Tuesday 27 September 2011

The Future Fire is open to fiction

The Future Fire, a magazine of social-political speculative fiction with an emphasis on the progressive and inclusive, is open to fiction submissions as of today. Please see our Submission Guidelines for information on how to submit. Please report our response times and outcomes to Duotrope's Digest; this will help keep us honest, and be useful for other authors to know what to expect.

For more on what sort of fiction we're looking for, have a look at some of the guest posts on various subgenres, topics and themes that we've been posting here every day this month (see below for the full alphabetical list).

A is for Alternate History
B is for Borgesian
C is for Cyberpunk
D is for Dystopian
E is for Eco-SF
F is for Feminist SF
G is for Gestalt
H is for Hardcore Horror
I is for Identity Crisis
J is for Juvenile
K is for Kafkaesque
L is for Low Fantasy
M is for Magical Realism
N is for Noir
O is for Occultists
P is for Postapocalypse
Q is for Queer SF
R is for Race in SF
S is for Surrealism
T is for Transhumanism
U is for Uploaded Minds
V is for Vampires
W is for World SF
X is for X-Rated SF
Y is for Young Adult
Z is for Zombie

Monday 26 September 2011

Z is for Zombie

Zombies may be the most clichéd and least sexy of all tropes of horror fiction—even if vampires and werewolves are the paranormal romance-cliché of the year, shambling mindless zombies are surely among the most pointless monsters in the canon. Add to that their problematic status in terms of racial sensitivity, since the Hollywood zombie is an appropriation and perversion of an element of Afro-diasporic culture (Vodoun practitioners do not turn people into zombies, any more than they stick pins into dolls representing their enemies), and you might well imagine that zombie fiction has no place in TFF.

Then again, the world after a zombie outbreak is usually represented as a postapocalyptic landscape (or maybe a paranoid dystopia), both of which are great themes for socio-political scifi. In addition we’ve recently seen the ability of zombies to represent sexuality and sexual conflict; human rights and alienation; terrorism and the politics of fear. In other words zombies are very political.

As with every genre or theme we’ve discussed this month, the important point is that a story is not social and political because it’s overtly about societal roles or political activism. Whatever the surface subject matter of a speculative fiction story, a good writer who is willing to speculate and extrapolate changes to our world in a way that matters, cannot help but write socio-political fiction.

Sunday 25 September 2011

Y is for Young Adult

The Young Adult (YA) genre has come a long way since I was a teenager. Back in my day (!) we had to supplement books by the likes of S.E. Hinton with novels for adults. That wasn’t necessarily a bad thing; it meant that I was introduced to fully-realised feminist role models such as Dr Susan Calvin in Asimov’s "Robot" series and Patricia Luisa Vasquez in Greg Bear’s "Eon". But even though these strong female role models were a vital part of my formative years, I would have loved to have read about characters I could have identified with more.

The emergence in recent times of a wider YA body of fiction is both reassuring and welcome. Being a young adult can be so challenging that it is important that these readers have plenty of material to see them through their often difficult adolescent and teenage years.

But how much of present-day YA fiction is speculative?

Contemporary YA showcases recognizable science fiction tropes, such as time-travel in Rebecca Stead’s "When you Reach Me". But it is in the dystopian themes that socio-political elements are more prominent, for example in YA books such as Scott Westerfield’s "Uglies" series, where the pursuit of the body beautiful is taking to devastating degrees or the setting of "The Chaos Walking" trilogy by Patrick Ness, where not even an individual’s thoughts are private.

By contrast, another sub-genre in YA fiction — paranormal romance — could not be deemed speculative. The most famous female character in this genre, Bella in Stephanie Meyer’s "Twilight" novels, is neither empowered nor independent; she doesn’t care about her schooling or future career, and neglects her friends in favour of spending time with her boyfriend. This submissive streak can also be seen in the mortal female counterparts to the male fallen angels in Lauren Kate’s books and again with those of the sexy fairy kings in Melissa Marr’s "Wicked Lovely" series.

Luckily there are plenty of alternatives to this paranormal romance category. The most influential book I read as a young adult was Isabel Allende’s "The House of the Spirits", so it made me very happy to see such an accomplished speculative fiction author writing for young adults. In her YA books "The City of the Beasts", "The Kingdom of the Golden Dragon" and "The Forest of the Pygmies", Allende touches on humanitarian issues such as child slavery and inequalities between the developed and developing world. She also sets out to challenge perceptions about what makes a culture “civilised”.

No article on YA speculative fiction can fail to mention the legacy of the masterful storyteller Ursula le Guin. "The Wizard of Earthsea" spawned a legion of young adult novels that followed the pattern of its story: a setting in a walled city where a young person of humble origins becomes an apprentice to a sorcerer. Books such as Joseph Delaney’s "Wardstone Chronicles", Trudy Canavan’s "The Black Magician" trilogy, Garth Nix’ "Old Kingdom Series" and William Nicholson’s "Wind on Fire" trilogy all pay homage to this original idea. Ursula le Guin’s contribution to speculative fiction has been phenomenal - for example with her exploration of gender in "The Left Hand of Darkness" or her strong female characters in her YA novel "Tehanu".

Speculative fiction for young adults offers an exciting opportunity to forge a storyworld where limits can be pushed to the extreme to shed light on the problems facing our society. An author has the power to make her readers think differently, and this is especially true for YA authors whose audience is in the process of learning about themselves and the world around them. So if you’d like to submit a YA speculative fiction story to "The Future Fire", push boundaries as far as you can. Your readers will love you for it.

Saturday 24 September 2011

X is for X-Rated SF

There can be little that is more intrinsic to the human condition than our obsession with the erotic. If we’re ravenously hungry the need to eat becomes overwhelming; when threatened, fear and survival instinct take over; having our physical freedom restricted is intolerable. And at a visceral level that sometimes competes even with these, we want to love. We want to fuck. We want the release that comes with raw orgasm. We want to human connection that comes from sharing that orgasm. It gives us the illusion for a little while that we are not alone.

These obsessions are reflected in the huge popularity of pornography and erotica, in the success of  the genre of romance (mainstream, pulp, paranormal, historical, kinky, etc.), and in the inclusion of explicit sex and/or central romantic interest in the most racy of “action” genres in book, film, and computer game. I suspect it is a combination of this popularity and a puritanism that leads most “serious” readers and critics to consider episodes of explicit sex, whether in speculative or “literary” fiction as, like violence, a low brow, crowd-pleasing, gratuitous element of a story whose real focus is elsewhere. (And I suppose there’s the fact that a lot of the time this is precisely what it is.)

As I observed a while ago in a review of M. Christian’s Bachelor Machine, however, in the hands of a good writer, the crucial role of sex and love in our lives can make the explicit use of erotic material a very powerful vehicle for all kinds of messages, including the social-political and progressive speculative fiction that The Future Fire publishes. As I wrote at the time:
The sexual content in stories such as these serve rather to remind us that we’re human, that our concerns such as love, lust, companionship, rejection, nostalgia, however fleshy or base, are universals. The sex in these stories serves as a microcosm for all of life, for social observation, for political satire, for the promotion of tolerance. In other words, the role of sex in well-written erotica is analogous to the role of technology in science fiction, or magic and beasts in fantasy: yes it’s exciting, yes we take a geeky or prurient interest in them, yes we enjoy them for what they are, but ultimately they’re the tools that tell a bigger story, that paint a more important picture.
I might disagree with myself here a little on the last point: erotica should perhaps not be merely a tool that helps to tell a bigger story, a plot device to get things moving; sometimes it can be the story. The medium is the message. The story should be as much about sex (love, lust, carnal pleasure, self-gratification) as it is about whatever comes before and after it. Sex tells you a lot about a person, about their treatment of and attitudes to others, their self-esteem and confidence; a society’s sexual mores and allowances tells you a lot about the political climate in which a story is set. The history of sex, whom one is allowed to love, access to birth control and reproductive healthcare, and freedom to protect one’s own body, are all key factors in the political and social questions of our own day, questions on which we can’t afford to be without opinion.

A further point: science fiction that contains explicit sex should also colour the sex with social or technological science-fictional content.. That is to say: if you’re writing about a future world, or an alien setting, or a world in some other crucial way different from our own, then you should think carefully how the technology and/or politics of this time will affect people’s attitudes to, and for that matter practice of sex. An explicit erotic scene set 200 years in the past would be significantly different from one set today: social disapproval of casual sex would change the attitude of the participants, perhaps depending on their class, culture and gender (and relationship): there might be less concern for and understanding of disease, but conversely there would be little or no effective birth control for most; the very acts and paraphernalia of sex might be completely different. Why should the future not be at least as different from today as that?

If your speculative fiction is social-political and progressive and the sort of thing TFF is likely to be interested in, and you include explicit sexual material in your writing, then make sure the smut is as carefully crafted to bear witness to social-political implications as all the other speculative elements. Erotica is powerful stuff; use it with care and a sure aim.

