Book Review: Travels through Old Futures–Speculative Fiction and Queer Possibility

By Christopher Marcatili 

Lothian, Alexis (2018) Old Futures: Speculative Fiction and Queer Possibility. New York: NYU Press.

Through thoughtful analysis of a number of speculative stories from the last hundred years or so, Alexis Lothian’s 2018 book Old Futures: Speculative Fiction and Queer Possibility offers a solid contribution to both geek and queer studies. Lothian asks what we can learn from women, people of colour, and queer-identifying people when they imagine futures for themselves free of oppression. The speculative fictions of these marginalised groups have often been overlooked by the mainstream canon. By exploring these works, Lothian hopes not just to bring these missed narratives to the surface and better understand the complex social, political and cultural aspects of imagining futures. She also seeks to “cast unexpected light into the present” (4) and open up ways in which people might pursue queer alternatives today.

Old Futures is an exploration of queer and literary theory through the analysis of various speculative fictions. Lothian provides brief synopses for each story, so readers have some sense of plot when the author delves into theory. The collection includes white female authors of the early 1900s, like Elizabeth Burgoyne Corbett and Katherine Burdekin, and African Americans like Octavia Butler and Samuel R. Delaney. Queer punk films by Derek Jarman and Lizzy Borden are also included. Rather than simple alternatives and idealistic utopias, the futures imagined in this collection are at times challenging – even troubling – in how they can violently exclude others. Futures imagined by oppressed people can be equally oppressive. But these narratives always give insight to how we might challenge the status quo by imagining a world that does not prioritise men over women, white people over others, and a heteronormative, reproductive life over queer alternatives.

The shape of old futures

Old Futures is a textual analysis focused on speculative fictions – mostly books and some films – written by authors from minority groups from the US and UK between the 1880s and 1980s.

In the first section, Lothian delves into stories by female authors from the late 19th and early 20th century, including Corbett and Burdekin. In this period, women’s speculative futures tied their reproduction to futurity – in order to have a future, women must play a role in giving birth to future generations. One complex example is Corbett’s novel New Amazonia (1889), which imagines life five hundred years in the future. This new world is borne of imperial European warfare between France, Germany and Britain. Women control all major political positions, but the women in power must be white and chaste, avoiding “animal instincts.” Non-white people are largely absent from this future, and children born illegitimately are “not permitted to live” and are seen as a risk of social deviation (Lothian 47). New Amazonia is a society created out of an imperialistic imperative, and is maintained by reproductive “purity,” in which racial, social and physical differences are selected out of future generations.

dhalgren (2)

Dhalgren, by Samuel R. Delany. Cover art: Dean Ellis. © Bantam

Section two assesses works by African American authors like Butler and Delaney. This section touches on Afrofuturism – the creative “focus on black diasporic speculative imagining as a way of creating futures for those rendered futureless by a global white supremacy” (26) – by connecting it specifically with reproduction and queer possibilities (102).[1] Delaney’s novel Dhalgren (1975) is one key example in this section. In it, the Kid has lost his name (though he remembers he is half native American) and goes on a mind-bending exploration of self. Rather than highlighting the importance of differences, Dhalgren tends to mute racial identities and even “disrupts readers’ ability to impose a background” (Jerng 2011, 252). Delaney shows how a vision of the future need not be conceptualised as a linear progression or neatly boxed into racial categories, but instead it can be experienced through many complex embodied experiences like sex, love, and pain. This novel demonstrates for Lothian how sexuality and race can create alternative ways of imagining futures. For example, queer communities and identities perpetuate by drawing people into the community, finding common ground, building connection. People aren’t ‘born into’ a queer identity in the way they might be born into national, religious, or gender identities. Black queer stories like Dhalgren show alternatives to the white reproductive path to the future favoured by mainstream canon.

The final section looks at how audiovisual texts work as platforms for speculative storytelling. Here the focus is first on the films Jubilee (1978) and Born in Flames (1983) by Derek Jarman and Lizzy Borden respectively. Both were queer punk films, rejecting norms of narrative and of heteronormativity. Flames, for example, is set in an imagined social-democratic America post-class struggle, ten years after the new order has been established. Borden stitched together everyday conversations by many actual communities of feminist and lesbian activists to create a rough narrative, in which the leader of the Women’s Army attempts to champion a resistance against heteropatriarchy. The film highlights how “a revolution achieved by a single-issue class struggle can still look like oppression” to women in a post-revolution socialist society (199). In a similar vein to the creative process used by Borden in Flames, Lothian analyses vidding, the process of remixing video and audio content to create something new – which began in 1975 and later became popular with digital software and platforms like YouTube. Drawing on personal experience, Lothian argues that remixing can be a scholarly method to better understand fan fiction, which is a fertile space for queer readings of geek culture.

