Grass in Its Fist

By So Mayer.

When I think about 2020, this is the image I think about most.

It’s from Star Trek: Discovery season 3, episode 8, and it foregrounds a young scientist, Adira, recently recovered from a serious medical procedure and thrown into a new, high-intensity work situation, asleep on their arms at their console. They have been trying for days to resolve a galaxy-brain complexity algorithm that could, simultaneously, explain why the Federation is in chaos, be key to rescuing desperately ill people, and undermine the hold of an exploitative, violent, nativist and populist criminal syndicate. 

The series was filmed July 2019-February 2020, with post-production taking place remotely. It’s not hard to see the post-production editors, graders and data wranglers – perhaps home-schooling as they also work from home with a pandemic on the doorstep – feeling reflected in this scene as they finessed it. 

But the scene has a background as well as a foreground, in which Adira’s new colleagues / bosses / adoptive parents – Discovery’s doctor Hugh Culber and his partner, scientist Paul Stamets – talk softly and supportively. Not only are they honouring the work of a very young and new crew member, but – for the first time – using Adira’s chosen pronouns in conversation. 

In some ways, it feels perilously close to Silicon Valley’s exploitative vocational vision in which young programmers live at their desks for companies that spout liberal-libertarian slogans while maintaining – in terms of both their employment policies and their products – structural and systemic racism, classism, sexism, ableism, homophobia and transphobia. Yet Star Trek: Discovery’s timely frayed and worn take on the original series’ utopianism suggests that this is, instead, the revival of the dream of work that Starfleet has long held out: work with dignity, safety, meaning and import.

Dreaming, Adira works, their unconscious shaping the solution that cracks the code. What ensues also (re)shapes the meaning and function of Starfleet in this distressed and fragmented new universe. This scene places sleep – rest, care, dreaming – front and centre of what might be meant by a utopian vision of labour.

Adira’s snatched nap at their desk feels particularly pertinent because I feel that all I’ve done for the last ten months is work (from home, at a screen) and sleep. Thus, of this year’s reading, it’s been two books about working and sleeping that have haunted me the most. I was electrified by A Memory Called Empire by Arkady Martine, and especially its neuroscience fictions; her invention of the imago, a device that imports the personae of those who previously held a particular job, could be read as similar to Star Trek’s joined Trill: Adira is notably, a human who is hosting a Trill symbiont, previously hosted by their boyfriend Grey, who glitchily haunts them in a manner reminiscent of Mahit Dzmare’s situation in Memory. Dzmare’s imago is also glitching, and her predecessor Yskander is a spectral and often unexpected presence, an embodied unconscious who guides her into intuitive connections that analogise dreamwork. 

But it’s two novellas that exemplified for me this idea of oneiric labour as a route out of null exploitative employment: the first, The Employees: A workplace novel of the 22nd century by Danish writer Olga Ravn, translated by Martin Aitken and published by translation specialists Lolli Editions, takes its inspiration from a Barbara Kruger art installation, and is absolutely what its title describes insofar as the workplace is a spaceship that’s also an art gallery, and the novel’s form is that of disordered entries from a report by the parent company’s investigators concerned that the human and humanoid employees are becoming indistinguishable. More on this elusive text in a moment.

The second novella, Finna by Nino Cipri is perhaps the more conventional inclusion, as it’s published by Tor, and its acknowledgements situate it resonantly and clearly within the new queer feminist SFF. Cipri writes that ‘Karin Tidbeck was my Swedish consultant and she came up with the name for FINNA… [and] Rivers Solomon provided a stellar and insightful sensitivity read’, presumably at least in part for the character of Jules, who is Black and non-binary (Solomon’s pronouns are fae/faer and they/them). In homage and solidarity, I should say that I was tipped off to Finna via Twitter by The Bookish Type, an independent queer bookshop in Leeds who opened, utopianly, in September 2020, and survived multiple lockdowns by building incredible community on social media, and are continuing (like a Starfleet for books) to keep things flowing to those in need.

