IS SCIENCE FICTION RESPONSIBLE FOR IMAGINING THE FUTURE? POSSIBLY…

I’ve been attending these days in fits and starts the Science Fiction Research Association’s international conference, conditioned by the six-hour difference with Toronto, where the hosting institution (Seneca College) is located. Fifteen months into the pandemic I needn’t say how impossible it is to listen to anybody speak on Zoom, or similar, without either multitasking or disconnecting after five minutes. I may doodle like I’m possessed when I listen to papers delivered in person, but it is just beyond me to get used to streaming. I pity our poor students! And, no, unlike what you might expect, science-fiction conferences do not happen in an advanced virtual reality environment where we can project our ultra-realistic yet fantastic avatars, as if this were Ready Player One’s immersive universe OASIS. At most, you get funny backgrounds. A keynote speaker had chosen, for mysterious reasons, a gorgeous photo of a process of in vitro fecundation. Another was floating in outer space.

The main theme of the conference has been ‘The Future as/of Inequality’, so you can be sure that there has been much talk of class (in my case of middle-class men’s fears of not doing well as family men). Even so, I would say that the main keywords, or buzzwords, in the sessions I have attended were ‘race’ and ‘dystopia’. I wish the papers had dealt with how utopia will be reached in a post-racial future civilization, but most dealt with the extension into a long-lasting dystopia of the same racial issues negatively affecting so many people today. The number of authors and main characters other than white has grown spectacularly in recent science fiction, but many (or even most) are battling conflicts so deeply rooted in current racism that no utopian horizon is emerging for anyone of any skin colour.

The most interesting panel I attended had contributions by two of the most admirable scholars in science fiction (yes, I said admirable because I admire them): Mark Bould and Sherryl Vint. This came after the keynote lecture by Lars Schmeink in which he described the connections between the current theorization of capitalism–such as surveillance capitalism, the concept popularized by Shoshana Zuboff in her eponymous book, and others, such as Susan Lettow’s biocapitalism–and current science fiction. I had a feeling of déjà vu, having heard plenty in the 1980s about how corporations might replace nations in the 21st century as de jure and de facto global organizations. William Gibson ranted all he wanted in his cyberpunk novels about the boundless power of zaibatsus, when it seemed that Japan would soon dominate the world (whatever happened to Japan?). And if I recall correctly, in Marge Piercy’s He, She and It (1991) the characters’ citizenship was granted by the corporations they worked for (as if I were an Autonomous University citizen rather than a citizen of the Spanish kingdom). But back to Bould and Vint: they discussed whether science fiction should and could operate beyond capitalism both in its means of production and the content of the stories. Their views were similar yet quite different. You’ll see.

There is something definitely hypocritical, I think, in telling tales of corporate dystopia while being published or broadcast by immense corporations. As Mark Bould insisted, science fiction should be free of commodification in order to be a true contributor to a future which could imagine life beyond corporate dystopia. Schmeink quoted Ursula Le Guin’s famous saying “We live in capitalism. Its power seems inescapable. So did the divine right of kings. Any human power can be resisted and changed by human beings. Resistance and change often begin in art, and very often in our art, the art of words”. This optimistic view appears to agree with Bould’s faith in science fiction but, of course, Le Guin does not explain how ‘the art of words’ can undermine the corporate monster from inside. We know that capitalism, in fact, can turn anything into a commodity, including resistance (the first example that has come to my mind is the fortune someone must have made selling t-shirts with the photo of Che Guevara).

Bould suggested something along the lines of perhaps turning science fiction into a kind of “collective folk art” as, to name an instance, ballads once were. Bould, who co-edited with British author China Miéville the volume Red Planets: Marxism and Science Fiction (2009), is surely aware of Miéville’s alternative proposal that authors are paid a salary by the state, which has always raised many eyebrows but seems fairer than having another job as you produce fiction in hippie-folkish (or Elizabethan aristo) style. Being myself an author paid by the Spanish state to write (also to teach, of course), I see Miéville’s point–though I wonder how authors would be selected, and if writing science fiction would be considered a merit. Anyway, Bould complained that “science fiction is everywhere but not evenly distributed” and called for an end to its commodification. My view, however, is that this goal is as difficult as making academic work truly open access, and not yet another corporate product (or what did you think it is?).

