15 May, 2016

#SpecialFeature :: #Author in Residence at Virtual Futures

*** Special Feature - May 2016 ***

You’re the Author in Residence at Virtual Futures – do you want to say something about the Salons?
Virtual Futures Salons bring together artists, philosophers, cultural theorists, technologists and fiction writers to consider the future of humanity and technology.  The level of expertise and discussion is way ahead of anything I’ve come across before and certainly way ahead of any mainstream press. They take the form of: a panel of experts – academics, artists, practitioners – who present and debate the topic; a short piece of fiction from the Author in Residence (me!); and a Q&A with the incredibly well informed and heavily curated audience. There are other aspects too, such as being able to try a skull cap that shoots bolts of electricity through your brain or a virtual reality cyberdelic experience using Google cardboard and your phone.

So how did you get involved?
A few years ago I curated a panel at GreenBelt Festival on Human Enhancement and Luke Robert Mason, the Director of Virtual Futures, was one of the panelists. He invited me to Virtual Futures’ Salon’s first London event on F**c***g Machines (sex robots) and it was fantastic. I go to some great mind-stretching events, but this was the best I’d been to for a long time. What I really liked about it was the vibrant mix of disciplines and the depth of questioning from the audience. I was particularly struck by one audience member’s observation that she liked to chat people up and a robot programmed to say yes removed that delight. This was followed up by the observation that if robots were truly able to choose, the chances of them wanting sex with a human was very low.
Afterwards, I wrote a short piece called S{T}IMULATION about a woman’s first visit to a techno-sex club where you can ‘try before you touch’. Although it sounds futuristic the story is much more about what it would be like to experience sex from the other person’s point of view than it is about the technology.
When I asked Luke to check that I’d got the tech aspects of the story correct, he loved it enough to ask me to become the Author in Residence.

What does Author in Residence mean?
For each event I read a specially written story of about 5 to 10 minutes long. Once I know the theme and who will be on the panel I set about the research and begin to formulate an idea of what the story might be about. I talk through my idea with Luke, check that I’m on the right track and then get on with writing the story. The whole process of researching, drafting, ‘beta’ reading and then re-drafting takes about three weeks. It can be hard work, but what a gift to a near-future writer – to be given such incredibly stimulating topics and to be able to read your work to inspiring speakers and a knowledgeable audience. We have been experimenting with the format and how best to perform these readings but this is all part of the experiment in how to use fiction to augment these discussions. To top it all, conversations at the bar afterwards have led to other potential projects.

Can you tell us a bit about some of the other VF Salons?
One of them was called NeuroStimulation and was about enhancing the brain by zapping it with electricity, getting different effects depending on the depth and strength of the zap. When I was doing the research for it I was struck by what might be possible, for example you might be able to boost memory or reverse tiredness. It’s very early days though so it’s really only speculation.
I wanted to base my story as close to real life as possible, albeit in the near-future, so I tried to think of something relatively mundane. I settled on work, but then had to decide what type of work. In some ways it would have been easy to use a professor or a doctor boosting their IQ, but I wanted to push it to the heart of everyday life. Which is why it’s called Everyday Stims (short for stimulations). The story is set it in a call centre where you’re given tokens that allow you to boost certain brain functions to make you better at your job.
A recent VF Salon was called Engineering Life which touched on the very nature of life. Some of the panel were artists that are pushing the boundaries to help us think about what does and doesn’t constitute life in an age where we can create living cells and programme synthetic organisms. I had great fun writing Make Me as You See Me for this which is about two artists who altered their bodies, quite dramatically, to publicly express how they felt about each other.

Sounds great, are the stories available outside of the event?
Yes, they are professionally filmed and are on the Virtual Futures’ YouTube channel. I also link through to them on my website. They’re well worth watching.

What’s next?
The topic for May is Prosthetic Envy. My research has included reading Bernard Wolfe’s 1950 book called Limbo ’90 which is billed as being the first book to “project the present-day concept known as ‘cybernetics’ to its logical and terrifying conclusion.” I find it interesting to read some of the profound but lesser well-known novels from so long ago and this is one I’d recommend.
My story is called Loans for Limbs and all I’m saying about it is…imagine if it became normal, but expensive, to replace your limbs with enhanced prosthetics - what do you think would happen?
This VF Salon is on 31 May 2016. If you would like to attend you can register here or sign up to my mailing list or subscribe to Virtual Futures for more details.

About the Book:

It’s the week before the annual Pay Day when strata positions are decided by the controlling corporations. The social media feed is frenetic with people trying to boost their influence rating while those above the strata and those who’ve opted out pursue their own manipulative goals.

Amber is ambitious. Martin is burnt out by years of struggling. She cheats to get what she wants while he barely clings on to what he has.

Set in a speculative near-future London, Fluence is a satirical story of aspiration and desperation and of power seen and unseen. It’s a story of control and consequence. It’s the story of the extremes to which Amber and Martin are prepared to go in these last ten thousand minutes before Pay Day. 

Book Links:
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About the Author:
Hippie-punk, religious-squatter, bureaucrat-anarchist; I thrive on contradictions. The tension they create fuels my slightly skewed fictional worlds and the complex characters that inhabit them. It’s hard to describe the sheer delight I get from taking reality, nudging it out of kilter and seeing what happens.

I was a teenager in a small market town in the UK when punk hit the scene and its ethos and energy rushed through me and my generation. It felt as if we could stick two fingers up to the establishment and do whatever we wanted, however we wanted to do it. I’m sure that’s a familiar feeling for every generation of teenagers, but there’s no denying that punk provoked a reaction. It was also the era of free festivals and the peace convoy; to a teenager at a time when nuclear war threatened to end the world at any moment the free festivals like Stonehenge seemed truly post-apocalyptic. I loved them. The mix of hippies, hells angels and punks all co-existing (fairly) peacefully without the police was an incredibly formative experience. I’ve been to festivals every year since and still find them a great way to re-calibrate normal.

Being a squatter and being in a cult were both out there experiences but not as dissimilar as they might seem at first glance; they both had a strong ideological desire for non-conformity and strong, albeit different, moral codes. That’s the sort of realisation that makes me want to wobble the world to see what falls out.

I’ve had some fun on the journey from that punk inspired teenager to this anarchy inspired bureaucrat and more often than not I’ve had a foot in more than one camp at a time: as an unwelcome hippie at punk gigs; a religious cult member in the hedonistic squatter scene; or a would-be anarchist working as a bureaucrat. Even where I live in Fitzrovia we see ourselves as a village in the heart of London, as an enclave of difference standing out against the corporate onslaught of blandness (but close enough in case we need it).

That’s only a small insight into the inspirations and experiences that helped form me, Stephen Oram the author. And, if I’m asked why I write I have more than one answer; it’s a mixture of wanting to create something entertaining, thinking I’ve got something to say and needing something to keep me out of mischief. One thing is for sure though, I’d love to set off some small firecrackers of thought to light the world slightly differently inside your head!

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2 digital Copies of Fluence by Stephen Oram

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