Symposium: Us in Flux
Imagination Collectives: Sensemaking Through Collaborative Science Fiction
Bob Beard and Joey Eschrich
Humankind is incredibly adaptable. A year after the outbreak of COVID-19, we’ve become accustomed to rolling school closures, startling spikes in infections, and continued and shocking mismanagement of resources. We grit our teeth behind protective face masks and white-knuckle our way through a reality we struggle to justify as the “new normal.” Already our notions of life with the virus have begun to settle, the first layer of sediment that will form the bedrock of a post-pandemic society. It’s hard then to look back to the spring of 2020 and remember the cascading strangeness of those first days and weeks, when the systems and safeguards we depended on failed, our coworkers and loved ones were transformed into digital avatars, and the rational people we thought we were clung to hard-earned rolls of toilet paper as a two-ply talisman to ward off feelings of scarcity and inadequacy. As the author Arundhati Roy asserts, the global cataclysm of COVID-19 was “a portal, a gateway between one world and the next.”
Of course, speculative fiction stories are rife with these transitional devices, from wormholes and wardrobes to stargates that bridge the familiar and fantastic. But it’s one thing to read and delight in these types of adventures, and another to be unwillingly hurtled headlong into uncertainty. This vertigo—a sense that reality was bending around us, and the dislocation and radical possibility that came with it—was the impetus for the Us in Flux series from the Center for Science and the Imagination (CSI) at Arizona State University.
At CSI, we use the tools of speculative fiction and foresight to collaboratively imagine new, different, and possible futures, from space-based economies and sustainable cities to AI-augmented homes, new models for teaching and learning, and more. As unprecedented disruption and challenges to our social systems swept the globe, leaving folks isolated and unsettled, we adapted our method of pairing storytelling with technical expertise to help contemplate possibilities for this strange new world and our roles in it.
Inviting some of our favorite collaborators and spreading the word through their professional networks, we put out a call for original pieces of flash fiction that could address the dynamics of the moment through themes of community, collaboration, and collective imagination. A number of talented writers responded to the challenge immediately, keen to explore how the unfolding public health crisis might inspire alternative social arrangements, networks, and identities. Those early discussions, infused with curiosity and hope, were a salve for the isolation and confusion that cast a pall over the globe.
Scholars and fans of SF are intimately familiar with the importance of worldbuilding. Constructing an imaginary world from whole cloth—its customs, values, and social norms– gives coherence to the strange and the unfamiliar, and provides the scaffolding necessary to meet the challenges of a new reality. Throughout the Us in Flux series, the power of this type of storytelling became apparent. At the same time that authors Christopher Rowe, Kij Johnson, Chinelo Onwualu, Tochi Onyebuchi, Tina Connolly, Nisi Shawl, Sarah Pinsker, Usman T. Malik, Regina Kanyu Wang, Ray Mwihaki, and Ernest Hogan were engaged in sweeping acts of worldbuilding, all of us were similarly finding new and novel ways to remake our work, school, and relationships. Both required courage, imagination, and a renewed sense of responsibility, and both inspired us to grapple with uncertainty though new ways of thinking. These skills would prove essential as the initial shock of the pandemic gave way to a global reckoning with systemic anti-Black racism and the interrogation of institutions—the law enforcement apparatus, the justice system, medical infrastructure—that once seemed implacable, intractably resistant to change.
Sharing not only the stories, but also the discussions that informed their development became an important part of Us in Flux. Each week or two, readers could gain glimpses of possible worlds through the lens of a new story, then join a discussion with the author and a subject-matter expert (from ecologists and conflict journalists to virtual-reality producers and architects) to learn more about the real-life motivations and choices upon which the fictions were built. And while none of these tales were expressly about the multiple tragedies unfolding around us, they were often in dialogue the news cycle and in a few cases, incredibly prescient, presaging events that would emerge just a few days after their publication.
The spirit of those conversations, heady and illuminating, continue in the essays that follow. Moritz Ingwersen examines feelings of isolation and self-determination in stories by Kij Johnson and Sarah Pinsker, revealing how the stories enter a conversation with the transcendentalist writings of Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson. Likewise, Eric Stribling points to the philosophical underpinnings of Chinelo Onwualu’s anarcho-feminist vampire yarn, from Plato and Hegel to Frederick Douglass and Frantz Fanon, while in their essays, Sara DiCaglio, Andy Hageman, and Yen Ooi unravel the mysteries of Regina Kanyu Wang’s, cyber-cuscuta: an invisible, invasive organism that devours and processes gobs of anthropogenic digital clutter, and has settled the Earth in cyberspace, living quietly alongside its human hosts.
Today, at the dawn of 2021, the “new normal” is still profoundly strange. Although the stories presented here mark a specific period of the crisis, we’re still (and arguably, are always) in a state of flux and reinvention. We ask you then to consider these pieces not as an endpoint, but rather an invitation. By participating in this process—reading, analyzing, sharing, and talking through the ideas presented here—and by continuing to create and share new stories, we can carefully consider the narratives that we’re presented with, boldly imagine the futures we might want to inhabit, and emerge from all of this as better citizens of a better world.
Bob Beard is the Public Engagement Strategist for the Center for Science and the Imagination at Arizona State University, where he produces multimedia content, public programming, exhibitions, and experiences at the intersection of science, engineering, and the humanities. With two decades of hands-on media experience, paired with his research in fandoms and other communities of practice, Bob’s work focuses on creating spaces for intellectual curiosity, accessibility, and advocacy. His projects include Frankenstein200, a transmedia experience for STEM education supported by the U.S. National Science Foundation; Reanimated!, a video series examining ethical issues raised by emerging technologies; Drawn Futures: Arizona 2045, a sustainability-themed comic book designed for 5th to 8th grade students; and PBS Nerd, a national brand and outreach campaign developed for public television stations across the United States.
Joey Eschrich is the editor and program manager at the Center for Science and the Imagination at Arizona State University, and assistant director for Future Tense, a partnership of ASU, Slate magazine, and New America on emerging technology, policy, and society. He has edited several books of science fiction and nonfiction, including Future Tense Fiction (2019), published by Unnamed Press, A Year Without a Winter (2019), published by Columbia University Press, and Visions, Ventures, Escape Velocities (2017), which was supported by a grant from NASA.