‘We Who Are About To’ Chapter 1

‘Science fiction doesn’t try to predict the future, but rather offers a significant distortion of the present… [we] look at what we see around us and we say “how can the world be different?”’ – Samuel Delany (1984).

The text in the PDF is the first chapter of a speculative sci-fi novel. The following chapters have not been written yet because the narrative is a fictionalisation of the first research retreat of Distant Voices: a project that is in progress. The text is designed to be printed onto A3 paper, read and then folded into an origami house. It’s a little tricky to make, but there is a helpful video tutorial here: ‘make an easy origami house’ by Leyla Torres https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jtNv2N8CVyw. When making the house treat this side as side A: the walls of the house, the other side will eventually form the roof.

I made this piece because as the research associate on Distant Voices I was tasked with making a creative response to our first core group research retreat, that aimed to capture different perspectives on the experience. The core group is a diverse collection of people who have come together to try and map out and understand experiences of homecoming after prison. Some of us have lived experiences of imprisonment or familial imprisonment, some are social workers, some others are academics (representing musicology, criminology, politics, and sociology), musicians, artists, writers, third-sector workers, and probation or prison officers. For many of us these areas of expertise and experience blur or overlap – for example we might be a probation officer and a musician. We’re trying to build a shared understanding and approach through this research, but this is not the place that we’ve started from. My response acknowledges collaborative research is not an easy thing to do, requiring the creation of mutual trust, respect and the destabilising of existing hierarchies.

I wanted this response to include some text and images based on some of the things we had made during the retreat. My first thought was to produce something that looked like the surface of a crystal, with segments containing fragments of the work we had done that would intersect in interesting ways. I could have stuck with this idea but decided to create a narrative that wove together some of the things we made and had done, and rewrote our retreat as a piece of science fiction. To retain the idea of juxtaposing fragments, I designed the work as a piece of foldable origami. As such, when you fold the story into the shape of a house the folds will create new combinations of words and images, and perhaps a new story. I chose the shape of a house because we were exploring the theme of home and homecoming during the retreat, as we are in the project more broadly.  The images for this piece were made by collaging photographs taken on the retreat by my colleague David Shea, with images from the British Library’s online collection of copyright-free sources. I found that within the collection of historical images relating to science and technology there were the raw materials I needed to craft future landscapes. The library is free and available here: https://www.flickr.com/photos/britishlibrary/albums.

I took the title for this piece: ‘We Who Are About To’ from a novella of the same name written by Joanna Russ (2016). First published in 1977, her story is a feminist take on the genre of the ‘space western’ in which a group are thrown or come together to explore an unknown planet (‘beyond the final frontier’). I chose this genre because it seemed to parallel the experience of setting out to do collaborative research with a group that doesn’t know each other well. Like others in the group I wondered how we could find a shared language, or sense of community, and what it would be possible for us to create together. Russ’s story flips the conventions of the space western by focussing not on the dazzling progress of science, but on ‘how it will feel to land on a new world, how the old dynamics of human personality and inter-relations will play out in the future’  (Alderman, 2016, p. v). In other words, Russ does precisely what Samuel Delany suggests science fiction should do, and what many have argued art in general should do: it makes us look at the world we think we know with fresh eyes.

With this in mind and in the spirit of not averting our eyes from experience, I wondered how the rest of the research group would respond to seeing our retreat given back to them in the form of fiction. What it would do to transpose some of the things, thoughts and feelings around the first core retreat onto a fictional exploration of an alien planet? How would they feel about my interpretation of events? To write the story I began by amassing the feedback from group members as it emerged, looking for common and repeated reflections and words. I also wanted to capture differences and divergences in people’s experiences – a shared story isn’t about everyone agreeing, but about finding ways to hold differences together in the same place. I have previously experimented with this in my PhD where I conceptualised bringing together data in this way to create something new, as a practice of ‘translation’ in which although material which might be significantly transformed, the translator works on retaining the sense of the original material in the final work (Thomas, 2017). I am excited about the development of our shared story together and invite the group members to collaborate to write the next chapter.

Philippa Thomas

 

References:

Alderman, N., 2016. Introduction, in: We Who Are About To... Penguin Books, London.

Delany, S.R., 1984. Starboard Wine: More Notes on the Language of Science Fiction. Dragon Press, New York.

Russ, J., 2016. We Who Are About To... Penguin Books, London.

Thomas, P., 2017. In Different Voices: A Practice-Based Intervention into the Assemblage of Crime UNPUBLISHED THESIS. Goldsmiths College, University of London, London.

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