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Futurama Retro

PW: Could we start with the connections between science fiction and scenarios?

Clute: Both science fiction and scenarios are sets of stories that are arguably possible, in terms of our understanding of science, history, and human nature. I have considerable admiration for some of the recent scenario work, especially as it has evolved from reactive, project-bound scenarios to creating flexible scenarios such as those Adam Kahane describes. Flexible scenarios have an analogue with good science fiction: stories that posit particular outcomes covering a fairly wide range of possibilities.

In general, science fiction of the twentieth century has paralleled scenario writing. Up until the 1960s or 1970s SF plots and strategic plans both had a kind of pointed projectile shape. They basically told a single story (with lots of subplots and contradictions): how big things held in the big fists of men could redeem the times, penetrate the future, guide us, and be our tools as we explored and conquered the solar system and other systems of the universe. That particular story, written from what one might call a "First World" perspective, claimed that the twentieth century as Americans saw it in the 1940s could really be made to work.

This big-fist science fiction began to die with Sputnik in 1957. By 1975 or 1980, stories written in that particular mode tended almost universally (with some honorable exceptions) to be retro stories, consciously set in readers' psychic pasts. They were nostalgic for the time when the future was one thing that we could step into and shape. For instance, Kim Stanley Robinson's "Mars Trilogy" is technically in the old mold, although he complexifies it and makes it so realistically applicable to our own solar system that it doesn't really feel like the old science fiction at all.

Nowadays, the best science fiction stories tend not to be written from that model, which doesn't work very well for the human race at the birth of the twenty-first century. We need a kind of science fiction novel which is going to operate to give us some "suss," to use the British term—some kind of balanced street-wise savvy as to the nature of what is happening and what we can do to survive and raise our extended families (or, perhaps, inhabit our extended families). It is not about colonization of other peoples and planets. The most interesting recent SF is about being centres of consciousness in a sea of that which is being colonized. Our bodies are colonized by the corruption of the world around us, but our bodies survive; our minds are colonized by the superflux, the overflow of information, but our minds spin that superflux and somehow we manage to keep our heads above this extraordinary set of waters rushing around us.

Excellent science fiction stories now are written out of the astonishing complexity of the worlds that are coming down upon our necks. A really good example, which takes as its compass the near future, perhaps up to fifty years from now, is Bruce Sterling's Distraction. It is to my mind an absolutely brilliant book, and utterly unlike the science fiction that was being written twenty years ago.

Its protagonist, Oscar, is in effect an evolution of the spin doctor. He operates at the boundaries of most of the worlds in which he penetrates. He attempts to make sense of a world in which information is so rich that the only way you can survive information is to spin it. He is obviously

a trickster.

We need a model for an attitude toward being in the present tense of this century, as it turns into the next. The trickster—Hermes, Prometheus, Bugs Bunny—is an obvious one. The trickster shows us that we cannot sit in either this or that; we have always to be on the fence, to be understanding the before and the after, the yes or the no. We can't get caught in any particular world because to be caught in a single world in 1999 is to die.

The trickster takes many guises, from folk-like Prometheus down to what one might call a "blockhead" trickster who manages to survive by battering his head against a dozen walls. We often see blockhead tricksters in cartoons; the American cartoon industry loves them. I think the early creators of Bugs Bunny knew very well that, by creating a cross-dressing hare, they were creating a classic transgressive trickster. Blockheads are always tricksters that die, and as soon as they're dead, just jump up and continue on.

PW: The best scenario writers say scenarios can free us from the assumption that the future has only one predetermined direction and help us prepare for multiple possibilities.

Clute: The flexible scenarios apparently follow this model. We want a model that says, "If we die, we pick ourselves up off the pavement and blow ourselves up again," like a toon in Who Framed Roger Rabbit (Disney, 1988). Bruce Sterling's Oscar is the kind of guy I want to have spinning the world as the thousand futures start pell-melling down around our shoulders—which they already have.

This kind of science fiction is not written very often because it is difficult to write. When it does appear, I think it is enormously significant and, in a sense, highly predictive. It's not predictive of a particular event (although Bruce Sterling is a very, very bright man and he predicts a lot of things). Its real function is to prophesy the states of mind and physical being which will bring us through, in a balkanized, turmoil-ridden world.

Exile and Home

Clute: Some of the best science fiction written in the last twenty or twenty-five years argues, implicitly or explicitly, that we have exiled ourselves from the planet Earth. That we have destroyed it. That it is essentially too late. That the Earth that we remember will never be our home again because we have exiled ourselves from it. The best metaphor for that, a very physical one, is in John Varley's novels, especially The Ophiuchi Hotline. Throughout his career, since he started writing in the mid-1970s, he has consistently presented the model of the human race as having literally been exiled from Earth, occupying niches and crannies on various planets of the solar system. And doing very well, thank you. But the exile is literal. An alien race comes and says, "You have fucked this up so badly that you are no longer going to be allowed to stay on this planet," and kills most of the earthlings, and exiles the rest and lets the dolphins and whales, to whom they are related, live in peace. That is an increasingly powerful metaphor for our existential state.