Cipri also notes that ‘Lara Elena Donnelly gave me the premise for this story’, a modelling of creative labour as mutual aid in which mutuality is both pragmatic and in the possibility of a shared unconscious. Rather than Adrienne Rich’s feminist ‘dream of a common language’, Finna attentively marks the sharply distinctive experiences of Black and Muslim characters, of cis and trans characters, of working-class employees and middle-management, in its setting of a big-box Scandi furniture store called LitenVärld. A maze in itself, LitenVärld’s fractured no-place geography makes it a hotspot for maskhål, aka wormholes, which open to LitenVärlds in other dimensions.

Ava, the protagonist, is already having a bad day – covering someone else’s shift, and thus sharing a roster with her recent ex, Jules – when an elderly woman called Ursula Nouri disappears from a room model called the Nihilist Bachelor Cube. The comedic riff on the excruciating language of late capitalism continues when Ava and Jules have to view a workplace instructional videos about wormholes that nods knowingly to the ‘Doublemeat Palace’ episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer (season 6, episode 12). When Buffy’s campaign for what could be called ‘wages against slayage’ fails, she takes a minimum-wage fast food job that supposedly fits flexibly around her unconventional schedule as well as supplying take-out leftovers for her and her sister, but actually leads to grim disappearances that riff on Soylent Green (Richard Fleischer, 1973). 

Finna has a similar flex on messy edges where the real world and the otherworld meet and rip, and how it’s work that crosses over between them. It smartly and tellingly balances the science-fictional otherworlds where, for example, parallel LutenVärld workers are actually vampire-zombies, with the horror of LitenVärld itself, as exemplar of late capitalist dystopia in which work is exploitative, repetitive and meaningless, yet also – because it’s a lived space where others who are also disenfranchised or dislocated find/lose themselves – a site of connection and even love. The dream/nightmare otherworlds analogise, satirise and redistribute the signifiers of work without evacuating them of meaning: Ava has to return to LutenVärld at the end, and it remains as awful as it was, even after confronting vampire-zombie hordes.

But what the otherworlds also offer, or rather highlight, is the possibility of comradeship. Forced to travel through the maskhål with Jules, Ava finds a form of workers’ solidarity in extremis, as their collective decisions and actions are freed from corporate oversight and commerce, and become (as in Starfleet) life-or-death. Ava learns to trust herself through Jules’ trust in her, and realises how the dignity of labour, with its skills and solidarity, is ground down by capitalist employment, but not entirely ground out. The experience of otherworlds raise the possibility that dreaming and imagining are forms of work, on the self and on the world. And perhaps it is an inalienable form of labour whose effects and products cannot be appropriated and capitalised. When Ava gets back, she’s exhausted. So she sleeps – in Jules’ empty apartment, where she feels safe. There’s something tender and unrecognised in this moment, unfamiliar from conventional heroic narratives. Sleeping and dreaming (or entering a maskhål) becomes a kind of redistributive action concerning who deserves security and ease.

The book ends with possibility, one that is located in refusing absolutely the disciplinary frameworks of retail work, including their signposted no-places:

To go where she wanted [Ava realised], she had to get lost, and it seemed almost instinctual to do that now… Ava chased that particular sense of disorientation, recognizable now; somewhere between the feeling of falling in love, and falling out of it… of not knowing and still going forward.

That disorientation is also present, differently, in Star Trek: Discovery and The Employees, in both the conventional sense, and Sara Ahmed’s usage to mark the force exerted on narrative and embodied spaces by queerness. The Employees’ characters are rarely gendered: some mention experiences such as child-bearing or -rearing, but in the same breath may question whether these are implanted memories. 

Both the human / humanoid distinction and binary gender collapse productively and, in fact, revolutionarily, as those employees who are – or think they are, or accept they are – humanoid take over the ship. They are acting in concert in response to a disorientation produced by a number of strange objects taken on board from the planet New Discovery. The objects produce multisensory, and even synaesthetic, apprehensions in some employees and not others, sense-memory triggers that cross the human-humanoid boundary to dispense with the Voight-Kampff test. 

