10* Experiments with World-Building (that aren’t Ursula LeGuin)

One of the first books I read that really impressed on me what the powers of world-building could be was Joe Haldeman’s The Forever War. As a rough analogy to Haldeman’s experience in the Vietnam War, the novel depicts a near-future in which a distant, interplanetary war is unfolding. Earth soldiers are shipped to the front through space travel, but due to the effects of relativity, when they come back home, much more time has passed for the people on Earth than for the soldiers. The novel follows a series of distant battles with encounters on Earth that are estranging, both for the protagonist and for the reader, as decades pass on Earth while mere months pass for the protagonist. It’s elegant in its premise: less than instantaneous interstellar travel means increasing disjunctures in personal experience with a quickly-changing society. As a world-building technique, it means that there’s a logic to the universe–even if there are aliens, space ships, and weapons of interstellar mass destruction.

A map of Earth that points conventional understandings of north to the bottom, making the south the top of the map. It’s an elegant disruption of accepted aspects of our world. It’s borrow from “Why Is North Up on Maps?

In working on this list, I set a few rules for myself. First, it couldn’t include Ursula LeGuin. That’s not because I don’t like her work (I do!), but rather that it so often gets talked about that it obscures a lot of other, often more recent, work that’s just as good. Second, it needed to not already be included in one of the syllabuses for my Human Futures class or discussed in Theory for the World to Come. Third, it needed to stand alone as a short story or novel–meaning no multi-volume series (which excludes tons of great stuff, but none of it could viably be taught in a college class). Fourth, it needed to be focused on the United States. That was mostly to limit the sample size and make it possible to actually compile a list with an ending–I encourage experts of other national traditions to compile and share their own lists. And, fifth, it needed to be based on one fundamental and identifiable change or premise from which everything else followed.

This last rule is borrowed from Hal Clement’s “Whirligig World,” which describes how he set about building the world that Mission of Gravity takes place in. That world, which he named Mesklin, was characterized–no spoiler here–by its severe gravity, relative to Earth’s, because of the planet’s oblate shape. When astronauts from Earth find themselves stranded there, they come to rely on the local inhabitants to help. Most of what the reader experiences is from the perspective of Barlennan, a ship’s captain who is embroiled in the rescue efforts of these stranded humans. Through his relationship with a human helper, the reader comes to understand how the planet’s oblate shape affects gravity, weather, species and their evolution, and social structure. It all spawns from Clement’s initial experiment in literal world-building, which many of the texts below diverge from in that they assume an Earth-like world with small and large changes mapped onto a world similar to what the reader already knows.

I don’t want to spoil any of the following, so I’m leaving my descriptions of the stories relatively vague–and in some cases not revealing what the central change is, particularly if its revelation is integral to the plot. I’ve tried to group them thematically in case you’re interested in treating the list a bit like a syllabus.

In Stephen Graham Jones’ The Bird is Gone and Kim Stanley Robinson’s Pacific Edge, what might be thought of as a relatively straightforward social–and specifically legal–change leads to a cascading series of effects. Jones imagines a near-contemporary United States where the government has ceded back most of the middle of the country to Indigenous groups. Robinson posits a change to the size and structure of corporations leading to a more communitarian ethos. Both texts are interested in how these legal changes lead to new ways of relating to one another, although in Jones’ book its more explicitly tinged with the racialization inherent in American settler-colonialism. They’re both, maybe not coincidentally, very fixated on ideas about property.

The feminist speculative tradition of imagining a world without men, which starts in Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s Herland, flows through Alice Sheldon’s “Houston, Houston, Do you Read?” (writing as James Tiptree Jr.), and continues with Joanna Russ’ “When It Changed” and more recent work, is variously fantastic or scientific, relying on women finding new ways to reproduce without men. In each case, getting rid of men–accidentally, deliberately, or violently–opens up new social possibilities for the women who remain, which range from changes in gender roles to the entire structure of society. In many cases, men are the visitors to these men-free societies, and the narrative is told from their perspective as they struggle with realizing that they’re useless in the new social world. They also offer stinging rebukes of patriarchy and heteronormative social structures, and bring assumptions about American gender roles into stark relief.

Experiments with human consciousness, which are well represented in Philip K. Dick’s The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch and Ted Chiang’s “The Truth of Fact, the Truth of Feeling,” play with the idea of small changes in human capacities having profound effects on the structure of society, and, ultimately, what it means to fit into the category of human. In both cases, assumptions about what the human is and can be are disrupted by something novel, questioning, in Dick’s case (no surprise), what sanity is and, in Chiang’s case, how human cognition shapes the worlds we live in. (In many ways, this is my favorite subgenre of world-building, and I recommend Steve Shaviro’s Discognition for its engagement with this strain of work.)

