SFRA Country Report: India


SFRA Review, vol. 51, no. 2

Features


SFRA Country Report: India

Vishnu Prasad Thandassery Radhakrishnan


This is my first contribution to the SFRA Review in any format and I am deeply humbled and honored to write the country report for India. The report features an Introduction to the Indian Association for Science Fiction Studies (IASFS) and our activities including the organization of an International online conference in 2020 and proposed activities for 2021, followed by an overview of the Indian SF films and literature released in 2020 and 2021 until now.

IASFS is a non-profit association established on 2nd January 1998. The association’s headquarters is in Bangalore, Karnataka State. This is the only registered association in India which promotes the research in science fiction and fantasy. The association promotes research in the field of Science Fiction, organizes conferences and conducts SF short story writing workshops for Indian citizens of all ages and levels of education. IASFS has organized 14 National and 5 International Science Fiction conferences at different locations in India. The Association has collaborated with many Colleges, Universities, Local Bodies and Institutions in organizing conferences. Hence, it was able to bring together hundreds of academicians, scholars, students, scientists, writers, publishers, critics, movie makers, journalists, fans, industrialists, technologists, farmers and readers.  So far the Annual Conferences of IASFS were held at Chennai, Coimbatore, Gandhigram, Gudiattam and Vellore in Tamil Nadu, Bangalore, Yelahatti and Mysore in Karnataka, Varanasi in Uttar Pradesh, Aurangabad and Pune in Maharashtra, Pondicherry, and Ernakulum in Kerala, my home state. Each conference had plenary sessions and story reading sessions by respective authors in addition to the paper presentations. IASFS had also arranged a SF Story Writing Workshop conducted by Eric Miller and story reading sessions by respective SF writers. The association was also able to organize a video conference with Professor James E Gunn, Director of the Center for Science Fiction Studies at Kansas University.

Dr. Srinarahari is the Secretary-General of IASFS and he plans and distributes all the duties and activities of the association including memberships, roles of members in association and conference related activities. I am a life member of the association since 2019. The 19th Annual or the 5th International Science Fiction virtual Conference of the association was held in collaboration with Bangalore University, from December 7 to 10 in 2020. This conference was entitled “All Roads to Science Fiction”. A unique feature of the conference was that all the 52 departments of the Bangalore University, SF fans, media and the general public had converged at “ISFC 2020”. Themes of the conference varied from myths to advanced technology and to the life in other worlds. The conference was inaugurated by the Chief Minister of Karnataka State, and the Deputy Chief Minister, the Minister for Higher Education, the Minister for Primary and Secondary Education, the Vice Chancellor of Bangalore University, and the Physics Nobel Laureate of 2019 Professor Didier Patrick Queloz had made their esteemed presence. Some of the highlights of this conference include plenary sessions from SF experts and scholars from different countries, paper presentations, special lectures, interviews, panel discussions, and the narration of SF stories. Guest Speakers of the conference included science fiction writers from Czech Republic, Julie Novakova and Lucie Lukacovicova. The conference also hosted guest speakers from different disciplines including Neural Engineer Dr. John RoLacco from Singapore, NASA scientist Ravikumar Kopparapu, and Dr. Ashish Mahabal, Astronomer and Data Scientist from Caltech.

The Association publishes a quarterly magazine entitled Indian Journal of Science Fiction Studies. It comprises of papers and stories presented in the previous conferences, review of books, and an interaction by the readers. As part of the conference, we had also prepared a collection of all the abstracts received for the conference and it was released as an E-book after the conference. Selected papers from the conference will be published in a peer reviewed journal maybe later this year. IASFS proposes to hold Regional, National and an International Conferences during 2021-22. This year’s National Conference may be held at Shridi in Maharashtra.

As for the recent developments in Science Fiction novels, films, and TV shows from India, there is very little to mention from the year 2020 till now. One SF novel worth noting is Samit Basu’s Chosen Spirits. This is a dystopia set in a near Indian future and has all the elements of a traditional dystopia like surveillance, an exploitative government, and the manipulation of technology. It was featured in the short list of the JCB Prize for Literature in 2020. Other honorable mentions include The Wall by Gautam Bhatia, Analog/Virtual: And Other Simulations of Your Future by Lavanya Lakshminarayan, Star Daughter by Shveta Thakrar, and Hunted by the Sky written by Tanaz Bhathena. S.B. Divya, who is known for her SF short stories, published her first SF novel Machinehood in March 2021.When it comes to SF films and TV shows, the trend is no different in the number of production. Only two SF films were released in theatres after the pandemic. It is to be noted that both of these are Telugu-language films. Disco Raja directed by Vi Anand was released on 24th January 2020 before the lockdown phases started in India. Zombie Reddy directed by Prasanth Varma was released on 5th February 2021 when the theatres partially reopened amidst the pandemic. This film is considered as the first zombie film in Telugu language and it is also based on the COVID-19 pandemic. Two Hindi language SF web series were released in 2020, Betaal and JL50. Betaal is a zombie horror series directed by Patrick Graham and it was released on Netflix. Even though it received mixed to negative reviews, it is still India’s first zombie web series. JL50 is directed by Shailender Vyas and it is available on the streaming platform Sony Liv. OK Computer is the only Indian SF series released in 2021 till now. This SF comedy drama series is directed by Pooja Shetty and Neil Pagedar and it was released on Disney+ Hotstar.

I feel that this is the ideal time for me to write a country report for India. Because India is going through the worst second wave of COVID pandemic and people are dying from the lack of oxygen supply in hospitals all over the country. It feels like we are living in a dystopia on the verge of apocalypse which also reflects our common interest in this venture, Science Fiction.   Let us hope that the pandemic will be over very soon so that we can survive this trial and get back to our normal lives.  


Vishnu Prasad Thandassery Radhakrishnan is a Ph.D. Student in the English department of St. Thomas’ College (affiliated to the University of Calicut) in Thrissur, Kerala, India. His MA dissertation was on J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings Trilogy. In his Ph.D. thesis, he is working on Young Adult Dystopian literature which tries to look into the genre’s impact on popular culture, film adaptations, and social media discussions all over the world. Vishnu is a lifetime member of the Indian Association for Science Fiction Studies (IASFS) which promotes science fiction research both in English and India’s regional languages and organizes an International Science Fiction Conference every year. He is also the current country representative of India for the Science Fiction Research Association (SFRA). Vishnu is also a member of the YA Studies Association and his research interests include Science Fiction and Fantasy, Utopias and Dystopias, Children’s and Young Adult Literature and Media, Gothic Studies and Popular Culture Studies.

The SF in Translation Universe #11


SFRA Review, vol. 51, no. 2

Features / SFT Universe


The SF in Translation Universe #11

Rachel Cordasco


Welcome back to the SF in Translation Universe! It’s supposedly Spring here in Madison, Wisconsin, but it actually snowed for about five minutes this afternoon, so I don’t know anything anymore.

Wait, I do know one thing, and that’s the fact that 2021 is giving us a lot of fantastic SFT. So much, in fact, that since I wrote the previous installment of this column, I’ve discovered even more novels and collections that came out between January and March. Thus in a first for this column, I’ll include a paragraph about SFT that came out in the first three months of this year, and then I’ll jump into what this installment is supposed to be about, which is SFT coming out between April and June.

Somehow The Lunar Trilogy—a famous series of science fiction novels by Polish author Jerzy Zulawski—slipped under my radar at the time of my last writing, though it is now not just on my radar but also my website. Written between 1901 and 1911, and published in English in January of this year, these books tell the story of Earth astronauts who get stranded on the Moon and establish a colony, one that goes on to develop in many ways like the civilization they left behind. February brought us Rabbit Island, a collection of magical realist stories from Spain, and In the Company of Men (Côte d’Ivoire), which explores the Ebola outbreak through a fabulist lens. In March, we were treated to German SFT from Julia von Lucadou—The High-Rise Diver, a story about the cost of ubiquitous surveillance—and Markus Heitz (of the Dwarves and Alfar fantasy series), who is out with the Doors trilogy, an alternate-history thriller about a mysterious cave system to another timeline. March also brought us Zabor, or The Psalms (about writing as a way to achieve immortality), the fourth installment in Jin Yong’s wuxia series Legends of the Condor Heroes, plus Italian SF author and editor Francesco Verso’s collection Futurespotting and the ecologically-focused (and quite excellent) anthology Elemental:Earth Stories.

Which brings us to April, May, and June, when flowers should be blooming and snow should not be falling…but I digress. Korean SFT continues to roll in—which makes me very happy—this time in the form of a collection of interconnected stories by Kim Bo-young (I’m Waiting For You) and a novel by Choi Jin-young (To the Warm Horizon), about a group of people trying to move forward literally and metaphorically across an apocalyptic wasteland. From Japan, we’re getting Izumi Suzuki’s first stories translated into English—Terminal Boredom—a collectiondescribed as “at turns nonchalantly hip and charmingly deranged.” Sign me up.

Staying in Asia, we have a Chinese novel and anthology to look forward to in June. Chi Ta-wei’s The Membranes is a near-future tale about humanity living in undersea domes after climate devastation. Sinopticon, edited by Xueting Christine Ni, offers readers thirteen newly-translated stories from some of China’s most engaging science fiction authors.

French post-exotic author Antoine Volodine shows up in May with Solo Viola, where a viola player might just save his compatriots from the suffering they’re experiencing at the hands of an authoritarian leader. From Mohamed Kheir comes a magical story about Egypt’s hidden, magical spaces and life after the Arab Spring. And surely most of you reading this column know about Lavie Tidhar’s latest anthology of world speculative fiction—The Best of World SF—with stories about time travel, aliens, and everything in between. With authors like Taiyo Fujii, Cristina Jurado, Francesco Verso, and Nir Yaniv, you know this’ll be good.

“But what about short fiction?” I hear you asking. So far in April, we’ve gotten two excellent stories available for free online: “The Final Test” (Future Science Fiction Digest), translated from the Chinese, about a machine that must prove its worth by facing a virtual reality human in a test of wills; and the disturbing Icelandic story “The Sea Gives Us Children” (Words Without Borders) about a community without adults living on an island, where the sea periodically deposits babies for the children to care for.

Thanks for reading, and I’d love to hear what you’re reading now and what you’re looking forward to: rachel@sfintranslation.com.

Until next time in the SFT Universe!

SFRA Country Report: The UK



SFRA Country Report: The UK

Francis Gene-Rowe and Paul March-Russell


Part 1: Francis Gene-Rowe

My contribution to this column will consist of an introduction to the London Science Fiction Research Community (LSFRC), which I co-direct, followed by an overview of our 2020 activities and 2021 plans.

The LSFRC (est. 2014) is an organization of sf scholars and fans, led by a directorate of graduate students. The Community presents film screenings, work in progress colloquia, and special talks with guest speakers—whose number has included Brian Stableford, Sherryl Vint, and David Brin—several times a year, and also hosts a monthly reading group (previously located in Central London but currently online) on Monday evenings. Each year the reading group engages with texts organized around a central theme. Since 2017, we have hosted a conference centered upon our annual theme each September. The 2017 conference was entitled “Organic Systems: Environments, Bodies and Cultures,” and subsequent themes have included “Sublime Cognition: Science Fiction & Metaphysics” (2018) and “Productive Futures: The Political Economy of Science Fiction” (2019). In addition to academic keynotes, we also invite authors and other creators to participate in roundtable discussions—previous guests have included Aliette de Bodard, Gwyneth Jones, Jeff Noon, Chen Qiufan, and Larissa Sansour—as well as activists and organisers for a “provocations beyond fiction” session. Our 2020 conference was entitled “Beyond Borders: Empires, Bodies, Science Fictions,” and we are currently planning a 2021 conference around the theme of Activism & Resistance. Expect a call for papers for that around early Spring.

LSFRC is not affiliated with any external bodies or institutions, although we enjoy a mutually beneficial relationship with Birkbeck’s Centre for Contemporary Literature. We also maintain friendly relations with the Beyond Gender collective, Vector, and Utopian Acts. Our events are open to all, regardless of geographical location; there is no LSFRC membership structure, and events we host always offer a free registration option. Our primary community presence is in our Facebook group, but we also maintain a Twitter page and website. We support and encourage diversity in sf studies and fandom, not only in the range of approaches to the genre, but also in our commitment to providing a welcoming space for engagement with sf for people of all backgrounds and experience.

Our 2020 activities began with a screening of Sun Ra’s Space is the Place as part of the “Beyond Borders” programme, followed by reading group sessions on Tade Thompson’s Rosewater and stories from the Broken Stars (ed. Ken Liu) anthology in February and March, the latter of which was conducted in part as a teach-out on a picket line at Birkbeck, University of London. Subsequent reading group sessions—Janelle Monae’s Dirty Computer in April, N.K. Jemisin’s The Fifth Season in May, stories from Walking the Clouds (ed. Grace Dillon) in June, Ahmed Saadawi’s Frankenstein in Baghdad, and Nnedi Okorafor’s Binti in August—and other events all took place online. The switch to online facilitated remote participation from people based outside of London, and for those still unable to attend we post session reports and/or bibliographies to our website. During this time, we also hosted a work in progress event that featured a guest talk from Glyn Morgan, started up an informal film club for remote group viewings, and hosted a bonus reading group session and Twitter Q&A as part of the launch of M. John Harrison’s collection “Settling the World.” In September, our efforts were focused on the Beyond Borders conference, after which several members of our team—Tom Dillon, Sing Yun Lee, and Katie Stone—stepped down after years of stellar service. In the wake of their departure, we issued a call for new directors that elicited a slew of excellent applicants, and our team now consists of Ibtisam Ahmed, Angela Chan, Avery Delany, Cristina Diamant, Rachel Hill, Guangzhao Lyu, Mia Chen Ma, Sasha Myerson, Josie Taylor, and myself.

The remainder of 2020 was spent formulating and launching our theme for 2020-2021, Activism & Resistance. The theme was born of a desire to re-examine the relationship between activism, resistance, and the mass imagination with regards to sf. As a genre dedicated to imagining alternatives, sf offers a space of radical potential which allows for diverse explorations of dissent. It is also however a space that has been rightfully critiqued for its historic inequities, formed by and favoring white cis-het men. Our hope is to instigate a reckoning with how precarious bodies engage in activism and resistance in the context of their material realities and restrictions, and acknowledge how communities in the margins—queer, disabled, BIPOC, immigrants & refugees, religious minorities, indigenous populations, casualized workers, the homeless and unemployed—have specific ways of subverting and undermining oppressive systems. Our 2020 programme rounded off with reading group sessions on Kwodwo Eshun’s “Further Considerations on Afrofuturism” & John Akomfrah’s The Last Angel of History (October), Begum Rokeya Hossain’s “Sultana’s Dream” & Bani Abidi’s The Distance From Here (November), and Kathy Acker’s Empire of the Senseless (December). We also hosted a work in progress event in November that featured a stimulating and inspiring interview with Alison Sperling.

As things stand, it seems that our events will remain online-based for a while yet. In addition to the Activism & Resistance reading group sessions (the texts for which are listed below) and conference, we will be hosting a work in progress session sometime in Spring, and hope to also facilitate other events, with current ideas including an activism workshop and some sort of video games-focused event. We will also be brainstorming a theme for 2021-2022. We are eager to forge new, generative connections wherever and whenever possible, and are keen to ensure that our events and discussions are not cloistered within the bubble of career academia. While our focus is primarily scholarly, it is our view that any meaningful study of sf must necessarily engage with politics in a fuller way than academy-circumscribed approaches. We also acknowledge that we have much to learn, and welcome whatever transformative encounters with ignorance and learning we may meet in the days to come.

2021 Activism & Resistance Reading Group Texts:

January: Brother from Another Planet, John Sayles
February: Elatsoe, Darcie Little Badger
March: Tales of Nevèrÿon, Samuel R. Delany
April: Deep Space Nine & Blake’s 7 (selected episodes)
May: New SunsDisabled People Destroy SF, and How long ’til Black Future Month (selected short stories)
June: Wild Seed, Octavia Butler
July: 80 Days, Inkle Studios
August: Emergent Strategy, Adrienne Maree Brown


Part 2: Paul March-Russell

In 2020, the activities of the Science Fiction Foundation were necessarily constrained by Covid-19. Eastercon was cancelled, so there was no George Hay Lecture this year, whilst an abbreviated version of our AGM was moved online. The SFF Collection, housed at the University of Liverpool, was inaccessible for much of the year, but our Librarian, Phoenix Alexander, continued to answer online requests. We still had a visiting scholar though, Iren Boyarkina from Belarus, who researched the Olaf Stapledon Archive with the aid of an SFF bursary. Foundation, the journal of the SFF, appeared as per usual with two general issues and a special issue on Canadian science fiction. This issue also contained Katie Stone’s Peter Nicholls Prize-winning essay on James M. Tiptree and a roundtable discussion, with Gerry Canavan, Jennifer Cooke and Caroline Edwards, about sf and apocalypse. Back issues of Foundation, since 2013, are now available online via Fanac while the revised SFF website has the beginnings of a cumulative index to the journal. Membership of the SFF remains competitive – students can join for £15 ($25) per year, overseas individuals for £32 ($48) per year, and overseas institutions for £50 ($82) per year. Please go to the Membership page of the SFF website or contact our secretary, Roger Robinson, at sff@beccon.org.

