“The future is a great historical resource.”
This, to quote Erika Milam, was the premise of Histories of the Future, a workshop held last Friday and Saturday at Princeton. Milam and co-organizer Joanna Radin brought together a dozen workshop participants and another dozen or two audience members to pay serious (and playful) attention to science fiction as a subject of historical study.*
The participants in the workshop explored the rich possibilities of science fiction as a historical source. As Milam puts it, “Reading past iterations of projected futures allows us to uncover the underlying assumptions about the present that scientists mobilized in constructing their theories.” More provocatively, participants took science fiction as a methodological provocation. Can science fiction open up new ways of conceiving and doing the history (and sociology and anthropology) of science?
Milam, associate professor of history of science at Princeton, and Radin, assistant professor of history of medicine at Yale, came up with the idea for the workshop a few years ago, after a discussion of how science fiction kept popping up insistently at the margins of their research. The workshop is an experiment in reframing the history of science by making that marginal topic into a focal point of scholarship. Science fiction is amenable to such a centering move; as workshop participant Nikolai Krementsov noted, sci-fi lies at the intersection of scientific change and sociocultural change.
Design in the service of scholarship: the scholarly website
The workshop was experimental in another way. It was the kick-off event for a collaborative project in which the workshop participants will explore the possibilities of a new genre of publication: the scholarly website.
In lieu of a chapter-length paper, each participant submitted a 1,500 word essay in advance of the workshop, which were uploaded onto histscifi.com, the project website. At the workshop, participants presented their plans for following up or adding to that essay in several short installments over the coming year.
Fred Gibbs, assistant professor of history at the University of New Mexico, opened the workshop by laying out some of the possibilities for presenting historical work on the web. Gibbs, who works in digital history and web design as well as medieval history, argues that we can and should think of websites as scholarship in themselves, not just as containers for scholarship. The goal of this particular website, Gibbs and the organizers emphasized, was not radical experimentation (though such experimentation is great and should be encouraged). Rather, it will be an exercise in thinking about how historians can use the web to do an even better job presenting the kind of text-centered argument and storytelling that they already aim to do.
Gibbs laid out several guiding principles that he is following in leading the design of the project website:
- The website will begin with a spare design. As the contributors flesh out their individual projects and accrue a vocabulary for talking about web design, the group will use design elements to form and express an integral message of the project. At the same time, the design should leave flexibility for individual contributions to develop in different ways.
- Hyperlinks are tentacles into the world. The website will use lots of them.
- The site should be dynamic in two ways. First, it will provide a layered, interactive user experience (though “user” doesn’t quite seem to be the right word, and “reader” isn’t quite sufficient either). Second, the site should be a living platform for scholarship, not just a record of it. One might imagine it as part-archive, part-magazine, part-journal. (However, one audience member cautioned that a website might not be able to fill all of these roles at once.)
The contributions themselves were wonderfully eclectic, addressing a wide range of places and genres of speculative fiction from the mid-19th century through the present day. Sadly, I had to depart before the concluding discussion, so I can’t report on the unifying themes that the participants drew out of the two days of discussions. Instead, I’ll offer a few of my own, touching upon as many of the presentations as I can. (Read all of the contributors’ essays on the website!)
Overcoming (through) distance
We usually think of science fiction, like history, as an attempt to overcome temporal distance. Historians reconstruct the past; sci-fi authors imagine the future. Several of the workshop’s essays and presentations complicated this picture, showing that science fiction is a means of bridging distances in time, in space, and across the gulf between life and death. What kinds of technology or imagination has it taken to overcome each sort of distance for speculative authors in different historical settings?
Patrick McCray discussed cryonics: technologies for freezing (“de-animating”) dying human beings in anticipation of the development of future technologies for reanimating them and restoring them to health. Cryonics is true heterogeneous engineering, involving not only decoagulating solutions and aluminum canisters of liquid nitrogen but also financial instruments and legal frameworks. Silicon Valley engineers arrange for their bodies to be frozen in order to overcome death, but seem not to consider what measures might be necessary to bridge the social distance between the present and the future into which they hope to re-animate.
Profit Mukharji discussed the categories of animacy and the “paranimacy” of the undead as potential models for subjecthood and agency in a necropolitical society. In the science-fictional work that he discussed, space and time were at once overcome by a chronotopic technology referred to as a “steam-boat.” He suggested that in colonial settings, utopias are generally located not on a distant planet or far in the future, but in the afterlife.
