On the 8th and 9th of October, the London Science Fiction Research Community will be hosting an online conference on "SF+Extraction" (register here). Strange Horizons co-ordinating editor Gautam Bhatia spoke to Francis Gene-Rowe and Cristina Diamant, two of the organizers of the conference, about the work of the LSFRC, and about extraction in SFF. This interview was conducted through a collaborative Google Document in the month of September, 2022.
Gautam Bhatia: To start with, for our readers, could you tell us a little bit about the London Science Fiction Research Community, the work that you do, and where we can find you—online and off?
Francis Gene-Rowe: The LSFRC started out as a Facebook group with an attached in-person reading group back in 2014. Over time, we branched out to in-person events, initially mostly author talks and an annual academic conference. Since the pandemic began, tracing us offline has become something of an ephemeral prospect: while the majority of our directors do live in or close to London, we’ve only recently started dipping our toes back into the water of in-person events, with the next one hopefully coming in November.
The work we do is twofold. On the one hand, there’s an inward aspect, wherein we explore overarching themes (political economy, SF beyond borders, activism & resistance, extraction) through our reading group sessions. The reading group takes place over Zoom ten to eleven times a year and is open to all, and while there are some regular attendees there is also a wider process of people stopping by when a particular text, medium or topic area enthuses them. I call this side of things inward because I feel that we directors benefit hugely from these encounters with the ideas and perspectives of both regular and occasional participants.
The outward side of things comes from the events we run, most notably the annual conference but also the various workshops, symposia and work-in-progress events we put together every season or two. Those occasions draw in much larger numbers of farther-flung individuals, and are intended to be an exercise in sharing space across disciplines and locales. We try to make things as accessible and open as possible. There’s no profit motive. None of us draws a salary for the work we do, and it’s always possible to register for our events for free—so new experiences and encounters are what we strive for.
Cristina Diamant: To be fair, it is difficult to overstate how much 2020 impacted not just LSFRC, but all international academic collaborations, especially when you factor in interdisciplinarity. Beyond a sense of both physically closing in for further reflection on what’s sustainable and virtually opening up to more perspectives, it’s also shaped the nature and frequency of these encounters. Personally, as I am based just outside of the UK, I have only been able to join the directorate because of this move towards hybridity. It was a pleasure to meet some of my colleagues this summer for an in-person workshop co-organised by one of our newest team members, Megen de Bruin-Molé, who is also behind the November event Francis is teasing. What’s great about the LSFRC is precisely the rather counterintuitive advantage posed by the non-hierarchical organisational structure: like a mycelium network, our activity ebbs and flows in rhythm with the resources we pool together each season. Rather than a hamster wheel leaving everyone burned out, we try to energise each other, and our enthusiasm for the field.
GB: Next week, the London Science Fiction Research Community is hosting its annual conference, on the theme of “SF + Extraction.” Could you talk us through the motivations behind choosing this topic for the conference?
FGR: When it comes to selecting our annual themes, we at the LSFRC directorate look for phrasings/framings that allow us to navigate a range of scales, such that our reading group and conference discussions can be very large and expansive, flowing across and between intersecting concerns, and at the same time capable of becoming very specific and situated. I think that’s something that SF offers in general, though of course how effectively that’s explored varies from text to text. In the case of extraction, it knits together a few strands (climate, energy, non-human life, emotional and reproductive labour) that we’d been engaging with and conversing about in different ways for a few years. I sometimes wonder, given the intersectional and systemic nature of this world, if we’ll run out of discrete topics for our annual programming, but I suspect that’s not really how these things work. I think what I’d say is that extraction was less of a “next step” than the next turn of the wheel we’re collectively spinning.
CD: It definitely helps that, as a team, the directorate brings together the different angles we are all engaging with SF from. Looking back on past themes, we can not only keep track of the LSFRC as a virtual SF research record on the move, but also as a community, associating this or the other topic with a past or present member. Extraction followed quite naturally after a year dedicated to activism and resistance, as we consistently found ourselves agreeing on what to rise up against in SF worlds to begin with. There is definitely a sense of ebb and flow with our annual themes and even after I am long gone from the LSFRC myself, I know I will be looking on with great interest to see how the themes feed upon each other, and then head in new directions.
GB: Your call for papers defines “extraction” in a broad manner: “from asteroid mining to dream harvesting.” What, in your view, are the connecting threads that bind this collection of concepts/SF themes together, under the heading of “extraction?”
FGR: In some ways I think that’s a question that remains unanswered for us (at least until our conference is over and done with, and probably not even then, as people take these threads away with them and continue to think and discuss), or perhaps one that we’ve been keener to ask than to arrive at any particular answer.
To avoid excessive coyness, I would highlight two aspects that strike me as important. The first of these is that extraction is about removing something, or several things, from their own space. This is often accomplished through violent means, whether that’s the obvious violence of invasion, colonialism etc. or the supposedly more “neutral” violence of, say, quarrying, but the underlying truth of the matter is that extraction is always a violent practice, by nature of what it means, of what it is.
The second thing is that extraction means that whatever has been taken away is being taken to somewhere, with the purpose of strengthening or supporting the system that requires extraction to take place. So we’re talking about violence that supplants the histories of people and things, scrubbing them clean so that they can fuel the oppressive and unequal status quo it sustains. You can go further from there, and think about neoliberalism’s highly dogmatic concept of the market, about the commodification and reification of all things and feelings, but I think that’s the basic situation we’re trying to think through.
CD: Agreed, and I would even go as far as to describe this project as necessarily open-ended because we are working against nostalgia and mere derivative impulses, even as that may sound counterintuitive after only just recognising the systemic violence inherent in the displacement effort that makes extraction possible. The goal cannot be limited to simply undoing extraction or limiting its reach. What we look towards is configuring alternative futures that also re-evaluate the past some may look towards longingly, past all the damage.