And don’t be shy.

Friday 23 September 2011

W is for World SF

Voice of a Hybrid, by Joyce Chng

I wrote my first novella (fan fiction, by the way—Pern, if you want to know) when I was just eighteen. I just wrote and mind you, I didn’t know what fan fiction was, until the advent of the Internet. My audience/reader was my best friend. It was a fun experience as feedback fed my creativity and vice versa.

Fast forward a few years later.

I found myself submitting a short story about female werewolves to a now defunct anthropomorphic ‘zine. It was accepted and I was published.

Fast forward a few more years later.

I got married, had my first daughter and wondered about my writing life (which, by then, had languished). I resigned from teaching and self-published my first anthology of speculative fiction. I dabbled in Pagan non-fiction, but found that it didn’t work for me. Despairing, I almost gave up. 2009 was my breakthrough—I started writing for real (partly because of my second pregnancy—I was flooded with creativity).

Then when it came to publishing, I hit a wall. Publishing in Singapore is almost impossible. I had more luck publishing in overseas publications. Crossed Genres, a fantastic online magazine, offered my first real break, followed by Bards and Sages Quarterly. Writing didn’t stop after I gave birth to my second daughter: I embarked on Nanowrimo and came up with Wolf At The Door, an urban fantasy novel set in Singapore.

Along the way, I learnt a few hard truths. Publishing is difficult. Publishing with a surname/last name like “Chng” pigeonholes me into nice categories. Publishing is mostly US or UK centric. You are lucky if you find an agent. Traditional published authors have more clout. Print is better than electronic.

Let’s start with my last name. It immediately signifies that I am not white. I am ethnic Chinese, my forebears immigrants from China. So, am I supposed to write literary fiction about tumultuous struggles out of Communist China or craft a tale about mother-daughter relationships ala Joy Luck Club? I write speculative fiction—genre fiction isn’t well received by local publishers. I can’t force myself to write literary fiction. It isn’t me. Don’t get me started about postcolonial fiction. Am I supposed to be a postcolonial writer? I think and speak in English. Yet my skin color already differentiates me from the predominantly white publishing world. My educational background has a foundation in the Anglo Saxon educational system (thanks to British colonial rule). Yet people still persist in thinking that Singapore is in China. Southeast Asia is a living and breathing landscape, not some exotic region with exotic people and creatures, best savored via travel documentaries or enjoyed in small touristy bits. Southeast Asia is a real place for me. Its monsoons, its food and its languages—not some section in a geography textbook. So what am I? I am a hybridized being. Where do hybrids go?

I want to give a voice to my experiences. I want to write something I resonate with. Many stories I write now talk about the Chinese diaspora in the future. At the same time, I want to bring to people the joy of reading, the joy of finding a new world. I want to re-discover that hunger driving the reader. My best friend who read my novella wanted more. I want to find readers like that. How am I going to find readers like that? Being in Southeast Asia has again pigeonholed me in categories, fenced me up and bound me to restrictions. E-publishing helps transcend that. But even then, promotion is a slippery fish and I never know who is reading what, because my readers—if I have them in the first place—are silent. Silence compounds silence. It sometimes worries me. Is my voice going into a vacuum?

Of course, my wish is to have readers (and publishers) who forgo the ramifications of last names and ethnicities. That is an ideal. This world, unfortunately, is still stuck in a rut.

I am honored to blog at The Future Fire. It is a great magazine that welcomes non-white/non-Western writers like me. So, what’s in the store for the future (pun not intended!)? I'd like to see more speculative fiction from international authors in a magazine like The Future Fire and to have our voices heard.

Joyce Chng hails from Singapore, an island state in Southeast Asia. She writes YA SFF fiction and urban fantasy. She can be found wrangling blog posts at A Wolf’s Tale: http://awolfstale.wordpress.com/.

Thursday 22 September 2011

V is for Vampires

Vampires: possibly one of the most well-known and well-rehearsed narrative metaphors. Constantly reboot-able, vampires are high-profile candidates as tools of speculative fiction. Speculative writing, as the creator of this alphabetical series tells us, “can cast light on our own world […] it should show us how we need to improve [it].” Originally vampires were the monster in the dark; ‘Them’. They stood for everything nasty and undesirable, infectious and unspeakable and not ‘Us.’ Modern re-readings of older narratives have attributed this more specifically to colonialism, fear of the exotic, bigotry and sexism. As a palliative to the monster, there would be a thread of obvious or implied morality: the pure and sinless characters or repudiation of temptation.

Modern vampires are concerned with modern preoccupations of deviancy. Having been allowed right into the human circle, forming relationships with the human world, they stand for the ‘monster within.’ The part of human psyche most especially represented has been the ‘monster’ of fleshy delights and darkness, proving that they remain a figure for moral diatribes. But now the message is that we cannot blame an external, demonic force for evil, but must look to ourselves and what we are capable of.

The mainstreaming of vampires into romances and adventures has seen them become somewhat domesticated into objects of human sexuality; symbolic of desirability precisely because they are not ‘Us’. Instead of being abhorred, we are invited to identify and desire these creatures, to be titillated by their ‘wickedness’. Modern ‘dark romances,’ repeating the same formula over and over are effectively whoring out that ‘allowed’ naughtiness; stretching the Mr Rochester I shouldn’t-but-he’s-gorgeous myth to breaking point. At the same time, though, this rubbishes the isolating power of the Other the vampire once had. This being the one motivating power for the vampire metaphor, enabling discussion through the presentation of the vampire’s among us/ not us figure.

Are vampires still ‘speculative’? Perhaps it is worth asking, were they ever speculative? If truly speculative writing is all about holding a slightly differential mirror up to the now, to facilitate discussion of current social issues, then can vampires fulfil this function?

Vampires are an interesting sideline. They are a part of the wider monstrous genre, becoming extremely popular in their own right to the point of becoming a high-profile genre of their own. The monster stands for whatever we want it to against whom heroes rise and fight. Speculatively, this is not so much a debate or dialectic on what the monster may stand for but it is a dramatically presented purgative action where evil can be ritually expunged.

For example, the fleshier, nastier bodily horror of zombies and werewolves are seeing a new rise in popularity. Social theorists could attribute this to the current political gestalt being one based on bodily horror: the horror of perceived threat against the body politic and the body public by explosive, poisonous, it-is-among-us terrorism.

The suavity and humanity of the vampire’s presentation means he has become a monster very much of ‘Us’, rather than the repugnance of ‘Them’. This is where the vampire could become more powerfully speculative. Modern society has turned inward, seeking answers for horrific actions from the ‘monster within;’ precisely where the vampire metaphor now resides. The desire to rationalise means that the vampire is now in a position to be wide open to use as discursive tool: a seeming-human monster upon whom such narratives could be layered. There are some vampire stories out there that achieve this, keeping the validity of narrative vampirism alive. It will struggle, however, as these are a relatively few narratives fighting against the disproportionately oversized stream of current fashion in vampirism. This is the mainstream and the mass expropriation of vampire figures as objects of spectacle, comprising shows of sexuality and wham-bam-thank-you-ma’am action. This is the vampire as its own genre; no longer open to standing back and commenting on the action, the vampire, in becoming the action, has had their rhetorical fangs drawn.

Vampires stand on a balance of the intellectual and the fleshy; the innovative and the hormonal. Both have their merits for entertainment and enlightenment, and between them the vampire metaphor still just about dances the metaphorical jig that shakes off a definitive description. He remains something of a speculative free-lancer, available for consultation but not restricted to one employ.

Wednesday 21 September 2011

U is for Uploaded Minds

What this blog post is, and what it is not
The sub-genre of speculative fiction which we have called Uploaded Minds™ includes any milieu in which characters live out their lives within the confines of one or more computer-generated world. That we will one day achieve this is a conjecture is loaded with philosophical implications. Covering them all in detail would require a book, as well as a savviness in philosophy which I do not possess. Simply listing them would be little more useful than a grocery list, a handful of suggestions fit for a google search.

This blog, then, is not a philosophy lecture.

What it is, is a question of whether the sub-genre of Uploaded Minds may be of any interest to a magazine like The Future Fire.

The Relevance of Speculative Fiction
The Future Fire craves a socio-political angle. At first glance, that is a rather lenient requirement: most sub-genres of sf contain fiction that claims to qualify. Speculative fiction revolves around change, after all, and change affects society, or individual, and usually both. Just as mythology and the classic parables imply that history is cyclic and that we should learn from the tragic choices of its protagonists, so speculative fiction shines its fog-lights on the road ahead, revealing the silhouettes of obstacles before we drive over them, or worse, into them.

But a magazine that accepts everything is a magazine that says nothing. A line must be drawn to create an opinion. Socio-political fiction, then, must be relevant fiction.

