Mother Frankenstein

by Sabine Sharp

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.

Conclusion

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).

[x] Rabkin, p. 9; Donawerth.

[xi] Sargent, p. xvii.

[xii] Lefanu, p. 7.

[xiii] Cranny-Francis, p. 39.

[xiv] Gubar, p. 16; Roberts, ‘Post-Modernism and Feminist Science Fiction’, pp. 138–39.

[xv] Cranny-Francis, p. 39.

[xvi] Gubar, p. 16.

[xvii] Janice Raymond, The Transsexual Empire: The Making of the She-Male (London: Teacher’s College Press, 1994), p. 104.

[xviii] Sargent, p. lv.

[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.

[xxi] Lefanu, p. 2.

[xxii] Bredehoft, p. 370.

[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.

[xxiv] Sargent, p. lviii.

 

Bibliography

Primary Literature

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)

Secondary Literature

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)

Firestone, Shulasmith, The Dialectic of Sex: The Case for Feminist Revolution (New York, NY: Bantam Books, 1972)

Green, Jen, 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

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

Hollinger, Veronica, ‘Contemporary Trends in Science Fiction Criticism, 1980-1999’, Science Fiction Studies, 26 (1999), 232–62

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

Rabkin, Eric S., ‘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

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

———, ‘Post-Modernism and Feminist Science Fiction’, Science Fiction Studies, 17 (1990), 136–52

Russ, Joanna, ‘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

Sargent, Pamela, ‘Introduction’, in Women of Wonder: Science Fiction Stories by Women about Women, ed. by Pamela Sargent (New York, NY: Vintage, 1975), pp. xiii–lxiv

Shaw, Debra Benita, Women, Science and Fiction: The Frankenstein Inheritance, 2000

Wood, Susan, ‘Women and Science Fiction’, Algol/Starship, 16 (1978), 9–18

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

In Annihilation, the revolution will not be human

Source: Paramount Pictures

by Laura Perry

Originally published in Edge Effects on February 22, 2018

“It’s like they’re stuck in continuous mutation… making something new,” Natalie Portman’s character realizes in the new ecological thriller, Annihilation. If the film adaptation is anything like Jeff VanderMeer’s sci-fi novel of the same name, audiences will leave the theater wondering if the next squirrel or snail they spot is not what it seems but instead “something new,” something alien.

Drawn from his walks in the St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge in southern Florida, VanderMeer’s Annihilation embeds an alien invasion in a kind of ecological Twilight Zone, where aliens appear not as friendly suburban neighbors but in the guise of outlandish plants and animals making their home in a “pristine” stretch of wilderness.

A biologist, anthropologist, surveyor, and psychologist are dispatched as an expedition team—the twelfth, they’re told—to study what government agencies refer to as Area X. At first glance, Area X seems like a few miles of uninhabited, unassuming coastline. The expedition’s members soon realize that though humans have left the area, that does not mean it is uninhabited. There are warblers, flickers, herons, cormorants, black ibises, banana spiders, damselflies, velvet ants, emerald beetles, tree frogs, fiddler crabs, wild boars, bears, coyotes, deer, raccoons, and fungi among the scrub grass, moss, pine and cypress trees, and salt marshes. (And that’s all in the first chapter.)

But there’s also something else. A boar with a strangely human face. Words on the side of a wall inexplicably made of fruiting bodies. A gastropod surrounded by a nimbus of whirling light.

Representing unfamiliar plants and animals as alien invaders is not the sole province of science fiction. Conservation biologists have long debated whether to resist or embrace the aliens who live among us. In an influential 1958 book, The Ecology of Invasions by Animals and Plants, Charles Elton described the movement of animals, plants, and other living things around the globe as a series of “ecological explosions” spurred by “invaders” like the European Starling. As environmental historian Libby Robin puts it: “Elton’s imaginative leap was to reconceptualise biota as invaders, to give them agency, and to construct them as a worthy enemy to be managed.” Deploying militaristic language and likening himself to a “war correspondent,” Elton outlined only three possible approaches to an invasive, alien species: “You can tackle them before they get in or while they are trying, so to speak, to pass through the guard—this is quarantine. You can destroy their first small bridgeheads—that is eradication. … Usually, if an invasion has got really going it can only be dealt with by keeping the numbers within bounds, that is by control.”

