In your book Utopian Drama: In Search of a Genre, you distinguish two wellsprings of utopian thought. There is the early prose tradition, which includes texts like Christine de Pizan’s The Book of the City of Ladies,Thomas More’s Utopia, and perhaps also Plato’s Republic. Your research focuses on the second tradition — the theatrical tradition. This is something you trace back to the Old Comedy of Ancient Greece, and something that has been comparatively less studied. How do you think that the priority on prose has shaped Utopian Studies?
The frameworks of Utopian Studies, as they have developed over recent decades, have typically assumed the object of study to be prose fiction. So features of this early prose tradition have of course informed how interpretation has operated within Utopian Studies. Utopia, at least by default, is something described. It also generally gets constructed by a gaze that is located outside of that utopia. Thomas More’s Utopia, for example, needs to be set within the context of early modern travel narratives, and the whole range of colonial encounters which these describe.
Right, the traveller who visits a far away place or time, sees strange things, and learns just to rethink the institutions back home. Presumably that has played into the high regard with which defamiliarization is held, certainly within adjacent fields like Science Fiction Studies? But then, does it need to be that way? Couldn’t we get to know utopia through the experiences of characters who have always lived there and are deeply familiar with different aspects of utopia?
Another feature of the early prose tradition is that assumption of anonymity. More’s Utopia is again a good example. There’s a striking shift between Book One, where there is a conversation of sorts among various real and fictional people, and what happens in Book Two. In Book Two, Raphael recounts his travels on the island of Utopia, and suddenly all sense of character disappears!
So I think that’s very much a feature of the early prose fictional examples of utopia, and absolutely not in the case of dramas. In More’s Utopia,you don’t get to know individual Utopians. In later prose utopias, that does change, partly due to the emergence and development of the novel, but also as a response to accusations of the genre being boring — but even in the later utopias, there isn’t very much character interiority, or much of a sense of agency, et cetera.
You do sometimes get defences of a utopian rhetoric of generality, abstraction, anonymity. Like the idea that a wide range of readers will identify with an Everyman narrator. But of course, every ‘Everyman’ is really an ‘Actually Pretty Specificman.’ He is a particular subject position, elevated in a way that rejects the reality of other subject positions, or suggests that such differences are negligible. On stage, I suppose that Everyman myth might be even harder to sustain? Simply because there is always a very specific voice, face, body, occupying that role?
Yes, absolutely. The particularity. But also just the fact of a body on stage at all!— people on stage, humans, rather than a kind of distant description, a kind of external gaze. Another feature of the early prose fiction tradition is using setting as foreground. So in More’s Utopia you have long descriptions of the number of districts and the way that towns are laid out, housing, agriculture, et cetera. What’s usually registered as background setting in the novel becomes part of the foregrounded narrative in utopian prose. Character, if it figures at all, is there as background. So again, this is something that’s immediately reversed when you’re looking at a play, when you’re looking at stage drama.
In spring 2020, amid the global COVID-19 pandemic and the reignited Black Lives Matter movement, institutions were being called on to respond to deeply ingrained structural racism. Media organizations drafted commitments towards building more equitable and inclusive spaces for both creators and audiences. Dungeons and Dragons (D&D)publisher Wizards of the Coast (WotC) issued their version of a commitment to anti-racism on June 17, 2020. The announcement, ‘Diversity in Dungeons and Dragons’ led to varied responses online, from praise and excitement for the coming changes, to warnings that WotC risks harming its product and alienating ‘true players’ to appease the current social conflict. The responses illustrate a familiar tension within ‘geek culture’ and gaming communities, marred by racist gatekeeping, and yearning for an imagined past where social and cultural diversity are conversations for ‘the real world’ and the fantasy worlds of games and play are for escape.
Some players appealed to their agency to adapt and extend official rules (‘homebrew’) to create the fantasy worlds they want to play in, partly, as some have suggested, to distance themselves from the conversation regarding diversity in D&D. Yet as well as the risk of foreclosing diversity, homebrew content can allow players to develop characters and worlds in ways not offered by D&D’s standard rules, an opportunity which for marginalized individuals allows for a kind of visibility and player agency still rarely seen in mainstream media, and going substantially further than the changes made by WotC so far. While some responses to WotC’s commitment to diversity suggest a player’s relationship to homebrew content insulates them from shifts towards more inclusive content, I argue the practice of developing homebrew content positions players as active participants in D&D’s political and cultural economy, and that they are therefore affected by similar tensions around diversity and inclusion that WotC has committed to addressing.
