Science Fiction Studies

#128 = Volume 43, Part 1 = March 2016


Paweł Frelik. Introduction: Digital Science Fiction(s)

In the last few decades, digital technologies have dramatically reconfigured not only existing modes of media production and dissemination but also cultural genres and their conventions. Science fiction has not been immune to these transformations, which extend far beyond simple enhancement of sound and vision. In fact, one might argue that, next to the genre’s globalization, the technical conditions of composition, production, and distribution of various sf media that are responsible for their changed character have been at the core of most definitional and conceptual struggles around science fiction as a discourse. And yet their role in how science fiction is conceptualized and how it performs its cultural work has remained largely unexplored by sf scholars. Worse, an insensitivity to media specificity has led to negative assessments of numerous sf texts produced under the regimes of digitality.

Science fiction as a literary genre is usually judged either by its texts’ artistic proficiency in telling stories—ideally, suspense- and psychology-driven, formally sophisticated, and conceptually complex—or by their cultural resonance, their capacity to address contemporary issues and anxieties. John W. Campbell’s tying of the genre to post-World War II technoscientific culture, the New Wave’s formal and aesthetic experiments, and Darko Suvin’s insistence on science fiction’s political potential have all contributed to a bias favoring conceptually rich and artistically accomplished verbal storytelling as a privileged mode of sf. Historically, this metanarrative of what science fiction is and ought to be has suppressed critical recognition of the role of illustration, film, radio, and comics in the shaping of the genre. In the early twenty-first century, the frequent denigration of audiovisuality in general and digital audiovisuality in particular continues to complicate the reception of digital science fictions.

Digital technologies have impressed themselves on virtually all older sf media. Film and television, in which special effects and non-linear editing have affected aesthetics as well as story-telling strategies, are the most obvious case in point. Driven by a database logic (Manovich 218-43), emphasizing visual spectacularity (King 1-15), and best understood as post-continuous (Shaviro), many such texts have been criticized for their dilution of rigorously scientific imagination and their lack of narrative originality. Similar charges have been made against sf video games, in which the centrality of traditionally understood narrative frequently stands in direct opposition to the character of digitality, which, as Andrew Darley notes, “endorses form over content, the ephemeral and superficial over permanence and depth, and the image itself over the image as referent” (81).

This unresolved conflict between digital audiovisuality and traditionally conceived narrative will, very likely, continue to escalate. Although print, classically-influenced film, and long-form television drama remain as central to the genre as they have been for the last few decades, much contemporary science fiction, particularly texts produced within the regimes of digitality, is incidental, ephemeral, and fragmented. It also possesses a short expiration date—not because it is flimsy and paltry but because it is dispersed in the ever-expanding networks of remediation, insinuated in dynamic transmedia universes, and relentlessly overtaken by new texts. It is in this sector of the sf world that digital technologies and tools centrally underwrite discrete but no less vibrant media: independent games such as Constant C (2014) and game mods such as Wasteland Restoration (2011) and Fallout 3 (2008); cybertexts, such as Google Maps-based The LA Flood Project (2012); uncountable digital graphics, such as those hosted on DeviantArt or Imgur; short films such as New Media (2011) and the Futurestates series (2010-2014); music videos such as Jamie XX’s “Gosh” (2015); and web series such as H+ (2012-) and Haphead (2015). Diverse and balkanized among various audiences, such texts share a number of common traits rooted in their digitality, but they are also deeply science-fictional, often openly acknowledging earlier genre influences and inspirations. The genre’s traditional analytical apparatus, which has provided excellent readings of Forbidden Planet (1956), Neuromancer (1984), and Battlestar Galactica (2004-2009), is often insufficient when dealing with these texts, whose science-fictionality is conveyed in ways other than narrative emplotment. Indeed, many sf critics denounce texts that deprivilege narrative in favor of visuality or simulation.

Digital media at large have already been theorized from multiple perspectives and angles, but, as noted earlier, there has been very little work on how digital tools and screens have affected cultural genres themselves. From this perspective, the current special issue of SFS blazes trails not only for our own discipline but also for the study of other genres. The articles in this issue are the first collective attempt at mapping the terrain of what—for lack of a better term—I have called digital science fiction, an already immense and ever-growing body of media texts that are firmly grounded in sf culture but which also transform the genre’s themes and tropes through the influence of digital technologies, putting the very definition of science fiction in question.

The order of the articles in this issue, to an extent, reflects the historical development of individual sf media as well as the degree to which they have been explored in critical writings. Lisa Swanstrom’s article on William Gibson’s conceptual hypertext Agrippa (A Book of the Dead) (1992) provides a media-archaeological insight into this important ur-text, illuminating the ways in which the then-new digital medium engaged much older questions of memory and forgetting. Connecting the worlds of pre-digital and digital media, Rebekah Sheldon’s contribution investigates how new technological capacities have transformed the content and reception of the older sf media of film, television, advertising, and art installations.

