Call for papers: Productive Futures

Productive Futures: The Political Economy of Science Fiction

Bloomsbury, London, 12-14 September

Keynote speakers: Dr. Caroline Edwards, Dr. Joan Haran

Guests of honour: Aliette de Bodard, Zen Cho, Tade Thompson

The history of science fiction (SF) is a history of unreal economics: from asteroid mining to interstellar trade, from robotic workforces to utopian communes, from the abolition of money and property to techno-capitalist tragedies of the near future.

The London Science Fiction Research Community (LSFRC) invites abstracts of 300 words, plus 50 word bios, addressing economic themes in SF, and/or exploring how SF can help to widen and evolve our sense of the economic. Please submit to lsfrcmail@gmail.com by 31st May 2019.

As the global economy is transformed by AI and automation, the economic themes of SF grow considerably more visible in everyday political discourse. Although capitalist liberal democracy continues to present itself as only reasonable option for ordering complex modern societies, SF offers a rich alternative tradition in which core capitalist institutions – money, finance, market, state, class, law, family – are fantastically permutated or abolished altogether. And, while mainstream economics tends to frame technological innovation as unproblematic progress – driving productivity, growth, and prosperity – SF has a much more critical and flexible understanding of how technology relates to everyday economic life.

Economics often likes to believe that it is about everything and anything. What do we spend our days doing? What gets made, and how? Who gets to own, use, and consume resources? Who works, and how, and why? Why are some things valued more than others? The reality is, the models of mainstream economics are established on a set of exclusions. Intricate social and cultural institutions are swept to one side, as though they either don’t matter, or are so natural and immutable that they can be taken for granted. Socially reproductive labour and affective labour is obscured, as are the histories of colonial war and appropriation on which most modern wealth is founded. Any understanding of economic systems as structured around the intricate network of intersecting, generative identities of the people whose labour, and frequently whose bodies, constitute it, is dispensed with. Instead we are presented with Homo economicus, the egoist agent pursuing its (frequently his) fixed set of interests. And the complex ecological connectivity of the more-than-human world is reduced to ‘natural capital,’ merely another input into the production process.

But many SF works – from Samuel Delany’s Triton, Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Dispossessed, Pamela Zoline’s ‘The Heat Death of the Universe’, Joanna Russ’s The Female Man, Octavia Butler’s Parables series, to Kim Stanley Robinson’s New York 2140 – radically challenge the narrowness of these visions. Such works reconnect flows of commodities and financial value not only with the wider world, but with networks of possible worlds. In the sex-work of replicants, the criminal ventures of digital cowboys, the domestic labour of the housewives of galactic suburbia, the life-cycles of titanic sandworms with magic spice in their bellies, SF reimagines what is meant by ‘economics.’ These networks – of workers, waged and unwaged, of the objects they produce, consume and are in many instances comprised of, and of the various financial and material systems they occupy – provide the field in which the economics of SF are negotiated. This is a field in which the legacies of slavery, the continued machinations of empire and the commodification of bodies is laid bare and recast in the hopes of imagining economic systems whose material, embodied reality would not be predicated on alienation and exploitation but on the production of new and better futures.

For our 2019 conference, LSFRC invites papers exploring the economic dimensions of SF. We understand ‘economics’ broadly: themes may include labour, finance, production, reproduction, distribution, exchange, value, automation, AI, blockchain and smart contracts, algorithmic governance, platform capitalism, platform co-operativism, migration, remittances, demographic transformation, degrowth and postgrowth, wellbeing economics, reparations, gifts, mutual aid, reciprocity, utopia and other -topias, totality, antiwork and postwork, scarcity and postscarcity, posthuman economics, the demise or evolution of the corporation, the demise or evolution of the nation state, and more. Our understanding of SF is likewise broad, and we welcome proposals considering SF across all media.

Suggested Critical Sources

  1. Silvia Federici, Witches, Witch-Hunting and Women (2018)
  2. Primavera De Filippi and Aaron Wright, Blockchain and the Law: The Rule of Code (2018)
  3. Cheryl McEwan, Postcolonialism, Decoloniality, and Development (2018)
  4. Will Davies (ed.), Economic Science Fictions (2018)
  5. Kate Raworth, Doughnut Economics (2017)
  6. Manu Saadia, Trekonomics: The Economics of Star Trek (2016)
  7. Peter Frase, Four Futures: Life After Capitalism (2016)
  8. McKenzie Wark, Molecular Red: Theory for Anthropocene (2015)
  9. Nigel Dodd, The Social Life of Money (2014)
  10. Kathi Weeks, The Problem With Work: Feminism, Marxism, Antiwork Politics, and Postwork Imaginaries (2011)
  11. Viviana Zelizer, Economic Lives: How Culture Shapes the Economy (2010)
  12. Erik Olin Wright, The Real Utopias series (1991-2009)
  13. Michael Albert, Parecon: Life After Capitalism (2003)
  14. Kodwo Eshun, More Brilliant Than the Sun (1998) and “Further Considerations on Afrofuturism” (2003)
  15. Elinor Ostrom, Governing the Commons (1990)

