Living in the Future

I’ve had a weekend of being busy with Wizard’s Tower and Clarkesworld matters, but I do have a post for you. I wrote this a few weeks ago and then forgot about it. It is a report on the one-day conference at the Architectural Association that I went to last month.

What does science fiction have to do with architecture? Not a lot, you might think, but the Architectural Association begs to disagree, because its London School of Architecture run a series of seminars with the pulp-inspired title of Thrilling Wonder Stories that bring together speculative fiction writers, comics creators, video game producers and futurologists. The objective appears to be to encourage those who will build the cities of tomorrow to think about what those cities might look like. One such day of seminars too place in later November.

The role of buildings in framing the stories of our everyday lives was amply demonstrated by Will Self, promoting his book, Walking to Hollywood. Self said that if he were a dictator he would force all architects and urban planners to walk through cities as part of their training. Not that this would necessarily help, because sometimes buildings are designed to be hostile. Self reserved particular ire for airports, which he described as “a kind of abattoir of the psyche,” but he acknowledged that they were deliberately made that way to discourage travelers from getting excited about dashing around the globe at vast speeds. Airlines much prefer us to be bored and docile when we fly.

Buildings can be instruments of political oppression too. Jeff VanderMeer described how, in his novel Finch, the invading Grey Caps revise and repurpose the architecture of the city of Ambergris in order to make their mark on the landscape, and send a message to the human population that the city no longer belongs to them. Admittedly we are talking about mushroom people here, but VanderMeer pointed out that he uses fantastic settings in his fiction to encourage his readers to think more deeply about the issues he is discussing. A reader brings far less emotional baggage, and far fewer preconceived ideas, to a story about Ambergris to one about an invasion of a real world city.

Video game designers have very particular requirements for their cities. It was interesting, therefore, to discover that the ideal setting for a game in which nothing happens except that people run around with big guns killing each other is a Libertarian utopia of the type proposed by the seasteading movement.

Most architecture students, however, will have more practical problems in mind. They will not get to design killing grounds. Nor should they need to be told that mysterious ruins can impart a sense of wonder to fiction. Bryon and Shelley were playing with those ideas centuries ago. Did the guests lecturers have anything more appropriate?

Geoff Manaugh brought up the very real but somewhat exotic issue of nuclear waste depositories such as the proposed Yucca Mountain facility in America, or the actual facility at Onkalo in Finland. Given that the waste will continue to be dangerous for millennia to come, deterring curious explorers from future generations is a real design issue. Manaugh talked largely of booby traps. My suggestion of stationing a balrog and hordes of bloodthirsty orcs at the bottom of the shaft to deter trespassers did not get much traction.

Rachel Armstrong talked enthusiastically of seeding the lagoons of Venice with artificial lifeforms that would build a coral reef under the city, shoring up its foundations. Had Prince Charles been there he would doubtless have muttered darkly about “gray goo” and the end of life as we know it. But HRH has always had a fondness for the gloom-filled imaginings of Michael Crichton. I much prefer Kathleen Ann Goonan’s take on nanotechnology. Her Flower Cities are bursting with creativity, and sometimes keep the humans around as pets.

The speakers whose ideas would have the most immediate impact on our lives were Anthony Dunne and Fiona Raby. They describe themselves as “design provocateurs,” so perhaps their suggestions were not intended entirely seriously, but they certainly provoked comment.

Raby talked about the future of agriculture, noting that by 2050 the population of the planet will reach 9 billion. Her solution to this was a return to foraging, with people equipped with external digestion systems that would enable them to feed of a much wider range of plants than is currently possible. No self-respecting science fiction author would come up with such a solution, unless it followed a massive reduction in population. The whole point of farming is that it allows you to support a much larger population on a smaller amount of land.

Besides, thanks to Harry Harrison, science fiction readers know that in the future we will all be living on stuff called “Soylent Green”. Had Dunne known that, he would not have suggested a future in which “euthanasia parties” would be followed by burning the corpse and making a granny-powered battery that the family could take away and use. Dead bodies are too useful to burn.

Dunne also had some very strange ideas about the future of the security industry. Police forces are apparently already working on brain scanners. Dunne suggested that each neighborhood would have a local scanner operator. He’d have a friendly name like “Dave” or “Nick”, and instead of a crisp black, jack-booted outfit he’d wear an ill-fitting, second hand uniform as a result of public spending cuts. The theory was that this would make us more comfortable about having our little grey cells examined.

Another way in which our governments busily snoop upon us is Echelon, the global surveillance network. Dunne suggested that we might be more relaxed about having our emails read and phone calls listened to if the chaps doing it lived locally and were easily recognizable because they wore red hats with antennae on them. I suspect they’d have a jolly motto too — something about “three main weapons: a global surveillance network, powerful supercomputers, and pretty red hats.” Goodness only knows what Orwell would have made of this.

This, I think, is where science fiction writers are needed. Left to themselves, engineers of all types tend to obsess over functionality at the expense of thinking about how their creations will be used. One of the objectives of science fiction is to consider the effects of new technology on people. While there are those who still think that science fiction should only be about ideas, it is in the interaction of those ideas with the book’s characters where the real power of fiction is unleashed. There are many science fiction writers who do that very well.

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