Science Fiction Studies

#118 = Volume 39, Part 3 = November 2012


SPECIAL ISSUE ON SF AND GLOBALIZATION ( Edited by David Higgins and Rob Latham

David Higgins


In certain academic circles, the term “globalization” has been seen as a trendy intellectual buzzword with a connotative reach that vastly exceeds its denotative grasp. Zygmunt Bauman, for example, observes that globalization “is on everybody’s lips; a fad word fast turning into a shibboleth, a magic incantation, a pass-key meant to unlock the gates to all present and future mysteries.... All vague words share a similar fate: the more experiences they pretend to make transparent, the more they themselves become opaque” (1). Given the vast range of opaque referents that “globalization” can encompass, what value can the term (and its associated concepts) offer for the study of science fiction?

One recent approach to globalization and literary studies, Suman Gupta’s Globalization and Literature (2009), begins with a discussion of the imaginative representation of globalization in Richard Powers’s sf novel Playing the Dark (2000). Gupta notes that one of Powers’s main characters, the economist Ronan O’Reilley, attempts to use a virtual-reality simulation to create a map of global economic conditions that might predict economic futures. O’Reilley’s simulation ultimately fails to have the predictive power it is designed for, and Gupta notes that “what is successfully conveyed” in this portrayal “is not a foreboding of failure but an apprehension of the enormity, the wholeness, of this splendid construct” (2). Gupta goes on to argue that literary representations of globalization such as Powers’s offer “impressionistic” rather than precisely accurate mappings of the conditions and consequences of global interconnections that are nonetheless “cognizant of the more precise scholarly discussions of globalization” (3). He examines how conditions of globalization are inevitably “represented or reflected or constructed within literature and literary studies” (11). In essence, Gupta examines the way in which globalization influences culture and leaves an “impressionistic” subjective imprint on literature—and how literature can be read as tracing the impression of the impact of globalization on culture (3)

This is an insightful approach, yet this methodology can also be expanded; science fiction frequently offers more than a subjective imprint of globalization’s consequences. This special issue of SFS aspires to go beyond simply recording the imprint of globalization on artistic and cultural productions. Gupta’s analytical methodology is unidirectional—globalization impacts literature—yet as even his own example demonstrates, literature (and sf in particular) does not passively reflect globalizing conditions. In Playing the Dark, Powers’s decision to cause O’Reilley’s vast science-fictional economic simulation to fail offers an active theorization of the complexity of global economic causality. In a manner similar to Joseph Stigletz’s Nobel Prize-winning application of information theory to economics, the novel asserts that the specificity of local circumstances thwarts globalizing attempts at statistical economic prediction, applying a postmodern perspective that foregrounds the difficulty of cognitively mapping late-capitalist economic circumstances. In the process, it celebrates the impossibility of totalizing modernist representational paradigms of the sort that O’Reilley’s project embodies. Playing the Dark reveals that sf can offer more than an impressionistic sense of the ways in which globalization influences culture. As the contributions in our special issue demonstrate, speculative literatures can also theorize globalization: they offer useful, revealing insights into the operations and/or consequences of the increasing scale and pitch of emergent global interconnectivity during the long twentieth century and beyond.

All the contributors to this special issue preseume that science fiction and globalization have a special relationship—one that makes sf a useful site to conduct an analysis of globalization’s conditions and consequences. But what enables sf to offer a relevant analysis of globalization? First, it is important to define “globalization” in more precise terms, since (as we have seen above) the concept has come to have slippery, imprecise, and contested meanings. The term itself emerged into public consciousness in the 1960s and 1970s to describe a new degree of planetary interconnection and interdependence mediated and facilitated by advances in communication and transportation technologies. As Marshall McLuhan observed in 1964, “Today, after more than a century of electric technology, we have extended our central nervous system itself in a global embrace, abolishing both space and time as far as our planet is concerned” (3). Gupta notes that in the 1970s and 1980s, globalization came to refer to “the desire to develop the study of sociology in the USA as a world-embracing enterprise” (6), while simultaneously expressing “the desire of US business leaders and management gurus to extend US business interests, and exploitation of resources and labour, to a global domain” (6-7). Such varied aspects of worldwide connection, interaction, and interdependency have become associated with globalization. Manifred B. Steger broadly refers to globalization as “the expansion and intensification of social relations and consciousness across world-time and world-space” (15).

