The Duck of Minerva

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Science Fiction and International Orders – Live Blog [UPDATED]

February 17, 2011

[podcasts of ProfPTJ and DHN’s contributions to the afternoon sessions are now up:



Also: the sci-fi author part of the session is available to listen to here.]

Okay things are getting underway here at the LSE. I have never live-blogged before, but I’m told there is a first time for everything. Professor Chris Brown is just starting the introduction.

Please note that I am trying to be as accurate as possible. I think there will be a pod-cast to check this up against later. However, I hope that the participants will feel free to correct or respond to what is, no doubt, my mangled and convoluted interpretation of their thoughts.

Of course having technical difficulties with the internet – working on it. EDIT: appears to be okay now. Fingers crossed.

1:32pm John Courtney Grimwood is starting by reading from his lastest book on a 15th Century world where the Mongols are the major world power. So far it is about a woman who is being forced to marry someone she really doesn’t want to in Venice. He’s reading very quietly so it’s a bit hard to make out.

1:39pm It’s a big theatre and not full, but at least 100+ here. A good turn out for Thursday afternoon.

1:42pm  Paul McAuley is speaking more generally about science fiction. “It’s not of any use if you want to know what’s going to happen in North Africa next week… it’s not in the prediction business. It’s about what might happen…. It doesn’t offer definitive answers.”
– It’s about taking a current trend and pushing it as far as it can go.
– Wrote two books about a scientific utopia, and wrote them backwards(?)
– Inspired by robots, and the images that robots have sent back to earth. (shows covers to explain)
– Talking about the different moons of Jupiter. States that Io is probably not a nice place to live.

1:52 pm – Turning into something of a geology /astronomy lesson but it’s all very interesting. McAuley it talking about how it inspires him. Moonscapes, etc. 
– What is interesting is the idea of inserting a human figure.
– One of the most powerful things that science fiction is to apply human emotion and feeling to outer-space landscapes. It gives reality and meaning to places we haven’t been to yet and can’t yet reach.
– When he created his book, he started about thinking of a figure in a landscape. Where are they from? How did they get there? Effects of living in an artificial landscape – a domed city – and the potential for death in a hostile environment if they left it.
– Antarctic station – environment where human survival is only possible, or significantly enhanced by technology.

*** I hope this is making sense. He’s really interesting. Ken McLeod up next…

1:59pm Made his society like academia – reputation based. Each of the different societies on the different moons. ie) “Kudos” based society, where you are ranked by the social good, and feeling of goodness that you help others feel.

Cityscapes – kind of random. His cities, inspired by real landscapes – extrapolated from features of moons of Jupiter. Astroturf, chestnut trees and a river in an incredibly harsh environment.

2:02pm Ken MacLeod is talking about how international events have inspired some of his writings.

– Talking about the stand off between NATO & Russia at the airport during the Kosovo intervention.
– Resteration Game – set in science fictional year of 2008. Wanted to write a sci-fi novel, but set in a different present. Sci-fi is often set in the unknown future where you don’t have a date.
– Set in a place Krasnia (?) inspired by Southern Ossetia. What if someone played a game as a means to organize the next ‘coloured revolution’ in the former Soviet Union.
– Written just before 2008 – and before invasion, after which ‘everyone was an expert on Southern Ossetia’.
– Going to read a segment of his novel…

2:11pm Novel is about a girl who is researching about “Krasnia” – a region that isn’t a state, but a region. Revolutionary movement there. Apparently the CIA is interested in the region because it is close to an oil pipeline in the Caucuses. Difficulty in researching an obscure area (apparently people say to him that they can relate to this passage on the difficulties on researching/writing a paper. It’s quite funny – “Even the Wikipedia entry for Krasnia was a ‘stub’!”

Going into questions. I will post some of the interesting ones. Going to the audience before Nexon and PTJ have a crack at it.

2:28pm Two questions of note:

1) Audience member notices that all three have female protanists. Is this the “Buffy Effect”. *laughter*
Grimwood says his females are strong and he’s drawn to writing female characters
McLeod states that his character could kick Buffy’s ass. (But notes that he has numerous characters.)
McAuley “Science fiction is equal oppoprtunity”

2) PTJ – Questions authors about the politics of their characters. “How much do you sit down and say ‘I want to make points about capitalism, balance of power’. Or is that something that just comes with characters, development of the plot.

