Science Fiction Feminisms, Feminist Science Fictions & Feminist Sustainability


The hospitality of Ada and Ada’s audiences is necessary to this essay. We offer our scholarly play among trans-spatial and trans-temporal webs and platforms as a practice of anticipation and even a quite serious fun that values not-quite-being-yet in sync, writing wise or conclusion wise. We quite like this demonstration of a collaboration that is not yet in consensus. It is a practice we value together, an honorable dance of and between science fiction feminisms and feminist science fictions. Indeed, differential contexts motivate us here and we deliberately draw attention to our process because we believe that the work of crafting and communicating shared visions is properly foregrounded, as must be the inevitability of its––at least partial––failure. And maybe pleasure. We are interested in acts of imagination not mystification, although we acknowledge that knowing the difference may not be easy. Collaborating across syntax and writing styles, continents, time zones and academic generations, even modes of employment, we entered into it all willingly because of the potential we both saw for a transformative encounter. Our differential inhabitations of an only partially and occasionally co-incident time-space continuum shape both how we continue to work together as well as what we have to say, with and to each other. Collaboration is a risky enough business at the best of times, and in this one we found out that we could not even really fully articulate the different demands that drove us to work together and apart. Thinking and writing in different registers and with divergent case studies, our mutual entanglement in a productive web of texts, contexts and communities sometimes threatens to exclude each other’s imagined readers. This means we depend on actual readers to take part in a cat’s cradle game with us now: one that Donna Haraway introduces and variously identifies with science studies, science fiction and speculative fabulation, one in which we all together play at “passing patterns back and forth, giving and receiving, patterning, holding the unasked-for pattern in one’s hands.” (Haraway 2013 [2011], n.p.).

Feminists Seeking (Academic) Sustainability

SF brings us, the authors, together. SF is multiply––and that is the point––science fiction, scientifiction, science communication and fabulation, speculative fictions, speculative feminisms. SF is also texts, contexts, histories and communities – variously contested and in coalition. SF brings us, the authors, literally together at, say, academic conferences where we finally meet face-to-face, and literally provides us work, on one hand at an interdisciplinary social science research centre (Cesagen, Cardiff University, UK), funded to explore emergent technoscience; on the other, say, a course just taught in Women’s Studies at the University of Maryland, College Park, USA. As our common take off point for intervention in a present moment of academic restructuring, that air we both breathe and the condition of our continuing; and as feminists seeking worldly sustainabilities in addition to these academic ones––we argue here how SF world-making reference points matter. SF is what drew us together to consider lively materialisms that matter now.

As already suggested, ‘now’ is not necessarily a shared experience, as we are materially embodied on different continents. We are subject to different local political economies, however transnational we might imagine our shared projects to be. What logics, materialities, and imaginations of temporality work for such sustainability? What habits of mind and body, cognition and affect, might we cultivate to shape our work, maybe to resist despair, as we or others around us fearfully or even boldly anticipate restructuring’s results or engage its processes? What multiple projects of knowledge making or worlding are even our very companions? (Haraway 2013 [2011]) Temporalities amid different ranges and sensations of urgency require inspection of how future-oriented discourses and practices operate. The work at Cesagen, for example:––sharing with various publics just what it is that genomics does, is about, and might be, the economic and social factors that shape it;––is preoccupied with teasing out the ways in which the promissory logics of contemporary science communication function to “disappear” kinds of labor, resources and contingencies that, materially speaking, make up those very differences between now and our imagined Futures. An elision of what needs to happen to make now “then”––or then “now”––may even motivate us to do that necessary labor, find those resources, negotiate those contingencies, each in pursuit of ends we desire, even while such an elision is sometimes also likely to strangely crowd out much needed room to maneuver among seeming determinations.

What sorts of clarities of communication and practice are possible and necessary? What sorts of clarity are spurious, misleading, perhaps even deadly? What “double binds” might be said to condition our very practices of transdisciplinary articulation across worlds rapidly diverging amid communication technologies only nominally under “authorial” control? (Warner 2003; King 2011b) These all condition some experiments we take up in this essay, for it matters just how we pay attention to the ways The Future is Now. (Kirby 2010) We are interested in reading in and out of context, and in shifting understandings of how we understand our own context or that of the texts and stories we exchange and circulate. We offer no hard and fast conclusions, but there are many openings to share. We ask of you a willingness to participate in a series of demonstrations, sometimes deferring details, sometimes hunting and gathering beyond this text, modeling a sometimes necessary and emergent readerly practice here, an element in what nowadays is referred to as “transmedia storytelling.” This is a materiality embedded among a range of media ecologies. Transmedia storytelling across platforms and registers also works across spacetimes to actualize these very ecologies as their own stories. Such emergent technoscientific imaginaries of this habitable moment are only partially able to be articulated (connected and communicated) because they are themselves crucial aspects of how now is understood to be and indeed does come to be “into-being” (Haran 2010a; King 2011a; Haran, McNeil, Kitzinger, O’Riordan 2008; Jenkins 2006; Kirby 2011). Demonstrations are sometimes the best one can share in the middle of everything as it happens. The spacetimes we open up to, in the next section, emerge out of materialities of communicative practice through which we experience what we are living now as those very futures once anticipated. However, it is instructive to compare contemporary highly capitalized forms of transmedia storytelling with those that emerge from intersections of fan communities, academic communities and activist communities, both in our contemporary moment (if there is such a thing) using ‘new media’ platforms and at earlier historical junctures when mimeographed fanzines, APAs and fanfiction circulated nationally and internationally. (APAs are amateur press associations of fans who put out apazines, their own magazines of loving intellectual and creative work.)