Sherryl Vint’s argumentation was more anti-corporation in the sense that she not only questioned how corporations force everything, including sf, to be commodified, but also how the nightmarish world that corporations have created has colonized sf’s imagination of the future and also our present. Her main target were the white, male, US billionaires whose visions of an ultra-monetized future we are all following like sheep to the slaughter, and how they are presenting those visions not as the opposite of the future science fiction has imagined but as its realization. To give you an example, Elon Musk is selling Neuralink–a project to connect human brains to computers–as the realization of Iain M. Banks’s neural laces in the Culture novels, calling himself a fan. Conveniently, though, Musk forgets that the Culture is a post-capitalist, post-scarcity civilization where guys like him would be socially ostracized. So, yes, I’m with Sherryl Vint in this urgent need to vehemently deny that the future to which Musk and company are dragging us is a utopian science-fictional future, and the only possible one. We must “resist the occupation of sf by all these corporations and alt-right groups”, she said, and reject all the “bad forms of using sf”. These are, I believe, dominant in the stylish but trashy sf served by the streaming platforms, cinema and videogames (less so in print fiction), overwhelmingly at the service of convincing earthlings that despite the unstoppable onslaught of climate change and other man-made disasters they must buy the latest i-phone and change their gas-powered car for a Tesla.

I have already expressed here several times that as academics we can contribute to altering the path of science fiction by writing about the works that promote positive change, and eschew the dystopian texts. I am, however, in a minority of one (or of very few), and run besides the risk of having nothing to write about if the sf I am reading and seeing these days continues in this dystopian vein. As plain consumers and as academics we can make demands on writers, showrunners, filmmakers and videogame designers to move beyond the ‘strong-hero-battles-corporation’ scenario, as we are managing to get better gender and racial inclusiveness. I’m sure that corporations are to blame a great deal for their insistence on destroying the planet as they sell us parasitical, useless objects and services but each of us contributes their share. Including myself. For instance, have spent this morning twenty euros to buy from Amazon Kim Stanley Robinson’s novel The Ministry of the Future, hypocritically ignoring that this contributes more to enriching Jeff Bezos than to furthering Robinson’s crusade for utopia (I don’t think, however, that Robinson would appreciate the idea of sf as a folk product).

I am working on something completely unrelated to sf, connected with recent American politics, and listening yesterday to Senator Cory Booker speak to Jimmy Kimmel, I realized what we’re missing and this man has in great quantities: positivity. Someone commented on YouTube that listening to Booker and to Donald Trump made you wonder how they could belong to the same species. Well, Trump is a main generator of dystopia whereas Booker has made a point of turning his personal sunniness into positive politics aimed at increasing US citizens’ welfare. I am not saying that Booker should write science fiction (or perhaps he should!): what I am saying is that science fiction has lost all its optimism and that generally speaking optimism is defended by very few (like Booker). Because of this science fiction is now an almost useless tool to fashion not only utopia but even a workable plan for the next decade. Hearing my twelve-year-old niece say recently that she does not want to have children because she herself has a very difficult future ahead breaks my heart. I wish I could tell her ‘don’t be silly, your future will be great!’ (I would never tell anyone ‘do have children’, that’s their choice!) but I just cannot illustrate this promise with any text, science fictional or otherwise. We seem to have lost in the attack against the false universalism of traditional sf the ability to build new worlds without inequality.

I’ll finish with a remark someone made in the conference: the problem is that we, middle-aged white baby boomers, do not want to give up our privileges and share our wealth with other generations and other nations. This is not a new discourse, but I was dismayed to hear it in a science-fiction conference because it is divisive and because Earth has resources to make everyone’s lives better, if only we get rid of the billionaires. I don’t mean killing them and using them for compost, as someone’s bad joke went, but putting a cap to personal earnings. One of the biggest lies of capitalism is that without the incentive of making money individuals do not exert their best talents–the defunct Soviet Union is often quoted as an example of how lack of personal gain-based initiative undermines nations. Yet, as long as the world is run by a cadre of billionaires (American or Chinese, I don’t care) and their corporations the future will be dominated by inequality. As for Le Guin’s words, someone did imagine what the future would be like without the absolute right of kings, but the problem is that we cannot imagine, having horrendously failed with communism, what will replace capitalism. She suggested smaller, rural communities with limited technology based on mutual aid, but I don’t quite see that. I see full automation generating income that guarantees universal freedom from the worst kind of jobs–but that for many is dystopia.

Let’s ask science-fiction writers to come up with new ideas, and help them to rethink the future. It is our duty, as much as theirs.

