The CyberPunk Culture Conference


SFRA Review, vol. 50, no. 4

Symposium: The CyberPunk Culture Conference


The CyberPunk Culture Conference

Lars Schmeink


With COVID-19  taking center stage in our lives in 2020, we are all faced with new perspectives on our jobs and the resurgence of old inequalities. On the one hand, the coronavirus jumpstarted a digital transformation in our work and research that no one really anticipated. Prejudices against the digital and lacking technical infrastructure be damned, this virus dragged us all into the virtual realms of cyberspace whether we wanted to or not. While some cling to the minimum translations of analog to digital and hold fast to the ideal of face to face human interaction (hello, to all those administrators who thought  Fall 2020 was going to be just another day in HE), others opted to become more creative. We have seen orchestras play virtual concerts from hundreds of different living rooms, world leaders convene in digital meetings, people take digital vacations, and we got Captain Picard (yes, I know) reading Shakespearean sonnets so that we would be inspired. The possibilities of virtual worlds seem as endless as Vernor Vinge, William Gibson, and Neil Stephenson predicted in the 1980s and 90s.

And yet, on the other hand, we also saw that our world had become more entrenched in its inequalities, that some were disproportionately more effected by the virus, as we experienced “the divide between a managerial class that can be shifted to work from home and a worker class, low-paid, without significant savings, and (in the United States) even lacking health care benefits that must nonetheless put itself at daily risk of infection,“ as Gerry Canavan noted on Facebook. Technology is a dividing factor between those who have access to it and those who control it. This is a claim that Karen Cadora had noted 25 years ago, when writing about cyberpunk, which imagines a world where technology is a tool of both oppression and liberation. Poverty is pervasive in cyberpunk, and technological resources are expensive luxuries. Those without access to […them] are effectively kept in the underclass” (359). Well, in corona-times it works both ways and then some. Not having a job that allows you to self-isolate and work remotely, not having access to stable internet, to high-end computers, to technological systems that replace physical interactions with the world comes at a high price in a pandemic, a price that black and brown communities pay doubly. Intersectional discrimination is enhanced through technological inequality.

So, when Veronica Hollinger wrote in a testimonial for the first CyberPunk Culture Conference that she believed the CPCC was “an opportunity to test-drive our critical posthumanism, to be aware of the intriguing complexities of our material participation“ I understood this to speak to both of these described effects of the coronavirus on our academic realities. We are becoming-with the machine, scarily so in E. M. Forster’s sense but also as Donna Haraway means it. Our technologies become surrogates for our interactions with each other. A digital-only conference on cyberculture, then, seems ‘meta’ in that it addresses issues that influence its own materiality. And, not to forget, our material participation is dependent on our social and political circumstances. While many would have loved to come to the SFRA conference (or any other physical meeting), not only the virus but also financial, social, or political obstacles stood in the way of this. And this is true even without the virus at work.

When all plans were cancelled this summer, I wanted to organize an event that takes a different approach, not just out of necessity of a raging pandemic, but as a chance to critically reflect our material participation and our posthuman existence. The CyberPunk Culture Conference was that event, morphed from a planned roundtable discussion and book launch of The Routledge Companion to Cyberpunk Culture that I co-edited with Anna McFarlane and Graham J. Murphy. Building from the idea that cyberpunk is not only an important genre of sf literature, but a cultural formation that speaks immensely to our moment in time and is ideally situated to map our realities, I started to think about what would make the CPCC.

In terms of theme, the conference was open to all interested in cyberculture and the 32 papers presented show an amazing breadth of scholarship, from fashion to music, from holograms to social media, from classics to brand new works of culture, from Turkey to Japan. In addition to the 32 individual papers, we also had a keynote by the fantastic Pawel Frelik, whose musings on the political myopia of cyberpunk are worth a longer discussion, and the above-mentioned roundtable with the editors of the Routledge Companion and two contributors, Sherryl Vint and Hugh O’Connell. We had a lively discussion of how “Living in Cyberpunk Times” and all the utopian and dystopian moments that go with it. If you have not had a chance to look into it, read up here in this symposium issue of SFRA Review, or head on over to www.cyberpunkculture.com where all of the papers are still available to watch and read.


WORKS CITED

Cadora, Karen. “Feminist Cyberpunk.” Science Fiction Studies, vol. 22, no. 3, 1995, pp. 357-372.

Canavan, Gerry. “feeling cute, might delete later” Personal Facebook post. Jun 30, 2020. https://www.facebook.com/photo?fbid=10105425657515891&set=pcb.10105425658224471

Hollinger, Veronica. “Testimonial”. CyberPunk Culture Conference. Jul 09, 2020. http://cyberpunkculture.com/cpcc20/

Introducing the 2020-2021 Support a Scholar Grant Recipient: Ida Yoshinaga


SFRA Review, vol. 50, no. 4

Features / Support a Scholar 2020-2021


Introducing the 2020-2021 Support a Scholar Grant Recipient: Ida Yoshinaga

Ida Yoshinaga


Hi everyone, I was asked to introduce myself and my work.  I guess you could say I am a narrative analyst, content producer, and labor scholar working at the odd intersection between science-fictional praxes, genre theory, and postcolonial folklore studies. I want to help diverse community people tell meaningful stories in mass media and thus try to contribute to the field of transmedial creative writing and the cultural politics of storyworld construction.

