Science Fiction Studies


#90 = Volume 30, Part 2 = July 2003


Samuel Gerald Collins

Sail On! Sail On!: Anthropology, Science Fiction, and the Enticing Future

Abstract. – Anthropologists have long been interested in the future and, as a result, anthropology and science fiction share certain understandings about culture and society. Rather than concentrate on anthropological science fiction, this essay looks to the ways professional anthropologists have utilized sf in the years following World War II; it critiques the cybernetic-functionalist assumptions that underlie their visions of possible futures. By constructing "the future" as a rationalization of contemporary trends, anthropologists have projected highly conservative visions based on stability and homeostasis—visions that are inimical to radical change. Still, the historical intersection of anthropology and sf holds a great deal of potential. By examining assumptions about the future that govern work in the present, anthropologists have the opportunity to develop genuine alternatives rather than futuristic capitulations to the historical status quo.

Sheryl N. Hamilton

Traces of the Future: Biotechnology, Science Fiction, and the Media

Abstract. -- When media report on biotechnologies, they almost inevitably invoke science fiction. We often hear reporters musing that "the stuff of science fiction became science fact today," or scientists hastening to reassure a potentially nervous public that the latest technology does not herald sf-style horrors for the human race. These sorts of references are rarely to specific sf texts and generally do not assume a prior knowledge of science fiction as a genre. Rather, they are a generalized reference to an imaginative and imagined future, whether positive or negative. This essay takes up this rhetorical practice and what it means for our understandings of both science and sf. I consider a corpus of print-media treatments of biotechnology in North America from 1990 to 2001. Drawing upon risk theory and its consideration of the ways in which scientific expertise is being questioned in late modernity, I draw out two overarching tendencies within the media coverage. Both posit a relationship linking science, the imagination, and the future. The first, which constructs science as the stuff of science fiction, works to reenchant science, adding to it the wonder and optimism of sf: the imagination of science fiction fuels science as a future-looking knowledge. The second, which constructs science fiction as bad science, disenchants science, marking the imagination of sf as dangerous to the pure knowledge of empirical research. Interestingly, however, in both, sf works as a figure to legitimize biotechnological science and reinvest it with credibility in a risk society otherwise increasingly critical of scientific expertise.

Istvan Csicsery-Ronay, Jr.

Science Fiction and Empire

Abstract. -- This essay makes a preliminary attempt to construct a cognitive map of sf as a creature of imperialism and inspired by a world-view of technoscientific Empire. The dominant historical sf cultures are those that attempted imperialist projects: US, UK, Russia, France, Germany, Japan. The conditions for sf’s emergence are established by imperialism and the role of technology, both in colonial conquest and political administration. The essay also argues that sf is imbued with the myth of Empire as a global technoscientific regime. Sf has an implied world-model, captured in aspects of Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri’s Empire, which is treated as a quasi-sf text and a geopolitical myth, rather than a work of political analysis.

Andrew Milner

Utopia and Science Fiction in Raymond Williams

Abstract. -- Raymond Williams was a pioneer in the early history of what is now known as cultural studies and also a central inspiration for the early British New Left. There is an extensive commentary on his work, none of which makes anything of his enduring interest in science fiction. This essay argues that there are three main phases in Williams’s thought, each explicable in terms of its own differentially negotiated settlement between the kind of literary humanism associated with the English critic F.R. Leavis and some version or another of Marxism. In each of these phases, Williams formulated a relatively distinct definition of the interrelationship of sf, utopia, and dystopia. In thirty years of occasional writing about sf, he learned to substitute the complex seeing of analysis for moralistic criticism and to situate texts in their material and intellectual contexts. He came to understand the kind of honorable personal motives and socially effective structures of feeling that underpinned both utopian and dystopian forms, and to realize that neither was antithetical to the "space anthropology" he admired in James Blish and Ursula K. Le Guin. But his suspicion of radical dystopia remained essentially unchanged: without resistance, he concluded, without "realism," without the "true subjunctive," dystopia will kill hope as surely as an unrealistic utopia will fail to inspire it.

Diane M. Nelson

A Social Science Fiction of Fevers, Delirium and Discovery: The Calcutta Chromosome, the Colonial Laboratory, and the Postcolonial New Human

Abstract. -- Using critical studes of technology, medicine, and empire to analyze Europe’s colonies as laboratories of modernity where both work (labor) and slippage (labi) occur, this essay explores the phenomenon of social science fiction by examining the novel The Calcutta Chromosome, written by social scientist Amitav Ghosh. The Calcutta Chromosome is a mystery thriller in the guise of sf and alternative history that explores a range of human/technology interfaces, from railroads, computers, and bureaucracies to genetic engineering and the mysterious workings of the malaria plasmodium. The eponymous chromosome is a form of transmission that shapes the human through books, whispered secrets, and email messages as surely as through genetic transfers, disease vectors, and medical contagion. The essay follows Ghosh in linking malaria (which is less a disease than a classic network of actants) with colonial tropes (ways of knowing) and troops (the militarized aspects of science) in order to imagine a new human entity arising from the "counterscience" devised in such laboratories.

J.P. Telotte

Doing Science in Machine Age Horror: The Mummy’s Case

Abstract. -- This essay examines attitudes towards the scientist and the work of science in the Machine Age, particularly as they are manifested in the 1932 film The Mummy. Drawing on the work of sociologist of science Bruno Latour, particularly his distinction between the modernist desire for "purification" and the natural "hybridity" of knowledge, the article shows how the scientific work of demystifying the past by compartmentalizing and isolating it translated in this era into the stuff of horror. Moreover, I argue too that the modernist desire for neat distinctions, for a sorting out of the messy linkage of facts, power, and discourse, also surfaces in our common tendency to conceive of horror and sf as discrete genres. The case of The Mummy—that is, the case in which the mummy’s body is physically placed, as well as the many other images of compartmentalization and enclosure that mark the film—exemplifies Latour’s model of the paradoxes inherent in the project of "doing science" in the modernist era.

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