Big Echo

Critical SF

Interview with Mark Bould

Mark Bould is a Reader in Film and Literature at UWE Bristol and has published extensively on Science Fiction. He is also the co-editor of the journal Science Fiction Film and Television, of the book series Studies in Global Science Fiction and, with China Miéville, of Red Planets: Marxism and Science Fiction (Amazon UK / US).


The central conceit of this issue of Big Echo is that Capital is a science fictional text. What are your thoughts?

Marx is constantly dipping his toe into the great midden of genre. He has a flair for fantastical gothic imagery: vampires and ghouls and topsy-turvy tables evolving grotesque ideas out of their wooden brains. But he also does sf. Capital describes workers as cyborgs, living appendages to overwhelming machines and systems that embody dead labor (capital) and extract and exhaust their living labor. Workers are reduced to zombified automata, mere components, like the factory hands in Lang’s Metropolis or the cybraceros in Alex Rivera’s Sleep Dealer. This cyborgization has tremendous liberatory potential if – and it’s a monumentally big if – it can be detached from the bloodsucking economic logic of capital.

There are other ways we can think about Capital as science-fictional. To borrow Darko Suvin’s troubled definition of sf, Capital is cognitively estranging: it presents a world that looks different to the one we commonly encounter, and prompts us to see our world very differently, to recognize a truth about it. This estranging effect is based in the cognition – the materialist rationality – that Suvin insists defines sf. But it is also based in a particular mode of persuasive rhetoric, as China Miéville’s great rebuttal argues, pushing Suvin’s logic until it breaks (it’s in the essay at the end of our Red Planets collection).

Fredric Jameson, who hews closely to Suvin, describes one of sf’s estrangement techniques as ‘world-reduction’. Seen from a certain angle, though, he could as easily be talking about Capital’s method: ‘a principle of systematic exclusion, a kind of surgical excision of empirical reality, something like a process of ontological attenuation in which the sheer teeming multiplicity of what exists, of what we call reality, is deliberately thinned and weeded out through a process of radical abstraction and simplification’.

But there are some kinds of sf Marx does not do. Beyond some passages in his agitational writings, such as The Communist Manifesto, he does not really extrapolate. He is immensely cagey – rightly so – about depicting futures. Which sometimes makes Capital read like the research underpinning the great unwritten ‘if this goes on’ dystopian satire – like something Fred Pohl and Cyril Kornbluth might have written in the 1950s, or something weightier, quirkier and fucked-up, like Limbo by Bernard Wolfe (who was briefly Trotsky’s bodyguard).

Better still, if you want to know what Marx’s lost sf novel is like, read Capital and then look around you. This world is the logic of capital he outlined played out for another 150 years.

I just had a conversation with Cory Doctorow in which he argued (with nuance) that Marxism was inherently (even essentially) techno-utopian, that it sought social transformation through technological revolution. Would you agree with that position?

I’m curious to see how he makes his case, because summarized like that in a single sentence – and depending on your definitions of Marxism and of technology (and probably of utopianism, too) – it is clearly wrong. It is insufficiently dialectical, only part of the story.

Technology’s ability to change the world is inseparable from questions of ownership. Marx recognized and often seems quite elated by the sheer power of capital – itself a technology – to muster resources, to overturn everything. Changing the mode of production transformed the world. Not just the technologies of extraction, production and distribution, but all the social relations in which they are embedded. But any exhilaration at capitalism sweeping away – more properly, sublating – feudalism is always tempered by knowledge of its perpetuation of class conflict.

In 1920, Lenin said ‘communism is soviet power plus the electrification of the entire country’. He made this claim at a very particular moment in a very specific debate at a precise historical conjuncture, but it articulates a more general point we should heed. Technology will not set us free. It is meaningless as a revolutionary tool without radical democracy. Whatever else it might be, the development, distribution and use of a technology is an exercise of class power. It is inscribed with contestation; it is a struggle for hegemony. And as my old mate Babyface – on guitar and polemic for Thee Faction – double-meaningly says: it’s only class war if we fight back.

