First-Class Flights: The Class Politics of Labour and Flight in Sylvia Townsend Warner’s Elfin Stories

By Tam J Moules

Kingdoms of Elfin, Sylvia Townsend Warner’s 1977 short story collection, is one of her oddest and most fantastical works, the culmination of “a progressive shifting away from realism toward the explicitly anti mimetic modes of allegory and fable” (Castle, 1993), a departure which “seemed calculated to irritate and confuse a great many readers.” (Harman, 2015, p. 312) The tales were written over a period of several years, originally published separately in the New Yorker, before being published as a collection about a year before Townsend Warner’s death in 1978. They are loosely satires of class systems and aristocracy, as Harman describes: “She used Elfindom as a mirror to society, although all the satire in her elfin stories is very casually arrived at; she seems too uninterested in human dealings to aim at them with any care” (Harman, 2015, p. 313). Elfin (or fairy, the terms are often used interchangeably by both author and critics) society is portrayed as deeply decayed and corrupt, with a rigid class structure and archaic rituals dependent primarily on the whims of the powerful, disintegrating under the weight of their own isolationism and greed, and in opposition to the mortals of the tales, who are “almost universally working class”. (Priest, 2010)

There are two main layers to the class division in these stories. The most prominent is the division within Elfin society, between “flying servants [and] strolling gentry” (p.93). The division between Elfin and human society is also stratified along class lines, with the aforementioned working class mortals forming the main part of the human characters. The intersections between both of these stratifications will serve as the basis for my exploration of Warner’s treatment of class.

Claire Harman, in her 1989 biography of Sylvia Townsend Warner, describes the Elfins as “anarchic [and] amoral”. Harman is likely using ‘anarchic’ in the colloquial sense, to mean ‘chaotic’, however, in contrast to the literal sense of the word, we see that Elfin society is deeply hierarchical, and the power of flight, through the possession and usage of wings, is frequently employed as a symbol of the delineation of those hierarchies. It’s a physical power, an inherited characteristic, a visual marker to differentiate between Elfins and those they consider to be their human inferiors. It serves as a marker of the differences between Elfins and humans, a demonstration of Elfin superiority that is tied in with human religious symbolism. It also serves as a class marker within Elfin society, between the working classes who must rely on flight for labour and transport, and the upper classes who consider it beneath their dignity. We are told quite flatly of the theoretically simple social position of flight: Elfins “fly or don’t fly according to their station in life”, and the aristocrats “marked their social standing by scorning to use their wings” (p. 66). The stories frequently concern themselves with instances in which these social rules are transgressed.

I am resisting the impulse here to taxonomise every symbolic function of the power of flight in these stories, to fit them all into some universal system, since this runs counter to the playfully and deliberately contradictory nature of these stories. Partly this is due to their being written over a long period of time, changing style and tone to suit the needs of particular stories, and partly it is an artefact of the stories’ function as social satires. Though some critics have discussed her “attempt to construct a typology of fairies” (Simons in Davies & Malcolm eds. 2006), I would disagree that she makes any such attempt. It is possible to read a typology into the book, but I’d argue that this requires flattening a lot of the apparent contradictions. Flight is forbidden, except when it’s not. Contact with humans is forbidden, except when it’s not. Religion is irrelevant to them, except when it’s not. She sets out a theoretical typology, then throughout the collection she explores the complications and violations and contradictions of this typology. It might be more accurate to say that the book is a typology of contradictions, and in laying out the Elfin contradictions we are led to consider the human ones.

In writing about Warner’s treatment of animals in her fiction, Mary Sanders Pollock discusses Warner’s project to “suggest ways that Marxist thinking might permeate and complicate the boundaries […] between the “human” and the other lively beings” (2015), which I would suggest applies equally to her treatment of the Elfins as it does to her treatment of animals. We see a convergence of these two concepts in the tale ‘The Mortal Milk’, which concerns “the Royal Pack of Werewolves” (p. 68) in the Court of Brocéliande as they sicken and die. They are described as both men and beasts, as both unnatural and mortal, as a liminal state between sapient and animal, and their treatment mirrors the treatment of the human children raised in Elfin. Permeability is a recurrent symbol in these stories, be it the permeable geographical boundaries between the two worlds, the permeable species boundaries between humans and Elfins, or the resisted permeability of class boundaries.

Continue reading “First-Class Flights: The Class Politics of Labour and Flight in Sylvia Townsend Warner’s Elfin Stories”

G(r)eek Theatre: Reflections on Cyborphic & Greek Science Fiction Theatre

Christos Callow Jr

This article is a brief introduction to science fiction theatre by Greek artists based in Greece and the UK. I’m happy to have been asked to also discuss the theatre company I co-founded, Cyborphic, as the main case study. One would hope that science fiction theatre hardly requires an introduction: the genre has been on stage for at least a hundred and one years, since Karel Čapek’s R.U.R. (Rossum’s Universal Robots), which premiered in 1921 in Hradec Králové. However, science fiction theatre has been present as a largely invisible and underexplored category. In the 20th century, it not only included stage adaptations of Mary Shelley’s and H.G. Wells’s novels, or musicals such as Little Shop of Horrors or the Rocky Horror Show; it also included plays by Samuel Beckett, Caryl Churchill, George Bernard Shaw, Alan Ayckbourn, and Vladimir Mayakovsky. A foundational text by Ralph Willingham, Science Fiction and the Theatre (1993), remains one of the few studies that demonstrate the strength of the science fictional imagination in 20th century theatre.

