Ways of Telling the Future – limits to scientific texts and fiction for describing climate change?

The New York Times recently published a piece where scientists are asked to comment on climate fiction and to assess to what extent these depictions of the future are realistic.

image source: NYTimes / Jordin Isip

The short piece feels strangely inadequate and limited for a variety of reasons, the first reason being, perhaps, that literary fiction is exactly defined by not having truth-value in the referential world. If the starting point of the article is flawed, the researchers interviewed seem to point at that in their own answers, for example when one answers that “Humans are able to probe these issues in ways that are different through the lens of fiction.” What the article does, then, is have scientists tell us what literary fiction can do, by asking of literature what science can do.

The best point of the article comes in the end, when “Dr. Foley [executive director of the California Academy of Sciences] said that if he ever wrote a novel, it would be one in which “we all do the slow, hard muddling work of just pitching in, but no hero rides in on a spaceship to save us all.” It would be a terrible novel, he admitted. “No one would buy it, and Hollywood wouldn’t make a movie, but it’s the one I want, and it would surely save the world.””

The article is enlightening for the most part by the very questions it asks, emphasizing the difficulties we continue to have in imagining futures emanating directly from our current choices, and the way in which different kinds of texts are able to envision different aspects of such futures, from accumulating effects, numbers and figures in scientific data, to the “qualia” of what change feels like in literary fiction. Questions that are at the heart of much current work in the environmental humanities, and also in my current research project “Narratives of the Urban Waterfront in Crisis.

“Folding City” at ENN2017, Prague

Thanks to everyone at ENN2017, Prague, for inspiring presentations and discussions. My own presentation is part of broader research on urban futures, the relationship between imagined and actual cityworlds, and urban (future) crisis. Happy to have had the opportunity to develop ideas ao. with Laura Oulanne, David Rodriguez and Marco Caracciolo, with a view to develop a book project on (ao.) space and non-human presence in literary fiction.

Experiencing the weak house: Modernist interior descriptions beyond domesticity
Laura Oulanne (University of Helsinki)
Folding city: Environmental change, ontological instability, and urban crisis in 21st century literary fiction
Lieven Ameel (University of Tampere)
Aerial description and environmental imagination in narrative landscapes
David Rodriguez (Stony Brook University)

Abstract below:

Folding city: Environmental change, ontological instability, and urban crisis in 21st century literary fiction

This presentation will explore ontological instabil­ity in a range of contemporary New York novels. I am particularly interested in the implications of poten­tially apocalyptic undercurrents in the narrated space for an understanding of how fictional texts come to grips with complex environmental threats and non-human agency. The literary texts are Teju Cole’s Open City (2011), Jonathan Lethem’s Chronic City (2009), Ben Lerner’s 10:04 (2014) and Nathaniel Rich’s Odds Against Tomorrow (2013), novels that thematize palimpsestic layers of meaning in urban space, as well as ambiguous temporal structures, and that are informed in particu­lar by an interest in the impact of the future on the present. In these fictional texts, a sense of threat and ontological instability is realized in continuous refer­ences to unusual weather conditions (in all four novels), and, more specifically, in Chronic City, the appearance of a gigantic tiger rummaging underneath New York, and in the novels by Rich and Lerner, by the intimations of coming catastrophic flood. In terms of methodological framework and theoretical approaches, my presentation will draw on Gilles Deleuze’s concept (in his work on Leibniz) of the fold (Deleuze 1993), with reference also to Brian McHale’s “flickering effect” (1987) and Bertrand Westphal’s “heterotopic interference” (Westphal 2005: 101). The fold will be one key conceptualization with which to approach representations of urban space in crisis, enabling a connection – rather than a polariza­tion – between inner and outer, immaterial and mate­rial, possible and present.

Moving towards Possible Cities

Moving towards Possible Cities: Future Urban Waterfronts in Contemporary Fiction
Speaking at the Association for Literary Urban Studies conference (Im)Possible Cities about my current research: future urban waterfronts in contemporary fiction, and what literary texts of the waterfront can tell us about the future and about our possibilities to prepare for and act upon the future. From the abstract:
“In contemporary fictional texts describing the urban waterfront under threat, crossing urban borders is conditioned by competing pathways towards the future, which appears in early 21st century literature as a crucial conceptual and ontological border zone for understanding the present. Moving into this border zone thus also entails becoming aware of questions of agency and moral responsibility, as is exemplified by the trajectory of the protagonist in Odds Against the Future, who moves from the question “What was possible? What should we be afraid of?” (Rich 2013: 7) to asking: what would be “the right thing to do” (Rich 2013: 161)?”

