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From the Sense of Wonder to the Sense of Wander

December 7, 2021

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Francesco Verso is a hardworking author and publisher tirelessly promoting the science fiction genre in Italy. Born in Bologna, in 1973, he has a major in Environmental Economics at the University of “Roma Tre” and worked at IBM (PC Division) until 2005, then for Lenovo until 2008. Since 2008 he has worked as a full-time writer/publisher of Italian Science Fiction. His novel Antidoti umani was a finalist in the 2004 Urania Mondadori Award. In 2009, he won the Urania Mondadori Award for his book e-Doll. In 2011, we wrote short stories like “Flush,” “90 Cents,” “Two Worlds” (published in International Speculative Fiction nr.5), and “Fernando Morales, This Is Your Death!” In the same year he finished his third novel Livido, which went on to win the Odyssey Award 2013 and Italy Award 2014 for best Italian Science Fiction novel. Livido, published in 2014 in Australia by Xoum with the title of Nexhuman is his first novel to be translated into English.

In 2014, when I started scouting for science fiction from non-English speaking countries and written in languages other than English I never thought I would find so many wonderful stories in such a short time. After seven years of intense scouting I have published in Italian (but also in English, Russian, and Chinese) more than 170 short stories, six novels, and about twenty thematic anthologies and collections of single authors, driven by my curiosity and the desire to explore what is hidden behind the billboards and marketing campaigns of fiction proposed by large national and international publishing groups. The aim of this research is to collect at least some of the stories that—over the last thirty or forty years—have been literally rendered inaudible by the background noise generated by the powerful voices of English-language authors capable of reaching every corner of the planet.

Many of these stories belong to authors who are important and appreciated in their own countries, but because they do not write in English, they remain invisible on a global scale, with the obvious consequence of relegating their prose and ideas to the most marginal territories of the global conversation. This is paradoxical for a genre as pioneering and avant-garde as science fiction whose very source of inspiration should be the continual expansion and exploration of new horizons.

Personally, I dislike the term diversity because it implies the existence of a heteronomous standard of reference, a not-so-conscious measure of comparison that a privileged “gate-keeper” (an English-speaking editor, a marketing director of a multinational corporation, or a publishing group executive) has imposed as a method of compensating for a deeper problem and masking a predetermined point of view by which to evaluate every other identity, narrative, cultural history, and, ultimately, vision of the future. Everything that does not conform becomes, precisely, different. But who would be different from whom? And by what standard would I be different from you or you from us?

Moreover, since reading is a subjective, personal, and intimate experience, who is responsible for setting such standards of diversity? Who will provide us with the intellectual and cultural tools to choose which books truly embody supposed diversity or at least incorporate it?

Today, we are often at the mercy of the “invisible reader,” this unfathomable figure, the product of statistics, built on generalizations and market assumptions, pulled from this or that ephemeral momentary phenomenon often driven by commercial trends (and lately managed by algorithms and AI filters). Or we are subject to the decisions of experienced editors sitting on huge stacks of fiction written in English. Or perhaps to the logic of unreachable editorial directors, always too busy scouting the next best-seller to feed to the marketing department. Trust in these professionals, even beyond the inevitable controversy about their abilities, is marred by their linguistic limitation: at best, these experts (or algorithms) will only be able to suggest the “best” of a single culture, the one available in English.

There is, therefore, ample room for improvement if the cultural appropriation of the late capitalism (that I would call “Grabitalism”), which engulfs any human experience in order to extract a profit margin, could be transformed into a cultural appreciation, a search for dialogue, acceptance, and understanding that enriches anyone who opens himself to the osmosis with the other. After all, the purpose of any sustainable economy—and especially of the cultural one—should not be the exhaustion of resources, the standardization and oversimplification of the product/scenario, in order to sell increasingly easily digestible experiences to anyone on a planetary scale (creating a de facto real monopoly), but rather the research, promotion, and enhancement of quality in its many forms. Unfortunately, the situation we have inherited after 80 years of English-speaking science fiction is quite different: narratives from only two markets, originally the American and English markets and later from other English-speaking countries such as Canada and Australia, have supplanted—at least in commercial terms—the various local productions that existed and have continued to exist almost incognito. These include (just to name a few of European origin) those from France (Jules Verne, Camille Flammarion, Albert Robida, Roland Wagner), Italy (Emilio Salgari, Primo Levi, Lino Aldani), Germany (Fritz Lang, Kurd Laßwitz, Andreas Eschbach), Russia (Alexander Bogdanov, Alexander Belyaev, the Strugatsky brothers) and Poland (Stanislaw Lem, Janusz Zajdel). I will not go so far as to mention little-known productions in the West such as those from China and India, Brazil, and Argentina, all equally valid, alive, and existing.

