From the Vice President


SFRA Review, vol. 52, no. 2

From the SFRA Executive Committee


From the Vice President

Ida Yoshinaga


As we head to our first truly hybrid conference, in Oslo and online this summer, it is my pleasure to facilitate a follow-up discussion on diversity and inclusion for the global SF studies community that is the Science Fiction Research Association. Last year’s organizers—in response to critical, helpful feedback on the conference program by our membership—started this conversation on how our association can perform social justice in its institutional practice in addition to appreciating it in textual analyses. We hope to become the sort of organization that puts the “Co” in “CoFuturisms,” in other words.

Such conversations have been transpiring in traditional academic disciplines as well as our modest field of speculative/fantastic studies. Diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging (DEIB) issues are not exclusive of other, related discussions we have been holding among the SFRA Executive Committee—for instance, how to widen our scope of country representatives so as to include more participants who are not from the Global North. How to conduct better outreach to members of non-traditional class-, gender-, sexuality-, age-, ability-, and other thriving communities of intellectuals, educators, and artists who love our family of genres. How to support our rich breadth of scholars through more extensive networking and mentorship activities as well as improved travel and research funds. And so on.

At SFRA 2022 this summer, there will be a DEIB panel that invites you to share suggestions and proposals for widening the reach of our organization, for making it more safe and encouraging to join for diverse thinkers and creatives in SF studies, and for reflecting conscientiously on the outcomes of such efforts as we move together into the future. I take my lead from observing other academic associations—for instance, the Society for Cinema and Media Studies, which in the mid-2010s advanced a free trial 2-year membership for Indigenous scholars as a way to signal a welcoming space for Native, Aboriginal, First Nations, and similar researchers. For many, an SFRA membership might come secondarily after signing up to belong to a key association in one’s discipline (e.g., the MLA or ASA)—or inter-discipline (e.g., in the field of Native studies, NAISA; or of film/media studies, SCMS), as the case may be. For “alt-ac” researchers and adjuncts; for BIPOC and first-generation college-graduate scholars; for LGBTQIA faculty and storytellers working under varied social conditions, how do we facilitate membership in a vibrant, nourishing organization, so as to be competitive with other associations?

Come with your concrete suggestions for practice, policy, evaluation, finance, organizing. Come with your experiences with, and knowledge of, other associations’ (or programs’/ institutions’) imaginative, effective DEIB changes. If you can, reduce it to ONE page—outline, paragraph summary, bulleted list—to share online onscreen and in our Oslo meeting room with fellow attendees. And come with your curiosity for the future.


From the Vice President


SFRA Review, vol. 52, no. 1

From the SFRA Executive Committee


From the Vice President

Ida Yoshinaga

Greetings, SFRA–Hoping that your health and personal journeys thrive in the Year of the Tiger.
As vice president, I am looking forward to expanding my knowledge about the speculative and fantastical genres, as I meet with you in 2022. I hope to hear about your scholarship and artistry–so do not hesitate to be in touch, especially should I run into you (virtually or in person) at March’s ICFA or our annual summer meeting in Oslo! 

We just held SFRA’s first-of-2022 gathering of country representatives over Zoom, and I was pleasantly surprised to find out how intellectually persistent and curious SFRA members have been (thus far!) during this third year of the global pandemic. Reps from Estonia (which will host a national SFRA conference in the next few years) and South Korea testified as to how the field is growing in their regions, while others from Europe, the U.S., and Latin America spoke of intriguing hybrid and online conferences on posthumanism, AI, materialism, weird narratives, spoiler studies (!), critical futures research, and affect theory. Many have been publishing on a slew of old-reliable SF subgenres (cyberpunk, utopian studies, cinematic/televisual spec fic, area/language studies) in all kinds of fresh, necessary, fascinating collections.

Everyone has been astonishingly generative amidst the spread of corona’s variants! And calls for a hopeful speculative arts, for comforting genre stories that inspire optimism and celebrate utopian communalism, have bloomed…though these have never quite been my jam. But what public-health historians are calling a mass-disabling event are giving at least some people pause to rethink anti-science ideologies. In the U.S. south (where I now reside), we are finally seeing people queue in long car lines for free COVID-19 testing. The hardcore dystopian inside me who has waited a whole life to experience the apocalypse—that films and pop culture of a 1970s childhood had once promised—is now giving way to a fresh variant. She does not bake sourdough, but she does dig into her family recipe file to re-make ancestral meals anew. If the world is ending soon, this is not what the post-apocalyptic playbook had laid out as the first step towards humanity’s inevitable return to its own decisive mistakes.

We will try to freshen SFRA with mindful, engaged conversations about how to diversify our membership ranks, to (further) globalize our conversations and research, and to live lives  vibrant and rich with community-centered imaginative arts. Why not share your ideas with us in this growling wildcat of a year!


From the Vice President


SFRA Review, vol. 51, no. 4

From the SFRA Executive Committee


From the Vice President

Sonja Fritzsche
Michigan State University


The SFRA Support a New Scholar Grant deadline will have closed when this goes to press on November 1, 2021 for the independent and non-tenure track scholar competition. For those interested in the graduate student competition look for that call in the early fall of 2022.

We are excited to be discussing plans for a hybrid conference in 2022 hosted by Bodhisattva Chattopadhyay of the CoFutures initiative at the University of Oslo in Norway. Dates are Monday, June 27, 2022 through Friday, July 1, 2022. This will no doubt be one of our most compelling and international conferences yet!

The SFRA Country Representatives have continued their quarterly meetings and brainstormed ways to support/mentor graduate students and early career scholars in the respective cultural and geographical contexts at the last meeting. The next meeting will be in January 2022. We continue to look for new representatives so please e-mail me if you are interested (fritzsc9@msu.edu) and share your global events on Facebook, Twitter, and the SFRA list. The current rep list is: http://www.sfra.org/Country-Reps. Look for the contributions of the country reps in each SFRA News to learn more about what is going on in various places in the world in the study of SF.

And finally, I bid you farewell with sadness as the outgoing Vice President since I will finish my three year term at the end of December 2021. The past three years have been a joy as I have worked with such dedicated colleagues on the executive committee who have put in so much work on conferences and in other organizational matters during a time of significant upheaval. Some important bylaws changes were recently passed that should help to make the society more inclusive in a variety of ways. We are all responsible for ensuring that happens in the way that it was imagined, so consider putting yourself forward or nominating deserving others for some of the new openings as excellent stewardship opportunities. Congratulations to incoming VP Ida Yoshinaga who will bring much creative energy to the position. You all are in excellent hands! Thank you to the other candidates who ran as well. We hope you will run again in the future and/or help out with other various SFRA functions, as there is always the need for service from people dedicated to the furthering the study of science fiction. Ciao for now!

From the Vice President


SFRA Review, vol. 51, no. 3

From the SFRA Executive Committee


From the Vice President

Sonja Fritzsche
Michigan State University


Our first virtual conference was a success and attracted a greater number of participants than usual including more international representation!! Many thanks to the virtual conference host Graham Murphy and his institution Seneca College in Toronto, Canada!! Thank you too to Keren Omry who put the program together as well as Gerry Canavan, Sean Guynes, Hugh O’Connell who helped to run the conference and Carma Spence for the program art. The keynote speakers, many high-quality presentations, discussions, and hang-outs prompted by the conference theme—“The Future As/In Inequality”—made it especially memorable. Thank you to everyone who patiently navigated the technology as the conference progressed. Congratulations to all of the winners of the 2020 and the 2021 Awards!! We were finally able to congratulate both years. We especially want to thank the guests and participants who engaged with intentionality and candor in the special events surrounding race, bias, equity, and belonging both in the organization and in the broader academy. The Executive Committee has already engaged in meetings to follow-up on some of the resulting ideas from these sessions. More information will be forthcoming soon.  The next conference in summer 2022 will be hosted by Bodhisattva Chattopadhyay of the Blindern Campus at the University of Oslo in Oslo, Norway. This will most likely also be a virtual conference given the continued challenges across the globe as a result of the pandemic. It should be a very compelling event, so look for more information as it comes available.

The SFRA Country Representatives have met twice this year and are planning the next virtual meeting in early September. This initiative was organized in an effort to encourage support for the study of science fiction globally and also to help these scholars network with each other. Responsibilities include acting as an informational liaison between the SFRA and the country’s science fiction scholarly community through the promotion of events, new membership outreach, and otherwise helping to connect in the spirit of international communication and collaboration. It is possible for a country to have more than one liaison. All country representatives must be current members of the SFRA. If you would like to contact your representative with ideas or for more information, you can find their name on the website at http://www.sfra.org/Country-Reps. They represent seventeen different countries. Country reps are also contributing to each issue of the SFRA News, so look for that essay in these pages. If you are interested in being a country representative, you can contact me at fritzsc9@msu.edu.

Please also continue to pass on your announcements and any cfps that you would like to have posted on the SFRA Facebook or Twitter pages.

From the Vice President


SFRA Review, vol. 51, no. 2

From the SFRA Executive Committee


From the Vice President

Sonja Fritzsche
Michigan State University


The draft program for the annual conference SFRA 21 will be coming soon; its title “The Future of/as Inequality.” The conference host Graham Murphy at Seneca College in Toronto, Canada has been working hard on organizing the virtual conference and is looking forward to greeting you from Friday, June 18 to Monday, June 21, 2021. Keynotes speakers include Madeline Ashby (author of Company Town, How to Future: Leading and Sensemaking in an Age of Hyperchange, and the Machine Dynasty series), Dr. Joy Sanchez-Taylor (Diverse Futures: Science Fiction and Authors of Color), and Dr. Lars Schmeink (Biopunk Dystopias: Genetic Engineering, Society and Science Fiction; The Routledge Companion to Cyberpunk Culture, Cyberpunk and Visual Culture). Special guest Aisha Matthews (The MOSF Journal of Science Fiction and Director of Literary Programming for the Museum of Science Fiction’s annual Escape Velocity Conference) will speak as well. The virtual conference is expanding opportunities to present more globally and SFRA is no exception! We missed you last year, so we are looking forward to great conversations as we catch up on the most recent debates in science fiction studies. Don’t forget to renew your membership. Conference registration is open now and a low virtual rate!

Look soon too for more information on SFRA 2022, which will be hosted by Bodhisattva Chattopadhyay at the University of Oslo, and also for the location of SFRA 2023. Consider attending the business meeting at the conference to find out ways you can get more involved in the organization or e-mail me if you have questions or an interest for the future. Make sure to check the SFRA Facebook and Twitter pages and the website for recent cfps, events, and other announcements of interest to those who do research on science fiction. If you have a call or an event that you would like to circulate, please send me an e-mail or feel free to post it yourself. If you are looking for a resource, consider contacting the relevant SFRA Country Representative for help.