Grimwood answers – it’s coincidental. Doesn’t always know what’s going to happen with book until the second draft. Acknowledges that once inspired, you can often find resonance with current events.
MacLeod – He’s funny. Explaining that he was inspired by a youtube video. Four men in black on a landing strip with a plane coming at them. Says the looked like Presbyterian terrorists. Realized that the Presbyterian church’s hierarchy would be very good for a terrorist movement.
McAuley – Character are aware of politics. Talks about everyone’s characteristics and motivations. So there was some strategy in developing them. . One character – trained to be a spy, someone else, has to develop his own point of view.

2:37pm Nexon: Asks about how writers go about creating their worlds.

Grimwood – Look for coherence. Sees and hears what he puts down on the page. Says that he always has a “stranger” character that goes into a society. The character is the guidebook to the world.

MacLeod – With Sci-Fi, you don’t just project future as a diagonal line going up. It’s a wavy line going up and down. Different period, economic cycles, wars, etc. One American Sci-Fi writer (did not catch name) used a spreadsheet to work out an algorithm which determined that World War 6 would kill 5 billion people.

McAuley – Problem with science fiction is that everthing, everyone has a logical explanation, motive, or else it doesn’t exist. He doesn’t see present like this at all. It’s a series of largely frozen accidents. Ie: everyone used a worse piece of technology than a better one (VCR vs Betamax). Ultimately, takes in information – much is now sent to him via social networks. Tries to filter it somehow. Much of writing a novel is a happy accident – that you find the fact that you needed. But this gets back to what Grimwood said about consistency.

2:50pm Iver Neumann – How do you situate yourself in a globalized world? How do you situate yourself to the implied readers. It’s going to read differently to someone who is in Uganda or Moscow. For example, with Grimwood’s book about Mongols, notes that when he toured Kazakhstan that Gengis Khan is seen as a great military leader – so book would read different there?

McAuley – Answers, but not sure that I follow his point?

McLeod – With the first novel “I suspect the implied reader was me.” *laughs*. Noted how a Polish audience had a different take on his book than the British one.

Grimwood – notes that any work that involves translation usually means that he will get a different set of questions received.

McAuley – Says that as a leftwing Marxist, his work has been interpreted differently in America. Says that American fiction has gone into a different direction – more angry, cranky (if not tea-party-ish). About how you can save the world by, once again, imposing American values on it. It is the biggest market though.

Grimwood – has had “American translation” of books. Everyone has different knowledge and you can’t take that for granted.

PTJ – Says that IR academics have a similar problem. Couldn’t have a book titled “Stopping Asians at the Elbe” because no one in America would know what that meant.

Chris Brown ends the session – 10 minute break and we will be back!


Second Session – Professor Barry Buzan is now chairing.

3:10pm Okay – second section is starting – Prof PTJ is up first.

He’s using an iPad – brilliant!

Social science – three kinds of criteria 1) systematic 2) public criticism 3) aims to generate worldly knowledge

Sci-Fi shares two of these in common – systematic, worldly. It’s about creating a plausible kind of reality which people work out.

With Sci-Fi, must build a coherent world, it has to make sense. And it shows what a world may look like if you apply a certain set of rules or ideas. (I’m sure I’ve messed this argument up – I’m sure PTJ will correct me!)

Once social science gives up on the fruitless project of prediction, what we’re doing is sketching out as academics is also plausible worlds.

What Sci-Fi and Social Science can do on their best days is to help us expand our knowledge by looking at the implications of various ideas.

[*Edit*: Clarification from PTJ: “My point about not predicting was to think in terms of possibility rather than probability.” (That’s what I took away from it – but don’t think it showed up in text. He was speaking wicked American fast!)]

Nexon up next


Like PTJ, does not want to think about this in terms of prediction. It’s counter-factualism that tells us something about the present.

Both use ideal-typical models; both use counterfactuals. (ie: what would have happened if George W. Bush have been elected? Would there have been a World War II without Hitler) Use these questions to ask or illustrate things about the present.

Sci-Fi – asks counterfactual questions like, what if the South had won the Civil War? Or if the Ottoman Empire was still around?

Often sci-fi is about projection – what would the implications of a certain type of technology be for humanity, human nature, human society.

This means that sci-fi always contains theories of economic, social or political relations. Because must think about how these would be altered with introduction of new factors. It is a genre of literature where the audience must evaluate the level of the macro-level world order.

This is why implicit theories in sci-fi is interesting and relates to IR. ie: Nexon’s reference to MacLeod’s account of another author statement plotting his future history based on long-cycle theory that human development goes up and down and in waves.

Some of these are horrifically bad theories – and in fiction that I like!

But IR has to look at things – what would Europe look like without the Reformation. Often use statistical regression techniques – but this is a kind of counterfactuals.

