Eco-Sci-Fi Art and Interspecies Technology

By Stephanie Moran. This article was first published in Vector 292.

Since at least the beginnings of industrialism, technological innovation has incorporated attributes of animal perception and behaviour. More recently, this process has been recursively intensifying, in a process of ‘the biologisation of computer technology and the computerization of biology’ (Vehlken, 2019). Technologies inspired by nature deepen our understanding of natural systems, in turn fostering new technological developments: from the development of behavioural biology around 1900, through the use of media technology in biological research and the acceleration of bio-technoscience in the 1970s, to the use of simulation modelling and then computational-intensive modelling beginning in the 1980s, and most recently the rise of Machine Learning methodologies in Artificial Intelligence. Now studies of birdsong inform voice recognition software such as Siri and Alexa, while billionaire sci-fi fan Elon Musk is funding research into neural interfaces with the brains of mice and pigs.

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Science Fiction edited by Dan Byrne-Smith

The MIT Press/Whitechapel Art Gallery (2020), 240 pp

Reviewed by Andrew M. Butler. This review first appeared in Vector 292.

There is a moment in an 1836 lecture at the Royal Institution when John Constable argues that “Painting is a science, and should be pursued as an inquiry into the laws of nature. Why, then, may not landscape be considered as a branch of natural philosophy, of which pictures are but experiments?” Various nineteenth century artists actually made science-fictional paintings — John Martin and Thomas Cole spring to mind — and groups of artists such as the Futurists, the Vorticists and the Surrealists embraced the ambiguities of modern technology in the first half of the twentieth century. In 1956, the “This is Tomorrow” exhibition at the Whitechapel Art Gallery was opened by Robbie the Robot from Forbidden Planet and featured science-fictional imagery among its utopian and dystopian reactions to post-war, consumerist Britain. Among its many visitors was a new writer called J.G. Ballard. 

It is thus appropriate that this book on science-fiction art is published by the Whitechapel Art Gallery (in conjunction with MIT). As part of the Documents in Contemporary Art series — other titles include The Gothic, Beauty, Abstraction, The Sublime and Ruins— it brings together extracts from theoretical essays, academic journals, museum catalogues, interviews and written creative works, mainly produced in the last two decades. The book is arranged by theme rather than chronologically: “Estrangement”, “Future”, “Posthumanism” and “Ecology”, the first being driven by academic definitions of sf and the others by three broad areas of sf art. It is perhaps surprising that “Utopia”, “Dystopia”, “Technology” or “The City” are not sections, but it seems a reasonable breakdown. There is no editorial voice to situate each extract, beyond the bare fact of bibliography, and so most voices are gifted equal status, some contesting and others contradicting. Occasionally I longed for a map, or perhaps a clarification of whether, say, Afrofuturism starts in 1993 (South Atlantic Quarterly) or 1994 (that issue reprinted as Flame Wars) and I’m not clear whose typo M.R. Shiel was. And the volume assumes that you are familiar with the artists under discussion — a good many of them were names new to me, reflecting the eclectic range.

Across the volume there are some leading academic voices, such as Jean Baudrillard, Donna Haraway, N. Katherine Hayles and Darko Suvin — represented by judicious extracts from central works — and writers such as Margaret Atwood, J.G. Ballard, Ted Chiang, Tom McCarthy and Kim Stanley Robinson. Atwood is given prominence as someone who has been accused of committing science fiction and who begs off the label, as what she writes isn’t what she thinks science fiction is, and she apologises that we may have taken offence at being misled into thinking it is science fiction. This is nicely countered in the interview with Kim Stanley Robinson, “Whenever science fiction gets interesting, then people try to give it another name. […] If its content becomes relevant, you call it cyberpunk, cli-fi, Anthropocene literature or dystopian fiction” (195). Nevertheless, Atwood places herself in the Vernian rather than the Wellsian tradition. But, of course, she isn’t producing art, in the sense of the other practitioners in the book.