The next three articles engage various types of video games—arguably the most dynamically developing of all contemporary media, whose remediating voraciousness (already noted by Jay David Bolter and Richard Grusin in their influential Remediation: Understanding New Media [1999]) has been rivaled by their inventiveness. David Higgins examines mainstream massively multiplayer online (MMO) games and the ways in which they reflect and model our lived experience of economic systems, foregrounding complex real-world activities and the planned obsolescence of goods. Lars Schmeink analyzes the mod-cum-standalone game DayZ (2013) to demonstrate how this digital text challenges the genre’s traditional commitment to historically derived narrative accounts. In the last article in this grouping, Lorenzo Servitje approaches mobile games, the youngest phylum of the gaming medium, analyzing Plague Inc. (2012) as a quintessentially science-fictional text that dehumanizes players by positing them as viruses and pathogens whose goal is unleashing a global pandemic.

The last two articles focus on music, probably the least critically examined of major sf media. Keren Omry discusses Beck, Kutiman, Björk, and Amon Tobin, arguing that their artistic creations—both their music and its paratexts—manifest a decidedly posthumanist art whose roots can be found in the digital tools of production and dissemination. Closing the special issue is Mark Young’s manifesto-like rumination on the sonic science-fictionalization of contemporary music publics and the ways in which this phenomenon challenges existing definitions of science fiction and science-fictionality.

Navigating the uncharted waters of sf media, all seven articles provide close readings that ultimately illuminate specific texts as much as they do larger medial forms and their complex digital affordances and limitations. E-texts (Swanstrom), digital advertising and art installations (Sheldon), MMO games (Higgins), game mods (Schmeink), mobile games (Servitje), music videos, music apps (Omry), and music itself (Omry; Young) are, without a doubt, recent arrivals in the galaxy of science fiction, but they already account for a considerable percentage of the cultural production characterized as sf today. Learning how to engage critically with these texts—as well as others, such as digital graphics, virtual environments, short film, and installations—will be a major challenge for the field in coming years. I hope that the seven insightful articles collected in this issue will encourage other researchers to meet this challenge and continue this conversation about the new digital panorama of science fiction.

Bolter, J. David, and Richard A Grusin. Remediation: Understanding New Media. Cambridge, MA: MIT, 1999.
Darley, Andrew. Visual Digital Culture: Surface Play and Spectacle in New Media Genres. London: Routledge, 2004.
King, Geoff. Spectacular Narratives: Hollywood in the Age of the Blockbuster. London: I.B. Tauris, 2001.
Manovich, Lev. The Language of New Media. Cambridge, MA: MIT, 2002.
Shaviro, Steven. “Post-Continuity.” The Pinocchio Theory. 26 Mar. 2012. Online. 3 Jan. 2016.

Lisa Swanstrom

External Memory Drives: Deletion and Digitality  in Agrippa (A Book of The Dead)

Abstract. While William Gibson’s cyberpunk fiction is fundamental for understanding the relationship between digitality and science fiction, I suggest that Gibson’s most important “digital” work is neither cyberpunk, science fiction, nor even fiction. It is, instead, an autobiographical poem, Agrippa: (A Book of The Dead), published in 1992. Agrippa marks a pivotal point in Gibson’s writing for its engagement with actual—as opposed to speculative—digital editing techniques, not merely in terms of the disk that contains the poem encoded within it, but in terms of Gibson’s tendency to triangulate digitization, identity, and memory. Agrippa as a whole—that is, as a work of poetry, a printed book, and a self-effacing digital object—functions initially as a modernist monument to subjectivity at the very moment of its dismantling and, in this respect, is wholly consistent with Gibson’s cyberpunk fiction, which tends to treat digital technology in analog terms. Yet in the twenty-plus years since its initial publication, Agrippa has continued to evolve, and a reading of this strange text today yields different possibilities. In what might be termed Agrippa’s afterlife, a more fluid form of memory has emerged, one that is collective, participatory, collaborative, and much more in tune with the nature of digitality.


Rebekah Sheldon

Spectrum Orders: Digital Science Fiction and the Corrected Present  

Abstract. This article examines the aesthetics of what Anthony Dunne calls “Hertzian space” or the electromagnetic flows that enable wireless communication devices through comparative attention to three contemporary transmedia universes: the BBC’s Sherlock, SyFy’s Alphas, and Fox’s Touch. I argue that each of these shows uses the emerging conventions of neuro-atypicality in order to make visible and render as story the data streams whose omnipresence cannot be experienced as such by the human sensorium without first becoming meaningful. This need for translation from data to narrative disrupts a fantasy of effortless transduction. I contend that the difficulty is solved through the characters of Sherlock, Gary, and Jacob, who give us unmediated access to dataflows. By the same token, these characters intimate a new form of epistemic mastery and concomitant subjectivization.

