In this episode of Critical Friends, the Strange Horizons SFF criticism podcast, Aisha and Dan discuss a recent essay by Jake Casella Brookins that appeared in the Ancillary Review of Books. “The vaunted prophylactic prophecy of science fiction—the ability to prevent an undesirable future by loudly predicting it—has consistently proven false,” argues Brookins, and so Aisha and Dan ask themselves: what good, and bad, might SF do? And when we find a piece of good criticism such as this essay, how can it help us think better about its questions?

Critical Friends logoTranscript

Critical Friends Episode 10

[musical intro]

Aishwarya Subramanian: Welcome to Critical Friends, the Strange Horizons SFF Criticism Podcast. I’m Aisha Subramanian.

Dan Hartland: And I’m Dan Hartland. In every episode of Critical Friends, we’ll be discussing SFF reviewing: what it is, why we do it, how it’s going.

Aishwarya Subramanian: In this episode, we took the radical step of … reading some criticism.

Dan Hartland: We take a look at a recent essay at the Ancillary Review of Books, and ask what it’s saying. And then, well. We do some criticism.

[musical sting]

Dan Hartland: Okay, so we’re here to discuss one essay, one piece of criticism in particular, which is a recent article by Jake Casella Brookins, which appeared at the Ancillary Review of Books, where I should disclose I currently have a column ongoing, and this particular piece is called “An Anti-Defense of Science Fiction.”

It was published on New Year’s Eve 2023, and I just felt that was like … yeah, both end and start the year as you mean to go on.

Aishwarya Subramanian: Also, ensure that no one reads it.

Dan Hartland: Well, I really hope …

Aishwarya Subramanian: So having said that, we read it.

Dan Hartland: We read it, so it’s had two readers, and what article can ask for more? I really hope it does get a wider reading though, because I think it’s really interesting. The ideas it plays with are … I was going to say urgent, but that sounds very pompous.

Aishwarya Subramanian: Yeah, but I don’t think … there isn’t really another way to say things are important; I mean, you can’t not sound pompous when you’re saying something’s important.

Dan Hartland: That’s true. And this is a podcast about literary criticism. I mean, I don’t think there’s any way around pomposity, to be honest. The starting point for the essay is a tweet, as all good critical essays begin …

Aishwarya Subramanian: Is it not a post, formerly known as a tweet?

Dan Hartland: Oh dear, oh, you’re right. I’m still in that phase where, I feel like I’m still in the denial phase. What comes after that? Anger?

Aishwarya Subramanian: Uh, bargaining? I can’t remember.

Dan Hartland: One of them. Um, so a post on X, formerly known as Twitter, by someone called Tyler Austin Harper, which is in full as follows: “Science fiction is not simply politically useless, it’s dangerous. Two centuries of sci-fi have been a net negative for the world, fueling the megalomaniacal fantasies of tech tyrants and inspiring the invention of untold horrors. The world would be a better place without it.”

And from here, Casella actively does exactly what the title of the piece suggests, which is put together an anti-defense of science fiction, which is this literature and this community in which Casella is embedded, and in which they’ve invested a lot of time and effort and I guess emotional connection, but also knows is kind of broken … just maybe not in the particular way that this tweet suggests.

Aishwarya Subramanian: And I think it’s important as well to add that part of the reason for writing this “anti-defense” is the response that the original tweet gets … um, post formerly known as … X …

Dan Hartland: It’s a tweet. We all know it’s a tweet. It’s a tweet!

Aishwarya Subramanian: Okay. Um, well, the response that the … original comment … gets, is largely quite defensive in ways that I think are probably quite familiar to anyone who writes criticism about science fiction.

Dan Hartland: Yeah, and part of the essay’s purpose is to try to identify the source and the consequence of that kind of knee-jerk defensiveness, which I found an especially productive thing to do. So, Casella suggests that although, and I quote here, “Although SF readers don’t use the phrase anymore, we’ve never fully excised the belief that fans are slans, superior to non-fans.” And, yes, this idea that science fiction is intellectually, even morally, superior to other forms of literature, I think, is one of the things that this original post takes on, and offends so deeply.

