Perversely Pleasurable and Pleasurably Perverse: What Makes Science Fiction Great

Anne Cranny-Francis, UTS |

This paper locates many of the features of science fiction that make it such a pleasure to read, watch, and be part of, and at the same time maps the way that science fiction entered the critical and theoretical landscape. I’m going to do this also as a personal journey as it seems to me that almost everyone who writes about science fiction has some kind of story like this. It’s about coming to the study of science fiction from a love of science fiction, not vice-versa. About wanting to unpick what it is about the genre that has held us entranced. And sometimes that is because we want to share the love, but at other times it is because we are annoyed by our allegiance in the face of criticism of the genre. We can see its faults but we still love it and want to know why.

This is a personal journey but it’s also a history of the appreciation of science fiction and of the critical journey of a genre from cult or pulp fiction to a respected fictional genre, with its own specific contribution to how we articulate and analyse our relationships with the world and each other. It maps also the deployment of that genre by activist writers in the 1960s, ‘70s and ‘80s, with an overtly political agenda to examine the ways that we constitute social norms of gender, sexuality, class and race – and looks in particular at the contribution of Alice B. Sheldon. And the story ends with the richness of contemporary science fiction and its interrogation of what constitutes embodied human being in the early 21st century.

Coming of age in outer space |

I have loved science fiction since I first encountered it. I can’t remember an originary moment but I remember reading pulp novels about bug-eyed monsters invading earth, and most wonderfully I remember brilliant afternoons when I sat with my mother and our next-door neighbor, Mrs Mochrie, an extremely opinionated but kindly woman who shared her television with us before we had such an expensive piece of equipment in our own home.

In those days, growing up in the steamy bath of Brisbane, one of the television channels showed a movie every weekday at midday and another one at 1.30. From this regular regime generations of Queensland children learned a cinema literacy that has stayed with us till this day. Two movies a day, five days a week – B movies in a range of pulp genres – film noire, detective fiction, westerns, and science fiction. In the sweltering summer holidays time stopped for three hours as we watched and imbibed the wonders of The Maltese Falcon (1941), To Have and Have Not (1944) and Mildred Pierce (1945), as well as a wealth of wonderful science fiction – Forbidden Planet (1956), The Thing (1951), It Came from Outer Space (1953), It Came from Beneath the Sea (1955), Twenty Million Miles to Earth (1957), The Beast with a Million Eyes (1955), Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956), Tarantula (1955), Earth vs. The Flying Saucers (1956), The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951). It was there, in terror, that I memorized the words, ‘Klaatu verada nickto’ – so that Gort would not zap me with his ray-gun before I had time to stop him from destroying the planet; where I watched a very clumsy group of aliens in uncomfortable metal suits destroy the Capitol building in Washington as their saucer is downed by a sonic weapon developed by our hero, a scientist; and where I watched in horror as an ant walked across the wide open eyes of the empty human shell recently abandoned by an extra terrestrial in I Married a Monster from Outer Space (1958).

I can’t remember the precise dates of those viewings or even exactly which movies they were but what I remember is a space outside the prickly heat of a Brisbane day, in the company of these two very different women – my quiet, introspective mother and our friendly, exuberant neighbor – united in wonder at the prospect of beings from other worlds. Mrs Mochrie loved science fiction– and she loved to share it. Together we reveled in reporter, Scotty’s words from the end of Howard Hawks’ The Thing: “Watch the skies! Everywhere! Keep looking! Keep watching the skies!” It seemed we were no longer alone and being in Brisbane in the early 1960s, the only rational response was “Thank God for that!!”

A bit later my family got our own TV and I remember the moment of total wonder of my first viewing of Doctor Who (1963-1989; 2005- ) when the interior of the TARDIS was revealed. The first human visitors, school teachers of the Doctor’s granddaughter, Susan discover that the police box into which their strange student has disappeared is bigger on the inside than the outside[1]. This brilliant concept pushed a new kind of boundary, challenging our basic understanding of space and time.

The Doctor took us to other times and to other planets, starting with an early visit to Earth’s Stone Age[2] and soon after to the planet of the Thals and our first encounter with the Daleks[3]. What was so wonderful in those early episodes was not necessarily the story-telling and it wasn’t the special effects, but the vision of a life beyond the everyday.