Trans knowledges turn out to be vibrant matter here as well: transnational, transgenic, transgender, transdisciplinary, transmedia (Bennett 2010; Kier 2010). Such materialities expand those various senses––meanings, sensations, and affects––in and through which our actions as this present will entail futures, some with perhaps irrevocable consequences, however uncertain or predictable, or, for that matter, alterable. (Think of global climate change as one vivid example.) Then, add to all that the proper “senses” in which global academic and other economic restructurings disrupt and are themselves disrupted by these uneven spacetimes. Our version of “sustainability” here attempts to work itself out among and as these, and we share what we know (which is not always enough) of trans markings, that is to say, knowledge productions across academies, nations, disciplines, media, knowledge work sectors, commercialities, temporalities. We deliberately offer our en-trans-ing examples as those that can never instantiate some essential truth about what is happening: either as an object of critique or as a moment of breakthrough. That which is wrong about something is thankfully not all that it is. Nor is it any conclusion…. Let us begin, then, abruptly.

The Future is Now

Superbly handled 15-minute opening sequence grabs the viewer by the lapels while dexterously illustrating the premise’s central notion of preventing crime by foreseeing it. By analyzing imagery culled from three psychic “Pre-Cogs,” Pre-Crime unit chief John Anderton (Cruise) is able to piece together enough evidence about a suburban crime of passion in the offing that he and his team arrive in time to stop a jealous husband from stabbing his wife and her lover…. Standing before clear panels in his glassed-in control room, Anderton resembles a master orchestra conductor as he vigorously summons images from his Pre-Cogs, wipes them away, reframes them, advances and rewinds the action, requests new angles––anything to pick up clues as to location, identities and sequence of events…. D.C. has been murder-free for six years. On the basis of this unblemished success record, and the belief that the system is infallible, a vote is pending to take Pre-Crime national. Todd McCarthy’s review of Minority Report (Variety, 2002)

This now iconic opening sequence from Steven Spielberg’s film Minority Report, as well as a variety of transatlantic scholarly analyses since of so-called “premediation,” are touchstones engaging an altering sensorium for such “anticipation work.” (McCarthy 2002; Spielberg 2002; Grusin 2010; Awan, Hoskins, O’Loughlin 2009; Adams, Murphy, Clarke 2009)  In the UK-based international, transdisciplinary journal, Subjectivity, Canadian and US medical anthropology, history and women’s studies, and sociology and science studies scholars Vincanne Adams, Michele Murphy and Adele Clarke respectively point out that “Anticipation is the palpable effect of the speculative future on the present” (2009, 247).  “Crucially, the future increasingly not only defines the present but also creates material trajectories of life that unfold as anticipated by those speculative processes. Anticipation is rapidly reconfiguring technoscientific and biomedical practices as a totalizing orientation” (248). Note the transdisciplinary transmedia engaged here in their spacetimes: a 2002 Hollywood film from a 1956 cult SF story, reviewed in a trade magazine often popularized, with YouTube trailers and bits online in some now––increasingly used as a figure for, even having materially motivated, a range of transnational academic publications and knowledge projects, some deliberately locating themselves in relation to practices set into motion with 9/11. These can be understood as all about as well as demonstrations of so-called anticipation work, or “premediation.” Within an SF transmedia ecology, they both show and tell. We wonder, however, whether Adams et al are science fiction readers. As sf readers––indeed fans––ourselves, we read ‘anticipation work’ as a much more contested process, and suggest that even totalizing orientations might function to alienate and provoke resistance rather than to enroll consent.