Roleplaying game scholarship has focused on the history of racism in D&D‘s commercial content and other RPG products or on the experiences of players during gameplay. In her examination of gamers with marginalized identities, Adrienne Shaw argues ‘representation is part of a process of meaning making, but textual analyses tend to focus on the finished product’ and proposes that more attention should be paid to representation within play practices. Tanner Higgin urges that research about racism in representation must turn its focus toward the industry that produces content rather than only documenting and evaluating practices of racial representation. Antero Garcia similarly argues that games ‘cannot be studied as if [they] are isolated from the cultures that influence them or in which they are embedded.’ Yet there is a paucity of research that addresses the community of homebrew creators despite their crucial role in the development of D&D content and culture.
I situate this research between well-developed feminist game studies scholarship which critiques the long-standing tradition of white cishetero patriarchy, and critical fan studies scholarship engaged with unpacking racism and marginalization in fan spaces and cultural production,, to examine the vast community of D&D players that tell stories based on rules in a book, extending those rules to create sprawling social cultural fantasy worlds.
I begin by framing the discussion within broader contexts of racism in the fantasy genre, and within D&D specifically, through the case study example of Arcanist Press’ Ancestry & Culture: An Alternative to Race in 5e (A&C). While A&C is by no means the only homebrew publication that responds to social issues in D&D in this way, it has been chosen as a relatively recent and popular example — at the time of writing, it is listed fifth among the most popular titles on DriveThruRPG with the ‘Dungeons and Dragons’ tag.
Homebrew is distinctly part of tabletop roleplaying games, and has long been an encouraged practice in D&D. Where video game modding and writing fanfiction have at times been clouded by conversations about authorial control and copyright infringement, homebrewing elements of your D&D game is part of creating new and different worlds to play and tell stories in. The Player’s Handbook and Dungeon Master’s Guide, official rulebooks published by WotC,both include caveats that the rules are guidelinesmeant to give your game a sense of structure and balance. With the release of the third edition, WotC went further, encouraging third-party publishers to create content based on D&D‘s ruleset using their Open Gaming License (OGL). This is distinctly different from players deciding among their friends at the table to adopt certain ‘house rules’ or abandon published rules that don’t fit with their home game. The System Reference Document offers D&D players foundations that they can develop into their own commercial D&D products. WotC makes space for the active homebrew community through their partnership with OneBookShelf on the homebrew marketplace Dungeon Masters Guild, and the Guild Adept program. Homebrew is not only encouraged as a legitimate way to engage with D&D products, but includes a significant proportion of the D&D player community. Therefore, while WotC’s diversity statement addresses the changes they’re making to their commercially available products, this only goes part of the way in addressing discourses of harm and marginalization in the D&D player community. By examining homebrew content as a legitimate extension of D&D’s transmediated franchise, and by positioning creators within the wider D&D labour economy, we are better able to examine discourses surrounding inclusion and diversity in the D&D player community.
Semiosis is second nature to us. The methods by which we transcribe and store information, the processes of creating and reading texts, are so baked into our everyday lives that we barely recognize them as inventions. People who we believe to be ‘ancient’ — civilizations who nevertheless succeeded many thousands of years of prehistory — believed writing to have been a miracle bestowed by heaven (Senner, 10-16). For our part, most of us seldom think about where writing comes from. If we do reflect on it, we might assume that writing is simply the best way (or the only way) to perform all of writing’s functions: our preoccupations are with the many hundreds of millions of bytes processed by a computer instead of the rote conventions of literacy. But that in the English-speaking world there should be some twenty-six visible orthographic marks and a handful of other numbers and symbols, that these should indicate English phonetics and be placed together to make words, that these words should be grouped into sentences with punctuation for clarification, that there should be this number of sentences on a page and that number of pages in a book, that a book should deliver information and move the heart within expectations of convention and genre, that there should be a library to organize these books, and that other languages though they use abjads, abugidas, or syllabaries, should be similar enough for translation — these are not inevitable developments.
By looking at the early history of writing I hope to isolate key moments of its adoption and development into the primary medium of the literate world today. At the same time I hope to explore other methods of data collection and meaning transference, other systems of semiosis, and speculate on their potential to act as modes of literary communication as complex as the written word. In doing so I risk a Whiggish and deterministic approach to history, I flirt with clumsy teleology and notions of progress. I hope that these extrapolations are understood as not one-to-one equivalences on an imagined great path of history, as they would be in an inelegant alternate history. I don’t intend here to elevate writing above speech, song and dance; nor to imply that my inspirations are in any way lacking their own semiotic richness and complexity. Rather, I intend this article as a playful investigation into possibilities, and as a reminder of how speculative fiction often presents as ‘universal’ what are really just the technologies and practices of a handful of recent powerful empires.
Though Avatar: The Last Airbender’s (Nickelodeon, 2005-2008) final episode aired 14 years ago, the television show left an unforgettable mark on its young audience. When the show started streaming on Netflix in 2020, waves of viewers returned to watch, including myself. Perhaps people found comfort in the show during the pandemic, and many new eyes were opened to the incredible art, moving storylines, and powerful social criticism about war, industrialism, and oppression.
