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We have written too much about walls and too little about bridges”

Francesco Verso, a multi-award-winning Science Fiction writer and editor from Italy, argues that Science Fiction as a literary genre would do well to lean away from dystopian narratives and closer to ‘Solarpunk’, which develops constructive and instructive stories, and narratives that dare to question the current state of the world and strive to find feasible and concrete solutions.


Lately, since we have entered the Age of Post-Everything (post-modernism, post-capitalism, post-humanism, post-colonialism, post-cyberpunk), we have lost the ability to imagine a different society, and Science Fiction in particular – by its very nature a narrative of transformation – has given up its original vocation of building utopias to indulge in dystopian and post-apocalyptic narratives,” he said, speaking ahead of his appearance at the 7th EU-China International Literary Festival.


“There is nothing wrong with sending the world bottled messages about impending catastrophe or hurling bricks at the oppressive power of the day, yet we have written too much about walls and too little about bridges. Fortunately, there is a new genre in Science Fiction that seeks to address issues of circular economy, common ownership of the means of production and investment, fair distribution of wealth, responsibility towards the climate emergency, democratic governance and new technologies aimed at energy sustainability: it is called Solarpunk and it is growing from the ashes of Cyberpunk, corporate nihilism and nationalist militarism. Moreover, this movement is developing like a platform with practical, viable, applications in economics, agriculture, architecture, politics, sustainable resources and education, thus having solutions emerging both from developed countries such as the United States and Europe and developing ones such as Brazil in Latin America, India in Asia (where Jugaad is a kind of do-it-yourself hacking) and Nigeria in Africa (with the so-called post-colonial Africanfuturism). Solarpunk calls for constructive and instructive stories, narratives that dare to question the current state of the world and strive to find feasible and concrete solutions not only for the protagonist of the moment, but for entire communities, if not nations or the entire world; instead of bemoaning the present, shocking readers with the latest totalitarian dystopia or shying away into a future as distant and consoling as it is scientifically and socially irrefutable,” he said.


Imagination is the first step towards any kind of transformation, for better or worse, he argues. “Without imagination we would be forced into a fatalist determinism, compelled to accept a present imposed by anyone else. Of course, imagination and creativity alone are not enough to change the consistency of reality, nor to overcome its structural limits, but it is not the first time that literature has shown that it can describe a preview of tomorrow, anticipating transformations and latent desires, and for this reason I strongly believe that Science Fiction has a crucial role to play in opening a crack in people’s minds and letting the image – albeit fragmentary and blurred – of a better future penetrate inside.”


In Verso’s celebrated novel Nexhuman (aka Livido in some territories), published in China by the Beijing Institute of Technology Press, his protagonist Peter Payne confronts a dire vista laden with “kipple”, but also extreme beauty in the female Nexhuman form of Alba. The book explores a variety of themes including obsessive consumerism, robotics, automated control systems and transcendence, weaving complex issues into a compelling narrative. Verso said the main idea behind the book was inspired by an incident he personally experienced some years ago.


“I was going out of a flea market in Rome with my wife Elena when we noticed – inside a big garbage bin – an 8-year-old boy who had just found a doll as tall as him; he was cleaning it, taking care of it and caressing it as if it was his own girlfriend. Then his mother came along protesting to move along and not waste any time with the doll as he should have been searching for more valuable things. This image, touching and terrible at the same time, started Peter Payne’s personal drama and his seemingly impossible love. It is no secret that hyper-consumerism and overproduction is leaving on the ground of every city the price that we have to pay for our neglect and lack of respect for the environment. In Nexhuman I’ve pushed this alarming situation to the extreme consequences of a process that is already visible almost everywhere,” he said.


It took some years of research to write Nexhuman, Verso said, “mostly because I like to write highly probable SF with a necessary ‘sense of wonder’, otherwise it will be mainstream fiction, so I started to collect books that were dealing with the concept of trash. The first reference is of course the ‘kipple’ that can be found in Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep. The second source of inspiration is J.G. Ballard and his body of works on ‘inner space’ and object fetishism, while the third influence comes from Nick Bostrom’s books on human enhancement and the philosopher Max More on transhumanism. This is just to mention some clear inspirations that can be easily found reading the book.”


Another book of Verso’s that has been published in China by the Beijing Institute of Technology Press is the critically acclaimed Bloodbusters, where he conjures up a world in which Roman citizens pay their taxes in blood, blending dystopian concepts, dark humor and raw human emotions to powerful effect. The award-winning book was born from a funny chat with friends about the never-ending problem of taxation, he said.