These are just a few ideas, and we welcome diverse theoretical approaches, including those grounded in science fiction studies; utopia studies; future studies; new economic criticism and the economic humanities; Marxist literary theory; gender studies and queer theory; digital, ecological, energy, and health humanities; and in political science, economics, sociology, and the social sciences generally. We encourage submissions from collaborators across disciplines and/or institutions. Contributors may also be interested in exploring related conferences and symposiums such as SFRA: The Future of Labor (Milwaukee, July 2018), and From Economic Science Fictions to Labour as Commons (Middlesex, June 2019).

Suggested Topics

Ideas for topics include, but are not limited to:

  • Solarpunk
  • Tales of near future precarity (‘kitchen sink dystopia,’ ‘science friction’ etc.)
  • Reproductive labour in SF: domestic automation, galactic surburbia, sex work in space
  • Automation, immaterial labour, and the space where SF becomes reality
  • The commodified body in neo-slave narratives and/or cyberpunk futures in SF film and TV
  • Science fictional reimaginings / abolitions of money, finance, market, state, class, law, family, etc.
  • Hopeful, apocalyptic, and mixed visions of climate change: geo-engineering, carbon capture, resilience
  • Space tinker, space tailor, space soldier, space spy: how does SF reimagine the division of labour?
  • Sustainable villainy: representing antagonism and conflict in a future where co-operation is everything
  • Xenofeminism
  • Giftedness and indebtedness in SF
  • The invisible hand and the great clomping foot: worldbuilding and economics
  • The economics of SF’s own cultural production; the economics of fandom
  • Science-fictional treatments of scarcity and post-scarcity
  • Diverse imperialisms: (neo)colonialism, appropriation, hegemony
  • The abolition of money, post-money societies, democratization of money, alternatives to money
  • SF and the planned economy (centrally planned and/or decentralised, human and/or AI)
  • Speculative economics: economics based on counterfactual and/or impossible premises
  • Warring non-states: libertarianism vs. anarchism in SF
  • New Economic Criticism (Shell, Goux etc.) and the linguistic economies of SF
  • Speculative fiction, speculative finance: the SF of stocks, bonds, commodities, currencies, derivatives … and futures
  • Speculative fiction, speculative finance, speculative realism: does recent new materialist / speculative realist / posthumanist theory require us to rethink the existence of economic ‘systems’ and ‘structures’?
  • The economics of the everyday: how do things like finance, value, exchange, production, labour, infrastructure, demographic transformation, appear in the everyday lives of SF characters?
  • SF and queer and crip domesticities
  • The economics of food in SF
  • Petroculture SF
  • Economic aporia and lacunae in SF
  • The future of redistributive justice, and the redistributive justice of the future (“The future is already here — it’s just not very evenly distributed”)
  • Data and value
  • Reparations, and reparative humanism / reparative post-humanism
  • The economics of the post-human; post-human economic agency
  • The economics of the non-human / more-than-human; non-human / more-than-human agency
  • “Fan-tax-tika”: taxation and fiscal policy in science fiction
  • Niche work if you can get it: SF and professionalism
  • SF and game theory / reverse game theory
  • Where do economics and utopia meet? How might SF contribute to the ongoing evolution of economics? And what might creators of SF, as custodians of radical visions of social organisation, learn from economics?

Submissions

LSFRC invites papers of 15-20 minutes addressing economic themes in SF. Please submit abstracts of 300 words, plus 50 word bios, to lsfrcmail@gmail.com by 31st May 2019. We also welcome proposals for panels, workshops, and unusual and/or innovative formats of all kinds, as well as any informal queries.

Productive Futures will be held in London, 12-14 September 2019. LSFRC hopes to be able to offer financial assistance to the unwaged and those undergoing financial hardship.

Reading Group Report for Brightness Falls From The Air

Cover art by Les Edwards for the UK Sphere edition of Brightness Falls from the Air

On Monday 3rd of June, the LSFRC reading group met at Birkbeck to discuss James Tiptree Jr.’s novel Brightness Falls from the Air (1985).

The novel follows a large cast of characters on a single night, who have travelled to the far reaches of the galaxy in order to witness the passing of a stellar phenomena, only visible from the planet Damiem. Many characters hold secret motives or undisclosed pasts, and their presence is complicated by the existence on the planet of the indigenous population, the Dameii, who have been brutally treated by previous human colonisers. As the night plays out the motives and dark pasts are revealed with explosive consequences.