And if we think of systems of governance as technologies, we live in and under a massive crushing technology: the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie. (By bourgeoisie, I don’t mean those chattering impeccable fools sipping lattes from avocados in cereal cafés, with all their hygge and their shunting and their buy-to-rent dreams, but the capitalist class – itself increasingly a metonym for the algorithms of the global economy.) So then the dictatorship of the proletariat, which means radical democracy, is the kind of technology we should imbue with hope. Whether we are headed toward some kind of solarpunk fully automated luxury communism, or toward salvagepunk disaster communism. Or, being more sufficiently dialectical, toward some shifting, evolving, irresolvable passage between them – and between them and barbarism.

But there is nonetheless an often obsessive sort of thinginess in the genre?

Absolutely. One of the main phenomena sf negotiates is the encounter with otherness, whether with the immensity of the cosmos or with the colonial other or the gendered other. Edmund Burke argues that the sense of being overwhelmed by magnitude produces terror and awe, and – according to Immanuel Kant – those feelings stem from our sensory and imaginative inability to grasp such enormity. Once we realize that it is beyond comprehension, we can place it in a conceptual category – the sublime – and thus dissipate its sense of threat and produce some frisson of pleasure. This is what is achieved on Wells’s terminal beach, and in Stapledon’s cataloguing of daughter species and aliens and cosmic cycles; it is central to spacefaring sf, both hard and space opera versions; and Lovecraft surfs its filthy backwash.

A similar incomprehension faces us when we encounter the otherness of another person, whose interiority is every bit as massive and complex as our own. And that interiority is not some isolated monadic soul. It is not the pristine individual, so beloved of liberalism and free market propagandists. It is intersocial, formed by and chaotically emerging from webs of interaction with human and non-human others. Interior and exterior, self and non-self, curve back on themselves like a Möbius strip. Sf copes with the sublime magnitude of the other in various ways, from exterminate all the brutes to welcoming them into the Federation (though that might actually be the same thing). Sf turns the other into a “neighbor,” Emmanuel Levinas’ term when he argues that rather than insisting on a shared universal identity we should accept and respect difference. However, as Slavoj Žižek points out in, I think, Violence: Six Sideways Reflections, the concept of the neighbour draws the other into proximity to the self, into a shared identity, but leaves their otherness that we find so threatening intact to be modulated or mediated by this proximity. The “rape” scene in Gwyneth Jones’s White Queen shows just how complex, how full of risk, this process can be, but does not reject it; the alternative might be far worse.

Now, our world is saturated by technology and by commodities, and – under capitalism – technology and the commodity are chiasmically entwined (the Möbius strip is a useful image here, too). Just as the commodity form has colonized the unconscious, so has technology form. They shape our imagination. And if the sf imaginary is dominated by technology, it always also carries the commodity inside it. (There is a really interesting, very specific example of this relationship in Spielberg’s Minority Report: the big-ass computer screen Tom Cruise stands in front of, controlling it with hand gestures, was designed by John Underkoffler as a “diegetic prototype” to demonstrate this proleptic technology to potential investors – and, among others, it was pursued by military contractor Raytheon, who are interested in developing battlefield data integration and analysis systems.)

But for all sf’s obsessive thinginess, we are not really talking about objects. The things we are talking about are words, signs, representations. In his essay in An American Utopia, Fredric Jameson describes us as, faced with catastrophe, gathering commodities around us as kind of “objectal forcefield.” And sf does the same with language. Sf’s words – its cyborgs and cyberpsaces, its FTL and anti-grav, its Ubik and Can-D and Chew-Z – shield us from the abyss.

Radhika Desai’s essay on Capital at 150 argues that its two most significant contributions were historicizing capitalism and giving us a method by which we can understand that history. Is that a fair reduction of the text? And to what extent is the SFnal project as much historical as futurological?

That’s not a bad summary of Capital: a rigorous demonstration of the historical contingency and the inner driving logic of capitalism.