Encounters with aliens are by their very nature experiments with world-building as storytellers develop whole worlds populated by a species that is influenced by different social and environmental rules, but there are aliens who are more and less human and who are governed by more and less human rules. One of the best encounters with the alien, notable for the alienating alterity of the aliens involved, is Orson Scott Card’s Speaker for the Dead. Ostensibly a sequel to his more popular Ender’s Game, most of Speaker for the Dead follows a family of xenoanthropologists (although I don’t think that’s what they’re called, since it would basically be an oxymoron) as they attempt to unravel the symbiotic interconnections of a group of species on a distant planet. The rules that govern life there are different than those on Earth, which reveal the anthropocentric biases of human administrators in their assessments of what needs to be done on that foreign planet. In a very different vein, Rivers Solomon’s The Deep imagines a more terrestrial kind of alien, born from the adaptation of escaped slaves to aquatic life. It’s based on a clipping. song, which is an homage to Detroiters Drexciya‘s electronic music. Solomon’s novel imagines a form of life that is haunted by its humanness, but is ultimately something quite different. Taken together, they offer a beginner’s course in Afrofuturism and a challenge to the often obligatory whiteness of speculative world-building. (Thanks to Elizabeth Fein for this suggestion!)

I’m technically over 10 entries if you count Haldeman and Clement. There’s a ton more (see below), but this set of stuff gives a pretty good sense of the parameters that people work with in trying to spell out the repercussions of sometimes subtle, sometimes enormous changes and their effects on a shared world. At their best, they posit a cascading set of changes that alter everything from individual subjectivity to forms of social relations (especially kinship structures), to forms of labor and governance, to planetary politics. Bad world-building usually makes no sense when it’s closely scrutinized.

I’d love to hear about people’s other favorite built worlds and the kinds of traditions they see unfolding in them. Suggest your own in the comment section below.

*Here’s me cheating–this is the list of stuff that I’ve used in classes that I’ve found to be especially effective helping students understand world-building: the first five minutes of Paul Verhoeven’s Robocop, Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower, the first half of Neil Blomkamp’s Elysium, Nnedi Okorafor’s Who Fears Death, Greg Rucka & Michael Lark’s Lazarus series, and Star Trek: The Next Generation’s “Darmok” episode (Season 5, episode 2). Check out the syllabuses for Human Futures for even more.

Can We Have a New Emotion?

Recently, working through a series of memoirs of assisted suicide, I began to wonder if the kinds of emotions that Americans have available to them are sufficient to think through the ethical decisions that we face on a changing planet, in a changing society, and across tumultuous life courses. Do we have the language — as individuals, as a society — to describe the kinds of feelings that we’re faced with on a daily basis? Have our emotional tools lost their teeth for describing experiences of the contemporary?

Anthropologists and historians have been pretty resolute that emotions are culturally variable, and that what’s a possible emotion in one society is not necessarily a possible emotion in another society. Even emotions that are sometimes thought of as universal — joy, anger, sadness, disgust — have been shown to be historically and culturally particular, with no clear analogues cross-culturally. Emotions that Americans take to be sacrosanct — like romantic and filial love — have also been shown to be historical by-products and socially constructed. If we can accept that emotions are culturally-produced, can we have a new emotion? Not just in the I’m-feeling-something-I-don’t-know-how-to-name way, but in the let’s-invent-an-emotion sense. And how would we go about experiencing it?

That is an image of the imagined heat death of the universe (borrowed from Elixir of Knowledge). It looks like a multi-colored gas cloud that is growing darker from the outside in. But don’t despair — it’s a long way away…

The feeling I have been thinking of is “subjunctive grief,” an of anticipation of loss that might motivate action in the present based on assumptions about the future. When Americans experience grief, it is often cast as grief for something that has been lost, situating grief as something that can only be felt after the fact. I started to think that the old Kubler-Ross stages of grief (denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance) might be bent toward the future, providing a foundation for ethical decision making. In reading those memoirs of assisted suicide I was struck by how family members narrated their relationship to dying kin through something like the Kubler-Ross stages of grief — and it was only when they reached some kind of “acceptance” that they could aid their loved one; but, in a strict sense, they hadn’t lost anyone, yet. That loss would only occur in the future, and working towards that loss meant grieving in anticipation.

As a comparative example, consider navigating the politics of contemporary global climate change. What scientists, activists, and reporters tell us is that we are already in the process of losing a lot — island nations, coastal cities, a wide variety of species of animals, coral reefs, etc. – and that we’re likely to lose a lot more (diets, gas-fueled cars, coal and gas powered heating and electricity, etc.). There are clearly a lot of people in the denial stage, and maybe some in the anger and bargaining stages (if all the faux-meat start-ups are any indication), and probably a lot in the depression stage. Where we all likely need to be is in the acceptance stage. Accepting inevitable losses might serve as the basis for making decisions that preserve what we have while working to undo trends towards future damage (which is an argument not unlike that made by Elizabeth Kolbert in her The Sixth Extinction, which I write about in Theory for the World to Come).