The genre has proliferated in the 21st century, most notably in experimental and fringe productions. More and more artists and theatre companies appear happy to label their work ‘science fiction theatre,’ marking a change from the last century, in which dystopian and post-apocalyptic settings such as that of Beckett’s Endgame, or devices such as time travel or alternate history, could often appear on stage without terms like “sci-fi” appearing anywhere in the accompanying marketing. Notable exceptions to this included the Science Fiction Theatre of Liverpool (founded in 1976), and Ray Bradbury’s theatrical adventures in Los Angeles, where he led the Pandemonium Theatre Company and adapted several of his well-known science fiction stories for the stage.

More recently, Jennifer Haley’s The Nether, a crime/science fiction thriller set in a virtual realm, had its world premiere in California in 2013. Plays by Alistair McDowall, such as Pomona (2014), X (2016), and The Glow (2022), featured genre elements, from Lovecraftian horror to science fiction and the supernatural, and have been staged in the National Theatre and the Royal Court. Jordan Harrison’s Marjorie Prime was a finalist for the 2015 Pulitzer Prize in Drama, later adapted into a 2017 film. The first theatre festival to focus on science fiction was Sci-Fest LA in 2014; it included theatrical adaptations of works by Neil Gaiman and Clive Barker. California seems to be particularly friendly to the genre, as does New York, where the Untitled Theater Company #61 has staged new science fiction plays by Edward Einhorn and his adaptations of Ursula K. Le Guin’s and Philip K Dick’s work. Also in New York, Mac Rogers has presented his Honeycomb Trilogy (2012), a trilogy of science fiction plays based on R.U.R. Meanwhile, in the UK, science fiction plays and performances have been populating fringe festivals such as the Edinburgh Fringe, Vault Festival and others — including the Talos Science Fiction Theatre Festival since 2015. On that note, and to begin discussing where contemporary Greek theatre-making fits into this world, I will next reflect on a company and a festival dedicated to science fiction on stage.

I. On Cyborphic — or do Orphics dream of Cyber sheep?

Cyborphic is a London-based Greek and Science Fiction theatre company, founded in 2017, producing ancient and contemporary Greek theatre. The company is run by playwright and lecturer Dr Christos Callow Jr. and dramaturg and classicist Dr Andriana Domouzi. Its projects have included a reconstruction of Euripides’ fragmentary tragedy Melanippe Wise, and the solo performances Mayuri and Posthuman Meditation. Cyborphic has also run the TalosScience Fiction Theatre Festival of London (which predates the company, being founded in 2015). The festival has featured contemporary science fiction plays, including work by Greek theatremakers, such as Superhero by Andreas Flourakis. Cyborphic also organised the Performing Greece conferences on contemporary Greek theatre (including papers on Greek science fiction theatre) and the latest Stage the Future conference on science fiction theatre. The company runs a small network for science fiction theatre artists and academics, SF Theatre Network, and organised a network of Greek artists in London. 

Liza Callinicos as Mayuri

Of these projects, the most ambitious is Melanippe Wise. The completed text included Domouzi’s translation of the play’s surviving fragments and is based on Domouzi’s doctoral research into Euripides’ two lost Melanippe tragedies, Melanippe Wise (c.418-411 BC) and Melanippe Captive (c. 413-412 BC). It was first presented at the Hope Theatre in London in November 2019, funded by the Institute of Classical Studies and the University of Derby. The process for researching and reconstructing the play was explored in a workshop series titled “Lost Greek Tragedy: Staging the Fragmented and the Fantastic” (Domouzi 2020), and will be further explored in a chapter of Domouzi’s forthcoming edited volume Tragedy Resurrected. Reconstructing, Adapting and Staging Lost Greek Tragedy, to be published by De Gruyter.

Finally, Cyborphic aims to bring interdisciplinary research to theatre-making. Cyborphic’s website features an online database of 21st century science fiction theatre plays and performances, chronicling more than 100 plays with sci-fi elements, including Afrofuturist, contemporary fantasy, horror, and others. Currently, Cyborphic are planning Talos V, and a full production of Melanippe Wise.