Although in-person events were not possible, the SFF continued to support the Arthur C. Clarke Award and contributed two of this year’s judges, Farah Mendlesohn and Chris Pak. Both the SFF and the Clarke Award sponsored an online celebration, in its fortieth year, of Russell Hoban’s Riddley Walker. The organising committee—myself, Andrew M. Butler, Fiona MacDonald and Sonia Overall—had begun planning in the summer of 2018 with the intent of bringing together the three major HE providers in Canterbury (Canterbury Christ Church University, the University of the Creative Arts and the University of Kent) in a commemoration of Hoban’s Kent-based apocalypse. Our initial vision was to feature a symposium on the Christ Church campus; a creative writing competition; dramatic, musical and puppet theatre performances; public lectures at the University of Kent and Canterbury Cathedral; a walking tour of sites in the novel; a book group; films and public discussions at Kent and the local Curzon cinema; and commissioned art-works to be displayed around Canterbury and East Kent. We applied for funding from the Arts Council, England, only to narrowly miss out at the final stage, so we were forced to scale-down our plans. As it turned out, even if we had been funded, much of what we planned would have had been rendered impossible by the pandemic. On the eve of the lockdown in March, though, we received good news by becoming part of the Canterbury Festival program, which still went ahead in October with a mixture of online and socially distanced events.

In the wake of the lockdown, and its continuing effects over the summer, we opted to move our remaining plans online. These consisted of the symposium (‘Sum Poasyum’), the competition in collaboration with the local Save As Writers, and the book group with support from the Festival. With only a small budget at our disposal, we had to use our initiative and to make the most of opportunities. We devised a webpage via the Canterbury Christ Church website, and we received free illustrations of The Legend of St Eustace from the Canterbury Archaeological Society, and drawings from Hoban’s papers courtesy of the Beinecke Library. We asked for short (five-minute) responses to the novel from, amongst others, Neil Gaiman, Paul Kincaid, Una McCormack, David Mitchell and Max Porter, which we uploaded to our own YouTube channel. In exchange, we asked viewers to contribute to two local charities. Fiona received funding from the Whitstable Biennale to complete her filmed response to the novel, which also took the overall name of our celebration – Sum Tyms Bytin Sum Tyms Bit. Fiona’s film was premiered on 15th October, one day before the 40th publication of Riddley Walker, at the Folkestone Festival of Looking. In the meantime, we took guidance from Francis Gene-Rowe and Lars Schmeink, who had coordinated online and streaming events over the summer, and from the IT team at Canterbury Christ Church. Due to the institutional support, we used Christ Church’s preferred platform, Blackboard Collaborate, which in the end worked well.

The symposium took place on 24th October from 11 am to 5 pm. We began with Emily Guerry’s talk about the iconography of The Legend of St Eustace, the medieval mural that first inspired Hoban. The second session was a collaboration with the Kent Animal Humanities Network (Angelos Evangelou, Karen Jones, Kaori Nagai, Charlotte Sleigh), who focused on the role of dogs, borders and the nuclear context. The first post-lunch session featured a conversation between Fiona and Esi Eshun, a talk by Sara Trillo, and a live performance by Amy Cutler. The final session included a conversation between myself and the novel’s BBC Radio adapter, Dominic Power, and a roundtable discussion. The sessions were recorded and can be viewed here: https://blogs.canterbury.ac.uk/sumtymsbit/archive/. The winners of the prose and poetry competitions were announced that evening, and a virtual walking tour took place the following day.

Part 3: Jo Lindsay Walton

The British Science Fiction Association (BSFA) is a venerable membership organisation of fans, scholars, authors, editors, publishers, and other stakeholders of science fiction. The BSFA has always been volunteer-run, and a rotating cast of volunteers mean that the exact nature of what we do regularly mutates. Our activities nowadays tend to encompass speculative fiction across all media, although true to our roots there’s continued emphasis on written science fiction. The principal glowing portals the BSFA maintains include a main website, a journal website, Twitter, Facebook group, Discord, Instagram, and YouTube channel

Vector is the critical journal of the BSFA, currently edited by Polina Levontin and myself. Vector serves a mixed constituency of SFF scholars; other academics with an interest in SFF; as well as non-academic SFF fans and writers. With the lines between fandom and scholarship now not only blurring, but also shimmering and strobing, this remains a frenetic but very satisfying space in which to be working and playing. As of 2021, Vector is moving toward a more open access policy, publishing more content online and adopting Creative Commons licensing for most of it. We have also been collaborating with FANAC to make available our rich back catalogue, stretching back to 1958, and offering a fascinating and occasionally horrifying window into the history of SFF fandom. Publishing plans for 2021-2022 include several guest editors: there is a CfP out now for a special issue on SFF and Class (guest-edited by Nick Hubble), and future themes are likely to include SFF and Prediction, SFF and Social Justice, Greek SFF, and SFF and Modernism. Currently the majority of our articles receive editorial review only, while a few also go through peer review. We welcome submissions and queries from scholars at any career stage as well as non-academic authors and critics.

The BSFA also publishes Focus (a magazine for writers, edited by Dev Agarwal); The BSFA Review (a digital reviews zine of all things SFF, edited by Sue Oke); in 2021 we’ll be launching Fission (a fiction anthology, edited by Allen Stroud). Many BSFA members also participate in the Orbit writers groups, co-ordinated by Terry Jackman. During the UK’s first lockdown period in 2020, we ran the solidarity salon, AKA Very Extremely Casual Tales of Optimism and Resilience, a series of online readings. Historically the BSFA also ran Eastercon, the UK’s national SF convention; while this isn’t the case any more, the two remain closely linked, with Eastercon playing host to the annual BSFA Lecture (organised by Shana Worthen), and Eastercon members voting in the annual BSFA Awards.

The BSFA 2020 Annual General Meeting saw the first major constitutional overhaul in many years, with some expectation of further tinkering in the years to come. In some respects this brought the constitution in line with existing practice, but it also created some fresh roles. Councillors will be elected and/or appointed officers who, along with the Chair (Allen Stroud), Treasurer (Farah Mendlesohn), and Membership Officer (Luke Nicklin), will govern the association between General Meetings. Pat Cadigan also took over as President of the Association, leaving the Vice President role vacant for the time being: we expect to announce the new VP before the 2021 AGM. The AGM also passed a number of interlinked diversity and inclusivity motions, which will include making some BSFA memberships freely available through partnership organisations such as the African Speculative Fiction Society.

As of early 2021, there are volunteer opportunities at the BSFA: three Councillors, a Diversity Officer, an Awards Officer, and a Publications Designer. If you are interested in finding out more and perhaps applying, get in touch with the Chair Allen Stroud. Just as the ‘L’ in ‘LSFRC’ has been rumored to secretly stand not for ‘London,’ but for ‘Large,’ perhaps the ‘B’ in ‘BSFA’ could secretly stand for ‘Big’? — we aspire for our conversations, our connections, and our communities to be, at a minimum, planet-wide.

Alternative History and Afrofuturist Bricolage in N. K. Jemisin’s “The Effluent Engine”



Alternative History and Afrofuturist Bricolage in N. K. Jemisin’s “The Effluent Engine”

Emily Lange


N. K. Jemisin has received well-earned critical attention for her novel-length works of speculative fiction, especially after her Hugo Awards triumphs in 2016, 2017, and 2018. Her collection of short fiction, How Long ‘Til Black Future Month (2018), brought together pieces of several genres, both previously published and unpublished materials. The collection includes “The Effluent Engine,”[1] which follows a Haitian spy through New Orleans in an alternative history adventure. Jemisin’s heroine must negotiate the new ideals of a liberated Haiti and the internalized norms of New Orleans’ Creole society as she attempts to garner vital strategic information. The story highlights intersectionality on a personal as well as a group level in a nuanced exploration of how we can change our worlds. As argued by scholars such as Sofia Samatar, alternative history itself can be a powerful tool of Afrofuturism. Alongside the concept of bricolage—a process of merging, reshaping, and redefining—alternative history highlights the confluence of individual and group identities within Jemisin’s story. Applying Samatar’s reading of alternative history and bricolage foregrounds how Afrofuturist techniques in “The Effluent Engine” explore the identities of intersectional characters, their community relationships, and their connection to place.

“The Effluent Engine” presents an alternative history where dirigibles and access to other technologies changed the course of Haitian struggles for independence. The main character, a Haitian spy named Jessaline, must enter the slave state of Louisiana to seek an engineer who can further refine the fueling mechanisms for these powerful airships. While Jessaline’s contact is unwilling to help lest it risk his position in New Orleans’ Creole society or prompt backlash from the white leaders of Louisiana and the United States, his sister, Eugenie, proves her knowledge of chemistry can help develop a dirigible engine powered by the effluent, or waste product, of sugarcane processing. Pursued by white supremacists hoping to steal the plans and sabotage Haiti’s independence, Jessaline and Eugenie flee to Haiti intent on developing the engine as well as their romantic relationship.

Speculative fiction as a broad category embraces alternative histories like “The Effluent Engine” for their ability to reimagine both the past and the future. Indeed, Sofia Samatar points out in “Toward a Planetary History of Afrofuturism” (2017) that alternative histories engage with both points in time simultaneously: “To propose an alternate history is to propose that history can be altered, to change directions, to inaugurate an alternate future.” (Samantar, 187) One cannot imagine an alternative past without carrying forward the implications of such changes. In picturing a new history for Haiti, readers are inherently asked to apply these changes to the arc of history. A rich alternative history crafts space for readers to question how such alterations would affect their present time. While some references to the arrest of Toussaint L’Overture place the action of the story in the years following 1802, the lack of dates overall points to their middling importance to the narrative; Jemisin does not need to offer a blow-by-blow account of the changes to history to tell a compelling story that prompts readers to think about large-scale shifts in society. Jemisin emphasizes the transformative aspects of alternative history through characters who are invested in imagining new futures.

At the core of the changes to history in “The Effluent Engine” are Haitian airships, which allowed them to fight back against French colonial forces. Jessaline’s mission is an attempt to find a scientist who can turn the by-product of rum, the titular effluent that produces methane, into a cheaper and plentiful fuel source. Innovative use of by-products and discarded materials is a theme within many pieces of Afrofuturist media, which Samatar evokes in her discussion of the terms bricolage and bricoleur. (177-178) Initially coined by Claude Lévi-Strauss, bricolage was used to distinguish (white) Western invention and what Lévi-Strauss deemed the lesser reinvention, “proceeding in a haphazard fashion and working with second-hand materials, the leftovers of various civilizations”. (Samatar 177) Samatar aligns herself with creators such as Nnedi Okorafor, who uses the phrases bricolage and bricoleur in her novel Who Fears Death. Bricolage celebrates the process of excavating history: “it is from these historical fragments that the data thief or bricoleur constructs visions of what is to come…the bricoleur detaches objects from time, making them available for the creation of new histories.” (Samatar 178) The process of reclamation and reformation is paralleled, for Samatar, by the formation of cultural independence and positive engagement with technology, as she argues that “Afrofuturistic bricolage asserts black people’s right to use whatever is at hand, to enter the technologically enhanced future through whatever door is closest and to do so without assimilation into a global monoculture.” (Samatar 178)[2] Haitian use of effluent as a fuel source repurposes the by-product of a process that itself was intimately connected to colonization. The economic benefits to France from rum and sugar production are re-integrated into the new, independent Haiti as something which has the potential to preserve the nation’s survival. Jessaline’s mission, therefore, is not only espionage but tied up with the process of bricolage.

Beyond the genre of the story itself, “The Effluent Engine” engages with personal uses of alternative history and bricolage as well as collective or group uses of the concepts; Jessaline is a notable character who uses these tools to create disguises and false histories for herself in her role as a spy:

She was indentured, she told the captain, and he had waved her aboard without so much as a glance at her papers (which were false anyhow). She was a wealthy white man’s mistress, she told the other passengers, and between her fine clothes, regal carriage, and beauty – despite her skin being purest sable in color – they believed her and were alternately awed and offended. She was a slave, she told the dockmaster on the levee; a trusted one, lettered and loyal, promised her freedom should she continue to serve to her fullest. He had smirked at this, as if the notion of anyone freeing such an obviously valuable slave was ludicrous. Yet he, too, had let her pass unchallenged. (Jemisin 78)

With every movement, speech, and look, Jessaline creates an alternative history for herself which both protects her and her nation while simultaneously eating away at the solidity of her own identity. In a single journey as described above, Jessaline navigates the elision between identities with practiced ease. Later, when she must change hotels to avoid the pursuit of white, anti-Haitian independence spies, she uses padding which “rendered her effectively shapeless—a necessity, since in this disguise it was dangerous to be attractive in any way”. (Jemisin 99-100) The disguise is meant to make her appear both older[3] and poorer; it includes alterations to her walk and a patched dress. The implication that appearing attractive and poor would make her a target comes across clearly; when she dresses better, Jessaline references a white owner or takes the guise of a white man’s mistress. Through her disguise, her attempts at anonymity are successful: “She was, for all intents and purposes, invisible”. (Jemisin 100) In both of these alternative histories of herself, it is not her class that provides protection, but the implication that she is under a white man’s control. But what effect does this constant construction of alternative histories have for Jessaline herself? Her identity itself is fluid as her goals change and she comes across different challenges. While her disguises can act as a shield, the necessity for a shield itself takes a toll.

Jessaline’s assumed surname for the start of the story, Dumonde, offers a hint at her attempted invisibility. The French du monde, meaning “of the world,” obscures a sense of specific nationality or community. As a spy, Jessaline must attempt to be a member of any and every nation where her mission might take her, and as such, she cannot risk solidifying her identity. Jessaline embodies the bricoleur in her relationship with the names she uses. Her true name, which she reveals to Eugenie in an attempt to gain her trust, does not seem to resonate with her personally. She explains “My name is Jessaline Cleré. That is the name of the family that raised me, at least, but I should have had a different name”. Her actual name does not provide her with a sense of identity, because she feels that she “should have had a different name, after the man who was my true father”. (Jemisin 92) Jessaline is the illegitimate child of Toussaint L’Overture, one of the best-known leaders of the Haitian Revolution. Jessaline’s attempt to identify with her father through his family name is frustrated by her status as the daughter of his mistress, revealing yet another source of liminal fluidity at the core of Jessaline’s identity. Her family, we are left to interpret, is itself a collection of pieces, and Jessaline is the bricoleur attempting to bring the disparate elements into harmony.

Jessaline embodies the use of alternative history and bricolage as an individual, but when considering the group identities at play in “The Effluent Engine”, New Orleans provides a key example. Jemisin’s depiction of New Orleans emphasizes this assemblage of identity, narrowing in on the liminality of the free Creoles such as Norbert and Eugenie Rillieux. Caught between social strata, Jessaline describes the Creole class as “a closed and prickly bunch, most likely because they had to be: only by maintenance of caste and privilege could they hope to retain freedom in a land which loved to throw anyone darker than tan into chains.” (Jemisin 78) The retention of hierarchical structures in the relative freedoms of Creole society stands as a question for Jemisin’s alternative Haiti, whether internalized norms have persisted after revolutionary change. Creole society’s retention of strict hierarchical boundaries is one example of normative class division making itself known, as the social group ostensibly outside of hegemonic control reconstructs the same or similar categories of division and power. The tensions between the norms of Creole society, particularly regarding feminine sexuality, come to the forefront as Eugenie begins to vocalize an imagined life with Jessaline in Haiti.

Even though the alternative history of Haiti shapes the entire story, “The Effluent Engine” never directly engages the alternative space. The fact that readers never see Haiti itself in the story encourages the perception of Jemisin’s Haiti as a potential utopia. Jemisin inverts the contemporary narrative of Haiti as a disaster-wrought refugee nation, especially as Eugenie and her brother Norbert are forced to flee their home in New Orleans. In “The Effluent Engine,”Haiti as a nation embraces the method of re-examination of that which is cast aside, a nation of bricoleurs. Airships function as more than the trappings of a steampunk-influenced alternative history here; rather, they are the site of a collective bricolage. “Producing rum is a simple process with a messy result; this effluent, namely, and the gas it emits, which until lately was regarded as simply the unavoidable price to be paid,” Jessaline explains to Norbert Rillieux. “We wish you to develop a process by which the usable gas—methane—may be extracted from the miasma you just smelled.” (Jemisin 81) The production of sugar and rum has decimated the landscape in parts of Haiti, Jessaline affirms, hinting at the ecological impacts of colonial production methods. Even when independent Haiti builds upon its relationship with sugar, not completely discarding it, but reframing the ecological relationship such that the country may have a more balanced impact on the landscape and fuel their airship engines. Jemisin’s Haiti engages with bricolage not only in the use of effluent as a fuel source but through examining how elements of the colonial past can help form an independent future.

Part of this imagined future for Jessaline and Eugenie comes from the alterations Haitian society has already undergone in its own history and accepted ways of being. By creating an alternative history for Haiti, Jemisin as an author has opened the door for greater representation of sexual preference. Jessaline explains to Eugenie that the revolution changed circumstances for women in Haiti, and that “it is not uncommon for a woman to head a family with another woman, and even raise children if they so wish”. (Jemisin 96) The word “wish” becomes operative here; couples have agency in choosing whether or not to have children, rather than a sense of responsibility to reproduce. But Eugenie’s eventual enthusiasm does not seem to acknowledge the radical potential of changes in Haiti; rather, she still relies upon the norms she finds familiar, such as the fact that one partner would provide for the family as in the typical heterosexual couples in New Orleans. Eugenie declares her concern for Jessaline’s work as a spy, “I’m not fond of you keeping up this dangerous line of work. My inventions should certainly earn enough for the both of us, don’t you think?”, and seems more than willing to step into the breadwinner role which she has seen enacted during her life in New Orleans, “there’s no reason for you to work when I can keep you in comfort for the rest of our days”. (Jemisin 111) Going to Haiti means that Eugenie can follow her passion for science both openly and lucratively, but she does not pause to ask whether Jessaline’s work as a spy provides her with similar fulfillment. Since Eugenie has only recently acknowledged her sexuality, one could interpret this as a part of a newly accepted identity trying to retain some of the structures of socially acceptable relationships, i.e. heterosexual, patriarchally-organized couples. Jessaline, as an individual, is once again caught in between, this time between the social openness of Haiti’s new society and the stricter norms of New Orleans Creole expectations. On the level of group identity, Haitian society allows for alternative ways of being, the crafting of alternative histories, but individuals such as Jessaline and Eugenie must still navigate the internalized norms embedded in their conceptions of possible futures.

