Sinofuturism and Chinese Science Fiction: An Introduction to the Alternative Sinofuturisms (中华未来主义) Special Issue


SFRA Review, vol. 50, no. 2-3

Special Issue: Alternative Sinofuturisms (中华未来主义)


Sinofuturism and Chinese Science Fiction: An Introduction to the Alternative Sinofuturisms (中华未来主义) Special Issue

Virginia L. Conn
Rutgers University / USA


As a mode of global and temporal situatedness, Sinofuturism has largely emerged as a concept applied externally to China by Western observers. By compartmentalizing sociocultural development as a form uniquely tied to the nation-state while also seeking to maintain both distance and otherness, Sinofuturism differs from theorizations such as Afrofuturism (to which it is often compared) through its application to, not development from, the subjects it takes as object. As a result, the very label of “Sinofuturism” developed out of the same Orientalizing impulses that previously relegated China to a space of backwardness and barbarism (Niu, Huang, Roh 2015) and which now attribute to it a projected futurity. Yet this Western label is one that Chinese authors and artists have appropriated and weaponized for their own creative ends, without necessarily sharing unified goals.

Authors of science fiction in China have uniquely grappled with this impulse, especially insofar as digital technologies—such as the growing e-publishing industry and networked media platforms—allow for the proliferation of new voices historically barred from traditional publishing venues. (Xu 2015) Too, contemporary science fiction in China functions as a transnational form that centers a technoscientific process or material object as a means of introducing social change, rendering the aim of science fiction inherently future-oriented even when relying on the past or focused on the present. Because potential future ontologies are expected to be relevant to present extrapolations, they fundamentally rely, to some degree, not only on realistic depictions of possible technologies and circumstantial realism, but also the familiar perceptions of the extant material and digital worlds—a central tenet of Sinofuturism’s omnivorous inclusion of technology, labor, art, and the visions it makes possible. (Lek 2016)

The globalizing effect of the internet and the subsequent rise in wide-scale digital exchange, in particular, has created a space for production in which Chinese authors are writing for an increasingly global audience and shifting their goals correspondingly. As early as the beginning of the 20th century, authors and public reformers in China (such as Liang Qichao, who, in his 1902 unfinished novel The Future of New China, described a utopian 1962 in which China was the dominant global power) were envisioning Sinofutures in which China was preeminent on the world stage. The idea of China as a dominant force in the world yet-to-come continues through much Chinese science fiction today, from standout international sensations such as The Three-Body Problem to anonymously published digital short stories like “Olympic Dream.” For science fiction authors describing the Chinese future (or the future as Chinese), an awareness of the fact that American and Western media largely paints China as a place of repression and censorship is an integral part of the worlds they depict.

To the extent that this is true, publishing regulations in China mean that the internet and other digital forms of publications, such as video games and online message boards, have become increasingly important outlets for science fiction. The Three-Body Problem, for example, was serialized first in the online-only Science Fiction World before being published as a book, and Western publication outlets like Clarkesworld have partnered with China-based Storycom to publish more Chinese science fiction in translation online. Because of the expectation of a global audience that online publication ensures, science fiction is changing as readership expands, yet the balance of global power remains uneven. Noted science fiction authors such as Xia Jia still describe science fiction coming out of China as having the mission of educating Western readers (Xia 2016), while English translators are increasingly burdened with the necessity of explaining historiocultural specificities through lengthy footnotes. (Liu 2014) That is, just as the West applies the term “Sinofuturism” to an entire national development project, Chinese authors are put in the position of responding and catering to Western assumptions in order to be legible on a global scale.

Here is where the specificity of China as a technologicized imaginary, located outside of both space and time, results in a an Orientalizing impulse fundamentally different from the fetishization of a high-tech Japan seen prominently in cyberpunk and the gleamingly sexualized noir adoration of the 80s. Shaped by and reliant on Western projections of Asia as the techne through which to shape a future defined by and created for the West, Sinofuturism not only projects China as a temporal locus for the project of modernity (Niu 2008), but also posits Chinese individuals themselves as resources, not originary producers of cultural or technological capital. Reduced by the West to faceless algorithmic data points, Chinese laborers and producers are commodified in an ideologically reproductive system informed by the racial panic of outsourcing common in the early nineties with the rise of overseas data centers. (Atanasoki and Vora 2015) Chinese science fiction writers are well aware of this and increasingly find themselves in a position to either push back against it or grapple with those fears in order to appear legible to an international readership.

Some authors do this by writing directly to the negative visions of a Chinese future most commonly held by the West: Chen Qiufan’s The Waste Tide, for example, deals with the physical detritus left behind by the dreams of digital development and the environmental devastation created when those developments are made obsolete and discarded, while Ma Boyong’s “City of Silence” shows both digital message boards and spoken language as subject to the same censorship as physical media, giving lie to the aspirations of online communications as a state of expressive exceptionalism. Other Chinese content producers actively embody the digitizing impulse that seeks to turn human beings into images for consumption: Naomi Wu (Shenzhen’s “sexy cyborg”), for example, has created a 3D scan of her body and uploaded it for the purpose of 3D printing models. These models are marketed alongside 3D models of Major Motoko Kusanagi from the Japanese anime Ghost in the Shell—an explicit juxtaposition of two stylized bodies (one real, one fictional) that, in their respective worlds, represent the future through a conscientious abandonment of the biological for the constructed.

So what, then, does it mean for Chinese science fiction to attempt to depict a Sinofuturist vision in the increasingly globalized space made possible by digital technologies? And what does it mean to produce content within a framework that imagines a techno-utopic future founded on artistic labor while simultaneously reproducing racialized tropes of dehumanization? How is material production changed by an increasing reliance on the digital? In the following essays, various researchers and theorists attempt to grapple with digital imaginaries, production, labor, and futurity across a wide range of topics multiply bound in Sinofuturist space.

The idea for this special issue developed out of a workshop organized by Dino Ge Zhang as part of the WuDaoKou Futurists collective, a collective aimed at decentering Sinofuturism from its Western articulations. The workshop, “Alternative Sinofuturisms,” already presupposes Sinofuturism as a venue for alterity and retains a space for various approaches and understandings of who and what is being foregrounded. Centralized in Beijing but held online with invited speakers from four different continents, the workshop was organized around a series of provocations, most of which are included in this issue. Amy Ireland articulated a view of darkside empathy that positioned Sinofuturist visions as methods of inculcating weaponized empathy, while Gabriele de Seta argued that Sinofuturism functions as a framework for denying the possibility of coevalness to China on the part of the West. I discussed Sinofuturism as an aestheticized projection that fixed images of the country in a perpetual futur antérieur; Vincent Garton, not included here, argued for a reappropriation of the term by Chinese theorists and politicians in order to reconstruct a new world system inclusive of heterogenous futures. The organizer, Dino Ge Zhang (without whom neither the original symposium nor this special issue would be possible), expanded on his concept of Sino-no-futurism to describe a world post-pandemic, which in many ways now reads as a science fictional dream for an American and British audience trapped in the perpetual now of our own countries’ ongoing pandemic-based immiserations.

The papers contained in this special issue respond to these various provocations and the overall concept of Sinofuturism from various angles. While some are supportive, seeing in Sinofuturism an opportunity for alternative epistemologies, others criticize its foreclosure of heterogenous elements and re-centering of global development vis-à-vis the West. What’s more, while Sinofuturism is an explicitly temporal projection, it is not necessarily a science fictional one except insofar as any futurist projection is a work of imagination—as a result, some of the essays contained here do not consider science fiction at all, while still engaging with the concept of how to situate the future on a global scale. By questioning who gets to imagine the future alongside who and what contributes to bringing those visions about, these essays incisively demonstrate that the material is never separate from the conceptual and the real-world consequences of imagining such alternatives.


WORKS CITED

Atanasoski, Neda and Kalindi Vora. “Surrogate Humanity: Posthuman Networks and the Racialized Obsolescence of Labor.” Catalyst: Feminism, Theory, Technoscience, vol. 1, no. 1, 2015, https://doi.org/10.28968/cftt.v1i1.28809.

Lek, Lawrence. “Sinofuturism (1839–2046 AD).” Center for Art and Media Karlsruhe, 2016, https://zkm.de/en/sinofuturism-1839-2046-ad.