I have a couple of projects during this pandemic.  First, I study the complex dynamics between labor and leisure within the political economy of corporate-transmedial (i.e., “franchise” or “IP”) speculative and fantastic storytelling (this is the stream of research I refer to as my Disney scholarship). I deploy cross-platform narratological analyses to evaluate the productive value of gender, class, racial, and colonial content across narrative and non-narrative media. Then, working with this sense of value, I focus on the digital-age technologies of creative-labor extraction from cultural communities used by Disney and the relationship of these media-tech extractive practices to diverse female consumer subjectivities produced to create Disney’s worldwide sf/f lifestyle empire. I analyze data from my passive and participatory observation conducted at Disney Parks and Universal Studios Parks (and resorts) alongside those from fieldwork done at alternative fantasy franchise and non-franchise leisure sites within the community, framing those findings against the scripted production of fantasy narrative by Disney writers (i.e., the company’s ideological representations).

Second, I am developing ideas on the ways that non-Native allies of global Indigenous peoples can aid pragmatically in the production of Indigenous sf/f mass-media narratives reflecting community storyworlds and survivance. As a settler ally of Indigenous creative artists, I look specifically at the workplace dynamics of commercial, academic, nonprofit, and artistic institutions where the enervating navigation of liberal institutional racism/settler colonialism, often gets in the way of Native media expression of cultural histories, ethics, and values. (This is an extension of my dissertation on the politics of sf/f genre blending as a means of expressing minority-community spiritual worldviews, via teleplay writing and TV producing.) Today, I am learning to produce Indigenous sf/f films, the daily, difficult, sometimes high-stakes making of which I am reflecting upon so as to figure out a sort of playbook for media allies.  I am interested in problem solving the intimate and dysfunctional institutional relationships born of settler colonialism and imperial racism, in light of the immediate workplace stakes of decisions over textual representation but also of how to optimize (in practical ways) creative autonomy for Indigenous mediamakers and storytellers working in contemporary mass-expressive forms which might be co-created or co-produced by non-Native creative workers or bosses.  Specific interpersonal practices of patience and empathy especially become affective technologies with which to bridge sometimes seemingly non-reconcilable gaps in historical difference, functioning both as decolonial education and harm reduction.

Hoping everyone is healthy and well these days, as we head into the holiday season!

The SF in Translation Universe #9


SFRA Review, vol. 50, no. 4

Features / SFT Universe


The SF in Translation Universe #9

Rachel Cordasco


Welcome back to the SF in Translation Universe! It’s certainly been a hell of a year, but if you’re reading this, that means that you’ve made it through and you can start dreaming about how much better 2021 will be.

Of course, 2020 wasn’t bad at all if you think about it in terms of books and stories, since I’m going to tell you about some fantastic SF in translation that came out between September and the end of the year. It’s certainly been a good fall/winter for collections, including Clelia Farris’s Creative Surgery (tr from the Italian by Rachel Cordasco and Jennifer Delare), Christiane Vadnais’s Fauna (tr from the French by Pablo Straus), The Beast and Other Tales by Jóusè d’Arbaud (tr from the Provençal by Joyce Zonana), Cixin Liu’s To Hold Up the Sky (various translators), Aleksandar Žiljak’s As the Distant Bells Toll (tr from the Croatian by the author), Okamoto Kidō: Master of the Uncanny (tr from the Japanese by Nancy H. Ross), and Jean Ray’s Circles of Dread (tr from the French by Scott Nicolay). That’s right—seven collections, translated from six different source languages, from seven distinct publishers. Ranging from the fantastic and surreal (Fauna, The Beast, and As the Distant Bells Toll), to horror and the uncanny (Okamoto Kidō and Circles of Dread), and finally to intriguing blends of science fiction and surrealism (Creative Surgery, Fauna, and To Hold Up the Sky), these collections will whet any reader’s appetite for more stories by these authors who should be much better known.

The one anthology that came out this season was The Valancourt Book of World Horror Stories, which includes tales from Spain, Norway, Hungary, Italy, Quebec, Mexico, and everywhere in between. Many of these authors have never appeared in English before, and will greatly enrich our understanding of the modern horror genre, which has been and always will be an international one.

We got two Japanese novels and one Polish novel in October, along with a standalone novella by the great Polish surreal fantasist Bruno Schulz. His story, Undula (originally published in Polish in 1922, tr in 2020 by Frank Garrett) is one of dreams and nostalgia, cockroaches and masochism. Similarly, Hiroko Oyamada’s The Hole (tr David Boyd) takes us into a region between reality and dream, where a woman who has recently moved to the countryside falls into a hole that seems to have been made for her (makes me think of Murakami’s The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle). What follows is a series of strange characters and creatures that destabilize her understanding of her world. Sayaka Murata’s Earthlings (tr Ginny Tapley Takemori) also begins with a character’s shift from the city to the country and her growing belief that she is an alien (with all that that word might mean). Finally, Andrzej Sapkowski’s The Tower of Fools (tr David French) introduces us to a new fantasy world (not connected to the Witcher), in which a magician and healer is caught up in a war and thrown into an asylum filled with people who are either insane or iconoclastic.

Rounding out the year is a short novel that seems to capture the dislocation from reality that many of us have felt in 2020. Guido Morselli’s Dissipatio H. G. (tr from the Italian by Frederika Randall) takes as its starting point one man’s realization (after abandoning a suicide attempt) that every single person, except for him, has vanished off the face of the Earth. What follows is a series of philosophical speculations about the place humans had held in the world, what their absence means for animals and the natural landscape, if time and history have any meaning when almost everyone is gone, and what a lone man should do when he has only his memories and human detritus for company. This is a strange, melancholic, yet strikingly touching story, and one I highly recommend.