More recently, ecologists have come to terms with the idea that aliens may already live among us and may be here to stay. As nineteen ecologists argue in a co-authored 2011 Nature article, “Don’t judge species on their origins,” “increasingly, the practical value of the native-versus-alien species dichotomy in conservation is declining, and even becoming counterproductive.” They go on to suggest that “we must embrace the fact of ‘novel ecosystems’ and incorporate many alien species into management plans, rather than try to achieve the often impossible goal of eradicating them.” Though this idea of embracing novel ecosystems may seem “largely innocuous,” Paul Robbins and Sarah Moore point out that the intensity of the debates about what to do with alien species reveals the ongoing “anxiety, discomfort, conflict, and ambivalence experienced by research scientists in fields confronting ecological novelty in a quickly-changing world.”

“We were scientists, trained to observe natural phenomena and the results of human activity. We had not been trained to encounter what appeared to be the uncanny.”

Annihilation both diagnoses this problem and models a solution in a one-two punch that shows just how useful the genre of science fiction can be. When first confronted with undeniably alien phenomena, the members of the expedition team turn to their disciplines and their training for answers: taking notes, “adding detail and nuance to the maps our superiors had given us,” examining the remains of nearby cabins, and “observing a tiny red-and-green tree frog.” Yet the biologist soon comes to believe that these collective attempts to “catalogue the biological reality” are forms of “misdirection, for what was a map but a way of emphasizing some things and making others invisible?” Though the biologist values her research, she also concludes that “sometimes you get a sense of when the truth of things will not be revealed by microscopes.”

Her approaches to the environments around her are at once intuitive and immersive as well as data-driven, which helps her better understand and adapt to the alien presences she begins to notice in the pristine wilderness of Area X. As the biologist explains, “we were scientists, trained to observe natural phenomena and the results of human activity. We had not been trained to encounter what appeared to be the uncanny.” Between government-imposed secrecy and Area X’s unfamiliar flora and fauna, the expedition team is left to wonder if their tools and training can provide any answers at all.

The borders between us and the unknown only seem clear in a certain light. Boundaries only exist at the right scale. Zoom out, and humans share an ecosystem, a continent, a hemisphere, and a globe with all manner of extreme forms of life.

Academics are wondering this, too. A recent special issue of the journal Environmental Humanities, “Familiarizing the Extraterrestrial / Making Our Planet Alien,” explores how the “extraterrestrial” now haunts unexpected disciplines like anthropology, philosophy, history, geography, and psychology, as well as fields like science and technology studies. The borders between us and the unknown only seem clear in a certain light. Boundaries only exist at the right scale. Zoom out, and humans share an ecosystem, a continent, a hemisphere, and a globe with all manner of extreme forms of life. Zoom in to the microscopic scale, and as Juan Francisco Salazar points out in his study of microbial geographies, we realize that our guts share a biome with the oceans and we are all hosts to an abundance of aliens, invisible to the eye.

This is where science fiction offers a roadmap to understanding and living with aliens and other unsettling forms of life. As the issue’s editors point out, any “theory of the universe includes poetic leaps; any scientific representation is based on some kind of artistic choice. But these leaps and choices typically remain unnoticed. They stay under the radar because we lack the appropriate tools to spot them.”

The boundary-pushing poetic leaps that make Annihilation such a thrilling read also make it a useful tool for those of us who are looking for new ways of living with neighboring nonhumans. If scientists need training in the uncanny, what better way than a crash course in science fiction? As Ursula Heise, Fredric Jameson, and other literary scholars suggest, by imagining alternate worlds and futures science fiction can “make readers see the present anew.” Science fiction can offer us a language to describe the uncanny that we discover and a model for living in an environment that offers more truths than can be measured by microscopes.

What if we were the invaders, even in our own home? What if invasioncontamination, and their companions, pristine and untouched, were inadequate words to explain what is happening to the world around us? What if trying to explain, measure, or define what phenomena move in and shape our world is a fundamentally fruitless exercise with our existing tools and epistemologies? What if language could be a plant, a missing husband an owl, a stretch of coastline a universe?

Laura Perry is a Ph.D. candidate in Literary Studies at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, a graduate associate at the Center for Culture, History, and Environment, and a member of the Edge Effects editorial board. Her research focuses on species and suburban development in twentieth-century American literature. She is currently a Mellon-Morgridge Graduate Fellow as well as a Public Humanities Exchange (HEX) Fellow. She also hosts Amplify, a weekly radio show on WSUM 91.7 FM Madison. TwitterContact.

The Craven mode of production: Introduction

by Aaron Vansintjan

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.

URGENT REPORT Protomunculus spp

URGENT REPORT

Protomunculus spp

 

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.

Avatar revisited

Image: Ross LewAllen ©

by Fani Cettl

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.

