A Thousand Futures: A Search for Scenario Space
by Kathryn Cramer [MRP]

My OCAD University Major Research Project, entitled, A Thousand Futures: A Search for Scenario Space, is now available on the OCAD website.

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Abstract

Although both science fiction and professional foresight work both are engaged with what the future might look like, they operate mostly independently from one another. A literature search reveals the characteristics of written science fiction and foresight, seeking ways these practices could be successfully combined. Concepts are explored through the example of agriculture and agricultural technology as well as technologies for constructing narrative semantics. Approaches are outlined for generating foresight scenarios and for creating a semantic tagging system for generating a semantic space for scenarios using intellectual technologies from science fiction.

Keywords:

agriculture, agroecology, animals, apples, bibliography, books, category theory, climate change, chickens, computational narrative, computational thinking, design fiction, dystopia, farming, fiction, folktales, foresight, foxes, futures, genre, history, landscape, language, metaphor, motifs, nationalism, ontology, orchardry, organic farming, pattern language, patents, pigs, publishing, retrofuturism, rewilding, scenarios, science fiction, semantics, speculative design, speculative fiction, tagging, technology, transrealism, utopia, wolves, workshops, writing


Christopher Nolan's TENET:
3D Time & a Utopian Longing for Normalcy

I saw Tenet in a theater in Toronto with fancy seats that vibrate and tilt along with the action. I don’t think the seat’s enthusiasm contributed much, but I did enjoy the show. I went to see it for two reasons: One is that science fiction films flood the cultural discourse and change narratives, and this one is playing partly in what I consider my space, so I felt like I needed to know what is in it. The second is that I just finished writing something long and my brain needs a break from rehearsing and reworking my own prose; it helped to clear my head.

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Before I went, I read reviews and internet takes. Most people who had seen it were concerned with trying to figure out what is going on in the film, because it has scenes in which time flows both forwards and backwards, to figure out what the film means. After reading the article in the Washington Post about their decision not to review the film because Christopher Nolan gave reviewers no choice except to see it in a theater with other people, I considered whether to skip it. But in the end, I went. I would not make the same decision two weeks from now, because I expect the incidence of the virus to spike up once schools are open. Having seen it as the director intended, unless you are really excited by watching stuff blow up, there is no particular reason to see it in a theater. Inasmuch as the film is good, it won’t lose much if seen instead on a big screen TV.

My impression, from seeing Tenet once through, is that its construction of Time is three dimensional. In the film, the future already exists. The characters wouldn’t be trying so hard if time were just an arrow, because everything would be predestined. It is clear to me that Nolan has some kind of model of timelines in order to decide how to spend all that money. My recollection is that somewhere in the script there is an explicit denial of the model of branching universes, which could be charted with 2D-time. And with all those timeline loopty-loops, and lot of soldiers going backwards in time, their model has to be at least 3D. A move to 4D time would make it a lot harder to chart the course of a film budget and to plan the film because humans think better in 3D than 4D. Ergo, I conclude that Tenet is working with a 3D model of time. This was interesting, and curiosity about the sequence of events will, no doubt, stimulate a segment of the film’s audience to see it many times in hopes of fully understanding it.

There are a few transgressive elements. The heroine is allowed to be tall. An arms dealer is allowed to be female. The Protagonist is allowed to be black. And I do love all that playing with time that has audiences so confused.

My sense, as a science fiction editor, is that there is essential information, unrelated to the time sequence, that did not make it to the final cut. The film has two halves. In the first half, what is primarily at issue is the strangeness of the situation in which a war in the future is propagating backwards in time. The Protagonist (as the character played by John David Washington is called) gets artifacts from the future tested so he can track their precise provenance to understand what is happening, and then follows up on this information, conducting dangerous interviews to learn the truth.

In the second half, the film loses interest in this kind of truth and becomes politically incurious. Instead, the fate of the world hangs on the dynamic of one bad marriage, a marvelously tall and very beautiful woman, Kat, married to a beast of a man who says that if he can’t have Kat, no one can. The film trades on that sentiment as though it is rare and exotic, rather than a banal patriarchal sentiment that One Has Heard Before. (I certainly have; I have is a poem somewhere in a drawer on this theme that was written to me.)

My sense is that they probably wrote or even filmed scenes that continued the ratiocination about the nature of the future war, but in the second half that plot stream is reduced to a trickle. Russians are still bad guys, and although the villain is an oligarch, the way in which the Protagonist, a CIA operative, interacts with the various Russian henchmen seems innocent of American political developments of the past 4 years. Dropping an understanding of the future war in favor of structuring the second half round the dynamics of Kat’s bad marriage allows our understanding to of the future war devolve to one famous line from Pogo, whether or not that was what was intended in the film treatment.

So, what does Tenet mean? Or rather, in the cut delivered to the theaters, mean? It is a weirdly apolitical film about politics, released into a political disaster so urgent that reviewers have had to take into account whether they will risk catching the virus to review the film. I was watching for political symbolism. There is a moment in which dividing people into red and blue comes into play, seeming to reference both The Matrix’s red pill/blue pill thing and also red and blue states. The working out of that subtext is an untenably centrist message about America’s political polarizations. But also, it seems an invitation for the type of conspiracy theorist already using the Red Pill concept to graft Tenet onto their film pantheon.* There is also a violent schtick with a grater in a kitchen fight scene, which seems purpose built for MAGA memes.

