Science fiction means business

The US-based Creative Science Foundation is hosting its second annual workshop in the UK this summer. According to the call for papers:

This workshop will explore the use of science fiction as a means to motivate and direct research into new technologies and consumer products. It does this by creating science fiction stories grounded in current science and engineering research that are written for the explicit purpose of acting as prototypes for people to explore a wide variety of futures. […] In this way fictional prototypes provide a powerful interdisciplinary tool to enhance the traditional practices of research, design and market research.

The relationship between fiction and fact here is familiar enough to science fiction. In popular and fan discourses, this relationship tends to be mystified in terms of “uncanny prediction”: recent popular magazine articles detail “6 eerily specific inventions predicted by science fiction” and “11 astounding sci-fi predictions that came true.” In criticism and research, we find demystifications that investigate the material conditions linking science fiction to fact, extrapolation to production. Mark Fisher has helpfully coined the term “SF capital” to describe how science fiction works as a literary laboratory for real-world R&D, a resource for what Henry Jenkins calls “the military-entertainment complex” (75). A generation before Fisher, Marshall McLuhan — who was ambivalent about science fiction, and sometimes criticized for writing it -– had a firm, proleptic grasp on the idea of SF capital, which he well understood in his dual capacities as maverick scholar and corporate consultant:

Big Business has learned to tap the s-f writer. (124)

What’s striking in the CSF is perhaps the boldness of business’ courtship of SF: how frankly SF capital is being recognized and instituted, in a peculiarly Utilitarian program to enlist SF production specifically for “consumer products” and “market research.” The CSF is, in a way, simply spelling out the terms of a long-standing if somewhat asymmetrical partnership. SF’s command of both a popular market and a certain counter-cultural cachet has positioned it, since its inception (in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein), as more commodity than culture, hence its exile to the peripheries of legitimate “Literature,” according to a cultural-economic history provocatively explained by Samuel R. Delany (195). But is its future to be increasingly channeled into and defined by the speculations and futures we associate more with high finance and global capital than with cultural commentary and social progress?

Putting the question this way, of course, oversimplifies the numerous trajectories, formations, allegiances, and even definitions of science fiction; this is perhaps more an issue of science fiction studies, of the genre’s role in and relation to research: will a program like that of the CSF represent a route for delivering SF out of its encampment on the fringes of literary studies, towards more interdisciplinary and more broad-based social engagements, or will it merely transport it from one camp to another?

Works Cited
Creative Science Foundation. Intel Labs, Hillsboro, 2011.
Delany, Samuel R. and Carl Freedman. “A Conversation with Samuel R. Delany about Sex, Gender, Race, Writing — and Science Fiction.” Afro-Future Females: Black Writers Chart Science Fiction’s Newest New-Wave Trajectory. Ed. Marleen S. Barr. Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 2008. 191-235.
Fisher, Mark. “SF Capital.” Transmat: Resources in Transcendent Materialism (2001).
Jenkins, Henry. Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide. New York: New York UP, 2006.
Kessler, Sarah. “11 Astounding Sci-Fi Predictions That Came True.” Mashable 25 Sept. 2011.
McLuhan, Marshall. The Medium is the Massage: An Inventory of Effects. New York: Bantam, 1967.
Murdock, Colin. “6 eerily specific inventions predicted by science fiction.” Cracked 19 Nov. 2010.

2 responses to “Science fiction means business

  1. academicalism

    An AU student writes, at the Landing reblog of this post:

    One hopes the CSF will have a panel to handle all things Dune. I remember watching a panel at a science fiction convention featuring Larry Niven about eight or nine years ago, where the discussion began with Ringworld and ended with an audience member trying to debate the merits of space elevators…there was a long, drawn-out discussion about the economic potentials, followed with Larry Niven shaking his head and gently explaining why he didn’t think it would ever work.
    It is somewhat disconcerting to see science fiction commodified in the sense that it is seen as a drawing board for industry. I wonder if this is why there is a small (but visible) break between science fiction and speculative fiction – in sci-fi cons, the spec-fic is often seen as the ‘soft sci-fi,’ and almost always seems to be more humanistic in its focus (and often the realm of female writers).

    To which I replied:
    The CSF event looks more like a writing workshop than a literary critics’ conference: a forum for running scenarios, more than reviewing extant texts. (Although the latter, as your Niven example suggests, often turns into the former.) I hadn’t considered the gendered genre division you observe — I had thought the “speculative” turn was a gentrifying manoeuvre (in the way Margaret Atwood has used it, attempting to preserve her literary cachet but alienating the SF sector of her audience). I fielded an off-thread comment on the post, which I’ll paste here (and cite properly if the commentator wishes):

    I was interested by your blog post on science fiction as form of research…as predictive, anticipatory, a kind of thought experiment. I assume you know “The Zebra Storyteller”.
    The crossover has occurred between technology as a means to engage with or master the natural, given world and into the creative transformation of nature to the point of occlusion of any frontier between mind and a naturally occurring world. The landscape we inhabit is more of our own imaginative and technical shaping than of what is given naturally or even historically. As the source of what determines us, it is ourselves that we most need to understand, including our technical prowess and drive for mastery of our condition. A recursive situation: “We have met the enemy and it is us.”

    P.S.: I didn’t know the Zebra Storyteller fable, which is just fantastic — very apt for SF writers. So apt I called the South African writer Lauren Beukes a zebra storyteller in my micro-review of Moxyland:

    Made time to read Moxyland, which I’d only recommend if you use phone or net. @laurenbeukes is a fine zebra storyteller:

    Turns out she didn’t know it either.

    Never heard this term before. Like it a lot (see explanation) RT @sonicfiction @laurenbeukes is a fine zebra storyteller

    How very SF it still seems to me to be able to correspond with writers like this.

  2. Pingback: Casino capital’s frontier forays | Academicalism

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