Issue 131, December 2015

Critical Theory and Science Fiction


We have attempted in this special edition to include voices that recognize the power of SF [science fiction] to threaten the established order of things and open up critical spaces for audiences to make new sense of everyday life and the ideological flows that operate there. But we also include voices that suggest we might be losing sight of the conservative dangers of the genre, even as we celebrate its subversive possibilities. Is the danger in imagining SF, in fact, one that invariably reinforces dominant ideology and repressive or oppressive pleasures? Where now, if at all, is the danger in SF? The articles included in this special edition take us across key forms and seminal texts, diverse and divergent theoretical and methodological approaches, their authors detecting both the transformative possibilities of the genre and its potentially iron grip.

from the Introduction by Guest Editors Andrew Milner and Sean Redmond




Andrew Milner, JR Burgmann, Rjurik Davidson, and Susan Cousin

Abstract: Despite the occasional upsurge of climate change scepticism amongst conservative politicians and journalists, there is a near-consensus amongst scientists that current levels of atmospheric greenhouse gas are sufficient to alter global weather patterns to possibly disastrous effect. Like the hole in the ozone layer as described by Bruno Latour, global warming is a ‘hybrid’ natural-social-discursive phenomenon. And science fiction (SF) seems to occupy a critical location within this nature/culture nexus. This paper takes as its subject matter what Daniel Bloom dubs ‘cli-fi’. It seeks to describe how a genre defined in relation to science finds itself obliged to produce fictional responses to problems actually thrown up by contemporary scientific research. It argues against the view that ‘catastrophic’ SF is best understood as a variant of the kind of ‘apocalyptic’ fiction inspired by the Christian Book of Revelation, or Apokalypsis, on the grounds that this tends to downplay the historical novelty of SF as a genre defined primarily in relation to modern science and technology. And it examines the narrative strategies pursued in both print and audio-visual SF texts that deal with anthropogenic climate change.

Experiments at the margins: Ethics and transgression in cinema science

Fran Pheasant-Kelly

Abstract: Science is a discipline defined by empiricism and reliable methodologies that result in predictable outcomes. Yet, cutting-edge experiments inevitably involve an element of the unknown, an aspect which science fiction exploits for dramatic effect. Furthermore, fictional science is freed from the ethical constraints that regulate real-world experimentation and is therefore often transgressive. Even as films capitalize on unethical practices and cutting-edge scenarios for dramatic and commercial reasons, the origin of the filmmaker and/or place of production may affect a film’s content. A film is also obviously subject to legal constraints, according to the country of origin, and classification codes in its place of exhibition. Thus, while the very nature of science fiction may cause it to appear morally unbridled, there are nonetheless multiple inhibitions entrenched in such depictions. By drawing on relevant cinematic examples, including Prometheus, The Hunger Games and District 9, and scientific scenarios on which these films are based, this essay explores how the unpredictable nature of advances in science, in combination with a lack of ethics, foregrounds the dangerous dimensions of science fiction.

Your Face Looks Backwards’: Time travel cinema, nostalgia and the end of history

David Sweeney

Abstract: In his Ghosts of My Life, Mark Fisher argues that in the 21st century Western culture is in a state of stasis, which ‘has been buried, interred behind a superficial frenzy of “newness”, of perpetual movement’. To substantiate this claim Fisher contrasts contemporary pop music, particularly that with a ‘classic’ sound – such as recordings by Adele, Amy Winehouse and Arctic Monkeys – with the pop of the 1970s and ‘80s, the ‘mutations’ of which enabled listeners of his generation to ‘measure the passage of cultural time’, concluding that today it is ‘the very sense of future shock which has disappeared from’ music and from culture generally. In this paper I apply Fisher’s observations to science fiction cinema focusing, on three recent time travel movies – Sound of My Voice (2011), Looper (2012) and About Time (2013) – and arguing that only the first can truly be considered science fiction, even though its relationship to the genre is the most problematic, since it may not involve time travel at all, and that the others, where time travel is used unambiguously, are instead exercises in what I term ‘genre-splicing’ – the introduction of elements of one type of narrative to another – a process which, like the ‘classic’ pop sound, is an indication of the lack of a sense of the future in current Western culture. A key element of Sound of My Voice is the promise of a future in which the culture industry has been replaced by an authentic folk culture; while this may appear merely a nostalgic fantasy, also identifiable in Looper’s fetishism of aspects of the Old West and the use of ‘nu-folk’ on About Time’s soundtrack, I argue, drawing on Walter Benjamin’s writings on nostalgia, that the Sound of My Voice’s representation of a ‘folk future’ is not an escapist fantasy but, like the uncertainty of the film’s generic status, a provocation, which asks us to reconsider our relationship both to contemporary capitalism and to the future which can be made to happen.

Extraordinary television time travel and the wonderful end to the working day

Sean Redmond

Abstract: In this article I will present two arguments. First, the argument that the time travel television series historically provided viewers with a spectacular temporal and spatial alternative to the routine of everyday life, the regulation of television scheduling, and the small-world confines of domestic subjectivity. Taking the decades of the 1970s and 1980s, predominantly in a UK viewing environment, I will suggest that the special effect rendering of the time travel sequence expanded the viewer’s material universe, and affectively wrenched the television set free from the strictures of scheduling and realist programming. Further, the time travel series readily and regularly took the domestic space, the ordinary day and the everyman/person into awesome environments and situations that suggested alternative lifestyles and behaviours, with a different existential tempo and rhythm. At a narrative, thematic, meta-textual, and aesthetically spectacular level, television time travel saw to the wonderful end of the working day. Case studies include Sapphire and Steal, Dr Who, and Quantum Leap. Second, the article will argue that rather than the contemporary time travel television series being an extraordinary alternative to ordinary life, they instead articulate convergence culture, deregulation, multiple channel viewing, and time-shift culture where there is no such thing as an ordinary working day or domestic viewing context.

