Wednesday, 21 March 2018

On Hope, with a cat picture.

Well, it's the Vernal Equinox, and I woke up feeling more full of hope than has recently seemed possible. The schedule for Follycon was released a couple of days ago, and I'm delighted to have been asked to sit on three panels and to complete in the Follympic games. I'm also looking forward to seeing some good friends and of course the guests of honour Kim Stanley Robinson and Nnedi Okorafor. I'm hoping to be able to live blog, so watch this space!

Now for my topic du jour:

In the UK, there seems to be a lot of despair and resignation about currently.  I think that a lot of this has to do with the considerable economic pressure that most of us are experiencing, along with a loss of faith that the situation will ever improve.

In some ways it seems like a meaningful future has vanished, or been stolen. (Johan Hari has recently suggested, accurately I think, that the loss of a sense of the future is a key component to depression).

Recently, one of my Facebook friends asked whether there was anyone out there who was not depressed because they were out of work or below minimum wage or otherwise massively overworked doing a job that was slowly killing them.

This captures a general mood of apathy and resignation in the UK. To be blunt, it seems at times like Michael Moore was right when he suggested the English, specifically, have 'given up.' And quite honestly if I hear the phrase 'it is what it is' once more I'm really going to get quite cross.

Well, I sympathise with all this. It seems to me that many of these feelings come not from the current situation that people find themselves in but from the belief that it will never change or could never be improved. 'It is what it is' and you just have to accept things, no matter how sh***y they may be.

The problem is that long term fear, stress, anger, exhaustion etc. locks you in 'survival mode.' This is when your focus is narrowed and you only see the crisis in front of you. All sense of the future becomes lost.

Therefore it seems to me crucial to resist (1) resignation (2) hopelessness and most of all (3) the sense that you, an individual are powerless. Looking after yourself and maintaining morale is a political act and an important one. See Hillary Rettig's great post for more on this.

I also recommend Bruce Levine's book on depression. Bruce talks a lot about morale, and thinks that many cases of depression are actually extreme forms of learned helplessness and despair. A necessary first step in alleviating depression is therefore to focus on lifting morale.

I'm going to be blunt here. I'm basically a critical utopian. My agenda, my wish, is for a future that's radically better than the present we find ourselves in. I want a planet that's rewilded and extensively ecologically restored. I want poverty and deprivation to be gone. I want compassion and kindness to become the hallmark of our civilisation instead of venality, exploitation and mendacity. I want a democratic workplace, rebuilt communities and, God damn it, contact with aliens would be pretty fine too.

All this means basically saying screw you to the currently prevailing wisdom/mood in this country. I refuse resignation. I refuse powerlessness. I refuse despair. I especially refuse those who would bully, deceive and coerce whole populations for their own selfish ends. Those people have no right to anyone's attention or respect.

Yesterday, I came across this fabulous Kim Stanley Robinson quote that seems appropriate:

....the optimism that I’m trying to express [in my novel 2140] is that there won’t be an apocalypse, there will be a disaster. But after the disaster comes the next world on.
Maybe optimism is a kind of moral imperative, you have to stay optimistic because otherwise you’re just a wanker that’s taken off into your own private Idaho of “Oh well, things are bad.” It’s so easy to be cynical; it’s so easy to be pessimistic. I like to beat on to people a little bit about this.
Quote from this interview.

Stan is of course perfectly right. The choice is between (1) cocooning oneself in despair or (2) saying stuff it and getting together with others to build a better world. To finish, here's Stan's Bioneers talk, which seems suitably inspiring for the Vernal Equinox. Enjoy, and I hope to see some of you at Eastercon!

Monday, 19 March 2018

Ursula Le Guin on Technology...and some of my thoughts

Well, the snow has descended again and I've been inside for most of the weekend, with brief forays into the garden. The cat is also rather peeved by the weather and keeps attacking me.

I've been taking the opportunity to continue my Ursula Le Guin-a-thon. This started by accident after I finished her brilliant but difficult masterwork Always Coming Home.

I went onto her Fantastic Fiction page, and started going through the books and short stories that were previously unfamiliar to me. I was surprised at how much I'd missed.

Her essays are also significant, and for me have been a useful source of alternative ways of looking at things.

