With the “Productive Futures” conference nearly upon us, we have created this post as a way to track event information not included in the conference programme booklet.
Building and Room Details:
Please note that the building address is 43 Gordon Square.
N.B. That rooms B03, B04 and B06 are all in the basement of the building, and can be reached by stairs or elevator. The Keynes Library is on the first floor of the building.
The “Provocations Beyond Fiction” plenary session at the end of Friday 13th will take place in B04.
N.B. Contrary to what the programme booklet states: – Panel 1A will be taking place in B04, with Panel 1B taking place in B03. – Panel 4A will be taking place in the Keynes Library, with Panel 4C taking place in B03.
Internet in the Building: Eduroam is available in the building. If you have Eduroam access, we request that you make use of it rather than the guest Wi-Fi. We also have guest Wi-Fi available. The network’s name is BBK-Guest, and you can login with the username productivef and password lsfrc19. We have been granted a total of 100 discrete logins for the duration of the event, hence our request that delegates make use of Eduroam when possible.
After Hours: As mentioned in the programme, many of us will be heading to the Science Museum at the end of Thursday’s schedule at 1 pm. For more information about the events taking place there, click here. You will need to register on that page if you wish to attend. With that said, don’t worry if you aren’t CHASE-affiliated (or a student, or UK-based), the event will be open to all.
At the end of Friday’s schedule at 6 pm, some of us will be going for informal drinks and food on Charlotte Street (6-7 mins walk away), most likely drinking at The Fitzroy Tavern and eating at ICCO Pizza.
At the end of Saturday’s schedule at 6 pm, we will be going to nearby The Crown and Anchor pub for drinks, followed by dinner (each diner pays for themselves, but there will be complimentary wine) at Chutney’s restaurant on Drummond Street. If you would like to attend the dinner, do send us an email or inform one of the conference organisers.
Panel chairs: 1A – Stewart Hotston
2A – Carolyn Lau 2B – Avery Delany 2C – Glyn Morgan 3A – Sasha Myerson 3B – Anna McFarlane 3C – Harry Warwick 4B – Miranda Iossiffidis 4C – Ibtisam Ahmed
5A – Dan Hassler-Forest 5B – Jasmine Sharma 5C – Lisa Meinecke 6A – Yen Ooi 6B – Eleanor Drage 6C – BE Allatt 7A – Sinéad Murphy 7B – Sean O’Brien 7C – Natalia Tobin
Absent speakers: Malcolm Edwards (SF Publishing, Panel 4A) Matthew Drage (Designing the Future: Cybernetics and Planned Economies, Panel 5A. 5A becomes a two paper session) Thomas Connolly (Technofutures Past and Present, Panel 5C. 5C becomes a two paper session) Robert Kiely (After Growth, Panel 6B. Sean O’Brien will present “Science Friction” solo)
We are extremely proud to unveil the masterfully designed conference programme for “Productive Futures.” You can view and download the programme pdf here. If you have any difficulties reading the programme, you can find an alternative presentation of the abstracts and bios here, and of the schedule here. For more information about Sinjin Li, the ultra-talented conference design team, you can visit their Instagram page or website.
We are excited to be able to share the schedule for our “Productive Futures” conference with you. To see the current version of the conference schedule, please click here. For a more accessible version of the schedule, click here. Registration for the conference remains open to all, and we encourage you to spread the word.
For our most recent reading group event, we read Walkaway (2017) by Cory Doctorow. A group of about ten met to discuss the novel in a seminar room at Birkbeck, 43-46 Gordon Square, on the 12th of August.
The novel follows a number of characters in a near future Canada, ravaged by eco-catastrophe capitalism, who choose to ‘walkaway’ from society, and form their own, more equal techno-utopia in the empty wastelands outside of the cities.
There was much to discuss, and I will try to summarise as best I can where our conversations led us:
The novel appears, at the beginning, to follow one character, Hubert, Etc. However, we quite quickly leave Hubert, Etc., and follow a host of different characters. The structure, therefore, at first mimics the standard bourgeois novel, in which an individual comes to a realisation or epiphany in the process of the narrative. The non-standard structure that follows dissolves the individual into a multitude of voices; just as the novel attempts to move away from an individualist idea of society, to a collective one.