Indeed, across all these ecologies and temporalities, it is popular entertainment channels that circulate many current technoscientific imaginaries and more effectively than do sober channels of science communication or research policy agenda-setting. Often it is cross-channel trafficking or transing that is significant, together with their “locals” and “globals.” Adding to such spacetime continua, William Gibson’s short story “The Gernsback Continuum” is a compelling exploration of the ways in which the ghosts of science fiction (past) futures might be said also and simultaneously to haunt these, our technoscientific presents. We might even say that a scholarly focus on premediation is an effect of those now past once-futures, as they offer up to us a future-anticipated present, one that may even misrecognize or only partially recognize some of its own spacetimes. (Gibson 2003 [1986]; Haran, et al. forthcoming)

US feminist and sometime SF author Marge Piercy writes about her commitment to political fiction when she speaks of being “Active in Time and History” (1989). We would suggest that attention to historiography is as crucial as attention to anticipation work for our own activity in the present. We must continue to narrate the social and economic histories of science(s) in dialogue with our utopian and dystopian technoscientific futures. Donna Haraway’s “Cyborg Manifesto” claims that “The political struggle is to see from both sides at once” (1991 [1985], 154) raising questions about just how we might practice this looking in both directions at once: perhaps how roads not travelled might have been even less enchanting than those we now experience; or perhaps remembering the paths that have been willfully forgotten. Feminist science fiction writer, Ellen Klages (2006, 2008), turned to writing historical fiction for children to explore the non-heroic aspects of national investments in science, educating young people and reminding their elders who read along about how the nuclear arms race was initiated and how the US space program was indebted to laborers enslaved by the Nazis. Imaginative shuttling back and forth in time, as well as across national and disciplinary borders, labors well to craft those “modest interventions” among spacetimes that US feminist theorist of technoscience Haraway (and anthropologist Deborah Heath) inspire us to work out and among (Heath 1995, 1998, forthcoming; Haraway 1996, 1997).

Inspecting and evaluating “totalization” itself as a narrative, as a time claim (Weston 2002), as an environment (or several environments), as an ethical urgency, as a horizon on or for or without hope, matters here. How might other tenses be shifted too, to feel out such “totalizing orientation,” as noted by Adams, Murphy, Clarke, as full of many agencies, if not agencies in control? Which embodiments and cognitions refuse to conflate “agency” with “control”? Indeed, despite all the imaginative or anticipatory work that might have seemed to call such into being, paying attention to hauntings makes sensible once-totalizing futures that have not come to pass. Gibson’s imaginative historical contingencies trump our hopeful or hopeless investments in even partial determinisms, technological or sociological. Critical work in feminist science fiction and utopian studies has demonstrated how imagining “otherwise” is vital, that is to say, lively, no matter how many ways we feel pressed to accept some “Future is Now.” You see, SF teaches us how spacetime continua may and may not be reversible, envelope differently in various realities, and offer relative and relational points of view that are more and less determinative, multiple, and sensitive to what appear to be horizons of possibility. Since a range of technoscientific and transmedia apparatus shape some of these effects and affects, we want to highlight their transnational, transdisciplinary, and transmedia valences.

Former US molecular geneticist and current historian of science communication at the University of Manchester, David Kirby’s Lab Coats in Hollywood (2011) and “The Future is Now” (2010) go into considerable detail demonstrating how film and television enactments increasingly come to work as “diegetic prototypes” in a distributed practice of research and development. He describes how the film Minority Report can be understood as just such an R&D space for prototyping computer engineer John Underkoffler’s gestural interface technologies, even as he served as the film’s science consultant:

Minority Report was a golden opportunity for John Underkoffler to demonstrate to the public, and potential funders, that not only would his gestural interface technology work, but also that the technology would appear as if it were ‘natural’ and intuitive for users. The important factor was that Underkoffler conscientiously treated this cinematic representation as an actual prototype. ‘We worked so hard to make the gestural interface in the film real. I really did approach the project as if it were an R&D [research and development] thing.’ (50) …These approaches led to the funds he needed to start the company Oblong Industries and to turn his diegetic prototype into a physical prototype. This real world prototype in turn led to a development contract with defense giant Raytheon to produce gestural interface technology for the US military. (53) …After Minority Report Underkoffler and Production Designer Alex McDowell helped to form an organization called MATTER Art and Science, whose objective is to transfer the creative methods of cinema into scientific and engineering work. For MATTER Art and Science every potential technology should be treated as a diegetic prototype. This allows them to map out the social, political, economic and practical possibilities of a technology before it is even considered for development. (65)

If “The Future is Now” we might wonder what room for maneuverings around and about current restructurings do speculative feminisms or SF feminisms even have, pastpresentfuture-wise? David Kirby’s coinage of the term “diegetic prototypes” for an account of many striking transdisciplinary, transmedia collaborations could be read carelessly or anxiously as describing a world in which Hollywood determines our future, where premediation names the temporal trajectory, and where anticipation work captivates a neoliberal present. But sensitize ourselves to en-trans-ing spacetimes, and situate diegetic prototypes among additional processes and distributed infrastructures––including the science fictions that might be read as what Tom Moylan (1986) calls ‘critical  utopias’––and the term may name tools useful for science fiction feminisms finding maneuvering room. What kinds of innovations are these? And what are their circumstances of play?[1]