Technology is one issue that I've been pondering in the wake of my 'Wild Future' posts. Many SF writers still seem to favour a basically linear, progressive approach to technology. Innovation is often welcomed for the sake of it, and I've seen environmental thought pilloried for being 'Luddite' or even reactionary.

In the course of my reading, I've discovered that Le Guin, typically, had a more subtle, complex approach to these issues. For example, she wrote:

The imperialism of high technology equals the old racist imperialism in its arrogance; to the technophile, people who aren’t in the know/in the net, who don’t have the right artefacts, don’t count. They’re proles, faceless nonentities….I have heard a man say perfectly seriously that the Native Americans before the Conquest had no technology.
From the introduction to A Fisherman of the Inland Sea (Gollancz, 1987/2011) .

The first part of this statement flags the ideological component of technology. Neil Postman suggested that we live in a technopoly, in which technology is deified and seen as a solution to all problems. This enables narratives about linear progress and the 'inevitability' of certain forms of development. Anyone who does not participate in such development will often be seen as irrelevant, backwards or even a threat. 

The denial of Native American technology is an example of this, and Le Guin requested that we take a wider perspective. To an anthropologist or archaeologist, 'technology' does not necessarily equal high-technology.  Pretty much every human culture has had a technology of some sort, and it's really simple prejudice not to see this.

Arguments over technology often take a very simplistic line. Quite often, innovations are considered in a sort of vacuum, quite apart from the context in which they’re produced. Technology, like 'Science,' is often presented as monolithic and value-free.

A piece of kit, the argument goes, is 'neutral.' It is the uses to which it is put that determine whether it is 'good' or 'bad.' This presentation tends to exonerate the designers and manufacturers of such devices.

To give a specific example: smartphones. On a very abstract level, would be very difficult to make value judgments over the basic idea of a supercomputer-communicator in someone's pocket. A Turing machine, the conceptual heart of any digital computer, is basically a symbol manipulator that can be programmed for a very wide range of functions. In this sense, then, it is probably 'neutral' -- if we equate value neutrality with a high degree of functional flexibility.

But taken in context, a smartphone is not even remotely a ‘neutral’ device. It is a product of a capitalist, consumer society and it is built to make a profit for large and powerful companies. In judging a smartphone, you have to take into account the human suffering and serious environmental costs of its manufacture. You also need to account for the fact that these machines are designed to be addictive and assess the impacts on the user as well as their longer term social and cultural consequences.

When all this is taken into account, it’s easy to see how threadbare many of the arguments over technology actually are. The assessment of any given machine is always going to be tricky, as multiple costs are weighted against difficult-to-assess benefits. But in the end, we’re going to be a long way from an abstract argument over a supercomputer-communicator in your pocket.

Le Guin also had thoughts on the long-range goals of technological development.  In her discussion of utopias, 'A non-Euclidean view of California as a cold place to be (1985),' she addressed the possibility of the total automation of society.

She pointed out that SF stories where robots do all the work were always intended to be satirical, and that in these stories, this state of perfection never lasted. This is surely a pressing issue for an age where total automation via advanced robotics is once more being contemplated by progressives.

Later in the essay, she acknowledged that 'technology endless creative source, but that she could not see how

...even the most ethereal technologies promised by electronics and information theory can offer more than the promise of the simple tool: to make life materially easier, to enrich us. That is a great promise and gain! But if the enrichment of one type of civilisation occurs only at the cost of the destruction of all other species and their inorganic matrix of earth, water and air, and at increasingly urgent risk to the existence of all life on the planet, then it seems to me that to count on technological advance for anything but technological advance is mistaken (p. 96).

Here, we're forced to weigh the potential gains of a totally automated society against the costs. One salient question that I have not seen addressed is the sustainability of such a society. No-one, really, knows whether it will be possible. Would a society of total automation really be politically, economically and culturally stable? Would it really solve the problems of poverty and inequality? What hidden costs might exist? And how long might such a society last?

This is actually one of the things that I like most about Le Guin's writings. She does not offer easy answers, but instead prompts more questions and urges deeper understandings. I can only hope that her work remains influential in the years to come. Onto the next book!

Wednesday, 14 March 2018

Back to Nature?

One of the comments I received after floating the idea of 'Wild Futures' is that it would be highly undesirable to go 'Back to Nature.' My colleague had got the idea that I was suggesting an abandonment of technology and mass social organisation and a return to a hunter-gatherer lifestyle.

