Dr Taylor Driggers

Haunting Prospects:

Imagining Futurity in Change and Stasis in SFF Creative Practice in Scotland

An academic response to the second Future Voices of Scottish SF and Fantasy Network event, titled “Representations of Change and the Future in SFF Worlds and Narratives“, and held online on 07 December 2022. Participants: Lily Higham, Kirsty Logan, Tanya Roberts, and Lorraine Wilson . More information about the event (including a link to the recording) can be found here.

A long-held orthodoxy within academic studies of science fiction and fantasy (SFF) has been that where fantasy looks to the past and is nostalgic, science fiction looks to the future, and thus to progression and change, possibly even revolution. Writing in 1982, Colin N. Manlove states that ‘[f]antasy often draws spiritual nourishment from the past […] where science fiction is usually concerned with the future and how we may develop’, describing fantasy’s narrative patterns as ‘often static’ while SF is ‘generally evolutionary or dynamic’.[1] This association also shows up implicitly in much more recent scholarship, such as in Brian Attebery’s contention that ‘[t]he relative proportion of past to future, or fantasy to science fiction, depends on which the author is more interested in reclaiming’, even as he acknowledges that ‘genres continually shift and recombine’.[2] In Hal Duncan’s view, this binary formulation of future/past and SF/fantasy fuels a clan war of sorts between speculative genres that is overreliant on ‘the tartan labels that adorn these works’,[3] to which his proposed antidote is the more fluid – and more queerly expansive – gloss on SF as ‘strange fiction’ defined by its deviations from and challenges to the possible.[4] Duncan was a participant in the previous Future Voices panel event on ‘Inclusive Worldbuilding’, on which Dr Alice Kelly has already written a brilliant reflection. However, I find myself wanting to stay with his theoretical work on ‘strange fiction’ at the outset of this piece, because his emphasis on the reality-warping potential of all speculative genres, in tension with their ‘bagpipes-and-haggis branding’ and commodification in the world of publishing and distribution, is generative for thinking about SFF’s ability to engage with change and the future in a Scottish context.[5] In the same way that Scotland’s past and present are reduced to kitschy iconography by popular culture and the tourism industry, we are often at risk of allowing the aesthetic trappings of genre used for marketing purposes to obscure the historical, temporal, and political concerns to which SFF texts can actually speak.

For Jacques Derrida, the future is inherently bound up with impossibility: more specifically, ‘the experience of the other as the invention of the impossible’,[6] lying dormant in traces covered over by what Western, Eurocentric thought has circumscribed within the possible, but always threatening to disrupt this status quo in a shattering event. Understood in this light, all forms of SFF cultural production within the Anglosphere can be viewed as art of the future. In their breaks from what is generally accepted as possible within what Kathryn Hume terms ‘consensus reality’,[7] SFF works provoke critical reflection on how things are not (yet?) but may be or even may have been otherwise, simulating visions of what may be yet-to-come, as well as encounters with potential futures lurking within the past and present, unsettling us from the complacency of the here and now and, hopefully, spurring us to collective action. This is, admittedly, a bold pronouncement, and thus the main aim of this piece is to examine the concrete ways SFF’s futuristic potentialities manifest in creative practice. To do this, I engage in critical dialogue with the ways author Kirsty Logan, musician Lily Higham, artist Tanya Roberts, and author Lorraine Wilson articulated their engagement with futurity and change in their respective works at the second ‘Future Voices of Scottish Science Fiction and Fantasy’ panel event.

God and ghosts in the machine

Contrasting with the future/past binary established by many comparative readings of SF and fantasy, a common thread running through the panellists’ comments was their tendency to evoke or envision the future by turning to the past and present. Lily Higham stated that to accompany the utopian and dystopian visions articulated in the lyrics of her pop music act, Post Coal Prom Queen, she is drawn primarily to the kinds of sonic textures often invoked to suggest futurity in synthesizer music of the 1960s, ’70s, and ’80s. For Higham, these sounds create a fascinating paradox because they are, in her words, ‘old sounds that we associate with the future’; simultaneously connoting archaism and startling newness, they bear witness to the dreams of the new rooted in the past. Encountering instances of temporal overlap like this can be a haunting experience. Kirsty Logan pointed out that some creative technologies have a particular propensity for generating ghosts; when we watch a silent film, she suggested, we are watching the spectral traces left by the modern technology of cinema in moving images of people long dead. Logan noted that her own current writing is preoccupied with the end of the nineteenth century because the advent of this and similar technologies, and the future they seemed to herald, eerily parallel the seismic shifts that are constantly occurring around us in the present. To her, the past is not as foreign to us as we often presume precisely because the future is always bombarding us with rapid change. The future, it seems, always haunts both past and present.

