The Time Machine

Reviewed by Jo Lindsay Walton

Time travel plus pandemic: the elevator pitch might simply be, “Dr WHO.”

Written by Jonathan Holloway and directed by Natasha Rickman, The Time Machine is a free and freewheeling response to H.G. Wells’s classic text, which is celebrating its 125th anniversary this year.

Like previous work by Creation Theatre, The Time Machine is an immersive, site-specific production. You prowl around the London Library in a little gaggle, led by your Time Traveller guide, occasionally chased by a spooky Morlock, and now and then bumping into other characters. Continue reading “The Time Machine”

Mushrooms: The Art, Design and Future of Fungi

By Seana Gavin

Reviewed by Bethany Garry

Mushrooms: The Art, Design and Future of Fungi, curated by Francesca Gavin, can be seen at Somerset House until the 26th of April. It is part of The Charles Russell Speechlys Terrace Room Series and is free to visit. 

Mushrooms and fungi have a specific place in the imagination as strange and otherworldly, often associated with the fantastical or magical, but Gavin’s exhibition on the “future” of fungi posits them as significantly more science-fictional than fantastical. They are a technology – for use in the future of fashion, biotechnology or ecological industries, or an alien – an unexpected invader via decay or rot, part of the aesthetic that makes a landscape feel truly not of this world. The exhibition achieves this through the mix of mediums, beginning with some of Beatrix Potter’s botanical illustrations of mushrooms and fungi, and progressing through dance (in video form), textile arts, sculpture, collage, fashion, and an extensive display of books. 

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The effect is an exhibition that feels unfinished, if visually engrossing. Amanda Cobbett’s sculptures of mushrooms, perfectly rendered in thread and paper, are an illusion good enough to trick you, and Seana Gavin’s collages are alien worlds where mushrooms form otherworldly buildings, or fungi have unsettling human features. The small setting of the exhibit gives little room for in-depth exploration, and its high goal is undermined a little by the content. A display of mushroom-focused non-fiction literature amounts mostly to a display of book covers, which maybe spark thoughts but ultimately feel superficial. However, for a mushroom lover or for those interested in how the natural world can be positioned in a futurist mindset, it’s a fun way to explore how many different artists have used many different mediums to explore the world of mushrooms and fungi. 

While the first two rooms of the exhibit largely explore mushrooms as an aesthetic or fascination, the final ‘Futures of Fungi’ room positions mushrooms as a future technology, one that humanity has not yet fully exploited, with potentials unexplored, with displays including experimental leather made from mushroom, and a typeface generated to ‘spore’ organically as mushrooms do. The strangeness of mushrooms, their in-betweenness between plant and animal, their interconnectedness, are all ways in which they challenge humanity to experiment with their potential. Not all science-fiction, after all, is an exploration of an alien world. Some are discoveries of the strange in our deep seas or our high peaks. Perhaps the next frontier is neither, but instead will be the forest floor.

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2019 in TV and Cinema

By Gary Couzens.

As I’ve done in past years, this won’t be a comprehensive overview of genre films and television of 2019. Instead, this is a selection of titles which are worth your attention. All were commercially released or reissued in the UK last year.

If in Groundhog Day it was Sonny and Cher’s “I Got You Babe” which heralded its protagonist’s recurring day ahead, in Russian Doll (on Netflix, eight episodes of just under a half-hour each) it was Harry Nilsson’s “Gotta Get Up”. It’s Nadia (Natasha Lyonne), again and again in the bathroom of her friend’s apartment while her own birthday party goes on. A cynical, New York thirtysomething, Nadia certainly has her share of damage, manifesting itself in casual drug use and equally casual sex. At the end of today, Nadia will die, she finds out … and then she’s back in that bathroom with Nilsson on the soundtrack. After several go-rounds she finds Alan (Charlie Barnett) in the same predicament. 