It was felt that the ending of the novel was unsatisfactory. The characters have reached immortality in the future and all loose ends are neatly tied up. Instead of the contingent live process of utopian praxis that the novel follows in the most part, here, at the end, we encounter a static and resolved utopia. The novel falls into some of the same problems as The Parable of the Talents (1998) by Octavia E. Butler, which similarly accelerates the events of the narrative in order to give the reader a tidy ending.
It was noted that the novel has two overarching plots; one in which characters escape from capitalist relations and another where immortality is in the process of being discovered. Both are well explored, especially the concept of immortality. However, it was suggested that they did not fit together so well in the narrative. This may be because Walkaway is a prequel to Doctorow’s first novel Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom (2003), in which immortal characters attempt to control the running of Disney Land using ‘Wuffy’, a currency based on reputation. In a sense Walkaway is a critique of the concepts he explored in his first novel, especially ‘Wuffy.’ The attempt to weave these elements into the narrative is sometimes a little forced.
The style of the novel was criticised. Some of the language was described as ‘cheesy,’ especially the neologisms that pepper the book. There was also a lack of interiority for the characters that we follow in the book.
However, it was pointed out that Doctorow described the book as conceived of as popular ‘pulp’ writing in an interview, attempting to gain a wide audience through an emphasis on more exciting and engaging stylistic elements such as action and dialogue. Doctorow has termed this approach of spreading progressive ideology via fiction ‘weaponised narrative’ in a blog post on wired.com. Further, the lack of interiority makes sense in terms of the narrative progression towards the collective.
There are many people of different backgrounds represented in the novel, including a trans character, gay/bi-sexual characters, and indigenous characters. However, there was a consensus that though this was a laudatory aim, it felt a little like box ticking. None of the queer or de-colonial elements actively structured the way in which the world was created. They did not transform the Utopia, the way it was built and run, but were merely included.
One particular example of this might be dis/ability. Not everyone would be able to ‘walkaway’ from the particular confrontations of the novel due to illness or disability, neither are these concerns actively explored in the design of the community or spaces that are created.
Another area which the group found underdeveloped was the question of land, and land rights. Though there are indigenous characters, there was little acknowledgement of who has a claim to the land which the ‘walkaways’ co-opt for their communities. In the novel, there appears to be private property in the cities, and free waste lands outside of them. However, especially in Canada, the land is not empty, and there is a long history of the colonial concept of ’empty’ space in North America.
Some felt that the dichotomy between the cities and the wasteland was reminiscent of classic dystopias such as We (1924) by Yevgeny Zamyatin and Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949) by George Orwell, in that it valorised empty land over the urban. In a sense Walkaway is the novel of those utopian spaces outside of the classic dystopian narratives, to which they only make vague hints.
The group was positive about the attempt to write a utopian novel, especially in the face of a dearth of such attempts in recent years. Many of the aspects, especially those of 3D printing (including wet printing medicine), recycling, and knowledge distribution, were well explored. One group member termed it the utopianism of the ‘Scrap Iron Age’, in which materials of collapse are repurposed for the construction of a egalitarian society.
Though the utopianism was seen as a positive, it was pointed out that there was a lack of imagination on the part of the characters when it came to imagining that better world. For instance, in terms of architecture, it appeared that the characters were happy to build the same building, or type of building time after time (here we were referring to the Belt and Braces which is rebuilt in a similar manner after the original is commandeered). Someone aptly pointed out that this might be a reflection of a kind of Marcusian concept of a post-scarcity society still tied to a capitalist ideology/imaginary, thinking more precisely of Herbert Marcuse’s One Dimensional Man (1964). The characters can’t escape from capitalism in a psychological sense, though they have liberated themselves from capitalist society.