The heart of the “Estrangement” section is an extract from Darko Suvin’s Metamorphoses of Science Fiction, which situates science fiction as “the literature of cognitive estrangement” (36). It is estrangement that is picked up on by the rest of the book — the sense of the familiar becoming unfamiliar and the unfamiliar becoming familiar, which we can surely see in the dialectical dance between the artistic simulation of, say, a landscape in paint or the reimagining of a location thanks to its depiction. Estrangement is a socio-political act, persuading us to think about the real world in a new way. The cognitive part of the equation — loosely, the science — is not really discussed in the extract, although Sherryl Vint picks it up in the next one. Suvin’s formulation allows us to see art in Pawel Althamer’s salutation to the new millennium in a Warsaw housing estate and then the travels of its inhabitants in gold spacesuits to Brasilia, Belgium, Mali and Oxfordshire. It empowers Afrofuturism and a huge amount of non-Western art by reframing European colonialism as an alien invasion and opens the space for new myths and fables. For example, Amna Malik discusses Ellen Gallagher’s Ichthyosaurus installation at the Freud Museum as “the basis of a foundation myth in which the sea becomes an incubator for the potentiality of the future” (79) (and Nnedi Okorafor’s Lagoon is mentioned in an interview with Ama Josephine Budge [215]). Meanwhile Yinka Shonibare MBE’s Dysfunctional Family, featuring an alien family dressed in batik cloth imported to Nigeria from Indonesia, was on display at the “Alien Nation” exhibition at the ICA, reappropriating fabrics sold to that country because it was perceived to be African.

Continue reading “Science Fiction edited by Dan Byrne-Smith”

The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin

Reviewed by Nick Hubble. This review first appeared in The BSFA Review.

The Left Hand of Darkness is set on the planet Gethin, also known as Winter where there is no sexual difference between people apart from a monthly period of kemmer. When the androgynous Gethenians meet in kemmer, hormonal secretions increase so that either male or female dominance is established in one and the partner takes on the other sexual role: 

Normal individuals have no predisposition to either sexual role in kemmer; they do not know whether they will be the male or the female and have no choice in the matter. (Otie Nim wrote that in the Orgoreyn region the use of hormone derivatives to establish a preferred sexuality is quite common; I haven’t seen this done in rural Karhide.). Once the sex is determined it cannot change … If the individual was in the female role and was impregnated, hormonal activity of course continues, and for the 8.4 month gestation period and the 6 to 8 month lactation period this individual remains female. … With the cessation of lactation the female … becomes once more a perfect androgyne. No physiological habit is established, and the mother of several children may be the father of several more. (91)

Thus read the field notes of Ong Tot Oppong of the Hainish Ekumen on her initial observations concerning the sexual life of the Gethenians. These notes are in the possession of Genly Ai, who has openly come to Gethen as an ambassador from the Ekumen with the purpose of inviting the Gethenians to join the wider interstellar community. ‘The Question of Sex’ – as the chapter in which Ong’s notes appear is titled – is the aspect of The Left Hand of Darkness which has attracted most attention over the near half century since its original publication.

Front cover of the first edition, with art by the Dillons. Cover depicts two faces against an abstract background.

I was going to begin this review by arguing that ‘if Heinlein’s line “the door dilated” is often presented as an example of the cognitive estrangement of 1940s Golden Age SF, then Le Guin’s “The king was pregnant” is representative of a more profound late 1960s countercultural and feminist defamiliarisation’. But then I read China Miéville’s introduction to this new edition of Le Guin’s 1969 classic and discovered to my horror that not only does he make the exact same comparison, he also sums up its significance more effectively: ‘Heinlein renders one corridor strange: Le Guin reconfigures society’. For Miéville, the novel’s defamiliarisation of gender makes it unquestionably a precursor of the gender queerness and sexual fluidity of our twenty-first-century present. 