Around this time too the Outer Limits (1963-1965) and The Twilight Zone (1959-1964) were being shown. My parents thought they were too scary for my younger sister and me to watch – but they forgot my bedroom window looked across the patio next door into the Mochrie’s lounge room and of course they watched them every week. There’s nothing to match the terror of a Twilight Zone episode, half watched through the slats of a wooden blind, with one ear to the door in case of parents checking you’re asleep, and the other desperately trying to hear the dialogue. And then the whole night having nightmares at the illicit horror of the boy who turned people into mouthless horrors[4] or the gremlins that ride the wings of airplanes causing them to crash[5].

The creepy horror of some of these episodes is quite a different experience to most of the movies or to the adventures of the Doctor and his companions – a different note is struck. This is not so much about our place in the universe or the likelihood of other life forms from outer space – the wonder or horror of that possibility – but the wonder and horror of everyday human existence. The opening sequence of The Outer Limits told us:

The Control Voice: There is nothing wrong with your television set. Do not attempt to adjust the picture. We are controlling transmission. If we wish to make it louder, we will bring up the volume. If we wish to make it softer, we will tune it to a whisper. We can reduce the focus to a soft blur, or sharpen it to crystal clarity. We will control the horizontal. We will control the vertical. For the next hour, sit quietly and we will control all that you see and hear. You are about to experience the awe and mystery which reaches from the inner mind to… The Outer Limits.

This suggestion of a control beyond our conscious selves was quietly terrifying – can there seriously be such a thing? Is it possible we are controlled in ways we do not understand? by whom or what? and most intriguingly this control comes from ‘the inner mind’ – which science fiction had not previously addressed so clearly or openly.

Meantime Lost in Space (1965-1968) and Star Trek (1966-1969) arrived, the Space Race was on, and science fiction was well and truly in a television Golden Age. A lot of Lost in Space now looks laughable but who can forget still the poignancy of Michael J. Pollard as the boy behind the mirror[6] – when Penny Robinson falls through an alien mirror and encounters a whole other universe occupied by one very sad, Peter Pan character played by Pollard, endlessly pursued by a monster which has one dominating eye. The boy is doomed to live alone with his monster and pleads with Penny to stay with him. He shows her that she can see her family by moving to different points in his space that show her their reflection through other mirrors, like that of her sister Judy; however, they can’t see her. Penny doesn’t want to stay in this isolated space and discovers that she can leave by shooting at her reflection in a pool at the entry to the boy’s world. She urges the boy to do the same so he can live with her and her family. Penny leaves instructing him to follow immediately after her, but when the boy bends over the pool, he sees nothing and sadly says: “I can’t … I don’t have a reflection.”

Lost in SpaceThe episode is presented as a coming-of-age story for Penny who starts by teasing her older sister, Judy about the time she spends in front of the mirror. At the end of the episode, after Penny returns from the mirror world, we see her standing in front of the mirror putting her hair ‘up’ in a more adult style. When questioned by her mother about the change, she answers: ‘“Well … we do all have to grow up some time. Don’t we?” But the episode doesn’t end here; the final shot is of Penny’s recently vacated mirror from which we hear the sad tinkle of a bell – from the necklace worn by the boy behind the mirror.

This episode has hardly been plumbed for its allusive potential: the Looking Glass world inhabited by a solitary boy and his ‘pet’ monster; the scopic shape of that monster – a single great eye on a stalk; his sadness as Penny leaves him for the world of young adult femininity, which is articulated as the ‘up’ do and an interest in physical appearance; her loss of any consciousness of the boy; and the transgressive hippie sub-culture of the 60s signified by Pollard’s appearance and manner. Is its closing sadness for the boy left behind in his childlike world of hide-and-seek, or is it for the girl who is incorporated into a conservative adult world and its gendered expectations of her, where her physical appearance is more important than her inner world?

Meantime Star Trek blazed across our screens, with that euphoric opening: “Space: the final frontier. These are the voyages of the starship, Enterprise. Its five-year mission: to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations, to boldly go where no man has gone before.”

And of course Star Trek started with an alien on the bridge – Mr Spock, whose hybrid human/alien parentage was the source of many stories and much interest over the years. Gene Roddenberry’s brilliant move was to create a series in which the other – the different or the alien – was not simply ‘out there’ but ‘in here’. We all know the history of Star Trek, about the boldness of having an Asian man and a Black woman and later a Russian on the bridge of the Starship, along with an alien. That probably seems very familiar now but it wasn’t back then, when the Cold War was still going strong and we lived with the nuclear clock ticking down to midnight.

