Organic Systems: Environments, Bodies and Cultures in Science Fiction

The London Science Fiction Research Community (LSFRC, possibly pronounced “Lucifer” for those who prefer their initalisms to be acronyms) played host to a larger crowd than usual in Gordon Square on Saturday 16th September for their first day-long conference, organised principally by Rhodri Davies, Francis Gene-Rowe, and Aren Roukema. One of the primary activities of the LSFRC is its monthly reading group: each year, the organisers decide on a theme and request suggestions for texts that might interact with the theme in interesting ways. Once the (typically extensive) list has been compiled, it is voted on by the community, and the texts which come out top form the next year’s reading list. “Organic Systems” was the topic of discussion for 2016-2017 – for anyone interested the topic for 2017-2018 is “Sublime Cognition: Science Fiction and Metaphysics” and the group meets in Gordon Square on the first Monday of each month (I’d advise checking the Facebook group for relevant details). Consequently, this one-day conference marked the culmination of a year of discussion and gently percolating thought regarding, in Chris Pak’s words, “interlocking systems intersecting on multiple levels” within sf and its accompanying critical discourse. I suppose it should be noted for reasons of editorial balance that I did attend at least some of the reading group sessions.

posterLSFRC Sublime Cognition poster by Sing Yun Lee

Summary and Highlights:

One of the qualities about the conference that seems worth foregrounding, at least to me, was that alongside its sweeping academic brilliance it was friendly and welcoming. This was important because for many of those I spoke to, this was their first academic conference, the timing coming as it did at the start of the academic year. For more experienced hands, many delegates and attendees could be recognised from appearances at other annual sf conferences primarily driven by students, Current Research in Speculative Fiction in Liverpool, and the various iterations of Fantastika in Lancaster, or from their roles in editing reputable journals of opinion in the field. Several luminaries could also be spotted, and not just those presenting papers – the conference clearly drew in a wide and informed audience. Judging by outside interest in the online discussion, many thought themselves accursed they couldn’t make it due to schedule conflicts.

To some extent, the theme prioritised a consideration of critical or theoretical issues over specific texts. Consequently the net was cast wide; films, classic and modern; Pynchon, Piercy, Okorafor, Miéville, and many other novelists; and a bundle of papers on architecture real and fictitious, including brutalism, Asimov, Clear, and Ballard. A strong showing on more recent publications, with fewer mentions of proto-sf, Wells, or pulp-sf. Stand-out papers for me included Jim Clarke’s paper on Buddhist transhumanism, Sarah Lohmann’s on collective identity in feminist utopias, and Paul Fisher Davies’ paper, which introduced me to the work of Simon Stålenhag for the first time (a debt, it seems, which would be difficult to repay). Of those panels I didn’t get to see the paper that sounded most fascinating to me was Rhys Williams’ “Solarpunks or Sunken Poles”, which I was sad to miss.

phot01Roundtable, image courtesy @GR_Morgan

Best of all was the sparky roundtable discussion, featuring Gwyneth Jones, Paul McAuley, and Adam Roberts, chaired by Caroline Edwards. The charisma of the participants meant that I left undecided about the rival arguments put forward by panel members, but was heartily convinced by the general consensus. Debate raged over whether we should want to be members of Banks’s Culture, or whether we had succumbed to enslavement with the rise of wheat in the First Agricultural Revolution. Connected to discussions of current forms of capitalism as a limiting factor in responding to the serious threat of human beings to the climate system, calls for radical change in the socio-economic system were also considered. In the panel’s evaluation of the Faustian bargain of climate disaster capitalism, I detected some overtones of Adams’ wry aside:

This planet has, or had, a problem, which was this. Most of the people living on it were unhappy for pretty much of the time. Many solutions were suggested for this problem, but most of these were largely concerned with the movements of small, green pieces of paper, which is odd, because on the whole, it wasn’t the small, green pieces of paper which were unhappy. And so the problem remained, and lots of the people were mean, and most of them were miserable, even the ones with digital watches. Many were increasingly of the opinion that they’d all made a big mistake coming down from the trees in the first place, and some said that even the trees had been a bad move, and that no-one should ever have left the oceans.1

The value of term ‘cli-fi’ was interrogated, with mixed feelings. The sense that the term had been regulated by its inventor left the panel feeling put-upon; and the panel agreed that, in any case, climate change has become so established that novelists in general adopt it as a background feature, decreasing its distinctive sf-ness. Taken together, the discussion built on the wide-ranging papers seen throughout the day, which in turn built on the groundwork of the LSFRC’s year of readings, in a suitably intense ending which, I felt, could have continued for several hours more, had we but world enough and time. A highly successful end to what had been, the audience members agreed, a highly successful day.

