Adventures in post-truth worlds at CERN

Cover designed by Eva Nazarova and illustrated by Ilyanna Kerr.  ISBN 978-1-913380-80-9 (paperback)

It’s been a few months now since my novel, The Disinformation War, was published. Readers are leaving reviews in various places — thank you! I’ve done a few readings, which seem to have gone well. Big thanks to Gareth L. Powell for hosting me on his Substack in September. 

If you’re interested in books and publishing, and the creative world in general, you’ll no doubt know about the various pressures on it. Money seems scarce at anywhere apart from the top and competition is fierce. The economic model behind “trad publishing” is rightly being questioned as unsustainable. But that’s happening at the same time as market monopolies and vulture capitalists put the squeeze on. Writers aren’t the only people feeling the pinch, or doing what we can to work together to share opportunities and push back against the nonsense. If you subscribe to SFF zines, do please pay attention to what their publishers and editors are saying or more of these vital publications will die.

Technological advances that could be great keep being directed at the arts as though intellectual property isn’t a thing. Art of all kinds are being stolen to feed frenzied content mills… Solidarity and kudos to the strikers and guilds in the USA who have scored a few victories against one such threat.

The fight continues.

And then there are the blows by the owners of social media platforms against freedom of expression even as they cry they are all for free speech. It doesn’t take much to learn that they mean free speech for people who want to oppress and kill people they don’t like. Suffice it to say that I’m reducing my presence on social media sites. I’m on Bluesky and have invitation codes for those of you who’d like to join. Drop me a line at s.j [at] groenewegen [dot] co [dot] uk.

These matters and more provided a backdrop to the second in-person SF workshop at CERN’s Idea Square. It was held over two days at the end of September 2023.

My friend Simon Guerrier wrote about his experiences last year at CERN, which outlines what these events are about and where they came from. Basically, CERN’s Idea Square is bringing groups of people together to use SF to better communicate CERN’s discoveries and to explore the impacts of technological developments on people.

Much to my surprise and delight, Dr Una McCormack got in touch with me to ask if I’d like to go to the second in-person workshop. 

Would I? Hell, yes!

This time, we focussed our work on “post-truth”. Six of us created a variety of scenarios to explore what that term means and how it might affect take up of new technologies. That sparked a lot of fantastic conversation about the nature of “truth”, “conspiracy theories”, and the limitations of human cognition.

Most of the two days was spent testing and developing a suite of games designed to encourage thinking beyond the narrow confines of our comfort zones. Many of them were familiar in concept for creatives: pick a selection of prompts to mash together to form a story. We also discussed many facets of this type of creativity, as well as the types of scenarios and stories we generated. Our group came from such a wide variety of backgrounds and experiences, and so willing to share and learn, that the two days were packed full and sped by.

We were given the opportunity to go on two tours. As this was my first time at CERN, I went on both.

The first was to the anti-matter factory, which was in the news last week. As regular readers of my work know, I grew up with Dr Who. There are a few Dr Who stories in which anti-matter is used to create a monster or two. Simon Guerrier discussed anti-matter in his book, The Scientific Secrets of Doctor Who (BBC Books, 2015: 108-109) and CERN gets a mention. Let’s just say that reality differs from the fictional depictions, and that reality has the edge on the fictional in this case.

The second was a walking tour through the CERN campus. Highlights were the story of the World Wide Web and its development at CERN, and the first collider that CERN built. The little collider is still used for experiments that are of practical benefit as well as theoretical. The Large Hadron Collider was in use, which meant we couldn’t get close to it this time.

I’d like to thank Idea Square at CERN and Una McCormack for organising this workshop, and everyone who attended it. I certainly had a blast of a time, and I filled numerous pages of my notebook with ideas for stories, characters and situations.

© 2 October 2023