Panel 4: Disaster, Catastrophe, & Crisis in SF



Panel 4: Disaster, Catastrophe, & Crisis in SF

“Beyond Dystopia, Apocalypse, and Techno-fantasy: Imagining Sustainability Transitions in Science Fiction Futures”

Jeffrey Barber (Integrative Strategies Forum)

“Climatic Catastrophe and Ecocritical Awakening in Ship Breaker and The Water Wars

Saba Pirzadeh (Assistant Professor of English and Environmental Literature, Lahore University of Management Sciences)

“Hollywood’s Lifeboat Ethics”

Graig Uhlin (Assistant Professor of Screen Studies, Oklahoma State University)


Q & A

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10 replies
  1. rlmurray50 says:

    Hi Jeffrey. I enjoyed your “Beyond Dystopia…” presentation. I especially appreciated your powerful questions about both portraying and exploring transitions AND lessening and possibly reversing destructive future impacts. Audience reception can be so difficult to gauge. Perhaps beginning with the assertion that we are living in our own science fiction novel might provide a way to move audiences toward sustainable behaviors. The list of Classic and contemporary works you examined also brought to mind recent mainstream films for diverse audiences such as *Zootopia* and *Tomorrowland*. Your talk demonstrated how literature and film may portray and explore transitions toward sustainability. To begin answering your second question, we might take a look at studies like this one

    • jeffreybarber says:

      The situation with climate change films and audiences is quite related to efforts to imagine sustainability transitions and futures. There’s a lot of climate change discussion about overloading audiences with too much bad news that they need to think seriously about, depressing rather than inspiring them. The more fantastic and distant the disaster, the more it becomes an escape than a pressure, more a feeling of relief that somebody else has it a lot worse, that they are dealing with it (not me) and managing to survive. However, the more the problem on the screen is OUR problem, it is no longer escape and relief but more pressure. That’s the big challenge for the writer/producer and why horror movies are more successful than stories about “sustainability transitions”. I think the challenge is for the writer/producer to integrate the vision and values into stories which people can not only identify with but experience a quality of connection and identity that allows a positive vision and energy in return, which calls for a creativity beyond the familiar formulas. Also a difficult thing to research as to immediate impacts on thinking and behavior, as such change needs more than one film or novel, although such productions certainly contribute to other such messages and experience.

  2. rlmurray50 says:

    Hi Saba. Thank you for an interesting presentation (and for introducing Joe and me to the young adult novels you explore). *Ship Breakers* is available in our library, so I hope to read it next week. I have taught young adult literature here at EIU and incorporate ecologically themed works whenever possible. These works will be great additions, especially with their attention to environmental racism and injustice. YA lit students have responded well to novels such as *Feed*, which also highlights environmental issues and adolescent agency. Could you recommend other young adult novels with environmental themes?

    • Saba says:

      Thank you for your comment. Its great to hear that you’re teaching YA lit with an ecocritical focus at your university. Here are some other novels I would recommend in this regard: Hunger Games, Life as We Knew It, The Road, The Knife of Never Letting Go, The Windup Girl, The Forest of Hands and Teeth. Hope these help.

      • jeffreybarber says:

        Hi Saba,
        I also appreciated your introduction of these two novels, which I look forward to reading. It would be interesting to compare these two with other water crisis narratives as well as with scientific projections in those locations. I recently read Bacigalupi’s Water Knife which brought to mind Cadillac Desert as well as water activist campaigns at the UN on the right to water, the protests in Bolivia, etc. With regard to agency I wonder to what degree readers are themselves inspired to take some kind of political or social action on such issues, or rather that people who are engaged are especially drawn to such narratives. Not so easy to test. On the other hand, there is the complaint that such dystopian stories are not just cautionary but strengthen pessimism and to some degrees fatalism and withdrawal from political action and support. What has been your experience with such questions?

  3. jeffreybarber says:

    Unfortunately I have been engaged with the IAMCR conference taking place in Eugene, OR at this same time, so have been unable to participate very actively. I am so glad that Clockwork Green goes on longer so I can try catching up with you all.

  4. Christy Tidwell, South Dakota School of Mines & Technology says:

    Jeffrey, thank you for your presentation. You listed several sf texts that you see as presenting more positive futures. Are there commonalities that you see in the way they imagine or represent these positive futures? Do you think these are models that other sf writers and producers should build on going forward?

    I also wonder about how your emphasis on producing more positive (and less dystopian) sf narratives of sustainability might connect with or conflict with past or accepted definitions of science fiction as a genre that does not attempt to predict the future.

  5. jeffreybarber says:

    Hi Christy. Thank you for your comments and questions. In the paper I wrote on this topic I was able to go into a bit more detail, such as some of the various reviews of Callenbach’s Ecotopia and Ecotopia Emerging, which provides not so much a model but rather a reference point to discuss a number of critical issues, assuming that no one vision is going to be a “perfect” utopia but an ongoing social project. The criticisms — that it is an exclusive society (a “lifeboat” vs. “collective” view), not racially or politically diverse, etc. — are not reasons to dismiss it but concerns to address and resolve. Robinson’s Pacific Edge is somewhat similar, both avoiding fantastic tech solutions (although Ecotopia depends on inexpensive solar tech we have yet to invent). The main thing I think is in imaging believable transition stories that manage to make their way through, past or skip the dystopian phases. I like the suggestion of the” Butlerian Star Trek” that shows the concrete steps in which a Federation of benevolent cooperation is created. I think the “Mundane fiction” argument for dealing with plausible approaches to real world problems is essentially valid although I don’t agree with dismissing other more fantastic formats, escapist or unrealistic as they may be. On the other hand, I find the idea of political allegory used in the New Space Opera to interrogate neoliberal globalism to also be quite pertinent and welcome to the project of creating sustainable future fiction, especially where it intersects with postcolonial science fiction. I do not see any of this as attempts to “predict” the future but rather to reflect upon the values and lessons of world-making as citizens and historical actors in imagining not just the kind of world we would like to live in but how we might get there. I very much like the estrangement effect associated with science fiction that goes back to Brecht, who saw the theater as a political tool to engage audiences in re-thinking their assumptions and beliefs. There are of course so many authors and ideas which I have yet to know and absorb, which leaves me open and appreciative of other takes and opinions on all this.

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