Liu, Cixin. The Three-Body Problem. Translated by Ken Liu, Tor Books, 2014.

Niu, Greta Aiyu. “Techno-Orientalism, Nanotechnology, Posthumans, and Post-Posthumans in Neal Stephenson’s and Linda Nagata’s Science Fiction.” Melus: Multi-Ethnic Literature of the United States, vol. 33, no. 4, 2008, pp. 73-96.

Roh, David S., Betsy Huang, and Greta A. Niu, eds. Techno-Orientalism: Imagining Asia in Speculative Fiction, History, and Media. Rutgers University Press, 2015.

Xia Jia. “What Makes Chinese Science Fiction Chinese?” Invisible Planets: Contemporary Chinese Science Fiction in Translation, edited by Ken Liu, Tor, 2016.

Xu Jing. “’Golden Age’ Dawns for Chinese Web-Writers.” China Daily, 6 September 2015, http://www.chinadaily.com.cn/culture/2015-06/09/content_20951494_4.htm.

Meet the Future: An Interview with Julia Gatermann


SFRA Review, vol. 50, no. 2-3

Features / Meet the Future


Meet the Future: An Interview with Julia Gatermann

Julia Gatermann
PhD Candidate, Department of English and American Studies
Hamburg University / Germany
Research Assistant, SOCIUM Research Center for Inequality and Social Politics
University of Bremen / Germany


SFRA Review: Hi, Julia, could you tell us a bit about yourself? As much (or as little) as you’d like!

Julia: Hi! Thanks for inviting me—this is such an honor. I started as a PhD candidate last year at the department of English and American Studies at the University of Hamburg, Germany. I’m a meticulous writer of lists (anything, really: To Reads, To Dos, Pro-Cons…) because I like the way they structure my thoughts and give me the confidence to then (well, sometimes) just throw them to the wind and be present in the moment—because life (thankfully!!!) has a tendency of sneaking up and surprising you.

Review: How do you describe yourself professionally?

J: Looking at my research interests, they seem to be spread out unreasonably wide (something I find simultaneously terrifying and exhilarating): I’m writing my dissertation on sexual and gender fluidity (looking at contemporary films, novels, tv series, and so on) with a strong emphasis on intersectionality. I’m also employed at an interdisciplinary research project called “Fiction Meets Science II” with the subproject titled “Science in Postcolonial Speculative Fiction: Nature/Politics/Economies Reimagined” where we look at depictions of science, technology, and knowledge production from perspectives that challenge and decenter dominant Western discourse. While both areas—sexuality and gender as well as science and knowledge production—are each dauntingly vast and complex, the overlap between the two—and incidentally the aspect I’m interested in most—is the dynamics at work when you look at the margins instead of the center: the emergence of imaginary spaces that allow for a (re-)negotiation (be that of concepts, power relations, or identities) that becomes possible in the liminal spaces “in between”, resulting from the friction between center and periphery. These imaginary spaces are inherently utopian, I believe, since they, by their very nature, always already point towards the future and to the question “what if”? Which allows us to elegantly segue into the next question…

Review: Why does sf matter to you?

J: Pretty much all of my academic work at the moment is inflected by sf because I find it a good mode to think with. Similar to the conceptual friction that happens at the boundaries of two disparate cultures, for example, that allows for new imaginary spaces to emerge, sf deliberately strives to provoke cognitive estrangement that unsettles one’s familiar perspective. There are many aspects about sf that I’m in love with (and some of them are too embarrassingly cheesy to admit to publicly!), but what I think is probably sf’s most powerful capacity is how it opens our view—with a sometimes only ever so slight tilt of the angle—to aspects of our own culture that we previously might have overlooked or been blind to. Long held preconceptions and beliefs that are tightly woven into the fabric of our culture and thereby have become “white noise” to us, something we just take for granted and maybe even perceive as neutral facts of life, can be challenged in sf with a stunning ease—by just shifting the frame a bit. And this ease with which something so profound can be accomplished reveals just how brittle these values and beliefs really become when they remain unquestioned. Therefore, sf hands us powerful tools to both make visible new sides of what we thought we already knew well enough—our reality—and thereby also the power to reshape it by asking new questions—“what if…?” Sf, at its best, challenges its readers/viewers and keeps them on their toes.

Review: What brought you to sf studies?

J: I started to discover sf (as probably most of us) in my teens (if “the golden age of science fiction” is considered to be twelve, I was a bit of a late bloomer, though). In my family, education was always considered as something highly valued, yet not to be taken for granted (I am the first to have been to university). I owe my love for books to my mother who read to me tirelessly when I was little (I somewhat suspect I didn’t allow her to tire, as closure is still something I can’t go to sleep without!).

Yet when I started university, I always regarded anything “genre” as an illicit pleasure. In Germany, even more so than in Anglophone culture, we make a very palpable distinction between high and low brow culture when considering cultural artifacts, and the study of the latter was (sometimes still is) regarded as somewhat frivolous—and for someone very conscious about their class background this can become a very fraught thing. While the devaluation of pop culture had been contested for decades before I ever picked up my first sf novel, and the cultural climate at my university therefore thankfully was rather inclusive (every now and then there were seminars on detective fiction, for example), it was till my second to last semester that I encountered a loud and proud announcement of science fiction in the course catalog.

This seemed to me delightfully transgressive; the crowd this seminar drew was indeed one composed of people who also reveled in “out of the box” approaches and challenging conventional thinking, and I felt like I finally belonged! I immediately decided to write my master’s thesis on sf, went to my first academic conference (ICFA, closely followed by SFRA), spent a year researching my thesis at the Merrill Collection in Toronto, and was overwhelmed by the sense of community I encountered! Just starting out in academia, I felt seen and accepted, my opinions valued. I felt buoyed by the emotional support the academic sf community gave me in my endeavors and ambitions, making me almost giddy with happy optimism. When I returned back home to Germany, I longed to take this feeling of community and belonging with me, yearning for a similar network in the German context.

Therefore, when Lars Schmeink decided to organize an inaugural conference for the Gesellschaft für Fantastikforschung (German association for research of the fantastic in the arts) in 2010, I did what I could to help build up this academic association and provide an organizational structure for a still growing band of likeminded academic SFF enthusiasts to rally around. I feel privileged that I’ve been allowed to serve on the board of the GfF for ten years!

While my love for sf has been longstanding, I believe it was really the open-mindedness, the combination of critical acuity and creative scholarship happening in the field, and, probably above anything else, the warmhearted inclusiveness and integrity of the people within sf that made me catch fire. I feel at home in sf and I couldn’t imagine my (academic and overall) life without it.

Review: What project(s) are you working on now, and how did you get there?What question(s) really drive your work?

J: As mentioned above, the two projects I’m working on at the moment are my dissertation on representations of sexual and gender fluidity in contemporary American culture and the interdiscplinary research project with “Fiction Meets Science” on representations of science, technology and knowledge production in postcolonial speculative novels. Here, I’m looking at how author’s from the Global South or of a hybrid cultural background challenge and destabilize such notion as the supremacy of Western science in their novels, and debunk the fallacy of perceiving it as something neutral and free of any “cultural baggage”. Sf, through extrapolation, can expose problematic developments that, in mainstream society might long have become normalized, and critically question the power relations and dynamics of a capitalist economy that often harnesses scientific research for profit oriented gains, pushing for advancements while downplaying potential risks, for example.

Against the dystopian backdrop of climate change, global pandemics, war and overwhelming inequality, Western science (entangled in capitalist interests) doesn’t only seem to lack the answers but often seems to be at the heart of these problems. And while the present moment long seems to have caught up with sf, creating a strange sense of “double vision”, an inherent sense of futurity in our here and now, I nevertheless believe that sf’s capacity of extrapolation and estrangement can help us process these problematic developments as it affords us with the required conceptual distance to our own reality—it makes us take a step back—to take a good look at it.

I’m interested in how postcolonial sf (and I won’t go into the problematic history of the term here) explores questions such as how non-Western knowledge traditions might hold solutions to these problems, how a Western binary thinking in terms of a nature-culture-opposition might be broken up in favor of more fluid and interconnected understandings of the two, or how different science traditions might work hand in hand to come to creative responses to complex problems. I’m just thrilled to hear how new voices, especially those voices who previously had been silenced, contribute to the discussion, trouble and upend preconceptions and change the dialogue—even the way how we ask questions.    