In terms of short fiction, September and October have brought us a richly diverse group of stories from Bulgaria, Germany, Russia, Korea, Mexico, China, El Salvador, and elsewhere. We have magazines like Clarkesworld, World Literature Today, Samovar, Future Science Fiction Digest, Asimov’s and others to thank for this treasure trove (most of which is freely available online- check the “SFT on the Web” tab on sfintranslation.com).

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!

Meet the Future: An Interview with Nichole Nomura


SFRA Review, vol. 50, no. 4

Features / Meet the Future


Meet the Future: An Interview with Nichole Nomura

Nichole Nomura
PhD Candidate, Stanford University


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

Hello! I’m currently a PhD candidate at Stanford English, and I’ve just wrapped up my M.A. in Education from Stanford’s Graduate School of Education. I grew up in and did all my schooling in California, and somewhat stereotypically love the beach, the desert, swimming, and any form of being on the water (in all seasons). I collect (not hoard) books, tools, and blazers.

Review: How do you describe yourself professionally?

N: I work and teach in the digital humanities, education, and literary studies in order to study the way science fiction teaches and is taught. I’m a researcher in Stanford’s Literary Lab, a digital humanities (DH) research collective. Being a part of the Lab is such an incredible experience—I love the collaborative structure of project-based inquiry, the chance to explore questions outside my area of expertise, and the way DH methods estrange me from my own work and assumptions—it’s a science-fictional way to work on SF, but that’s not the only reason I use DH methods. DH’s ability to move to different scales is really useful when working on something as massive as science fiction or something as small as syntagmatic spaces between words. My research and teaching in the school of Education gives me the critical tools to see the lesson plans and curricula embedded in SF, and to analyze SF as embedded in lesson plans and curricula. The sociological methods I use, such as qualitative coding, come from my training in the Ed school, and help me approach questions that deal with real readers in ways that I choose for their respect and rigor. And literary studies, perhaps the most traditional home of the SF scholar, provides the theories that are at the core of my research and are the foundation of my personal reading habits and inclinations.

Review: Why does sf matter to you?

N: SF matters to me because people read it. People watch it. People write it and dress up in it and live in it. A lot of people. We would be fools not to study it.

That’s the short version of the manifesto. The longer version is built on a collection of anecdotes—students who have told me my class was the first one where they read books they liked; an engineering student who made his career decision as a kid watching Iron Man suit up for the first time; the way either Picard, Janeway, or Sisko seems to have a quote for any difficult occasion; or the time I watched a 6th -grader carefully hide a copy of The Hunger Games under his desk while we were watching a documentary. SF matters to me not only because people read it, but because people love it. These stories shape our lives because we choose to let them.

Review: What brought you to sf studies?

N: I got my first dose of SF theory in a creative writing class (specifically, for all you teachers out there, Langer’s “Case Studies in Reading 2: Key Theoretical and Critical Texts in Science Fiction Studies” from The Science Fiction Handbook), and while I had been exposed to some theory elsewhere in my undergraduate program, it had never clicked. For the first time, I understood what other people saw in theory. Somebody had tools for thinking about texts I cared about, in ways that changed how I thought about them—and I could use them as tools, choosing between them, refining them, setting them aside when they didn’t serve me anymore. The clichéd lightbulb turned on, and I don’t think it was a coincidence that it was the science fiction theory that excited me—there’s something special about it. I probably bored all my friends and professors with endless papers and discussion posts on cognitive estrangement, but they were supportive, excellent educators and collaborators who pushed me to read more, deeper, and better.

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

N: I’m fascinated by the explicitly didactic—by the attempt to convey theoretical information directly in the context of a largely experiential narrative. Much of my work is driven by a desire to account for the giant lecture, the book within a book, or the equations that we commonly dismiss as sloppy worldbuilding or too heavy-handed. This interest in the explicitly didactic comes from a deeper pedagogical interest in what “theory” is and how we distribute it.

My dissertation examines the relationship between didacticism and science fiction. I argue that science fiction has an outsized pedagogical potential compared to that of traditional realist fiction, as a result of its more frequent movement between model and simulation and its investment in models as such. The model, in fiction, is a claim about how a system works—a theory of capitalism, family, physics, politics, biology, school, class, etc.—that the simulation then enacts over narrative time. Taking an interdisciplinary approach—combining traditional literary criticism, digital humanities methods, and qualitative social-science methods—the project seeks to understand how and what science fiction can and does teach.

In the Literary Lab, I’ve been working on a project called “Novel Worldbuilding” with Mark Algee-Hewitt that investigates science-fictional worldbuilding using computational methods. We’re able to detect passages that grammatically resemble scientific writing, using methods developed for the Microgenres project, as well as compare the probabilities of syntagmatic word combinations in SF novels against “real-world” scientific discourses, like that found in Scientific American and medical journals. These two methods proxy very different kinds of worldbuilding—and so the project’s next steps are to explore the relationships between them, as well as their relationship to the relative prestige, award-status, and scientific domain of novels that use them.  

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

N: We’ve spent the last however-many years fighting for the legitimacy of our field—now that a moment has come where SF is no longer relegated to the corners of “nerdy” and “unacademic,” I hope we do not squander it. I hope we guard against gatekeeping of all kinds, both directed at us and facilitated by us.