Jessaline’s personal liminality reflects the transitions taking place around the main characters in “The Effluent Engine” and the resulting tension between new ideals and internalized norms. Both individuals and larger societies must negotiate such tensions to survive. Jessaline must create alternative histories for herself to be a good spy, but these take a toll on the solidity of her identity, which she must then attempt to reassemble in her role as a bricoleur. On a larger scale, the society of both Haiti and New Orleans must deal with different types of bricolage to make sense of their histories and strive for alternative futures. “The Effluent Engine” captures the struggle for socio-cultural survival and the balance between persistence and change. Jemisin’s short story is not only an example of richly imaginative Afrofuturism but a beautiful example of how authors and scholars can use tools of alternative history and bricolage in their writing to highlight both personal and group identity.


[1] Also published in Lightspeed Magazine in 2011.

[2] Divorced from the racially-charged comparisons of Lévi-Strauss, one might see how bricolage infuses the work of Black artists throughout history. The collages of Romare Bearden (1911-1988) are just one example of the work of African American collagists who reconstruct images out of seemingly disparate pieces. Visual artist Kara Walker’s installation piece Fons Americanus (2019) in the Tate Modern highlights this fusion of forms, echoing the Queen Victoria memorial, the Trevi Fountain, and Confederate statues in the United states while depicting images of slavery and black resistance (Bakare). Walker reclaims forms historically used in white European and American contexts to critically engage with historical and present harms and trauma.

[3] In order to make herself “disappear”, Jessaline chooses to make herself seem older, another layer of armor alongside the pillows she uses to make herself appear shapeless. With her obvious desire to avoid sexual violence, Jessaline ages herself in an attempt to seem sexless. Her strategies for personal survival rest upon the perpetuation of a belief that older people, and older women in particular, cannot be attractive. While not imperative for the argument of this article, acknowledging the intersectionality of both character identities and the identities they intend to evoke in the imaginations of others requires an understanding of the problematic character of essentializing conceptions of age.

WORKS CITED

Bakare, Lanre. “Tate Modern Fountain Tells ‘Jarring’ History of British Empire.” The Guardian, 30 Sept. 2019. http://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2019/sep/30/tate-modern-fountain-tells-jarring-history-of-british-empire. Accessed 16 Feb. 2020.

Jemisin, N. K. “The Effluent Engine.” How Long ‘Til Black Future Month, Orbit, 2018, pp. 75-112.

Samatar, Sofia. “Toward a Planetary History of Afrofuturism.” Research in African Literatures, vol. 48, no. 4, 2017 Winter 2017, pp. 175–91.

Emily Lange is an undergraduate student at Elon University studying English Literature and Philosophy. She is completing her two-year thesis on representation and intersectionality in contemporary speculative fiction. She has an article in FEMSPEC and a forthcoming piece in The Journal of Popular Culture. Her research interests include the pedagogical uses of speculative fiction, work at the intersection of philosophy and literature, and archival ethics.

Egypt as a Test Case for Gender in Arabic Science Fiction



Egypt as a Test Case for Gender in Arabic Science Fiction

Emad El-Din Aysha


The status and portrayal of women in Arabic science fiction is at a precipice in the post-Arab Spring era. Using Egypt as a test case, it emerges that the number of women contributing to the genre is on the rise, and that the presentation of women is generally positive, if not very in-depth and challenging. The politics and economics of literary production is the greater issue, holding back all authors regardless of gender.

Like many literary and cultural imports from the West such as women’s literature and feminism, science fiction is new to the Arab world. Nonetheless, the record of Arab SF is generally good, given that one of the first writers of science fiction in Algeria was Safia Ketou (1944-1989), with her short story “La Planète Mauve” (1969). One of the first authors of SF in Kuwait, likewise, was Taibah Al-Ibrahim (1945-2011), author of a trilogy published in the 1980s-90s on cloning and cryogenic freezing, where it is the men who lose their sexuality thanks to these modern technologies (see below). One of the first and most distinguished SF authors in the UAE is Noura Al-Noman, with her award-winning Ajwan trilogy, beginning in 2012. The problem, however, is continuity. There haven’t been any distinguished women SF writers in the entire Maghreb (Algeria, Morocco, Tunisia and Libya) since then, while countries like Kuwait and the UAE are latecomers, with only a handful of SF authors, the bulk of whom are men.

Then there is the ever-tricky issue of content. Are female characters portrayed in a positive light? Do they share equally with men in the building of the future, and what is the status of gender in these imagined future worlds, as illustrated through family, sexual relations, love and intimacy? Modern Egyptian literature and pop culture certainly has its own species of gender-related prejudices, and in many cases has actually imported stereotypes from the Western world. One oft-cited case is Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew, adapted into an Egyptian black and white classic film Beware of Eve (1962), with the ‘modern,’ educated, assertive woman portrayed as the unfeminine shrew. (Zeyada, 2020; “Shakespeare’s Day”, 2007) Watching Egyptian black and white cinema, you feel like you’re watching cowboy epics, with a polarised separation of women either into the god-fearing, conservatively dressed housewife or the scantily-clad saloon girl. The older species of fantasy, fairy tales, is often captivated by this same polarised perception of the feminine—or Snow White and the Evil Witch, as Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar famously put it. (Eid, 2020; Tatar, 1999: 23, 28, 36-44; Gilbert and Gubar, 1984: 36-43) Such stereotypes emerge in modern SF guise via the vehicle of toxic male and female characterisations, as SFF author and literary instructor Christina ‘DZA’ Marie[1] has amply documented. (Marie, 2020; 2019) One particular trope we shall touch on below is the mad male scientist inventing the seductive female robot on the Pygmalion model, to cite AI expert Stephen Cave (2019). There is the added problem of the appropriation of science by men, relegating women to the realm of magic and superstition; I Dream of Jeannie being a classic example used by John Carlos Rowe (2011) and Marie Lathers (2009).

Syrian researcher and author Muhammad al-Yassin insiststhat female characters in Arab SF works are generally portrayed in a positive light, regardless of the gender of either the author or the protagonist. The problem, however, he explains, is making effective generalisations, given the small number of Arab SF authors, let alone the even smaller number of female authors. (Al-Yassin, 2020) Egypt as a test case helps solve this problem, since Arabic SF essentially began in Egypt and has been hampered by much the same problems as the rest of the Arab world. Having spoken to many an Arab author, I found repeatedly that the first examples of Arabic SF they ever read were Egyptian, often inspiring them to become authors in the genre themselves. Comparisons are called for with other Arab countries, no doubt, but Egypt is still leading the pack quantitatively and qualitatively.

Making sense of the Egyptian experience can be helped through periodisation. What were the major concerns of the genre as a whole, not just individual authors, and why and how has this changed over time? How did these authors look at gender and how did this change over time, and was the presence or absence of female writers a contributing factor to this? These are the questions that will be answered in the section below, followed by a critical appraisal and set of final remarks on the future direction of gender in Arabic SF, post-Arab Spring.

BETWEEN CONTEXT AND CONTENT

Egyptian science fiction goes essentially through four phases. (El-Zembely, 2018) The first in the 1950-60s was helmed chiefly by playwright Tawfik al-Hakim and Islamic thinker Mustafa Mahmoud, with some mainstream authors trying their hand at SF. The second in the 1970s-80s began with the ‘dean’ of Arabic SF, Nihad Sharif, since he was the first to specialise in this genre, along with some other mainstream authors. The third critical phase stretches from the 1990s to 2011 when the Egyptian SF scene was dominated by the pocketbook (pulp sci-fi) series led by Nabil Farouk, Ahmed Khaled Tawfik and Raof Wasfi; the beginning of mass readership of SF in Egypt and many other Arab countries that read these pocketbooks. Finally, the fourth and current phase, from 2011 to the present, begins with the January revolution and the launch of the Egyptian Society for Science Fiction (ESSF) in 2012 by Dr. Elzembely, a friend of Nihad Sharif, Nabil Farouk and Mustafa Mahmoud.

There are several layers of context lying behind this periodisation, some more unique to Egypt and some more general to the Arab world. Generally, there is little to no institutionalisation of SF in the Arab world. There are few associations and print magazines and little to no attention from the Ministry of Culture at the level of organising conferences or translating SF into Arabic,[2] with the small exception of Syria, thanks to the diligence of Dr. Taleb Omran, the country’s top SF author, who began writing in the 1980s. Institutionalisation in Egypt only began in part thanks to the Arab Spring, starting with the ESSF and then the Nihad Sharif Cultural Salon and some advocates in the Egyptian Writers’ Union. Another common problem across the Arab world is the state of the publishing industry, with a lax intellectual property rights regime and outdated business model when it comes to distribution and profits, (Maklad, 2014) along with the usual political restrictions. (Qualey, 2013) The situation is more pronounced in Egypt, in fact, since authors often have to shoulder the burden of proofing their own texts and contributing financially to publication costs. Editors only enter the picture when it comes to academic texts, and literary agencies are almost unheard of, a common problem in Arabic-speaking countries.

Another problem more peculiar to the Egyptian marketplace is the format for SF and other genre publications, a pattern that took root during the third phase thanks to pocketbooks. Full-length novels are making their way onto the bookshelves, but most novels are within the 20,000 word range, while short story collections are still more popular—and the shorter the short story, the better. This places undue restrictions on you when it comes to plot and character development. Ahmed Khaled Tawfik only began writing full-length novels, beginning with Utopia (2007), later in life, mainly to please the critics and only after gaining a huge following among young readers. (Aysha, 2018)

Ahmed Khaled Tawfik is emblematic for another reason entirely, since most of what he wrote was horror and adventure. A generation of readers-turned-writers came to emulate him, which is why most SF writers in Egypt do not write only SF. Horror, detective fiction, dark fantasy and Young Adult are the more popular genres. All Arab authors traditionally have to make ends meet by having a regular job elsewhere: as a civil servant (like Naguib Mahfouz) or a medical profession (Yousef Idris), schoolteacher, IT expert, translator or graphic designer. In short, the potential out there for SF is huge, but the market is holding everything back, while the literary establishment takes little to no interest in SF.

Women only enter the picture in the second phase, with Dr. Omayma Khafagi’s classic novel The Crime of a Scientist (1990), but no other female authors emerge after that until the fourth phase, with novelists like Basma Abdel Aziz, Asmaa Kadry, Sally Magdy, Dr. Kadria Said and Dina Hekal. This is a deceptively short list of names, as the number who have written short stories is much, much larger, indicative of a swelling of the numbers of female writers attracted to this genre. We can use the ESSF’s anthology series Shams Al-Ghad [“Sun of Tomorrow”] as an example. The number of stories by men compared to women is: Volume One, 4:1; Volume Two, 8:4; Volume Three, 9:5; Volume Four, 15:8; Volume Five, 14:9; Volume Six, 21:9—a slow but steady increase. Admittedly, Volume Seven was 23:2, but this was an exceptional issue dedicated to resistance literature and military SF: some stories by female authors designated for this volume went into other contests, so the numbers aren’t as representative as they seem. While progress has been incremental, the prospects are good, as far as the female contribution to Egyptian SF goes: one of the most critically acclaimed, and internationally recognised, Arab dystopian novels published is none other than Basma Abdel Aziz’s The Queue (2013). Equally important is the fact that women writers in Egypt testify to no discrimination upon entering the world of SF, despite the economic and institutional constraints we all face, men and women. (“In Conversation”, 2019) Even newcomers like Asmaa Kadry, an Egyptian writing and publishing in the UAE, have confirmed this. (Aysha, 2020) She also feels no need to have female protagonists only leading her storylines and is proud to write about men accurately. When queried as how to improve the status of Arab women in SF, she answered: “To just think of them as ‘writers’ not ‘women writers’, you know what I mean? The written word is an expression of the human soul, not the human body, and souls have no gender.” (quoted in Aysha, 2020)

This statement is illustrative of the experience of early Egyptian SF, since gender concerns were conspicuous by their absence. Khafagi’s The Crime of Scientist, purportedly a story about a scientist who makes a human-ape hybrid, has shades of Pygmalion in it, since the guilty scientist in question is a man while the victim is his wife, and the hybrid child is their daughter. Nonetheless, the focus here wasn’t gender, but fear of progress in the form of a searing condemnation of genetic engineering. The novel shocked many critics, because the author herself was a geneticist and trained in the Soviet Union. (Al-Sharouni, 2002: 75-81) The first two phases in Egypt were characterised by a persistent problem shared by many SF works in the Arab world, namely, a profound hostility, fear and mistrust of modern science. There was no hostility to science and technology as such, but to the way they were employed by Western modernity. The classic statement of this in Arabic SF, often cited by Western academics themselves, were the two dystopian Moroccan novels The Blue Flood (Campbell, 2017) and The Elixir of Life. (Campbell, 2015) This was even more pronounced in Egyptian SF works. Mustafa Mahmoud praised mysticism and the world of the soul in the face of science in his novels The Spider and Out of the Coffin, while A Man Below Zero is almost a dystopian novel set in a cosmopolitan future world of material plenty but spiritual aridity and emotional emptiness.

To clarify how gender fits into this, we have the example of Tawfik Al-Hakim’s In the Year One Million (1947), set in a future world where people live forever,  so there is no longer any sex, procreation, love or major biological differences between men and women. There is no awareness of change at all. People live indoors under artificial lighting and never sleep and aren’t aware of the distant past, forever living in the here and now. No art or poetry exists. Then, a scientist makes an archaeological discovery, the bones of an ancient man; he becomes aware of the possibility of death and nothingness and that their world could come to an end. A movement forms around him, it is quashed but persists nonetheless, and with that, death becomes a possibility again, so biological urges and procreation begin to return. The soulless world of the present, where humankind worships and is ruled by machines, gives way to the belief in God the creator. (Al-Sharouni, 2002: 106-110) It is not so much gender that is at issue but modernity and the fear that technological bliss will unmake humanity; with no difference, there is no creativity, art, passion or emotion. Gender is incidental. Anxieties about modernity are expressed in gendered terms but no more. Similar themes abound in Sabri Musa’s The Master from the Spinach Field (1987), with the value of the traditional family upheld by the rebel heroes in the face of the hedonistic, impersonal dystopian world they live in. (al-Yassin, 2009: 32)

For a more contemporary example we have “Love in the Year 2060” (1993), by Syrian author Mohammad Al-Hajj Saleh. The text is set a future world where reproduction and love are forgotten memories. Existence is bland and boring, only regaining colour and vitality once the male hero cures the infertility problem that has been hoisted onto humanity by a malevolent alien race. (al-Yassin, 2009: 51) This isn’t too different, in principle, than Taibah Ibrahim’s works, since cloning and freezing became alternative conduits to immortality, so men lose their sex drive. (Al-Sharouni, 2002: 255, 259-262)

The only examples of gender as a central theme or motif in early Egyptian SF are in Mustafa Mahmoud’s work. In A Man Below Zero, (1966) the hero is a scientist and university professor, an avowed atheist. His wife, formerly his student, is religious, and there is a love triangle of sorts with another male character who is envious of the professor and helps him with a dangerous experiment so as to take him out of the picture. Fortunately, his machinations come to nothing and the erstwhile hero of the novel, while heading on a collision course with the core of the sun, realises that the only truth is that of God and that his wife was right all along. She is left to try and propagate the faith afterwards, symbolically, through their offspring. Still, gender is not that high up on the priorities of the novelist.

In the next two phases, from the 1990s to the present, things begin to change, and for the better on all fronts. The level of hostility and anxiety towards modern science is less pronounced, with technologically bright futures portrayed in the pocketbooks of Nabil Farouk’s Future File series, accompanied with ample male and female heroes as scientific defenders of the realm. Ahmed Khalid Tawfik’s Fantasia novellas are led by a woman. The important things are that women were not denigrated and that science came to be seen as something Arabs and Muslims could use on their own terms to advance themselves and recapture their civilisation. The classic statement of this came in a trio of novels by Dr. Elzembely – The Half-Humans, The Planet of the Viruses and America 2030. (2001) They do owe a lot to the pocketbook series, particularly in the action-packed scenarios of America 2030 and The Half-Humans, but even here, the women are active participants in the action: The Planet of the Viruses is about a global pandemic of extraterrestrial origin, with women scientists and doctors playing a key role in solving the riddle of the viral threat.

