Writing the Future: Science Fiction and Fantasy Narratives in the Twenty-First Century. 16 July 2014: Brunel University, London

full name / name of organization: 
Joseph Norman/ Brunel University, London
contact email: 

When:16th July 2014
Where: Artaud Building, Brunel University, London, United Kingdom.
Who: Organised by the Brunel Centre for Contemporary Writing (BCCW) and the Faeries & Flying Saucers Research Cluster

SF and fantasy have existed as modern genres since the late nineteenth century but have generally been grouped in with the categories of low or popular culture until recently. During that period, a sharp distinction developed in SF criticism (Suvin,
Jameson) between SF as progressive and fantasy as reactionary.
However, many of the postwar writers who are now considered canonical such as Brian Aldiss, Octavia Butler, Samuel Delany, Philip K Dick, Ursula K. Le Guin, M. John Harrisson, Robert Holdstock, Michael Moorcock, Christopher Priest, Keith Roberts, Joanna Russ and Gene Wolfe have either written works in both genres or works that may be considered a blend of both. Since the millennium, both the general status of SF&F has risen and the tendency of authors to combine elements of the genres in single works. One such author,China Miéville, has vigorously challenged the old Suvinian critical orthodoxy in his afterword to Red Planets(2009).

In the process of questioning the over-privileging of utopian fiction in academic criticism, Miéville argues that utopias are ‘specific articulations of alterity and that it is of that that SF/fantasy is the literature’. The fact that he uses this formulation rather than the more prosaic ‘SF and fantasy’ suggests the idea that placing the two genres side by side in a kind of Žižekian parallax gap is a viable model for charting a radical alterity that can’t otherwise be easily represented. This would certainly seem to account for Miéville’s own practice
in texts such as Perdido Street Station(2000), The City and the City (2009) and Kraken(2010). A similar blend of SF/fantasy is present in other British writers who have come to prominence since the millennium such as, for example, Justina Robson,Steph Swainston and Richard Morgan. Moreover, versions of this parallax are also present in the recent work of more established authors such as Iain M. Banks’s Matter (2008) and Gwyneth Jones’s Bold as Love sequence (2001-2006), and there are comparable US examples, making it a distinctive and significant contemporary phenomenon worthy of critical attention and investigation. SF/fantasy is also present in other media–particularly film/tv from Buffy to Dr Who but also in comic books and graphic novels following in the tradition of Alan Moore’s Swamp Thing and Neil Gaiman’s The Sandman.

This Conference is interested in exploring what has changed in recent years to both dramatically increase the status of SF&F in general (with the former gaining critical respect and
the latter increased sales and imprints) and promote the combination of the two in Miéville-style SF/F.

It has become a truism that,in the wake of 9/11 and the global economic crash of 2007/8, we now live in an age of uncertainty. Whatever conservative impulses this might impart to society at large, there is an increasingly significant strand of contemporary literature and culture–ranging from the work of
writers more associated with genre fiction such as Charles Stross, through those with feet in both mainstream and speculative camps such as Margaret Atwood, to mainstream literary figures such as Zadie Smith (currently writing a speculative fiction novel) – that seeks to embrace the alternative futures opened up by such uncertainty. Is it the case that where once we feared change, now we fear not changing and evolving to meet the challenge of ‘interesting times’?
While in the past, much SF&F might be seen to have pandered to fear of the future by substituting ‘licensed fantasies’ for deeper explorations of radical and disturbing possibilities submerged in the unconscious, what was lost in that process was the radical freedom that Źiźek has argued resides in the gap between what we consciously think we fantasise about and what we really fantasise about.

Is the reason for the increased popularity and status of SF/F, and even its actual existence, due to its capacity to extrapolate ambiguous but strangely attractive futures from the radical indeterminacy attendant to the fantasy gap?

This conference calls for proposal for 20 minute papers, or themed panels of 3 papers, that address some of the questions, or the general context, mapped out above, or,indeed, papers or panels with a different take on the current status and significance of contemporary SF&F.

Papers or panels addressing the convergence of Fantasy and SF
are particularly welcome.

300 word abstracts, along with a 4-line bio and institutional affiliation (if any),should be submitted to Nick Hubble (Nick.Hubble@brunel.ac.uk) by midnight Sunday 2nd March 2014.

Panel proposals should include an additional 2-300 word introduction. Discussions are on-going with a leading academic publisher concerning an edited collection.

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Conference Organisers: Emma Filtness, Nick Hubble, Joseph Norman, Philip Tew

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