Queer theory and speculative fictions

Lothian places the emergence of queer theory in the 1990s and by drawing on the likes of Eve Sedgwick (1994) and Judith Butler (1999), outlines it as an ‘anti-discipline’ that developed out of gay and lesbian studies. It was a rejection of the ways in which gay and lesbian futures were “curtailed” – both because of the AIDS epidemic and the delegitimisation and policing of “deviant desires” (Lothian 5). To simplify, Lothian’s approach to queer theory challenges the seemingly immutable elements of society and identity and continually proposes that other ways of being can and should be explored.

Minnepolis Prop 8

“Minneapolis Prop 8 Protest” by Tony Webster. [CC BY 2.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/]

Lothian’s reading of queer theory rejects the goal of queer activists seeking to achieve mainstream acceptance, stating that this runs the risk that queer activism becomes “folded into straight and narrow futures” (133). This is the risk of ‘homonormativity,’ a term coined by Lisa Duggan (2003) describing those who were once rejected by social norms (in this case, usually gay, white men) coming to embrace and embody the kind of domestic consumer culture typical of heteronormative households; focused on the future and family. Global campaigns for same sex marriage – Taiwan being a recent case – are examples of homonormativity in action (Lothian 7).

Lothian uses “speculative fiction” throughout this book for its “roomy” qualities, allowing her to include works that might otherwise not fit into neat genres. Speculative fictions share what Darko Suvin (1979) calls the novum, a form of cognitive estrangement. By encountering something new, a reader can imagine how things might be different from what they know. In other words, by encountering in speculative fiction queer notions of desire, identification, and even reproduction, a reader may become open to new possibilities (Lothian 139). By deconstructing binary identities and imaging the world differently, queer theory converges with science fiction in imaging “sometimes-utopian futurities” (Lothian 17). Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness (1969) is a well-known example of this in action. Set centuries in the future, protagonist Genly Ai arrives on Gethen to negotiate with the native humans there, a race of ambisexuals that have no predisposition toward being either male or female, and switch between the roles at different times. Gethens consequently live largely without conflict. Speculative fictions that challenge our expected norms act as a space to ask questions about how society is structured and imagine radical alternatives.

Queer time: No Future

‘Queer time’ is another central concept, used to unpack the history of queer theory and its connection to speculative futures. Given that Lothian’s reading of queer theory encourages active and ongoing articulation of self identity, speculating about possible futures might seem antithetical to what queer theorists are trying to achieve. What today seems like an ideal future may tomorrow be yet more “binding normative restraints” (6) that theorists later reject.

Drawing on Jack Halberstam’s In a Queer Time and Place (2005), Lothian explains that queerness allows the “line between past and future created by heteronormative structures of social and biological reproduction” to be radically altered (7). This radical difference can go so far as to reject futurity at all, as is the case in another text Lothian explores at length, Lee Edelman’s No Future (2004). No Future literally argues that to be queer means to oppose futurity because it’s impossible to imagine future generations without talking about procreation.

Another key term relating queerness and time is ‘chrononormativity.’ Elizabeth Freeman (2010) used this term to describe the ways in which people come to embody ‘normative time’ dictated by productivity. We live in the rhythm of the daily nine-to-five, but in the West we also come to think about time as linear and progressive, working toward goals and outcomes. Layer onto that heteronormative futurities and we get expectations about major life events; when should a young person move out of home, when should they settle down and have children? And when is too late? This is similar to “historical time” (Eliade 1974), the sense that life is dictated by an inexorable series of events, leaving individuals powerless to do anything but follow the march of history. Chrononormativity describes the way in which we come to embody the dominant social sense of time and how we should be spending it. In this context, queers are those who actively “evade the ‘straight’ timelines of normalised heterosexual, reproductive life narratives” (Lothian 12), for example by refusing to ‘settle down.’

Queer time is never articulated in definitive terms – doing so may be too proscriptive for queer theorists – except to acknowledge that conceptions of time as linear, or ‘straight,’ from past to present to future, are problematic. They restrict our vision of who we can be and perpetuate ideas of progress. But the question, then, is whose future are we progressing toward?

Futures revisited: Trends in hauntology

Old Futures examines how storytellers in the past have imagined the future as a reflection of both the societies which produced these fictions and their visions of the future, and Lothian uses these stories to question our society today. Popular culture is rife with the aesthetics of ‘old’ futures; a few recent examples that spring to mind include the 1950s retro-future of the Fallout game series, and the wartime German and Japanese aesthetics of the TV adaptation The Man in the High Castle (2015–). These futures never came to be, and yet they remain powerfully resonant.