The Blade Runner reference is not plucked from nowhere. Here’s Statement 097 in full, echoing the famous ‘tears in rain’ monologue as well as the film’s rain-soaked climate dystopia:

You want to know what I think about this arrangement? I think you look down on me. The way I see it, you’re a family that’s built a house. And from the warm rooms of that house you now look out at the pouring rain… I’m standing in the rain that you think can never fall on you. I become one with that rain. I’m the storm you shelter from. This entire house is something you built just to avoid me. So don’t come to me and say I play no part in human lives.

Feelings are feelings (as Roy Batty is arguing), and (as queer feminist Yvonne Rainer says) feelings are – like the impossible objects – facts, however much colonial capitalism supresses and disputes that.

It is in working with – as guards and cleaners, rather than being viewers, curators or scholars – these disorienting objects that the effects occur. Making visible the often-invisibilised labour attendant on producing a cultural sector with which we can engage critically and for pleasure feels especially pointed and poignant after a year when many wealthy national art institutions such as Tate and Southbank Centre made their lowest-paid staff redundant, especially cleaners, security, retail and hospitality workers who were often already on precarious contracts. The Employees considers the work that underlies others’ ability to dream, and the ways in which working with numinous objects may inspire a vision of a self-ownership and self-value in that labour, and beyond it.

The Employees ends with the humanoid survivors of the uprising going planet-side, to experience an organic existence and ecosystem about which they only have implanted memories. It’s a quietly, deeply subversive idea, a bleaker conclusion than Finna’s, almost Beckettian. The penultimate, unnumbered speaker says: ‘If I pull up some grass from the earth and keep it in my hand from now on, will there be a chance then? No, we’re given new bodies. My dead body will have to lie here with the grass in its fist.’ 

It’s a reminder of the all-too-often inorganic imaginaries of space fiction, a sterile scientism that Star Trek: Discovery has disrupted with its mycelial network and, this season, with a greenhouse ship reminiscent of and also redemptive of Silent Running (Douglas Trumbull, 1972). The paramount survival of a galactic seed vault lush with vegetation (including medicinal plants) takes place in an episode titled ‘Die Trying’ (3.5): multispecies co-existence, indigenous and Black leadership, and ecological urgency are keynotes of the third season. It will be fascinating to see whether this eco-consciousness will be maintained in subsequent seasons.

Rilakkuma and Kaoru

I can’t imagine the informes that hang impossibly in the Six-Thousand Ship in The Employees. When I try to, what I see is my other favourite televisual image of 2020 (although streamed on Netflix since 2019). Rilakkuma and Kaoru is a handmade stop-motion animation based on a popular Japanese bear toy. Its logic is indeed oneiric, with Rilakkuma and his friends’ adventures offset against the predictable humiliations of office life for Kaoru. In one episode, ‘Sleepless Night’, the smaller bear Korilakkuma attempts to contact aliens night after night (by leaving food out for them), and eventually appears to succeed. Transported to their ship, Korilakkuma finally gets some sleep, nestled in the arms of a giant space panda.

Why a panda? How in space? Is the experience (in the terms of the show’s reality) real? Korilakkuma does bring back an object from the spaceship into Kaoru’s apartment, defying the other characters’ insistence that the ship was a dream. But, as The Employees puts it so poignantly, the grass remains in the hand. Under the illogics of global capitalism, what makes sense is the longing – experienced across all five of these texts – to sleep in the welcoming arms of a surviving ecology, soundly and safely, ready for tomorrow’s soft overthrow.

So Mayer is the author of, most recently, A Nazi Word for a Nazi Thing (Peninsula, 2020) and jacked a kaddish (Litmus Publishing, 2018), and contributions to In the Past, the Future Was Better (Cipher Press, 2020) and On Relationships (3ofCups, 2020). They work as a (digital) bookseller for Burley Fisher Books, a programmer and editor with queer feminist film curation collective Club des Femmes, and as a researcher and co-founder with Raising Films, a campaign for parents and carers in the UK screen sector. 

