Productive Futures: The Political Economy of Science Fiction
12- 14 September 2019
By Jasmine Sharma
“The history of science fiction (SF) is the history of unreal economics: from asteroid mining to interstellar trade, from the sex work of replicants to the domestic labour of housewives of galactic suburbia, from the abolition of money and property to techno- capitalist tragedies of the near future.”
The opening statement of the Call for Papers caught the attention of researchers, scholars, artists and authors engaged with the central theme of the conference: science fiction. The connection between science fiction and economics broadened the dynamics of multidisciplinary interaction, encouraging presentations not only from literary studies, but also from architecture, arts and aesthetics, cultural studies, film studies, law, history, politics and international relations, media studies, philosophy, science and technology studies, social anthropology and many more.
Organized by the London Science Fiction Research Community (LSFRC), and held within the heart of the city, that is the School of Arts Building, Birkbeck, the conference witnessed an exciting exchange of ideas and an orientation to global participation. UK delegates were joined by those from other European countries like Denmark, Germany, Finland and Netherlands, from Canada and the USA, and finally from institutes as distant as The University of Wollongong, Australia, The Chinese University of Hong Kong, and The Indian Institute of Technology, India. It was suggested at the end of the conference, only half-jokingly, that LSFRC now stood for Large Science Fiction Research Community.
I was extraordinarily overwhelmed, as the conference gave me an opportunity to accomplish my first ever visit to London. Particular attractions of the conference, I would say, were not only the programme of academic events, but also the true generosity of the hosts, and the opportunity to enjoy the eco-friendly university campus, spread out across leafy Bloomsbury. The conference included famous novelists and short story writers, Aliette de Bodard, Tade Thompson and Zen Cho as the Guests of Honour; keynotes from Caroline Edwards and Joan Haran; as well as a roundtable featuring major science fiction publishers. All in all, the conference consisted of two keynote addresses, twenty-one panels featuring forty-nine presentations, two innovative workshops, and two special talks held at the Science Museum as part of the CHASE research network’s event series, ‘Science Fiction and Ecology Today.’ Together these sessions offered papers and discussion on wide ranging topics, linking the political economy of science fiction with feminism, technoscience, race, epistemology, consumption, energy, precarity, spiritualism, globalization, disability, biopolitics, SF publishing, etc. All presentations were of an impressive standard, and were highly appreciated by the audience. Each panel concluded with critical questions and discussions and every delegate was valuably honoured with extensive feedback. In fact, I got very genuine and substantial comments for my own paper, which I look forward to addressing as my thesis progresses.
The conference was opened by Caroline Edwards, a Senior Lecturer in Modern and Contemporary Literature at Birkbeck, University of London, who delivered the introductory keynote. Edwards undertook a comprehensive discussion of feminist science fiction, elaborating on themes of automation and domestic labour. Joan Haran, an honorary Research Fellow at Cardiff University, delivered the second keynote address, where she explored the past / present / future of science fiction feminism, and the role of science fiction in contributing to social and political activism. Both the keynotes were scholarly and erudite yet highly engaging, and rendered considerable impact on the audience. For most of the rest of the conference, we were split into three simultaneous tracks, with themed panels premised on the overall concern of the conference.
The first panel I attended on day one talked about labour and the collective imagination, with research papers presented by Bryan Yazell and Miranda Lossifidis. It was followed by two parallel workshops, “Economic Worldbuilding: Design Your Own Science Fiction Currency,” by Oliver Langmead and Thomas Moules, and “Revive the Myth: Creating Speculative Fiction Collectively,” by Verena Hermann. A participant in the latter workshop, I learnt about VteX Files (TVF), an online RPG which blurs fact and myth. Hermann wanted to conduct “an experiment in actively shaping present day economics and policies” by means of an RPG. The workshop was actually motivating, as it allowed the participants to construct fluid story-lines, or to invent new ones and engineer a speculative future online.