In her new book, Networked Reenactments (2011), Katie King tracks some of the same sorts of prototyping practices, or––as she analyzes them with their distributed infrastructures––“reenactments,” with an eye to how knowledge work and the entertainment and culture industries mutually restructured in the nineties and after. King examines some forms of such “innovation”––on its non-voluntary edge––together with a critique of neoliberal pressures, and as a double bind necessity to alter, change, offer something new. She looks to the circumstance of what British and transatlantic anthropologist and cyberneticist Gregory Bateson called “double binds”––abusive and creative––for a double-edged understanding of those circumstances SF feminisms survive, and as among the reasons to claim those processes Haran takes up in the next section. Bateson analyzed “transcontexual tangles”––the collision of moments seemingly “the same,” yet strangely disjunct because simultaneously occupying different contexts unremarked upon or not understood as such––as sometimes confusions, ranging from the disorienting to the disabling, and also, but only now and then, gifts that shape the inspired, the manic, the innovating (Bateson 1972b [1969]; King 2011).

King describes how Bateson’s work on learning, and play itself, inspires such artists, game designers, and “intellectual entrepreneurs” as Katie Salen and Eric Zimmerman. This term intellectual entrepreneur is intended to shadow those double bind circumstances requiring so-called innovation that transnational knowledge workers, since the nineties, live within, with their uneven, sometimes abusive effects. But it is also intended to honor how creatively we practice our survival of these, to care about and for what we make and what we are becoming…. Bateson’s work on learning and play is not only a touchstone for King, but indeed has inspired artists and game designers, people like Salen and Zimmerman. For example, in their US game design textbook Rules of Play (2004), Salen and Zimmerman rely on Bateson to analyze the double consciousness in which play allows selves to keep track of as well as inhabit more than one reality simultaneously. Salen’s Quest to Learn, a NYC school sponsored by the US MacArthur Foundation, explores how a neurologically-informed gamer savvy might alter the ways we practice learning and teaching. (MacArthur Foundation 2010; McGonigal 2011) And Eric Zimmerman’s project Drift takes advantage of multiuse architecture as a game element in “a proposal for a building in the form of a game, the result of a collaboration with architects Clara Klein and Nathalie Pozzi… for an architectural competition called Sukkah City, which challenged entrants to design a version of the traditional Jewish structure called Sukkah…. Our proposal centered on a game that was to be played by two or more participants within [a game environment simultaneously a Sukkah, a desert, and a building].” (Zimmerman, Klein, Pozzi 2010) Such trans-sectoral play with simultaneous realities is one feature in what counts as innovation today.

Anticipation work, as described by Adams, Murphy, and Clarke, attempts to grapple with all these possibilities as speculative predictions that pressure the present with totalizing structures of feeling, explorations of risk, damage. Bateson explored these “transcontextual tangles” in the fifties and sixties by working with schizophrenics, artists, meditators, ethologists, veterans and the Veterans Administration, students, and New Age entrepreneurs. Transcontextual tangles are rarely benign: those he analyzed as abusive double binds range in severity from the disorienting to the psychotic (Bateson 1972a [1954]; 1972b [1969]). But transcontextual tangles are involved too in these surprising combinations of transmedia, transdiscipinary, trans-sectoral practices involved in many sorts of “play”––and, for each one, transfer across contexts, architectures, and platforms is crucial in their design, use, demonstration, and collaborative generations. But these are not outside of double bind circumstances. What sensitivities of feeling, thinking, sharing do such objects among entities involve? To examine so-called innovation as many double bind processes that take place in often quite abusive circumstances is not to minimize their damage, but to survive it. (Bateson 1972b [1969]; King 2011) King’s book is sometimes a critique, sometimes an exploration of how global economic restructurings and distributed practices, their affects and effects, are altering who we are becoming….

For some, SF is a shuttling back and forth not just across temporalities but also across justices, utopian or dystopian, and damages, psychic and collective. In this next section Haran reweaves what counts as utopian in order to open up intra-psychic processes as collective forms of recognition and survival.