By relevant we mean those stories that comment on our society’s current state of affairs or on the human condition (and impact of political positions on) in a universal sense, not necessarily today’s news headlines. The film GATTACA, for example, is a far-future science fiction, but it remains relevant because it questions an issue which remains alive with debate to this day, namely the tinkering of human genetics, the commercialization of such tinkering and the class discrimination that might result from it. For another example, look no further than global warming: ever since its threat was publicized by the media, all manner of doomsday movies have cropped up in cinemas.

But Uploaded Minds Is Hardly Relevant, Is It?

The above definition of relevance is at risk of being misinterpreted. One might be inclined to think that the scenario posited by a science fiction story must be plausible, at least in part, in order for it to be relevant. But if that were so, then fantasy, which is often labeled the literature of ‘that which could never be’, could never be relevant! And yet we know that in many cases it is. Why is that?

When people think uploaded minds, the first thing that springs to mind is usually the movie Matrix. Matrix sits somewhere in the middle of the spectrum. Let us examine the extreme end first: true uploaded minds, more aptly namely simulated reality.

Simulated reality is different than its cousin virtual reality (a common catch-all phrase). Virtual reality can be detected—think video games—whereas simulated reality is no different than a lucid dream, albeit moderated by external rules. The ultimate goal of the “uploaded-mind paradigm” is to shed away not just our senses and our input, but also our physical bodies, and beyond that, our brains. It is to become pure software, an infomorph.

Once we become beings of pure data, we are no longer anchored to our physical bodies for identity. The ramifications of such an existence are endless. We could back ourselves up, leading to indestructibility. We could upgrade to better versions, but then would these multiple versions function as separate, distinct individuals? Which version owns the property? Are they are legally regarded as one? And if so, which version get to take the important decisions? What of the world in which we live? Or worlds, rather, for what is to stop each of us from living in the world we prefer? Who governs and polices this world? How can anyone ever feel safe knowing that the entire universe is hanging from a plug? These are among a host of fascinating issues associated with infomorphia, and it is beyond the scope of this blog to explore them all.

The question we are trying to answer is how relevant these issue are, and can they help us gain insight on our current state of living, our civilization and where it is headed? How likely is that we will become pure software? Not likely, considering we cannot even explain consciousness let alone recreate it. (See ‘The Hard Problem of Consciousness’, a term in philosophy of mind that describes the difficulty in explaining how physical phenomena can lead to the rise of inner life).

Let us take one step back, and examine the pop-culture phenomenon that is Matrix. In Matrix, the human race is imprisoned in mind and body by machines that we ourselves created. It is not the intention of this post to explore the threat of sentient machines, but from the uploaded-minds perspective, the concept put forth by the movie is that we might plug a USB into our napes and so enter an entirely virtual world that defies the laws of physics and intellectual resistance. It is a scenario more plausible than the infomorph, but still highly hypothetical in its premise.

Stories like Matrix are very literal takes on the metaphors of mind. To think that voluntary worlds will be entering our lives loudly and predictably, like cars or computers did, is in my view somewhat naïve. We need just look at massively multiplayer role playing games (MMOs) and social networking (SN) to realize that virtual worlds are already ubiquitous in our lives. MMOs, large persistent virtual game worlds, are subsuming our entertainment. SN has taken over much of our social interactions. But it is more than just time-consuming, mind-numbing escapism that we are dealing with here.

These Realities Are Not Just Windows. They Surround Us.

In his story Tlon, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius, the Argentinian writer Borges described how a group of academics together creates a fictional world in what may be seen as a massive world-building exercise. During the process, disciples of this new reality start placing relics of the invented world in the real world, until eventually true history is entirely subsumed by the invented one of Tlon. As some clever writers have pointed out, this is already happening. Fans at conventions dress like their favorite fictional heroes and villains, buy merchandise, give their children the names of characters from these universes. More and more, we are attempting to drag fictional worlds into our lives.

We may not be uploading our minds to World of Warcraft and Facebook--indeed these games may expire harmlessly in a few years' time--but we would be foolish to not see them for what they are: they are like those round mirrors that stand at tight turns on roads, to help one see what lies behind the bend. In this case, what will happen if we do not delineate the boundaries of escapism.

Many already spend more time in MMO’s or socializing networking sites than they do disconnected from the screen. They prefer their ‘online personas’ to their offline ones. And in no way is it ending here. A large effort is underway to integrate SN’s and MMO’s: one may socialize and network in a separate world, while importing SN friends into an MMO world.

Instead of playing golf, businessmen will be raiding dungeons.

Perhaps this isn’t such a bad idea after all.

Should you send The Future Fire your World of Warcraft fan-fiction? Not exactly. What about stories where human consciousness survives in an entirely virtual (or should I say simulated) digital environment? We have seen that the sub-genre of uploaded minds is relevant despite its far-fetchedness, because despite appearances, the issues it raises may be transposed onto problems we are facing right now in the Information Age.

A story does not have to predict the future to be relevant, though some great works certainly have. A tale that nails tomorrow’s weather fluctuations or the winning lottery number will not make us think twice about today. A story about a far-flung intergalactic civilization where no man has ever touched another except through a multiplayer hivemind, very well might. Relevance is commentary, commentary through questions, imagination, speculation and unconsidered implications. Commentary is what The Future Fire is looking for, and what writers of all genres, not just speculative fiction, should be aiming for if they are to produce not just art, but an insight into the human condition.

Tuesday 20 September 2011

T is for Transhumanism

By Sam Kepfield

Transhumanism is not a new concept. The quest to improve the human organism, and thereby improving human civilization, can be traced to pre-Biblical times, such as Gilgamesh’s quest for immortality. Subsequent quests, such as Ponce de Leon’s search for the Fountain of Youth, affirmed the notion in popular culture.

Some early strains of transhumanism focused on improvement through self-actualization, such as Friedrich Nietzsche’s “uberman.” Beginning in the late 19th century, the Industrial Revolution shaped transhumanism, turning it into a technology-based notion. Naturally, as the Information Revolution came of age in the 1960s, transhumanism became closely identified with artificial intelligence and/or computer technology.

Man and machine are already merging. Pacemakers are a commonplace medical device. Artificial hearts, pioneered with the Jarvik-7 in 1982, are slowly becoming routine. Within the last several years, the “total artificial heart,” has been used in clinical trials. The prototype uses electronic sensors and is made from chemically treated animal tissues, called “biomaterials”, or a “pseudo-skin” of biosynthetic, microporous materials.

Cybernetic limbs are moving closer towards Luke Skywalker’s hand from The Empire Strikes Back. DARPA and Southern Methodist University are working on a fiber-optic nerve connection from the brain to the limb, allowing a direct interface, rather than relying on muscles to move the limb. In theory, this could allow the limb to “feel.” In twenty years, a prosthetic limb may be indistinguishable from a real limb—although the art-deco steel design from Creative DNA Austria’s Lukas Pressler and Nico Strobl looks like a classic sci-fi cybernetic limb, with a variety of different apps—sort of a Swiss Army limb.

The trend doesn’t stop there. A Dutch team in August 2011 announced the creation of “bulletproof skin,” made from spider silk and human skin cells, capable of stopping slow-moving bullets. Given ten years, skin” able to stop regular-velocity bullets does not seem beyond the realm of possibility, and in fact seems quite likely.

Man and machine will continue to blend until, at some point, they become indistinguishable. Ray Kurzweil calls this event “the Singularity,” and in a Time magazine article earlier this year, Kurzweil stated that the Singularity will occur in 2045. At that point, human and artificial intelligence will become as one, meaning—what, precisely?

Pessimists believe that it will spell the end of human civilization, as AI and nanotechnology utterly transform homo sapiens, voluntarily or (worst case) involuntarily. The positive ramifications could mean assistance for those with physical disabilities—artificial limbs or even bodies for those with physical injuries or disabilities, nanotechnology to fight disease. The potential applications are limitless.

The recent announcement that a UK laboratory had created 150 human-animal hybrids touched off a controversy over parahumanism, which could be called a subset of transhumanism. Few details were released; the ostensible reason for the creation of the hybrid embryos was disease research. However, it’s not hard to imagine the creation of a human embryo with certain animal genes mixed in—perhaps the night vision of a cat, a bat’s radar-like means of navigating, reflexes a cheetah, perhaps a digestive system modeled after a bovine, able to consume anything. It’s old stuff to anyone who read Cordwainer Smith’s 1962 short story “The Ballad of Lost C’Mell” as a youth.

Legal? Most likely yes; Britain’s Parliament passed the Human Fetilisation Embryology Act in 2008 which permitted such research. Ethical? Well, that’s a whole different subject—and it’s one of the ways science fiction can lead the discourse.

Science fiction has, of course, been at the leading edge of the curve on transhumanism. Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein: Or, the Modern Prometheus (1818) is, arguably, one of the earliest science fiction novels. Victor Frankenstein seeks immortality for mankind by mixing organs and limbs from the dead, and re-animating them. It’s a crude form of genetic engineering, but Shelley blends science and philosophy, which is the essence of good science fiction—that is, the stuff that makes you think, and lets you learn more than you ever did in high school science class.

