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.



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).


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.


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.


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.


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?)


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 page for the event.

Life in the Glasshouse: Splintered Memories

Recently LSFRC successfully pitched a stream within the forthcoming “Memories of the Future” conference. However, the conference is set to take place in Senate House, which is under an ongoing boycott of academic events, in solidarity with the struggle of support staff there.

Labour in academia is under a lot of pressure from corporatist management, and we at LSFRC are opposed to any normalisation of precarity and exploitation — not just of scholars, but also of all other workers whose labour is utterly integral to academic spaces and institutions. As such, we stand in solidarity with the Senate House boycott and have decided to withdraw our involvement in “Memories of the Future”. We have given our delegates full, judgment-free autonomy in whether or not they choose to present at or attend any part of the event, but our stream as proposed will not be going ahead.

Instead, we have decided to host an event of our own, entitled “Life in the Glasshouse: Splintered Memories”. Although we have yet to finalise the schedule, we have Birkbeck’s Keynes Library booked from 10 am to 5 pm on Friday 29th March and proceedings will be in session for the majority, if not the entirety of that time frame. Entry will be entirely free, and we hope to be able to provide some snacks and refreshments for breaks. For more details visit our event page.

Event Description

How does science fiction (sf) remember different pasts and futures? To what extent are memories the ground of its speculations? In what ways does sf’s capacity to remember (and forget) intervene in the terrain of transcendence, activism, exploitation, nostalgia and more? How can science fiction help us remember (or unforget) the forms of work and labour which sustain the glasshouse of the academy and culture industry? And how might these threads converge or interrelate?

Abstracts for presentations can be found here. The event schedule is as follows:

10.00 Doors Open (hot drinks available throughout the day)

10.30 Panel 1: Science Fictional Consciousness: Transcendence, Imaginaries
Chair: Francis Gene-Rowe

Llew Watkins, “Mind Made World: Transcending Past and Future through experience of bardo”

Sasha Myerson, “Virtual Dreaming: Vaporwave and the Hypnagogic”

Rachel Claire Hill, “‘They Alone Shall Possess the Earth Who Live From The Powers of the Cosmos’: Utopian Rhetoric in NewSpace Industries”

12.00 Lunch Break (own arrangements)

13.00 Panel 2: Science Fictional Remembering: Nostalgia, Ruins
Chair: Katie Stone

Asami Nakamura, “Aestheticised Nostalgia in Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go”

Dan Byrne-Smith, “Bitch Planet, Retro Adverts and Three-Dimensional Temporality”

Amy Butt, “The Reliquary in the Ruin: Museums in Science Fiction”

14.30 Break

14.45 Panel 3: Invaders Must Live: The Time(s) and Memory of Activism
Chair: Tom Dillon

Karolina Szpyrko, “Non-circulative memories and activist productivity: methodology for the Polish feminist movement”

Kate Meakin, “A white feminist dystopia: chrononormativity and historical amnesia in The Handmaid’s Tale protests”

15.45 Break

16.00 Roundtable: Science Fiction and Splintered Memories (of the Future).

Participants – Amy Butt, Katie Stone, Rhodri Davies, Aren Roukema. Moderated by Francis Gene-Rowe.

17.00 End (pub drinks)

Reading Group Report on Four Short Stories

On the evening of the fourth of March we met in the Keynes Library at Birkbeck to discuss four short stories, each of which in some way related to our year’s theme of labour, production, and reproduction. 

The four short stories were:

‘That Only a Mother’ by Judith Merril (1948) in which an anxious mother gives birth to a child in an age of paranoia around genetically mutated children.

‘The Ship Who Sang’ (1961) by Anne McCaffrey, in which a disabled child becomes integrated into a spaceship’s operating system.

‘The Heat Death of the Universe’ (1967) by Pamela Zoline, follows the thoughts of a housewife through the drudgery and boredom of domestic and reproductive labour.

‘Of Mist, and Grass, and Sand’ (1973) by Vonda McIntyre narrates an episode in the life of the confusingly named Snake, a travelling healer/doctor who uses the different properties of her snakes to perform medical procedures. 

It is perhaps a little bit challenging to summarise the themes of the discussion as we analysed each story one at a time (though there was much linking between them at the same time). I also was only present for a small slice of the overall time and so most of the discussion points I was present for focused on ‘That Only a Mother’. However, here are some of the things that were covered:


Each story explores specific but interrelated forms of gendered labour. Housework is the focus of ‘Heat Death’, reproduction the focus of ‘That Only’, while ‘The Ship’ looks at the exploitation of the labour of disabled bodies. Finally ‘Of Mist’ looks at professionalism and carework. It was noted that many of these stories, especially ‘Heat Death’ and ‘Of Mist’ were written in the context of second wave feminist activism and texts (such as Wages Against Housework Sylvia Federici (1974)). The labour of the writer was also mentioned: how much scientific knowledge is needed in order to write an sf story, and how much work is put into experimentation especially in regards to ‘Heat Death’. Finally the work necessary for women to overcome the sf male bias in order to be published. Apparently Judith Merrill wrote her story ‘That Only’ in response to John W. Campbell’s degree as editor of Astounding magazine, that women were not sufficiently knowledgeable/talented to be published in his publication.

