Tag Archives: science fiction

Dystopia Now

This post was contributed by Dr Joseph Brooker from Birkbeck’s Department of English & Humanities

dystopiaOn Friday 26 May, the Centre for Contemporary Literature hosted the symposium Dystopia Now. The event continued a significant element of the Centre’s activities in investigating the importance of science fiction and speculative fiction to contemporary culture; at the same time, it responded to a sense, pervasively expressed in recent months, of a dystopian dimension to our political present. The topical theme attracted keen interest, with two dozen speakers travelling from as far as Germany and Japan, as well as from across the UK, to outline different versions of dystopia in recent fiction and discuss their implications. Due to the popularity of the event, its papers ran in parallel sessions, so any impression of it can only respond to half of what took place. This report, accordingly, is only a partial account, which cannot do justice to every contributor; for a more complete picture it may be read in conjunction with other reports that are emerging, and with the live response to the conference on Twitter under the hashtag #dystopianow17.

Caroline Edwards, a key member of the Centre for Contemporary Literature team at Birkbeck, opened the conference with a synoptic reading of dystopian narratives in modern history. To understand dystopia now, she implied, we should reconsider dystopias past. Though Edwards’ lecture began with a vivid sketch of the dystopian aspects of the present – via images of Donald Trump, Vladimir Putin and the renewed popularity of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale (1985) as adapted for the screen – she returned us to the history of the form, citing the term’s use by John Stuart Mill and offering an extensive discussion of the fantastic narratives of H.G. Wells. In a distinctive move, she also proposed that naturalist fictions assailing monopoly capitalism – like Frank Norris’s The Octopus (1901) – could be considered influences on dystopian fiction. In this way, Edwards both expanded the discussion out of science fiction and into mainstream or realist narrative, and proposed that capitalism, as well as totalitarianism, has been a source of dystopian dread.

In a panel on shifting forms of dystopia from Orwell to the present, Simon Willmetts rejected such Marxist critics of dystopia as Raymond Williams and Fredric Jameson, and emphasized the value placed on individual agency by most dystopian narratives: a value that Willmetts found confirmed by Edward Snowden’s defence of privacy. Patricia McManus, like Willmetts, also addressed Dave Eggers’ Google-inspired vision The Circle (2013), but was more sceptical of the individualism supported by dystopian narratives, and argued that the positive force of crowds and collectives had been occluded. Laura De Simoni, in a study of Philip Ridley, reminded us of how dystopia can be represented on the stage as well as the page.

In a panel on gender and dystopia, Nick Hubble read the work of Naomi Alderman and Iain M. Banks, while Sean Donnelly considered the value of young women as potential role models in dystopian Young Adult fiction. The symposium also contained a panel dedicated to the work of MA students. I was only able to catch the third of three papers here, but this – Eden Davis’s reading of Thomas Pynchon’s novel Bleeding Edge (2013) in light of the history of counterculture – was impressively erudite and delivered with panache. I heard good things, too, about the two MA speakers I had missed, Frank Jackman and Lawrence Jones.

The afternoon brought two papers discussing Cormac McCarthy’s The Road (2006): Alice Reeve-Tucker stressing its element of Christian redemption, Diletta De Cristofaro making a case about the treatment of time in this and other narratives. A question from the floor raised the issue of science fiction and literary fiction as different, though perhaps overlapping spheres. This was one of the issues that remained of interest to me: how far does dystopia belong to SF, and how far have such issues spread beyond particular genres into what is often called the literary mainstream? The same point might apply to the author Cory Doctorow, whose brand new novel Walkaway was discussed by Chris Pak. An impressive voice in recent science fiction studies, Pak gave the impression that his work was broadening its remit, though his use of the term ‘neoliberalism’ to designate the world system was queried in the wake of recent claims of the retreat of globalization.

Hollie Johnson introduced us to a vision of ecological dystopia in the age of climate change, which was echoed in Amy Butt’s discussion of Kim Stanley Robinson’s recent novel New York 2140, in which sea levels have risen around Manhattan. Butt’s paper was distinctive in reading dystopian fictions alongside architectural practice. I found it particularly interesting that she used illustrations of the new architecture posited by novels, including Robinson’s. Butt demonstrated how such visual imaginations of a high-rise world can be a bridge between dystopian fiction and actual city planning, though she also expressed caution about the distortions that illustrations can produce as representations of literary narratives.

