SF + Extraction Conference Report

SF + Extraction Conference,

Online, 8th and 9th October, 2022

Reviewed by Graham Head

Artwork by co-director Angela YT Chan

This two-day conference was organised by the London Science Fiction Research Community (LSFRC), with support from Birkbeck, University of London. This was the third wholly online annual conference held by the LSFRC since the beginning of the pandemic, although this event was somewhat smaller than its predecessors. Making use of the online technology, speakers and audience were again drawn from across the world, and from many different perspectives. 

Although the notion of ‘extraction’ was interpreted broadly, at its heart it was located in a series of exploitative colonialist, capitalist practices. The original call for papers sought:

… contributions that think with, through and about extraction in all its forms – as extraction of human and nonhuman subjects; appropriation of knowledge and indigenous practices; instrumentalization of landscapes beneath, upon and beyond the Earth; parasitism; pollution as colonialism; the accumulative schematisation of linear temporal frames; forcefully extracted emotional labour; legacies of trauma and more – and its relationship with sf both as an extractive form of fiction and as a corrective/counter to extraction. From asteroid mining to dream harvesting, we want to engage with sf texts and ways of thinking across all media that explores, unravels and seeks to push beyond extraction’s mastery of the past, present and future.

The LSFRC runs a regular reading group exploring the same themes as the conference during the year leading up to each annual event. I attended a few of these, which were very productive, and encouraged a broader consideration of the subject. Despite its name, the reading group covered a range of media, including graphic novels, films and games as well as written sf, and the same was true of the conference. 

Rather than cover every item I attended, I will concentrate on those papers that were my personal highlights, although I realise that in taking this approach, I will doubtless fail to mention some fine presentations. The first day began well, with two papers that I particularly enjoyed in the first panel, on ‘Human and Nonhuman Entanglements.’ Iuliia Ibragimova’s paper on ‘Space-Faring Animals and Their Humans’ looked at the sentient spaceship trope in sf literature and tv. Developing a brief survey of examples, including the Spline in Stephen Baxter’s Xeelee sequence, the insect/machine hybrid Lexx, and the Miri ships in Nnedi Okorafor’s Binti series, in a series of ravishing slides, she considered the relations between the human/humanoid aliens and the sentient spaceships presented as non-human animals. Ibragimova suggested that alongside more hierarchical and exploitative depictions, some of these examples also offered an opportunity to challenge anthropomorphic assumptions, and pointed towards more positive models of co-existence. Alongside this paper, Chiara Montalti’s ‘The Ecology of a Mermaid’ explored the notion of the mermaid to discuss the relationship between disability and environmental (in)justice, notably using the performance piece The Mermaid by the Australian artist and dancer Hanna Cormick. The latter has a cluster of medical conditions that require the use of a wheelchair, braces, respirator mask and oxygen when outside. The figure of the mermaid, as one who is differently abled in different environments, is used to suggest that the perspectives of disabled people can help address environmental toxicity and injustice. There was a need for this to be reflected more often in sf. The various papers delivered on this panel opened a space for a fruitful discussion, with the notion of ‘super-abled’ insectoidal non-humanness compared to the aqueous mermaid (with the waterborne mermaid as possibly still-disabled), and questions about individuality in the framing of the insectoidal ships.

The Mermaid by Hanna Cormick

Amy Cutler’s paper, ‘“[dying words] More light…” : Anti-Cinema and Black Hole Fishing’ described a creative experiment, her work ‘7 Ways of Exploiting A Black Hole’ (2022). She explored techniques for decentering cinema, moving away from the single-screen display to a fixed audience, and discussed the use of cinematic techniques to present and comment on astrophysics and future visions of extraction. The latter was pictured in terms of Roger Penrose’s ‘The Lost Art of Fishing in a Black Hole (1971)’ – in which he considered how energy might be extracted from a spinning black hole – as well as other interventions. How to exploit the least exploitable thing in the universe? Yet the black hole can also be considered an archive of the past, and hence a form of cinematic library. Conceived as a commentary on the languages of astrophysics and future visions of extraction, and a form of cinema deliberately inverted to curb storytelling practices of ‘eternal growth’, Cutler’s cinematic installation engaged with multiple readings of the Penrose process for geostationary energy extraction as well as the notion of the black hole, also touching, along the way, on the myth of Icarus, Clarke’s The Fountains of Paradise (1979) and Disney’s film The Black Hole (1979).

Lorrie Blair’s presentation on the same panel, ‘An artist’s response to living on a damaged planet: An Appalachian ghost story’ brought together three strands from Appalachian Ohio: a historic mine disaster, acid drainage from abandoned coal mines, and her own lived experience as a child and a young teacher. She described how she played in creeks near the mines as a child, and as a teacher learned of the Hocking Valley coal strike, which resulted in an extensive mine fire in November 1884. Burning coal cars, filled with oil-soaked wood, were pushed into the mines in response to the company’s use of scab workers during the strike. Flames burned into the coal seams, and over time the ground collapsed under buildings and roads, and mine gases escaped into local towns. Residents were evicted and homes demolished. The fires are still burning below ground: steam comes from wells, roses bloom in Winter and snow does not settle. Blair creates subtle and complex photographs to tell the story of this ongoing environmental disaster, using digital photography and paint sourced from the toxic run-off from streams near the abandoned mines, combined with cyanotype chemistry. Her images are palimpsests of old and new images, creating ghost-like collages echoing the past and present, combining the dead with the living. I found these images quite haunting, and a compelling reflection on the damaged and damaging, complex pasts she described. The manner in which each of these papers used various technologies of image-making and sharing to tell their stories opened a rich discussion. It created a materiality of storytelling, but there was also cultural cost, for example, photography also pollutes. Lorrie suggested the making of small work was key as a hope that the resulting artwork’s environmental footprint could be lessened.