Bibliography

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.

February readings

Once a month, we put together a list of stories we’ve been reading: things you might’ve missed or crucial conversations going on around the web. We focus on environmental and social justice, cities, science fiction, current events, and political theory.

We’ll try to include articles that have been published recently but will last, that are relatively light and inspiring, and are from corners of the web that don’t always get the light of day. This will also be a space to keep you up to date with news about what’s happening at Uneven Earth.

February is the shortest month, but holy crap we do have a lot of cool links for you. This month, we cover some new research about the limits of the good life, the impact of companies like AirBnB and Amazon on our cities, the changing Latin American politics, and the importance of Indigenous ways of seeing the world. The work of Steven Pinker and Jordan Peterson has also triggered a new series of discussions on the importance of science and its links to colonialism and racism. In the sci-fi department, we’ve got a whole new slew of fiction for you, analysis from writers like China Miéville and Kim Stanley Robinson, and a feature on black science-fiction writers.

Uneven Earth updates

La Barceloneta’s Struggle Against (Environmental) Gentrification | Link

“A city-wide urban struggle that evolved in defense of the needs and rights of residents over capital and profit.”

The Transition: towards a psycho-social history | Link

“The facts revealed in the historical record are clear: most people were terrified of their neighbours.”

Encyclopedia of the mad gardener | Link

“They feel the smells seep into their nasal channels, dioxins boiled under the pink moon.”

The collector | Link

“When you upload the dream, I cease to be a dreamer…”

Waterways | Link

“After the Division, Avon split from Greater Thames and declared a matriarchy”

You might’ve missed…

Turns out that carbon capture is a pipe dream. Not many know that the fine print of the Paris Treaty relied on a dirty little secret: the advent of carbon capture technology. But it turns out that this is a pipe dream. The unavoidable fact is, we just have to make less stuff, burn less oil, and grow more trees. Read the stories from Wired, The Guardian, and the original report from EASAC.

You may have heard of Route 66, “the main street of America”,  but Highway BR-163 in Brazil may be just as epic. This beautiful photo essay about this single highway tells the story of the complex political ecology of rainforest deforestation.

The Samarco dam collapse in 2015 was Brazil’s worst environmental disaster. What’s happened since, and who’s to blame? This investigative piece gives us the update.

Is it possible for everyone to live well? This study mapped indicators of well-being along with every country’s environmental impact. Turns out most don’t make the cut, and Vietnam comes closest to balancing the good life and environmental impacts. Though these numbers just tell part of the story, the study has had international impact, starting a much-needed discussion on what it means to live well today.

It’s behind the scenes, as always, but new rounds of trade negotiations are happening and they will affect the world for generations to come. Here’s an article dishing it out about the CEPA trade deal (EU-Indonesia), a perspective from Kenya by Justus Lavi Mwololo, a representative of small farmers, and an explainer about how the new NAFTA negotiations affect Mexican workers.

We’re over one month into Turkey’s invasion of the Kurdish canton Afrin in Syria, and since then, there’s been an international outcry. This piece in Jacobin lays out the stakes behind the attack, here’s an op-ed by the French philosopher Bernard-Henri Lévy in the Wall Street Journal, another opinion piece by Rahila Gupta on CNN’s website, and a piece by David Graeber asking why world leaders are backing Turkey’s invasion. And here’s a piece on the ecological initiatives happening right now in Rojava.

Here’s a letter from Evin Jiyan Kisanak, the daughter of Gultan Kisanak, telling the story of the Kurdish political movement in Turkey and their oppression: “My mom, who still has traces on her body from the torture she suffered, always sees light in the face of profound despair. Today she is in prison again, but her belief in peace and equality is unrelenting. Her will is unyielding.”

In the face of our climate crisis, a group of five activists known as the Valve Turners decided not to wait for the law to catch up and took matters into their own hands. This is a story on their direct action.

A striking piece in New York Magazine linking loneliness and the opioid epidemic: “This nation pioneered modern life. Now epic numbers of Americans are killing themselves with opioids to escape it.”

Another photo essay, this time an intricate story about industrial farming in California, the migrant workers who toil the fields and processing plants, and how it intersects with climate change.

New politics

Introducing vTaiwan: Citizens are pioneering new public participation methods through online civic involvement. They’ve become so successful that the government has been forced to listen.

What happened in Catalonia? This article explores how the roots of the independence movement was in based in the fight for neighborhood, not nationhood—and this is what most outside observers don’t seem to get.