The line between scholastic and artistic work has always been blurry in SF studies—I hope we can not only keep it blurry, but develop better protocols for working within and across that blurry space. This is a question our field has to come to terms with at a variety of scales, from the citational practices of our own work and teaching to the CFPs we produce and the people we choose to fund. Is “critical” a stance or form? Are you introducing works as “primary” or “secondary” sources? “Theory” or “fiction”? How can we strengthen the critical praxis of SF, across and within this boundary space? How can we train future practitioners that feel equally at ease in critical and creative spaces, and how do we institutionalize and support those interdisciplinary spaces? We’ve already started—I think it’s imperative that we continue, and then share our theories of how to work in the blurry space with our respective home disciplines.

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

N: I’m itching to spend time thinking and writing about the way we learn to craft and be crafty through fiction. Dystopian worlds with instructions for survival, Engineering debates in Star Trek, prepper novels with lists of supplies, fantasy swordsmiths and healers, and Little House on the Prairie. Too broad for a dissertation, but I’ve been working on it for fun whenever I find a wonderful example of it.

Although it doesn’t look like a traditional book project or course, I’ve been building a database of SF award winners that allows for digital humanities methods like text-mining to be analyzed alongside qualitative coding methods and metadata like award-status or the pronouns used on an author’s Wikipedia page. The database has been an ongoing project of its own—it definitely started as a part of my dissertation (I just wanted to answer one small question about “hard SF”!) but then quickly became, with the support of undergraduate research assistants in the Literary Lab and the Center for Spatial and Textual Analysis, a project that far exceeds the scope of my dissertation. I’m excited to get to dig into it once the dissertation is done—whether that’s in a (somewhat untraditional) classroom space, a lab space, or as part of a book project remains to be seen. Most likely—all three!

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

The Modern High Fantasy Novel was Born in France: An Essay on Reverse Literary History



The Modern High Fantasy Novel was Born in France: An Essay on Reverse Literary History 

Mariano Martín Rodríguez
Independent scholar and co-editor of journal Hélice


Bibliographies, encyclopaedias and literary research by both fans and scholars are increasingly revealing the international wealth of science fiction’s past and present. In contrast, the other great branch of speculative fiction, fantasy, has still a long way to go in this respect. Andrzej Sapkowski’s “Witcher” series is virtually, and exceptionally, the only international fantasy works well known in English. This contention could seem far-fetched if we consider that Gabriel García Márquez’s magical realist works, as well Italo Calvino’s post-modern fancies are widely read and praised world-wide, and that Michael Ende’s The Neverending Story (Die unendliche Geschichte, 1983) has previously taken the world by storm. The European “fantastique,” from E. T. A. Hoffmann to the French “Décadents,” not to mention Franz Kafka’s symbolic parables, enjoys high critical consideration. My contention stands, however, if we consider how fantasy, and high fantasy in particular, can be defined. This task of defining is not an idle one even from the historical perspective here adopted. Without exactly knowing what we are talking about, namely the high fantasy novel and its origin in French literature, any contention about this matter would probably lack a solid scientific foundation. A prior specific theoretical description of high fantasy seems, therefore, necessary to escape the vagueness that affects all too often academic approaches to this kind of fiction. 

Whereas science fiction is, despite its range of definitions, a clear literary entity, the English word ‘fantasy’ is so all-encompassing that it has virtually lost any taxonomic value. Putting Edgar Allan Poe and J.R.R. Tolkien under the same heading because both use the supernatural amounts to a complete disregard of the specific nature of fantasy, and namely of high fantasy. Faster than light travel is as supernatural as ghosts appearing to the living. Narrative omniscience in the realistic novel looks like a godlike, supernatural power as well. On the other hand, fantasy, especially high fantasy, is a literary species with distinctive fictional features that can be inferred from even a superficial reading of its classics. High fantasy is about the realistically consistent building of a fictional secondary world fully independent from the mundane one (past, present, or rationally anticipated). Whether it is specifically named or not, high fantasy hardly stands intrusions from our world without losing its ontologically autonomous status, if we are to follow the definition of ‘secondary world,’ as it appears in this genre, proposed by Waggoner: “A fantasy world is a secondary reality whose metaphysical premises are different from those of the real world” (4). Using a more precise narratological language, Trębicki contends that fantasy follows:

a strategy aimed at the creation of a secondary world model with its own precisely described spatial and temporal parameters, its own social and ontological order, and its own causality, unusual from the point of view of mimetic reality but perfectly coherent and logical within the fictional universe. 

2014: 488

Therefore, I would exclude from high fantasy those works in which modern characters intervene in the secondary world, thus depriving it of the illusion of completeness in its own legendary, far-away setting in place and time, as well as distracting readers from a fully immersive experience. C. S. Lewis’ Narnia is a wide and sophisticated secondary world but the children’s access through a cupboard during World War II implies that it coexists with modernity, instead of remaining impervious to it as it would be the case in the true exercises of sub-creation in the Tolkienian sense. Portal fantasies (Conkan, 2017) such as Lewis’ (and Ende’s), to which one could add the weird awakening of alien gods in modernity in H. P. Lovecraft’s horror stories, are enjoyable in their own right but they cannot be considered genuine high fantasy. 

