Earlier this fall I sat down with Sherryl Vint, a professor in the Department of English and the Science Fiction and Technoculture Studies program at the University of California, Riverside. Sherryl is an editor for the journals Science Fiction Studies and Science Fiction Film and Television and is the author of several books, including Bodies of Tomorrow (2007) and Animal Alterity (2010). This interview is the fourth in our series of deep dives with creative thinkers from a variety of different backgrounds. You can read the other entries here.
Note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Joey Eschrich, Project Hieroglyph: Can you start by telling me a little about what you’ve been working on recently?
Sherryl Vint: My newest book examines the ways that science fiction and actual contemporary science are merging, with a particular focus on biopolitics. Industrial agriculture conglomerates are actively and pervasively modifying species, and advances in genomics, personalized medicine, and synthetic biology are bringing complex science fictional ideas about life, nature, and the body to life. We’re really seeing science fiction and contemporary scientific practice overlapping in unexpected and complicated ways.
JE: Can you talk a little more about the relationship you see between science fiction, on one hand, and actual scientific discovery, on the other?
SV: My interest in connections between science and science fiction dates back to the early stages of my scholarly life. I didn’t actually grow up reading science fiction; I wasn’t a fan who then translated that passion into my scholarly career when I stepped into an English department, which is how the story goes for a lot of people who study and teach about science fiction for a living. I ended up being pointed towards science fiction in graduate school, and discovered in the genre a really very sophisticated treatment of exactly the same questions about biopolitics that thinkers like Michel Foucault were raising in their theoretical treatises.
I’ve written a few essays on this relationship between science and science fiction, and I edited this big anthology called The Routledge Companion to Science Fiction. This is one of the reasons I’ve championed scholars who link science fiction and issues of science, technology and society (STS): a lot of the legal and ethical conundrums related to emerging technologies and their social implications are things that science fiction has thought of long before the technologies were actually feasible.
And I don’t mean to say, “Oh, science fiction predicted these things,” like an oracle or seer. I mean that science fiction authors have asked those questions about the influence that various technologies would have on how we think about and structure important things like families or personhood or identity. There’s an amazing lineage of thinking in sophisticated ways about those social implications in science fiction, even if the authors didn’t actually get the technical bits right, which often they did not.
I think one of the really exciting things is that some science fiction now is really up-to-date on both scientific research and its social, ethical, and legal implications. I recently worked on a paper about the television series Orphan Black, which replays typical anxieties and cloning and human identity, but is also really deeply engaged with sophisticated questions about patent law and corporate control of one’s biology and personalized stem cell lines and the privatization of medicine.
JE: One of the things that I’ve been doing during these interviews with people from different fields is asking them about the terminology that they use. When you use the term biopolitics, what do you mean by that?
SV: When I use the term, I’m really influenced by the French critical theorist Michel Foucault and his writing. Biopolitics describes the ways that biological life becomes an object of governance, of political importance and interest. Recently I’ve been using more of Foucault’s later work, when he starts to also think about how governmental and political power begins, in the late 18th and 19th centuries, to begin to operate at what he calls the “level of the population.” He sees a shift from thinking about the individual as the basic unit of governance to the population as a whole becoming an entity that governmental power can measure and have various impacts on. This means thinking about ways that governance has to do with calibrating and influencing certain kinds of statistical norms around birth rates, death rates, unemployment and economic growth, standards of living, and so forth. Instead of thinking of government as a multitude of interactions between the government on one hand, and an individual or a family on the other, people in power begin to think of a single relationship between the government and a large population that can be utilized, manipulated, tweaked, and harnessed.
The way this falls out—and this is the focus of a lot of the recent work I’ve done—is around which kinds of lives are fostered by societies, and which kind of lives are neglected. Who is enabled and supported in having a healthy and fulfilling life? Who is allowed to struggle and suffer? What sorts of illnesses could frequently be prevented if resources had been channeled in one way rather than another?
To provide a couple more concrete examples: Where does potentially dangerous industrial or nuclear waste get stored? Which communities is it near? Which communities is it far, far away from? Or how are medicines and drugs distributed? And how does this reflect the needs of patients, versus the needs of pharmaceutical companies and their profitability? How are those decisions made? How are those different interests calibrated?