Socialist organizing was never just about striking in the workplace. This article explores the vibrant dance halls, social clubs, Sunday schools, and film screenings of socialist movements, and why they declined starting in the 1950s. Today, as young people are once again becoming interested in socialism, they can stand to learn a lot from the block-by-block initiatives of the past.

Environmentalists are often caricatured as hippy-dippy young people, removed from common people’s interests. In this beautiful photo essay, we’re guided through the diversity of people resisting fracking in one village in North England.

Indigenous activism is seeing a resurgence, and, finally, growing interest amongst non-Indigenous and settler communities. What can the white left learn from Indigenous movements, and how can it build better alliances? This article explores what decolonization would mean in today’s context.

What’s wrong with the financial system? If you ask a banker or a politician, their ignorance of how money works, and how debt powers the whole system, will become immediately apparent. The organization Positive Money has been putting a lot of work into battling misconceptions and putting forward alternatives. They recently came out with a report on how we can escape the growth dependency that our money system forces us into. Here’s a summary of the report in The Independent.

The local initiatives happening around the world can be a bit overwhelming. How can we think of them all together, understand them as part of one big movement? In this report, titled Libertarian Municipalism, Networked Cities as Resilient Platforms for Post-Capitalist Transition, Kevin Carson highlights the diverse movements in cities globally and the theories that can help us understand them.

Have you heard of Cooperation Jackson? It’s a worker-owned cooperative in Jackson, Mississippi, but so much more. Through their efforts, they’ve successfully kick-started a movement led by black folks that eventually took over city hall. This video explains what’s going on and why it’s so important.

South Africa’s shack dwellers see politics very differently than the average Westerner.

The new housing rights movements in the US have the real estate industry running scared. The Nation reports.

Have you heard of the Preston model? It’s helping to start a new conversation about the role of local government in locally-driven economic revitalization and transforming ownership towards democratic alternatives.

A new series was launched in the Guardian, ‘The alternatives’, in which Aditya Chakrabortty looks at ways to make the economy work for everyone.

Jason Hickel on why, by removing the walls that separate the causes and consequences of climate change, we can encourage constructive action.

“This is real politics. It’s personal. It’s a lived experience that you are a part of and implicated in, whether you had asked to be or not.” The staff strikes at Cambridge inspired Alice Hawkins to reflect on political engagement.

Where we’re at: analysis

Different perspectives on human history, the Anthropocene, and climate change

David Graeber and David Wengrow rethink world history as we know it: contrary to the popular narrative which conflates the origin of social inequality with the agricultural revolution, egalitarian cities and regional confederacies are historically quite commonplace, and inequalities first emerged within families and households (it’s worth mentioning that feminist scholars and other marginal voices have worked on stories of micro-scale inequalities for a long time). In an interview from 2016, Nancy Fraser discusses how the work involved in social reproduction is severely undervalued and taken for granted as ‘gifts’ in capitalist societies. This article highlights the need for thought on the Anthropocene to include African perspectives and scholarship, and a recent World Bank report provides new evidence of the massive ongoing extraction of the continent’s wealth by the rest of the word.

The fact that young people are opting out of having children because of climate change is an urgent call for action, and so is the alarming research on how it is worsening public health problems. During these times of crisis we’re facing, art can help us process what’s going on, intellectually and emotionally.

An analysis of Latin American politics. Against the backdrop of state and gang violence, some of Latin America’s most affected communities have taken radical measures to defend themselves and build new social counter-powers from below. Arturo Escobar discusses post-development and the fight for justice and pluralism in Latin America. “As inequality and environmental degradation worsen, the search is on not only for alternative development models but also for alternatives to development itself.” Elsewhere, Pablo Solón discusses the cosmovisions emerging from Latin America’s Indigenous movements, and Miriam Lang and Edgardo Lander talk about the slow demise of Latin America’s “pink tide”.

Just think about it…

“This exploitation by powerful men of women and girls in the most abject of circumstances has been misleadingly framed broadly in terms of “sex work” and “sex parties” in dominant narratives in the Western press.” Some good points and context on the Oxfam scandal and its aftermath.

A thought-provoking read from 2015 on the complex history and effects of humanitarian appeals.

A history of gun manufacturing and colonization, and the resulting underdevelopment it led to.

Restaurants are the new factories

Protecting the climate means strengthening Indigenous rights

The case against sidewalks

The logic of consumerism has come to infect what we mean by gentrification. “The poor are still gentrification’s victims, but in this new meaning, the harm is not rent increases and displacement — it’s something psychic, a theft of pride.” When ‘Gentrification’ isn’t about housing.