In The Half-Humans in particular, we have a female android that the male hero falls in love with not only because she saves his life more than once, or because of her beauty, grace and intelligence, but also because she is presented as someone who has a ‘soul’. She is part mechanical, true enough, but also made of reconstituted human tissue, and the author deploys spiritual interpretations of the Qur’an that denote all things, even inanimate objects, as having some form of consciousness. To recollect the male-dominated gender stereotypes listed above, the Pygmalion and Jeanne stereotypes, Dr. Elzembely’s female android passes this with flying colours. Moreover, the early hostility to science run amok in Arab SF can be chalked down to fears of cultural colonisation in the early post-independence days. Not to forget that the very first science fiction novel, Frankenstein (1818), itself was hostile to scientific advancement, because Mary Shelly’s generation of writers and poets romanticised nature as a refuge from the faithless, materialistic and imbalanced world of early industrialisation and urbanisation. (Eid, 2020)

SF following 2011 is still more complex. The conflation of Western modernity with science is essentially gone while a whole new swath of subgenres has emerged, from post-apocalypse to steampunk, along with more distinctive Egyptian brands: conspiracy theory SF and spiritual or Sufi SF. For an example of the place of gender in all this, we have “The Rebels”, a short story by one of the ESSF top female authors, Lamyaa Al-Said. Here, a group of young intelligent reptilians from another planet escape their rigidly controlled world and come to Earth to wreak havoc and become disguised overlords. The aliens are particularly interested in ruling ‘the East’ given its slavish devotion to superstition and worshiping their leaders, or so they think. Fortunately, a young Egyptian couple, scientists, expose the aliens and save the world. The reptilians are even charged with driving Egyptians against each other, after the January revolution, and the young couple are also political activists. There still are worries about the misuse of science, but its proper use is deployed as a solution that can reassert the natural balance of things. Hence, Muhammad Ahmed Al-Naghi’s dystopian short story “Eugenics”, where world peace reigns through genetic engineering. The bulk of the population is female, given the warlike instincts of men, and people have limited lifespans and predetermined careers. Nonetheless, a scientific resistance movement forms. The heroine, who is the spitting image of Nefertiti, with resurrected ancient Egyptian genes, gives birth to a boy to help repopulate the eart. The reassertion of the natural order of things is exemplified by the closing scene, where the mother and son are tilling fields with the wind on their brow, unlike the beehive world of urban civilisation.

Dr. Elzembely has described this latest phase as one of “cultural authentication”. (Cultural Salon, 2019) Young authors are searching for their own answers as to what they want the world to look like, whether it be the relationship between religion and science, or matters like equality, minority rights, religious pluralism, democracy and free speech, etc. Muslims want to stake their claim to modernity, to their position in the world, and the portrayal of women by and large is positive and expanding. The only remaining question is, will they be allowed to continue in this path?

REMAINING CONSTRAINTS AND FUTURE PROGRESS

SF literature, always plagued by many a problem in Egypt, is now facing a charged political atmosphere. A translator friend of a friend of mine was arrested, inexplicably, while another fellow SF author was arrested after participating in a protest march. It turned out the police chief in charge of the district needed to make his quota of arrests and this particular protestor hadn’t been pulled in for questioning. Another young author was arrested, along with his father, for posting a photo of a protest march on Facebook. Yet another friend confessed to me that he had to praise a former Egyptian president in one of his stories to make sure it didn’t spook any potential publishers. When I applied to join the Writers’ Union, I found I had to hand over my fingerprints, something I’ve been told they didn’t ask for before. There’s a lot of bad blood and cherry-picking out there too, with select books and authors being sued or having their works banned for sexual content, while other authors that are much worse get off scot-free. Egyptian publishers positively encourage lurid literature and many an author deliberately writes about controversial topics, as free advertising.

The limiting word lengths publishers insist on continue to create problems and in some cases problems the authors are unaware of. Dr. Kadria Said and Muhammad Naguib Matter’s Adam without Eve (2020) owes much to the pulp series mentioned above—specific pocketbooks are mentioned by name in the novel—and characters as a consequence lose their sense of volition. (Cultural Salon, 2020) The novel is also captivated by that strain of hostility to science and modernity that animated the initial phases of Egyptian and Arab SF. The story is about cloners using their technology to either steal military secrets from Egyptian nuclear scientists, or steal the secrets of the ancients by cloning ancient Egyptians. It is also noticeable that one of the evil characters is a foreign-educated Egyptian women with blue eyes (of mixed descent) whereas another woman that fights against her is also well educated, relying on technology to evade capture, while thoroughly Egyptian in her upbringing and appearance.

The younger generation of authors is a bit luckier. One of the most interesting examples of this is SFF author Ahmed Al-Mahdi, a literary translator and also an Arab Spring protestor. In his post-apocalyptic, steampunk novel Malaz: The City of Resurrection, (2017) the male hero, Qasim, falls in love with a girl named Jihad, the daughter of Muhab, leader of the so-called Outcasts, a warrior clan that live in the mountains. He meets her for the first time while scavenging the ruins of Cairo for scrap metal and she saves his life from a wolf on the prowl. When he joins the Outcasts, Muhab takes it upon himself to teach Qasim swordsmanship and chivalry. Qasim almost gives up, until he sees Jihad close by and he forces himself to keep practicing and practising till he becomes an expert and all in an effort to impress her. For all his disdain of the corruption and tyranny of the Sayydin (hunters), the warrior class that run the city-state of Malaz, he is an intellectual and doesn’t busy himself with rebellion or righting the wrongs of the past. Jihad also insists on going to battle when the southern kingdom of Abydos goes to war with Malaz, despite Qasim’s protestations.

The bandits, or ‘outcasts’ as they’re known, were originally part of the warrior caste that ran Malaz, in its golden age when it was a safe haven for all; malaz in Arabic means haven or sanctuary. Querying Ahmed, he insisted that female participation was part of this ideal, older order, something he wanted to revive through the character Jihad:  jihad really means “effort” or “struggle”, but is often mistranslated as “holy war” in English. Querying Ahmed further he explained: “I try to give women more roles than just being passive watchers, and not stick to stereotypical gender roles”. Even more intriguing is the kingdom of Abydos, where the old gods of ancient Egypt are worshipped again, including: “Sekhmet is the Egyptian goddess of the sun, war, destruction, plagues and healing. She is one of the oldest deities and one of the most powerful. She is a member of the Memphite (cult center in Memphis) triad together with husband Ptah, the god of creation and wisdom and son Nefertum, the god of sunrise” (Mahdi, 2020). The boy prince of Abydos, Sia, overthrows his father and declares war on Malaz, reviving the old technologies of the pre-apocalyptic world to build a giant war machine to destroy the walls of Malaz; the machine is modelled on a lioness and named after the Goddess of War. The men of Malaz, including the Sayyadin, are terrified of the goddess, and it is only Qasim and Jihad that can take it on with his own retrofitted ancient technologies. Ahmed added that this was just out of historical accuracy, but it is noteworthy, one of the few instances when gender and male insecurities are tackled head on.

On the plus side, from all of the ESSF volumes listed above, I’ve only encountered two short stories that portrayed women in a negative light. Sex specifically is absent. There are romance stories in Egyptian SF, stretching as far back as Mustafa Mahmoud, but the relationships in question tend be innocent, platonic and cerebral. Nihad Sherif’s “The Woman in the Flying Saucer” (1981) has female humanoid aliens coming to Earth, asking help from an astronomer. There is a romantic atmosphere in the air but nothing more (Snir, 2000: 275-276). This pattern is repeated in many of our ESSF stories, not least one of the most interesting stories in our resistance volume. Mahmoud Abdel Rahim has a love story running parallel to an armed resistance movement, and it is the romantic story that inadvertently leads to an intifada that finally ends the occupation. Love is designated as the ultimate weapon, not the parallel-worlds mirror that allows the resistance to anticipate the enemy’s next moves.

This air of innocence is all the more amazing, given how mainstream Egyptian literature is captivated by sexualised stereotypes. Still, avoiding bad stereotypes is not the same thing as providing an alternative that isn’t didactic and flat, and that demands the kind of depth of characterisation and thematic controversy not allowed for in Egypt. Religious scruples are part of this hesitancy, no doubt. There is also the literary upbringing of the authors. Ahmed Al-Mahdi once noted how shocked he was at the rape scene in Utopia, given how he’d grown up reading Ahmed Khaled Tawfik’s highly sanitised pocketbook series (Aysha, 2018). Still, the bigger problems are the constraints placed on writers, women and men, as outlined above.

Where things will go from here is anybody’s guess, but I’m personally optimistic. To cite Muhammad al-Yassin again, the onus is on the critics to highlight what is missing in Arabic and Egyptian SF and to help the genre gain the kind of notoriety and acclaim it deserves (2020). If this critical piece can help in any way in this regard, then there is hope at the end of the tunnel.


[1] DZA stands for Dragons, Zombies & Aliens.

[2] This sort of governmental involvement is standard practice for literary fiction in the Arabic-speaking world – ed.


ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS

Special thanks to Rebecca Hankins, Ahmed Al-Mahdi and Marcia Lynx Qualey.

WORKS CITED

Al-Mahdi, Ahmed. (13 August 2020). Facebook communication.

Al-Sharouni, Yousef. (2002). Science Fiction in Contemporary Arabic Literature: Till the End of the 20th Century. Cairo: General Egyptian Book Organization. [Arabic].

Al-Yassin, Muhammad. (26 February 2020). Facebook communication.

Al-Yassin, Muhammad. (2009). “Egyptian and Syrian Science Fiction: Novels and Novelists”. Science Fiction, 10–11: 30-53.

Aysha, Emad El-Din. (2 April 2020). “Splicing and Dicing: interview with Fantasy-SF author Asmaa Kadry”. The Levant. https://the-levant.com/splicing-dicing-interview-fantasy-sf-author-asmaa-kadry/.

—-. (21 November 2018). “In Memoriam: Ahmed Khalid Tawfik, the Man and the Mission”. Arab Literature (in English) Blog. https://arablit.org/2018/11/21/in-memoriam-ahmed-khalid-tawfik-the-man-and-the-mission/.

Campbell, Ian. (2015). “Science Fiction and Social Criticism in Morocco of the 1970s: Muhammad Aziz Lahbabi’s The Elixir of Life”. Science Fiction Studies. 42(1). March: 42-55.

—–. (2017). “False Gods and Libertarians: Artificial Intelligence and Community in Aḥmad ‘Abd al-Salām al-Baqqāli’s The Blue Flood and Heinlein’s The Moon is a Harsh Mistress”. Science Fiction Studies. 44(1). March: 43-64.

Cave, Stephen. (14 October 2019). “Imagining the Future with AI”. Paper delivered at Artificial Intelligence, Innovation and Inclusion: What Prospects for the Middle East and Africa?, Ninth Annual Workshop of the Access to Knowledge for Development Center (A2K4D), held at the American University in Cairo.

Cultural Salon for the Egyptian Society for Science Fiction. (31 January 2020). Nasr City, Egypt. [Arabic].

Cultural Salon for the Egyptian Society for Science Fiction. (27 December 2019). Nasr City, Egypt. [Arabic].

El-Zembely, Hosam. (28 March 2018). “The Director of the Egyptian Society for Science Fiction on Arabic SF’s Past, Present, and Future”. Arab Literature (in English) Blog. https://arablit.org/2018/03/28/the-director-of-the-egyptian-society-for-science-fiction-on-arabic-sfs-past-present-and-future/.

Eid, Nariman. (29 February 2020). “Igor and Eva: A Deeper Relation than Frankenstein and His Monster”. Paper delivered at the International Graduate Student Conference: Transmedia Explorations: Literature-Film-Media Formulations, held at the American University in Cairo.

Gilbert, Sandra M. and Susan Gubar. (1984). The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-Century Literary Imagination. New Haven: Yale UP.

“In Conversation: Passing the Baton of Egyptian Science Fiction, Post-Arab Spring”. (24 August 2019). Vector: British Science Fiction Association. https://vector-bsfa.com/2019/08/24/in-conversation-passing-the-baton-of-egyptian-science-fiction-post-arab-spring/.

Lathers, Marie. (31 March 2009). “Arabs, Aliens, and Women: The Colonization of Outer Space in Popular Culture”. Talk delivered at the American University in Cairo.

Maklad, Ashraf. (25 February 2014). “Major New Arabic Ebookstore Could Be Publishing Game-changer”. Arab Literature (in English) Blog. https://arablit.org/2014/02/25/major-new-arabic-ebookstore-could-be-publishing-game-changer/.

Marie, Christina ‘DZA’. (27 February 2019). “Superhero Movies that Fight Toxic Masculinity”. Luna Station Quarterly. http://lunastationquarterly.com/superhero-movies-that-fight-toxic-masculinity/.

Marie, Christina ‘DZA’. (5 July 2020). “Top 10 WORST Female Character Tropes”. Dragons, Zombies & Aliens. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5dFhzy7W_lo.Qualey, Marcia Lynx. (23 October 2013). “Muhammad Aladdin: ‘The Central Problem Was – And Is – Book Distribution’. Interview of Egyptian Novelist Muhammad Aladdin”. Arab Literature (in English) Blog. http://arablit.wordpress.com/2013/10/23/novelist-muhammad-aladdin-the-central-problem-was-and-is-book-distribution-2/.

Rowe, John Carlos. (1 November 2011). “Edward Said Memorial Lecture: American Orientalism after Edward Said”. Talk delivered at the American University in Cairo.

“Shakespeare’s Day”. (18 April 2007). Bibliotheca Alexandrina. http://www.bibalex.org/en/news/details?documentid=1540&searching=1&related=center_9&page=19.

Snir, Reuven. (2000). “The Emergence of Science Fiction in Arabic literature”. Der Islam. 77(2): 263-285.

Tatar, Maria. (1999). The Classic Fairy Tales. New York: W. W. Norton & Co.

Zeyada, Nada. (29 February 2020). “From Stage to Screen: A Cross-Cultural Examination of Gender Stereotypes in William Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew and the Egyptian Movie Beware of Eve”. Paper delivered at the International Graduate Student Conference: Transmedia Explorations: Literature-Film-Media Formulations, held at the American University in Cairo.

Emad El-Din Aysha is an academic researcher, freelance journalist and literary translator currently residing in Cairo, Egypt., He is a published SF author, in English and Arabic, and a member of the Egyptian Society for Science Fiction and the Egyptian Writers’ Union.

The SF in Translation Universe #10


SFRA Review, vol. 51, no. 1

Features / SFT Universe


The SF in Translation Universe #10

Rachel Cordasco


Welcome back to the SF in Translation Universe! Thankfully, it’s a new year, which means a whole new stack of exciting SFT to read. Korean SFT, in particular, is continuing to make a strong showing (thanks to publishers like Honford Star and Kaya), plus we’ll be getting the very first anthology of Greek SFT, thanks to Francesco Verso, Francesca Barbini, and Luna Press Publishing.

The first three months of 2021 are bringing us several tantalizing novels and collections (as well as the aforementioned Greek anthology). In terms of science fiction, Galileo Publishers is offering us Mountains Oceans Giants: An Epic of the 27th Century by German author Alfred Döblin (tr Chris Godwin). In this far-future dystopia, the elites of the world try to melt Greenland’s icecap in order to make room for the Earth’s growing population. Of course, their plan to tap into the planet’s heat via Iceland’s volcanoes doesn’t work out and…well, you’ll have to read to find out what happens. Other science fiction includes Robot by famed Polish science fiction author Adam Wisniewski-Snerg (tr ?), in which BER-64 tries to figure out if it’s man or machine; and Bug by Italian author Giacomo Sartori (tr Frederika Randall)–a wild story about family dysfunction, robots, bees, and more.

If you’re looking for fantasy (broadly defined), look no further than The Route of Ice and Salt and Eleven Sooty Dreams. Translated from the Spanish by David Bowles, Route is Mexican author José Luis Zárate’s unique reimagining of Dracula’s journey to England. Eleven Sooty Dreams is the latest book in English from one of Antoine Volodine’s post-exotic heteronyms—Manuela Draeger. Translated from the French by J. T. Mahany, it’s set in a burning building in which a group of young leftists is trapped and moves between their minds and memories about their childhood and struggle to survive in a dystopian world.

Turning to collections, we can look forward to two by Korean speculative fiction authors and one by the multi-talented Brazilian author, translator, and editor Fabio Fernandes. Tower by Bae Myung-hoon (tr. Sung Ryu) is made up of interconnected stories set in a 674-story skyscraper that is also a sovereign nation. We learn about how the people living in the tower navigate the complex power relations of this particular society. Out a month later is Bo-Young Kim’s On the Origin of Species and Other Stories (tr Sora Kim-Russell), which moves freely between science fiction, fantasy, and myth, focusing on how humans and non-humans try to survive via biological, technological, and social evolution. Fernandes’s collection (tr from the Portuguese by the author)—Love: An Archaeology—includes fourteen stories that span space and subgenres but ultimately focus on love and its discontents.

Both Love: An Archaeology and the anthology of Greek SFT will be out from Luna Press Publishing, which has been bringing us an exciting array of SFT for the past few years. Nova Hellas: Stories From Future Greece, edited by Verso and Barbini, includes fiction from some of Greece’s most acclaimed authors, including three who have published in English before (Stamatis Stamatopoulos, Natalia Theodoridou, and Michalis Manolios). This is a wonderful chance for Anglophone readers to learn more about Greek speculative fiction and its intersection with contemporary Greek social and political concerns.

In terms of short fiction, the anthology Ab Terra 2020, which comes out in January from Brain Mill Press, includes my translation of the Italian story “Chronotope” by Raul Ciannella. Set in a future data entry center, “Chronotope” imagines how a group of individuals, who have become subsumed by their digital work, might escape by combining their human senses.

Hopefully, we have much more short SFT to look forward to this year from magazines like Future Science Fiction Digest, Samovar, Clarkesworld, Mithila Review, and new publications like Constelación and Eita! Magazine.

Thanks for reading, and I’d love to hear what you’re reading now and what you’re looking forward to: rachel@sfintranslation.com.

Until next time in the SFT Universe!