The cyberpunk movement of the 1980s is generally credited with making the notion of human/machine melding a staple of popular culture, with works such as William Gibson’s Count Zero or Neuromancer, which display a nihilistic, shallow pop-culture slant. In contrast, Thea Von Harbou’s Metropolis (1927), later brought to the screen by Fritz Lang, features an android named Maria, copied from a human Maria, who assumes leadership of a worker’s mob who seek to destroy the city’s power generation machinery. Both works have barely-disguised Socialist leanings.

Bernard Wolfe’s Limbo (1954) is the first cyberpunk book. Wolfe foresees a post-World War III future in which the amputation of limbs and their replacement by mechanical limbs becomes a means to channel warlike aggression into peaceful means. Martin Caidin’s Cyborg (1972), which was turned into the popular TV series The Six Million Dollar Man, carried the idea into the popular imagination.

Frederick Pohl’s Man Plus (1976) explores the cybernetic transformation of the human body to survive on the surface of Mars, with no artificial assistance. Pohl goes beyond the merely physical and focuses on what happens to a man’s mind when his body is no longer human—does his mind change as well?

J.G. Ballard wrote in 1971 that “everything is science fiction. From the margins of an almost invisible literature has sprung the intact reality of the 20th century.” Ballard’s words are even more true as we begin the second decade of the 21st century. Transhumanism or para-humanism will continue to be fertile ground for those writing science fiction. The traditional “hard” science fiction, with spaceships and colonies will still provide numerous opportunities for social commentary on mankind’s urge to explore, and how that exploration can shape mankind and the type of social organization he favors—Allen Steele’s Coyote series is the best example today.

Trans- or para-humanism allows a talented writer to go to inner space, to ask even more fundamental questions, such as what makes us human, or what separates man from the Other, or eve if there is any separation. As transhumanism and parahumanism become reality, not everyone will embrace the products of such experiments, even if the results of the experiments are all too human in appearance. Technological advance does not take place in a social/political vacuum, and while those of us in the science fiction community may give our support in varying degrees to the concept made flesh, others will stoke a backlash. Witness the reaction against the British experiment above. Mankind has shown himself to be all to willing to separate out some other group from the mainstream, and give it a lower status. Slavery from pre-Biblical times, the Jews, Africans who became African-Americans, native populations in America and elsewhere, and the GLBT community in the present day, all have been seen as less than human, and subjected to all manner of sanctions from loss of civil rights to mass extermination. There is no reason to believe The Future will be any more enlightened—see A.E. Van Vogt’s Slan (1940) as the best example. Perhaps science fiction can clear the way for this next step in our evolution, to make it acceptable and even normal to the population at large, making our community even more relevant and necessary if we are to survive as a species.

Monday 19 September 2011

S is for Surrealism

After the recent death of my favourite visual artist of all time, Mexican painter Leonora Carrington, at the age of 94, “Surrealism” has usurped the many other candidates for speculative fiction sub-genres beginning with the letter “S” that could have made it into this blog marathon. In many ways this art form needs no one to defend its inclusion in a magazine focusing on social-political and weird writing: it shares with magic realism a respectable history of worldwide, cosmopolitan, intellectual and fiercely political practitioners. The earliest surrealists were protesting against the reactionary, against bourgeois materialism and fascist imperialism, which are high among the enemies we array ourselves against. And surrealist works are by definition “weird”, in every sense, containing as they do unrealistic details, counter-intuitive settings and events, and stories that tell a story with tone and imagery more than with linear plot and rational representations of the human condition. (It’s for this reason that I’ve never seen the point of recent pseudo-genres like “bizarro”, whose claim to create outside of the restrictions of genre or good taste do nothing that surrealism has not done before, and usually do it not as interestingly. Sub-genres like absurdism, magical realism and the dreamlike weird tale do a better job of taking the struggle forward.)

Contrary to André Breton, most good surrealist work is not “automatisme psychique pur”, or automatic writing. Paintings like Dali’s or Carrington’s are superbly crafted by well-trained draftsmen; perhaps the origin of a surreal story may be a dreamlike or unconscious mental state, but the execution is usually very well planned and polished. Most truly automatic writing is pretty unreadable; even if from the pen of a great stylist or poet, the lack of structure and story divorces it from most interest. Writing is after all an act of communication, which usually requires at least two actors; if the reader is not a party to this act of communication, the writing is likely to fail. Surreal or semi-surreal stories that we have published (e.g. ‘Wingspan’, ‘Omega, maybe’, ‘Wings so Foreign’) have had a very clear plot as well as riotous and mold-breaking imagery.

This is not to say that writing should be easy to interpret and without challenge for the reader; on the contrary, we have always argued that good writing should shock the reader out of their lazy expectations and comfortable world-view. Surrealism does this par excellence, with unexpected juxtapositions and alarming non sequiturs to disturb the reader’s peace of mind, and with the freedom to imagine worlds different from our own, better or worse in some details, radically experimenting in response to the conservatism of the establishment. It will of course be a matter of taste whether a given piece is too unstructured to be readable or not, and while our tastes may not be as avant garde as some radical Dada surrealists might like, we’re very keen on the kind of freedom that comes from being taken out of your comfort zone.

And just as I could stare for hours at the beauty of Leonora Carrington’s mind-blowing paintings, so I want to read stories that are beautiful and mind-blowing as well as useful and politically informed.

Sunday 18 September 2011

R is for Race in SF

I grew up on a steady diet of science fiction and fantasy. Everything from the Twilight Zone to Dark Shadows to Star Wars to P.C. Hodgell to Diane Duane was a part of my life. And in some ways it saved me from a less than stellar reality, so I sought it out at every turn. Dragons, spaceships, fairies, quests, wizards, aliens...what's not to love about flights of fancy? Except the more I read/watched, the more I started to notice a theme in who played what roles. All too often characters that were sidekicks, or wise nurturers, or villains were also the only characters of color. They weren't leads, or at least not leads that lived for long. Especially if they were darker skinned, in which case they might not get much (if any) character development. There would be all kinds of little details about everyone else, but you'd hear about their skin color, possibly some strange/mysterious/scary customs and that would be it. Most often they were there to be conquered, or saved, or educated by the “enlightened” white leads. People of color couldn't be heroic, wouldn't be heroic, because they were ignorant, or weak, or some other such plot device that made the story all about the white lead's journey.

Oh sure, the Magical Negro, Sassy Latina, Wise Indian, etc. might die to protect the lead characters, but those deaths were what they were there to do. Usually the story treated their demise like a blip in the real hero's life, or as an additional impetus for the protagonist to defeat the villain. Stories were framed around the idea that valuable people are white, and everyone knew it. Occasionally, the stories would focus on the idea that the oppressed brown/red/yellow people really needed the white lead to come in, learn their ways, & then use them to fight evil. For some inexplicable reason the characters of color doing the teaching were never strong enough to win their own freedom from oppression. Or there would be no characters of color at all. Stories set in cultures clearly based on Egypt, or India, or Asia, but somehow all the people in an equatorial climate on a planet with multiple suns were pale skinned with straight hair & light eyes. Hmm, there's something wrong with this picture...what could it be?

It is alternately frustrating & enraging to read fiction that erases you, or treats you as nothing more than a convenient plot device. And yet, I still love SF/F even when I find myself critiquing it regularly. Growing up, I wanted to see a future that included people who weren't white if only to know that we had a place in the future at all. SF/F is the genre that's about making our dreams real, or as real as possible. Well, what happens when you're erased from those dreams, or trapped in the same roles that already exist? When you're oppressed even in fiction what message does that send? And yes, it's easy to say that representation in fiction isn't important. That it's just a book, a movie, or a TV show. After all it's not like you have to read it, or watch it right? Right. Except, what happens when there's nothing for you to read or watch? At least not if you refuse to accept that your only options for representation in popular media are variations on maid, whore, pimp, thug, & invisible.

Granted things are better in my personal universe these days. In high school and college I found writers like Octavia Butler & Samuel Delaney, and it was amazing. I've had the great fortune of reading things written by people like N.K. Jemisin, Nnedi Okorafor, Andrea Hairston, Nalo Hopkinson, Nisi Shawl, etc. I've been able to introduce friends and family to their work. But, it's not enough to have a few writers you know you can count on. Among other things I'm a fast reader with a voracious appetite for new media, and options are a great and wonderful thing. Plus, there's the question of how the genre can evolve, when so much of it still focuses on the same imperialistic colonizing framework? We talk a lot about the craft of writing, but what about the politics? What about the impact? Race matters in our society. It is part of a problem that won't be solved by pretending not to see skin color, or ignoring history. We have to talk about it directly and indirectly, and that includes recognizing the importance for POC of being seen in the media as real people, and not just a collection of stereotypes.

Saturday 17 September 2011

Q is for Queer SF

As a writer, storyteller, and a queer person of color, it goes without saying that diversity and inclusion is very important to me.

