Jobs and Class of Main Characters in Science Fiction

By Marie Vibbert.

This article first appeared in Vector #294.

I was at a massive mixer for members of the Science Fiction Writers of America, a group I had just joined, wondering how I could even talk with these big, important people. The question everyone asked when you walked up to them was, “What type of science fiction do you write?” After mumbling some self-deprecating responses like “bad” or “oh you know like … the kind with robots and spaceships?” I tried to express what made my work different. “I write working-class science fiction,” I told the next gentleman. “Stories with waitresses and janitors in space, you know? I feel like there’s too many stories about rich guys without real problems.”

I picked the wrong man to try this tactic on. He laughed condescendingly and said, “The opposite is true. Everything is about some worker everyman. There aren’t enough stories about rich characters!”

My first thought was, Ooookay time to start never talking to this dude ever again, but my second thought was a worried, Is he right? I had this gut feeling that a lot of the science fiction I had read didn’t represent my social class, but was I just biased?1

The only answer was, of course, to collect some statistics! This paper is the culmination of my efforts to answer the question for myself, “Is there a class bias in main characters in science fiction, and if so, are poor or wealthy characters more predominant?”

Methods

Choosing the Books

The first question I had to answer was, “How do I take a sample set of science fiction?” I limited myself to novels, because novels or their detailed discussions were easy to find, and that way I’d be comparing apples to apples.

Reading every science fiction novel ever would not be feasible, especially with a staff of just me. I searched for recommended reading lists, but which to choose? Many were simply “The Best of 2019” or such. While it would be interesting to look at a specific period of SF, I wanted a cross-section of what an average reader might have in mind, and that meant including recent books as well as old classics. I googled “Top Science Fiction Novels” in an incognito browser tab (so as not to bias the results with my search history) and took the first 50 novels the search returned. I liked that list better: it felt eclectic, and included recent novels as well as Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein. Of course, the Google search results, while incognito, still would be skewed toward my location in the Midwest United States.

The British Science Fiction Association’s magazine, Vector, announced a call for papers on class and science fiction. I could hardly contain my excitement (and imposter syndrome) as I typed and re-typed my email asking if this statistical analysis was the sort of thing that maybe they’d want to see? And so, my next data set was BSFA award winners. These would skew British to balance my American bias. How better to kiss up to the editors? I started my spreadsheet!

BSFA award winners include fantasy novels with no science fictional elements, however, maintaining genre purity would open up a can of worms (how to draw the lines? Who gets to say what is or isn’t SF?). I would keep the results of each list separate, to see if there was any bias.

On accepting the paper proposal, editor Polina Levontin suggested adding the titles from the Orion SF Masterworks book series, a somewhat curated list, limited only by what titles Orion had the rights to. So now I had three piles of representative works: award winners, a hodgepodge recommended by Google, and a curated list for a total of 194 separate titles. It seemed as close as I was going to get to a reasonable sampling of notable science fiction novels.

Continue reading “Jobs and Class of Main Characters in Science Fiction”

Facing the Strategic Sublime: Scenario Planning as Gothic Narrative

By Matt Finch and Marie Mahon.

Scenario planning refers to methods used by decision-makers to enhance their strategic thinking, especially in situations characterised by turbulence, uncertainty, novelty, and ambiguity. Scenario planning is therefore particularly relevant in the context of climate change, which is complex, unprecedented, and potentially presents us with difficult-to-predict risk cascades and tipping points. Climate change may also present us with “feral futures”, in which our own interventions cause or exacerbate severe turbulence within a system or situation. In the face of such uncertainty, scenario planning enables users to generate new ideas, develop or test strategic options, establish monitoring and early warning processes for emergent issues, and enhance decision-making. 

Scenarios are not forecasts that predict likely futures, but spaces in which unexamined assumptions can be confronted and potentially suspended or transformed. They are aesthetic depictions of plausible futures that enable us to re-examine our current understanding of our environment, appreciating the power of uncertainty and its capacity to inspire fear and wonder. 