These broad and diverse definitions of globalization capture the immense complexity of technologically-mediated global interconnection, yet they fail to isolate a sense of the origins or consequences of globalization with useful specificity. In contrast to such sweeping constructions, all of the contributors to this special issue regard globalization as a specific development in the unfolding of capitalist world markets that creates differential regimes of political, economic, and cultural interconnection in an increasingly internationalized global context. To put it more directly: all these contributors understand globalization as a process linked to the imperial expansion of global capitalism in both colonial and post/neo-colonial contexts. The central organizing question of this special issue, then, is how science fiction contributes to, reflects upon, and/or challenges global regimes of economic, social, and political power.

This special issue defines globalization as the imperial expansion of planetary capitalism because this approach reflects how our object of study, science fiction, historically relates to the phenomenon of accelerated global interconnection. As Roger Luckhurst demonstrates in his opening contribution to the issue, “Laboratories for Global Space-Time: Science Fictionality and the World’s Fairs, 1851-1939,” late-nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century colonial expansion and science-fictional thinking are inseparably interrelated. Complementing John Rieder’s recent argument that sf as a coherent recognizable genre emerges from Euro-American colonial contexts, Luckhurst exposes the imbricated emergence of interrelated science-fictional and capitalist-imperial world-views; his analysis of the sf paradigms propagated by the World’s Fairs asserts that, in its earliest iteration, global thinking was science-fictional and science-fictional thinking was often (though not always) imperialistically globalist. In the context of the future-oriented imaginings of the World’s Fairs, science-fictional attitudes about global space and temporality contributed greatly to imperial paradigms concerning race, evolution, and unequal economic development.

The articles following Luckhurst’s interrogate contemporary relations between sf and globalization, and they each demonstrate that contemporary sf, in contrast to its classic antecedents, foregrounds the injustices of neo-imperialist capital market conditions. Sherryl Vint’s “Orange County: Global Networks in Tropic of Orange” argues that Karen Tei Yamashita’s mapping of Los Angeles in her novel exposes regimes of power that have divided the world to the benefit of global capital, while also showing how the novel simultaneously explores ways in which these global regimes might be remade or reconstituted by local agents. Lysa Rivera’s “Future Histories and Cyborg Labor: Reading Borderlands SF After NAFTA” observes that Chicano/a science fiction produced south of the US/Mexico border exposes the operations of late capitalism as a “troubling and enduring extension of colonial relations of power” in the service of multinational corporate capitalism. Diane Nelson’s “Freedom’s Allure: Pirates, Robbers, Mayan Shamans, and the Spirits of Capital” examines the particular injustices of global capital in Guatemalan contexts, and how science-fictional discourse both contributes to and deconstructs conditions of global inequity in a more general sense. This cluster of articles, all of which focus on Latin American or Southwest-borderland contexts, demonstrates how contemporary global (and postcolonial) science fictions, unlike the fictions produced by earlier dominant imperial powers (such as those associated with the World’s Fairs), can offer a robust critique of imperial late capitalism. They each, in different ways, use sf to examine real conditions of inequity caused by the Western-dominated expansion of capitalist world markets and to explore the possibility of utopian alternatives of global interconnection and solidarity.

If Nelson’s article foregrounds the ways in which it is vital for postcolonial peoples to have agency regarding their own self-representation, Jerome Winter’s essay, “‘Epistimic Polyverses’ and the Subaltern: The Postcolonial World-System in Ian McDonald’s Evolution’s Shore and River of Gods,” explores complex questions of postcolonial identification in the works of Ian McDonald, an Irish author whose fictions focus on postcolonial experiences in Kenya, India, and Turkey. Winter argues that McDonald’s allegorical science-fictionalization of contemporary global-imperial conditions performs a kind of Spivakian “strategic essentialism” that opens a space for subaltern experiences to find expression; at the same time, he foregrounds the limitations of McDonald’s own partial perspective (and the dangers of a reductive cultural tourism).