I was not in fact present for the discussion (though I very much enjoyed reading the book). However I have been able to piece together the mysterious events of the reading group through the discovery of fragments from Katie Stone’s and Francis Gene-Rowe’s diaries:

Gender

The group began with a discussion of Tiptree’s pronouns. James Tiptree Jr. was the writing pseudonym of Alice Sheldon, and for many years readers assumed Tiptree was a man, and Tiptree did not correct them. It was suggested that the name Tiptree was both taken on as a professional name to distinguish from Sheldon’s other work (she worked for a time at the CIA, though before she took on the Tiptree writing name), as well as an exploration of her/their/his complex gender identity; i.e. the Tiptree name may have been an exploration of what would now be called transmasculinity.

Capitalism

It was suggested that the exploded star might be the spreading of capitalism. After the star has passed, the indigenous population (the Dameii) ask to be allowed to access to markets in order to sell their product, ‘Stars Tears’. Stars Tears is a liquor distilled from the naturally occurring nectar produced by the body of the Dameii, whose taste is particularly intense for humans, and whose potency can be increased via extraction of the liquid while the Dameii are in distress. Stars Tears was described by the group as the perfect commodity and there was discussion of the implications of the violent extraction process. Beauty itself becomes a commodity in the novel. Prince-Prince Pao ‘buys’ one of the characters, Stareem Fada (known as Star), to be part of his hareem.

Labour

There are many different forms of Labour in the novel. The Gridworld actors (Snake Smith, Eleganza (Bridey McBannion), Hannibal Ek, and Star) produce pornography; Ser Xe Vovoka is apparently a light-sculptor; Dr. Ochter, Dr. Hiner, and Mordecai Yule, are on the surface all academics, but actually criminals. Tiptree sympathetically portrays sex workers, though is critical of the Gridworld economic system which produces the pornography as it does not treat its workers well. The Federation (the interstellar alliance of planets in the galaxy), does not officially approve of Gridworld (Snake and Ek are not allowed to join the military because of their profession), but Gridworld is none the less an integral part of the wider economy of the Federation. There are a number of Doctors, or dabblers in medicine. Although Bram is the Doctor of the outpost of Damiem, the previous supervisor of the planet, Pace, becomes a doctor, and Zannez (the leader of the Gridworld troupe) performs doctorhood. It was suggested that medicine was not treated as a fetishised profession like in many novels but labour like any other work.

Colonialism

The Federation is sketched quite hazily. However, it does become apparent that the Federation, like with the Federation in the Star Trek franchise, considers itself to be a force for good. They even appear to have a similar concept to Star Trek’s Prime Directive, (i.e. a rule for non-interference in the affairs of indigenous populations). Illegal activities take place on the fringe of the Federation, such as the crimes against the Dameii people and the Gridworld exploitation. However, the treatment of the Dameii by the Federation either aims for their assimilation or to hold them in a reservation as ‘noble savages’, both of which are colonial behaviours.

Childhood

Tiptree represents the image of the child in a complex manner. Cory commits a war crime as a child, while Prince (12 years old) seems almost entirely adult and is involved in procuring/buying a concubine for himself. It was suggested that Tiptree takes seriously the idea of childhood autonomy and resists the image of children as innocents, in need of saving from an Other. The Dameii are in a sense an image of the childish/innocent noble savage – a prelapsarian race, in need of protection. However, as with the child characters, Tiptree gives the Dameii autonomy over their existence (albeit by their choosing to enter into capitalist relations).

Kinship

There are many kinship and relationship models in the novel; the romantic/parental relationship between Linnix and Bram; the working relationship between Kip and Cory which is also a sexual relationship; the friendship/work/love relationship between the Gridworlders; Prince-Prince Pao’s socialisation amongst adults; the intimacy of the Lady Pardalianches and her sister; the social organisation of the Dameii. Someone pointed out the kinky power-dynamics in many of these roles, power dynamics which cross age, social status, and dis/ability.

Form

The novel takes the form of a detective novel. A series of characters from across class/gender/race, are brought together to be witness to, and take part in a crime. The form allows an examination of power dynamics from a cross-section of society. However, the whole novel is strangely paced, with a long set-up of conversations, an hundred page cinematic action sequence, and a large amount of resolution at the end. The time eddies which are produced by the passing star, threatens to create alternative narrative lines, which nevertheless do not fully materialise.

June Reading Group Event: Brightness Falls from the Air

Cover art by Les Edwards for the UK Sphere edition of Brightness Falls from the Air

Monday 3rd of June from 7:00 pm till 8:30 pm.