The example I’ve been using in my classes right now is World War Z, the recent zombie apocalypse movie starring Brad Pitt. One of the reasons I find it such a useful example is because it has this really blunt bio-political framing, “if you’re human you count and if you’re a zombie you don’t.” In the film, once someone crosses that boundary from human to zombie, they become a member of an undifferentiated horde; we no longer care about what happens to them. The film also distinguishes among humans, though. Some human lives count more than others: Brad Pitt’s character is airlifted out of an urban zombie massacre because he has the skills the government wants. But if he doesn’t meet expectations and play his role, there is always the threat that he and his family will be kicked back off of the boat with the beleaguered masses. This is a situation where the governments of the world aren’t actually killing people, but they are fostering certain lives, and not fostering others.
Then I bring the conversation towards the notion that in our reality, certain homo sapiens aren’t counted and treated equally as humans (think about our treatment of people in poverty or, in recent history, people with HIV/AIDS), which is one of the things that zombie fiction allows us to work through and think about critically. That’s biopolitics.
JE: The other term that I’m interested in hearing about how you use or how you define is speculative imagination.
SV: I use that term to refer to one of the origins of the kind of thinking, writing, and creative expression that we sometimes call science fiction, but also as a broader umbrella that doesn’t get too bound up into whether or not the science is accurate. Scholarship on science fiction can easily get bogged down in these really unproductive exchanges like, “Well, is this really science fiction or is it science truth? How much of the science is real, and what if the science used in this fiction was considered ‘real’ or reputable at the time and now it’s not?” Questions about the validity of the science in science fiction as a way to rule things “in” or “out” of the genre—and those conversations aren’t usually very helpful.
On another note, I’m also interested in ways that speculation and speculative imagination play such a significant role in the economy right now. There are obvious kinds of science fictional modes going on in the way you seek and obtain venture capital funding, for example. Business plans can be as science fictional as novels, depending on the product: think of social media companies like Snapchat and WhatsApp whose future profitability is almost entirely conceptual. As a person seeking venture capital, you write a speculative narrative about all of the value your company is going to produce based on the glorious IP it has, but nothing concrete exists yet. But then the company and the IP does become materialized as money, as economic activity in the stock market and other markets based on how compelling your narratives are. Monetary value may be based more on the quality of the story than on the quality of the product. I’m interested in these amorphous boundaries between material value and what I’m thinking of as speculative value.
JE: So both this idea of speculative imagination and this biopolitical framework are important parts of this new project that you’re working on. How do those apply to these real world areas of practice like medicine and pharmaceuticals and agribusiness?
SV: One of the ways that I apply this framework is precisely the same way that Neal Stephenson sketched out when he wrote his essay “Innovation Starvation.” Fictional visions of the future actually do apply to “real life” simply because imagining transformed realities is a part of how research happens, right? It’s imagining places where we might go. There’s a strong body of scholarship on this in terms of how we can imagine social transformation, looking at utopian writing—both fictional and non-fictional—and actual utopian communities. But I think it’s equally true in terms of imagining technological transformation.
These exchanges between fiction and reality in the world of biopolitics are also prevalent in the media. There is an interesting Canadian television series called ReGenesis, which is about a fictional tri-border security agency that coordinates among the U.S. and Canada and Mexico. This agency is supposed to manage epidemics and contagions, so it’s kind of a love child of the Department of Homeland Security and the CDC, but acting across all of North America. Part of my interest in studying the show was how it represented biological security threats as becoming conflated with national security issues. But it was also funded by the Ontario Genomics Institute, which is part of the Canadian government. And they always had these little educational pieces that ran for five minutes or so at the end of each episode, as well as a website with fact sheets and resources you could download.
There was a public-engagement-with-science element to this, teaching people about real and fictional dangers and debunking unfounded fears. But it also had a dimension of paving the way for the public to accept certain kinds of technological and security agendas that the government wanted to put into place, using these factual materials that of course tacitly supported the government’s point of view on these critical issues.
Whether I’m thinking about biopolitics or the relationship between science fiction and science, I’ve always, in all my work, been interested in borders: how they get constructed and what interesting things are happening at the boundaries of a supposedly really clear distinction, like between male and female, between gay and straight, between natural and unnatural, human and non-human. But when you actually get to the border, it’s all muddled.
JE: I want to ask you just really briefly about another one of your books, Animal Alterity. Why is thinking critically about the future in terms of the relationship between people and animals important?
