Review of Ethical Futures and Global Science Fiction

SFRA Review, vol. 52, no. 4

Nonfiction Reviews

Review of Ethical Futures and Global Science Fiction

Tristan Sheridan

Zachary Kendal, Aisling Smith, Giulia Champion, and Andrew Milner, editors. Ethical Futures and Global Science Fiction. Palgrave McMillan, 2020. Studies in Global Science Fiction. Ebook. 335 pg. $79.99. ISBN 9783030278939.

Ethical Futures and Global Science Fiction belongs to the Studies in Global Science Fiction series, edited by Anindita Banerjee, Rachel Haywood Ferreira, and Mark Bould. This particular entry emphasizes non-Anglophone literatures in its ethical examinations of futurity within the SF genre and builds off of existing scholarship within the cli-fi and utopian subgenres as well as postcolonial theory. From its first chapter, “Science Fiction’s Ethical Modes,” Ethical Futures seeks to examine the ethical underpinnings of the SF genre, raising the question of “whether SF has a predisposition to a particular ethical outlook” (3). While the author of the chapter, editor Zachary Kendal, acknowledges “the politically and socially regressive traditions of American pulp SF”—traditions often founded in colonialist and fascist ideologies—the collection as a whole stresses how vital SF is as “a primary mechanism—perhaps the primary mechanism—by which our culture imagines its possible futures, both positive and negative,” as Andrew Milner states in a later chapter, “Eutopia, Dystopia and Climate Change” (8, 77). Indeed, careful envisioning of the future may be more relevant now than ever given impending environmental catastrophe, a relevance that Ethical Futures seeks to emphasize, given its final chapter on the modern prevalence of dystopian narratives in contrast to utopian narratives: Nick Lawrence’s “Post-Capitalist Futures: A Report on Imagination.” If we look to fictionalized versions of the future as a guide when moving towards our own, as Ethical Futures purports, it becomes especially important to incorporate non-Anglophone literature and to decenter Western perspectives when conceptualizing futurity.

Divided into four parts—Ethics and the Other, Environmental Ethics, Postcolonial Ethics, and Ethics and Global Politics—Ethical Futures offers both historical overviews in reoccurring themes throughout SF futurisms, such as Joshua Bulleid’s “Vegetarianism and the Utopian Tradition,” as well as close readings of individual texts such as Jamil Nasir’s Tower of Dreams (1999) and Ahmed Kaled Towfik’s Utopia (2008) in Anna Madoeuf and Delphine Pagès-El Karoui’s “Cairo in 2015 and in 2023.” The collection does significant work to unseat the colonialist dogma that many of SF’s most prominent texts have historically operated under, building off of scholarship such as John Rieder’s Colonialism and the Emergence of Science Fiction (2008) in addition to Fredric Jameson’s work on utopian narratives. It does so not only by arguing for anti-colonial and anti-capitalist alternatives, but also by identifying the underlying commonalities between SF and other postcolonial efforts: both literatures “seek alternate futures for the human race, both look beyond the joint nightmare of colonial modernity, both are profoundly involved in future thinking, and both offer a clear platform for the utopian,” as Bill Ashcroft observes in “Postcolonial Science Fiction and the Ethics of Empire” (165). The range of literatures covered in Ethical Futures is extensive, including French, Macedonian, Haitian, Mexican, and Indian literature; however, they are frequently analyzed alongside those from the Anglosphere; futurism and ethics are what most tie this collection together.

The essays contained within Ethical Futures are in clear conversation with one another thematically, even across the differing sections, although these potential connections are often left unexplored more explicitly due to the nature of the collection and its lack of direct collaboration among authors. For instance, Ashcroft’s analysis of the Oankali’s ethical culture in Octavia Butler’s notable Xenogenesis series would have benefitted from Kendal’s own discussion of ethical obligation towards the other earlier in the book, as the alien Oankali and their drive to “seek [otherness], investigate it, manipulate it, sort it, use it” echoes the totalizing ideology that Kendal problematizes as violent and imperial in his critique of Asimov’s Foundation trilogy and Zamyatin’s Мы (We [1920-21]) (172). Even so, Ashcroft still reaches the conclusion that the Oankali are not as morally superior to humans as they initially appear to be on the basis of their lack of ethical “responsibility to otherness,” rather than their totalizing efforts towards the other (179). It is a strength of the collection nevertheless that its individual pieces have clear intersections and develop one anothers’ arguments, however inadvertently. Some essays could be more fully developed, such as Lara Choksey’s examination of Nalo Hopkinson’s Midnight Robber (2000) in relation to dependency work and the politics of care; her argument would have been improved had it explored—or even directly mentioned—the novel’s theme of labor as a practice which its protagonist turns to in order to heal from her trauma, in direct opposition to Hopkinson’s representation of the postcolonial state of Toussaint and its desire to avoid work altogether in the aftermath of slavery. This exploration would have neatly connected to Lawrence’s discussion of automation in the book’s concluding chapter, but it is worth noting that Choksey makes a compelling argument about the role of feminized labor in decolonial states.

On the whole, Ethical Futures makes meaningful contributions to the study of utopian and dystopian literatures and reminds its audience of the importance of collectively imagining a future that is less destructive than our present. Even as Ethical Futures contains thoughtful analysis of dystopian literature and does not begrudge said literature of its abilities to offer needed insights regarding our ethical responsibilities in the present, it is significant that Ethical Futures spends its concluding chapter on the relative absence of modern utopian literature. As Lawrence observes, “there is no outstanding example of utopian thought in the twenty-first century that has achieved success on a mass scale” (318). The final question that Ethical Futures raises, then, regards our seeming inability or unwillingness to imagine beyond the destructive systems under which we live and therefore our turn to dystopian fatalism over utopian hopefulness. In doing so, Ethical Futures marks itself as relevant not only to academic scholarship, but to all those who seek to imagine a better future than the one toward which we seem to be heading .

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SFRA Review is the flagship publication of the Science Fiction Research Association since 1971.

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