However, as he acknowledges, it was not always seen in such a radical light. Le Guin’s use of universal male pronouns to denote a society without a permanent sexual divide and therefore without a gender division, led to Joanna Russ, among others, criticising The Left Hand of Darkness for only containing men in practice. In In the Chinks of the World Machine (1988), Sarah Lefanu argues that the lack of sexual difference means that there is no historical dialectic and that the novel’s popularity is due to it simultaneously offering women a retreat from conflict back to the pre-Oedipal imaginary order while offering men the opportunity to roam freely unconstrained by the difficulties that arise from sexual difference. Adam Roberts went as far as to say, in Science Fiction (2000), that The Left Hand of Darkness is remarkably non-binary as a novel, with an appealing spirituality but an unengaging storyline, and mainly dependent on the quality of its world-building to attract readers’ imaginative and emotional investment.

In fact, The Left Hand of Darkness has long had all the hallmarks of one of those novels which one feels guiltily ashamed of uninhibitedly enjoying in private while publicly pretending indifference in order to fit in with the apparent critical consensus. There is something about all that apparently non-existent narrative tension concerning the fate of Genly’s mission and his relationship with the mysterious and enigmatic King’s Ear, Estraven, that makes one need to keep turning the pages even on the umpteenth rereading. The plot is not negligible by any means. The central irony that the rather backward kingdom of Karhide does eventually turn out to be more important to Genly than the apparently more modern and democratic Orgoreyn, is the inspiration for Iain M. Banks’s Culture-related planetary romance, Inversions (1998). And, of course, the Culture is also a society in which it is possible for the mother of several children to become the father of several more.

Continue reading “The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin”

Vector in 2020

Vector continues to publish a broad range of SFF criticism, as well as interviews, reports, and reviews, including both scholarly and fan writing. This year we again published two bumper issues of Vector, #291 (unthemed) and #292 (SFF and contemporary art).

This year, in collaboration with Fanac, we also made sixty years of back issues available digitally. You can explore the archives here (see also this earlier note). Going forward, Vector is likely to be publishing more themed and guest-edited issues, including #293, a special on Chinese SFF guest-edited by Yen Ooi and Regina Kanyu Wang.

The BSFA also continues to publish Focus (for SFF writers, ed. Dev Agarwal) and The BSFA Review (a digital SFF reviews zine, ed. Sue Oke), and has announced a new annual fiction publication, Fission, will be launched in 2021.

We also ran the 2020 Solidarity Salon series, with readings from a variety of wonderful authors, all available here. We don’t currently have firm plans in place for something similar in 2021, although it does seem likely we’ll continue to be doing more things online, so we very much welcome feedback, ideas, and possibilities for collaborations.

The BSFA also adopted a new constitution at our 2020 AGM, and is preparing for a new website launch in (probably early-ish) 2021.

If you’re not currently a member of the BSFA, please consider joining!

In previous years we’ve often done some kind of “Best SFF of the Year” type feature. We won’t be doing that this year exactly, but do check out …

Samuel R. Delany’s Dhalgren: Mapping economic landscapes in science fiction

In this academic article, Josephine Wideman explores themes of temporality and capital accumulation in Samuel R. Delany’s Dhalgren (1975). This article originally appeared in Vector 288.

Dhalgren by Samuel R. Delany

Samuel R. Delany’s 1975 novel Dhalgren is lengthy, hallucinatory, and at times unnavigable science fiction. Its form is as dense and as wavering as the urban landscape it depicts, where Delany’s protagonist, Kid, can wonder whether ‘there isn’t a chasm in front of me I’ve hallucinated into plain concrete.’1 Bellona – the fictional city where events take place – is a space ‘fixed in the layered landscape, red, brass, and blue, but […] distorted as distance itself,’ a place where ‘the real’ is ‘all masked by pale diffraction.’2 Although the scenery and scenarios of Bellona may be fictional, and perhaps even fantastic, they are also true representations of real experience. The unfixed landscape we live in becomes ‘fixed’ before us in Delany’s book. The distortions and diffractions by which it is fictionalised only increase its representational precision. The gaps in our experience, usually masked, are made visible. For although it takes an unusual form, we can recognise

this timeless city […] this spaceless preserve where any slippage can occur, these closing walls, laced with fire-escapes, gates, and crenellations are too unfixed to hold it in so that, from me as a moving node, it seems to spread, by flood and seepage, over the whole uneasy scape.3

