In his famous analysis of Jane Austen's Mansfield Park, Edward Said uncovers the relationship between the English country manor of Mansfield Park, and the plantation in Antigua that helps support it. At a superficial level, the story is about Mansfield Park. The Antiguan plantation appears only in the shadows, in throwaway lines and casual references. But, as Said points out, Sir Thomas Bertram's overseas possessions "give him his wealth, occasion his absences, fix his social status at at home and abroad, and make possible his values, to which Fanny Price (and Austen herself) finally subscribes." (Edward Said, Culture and Imperialism, 73) Said's analysis gives us a "way of seeing" literary texts, a method of excavation that reveals (in the words of Raymond Williams) a "structure of attitude and reference" that would otherwise remain hidden.
It is perhaps fitting that Said is writing about Empire, a political formation that has long been central to science fictional imaginations. Empire brings with it questions of State formation and violence, centre and periphery, borders and hybridity—all of which have been explored, to varying degrees, by writers in and of the genre. But there is something else that plays a role in science fiction that is perhaps similar to the role that the Antiguan plantation plays in Mansfield Park: unobtrusive but necessary, incidental but crucial, and revealed in the works through "an odd combination of casualness and stress" (Said, 106): extractivism, or extraction.
Put simply, extractivism is defined as “the intensive and extensive exploitation of natural resources; little or no industrialization; export as the principal destination; exploitation that impedes natural renovation ... the economic form of the ‘enclave.’” In our 21st-century world, extractivism is embedded in the global political economy, capitalism, and in worldwide supply chains. In Planetary Mine, Martin Arboleda paints us a vivid picture:
If we put together all the phases that comprise the transnational circulatory system of primary-commodity production and trace the journey of copper from its point of extraction in the Andean plateaus of Chile to its point of destination in the spaces of advanced manufacturing in China, a bewildering panorama emerges: Autonomous trucks and shovels working at nearly 4,000 metres above sea level to put the metal into a semi-automated train, which then takes it to a smelting and electrorefining facility, where computerized ovens transform it into copper cathodes. The cathodes are put into containers and sent to one of the megaports of the mining industry in the Atacama Desert, where gantry cranes load the cargo into a container ship. After crossing the Pacific, our container is unloaded by the swiftness of the vast mechanical systems of the capital-intensive Chinese ports. Finally, the copper cathodes end up in one of the infamous “dark factories” of the Pearl River Delta. Here, robots and computer numerical control (CNC) machine tools operate in the dark, turning copper into the wires that hundreds of thousands of human laborers in electronics assembling facilities will later etch into the electronic gadgets we carry in our pockets. (Martin Arboleda, Planetary Mine, 16)
As Riofrancos points out, the term is a capacious one, including "extractive activities, the policies and ideologies that promote them, their socio-environmental effects, and the forms of resistance that they provoke."
From the above, it should be evident how extractivism is both "incidental but crucial" to science fiction. Consider Season Three of Star Trek: Discovery (2020-21), one of the more recent iterations of the franchise. A major driver of the plot of Season Three is an event called The Burn, when refined dilithium reserves across the Galaxy go suddenly and unexpectedly inert. As dilithium is an integral component of the warp drive, which enables interstellar travel, the result is catastrophic: the Federation breaks apart, and is brought to the brink of collapse. In a moment of crisis, we see that Star Trek's post-scarcity, spacefaring civilisation would not exist without the literal extraction of a mineral from source planets. However, if we look back over almost six decades of Star Trek universe-building, across media, we find that dilithium extraction (with all the Planetary Mine-esque consequences that Arboleda lists out) is the Antiguan plantation of Star Trek: it exists, finds mention, is an occasional terrain of struggle and conflict (it even acts as currency), but its full imbrication within the political economy of Star Trek is rarely explored.
Star Trek is a particularly interesting example, because the utopia of a post-scarcity society clashes so starkly with everything we know about the material consequences of extractivism in our world. Arboleda tells us about Chile's "zonas de sacrificio" ("sacrifice zones"):
... built environments that have come to support the modalities of commodification of labor-power corresponding to the organs of the collective laborer that act as the appendage of heavy infrastructures and systems of machinery. (Arboleda, 94)
At a spacefaring level, would sacrifice zones turn into sacrifice planets? Would the inhabitants of those planets be asked to make necessary sacrifices for galactic welfare, as indigenous nations are asked to do so today? Would there be movements for planets' rights, pushes for galactic treaties along the lines of how the Bolivian and Ecuadorean Constitutions guarantee rights to nature? Would these then become terrains of contestation, as Riofrancos documents in her book, Resource Radicals? Would a Teixcalaanli aristocrat look up at the sky, think of Lsel Station, and wonder—with Auden—"what doubtful act allows/ Our freedom in this English house/ our picnics in the sun"?