Suburban Paranoia

Both ‘Heat Death’ and ‘That Only’ convey the psychological states of women who perform traditional domestic roles, specifically of childcare and housework. ‘Heat Death’ repeats the idealised image of the happy housewife, which it pierces with its obsessive and analytical detailing of the bored and tired reality. The protagonist’s name, Sarah Boyle, evokes the sense of building up energy, the possibility of boiling over, and also Boyle’s Law. A link was made with the subject formation of the individual under neo-liberalism, always expected to be happy doing menial and depressing work. In ‘That Only’ the narratives vacillates between portraying the mind of a paranoid and delusional mother, and portraying the protagonist as seeing the truth of the situation (more on this in a second). The term ‘suburban neurosis’ was critiqued as a sexist/bogus ‘diagnosis’: i.e. male doctors medicalising the gendered division of labour and its attendant miseries.


In ‘That Only’ the main character is continually referencing a host of professional men who she reads or give her advice about motherhood/pregnancy. It was pointed out that this is a standard trope of 1940s/50s America, in which the figure of woman is infantalised and belittled in terms of skill and knowledge around childbirth and childrearing. It was suggested that the mother character in ‘That Only’ is defined by her job of motherhood, just as the professional men are defined by theirs, but with asymmetrical power distribution.


The father of Sarah Boyle’s children is absent in ‘Heat Death’ while the father in ‘That Only’ is only physically present at the end, though to some extent he makes an appearance in telegrams. He is also the vector of mutation for the child and it is noted in the story that it is often fathers who kill mutated children. It was suggested that fatherhood takes on a normative function, becoming an agent of patriarchy by destroying anything which does not fit within patriarchal regimes of power. 

The Image of the Child

The figure of the child in ‘That Only a Mother’ can be usefully linked with a number of other texts from the period in which super intelligent or mutated children threaten/change society, such as Childhood’s End (Arthur C. Clarke, 1953) , More than Human (Theodore Sturgeon, 1953) , and the novels of Wilmar Shiras. It was suggested that the mutant child image could be contextualized with post-war social change as well as the anxiety around nuclear war, and the effects of the atomic bombs dropped on Japan. A link was made between Japanese sf, specifically Akira, and the image of mutated/super-intelligent children. Mention was made also of Wilhemina Baird’s protagonist in Crashcourse (1993). 


In both ‘The Ship’ and ‘That Only’ the child character is disabled. In ‘That Only’ the representation of the disabled child teeters on the edge of horror and evolutionary transcendence, depending on the gendered narrative split between patriarchal arbiter of normality, and maternal recognition of intelligence and difference. In ‘The Ship’ the main character Helva is able to thrive but only under indenture of service to a galactic organisation, the other option being euthanasia at birth.

Short Story Form 

The different stories have quite particular forms. ‘That Only’ was described by one attendee as ‘telescoped’ so that the story was constructed around its twist ending. This meant that the ending was shadowed by a number of hints throughout. ‘Heat Death’ does not work towards a twist ending but is patterned. ie it is constructed from a series of associations between different discourses such as advertising, art, housework, music etc. The scale of the stories, it was noted, were wildly different. For instance ‘Heat Death’ is set in a very limited domestic setting and yet uses the very largest of spatial/temporal metaphors in the form the notion of entropic decline (ie the heat death at the end of the universe). A story like ‘The Ship’ in contrast uses a space opera background to explore domestic issues such as gendered relations in the home (here a space-ship).

Report on discussion of New York 2140

On the 4th of February we met at the Keynes Library, Birkbeck, to discuss New York 2140 (2017) by Kim Stanley Robinson. The novel follows a series of characters living in the Met building in New York city, after ecological catastrophe has flooded coastal cities and severely damaged the wider environment. The various intersecting narrative threads explore the difficulty and excitement of a city transformed by ecological disaster and the ongoing inequalities of capitalism.

The notes below cover a number of different themes that were discussed during the evening. Unfortunately I was there for only half an hour and so, although I was impressed by the breadth and depth of the topics discussed, I was unable to do complete justice to the myriad insights of the participants.

