Science Fiction Studies

#129 = Volume 43, Part 2 = July 2016




The 2015 SFS Symposium: Retrofuturism

The fifth and final SFS Symposium was held on 15 October 2015, in conjunction with the “Revising the Past, Remaking the Future” conference, at the Culver Center for the Arts in Riverside, California. The topic was retrofuturism, and, while quite diverse in tone and subject matter, the three presentations—by Arthur B. Evans, Rachel Haywood Ferreira, and Paweł Frelik—shared a concern for the manifold and contradictory ways in which our pasts have envisioned our futures, in the process generating a cultural imaginary that, however outdated, retains a strange, haunting immediacy. As with previous symposia speeches, these were designed to be meditative and/or provocative, and the lively Q&A that followed the presentations indicates that they hit their mark perfectly. I would like to share some words of thanks to those who have supported this symposium series since its inception in 2009. I am very grateful to my six coeditors at Science Fiction Studies, especially managing editor Art Evans, whose generosity has been deep and unstinting, and to the three speakers (including, I’m happy to say, Art himself) who shared their thoughts on the subject of retrofuturism. I want to thank Steve Cullenberg, former Dean of UCR’s College of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences, for everything he did over the years to support sf programming at UCR. I’m grateful to the various venues that have hosted this event in Riverside: the reading room in Special Collections, the Spanish Art Gallery in the Mission Inn, and now the Culver Center. And I would like to dedicate this particular symposium to Melissa Conway, Nalo Hopkinson, and Sherryl Vint, three brilliant people whom I have been lucky enough to call colleagues and friends. Ave atque vale!—Rob Latham, California State University, Los Angeles

Arthur B. Evans

Anachronism in Early French Futuristic Fiction

Abstract. This essay focuses on examples of anachronism—both intentional and unintentional—in several early French “retrofuturistic” novels: Louis-Sébastien Mercier’s The Year 2440 (1771), Émile Souvestre’s The World as It Shall Be (1846), Jules Verne’s Paris in the 20th Century (written in 1863, published in 1994), and Albert Robida’s The Twentieth Century (1882). I examine the many anachronisms in these “tales of the future” through the lens of two different reading publics: the texts’ original readers and the readers of today, who view them in retrospect from our vantage point of the twenty-first century. As members of the latter group, we often project onto these “old-fashioned” visions of the future our contemporary aesthetic sensibilities and ideological memes. In reading them, our retrospective gaze is not only a seeking gaze; it is also a projecting gaze and itself intrinsically anachronistic.

Rachel Haywood Ferreira

How Latin America Saved the World and Other Forgotten Futures

Abstract. Latin America saved the world—and didn’t—many times over in texts written in the 1950s, the incubation period for genre sf in the region. The forward-looking 1950s produced much source material for today’s retrofuturist longings, rather than generating many of those longings of their own. This article draws from some twenty-five fictional works by Latin American authors published in the Argentine magazine Más Allá [Beyond], an affiliate of Galaxy Science Fiction, between 1953 and 1957. I’m interested in exploring these past images of the future to think about questions such as to whom the future belonged in Latin American sf, what those futures looked like, and which of those past futures we are—and are not—living in today and why. I’m especially interested in how Latin American writers did—and didn’t—challenge Northern assumptions about the future and about the genre and in the impact this has had on subsequent genre writers and readers.

Paweł Frelik

Gazing (Back) in Wonder: Visual Megatext and Forgotten Ocularies of Science Fiction

Abstract. In the same way that the sf megatext is an accreting database of conceptual objects, characters, motifs, and scenarios, I propose a visual megatext, a repository of sf’s optical signs: icons, elements, symbols, and tableaus, that circulate, merge, and evolve. Given the pictorial turn and the centrality of audiovisuality in contemporary culture, the operations of the visual megatext are crucial to an understanding of sf and very often precede the narrative deployment of its icons and parabolas. Comprising the visual megatext are not only individual visual signs but also ocularies, bodies of visual elements that exist in individual media, are tied to various temporalities, and follow distinct aesthetic lines of influence. The second part of the article presents two selected ocularies from the genre’s past that have remained outside sf’s scope of interest: the visualities of early video-game cultures and works of outsider artists. Despite their seeming marginality, these and other ocularies are crucial to a full understanding of contemporary sf. Additionally, attention to visual forms and media beyond film and televison can reframe and rebalance the genre’s history.

