Salvaging the Future

By David M. HigginsMay 31, 2016

Salvaging the Future

Paradoxa 27 by Sherryl Vint

THE ACADEMIC JOURNAL Paradoxa is quickly becoming one of the most remarkable publications for emergent cutting-edge SF scholarship. Over the past three years, Paradoxa has released three special issues devoted to science fiction: in 2013, Mark Bould edited the Africa SF issue; and then, in 2014, Bould returned (with co-editor Rhys Williams) to offer an issue called SF Now that conducts an in-depth exploration of the contemporary state of the genre. SF Now examines science fiction’s engagement with what Mark Fisher calls “capitalist realism” — the breakdown in our ability to imagine viable alternatives to capitalism since the end of the Cold War. The issue’s contributors reveal that science fiction has increasingly shifted away from utopian imaginings, now either dwelling on the wonders and terrors of the technofuturistic present or forecasting inevitable apocalyptic collapse (often seen as the inescapable consequence of capitalism’s most exploitative and destructive tendencies).

Sherryl Vint’s 2015 Paradoxa issue, The Futures Industry, moves this vital conversation forward in a noteworthy way. Vint proposes that the future has become a site of crisis, both in the sense that real devastation looms on the horizon (as a consequence of climate change and economic instability) and also in the sense that we seem to have collectively lost the ability to imagine futures that offer plausible alternatives to the seemingly unstoppable trajectory of the apocalyptic present. Vint’s introduction to the issue contrasts the film Tomorrowland (2015) against artist-activist Banksy’s satirical Dismaland Bemusement Park (a dystopian anti–theme park that was open for one month in Somerset, England, in 2015): if Tomorrowland offers a strained nostalgia for seemingly innocent 1950s visions of the future, Dismaland bitterly exposes the exploitative corporate fantasies and totalitarian inclinations of the industry-oriented future imaginings of Disney’s Tomorrowland and the World’s Fairs that inspired it.

In contrast to this impasse — a deadlock between naïve retrofuturism and critical fatalism — Vint claims that science fiction can offer “a way of re-energizing our capacity to believe in and hence work towards other sorts of futures.” Her goal for the issue is to foreground both the “urgent need for genuinely open and new futures” and “the need to reclaim the power to imagine the future outside of industry-produced advertising images.” In consequence, the essays in the issue tend either to interrogate the pernicious industrialization of future possibilities or to draw upon SF to theorize new conceptual alternatives and fresh ways of imagining radical tomorrows.

Three essays in particular address the ubiquitous industrialization of the future (and our ways of imagining it). My favorite among these is Josh Pearson’s “Seeing the Present, Grasping the Future,” a highly innovative article that examines commercials for the financial services industry. Pearson argues that such advertisements function as a mode of corporate science fiction that perpetuates a fantasy of masterful economic vision. Financial service firms, he proposes, claim a privileged ability to speak for The Market because they offer professional perspectives that can make sense of the chaos and unpredictability of global finance. You may not be able to understand The Market, but these firms can master it on your behalf, and thus the immaterial labor of finance managers provides inestimable value. Pearson demonstrates how science-fictional advertising narratives, which offer a speculative vision of an economic future carefully managed under the watchful control of an omniscient financial gaze, obscure the complex operations of real economic activity and lock normal people into subordinate roles dependent on an elite class of financial viziers. This industrial imagining of the future, as Pearson skillfully shows, celebrates capitalist realism and functions to perpetuate increasing wealth inequality.

In contrast to Pearson’s examination of the speculative finance industry, Anindita Banerjee and Debra Castillo’s excellent essay “Unbearable Futures” draws our attention to the global industries of reproductive work and biological surrogacy markets. Banerjee and Castillo begin by discussing Israel’s outsourcing of surrogacy to Nepal (which was brought to global attention when Israeli babies — but not Nepalese surrogate mothers — were evacuated from Nepal in the aftermath of the devastating earthquake there in April 2015) in order to capture a snapshot of the exploitative globalization of reproductive work. The authors then examine such science-fictional phenomena as Alex Rivera’s film Sleep Dealer (2008), Manjula Padmanabhan’s play Harvest (1997), Zippi Brand Frank’s film Google Baby (2009), and Jorge Baradit’s speculative novels, which collectively demonstrate that “care markets framed in the service of a privileged few mandate that social bonds be fractured in support of capital flows, leaving behind disenfranchised populations whose humanity is increasingly etiolated.” Banerjee and Castillo’s analysis restores attention to the gendered and raced bodies that are often rendered invisible in the global care economy, and their essay offers a striking portrayal of the ways in which the production of futurity itself is increasingly industrialized by the dehumanizing economic norms of late capitalism.