Themes Discussed:


Movement within New York is undertaken via sky-bridges– a new form of pedestrian walkways linking together skyscrapers. The isolated design of skyscrapers, often seen as separating people and privatising space, is joined together as common and useful space. The lack of ground floor/street level and the changing water levels forces people to find new ways of negotiating the city, potentially more creative and less hierarchical. Boats though seem to be mostly private travel. Where there are buses, they are slow and rarely used by characters.

The Commons

Much of the organisation of the lower part of Manhattan is done via cooperatives– the residents of each particular building own the building in common and make decisions collectively via representatives. This seems to be an alternative mode of organisation that has come about because of the lower value of property in the intertidal zone. We follow the Met building in particular; most of the characters are in some way connected with it. Their relationships are partially determined by the working of the cooperative and it functions also to bring them together. Robinson puts forward the cooperative as an alternative model to rentier capitalism, under threat from gentrification and financialisation. 

Radical v Reformist Politics

The novel suggests that to overcome capitalism, it must be done via existing institutions– ie Congress. This is a theme of Robinson’s in Pacific Edge (1990) and Blue Mars (1996) as well. Problems are worked through legislature. There is less focus on alternative modes of activism– there is a noticeable lack of counter-culture and where there is, it is only briefly explored. The novel tends to follow those who are in a position to effect change as individuals– Amelia Black as influencer, Charlotte as Head of Householders Union, Gen as a well respected police officer, Franklin as insider in finance. 

History and Representation

The novel mentions the concept of ease of representation, which to an extent is used to preempt criticism of its focus on individual movers and shakers in a particular location as actors at the heart of historical change. Possibly the novel tries to have its cake and eat is as regards whether history is made/changed by individuals or collectives. Elsewhere, the temporality of finance (numbers changing on the screen) is compared to history, only quantified (and thus ripe for gambling). The novel doesn’t necessarily present a concrete theory of history, but it’s clearly a concern at the heart of the later chapters.


There was discussion of the references to the social novel/Victorian novel. The novel follows a set of interlocking characters as an exploration of the social. I didn’t quite follow this as the discussion started before I arrived. Amelia Black functions more like a film star (Marilyn Monroe) than a new idea/job of the ‘cloud-star’. 


The form of the novel mimics works by John dos Passos (Manhattan Transfer (1925), USA Trilogy (1938)) and John Brunner, (Stand on Zanzibar (1968), and The Sheep Look Up (1978)). It follows the form of a kaleidoscope of different characters interspersed with quotations, in which an entire society’s cultural and economic history is delineated: a socialist novel. However, where Passos’s quotations and non-fiction sections are radical (biographies of union leaders, histories of strikes etc), Robinson’s are quite conservative (Herman Melville, Ambrose Bierce, anecdotes about artists meeting each other on park benches). Also, the outcome of the form is highly optimisitic– society is actively working towards change, whereas Passos and Brunner are less certain (pessimistic). 


It was pointed out that the novel contains a number of different genre narratives/tropes. For instance there is a treasure hunt, a police/detective drama, an adventure narrative, as well as having the trappings of sf. It was also suggested that the novel is both a society novel of New York (perhaps a bit like Tom Wolfe’s Bonfire of the Vanities (1987)) and a frontier novel.

Finance and Ecology

The financialisation of ecological disaster that is implicit in our financial system now, is made explicit in the world of the novel. Seemingly no event however violent can disrupt capitalism (there have been two almost apocalyptic water surges that have caused major destruction): in fact, it may very well function on instability. The novel’s movement towards overthrow of the system plays a bit like a re-run of 2008 financial disaster, but in this case the banks are not bailed-out, leading to change. 

Motif and Metaphor

Throughout the novel, similarities are drawn between finance and aquatic landscapes/flow, the latter serving as a metaphor for the former. Equally, Franklin reflects on how his work as financier involves the selection of correct metaphors. Both of these dynamics seem reflective of science fiction itself: firstly, the interplay between landscape and culture, then secondly, the fact that finance behaves like sf in its work of selecting/finding the right metaphors to encapsulate a given moment or situation. In a sense, finance is just as science fictional as the novel’s flooded landscape, if not more.


There are new types of jobs and labour– cloud-stars, muscle-farming etc, but many of the jobs are either expanded because of ecological change (ie sand dredging, scuba diving repair/building jobs, etc) or from before (police, finance etc). How is class constituted in New York or USA? We only see quite middle-class people or people who fall out of the class system (‘water-rats’). 


Though the novel follows a range of different characters or different ages, genders, race, etc, there is a noticable lack of parents. How are children brought up in this future? We have a model based on the ad hoc adoption of the ‘water-rats’ Stefan and Roberto by the characters living in the Met building suggesting an alternative model of communal care.