Swancon Academic Stream: Friday 22 April

Professor Trelawney

Paper 1: Andrew Cameron, Pseudoscience fiction: Hoffmann, Poe and Mesmerism

Paper 2: Helen Merrick, Imagining better presents from worse tomorrows: using SF in sustainability studies

Paper 1: Laurie Ormond, Australian Fantasy fiction and the individual claim on cultural memory
The medievalism invoked in contemporary fantasy fiction has been decoupled from historical context. There is pleasure for the fantasy reader in recognising the past, but such recognition occurs through the reader’s appreciation of the adaptation and transformation of traditional and historical material into the elements of genre. European cultural memory shapes present Australia and will play a part in the shaping of Australia’s future. In the case of Australian popular fantasy fiction, a strategy often applied in the representation of the cultural memory of Europe is for the communal or the national to be refocused through the individual. It is a major strategy of contemporary fantasy narratives to focus in this way on the individual development of a character or, more often a group of central characters, who are exceptionally magical, exceptionally gifted, exceptionally persecuted, and exceptionally questioning of their cultures. As Jane Tolmie has argued, the heroes and heroines of fantasy fiction seem to reflect the readers’ desire to inhabit a medievalist setting and yet to challenge it at the same time. In this paper, I am interested in the way the text’s individualist focus inflects the representation of an early modern past. I suggest that the individual’s exceptional connection to the imagined world of the fantasy is an important postcolonial strategy in assimilating and reconfiguring a desired but often suspect past.

Paper 2: Lenise Prater, Gender and Power: The Phoenix/Jean Grey across Time and Media
Where sf is uniquely placed to offer women powers that circumvent gender stereotypes, such as the fictional attribution of strength to men alone, the kinds of power available to women in the alternative worlds of sf do not always take advantage of this opportunity. In this paper I argue that women are represented as incapable of wielding power in the X-Men movie The Last Stand, and that this contrasts with the more complex representation offered many years earlier in the comics. Jean Grey has been part of the X-Men comics for almost fifty years, first seen in the series in 1963. She is capable of telekinesis and telepathy, and in a comic book published in 1976 she is inhabited by a powerful and destructive extraterrestrial spirit named the Phoenix. The ability to control her own powers is not an issue in this construct. By contrast in The Last Stand The Professor relegates most of Grey’s power to her unconscious mind because he deems her incapable of controlling it, and this creates the Phoenix. Furthermore, The Professor’s decision to restrict Grey’s power is justified in the narrative as Wolverine must kill her, implying that women are incapable of handling great power.

Paper 1: Sylvia Kelso, The Decay of the Cyborg Body: Carnival and Chaos in Lois McMaster Bujold’s Memory
Many possible futures now include everyday human life as some form of cyborg, in the term’s most basic sense, an entity combining machine-human elements: artificial hips, pacemakers, cochleal implants. Cyborgs in SF are often theorized as grotesque. But one of Mikhail Bakhtin’s best-known concepts is of the grotesque body, in part, as one continually dying and being renewed. There is a tacit conflict with the assumption that in a human body “mended” even by a simple pacemaker, the mend will be permanent, even though the body retains a use-by date. But what happens when a cyborg’s machine element(s) decay? Simon Illyan is a mid-level character in Lois Bujold’s Miles Vorkosigan series, both feared and envied for his role as head of Imperial Security, a role strongly reliant on an implanted “brain chip,” which gives him eidetic memory. But in Memory the chip begins to decay. This forces a cyborg body to confront the fate of Bakhtin’s grotesque body, but it also opens a phase of unregulated chaos, as his lapses play havoc with Impsec’s own “memory” of past and current secret missions. The paper discusses how the novel deals with this decay, and the consequences for Illyan himself, for the novel, and for the feasibility of Bakhtin’s concept of carnival as a space for regulated chaos.

Paper 2: Tania Honey, Cyborgs and the carnivalesque in Justina Robson’s Quantum Gravity series
SF often foreshadows the social and political implications of anxieties surrounding technology and closely examines and challenges concepts of what it is to be human. Numerous such anxieties have emerged around the figure of the cyborg, whose machine elements draw into high relief the question, what is human? And whose gender and humanity blurring elements have led cyborgs to appear not merely unhuman, but horrors, grotesques, or freaks. In contrast, Bakhtin’s concept of the carnivalesque celebrates the grotesque body as an attempt to relocate subjectivity and sites its compelling monstrous imagery as unfinished metamorphosis, already and always becoming. The carnivalesque fluidity and excess can assist in reading cyborg SF as a transgressive cultural signification of bodies, identities and subjectivity. For example, in Justina Robson’s Keeping it Real, Lila is a cyborg struggling with her own unhuman status in worlds split and disrupted by the explosion of a supercollider. Lila’s cybernetically enhanced body is pitted against non-human entities such as elves, fairies and demons, where the boundaries of gender and identity, nature and technology are blurred. Robson’s novel suggests a freedom from the limits of what is human and, read within the context of Bakhtin’s theory of carnival and the grotesque body, invokes absurdity, satire, humour, and chaos, to emphasise the cyborg as a critical tool for understanding human-technology relations. This paper will examine how SF texts use the carnivalesque to explore the concept of future identities, selves, bodies and minds of organic/machine constructions.

