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.

It is Afrofuturism that kicks off the “Futures” section, with Wanuri Kahiu suggesting that African time is distinct from linear time and arguing that the ability to exist in multiple times and cyclical time simultaneously opens up a fruitful set of speculative possibilities. Meanwhile, Elizabeth C. Hamilton posits Afrofuturism as “finding safe spaces for black life” (105), escaping the legacies of “colonialism and apartheid, slavery and Jim Crow”. These spaces have been found for decades in music from Sun Ra and George Clinton to Detroit techno (discussed here by Benjamin Noys) and in the work of Shonibare, Nick Cave and Gerald Machona, among others. Hamilton suggests that Shonibare’s astronaut figures “speak to the sustained feeling of isolation and otherness that people of colour feel when traversing white spaces” (109). Global fluidity can also be seen in Gilda Williams’s discussion of the Otolith Group and their engagement with Satyajit Ray’s unmade Indian-set film The Alien(1967), which “was rethinking sci-fi at a time when [… it] was in decline and the genre had been reborn with a violent new urgency in the work of J.G. Ballard” (117). The coverage pushes further away from the Western conception of sf in Dawn Chan’s formulation of “Asia-Futurism”, allowing “Asian artists to recast techno-clichéd trappings toward more generative ends” (137). Here, as in the work of the Otolith Group and the prints of Eduardo Paolozzi, the science-fiction imagery is both art and trash, not necessarily used with or without critique, such as in the Propeller Group’s burial of a wooden Star Trek phaser “in a location whose GPS coordinates will be disclosed only in 2112” (137). Ana Teixeira Pinto uses Italian Futurism and Afrofuturism to situate Sinofuturism and Gulf Futurism in a political history, noting “a [shared] preoccupation with labour, validation and epistemic dispossession” (147). These fictions explore the transformation of the world to meet the needs of capital, “an alien, voracious life form” (146).

If this image of the future rewrites human identity, then the next section should remind us that we are already posthuman. Whilst the “Posthumanism” section does introduce Chicanafuturism into the discussion, it is gender and the evolution of the gendered body that is at the heart of the section rather than the growing visibility of non-white ethnicities. The jumping off points are Haraway’s classic “A Cyborg Manifesto”, “An ironic dream of a common language for women in the integrated circuit” (154), originally published in 1985, and Hayles’s account of the Turing Test which puts gender back on the agenda in response to Turing biographer Adrian Hodges’s downplaying of it. Curiously, the section takes a while to get to art, having discussed decentred television and other communications, Madonna, Ivanka Trump and modes of transport. Jeffrey Deitch examines the mannequins and body parts of the art of Robert Gober, Charles Ray, Kiki Smith, Karen Kilimnik and Jeff Koons, who engaged in a two-year relationship with model and porn star Cicciolina, making art from their sexual intercourse. Francesca Ferrando offers a feminist genealogy of posthumanism, her eye on its origins in cyberfeminism and how women’s histories may be erased. In a too-brief overview, she cites — among others — Kenyan-born Wangechi Mutu who celebrates women as cyborgs, Jamaican-born Renée Cox who poses as Raje, a racial-justice superheroine, Laura Molina’s social-justice superheroine and Denenge Akpem, who “transforms herself into a hybrid human-jellyfish, with lighted fibre-optic tentacles” (181). Art is full of male power fantasies, institutionalised in the gaze of the artist on his muse; technological change allows this to be reversed or challenged as the artist becomes her own subject and object.

Finally, “Ecologies” represents the Anthropocenic turn in art, although its origins here lie with Rachel Carson’s 1962 account of an imagined silent spring in an American town. As Kim Stanley Robinson makes it clear in his 2018 interview, the ecosystem is intimately connected to the operations of capitalism and even imagines insurance company strategies as science fiction. Jessica L. Horton and Janet Catherine Berlo turn to the side-lined conversations of indigenous scholars and artists to consider the problems of modern humanity coexisting with nature. It becomes a matter of ownership — the historic tendrils of Western multinational corporations and the more recent operation of Chinese investments — of nature and who gets to speak for it. Ama Josephine Budge and Angela Chan, in conversation, are sceptical of the imposition of some of the key terminology of the science fiction mode. Budge is “not particularly moved by, or connected to, Mark Dery’s simplified theorisation of [Afrofuturism …] and I don’t particularly like having my avenues of speculation determined by yet another white man” (218) and Chan sees cli-fi as “a very whitewashed, hetero-patriarchal term that is conveniently marketable” (217). It comes back to capitalism again, ignoring earlier speculations about climate by writers and artists of colour, LGBTI + writers and artists and creatives from the Global South. This section discusses a number of exhibitions, children as critics (of Ted Hughes’s The Iron Woman) and even gardening as protest.

The tensions between global and local labels, some of them flags of convenience for signal boosting, some of them attempts to control, remind us that that already slippery term “science fiction” becomes even more complex in this global context. The Gernsback-Campbell Continuum of Anglophone science fiction is the mode with the most press coverage and tries to police its boundaries. What is clear is that science-fiction art cannot be contained by our standard definitions of the genre. Budge cites Audre Lorde’s statement that “the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house. They may allow us temporarily to beat him at his own game, but they will never enable us to bring about genuine change,” but that might not stop those artists who rightly won’t acknowledge the master.

This is all a long way from the canvases of John Constable and his contemporaries made during the Industrial Revolution — and very little of the art discussed here is painting. Instead, it extends to film, sound art, sculpture, the digital, readymades, architecture and protest. It questions our categories of identity and at the same time sees art as a means of letting a range of identities speak. It is a rich brew, and whilst some names occur across a range of extracts, it is not an easy book to navigate. I am torn between suggesting it needs to be consumed whole, to pick up upon the hidden conversations, and thinking it needs to be read slowly, with a search engine to hand to track down the images. Science fiction will never look the same.

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