life, including human life, emerges’ (2017: M3). In sum, this work engages with the emergent truth(s) of the Anthropocene, namely that Nature, as something separate from civilization, is dead. In this epoch, every facet of Nature–from plastics and soot in the Earth’s crust to molecular-level species interference–has been implicated in the human regime in some form or another. This is not meant to imply that all humans share the same responsibility for these shifts in the earth system, or that the impacts of these shifts are equally distributed among human and non-human populations. Still, when considering that Nature is and always has been co-produced with civilization (even if some civilizations produce more intensively than others), the implication of humanity in this geologic moment ignites a sense of speculation and wonder that inspires a geologically oriented reconsideration of what constitutes ‘us’ and the world we inhabit.
The approaches taken in this book vary between physical and social sciences to the arts and humanities in an attempt to open up new spaces for intellectual and political praxis between otherwise discreet epistemological traditions. While there is certainly room for critique in this edited volume–especially given the sometimes sporadic and disparate connective threads between the chapters–this book is written in direct response to developments in critical and social theory that have wrestled with the Anthropocene. These theories have done much of the hard work of critiquing, deconstructing, and displaying the inequalities and disparities of this moment. Though imperfect (this book consistently refers to an undifferentiated ‘we,’ for example), this book is one of few that attempts to rearticulate and empiricize our new reality. Moreover, this collection of works pays attention to the stories ‘we’ tell about the Anthropocene: ‘Some kinds of stories help us notice; others get in our way’ (2017: M8). As a piece of speculative fiction, Jeff VanderMeer’s Borne is a story that does both: it helps us notice the implications–the trace impressions–of our actions in the future, and it gets in our way–confronts us–by not allowing us to ignore our place in the Anthropocene’s actualization.
Borne’s central character, Borne, is a symbiont, a creature (monster? weapon? person?) that consumes genetic material. He/she/it represents both a ghost–something that embodies and alters previous and present genetic material–and a monster, in that it also represents an entanglement of salvaged pieces and bodies. Borne is found and raised by Rachel, a scavenger woman, in the ruins of a futuristic city wrecked by catastrophe and lorded over by a giant, venomous flying bear named Mord. While ecological collapse is a peripheral component of Borne’s world, biotech is centered in the book as the culprit for much of the city’s destruction. The city is inhabited and ravaged by botched biotech experiments and human and non-human survivors. However, the book should not be considered necessarily dystopic. While it may appear so to readers sympathetic to the human characters, who are certainly central to the book’s plot, the world of Borne is teeming with new, unexpected life. This is signaled when Borne encounters a poisoned river near Rachel’s home; a river she considers dead and ugly but that also serves as a site of contemplative beauty for Borne. Throughout the book, Borne struggles with its identity–whether it is a thing, a person, a weapon, or a monster. There is hardly any resolution to Borne’s existential crisis, as these framings of its existence stem from a humanistic point of view. Further, Borne is both an individual and a community, a singular being symbiotically imbricated in its surroundings. It is an iterative version of itself, a concocted mesh of genetic material. Though Borne seems to be more or less in control of its being, it is driven by a desire to consume genetic material, which highlights the agentive nature of genes, namely that they are constantly becoming and emergent. In this way, Borne, and the world Borne inhabits and consumes and alters (and is altered by), is representative of much of the work outlined in Arts of Living on a Damaged Planet.
The breadth of topics covered in Arts of Living on a Damaged Planet is too wide to cover here. However, there are certain pieces that are especially relevant when read with Borne. With regards to ghosts, Karen Barad uses the silhouettes left behind of human bodies vaporized by the detonation of the atomic bomb in Hiroshima to extend her conceptualization of post-humanist performativity. She argues that time itself died in the blast, but that its loss, though indiscernible, is profoundly tangible. In sum, the ‘photographs’ taken by the demoleculuarization of human bodies illustrates the agentive capacity of molecules, highlighting the ways in which the world is inhabited, haunted, represented, and built by forces beyond the human. Similarly, Jens Christian-Svenning’s contribution illustrates the way in which the contemporary global landscape is haunted by trace impression of the past. Entire ecologies are built upon and fundamentally shaped by large-scale extinctions, for example, and these ghosts continue to emerge and build new worlds around us. Though the name Anthropocene centers the human as a species-wide disturbance in the geologic record, it is, as Dorion Sagan discusses in his contribution, one geologic moment of many mapped onto and nested into one another. These ghosts live in the present, contributing to the global ecology of the current world. Further, they haunt the future, of what will come.
The landscape of Borne is similarly haunted by ghosts. Borne’s city is pockmarked by the extended failures of capitalist development: toxic rivers, burnt-out buildings, creeping desertification. These landmarks frame the plot of Borne much in the same way the collective story of the Anthropocene is framed by eerily similar ghosts. Like the molecules that make loss tangible in Barad’s work, there is an emergent world of possibilities lurking in the background of Borne. While the landscape itself is ghostly in the novel, the character Borne is also phantasmagoric. It is a specter that looms outside of human control, despite Rachel’s best efforts. As it consumes more genetic material, it is simultaneously haunted and haunting. It is haunted by the genes it is forced to ingest, as they develop and alter Borne’s biophysical structure. And, it is haunting, as Borne grows it becomes increasingly unknowable and uncanny. Further, as a piece of biotech–as an experiment of late-stage capitalist development–Borne represents a loss of control in this world, haunting this present reality from a speculative future, which resonates with Tsing et. al.’s (2017) notion that the Anthropocene can be understood as a future that looks back on the present. This monstrous future, however, is also framed by the monstrosity of the present, which is another tack taken by Arts of Living on a Damaged Planet.
Speculative fiction provides an alternative world in which it is possible to envision monstrosity.
If ‘Monsters are bodied tumbled into bodies’ (Tsing et. al., 2017: M10), Scott F. Gilbert’s chapter in Arts of Living on a Damaged Planet highlights that life itself is monstrous. He uses the term holobiont–‘an organism plus its persistent communities of symbionts’ (2017: M73)–to engage with developments in biology that troubles the concept of an individual. He uses a cow as an example. A cow is unable to survive on its own, as it is unable to digest its food. Instead, ‘It is the population of gut symbionts that digests the grass and makes the cow possible’ (2017: M73). Even human birth would be impossible without symbionts. Gilbert’s chapter highlights one thing: all life is symbiotic, dependent upon complex relationships for survival. Extinction, however, has become a trademark of the apparent Anthropocene. As species disappear, so do their microbial legacies, as Margaret McFall-Ngai writes in her chapter. This creates a vacuum in which symbiotic survival becomes questionable. There is no analogue for lost species and lost microbial universes. However, as species disappear, these symbiotic entanglements are amplified outside of microbial worlds. As Peter Funch shows in his chapter about the intertwined lives of horseshoe crabs and red knot birds, loss affects global ecologies. Horseshoe crabs and red knot birds are mutually dependent upon one another for their collective survival. In an era of mass extinctions, this realization raises the question of how to do entangled conservation, and, when doing conservation, what is at stake. It is here, at the edge of loss, that this book’s dialectical schematic of ghosts and monsters come together. What trace impressions of loss will influence the future? Further, what does it mean to live in a time and place where these changes are taking place?
