A new quarterly newsletter featuring deep dives by a diverse array of contributors.
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Welcome to the 2nd issue of Imaginary Papers! This is a quarterly newsletter about science fiction worldbuilding, futures thinking, and the unplumbed depths of the imagination. Each issue will feature brief, incisive pieces of writing from a diverse array of contributors, from scholars and journalists to designers, technologists, poets, and others. 

We hope you'll join us in thinking carefully and whimsically about the tangled relationships between how we envision the future and how we see ourselves today.

We'll publish 4 issues each year, so we won't flood your inbox! If you missed our 1st issue, read it here. If someone forwarded you this message and you'd like to subscribe, sign up here. If you'd like to unsubscribe, click here.

—Joey Eschrich, editor

Forgotten Futures

Visions of the future that deserve more attention.

By Indrapramit Das

The Congress (2013) and The Futurological Congress, by Stanislaw Lem (1971)

Fire on the Mountain book coverAri Folman’s hybrid live-action and animated film The Congress (2013) feels, in retrospect, more prescient than it may have initially seemed. It portrays a world where entertainment has been atomized to give a greater illusion of “free choice,” while in reality taking away free choice by placing all creative expression under corporate ownership. In the future of the film, movie stars sign away their entire persons, giving studios and consumers the right to do whatever they want with their virtual simulacra. As the movie jumps forward in time, this goes from a digital solution to a biotech one, with megacorporation Miramount-Nagasaki introducing a “formula” for people to eat, breathe, live out their own movies, to “be” their favorite movie stars or “imagine them the way you want them.” We see people transform themselves into exaggerated characters in a manner similar to the augmented-reality filters of Snapchat, which The Congress predates.

Since 2013, we’ve seen movie stars de-aged on screen, as protagonist Robin Wright’s simulacrum is in the film, and occasionally even resurrected by studios, like Peter Cushing and Carrie Fisher in Rogue One. We haven’t yet reached a point where actors sacrifice their careers for virtual simulacra. More sinister is the advent of deepfake technology, which allows people to superimpose the faces of celebrities (or anyone, with enough data) into any footage, including pornography.

The animated reality of Miramount-Nagasaki’s biotech hallucinations soon becomes the reality of the world—but individual works of art appear to have disappeared. The artist has been replaced by an ever-present, saturated sea of personalized, dare we say, content. Martin Scorsese famously called modern superhero blockbusters like Disney’s Marvel movies “theme parks.” The Congress intensifies this vision of art as reality—a gamification of dystopian truth (that the world is dying) that allows individual consumers to create their own private Edens using corporate-owned assets (see: the shift to aggressive transmedia marketing for corporate entertainment, infusing every possible form of art and media with ways to relive franchises).

The Congress doesn’t use the tropes of cyberpunk or our “post-truth” present, eschewing digital overlays for chemical and oneiric ones. But it provokes comparisons to social media and its gamification of conflict and fear (as opposed to pacification, like in the film) arising from global dystopian truths. Social media allows users to get dopamine hits off of a shared “consensual hallucination” (to borrow from William Gibson) of resistance against said truths—or by projecting false truths that obfuscate them (e.g., fake news about climate change). Not to discount the real activism that occurs on social media—but that appears an unanticipated side effect. Of note—an armed revolution against Miramount-Nagasaki’s plans is shown, only to vanish, presumably having failed.

In the film’s source text, Polish writer Stanislaw Lem’s acerbic sci-fi satire The Futurological Congress (1971), the “truth” of a collapsed society is again veiled in layers of pharmachem illusion, allowing its denizens to inhabit a utopia. Lem imagines all the advanced technology in this future (autonomous robots, cybernetic implants, interactive personalized entertainment) to be a hallucinated illusion—much like the photoreal dreams of futures and fantasies we see in our video games, movies, and augmented realities, but non-consensual, imposed from above. Peace has been achieved via the illusory threat of armies and military tech that don’t actually exist—an inverse of our present, where virtual infowars are fought in online spaces and profoundly affect our political reality, with its own actual forever wars.

Meanwhile, behind the veils of Lem’s augmented reality, the world of the novel has collapsed into a wasteland of scarcity, deprivation, and climate change. Is this Lem’s rebuke to science fiction itself, helpless to stop the deterioration of dysfunctional social systems because it allows us to live in impossible futures while our world crumbles under predatory institutions? Even in The Congress, which feels more ambiguous, the beautiful illusory world becomes a balm of acceptance for the dying real world.

Yet, both are powerful works of art and science fiction themselves. Exactly how prescient they are remains to be seen.

Science Fiction Frames

Insights and analysis jumping off from a single frame of a film, TV show, or video game.

By Jessie Rack

The Descent (2005)

On first watch, The Descent seems split into two distinct halves. It starts out as adventure horror. Six women—some old friends, some new acquaintances—embark on a trip to traverse a cave system, and soon find out they’ve been misled by the group’s leader: rather than entering the well-explored cave they’d prepared for, they are in an unexplored system. A cave-in means there is no turning back: they must find a way through or never see sunlight again. These women are brave and, undeniably, powerful—they take turns muscling their way across overhangs above pitch-black drops and hoisting themselves up and through gaps in the rock. There are claustrophobic shots of narrow squeezes, clenched teeth, and guttural grunts as the characters fight their way through the cave. It’s a compelling formula, and conveys a tangible kind of horror. The theme of this movie seems to be (wo)man versus nature. Can these human bodies triumph over implacable, cold, impersonal natural phenomena?

But then, the narrative shifts.