Where Caroline Edwards’ opening keynote had grounded us in dystopia’s history, Mark Bould’s closing address was oriented to the present. Bould started from recent dismissals of dystopia as ‘monotonous’ and ‘politically wrong’ by Fredric Jameson and Slavoj Zizek respectively: while reluctant to agree with them, he expressed distrust of dystopia as an adequate form for our time. Despite Ray Bradbury’s suggestion that the point of dystopia was to prevent, not predict, the future, Bould declared that such fictions seemed to have done little to prevent the worst aspects of the contemporary world. Indeed Bould limned a damning picture of that world, arguing for the affinities of the contemporary West with fascism. Perhaps the trouble with dystopia, Bould proposed, is that it is no longer sufficiently different from our shared reality. Bould’s barnstorming address closed our day on dystopia by provocatively questioning the value of the genre. Still, the discussions throughout the day gave evidence of the critical reading and thinking that people are doing under this rubric. Notwithstanding the ominous global developments implicit throughout the day’s discussions, it was inspiring to see so many scholars come together, share their work and make connections.



The Art of Writing; Or the Science of Writing

This post was contributed by Clare Brown, a student on Birkbeck’s MA History of Art. Clare also blogs at Renaissance Utterances.

‘Stop it with all the damn metaphors’
Kirk to ‘Bones’ McCoy in irritated exasperation 
Star Trek: Into Darkness (2013)

Science writing has held a peculiar interest for me this week, given my Trekkie credentials. I’ve seen the new Star Trek movie twice and have contemplated buying the original ‘Wrath of Khan’ to compare the change in writing and production styles. However for the purposes of these notes, the quote above is the perfect introduction to the Birkbeck Science and Writing Symposium, 21 May 2013.

A rare group of people – two poets, a playwright, an astronomer, a science/history/cultural academic, two actors and a cartoonist – were brought together not just to discuss the way they communicate their ideas but to actually demonstrate and showcase their skills. I’m not going to simply narrate what each person said but try to highlight themes. What I must say is, so often at academic symposia the emphasis is on the presentation of paper after paper with little or no presenter animation. No matter how interesting the topic, my eyes glaze over eventually but not here, not this time, we were off; starting with the Big Bang. Before I come on to the themes, I want to dwell a little on the poets and their poetry.

Anyone who has written poetry is aware of the painstaking care that goes into the selection of words, creation of sentences and the presentation of it on paper. Simon Barraclough is instantly ‘get-able’ with his ability to have words fall out of his subconscious. He is currently working on various projects; the first is penning a contribution to a collection of poems inspired by Light Show, the recent Hayward gallery exhibition, as well as his own Sun inspired collection. He entertained with his series of From Big Bang To Heat Death, my favourite being this one, because of the perfect combination of religion, science and cultural reference:

Our fusion
Which art in heaven
From evil 

However Rosie Sheppard is a different kind of poet. With her scientific background and a fascination with DNA she uses the everyday, such as food, as a way of conveying the complex patterns and processes of nature and science. Earlier I was rereading one of the poems she recited and her astonishing images conjured by words and situations are tightly structured in a way that is suggestive of the double helix. But only because she told me it was there. Which is like telling a person who likes flowers purely for their scent that behind all the pretty smell is a complicated list of chemicals and chemical reactions. Interesting but without the specialised knowledge, some of the clever stuff goes over my head.

The themes which predominated were roughly these:

  • Science fiction is the absolute favourite way of linking writing and science. From wildly speculative space travel to the sci-fi closer to home, as demonstrated by Nick Payne with ‘Constellation’, the enduring popularity of the incorporation of science into fiction will continue. Science provides a way into a story, writers can play with it, laugh at it, imagine all possibilities and explore what would otherwise be difficult topics. As Nick said, the cosmologists he spoke to rubbished his multiverse theory but he has none-the-less produced a wondrous ‘what if’ play about death.
  • Rise in popular science and the use of accurate and clear summaries of contentious science to inform the public. Darryl Cunningham, cartoonist/graphic novelist has used the power of the image to blast bad science such as the MMR Scandal.
  • Scientists spend a lot of time writing, whether it is grant applications, reports or articles, communicating with the public, so a number of different styles are required. The Public Astronomer Marek Kukula emphasised the importance of getting precisely the right words, which was then immediately echoed by the poets. Another interesting linguistic point Marek made was the importance of foreign scientists working in English, for example, returning to home institutions and having to create new words in their own language to explain new concepts.
  • A continuing collaboration between the writers of art and science. The more theoretical and exploratory areas of science are perhaps more aligned to the arts; financially speaking they may not have a direct payoff but it’s culturally vital to have that inspiration and ‘blue sky’ understanding of our infinitely complex world. Scientists are working on imagining unimaginably abstract ideas, multiverses, esoteric maths, string theory, god particles, black holes. Some writers use art to explain science and this scientific language in turn enriches art. Science provides new metaphors. As Laura Salisbury stated, this is a hybrid language, a juxtaposition of communications ‘abraiding’ with one another.
  • An undeveloped theme was science as a new faith. For the majority of us, we live in a world in which we have to trust because we don’t understand the science behind every-day objects. Laura Salisbury in her cool articulate way outlined the importance of cultural assumptions, drawing on the ideas of French sociologist of science anthropologist Bruno Latour. Interestingly he said that we only become truly modern when we separate the rational from the irrational/superstitious. Scientists and their theories are often found to be wrong and the conservative religious right suggest this is a flaw. But all theories and ideas are incomplete and the enquiring mind is happy to uncover layers of truth.
  • Unrealistic expectation in medical science was also touched upon with examples of illness and resuscitation on television discussed. Marek says that there is no problem with fiction bending  scientific rules but when you’re on a real operating table you want it right. This takes us back to the way that hard science is communicated and the style that the doctor, scientists selects when disseminating methods, procedures etc. No art or metaphor required there.
  • There is a perception that science is dull because of the way it is taught in school and this raised some interesting points. Nick in his role as everyman said he had no clue what he was getting into with cosmology and multiverses but he spoke with people who did know. It was suggested that scientists are like dancers – they have learnt the basics and practiced and practiced – they use their knowledge, analytic thinking, and experience to put on their performance. School children are still learning; exercising at the barre, not yet ready to perform and what they need is ‘cool science’ to inspire.