“From there came the idea of writing a grotesque story on this subject: what would happen if taxes were paid in blood with withdrawals direct from the vein. Alan Costa and Anissa Malesano – the protagonists of the novel – are opposite figures, even if complementary: he’s bad by necessity, she’s generous by choice. He works for the Tax Agency, while she is the leader of a gang of subversives – the Robin Blood – that steal blood from the rich to give it to the needy. From these premises, their clash is inevitable… but then, a third element gets in the plot to mess up both their lives. Also Bloodbusters’ locations are important: they represent an abandoned, decadent Rome, prey to all sorts of looting. This is why there are no monuments, nor places full of history, there are suburban neighborhoods, busy streets, clogged hospitals, next to imaginary places such as the Tax Agency behind the San Camillo Hospital, the Ematogen Depot underneath the Centrale Montemartini, and new residential areas at Aurelio. The center of Rome is a mirage, something that citizens have a blurred and distant vision of, as if it no longer belongs to them, but had become an exclusive experience for those who can afford it. It’s a social satire, mixing real issues (the idea of blood as a common good or a private good) and fantastic elements (blood diets, blood derivatives). All in all, is a very entertaining story with lots of ideas to think about,” he said.


The very term “Science Fiction” as a genre can mean different things to different people. For Verso, he looks for where the plausibility of the “novum” element is high and where the Science Fiction ideas are not taken for granted.


In English the term Science Fiction denotes an essential link with science, where in Italian Science Fiction is called “Fantascienza” (fanta-science) with the root “fanta” that dilutes the correlation and opens up to the imagination. This – in my opinion – is at the origin of the mistrust and perplexity that feeds anyone who doesn’t read Science Fiction for escapism and entertainment, but rather out of a desire for discovery and understanding. Obviously the two things can go hand in hand but, in my opinion, this is what the term Science Fiction gives rise to also because in common jargon it is still used in Italy, and maybe elsewhere, to describe something absurd and inconceivable. On the contrary, I consider Science Fiction any text in which the plausibility of the “novum” element (social, political, psychological or technological it doesn’t matter) is very high and where Science Fiction ideas are not taken for granted: the more a writer strives to make his/her imaginative extrapolations by resorting to mechanisms of scientific verisimilitude that are logical and rational, the more that story will have a plausible futuristic flavor.


“In recent years, many technologies and innovations have developed so much that they would have been considered Science Fiction. So, if on the one hand SF may have won its fight to get out of the ghetto, on the other hand it has lost its originality because we can no longer consider certain issues and themes as exclusively its own. Topics such as genetic engineering, psychosocial analysis via Big Data, artificial intelligence as a substitute for human work and creativity, climate change, new digital artisans of 3D printing, biopolitics and self-directed evolution, are all part of our present and therefore any author who wants to represent everyday reality will necessarily have to consider these phenomena as unavoidable references of his/her imagination. That’s why for me Science Fiction is what makes reality obsolete,” he said.


This is not just a trend but it represents a profound paradigmatic change that affects a large part of contemporary literature, Verso believes.


“Take for example Zero K by Don DeLillo (USA), Satin Island by Tom McCarthy (UK), Babylon by Viktor Pelevin (Russia), The Possibilities of an Island by Michel Houellebecq (France), Station 11 by Emily St. John Mandel (Canada), Never Let me Go and Klara and the Sun by Kazuo Hishiguro (UK), the trilogy of The Last of Men, The Year of the Flood and The Other Beginning by Margaret Atwood (Canada), Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell (UK), The Book of the Strange New Things by Michel Faber (Holland) these are all literary books with Science Fiction themes and the list could continue. I could even say that we have left post-modern literature and entered the Science Fiction realm, where the Singularity, that is, the incapacity to predict which trends will most affect our near future, due to technological acceleration, is at the basis of the writing of the years to come. Is it a win? I am optimistic and I see the glass as half full.”


Verso is also editor and publisher of Future Fiction, a multicultural project dedicated to scouting and publishing the best World Science Fiction in translation from more than 35 countries and 13 languages with authors like Ian McDonald, Ken Liu, Liu Cixin, Vandana Singh, Chen Qiufan, and others. The project stemmed from Verso’s own personal appetite for new and challenging narratives as he set about looking to encourage “literary biodiversity” and helping to play a role in “decolonising” the literary future.


