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Review – Granta in Portuguese #03: Future

Cover of Granta em Língua Portuguesa, n.º 3: Futuro, by Miguel Soares. Not a YuMi robot, it should be noted…

Pedro Mexia, Gustavo Pacheco (ed.) (2019). Granta em Língua Portuguesa 3: Futuro. Lisboa: Tinta da China.

At first glance, I had an unfair feeling towards this Granta dedicated to the future. When I saw the cover image with its robot reading, I wondered how what seems to be an ABB robotic arm could read, if it has no visual sensors. This was clearly a symptom of the dichotomy between intellectualism and hard knowledge that so often dominates cultural discussion whenever science and technology intersect with literature, I thought. But I was wrong. After all, this evocative image is part of a series of digital images created by Miguel Soares, a portuguese digital artist. In them, a bipedal robot discovers its fascination with aspects of humanity, while men delve into the fascination with the virtual. Apart from the simplistic “we are losing humanity surrounded by so much technology” tone of the images, these actually represent the best that this issue of the magazine has to offer. It’s probably the only time when the content of the magazine really has to do with the topic that the editorial team proposed to address.

When mainstream culture gets into technology, futurism, or science fiction, it usually doesn’t go well. In part, this is due to some lack of knowledge of specific cultural codes. If you ask a mainstream writer to write something about Science Fiction (and there are some Portuguese anthologies that did it, with results… let’s be nice, disastrous), what comes out is rarely more than a mere combination of jargon and concepts. But filling a tale with iconic ideas is not enough to truly create Science Fiction. Behind tropes and iconographies lies a deep reflection that is little recognized by those with superficial knowledge of the genre.

In large part, and here I risk being unfair, these fails happened because there is a large gap between intellectual and technical culture. To put it another way, when the cultural elite tries to talk about these themes, they come up against two barriers: a clear lack of technical knowledge, and a strong refusal to look at the need to understand technological impacts and future trends, let alone imaginary fantastic ones. This is why in academia, or mainstream literary discussion, Science Fiction is so often reduced to the field of utopias. Mainstream writers and thinkers always cite the same authors, and seem blind to everything that was actually written by Science Fiction authors. At most, they profess a measure of admiration for the work of some more literary writers, such as Ballard or P.K. Dick, specifically choosing those books that are the farthest away from the cumbersome science fiction thing.

I’m going to write something very banal. We live in a rapidly changing world. The intersection between technology and society is changing us. And this change is happening very fast in ideas and customs, economy and society. We adopt technologies that are actively transforming us. And this transformation is happening at an unprecedented speed in human history (a parenthesis in this “acceleration” story: I bet if you reread Alvin Toffler, while talking about the 70s, he describes the same sensations). Today, understanding the future implies understanding the impacts of digital technologies, the cultural changes brought about by the internet, climate change, the combination of robotics and artificial intelligence with economic production, among other topics. Reflecting on this is not unique to science fiction, although the genre does have a head start in these themes. Sociology, economics, science and technology are also excellent analytical lenses. We can talk about impacts of artificial intelligence while reading Harari, or Charles Stross. The viewpoints are different, yet the logic is the same: to understand the underlying forces shaping our world by extrapolating trends or with flights of informed imagination.

All of these strands are missing from a Granta issue that takes the future as its theme. Okay, there are robots on the cover, and some more in the middle. It includes the inevitable academic essay on utopias. And even dedicates some pages to the work of a science fiction writer. But, apart from some very oblique references, the content of this Granta is very far from the subject it intends to address. Light decades away, I’d say.

The magazine ends with texts by a Science Fiction writer, but chooses precisely those that point to his dubious sanity and mystical hallucinations. P.K. Dick’s Exegesis may not be the author’s best credential as a literary landmark of SF, note those who know both his work and genre, but academics think the opposite. Ballard is, inevitably, also analyzed in an interesting essay, but wich goes no further than that spirit of modernist futurism of the 60s and 70s of the twentieth century. That Corbusien modernist concrete architectural continuum of abstract non-places, flanking asphalt roads, overflown by jet planes.

There are a few more sprinkles of reflection on the future in this Granta. Anita Brookner’s Tale of Marriage, about a nineteenth-century matron seeking to maintain family lineage, can be a way of looking at ways to conceive the future. After all, the future isn’t always about computers and rockets. A short story by Eugene Lim addresses artificial intelligence in a way that reveals the author’s profound misunderstanding of this technoligy. Apart from Miguel Soares synthetic images, or from Claudia Jaguaribe’s photo essay (a juxtaposition of classic and contemporary iconography), perhaps the text that most made me reflect on the theme of the magazine is O Grande Mal, by Brazilian writer Joca Terron. In it, in the very near future, a tribe of Amazonian Indians threatened with extinction by the combination of climate change and predatory pressure from loggers is exiled to Mexican forests. It’s a sand and thoughtful tale, eerily accurate about some contemporary trends of the future.

And that’s just about  it. Despite its literary quality, wich would be unfair not to point, this Granta Future manages to almost completely miss it’s main subject. If you want to reflect on the trends that are shaping the contemporary future, you will find virtually nothing about this… in spite of being the theme of the magazine.

This represents the academism of mainstream literature at its worst. Locked in the dialectics of its ivory tower, joyfully sticking its head in the sand and refusing that the world is changing radically. I get this ostrich attitude. Understanding these changes actually requires rolling up your sleeves and coming into the world of complicated things with buttons, and software, and mechanisms, something wich seems to be above the capacity of contemporary intellectuals.

This schism is actually a huge shot in the foot. In our technology-mediated world, intellectualism is creeping toward irrelevance, precisely by it’s refusal to engage with the technical world. And that’s dangerous. After all, we need to do more that just let ourselves be swept by the forces shaping our world, and public intellectuals are essential to challenge us to reflect on the whats, whys and hows of change. Sadly, the example given by those that edited this edition of Granta points toward their wilfull ignorance of these forces. If you pick up this magazine hoping to be challenged to think about what our fast-changing, technological induced future will take us, you will be disappointed.

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