Students from three high schools in Messina, Italy, participated in a creative workshop on 7-13 Octber 2022. They were exposed to presentations about the world of Witness and reacted by preparing stories, illustrations and one music clip inspired by Witness. This post contains a reflection on their creations.
- Solidarity (“building together”).
- Thick stories
Fictional worlds have played the role of liberators. There is a story in which the main character grew up in The Covenant, and decides to leave it for Libria (“after researching other Distrikts in the local library”). In another one, the main character escapes to a virtual world. This is a pattern we also see in several short stories written by professional authors, for example “a flicker of light” or “the winged woman”. These characters can go elsewere because there is an elsewhere to go to. Our world is poor in real alternatives, because many people are not allowed to move physically (like Yudha), and because, anyway, the whole world runs on late-stage capitalism. Witness is sci-fi, and therefore can provide real alternatives, where you can live your lives in really alternative ways. The existence of alternatives frees us, even if we do not want to use them ourselves. They are there for us, if we change our mind. In economic philosophy, this was clearly expressed by Amartya Sen, “Development as freedom”. Sen is one of the leading lights of FDCM. This is not a coincidence.
Climate change looms large in the stories of the students. Sea levels rise; formerly hospitable regions become inhabitable and have to be abandoned. The student seem to take this in stride: OK, so what, we’ll just change. There are, for example, two stories where entire communities move underwater, like in the Rifters trilogies by Peter Watts. Adaptation is another dimension of freedom: instead of suffering our changing circumstances, we embrace them and keep going.
And we do this by building together. Student-aethnographers imagine that communities can change, change radically. This turns out to be true: a recent book by Graeber & Wengrow shows how human civilizations have moved back and forth from very different organizations. Some were nomadic hunter-gatherers; some were farmer and village-dwellers; some were farmers in the winter and hunter-gatherers in the summer. Teotihuacàn, in Mexico, at some point stopping building pyramids and practicing human sacrifices and switched to a program of social housing in a context of radical equality. There is even a story that impressed me as an economist. Someone writes that the companies and banks of the dryland civilization invest in the infrastructure of the underwater community. This is impressive because it is already difficult to imagine a different world, but it is even harder to imagine how we can get from here to there. Most science fiction does not bother to try. Kim Stanley Robinson made this effort in his novel The Ministry for the Future. This made such a splash that Robinson was invited to COP26, and his idea of a supernational agency for the transition to a post-climate change world.
The power source of building together is solidarity, the idea of building a common future rather than an individual one; in the story, the rich businesses and banks of dryland build up underwater town. Indeed, you even have an explicitly marxist world. In our world, the fossil fuel industry and the financial world do not do that; they try to prolong the life of the current model, based on extracting and burning coal, oil and gas. The students can see that working together is the solution, and in this they are one step ahead of neoclassical economics. Neoclassical econs will tell you people are selfish, and this is good, because, when everyone behaves selfishly, the result is prosperity for all. This may be true or not; but the lack of solidarity results in the new world not being built. We are stuck in the old one, as it burns and drowns.
You cannot build together what you cannot imagine. Imagination frees us, and this works better when the imagined world feel vivid, realistic. Anthropologists talk of “thick descriptions”, where different details all make sense together, all enrich each other. The description of a street market, or a religious celebration, is different from what we know, but “feels real” in the context of the world that the author presents us with. In the work of the student this is present in the exploration of fashion, transport, the calendar of festivities, love, the division of labor (i Guardiani, gli Studiosi, i Ricevitori…). Again, this is a standard trick of sci-fi and fantasy writers. The richest, most textured worlds, like those of The Lord of the Rings or Star Trek, even invented languages, like Elvish or Klingon.
- Mix realistic elements and speculative elements. You cannot invent everything from scratch, plus readers, or viewers, find a pasta alla norma (which they know) in the city of the Drowned (which they don’t), and the latter seems suddenly more legible, more real.
- Find data and documents. Someone mentioned a drowned New York, and indeed Kim Stanley Robinson wrote a novel called New York 2140, where climate change has made sea levels rise 15 meters. He used geological data to find out which areas of the city would still be above water, which ones would be drowned, and which would be Intertidal. From this, he imagines a SuperVenice, a waterborne city like Venice, but modern and at the scale of New York. These models exist, I think, also for Messina. People interested in writing a story like this might want to look at the different areas of Messina: maybe, like in Manhattan, a part of the city becomes an island? Who is threatened, and how will they react? I can imagine a great novel where you join the FDCM to be a part of the solution to the problem.