Critic Mark Fisher claims we are haunted by the pasts that never came to be. He refers to this as ‘hauntology.’ Derrida’s (1994) original coinage of the term was a play on ontology and draws our attention to that which is neither of the present nor of the past, neither alive nor dead. The term flourished in the early internet era with Fisher and others applying the concept to describe our cultural fascination with nostalgia (Fisher 2012).

Capitalism makes promises about constant growth, about progress and development. It promotes glorious futures that never emerge in quite the way we expect. But Fisher’s larger point is that the very act of imaging futures – of speculating about what might be – tells us more about things today than about the futures we imagine. Cultural productions marked by hauntology can manifest as nostalgia; it’s a deep mine for writers, producers, musicians, creatives. And for academics.

By diving into old speculations about the future, Lothian’s book is an act of hauntology. But Lothian acknowledges that nostalgia for old futures doesn’t provide clear, easy paths to new and better futures. She consistently faces the problematic elements of the futures she examines and nevertheless unpacks them for what they tell us about queer potentials. But just as hauntology reminds us idealised pasts can be problematic, it also reminds us that we also cannot assume that any futures we dream up today will be any use to us tomorrow.

Who gets a future? Utopias and their others

Both queer theory and speculative fiction tend to challenge social structures by imagining ways society might be different. Envisioning these differences raises questions like what does it mean “to ‘have’ a future or be denied one?” (17).

This line of questioning – who gets a future and why? – is very apparent in the texts Lothian analyses among the feminist speculative fictions of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. In Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s Herland (1915), three men arrive at an island otherwise populated entirely by white women. Though initially captives, the men eventually marry inhabitants of the island. One couple become pregnant, one husband tries to rape his wife and is expelled, and the protagonist goes with the rapist back to the US. Eugenics through the selection of who gets to have children is essential to Herland society, described as “eugenics with love” (Lothian 43). Anyone seen as antisocial, disabled, or in other ways not conforming to the desired ideal citizen is not allowed to have children. A eugenic technology has also been developed to eliminate “dark complexions” (Lothian 44). In Herland, Gilman reveals a “vision of race that places white femininity at the peak of development … central to the achievement of utopia” (Lothian 44).

As visions of what a positive future might be like, utopias are important to subaltern speculative fictions as something to strive toward, imagined superficially as a perfect place perhaps one day achievable. The reality is different. One person’s utopia can be exclusive, or even dangerous for another. Speculations about the future may appear normative and oppressive to one person, and differently to another (10). Or, as Ursula Le Guin has put it, “every utopia since Utopia has also been … both a good place and a bad one” (2016, 195).

The Herland example shows that while speculative stories may challenge the status quo, “critiques of gendered norms can coexist with imperialism, racism, class hierarchy, and ableism that have justified eugenic reproductive practices” (22). Speculation on the future can be an act of resistance against oppression, but it is always worth looking at that imagined future and asking who has ‘won’ and who has ‘lost’.

Regular readers of speculative fiction aren’t likely to be surprised by the revelation that the walls around imagined utopias can be high and dangerous to trespass. Unfortunately, Lothian does not offer a deeper understanding of what these fictional utopias can teach us about speculative fiction and society more broadly. Instead, the author uses these fictions as a way to “gesture toward” improvements for the real-world marginalised identities featured in this collection (24).

Gesturing is an apt description of Lothian’s broader approach to theory in the book; her discussion is often non-linear, relying on suggestions rather than explanation. What results is a fascinating exploration of an unusual selection of literary and queer theory, elaborated through an uncommon group of texts. But Old Futures is no introduction to the field, and it will likely not easily accessible for fans of speculative fiction who aren’t also already familiar with queer theory. Instead, Lothian works to provoke thought among queer and literary theorists, historians, and perhaps geek anthropologists.

Anthropology’s place in old futures

Questioning social norms is something speculative fiction shares with queer theory and anthropology. Connections between anthropology and speculative fiction have been explored elsewhere, including in The Geek Anthropologist (see, for example, Hill 2019; Chandrasekaran et al. 2018). In 1973, Leon Stover identified “anthropological science fiction” as genre fiction which, like anthropology, explores the nature of humanity. He named Le Guin’s Left Hand of Darkness the “most sophisticated and technically plausible work of anthropological science fiction” (Stover 1973, 473).

Anthropologists might note that stories which are told outside of a Western context are absent from Lothian’s survey of old futures. All the storytellers – though they are each from marginalised groups – are either from the US or UK. When Lothian mentions indigenous, Asian, and even migrant labourer futures, it is only once in passing. But these futures are out there.

cleverman (2)

Scene from Cleverman. Image: Sundance TV.

