The last eighteen months have been nothing short of extraordinary…
As recently as May 2015, most of us were still labouring under the impression that the world was fundamentally the same as it had been since the late-1990s. Sure… the economy had gone to shit and the internet was full of anger but these were all technical problems with technical solutions that would inevitably get solved one way or another. This was the view taken by serious ‘centre ground’ politicians and it filtered all the way down to the parts of the internet where people like me choose to spend our free time.
Since then, a series of unexpected election results have shown not only the depth of public anger at the nature of the political consensus engineered by those technocratic elites but also the extent of the alienation between those elites and the public whose interests they claimed to represent.
Always better funded, better organised, and more disciplined, the right has been able to benefit from the collapse of political formations in which they had always been intimately involved. Back in the 1990s, right-wingers assumed the role of pantomime villains who moaned about abortion, family values, and keeping the pound while a cadre of neoliberal centrists deregulated markets and sold off public goods. When the series of bubbles created by privatisation and deregulation finally became too unstable to support the interests of capital in the late-2000s, right-wingers happily assumed the role of technocratic fixers forced to implement a politics of austerity after the failed ‘largesse’ of the Third Way.When reality re-asserted itself again and people started to realise that they had now been shafted by at least two distinct political epochs, the right rapidly reconfigured itself as a populist resistance to policies it had itself been pushing since at least the 1970s.
The last eighteen months have provided the middle-class with a series of naked lunch moments: Suddenly, the brutal oppression of racial others required by an unjust and political system is taking place all around them.Suddenly, hardships and inequalities that have long been considered normal in working-class communities are starting to change the lives of middle-class communities where kids are moving home and struggling to find work while ageing parents find themselves having to work longer and harder in order to make up for the shortfalls in their own pensions while everything seems to be getting more expensive and harder to acquire.
The last eighteen months have been extraordinary as they have forced everyone in the developed world to confront the limits of their own political imaginations. The question is, how are we going to respond to the moment in which we were allowed to glimpse the brutality that lies at the end of every political fork?
A funny thing about important moments is that they tend to play themselves out at almost every level of society. The choice between socialism and yet more barbarism is not just about the way we vote and the way we think about big political issues, but also about the way in which we relate to each other and act in our day-to-day lives. Feminists have long been telling us that the personal is the political because the way in which we think about small things tends to shape how we think about big things too… If you are interested in films then think about the ways in which capitalism determines not only the types of films you get to see but also the messages those films are likely to contain. If you are interested in science fiction then think not only about the way capitalism shapes the discourse but also the ways in which capitalism is shaping and re-shaping the institutions that drive that discourse. Who are reviews written for? What is the purpose of conventions? Who gets to speak? Who gets to shape the debate? Whose interests are served? The answers may be uncomfortable but asking those questions will help to shape the building of the world to come.
The DJs Porter Robinson and Madeon got an anime production house to produce a video for their latest single “Shelter”. The result is a beautifully formed and genuinely moving short science fiction film:
This recent piece by Dan O’Sullivan does an absolutely fantastic job of identifying the political, social, and psychological pressures that allowed the election of Donald Trump and now threaten to produce a future even more hideous than the one we might have imagined as recently as five years ago. Like many leftists, O’Sullivan places the blame for Trump’s election on a Democratic party that had grown corrupt, deluded and self-absorbed. Not content with failing to notice the fragility of the electoral coalition that brought Obama to power in 2008 and then re-elected him in 2012, the Democrats engineered the victory of a ruthless machine politician who – aside from being physically frail and temperamentally ill-suited to retail politics – manage to personify the smug and ineffectual politics that Americans forcibly rejected in 2008 when they chose to elect a political outsider who promised both hope and change.
Aside from really admiring O’Sullivan’s piece, I wanted to link to something from Jacobin as their output over the last ten days has been nothing but one brilliant piece after another. In fact, reading them has been a bit like watching one of those 1990s fighting games in which people pummel each other into the ground with 500-hit combos.
Even before last week’s election, it seemed to me that the American left was in a much stronger position than the British left both in terms of its access to the mainstream media and in terms of the strength of its voices. The problem with the British left has always been its propensity to self-doubt and its reliance on a political vocabulary that is — frankly — impenetrable to anyone who hasn’t either attended graduate school or spent their entire life around leftist institutions.I have a lot of time for mainstream leftist commentators like Owen Jones and left-wing platforms like Novara Media but I think it’s important to recognise that sites like Jacobin or The Intercept and podcasts like Chapo Trap House are miles ahead of what we have managed to develop here in the UK.
Aside from being a neat tribute to first-person shooters, the video for Biting Elbows‘ “Bad Motherfucker” is enormous fun and shows quite how much you can achieve with a limited budget and a few decent ideas. Worth thinking about next time you find yourselves yawning through the destruction of another computer-generated cityscape:
This recent review of Roshani Chokshi’s fantasy novel The Star-Touched Queen by Samira Nadkarni may be the single best piece of genre criticism I have read this year.
Genre culture has spent the last few years trying to address historic problems with both racism and sexism. Unfortunately, this process of self-examination has coincided with a collapse of the field’s critical infrastructure meaning that we have gone from a climate in which female and BME authors were systemically ignored to a culture in which they are uncritically hyped. Aside from being rather patronising, this behaviour is also extraordinarily counter-productive as universal praise only ever breeds universal cynicism as people simply stop being able to trust in the filtering mechanisms of their own cultural spaces.
