“Is Science Fiction Still Science Fiction when it is written on Saturn?” (or aliens, alienation and science fiction)

06.07.2017 Bodhisattva Chattopadhyay

“Is Science Fiction Still Science Fiction when it is written on Saturn?” (or aliens, alienation and science fiction)

Bodhisattva Chattopadhyay is Postdoctoral Fellow at the Department of Culture Studies and Oriental Languages, University of Oslo. He is the editor-in-chief of Fafnir: The Nordic Journal of Science Fiction and Fantasy. This piece is a lightly edited version of a public lecture given at the Momentum 9 Curator Tour Oslo, 21 March 2017

Let us have a placeholder title: “Is Science Fiction Still Science Fiction when it is written on Saturn?” The exhibition audience would be more suited in giving it a different title at the conclusion of their experience.

Given that one of the focal points of this biennale is afrofuturism, I will focus in this piece several nodes in and around afrofuturism and what is increasingly termed as “global sf” or “global science fiction”. It may almost seem commonplace that all cultures or places that share in what one may call the “project of modernity” will have some kind of artistic production that has features of science fiction, extrapolated technologies or social orders, alternative worlds and whatifs, constructing relations between the possibles and the probables. And yet it is equally true that science fiction as a genre label has a certain history and that this history is very closely linked to the colonial imaginary, and indeed, to its processes of creating different kinds of “aliens” and constructing the threatening other as a kind of “alien”. This is true of science fiction as a genre in its foundational moment for alien contact, H. G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds (1897) – that and The Time Machine (1895) being two foundational texts written by Wells for the genre at the end of the 19th century. The War of the Worlds imagines Earth being attacked by a superior Martian alien species. Wells makes his narrative a direct allegory of colonial destruction; his narrator says: “We must remember what ruthless and utter destruction our own species has wrought, not only upon animals, such as vanished bison and the dodo, but upon its own inferior races. The Tasmanians . . . were entirely swept out of existence in a war of extermination waged by European immigrants, in the space of fifty years. Are we such apostles of mercy as to complain if the Martians warred in the same spirit?” Of course there is another Foundational moment in genre history – Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818), of which we are currently celebrating the 200th year, which can be invoked for another kind of alienations and we may return to that later. But I wish to first consider the alien problem, given that alienation is the theme of this biennale. For aliens are the core of what constitutes the science fictional imaginary of science fiction: or to put it differently, the way in which science fiction is able to pass of the effect of estrangement is through a presentation of aliens: beings that are either in some fundamental or some ineffable way different to us, whatever that us is.

Three basic kinds of aliens may be spoken of as they are visible in the science fictional lens. There is the alien of space: and this space may be another universe or galaxy or right next door to us, in another part of the planet. To give a non-science fictional example of such alienation which is nonetheless part of the politics of the way the science fiction genre is produced, I wish to quote a personal experience. I work for instance on Bangla language science fiction from India. Yet the first time I presented a paper on the subject outside India, I was asked, most earnestly by someone in the audience: “this was a great talk but could you please tell me if Bangla is a living language?” That this is still a question about the seventh most spoken language in the world with over 200 million native speakers is not intriguing (I have heard it several times since then during my travels across continents). This question frames squarely what the alien of distance is like, as we communicate across linguistic lines in talking about the genre of science fiction. This alien of place is anyone who for some reason both belongs and does not belong to a genre. As revealed by gamergate and puppygate, the alien of place is a female gamer in a masculine gaming world, a science fiction “writer of colour” in a white science fiction production industry, a trans writer in a cis solidarity group, or indeed anyone who is seen as an outsider in a place that does not in practice belong to them politically. A majority in one enclave may be a minority in another. The alien of space is only the alien in an alien space. Science fiction returns to this theme in every cultural encounter between the human and the humanoid alien, whose customs, cultures, sexualities, cuisines, modes of clothing and dressing, challenge the deeply held perceptions of what constitutes the human.