Patrick Whitmarsh

“Imagine You’re a Machine”: Narrative Systems in Peter Watts’s Blindsight and Echopraxia

Abstract. Peter Watts is a relatively new figure in the field of science fiction, and his recent work has presented the literary community with a refreshingly innovative take on the ontological question of the human. Watts’s critique of anthropocentrism, however, exceeds the compelling and sometimes disturbing thought experiments he depicts in his fiction; beyond the novelty of their content, Watts’s recent novels Blindsight (2006) and Echopraxia (2014) attack the values of humanism at the level of narrative form. This essay argues that the relationship between these two texts is far more complex than prequel and sequel, and that their combined structure calls into question the rationale of narrative theory (as it has been practiced in literary studies), and even the production of meaning itself, by reconfiguring narrative as a super-intelligent evolutionary system. Ultimately, Watts’s science-fictional project forces literary criticism and theory to reconsider the following relations: a) that between perspectival stability and narrative meaning, and b) that between narrative structure and the discursive demands of science fiction.

Andrew Rose

The Unknowable Now: Passionate Science and Transformative Politics in Kim Stanley Robinson’s Science in the Capital Trilogy

Abstract. This article engages with the complex relation between knowledge-formation practices and inchoate socio-political transformations in Kim Stanley Robinson’s Science in the Capital trilogy. Bringing an eco-critical perspective to the trilogy, and in specific conversation with the new-material turn in eco-cultural studies theory, I argue that the trilogy’s depiction of science is intriguingly sensitive to two key concepts: that is, the much-discussed new-materialist theory of “distributed agency” and Donna Haraway’s well-known concept of “situated knowledges.” As the comfortable humanist notions of objectivity, autonomy, and intentionality are usefully obliterated by these new-materialist theories, environmental theorists and activists must be careful not to underestimate the depths of this disruption. In fact, it will be imperative to rethink the contours of knowledge formation practices and their relation to political subjectivity and agency within this new posthuman and postnatural framework. I suggest that critical attention to the character of Frank Vanderwal—both his personal transformation coined “optimodality” and the professional shift toward a “passionate science” that he helps to initiate in the novels—usefully highlights key opportunities for (and challenges to) reimagining science and politics in the age of climate change. Ultimately, this is a process of reorientation that must unfold within what I argue we might productively term the “unknowable now.”

Paul Mountfort

The I Ching and Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle

Abstract. This article addresses a gap in current Dickian criticism by undertaking a close reading of the twelve I Ching readings that interlace and undergird Philip K. Dick’s celebrated breakthrough novel, The Man in the High Castle (1962). I argue that the I Ching is the device that (literally and figuratively) unifies the stylistic and philosophic dimensions of the novel. Following a summary of key critical approaches, I discuss the particularities of the I Ching as an oracle, followed by close readings of the novel’s unique patterning based on its twelve core oracle consultations. This is postscripted by a discussion of the multiple implications for our understanding of High Castle. What is revealed are both the seams of physical construction of the novel and a set of synchronistic complementarities, alternating pairings, and other simultaneities that distinguish Dick’s treatment of the uchronie genre from the classical diachronic and even Fredric Jameson’s synchronic or Paul Alkon’s “postmodern alternate history.” I conclude that despite critical ambivalence, including Dick’s own, over its ambiguous ending, it is precisely this open-endedness, from which a multiverse of potential interpretations flow, that sustains the novel as an important one in modern literature.

Gerry Canavan

“A Dread Mystery, Compelling Adoration”: Olaf Stapledon, Star Maker, and Totality

Abstract. Using research undertaken at the Olaf Stapledon archive at the University of Liverpool, this article explores the tension between cosmopolitan optimism and cosmic pessimism that structures Stapledon’s 1937 novel Star Maker, and asks whether the novel succeeds in solving the philosophical problems that first spurred Stapledon to write it. I conclude, unhappily, that it does not: while an impressive achievement, and despite a surface optimism, the book’s confrontation with infinity, totality, and the sublime is ultimately depressive rather than generative of a felicitous cosmological order, requiring Stapledon to try again and again to somehow solve this philosophical conundrum in the subsequent books that make up the later portion of his career.

Cameron Awkward-Rich

The Fiction of Ethnography in Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s Herland

Abstract. In the introduction to Women Writing Culture (1995)—an anthology of writing by feminist anthropologists compiled, in part, in response to the masculinism of the highly influential Writing Culture (1986) anthology—Ruth Behar proposes that Charlotte Perkins Gilman could be a starting point for an alternative, feminist genealogy of social theory, a proposal that is not reflected in the body of Behar’s discussion. This kind of invocation, however, seems to be how Gilman has been engaged with in the social sciences: many people recognize that she might be important and that she is probably useful for feminist projects writ large, but no one seems certain of exactly how. Following from the focus on ethnography as a kind of writing central to both Writing Culture and Women Writing Culture, this article offers one kind of answer to how Gilman may be useful to the development of a specifically feminist ethnography, recognizing the importance of the function of the ethnographer-narrator of her most successful utopian sf novel, Herland (1915). In particular, I argue that Gilman uses boredom strategically to undercut the geographical, cultural, and sexual domination inherent to the narrative of the (white) male quest in which modern anthropology is rooted.

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