In his book Spectres of Marx, Derrida conjures the spectre from the opening sentence of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels’ The Communist Manifesto – ‘A spectre is haunting Europe – the spectre of communism’[8] – in order to reflect on what history and the future might mean under neoliberal capitalism. For Marx and Engels, the spectre of communism heralds the future in the form of the revolution to come, whose potential lies dormant within the existing order. Capitalism’s precarity and instability, and its need to constantly reinvent itself, are the engines driving the accumulation of wealth by the bourgeoisie, but by these same means ‘[t]he weapons with which the bourgeoisie felled feudalism are now turned against the bourgeoisie itself’.[9] As Derrida highlights, encountering The Communist Manifesto today sees this paradox caught within another paradox: the global revolution and end to class struggle that Marx and Engels treat as imminent has not yet materialised, and is viewed by many commentators as an outmoded notion, making the spectre of communism a spectre of the future and past simultaneously. Playing on the etymology of the word ‘revenant’, which colloquially means ‘ghost’ but literally means ‘that which returns’, Derrida thus theorizes the spectre as a present absence that is already and not yet here. Like the ghost in Shakespeare’s Hamlet, whose first appearance onstage marks his second appearance in-story, the spectre exists in a liminal state of temporality, as ‘everything begins in the imminence of a re-apparition, but a reapparition of the spectre for the first time in the play’.[10]

Derrida terms this type of encounter with a future embedded in the past or present ‘hauntology’, which he associates with the radical ethical potential signified by différance in his deconstructive philosophical project.[11] To be haunted is to be confronted with a future hidden by the difference-suppressing logic and structures of Western thought that reproduce Eurocentrism, colonialism, white supremacy, and patriarchy. The future that hauntology suggests is not a matter of linear progression, but a profound rupturing of these systems, and the logics that govern them, from the silenced margins of dominant society, a rupturing that is happening all the time and yet still always in the future.

In my own research, Derrida’s interest in this rupturing as a messianic event, in which the radically other makes itself known and destabilizes the structures of the dominant culture, has been instrumental in helping me reframe J. R. R. Tolkien’s notion of eucatastrophe in fantasy. In Tolkien’s view, the happy ending or ‘sudden joyous “turn”’[12] of a fantasy story prefigures the hope in the Resurrection and Second Coming of Christ promised by his own Catholic eschatology. In this way, fantasy for Tolkien serves a prophetic function, showing ‘a far-off gleam or echo of evangelium in the real world’.[13] Though significantly less wedded to a particular religious or theological paradigm – resisting incorporation within any programmatic scheme, in fact – Derrida’s interest in the future as an experience of the impossible and of the other mirrors the eucatastrophic structure of Tolkien’s reading of fantasy. Reading these theories in conjunction with one another can allow us to gloss fantasy as a kind of deconstructive, future-oriented activity with an affinity for a sense of otherness, rather than a merely nostalgic retreat into the past. Eucatastrophe’s unanticipated arrival within the fantasy narrative marks it as a rupture in the structure of the textual world – Tolkien describes the feeling it evokes as ‘Joy beyond the walls of the world’[14]– and this carries the potential to provisionally signal what ruptures may (need to) occur in our world. As I have noted elsewhere, this deconstructive reading of fantasy recasts eucatastrophe ‘not as textual closure but as an open-ended gesture towards the approach of the other’.[15] Fantasy could be a way of experimentally working through how to unbuild oppressive regimes and challenge unquestioned assumptions in the present; it may also allow us to envision better relations. As Lorraine Wilson noted on the panel, we do not need to know the outcomes in advance in order to begin exploring alternatives.

Archaeologies of the future: whose future(s)?