Review: What do you envision for the future of sf studies and sf scholars? What do you want to see us accomplish?

J: This, I guess, is also what I hope for the future of sf studies and scholars within the field. Sf is full of diverse and brilliant voices, upending what we thought we knew, challenging us to become better thinkers. Likewise, I want to see more scholars succeeding in academia that belong to groups that previously have largely been underrepresented, marginalized, even silenced—people who can challenge white, male, Western, able-bodied, hetero, cis-normativity, take the discourse to new places and ask new questions. These strange and difficult times have shown us that “business as usual” is no longer sustainable, that closing our eyes in front of the obvious no longer is an option. We are in desperate need of change—in the face of an intricately interwoven and incomprehensibly complex global system of . . . everything . . . this is a staggering challenge. We need out of the box thinking, we need new perspectives and angles to look from, we need new ways to cooperate and collaborate, to communicate with each other across the divides of our subjective experiences. And, above all else—we need a huge portion of utopian thinking! These times seem to require sf scholarship more than ever—and the more diverse the voices within it, the better our chances to radically change our world for the better.

Review: If you could write a dream book, or teach a dream course, what would it/they be?

J: The dream book would be my dissertation. I’m interested in how expressions of non-normative sexual and gender identity are being transported and translated in contemporary culture, thereby counteracting cultural erasure and giving visibility to marginalized groups as well as breaking up preconceptions and unsettling binary thinking. Core to my work is an intersectional approach; my theoretical foundation is informed by a variety of discourses, be that critical posthumanism, postcolonial theory, posthumanist feminism, queer theory and critical race studies. I look through an sf lens at my work, firmly believing that the affordances of sf, especially estrangement and extrapolation, allow us to inspect and explore the here and now from new angles and make it possible to perceive from these perspectives what we otherwise might have missed due to our cultural blind spots that derive from an overfamiliarity with the cultural tapestry of our reality. I’m interested in novels, films and tv series that negotiate the experiences of marginal subject positions and embodiment in complex ways that decenter normative thinking, Larissa Lai’s The Tiger Flu, for example, or Alex Garland’s Ex Machina.

In terms of a dream course, I get to teach a seminar on intersectionality next semester, using Janelle Monáe’s emotion picture Dirty Computer as an example and spring board to dive into the vital importance of (self-)representation, cultural memory, and the political, utopian force of Afrofuturism.

Review: Thank you, Julia! Your labor and thoughts are valued and appreciated.

The SF in Translation Universe #8



The SF in Translation Universe #8

Rachel Cordasco


Welcome back to the SF in Translation Universe! It might seem like we’ve been living in a dystopian novel or postapocalyptic wasteland, but the books are still being printed and reviews are still being written, so at least there’s that.

Between May and August, we’ve been treated to Golden Age French science fiction, World War II-era Belgian Weird, a genre-bending Bengali story cycle, Swedish horror, and so much more. With this variety of genres, languages, and cultures, it’s no wonder that readers are turning to SF in translation to nourish their brains.

Thanks to the intrepid Wakefield Press, we have two collections of Weird tales by Francophone authors who wrote under the cloud of Nazi occupation. Jean Ray’s The Great Nocturnal: Tales of Dread (tr. Scott Nicolay), out in June, offers us a sampling of the stories that solidified his reputation as the face of the Belgian Weird. Interrogating the depths of surrealist horror that lie just beneath everyday reality, Ray writes about alternate dimensions, strange and terrifying symbols, and horrifying transformations. Marcel Brion, too, turned to the fantastic during this dark time, publishing in 1942 the stories that make up Waystations of the Deep Night (tr. George MacLennan and Edward Gauvin), out in July. Like Ray, Brion draws on classic horror tropes to destabilize our sense of reality: a painting puts onlookers under a spell, an underground city erupts onto the surface . . . and then there are the dancing cats.

In keeping with this surrealist theme, we have Cuban author Miguel Collazo’s 1968 novel The Journey (tr. David Frye), out in July from Restless Books. Blending science fiction and a dream-like metaphysical exploration of our place in the universe, Collazo’s novel imagines a planet colonized long ago by scientists, whose descendants have become nomadic visionaries. The members of a new generation have discovered in themselves unprecedented psychic abilities and begin to look forward to a transformation that they call the “Journey.” This sounds very similar in tone to Yoshio Aramaki’s The Sacred Era (1978, tr. 2017), a Japanese New Wave text that discusses surrealist art, post-Christian dogma, reincarnation, and spaceships fueled by human consciousness.

Metaphysical concerns are also at the heart of Arkady and Boris Strugatsky’s nested novel Lame Fate / Ugly Swans (tr. Maya Vinokur), out in August from Chicago Review Press. While Ugly Swans was first published in English translation in 1979 as a standalone text, it is now presented with the Lame Fate framing story that the Strugatskys wrote in the 1960s when Soviet censors were bearing down. In Lame Fate, an author (Felix Sorokin) is asked by the Soviet Writers’ Union to submit a manuscript for analysis by a computer program to determine its “objective value.” Sorokin is torn between sending a story that the censors will find acceptable and his unpublished masterpiece (entitled Ugly Swans), itself a story about a disgraced author who returns to his hometown to discover that supernatural masked strangers have hypnotized the town’s teenagers. If you enjoy nested stories, also check out the Polish novel Nest of Worlds by Marek Huberath (which came out in English in 2014).

June saw the release of Trailokyanath Mukhopadhyay’s The Epic of Damarudhar (tr. Bodhisattva Chattopadhyay), a work of genre-bending Bengali literature first published between 1911 and 1917 (collected in 1923). Damarudhar, like Angelica Gorodisher’s Trafalgar, features an eponymous storyteller entertaining his listeners with tales that range from science fiction, myth, and fantasy to social commentary and the absurd. In a similar vein, Pergentino José’s Red Ants (tr. Thomas Bunstead) tells the stories of indigenous Mexicans via a magical realist lens turned onto themes of family and love. The first literary translation from the Sierra Zapotec, Red Ants (out in August from Deep Vellum) is an exciting addition to the growing list of SF in translation from Mexico.

If you’re looking for some horror fiction to get your mind off of the horrors of reality, check out Road of Ice and Salt and The Home, both out in August. Published in English thanks to a successful Indiegogo campaign, Road of Ice and Salt (tr. David Bowles, Innsmouth Press) is a cult horror novel from Mexico that will expand our understanding of the country’s speculative fiction tradition. Hop over to Sweden for more horror- Mats Strandberg’s The Home (tr. uncredited, Jo Fletcher Books) tells the story of a nursing home where the residents (many with dementia) have turned into violent strangers with terrifying new mental abilities.

Looking instead for some classic science fiction? Flame Tree Press released Francis Carsac’s The City Among the Stars in May (tr. Judith Sullivan and Margaret Schiff). This first English translation of the French Golden Age novel imagines what would happen if a lieutenant serving the Earth Empire is rescued from his damaged ship by beings that call space (and their spaceship) home. These “People of the Stars” despise those who live on planets, but they want the technology that allows the Empire to track ships through hyperspace. The lieutenant won’t tell the People of the Stars what he knows, though…

If you want more Cuban science fiction, look no further than Restless Books and the two other novels that they published in July: Yoss’s Red Dust (tr. David Frye) and Agustín de Rojas’s Spiral (tr. Nick Caistor and Hebe Powell). The former is the fourth Yoss novel in English in five years and tells the story of a positronic robot detective (á la Raymond Chandler) on a quest to capture dangerous alien criminals and save the space station he calls home. The publication of de Rojas’s Spiral is especially noteworthy because Anglophone readers now have access to all three novels in a trilogy that includes A Legend of the Future and The Year 200 (Restless Books, 2015 and 2016, respectively). A space opera that examines the ethics of scientific exploration and human interactions in a way that comments on the Cold War clash of superpowers and ideologies, Spiral is an important addition to the canon of Cuban science fiction.

As always, you can find excellent short SFT in print and online this spring and summer. As of this writing (mid-July), we have SFT from the Bulgarian, French, Japanese, and Chinese published in Clarkesworld, Compelling Science Fiction, Future Science Fiction Digest, and Daily Science Fiction.