The special issue then concludes with Istvan Csicsery-Ronay, Jr.’s “What Do We Mean When We Say ‘Global Science Fiction’? Reflections on a New Nexus,” which offers an overview of the current (and impending) state of affairs in global sf. He begins by observing the shifting nature of contemporary planetarity under the “single-value paradigm” of speculative capital, and he muses on the consequences of this for global cultures and for the future of global science fictions. He then asks how the dominance of English (“the lingua franca of globalization” and the default communication “medium of transnational capital”) limits science-fictional expression and distribution, heightening the need for a re-emphasis on translation as a scholarly enterprise. Finally, Csicsery-Ronay considers the shifting media of sf (into cinematic, video, and online formats) and the ways in which this shift can be seen as an expression of global capital’s expansion into new and untapped markets. Csicsery-Ronay concludes (echoing Luckhurst) by noting that “globalization of one form or another has been the default vector of sf from the beginning,” emphasizing—in a manner similar to Vint, Rivera, Nelson, and Winter—that sf’s alternate mythologies and cognitive estrangements are now being translated into forms that may “interfere with the dominant fictions of imperial Anglo-European discourse.”

Ultimately, each of the contributors to our special issue launches from Carl Freedman’s assertion (based on the work of Darko Suvin) that sf can operate as a sort of critical theory that cognitively estranges readers from the taken-for-granted associations we may have with the contemporary phenomena of global interconnection in order to more deeply and critically interrogate what globalization really is and what it means. The issue as a whole demonstrates that science fiction has a special relationship with globalization. In early contexts, such as the World’s Fairs, sf often served as a tool in the discursive arsenal justifying worldwide imperial expansion and market consolidation. It is this very history, however, that enables contemporary sf to serve as a critical theory of globalization that exposes the new operations of global capital while exploring the ethics and praxis of local (and planetary) resistance to worldwide regimes of postmodern imperial power. As Csicsery-Ronay notes in his conclusion, however, sf is a cultural product subject to the same conditions as any other contemporary commodity, and large-scale market pressures circumscribe the range of science-fictional expressions available to many audiences. It is my sincere hope that scholarly projects such as this special issue can offer new insights about sf and globalization while stimulating interest in the translation and reception of sf imaginings that currently fall outside the networks of circulation that shape (and constrain) the horizons of sf’s reach and influence.

All but one of these articles were originally delivered as papers at the 2011 Eaton Conference on “Global Science Fiction,” at the University of California, Riverside. I am grateful to Rob Latham, co-director of that conference and co-editor of this special issue, for his expert advice and his hard work in seeing these articles into print.

Bauman, Zygmunt. Globalization: The Human Consequences. Cambridge, UK: Polity, 1998.
Freedman, Carl. Critical Theory and Science Fiction. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan UP, 2000.
Gupta, Suman. Globalization and Literature. Cambridge, UK: Polity, 2009.
McLuhan, Marshall. Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1964.
Steger, Manfred B. Globalization: A Very Short Introduction. New York: Oxford UP, 2009.

Roger Luckhurst

Laboratories for Global Space-Time: Science-Fictionality and the World’s Fairs, 1851-1939

Abstract. This article examines the world’s fair movement between The Great Exhibition of 1851 and The New York World’s Fair of 1939, suggesting that these sites are science-fictional spaces that expose their mass audiences to forms of space-time compression that enable early figurations of globalization. Fair sites embody specific forms of economic transfer and exchange that anticipate dreams of the borderless flows of capital in some current versions of globalization theory. This “sfnal” condition of the world’s-fair site is not just in the futuristic displays of techno-scientific “progress,” which became an insistent form of spectacle in the world’s fair, but also in the spatialization of developmental histories, reading conceptions of modernity remorselessly through hierarchies of racial “progress” or spectacles of anachronistic “arrest” or degenerative “decline.” Long before the famous Futurama of 1939 New York, world’s fairs were one of the first spaces in which large populations experienced deliberate and sustained disadjustment in time within a bounded zone, an early sense of immersion in the “science-fictional.”