But of course, we have to remember that Capital is incomplete. It’s as if Brandon Sanderson hadn’t stepped in to finish off Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series. Or Brian Herbert and Kevin J Anderson hadn’t blighted the world with prequels and sequels to the Dune series that Frank Herbert himself had long been ruining.

Nope, really can’t think of an sf analogy to help your readers get a visceral sense of how significant Capital’s unfinishedness is.

Michael A Lebowitz’s Beyond Capital: Marx’s Political Economy of the Working Class argues that Marx’s failure to write the planned volume on wage-labour skewed large parts of the subsequent Marxist/communist/socialist tradition – theoretically and practically – towards economic determinism, towards a damaging oversight of real human experience. (In Marx’s defence, he didn’t write it because he died.)

Kim Stanley Robinson argues that sf is a form of historical fiction – though perhaps what he means is that the best of certain kinds of historical fiction and science fiction are historicizing fictions. That is, they are concerned with – as Carl Freedman’s Critical Theory and Science Fiction argues – articulating the dialectic of identity and difference, continuity and change. They map the relationships among individual agency, group and class agency, and the structural agency of economic, social and political systems. And this happens not just on the level of grand narrative sweeps. It is not just – as in Stan’s great trilogy – about fashioning a Mars that is habitable in terms of breathable atmosphere and tolerable surface temperatures, and in terms of its economic, political and social relations. In sf, and perhaps in other forms of genuinely historicizing fiction, this happens on a word-by-word, sentence-by-sentence level, as Samuel R. Delany implies in his classic essay on sf language, ‘About 5750 Words’. And as Jameson argues when he dismisses the idea that sf extrapolation is about prediction, instead describing it as the juxtaposition and recombination of contradictory elements of the real world in ‘piquant montages’. His example comes from a passage in Ursula Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness which throws high-tech and low-tech together in the same scene and the same sentence – medieval-ish stone masons using electric winches, strangely quiet trucks like barges on caterpillar tracks descending through the streets of the medieval-ish city. Such combinations disrupt those ridiculous old narrative of progress, of clearly defined and separate stages of development, which have done such good service for capitalism and empire and Empire.

Such passages also demonstrate sf’s frequent obsession – whether knowingly or not – with uneven development. A great example of this is NK Jemisin’s just-completed Broken Earth trilogy, which also wrestles with anthropogenic climate destabilisation and climate refugees, resonates strongly with #BlackLivesMatter, and really troubles the distinction between sf and fantasy that Suvin and Jameson still sorta insist upon.

I was also hoping you might say a few words about the coincidence of early SF with 19th century industrialization and the beginnings of global capitalism, which you briefly addressed in the intro to Red Planets.

Georg Lukács argued that the French Revolution, and the revolutionary and Napoleonic wars, made history a mass experience for the first time and on a continental scale. The development of capitalism – colonial conquests, the enclosures of common land, the destruction of subsistence agriculture, industrialization, the scramble for Africa, and so on – adds massive weight to the change side of the continuity/change dialectic. These shocks, these transformation of daily life – captured so forcefully in The Communist Manifesto – affected huge numbers of people very directly, and was evident even to those cushioned from the worst of these wrenching dislocations. Andreas Malm’s Fossil Capital: The Rise of Steam-Power and the Roots of Global Warming conveys this quite brilliantly while exploding the myth that in Britain water-power was replaced by steam/coal because the latter was cheaper and more efficient. In reality, steam won because the geographical specificity of water-power better enabled workers to protest the vampiric extraction of their living labor, to demand better wages and working conditions, to pressure mill owners to be responsible for the housing, health and education of workers and their families. Which was totally unacceptable to the capitalist class, so they took a gamble. That the cost of converting to coal/steam would enable them to reverse this impertinent tendency towards a slightly more equitable distribution of the wealth created by their workers. That it would ultimately be recouped by breaking nascent working class power and concentrating surplus value in their own grasping, ghoulish claws. Because steam was not tied to specific locations in the same way, the capitalist class could make labor more precarious, depress wages to subsistence levels or less, and avoid any responsibility for the wellbeing of the workers enriching them. It is a fascinating story, and incidentally captures the magnitude and frequency of upheavals workers and their families endured so that their living labor could feed capital’s vampire appetite.