I publish a post once a week (follow @SaraMartinUAB). Comments are very welcome! Download the yearly volumes from https://ddd.uab.cat/record/116328. Visit my website https://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/

DON’T WE MEAN MAMMALS WHEN WE SAY ANIMALS? READING SHERRYL VINT’S ANIMAL ALTERITY: SCIENCE FICTION AND THE QUESTION OF THE ANIMAL

In her introduction to her indispensable monograph Animal Alterity: Science Fiction and the Question of the Animal (2010, Liverpool UP) Sherryl Vint writes that “Part of the rethinking the human-animal boundary, then, is recognising the embodied nature of human existence, that Homo Sapiens is a creature of the same biological origin as the plethora of species we label ‘animal’ and that we have greater or lesser degrees of kinship and common experience with them” (8). Thus, she argues, “In reconnecting with animals, we are also reconnecting with our embodied being, what might be thought of as our animal nature” (9).

This type of argumentation, developed among others by Rosi Braidotti, Dona Haraway and a long list on key names in Human-Animal Studies has allowed us to speak of animal rights by analogy with human rights. I would say that this is plain common sense, yet I was flabbergasted to hear one of my colleagues guffaw at the notion and counter-argue that animals can have no rights because rights must be accompanied by duties. We told him that animals have rights just as children do: because they need protection and not because they are expected to fulfil any duties. Supposing we get to that point, as Vint notes, “A future of human-animal dialogue will require humans to accept their responsibility for acts of exploitation and abuse” (86), a responsibility that, although in different ways, also extends to the appalling mistreatment of children.

The issue I want to address here today is quite simple: when we speak of animals, don’t we really mean mammals? Make the experiment, just say ‘animal’ and tell me what you see. Funnily, I see four legs that most often result in the image of a dog, sometimes a cat, a horse, a wolf… I don’t think immediately of a bird, or a reptile, much less an insect and even less of crustaceans. If you say ‘animal’ and the first image that comes to your mind is that of a crab, fine, but then perhaps the question is that ‘animal’ is too big a category and, hence, human-animal relationships a concept that needs to be more nuanced. Surely, our relationship with dogs has nothing to do with our relationship with mosquitos, nor do we ever think of animal rights applying to lice.

I didn’t know that the Spanish word ‘animalista’, still not accepted by the really absurd Real Academia de la Lengua in its dictionary, has a false friend in English: ‘animalist’, which means, according to the Wiktionary, “One who believes in the dominance of man’s animal nature in behaviour. A sensualist”. I use here ‘animalist’ in the sense of ‘animal liberationist’ to claim that though I am an animal rights defender, I have received a very poor education in animal issues and I’m not at all a real animalist. My mother was convinced that her younger brother had caught typhoid fever from a stray she-cat who bit him (the Salmonella typhi bacteria is actually transmitted by lice and flea, which may have infested the cat) and she instilled in my siblings and I a horror of any contact with animals, which I have not really overcome. I have never had a pet, except for a short-lived goldfish, and you will not catch me petting any dog or cat, no matter how lovely I find them. I do share part of my home with the bees, butterflies, birds, lizards, spiders and insects that visit my plants and that I quite enjoy watching (not the mosquitos!) but that’s about it. I’m afraid that I eat meat and consume dairy products, though not as frequently as I used to and even though I enjoy vegetarian and vegan cuisine I don’t see myself consuming them exclusively. Going to the market has its moments of deep revulsion for me, like yesterday trying to ignore the carcasses of skinned rabbits in the poultry stall. And I would totally agree to have zoos suppressed and any associated research done in the wild. That’s the limited extent of my commitment to animal liberation.

Vint’s book has opened my eyes to how science fiction dreams of communication with aliens from outer space because, as noted, any communication with animals needs to face the ugly issue of our ceaseless exploitation of animals, from direct consumption to their anthropomorphised use in fables, fairy tales, and children’s fiction, passing through lab experimentation or their use as beasts of burden. Vint refers to diverse sf short stories in which animals and humans manage to communicate but the conversation is far from friendly. We suppose that if our pets could talk they would express feelings of tenderness and appreciation for us but it is obvious that not even the most pampered dog or cat in the world would meet their owners’ expectations. Perhaps if animals really could speak we would soon wish they kept silent, for they would have very few kind words for us. They would complain about their enslavement. Hence, Vint argues, our preference for the myriad alien species of science fiction, most of which (whom?) are clearly based on animals. The many reverse plots of conquest, beginning with Wells’s War of the Worlds, amplify our fears and assuage our guilt as we fantasize about what it would be like to be on the receiving end, overpowered by a master species of aliens that would treat us as we treat animals.