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

Until next time in the SFT Universe!

The Struggle over Information Curation in Fran Wilde’s The Fire Opal Mechanism



“We’ll Free These Words From What Binds Them”: The Struggle over Information Curation in Fran Wilde’s The Fire Opal Mechanism

Jeremy Brett
Texas A&M University


Science fiction and fantasy have by and large escaped discussion of a dismediated informational world. In SF, it is true, subgenres like cyberpunk concern themselves with the concept that information is, or should be, free. A common trope in SF is that of the limitless library or archive with instant access to information that makes no visible use of mediators, search tools, or mechanisms for establishing context between and among bits of information. Look no further than Asimov’s Encyclopedia Galactica, of the Foundation novels, or the vast library of memories assembled by Lovecraft’s Great Race of Yith. Perhaps even more familiar is the image of a repository of information ultimately (if in detail-shy) fashion directed by a figure—“the Librarian,” the “Chief Archivist,” or known by a hundred other titles. Some of these institutions are open to all and sundry, whereas others are generally restricted to a specified audience (e.g. the library at Hogwarts, the Jedi Order’s Holocron Vault, the locked-away stacks of forbidden books at Miskatonic University, the Library at Unseen University in Ankh-Morpork).

However, whatever the structure of the individual institution, little thought in the genre is given over to the ethics and democratization of information, that is, to how or why is the information within the archive or library arranged, contextualized, framed, made accessible, presented?1 James Gunn has been one of the few to mention these kinds of issues; in his essay on the role of libraries in science fiction he speaks of “visions of futures in which libraries are even more important to the fabric of society than they are today and librarians may be only computer programs offer little more than a hint of what lies ahead for all of us, those of us who pull together information, those who consume it, and those who are the custodians and the taxonomists of it” (Gunn, emphasis added).

Likewise, Frederik Pohl, in a speech given in 1965 to the American Documentation Institute, discussed the possibility that science fiction could help real-life thinkers develop new and better systems of information retrieval. He theorized, in reference to his 1956 story “Wapshot’s Demon”, that “it seems to me that there is a difference between information which is pertinent and useful and information which is not. I don’t know of a demon at present seeking the job of sorting them out, but I do rather think that such a demon, or at least some mechanical-electronic analogue of such a demon, may some day be found – on the simple premise that you and I are able to discriminate between such bits of information, and therefore, it should be sooner or later possible to teach a machine to do so too.” (Pohl 102)

Information curation is a serious issue in the real world and the library profession, certainly. There exists a dichotomy between the library as gateway vs. librarian as gatekeeper identities. Librarian of Congress James H. Billington, for one, managed to believe in both these ideas at once. He pointed out in a 1998 article about the American public library system that “knowledge has to be accessible to all people” (11), a nearly universal sentiment. However, he went on to note that “the idea of knowledge-based democracy is threatened, in a peculiar fashion, by the information flood generated by the new technologies and by the overwhelming advance of the audio-visual, multimedia world.” (12) Furthermore:

I fear that all this miscellaneous unverified, constantly changing information on the Internet may inundate knowledge – may move us back down the evolutionary chain from knowledge to information, to miscellaneous raw data. We may be sinking down rather than rising up to wisdom and creativity – those twin peaks that are the highest attainment of the human mind and spirit. Instead of a knowledge-based democracy, we may end up with an information-inundated demagogracy.

Billington 12

In recent years, many librarians have tried to pivot their profession in order to cope with this informational Wild West, to reframe the old model of librarians who govern access rather than provide it. As one library blogger, Peter Murray, noted in 2006, “the library profession is a trusted gatekeeper—librarians have a track record of providing orderly access to shared information resources and taking seriously the responsibility to provide access to those resources under the terms with which they were acquired.” On the other hand, the Statement on Libraries and Intellectual Freedom of the International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions (IFLA) issued in 1999 defines libraries as “gateways to knowledge, thought, and culture.” “Gateways” is a telling self-definition, setting the modern conception of libraries and librarians apart from the more traditional or custodial role of gatekeeper, that is, one who guards the entrance to the court of knowledge and decides who gets access to which sources of information. It is a repositioning with the potential to assign the role of librarian a new kind of openness, free (free-ish, anyway) from traditional arrogance or paternalism.

Of course much of this paradigm shift, as Billington and others note, has been driven by the rise and ongoing world domination of the Internet, where information can be, to say the least, unguarded. We all recognize the advantages to the democratization of information, in allowing everyone to have equal access to the information they need to be informed citizens insofar as they have Internet access. At the same time, in this current age of “fake news,” a dearth of information literacy, and the fetishization of equality of opinion (that is, my YouTube video from an unknown source is just as good as your trained scientist), there exists, however much we might like to think otherwise, a societal threat inherent in unfettered and context-free information access.

We see that threat made manifest in a fantastical setting: Fran Wilde’s novelette The Fire Opal Mechanism. Wilde’s story, the second in her Gem Universe series,2 is singular in the fantasy genre in its centering of the control of information as a theme. It does so not in the cliched sense from so many fantasy works of “which questing party gets whose spell book to defeat what evil dark lord,” for example, but in the very modern sense with which librarians and archivists are currently grappling and which, as noted, has enormous implications for the future of society.

The overwhelming menace in Wilde’s story comes from the Pressmen, a group of militant information populists with tactical and rhetorical elements reminiscent of both the eighteenth-century French Revolution and the twentieth-century Chinese Cultural Revolution. As was common during these real-life revolutions, Pressmen launch demonstrations and attacks—particularly stinging are those from former students who turn against their universities—on the traditionally curated information environment, and threaten or suborn educational administrators, in the name of destroying elitism.

The Pressmen derive their name from their magical machine, a reverse printing press into which eager hands toss books and which removes the ink (and therefore the content) from the pages. What results from this destruction is a so-called Universal Compendium of Knowledge, a constantly-updating information source lacking boundaries, context, or structure. For the Pressmen, this is the ultimate freedom, but it comes at the price of violence and the destruction of tradition, as sorrowfully witnessed by one of the story’s protagonists, Ania Dem, a librarian at the beleaguered Far Reaches University:

The crowd shifted. Ania’s stubbornness increased at a swish of white and blue along the corridors. Two Pressmen stripped the robe from an art professor’s shoulders and let the garment fall to the ground.

Ania’s hopes sank in her stomach, suddenly heavy and sour.

The Pressmen hadn’t been held back. More colleagues, from university guards to Dean Andol, already wore blue and white cloaks, or shiny metal pins in the shape of a book split open, the pages left smooth and blank.

Wilde 23

The Pressmen’s movement is one of violence and intimidation to ensure an egalitarian purity. This “purity” is represented in their symbol: a book split open, rent asunder, with nothing remaining but blankness. For Pressmen, emptiness is a virtue, representing the erasure of structural or social or human barriers to information, and at the same time the destruction of contextual meaning that made the information relevant in the first place. Their barrage of slogans gives voice to this fervent belief: “Knowledge Unity: An Education for All,” “Conquer The Losses of Time With Knowledge,” “Masters of what’s right, what’s poor! Soon you won’t decide anymore!”

Another of the story’s protagonists, thief Jorit Lee, overhears at one point a Pressman sum up their motives in terms eerily similar to modern faux-democrats who claim that “experts” are unnecessary and universities are nurseries for blasphemy, treason, and elitism:

“Historically, universities never even enriched the towns they occupied. They kept all their best knowledge tucked inside their walls. The Pressmen have always fought to share that knowledge equally,” the guide was saying. “Now that we have the technology, we’re able to do that far faster. What was once a small protest against academic fortresses? Is now changing the Six Kingdoms for the better.”

The new assistants nodded in the dawn.

“So go out today and find as many hidden books as possible. Buy what you can to keep people happy. Take the rest. If you find a professor, call for help. We’ll free these words from what binds them. We’ll share everything. And then we’ll level the rest.”

Wilde 37

Now that we have the technology. The coming of the Press signals the dawn of “true knowledge,” free of the heavy hand of undeserved authority. But note that Billington frames the issue in exactly the opposite manner: “The idea of knowledge-based democracy is threatened, in a peculiar fashion, by the information flood generated by the new technologies and by the overwhelming advance of the audio-visual, multimedia world. We talk now about the Information Age, not the knowledge age; we talk about information centers rather than knowledge centers” (Billington 12).

