Review of The Comma Press Podcast, Series 2 – Futures (2020, Podcast)

Review of The Comma Press Podcast, Series 2 – Futures (2020, Podcast)

Paul March-Russell

The Comma Press Podcast, from Comma Press, May-September 2020,

Founded in Manchester in 2003, Comma Press is one of the UK’s leading publishers of short fiction. Influenced on the one hand by such techno-inspired collections as Sarah Champion’s Disco Biscuits (1997) and, on the other hand, by Charles May’s now-classic critical anthology, The New Short Story Theories (1994), Comma Press has sought consistently to promote the short story as the vanguard of literary experimentation and artistic responses to modernity. This has meant a strong commitment to science fiction, as well as other related modes such as horror and the Weird, and to the dialogue between science and SF, for example, in Geoff Ryman’s landmark anthology, When It Changed: Science into Fiction (2009). More recently, Comma Press has responded keenly to the refugee crisis, for instance in David Herd and Anna Pincus’ collection, Refugee Tales (2016), and in the publication of émigré authors such as Hassan Blasim. This podcast series, recorded on the eve of the first Covid-19 lockdown in Britain in 2020, brings together the press’ various concerns for SF, the Arab-speaking world, ‘Fortress Europe’, literary innovation, and the politics of locale.

The main presenter is Comma Press’ founder, Ra Page, with Sophie Hughes, co-editor of Europa28 (2020), presenting episode four. Each episode, with the exception of the series opener, takes a recent Comma Press publication as its focus – Blasim’s Iraq + 100 (2016), Basma Ghalayini’s Palestine + 100 (2019), Europa28, and M. John Harrison’s selected stories, Settling the World (2020). Although ‘futures’ is the common theme, each discussion is wide-ranging – covering such topics as the resurgence of Arabic science fiction, the translation and distribution of non-Anglophone literatures, political and cultural oppression, hauntology, and the ambivalences of social media. The longer listening format of the podcast enabled free-flowing conversations, with each episode ranging in length from 60 to 90 minutes. The one exception to the series format, the opening edition, takes a more general look at the role of science fiction, its relationships to science and society, and the predictive and ethical bases for futurology.

For this introductory episode, Page’s guests are the academics Amy Chambers and Amanda Rees, and the SF writer and literary critic, Adam Roberts (a frequent contributor to Comma Press anthologies). Although Roberts begins the discussion by recounting his thesis that science fiction has its origins in the Protestant Reformation of the 16th and 17th centuries, he acknowledges that (as Paul Alkon influentially argued) the idea of futuristic fiction only began in the late 18th century as part of that period’s revolutionary ferment. Roberts’s linkage, however, between SF and scientific and political revolution enables Rees, an historian of science, to argue for SF’s pivotal role as a thought experiment rather than a pedagogical tool. It is in this role that SF most effectively communicates science to a wider public by thinking through the ethical and social dilemmas that underpin scientific discovery. Chambers, a former member of Lisa Garforth’s ‘Unsettling Science Stories’ project at Newcastle University, concurs with Rees’s position whilst drawing upon her research specialisms in SF film and TV. Page’s description of the frustration felt by scientists, participating in the Comma anthologies, towards the more sceptical responses of SF writers initiates a rewarding discussion not only of the differing responsibilities between science and SF but also of the roles of utopia and dystopia. Roberts expresses his distaste for the ultraviolence of Game of Thrones, as well as the simplistic solutions of superhero movies, whilst also lamenting the revisioning of (ostensibly) utopian franchises such as Star Trek. All three acknowledge, though, that dystopia can have a critical function which, ironically, also has a utopian purpose—by pointing out the worst possible scenarios, SF can help to safety-proof future technological outcomes.

Episodes two and three most strongly complement one another, and so form the central focus for the series. In episode two, Page is joined by the Arabic scholars, Sinéad Murphy and Annie Webster, as well as the writer Anoud, one of the contributors to Iraq + 100; in episode three, he is joined by Ghalayini, editor of Palestine + 100, the academics Barbara Dick and Lindsey Moore, and the Palestinian writer Rawan Yaghi. The first of the anthologies imagines life in Iraq a century after the US invasion of 2003 while the second imagines Palestine 100 years after the Nakba: the enforced exodus in 1948 of 700,000 Palestinians following the creation of the state of Israel. Although Murphy and Webster tend to concentrate on the current vogue for SF in the Arab-speaking world, Dick emphasises that its roots lie in the 1960s, and so is more of a revival than a new phenomenon. Anoud’s stress upon the influence of the 1001 Nights as a repository of marvellous tales and feisty heroines suggests, however, that the supposed belatedness of Arabic science fiction is a false construction. Both sets of panellists avoid comparisons with Western SF, concentrating instead upon the local conditions for the production of Arabic SF.