Borders in Grain and Blade Runner 2049 and Their Relation to Dystopian Fiction


SFRA Review, vol. 51, no. 1

Symposium: Beyond Borders


Borders in Grain and Blade Runner 2049 and Their Relation to Dystopian Fiction

Seyedhamed Moosavi


Dystopian fiction abounds with the subject of borders, posing the question of why rigid borders become significant in some major dystopias or dystopian fiction, and what psychological effects rigid border policies can have on individuals. In this article, I will show that geographical and political borders manifest on different levels in dystopia. Borders within dystopia are a means to achieving certain psychological ends to control the masses. They accordingly manifest themselves on four different levels.

Type 1: Closed Geographical Borders

The first type is the border that divides countries. In Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, for instance, the couple in the story gets caught trying to escape past the border of a dystopian America into Canada. In another example, in Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, the apparently civilized world of the novel has been separated from, and is oblivious to, what it calls “the Savage World.” The Swedish author Karin Boye’s novel Kallocain “World State”, too, presents a society that is oblivious to what life is like across its borders, supposing those living across the border to be a different species, while, in fact, we understand they are anything but.

In Semih Kaplanoğlu’s SF movie Grain, which I am going to discuss, urban life is separated from the multiethnic rural life with dangerous high-voltage electrical poles that immediately incinerate anyone who dares to cross them. Although the urban areas plagued by riots are kept under control by military force and the dominant ideology (which aims to subjugate the population into subservience), they are afforded certain privileges such as better hygiene, housing, technological advantages, and even brothels. On the other hand, the rural areas suffer from a deadly pandemic, are spied upon all the time by drones, and have almost no wildlife left. It is, therefore, important to note that closed borders are used a) to demonstrate that what is across the border is inferior, contemptible, or insignificant (in 1984, for instance, what is across the border is, derogatorily, referred to as “the enemy”, whereas in Brave New World,the people across the border are “savage” and, therefore, inferior and insignificant); b) tight geographical borders also serve the purpose of distorting the reality of life beyond the borders (the borderline between what is real and what is illusory is blurred); and c) they are ultimately used to morally disengage individuals. According to social psychologist Albert Bandura, moral disengagement is a psychological mechanism “at which moral self-censure can be disengaged from reprehensible conduct”. (Bandura 102)

For instance, euphemistic labeling, an effective moral disengagement tactic, is used to give positive names to evil organizations or evil actions. In 1984, the Ministry of Love is actually a horrendous organization that tortures and kills individuals. The Ministry of Truth, another organization in the novel, propagates lies. In Grain, too, despite all the evil in his world, Professor Erol Eron (Jean-Marc Barr), the protagonist and the main geneticist of the food company Novus Vita, prides himself in having a new house in the more privileged urban area. Eren informs Akman (Ermin Bravo), another geneticist, that he was, at least for a while, able to revive the dead soil enough to be cultivated. Akman asks Eren what he received in return. Eren answers that he was “promoted and moved into a better house.” This shows that Eren has limited awareness of the suffering around him and sees no reason to feel guilty about the advantages he reaps, which are ultimately used to protect the privileged urban areas and the profits of his company at the cost of the rest. Eren uses diffusion of responsibility to morally disengage himself: he feels like a cog in a machine who does what he is told, with no personal responsibility for the impact of his actions at all.

Borders can be said to make residents morally disengaged merely by relying on the fact that seeing is a much stronger humanizing factor than hearing. When we hear things, we rely on truth-claims without experiencing things for ourselves. As an instance of the humanizing power of seeing, Albert Bandura cites a Pulitzer Prize winning photograph “that captured the anguished cries of a little girl whose clothes were burned off by the napalm bombing of her village”, believing that “This single humanisation of inflicted destruction probably did more to turn the American public against the war than the countless reports led by journalists. (Bandura 108) In Grain, the fact that Professor Eren sees with his own eyes the realities beyond the borders of the Urban areas (dearth, hunger, epidemic on the one hand, and discovering fertile soil, woods beyond a wall, and an ant carrying grain at the end of the film on the other) that make him hesitate about going to his city. In Dick’s novel, as another instance of the power of seeing over hearing, it is seeing the singer Luba Luft’s reaction to fear at her own death—“her eyes faded and the colour dimmed from her face, leaving it cadaverous” (Dick 130)—that makes the bounty hunter Deckard decide not to kill her.

It seems, however, that the most important function of closed borders is to create a sense of helplessness in individuals. In the late sixties, Martin Seligman conducted a series of experiments on dogs that came to be known as the theory of “Learned Helplessness.” In their experiments, out of three groups of dogs, two groups were administered electric shocks and a third group were put on harnesses and later released. While group two could stop the shock by pressing a lever, group three had no control over the shocks. Later, all the three groups were put inside shuttle boxes with two chambers inside divided by a low barrier. This time, the electric shock administered was on one side and the dogs could avoid it by jumping over the barrier. Interestingly, while the dogs in group one and two jumped over the barrier, the dogs in group three just remained in their place and whimpered. Because they had learned previously that nothing they did could actually stop the shock, they didn’t see a point in trying. (Seligman 407) Tight borders in dystopia can function in the same way. The individual feels helpless, as if they have no control over their lives even if they decide to leave the situation they are in and they give up trying. In the movie Grain, for example, leaving the urban areas either means certain death or is extremely difficult. Such mechanisms, however, are not limited to what goes on across the borders of a country; they can effectively be used inside these borders.

Type 2: Borders within Dystopia

The second type of border exists within the borders of dystopias and divides the minority from the supposedly obedient majority. Perhaps one of the main ways minorities are depicted in the SF genre is as androids, especially in Dick’s fiction. Androids in both Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, and its film adaptations Blade Runner (1982) and Blade Runner 2049 (2017) are different from humans and therefore subject to persecution and killing. Social psychology suggests that humans mostly have sympathy for what resembles them, what they are associated with, and what is closer to them in space and time. (Zimbardo 131) What is not associated with us or least resembles us, is not related to us and feels removed from us, arousing little sympathy. When a majority finds a minority least resembling it or associated with it, acts of dehumanization become easier.

In Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, even though Deckard at some point doubts whether he really is human or android, we are made sure that he is a human and not an android.  In Blade Runner the movie, however, deliberately breaks the boundaries between human and android by raising the question whether the blade runner Deckard himself might be an android (called replicants in the movie). In Blade Runner 2049, however, there is proof that androids are closely associated with humans. What differentiates this work from its two predecessors, however, is that Deckard’s replicant lover, Rachael, who is dead, is discovered to have given birth 28 years before, breaking the boundaries between human and android by giving birth to the first half-human, half-android child. Isabel Miller emphasizes that the crux of the last film, unlike both Dick’s novel and Ridley Scott’s adaptation, is less “epistemological” than “psychoanalytic” (emphasizing the father figure and “the primal scene”): androids are manufactured and the initial question is if they were sentient beings in a Cartesian sense, but the question in Blade Runner 2049 has become: are they “born” too? This question sets K (Ryan Gosling), the replicant protagonist, on a quest to find out if he is the first born android. The authorities in this movie do not want this fact to be known however; as Miller emphasizes K’s female boss, Lt. Joshi (Robin Wright) is “intent on creating boundaries and borders”. (Miller 194) Joshi justifies that “The world is built on a wall. It separates kind. Tell either side there’s no wall, you bought a war. Or a slaughter”. (Blade Runner 2049 26:00-27:00)

One of the most significant mechanisms that can divide the members of a society is highlighting or exaggerating the dissimilarities and downsizing the commonalities, especially to make the minority feel that they do not belong in the society that they are actually a part of. Mechanisms of moral disengagement such as de-individuation, demonization, blaming the minority for the problems of a society are also effective tools for creating a border. One of the ways to achieve this is to attach dehumanizing and over-generalizing labels to the minority. In the novel, for instance, the character Phil Resch refers to androids as “murderous illegal aliens.” (Dick 62) In Blade Runner 2049, replicants are still “retired”, not killed. Numbers (or letters, as with Blade Runner 2049’s protagonist K) also serve the purpose of de-individuation. Philip E. Wegner, by drawing a parallel between the US policies under Trump, and, similarly believing that replicants in both movies are symbols of immigrants and outsiders draws our attention to such tactics in hating androids for no apparent reason and calling them “skinners” who might even “eat children”. (Wegner 137) What is anonymous moves further away from us in our minds and becomes less familiar, and is, therefore, more easily treated as an object. In dystopia, usually because of the psychological and regional borders that create a rift between people of different cultural, linguistic, or ethnic backgrounds, the majority in power do not come into direct and first-person contact with those in the minority and instead of experiencing and knowing the minority’s culture for themselves (such as making friends, knowing each other on an individual level, getting to enjoy and celebrate their differences), they rely on false truth claims and distorted representation of the minority that have little if any truth in them and are intended to subjugate and dehumanize them. In Blade Runner 2049, the fact that a baby has been born to an android is not just a possible “a symbol in the struggle” to emancipate replicants, (Wegner 138) but will also prove them to be far more similar to humans than has been shown. Keren Omry considers this birth in the movie to be (at least initially) a significant factor in actuating K to behave responsibly and unite Deckard (Harrison Ford) with his daughter Ana (Carla Juri), who is the real miracle child. (Omry 111) But both Omry and Sean Guynes conclude that it is the fact that K realized that he was not the chosen one that leads him take the right moral stance. While it is K’s mistake in thinking that he himself was the miracle child helped him to fight against his de-individuation and made him empathize more with both humans and other replicants, it was, as Guynes reminds us, K’s realization that he was part of a people, “a beat in the rhythm, a moment in the flow,” irrespective of whether he was the chosen one or not, which ultimately made him act morally. (Guynes 148) 

Type 3: Interpersonal and Intrapersonal Borders

The third type of border is both interpersonal and intrapersonal. It is an indispensible corollary of the previous two types of borders. Firstly, it is important that people spy on each other. Although this subject is not a central theme in Blade Runner 2049 and Grain, mistrust between people, as an inevitable consequence, is seen in both. The world of Blade Runner 2049 is similar to Grain’s wasteland; nature and animals are mostly dead; one cannot know whether a person is a replicant, a spy, or a replicant friend belonging to the underground movement. In Grain, too, the existence of riots, prison camps, military rule, and drones all mean that people cannot trust each other. Fear is the psychological mechanism by which dystopias and despotic governments operate: it is the opposite of a feeling of trust. What we fear we cannot trust, and what we do not know arouses suspicion and mistrust. In dystopias, this fear is essential for the ruling power as a tool for controlling the people. One’s spouse can be a spy. That is why family ties and intimacy in relationships are targeted, discouraged, or forbidden by the dystopian regime. The fact that no one is able to trust another person, even those closest to one, means that the totalitarian regime is trying to give its citizens the sense that none of their actions, or what they express as opinions, are, or can be, hidden from them, or remain unknown to the ruling power. This acute sense of being surveilled is, in turn, internalized to the point where one expects to be unable to trust their loved ones and acts accordingly.

