Tag Archives: science fiction

SF: so many corporate dystopias, so few unions.

A couple of years ago, during a break in a faculty association meeting, my Athabasca U colleague Bob Barnetson and I got to talking science fiction, and he casually observed that for all its depictions of big business, the genre’s oddly lacking in corresponding images of unions. I told Bob there was a paper in his idea, and voilà, in the current issue of TOPIA, Canada’s journal of cultural studies, you can read the interdisciplinary article we co-wrote on the subject: “Resistance is futile: on the under-representation of unions in science fiction.” Here’s the abstract:

“This article surveys science fiction (SF) since 1980, and queries the conspicuous under-representation of recognizable images of unions in popular SF, which includes, in contrast, numerous images and narratives of corporate business. According to theories of unionism, science fiction studies and Mark Fisher’s theory of ‘capitalist realism,’ the co-authors theorize this pattern of under-representation, and, in the process, identify and analyze a very small but diverse body of SF works from this period that do include images of unions, in ways that range from the symptomatic to the radically suggestive.”

We gave 1980 as a start date for our study because that was about when corporate elite rule (a.k.a. neoliberalism) started to take off, and because that’s why tweets like this make sense:

Research is integrally intertwined with teaching, but it’s not as often that we in academia get to link research as closely with service. This collaboration has been one such welcome opportunity. (And it’s involved our students, too: we’re specifically indebted to the insights and references shared by AU alumna and SF author Heather Clitheroe, who’s reminded me I need check out The Expanse for more evidence of unions in SF.)

On a point unrelated to our subject matter, I also like that our article appears in an issue that both a) marks the debut of Dr. Rinaldo Walcott as TOPIA‘s new editor, and b) pays tribute to the great, late Canadian writer Austin Clarke.

Lastly, if you’re interested in the article, but you or your institution don’t subscribe to TOPIA, you can e-mail me at academicalism[at]gmail[dot]com to request a single copy (because Canada’s educational fair dealing provision in copyright law allows for individual sharing like this).

Science fiction TV and partisan politics

I’ve made an accidental observation while searching for images to use in a slideshow for an upcoming conference talk.
A Google image search for “the borg” shows results that include several images of the US president Barack Obama as a member of the Borg. E.g.:

Sample remixed image of Obama as the Borg


But a Google image search for “cylons” shows results that include images of Mitt Romney and John McCain (and to a lesser extent Sarah Palin). E.g.:

Sample image of Romney that refers to Cylons


It’s a strangely consistent polarization of two major Hollywood science fiction franchises, each used as instruments of partisan political satire: for reasons that may deserve closer analysis, right-leaning audiences on the right appear to be appropriating the Borg to satirize Obama, and centre-leaning audiences appear to be appropriating the Cylons to satirize Republicans.

“Really really Canadian”

Many thanks to Bruce Sterling and Wired for the kind word about my article on copyright, Canadian science fiction, and social media.

Some pretty good stuff here, even if it’s, uh, really really Canadian.

I’ll take “really really Canadian” as a compliment. (Would there by any other way for a Canadian to take it?)
Not sure why WordPress waited four years to notify me about this particular pingback, but better late than never.

Flash fiction, science fiction, and the shape of things to come

I’m pleased to see that one of my flash fiction tweets for the CBC “Tweets from 2112” contest made the adjudicators’ all-stars list in the Environment category.

I don’t have anywhere near the time I’d like to devote to writing fiction and poetry, so I’m not above hyping either flash fiction generally (see Jeff Noon for an exemplar of the form) or this particular honourable mention, especially since the event was run by Canadian SF luminary Robert J. Sawyer, with adjudicators from SF Canada.

“Tweets from 2112” was organized as a contest, but took shape as an absorbing (=distracting) literary experiment in collective speculative fiction. I submitted several flash fiction tweets to it, but the one chosen for the all-stars list is the one I’m happiest with as a self-contained narrative…and as a flash back from the kind of future I can’t help imagining as most plausible.

Here are the others I wrote, reports from possible futures all contingent on the particular present (as Frederic Jameson theorizes what SF does).

These other submissions are maybe more satirical than science-fictional; as the contest developed, I couldn’t resist leveraging the contest tag, once it was trending, to do some consciousness-raising too, in this case about the urgent issue of #FIPA, the secretive, $64 billion, 31-year trade deal between Canada and China, which stands to get Royal Assent anytime now without so much as a single minute of debate in Parliament – despite the repeated questions of opposition MPs and several citizen petitions, the biggest of which now has over 70,000 signatures. FIPA is basically a trade treaty that commits Canada to exporting more climate change in the coming decades. As David Suzuki explains it:

Why would anyone want to sell out our interests, democratic processes and future like this? And why would we put up with it? On the first question, Gus Van Harten, an international investment law professor at Osgoode Hall Law School [and an outspoken critic of FIPA], told Desmog Blog we must consider the possibility that government and industry know that changes in attitudes about fossil fuel extraction “may lead to new regulations on the oil patch, in that, climate can’t just be wished away forever, and that governments might take steps to regulate the oil patch in ways that investors wouldn’t like.” He continues, “If you bring in a lot of Chinese investments, and you sign the Canada investment deal, you kind of get the Chinese investors to do your dirty work for you.”
In other words, as the world recognizes the already extreme and increasing consequences of global warming and shifts from wastefully burning fossil fuels to conservation and renewable energy, tar sands bitumen may soon become uneconomical. The goal is to dig it up, sell it and burn it as quickly as possible while there’s still money to be made. It’s cynical and suicidal, but it’s the kind of thinking that is increasingly common among those who see the economy as the highest priority — over human health and the air, water, soil and biodiverse ecosystems that keep us alive.