Anyone who's known me for five seconds is aware of the fact that I'm a rabid comic book fan. It's modern day mythology and as a writer and an artist, this medium especially appeals to me for obvious reasons. Watching beautiful muscular men is a pastime that I can live with.

Of my all-time favorite comic books, X-Men will always hold a special place in my heart because it’s based on the Civil Rights movement. During its prime, the series consisted of a multi-ethnic cast and that diversity was also one of the key components to X-Men’s initial success. The characters came from all walks of life and that appealed to a wide demographic of fans. There was a hero and a heroine for everyone and it worked. Excellent conscious stories, compelling characters and respect of diversity is what contributed to X-Men becoming one the best-selling comics of all time. And to have Storm, a regal, beautiful, intelligent and powerful black woman lead the superhero team of a comic book company's flagship title was progressive in itself.

Unfortunately in recent years I've observed massive amounts of regressing. The whitewashing in comics and other media has been well-documented. Racefail has specifically been something prominent in speculative fandom with many white fans and creators alike. I never fail to be dumbfounded to see fans creators empathize with struggles of a fictional alien race, the civil rights of vampires and mutants and in the same breath will justify why queers shouldn't be allowed to give blood or serve openly in the military and why erasing POCs from speculative media or reducing them to token background decor is perfectly acceptable.

As I've said countless times, this is why the minority metaphor is not enough. Because sadly we live in a society that's more comfortable watching blue-skinned aliens on their screens than black people or queers.

Diversity and inclusion is not about political correctness but about fixing a broken system. If we can suspend disbelief when it comes to sparkly vampires, teen wizards, and superheroes, why is having a POC or a queer protagonist as the lead such an unimaginable concept?

So how do we use SFF to connect to to real world oppressions and give voices to marginalized people?

A few ideas come to mind.

-Fewer Straight White Protagonists: The hero or heroine doesn't always have to be cis, straight and white. In fact, we can stand to have FAR FEWER. POCs and queers are just as qualified to save the world. It isn't even always necessary to tackle racism and heterosexism with these characters. Their mere existence as three-dimensional protagonists who happen to belong to a marginalized group can make a statement in itself. The mere existence of characters like Sam Adama, Daken, Grace Choi, Thunder, Renee Montoya and Lafayette were trailblazing by their mere existence.

-Learn Your History: In regards to equal rights, what gets taught in schools and what actually happened are two completely different things. In order to understand how bigotry and institutional oppression works, one must understand the dynamics at play. Read works and accounts by marginalized people. We know our history, our culture and our struggles better than anyone. But I caution you to be prepared for some inconvenient truths. Because what gets passed as fact in mainstream society and the sobering realities of what bigotry truly is are two different things.

-More Connections To Real Oppressions: One of the things that X-Men got right is that it established that Magneto was militant for mutant rights because of the scars he endured as a Holocaust survivor. Said real connections need to continue in fiction. Reginald Hudlin's run on Marvel's Black Panther was effective in this manner because it unapologetically explored the rampant racism that played out between the United States and the African nation of Wakanda. The Archie Comic spinoff, Kevin Keller will tackle the issue of Don't Ask Don't Tell. In short, it can be done.

-Publishers and Editors Have To Be Proactive: In an industry where marginalized voices are...well...marginal, publishers and editors have a responsibility to seek out marginalized storytellers and allow us an opportunity to tell our stories and share our experiences. Because let's be honest here, there's a reason why novels featuring POC protagonists continue to be whitewashed and there's a reason why there's a dearth of stories featuring queer characters as the primary protagonists. More than just a moral obligation, it's simply good business. POCs and LGBTQs are overlooked and virtually untapped markets both of whom are all too eager to spend sums of disposable income supporting media that portrays us in an honest and respectful light. So don't just do it for the right reasons, do it for the bottom line.

In addition to escapism, speculative fiction is supposed to challenge us to progress, evolve, and think forward. Thinking doesn't get any more forward than equality for all.

Friday 16 September 2011

P is for Postapocalypse

Judging by occurrences in popular culture, especially online, most people hear “Postapocalypse” and think of Mad Max or The Road. When they fantasize about the fall of civilization (and, when we’re honest, who doesn’t?) these people see themselves, clad in leather, metal, and 1970s hairdos, possibly riding a motorcycle, armed to the teeth defending themselves against the lawless hordes roaming the countryside. They have mottoes such as “Trust no one,” “Look out for yourself” or “Always know who’s behind you.” They follow the law of the road and believe that only the strong will survive. (And most of these stories, I’m afraid, involve a chauvinistic and heteronormative world where the strong also get all the chicks.)

But in a real fall-of-civilization scenario—be it due to a zombie outbreak, nuclear war or bio-engineered plague—it is not the strong who will survive. It is the social who will survive. People like to cluster together: we’re social animals (unless they’re psychopaths, but those can only thrive if they’re a tiny minority), especially in time of danger and uncertainty. Yes, there will be chaos: a real fall of civilization needs a period of chaos to be complete. But then people will start to form communities; first for defense and safety in numbers, but then to share resources and labour, exchange skills and learning, raise and teach children, try to preserve as much of our learning as possible; to save as much of the good of our civilization before it is lost.

As fun as it is to read or write about people riding around having adventures on motorcycles, fighting zombies and marauding gangs, surviving in a world with all morality and law gone, there are more interesting things to write about. When I see a postapocalyptic landscape, I try to imagine how people are surviving, not in the face of humanity mysteriously turned into prehistoric savages, but in the face of the loss of sanitation, energy infrastructure, organized food production and freight, clean water, light at night and heat in winter. And against marauding savages, of course, because there will always be those who don’t possess the imagination to see they can benefit without taking from others, and grouping together with others with some kind of social contract is the best way to keep the sociopaths at bay.

Even more interesting might be to imagine how these nascent communities of postapocalypse humans choose to organize themselves (or not): they could choose to repeat all the errors of the past, and set up a plutocratic corporate economy where the resources of the community end up concentrated in the hands of a smaller and smaller élite. Or they could not. There are so many other forms of government to experiment with, and no doubt some would choose to live in agrarian hippie communes; others would try to build a libertarian or anarchist utopia. Some would choose deliberate simplicity, living close to the land; others would try to build up a more technophilic home, with renewable power generation, computer networks, physical and virtual libraries, networks of expertise feeding into both education and R&D. Some would be isolationist, others would actively reach out to other communities and individuals in an attempt to rebuild.

If you’re writing a story in the socio-political speculative genre, there’s a lot of scope for such speculation in the postapocalyptic theme.

Thursday 15 September 2011

O is for Occultists

A dark conspiracy is afoot. An unnamed but sinister organization, visible only through patterns in seemingly unconnected events, deaths and atrocities, has a nefarious plan to use primitive rituals waken an ancient evil and subjugate the Earth to their immoral ways. Or perhaps the cultists are in touch with an alien race keeping the rest of the population in the dark while they prepare to sell our culture and our planet for some obscure, but certainly not pleasant, purpose. Or an ancient organization that has existed under the surface of our civilization for millennia plotting against the best interests of humankind is risking making itself visible now that they are so close to achieving the ends toward which they have been working for so long and winning supremacy over the whole race.

Depending on who you listen to (HP Lovecraft, The X-Files, Dark Angel, etc.) these secretive occultists are counter-cultural degenerates with no morality who will wittingly or unwittingly destroy humanity if we don’t stop them; corrupt members of the military/political establishment who abuse their power and are almost unstoppable; a élitist and anti-social guild or clan who have hidden from both traditional and liberal society because their membership is tightly restricted and their agenda inimical to reactionary and revolutionary alike.

But in other stories the occultist underground is a positive movement, a force of secretive protectors of humanity, knights against injustice, or countercultural pagans using their arcane powers for good. (Or in a less clichéd way, just doing good but keeping hidden because of the distrust society has for non-mainstream practices/faiths.)

As I think I’ve shown (and I’ve barely scratched the mirror) there are a lot of social-political issues that can be addressed in stories that use occultism and secret organizations as a theme. Like Lovecraft, you could use the theme as a vehicle for your xenophobia and puritanism; like Dick you could use it as a delivery system for your paranoid mysticism; you could use it as a thinly veiled assault on Freemasons, Kabbalists or Vouduisants, on bankers or the military industrial complex, on scientists or environmentalists. I’m sure many of these things could appear in (or lurk under the surface of) a very good, readable and entertaining story.

If The Future Fire is going to consider your story about occultists, however, the usual rules apply. As well as beautiful writing, and a gripping plot with believable and engaging protagonists (whether heroes or villains), and intelligent scene-setting and premises, we want to see stories that questions rather than reinforce the lazy prejudices of their readers, that challenge the worst excesses of the reactionary and that promote understanding and social justice rather than fear, persecution and greed.

Wednesday 14 September 2011

N is for Noir

Mean Streets: Noir and Progressive Fiction

Guest post by Mark Harding

It's a Noir World, My Masters
Noir has a lot going for it. It's got traditional genre strengths, engagement with the news headlines we see daily and as far as postmodernist critics are concerned, noir is the new black. For the sort of politically engaged, inclusive and progressive fiction championed by TFF, surely it's the perfect form?