Detail:

To cope with the numbers of papers submitted, the organisers streamed the panels by division into themes. The day began with an introductory keynote and the first panel, after which the streams diverged for a further three sets of panels before being reunited at the close for a roundtable discussion. To give an overview for those who aren’t fortunate enough to be in possession of the beautiful conference programme (designed by Sing Yun Lee, featuring artwork by Tristram Lansdowne), the timetable looked like this:

progProgramme, image courtesy @LSFRC_
Conference Schedule
Keynote: Old Genotypes in New Bodies
1.0 Nature in the Anthropocene
2.1 Eco-Critical Speculations 2.2 Posthuman Environments
3.1 Et in Arcadia I Go: Critical Utopias 3.2 Liminal Spaces
4.1 Palimpsestic Landscapes 4.2 The Architecture of Tomorrow
Roundtable Discussion

In the manner of a Choose Your Own Adventure, my journey through the conference took me to: 2.2, 3.1, 4.1. These were the same as those attended by Paul Fisher, whose widely shared sketchnotes represent the most compelling account of the conference. While I wished that I could have attended all the panels, I will limit myself in this review to those that I did in fact attend. Of other reviews available at this time, offering alternative paths through the conference, Sarah Lohmann (on the blog of the Center for Contemporary Literature, Birkbeck) took the route: 2.1, 3.1, 4.2 and Amy Butt (in the SFRA Review): 2.2, 3.1, 4.2. This means the only panel that escaped official oversight was, perhaps appropriately, 3.2 Liminal Spaces. One last way to review the conference is to follow the “blow by blow” account available on Twitter, as the conference was accompanied by a lively online discussion. It is always worth remembering in the age of Twitter, that your paper may be reduced to a single stand-out line which may be only tangentially connected to the thrust of your argument.

By way of introduction, Chris Pak delivered his keynote entitled: “Old Genotypes in New Bodies: Intimations of Posthumanity in Science Fiction”. Pak’s slideshow walked through the cover-art of the major novels read by the LSFRC as part of last year’s theme, and also showcased several critical and theoretical works that might be informative in discussing them. It was at this point I began making my list of things I needed to go away and read. His accompanying presentation filtered those texts through discussion of human-animal studies, climate modelling, and ultimately through the motif of terraforming (the subject of Pak’s recent book, Terraforming: Ecopolitical Transformations and Enviornmentalism in Science Fiction – author will sign obligingly on request).2 For Pak what is entailed in thinking through organic systems using sf is the posthuman, whether in the form of a nascent transhumanism or a complexly conceived critical posthumanism.

The World Without Us, Alan Weisman, image courtesy Wikimedia

According to Pak, this means the sf megatext can be reconsidered as an sf/posthuman ecology, in which enduring sf tropes gain new resonance with an emphasis on potential transformation. To jump to the very end of the day, it was this same emphasis which dominated the final roundtable discussion. Despite Edwards’ avowed intent to limit the discussion of utopianism, the panel were keen to focus on the climate system in particular, and consequently on the possibility of realizing a eutopia or a cacotopia for ourselves. This theoretical link between the keynote and the roundtable could also be found in every panel I attended: I would summarise it as the preoccupation with our own complicity in climate change, the organic system most stressed at the current time. In his introduction to the conference, Aren Roukema warned of “Anthropocene Bingo” in the conference programme, and the LSFRC twitter feed later added that Timothy Morton’s notion of the hyperobject came a close second in number of mentions.3 My sense once the day was over was that the general prognosis was quite bleak, human beings dwarfed by the enormous problems they’ve created and can barely perceive. My notes record no mentions made of human systems resisting or combating human-made problems, such as Radermacher et al’s Global Marshall Plan.4 Jones offered a rallying cry in the cut-and-thrust of the discussion: “I want to be the meat in the room saying we should connect with the environment.”