Room 106, 43 Gordon Square, LONDON, WC1H 0PD

In June’s reading group event we will be discussing James Tiptree Jr.’s novel Brightness Falls from the Air (1985), hopefully linking it to our overall theme of the year of economics in science fiction. Afterwards we will be heading over to the Fitzroy Tavern for a couple of drinks and chat.

All are welcome and please get in touch if you have any questions about the event (our email is lsfrcmail@gmail.com). If you want to let us know you’re coming, you can visit our Facebook page, or our gath.io page for the event.

Reading Group Report for The Parable of the Talents

In our latest reading group meeting, held on the 29th April at Gordon Square, Birkbeck, we discussed The Parable of the Talents (1998) by Octavia Butler. 

The novel continues the story of Lauren Oya Olamina’s struggle, begun in The Parable of the Sower (1993), to survive the slide of the U.S. into racism and instability, through the propagation of her space oriented religion called Earthseed. The novel takes the form of curated excerpts from Lauren’s diaries presented and glossed by her estranged daughter Larkin, covering Lauren’s experience of setting up the commune of Acorn and the subsequent trials and tribulations which follow. 

The discussion was wide ranging and highly engaging. We even managed to spend a good deal of time discussing our theme of the year of economics and labour in science fiction.  

Below is a run-down of some of the topics that were discussed: 

The Family 

There was quite a disagreement about whether Lauren’s daughter Larkin was right to be so angry at her mother considering Lauren’s traumatic experiences. Larkin seems to feel that Lauren’s religion is another form of child who is preferred over Larkin. The Acorn community is one based on a wider kinship structure than the nuclear family. It appears at time that Lauren’s friends such as Zahra and Harry are closer to her than her own husband Bankole or her daughter. At the same time, though there are queer kinship structures, the basic unit for the community is one of a small family working within a larger community.  Also, despite the positive inclusion of queer characters within the Acorn community, it was felt that many of the queer characters had negative representation; the torture of Allie and her partner by the Christian Americans seemed gratuitous; Marcus is presented as an asexual and self-hating queer man; while sex-work is always connected with slavery and male homosexuality is often connected with paedophilia.

Religion 

Earthseed is both similar and an inverse of Christian America, the organization based on evangelical Christianity which gains power in Butler’s future U.S. Both demand full commitment, dignity and purpose through labour, and stable family structures. However Earthseed’s scripture is almost the opposite of Christianity. It is short, aphoristic, non-narrative, which appears at times (someone in the group pointed out) to be like the text of greeting card, as compared with the classic Christian mode of the sermon, often strongly narrative based and emotive. This is reflected in the structure of the groups. Christian America, and indeed many major religions use big narrative structures of redemption, heaven and eternal life in order to maintain small micro level structures such as the family and gender relations (for example). Earthseed in contrast uses everyday useful sayings that might aid on the micro level, to build into an alternative non-hierarchical community.  

Colonialism 

Earthseed is in many ways comparable to the colonial project. Unity through turning towards an ‘empty’ outside (Earthseed preaches that the final aim of the religion is to colonise space). However, this seems to be at odds with the generally anti-colonial message of the novel. It was pointed out that this tension is explored through the naming of the first Earthseed ship into space the Christopher Columbus—Lauren is not happy with the name because of its colonial connotations and yet agrees to it so that the ship will be allowed to take-off.  

Economics 

It was also pointed out that the spread of religion and of colonialism came under the guise of trade. Colonialism, Capitalism, and the dominance of Christianity develop hand in hand. Earthseed in many ways does not do much to transform the economic system but instead seems to work with in it. Later in the novel, as it comes to a close, Earthseed becomes quite wealthy and it is not clear where the money is coming from. Lauren does talks and gains donations from the wealthy. It appears to use neoliberal structures to spread the gospel rather than questioning the system, which has led to such destitution and misery in the first place. The imperfect system is used in order to reach goal of getting in to space. This is at odds with the ethos of the Acorn commune in which alternative forms of social organization is put before the goal of space colonization. We discussed the politics of finance for space projects: where does the money come from? Is it public or private money? Lauren is vague on these points. This may be deliberate or it may be that there was not enough space in the novel to fill in these gaps. I was reminded of Rachel Hill’s research into the politics of contemporary privatsed space initiatives, which use Utopian imagery to justify privatisation of the space industry.  