High fantasy eschews implausible contacts between ontologically different kinds of fictional worlds (the mundane and the fantastic) in order to offer the complete result of a speculative process of world building akin to that of science fiction (since it is rationally created on the basis of a particular set of premises). These appear to be scientific in science fiction, as its name implies. They are rather mythical in high fantasy, thus warranting the presence of supernatural beings, magical powers and extraordinary occurrences in the framework of a plausible pagan and pre-technological society.1 In this kind of imaginary society godlike forces intervene, or are believed to intervene, in human affairs in the same way as they do in the true mythological lore that modern archaeological, philological, and ethnological research have revealed to us using rational methods from the Enlightenment Age onwards. However, unlike mythological and legendary fiction based on existing matter (Greek mythology, Arthurian legends, Arabian Nights, etc.), as well as fairy tales, where narratives follow traditional and stereotyped settings and motives usually borrowed from folklore, high fantasy is ‘created.’ Its worlds are essentially personal artistic inventions by a particular author, although fantasy writers often find inspiration in existing mythologies as well as in ancient history for their creations. As Braga notes, “la littérature fantasy actuelle … est une pseudo-morphose, modelée par l’esprit positiviste et réaliste, par la sensibilité et le goût contemporain, de la littérature magique et féerique traditionnelle” [current fantasy literature … is a pseudo-morphosis, shaped by the positivist and realist spirit, by contemporary sensibility and taste, of the traditional magical and fairy-tale literature (my translation)] (2018: 44).

High fantasy writers, however, treat features borrowed from the ancient lore yet revealed by the modern human sciences as mere elements in their free world building, the consistency of which is internal, and which need not to be externally consistent with previous mythological, ethnographical or historical knowledge. For example, while Robert H. Howard uses names and peoples from the true ancient history of our planet, his work does not constitute archaeological fiction, because his history is invented, as his fictional historiographical account of the Hyborian age shows. Lord Dunsany was probably inspired by Japanese mythology but his mythology of Pegāna was his own. 

These features are common to all high fantasy worlds now considered canonical in the Anglosphere, such as Lord Dunsany’s Pegāna, Robert H. Howard’s Hyboria, Clark Ashton Smith’s Zothique, Tolkien’s Middle-earth, Fritz Leiber’s Nehwon, Fletcher Pratt’s Dalarna, L. Sprague de Camp’s Novaria, Ursula K. Le Guin’s Earthsea, Samuel Delany’s Nevèrÿon, Terry Pratchett’s Discworld and George R. R. Martin’s Westeros. A similar mythopoetic imagination already appears active in William Blake’s narrative poems where his personal mythology is, rather confusedly, presented to the world as an alternative to Christianity. Regarding prose narratives, John Sterling’s short story “The Sons of Iron” (included as an independent narrative in the novel Arthur Coningsby, 1833) explores the customs and history of an ancient race of men made of iron with a sober speculative tone similar to that adopted by later fantasists such as Giovanni Papini and Jorge Luis Borges in their imaginary ethnographies. 

Actually, the first high fantasy novels are believed to have appeared relatively late in the 19th century. If we do not consider the portal fantasies and fairy tale novels by Lewis Carroll and George MacDonald, as we should not do if the above descriptive definition of high fantasy stands, the high fantasy novel is to be found fully in Laurence Housman’s “Gods and Their Makers,” published in a collection of the same title in 1897. This appears as the first significant landmark2 in a long tradition of high fantasy novel that blossomed in Britain in the interwar period alongside with works such as Lord Dunsany’s The King of Elfland’s Daughter (1924), Margaret Irwin’s These Mortals (1925), Norman Douglas’ In the Beginning (1927) and Tolkien’s The Hobbit (1937). Together with the high fantasy stories written by Clark Ashton Smith and Robert H. Howard, and published during the same period in the US pulps, these narratives helped to elevate high fantasy to an inescapable feature of the contemporary literary landscape. It is easy to see that high fantasy novels not written in English are conspicuously absent from this list of early acknowledged classics, in the same way as they are hardly to be found in most surveys of fantasy, either in English (for example, Barron, 1990; Mendlesohn and James, 2009; Wolfe, 2011; Moran, 2019) or in other languages (Pech, 1990; Pato, 2019). Why is this so? Do other literatures lack writers who have created their proper speculative fantasy worlds long before Tolkien’s success and his countless global imitators? How is it possible that French, Italian, Spanish, German and Russian scientific romances have already been translated into English and taken into account in histories of world science fiction at this time, but no early continental high fantasy novels seem to exist according to present knowledge on the matter? 

In literary history, as in archaeology, one can hardly find anything without looking for it where others have not, for instance in French Literature. Since high fantasy scholars are rarer than science fiction ones even in the Anglosphere, let alone in other cultural areas of the world, it is a small wonder that some of the few hints of the existence of early, pre-Tolkienian high fantasy novel in French has been revealed at all by Brian Stableford, a writer, researcher and translator whose main field of work is science fiction. However, he has also translated other kinds of speculative works. For instance, two novels translated by him, André Lichtenberger’s The Centaurs (Les Centaures, 1904) and Han Ryner’s The Superhumans (Les Surhommes, 1929), are perhaps better understood as high fantasies. The latter is a rhetorically sophisticated work3 of its prospective brand, consisting of fantasies set in a future that looks like a mythic past, including the presence of supernatural entities and the absence of modern technology and science. Following its rediscovery in France thanks to Stableford’s English translation, the former has tentatively been considered there as the first French high fantasy novel.4 

Stableford has also translated shorter narratives by Remy de Gourmont, Gabriel de Lautrec, Bernard Lazare, Camille Mauclair, Victor-Émile Michelet, Éphraïm Mikhaël and other French Belle Époque authors. Most of these authors wrote in the so-called purple prose typical of Symbolism. French purple prose was widely imitated by British and American high fantasists from the Aesthetic Movement such as Lord Dunsany, Kenneth Morris and Clark Ashton Smith, and its influence can still be seen in Tolkien’s style. Rhetorically at least, modern(ist) high fantasy owes much to French Décadence. This style encompasses the high fantasy tales by those writers, as well as by Marcel Schwob and Remy de Gourmont, just to mention the ones whose work has acquired some canonical status in French literature. Now their contribution to the high fantasy short story should certainly be re-appraised, but it is also to be acknowledged that no high fantasy French novels written in this period or earlier other than Lichtenberger’s The Centaurs seemed to exist, except maybe for a short one by Mauclair entitled Le Poison des pierreries (1903), later collected in his collection L’Amour tragique (Tragic Love, 1908). This is indeed a beautifully decadent and weird high fantasy that was translated by Stableford in 2016 as The Poison of Precious Stones.

