Bodhisattva Chattopadhyay is a researcher at the Department of Culture Studies, University of Oslo. During the day he works on colonial history of medicine. At night, along with his cactus Albert, he works on SF, possible worlds, and the future of humanity. His website is http://www.bodhisattvac.com and he can be reached at bodhi (at) bodhisattvac (dot) com. This interview was conducted through a collaborative Google Doc in May 2016.
Gautam Bhatia: We’ve learnt that you recently gave a talk on “Slums in SF.” I’m thinking of something that Jean Genet once wrote, in Prisoner of Love - that the “palace” and the “shanty” were reflections of each other, and in a constant, bitter—but necessary—confrontation. Do you think it would be correct to say that SF has overwhelmingly favoured writing about the palace? And even in books that feature shanties or slums, they are normally described through the eyes of temporarily displaced palace inhabitants (Sofia Samatar’s Winged Histories is one recent example that springs to mind)?
Bodhisattva Chattopadhyay: Great question! I do think SF has favoured slums over palaces in its long history. SF is a genre of turbulent times and that turbulence is often reflected in apocalyptic and postapocalyptic imagery whose first symptom is the slum—from the chaos of the two industrial revolutions and the Empire, reflected in the gothic origins of SF, to the two World Wars and SF film and literature from the modernist period; through to the Cold War with its New Wave reflections, then Cyberpunk, which accompanied the information revolution, and finally, the contemporary YA wave of dystopias, alongside those in Hollywood or international films. Not to be dismissive of dystopias, but I think it is the easier aesthetic choice to depict dystopian ideas through slums or ghettos than it is to present the dystopia that lies at the heart of utopian projects, or the utopia in the dystopian imagination, which the best works of SF offer us. Hence the importance of Le Guin’s "Omelas" or Butler’s Sower. And even though slums are only a part of my work on future cities, this theme is something I have been interested in for quite a while: the overwhelming dystopian imagination in SF that leads to the ghetto or the slum as an inevitable spatial formation in the future city.
GB: I’m interested in one of your examples there. I’ve always thought of Butler’s Sower as belonging to that tradition of SF that deals with dystopic, crumbling urban societies (Margaret Atwood’s The Heart Goes Last is the most recent example that comes to mind), where there’s not much of a “palace” left at all. I was thinking more of fantasy novels set in relatively functioning, stable societies, with a great degree of (undescribed) social stratification. A large part of Patricia McKillip’s Ombria in Shadow, for instance, is set in what you might well call a slum network, but again, seen through the eyes of royalty and the elite. Do you think your point holds for this genre of writing as well?
BC: I’m afraid my knowledge of fantasy is rather limited. When I use the term SF, I do specifically mean science fiction. You are indeed right in saying that Sower is dystopic, but I add that it represents the utopian in the apparently dystopian imagination, or what Moylan called critical dystopias. After all, Sower came out right after the Rodney King race riots.
Eli Lee: I wanted to ask about the "romance of the slums." It’s often the case that these parts of the cityscape are portrayed as desperate, dirty, and grim, offering neither any innate value nor prospect of redemption for their inhabitants. Have you found this to be a uniform perspective in SF; or have you found writers who have subverted this trope to suggest a more romantic, or benevolent, approach to slums? If so, how have they managed to do this—and has it always been successful?
BC: How interesting—I recently asked a similar question to Olalekan Jeyifous about his SF artpiece “Shanty Megastructures of Lagos, Nigeria.” I do believe there is such a tendency in SF, and it was one of my first points of enquiry into this topic back as a student when I was investigating the theme of degeneration in Victorian SF. As an elitist popular genre, I think an oft-utilized top-down approach taken by many SF writers is one where the slum is shown as a site of all the Good that is ostensibly missing from the elite space or the modern technologically determined space, whether it is for the authenticity of community feelings or true human values. This has indeed affected a part of the generic production, and might even be deemed a troubling tendency. Romance is always a double-edged sword, for it might make the ghetto or slum community appear as a solution to the vapid consumerism of modern elite urban life while problematically attempting to fix some kind of unchangeable, inescapable, essential ghetto-ness. I’m thinking here of the naïve primitivism of some early SF, or of Huxley’s more skeptical depiction of the reservations in Brave New World, or even one of my favourite novels, Geoff Ryman’s Child Garden. This is often a mass media message as well: one may see it in the old conservatism of Lang and Von Harbeau’s Metropolis or in Neill Blomkamp’s much applauded recent films District 9 or Elysium which replay the White Messiah myth.