Speculation becomes a powerful tool when thinking through these questions, and speculative fiction provides an alternative world in which it is possible to envision monstrosity.The monstrous implications of the Anthropocene are centered in Borne. Borne’s existence is sustained and mediated by symbiotic relationships. In this sense, Borne represents an ideal monster (a body tumbled into bodies), a case study in what Arts of Living on a Damaged Planet seeks to outline. Yet, Borne is not the only monster in the novel. The human characters in the novel are also holobionts, using variations of biotech–from intravenous medicine to external traps–for survival. These complex relationships play out through the books plot as Rachel encounters other human-esque characters. Finally, the backdrop of the novel is scattered with monsters, symbiotic creatures living and dying in the ruins of the city. Flying bears, bioengineered fish, and disappearing foxes are among these monsters. However, these creatures exist and survive through complex relationships with one another and the landscape. Like microscopic symbionts discussed in McFall-Ngai’s work, or the speculative loss discussed in Funch’s work, the monsters in Borne allow its readers to envision and imagine a monstrous world haunted by the Anthropocene.
As this moment continues to unfold at multiple spatial and temporal scales it is critical to remain grounded in the shifting sands of empirical reality while also continuing to think and imagine about what reality may, can, and will look like in the future.
But, what is the Anthropocene? When did it start? Are we in it or entering it? What do we call it? Whose fault is it? As a concept, what does it ‘do’? What sort of politics or ideas does it enable or disable? The answer to these questions have been pushing thought and work on the Anthropocene for decades, despite its more or less recent rise to fame in the social sciences. While Arts of Living on a Damaged Planet is a foray into answering these questions with empirical and experimental work, these questions remain largely unanswered. Partly because some of them are unanswerable, and partly because there remains much thought work to be done. Speculative fiction, like Jeff VanderMeer’s Borne, puts in the thought work. It gives readers something to grapple, to do the hard work of thinking and imagining the full political, ethical, and moral implications of a geologic humanity. What does it mean to be human? Who is considered human? The questions continue. In sum, these pieces work well together, and are both important works in the context of the apparent Anthropocene. As this moment continues to unfold at multiple spatial and temporal scales it is critical to remain grounded in the shifting sands of empirical reality while also continuing to think and imagine about what reality may, can, and will look like in the future.
Dylan M. Harris is a PhD candidate in the Graduate School of Geography at Clark University. He studies the stories we tell (and don’t tell) about climate change and comes up with his own stories from time to time.
The streets around the station had caught a glitter from the early morning rain, and as sunlight poured between the towers, every surface sparkled. In the puddles between the tracks, the city was shattered into shards of the 21st century ambition that built it.
Stillness prevailed—a coiled anticipation. The only permanent denizens idled, ready to serve: law enforcement drones hovered at the end and beginning of their patrols; auto-kiosks stood, shutters open, steam curling from espresso bays; city-roombas lurked in alleys ready to suck up litter; adverts lay ready to broadcast targeted pitches to the coming rush. Behind every wall, floor, and pillar programs and machinery hummed in neutral—an orchestra held by the raised hands of its conductor.
Keith watched the city swell to engulf the train, staring out as the avenue of towers rose around the tracks. His morning music—slow sitar overlain by a duet in Hindi and Portuguese—played languidly, barely drowning out the murmur of the carriage behind him. Normally, this was his favourite part of the day—a meditative peace that washed from his commute through his day, providing him deep, enduring comfort—but, today, it was little comfort. He twisted at his hair and gnawed at his nails.
Marriage, he thought. It was a terribly old-fashioned idea, but it felt right. He wanted to commit—to declare his intention publicly amongst his friends and family. To tell his truth. But before that lay the question, and the answer. That morning, something had fallen away within him and he’d realized he was unsure what Surinder would say. Surinder, his Surinder: the man who ate tangerines without peeling them and always got juice everywhere; who talked about chemistry the way others talk about movies; who he’d whisked away to Zanzibar for a beach holiday just four months into their relationship only to find him driving them into Stone Town to explore the old slave markets. Surinder with his cross-eyed grins and his irritating way of turning every dinner party into a political brawl. Surinder who was out of his league; Surinder who might say No.
The train jerked to a halt, pulling Keith from his thoughts.
Shimmying and sidling between his fellow commuters as they extracted bags from overhead compartments, he stepped out into the full-bodied petrichor.
The plaza beyond the station was a labyrinth of queues for coffee, dappled by the shadows of drones overhead. Keith walked with purpose, tuning out the adverts that squeezed in between songs and scuttled over every flat surface declaring promises of weekend escapes, resorts, cleaner shaves, and fragrances that might seduce impossibly handsome men.
Faces surfaced briefly from the crowd, throwing up snatches of public profiles—recent Facebook photos, instagram posts, dating, and hook-up profiles. But, caught in his head, Keith avoided eye contact, paying just enough attention to avoid collisions, and headed for the subway.
He clicked through the turnstiles, stepped onto the escalators, and let the ground swallow him. As he stood through his descent, his contact lenses expanded to seize his peripheries. A moment of darkness ensued. Then he was somewhere else. Immersed in an advert—one of his—promoting the newest dating app.
Before him, a full moon hung over mountains bristling with stone pines. He could almost feel the warm summer breeze. A restaurant enfolded him—Italian, Spanish, maybe Greek. Across the table sat a well-muscled white man, slight stubble grazing a square jaw. His new companion laughed inaudibly, biceps tensing as he slapped the table, and a woman’s voice whispered over the pantomime ‘Find your bliss.’
Keith’s feet found solid ground; the advert dissipated, his contacts shrinking back into transparence. Standing at the base of the escalator, he found himself smiling; it was oddly comforting that the targeting systems hadn’t picked up his intentions, hadn’t known. He’d heard so many stories of the algorithms turning prophet, informing people of their pregnancies, impending breakups, and firings. But what if it knows he’ll refuse, a rogue thought like a bull through the streets, could it know?
He got off the subway a stop early to visit the retail district. Mind still stuck in Surinder, he emerged into sunlight onto a broad boulevard cut by stripes of lush vegetation. Ranks of restaurants lined the street. Suited servers hovered around the breakfast crowd, ready to swoop in to replenish any emptying glass. Artisanal bakeries bustled with personal shoppers of the wealthy, homemakers returning from dropping off the kids, and others— foot tapping, heads cocked or on their phones checking their feeds, email, the time—treating themselves before work. Above them hung a haze of reviews, posts, selfies and pictures, each set in a colour-coded square and sized by their influence, likes, and reach. They formed a digital smog that vaulted from eve to eve, and roiled as new posts puffed up to join the old.
No adverts pestered him. And, if he looked down, he could pretend he was in a city of old. Still the spreads behind the glass were whispered temptations—a seduction that he feared his diet would not survive. So he kept his eyes down or ahead, looking at the plants and the drying tarmac, tunnel-gaze only flickering as the shadows of drones blinked over the street.
Gradually, the delis, bakeries, and restaurants gave way to boutiques selling reconditioned vintage clothes, artisanal crockery, and antique furniture. Still, he kept his eyes down until his destination towered over him: a four-story building with sleek black walls and gaping displays of white silk and scattered with red pillows. A single piece of jewelry was draped over each pillow, each was a statement of simple, elegant, opulence.