The affinity between scenario planning and science fiction has been widely remarked on in the literature, but in this paper we draw a novel connection between scenario planning and Gothic literature. In particular, we examine how scenarios, as Gothic narratives, provide conceptual resources to make sense of the experience of the “strategic sublime”: that which has been excluded from our frame of understanding. The art of scenario planning, like that of Gothic literature, lies in balancing anxiety, insight, and agency in our encounter with that which had previously seemed beyond discussion. 

Facing the Strategic Sublime: Scenario Planning as Gothic Narrative

The earth is split open. A vast, blazing pit disgorges luminous gas over a barren landscape. The sky is deep blue, pale at the horizon; it could be dawn or dusk. From our vantage point, the fire could be bottomless. Look carefully: at the edge of the pit, a tiny human figure stands, palms raised to the heat.

Julian Bell, Darvaza, 2010

The earth is split open. A vast, blazing pit disgorges luminous gas over a barren landscap
From Bell, Julian. (2013). Contemporary Art and the Sublime. Tate Gallery

This is Julian Bell’s 2010 painting Darvaza. It depicts a site the artist visited in Turkmenistan; its name, in Persian, means “the door to hell” (Garzemi & Garsanti, 2019). As Bell (2013) recounts, the blazing pit was inadvertently created by Soviet engineers in 1971 while seeking oil drilling sites. Striking a gas-filled cavity, the engineers chose to burn off its contents, only to find the resulting inferno beyond their control. It has burned ever since.

Bell locates his painting in a tradition of artists seeking to convey a sense of the sublime, an intense aesthetic experience in which “the self becomes a mere ingredient in the landscape, feeling insignificant, overwhelmed and humbled by nature” (Brady, 2013, p.199). 

Yet, in Bell’s account, this hellish phenomenon was created by human, technocratic actions, and his story of Darvaza also serves as an example of what Ramírez and Ravetz (2011) have called “feral futures”. Drawing an analogy to domesticated animals that revert to the wild, Ramírez and Ravetz describe how “human intervention create[s] an unwanted unfolding situation that could not have occurred in the wild” (p.480), offering examples such as the nuclear incident at Three Mile Island and the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

The idea of the “feral future” is useful in helping us understand how wicked, complex problems can stem from our own actions. In the Anthropocene, feral futures are increasingly prevalent. Even the impact of something as apparently “wild” as COVID-19 has feral aspects, as the ways in which the pandemic has played out are entwined with globalisation, climate change, urbanisation, and wide variations in responses by governments, institutions, and communities.

In this paper, we explore scenario planning as a tool for coping with the “strategic sublime” in feral situations characterised by turbulence, uncertainty, novelty, and ambiguity. Scenarios are not forecasts, but plausible stories of the futures which we may face (Spaniol & Rowland, 2019). We follow Ramírez and Wilkinson (2016) in understanding them as assessments of the future context for a given question or issue, designed to contrast with the way that context is currently being framed. As a brief case study, we include the four IMAJINE scenarios exploring the future of European regional inequalities.

By offering thought-provoking future contexts, such scenarios enable their users to generate new ideas, develop or test strategic options, establish monitoring and early warning processes for emergent issues, and enhance decision-making. Ramírez and Wilkinson argue that, by challenging current assumptions and offering alternative framings from the vantage point of multiple imagined futures, scenarios support good judgement across the three areas identified by Geoffrey Vickers (1965): What is really going on around us? What are we able to do about it? And what does the issue mean for us?

Continue reading “Facing the Strategic Sublime: Scenario Planning as Gothic Narrative”

“Who do you think is powering that spotlight?”: Social mobility and resistance in Black Mirror‘s ‘Fifteen Million Merits’

By Ivy Roberts.

You live in a technological fishbowl. Your life is ruled by television screens. The walls of your room are painted in technicolor pixels. During the day, you pedal on your stationary bike while watching screens. At night, the screens watch over you as you sleep, simulating the sun setting and then rising on a new day to see you return to the bike, going nowhere. 

If this doesn’t sound like the most asphyxiating future to you, then you have become too accustomed to the daily grind. Such a live-work environment is depicted in the second episode of the first season of the sci-fi television series, Black Mirror: ‘Fifteen Million Merits’ (2011). In this dystopian future, the class structure of society is strictly hierarchical. The three classes even wear clothing denoting their social rank. Social mobility is possible, but only via a strictly monitored ‘merit-based’ system. Everyone dreams of becoming famous. So, what’s at stake here? Nothing less than our individual autonomy. 