Labour 

Both Earthseed and Christian America valorise labour. At Acorn all members work hard and are expected to work hard, and when Christian America turn Acorn into a reeducation camp they also stress labour as a virtue. Both preach labour as a means of salvation—for Christian America for the heavenly salvation, and Earthseed for getting into space. However, Christian America are shown to be hypocrites, using religious doctrine to oversee and legitimise slavery just as the religious rhetoric of work in the past was used to legitimise slavery. For Earthseed, the labour is always put to good use for the good of the community. I suggested that there was a connection with the title of the novel, The Parable of the Talents, in that for Earthseed and for Lauren, value is created through work—investing and spreading the word of religion. However, it was suggested that in fact the burying of the talent is a form of labour as well, and that the Talents story is as much a move away from Old Testament emphasis on The Law and material goods/works towards love. A comparison was made between the labour in the novel and Octavia Butler’s own struggle to complete the novel, caused by a medically induced writer’s block. 

Disability/Empathy 

We had a long and fruitful discussion about the exploration of empathy in the novel. Lauren is a Sharer; a person who has the ability to feel the pain and pleasure of others, caused by the parent of the individual using/abusing a particular drug. This was described as a classic Butler move by one of the participants of the reading group. She takes a relatively simple attribute and exaggerates it. The attribute becomes both a super-power and a disability. It was pointed out that in Butler’s work these ability/disability paradigms are usually genetically inherited; for instance the inheritable disease in her short story ‘The Evening, The Morning and The Night’ (1987) and Cancer in the Xenogenesis Trilogy (1987-89). It is fitting that the disease of the Sharer should be caused by the parent attempting to work harder via drugs (the drug which causes the genetic condition is a concentration drug). 

Trauma 

Empathy in the novel exaggerates the trauma of the text, which in turn is a trauma of African American experience in the past and present projected by Butler into the near future—i.e. the ongoing legacy of slavery. The scarcity of the description of violence was praised as successfully addressing both the impossibility of representing trauma as well as reflecting Lauren’s own need to avoid such descriptions so that she would not relive the experiences (an exploration in many ways of PTSD). A comparison was made between the narrative technique in trauma fiction (such as Primo Levi and Toni Morrison) and Science Fiction. What is not described suggests a reality, which is beyond description. The absence is then filled in by the reader causing an empathetic relation to the text.  

Simulation 

The virtual reality technology of the Dreammask, which attempts to indoctrinate users into empathising with the suffering of Christ, was contrasted to the true empathy of Lauren and Sharers who actually do suffer like those that they see suffering. Someone suggested that it was similar in that respect to the religion of Mercerism in Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (1968), in that followers must use the empathy box in order to actually feel the death and sacrifice of Mercer. Empathy in that sense becomes a power relation. The way in which Butler sees the bigoted and corrupt decline of President Jarett, was contrasted with Baudrillard’s reading of the Watergate scandal. Baudrilliard argues that contrary to media representation, Watergate only reinforced government power and corruption, as it suggested that it was an aberration rather than the proper functioning of a system, which is corrupt in itself. 

Utopia/Dystopia 

We ended with a discussion of the particular entanglement of optimism and pessimism, in Butler’s work. Butler never allows either a fully utopian or dystopian mode to dominate the other, rather staying with the trouble to produce a militant call to work through suffering and trauma towards a better world. There was then a shout out for the work of adrienne moree brown who edited Octavia’s Brood (2015)—an anthology of original fiction by activists inspired by Butler and also her podcast with autumn brown ‘How to survive the end of the world.’ 

Poster for Productive Futures

We can now release the poster for our call for papers for the 2019 LSFRC three day conference, Productive Futures, held from the 12th to the 14th of September at Birkbeck , designed by Sinjin Li.

Sinjin Li have this to say about their design:

“The CfP poster takes the form of an official pamphlet, issued by non-Terran authorities who are keen to encourage a receptive atmosphere with regard to entering interplanetary trade relations with Earth. With communication being an essential component of such exchanges, the pamphlet is intended to decode humans via a well-intentioned explanation of their key sensory receptors.”

Please enjoy, share, and circulate to all human and non-human entities. For details see the bottom of the poster or visit our CfP post.

Organic Systems: Science Fiction and Ecology Today

Birkbeck and Goldsmiths, University of London

This series of four CHASE training events will explore the relation between science fiction (SF) and ecology as the nexus of an emergent set of interdisciplinary research interests. Much recent research and theory has pointed to the complementary nature of these two prominent areas of contemporary thought, often highlighting the creative and critical power of the science-fictional imagination for addressing ecological questions and concerns that are necessarily difficult to think within established epistemological frameworks – by virtue of their novelty, futurity and scales. These same factors mean that, despite a growing body of relevant work emerging in particular in critical science fiction studies and what have been called environmental humanities and posthumanities, there remains a shortage of obvious methodological resources and training for research students working at or wanting to engage in this area of crossover.

The title draws on the work already done by the London Science Fiction Research Community, who have also played an important role in advising on this new series of CHASE workshops.