Pants Scientists and Bona Fide Cyber Ninjas: Tracing the Poetics of Cyberpunk Menswear


SFRA Review, vol. 50, no. 4

Symposium: The CyberPunk Culture Conference


Pants Scientists and Bona Fide Cyber Ninjas: Tracing the Poetics of Cyberpunk Menswear

Esko Suoranta


A translucent plastic raincoat on the streets of a futuristic Los Angeles. A long leather jacket, swinging into an austere foyer just before a gunfight. Mirrorshades. Spiky hair, colored neon green. Chrome. The tropes of cyberpunk fashion are well established, and it is easy to see how the mode’s general aesthetic has always influenced and been influenced by personal expression in various subcultures through clothing and accessories. The tokens of anarchist self-images, like piercings and leather clothes, readily lent themselves for cyberpunk at its inception as a new movement in SF, where a dystopian, unevenly distributed future would be played out not on spaceships or distant planets but in the urban realm, the streets of the sprawl, the megalopolis. For that struggle, the cyberpunk (anti-)hero needed the clothes to boot.

In this paper, based on my presentation at the Cyberpunk Culture 2020 conference, I provide a sporadic tour of men’s fashion in cyberpunk art, from literature to film to games, and read it in relation to examples of real-life cyberpunk-inspired menswear. I argue, somewhat uncontroversially, that changes in dress as part of a mode’s poetics reflect changes in its politics over time and between works. I focus on menswear, rather than cyberpunk fashion in general, in the interest of uncovering a specifically male-coded, and cis-heteronormative, relationship with fashion: as I hope will become clear, much of cyberpunk-influenced menswear justifies itself with function and utility as if such features were necessary for men to participate in fashion movements. I detect a change from the lone-wolf outlaws of original cyberpunk to militarized super-hero enforcers of the current mainstream, but also present a counterpoint to both in the guise of the cool, gray cyberpunk man: a “pants science” enthusiast who combines the fantasies of individualism and a low-key presentation to the hidden, almost science-fictional, functionalities of his clothing.

These three figures emerge as male cyberpunk archetypes with their distinct looks and politics with counterparts both in fiction and on the streets today. Where the original cyberpunk man wanted his aesthetic to scream counter-culture and opposition to “the man” of Reagan’s United States, the futuristic cyber-superhero needs form and function to aid him in militarized quests on mean, dystopian streets. Finally, the contemporary, unobtrusive cyberpunk wants his outfits to be techwear of the highest quality, but without drawing too much attention to himself. As such, all three point toward what Stina Attebery calls “fashion [as] a speculative practice: a future-oriented, constantly shifting set of speculative assumptions about the future of social expression and posthuman embodiment” (“Chrome and Matte Black,” see also “Fashion” in The Routledge Companion to Cyberpunk Culture). Cyberpunk menswear experiments with expanding the scope of masculine self-expression and does in ways that can be both problematic and emancipatory, as I hope becomes clear from the examples addressed below.

To get started, let us consider a spoof image from Mondo 2000, the cyberpunk culture magazine (figure 1.). With the tongue-in-cheek query “R.U. a Cyberpunk” it showcases many of the features of classic cyberpunk menswear, providing an itemized list of what a stereotypical cyberpunk should have in his inventory from spy equipment to 1990s computer paraphernalia and media devices. The model is clad in all-black-everything, wears heeled leather boots and a pilot jacket, but notably the items of clothing are not on the numbered list of essential gear. They are to be read as incidental details, as self-evident, but they naturally betray the debt cyberpunk owes to punk and heavy metal cultures. In addition, the clothes ossify the look of a cyberpunk beyond his gadgets.

Fig. 1

Despite being a parody image, the figure of the model is aspirational: standing out and standing up against abstract control and oppression is possible if one projects an in-your-face attitude, possesses everything in gadgetry the early 1990s have to offer, and makes that clear to everyone who dares look into the cold reflection of mirrored shades.

Importantly, the shades are the one exception where a fashion accessory is marked as part of the cyberpunk’s essential gear. They are mentioned in entry number seven, where one meaning of “cyberpunk” is given as “someone who maintains mirrorshades never went out of fashion.” It is indeed mirrored sunglasses to which the bad-ass counterculture ethos of cyberpunk fashion can be traced. Their significance is summarized by Bruce Sterling in his preface to the Mirrorshades (1986) anthology of cyberpunk stories: “By hiding the eyes, mirrorshades prevent the forces of normalcy from realizing that one is crazed and possibly dangerous. They are the symbol of the sunstaring visionary, the biker, the rocker, the policeman, and similar outlaws” (38). It is clear in retrospect that Sterling should have problematized this vision of visionaries outside the law as history keeps revealing how the lone rebel is rarely a force for progress or good, but the visionary individual against the “forces of normalcy” is central to the popular understanding of the cyberpunk hero. To look like a cyberpunk is to tell onlookers that one is a misfit, a potential threat to the status quo.

One later example emerges in The Matrix (1999), arguably the most successful cyberpunk movie to date. The outlaws of Nebuchadnessar face a force of totalizing normalcy, as machines seek to keep humanity lulled in virtual battery-acid dreams. The thematic resonance of the mirrorshades is clear in figure 2. Neo, making his choice between the red and blue pill, sees his possible futures and potential reflected back at him from the outlaw guru Morpheus’s lenses. As such, the Stoic, mysterious, black-clad counterculture man with shades to hide his dangerousness remains a cyberpunk archetype.

Fig. 2

It is no surprise that the fringe-character Sterling describes, and, in a sense, Morpheus epitomizes is easy to co-opt for militant power-fantasies. Adam Jensen, the hero of the Deus Ex franchise of games and related products, is a case in point (figure 3.). Starting out as a security officer, he is ripped apart by explosions and gunfire and fitted with a fully cybernetic body by his employer Sarif Industries, becoming a RoboCop with free will in a dystopian near future. In the games of the franchise, he works for Sarif Inudstries, gray-ops counter-terrorism units, and seeks to uncover actions of the Illuminati. His cybernetic augmentations allow him to see and punch through walls, employ hyper-reflexes, blades in his forearms, and invisibility, making him a Swiss-army-cyber-knife with only the most dangerous villains able to oppose him. Jensen is thus the cyberpunk as superhero, a vigilante fighting against terrorism with his incredible augmentations. He is part of the militarized world of enforcers, embodying extra-legal justice and distributing it through degrees of violence (it is possible to complete the games almost completely without killing, but Jensen still remains very much embedded in networks of violence).

Fig. 3

In such a line of work, clothing and a functional style are essential. Jensen has sunglass implants in the style of William Gibson’s Molly Millions from Neuromancer (1984), he speaks with a low growl, and wears a long dark coat worthy of any character from The Matrix. His trench-coat is adapted to stay out his way: his sleeves retract to make room for hand-cannons and arm-blades and the design is no haphazard accident. The launch trailer for Deus Ex: Mankind Divided (2016) shows, in a sequence lasting some two seconds, that Jensen has an ACRONYM coat (figure 4.). ACRONYM is a real urban techwear brand, based in Berlin, expensive, and aiming for the highest degree of functionality possible for clothing. Its founder and head designer Errolson Hugh (figure 5.) appears at times almost indistinguishable from cybersuperhero Jensen.

Fig. 4
Fig. 5

Speaking of the design process for Jensen’s coat for Gameinformer, Hugh said ACRONYM approached the project like any other, asking who is using the garment, for what purposes, and what specific challenges they might encounter (Cork). Focusing on function is a departure from the more detached aesthetic of mirrorshades and leather in classic cyberpunk discussed above. Jacked into the matrix, one’s success is not dependent on what one wears, and virtual avatars can look like anything at all. Meatspace is thus always secondary to cyberspace and the leather-clad look mainly transfers a counter-cultural message rather than responds to functional needs. For the futuristic cyberninja, like Jensen, however, the street is his primary haunt and fashion choices must reflect that.

The ultra-functional cyberpunk like Adam Jensen remains, for most intents and purposes, a fictional character, but the influence of the archetype leaks into the everyday. It should not come as a surprise, then, to find William Gibson and Errolson Hugh side by side in near-identical outfits (figure 6). Gibson is a self-proclaimed ACRONYM fan and his fiction from Pattern Recognition (2003) onward is laden with the author’s fascination with brands, fashion, and techwear. The novel even prompted Buzz Rickson’s to launch a product line in his name, inspired by a fictional jacket of theirs appearing in it (figure 7.). In an interview for The Guardian’s “The look I love” column, Gibson wore an outfit comprised entirely of ACRONYM clothes. In the headline, he is quoted saying that he is always striving not to be noticed (Marriot). The statement follows one Gibson made for the lifestyle site Heddel’s, citing “gray man theory” as one inspiration for his choices in clothing. According to the theory, allegedly from the security industry, dressing in unremarkable clothes, like chinos, is a must for security personnel as anyone with combat pants will be shot first in any hostile encounter (Shuck).

Fig. 6
Fig. 7

Deb Chacra, professor of engineering at Olin College, makes a connection between Gibson’s attempt to remain unnoticed and the so-called Great Male Renunciation of late 18th-century Europe, during which flamboyant designs and bright colors stopped being features of men’s clothing (“Metafoundry 30”). The image of the dandy born then, seemingly uninterested in self-decoration and hence invested to black and white in his outfits, continues to inform much of men’s fashion even to a fault. Gray cyberpunk men can be seen as contemporary takes on the dandy ethos: Beau Brummel, the chief architect of the Great Male Renunciation, and Gibson both wear outfits that appear unmarked, but are never coincidental.

The continuum from Adam Jensen to Errolson Hugh to William Gibson shows the paring down of the cyberninja outfit to the more quotidian streets of today. While the classic leather-clad cyberpunk screams counterculture with his fashion choices and Adam Jensen needs his retractable function-sleeves to blast future terrorists, the gray cyberpunk man remains unobtrusive, but knows in his heart of hearts that he is donning the most functional, technical, and exclusive gear known to mankind.

Fig. 8

To illustrate this further, let us take a look at some brand-writing from the Brooklyn-based clothing company Outlier. Consider the following quotes and figure 8.:

Ultrafine Merino T-Shirt

A near perfect t-shirt made with a Mackenzie 17.5 micron Merino Jersey, nature’s finest performance fabric. Beautifully soft and remarkably dry to the touch, merino’s hygroscopic properties help cool you in the heat and insulate you in the cool.

Injected Linen Blazer

An unlined blazer that wears like air. The Injected Linen fabric combines industrial warp-knit weft-insertion techniques with natural linen to create a material that is incredibly open and breathable while holding an elegant opacity.

To me, that is the sound of science fiction and, more precisely, the poetics of estrangement applied to clothing. Outlier garments give a very ordinary impression and they are without visible logos or texts that would reveal their brand identity, but they are described so as to make them unique and strange, to have consumers know there is more than meets the eye. They thus combine the cyber-ninja ethos of functionality, hidden in patterns and materials, to the gray man aesthetic of unobtrusiveness.

There is a connection to be made between the Outlier product descriptions and Gibson’s Bigend trilogy of contemporary novels. Specifically, the poetics of Outlier can be read as what Jaak Tomberg calls the “double vision of SF” where text registers as realism and science fiction not side by side or a passage after the other, but at the same time, “both plausibly everyday and plausibly cognitively estranging” (263). Tomberg’s principal example is the following description of protagonist Cayce Pollard’s outfit in Pattern Recognition:

[…] for the meeting, reflected in the window of a Soho specialist in mod paraphernalia, are a Fresh Fruit T-shirt, her black Buzz Rickson’s MA-1, anonymous black skirt from a Tulsa thrift, the black leggings she’d worn for Pilates, black Harajuku schoolgirl shoes. Her purse-analog is an envelope of black East German laminate, purchased on eBay—if not actual Stasi-issue then well in the ballpark.

8

In addition to the information-laden nominalization of articles of clothing, it should be noted that Cayce shares in the novel Gibson’s attempts to be unnoticed, clipping logos and other brand-markers off her clothes, favoring black, simple garments. As a result, she emerges as the fictional counterpart to the cool, gray man in favor of Outlier. Lee Konstantinou discusses her as an archetypal cool character (Cool Characters 240–269) and finds in Pattern Recognition’s “coolhunting aesthetics” an attempt to “reconnect the free-floating brand to the hidden supply chains that make brands profitable in the first place” (“The Brand as a Cognitive Map” 95). As such, Cayce appears as a central inspiration for the gray cyberpunk man aesthetic (and it should be noted that much of what she wears can be construed as gender-neutral). Both are less interested in instant recognition of the excellence of their garments through brand semiotics, but rather in an insider knowledge of fabrics, technologies, and details of production.

The science-fictional poetics of a brand like Outlier coincide with the latest developments in cyberpunk literature that is not all too keen to focus on superheroes like Adam Jensen, but rather concerns itself with more naturalistic struggles under accelerating digital capitalism – a theme I deal with in my dissertation in preparation. Such fiction questions the possibility of fighting and winning against the powers that be, showing that, under contemporary capitalism, different means of resistance than those of the superhero vigilante are needed (for examples of analyses pointing to this direction, see Suoranta 2014 and 2020). The realization that transhumanist augmentation or the vigilantism of loners does not guarantee progress or resilience of any kind can be seen in the fairly toned-down characters of authors like Malka Older, Annalee Newitz, and Tim Maughan, among others.

To conclude, I want to point out how the techwear enthusiast who is into brands like ACRONYM or Outlier has already reached the archetypal, stock-figure status of the mirrorshaded hacker, emerging as an object of parody, specifically in the 2019 CRPG Disco Elysium. Here is an exchange between Cuno, a street kid, and the amnesiac cop protagonist. Consider the following, keeping the Outlier blurbs in mind:

“YOU — ‘Alright, entertain me — what’s so great about these pants?’

CUNO — ‘Pig, these are FALN *Modulars*! Liquid fit, performance crotch, urban survival shit! Made in Mirova… by scientists. *Pants* scientists.

‘Believe it, you *need* this shit…’ He unzips his jacket to give you a quick peek at the plastic-wrapped pants. They are graphite-black and look brand new.’’

In Disco Elysium, players can naturally collect a whole FALN outfit in the course of the game, ironically role-playing the pants scientist aficionado, functioning optimally in his tactical urban environment with the clothes giving various bonuses and penalties to different skills. In fact, the skills of the player-character comment what goes on in the game as various inner voices, provided the relevant skill checks are successful:

SAVOIR FAIRE [Trivial: Success] — These could drastically improve your chances of survival in the urban wilderness.

PHYSICAL INSTRUMENT [Easy: Success] — Coach Physical Instrument endorses these pants. […]

CONCEPTUALIZATION [Medium: Success] — They will also make you look like an idiot.

The FALN aesthetic hinges on as-visible-as-possible branding on the products themselves and the designs hark to ACRONYM’s futuristic gear (figure 9.). At the same time, the language of “pants science” aligns them with Outlier’s SF poetics. Teenage Cuno’s enthusiasm and Conceptualization’s judgment take a gentle piss out of the speculative promises cyberpunk menswear can be seen to make. They let slip that, in fact, leather jackets do not make one a visionary, ACRONYM performance clothes do not make one a superhero, and wearing the results of Outlier’s pants science does not make a man special. Or further, whatever aesthetic or functional effects these clothes might endow one with, they are easily overshadowed by disproportionate hype or aggrandizement. Still, like Attebery points out, the expression they afford does the speculative work of fashion, hinged on cyberpunk ideas.

Fig. 9

I hope this smörgåsbord of pants, coats, and people real and fictional has shown that cyberpunk menswear flows in and out of fiction in various interesting ways and that its changing poetics are connected to the mode’s politics over time and between works in different media. My examples chart a shift from Sterling’s visionary outlaws to superhero fashionistas, and, finally, to the toned-down protagonists of contemporary cyberpunk literature and, in a natural dynamic, their parodies. Further explorations could be done with the help of the impressively curated Cyberpunk Clothing wiki on Reddit, where the brands featured here appear alongside suits, cybergoth wear, milspec, and high fashion. In a sense, the wiki appears as a similar contemporary inventory of essentials as the Mondo 2000 parody image we started with, this time for the expanded, contemporary world of cyberpunk that we inhabit, for better and worse. As with all aesthetic choices, cyberpunk fashion also engenders both toxic and wholesome politics from militarized looks that border on fascist insignia to unobtrusive normcore ideals home at a cozy startup. Both designers and consumers employ its semiotics and design ideals to strive toward the various potentials of expression associated with cyberpunk. It thus appears clear that of all science-fictional modes, cyberpunk is well on its way of influencing fashion and aesthetics.


WORKS CITED

Attebery, Stina. “Chrome and Matte Black: Cyberpunk’s Speculative Posthuman Fashions.” Cyberpunk Culture 2020, 10 July 2020, Virtual Conference. Conference Presentation. cyberpunkculture.com/cpcc20/program-friday/%C2%A732-stina-attebery/. Accessed 5 Nov. 2020.

Cork, Jeff. “Haute Future: How Fashion Designers Improved Deus Ex.” Gameinformer, 24 Apr. 2015. http://www.gameinformer.com/b/features/archive/2015/04/24/haute-future-how-fashion-designers-improved-adam-jensen-s-deus-ex-coat.aspx. Accessed 5 Nov. 2020.

Chachra, Deb. “Metafoundry 30: Confusion Matrices.” 29 March 2015. tinyletter.com/metafoundry/letters/metafoundry-30-confusion-matrices. Accessed 29 Oct. 2020.

“Cyberpunk Clothing.Reddit Inc, 27 May 2008, http://www.reddit.com/r/Cyberpunk/wiki/clothing. Accessed 29 Oct. 2020.

“Deus Ex: Mankind Divided – Announcement Trailer PS 4.” YouTube, uploaded by Playstation, 8 April 2015, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uvSs5b6y-YM.

Disco Elysium. Written by Robert Kurvitz, ZA/UM, 2019.