Science fiction often pictures astronomical observatories, and the astronomers therein, in a positive light. They are the first to spot the Armageddon meteor or alien invader, and they tend to symbolise a pure, disinterested science. The latter is also emphasised by their frequent remote, mountaintop locations. One such location is the contested site discussed in Teresa Shewry’s paper, ‘”Making Things Look Bad”: Extraction, Humor and Science Fiction at Mauna a Wākea’, which provided a constructive counterargument to such views. A new Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT) is proposed for the Hawaiian mountain of Mauna a Wākea, whose potential cultural and environmental impact is significant. The mountain has an alpine ecosystem, and the attempt to use Crown lands for the observatory is seen by many as an act of expropriation and accumulation by the settler state, in aid of militarisation and the exploitation of space. Shewry explored some of the artistic responses to the proposals, introducing the short comic film ‘TMT-5000’ by Rian Basilio and Conrad Ikaika Lihilihi, (see on YouTube), which compressed the debate over the new device into a domestic setting. The adult child begs for a new toy telescope while his father tells him off for having already messed up the house with thirteen previous toy instruments. This referenced the thirteen astronomical telescopes already installed on the mountain, while ridiculing them as simply toys – and there were other, similar reflections, undercutting the project. The crude and sometimes slapstick humour was also an interesting weapon of resistance to the corporate planners. It worked to undermine the seeming seriousness of the astronomical community, the architects and engineers, and opened up the opportunity for different conversations about the contested spaces.

In the same section of the conference, on ‘Blue SFs/Oceanic/Coastal’, Peggy Riley also focused on a specific place, discussing the writing of her latest novel in her paper ‘Uncanny Intimacies: Writing Seasalter’. Riley, who lives in Whistable, just down the coast from Seasalter, wrote the novel for her MFA dissertation at Birkbeck. She described the colonisation of the shoreline by aggressive oyster farming, extraction of the estuary by dredgers and the coastal erosion brought on by drought and rising tides. A landscape of sewage, unexploded bombs and of power lines to wind turbines. The locals in the town must deal with this landscape and these issues, as well as the increase in migrant crossings in East Kent. One character in her story keeps a monster’s tail, as a memorial of a battle in 1953, in the last great flood. When he dies, and his son returns, the monster comes to claim its tail, and calls upon the sea to rise again, and drown all the lands. In describing her approach, Riley referenced Donna Haraway and LeGuin, as well as Amitav Ghosh’s linking of the idea of the Uncanny with climate change, and the sense of menace and uncertainty it engenders. Her story was also inspired by the landscape itself. A tale where the human and nonhuman meet and both are in crisis. I found Riley’s slow and careful description of her work entrancing, as it interlaced the landscape with the forces that had created it, and the theoretical arguments and positions that had inspired her. This was my favourite presentation. Riley also ran a creative workshop later in the conference, which, sadly, I couldn’t attend.

Much of the conference was multi-stranded, with two or three panels of thematically-linked papers given in parallel. Often, at such events, whatever presentations I attend, I remain slightly haunted by a sense of regret, perhaps akin to buyer’s remorse or just a simple fear of missing out, about choices I have made. The feeling that ‘over there’ is a shadow conference made up of all the panels I didn’t see, that is marginally better than the one I am actually attending. And it is one I might actually have been at, if I’d only chosen differently. That feeling was entirely absent here. Perhaps because I had purposefully chosen a number of papers that were slightly out of my comfort zone. Certainly I found myself concentrating harder than usual to appreciate and understand the papers of Blair and Montalti, to their certain benefit. There was also a strong sense that the conference had been carefully curated. There were strong synergies and resonances between the papers, which opened up a number of spaces for the subsequent discussion. Many focused on contested landscapes and spaces, as might have been expected, given the theme of the event. Even so, the panels were exceptionally diverse in subject and treatment.

All conferences, it seems, have challenges to overcome. Sadly, due to illness, the keynote speech by Kathryn Yusoff (Professor of Inhuman Geography at QMUL) had to be cancelled at short notice. The organisers did manage to substitute a selection of short films related to the conference theme in the same slot, including Pumzi (Wanuri Kahiu, 2009), The 6th World (Nanobah Becker, 2012), Three Thousand (Asinnajaq, 2017), and an extract from Tarkovsky’s Stalker (1979). While this was of course a poor substitute, it did at least provide further perspectives on the theme. Technical issues also intruded: at least one presenter had problems with the Blackboard software used for the conference. This resulted in a successful switch of the presenter, moderator and the whole audience to Zoom. Everyone involved moved across just for that paper. Which arguably demonstrated how au fait we have all become with conferencing technologies over the last three years. However, in another paper I attended the sound was so poor that, despite the work of the organising team, I could hear nothing of what was said. And as someone who also gave a paper at the conference, I can vouch for the efficiency and helpfulness of the LSFRC team. This online conference was also the first such in which I felt the planned social event actually worked. The Conference chat system was extensively used, with the screen offering slow-moving, immersive images, and background music playing. The atmosphere was relaxed and the ‘conversation’ seemed to flow spontaneously, albeit limited by the software. Nevertheless, I feel it still didn’t match up to the full richness of an in-person event; so, if the risks of Covid continue to fade, I’m hoping that next year the organisers will offer the opportunity to attend the conference in the flesh.

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