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Russian Doll

Although she was one of three creators (along with Leslye Headland and Amy Poehler), Lyonne dominates the show. She wrote and directed the final episode and co-wrote another. Her chartacterisation inevitably brings resonances of her own personal history, including publicly-known issues with substance abuse. It’s a commanding performance in a miniseries which works out its premise in several interesting ways. The music works perfectly, from Nilsson at the outset to Love’s “Alone Again Or” in the final scene. A second season is on its way. Continue reading “2019 in TV and Cinema”

From the editor of Focus: Best of the Year 2019

By Dev Agarwal

Image result for watchmenThere was a lot to try to keep up with in 2019.  As usual my attention was split between what was new, what I’d missed and what I revisited.  As this is the regular review of the new, I’ll keep my attention squarely there — though I’ll confess to missing key releases that will doubtless prove to be among the best of the year.

As 2019 was also the end of a decade, this is a moment to note that over the last ten years we’ve seen a number of new writers establish themselves as major names in the genre.

Continue reading “From the editor of Focus: Best of the Year 2019”

Terminator Dark Fate reviewed

By Dev Agarwal

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I went to see Terminator Dark Fate with my regular film going friend, Nik.  Despite going to the cinema together since we were kids, we worked out that this was the first time we’d been to see a Terminator film together in the cinema.  Given Dark Fate’s poor box office and the fact that Schwarzenegger is 72 years old, this felt like our last chance saloon.  

I’ll state my positions now. Firstly, it’s impossible to discuss this film without spoilers, so don’t read further if you don’t want any.  Second, I’m a big fan of the original film and have watched it many times. I had been disappointed in different ways by many of the films in the series and I had high hopes of Dark Fate.  It came with a pedigree of James Cameron’s blessing, the strategic rejection of the dead ends of earlier films, and it was made by the director behind the popular film, Deadpool, Tim Miller.

Like most franchises that have survived decades, The Terminator films are no longer about one single thing, they combine and rework themes and cultural and social issues.  While a principal concern is time travel and the paradox of changing the present by altering the past, the films are also commentaries on machine intelligence, nuclear destruction and individuals striving against a faceless powerful enemy.  

Continue reading “Terminator Dark Fate reviewed”

Looking Back: 2010-2020

By Maureen Kincaid Speller.

To be honest, the last ten years have been such a blur I’d barely registered the fact that we have arrived at the threshold of a new decade. But here we are (or not, depending how pedantic you’re feeling – I’m happy to be guided by common usage), and it’s a useful moment for thinking about what I’ve read in that time. Or not, because, along with time passing at a speed that seems indecent, it turns out that this last decade was one in which I either didn’t read much (being a recovering postgraduate will do that to a person) or else a lot of what I did read somehow didn’t find its way into my long-term memory. 

Except that, once I looked at a few lists, I realised that, actually, I had read quite a lot during that period but the effort of moving forward had somehow subsumed it into an amorphous space called ‘the recent past’. Also, I am hopeless at remembering dates of publication: last week, last month, last year, some time ago, whenever. 

But I can tell you that in 2010 I was very excited about Ian McDonald’s The Dervish House. I was and am a huge admirer of McDonald’s work, and at that point also deeply preoccupied with Orhan Pamuk’s writing (still am), so the Turkish setting intrigued me, as did the presence (or indeed, mostly, absence) of a mellified man, reflecting my interest in the strange, the offbeat, the peculiar. But I also appreciated the novel’s densely layered portrayal of a near-future society with a very complex cultural identity. Looking back I can see now that The Dervish House has set the tone for a lot of my reading since then. 

Continue reading “Looking Back: 2010-2020”

Ten Years, Ten Books

By Paul Kincaid.

What a long strange decade it has been. Ten years ago it looked as if social democracy was in the ascendant around the world; today, populist, nationalist, right-wing governments are in power in Britain, the USA, Australia, Israel, India, Hungary, Italy and elsewhere. The world has become a scary, unwelcoming, unpleasant place to live. Politicians took the voters for granted, and voters became tired and disdainful of the politicians, so real life is coming more and more to resemble the dystopias we used to read. Which may be why there are no dystopias on my list of the ten books that I have chosen as representative of the last ten years in science fiction.