John Varley really rang the death knell of Heinlein as big-story SF (e.g., Stranger in a Strange Land, Double Star). It was a blow struck from within the circle of conspirators, Brutus killing Caesar. The Ophiuchi Hotline, in 1977, was a very important book for that reason. It did its job, ensuring that serious people no longer think there's a single story to tell, a single conceptual breakthrough, a single scenario or set of scenarios which enable particular cadre to float. In spite of Varley and others, I must say that 90 percent of science fiction is still First-World SF, the old kind of stuff, nostalgic writing. The contrast is stark if you compare the old stuff with Bruce Sterling's Oscar, in Distraction, who operates as close to a state of non-exile, of non-estrangement from the weirded-out world of 2040, as is possible to conceive. I find that intensely admirable. I want somehow to anticipate that children (not my literal children but the children I am involved with in my life) will not grow up as exiles on this planet—nor as owners of this planet, because they'll only cinder it if they end up owning it. They must somehow become tricksters, bouncing balls, floating buoys.


Clute: Science fiction, no surprise, is a twentieth century literature. It is perhaps more surprising to think of fantasy as a literature which has come to maturity and is significantly mired in this

century. Fantasy says that the twentieth century is wrong. Science fiction, on the other hand, says that the twentieth century can be made to work. There is cognitive continuity between the world and SF. In fantasy, there is none.

I've worked up a four-stage model in the Encyclopedia of Fantasy . First is the initial detection of wrongness, when you hear of the Nazgûl haunting the shire. Then comes the long complex process of "thinning" which involves wars and clangor and all sorts of things which don't sound thin, but in reality are very much thinning. Recognition follows, the moment of turning when the story or memory or land is recovered. Finally, there is healing (which might only take a couple

of pages because healing is embarrassing to talk about nowadays).

Fantasy stories model what we've done to ourselves on this planet by showing threats to their own constructed worlds—desertification, amnesia, loss of use, the bondage of turning into stone. The characters and lands of fantasy suffer a threat which I call "thinning"—an ontological thinning: the being of people thins out; the world gets superficially more complex but there's nothing there. That world is the world out of which great fantasy novels offer a form of transformation. They say, "This is what is happening to the world because you have forgotten yourself, you have forgotten the story, you have forgotten how the land works."

How SF, fantasy, and perhaps scenarios, turn—how they move towards their outcomes—speaks to what kind of world the writers envision. In science fiction, the Conceptual Breakthrough was the moment at which the old world was understood in terms of how to get to the next world. In fantasy novels, the corresponding term is Recognition. It is the moment when the characters recognize the Story they are in, or the Memories they have suppressed, or the true nature of the Land they must redeem. The past is recovered because "reality" is the real story. You're recognizing the nature of what has always existed, as opposed to breaking through into what is going to become.

In fantasy, we must have a moment of profound recognition; we must somehow or other get out of this fantastical trap. And then things turn, sometimes very literally. The protagonist remembers who he is, the novel itself recovers the story that it's all about, the lands suddenly turn green, the Fisher King no longer has his wound, and

healing begins.

Now, this turning itself is a fantasy; it is all counter-factual. We know the story doesn't change just because you recognize it, not in 1999 or 1969. This is not what happens in the world; but fantasy sets up these models of the recovery of soul, the story, or a just and green and pleasant and livable land as a set of counterfactuals for us to learn wisdom from.

Thin Theme Parks

PW: In some scenario workshops, corporate managers do seem to express a desire to remember who they are in the story, in order, in a way, to heal the land. They've worked so hard for years, maybe forgotten the Earth or their children as future. What you're defining here is a strange moment when scenario building (a form of science fiction) turns into or recognizes fantasy.

Clute: I think so. I think you've said it as well as I would, certainly. As you transcribe the interview, just say that I nod my head wisely here.

The superficial complexity which does characterize so much of the world we live in, the "thinned out" complexity, is not normally contradicted or redeemed by scenario writing. Scenario writing is itself necessarily, as a form of cognitive operation, a form of thinning. For that reason, whenever I read scenarios, especially reactive scenarios, I find myself thinking about how similar a scenario must be to the mindset and working plans of someone who is creating a theme park. Theme parks are forms of thinned reality. A theme park is what, extending my model of fantasy, happens when the process of thinning gets stuck. Technically, stuck stories are known as horror stories. Vampire stories, werewolf stories—any stories which involve a supernatural element imposing itself on this world—are essentially stories in which wrongness does not get transcended. The thinning isn't transformed to recognition; you just get the wrongness. You sense that something is wrong and somebody out there is trying to seduce you into believing it's right. Some idiot werewolf devouring infants and corpses or some vampire, through sex, is trying to persuade you that its life is better than yours. The thinning, if it gets stuck and doesn't pass on to something else, is ultimately about the violation or the rupturing of life.

Theme parks are horror stories; they are another kind of thinning that has gotten stuck, and they terrify the shit out of me. What is so very terrifying about America's theme parks, and the "theme parking" of our lives: it is seductive because it's easier to live in a dollhouse than in the world.

Theme parking by definition is a form of retro because it creates the illusion of a world under control. Every time you attempt to control the world, you are creating a retro device, because the world is never going to be controlled.

Millennialism is also retro in this sense. It is essentially a way of creating a one-act, one-story scenario of the world. In my upcoming The Book of End Times, I depict millennialism as a kind of scenario which tragically misrepresents the nature of the world. We are going to have apocalyptic events by the score coming down around our necks, but we're not going to have anything as simple and stupid as a millennium. So the millennium is a model, a scenario, that like the theme park acts as a seizure upon the world. Unfortunately, most organizations are also, necessarily, thinned complexity. Organizations that believe they are inherently, rather than instrumentally, forms of enrichment, are organizations which, I think, are ultimately very dangerous.

In a world that cannot be controlled, it is much less clear how fantasy can define the steps—create the open scenarios—necessary to get from here to a better world. SF, after all, depends on being read as a continuation of history by new and other means. Fantasy depends on being read as a refusal of history.