I have written here about the current Covid-19 crisis as an alien invasion and I still think that the way things are unfolding, with the figures for infected individuals and casualties mounting sharply on a daily basis all over the world, this is a very bad sci-fi B-movie. Viruses, I must clarify, are not living creatures but “free forms of DNA or RNA that can’t replicate on their own” and that need a host to survive (https://www.livescience.com/58018-are-viruses-alive.html). They cannot really be said to be alive because they do not obey the seven rules of life: “all living beings must be able to respond to stimuli; grow over time; produce offspring; maintain a stable body temperature; metabolize energy; consist of one or more cells; and adapt to their environment”. Viruses have genetic material but are not at all like bacteria and left to their own devices they remain inert. They appear to be descended from ancient RNA molecules that “lost the capability to self-replicate” for unknown reasons, hence their parasitical grafting onto complex living organisms whose cellular reproductive capacities they hijack. Who would have thought, after so much debating on the sentience of animals and AIs, and so much imagining complex aliens, that human civilization would be on its knees because of a dumb non-living piece of genetic code just trying to survive?

Viruses and bacteria (which are neither animals nor plants because they are “single-celled, prokaryotic organisms in comparison to animals and plants which are multicellular, eukaryotic organisms”, https://australian.museum/learn/species-identification/ask-an-expert/are-bacteria-plants-or-animals/) do not occupy any room in Vint’s book perhaps because our relationship with them deserves a separate volume –and now possibly thousands of them considering this supposed ‘new normality’ which does not materialize. This leads me to the matter of size, which I think is totally underplayed in our relationship with animals. What is driving us crazy these days is that Covid-19, like any other virus, cannot be seen by human eyes, which is why most of us are wearing masks to protect us from infection. Allow me to be stupid once more and let me ask you to imagine how different things would be right now if Covid-19 was the size of a butterfly. And the other way round: we find butterflies harmless and beautiful because they are small, but try to think of a butterfly the size of a German shepherd and now tell me whether you’d welcome any in your garden. We love whales and elephants but this is because they are harmless to us.

Vint refers often to how this animal alterity is a relatively new situation caused by urbanisation; she cites a study which discovered that some American kids draw six-legged chickens because the drumsticks they eat at home come in packs of six at the supermarket. This is certainly an aberration, like our having pushed slaughterhouses out of city centres, out of the sight of the consumers who cannot identify which part of the animal they are eating anymore. However, I do not quite see what the target situation is for animal activism, which appears to be again, too little nuanced in this respect. I think that there is a mixture of targets, actually, perhaps not wholly realistic or compatible with each other. Stopping animal consumption is one, with veganism as an ever more popular option (but wouldn’t this make current cattle disappear eventually?). Stopping animal experimentation is another (or at least, stopping unnecessary experimentation that has nothing to do with health issues). Stopping extinction and protecting wildlife is another, though whether nature can be ‘natural’ again is a major doubt. Maybe it is already post-natural.

Then there is the matter of being eaten. One of my doctoral students is working on a dissertation on that topic and Vint certainly addresses it in her book. To my surprise, there is much more than I had ever imagined on the experience of persons who have survived situations in which they were prey, I mean books and documentaries. Recently, a woman was killed by a white shark off the coast of Maine, more or less where Peter Benchley set his best-selling novel Jaws, the one that inspired Spielberg’s blockbuster. I am all in favour of protecting species and their habitats, and correcting the misinterpretations of animal behaviour (white sharks are not the evil monsters of the film) but every time I watch a nature documentary there comes that moment when a predator attacks a lesser animal seen being devoured still alive in all detail. I am not saying that nature red in tooth and claw is not worth fighting for, what I am saying is that I find that aspect of nature often too sanitized in accounts of animal activism.

I’m going back then to my initial question: when we say ‘animal’ don’t we really mean mammal? Shouldn’t we distinguish in a more nuanced way how we relate to fellow mammals rather than insects and birds? And within this more nuanced positioning, shouldn’t we consider how our relation with the animals we eat and exploit is very different from that with the animals that prey on us, from mosquitos to white sharks? And how about viruses and bacteria? They are also natural… I don’t know what the alternative for the word ‘animal’ might be but as it is used today I just find it too unspecific, too abstract. No wonder some people are confused and think of animals as beings that cannot have rights because they have no duties…

I publish a post once a week (follow @SaraMartinUAB). Comments are very welcome! Download the yearly volumes from https://ddd.uab.cat/record/116328. Visit my website https://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/