However framed, the divide between knowledge and information is at the heart of the ideological conflict Wilde presents. And, depending on the time and shifts in power, both sides are prone to ridicule, assault, and stridency against each other. A time-travelling Jorit and Ania (having been swept into the past by the mechanism of the story’s title) witness a confrontation early in the then-less-militant Pressmen’s movement across the Six Kingdoms:

Ania nodded, taking the paper back. More knowledge is better. Learn how to spot accuracy. “I remember Grandmother talking about this march”, she said. “Everyone thought the Pressmen seemed smart.” She shuddered. “That they’d add to the local arts and culture, not—”

“Control it?” Jorit nodded. “Something changed.”

. . . Men and women wearing academic robes marking them as members of the two nearest local universities yelled. Their arms swung and their robes belled out as they threw fruit…”You cannot use what you can’t understand; knowledge refined is better than knowledge to hand!” More academics shouted the Pressmen down. The crowd seemed to stutter, its affections pulled both ways.

The Pressmen still smiled, but their parade slowed. “We differ in our opinions, that is all,” one of the bearers of the false gems said.

“You are wrong! That is worse!” a professor shouted. “You need education, not just knowledge. Progress cannot happen without refinement. Discourse.”

“But you would choose who gets to talk. Who progresses.”

Wilde 99-100

These early Pressmen are peaceful demonstrators; they smile and wave at the gathering crowds, and trumpet inspirational slogans like “Knowledge—More Valuable Than Gems.” Who would argue that knowledge is less important than riches or fame? Who would try to deny knowledge to others, especially when the deniers are academics at institutions that are attended by the elite? These seem like common sense and fair contentions, made emotionally more so by the disruptive and insulting attacks made by professors against the Pressmen. Jorit’s brother Marton agrees:

Marton had always been the one to try and explain the difference between being told a thing was true and experiencing the truth of it firsthand . . . Access to books and information should be easier than it is in the Six Kingdoms, he’d said while they studied late at night. We shouldn’t have to fight so hard to learn. She’d asked him then, But do people value it more when they have to fight for it?

Wilde 35, emphasis in original

But as Jorit notes to Ania, “something changed.” In the intervening centuries, the egalitarian call made in initial good faith transforms into a brutish demagoguery, a sadly familiar pattern that recurs throughout human history and that comes with great societal and spiritual cost.

Without context and structure, argues Ania, there is a lack of the necessary spirit that humanity imbues in the literature it creates. The kind of informational environment envisioned by the Pressmen is cold, sterile, morally void, and, indeed, anti-human. Intermediaries such as scholars and librarians provide guidance and judgment without which knowledge is an indiscriminate mass that can actually do harm. (Scholars of information such as Safiya Noble in her 2018 book Algorithms of Oppression have pointed out how the creation of an “open” informational ecosystem with “unbiased” algorithms is, in fact, an avenue for prioritizing preexisting biases about race and gender.)3 

In passages familiar to any librarian or reader with an emotional investment in books-as-objects, Wilde records Ania’s meditations on the power of the works she curates and seeks to preserve.

All those words. The thought of Pressmen taking those words from her hands, churning them into pulp and ink, and thus into a full set of constantly current Universal Compendiums of Knowledge filled Ania’s stomach with dread. She’d loved books since she was a child playing in her father’s study while he taught his classes. Loved how each volume felt different in the hand, heavy or light; that each smelled of a different era, different knowledge; that they had to be handled carefully – like people – but that they were constant, finished – unlike people. How could she give any of them up?

“But the Compendiums could contain everything!” Dean Andol had, the year before, chided the reluctant Master Archivist, Sonoria Vos.

“How does a printing press lay down ink on a page that can twist and rework itself into new forms?” Vos had argued. “And what value do words have across a gap of time if they don’t stay put? Books are measures of time. They are made to grow old, to grow, occasionally, wrong.”

Ania, listening from the stacks, agreed with her mentor. She liked that books had conversations among themselves. That they, like people, sometimes faded or fell apart when not well called for. That made them precious.

Wilde 15-16

The human connection that makes collections of and commentaries on knowledge is crucial to that knowledge’s preservation throughout time. Ania would wholeheartedly agree with Billington’s observation that “[t]he very flood of unsorted information makes it more important than ever the librarians’ role of sorting, dispensing, and being neutral but informed navigators . . . the deluge of unsorted electronic information increases the need for a special cast of discriminating knowledge professionals who will add the value of judgment and the warmth of human mediation to all this unintelligible material” (13).4  Left alone and untended, information has a tendency to drift and its very nature becomes malleable.

Wilde makes this process fantastically explicit in a passage describing the workings of the Press:

A group of four Pressmen with close-cropped hair sat doing simple tasks. Feeding newly blank books into a slim, high-tech press. Dumping sacks of strange ink – dust, really – across the pages within a glass and iron box. The dust swirled like a storm. Then books emerged, filled Universal Compendiums of Knowledge. The Presskeeper lifted a still-warm book for him to see: Far Reaches University, the entry read. Two hundred years and counting, raising leaders in a region known for shipping and fishing.

As Xachar watched, the letters tangled and blurred, a ribbon of ink curling in on itself and releasing. When it stopped, the page read Two hundred years of knowledge hoarding in a region known for shipping and fishing.

Wilde 79, emphasis in original

Of course, human mediators are perfectly capable of actively altering the narrative, and do, and have. But Wilde’s larger point is that informational intermediaries like librarians or archivists or professors serve a vital purpose in preserving the human chronicle intact across the temporal continuum, passing informed knowledge on to the next generations, and transforming conglomerations of unrelated and unconnected data into story. That is no small thing.

Billington relates the story of speaking to a Native American in Nebraska, who told him that “librarians today are like the oldest person in a tribe in the Native American communities that preexisted the first white settlers. That person kept in his or her head the memory of the tribe, the oral tradition of the community, just as a library later kept its written memory. ‘We didn’t call him the gatekeeper,’ he told me. ‘We called him the dreamkeeper.’ Librarians,” Billington concludes, “must be gatekeepers to useful knowledge—opening windows to the wide world outside; but they can also be the dreamkeepers of each civilization” (16).

The Fire Opal Mechanism is unusual in the fantasy and SF genres for Wilde’s thoughtfulness in considering the ethics and politics surrounding information access. As the introduction to this piece notes, all too often libraries and archives in works of the fantastic are background scenery or mere plot devices—opportunities to show off shelves of mysterious and dusty volumes, for example, or vast computer banks where the exact information required is available through a simple query. Little attention, however, is paid to the intricacies of information arrangement, classification, and access. In reality, these things, undramatic as they might be, are crucial to the structure of an informed society. Science fiction has long engaged with the important concerns of the day; how we receive and make information accessible are issues increasingly vital to our societal future, and deserve more treatment by genre authors. (Writers such as Neil Stephenson and Malka Older, for example, have already produced substantial works concerned with the use and flow of information, so precedent exists for even greater specificity in future narratives.) It is more remarkable to see fantasy embracing this kind of subject matter that has significant societal import. This makes Wilde’s work all the more singular. What Wilde does so powerfully in Mechanism is to reinforce in a fantasy setting this need for a corps of dreamkeepers, to carefully curate and provide access to the knowledge that everyone—whether living in a fantasyland or not—needs in order to understand the human experience.


NOTES

1. As a special collections librarian myself, who like many of my colleagues can become entertainingly frustrated at the inaccurate portrayal in literature and film of our profession, I do enjoy a particular exception to this trend in fantasy. In the series The Kingkiller Chronicle, set mainly at the arcane “University”, Patrick Rothfuss takes care to note the existence in the University’s Archives of phenomena familiar to us librarians: dueling and contradictory cataloging schema, an acquisitions department, a quarantine area for the removal of pests, and a staff of student workers to reshelve books and perform other grunt work.

2. See the first volume in the series, the Nebula- and Hugo-nominated The Jewel and Her Lapidary (2016), for background. Lapidary takes places several centuries before Fire Opal Mechanism, set in a world where certain gems are imbued with spectacular powers and worn by ‘Jewels’ (the ruling class). The powers of these gems must be harnessed and channeled by human ‘Lapidaries’. In Mechanism, it is a rogue gem that is ultimately responsible for the destruction of knowledge that is central to the plot

3. Note, also, that at the time of writing the United States continues to struggle with the COVID-19 pandemic, as not only ordinary citizens but state and federal politicians argue that expert scientific testimony is biased and unreliable in the face of “gut feelings” or self-obtained and unsourced information.

