Wednesday, 29 February 2012

ARC Magazine: The Future Always Wins

The new online magazine ARC has just published its first issue. It looks at the future through the lens of science fiction, speculation and cross-cultural musings. Or rather it looks at some of the myriad possible futures. The sub-heading for this inaugural edition is The Future Always Wins. As futurological anticipations of the past prove, the time to come always diverges significantly from our seemingly rational and thoroughly thought through projections. And as the editorial points out, science fiction visions of the future have often either portrayed it as another country, wholly sealed off and separate from the present, or have recast the experiences of the present, enhancing them with the colourful props of expanded imaginative horizons. Bruce Sterling, in the opening article, provides a brief overview of the noble failures of Futurism, ranging from the Marquis de Condorcet’s 1795 Sketch for a Historical Picture of the Progress of the Human Spirit, an attempt to take an optimistic long-term view at a dark time of revolutionary upheaval and violence, to the 1901 post-Darwinian perspectives offered by HG Wells in Anticipations (with its full and rather unwieldy title prescriptively continuing ‘of the Reactions of Mechanical and Scientific Progress Upon Human Life and Thought’). He goes on to look at current varieties of futurological speculation, often connected, in this corporate present, to the need for predictive business models. The Tomorrow Project: Making the Future by Justin Mullins looks at the scheme set up by Brian David Johnson at Intel which has been using fictional scenarios to investigate future developments, and has been inviting science fiction writers to produce stories which extrapolate from current scientific knowledge and technological development. Such corporate sponsorship seems to promise visions of the old bright, shiny techno futures of SF’s optimistic (and some would say childish) age. One of the project’s participants, the writer Douglas Rushkoff, dispels this idea, however. His fiction for the Tomorrow Project anthology looks at a future of increasing corporate control, and Johnson says that he welcomes such dystopian pessimism, which gives a clearer idea of what has to be avoided.

Paul Graham Raven, in his article Present Tense: Breaking the Fall, sees hope in alternative ways of thinking, looking at how various groups are looking towards the ideologies and practicalities of self-sufficiency in anticipation of the final collapse of the nation state in the face of global corporatism. Simon Ings, the editor of Arc, writes a fascinating article which blends the political with the poetic in his musing on the place of the container in the modern shipping world, and its displacement of the literary idea of the romantic dissolution of the sailor’s life. Titled Unevenly Distributed – Sir John Schorne’s Devil, it plays on the idea of the container as both a vector for a modern day slave trade and as a Pandora’s box in a resonantly imaginative way, allowing the mind to make associational connections in a manner akin to WG Sebald and Iain Sinclair. The reference to Schorne refers to an old legend in which he trapped the devil in a boot. But imprisoned demons will wait an eternity for someone foolish or unlucky enough to release them again. Ings reports from Dubai, the urban desert mirage which so perfectly embodies the dreams of floating wealth which permeate the global subconscious. Ings' editorial and contributory presence, alongside M.John Harrison and China Mieville, ensures that something of the old spirit of New Worlds magazine, and of its inheritors, presides over this new venture. His novel The City of the Iron Fish, an excursion into a modelled urban labyrinth with an air of fin de siecle decadance, remains one of my favourites, alongside similar cities explored in M John Harrison’s Viriconium books, KJ Bishop’s The Etched City and Jeff Vandermeer’s Ambergris novels and stories.

China Mieville’s article Alien Evasion looks at the strange and unearthly which is nevertheless a part of this planet. He travels to the Woods Hole Marine Biology on the coast of Cape Cod and is guided around their cephalopod tanks – not just octopuses (ok, octopi, if you want to get picky), but also nautiluses (nautili already!), cuttlefish and vampire squids. Such creatures are a favourite in his fiction, as well as that of Jeff Vandermeer, and indeed a key component of much SF if Margaret Atwood is to be credited (although perhaps it’s time for the whole ‘squids in space’ spat, and its concomitant literature vs. genre face off to be brought to a halt, as it’s clearly not producing anything other than heated invective on one side and studied indifference on the other, and has reached an unproductive impasse). Mieville provides some good links, drawing attention to the octopuses’ role in various entertainments, from Ray Harryhausen’s stop motion behemoth of It Came From Beneath the Sea to the beautiful turn of the century puppets of Walter Deaves. Mieville refers to the sheer alterity, or otherness, of recent footage of camouflaged octopi walking across the ocean bed. They look so characterful (although his oceanographer guide is wary of reaching such conclusions). Mieville writes with his usual rough poetry, and I particularly like the phrase ‘satori outriders’. He also observes that ‘you can tell a lot about someone from their favourite cephalopod’. I favour octopuses/i.