Keith tried the door. It was locked. Shit, he hadn’t checked. Of course he hadn’t; too wrapped up in his doubts as always. He winced to himself, imagining Surinder’s sardonic smile—the smile that would wrap itself around his man’s face if—when—he told him. Sheepishly, he looked for opening hours on the storefront. There were none displayed on the door, or on the windows: just a simple logo in gold. Keith pulled his phone from his pocket, and searched for the hours: 11:30, guess I’m coming back at lunch.
Gripped by his mistake, he paused, looking at the windows full of jewels and up over the edifice—camera-bulbs, gold skirting, water stains on the black-clad wall. Gradually, he became aware of a presence beside him.
A man stood to his right, hunched, head down. He was dressed—anachronistically—in the loose coveralls of the city’s old waste management service, a department that had been given over to machines a little over a decade before. He noticed the splitting, ragged rubber of the man’s boots, and the dirt beneath his nails before he averted his gaze, frowning. Homeless, he thought, I thought they shipped them all off. Guilt guttered in him. Still, he studiously ignored the man as he struck off to work.
Keith found his intern, Ndidiamaka, in their shared office. She was standing perfectly still in the middle of the room, back to the door. A detached camera-bulb, its cords looping up into the ceiling socket, lay on his desk like a gouged-out eyeball.
Amused and more than a little curious, he lingered by the doorway, watching her.
Alongside her work as his intern, Ndidiamaka was an engineer and a masters student in the sociology of technology; in exchange for her seemingly inexhaustible labour, his firm—AdSight—provided her the data she needed for her thesis project on automation in advertising. Over the months she’d shared his office, he’d seen her devise dozens of bizarre side-projects. More often than not, they failed.
After a minute stood stock still, she checked a tablet beside the camera. Whatever it showed elicited a stream of frustrated muttering.
Keith cleared his throat; Ndidiamaka jumped.
“Shit! Sorry, sorry—I expected to have this mess cleared up long before you came in!”
“It’s quite alright Ndidi, I didn’t mean to startle you… but what, exactly, are you doing?”
“Well, uh, I stayed late last night crunching data for my thesis—it’s due in two weeks can you believe it? And the lights kept on going out—I’d have to jump around every ten minutes to keep them on! So I tried to fix it, and it kind of spiralled from there…”
“…Oh-kay,” Keith stepped around her to slide his briefcase onto the other side of his desk, “well, I’m going to need my desk back at some point.”
“Right, of course—this camera is refusing to see me when I stand still anyways, something to do with the contrast settings. I can’t seem to get around the firmware, been trying for the last three hours—”
“Ndidi, did you go home last night?” At this question, her face became a rictus of guilt, “Ndidi! We talked about this! Am I going to need to start kicking you out of the office when I leave? It’s not healthy!”
“Right, right… I’m sorry, mum. I won’t do it again…” she rubbed the bridge of her nose, “could you help me get the camera back into the ceiling?”
He sighed, “Alright.”
He had to stand on a chair to feed the wires back into the gut of the ceiling. It took several attempts to get it to loop just right and, all the while, Ndidiamaka stood behind him, nervously holding the chair and occasionally giving him ‘helpful’ directions. Finally, with a satisfying click, it twisted in. He clambered down to solid ground and, installing himself at his desk, pulled on a VR headset.
Keith’s livelihood was sandwiched between an ocean of algorithms and a ceiling of decision-making programs. Beneath him, programs ran through a century of footage shot on phones, cameras, and whatever other recording equipment. They pulled out anything relevant, trying to find anything that might go viral or enhance the immersive advertising experience. The way the light hit a building, a fragment of graffiti, the sunset over Mount Cameroon, the ranks of cans at a supermarket: everything would be spliced together.
But the programs were not perfect. They did not, for instance, understand the unspoken rules of society, and what rules they did understand they applied mercilessly. For instance, early in his career, Keith had had to press refresh on an entire campaign for Cutesie, a makeup manufacturer’s new line of products for high-school children when the software started spitting out nothing but hardcore porn. Similarly, he’d had to press reset on the campaign for Gladiator Razors after their request for a ‘martial aesthetic’ caused some rogue element to make SS officers the protagonists of every clip.
Thankfully, those extremes were exceptions. Mostly he dealt with the ten percent of adverts that were jumbled mishmashes that made no sense and the other ten percent that, while coherent, accidentally undermined the clients’ brands. When forced to discuss his job at parties, Keith would tell people that the most interesting part of his job was the subtle art of negotiating the borders of offense. Many of the best advertisements pressed right up against the lines: they threatened transgression. The rules were of marketing were a morass of contradictions that few programs could untangle, none efficiently. Which was lucky, because that was why Keith still had a job. So he sat, VR glasses on, flickering from ad to ad, pushing some through to the automated decision-making processes above him and deleting others.
Most days he felt as though he was trapped between rising flood waters and an impermeable ceiling.
That morning, Keith was faced with a raft of adverts prepared for his agency’s newest client: Saber Security Solutions, a provider of anti-crime systems for supermarkets, homes, and corner stores. He fell into the first ad.
A woman stood before a rack of diapers, grainy in the ancient footage. The scene resolved itself, shedding a century’s baggage to become crisp. It was as though he was there, looking over her shoulder, pondering her choice. She looked a little over forty; a slight grey had snuck into her undyed hair. Hefting a large handbag, she held a box in her hand—a hypoallergenic brand—scrutinising the price. Keith could almost see the calculations writ over her lined face. She sighed, and slid the box back onto the shelf and turned to leave. Then, as though seized by some invisible force, she hesitated. She turned back, lifted the box from the shelf, slipped it into her bag, and walked towards the doors. Alarms blared. Lights flashed. A black tube, terminating in two prongs snaked from the ceiling. Tzack. It jabbed the woman. She collapsed, juddered by the surge of an electric shock. The interlinked triple ‘S’ of Saber Security Solutions descended over the scene, ‘Saber Security Solutions: Presenting the Integrated Anti-Theft System,’ said a stern, male voice.
Not a chance, thought Keith as he emerged from the advert, who wants to see someone’s mother get tased?
The next advert wasn’t much better though it skewed in a different direction. This time the thief was a young, black man dressed in what could only be described as a pastiche of late-20th century ‘urban’ gangster. Wayyy too racist, thought Keith. He nixed it three seconds in.
Of the three ads that followed, only one passed—a gang of rubber-Nixon-masked thieves shaking on a tiled floor.
“Uh, Keith?” He pulled off his goggles. Ndidiamaka stood beside his desk holding two grease-stained paper bags, “my data analysis just finished and it’s given me results that support my thesis so I bought some treats to celebrate.”
“Ndidi! You know I’m on a diet!”
“Hey, I’m not going to eat donuts alone! I got you a dumpling from that Jamaican place, that one you say makes the food better than your grandfather.”
Keith took the paper bag with a smile, “you are such a bad influence.”
“Someone’s got to be—everyone else around here eats like birds.”
She sat on the edge of his desk, pulled down the paper, took a bite of her donut, and released a satisfied sigh. She didn’t bring up her results until they were both halfway through their respective pastries.
“So, Keith, my analysis raises some questions.
“Yeah, you know I was looking at bias in advertising, right?”
“Yeah, of course.”
“Well I’ve been applying Implicit Bias testing methods—” he shot her a blank look, “—they were originally used to demonstrate unconscious biases in humans—on the adverts this agency produces. Well, I inverted the test and…”
“And it shows that darker skin is strongly linked to more negative images and subjects in this agency’s adverts and lighter skin has a slightly weaker association with positive images and subjects.”