Planning for the Future – Narratives of Urban Waterfronts at Plannord2017

Speaking today (17.8.2017) at Plannord2017 on the topic of “Planning for the Future – Narrating crisis and agency in literary fiction and planning narratives of the urban waterfront”

From the abstract:

“What can be known about the future, what is there to fear, and what role is there for human agency, individually or collectively – for acting upon the future? These questions are addressed here from the perspective of narrative frames, with a specific reference to the stories that are told of the near future of the New York waterfront in. Drawing on a range of textual sources, from policy documents and strategy texts to literary novels that dwell on the challenges and possibilities of the urban waterfront, this paper wants to sketch a move, in narratives and research, from knowledge to action, from preparing for the future to acting upon the future. In doing so, this paper also traces the narrative limits of policy and planning texts, and of fictional texts, when envisioning slow-burning crises.”

The paper is part of my ongoing research of future visions of cities at the water: more about that here.

Toponyms in Helsinki novels

The most recent Norna-Rapporter features an article by Terhi Ainiala and me (in Swedish) that examines readerly experiences of place names in Helsinki novels. Thanks to Terhi for the inspiring cooperation and to my students at the University of Helsinki who answered our questionaires!

“Ortnamn kan spela en viktig roll i skapandet av den litterära världen i romaner,
men deras betydelse undervärderas ofta. Ortnamn kan ha t.ex. sociala,
moraliska, och estetiska betydelser utöver de enbart geografiska. På
vilka sätt skapar ortnamn i litteraturen den litterära världen och de litterära
platserna? På vilka sätt hjälper ortnamnen läsaren att lära känna den litterära
världen? Och vilka konsekvenser får det om läsaren inte känner till
de ortnamn som används? Läsaren lever kanske i en annan tid eller på en
annan plats än den avsedda läsaren (se t.ex. Iser 1978) eller är avskärmad
från den litterära världen på grund av språkliga och kulturella skillnader. I
denna artikel försöker vi svara på dessa frågor och undersöker ortnamnens
roll som indikatorer i vissa Helsingforsromaner.”

Ainiala, Terhi & Ameel, Lieven 2017: “Känslan av namn i stadslitteraturen: ortnamn som indikatorer i Helsingforsromaner.” Norna-Rapporter 94. Namn och identitet Handlingar från NORNAs 46:e symposium i Tammerfors den 21–23 oktober 2015, 133-146.


Review of Narrating Space / Spatializing Narrative

My review of Narrating Space / Spatializing Narrative: where narrative theory and geography meet, in the journal Social & Cultural Geography, has just been published on Taylor & Francis Online.

A free eprint link to the publication can be found here:


From the review:

“Narrating Space / Spatializing Narratives is a book that will be of interest for everyone working on the interdisciplinary crossroads where questions of space and narrative meet. It will set readers from a range of disciplines on track toward new sources, methods, and their applications. The book exemplifies some of the challenges still to be overcome, in particular, in terms of transposing the concept of narrative to other fields of study without diluting its terminological precision. While the opening chapters will provide a well-structured conceptual toolbox to any newcomer to the field, more advanced scholars from a range of backgrounds will find in this book new directions for research in an exciting and burgeoning field that only recently has begun to fully explore the potential of a narrative analysis – on the basis of concepts and methods from narrative and literary studies – for questions of space.”

Ameel, Lieven 2017: “Narrating Space / Spatializing Narrative: where narrative theory and geography meet.” In Social & Cultural Geography.


Futures of the Urban Waterfront, 23.5., Jyväskylä

On my way to Jyväskylä for the Finnish Literary Society yearly seminar, this year organized together with the Cultural Studies days, in a themed “Environments” conference.

Speaking tomorrow (23.5.) on the subject of futures of the urban waterfront in literary fiction of New York, with a focus on Ben Lerner’s 10:04 and Nathaniel Rich’s Odds against tomorrow. Examining how knowledge (of the future) turns into experience in fictional narratives, and the importance of assessing present futures and future presents.

Conference programme (in Finnish) below.


Interview with Radio Moreeni – what narratives for urban planning?

I was interviewed (in Finnish) by Radio Moreeni (Tampere/Finland) about my research, and specifically about my research project on urban planning narratives.

A list of my recent publications with immediate reference to my post-doctoral research project on narrative and urban planning can be found here:


The interviewed aired yesterday (19.4.), and is available on soundcloud:



Panel on Music and Urban Transformation at the Kontula Electronic festival, 21.4.

I’m participating in a panel discussion on music and urban transformation at the Kontula Electronic Festival (21.4., 19h, Kontula shopping centre). With Pekka Tuominen, Giacomo Bottà, Inka Rantakallio and Larri Helminen. Fascinating setting and timely subject.