Michael Gordin took up language as a marker of social, temporal, and geographic distance in science fiction. Science fiction authors in Cold War America drew upon the ideas of contemporary sociolinguistics to conceive a world after globalnuclear war. Taking the fall of Rome and the break-up of Latin into the Romance languages as their model, they presented the breakdown of political and social order through the divergence of language.
Distance is not only an obstacle to be overcome, but also a means of overcoming the limitations of the scientific and political imagination. Frédérique Aït-Touati discussed how seventeenth-century astronomers used speculative narratives of interplanetary travel to made Copernicanism conceivable. She presented The Collapse of Western Civilization, a recent speculative essay by Naomi Oreskes and Eric Conway, as a similar exercise in using the of the distant future to dramatize phenomena of climate change, whose stakes can remain obscure when viewed from the present.
Science by other means
How has science fiction contributed to the doing and public understanding of science? Hans-Jörg Rheinberger has referred to experimental systems as “machines for making the future” (quoting a scientist, the biologist François Jacob). Colin Milburn extended Rheinberger’s insight to thought experiments involving tachyons, hypothetical faster-than-light particles. Like Rheinberger’s epistemic things, tachyons have played a role in organizing scientific work, even as they were treated as the stuff of science fiction.
Stephanie Dick asked how the effort to build a thinking machine changes how we conceive of human reason. When computer scientists encountered obstacles in their various efforts to make machines behave like humans, they developed new ways of thinking about the differences between human and (potential) machine cognition. As scientists have attempted to make computers perform acts associated with human intelligence, our definition of what it means to be human has changed as well. Computers haven’t yet replaced human beings, but they have been a means of displacing and redefining them.
Erika Milam, too, considered modes of speculation the nature of humanity, but from the perspective of evolutionary theory. Mid-20th century evolutionary biologists wrestled not only with the past but the future; following the latter dimension of their speculations provides a different path through the history of evolutionary thought.
In discussion of her paper on evolutionary imaginings of the human future, participants noted that such phenomena as the paleo diet might be seen as attempts to replace a discredited map of human evolution in geographic space (the stuff of Victorian race science) with a varied chronology of evolution within the human body. The various tempos of development of the immune system, bone structure, and digestion thus take the place previously held by Europe, Australia, and Africa held in the old evolutionary map of the world.
Joanna Radin discussed the fiction of Michael Crichton as a compelling form of scientific speculation in late twentieth-century America. Crichton’s hyperrealist morality tales, crafted around events that seem like they could already have happened, presented PR opportunities and challenges for scientists and even galvanized policy makers. His work occupies an ironic position: critiques of the careless use of science for profit or entertainment, presented in immensely entertaining and profitable novels, films, television shows, amusement park rides, and video games. As Radin pointed out, the invented reference lists and ethnographic approach of Crichton’s work suggest that we should take him seriously as an author of science studies fiction as well as sci-fi.
Dialectics of determinism
Does speculative science fiction attempt to channel our present into a particular future or open up a wider universe of possible futures? Both, suggests Michelle Murphy. She terms the former sort of speculation “firmative,” providing the examples of financial modeling and development economics as attempts to mold the future toward particular outcomes. A mode of firmative speculation is at work in development projects that transform girls in the global south into risk pools for investment and back into the figure of “the girl effect,” a potent image for promoting this attempt to engineer a future controlled through systems of finance. This mode, Murphy suggest, exists in tension with an “affirmative” form of speculation, which imagines alternative futures rather than seeking to realize a particular one governed by a dominant logic of the present.
Aït-Touati, too, took up the political imagination in her presentation. Like Murphy, she noted how certain kinds of speculation can foreclose creative possibility. Apocalyptic visions of climate change, she argued, provide a difficult starting point for political negotiation. Alongside strategies of dramatization, strategies of de-dramatization may provide a useful means of bringing alternatives to catastrophic climate change into being.
Perhaps the most intriguing contribution to the workshop was that of Ruha Benjamin, who is engaging in her own experiment in affirmative speculation. For her contribution, she is writing a serialized science fiction story set in a future world in which racial justice is enforced through a scheme of biopolitical reparations. She hopes to use speculative fiction as a means of thinking through and beyond the troubled present – “creating new social facts through narrative,” as she put it.
All that, and I haven’t even touched upon the fascinating presentations of Oliver Gaycken on x-ray vision and the technological sublime and Nikolai Krementsov on visionary biology in the post-revolutionary Soviet Union. Check out these and the rest of the essays, and keep an eye on histscifi.com for more on the progress of this scholarly experiment.