II. On Greek Science Fiction Theatre; Live or Leave your Myth in Greece

If we’re happy to consider proto-science fiction when discussing the underexplored Greek science fiction theatre, one may start as early as the fragmentary play Daedalus by Sophocles (likely a satyr drama) where the fragments “160 and 161 testify that the play contained something about Talos” (Sophocles, 1996), the artificial man of bronze. If we were to maintain this flexible approach to genre, we could consider several Greek adaptations of classical Greek drama that have used science fictional, futuristic and/or dystopian elements across the 20th century. One of the most interesting such texts is Medea by Vasilis Ziogas, written in 1995, which features a chorus of metahumans in addition to three goddesses, and blends ideas from Greek philosophy, Christianity and astronomy along with a posthuman take on Medea. The play is unpublished but there’s a copy in the library of the Department of Theatre Studies of the University of Athens. The following quote demonstrates well the style and attitude of the play: 

And you Metahumans, that the wisdom you achieved while you were living, rewarded you with the fourth level of galactic life. It is not Jason that elevated himself to the meadow of the fourth dimension, but it was me who descended to meet him. (Ziogas, cited in Domouzi, 2016)

What is of particular interest here — and this is an important theme that science fiction and ancient Greek theatre share — is the struggle of the individual with the cosmos, a struggle which takes mythical proportions. Domouzi argues that at the heart of the play is “the dual substance of Medea,” who is presented here as “some kind of human goddess,” and that the “meaning of the universe and the purpose of existence are central to the text, positioning the characters and the myth against a cosmic problem” (Domouzi, 2016).

Besides such adaptations of classical Greek plays, there have been in Greece — as is the case everywhere — several theatrical adaptations of science fiction films and novels, including quite a few takes on Clockwork Orange as well as We ; an adaptation of The Man from Earth was at Theatre Alkmini from 2013 to 2014, and theatre director Katerina Evangelatos had presented a new adaptation of 1984 in 2016.

But what of Greek science fiction on stage? The first co-production of the Greek National Theatre with the Greek National Opera, Galaxy, also premiered in 2016. The show combined ambitious visual effects, dance and performance, and explored, among other things, cosmic topics from the Big Bang to hopes of alien life elsewhere in the universe. Other examples include another production at Alkmini, Mars 1, by the theatre company “θεατρικό σωματίδιο πΟδήλατρΟν” (which might best be translated to “theatrical particle bIcycle”) and the dystopian drama 3% by Vily Sotiropoulou — set in 2040 — which first ran from 2016 -2017, and was presented again in early 2021. Even its pre-pandemic edition featured Skype connections with actors based in other countries. There was also Mission to Planet Earth by Sakis Serefas, produced by the National Theatre of Northern Greece in 2010 and concerning two alien beings that visit Earth. Home Greco by Vaggelis Alexandris and Odysseas Androutsos, which ran from December 2018 to March 2019 at Theatre Stathmos, was an intergalactic sci-fi comedy exploring the history of Greece through aliens. Another surreal but sf-relevant play is Blood Enemies by Arkas, published in 2007 and performed in 2008 at Neos Kosmos Theatre in Athens; the play features anthropomorphised organs in the body of a dying alcoholic shortly after an accident — the dialogue between the Small Intestine and the Colon is meant to be both funny and existential, as they’re stuck in a Beckettian scenario, with no luck being transplanted and thus surviving in another body, unlike other organs.

It is safe to assume that if Greek science fiction theatre is influenced by anything, it’d primarily be the Theatre of the Absurd and subsequently Science Fiction Cinema and Literature, rather than the lesser known tradition of science fiction on stage, such as in American or British theatre. I doubt that Alistair McDowall or Anne Washburn are well-known in Greek or Greek-Cypriot theatre; however there was a staging of Caryl Churchill’s A Number in Athens at 2005 and a staged reading of a Jennifer Haley’s The Nether directed by Evita Ioannou in October 2020 in Lefkosia, Cyprus.

Many of the performances mentioned above rely more heavily on surreal and absurdist elements than science fiction; what is exciting from an interdisciplinary perspective is how Greek theatre aesthetics can influence the exploration of science fiction in Greece, Cyprus and European theatre more broadly. Some of these plays explore what it means to be Greek, or to exist in modern Greece, from an alien or dystopian perspective. But what of Greeks abroad? 

When it comes to thinking about science fiction theatre and performance of the Greek diaspora, especially in the UK, identity issues related to immigration and isolation may be more dominant, alongside general concerns about the state of the world and/or of the planet.

An Ice Thing to Say by London-based Vertebra Theatre and directed by Mayra Stergiou, has involved several Greek artists in its production and has participated at several festivals (in London, Melbourne, Reykjavik, Stockholm and elsewhere), having had both digital versions for online events (that blended live and recorded performance) and live, in-person shows. The performance, blending elements of physical theatre and ice installation, explores the encounter between a human being and a polar bear, and engages with issues of the Anthropocene Era and anthropocentrism. It also featured in one of the Talos theatre festivals (at the Cockpit Theatre in November 2020) alongside another theatre project by Greek creatives, Genome Theatre’s Genesis 37, an immersive performance that involved audience participation both in-venue and online (via Zoom and thanks to a projector and live-streaming from a camera-person on stage), in a feminist story exploring the ethics of cloning.

