Unsettling Scientific Stories

Funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council

About Us

 

The future just isn’t what it used to be. It is in a state of flux and changes along with the science it reflects, projects, and is informed by. Contemporary and near-future/developing technologies can dramatically influence individuals, communities, and societies in ways that even the most prescient science fiction writers didn’t see coming! Science opens up new possibilities and fears for the future and SF articulates them by imagining applications and consequences that not only furthers the development of real-world science but also restricts it by realising, if only fictionally/speculatively, new technological and scientific advances that humanity might be unable to control. Fictional narratives are not mere reflections of science and society but rather inseparable parts of the culture that produces and responds to it - and stories don’t have to be true in order to influence the way that people perceive reality.

 

The AHRC-funded project ‘Unsettling Scientific Stories: Expertise, Narrative, and Future Histories’ will focus on how people in different historical periods thought about and envisioned their futures over the course of the long, technological twentieth-century, which actually begins in 1887*, demonstrating how science and society are inextricably intertwined in these debates, with the existence of one dependent on the successful operation of the other. The project will map the ways in which constellations of social, cultural, political, economic, and moral interests and interactions shifted over the era in relation to imagined futures. It will foreground the importance of fiction, both as a method for analysing articulations between the social and the scientific, and as a means of accessing and understanding lay attitudes to arcane or academic debate.

 

Throughout this project fiction will be framed as a partner in the imagination and exploration of alternative futures and new ways of using fiction as an authentic and valuable mode of socio-historical analysis. Through the use of the methodologies of history of science, sociology, and cultural studies the Unsettling Scientific Stories project will develop new modes and strategies for understanding how contemporary orientations of our common future are configured.

 

The project is a collaborative AHRC-funded research project working across Aberystwyth University (co-PI Iwan R. Morus, RA Mat Paskins), the University of York (PI Amanda Rees, RA Sam Robinson), and Newcastle University (co-PI Lisa Garforth, RA Amy C. Chambers). The three strands of the project span across the timeframe (1887-2007) and each team will be producing two case studies that allow for a detailed exploration of the public understanding of science and the relationship between science and science fiction.

 

Aberystwyth University

Past Periodicals & Victorians and Edwardians

Past Periodicals - this database contains a survey of complete runs of key 20th Century UK and US magazines, periodicals with a wide circulation that will give a range of political and economic perspectives, but which are not primarily focused on science.

this case study will focus on the technologies and performances that were used to imagine the future and reconfigure the present at the turn of the 20th century. By the end of the nineteenth century physics was all about the ether. Physicists hoped that by learning about its properties and how it might be manipulated they could transform the future. New discoveries like radioactivity and X Rays, and new inventions like radio, seemed to push at the boundaries of the real. Scientific performers like Oliver Lodge and Nikola Tesla mounted dazzling displays of the ether’s capabilities, and in this context of spectacular experiment, a culture of futurism flourished. In books and magazines, fiction and non-fiction, writers drew on this culture and technology of display to make the future from their present. We will focus on three questions in particular:

1) What were these scientific performances, where were they located and what cultural and material resources underpinned them?

2) How did other authors draw on these performances and experimental displays to construct their various accounts of the future?

3) How did this scientific futurism translate into broader social and political debate, and how did it enable audiences to position themselves in relation to their past and present?

University of York

Presenting Choices & White Heat/Cold War

Presenting Choices - an online interactive game that allows players to roleplay through moments in history where the future (our present) was made, and to see how scientific and technological decisions are firmly based in particular political, financial and cultural contexts

this case-study of the imagined futures of the mid-century will focus in particular on the role of the biological and field sciences. Physics and chemistry had won the World Wars, but it was biology and science done outside the lab that took centre stage in the minds of authors like John Wyndham, John Christopher, J G Ballard and George Stewart. Their (often) dystopic visions of what science could do challenged the confident expectations of politicians and planners that national social, political and global progress would be based on technocratic expertise and a steadily broadening knowledge-base. Planning for the future became, in the inter- and post-war period, something that governments (local and national) did; in the hands of these and other novelists, these plans were often tested to the point of destruction. We will look at

∗ The nature and range of the sources (scientific and bureaucratic) from which these authors drew, especially in relation to the transformations in institutional structures as Britain shifted from war to peace and back again.

∗ How scientific concepts, strategies and practices were put to use in fiction, and how that changed over time and in different economic and political contexts.

∗ How audience responded to these accounts, especially in periods where centralised planning, civilian mobilisation and conscription were considered appropriate responses to future (external and internal) threat

Newcastle University

Prospecting Futures & Environment, Complexity, Catastrophe

Prospecting Futures - a sociological research project that uses focus groups to explore how contemporary scientific developments and issues are currently being interpreted and navigated by SF texts, their creators, and their audiences. By working with SF readers we hope to develop a better understanding of how active engagement with SF narratives enables new perspectives on science and its futures.

the Newcastle wing of the project will focus on new developments in the environmental sciences in the 1960s and 1970s and the ecological SF that grew up alongside them. In this period ecology and environmental science were caught up in dramatic public debates and linked to predictions of catastrophe relating to pollution, finite natural resources, overpopulation, and mass extinction. This case study will unpack relationships among (popular) science, science fiction and the social in relation to environmental issues and debates, exploring in particular the centrality of narratives of crisis to future imaginaries and public understandings of science in this period.

Fictional narratives of imminent environmental and social catastrophe dominated in the 1970s. Far from simply enunciating a message of doom and gloom, however, they opened up a rich cultural space for the evaluation of emergent techno-science; the exploration of new understandings of nature; and the imagination of alternative social, economic and political systems. SF is uniquely positioned to represent, confront and critique complex systems. It mobilises distinctive stories, characters, metaphors and tropes that bring nonhuman and technological entities to vivid life, allowing us to see our hybrid worlds in new ways and think again about the complex interdependencies that shape our futures across multiple timescales.

Prospecting Futures and Environment, Complexity, Catastrophe together interrogate the epistemological value of fiction as an alternative way of analysing the social. Both explore how fiction can offer ‘thick descriptions’ of a range of possible futures. These two linked projects will make a distinctive contribution to Unsettling Scientific Stories by exploring futures as they unfold now and in the recent past, and by working with social actors in the here and now as they engage with scientific ideas and fictional narratives. Our studies will generate new understandings of science fiction’s distinctive conjectural mode and its capacity to elaborate on social potential, and undertake original research with readers and viewers to elucidate how they actively and critically contribute to cultural understandings of the future.

 


* The long, technological twentieth-century is defined as beginning in 1887 with the publication of Sebastian Ziani de Ferranti’s design of the Deptford Power Station (the beginning of large scale electricity generation in the UK), and continuing through the publication in 2007 of the International Panel on Climate Change’s 4th Assessment Report (which put the existence of anthropogenic climate change beyond reasonable doubt).
iwanmorus

Prof. Iwan Morus

(Aberystwyth University)

Co-Investigator

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MandyPic

Dr Amanda Rees

(University of York)

Principal-Investigator

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LisaGarforth

Dr Lisa Garforth

(Newcastle University)

Co-Investigator

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Mattpaskins

Dr Mat Paskins

(Aberystwyth University)

Postdoctoral Researcher

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sampic

Dr Sam Robinson

(University of York)

Postdoctoral Researcher

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amypic

Dr Amy C. Chambers

(Newcastle University)

Postdoctoral Researcher

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