Aishwarya Subramanian: Yeah, I think there’s a few things going on with that, because one of them is just the nature of fandom itself, right? Where we identify ourselves to a great extent with the literature that we consume. What books I love is supposed to tell you something very fundamental about me. And I think that’s true across fandoms, and is what makes writing criticism about anything that has a fan following quite complicated.

And then, as you say, there’s this very specific history of that within science fiction fandom, which sometimes gets linked to the idea that science fiction fans have faced deep oppression for their beliefs. Which I personally do not find particularly convincing, if that wasn’t obvious. And maybe that’s partly an age thing, but also maybe that’s partly a difference in opinion of what oppression constitutes.

Dan Hartland: I think so, yeah. So one of the things that this essay doesn’t … It focuses explicitly on science fiction’s complicity in different sets of oppression. So not the oppression of the people that read it, but the oppression that the literature itself perpetuates.

Such as, for example, the essay focuses quite a lot on the military side of SF, both the encouragement towards pew-pew weapons, but also the longstanding relationship with the military industrial complex and the sort of uncritical reproduction of frames of violence and so on. Which I think strays towards, but doesn’t actually say—despite, you know, the way in which the essay notes that space exploration in particular at the moment is one of the ways in which science fiction is seen as influencing damaging techbro fantasies—that you can’t really separate the history of science fiction (perhaps you can, but I’m not sure you can) from the history of colonialism.

Aishwarya Subramanian: And from the history of science.

Dan Hartland: Indeed, which is itself, obviously very tied together. Yes, and so where you see the oppression happening, I think will depend somewhat on how aware or willing to be aware you are of that interface.

And so one thing I wondered about when I was reading this essay, which is excellent, is whether it focuses sufficiently on quality of reading. So the original comment obviously says, “Science fiction bad. Science fiction encourages people to make pew-pew, bad!” The essay is like, “Hmm, this isn’t quite it, this is something else over here, science fiction does this, science fiction does not do this.”

But I wonder whether, given this is a podcast about criticism, we need to talk about, is literature read differently by different readers? Obviously, yes. So when Elon Musk comes out and says Douglas Adams is his favourite philosopher, and yet uses what is The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, which of course is a satire of all the things that Elon Musk is … Would better critical reading skills help us here? Is there an element that science fiction is a little bit Blameless, except insofar as the way in which it is read?

Aishwarya Subramanian: So on the one hand, better critical skills would be amazing generally. I’m very in favour of people being better readers. On the other hand, I think, “Oh but you’re just reading it wrong” is … it’s not the strongest defence you can make of something. If I write some incredibly popular, incendiary text that inspires people to, I don’t know, commit mass murder, I don’t know that I can really sit there and be like, “Oh yeah, but if you’d read it more closely.”

On the one hand, yes, please read things more closely. On the other hand, people are usually responding to something in a text. At least, I’d like to think so—though again, caveats … because I’ve read some very strange critical work from both academics and non-academics that make me question this.

But in theory, if someone is reading something and coming to a particular idea, they’re either doing so because there is enough in the text that leads them to that conclusion, or they’re doing it because they are projecting something onto the text, which suggests that that thing is already in … well, the world around them. The text isn’t obviously denying that idea enough that it’s possible for that idea to be projected onto it.

Dan Hartland: One thing we might want to chase in the essay, Brookins argues that science fiction, quote, “Science fiction has been one mode, a prominent one, by which popular artistic consciousness makes known humanity’s relationship to the world.” And I think that’s true. But, of course, the original comment, the original criticism, was that science fiction influences too readily how we understand humanity’s relationship to the world, and I’m sure that it does; but it’s also the case, isn’t it, that it is inevitably only reacting to, trying to understand itself, what it sees in the world.

So science fiction … one way of thinking about it is that it is less about the technology, the particular gadget, and more about how the gadget impacts upon the characters or, more commonly, the society around the gadget. And it is quite difficult sometimes for a text to escape. The text isn’t just creating the world. It is subject to the gravity of the world, and how easy it is to pin exactly where a text’s responsibilities end and begin in that regard, I think is harder than the original comment allows.

Aishwarya Subramanian: I feel like I should defend the original comment a bit. I don’t actually know Harper at all, so I don’t want to step in and be like, “Well, obviously what this person was trying to do …” But it is in the context of essentially a meme about extreme opinions that will offend people. So it is framed in a way that I’m assuming Harper’s own thoughts on this are a lot more complex than the tweet—um, X post!—allows.