Technology and the new economy

The capitalist work ethic and the fear of leisure

The conversation about how human work is impacted by new forms of industrial technology continues. Here is a podcast from the Guardian which introduces different ideas about alternatives to work as we know it.

As Silicon Valley entrepreneurs turn “the end of work” and basic income into their new hobbyhorses, one article instead suggests a new public sector to guarantee both jobs and leisure time. Another article says “the end of work” is a sham—since new technologies in industrial production are driven by controlling labour and not liberating it. Others focus on a critique of work: on the capitalist work ethic which makes people too busy to think and (conveniently for capital) to be engaged in politics; on working less as a solution to everything and the long history of elites fearing the leisure time of the poor; and on how Ju/’hoansi hunter-gatherers can help industrial societies rethink work.

For a historical perspective on the discussion and on different ways of looking at new technologies, Thomas Pynchon’s 1984 essay on Luddism is a must-read.

This past month, David Wachsmuth and his team at McGill University have come out with a hard-hitting new study on the impact of AirBnB on rents, and the way that it drives disruption in our cities. Here’s the report itself, here’s a feature in New York Magazine, and another at The Atlantic.

What Amazon does to poor cities: The debate over Amazon’s new headquarters obscures the company’s rapid expansion of warehouses in low-income areas.

The rise of digital poorhouses

Is energy efficiency a good thing? Not especially. This feature in The Tyee takes us through some of the thinkers and researchers like Jacques Ellul, Stanley Jevons, and Elizabeth Shove on the problems with efficiency in an economy that just keeps growing.

Blockchain won’t save the world

Amazon and the socialist future

The movement for the right to repair. And a wonderful video on how some farmers are hacking their tractors.

Driverless cars could see humankind sprawl ever further into the countryside

On science and its problems

What are “Western values”, really? Peter Harrison argues that the potential of a Western tradition lies “in the preservation of a rich and varied past that can continue to serve as on ongoing challenge to the priorities and “values” of the present.”

Part of the Zapatistas’ project of resisting indigenous genocide, capitalism, and political repression is their struggle to decolonize knowledge. This is an article on the discussions between Zapatistas and leading left-wing scientists during the second iteration of the ConCiencias conference in December 2017.

Indigenous knowledge is finally being recognized as a valuable source of information by Western archaeologists, ecologists, biologists, climatologists and others.

Even so, the relationship between traditional ecological knowledge and Western science remains problematic.

Massimo Pigliucci tackles scientism: “when scientistic thinkers pretend that any human activity that has to do with reasoning about facts is “science” they are attempting a bold move of naked cultural colonization, defining everything else either out of existence or into irrelevance.”

“Current environmental policy textbooks are all stuck in a liberal narrative of environmental progress through political consent.” Melanie DuPuis elaborates on the concepts that are missing from this narrative.

Race science—that we can prove the superiority of one race over another through science—is rearing its ugly head again, with Jordan Peterson and Steven Pinker playing some unwelcome roles. But as Gavin Evans shows in this Guardian article, it’s still as bogus as ever.

Sci-fi and the near future

China Mieville on the limits of utopia

“The utopia of togetherness is a lie. Environmental justice means acknowledging that there is no whole earth, no ‘we’, without a ‘them’. That we are not all in this together… There is hope. But for it to be real, and barbed, and tempered into a weapon, we cannot just default to it. We have to test it, subject it to the strain of appropriate near-despair. We need utopia, but to try to think utopia, in this world, without rage, without fury, is an indulgence we can’t afford.”

Jeff VanderMeer’s Annihilation has been turned into eco-thriller movie, and people are pretty stoked. For Laura Perry, it “offers a roadmap to understanding and living with aliens and other unsettling forms of life”. And there’s a feature in Macleans on Jeff VanderMeer and his “new weird”.

The future is now? Five science fiction writers speculate on what science fiction can do when the present seems more and more like a science fiction story. On the genre as social critique, an ethics of science, and a place to consider questions of meaning and value.

An interview with climate fiction and utopian science fiction writer Kim Stanley Robinson on the roles of science, fiction, and science fiction today, the limits of tech-only solutions to environmental problems, and sci-fi as the realism of our time.

And, speaking of reality merging with science fiction: Silicon Valley’s vision of a future of oligarchical “smart cities” could be a dystopian story by Aldous Huxley.