“It all started some ten years ago because, as a reader, I was tired of going to Italian bookstores and finding always (or mostly) the same kind of story, written by a middle-class, English-speaking, white-man (presumably Christian, Heterosexual and living in the US or the UK). I was missing a huge part of the representativeness of the ‘real’ world, some kind of ‘literary biodiversity’ which in other genres – as paradoxically as it might seem – is not so extreme as in Science Fiction. So the project developed more as cultural small press than a commercial one and after 10 years – during which time I’ve published more than 150 stories in 70 paperbacks, ebooks, audiobooks and lately comics – I’ve realized that I was looking for the missing voices of the ‘Science Fiction Hidden World’. Some might indeed define this as ‘diversity’ (a term that is increasingly becoming popular in an out of the genre in the Anglophone world), but then I thought, ‘diverse from whom?’, who set the standard to diversity, and again I was back to the original bias towards English-speaking culture. So now I tend to call it ‘biodiversity of the future’: as the Seed Vault in the Svalbard Islands preserves biodiversity from a possible environmental apocalypse, I’ve set myself on a quest to preserve Science-Fiction-Literary-Diversity from a possible cultural catastrophe. That is: what would the World be like if there’s just one language to talk about the future, one religion, one economy, and one single culture or lifestyle to represent it? There’s a lot of work to do, to ‘decolonize the future’ but that’s something I’m willing to do for the next years to come. It’s an important job and I am starting to see some very interesting results. The sleepers are awaking and stating to realize that Science Fiction happens everywhere and that they should translate stories not only from English market, but also from Chinese, Spanish, Hindi, Portuguese, Arabic, French, Japanese, Korean, German and Italian…


On the craft of writing, over the past 15 years as a writer and as an editor who works with a range of  writers from all over the globe, Verso has picked up many valuable lessons on working from concept to publication and honing literary skills.


“As an advice, an editor once told me: ‘Furnish your plot, not your character’s thoughts,’ meaning that actions should emerge from the character’s behaviour and not from his/her mumbling and concerns. Readers are best engaged by other people’s actions and reactions more than their thoughts and internal monologues. That doesn’t mean characters should be flat and simply driven by hectic actions like in a thriller movie, but that – on the contrary – all inside feelings and emotions should arise to the surface of behavior during the course of events and physical actions. In other words, it simply means putting real life into fiction and not considering fiction as a literary world outside the real one.


“Over the course of 15 years of writing my own books and editing other people’s books, I’ve learned maybe a very simple thing: that fiction imitates life and life imitates fiction. That’s what makes Science Fiction plausible and moves the readers’ mind in a wonderful direction: a story that keeps doing its job even when the book is long over; the persistence of a book is the best measure of its quality. So for people who want to write SF today, my suggestions is to read exclusively current and contemporary stories (with some classics every once in a while). The genre is very different from the Golden Age of Science Fiction and it becomes obsolete very fast.


“Read a lot and read well: a writer is first of all a reader, a person that knows what has already been said and done, and someone that is trained in different narrative techniques and styles. And then of course study your topic, today it is not enough to put yourself at the computer to write excellent Science Fiction, the level of detail, coherence and competence required to not look like an amateur is very high, so you need to know and get informed using the various sources in an appropriate way: whether it is genetic engineering, solarpunk or climate-change, a credible secondary world is essential to engage the readers’ curiosity and keep their attention anchored to the story without closing the book after three or four blunders or blatant inconsistencies. The key word is plausibility: a writer does not have to be a scientist but those who choose to try their hand at Science Fiction must know how to recreate the illusion of verisimilitude, otherwise they will fall back into the fantastic, which is another genre,” he said.


And finally, Verso firmly believes that perseverance is the absolute critical trait every writer needs to fully embrace.


“The hardest things to learn: finish whatever you start; consider error and rejection as an obligatory step towards improvement, never give up in spite of everything and everyone. Basically an artist is a rookie who did not give up. And even when you have written 5-6 novels, even when you have won national and international awards, every time you have to get back to working on something new, always think that it is the first time, that you have never done nor achieved anything before. That’s the only way to make your last book the best you’ve written so far,” he said.


At the 7th EU-China International Literary Festival, Francesco Verso will join Hugo Award-winning author Hao Jingfang to discuss their books and their writing lives, in conversation with literary translator Zhang Fan.