Finally, Alan Lovegreen’s essay “Salvage Value” draws on Steven Shaviro’s work to explore how singularity narratives (in both science fiction and the business world) offer futuristic imaginings that are, in essence, the wet dreams of finance capital. Lovegreen proposes to revisit (and to some extent redeem) the notion of the singularity by rejecting its technological utopianism and instead grounding singularity discourse within frameworks that emphasize economic, social, and environmental justice. Yet the power of his essay ultimately lies in the way he maps how singularity narratives drive us relentlessly toward futures that intensify the economic problems and contradictions of the present.

If Pearson, Banerjee and Castillo, and Lovegreen each offer thoughtful critiques of contemporary futures industries, much of the rest of the special issue struggles with the task of imagining meaningful alternatives to the dead-end fantasies of capitalist realism. Steven Shaviro’s review-essay illustrates the magnitude of this problem, covering four new books in the “Verso Futures” series that aspire (according to the publisher) to explore “the outer limits of political and social possibility.” Shaviro, however, finds all of these books disappointing: despite their sharp reflections on the problems of the present, each seems paralyzed by an inability to theorize hopeful solutions or brighter tomorrows.

Three essays in The Futures Industry — by Hugh O’Connell, Keren Omry, and Justin Izzo — explicitly respond to Vint’s challenge to reenergize our sense of alternative possibilities, and, remarkably, each of these authors suggests that the pathway toward a new tomorrow requires the radical imagining of a new yesterday. O’Connell’s essay, “Engines of Utopia,” examines fantastic portrayals of trains in the works of Christopher Priest, Ian McDonald, and China Miéville, questioning why contemporary SF returns a quintessential symbol of imperialist modernity in order to recapture a sense of utopian hope in defiance of capitalist realism. O’Connell suggests that returning to the image of the train in the contemporary moment means “coming to terms with the legacy of (post)colonialism.” The imaginatively repurposed train, in his view, simultaneously represents a previous imperial vision of utopian progress and a deeply postcolonial critique of that very vision of progress; the retroactive (and revisionary) adaptation of the train denaturalizes capitalist realism and recovers a kind of lost utopian hope. O’Connell’s analysis illuminates the repurposing of the train in the contemporary fantastic imaginary while also shedding light on the retro-hipster-vintage-steampunk trend-matrix of our contemporary moment. The truly new thing is now the old thing, because the shiny newer-new thing (the iPad, the Prius) is hopelessly complicit with global capitalism, and the old thing (the train) becomes a symbol for both an interrogation of capitalism and for reinvesting the past with a potential it seems to have lost.

O’Connell’s essay exemplifies the kind of work that Slavoj Žižek calls for in First as Tragedy, Then as Farce (2009) when he suggests that, in order to challenge the seemingly unshakable future unfolding before us, we must “mobilize ourselves to perform the act which will change destiny itself and thereby insert a new possibility into the past.” If the future seems locked into a dismal trajectory, it is because our sense of the past is fixed and static: the present seems to be the inevitable product of a singular history just as the future seems to be the unwavering continuation of the apocalyptic present. In order to disrupt the paralysis of such totalizing inevitability, we need to view the past as a multitude of alternate possibilities rather than remaining locked into an unshakable historical determinism. According to O’Connell, fantastic postcolonial trains insert new potentialities into the past in a way that forces us to “reconsider the narrative of history’s triumphant resolution in the present moment as capitalist realist closure.” These narratives suggest that there are, and always have been, alternatives.

Omry’s “A Capital Alternative” and Izzo’s “Historical Reversibility as Ethnographic Afrofuturism” each echo O’Connell’s assertion that a new sense of the future depends on alternate visions of the past. Omry examines alternate histories in the imaginative work of Dave Eggers, William Gibson, and Philip Roth in order to show how such fantastic histories resist the teleology of capitalism and open up the possibility of a more future-oriented present. Izzo explores speculative cartography in the work of Nikolaj Cyon and Abdourahman Waberi — both of whom imagine alternative geographies of Africa that reject the history of Western colonization — in order to celebrate a carnivalesque historical reversibility that exposes today’s neocolonial globalization as far from inevitable.

