The Zen of Sci-fi

Karma, they say, is a bitch. But karma is also a balancing act, a mode of returning one’s energy back to you.

I’ve been fascinated about religious futurisms for some time now, and already wrote a book about SF’s engagement with Catholicism. Since then, I’ve been working on SF and Buddhism, and anyone who’s heard me talk about it knows that I’m putting a lot of energy out there about it, because it’s something I think is fascinating, culturally complex, and also important for how we develop collectively as a society.

Jedis, Buddhism and the translational power of film – Jagwire

That energy karmically returned to me the day I got an email from Eric Molinsky, who runs one of THE best podcasts anywhere, the Imaginary Worlds podcast. It really is essential listening. Eric’s an old pro from the New York radio scene, and his ability to produce magical radio has reincarnated in his new role as host and producer of Imaginary Worlds.

So now you can join the people who’ve heard my energy about SF and Buddhism, because Eric only went and did an entire episode of Imaginary Worlds about exactly that. Better again, he got some absolutely phenomenal SF writers to talk about it too, including one of my favourite authors, Ramez Naam.

The episode is here, and if you rummage around in Eric’s archive, you’re bound to find a load more interesting episodes to occupy your lockdown time.

I’m billed in the podcast as a professor at Coventry University, which isn’t accurate, as I haven’t risen to such nosebleed heights (yet!) and I’m also no longer in Coventry. That’s my karma, I guess.

99 Red Balloons Just Flew By

I have no nostalgia for the 1980s. The music was poor and got worse as the decade went on. The fashion likewise. The politics of the era – yuppies, conspicuous consumption, haves and have nots kicking off towards the huge disparities we still see today – was especially egregious.

I spent almost all of that decade in Belfast, a city at the centre of a slow-burning civil war in those days. Watching TV at night could be interrupted at any time, and often was, with a police warning for shopkeepers to return to their premises and check for bombs. Fun times.

One of the ironies of the era personally was that I was much, much more scared about the possibility of getting nuked than the very tangible daily probability that I might fall foul of Belfast’s sectarian violence and terrorism. For this particular fear, I partly blame Threads, a docu-style drama from the BBC which aired in 1984 and depicted a not so Orwellian but definitely dystopian near future in which the city of Sheffield experiences the aftermath of nuclear war.

We’ve kind of forgotten about nuclear anxiety since then. The fall of the hyperpower duopoly at the end of the Eighties definitely played a role in that. Somehow we overlooked the proliferation of nuclear weapons since, and the fact that there were more complications, more possibility for a war by error.

And other events took centre stage. We got a whole new kind of threat to worry about post-9-11, and especially in the last few years, as black swans mounted up to the extent that it began to seem like we were living in an alternative reality, the prospect of good old-fashioned Cold War-era nuclear destruction seems to have fallen off our collective radars.

It shouldn’t have.

United States Strategic Command (USSTRATCOM, for short) is a somewhat fuzzy entity and likely does not loom large in most people’s psyches. It’s an arm of the US Military, charged with a range of responsibilities, which includes those exquisitely banal euphemisms “strategic deterrence,” and “global strike”. In short, if the US ever comes under nuclear attack, or deems a nuclear attack to be necessary, USSTRATCOM will be centrally involved.

“Peace”, they say, “is our profession”, but one always nervously ponders the Orwellian inversion potential in such mottos. “War is peace”, after all, was the motto of Minipax, Oceania’s War Ministry.

All the more concerning then to notice a tweet from said USSTRATCOM, as they look forward to the year ahead, and find oneself plunged back into the nuclear anxieties of the Eighties:

In an increasingly multipolar world, and one where hostilities are apparently growing daily, there is an ever-multiplying list of potential flashpoints which could lead to nuclear escalation. No longer is it simply a case of America and Russia: rogue nation North Korea and its murky and paranoid leadership has a nuclear capacity; angry neighbours India and Pakistan now possess nuclear arsenals; so does Israel, surrounded as it is by states hostile to its existence; its sworn enemy Iran is desperately trying to become a nuclear power; and the internal politics of Britain and France, the other two overtly nuclear states, have almost never been as fractious as now.

I don’t wish for my son to experience a version of my nuclear anxiety from the Eighties on steroids. Even moreso, I worry that we may be closer now to a nuclear event than we ever were then. We need to take that USSTRATCOM warning very seriously. We need to find a way to rid the planet of nuclear weapons.

The detonation of only 100 missiles would likely lead to the end of life on this planet. Two years ago, the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute estimated that there were a staggering 13,865 nuclear weapons stockpiled, of which 3,750 were deployed with operational forces.

We’re only one mistake, one terror act, one escalation of belligerence away, in Kashmir, in Israel, in Korea, in Taiwan, in the Arctic, in the Ukraine, in so many potential flashpoints, from annihilation. The doomsday clock has crept up to 100 seconds to midnight, closer than it ever was during the Cold War.

I feel like I should be styling my hair in a mullet and wearing my ‘Frankie Says… War! Hide Yourself!” t-shirt even saying this, but as I said, I’m not nostalgic for the Eighties.

But we need to ban the bomb for good.