My point is, it should be possible to look at the slum without romanticising it, without making it a binary opposite of an elite space. There is a risk of unwelcome appropriation when the slum is made a site of positive values without any real effort to question the economic and other conditions of deprivation behind the phenomenon, or romanticising deprivation itself. Romanticising—or what is often its partner—exoticising—without questioning, without critical historical awareness, as it happens for instance often in the case of the mainstreaming of Black culture, hip hop, and protest music, can be dubious and patronizing. It is also this tendency that often leads to the depiction of certain states, cultures, and nations, as permanent ghettos or slums—necessary for poverty tourism—for instance in many popular culture portrayals of Asian, Latin American, or African nations, which either elides or reduces their hypermodernity to being a Western product while making their essence or soul as the “beautiful” and valuable slum life, in all its visceral humanity and other apparently positive values. As long as the slum is the other, it can be appropriated or distanced as necessary without changing a thing. To give it positive or negative values is simply a reflection of our biases. Such uses are rampant in SF—as example, take Bacigalupi’s The Windup Girl, which is a disturbing example of such fetishistic portrayal of exploitation as well as value, playing into but also maintaining numerous stereotypes about Thailand. Like drinking Soylent in the US without being aware of Soylent Green (as I recently realised while lecturing here), it is considered possible to appropriate “ghettoness” without actually being ghetto, that is, without experiencing the racial, cultural, and economic aspects of the concept. Witness the popularity of the thug life meme which quickly became a marker of cis-hetero white—often male—dominance, freeing the use of racially targeted swear words used in hip hop for public use in contexts where such language would be deemed inappropriate—but it’s considered all right because all is right in a meme. It is only when slums encroach at the heart of utopia (or, as Rich Benjamin called it, “Whitopia”) that things get uncomfortable.
EL: Quite an obvious one here, but what kind of science fictional technologies can be/have been applied to slums, and in what ways have they changed lives within them? Or, along similar lines, have you discovered any adaptive technologies or living strategies that currently exist in slums that have science fictional potential?
BC: Another great question! Even though I am skeptical of the romance of the slums, it is also true that some of the coolest innovations are borne out of necessity. I think there are many adaptations borne of deprivation that are science fictional in their oddity; especially, for instance, when it comes to eco-sensitive values like recycling and reuse in a modern-day "use-and-throw away" culture. One can here think of the popular appreciation of “jugaad tech” which has become a buzzword in certain circles as a kind of unique adaptive strategy employed by Indians, especially the Indian urban poor, in their upwardly mobile pursuits. I’m thinking of two lovely examples of Duchampesque jugaad grotesqueries, one in which a chair hollowed out at the seat is used to make a WC and the other where tap water is recycled into usable toilet flushing water; and one may find numerous other examples scattered over the Internet. There is also something to be said for persistence in the face of overwhelming odds, captured succinctly in the apocalyptic trash-covered landscape of the Tanzanian short film Mti Wakiwuli (Shadow Tree) by Biju Vishwanath.
Trash, indeed, is another favourite theme in SF futures. A number of Afrofuturist artists at present, such as Fabrice Monteiro, use trash in various combinations, and it could well be that the portrayal of trash and waste management by itself has always had great SF potential. I attended a reading of the brilliant short story “Inselberg” by Nalo Hopkinson a couple of months ago at ICFA (forthcoming in Drowned Worlds, edited by Jonathan Strahan), where she has taken this theme to its limit in apocalyptic humour while taking a sharp critical look at poverty tourism. The recent “river of trash” in Beirut could be termed a real science fictional wet dream—even in the overt symbolism of the white trash bags floating in the streets of Beirut. Even the trash-covered landscapes of Hollywood films from the last decade, such as Idiocracy or Wall-E, are shadows presaging the surreal reality of this phenomenon. I could go on!
GB: Onto a slightly different tack: part of your academic work has been focused upon exploring SF in Bengal and England, during the colonial period. Calcutta and London, of course, share a classic colony-metropolis relationship, from the architecture to the street names. What potential do you see for an SF that is centred upon one of these cities that has been strongly shaped by Empire—both in the sense of its historic design and historic associations, as well as a kind of hybrid, chaotic cosmopolitanism, which seems to define cities such as Calcutta, Beijing, Cape Town . . .