How might one come to feel subjunctive grief? Maybe we’re feeling it already and just don’t have a name for it? In reading all of those memoirs of assisted suicide, I think I began to feel something akin to it, coming to viscerally experience — through the medium of the memoir — the experience of loving family members retelling their experiences of anticipating loss and its aftermath. In reading recent climate-change focused speculative fiction (or “cli-fi”) — and Kim Stanley Robinson’s New York 2140 is exemplary of the genre — there’s something therapeutic about reckoning with a world that has already changed. Situated as we are in this moment of global climate crisis, it sometimes feels like there’s an overwhelming number of actions to take to make the smallest possible difference; resignation seems justifiable in that context. But looking comparatively between a well-modeled, imagined future and our present might serve as a way to facilitate a kind of acceptance of inevitable changes (even if they don’t work out quite like a novel or model suggests).

There was a segment on WNYC’s “On the Media”in 2017 that featured an interview with Robert Macfarlane about neologisms for our catastrophic climate age, which pointed to the need to name experiences that our current moment is creating, but which we have no language for. Without names, those experiences lack tactility; they’re too fleeting to work with. Which is all to suggest that new emotional registers might do political and practical work, and that one way forward in our societal moment of environmental crisis — and in the everyday moments of personal, anticipatory crisis — might be the elaboration of new emotions or new terms for feelings we’re already having. Subjunctive grief might be just one emotional tool to implement; what are the others to help make sense of slowly unfolding catastrophes?

Facilitation as a Kind of Care

Recently, there have emerged intense debates about Facilitated Communication (FC). Narrowly defined, FC is the process whereby an individual with a communication impairment relies on another individual’s aid in the use of a keyboard, letter board, symbol board, or tablet device with a symbolic interface. The facilitator uses his or her hand to steady the arm or hand of the communicator, making it possible for the communicator to point at a symbol or type a letter. A more expansive definition of FC would include Augmentative and Alternative Communication (AAC) and the various ways that interpreters and facilitators are employed to aid communicators who have communication impairments, which might include such diverse tactics as ascertaining eye movements, interpreting tapping fingers or feet, and discerning eye movements associated with a letter or symbol board. Parsing FC from AAC has been a tactic used to discredit individual FC practitioners while preserving the use of AAC for specific individuals. What became apparent to me during the process of writing Unraveling, a book that is expressly about communication impairments and their social affordances, is that all communication is facilitated, and that the distinctions between kinds of communication are one of degree, not kind.

A low tech flip book filled with simple symbols to use for communication. Borrowed from http://literacyforallinstruction.ca

In Unraveling, I argue that the opposition to FC is due to its chafing against dominant ways of thinking about communication, language, and subjectivity. (At the time of writing, the Wikipedia page for Facilitated Communication has been totally taken over by opponents of FC, which Wikipedia has abetted by putting the page in a series on Alternative and Pseudo-Medicine [which the medical anthropologist in me has some additional things to say about some other time].) Drawing on a history of understanding the subject as conveying his or her interior sense of self through the transparent, referential use of language, this view holds that only those who can speak their interior selves are full subjects. This is exemplified in Emile Benveniste’s “Subjectivity in Language” and apparent in thinkers like Judith Butler and others who see discourse as primarily, if not solely, restricted to language-use. Ableist in this assumption, the variance of non-normative speakers from socially-established norms marks some individuals as disabled — and some as more disabled than others. Such a view ignores the complex, situated, material interactions between individuals that all communication requires. It ignores how communication — and by extension subjectivity — is facilitated.

By facilitation, I mean a processural interaction between bodies; facilitation aims towards an end that only can be reached — or can be reached more immediately — through interactions between actors. In defining facilitation in that way, I’m drawing on Don Kulick and Jens Rydstrom’s Loneliness and Its Opposite, which is about the ways that caregivers aid disabled individuals in their sex lives, particularly in contexts of residential care in Denmark. In Kulick and Rydstrom’s analysis, sexual interactions between two disabled people are made possible by one or more caregivers who are able to help position bodies, put on condoms, and otherwise ensure that the disabled lovers will be successful in their interaction. Communication is not so different.