It was a ‘united Earth’ fantasy made flesh to have that band of characters on the bridge. It may have been full of stereotypes – like the cranky Scottish engineer – but it was not stereotypical in its mix of cultures and races, including the fact that the Communication officer was both female and Black. And again we all know the story, I’m sure, of Nichelle Nichols being urged by Dr Martin Luther King not to give up her place on the show because her role was one of the first instances of an African-American actor being given a regular, serious dramatic role on television.

Which isn’t to say that these shows didn’t in many ways reflect their times – and even then I couldn’t imagine swishing around the Enterprise in those bum-flashing mini-skirts. However, they were ripe with possibility. Some years ago at Macquarie University, Cathy Hawkins wrote a wonderful PhD thesis on women scientists in science fiction movies of the 1950s[7]. She had got fed up with academics criticizing the movies that we had grown up watching on TV because all the women scientists screamed when the gooey, sticky, or insectoid aliens loomed up at them. Yes, she wrote, it was annoying that those women were just about always shown screaming at some point in the movie – but what we’re overlooking is that they were women scientists. What other movie genre in the 1950s showed women working as physicists, geneticists, biologists, chemists? For Cathy the imaginative, other-worldly setting of science fiction enabled it to articulate possibilities that weren’t otherwise thinkable in the era of Father Knows Best (1954-1960).

Theorising the wonder years |

Cathy had grown up just a bit later than me, with a similar experience of science fiction, and she was not prepared to simply accept the orthodox view (even into the 1990s when she was writing her PhD) that 1950s B-grade science fiction film had nothing to offer a feminist or otherwise politically aware viewer. Instead of moving from a theoretical position and trying to make it fit the experience, she started with the experience. What was it that this early and in many ways conservative fiction offered the feminist or activist viewer? If we loved it, there was something to love, despite the screaming.

For Cathy, there is something potentially subversive in science fiction because of its radical bringing to consciousness of the other – the alien, whatever constituted that alienness, that difference. Science fiction showed us that at the heart of our knowledge (science) is a politics (fiction).

When Tarantula (1955) shows us a female scientist (enthusiastic M.A. student, Stephanie ‘Steve’ Clayton) menaced by a monstrously deformed man and then a giant spider, she is not simply a woman to be rescued by a handsome young man – local GP, Dr Hastings. She is that, because that’s how western gendered narratives at that time tended to run, but alongside that narrative and interrogating its assumptions is the story of the young MA student who travels into the unknown in order to pursue her studies; in this case, a desert field station directed by experimental biologist, Dr Deemer. It is Steve after all who starts to notice the changes in her mentor and realizes that he has been injected with the nutrient that turned his predecessor into a monster. The same nutrient causes a normal size tarantula to grow to enormous size and pick clean whole cattle carcasses. Steve is unable to save Dr Deemer and escapes with Dr Hastings as the giant tarantula tears the research station to pieces. For Cathy the conservative gendering of the 1950s required that female characters take on a kind of protective colouring or mask – the female half of a heterosexual couple – but that did not totally delimit their meaning.   With that conservative pleasure in place, they could also enact the (socially) perverse role of scientist – the clever woman, who is as smart or smarter than her male colleagues. Most perversely of all, she can be both – female partner, female scientist – perversely pleasurable and pleasurably perverse.

And perhaps it is that duality that was most powerful of all to those growing up in that time and in the decades immediately following. Being a female scientist and a love interest – rather than either/or – was the most liberating feature of all to those trying to realize their potential in a very conservative social landscape where women were actively discouraged from appearing to be too clever. Like the crew of the Enterprise whose cultural diversity confronted the assumptions of a conservative white audience, these (occasionally) screaming female scientists offered the vision of something different.

The power of science fiction to create not just different world but different understandings of our own world is central to the work of the theorists whose work informed early critical analysis of the genre. Darko Suvin was one of the early pillars of science fiction criticism. His book Metamorphoses of Science Fiction (1979) used the Russian formalist concept of estrangement as one of the key literary concepts for exploring science fiction – and estrangement is all about creating difference.