French high fantasy novel would seem then to have appeared later than, for example, Housman’s “Gods and Their Makers” (1897) if it were not for a famous mother and her less renowned son. They were Aurore Dupin (1804-1876) and Jean-François Maurice Arnauld (1823-1899), better known as George Sand and Maurice Sand, respectively. The latter inaugurated modern fantasy novels about Atlantis with Le Coq aux cheveux d’or (The Golden-Haired Rooster, 1867 in book form). Although it is set in the mythical ancient city-empire described by Plato, complete with its end by the gods’ wrath, Maurice Sand’s novel reads as a Howardian sword and sorcery story, with its barbarian protagonist, the blond ‘rooster,’ endowed with virtually supernatural strength and panache negotiating his way among the intrigues and decadence of ancient sedentary kingdoms. This hero rescues his romantic interest from her scheming father the king, as well as from her religious and marital duties as high priestess and wife of the volcano god worshipped in Atlantis. He even saves her from the eruption and the deluge that destroy the mythical world of Atlanteans, Scythians and other ancient peoples. These coexist in that legendary place and time without regard for archaeological findings, but according to the artistically controlled freedom of high fantasy. Maurice Sand’s style, with his short sentences and narrative conciseness and dynamism combined with colourful descriptions capable of generating the desired atmosphere of decadence, looks exactly like that of Howard’s Hyborian stories. Having arrived a century too early, Maurice Sand’s novel unfortunately went virtually unnoticed.5 Its existence is thus rather an anecdote in the history of (high) fantasy.

By contrast, George Sand’s Évenor et Leucippe (Évenor and Leucippe, 1856), afterwards re-titled Les amours de l’âge d’or: Évenor et Leucippe (Loves of the Golden Age: Évenor and Leucippe, 1861), is arguably the first high fantasy novel, at least the first subject to some academic attention6 and re-issued. Its author achieved fame as a writer throughout the Western world. Although this particular work did not enjoy the popularity of her novels of manners, and it was not translated into English, it was known in Anglophone intellectual circles, where French was widely read. This “Légende antédiluvienne” (‘antediluvian legend’) was anonymously commented upon, for example, in April 1862 in The North American Review. The unknown reviewer mentions its models, namely the Biblical account of the fall and the Platonic Atlantis myth, but only as the basis for a fully new mythology created by Sand about the origins of humanity, love and civilization. Both the Hebrew single god and the panoply of Greek deities are absent from the narrative, which tells the life as well as the emotional and philosophical growth of Évenor, a human child living in a balanced primitive society. The seeds of selfishness and evil already exist among humans, however, and the little protagonist is happy to find, after getting lost in the forest, a secluded, paradisiacal valley where he decides to stay. He meets there another child, Leucippe, who is being raised by Téleïa, the last of the ‘dives,’ a species of beings “half humane, half divine, – rather at once divine and human, having the heavenly soul and knowledge, with an earthly body and needs,” according to the American reviewer of the novel (558). The ‘dive’ (name adapted from ‘diva,’ the Latin and Italian word for ‘goddess’) teaches them morality and true love as the main inheritance from her race to this couple of children, then teenagers and married couple, so that they can deliver it to the successor sentient race, the humans. They fail, however, in their mission. Evil has already grown deep roots in human society. Évenor, Leucippe and their followers are forced to escape from their tribe. Only the dive’s supernatural intervention finally saves them from their pursuers, allowing them to return to their paradise in the valley, called Éden. This parts them from their fellow humans and therefore from the course of human history. Their fate is lost in the mist of myth and legend. Despite the echoes of their names and place in later traditions, namely the aforementioned Biblical and Platonic ones, their internally consistent world is a closed one, having nothing to do either with sacred or secular history. 

Évenor et Leucippe is not a fictional reconstruction of prehistory as it could have been but rather a symbolic narrative intended to convey, for a grown-up readership, an ethical and philosophical meaning through mythopoesis. The fictional world created there by George Sand fulfils all the requirements of high fantasy. It has “its own precisely described spatial and temporal parameters, its own social and ontological order” (Trębicki, 2014: 488) with its own beliefs and customs, which are all realistically shown. Its characters are individualised, and are radically different from those typified in fairy tales,7 as it is its plot, where the folktale motifs inherited by the literary fairy tale are also absent or, at least, they do not define the structure of the novel. Moreover, it has further features usual in later high fantasy literature, such as the presence, as well as the agency, of a supernatural category of beings independent from any previous lore and mythology, the ‘dives.’ Even Sand’s use of expressive invented anthroponyms (Le Guillou, 2013), similar to the ones typical of high fantasy is witness to her pioneering high fantastical approach. Nothing of this sort existed in the European and American novel at that time, at least as far as we know given the current state of research and translations, and there would be virtually nothing similar until the Symbolist/Decadent experiments in creative mythography and ethnography a few decades later. Therefore, unless further comparative research proves it wrong, there are solid grounds to maintain that the modern high fantasy novel to have been born, indeed, in France. It would can be claimed that two women, Mary Shelley and George Sand, invented in the Romantic age, most likely without knowing it, the science fiction and the high fantasy novel, respectively. Shelley has been given her due credit for it. Sand awaits hers.