Silent Running poster, image courtesy IMDB

Returning to the chronological structure, 1.0 “Nature in the Anthropocene”, put Avatar (2009) alongside Silent Running (1972) in a provoking pair of papers which troubled the binaries of wildspaces set against or beside human spaces. For one audience member this reached dizzy heights when Cutler explained that forests do not, by definition, include trees: “mind blown”, they reflected. Andrew M. Butler’s paper on James Cameron’s “epic” – which would supposedly change the face of cinema – looked at this magnum opus in light of Donna Haraway’s work on the colonized and compost. Comparing it to Ursula Le Guin’s Word for World is Forest (1976), one of the texts read by the LSFRC this year, Butler interrogated the myth of the terra nullis and the problematics of the term “wildlife” in the Chthulucene.5 It prompted me to think, in my own bailiwick, of “Grey Owl Syndrome”.6 Cutler’s paper on the forest as a speculative trope drew together historical legal definitions with the unheimlich, which opened a discussion of the concept of forest as a dark or weird ecology.7 Reflecting on representations of perfect forests, for instance that preserved by Freeman Lowell and his drone companions, Huey, Dewey, and Louie, in Silent Running, Cutler suggests that human beings are bioperverse – that is, unable to create a garden that can flourish in its full diversity: “The best result is that we take out a restraining order against ourselves”, she suggested, in an echo of Peter Sloterdijk’s suggestions for “Rules for the Human Zoo” or Byron Williston’s call for ‘significant desire-constraint’ on the part of the global prosperous in his Anthropocene Project.8

Panel 2.2 Posthuman Environments focused less on environments and more on bodies, the second modifier of the conference theme. Hallvard Haug opened with an interrogation of the concept of the cyborg, arguing that it shifts to serve the needs of the thinker drawing on the figure. Taking a historical perspective, Haug demonstrated that for Manfred Clynes and Nathan Klein, the originators of the cyborg, the idea was not that cyborgs were ‘needy for connection’, as the perhaps more familiar Haraway argued in the “Cyborg Manifesto”, but instead saw the cyborg as a way to adjust the human body for space travel so that it would require no outside connections at all.9 Susan Gray’s paper examined developing augmented reality technologies, putting them against a background of theoretical concerns including consequences for the conception of the self. In doing so, Gray argued that augmented reality literalises Karl Popper’s World 3, ‘the world of products of the human mind.’10 Jim Clarke’s “Bodies, Bardos and Buddhist Transhumanism in SF” was to some extent a report of first findings, and these preliminary findings look impressive, to say the least. Clarke’s book Science Fiction and Catholicism, forthcoming from Glyphi in due course, maps the presence of one major faith group in sf, and with this paper, Clarke begins mapping another. Tracing the history of the migration of Buddhist ideas into Western culture through an Orientalist phase, in which Buddhist symbols and narratives are merely exoticising elements (a topic revisitedin the LSFRC’s session on Robert Zelazny’s Lord of Light (1967)), Clarke suggests that a more substantial and sustained engagement with Mahayana schools of Buddhist thought, particularly those associated with Tibet and Japan, has been under way in recent times, as exemplified in Paolo Bacigalupi’s “Pocketful of Dharma” and George Saunders’ Lincoln in the Bardo (2017).

Following this was a break for lunch to enjoy some of London’s finest drizzle, before excitedly reconvening for the second half.

3.1 Et in Arcadia I Go: Critical Utopias had more sympathy to realism than the majority of other panels, focusing as it did on the alternative history and the utopia. Challenges to hegemony, to the enforced uniformity of systems, were at issue in these papers. I freely confess that the many intricacies of Eden Davis’ “The Ghosts of Cybernetics in Thomas Pynchon’s Mason & Dixon and John Barth’s The Sot-Weed Factor” were a lesson to me, as American postmodernism is somewhat of a lacuna in my literary knowledge. Two settler-colonialist narratives, Davis argued that the forms of control exerted over the characters and landscapes in these novels were of a distinctively cybernetic kind, springing ultimately from the novelists’ taste for Nobert Wiener in The Human Use of Human Beings (1950). The automaton figured prominently in this reading, as a site of discourses which include parodic disavowal and a broader anti-hegemonic and anti-imperialist aesthetics which, so Davis contends, also plays against Darwinian paradigms. Sarah Lohmann’s paper took up similar questions, attempting to balance the individual and the community in feminist utopian literature from the 1970s onwards. At the start of her paper, Lohmann identified a problem with utopian texts such as News from Nowhere (1890), which is that they have to be ‘mildly eugenic to be utopian’; Lohmann portrays this as causing a move towards a more individualistic focus in the early part of the twentieth century. Circling back again, towards the end of the twentieth century, Lohmann sees – particularly feminist – utopias as again returning to the egalitarian communitarian approach, and once again going too far in doing so. Lohmann turned to Derek Parfit to argue that individual selves are less individual than one might suppose.11 Though I do not recall Lohmann explicitly endorsing the Reductionist View, nonetheless the liberatory potential of this idea, that ‘[t]hinking hard about these arguments removes the glass wall between me and others’ seemed to offer a promising resolution to the ethical concerns of dissolving individual preferences in egalitarian communities.12