The afternoon witnessed simultaneous events at the Science Fiction Museum as part of the CHASE research network’s series “Organic Systems: Science Fiction and Ecology Today.” This was not technically part of the main LSFRC conference, but it flowed seamlessly into its programming. The CHASE event included innovative group activities inviting the participants to pick up phrases of importance from given texts and connect them with questions displayed on the video screens. I was attracted by this workshop in particular as it encouraged collaboration, which helped to strengthen bonds among us both personally and professionally. This was eventually followed by a panel, “Beyond Gender,” which discussed the link between feminist technoscience and other interdisciplinary fields and genres. The day concluded with fruitful discussions among the organizers, panellists and the participants, as we shared some light drinks and vegan snacks.
The second day had a total of nine sessions, organized into three parallel tracks. Overall, two panels and a special session on SF publishing were on the cards for the day. The panels, within the overall remit of economics issues and SF literature and culture, concentrated on specific ideas like science fiction art, spiritualism, the limits of technoscience, robotics, economics and ecology, the politics of energy, neoliberalism, and human and non-human consciousness, just to name a few. The roundtable panel on SF publishing had writers, editors and publishers exploring economic worlds from speculative perspectives while critiquing current economic practices or imagining new ones in their place. Leslie Gardner, George Sandison, Elenor Teasdale, Jo Fletcher, Jack Renninson, John Jarrold, Malcolm Edwards participated in this panel, and examined works such as Alfred Bester’s The Demolished Man and Ursula Le Guin’s The Dispossessed. They touched on both economics in science fictional worlds, and the economics of science fiction publishing itself.
The final day witnessed twenty-three presentations. Unfortunately, a panel entitled “Alienated, Imprisoned, Insecure” had to be dissolved due to the absence of two delegates and the presenter; Yen Ooi from this panel was shifted to the panel entitled “SF for Economists.” The presentations on the last day delved into themes such as cybernetics, techno futures, virtual gaming, biopolitics, and many more. I found Sasha Meyson’s paper “Sex Robots, Virtual Love and Revolution: Sex-Work in Science Fiction” quite fascinating, as it made the audience interrogate the sexual politics behind fembots in feminist speculative fiction. Felix Kawitzky’s presentation on “Gaming and World-building in Science Fiction” was also appreciated in its bold attempt to explore the transformative potential of role-playing games, while problematizing capitalist and neoliberal ideologies in the gaming world. My own interest in video-games as instruments of technocultural consumption enriched my appreciation of this presentation. The conference concluded with an author roundtable, featuring the Guests of Honor discoursing insightfully on science fiction reading and writing. Post the conference, the organizers and the delegates joined for drinks at The Crown and Anchor and supper at Chutneys in Euston, a fine-dining Indian restaurant.
In the end, the conference successfully brought together like-minded individuals under one roof and catered to their interest in science fiction studies. It inspired a cosmopolitan environment absorbing ideological standpoints from the UK and abroad. Vegan food enjoyed with juices and wines stimulated healthy networking among the delegates and opened pathways for future collaborations. The role of economics within SF literature and culture, and the role of SF in casting light on real life economic and political issues, were richly debated and explored. I owe a sincere thanks to the conference hosts for organizing such an enriching event and inviting delegates around the globe, as well as eminent personalities for such insightful keynotes. I wish them good luck and hope that the LSFRC continues to organize such events in future. The conference also added an edge to my academic credentials and the three invigorating days offered a captivating knowledge base suitable for a scholar coming all the way from India.
Jasmine Sharma is a full time PhD Research Scholar at the Indian Institute of Technology, Ropar, India. She completed her Bachelor’s and Master’s degree in English Literature from the University of Delhi in the years 2014 and 2016 respectively. Her core research area is Canadian Literature, exploring technoculture in the science fiction novels of Margaret Atwood. She has attended national and international conferences and published papers in quality journals in India and internationally. Her research interests include feminism and gender studies, science and technology studies and science fiction.