Paper 1: Simon Ayling, ‘But It Ain’t No Way Human’: Cyberpunk and Theories of the Posthuman
This paper examines the intersection between critical theories of the posthuman and cyberpunk science fictions. Cyberpunk has proved to be fruitful ground for the analysis of the idea of the posthuman, with cyberpunk’s focus on technological body modification and cyperspatial consciousness providing ample material for analysis. However, this paper argues that much of the writing about cyberpunk devoted to the subject of the posthuman has been labouring under a series of interrelated problems. Many of these critical works proceed without a clear idea of what kind of ‘human’ the posthuman is meant to be replacing, Similarly, many works lack a clear idea of what defines the posthuman either in its own right or in relation to the human. These definitional problems lead to a lack of discursive clarity in the critical literature about cyberpunk. Focussing on the work of N. Katherine Hayles, this paper attends to these problems, as well as more broadly discussing the conceptual validity of ideas of the posthuman. Following Hayles, this paper argues that the posthuman is not always either liberating or posthumanist, and searches for evidence of this in cyberpunk texts.

Paper 2: Aisling Blackmore, Future’s End: The Growth of Fantasy and the Decline of Science Fiction after the End of History
This paper examines the link between the death of science fiction and Francis Fukuyama’s End of History theory. It will investigate the different arguments claiming that science fiction is dying, including ideas proposed by Veronica Hollinger, Roger Luckhurst and Gary K. Wolfe. It will compare these arguments and the general perception of science fiction’s readers to the minimal statistical evidence available. This will lead to the conclusion that science fiction is not in fact dying, but is undergoing a significant change and that fantasy has grown much faster than science fiction. I will argue that this trend reflects a changing historical consciousness which Fukuyama claims is a consequence of the end of history. Increasingly western people are not able to imagine a radically different future and are frightened by the pace of technological change and its ubiquity in the (post?) modern world. The paper will argue that as a result of this changing historical consciousness, there is a corresponding increasing desire to imagine oneself in a more stable and comprehensible world than the uncertain one in which we now live, which is more easily offered to readers by the pseudo-Medieval worlds constructed by fantasy writers than the innovation and change driven worlds imagined by science fiction writers. 

Paper 1: Deb Watson, Gendering Magic, Magicking Gender: A Natural Order for the Future in Robert Jordan’s The Wheel of Time series
A technological universe despite its ‘sword and sorcery’ elements, Robert Jordan’s epic series The Wheel of Time presents a fantasy world that has evolved significantly in its conception of gender from the Middle Earth of Jordan’s predecessor, JRR Tolkien. Jordan’s female characters break many stereotypes of passivity, submission and powerlessness, and both women and men are required to achieve the greatest feats. Jordan also engages with ideas of difference; however, unlike feminist theorists such as Luce Irigaray and Moira Gatens, difference here is innate, fixed and irreconcilable, and, most importantly, the male is portrayed as superior. This thesis is repeated in the many individual storylines that make up the overall narrative, but also in the gendered system of magic that naturalises the supposed differences between women and men. I will argue that creating a magical system that positions men as (almost) always more powerful than women, and fixes gendered traits and behaviours such as ‘feminine’ surrender and ‘masculine’ fighting for dominance, normalises the subordination of women. Further, women’s power can only be used on other women, whereas men can exercise power over both men and women, and thus despite its apparent critique of a patriarchal present, The Wheel of Time endorses a patriarchal vision of the future.

Paper 2: Cathy Cupitt, Fairytales: Tongue-worn Pasts and Futures
Fairy tales and their well-worn plot points are commonly adapted and re-told in order to comment on contemporary cultural and socio-economic changes. There is a substantive body of work on feminist adaptations of fairy tales, for instance, such as Marina Warner’s work on the ways in which fairy tales comment on gender roles and performances. From the perspective of creative practice, one of the challenges of such adaptations is how to engage the audience in the same kind of affective experience as that evoked by the template fairy tale, while also effectively exploring the contemporary themes. Given that fairy tales are often either/both romances or Romances, this question of affective engagement is a central concern. Affective engagement with texts is also one of the defining features of the process of transformation which takes place in remix – both on the part of transformative artists and their audiences. It is from this perspective, as a remix artist, that I consider some of the strategies used to transform fairy tales such as Cinderella and Rapunzel, and the relationships between transformational techniques, social commentary, theme and affect. These techniques will be illustrated with brief examples from creative works, including remixes.