Protectorate 2012 67x32 inchesProtectorate 2012 by Tristram Lansdowne

In the final choice of panels, 4.1 Palimpsestic Landscapes offered readings of location specific environments: London, California, Stockholm. Chris Hussey launched the panel with the argument that cities are actually better examples of palimpsetuous phenomena than the manuscripts that originated the term, as artefacts of space over an extended period of time. Excavating Miéville’s various Londons, Hussey sees Miéville as ‘privileging a “backdoor” view that undoes or complicates the simply urban’. Richard Johnston opened the horizon a little by placing Philip K. Dick within his Californian context, arguing pace Suvin that Dick is not an isolationist, but a representative of a ‘composite region’. Dick represents global problems within the American West, tracing the impact of harmful capitalist and nationalist practices in regional terms and images. The overwhelming global is thus made comprehensible through this process of “lamination”.

Finally, Paul Fisher Davies presented the digital artworks of Simon Stålenhag, thinking through the enormous structures represented as instances of Morton’s hyperobjects. To some extent these more exotic hyperobjects – huge towers that dwarf cities, or mysterious outlets from which macerated limbs and tides of blood periodically flow – stand in for the similarly bizarre hyperobjects that populate our waking world, which we are unable to see because they are too banal. Nostalgia has an important role to play in the mediation of these images, linked to a specific aesthetic of the 1980s and 1990s, generating a similar appeal to the Netflix series Stranger Things (2016-present). Recapitulating Stålenhag’s work and career for novices like me, Davies looked at other media instances of these works, including the RPG based on the world of the Loop. Davies also noted that these works were derived from a renewed model of subscription investment, via Kickstarter, which has important consequences for how the books are produced, including control of print quality, but also brings implications for how we understand the reception of these art pieces as vehicles of a national nostalgia.

The closing Roundtable Discussion was fertile and voluble, with a healthy balance between speakers. Edwards opened the discussion by asking if sf as a genre or mode is by nature ecological – McAuley’s view was that the depiction of mass animal extinction and the general assumption of climate change which underpin the view of even near-future narratives means that it is of necessity true that sf is ecological. An audience question from Andrew Butler, “Are utopian narratives too boring to successfully sustain a narrative?” prompted Jones’ response that environmental catastrophe is attractive for practitioners of sf because it presents a dramatic high-level threat. McAuley followed this point with the suggestion that sf utopias were rarely panoptic, in the sense that they tend not to follow the “guided tour” model presented in More’s Utopia (1516). This opened out into a discussion about whether utopia was desirable – Roberts suggesting that antibiotics and plumbing represented strong evidence that we were better off now than we ever had been, others suggesting that the unfettered capitalism which had accompanied the desirable goods of these domestic arrangements had perhaps burdened these goods with a history of oppression and inequality that undermined their value. Out of this discussion, Jones evolved the idea that utopia is necessarily a picture of what we lack, not a proposition of what is finally good. Roberts picked up this theme, and argued that some dystopian narratives are eutopian when they are used to diagnose what is wrong; notably perhaps ‘the Brave New World dystopia which we have embraced with open arms’. McAuley expressed some reservations at the rush to utopia, pointing out that there is a fine line between utopias and ‘terrible death cults’; furthermore, while we have the ability to wipe out human life – either through inaction on climate change, or unrestrained use of nuclear weapons, or a number of other unspecified but plausible means – we won’t wipe out life as a whole. McAuley pointed to the largely unknown world chthonic bacteria beneath our feet that would probably continue to thrive without us as a useful perspective balance.