4. Whether or not librarians can be truly neutral (and I argue that they cannot), is a debate for a different forum altogether.


BIO

Jeremy Brett is the Curator of the Science Fiction & Fantasy Research Collection, as well as Processing Archivist, at Cushing Memorial Library & Archives, Texas A&M University. He has previously worked at the University of Iowa, the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, the National Archives and Records Administration—Pacific Region, and the Wisconsin Historical Society.


WORKS CITED

Billington, James H. “American Public Libraries in the Information Age: Constant Purpose in Changing Times.” Libraries & Culture, Winter 1998, pp. 11-16.

Gunn, James E. “Libraries in Science Fiction.” Gunn Center for the Study of Science Fiction, April 2006, http://www.sfcenter.ku.edu/library.htm.

IFLA. “Statement on Libraries and Intellectual Freedom.” IFLA.org, 25 March 1999, https://www.ifla.org/publications/ifla-statement-on-libraries-and-intellectual-freedom.

Murray, Peter E. “Librarians as Gatekeepers.” Disruptive Library Technology Jester, 13 June 2006, https://dltj.org/article/librarians-as-gatekeepers/.

Pohl, Frederik. “Information Science-Fiction or Fact?” American Documentation, April 1965.Wilde, Fran. The Fire Opal Mechanism. Tor.com, 2019.

From the Archives: “Texts of Letters about Nueva Dimensión,” SFRA Newsletter #1 (Jan. 1971)


SFRA Review, vol. 50, no. 2-3

Features / From the Archives


From the Archives: “Texts of Letters about Nueva Dimensión,” SFRA Newsletter #1 (Jan. 1971)

Sean Guynes
Senior Editor, SFRA Review


From the Archives is a column introduced in SFRA Review, vol. 50, no. 2-3 that reprints obscure, strange, interesting, fun, or otherwise noteworthy content from earlier in the Review‘s history.

This issue takes a look at two letters published in the very first issue of the Review (then SFRA Newsletter) written by the just-formed SFRA Executive Committee to address the seizure of an issue of the science fiction magazine Nueva Dimensión in Spain by Franco’s regime. The letters were sent to the editor of the magazine and to the Spanish ambassador to the U.S. in protest of the seizure. Nueva Dimensión was started in 1968 by Domingo Santos, Luis Vigil, and Sebastián Martínez. The publication ran 148 issues between 1968 and 1982.

The topic of the letters sent by the Executive Committee was of international importance to SF fans. Alejandro Mohorte Medina and José Nieto describe the situation in their history of Spanish SF for the British fanzine The Science Fact & Science Fiction Concatenation:

[T]he magazine had problems with censorship because of the Press Law. In [the] issue of May 14th 1970, a short story titled in Euskara (Basque language) “Gu ta gutarrak” [“Us and Ours”], by Magdalena Mouján Otaño, told the adventure of a group of Basques travelling with a time machine to locate a paradoxical event. Despite being presented in advance for official administrative approval, a few days later the Public Order Court forced the recall of the entire issue. The prosecutor denounced that the story violated the national unity of Spain. After the seizure of the issue, the pages of this story were substituted by several cartoons strips by Johnny Hart, so it was possible to continue the distribution. The trial against Nueva Dimensión never happened, but the case brought ample criticism from international fandom. In the US, a support committee was created and some authors offered his work for token rates.

Medina and Nieto

Below is the text of the letters and their framing by the editor of SFRA Newsletter, Fred Lerner. With the exception of adding the accent in Dimensión, only formatting has been changed.


Texts of Letters about Nueva Dimensión

The following letters were sent as SFRA’s reaction to the seizure of an issue of the Spanish SF publication Nueva Dimensión by the Spanish authorities:

(To Sr Sebastian Martinez):

We have heard with dismay and shock that the issue #14 of Nueva Dimensión, the science fiction magazine which you, Domingo Santos, and Luis Vigil have been editing and publishing with such distinction, has been seized by the Spanish Political Police, because it contained a science fiction story set in an imaginary future. We have also read that the future of the magazine and its publishers is in jeopardy because of this. We have found Nueva Dimensión to be one of the finest periodicals in the field of science fiction in the world, and it has served as an example of international cooperation and fruitful exchange of information in science fiction. It has been a worthy representative in our field of the great Hispanic literary and artistic tradition. It would be highly regrettable for Spain to be deprived of her voice in the growing international science fiction community.

We hope that the Spanish government will make it possible for you to resume normal publication with no curtailment of the freedom of speculation necessary to all science fiction, i.e. without being subjected to ruinous fines or prison sentences.

We are therefore sending a copy of this letter from our annual general meeting in New York to the Spanish Ambassador in Washington, and we authorise you to use this letter as you see fit, as an expression of our deep sense of sympathy and concern at what Nueva Dimensión and you are experiencing.


(To His Excellency, The Spanish Ambassador in Washington):

We enclose a copy of our letter to Sr Sebastian Martinez. We hope that it will convey to you our high regard for his work, and our hope that Nueva Dimensión will be able to resume unimpeded publication in the immediate future.


WORKS CITED

Lerner, Fred. “Texts of Letters about Nueva Dimensión.” SFRA Newsletter, no. 1, Jan 1971, pp. 5-6.

Medina, Alejandro Mohorte and José Nieto. “Spanish Science Fiction.” The Science Fact & Science Fiction Concatenation, 16 September 2015, http://www.concatenation.org/europe/spanish_science_fiction.html.

Meet the Future: An Interview with Sarah Lohmann


SFRA Review, vol. 50, no. 1

Features / Meet the Future


Meet the Future: An Interview with Sarah Lohmann

Sarah Lohmann
PhD Candidate, Department of English Studies
Durham University, UK


SFRA Review: Hi, Sarah, could you tell us a bit about yourself? As much (or as little) as you’d like!

Sarah: Hello! I’m a final-year PhD student at Durham University in North-East England, and I’ve just submitted my doctoral thesis entitled “The Edge of Time: The Critical Dynamics of Structural Chronotopes in the Utopian Novel,” which I completed under the supervision of Professors Patricia Waugh and Simon James. I’ll be defending my thesis in a viva in April, and then I’ll be applying for academic jobs far and wide, particularly within the fields of contemporary British and American literature, speculative fiction (especially sf), women’s writing, and anything related to utopianism.

I’m originally from Munich, Germany (with a bilingual German/American upbringing), and after graduating from a German high school, I moved to Scotland to study English literature and philosophy at the University of St Andrews. After that, I completed an English literature MLitt degree in ‘Women, Writing and Gender’ as well as an MLitt in analytic philosophy, both also at St Andrews, before moving to Durham to start my PhD. My current research is still informed to a large extent by my interest in philosophy, particularly with regard to moral philosophy and epistemology, and I would like to continue incorporating interdisciplinary approaches in my work in the future.

My PhD thesis, in fact, is fundamentally interdisciplinary in that it employs both ethics and systems theory in suggesting that examples of utopian fiction are best understood as science-fictional thought experiments whose success is determined by their dynamic structures. I argue that these structures, which I present as Bakhtinian chronotopes due to their reliance on spatiotemporal placement and movement, are in turn either functionally closed, homeostatic systems, as described in the work of Walter Cannon on homeostasis and Humberto Maturana and Francesca Varela on autopoiesis, or open systems that can be read as examples of complex adaptive systems as described by complexity theorists such as Ilya Prigogine and Paul Cilliers. Ultimately, I suggest that the utopianism of several of the novels that Tom Moylan terms ‘critical utopias’ – Marge Piercy’s Woman on the Edge of Time, Joanna Russ’s The Female Man and Ursula K Le Guin’s The Dispossessed – can therefore be understood as inherently dynamic and thus sustainable: both the utopian societies described as well as the novels’ fragmented, cross-temporal narrative structures can be seen as complex systems that are self-organising and self-optimising in a sustainable manner predicated on the non-hierarchical nature and inherent dynamism of complexity. Moreover, I argue that it is these underlying complex mechanisms that render these novels truly critical of their ‘zero worlds’ in Moylan’s terms, in that their open networks connect utopia and zero world in a transformative relationship of cognitive estrangement. By contrast, I suggest, examples of traditional utopian literature such as Plato’s Republic, Thomas More’s Utopia and fin-de-siècle novels such as Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward, William Morris’s News from Nowhere and H. G. Wells’ A Modern Utopia ultimately undermine the dynamic potential of their own utopian systems through homeostatic closure, reliant on forced equilibrium – this, in turn, creates the utopian presentism and social stasis that has historically been associated to the genre. The ethics-related element of my thesis, then, is that I identify a certain ‘ethics of complexity’ in the critical utopias, linking the inherent features of complex systems with the feminist equity-based functioning of their societies, and contrasting this with attempts at utilitarianism or virtue ethics within the aforementioned traditional utopias, which I believe to be hindered through their homeostatic functioning.

