Author: Lisa Garforth
I am an environmental and cultural sociologist, STS-adjacent. In my research I have explored green utopias, examined claims about social-natural futures, and inquired into how the boring domestic work gets done in science labs. I am currently working on a book on environmental utopianism and papers on what happens to green hope at nature’s end. I teach a module on society and the utopian imagination.
Apart from a few encounters with the works of Kurt Vonnegut in the local library in my early teens, I didn’t properly meet sf until I was a post-graduate student, driven by academic curiosity about its socio-political values and functions. So my sf literary and screen pleasures are perhaps predictably on the soft/social side and tend towards the recent. I am currently re-reading Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower (scary, inspiring) and audiobooking Ian McDonald’s The Dervish House (interesting; nano?). The nearest I can manage to a recent sf film watch is Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai. Here is the sf that made my brain like this.
The Left Hand of Darkness (Ursula Le Guin, 1968). For it’s systematic thought-experiment on androgyny, and I always love finding out more about the intriguing interplanetary Ekumen. The winter journey section brilliantly honours what few bits remain honourable of the so-called Heroic Age of Antarctic exploration, critically rewriting patriarchal homosociality and empire.
Always Coming Home (Ursula Le Guin, 1986). A lot of utopian and dystopian sf dabbles with a kind of fictional anthropology or sociology (and sf is full of anthropologists). Here in patchwork, non-linear, multi-voiced fashion (includes recipes, town plans and in early version original recorded music) Le Guin pulls together a green utopia that resists colonising the future and pastoralizing the past. The City of Man and the City of Mind, the book’s dislocated/out of time reflections on history and technology respectively, makes this sf for me.
Which Kim Stanley Robinson? I’m too close to the Three Californias and am still reeling a bit from Aurora. So I will say Antarctica (1997) which blew my mind at the end of the last century. It is still like nothing I’ve read before or since. A near future eco-thriller with zen poetics and admirable but shambling (anti)-heroes all in KSR’s stunningly transparent prose.
Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (Philip K. Dick, 1968) is still one of the best dystopian post-natural fictions. I know Philip Dick is better known for the psychological and metaphysical themes of his writing, but this is a properly social meditation on the perversion of empathy, care and connection in late capitalist societies; on accumulation, waste and entropy in a consumer age.
And Bladerunner (dir. Ridley Scott, 1983): invented the visual aesthetic for the dirty, dystopian future imaginaries that saturated the late twentieth and early twenty first century, and found space to figure some tiny droplets of hope too.
Body of Glass (Marge Piercy, 1990). Probably best known as a fictional response to Haraway’s cyborg manifesto and a feminist counterpoint to the worst excesses of hard-boiled noir cyberpunk. Weaves cyborg ideas with surprising mythologies (the Golem); imagines family in ways that honour connection and avoid origin tales. In the village of Tikva, Piercy invents a compromised but still beautiful liberal, eco-friendly utopian community.
Ghost in the Shell (dir. Mamoru Oshii, 1995). Anime film with impenetrable plot but amazing visual and narrative exploration of the ontologies and identities of part-embodied selves. Asks questions about sex, gender and subjectivity without the reductive sexualisation of its main character, the amazing Motoko Kusanagi.
I am currently haunted by The Peripheral (William Gibson, 2014). Gibson is groping for new ways of thinking post-climate change futures sideways and around the impasse/avoidance of apocalypse. His slow past-future ‘Jackpot’ is a fascinating figure. The narrative voice isn’t quite right, but I think Gibson blends here the best bits of the brittle excitement of the earlier cyberpunk with the warmer, spookier, feminist-inflected currents of the present-tense Blue Ant books.
The Diamond Age (Neal Stephenson, 1995). His most exquisite future. Nanotechnology and material abundance meet a post-globalised culture comprised of tightly-policed cultural ‘phyles’. A little girl with a big book tries to navigate and change her fate. Of course the ending is terrible (the man cannot wrap up a story), but these people and their worlds are compulsive reading.
I’ve perused the Unsettling Scientific Stories lists and wandered through online sf conversations for the last few weeks generating a reading list so long that I need to hold slot 10 open for new things. I’ll report back…
When we first started the Unsettling Scientific Stories project we all produced a ‘top ten’ list of SF texts that were favourites, inspiration, and the types of works we hoped to look at as part of this project. We came up with some interesting lists that showed our own personal preferences and gave everyone a brilliant reading-watching-listening list that we thought we would share. This also gives us a chance to introduce ourselves informally.
Let us know what you think about our SF suggestions in the comments!