Continue reading ““Who do you think is powering that spotlight?”: Social mobility and resistance in Black Mirror‘s ‘Fifteen Million Merits’”

The Needle and the Wedge: Digital Games as a Medium for Science Fiction

By Monica Evans. This academic article was first published in Vector #291.

Abstract: This article examines the relationship between digital games and science fiction. Digital games are predisposed to science fiction content for two reasons: game developers, at every historical point, have been science fiction fans, and therefore tended to make games with science fiction content; and digital games’ dependence on rapidly-changing technology makes them a natural fit for science fiction content and themes. Furthermore, even games that may not have overtly science fictional themes at the level of content can still be interpreted as examples of science fictional culture, through their capacity to mobilise interactions between technology, mechanics, narrative, and the imagination and emotion of their players. Game developers, science fiction authors, and the increasing number of creators who are both at once, have a great deal of territory to explore, to continue discovering how best to use this naturally science fictional medium to express what it means to be technological, computational, and human.

  • Review: This article underwent editorial review from two editors.
  • License: CC BY-NC-ND 4.0.
  • Citation: Evans, Monica. 2020. The Needle and the Wedge: Digital Games as a Medium for Science Fiction. Vector #291, pp.15-24. Summer, 2020. 
  • Keywords: digital games, video games, science fiction, speculative fiction
  • DOI: 10.5281/zenodo.6533414

In 1962, four computer science students at MIT, looking for something interesting to display on their new PDP-1 minicomputer, turned to science fiction. According to Steve Russell, the group’s core programmer, they started with “a two-dimensional maneuvering sort of thing, and decided that naturally the obvious thing to do was spaceships” (Brand 1972). Before long, two ships – one long and thin, the other a squat triangle – could engage in an interactive, physics-based dogfight, and Spacewar!, the world’s first digital game, was born. 

Spacewar! may have been the first, but it was hardly the last. A staggering number of successful, influential, and critically-acclaimed games can be categorized as science fiction (Krzywinksa and MacCallum-Stewart 2009), from classic arcade games like Asteroids and Space Invaders to major franchises like Metroid, Halo, StarCraft, and Mass Effect; critical trailblazers like Portal, Half-Life, and Bioshock; indie darlings like Thomas Was Alone, Soma, and FTL; and recent critical and commercial favorites like Horizon Zero Dawn, Nier: Automata, and even The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. In the absence of science fiction, an equally staggering number of games can be classified as fantasy, horror, or broadly speculative – to the point that it’s uncommon, if not rare, for a digital game to be set in a non-speculative, mundane world. 

Continue reading “The Needle and the Wedge: Digital Games as a Medium for Science Fiction”

Of Monsters, Men and Migration: Control and Identity in Yan Ge’s Strange Beasts of China

By Ksenia Shcherbino

It is as human to move from one place to another in search of a better life, as it is to divide the world into categories of “us” and “them.” However, there is no universal definition of a ‘migrant’. Migrants are not inherently vulnerable. However, they often find themselves marginalized in the host country and are perceived by some to threaten national identity, economy, social cohesion and cultural norms. As Saskia Bonjour and Sebastien Chouvin warn us, “discourses on migration, integration and citizenship are inevitably classed, because representations of Self and Other are inevitably classed [1]”. Practices of inclusion/exclusion are based on power dynamics which are rarely fair and more often than not based on a set of prejudices, including racial prejudices that perpetuate inequality and can lock the families in the boundaries of their ‘migrant’ status for generations. Hence, children of ‘migrants’ are continued to be seen by some members of society as migrants as well despite being born in the country or having lived there for most of their lives, thus reinforcing cultural alienation and inequality. Further, the continuity of colonialist discourse fuels dehumanisation of migrants. Read through this lens of colonialism, Yan Ge’s Strange Beasts of China offers a unique experience of sieving through the questions of migration, acceptance, domination and hybridity in the body of a chimera, a creature of fantasy. The book keeps asking the readers to re-evaluate the ideas of power and possession, speech and silence. Who colonised who, are humans nothing but the former beasts who have conquered the land and re-written its history? Who has the right of speech? Is silence a way of telling a story by the marginalised (beasts)? The entwined story of memory and oblivion for monsters and humans in Strange Beasts of China turns the narrative into a battlefield of falsifiable identities and historical assumptions. “This vast city, the beasts that come and go, all of this, is a secret,” muses Yan Ge’s narrator. “No one knows why they come or why they go, why they meet or why they leave. These are all enormous, distant mysteries [2]”. Yan Ge’s Yong’an is a postcolonial space where the story of subjugation of the beasts, or the struggle for de/re-territorialisation is already part of history, and the question that haunts both humans and beasts is the same that haunts in our day and time: how the interdependence of colonisers and the colonised has shaped – and continues shaping – our understanding of the world [3].