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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.

Continue reading “Eco-Sci-Fi Art and Interspecies Technology”

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

By Josephine Wideman. 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”

Fragmented dwellings: ontology and architecture in The City and the City (2009) and Learning the World (2005)

In this article, Alexei Warshawski explores themes of architecture, fragmentation, and ontology (in the sense of existence or Being as such) in two speculative fiction novels, China Miéville’s The City and the City (2009) and Ken McLeod’s Learning the World (2005).

The relationship between architecture and its inhabitants is a powerful one which can be liberating or repressive, inclusive or exclusive, reflective or reductive. These relations are neither cohesive with one another, nor mutually exclusive, so they problematise our relationship with architecture in spatial, temporal and ontological terms. Examples may be found in China Miéville’s The City and the City (2009) and Ken MacLeod’s Learning the World (2005). Miéville’s The City and the City follows Inspector Tyador Borlú as he investigates the murder of a foreign student whose body is found in Besźel, a city which is topographically twinned with another city called Ul Qoma. These two cities are on the same physical site and their residents are expected to ignore the city which they don’t live in, ‘unseeing’ any elements that they accidentally notice. Ken MacLeod’s Learning the World follows a future human race’s attempts to find a new planet to colonise as they travel on their planet-sized generation ship, and grapples with the problems they face in understanding a temporary architectural construct as a seemingly permanent and homely environment. Both novels engage with one of postmodernism’s key architectural concerns – the question of fragmentation, which this paper will argue is a necessity in sustaining the architecture of the worlds of both texts. While The City and the City explores fragmentary architecture through its twinned cities, Learning the World presents architecture as an inherently fragmentary construct, both in spatial and temporal terms. This paper will suggest that the ‘necessary fragmentation’ of the architecture in these texts proves the untenability of postmodern, neoliberal architecture as something permanent or fixed, in both spatial and temporal terms. Furthermore, this paper will argue that the idea of necessary fragmentation in this context give credence to Martin Heidegger’s understanding of ‘building’ and ‘dwelling’, a distinction he outlines in ‘Building, Dwelling, Thinking’ (1951) which suggests that ‘dwelling’ as an ontological condition is not a guaranteed effect of building or settling within architectural constructs, and that the ability to ‘build’ in an ontologically authentic manner requires one to possess the capacity to ‘dwell’ in the first place. This paper will outline how these paired concepts of building and dwelling can affect the formation and occupation of architecture, as well as architecture’s relationship to nature. Drawing together the fragmentary elements of architecture and their relationship to Heidegger’s thinking in both texts, this paper will conclude with an analysis of the reflective properties of architecture – in both literal and metaphoric senses – to demonstrate the extent to which architecture can affect not just our social and domestic lives, but our ontology itself.

Continue reading “Fragmented dwellings: ontology and architecture in The City and the City (2009) and Learning the World (2005)”

Amazofuturism and Indigenous Futurism in Brazilian Science Fiction

This peer-reviewed article was first published in Vector 291.

By Vítor Castelões Gama and Marcelo Velloso Garcia

This essay will explore two contemporary movements associated with the literature and art of the Amazon region: Amazofuturism and Indigenous futurism. We hope that it will increase the visibility of these two interconnected movements, in order to enrich diversity within the art world, and contribute toward a broadening of cosmologies and worldviews beyond dominant Western imaginaries [1]. 

But to do so, let’s start by trying out some definitions. First, Amazofuturism is a subgenre of SF where the Amazon region is represented in a more positive light, often with an aesthetic akin to cyberpunk and solarpunk. Indigenous futurism, on the other hand, focuses on Indigenous worldviews in the context of the SF megatext, and, while doing so, challenges ingrained colonialist assumptions about Indigenous people. Ideally it is also created by Indigenous people. Finally, Brazilian SF, the broadest of these three terms, is simply science fiction from Brazil. It does not necessarily represent either the Amazon region nor Indigenous people at all, and when it does, may do so either positively or negatively [2]. Now, let’s expand a bit on these definitions. 