In looking at Dhalgren, I have borrowed from the political theorist and sociologist Giovanni Arrighi in order to trace the presence and effects of capitalist accumulation in Delany’s fiction. Arrighi, in The Long Twentieth Century, describes the ‘interpretative scheme’ of capitalism as a ‘recurrent phenomena.’4 Drawing on work by the historian Fernand Braudel, Arrighi follows the Genoese, the Dutch, and the British cycles of accumulation to the current North American cycle. By examining past economic patterns and anomalies, he suggests that we may be able to gesture at the fate of our current cycle. Arrighi sets out to demonstrate that the rise and fall of these hegemonies, while never identical, tend to follow a set of stages that begin ‘to look familiar.’5 To make his argument, he proposes a new use for Marx’s ‘general formula of capital’:

Marx’s general formula of capital (MCM’) can therefore be interpreted as depicting not just the logic of individual capitalist investments, but also a recurrent pattern of historical capitalism as world system. The central aspect of this pattern is the alternation of epochs of material expansion (MC phases of capital accumulation) with phases of financial rebirth and expansion (CM’ phases).6

In Das Kapital, Marx initially proposes the formula CMC to theorise how capital functions. This theory begins with the assumption that people have needs and desires they can’t satisfy by themselves. Thus we create the commodities we know how to make (C), which are sold for money (M), which allows us to buy the commodities we want (C). As this cycle repeats, those who are skilled presumably accrue more value than others, being able to sell their commodities for a greater profit. This theory centres around the individual and his role in a capitalist system. But Marx then sets CMC aside in favour of another formula – the formula borrowed by Arrighi in The Long Twentieth Century – MCM’. In MCM’, circulation does not begin with the dissatisfied individual, but with capital itself. Money is invested (M) into the materials and labour necessary to produce a commodity (C), which is then sold for money (M). The difference between CMC and MCM’ is subtle but crucial. The first formula implies that capitalism recurs, and things are made and exchanged, in order to satisfy human desire and need. The second formula implies that money is in charge, that production and exchange are ultimately subservient to profit, and that money begets more money. For Marx, what drives capitalism is not only MCM, but MCM’ – the apostrophe signifying ‘prime’ – or the concept that money increases in value through circulation. The source of this additional, or ‘surplus’ value, is where capital really loses its lustre. This value is gained within labour – in the time spent on the creation and production of a commodity from raw material – and for Marx, its appropriation by capitalists is inherently exploitative.

Continue reading “Samuel R. Delany’s Dhalgren: Mapping economic landscapes in science fiction”

Where do I send my story? Resources for SFF writers

Wondering where to send your latest short SFF masterpiece?

Ralan.com is a fantastic resource. Don’t be misled by that gorgeous 90s decor: it’s regularly and reliably updated (never change, Ralan!).

Locus is also a great source of industry news, and contains a lot of reviews of short SFF that might give you ideas of where to explore further. Locus also does a regular year-in-review of major SFF magazines.

Submission Grinder is a sort of crowdsourced tool where writers can collectively keep track of publication response times. Duotrope is the other big market listing / submission tracker.

This Facebook group is devoted to posting calls for submissions.

You might also be interested in the Science Fiction Writers’ Association’s list of “qualifying markets”. There’s a note that this list is slated to change in format soon. Qualifying markets must have circulations of 1000+ and pay 8c/word, and meet some other criteria.

And for just a few quick ideas, here’s a recent-ish listicle by Annie Neugebauer, ‘20 Places to Submit Your Speculative Short Stories.’