BC: A lot of potential indeed! I also think that for Indian science fictional production, the term kalpavigyan better captures the sense of play in such hybridity more than the terms SF or fantasy do individually, but that’s another topic entirely. To return to the point, as Anil Menon once mentioned in a conversation, those nineteenth-century Bengali babus need to be pinned down in SF. I have been thinking about Jaymee Goh and Joyce Chng’s The Sea Is Ours for Southeast Asian steampunk, and wondering how fascinating Indian steampunk set in the nineteenth century could be, which would turn the model of the Empire on its head. There is even history here: if Verne or Robida can be claimed retroactively for the steampunk tradition, then so can Hemlal Dutta’s “Rahassya” (1882), written in the same period. Bengal in the colonial period is pretty science fictional in its own way, and not least because the first works of SF from India came from Bengal. I worked on late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century Bengal, and it was surprising to see how much SF or similar literature was produced in Bengal in that period, most of it now forgotten. It was this that Amitav Ghosh tapped on for The Calcutta Chromosome. I perceive this sense of wonder and hybridity even more these days now that some of my non-SF work is specifically on the history of science in colonial Bengal. And you are spot-on when it comes to the hybrid chaotic cosmopolitanism that defines many of these cities, and the untapped potential. Because, strangely enough, not a lot of work, even SF from Bengal, has actually considered nineteenth-century or even Bengal directly as a suitable site for science fictional tales. There are plenty of Bengal analogues, but not Bengal itself, let alone Kolkata. Bangla SF seems to always find adventure in the wider world. Thankfully, even if Kolkata is a blindspot, there is plenty of new SF from India which focuses attention on other such metropolises, including Delhi and Mumbai, for instance, by Menon, by Manjula Padmanabhan and Swapna Kishore. I can think of a lot of examples from IWE SF, and one of my personal favourites, Vandana Singh’s “Delhi,” is an exquisite piece on my home city which perfectly captures this hybridity.
GB: Vandana Singh’s Delhi, of course, is anthologised in Nalo Hopkinson’s So Long Been Dreaming: Postcolonial Science Fiction and Fantasy. I wanted to ask you if you think that cities in mainstream SF, for the most part, speak to a Western—or European—imagination of how a city should be built, what it should look like, how its inhabitants negotiate physical and social spaces . . . and how you’d imagine a postcolonial city in those terms.
BC: If I speak not of my own imagination but of what appeals to me about SF, then it is the fact that SF opens up alternate ways of conceptualizing the city. So I would also drop the term postcolonial in the first instance when referring to this SF city. It has been half a century or more since decolonization in most parts of the globe. Many modern cities in these former imperial countries are transnational in ethos, whose citizens straddle multiple cultural worlds. I am not saying that colonialism did not create specific problems whose effects we perceive to this day, or that the problems stemming from globalization do not have their origins in the colonial period. What I am saying is: we are already postcolonial if that is our frame of reference, so what else is new? I want a different frame of reference. And I want to read about cities that are not dressed up London or Los Angeles. Even a cursory examination of any modern city will demonstrate that citizens have different levels of access to resources including education, health care, and food. Citizens are often ghettoized and forced to take up specific kinds of jobs for reasons beyond their control. What we are really talking about here is the structure of inequality, of some being more equal than others, all things considered. How do we make sense of the sense of exile that one might feel in the city one is in, the sense of being an outcast and not possessing citizen rights while legally entitled to them? And this sense of exile may well be the result of factors not related to colonialism in the first instance, such as gender inequality. I think the city because of its diversity is inherently an open site for cultural exchange. Whether or not we facilitate that exchange in terms of policies meant to address inequalities is up to us.
So what I would say is I want better stories about better futures, even tales that reject the urban if necessary. I would not want a “postcolonial tale”—I feel that’s just a way of catering to an academic marketplace, as if colonialism was the one big thing that produced all our imaginary worlds in the Empire. As an academic migrant who has lived in cities both imperial centre and periphery, what makes cities endlessly inviting to me is how identities are permanently in flux in this melange of cultures, bringing ever new ways of thinking, imagining, and being. I am interested in this plurality, and SF that would reflect such plurality would certainly be worth reading. It need not even be a SF tale, it could be simply a thought experiment, for instance in the Swiss SF anarchist tract bolo’bolo where the city is broken apart and a different system for distribution of resources is imagined. Larger-scale science fictional urban concepts of the present time, such as those being considered by the Seasteading Institute, while having all the appeal of the SF cool which I am in awe of are also far more resource intensive and not the ideal solution for already impoverished nations. Such grand imaginations come from the techno-solutionism of grand SF. With a billion American dollars you can build a spaceship, but what change can happen with a thousand Indian rupees? That’s how I like my SF cities (or even non-cities)—not so much the postcolonial but the post-hierarchical and post-capitalist imaginary. I love the spaceship and we must look to the stars, but I want more SF that is bursting with possibilities at a micro level.