This triggered a certain amount of soul-searching about my personal aims, especially in terms of fiction.

There's no doubt that stories and novels can be used as vehicles for agendas, political or otherwise. A good example is Edward Bellamy's 1888 socialist Utopia Looking Backward, which inspired 165 Nationalist 'Clubs.' These clubs were devoted to implementing a number of proposals in the book.

My own fictions have a somewhat different aim. The 'agenda' is primarily metaphorical and imaginative, and the first priority is to tell a good story.

Science Fiction, in any case, is not really predictive. In her essay "Science Fiction and the Future," Ursula Le Guin stated that:

The future is part of [reality] from which...we are excluded. We can't even see it....When we look at what we can't see, what we do see is the stuff inside our heads. Our thoughts and our dreams, the good ones and the bad ones. And it seems to me that when science fiction is really doing its job that's exactly what it's dealing with. Not "the Future." Its when we confuse our dreams and ideas with the non-dream world that we're in trouble....  (In Dancing at the Edge of the World, p. 143).

This, broadly, seems a good way to approach stories and ideas in Speculative Fiction. Le Guin provides a first rate example in her novel, Always Coming Home. This is set in a far-future California where new Native American cultures have arisen. It is obviously not a predictive work, more an imaginative creation, like Tolkien's Middle Earth.

So literary Utopias, by and large, are not practical maps. They are more like thought experiments, or perhaps tools to prevent what Wade Davis called 'Cultural Myopia.' They do not have to be practical to serve their purpose.


But to return to the original criticism: am I suggesting that we abandon everything and revert to Stone Age living? Absolutely not. This would seem both impractical and undesirable to me. My own preference is for some kind of 'Wild-Tech' future, where human beings successfully integrate a good, just and kind technological society into the biosphere.

The reason I do not think a return to 'stone age' living is practical is partly because someone has already tried this. I think the outcome of that experiment is very instructive.

In 1936 the Norwegian explorer Thor Heyerdahl went to the Marquesas with his wife Liv with the express intention of going back to a stone-age level of living. The youthful Heyerdahl loathed civilisation and saw Progress as 'synonymous with distance from nature (p. 14).'

They chose to settle on the Pacific island of Fatu-Hiva and built a house of plaited bamboo with a thatched roof of coconut palms. They bathed in a nearby mountain stream and ate a mostly vegetarian diet including sugar cane, plus some prawns from the river. They also befriended some of the local inhabitants, including Tei Tetua and Tahia-Momo, his adopted daughter.

The book's a terrific read and a classic of travel writing. Towards the end of their time on Fatu-Hiva they suffered a number of misfortunes and the island came to seem a trap as opposed to a tropical idyll. Eventually, Heyerdahl admitted that:

There is no road back all the way to the abraded point of departure. There is nothing for modern man to return to (p. 292).

He acknowledged that some of the products of civilisation had been necessary to protect and save their lives in the wilderness: for example, they had brought along mosquito nets that had prevented them from getting elephantiasis. 

Heyerdahl, however, remained critical of a blind faith in 'Progress:'

Any invention, just any artificial product or device, was progress. Each step away from the world of yesterday was progress. Progress became something determined by the clock and not by quality (p. 293).

And although they were both less contemptuous of the civilisation they had left:

Yet we had not gained full confidence in modern civilisation. We had seen how simple life could be, how perfectly relaxed and intensely happy a person could be…we did not want to be a single step further from nature than…necessary. Primitive life in the wilderness had filled us with a well-being, given us more than a city life as we knew it had ever been able to give us (p. 295).

This dissatisfaction and sense of loss is, I feel, as legitimate a finding as that of the experiment's impracticability. The failure of the 'return to nature' does not negate the general observation that natural environments can provide things that cannot be found in artificial ones. There is a burgeoning field of psychological research that bears this out.

This is why I think that there's a urgent need to think about Wild Futures as a serious, practical possibility. 'Nature' is not an optional, discardable extra. It is an integral part of ourselves.

Tuesday, 6 March 2018

It seemed like a Good Idea at the Time...

It really did. As noted in the last post, I have been feeling rather demoralised lately. When I saw that my colleague, Serena Roney-Dougal. was giving a talk at the Society for Psychical Research, I naively thought that a day in London would be a fun diversion.

