ICFA 2009, Science Fiction, Space/Time, and Postmodernity Panel

Surprisingly, I woke up in time this morning to visit Starbucks for coffee and a piece of lemon loaf, return to my room for a shower, and arrive just in time for the 8:30am panel on SF, Space/Time, and Postmodernity.  David M. Higgins moderated the panel, which included Veronica Hollinger, DeWitt Douglas Kilgore, Megan Bygness, Neil Easterbrook, and Patricia Melzer.

Veronica, who I last spoke with last year as I was preparing for my fourteen hour drive back from the Science Fiction Research Association meeting in Lawrence, Kansas, devoted her opening statement to the growing crisis of representation in SF signaled by the unknowability of the future following the technologically transformative singularity or what some call the “spike” or the “rapture of the nerds.”  If, as some writers, critics, technologists, engineers, and scientists imply, the singularity takes place, then the world following the asymptotic leap will result in a radical change to human history that makes logical extrapolation (the hallmark of many SF definitions) impossible.  We will encounter what Vernor Vinge calls “the unknowable soon,” and any imaginative thought about what that future might be like is devoid of an understanding of how complete the change the singularity will constitute.  It is this point that I think may be the only knowable element of the singularity event.  

Dewitt, who made this his first ICFA visit, discussed the political potential of postmodern decenteredness, and how that decenteredness may be more desirable than modern positivist assumptions about progressive metanarratives.  He pointed toward political hope in a lack of center, because an unbounded world with no privileged center means that we need not be apprehensive of the past or future in constructing a better world.  Additionally, he said that we are bounded by space/time in the sense of our movements within the world and by the fact of our birth and death.  Furthermore, we believe that we know the end of the universe with mathematics and cosmological theory.  However, the real interesting and complicated bit was when he brought in Fred Hoyle’s steady state theory of the universe to discuss postmodernity.  During the q&a, he noted that the relationship between physical theory (i.e., relativity and total decentering) and the social world is problematic for talking about the social and political.  

Neil, who recently won SFRA’s Clareson Award (check), shared some thoughts on Mark Curie’s About Time, which concerns the concept of time embedded in narrative (something that might be useful for A.P.’s paper on time in fantasyland).  The three key concepts that he mentioned were David Harvey’s idea of space/time compression in the postmodern world, postmodern style and “accelerated recontextualization,” and “archive fever,” or the frenzied archiving of contemporary social life–the anticipating the future and storing it in the past.  It is the last concept that Neil found most interesting, because it is something that we see all around us with the way people (myself included) continually document the present for preservation in the past, or as Derrida wrote about it Archive Fever (which is actually about Freud), “domesticating topologies of the future.” 

Patricia, who I joined along with a bunch of other great folks for lunch the other day, talked about the queering of time and mentioned works including Edelman’s No Future and Halberstam’s A Queer Time and Place.  The important question here is how can we resist heteronormativity’s structuring of the future?  She asked, “can SF offer anything to queer time, or should we all go to the bathhouse?”  No one in the audience could come up with an example of SF that properly engaged queer time.  The closest that I could imagine while sitting there was Tom Godwin’s “The Cold Equations,” because the male pilot chooses to kill the young girl (the image of the child in Edelman’s work).  However, the pilot does this to save the lives of colonists (I don’t have a copy of the story with me now–were these miners or colonists?  Are the genders of the people on the planet mentioned?  An all male group would skew how this is interpreted).  The consensus was that we should all go to the bathhouse.

Megan wanted to engage the audience with a discussion of time in contemporary television–namely, Lost.  Unfortunately, very few audience members regularly watch that program.  She did mention the double narrative streams (on the island vs. flashback), and the time consumed in ancillary texts (logs, puzzles with hidden maps, etc.) meant to allow one to better understand the show on television.

Toward the end of the panel, I asked Veronica about her thoughts on Ray Kurzweil’s Singularity University (SU), which provoked some comments from the entire panel regarding the relationship between capital, technological innovation, and the singularity.  I’ve been interested in the impetus for SU, because I noticed in the online pre-application and follow-up application there is an emphasis on “leadership.”  I wonder if their idea of the singularity is one that can be controlled by capital and the market–leaders of industry or innovation, perhaps.  Or, it may be their belief that leaders may take us to the threshold and then what–take us through, push us over, or throw us off?  If the singularity is a profound and incomprehensible shift in the world and humanity’s place in the world, I’m not necessarily sure that I want the kinds of “leaders” that may be enlisted for SU.  Time, of course, will tell.

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Jason W. Ellis

I am an Associate Professor of English at the New York City College of Technology, CUNY whose teaching includes composition and technical communication, and research focuses on science fiction, neuroscience, and digital technology. Also, I coordinate the City Tech Science Fiction Collection, which holds more than 600 linear feet of magazines, anthologies, novels, and research publications.