Each event will comprise (1) a dedicated training session for PGR students, which will include practical components (e.g. on accessing archives, applying for fellowships, or discussion of the experience of research and issues arising from it), (2) a roundtable event with expert speakers on a particular theme, and (3) a semi-formal reception to promote the formation of collaborations and networks.

The programme is intended for doctoral students, and priority will be given to those studying at institutions that are members of the CHASE consortium. If space allows, then other scholars and members of the public will also be welcome. CHASE students can register to reserve places once registration goes live on the CHASE website.

Dates (all 2019), themes and venues for the four sessions are as follows.

1. Thursday 2nd May: SF and Critical Ecologies (Goldsmiths)

2-3:30: PhD Training session (Laurie Grove Baths Council Room): ‘Fantastic Literature in the Archive’.

4-5:30: Panel (Deptford Town Hall 109): ‘Planetary Resources: The Value of SF for Critical Ecological Thinking’.

5:45: Reception

2. Thursday 23rd May: SF and Ecology on Screen (Birkbeck)

2-3: PhD Training session (BBK Cinema): ‘Fellowships in Fantastic Fiction’.

3:30-5: Panel (BBK Cinema): ‘SF and Ecology on Screen’.

5-6: Reception outside BBK Cinema.

6-9: Screening of Solaris (1972, dir. Andrei Tarkovsky) in Clore Lecture Theatre, Birkbeck, introduced by London Science Fiction Research Community.

3. Thursday 4th July:   Ecologies of Gender (Birkbeck)

2-3:30: PhD Training session (Keynes Library, Birkbeck): ‘Public Engagement: Communicating SF Research to the General Public’.

4-5:30: Panel (Keynes Library, Birkbeck): ‘SF, Ecology and Gender’.

5:45: Reception (106, 43 Gordon Square).

4. Thursday 12th September: Science Fiction/Fiction Science (Science Museum)

11-12: PhD Training Session: ‘An Introduction to the Science Museum Archive’.

12-1: Time to explore Science Museum.

1-2: Lunch.

2-3:30: Panel: ‘SF, Science and Environment’.

3:45-5: Beyond Gender: Approaches to Science, from a feminist PGR collective.

5-6:30: Reception.

May Reading Group Event: Parable of the Talents

Monday 29th of April from 7:00 pm to 8:30 pm

Room 106, 43 Gordon Square, LONDON, WC1H 0PD

This month we’ll be discussing Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Talents. This is the second in Butler’s Parable series but it can be read as a stand alone novel if you don’t feel you have the time for Parable of the Sower (but you should make time because it is phenomenal).

We’ll discuss the economics of community building, organised religion and scientific revolution before heading over the the Fitzroy Tavern for a couple of drinks/a chance to plot revolutions of our own.

Please note that the event will be taking place on the last Monday of April (29th April) and not the first Monday of May as would be our usual date.

All are welcome and please get in touch if you have any questions about the event (our email is lsfrcmail@gmail.com). If you want to let us know you’re coming, you can visit our Facebook page, or our gath.io page for the event.

CN: This book contains scenes of torture and sexual violence.

Reading Group Report on Children of Men

On the evening of the 1st of April, we met at 43 Gordon Square, Birkbeck, to watch and discuss the film Children of Men (2006). We began in the cinema for two hours, and then made our way to a seminar room on the first floor for a discussion.

The film follows the travails of Theo Faron, in a future dystopian UK, in which the sudden ceasing of human fertility has led to a repressive, racist, and decaying state. Theo finds himself embroiled in a plot to overthrow the government and is tasked with looking after a young woman, who holds particular political currency.

I was not able to join the discussion afterwards due to work. All I can say, and I have also corroborated with others who attended the screening, that it was certainly a highly affecting experience. This was the third time I have watched the film and I don’t remember being quite so moved, or the film hitting so many nerves.

As I was not present for the discussion, I have reconstructed the themes that were explored, from the notes of fellow LSFRC organiser Katie Stone.

Themes:

Context

When the film first came out, the immediate context for the militaristic and repressive state represented in the film, was the Iraq war and New Labour. However, it was pointed out that within our own context, the film is becoming more, not less, familiar. Firstly, the shabby and decaying infrastructure is more recognizable now than during the still economically buoyant landscape of 2006. Mark Fisher presciently used the film at the opening of Capitalist Realism (2009) in order to explore the continuation of capitalism without the ability to imagine an alternative. Secondly, the ongoing persecution and vilification of migrants in our political moment (for example the ‘migrant crisis’, the Windrush scandal, Theresa May’s ‘migrant’s go home vans’, the large increase in immigration enforcement over the decade), attended by both state and street violence, makes the harrowing internment of migrants within the film much closer to our lived experience. It was noted also, that the UK has a long history of internment camps and that currently many people are being held at detention centres around the UK (for example Yarl’s Wood).

