Posts from an Island 2 of 5: Utopias and Dystopias

Sea Horse By Andrepiazza (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Sea Horse By Andrepiazza (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons


Trying to figure out what kind of a future world I might be writing about I came up with this diagram via, and adapted from, W.H. Auden, Samuel R. Delany and Gerry Canavan (see Delaney’s interview and Canavan & Robinson’s Green Planets: Ecology and Science Fiction, 2014).

I’m not interested in writing dystopic or apocalyptic fiction but rather utopian fiction as defined by novelist Kim Stanley Robinson – fiction with a vision of trying to make a more just society (and trying to avoid the repressions that utopias often wind up in). These binaries – utopias and dystopias, city and country – are in play in most future fictions. In the Techno Super City scientific and technological developments have solved all problems, or in Arcadia there is a rural idyll of self-sufficiency and benevolent sentient nature. Sometimes there is a relationship between city and countryside – but Delany points out people tend to lean towards the city or the country and to see the other as necessarily ‘bad’.

The flip side of these utopias are the dystopian versions: the Bad Cities of 1984, Brave New World and Blade Runner, where an all powerful state uses technology to surveil its citizens and chronically curtail their rights and freedom, or the dystopian countryside full of natural disasters, diseases and human savagery. The Hunger Games and many other future fictions use these city/country dystopias or city/country oppositions in tandem. The countryside sometimes functions as a place of escape or of temporary retreat where a way to overcome corruption is discovered enabling a triumphant return to the newly utopian city.

Canavan identifies a fictional city somewhere between utopia and dystopia – Junk City – an adapted, hacked urban-techno chaos that people nevertheless find ways to flourish within (see William Gibson for example). He also discusses a toxic, polluted countryside admired for its decadent beauty, naming this rural dystopia in fiction ‘The Culture of the Afternoon’. Many of J.G. Ballard’s future fictions such as Vermilion Sands and The Drowned World, with their beachcomber heroes and their languid desire for the collapse of ‘civilization’, could fall into this category. Then there is ‘Quiet Earth’ where human activity has led to the destruction or near-destruction of most species including homo sapiens. I am trying to write an Anthropocene Arcadia, focussed on a watery future – coastal, riverine, estuarine – and imagining some relationship with Junk City.

Writing future fiction is a new direction for me after having written two historical novels but they have similarities in that both estrange readers from the present. Canavan argues that in SF estrangement is a ‘flexible artistic tool for disorienting and defamiliarizing the conditions of everyday life, opening up the mind to previously unimagined possibilities … SF distances us from the contemporary world-system only to return us to it, as aliens, so that we can see it with fresh eyes’, and historical fiction, in part, does the same thing.

All novels grapple with the landscape of the mind and emotions, and a novelist has to ask themselves what is the story, the quest the protagonist is undertaking? I am dealing with my characters’ choice, hope and agency – all key questions for ecological thinking now. I’m imagining the partial breakdown of capitalism and its ‘economy of unpaid costs’ as K. William Kapp put it, because that’s what I want to imagine. I’m imagining new ways of living and surviving that draw on old ways, thrown back on the technologies of the body, of husbandry, of a post-peak oil world, because that’s what I want to imagine. I’m imagining living in conjunction with other forms of life – aquatic flora and fauna, and with the natural rhythms of tides, seasons, moon, day and night, sleep, waking and hibernation. To make things happen we first have to imagine them.

Thanks for all your interesting responses yesterday. Keep them coming. Another post from me on Frontiers and Islands tomorrow.

Indoor Aquatic Fauna Selfie

Indoor Aquatic Fauna Selfie

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Posts from an Island 1 of 5: Place

Ice Pack, Suomenlinna Island, Finland, January 2015

Ice Pack, Suomenlinna Island, Finland, January 2015

I am currently writer in residence for Frontiers in Retreat on Suomenlinna island, off Helsinki, in Finland, where I am working on a novel, set 200 years in the future, called The Water Age. My working process is embodied and sited: writing on this snow and ice bound island contrasts in interesting ways with earlier writing for the novel I worked on last summer on the Carmarthen Bay triple river estuary at Llansteffan and Caldey Island in south west Wales. Here on this Nordic winter island, water is viscous, blooming ice, turning to solidity, more thinglike.

Llansteffan, Carmarthen Bay, Wales, August

Llansteffan, Carmarthen Bay, Wales, August

Journey to Caldey Island, South West Wales

Journey to Caldey Island, South West Wales

Researching the novel, I am working with a diversity of sources: predictions for future climate, sea levels and future society; the characteristics and properties of water; inspirations from aquatic flora and fauna. My writing process includes action research with a young people’s art group and their teacher Elsa Hessle at Annantalo in Helsinki.