@ersln. “THE MOST KNOWN UNKNOWN™ … ΛCRИM … J1A-GT … Now … https://acrnm.com/products/J1A-GT_NA #acrnm.” Twitter, 13 Dec. 2015, 3:42 a.m., twitter.com/erlsn/status/675853241482129408. Accessed 9 Nov. 2020.

@ersln. “Uncle Bill. https://instagram.com/p/BQ6ydbyldrR/.” Twitter, 25 Feb. 2017, 7:45 p.m., twitter.com/erlsn/status/835546317065707523. Accessed 9 Nov. 2020.

Gibson, William. Pattern Recognition. Viking, 2003.

“Buzz Rickson William Gibson MA-1 Flying Jacket, Tailored Cut.” History Preservation Associates, 2000, http://historypreser-wpengine.netdna-ssl.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/10/ma1_wg_slim_mont.jpeg. Accessed 9 Nov. 2020.

Konstantinou, Lee. “The Brand as a Cognitive Map in William Gibson’s Pattern Recognition.” boundary 2, vol. 36, no. 2, 2009, pp. 67–97.

Konstantinou, Lee. Cool Characters: Irony and American Fiction. Harvard University Press, 2016.

Luo, Jiaqi. “Why Is Post-COVID China Embracing a Cyberpunk Aesthetic?” Jing Daily, 7 Oct. 2020, https://jingdaily.com/china-luxury-trends-cyberpunk-covid-louis-vuitton/. Accessed 6 Nov. 2020.

Marriot, Hannah. “William Gibson: ‘I’m always striving not to be noticed.’” The Guardian, 16 June 2020, http://www.theguardian.com/fashion/2020/jun/16/william-gibson-im-always-striving-not-to-be-noticed. Accessed 5 Nov. 2020.

Outlier Incorporated. OUTLIER Simple Innovation and Wild Experimentation in Clothing, 2008, outlier.nyc. Accessed 9 Nov. 2020.

Shuck, David. “William Gibson Interview: His Buzz Rickson Line, Tech Wear, and the Limits of Authenticity.” Heddel’s, 5 March 2015, http://www.heddels.com/2015/03/william-gibson-interview-buzz-rickson-line-tech-wear-limits-authenticity/. Accessed 5 Nov. 2020.

Sirius, R. U. “R.U. a Cyberpunk? Well? R.U? … Punk.” Mondo 2000, 30 Aug. 2017, http://www.mondo2000.com/2017/08/30/r-u-a-cyberpunk-well-r-u-punk/. Accessed 5 Nov. 2020.

Sterling, Bruce. “Preface to Mirrorshades.” Science Fiction Criticism, edited by Rob Latham, Bloomsbury, 2017, 37–42.

Suoranta, Esko. “Agents or Pawns? Power Relations in William Gibson’s Bigend Trilogy.” Fafnir – Nordic Journal of Science Fiction and Fantasy Research vol. 1, no. 1, 2014, 19–31.

Suoranta, Esko. “An Ever-Compromised Utopia: Virtual Reality in Thomas Pynchon’s Bleeding Edge.” New Perspectives on Dystopian Fiction in Literature and Other Media, edited by Saija Isomaa, Jyrki Korpua, and Jouni Teittinen, Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2020, 101–18.

The Matrix. Directed by Lana Wachowski and Lilly Wachowski, Warner Brothers, 1999.

Tomberg, Jaak. “On the ‘Double Vision’ of Realism and SF Estrangement in William Gibson’s Bigend Trilogy.” Science Fiction Studies vol. 40, no. 2, 2013, 263–85.Verhaaf, Michaël. Deus Ex Universe: Children’s Crusade #1 Game Cover. 2016.

“The (Cyber) Center Cannot Hold”: Futures, Bodies and Minds in William Gibson’s The Peripheral


SFRA Review, vol. 50, no. 4

Symposium: The CyberPunk Culture Conference


“The (Cyber) Center Cannot Hold”: Futures, Bodies and Minds in William Gibson’s The Peripheral

Carmen M. Méndez-García


In The Peripheral (2014), William Gibson revisits in a dystopian, or maybe utopian, mode issues such as alternative communities, the possibilities that technology offers for transcendence (not least importantly that of the body itself), and the effect on individuals of hyper-technologized post-late capitalist societies. Gibson goes back to the familiar space of the über-modern city as a locale for his fiction, while also advancing ecological concerns and hypotheses on the effects of an environmental, economic, and political apocalypse. The move “from a predictive style of science fiction to contemporary fiction” in Gibson (Griffith 44) emphasizes the connection in his writing between the present and imagined futures, since as he has declared, “[w]ithout a sense of how weird the present is—how potentially weird the present is— it became impossible for me to judge how much weirder I should try to make an imagined future” (Dayal).

This move seems to contradict Gibson’s association with cyberpunk,1 a genre which carries with it a “bleak perception of the possibility of agency” (Wilson 91). I would like to argue, however, that Gibson is still writing within the genre, and that the potential for connection between privileged and under-privileged individuals through technology is at the core of Gibson’s novel. In this sense, The Peripheral does use what has been called the “sentimental endings” (Elias) preferred by Gibson, and as Paul Graham Raben suggests, it is a “standard Gibson . . . suggesting a benchmark of quality, certainly, but also that trustworthy familiarity of form that accrues to any consistently reliable brand.” This familiarity, however, also suggests the possibility of change by allowing the disfranchised to be in charge of their own bodies and destinies.

The Peripheral is set in two different future times, seventy years apart, the first of which is the second’s past. In the later one, early 22nd century London is an extreme late-capitalist society, a mixture of “post-humanism and globalized military-industrial technological complex ruled solely by the logic of finance capitalism” (Elias), after the apocalypse known as the Jackpot has taken place. This Jackpot is a combination of “unchecked climate disaster, worldwide financial collapse, rampant disease outbreak, and ubiquitous social breakdown after the crackup of all nation-states” (Elias), and it has wiped eighty percent of the Earth’s population. Those who have survived did so by using “assemblers” (advanced nanotechnology bots) to rebuild cities, which has provided for efficient, eco-friendly cities which are, nonetheless, mostly empty. In this 22nd century future, “peripherals” (remotely controlled enhanced cyborgs avatars) can be used as protection or disguise. These surrogate bodies are a commodity, and the most advanced models can only be afforded by the wealthy. Personal security can be ensured by using the peripherals to interact from the safety of a distant location.

In the second future we find a piece of rural America in the 2030s, which Gibson has defined as a “a more fully corrupt, third-worlded version of contemporary America” (“William Gibson”). There, bodies are less a commodity than a burden, with impoverished army veterans suffering constant neural pain from malfunctioning haptic implants or having very limited control of their bodies due to permanent physical disabilities. The inhabitants of this timeline (or “stub”) are “dependent upon (and highly proficient using) advanced technology, but under-educated and futureless, scraping a living by working in tech-industry workshops, low-end merchandise superstores, and illegal black markets” (Elias). A so-called “singularity” temporarily allows both timelines to interact, but not reciprocally. The 2100s future can talk and listen to, but not physically manipulate, their past, while inhabitants of the past, projecting their minds into the peripherals and inhabiting them, can physically interact with the future. The control of the bodies of the future by the minds of the past promises to be of benefit to both. The people in the future can profit from mental capabilities (knowledge, information and skills) of the characters in the past, while the successful use of the peripherals allows disabled veterans both the exhilarating opportunity of escaping their own limited bodies and a hefty financial reward.

My argument when it comes to what I consider a recent shift in Gibson’s texts will be two-fold: first, I will explore what Gibson does to the bodies in the book, beyond Cartesian traditional divisions of body and mind, as bodies can be analyzed as commodities to be used, bought, sold, or hired in the unequal economies of the two time-lines in the text, and secondly, I will analyze how the tension between center and peripheries works, and the potential for political and social change at the end of the book.

 I SING THE BODY PERIPHERAL

The Cartesian divide between body and mind is one that has worried Gibson during his entire career. His work makes us reconsider the existence of the divide itself, and also the preponderance, dependence and/or equilibrium of one and the other.

The ambivalence of cyberpunk as a genre towards the body (“its integrity, its vulnerability, even its possibility as an idea” Gutiérrez-Jones 71), and more specifically Gibson’s apparent rejection of the body as “dead meat” in Neuromancer, where we are presented with “characters who seek to reject the body” (Wilson 132) seems to stage the virtual world as one of exhilarating possibility, celebrating the “bodiless exultation of cyberspace” (Gibson, Neuromancer 3). However, as Sherryl Vint points out, Gibson’s “critics and his imitators have overstated [his] rejection of the body” (107). The rejection or, rather, transcendence of the body often carries social and political commentary in his work, and this is the case with The Peripheral.

In the book, the bodies of people in the past, especially those of veterans, are a burden due the failed use of technology. Malfunctioning haptic tattoos are a constant source of pain and an example of how useful technology can go awry when it goes from being useful to the machinery of war to being abandoned inside the individual. Disabled veterans, maimed by technological violence and war, are constantly reminded of their subordination to economic and political spheres and also of the government “owning” their bodies, either for sacrifice, or by leaving invasive technology in them. The relationship that people in the future have with their bodies is, however, radically different: bodies are used as “art” based on “complex embodiments of technological accumulation” (Griffith 45). Bodies are also commodified instruments for protection. Peripherals can be operated remotely, while the mind maneuvering them stays safely elsewhere but is in complete control of the peripheral’s physical surroundings, a combination of ultimate safety and total control of the environment for those who can afford it. The encounter of both timelines, with minds from the past being invited to inhabit cybernetic bodies of the future, allow those in the past the thrilling liberation of their constricting bodily “meat” into apparently limitless athletic shells.

While not in such traumatic or violent ways as in Cronenberg’s films, there is in Gibson a constant menace of technology entering and transforming/transcending the body. In his texts, technology can enhance and liberate the mind, but it can also destroy the body, create addictions to different drugs that desensitize the body to specific technology, or produce constant pain. Technology can also, however, fix bodies (such as the use of medical nanobots which travel through the body repairing tissue and internal organs in The Peripheral), even if that body-repairing technology is connected to its origins in military operations.

The use of different bodies and avatars in The Peripheral seems to eventually be mostly positive, as they ultimately serve each character’s original timelines and their communities, i.e. their reality. The poor and disabled characters in The Peripheral whose minds are being projected into other bodies are able to access abilities they no longer have, and environments they could never walk in. But they do know, no matter how exhilarating the experience may be, that this is temporary and serving a specific purpose: the time inhabiting another body may be pleasurable, but eventually, it is their own temporal “reality” that they are responsible and accountable for.

People in the future in The Peripheral use these cyborg bodies as tools, but they are also willing to use the minds from the past (and their skills and knowledge) as a commodity. The people from the past enter this pact, this disembodied rental of their selves, knowingly and expecting to get something in return. What they are initially hoping for is money, something they are in dire need of, but towards the end of the book they get more than they bargained for, in the form of agency given to them by the ones apparently with the power, by the future.

PRESENT CENTERS, PERIPHERAL PASTS

Even if the peripheral in the title makes reference to the cyborgs avatars in the book, there is another way in which the title of the text could be analyzed: the 22nd century future could be constructed as the center, both economically and in the sense of power and agency, with the 21st century future being the margin, the periphery. The center has wealth and technology that are not available to the periphery, and said periphery is initially only given access to technology insofar it serves the center’s interests. As Gibson has noted, in The Peripheral the past is “third-worlded” for the profit of First-World cities (“William Gibson”). As Amy J. Elias signals, in a way this relationship could be seen as a replication of “the Colonialism that gave First-World Nations their early-modern economic hegemony . . . now located not only in space but in time” (Elias). But while this “lending” or “outsourcing” of technology to the peripheries is a reality in our world and in literary texts, there are a number of things in The Peripheral that complicate the relationship between center, margins and how outsourcing technology works.

First off, in The Peripheral the “Other,” post-colonial subjects pose no physical risk, i.e. there is no danger of their uprising or taking over the center, since the only way they can communicate with the future is by the future allowing their using the technology they provide them with. Secondly, the relationship of center and periphery is not really one of exploitation, but one of collaboration, where the periphery is given notable agency both in how they use their (borrowed) bodies and in the reward for their help. In opposition to traditional constructions of center/periphery relations, the periphery that the past is in the book is given notable agency, by providing them, “the precariat that will be wiped out when the Jackpot is unleashed” (Elias) with both money and technology. They also get knowledge in exchange for their work: all of these things could potentially help them elude the Jackpot apocalypse. One could argue that there is deception initially as to the people in the future’s interests (the protagonist, Flynn, thinks that she is just being paid to play a first-person videogame, while she is actually part of a real-life surveillance program), and that some rich people in the future do “use the past as a playground and hiring pool, soliciting people from the past to work for them as an underclass labor fare” (Elias). However, in the end, giving knowledge and power to people in the past could be considered to be an entirely selfless act, since due to time-travelling paradoxes (what Gibson has defined as “forking paths” (“William Gibson”), changes in the past’s reality will not affect the future we see in the book.

Gibson understands that technology itself is neutral, and it is the use of it that makes it destructive or “a universal tool for countering hegemonic power structures” (Moorwood 178). As Esko Suoranta points out, Gibson does require that we think beyond the promises of these “embodied technologies of transhumanity,” and to realize that “they themselves do not dismantle oppressive systems” (18). People in the past in the book are given access to these technologies and thus to using them to try and avoid the Jackpot, but Gibson himself has expressed his “alarm at the ending . . . [where] a situation is set up such that the fate of the world literally rests on the goodwill of a very few people who can easily be corrupted by the power they yield” (Elias). Since both futures are “caught on singularities,” Elias seems to side with Gibson in seeing how the potential for improvement seems not to depend on “collective action or democratic representation,” and points out the visible tension between Gibson’s “rather old-fashioned humanist ethics—for which the success of social structures depends upon private, ethical decisions by self-determining individuals—and his cyberpunk vision, which implicitly asserts that human ethics is irrelevant in a world of capital” (Elias).

It is possible, however, to present Gibson’s ending and the agency given to the margins in the text under a slightly more positive light, focusing not on the lack of systemic changes that Elias seems to be distressed by, but on how systemic changes may start with individuals being given the agency and responsibility to implement singular, incremental changes. I would like to emphasize the possibility of a deep empathic connection of the two humanities in their respective social context that motivates the final mutual understanding of both futures. This can be achieved by applying the change in the idea of kinship suggested among others by Judith Butler, where kinship needs not be merely biological, but rather constituted by “a sense of relatedness, mutual responsibility, and collaborative creativity, all growing out of a presumption of shared origins” (Gutiérrez-Jones 72). Gutiérrez-Jones recovers ideas by Donna Haraway, N. KatherineHayles, and Butler to talk about the performativity of kinship, i.e. kinship seen as a process of creation of relations that exists in a material context and therefore “entails some aspect of embodiment” (72). Butler also identifies in her redefinition of kinship a “shared responsibility . . . a potential for coalition, and shared performance, which generates significant creative potential” (Gutiérrez-Jones 73).

In his analysis of Gibson’s Neuromancer, Fredric Jameson asserts that “the utopian drive [can be] an impulse of collectivity and the human being … a collective animal, perhaps something of a biological origin might be adduced for it too” (306). Jameson also signals that characters in Gibson’s text “complete each other,” pointing out the “collective (and thereby utopian) act” at work in Neuromancer. Jameson immediately qualifies this collective effort by emphasizing that in that text the need for collaboration is “a ruse devised by . . . two mega-computers in the service of their alliance and transfiguration” and that therefore the “utopian dimension” is displaced (Jameson 307). There is not such a ruse at work, however, at the end of The Peripheral: the act of “giving” the past a better future could be seen as a factor of a re-imagined notion of kinship that is recognized in the time (dis)continuum, and as such, the ending could work as a powerful deconstruction of the center/periphery or metropolis/colonies configuration set up at the beginning of the text.

Timo Siivonen has signaled Gibson’s tension between “technological developments and the future of humanizing,” often moving in between “two opposing forces, with one expressing pessimism regarding the future of the human race, and the other evincing a certain optimism regarding the possibility of the existence of intelligent life on some level facilitated by technological development” (231). I would like to argue that, by deconstructing traditional constructions of the periphery’s minds and mostly bodies as being “used” by the center, and by providing the weakest part of the equation with technology that seems to promise a better future, Gibson seems to be moving towards a certain utopian optimism. I find this assertion to be in line with Jameson’s argument that literature “can serve as a registering apparatus for historical transformations we cannot otherwise empirically intuit” (Jameson 312). In The Peripheral, there is the reality of those on the margins finding their corporeal suffering temporarily reduced through technologies of virtual labor, but also the possibility of a better future once the work has been done, by being given agency and knowledge by the center. This is a testament to how non-realistic literature, such as the cyberpunk mode Gibson uses, can be political by allowing us to imagine new configurations of kinship as the first step systemic changes beyond traditional models of center v. periphery.


WORKS CITED

Dayal, Geeta. “William Gibson on Why Sci-Fi Writers Are (Thankfully) Almost Always Wrong.” Wired, 12 Sept. 2018, www.wired.com/2012/09/interview-with-william-gibson/. Accessed 23 June 2020.

Elias, Amy J. “The Futureless Future.” American Book Review, vol. 36, no. 5, 2015, p. 12–13.

Gibson, William. Neuromancer. Harper Collins, 1984.

Gibson, William. The Peripheral. Berkley, 2014.

Griffith, Michael. Visualizing Virtual Space in Modern and Postmodern Literature. 2014. Tulane University, PhD Dissertation.