But I also think, when we think about science fiction as being not just about technology—but about social change, about how the world changes in response to technological change, or how the world changes in response to particular things about it changing—in some ways that ought to make some of these misreadings harder, right? It’s very difficult to read a text about cool-weapon-that-causes-mass-destruction-and-horror and think that the conclusion is “Cool weapon!” when the focus is on the mass destruction and horror. At least, ideally that should be the case and yet, evidently, it’s not the case if we go by the history of how the world has responded to stories of cool-weapon-that-causes-mass-horror, and I think part of the problem is the word “cool.”

Dan Hartland: But is, for me, one of the things. Like, maybe this comes back to what people project onto the text, as much as what the text itself projects. In that, you know, it strikes me that “cool weapon creates lots of destruction” would describe the function of Achilles in The Iliad just as easily as the phasers on the starship Enterprise.

In other words, Achilles is clearly in The Iliad meant to be the subject of at least some of our admiration, empathy, whatever reaction you want to assign to that particular text within its original context or within its context of rereading. But I mean, Achilles is a brutal murderer too, right? And therefore, if literally among the earliest possible pieces of literature we could point to has this problem, I start to wonder if it’s science fiction’s fault that we think the weapon is cool.

Aishwarya Subramanian: And I wonder how much of this is simply a sense that power is inherently cool. I’m trying to find this in the essay. Yeah, so: “the issue is that science fiction, and I’m talking fairly narrowly here about the harder, more technologically oriented kind of science fiction, is intertwined with the entire cultural project of the Anthropocene, with our philosophies of dominion and exploitation and their consequences.” And I think there’s a sense, then, that—this will possibly seem like a massive tangent—but when … The last couple of years, I have been teaching a film module at the university where I work, and one of the things that we’ve ended up talking about are fight scenes, and what makes … what we enjoy or don’t enjoy about fight scenes.

And these are very sort of … we start off from very, very sort of basic “man with sword and other man with sword” fight scenes. And we think about that and it’s obviously partly competence that is appealing about a scene in which someone is attacking someone with a weapon. But it’s also just the implication of power that comes with that, where it’s not just mastery of a particular skill, but it’s the fact that that mastery has the potential to hurt that we all end up finding very appealing, even if we are personally not in favor of people attacking each other with swords.

Dan Hartland: Yes, because the attacking with the sword, if you are good at it, gives you an opportunity to impose your will. And there’s something compelling about watching that.

Aishwarya Subramanian: And there’s just something deeply cool about it. The first time we had this discussion in class—and again, we were talking very much about individuals with swords, which are not a highly technologically advanced form of weaponry—but one of my students immediately skipped to, you know, the scene at the end of Rogue One, where Darth Vader basically just takes out a lot of people, and drew a link to that: an individual person with a weapon. Like, no one obviously thinks that Darth Vader is the good guy—though, I don’t know, maybe … there are certainly people … yeah, OK, there are people who think that. But no one would argue that Star Wars as a whole is telling us: side with Darth Vader. But I don’t think anyone would argue that Darth Vader isn’t made to look incredibly cool. And there’s something about that.

Dan Hartland: I don’t know whether you’ve watched it yet or intend to, but as you’re speaking, I’m immediately thinking of Blue Eye Samurai, which has been out on Netflix for a few months. It is a sort of alternative history set in Edo-period Japan, and it’s an animation. I would not be able to watch this show if it were—I don’t know whether it would be able to be made if it were—live action. Because the violence that titular blue-eyed samurai wreaks upon, uh—

Aishwarya Subramanian: Everyone?

Dan Hartland: Yeah, more or less everyone!—is notable. The ballet of it, there is no doubt, is pleasurable to watch. And the skill, but also absolutely the coolness of it, is not just a feature, but a focus of the whole piece.

Aishwarya Subramanian: Yeah, absolutely. And I think there’s a … I haven’t watched that, but Netflix seems to think I will really like it because it keeps recommending it to me. But I think as well that pretty much any … One of the questions that came up as I was rereading the essay was about whether there’s a difference in visual science fiction and written science fiction. And I suspect part of the reason I’m asking that question is because I am a book person and therefore a snob! But there’s something about the idea of science-fiction-as-spectacle that in some ways does prime you towards that sense of coolness.