For those who have not watched the show, some people in the world of Avatar are born with “bending” power, or the ability to manipulate one of the four elements (water, earth, fire, and air). Avatar follows the journey of Aang, the most recent reincarnation of the Avatar, the only person who can control all four elements. As the Avatar, Aang is connected to all his past selves and is the bridge between the mortal world and spirit world. In search of a way to defeat the tyrannical Fire Nation and restore balance to the world, Aang travels with water bender Katara and her brother Sokka. They are later joined by Toph, a blind earth bender who can sense motion and objects through the soles of her feet, and much later by Zuko, a reformed Fire Nation prince.
“Water. Earth. Fire. Air. Long ago, the four nations lived together in harmony. Then everything changed when the Fire Nation attacked.”
Every episode is introduced this way, reminding the audience that despite endearing storylines about love and friendship, the show exists always in the context of war, genocide, and diaspora. That context allowed Avatar: The Last Airbender to explore deeply complicated themes using a speculative world inspired by many cultures, including Japanese, Chinese, Tibetan, and Inuit.
While there are several ways to analyze how that complicated world is rendered across each episode, I will focus on records, record-keeping, and documentation or “information-as-thing.” Information-as-thing applies to all kinds of tangible objects that embody knowledge. Documents are not the only records that contain essential information because “objects that are not documents in the normal sense of being texts can nevertheless be information resources, information-as-thing” (Buckland, 1991). A record can be a book. It can arguably be a fish (Ginsburg, Ruth B., Yates v. United States). Information-as-thing is usually manifested in something material, and people can read, see, interpret, misunderstand, understand, control, and destroy it.
Finding other forms of resources outside of paper is also important in Avatar. Posters, maps, and scrolls often guide the main characters to an insight, refuge, or even triumph – but these documents are corruptible, easily changed or destroyed. The authoritarian regime of Earth Kingdom city Ba Sing Se disposes of posters and pamphlets that counter the government’s messaging in ‘City of Walls and Secrets’ (2.14). The totalitarian Fire Nation has re-written its history books to better suit its narrative of conquest in ‘The Headband’ (3.2). If these tactics sound familiar from our own world, it’s because they are meant to. And much like in our world, the fragility of paper documents, erasures of history, and domination of information exchange often require the past to be reconstructed through cultural objects, ancient architecture, and other artifacts. Even in a world of earth bending, where someone could use her power to shatter stone carvings and sacred temples, there are many intact structures and objects scattered across the four nations.
In a shareholder ‘fireside chat’ with Hasbro CEO Chris Cocks (former president of Wizards of the Coast from 2016-2022), and Cynthia Williams, the current CEO and president of WotC, both parties outlined Wizards’ four-quadrant strategy for investment growth with D&D: offering blockbuster entertainment, AAA high-end gaming, products for tabletop gamers, and products for the more casual fan. Williams begins her response about Dungeons and Dragons by saying, ‘D&D has never been more popular, and we have really great fans and incredible engagement, but the first thing I saw with it is the brand is really under monetized.’ From their new acquisition of D&D Beyond giving them market insights into personal games, to creating an environment which encourages ‘recurrent spending,’ much like paid DLCs and pay-to-play models of digital games, Wizards is working towards taking advantage of D&D’s 50-year legacy but also its position as ‘a cultural phenomenon right now.’ By ‘engaging and surrounding the consumer’ with game products, entertainment media, and personal accessories and collectables, Wizards is building a unified lifestyle brand, under the codename One D&D. Wizards has already seen the success of D&D becoming a ‘generic trademark,’ where Dungeons and Dragons has colloquially become the shorthand or stand-in for the genre of tabletop roleplaying games. With more brand recognition than their most profitable property, Magic: The Gathering, Wizards is working to expand beyond manufacturing simply TTRPG ‘products,’ and instead capitalize on fandom in all its forms – from film and video games to actual play performances and lifestyle accessories.
While the shareholder seminar focused on how to increase spending opportunities for consumers to increase profits, WotC’s outward facing PR has instead – since at least 2014 – marketed the D&D lifestyle as a community, one which sees Wizards’ products as secondary to fostering a community of players and game masters (GMs). In the opening pages of the 5th Edition Player’s Handbook, Mike Mearls writes, ‘Above all else, D&D is yours.’ After the recent controversy with proposed replacement of the Open Gaming License (OGL), Kyle Brink echoed a more sheepish form of this sentiment, saying, regardless of whether the community trusts Wizards again or not, “either way, play your game with your friends. You don’t need to have [Wizards] at the table if you don’t want to. You know, your game is for you. We’ll make stuff for it, and if you want it, we’ll be over here making it. You can come get it. But, honestly, we should not be messing up your game. You should be playing your game.’ Statements put out by Wizards, Dungeons and Dragons, and D&D Beyond often invoke the community, while often simultaneously diminishing their own role in shaping that community. Wizards of the Coast (WotC) is actively and aggressively working towards, not just strengthening Dungeons and Dragons as a brand, but more importantly, pushing towards greater monetization of Dungeons and Dragons as a lifestyle. The first part of my work in this chapter is an analysis of published game materials, public statements, and recent events since Wizards of the Coast’s commitment to diversity in 2020.
