Conference Report: Organic Systems

by Sarah Lohmann

On September 16, 2017, the London Science Fiction Research Community (LSFRC) held its first ever conference, Organic Systems: Environments, Bodies and Cultures in Science Fiction, at Birkbeck, University of London. It was an exciting and well-attended event that explored the boundaries, intersections and interactions of systems of various kinds, with a particular focus on those of an organic nature. As Aren Roukema, Francis Gene-Rowe, and Rhodri Davies so aptly put it in their programme introduction, these structures, arrays or networks are ones in which ‘system appears as ecosystem, syntax as biology’ (albeit sometimes in tandem with technology), and which make up our world (and those beyond) while constantly being shaped by ‘culture’ – in itself a ‘myriad of entangled interlocutors’. Accordingly, the event gave fertile ground to a myriad of more or less thematically ‘entangled interlocutors’ of the scholarly variety, who nevertheless managed to present a series of individually distinguished and enlightening papers on a variety of related topics. The day was divided up into four parallel panels and framed by a fascinating and wide-ranging keynote address by Dr Chris Pak in the morning as well as a lively and thought-provoking roundtable discussion in the late afternoon, which featured Paul McAuley, Gwyneth Jones and Professor Adam Roberts and was chaired by Dr Caroline Edwards. In the following report, I will give my impressions of the presentations that I was able to attend while attempting a content summary of those which I was unable to see; I apologise for the lack of detail in the latter. However, I am pleased at the chance to supplement my report with some rather excellent ‘sketch notes’ by the very talented Dr Paul Fisher Davies, who has the wonderful habit of taking conference notes in the form of diagrammatic text and drawings and who has very kindly made the ones he created at ‘Organic Systems’ available to us. (For a better view of the drawings, click on the hyperlinks that appear during this report.)

To begin with, Dr Chris Pak’s keynote speech illustrated the embeddedness of the conference topic within the previous activities of the LSFRC, referring to texts that the reading group had previously covered, as well as thematically related works. These sf short stories and novels, which all had a focus on organic systems in the shape of ‘environments, bodies and cultures’ in common, ranged from Mary Shelley’s The Last Man to Kim Stanley Robinson’s Aurora via a variety of other texts exploring biological and environmental themes, such as J. G. Ballard’s “The Burning World”, Octavia E. Butler’s Dawn, David Cronenberg’s Videodrome and Joan Slonczewski’s A Door Into Ocean. Chris employed this transhistorical approach in order to show how ‘sf’s concern with biological otherness and with ecological systems enables commentary and criticism of culture and society, in particular with regard to thought about our future as (post)humans’, thus displaying new alternatives to the liberal humanist subject. In this way, Chris demonstrated how the boundaries of the human with non- and post-human environments could be seen as informed by and redrawn through texts that examined biological and organic processes as well as digital ones. He further supported his point by highlighting the cross-fertilization of ideas in these fields, for example those underlying environmentalism and early computer programming. In addition, Chris focused on narratives of terraforming in relation to posthumanism. Having just published a book on the topic, he was well-placed to elaborate on the capacity of the terraforming motif to ‘bring together a large number of discourses and disciplines to reflect on the relevance of adapting multiple environments to humankind’s future’, thus modelling the consequences of systemic change. Overall, despite the vast number of textual examples, Chris’s presentation made a concise and powerful case for more organically informed research into ‘the conjunction of the biological, ecological and digital’ and their underlying systems within sf; after all, as he said, the genre ‘intimates posthumanity by placing the human within a new, previously unforeseen network of relations that gesture toward further transformations to come’.

The rest of the day was similarly informed by inducements to re-think boundaries within sf as well as our relation to environments and networks of various descriptions, while often mirroring Chris’s move away from liberal humanist discourse and towards a less anthropocentric worldview.