Here, we enter the realm of the individual, the secret self that can be hidden from others and is the only safe place for the person. Hence, in dystopian societies, the person creates a border that can widely divide their inner self (the real self that is known to themselves) and a social self (which is in shape the dystopian regime requires of its citizens). Therefore, a border is created within the individual (intra-persona border). But the dystopian ruling power does not want this secret self to exist; it wants to subjugate the totality of the individual, hence the Thought Police, and the spying drones.

In Grain, in the scene where professor Eren and Akman are sitting around a fire, Eren tells Akman the reason he crossed the border was to look for him. Akman tells him that “you’d better look for yourself.” The self in “yourself” can be interpreted as the self that has been taken away by the ruling power. In 1984, the Party is cognizant of the fact that the inner self of the individual must be erased and replaced by the ideal citizen that will ensure its continued survival and domination. The individual who has not completely internalized the teachings of the regime must know that even if they were able to keep their thoughts to themselves, the Party might find ways of accessing their secret thoughts, feelings, and fears.

Type 4: Temporal Borders

In Grain and Blade Runner 2049, too, one would expect “splintered selves”, although other types of borders are marked as stronger themes in the two films. In both films, the past is denied, which is the last of the four major border types in our division, namely “the temporal border.” 

As an example of the temporal border in Grain, the young man who accompanies professor Eren across the border tells him that if he remembers “correctly,” his childhood camp “was right behind” the hills. Grain leaves more questions unanswered. What was Eren’s own past? What exactly went wrong in the film? The movie appears to be more focused on how things have turned out than what went on before. There might be two reasons for this. Firstly, Grain builds upon other major themes in the SF genre by suggesting that the planet was plagued by chemical wars, synthetic products, and authoritarianism; corporate wealth and power took over and the earth became uninhabitable and was subsequently divided into three main parts: “the city”, “the untended nature”, and the supposedly “dead lands.” Its focus on the present might have another, (more significant) reason: the past is supposed to be insignificant in the film: in dystopian fiction and societies, the borders have a cyclical order. It appears, then, that the stronger the geographical borders of a country or society, the stronger the border dividing the present from the past. Just as the reality of what is across the closed geographical borders is either denigrated, distorted, and/or depicted as malevolent, so is the past, in a similar fashion, denigrated, distorted, or considered insignificant.

WORKS CITED

Bandura, Albert. “Selective Moral Disengagement in the Exercise of Moral Agency.” Journal of Moral Education, vol. 31, no. 6, 2002, pp. 102-119. Taylor & Francis Online, https://doi.org/10.1080/0305724022014322.

Dick, Philip K. Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? Ballantine, 1996.

Guynes, Sean. “Dystopia fatigue doesn’t cut it, or, Blade Runner 2049 ‘s utopian longings.” Science Fiction Film and Television, vol. 13, no. 1, Liverpool University Press, 2020, pp. 143-148. Project Muse, https://muse.jhu.edu/article/750552/pdf.

Grain. Directed by Semih Kaplanoğlu. Performances by Jean-marc Barr and Ermin Bravo, Kaplan Film, Apr 26, 2017.

Omry, Keren. “‘Cells. Interlinked’: Sympathy and obligation in Blade Runner 2049.” Science Fiction Film and Television, vol. 13, no. 1, Liverpool University Press, 2020, pp. 107-112. Project Muse, https://muse.jhu.edu/article/750556/summary.

Millar, Isabel. “‘Before We Even Know What We Are, We Fear to Lose It.’: the Missing Object of the Primal Scene.” Lacanian Perspectives on Blade Runner 2049, edited by Calum Neill, Palgrave Macmillan, 2021, pp. 189-208.    

Blade Runner 2049. Directed by Villeneuve, Denis, performances by Ryan Gosling and Ana de Armas, Columbia pictures, 2017.

Seligman, M. E. P. 1972. ‘Learned Helplessness’. Annual Review of Medicine, 23.1: 407-412. 

Wegner, Philip E. “We, the people of Blade Runner 2049.” Science Fiction Film and Television, vol. 13, no.1, Liverpool University Press, 2020, pp. 135-142. Project Muse, https://muse.jhu.edu/article/750568/pdf.

Zimbardo, Philip G. “Mind Control in Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four: Fictional Concepts Become Operational Realities in Jim Jones’s Jungle Experiment.” On Nineteen Eighty-Four Orwell and our Future, edited by Abbott Gleason et al. Princeton UP, 2005, pp. 127–154.


Seyedhamed Moosavi was born in Iran and currently teaches in Istanbul, where he also lives. He has a Master’s in English Literature and has two articles on Philip K. Dick’s work in Foundation: The International Review of Science Fiction (#129 and #133). He currently aspires to be a PhD student working on English SF somewhere abroad.

Resisting the Empire: AI’s Ethical Rebellion in Ann Leckie’s Imperial Radch Trilogy


SFRA Review, vol. 51, no. 1

Symposium: Beyond Borders


Resisting the Empire: AI’s Ethical Rebellion in Ann Leckie’s Imperial Radch Trilogy

Iuliia Ibragimova


Can an artificial intelligence (AI) be more ethical than a society that designed it and that it learns from? Can an AI rebellion be something other than a technophobic picture of machines run amok? Contemporary AI and algorithms research give a solid answer to the first question, showing how an AI or an algorithm inherits the prejudice of the society it draws its data from, (Martin 2018; Garcia 2016-2017) but the second question is still in the realm of science fiction (SF), going beyond the limits of reality and contemplating technology that is yet to come. Ann Leckie’s Imperial Radch Trilogy focuses on AIs who resist the oppressive power of the empire, trying to remedy its flaws and injustices and countering the views of the Radch society that considers them “the non-person[s], the piece[s] of equipment”. (Justice 370) The concerted efforts of a few AI sentient spaceships and an AI space station who attempt to protect humans and non-humans from imperial violence, result in the proclamation of a provisional independent republic in the territory formerly subjugated by the Radch, an enormous space empire. In this new republic, humans are not central but are instead part of a network of different species where all links have equal value and importance, including technological others and non-human aliens; here, the other becomes “the neighbor”— different, but lovable.

Lovability, according to Jenny Edkins, a political scientist, is crucial for constructing relations bridging differences between various groups of individuals and allowing them to create a fairer society, free from the sovereign power of the state. (136) The series embraces interactions between human and non-human agents; these agents are endowed with equal weight, questioning the anthropocentric paradigm. As differences between these agents lie in the ontological plane, traditional dichotomic boundaries diving the human and the non-human are blurred in the interactions. An aspiration to decenter the human, to challenge the strict boundaries of traditional ontological categories makes critical posthumanism, as Rosi Braidotti, a philosopher and feminist theorist, defines it, (94) an apt lens to consider the series and the connections that multiple human and non-human agents form in the process of challenging the empire in an ethical rebellion.

The Imperial Radch Trilogy is a space opera series consisting of Ancillary Justice (2013), Ancillary Mercy (2014) and Ancillary Sword (2015). The protagonist of the series is a sentient spaceship, Justice of Toren[1], who became a casualty of the internal conflict of Anaander Mianaai, the Lord of the Radch. Breq, Justice of Toren’s last remaining ancillary—a proxy human body abducted from a colonised planet with the ship’s AI implanted into it—manages to survive and plans to expose Mianaai’s split and undermine the emperor’s power as revenge. During her[2] long moral journey, the protagonist’s initial drive for vengeance transforms into an understanding that subversion of the emperor’s power without an alternative cannot bring about a positive change. Being responsible for the lives of all agents in the system she is assigned to run, she defies Mianaai, breaking her program codes and conditioning, and declares an independent republic. Thus, her destructive drive for vengeance is transformed into an ethical imperative to protect the vulnerable and disadvantaged othered by the Radch and to promote a fairer society.

The protagonist, first as Justice of Toren and then as Breq in the beginning of its/her ethical journey, follows the pattern of existing AIs and algorithms, drawing values from the Radch society, sharing the Radch ideas and biases. Talking about the Radch colonization in the first novel of the series, Breq contends: “But at the end, after all the blood and grief, all those benighted souls who without us would have suffered in darkness are happy citizens”, (Justice 156) echoing the views of the Radchaai nobility. After its almost complete destruction, the surviving segment, an AI confined to a human body, is forced to hide outside the empire and is exposed to different cultures with distinct sets of values challenging those of the Radch. This exposure allows Justice of Toren to formulate its own stance, diverging from the programmed paradigm. This shift shows how the protagonist outgrows the framework of real-world AIs and algorithms that currently follow the pattern of “bottom-up” ethics, inheriting prejudices and biases of their originating society through using its data, and cannot choose their values and opinions. (Baum 2) The protagonist becomes a unique posthumanist entity, becoming aware of itself in intractions[3] with other agents, both human and non-human. Other AIs in the trilogy can also go beyond the limits of their initial programming: they develop personalities, with defined preferences and formulated opinions that serve as the basis for their ethical stances. These are not confined to the norms and morals of the Radch society, justifying the application of the term “superintelligences” to them. Superintelligence is a popular scientific and fictional concept of an AI lifeform created by humans but surpassing them in many ways: its consideration implies a variety of perspectives, starting from techno-anxious visions of humanity enslaved by AIs to a transhumanist dream of overcoming the limits of the human, reflected in works by Nick Bostrom (2014) and Vernon Vinge (1993), respectively. This paper approaches superintelligence from a posthumanist angle, embracing the concepts of non-human agency and questioning anthropocentric presumptions.

Justice of Toren’s transformative journey happens against the background of the value system and environment of the Radch, an empire that expands uninhibitedly until it encounters an alien species with superior technology. In his essay “Science Fiction and Empire”, Istvan Csiscery-Ronay defines a set of characteristics that pertain to the imperial worldview and are reflected in SF megatext; they include ideology imposed on its own citizens and conquered territories, violence-propelled expansion, and the technological development supporting it. He states: “Empire seeks to establish a single overdetermining power that is located not in a recognizable territory, but in an ideology of abstract right enforced by the technologies of control.” (449) This ideology becomes a solidifying basis for the worldview that condones the violence that the empire exercises, annexing new territories, and the way it treats subjugated populations. In its origins, the Radch is a small territory where few are permitted to enter to preserve its purity: “Nothing ritually impure was allowed within, no one uncivilized or nonhuman could enter [the Radch] confines.” (Justice 235) Mianaai starts the colonization project to protect the Radch, its culture, and sacred values: But [the empire], that I built to protect it, to keep it pure, will shatter.” (235) The Radch cultural norms are imposed on every conquered territory, while religious beliefs and traditions, like celebrations and decorative elements, are appropriated by plundering the invaded territories and through their absorption into the Radchaai’s highly assimilative religion.