Ultimately, this work aims to uncover what benefits are afforded to Wizards as a result of their push towards diversity and inclusion as part of rebranding and how this commitment allows greater control over reconciling D&D’s problematic history with monetization plans for the future. This reconciliation, tied with a unification and tightening of the ‘community’ of D&D fans, works more towards the security of D&D’s brand than as a platform for political progressivism. While there should not be any expectation for social change emerging out of a multi-million dollar corporation, the importance of my chapter’s intervention is to demonstrate how Wizards has used the language of social justice and progressivism to create an appearance of a utopian D&D community. My focus in analyzing WotC and D&D is not whether WotC’s revisions of game materials to move away from their racist, sexist, and ableist origins are beneficial to the brand. Rather, I investigate whether these utopian moves are demonstrably present in D&D products, in WotC as a workplace, and in the types of social relationships the game promotes.
How Jennifer Walshe is Reinventing the Music of the Past and Reclaiming the Music of the Future
By Paul March-Russell
One of the highlights of the 2022 Proms season was the London premiere of The Site of an Investigation (2018) by the Irish avant-garde composer Jennifer Walshe. This thirty-three minute piece in twenty-six sections offered a synopsis of Walshe’s preoccupations. Walshe herself, sounding like a cross between Laurie Anderson and Diamanda Galas, took the role of soloist, offering an elegiac commentary upon such topics as the race to Mars, the threat to the oceans and the prospect of digital immortality. The orchestra, largely acting as the symphonic backdrop to Walshe’s fragmented monologue, were further inveigled into the proceedings by waving party streamers, building and demolishing a tower of bricks, and wrapping a four-foot high giraffe in crinkly paper. Both the absurdity and incoherence of the piece, culled from an array of internet sources, recalled ‘the blip culture bombardment’ of the mediascape in Don DeLillo’s White Noise (1985).
Exactly a hundred years since the first composition of Kurt Schwitters’s sound poem Ursonate (1922-32), a text that Walshe cites as an inspiration, such anti-art performances can still drive audiences either to delight or despair. In Walshe’s case, however, The Site of an Investigation is only an adjunct to her two main projects in recent years. The first, Aisteach, archives an alternate history of an Irish musical avant-garde that never existed, presenting original sound recordings and learned academic discussion. The second, The Text Score Dataset 1.0, involves the compilation of over 3000 text scores with which to retrain machine learning algorithms so that new scores can be generated by AI. This article offers an introduction to these two projects from the perspective of Walshe’s acknowledged debts to science fiction. The final section presents a speculative synthesis since, at the time of writing, Walshe has not linked the two projects together. But what if Aisteach was included as part of the dataset? What kind of future music emerges from an invented set of past sounds? How might we reclaim the future as well as the past? Could we obviate that ‘slow cancellation of the future’ as described by Mark Fisher and others?
In the tabletop roleplaying game The Treasure at the End of the Dungeon is an Escape From This Dungeon and We Will Never Escape From This Dungeon (hereafter The Treasure), players enter the game’s imagined world, a dungeon, knowing that the ‘treasure’ they seek by playing the game is impossible to acquire. The game cannot be won, only perhaps eventually abandoned. It may seem counterintuitive to discuss utopia in a game that announces from the beginning that its systems and structures are permanent, and that any attempt to escape them is ultimately futile. However, it is through this surrender to the process that players learn the lessons of continued hope, perseverance, and community that serve as a foundation for much of contemporary utopian thinking. For these reasons, in this chapter I describe The Treasure as a utopia, while also recognising that it may appear dystopian.
The Treasure can be understood as a process for utopia that, through play, invites the players to build their own counternarratives about what is valuable in the world they enter into, and also work together to change that world, even knowing that practically they will never ‘win’ the game. It is necessary to adapt an in-flux knowledge of utopia through a queer and feminist understanding of a future that will never reconcile the painful past. If the players cannot escape the dungeon, then the focus shifts to developing their characters’ relationships through roleplaying. The absurdity of the players’ situation, the cycle of endless dungeon rooms, and the descriptions of characters and rooms, encourage a sense of camaraderie and community. In this sense, the game reflects the structure of utopian hope. For the players, the importance lies in fighting the cycle even when the outcome may never change for, as the game states in the world description, ‘We will never escape this dungeon. We will always try to escape this dungeon.’ It is possible to work towards utopia while being pragmatic in the knowledge that a perfect future does not exist. In the rest of this chapter, I examine the function of archetypal characters, the utopian dimensions of the players’ roleplaying, and how the game mobilises themes of pragmatism in relation to its feminist and queer utopian ideals.