FIPA thus points to a compromised, colonized future for Canada’s energy industry, a dire, costly future for the nation’s democracy and resource sovereignty, and a further diminishment of Canada’s standing in the international community. It is not the Canada I would leave to the next generation, whose survival, never mind prosperity, deals like FIPA squander and endanger.

Which is why I find it hard to imagine a world in 2112 that isn’t fundamentally post-apocalyptic, finally laid waste by corporate greed that now seems bent on its own ultimate collapse, on the cannibalizing of its own institutions, before we can collectively imagine a different future, another world. These are dangerous, precipitous days, on the cusp or arguably even already past the tipping point of globalized climate catastrophe. In this context, science fiction has important consciousness-raising work to do, in ringing the alarm now sounded far and wide by the genre’s present preoccupations with (zombie) apocalypse and post-apocalypse.

Which brings me to a short hypothesis about science fiction’s projecting power. Setting aside, for the moment, the critical consensus (following Jameson) that science fiction is best understood as a literature of commentary on the present, not the future, what nevertheless can we see of the genre’s power to project if not predict the shape of things to come?

Take “cyberpunk” for example. As the most popular science fiction of thirty years ago, this subgenre might reasonably be said to have projected an accurate image of today’s globalized, corporate-ruled, digitally networked, and simulacrum-haunted world.

Now take “post-apocalypse” for another example: it’s arguably, at present, the most popular subgenre of science fiction today. What might post-apocalypse, the most popular science fiction of today, project about our world thirty years from now?

We need to heed these reports from our possible futures, lest we find ourselves doomed to produce them.

Work Cited
Suzuki, David. “China deal and budget sacrifice democracy to short-term goals.” David Suzuki Foundation 25 Oct. 2012.

Two new posts at my university blog

Now the fall semester is underway, I’m making more extensive use of my other blog, housed at the Landing, Athabasca U’s social network. I’ve just written two posts there on different subjects.

“On Black British science fiction” is a post that’s developed in response to a question that arose on the SFRA listserv, about the perceived dearth of Afro-British writers working in SF. My answer to this (following critics like Kodwo Eshun, Paul Gilroy, and others) is that the preponderance of the black diasporic SF imaginary gets invested in music production.

The other post is fitting enough for the start of the semester: it’s about the course syllabus as a kind of contract – and about whether enough students understand this, and how educators might help them to do so. This post has drawn a few comments from students and educators alike – and a few tweets as well, including this reply:

Is it just me, or is this an unusually public statement on the subject from a university administrator? I’m not sure what to make of it.

On the error-riddled writing of The Hunger Games

Amidst the hype over Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games, a trilogy of young-adult dystopian novels that one blogger hails as “the future of writing,” a subtle but crucial detail of the novels themselves – the writing – has gone largely unremarked (not just because the novels are now being eclipsed by the movie and the media juggernaut that lumbers around after any and every egg laid by Hollywood, golden or otherwise).

The writing in The Hunger Games isn’t going entirely unremarked: a perceptive Goodreads user has placed the novel on a shelf aptly titled “Gawd get a copy editor.” But given the pervasive extent of the trilogy’s basic composition errors, and the popularity of the books with young readers, more attention to these errors is warranted. They make for an eminently teachable moment.

Reading the trilogy, I first wondered whether maybe the author is deliberately trying to adopt the voice of a teenager. But I’m unsure about this hypothesis; the writing errors are both too technical and too numerous to represent any kind of stylistic strategy or symbolic substance. They’re just mistakes. And lots of them: misplaced or dangling modifiers; singular-plural errors; punctuation errors; awkward or simply misspelled words.

Take this sentence, from early in Chapter 1 of the first novel:

My bow is a rarity, crafted by my father along with a few others that I keep well hidden in the woods.

The sentence means to say that Katniss’ bow, made by her dad, is hidden with other weapons, presumably also bows, in the woods. What the sentence actually says, on account of the modifier error, is that her bow is a rarity, and that she keeps her father with “a few others” in the woods. (Who else is Katniss keeping in the woods?)

Shortly after this, in the same chapter, we read:

Being the mayor’s daughter, you’d expect her to be a snob, but she’s all right.

The sentence means to say that the mayor’s daughter might be expected to be a snob. But what it actually says, via the misplaced modifier, is that the reader – the “you” to whom Katniss addresses her story – is the mayor’s daughter.

In chapter 4, Katniss recounts a previous forest expedition:

But I retrieved the small bow and arrows he’d made me from a hollow tree.