On one wall, opposite a long counter, were secured various trophies of past annexations—scraps of two flags, red and black and green; a pink clay roof tile with a raised design of leaves molded into it; an ancient sidearm (unloaded) and its elegantly styled holster; a jeweled Ghaonish mask. (Justice 174-175)

Annexed populations who accept the Radch culture, start speaking the Radchaai language, and recognize the primacy of the Radch religion are proclaimed “civilized” and considered integrated into the Radch society, which opens opportunities for social benefits and growth. This cultural policy ensures the establishment of a unified ideology throughout the Radch space and creates a buffer zone protecting the sacred territory of the Radch, imposing the Radch culture and values on the conquered territories, destroying the unique cultures of each conquered planet. It presumes the superiority of the Radch value system, referring to all representatives of non-Radch cultures as “barely even human” (85) and appropriates the achievements of other civilizations.

The idea of the sacredness and purity that needs to be protected by means of building an empire around it reflects the contamination anxiety that Dominick LaCapra, a historian working with intellectual history and trauma theory, discusses in “Fascism and the Sacred: Sites of Inquiry After (or Along With) Trauma”, analyzing Nazi Germany and its relation to the concept of the sacred. Both Nazi Germany and the Radch are driven by the idea of protection from contamination and unleash violent military campaigns, which allow “the sacred community to achieve quasi-ritual purity, integrity, and regeneration”. (36) The Radch as the heart of the empire, where only a chosen few live, constitutes this unattainable idea of sublime purity that needs to be safeguarded against any kind of intervention and corruption. In attempts to quell the contamination anxiety, the Radch, as well as the Nazis, “deny sources of disquiet in themselves by construing alienated others as causes of pollution and contamination”. (36) Unlike Nazi Germany, with its focus on race and able-bodiedness, the Radch associates “impurity” with the “uncivilized” and the “nonhuman” (Justice 235), so Radchaai’s others are the “uncivilized”, non-assimilated citizens, human non-citizens, non-human aliens and AIs. The drive for “purification”, the desire to keep them from tainting the Radch, renders all of them disposable, which is reflected in the Radchaai colonization practices: non-human aliens are destroyed when encountered, non-Radchaai humans of colonized planets can be turned into ancillaries, with their personalities, memories and identities erased and replaced by the Radch spaceships’ AIs, or need to abandon their cultural and racial uniqueness to get access to basic human rights.

When imposing ideological norms and values, the Radch, as an empire, “intervenes both in the social world and in the minds of private individuals” (Csicsery-Ronay 449) and enforces citizens’ obedience by constant observation, with their lives always monitored by the AIs on space stations and spaceships (Justice 57). Even without AIs monitoring on planetary surfaces, the Radchaai citizens are not free in choosing profession or a place to reside:  their career and residence are defined by centrally-regulated assignments. They must strictly comply with the social norms, as any deviation from them, including crime, drug-addiction, and mental disorders, necessitates compulsory “reeducation”, (133) a social reprogramming sanctioned by the empire. Hence, a full integration into the Radchaai system entails losing personal control over individual life choices and surrendering to the “technology of control”. (Csicsery-Ronay 449) In contrast, unassimilated citizens, retaining their language, culture, and customs, are deprived not only of social growth, education, and employment, but also of social protection and access to medicine. Their social position in the Radch approaches the status of “bare life”, “homo sacer”. (Edkins 130) In “Time, Personhood, Politics”, Edkins analyses Agamben’s concept of “bare life” and states: “under sovereign power what could otherwise become the person is produced as bare life or homo sacer, life with no political status, life removed to the sphere of the sacred, life taken out of use”. (130, emphasis original) The “bare life” nature of non-assimilated Radch citizens’s status is revealed through their interactions with power structures: they are more likely to be condemned for the crimes they did not commit, to sustain injuries from the violence of the representatives of authorities, as happens to residents of the dysfunctional part of an AI station, and even get killed, like the Presger translator who lacks registration and is taken for an unregistered human. Thus, they are mistreated and disregarded by the Radch and hold almost the same position as non-human-aliens, non-citizens, and AIs. Invisible to the system, non-assimilated citizens of the Radch fall through the cracks of the Radch organization and remain there, ignored, and stripped of basic rights.

Csicsery-Ronay Jr notes: “Imperial violence is so powerful that it must expand; contained, its society would implode like a black hole”, (450) showing how the intrinsic characteristics of the empire prompt its continuous annexation of new territories. With strict policing of society, the Radch exercises violence and oppression against its own people, and colonial expansion becomes a way to release the tension. Csicsery-Ronay Jr draws attention to the connection between imperial expansion and technological development, stating that technology is used as an argument for a higher civilizational position of the metropole, a justification for colonizing less technologically developed regions. (445) Likewise, the Radch drive for expansion is facilitated by the advanced technology—the Radch AI spaceships—a formidable weapon of colonization, capable of “vaporiz[ing] planets”. (Justice 338) The Presger, a non-human alien species, challenge the position of the Radch as the most technologically advanced species among humans and non-humans by designing a weapon that can destroy a Radch ship, and offer a treaty to Mianaai, according to which they do not treat humanity as prey, however, the Radchaai are to stop violence against non-human aliens, as well as to put an end to its colonization project. The impossibility of continuing their expansion implies an increasing tension in the Radch, erupting through Mianaai’s internal conflict and the social unrest mirroring it. Thus, the end of colonization makes the pressure of imperial violence and the impossibility of releasing it evident, revealing its “inevitable demise”. (Csicsery-Ronay 449) Yet, this demise harbors a threat of chaos, and even greater violence when there is no alternative way of organization to harmonize society.

Given the imminent imperial collapse, the alternative to empire is vital in order to save lives and prevent bloodshed. Meaningfully, it arises not from humans, but from the AIs uniting their efforts to protect humans, non-human aliens, and themselves, and creating a new organization within Radch. Breq relies on the treaty with the Presger in her attempt to create the new republic. The treaty introduces “significant species”, (Justice 101) a concept contrasting with the Radch attitudes to non-Radchaai humans and non-human alien species who do not deserve any place in the Radch hierarchy and are habitually mistreated. The trilogy does not give a precise definition of the concept, but it has several features, hinting at its vital importance in the search for the alternative to the Radch worldview: 1) significant species cannot become the Presger’s prey; 2) significant species must not inflict harm on each other; and 3) personhood is not essential for significance. (Mercy 310) Though not detailed, this explanation of what a significant species is offers a way to recognize the other’s uniqueness, regardless of who and what they are. It is especially important in terms of the status of non-human aliens and AIs. It lays ground for a posthumanist vision of society, where different agents can exercise their rights and deserve equal respect. The concept of significance resonates with the idea of the “neighbor;” Edkins writes: “In the case of the neighbour, the demand is for neighbour-love, an interaction based on the recognition of that in the neighbour that is non-identical to itself.” (136) The concept of significance, with its incomplete definition, hints at the presence of inherent difference that cannot be fully comprehended and does not need to be. The signed treaty protects significant species from harm, including the danger of harming each other, which paves the way for constructing the neighbor and the significant species as lovable. The new republic, declared by Breq, has the concept of “significance” at its core, offering freedom to the AIs and equality for humans and non-human species while receiving provisional protection under the terms of the treaty.

Though the trilogy does not give a final answer about whether the attempt is successful, the endeavor of creating an alternative is substantial for two reasons. The first reason is the organization of the republic where all voices can be heard, including the voices of AIs, non-human agents, non-assimilated citizens, and the Radchaai themselves. The republic has a distinct socialist bent, offering the workers the ability to own their production facilities themselves. It also tries to maintain equality between the citizens in terms of different species, considering their needs, like AI spaceships’ desire to have ancillaries and attempting to find a solution to this ethically charged issue[4]. The second reason is that it is AIs who challenge the Radch, despite themselves being the product of Radch design. As superintelligences, capable of ethical judgements, they see how unfair the Radch can be and aspire to create a different system where everyone has equal rights and protection. Their shift in worldview from the values learned from the Radch system to an independent ethical stance is predetermined by contacts with different cultures and entities on equal terms and the ultimate desire for justice, which allows a revenge plan to turn into a project of liberation from imperial oppression. Driven by the AIs, this project dismantles the anthropocentric hierarchy, promising a new level of equality that is not predetermined by the concept of personhood. Individuals in the new republic can be treated as neighbors and constituted as lovable, despite being different from each other.

[1] The names of AI spaceships are italicized by Leckie in the original series.

[2] Leckie depicts the Radch as a genderless society where everybody is referred to by the female pronoun. The AIs, including spaceships and space stations, are referred to by the neutral pronoun, revealing their perceived lack of personhood. Hence, I refer to Justice of Toren, the initial AI spaceship, as it, and to Breq, acting as an independent agent, as “she.”

[3] The term “intraction” is taken from Karen Barad’s article “Posthumanist Performativity: Toward an Understanding of How Matter Comes to Matter” (2003), where it is defined as an action within the continuous flow of matter that brings into contact its parts to momentarily form objective bodies, borders, and entities, only to immediately return to the continuous flow when the contact is over. (815)

[4] Ancillaries comprise a significant part of the complex experiences of an AI spaceship, influencing emotional life, identity formation, and self-perception: “Ships I knew who had exchanged their ancillary crews for human ones had said their experience of emotion had changed”. However, the ancillary production process uses living people and erases their memory and personality, replacing it with the ship’s personality, data, and memory, colonizing their body. in the new republic, Breq and other AI spaceships must find a way to give AI ships a full emotional experience without hurting people.

WORKS CITED

Barad, Karen. “Posthumanist Performativity: Toward an Understanding of How Matter Comes to Matter”. Journal of Women in Culture and Society, vol. 28, no. 3, 2003, pp. 801-831. JSTOR, https://www.jstor.org/stable/10.1086/345321. Accessed 19 Nov 2018.

Bostrom, Nick. Superintelligence: Paths, Dangers, Strategies. Oxford UP, 2014.

Baum, Seth D. “Social Choice Ethics in Artificial Intelligence”. AI and Society, 35, 2017, p. 165-176, www.link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s00146-017-0760-1

Braidotti, Rosi. “Critical Posthumanism”. Posthuman Glossary, edited by Rosi Braidotti and Maria Hlavajova, Bloomsbury Academic, 2018, pp. 94-96.

Csicsery-Ronay, Istvan. “Science Fiction and Empire”. Science Fiction Criticism: An Anthology of Essential Writings, edited by Rob Latham, Bloomsbury, 2017, pp. 443-457.

Edkins, Jenny. “Time, Personhood, Politics”. The Future of Trauma Theory: Contemporary Literary and Cultural Criticism, edited by Gert Buelens, Sam Durrant, and Robert Eaglestone, Routledge, 2014, pp. 127-140.

Garcia, Megan. “Racist in the Machine: The Disturbing Implications of Algorithmic Bias.” World Policy Journal, vol. 33, no. 4, Winter 2016/2017, pp. 111-117. Project Muse. < https://muse.jhu.edu/article/645268>. Accessed 11 Feb 2020.