The evening generated plenty of interesting discussion, each one easily a separate essay topic. There was a final note of caution from Laura on the dangers of metaphor, not just as a Star Trek character devise, but that it may cause a blurring in the precision of scientific language. But despite this, the most important feeling to take away was the acknowledgement that science and art are actually of equal importance; certainly the language of each, informs and enriches the other.


Weird Council: the writing of China Miéville

This post was written by Mark Blacklock, a postgraduate student in Birkbeck’s Department of English and Humanities. He also blogs at kulchermulcher.wordpress.com.

The Weird Council conference will take place at Birkbeck on 15 September 2012.

China Miéville is many things: a master teratologist, creator of arguably the finest monsters since H.P. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu slithered through the pages of fiction; a Trotskyite and left-political theorist; a professor; a self-confessed geek and drum’n’bass-head. Most significantly, though, he’s one of the few novelists changing the future of the novel.

Since an issue of the SF journal Extrapolation was devoted to his work in 2009, Miéville has won the Hugo Award twice for novels that have had enormous fun with the elastic category of genre – so much so that mainstream critics have more than once mentioned his name in conjunction with the starriest of literary prizes, the Man Booker. From the scholarly sidelines, what is most exciting about this is that the novels in question – The City and The City (2010) and Embassytown (2012) – were complex narrative explorations of interstitial space and the intricacies of linguistic signification respectively. These aren’t the kinds of ideas that often win literary prizes in love with realism, lyricism and character. Miéville isn’t one of those writers.

His recent address to the Edinburgh book festival gives a good indication of the sort of writer he is. Steeped in canon-warping and lightly worn erudition, it considered not only ‘What is literature, and what do we want from it?’ but possible futures for the novel. He declared his ‘anguished optimis[m]’ for the survival of the form, aiming a well-judged swipe at the impressively advanced practitioners of what Zadie Smith terms ‘lyrical realism’ who so fear change in the market that has so well fed them that they also fear innovation, particularly as represented by ‘the dead hand of Modernism’. Miéville’s appreciation of the possibilities of the crowd-remixed and re-edited novel will surely not have provided much succour to such types, but from this perspective it makes for tremendously exciting reading. We are still waiting for the Plunderphonic of fiction, but when a piece of literature to match John Oswald’s brilliantly ground-breaking album of sample-based serialism emerges, it sure will be fun.

At the risk of simply compiling a bibliography of his recent work, of similar interest is Miéville’s web-essay dealing with last summer’s riots, ‘London’s Overthrow’, published in abridged form in the New York Times Magazine earlier this year. Here, Miéville’s political ideology informed a hybrid essay – not quite journalism, not quite psychogeography, not quite fiction, but something combining all three – to offer a more sympathetic consideration of the socio-political climate than could be found in most sources.

What was originally planned as a one-day symposium last year grew rapidly to two days, the opportunity to misread the author’s work in his presence too great for scholarly enthusiasts to pass up. The ideas in which Miéville works – weird fiction, monsters, left politics, hybridity,  space – will be considered by twenty six speakers, before the author himself takes the stage for a Q&A and reading. Those of us trying to conceal our fandom beneath the formalities of academic presentation, like meddlesome transdimensional tentacular outcroppings beneath long macs, probably won’t admit to looking forward to that session most of all.