In his essay, “Art as technique” (1917) Russian formalist, Viktor Shklovsky wrote that estrangement, making strange, is the function of art: “… art exists that one may recover the sensation of life; it exists to make one feel things, to make the stone stony. The purpose of art is to impart the sensation of things as they are perceived and not as they are known.” (online) Shklovsky’s point was that our everyday familiarity with the things of our world makes our perception automatic. We stop seeing things in their particularity and uniqueness and instead automatize our view of them, so they become part of the everyday background to our lives. Art should re-awake our perception – as he went on to say: it should “make forms difficult, to increase the difficulty and length of perception”. As a formalist Shklovsky saw this as an end in itself: “Art,” he wrote, “is a way of experiencing the artfulness of an object; the object is not important… ” (online) Early semioticians such as Mikhail Bakhtin[8] took this concept and combined it with an awareness of social and political meaning, so that estrangement became important because it de-automated not only our perception of the world, but also our understanding of its social and political meanings. In other words, instead of blindly accepting and enacting those meanings, we start to once again see what they are.

For Cathy Hawkins the women scientists of 1950s science fiction films were multiply estranging and estranged: they showed us what women were ‘meant to be’ in the 1950s (beautiful handmaidens to the leading men) and in this way they revealed the heteronormative model of female gendering. At the same time, however, the female scientist showed that this was not all women had to be; they might also be leading scientists in their field of research. This characterization deconstructed heteronormative gendering, which tended to put this kind of role (rational scientist) beyond the scope of women. In a sense this figure – the female scientist – was a contradiction in conservative gender terms, which was the source of its power and deconstructive potential. The perverse pleasure of the woman scientist of the 1950s was that she was both scientist and woman; and the pleasurable perversity was that she could both scream on cue (if that was really necessary) and also solve the scientific problem at the basis of the story.

For the social and political critics of science fiction, this deconstruction of the values at the basis of everyday life is the key to its power as political fiction. Cathy Hawkins mapped the way that science fiction’s engagement with ideas and even worlds beyond the mundane and the everyday created the space for visions of a different way of being, even if that pleasurable perversity at times seemed inadvertent. However, from the 1960s on, science fiction writers began to use this imaginative potential of the genre in order to present engaging critiques of their own society.

For those of us who were already fans this was a fabulous move, enabling us to love what we studied and study what we loved: the eccentric genius of Phillip K. Dick whose work inspired the iconic, Blade Runner (1982)[9] and Ray Bradbury’s thoughtful reflections on what it is that makes us human[10]; Samuel Delany’s increasingly radical explorations of sex and gendering, class and race in Babel-17 (1966) and Triton (1976); Ursula K. Le Guin’s stroke of pure genius with The Left Hand of Darkness (1969), which confronted all of people’s gender assumptions with one inspired thought experiment, and Joanna Russ’s challenging feminist study in The Female Man (1975). And so many more. Science fiction entered a new Golden Age, with its writers now awarded status as ‘serious’ and science fiction started to be studied and taught at university.

The politics of Tiptree |

A writer I encountered at that time, whose work was a powerful voice for science fiction as social critique was Alice B. Sheldon who published under the pseudonyms, James Tiptree Jr. and Raccoona Sheldon[11]. Sheldon had always protected her own identity, never met a publisher or editor in person, nor another writer or fan, though she corresponded relatively often, but always in the (male) persona of Tiptree.

TiptreeSheldon/Tiptree’s stories had attracted major attention and awards by the mid-1970s, particularly the story, “The Women Men Don’t See” (eBook [1972]). It is probably her most wellknown story and summarizes many of the features that make her writing so impressive. I am going to discuss this story briefly to give a flavour of its address, which was so glaringly different from the science fiction we saw on film and television, with its still conservative renderings of gender.

For those who haven’t read the story: it tells of two American women, mother and daughter, Ruth and Althea Parsons whose plane crash-lands in the South American jungle. Surviving with them are the Mayan pilot, Captain Estéban and a middle-aged American man, Don Fenton who is the narrator. Don tells the story in his matter-of-fact, unselfconsciously sexist and racist, everyday white American male voice; this is the ‘norm’ and he enacts it perfectly.

In the opening paragraph Don describes his first encounter with the women on the plane:

I come out of the can and lurch into her seat, saying “Sorry,” at a double female blur. The near blur nods quietly. The younger blur in the window seat goes on looking out. I continue down the aisle registering nothing. Zero. I never would have looked at them or thought of them again. (loc. 2251)

These are ‘the women men don’t see’ of the title; women who don’t seek to engage or somehow attract male attention.