There was much discussion of the term ‘walkaway.’ It was hinted that the term is probably influenced by Ursula Le Guin’s short story ‘The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas’ (1973) as well as Le Guin’s The Dispossessed (1975). It was also noted that the term bore a resemblance to the Australian Aborigine rite of passage, the ‘Walkabout.’ Walking away was linked to resistance, freedom, and refusal of the ‘Default’ (the term for the mainstream society of the cities). It was pointed out that not everyone is in a position to be able to walk away. Those who are indebted, are carers, have families, or are disabled, might find this resistance an impossibility.
In a more concrete sense, walking away is an escape from property, institutions, and digital surveillance. ‘Default’ is lightly sketched so it is difficult to get a concrete idea of the society from which the characters are walking away. At some points default is pictured as a post-scarcity world of boredom and at others it is a surveillance dystopia.
The book is generally positive about the role of science and technology for the future. Though there is certainly a misuse of technology, especially by those who control ‘Default,’ it is successfully used/re-appropriated /produced by the walkaway communities. Though many were sceptical of the techno-utopianism of the narrative, the book was praised for envisioning a society of autonomous science and creative commons, outside of and not beholden to capitalism.
Registration for “Productive Futures: The Political Economy of Science Fiction” is now open. For more information, please visit the ticket tailor page for the event. All are welcome!
LSFRC is an independent, non-institutional organisation that is not run for profit. While we are very grateful to Birkbeck’s Centre for Contemporary Literature for their generous support of Productive Futures, registration revenue comprises the majority of the conference budget. We want this event to be as accessible as possible, particularly to those among us who are the most disadvantaged by the ongoing cruelties of the current economic systems in which we are forced to live our lives. To this end we are offering free tickets to this event to anyone in financial hardship. We ask those of you who are able to, who are in full time, stable employment, or who have institutional support to contribute towards the cost of the event. Your money will go towards light refreshments, covering the expenses incurred by our design team and paying the travel costs of our invited speakers. It is of central importance to us that those who work outside of academia who have chosen to lend us their time and labour do not go out of pocket.
Keynes Library, 43 Gordon Square, London WC1H 0PD. We are very proud to be hosting Professor Sherryl Vint at the Keynes Library in Birkbeck’s School of Arts on Monday 5th August. Professor Vint is an enormously impressive scholar (you can read more about her achievements here and here) and we are very fortunate to have her. Vint will be presenting material from her forthcoming book on biotechnology, which will bear the impressive title The Promissory Imagination: Speculative Futures and Biopolitics. The title of the talk she is giving on the 5th is “Living to Work: Biocapital, Synthetic Biology, and the Precaritization of Labour,” and should make for a scintillating occasion, with many points of intersection with our reading group discussions from the past year.
All are welcome and the event is free to attend. Please get in touch if you have any questions about the event (our email is firstname.lastname@example.org). If you want to let us know you’re coming, you can visit our Facebook page, or our gath.io page for the event.
In August’s session of our reading group we will be discussing Walkaway (2017) by Cory Doctorow. This will be the final reading group session for this year’s theme of economics and science fiction. Please note that there will be no September reading group session, as instead we will be gearing up for the “Productive Futures” conference. It seems fitting that the final text on this year’s reading list is the most contemporary one, and the meeting should make for some fascinating discussion.
After, we will move to the Fitzroy Tavern on Charlotte Street for further discussion. All are welcome. Please get in touch if you have any questions about the event (our email is email@example.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.
LSFRC is proud to announce the first of what we hope will be many associated events, “Stage the Future III: Third International Academic Conference on Science Fiction Theatre.” The conference will take place on 6-7th December 2019 in the Omnibus Theatre, London, and forms a part of “Talos III: Science Fiction Theatre Festival of London” (more on Talos III can be found here). Cyborphic, the theatre company producing the festival and the conference , is also asking for production proposals for “Talos III,” and we warmly encourage artists and writers to consider submitting proposals to one or both events. We at LSFRC are delighted to be able to assist in the organising of the first London-based installment of the groundbreaking “Stage the Future” conference series, and are particularly excited about the possibilities of engagement with a wider audience that the event offers. If you have any idea for an academic or para-academic event you would like to organise in association with LSFRC, please do not hesitate to get in touch by email.
