N is for Not Sci-Fi but Pi-Fi

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Published on 22 Billion Energy Slaves on March 13, 2017

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Right now, it seems like people's faith in the idea of endless progress is being shaken. Whether it's the UK leaving the EU, Donald Trump's ascension to the American presidential throne or simply a gnawing feeling that something 'big' has gone wrong somewhere, more and more people are expressing anxiety about the direction in which we are heading. If one wants to see proof of this phenomenon one need look no further than the mainstream media, traditionally the gatekeepers of human consciousness in terms of the day-to-day business of sorting out what is important from what is not. Even a brief glance at an online news site will show a slew of articles that are more biased opinion pieces than factual news items, and the reader comments below — if they are permitted at all — will more often than not display a remarkable level of hostility towards anyone who disagrees with them. Is it any wonder that trust in these mainstream publications has fallen to historic lows across a broad range of demographic groups, with only the over sixties still possessing much faith in them at all?

At the same time, faith in science and technology is facing a similar crisis. Casting an eye back over the last few decades, to give a couple of examples, it would seem that new inventions have been supplanted by mere innovations and 'upgrades', whilst actual space travel has been replaced by theoretical space travel (or low Earth orbit space stations). If one wants to see them there are plenty of artistic impressions of what faraway planets 'might' look like, presumably to make up for the occasional blurry pixel we are told is the actual, and the public at large is ambivalent at best about the latest discoveries made by particle physicists with research grants the size of small countries. Once again, is it any wonder why faith in science is being tested when there are so many things we were told were scientific proofs are now discredited, such as the idea that a low-fat diet makes you slimmer and that you must drink eight glasses of water and five (now increased to 10) portions of fruit and veg a day to maintain health? No, those men and women in white coats are having to fight harder and harder to win over an increasingly sceptical public.

Of course, this cannot be permitted. The reaction by the guardians of the media and the scientific technologists to this loss of faith by their subjects is to double down on their claims and amp up the rhetoric. Thus information that emerges from a non-mainstream conduit is decried as 'fake news' or 'propaganda' and science that emerges through a non-approved channel is debunked as 'pseudo science'. No quarter is given in this battle of consciousness, and no dissent is permitted.

And yet people do dissent. Finding themselves caught in an ever-tightening vice of economic policies which make them materially poorer with each passing year, and faced with an indifferent class of media-savvy personalities who insist that things are getting better all the time, they are wont to ponder whether, in the realm of hopes and dreams, they've been sold a dud. Most people, no matter where in the world they live, yearn for practically the same thing. They want peace and security, a decent low-crime area in which to raise a family where they might have a little place of their own with maybe a space to grow some food, and a few good friends with whom they can share a meal or a drink while feeling happy within their own cultural boundaries. That's basically it: a modest, happy life with peace and a degree of autonomy. Is this too much to ask?

Instead, what they get, is an increasingly degraded living situation where, if they live in a poor country, they either have to work long hours in a factory producing gadgets and other consumer items, or else they get a subsistence wage working in dangerous conditions mining minerals or producing chemically poisoned cash crops for the commodities market. And if they are fortunate enough to live in a rich country, the majority will have to work long hours in an office doing unfulfilling work to pay off the huge loans they have taken out to finance buying the gadgets made by the poor people. Here they are forced to dine in the staff canteen on chemically poisoned food from abroad while their bosses wax lyrical about replacing them all with robots made from the commodities mined by the even poorer people abroad.

Weren't we supposed to be living in Utopia by now?
 

And so people need some kind of new plausible vision. In the past, in the industrialised nations at least, we were offered salvation in the form of Sci-Fi fantasies about living in space and travelling around the universe meeting interesting new aliens. Now, unless the aliens come to us, these dreams appear unlikely. The dwindling of oil supplies, and the technical inability of renewables or anything else to replace it, means that the industrial basis of our civilisation has a very short shelf life. Indeed, due to the immutable and non-negotiable laws of thermodynamics, the party really will be over sooner rather than later. Mention this to most people of course and they'll airily dismiss it as an apocalyptic delusion, and that "they'll" think of something before then. But given that an ever growing groundswell of people are losing their faith in "them" — what's a narrative-driven sapient mammal with an above average sized brain to do?

That's where the PI-FI writers step forward. PI stands for Post Industrial and Fi for Fiction, because that's what is needed right now. So what's the difference between a sic-fic writer and a Pi-fi one? Well, instead of dreaming up yet another variation of the tired old trope of muscular space-heroes travelling around the galaxy in spaceships and saving virgins/peoples/planets from annihilation*, the PI-Fi writer recognises that the limits imposed on the human race by geology, thermodynamics and the biosphere mean that we're not looking to the stars for salvation, but under our own feet on the nice blue magic ball we call planet Earth.

PI-fi, it could be said, is a maturation of a form. Remember when you were a kid and you wanted to be a rock star? You played the music on volume 11 and stood in front of a mirror with a hairbrush and imagined thousands of adoring fans swooning, of lighting cigars with wads of money and seeing pictures of yourself in magazines (I know I did)? And then you get older and you realise it will never happen, and you learn to take life's tragedies and victories in your stride and you see on the news that another pop star has taken a drug overdose or died at a relatively young age and you think, "Thank God my teenage dreams never came true!" It's the same thing with fiction and all those ideas of conquering the universe and dominating other planets.

