Embracing the Fiction in Sci-Fi

I recently returned from the annual conference for the Society for Literature, Science, and the Arts at Arizona State University in Tempe, Arizona. Science fiction has been, as you can imagine, a rather common theme here and I was excited to see that this year was no exception. Like last year, there was a panel on one of my favorite TV shows, Orphan Black (I’ll spare you my gushing fanboyism, but if you haven’t yet, spend your winter watching all five seasons of the show…then do it again). But one of my favorite panels this year was the “ Science Fiction as Protest” roundtable on the first full day of the conference.

Certainly, Katherine Hayles’ participation in the panel was a major pull (it was standing room only—or, in my case, huddle in the corner with your bagel sandwich), but every participant brought something valuable to a conversation about the use of science fiction in our classrooms to highlight critical perspectives in a seemingly non-traditional manner. For some panelists, this “bringing” ended up being quite literal: Grace Dillon, editor of Walking the Clouds: An Anthology of Indigenous Science Fiction, came with a very tall stack of—primarily—anthologies (such as Octavia’s Brood, Mitewacimowina, and Love Beyond Body, Space, and Time) to share with us.

Grace’s contributions were particularly poignant, as she explained that Indigenous peoples have been living in a post-apocalyptic reality for over 500 years—so the work coming from Native communities are not only strongly influenced by their past, but also present a unique perspective on the future. We learned of the Black Snake Prophecy, most-recently cited by the Lakota people in an ill-fated litigation attempt to shut down the Dakota Access Pipeline. She, along with UC Riverside’s Stina Attebery, told us about Thunderbird Strike, a gorgeous and meaningful “sidescroller” style computer game in which you use searing lightning to fight “the snake that threatens to swallow the lands and waters whole.” Absurdly, but perhaps not surprisingly, the game has been labeled ecoterrorism by oil lobbyists who argue that it encourages violence against their ilk. Woe is them.

During audience Q&A, one individual made reference to Bruno Latour’s recent interview in Science in which the sociologist of science indicates that perhaps his past arguments surrounding the relativism of science could lead to “antiscientific” thinking. The questioner wanted to know: might not the “fiction” in science fiction lead our students to feel free to produce “alternative facts” about science? The panelists handled the question well, gently suggesting that perhaps we take Latour’s words with a grain of salt.

I could not help but think about the words of Jacques Rancière (2009). I hope you’ll forgive this rather long quote, but it’s a piece I return to often in my own work as both an artist and scholar:

Making fictions does not mean telling stories. It means undoing and rearticulating the connections between signs and images, images and times, or signs and space that frame the existing sense of reality. Fiction invents new communities of sense: that is to say, new trajectories be­tween what can be seen, what can be said, and what can be done. It blurs over the distribution of places and competences, which also means that it blurs over the very borders defining its own activity; doing art means displacing the borders of art, just as doing politics means displacing the borders of what is recognized as the sphere of the political.

The communities and borders that Rancière writes about here are metaphorical. Our lives, however, are governed so strictly by the borders put up by our current political climate. Families are separated by an imagined line between nations that becomes a militarized wall. Individuals are policed based on the arbitrary delineations between two genders assigned with biology as justification. Patients are treated based on legislative decisions surrounding what constitutes sick or not, treatable or not, preexisting or not. To be sure, most of these are borders constructed by a non-fictional science. If anything, when a student comes to me and suggests that things could be different, and they point to a piece of fiction as justification, it would be irresponsible of me to do anything but embrace that drive to envision a new kind of science, even the fictional kind.

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