Gutiérrez-Jones, Carl. “Stealing Kinship: Neuromancer and Artificial Intelligence.” Science Fiction Studies, vol. 41, no. 1, 2014, p. 69–92.

Jameson, Fredric. The Ancients and the Postmoderns: On the Historicity of Forms. Verso Books, 2015.

Moorwood, Nicholas. Sovereignty, the State of Exception and Counter-Culture: Toward a Transnational Critique of State Power in 20th and 21st Century Anglophone Fiction. 2013. University of Toronto, PhD Dissertation.

Raben, Paul Graham. “The Spectacle of Disintegration: Lessons from a Peripheral Utopia.” Los Angeles Review of Books, 27 Oct. 2014, https://lareviewofbooks.org/article/spectacle-disintegration-lessons-peripheral-utopia/. Accessed 28 July 2020.

Siivonen, Timo. “Cyborgs and Generic Oxymorons: The Body and Technology in William Gibson’s Cyberspace Trilogy.” Science Fiction Studies, vol. 23, no. 2, 1996, pp. 227–244.

Suoranta, Esko. “The Ironic Transhumanity of William Gibson’s The Peripheral.” Fafnir—Nordic Journal of Science Fiction and Fantasy Research, vol. 3, no. 1, pp. 7–20.

Vint, Sherryl. Bodies of Tomorrow: Technology, Subjectivity, Science Fiction. University of Toronto Press, 2007.

“William Gibson: The Complete io9 Interview.” io9, 27 Sept. 2012, https://io9.gizmodo.com/william-gibson-the-complete-io9-interview-5946779. Accessed 26 June 2020.

Wilson, Robert Glen. You Can’t Get There from Here. 2014. University of Arkansas, Fayetteville, PhD Dissertation.

Ontology of the Hologram: Gothic Tropes and the Ontological Transgressions of Technoscience


SFRA Review, vol. 50, no. 4

Symposium: The CyberPunk Culture Conference


Ontology of the Hologram: Gothic Tropes and the Ontological Transgressions of Technoscience

Anastasia Klimchynskaya


 Science fiction often provides the lexicon through which we make sense of the novel and the unfamiliar. Damien Broderick has expertly written about science fiction “icons,” such as the robot or the spaceship, which recur frequently in science fiction but whose valences change with each appearance. These icons also enter into popular culture, where they serve as reference points for the unknown, and cyberpunk has furnished some of the most recognizable images among them: its futuristic cityscapes, neon lights, and holograms are among the most familiar of visual aesthetics.

It has been striking, then, to trace the discourses around modern-day hologram technologies in light of this fact. Today, holograms proliferate swiftly in the music industry to bring musicians back from the dead and send them on tour. Or, rather, what is created in this way are simulacra: motion-capture photography is used to record the movements of a body double that forms the basis for a 3D digital model, which is then overlaid with a likeness of the artist in question taken from videos. During a “live” performance, this simulacrum goes through a set of pre-programmed motions, lip-synching to recordings of the artist’s voice. Science fiction, and cyberpunk in particular, offers no shortage of reference points to describe this technology; Star Wars, Star Trek, Altered Carbon, and Blade Runner are but a handful among dozens. So why is it, then, that contemporary media tends to speak of holograms in terms of ghosts and resurrections, describing, for example, the “uneasy pallor” of a hologram “insubstantial like a ghost struggling to fully materialize”? (Binelli) That is, why are the registers of the Gothic, rather than allusions to science fiction, drawn on?

While the absence of science-fictional references in texts about such an “obviously” cyberpunk technology at first seems incongruous, historically the Gothic has often offered a set of conceits and tropes for exploring the distinctions between the categories of life and death, presence and absence, identity and imitation, which cyberpunk continues to interrogate. Scholars have noted that the similarities between Gothic and cyberpunk fiction go “far beyond the perceived surface aesthetics of both narrative modes to the core questions of being human and becoming posthuman,” (Heise-von der Lippe 265). But more than just a shared interest with cyberpunk in metaphysical questions and the production of emotional affect, however, the Gothic also has a history of engaging with these metaphysical questions specifically as a response to new technologies or scientific discoveries that challenge the distinctions between fundamental ontological categories of life, death, and identity. And holograms, in creating the illusion of bringing the dead back to life with perfect precision, seem to transgress our most fundamental ontological categories, pushing against the boundaries between life and death, and the idea of the unique self, that form the foundational truths of our reality. Modern-day coverage of this technology that mines Gothic tropes of ghosts and hauntings, grotesque reanimation and soulless revenants, then, inscribes itself into this history. In this article, I’m interested in more brightly illuminating that history and, in the process, shedding light on another facet of Gothic’s close relationship with cyberpunk, and the sources of the significant intersections between the two forms.

FRANKENSTEIN

I begin at an obvious beginning: Frankenstein, which has been heralded as the text that invented science fiction and given the genre a number of its fundamental icons and tropes. It forged these, however, by drawing on the Gothic to deal with metaphysical questions on the nature of life and death. Gothic monsters, by their very nature, push against neat ontological categories: ghosts and revenants of all sort challenge the neat delineations between life and death, while doubles and doppelgangers challenge distinctions between self and other, presence and absence, and the uniqueness of human identity. Frankenstein’s monster fits into this lineage: the genesis of the fiction goes back to a storytelling contest among Mary and Percy Shelley, Lord Byron, John Polidori, and Claire Clairemont at the Villa Diodati – a contest in which they were challenged to write a ghost story, a popular genre in the nineteenth century.

Of course, Frankenstein’s monster is no ghost, but he is something of a revenant, and Shelley’s inspiration was the question of the source of life; as she recounts in an introduction to the novel, at the Villa Diodati “many philosophical doctrines were discussed, and among others the nature of the principle of life” (293). She alludes, too, to galvanism, a scientific practice of the day that explored the source of life by pushing at the boundaries between it and death. At its simplest, galvanism refers to the stimulation of muscles with pulses of electrical current. Supposedly, in the 1780s, Luigi Galvani discovered that he could make the muscles of a dead frog twitch by applying electricity. This discovery took off, with many scientists replicating Galvani’s experiment upon the corpses of both animals and humans, including a famous public demonstration by Galvani’s nephew Giovanni Aldini in 1803, during which he electrically stimulated the limbs of the executed criminal George Foster at Newgate in London. The application of electrical current made the cadaver move and twitch, giving an impression of life and vitality where there was none. Through such experiments, Galvani, Aldini, and their followers were raising the question of the vital force that animates human beings by pushing at ontological boundaries and creating uncanny visions of corpses animated by some kind of unearthly force.

This was Shelley’s first vision for the novel: a “student of unhallowed arts kneeling beside the thing he had put together,” which stirs “with an uneasy, half vital motion” (293). Consequently, like the surgeons and galvanists of the period, and like the group discussing “philosophical doctrines” at the Villa Diodati, Frankenstein investigates the source of life. He “collected bones from charnel houses; and disturbed, with profane fingers, the tremendous secrets of the human frame,” (80) and upon discovering that secret, the monster is literally animated by that knowledge. The creature thus incarnates – again, literally – Frankenstein’s transgression, through science, of the boundaries between life and death, and is defined by his duality. He is technically a cyborg, an organic body artificially brought to life through scientific practice, a fact made explicit by Shelley’s extensive references to the discoveries of the day and which situate Frankenstein as a scientist, not a magician, and render his creation an enduring icon of science fiction. But the creature is also a Gothic monster. He has the grotesqueness of one: “dull yellow eyes,” a “shriveled complexion,” and pearly teeth that form a “horrid contrast with his water eyes,” such that Frankenstein, “unable to endure the aspect of the being I had created,” is filled with “breathless horror and disgust” (85). But mostly, the creature is monstrous because he is a corpse brought to life, a walking and breathing transgression of the categories of life and death, not unlike the bodies that populate Gothic fiction, which are “intrinsically uncanny…threshold phenomena precariously suspended between materiality and immateriality” (Cavallero, 270).

In other words, the original cyborg is a Gothic monster, and with this lineage in mind, we might read cyberpunk as a high-tech Gothic – as a kind of translation into a different mode of a gaze already turned onto the scientific investigation of questions of life and death.1 In fact, Veronica Hollinger has argued that Frankenstein “has been transformed into a precursor text of cyberculture” (192); it “draws attention to how the infinite possibilities of technoscientific creation tend to destabilize human individuality and our sense of self, origin, and purpose” (270). Cyberpunk, with its visions of uploaded, downloaded, and duplicated consciousnesses, artificial intelligences, fragmented identities, holograms, and interchangeable bodies, deals with the transgression of normative categories and ontological boundaries that the Gothic has long investigated with its ghosts, its hauntings, its resurrected corpses and reanimated beings. To upload a consciousness is another form of animation, in the literal sense of the word: to breathe life into a being, to ensoul it, and just as Frankenstein became “capable of bestowing animation upon lifeless matter,” (77) the question of whether an artificial, uploaded, digitized, or copied consciousness possesses a “soul,” or something of the essence of the original, is a metaphysical question cyberpunk frequently wrestles with.2

This lineage illuminates the rhetoric used around holographic technologies today; the ghosts and revenants we find in it are like Frankenstein’s monster, a reaction to metaphysical questions raised by technoscientific discoveries. The New York Times Magazine article quoted above, titled “Old Musicians Never Die. They Just Become Holograms,” bluntly acknowledges this fact, stating that “using technology to blur the line between the quick and the dead tends to be a recipe for dystopian science fiction.” This is the one reference to science fiction throughout the article, and it draws attention to the transgression of ontological categories inherent within holograms, a transgression that also resides within Frankenstein’s creature. Later in the article, Mark Binelli describes the process of creating holograms: “motion-capture photography records the performance of a body double, which becomes the basis for a three-dimensional digital model, a block of clay animators proceed to modify.” “Animator” of course refers here to the digital animation industry, but the word’s original root is the Latin anima, meaning soul; to animate is then to ensoul, or, more metaphorically, to breathe life into. This is Frankenstein’s original power: he describes his ability to bring a being to life by stating “I possessed the capacity of bestowing animation,” (78) and he proceeds to “animate the lifeless clay” (80). The word clay, of course, has multiple religious connotations, harkening back to the creation of Adam; it casts Frankenstein in the role of a man playing god, attempting to ensoul an inanimate being.  As Binelli refers to the “block of clay animators proceed to modify,” then, he harkens back to this lineage of Gothic monsters and re-animated corpses responding to galvanism’s transgressive practices.

Another evocative description is that of “the lifeless eyes of a corpse propped up between living people,” offered by Binelli to describe a holographic Frank Zappa concert. Again, the reference to a lifeless corpse recalls both galvanism and Frankenstein’s creature, as a cadaver is forced to move and act unnaturally through electricity (though, in this case, it is not electric current stimulating the muscles, but it is electricity enabling the projection of the hologram). But it is also reminiscent of the fictions of Edgar Allan Poe, who was familiar with the practices of galvanism and mesmerism and drew on them for his Gothic fictions of reanimation and resurrection. A handful of years after Frankenstein’s revised edition (1830), he published “The Fall of the House of Usher,” (1840) in which the dead Madeline Usher literally rises from her coffin, and “Ligeia,” (1838) in which the spirit of the narrator’s eponymous beloved appears to animate the corpse of his second wife; in “The Strange Case of M. Valdemar,” (1845) meanwhile, a dead body is kept from decomposing for months through mesmerism. Poe, who struggled with death and loss throughout his tragically short life, was obviously fascinated by the distinctions between life and death, and his fiction repeatedly pushed at those boundaries with hypotheticals that toed the line between scientific and supernatural. Contemporary rhetoric around holograms reveals a similar oscillation between technical explanation and Gothic modes of description in its interrogation of similar boundaries.

The Castle of the Carpathians

The second text I examine is not a work of science fiction, but a Gothic one with close ties to the genre. Penned in 1892 by Jules Verne, who by that point had gained widespread fame for his Extraordinary Voyages, which laid the groundwork for much science fiction to come, the Castle of the Carpathians is one of those tales in which supernatural effects turn out to have rational explanations – not unlike Frankenstein’s monster, whose grotesque and uncanny being is made possible by scientific research. And in this novel, as in Frankenstein, a Gothic trope – this time of the ghost in a haunted castle – is used to explore what was understood at the period to be an ontologically transgressive technology: the phonograph.

Invented in 1877 by Thomas Edison (though Charles Cros has also been given credit, but he did not provide a working model), the phonograph was articulated as a technology that could allow the dead to speak. The New York Sun, for example, upon a demonstration of the phonograph published an article titled “Echoes of Dead Voices,” writing that “Nothing could be more incredible than the likelihood of once more hearing the voice of the  dead, yet the invention of the new instrument is said to render this possible hereafter….” In other words, the phonograph was an ontologically transgressive medium, giving voice to the dead and thus allowing them to appear and speak as if alive, and The Castle of the Carpathians realizes this vision of the new medium. The story begins by fully embracing Gothic convention, with Count Franz de Telek finding himself in a mysterious, secluded castle, where he first sees the apparition of his former lover, the dead singer La Stilla, and then hears her voice with “all of its inflections, its inexpressible charm, its modulations – in a word, her voice that was the instrument of that marvelous talent that seemed to have died with the artist herself” (179).3 Her first appearance is described as a “vague form,” (161) then an “apparition,” (162) dressed in the same clothes she wore upon her death. Consequently, Franz is convinced that Stilla is somehow, inexplicably, alive, but as it turns out, the inventor Orfanik has been projecting her image and playing a high-quality phonograph recording of her voice. In other words, in a tale that participates fully and explicitly in the conventions of the Gothic, the phonograph is used to realize the genre’s trope of the ghost and the haunting; moreover, because the illusion is so realistic that Franz believes that Stilla is alive, the phonograph is able to explode the distinction between alive and dead.

This, again, strikingly resembles how holograms are represented today: just as the New York Sun wrote of being able to speak “long after we have turned to dust,” the New York Times describes artist Ronnie James Dio’s preparations for his first tour in a decade even though he “has been dead for almost 10 years” (Binelli). Rolling Stone writes of a hologram of Frank Zappa that “the apparition truly looked like an otherworldly version of Frank” (Grow); The Guardian titles their article on the subject “Back to Life,” and NPR uses the similar title “Raising the Dead – and a Few Questions – with Maria Callas’ Hologram.” Wired, in a lengthy piece on bringing celebrities “back to life,” uses the word “resurrection” nine times. There is an obvious history here: as the Vox piece on the hologram “controversy” about bringing dead artists back details, modern-day holograms are really a version of the “Pepper’s Ghost” technology, which uses a sheet of glass and reflections to create a spectral-looking figure which was used to add a ghost to a nineteenth-century staging of a Dickens play. As Wired points out, this technology “provided a vehicle for the Victorian-era obsession with the supernatural” (Famurewa) at a time when Spiritualism was at its height, but I argue that the story behind the rhetoric used in these pieces goes far beyond the explicit allusions to this tellingly named technology. It is, once again, an attempt to call on Gothic tropes to theorize a medium that explodes ontological categories and distinctions, as was done a century earlier to articulate the uncanniness of the phonograph.

CONCLUSION

Today, recorded sound (and its twin, photography, which in the nineteenth century was seen as uncanny for its ability to produce a perfect double of an individual) have seeped into our lives so profoundly as to become unremarkable. Neither old photographs nor vinyl recordings provoke extreme feelings of existential anxiety. This is due, in part, to technical improvements: shorter exposure time in photography, for example, means there is no longer the appearance of ghosts due to motion blur. But it is also familiarity: we inevitably adapt to the transgressive ontologies of new technologies and mediums even as we maintain a commitment to the distinctions between fundamental categories such as alive and dead. So, as we wrestle with what it means to reincarnate someone via hologram, I suggest that this technology, too, will one day cease to seem so uncanny, and soon enough, Gothic registers will fade from mainstream discussions of it to be marshalled, instead, in service of articulating the newest ontologically transgressive technology or medium – such as, for example, brain implants that replace our smartphones. In this sense, cyberpunk is already ahead of the curve (as science fiction often is), drawing on the Gothic to engage with technologies and mediums that are far ahead of our present capabilities: cloned bodies, uploaded consciousness, and copied minds are its uncanny doubles and ghostly resurrections.


NOTES

[1]  In this respect, scholars have suggested the term posthuman Gothic, or alternatively cybergothic, to describe cyberpunk fictions that “destabilize ingrained readings and patterns, challenging our understanding of what it means to be human” (Heise-von der Lippe 265).

[2] There are other ways this translation might be seen as occurring: the duplication of consciousness and its insertion into multiple bodies is a high-tech version of the Gothic double. And, if posthumanism is about decentering the human, then nineteenth-century monsters, representing anxieties of atavism and evolutionary throwbacks to our more animalistic selves, are a lower-tech decentering of the human.

[3] All translations of Verne from the French are mine. 


WORKS CITED

Binelli, Mark. “Old Musicians Never Die. They Just Become Holograms.” New York Times Magazine, 7 January 2020, www.nytimes.com/2020/01/07/magazine/hologram-musicians.html. Accessed 20 October 2020.

Broderick, Damien. “Reading sf as a mega-text.” Science Fiction Criticism, edited by Rob Latham, Bloomsbury, 2020, pp. 139-148.

Cavallaro, Dani. Cyberpunk and Cyberculture. Athlone Press, 2000.

“Echoes from Dead Voices.” New York Sun, 6 November 1877.

Famurewa, Jimi. “Inside the bitter war to bring Tupac and Michael Jackson back to life.” Wired, 8 May 2018, www.wired.co.uk/article/tupac-michael-jackson-billie-holiday-dead-celebrity-holograms. Accessed 20 October 2020.