Katniss’ father may have made the archery set from a hollow tree, but the sentence means to say that Katniss had hidden the set in the tree – a meaning lost in the distance between the predicate (retrieved) and its modifier (from a hollow tree).

Returning to chapter 1, in describing the Games, Katniss explains:

The last tribute alive receives a life of ease back home, and their district will be showered with prizes, largely consisting of food.

The use of the plural pronoun their to refer to the singular antecedent tribute arguably reads like everyday speech – but so would using the correct pronoun, her or his.

Similarly, in chapter 2, Katniss reflects:

I couldn’t go home. Because at home was my mother with her dead eyes and my little sister, with her hollow cheeks and cracked lips.

Here the singular verb conjugation was conflicts with its plural subject, the mother and sister. This singular-plural error reads much less like everyday speech than the prior example.

These and other technical but irritating grammar errors pervade the series:

To this day, I can never shake the connection between this boy, Peeta Mellark, and the bread that gave me hope, and the dandelion that reminded me that I was not doomed.

A common enough error, the misuse of between to represent more than two entities needs correcting here (in the first book’s second chapter) as among. This error also recurs throughout the series, as in this sentence in the third book:

For the next sixty minutes, the Capitol feed alternates between the standard afternoon broadcast, Finnick, and attempts to black it all out.

Punctuation is also a pervasive problem. One of my students, a published author herself, points out the trilogy’s pervasive “crimes against commas.” For example:

In some districts, in which winning the reaping is such a great honor, people are eager to risk their lives, the volunteering is complicated.

Were the comma between honor and people replaced with the word that, the long clause that details the opening modifier would read more clearly as one sustained digression. Here’s another example of comma overload, from the start of chapter 4:

Obviously Haymitch isn’t much, but Effie trinket is right about one thing, once we’re in the arena he’s all we’ve got.

This sentence places the second comma where a colon should appear, and it omits a comma after arena, where it could mark a natural pause.

More egregious than comma splices, however, is the use of / in punctuation; the “slash,” as I have discussed in a previous post, almost always marks the spot where a firmer decision about wording needs to be made. It’s not a creative liberty being taken with punctuation; it’s just an occasion for closer editing.

The ride lasts about twenty minutes and ends up at the City Circle, where they will welcome us, play the anthem, and escort us into the Training Center, which will be our home/prison until the Games begin.

The slash returns in the second chapter of Mockingjay:

I linger in the doorway of Command, the high-tech meeting/war council room complete with computerized talking walls, electronic maps showing the troop movements in various districts, and a giant rectangular table with control panels I’m not supposed to touch.

As we read the story told to us by Katniss, how are we supposed to “hear” the slash in her voice? If the abundance of commas is ostensibly a means to simplify punctuation for young readers (whose heads would evidently explode on trying to parse a semicolon), why does the monstrosity of the slash get to stay?

Misused, misspelled, and awkwardly chosen words represent a third major pattern of composition errors.

Katniss calls the container for her arrows a “sheath.” What’s wrong with “quiver” (which is not nearly as often used)? Does she mean to make it sound like her arrows are stored in a condom?

There are a lot of references to microphones in the books, but the text spells the short form incorrectly, as “mike.” The correct abbreviation of “microphone” is “mic.” Four out of four Beastie Boys would agree with me about this (including Mixmaster Mike).

I know this may sound like pedantic nitpicking. But whether The Hunger Games either desperately needed a copy editor before reaching print or – worse – was deliberately edited this way according to assumptions about its young readership, the fact of its consistently error-riddled text is an insult to all readers. And it reflects rather poorly on a publisher that brands itself as an educational publisher for children and young readers, and as a corporate friend of public education. The fact that Scholastic sent The Hunger Games to press with such sloppy copy should concern young readers, and the parents and teachers who nurture their love of reading, as well as aspiring writers, to whom the success of such technically unpolished prose sends decidedly mixed signals. This fact is also a sizeable elephant in the room now rammed with fans, commentators, critics, and others party to the hype machine Hollywood has built up around the books.

Review essay on Afro-Futurist anthology

I’ve written a review essay on a recent Afro-Futurism anthology, Afro-Future Females, in the current issue of Extrapolation.

“Debating the histories and futures of black science fiction.” Review of Barr, Marlene S., ed. Afro-Future Females: Black Writers Chart Science Fiction’s Newest New-Wave Trajectory (Ohio State University Press, 2008). Extrapolation 52.2 (2011): 246-68.

Barr’s edited collection is worth a look, as one

whose aims in reading black women’s sf are to re-imagine sf, to advance anti-racist critique, and to reckon with slavery’s legacies.

And it invites teaching uses by taking creative liberties with the edited collection format,

gathering fiction and interviews together with research and criticism … the collection’s dialogic mix invites the reader to a seat at the table where the histories and futures of black sf are being intensely discussed and debated.

But it’s also a book to argue with.

To claim—and I quote—that “Bill Cosby is the father of black science fiction” (18) is to do a gross disservice not just to Delany but to Sun Ra, to Lee Perry, to George Clinton … [and] is symptomatic of the book’s need to engage more closely with the extant literature on Afro-Futurism.

Either way, there’s lots of productive reading here. Find out more in the full version, or check out the book itself.