For the more academic side of things, the LSFRC (London Science Fiction Research Community) are currently doing an excellent job of scooping up relevant Calls for Papers, notices of conferences, etc.: the LSFRC Facebook group is the best place to follow them. And of course there is the ever-effervescent Science Fiction Research Association (founded way back in 1970).

Review: The Perfect Nine: The Epic of Gĩkũyũ and Mũmbi by Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o

Reviewed by Eugen Bacon. This review first appeared in The BSFA Review.

“Making things is a matter of hands and eyes. 

All my daughters are makers of things.”

If you’ve read Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o’s fiction, comprising Wizard of the Crow, Petals of Blood, The River Between—some curriculum in African literature, seen his plays, like The Black Hermit, or read his essays and memoirs, you know to expect the unexpected. This preps you for his black speculative fiction The Perfect Nine: The Epic of Gĩkũyũ and Mũmbi, on the founding of the nine clans of the Gĩkũyũ people of Kenya. 

The Perfect Nine

The verse narrative borrows from the mythology of Gĩkũyũ and Mũmbi, the male and female forebearers created by the god of the mount, the giver supreme, the god of many names, also known as Mulungu, Unkulunku, Nyasai, Jok, Ngai, Yahweh, Allah. He/She is a unifying god, a being and nonbeing of distance and nearness, the here and there, the stars, moon and sun, the mother of the soil, water and wind. The giver grants Gĩkũyũ and Mũmbi nine perfect daughters, and a tenth with a disability, and now the daughters have come of age. 

In this mightily feminist story that blends folklore, mythology, adventure and allegory, translated from its original Gĩkũyũ version titled Kenda Mũiyũru(2018), the daughters are self-sufficient women who till the land, build their own huts, are self-reliant yet united in mind, heart and kinship. 

There’s Wanjirũ, who put a curse on the hyena to smother greed. Wambũi, who rode a zebra to war, led an army to victory. Wanjikũ, who has a fierce love for personal freedom and self-reliance, and a healing power of peace. Wangũi, whose lullabies can dispel a war. Waithĩra, who resolves disputes with the wisdom of the mount. Njeri, whose power of glance is a quest for justice. Mwĩthaga, who can make rain. Wairimũ, who sculpts and invents life, can trap souls. Wangarĩ, whose courage of a leopard protects the powerless from the powerful. And Warigia, the unspoken tenth, born with a disability, but she charms animals, so much joy in her laughter, the whiteness of her teeth lights a path in the darkness, and her arrow never misses an eye.    

Suitors arrive from far afield, lured by the silhouettes of the daughters’ beauty in their dreams, girls in fantasies who lead them down valleys to rivers with song. The suitors perform their own songs and dances of their regions, some picked up on the way, and they’re willing to serve the trinity of life—birth, life, death; the trinity of day—morn, noon and evening; the trinity of time—yesterday, today, tomorrow. 

But with its caution on the lure of strangers, the cunning of ogres, the folly of greed and the ugliness of discord, the philosophical story tosses up challenges and much peril to the daughters and their ninety-nine suitors, until only the worthy remain. 

With its inclusion of no distinction between man or woman, its inspiration on care of the land, its adages on the power of nature, and knowing to listen to the dictates of the heart, The Perfect Nineis an accomplished work that’s deeply cultural. It platforms the importance of naming in African tradition, the place of ceremony and the heart of kinship, bonded by blood or marriage—as one groom says to Gĩkũyũ and Mũmbi:

“I want to talk to you, my father and my mother,” he said, 

“For I cannot call you by any other name, given that

You received me and accepted me as your son.” 

In this lush chronicle on the genesis of Gĩkũyũ clans through valour, family, nature and nurture, Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o shows how supremely he’s a leading literary African author and scholar, a recipient of twelve honorary doctorates, and a nominee for the Man Booker International Prize.

“Life has and has not a beginning.

Life has and has not an end.