On the panel ‘Nature in the Anthropocene’, Dr Andrew M. Butler and Dr Amy Cutler addressed a large and rapt audience. Andrew began by cheerfully examining the construction of human and alien nature in ‘Avatar’, dexterously raising the question of what ‘wild nature’ could mean and whether humanity must always be alienated from it, given our various attempts to organize nature through capitalism. Amy then deftly shifted our focus from the forest-dwelling inhabitants of ‘Avatar’ to the environment itself by brilliantly extemporizing a talk on the forest as an unstable ‘legal-botanical space’ that ‘makes it an ideal speculative device’. Describing this particular bounded space as ‘breaching the nature/culture line’, Amy explored the countertextual and uncanny nature of the word ‘forest’ before giving examples of depictions of forests as antisocial utopias and dark or even weird ecologies. This stimulating talk raised fascinating issues, such as the ‘bioperversity’ of humans not being able to garden for full diversity, and other limits of human/nature engagement.

Moving from dark spaces to resplendent light-filled ones, Dr Rhys Williams then led an illuminating intellectual excursion into the world of the subgenre of ‘solarpunk’ within the panel ‘Eco-Critical Speculations’. Portraying it as one attempt to find ‘new acts of imagination and agency’ in meeting the challenges of climate change, he argued for the genre’s ‘unique autonomy in allowing space for radical thought through its own traditions’, while at the same time delineating its limitations and frankly fascistic aspects. A particularly exciting element of Rhys’s paper, however, was his depiction of solarpunk as a vanguard in the emerging field of fiction imagining alternative energy futures, while the recurring question of ‘where does the poop go?’ served as a humorous but fascinating reminder of the interconnectedness of systems and the impossibility of complete structural isolation. Gayathri Goel then presented a reading of Gwyneth Jones’ ‘The Universe of Things’ as a reminder of the limits of anthropocentric thinking. In presenting alternative relationships with agential waste objects, Gayathri explained, the poem highlights that ‘we already inhabit an alien world’. Moreover, she deepened this awareness by displaying a stunning selection of waste-based art installations on her slides. Lastly, Esther Andreu Martinez presented the example of an even more straightforwardly oppressive system than Rhys’s solarpunk worlds: in an informative paper based on her own translation, she analysed Unno Juza’s classic Japanese short story ‘Jūhachi-ji no Ongaku-yoku’ (‘The Music Bath at 1800 hours’) as a deeply dystopian society in which only the body serves as a final bastion of freedom from mind control and regulated death.

In the parallel panel ‘Posthuman Environments’, Dr Hallvard Haug was simultaneously describing the original cyborg figure as an attempt to do almost the opposite of Gayathri and Jones’ embrace of an agential universe of things. He characterized it as an attempt to create a fully isolated system for the individual body, completely closed off from its environment. Conversely, however, Dr Susan Gray explored immersive Augmented Reality (AR) as creating a melding of ‘hybrid ecologies’ which have the potential to rewrite our social and emotional environmental perception. Dr Jim Clarke then rounded off the panel by presenting a final, very different, science-fictional approach to what it means to be an embodied human: that of texts that embrace the Buddhist tenet of reincarnation, which allows authors to engage with the intriguing-sounding ‘mortality-transcending overlap between reincarnation and the digital potential of transhumanism’.

After a general dash to Pret a Manger for lunch, we reconvened in Birkbeck’s spacious basement for the day’s second batch of panels before the final roundtable discussion. In the panel with the lovely title ‘Et in Arcadia I Go: Critical Utopias’, Eden Davis presented a wonderfully erudite engagement with cybernetics in Thomas Pynchon’s Mason & Dixon and John Barth’s The Sot-Weed Factor; speaking of cybernetic paradigms in ‘these baroque counterhistories’, he examined the traces of the cybernetic paradigm on both micro- and macro-levels within their narratives. Eden’s presentation also offered new observations regarding, for example, cybernetics versus Darwinian and imperialist paradigms and the boundaries between colonizer and colonized. My own presentation was most likely presented with poorly-masked glee at this opportunity to proselytize on my favourite topic: the academic merit of late-20th-century feminist utopian literature. On this occasion, it was regarding its pioneering approach towards holistically integrated utopian environments and accordingly re-negotiated boundaries of selfhood, as opposed to the eugenics-based individualist focus of some utopian classics. However, I did also briefly mention some recent texts that present the darker side of greatly expanded personal identity, which led to an interesting discussion later on.