It is these—and other—questions that our writers, essayists, and poets explore in this Strange Horizons special issue on extractivism in SFF. There are many entry points into this special issue, but let us begin with a piece of popular culture that is likely to be familiar to quite a few of our readers: The Expanse. The Expanse—both the books and the TV series—is one of the contemporary works of science fiction where extractivism is present in the foreground, through the figure of the Belter. It is therefore unsurprising that two of our three essays devote space to careful analyses of extractivism in The Expanse. In "The Ethics of Extractivism in Science Fiction," Emma Johanna Puranen points out that while The Expanse raises important questions about the plight of the Belters, the protagonists of the extractivist economy, so to say—their living conditions, the exploitation of their labour, and their political persecution—extractivism itself is treated as normalised, and even necessary, for development and expansion into the solar system and beyond. Indeed, as the discovery of Laconia demonstrates, there is a clear distinction between how the Belters are treated (ethically salient) and extractivism (ethically not salient). Puranen points out that this is of a piece with contemporary SF's general treatment around the ethics of extractivism: either it is normalised, or—in works such as Becky Chambers' To Be Taught, If Fortunate—already resolved.
In "On Belters, Beijingers, and Rat-Catchers," Mason Wong develops this argument further. Other than the normalisation of extractivism, what The Expanse also does is to present to us a creolization of extractivism. Pointing to the Belters' unique language (a work of significant technical accomplishment), their physical features, their spacial segregation, and how all this is embedded within the political economy of The Expanse, Wong argues that The Expanse demonstrates how "new iterations of extractivism, colonialism, and capitalism will be accompanied by novel developments in labor exploitation and the biopolitical control of workers ... the Belters are stuck in a type of arrangement without any historical precedent, one that is, notably, fundamentally dependent on an exploited class’ skilled use of extractive, pharmaceutical, and aerospace technologies which do not yet exist (and may never)." For Wong, this "creolization" is found not just in The Expanse, but also in contemporary Chinese SF. Hao Jingfang's Folding Beijing and Chen Qiufan's "The Year of the Rat" are two examples of how Chinese SF imagines futures characterised by "slow violence" visited by "a sort of non-utopian economic hybridity situated within broader circumstances of slow violence, environmental destruction, and labor exploitation." For Wong, then, these works of science fiction serve as a counterpoint to Ursula K. Le Guin's more optimistic exhortation of "imagining alternatives to the way we live." They illustrate how "that world-systems of extraction may transcend physical worlds; that planetary mines may become interplanetary ones; that creolization may often simply mean worse and novel forms of exploitation; that opportunities for humankind are also just as easily opportunities for capital."
Interestingly, Chen Qiufan himself—one of the subjects of Wong's essay—aligns himself with a more optimistic outlook than this reading of his own work. In his interview with this writer in this issue, Qiufan notes that "with every future we wish to create, we must first learn to imagine it. To me, that’s the true value of science fiction." In conversation about his novel, Waste Tide—one of the most powerful contemporary SF explorations of e-waste, and what it does to physical and social infrastructure—Qiufan (pace Arboleda) talks about the global character of supply chains and the extractivist economies they necessitate, and why, therefore, any response must also be collective and global. Through his fiction, and through his reflections upon it, Qiufan reinforces Riofrancos' acute observation in Resource Radicals that:
If extractivism is a total, ideologically closed system with a variety of internal mechanisms ensuring its reproduction and expansion, it would appear to foreclose the possibility of transformation, short of an exogenous shock. Whence the problem of envisioning how a post-extractive society could be built starting from the extractive society that currently exists. Relatedly, there are challenges of anti-extractivism as political strategy. Namely, who is the imagined collective subject leading this transformative process? How is this subject composed, and by what means could it dismantle extractivism and assemble a post-extractive society in its place? [We must attend to] ... these sets of difficult tasks: post-extractivism as positive vision and anti-extractivism as political strategy. (Thea Riofrancos, Resource Radicals, 176)
Indeed, this sense of totalisation pervades Carina Brand's essay, "The Extractive Unconscious in Science Fiction: A Saga of Concrete and Gas." "The Extractive Unconscious" is a tour de force that takes us through a range of SF novels written through the second half of the 20th century (some famous, such as Ballard's High Rise, others relatively unknown), and in the backdrop of concrete and gas extraction. Classically Saidian in its approach, Brand's essay moves through layers of interpretation, reading text and context to uncover the extractivist premises and assumptions that shape these novels. What Said—quoting Williams—referred to as the "structure of attitude and reference" that pervaded novels such as Austen's, Brand calls "petro-totality": "all cultural production during this period, in some latent way," she notes, "has a relationship with fossil energy, and becomes part of what I describe as petro-totality. A childhood spent in petro-totality impacts on the way the collective psyche develops, and subsequently will impact cultural production." The rest of the essay is devoted to excavating the relationship between petro-totality and SF.