My own science fiction play, Mayuri; or, The New Human, was performed as part of the Kensington + Chelsea Festival and online for Edinburgh Fringe in August 2021, and explored issues of robotics, posthumanism and immigration. I’d rather not talk about it in my own words here; but according to Geraint D’Arcy in a lovely review in Foundation 140 (Winter 2021 issue), the play is centred “on the triumph and anguish of abandoning the body in favour of a technological and philosophical unknown.”

III. A Conclusion; or, perhaps, a Cliffhanger

One of the challenges of science fiction theatre-making is the creation of work that succeeds both as theatre and as science fiction. Willingham noted that most of the science fiction plays he catalogued in Science Fiction and the Theatre “are the work not of science fiction writers, but of independent dramatists schooled in the old playwriting formulas” (Willingham, 1994, 3). The ideal perhaps here is that, as the cultures of science fiction and theatre continue to explore each other, we have in the 21st Century more plays that build on both traditions. My hope for the future of Greek science fiction theatre is that it engages with both the more-developed science fiction theatre traditions beyond Greece, and with contemporary science fiction literature by Greek writers — rather than operating in a vacuum or reacting mainly to classic dystopian texts. Another hope is that it interacts more with the speculative fiction — and proto-sci-fi themes — of Greek myth and classical theatre.

In any case, I hope that this article has demonstrated that — for better or worse — Greek science fiction theatre exists, and that it has a growing (and perhaps a glowing) presence.

Bibliography

D’Arcy, G, 2021, “Review of Mayuri, or the New Human,” Foundation, vol. 140, no. 50.3, pp.130-132.

Domouzi, A, 2016, “The Metahuman in Modern Greek Theatre: science fiction motifs in Medea by Vasilis Ziogas.” Performing Greece II: Conference on Contemporary Greek Theatre, 3 December, London.

Domouzi, A. (2020) “New life for lost Greek drama: reflections on reconstructing and staging Euripides’ Melanippe Wise.” Institute of Classical Studies blog. July 2020. Available from: ics.blogs.sas.ac.uk/2020/07/09/new-life-for-lost-greek-drama-reflections-on-reconstructing-and-staging-euripides-melanippe-wise. Last accessed 2 February 2022.

Sophocles (1996). Fragments. Edited by Hugh Lloyd-Jones. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. P.64

Willingham, R. (1994). Science Fiction and the Theatre. London: Greenwood Press.

Christos Callow Jr is a Greek British Playwright and Lecturer in Creative Writing at the University of Derby. He has founded the Talos: Science Fiction Theatre Festival and has written several science fiction plays which have been presented at Being Human Festival 2021, Kensington + Chelsea Festival and Edinburgh Fringe.

Yesterday’s Technological Tomorrows?

By Paul Kincaid

A review of Futures of the Past: An Anthology of Science Fiction Stories from the 19th and Early 20th Centuries, with Critical Essays, edited by Ivy Roberts. McFarland, 2020, 196pp. 978-1-4766-7810-8.

For a literature supposedly intent upon the new, the inventive, the futuristic, science fiction seems inordinately interested in its own past. I am as guilty as anyone of this, which may be why I notice the phenomenon so much. But the question is: what are we looking for in the past, and (a very different question) what are we finding? Generally, the past is assumed to hold the key to where we are now and what we might become. That, however, is far from always being the case. The history of science fiction is extraordinarily full of false trails, dead ends, U-turns, twists, side tracks, abrupt changes of direction, and so on. Somehow, where we are today emerged out of the mess of what we once were, but in retrospect the route is neither clear nor consistent. Simply diving willy-nilly into the science fiction of days gone by, shining a light at random onto a story over here, a novel over there, offers no clue as to how or even if those writings are connected. And it offers even less of a clue about the evolution of what came after.

That, in a nutshell, is my problem with this latest selection of hoary tales from the dusty and neglected by-ways of science fiction’s infancy. Or rather, since the various contributors seem wedded to Gary Westfahl’s bizarre argument that true science fiction only came into being with the launch of Amazing Stories, this is science fiction from before there was science fiction. There are seven stories and three novel extracts gathered here, the earliest of which was written in 1826 (though not published until 1863), and the most recent published in 1923. Ten pieces of writing drawn from near enough a century of science fiction, each accompanied by an introduction (to call them “critical essays” as the subtitle does is, to my mind, to over-inflate their role); there should be enough here to forge a narrative, give us a perspective from which to consider where we come from and where we might be going.

Continue reading “Yesterday’s Technological Tomorrows?”

From Woman at Point Zero by Nawal El Saadawi to The Queue by Basma Abdel Aziz

Merit Ariane Stephanos 

Even the titles of the novels – The Queue and Woman at Point Zero – reroute  the thoughts towards recent emotionally exhausting lockdowns. They conjure interminable waiting, to the point of breakdown.  In a way, this is precisely what these books describe. However, the denials of freedom to move, associate and connect are not caused by a global pandemic but by local patriarchal, totalitarian societies. The fictionalised/documentarian versions of Egypt spiritually and physically destroy the respective protagonists, Armani and Firdaus. Both women are driven to extreme forms of exile from their societies, Firdaus by accepting a death sentence, Armani by self-enforced mental alienation. Although all genders in these two novels suffer from oppression, women are subjected to specific forms of violence highlighted by the writers. 