In the parallel panel, meanwhile, entitled ‘The Map is Not the Territory: Liminal Spaces’, Michelle Clarke and Kerry Dodd both explored particular spaces of alterity to illustrate their disruptive potential. Michelle read some examples of African speculative fiction, including Dilman Dila’s short story ‘Leafy Man’, Nnedi Okorafor’s Lagoon and Jacqui L’Ange’s The Seed Thief, through the lens of environmental criticism as well as African philosophy and ethics in order to critique and decentre environmental discourse from purely Western understandings of nature – a fascinating-sounding endeavour that I was sad to miss. Kerry’s paper looked equally compelling, arguing that ‘zones’ – areas of physical and metaphysical law-subversion after alien visits to human landscapes, as described in Arkady and Boris Strugatsky’s Roadside Picnic, Jeff VanderMeer’s Annihilation and other texts – can also fundamentally alter our perception and experience of our environment, serving as ‘interpolated area[s] through which landscape archaeology can engage with unregulated space and waste’. This inspection of ‘alien detritus’ nicely mirrored the focus on waste that we had already encountered in Gayathri Goel’s reading of Gwyneth Jones’ ‘The Universe of Things’, as well as in the general pre-occupation with excrement during Rhys’ solarpunk question-and-answer session, thus again underlining the importance of holistic approaches to ecosystems, which will necessarily include waste materials and other recurring human or non-human substances.

In the day’s last set of parallel panels, there followed a set of papers with the promising title ‘Every Street a Document, Every Field a Text: Palimpsest Landscapes’, which featured Chris Hussey, Richard Johnston and Dr Paul Fisher Davies, the creator of these lovely sketchnotes. All three papers investigated received interpretations of one or two particular geographical spaces within the texts of one writer or artist before offering their own, and discussed the possibilities raised thereby. Chris began by suggesting that the intersecting and interacting cities of China Miéville’s Un Lun Dun and The City & The City play different roles, but that their idiosyncratic, seeping co-existences and intricate relations are particularly valuable in their creation of a separate, liminal space: here, Miéville is able to explore themes that would be at odds with a ‘purely realist setting’. This, he argued, is made possible by a palimpsest of ‘layered constructions of space over time’, in which ‘former and new patterns are simultaneously visible’. This reading was then paralleled by Richard Johnston’s interpretation of Philip K. Dick’s engagement with the American West, which he views as not parochial (as Darko Suvin suggests) but as the careful creation of a composite region via a process of ‘lamination’, which renders the final layered space ‘both heterogeneous and uncannily familiar’. He argued that Dick thus utilises Californian regional interests to explore a more international view that critiques the effects of capitalism. Finally, Dr Paul Fisher Davies presented his reading of yet another complex and dynamic space that functions in unexpected ways: that of the nostalgic 1980s rural landscape created by Swedish artist and writer Simon Stålenhag, which is centred around the machines and megastructures related to an imaginary particle accelerator complex known as ‘The Loop’. This landscape, he suggested, is located somewhere between the pastoral Arcadian and the dystopian Brave New World, is itself suggestive of Timothy Morton’s ‘hyperobjects’ in its hidden vastness, and has an interesting effect on the reader in its ‘multimodal and bricolaged form’ that recalls graphic narrative.

In the panel next door, there was also a shift from textual analysis towards visual media, and indeed towards real-world applications of the systems-related speculations of science fiction: under the title ‘The Architecture of Tomorrow’, Amy Butt, Professor Nic Clear and Dr David Ashford, who all practice or teach architecture or related schools of thought, presented papers on the ‘built environment’ of man-made architectural ecosystems. Amy examined a series of sf texts, such as Isaac Asimov’s Caves of Steel, Larry Niven and Jerry Pournell’s Oath of Fealty and Scott Sanders’ Terrarium, in which cities are of so vast a scale that they form self-contained ‘hives of humanity’, while Nic advocated for pieces of architecture (such as his projected city of the ‘Chtonopolis’) to be seen as ‘Science Fictions in their own right’, and David discussed the ‘insidious appeal of the brutalist dystopia’, with particular reference to the Dalek city of Skaro. All three presentations were engaging and visually captivating; however, it was particularly interesting to observe how the three speakers associated either utopian or dystopian dimensions with the architectural examples they were describing. Amy’s examples were quite clearly dystopian, representing either an ‘internment of privilege’ or ‘spatial apartheid’ in their isolation and serving to ‘critique both the imagined city and the desire that created it’, while David spoke of ‘feelings of hatred towards buildings’ as one of the salient features of late modernism and described Skaro as ‘expressing in shorthand anxieties about totalitarianism’. Nic, on the other hand, elaborated mostly on the ludic nature and consensus-based government of his Chtonopolis, a futuristic subterranean city of millions in the Thames estuary that he had modeled and designed in a team. This was fascinating to hear about, but in light of some of the day’s previous discussions, it also raised the question of whether this particular enclosed system would be as utopian as it sounded – or ultimately represent a space dangerously detached from its natural environment, much like the cities described by Amy and Nic (though covered in ‘synthetic biology’), and perhaps even be at risk of totalitarian control via citizens’ ‘augmented cerebral implants’. In any case, all three presentations gave us much food for thought regarding the relationship and interaction of natural and man-made architectural spaces, as well as raising the question of ‘architectural determinism’, or ‘to what extent the environment dictates behaviour’.