Sherryl Vint

Orange County: Global Networks in Tropic of Orange

Abstract. Karen Tei Yamashita’s Tropic of Orange uses speculative techniques to offer a complex, multi-layered map of the global cultures and economies of Los Angeles and to insist that the vision of globalization as seen by capital is itself fantastical. Following in a tradition of sf and postcolonial writers who insist that the techniques of realism are insufficient to represent the overdetermined social world, Yamashita’s novel challenges in particular the imaginary lines of national and other economic borders, which artificially divide otherwise organic communities and which allow the free flow of goods and capital but restrict the migration of people. Narrating the overlapping lives of a variety of characters from different racial, social, economic, and geographic segments of LA, Tropic of Orange offers a guide to another kind of urban community and another way to envision —and thus enact—the global ties that bind us all, a globalization beyond neoliberalism.

Diane Nelson

Pirates, Robbers, and Mayan Shamans: The Terrible and Fine Allure of the Spirits of Capital

Abstract. This essay examines China Miéville’s The Scar (2004) and Nalo Hopkinson’s Midnight Robber (2000) alongside Fredric Jameson’s work on “the desire called Utopia and other science fictions,” in order to read an anthropological “social science fiction” from the post-genocide Maya highlands of Guatemala, involving a scam that promised half a million quetzals (about $70,000) to people who were deemed worthy by the Ajau or Earthparent (and who had contributed a small fee). Only Maya could participate, and those who created the wealth would get a bit of it. I argue that this situation was a form of postcolonial or global science fiction: an emergent form embarking from the point of view of the enslaved, the indebted, all those who work for nothing—a.k.a. “free” labor. Exploring Miéville’s pirates, Hopkinson’s robber queen, and Mayan shamanic investors together offers ways to think about the spirits of capital and their intensely ambivalent allure on this crisis-ridden planet.

Lysa Rivera

Future Histories and Cyborg Labor: Reading Borderlands Science Fiction after NAFTA

Abstract. This essay extends studies in Chicanafuturism—or, more broadly, Chicano/a science fiction—by putting sf texts produced north of the border in conversation with science fiction from the other side (el otro lado). Specifically, I look at Mexican writer Guillermo Lavín’s short story “Reaching the Shore” (1994), the sf films of US director Alex Rivera, and Rosaura Sanchez and Beatrice Pita’s Chicanafuturistic novel Lunar Braceros (2009). Analyzing these texts together invites a hemispheric (North/South) reading of science fiction from a specific geopolitical region (the US/Mexico border) and during a particular moment in contemporary history (the era of multinational capitalism and NAFTA). As this essay shows, all three borderlands sf texts offer not only critical visions of globalization, but they also insist on reading late capitalism as a troubling and enduring extension of colonial relations of power between the United States and Mexico.

Jerome Winter

Epistemic Polyverses and the Subaltern: The Postcolonial World-System in Ian McDonald’s Evolution’s Shore and River of Gods

Abstract. In Evolution’s Shore (1995) and River of Gods (2004), Ian McDonald contributes to the growing literature of global sf in a fashion congruent with recent theoretical interventions on science fiction and empire, world-systems theory, discussions of postcolonial hybridity, the foreclosure of subaltern agency, and Third-World nationalism. This paper discusses how McDonald negotiates a critique of neoimperialism with a strategic support of Third World decolonization and development. In a remarkable career to date, McDonald has depicted the complex means by which putatively resistant nationalist struggles and ethical-political agendas of the tricontinent of Africa, Asia, and South America shore up the imperatives of transnational capitalism. At the same time, he endeavors to open a hybrid literary and science-fictional interzone for the subaltern to speak by disclaiming the benevolent violence of being spoken for.

Istvan Csicsery-Ronay, Jr.

What Do We Mean When We Say “Global Science Fiction”? Reflections on a New Nexus

Abstract. The economic and political transformations of the globalizing regime have undermined the conditions that have been used until the recent past for defining nations, cultures, and science fiction itself. No clear “global culture” has emerged, however, to take their place. SF remains bound up with the hegemony of Anglophone culture, which now includes the former colonies of the US and the UK. The notorious lack of interest in non-hegemonic cultures means that written sf that is not written or translated into English has a limited influence. SF cinema has access to transnational audiences, but it too is largely conditioned by the global power of the US film industry. Non-US sf cinema tends to reproduce the characteristics of the US-dominated international style, while supplementing it with messages directed to local audiences. The main breakthroughs of sf art in the future will probably arrive via internet artforms, but one cannot say for certain whether these will be genuine alternatives to the Anglo hegemony or expansions of it.

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