At its heart, then, The Futures Industry foregrounds two contrasting triptychs: Pearson, Banerjee and Castillo, and Lovegreen sharply critique the problem of the industrialized future unfolding before us, while O’Connell, Omry, and Izzo innovatively theorize speculative approaches to history that open radical future alternatives. These six excellent essays establish a powerful foundation for the special issue. Some other entries, however, feel somewhat forced: Ruben Mendoza’s “Toward a Critical Pedagogy of Science Fictional Teaching,” for example, is a solid discussion that draws on ancient sophist philosophy to explore SF as a source for innovative pedagogy, but Mendoza’s suggestion that science-fictional pedagogy can disrupt capitalist realism feels tacked-on (to fit the theme of the special issue) rather than central to the essay’s argument. I also have to admit that I don’t quite know what to do with Kennan Ferguson’s “The Nigh is End: Politics After Time,” which reexamines the biblical Book of Revelation, exploring alternate eschatologies that reject its apocalyptic temporality. This, like Mendoza’s piece, is a solid essay in its own right, but it seems like an oddball inclusion here. Finally, Andrew Hageman’s “Dialectics of Our Eco-Technical Future” provides an insightful outline of the emergence of ecological concerns within William Gibson’s speculative visions of futurity, yet the dialectic he proposes between cogs and circuits in Gibson’s work (as well as his reliance on a semiotic square to organize his argument) feels rather strained.

Malisa Kurtz adroitly addresses the fact that her own contribution, an interview with South African author Lauren Beukes, doesn’t explicitly relate to the core theme of The Futures Industry by concluding her interview with a five-page mini-essay in which she reflects on why Beukes’s novels display deep ambivalence concerning the future. Kurtz suggests that Beukes’s novels are “conscious of how ignoring current racial and gendered violence in representations of the future will only serve to perpetuate the systems that enable such discrimination.” I’ve never seen an interview followed by a commentary essay of this kind; Kurtz’s analysis is excellent, yet it’s hard not to notice that her follow-up doesn’t exactly match the conversation that unfolded in the interview itself.

The Futures Industry concludes with Rhys Williams’s review of Salvage #1, the first issue of a new quarterly journal of “revolutionary arts and letters” edited by Rosie Warren. The concept of “salvage” has gained unique critical traction in recent years. In Combined and Uneven Apocalypse (2011), Evan Calder Williams advocates for salvagepunk as a new kind of revolutionary attitude and practice. Salvagepunk, in his view, begins from an acceptance of the current catastrophe, with our job being to accelerate the process of wreckage and build anew from the resulting debris. In this sense, salvagepunk is a rebuke to capitalist realism: it’s not so much that it’s easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism; it’s more that capitalism is already ending the world, and the best remaining hope is to make sure that it goes down with the ship. Salvage theorizes and aestheticizes a kind of salvagepunk politics and practice. China Miéville’s essay “The Limits of Utopia,” which serves as a manifesto for Salvage #1, advocates for the necessity of political hatred; optimistic utopian visions, in his view, can too often function to support the ideology of the systems they oppose. “We need utopia,” Miéville suggests, “but to try to think utopia, in this world, without rage, without fury, is an indulgence we can’t afford. In the face of what is done, we cannot think utopia without hate.”

Williams’s review of Salvage #1, which foregrounds the new magazine’s unflinching commitment to fierce pessimism and a politics of oppositional hatred, is the perfect closing essay for The Futures Industry. In many ways, The Futures Industry and Salvage #1 represent parallel attempts to diagnose the death of the future and to conceptualize meaningful alternatives (and this parallel resonance is unsurprising given Miéville’s strong influence on the deep thinking of both projects). While Salvage emphasizes the necessity of deep antagonism, The Futures Industry, at its best, proposes that we must demolish history and salvage something useful from its wreckage. Both projects, taken together, begin to map the contours of a political, intellectual, aesthetic, and countercultural resistance movement that responds to what Vint describes as the “urgent need for genuinely open and new futures” in the face of the deadening (and world-consuming) postmodern nihilism of capitalist realism.


David M. Higgins is the Speculative Fiction Editor for the Los Angeles Review of Books.

LARB Contributor

David M. Higgins (he/they) is associate professor of English and chair of the Department of Humanities and Communication at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University Worldwide, and he is a senior editor for the Los Angeles Review of Books. David is the author of Reverse Colonization: Science Fiction, Imperial Fantasy, and Alt-Victimhood, which won the 2022 Science Fiction Research Association Book Award. He has also published a critical monograph examining Ann Leckie’s SF masterwork Ancillary Justice (2013), and his research has been published in journals such as American Literature, Science Fiction Studies, Paradoxa, and Extrapolation. In the public sphere, David has been a featured speaker on NPR’s radio show On Point, and his literary journalism has been published in the Los Angeles Review of Books and The Guardian. David serves as the second vice president for the International Association for the Fantastic in the Arts (IAFA).


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