Continue reading “Amazofuturism and Indigenous Futurism in Brazilian Science Fiction”

Becoming Visible: The Rise of Black Speculative Fiction

Screenshot 2020-05-11 at 20.30.21

Eugen Bacon is an award-winning writer of speculative fiction and non-fiction. Her works include Claiming T-Mo (Meerkat Press 2019), Writing Speculative Fiction: Critical and Creative Approaches (Macmillan 2020), Inside the Dreaming (NewCon Press, 2020) and Hadithi and The State of Black Speculative Fiction, a forthcoming collaboration with Milton Davies (Luna Press, 2020). In this essay, she reflects on some of her favourite black speculative fiction.

 As an African Australian who’s grappled with matters of identity, writing black speculative fiction is like coming out of the closet. It’s a recognition that I’m Australian and African, and it’s okay—the two are not mutually exclusive. I am many, betwixt, a sum of cultures. I am the self and ‘other’, a story of inhabitation, a multiple embodiment and my multiplicities render themselves in cross-genre writing. As a reader, writer and an editor, I’m increasingly noticing black speculative fiction, and it’s on the rise.

Continue reading “Becoming Visible: The Rise of Black Speculative Fiction”

Universal Basic Income in Science Fiction

This is an expanded version of an article that appeared in Vector 288.

UBI SF

Universal Basic Income (UBI) is appearing more and more in near-future (and far-future) science fiction. It’s even becoming a kind of mark of futurity. Not in a “starships and androids” way, exactly: more like something incidental to the plot, thet science fiction writers tuck in there so their stories won’t date too rapidly.

This isn’t surprising: UBI is also prevalent in political discourse. It’s not just campaigners who are talking about it any more, but policymakers and politicians too. There have been smaller pilots and trials ongoing for some time. Major economies such as Spain are now rolling out UBI at scale on a temporary basis (presumably) to help cope with the Coronavirus crisis. There is increasing pressure for other countries to do the same. In the UK, one recent policy briefing argues:

Universal Basic Income (UBI) could provide faster and more effective income support during the COVID-19 crisis than that offered under existing UK Government schemes.

Although it also cautions:

More interventionist and state-entrepreneurial approaches – including investments in Universal Basic Services (UBS), place-based industrial strategy, technological innovation and skills training – could deliver much more effectively many of the benefits often claimed for UBI for a similarly significant level of public expenditure.

UBI means that everybody gets some kind regular, guaranteed payment to support basic living expenses. That’s a key thing about Universal Basic Income: it should really go to everybody, not just to “those in need.” This part is controversial, so sometimes the term ‘Basic Income’ gets used instead. We’ll stick with term ‘UBI’ here. UBI may feel like a pretty naturally left-wing idea, and indeed UBI has a lot of supporters on the left. But look closer, and things aren’t quite so simple …

Beyond left and right?

UBI has a lot of supporters on the right too. For example, UBI appeals to many of those libertarians who despise ‘Big Government,’ and want innovative ways of rolling back the state: why not just ensure everybody has cash to spend, and let the market figure out the rest? UBI also appeals to some conservatives, who see UBI as something deserved by all the decent, upright citizens of this proud nation, as a way of tidying up and reinforcing hierarchies, rather than disturbing them.

All in all, UBI has attracted fans as diverse as Martin Luther King Jr. and Milton Friedman. Tech celebs such as Mark Zuckerberg and Elon Musk like it, as do social democrats and progressives like AOC and Ilhan Omar (at least during plague times), as do lefty political theorists like Kathi Weeks, Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams. The truth is, there are a huge range of very different possible policies (very different possible societies, even) that get lumped together under the umbrella term “UBI.”