It’s worth noting here what Tom van Laer and Davide Christian Orazi term “pseudo-nostalgia” in a recent article on Stranger Things and retromarketers. Pseudo-nostalgia or nostalgia for a time one has never experienced directly is associated with “compensatory reconsumption” of commodities. The mall isn’t just dead: Grafton Tanner’s Babbling Corpse: Vaporwave and the Commodification of Ghosts insists that we now live in a haunted retrofuturist mall. Extraction isn’t limited to cannibalising the real or the imaginary. Even the hyperreal is fair game. This is a rather dangerous game as it can lend SF a false sense of prophetic powers when, in effect, it creates the conditions for pseudo-nostalgia. Cautionary tales can become so familiar, so comforting that we end up recreating the technology we were warned about in the first place before we have had the chance to dismantle the socio-political system. Whenever STEM is forcefully divorced from the humanities, what we should be becomes a lower priority than what we could extract from.
GB: In recent years, mainstream English-language SF has begun to interrogate and challenge quite a few of the problematic elements of its history, such as racism, sexism, apologia for colonialism, and so on. Do you think that, by comparison, there’s been less focus on SF’s historical relation with extraction/extractivism?
FGR: At the level of discourse this strikes me as quite possibly being true, although I’m not totally sure. It’s a complicated matter. On the one hand, the fundamental interrelation between extraction/extractivism and technoculture (and the vision of growth/progress/futurity it proclaims) is not a new insight, especially if you look to marginalised accounts and perspectives. On the other hand, articulations of the links between, say, colonialism and climate change have only started to enter English-language academia comparatively recently, and academia should in theory be ahead of where mainstream SF is at, though as we know that’s not always the case.
In other words, I don’t think extraction is as prominent in popular Anglosphere discourse as the other things you mentioned because its deep-rooted intersection with white supremacy, patriarchy, colonialism, and so on is not yet as visible (or permitted to be visible) as those other things. With that said, I also don’t know that a text or narrative needs to overtly frame itself as a critique or corrective to SF’s problematic history (and present!) to effectively serve as one. When Nnedi Okorafor chooses to stage first contact in and by oil-polluted Lagos Lagoon, or Cherie Dimaline shows us an icy near future in which indigenous lives are threatened by white Americans’ thirst to regain their capacity to dream, to me these serve as interrogations of SF’s historical relation with extractivism, and much more besides.
CD: I’d like to add that the issue here strikes me to be a sort of continuous re-“contamination.” SF doesn’t have to have inbuilt blind spots with respect to all these interlocking systems of exploitation and extraction. Indeed, while it may attract the ire of conservatives who saw SF as updated frontier narratives with its own tricks of the trade where they can play at imperialism without fearing any pushback made comprehensible to the readers, SF nuanced enough to address speciesism is also equipped to challenge colonialism and capitalism.
If I may use a visual metaphor, SF texts are the “poison apples” of the literary world (the 18th century nickname for tomatoes). I am less concerned here with its innate hybridity that makes many distrustful (is SF a fruit or a vegetable?) even though leaky genre boundaries always come up either to its credit or to discredit it, but with the toxicity of the vessel that leaks lead. What I mean to say is that cyberpunk doesn’t have to indulge in techno-orientalism and SF only seems to be biased towards dystopia when we are carrying it on a pewter plate: the Anglophone literary tradition. After all, English didn’t become the current lingua franca through means all that different from what we are criticising here. There is definitely space for more SF translations from different cultures.
What’s interesting to me, though, is how this system creates its own antidotes too, such as some of the texts we have discussed this year for our reading group, from the indigenious Australian debut Terra Nullius by Claire G. Coleman to the anthology Moonshot: The Indigenous Comics Collection, as well as Mothership: Tales from Afrofuturism and Beyond and Through the Arc of the Rainforest by Karen Tei Yamashita. Of course, we can’t afford to be lulled into a false sense of security by this new wave, which is why I called it re-”contamination”: unfortunately, anything can be commodified and exploited, even marginal(ised) voices. We must remain ever vigilant.
GB: Finally - any highlights from the conference that you’re particularly excited about, anything that our readers should look out for?
FGR: Lots really. I’m a huge Kathryn Yusoff fanperson and am psyched that she’s our keynote. Our first ever non-Anglophone programme item (though we will be offering interpretation support), which will be one of several really exciting-sounding workshops. Creative performances as conference presentations. Oceanic sentience, Amazofuturism, the ecology of a mermaid, a couple of really fascinating papers on food, and much more besides. I think the creators' roundtable this year will be amazing—they always are—and am especially happy that Bint Mbareh will be participating. Firstly because she’s awesome, and secondly because I’ve wanted us to platform someone whose work engages with Palestine for some time now.
CD: All of the above but I’m also very excited about the ones covering texts not yet fully translated into English, from established authors like Stanisław Lem to newer voices such as Han Song. I find it helps to remember that the English-language canon isn’t the only place where fertile conversation is taking place, and so I am also intrigued by the variety in responses, from focusing on the cold, clinical gaze to investigations of pain and suffering, and even humour.
Even as SF tends to skew in favour of future representations, there’s plenty on offer for those with an interest in the speculative past, including a creative performance using acid mine drainage to reflect on the horror of the exploitation in the Appalachian mountains. It’s a special time of the year when we can see both how the earlier months have borne fruit and try to intuit the strands to develop into the next annual theme. We are also re-opening our call for directors with this occasion, so it’s an event you’d better not miss!