Nadkarni’s piece is a great read because it provides an excellent leftist critique of what would appear to be quite a politically dubious work of epic fantasy inspired by Hindu mythology. What makes it really special is the fact that Nadkarni has taken those leftist critical tools and combined them with her lived experience to produce a piece that not only dismantles the book being reviewed but also says loads of really interesting things about the current state of Indian politics.
Identity politics often stresses the importance of diversity without bothering to unpack the moral force that lies behind it. While contemporary identity politics is dominated by privilege theory and some questionable liberal sociology, the moral force behind calls for greater diversity can be found in the radical standpoint epistemology of 1970s feminism. Taking their cue from Engels’ claim that women were the first oppressed class, standpoint epistemologists argue that unjust society affects different people in different ways and that the only way to understand the full reality of power and exact political change is by listening to a broad array of voices talking about their individual experiences of oppression and injustice. Nadkarni’s piece is not just a fantastic piece of leftist genre criticism, it is a reminder of how important it is for genre criticism to get its house in order and incorporate diverse critical voices. Without a wider range of perspectives, genre criticism will continue giving pass after pass to books with ugly politics. I wish genre culture had a hundred reviewers like Nadkarni.
I have long been a fan of Mark Fisher, the academic and writer of Capitalist Realism. A while ago, he produced a follow-up collection of essays entitled Ghosts of My Life that received a good deal less attention despite being in some ways more accessible and engaging. Here’s a nice little video in which he articulates his idea that neoliberalism has robbed us all of a future and turned social progress into nothing more than a rehashing of the past at greater resolution and with faster and faster broadband speeds:
This recent collaboration between RJ Barker and Paul Watson cracks the door onto an interesting possible future for short fiction. Ever since the birth of science fiction as a commercial genre in the 1930s, the relationship between words and images has been pretty much fixed:Writers produce words and words are the most important things. Artists produce images and while those images can be created either before (in which case they are often used as writing cues) or after (in which case they are often inspired by the words) the words, they are never anything more than an adjunct or illustration.
While this relationship and pecking order may have made some sense given the limitations of mid-20th Century printing technology, it makes absolutely zero sense today. Much like Sam J. Miller’s excellent “Kenneth A User’s Manual”, Barker and Watson’s “Badb Catha” is not just about the words or the images but the relationship between those different forms and the ideas they express.
Given how much genre short fiction is published natively online, I really would like these kinds of collaboration to become a lot more common.
Last month saw the release of Adam Curtis‘ latest documentary Hypernormalisation to what can only be described as a chorus of catcalls and eye-rolls from people you would expect to be his natural constituents.
It is not that Curtis’ critics do not have a basis for their concerns: A visual style that might once have been described as iconic is now starting to look a little bit shop-worn. Similarly, the impression that Curtis may have started to repeat himself can only have been bolstered by the fact that Hypernormalisation covers a lot of the same ground as Bitter Lake, a documentary that itself rehashes many of the points made in previous films both long and short. Frankly, saying the same thing over and over again in almost exactly the same way is not constructive when the point you are trying to make is that people have retreated into a set of fictional narratives they find more comforting than the ever-changing horrors of reality.
I think a lot of the reaction to Hypernormalisation can be accounted for in terms of the tension between the message he is trying to get across and the style in which he is communicating. I also think that he has managed to rub a lot of people the wrong way by explicitly critiquing people who engage in online ‘activism’. Prior to the release of Hypernormalisation, Curtis allowed Vice to release a short film that boils his longer work down to something far more powerful and concise:
This recent piece by Jo L. Walton about the social economics of Cory Doctorow’s Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom is beautifully rigorous and thought-provoking.
When I first started paying attention to the discourse surrounding science fiction, there were loads of articles debugging the kind of science that features in science fiction novels. The reason for these kinds of articles was that people — not unreasonably — assumed that if you were reading science fiction, you might be interested in science and so be interested in articles that took the scientific ideas in science fiction and pushed them just a little bit further.
As time passed and genre culture started to reinvent itself, these kinds of articles fell out of favour and came to be seen as nothing more than a form of gate-keeping designed to police the boundaries between genres and keep non-scientists out of science fiction. While there’s no denying that previous generations of fans used scientific literacy as a club against their political opponents, Jo’s piece reminded me of how much I miss that particular form of critical engagement and writers who view criticism not just as an opportunity to evaluate books but also to take the ideas contained in those books as seriously as they possibly can. Jo’s blog is full of weird, left-field forms of critical engagement and is arguably one of the best kept secrets in science fiction.
This month saw the publication of my lengthy cultural history of the New Weird. The editors inform me that the numbers have been excellent and what little reaction I have seen has been overwhelmingly positive… so thank you ‘fans’:
This recent piece by Adam Bartos and Ben Lerner has been quietly gnawing away at the edges of my mind for a while now.The piece is ostensibly a tribute to Chris Marker, the French artist and director who gave the world La Jetee. However, rather than using conventional methods to pay homage to Marker’s genius, Bartos and Lerner deploy some of Marker’s own techniques and so present Marker’s life as a few words scattered across some beautifully-taken photographs of his abandoned workshop. Beautiful stuff.
Ostensibly a ‘tribute’ to the great French artist and film director Chris Marker, the piece tries to engage with Marker on his own terms. So, rather than using words and images to communicate memories and truths about the past, Bartos and Lerner try to capture the essence of Marker in a few words scattered around some amazing photographs of Marker’s workshop