UBI-fi

Science fiction has a role to play in exploring the variousness of UBI, the many ways it could be implemented, and the many possible second- and third-order ramifications. By and large, science fiction treats UBI as something whose social and moral significance is yet to be determined. There is good UBI and bad UBI. UBI is witches.

Some works of science fiction (or adjacent) that feature UBI (or adjacent) include:

  • Adeline Knapp, 1000 Dollars a Day
  • Robert Heinlein’s For Us, The Living: A Comedy of Customs
  • Zoë Fairbairns, Benefits
  • Mack Reynolds, Police Patrol: 2000 AD
  • Philip José Farmer, Riders of the Purple Wage
  • Robert Anton Wilson and L. Wayne Benner’s RICH economy
  • Carl Hoffman, 2037 NZ: One Hell of a Paradise
  • Adam Roberts, By Light Alone
  • Efe Okogu, ‘Proposition 23’
  • Tim Maugan, ‘Flyover Country’
  • William Squirrel, ‘They Built the New Jerusalem on the Ruins of the Old
  • Lee Konstantinou, ‘Burned Over Territory’
  • Matthew Binder, The Absolved
  • E. Lily Yu, ‘The Doing and Undoing of Jacob E. Mwangi’
  • Marshall Brain, Manna
  • ‘Basic’ in The Expanse

Please suggest more in the comments below! Continue reading “Universal Basic Income in Science Fiction”

The Value of Science Fiction

By Martin Griffiths, Brecon Beacons Observatory

Science fiction (SF) has many definitions. From the perspective of educators, Joanna Russ’s definition must be one of the best: SF is “a literature that attempts to assimilate imaginatively, scientific knowledge about reality and the scientific method, as distinct from the merely practical changes science has made in our lives.” It is this imaginative approach to science that underlies SF’s broad appeal. The phenomenal success of high-grossing films such as Star Wars, Independence Day, Jurassic Park, ET, Close Encounters, The Day After Tomorrow, Avatar, the Marvel Cinematic Universe movies, and many more, attest to the success of not only SF’s value as entertainment, but its ability to excite, fascinate and encompass human values.

Science fiction and education

The inclusion of SF in the schooling curriculum can promote discriminating faculties with applicability in later life. Some of the greatest scientists of the previous century, figures such as Carl Sagan, Robert Goddard and Richard Feynmann, were inspired by the speculations found in SF. Scientists such as Isaac Asimov, Fred Hoyle, Gregory Benford, David Brin, Paul McAuley, Alastair Reynolds and Kim Stanley Robinson also became award-winning SF writers. 

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Afro- versus African futurism in Nnedi Okorafor’s “The Magical Negro” and “Mother of Invention”

By Päivi Väätänen Vector289_Cover

This article first appeared in Vector 289

Adilifu Nama notes how “[i]n America, there is a dubious history of presenting Africa as a primitive and backward nation in books, television and film” (137). But with the emergence of writers like Nnedi Okorafor and films like Black Panther, the association of Africa with technology is changing rapidly. In this article, I discuss two short stories by Okorafor, a Nigerian-American who has based much of her fiction in Africa and has also written for Marvel Comics (most recently as the sole writer for Shuri). The two stories I will discuss are “The Magical Negro” (2004) and “Mother of Invention” (2018). “The Magical Negro” is a comic vignette in which the central character rebels against his subservient role, referred to in the title, and is revealed by the end of the story as a powerful Afro-Caribbean spirit. “The Magical Negro” subverts stereotypes and exposes racist conventions in the speculative genres of fantasy and science fiction. “Mother of Invention,” on the other hand, severs ties with the Anglo American historical context by moving its storyworld to the futuristic, technologically advanced Nigerian city of New Delta.

During the fourteen years between the two stories, much has changed in the field of speculative fiction, and these stories reflect it. Okorafor insists in a recent Native interview that what she does is “Africanfuturism, not Afrofuturism” (Okolo et al. n.p.). Whereas “The Magical Negro” can be read as an Afrofuturist text in its engagement with American culture via direct critique of stereotypes and racist genre conventions, “Mother of Invention” more strongly suggests the newer designation of Africanfuturism, rooted both geographically and culturally on the continent.