At the same time, the global reach of capital and empire increased opportunities to encounter an array of othernesses – sometimes directly, but mostly through varieties of media, entertainment and other commodities.

And with the often very visible role new technologies played in these historical transformations, sf or something like it kinda had to emerge. It could have – and did – take many different forms, and the sf we have today is a product of those unfolding contingencies.

Is it possible to write about the future without fetishizing technology?

Of course. There are all manner of feminist and green and post-apocalyptic sf stories set in societies where technology has been largely abandoned (Sally Miller Gearheart’s The Wanderground) or put in its place (Le Guin’s Always Coming Home) or lost for good (George Stewart’s Earth Abides) or lost and recovered but with greater attention to the environment and ownership (the Daymaker trilogy by Gwyneth Jones writing as Ann Halam), and so on. But abandoning technology or cautiously renegotiate its role and place possibly fetishizes it just as much as does the drive to recover it (Leigh Brackett’s The Long Tomorrow). The same contradiction is there in the Campbellian revolution in US pulp sf – show the reader lived-in future worlds with fabulous technology but make sure no one mentions the dilating doors. Such interplays of presence and absence, of substitution and denial, are the very stuff of fetishism.

So when technology is fetishized it typically functions to obscure commodity fetishism. Until you get a writer such as Philip K Dick, whose technologies are always fetishized commodities and frequently also shove the cash-nexus in your face. His characters have awkward, argumentative social relationships with each other but also with fridges and apartment doors that demand payment before they will open. For William Gibson, too, encounters with technology are encounters with commodities: it is never just a cyberspace deck, it is an Ono-Sendai Cyberspace 7. But more generally cyberpunk rarely developed this awareness, rarely did more than reiterate the kind of ludicrous petit bourgeois commodity fetishism you find in Ian Fleming’s hilariously snobbish James Bond novels (Which, incidentally, are great for teaching semiotics. Take a look at the opening paragraphs of chapter 25 of From Russia with Love. Man, could Fleming connote class spite, hatred of foreigners, contempt for women, terror at anything even marginally different from the little world he wished to inhabit – just by writing about the kind of knot used to tie a tie.)

Would you be willing to risk a comparative sketch of the ideological differences between contemporary UK and US science fiction writers?

Not really, no.  Couldn’t you ask me my favorite color? My ideal date?

Okay. Here goes.

UK sf writers grasp the implications of thermodynamics, know that empires don’t last and accept that their team is unlikely to win. US writers are at various stages of coming to terms with these truths, including denial. And this is why Britons are better than Americans at space opera.

US writers are more likely to think about intersectionality, UK writers to understand class as a key part of an intersectional identity. This is why the US has endless iterations of Star Trek and the UK has endless iterations of Doctor Who championed for their progressive politics even though they are both always already way behind the curve.

US writers are more likely to bear arms, UK writers to arm bears (well, badgers).

Putting together an issue like this means running smack into the wall that so frequently seems to lie between SF that is analytical about class, and SF that is analytical about gender and race. It is pretty easy to get white men to run their mouths about Marx; less so women and POC. Any thoughts?

White men will run their mouths off about anything. Just look at this interview.

Part of the reason lies in the left’s long and complex history with women and people of colour. On the one hand you have CPUSA in the 1920s and 1930s at the forefront of white anti-racist struggle – the defense of the Scottsboro boys, and so on – and Marxism as a key element in the development of black radical thought and praxis, both then and in the 60s with DRUM and the Black Panthers. And on the other, you have swathes of the CPUSA stepping away from the struggle when Comintern changed its mind about strategy, and you have segregated unions and other failures. Or consider the impact of the New Left on second wave feminism: it gave many women a strong grounding in the praxis of organization and struggle, but was often so sexist that women left in droves to join overtly feminist organizations and struggles.