I also twisted the arm of a friend of mine, A, who had also been having a hard time lately.
"I need someone to drive me into Peterborough, anyway," I said on the phone, the weekend the talk was booked.

Then the 'Beast from the East' arrived. A very frightening temperature anomaly in the arctic dumped a large amount of snow in the British Isles. The week before, things had been bright, warm and even springlike. Suddenly, we were in the arctic.

The morning came: snow on the ground, frozen solid and a very chill wind for the UK. However, the roads seemed passable and A was up for the trip if I was. As we set off, it started snowing again. We got to town and the A15 was closed off. There had been a fatality on that road two days previously, but we suspected that the snow ploughs were clearing more snow off the road. We diverted, heading along a treacherous country road in the direction of the A1.

The nadir of the trip was probably when we arrived at a large truck stop close to the junction leading to the motorway, because the windscreen was grimy and the car had run out of wiper fluid. It was still snowing. We parked amongst huge behemoths and I tried, futilely, to clean the windows with my woolly hat (this expedition being woefully under equipped).

We debated turning back. Actually, that was me: A seemed laid back about the whole thing, allowing for nicotine supplies.

The A1, however, was mostly clear and we got to Peterborough without incident. Many of the trains  to King's Cross had been delayed or cancelled, but they're frequent, so we didn't have any real problems getting in.

Everyone in London, however, looked miserable, cold and stooped. I was not surprised because I was feeling pretty much the same.

We got to Kensington, and the V & A. After A had had another fag and I'd finished my latte, we entered the museum. Here are some of the things we saw.

Georgina contemplates her iPhone for eternity. I beleive she is playing Candy Crush Saga.

This Saxon god also sells hand-made wheels on eBay.

This automaton of a tiger mauling an English soldier tells us exactly what Tipu Sultan of South India thought of the East India Company....

The Hindu God Shiva Nataraja demonstrates aquafit moves....

This creepy Victorian Doll probably shouldn't be let near sharp objects....

This Japanese theatrical mask was also used in staring competitions....

Chinese Buddha. Enough said!


These days, the Society for Psychical Research is located at Vernon Mews, so the nearest tube is West Kensington. There is also a wide, main road to cross, and that day it was like a wind tunnel: my hair felt like it was being blow dried in a freezer. The pavements were also treacherous and rather slippery.

Trudging across snow (really), we reached the SPR and were greeted by the secretary. It was interesting to see how much they'd settled in: when I'd last visited in 2016 half the books were still in boxes. The library has one of the biggest collections of books on parapsychology and the paranormal in the UK. It's always very entertaining to look through these, and we found a big volume that was published recently showing Victorian 'spirit photography' and various scenes from physical mediumship.

I'm afraid to say that none of these look very convincing: the 'ectoplasm' is generally cheesecloth, the 'spirit materialisations' are obviously people wrapped in sheets and there are even ghostly images which look like photos from magazines surrounded in cotton wool. There was one especially strange image of the naked chest of a medium with 'ectoplasm' (cheesecloth) spread across her breasts. All in the name of science, you know....

The talk was very enjoyable. Serena discussed the history of magic, shamanism and witchcraft, suggesting links with parapsychological research. Serena has accepted the existence of psychic phenomena since she was a child growing up in Scotland: she cited an incident where a painting fell over, and her mother announced that one of her aunts 'must have died.' Sure enough, a few days later, they received a black-bordered telegram.

She went on to discuss the history of magic and witchcraft in Europe, beginning with the oracles of Greece and the Persian Magi (astrologers) mentioned in the Bible. She then discussed the period of witchcraft trials, when many practicing wise women and witches were driven underground. There's a lot of debate over this period in history and its nature; a useful recent resource is Ronald Hutton's The Witch.

Serena suggested that this fear was eventually replaced after the Enlightenment by ridicule. She pointed out that this process of marginalisation continues today, as globalisation is accompanied by a 'miasma of skepticism.'

Finally, she discussed some of her work with Tibetans in South India, under the auspices of the Dalai Lama. This involved psi testing Tibetan monks, as Tibetan culture accepts the existence of paranormal phenomena, and the claim is that those adept at meditation (we're talking twenty or thirty years training plus) get better at telepathy, etc.