In Australia, for instance, speculative fiction produced by indigenous creators is increasing. The Interrogation of Ashala Wolf (2012) was the first of a trilogy authored by Ambelin Kwaymullina of the Palyku people of Western Australia. The novel is an eco-dystopia, set several hundred years in the future. Cleverman (2016–) is a futuristic Australian TV series that draws on Aboriginal mythology and comments on racism and the policing of borders. Stories of the Aboriginal Dreamtime in Australia, as just one example, throw notions of linear time and hauntology on their head. The Dreamtime’s “everwhen” (Stanner 2010) collapses events of mythic creation into an embodied understanding of place in the here and now, expressed through stories, rituals and song.

Clearly not every future imagined by every marginalised group can be covered in a single book. But while it is true that speculative stories and queer theory both acknowledge that alternative ways of imagining the future can exist, anthropologists acknowledge that they always have. Anthropologists seek out moments of cognitive estrangement to better understand what it means to be human, and understand that all peoples have their own views about the past and hopes for their future.

Old Futures is a deep dive into often overlooked narratives from the past hundred years, each imagining better worlds for marginalised people. It draws links between geek culture and queer theory in a way that gives the reader a toolset for critically engaging with speculative fictions of many types. Importantly, it reminds us that one person’s utopia may well be another’s dystopia, but that the very act of imagining how things might be different can be an important act of resistance and identity creation.

[1] The intersection of sexuality, African American identity, and time is explored more fully in Tavia Nyong’o Afro-Fabulations (2018).

Chris

 

Christopher Marcatili is a writer, professional editor, and researcher in Sydney, Australia. He completed an anthropology undergrad and then a Masters of Creative Writing, and has been trying to merge the two ever since. He has been an anthropology research assistant for six years and writes weird fiction inspired anthropological themes. Find out more at www.chris-marcatili.com.

 

 

 


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Works cited

Borden, L. 1983. Born in Flames [film], First Run Features.

Butler, J. 1999. Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity, 2nd ed. New York: Routledge.

Chandrasekaran, P., Nelms, T. C., Olson, V., Reddy, E., Thomas, H., & Welcome, N. 2018. “Toying with our Teleologies: Reflections on what SF can do for Anthropology.” The Geek Anthropologist.

Corbett, E. B. 1889. New Amazonia: A Foretaste of the Future. Tower Publishing Co.

Delany, S.R. 1975. Dhalgren. New York: Bantam Books.

Duggan, L. 2003. The Twilight of Equality? Neoliberalism, Cultural Politics, and the Attack on Democracy. Boston: Beacon Press.

Edelman, L. 2004. No Future: Queer Theory and the Death Drive. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2004.

Fisher, M. 2012. ‘What is Hauntology?’ Film Quarterly, vol. 66 (1): 16–24.

Gilman, C.P. 1979 [1915]. Herland. New York: Pantheon.

Halberstam, J. 2005. In a Queer Time and Place: Transgender Bodies, Subcultural Lives. New York: New York University Press.

Haraway , D. 1991. “A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology, and Socialist-Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century.” In Simians, Cyborgs and Women: The Reinvention of Nature, 149–81. New York: Routledge.

Hill, C. 2019. “Fact in Fiction: Examining archaeology’s influence on the speculative genre.” The Geek Anthropologist.

Jarman, D. 1978. Jubilee [film].

Jerng, M. C-Y. 2011. ‘A World of Difference: Samuel R. Delany’s Dhalgren and the Protocols of Racial Reading’ American Literature, vol. 83 (2): 251–278.

Kwaymullina, A. 2012. The Interrogation of Ashala Wolf, Newtown, Aus: Walker Books.

Le Guin, U. K. 1969. Left Hand of Darkness. New York: Ace Books.

Le Guin, U. K. 2016. “Utopiyin, Utopiyang” in Utopia by Tomas More, London, New York: Verso.

Lothian, A. 2018. Old Futures: Speculative Fiction and Queer Possibility. New York, NY: New York University Press.

Nyong’o, T. 2018. Afro-Fabulations: The Queer Drama of Black Life. New York, NY: NYU Press.

Sedgwick, E. 1994. “Queer and Now.” In Tendencies, 1–22. New York, NY: Routledge.

Suvin, D. 1979. Metamorphoses of Science Fiction: On the Poetics and History of a Literary Genre. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Stanner, W. E. H. 2010. ‘The Dreaming’ in The Dreaming and Other Essays, Carlton, Aus: Black Inc.

Stover, L. E. ‘Anthropology and Science Fiction’ in Current Anthropology, vol. 14(4): 471–474.

 

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