It is only in recent years that I’ve finally stopped regularly hearing that old bullshit about winning the class struggle first, that all these other problems – patriarchy, white supremacism, heteronormativity – are merely epiphenoma that will magically disappear after the revolution. Lizzie Borden’s film Born in Flames – which got a beautiful 35mm restoration last year – is a brilliant response to such nonsense, and because it took five years to make it is inscribed with that vital transition from a primarily white, middle class, liberal second wave to the third wave feminism of working class women of color.

Some of these problems can be pinned on Marx, albeit unreasonably, for dying before writing that volume of Capital on wage-labor. In the three existing volumes, his modeling of the laws of capitalism requires him to us a rather abstract notion of the worker, a kind of black box proletarian, a figure without subjectivity or material being. And Marxists have tended to carry on thinking of the worker in this way. But by Marx’s own logic, the wage-labor volume would necessarily have had to rematerialize the worker, to acknowledge and think through the worker’s full, rich, complex, intersectional, intersocial subjectivity.     

Just as Marxists, socialists and trade unionists learned the importance in moments of struggle to unite under a singular identity – the proletariat, the workers of the world – so women, people of color, the colonized, LGBTQ people, people with disabilities and so on have also learned the importance of developing a strategic identity. To fight, to effect change, it is necessary to draw together people who have only some things in common under a temporary broad umbrella.

But it is easy to lose sight of the strategic nature of such an identity, to reify it and cling to it as the central part of one’s identity, which is why so many on the left prioritized class to the exclusion of race, gender, sexuality, ability, and so on, and why so many focused on say race or gender typically neglect the others, including class analysis.

Or the strategic identity can come to feel oppressive because it lumps you together with many people who are in other ways very different, which can break and dissipate the shared identity.

Also, once certain goals are achieved, the dominant group within a broader identity often reverts to old patterns of discrimination against the people with whom it had been strategically advantageous to share an identity. For examples, I’ll have to crudely compress some complex histories; these are very broad strokes. Look at how central a role women, minority ethnic groups and rural populations played in anti-colonial struggles, subsuming themselves within the identity of the nation-to-come, and look at how frequently an urban, male, majority ethnic group on winning power returned them to the margins. In the UK, the horrible resurgence of a racism that never really went away was made just that little bit easier by the (in many ways understandable and necessary) disaggregation into its component parts of the Black British identity which in the 1960s and 1970s united Britain’s Asian, Afro-Caribbean and African populations in a strategically shared struggle against racism. In the US, the emergence of Reaganite, consumerist post-feminism can be seen as conservative white middle class women, beneficiaries of a second wave in which they may or may not have participated, running scared at the sight of the next wave composed of third world feminists and working class women of color – of their maids and nannies and cleaners. And so on.

What are the most exciting developments in contemporary SF writing over the last twenty years? How do you see it proceeding?

The destabilisation of it all. By two or three interrelated developments since the late 1990s which I think will shape sf in complex, sometimes utterly unpredictable, ways for the next decade or more.

Genre boundaries are no longer as fixed as they seemed – I mean, they were never stable, and to think otherwise is delusional – but with the emergence of the new weird, interstitial, post-genre generation(s) a long bubbling transformation began to take hold. When China Miéville called the new weird “post-Seattle fiction,” he really captured how this was not just some dry exercise in anatomy and classification, but part of wider social and political changes.

Back then, China was using “new weird” to talk about how it was suddenly quite natural for his generation to mash-up and recombine genres (rather than about the more specific strand of weird fiction that was only just becoming visible in work by Jeff VanderMeer, Michael Cisco, KJ Bishop, Steph Swainston, and others). Looking back, it is now obvious how important writers of color, many of them women, have been to that genre-recombination: Nalo Hopkinson, Nnedi Okorafor, NK Jemisin, Andrea Hairston and Nisi Shawl. In the UK right now, Tade Thompson is scuffing up genres like they’re old Doc Martens.

Alongside this, and not unrelated, there is a fresh wave of afrofuturism, the rise of Indigenous futurism, Latinxfuturism and Chican@futurism, loads more queer sf, fiction by writers with disabilities and by writers thinking critically about ability/disability as a social and material construction.

