Organic Systems: Session 4 – report

by James Burton

The fourth and final event in the CHASE Organic Systems series took place in the Dana Studio at London's Science Museum. We were hosted by curator and researcher Glyn Morgan, who is in the process of developing a major exhibition on science fiction that will open at the museum in 2021. In the morning training session, Dr Morgan introduced us to the wide range of opportunities for research collaboration offered by the museum, including support for preparing collaborative funding applications, the on-site research library, and the Collaborative Doctoral Partnership scheme.

We also learned about some of the many archives and holdings of the museum relevant to our interests, such as the huge James Lovelock archive (including patents, school reports, letters, prototype inventions and much more). Glyn also offered some fascinating historical examples that reveal the cultural, historical and theoretical intertwining of our key themes of science, fiction and ecology, such as the influence of pioneering radiation researcher Frederick Soddy on H. G. Wells (and vice versa). The session was followed by a short museum tour in which participants’ attention was directed to some of the long-term exhibits relating to our discussions, including the landers and of the 'Exploring Space' section of the museum, and a replica of the 'Clock of the Long Now'.

In the afternoon, Roger Luckhurst introduced and moderated our first workshop session, which saw Glyn Morgan joined by two inspiring and thought-provoking interlocutors: Hugo-award-winning historian and critic of science fiction Farah Mendlesohn, and architect, educator and researcher Amy Butt, who draws on science fiction as a critical resource across her practice and teaching. Farah Mendlesohn opened the discussion with several provocative ideas about the changing historical and cultural status of “waste” in relation to a number of questions of environmental and ecological transformation. All three panellists drew on different works of SF (such as Kim Stanley Robinson’s Aurora and Chen Qiufan’s Waste Tide) in exploring different creative and political ways of engaging with and (re)thinking these issues.

In the latter part of the session, participants were divided into groups and took part in an interactive exercise conceived and led by Amy Butt, using physical materials and ideas from SF narratives to explore speculative ecologies of plastic, considering questions of waste, recycling, and the imbrication of different environments, networks and agents. The exercise gave rise to several (often surprising) lines of exploration and discussion around our key issues, as well as reflections on the value of SF for critical and speculative research.

In the final session of the day, a collective of early career researchers working at Birkbeck and Goldsmiths (the two institutions organising the CHASE series) shared some of the possibilities they find in SF for queer and feminist research. Under the banner of Beyond Gender, Katie Stone, Raphael Kabo, Sasha Myerson, Tom Dillon and Rachel Hill generously elaborated on the ways their critical research in such diverse areas as space economy, feminist psychogeography, anti-capitalist literature, magazine studies and childhood had brought them to SF and to working together. They shared their joys and frustrations with SF and their hopes for the future (of SF and in general!), as beautifully expressed in their collectively produced Beyond Gender manifesto

As with all the previous events in the series, we concluded with a reception, at which numerous possibilities for future collaborations were enthusiastically discussed – and the London Science Fiction Research Community invited all participants to a further two days of wide-ranging discussion around SF research at their Productive Futures conference at Birkbeck (if you missed it, see Jo Lindsay Walton’s write-up in Vector here). In all, it was a truly inspiring and informative day, and a perfect conclusion to the series.


Dr James Burton is Lecturer in Cultural Studies and Cultural History at Goldsmiths, University of London, and a co-organizer of the CHASE-funded series Organic Systems.


                              Image by John Kannenberg, used under a CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 licence.


Author: CCL

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