David Higgins

Dreams of Accumulation: The Economics of SF Video Games

Abstract. Contemporary video games often function as digital science fictions that strive to manifest late capitalism’s ultimate self-manifestation. In particular, many popular blockbuster games construct and deploy world systems that operate according to the economic principles late-capitalism proposes should, according to its fantasy vision, structure the fabric of modern economic life. These games manifest, in several perplexing ways, a variety of capitalist wish fulfillments and visions of how lived economic systems might work if capitalism were free from the limiting restraints of what some economists regard as the imperfect distortions of the real world. This article examines massively multiplayer online games (MMOs) in order to demonstrate how the planned obsolescence of goods is a mandatory and inescapable feature of economic life in many digital environments. In such games, ubiquitous obsolescence creates infinite demand which can always be met with increased profitable supply. Furthermore, these games often enact the fantasy that all property can be regarded as intellectual property; everyday objects like clothing items are licensed for limited use rather than purchased for permanent ownership. Even in MMOs that do not encode elaborate systems of planned obsolescence to manage demand, however, the principle of creative destruction is elevated to its free-market apotheosis in order to orient consumer play toward endless commodity consumption.

Lars Schmeink

“Scavenge, Slay, Survive”: The Zombie Apocalypse, Exploration, and Lived Experience in DayZ

Abstract. In this article, I argue that the video game DayZ is an engaging representation of the zombie apocalypse, moreso than any cinematic or literary forms, specifically because of its status as digital medium and interactive simulation. The simulated space of the game foregoes sf-typical centering on historic narrative progression and accumulation of knowledge about the diegetic world for an active exploration of space and the accumulation of lived experience. By modeling a postapocalyptic world, the game forces players to make moral decisions regarding scarcity, survival, and social order. In adding the threat of a zombie attack, the game further emphasizes the existential nature of these decisions and foregrounds player agency as the determining factor for game experience. DayZ is noteworthy insofar as it rejects a moral baseline inherent in the diegesis; it denies players a pre-scripted narrative, instead relying on open-world mechanics that allow player interaction with little algorithmic limitation. In combination with the persistent game mechanics and the simulated hostile environment, the game becomes a lived experience of the sf trope of postapocalypse that is unlike any provided in film or literature.

Lorenzo Servitje

H5N1 for Angry Birds: Plague Inc., Mobile Games, and the Biopolitics of Outbreak Narratives

Abstract. Within its first week, Plague Inc. climbed to the top of Apple’s App Store, effectively ending the ever-popular Angry Birds’ reign as the top-selling iPhone game. The game’s premise is simple: create a pathogen to kill every human on the planet. In this article, I examine the epidemiological images and structures in Plague Inc., suggesting that what Priscilla Wald has characterized as the “outbreak narrative” becomes reconfigured by the fictionalization of biosecurity in the biomedical imaginary according to the mobile game’s media specificity. This digital mutation of the outbreak narrative speaks to the implications of mobile technologies in the apperception and expansion of biosecurity and biopolitical regulation. Within this framework, I explore how Plague Inc.’s narrative content and interactive functions hover somewhere between science fiction and science fact. Ultimately, Plague Inc. participates in the reinscription of anxieties relating to a bio-apocalypse and of the desire for the biogovermental process to control it. I suggest that analyzing the game’s mechanics, narrative, and materiality, on the one hand, gives us a way to understand how the biopolitics of outbreak narratives work; on the other hand, we come to see the way the game also inculcates an acceptance of the biosecurity apparatus’ regulating biopolitics.

Keren Omry

Bodies and Digital Discontinuities: Posthumanism, Fractals, and Popular Music in the Digital Age

Abstract. This article focuses on popular music by mapping out a shift in recent popular culture that has incorporated both the technologies and the discontinuities of our contemporary digital reality. While musicians from Sun Ra to Daft Punk have been interested in sf themes, I concentrate here on four musicians who move beyond thematic content or performative stance, and adapt their creative processes, the resulting outputs, and their overall aesthetic programs to accomodate changing relations between the body and creativity that are marked by contemporary technology. Amon Tobin, Björk, Beck, and Kutiman are all thoroughly enmeshed in the sf effects and aesthetics that pervade Western popular culture, acknowledging the inextricable penetration of technology, even in its most sophisticated forms, into the commonplace and the aesthetic. I claim that fractal geometry can provide a system of analysis through which current cultural, aesthetic, and political productions can be better understood. In turning to the fractal—literally, thematically, technically, and/or metaphorically—these musicians map out the geometry of a natural world in which the technological has become organic and is welcomed as a productive source of beauty in our posthuman and distinctly science-fictional era.

Mark Young

Digital Aurality and the Science-fictional Public Sphere    

Abstract. This essay explores the sonic “science-fictionalization” of the twenty-first century public and the fundamental questions concerning its emergence: how might science-fictional practices of aurality challenge existing definitions of science fiction? what role does digitality play in the new regimes of production, distribution, and consumption of science-fictional aurality and its attendant technocultures? what aspects of the public sphere are shifting in response to these desires? and what potential for sonic resistance might emerge from portable, digital modes of science-fictional listening?

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