“So the programs are racist?”
“That’s what I thought… but…”
“But?” he said, trying to keep the frost from his voice.
“Well, when I looked at each step of the process, I found bias in the programs but the skew gets slightly worse—not better—after it passes your desk. The average, I mean. You do cut out the worst of it, the outliers.”
“I see,” Keith tried his best not to sound offended; Ndidi’s only real devotion was to pure data, “What about the decision-making levels above me?”
“They’re much, much worse—they account for over a third of the skew alone. I don’t mean to cause offense—”
“No, Ndidi. You didn’t do anything wrong—the data is the data. I guess I have some work to do on myself.” he smiled but knew it looked hollow, “I’m a black man—a gay man—even in this day and age, I’ve had to face prejudice.”
“Right. I, uh, just thought you should have a heads up before I submit my thesis.”
“Good call… Could you send me your results so I can review them?”
They finished their food in silence, disturbed only by the passing drones and the mutter of the city.
Afterwards, she sent him her results—a mess of tables and statistics. His first instinct was to prove her wrong. But, try as he might, he couldn’t find anything to undermine her results. When he eventually plunged back into his work, her words pursued him. As he passed through advert after advert, he began to question himself, seeing bias in every decision.
Gradually, he started acting against his instinct, letting ads through which he’d normally delete and deleting some he’d have let go. He let two white children get sprayed with mace for fiddling with the window of a suburban home; allowed an elderly woman get doused with restraint foam for stealing a bag of skittles; approved a gaggle of twenty-something women being tased for shoplifting. The elderly south asian man stealing beer no longer had to suffer a light dusting of pepper spray; the light-skinned black youth avoided getting blasted by a noise cannon. Finally, he deleted a video of a black man in a balaclava shoving jewels into a bag only to be shocked again and again as he struggled towards the open door.
His second job for the day was sorting through adverts made for Matcher, a dating app. Here, his fight began to get interesting. His adversary was his own aesthetic and as such he experimented with its opposite. He waged war on defined muscles, manicured hands, crisp hairlines, and well-groomed beards; he fought youngness, smooth skin, smouldering looks, and his predilection for hooked noses. Out went the elegant plates, cocktails, romantic vistas, and foreign-language films. He cut and cut. Reaching down within his decisions to tear out any remnants of his biases.
The adverts that survived were ungainly, pockmarked by awkward silences and the hubbub of shabby joints. Two women haltingly discussed tax policy over plates of congealing curry. A woman tried to convince her date that the dilapidated dive they sat in ‘wasn’t always like this’ as an ever-expanding bar fight threatened to engulf them. A series of stand up comedians in a small, smokey club threw terrible jokes into deepening silence and then at jeers. Hugs met crossed arms. Drinks spilled. Teeth collided. But still, there were smiles, genuine smiles, fake smiles, laughter—nervous, pitying, and redemptive—conversations about nothing, coy flirtation, long-suffering weariness, moments of profound joy.
By lunchtime, Keith felt triumphant.
On his way back to the jewellery shop, Keith called Surinder, as was his habit. Though as the phone rang, he hoped that the man he had already begun to label as his fiance would not answer. Therefore, it was a slight disappointment when Surinder picked up on the fourth ring.
“Hey babe,” came his deep, calm voice, “perfect timing. Just sat down in the staff room… Claire’s here, she says hey!” Someone said something faint in the background as Keith tried to remember exactly who Claire was. Then he heard Surinder shift and he knew he was getting up to go to the window and stare out onto the road and do what Surinder always did when he was on the phone with someone he cared about: pace unendingly.
“I missed you this morning,” Surinder said, “you were shifting about all night, and then out of bed like a shot when your alarm went off. Is something wrong?”
“Just stressed about work,” Keith lied, “I… uh… well you know how it is.”
“Yeah…” Surinder did not sound convinced, “But you owe me cuddles!”
Despite himself, Keith smiled. It was the exact kind of cutesy behaviour he’d have told anyone he hated, but, coming from Surinder, he felt nothing but delight. Not least because it was a side of the man that few ever saw; no, no-one who knew the grave, sincere professional Surinder would believe just how much of a softie he could be in private.
“So, how’s your day going?” Keith asked, “How was remedial Chem?”
“Oh, fantastic,” Surinder’s voice dripped with sarcasm, “just how I wanted to spend two hours of my life. Today there was almost a fight, so at least something happened to break the monotony of re-teaching kids a bunch of stuff they don’t want to know and will never use—little fuckers will probably all end up on basic.”
“I know, I know: I shouldn’t say that,” Surinder interrupted before Keith could get out his criticisms, “it’s just so frustrating. But I hear that Gregson is finally retiring this year, so there might be a spot teaching the advanced placement program…”
“Yeah,” Keith grimaced, the principal had been dangling advanced placement in front of Surinder for three years; Gregson, a flinty-eyed octogenarian and the teachers union rep had showed no interest in ever stopping. Keith half expected her to pass away giving some high-strung overachiever the B minus that would define their personality for a decade. His mind digested what Surinder had said previously, “Wait, did you say a fight?”
“Wow, you really are distracted today,” Surinder chuckled, “Yeah, the Chen twins were picking on Gus Ramotar again and I guess he’d had it. He flipped his table—”
“Gus the bus flipped a table.”
“Hey, don’t call him that… and it was a mistake, I think, they were poking him, calling him Gus the bus and he flipped out, had enough, stood up… and you know how big he is and how small those ancient desk-chair combos are. Almost took half a row with him.”
“Oof,” Keith winced, “I’m guessing that only encouraged them.”
“Everyone started laughing.”
“He was halfway down the hallway before I caught up,” Surinder sounded unusually bitter—irritatingly but brittly superior despite his terrible grades, Gus was far from Surinder’s favourite student, “He was crying Keith. I asked him what was going on—even if everyone knows he hates them, he’s generally controlled enough not to give the Chens a show. He showed me his news feed using that app—you know that one that lets you share your stream—”
“Yeah, that. Well, he showed me his stream. It was all dieting supplements, workout tapes, fitbits. Every advert.”
“Fuck. That’s horrible. They’re not meant to be able to market that stuff to kids.”
“Yeah, well, they do…”
Keith had ground to a halt on a corner a few blocks from the jewellery store. In the silence, he became aware of his surroundings for the first time. Across the road, a blank expanse of concrete had been overtaken by a view out onto a white sand beach. Waves lapped and, in the midground, two men faced each other under an awning—a South Asian man with a heavy beard who looked nothing like Surinder and a black man who looked creepily like Keith.
Keith flinched. Immediately, he tried to suppress his reaction. The anxiety that had subsided during his chat with Surinder washed back up his throat and quite suddenly, the last thing he wanted to be doing was be talking to Surinder.
“Listen,” he said, “I should go…”
“I wasn’t criticising your work… it wasn’t your stuff—”
“I know, I’m not hanging up because of that,” Keith said, “I just got back to the office…”
“Ah… well… thanks for calling and listening to me rant. I’ll see you this evening?”
“Can’t wait! Love you.”
“Love you too babe.”
