Friday, December 18, 2020

SF and public health policy

 Are there hopeful representations of public health policy in speculative fiction? Are there, for example, visions of a well-governed biomedical commons?

Within SF, dystopia and public health policy go hand-in-hand. In fact, SF seems practically incapable of imagining any holistic stance on the myriad factors that inform the happiness and flourishing of populations, unless the interested party is some sinister elite: a paternalistic and unaccountable dystopian government, as in Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, or perhaps a clandestine sect of eugenicists like the Bene Gesserit of Frank Herbert’s Dune. Perhaps there are some partial exceptions. In threads of transhumanism and biopunk traceable through works by Iain M. Banks, Octavia Butler, Ted Chiang, Samuel R. Delany, Cory Doctorow, Greg Egan, Gwyneth Jones, Nancy Kress, Yoon Ha Lee, Annalee Newitz, Kim Stanley Robinson, Justina Robson, Bruce Sterling, Charles Stross, Jeanette Winterson, and others, the somatic becomes vividly tractable to speculative technologies. Bodies and consciousnesses become the raw material for design and experiment. Bodily distresses, diseases, disorders, disabilities, and limitations may be eradicated altogether, or transformed or recontextualised to de-pathologize them. Often such SF goes beyond crudely fantasizing medical techno-fixes, and examines how notions of ‘healthy’ and ‘normal’ are constructed in the first place. But what such SF almost never does is offer any account of the democratization of medicalized desire, expertise, techniques, and resources. There are mavericks who work outside of the medical-industrial complex, or there is its wholesale displacement by biomedical abundance supremely responsive to individual desire … and that’s it.

Names in SFF interlude: sexbot

From Jeanette Winterson's Frankissstein:

Naming is power, I say to her.

It sure is. Adam's task in the Garden of Eden.

Yes, indeed, to name everything after its kind. Sexbot ...

Pardon me, sir?

Do you think Adam would have thought of that? Dog, cat, snake, fig tree, sexbot?

Earlier:

Names in SFF



Wednesday, December 2, 2020

The Sunken Land Begins to Rise Again

Just finished this and skimmed a few reviews (Nina Allan's is really great). Quite rightly, reviewers are reluctant to treat this gorgeous soggy prose-poem like it's some mere Christopher Nolan headfuckery.

But!

What is actually going on?

For example, Shaw never figures anything out. What doesn't he figure out?

Sure, the whole narrative is wrapped in luminous uncertainty. Sure, it insists on the absurd and the fantastical within the everyday. This is a universe where great chunks of memory go missing without explanation; where people take turns blurting unintelligible messes of language and pretend that they are 'conversing'; where a plague of hyperactive pattern-recognition risks turning you into an obsessive automaton endlessly scrolling, peering, and posting; where ghosts and figments endlessly sparkle and cavort at the edges of everything; where you might any moment be seized by strange forces and compelled to action you can't understand; all under the rubric of realism and sharply observed Menippean satire. 

Sure, any reader who wants to puzzle it all out will find themselves gently trolled by the possibility that they are just like the novel's own conspiracy theorist Tim Swann. But there is a speculative-fictional plot here. There are clues and connections, and the novel also invites a certain amount of cobbling things together, even if the sturdiest possible outcome is a bit wonky.

So I'll put this out there, for starters: it seems likely that Shaw's 'crisis' or 'rough patch' was his birth, and his memories of the period before that time are in some sense artificial. At least, if I were Shaw, that's what I'd be wondering. 

Does that ring true?

PS: Some Contexts

  • The Water Babies
  • Nova Swing
  • Annihilation
  • Blade Runner
  • The Drowned World
  • Rick & Morty
  • Pincher Martin
  • The Shadow Over Innsmouth
  • On the Origin of Species
  • Creative Evolution
  • Russian Doll
  • Vurt
PPS: I think one of the things the novel does superbly is poke at the political underpinnings of the trope of the goopy cheaply jury-rigged human (see e.g. Annihilation), and expose that trope as a function of social atomisation and the malevolence of classist, ableist, and racist gaze. I think the spirit that animates it is more critical humanist than posthumanist. But I also think it deploys this trope, and I am wondering exactly how.