Which is not to suggest that politics is absent from the list. Far from it, in fact I begin with what is, I think, the most politically acute novel science fiction has produced this decade: Europe in Autumn by Dave Hutchinson (2014). Published two years before the Brexit referendum, it captures with uncanny prescience the mood of fragmentation and disintegration that Brexit embodies. Startlingly, the three subsequent volumes, which I don’t think Hutchinson had even conceived at the time he wrote the first book, maintain the awareness and the quality of the first. And in the final volume, Europe at Dawn (2018), there is a passage set among refugees on a Greek island that perfectly encapsulates the damage that fear of the other has done to Europe.

Continue reading “Ten Years, Ten Books”

Humans (C4 2015-2018)

By Tony Jones

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Channel 4’s Humans was one of the big successes of the 2010s. It won many accolades across its three seasons, including a BAFTA. Based on a Swedish drama, Real Humans, it provided a timely reflection on the changes we are actually experiencing due to the rise of AI, but framed as a thriller set in a world of robots. In Humans, the robots look human but are machines with very Asimovian constraints on behaviours, constraints that sentience removes. Enter one group of robots who have moved beyond the programmed and are fully aware.

The essential story of season 1 is where I’d like to focus. The ingredients are a family strained by tensions, husband about to lose his job to a robot, a wife who is a busy, successful lawyer, and their three kids. Into their lives comes a robot with a buried sentience.  

The first series inspires moral and legal questions. How fast does an artificial sentience grow relative to how we think of maturity in humans and when does it become responsible for its actions? Is there an equivalent period of ‘childhood’ for AI that should be reflected in the laws governing sexual consent? Who is developing a legal framework applicable to AI?

If this wasn’t ethically challenging enough, further themes explored in the series include whether it’s possible to love a robot (the conclusion being very much a ‘yes’) and an even deeper one: ‘is there a right to sentience?’.

Humans holds up a mirror to make us aware of how driven we are by appearances. The show is very deliberate with the blurring of boundaries when the robots look and behave as we think people do. While the cast went to synth school to learn how to not move like people, the plot depended on robots being able to pass for humans, sometimes in order to harm them. 

The episode where Niska – one of the sentient robots – is on the run having murdered an abusive human, is a riff on the film Fight Club. She passes for human and is allowed to join in with a group (largely men) whose evening’s pleasure consists of beaten and destroying other robots. The robots look like people and are helpless. To all intents and purposes, the baying crowd were killing people they’d relabelled as objects. Sometimes it’s easy to despair of humanity. 

It’s not clear we are anywhere close to answering any of the ethical questions raised by this show, while the rise of AI in the actual workplaces continues apace. Let’s hope we do a better job than Humans suggests we might.

Political pragmatism and utopian anticipation: A review of Fully Automated Luxury Communism

Thomas Connolly reviews Aaron Bastani, Fully Automated Luxury Communism (London: Verso, 2019), x + 278 pp, ISBN 978-1-78663-262-3.

9781786632623The term “fully automated luxury communism” (or FALC) first began circulating among far-left internet commentators in the mid-2010s as a name given to one potential form of post-scarcity economy. Alongside a number of variations (such as “fully automated luxury gay space communism”, or FALGSC, which inflects the term with post-gender and post-sexuality connotations),

FALC gained wider recognition following a Guardian write-up in March 2015 that discussed the origins and significance of the term. Aaron Bastani—a British political commentator and co-founder of Novaro Media, an independent left-wing media outlet—was interviewed as part of that article, and has since become the key intellectual figure associated with FALC. The current work is Bastani’s attempt to unpack the meaning and implications of FALC.

Continue reading “Political pragmatism and utopian anticipation: A review of Fully Automated Luxury Communism”

Reciprocal babymaking is the future: a review of Full Surrogacy Now

Katie Stone reviews Sophie Lewis’s Full Surrogacy Now: Feminism Against Family (Verso, 2019).