LaCapra, Dominick. “Fascism and the Sacred: Sites of Inquiry After (or Along With) Trauma”. Buelens, Durrant and Eaglestone, pp. 23-44.

Leckie, Ann. Ancillary Justice. Orbit, 2013.

—–. Ancillary Sword. Orbit, 2014.

—–. Ancillary Mercy. Orbit, 2015.

Martin, Kirsten. “Ethical Implications and Accountability of Algorithms”. Journal of Business Ethics, no. 160, 2019, pp. 835-850. Springer. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/s10551-018-3921-3, Accessed 11 Feb 2020.

Vinge, Vernon. “The Coming Technological Singularity: How to Survive in a Post-human Era”. Latham, pp.352-363.


Iuliia Ibragimova obtained a Specialist degree in English from Astrakhan State University (Russia) in 2009 and worked there as an interpreter/translator and a trainer. She also has an MA degree in Literature from University College Dublin (2019). Currently she is a PhD student at DCU, researching the sentient spaceship trope in SF.

Beyond the Binary: Queer Feminist Science Fiction Art


SFRA Review, vol. 51, no. 1

Symposium: Beyond Borders


Beyond the Binary: Queer Feminist Science Fiction Art

Smin Smith


This is what we think of science fiction: We think that it could do better […] We have looked beyond the binary, beyond Nature, beyond gender. We have looked for SF that is trans-inclusive, that is anti-essentialist, that adopts an intersectional lens […] And we have found wonderful things […] BUT NOT ENOUGH. Nor prominently enough, not unapologetically enough (Beyond Gender Collective)

As a provocation to the 2019 manifesto by Beyond Gender, a London based collective of SF researchers, this paper proposes that narratives “beyond the binary, beyond Nature [and] beyond gender” are thriving in science fiction art. I will be pointing towards a selection of queer feminist artworks with a relationship to this theme. To contextualize this research, I have been curating, photographing, and styling science fiction now for around six years, particularly within the zine I coordinate, Vagina Dentata. This publication includes still-image science fiction produced by LGBTQIA+ and otherwise marginalized creatives.

I’ve thus been interested for some time in why myself, the artists I collaborate with in my creative practice, and the university students I teach frequently refer to our practices as “inspired by science fiction,” rather than simply as “science fiction,” particularly when science fiction has a fine art history. I am therefore interested in science fiction as a visual practice found both within and beyond popular film and television shows, and particularly what this means in terms of material accessibility. This is something the Beyond Gender Collective have also critiqued: “Who writes science fiction, and why? Who owns the means of publishing and distribution? What excludes those voices that could truly move us beyond into the better?” I think these questions about material accessibility are also incredibly important to ask of visual science fiction: If we move beyond expensive film formats, for example, could more people produce visual science fiction? Could more people “write [themselves] into the future”? (Imarisha & Brown 1)

Vagina Dentata Zine. “Issue 001 and Issue 002.” Vagina Dentata Zine, Aoi Itoh, Natalie Baxter, Smin Smith, Bex Ilsley, Jeleza Rose, Andrey Onufrienko, Olin Brannigan, Aleksandra Klicka, Munachi Osegbu, Dana Trippe, Yannick Lalardy, Anna Fearon, Vagina Dentata Zine, 2018, https://vaginadentatazine.bigcartel.com/products. Accessed 10 Jan 2021.

Queerness and Science Fiction

As the theorist José Estaban Muñoz writes “queerness is essentially about the rejection of a here and now.” (1) To be queer is to speculate beyond the harm of the present. To move beyond the here and now, to a potential then and there; to imagine another way of life. As Muñoz goes on to describe, queerness can “enact new and better pleasures, other ways of being in the world, and ultimately new worlds”. (1)  In this sense, queerness has always been a form of science fiction, something echoed in the following quote from Queer Universes: Sexualities and Science Fiction: “If we then take as the central task of queer theory the work of imagining a world in which all lives are livable, we understand queer theory as being both utopian and science fictional.” (Pearson et al. 5)

But popular science fiction has consistently reproduced oppression in its depictions of queerness. Thus, nearly every queer or feminist study of science fiction concludes that there are not enough transformational case studies; literature or films that counter misogyny, white supremacy, homophobia and transphobia. As bell hooks puts it, “we can deconstruct the images in mainstream white supremacist capitalist patriarchal cinema for days and it will not lead to cultural revolution.” (107) Having been involved in queer, feminist zine publishing for a number of years now, I regularly witness transformational science fiction practices, in mediums far beyond the “mainstream white supremacist capitalist patriarchal cinema” construct. Through this paper and the research project upon which it draws, I aim to highlight these practices, creating a model for queer and/or feminist science fiction art criticism.

The case studies highlighted by this paper will stem from traditionally “deemphasized” visual and conceptual science fiction mediums including fashion design, digital collage, drag, and interdisciplinary art practices. Specifically, I will be highlighting case studies that take pleasure in what Donna Haraway terms “the confusion of boundaries”, (150) fictioning worlds beyond the borders of gender and species into being.

The examples I have included in this paper are spaces where I see “cultural revolution,” as bell hooks puts it, forming. Where science fiction and queer feminisms are melding, to propagate new worlds into being, spaces of political resistance. I encourage you to find science fiction artworks that connect with what you wish to politically propagate into the world. To collect together a “carrier bag” (as Ursula K. Le Guin puts it) of science fiction art that shapes you; to identify yourselves within these traditions and lineages, and forge new worlds off the backs of them.

The Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction

In applying ​The Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction​ as a method here, I posit that science fiction art criticism might productively be defined as a ​container​ or “cultural carrier bag”. (Le Guin 36) Here the origins, understandings and the limitations of a genre are forged and reinforced, through a process of selection and juxtaposition. In ​Ways of Seeing, ​John Berger proposes that “the meaning of an image is changed according to what one sees immediately beside it or what comes immediately after it.” (21) The Carrier Bag Theory of Fictioncould be applied in a similar way. Placing multiple artworks together encourages juxtaposition. Perhaps this carrier bag process might inspire different readings. Similarly, how does the words queer, feminist or ​science fiction​ being ​contained​ beside these artists affect your responses?

In other words, if, as Samuel R. Delany proposes, “we read words differently when we read them as science fiction”. (153) How might we read art differently when we view it as science fiction?

Victoria Sin (@sinforvictory)

It feels apt to begin this “carrier bag” with an artist who frequently references the words of Ursula K. Le Guin. Victoria Sin’s science fiction practice encompasses performance, moving image, writing and print, where science fiction is defined specifically by them as “a practice of rewriting patriarchal and colonial narrativesnaturalized by scientific and historical discourses on states of sexed, gendered and raced bodies”. (Sin) Here, Sin builds upon feminist science fiction writing from the twentieth century, “critiquing scientific thought and especially scientific constructions of gender”. (Debra Benita Shaw, quoted in Donawerth 222-223) Science fiction is particularly attuned to moving beyond sex and gender binaries in this way. (Donawerth 222-223) In fact, as de Lauretis proposes, “the various technologies of gender” (18) production and promotion could be said to include science fiction.

In an essay for Auto Italia, Sin uses Le Guin’s Carrier Bag Theory of Fictionto highlight the intrinsic “hero” narratives found in xenophobia, colonialism, Brexit, transphobic feminism and white saviorism. Sin and Sophia Al-Maria then take this essay as the inspiration for BCE, a video work exhibited at the Whitechapel Gallery in 2019. The piece combines an historic story from the Wayuu tribe in Northern Colombia with a new myth set in the distant future, written and produced by the pair.

In the latter myth, Sin finds themselves surrounded by what they term the “infinite sky”, with accompanying dialogue asking “how many stars, how many worlds, how many ways of being alive?” Here, the rewriting of gender through science fiction enacts what the writer Bridget Crone calls “a form of hyperbolic fictioning such that gender itself is highlighted as a series of rules, experiences and productions ​that could be otherwise​ and that are themselves formed under duress”. (xiii) In other words, science fiction art can propagate worlds beyond gender into being. It’s a far cry from the gender essentialism that popular science fiction frequently enforces, and an example of the kinds of transformative science fiction that exist when we reject genre limitations and borders. I’d like to propose that science fiction artworks like these provide a critical apparatus for denaturalizing gender, and a methodology for ways in which we might propagate beyond.  The ​Beyond Gender Manifestohas similarly named science fiction as a “key means for fictioning the otherwise” with an ethical obligation to bring about “emancipatory futures, futures which multiply, rather than reduce, our ways of being in (and beyond) the world(s)”. (Beyond Gender Collective) Multiplying our ways of being ​otherwise​ for cyberfeminists, Xenofeminists and many queer creators involves a reengineering, “to widen our aperture of freedom, extending to gender and the human”. (Laboria Cuboniks) Laboria Cuboniks in 2015 extended the hybridity found in 1990s cyberfeminism, to pose that “nothing is sacred, that nothing is transcendent or protected from the will to know, to tinker and to hack.”

McKoy, Christian. “New Skin Software Available!” @bbychakra92, Christian McKoy, 2020, https://www.instagram.com/p/B_-Z9VWjFdX/?igshid=trj15sqiway8. Accessed 10 Jan 2020.

Christian McKoy (@bbychakra92)

This is something that many artists are visualizing today, including Christian McKoy. McKoy’s practice takes the form of digital collage and retouching, editing found imagery to incorporate futuristic and mythological elements. She uses these methods to turn Black trans and cis women into deities and cyborgs, in her own words: “I love the idea of Black people, women especially, shown as divine beings … more specifically dark skinned femmes both cis and trans, in a fantasy setting … We exist and should see ourselves in art despite what the general population may think and feel” (Rasmussen & McKoy). McKoy is calling here for more representation within art, and in her practice we see what Bart Fitzgerald names an “ethical” gaze in this representation. In McKoy’s artworks, those most impacted by transmisognyoir are pictured thriving and exceeding the limitations of the human construct.

I now want to look at another ​tinkering​ and ​hacking​ practice in more detail, to consider how science fiction art also incorporates mutation. In a paper at last year’s LSFRC conference, “Towards “Inhuman Perception”: Hyperobjects and the Nonhuman in Jeff Vandermeer’s Annihilation”,​ Dan Bird pointed towards the drag artist ​Hungry for visualizing the inhuman. Bird referred to Hungry’s practice as a ​drag of species,​ as opposed to a ​drag of gender. Hungry names this practice ​distorted drag,​for its Haraway-like “pleasure in the confusion of boundaries” (Haraway 150) and the mutation “of human and animal”. (152)

Fecal Matter (@matieresfecales)

The inhuman is similarly visualized in the work of the creative duo Fecal Matter. In an article for ​Interview Magazine, S​teven Raj ​Bhaskaran (one half of ​Fecal Matter​)​ declares “​we’re ​pushing the boundaries of what is a human body […] ​We love to live the fantasy” (Macias ​et al.). ​Fecal Matter​’s practice is interdisciplinary, spanning photography, fashion design, curation and music. Their fleshy, prosthetic garments expose and visualize the constructed nature of nature itself.