NOTES

1 Trębicki has proposed a further definition of high fantasy that takes into account the pre-modern technological level of its secondary worlds. Actual supernatural agency is taken for granted in them following a posited pre-modern and pre-scientific world-view: “The basic structure of SWF [secondary world fantasy] is … placing the plot in a world whose technological level is rather low and spatial parameters closed, and which is presented as a reality not connected with the mimetic universe either spatially of temporally” (2011: 45).

2 Histories dealing with high fantasy usually mention the late romances by William Morris published in the 1890s as pioneering works. Christian institutions and real place names (for example, Rome) appear in these romances, which have a quest structures borrowed from medieval chivalric narratives. These features trouble their high fantasy status, since Morris’ fictional worlds would not be then full-fledged secondary subcreations in the Tolkienian sense here adopted (Tolkien, 2001). Moreover, they often lack an easily recognizable usual landmark of high fantasy, namely what Lin Carter called ‘neocognomica:’ “In creating an imaginary world with words, the author is thrust into the role of Adam. Everything must be named” (1973: 192-193). What kind of secondary worlds can be the ones in Morris’ chivalric romances when their characters are named Ralph or Arthur?

3 In my essay on this work which accompanies its contemporary edition, I describe it as follows: “Les Surhommes semble être un « monstre narratif », où le roman doit cohabiter avec d’autres genres, comme la poésie (en prose) dans ses manifestations tant sapientielles qu’épiques, ou l’historiographie, faisant fi de l’illusoire psychologie des personnages, collectifs par ailleurs, et des exigences d’une action conventionnelle” (2016: 125). My translation: “The Superhumans appears to be a ‘narrative monster,’ where the novel must cohabit with other genres, such as (prose) poetry in its sapiential as well as epic variants, or historiography, ignoring the illusory psychology of the characters, which are collective for that matter, as well as the demands of conventional action.”

4 In the preface to its contemporary edition, Fraysse contends that it could be considered to be the “« premier roman de fantasy français »” (‘first French high fantasy novel’) but with a possible caveat: “mais rêvons plutôt qu’il existe de nombreux textes antérieurs dignes d’endosser ce rôle” (2017: xiii). My translation: “but let us rather dream that there are many earlier texts deserving this consideration.” These earlier French high fantasy novels are precisely the matter of the present essay.

5 The most detailed review of this novel was written by his mother (Sand, 1867). In contemporary times, only a book devoted to Maurice Sand briefly comments on it (Bissonnette, 2017: 228-235, 331, 380-381). There is no contemporary edition of this significant work.

6 It is to be noted that none of the recent academic studies on this novel that I have been able to read (Gillet, 1977; Le Guillou, 2012, 2013, 2016; Mathias, 2018) clearly mentions its high fantasy features. French academic study of this kind fiction is still in its early infancy, though (Bougon, 2019).

7 Matthew David Surridge argued in a blog entry from 2010 (https://www.blackgate.com/2010/09/19/worlds-within-worlds-the-first-heroic-fantasy-part-iv/) that Sara Coleridge created in her novel Phantasmion (1837) the first fantasy secondary world. However, this novel’s subtitle, “A Fairy Tale,” is very clear regarding the particular kind of fiction it belongs to. Although the fairy tale is an important predecessor of high fantasy, their secondary worlds are different, even in the many instances, before and after Coleridge, where fairy tale worlds are fully independent from our mundane one. In high fantasy characters are individuals whereas those of the fairy tale are “occupational labels” (Waggoner, 23). Moreover, in the fairy tale magic and supernatural occurrences are taken for granted; in high fantasy they “must be realistically established” (22) following the posited rules of the (sub)created world. Following Tolkien, Nikolaya states that “genuine and skilful fantasy creates Secondary Belief (unlike the Primary Belief of myth or religion), putting the reader in a temporary state of enchantment. As soon as suspension of disbelief is disturbed, the spell is broken” (153) whereas “the addressee of a fairy tale knows that the story is not true” (153). Furthermore, the intrusion in fairy tales of elements from the phenomenological world also disturbs the suspension of disbelief or secondary belief. On the other hand, high fantasy stories “take place in a closed, self-contained Secondary World without any connection with reality. However, unlike fairy tales, they are definitely based on Secondary Belief” (154). Last but not least, ‘fairy-land’ “is a space where things happen, not a place of itself” (Hunt, 12) as Sand’s Éden is.


BIO

Dr. Mariano Martín Rodríguez is a translator and independent scholar based in Brussels (Belgium). He obtained his Ph.D in Philology at the Universidad Complutense (Madrid) in 1994. Since then, he has published numerous studies in different languages related to modern drama, scientific romance, and utopian, speculative (including high fantasy and theological fiction) and science fiction, in Spain and in Europe, as well as several critical editions of translations from different Romance languages and English into Spanish. He has also published several critical editions of Spanish works of utopian, fantastic, speculative and science fiction. He is currently co-editor of the online journal on speculative fiction Hélice (www.revistahelice.com).


WORKS CITED

Anon. “Évenor et Leucippe. Les Amours de l’Âge d’Or. Légende Antédiluvienne. Par George Sand. Paris: N. Lévy Frères. 1861.” The North American Review 94.195 (1862): 557-559.