There are fascinating overlaps between the essays of Puranen, Wong, and Brand, and the interview with Qiufan, which reward reading them together, and in conversation with each other. Puranen and Wong both examine The Expanse, albeit from different lenses. In addition, they both note how the label of "hard" science fiction sometimes serves as an (unwitting) ideological smokescreen to normalise extractivism as part of any "plausible" SF-nal future. Wong and Brand both use—and critique—the idea of "slow violence" to characterise extractivism's role in the world, and in SF's representations of extractivism. Wong anlyses Qiufan's work, and Qiufan gets a chance to speak for himself within the same pages: ambivalence meets caveated hope, within an overall framing that acknowledges the totalising force of extractivism, the possibilities of resistance to it, and pushes us to think deeper about how SF might be a terrain on which that resistance and contestation could play out.
These essays are complemented by critical analyses devoted to three contemporary pieces of work where extractivism and extraction do feature prominently. Amy Nagopaleen reviews Sim Kern's Seeds for the Swarm, where "at the philosophical heart of the book is the question of how humans might protect the planet most effectively: by abandoning or employing technology?" Puranen's call for SF to consider the ethical question head on is answered in Seeds for the Swarm, where "the ethics of applying science to the real world" feature prominently. ML Kejera then considers the French graphic novel Negalyod: The God Network, set in "a post-apocalyptic world that is desertified as a result of the over-extraction of water for some unknown end," and its visual depictions of "a dry ... soundless, and ... thirsty for life" world. Finally, Seamus Sullivan takes a look at Hiron Ennes' Leech, where the main character is "a parasitic hivemind masquerading as a collective of human doctors," the primary location is a mining town and a mining community, and an important plot point is body-snatching (the parallels with extractivism are clear). Amidst all this, for Sullivan, one of the fundamental features of the book is the lesson that "the cruelties of the past and present continue to shape us, but they are not us": a better analogy for the "structure of attitude and reference" that is petro-totality, and the reality that we inhabit—but need not always be in thrall to—can hardly be imagined.
The contributions of this special issue are not limited to prose. "Others' Apocalyptic Love Stories" (Vicky MacDonald Harris), "Blå Jungfrun" (Deborah L. Davitt), "Epistolary Poem" (Umang Kalra), and "I do not wish to carry so much burden" (Chukwuma-Eke Pacella) expand our imaginations—in the way that only poetry can—about extractivism in SFF imaginations. In these poems, you will find explicit references to oil "slurping up" in "black puddles", but also the sense of loss that hangs over extraction like a shroud ("Do not take a stone from my shores" and "the bleeding hamlet"), and the more abstract - almost unnameable - feeling of futures slipping away in the sludge of Brand's petro-totality ("we are gifted this planet with all of its lemon trees & we are wasting it..."). Through these poems, readers get a deeper and vaster sense of all that extractivism is, but also, of all that it might not be.
This special issue seeks to participate and perhaps help shape an ongoing conversation about extractivism in SFF that only promises to grow in importance as the world moves further and deeper into petro-totality. Just two weeks from now, the London Science Fiction Research Community is organising a conference titled "Extraction + SFF." In an interview with this writer in this issue, the conference's organisers explain how they seek to bring together themes around "climate, energy, non-human life, emotional and reproductive labour," and the importance of having these discussions today. Nor will Strange Horizons' engagement with extractivism and extraction end with this special issue: in the coming months, we will bring you more essays and interviews that will seek to keep the conversations going—almost a "totality" of a special issue, if you will! Our aim, with Arboleda, remains to be able to "grasp ... the essential unity of what appear as distinct or disaggregated spheres of social reality ... [and which] demands a theory ... that starts from the actual conditions in which the human life process asserts itself." (Arboleda, 121)
Edward Said ends his analysis of Mansfield Park by exhorting us, as readers, "to take seriously our intellectual and interpretive vocation to make connections, to deal with as much of the evidence as possible, fully and actually, to read what is there or not there at all, above all, to see complementarity and interdependence instead of isolated, venerated, or formalized experience that excludes and forbids the hybridizing intrusions of human history." (Said, 115) In engaging with this special issue—and the conversations beyond—we invite our readers to do just that.