Then there is the alien of time. The alien of space may or may not be the alien of time. The alien of time is “us”, or “we” in another time and place, whether that other us is a subject of nostalgia or revulsion. When political discourse refers to certain religions and practices as a return to medievalism or as a the mark of a regressive society, then this alien of time gets invoked ever so often, as if human history is not a continuous experience of all times but only the times to which we believe we belong. Time is a central problem in alienation, and time is also cultural. The arrow of progress is a way of framing human history from a certain trajectory, most often European history from the Enlightenment through the hands of a handful of philosophers and spread out through colonialism, socialism and global capitalism. One march of progress, one human history, one goal. This comes into conflict also with other modes of constructing history (even by other enlightenment philosophers such as by Vico) such as circular history, for instance as proposed in Nietzsche’s eternal recurrence, itself an echo of Romantic philosophers, who in turn were hardly unaware of other kinds of cultural times such as cyclical time in Indic philosophical and mythological traditions. The alien of time is often visible when two ways of dealing with “progress” come into conflict, one where progress is itself seen as flawed or undesirable making for a return to origins such as make X great again, go back to the foundations of a religious orthodoxy, to core artistic principles, a “renaissance”, or any such rhetoric, but also two, where progress does not mean the necessity of a future, such as where the progress of industry comes into conflict with even the survival of the planet and its planetary processes. These aliens of time breach and occupy any narrative where the future and progress are intertwined; they make it impossible to hold onto any notion of linearity of purpose or of belonging.

The third alien I wish to present is the alien of the body. To use the term from Aristotelian tragedy, we may speak of the alien of the body in terms of anagnorisis, a moment of recognition at which the aliens of space and aliens of time are realized to be part of us, turning us into better or worse versions of ourselves. At a time of nationalist political shifts, we can recognize the iconic image of the alien of the body in science fiction not in the work of Giger’s alien erupting from the body of John Hurt, but in the alien hand of Dr Strangelove, whose fascist core erupts automatically as the future begins to unfold all the eugenic plans of the third reich, where progress is built on the apocalypse. This alien of the body has a surprisingly long history. To return to the other foundational moment, we find Frankenstein’s creation, “Adam,” whose alien within is the human self. Adam is both for and against this self: it reflects both what is precious about him, his consciousness, his ability to admire, appreciate, and love as well as its obverse, his untempered violence, anger and jealousy. In every sense but one Adam mirrors his creator, and that is his technoscientific ability to create life. And yet, the novel seems to ask, if the end result of Frankenstein’s hubris (to borrow another term from Aristotle) is what we see in Adam, then perhaps this too, is not really progress. For Frankenstein is the real monster, Adam but his projection. In newer science fiction, the cyborg self, where human and machine are intertwined, consistently deal with this alien-ness or foreign-ness, and within cyberfeminism, the figure of the cyborg also appears as a possible way of breaching the boundary between the human and the world, between any kinds of constructed natures or humanisms into post or transhumanisms. The other of the body is also the parasite baby inside its host mother, but also the source of its biological afterlife through the transmission of genetic information into other times and other places. The alien of the body then becomes not so much the repressed self with which one is in conflict, but a fecund plurality where one is not one, but two, or many more, a coexistence that depends on the recognition that there is no such thing as one, situated in one time and one place as one being, but only consistently shifting, assemblage of identities formed out of multiple times and places and selves.

Now what does this schemata of the alien have to do with global sf or afrofuturism? First of all, it allows us to reframe our initial question. If the genre shell of science fiction requires the presence of the alien for its estranging effect, that is to show how things are different (in terms of time, place or body) from how things are supposed to be, then what constitutes science fiction also changes according to what constitutes the “alien” in the genre discourse. When the “other” in society one is framed as an alien for the purposes of the genre in society two, then in society one, would a work featuring an alien from society two mean the work is science fiction, or would it mean something else entirely? If a literary genre depends on certain tropes, yet the tropes themselves are fundamentally alienating, would its use by those it has traditionally alienated continue to be works of the same genre, and if so, under what conditions?

This is a question that I have been asking for a while through the dataset in my own research. Is there such a thing as Bangla or Hindi or Marathi science fiction? Clearly, certain commonalities between the tropes and historical conditions may be identified. There are aliens and robots in both. In terms of macro characteristics there are future histories, alternate histories, technological extrapolations in both. Yet there are just as many differences. Even a difference in the language used makes a difference in the way one constructs what an alien or a robot or a monster is. The more closely we peer, the more differences we can find: the more closely we peer at science fiction, the genre, which consistently mixes and matches tropes and ideas throughout history, begins to disintegrate. If there is no such thing as global science fiction, perhaps it is less so because other cultures do not or do produce science fiction, but because there may be no such thing as science fiction to begin with except as a loose descriptor of anything that seems to evoke certain tropes in a certain container form to fit loosely within the genre label. Instead of asking the question whether science fiction is still science fiction when it is written in Saturn, perhaps the question is a political one: what and who constitute the genre called science fiction, what kind of markets and economic networks do these works belong to, and if one makes a claim for a work to be the part of the body of a genre, say if I pick up a work in Bangla and call it Bangla science fiction, what are the possibilities and expectations opened up by such labelling, to which markets can this work now belong, what kind of audience can I now reach? Will my aliens of Bangla science fiction which may be a parody of the British as aliens, be aliens to the British? Will this be a satire? What claims can one make on behalf of this genre?

