By Niall Harrison. Published as part of Vector293 exploring Chinese SF.
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).
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.
This is an extended version of the essay that first appeared in volume 50 number 3 of the SFRA Review.
Like a snowball picking up speed, the last year has seen a growing aggregate of academic and popular interest in sinofuturism, both in China and abroad. Writing in a special issue of Screen Bodies on queer sinofuturism, scholar and designer Yunying Huang notes that as of 2020, the only results in Chinese for the term were a conversation between artists aaajiao, scholar Gabriele de Seta, and curator Xuefei Cao, and “a workshop on ‘Wudaokou Futurism’ (Space 2019) which convened a discussion of Sinofuturism in the geo-physical location of the Beijing region” (Huang 59). This Wudaokou futurism workshop, in fact, was the impetus behind the SFRA Review’s 2020 sinofuturism special issue, with many of the same speakers who participated in the workshop — including original workshop organizer Dino Ge Zhang — contributing articles that built on their prior presentations.
The Wudaokou alternative futurisms conference itself was held in December 2019, when China was already in the grips of the pandemic that would soon engulf the United States, the United Kingdom, and the rest of the world. I participated from a dark hotel room at 5 am, Skyping in (this was before Zoom became an omnipresent part of our connectivity — a lifetime ago!) to talk about alternative modes of temporalities to an audience that was, themselves, temporally and geographically disparate. Since then, the technology that sweeps us along towards an increasingly interconnected future has also come under the same orientalist scrutiny that informs so much sinofuturist anxiety in the first place: from then US president Donald Trump’s abortive move to ban both TikTok and WeChat in the States, to the widespread conspiracy that Covid-19 is a Chinese bioweapon deliberately engineered to destabilize Western nations, to the fear of surveillance technologies deployed in Xinjiang and Hong Kong, the role technology plays in China’s place in the future is as central to Western perceptions and fears of global power relations as it ever was.
As I wrote in the introduction to the SFRA Review special issue on sinofuturism that grew out of the Wudaokou workshop, the theory itself has largely emerged as a concept applied externally to China by Western observers. By compartmentalizing sociocultural development as a form uniquely tied to the nation-state while also seeking to maintain both distance and otherness, sinofuturism differs from theorizations such as Afrofuturism (to which it is often compared) through its application to, not development from, the subjects it takes as object. As a result, the very label of “sinofuturism” developed out of the same orientalizing impulses that previously relegated China to a space of backwardsness and barbarism (Niu, Huang, Roh 2015) and which now attribute to it a projected futurity. Yet this Western label is one that Chinese authors and artists have appropriated and weaponized for their own creative ends, without necessarily sharing unified goals.
Authors of science fiction in China have uniquely grappled with this impulse, especially insofar as digital technologies — such as the growing e-publishing industry and networked media platforms — allow for the proliferation of new voices historically barred from traditional publishing venues (Xu 2015). What’s more, contemporary science fiction in China functions as a transnational form that centers a technoscientific process or material object as a means of introducing social change, rendering the aim of science fiction inherently future-oriented even when relying on the past or focused on the present. Because potential future ontologies are expected to be relevant to present extrapolations, they fundamentally rely, to some degree, not only on realistic depictions of possible technologies and circumstantial realism, but also the familiar perceptions of the extant material and digital worlds — a central tenet of sinofuturism’s omnivorous inclusion of technology, labor, art, and the visions it makes possible (Lek 2016).
The globalizing effect of the internet and the subsequent rise in wide-scale digital exchange, in particular, has created a space for production in which Chinese authors are writing for an increasingly global audience and shifting their goals correspondingly. As early as the beginning of the 20th century, authors and public reformers in China (such as Liang Qichao, who, in his 1902 unfinished novel The Future of New China, described a utopian 1962 in which China was the dominant global power) were envisioning sinofutures in which China was preeminent on the world stage. The idea of China as a dominant force in the world yet-to-come continues through much Chinese science fiction today, from standout international sensations such as The Three-Body Problem to anonymously published digital short stories like “Olympic Dream.” For science fiction authors describing the Chinese future (or the future as Chinese), an awareness of the fact that American and Western media largely paints China as a place of repression and censorship is an integral part of the worlds they depict.
