Isn’t capitalist system, which humans invented 200 years ago, growing into an uncontrollable beast that will devour human society?
Clock of Babel runs the whole world to the same rhythm of time.1]
The Cabinet starts with a description of the cabinet. Inside, there are files of amazing people. A man who is turning into a tree, a woman who is growing a lizard instead of a tongue, and many more. This is not regarded as much of a mystery, and we never learn what is the mechanism of their transformation. The fantastic simply exists, not to be questioned, though for sure, in other respects this is our world. The protagonist could have come straight from the pages of David Graeber’s Bullshit Jobs. When he is not describing the fantastic files, he is ranting about his predicament: “As long as you don’t ask yourself what you are doing, you can keep doing it until the end of life” or “the only thing that capitalism ever produced is anxiety”. Reading The Cabinet from the perspective of Bullshit Jobs seems appropriate in more senses than one. The Cabinet is a multipronged critique of capitalism disguised as a fantasy novel.
This article contains moderate spoilers, so please do watch the film before reading!
Yen: Everything Everywhere All At Once is a 2022 film by Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert. I watched it on a quiet weekday morning at a lush cinema with only two other people in the room. I laughed out loud and cried real tears, many times throughout. It’s a habit of mine to stay to the end of film credits to appreciate the number of people (who made it and those who didn’t) it took to make the film, and this time, I didn’t want to leave. I wanted to stay in the cinema to try and hold on to my feelings a little longer.
The film was bumpy in places for me, but it felt like quality entertainment that was nutritional for my soul. I couldn’t articulate why that was the case, so I reached out to an East and Southeast Asian writers network that I belonged to in the UK, Bubble Tea Writers, and crowdsourced some thoughts:
“I loved how funny and wacky it was, whilst having a super simple mother-daughter relationship at its heart. It made me think of my mum…” Martin Ngwong
“In many ways the film was something that I’d both never seen before and yet it was uncannily familiar.” Arianne Maki
“I’ve seen it twice and loved it!! Thought it was a really original film that didn’t feel predictable.” Nozomi Tolworthy
Everything continued to nibble away at my thoughts, so much so that I couldn’t help but mention it to Christy. I knew that she would be able to help me analyse how the narrative structure plays into the success of the film and why I’m so taken by it. I was also curious as to how she (who’s not from an Asian diasporic background) would experience the film. A couple of weeks later, I received an email from Christy titled: Seen Everything! We quickly got together to chat and afterwards, it was clear that we both had a lot of thoughts about the film, and we wanted to share them. We continued our conversation on a shared document, and this is the result.
To start the journey, I find myself licking the ‘y’ key on my keyboard to jump into Christy’s world!
Multiverses & Multiplicity
Christy: Yen! Hey, I was listening to the Script Apart podcast, and the Daniels say It’s a Wonderful Life is a multiverse film. One way it does this is through exploring an alternative universe, in which the protagonist was never born. I would add another way it is a multiverse: the movement of the protagonist from their assumption things will inevitably end up bad, to shifting perspective and chasing a different path. There is the verse of closed thinking, and the verse of ‘optional thinking’… or optional thinking creates another verse!
As Le Guin famously put it, “science fiction is not predictive; it is descriptive”. Science fiction reflects what its writers see in the world around them—often from current scientific discoveries—and it sparks ideas for scientists. Scientists and SF writers endlessly inspire each other in a classic chicken-or-egg scenario. But little research has been done on how exactly this inspiration happens — on the dialogues and interactions between these two often-overlapping groups. Given SF’s reputation for applied speculation and future thinking, these dialogues are key to any studies of the same. I address this gap through analysing qualitative data on the experiences of scientist and writer participants in an SF anthology project which included significant interdisciplinary encounters.
Around Distant Suns: Nine Stories Inspired by Research from the St Andrews Centre for Exoplanet Science(2021) is my recently-published SF anthology, containing five short stories, two radio play scripts, and two poems. Each contribution was created by a pair of one scientist and one writer, and has a basis in the scientist’s research. The St Andrews Centre for Exoplanet Science produces research addressing questions about the origin of life, planet formation and atmospheric evolution, planet characterisation, which environments might be suitable for extra-terrestrial life, and more – questions that form some of the core themes of SF. Scientists and writers met virtually at least three times as a team in the process of creating their stories, and filled out detailed questionnaire responses after each meeting. My goal was to investigate how scientists and SF writers work together in creating science fiction stories, with a particular focus on the processes of deciding when to stay realistic, when to be plausible, and when to make things up.
I present results from qualitative analysis of the questionnaires, which asked about communication successes and failures, challenges encountered and solved, and when and how story decisions were made and inspired. These results point to a significant role for SF in science communication efforts – a role which introduces concepts and piques curiosity, but, in keeping with Suvin’s idea of estranging the worldviews of the readers (1979), also leaves room for the fantastic and the unknown.
The genre of science fiction has a unique relationship with empiricism in its worldbuilding.This relationship is highlighted by theorist Darko Suvin’s definition of the genre, that SF relies on “estrangement and cognition” and features an “imaginative framework alternative to the author’s empirical environment” (1979, pp. 7-8). In other words, this means that SF features at least one significant change (estrangement) from reality, which is presented cognitively in a way that distinguishes it from fantasy – SF works must account for their worlds rationally within the text. Carl Freedman revises Suvin’s definition to include not cognition per se, but the “cognition effect”, that is, the attitude of the text towards the estrangements being performed must have a cognitive effect on the reader (2000, p. 18). In the worldbuilding of the text, the estrangements are treated as science (whether or not they are consistent with real-world science), rather than being left to magic and mystery. Put differently, the science need not be accurate, but the effect of it being accurate must be there – the cognition effect leaves room for some very ‘soft’ (scientifically inaccurate or implausible) science fiction.
I argue that this aspect of SF, the cognition effect, leads to a distinctive relationship between science and SF writers that is not found in other genres, as well as to the genre’s reputation for being at the forefront of scientific discovery. Sources of scientific inspiration and the degree of superficiality or robustness of the fictional science is as varied as the genre itself. Many scientists write science fiction – Isaac Asimov and E.E. Smith for example – and many SF authors are avid supporters of science programmes and science communication (Stepney, “Real Science”). Creators of SF literature and film and television often refer to science consultants for accuracy, and workshops like the NASA-funded Launchpad, which aimed to teach writers about science for their books, are not uncommon – the Hugo-award winning author N.K. Jemisin was inspired to write the Broken Earth trilogy at a Launchpad workshop (Khatchadourian, “N.K. Jemisin’s Dream Worlds”). Acknowledgements sections of SF novels are often filled with references to e-mail exchanges and similar with science consultants. Physicist Kip Thorne famously made real scientific advances in determining the optical-wavelength appearance of a black hole for the movie Interstellar (James, von Tunzelmann, and Franklin et al 486). However, unless the writer themself is also the science consultant, science consultants rarely play an equal role in story creation. As physicist Sean Carroll, science consultant on several Marvel movies, describes “You talk to the screenwriter or director or producer—whoever asked for your help—and you chat for a couple hours, and you do your best to give them advice, and then you never hear from them again” (“Being a Hollywood Science Consultant”).