Sophie Lewis’s Full Surrogacy Now (Verso, 2019) is, like all good science fiction, “a book about an impossibility.”[1] In this provocative and carefully-argued work, Lewis clearly demonstrates that the boundaries of possibility not only can, but must, be contested. Lewis moves from a consideration of the impossible, yet actually existing, working conditions of professional surrogates — those who carry and give birth to ‘someone else’s’ infant — to the similarly impossible premise under which all gestational labour is undertaken. In Lewis’ analysis, the reason that “bearing an infant ‘for someone else’ is always a fantasy, a shaky construction” is not because of the uniquely fantastic conditions of commercial surrogacy. Rather, it is attributable to the fact that “infants don’t belong to anyone, ever” (19).

Full Surrogacy Now includes astute readings of prominent science-fictional texts, such as Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale (1985), Octavia Butler’s ‘Bloodchild’ (1984) and Marge Piercy’s Woman on the Edge of Time (1976). However, Lewis’ work also provides a striking example of the power of science-fictional thought in its own right. Here the strangeness of cyborgs and surrogates is explored, not to establish surrogacy as an embattled, economically-compromised alternative to ‘normal’ pregnancy, but rather as a way of reflecting on the compromising, violent realities of gestation as such. Full Surrogacy Now extends us a science-fictional invitation to understand deeply familiar words — nature, work, mother, create — in radically new and unfamiliar ways. By asking over and over again—“why accept Nature as natural[?]” (7)—Full Surrogacy Now proves itself the “disloyal, monstrous, chimerical daughter” (27) of Donna Haraway’s classic ‘A Cyborg Manifesto’ (1985), and of the tradition of feminist science fiction from which that seminal text was—and continues to be—partially, laboriously, and reciprocally birthed.

To begin with, we must remember that pregnancy is work, and it is often difficult and dangerous work. It is also often work in which the body is “working very, very hard at having the appearance of not working at all” (59). However, Lewis reminds us that the working conditions of gestational labourers vary hugely:

Pregnancy has long been substantially techno-fixed already, when it comes to those whose lives really ‘matter.’ Under capitalism and imperialism, safer (or, at least, medically supported) gestation has typically been the privilege of the upper classes. And the high-end care historically afforded to the rich when they gestate their own young has lately been supplemented by a ‘technology’ that absorbs 100 percent of the damage from the consumer’s point of view: the human labor of a ‘gestational surrogate.’

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Since its publication, Full Surrogacy Now has drawn fierce attacks from ‘readers’ who — having read the title, but not the book itself — assume that Lewis is arguing that such commercial gestational surrogacy is utterly unproblematic, and that we should welcome the expansion of the commercial surrogacy industry. This, of course, is to entirely miss the point. Lewis carefully outlines the exploitative realities of commercial gestational surrogacy, a booming business that is rife with wage theft, deception, brutally inadequate health-care, a lack of informed consent, and extreme power imbalances. She also carefully picks apart the neoliberal, faux-feminist rhetoric used to justify such practices. Instead, Lewis places the lives and voices of actual surrogates, particularly those from the Global South, at the heart of her analysis.

Nevertheless, within commercial gestational surrogacy, Lewis also discovers the traces of a wider revolutionary agenda. Thinking about the experience of gestational workers becomes a way of thinking more generally about pregnancy, child-care, the organisation of our society, and the labour we undertake to reproduce society from one day to the next. Lewis writes, “We are the makers of one another. And we could learn collectively to act like it. It is those truths that I wish to call real surrogacy, full surrogacy” (19-20). Ultimately, for Lewis, “surrogacy politics aren’t just a concern for an infinitesimal, niche sliver of the proletariat” (56), any more than the anarchism of Ursula K. Le Guin’s Anarres, or the lesbian feminism of Joanna Russ’ Whileaway is ‘just’ a concern for the inhabitants of those imagined regions.[2]

Lewis draws upon a long history of socialist feminist thought—Silvia Federici’s ‘Wages Against Housework’ (1974) is a particular influence—to reframe the discourse around pregnancy. By using surrogacy as her lens, she can reveal the inconsistencies in what passes for ‘common sense’ about pregnancy. “Pregnancy is not something society as a whole tends to question. Surrogacy, on the other hand, is hotly contested. Yet we can readily perceive that all that really separates the two is the possibility of a wage” (44). Refusing to position gestational work as a sacred maternal sphere, determined by a naturalised biology, Lewis instead asks: “What if we really felt the politics of uterine work to be comparable to other labors[?]” (129).