I am, of course, going to disagree.

I'm not saying noir doesn't have good uses, especially in short fiction, but as the core ingredient for the progressive fiction of the future it is too blunt a tool; inherently conservative, pessimistic and falsely individualistic. To take a metaphor from homoeopathy, it's a poison that has to be diluted extensively if it is going to do the patient any good.

I'm going to pick on Richard Morgan's novels for most examples. This isn't because his work is right-wing (the opposite, in fact) but because his acute understanding of genre pushes noir to its logical conclusions. And I may be accused of unfairly spending print space on the negative aspects of noir and glossing over the positives. But that's because the positive arguments are pretty well documented and if I don't stick to summaries this little blog spot will turn into a dissertation!

There are three strong claims for noir as a progressive genre:

1. The Romantic.
“The story is this man's adventure in search of a hidden truth” (1)
There he is, the hero (though, it is sometimes a she) walking through mean streets, fighting against overwhelming odds to champion justice against corporate or criminal empires. Beneath his armour of violence and cynicism, he's a good man. (Kovacs in Altered Carbon, gives his fee to save Irene Elliott's daughter. Dammit, he even cures his sleeve's smoking habit!) The noir hero can't change the world but he can touch lives, find the hidden truth, bring some justice to an unjust world. He may only win small successes, but they burn like torches in the night.

2. The Zeitgeist
“Broken Britain” (2)
In real life the Western democracies have turned into a noir novel. Living in Britain, it is striking how much consensus there is for this view. Even at business conferences it's quite common for middle managers and small business owners to shoot the breeze by discussing the latest example of the endemic corruption of the pillars of our society. Surely noir is the only appropriate way to describe the world we live in?

3. The Postmodern
“I am a nothing but a replicant” (3)
It seems a truism that every student of advanced film studies believes that noir, particularly noir expressed through 'vampiric' combination with other genres – the Gothic, and especially science fiction – is engaging at the deepest and truest level to represent the postmodern experience. The key influence is the Lacanian theorist Slavoj Zizek (4), who argues that noir, amongst other things, is the expression of:
The evaporation of authority of the institutions that define coherent social meaning. Once social meaning has gone, the only engagement the individual can have is with the experience of pleasure.
The paradoxical slide between our knowing of self and our 'real' self. (We are all replicants, like Deckard in Blade Runner.) Nothing can be trusted: certainly no institution, and not even oneself. (For example, in Richard Morgan's Woken Furies, where Kovacs is being hunted to destruction by his own younger self.)

Compelling arguments. But each of them has an evil twin. And I'll argue that ultimately, the dark glasses of noir are incompatible with even the faintest glimmer of hope.

“Rugged individualism”
The trouble with the Romantic view as played out in a noir setting is the conservative pessimism of the world view. The hero of noir is on his own. No one can be trusted. Concepts like family, home and community are empty phrases (Sylvia Harvey, via 5.) Deviation from these ideals is punished, yet there is a Catch 22 implication that they are impossible ideals. From the point of view of the PI's 'hard boiled' vision of the 'real world' -- the vision where the 'hidden truth' is seen – aren't such phrases as 'community' merely empty words? We're just animals on our own, fighting for survival. Only the exceptional individual (noir subject) can dispense justice. (More on the noir subject later).

As Margaret Thatcher remarked: “There's no such thing as society.” So how can there be a better one? (6)

“It is the world you and I live in” (1)
The attraction of the Zeitgeist argument is the implied claim that noir is holding up a mirror to the real world. And sure, scales have to be removed from eyes, but there is the so-easy temptation to start accepting the world of noir, not in the spirit of satire but of lazy fatalism. This is how the real world is: you can't change it, give up.

A thousand film producers can't be wrong
If the film critics are right, and noir is a major genre in the mainstream film industry, it's almost a guarantee that is it conservative. (That is, supportive of society's controlling interests and power structures.)

“The noir subject” (4)
It is easy to mistake the attention paid by Cultural scholars such as Zizek to noir as approbation. It isn't. Analysis is not commendation. Zizek himself is troubled by the erosion of social meaning that he finds best exemplified by the noir vision. If Zizek is correct about this aspect, then that is all the more reason for progressive fiction to find another way forward.

Now, it is true that noir can be produced by artists with clear leftish sympathies, such as Bigelow's Strange Days and Morgan's Kovacs novels. But the implication of the postmodernist argument is that noir's capacity to be progressive is necessarily limited.

Richard Morgan, with his acute insight into the structures of genre, provides a brilliant example. Market Forces (published before the final book of the Kovacs sequence) is an example of, I suppose, capitalist-noir. It is a perfect illustration of the implicit career track of the noir hero. The Zizekian transgressive jouissance (4) hero, Chris (who like many a noir protagonist is ruthless but nice to his 'pets') is successful enough to get promoted out of his equivalent of PI status near the bottom of the heap. (“He is a relatively poor man or he would not be detective at all.” (1)). Once he's no longer the underdog he switches sides and joins the oppressors. And why not? From the outlook of the characters, the 'real world' of the novel can't be beaten so he might as well join them. (Even though, ironically, Chris' job in 'conflict management' is about changing the world.) The novel could have been written to exemplify Zizek's thesis.

The knock out
It seems to me that the knock out blow for noir as a progressive literature is that the genre can't survive the presence of optimism or hope.

Richard Morgan again. The concluding novel of the Kovacs noir franchise is Woken Furies. At the end of the novel, the revolutionary Quellists are given resources and weaponry that exceeds the current technology. The balance of power has shifted: they have the possibility of overthrowing the ruling despots and making a better world. And once there is hope, noir implodes. The final section of Woken Furies isn't noir: it can't be. From the point of view of noir, hope is a foolish fantasy. But what if there is evidence to support hope? And once hope is admitted, noir can't come back; if the Quellists failed now the only possible result would be the inaction of despair – another option closed off to noir within the terms of its genre.

I'm not saying noir can't satirize and warn, and I'm not saying issues of solipsism, self identity and similar omphalos gazings aren't worthwhile. But as a genre to spearhead the progressive literature of the future, noir is seriously hampered. Noir is too blunt a tool. Too simplistic. Too reductive. So hard boiled it's boiled away the complexities of real life where humans can still have loyalty to more things than their pay-packet.

Is there hope?
Of course. Look at the success of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, a novel that should be noir, but doesn't share the smell. This is because the novel constantly emphasises community. The characters swim in a society of friends, lovers, contacts – there are even institutions that are motivated by idealism. Separation from the delights of Swedish society is a temporary aberration to be remedied as soon as reasonably possible. (Even Lisbeth Salander has lovers and friends.) (7)

There's nothing inevitable about noir. It's inherent solipsism may sit nicely with the critical studies of postmodernist theorists, but from the perspective of the philosophy department, a world view based on Lacan's interpretation of Descartes is just as paradoxical as any other. It has no claim to precedence. To pick an obvious example, Lacan's view of self-identity is founded on the Cartesian tradition of the Cogito (4), but this tradition is equally balanced by the tradition of the critique of  'private language' founded by Wittgenstein. A tradition based (conveniently, for the thrust of my argument) on the community that is logically required for language to work at all.

One development has been to blend-in (dilute) noir effects by placing it as one genre amongst many. Multi-genre mash-ups as Jeff Noon's Pollen and Hal Duncan's Escape from Hell! are able to appropriate the dark knowingness of noir in progressive, questioning work in which community is emphasised. These works aren't noir but they're happy to spin off it.

For myself, I'm confident that writers will not only continue to evolve this type of approach, but will also invent brand new genres as required. The methods may differ, but there will always be a need to truthfully picture a world that has the possibility of change for the better.

Notes and references
1. Raymond Chandler. The Simple Art of Murder. (London: Vintage Books,1998)

2. Quote from David Cameron, UK Prime Minister.

3. Slavoj Zizek. Tarrying with the Negative.

4. In essays such as 'The Thing That Thinks': The Kantian Background of the Noir Subject. Slavoj Zizek claims that the truest expression of noir is when (mis)appropriated by other genres. (Key examples being films such as Blade Runner, The Matrix, Total Recall.) Zizek uses modern culture to illustrate Lacan's concepts about the growth and self-definition of the individual. Lacan's concepts also extend into the social sphere. Thus, 'reality' is seen as dependent upon social institutions (called the 'Big Other'). If the 'Big Other' has no traction, then Lacan's notion that it is only the pleasure of transgressive jouissance (orgasm) that can be known and valued by the individual also takes on a social dimension. The nearest a postmodern society has to cohesive institutions is the pleasure (jouissance) of mass entertainments such as sport and Hollywood (and in the case of Market Forces, executive car battles).
Zizek examines noir in the context of Lacan's model of the growth of the individual in Cartesian terms. The Cogito ('I think, therefore I am') is seen as a foundation. But a foundation that contains implicit dilemmas for the consciousness of self.