Utopia is a complex term, and how different pieces of media create and present utopia varies wildly. For this chapter, I approach utopia as a practice stemming from discontent that arises from problems in the present, and exploration of possible futures where these problems are solved or nonexistent. Later in this chapter, I will explore how this vision of utopia shifts into focus through a queer and feminist lens. As suggested by Lucy Sargisson’s Fool’s Gold?: Utopianism in the Twenty-First Century (2012)and Erin McKenna’s The Task of Utopia: A Pragmatist and Feminist Perspective (2001), utopia can present visions of a future in which deeply entrenched social, economic and political problems are resolved or transformed. Sargisson writes that utopia is working towards ‘identifying core problems with today […] and placing them in a new imaginary context. They thus imagine how the world might be if the core “wrongs” identified by the author were transformed.’ McKenna explores utopia in relation to the philosophical tradition of pragmatism, and also emphasizes the centrality of hope in interacting with utopian ideals: ‘Utopian visions are visions of hope that can challenge us to explore a range of possible human conditions.’
Utopia is ostensibly where problems are fixed. The creation of a completely separate and carefully integrated fantasy world has often been central to utopian thinking; and not just that it is separate, but that it is totalising. Fredric Jameson describes the movement away from causal utopias as either obsolete due to an inability to solve any and all social disintegration or due to the unparalleled global wealth and technology; however he argues using utopia as an idea to examine politics is still useful. Thomas Moylan in Demand the Impossible similarly describes this developing idea of utopia as imperfect and rejects utopia as blueprint, he describes utopia as ‘[f]igures of hope’ through opposition where utopia is ‘produced through the fantasizing powers of the imagination, utopia opposes the affirmative culture maintained by dominant ideology’. The completely separate utopian world — with readily available solutions for all the problems it seeks to overcome — has fallen out of favor. As Sargisson writes, ‘Most contemporary utopias tend not to offer visions of complete worlds. And most contemporary utopias avoid depicting a single solution; they decline to offer one complete and finished vision of the good life.’ In contemporary society, where political, religious, social, and environmental issues have remained at least as divisive as they have been historically, the idea of a perfect utopia that solves all the major conflicts of our current society seems impractical. The Treasure is fundamentally focused on creation and exploration, while providing enough character descriptions to spurn new identity formation without homogenising identity experiences. For example, there is no perfect solution to climate change, and scientific consensus on its causes has not translated to broad political and public agreement, but this does not preclude the struggle for environmental justice. So progress must be made in a more improvisatory, patchwork way. Similarly, contemporary utopias usually don’t try to articulate one single vision of society that is so compelling nobody could refuse it.
Midway through Steven Spielberg’s adaptation of Ernest Cline’s novel Ready Player One (novel, 2011; film, 2018), the central protagonist Wade (Tye Sheridan) returns to the virtual universe of the Ontologically Anthropocentric Sensory Immersive Simulation (OASIS) to consult the Halliday Journals (see Figures 1 and 2). James Halliday (Mark Rylance) is the OASIS’ co-creator and, when he died, he left behind an Easter egg hunt, the prizes of which are his stock in Gregarious Games and control over the OASIS, collectively worth tens of billions of dollars. Ever since, gamers (called egg hunters or “gunters”) have been vying to complete this quest. Central to winning, in both the novel and the film, are Halliday’s notes on his favourite literatures, as well as his thoughts and opinions about miscellaneous matters—mostly in the form of criticism. Our arguments, in what follows, are that Cline and Spielberg offer particular insights into archives and that, by attending to their treatment of information, we can deepen our understanding of the roles of repositories and bodies of knowledge in science fiction. In the novel, Halliday releases Anorak’s Almanac,
a collection of hundreds of Halliday’s undated journal entries. […] Most of the entries were his stream-of-consciousness observations on various classic videogames, science-fiction and fantasy novels, movies, comic books, and ’80s pop culture, mixed with humorous diatribes denouncing everything from organized religion to diet soda. (7)
The Almanac serves as a sort of bible for gunters. Notwithstanding the little it says specifically about the quest, it “seemed to indicate […] that a familiarity with Halliday’s various obsessions would be essential to finding the egg” (7). After all, Halliday created both the Almanac and the egg, and the book, in excess of a thousand pages, appeared just after the quest was announced. Ready Player One, the film, replaces the Almanac, the digital book, with the Journals, a large virtual archive in the OASIS with walls of transparent windows. Instructions about the quest are sparse. When introducing the Journals, Wade explains: “[Halliday] told us to look in his brain. This was the next best thing.” Instead of a book that users can download and print for free, the Journals is tethered to the OASIS: users, via their avatars, visit the building to research the game creator. And instead of written entries, the Journals comprises videos of Halliday’s actual real-life interactions, compiled “from personal photographs, home video recordings, surveillance, and nanny cams. All rendered into a three-dimensional virtual experience.”