What do I make of all this? The first thing to remember is that secular culture is almost unique in denying and denigrating this side of human experience: pretty much every traditional culture has supernatural beliefs and practises. A cursory read of the anthropological data shows that things like spirit possession, divination, apparitions and apparent 'extraordinary knowing' are widespread social, cultural and psychological realities at the very least.

However, it is very hard to determine how many genuine anomalies exist in this large body of data. Undoubtedly, many strange experiences that people have can been explained in conventional terms: this is the task of anomalistic psychology, to examine what's not psychic but looks like it. As to the genuine reality of psi phenomena....

Last year I mentioned, in the context of the Search for Extra Terrestrial Intelligence, John Ziman's idea that science operates by sorting reliable knowledge from unreliable. Things like Newtonian physics, the idea that the Earth goes round the sun and muscle sliding filament theory in biology are reliable knowledge. Parapsychological data, by contrast, is generally unreliable and it is difficult to know anything with a high degree of certainty. This suggests that a generally agnostic attitude is possibly healthiest.

There is little doubt, however, that many academics find the topic of psi deeply threatening. For example, during the recent furore over Daryl Bem's presentiment experiment, one commentator suggested that currently conventional statistical techniques in psychology might have to be abandoned to prevent parapsychological claims gaining a foothold. This seems to me quite an extreme response, but it's by no means rare.

One book I've found very helpful in understanding this extreme reaction is George Hansen's The Trickster and the Paranormal. He points out that:

"....the paranormal and supernatural are ambiguous and marginal in virtually all ways: socially, intellectually, academically, religiously, scientifically and conceptually. They don't fit in the rational world." (p. 24).

Hansen uses Max Weber's writings on rationalisation and the marginalising of the supernatural to make sense of this. Weber wrote that a large part of modernisation involved the 'disenchantment of the world.' That is, relegating the numinous and supernatural to the margins of social consciousness and eventually denying its existence: exactly the process of which Serena spoke.

The talk over, we made our way home. This was actually quite straightforward, and there were no serious delays on the train. The A15 was also clear, and almost empty at eleven at night, although the snow ploughs had pushed aside a number of thick drifts.

There followed a general collapse and fairly deep sleep....

Friday, 23 February 2018

A Visit to the Woods...and more thoughts on Deep Ecological Futures

The last few weeks have been a time for soul-searching. I've had a number of unpleasant difficulties and setbacks that have dented my confidence somewhat.  To be blunt, it feels like reality has taken my hopes and aspirations and given them a good groinal kicking.

Slightly more poetically, at times, I've felt like Dante at the beginning of the Inferno:

Midway upon the journey of our life
I found myself within a forest dark,
For the straightforward pathway had been lost.
Ah me! how hard a thing it is to say
What was this forest savage, rough, and stern,
Which in the very thought renews the fear.

Translation here.

Taking this metaphor somewhat literally, last week I decided to go to a 'forest savage.' We're lucky to be blessed with some very nice patches of woodland locally, and they provide very good refuges for some mental reflection.

I didn't meet Virgil in this particular wood, or get taken on a tour of Hell, Purgatory and Heaven, but still, the sun was out and I saw catkins, a red kite and the resident herd of fallow deer. 

One of the things that I've been pondering is the previous post. In this, I discussed the 'Future Primitive' mode of writing and suggested that 'modern' Western high-tech societies have much to learn from traditional, indigenous and  prehistoric ones. 

Since that post, I've been doing further research and my thinking has evolved somewhat. 

Firstly, I've become unhappy with the term 'Primitive' used in the context of traditional cultures. The problem with the term is that it's culturally loaded with nineteenth century assumptions about linear progress and the life-course of cultures.

In short: traditional and indigenous cultures were seen by nineteenth century Europeans as 'backward' because they didn't have things like modern science, steam engines, christianity, capitalism, guns and wage-slavery. It was therefore appropriate to treat indigenous 'primitive' people like children and 'civilise' them in various brutal ways.

For this reason, I now prefer alternative terms to 'Future Primitive, including 'Wild Futures,' 'Deep Ecological Futures' and possibly 'Indigenous Futures.' None of these alternatives are prefect, but they seem preferable to me. I'd be grateful for further suggestions.