Storytelling, Wilson also noted, is a technology that can aid our mapping of the future; in her words, folkloric and narrative cultures are an ‘interface between society and the environment’ that carry profound material consequences in the ways they circulate and are deployed by creative practitioners. To Wilson, folklore is a resource to which we turn when we need answers that logic is not providing us. Wilson’s comments call to mind Ursula K. Le Guin’s contention that fantasy shows us ways of living beyond a homogenized, global capitalism in which ‘there is no other, there is no escape, because there is nowhere else’.[16] Fantasy’s interest in the past is not necessarily nostalgic; in drawing on past societal structures and modes of living, recombining them into new secondary-world contexts, fantasy gives the lie to the insistence that there is no alternative to the systems structuring our current social and political reality. In her experimental novel Always Coming Home (1985), Le Guin characterizes her approach to speculative writing as ‘archaeology of the future’,[17] a search for traces of feminist, anticolonial, and anticapitalist futures embedded within past and present realities. In trying to envision the lives and material culture of the Kesh, a people who ‘might be going to have lived a long, long time from now in Northern California’,[18] Le Guin implicitly challenges the cultural signifiers attached to notions of past civilizations and future progress, and attempts to subvert the presumed inevitability of the loss of societies and cultures to American settler colonialism. In doing so, she questions, in concrete terms, what a future other than the upward mobility, endless growth, and privatized technological progress privileged in Western capitalist imaginaries could entail.

As Wilson further elaborated on the panel, however, digging for the future can also unearth ghosts of a different sort. One person’s fantastical, theoretical post-apocalypse may be another person’s lived reality, especially when considering the continued destructive legacies of colonialism. Delving into the past and present, we encounter the spectres of potential futures curtailed by imperial violence, capitalist austerity, climate collapse, and institutionalised patriarchy, ableism, white supremacy, homophobia, and transphobia. For many writers, SFF affords the ability to sustain these futures and bring them to bear on the losses of the past and present; it can also chart reparative routes through otherwise unresolvable dilemmas created by these catastrophes. Rivers Solomon’s novella The Deep (2019), written in collaboration with Daveed Diggs, William Hutson, and Jonathan Snipes, represents one such instance of SFF as repair in its depiction of the wajinru, a society of merfolk descended from enslaved, pregnant African women thrown overboard on the Middle Passage. Not only do Solomon et al. engage reparatively with the past via the novella’s central conceit; they also dramatize the difficulty and necessity of repair via the text’s narrative. Yetu, a memory-keeper for the wajinru, finds her well-being threatened by the burden of remembering her people’s history so that the rest may forget and live in a state of utopian bliss, and her society must find a way to reconcile with their collective trauma and the world outside in order to stave off the threat of ecological destruction. Though initially presenting as a hopeful fantasy emerging out of dehumanization and racial trauma, The Deep eventually becomes a much more ambivalent contention with collective memory and the interconnections between the pain of acknowledging the past and the possibility of a future.

The Deep’s treatment of a utopian society is broadly indicative of contemporary SFF writing, where utopia is rarely presented uncritically as a given, static thing. On the panel, Higham highlighted the difficulties inherent in setting the terms of utopia, asking us to consider an SF scenario in which there is a post-scarcity society in which everyone gets what they ‘need’, but some are perceived or conditioned to ‘need’ less than others. In fantasy, too, the terms and limits of eucatastrophe need to be continually contested. Ebony Elizabeth Thomas notes that eucatastrophe within the traditions of the Western fantastic is often precipitated by spectacularized violence against a threatening, implicitly or explicitly racialized ‘Dark Other’, so that ‘[f]or many readers, viewers, fans of colour […] at the level of consciousness, to participate in the fantastic is to watch yourself be slain—and justifiably so, as the story recounts’.[19] If it is true that one person’s future dystopia may be another person’s lived present, then it is also true that one person’s prescriptive utopia, where eucatastrophe is not an opening but a closure, can create conditions that are unlivable or hostile for others. Le Guin’s own fiction frequently flirts with the margins of utopia. Her novel The Dispossessed (1974) creates an ‘ambiguous utopia’ to suggest that utopia must be constantly renegotiated via mutual flexibility and communication; her short story ‘The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas’ (1973), meanwhile, famously interrogates the cost of utopia and highlights the necessity of journeying towards ever further ethical horizons. In The Left Hand of Darkness (1969), Genly Ai describes the Ekumen of Known Worlds, an anarchist collective of planets, as ‘mostly a failure; but its failure has done more for the good of humanity so far than the successes of its predecessors’.[20]

