Julia Grillmayr is a post doc researcher at the department of Cultural Studies at the University of Art and Design in Linz, Austria. She holds a PhD in Comparative Literature from the University of Vienna. Her current research project (post doc) Science Fiction, Fact & Forecast is funded by the Austrian Science fund FWF and investigates forms and strategies of scenario writing in contemporary SF literature and futurology. Furthermore, Grillmayr is a journalist and science communicator. She is responsible for the podcasts of the Austrian Academy of Sciences and the University of Vienna as well as her own monthly radio broadcast Superscience Me – Wissenschaft und Fiktion on Radio Orange. The rest of her time, she spends in tap shoes and in the danubian wetlands.
Cheap Truths for a Transreal Future
This discussion has been copied from the Discord server, names have been reduced to first name, discussion threads have been grouped and edited for better readability.
Julia: Hi! Thanks for coming by!! This is my semi-paper-semi-digital-bricolage CHEAP TRUTH 2020 rip off, in case you want to have a look. curious to hear/read your thoughts on this!
To browse through the original zine editions, I recommend this site.
Jiré: Julia, I loved this and can’t wait to learn more about your research in this discussion!
Anna: Oh my gosh, Julia, thanks for this link! I’m (finally) finishing up my monograph on William Gibson and it’ll be great browsing through these to get a feel for that initial cyberpunk moment!
Paul: I’m so glad someone else is doing one; the Gary Westfahl effort was a bloody travesty, and prompted one of the rudest reviews I’ve ever published.
Alexander: This sounds super exciting! I voraciously devour every little hagiographic news article on him, so I’d be fascinated to read something longform. Julia, I love parsing through the early ‘net bits and bobs of these cyberpunk writers, so thank you for this
Julia: yes, the Cheap Truth editions are such fun to browse through. “punk” really makes sense looking at those
Alexander: It’s been funny following some of the (western primarily) seminal cyberpunk authors on twitter/other social media channels and seeing their webpresence. Rudy Rucker, for instance, basically twitter to almost no-one, Gibson having a huge audience.
Anna: Yes, Rudy Rucker seems like he has quite a small, sweet audience whereas Gibson, I feel, is still looked up to by a lot of people as a way of hearing about the cutting edge of obscure topics.
Alexander: Gibson’s writing and his personal quirks (like his obsession with technical clothing) has always marked him as so charming to me
Graham: I saw William Gibson on his Agency book tour in Toronto (a few weeks before Covid starting shutting things down) and he was just so fantastic as a speaker — very careful, very methodical, picking his words so carefully. At one point I thought he’d fallen asleep on stage (I was far in the back) only to realize he was carefully thinking about what to say and instead of just filling the room with noise he was using the silence to compose himself.
Anna: Julia, if and when you fancy answering questions about your project, I would love to hear more about what you’re planning to do with your work in terms of publication, and how you’ve been finding the politics of cyberpunk in terms of these scenarios.
Julia: I am writing about about various (science fictional) scenario writing workshop methods as well as anthologies of SF texts that have some kind of “futurological project” behind them. The contexts are very diverse. A lot is happening in an academic framework and in teaching, but of course also community organizers, the military and corporations use this kind of “writing SF to make statements about the future”. I want to explore what role plausibility and foresight plays in this context (because often the same vocabulary is used like in more conventional futuristic scenario writing) and what the artistic expression (to write not a mere scenario text, but a short story) adds to the validity or usefulness of the future vision. It is still very broad, but the trip to the US and all the meetings with people who are involved in these projects have helped me to find a red thread through all these aspects. I am not sure if I should try to publish it in german or english. Unlike in the US, this is not much discussed in Aut/Germ, even though these kind of workshops and in general “speculative” thinking is popping up everywhere..
Paul: You might be interested in some stuff happening here at Lund, where we’re trying to push the same (and related) tools in different directions. The Museum of Carbon Ruins, for example, which is a kind of climate-futurological design-fiction participative-theatre thing… You make a strong case for stories, and cyberpunkish ones in particular, as a useful tool in the futurological kit. Can you share your thoughts on how best to pitch that potential to policy-focussed audiences and/or funders, who might be put off by the very into-the-long-grass elements that you (justly) celebrate?
Julia: ad pitching: I hope I understood you correctly. frankly, I think the pitches for storytelling projects are often rather “too” successful too easily than the other way round. I think this is a fascinating trend and I am totally in love with some of the projects I discuss in the book, but when I learned one thing from cyberpunk is that capitalism is ruining everything — and this might include speculative fiction as a thinking machine. I think I might end up arguing against proposing fiction “as a tool”. This can create very reductive and uncritical approaches.