The beginning is the end and the end is the beginning.”

Review: Born of the Sun: Adventures in our Solar System edited by Mike Ashley

Reviewed by Graham Andrews. This review first appeared in The BSFA Review.

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In Jack Williamson’s thought variant short story, ‘Born of the Sun’ (Astounding, March 1934), Sol – like possibly every other star in the universe – is a sentient being and the planets are its incubating eggs. Well, you can’t get much more “thought variant” than that! But since the Sun didn’t give birth by self-genesis, Mike Ashley has excluded it from his whistle-stop tour of the solar system. (I would have plumped for ‘The Golden Apples of the Sun’ – which is neither here, there, nor anywhere else.)

Ashley explains in his general introduction that the stories will deal with “the old solar system, beloved of writers of science fiction, before the space probes discovered what was really out there.” His Planetary Exclusion Order also applies to the Moon (but then he had placed Luna-set stories in the BL Moonrise: The Golden Age of Lunar Adventures anthology). Mars, however, could hardly have been left out of the batting order (see below). Following my usual form, I started by reading Ashley’s erudite* prologues before reading the actual stories.

*A redundant adjective, if ever there was one.

“So strap yourself in and prepare for a kaleidoscope of worlds!” (ibid.).

I’ll get the Golden Oldies – or at least Silveries – out of the way first. ‘Sunrise on Mercury’ (1957), by Robert Silverberg, takes place on the hot-side/twilight zone/cold-side innermost planet that we used to know and love so well. It’s one of his best early stories that never stops moving – or thinking. ‘Garden is the Void’ (1952) is Poul Anderson’s haunting exploration of an asteroid: “A green asteroid.” James Blish went over all Joycean again with ‘How Beautiful with Banners’ (1966), set on Titan, if not Saturn itself. Par example: “Feeling as naked as a peppermint soldier in his transparent film wrap, Dr. Ulla Hillstrom watched a flying cloak swirl away toward the black horizon with a certain consequent irony.” ‘Wait It Out’ (1968) is a marooned-on-Pluto story that shows how well Larry Niven could write hard science fictioon when he used to work at it. [And I, for one, will never accept Pluto as a ‘dwarf’ planet.] But my favourite classic story – and also my favourite story in the whole book – is Clifford Simak’s ‘Desertion’ (1944).

‘Desertion’ (1944). Set on and around Jupiter, it became an integral part of the fix-up novel City (1952) and inspired a crucial plot device in Avatar (watch and compare). The last four understated lines of this story never fail to move me. I envy anyone reading them for the first time.

As usual with Mike Ashley, however, it’s the little-known or even unknown stories by ditto authors that make these BL anthologies so worthwhile. Leslie F. Stone (1905-1991) was one of the “pioneer women” contributors to the dawn-age sf pulp magazines. She set ‘The Hell Planet’ (1932) on the “real” Vulcan, once thought to lie between Mercury and the Sun. Background reading: The Hunt for Vulcan (2015), by Thomas Levenson. ‘Foundling on Venus’ (1954) by John and Dorothy De Courcy has a stinging twist in the tale. John Ashcroft (1936-1997) does Mars proud with ‘The Lonely Path’ (1961). ‘Where No Man Walks’ (1952), by E. R. James (1920-2012), about mining for industrial diamonds on the “surface” of Uranus, could well have been expanded to novella, or even novel-length. It’s the strongest story in the book, in my opinion, after ‘Desertion’. By the same token, ‘A Baby on Neptune’, a collaboration between Claire Winger Harris (1891-1968) and Miles J. Breuer (1889-1945) is by far the worst story in the book. “Ye Gods!” shouted Kuwamoto. “Just at the crucial moment, like a cheap novel serial! I suppose all we can do is nothing, and Elzar’s child has been devoured by the filthy beast.”

It just remains for me to say that Born of the Sun is yet another excellent theme anthology edited by Mike Ashley for the British Library. Buy it! Read it! Keep it!