As the expression in Bangla goes, if you pull the ear the head follows. Tugging at these questions makes us aware of the politics of “afrofuturism” as a mode of artistic presentation and reclamation of future history as a multicultural thought form. During a lunch discussion with the noted Indian science fiction writer friend, the term afrofuturism came up along with the proposition that we may need such a term to talk about South Asian or Indian sf, but the author, who has himself been the proponent of such a term in the past, now laughed it off. He said: Look at it this way. Africa is huge, and it has as many futurism as there are communities. But Afrofuturism is a market label for things produced and consumed in English, written outside Africa, for markets predominantly outside Africa, mainly in the USA and Europe. Sure, we may think of a market label for Indian science fiction, but our production in any language, English or any of our own, does not in inherently depend on non-local markets. We produce and consume most works in our own Indian markets. So if one were to coin such a word, we must first think through what kinds of literary markets and situations we are anticipating, what languages we are thinking of, and so forth.

So afrofuturism then needs to be placed in such a context. But equally, we must balance our views by looking at the future itself as a horizon. By claiming afrofuturism, artists are signalling a way of referring to the future that is different from the futures that have been claimed for them by others, especially in classic science fiction. Africa as the dark continent is the primitive zone in this class of literature. It belongs to the past. As Josef Conrad put it in Heart of Darkness, civilization is a march of progress, and places, even when they are entangled with other times, move ahead. Thus England has been “one of the dark places of the earth” before leading the reader to Africa which still is dark in Conrad’s imperialist and racist imagination. To claim the future is to claim for Africa its place in the same march of progress.

But it is also much more than that. For the march of progress into a future also requires a reclamation of history, and by doing so revises the history of the genre itself. This is made most clear in Martine Syms’s “Mundane Afrofuturist Manifesto” (2013). Unlike naive afrofuturism, Syms argues in her manifesto that afrofuturism does not mean a reversal into irrelevance the same tropes as before, but a rewriting of the whole genre. Taking on from Geoff Ryman’s “Mundane Manifesto” (2004), which suggests abandoning the useless tropes of impossible technologies in science fiction towards a more realistic genre, Syms argues for something similar in the cultural sphere. I quote a short section:

  • … The Mundane Afrofuturists recognize that:
  • … This dream of utopia can encourage us to forget that outer space will not save us from injustice and that cyberspace was prefigured upon a “master/slave” relationship. While we are often Othered, we are not aliens. Though our ancestors were mutilated, we are not mutants.
  • … The imaginative challenge that awaits any Mundane Afrofuturist author who accepts that this is it: Earth is all we have. What will we do with it?
  • The chastening but hopefully enlivening effect of imagining a world without fantasy bolt-holes: no portals to the Egyptian kingdoms, no deep dives to Drexciya, no flying Africans to whisk us off to the Promised Land.
  • The possibilities of a new focus on black humanity: our science, technology, culture, politics, religions, individuality, needs, dreams, hopes, and failings.
  • The surge of bedazzlement and wonder that awaits us as we contemplate our own cosmology of blackness and our possible futures.
  • The electric feeling that Mundane Afrofuturism is the ultimate laboratory for worldbuilding outside of imperialist, capitalist, white patriarchy…
  • (access the full text at: http://rhizome.org/editorial/2013/dec/17/mundane-afrofuturist-manifesto/ )

It is this reclamation, a rewriting of the genre, that should perhaps inform the practice of afrofuturism, but also any other futurism outside the futurisms of the present. And one of its chief strategies is to turn to the past as a sign of the future. This is where I would like to conclude my reflections as well, and ask the audience to ponder what it means to be an afrofuturist, what does it mean to reclaim, to repatriate, to belong elsewhere other than where one is while belonging to where one is. For it is by recognizing what has been written out of history and its power structures that one can investigate what alienation is. Without that recognition, artistic practice is empty at best.