Ana: Hello! Julia, I just wanted to say that I loved your talk and am fascinated by your project. I work on something very similar (the question of how science fiction shapes our “knowledge” of, perception of, and integration of new science and technologies) and I have a few thoughts and questions
Julia: Sounds great! Thanks for reaching out!
Ana Klimchynskaya: Of course! At the risk of sounding self promoting, I got interested in the subject when UPenn asked me to give a talk on how science fiction can shape policy, and I started doing some digging. There’s a lot of really interesting information out there on how the military uses science fiction to envision and prepare for the wars of the future, and, to a lesser extent, how sci-fi has been used in policy. Curious if you’ve encountered that and what you think of it?
Julia: Interesting! I rather stumbled upon more and more “scenario” WS that used SF in different ways. And then I realized that in the US this is much more common and institutialized and I got in touch with people working in this field. I started with the question how these texts differ from SF that is published in a more classic/conventional context. However I am more and more interested in the practices around writing / reading / exchanging around these texts
Ana: So what have you discovered about how these texts differ from more “classic” sci-fi? That’s a question that I also ponder a lot. (or do they differ, meaningfully?)
Julia: That’s hard to sum up. There are some differences if you look at many texts I guess, because these “call for stories” for example often say “no dystopias”. But there is no difference I guess if you compare single texts. This is also why the practices are interesting to look at
Ana: what even is the line between extrapolation and speculation? Seems like it’s a blurry one
Katherine: Hi Julia, I really enjoyed your talk and your project sounds fascinating. I’d like to pick up on your comment, apropos N.K. Jemisin’s story about dragons, that “fantasy or fantastic elements shouldn’t be excluded in advance from the context” of futurological writing. I really agree with this, but in my work at the intersections between English and Science and Technology Studies I have encountered some pushback when I’ve tried to suggest an alignment between fantasy and future-oriented speculation. I’d love to hear you elaborate. What, beyond how amazing Jemisin’s work is, brought you to the conclusion that fantasy is an important (or perhaps just valid) part of futurism? This is also partly picking up on some conversations I saw in the keynote and its Q&A about the hunger games and the Broken Earth trilogy as being better representations of the contemporary political moment than a lot of genre cyberpunk.
Julia: thanks! That is a really fascinating question! I wanted to mention that because a lot of the anthologies I looked at had note that said something like “only extrapolation, no speculation” and “no fantasy” — but in fact the texts of course also feature fantastic elements and in my Impression it is often a rather conservative idea of “hard SF” that is behind this. And I think this is something to avoid.
Katherine: I think you’re totally right about this: I’ve been researching how climate scientists refer to SF in their work, and I started to notice that they don’t only talk about hard SF. They are often even MORE likely to reference science fantasy type texts…
Julia: In any case it’s so interesting to hear that they say “no fantasy” in the calls for the anthologies
Ju2: I loved your talk – both form and content! I’d be very interested in your experiences in how fiction/storytelling is actually used/understood in interdisciplinary work that includes fields that normally aren’t used to dealing with fiction (precluding advertizing). From my own perspective (literary/cultural studies), I see writers, literary/media or cultural studies people tend to value input from other fields and try to make it applicable in their own context, add new perspectives. And I do see (especially now) that in science communication storytelling does play an important role, as well. But there’s also a lot of anxiety going around (for example when credibility or ‘seriousness’ is concerend), especially when dealing with sf. I’m curious, as you mentioned the military, how and in what contexts it is significant there, for example…
Julia: Thanks so much! Yes, credibilty is a big topic here. (And this has again to do with the rejection of Fantasy) however, I had the impression that SF (at least in the US where it is so present in Mainstream culture) is widely seen as valid “tool” for teaching and even foresight. Don’t you think?
Katherine: Isn’t SF in the US kind of a double-edged thing in terms of credibility though? The phenomenon of SF as a tool seems to be heavily counterbalanced by a rhetorical tendency to use the term “science fiction” to denote implausible or unrealistic things as well. There’s a great article by Colin Milburn about this kind of phenomenon. (sorry for the article mention—not suggesting that you need to read this, just mentioning it in case you haven’t come across it for later!)
Ju2: I would tend to agree, although I lack experience in interdisciplinary work in the US. But in terms of literature, sf’s standing is much different in an Anglophone context than in Germany, where it’s always been under suspicion of not being ‘serious’ enough (we actually have a divide between serious culture and entertainment culture – as is represented institutionally as well). This, I would suspect, will probably be reflected in interdisciplinary work with other fields outside of the humanities as well.
Ana: As an academic studying sci-fi in the US, I can definitely confirm. In fact, in the mainstream it seems to be gaining some amount of respect, but a lot of English departments still don’t teach it or take it seriously unless it’s a text like Frankenstein—thank you for the article mention, looks fascinating!