It is therefore essential to update the old “Sense of Wonder” into a “Sense of Wander” (a synthesis of “wandering around the world” in search of science fiction narratives) that restores an idea of the future to all those who have been dispossessed of it and broadens the perspectives of those who have only been able to experience a single form of narration, typically white, male, Christian, Western. Such a tool could develop a constructive curiosity with which to decolonize the imagination of present and future generations, largely occupied by contemporary myths and legends created during the last 80 years by media giants such as Disney, Warner Bros, MTV, Apple, Facebook, Google, and Hollywood.

There was a time when William Gibson—without fear of contradiction—could say in an interview with Fresh Air (August 31, 1993), “the future is already here, it’s just not equally distributed” and instead, twenty years later, Ian McDonald happily observed how “everyone today has the same technology at the same time, as soon as a new iPhone comes out, people can buy it in Nigeria, America, India and China. Everyone has the same thing at the same time.”1

Starting from these quotes, it’s possible to demonstrate how different cultures use the same technology in very different ways: one thing is used to browse a Chinese site full of videos, 3D banners, and pop-up advertisements on a 5G smartphone, another one is to download emails on the exact same smartphone but from an Argentinian provider while standing in the middle of the pampa or to read real-time news on an app optimized for wifi bandwidth surges in the Sahara desert. Or, if you prefer, one thing is to print aerodynamic racing blades like the ones that transformed Oscar Pistorius from differently abled to superiorly able, and another one is to print $10 prosthetics for a child who lost his legs jumping on a landmine in Nigeria or for a girl with no hands due to a car accident in Italy.

Not to mention the fact that many so-called innovations—often sold at prohibitive prices to generate a fictitious sense of exclusivity—are nothing more than old ideas cleaned up through the high-tech of developed countries or passed off as sustainable through underhanded green-washing campaigns.2

Fig. 1) Images of futuristic architecture sold as progress and technological development.
Fig. 2) Images of popular and spontaneous architecture considered backward and primitive

For years, the question of which development contemporary societies should pursue or which future should be attempted to be built has become crucial in the international debate. As a matter of fact, if we want to represent the visibility of futures through a Gaussian curve, we can easily show how a single worldview (capitalist, western, male, white, Christian, anglophone) occupies almost the entire distribution (although it certainly does not represent the majority of the population) while every other future has been pushed—with increasing strength and speed—towards the margins of invisibility and non-consideration. However, human cultures have always employed native techniques and solutions to cope with their needs, and different needs have always been the true engine of ingenuity, innovation and development, crucial factors that have no color, flag, religion, age: in India it’s called jugaad, in China zizhu chuangxin (自主创新), in France system D, in Brazil gambiarra, in Kenya jua kali, in the United States do-it-yourself, in Italy fai-da-te.

If the search for stories was mainly passive at the beginning, a systematic collection of narratives scattered around the world aimed at preserving the narrative biodiversity of the future threatened by an imminent cultural catastrophe, which follows the example of the seeds that are stored in the Svalbard islands in Norway in case of an environmental catastrophe, now that same search has become a constant stimulus and solicitation to publish new science fiction from every corner of the planet.

This is because, through the Sense of Wander, it is possible to restore dignity to the many voices and visions that have been excluded because of the colonization of the future by the English-speaking world. Just think that according to research by Rochester University, only 3% of what is published in the United States comes from non-English speaking languages, and within this percentage are included all the languages of the world. Also, consider this other element: as soon as an English-speaking best-seller in fantasy or science fiction such as Harry Potter, Game of Thrones, or The Martian is published, it is translated in real time into 50 different languages, while an excellent Korean, Indian, Polish or Argentinian book will never be translated or will take many years to find a translation and publication. And even if it is published, its promotion and visibility will still be marginal compared to other Anglophone productions.