Continue reading “Of Monsters, Men and Migration: Control and Identity in Yan Ge’s Strange Beasts of China”

At My Most Beautiful: the Politics of Body Prostheses, Disability, and Replacement in Arryn Diaz’s Dresden Codak

By Jose L. Garcia

“I never asked for this.”

Adam Jensen, protagonist of the games Deus Ex: Human Revolution and Deus Ex: Mankind Divided, laments his cybernetic prosthetics in the first trailer for Human Revolution, replete with images of him as Icarus with burning wings, and a stylized rendering of himself as the subject in Rembrandt’s “The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp,” all of which suggests that the use of prostheses is not only counter to the normative body, but considered a destruction of the subject.

The Deus Ex series is not unique: science fiction is replete with cyborg bodies as both the sites of destruction and reification of the normative body and “augmentation” that turn the subject into something “better,” such as with the oft-quoted Six-Million Dollar Man tagline, “We can rebuild him […] Better than he was before,” or The Bionic Woman, described as, “Better.  Faster.  Stronger.”  The cyborg subject is also applied as a divorce from one’s humanity, seen in Star Wars with Obi Wan Kenobi’s line about Darth Vader: “He’s more machine than man.”  In either case, the implication is clear: something of the original human is lost through the process of prosthesis implementation, even if is portrayed as “enhancement.”

While a number of stories complicate the idea of the cyborg, there has been (comparatively) little critical exploration of cyborg bodies in disability studies until relatively recently.  Yet, such analyses are of critical importance for understanding how the visual language of prosthesis has evolved.  At this juncture of the cyborg and disability sits Kimiko Ross, the protagonist of Arryn Diaz’s webcomic, Dresden Codak.  Ross prominently features prosthetic body parts, and the ways in which Diaz sets up scenes with Ross grab from the spectrum of cyborg subjecthood.  These range from frank dealings with images of disability, images of power and “augmentation,” and even sexuality (the latter not overt, but noticeable enough to be said to sit within that tradition of sexualized cyborg subjecthood, similar to the opening sequence to the 1995 Ghost in the Shell film, which lingers on images of the naked cyborg body at several points).  The specific frames that centre on Ross’ body create a network of significations that both reifies and frustrates three aspects of a representation: the cyborg, the traumatised body, and the disabled body.  

Continue reading “At My Most Beautiful: the Politics of Body Prostheses, Disability, and Replacement in Arryn Diaz’s Dresden Codak

“The Inheritors” (1942), by the Futurians John B. Michel and Robert A.W. Lowndes, and the Climate Discussion 

By Andreya S. Seiffert

Abstract: This article discusses the novelette “The Inheritors” by John B. Michel and Robert A.W. Lowndes, first published in the October 1942 issue of the pulp magazine Future Fantasy and Science Fiction, edited by Lowndes. The article shows the story’s pioneering approach to discussing environmental issues long before this theme appeared frequently in science fiction. The hypothesis defended in this article is that this pioneering was only possible because Michel and Lowndes were part of The Futurian Society of New York. The group was a creative force that operated in the early 1940s and brought a new perspective to science fiction at the time, with the climatic discussion of “The Inheritors” being part of it.

This is the cover of the issue where the novelette was published.

Introduction 

As I write this article, the news I’m hearing this week is quite worrying: flooding in Nigeria, fires in Greece, record deforestation in the Amazon rainforest, which may now be generating more greenhouse gases than it is absorbing. A UN report reinforces what many have long known: humans are the cause of climate change, which is expected to intensify in the coming years.