Julia: Oh, yes of course you’re right. That SF is equally framed as “literature of the future” and as something impossible is super interesting. I have made an (audio) publication about this aspect – will be published in autumn.
Jiré: I was wondering if you know any contexts in german speaking countries where sf/cp is used as the base for future scenarios?
Julia: well, yes many colleagues in teaching (rather at Art universities), but also in urban development and in Community building. But rather small-scale projects
Jiré: yes, art unis make sense and we do that as well but how about tech companies i.e. for (social) robotics or alike?
Steven: Thanks for the talk. I have long had a minor obsession with the question of futurological writing vs science fiction, but I haven’t done the research into it that you have. I find it interesting how a number of well known sf writers have gotten day jobs as futurologists (I am thinking mostly of two canadians, Karl Schroder and Madeline Ashby)
Julia: yes, the fact that some people equally consider themselves as “futurists” and SF writers and put on one of these labels in different contexts is interesting (and how and why they choose the label in which context). I am thinking of Bruce Sterling also who helped make “Design fiction” a thing in this way.
Ana: also Cixin Liu, he works for a company named SciFutures he’s won a Hugo for his novel, so it’s fascinating to me that he seems to be doing this
Eero: Do you have anything more on that? A quick Google doesn’t seem to be turning up anything. (I did my MA thesis on The Three-Body Problem and I was under the impression he was full-time writer these days.)
Ana: 1 second, there’s an article, let me go find it… Not the article I was thinking of, but here’s one that is relevant and may be of interest …Now let me go find the one I was thinking of … upon looking at my notes, looks like I was thinking of Ken Liu, the translator of the Three Body Problem. My apologies
Eero: No worries, that’s interesting to know too! I’ve seen things like a job ad for teaching innovation through SF in China, so it’s not inconceivable some futurology-related companies might be going up there also.
Esko: Could you comment a bit on the other double-edged sword with instrumental uses SF to think about the future, namely, that where practitioners like the ones you’ve studied have, it seems to me, communal and democratic aims for their work while the most famous SF-scenario-folks like Musk and Bezos are taking blueprints from SF without too many considerations and apply them almost willy-nilly? How could we demarcate normatively between these uses of speculation (without ending up saying wholesale that SF+scenario-ing=good/bad)?
Katherine: That’s a good question! Musk’s twitter feed is a terrifying blend of SF references and raw ego
Ana: not to mention the way Musk pretty much co-opted scifi for his falcon heavy launch when he sent his car with “starman” into space, and the dashboard said “don’t panic!”
Julia: That is really the core question I think. Finally this probably has to be decided step by step and for every single case. To cultivate criteria that could enable such an evaluation, that sums up pretty good what I am trying to do
Esko: My research group is studying instrumental narratives and the question is also kind of what are the limits of that narrative instrumentality. It is somehow mind-boggling how their appropriation for escapism, egoism, and profit works beautifully, but effecting positive change with the same techniques and sometimes the same narratives is much more difficult.
Julia: yes absolutely. This is why I might be a bit picky in my readings
Ana: Are you familiar with Malka Older and her concept of #SpeculativeResistance? It’s not a formal initiative, but she talks about it quite a bit in various talks and on her twitter
Julia: oh thanks that is very helpful!!
Esko: Another thing I wanted to ask still, what portion of the stories in your corpus do you think are good? I’ve read some and it seems that at times the scenario-idea might be well-developed, but plots and characters remain clunky – which I guess can be expected at times. I’ve also heard arguments that some self-proclaimed solarpunk anthologies claim to “imagine better,” then in fact fail both to imagine much at all and are onerous reads.
Julia: Yes that is a very good question. I don’t think there is an easy answer to that. Some are really excellent and some are rather dull, because too simple/too eager to make a specific point. Also they are very different in style also because some of the anthologies are f.ex. not written by professional writers, but based on a public call for stories. Overall I can say I have enjoyed maybe 60-70% of the ~ 120 short stories I read so far (which is not so bad I think)
Esko: That is an ok ratio (and your corpus is impressive!), not sure if you could get it any higher whatever the fiction I guess?
Julia: yes I guess that’s right. I have to say I wanted to read a lot of these short stories to get a feel for what questions even make sense for my project. I will definitely pick out some of these stories to highlight certain aspects of this kind of writing context. I counted how many of these stories I’d consider rather dystopia/utopia, extrapolation/speculation, near/far future — and for a first approach that helped me a lot to unterstand this fiels, but I don’t think a “statistic” approach is meaningful in the end. (Could be interesting, but it is probably just not my way of thinking about literature)
Thanks so much for the questions & Comments & links! Hope to keep in touch. It seems some of us are dealing with different aspects of very similar topics
Ana: Most certainly! I am always happy to talk more about this subject – all are welcome to reach out.