In general, I am fascinated by the dynamic networks and organic or coercive forces that underlie all relationships, human and non-human, and of the value that lies in recognising these networks and enabling them to function in ways that allow for the organic flourishing of all participants. In fact, my final thesis chapter explores what happens when supposedly inclusive complex networks are once more imbalanced through inadvertent bias and exclusion, using the examples of Naomi Mitchison’s Memoirs of a Spacewoman and Joan Slonczewski’s A Door into Ocean; this once more highlights the intricate workings of self-organising systems as well as the ease through which their balance can be upset.

As per the prompt, I think I would therefore say that a secret of the universe that I’ve discovered for myself (not uncovered, sadly!) is that we are only at the very beginning of understanding the myriad ways in which we are all integrated into the constantly shifting and evolving connections between us and our human and non-human environment – one might even say that it is nonsensical to speak of individuals or even humans in general as being in any meaningful way distinct within these networks. In my future work, I would love to explore these dynamic connections further and investigate what they mean for human behaviour and social planning in the Anthropocene, as well as tracking the various ways in which they have been interpreted in literature, both speculative and traditional.

Finally, an interesting fact about me is thus perhaps that this research focus has also changed the ways in which I move through the world – I try to tread as lightly as possible and live respectfully alongside my human and non-human neighbours, which has so far informed everything from my plant-based diet to my interest in sustainable housing and green politics in general, particularly in response to the climate crisis. 

Review: How do you describe yourself professionally?

S: I am a researcher at heart, driven by curiosity and the joy of discovering new patterns and connections in my research, but I also love teaching: I enjoy creating an intellectual atmosphere in which students have the support and freedom to explore their own ideas among their peers and feel excited about pursuing further research. Having previously worked to become a Fellow of the Higher Education Academy (HEA), I am therefore currently completing the final stage of this programme at my university to attain the full PGCAP (Postgraduate Certificate in Academic Practice), a certificate in education at university level that will allow me to feel confident in my future teaching of both undergraduate and postgraduate students.

In the next few years, I hope to have the opportunity to conduct both research and teaching across a broad range of eras and genres and with interdisciplinary components. My thesis research has taken me from antiquity to the present day, while my university teaching so far has mainly focused on the history of the novel from Daniel Defoe’s Moll Flanders up to graphic novels such as Alan Moore’s Watchmen; this work has allowed me to come up with various ideas for future research and teaching across historical stages and disciplines that I would love the chance to develop further at some point.

Review: Why does sf matter to you?

S: Sf forms the backbone of my academic interests because of its inherent suitability for social critique through cognitive estrangement; in my opinion, no other genre is capable of holding up a mirror to our world in quite the same way, and with the same formalised imaginative rigour. Moreover, sf’s generic tropes such as time travel, alternate realities and far-future settings allow for a particularly extensive development of nova that can allow us to reimagine or extrapolate on so many aspects of our current existence – the possibilities are endless! In particular, I enjoy utopian, dystopian and post-apocalyptic sf because of its large-scale capacity for social restructuring, especially in terms of social roles related to marginalised identities, but I also appreciate the more subtle estranging capacity of sf mechanisms applied to more straightforwardly mimetic fiction.

I believe that especially in the current age of rapid environmental change and technological development, sf is an institutionally under-appreciated genre despite its astonishing critical potential, and I would love to see more extensive engagement with sf studies in university departments as well as a greater appreciation of the genre in culture-focused media.

Review: What brought you to sf studies?

S: I had hardly read any sf growing up, but an undergraduate module on the topic at the University of St Andrews piqued my interest – it ended up being a fascinating course, brilliantly taught by Dr Jim Byatt, which put me on track to what will most likely be a life-long interest in the genre! As an undergraduate student undertaking a joint degree in English literature and philosophy, I had a fair amount of freedom in choosing modules in both disciplines, and I’m so glad that I ended up picking this particular one: after completing my undergraduate degree, I went on to write my first master’s dissertation on feminist utopias and four-dimensionality from an sf perspective, and this later fed into my PhD on structural chronotopes in the utopian novel, again grounded in sf theory. Although I do look forward to expanding my academic repertoire, as mentioned above, I know that I will always value and return to the imaginative potential that is unique to sf, and I hope to encourage any interested students to do the same.

Review: What project(s) are you working on now, and how did you get there? What question(s) really drive your work?

S: At the moment, I am beginning to prepare for my viva, as well as continuing on with my tutorial teaching, completing my PGCAP, and starting to apply for academic positions elsewhere.

In addition, I am always on the lookout for interesting conferences and projects – over the course of my PhD, I presented my work at many national and international conferences, particularly within the fields of sf and utopian studies, and I am very grateful to have become a part of a wonderful academic community in doing so. I am also always keen to take part in any promising cross-university and/or interdisciplinary projects that relate to sf or utopia: over the past few years, I have been lucky enough to participate in several interesting projects, including co-hosting the podcast ‘Exploring Utopian York’ with Dr Adam Stock, being interviewed for Paul Walker-Emig’s podcast Utopian Horizons, running two interdisciplinary seminar series at Durham University (which featured influential sf scholar Mark Bould, among others), giving a keynote speech on feminist utopias for an MA graduate conference at Teesside University, and serving as Project Officer for an exhibition on time travel and narrative (‘Time Machines’) at Palace Green Library in Durham. I would be very happy to contribute to similar interesting projects in the future, and to collaborate with people in various fields.

This also applies to publications, of course, an area that I will be able to spend more time focusing on now that I have submitted my thesis: so far, I have begun with a published book review (of Patrick B Sharp’s brilliant Darwinian Feminism and Early Science Fiction: Angels, Amazons and Women), and I am looking forward to the publication of my first book chapter, entitled ‘“What isn’t living dies”: Utopia as Living Organism in Joanna Russ’s The Female Man and Marge Piercy’s Woman on the Edge of Time’, which is forthcoming as part of an edited collection in honour of Lucy Sargisson on the occasion of her retirement (edited by Lyman Tower Sargent and Raffaella Baccolini).

I have touched above on the questions that really drive my work: an interest in deeply interconnected human and non-human networks and relationships, as well as the dynamic forces that drive them; I would here add to this the more philosophical consideration of how exactly we try to find meaning in a rapidly shifting world in which subjective experiences of reality have become radically divergent, and how literature and especially sf can provide us with unique tools to work through these questions and experiences and explore them in countless thought-provoking ways.

Review: What do you envision for the future of sf studies and sf scholars? What do you want to see us accomplish?

S: As mentioned above, I would love for sf studies to gain more academic clout within university departments, but I would also like to see more collaboration across disciplines that touch in various ways on human experience and cross-temporal and spatial possibilities within this world and others. Ultimately, I see the future of academia as lying in collaboration and mutual support driven by specific research questions and areas of interest, and ideally as less tied to traditional disciplines and vocation-led curricula. Of course, this vision is somewhat utopian, but as a utopian studies scholar, I do always stress the positive potential of utopian thought to create tangible change in the real world!

Review: If you could write a dream book, or teach a dream course, what would it/they be?

S: At the moment, my dream book would be based on my thesis, described above – in part, the dream would lie in properly including several utopian texts that I did not have the space to discuss at length in my thesis, particularly those from more distant historical periods in which sf and utopia were approached very differently to today, as I would love to do them justice and explore their unique employment of structural dynamic chronotopes.