Keith hung up and stood staring at everything except the beach. He hoped his stifled reaction had not been captured, logged as one of the thousands of factors that made his profile. But he’d been too slow and, as he strode towards the store, ads for suits, registries, ministries supplanted the normal barrage of food, beverages, sex, phones, and cologne. He felt naked. He sweated, picking up his pace—head down—even as the auto-ads gave way to the pitches of the well-dressed, beautiful men and women proffering plates of free samples from doorways. An overwhelming awkwardness pressed at him as they tried to appeal to him—it was best not to make eye contact. He kept his focus ahead, at the plants. He cranked up the music, and tried to ignore the promotional messages that shoved themselves between the songs which told him: book now and save 50 percent.
He fled to the jewelers’.
Bam. Someone jerked away from him, falling back. Keith reached out to steady the man. Calloused hands rasped across his. He caught him before he fell, pulling him upright.
“Are you okay?! I’m so sorry!” he blurted, looking earnestly at the man only to find his gaze avoided, “I wasn’t looking—I’m sorry.
“It’s okay,” mumbled the man, straightening his shabby suit. Before Keith could say another word, the man was off, limping into the rising lunch rush. Shaking his head and feeling a little embarrassed, Keith turned back to the door.
The interior of the jewelers’ was a large, low-lit room with an archipelago of glowing display cases scattered across it. A man in a suit stood behind one these cases, waiting patiently a few feet away from two women—who were looking at the displays the way one might look into a cage at the zoo. The clerk turned to Keith with a calculating look, glanced down at the tablet in front of him, and did an approximation of a smile — it looked as though some puppeteer had tugged on strings hooked to the edges of his mouth.
Keith nodded at the man and then looked down at the display cases, skimming over them.
“This way, sir” said the clerk, motioning towards a large bank of glass in the middle of the room.
Keith frowned and walked over, skimming the contents of each display case. The one the clerk had indicated was full of rings. How did he know, Keith thought and then; he probably bought some sort of consumer-information package.
Innumerable jewels glittered back at him; yellow, red, blue, pink, lines of diamonds, rubies, and other stones, stones that he did not recognize; square, oval, hexagon, rectangular; bevelled, smooth, a few rough. The metal of the rings were a whole other phylum: plain bands; metal like knotted rope; chains of circles and squares; gold, platinum, silver in all their shades. Panic seized him. He felt as though he was staring down at an ocean of eyes.
“Do you know what kind of ring you are looking for?” said the clerk softly, “Does the lucky man have a stated preference?”
“No diamonds,” Keith replied, trying to shake his shock at being so unceremoniously outed. Pushing aside one part of his anxiety, Keith looked down at the rings once more, “I think he’d prefer rubies—it’s his birthstone. He also says he’s allergic to gold…”
“I see,” the clerk unlocked a drawer behind the display, pulled out a black felt tray, and pushed it across the top of the display case. Ranks and columns of silvery rings set with red stones glimmered in the dim light, “this is our selection of rubies set in platinum.”
Keith peered down at the rings, reached towards them, and then hesitated, “may I?
He left the store empty handed, though his visit had not been in vain. Of the multitudes of rings, he’d found three or four that he thought Surinder would love, though their price tags gave him pause, despite the clerk’s insistence that the payment plans were affordable. He excused himself, telling the clerk he had to think, and left for his office.
Outside, the midday sun had thickened the air. Sluggish currents shuffled through the streets, disturbed only by the buzz of passing drones. Sweating in his suit, Keith paid for a reprieve from the audio-adverts and tried to focus on his music. Still, the logos of department stores offering discounts on registry as well as sweeping shots of fridges, blenders, tables, stoves, and microwaves called out from bus-stops and billboards, crowding his peripheries. He ignored them until he reached the intersection in front of his office. There, he stood looking up at the collage of videos above, massive images that rippled down the sheets of glass and concrete, a salesman’s rain.
In a way, he supposed, they were good omens.
Back in his office, he found Ndidi trying to fit the camera bulb back into the ceiling. He wondered, vaguely, how she’d managed to get it down again, before taking over from her. This time, it only took three attempts before it clicked back into the socket.
“Sorry,” she said as he sat down behind his desk, “It’s been bothering me all day.”
“Well, kind of?” she looked at him guiltily, “I confirmed that the problem is contrast; it has problems recognising stationary black hair and skin as a living person rather than an inanimate object. I found that I could trick the camera into thinking the room was darker than it is so that it registers my skin as lighter. I don’t understand why they didn’t just program this thing to focus on temperature—you only need like 2 degrees either side of 37.5 to detect every single living human.”
Lacking a response, Keith shook his head sympathetically. The few times he’d stayed late at work, he’d often removed his VR goggles to find himself sitting in darkness. It was irritating, but his work hardly required the light, which buzzed on if he got up to stretch his legs or visit the toilets. It hadn’t occurred to him that the problem was fixable, much less that its cause might lie in the colour of his skin. Still, it seemed a minor problem—not worth the effort Ndidi had put into the solution.
He picked up his VR goggles but a message from his aunt appeared in his vision, projected on his contacts:
Can I see you in my office?
With a sigh, he put down the goggles.
His aunt’s office was down the hall from his. It was a sizeable room—easily twice the size of his—with an arresting view of the city subsiding into the suburbs, farmland, and then mountains. Framed prints of late 20th century adverts crowded the walls, an audience for the single desk and the elliptical the room contained. There was only one chair: his aunt’s.
His aunt was running on her elliptical, sweat glistening on her freckled skin and her unruly red-frizz pulled back, straining against elastics. He stood, waiting for her to finish. It was a long five minutes before she hopped off the machine, pulled a large tablet off the display and, towel handing over her neck, slid into the seat across the desk.
“Keith!” she said, brightly, “Are you okay?”
“I’m fine, thank you.”
“Nothing happened recently?” He noticed a slight edge in her voice, “this morning, perhaps?”
“Not that I can think of,” he kept his voice neutral.
“Well then,” she smiled, “can you account for the precipitous fall in your stats this morning?”
“Please do not interrupt.” she swivelled her tablet to face Keith revealing his name atop a column of numbers, “until about eleven this morning, you were among my top-performing employees with over seventy percent of your approved ads moving onto at least the final stage of production. Then, after a break of about ten minutes, you fall to thirty percent. What’s more, when I reviewed your reject feed there were a number of adverts that were clear winners. So you can understand my concern that something might have happened.”
“I’m sorry, Siobhan. I—”
“Don’t be sorry, be better. I’m not going to lie; your mother’s pestering helped you get this job but you are a talented, reliable, and competent person, which is as much why I hired you over the thousands of other qualified applicants. We all have bad days but you need to communicate if there’s a problem…” she looked at him expectantly.
“I… well…” he fidgeted with his trouser pocket and tried to work out whether telling her about Ndidi’s findings would help—whether she’d do anything about it.
“Listen Kee,” she said sweetly, “communication is really important…”
“Ndidi showed me her results,” he blurted, “they showed racial bias in our advertisements.”
“I see,” she sat back, looking unsurprised, “I thought that might be it. Listen, Kee, I’m not going to sit here and tell you there’s no problem, but we’re not the problem. We are subject to the realities of the market and, quite frankly, people’s biases affect their desire to buy. In the end, we only reflect our culture’s issues.” She pulled out her phone and jabbed at it for a few seconds.
“Our only aim is to help our clients show their product in the best possible light. Sometimes, that task is going to come with some cultural baggage.”