Out of 66 Hugo Awards in the novel category, 65 were won by English-speaking authors and 1 by a Chinese author, Liu Cixin, in 2015 (in a particularly complicated edition). If the English-speaking market is comparable to a White Hole, from which everything comes out and nothing goes in, non-English-speaking markets, on the contrary, are real Black Holes where an exorbitant number of stories written in English enter but from which hardly any come out.  

How many American and English books are on any science fiction shelves in bookstores ranging from Beijing to Nairobi, Madrid to Rio de Janeiro, Amsterdam to Mumbai? Is it possible that entire generations of science fiction readers know all about what is published in English and don’t know any of the local, often equally good, writers? Is it possible that entire generations of science fiction readers are fed with ideas and imagination that are not their own, that do not represent them, that often exclude them and do not consider them as part of a shared future in which there is only one language, one religion, one economy, one movie industry, one music industry, one global entertainment industry, and, consequently, one single future?

Fig. 3) Sense of Wander Matrix

The Sense of Wander seeks to answer the question: what happened to all the other futures? What happened to representations of the world that do not conform to current standards, to stories that are different at their roots because they express customs and traditions that are historically distant, alien, and not aligned with the needs of global publishing?

In the face of the epochal transformations that await us, science fiction would be an extremely powerful forecasting tool, but today it is used to polish a rear-view mirror. Assuming those very rare phenomena such as those defined as “black swan”3 are not predictable (however, they can be considered precisely through exercises of foresight and back-casting typical of science fiction), and although as an international community we have not done much to prepare for the impact or limit the damage of a “gray rhino”4 like the coronavirus—whose warnings have been launched first with the mad cow disease and then with the avian flu—it is possible to employ the Sense of Wander to include those weak signals that are already present among us and representable through the image of albino gorillas: voices outside the chorus of winners, subterranean and countercultural narratives; radically other visions, of all the excluded and marginalized ones, that nevertheless show with extreme clarity how variety is not dissimilarity, but only a way of existing and functioning outside the horizon of our knowledge, experience and imagination.

Fig.4) Three different approaches to the phenomenology of the future: non-consideration, denial, inclusion.

Reading as many science fiction narratives as possible allows us to directly experience this global, rhizomatic, and fragmentary movement of world science fiction, which persists despite the adversities and indeed demonstrates precisely how this genre of fiction is currently committed to depicting in original and creative forms (typical of the bottom-up approach of native innovation) the ambiguous relationship between man and innovations in its many aspects: from artificial prostheses to 3D-printed organs, from the ethics of cloning to the ethics of mind-uploading, from telepresence technologies to social networks, from Big Data to blockchain, from climate change to solarpunk, to artificial intelligence and any other biopolitical transformations. This infinite variety of nightmares, mirages, and visions emerges spontaneously from the individual historical, politico-economic, anthropological, and cultural specificities of the various geographies, starting from local to regional identities and expanding into national and continental ones.

It is even more interesting to note how science fiction, which by definition uses what does not yet exist to explore the three Asimovian hypotheses (what if, if only, if this goes on), is configured as an excellent litmus test of the society that produced it; the reason why—paraphrasing another science fiction writer like John Kessel—we could even say that a science fiction story speaks more of the time in which it was written than of the time in which it is set. A sediment of the present, traced on a medium at will, for anyone who will come after us. 

The Sense of Wandering highlights a specific sensitivity towards the future inserted in a wider global context, a speculative figure that is univocal though universal, designating and perhaps evoking—in a technocratic time like ours—a genius loci (or spirit of the place): this element of literary biodiversity, crucial for the very survival of human storytelling, threatened by GPT-3 algorithms and strong A.I., may well be silenced by post-colonial influence and the arrogance of massifying capital, but it can never be separated from the incredible layering of biology, history, culture, politics, and social development that has generated it over thousands of years, and, of which, science fiction represents but the latest technological incarnation.

If the past cannot be changed, there is nothing left but to explore the elusive contours of all those futures that have been denied and neglected, ignored, and forgotten, to try to improve our present. Something to tell about the future always remains and, perhaps, only there. 

1 Interview with Ian McDonald by Francesco Verso during DeepCon 15 available on Youtube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xW9f_INWtUQ&t=126s

2 The fact that many of these terms are Anglo-Saxon and it is difficult to translate them without creating the need to explain them is a symptom of the problem.

3 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Black_swan_theory

4 https://pl.boma.global/corona-virus-pandemic-black-swan-or-gray-rhino

© Francesco Verso