Following two successful conferences in the UK, at Royal Holloway, University of London and in Arizona, at Arizona State University, in 2014 and 2015 respectively, Stage the Future returns to the UK for its third conference on science fiction theatre on 6-7 December 2019. We welcome papers, panels, and performances that examine and explore the unique attributes live performance offers to science fiction and those that science fiction offers to live performance.
Science fiction and its related genres, fantasy and horror frequent contemporary stages and every year there seem to be more and more artistic productions of AI Theatre, cyborgs in theatre, VR and AR technologies on stage. The Internet Science Fiction Theatre Database lists several recent examples, and major UK theatre festivals such as Edinburgh Fringe and Vault Festival host several plays with sf elements, while genre-specific festival such as the Talos Sci-Fi theatre festival and the London Horror Festival also promote speculative fiction on stage.
In addition to science fiction theatre, we welcome papers on sci-fi performance more broadly (sci-fi dance, immersive shows, VR theatre, AI theatre) and genre theatre more broadly (Afrofuturist performances, horror theatre, fantasy theatre.)
The conference welcomes proposals for papers, presentations, and performances from any discipline and theoretical perspective. Please send a title and a 200-300 word abstract (as a Word document) for a 15 minute paper or a reading / performance, along with your name, affiliation and 100 word biography to firstname.lastname@example.org by 30 September 2019, specifying in the subject title of your email what you are proposing. Topics might include but are not limited to:
Post-Apocalyptic Theatre, Utopian Theatre, Dystopian Theatre Afrofuturist Theatre, Queer Science Fiction Cyberpunk Theatre, Steampunk Theatre (and other -punk dramas) Political Science Fiction Theatre, Time Travel, Alternate History Non-human and post-human characters, androids, metahumans Space Opera and Science Fiction Opera Ecological Science Fiction Science Fiction and Dance Theatrical Adaptations of Science Fiction Contemporary Fantasy Theatre, Horror Theatre, Weird Theatre
The conference is organised by Dr Christos Callow Jr, Lecturer, University of Derby; Marita Arvaniti, PhD Candidate, University of Glasgow; the theatre company Cyborphic and the London Science Fiction Research Community.
As part of the CHASE-funded “Organic Systems: Science Fiction and Ecology Today” workshop series, LSFRC directors Katie Stone and Francis Gene-Rowe participated in a panel called “SF and Ecology on Screen.” The panel, which took place on May 23rd, was recorded and has since been uploaded as a podcast and can be found here. The first 30 minutes of the recording consist of an excellent talk given by Professor Sean Cubitt of Goldsmiths, after which Katie and Francis presented a dialogue/paper entitled “The Strange Ecologies of Science Fiction Film.” The slides which accompanied their section of the panel can be found here. The remaining sessions of the “Organic Systems” programme are set to take place on Thursday 4th July (in Birkbeck) and Thursday 12th September (in the Science Museum). LSFRC’s own “Productive Futures” conference will be scheduled in such a way as to allow delegates to attend the afternoon sessions on the 12th.
On the 1st July, the LSFRC reading group convened to discuss Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s short novel Herland (1915).
The book follows a sociology student, Vandyck (Van) Jennings, and his two friends, Terry Nicholson and Jeff Margrave, on an expedition to investigate rumours of a country solely populated by women in uncharted south american territory. After reaching this nation (called Herland), they are taken into compassionate captivity and receive education from their hosts, in the process coming to understand (to varying extents) the shortcomings of their own society and patriarchy-imposed gender roles.
Despite the absence of several regulars, attendance was good and enjoyable and productive conversation ensued. With Tom Dillon and Katie Stone unable to attend, Francis Gene-Rowe put together the following report, divided into loosely themed sections:
The text engages with and is informed by contemporary
theories of evolution and species development, as well as Eugenicist thinking.
While largely Darwinist in its outlook, Herland also draws upon early 20th
century mutationism in order to explain how Herlanders are more varied in their
characteristics than might be expected, given their parthenogenetic heritage.