I'd like to say that 'colonial' thinking has gone away, but that's far from being the case. I would argue that the work of the 'New Optimists' and Ecomodernists recapitulates this sort of narrative in only slightly less blatant ways than their nineteenth century forebears. The narrative that these factions promote is that despite the various 'doom and gloom' stories, things are actually getting better and better, and that this can be proved by various graphs.

There is a darker side to this, however. In the much cited Better Angels of Our Nature, Stephen Pinker makes the claim that prehistoric and traditional societies were riven with warfare, and that it took the rise of states, along with virtues like reason, for violence to decline. This claim reaffirms the claims of 'modernity' (i.e. linear progress from savagery to 'civilisation') in quasi-scientific language.

This brings me to an important controversy in anthropology concerning human nature and warfare. Over simply, there is a rift between those who think that civilisation rescued humanity from never-ending war (traditionally associated with the philosopher Hobbes) and those who think that prehistoric and indigenous cultures lived in a generally peaceful state and that civilisation was actually the primary cause of violence and war (associated with another philosopher, Rousseau). 

My own view is that both these polar extremes are too simplistic: I think that generalising in this way over a wide range of human cultures and times is probably not possible, and that various kinds of contexts play complex roles in shaping different societies and cultures which includes how violent they end up being. However, many folk seem to end up on one side or the other.

One of these people is Jared Diamond, whom I mentioned favourably in the previous post. He rejects that idea that prehistoric and indigenous cultures were generally peaceful and like Pinker, suggests that a state is needed to suppress violence. As a result, his book The Day Before Yesterday came under fire from various quarters.

One author, Stephen Corry, even suggested that the book was 'completely wrong.' Corry rejected Diamond's identification of contemporary tribal culture with prehistoric ones. He also rejected Diamond's 'constant warfare' claim, disputing his statistics and conclusions. Diamond, reportedly was unrepentant in the light of this sort of criticism, seeing those who support a Rousseau-type model as unrealistic.

Another reviewer of Diamond's, the anthropologist Wade Davis, made a number of critical comments that I think could be very useful to the writers of Deep Ecological futures.

Firstly, Davis also accuses Diamond of accepting the nineteenth century, colonial view of modernity and progress that sees all cultures on the same, linear march. This view is allied with a form of environmental determinism, which sees societies as primarily shaped by geography and material resources.

Davis suggests that the “triumph of secular materialism may be the conceit of modernity, but it does very little to unveil the essence of culture or to account for its diversity and complexity.” Cultures, Davis claims, “reside in the realm of ideas,” which means that we cannot understand how a culture forms simply in physical terms.

He also objects to Diamond's suggestion that we might appropriate practises from indigenous cultures. He points out that  “Traditional societies do not exist to help us tweak our lives as we emulate a few of their cultural practices. They remind us that our way is not the only way.”

This last comment seems applicable to social SF. Increasingly, we live in a global monoculture and need to be reminded that there are many possible ways of living life. Anthropology is one way to do this, but so is social SF: the writings of Ursula Le Guin may serve as a primary example.

The assumption that we are on a linear, singular course to technological perfection can blind us  to alternative possibilities: Davis suggests that through anthropology we can “embrace the wonder of distinct and novel cultural possibilities" to "enrich our understanding of human nature and just possibly liberate ourselves from cultural myopia.”

Davis concludes:

“The voices of traditional societies ultimately matter because they can still remind us that there are indeed alternatives, other ways of orienting human beings in social, spiritual and ecological space.”

It seems to me that these controversies are reflections of a deeper conflict between those who favour a linear, 'modern' model of progress, and the singular, 'inevitable' future that this implies, and those who favour a more diverse and pluralistic mode. My own preference, increasingly, is for the latter, because it seems to me more humane, realistic and ecologically sound. More thoughts next time....

Friday, 2 February 2018

Blog revamp: Rewild Zone 2075

It's a mistake to think that SF only concerns high-tech futures. These days, the field is far more diverse. My own focus, too, has changed somewhat since I first became interested in the field a rather long time ago. Hence the new banner to this blog....

Thirty years ago, the IT revolution was in its early stages, and the space program had more or less sunk into post-Challenger doldrums. Cyberpunk was cutting edge at that time, works by William Gibson, Bruce Sterling, Pat Cadigan and others. The future in cyberpunk was typically noire, with plots derived from Raymond Chandler set against backdrops of Bladerunner-like urban decay.