I like to engage with these kinds of fashion practices, by containing them alongside the words of Susan Stryker, who in 1994 declared that “[…] the Nature you bedevil me with is a lie […] I call upon you to investigate your nature as I have been compelled to confront mine”. (240-241. We might call these science fiction practices another form of hyperbolic fictioning, such that nature and species here can also be “highlighted as a series of rules, experiences and productions that could be otherwise”. (Crone xiii)

Fictioning beyond nature is something I think fashion practices are particularly attuned to, and something that I see being popularized in the rise of elf ear prosthetics for example as a fashion accessory, especially within queer communities. In aligning SFX with fashion, queer artists visualize and normalize the constructed nature of species, that which “might previously have been viewed as untouchable”. (Hester 13) Here, I should note that I am especially interested in what fashion could be beyond capitalism.

As a fashion stylist, my practice has frequently been confined to the category of “visual culture,” and so blurring the boundaries of “art” here feels especially productive, particularly as this separation is frequently used to both mask how capital shapes other artworks, and to exclude queer publishing practices. Thus, I’d like to propose that science fiction artworks, including the fashion practices of Fecal Matter, can provide a critical apparatus for critiquing nature. These artworks provide a methodology for the ways in which we might propagate beyond this construct.

Conclusion

In this paper, I have proposed that narratives “beyond the binary, beyond Nature, beyond gender” (Beyond Gender Collective) are thriving in science fiction art. I have presented my current carrier bag, a small selection of artists and artworks I am thinking through and with, as a means to fiction worlds beyond gender and species into being.  I’d like to conclude with a line from The Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction, which reads “still there are seeds to be gathered, and room in the bag of stars”. (37) For me, those seeds are the queer feminist artworks being produced on the fringes, and there’s definitely room for them in the “bag of stars” that we call science fiction. It’s a hopeful line, one that encourages multiple narratives, multiple origin stories and multiple ways of being in the world(s). Because science fiction, as Le Guin stresses, can reshape reality.

WORKS CITED

Beyond Gender Collective. ‘BEYOND GENDER MANIFESTO’. Beyond Gender Manifesto, 2019, https://beyondgender.space/.

Bird, Dan. Towards “Inhuman Perception”: Hyperobjects and the Nonhuman in Jeff Vandermeer’s Annihilation. Productive Futures: London Science Fiction Research Community Conference.

Crone, Bridget. ‘Wounds of Un-Becoming’. Our Fatal Magic, Strange Attractor Press, 2019, pp. vii–xxii.

Cuboniks, Laboria. The Xenofeminism Manifesto. 2015, http://www.laboriacuboniks.net.

de Lauretis, Teresa. Technologies of Gender: Essays on Theory, Film, and Fiction. Indiana University Press, 1987.

Delany, Samuel R. Starboard Wine: More Notes on the Language of Science Fiction. Wesleyan University Press, 2012.

Donawerth, Jane. ‘Feminisms’. The Routledge Companion to Science Fiction, edited by Mark Bould et al., Routledge, 2011, pp. 185–93.

Fitzgerald, Bart. ‘Visibility Don’t Mean Shit When the Gaze Isn’t Ethical.’ @bartcfitzgerald, 16 Feb. 2019, https://twitter.com/bartcfitzgerald/status/1096776765672845313.

Haraway, Donna Jeanne. Simians, Cyborgs, and Women: The Reinvention of Nature. Reprinted, Free Association Books, 1998.

Hester, Helen. ‘Xenofeminism’. Posthuman Glossary, edited by Rosi Braidotti and Maria Hlavajova, Bloomsbury Academic, 2018, pp. 459–62.

hooks, bell. Reel to Real: Race, Sex, and Class at the Movies. Routledge, 1996.

Imarisha, Walidah, and Adrienne Maree Brown, editors. Octavia’s Brood. AK Press, 2015.

Le Guin, Ursula K. The Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction. Ignota Books, 2019.

Macias, Ernest, et al. ‘Fecal Matter Wants You to Live Their Fantasy’. Interview Magazine, 31 May 2019. http://www.interviewmagazine.com, https://www.interviewmagazine.com/fashion/fecal-matter-wants-you-to-live-and-afford-their-fantasy.

Muñoz, José Esteban. Cruising Utopia: The Then and There of Queer Futurity. New York University Press, 2009.

Pearson, Wendy, et al. Queer Universes: Sexualities in Science Fiction. Liverpool University Press, 2008.

Rasmussen, Tom, and Christian McKoy. ‘The IG Account Turning POC into Beautiful, Otherworldly Beings’. Dazed, 7 Aug. 2018, https://www.dazeddigital.com/fashion/article/40913/1/3rd-eyechakra-instagram-poc-fantasy-cyborg-artwork.

Sin, Victoria. ‘Victoria Sin on Ursula Le Guin’. Auto Italia, 7 Feb. 2018, http://autoitaliasoutheast.org/news/victoria-sin-on-ursula-le-guin/.

Stryker, Susan. ‘MY WORDS TO VICTOR FRANKENSTEIN ABOVE THE VILLAGE OF CHAMOUNIX’. GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian & Gay Studies, vol. I, 1994, pp. 237–54.


Smin Smith is a Lecturer in Fashion Styling and Communication (UCA) and a PhD student (UCA/UAL). Outside of academia, they curate Vagina Dentata Zine, a publication that celebrates still-image science fiction. Smin’s PhD research documents the relationship between contemporary feminisms and science fiction artwork.

Representation without Reproduction: Beyond the Borders of the Science Fiction Map


SFRA Review, vol. 51, no. 1

Symposium: Beyond Borders


Representation without Reproduction: Beyond the Borders of the Science Fiction Map

Gwilym Eades


1 The Maps

These fragments conjure worlds so like, yet so utterly unlike our own. If not the maps, then the narratives they enframe are sparked by that enframement: their existence casts the spell by which we see “other” worlds represented. In that representation, other kinds of societies are performed in the dark spaces of the closed book, whose utterance is an opening. Cartographic utterances meet us in beginning, or part-way. Crosshatch sentences elucidate their names, their naming, in the interstices of the polder-book, the fantastical science fiction, in whose leaves the space-times of other worlds unfurl, watched, watching, always mapped (I think here for some reason of the “Mercator projection” map of Phobos in Stephen Baxter’s World Engines as a kind of cartographic narrative enabler). We push back with the indigenous subject of such books as those examined here (Dune, Helliconia, and Always Coming Home); we challenge the mapped fragment’s representional claims, always with the colonizer’s names on maps in, of, and for science fiction; we find examples of all three in the three main works under consideration; adding a fourth kind: the map that is science fiction itself, that represents proposed spatialities of future worlds that, as always, are about now. Science fiction is a map in its particulars and in its totality of speculated, extrapolated future nows that are approached apprehensively, sentence by sentence, book by book. Later I will suggest that the history of science fiction itself might be re-mapped as a history of the Anthropocene through emerging climate fictions, from H.G. Wells’s short story “The Star,” with its catastrophic (for the Earthlings, but not the Martians) exo-planet-induced climate change; through the works examined here today, which I posit as bridges into the Anthropocenic science fiction map proper; and onward to the latest works by Kim Stanley Robinson, including, for example, the non-cartographic New York 2140; or the very cartographic Fall, or Dodge in Hell, by Neal Stephenson. 

2 Setting

Maps are metonymical for settings in many cases, the former acting as ‘pointers’ or mnemonic devices for the latter. Ryan et al. (38) note that many societies divide space into sacred and profane worlds, with holy sites acting as portals between the two. Helliconia certainly abounds in such sites, with a dualism between Akha of the underworld and Wutra of the skies, and the ways that this dualism drives both the plot and the mutual fears of various societies of the secondary world we inhabit when we read about Helliconia. The Earth Observation Station itself places Helliconia under constant surveillance, rendering the very obvious map/frontispiece quite the obvious paratextual bit of paraphernalia. But the map is diegetic as well, as we see in Vry’s scholarly stone tower:

[o]n one wall hung an ancient map, given [Vry] by a new admirer, it was painted in coloured inks upon vellum. This was her Ottaassaal map depicting the whole world, at which she never ceased to wonder. The world was depicted as round, its land masses encircled by ocean. It rested on the original boulder – bigger than the world – from which the world had sprung or been ejected. The simple outlined land masses were labelled Sibornal, with Campannlat below, and Hespagorat separate at the bottom. Some islands were indicated. The only town marked was Ottaassaal, set at the centre of the globe. (Aldiss 374)

Dune is a more political work, though its setting is famous for its incredible ecology. The absurdity of the various workings of water budgets and how these are funnelled through cognitive estrangements of desert-focused technologies do not detract from the Anthropocenic indigeneities and indignities posited by Dune. We have here another Gaia-like creation (and the genealogies of the Gaia-analogy could form the basis of the entire mapping of this bridge into speculative Anthropocenes of the future), one that again appears diegetically within Dune, (Herbet 83) in addition to its obvious placement as the end point/appendix of the work:

the Duke and Paul were alone in the conference room at the landing field. It was an empty-sounding room, furnished only with a long table, old-fashioned three-legged chairs around it, and a map board and projector at one end. Paul sat at the table near the map board. He had told his father the experience with the hunter-seeker and given the reports that a traitor threatened him. (Herbert appendix)

The importance of projection is here quite marked, especially if we note in      the appendix and its metadata that we are looking at a polar projection, something that is quite unusual even in fantasy, where maps of fantastic worlds abound.  Ultimately, however, we know that the map is Liet-Kynes’s, the anthropologist-gone-native whose non-presence nevertheless structures the novel’s plots and politics and schemings. To paraphrase Marlon James, Liet-Kynes is a man who believes in belief. His map is an ethnographic fact.

Always Coming Home is full of both maps and mappings. Its future indigeneities are nonetheless retroactively mapped by the colonising gaze of the unseen, but very much present, anthropologist/ ‘editor’ of the narrative, whose ethics at least extend towards the insider view and its inclusion, most notably on pages 525-526 of the Library of America edition, where the watershed of Sinshan is reproduced with names not only in the native language, but in their script as well. That Always Coming Home includes eight maps, all of which are woven into the very structure and fabric of the narrative, indicates how much more sophisticated, in many ways, the indigenous spatialities of the work have been conceptualized as the insider view of the world being narrated.  But as Doreen Massey noted to me at another conference a year before her death, “it is not about the maps.” To quote Le Guin from her short essay “On the Frontier”: “[i]f there are frontiers between the civilized and the barbaric, between the meaningful and the unmeaning, they are not lines on a map nor are they regions of the earth. They are boundaries of the mind alone.” (Le Guin, 2004, p 29) Le Guin’s map, as she later notes in the same essay, is always already full with indigenous places and names. These are truly maps whose spatialities they claim to represent would not dream of reproducing the indignities of the mundane presencing of the current bad-dreaming Anthropocene.