The door opened behind him. Keith turned to see Ndidiamaka sidle into the room. She looked nervous. Sorry, he mouthed at her. Her eyes narrowed.
“Ah Deedee,” continued Siobhan, “Keith was telling me you have some results from your study.”
“Yes,” Ndidiamaka replied timidly, “but they’re only preliminary.”
“I understand,” Siobhan replied sympathetically, “but you can understand how results such as those Keith described might put this agency in an awkward position.”
“I’m not going to name the agency in my thesis.”
“Yes, but you will in your resume and, with me as one of your references, it’s not going to be that hard to put two-and-two together—”
“What are you asking me to do? I can’t change my results.”
A silence unspooled; Siobhan’s jaw clenched. Keith could almost hear her calming herself down.
“The last thing I want to do is tell you what to write in your thesis,” Siobhan said in a brittle, sugary tone, “but aren’t there a lot of ways this data could be interpreted?”
“So your results are infallible—no uncertainty?”
“Well… there’s always some uncertainty.”
“Exactly,” Siobhan smiled and it was genuine this time, “You’d be remiss not to mention that uncertainty. For instance is the racial bias worse than that in our society? How do you measure bias? Are there problems with such measurements? How does this agency compare with others? Is there data for that? See, those are just off the top of my head and I’ve never studied sociology.”
“But my thesis—”
“Listen, Deedee” Siobhan’s good humour evaporated, “over half of this agency’s employees are women and a full third are people of colour. I can tell you that no other agency comes close to matching our levels of diversity. Smearing us will only result in us losing clients to other agencies and may force us to lay people off. I would never tell you what to write, but think carefully about the potential impacts of your work. Don’t make us pay for systemic problems.”
“I’m sorry,” Keith said as soon as they left the room but Ndidiamaka hurried down the hallway ahead of him, barely acknowledging he’d said anything. He jogged after her, catching up just as she turned into their office, “wait, I’m sorry… you know how she is—she bullied it out of me.”
“I’m not angry at you, Keith. I’m frustrated that months of work is going down the drain for PR reasons.” She pinched the bridge of her nose, “how did she even find out?”
“I tried to be less biased and it tanked my numbers; my aunt figured something happened.”
Ndidiamaka stared at him for a few seconds.
“To be honest,” she said eventually, “I’m surprised you changed your behaviour so quickly. I expected you to do something… But I thought I’d have weeks—enough time to have already submitted my thesis. By then, even if your aunt complained, it would have been out of my hands. ”
She sat at her desk and stared blankly at her computer, lost in thought. Similarly silenced, Keith sat down at his own desk, pulled on his goggles, and found himself immersed in a series of adverts for electric razors. Square-jawed men with rippling abs stood in hyper-modern bathrooms, shaving foam slathered on hairless faces. Waiflike women caressed faces, rubbing chins, cheeks, necks with perfectly manicured hands. He flipped through the ads, allowing his instincts to take over. It was easier than he’d ever admit.
After several torturous hours listening to gravelly voices describe at length just how close a shave could be, Keith stepped out of the office into a cool evening. The package holidays had returned in force, packing the buildings with glimpses of silhouetted palms, densely forested mountains, and vineyards. Though the sky was a pale blue, the dusk in the adverts gave him the impression of gathering clouds. He hunched over as he wove through the rising commuter rush.
As he approached the jewellery store, the package holidays gave way to adverts for credit cards and banks. Men and women smiled from the walls, gold watches peeked from the cuffs of immaculate suits, children frolicked around sleek kitchen islands. Skies were a cloudless blue; the grass was green.
By the time he walked into the cool, dimness of the shop, he felt calmed and assured. His smile returned by the clerk, he strode over to the display of rings, and asked for the three most likely wedding bands. The clerk—who had set them aside for him—slid them over the glass on individual white satin pillows.
One was a simple circle of platinum with a large, bevelled-rectangle ruby, its deep red glittered ostentatiously even in the low light. It was beautiful but, seeing it again, Keith realized that it was far too showy for Surinder’s tastes.
Tiny rubies snaked around the second ring, oscillating across a broader band of platinum. He picked it up and slipped it onto his left hand. He thought the rubies caught the light beautifully, but the broadness of the metal felt cumbersome; he liked the idea of Surinder forgetting he was wearing the ring, of the admiration of others drawing his attention. He wanted the compliments to be a trail of gifts in the days ahead like petals leading to a bedroom.
The third was perfect—as thirds are wont to be. The ring itself was made of four thin strands of bright platinum twisted together. The metal half-swallowed the stones. They peeked from within as though the metal swaddled a ring of pure ruby. He slipped it on. It was surprisingly light, almost gossamer. He raised his hand peering at it in the gloom. The door behind him opened and the ring caught the flood of evening light, sparkling. This is it, he thought, this—
“Get down on the ground!” yelled a hoarse voice.
He turned, confused and found himself staring down the barrel of a pistol. He froze. His world turned on that point of darkness. At its edge, he had a dull awareness of chaotic motion—the clerk scrambling back towards the cash.
The barrel turned away. Panic overtook him. He dived sideways, landing on a display case. Glass shattered.
“Don’t try anything!” yelled the voice.
But Keith was already stumbling towards the door.
“Put it in the bag!”
A familiar hum awoke the air. Tendrils unfurled from the ceiling. The door was just a few feet away.
“I’m warning you”.
His hands felt the cool glass of the door. Something moved in his peripheries.
Two things happened at once; there was a loud bang and Keith felt a force course through him. Propelled forwards, he spilled from the shop and out onto the street. He fell, the pavement thwacking into his palms. An acrid stench—burning hair—filled everything. Another gunshot resounded behind him. Help, he tried to say, but he could barely croak.
“Citizen, halt. Surrender yourself.” buzzed a voice from above.
Keith struggled to his feet, stumbling forwards, pushing himself away from the store. The world seemed distant. His heart pounded. He collided with someone, and then someone else. Then suddenly, it seemed the street was clear. He tried to catch his breath. He forced himself to keep moving.
“Citizen, this is your final warning.”
The approaching sirens were a salve to his panic. They promised salvation—an end to the madness that had overrun his evening. How could anyone possibly think they’d get away with such a brazen robbery, he thought, his first clear thought since it had all started.
A shadow flicked over him. There was an crackle of electricity. He looked up. There was barely time to register the taser-barbs lancing from the wasp-like form of the law enforcement drone, before a surging current pushed him into darkness.
His face was pressed against cold metal, its bitter smell mingled with the pungency of saliva. His legs and arse felt leaden, asleep. He tried to push himself up, to get comfortable and found he was handcuffed to a bar in the middle of the metal table.
The walls surrounding him were featureless expanses of brushed metal. On the other side of the table, two empty chairs faced him. A camera bulb sat next to the lone light on the ceiling. Confusion. He had a vague recollection of a jerking passage in a van; of rough hands pushing him through a brief outside into another darkness; of hands taking his phone, his watch, even his contacts; of a flash as he stared dazed; of questions answered automatically; and then of a silent room and the return of the all-embracing darkness.
“Hello?” In the echoes he felt a stab of panic, “hello?”
An outline of a door appeared on the wall across from him. Silently, it slid back and then sideways, revealing two figures silhouetted by the harsh light of a hallway. Sounds of walking feet, typing, and indistinct conversations spilled into the room.
“I think there’s been a mistake—” Keith began
“Keith Higgins,” rumbled a baritone, “of 32 Pineview Drive?”