Grow, Cory. “Live After Death: Inside Music’s Booming New Hologram Touring Industry.” Rolling Stone, 10 September 2019, www.rollingstone.com/music/music-features/hologram-tours-roy-orbison-frank-zappa-whitney-houston-873399/. Accessed 20 October 2020.

Heise-von der Lippe, Anya. “Gothicism.” Routledge Companion to Cyberpunk Culture, edited by Anna McFarlane, Lars Schmeink, and Graham Murphy, Routledge, 2020, pp. 264-272.

Hollinger, Veronica. “Retrofitting Frankenstein.Beyond Cyberpunk: New Critical Perspectives, edited by Graham J. Murphy and Sherryl Vint, Routledge, 2010, pp. 191-210.

Huizenga, Tom. “Raising The Dead — And A Few Questions — With Maria Callas’ Hologram.” NPR, 6 November 2018, www.npr.org/sections/deceptivecadence/2018/11/06/664653353/raising-the-dead-and-a-few-questions-with-maria-callas-hologram. Accessed 20 October 2020.

Poe, Edgar Allan. Selected Tales. Oxford, 1998. 

Shelley, Mary. Frankenstein. Edited with a foreword & notes by Leslie S. Klinger, W.W. Norton and Company, 2017.

–. “Author’s Introduction to Frankenstein.Science Fiction Criticism, edited by Rob Latham, Bloomsbury, 2017, pp. 291-294.

Thorpe, Vanessa. “Back to life, back to virtual reality as music stars return to stage as holograms.” The Guardian, 25 May 2019, www.theguardian.com/music/2019/may/25/virtual-reality-music-stars-stage-holograms-whitney-houston-jeff-wayne. Accessed 20 October 2020.

Tiffany, Kaitlyn. “No industry is weirder than the dead celebrity hologram industry.” Vox, 23 October 2018, www.vox.com/the-goods/2018/10/23/18010274/amy-winehouse-hologram-tour-controversy-technology. Accessed 20 October 2020.

Verne. Jules. Le Chateau des Carpathes. Hachette, 1970.

Cyberpunk in the Modern Museum: Actuality, Future, and the Challenges of Exhibiting Movie Memorabilia


SFRA Review, vol. 50, no. 4

Symposium: The CyberPunk Culture Conference


Cyberpunk in the Modern Museum: Actuality, Future, and the Challenges of Exhibiting Movie Memorabilia *

Agnieszka Kiejziewicz


The young market of movie memorabilia is continuously growing, expanding on new thematic areas related to genre cinema and animation. A relatively short overview of this market highlights the lack of complete comparative price reports, as well as detailed academic analyses. The reports keep focusing on the most profitable auctions, such as the ones featuring the Delorean from Back to the Future (1985) or Robby the Robot from Forbidden Planet (1956) (Nevins, n.p.). Most of the accessible academic publications cover the initial wave of interest in movie memorabilia around the world, which was at the end of the 1980s and the beginning of the 1990s (Chaneles; Heide and Gilman). However, it is possible to assess the scale of the success of the market browsing through soft data, for example by juxtaposing the prices of movie memorabilia with fine art auctions over the years.

Together with increasing sales of memorabilia, the collectors organize exhibitions, aiming at reconsidering the notions of art and the possibility of introducing popular culture to the museums and galleries. Also, the exhibiting movie memorabilia raises the question of the aesthetic value of popular-art-related objects. An example of such an exhibition is the  DC Exhibition: Dawn of Superheroes, which was shown among others in Łódź, Poland, and London, UK. In this context, it is symptomatic that the objects connected to film and animation changed their functions. Once, they were parts of scenography and popular culture, but now, they are displayed in the museums, considered as legitimate art. I leave the question on the sources of interest in movie memorabilia open, as the answer needs thorough sociological research, which exceeds the subject range of this article.

This paper stems from the experience of designing a concept of cyberpunk movie memorabilia exhibition that I developed together with Marek Kasperski, the owner of the Art Komiks gallery located in Warsaw, Poland (Kasperski, n.p.). Art Komiks administers the collection of over 300 objects classified as cyberpunk art, gathered by Polish collectors from auctions around the world. The collection contains objects related to cult titles, such as Ghost in the Shell (1995-2017; both animation and live-action film), as well as less-known titles from world cyberpunk – among the plethora of titles – New Hurricane Polymar (animation, 1996), Magnus, Robot Fighter (comic books franchise; 1963-2014), or Eat-Man (1997).

In this article, I am going to present the substantive issues related to the process of designing a cyberpunk movie memorabilia exhibition, as well as comment on the intermedia relations between the objects in the context of the overall concept of the display. It is worth adding that some of the ideas related to the exhibition narrative path were based on the findings presented in my book Japanese Cyberpunk: From Avant-garde Transgressions to Popular Cinema.

NEW MUSEOLOGY AND CYBERPUNK MOVIE MEMORABILIA

Modern museums search for unusual objects to gain a contemporary audience’s attention and, at the same time, create an interactive experience with (potential) educational values. It creates a situation in which the exhibitions are planned under measurable factors, such as potential income from tickets sold, attendance, and media response (i.e., journalists’ or bloggers’ reviews, number of views of the photo galleries published on Facebook and Instagram). Barron and Leask observe that museums are significant elements of cultural tourism, designed to be effective in gaining recognition and publicity. Researchers underline that institutions often ensure their future by, among other factors, enhancing the viewer’s engagement (Baron and Leask, 1-2). The value of novelty and shock, as well as the visible and easily recognizable connections to popular culture, diversify the audience, inviting to the exhibition space those who are not usually engaged in fine art displays. This wave of interest in expanding the notions of traditional art opens up an opportunity for movie memorabilia, comic art, and popular culture-related objects, such as bootleg art.

In this context, cyberpunk movie memorabilia and other art (comic book sketches, animation frames, photos, bootleg art, etc.) once perceived only as parts of cyberpunk narratives, changed their function. Now, away from the film scenography, the objects can be recognized by the contemporary viewer as sources of prophetic memory about the future and simultaneously  gaining cult status because of their universal message. Movie memorabilia depicted in an art gallery can also be considered as a legitimate art, encouraging philosophical reflections about social development. It opens new research perspectives on the functions and objects exhibited in modern museums, expanding the definition of contemporary museology.

Fig. 1. Tetsuo: the Iron Man bootleg, Jaibantoys

COLLECTING CYBERPUNK OBJECTS

Situating cyberpunk objects in the broader context of popular culture art collections, it should be noticed that they can be classified as movie memorabilia, comic art, game art, video games, books, autographs (i.e., autographed objects) and bootleg art. The collectors can reach a variety of forms through obtaining the objects from several different sources, such as auctions, directly from the authors, or the other private collectors. The uniqueness of the collection administered by Art Komiks stems from the model of support of the project, which is based on the contributions of the Polish private collectors, willing to lend the objects for the exhibitions.

As Marek Kasperski pointed out in a podcast about popular culture recorded for Deloitte (Kotecki), the process of building a collection of cyberpunk objects is related to a broader trend of collecting movie memorabilia, which is connected to the dynamics of income distribution between fans of popular culture narratives. Popular culture artifacts associated with nostalgia and trending superheroes universes for younger generations are gradually replacing the need of collecting fine art. Also, in the case of popular culture art, the act of building one’s own collection is less associated with gathering valuable possessions and increasing one’s material status. Instead, obtaining such objects is related to the need for the embodiment of passion towards particular narratives, heroes, or themes. Accordingly, the interest in the specific kinds of memorabilia varies – from the higher interest of the foreign customers in transnational cyberpunk narratives to the lower interest in local cyberpunk (for example the comic art created by Polish artists brings most attention from Polish fans and collectors).

CYBERPUNK EXHIBITION DESIGN

While designing the exhibition on cyberpunk, we found it essential to group the objects according to themes they covered, to provide the viewer with a clear, understandable path. Consequently, we  divided the objects according to three main themes that reappear in cyberpunk narratives.

The first one revolves around the depictions of machines, androids, and cyber bodies, focusing on the protagonists under and after transgressive body metamorphosis. The impact of technology on human life, both in the context of the physical changes and the possibility of mental immersion in the virtual world, was the issue reappearing in the first literary cyberpunk narratives. The connection of the body to the machine, which became the basis of the intermedia genre, took various forms: from mechanical prostheses, replaceable organs, and under-skin hardware to interference in the brain. Cyborgizations were also a perfectly personalized, fancy arsenal of weapons attached to the user. In cyberpunk, the fusion of the body with the machine exceeds the limitations imposed by the imperfection and instability of biological tissue. The user strives for the ultimate defeat of death by improving physical capabilities or diving into cyberspace, thus leaving the imperfect body behind. Cyberpunk’s technology penetrates the biological tissue and leads to the disappearance of what the viewer recognizes under the concept of humanity.  The protagonist of cyberpunk narratives uses the benefits of technological development, knowing that by bonding with the machine at the same time, he moves away from society, alienates from reality, and becomes the Other. An integral element of the fusion of man and machine is the terror of metamorphosis, the pain that accompanies the act of attaching the technological extensions to the biological organism. The appearance of an android reflects the possibility of comparing the determinants of human and machine existence, i.e., recognizing the features that distinguish an organic being from a mechanical one. This comparison also arouses  the obsessive desire of conscious androids to confirm their existence by understanding what the soul is and whether an artificial creature can discover it.

According to the specter of works we (ArtKomiks gallery) have in the collection, we mostly focused on the terror of connecting biological tissue with mechanical cyber-improvements, at the same time discussing the new possibilities and powers gained by the characters. In this section, we also highlighted the place of the mechanical Other (android) in society. Here, among the objects we displayed, there is the head of the post-exploded android from Ghost in the Shell live-action film (2017) and animation art referring to this universe (i.e., the frames depicting the main character, Major Kusanagi’s mechanical body disintegration), Eric Canete’s covers from Cyborg comic books,  Genocyber (1994) animation art or Tetsuo the Iron Man bootleg art created by Jaibantoys.

Fig. 2. Cyborg, Eric Canete, comic art/cover, 2017, 23,5×35,5 cm

The second thematic area is focused on cyberspace and the world inside the computer. Here the narrative path followed such themes as the escapist nature of virtual surroundings or the moment of entering cyberspace and separating an imperfect biological body from an immaterial personality, thus introducing the dilemma of the existence of the soul and the Absolute. The division of the world into real and virtual has its roots in Jean Baudrillard’s reflections on a society immersed in simulations, wandering in hyper-reality, and manipulated by the media. The cyberpunk concept of cyberspace, inspired, among other things, by Baudrillard’s thoughts, was formulated and presented for the first time in the story True Names (1981) by Vernor Vinge. Since then, the vision of a cyber-world inside the Net has evolved, being successively developed with new plots showing the immaterial existence of a future man. The objects displayed in this section are, among others, photos from Johnny Mnemonic (1995) signed by Keanu Reeves, photos and the Atari game from TRON (1982) or comic art related to such titles as Magnus Robot Fighter (1963, reintroduced in 2010), Barb Wire (1994-1995), Godzilla: Cataclysm (2014) and Gall Force (1995).

Fig. .3. Magnus Robot Fighter, Jorge Fornes, comic art/ variant cover, 29,5×42 cm

Furthermore, the third section was dedicated to the depictions of a dystopian, futuristic city, including interior design. We underlined that a cyberpunk dystopia is a place of confrontation of corporations, subcultures, and residents of the criminal underworld. Despite technological development, a large proportion of the city’s future residents exist under challenging conditions, struggling with addictions and poverty. It turns out that advanced cyber implants only improve the lives of the privileged. Postindustrial dystopia, in which governments have fallen, and corporations have gained most of the decisive power, shows visible similarities to the reality behind the screen. As the plot of cyberpunk narratives takes place in the near future, the viewer recognizes fashion, architecture, and digital solutions, which they know perfectly well. The fall of order and social structures frightens, but also attracts with the mysterious beauty of the dark streets inhabited by the future man. The design of dystopia is a combination of space settlements, underground cities, and a vision of post-apocalyptic Earth after an atomic disaster, which is perfectly depicted by Severio Tenuta in his comic art from Heavy Metal, Dublin 2077 or by Syd Mead’s art.

Fig. 4. Blade Runner, Syd Mead, signed photo/ movie memorabilia, 15×10 cm

Those three themes can be found in most cyberpunk narratives, though they function as a core for further thematic developments in the context of more prominent exhibitions. For example, the section about future landscape can be accompanied by insight into a dystopian fashion, not only highlighting film costumes from Ghost in the Shell, which we have in the collection, or weapons (i.e., a machine gun from Aeon Flux), but also depicting the comic sketches of the inhabitants of future cities.

Fig. 5. Aeon Flux, 1991-1995, animation art (left) and film prop (right)

CYBERPUNK BRANDS AND EXHIBITION PATH

On the level of recognition, cyberpunk artworks can be divided into those classified as big names, such as Ghost in the Shell or RoboCop, and less-known cyberpunk TV series or local comic art. Having in the collection examples of both categories, it is crucial to successfully merge the interest that the viewer will express towards the recognizable names with the artistic value that less-known narratives often offer. However, the big names will bring the most media attention and can serve as an incentive for potential media partners.

The appearance of big cyberpunk names should be considered while designing the narrative path based on the relations between the chosen objects and highlighted themes. For the viewers with partial knowledge about the genre, the media narratives (or the plots) associated with particular objects seem less important than the overall aesthetics of cyberpunk and the balance between the recognition of big names and the act of discovering less-known objects. Analyzing the practical implementations of exhibition design in several new media museums (i.e., in Finland, Sweden, Norway, Germany, and Poland), we contend that it could be discouraging for the viewer to read and learn every narrative separately and with a detailed plot. In this case, we adopted the approach in which the objects themselves tell the stories according to their placement in relation to each other.

INTMEDIA RELATIONS

It is worth underlining that media franchise titles such as Ghost in the Shell are accompanied by various kinds of objects (costumes, photos, drafts and sketches, props), whose presence underlines the intermedia relations within cyberpunk productions. Accordingly, we suggest that a narrative path should be based on clear connections, revolving around the variety of forms. For example, a cyberpunk weapon (accessory) and a sketch depicting this weapon or a frame showing a scene of using it can be showcased together.

We listed two elements that can underline the intermedia character of cyberpunk narratives, at the same time fulfilling the need for a clear exhibition path and creating a unique ‘cyberpunkish’ atmosphere. The first one is the influence on the audience and recognizability of a particular object. Mostly, it is the costume or a prop that appeared in the well-known film, which can be associated with the viewer with cult status. Also, the presence of 3-D objects (together with sketches and photos) draws attention to the production process. Furthermore, the second element is the meaning of the prop and its actual value, often enriched by an author’s signature or a certificate of authentication. We for example have Blade Runner‘s script signed by Rutger Hauer in the collection.

Fig. 6. Blade Runner‘s script signed by Rutger Hauer

THE VIEWER

We are aware that the contemporary viewer, if they are not a fan of the cyberpunk genre, may not recognize all the authors, connections, and themes presented at the exhibition. Therefore, more than focusing on teaching people  about cyberpunk’s visions in different media, we count on building a unique mood.

In this case, the cyberpunk movie memorabilia exhibition becomes a physical implementation of the conception of media diffusion in cyberpunk discourse. The variety of the gathered objects encourages the meditation on the character of modern times and the futuristic visions that became a palpable reality. For the viewer, cyberpunk narratives will function as the points of reference to fulfilled prophecies about the future. Entering the exhibition space filled with the artifacts from the cyber-world, the observer experiences the embodied futuristic dreams, or, referring to Baudrillard’s terminology, a heterotopia – an area on the verge of reality and imagination. In the optics of cyberpunk narratives, the technological solutions and aesthetics familiar to the viewer through their daily experiences are distorted, monstrous, and derived from their original context.

Cyberpunk movie memorabilia exhibitions show the manifestation of various names and media in cyberpunk discourse. The diversity of the collected objects allows the viewer to reflect on the nature of our times when visions of the future became a tangible present. Entering the exhibition, the observer gets familiar with films, comics, and game narratives currently functioning not only as a record of the creators’ imagination but also as a reference point to the prophetic visions of the development of modern societies. Futuristic objects and mechanical creations appropriating the body and perception of the individual reflect the everyday experiences of the observer, creating comparisons between the contemporary world and cyberpunk narratives. The exhibition of film memorabilia allows the viewer to confront the designed shape of futuristic visions by comparing it with what is known and familiar to them. Emphasizing the terror of transformation into a mechanical being, or recalling the post-apocalyptic character of the future, the creators of cyberpunk narratives are forcing the observer to verify contemporary social changes. Approaching cyberpunk aesthetics, we are balancing between technophobia and technophilia, unable to free ourselves from the need for creating comparisons.

CONCLUSION

The objects gathered within the collection, once treated as integral elements of cyberpunk narratives, have become records of the memory of the futuristic visions, striking the viewer with their universal character. At present, the fact of viewing the cyberpunk set of objects in the art gallery allows us to perceive them as a legitimate part of contemporary culture.

The successful merge of the exhibiting patterns reserved for fine art with popular culture objects opens a new field for discussion about the archiving and preservation of memory about contemporary media products. Also, the actuality presented in cyberpunk narratives, together with the excessive interest in the genre, expanded by the upcoming premiere of the Cyberpunk 2077 digital game, creates a need for revising the exhibition concept. The fact of showing cyberpunk movie memorabilia on display is a proposal addressed to two generations of viewers: those who seek for a nostalgic journey into the narratives from the beginnings of cyberpunk and those who have already started discovering the genre, encouraged by the newest productions.


NOTES

*All pictures used in this article come from Art Komiks’ archive.


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