Kontula Electronic: Panel Discussion

Sound & Vision: Urban Transformation in Helsinki

Fri 21.4. klo 19 Museum of Impossible Forms, Kontula Shopping Centre (Keinulaudankuja 4 E 21, by the Central Square, next to Kontulan Huolto)

Helsinki is changing fast. It might be because of special coffee selections and microbreweries or because of district activism; because of electronic music festivals or because of planning politics.

Changes carry consequences. These might be positively affecting all citizens, regardless of their monthly salary slips, or just targeting some lucky Helsinkians, while the others face segregation into real or imagined ‘problem areas’.

What do we know about this? Not much more than you do. This is why we decided to get together and talk about it in this free-form panel.


Pekka Tuominen (facilitator of the panel) is an anthropologist studying urban environments. He is currently the head of research associated with Kontula Electronic and has been studying urban transformation in Istanbul for over a decade. In addition, he has been working in multidisciplinary projects, involving scholars of urban studies, artists and designers, dealing with the questions of future developments of the urban sphere.

Giacomo Bottà is a researcher in urban cultural studies, currently financed by the SKR. He is lecturing in various European universities including the University of Helsinki and Düsseldorf University of Applied Sciences. He researches about music cities, in particular post-industrial European ones, like Manchester, Torino, Tampere and Düsseldorf.

Lieven Ameel is University Lecturer of Comparative Literature at the University of Tampere, Finland. He has a PhD in Finnish and in Comparative Literature (University of Helsinki, Finland / JLU Giessen, Germany), and is adjunct professor in Urban Studies and Planning Methods. In his current research, he examines experiences of the urban waterfront in crisis in literary fiction and planning documents.

Inka Rantakallio is a doctoral candidate in Musicology at the University of Turku. Her doctoral thesis focuses on Finnish underground rap, and she also lectures about hip hop culture more broadly. She also co-hosts the weekly Rap Scholar radio show on Bassoradio.

Larri Helminen is the director of Kontukeskus and coordinator of Vetoa ja voimaa Mellunkylään network. He has a long career as a producer for several Finnish festivals (e.g. Pori Jazz, Kontufest) and has been working as an editor for Rytmi magazine. As one of the pioneers of digital culture in Finland, he has also acted as the head producer for the Lasipalatsi Media Centre.


Helsinki’s Islands in Literature – urban archipelago as heterotopian space

Helsinki’s islands in literature are the subject today of a public lecture (in Finnish) in the studia generalia series on islands in Finnish literature at the University of Tampere.

I will present on the basis of a forthcoming article, written together with Sarianna Kankkunen, which examines Helsinki’s archipelago as a heterotopian space.

From the introduction:

“The islands of Helsinki appear in literature repeatedly as a space that questions the order of the capital – and of society at large -, and that present it with a reverse image. In literary depictions and the experiences of literary characters, the otherness of islands is emphasized, as is their transformative power. The urban islands are also the arenas for identity transformations – spaces, where characters undergo a spiritual or mental awakening. The dynamics between the city and the islands along its shores depict the fundamental tensions between community and individual, between the self and the world.” (Ameel & Kankkunen 2017; forthcoming)

(translated free from Finnish)

“Pääkaupungin saaristo on ollut esillä kirjallisuudessa 1800-luvun historiallisista romaaneista ja vaikkapa Zachris Topeliuksen pakinoista aina 2000-luvun romaanitaiteeseen. Helsingin saaret näyttäytyvät kirjallisuudessa toistuvasti tiloina, jotka kyseenalaistavat pääkaupungin – ja sitä kautta yhteiskunnan – järjestystä ja tarjoavat sille käänteisen kuvan. Kirjallisissa kuvauksissa ja romaanihenkilöiden kokemuksissa korostuu saarien toiseus ja niissä piilevä muutosvoima. Saaret ovat myös minuuden muodonmuutoksen näyttämöitä – tiloja, joissa henkilöt käyvät läpi henkisen herätyksen. Kaupungin ja sen edustalla sijaitsevan saaren välinen voimakenttä kuvastaa jännitettä yhteisön ja yksilön, minuuden ja muun maailman välillä.” (Ameel & Kankkunen 2017; tulossa)

Ameel, Lieven & Kankkunen, Sarianna 2017 (forthcoming): “Saaristo kaupungissa – Helsingin saaret kirjallisuudessa.” (“Archipelago in the city – Helsinki’s islands in literature”) In Lahtinen, Toni, Sagulin, Merja & Laakso, Maria (eds.): Suomalaisen kirjallisuuden saaret (“Islands in Finnish Literature”). Helsinki: SKS.