The sensitivity and detail in the portrayal of these forms of gendered violence is related to the fact that not only are respective authors both women, but they are both psychiatrists. Both writers are important figures in Egyptian society, renowned for their activism and respected as powerful intellectuals. The two authors have personally experienced state-inflicted violence for their resistance, their feminism, and their criticisms of other forms of oppression. Nawal El Saadawi was fired, exiled and threatened with imprisonment; Basma Abdel Aziz’s nickname is ‘the rebel’. Both novels portray an Egyptian society from a historical vantage point that are four decades apart (1975 and 2013). These have not been decades of ‘progress’: albeit fictionalised, oppression as presented by Basma Abdel Aziz in The Queue (2013) has become more suffocating and more all consuming.

Continue reading “From Woman at Point Zero by Nawal El Saadawi to The Queue by Basma Abdel Aziz”

Make Shift

Make Shift: Dispatches from the Post-Pandemic Future. Edited by Gideon Lichfield. The MIT Press, 2021.

Reviewed by Ksenia Shcherbino

In my head, collections of short stories are proof of the many-world interpretation of quantum mechanics – once an experiment with different possible outcomes is performed, all outcomes are obtained, each in a different newly created world. To a certain extent, this is the starting point for the Twelve Tomorrows project – an annual anthology of science fiction short stories, published by MIT Technology Review – but unlike in physical experiments, it allows us to observe all of the alternative worlds. Make Shift: Dispatches from the Post-Pandemic Future is the 2021 addition to this project, and it appeared in the most difficult times. The world, having gone through all types of lockdowns, quarantines, social restrictions, furlough policies, has irrevocably changed, and eleven contributors to the book led by the editor Gideon Lichfield are trying to chart out those changes into newly opened futures. 

It’s a great challenge to prepare such a collection of short stories still in the midst of the pandemic (May 2021). It takes the honed instinct of a veteran of MIT Technology Review and, currently, WIRED editor to make sure that these stories still ring pitch-perfectly a year later. When Lichfield wrote in the preface how coronavirus “has ripped open a gaping hole in [capitalist liberal democracy] that may never be closed up,” he could not have possibly known that a year later Europe would be plunged into a war, and that the future would seem even darker, even more dystopian than through the lens of the pandemic alone. Now the world is once again lost in dis-es and mis-es of discord, displacement, dysfunction, misunderstanding, mistreatment and misery, and we struggle to see our place in it.

Nonetheless, the authors gathered under this cover are not new to imagining futures that embody resistance, resilience and hope. They are, in Lichfield’s words, “known for their ability to imagine a plausible future in realistic detail,” and they carve out new possibilities from the minutest details of our everyday life. Professional futurists, skilled world-builders and word-weavers, the volume’s writers are also journalists, sociologists, biotech consultants, activists, lawyers – they both shape the world, and care for the future with an intensity that burns through their words. More than once I finished reading a story in this collection with my eyes wet and my heart beating fast – a testament that the writing is wholehearted, earnest, relevant. It strikes a fighting chord with me despite the fact that there are no wars in these narratives, no large acts of heroism or self-sacrifice. Through the stories of ordinary people, in undramatic settings, they give you hope that, quoting Lichfield again, “the new normal, though forged in pain and suffering, could be a healthier, more robust, and in some ways more creative society.” They give you hope that your life matters. 

“No one is more important than you are,” says Chela in Malka Older’s “Interviews of Importance.” Chela works as operator for a new digital technology that records the memories of the elderly. Her job is to talk to them about their past. But what Chela wants most is to talk to her own mother, and to learn the story she never shared. Chela’s clients love talking to her, she is good at her job, yet somehow she can’t find the right words for the one person who is so important to her. She is afraid that she will never know her mother’s life story, and “there is a difference between knowing the outlines and understanding why things had happened and what it felt like.” COVID had an enormous impact on all emotional bonds that hold us together. Due to travel restrictions, I haven’t seen my mother for over two years now. I know how it feels – the slow erosion of intimacy, the blinding worry that you will be too late to say the right words. 

Family relationships are in the centre of Indrapramit Das’s “A Necessary Being,” a beautiful and sad story about bonding and parting. Our ruined world is being slowly tended back to life by giant omnipotent robots, doing all the menial tasks to make the planet livable again. They are operated by people who inhabit their mechanical bodies and give up on all human connection. But one day one of the operators rescues a little girl. She has nowhere to go, so he adopts her and lets her live with him inside the machine and pilot it. Together they become “heart” and “soul” of the robot. But is this life too much or not enough for a human child? The fragile ecosystem of father-daughter relationship unfurls against the background of the recovering world, and raises questions about gratitude, loyalty and our future survival. 