Figures 1 and 2. Wade visits the Halliday Journals.
This two-day conference was organised by the London Science Fiction Research Community (LSFRC), with support from Birkbeck, University of London. This was the third wholly online annual conference held by the LSFRC since the beginning of the pandemic, although this event was somewhat smaller than its predecessors. Making use of the online technology, speakers and audience were again drawn from across the world, and from many different perspectives.
Although the notion of ‘extraction’ was interpreted broadly, at its heart it was located in a series of exploitative colonialist, capitalist practices. The original call for papers sought:
… contributions that think with, through and about extraction in all its forms – as extraction of human and nonhuman subjects; appropriation of knowledge and indigenous practices; instrumentalization of landscapes beneath, upon and beyond the Earth; parasitism; pollution as colonialism; the accumulative schematisation of linear temporal frames; forcefully extracted emotional labour; legacies of trauma and more – and its relationship with sf both as an extractive form of fiction and as a corrective/counter to extraction. From asteroid mining to dream harvesting, we want to engage with sf texts and ways of thinking across all media that explores, unravels and seeks to push beyond extraction’s mastery of the past, present and future.
The LSFRC runs a regular reading group exploring the same themes as the conference during the year leading up to each annual event. I attended a few of these, which were very productive, and encouraged a broader consideration of the subject. Despite its name, the reading group covered a range of media, including graphic novels, films and games as well as written sf, and the same was true of the conference.
Rather than cover every item I attended, I will concentrate on those papers that were my personal highlights, although I realise that in taking this approach, I will doubtless fail to mention some fine presentations. The first day began well, with two papers that I particularly enjoyed in the first panel, on ‘Human and Nonhuman Entanglements.’ Iuliia Ibragimova’s paper on ‘Space-Faring Animals and Their Humans’ looked at the sentient spaceship trope in sf literature and tv. Developing a brief survey of examples, including the Spline in Stephen Baxter’s Xeelee sequence, the insect/machine hybrid Lexx, and the Miri ships in Nnedi Okorafor’s Binti series, in a series of ravishing slides, she considered the relations between the human/humanoid aliens and the sentient spaceships presented as non-human animals. Ibragimova suggested that alongside more hierarchical and exploitative depictions, some of these examples also offered an opportunity to challenge anthropomorphic assumptions, and pointed towards more positive models of co-existence. Alongside this paper, Chiara Montalti’s ‘The Ecology of a Mermaid’ explored the notion of the mermaid to discuss the relationship between disability and environmental (in)justice, notably using the performance piece The Mermaid by the Australian artist and dancer Hanna Cormick. The latter has a cluster of medical conditions that require the use of a wheelchair, braces, respirator mask and oxygen when outside. The figure of the mermaid, as one who is differently abled in different environments, is used to suggest that the perspectives of disabled people can help address environmental toxicity and injustice. There was a need for this to be reflected more often in sf. The various papers delivered on this panel opened a space for a fruitful discussion, with the notion of ‘super-abled’ insectoidal non-humanness compared to the aqueous mermaid (with the waterborne mermaid as possibly still-disabled), and questions about individuality in the framing of the insectoidal ships.
Amy Cutler’s paper, ‘“[dying words] More light…” : Anti-Cinema and Black Hole Fishing’ described a creative experiment, her work ‘7 Ways of Exploiting A Black Hole’ (2022). She explored techniques for decentering cinema, moving away from the single-screen display to a fixed audience, and discussed the use of cinematic techniques to present and comment on astrophysics and future visions of extraction. The latter was pictured in terms of Roger Penrose’s ‘The Lost Art of Fishing in a Black Hole (1971)’ – in which he considered how energy might be extracted from a spinning black hole – as well as other interventions. How to exploit the least exploitable thing in the universe? Yet the black hole can also be considered an archive of the past, and hence a form of cinematic library. Conceived as a commentary on the languages of astrophysics and future visions of extraction, and a form of cinema deliberately inverted to curb storytelling practices of ‘eternal growth’, Cutler’s cinematic installation engaged with multiple readings of the Penrose process for geostationary energy extraction as well as the notion of the black hole, also touching, along the way, on the myth of Icarus, Clarke’s The Fountains of Paradise (1979) and Disney’s film The Black Hole (1979).