It happens 52 minutes in. The main character, Sarah, beset by hallucinations since the sudden death of her husband and child one year prior, wanders away from the group. She hears something. We hear her gasp, and in the background, a kind of…clicking. In the darkness, we hear Sarah’s labored breathing, but all we can see is her headlamp beam, impossibly small in the cave’s inky maw. Stalactites hang from the ceiling, and water persistently drips. Then, a close-up of Sarah’s face: her eyes grow wide, pupils dilated, mouth falling open. We share her point of view as her faint headlamp beam slowly scans the cave wall, swinging back…and forth…until it catches on a figure. Something alive. Something pale and crouched. It turns its head and sees its watcher, then skitters into the darkness, its movements undeniably humanoid.

The first time I watched The Descent, I laughed out loud. I remember saying, “Wait. Is this a creature story?” I felt duped, suckered by the gravity of the first half of the film. Once the creatures are sighted, they keep coming, hunting the women one by one, turning them against one another. When one of our intrepid explorers suggests that the creatures might be humans, trapped in the cave for generations, it seems far-fetched. The creatures (“crawlers,” per the credits) are ghastly pale. They are blind, their slavering jaws drip saliva, and they hunt by echolocation, like bats or dolphins—using the echoes from sound to locate objects. My adventure horror movie had morphed into a creature feature.

Returning to the film after earning my PhD in ecology reveals a different nuance to the creatures. Biologically, their presence makes a kind of science-fictional sense. There are, after all, lots of animals that live in caves. Collectively, they’re called troglobites, and they possess a range of adaptations to their bizarre environment. Troglobites are often blind or have reduced eyesight, loss of pigmentation on their skin, and enhanced locomotion. Traits no longer needed in a dark cave—the ability to use the reflection of light to form a visual image, built-in skin protection from the sun’s rays—fall away, and other abilities develop.

Viewed through this lens, the shift in The Descent isn’t as dramatic as it seems. It’s still a story of woman versus nature, but now nature is convoluted, nearly unrecognizable. The crawlers aren’t just any movie monster; they’re the same, in some ways, as the women they hunt. And the distance between the two groups closes as the story unfolds. These powerful women, forced to fight for their lives, are reduced to the level of instinct. Calculation and careful planning give way to ferocity as the film careens into full-on body horror. It isn’t just the crawlers who rip and tear; one woman gouges out a crawler’s eyes, while another wields a climbing ax with cold precision. It’s a hideous mockery of natural selection, in which only the strongest—the most willing to embrace their animal nature and live in violence—can survive. In that crucial moment when Sarah spots the crawler across the cave, what stops her isn’t the strangeness; it’s the familiarity. The thing lifts its hand to its face, appearing to cup water for a drink. It crouches on its haunches. It turns, and their eyes meet across an evolutionary divide. That’s the true horror of this moment: not that there’s something alien down in the dark with them, but that there isn’t.

Imagination Elsewhere

Celebrating the work of our fellow travelers.

By Joey Eschrich

Palestine +100

Palestine +100, an anthology edited by Basma Ghalayini, collects twelve stories by Palestinian writers, each answering the same question: what might your country look like in 2048? This date isn’t just a random landmark in the future: it marks 100 years after the Nakba (Arabic for “catastrophe”), when more than 700,000 Palestinian Arabs were expelled from their homes. It’s a follow-up to Iraq +100, also from Comma Press: a collection of stories set in 2103, 100 years after the U.S. and British-led invasion.

The anthology is striking for several reasons, including the fact that it is, as far as anyone we know can tell, the first anthology of Palestinian science fiction. As Amal El-Mohtar observes in her review for NPR, for a collection set decades in the future, the stories are often surprisingly focused on “recognizing, fighting, and establishing narratives about the past.” Negotiating the meaning of the Nakba, tracing the outlines of its historical shadow, is urgent work in projecting towards any kind of future. Stories are often about forgetting, or traumatically reliving, or wallpapering over the past, navigating between a hope to forge some kind of livable future and a desire to return to a time before the historical wound of 1948.

On the other hand, the collection is often satirical and light-hearted. We particularly enjoyed Ahmed Masoud’s “Application 39,” in which two young men put in a bid for Palestine to host the Summer Olympics in 2048, have their riotous bluff called, and then are forced to go about making their joke into a reality. It’s just one of many genre blends and unexpected turns in a collection that features a superhero story alongside noir, horror, and more.

One of the horror stories typifies another feature of the collection: sympathy for its Israeli characters. Anwar Hamed’s “The Key” is a chilling tale of guilt and paranoia among the victors of the 1948 conflict, the trauma that spills over from war to everyone it touches, and all who live in its aftermath. The Israeli characters we encounter are often absent, off-screen, unknowable—or when we do see them, they’re complicated humans rather than the mustache-twirling villains who often pop up in our dystopian nightmares. The book certainly isn’t absent of stirring moments of heroism and bold stands against oppression, but it’s just as likely to show us a moment of crippling self-doubt, or liminal spaces that dance between reality and dream, or what El-Mohtar calls “shrugging resilience.”

In Basma Ghalyini’s terrific introduction, she writes that science fiction “uses the future as a blank canvas on which to project concerns that occupy society right now. The real future—the actual future—is unknowable. But for SF writers, the mere idea of ‘things to come’ is licence to re-imagine, re-configure, and re-interrogate the present.” She and the writers in Palestine +100 challenge us to seriously consider how science fiction might be a way to reorient history, to use acts of imagination to intervene in the present and re-work the future.

Defining Imagination

Perspectives on imagination and what makes it (and us) tick.

"The Imagination is one of the highest prerogatives of man. By this faculty he unites former images and ideas, independently of the will, and thus creates brilliant and novel results."

Charles Darwin

From The Descent of Man, first published in 1871.

Copyright © 2020 Center for Science and the Imagination, All rights reserved.

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