While the Eugenicist aspects of the text feed
into several of its problems (see below), it is worth being aware that eugenics
was a framework widely adopted and thought through across the political spectrum,
by both progressives on the left and individuals on the far right. While Gilman
herself was in many respects highly progressive for her time, her views were
more racist than those of some of her eugenics-embracing contemporaries.
In terms of the text itself, in addition to the
underlying premise behind Herland as a society, species development-related content
arises in how the Herlanders have selectively bred their cats to be quiet and
to leave birds unmolested, as well as in the frequent analogies drawn between
Herlander society and species such as ants and bees.
The text also appears to draw upon contemporary
anthropological theorising of matriarchy, whereby the pre-historic default social
model was matriarchal, such that the society of Herland presents a return to
something natural. The concept of originary matriarchy (associated with earth
mother worship) later superseded by heliocentric patriarchy continued to have
currency well into the post-war era and still has its proponents today.
Child raising and pedagogy is a key theme in the
text and was an area receiving great attention in the early twentieth century.
In addition to Gilman’s references to Montessori education, members of the
reading group referenced The Dalton Plan and Anna Freud’s work as either
contemporary or near-contemporary instances of this attention to raising and
When considering Herland’s influences on
subsequent writing, it is worth noting that it was not published in book form
until 1979, and was little known after Gilman’s death until its rediscovery.
With that said, it was preceded by other feminist utopian texts from the late
19th century and early 20th century, including Mizora (1890)
and New Amazonia (1889), some of which will have been known to and
influential upon later writers.
As can often be the case with older texts, when
read by a 21st century reader Herland proves to be
problematic in several ways. Perhaps the most immediately evident of these is
the racism of the text, which characterises indigenous peoples as “savages” and
emphases the fact that the Herlanders are aryan (white), despite the fact that
they live in the tropics. Whilst these perceptions are related via the
perspective of the text’s unenlightened male characters, Gilman expressed
deeply problematic views of race in other writings, mostly notably “A
Suggestion on the Negro Problem” (1908).
Later on in the text, abortion and infanticide
are conflated with each other, with the implication being that abortion is
infanticide. Herlander society privileges motherhood over any other practice,
value or virtue, and whilst it is made clear that motherhood is collective and
not exclusively related in biological maternity, the biological framework of
reproduction remains prominent. Gilman’s concept of Herlander culture doesn’t
allow for either individuals not wanting to have children (the suggestion being
that Herlanders have to deliberately resist their natural desire for
procreation so as to maintain a stable population) or those who may struggle to
have them. Herland is certainly not a trans-inclusive nation, although the Jungle
2 Jungle project (a currently active community seeking to create a Herland-like
society) is trans-inclusive.
There also seems to be an attitude of being able
to approach children as blank slates for education (as in some of Robert
Heinlein’s work some decades later), although it appears that Gilman was aware
of this as a potential problem arising in Montessori and similar approaches,
criticising such views in a later essay.
Satire and Humour
While Herland is clearly written with a
political-ethical agenda, there was some uncertainty as to what extent it is intended
to be satirically comedic, as opposed to more earnestly didactic. The characterisation
of the male characters (Terry in particular) in the earlier chapters came
across as downright parodic to some reading group members, although it was
observed that Gilman may have intended for them to serve as focal points for an
instructive satire that would not necessarily be amusing to a contemporary
A useful comparison was drawn to Gulliver’s
Travels, in the sense that we are given a viewpoint character that is ignorant
to the point of naivety. Given the utopianist agenda of the text, Van and his
fellows’ often silly opinions and actions can operate as heuristics for the
reader. Van in particular comes across as a character that is intended to be a
lens through which both education and critique can ensue; he is continually
positioned in a middle ground between Jeff and Terry, the overlap in their Venn
diagram. At the same time, there is also a sense that Van is intellectually
superior to Jeff and Terry, as he puts more stock in reason than they do. This
intersects with the valorisation of reason in the text (see below).
Amongst the jokes and gags shared in the session
were the trenchant observation that Herland is literally a nanny state, as well
as the image of Terry becoming a men’s rights activist upon his return to
Economy and Work
The reading group discussed the ways in which Herland
does and doesn’t portray different forms of work, as well as its vagueness on
the specifics of how Herland’s economy operates. At several points in the text
Van flags up the fact that he isn’t going to explain Herland’s economy (for a
variety of reasons), which indicates a deliberate decision on Gilman’s part.