Lorrie Blair’s presentation on the same panel, ‘An artist’s response to living on a damaged planet: An Appalachian ghost story’ brought together three strands from Appalachian Ohio: a historic mine disaster, acid drainage from abandoned coal mines, and her own lived experience as a child and a young teacher. She described how she played in creeks near the mines as a child, and as a teacher learned of the Hocking Valley coal strike, which resulted in an extensive mine fire in November 1884. Burning coal cars, filled with oil-soaked wood, were pushed into the mines in response to the company’s use of scab workers during the strike. Flames burned into the coal seams, and over time the ground collapsed under buildings and roads, and mine gases escaped into local towns. Residents were evicted and homes demolished. The fires are still burning below ground: steam comes from wells, roses bloom in Winter and snow does not settle. Blair creates subtle and complex photographs to tell the story of this ongoing environmental disaster, using digital photography and paint sourced from the toxic run-off from streams near the abandoned mines, combined with cyanotype chemistry. Her images are palimpsests of old and new images, creating ghost-like collages echoing the past and present, combining the dead with the living. I found these images quite haunting, and a compelling reflection on the damaged and damaging, complex pasts she described. The manner in which each of these papers used various technologies of image-making and sharing to tell their stories opened a rich discussion. It created a materiality of storytelling, but there was also cultural cost, for example, photography also pollutes. Lorrie suggested the making of small work was key as a hope that the resulting artwork’s environmental footprint could be lessened.
Science fiction often pictures astronomical observatories, and the astronomers therein, in a positive light. They are the first to spot the Armageddon meteor or alien invader, and they tend to symbolise a pure, disinterested science. The latter is also emphasised by their frequent remote, mountaintop locations. One such location is the contested site discussed in Teresa Shewry’s paper, ‘”Making Things Look Bad”: Extraction, Humor and Science Fiction at Mauna a Wākea’, which provided a constructive counterargument to such views. A new Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT) is proposed for the Hawaiian mountain of Mauna a Wākea, whose potential cultural and environmental impact is significant. The mountain has an alpine ecosystem, and the attempt to use Crown lands for the observatory is seen by many as an act of expropriation and accumulation by the settler state, in aid of militarisation and the exploitation of space. Shewry explored some of the artistic responses to the proposals, introducing the short comic film ‘TMT-5000’ by Rian Basilio and Conrad Ikaika Lihilihi, (see on YouTube), which compressed the debate over the new device into a domestic setting. The adult child begs for a new toy telescope while his father tells him off for having already messed up the house with thirteen previous toy instruments. This referenced the thirteen astronomical telescopes already installed on the mountain, while ridiculing them as simply toys – and there were other, similar reflections, undercutting the project. The crude and sometimes slapstick humour was also an interesting weapon of resistance to the corporate planners. It worked to undermine the seeming seriousness of the astronomical community, the architects and engineers, and opened up the opportunity for different conversations about the contested spaces.
In the same section of the conference, on ‘Blue SFs/Oceanic/Coastal’, Peggy Riley also focused on a specific place, discussing the writing of her latest novel in her paper ‘Uncanny Intimacies: Writing Seasalter’. Riley, who lives in Whistable, just down the coast from Seasalter, wrote the novel for her MFA dissertation at Birkbeck. She described the colonisation of the shoreline by aggressive oyster farming, extraction of the estuary by dredgers and the coastal erosion brought on by drought and rising tides. A landscape of sewage, unexploded bombs and of power lines to wind turbines. The locals in the town must deal with this landscape and these issues, as well as the increase in migrant crossings in East Kent. One character in her story keeps a monster’s tail, as a memorial of a battle in 1953, in the last great flood. When he dies, and his son returns, the monster comes to claim its tail, and calls upon the sea to rise again, and drown all the lands. In describing her approach, Riley referenced Donna Haraway and LeGuin, as well as Amitav Ghosh’s linking of the idea of the Uncanny with climate change, and the sense of menace and uncertainty it engenders. Her story was also inspired by the landscape itself. A tale where the human and nonhuman meet and both are in crisis. I found Riley’s slow and careful description of her work entrancing, as it interlaced the landscape with the forces that had created it, and the theoretical arguments and positions that had inspired her. This was my favourite presentation. Riley also ran a creative workshop later in the conference, which, sadly, I couldn’t attend.