In this way, Full Surrogacy Now is part of a larger, pressing, political project. This is the project that challenges the white, liberal, trans-exclusionary, whorephobic, ‘feminist’ discourse which is currently dominating conversations around sex work and gestational labour. Just as infants do not belong to their parents as property, workers do not belong to their clients or employers. In advocating for the rights of workers whose labour is so often delegitimised, exploited, and criminalised, Full Surrogacy Now joins texts as Juno Mac and Molly Smith’s Revolting Prostitutes (2018). Here, Lewis argues for the recognition of surrogacy as work, while simultaneously taking up a fundamentally anti-work position. For Lewis, gestational labour’s “articulation as work in the first instance will be key to abolishing [it] (as work) in the long run” (42).

Although Full Surrogacy Now always keeps these wider goals in sight, a substantial part of Lewis’ writing takes the form of an analysis of the material conditions of gestational workers currently labouring within the commercial surrogacy industry. The study which Lewis provides of the Akanksha Hospital, and in particular of the charismatic representative of neoliberalism Dr. Nayana Patel, is detailed, wide-ranging and politically and theoretically rigorous. Lewis notes that

[…] most prominent white feminists, no matter how queer they are at home, no matter how critical of the family as the primary site of patriarchal and queerphobic abuse, are remarkably prone to forgetting this antipathy when it comes to legislating lives in sufficiently “other” (proletarian) neighborhoods.

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In contrast, Lewis’s approach provides a welcome alternative to this ideologically-driven amnesia. Even for those for whom commercial surrogacy is not (yet) a particular area of interest, Lewis’s determined focus on the material conditions of these particular labourers should be noted.

The emphasis on the working conditions of surrogates is also of particular relevance to those SF critics who study so-called “pregnancy dystopias” (10), given that, as Lewis argues, “in order to paint the neat picture of surrogacy-as-dystopia that First World feminists so often seem to want to paint, actually existing gestational workers have to be ignored almost by definition” (16). Lewis reintroduces the voices of those workers who are actively seeking out these supposedly-dystopic surrogate pregnancies into the conversation around dystopian pregnancy narratives. In this way, she demonstrates that a queer, feminist, anti-capitalist critique of an industry in which “living humans have become the sexless ‘technology’ component of the euphemism Assisted Reproductive Technology” (24) need not take a Eurocentric perspective which erases the agency and desires of those same “living humans.”

One prime example of a ‘pregnancy dystopia’ is Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale (1985). Lewis joins scholars such as Kate Meakin in critiquing “Atwood’s sterility apocalypse” (11) for its deification of white motherhood, its race-blindness, and the “stylized pleasure” it takes in its “chastity cos-play” (13): something which has become increasingly prominent in the recent HBO adaptation of Atwood’s writing.

Borrowing the historical experience of forced surrogacy from the American plantation, Atwood had […] clearly adapted its emotiveness for the purposes of a color-blind — white — feminism. […] At least the original novel had referred to Gilead’s eugenic purging of the tacitly African ‘Children of Ham,’ thereby demonstrating some recognition of the racial character of reproductive stratification as elaborated through the Middle Passage [slave ships crossing from Africa to the Americas]. In 2017, Hulu series director Bruce Miller took blithe erasure of black women’s historic connection with surrogacy to the next level. Announcing that he had ‘simplified’ the story, Miller presented an image of a society with no race, class, or history: a society in which ‘fertility trumps all.’