The technology was supplied by ruthless transnationals, and cyberspace was ubiquitous. Cyberspace was described by Gibson as '...A consensual hallucination experienced daily by billions of legitimate operators, in every nation....'

Well, we're living in that world, surrounded by junk piles of recently-discarded consumer technology. The predominant ideology of our culture, too, remains endless technological progress, but I'd suggest that we've got to the point where this basically just means that the junk-piles will get progressively bigger.

The popular myth, where we 'Merge' with our technology in some kind of technological Singularity also seems to be deeply problematic. The basic idea is that we'll reach a point where 'we' (i.e. the rich) will upload ourselves into virtual immortality and float off in a kind of cyberspace bubble. In this state, of course, a collapsing environment won't be a problem.

I'm afraid that I do not see this sort of future as very realistic or very desirable. I'd suggest that the average citizen in the developed world is already too immersed in virtual realities. This has not only caused or contributed to a range of health problems (i.e. fractured attention, depression and anxiety, obesity and possibly some forms of autism and ADHD) but also exacerbated a growing sense of disconnection from the world around us.

These personal and social costs detract from dreams of god-like technological futures and render them unsatisfactory responses to our current situation.

There seems therefore a desperate need to rethink the mythology of the future.

Hence a REWILD zone based several decades in the future. This illustration draws from a somewhat different tradition that has been broadly labelled 'Future Primitive.' Such futures might still feature high-tech, but only as part of a wider context of recovery.

This recovery involves a number of things, including rewilding, which directly challenges the often unspoken dogma that 'wilderness' must always give way to 'civilisation.' Instead, there is the suggestion that the future might contain more wilderness than our denuded present. Recent non-fiction expressions of this include George Monbiot's Feral and Edward O. Wilson's Half-Earth, which suggests returning half the Earth to wilderness. I also like Alan Weisman's The World Without Us, which imagines what might happen if humans vanished from the surface of the planet overnight.

The second element of a 'future primitive' is a rethinking of social and political arrangements. This often involves a rediscovery and reinvention of the life-patterns of traditional and indigenous cultures. A prime fictional example of this is the late Ursula Le Guin's masterwork Always Coming Home. On the non-fiction side, there are Jared Diamond's suggestions in his book The Day Before Yesterday that we have much to learn from indigenous people.

Quite often this sort of move prompts accusations of 'romanticism.' There are a number of ways to respond to this. Firstly, yes, there are problems with unrealistic or idealised depictions of indigenous cultures; the movie Avatar might serve as a recent example. Second, the risks of cultural appropriation and 'Orientalism' need to be acknowledged.

But also and perhaps controversially, it seems to me that any fiction 'romanticises' its subject to some degree. Much SF surely 'romanticises' space travel, AI, and high tech futures. So why is it okay to 'romanticise' one but not the other?

The third element is the idea that we might somehow be able to come to a wider reconciliation between the need for technology and the needs of the natural world. Maybe there's some future mode in which we can have our high tech cake and eat it whilst simultaneously having extensive environmental restoration. This seems implied by Edward O. Wilson's book, which combines his 'Half-Earth' proposal with a discussion of possible developments in Artificial Intelligence and Gene-editing technology.

This latter problem, by the way, remains unsolved, despite some in my view unsuccessful attempts to provide solutions (namely, the eco-modern movement which has been rightly criticised for a range of failings).

What SF can do is provide dramatisations of various 'modes' across the Future Primitive spectrum, and provide visions of what a future with healthy forests, oceans and human cultures might look like. I can only hope that it's not too late to build such a future.

Corrective Postscript: Since writing this piece my thinking has evolved somewhat, in part because of further research. (1) I'm no longer happy with the term 'Future Primitive,' especially when associated with indigenous and traditional cultures, because I think the term 'primitive' carries too much negative baggage. 'Deep Ecological Future' is perhaps a better alternative. (2) I've also discovered that Diamond's work has proved controversial for a number of reasons, which I will also discuss in a later post. However, the central point, that it is possible to learn much from the life-ways of traditional and indigenous cultures still seems important to  me. This is a difficult area, however, because of the history of colonialism, exploitation, and cultural appropriation.

Friday, 26 January 2018

My Weird Sixties Heritage

I'm currently reading Gary Lachman's fascinating Turn off Your Mind, which concerns the dark side of Sixties counterculture, and it's revealed to me how much a debt my personal culture owes to that wild and psychedelic time.