A farewell-note to Ursula LeGuin, the interplanetary anthropologist

Five black sci-fi writers you may not (but should) know

Books

In The progress of this storm, Andreas Malm both criticizes the increasingly popular environmentalist idea of the “death of nature” and imagines political change through an ecologically class-conscious popular movement. This interview covers the latter point and this review covers both.

A review of Family Values: Between Neoliberalism and the New Social Conservatism by Melinda Cooper at Jacobin.

“Most resistance does not speak its name”: James C. Scott, author of Against the Grain: A Deep History of the Earliest States, talks about his work.

“How will we have enough resources to support those people sustainably and equitably? Should we develop new technologies to respond to those challenges? Or should we focus instead on trying to limit growth and develop more of a harmony with the nature around us?” Charles C. Mann’s The Wizard and the Prophet is a testimonial to the art of the possible.

 

These newsletters are put together by Anna Biren (@acathbrn), Rut Elliot Blomqvist (@RutElliotB), and Aaron Vansintjan (@a_vansi).

Want to receive this as a newsletter? Subscribe here.

The Transition: towards a psycho-social history

Photo: Bill Couch on Flickr

by Jake Stanning

 

Chapter 2

The Neighbour (Excerpt)

[…] 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

by Marcus Yee

“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.

.UNTITLED_ORDER_DRAFT2
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
Organic matter
Inert matter
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
Gases
Bio-aggregates
Things with bio-traces
Ambivalent things that could be considered human with further research
Sluices and foams
Databytes
Incomprehensible databytes
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
Etcetera.

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.[1] 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: look at what’s outside and look at yourself. 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.[2]

.UNTITLED_ORDER_DRAFT1
Construction materials
Plastics/Non-Plastics
Solid/Liquid/Gas
Metals
Organic compounds/Inorganic compounds
Biomatter
Vibrant/Inert matter
Databytes
Pure Rubbish
Et cetera

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.[3] It was an admission of defeat.

.UNTITLED_ORDER_DRAFT3
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.[4] 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.[5]

.UNTITLED_ORDER_DRAFT3
Things that belong to the Department
Tentacled Ones
Slimes and other aggregates
Pdf. documents
Those that look more human with your eyes squinted
Unnamed names
Et cetera

 

[1] “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, Manifesto of the Communist Party (1848)

[2] “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, Of Other Spaces: Utopias and Heterotopia, 1967

[3] “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, Staying with the Trouble, 2016

[4] “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

[5] “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.

This piece is part of Not afraid of the ruins, our series of science fiction and utopian imaginings.

To receive our next article by mailing list, subscribe here.

The collector

by Vera-Maria Zissis

 

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.

“Um, what?”

“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?”

“That’s against–”

“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.

Waterways

Photo: Mel Evans

by Mel Evans

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

Upon you.

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 piece is part of Not afraid of the ruins, our series of science fiction and utopian imaginings.

To receive our next article by mailing list, subscribe here.

January’s readings

Once a month, we put together a list of stories we’ve been reading: things you might’ve missed or crucial conversations going on around the web. We focus on environmental and social justice, cities, science fiction, current events, and political theory.

We’ll try to include articles that have been published recently but will last, that are relatively light and inspiring, and are from corners of the web that don’t always get the light of day. This will also be a space to keep you up to date with news about what’s happening at Uneven Earth.

Uneven Earth updates

We’ve launched our series on sci-fi, near-futures, utopias, and dystopias, Not afraid of the ruins. The first three stories are now online! Expect a new piece every Friday.

Borne on a damaged planet | Link | Two books that do the hard work of thinking through the Anthropocene

Library | Link | A climate change poem

The naked eyes | Link | “Keith’s livelihood was sandwiched between an ocean of algorithms and a ceiling of decision-making programs.”

Why the left needs Elinor Ostrom |  Link | An interview with Derek Wall, author of Elinor Ostrom’s Rules for Radicals, on the need to think beyond market and state.

Our printing press’ first paperback, In defense of degrowth, is hot off the press! You can order it at indefenseofdegrowth.com.

   

You might have missed…

Defend Afrin!

Turkey, commanding the second-largest NATO army, has attacked the predominantly Kurdish region in Syria building a feminist & democratic governance system. The region under attack, Afrin, has gone the furthest in institutionalizing women’s liberation. You can follow any updates or find local protests via #DefendAfrin.

More and more environmental activists are getting killed

The “Environmental Warriors” series from the LA Times chronicles stories from around the world, showing why and how increasingly more environmental activists are faced with repression and violence.

Indigenous occupation of oil platforms in the Amazon

“This is not a symbolic action.” An investigative piece from The Intercept.