By Regina Kanyu Wang. Published as part of Vector 293 exploring Chinese SF.
If you listen to a lecture on Chinese science fiction (SF), or check a list of representative authors of Chinese SF, eight or nine times out of ten, you will hear the names of male authors first. There is Liu Cixin, Wang Jinkang, Han Song and He Xi, the “Four Heavenly Kings.” Or Chen Qiufan, Baoshu, Zhang Ran and Feidao, the leading post-80s writers. If the list goes on, you may finally hear of Xia Jia, Hao Jingfang, Zhao Haihong and Ling Chen, the female authors who are equally extraordinary but less mentioned. During a panel at Worldcon 75 in Helsinki in 2017, the moderator Xia Jia, who is also a prominent scholar, gave a short introduction to Chinese SF. For the first time in such major occasions, she decided to present the female writers before the male ones. Her efforts emphasized that Chinese female SF writers are not inferior to their male counterparts, and questioned the routine of male writers always being the first and the dominant.
Despite the growing popularity of Chinese SF both inside and outside of academia, far less attention is paid to female authors’ works compared with male authors’ works. Research on Chinese SF from a gender perspective is even more rare. This article intends to re-narrate the “herstory” of mainland Chinese SF in the larger historical background of China and hopes to invite more discussion on this topic in the future.
By Regina Kanyu Wang et al. Published as part of Vector 293 exploring Chinese SF.
According to Science Fiction World, the concept of “science fiction (SF) industry” was first proposed in academia in 2012, when a group of experts were brought together by the Sichuan Province Association of Science and Technology to comb and research SF related industry, and put together the Report of Research on the Development of Chinese SF Industry. Narrowly defined, the SF industry includes SF publishing, SF films, SF series, SF games, SF education, SF merchandise, and other SF-related industries, while a broader definition also includes the supporting industries, upstream or downstream in the industry chain.
According to the 2020 Chinese Science Fiction Industry Report, the gross output of the Chinese SF industry in 2019 sums up to 65.87 billion RMB (about 7.4 billion GBP), among which games and films lead the growth, with publishing and merchandise following (check out more in Chinese here). The SF industry plays an important part in China’s cultural economic growth.
We have invited sixteen organizations, companies, and projects that play a role in China’s SF industry to introduce themselves to the English readers. You can see the diversity and vigour from the texts they provided. We’ve tried to keep editing to a minimum in order to show how they posit and define themselves in the SF industry. Here they are, ordered alphabetically.
Guest editorial by Yen Ooi. Published as part of Vector 293 exploring Chinese SF.
Chinese science fiction’s (CSF) growth in popularity has followed the rapid development trend of China itself. In his interview with fellow writer Maggie Shen King, Chen Qiufan (a.k.a. Stanley Chan) highlights that China has over the last four decades achieved the technological and economic advancements that countries in the West achieved in the last century. The speed of modernisation and urbanisation is a remarkable thing to behold, with 100 million people lifted out of poverty just since 2013. China’s rise has been subject to international scrutiny and criticism, which is to be expected. The most unfounded of which plumbed new depths in the past year — 2020 — through the pandemic. While the previous president of the United States of America (among many) used the term “Chinese virus” in his description of Covid-19, East Asian diaspora communities living in Western countries experienced increased instances of racism. What is the connection?
Genres are in general difficult to define, but CSF is especially complicated. Both the terms Chinese and science fiction defy any clear definition, yet are used so commonly that every user has their own pre-assumed definition. One popular assumption in the West is that CSF should always be read in terms of political dissent or complicity with state power. As much as that might be true for some, it is an unhelpful generalisation. After all, we do not assume that British SF is only about Brexit, or American SF only about Trump. In one sense, all storytelling is inherently political, and within Anglophone SF especially, the racist and queerphobic attack on representational diversity is often disguised as a demand to “remove the politics” from our stories. However, the necessarily political nature of storytelling is complicated in the case of the Anglophone reception of CSF. The insistence of many Western readers on interpreting CSF exclusively in relation to government censorship can itself have a paradoxically censoring effect. Some CSF authors have even resisted writing stories set in China, or allowing the translation of their work into English, for fear that readers will ignore its actual aesthetic and intellectual qualities, while using it as material for simplistic speculation: Whose side are you really on? To quote Ken Liu — for what is a publication on CSF without mentioning the writer who, it feels like, has single-handedly brought CSF to Anglo-American readers? —
Like writers everywhere, today’s Chinese writers are concerned with humanism; with globalization; with technological advancement; with development and environmental preservation; with history, rights, freedom, and justice; with family and love; with the beauty of expressing sentiment through words; with language play; with the grandeur of science; with the thrill of discovery; with the ultimate meaning of life.
