Edge of the Universe – Where Science Fiction Can Take You

Distilled from a panel at Hillingdon Literary Festival at Brunel University on Saturday 5 October 2019, devised and moderated by F.D. Lee. Left to right below: F.D. Lee, Andrew Wallace, Kirsten Irving & Suzie Gray

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Science fiction has always embraced the edge; that liminal creative space where established forms break down and new meanings and landscapes emerge. The very first ‘proper’ SF novel – Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein – serves as both example and metaphor for this process. Purportedly a scientific journal, it is also a myth (‘The New Prometheus’) as well as an account of a character who is himself made up of other things.

While Doctor Frankenstein’s magpie approach is not the only one relevant to the genre’s less conventional evolutions, it certainly illustrates the value of abandoning a strict establishment narrative in favour of something less constrained by conventional thought. From the shattering influence of Modernism and Bauhaus, through 60s-era experimentalism, to the way game theory began to influence science fictional narratives with the Jack Vance-inspired Dungeons & Dragons and its online descendants, science fiction blends form and idea so successfully we often take it for granted.

Today, we have access to technology that enables more direct engagement than ever before. From blending verse, image and activity, to poems in augmented reality, the new frontier is often hand-held and immediate, rather than delivered by technologies like cinema or even television, whose conventions now seem cumbersome. Traditional publishing, which often ill-served women or people of colour, now faces stiff competition from the burgeoning self-publishing industry, and must adapt accordingly. Science fiction has been a significant beneficiary of this democratisation of delivery, its writers ever-keen to embrace new technological possibilities.

We need not abandon treasures from the past; from Chris Marker’s influential 1962 movie La Jetee, which was composed of photographs (and went on to inspire the Twelve Monkeys movie and TV series), to visionary musicians like Sun Ra and his Arkestra, whose experiments over the decades until his death in 1993 redefined the possibilities of both music and performance, there are many examples of like-minded people coming together to form aspirational, creative tribes whose mutual support enables a vigorous engagement with both present and future

It seems at times as though we are beguiled by style rather than ideas. People enjoy the look of the 1982 Blade Runner movie, but fear the philosophical implications of its 1969 source novel (Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep), whose treatise on empathy seems ironically utopian in today’s political climate. And yet all source material, including the creation of the Marvel universe that dominates cinema now, began with a few people who could not help breaking the mould by doing the thing they loved, in the way only they could.

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