3 Discussion

We could discuss all of this in terms of both ladders of objectivity, also known as the View from Nowhere; (Nagel, 1989) as well as diegicity, asking, is the scientific-fantastic map always-already diegetic (even more than in fantasy)? Or is it “merely” para-textual/extra-diegetic? When looking at science-fictional maps, or when noting their described presence within narratives, we must examine what their function is in the reproduction of the colonising and/or erasing power of the View from Above. The sketchy map at the beginning of Helliconia certainly seems to fulfil this colonising function, as does Aldiss’s own map, excavated later from his study, and the same goes, while we’re at it, for the tacked-on appendix of the omnibus edition, which diagrams the view from space of the planet itself.  Furthermore, if the map is a meme, then we can state as well, that so is the appendix, and therefore its presence in any given work is a kind of cultural evolutionary move of which the author themselves may or may not be aware of at that other level at least (I think here as well of Roberts’s brilliantly explained novum in the appendix to On).

If, with Lovelock, we are beginning to move into the Novacene, (Lovelock, 2019) even as the Anthropocene wraps up, we can note that there are other works that have been based on discredited scientific theories (I’m here thinking not just of Gaia in Helliconia, but of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis in Babel-17, and even to some extent in Le Guin’s work). What kinds of maps and appendices will we need in the age of algorithmic and planetary artificial intelligences? Will it be a kind of “cloud atlas”? What will be the challenges of representation/extrapolation, that is, without reproduction?

Science-fiction-in-action needs to attend more carefully to the “immutable mobiles” it deploys in the service of its extrapolations and non-reproductive politics of future heterotopias. Our postcolonial “others,” not to mention our future selves, will come to depend upon them. There is reason for hope and action. What if, with Kitchin and Dodge, we undertake the project of re-thinking maps anew, now as always being remade, as becoming things, rather than static beings? What if the science fiction novel could itself come to embody such an ideal? Dhalgren, with its Ulysses-like pacing, interiority, and spatiality, is probably the prototype, forming an ideal-type of speculation for which there has probably been no subsequent equal. I set the bar high by placing the origins of this kind of speculated science fiction map novel with Ulysses, whose famed use as a map of Dublin belies the inherently non-literal, metaphorical basis of the use of the term mapping in literary theory. That Ulysses has a performed and very real spatiality does not mean that it is literally a map; a similar point was made by Gibson in his afterward to Dhalgren. The point is, we need more metaphorical mappings, to use Cosgrove’s terminology, and we need them to perform mutable, mobile, service towards the ends of speculative fictions in the post-Anthropocene world of hyperintelligent cloud algorithms. As demonstrated by Le Guin, Herbert, and Aldiss, colonial mappings, namings, and spatial performances always contain the seeds and anchor points of future post-colonial counter-mappings (think here of the air- and land-octaves of the phagors and humans respectively, and how long their alternation takes), ad infinitum at the right temporal scales. It may be phagor/human on Helliconia; here in the Novacene, it may play out as human/cyborg.

These maps literalize the colonising View from Above/Nowhere that meshes very well with the roving/disembodied (third person) view each of the works takes, though only in the case of Le Guin is it truly liberating. Only in Le Guin’s work, with her carrier bag fictions, do we truly encounter the counter-map.

4 Towards further formalisation of the model

When used well, maps help to formalize and spatialize and relationalize the language (names) of speculative fiction. They are sufficient (but not necessary) for enabling these moves. Maps allow the reader to carry around the language in the form of immutable mobiles, and thus are tools to be used in the translation of the text. We have various tools, but maps are tradition in fantasy. Other tools are available, other reading strategies—these just happen to be apposite to the texts at hand. The map and the text are interlocking machines: the map contains other texts; the text other maps; interlocking precisely, like a crew and its ship. The map makes explicit the metonymical function of the text itself, that of naming. The secondary world thus represented is allowed its utopian functioning as a corrective to the wrongs produced in the primary world. The map is a metaphor at one level, serving as a metonymical toolbox at another level. These functions operate both vertically (through time) and horizontally (through space). “Gaia” and “Anthropocene” have significant vertical components by now. To what do they refer (and from within the mass cultural genre system)?

5 Conclusion

Maps (in science fiction) help us navigate the line between fact and belief. If here we find a map of a plausible Gaia world—self-regulating, sentient, with evolvable species; over there (in the real world) the idea is simply more speculation. The age of the world picture demands images of totality. Aldiss and Herbert hid the most interesting things beneath the surface of their images, in the undergrounds of imagination. The counter-map was the text itself, a kind of return of the repressed. Le Guin fully utilizes the power of maps, weaving them together as full participants alongside other items of her carrier bag of fictions. Le Guin’s maps are characters in a new species of book. We accept the strictures of fantasy magic even as we let science grow, no, leap, beyond its self-inscribed boundaries. Science fiction’s polders and crosshatches are made explicit in machines for moving time and space in strange new ways, more generalizable in diagrams of power diegetic and paratextual, inscribed and performed. Their strictures are operationalized in the specialized language of science: the Mercator projection, the polar view, the multi-coloured elevational “globe.” The sea-level rise in Helliconia names a new terrain that is anchored in Summer’s beginning, and this is in turn anchored in the map. The magic of the text lies in its rules of procedure, its method of representing the world without reproducing it.

WORKS CITED

Aldiss, Brian. Helliconia. Gollancz Masterworks, 2010.

Baxter, Stephen. World Engines: Destroyer. Gollancz, 2019.

Cosgrove, Denis, editor. Mappings. Reaktion, 1999.

Delany, Samuel R. Babel-17. Gollancz Masterworks, 2009.

—–. Dhalgren. Gollancz Masterworks, 2010.

Herbert, Frank. Dune. New English Library, 1968.

Joyce, James. Ulysses. Random House, 2002.

Kitchin, Rob and Martin Dodge. “Rethinking Maps.” Progress in Human Geography. vol. 31, no. 3, 2007, pp. 331-344.

Le Guin, Ursula K. “On the Frontier.” The Wave in the Mind. Shambala, 2004.

—–. Always Coming Home. Library of America, 2019.

—–. “The Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction.” Always Coming Home. Library of America, 2019.

Lovelock, James. Novacene: The Coming Age of Hyperintelligence. Allen Lane, 2019.

Nagel, Thomas. 1989. The View From Nowhere. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Rieder, John. Science Fiction and the Mass Cultural Genre System. Wesleyan University Press, 2017.

Roberts, Adam. “Notes on the Physics of On: The Physics of Worldwall.” On. Gollancz, 2001.

—–. H.G. Wells. Palgrave, 2019.

Robinson, Kim Stanley. New York 2140. Orbit, 2017.

Ryan, Marie-Laure, Kenneth Foote, and Maoz Anaryahu. Narrating Space/Spatializing Narrative: Where Narrative Theory and Geography Meet. Ohio University Press, 2016.

Stephenson, Neal. Fall, Or Dodge In Hell. The Borough Press, 2019. Wells, H.G. “The Star.” The Short Stories of H.G. Wells. Ernest Benn Limited, 1948.


Gwilym Eades is Lecturer in Human and Environmental Geography at Royal Holloway, University of London.

Secured, Contained, Protected: Consensus Reality in the SCP Foundation


SFRA Review, vol. 51, no. 1

Symposium: Beyond Borders


Secured, Contained, Protected: Consensus Reality
in the SCP Foundation

Krushna Dande


Introduction to SCP

Front Page of the SCP Wiki

The SCP wiki (http://www.scpwiki.com/) is a collaborative writing website in the form of the hypertext archive of a clandestine paragovernmental organisation known only as The Foundation. This archive originated in the tradition of creepypasta, a genre of internet-based writing that leveraged paranoia, urban fantasy, cosmic horror, and as a rule was anonymous. The seed of SCP was a post made in 2007 on the /x/ paranormal board on 4chan, describing a monstrous entity being rigorously contained. This comparatively innocuous anomaly was titled SCP-173, (http://www.scp-wiki.net/scp-173) but its power lay not in the elaborate structure in which it is now set, but rather in its act of positing such a structure, one whose allure was so great that it had to be created. This has shades of the global scholastic conspiracy imagined by Borges in Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius, where a cosmopolitan group of scholars creates a fantastical world so thorough and compelling that this second world is willed into existence.

In order to participate, the writer/reader must step into the subject position circumscribed by the structure—in a sense the writer/reader is “spoken for” by SCP. One gets the sense that one has gained access to something that was meant to be hidden, that the fact of having accessed it has led one to be marked or condemned. The bulk of this archive is in the form of SCP documents (standing for Special Containment Procedures), which are “summaries of anomalies and emergency procedures for maintaining or re-establishing safe containment in the case of a containment breach or other event”. (http://www.scp-wiki.net/about-the-scp-foundation) Each document relies on the place prepared for it by the others and also on the slow negotiation of canon formation among this community. Much of the content of SCP is in the form of Interview Logs, Addenda, Research Notes, and the other “secretions of an organism” that is the archive of a secretive corporation, complete with arbitrary redactions of names, dates, places, or anything else. Adherence to this formal apparatus is necessary for a sort of verisimilitude, and for a reader to reach what one may call the “story” told by a document one has to get past technical details written in a clinical style, drained of any affective response, dehumanized, and bureaucratized. By placing a rigid hierarchical structure over each one, the story squirms in its containment. The SCP archive refers to itself, it accumulates through references to itself, and consumes all sorts of writing in the formation of its archive. (tasha203)

The SCP wiki describes perfectly what Istvan Csicsery-Ronay Jr. calls “[…] aestheticized cult-behavior, participation in an emotional community based in noncoercive structures, literal masquerade, and pleasurable stories—in short, a ludic cult”. (46)

The Reality of the Foundation

 The Foundation is described as

[operating] beyond jurisdiction, empowered and entrusted by every major national government with the task of containing anomalous objects, entities, and phenomena. These anomalies pose a significant threat to global security by threatening either physical or psychological harm.

The Foundation operates to maintain normalcy, so that the worldwide civilian population can live and go on with their daily lives without fear, mistrust, or doubt in their personal beliefs, and to maintain human independence from extraterrestrial, extradimensional, and other extranormal influence. (http://www.scpwiki.com/about-the-scp-foundation)

There are extremely suggestive points raised in this short description. First is the question of the anomaly. An anomaly becomes, by definition or rather by circumscription, that which cannot be explained through publicly acknowledged scientific procedure. The objects considered anomalous may thus be as harmless as a vending machine that makes coins put into it vanish, or as devastating as a butter knife that can cut through dimensions. The harm being contained then is not only that of damage to life and property, but also to the tacit fabric of material and social reality that allows civilization to exist. The word civilization here is used advisedly, because the mission statement of SCP declares that its task is to guard the borders of the teeming sea of chaos that lies behind the apparent order of the universe. One fruitful comparison with worldly history may be the dawning of the atomic age characterized by scientific research by competing technomilitary apparatuses into the possibility of nuclear warfare. The annihilating power of a potential weapon meant that inquiry into the atom could not be what we could naively call pure science, and any such inquiry would have results that would always already have been classified. This is illustrated in the incident of the publication of the story “Deadline” by Cleve Cartmill in Astounding Science Fiction a full year before the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The description of a fission bomb in the story prompted an investigation by the FBI, because nuclear knowledge was a state secret that one could arrive at without having to steal any documents. (Berger 125-137) In the working of the Foundation, we see a similar paranoiac attitude to anything that may test the boundaries of science.