5.Via Steve Macek. The Political Uses of the Neo-Noir City

6. The conservative emphasis on the individual implies that people live the way they do through choice. There are no greys. If the world is a dark place it is because each individual has chosen to make it so. The view contains the paradox that each individual can only gain from enlightened behaviour if they all do: as a society.

7. The horrific massacre in Norway happened after I'd written these words about a fellow Scandinavian country. Anders Breivik is an appalling example of 'the loner'.

Tuesday 13 September 2011

M is for Magical Realism

When I hear “magical realism” I think of the works of Franz Kafka, Jorge Luis Borges, Gabriel García Márquez, Toni Morrison, Angel Carter, Isabel Allende, Salman Rushdie, Ben Okri, Jeannette Winterson. On the surface it is a genre that is barely speculative fiction, that is perhaps a slipstream attempt to write fantasy while remaining in the respectable realm of literary fiction. And on the other hand, most of the magical realist stories we have published over the years (‘Letting Go’, ‘Pianissimo’) have been social rather than political, moving rather than rousing. As the “magic” is typically underplayed in this type of fiction, what we are left with is human action and interaction, the heart of all good writing.

But there is more to magical realism than fantasy-lite. All of the authors listed above write unrelentingly political work, with settings where mythology and folklore, or the bizarre and the surreal, bleed into the all-too-real world; rather than providing escapism and excitement, the presence of magic serves to put the ugliness and violence of political abuse into starker contrast. This is the realism of our world, not safely distanced by a fantastic setting. This is the core to understanding our attraction to magical realism: the “realism” part of its name suggests that there is a tough core to the genre, a grittiness that puts it at (or slightly beyond) the darkest edge of the respectable literary spectrum.

In a magical realist story (like ‘Apala’, ‘In the Shadow of Kakadu’ or ‘Nasmina’s Black Box’) mysterious powers may seep into the “real” word without anyone batting an eyelid, and it may be handled realistically and with attention to human reactions and behaviour, but it doesn’t change the world. Corrupt politicians can still cover up their crimes; brutal military regimes can still repress all opposition; an ugly, bigoted mob can still brutalize a woman who dares to stand up; a native child can still be taken from his home by well-meaning colonials. Because a magical realist plot, like those of the best socio-political speculative fiction works, recognizes that it is human behaviour, cultural reactions, social interactions and political power that drive the world, not possession of a laser gun, ninja abilities, a divine parent or the power to speak to animals.

Monday 12 September 2011

L is for Low Fantasy

If High Fantasy is the flavour of fantastic literature reinvented for the modern era by Tolkien and now the staple of most multi-volume epics, then Low Fantasy is its bastard child, its escaped slave, its sick and ignored beggar, its crucified thief or flogged adulterer. Where the heroes of high fantasy (henceforth HF) are kings, princes, generals, diplomats, warrior-priests, ivory-tower (or semi-divine) wizards, noble savages or maverick dilettantes, usually fighting to save the world (or their kingdom) alongside pale, noble elves, pseudo-Norse/Scottish dwarves, and usually some loyal peasant races, the protagonists or antiheroes of low fantasy (LF) are the poor, the foreign, the disenfranchised, the sick, the lonely, the rebel, the terrorist, the outcast, the abused, beggars, thieves, women of ill-repute, the lowest of the low and others the HF heroes don’t even know exist. And they’re mostly not saving the world (although they might, once in a while, be fighting the powers that be).

HF, as my exaggerated characterization above implies, reinforces the insidious prejudice that the noble, the rich, the powerful and the privileged are that for a reason: they are better, more deserving and morally superior to the common folk. This is especially true in those stories where the villains are lower-class people, often foreign or transgressive (users of forbidden magic, crossbreeds, underworld dwellers or travelers), with regional accents and dark skins. Even more sinister is the presence, again exemplified in Tolkien, of monstrous races who are by nature evil, cruel, and/or stupid; a world in which orcs, gobins, ogres and other ugly species are essentially and without exception bad creatures, antagonists, is in no uncertain terms a racist world. The mind that can invent an evil sapient species will have no trouble swallowing the idea of wicked, heathen, mentally inferior, bestialized people of non-European races.

Not all HF is this obviously terrible: some writers such as David Gemmell wrote much more human and thoughtful fantasy epics, for example. But the idealization of the nobility (and therefore the concomitant demonization of the poor) is endemic in the genre.

In LF, therefore, we have the opportunity to hear the story from the point of view of a protagonist who was born without a silver spoon in her or his mouth. Frankly I don’t care which branch of a royal family or religious hierarchy gets to inherit a throne, or which empire gets to exploit the peasantry of this fertile river valley, and nor do the peasants who live there. Common folk in LF have concerns including where their next meal is going to come from, whether the local government is going to protect them from exploitative industry or not, whether war means their young men will be press-ganged and probably die on a foreign field, or whether soldiers will ravage their fields and rape their civilians. A feud between two families is potentially as dramatic, as important, and as complex in terms of good and evil as any war between two mighty nations. And the protagonists are likely to be easier to relate to than the congenitally pampered kings and ruthless generals of HF.

LF often recognises that magic-users and monsters do not themselves work for good or for evil; they have their own uses and/or intentions. Dwarves and goblins alike, like any other group of people or creatures, can be kind or cruel, have your interests at heart or want to exploit you, depending on a mix of personalities, socio-economic circumstances, and religious or political positions. Magic is no more intrinsically evil than is a sword; an ogre is no more intrinsically cruel than is an elf.

Stories that take an LF position on issues of good and evil and the worth of humans and other creatures (regardless of whether their world is mediaeval or contemporary, populated by mythical or clichéd monsters or more original fantastic elements) are able to address issues that are regularly glossed in HF narratives. Commoner protagonists can enable the author to address issues of class, poverty, health, crime and politics (a rich baron who steals is clearly a bad person; a poor farmer who does so may have more complex moral status). Among other inequalities, LF can address patriotism and racism (the kidnapped foreign slave Gavir in Le Guin’s Powers), gender equality and sexism (Miéville’s appellation in Iron Council of revolutionaries of both sexes as “Sister”), the treatment of trans and queer people (two out of three protagonists queer in Morgan’s The Steel Remains), the disabled, victims of crime and corruption (‘Nasmina’s Black Box’), the abuse of the young and the neglect of the old, civil rights and political engagement (slavery issues in McDougall’s Romanitas, despite the imperial heir as co-protagonist with two escaped slaves). It is not that HF is incapable of addressing such issues, just that it very seldom does. (It is too busy sending our strapping hero and his loyal peasant sidekick in to the heart of enemy territory to retrieve a powerful magic item, testing their mettle and their faith and their congenital virtues.)

So although The Future Fire has only very rarely published sword and sorcery stories, we would be happy to see more of these among our submissions, so long as you don’t send us stories which reinforce the classist and racist attitudes of Tolkien and his ilk, the reactionary and moralist assumptions of much HF, the default sexism, ableism, cis-heteronormativity and ageism that we see everywhere else. Write a beautiful story. Astonish us with the creativity of your fantasy world. Impress us with the magic and the heroism of your setting and characters. But use this amazing story and the poetry of your language to do something useful: challenge the lazy expectations of the HF reader, shake the privileged nobles from their cushioned seats and let’s see what the rest of us can do with this escapist world.

Sunday 11 September 2011

K is for Kafkaesque

The term Kafkaesque suggests surreal, nightmare-like situations, which have a malign sense of foreboding underpinning them. Kafka's stories included: the dystopian, particularly political and social nightmares (the powerless immigrant, the arrestee); the surreal punishment (like Poe's The Pit and the Pendulum, later beautifully taken off by Rhys Hughes's The Fury Machine); the magic realist take on gritty blue-collar life (Metamorphosis). We have come to see in his works the Orwellian dystopia, the surreal nightmare and the hopeless daily struggle, but in his wide range of works he combined a relentless realism and a beautiful elegance of language that made him one of the giants of 20th Century literature.

Many of Franz Kafka’s characters suffer at the hands of a bizarre and tragic fate, but just because their circumstances aren’t familiar doesn’t mean we feel any less when misfortune befalls the characters. The absurdity adds to the sense of hopelessness that surrounds them.

In Metamorphosis Kafka turns the hard-working and exploited Gregor Samsa into an insect. Gregor’s freeloading family quickly forget all the sacrifices he made for them once he assumes such a shocking and, to them, repulsive form. In this way, Kafka weaves a gritty but intensely detailed magical realism by twisting one element in reality and then taking the situation that ensues very seriously. It's a beautiful story, horrifying in its inhumanity, but astonishing in its attention to detail and emotional engagement.

Kafka switches from positioning the enemy within to one without in The Trial, when the main character K. is victim to a dark, totalitarian dystopia where bureaucracy and secrecy means that nobody knows what’s really going on, but of course, the little guy is made to pay the price regardless. This is political speculative fiction par excellence: warning at the dangers that lack of transparency in politics and judicial process hold for our civilization.