Stories like this are read through empathy and contemplation instead of adrenaline, as befits a collection of stories about futures after pandemics. Little happens in terms of the plot, or even character development. Yet they can still connect emotionally, and they are a treasure trove of inspirational ideas for the tech-savvy reader. The quadratic voting system in Karl Schroeder’s Sherlockian “The Price of Attention” is presumably unhackable and ensures fair votes by making people invest in the issues that matter the most to them; the system evolved out of the same mechanisms as COVID track-and-trace system. The Nene Huddle network in Ken Liu’s palimpsestic “Jaunt” allows people to establish a secure, yet anonymous and hard-to-trace connection with a telepresence robot and enables virtual travel in a world where conventional travel is extinct, and governments try to lock down and control population in the name of the common good. Such innovations are explained in exhaustive and plausible detail, which gives the stories a certain solidity, while serving as a reminder for us to pay attention to science and technology developments, spurred on by pandemic.

Some of the stories ring hilariously – and dangerously – true to our early pandemic experiences. Confusion, anger, and victimization were part of our initial reaction to COVID, and they are not easy to dispense with. Madeline Ashby’s “Patriotic Canadians Will Not Hoard Food!” recall empty shelves in London supermarkets during the first lockdown and anti-mask riots, as in her post-pandemic Canada, a farmer participates in a government ration exchange program and is persecuted by her neighbours for putting disposable masks on her scarecrows. Lockdowns gave us a chance to rediscover our creative side – and D.A. Xiaolin Spires picks up on this surge of DYI and innovation. In her “Mixology For Humanity’s Sake” the main protagonist is a sake brewer who helps with vaccination delivery – a story that acquires new layers of meaning once you remember the volunteers who were part of the NHS vaccination campaign. Ken Liu’s story with its xenophobic surveillance-obsessed president Bombeo and his anti-immigration policies holds a distorted mirror to both Priti Patel’s and Donald Trump’s agendas, while Adrian Hon’s “Little Kowloon” addresses the challenges faced by Hong Kongers settling in the UK after the 2021 Chinese crackdown on civil rights. Yet through those dark glimpses of our reality shines an unshakeable belief in humanity – in our ability to overcome our troubles without losing our feelings of compassion. It does not matter that our future may not literally resemble the worlds portrayed in Make Shift, since there’s one thing that the collection aptly and truthfully demonstrates: human beings are not neat pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. We never fully fit into any imaginary world, but are constantly adjusting and looking for solutions: political, technological, and above all emotional. 

In one sense, the opening conversation between Wade Roush (a technology journalist and editor of the 2018 edition of Twelve Tomorrows) and Ytasha L. Womack (author, filmmaker and Afrofuturist scholar) stands apart yet defines the tone of the book. Not only does it put this quantum multi-world experiment into the context of racial and social injustice, it also brings out hope for rebuilding from within, or, using Womack’s apt description, for “collective acknowledgement of life.” And this is probably the book’s most important message.

“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’”

Best of 2021: Wole Talabi on African SF

My Favorite African Science Fiction and Fantasy Short Fiction of 2021

By Wole Talabi. This article originally appeared here.

Problems.

2021 was full of them. And as we say in Nigeria, problem no dey finish. But not all problems are created equal. Take for example the good problem of African SFF, or to be clearer, the good problem of keeping up with African SFF. I try to maintain a working list of (almost) all African SFF published for the ASFS at this LINK (I’d also like to encourage you to please fill THIS FORM with any works that might have been missed out) and this may have been the hardest year to keep up with especially with constraints on my time forever tightening. There were so many good stories put out in 2021, it’s an uptick in both quantity and quality and is something I am particularly glad to see. This is especially true in the short fiction category which I have repeated multiple times is the category I enjoy writing, reading and keeping up with most because I basically grew up on SF short fiction: Asimov’s Hugo winners collections and Dozois’s Years Best SF, etc. I have been working on a novel but also finally returned to publishing short fiction myself in 2021 with two stories, after a dry 2020:

You can take a look at my ELIGIBILITY POST for details on those, my own contribution to the good problem of Short African SFF.

And now for another contribution: as it is now basically tradition, I’d like to highlight the African speculative fiction short stories I read and enjoyed most from the year gone by.

[Before we begin, as always, a few notes: these are my personal favourites, those that left a lasting impression on me based on my own tastes – for example, I lean more Sci-Fi than Fantasy although I love both. Also, while I’ve read a lot of the African SFF short work put out this year, I’m sure I haven’t read everything. I am also really restricting myself to just 10 in this list, as difficult as that is so naturally many stories I enjoyed just missed out. So, without further ado, here are my 10 favourite African speculative fiction short stories of 2020, in no particular order.]