In India, women are fed up and starting their own agricultural collectives

“The movement is led by educated Dalit youth, who know they have been cheated of land that is rightfully theirs.”

Brazil announces end to Amazon mega-dam building policy

While many threats to the Amazon remain, indigenous and environmental groups celebrated this victory which can be partly attributed to their resistance.

The World Bank admits it botched Chile’s competitiveness ranking, charged with political manipulation

This is important. The International Organisation’s dealings often don’t get much scrutiny, but their reports can make or break a country. An informative Twitter thread here.

A victory for the movement against airports?

The Zone à défendre (ZAD) achieved a victory this month: France announced that it would no longer build the airport in Notre-Dame-des-Landes. But for ZADistas, it is a half-victory: “While we are trying to prevent the construction of an airport, more than 400 others are being planned or built around the world.”

Where we’re at: analysis

Happy new year! Essays on loneliness, happiness, and an accelerating world

We’re more lonely now than ever: an article on the science of loneliness. To ramble: an ode to the stroll and loitering. An investigation into the new culture of mindfulness in the corporate world. A New Yorker article on the happiness industry. And a Jacobin piece on ‘neoliberal perfectionism’ and how it stands in the way of solidarity and a collective agency.

Maria Kaika on the falsehoods of urban sustainability

Smart cities, green urbanism, livable cities. The catchy terms keep proliferating, but does it come with better policies? Maria Kaika, foremost theorist on cities, opens up a bag of worms in this interview.

The globalisation of slums

An essay by urban geographer Pushpa Arabindoo on the increasing ubiquity of slums—and conversation about them—around the world.

A memo to Canada: acknowledge Indigenous right to self-determination

A striking essay on Canada’s broken relationship with Indigenous people.

The case against GMOs: it’s the industry, stupid

Charles Eisenstein widens the frame on the GMO discussion. “If you believe that society’s main institutions are basically sound, then it is indeed irrational to oppose GMOs.”

Seven cheap things

Last month we shared an interview with Raj Patel and Jason W. Moore about their new book: A history of the world in seven cheap things. This is a critical review by Ian Angus at Climate and Capitalism.

The book that incited a worldwide fear of overpopulation

How The Population Bomb triggered a wave of repression around the world.

Leading Marxist scholar David Harvey on Trump, Wall Street and debt peonage

“often current events are analyzed in a vacuum that almost never includes the context or history necessary to understand what is new, what is old and how we got to where we are.”

New politics

Two years of radical municipalism in Barcelona

A documentary about what happened in Barcelona and why it matters, including resources for discussing the video with your local group. An inspiring interview on the new politics in Spain, and how people have used the internet in creative ways. Eight lessons from the last two years of radical municipalism. A report on the first Fearless Cities conference last year held in Barcelona, and another report on the Catalan Integral Cooperative, which is experimenting with a new economic system in the shell of the old.

New strategies to organize tenants

“Today’s tenant organizers confront a highly fragmented and individualized rental sector. The challenge, then, is not just to mobilize tenants but to create a shared sense of being a tenant.”

Living through the catastrophe

Editorial from the seventh issue of ROAR magazine, which examines the social and political nature of climate change. The issue also features an explainer on the relevance of Murray Bookchin’s work for today’s climate crisis.

Climate change and the humanities: a historical perspective

“If we can resist the age-old impulse to define binary oppositions between ways of knowing—scientific versus humanistic, expert versus popular—we will be in a better position to join forces across those divides towards understanding and action”, argues Deborah Cohen.

Atlantic freedoms

“Haiti, not the US or France, was where the assertion of human rights reached its defining climax in the Age of Revolution.” In light of President Trump’s recent ‘shithole’ comments, this article from 2016 on Haiti’s revolutionary history is worth revisiting.

The shitty new communist futurism

Aaron kicks off a new series of articles on the ENTITLE blog which questions the foundations of ‘eco-modernist socialism’ and ‘communist futurism’ as proposed in Jacobin’s climate change issue Earth, Wind, and Fire.

Resources

A reading list on Indigenous climate justice

How to get new activists to stay engaged for the long haul

There’s been upsurge in activism since the Trump election, but how do we keep people engaged? A nice how-to from Waging Nonviolence.

A critical framework for a just recovery

With increasing natural disasters and the retreat of the state, more and more people are getting involved with grassroots disaster response movements. Movement Generation has put out a document with a guiding framework for how to do people-based recovery. PDF here.

What’s happening in Puerto Rico?

A thorough syllabus on the island’s history and its not-so-natural catastrophes.