After the crash, which the women handle calmly – in fact, more calmly than Don – he has to interact with them, but something is bothering him:

But something is irritating me. The damn women haven’t complained once, you understand. Not a peep, not a quaver, no personal manifestations whatever. They’re like something out of a manual. (loc. 2349-2359)

Obviously a different manual from the one Don is used to. He wants the women to act out a stereotypical feminine response and they just don’t.

With no rescue in sight and stranded on a sand bar, Don and Ruth Parsons set off to find drinkable water while Althea and the injured pilot wait with the plane – and things go from bad to worse for Don. Between his lurid fantasies about what the younger Parsons might be up to with the pilot and his own fantasy of what he’d like to get up to with the older woman – if only he were twenty years younger – he manages to damage his knee so badly that he is dependent on her for assistance. Embarrassing.

Then when he attempts to engage her in conversation, he simply cannot understand her. She isn’t interested in marriage, or worried what her daughter might be getting up to with the pilot. And when Don asks her if she is a man-hater, she responds that this would be silly as it would be like “hating the weather.” Poor Don is even more confused – what does that mean? But, he argues, women’s lib is making great changes for women and ensuring that they will have equal rights – bringing on an even more confusing response from Ruth:

Women have no rights, Don, except what men allow us. Men are more aggressive and powerful, and they run the world. When the next real crisis upsets them, our so-called rights will vanish like – like that smoke. We’ll be back where we always were: property. And whatever has gone wrong will be blamed on our freedom, like the fall of Rome was. You’ll see. (loc. 2622)

This kind of systemic thinking is beyond Don and he responds with a patronising ‘apple pie’ statement about how women support the system and that the world would collapse without them, not realizing that he is making things worse with every ‘mansplaining’ word.

Ruth can’t even smile (as women are supposed to do) but notes quietly: “We live by ones and twos in the chinks of your world-machine” (loc. 2622), like opossums surviving in urban spaces, quietly feral in a world that is not made for them. Flabbergasted, Don argues: “Men and women aren’t different species, Ruth. Women do everything men do.” (loc. 2632) But Ruth whispers “My Lai” and then goes on to argue that it is men who have to struggle against each other, who run the large organizations that create and sustain wars. She concludes: “It’ll only change if you change the whole world.” (loc. 2632)

Queue: aliens.   Ruth has realized that there are aliens visiting the area and she attempts to communicate with them. This appals Don who is horrified at their alien appearance and sees them as a threat. Immobilized by his damaged leg, Don pulls a gun and shoots at them – hitting Ruth. Don isn’t managing the hero role very well. As she stands holding her injured arm and asking the aliens for help, he comments: “She’s as alien as they, there in the twilight.” (loc. 2702)

The famous ending to the story comes when the aliens – research students collecting specimens – ferry Don and Ruth back to their plane. Ruth calls for Althea and then pleads with the aliens: “Take us with you. Please. We want to go with you, away from here. … Please take us. We don’t mind what your planet is like; we’ll learn – we’ll do anything! We won’t cause any trouble. Please. Oh, please.” (loc. 2744-2755)

Next morning a rescue plane arrives and Fenton finds himself back in a bar in Cozumel, pondering the madness he has witnessed: “we survive by ones and twos in the chinks of your world-machine… I’m used to aliens… She’d meant every word. Insane. How could a woman choose to live among unknown monsters, to say goodbye to her home, her world?” (loc. 2787) and he concludes: “Two of our opossums are missing.” (loc. 2796)

Don’s lack of awareness about the significance of his observations and actions for others; his pathetic attempt to play the hero and his total failure; the sad recitation of his sexist and racist fantasies – all explain the motivation for the Parsons’ departure, though he simply cannot see it – just as, in the beginning, he didn’t see them. He is not even a particularly nasty character – in the sense that he is not violent or aggressive. He simply enacts the values that are enabled for him by the violence and aggression of others – white male privilege. His final question summarizes his utter lack of self-awareness: “How could a woman choose to live among unknown monsters, to say goodbye to her home, her world?” Unable to hear what Ruth Parsons has been saying – that she is not at home on earth; that she is used to living among aliens – he cannot, of course, understand that she is not leaving her home, her world, but his.