Moreover, regarding my dream course, I am in fact currently designing a university module as part of my PGCAP certification that could be taught at either undergraduate or master’s level, and that I imagine would be quite rewarding to teach. Also loosely based on my thesis, this course examines women’s utopian writing through the ages while also expanding on this focus and using it as a ‘threshold concept’ (Schwartzman 2010) to discuss larger questions surrounding the canonisation of literature, genre conventions and academic gate-keeping with regard to sf, utopian literature and women’s writing in particular. It thereby challenges students to develop independent critical approaches to the study of genre, historical source material and literature in general; the ultimate aim of the course is to use women’s utopian writing and genre/canonisation as springboards for a ‘pedagogy of uncertainty’ (Shulman 2005) to help prepare students for critical and unbiased participation in a wide range of intellectual environments, giving them the tools to question received knowledge and together build better intellectual paradigms. Although the design of this particular course is intended as an intellectual exercise for my PGCAP degree, I could certainly imagine teaching this or a similar module as part of an undergraduate or master’s curriculum at some point in the future. Indeed, I would particularly enjoy preparing and teaching any course that would allow me to relate the critical potential of speculative fiction, and sf or utopian literature in particular, to other literary genres, and to encourage students to critically engage with the various ways of seeing and relating to the world that characterise and sometimes cross-fertilise these approaches. However, for the time being I would be grateful for the chance to teach anything that is loosely related to sf, utopia or speculative fiction in general – in addition to my teaching on the history of the novel, I have in the past few years had the chance to design and teach a short sf course as part of a ‘Supported Progression’ summer school for promising Year 12 students in the North East (who are applying for undergraduate study at Durham), and I would love to expand on this material, for example.

Whatever may come, however, I hope that I will be able to stay involved with the academic networks surrounding sf and utopian studies, as I have found a real home within these communities over the years. In fact, I have recently attained British citizenship (alongside my German and American nationalities) in part so that I may have a better chance of remaining part of these networks, and possibly also work at a university in either the UK or the US in the future, despite the horrible uncertainties of Brexit and US politics. In any case, I refuse to give up hope that things will eventually turn out all right, even if they are looking somewhat bleak at the moment – again, this must be the optimism of a utopian studies scholar!

Review: Thank you, Sarah! Your labor and thoughts are valued and appreciated.

The SF in Translation Universe #7


SFRA Review, vol. 50, no. 1

Features / SFT Universe


The SF in Translation Universe #7

Rachel Cordasco


Welcome back to the SF in Translation Universe! The first third of 2020 is shaping up very nicely, with some sequels, new translations, and exciting collections.

You’ve probably heard by now about the ongoing translation of Jin Yong’s incredibly popular Legends of the Condor Heroes series, which is bringing wuxia (Chinese martial arts fantasy) to a broader audience. A ton of translated wuxia is available on the internet already, and hopefully Anna Holmwood and Gigi Chang’s translations will encourage readers to seek out more wuxia online. January brings us Anglophone readers the third book in Jin Yong’s series—A Snake Lies Waiting—in which the brave and noble Guo Jing has walked into a trap (blinded by his love for Lotus Huang) and must fight for his own survival and his people’s freedom.

If you’re looking for German dystopian satire, look no further than Marc-Uwe Kling’s QualityLand (tr Jamie Searle Romanelli). Here Kling sends up 21st-century consumer-driven technology-obsessed capitalism by taking such innovations as driverless cars, wireless-adapted glasses, and a gargantuan online store (TheShop) to their extremes. As this novel argues, the seemingly simple task of returning, for example, a pink, dolphin-shaped vibrator delivered to you in error is far more complicated than you might think.

Interested in a wartime love story set in 1990s Turkey and told from the perspective of a dog? Then Kemal Varol’s Wûf (tr Dayla Rogers) is for you. Here a street dog named Mikasa, who is forced to work as a minesweeper for the Turkish army, tells his tale to other dogs at a kennel, where he finds companionship and even cigarettes. Inviting readers to look at war and brutality from a new perspective, Wûf is a unique book from an underrepresented source language.

But perhaps you’re looking for a novel that plays with your mind even as it plays with language and your sense of reality. No, I’m not talking about a Zivkovic story, but Peter Stamm’s The Sweet Indifference of the World (tr Michael Hofmann). When Lena and Christoph, two complete strangers, meet up in a Stockholm cemetery, they realize that, twenty years before, they each fell in love with the other’s double. Is Christoph’s novel (which grew out of his breakup with Magdalena) somehow influencing his new relationship with Lena? Or has he begun to confuse reality and fantasy?

If you think January sounds intriguing, just wait until February. We’re getting Russian, Spanish German, and Indonesian SFT then, including a new translation of an older title by the Strugatskys. Originally brought into English as Prisoners of Power in 1977 (based on a heavily censored version thanks to the Soviet authorities), The Inhabited Island (as it’s now called) is the story of Maxim Kammerer, an explorer from the 22nd century, who crashes on a war-torn world and is drawn into its inhabitants’ terrifying reality. The first of the Kammerer subsection of Noon universe books, this book portrays a civilization that is technologically advanced (they have atomic bombs) but socially oppressive.

Also translated from the Russian is a new psychological fantasy thriller from Marina and Sergei Dyachenko called Daughter From the Dark (tr Julia Meitov Hersey). You’ve probably been hearing about their previous brain-bending, haunting book—Vita Nostra (also translated by Hersey)–that fully deserves all the praise it has been given. Daughter from the Dark (which I am just 40 pages shy of finishing) asks us to imagine the consequences of stepping out of our comfort zone and doing a single good deed (like giving a seemingly lost little girl shelter and protection). How might it completely change a person’s life, and oh yeah, what if that little girl was actually a creature from another plane of existence and your life just became a billion times more complicated? And is her little teddy bear actually a blood-thirsty beast that kills whenever the girl is threatened? Mmmmmaybe.

From Ray Loriga comes a dystopian story about authoritarianism and the disappearance of privacy. Surrender (tr Carolina de Robertis) tells of the nightmarish reality that war can create, where children disappear and entire communities are forced to move to “transparent cities,” in which transparency is a literal mandate and all necessities are provided so long as the inhabitants “behave.”

We get even more German SFT in February, this time in the form of an epic fantasy by Bernd Perplies called Black Leviathan (tr Lucy Van Cleef). In this world where dragon-hunting is the norm, one man joins the crew of a ship that flies through the Cloudmere on a very specific mission—the pursuit and capture of a dragon known as the “Firstborn Gargantuan.” The captain’s rage-driven quest echoes that depicted in Moby-Dick, only dragons are, well, more terrifying than whales…

Also out in February is a novel by Intan Paramaditha entitled The Wandering (tr Stephen J. Epstein). Paramaditha’s previous book, the collection Apple and Knife (2018), was inspired by horror, myth, and fairy tales. The Wandering, too, brings together multiple subgenres in a story about what it means to wander the globe. When an English teacher in Jakarta seeks escape from a boring life, their wishes are granted in a pact with a devil, who gives them a pair of red shoes that will take them anywhere they’d like to go. But there’s a warning attached to this gift…

So far, March is only bringing us a single work of SFT, but it sounds excellent. That We May Live: Speculative Chinese Fiction (tr Jeremy Tiang and Natascha Bruce) expands the availability of Chinese SFT by offering us fantastic and phantasmagorical tales involving people living in giant mushrooms, twisted desires, and mysterious beverages. With stories by Dorothy Tse, Enoch Tam, Zhu Hui, Chan Chi Wa, Chen Si-an, and Yan Ge, That We May Live promises to enthrall.

In terms of short fiction, so far we’ve gotten stories about a woman absorbing alternate dimension versions of herself (“The Perfect Sail” by I-Hyeong Yun, tr from the Korean by Elisa Sinn and Justin Howe, Clarkesworld), a father inspiring his son to bring an ancient art into the future via virtual reality (“The Ancestral Temple” by Chen Qiufan, tr from the Chinese by Emily Jin, Clarkesworld), and a woman seeing her reflection in a subway window…but it isn’t hers (“The Other Woman” by Bibiana Camacho, tr from the Spanish by Cecilia Weddell, World Literature Today).

With such an excitingly diverse array of themes, source-languages, and sub-genres, 2020 is looking like another excellent year for SFT.

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

Until next time in the SFT Universe!