Continue reading “Afro- versus African futurism in Nnedi Okorafor’s “The Magical Negro” and “Mother of Invention””

Vibranium, Nigerium, and the Elements of a Pessimistic Afrofuturism

By Kate HarlinVector289_Cover

This article first appeared in Vector 289.

In his debut short fiction collection, We Won’t Fade Into Darkness, Nigerian writer TJ Benson imagines a post-apocalyptic Nigeria. Several of the stories trace the apocalypse to the same inciting moment: the release of a previously unknown element dubbed Nigerium into the air, after its discovery deep beneath the Nigerian soil where crude oil had been completely extracted. Taking a single story from Benson’s collection — “Jidenna” — as my example, in this essay I will explore WWFID’s technologically advanced but politically pessimistic vision of an African future. Furthermore, I will use another ostensibly Afrofuturist work from 2018, Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther adaptation, to consider the place of Afro-pessimism within the paradigm of Afrofuturism.

We Won’t Fade Into Darkness was released by Parrésia Books, a small Nigerian press, in 2018. Benson, a writer and photographer based in Abuja, has gained notoriety within Nigerian literary circles, but is not (yet) known to an international audience. His collection is specifically located within Nigeria, rather than a vague or fictionalized African city, and this specificity of place is especially crucial to his story “Jidenna.”

Pessimistic Afrofuturism?

“Jidenna” is titled for the young man at its center, but the story’s true protagonist is Jidenna’s unnamed “Father.” The two live in an improvised shelter built into the crumbling Nyanya Bridge in a post-apocalyptic version of the Nigerian capital of Abuja. The story-world is in many ways a hyperbolic imagining of inequality and social segregation in an African city: post-apocalypse, futuristic technology coexists with poverty and political tyranny. In the case of “Jidenna,” women have gained control of and developed reproductive technology to the extent that men are rendered biologically unnecessary. The matriarchal regime, led by a series of woman rulers referred to only as “Mama,” has subjugated men into mainly domestic and reproductive roles within The Citadel, forcing those men who do not comply (including Jidenna’s father) into hiding. Struggling to cope in this post-apocalyptic society, Father has grown addicted both to alcohol and to his Zivini, an augmented reality helmet that infuses the user’s blood with a less dangerous form of the Nigerium isotope, allowing him to travel to the past, apparently by using their genetic material.

There are two distinct and potentially contradictory terms that can both be useful in understanding “Jidenna,” Black Panther, and the resonances between them. Afro-pessimism is a critical paradigm that values the interrogation of racist and imperialist structures in society, but is skeptical as to whether dismantling them is an achievable goal. Jared Sexton explains it thus:

“Afro-Pessimism is thus not against the politics of coalition simply because coalitions tend systematically to render supposed common interests as the concealed particular interests of the most powerful and privileged elements of the alliance… [But also] because coalitions require a logic of identity and difference, of collective selves modeled on the construct of the modern individual, an entity whose coherence is purchased at the expense of whatever is cast off by definition.”

In other words, Afro-Pessimism seeks to critique politics based around a “we” — even the best kind of “we,” made up of marginalized people united in the pursuit of justice. In any identity-based coalition there will almost always be some contingent that is relatively marginalized, so that even when the coalition succeeds, it simply succeeds in replacing one unjust system with another. Moreover, each of us has many aspects to our identity, and a coalition always demands a suppression of some of these aspects so that, as Sexton puts it, “there is in effect always another intervention to be made on behalf of some aspect of the group excluded in the name of the proper.” Nevertheless, the Afro-Pessimist paradigm is not defeatist. Nor does it argue that working together is futile. However, it is a powerful tool for analyzing the shortcomings of movements predicated on liberating marginalized people, especially global Black populations. Continue reading “Vibranium, Nigerium, and the Elements of a Pessimistic Afrofuturism”