It is precisely in the failure of utopia, its tendency to never quite arrive, its constant mobility and its inability to stay put, that José Esteban Muñoz, like Le Guin, identifies its radical potential. Arguing for a utopian queer politics that casts queerness as utopian, he posits that ‘we are not quite queer yet, that queerness, what we will really know as queerness, does not yet exist’.[21] To be queer in the here and now is to suggest a break with the world as it is in the here and now. In a literal sense, queer sexualities, gender positionalities, and relational patterns often deviate from reproductive heterosexuality’s vision of the future as carrying on the family name and property; Muñoz refers to this linear continuation as ‘straight time’.[22] But queer doing and being in the world also signify a deeper rupture with the world order that the heterosexual family and binary sex/gender system serve to uphold – ‘the spectacle of the state refurbishing its ranks through overt and subsidized acts of reproduction’[23] – and gesture toward other possibilities. Queer utopias are thus associated with failure not only because ‘[u]topia can never be prescriptive and is always destined to fail’,[24] but also because ‘[w]ithin straight time the queer can only fail’.[25] Failure to be normal, failure to desire and pursue the ‘correct’ sexual relations, failure to adhere to the norms of binary gender, and failure to carry on the family name become for queer people meaningful sites of refusal for the status quo, and openings onto better futures. Fantasy can be an integral part of this failure – even if eucatastrophe never arrives in our world, it represents a horizon towards which to strive in the here and now.

The future begins at home

I have been thinking recently about Doris Lessing’s novel The Memoirs of a Survivor (1974) in relation to futurity and the present. Set in a dystopian Britain in which society’s infrastructure is unravelling for unspecified reasons, the novel chronicles an unnamed narrator’s discovery of a parallel world within the walls of her flat as she also struggles to care for Emily, an adolescent girl who mysteriously shows up at her door at the start of the novel. The world beyond the narrator’s wall alternatively presents her with visions of rooms that suggest a promising future, and scenes from a young girl’s childhood – presumably Emily’s – that confront the narrator and reader with images of family life that are mundane in character but oppressive in mood. In the world outside, the narrator finds herself struggling to come to grips with the new forms of life Emily is discovering amid the dissolution of society and its longstanding institutions, and the nascent emergence of new forms of society. At first the gulf between the narrator’s own experiences and Emily’s incorporation into a roving gang of youths on the pavement, accompanied by her sexual awakening, disturbs the narrator before she is forced to consider an even worse possibility. The new life Emily is building with her peers may not be that different from the ways of the old world after all – in fact, her role within her newfound community may merely recapitulate the scenes of family life behind the wall and the mundane violences it visits upon women and girls. The novel nonetheless ends on an ambivalently hopeful note, with the narrator and Emily permanently crossing over into the other world, seeming to suggest their journey over the threshold into a new future with new possibilities.

Whenever I’ve taught The Memoirs of a Survivor to undergraduates since 2020, my students inevitably note the eerie parallels between the future of Lessing’s novel and our present, and relate strongly to the feeling of being stuck inside one’s own flat while the world outside seems to be crumbling. The notion of the domestic space of the home as a place from which to confront the past and rethink the future is a generative one in the wake of a pandemic that confined most of us to our living spaces. It is also not an uncomplicated one in the midst of a cost of living crisis, rampant homelessness, austerity policies that erode public services, and increasingly hostile immigration laws; these present concerns render the idea of home a fragile and precarious one in much the same way that they do for the narrator of Lessing’s novel. We are seemingly a long way away now from Arundhati Roy’s proclamation in April 2020 that ‘the pandemic is a portal’[26]; many opportunities for an alternative, more equitable future have been missed in favour of an increasingly strained status quo. And yet, amid all of this, science fiction and fantasy continue to make us aware of the portals to other lives that show up unassumingly in the here and now. SFF will not be what gets us to utopia; it can only gesture. But that act of gesturing, of feeling out the potential contours and shapes of the future, of resisting the urge to have the final say, is a crucial step in fuelling our imaginations and equipping us to enact the future in our day-to-day lives: in spontaneous gatherings of strangers, in pickets outside exploitative workplaces, on dancefloors and cruising spots and bedrooms, and in conversations around kitchen tables.

Works cited

Attebery, Brian. Fantasy: How It Works. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2022.

Derrida, Jacques. ‘Psyche: Invention of the Other’. In Acts of Literature, trans. Catherine Porter, edited by Derek Attridge, 310-43. New York, NY and London: Routledge, [1987] 1992.

Derrida, Jacques. Spectres of Marx: The State of the Debt, the Work of Mourning and the New International, trans. Peggy Kamuf. New York, NY and London: Routledge, [1993] 2004.

Driggers, Taylor. Queering Faith in Fantasy Literature: Fantastic Incarnations and the Deconstruction of Theology. London: Bloomsbury, 2022.

Duncan, Hal. Rhapsody: Notes on Strange Fictions. Maple Shade, NJ: Lethe Press, 2014.

Hume, Kathryn. Fantasy and Mimesis: Responses to Reality in Western Literature. New York, NY and London: Methuen, 1984.