GB: It’s interesting that you mention grand techno-solutions—I suppose the city is an ideal setting for that kind of writing. This is also the sixtieth anniversary of the publication of the opening novel in James Blish’s Cities in Flight, whose spindizzy is perhaps one of the most memorable city-centred grand technological devices. I’m curious to know what you think of another underlying theme of Blish’s work—that of the city as an autonomous, self-contained, isolated entity, with its own character, and—almost—its own moral agency. Do you think that this vision of the city is one that SF will come increasingly to contend with in the coming years?
BC: To me SF is the genre of the city, and thus such a vision of the city—indeed of the city state or one city as a metaphor for cities in general, making possible claims such as that of a planet city—has been ubiquitous in the genre, and there are plenty of recent novels which directly use such real or imaginary cities, such as Mieville’s The City and the City or Un Lun Dun. I think what works for so many of these books is that it is not really difficult for the mind to grasp the metaphor of multiple cities existing in one, because they indeed do so in one sense—something we just discussed in terms of ghettoisation. And one can explore the long history of this idea in terms of themes such as Outcast London. Behind this local flavour though there lies the other potent idea, that increasingly one city is becoming like any other city. One of the things that I refer back to often is what Paul Virilio in one of his interviews called globalitarianism, or the totalitarianism of globalisation which makes any one place look like any other, removing their local character. Nairobi and New York can mirror each other because patterns of their development as well as uneven development are connected. I like how a place can be termed just “The City” as Warren Ellis does in Transmetropolitan, or how the center is just The Center in José Saramago’s The Cave because that’s how flattening works.
EL: I’m interested in the idea you mentioned before about trash in SF, and of it being symbolic of chaos, anarchy, and resistance to the imposed order of things. This is the potential political paradox of slums: they’re both locked within the social order, stuck at the bottom of the socioeconomic ladder— and yet a disempowered, fractured, and volatile kind of place can also be a point of potential, implosion, transgression; even anarchy. Can science fiction present slums as sites that transcend or evade hierarchies imposed from without, and can SF slums therefore offer us ways of reimagining the social order?
BC: I wonder whether this representation of slums as a potential site of resistance because of the visibility of trash is directly connected to a consciousness of recycling and reuse in the era of “sustainability.” Because there is nothing inherently positive about the phenomenon—some amount of trash is inevitable, but trash does stink. For instance, the Greendex lists America at the bottom of all the countries surveyed in terms of sustainable resource consumption, while India and China, two countries with the world’s largest population, rank first and second respectively. Americans constitute 5% of the world’s population, but consume over 20% of its energy. One American consumes as many resources on average as thirty-five Indians. Which means that if we are talking about "planetary" values and extolling the idea of a more sustainable lifestyle, the average Indian or Chinese family has a far more eco-conscious and less wasteful lifestyle, whether by choice or necessity. To put it in other terms, such a way of life might seem dystopian or even postapocalyptic by American or Western European standards—but in terms of the discourse of sustainability, it appears the more responsible way to live—even if, I add, trash does stink. There are many ways of quibbling with stats, of course, and to argue over what constitutes an acceptable standard of living, among other things. Can SF present alternate ideas of slums as alternate ways of reimagining the social order? Of course! Does it? Not really and certainly not often enough. The question is whether these alternate ways are utopian or dystopian, and by whose standards. Now SF often enough presents trash as a social disease, at least in popular media. See for example the fixation with trash in so many contemporary SF films—Children of Men, Idiocracy, Wall-E, Elysium, and so on. From such presentation, it seems the success of a society is measured in terms of its ability to make trash invisible. Nick Hayes’s The Rime of the Modern Mariner makes a visual epic out of this theme. And this refusal to perceive wastefulness itself could be deemed as the real disease, the real problem, which the discourse of sustainability tries to come to terms with. Further, trash is often used metonymically in connection to human beings from economically weaker social classes, or other races, and this reluctance to acknowledge "trash" has to do with patterns of exploitation of resources, including human resources, around the world. And this is how slums fit into the narrative. Lest I appear to be painting the "Western world" (whatever that is) as the devil in the discourse of sustainability, I wish to add that it holds true for any country as well, especially those undergoing rapid urbanization. See how the Indian government managed to "clean up" Delhi before the Commonwealth Games by hiding its undesirables—trash and the urban poor. Hence my interest in the city.