“Yes that’s me, but I think there’s—”
“You’ve been read your rights,” said the other figure in a flinty, peremptory tone, “you are facing charges of armed robbery, grievous bodily harm—escalating to first degree murder, if the clerk does not survive surgery.”
The two of them stepped into the room, revealing themselves.
The first voice belonged to a large—but not fat—man. The arms of his suit ended prematurely, revealing shirt cuffs and a hint of a tattoo on his forearm. Stubble speckled his face around a ragged blonde goatee, merging into a crew cut that was about a week overdue for a haircut.
The owner of the second voice was a tall, thin woman wearing a charcoal grey suit, and a blue shirt with a yellow stain on it. Her hair was pulled back into cornrows ending in blue beads that, Keith noted, were the same colour as her shirt. She was holding a tablet under left arm. Her fingernails were bitten to the quick.
“Mr. Higgins,” continued the woman, “I am Detective Beckford and this is Detective Strauss.”
Detective Strauss sat heavily in the seat across from Keith. Detective Beckford leant on the back of the other chair.
“Please, there’s been a mistake, I didn’t do anything!”
Detective Beckford’s jaw clenched. She leaned over and slid the tablet towards Keith, “Mr. Higgins, we have your accomplice in custody. He’s being questioned in the next room.”
“Accomplice? I didn’t have anything to do with the robbery, please believe me.”
“If that’s the case,” said Strauss gently, “I’m sure things will be cleared up soon. But it will be cleared up more quickly if you work with us.”
Detective Beckford tapped on the tablet. The screen flickered and displayed an aerial shot of a street. Two men stood staring at a window display filled with jewellry. With a rising sense of dread, Keith recognised himself.
“Is this you?” asked Detective Beckford
“Standing outside the scene of the crime this morning.”
“Why did you go to the store before opening hours.”
“I made a mistake, I wanted to buy an engagement ring—”
“You went to buy an engagement ring but didn’t check the opening hours of the store?”
“It was a mistake.”
“Right. And the man standing next to you, who is he?”
“I don’t know.”
“You had never met him before?”
“No. I didn’t even talk to him.”
Detective Beckford’s eyes glinted and her mouth curled up into a sneering smile, “Mr. Higgins this will be easier if you tell us the truth,” she flicked the screen, changing the display to footage of the store. Keith, head down except for occasional furtive glances, collided with a man, pulled him back to his feet, and then said a few words to him, “here we have you talking to that same man—”
“That’s just a coincidence—I didn’t even realise that was the same person. Maybe he was staking out the store.”
“Yet, he looks at none of the cameras and you look at every single one and then…” she flipped to another set of footage—a man, his face hidden by a cap, walking into a store,“he avoids every single camera on his entry. Do you know a man named Quentin Jones?”
“No…wait, maybe… the name sounds familiar.”
“It should, you went to highschool with him. You were both on the Rugby team.”
Detective Beckford tapped on the tablet and a yearbook photo popped up. Beneath it was the name Quentin Jones, a few words and a signature which, with a sinking heart, Keith recognised as his own. “Now, Mr. Higgins, we can place you both at the store on three occasions today. Your agency works with Saber Security Systems, so you have the knowledge necessary to identify the alarm. You also have the technical background to disable the system. You pulled the clerk away from the silent alarm, but Mr. Jones came in before you had a chance to disable the system.”
“I did not!” Keith protested, “I was not involved in any way. I only went to the store to buy an engagement ring. Ask the clerk.”
“We would, but he is currently undergoing surgery due to the fact that your accomplice shot him.” retorted Detective Beckford, “You’re looking at 15 years in prison, you understand that? 25 minimum if the clerk dies. Longer, if your friend testifies against you. Ask yourself: how much do you trust Quentin?”
“Mr. Higgins,” Detective Strauss’ voice was calm and reasonable, “you left the store with a ring during the robbery, a $20,000 ring—six month’s wages for you, right? We’ve run your financials and there’s no way you could afford that ring. Hell, the cheapest rings in the store would be a stretch with your outgoings, even with generous financing. Now, I don’t think you expected Mr. Jones to shoot the clerk and, when he did, you ran. We have footage of the two of you; we have footage of you running; we have footage of you disobeying lawful commands from a law enforcement drone. We have predictive data that flagged your behavior as suspicious, evasive, and conspiratorial from the start of the day. You’ve been caught Mr. Higgins; you’re going to jail. But, if you work with us, we might be able to get you a deal, particularly if you cooperate before the clerk passes. After all, you did not pull the trigger; is it fair for you to face the consequences of Mr. Jones’ actions?”
Keith stared at the two detectives. For a moment, he was convinced, caught in a web of circumstances that reeled him towards the deal. A future hunched over him like a gargantuan spider, mandibles distended. Then it all vanished under the pure heat of the truth; he was not guilty. He had done nothing but flee danger. It seemed impossible that a jury would convict, that anyone would believe this story. He knew all about reasonable doubt.
“No,” he said flatly, “I was not involved in any way. I want a lawyer.”
Detective Beckford clenched her jaw and snatched up her tablet; Detective Strauss gave him a look a pure disgust and stood. As a unit they walked to the door, which slid open as they approached. At the door, Detective Strauss paused and looked back at Keith.
“A lawyer won’t help you.” he spat, “your accomplice has already confessed to everything.”
The door closed, leaving Keith alone in the sterile light of the interrogation room. He tried to remember Quentin Jones, his teammate twenty years before, but could not recall anything except a few fragments—the motions of play, the feeling of a rugby ball in his arms, the smell of mud and turf. Quentin was a vague shape—a blur at the peripheries of his memory. He didn’t even remember having a five minute conversation with him. He had no idea where the man had been for the past two decades. He tried to imagine what he would do if, with one, small lie, he could claw back a decade of life from the threat of incarceration. He shuddered. There’s still the trial, bail—it’s not all lost. It was a glimmer of hope. But, as the incessant buzz and inscrutable walls stretched the minutes, that hope faded like the mouth of a well above a falling child.
Time dissolved. The slight and random flicker of the light, the only change except Keith’s shifting: hunched, slouched, upright and expectant, arms crossed, slumped back. His legs crossed and uncrossed—up and down—sliding back under the chair and forward under the table. He tried to think of anything but his predicament. But it sat, a black hole at his centre, no matter what he turned his mind to to escape it, to skirt its edges, the gravity of his anxiety made every orbit a decaying one. The room seemed to tighten. It crushed the breath from him. His jaw locked. Fingernails broke as he raked the table. He tasted blood.
The door slid open, revealing two figures—Detective Strauss and Detective Beckford. They strode across the room towards him. Detective Strauss rumbled something, but Keith could not make out his words.
“Please,” he managed to croak, “I didn’t…”
Detective Beckford came to a halt beside the table. She did not meet his gaze. He tried to catch Detective Strauss’s eye, but the man seemed just as unwilling to look him in the eye. Detective Beckford leant towards him. He flinched. She grabbed his hands, pulled them towards her and fiddled with the handcuffs.
Suddenly, he was free. They pulled him to his feet and shepherded him down a hallway, through a bullpen thronging with uniformed officers, and out to a desk where they handed back his phone, keys, wallet, and contacts.