Character

Theo’s character was seen to be very much a blank page or cypher for other people’s impressions and ideas. He also becomes a Christ like figure or a white saviour at the end of the film, when he sacrifices himself.  Kee, the young pregnant woman, was felt to have a lack of agency and also that her naked body was exploited to produce the Madonna image in the cow shed. Finally, there was debate over whether the hippy aesthetic of Theo’s friend Jasper was reactionary or revolutionary.  It is hinted that Jasper was once a political cartoonist, who critiqued the government. However, now Jasper is the very image of the 1960s drop out, and sells weed to detainment camp guards.

Adaptation

The film emphasizes the militaristic and totalitarian state, whereas the society depicted in the book by P.D. James The Children of Men (1992) shows society in a general decline in a similar manner to Brian Aldiss’s Greybeard (1964). The book is analysed in Lee Edleman’s No Future (2005) as an example of queer erasure in favour of the potential child (more on this in a second).  Several people felt that the theme of the corruption of power was a highlighted in the book, and downplayed in the film adaptation. There was some reflection on the ethical implication in the film of having the freedom fighters be as corrupt and violent as the government.

Animals

There is quite a lot of animal imagery in the film. Firstly there is the background burning of animals, evoking mad cow disease or foot and mouth, and has similarities to Oryx and Crake (Margaret Atwood, 2003). Secondly, all animals seem to love Theo, and are treated as pseudo child replacements. Finally the labour of cows is directly linked to Kee’s pregnancy in the Madonna scene.

The Image of the Child

This point has perhaps been covered in other themes, but the image of the child is a very important symbol for the film (as indeed it is for the book as well). Kee’s child becomes the symbol of hope and of the future, for which adults must sacrifice themselves. There is one fantastic scene where the fighting between the military forces and the rebels is stopped by the appearance of the baby. The part shot in the derelict school is both a representation of a world haunted by a lack of children and a glimpse of a hopeful post-human future.

Art/Institutions

The scene set in Battersea Power Station brought up questions around the preservation and presentation of art in institutions. Theo asks his relative what the point is in collecting art now that there are no future generations to see it.  The idea that there is some future audience that might see it merely defers the question about the reason and function of collecting art. This was then connected with the idea of Baudrillard’s ‘simulacrum’, when Theo mentions that his mother had a plastic ‘David’ that was also a lamp. The lamp might very well be more whole than the original, that has now lost a leg. There are also two shots in which we see Picasso’s Guernica, which was thought to be significant (ironic relation of art to reality? The violence and pain of the society depicted?)

Labour

There are not many jobs left in the Britain depicted in the film, and they are mostly connected with security (both police and military). Other jobs that seemed viable were advertising (there is a lot of advertising used to great effect in the film) and gambling (Theo goes to the dog races). Of course there is also the labour of child-birth, so that paradoxically, in a film highlighting the absence of children, reproductive labour is raised up to an almost religious experience, perhaps mystifying its reality.

Splintered Memories Conference Report

Audience and Participants of Splintered Memories, in the Keynes Library, the 29th March, holding Boycott Senate House leaflets.

Splintered Memories: Life in the Glasshouse was a one day single stream impromptu conference on the 29th of March, organised by the London Science Fiction Research Community, and held in the Keynes Library at Birkbeck, from 10.30am until 5pm. 

The content of the event cannot easily be separated from its genesis. Originally all the papers at Splintered Memories were to be given at Memories of the Future, a two day multi-stream conference held at Senate House on the 29-30th of March, on the topic of the relationship of memory to the future (or how cultural and social memory of the past produces the future). The speakers had been invited to participate on behalf of the Memories of the Future conference by the LSFRC organising committee and were due to speak at different times throughout the two day event. 

However, it came to our attention (the LSFRC organising committee) that there is an ongoing boycott of Senate House events called by the IWGB (the Independent Workers’ Union of Great Britain– the union who represents outsourced workers at Senate House), in support of the long campaign for outsourced workers to be employed directly by the University with full access to sick pay, holiday pay, and a fair wage. After communication with the organisers of Memories of the Future, we decided to pull out of the conference in order to respect the boycott and give our unequivocal support to the outsourced workers at Senate House. 

We swiftly organised a separate event, Splintered Memories, in part to honour the invite we had given to our speakers, and also to incorporate an institutional critique and a consideration of labour into the theme of memory and its relationship to the future. As one speaker, Amy Butt, aptly argued: What memories do particular institutions choose to project and what invisible labour is used in order to produce it? In addition, as IWGB legal case worker Jordi Lopez asked: What different futures could be built if we listened to the memories of struggle of those who reproduce institutional spaces?