Ken Liu, Invisible Planets, 2016.
Chinese means many things: culture, ethnicity, nationality, language, people, food, celebrations, traditions, dance, art, tea, etc. It is impossible to talk about all things related to CSF, but we hope that we’ve managed to introduce some key ideas and concepts in this issue, and that you’ll find areas that particularly excite you — as a writer, researcher, or reader — to want to learn more.
Paul Kidby, ‘The Faculty’ / Joseph Wright, ‘An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump’
Terry Pratchett is known for the incredible intertextuality of his work, especially in his famous Discworld series. He borrows—or steals, as all the best artists do—from the greats of the cultural canon. In fact it is the stories—the literature, fantasy, folk stories, and histories—of our world, of the so-called ‘Round World,’ which quite literally power the Disc. Pratchett’s use, deconstruction, and reconstruction of these stories have all been the topic of study before, but one discourse which Pratchett drew on quite a bit has been somewhat absent from Pratchett Studies thus far: science.
Early in his career Pratchett was a press officer for a nuclear power station; his interest in and fondness for new forms of technology has been well documented; he collaborated with the scientists Jack Cohen and Ian Stewart on four ‘Science of Discworld’ books; and, although he is perhaps best known for the broadly ‘fantasy’ series of the Discworld, Pratchett was also an accomplished science fiction author (The Dark Side of the Sun,Strata, theLong Earth series with Stephen Baxter)—a genre which has both incorporated and inspired scientific advancements. His life-long interest in science is reflected in his fantasy works as well. In the case of the Discworld series, much can be said about the Discworld as creation myth:
Through the fathomless deeps of space swims the star turtle Great A’Tuin, bearing on its back the four giant elephants who carry on their shoulders the mass of the Discworld. A tiny sun and moon spin around them, on a complicated orbit to induce seasons, so probably nowhere else in the multiverse is it sometimes necessary for an elephant to cock a leg to allow the sun to go past.
To use a popular fan formulation: from a ‘Doylist’ (or out-of-universe) perspective the Discworld clearly draws on the mytheme of the world turtle. But from a ‘Watsonian’ (or in-universe) perspective, this cosmology is explored and understood scientifically (as in The Color of Magic). Other seemingly far-fetched phenomena on the Disc are similarly explained in a rather rational, even techno-scientific tone, and the series is scattered with references to collective intelligence, time dilation, and the theorized eleven dimensions of the multiverse.
This article explores how Pratchett leads us to think about the practice and culture of science. It begins by taking a look at what science looks like in the context of the Disc, then exploring the two primary groups of Discworld scientists, and finally finishing up with a look at why the use of science in a nominally fantasy world might be worthwhile to explore.
By Jo Lindsay Walton. This is an excerpt from a chapter published in The Science Fiction of Iain M. Banks, eds Nick Hubble, Esther MacCallum-Stewart and Joseph Norman (Gylphi, 2018).
Introduction: What’s in a Game?
On an estate belonging to the Ancraime family, at the edges of Stonemouth, a Scottish coastal town, a group of boys gather to play paintball. They come from a range of economic backgrounds: Stonemouth is not large enough for the boys to be segregated according to class. The poorest member of the group is Wee Malky. As dusk draws in, the boys begin the last game of the day, a hunting scenario in which, in consequence of a “complicated arrangement of scoring across the various [earlier] skirmishes” (Banks 2012: 146), Wee Malky finds himself the quarry, and the rest of the group, hunters.