Page notes that, although interest in Arabic futurisms has grown in the wake of Afrofuturism, it may still be Orientalised as an exotic counterpart to Western SF. By contrast, in episode three, mention is made of Larissa Sansour’s film, A Space Exodus (2009), in which the first Palestinian in space can still not escape the historical legacy of the Nakba. Page pertinently observes that, despite the enthusiasm of Western scholars and readers, the production of Iraqi and Palestinian SF from within those countries remains precarious. Anoud, for instance, describes the hostility of US officials and the regional threat of Isis. But, whereas these oppressions drove Anoud to create her SF, the decades-long colonisation of Palestine has all but stifled local literary networks. Page notes that, while there is active émigré writing from Iraq, contact between Palestine and the West remains difficult with Palestinian writers denied the right to travel overseas. Although Anoud, Murphy and Webster emphasise the mix of absurdity and terror that constitutes life in Iraq, a generative factor (as Webster argues) for the ‘creative destruction’ of art, Palestinian life appears more rigid and controlled with fewer opportunities for creative outlets. To that end, Dick and Moore warmly celebrate the appearance of Palestine + 100, and co-opt the role of interviewer from Page to ask Ghalayini how the collection was assembled, how the translations were prepared, and how the authors have distributed their work. Their hope is that the cause of Palestinian SF may be advanced with the aid of TV and film adaptations of Arabic texts—for example, a mooted screen version of Ahmed Khaled Towfik’s Utopia (2008).

Episode four, recorded after lockdown had been introduced, changes tack by focusing upon women’s futuristic fiction from Europe. It acts, though, as a mirror-image to the previous conversations by exploring the refugee crisis from the EU’s point of view and its implications for the European project. As Hughes’s guests and contributors to Europa28, Janne Teller and Kapka Kassabova, contend, the failure to help refugees from Syria and other warzones undermines the utopian principles of the EU, born from the (literal) ashes of two World Wars and the Nazi Holocaust. In their conversation, Teller and Kassabova argue for the need for embodiment, intimacy, touch and the face-to-face encounter in contrast with the alienation of the Internet and screen culture. As Hughes and her panellists note, this demand is all the more ironic since—due to the pandemic—their conversation is reliant upon Zoom. Nonetheless, while making communication across borders technically possible, the technology also highlights the estrangement between individuals and the need for sustainable ecologies to ensure the physical survival of the public space. In the writings of Thomas Piketty, Teller and Kassabova see an economic model in which a fusion of capitalism and socialism is viable. Underlying both this conversation and the collection of stories and essays, written by twenty-eight European women, is a vision of Europe that predates the EU—an Enlightenment model consisting of the ‘republic of letters’.

The final episode is only tangentially related to the overall theme of futures through discussion of hauntology, Mark Fisher’s concept of ‘lost futures,’ and Robert Macfarlane’s reflections on the ‘eeriness’ of the English landscape. Page’s guests include M. John Harrison, the critics Andy Hedgecock and Jennifer Hodgson, and the filmmaker Adam Scovell, best-known for his popularisation of ‘folk horror’. Taking Harrison’s retrospective anthology, Settling the World, as its focus, the conversation offers a thoughtful and insightful examination of what it means to move through a landscape, to be both possessed and radically displaced by it. In comparing Harrison with other neo-avant-garde writers of the 1960s and ‘70s, such as Ann Quin, Hodgson emphasises the phenomenological basis to his fiction—the collapsing of any dialectic between inner and outer experience—, so that Harrison’s protagonists tend to treat the external world as a hieroglyph to be deciphered: only to be entrapped within its manifold complexities. Harrison concurs with Hodgson, acknowledging the impossibility of mimetic representation to describe the object in itself, but emphasising that this tendency also comes as a refusal of such literary conventions as linear narrative, closure and plot. For Harrison, his aim is for fiction to be viable—to live on its own terms—and not at the behest of such external apparatus as the science-fictional obsession with ideas. Although the exchange between Harrison and Hodgson allows Hedgecock and Scovell to discuss the now-familiar terrain of the hauntological, with mention of such writers as H.G. Wells (‘The Door in the Wall’), M.R. James and Robert Aickman, more interesting is how Harrison’s writing is positioned in relation to the avant-garde and the legacy of European modernism. This, too, would seem to dwell upon the nature of political and artistic borders as discussed in the preceding episode. Despite the excellent contributions of the other panellists, Harrison—as is so often the case—is not only the most thought-provoking writer but also the most perceptive analyst of his own work, and its sustenance of a late modernist aesthetic.

Taken as a whole, the series offers a number of engaging and stimulating conversations on the relationship between science and science fiction, the politics of writing, the role of translation, art and civic society, and the nature of landscape. The general theme of futures is somewhat stretched, not least in the final episode, but this is compensated by the quality of the conversations and the various contributors. Since the series was affected by the transition into lockdown, praise should also be given to Becca Parkinson for the editing and sound quality of the series despite at least two of the conversations being conducted remotely. Ultimately, however, the podcast acts as a shop-window for Comma Press and, on this basis, the series demonstrates how the press is not only tapping into some of the most urgent issues of the day but also contributing to the cosmopolitan ideal of the republic of letters. From the point of view of the short story, Comma Press’s anthologies emphasise the importance of short fiction in assembling voices from around the world—a veritable United Nations of writers, artists, and other unacknowledged legislators. 

Paul March-Russell is editor of Foundation: The International Review of Science Fiction, commissioning editor for SF Storyworlds (Gylphi Press), and co-founder of the feminist fiction imprint Gold SF. He is also a member of the European Network for Short Fiction Research, and author of The Short Story: An Introduction (2009).

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