I am looking at science fiction by Ballard, Le Guin, Lessing, Robinson and others, contemplating questions of utopia and dystopia. In focussing on rising water levels and writing about drowned settlements and infrastructures, I want to approach, as Gerry Canavan puts it in Green Planets: Ecology and Science Fiction, ‘the shocking inadequacy of our response to global warming thus far’, however I am also a hydrophiliac, committed to swimming and gongoozling (a word meaning staring at life as it passes by on water). If I see water I

Annantalo Workshop, Helsinki, Archipelao in Progress

Annantalo Workshop, Helsinki, Archipelago in Progress

want to get in it. I’m with John Cheever’s character in the short story, ‘The Swimmer’: ‘That he lived in a world so generously supplied with water seemed like a clemency, a beneficence … To be embraced and sustained by the light green water was less a pleasure, it seemed, than the resumption of a natural condition.’ Water, itself, will be a kind of character in my novel. I’ve been reading the ‘water magicians’, Victor Schauberger and Theodore Schwenk. I’m interested in

Annantalo Workshop, Helsinki, Under Water World in progress

Annantalo Workshop, Helsinki, Under Water World in progress

aqua-hybrids – mermaids and Vikings, and in the liminal space of the coast – between solid ground and water. I’m trying to write with a perspective turned inside out: a blue infrastructure instead of a grey tarmacked one; looking up from underneath the surface of the water, as well as across its surface and into its depths. I’m trying to imagine a different future relationship with the hydrosphere that is not dystopic.

We are a story addicted species. Our fictions are our life maps. We tell ourselves stories about the past and about the future as models or anti-models for our present lives. I will be unfolding these ideas further over the next few days in a series of daily blogposts from Suomenlinna.

Annantalo Workshop, Helsinki, Archipelago in progress

Annantalo Workshop, Helsinki, Archipelago in progress

Annantalo Workshop, Helsinki, Under Water World in progress

Annantalo Workshop, Helsinki, Under Water World in progress

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Fiction Event at The Guildhall, London

print from a viking brooch


The End of Time: 10th Century Vikings in France and Wales

Guildhall Library, Aldermanbury, London

Wednesday, 1 April 2015 from 14.00 to 15.00 (BST)



Tracey Warr will talk about the history behind her new novel, The Viking Hostage, set in late 10th century France and Wales, weaving together the stories of three women living through turbulent power struggles, Viking raids, and fears of The End of Time. Their stories tangle with questions of freedom and courage in the often brutal society of early medieval Europe.

The event is free but it’s essential to book at

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Science Fiction and Real Science


Just posted a blog on the Zooetics website on the relationship between actual technological research and development and fictional technologies such as teleportation, telekinesis, and galactic language translators, or J.G. Ballard’s bio-engineered plants, insects, houses and clothes in Vermilion Sands. I’m compiling a list of sources for fictional technologies and future worlds relating to The Anthropocene. Your suggestions are welcome.


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Review of The Viking Hostage

A review of my new novel The Viking Hostage has just been published by The Bookbag.


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Watch Tomorrow’s Zooetics Lectures Live and Pose Questions to the Panel


Zooetics is a transdisciplinary research project unpacking, reevaluating and recombining the notions of Nature, Interspecies and Anthropocene.


It began last week with the first in a series of lectures and seminars at Kaunas University of Technology delivered by Christian Schwagerl, talking on The Anthropocene, and Natalie Jeremijenko on her art and engineering inventions addressing environmental and urban issues.

The second set of lectures are tomorrow, 12 December 2014, from Skylar Tibbits and Caleb Harper, both from MIT. You can watch the lectures live, or as podcasts. You can contribute questions live to our panel via Twitter. You can contribute to our online Reading Group. Details below.

Skylar Tibbits directs MIT’s Self-Assembly Lab developing self-assembly and programmable material technologies for new manufacturing, products and construction processes. Self-Assembly research will enable breakthroughs across biology, material science, software, robotics, manufacturing, transportation, infrastructure, construction, the arts, and space exploration. Skylar’s accolades include the Architectural League Prize, The Next Idea Award at Ars Electronica, the Visionary Innovation Award at the Manufacturing Leadership Summit, a TED Senior Fellowship and named as a Revolutionary Mind in SEED Magazine.

Caleb Harper directs MIT’s CityFarm and leads an anti-disciplinary group of researchers including engineers, architects, urban planners, economists and plant scientists. CityFarm is researching the potential for large-scale aeroponics and hydroponics food production, aiming to contribute to fundamental agricultural change and develop high performance urban agricultural systems. Caleb is working on an open source platform of farming data to improve the evaluation of aeroponics and other farming methods. He was a Finalist in this year’s Innovation by Design Awards.

Live stream of lectures taking place Friday 12 December 2014 4pm-6.30pm UK time

You can contribute live questions to the panel via Twitter – use #Zooetics

The panel will take place 6pm-6.30pm UK time.

Or you can watch the lectures on our website later on. We invite you to interact with the project as it develops through our online Glossary and Reading Group: Zooetics

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Zooetics Lectures start today

141117_Zooetics_Logo-LONGZooetics Lecture Series starts today in Lithuania at Kaunas University of Technology with presentations by Christian Schwagerl and Natalie Jeremijenko. Interview with me  published today, including my attempt to respond to the great question: ‘What is the purpose of a writer in society today?’

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