This might not sound an entirely positive discovery, given that the book (1) starts with the slaying of Sharon Tate by Charles Manson's 'Family' and (2) reveals just how much sixties mysticism was influenced by far-right occult groups. Still, the remainder has been very illuminating.

I was born in 1973, after the sixties ship had sunk but in a decade when pieces of its colourful culture were still whirling around on top on the ocean. That's actually how I came upon a lot of the material, as bits and pieces inherited from dusty bookshelves and run-down record shops (also dusty).

These bits of Sixties detritus probably seem a little random. I played my father's Dylan LPs obsessively as a teen, and Donovon, Hendrix, Cat Stevens, The Doors etc. were a staple of my University years, thanks to a flatmate who was an obsessive sixties fan.

Second were the various literary influences. Lachman devotes a couple of chapters to this, looking at the Lord of the Rings phenomenon and the two thirties pulp writers, Lovecraft and Howard, who both gained posthumous fame in that period. Lovecraft especially I'd rate as a significant influence on my writing, and also the Lord of the Rings in a tangential sort of way. The beat writers were also an influence: in particular Jack Kerouac's On the Road, which was a University staple (this was in the '90s when students still actually read books occasionally....)

Aldous Huxley in his late spiritual-psychedelic phase also must be mentioned. My politics are actually very close to Huxley's: seeking a middle way between mass techno-culture and primitivism, with an interest in individual freedom, the environment and also spiritual development. I'm currently re-reading his Utopian Island, which comes close to a society I'd actually like to live in.

I'd be lying if I denied that the 'occult' side of things hadn't also been a major influence. The Von Daniken Ancient Astronaut thesis had a big impact on me when I was eleven (Lachman reveals that his ideas were actually plagiarised from earlier works, like Louis Pauwels and Jacques Bergier's Morning of the Magicians).

For about two years, I firmly believed that God had indeed been an astronaut, and that the pyramids were built by Aliens. This fairly delusional state was exploded after my Grandfather gave me a copy of Francis Hitchings' World Atlas of Mysteries in 1987, which had a very skeptical piece exposing the lies, exaggerations and distortions of Von Daniken's work. It was an early, salutary lesson in critical thinking....

Nonetheless, my interest in occult matters continued, through writers like Colin Wilson, who has also clearly been a major influence on Lachman (Wilson had a literary comeback with his giant tome The Occult, published 1971 and inspired by the 1960s esoteric revival).

Lachman in some ways is a successor to Wilson: they share a talent for synthesising diverse and far-out materials. Lachman's ongoing thesis, by the way, is that occultism and secret societies like Theosophy have been far more influential on Western culture than is generally admitted. This thesis seems broadly correct to me, which is extraordinary when you consider that a large portion of occult ideas are undeniably bulls**t.

So why do I continue to find 'occult' and alternative ideas about the world engaging? I think it's simply that they satisfy a need that's not generally supplied anywhere else. Interestingly, this issue came up recently on Russell Brand's  podcast in an interview with Pankaj Mishra, author of a book called the Age of Anger. Mishra suggests that one reason for widespread anger in societies across the globe comes from a loss of faith in what he terms the 'false religion' of progress.

This loss of faith, in the sixties and also today, has triggered a search for alternative ways of life. On the podcast, Mishra suggested that the impetus came from disillusionment with a 'soulless mechanical society' that was in the 1960s engaged in a violent war in the Far East. He also suggested that this impulse arose because of a feeling of being trapped in such a culture.

Whilst acknowledging the dark side of this search, he defended those who were looking to older civilisations and philosophies as inspiration for better ways of life.

This sense of confinement and a search for another way of life makes a great deal of sense to me, and I think it's another reason why I continue to engage with this material, despite often being skeptical of it. It also makes sense of why I find visiting places like Samye Ling so inspiring and important. I have learnt much from my exposure to Tibetan culture and Buddhist philosophies; at the very least, they provide alternative perspectives on things like consciousness, the individual, interconnectedness and human 'nature.'

 So however imperfect these outlets are, they offer alternatives to ways of life that seem to me increasingly sterile, restrictive and downright oppressive for many people, and I think that our culture would have been a lot poorer if the sixties occult revival had never happened.