In Unraveling, I focus part of a chapter on a family — the Goddards — and their use of FC with their adult daughter, Peyton. (Peyton keeps a website here.) As Peyton and her mother recount in her memoir, I Am Intelligent, Peyton became non-verbal in her childhood, a case of what is often referred to as “regressive autism.” It was only in her early 20s, and out of desperation, that her parents turned to FC, despite having seen a television program that portrayed FC users as misguided and manipulative. Peyton’s use of FC relies on her mother or another caregiver to hold her wrist — and eventually her arm — while she uses a keyboard to type out messages. Her writing doesn’t always follow standard syntax or spelling, but her caregivers are able to discern her meaning through context and in conversation with Peyton. Aware of the criticisms of FC, Peyton’s psychiatrist devises experiments to prove that Peyton is communicating and that the facilitators are serving as a medium for her to do so.

Critics of FC often point to its inability to be replicated in laboratory conditions, which any awareness of the replication crisis in psychology would seem to trouble as a sound counter-argument. Critics also — as in the case of the Wikipedia page on FC — point to specific cases of facilitators who have been accused of abuse or whose use of FC has been discredited. The challenge to both of these criticisms is that for the many users of FC who use it to get through their everyday lives without contestation by authorities or FC deniers, there’s no benefit to showing up for a potentially hostile “experiment” to test the validity of their means of communication. In other words, the more successful users of FC might never be seen in experimental contexts precisely because those in their lives see the use of FC as successful and not in need of testing. Moreover, recent research has pointed to how scientific ideologies constrain what experimental protocols see and report, suggesting that how autism — for example — has been researched and discussed is in need of significant re-conceptualization, particularly in relation to questions around social interaction and communication. Which is all to say that FC is subject to what linguistic anthropologists refer to as “language” and “semiotic” ideologies, and is due for some critical reassessment (including reassessing the work of its critics).

Consider what happens in any communicative exchange. A speaker utters a set of noises or makes series of gestures; the speaker’s audience of one or more people register these actions and interpret them based on their tacit understandings of language within their community. The audience also works from the situation in which the act occurs in an effort to ascertain the referential content of the message. The process of communication — as symbolic interactionists and ethnomethodologists have long argued — is one of collaboration and depends not on an interior self with a transparent message conveyed through language, but rather a process through which some operable certainty can be made between communicators. Over the course of a conversation this might become easier, as a set of shared assumptions develop, but everyone has experienced communicative interactions where referents, meanings, and intents are misunderstood and lead to confusion or tension. Smoothing out communication and ignoring all of the interpretation that occurs in a communicative interaction ignores all of the facilitation that is happening between individuals — a facilitation that is working toward and end of shared understanding.

If one accepts that all communication is necessarily facilitated, what follows is that a practice like FC is not typologically different from everyday speech, the use of sign language, communication through gestures, or reading. In each case, the speaker (or author) seeks to convey some message, but that message is constructed through an interaction with the audience. The facilitator in FC is analogous to any other medium through which communication is enabled, and when communicated with, might serve as both medium and audience.

One of the consequences of this line of thinking — and one that I work on developing in Unraveling — is that rather than see subjectivity as something that arises in the individual (which can sometimes be seen as a “natural” process and one that disabled individuals are unable to undergo completely), subjectivity is a collaborative process that relies not just on language, but communicative interaction. Moreover, it is situationally dependent, is shaped by the material conditions individuals and communities are comprised through, and is based in the physiological capacities that individuals have and that are enabled through their worldly interactions with and through human and non-human others.

That might all sound a little obtuse, but consider it in Peyton Goddard’s case. In the period when she cannot communicate with language — after she loses her ability to normatively communicate in her childhood and before she adopts FC — it is not that Peyton doesn’t have experiences that shape her subjectivity. Rather, the experiences that she has during that approximately 20-year period profoundly shape her, but she is unable to communicate about them — at least not in any normatively recognized way — and they have an outsized effect on her. It’s only when she returns to language use that she is able to tame the experiences she has had, largely in collaboration with her family and caregivers, who, with her, help to encode her experiences in a shared understanding of what has happened to her over those 20 years. I am Intelligent is the result of that work.

In this way, seeing facilitation as a kind of care — and one that is end-focused and collaborative — helps to position the act of communication as a form of caring interaction. Listening, interpreting, and sharing all become integral to helping other people exist in the world as subjects who can be known and know the world and their social others. Shutting individuals out of these caring experiences — as, apparently, those who seek to discredit FC seek to do — is a violent and inhumane act. Instead, practicing careful communication and finding ways for others to communicate — normatively or not — ensures more vibrant connections between people. Ignoring this responsibility serves to maintain ableist forms of subjectivity and personhood that exclude some kinds of communicators while preserving normative kinds of subjects and persons. At its worst, this comes to naturalize certain kinds of “normal” and “pathological” human experiences and renders some individuals outside of networks of care. In Unraveling, I try and plot ways forward that acknowledge the necessity of facilitation and build animating worlds of connection and care.

(Unraveling: Remaking Personhood in a Neurodiverse Age comes out from the University of Minnesota Press in 2020.)