Lewis further argues: “the pleasures of an extremist misogyny, defined as womb-farming, risks concealing from us what are simply slower and less photogenic forms of violence, such as race, class, and binary gender itself” (14). She is certainly not dismissive of those for whom, as she puts it, “a personal encounter with this particular text has been the moment of feminist coming-to-consciousness” (14). But nor does she accept that the popularity of The Handmaid’s Tale in feminist circles ought to absolve it of all its many failings. In this she provides a model for those feminist SF critics who are hesitant about demanding a rigorously intersectional, trans-inclusive feminism from texts which are often hailed as feminist masterpieces simply because they champion the rights of (cis, straight, white) women.

Lewis also offers readings of Butler’s and Piercy’s writing: framing their surrogate-focused works as texts which either engage in surrogacy as terrifying and alien (Butler) or as a utopian alternative to the ‘problem’ of human gestation (Piercy). By returning frequently to these texts as part of her wider theorisation of surrogacy, Lewis joins the great tradition of feminist writers such as Haraway, Susan Stryker, and adrienne maree brown, who weave science fiction into their theoretical analyses—once again challenging the boundaries of possibility. From a SF studies perspective, it’s worth pointing out that Lewis’ coverage of these texts is relatively brief, and highly focused. I feel that there is more room here for SF scholars to explore the implications of what Lewis calls “full surrogacy” (20) within feminist SF. Feminist SF is a field which is deeply invested in the ethics of reproductive technology, and thus in the fact that, as Lewis puts it, “we are the makers of one another” (19). In Piercy’s lactating fathers and Butler’s multi-generational, multi-species communities where — just as in the contemporary commercial surrogacy industry — gestational labour is coercively but consensually entered into, I see more than the oscillation between “the alienated misery of the status quo” and “the silver absolutism of their techno-fix” (28). I see a gesture towards the “horizon of gestational communism” (21) that Lewis locates in the science-fictional sculptures of artist Patricia Piccinini. Lewis argues that the question to be gleaned from Piccinini’s sculptures is “not whether surrogates will intimately produce us one day,” but “rather, how we should respond to them and hold them—since they’re already here” (158).

It is this utopian turn in her writing which, I argue, transforms Lewis’ work from insightful critique into transformative critical apparatus. This is not a book which is merely about impossibility; rather, it demands impossibility.[3] The fact that we cannot necessarily explain every detail of what Lewis calls the “gestational commune” (29) must not prevent us from desiring it, nor from creating it. Moreover, this is not an impossibility which lies in a distant future, beyond the utopian horizon. As Lewis rightly notes: “Despite capitalism’s worldwide hegemony, many people on earth are putting something like ‘full surrogacy’ into practice every day, cultivating non-oedipal kinship and sharing reciprocal mothering labors between many individuals and generations” (147). Reciprocal baby-making is the stuff of impossibility. It is also happening right now. We can only hope that, as Sun Ra might put it, “when you’ve achieved one impossible the others / Come together to be with their brother” … or, in this case, with their multiply-parented surro-sibling.[4]

Patricia Piccinini, ‘Surrogate’

Katie Stone is a PhD student at Birkbeck, University of London. Her thesis explores childhood and utopianism as imagined in science fiction. Katie is co-director of the London Science Fiction Research Community and co-founder of the research network ‘Utopian Acts’. She recently co-edited a special issue of Studies in Arts and Humanities Journal and she has written for Foundation, Fantastika and SFRA Review. She is on Twitter @cyborg_feminist.

[1] Sophie Lewis, Full Surrogacy Now: Feminism Against Family (New York, NY: Verson, 2019) p. 19. All subsequent references are to this edition and are given within the text.

[2] See Ursula K. Le Guin, The Dispossessed (London: Gollancz, 2002; first published 1974) and Joanna Russ, The Female Man (London: Gollancz, 2010; first published 1975).

[3] See Tom Moylan, Demand the Impossible: Science Fiction and the Utopian Imagination (York: Methuen, 1986)

[4] Sun Ra, ‘Reality has touched against myth’, Esquire (July, 1969) 53-141.

N.B. This review was slightly updated in September 2019.