Science Fiction Studies


#98 = Volume 33, Part 1 = March 2006



Edited by Roger Luckhurst and Gill Partington

Roger Luckhurst


It is now twenty-two years since the publication of the three texts that have dominated a generation of sf criticism: Fredric Jameson’s “Postmodernism, or the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism,” Donna Haraway’s “A Manifesto for Cyborgs,” and the English translation of Jean-Francois Lyotard’s The Postmodern Condition. These works have been immensely productive, acting genuinely in Foucault’s terms as “founders of discursivity.” In the postmodern paradigm, sf found itself in a surprisingly powerful cultural location, the exemplary symptomatic writing of a new epoch. Sf was diverse or ambiguous enough to support anxious accounts of the hypercapitalized technological capture of the last elements of human freedom or more optimistic accounts of the posthuman, anti-essential hybridization of human and animal, animal and machine. There are now canonical sf texts associated with these strands: vast critical literatures now attend William Gibson, Philip K. Dick, James Tiptree Jr., Octavia Butler, Blade Runner, the Alien quartet, and a small handful of other alleged exemplifications.

As historical materialists, although of different kinds, Jameson and Haraway addressed a specific conjuncture in the 1980s, with specific theoretical and writerly strategies (indeed, one of the most striking things re-reading their work now is the exorbitant rhetorical devices in which their critical theory inheres, a rhetoric that has often been badly imitated). But can these frameworks, formulated in Ronald Reagan’s first term, survive across twenty-two years of profound global transformation? Does the postmodern paradigm still work for 2006?

The idea for this special issue was generated not from a sense of wanting to discredit or displace the conjuncture of sf and postmodernism—indeed, several essayists here engage with the still uncircumventable work of Jameson and Haraway. Rather, it was to attempt to find new connections between contemporary sf and a body of critical theory that focuses on technoculture but that has largely been eclipsed by the exhaustive finessing of the concept of postmodernism. There have been some striking blindspots in this regard.

The first four essays will lead readers from the familiar to (we hope) the rather more strange. Manuel Castells, as Robert Harding explains, borrows much of his cultural commentary from Jameson, and this thesis of a distinctive new epoch of informationalism marked by “timeless time” and “the space of flows” is entirely compatible with cultural ideas of the postmodern. Yet his huge three-volume sociological work, The Information Society, reads like a compendium of science-fictional tropes in its central emphasis on the role of technological transformation in the 1990s. It provides the mass of sociological raw data that updates Jameson’s 1984 sketch. The pleasingly eccentric German theorist, Friedrich Kittler, is also prepared to use epochal markers, proposing distinct techno-cultural “discourse networks” at 1800, 1900, and 2000. The critical resources, however, are wildly different from the familiar array of cultural critique: Kittler mixes up Goethe and circuit diagrams, Lacan and Victorian pedagogic manuals, Rilke and gramophones. Kittler’s contention, that technology and modern subjectivity are inextricably related, speaks to the core of the cultural work undertaken by sf, yet his work has had greater impact (so far) on media studies scholars and historians of media technologies.

Bruno Latour is perhaps the most well-known figure here, yet his wholesale rejection of the modern/postmodern paradigm has contributed to his minimal influence on sf criticism. The strangest silence in sf scholarship has surely been the marginal interface between sf critics and those in Science and Technology Studies and History of Science programs. With a very few exceptions (most notably, N. Katherine Hayles), the revolutions inside the history of science in the last twenty years have passed largely unnoticed in sf criticism. Latour has been at the center of many of the disputes in the field: his actor-network theory, and his provocative championing of a nonmodernism that might network together humans and nonhumans in new formations, provide an exciting matrix of ideas within which to rethink contemporary sf. Sherryl Vint and Mark Bould also engage with Latour’s “scientifiction” book, Aramis, or the Love of Technology (1993), in their trenchant examination of his critical potential for sf scholars. Latour is a theoretical magpie, but a persistent point of reference is the work of Michel Serres. Serres is of the generation that provided the main body of French structuralists and poststructuralists, yet his rejection of the phenomenological tradition has placed him outside this grouping. Instead, Serres has pursued what Laura Salisbury rightly calls an “authentically perverse” trajectory, placing literature, philosophy, quantum physics, mathematics, and mythology in bizarre new topological and temporal relations. Serres provides a whole set of metaphorical passageways between the literary and scientific that again allow for new ways of negotiating the hyphen between the technological and the cultural, that transitional space explored by sf.