Tiptree’s stories come from an earlier time, but they are powerful still in their directness and honesty, whether or not we might want to argue with the kind of analysis she makes. She captures in this story the lived, embodied experience of everyday alienation and oppression. The politics of Tiptree’s science fiction is in this ability to unmask the privilege behind everyday cruelties and show how they articulate systems of power and control.

It is interesting to consider now that for many years many readers accepted that Tiptree was male. In fact he, Tiptree, was a bit of a hero to those who thought that women couldn’t really write science fiction (there were many) so that if someone had to write good feminist science fiction, there should be a man who could do it. Tiptree’s revelation of her identity as Alice B. Sheldon was a surprise to many and an embarrassment to some, notably editor and writer, Robert Silverberg who had written a famous essay to demonstrate that Tiptree’s writing was, in his words, “ineluctably masculine.” It wasn’t simply this judgment that caused problems for Silverberg but the terms in which he presented his defence, defining masculine writing against an implicit feminine counterpoint:

Tiptree’s stories don’t bore. They are lean, muscular, supple, relying heavily on dialog broken by bursts of stripped-down exposition. . . . [H]is work is analogous to that of Hemingway, in that Hemingway preferred to be simple, direct, and straightforward, at least on the surface. … [T]here is, too, that prevailing masculinity about both of them – that preoccupation with questions of courage, with absolute values, with the mysteries and passions of life and death as revealed by extreme physical tests, by pain and suffering and loss. (p.xv)

Silverberg clearly had not given much thought to childbirth. His essay is the “Introduction” to the Tiptree collection, Warm Worlds and Otherwise (1975) and worth reading in detail for its dichotomous representation of masculine and feminine writing.

Julie Phillips, in her immensely readable study, James Tiptree Jr: The Double Life of Alice B. Sheldon (2006) relates Sheldon’s use of the male persona and voice to her own life and specifically to her sexuality. This is an interesting story in itself but I think that for many of the early feminist writers like Le Guin and Sheldon/ Tiptree, the use of a male narrator was also strategic. Just consider, for example, how “The Women Men Don’t See” would have read with Ruth Parsons as narrator – a long whine of complaint. Tiptree has white male privilege speak for itself, and condemn itself from its own mouth. Phillips quotes Sheldon as saying that this was the voice she found most hard to write and it is not hard to understand why, nor to see the skill in its minimalism. Don’s relative innocuousness makes his position of privilege and the behaviours and values it enables in him even more shocking.

Tiptree’s work was a brilliant intervention in the politics of its time and still has the power to impress and shock with its subtlety and honesty.

Embodying Difference |

I’m aware that I’m coming towards the end of this journey through time and space, and I haven’t touched on the wonders of iconic films like the Alien[12], Terminator[13] and Matrix[14] series or considered the return of Doctor Who; nor discussed the writing of William Gibson [15] who gave us not only The Matrix but also our common iconography for the internet or Kim Stanley Robinson whose brilliant Mars series[16] is a worthy successor to Le Guin’s The Dispossessed (1974), not to mention 2014 Hugo Award winners, Ann Leckie[17] and Mary Robinette Kowal[18] and the many contemporary women writers whose work appears in Lightspeed’s (2014) edition, ‘Women Destroy Science Fiction’ which summarizes the concerns and hopes of the writers for whom Tiptree/Sheldon prepared the way.

I want to finish this journey through the realms of science fiction with the contemporary sculpture of Patricia Piccinini, which for me summarizes the greatest aspirations of science fiction, which started back when Mary Shelley[19] first produced her heart-breaking and terrifying image of the grotesque, lonely, angry, heart-broken Creature – the figure for humans transformed by technology; for alienated being. Piccinini’s strange creatures, like us but not like us, remind us of not so much our common humanity but our common being.

Her work is featured in the current In the flesh exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery[20]. The sculptures are both pleasurably perverse and perversely pleasurable in their play with our expectations about embodied being; with what is seen as acceptable or ‘normative’ embodiment; the shock of the non-normative; and the moment of empathy that goes beyond what it is we are taught to see.

Frankenstein’s Creature was rejected and shunned not for his soul, but because of his ‘difference’, because of what people ‘saw’ when they looked at him. His only friend in the story is a blind man who was not terrified by his appearance. The Creature was our first alien; do we, like Don Fenton, reach for a gun at the first sight of something we don’t understand, or less literally do we socially and politically exclude those whose views are different and challenging to our sense of what constitutes normal behaviour.