  • Undercurrency” by Sam Beckbessinger (South Africa), UPSHOT: Stories of Financial Futures

This is one of my favourite stories in an exceptionally strong anthology. Edited by Lauren Beukes, for the investment services company, RisCura, working with their investment experts and a star-studded team of African authors, the anthology explores a range of important financial and economic concepts through science fictional, near-future extrapolation. I enjoyed every story in this anthology and I really recommend you read them all but this one stood out to me. A brilliant story focused on climate change, energy transition and sustainable investment, “Undercurrency” follows a South African woman’s attempt to build her company, growing underwater kelp for biofuel on the coast while falling in love and learning about the complexity of doing the right thing in a world of complex and competing drivers. The voice in the story is strong, the description of the romance, while quick, feels natural and the descriptions of the science and the diving are vivid, accurate and wonderful. Full disclosure: I am an engineer in the energy industry and an avid diver, therefore naturally biased or as we say in Nigeria, I am the story’s target market. Consider me sold. Highly Recommended.

Continue reading “Best of 2021: Wole Talabi on African SF”

Eugen Bacon on Black Speculative Fiction

This article reframes a prefatory essay that was first published in Fafnir – Nordic Journal of Science Fiction and Fantasy Research

Notable Black Speculative Fiction

Eugen Bacon

More than two decades after the publication of Dark Matter: A Century of Speculative Fiction from the African Diaspora (2000), an anthology of short stories, black speculative fiction continues a powerful conversation in genre fiction on culture and identity, and increasingly tackles themes pertaining to colonialism, as well as feminist and queer themes that engage with difference. 

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Anthologies and collections have become instrumental in the proliferating Afrofuturistic writing that heroes black people in stories from Africa and the diaspora, stories whose visibility is increasingly evident in award nominations and reading list recommendations. For example, Dominion: An Anthology of Speculative Fiction from Africa and the African Diaspora – with its stories of gods, demons, magicians, dead children, refugees, taboos, apocalyptic worlds, and more – saw nominations, finalists and winners in the Hugo, British Science Fiction Association, British Fantasy, and Nommo Awards…. 

This warm reception of black writing in the speculative-fiction industry and readership could be attributed to the calibre of stories and authors, as well as the continued response to global events, including Black Lives Matter, that demand radical new stories.  In 2018, the New York Times determined N. K. Jemisin as the most celebrated science fiction and fantasy writer of her generation, with the staggering success of her Dreamblood duology, and the Broken Earth and Inheritance trilogies, all books that have received recognition in Hugo, Locus, Nebula, World Fantasy, Tiptree, and British Science Fiction Association (2020 BSFA) awards. 

Continue reading “Eugen Bacon on Black Speculative Fiction”

Spacecraft by Timothy Morton

Spacecraft (Object Lessons). Timothy Morton. Bloomsbury Academic, 2021. 

Reviewed by Phil Nicholls

Timothy Morton is best known for their writing on ecology and as a philosopher who gave us the concept of ‘hyperobject’.  While Spacecraft (2021) is only a small book of 129 pages, including index and notes, Morton has nevertheless written a dense but enjoyable book with a glittering insight on almost every page. Reviewing any book crammed with so many ideas is a challenge. Spacecraft is a heady mix of pop culture and philosophy, where it is difficult to pick out the unifying theory amidst the glare. 

On one level, Morton has written a performative history of spacecraft, both speculative and real, in the media, with a particular focus on Star Wars. The book examines the role played by these vehicles, not the method of portraying them or the nuances of their design. While the principles may apply to all spacecraft, Morton’s sources are primarily drawn from within Western cultures, especially American. Essentially, spacecraft representations, according to Morton, performed one of the following functions:

  1. the ark, carrying all remaining life forms, such as in Silent Running or the Jupiter ship in 2001
  2. the juggernaut, destroying all before it, such as the Death Star and Imperial Cruisers in Star Wars or the militarized version of the Enterprise from Into Darkness
  3. the frigate, a standard SF warship
  4. the fighter, small military vessels such as the X-wing and TIE fighter
  5. the explorer, such as scouts or shuttles
  6. the machina cum dea, Morton’s phrase inverting the traditional deus ex machina, meaning an alien vessel that sweeps in to dispense justice. Examples being the UFO at the end of Monty Python’s Life of Brian or the TARDIS
  7. the coracle, where the spacecraft is a spiritual craft on a mystical journey, such as the EVA pod in 2001 or the real Voyager I probe.

Morton makes a distinction between spacecraft and spaceship, for example, with respect to size, with starships being much larger. Furthermore, starships such as the Enterprise and an Imperial Cruiser are part of an established fleet with a large crew in a fixed hierarchy. In contrast, spacecraft are smaller, often with a fluctuating crew roster: people simply climb aboard one and fly away, such as happens repeatedly with the Millennium Falcon over many films, or The Heart of Gold in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Morton notes the “craft” aspect of the name, reflecting the skill required to fly the vessel. There is also a sense that these ships are being crafty, meaning cunning.