The four introductory essays on Castells, Kittler, Latour, and Serres are designed to provide orientations to more or less unfamiliar theoretical work, and have space to make only suggestive comments on how sf texts might be read in relation to these very different theoretical writings. Our other contributors have had freer rein to explore contemporary sf and its relations to the techno-cultural. Enns, along with Vint and Bould, directly pick up from our theoretical orientations: they read Philip K. Dick or Hugo Gernsback with and against the matrix offered by Kittler and Latour. Sf readings are already opening up along these new pathways. Stacey Abbott offers a genealogy of the computer-generated image special effect, while Kaye Mitchell’s reading of the fiction of Justina Robson and Pat Cadigan pushes the feminist debates about cyberculture and embodiment in new directions.

The central idea that might be taken to link Castells, Kittler, Latour, and Serres together is the network. Latour insists that the success of a scientific statement, technological project, or indeed journal special issue comes from making as many connections as possible to as many heterogeneous social, political, scientific, cultural, and critical elements. One of the ambitions of this guest editor was to introduce to Science Fiction Studies young scholars who have been producing work across a diverse range of literary fields and who would not necessarily identify themselves as sf scholars. It is my sense that there is an emerging generation that reads science fiction alongside and intertwined with other literatures without having tortured debates about cultural value or generic boundary. Laura Salisbury teaches and writes about Samuel Beckett, neuroscience, the flickering technologies of Modernism, and children’s fantasy; Gill Partington studies eighteenth-century print technologies at the birth of the novel but also internet conspiracy theories and the fiction of Neal Stephenson. This kind of fluid movements between fields are what attracts them to network theories. To thrive, sf criticism needs to welcome them into its network, too.

Roger Luckhurst

Bruno Latour’s Scientifiction: Networks, Assemblages, and Tangled Objects

Abstract. -- This essay introduces the work of controversial historian and philosopher of science and technology, Bruno Latour. It suggests that his theories of hybrid objects, his analyses of networks that criss-cross normally discrete categories of science, politics, and culture, and his displacement of the modern/postmodern paradigm can offer productive new readings of science fiction, permitting critics to rethink the genre’s relation to science and society. Latour’s own “scientifictions” (his coinage) are examined alongside works by sf authors China Miéville, Paul McAuley, and Kim Stanley Robinson. 

Robert Harding

Manuel Castells’s Technocultural Epoch in The Information Age

Abstract -- This article reviews Manuel Castells’s contribution to the theory of high-tech globalization in his sociological trilogy The Information Age. I examine Castells’s claim that so-called Network Society is a discrete period in history, an epoch that incorporated the liberal individualism of the 1960s with a structural reorganization of labor. I then investigate informational networks in terms of their capacity to transform our social being, assessing the political implications of Castells’s thesis through reference to a range of social theorists. Specifically, I consider how Castells’s evaluation of the political and cultural resistance to global homogenization leads him to advocate systems of advanced self-management, radical self-fashioning, and individual adaptability to accelerating technoscientific change. I conclude with an analysis of the science-fictional nature of Castells’s futurology and its potential utility as a theoretical framework for sf critics.

Laura Salisbury

Michel Serres: Science, Fiction, and the Shape of Relation

Abstract. -- This article offers a synoptic introduction to the thought of Michel Serres and suggests how his work might be used to read science fiction. Serres’s intensely topological form of analysis explores the complex relationship between realms that are normally held to be distinct within modern thought, such as science and fiction, mathematics and mythology. The article argues that such a topological method offers sf studies a theoretical language for mapping its own generic transgressions; it also suggests that topology can be used to read the disturbingly continuous cognitive and imaginative spaces found at once in the Gothic and in cyberpunk. The article goes on to argue that Serres’s later use of information theory, alongside his concept of the quasi-object, opens up a way of reading the topologically complex relationship between embodiment and objects, subjectivity and the world of social relations, found in the work of China Miéville. Serres’s most recent work on globalized telecommunications explores the ungainsayable social bonds within this network of quasi-objects, articulating the vital relationship between the local and the global. Exploring Serres’s account of quasi-objects that reads technological communication as constitutive of a philosophically reconfigured intersubjectivity, the article finally uses this work to read Geoff Ryman’s recent novel Air (2005).

Gill Partington

Friedrich Kittler’s Aufschreibsystem

Abstract. -- This article presents an overview of the work of Friedrich Kittler, tracing the trajectory of his thought over his thirty-year career and locating his work in a contemporary theoretical context, before suggesting ways in which it may be relevant to the field of sf studies. Kittler’s eclectic brand of poststructuralist media theory defies categorization but offers an idiosyncratic version of literary history in which literature is understood to function as part of a more general technocultural matrix or “discourse network.” The article begins by exploring this central concept: according to Kittler, discourse networks operate at the material and technological, as well as the discursive, levels, determining the frameworks of knowledge at any given historical moment. It then goes on to outline Kittler’s investigations into three such networks, each a century apart. While the contrasting textual and media paradigms of 1800 and 1900 are fully explored in his work, that of 2000 appears notably more problematic; this ambivalence about theorizing the contemporary has prevented any effective engagement with the genre of science fiction. The article concludes by suggesting ways that a Kittlerian approach could usefully be applied to sf, mapping out some intriguing affinities between Kittler’s work and recent “historical” modes of sf, particularly Neal Stephenson’s post-steampunk Baroque Cycle novels.

Anthony Enns

Media, Drugs, and Schizophrenia in the Works of Philip K. Dick

Abstract. -- This essay employs the work of German media theorists Friedrich Kittler and Wolfgang Hagen to introduce a new way of understanding the role of media technologies in Philip K. Dick’s fiction. Dick incorporates material from a wide range of scientific fields in order to formulate a conceptual model of consciousness as a medial interface, thoroughly integrated with the electric media environment, thus illustrating Kittler’s claim that the discovery of the unconscious followed a “media logic.” Dick also combines the time-based theory of schizophrenia developed by existential psychotherapists with the time-axis manipulation made possible by film in order to describe unconscious processes as cinematographic effects, supporting Hagen’s notion that schizophrenic hallucinations and media technologies both reflect “a linguistic structure articulated by the unconscious.” Instead of describing the boundary problems in Dick’s fiction as an effect of late capitalist surveillance systems, as much previous scholarship on the author does, this essay shows how they illustrate the interpenetration of consciousness and media technologies.

Stacey Abbott

Final Frontiers: Computer-Generated Imagery and the Science Fiction Film

Abstract. -- The science fiction genre has, since George Méliès’s Le Voyage dans la lune (1902), been indelibly associated with special effects technology. The genre offers a space to showcase special effects while also pushing technological developments forward in order to convincingly represent the imagined worlds and visions of the future that are so fundamental to the genre. The rise of computer-generated special effects over the past twenty-five years offers an interesting case study in the shifting relationship between technology and genre. In this article, I trace how sf films have contributed to the rise of computer-generated imagery (CGI) and then consider how the genre has responded to the domestication of the technology by turning away from brave new worlds to explore the new frontier of CGI, the representation of the human body. By focusing on such films as Blade (1998) and The Lord of the Rings trilogy (2001-2003), as well as the American movies of Asian superstar Jet Li, I further demonstrate that the use of computer imagery specifically transforms genres such as horror, fantasy, and martial arts into a form of hybridized science fiction.

Kaye Mitchell

Bodies That Matter: Science Fiction, Technoculture, and the Gendered Body

Abstract. -- This article considers the possible intersections of recent technocultural and gender theory, focusing in particular on their respective theorizations of the body. It works from the premise that “the body” is to some extent the product of our understanding of it and concerns itself, therefore, with the relationship between the material and the discursive in the “production” of the body and with the reconceptualization and resignification of “matter” within technocultural and gender theory. Both of these theoretical discourses are moving towards an understanding of matter as constructed and non-natural; this emphasis on constructionism contrasts with earlier, more utopian views of the “transcendence” of the body in cyberspace and the radical gender possibilities of cyborgs. These ideas are then explored further via readings of Justina Robson’s Natural History (2003) and Pat Cadigan’s Tea from an Empty Cup (1998). These two sf novels reformulate the social and cultural meanings of the gendered body through their representations of sexually indeterminate, identity-shifting, hybrid, and radically other bodies. Science fiction, then, facilitates a dialogue between theories of technology and theories of gender, and tests the boundaries of the intelligible as far as our understanding of the gendered body is concerned.

Mark Bould and Sherryl Vint

Learning from the Little Engines That Couldn’t: Transported by Gernsback, Wells, and Latour

Abstract. -- Taking as its starting point Bruno Latour’s coinage of “scientifiction” to describe his book Aramis or the Love of Technology (1993), this essay draws out its similarities to and differences from the scientifiction proposed by Hugo Gernsback and developed by John W. Campbell, Jr. It situates Aramis within Latour’s work in science studies and his more overtly political speculations. Drawing on H.G. Wells’s short story “A Tale of the Twentieth Century” (1887) to identify a key weakness—the absence of any concept of social power—in Latour’s work, it suggests that sf’s imaginative potential might play a role in reformulating his political vision.

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