Le Guin, Ursula K. Always Coming Home. London: Grafton Books, [1985] 1988.

Le Guin, Ursula K. ‘The Critics, the Monsters, and the Fantasists’. In Dreams Must Explain Themselves: The Selected Non-Fiction of Ursula K. Le Guin, edited by Ursula K. Le Guin, 309-19. London: Gollancz, [2003] 2018.

Le Guin, Ursula K. The Left Hand of Darkness. London: Gollancz, [1969] 2017.

Manlove, Colin N. ‘On the Nature of Fantasy’. In The Aesthetics of Fantasy Literature and Art, edited by Roger C. Schlobin, 16-35. Brighton: Harvester, 1982.

Marx, Karl and Friedrich Engels. The Communist Manifesto. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008.

Muñoz, José Esteban. Cruising Utopia: The Then and There of Queer Futurity, 10th Anniversary Edition. New York, NY and London: New York University Press, [2009] 2019.

Roy, Arundhati. ‘The pandemic is a portal’. Financial Times, April 3, 2020. https://www.ft.com/content/10d8f5e8-74eb-11ea-95fe-fcd274e920ca.

Tolkien, J. R. R. ‘On Fairy-stories’. In Tolkien On Fairy-stories, Expanded Edition, edited by Verlyn Flieger and Douglas A. Anderson. London: HarperCollins, [1947] 2008.

Thomas, Ebony Elizabeth. The Dark Fantastic: Race and the Imagination from Harry Potter to The Hunger Games. New York, NY: New York University Press, 2019.

[1] Colin N. Manlove, ‘On the Nature of Fantasy’, in The Aesthetics of Fantasy Literature and Art, ed. Roger C. Schlobin (Brighton: Harvester, 1982), 23.

[2] Brian Attebery, Fantasy: How It Works (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2022), 143.

[3] Hal Duncan, Rhapsody: Notes on Strange Fictions (Maple Shade, NJ: Lethe Press, 2014), 52.

[4] Duncan, 25.

[5] Duncan, 52.

[6] Jacques Derrida, ‘Psyche: Invention of the Other’, in Acts of Literature, trans. Catherine Porter, ed. Derek Attridge (New York, NY and London: Routledge, [1987] 1992), 328. 

[7] Kathryn Hume, Fantasy and Mimesis: Responses to Reality in Western Literature (New York, NY and London: Methuen, 1984), xi.

[8] Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, The Communist Manifesto (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), 2. 

[9] Marx and Engels, 9.

[10] Jacques Derrida, Spectres of Marx: The State of the Debt, the Work of Mourning and the New International, trans. Peggy Kamuf (New York, NY and London: Routledge, [1993] 2004), 2.

[11] Derrida, Spectres, 10.

[12] J. R. R. Tolkien, ‘On Fairy-stories’, in Tolkien On Fairy-stories, Expanded Edition, ed. Verlyn Flieger and Douglas A. Anderson (London: HarperCollins, [1947] 2008), 75.

[13] Tolkien, 77.

[14] Tolkien, 75.

[15] Taylor Driggers, Queering Faith in Fantasy Literature: Fantastic Incarnations and the Deconstruction of Theology (London: Bloomsbury, 2022), 38.

[16] Ursula K. Le Guin, ‘The Critics, the Monsters, and the Fantasists’, in Dreams Must Explain Themselves: The Selected Non-Fiction of Ursula K. Le Guin, ed. Ursula K. Le Guin (London: Gollancz, [2003] 2018), 319.

[17] Ursula K. Le Guin, Always Coming Home (London: Grafton Books, [1985] 1988), 3. 

[18] Le Guin, Home, xi.

[19] Ebony Elizabeth Thomas, The Dark Fantastic: Race and the Imagination from Harry Potter to The Hunger Games (New York, NY: New York University Press, 2019), 23.

[20] Ursula K. Le Guin, The Left Hand of Darkness (London: Gollancz, [1969] 2017), 135. 

[21] José Esteban Muñoz, Cruising Utopia: The Then and There of Queer Futurity, 10th Anniversary Edition (New York, NY and London: New York University Press, [2009] 2019), 22.

[22] Muñoz, 22.

[23] Muñoz, 22.

[24] Muñoz, 172.

[25] Muñoz, 173.

[26] See Arundhati Roy, ‘The pandemic is a portal’. Financial Times, April 3, 2020. https://www.ft.com/content/10d8f5e8-74eb-11ea-95fe-fcd274e920ca.