Aside from Herland and The Yellow Wallpaper, perhaps Gilman’s
most famous piece of writing is Women and Economics – A Study of the
Economic Relation Between Men and Women as a Factor in Social Evolution
(1898), in which she outlines forms of work and labour that tend to be
disregarded in traditional (typically male-authored) economic studies. Van’s
restraint in describing the economics of Herland may in part be a function of
his own ignorance, but it also serves to de-emphasise normative expectations of
what is or isn’t work. Something similar can be seen in how the men try and
fail to provide a logical explanation of wifely housework to their prospective
With this said, Gilman’s approach does create a
slight vacuum in the worldbuilding of Herland. Ellador, Alima and Celis are
foresters (and the men ultimately learn to work as their assistants) whose work
takes them across the land, and we also encounter teachers and
priestess/therapist figures. However, builders and farmers are conspicuous by
their absence, despite the highly built and cultivated nature of Herland as a
nation. This may well be a function of what Van and his friends take an
interest in/are exposed to, but it also suggests that Gilman is less interested
in exploring manual labour than in showing us a world that feels detached from
patriarchal economic models.
One framing suggested was that Herland operates
on an economy of ethics, following a slightly modified version of the old
communist adage: “from each according to their ability and desire to work in a
particular way, to each according to their needs as they see them.”
Knowledge and Herland Society
Herlander theatre is supposedly dull due to a
lack of violence, culture and fear. This perception on the part of the men may
well indicate a lack of imagination on their part (as, for instance, Beckettian
drama would be perfectly viable in Herland). Ultimately, Herland is not
a text much concerned with aesthetics, although the contrast drawn between Herlander
and the men’s names does emphasise the superiority of Herlander names.
To follow up on this, there was some discussion
as to what extent Herland is a boring place. Sexuality appears to be altogether
absent and the underlying tone of Herlander society appears to be relentlessly
polite and calm. One participant questioned to what extent a monoculture was in
operation, which raised the consideration of how a woman outsider would be
received in Herland, and what her experience might be like. With this said,
gameplaying is referenced several times in the text, giving the impression that
Herlanders draw upon ideas of play throughout their lives. Humour also seems to
be present in Herland, and Ellador, Alina and Celis are entirely capable of
finding the men risible when they encounter them.
Knowledge is a prominent theme in Herland,
as Gilman sets a lot of stock by scientific reason. Herlanders are shown to be
consistently rational and even minded, whilst it’s the men who come across as
personal, irrational and so on (characteristics that they consider typical of
women in their own homeland). At the same time, the Herlanders possess much more
emotional intelligence than Van and company. The men’s ignorance and lack of
self-awareness is epitomised by the fact that the Herlanders construct highly
accurate spider diagrams of unspoken facts about the outside world, based on
points of hesitation and omission in their conversations with the men.
Whilst Herland can be considered a
separatist feminist text, the nation of Herland is not presented as separatist
so much as a natural development following the natural and human events which
led to its isolation and to all its men dying. In that sense, it resembles
Joanna Russ’s Whileaway more than Ursula Le Guin’s Anarres. The comparisons to animal
species further reinforce the sense that Herland, and the methodical
rationality of its inhabitants, is a product of natural law more than any
historical or human contingency.
Comparisons and References
The BBC Four series “Victorian Sensations”
(currently available on iPlayer) was recommended as companion viewing, particularly
the second episode, which is entitled “Decadence and Degeneration.”
Parallels between Herland and wellbeing
economics/economics of happiness were drawn, with a specific reference to
Richard Layard’s Happiness: Lessons from a New Science (2005).
Herland’s convenient Californian climate and
other Californian characteristics suggests parallels with Ernest Callenbach’s Ecotopia
John Wyndham’s novella “Consider her Ways” (1956)
was mentioned as a more instrumentalist envisioning of a Herland-type society,
with stronger parallels between its society and ant species behaviour.