In “A Cyborg Manifesto,” Haraway argues powerfully for an infidel heteroglossia rather than a common language and explores science fictions that she sees as exemplary of this heteroglossia. She is critical of feminist texts that constitute explanations as totalities rather than as partial. Whilst we acknowledge that totalizing explanations are highly problematic, we also want to stress the responsibility of the reader to question seamless narratives and / or to bricolage less partial accounts by reading explanations in conversation with each other. We would argue that science fiction––and feminist science fiction in particular––models this conversation between explanations, and as such can sensitize its readers to the process of testing explanations against each other. It can also be read productively in conversation with feminist theory produced in multiple disciplines to think and feel our way towards what we might call an ethicopolitics. For example, entangling the psychoanalysis of Jessica Benjamin, the philosophies of Judith Butler, and the film theory of Vivian Sobchack with the narrative fiction of Starhawk’s The Fifth Sacred Thing allows us to intertwine intersubjectivity, its ethics and ambiguities, with interobjectivity, across beings and things, intrapsychically and among transmedia and transnational feminisms (Haran 2003, 2010; Benjamin 1995, 1998; Butler 2006; Sobchack 2004). SF allows for thinking and feeling into and through questions of what might be desirable feminist transformations better than theory, or perhaps better than theory alone. (Haran explains: I am conscious that I risk setting up ‘Theory’ as a straw figure, here.  Feminists have long theorized creatively and disruptively, and ‘theory’ has been a highly contested term within feminism so understanding the term as indexing some monolithic discourse is problematic (cf Butler and Scott 1992).. Nonetheless, I wish to claim a distinctive mode for SF). All this invites another sort of entanglement and identification from SF readers, one potentially more open and ambiguous, or even “ambivalent,” than feminist academic theory and critique. (An unexamined clarity experienced as excluding, damaging or alienating may be an unintended effect of some academic critique. Debunking, for example, can evacuate from its object everything but the critique, which survives alone as the object’s essential truth and then may appear to insist on refusal as urgent ethical action). Intersubjectivity is not only explored within the text, it is constituted through the text in a complex networking of multiple imagined relationships between and among writers and readers and texts and worlds. Feminist science fiction is a textual – and embodied – practice rather than a textual form: it is a practice that is developed in multiple interpretive communities that take “pleasure in the confusion of boundaries and … responsibility in their construction” (Haraway 1991 [1985], 150).

Exploring The Fifth Sacred Thing as a “boundary object,” it is instructive to test the responsibility that is being taken––or deferred in the construction of boundaries. The text’s author is a well-known US ecofeminist and practitioner of earth-based spirituality and this leads many potential readers to assume that they can dismiss the book unread because they assume they know what its contents will be. However, other readers do engage with this text and with conversations it facilitates. Boundary objects are those lively agencies that gather persons across possible disunities, even sometimes unconsciously in a misrecognized assumption of commonality not in fact actual at all, yet naturalized in a valuable work-around practice that permits consensual action without agreement (Star 2010). As such a boundary object, The Fifth Sacred Thing becomes somehow even a particularly curious occasion to wonder about the reading strategies and political and theoretical affiliations of other readers. What is it about the text that calls out to them? Is it the depiction of polyamory, the espousal of non-violent direct action in the face of murderous opposition, the account of earth-based spirituality and magic, the imagined project of building a better world from the debris of our own? For some readers, the author’s ecofeminism and her spirituality make the text seem politically and theoretically suspect, while for others the text functions as another piece of evidence of the proximity, if not always coincidence, of ecofeminism and feminist science studies. Its version of the Goddess, for example, is remarkably pragmatic and postmodern, self-consciously calling attention to our creation of enabling myths and metaphors. Starhawk’s goddess could be a companion to Haraway’s cyborg, not its abject other, as the novel invites us not only to account for our implication in histories of oppression, but also calls for self-conscious play with narrating history and recognizing its openness to revision.

Holding close to Jessica Benjamin’s discussions of intersubjectivity while inhabiting spaces created by The Fifth Sacred Thing in its boundary object-ness offers one way of thinking through our obligations to others. Benjamin argues that: “any subject’s primary responsibility to the other subject is to be her intervening or surviving other” (Benjamin 1998: 99; emphasis in original). As a psychoanalyst, Benjamin is referring to our capacity to intervene in or survive the destructive wishes and fantasies of the other, but as Starhawk, Sobchack, and Butler––among others––point out, we are vulnerable to harm and injury from others much in excess of ill-wishing or destructive fantasizing. Ethicopolitics is an attempt to found our modes of relating to others in Benjamin’s focus on survival, positioned as utopian. But utopian here names a space for on-going change, negotiation, working with the damage, not that topos, the “good place.” Although, as Butler points out, our vulnerability to others cannot be wished away, nevertheless, one of the possibilities offered by feminist science fiction is a special habitation. We can inhabit SF feminisms as an imagined or enchanted social theory in which we “become-with” others differently. Ethicopolitics captures both the sense of knowing feminism through multiple conversations that others share, and also a feminist project about that unending negotiation necessary to extend to all other subjects the just and flourishing lives that we seek for ourselves. Thus feminism as ethicopolitics recognizes how constant and continual negotiations have been and will be required to work towards that justice and flourishing (without some transcendental end point), as its content will keep changing with changes in the social structures and “natural” resources that are struggled over.