Also, there has been a massive growth and/or increased visibility and presence of sf from Africa (check out omenana.com), from Asia (start with mithilareview.com), and Latin America (Argentina’s Carlos Orsi, Gustavo Bondoni and Teresa de Mira Echeverria, Brazil’s Fabio Fernandes and Jacques Barcia, Cuba’s Yoss, and many more).

So much of the exciting stuff, and the good stuff, is coming from creators who historically have been marginalized by white supremacist, patriarchal, heteronormative, ableist, first world, Anglophone sf. But now, its dominant (and still depressingly strong) norms are not just being challenged; they’re being historicized. Which is why we are suffering all that puppy nonsense, with its bogus identity politics and unfathomable sense of victimhood, its absurd fantasy of liberals as big fascist meanies, and its genuinely confusing notion that it is insulting to accuse someone of fighting for social justice. And which is why I spend so much time in boring meetings rehearsing in my head terms like cisfuturism, honkyfuturism, gavachofuturism and Wašíčufuturism, looking forward to a time when we will look back and realize we need a new vocabulary to tell sf’s story very differently.

This relativization and historicization is undoubtedly happening, unraveling and recentering things, and giving rise to new asymmetries. But what do you see as the unspoken ideological assumptions that currently shape the genre?

The genre articulates, mediates, reproduces the ideological field in which it participates. So it is still predominantly unthinkingly straight, ableist, patriarchal, white supremacist, capitalist, extractive, anthropocentric, and so on. Look at the fiction dealing directly and indirectly with anthropogenic climate destabilization, for example, and these fault lines run right through it. You can see them in the fantasies of mitigation, prevention or reversal, just as much as in the fantasies of running away from it all and leaving everyone else to rot.

But as always there is a struggle for hegemony, so any individual text is going to articulate a conflicted, contradictory position among all those tensions and tendencies. What is exciting about this moment is that we are embroiled in a making-visible of struggle. This is why RaceFail ’09 was so important: for once, the other side got called on its shit; for once, we had to stop and check whether we were on the other side, the ones who needed to be called on our shit; for once, we had to check whether our shit was the shit that people needed to be called on. And just because in the grand scheme of things it might look like a storm in a teacup does not make it not significant, does not make it not matter.

What is the role of a critical theorist like you in relation to all this?

By day, I am paid by a public university deeply embroiled – as are they all – in the neoliberal project of transforming everything into a source of private profit. And although public universities cannot themselves make a profit, they are machines for redistributing public money away from the public: through outsourcing services, undertaking massive (and often vanity) construction projects, and especially through the creation of student debt. (The UK now has the most expensive public universities in the world. In addition to turning education from an open-ended public good into an individual consumer choice, the current loans-and-fees regime is so poorly designed that it costs the taxpayer more than the grants-based free education it replaced. But this might be a feature rather than a bug since, ultimately, it too turns public money into private profit.) By day, I produce educated workers, who swell the ranks of the reserve army of labor, further enabling the massive suppression of wages which has been going on in the west since the 1970s. By day, I do administrative work, an ever-growing proportion of which is what David Graeber calls bullshit work – and it is work that administrators used to do, back before we all began to feel precarious all the time and lost the ability to resist the ongoing destruction of something as fundamentally important as education.

However, my role as a critical-theorist is to critique, challenge and resist such logics. And fortunately, my day job is also about engaging – critically, creatively, imaginatively, affectively, intellectually, politically – with students, and doing so in ways that respect and nurture them rather than interpellate them as “customers.” As with my writing, it is about questioning the texts and artifacts that make up so much of our quotidian experience. It is about building our capacities for critique and praxis (though late on a Thursday afternoon after six hours of classes, or midway through a journal article, it might not always look much like that). It is about telling stories about stories that are hopefully as compelling – albeit in different ways – as the stories I am telling stories about. It is about telling stories that might help to make the world a less terrible place, might help us all move towards the radical social, political and economic changes we so urgently need. And about connecting this activity to other kinds of collective action in the world. Culture is just one part of the battle.