Paper 1: Keira McKenzie, Lovecraft and the Apocalyptic Sublime
The pasts envisioned by American writer H.P. Lovecraft speak of futures that undo all our scientific perceptions and conceptions of knowledge, replacing them with revelations of futures past and pasts yet to come, especially in his The Shadow out of Time (1934-5), though the majority of his ‘Mythos’ stories point to possible futures which combine with unexpected pasts, bringing to mind Baudrillard’s  suggestion that we live in ‘…“non-Euclidean fin de siècle space” combining the spatial and temporal to describe history as folding in upon itself in reversal” (Baudrillard, 1994, p 10).  This is illustrated as the narrator of ‘Shadow out of Time’, sees/experiences, in an example of Baudrillard’s ‘hyperreality’, the utter end of the solar system. The pasts and futures Lovecraft writes of, with the intrusion of entities from other dimensions and universes, and the sense of our terrestrial habitat changing too fast for adaptation, creates an awareness of the Apocalyptic Sublime, where the immanent apocalypse is continually unfolding – we are always living in ‘the end times’.

Paper 2: Ellen Greenham, Lethal Proximity
When something is labelled imperfect, it is often regarded as being in some way deformed or flawed. When a vision of the future as imperfect is suggested, the point in time and space from which that vision is generated not only colours the prediction, but also throws it back into the present like a reflection in a mirror. A future imperfect is the reflection of a present imperfect, and dystopic prophesy in sf exists because it is birthed from the sense of a dystopic present. Through the lens of the novel Roadside Picnic (1971) by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky, Andrei Tarkovsky’s film Stalker (1979) based on the novel, and the RPG S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Call of Pripyat (2010) which draws from both the Strugatsky novel and the historical event of the Chernobyl reactor failure, this paper will explore the idea of the future imperfect being not about flaws and failings, but rather, about what remains still in process, and not yet whole. If “cast[ing] away the shadow to reveal the substance” dissolves the object, as Slavoj Zizek claims, what is it that happens when in “resembling” an understanding of itself the human creature not only looks at but through the mirror, reaching past the reflection to what lies beyond? When “resembling” and “being” are brought into “lethal proximity,” what does a future imperfect mean for the embodied human creature?

Paper 1: Richard Harland, Futures Unkowable: Technological Progress, Cultural Discontinuity
What have SF writers successfully predicted, and what have they failed to predict? Technology progresses along a clear line of advance, one development built upon another. It’s different with cultural phenomena such as clothes fashions, styles of furniture and architecture, tastes in art and fiction. In the short term, there’s often a kind of progression from, say, realistic to more realistic to hyper-realistic, from wide tie to wider tie to tie-as-broad-as-a-kipper. But in the long term? Is it possible to show that one style is earlier or later than another except as a matter of historical accident? What about the drastic discontinuities when tastes take off suddenly in an entirely different direction? What about the many cases of retro-fashion (which have a history going back almost as far as fashion itself)? Do SF writers have any predictive power in the cultural arena? Does it matter if they ‘get it right’? Do they perhaps have a creative power to think up and spread their own new styles? And what about SF itself, as a particular style or taste within the overall development of imaginative fiction?

Paper 2: Natalie Churn, The Time of Science Fiction:Threat or Opportunity?
Science fiction and fantasy portray futures in which time functions as a tool for oppression (in dystopian worlds such as that presented in Momo) or where time in both the constructed and natural senses has been rendered irrelevant (e.g. immortality, time travel, light speed). This negotiation of the concept of time presents us with possibilities for future policy change. In order to avoid a time-oppressive future, steps must be taken to ensure that Kairos time is given more precedence in our Chronos-oriented society where unproductive time is often viewed negatively. While technological developments will largely determine the extent to which time can be negotiated, seized and altered in the future, sci-fis that portray time as potentiality instead of hindrance also present possibilities for the future integration of marginalised concepts of time (such as unproductive time) into dominant ideologies. For example, discourses of time travel suggest that it is rarely too late to change the thrust of history in terms of, for instance, exponential ecological damage, while discourses of immortality show that one lifetime rarely suffices for the achievement of personal and social goals, emphasising the importance of integrating concepts of qualitative time and deep time into social policy.