SF names books and “texts,” reading protocols and commercial market niches, intra-psychic survivals and abilities to suspend or inhabit all at once multiple worlds. It can generate simultaneous selves, rework processes for play and for practicing hope, and arouse and resituate what counts as “us” and “them.” And SF across its referents unveils infrastructure upon infrastructure, from commercial story production to non-academic inspirations for and with feminist theory, to materialisms of story kinds, across platforms, gadgets, games, nets and webs, and funding. Transmedia storytelling hunts and gathers resources: all possible autonomies, but also all possible intra-actions, using every bit of “screen” to confront us with ourselves.

SF Feminisms

While what we might call “double bind” realities are dangerous, they also exist in degrees that may trigger alternative realities of playful, ritual, magical, or spiritual significance in many worlds. They may trigger individual and collective disaster as well. And these too may be transcontextually undecidable in terms that are even elements of their playful or magical significance, and hold open temporalities that do not line up simply across past, present, and future. For many of us in one particular now, “gaming” has become an icon, as well as a material practice and apparatus of learning and of risky uncertainties, with economic, technological, and metric significance for seeking sustainabilities of many sorts today, and at alternate grains of detail, from the neurological to the climatically global, from the public goods held in common to the commercially pressured, work-person days of just making a living and finding a few roses in there somewhere. Restructuring has us all in a grip, but this is not the only future that might have been, nor are the futures of our pasts evacuated by that rendering of now.

Games and media play upon our neurological and cognitive “screens” with commercial and hobby practices that SF cares about and with. US semiologist and science writer Steven Johnson analyses skills honed among, with, and even as these media ecologies––practices involved now in transmedia storytelling. (You will recognize all of these as elements in contemporary television and film. They originate in gaming and, to some extent, in SF fandoms and communities. [Johnson 2005; Jenkins 2006; Pearce 2009]) First,  multiple threading requires us to keep track nowadays of many story arcs and a range of narrative frames, noting which ones are currently active and which ones are latent but potentially significant. Those may inspire us to practice filling-in, that is to say, tentatively trying out possible materials in spaces left latent or even empty in production, sometimes deliberately, sometimes inadvertently. But all this within what ranges? a book? a TV show? your iPad game? or more and beyond these? Well, • probing involves learning the rules of, say, a game or virtual world’s simulation by trial and error, while necessarily also checking out its edges, limits and unexpected artifacts or patterns. And it exercises our neurological capacities to perceive all sorts of bits of realities as models, metaphors, or immersive environments that it turns out we are already inhabiting all over the place! Gathering these or moving among platforms, from webcasts to TV episodes to games to film, these then allow us to perceive all these many possible contexts through • telescoping processes, those involving apprehending simultaneously all the possible structures of nested hierarchy and mobilizing them in various sequences. (Some feminist theorists might recall here another semiologist’s version of something called “differential consciousness,” one of US Chicana Chela Sandoval’s set of feminist technologies for radical transformation [Sandoval 2000, 2002]).

These are among the SF Ecologies King shares with students in a new course on Science Fiction Feminisms, emblematically opened through the door of this book by Johnson, in-your-face provocatively entitled Everything Bad is Good for You: How Today’s Popular Culture is Actually Making Us Smarter. The title engages a range of what could be, often are, moral panics confusingly in play over video games, television, and web and computer based new media and learning systems, and in this book Johnson tacitly draws upon research described in two earlier books, one on neuroscience and the other on emergence (2004, 2001). King’s class focuses on how our technological and embodied biomes are actually hooked together, entangled for better and worse, affected and affecting at many scales of connection––from neurotransmitters, to psychologies of screen and interface, to game-based learning systems, to role playing online and off, to games of chance, exploration, strategy, assembly, and movement, to complex systems ecologies of evolution, internet infrastructure, global economies, and more––now scoped and scaled transcontextually as “gaming” (Schrage 2000; Johnson 2005; Wikipedia 2011; Flanagan 2009, 2011; Ito, Herr-Stephenson, Perkel, Sims 2010; MacArthur Foundation 2010; McGonigal 2011).