What does Pi-Fi look like? Thankfully we already have plenty of examples, probably the most well-known of which is James Howard Kunstler's World Made by Hand series. John Michael Greer's After Oil: SF Visions of a Post Petroleum World burst onto the scene in late 2012, cementing the establishments of a new genre, and in the meantime we have had the launch of the quarterly magazine Into the Ruins, showcasing further talent. Another new magazine, Mythic, explores post industrial fiction, as well as more traditional Sci-Fi, and I'm sure there will be more as we move forwards and old narratives continue to disintegrate.

Obviously Pi-Fi has more constraints placed on it than Sci-Fi in terms of possible story lines — or so it would seem. But, wait a minute, doesn't true creativity flourish best when it is constrained by form and must follow agreed-upon conventions? Don't the boundaries of the field of play focus the attention of what's happening in the centre? A case in point: which piece of music sounds better to your ears, Bedřich Smetana's Vltava, with its sinuously flowing phonics that evoke a force of nature, or a piece of avant garde 'noise music' that adheres to no rules or form whatsoever? As ever, the choice between the two is subjective and depends on the listener, and admittedly the latter is evocative of a certain technological dysfunction in its experimental nature: it has its place in the auditory sound ecosystem, but which piece would you rather listen to on your deathbed?

What qualifies as Pi-Fi? At its heart, any narrative that is written with this genre in mind must be set in a post-industrial future. This is our most likely future, and therefore the one that the tool of fiction is the most powerful and useful. This raises the question, what does 'post-industrial' mean? After all, we are often told that we live in a post-industrial society, since most manufacturing moved to China. No, Pi-Fi is different. We are considering a future in which industrial civilisation is either ending or has ended. To that end the following assumptions would have to apply:

1 – Humankind's access to highly concentrated forms of energy will be severely curtailed in the near to medium term
2 – There will be a corresponding collapse in the complexity of civilisation and the population it can support
3 – The future will be haunted by the mistakes of the past, especially in the form of inappropriate technologies

Sound a bit gloomy, or merely realistic? It's been pointed out by others that we have a binary obsession with either/or visions of the future, namely that either we will head off on a grand space adventure in the stars, or else face apocalyptic annihilation at home. But there's a huge amount of ground between those two poles — ground that Pi-Fi is more than happy to occupy. Neither of the two extremes is particularly useful to us, except as a means of escapism, and what if neither of our standard assumptions takes place? What if — gulp — the human story continues for another few thousand years, with different types of technology, different ways of organising our societies and different ways of relating to our planet? True, those skeletal horsemen are certain to be busy — just as they have been throughout nearly all human history — but the folks sticking around will likely have a lot of good stories to tell about their experiences.

Can you imagine telling some of them?

If you think you could then you might be interested to hear that I'm moving forwards with a small publishing venture, with the aim of publishing a handful of Pi-Fi books every year. At present there is not much going on in this genre over on this side of the Atlantic (Europe, that is), or indeed the world outside of America — so I'm particularly interested in, but not limited to, stories taking place in the wider world. I'm going to kick this off with a call for submissions for an initial anthology of stories up to 8,000 words in length, but 2,000 at a minimum.

For this anthology, writers will need to follow these seven rules for their story:

1 – Stories must be set in the future at some point within the next 100 years

2 – The laws of physics as currently understand them must be abided by

3 – Due consideration must be given to the natural limits placed on humans, as well as the damage done to Earth's ecological systems by industrialism

4 – No deus-ex-machina technology that rescues industrial civilisation at the last moment

5 – Stories must be stories, with believable characters, plots, narrators etc., and not just thinly-disguised technical propositions, sociological commentaries or screeds

6 – Metaphysics is permitted and even encouraged as a story device so far as it relates to popularly understood concepts (metaphysics doesn't run on oil, so there's no danger of us running out)

7 – Stories must not simply be "horses and hearses" i.e. a re-hash of pre-industrial Europe, supposedly set in the future

I'm really hoping that readers will respond to this and rise to the challenge with vision, imagination and plausible realism. Unleash your mind and see what happens. I will be cross-posting this blog on a number of different social media pages, channels and groups, and the closing date for entries will be May 1st 2017 — Beltaine — which is seven weeks away. To enter, ideally publish your story on a blog site or other web page and post a link to it in the comments below this post — making sure there's a way of contacting you in the form of an email address somewhere — but if you can't do that then send it to me as an email at the address found in the 'About' section on my site. The stories must be original and they must be by you. I'll pick the winners shortly afterwards and they will share an equal proportion of 70% of the proceeds of the resultant book after the costs of production have been discounted (which is simply the price of designing a cover and printing a few review copies). The book, after I've edited, typeset and printed it, will then be available through print-on-demand and published by Belenos Press (I'm working on making a website so it's just a Facebook page at the moment) — and I'll send all the published authors a copy.

Best of luck for the challenge and I look forward to reading your stories.

* I do realise that not all Sci-Fi is so two-dimensional, although much of it has been in the past, and some of it still is — and I'm as much a fan of it as you are. 

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