Dan Hartland: I think that’s right. There’s something about, you know, the Darth Vader thing, which, I mean, if you just wrote it down on the page would be more horrific.

Aishwarya Subramanian: Yeah, there’s something in us that responds to the pew-pew. She said, eruditely!

Dan Hartland: I think pew-pew is one of the key critical terms that’s coming out of this podcast!

I think it’s significant, that. What one of the—one of Brookins essay’s points is that SF has become one of, if not the primary means of understanding particularly humankind’s relationship with technology and so on. I think, though, that if we do believe that, I think that a large part of that mainstream influence comes from the visual media of science fiction more than it does from the text themselves. All of the, you know, spaceship stuff and the transporter stuff, and the, even as we’ve been talking about, weapons stuff that the Thiels and Musks of this world reference when they are looking for some way to make their fantasies seem attractive: almost all of them have that element of a media franchise attached to them.

Aishwarya Subramanian: Yeah. I mean, for a moment, I thought is Palantir the exception here? And then I checked and the company was founded in 2003. So, um, no.

Dan Hartland: And I think that is really significant, that we’ve got to talk about different kinds of science fiction as well. I think with the artificial intelligence hype train, of course Terminator is the thing that people constantly talk about. And again, that ain’t a book.

Aishwarya Subramanian: Yeah, and that’s partly … I think it’s the result of a few things. I think one of them is that, in public discourse, you are obviously more likely to use a film as a kind of point of connection than you are with a book. But that’s because more people have—

Dan Hartland: But that’s because more people have seen it, right?

Aishwarya Subramanian: More people are likely to see it. It’s more accessible in some ways. Apart from just the numbers, is there something about film as a whole that is inherent to simplifying these ideas? Maybe you just have less time and less space to explore a specific concept. I don’t know.

Dan Hartland: I think this is why, again, when we’re talking about the level of science fiction’s complicity, you have to be, you know, conscious of the fact that science fiction doesn’t exist above or beyond any other element of the society in which it’s operating. And, yes, I think that it’s almost the case that the inherent qualities of film matter just as much to how SF has been consumed and understood—and therefore the lessons that have been learned from science fictional texts as the inherent capacities of science fiction itself. I think it’s very significant for SF that it became one of the dominant languages of film.

Aishwarya Subramanian: To some extent, that also draws us back to the whole question of popular fiction, right? Because we don’t, we wouldn’t really care very much about the capacity for the ideas in a particular work to influence the world if three people are reading that work.

Dan Hartland: I guess it depends who the three people are, but yeah.

Aishwarya Subramanian: OK, fair! The three people being the president of the United States and two randomly chosen billionaires! But in general, we don’t really care as much because reach is inherently limited, and on the other hand, things that become popular partly become popular because they are accessible or desirable to a mass audience. They’re doing things that the audience wants. So at some point it becomes quite circular as a piece of reasoning: popular work is popular because it is what its readers want it to be.

Dan Hartland: And the classic example—or a classic example—of this is again Star Wars, which George Lucas will say was meant to be received as a pointed criticism of US foreign policy in Vietnam. And I’ve got news for George: Star Wars is not commonly read as a left-wing text.

Aishwarya Subramanian: And I think that when we were talking about, “Is this about, is this a problem of, people reading it wrong?” … I feel like maybe the whole of the public is not entirely to blame there, George. Though, you know, good on him for Wanting to write that text!

Dan Hartland: And I guess that does bring us on to a question of, given that largely what we’re talking about is science fiction that has been sufficiently broadly received that it can be influential, is there a way for science fiction or texts that are adopted that broadly to be more critical in the ways that Casella’s essay would like?

So the conclusion of the essay is, “Science fiction, a genre I love, a community I’m part of, is by turns the muse and the mouthpiece of an economic-technologic system committing atrocities that implicate us all. To defend science fiction [this is where the anti-defence comes in], in this moment, against these charges, is to betray it and to mistake what’s wonderful about it in the first place.” Yes. But how do we create, can we create, a better science fiction?