Climate is a concern for many current science fiction authors, especially in the subgenre known as climate fiction or cli-fi. The purpose of this article is to show how a 1942 novelette, written by Futurians John B. Michel and Robert A.W. Lowndes, anticipated this concern and brought this discussion to science fiction at the time.

Continue reading ““The Inheritors” (1942), by the Futurians John B. Michel and Robert A.W. Lowndes, and the Climate Discussion “

From Our Archive: Meetings With Remarkable Men By Christopher Priest

This talk was first delivered at Novacon 9, in November 1979, and is reprinted from Vector 98, June 1980.

I have borrowed the title of my talk today from the Armenian mystic Gurdjieff, who wrote a semi-autobiographical account of his quest for knowledge and understanding. He sought out a number of philosophers and mystics, became their disciple, and absorbed their wisdom. I’m telling you this in the hope that it will set a high intellectual tone to this convention. In fact, it sets the intellectual tone of this talk exactly … because I’m bluffing. Not only have I not read Gurdjieff, but I haven’t even seen the film. However, it’s a good title, and it’s somewhere to begin.

When I first started to go to science fiction conventions I did so for very simple motives. I was a fan of science fiction. Or, to put it more accurately, I was a fan of certain writers who had published science fiction. When I went to Peterborough in 1964 I did so in the hope of meeting John Wyndham, Ray Bradbury, J G Ballard, Robert Sheckley, Brian Aldiss … even, if I was very lucky, H G Wells. I wanted to be a science fiction writer, and I hoped that by rubbing shoulders with people like this that some of their talent might rub off on me. I soon discovered that if you rub shoulders with science fiction writers the only thing that’s likely to rub off on you is dandruff.

When I first thought about what I should say to you today I felt a slight sense of panic. It might come as something of a surprise to some of you, but this is the first time that I have ever given a talk at a convention. I’ve often taken part in panels — usually the sort where we set out to talk about literature and end up arguing about money — but never before have I been given a whole hour of the convention’s time.

I started to go to sf conventions because I was a fan, and to a large extent I continue to come to cons for fannish reasons. They are above all fannish events, and any writer who comes along has to do so more or less on fannish terms. I’m proud of the fact that I have maintained fannish links for more than fifteen years, and it was this that gave me a clue as to what I might be able to talk about today. I saw myself as a sort of latter-day Gurdjieff, passing through the sf world for fifteen years, in contact with the great minds. Perhaps, I thought, I could give you a series of anecdotes about the remarkable men I have met over the years, passing on to you what grains of wisdom, or dandruff, I have picked up. So, with this in mind, I started making a list. Isaac Asimov, Arthur C Clarke, Brian Aldiss, John Wyndham, John W Campbell, Frederick Pohl, Rob Holdstock … all these I have met. And, because in these liberated times remarkable men should really be called remarkable people, Ursula Le Guin, Vonda McIntyre, Leigh Brackett, Anne McCaffrey, Judith Merrill. The list extended indefinitely, easily filling an hour of your time.

But then, the more I thought about it, none of my meetings with remarkable men were all that remarkable. I could have told you about how my father-figure, Harry Harrison, cuffed me about the ear and said, “Get out of the way, you fucking fan.” Or how the very first words ever spoken to me by Arthur C Clarke were, “What about the variable albedo?” … something which to this day is worrying me. I could tell you how I stood next to Harlan Ellison, and loomed over him. Come to that, I could tell you how Douglas Adams stood next to me, and loomed over us both.

A reader’s experience of science fiction is, in a sense, a meeting with remarkable minds. It was this that first surprised me when I encountered sf. Through their work, I met, for the first time, writers who could show me a different way of seeing things, who were way above the mundane things in life and were getting on with a kind of fiction that made me think for myself. Years later, I came across a passage in an essay by George Orwell, which describes this feeling exactly. Orwell was describing the effect on him of reading H G Wells as a boy:

It was a wonderful experience for a boy to discover H G Wells. There you were, in a world of pedants, clergymen and golfers, with your future employers exhorting you to “get on or get out”, your parents systematically warping your sexual life, and your dull-witted schoolmasters sniggering over their Latin tags; and here was this wonderful man who could tell you about the inhabitants of the planets and the bottom of the sea, and who knew that the future was not going to be what respectable people imagined.

