Organised by Katie Stone and Raphael Kabo, ‘Utopian Acts’ was a one-day mix of art, activism and utopia hosted by Birkbeck at the beginning of September. The conference provoked us to explore ideas set out by Ruth Levitas in ‘Utopia as Method’ and consider utopia as an act. Aiming to challenge the dystopian pessimism of our current moment, it asked whether examining the intersection of academia and activism might provide a way forward, out of our current impasse, towards a better future. Such thinking informed the structure of the conference, which included a mix of interactive workshops alongside talks by artists, activists and more conventional academics. In a welcome break from the norm at conferences, the event was free and substantive effort was made to ensure inclusivity and accessibility. This included grants to reimburse speakers, step free access to the building, gender-neutral bathrooms, a policy on pronouns and encouragements to keep academic language clear and intelligible. Overall, the conference made an ambitious attempt to relate its content to its form, putting some of its ideas into practice.
I HAVE A VISION. The streets of midtown Manhattan are filled with all of the professors, professional critics, editors, and judges of award panels. They are all dressed in their ill-fitting suits—they could afford better tailoring but that of course would indicate to their audience that something like beauty is important—but they are tearing them off to replace them with sackcloth. They are on their knees, they are decorating themselves in ashes.
Slowly they crawl out of their blue glass skyscrapers, their suburban commuter rail stations, their off-campus housing to join the mass. It’s not a howl that you hear but a low, unceasing moan. A few, the more dramatic and in need of attention of the group, flog themselves with branches and nylon rope. All of these men, all of these white men, every man who ever told a publishing assistant at a party while pinning her to the wall “you know I am in an open marriage,” every man who ever used the word “histrionic” to describe a woman’s memoir, “articulate” to describe a black man’s performance, or spent two paragraphs speculating about the body of a trans writer in what was supposed to be a review of their work, every professor who used Kanye lyrics in a lecture to show he was with it but taught an all white syllabus, every man who has referred to a Bronte or Emily Dickinson or James Baldwin as a “minor” writer, they are all here.
They have come to atone. They have come to ask for absolution. They have been forced into an encounter with their unconscious, they have finally seen the truth of their bias, the need they have had to believe anyone not of their demographic was a charlatan or a bore, and they have been laid low by this information.The sidewalks are crowded with all they have dismissed and betrayed. Everyone who has been marginalized and written out of the history of literature. They are interested in the spectacle, but skeptical. They have seen this type of performance before, this display of “how could I have been so wrong?”—it was always followed by either a return to previous behavior with slight modifications or an attempt to get laid. But they are transfixed by the image, and they find themselves disappointed that they are still capable of hope, hope that finally they will be seen for their true selves and not through these men’s projections.
When the men finally reach the water, they toss their clothes onto the bonfires that have been burning all night. The stench of burning polyester fills the air. “Forgive us,” they cry, as they hand over their positions to the spectators and write letters of resignation. “We didn’t realize.”
Given that 2017 saw the launch of various SF blockbusters, when looking for the best of fashion one would be forgiven for turning to these highly visual, big budget productions. Wonder Woman, Blade Runner, Star Trek and Star Wars all made a return to our screens. However, the year’s most significant SF-related fashion events are to be found elsewhere. This is because in most cases the fashion references from these productions rely on a retro-futuristic vision, one which emphasises a post-apocalyptic, hyper-sexualised, Amazonian aesthetic.
An alternative would be to look to the catwalk, to the work of designers like Iris Van Herpen, Rick Owens or Comme des Garçons, all of whom share a reputation for futuristic, SF-inspired fashion. Whilst interesting, these proposals are not new, and certainly not representative of the mood in the industry. If anything, the fashion industry seems to be falling out of love with digital technologies. For example Hussein Chalayan’s Spring-Summer 2018 collection (shown in September 2017) was a commentary on how digital technologies can veil individual identity. This was only a year after the London-based designer showed a collection – in collaboration with Intel – which included accessories that could ‘read’ the wearer’s emotions and transform them into visuals displayed on a large screen.Continue reading “Vector 287: Fashion and SF”→
From the interview with Zulfikar Ali Bhutto [GARAGE]
What are you working on right now? I’m working on a few new projects, including Queer Muslim Futurism, which is about creating future queer landscapes through a Muslim lens. The narrative is about my drag character who, as a rebel leader, talks about contemporary politics in a future that signals a different dimension. This is a world in which the marginalized fights back. I create future guerrilla Muslim drag warriors on the front of resistance and blur the line between a revolutionary and a terrorist. The gaze of the Muslim male subject is queered, not in a docile way but to challenge the Western perspective of Muslim maleness. I’m doing films and performances in which gender and sexuality are undefined and identities are left unclear.
Since 1953, the Hugo Awards have been one of science fiction’s most prestigious honours – past winners include Isaac Asimov, Arthur C Clark and Ursula Le Guin. The 2016 results were recently announced, and women and diversity were the clear winners.
However, if you saw the list of titles in contention for the awards, you’d have noticed some oddities, such as Chuck Tingle’s Space Raptor Butt Invasion and My Little Pony’s The Cutie Map. That’s because the awards – nominated and voted on by science fiction writers and readers – have been targeted by two major voting blocs: the Sad Puppies, who started their campaign in 2013, and the Rabid Puppies, who appeared the year after and have been growing stronger ever since.
The Sad Puppies wanted more traditional, mainstream popular science fiction on the ballot. The more extreme Rabid Puppies, who have ties with the Gamergate movement, were about creating chaos. So their bloc included ridiculous-sounding works: both to mock the awards and stack the ballot to prevent more diverse books being nominated.
Both groups’ gripe is with contemporary trends in science fiction toward more literary works with progressive themes. Vox Day, leader of the Rabid Puppies, complains that “publishers have been trying to pass off romance in space and left-wing diversity lectures as science fiction”. Last year’s leader of the Sad Puppies, Brad R. Torgersen, likewise complains about “soft science majors (lit and humanities degrees) using SF/F as a tool to critically examine and vivisect 21st century Western society”. The Hugos, he says, are being used as an “affirmative action award”.
A significant number of those “soft science majors” writing “left-wing diversity lectures” are, of course, women. Female authors have dominated science fiction awards of late.
This year, women (and people of colour) did very well at the awards. Ironically, the Puppies’ activities have now galvanised more progressive members of the World Science Fiction Society to use their voting rights. The best novel was The Fifth Season, a tale of a planet experiencing apocalyptic climate change, written by NK Jemisin – a black, female writer. Best novella was Binti by Nnedi Okorafor. The best short story, Cat Pictures Please, was written by Naomi Kritzer and both best editor gongs went to women.
But the ongoing saga of the Puppies and their attempts to derail the Hugos exemplifies broader conflicts within the realm of science fiction – an enormously popular, lucrative and controversial genre that has major issues with women.