These works highlight what’s quintessentially Kafkaesque: the murky, unclear threat befalling a regular, relatable character. This danger is life-threatening, and in both these examples, terminal.

The most Kafkaesque piece of art I have experienced is David Lynch's film, Inland Empire, with its oppressive soundtrack, the shadowy lighting and the horrible and demeaning fate of the female lead, Nikki Grace / Sue. As Nikki / Sue suffers one horror after the next, the film takes on a hallucinogenic quality as the plot goes down a series of rabbit holes (one really does include rabbits), disorientating the viewer. Nikki / Sue loses everything she has and just when she thinks things can’t get any worse she finds out ‘rock bottom’ has a false bottom... Like Mulholland Drive, Inland Empire explores the shadow side of the Hollywood dream.

One of TFF’s stories that strikes me as particularly Kafkaesque is Kemistry by Terry Grimwood. The main character, Judy, is plunged into a dangerous situation that she doesn’t understand, one that in turn opens out into an even worse, lifelong nightmare as she is forced to return to her violent ex-husband.

Kafka’s works are beautifully written thanks to his poetic language, innovative styles and story structures, not to mention his creativity and artisanship. He never sacrifices medium to message, which may be his most enduring legacy to world literature.

All of the elements we identify as Kafkaesque in literature—the grim, dystopian setting; the attention to detail and unflinching realism; the range of story structures and willingness to experiment; the masterful proficiency with language and style; the keen awareness of social detail and political observation—are things we would like to see more of in TFF. We don’t insist that a story be dark and gritty, but we also don’t expect every socio-political piece to have a happy denouement. So don’t try to emulate one of Kafka’s short stories; rather follow his example and use beautiful language to warn of hazards in a surreal and dream-like way... Use elements such as beautiful language, surreal and dream-like features or gritty realism to comment on political agendas or warn of the dangers in our civilization.

Saturday 10 September 2011

J is for Juvenile

Fantasy fiction for juveniles (child readers up to the age of twelve) sits squarely in the speculative realm. Speculative fiction for younger readers has the potential to realise great change, particularly when it incorporates strong socio-political elements. One of the traits of this genre is how it makes people think differently about our own world by creating another in which the balance is so far lost that only the largest shifts will effect change. Focusing on a different setting—one that has recognizable problems—can help readers make more sense of the one they live in. It is vitally important that children are presented with the game-changing concepts that speculative fiction deals with, such as the equal society that Harry Potter fights for or issues such as child slavery, that Isabel Allende so skillfully addresses in her middle grade (8 to 12 year-old) novels.

Exposing young minds to these type of ideas is far more powerful than presenting the same concepts to adults. An adult worldview is already formed, but to a child the world is still one of possibility. As writers we have a duty to open children’s minds, not to indoctrinate them. To educate them, not to fill them with fear and hate. To encourage them to think for themselves, not to believe what they learn from authority. To surprise them with new worlds, not just to reinforce the prejudices and stereotypes they’re already getting from home and school.

But this receptivity of juvenile readers to these books is a double-edged sword. Robert A. Heinlein’s pro-military and questionable attitudes to under-aged sex, and the reactionary and homophobic undertones in Orson Scott Card’s works highlight the responsibility authors in this genre have to their readers. If authors of books for younger readers expound their bigoted beliefs in their works, their writing can be tantamount to brainwashing. These books and their writers provide more of an anti-speculative function: one that closes the mind, as opposed to works that open it such as Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy.

Juvenile speculative fiction can empower the younger reader by showcasing strong role models who are powerful enough to affect change in the world around them. These characters are usually fighting against evil, such as the characters Meg, Charles and Calvin in Madeleine l'Engle's A Wrinkle in Time.

Speculative fiction for younger readers has been used in the past to get around censorship by hiding subversive content behind children’s fiction. The most extreme example of this would be Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, a work that contained concepts so revolutionary that he had to mask the work as a children’s book to get it published without facing charges of treason.

If you would like to write a story aimed at juvenile readers, then TFF would ask you to really take the children you are writing for into consideration. Please think carefully about the ideas you want to share; they could linger long in the minds of children after they read the piece. Consider how difficult it is to be a child in our society; our culture at once expects our children to grow up fast while simultaneously forbidding them to make their own decisions. Work at pitching the story at the right level by not introducing them to concepts they may not be emotionally ready to face yet at the same time challenge them to think differently.

We look forward to seeing what you come up with.

Friday 9 September 2011

I is for Identity Crisis

Zygmunt Bauman once expressed that “belonging and identity are not cut in rock, that they are not secured by a lifelong guarantee, that they are eminently negotiable and revocable; and that one’s own decisions, the steps one takes, the way one acts – and the determination to stick by all that – are crucial factors of both”. Identity and identity crises often create interesting narratives in fiction and, in the consideration of socio-political speculative fiction where the individual will often confront identity issues, this can contribute to the concerns of The Future Fire. Think also toward many of the genres covered in these blogs already and you will find a number of such which compliment the exploration of identity.

A brief example of identity crisis probably familiar to many might be that of Case in William Gibson’s Neuromancer. It could be argued that Case is addicted to the matrix. His enforced removal – via mutilation which left him unable to enter the matrix – has left him discontent with his physical identity. Case subsequently suffers from an identity crisis and his quest to be able to return to the matrix to rectify this, drives him in many respects. This has been described as having a ‘bimodal’ identity but he primarily identifies with his online self more than his somatic one, to which he refers derogatively as ‘meat’.

Socio-politically it might be noted that identity is questioned in Neuromancer when we contend that the characters in the story are indirectly manipulated by the artificial intelligence known as Wintermute. If dystopian futures can be perceived as satirical, then this might suggest, for example, that inferior contemporary agents such as individuals can, and are, being manipulated by a governing elite.This kind of conclusion sets individuals against themselves, asking on the one hand whether they have free will, and arguing on the other what is left of their identity in either case.

Further exploration of identity crisis, and in particular the socio-political ramifications of identity, might be examined in texts that have already appeared in The Future Fire. Take, for example, the crisis of identity faced by the protagonist of Edward W. Robertson’s ‘10%’. Tom Marley is a minor felon who, as part of his sentence, undergoes a process whereby for a period he is controlled by an unseen corporation, an activity called ‘The Corporate Works Program’; he remembers nothing of his activities during the time he is controlled. However his curiosity is repeatedly sparked by his realisation that he has acquired new skills, of particular worry is his ability to fight so effectively. Here we could note that Tom’s identity crisis derives from his awareness of being used. There is conflict in that the identity he is aware of; girlfriend, daughter, friends seems so much the opposite to the identity he would appear to undertake when he is ‘under’. Such crisis drives both Tom and the narrative.

There might be parallels drawn between how Tom is used and how Case is manipulated in Neuromancer. The socio-political machinations of both environments; the unseen corporation in ‘10%’ and the artificial intelligence Wintermute in Neuromancer ultimately control both our protagonists and their fates. It can additionally be argued then that identity crises can create valuable frameworks for authors to engage with their audience. After all, as readers we perhaps must, in some respects, ‘identify’ with our protagonists.

Identity pervades all manner of genres and literary tropes: coming of age stories (bildungsroman), travel stories, romance stories, supernatural tales and so forth. Science fiction gives us the opportunity to explore ideas in new and unique ways. Subsequently science fiction which has a speculative socio-political thematic presents the opportunity to consider how individuals fit within that society. Dystopian stories, for example, commonly place the protagonist at odds with their society and their identities become tortured by this conflict. Think of Winston Smith in Nineteen Eighty-Four. The identity crisis he faces is arguably a significant driver of Orwell’s novel. Should he remain loyal to Big Brother or pursue his individualist existence? If we step back from this analysis we might further be able to ask what it means to be a member like Winston? What choices does he have that the proletariat do not? What does this infer for his identity? As he stands watching and listening as the singing proletarian Mother hangs washing, it might be argued that Winston’s identity is at a very fluid point. He perhaps craves that simplicity, wishes his identity was able to reflect the same innocence and nobility.

Identity crises can be a narrative method to help the reader identify with the protagonist. We all wear different identities; brother, sister, father, mother, colleague, customer, friend, cousin, neighbour, pedestrian and so on. We are further defined by some by our religious beliefs, our political persuasion, our sexuality, our race, our gender or our dis/ability. Subsequently our reflexive nature constantly asks us which defines us the most. While perhaps is not always an identity crisis, we find it easy to recognise the conflict faced by protagonists. Bauman therefore is right to suggest that identities are not cut in rock and the unravelling of identity and subsequent crises are often important factors in not only plot but also our empathy with a text’s main characters. Identity therefore is not only important – in some cases it might be one of very few factors a reader might be able to relate to in a story which relates a heavily futuristic universe – but it also permits a framework for stories to be told, for progressive narratives to be understood and for the message of socio-political texts to be not only heard but felt.