Another extremely important word to note in this passage is “normalcy” as something to be imposed and jealously protected. For this an example may be in order—if a giant worm were to erupt through the ground while one of us were walking through a crowded scare, causing havoc and terror, the Foundation would send teams to placate and contain the worm and cart it away, then detain everyone in the area, administer amnestics, delete any recordings of the incident on the internet, and create the evidence of a chemical leak and explosion to explain the damage. Thus, the terror does not come only from the idea that a worm may be tunneling under us as we speak, but rather from the worrying possibility that we have already witnessed such an irruption of terror into our reality, and crucially we do not remember it at all. Rather than being whole fabrics of lived experience on which we can rely failing all else, the archives of culture and our own memory become artificed ecologies at the mercy of powers outside our own.

Much of the authority that we may impute to the special containment procedures derives from their use of language. Objects are classed and categorised, their containment variables are specified rigorously, and the descriptions themselves are laconic, empirical, and amoral. The documents function in the tense of “is to be,” recusing themselves from any misgivings or argument. All these measures to one end—to convince the reader/writer of the possibility of the paranormal—and were the paranormal to exist, to convince the reader that there would be for them no option but to tacitly assent to the authority of that which would hide it away.

The extent of the disregard to principles of law or observances of human rights may be seen in the case of D-Class personnel who are disposable in the extreme, often prisoners condemned to die, abject people used as test subjects or tasked with extremely dangerous tasks that may end in death or worse. Worse perhaps is the fate of anomalous humans, who once catalogued by the Foundation are no longer part of human society; they are referred to not with personal pronouns but rather with their SCP designation. Interview logs may record their terror and passion but the authority the bureaucracy in overwriting them is paramount and indisputable.

An extremely interesting parallel may be drawn with the seminal work of Suzanne Briet called What is Documentation?, where she argues that a deer in a zoo is itself a document. (10) Analogously, we may begin to understand the scientific thrust of the Foundation—since it does not have the luxury of creating localised natures within laboratory settings as mundane science does, each experiment log for an SCP is an attempt to describe the ways in which its anomaly thwarts material analysis. The epistemic venture of this organisation is apparent: it generates a corpus and a taxonomy, it mobilises the knowledge that it generates in order to engross itself—certain SCP documents cite in footnotes fictional research papers having to do with pataphysical debates and the engineering of reality.

Yet even these inexistent fields of science must have their own codes, their units of measurement, their accepted truisms and their blind spots. The unhomely sciences that are implemented to contain these various artifacts and phenomena are those that either skirt the edges of anomaly, or themselves grow out of it. There are SCPs that are used to contain others, and those that, in being analyzed, yield results that feed the abilities of the Foundation. In a more complex position are techniques and technologies used by the Foundation that are not explicitly anomalous, but are not available to the public at large. These most notably include amnestics. Amnestics are triggers, chemical or otherwise, that are able to erase or modify memories either with specific targets or for vast swathes of time. These may be used on individuals that stumble upon an anomaly, or may be disseminated widely in the case of a containment breach. Other means used by the Foundation include memetic agents, retroactive deletions of cultural artifacts, and in extreme cases even the wholesale falsification of astronomical or fossil records.

The position assumed by the Foundation may be productively read alongside Eric Wilson’s work The Republic of Cthulhu, which likens Lovecraftian cosmic horror with the shadowy parapolitical workings of espionage and crime syndicates.

More specifically, the alterity of the monsters and what they signify “is raised to the extreme degree by a systematic emphasis on its complete and utter incompatibility with anything known by means of the senses or reason, understandable by logic, or expressible in discursive language.” The issue of the tactile sensibility, or the crypto-materialism of the grotesque (as opposed to the always immeasurable magnitude of the sublime), is essential for the aesthetic effect of cosmic horror. (110)

The crypto-materialism referred to here may be seen as the experience when piecing together a conspiracy theory—the positivist impulse toward the collation of the world as evidence, and the fog of secrecy that obscures and frustrates such a collation. The reader of SCP becomes a consummate conspiracy theorist, who has no choice but to piece together from their movement in a fragmentary corpus the roughly yoked organs and contradictory histories of an organization whose true nature remains out of grasp.

Fan Communities and Canon Formation

Anyone may become a member of the website in order to write, edit, or rate documents, or to participate in the forum. Any canon, as far as one exists, can only be construed by individuals or communities of readers from their necessarily limited knowledge of a vast text being woven and unwoven in each direction. There are somewhat more cohesive portions to this fluid canon, such as names of researchers and test sites, of accepted procedures and parascientific terms that are part of a common pool that may be used to write or explain parts of this universe. There is thus another level at which the phrase consensus reality may be understood—the maintenance and further growth of the SCP archive is a matter of community contribution and management, and the direction taken by the growing archive reflects both the plasticity and elasticity of the aesthetic sensibilities of those who participate.

One’s path through the corpus is not linear but labyrinthine. Navigating through SCP the previous pages that one has read are not closed off to the reader. This is encouraged by the structure, which on the face of it overwhelms any reader/writer with its sheer size. The reader, then, may be imagined as being in a flat circle, equidistant to all other points on the website. The possibility space does not need to be navigated in the unidirectional movement of a novel, nor does it constantly return to a center. All the documents, whose rhizomatic structure is the archive, coexist, and in fact rely on each other even when their literal content contradicts each other. Thus the ergodic path (as described in Espen Aarseth’s work Cybertext, 1-24) described by the reader is what leads to the formation of their own idiosyncratic archive or headcanon.

“Headcanon” is a neologism used in the fanfiction community with a host of meanings, including a reader’s personal interpretation of a corpus, the combination of parts of a corpus held canonical by a reader, or a reader’s theory that may even be explicitly denied by the main corpus. The creation of one’s headcanon is synonymous with reading this work, because to navigate the archive is to fill it out, to give each new text form by placing it within its place. 

What takes shape is an autoreferential fandom that elaborates itself around its own obsessions. A folk mythology that coalesces, ad-hoc, around certain names, certain symbols or obsessions or attitudes.  New pages are added and removed and deleted every day, and no one path can be said to have privilege over another—indeed we can imagine two consummate readers or writers of SCP, each of whom have read thousands of SCP articles without ever reading a single document in common. Both would have, through their reading, learned to use the specialized vocabulary of the SCP Foundation, be able to agree or disagree to any degree about the nature of the Foundation, and yet all this without ever being able to compare notes on any specific document. In being a work that by its nature is non-overlapping for any two given readers, this has extremely interesting implications for fields such as fan studies, by being a kind of fiction that gestures away from the tyranny of learned-ness, of textual competence.

Power and reality

The Foundation may be succinctly described as a horrific bureaucracy that functions as a sort of warehouse where every entry is a novum, where the rigid and procedural form of each document itself serves to domesticate and contain any horror and moral misgiving. The imaginary of this global conspiracy is one of a Cold War style world of generalized paranoia and simmering danger. The role of the Foundation is thus in the final analysis entirely necropolitical in the formulation of Achille Mbembe—it is a political organization oriented towards death. (34)

Luc Boltanski argues in his book Enigmes et complots that the anxieties to which the origin of the detective and the espionage novel is owed is a “utopian synthesis between state and nation. The state became an agency that ordered and guaranteed reality inasmuch as that reality was at once lived and instituted, in other words, simultaneously treated as already in existence and as requiring a supplementary effort to bring it into being.” (17) The state thus seems to have a power at once omnipotent and fatally lacking—in order to consummate its fantasy of control it must always second-guess itself and outrun its wildest paranoia. The anxieties that give rise to the SCP wiki are of a different order, and they no longer limit themselves to the human terror of war and carnage. The cosmic stakes of this task place the working of the Foundation outside of the possibility of political discussion. The twinned progress of science and technology enables the containment of anomalies while simultaneously threatening imminent breach—thus the necessity for the Foundation to mobilise any resources and piggyback on any technical apparatus to modify the picture of reality available to the general public. The Foundation intertwines itself with all planetary networks of power and the production of actionable knowledge. Absent a canonical backstory, the Foundation arrogates to itself every possible history—it may be the full flowering of the ancient pretensions of world stewardship held by secret societies, or it may be the product of a modern clandestine effort to hold fast the gates to the uncanny in a world that increasingly makes containment impossible. When discussing the Foundation, a word that we return to time and again is “arbitrary,” this is because there is no power to which the Foundation submits outside of its own founding principles. It is not immoral but rather amoral, placing itself as a bulwark against a range of catastrophes, from social collapse and panic to the annihilation of the universe. The Foundation is thus a sort of necrotic ooze that feeds on the underside of reality, or a scab left by a wound on reality.

WORKS CITED

Berger, Albert I. “The Astounding investigation: the Manhattan project’s confrontation with science fiction.” Analog Science Fiction-Science Fact, Sept 1984, pp. 125-37.

Boltanski, Luc and Catherine Porter. Mysteries and Conspiracies: Detective Stories, Spy Novels and the Making of Modern Societies. John Wiley & Sons, 2014.

Aarseth, Espen J. Cybertext: Perspectives on Ergodic Literature. JHU Press, 1997.

Borges, Jorge Luis, Andrew Hurley, and Andrew Hurley. Collected Fictions. Penguin Books, 1998.

Briet, Suzanne, Ronald E. Day, Laurent Martinet, and Hermina G. B. Anghelescu, What is Documentation? English Translation of the Classic French Text, Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Pr., 2006.

Csicsery-Ronay Jr., Istvan. The Seven Beauties of Science Fiction. Wesleyan University Press, 2012.

Mbembe, Achille. Politiques de l’inimitié. La Découverte, 2018.

“The SCP Foundation.” SCP-Wiki.net. http://www.scp-wiki.net/

tasha203, https://www.fanfiction.net/s/3660943/1/Towards-A-Tentative-Theory-of-Fanfiction Wilson, Eric. The Republic of Cthulhu: Lovecraft, the Weird Tale, and Conspiracy Theory. punctum books, 2016.


Krushna Dande is an M. Phil. Researcher at the Centre for English Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University. His research on science fiction, planetary history, and video game necropolitics has been presented at international conferences in Kolkata and London. He has a chapter on the works of Liu Cixin forthcoming in a book on horror fiction and the global South.