Barron, Neil (ed.). Fantasy Literature: A Reader’s Guide. New York (NY) and London: Garland Publishing, 1990.

Bissonnette, Lise. Maurice Sand : Une œuvre et son brisant au xixe siècle. Rennes: Presses Universitaires de Rennes, 2017.

Bougon, Marie Lucie. “Cosmogonie de la fantasy française : Genèse et émancipation.” Revue de la BNF 59.2 (2019): 38-47.

Braga, Corin. “La littérature « fantasy ».” Pour une morphologie du genre utopique. Paris: Classiques Garnier, 2018. 39-44.

Carter, Lin. “A Local Habitation and a Name: Some Observations on Neocognomica.” Imaginary Worlds: The Art of Fantasy. New York (NY): Ballantine Books, 1973. 192-212.

Conkan, Marius. Portalul şi lumile secundare: Tipologii ale spaţiului în literatura fantasy. Bucureşti: Tracus Arte, 2017.

Fraysse, Thierry. “Le conteur homérique.” André Lichtenberger. Les Centaures. Paris: Callidor, 2017. vi-xiv.

Gillet, Jean. “Les Amours de l’âge d’or : l’Éden tourmenté de George Sand.” Romantisme 16 (1977): 46-55.

Hunt, Peter. “Fantasy and Alternative Worlds.” Eds. Peter Hunt and Millicent Lenz. Alternative Worlds in Fantasy Fiction. London and New York (NY): Continuum, 2003. 1-41.

Le Guillou, Claire. “Les Amours de l’âge d’or, une œuvre de la marginalité.” Eds. Pascale Auraix-Jonchière, Simone Bertrand-Grifftiths and Marie Cécile Levet. La Marginalité dans l’œuvre de Goerge Sand. Clermont-Ferrand: Presses Universitaires Blaise Pascal, 2012. 434-355.

Le Guillou, Claire. “De l’usage des anthroponymes dans Évenor et Leucippe, Les Amours de l’âge d’or; Légende antédiluvienne de George Sand.” Nouvelle Revue d’Onomastique 55 (2013): 259-268.

Le Guillou, Claire. “Présentation.” George Sand, Œuvres complètes. 1856. Évenor et Leucippe. Paris: Honoré Campion, 2016. 7-24.

Lichtenberger, André. “The Centaurs.” The Centaurs, adaptation and translation by Brian Stableford. Encino (CA): Black Coat Press, 2013. 13-187.

Martín Rodríguez, Mariano. “Foissonnement fictionnel et richesse de discours: Les Surhommes de Han Ryner.” Han Ryner, Les Surhommes. Saint-Martin de Bonfossé: Théolib, 2016. 119-135.

Mathias, Manon. “Pre-Darwinian Species Change: Reincarnation and Transformism in George Sand’s Évenor et Leucippe.” Journal of Literature and Science 11.1 (2018): 33-49. http://eprints.gla.ac.uk/148958/1/148958.pdf 

Mauclair, Camille. “The Poison of Precious Stones.” The Virgin Orient, adaptation and translation by Brian Stableford. Encino (CA): Black Coat Press, 2016. 349-389.

Mendlesohn, Farah, and Edward James. A Short Story of Fantasy. London: Middlesex University Press, 2009.

Moran, Patrick. The Canons of Fantasy Lands of High Adventure. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2019.

Nikolayeva, Maria. “Fantasy Literature and Fairy Tales.” The Oxford Companion to Fairy Tales: The Western Fairy Tale Tradition from Medieval to Modern, edited by Jack Zipes. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002. 150-154.

Pato, Silvia. Breve historia de la fantasía. Madrid: Nowtilus, 2019.

Pesch, Helmut W. Fantasy: Theorie und Geschichte einer literarischen Gattung. Passau: Erster Deutsche Fantasy Club, 1990.

Ryner, Han. “The Superhumans.” The Superhumans, adaptation and translation by Brian Stableford. Encino (CA): Black Coat Press, 2011. 181-288.

Sand, George. Évenor et Leucippe. Paris: Garnier Frères, 1856.

Sand, George. “Essais et notices: Le coq aux cheveux d’or, récit des temps fabuleux, par Maurice Sand.” Revue des Deux Mondes 67.4 (1867): 1010-1022.

Sand, Maurice. Le Coq aux cheveux d’or : Récit des temps fabuleux. Paris: A. Lacroix, Verboeckhoven et Cie, 1867.

Tolkien, J. R. R. “On Fairy Stories.” Tree and Leaf. London: HarperCollins, 2001. 1-81.

Trębicki, Grzegorz. “Mythic Elements in Secondary World Fantasy and Exomimetic Literature.” Mityczne scenariusze. Od mitu do fikcji, od fikcji do mitu, edited by Tomasz Ratajczak and Bogdan Trocha. Zielona Góra: Oficyna Wydawnicza Uniwersytetu Zielonogórskiego, 2011. 41-52.

Trębicki, Grzegorz. “Supragenological Types of Fiction versus Contemporary Non-Mimetic Literature.” Science Fiction Studies 41.3 (2014): 481-501.

Waggoner, Diana. “Theory of Fantasy.” The Hills of Faraway: A Guide to Fantasy. New York (NY): Atheneum, 1978. 3-27. 

Wolfe, Gary K. “Fantasy from Dryden to Dunsany.” Eds. Edward James and Farah Mendlesohn. The Cambridge Companion to Fantasy Literature. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011. 7-20.

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.