As technology transforms our relationships with the world and each other; and as we are forced to realize that we are not, after all, the Lords of all Creation but part of a vast ecosystem that may well decide we are infecting parasites; these questions become increasingly important – and science fiction is one of the ways we have of exploring these issues, pleasurably and perversely.

I want to end with some of the words from Reprint Editor, Rachel Swirsky’s introduction to the Lightspeed issue, “Women Destroy Science Fiction” (2014):

The Girl Who Was Plugged In What do I want to do to science fiction?

I want to expand science fiction.

I want to celebrate science fiction.

I want to see all the fractured, strange, beautiful, impressions that humans have to offer as we contemplate the future.

A long time ago, Mary Shelley started singing. It was a song shaped by earlier refrains, and others were already singing. More and more voices joined in. They sing about the promise of tomorrow; they sing about the threat of tomorrow; above all, they sing about the present moments they inhabit, because those are the underpinning of any story.

… here are a few voices that expand science fiction, that celebrate science fiction, voices that are fractured, strange, and beautiful. Voices to contemplate. Voices raised towards the future. (p.3)

[1] “An Unearthly Child” (1963)

[2] “The Cave of Skulls” (1963)

[3] “The Dead Planet” (1963)

[4] “It’s a Good Life”, The Twilight Zone (1961)

[5] “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet”, The Twilight Zone (1963)

[6] “The Magic Mirror” (1966)

[7] Hawkins, Cathryn. (2001) The woman who saved the world : re-imagining the female hero in 1950s science fiction films. Unpublished Ph.D. thesis, Macquarie University, Sydney, Australia.

[8] Major works by Mikhail Bakhtin (1895-1975) that influenced the development of semiotics in the twentieth century include Problem’s of Dostoyevsky’s Poetics (1984), Rabelais and His World (1984), The Dialogic Imagination: Four Essays (1981) and Speech Genres and Other Late Essays (1986)

[9] Philip K. Dick wrote over 100 short stories and 44 novels of which the most famous is Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (1966).

[10] Ray Bradbury was a prolific writer of science fiction, horror and fantasy, best known for his novel, Fahrenheit 451 (1953) and the short stories collected as the Martian Chronicles (1950).

[11] Alice Bradley Sheldon published under the pseudonyms, James Tiptree Jr (1967-1987) and Raccoona Sheldon (1974-1977). She is best known for her short story collections, Ten Thousand Light-Years From Home (1973), Warm Worlds and Otherwise (1975), Star Songs of an Old Primate (1978), Out of the Everywhere and Other Extraordinary Visions (1981), Byte Beautiful: Eight Science Fiction Stories (1985).

[12] Alien (1979), Aliens (1986), Alien 3 (1992), Alien Resurrection (1997)

[13] The Terminator (1984), Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991), Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines (2003), Terminator Salvation (2009)

[14] The Matrix (1999), The Matrix Reloaded (2003), The Matrix Revolutions (2003)

[15] William Gibson’s short story, “Johnny Mnemonic” (1981) and the novel later based on it, Neuromancer (1984) popularized the matrix, web and net iconography used to conceptualize the internet

[16] Kim Stanley Robinson, Red Mars (1993), Green Mars (1994), Blue Mars (1996)

[17] Ann Leckie is best known for her Imperial Radch trilogy. The first novel in the series (and her debut novel), Ancillary Justice (2013) won the Hugo, Nebula and Arthur C. Clarke awards.

[18] Mary Robinette Kowal is both a novelist and short story writer; best known for Shades of Milk and Honey (2010) and short stories “Evil Robot Monkey” (2009) and “For Want of a Nail” (2011), which won a Hugo Award for Best Short Story.

[19] Mary Shelley (1818) Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus (London: Lackington, Hughes, Harding, Mavor & Jones).

[20]       In the flesh exhibition at the national Portrait Gallery, Canberra, Australia, 7 November 2014 – 9 March 2015:


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Anne Cranny-Francis is first known for her feminist writing on textual politics – how gender is articulated in texts in all media – she has written on literature, film, television, and popular music. She has also worked on the politics and practice of literacy, most recently on the multimodal (written, visual, sound, spatial, inter-relational) literacies required by contemporary multimedia texts, performances and practices. Her work on the body has combined with this study of multimedia in extensive work on the relationship between individual subjects, sensory regimes, cultures and contemporary technologies, particularly touch-based (haptic) technologies.

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