Aishwarya Subramanian: So I think there’s a couple of things there, though, because on the one hand, yes, sure, there are writers that do that. I don’t think I watch enough science fiction film or TV to know if there are people working in those fields that have come up with solutions to this, but there are writers that do force you to approach them critically, that require you to distance yourself from the text, or that force you to watch them deconstructing some of the assumptions of the genre, even as they’re writing. I’m thinking—because we talk about this book far too often given that we haven’t actively sat down and talked about it on the podcast yet—but I’m thinking about Vajra’s Saint of Bright Doors, which is really good at doing this.

So I think the question of whether it’s possible or not is one thing. And is reasonably answerable, yes. Is it possible for a writer to do that and have a massively popular influential text? Is it possible for a writer to do that and be giving an audience what it wants, especially the kind of audience that actually has any sort of power to do anything in the world at all? That, to me is a slightly different question and I’m not really sure … I’m not really sure how to answer it because there’s a part of me that thinks that a text influencing anyone to do anything at all is inherently suspect.

Dan Hartland: As the essay itself says, mapping the material impact of literature is probably a fool’s errand.

I think the essay itself, I’m happy to say, uh, cites a piece of criticism that we ourselves published in last year’s Criticism Special: Clark Seanor’s piece on the novels of Becky Chambers, which does exactly this. It shows how a piece of popular literature—and it is literature, it’s a set of books—reproduces at least some of the problematic contexts the readers of the books inhabit, and that it does so whilst also believing itself to be a kind of clarion call for change. And that’s a tricky one because you might like to focus on the ways in which it is trying to be good, or you might want to focus on the ways in which it is trying to be bad, and perhaps we slowly kind of push towards better science fiction in a kind of unreliable, backsliding kind of way.

All that said, of course, we’re speaking from our own perspective, but for many people, the mainstream media franchises that we are saying replicate and re-entrench the problematic cultural positions … many people believe that those franchises are too woke!

Aishwarya Subramanian: Oh yeah, sometimes there are women, sometimes the women are brown, sometimes the women are brown and gay. Sometimes they’re trans!

Dan Hartland: So, are we underestimating the extent of change that is possible?

Aishwarya Subramanian: I think one of my fears—and this is very much you know, “living in the end times” fear—is that yes, change is possible in these very incremental ways. Obviously that’s one of the complaints that a lot of us have about representation as a mode, right? We move from White American men doing war crimes, to, “Look, a brown woman did war crimes! And then eventually, maybe someday, we will get to no war crimes. But this is an important step on that road.” And I do worry that, given the scale of destruction that we are currently facing, that we don’t have the luxury of that amount of time for incremental change.

But I also think it ties into, um, another thing that the essay talks about that I think is really important, which is the idea of comfort. And the way in which … I think one of the things that’s really great about Clark’s piece on the Chambers series is how it addresses that idea of “This is Good. These are Good ideas. I am Good because I approve of these ideas.” And I think that if science fiction is not going to, well, re-entrench problems, then it has to, at some level, eschew comfort. And that’s a problem because I, much like Jake, have basically only been reading Comfort Reads for the past several months because, um, the world is awful.

Dan Hartland: Yeah, the essay has a lot of balance and poise to it, which I think is one of the reasons why it’s so productive. You can have a lot of conversations from it, because, as you say, it does address a lot of countervailing currents, which I think is the sign of good criticism. The one … another point it makes, which is related to this idea of comfort is that, quote, “fandom’s reaction to and rejection of overtly right wing bigotry during the Sad Puppies era has led to the frankly bizarre stance, rarely stated openly, but readily discernible, that merely consuming properly diverse and inclusive science fiction is itself a moral act.” And there is a level of comfort to be derived from reading these sometimes slightly kind of half-baked texts that kind of just, well: “I’ve done my bit. I’ve read a diverse book, there we go, and I can put it to to one side.”

Aishwarya Subramanian: And again, it’s so focused around ideas of consumption. “I bought this book. I read this book, I have told everyone on the internet that I read this book and it was diverse and I am … I’ve done my bit.”

This is obviously a very different genre, but I’ve been reading quite a lot of Dario Fo recently because, again, I teach him. And there’s this … at some point he makes this comment about audiences who come to his plays and who show up, watch the comedy, laugh about it, possibly agree that they are part of the butt of the joke, and then go home. And there’s that sense of, “Okay, I’ve done my bit. I came and watched the thing that said that I was part of the problem. Okay, now I will go home and …”

Dan Hartland: Keep probleming.