IR scholars might offer some sci-fi writers some theories of human relations, etc. But sci-fi writers are better at asking questions. More imagination and they pay attention to things that scholars don’t, like character.

Buzan adds that they also sell more books!

3:26pm Neumann starts with a confession that he has probably read the least sci-fi.
Starts off talking about religion, political theology. He disagrees with Weber’s idea that we live in de-mystified times.

Battle Star Galactica was produced (in the 70s version) by a Mormon – religion is throughout.

Governments like straight-line predictions: linear projections. He’s involved in some of these prediction exercises with the Norwegian government. So how do we get away from this? Senarios.

This is what science fiction does. The only difference is that our scenarios have no literary value whatsoever.

Nexon adds: We’re the wrong people to get up here. I think we all probably share a way of viewing social scientific work as that it should be eye-opening. And that’s not appreciated by everyone.

Questions up next….

Question on prediction (which has been a very common theme)

PTJ – to predict something, you have to assume a closed system. And that’s not realistic. So think less in terms of prediction and more in terms of possibility.

Question: Should authors also be writing things that have cognitive dissonance? (ie: a society where we can’t make a logical leap as to where everything came from.)

PTJ – this kind of sci-fi is represented in the alien contact sub-genre. It’s about confronting the non-human.

Nexon – if you introduce contingency, you want to have a coherent narrative about unexplained events. Telling a narrative has a plausibility requirement. With IR, if our theories are too simplistic, they also suffer from plausibility problems.

To tell a story in the social sciences means to tell a quasi-determined story. Here’s how we got from A to B.

Question: People talk about social responsibility of academics; do authors have a social responsibility? Just beauty?

PTJ – I instinctively recoil at the morality of theory question. In America, realism is a critical theory. (Liberalism is dominant – liberal attitude, un-thought and dominant in the US.) Realism is a critical theory. Ie: If you bomb Iraq, they may not turn out to be Americans. They may end up ‘different’ . So bringing up that possibility might be a good science fiction novel. When realists are working in non-realist environment, there is a real critical-political function.

Nexon – there are moral responsibilities, but that may be because he just spent a year in government. You are morally responsible for trying to anticipate consequences. How do you work this out and reconcile this with your own moral responsibilities. What is morally productive, look at theories and claims being made and then to assess. Even the notion of creating a great work of beauty is an aesthetic claim.

Barry Buzan notes that the problem with Sci-Fi is that the politics are often backwards looking. Anachronistic. There are far too many empires. They don’t imagine the future.

Question: Relations between Science Fiction and Social Science

Nexon: Much of present history in IR may as well be fiction. It’s very poorly done. Likes work that cites literature, and literature in

PTJ – World Systems Theory – has removed itself from IR. Danger with IR is that it can focus in too much. That it we lose the big picture.

Buzan – What has been the effect on your career of using science fiction in your work?

PTJ – You cannot, as a young academic, make this your primary gig. It can be something you do, a parallel project, but you have got to have work that isn’t about pop-culture that can’t be
Well there goes my International Relations and comic books project proposal out the window.

Nexon – Patrick’s answer is correct. We’re supposed to be all about this interdisciplinary approach. But the only disciplines we’re not supposed to reach out are the humanities. So okay if you hook someone up to an MRI machine and ask them questions about conflict, but not to look at cultural studies. So, not your first project, but something that is going to be on the side.
He does note that he was able to use Harry Potter for tenure – but it was well reviewed.

Grimwood – states that academics are more respectful than he thought they would be. [EDIT: “My point on academics being more respectful was that I thought this until they all admitted they couldn’t put this stuff on their CVs”] Blame the tenure system! Not us! :-) (SC)

Okay that’s it – will probably write a summary and try to fix this up later for clarity. Right now, I need a drink! *Phew!* Hope you enjoyed!

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Stephanie Carvin is an Associate Professor of International Relations at the Norman Paterson School of International Affairs. Her research interests are in the area of international law, security, terrorism and technology. Currently, she is teaching in the areas of critical infrastructure protection, technology and warfare and foreign policy.

Stephanie holds a PhD from the London School of Economics and published her thesis as Prisoners of America’s Wars: From the Early Republic to Guantanamo (Columbia/Hurst, 2010). Her most recent book is Science, Law, Liberalism and the American Way of Warfare: The Quest for Humanity in Conflict” (Cambridge, 2015) co-authored with Michael J. Williams. In 2009 Carvin was a Visiting Scholar at George Washington University Law School and worked as a consultant to the US Department of Defense Law of War Working Group. From 2012-2015, she was an analyst with the Government of Canada focusing on national security issues.
Stacie Goddard