For King, “gaming” thus includes but is not limited to what it means to inhabit some now of undecidable and yet constantly predicted probabilistic futures, in which critique itself only too easily can be hijacked to essentialize its objects with deadly clarity and thus anticipate much too closely horizons of imagination––and sometimes inadvertently shape its ethical urgencies as despair. Adams, Murphy, and Clarke analyze such foreclosure as “abduction”:

In anticipation, abduction also acquires a temporal form: the tacking back and forth between the past, present and future. Abduction moves reasoning temporally from data gathered about the past to simulations or probabilistic anticipations of the future that in turn demand action in the present. Abduction thrives in the vibrations between the is and the ought, consummately modern yet augmented by anticipation in ways that undermine the certainties on which modernity thrives. Abduction is the process of considering more precisely how to anticipate in actual practice. (2009, 255)

While nothing is innocent in gaming––from the casinos on Native lands, to the industry’s entanglements with violent representations, to military uses of game theory and war simulations for training troupes––still, it is also the case that none of these can properly be held out as essential truths about gaming, even if the first thing King’s Women’s Studies students say about it all is “Isn’t it addictive?” And of course, video games might really hook into impulse control disorders, although, then again, it depends on what counts as addiction (Wood 2008). Maybe what we are actually “addicted” to here are the panic urgencies and moral certainties of some forms of anticipation work. How might gaming forms of learning work with us to scope and scale among their and our distributed embodiments across spacetimes in practices of intersubjectivity and interobjectivity?

Notice what is at stake in double binds: good signaling skills make nonabusive play on the edge of double binds possible. ‘My body is reacting as if I am in danger, but really I’m in front of a computer screen.’ This is the kind of edgy double consciousness Gregory Bateson first theorized as crucial in play, now taken up by video game designers (Bateson 1972a [1954]; Salen, Zimmerman 2004: 451). But Bateson was well aware that not every edge of play is so easily resolved: that transcontextual confusions, but also gifts, arise from situations in which “tangles” remain––in which finding out which bits are active, which bits are context, which bits can be made explicit, which rules are perceptible, which distributed embodiments, cognitions, and infrastructures are in play, matters. And the skills for all this, transcontextual movement without falling apart––what restructuring academies, nations, and industries call “innovation”––are at the very heart of all those things that the word “gaming” now covers.

Gaming? Funding? What scary futures and current nows of some past future do these offer us as sustainabilities or habitations or critiques? The Fifth Sacred Thing was first published in 1993, and its portrayal of a mid-21st –Century no-longer-United States, informed by ecofeminist critiques of capitalism, patriarchy, and fundamentalist religion already then seemed urgent to many readers. Its depiction is of a future where, despite serious environmental degradation, one community has renounced violence and reshaped its social and material relations in just and anti-oppressive ways, living joyfully and in peace––albeit a peace that is continually struggled over. It is a novel that many readers across enfolded temporalities have found enchanting, one now perhaps anticipating new immersive realities in layer after layer of possibility and platform. However, in recent years the novel has become hard to find in print, thus not readily accessible to such new readers. In 2011, however, Starhawk embarked on the risky business of trying to share her vision of the future with a much wider audience than had read her original novel. How did she do this? What platforms for possibility opened up? Well, in all its gaming, funding meanings, she set up a Kickstarter page, established to raise finance to pitch the novel to a big movie studio. Notice how Kickstarter presents itself as: “a funding platform for creative projects … Every project is independently crafted, put to all-or-nothing funding, and supported by friends, fans, and the public in return for rewards.” What sort of platform now can use social media to support new models of funding creative production? According to its website, since its launch in 2009, 20,000 projects have been successfully funded to a total of $200 million dollars by 1.8 million people. The Kickstarter page for The Fifth Sacred Thing sought $60,000 in pledges. It raised $76,327 from 1431 backers by the 60-day deadline, “winning” its own funding challenge.

Even if Starhawk did not use the explicit language of premediation, her project can certainly be understood as a form of anticipation work. Yet it is one that remediates those implicit and explicit critiques that trouble Adams et al. In the first paragraph, under the header “About this project,” a counter-visionary labor and field for shaping realities is deliberatively initiated: “They say that movies are collective dreams. If so, we’re heading for a nightmare – for there are very few films that show a positive future on earth. We want to change that. How can we create a thriving, just and balanced future if we can’t even imagine it? We want to bring alive a vision that can inspire people – and we’ve found the story in Starhawk’s novel, The Fifth Sacred Thing” (The Fifth Sacred Thing [2011a]). But it is not just the novel here that offers an augmented reality of feminist sustainability.

Rather, the vision for this project takes diegetic prototyping to another enfolded set of augmented realities, a transmedia storytelling that shifts platforms and distributes worlds. One of the philosophies espoused in the novel is that ends do not justify means, but that rather means become ends. So, in contrast to Unterkoffler, who used his film consultancy work to leverage start-up capital and recruit customers, Starhawk and her partners in the project work out ways to model the very social technologies that will be portrayed in the movie as/if is made (The Fifth Sacred Thing [2011a]):

We’ve written a Green Plan that will set new standards for environmental accountability in the film industry. We’ll bring resources into the inner city by networking with community organizations with whom we have longstanding relationships. We’ll put up a website with extensive resources and develop many ways that people who are inspired by the vision can learn the skills they need to create it and connect with others who share it. We want the movie to help nurture and support the movements that are already growing to put our world on a path of peace, justice and ecological harmony. (See also 2011b)].