GB: You’ve spoken before about “architecture fiction” in the context of the future city. What do you think about the relationship between architecture—and, by extension, spatial organisation—and social organisation, in cities? And how do you think this might change with developments such as the ability to access city spaces through virtual reality?
BC: SF and architectural concepts have often mirrored each other, but I would like to think past Sterling/Ballard “architecture fiction” to what Dean Motter terms “psychetecture” in his Mister X comics, that is, the relation between the built environment and the habitus. How we imagine the world is also how we build it, just as how things are built affects how we imagine the world. Who do we imagine the world with or for? Think of something apparently simple enough like accessibility, and now think about how unfriendly most cities become to so many of us. Think about cities designed by and for yuppies and not for the infirm, about restaurants in those same apparently cosmopolitan spaces that don’t understand food allergies or lifestyle choices.
As for the second question, it depends on what we mean by access through VR, whether we mean by it, at least for the near future, a simulation, or simply some kind of AR (for instance, Keiichi Matsuda’s hyper-reality), or the futuristic mix of the two in Virtual Immersive Reality. One could easily replicate an environment that can be accessed through something like a VR headset, and move about as one moves about in a game world, and these virtual environments might interface with real-life nodes. So you could shop in your virtual avatar in a virtual store, and both ends being connected to reality, the physical world counterpart of the store delivers your purchases to the embodied counterpart of the avatar, the physical you. It’s not difficult to imagine this, given that something like Second Life is over a decade old, and the holodeck concept has been around longer. This is exciting indeed. One can project a hologram onto another place, even navigate another environment through a holographic interface—so I could be sitting in Delhi walking the streets of Oslo through a holographic body, but we do need to eat, and a lot of other things which are purely physical, and such extension by itself would not mean physical access to the city space. Pure virtual existence in the form of uploading is an oft used SF trope, but not really useful except as a thought experiment.
EL: Within postmodern SF it seems to be a fairly standard trope that as and when forms of AI enter or populate cities, they inevitably destabilise them, causing greater inequality, unemployment, unrest and violence, etc. It’s a far cry from the techno-utopianism of earlier visions of liberation, ease, and efficiency (from the Frankfurt School’s vision of technology as the great leveller to the simplistic dreams of The Jetsons). Do you think this inversion—and this pessimism—about technology/robots/AI is something specific to do with cities, or do you think it reflects a deeper pessimism about ourselves and our neoliberal world?
BC: I don’t want to enter uncanny valley territory here, which is one concern in quite a bit of older or aging SF. In general, I think pessimism over automation has to do with high unemployment rates in many developed and developing countries. As for AI, there is enough to be wary of when it comes to overt or covert data collection. The potential misuse of big data analytics is a hot topic in technology ethics. Smart city concepts depend almost entirely on one’s willingness to give up privacy and enter, willy-nilly, the brave new world of the Internet of Things. In any case, the city is generally the first site where macro-level technoscientific change gets registered. At the moment, I am enjoying this new SF collection called Watchlist edited by Bryan Hurt. Thirty-two stories about the surveillance society, and so far, it really is only about the city. Now it could be because I am jumping back and forth between authors I want to read who usually write about the city, but I doubt there would be any surprises.
GB and EL: And, the compulsory recommendation question by way of ending! What is your personal favourite SF novel or story that features the city at its heart?
BC: I have probably named most of my favourites already, such as Transmet. And new works come up with fascinating ideas all the time, like Jo Walton’s The Just City from last year. I love the grim cities built in SF often enough; Ballard is a favourite, and Tevis’ Mockingbird is on my all-time top-ten list, but when it comes to cities in SF, perhaps for their utopian ideas and the fact I am an unapologetic optimist, I am most attracted to Golden Age fiction and their generally utopian ideas. Asimov’s city worlds that he built across his Robot and Galactic Empire series are lovely, and Arthur C. Clarke’s The City and the Stars featuring Diaspar is another personal favourite. So if I am to recommend something it would be from the Golden Age classics. Some of this utopianism is returning with trans- and posthumanist SF. This is a difference between a lot of SF and actual ideas in the field of urbanism and architecture. SF is mostly grim when it comes to envisioning future cities, while architects and urban designers are more interested in the speculatively solvable, which makes them, in spite of all evidence to the contrary perhaps, utopists.