Aishwarya Subramanian: Yeah, not do anything, but I’ve acknowledged it.

Dan Hartland: And so are we kind of … are we, are even we, in this conversation, kind of buying the billionaires’ spiel when they bring into service science fiction to say, “Oh well, you know, we’re doing the cool thing”? Because it’s just literature, right? To some extent, it isn’t a call to action. It isn’t a thing that has material impact. It isn’t necessarily even a thing that can persuade us to go and make a material impact. It’s just a play that we watch for two hours and then go home. It doesn’t have this grand impact that we would like to think it does.

Aishwarya Subramanian: Yeah, and I feel like if it did actively tell us to go out on the streets, we’d be reading a lot more articles about why literature is dangerous and morally problematic. So, in a way, it’s almost the fact that it’s not getting us out on the streets is possibly the only thing that’s keeping it accessible.

Dan Hartland: Yeah. At one point, Brookins says, “If we’re going to give science fiction credit for solar power and electric cars, then it’s only fair, unfortunately, to give science fiction credit for child slavery in the cobalt mines.” And that is true. It may also be exactly opposite the case, which is that it’s responsible for neither. It’s just that some readers will bring it into service to justify one or the other.

Aishwarya Subramanian: Yes. At some point it’s basically, it’s the question of, you know, does literature have any kind of moral value in the world? To what extent does literature influence the world around it? To what extent does it just make it possible for us to imagine things that are already in the world, but also to justify things that are already in the world?

I think because of the connection with technology in particular, it becomes easier to point to examples with science fiction. And say, “This led to this.” But did it really?

Dan Hartland: Yeah, there’s an element of, did Star Trek persuade us all that we should have iPads? Or was there some sort of … I wanted to say need, there is no need for an iPad. But Star Trek didn’t invent the iPad, something else did, and Star Trek merely gave it some shape. Star Trek’s just one of the ways in which the iPad was imagined into being.

Aishwarya Subramanian: Yeah. Star Trek maybe gave us a vocabulary for talking about the iPad when the iPad existed. Though, if it hadn’t been Star Trek, it would have been something else.

I don’t want to dismiss the idea of giving things vocabularies, or giving things contexts, or giving things reference points, because those are inherent to how we make sense of an idea, right? Those are how we contextualize things. It’s a new thing, but it’s not really the same as “A billionaire was sitting watching a science fiction film under an apple tree one day …”

Dan Hartland: And alas, the science fiction program did not fall on their head! I completely agree. And I think that if literature—and science fiction in particular, given we’re talking about it—has a value, it is in that commentary element. Where it creates a vocabulary. It helps us think about something. It’s not that it creates the thing or is responsible for the thing—because, as we’ve discussed, probably any text can be deployed without good faith.

If a text tries to build sufficient walls around itself that it cannot be misused, I think it probably becomes inert. Obviously a text will, should attempt to guide its reader. But to lock the reader out, I think, is a different thing. And therefore what we should look for is better vocabulary, better commentary, better ways of thinking from the literature. That’s what it can maybe give us.

Aishwarya Subramanian: And I think that, having said that, we also perhaps have to accept that the texts that can do that, the texts that can give us that vocabulary, aren’t necessarily going to have that kind of global impact, simply because it turns out that a lot of people don’t really want to hear that they are the problem. You know, people are going to gravitate towards comfort. And so I think it’s more a question of, as readers, if we want to shield ourselves from some of these impulses, then we need to seek out these texts and we need to also seek out reading practices.

Dan Hartland: Are you suggesting that we need to seek out criticism?

Aishwarya Subramanian: Uh, no. No one, no one needs criticism. Never. Just no one needs criticism.

Dan Hartland: Yeah, that’s, that’s the end of the episode.

Aishwarya Subramanian: And in conclusion …

Dan Hartland: … what a waste of time!

Aishwarya Subramanian: Read the Criticism Special, everyone!

Dan Hartland: It’s great!

[musical outro]

Dan Hartland: Thanks for listening to Critical Friends, the Strange Horizons SFF Criticism Podcast. Our theme music is “Dial Up” by Lost Cosmonauts. You can find more of their music at grandevalise.bandcamp.com. See you next time.



Aishwarya Subramanian and Dan Hartland are Reviews Editors at Strange Horizons.
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