That Kickstarter has become itself an entertainment platform, one not unlike the TV game shows of the past, generating excitement for projects that rival each other in over funding lotteries and jackpots of narrative and competition, is more and more obvious in mutual restructurings of knowledge and culture industries. Kickstarter campaigns become fictions and fun with industrial design (Bogost 2013).

But Starhawk and SF feminist fans have, both deliberately and inadvertently, incorporated Kickstarter into their own multiple immersive SF feminisms: one among a range of distributed materialities all too ambivalently, yet very lovingly, augmenting gaming realities as feminist worldings, as sustaining hopes. It remains an open question as to how successful the film project will be in helping to “nurture and support the movements that are already growing to put our world on a path of peace, justice and ecological harmony.” But by supplementing the circulation of the original novel text with the time-limited Kickstarter page and ongoing website and Facebook presences, all featuring concept art and other resources for visualizing both the film project and the social project from which it emerges and to which it is intending to contribute, affiliates of The Fifth Sacred Thing have scaled up the transmedia storytelling that was already emergent from the novel’s readership. In doing so, they have provided feminist science / fictions or science fiction feminisms with an intriguing example of the “transgressed boundaries, potent fusions, and dangerous possibilities which progressive people might explore as one part of needed political work” (Haraway 1991 [1985], 154).

We conclude, again abruptly, with an anti-climax stopping point, one deliberately without an ending. From this stopping point, without delimiting any, we note what some of our own SF feminisms are: A course Katie King is teaching now, its topics some of the subjects she writes about, reads, and shares with others. Some worlds Joan Haran has traveled among for at least a couple of decades, from fandoms to conference panels, to work in a genomics centre.[2] A set of spaces, people, practices, objects, that share infrastructures and require our good faith. Many spacetimes imagined and lived and yet to come, futures across times that have already happened. Us, co-authors, distributed ourselves across spacetimes, in this academic open access feminist journal, sustaining….


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Haran, J., and King, K. (2013). Science Fiction Feminisms, Feminist Science Fictions & Feminist Sustainability. Ada: A Journal of Gender, New Media, and Technology, No.2. doi:10.7264/N30P0WXQ

This article has been openly peer reviewed at Ada Review.

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Footnotes    ( returns to text)

  1. Colin Milburn suggests one avenue to pursue: “our understanding of how science fiction works at the bench would be greatly improved by seeing scientists as cultural consumers like any cultural consumers, perhaps even in some cases as science fiction fans like any science fiction fans, but having at their disposal the tools and the resources for making science fiction and other cultural materials actually usable for science—and vice versa.” (Milburn 2010, 565). Perhaps the task for science fiction feminisms is to increase the likelihood that scientists turn to feminist science fiction, rather than elsewhere, for their prototypes.
  2. Joan’s thinking also always responds to open-ended – and sometimes imagined –conversations with Deborah Lynn Steinberg, Niamh Moore, Kate O’Riordan, Jenny Kitzinger, Maureen McNeil, Maria Puig de la Bellacasa and Michelle Bastian, and other scholars of gender, representation and technoscience encountered in her feminist travels.  She includes many other writers and readers of feminist sf in the transnational networks of friends and colleagues she inhabits.
Joan Haran

Joan Haran was a Research Fellow at the ESRC Centre for Economic and Social Aspects of Genomics (Cesagen) at Cardiff University until 31 October 2013. She is now a freelance scholar. Her research interests are in reproductive and literary technologies and their intersections. She is co-author of Human Cloning in the Media: From Science Fiction to Science Practice (Routledge 2008). She is currently developing a monograph entitled Genomic Fictions: Genes, Gender and Genre.

Katie King

Katie King is Professor of Women's Studies at the University of Maryland, College Park, and a Fellow of the Maryland Institute for Technology in the Humanities (MITH). She received her PhD in the History of Consciousness at the University of California, Santa Cruz. Her transdisciplinary scholarship is located at the intersection of feminist technoscience studies, intersectional digital cultures and media studies, and LGBT Studies. Her first book was _Theory in its Feminist Travels: Conversations in U.S. Women's Movements_ (Indiana 1994), and published in 2011 is _Networked Reenactments: Stories Transdisciplinary Knowledges Tell_ (Duke).

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Science Fiction Feminisms, Feminist Science Fictions & Feminist Sustainability