Questioning science and genre: The X-Files as dangerous science fiction

Steven Gil

Abstract: This article explores the question: is The X-Files dangerous to science fiction (SF) and science? Certainly it is one of the most prominent series that, despite being frequently appended with the SF television label, seems to challenge and sometimes eschew basic conceptualizations of the genre. Furthermore, at the height of its success the series was criticized by scientists such as Richard Dawkins for disseminating and popularizing anti-rational and potentially anti-scientific perspectives. On these grounds, the answer to our question appears to be yes. However, detailed analysis of the series reveals quite a different picture. Firstly, even attempts to distance the series from SF effectively encapsulate reasons for that very labelling. These specifically revolve around the use of the phrase ‘extreme possibilities’. Secondly, far from presenting a simplistic juxtaposition of belief and reason, the series instead involves a dialogic exchange that helps to articulate the role of scientific inquiry in approaching the unknown.

The people beyond Mars: Using Robinson’s Mars trilogy to understand post-scarcity

Amedeo D’Adamo

Abstract: For at least 50 years science fiction’s dangerousness has sprung largely from its leaps into the transgressive. But something has now changed; the biggest problem today for anyone trying to create dangerous science fiction is that in the developed countries we now live largely in a libertarian, post-transgressive culture. There is, however, at least one target for science fiction that grows increasingly dangerous; the border between scarcity and post-scarcity. This danger is perhaps best realized in the great Mars trilogy by Kim Stanley Robinson, which not only imagines a bridge from our current scarcity-based culture to a post-scarcity culture, but also shows people building this very bridge up from the foundations of our life today. Perhaps more dangerously, he then follows Marcuse and Mumford in envisioning not only an end to the economic problem of poverty but also to the social, anthropological and psychical forces of scarcity, showing step-by-step the dramatic changes in psychology, values and lives that post-scarcity would bring. And so, like certain tales by Plato and Tolstoy, it is a ‘threshing tale’, a tale that forces us into an imaginative confrontation with our current values, intending to winnow the false from the true. This epic sets out to alter the way we see ourselves and our social sphere, hoping – like William Blake – that altering the eye alters all; perhaps nothing but such a plausible, non-utopian and social vision of life in post-scarcity can be truly dangerous to the way we now think, love, work and war.

The postapocalyptic imagination

Briohny Doyle

Abstract: Apocalypse as a literary genre, as well as a political and religious agenda, has been criticized by writers such as Lee Quinby and Katherine Keller for its formula, which tends toward punishment for transgression and salvation of an elect. These same writers critique postapocalypse for its propensity for nihilism and portrayal of a human species ‘beyond redemption’. But perhaps it is precisely this refusal to redeem that endows postapocalypse with dangerous possibilities. The postapocalypse does not have to be considered (and subsequently neutralized) via the same moral underpinnings that structure apocalypse. This paper frames postapocalypse not as a literature of pessimism or warning but as a radical context to explore dangerous possibilities without rehearsing apocalypse’s characteristic damnation, salvation and enforcement of a horizon of revelation that simultaneously works to obliterate aberrant possibilities. In order to explore these claims, the process of thinking beyond revelation in apocalypse is defined here as ‘the postapocalyptic imagination’. Its expressions are found in postapocalyptic texts, but also in other kinds of texts that respond to, and in some cases resist, the teleological drive of late capitalist narratives of endless progress. The postapocalyptic world is host to mutations, amalgamations and strange appropriations of forms and ideas left in the wreckage beyond the end. It is the task of the postapocalyptic imagination to explore what possibilities these ‘abominations’ might offer. This paper considers the motifs, characters and settings of postapocalyptic texts, alongside some of the anxieties and critiques they express.

Zombies, time machines and brains: Science fiction made real in immersive theatres

Teri Howson

Abstract: Critical thought on immersive theatres is gathering in pace with many arguments centred on explorations of audience/performer interaction and the unique relationship these theatres create. Within this paper I look beyond these debates in order to consider the implications of immersive theatres within contemporary culture, with the aim of furthering the ways in which immersive theatres are presently being framed and discussed. Theatre and science fiction have shared a somewhat limited relationship compared to their burgeoning usage within other forms of entertainment. This paper focuses on how the conceits of science fiction are being staged within this theatrical setting. Primary focus is given to Punchdrunk’s… and darkness descended (2011) and The Crash of the Elysium (2011–2012). This is considered alongside The Republic of the Imagination’s (TROTI) Cerebellium (2012–14), an original narrative created for the performance which has been subsequently developed over a three-year period to date. This discussion is presented and framed through my personal experience as both a performer in Cerebellium and (later) as audience member. The particular use of dystopian narratives and alternate worlds is given consideration, with reflection on the way these works destabilize and call into question the audience’s sense of self either through their ability to survive or understand their sense of self. By making evident the spectrum of practice, I endeavour to delve further into identifying and de-mystifying immersive theatres and their differences to conventional theatre.

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