Orwell always has the ability to pinpoint a feeling exactly, and this describes the effect science fiction as a whole can have on people who come to it with open minds. I myself came to it with the open mind of adolescence, as many of us do. The ideas of science fiction work on two levels. Firstly, there is the element of surprise or novelty, and secondly there is the less specific quality of making us think for ourselves, of applying a freshness of approach to our own lives.

Continue reading “From Our Archive: Meetings With Remarkable Men By Christopher Priest”

Accelerated History: Chinese Short Science Fiction in the Twenty-First Century

By Niall Harrison. Published as part of Vector 293 exploring Chinese SF.

1. Introduction

This coming August will mark the tenth anniversary of Clarkesworld Magazine’s English-language publication of “The Fish of Lijiang” by Chen Qiufan. It’s the first-person account of a middle-aged businessman sent to a commercial beauty spot for some forced rest; he is recovering from “time sense compression,” an experimental procedure to make him a more productive employee. He meets a woman who has undergone the reverse procedure, enabling her to work as a carer for rich old men who are having their last days stretched out to subjective years. They bond; they go their separate ways. 

“The Fish of Lijiang” was not, of course, the first translation of genre science fiction from China into English — there have been occasional stories for decades; just a couple of years earlier, in the first Apex Book of World SF, Lavie Tidhar included stories by Han Song and Yang Ping — but it was still a milestone. It’s a neat if-this-goes-on commentary on class, wealth, and labour conditions, and as an ambassador story for Chinese SF, I think it was a smart pick: following on from novels like Lauren Beukes’ Moxyland (2008), Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Windup Girl (2009) and Ian McDonald’s The Dervish House (2010), its sardonic take on a near-future non-Western setting felt comfortably familiar. It went on to win the (short-lived) Science Fiction and Fantasy Translation Award the following year.

It also became the foundation for Clarkesworld’s ongoing collaboration with Storycom, a Chinese ‘story commercialization agency’ with a focus on SF; and it was the first published translation by Ken Liu. Many readers of Vector will be familiar with the outline of what happened next. Liu became a powerhouse of translation — according to his website, he has translated over 50 works to date — and when his translation of Liu Cixin’s novel The Three-Body Problem was published in 2014, it became not just the first translated novel to win a Hugo, but a genuine commercial success. A trickle of Chinese SF has become a healthy and continuous flow, with the volume of new stories, collections and novels probably exceeding the ability of most readers to keep up with it (Figure 1).

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An Earnest Blackness

Eugen Bacon contemplates Black speculative fiction, and recommends the works of Suyi Davies Okungbowa and Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o.

Decades after the ground-breaking work of speculative authors such as Toni Morrison, Samuel R. Delany, and Octavia Butler, Black speculative fiction is more visible and more thriving than ever. Through invented worlds and technologies, and incursions of the supernatural or the uncanny, more and more Black speculative fiction authors are offering stories of curiosity, diversity and hope, possibilities, probabilities, even dire warnings about our place in the universe. 

There’s power in Black speculative fiction. In a continued response to global events, speculative fiction authors are increasingly curious and experimental, writing across genres in a rise of future forms and modes to tell radical tales that speak to our curiosities, to lost or forgotten cultures, to decolonising language, and to deconstructing and reconstructing self and identity. 

The first African American woman to win the Nobel Prize in literature, Toni Morrison, saw narrative as radical. She wrote revolutionary stories, including her literary horror novels, the Pulitzer Prize-winning Beloved (1987) — with its unsettling scrutiny at the awful legacy of slavery, and a Black woman forced to make a terrible choice — and Song of Solomon (1998), with its genre bending across literary and speculative, and themes of resilience and belief: 

“What difference do it make if the thing you scared of is real or not?”

#

“If you surrendered to the air, you could ride it.”

Song of Solomon culminates with protagonist Milkman’s leap, a surrender to the air so he can ride it. And now, more than ever, people of colour are increasingly adopting Black speculative fiction — in stories of possibility — so they too can surrender to the air, and ride it. 

Continue reading “An Earnest Blackness”