Prior Art by Sumit Paul-Choudhury, the editor of New Scientist, to which ARC is closely connected, looks at Shane Carruths’ 2004 micro-budget time travel film Primer. He suggests that its form, partly dictated by the strictures of its meagre finances, provides an opportunely perfect match for its content. The rough editing and grainy textures reflect the disjunctures in their perception of the world experienced by the protagonists as they engage in a very material and mechanistic form of small scale time travel. It’s not a film I’ve seen, but Paul-Choudhury’s article will definitely lead me to seek it out. There are also three articles by three writers examining subjects within a tripartite frame – a very Celtic structure. Adam Roberts’ Three Surprising Theories About SF puts forward the proposition that it is characterised by visual, poetic and pastoral modes. Visual because most people experience it in cinematic form; poetic in that it is metaphorical rather than mimetic, recasting the world in a way which invites a symbolic reading; and pastoral in that sense that it creates a model in its creation of new worlds, and thus fits ‘the complex into the simple’ in the words of William Empson. Three Ways to Play the Future by Leigh Alexander looks at the possible development of games towards multi-platform, evolving scenarios. Not something I’m very familiar with, having never got beyond a couple of minutes on the space invader machine at my local ABC cinema in the 70s. Three Sorties on Dreamland by Simon Pummell is a thoughtful meditation on museums. He visits the British Museum, where tourists crowd around the Rossetta Stone, viewing it through their mobiles, as if it can only be truly seen once captured on that small screen. In the La Specula Museum in Florence, he wanders, largely alone, around the 18th century wax anatomical sculptures in their old cases, and recalls the time when most museums were like this. Not the clean and modernised architectural buildings of the present, with information clearly and profusely provided, but the cluttered and dimly lit museums of the past, dream spaces in which the exhibits possessed a mysterious quality as objects of imaginative contemplation. New smartphone technologies allow the possibility that this magic atmosphere might be recaptured, as he discovers during a visit to the Boerhaave Museum, the Dutch Museum for the History of Science and Medicine. Technologies which bring the exhibits to life rather than merely capturing them in miniscule form.

Including The Horse of Iron and How We Can Know It and Be Changed By It Forever
The fictional tends to suggest that whatever the future may bring, much of it will be experienced on a virtual level. Stephen Baxters’ Amasia offers an almost nostalgic cyberpunk world, with Ais, virtual selves and a Catholic hierarchy adjusting its beliefs to accommodate new forms of being. It is a particularly British form of cyberpunk, however, with an archaeological descent through layers of cultural and historical substrata and across a data landscape read as metaphor. Finnish writer Hannu Rajamemi’s Topsight also involves virtual and digital realities, their insubstantial and immaterial glitter contrasted with the mud of the Thames estuary setting, with its detritus of rusting ships and platforms. Alastair Reynolds’ The Water Thief, with its refugee camp setting in a resource drained world, still has its ‘virching rig’. The future is unimaginable without some access to depthless digital realms. Margaret Atwood is present with Bearlift, an extract from Maddaddam, her sequel to Oryx and Crake. M.John Harrison’s In Autolelia is a richly suggestive tale, which gives hints of an England significantly altered by some unspecified event, seemingly balkanised and occupied. Starting in a banal fashion with a train journey from Waterloo, we start to notice that details are subtly wrong. There is an ‘infestation of Russian vine’, and the narrator comments on the landscape ‘eastwards from where Norwich used to be’. Nothing is made clear, but references to ‘transition zones’ and to art depicting war and famine hint at a disruption which has fundamentally altered the nature of the world. The use of a train journey echoes an earlier story, The Horse of Iron and How We Can Know It and Be Changed By It Forever, in its dislocation of perception. The world rushes by outside the window, ever-changing and unreachable, offering flashing glimpses of moments which have the sudden clarity and symbolic power of the climactic image of a dream. Inside the carriage, everything is in a suspended state, even more so now (The Horse was written in 1989) with everyone retreating within their technological cocoons. The story ends with the protagonist stealing a glance at her fellow passenger’s laptop whilst he’s gone (perhaps having disappeared for good), an intrusion into the unspoken boundaries of digital privacy within ostensibly public space which ends up revealing his view of her, and offering us a glimpse of someone who has thus far gone without description. A haunting and troubling story, filled with unnameable unease and permeated with an air of melancholy resignation.

The ARC is well worth your attention. It’s probably a sign of my ill-preparedness for the digital future that I wish it could also be readily available in print form.


Keith Seatman said...

I saw Primer a few years ago. It was recommended by a friend of mine. I loved it. I actually watched it again as soon as it had finished.

Anonymous said...

It's available as print on demand via HP MagCloud here: