Science Fiction Studies

#127 = Volume 42, Part 3 = November 2015


David M. Higgins

The Cutting Edges of SF Scholarship

Mark Bould and Rhys Williams, ed. SF Now. Paradoxa #26. 316 pp. $24 pbk.

In 2014, Jaak Tomberg won the SFRA Pioneer Award for his essay “On the ‘Double Vision’ of Realism and SF Estrangement in William Gibson’s Bigend Trilogy.” In it, he argues that Gibson’s turning away from cyberpunk futures toward an uncanny science-fictional present—as evident in Pattern Recognition (2003), Spook Country (2007),and Zero History (2010)—exemplifies a larger trend in which sf extrapolations are increasingly set in the present rather than in strange places and distant futures. According to Tomberg, this shift toward the contemporary reflects how the hegemony of technocratic global capitalism has made the present feel futuristic while simultaneously collapsing imagined coordinates outside global capitalism into a perpetual here and now. Tomberg, in other words, offers a critical engagement with what Mark Fisher (drawing upon Jameson and Žižek) calls “capitalist realism,” or the dominance of late capitalism as a totalizing world-view that seems to exclude the possibility of plausible alternatives. Tomberg argues that “late capitalist reality itself” functions as a novum (or a source of fantastic novelty) in Gibson’s Bigend novels because the technocultural milieu of the contemporary moment “behaves as if there were no outside of any kind” (274; emphasis in original).

As if in response to Tomberg, Gibson himself returns to future-oriented imaginings in his 2014 novel The Peripheral, which extrapolates not just one but two science-fictional futures that both function as extensions of contemporary late-capitalist totality. The first (nearer) future is dominated by the economics of American imperial militarization and drone warfare, while the second (more distant) future offers a post-apocalyptic plutocracy where elites remotely colonize economic systems of alternative past timelines. Rather than invalidating Tomberg’s assertion that capitalist totality is perpetually incorporating its periphery into local immanence, The Peripheral instead intensifies, to a nearly psychedelic degree, the imagined acceleration of such enclosure: Gibson extrapolates a science-fictional future that literally invades and colonizes its own past just as our own future seems to retroactively saturate the present in the Bigend Trilogy. Gibson’s perverse and penetrating fascination with the ever-increasing intensification of capitalist totality gives weight to Jameson’s oft-quoted assertion that “it seems to be easier for us today to imagine the thoroughgoing deterioration of the earth and of nature than the breakdown of late capitalism” (xii). Indeed, in The Peripheral Gibson himself imagines a kind of slow apocalypse, “The Jackpot”—a combination of several gradual yet devastating environmental, biological, and sociopolitical catastrophes—that ultimately wipes out over 80% of the world population.

The seeming inevitability of both impending catastrophe and late-capitalist continuity (which often, as in The Peripheral, occur hand-in-hand) makes Fisher’s central question in regard to capitalist realism (“Is There No Alternative?”) one of the key concerns of our contemporary moment. No single recent critical work has explored this question with greater depth, sophistication, and insight than Mark Bould and Rhys Williams’s SF Now special issue of Paradoxa, which emerges from a two-day conference of workshops and panels exploring the current state of science fiction and sf criticism. This special issue offers one of the most tightly organized collections of high-quality essays, interviews, and reviews in recent memory—the articles speak to one another with remarkable coherence, and it is clear that the volume emerges from a series of thoughtful collaborations among the contributors and editors. It is no surprise, then, that SF Now contains the essay that won this year’s Pioneer Award, Graeme MacDonald’s “Improbability Drives: The Energy of SF,” a worthy successor to Tomberg’s interrogation of the science-fictional capitalist totality of the present moment.

Bould and Williams have done a remarkable job presenting the essays and interviews in a sequence that creates a coherent and meaningful conversation. This is a singular editorial feat—many high-quality special issues and edited volumes offer thematically linked essays, but few weave such entries into a coherent whole in the way SF Now does. Bould and Williams’s introduction opens the volume by framing the contributions in reference to the central problem of capitalist realism. “One might almost say,” they argue, “that neoliberalism’s great innovation was the full-throttle effort to define reality itself as capitalist” (8). Against a deadening resignation that holds late-capitalist totality to be inevitable, Bould and Williams assert that sf offers glimpses of a hope that must become radical, “not merely tearing down the fantasy of what is currently thought to be real but also making the fantastical real” (9; emphasis in original). In this regard, their opening statements recall the distinction Evan Calder Williams makes between catastrophe and apocalypse, which suggests that catastrophes embody “end without revelation” (4), or instances of crisis that fail to offer alternatives to their inevitability—a gloomy situation aptly captured by the “No Exit” sign featured on the haunting cover of SF Now. An apocalypse, by contrast, is a modality of crisis that offers a revelation of the artificial nature of its own origins; it is “the end of a totality, here meaning not the sum of all things but the ordering of those things in a particular historical shape” (5; emphasis in original). Catastrophes, in other words, are the systemic disasters that often constitute late-capitalism’s central operations, while apocalypses herald a breakdown that gestures outside taken-for-granted totality and calls into question the radical artificiality of such operations in the first place.

Many of the entries in SF Now either interrogate the ways in which capitalist realism is dependent upon systemic disasters or examine how science fiction offers radical apocalyptic gestures towards revelation. After two thoughtful warm-up offerings—Andrew Milner’s “World Systems and World Science Fiction” (which traces the history of sf in terms of geographical core-periphery models) and Joan Gordon’s interview with Kij Johnson (which raises provocative questions about human/animal relationships)—the volume launches into Gerry Canavan’s “‘If the Engine Ever Stops, We’ll All Die’: Snowpiercer and Necrofuturism.” Drawing upon Achille Mbembe’s “necropolitics,” Warren Montag’s “necroeconomics,” and Subhabrata Bobby Banerjee’s “necro-capitalism” (which all in various ways highlight the systemic production of death and suffering in the creation of contemporary political and economic life), Canavan proposes that capitalist realism often resigns us to a bleak anticipatory “necrofuturism” that forecasts “a coming disaster we can anticipate but not prevent” (43). Almost every blockbuster sf film in recent memory exhibits this trend (except, perhaps, for Disney’s painfully naïve Tomorrowland [2015]), and Canavan examines the French comic Le Transperceneige (1982) and its cinematic adaptation Snowpiercer (2014) in order to demonstrate that sf necrofutures often reveal their own deliberate constructedness: the seeming inevitability of such bleak future horizons is a symptom of our acquiescence to capitalist realism as a system of global life practices without imaginable alternatives.

Toward the end of SF Now, Veronica Hollinger draws upon Derrida’s distinction between two ways of thinking about the future: “le futur” (a future imagined as a continuation of the present) and “l’avenir” (a future we cannot know because it implies a radical break with the present). In a gesture that reveals the rich collaborative conversations underpinning the volume, Canavan credits Hollinger for bringing these terms to his attention, and he describes the imagined world of Snowpiercer as le futur in the sense that it represents “the terrible future that the people in power have planned for us, and are at every moment deliberately bringing into existence,” while at the same time noting that the very constructedness of this future world (the train, the tracks) moves the reader toward the apocalyptic revelation of l’avenir (64). Le futur, in other words, is at best catastrophic (in Evan Calder Williams’s sense), while l’avenir offers the revelatory disruption of the apocalypse.

Hollinger’s and Canavan’s moves to distinguish between a future that is the continuation of the present and an alternate future that might instead offer a radical break seems to lie at the heart of sf literature and theory in the contemporary moment. Steven Shaviro productively adds Deleuze and Whitehead into the mix, arguing in Without Criteria (2012) that for Deleuze the “possible” represents what might occur within the existing condition of things-as-they-are, while the “virtual” gestures toward a more radical mode—a field of potentiality that transcends the narrowness of actual possibility (35). Science fiction, then, currently feels caught between catastrophic necrofuturist imaginings oriented toward the limited possibilities of le futur and apocalyptic revelations that instead open toward the virtual worlds of l’avenir (which might also be described, drawing upon Lee Edelman, as queer unfoldings of futurity). As Canavan proposes, it is often the case that a single work of science fiction such as Snowpiercer articulates the tensions between exactly these opposed future imaginings.

Carl Freedman’s “Capitalist Realism in Three Recent SF Films” extends Canavan’s thoughts by examining three cinematic offerings whose imaginings each remain entrenched within “the inviolability of neo-liberal capitalism” (67). From Freedman’s perspective, Alfonso Cuaron’s Gravity (2013), Spike Jonze’s Her (2013), and Steven Soderbergh’s Side Effects (2013) each critically fails to imagine alternatives to the hegemony of capitalist realism (despite a worthwhile critique of finance capitalism in Side Effects). Next, Zak Bronson’s “Reproduce, Reuse, Recycle: The End of the Future, Salvage, and China Miéville’s Railsea” adapts Evan Calder Williams’s ideas concerning salvagepunk-as-revolutionary-practice in order to suggest that Railsea (2012) offers an apocalyptic critique of late-capitalist ideology. “If the future has been exhausted,” Bronson suggests, “this is because its origins have always been intermixed with capitalist colonization” (83). Bronson, echoing Canavan, shows how Railsea emphasizes the constructed nature of its world’s catastrophe: Miéville’s narrative explains how “the suctioning of the ocean to facilitate more and more tracks became the primary means of jump-starting the economy after a crisis” (87). Bronson then examines the emergence of a revolutionary praxis of salvage in Miéville’s aesthetics (he draws upon countless classics, such as Moby-Dick [1851] and Treasure Island [1883], while refusing the colonial dimensions of their narratives). Finally, Bronson concludes that salvage-as-praxis offers an “anti-reificatory practice of hijacking,” akin to Debord’s notion of détournement, which reveals and rejects the hidden operations of imperial capital while repurposing materials, ideals, and energies for utopian ends (94). Bronson thus captures how salvage, as an emergent focus for critical theory and for practice, emerges as a vital new direction for revolutionary thought. Both Miéville and Bould seem intent on continuing this trajectory, especially given their recent publications in Salvage (a new quarterly journal of “revolutionary arts and letters”), and Bronson’s essay stands alongside Evan Calder Williams’s bookas an early example of groundbreaking salvagepunk critique.

As exciting as these early chapters of SF Now feel, it is impossible not to notice that the volume’s opening emphasis falls squarely upon predominantly white academics, filmmakers, and authors. The next entry, Taryne Taylor’s “A Singular Dislocation,” therefore offers a well-placed, insightful, and provocative interview with Junot Díaz, which immediately contextualizes the concerns of the previous essays within a postcolonial framework. This interview complements Milner’s opening thoughts concerning core/periphery sf models by discussing immigration as an “apocalyptic” experience—“the agony of one world ending and one world beginning”—that enables sf authors to explore multiple dimensions of imperial globalization (106). Taylor’s thoughtful questions and Díaz’s powerhouse responses make this contribution feel more like an academic article than an interview, and Díaz uncannily anticipates the 2015 Hugo controversy when he comments on the irony of how “a genre like sf, historically obsessed with alterity, should have so much trouble with actual people of color and women and LGBT peoples” (100). Taylor asks about why many seem unable to acknowledge “systemic privilege and oppression,” and Díaz seems to speak directly to the Sad Puppies when he remarks that many privileged individuals “identify with their hegemony” and “resist with an almost berserker ferocity any attempt to describe whites as a racial category” (108). In my personal fantasy world, “A Singular Dislocation” would be required reading for all Worldcon attendees before final votes for the 2015 Hugo Awards are cast.

SF Now then arrives at a peak of excellence with MacDonald’s “Improbability Drives.” In fair disclosure, I served on the committee that selected this essay for the 2014 Pioneer Award; although tastes and criteria for scholarly excellence are unavoidably subjective, our collective decision in this case was unanimous and conclusive. I cannot speak for the other judges on the committee, but for me a pioneering essay of sf scholarship moves an entire conversation in our field forward in a new, relevant, and meaningful way. Tomberg accomplishes this with his “Double Vision” essay because he articulates how the seeming science-fictionalization of contemporary life reflects the dominance of a capitalist worldview that inevitably posits that the only possible future has always already arrived.

MacDonald takes the interrogation of capitalist realism even further by deploying emergent perspectives from the Energy Humanities to consider how unsustainable modes of petromodernity and petrocapitalism structure our basic sense of social, cultural, political, and economic life. Within western society, he argues, petroleum has “dictated our daily conceptions, expectations, and organizations of time and space for over a century” (115). Despite the fact that oil is a finite and expensive resource, western modernity is nonetheless predicated upon the fantasy that energy capabilities are effectively endless: mimetic fiction, MacDonald argues, is “realistic” only insofar as it perpetuates a vision that reifies the radically constructed nature of petrocapitalist life-worlds. Science fiction, by contrast, is often “reflexively and consciously aware of energy as literary and material necessity” (117; emphasis in original). Using examples ranging from Star Wars (1977) and M. John Harrison’s novels to Jonathan Skinner’s poem “Auger” (2011) and the works of H.P. Lovecraft, MacDonald reveals how speculative imaginings emphasize the affects and aesthetics of petroculture (the sounds and smells of rocket thrusters, the glimmering lights of future cities, the immense feeling of velocity associated with faster-than-light travel, and the abject horror inspired by black chemicals gushing forth from the earth) even when such imaginings fail to address the sustainability of oil as a natural resource. Part of the strength of MacDonald’s argument is his emphasis on the viscerality of energy in science fiction—how energy expenditure looks, feels, smells, tastes, and sounds—and how this emphasis on sensory experience draws our attention to what Patricia Yaeger called “the energy unconscious,” or the way the economics of energy structure taken-for-granted aspects of petromodern lifeworlds. If (as David Harvey has argued) postmodernity is characterized by the experience of time-space compression, MacDonald suggests that the seeming collapse of distant places and times into radical locality is only possible because of vastly artificial (and monstrously destructive) regimes of energy extraction and commodification that mimetic realisms generally take for granted.

Science fiction, by contrast, foregrounds fantastical modes of energy consumption and raises vital questions about where awe-inspiring power originates (what does that Star Destroyer run on, anyway?) As such, MacDonald describes science fiction as “the literary mode with the most inherently radical potential to educate and curry debate over an entirely new means of envisioning and imagining our energy futures” (120). “Improbability Drives” is thus an apocalyptic catalyst for sf studies; after reading it, sf looks different. (I watched The Maze Runner [2014] last night, and I found myself fixated on the energy economy of the film’s imagined world; also, while finishing The Peripheral, I found Gibson’s reliance on far-future nanotechnology to be a cop-out—a way to dodge more complicated questions about energy resources that his narrative does not have the inclination to address.) More importantly, though, everyday life also looks different after reading “Improbability Drives”—the energy resources that make life under western modernity feel science-fictional (from glowing iPhone screens to the roar of jet thrusters overhead) suddenly jump to the foreground as unmistakable constructions (in Canavan’s sense), driving us toward systemic catastrophe in ways that profit few and bankrupt many others.

Not to be overshadowed by MacDonald, Brent Bellamy’s “Into Eternity: On our Waste Containments and Energy Futures” similarly draws upon scholarship in the Energy Humanities to question late-capitalism’s unsustainable energy cultures, and his essay pairs brilliantly with “Improbability Drives.” Bellamy examines Michael Madsen’s documentary film Into Eternity (2010), which uses science-fictional narrative methods to contemplate the impact of Finland’s nuclear waste facility in Onkalo, which will remain toxic for 100,000 years. How can you warn someone in the unimaginably distant future (who might not even be human) about the dangers of hazardous waste? In August 2015, well-intentioned EPA workers released three million gallons of toxic wastewater (which was already leaking from inadequate containment) from an abandoned mine into the Yellow River in Colorado. If such relatively young toxic waste (barely a century old) can pose such a danger to trained specialists, how can one guard against one hundred millennia of such potential future dangers? Drawing upon Timothy Morton, Bellamy suggests that Into Eternity reveals how the perils of radioactive waste cannot be banished to geological time; nuclear power, therefore, offers a false alternative to our current carbon-intensive energy addiction. Nuclear waste thus functions as a “glaring symptom” of what Yaeger once referred to as late capitalism’s “energy unconscious” (155), and Bellamy skillfully proposes that Into Eternity reveals “the vast energy impasse between the demand for the dense energy of fossil fuels and the disastrous ecological consequences of their continued use” (145).

MacDonald’s and Bellamy’s excellent and groundbreaking essays skillfully set the stage for Rhys Williams’s “Humanity 2.0: An Interview With Steve Fuller,” which sticks out (I think quite intentionally) from the rest of SF Now like a throbbing sore thumb. Fuller, a prominent philosopher-sociologist known for his field-defining work in social epistemology and his optimistic attitude toward transhumanism, offhandedly rejects the entire premise of the Energy Humanities—that petrocapitalism is ultimately damagingly unsustainable—in favor of a “proactionary” view that current levels of energy consumption can “buy time” until “some clever technological fix” can solve the problem of energy scarcity (161). In his advocacy for a transhuman future, Fuller dismisses posthumanism as reactionary (in direct contrast to Sherryl Vint’s thoughts later in SF Now), defends privilege as a form of humanism, suggests that imperialism may be “the only honest historical model” for resolving global wealth inequality (163), insults American Midwesterners from a stance of unabashed cosmopolitan arrogance, and categorically dismisses the “popular, campus-oriented jeremiads about neo-liberalism promulgated by, say, David Harvey and Slavoj Žižek” (171). (He also implies that he enjoyed the film Transcendence [2014], which stands out for me as one of his most egregious errors in science-fictional judgment.) Sandwiched as his piece is at the center of SF Now,between Marxists, postcolonial authors and scholars, and posthumanists, it is hard to avoid the judgment that Fuller has been ambushed here; his optimism in this context feels like dangerous naiveté (rather than a reasonable alternative perspective), and Williams’s interview reads like the inclusion of a problem—here’s an example of a perspective that every other contribution in this special issue opposes—rather than as the highlighting of a companionable voice. If Williams’s goal was to expose the inner workings of what the other contributors in SF Now might regard as an oppositional perspective, he has accomplished this purpose admirably; Fuller, however, seems to have required minimal prompting to unfold his views and portray his own perspective as the only reasonable attitude toward future-oriented imaginings.

Following the Fuller interview, SF Now turns to a consideration of history with Glyn Morgan’s “Alternate Histories and Conflicting Nows: Robert Harris’s Fatherland and Fears of a Nazi Empire” and Mark Jerng’s “The Use and Abuse of Racial Counterfactuals: Reimagining Emancipation in Alternate History and US Anti-Discriminatory Jurisprudence.” Morgan begins with a number of familiar observations about the relative and constructed nature of historical “facts” in order to propose that alternate histories challenge our sense of historical coherence and invite alternative ways of understanding the past and present. Jerng examines how science-fictional counterfactuals serve an important and disturbing function in American courtrooms, suggesting that they illustrate “the way in which we organize worlds through race and the projectability of race as a necessary given” (193). Together, these essays foreground the ideologically charged construction of historical narratives and provoke alternative methods of understanding historical causality that are vital for escaping the seeming inevitability of necrocapitalist futurisms.

The rest of the volume is equally thoughtful: Grace Dillon’s interview with Stephen Graham Jones engages key topics in indigenous speculative literature; “Theorizing the Animal in Science Fiction: A Hopeful Monster” extends Sherryl Vint’s work in animal studies to offer a provocative reading of both the recent Planet of the Apes films (2011- ) and Karen Joy Fowler’s We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves (2013). Tom Tyler’s “Misanthropy Without Humanity” suggests that the video game Plague Inc. (2012), which invites players to take the roles of deadly pathogens, theorizes an “alternative misanthropy” (239) that rejects hatred of humans based on limited anthropocentric perspectives. Jessica Langer’s interview with Nnedi Okorafor foregrounds intersections between colonial histories and science-fictional concerns, and Rhys Williams’s “Cognitive Impurities” synthesizes the work of Carl Freedman, Mark Bould, and Darko Suvin in order to offer a refined definition of cognition that focuses on moments in fantastic texts that resist closure in order to offer visions of radical political agency. Veronica Hollinger’s “Humanity 2.0” explores Greg Egan’s Schild’s Ladder (2001), Paolo Bacigalupi’s “The People of Sand and Slag” (2004), and Kim Stanley Robinson’s 2312 (2012) in order to examine the prospect of a utopian future that avoids both transcendence and abjection in favor of a more complex “de-abjectifiction” (267) of human possibilities. Dan Hassler-Forest’s “The Politics of World Building” reveals how the speculative works of Janelle Monae and her WondaLand collective challenge the traditional conventions that dominate the constructions of science-fictional story worlds. SF Now concludes with Malisa Kurtz’s review of The Oxford Handbook of Science Fiction (edited by Rob Latham) and Chris Pak’s review of Green Planets: Science Fiction and Ecology (edited by Gerry Canavan and Kim Stanley Robinson)two vital must-read works of sf scholarship from 2014.

Summarizing the finale of SF Now in such broad strokes fails to do justice to the extraordinary scholarship contained therein. This is both the joy and the difficulty of SF Now—the insights contained in the volume are vast, especially when the entries are read in conversation with one another, and the issue is difficult to summarize in comprehensive terms. Bould and Williams have succeeded in drawing together the cutting edges of contemporary sf scholarship into a strikingly coherent conversation, and our field is immeasurably richer for the efforts undertaken by the editors and contributors of this outstanding project.

Banerjee, Subhabrata Bobby. “Necrocapitalism.” Organization Studies 29 (Dec. 2008): 1541-63.

Edelman, Lee. No Future: Queer Theory and the Death Drive. Durham, NC: Duke UP, 2004.

Fisher, Mark. Capitalist Realism: Is There No Alternative? Alresford, Hants, UK: Zero, 2009.
Gibson, William. The Peripheral. New York: Putnam, 2014.

Harvey, David. The Condition of Postmodernity: An Enquiry into the Origins of Cultural Change. Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 1991.

Jameson, Fredric. The Seeds of Time. New York: Columbia UP, 1994.

Mbembe, Achille. “Necropolitics.” Public Culture 15.1 (2003): 11-40.

Montag, Warren. “Necroeconomics: Adam Smith and Death in the Life of the Universal.” Radical Philosophy 134 (Nov./Dec. 2005): 7-17.

Shaviro, Steven. Without Criteria: Kant, Whitehead, Deleuze, and Aesthetics. Cambridge, MA: MIT, 2012.

Tomberg, Jaak. “On the ‘Double Vision’ of Realism and SF Estrangement in William Gibson’s Bigend Trilogy.” SFS 40.2 (Jul. 2013): 263-85.

Williams, Evan Calder. Combined and Uneven Apocalypse: Luciferian Marxism. Hants, UK: Zero, 2011.

Yaeger, Patricia. “Editor’s Column: Literature in the Ages of Wood, Tallow, Coal, Whale Oil, Gasoline, Atomic Power, and Other Energy Sources.” PMLA 126.2 (2011): 305-26.

Back to Home