In the vacuum left by the dropping of the epistemological plotlines present in the first half, Kat becomes a Melania Trump figure, her husband, the beastly oligarch Andrei Sator, a Trump figure; their fleetingly visible son seemingly a stand-in for the youngest Trump child. And as with news coverage of the Trump presidency, ideas about the details of the destructiveness of the underlying situation are subordinated to stories of palace intrigue. We are too smart to believe that Melania will save us, but the film symbolically floats that fantasy.

Overall, Tenet is an expression of utopian longing for normalcy of the recently past status quo, a desire for us to just stop fighting among ourselves, tinged with a nostalgia for the moral clarity of the Cold War. Its manner of release, in theaters at a time when that is dicey from a public health standpoint, a further expression of a reactionary aversion to change. The disorienting experience of time seems an expression of the auteur’s disorientation in our own time.

* An online exegesis I read claims the red/blue thematics is from the Doppler effect. Okay...


Til Death Did Us Part

I just awoke from this horrible dream that David Hartwell, my husband, had fallen down the stairs and died. And now that I am fully awake, it is still true, and I am still a widow.

It is something that cannot be true. It is as though one of the seasons, or one of the directions, up or down, has died. It lacks grammatical sense. Winter cannot die. Up cannot die. David cannot die. He just is.

A few days ago, I was sitting where I am sitting now and I heard a big crash and I ran down the hall yelling “David, are you OK?” And he said yes, he was OK, and the big scary noise was just that he had dropped one of the of Globe Werneke barrister bookcase sections that he was carrying up the stairs from the basement. He added that though he had dropped it, the glass of the door didn’t break. I went back to my book and coffee.

That day, or the next, he noticed that on Facebook he could no longer see my new posts. I spent an hour or so trying to troubleshoot this without success. It was really bothering him. I assured him that I had not blocked him or put him on some kind of restricted list.

FacebookInvisibilty

The idiom to “lose” one’s husband has in the past seemed to me so euphemistic, but I feel it’s reality right now. It’s like I’ve lost my car keys or my wallet. He’s here somewhere, if I just look for him. He’s got to be here.

Fourteen years ago when Peleg, our favorite cat, had stroke and died abruptly on the basement floor when David and our (then) young son Peter were out running errands, our other cat (who had seen the corpse) spent all day frantically searching for him. I feel like that now.

His car is in my driveway. His books are in my basement. His jacket is over one of my dining room chairs. His glasses and cell phone are on my coffee table. There is a paper bag from the wine store next to the mail on the table containing the ginger brandy he just bought for our trip down to the city to take Liz see the Night Vale live show this weekend. The brandy is a bribe for me so I will sit and talk with him.

He’s here. He’s got to be here.

There are arcing skid marks from his hiking boots on the wood-panelled wall of my staircase. His blood is on the steps. There is a brown stain on the blue carpet at the bottom of the steps. There are unfamiliar bits of debris—velcro things—left behind by the EMTs. He is not here. He will never be here again. This is impossible. It makes no sense.

Tuesday, I had taken Peter to an appointment in Plattsburgh and afterwards we had stopped at Tractor Supply to buy chicken supplies for my baby chicks, and then we had stopped in at Michael’s, the art supply store, to get a few things for Peter to take back to college for his second semester.

My cell phone rang. My daughter said, “Daddy fell down the stars. He’s hurt. A book case fell on him.” I told her to call 911. She said the EMTs were already there. She put my friend Shira, one of the EMTs, on the phone. Shira said, “I need to ask you a question. Does David have a DNR order in place?”

“NO!” I said in a voice that was much too loud.

My friend Heather texted me moments later that she had heard about an accident at my house over the police scanner. Should she go there? Yes, I texted back. Please go take care of Elizabeth. I’m 45 minutes away.

David and I had been working on what’s called a collaborative divorce for about four years, and had worked a lot of things out. (We are still married.) I was expecting to be able to live down the street from my good friend David—at just the right distance—for the next twenty years. His house is in the center of town overlooking the lake. Mine is at the orchard with a view of the Adirondacks.

And instead he has had the audacity to die.

Tuesday, at 3:53 PM, he texted me Now at Orchard with Liz.Moving some bookcase units.

Liz was making herself lunch. She heard a horrible crash. David had lost his balance and fallen down the stairs backwards from the top step. He was sprawled on the steps snoring and bleeding out one of his ears. There was a Globe Wernike section on top of him.

An artery in his brain had blown out, causing a massive brain bleed. He never regained consciousness. The glass of the door didn’t break.

While I was at the hospital yesterday signing dreadful papers, Heather and her husband Jason and the kids took down the Christmas tree. Heather washed all the dishes.

David, the living room is all clean and vacuumed. You can come home now. Please.

Come home. We miss you.