Meanwhile, in Medieval Rat-Nazis…

At long last, the final post in the series on Anthony Burgess’s invented languages has appeared on the Ponying the Slovos project page.

This one takes us close to the end of Burgess’s career, when his work took an autobiographical turn and he was less inclined to linguistic invention (though no less inventive as his last two works published during his life – the reprise of Elizabethan English in A Dead Man in Deptford and the poetic pyrotechnics of Byrne indicate.)

Nevertheless, there’s some old favourite techniques herein, such as feral teen gangs using exotic and intriguing macaronic language forms, and there’s something quite new too – an invented language in an alt-history where Burgess doesn’t even give us so much as a single word (and doesn’t need to.)

More over at PtS.

Elena Ferrante is a man – but does it matter?

Elena Ferrante has probably been the biggest literary fiction phenomenon of the 21st century to date. Translated into multiple languages, prize-winning and universally lauded, Ferrante’s work, especially the Neapolitan quartet of novels, have generated intense curiosity about the notoriously reclusive and pseudonymous author.

Attempts to ‘out’ Ferrante have been made almost from the beginning, but the push in recent years to examine Ferrante’s work stylometrically and algorithmically has apparently closed in on a single suspect. And he’s a man.

Elena Ferrante: quadrilogia de “L'Amica Geniale” |
The Neapolitan Quartet, in Italian paperback editions.

Lithub has a decent precis of how this came about, which I won’t reprise too much here. Suffice to say that enterprising and persistent scholars used a series of methods to compare the style of Ferrante’s writing throughout her career, and then sought to find close similarities with any other writers, including some, such as the prime suspect Anita Raja, a literary translator.

What these various scholars with their various stylometric methods discovered was curious – Ferrante’s style had a number of different eras or phases, and the changes between them mapped almost exactly onto similar stylistic developments in the work of another Italian author – Domenico Starnone, who happened to also be Raja’s husband.

It now appears that Starnone may have adopted the persona of Ferrante while writing in a female voice for a lesser known publishing house, while retaining his own male name for novels with a more prestigious publisher. Furthermore, Starnone’s fiction, which apparently like Ferrante’s also deals with issues of class and identity while growing up in Campania, is unknown outside of Italy, whereas the Ferrante novels have proven a global success, especially in the ever more female readerships of the Anglophone world.

There are questions of authenticity here, in terms of the validity of men writing from female perspectives, but there is also surely some remit for literary creativity, as well as the extremely lengthy tradition, extended to almost all historical authors in the Western tradition (with the possible exception of Jane Austen), of authors writing from the perspective of characters irrespective of gender.

If we are to deem gender relevant here, perhaps the more intriguing issue is the relative successes of Starnone and Ferrante nationally and internationally, against the backdrop of an ever more female reading public. If Ferrante does transpire to be Starnone, as seems likely now, he would not be the first white male author in recent times who sought to pass himself off as something he was not.

There was, for example, a lot of controversy in particular over the case of Michael Derrick Hudson, a poet who in 2015 won an award for writing one of the best poems in America that year. Having had the same poem rejected over 40 times, he submitted it under a female Chinese name – Yi-Fen Chou, and subsequently it was accepted.

Adopting such personae and noms-de-plume seems a rather high-stakes gamble for white male authors, who are not exactly unprivileged in the international publishing world even if the tide has begun to turn away towards amplifying the voices of a wider and more diverse range of writers. After all, the ramifications of being found out in ‘subterfuge’ of this nature are potentially career-ending.

Nevertheless, the editor who included Hudson’s poem in that anthology, even after discovering the truth, acknowledged that the poem itself retained its quality even when the provenance had shifted. It did not, after all, trade heavily upon Chinese cultural attributes for its strength. Returning to Ferrante, this is a more fraught concern, as the Ferrante novels are written from female perspectives, feature female lives as their central thematic concern, and focus heavily on how female friendships and relationships are constructed and deconstructed.

I offer the following suggestion, therefore: if millions of people have enjoyed Ferrante’s novels, does it matter who wrote them? The figure of Ferrante has been throughout a somewhat shadowy one anyhow. As with notorious recluse Thomas Pynchon, Ferrante has largely let the novels speak for the author.

The more concerning thing arising from this artful piece of academic detective work is the eradication of pseudonymity, which could have significant ramifications online as well as elsewhere. When we did a conference on invented languages for Ponying the Slovos in 2016, we heard a paper by Professor Patrick Juola, a forensic linguist who had developed an algorithmic methodology for identifying authorship in any language. His paper for our conference demonstrated how he could detect whether Tolkien or a fan had written any particular poem in Tolkien’s invented Elvish language.

And here we are a few years on and similar technology has outed Starnone as Elena Ferrante. Perhaps in another year or two, it will be exposing the identities of offensive posters and tweeters online. A lot of people may welcome such a world, a world in which the current tendency towards extreme opinions is fuelled by a sense of security offered by pseudonymity. But it would have other ramifications too, in terms of whistleblowing for one.

It may not matter whether Elena Ferrante is a man or not. But it may well matter a lot that we now live in a world where it is impossible for him to keep that hidden any longer.