The morning began with a panel titled ‘Science Fictional Consciousness: Transcendence, Imaginaries’. Llew Watkins opened with a paper exploring the notion of consciousness and memory in the Dzogchen Buddhist tradition, through an analysis of Final Fantasy VII (1997) and the 1983 French graphic novel, Samaris. Sasha Myserson followed with a paper on the protean music genre, Vaporwave, arguing that the music is not simply an ironic parody of 1990s nostalgia, but a mode through which capitalist desires might be redirected in a post-capitalist society. Finally, Rachel Claire Hill explored the use of Space Age utopianism by the New Space Industries in order to legitimise their projects centered on growth, profit, and the privatisation of space, whilst denuding the originals of their utopian content.  

We then broke for an hour lunch (food was not provided), and returned for the second panel ‘Science Fictional Remembering: Nostalgia, Ruins’. Asami Nakamura spoke of the function of nostalgia in Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go (2005), arguing that nostalgia is not redemptive in the novel but is used as a tool to naturalise social violence through mythologising memories. Next Dan Byrne-Smith explored the retro-futuristic adverts of the comic series Bitch Planet (2014-2017 by artist Kelly Sue DeConnick, and artist Valentine De Landro), showing how the speculative design of the work allowed for the emergence of the not-yet utopian impulse described by Ernst Bloch in The Principle of Hope (1954-1959). It should be noted that Dan’s piece was not so much spoken as performed, with the content of the presentation projected while Dan accompanied its movement on a synth and sound mixer. To finish Amy Butt spoke about the concept of maintenance in relation to the presentation of cultural artifacts in museums, through a number of sf novels including We (Yevgeny Zamyatin, 1924), The Drowned World (J.G. Ballard, 1962), The Time Machine (H.G. Wells, 1895), and The Wanderground (Sally Miller Gearhart, 1979). 

During the question and answer session at the end of the panel, around twenty people joined us, swelling the Keynes Library to capacity. The group was part of a number of people who were due to speak at the Memories of the Future event, but had refused to cross the picket line at Senate House. In the tea break Jordi Lopez, an IWBG legal case worker, spoke to the conference about the Boycott Senate House campaign, eloquently linking the theme of the conference to the long history and memory of struggle of precarious and migrant workers in the Bloomsbury area, and specifically at Senate House. The final panel was due to have a single person speaking, Kate Meakin, as the other speaker unfortunately had to pull out. However, the absence of a second speaker allowed us the opportunity to invite two of the academics who had boycotted the Memories of the Future to give their papers as well.

And so we began the final session of the day (‘Invaders Must Live: The Time(s) and Memory of Activism’) with a talk from Kate Meakin about the erasure of African American and Native American women in recent protests for reproductive rights that appropriated the handmaid costume from the Handmaid’s Tale (both the original novel by Margaret Atwood (1985) and the recent televisions series). Next Alice Atkinson Philips spoke about the appropriation of sculpture as memorial in two public sculptures in Australia (Der Rufer by Gerhard Marcks in Perth and Youngsters by Caroline Rothwell in Sydney), highlighting public art’s role as site of political conflict and meaning production. Finally, Sean Seeger spoke about the 2017 novel The Book of Joan by Lidia Yuknavich, arguing that the narrative critiques techno-capitalism from a complex ecological position that Seeger names Neo-Romanticism.

We were due to have a roundtable to finish but instead decided to invite all the participants and audience members to join a circle to discuss the day, with particular attention to university labour and memory. We spoke of the memory of precarity and punitive responses to labour movements in the Bloomsbury area, the increasingly fractured and precarious nature of contemporary academic jobs, and the links between intellectual critique and the application (or more often non-application) of those ideas and critiques to the institutions from which they are produced.

At five, the day ended, and we went together to the Fitzroy Tavern for a drink. I was personally greatly moved and encouraged by the day. I had thought that the conference would simply be a set of panels, transferred from one space to another. Instead, in a large part thanks to those academics who refused to cross the picket line and the self-consciousness of our speakers, the day became one of reflection, anger, and solidarity, finally breaking through the blindness of the academy to its own production, and hopefully the beginning of a new political consciousness and radicalism within the academic community.

April Reading Group Event: Children of Men

Monday 1 April 2019 from 6:00 pm to 8:30 pm

Birkbeck Cinema, 43 Gordon Square, London WC1H 0PD

For the next installment of our reading group, we will be screening Children of Men (2006) at the Birkbeck Cinema. After the conclusion of the screening, we’ll head upstairs to Room 106 for roughly 45 minutes of informal discussion. And then after that we’ll go to the Fitzroy Tavern for some even more casual chats. All welcome! If you want to let us know you’re coming, you can visit our Facebook page, or our gath.io page for the event.