Sci-fi and the near future

Ursula K. Le Guin on the need to end the narrative of the triumphant hero

“It is with a certain feeling of urgency that I seek the nature, subject, words of the other story, the untold one, the life story.” Ursula K. Le Guin has died, and there are so many more worlds to explore. We’ll build them with her in our hearts. This is one of our favorite pieces by her, “The Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction.”

Luxury home developments of the future will include patented ecosystems

“Entire landscapes, replete with designer insects and subscription seed stock, will have the potential to be recognised as protected intellectual property. The proprietary ecosystem will emerge, financially and biologically controlled by a particular hotel chain, property developer or private homeowner.”

Climate gentrification?

Welcome to the future: climate change will mean a new math for real estate investment.

Solarpunk wants to save the world

Move over cyberpunk. Say hello the new kid on the sci-fi block, solarpunk.

The world is full of monsters

We like our stories filled with weird creatures. A collection of shorts by Jeff VanderMeer.

Welcome to the wasteland

Ok, this isn’t sci-fi, but it certainly feels like it. A graphic illustration of a post-apocalyptic festival.

A strategy for ruination

An interview with China Miéville about the limits of utopia.

Carbon omissions

“with looming climate change and the decline of cheap oil, I couldn’t shake the question of what would power all these gadgets, and none of the futurists seemed to bring it up.”

Writing

On seeing and beeing seen: Writing about Indigenous issues with love

“To truly write from another experience in an authentic way, you need more than empathy. You need to write with love.” By Alice Elliott.

Women writing about the wild: 25 essential authors

A primer on some of the best nature writing you probably haven’t read yet.

 

These newsletters are put together by Anna Biren (@acathbrn), Rut Elliot Blomqvist (@RutElliotB), and Aaron Vansintjan (@a_vansi).

Want to receive this as a newsletter? Subscribe here.

Library

Photo: Kim Goldberg

by Kim Goldberg

Somewhere beyond silent streets

and woodlands, beyond upheaved

graveyards, empty schools, dry spillways, vacant

hibernaculums for little brown bats

beyond the last larval foodplant for the last

western tiger swallowtail

an old woman sits by the sea untangling

the nets of each life she can imagine.

Her cabin above the tideline is filled with books

from the Time Before but little else.

She cooks over a burn barrel beside her shack

stokes it with driftwood and whatever tumbles

ashore. Once an old door made a landing

then a desk still intact. She grills any scrap of flesh

the sea hacks up—bull kelp, moon

jellies, three-eyed eels. Eats them with succulent

stems of glasswort growing in the sand.

When evening comes, she flings each newly

sorted net upon the ocean like a bedsheet

for each is a piece of the planetary genome.

She is waiting for the nets to find

one another, reconnect end-to-end, spiral

beneath the waves. Replicate.

But each net returns alone, an enfolded mass

of knots, bone, chitinous exoskeletons, bloated

elongate bodies of the unknown.

 

Written June 2, 2017, the morning after US President Donald Trump announced he was pulling the United States out of the Paris Climate Agreement.

Kim Goldberg is the author of seven books of poetry and nonfiction. She lives close to the sea in Nanaimo, British Columbia, where she wanders, wonders, and watches birds.

 

This piece is part of Not afraid of the ruins, our series of science fiction and utopian imaginings.

To receive our next article by mailing list, subscribe here.

 

The naked eyes

Image: WikiCommons

by Nathaniel McKenzie

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.

“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…”

“Yes?”

“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?”

“Sure.”  

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.”

“Hey—”

“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.”

“Oh no.”

“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—”

“StreamPorter?”

“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.

“Good afternoon.”

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?

“Feel free.”

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.”

“It’s fixed?”

“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?”  

“I’m sorry—”

“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?”

“Not really.”

“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.

No—”

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

“Yes, but—”

“Standing outside the scene of the crime this morning.”

“Yes, but—”

“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?”

“Genius?”

“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.”

“Oh.”

“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

This piece is part of Not afraid of the ruins, our series of science fiction and utopian imaginings.

To receive our next article by mailing list, subscribe here.

Not afraid of the ruins

DSCF7220

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.

DSCF6015

Submission Criteria

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:

  • Climate, social and environmental justice
  • Feminist and queer theory
  • Critical race studies
  • De-colonialism
  • Anti-capitalist politics (socialist, anarchist, etc.)
  • Post-capitalist ecologies

 

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 grant for 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.

 

Much love and happy world building!

Claire, Aaron, Hannah, Dylan, Elliot, and Mario

Download the poster here.

DSCF7438