Much of the conference was multi-stranded, with two or three panels of thematically-linked papers given in parallel. Often, at such events, whatever presentations I attend, I remain slightly haunted by a sense of regret, perhaps akin to buyer’s remorse or just a simple fear of missing out, about choices I have made. The feeling that ‘over there’ is a shadow conference made up of all the panels I didn’t see, that is marginally better than the one I am actually attending. And it is one I might actually have been at, if I’d only chosen differently. That feeling was entirely absent here. Perhaps because I had purposefully chosen a number of papers that were slightly out of my comfort zone. Certainly I found myself concentrating harder than usual to appreciate and understand the papers of Blair and Montalti, to their certain benefit. There was also a strong sense that the conference had been carefully curated. There were strong synergies and resonances between the papers, which opened up a number of spaces for the subsequent discussion. Many focused on contested landscapes and spaces, as might have been expected, given the theme of the event. Even so, the panels were exceptionally diverse in subject and treatment.
All conferences, it seems, have challenges to overcome. Sadly, due to illness, the keynote speech by Kathryn Yusoff (Professor of Inhuman Geography at QMUL) had to be cancelled at short notice. The organisers did manage to substitute a selection of short films related to the conference theme in the same slot, including Pumzi (Wanuri Kahiu, 2009), The 6th World (Nanobah Becker, 2012), Three Thousand (Asinnajaq, 2017), and an extract from Tarkovsky’s Stalker (1979). While this was of course a poor substitute, it did at least provide further perspectives on the theme. Technical issues also intruded: at least one presenter had problems with the Blackboard software used for the conference. This resulted in a successful switch of the presenter, moderator and the whole audience to Zoom. Everyone involved moved across just for that paper. Which arguably demonstrated how au fait we have all become with conferencing technologies over the last three years. However, in another paper I attended the sound was so poor that, despite the work of the organising team, I could hear nothing of what was said. And as someone who also gave a paper at the conference, I can vouch for the efficiency and helpfulness of the LSFRC team. This online conference was also the first such in which I felt the planned social event actually worked. The Conference chat system was extensively used, with the screen offering slow-moving, immersive images, and background music playing. The atmosphere was relaxed and the ‘conversation’ seemed to flow spontaneously, albeit limited by the software. Nevertheless, I feel it still didn’t match up to the full richness of an in-person event; so, if the risks of Covid continue to fade, I’m hoping that next year the organisers will offer the opportunity to attend the conference in the flesh.
This story begins with a book that was given, and then taken away. It was Christmas Eve, the night my family and I traditionally exchange gifts. My youngest sister took her turn doling out packages, many of them small, rectangular—the size of books. My brother and I were recipients of two such similarly-sized, book-shaped packages. We were instructed to open them simultaneously (with the caveat that they might be mixed up, that I might be holding his, and vice versa). I tore off the wrapping paper from my book and behold: it was the wrong book.
This is how Patrick Rothfuss’ The Name of the Wind (NW) first made its way into my hands: briefly, and only to be snatched away and swapped with another mainstay of contemporary fantasy writing—Brandon Sanderson’s The Way of Kings. This first encounter, however, is hardly inappropriate given the particular place of books—the ways they circulate, the value they hold, the physical spaces in which they’re stored—in Rothfuss’ Kingkiller Chronicle, a trilogy whose third installment has yet to appear on shelves (though an off-shoot novella, The Slow Regard of Silent Things, has offered readers an interlude while they wait for no. 3).
The Chronicle is, from its earliest chapters, exactly what it says on the box: a chronicle—events which are being written down by the appropriately-monikered Chronicler, who records, by hand, the life events of the narrator, Kvothe—musician, student, and would-be arcanist-turned-innkeeper by the time we meet him in the outer narrative frame of The Name of the Wind. Kvothe’s life story, as told in The Name of the Wind and its sequel, The Wise Man’s Fear, follows his development as a young boy who grows up among an itinerant troupe of performers (thespians, musicians, and magicians) and is singled out, at a young age, as a prime candidate for education at the (apparently singular) University and instruction in the arcane (read: magical, but also scientific and plastic) arts. Before the troupe’s massacre by the mysterious Chandrian (a traumatic event which kindles his desire to enter the University in order to gain access to its famous Archives and learn more about his family’s killers), Kvothe begins his training in the art of sympathy with the skilled arcanist who travels with the troupe. From this arcanist, he inherits a book—a book that he later hocks to fund his first term’s tuition at the University, where he undertakes study in a variety of subjects, quickly passing from one rank of the Arcanum to the next whilst also facing an inordinate number of extracurricular trials and adventures along the way.
As the title of the trilogy and its first installment suggest, names, stories, and storytelling should be at the forefront of our minds as we read the Chronicle—stories which we witness literally coming into being as stories as we listen to Kvothe tell them and watch Chronicler write them down on one broad sheet of paper after another. But it’s not only stories themselves which fascinate Rothfuss and his characters in the Chronicle. It is also the physical forms through which stories and histories are transmitted that matter. That is, for Rothfuss and his characters, booksmatter.