Starship Enterprise U.S.S. Enterprise NCC 1701-D, Star Trek series
Imperial Cruiser, Star wars

While Spacecraft draws on many sources, the book is at its heart a love letter to the Millennium Falcon. Morton clearly sees this vessel as the archetypal spacecraft as each chapter casts the Falcon in a new light. Spacecraft highlights the Falcon as a feminist vessel because when the revolutionary feminist robot L3-37 is damaged beyond repair, her data and personality are incorporated into the Falcon’s electronics in the Solo prequel: “The Falcon is then really a ‘she’ insofar as the Falcon is a feminist robot keen to liberate other robots from their status as slaves.”

The Millennium Falcon is also the third important non-human to appear in A New Hope. Moreover, the Falcon is adept at defying the forces of gravity in a film series all about the use of the force. Morton also highlights how the Millennium Falcon is the plot pivot in The Empire Strikes Back. Once the Falcon functions properly and engages the hyperdrive, with the help of R2-D2, the film is emotionally “over” and we await the sequel.

Millennium Falcon, Star Wars

Spacecraft includes only four chapters and an introduction. Each chapter explores one aspect of spacecraft and the Millennium Falcon in particular. In the first chapter, Morton notes a recurring trait of garbage, or the “found-ness of objects”: “we need to consider the Falcon as pure contingency, as something that just happens to you, garbage or not”. The Falcon demonstrates this trait when Rey initially refuses to escape on a ship located off-screen in The Force Awakens, dismissing it as “garbage”. When her first choice spacecraft is destroyed, she concedes “the garbage will do” and we see her and Finn escape on the Falcon. Indeed, through the whole franchise the Falcon is repeatedly found just when it is needed.

Morton specifically notes the role of dirt in the Star Wars series. Unusually, all the good vehicles in these films are dirty, a notable difference from the Imperial vessels or a spaceship like Star Trek’s USS Enterprise. Dirt seems to be used as a signifier for the rebellion, while at the same time making the setting appear more real. After all, what actually is dirt? Morton shares the definition given by Mary Douglas in Purity and Danger of “matter in the wrong place”. How often is the Falcon in the wrong place? Taking the viewpoint of the Empire, the Falcon is forever in the wrong place, typically waiting to be found by one rebel faction or another.

This aspect of stumbling upon the Falcon is a focus of chapter two of Spacecraft. Here Morton explores the concept of spacecraft as winnings, such as how Lando won the Falcon in a card game. More broadly, spacecraft are often outright stolen and become the trophy of the escape. Once again, the Falcon is the epitome of the getaway vehicle, repeatedly evading Imperial entanglements in almost every appearance. Other stolen spacecraft include The Heart of Gold, The Liberator in Blake’s 7 and the TARDIS. Yet, so often these thefts are justifiable and necessary to escape the crimes committed by the state.

Morton’s third and longest chapter deals with hyperspace, that common avenue of escape. One example of a coracle is a passage from Coleridge’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner, where the Mariner is taken through the netherworld. To Morton this netherworld reads a lot like hyperspace:

And soon I heard a roaring wind:

It did not come annear;

But with its sound it shook the sails,

That were so thin and sere.

The upper air burst into life!

And a hundred fire-flags sheen,

To and fro they were hurried about!

And to and fro, and in and out,

The wan stars danced between.

The opening credits of Vertigo (1958)

Modern film depictions of hyperspace turn “fire-flags sheen” into a familiar visual, argues Morton. The dominant method arose from the slit-scan technique of computer animation pioneer John Whitney for Hitchcock’s Vertigo in 1958, that impressed Douglas Trumbull who made similar visual effects for To the Moon and Beyond, which in turn brought Trumbull to Kubrick’s attention. Trumbull was thus engaged to create the stargate sequence for 2001. A similar slit-scan technique was developed by graphic designer Bernard Lodge for Doctor Who and was applied in Nolan’s Interstellar in the tesseract scene.

 In Morton’s view, hyperspace is a place of bliss and sensuality. Hyperspace is an expression of Gaussian geometry – the term Morton uses for not Euclidean (but euphoric) space-time. When the Falcon “makes” hyperspace, it is catapulted into a whirling, glittering realm of beauty. The visuals of hyperspace are a liquid tunnel that whisks spacecraft off. Morton invokes the feminist term circlusion, coined by Bini Adamczak to describe these visualisations in the media as circlusion of a spacecraft by hyperspace. The verb circlude was defined by Adamczak as describing any process of enveloping one thing with another: “Indeed circlusion is an extremely common experience of everyday life. Think of how a net catches a fish, how gums envelop their food, how a nutcracker crunches nuts, or how a hand encircles a joystick”.

This random, democratic and almost chaotic nature of hyperspace is contrasted in the conclusion with the precise orderliness of the Death Star or the Enterprise. These spacecraft resemble giant, open-plan offices in space. Such “middle class” workspaces seem so unlike the rogue-ish Falcon and its crew of misfits. 

Enterprise bridge

There are so many ideas in this small book that I have barely scratched the surface in this review, and I am sure that rereading it will uncover new ideas each time. 

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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”