The final point on the agenda, then, was a real treat – a roundtable discussion featuring the writers Paul McAuley, Gwyneth Jones, and Professor Adam Roberts, and chaired by Dr Caroline Edwards. Caroline did a wonderful job of summarizing the day’s discussions before engaging her guests in a discussion on issues such as a possible world beyond Anthropocentrism, and whether it might in fact be the best outcome for humanity to destroy not the planet, but itself as a species – ‘is utopia only possible in the absence of humanity?’ What followed was a lively debate on the nature of utopia, on the nature of ‘nature’ itself (as Adam pointed out, ‘“nature” is always mediated’), and on the human/environment connection in sf.

After some discussion on the classification of utopia literature, Gywneth pointed out that utopia is in fact ‘defined by lack’, which gives it its place in science fiction through its connection with our ‘living world’. This was met with agreement, but also a general suggestion that in both utopian and dystopian literature, there is too much emphasis on the human individual at the heart of things. Adam declared that ‘we need a Copernican revolution to unseat ourselves from the centre’, while also pointing out that sf in fact has ‘unique potential for doing that’. Paul agreed, stating that sf ‘tells history from underneath’. This notion of decentering then swiftly led to Caroline’s question on the planet’s best possible future, and whether humans should necessarily be part of it. There was a strong consensus that we must first accept ourselves as fundamentally part of our environment and nature itself, and to think more in terms of ‘webs’ – Gwyneth expressed concern at how the term ‘environment’ has come to mean something outside ourselves, while Paul mentioned the idea of humans as gardeners or stewards of the living world.

In search of a new, embedded human awareness, Gwyneth brought the conversation back to the concept of utopia, and suggested that we ‘reconnect with the word’ in order to stimulate social change: people should, she said, ‘read science fiction books about utopias – and then go out and do it!’. While Paul expressed concern at there being a ‘fine line between utopias and terrible death cults’, Gwyneth claimed that they can serve as excellent vehicles of progressive thought: referring to the feminist utopian literature of the 1960s and 1970s that I had presented on earlier in the day, she pointed out that ‘what’s interesting about these feminist writers […] was that they were convergent without planning – they all came up with the same patterns!’. This suggestion, that there are specific steps that we could take towards a better world at any given time, was well-received – particularly with the reservation that any current utopian thought must necessarily incorporate highly time-sensitive ecological concerns. Gwyneth herself stressed the urgency of this: ‘do we reach utopia before we destroy ourselves?’

Finally, Adam raised one final important point that could stand in the way of our survival: the fact that capitalism is currently being accelerated due to people making large amounts of money from environmental collapse, which means that as global citizens and as readers and writers of sf, we must ‘think past capitalism as such’, and towards a world that is not built on the interests of the isolated few. As such, we were left with one last reminder of the conference’s running theme: an admonition that we are all part of intersecting environmental systems of both natural and man-made varieties, and that sf has a vital role to play both in alerting us to this fundamental interconnectedness and in helping us to understand, and perhaps even shape, its development.

Overall, the conference appeared to be a great success – thought-provoking, enlightening and certainly stimulating – and I look forward to future endeavours by the London Science Fiction Research Community, including perhaps another conference next year.

Sarah Lohmann is a doctoral candidate in the Department of English Studies at the University of Durham.

Illustrations by Paul Fisher Davies.

Author: CCL

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