“Again, Mr. Higgins,” said Detective Strauss, “We were acting on the information we had available. We released you as soon as the clerk confirmed that you were a customer, and we verified there had been no electronic communication between Mr. Jones and yourself.” he hesitated and seemed to be selecting his words carefully, “I hope this experience has not affected you adversely.” he said, eventually.
Keith stared at them, both looked away, down at their boots. With a grim, sarcastic laugh, he turned away from them. This seemed to release them from whatever duty they felt to him and they bustled away. Alone beside the desk, he pushed his keys and phone into his pocket and then put in his contacts. That done, he felt less naked. But still tears welled in his eyes. He wanted to be home.
“Keith!” he turned. A familiar figured strode across the atrium beyond the desk. A tall, broad shouldered man whose stubble was edging on unkempt and whose cross-eyed smile was weighed on by anxious hours of wait and anger. Wordlessly, he walked to Surinder and let his arms pull him in, enfolding in the smell of tangerines and home. Against that chest, he began to sob, “It’s okay,” Surinder said, “you’re safe…come on, let’s go home.”
Outside, the mid morning sun had just begun to dry the rain. The few cars in the car park glittered like damp beetles. The adverts had not yet loaded. Expanses of empty rain-stained wall stared down, a crowd of impassive faces. Then, in unison, they flickered. A horde of men and women in suits strolled into view. Arms crossed, they stared down at him with fierce, determined gaze. Most he did not recognize, but a few were clients—the towering figure of Margaret Anderson of Anderson Litigation smiled reassuringly, Venance Owuor of Mendelson, Ramirez & Owuor stood straight faced. Make a Claim, demanded one advert, Don’t Pay Unless We Win, Fast Case Review, Experience You Can Trust, Personal Injury Litigation, No Win No Fee, Reclaim your Life… The city screamed at him silently, I know; I see.
He fumbled at his eyes—at his contacts. Circuitry tore between his fingers. Shreds of tiny machines falling away, disappearing into the dirt beneath his feet. He blinked back his tears and looked out over a quieted city with naked eyes. Traffic throbbed; trains rattled; indistinct shouts, tone, and alarms rose into the air: it all combined into a threatening mutter.
With a sigh, Keith opened the car door, swung in, and pulled on his seatbelt. Surinder keyed in their home address and sat back as it rumbled to life. They sat in a heavy silence as it pulled out of the car park and struck along a route towards the motorway, Keith staring out at the city as it swept past; Surinder watching Keith, probingly.
“I got a call from your aunt—your phone is off—” said Surinder eventually, “I told her now’s not a good time—I said you were sick—but I thought you should know.”
“I’ll call her back.”
“Babe, you don’t have to—take a break…”
“No,” Keith said, “I need to focus on something else, I need to do something, I need—”
“Okay,” Surinder handed him a phone, “but you’re not going into work today. Today I get you to myself. We’re going to drive to the mountains and go for a good long hike”
“That sounds perfect,” they shared a smile and Keith felt as though he was sloughing off a brittle layer of anxiety. He dialed his aunt’s number, she picked up on the third ring.
“Ah, Kee! Just who I wanted to talk to!” Though slightly out of breath, she seemed unusually chipper, “I heard you were sick. Well, get well soon because I have a lot more work for you! You’re a genius, you know that?”
“Your ads—those god-awful ads—went viral!”
“The security ones?”
“No, those were a trainwreck—nothing we could do—the ones for Matcher! Those awkward, awful dates. Well, eight of the ten that made it through final review have over 30 million hits—30 million in less than a day! Holy shit Kee, you’re getting a bonus this year, shit we all are. So get well!”
She hung up.
“Good news, I take it?” asked Surinder.
“Yeah,” said Keith, staring out the window—the towers had given way to strip malls and parking lots, “some ads I chose went viral.”
“That’s amazing, Babe! Really exciting!”
“I guess.” Keith shifted uncomfortably. They lapsed into silence again.
“Keith?” Surinder looked over at him carefully, “I know why you were at that shop.”
“Well,” Surinder’s smile was the sun rising on a new day, “the answer’s yes.”
I would like to thank Dylan, Hannah, Lauren, and Solomon for making this story better and more comprehensible than I could have done alone.
Nathaniel McKenzie is a proud citizen of nowhere seeking to turn his writing compulsion into an effective means of stealing time from other people. He enjoys avocados, paying rent, the smell of books new and old, trailing off in the middle of sentences, and
Utopian dreamers, other-worldly explorers and psychonautic adventurers, scholars, activists, students, and critics: we are officially inviting submissions for a new collaborative writing project that combines critical perspectives and creative possibilities. Drawing inspiration from Uneven Earth, an online magazine for political ecology established in 2015, we are excited to announce the launch of a new section, called Not afraid of the ruins, dedicated to science-fiction and utopian imaginings. The goal of this new section will be to regularly showcase new, original, creative and critical reflections to foster intimate and productive conversations across the intellectual and creative arts.
The fertile ground between science fiction and social/environmental justice has long been an arena for speculation and exploration by academics, activists, and creative writers. From the academy to the field and beyond, the works of science fiction writers such as Octavia E. Butler, Ursula Le Guin and Margaret Atwood (among many, many others) have presented unique corollaries to the diverse worlds and experiences we encounter in political ecology and social/environmental justice research and activism. Our goal with this project is to create a space explicitly open to exploring such convergences, a space that is neither formally academic nor wholly creative fiction, but instead, in the true spirit of Ursula Le Guin’s The Dispossessed, seeks to tap the potential that exists in the liminal space between these otherwise isolated worlds of thought. We hope that such an endeavor will produce seeds for imagining that will go forward and populate unexpected places both far and near.
There are no strict guidelines for submission in regards to content, format or length although we will maintain editorial oversight of submissions. While shorter pieces up to 2,500 words may be most suitable, we are happy to consider longer pieces, especially as they explore the creative possibilities of such a genre-melding forum. We are particularly interested in pieces that engage with the themes of:
Examples of pieces that we would ideally consider include, but are not limited to:
Utopian dreams and/or dystopian nightmares: explorations of queer, feminist, decolonial, afro-futurist, anarchist, luxury communist, degrowth, and post-capitalist ecologies.
Conversations between science fiction and political ecology, social, environmental and climatic justice.
Critical analysis of academic and science fiction literature, either old or new.
Thought pieces blending science fiction and contemporary social, economic, and political struggles.
Fictional renderings of field experiences and/or relevant research topics.
While the short term aim of this project is to develop a space for cross-cutting collaboration and conversation, we are also hoping to create the possibility for publication opportunities beyond the blog. We regret that we cannot currently offer financial remuneration for submissions to this section, however, Uneven Earth does offer a writing grantfor non-fiction pieces.
In order to submit a piece, please send us an email to ruins[at]unevenearth.org which includes:
A short paragraph about your idea/topics
A short paragraph about yourself and your motivation to publish with the blog
Deadline: Friday, September 22 (Autumn Equinox in the Northern Hemisphere)
Deadline: Friday, September 29
In an age of unprecedented climatic, social and political change, we believe that such a project is as important and urgent as ever. We feel compelled, as academics and activists and human beings, to not only critically reflect upon our shared human and ecological condition, but to dare to dream otherwise, to imagine things not only as they are, but to reimagine them as they could be. It is our hope that this blog will provide both space and motivation for doing just that.
Please feel free to contact us with any questions, thoughts, or ideas.