Eventually, “near the furthest western extent of the house gardens […] [on the edge of] the rest of the estate and the grouse moors and plantation forests beyond,” (ibid. 149), the scattered group begins to converge. Wee Malky is making a perilous crossing along the round-topped, weed-slicked stone of the top lip of a reservoir, which feeds various water features in the gardens. He has the undertow-prone, peaty reservoir water to one side, and the steep, slimy slope of the overflow, dotted with concrete pillars, on the other.
George Ancraime, “the older brother, nearly twenty at this point but with a mental age stuck at about five” (ibid. 142), suddenly appears near the bottom of the slope. He has been back to his parents’ mansion and retrieved a large antique sword, which he brandishes smilingly at Wee Malky. If Wee Malky can make it across, he wins the game. But if he loses his balance, he loses his life.
The scene, a suitably cruel allegory of class violence, is in many ways typical of how games often appear in Banks’s fiction. It raises the question of what makes a game a game, and at what point it stops being a game. Game studies theorists Katie Salen and Eric Zimmerman, after a survey of existing definitions, define a game as “a system in which players engage in an artificial conflict, defined by rules, that results in a quantifiable outcome” (Salen and Zimmerman 2003: 96). Another good starting point is the philosopher Bernard Suits’s succinct formulation: playing a game is “a voluntary attempt to overcome unnecessary obstacles” (Suits 2005 : 55). […] Banks’s games resist both definitions. There is a sustained interest in Banks’s work in involuntary games, necessary games, games-within-games, games that burst their boundaries, games that overcome their players, games with hidden purposes, fragmentary games, games that arise spontaneously, games whose rules change, and games whose outcomes are nebulous and defy calculation. More generally, there is a fascination in Banks’s writing with ludic affordance: the capacity of any situation to absorb and be transformed by play.
This academic article explores Octavia Butler’s 1993 novel Parable of the Sower and its 2020 graphic novel adaptation by Damian Duffy and John Jennings. It analyzes the medium-specificity of the adaptation by applying a combined theoretical approach that incorporates cognitive narratology and narrative empathy. A discursive dialogue between the two media facilitates a critical evaluation of the potential for Parable to evoke character empathy leading to prosocial action. The prescient themes in Parable, and the timing of the adaptation’s publication facilitates informed ongoing dialogue around change.
Review: This article underwent editorial review from two editors.
“This book lives. It breathes, moves, feels, clamors for your attention, insists on bearing witness, insists on being heard,” declares Nalo Hopkinson in her introduction to Duffy and Jennings’s (2020) graphic novel adaptation of Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower. After decades hovering conspicuously on the periphery of literary acceptance, science fiction and graphic novels refute their much-maligned reputations, and produce an alternative canon by joining forces. Narratives of space exploration, time travel, aliens, and meta-human superheroes disturb the grand narratives because they employ such tropes to explore the notion of the ‘other.’ Challenging the presumptions of texts that adhere to the model of white Western hierarchy, many contemporary speculative fiction narratives stage encounters between vastly different perspectives and cultures, and give agency to the ‘other.’
An early and powerful influence on Afrofuturism, award-winning author Octavia E. Butler (Womack 2013, 109) proposes a more diverse future through her palimpsestic style of rewriting narratives of race, gender, and disability, thereby challenging the status quo and repositioning previously sidelined characters center-stage. By defamiliarizing human experience, by blurring the lines of ideological expectation, and by broadcasting survival strategies that necessitate major, almost impossible change, Butler complicates the concept of ‘othering’ whilst evoking feelings of empathy for her characters. Suzanne Keen’s (2015) theoretical model of authorial strategic empathy, particularly “broadcast strategic empathy,” is the touchstone for demonstrating how Butler evokes empathic responses in her readers. Since reading is a cognitive action, I combine elements of David Herman’s inquiry into cognitive narratology and Suzanne Keen’s research into narrative empathy to shine light on Butler’s work and its enduring relevance. The remediation of this speculative fiction text into the graphic novel medium, with its metamorphic affordances, facilitates more explicit readings of the tropes of change in Butler’s Parable of the Sower, and opens up empathic dialogue about the medium-specificity of re-reading such a powerful narrative.
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.
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.