Ultimately the roundtable panel – and with them, the conference delegates – asserted the value of sf as a tool for utopian dreaming, and for thinking through the interlocking complexities of large and entwined systems masquerading as wicked problems. In the coming year, the LSFRC will be turning to “Sublime Cognition” as its primary theme, with a conference bearing that name scheduled (potentially) for a similar time next September. Based on the success of this conference I have high hopes for the next, and would advise anyone who can find their way to Gordon Square on the first Monday of each month (barring those with bank holidays, in which case the meeting happens the following Monday) to come and join the reading group in the meantime.

Bibliography

Adams, Douglas, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (London: Picador, 2002)

Atwood, Margaret, Strange Things: The Malevolent North in Canadian Literature (London: Virago, 2004)

Butt, Amy, ‘Dissolving the Boundaries in SF: A Report on the “Organic Systems: Environments, Bodies and Cultures in Science Fiction” LSFRC Symposium’, ed. by Chris Pak, SFRA Review, 2017, 4–6

Haraway, Donna, Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2016)

———, ‘The Cyborg Manifesto’, in The Cybercultures Reader, ed. by David Bell and Barbara M. Kennedy (London: Routledge, 2001)

Le Guin, Ursula K., The Word for World Is Forest (New York, NY: Tor Books, 2010)

Lohmann, Sarah, ‘Conference Report: Organic Systems’, Centre for Contemporary Literature, 2017

Morton, Timothy, Dark Ecology: For a Logic of Future Coexistence (New York, NY: Columbia University Press, 2016)

———, Hyperobjects: Philosophy and Ecology After the End of the World (Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 2013)

———, The Ecological Thought (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2010)

Pak, Chris, Terraforming: Ecopolitical Transformations and Environmentalism in Science Fiction (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2016)

Parfit, Derek, On What Matters (Oxford: OUP, 2011)

———, Reasons and Persons (Oxford: OUP, 1987)

Popper, Karl, Three Worlds (Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan, 1979)

Radermacher, Franz Josef, Global Marshall Plan: Ein Planetary Contract (Wien: Ökosoziale Forum Europa, 2004)

Sargent, Lyman Tower, ‘The Three Faces of Utopianism Revisited’, Utopian Studies, 5 (1994), 1–37

Sloterdijk, Peter, ‘Rules for the Human Zoo: A Response to the Letter on Humanism’, Environment and Planning D: Society and Space, 27 (2009), 12–28 <https://doi.org/10.1068/dst3>

Stålenhag, Simon, Tales From The Loop, trans. by Martin Dunelind (Design Studio Press, 2017)

———, Things From The Flood, trans. by Martin Dunelind (Design Studio Press, 2016)

Williston, Byron, The Anthropocene Project: Virtue in the Age of Climate Change (Oxford: OUP, 2015)

Zelazny, Roger, Lord of Light (London: Gollancz, 2010)


  1. Douglas Adams, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (London: Picador, 2002), p. 1.
  2. Chris Pak, Terraforming: Ecopolitical Transformations and Environmentalism in Science Fiction (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2016).
  3. Timothy Morton, The Ecological Thought (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2010), p. 130, [@morton_hyperobjects_2013].
  4. Franz Josef Radermacher, Global Marshall Plan: Ein Planetary Contract (Wien: Ökosoziale Forum Europa, 2004).
  5. Donna Haraway, Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2016).
  6. Margaret Atwood, Strange Things: The Malevolent North in Canadian Literature (London: Virago, 2004), pp. 41–73.
  7. Timothy Morton, Dark Ecology: For a Logic of Future Coexistence (New York, NY: Columbia University Press, 2016).
  8. Peter Sloterdijk, ‘Rules for the Human Zoo: A Response to the Letter on Humanism’, Environment and Planning D: Society and Space, 27.1 (2009), 12–28 <https://doi.org/10.1068/dst3>, Byron Williston, The Anthropocene Project: Virtue in the Age of Climate Change (Oxford: OUP, 2015).
  9. Donna Haraway, ‘The Cyborg Manifesto’, in The Cybercultures Reader, ed. by David Bell and Barbara M. Kennedy (London: Routledge, 2001), p. 293.
  10. Karl Popper, Three Worlds (Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan, 1979), p. 144.
  11. Derek Parfit, Reasons and Persons (Oxford: OUP, 1987), especially Part III Personal Identity
  12. Parfit, p. 282.

 

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