SV: Well, that book came out of research and writing on posthumanism that I was doing at the end of Bodies of Tomorrow, my dissertation-turned-book, thinking about alternative human embodiment and whether subjectivity persists across boundaries. For example, are you the same “self” after your consciousness is uploaded into a robot body?
Why I think it’s critical for the future has a lot to do with questions around environmentalism and species extinction and practices of intensified agriculture: so things like CAFOs (Confined Agricultural Feeding Operations) as opposed to cattle actually grazing on grass. I do think there’s something worth paying attention to regarding this capitalist, agribusiness tendency to turn animals and plants into machines for profit. But even if you don’t personally care about the well-being of those animals and plants in and of themselves, the environmental and social consequences of those practices are also putting human survival in jeopardy.
JE: How do you get your students to get their heads around why you’re looking at this nexus of the human and animal?
SV: Actually, they respond surprisingly well to that—it’s not a hard sell for them. Getting them to acknowledge that racism still persists, for example, can often be a harder sell.
A great story for teaching this is Paolo Bacigalupi’s “The People of Sand and Slag,” which is about body-modified post-humans living in a future where climate change and environmental pollution got so bad that instead of trying to repair the planet, it proved easier to change our biology to be able to thrive in that radically damaged environment. In this future all other species are extinct, and the story is about an encounter these post-human people have with a dog they find who has somehow survived. For a while, they are really charmed by this anachronistic thing, and they try to take care of it, but they don’t know how to. Eventually they get bored of how fragile the dog is, and they eat it. The story plays on the reader’s sympathies for the dog, and counterposes them with the post-human characters’ chilling lack of sympathy. [Editor’s note: You can read the story for free at Paolo Bacigalupi’s website.]
It’s a useful story for getting my students to see how distancing ourselves from other species and refusing to face the fact that we are another kind of animal produces certain kinds of attitudes: and that in itself can be frightening, especially when it’s laid bare, like it is in the story.
Most of students know they don’t want to be like the radical post-humans in the story (even though it would be cool to be able to breathe sulfur and surf on an oil-slicked ocean), but they discover that they actually find most frightening about this rendition of posthumanism is its lack of affect, its idealization of detachment and disembodiment. So I get students to think through how our relationship to other species also defines who we are as humans, and reflects our values and priorities.
JE: What are you hoping that students get out of the Science Fiction and Technoculture Studies program [at the University of California, Riverside]? What are you hoping that students coming out of it will be able to do?
SV: It’s precisely the sort of things we’ve been talking about throughout this conversation. Our students gain literacy in critical frameworks for thinking about the impact that science and technology have on daily life. They gain a wider sense of the history of some of these conversations both in science fiction and in the history of science, because it is an interdisciplinary program.
So we have people in the program teaching science fiction, alongside courses on the history of science. We have people doing ethnographies of scientific cultures, focusing on specific disciplines and sub-fields. We have anthropologists, people doing various kinds of projects focused on the history of science, technology, and innovation in their social, cultural, and political contexts.
Science has become a hugely hegemonic influence on daily life, and the practice of science and the public understanding of it are always developing in dialogue with speculative and creative thinking about science. Our program gives students tools for understanding that ecosystem and making their own contributions and interventions into it.
JE: You’re one of the editors for Science Fiction Studies, one of the leading academic journals in the field. How did you get involved with the journal?
SV: I was lucky—they invited me! I had previously been an editor for an older journal on science fiction, fantasy, and speculative culture, Extrapolation, which dates back to 1959 and was the first academic journal to address those topics. The other journal I co-edit, Science Fiction Film and Television, decided that what the field really needed was a journal on media science fiction, particularly film and television. We’ve even published about digital games. We do this because a lot of the “important” and most visible texts and conversations in science fiction were happening not in print, but in visual media, and the existing journals of the field tended to publish only scholarship on literature. Of course, there are a number of great film studies journals out there, but they often look down on science fiction, and consider it less serious than other genres of film and television.
JE: What story has been most inspiring to you in your thinking about science, fiction, and society?
SV: If I think about the thing that I come back to the most often in terms of framing questions and influence on my work, it’s not actually fiction at all. It’s Donna Haraway’s essay “A Cyborg Manifesto.” I first read it when I was in grad school, and it was this model for me for how you think about boundaries and border cases: zombies, trans-humanists, all these liminal spaces we’ve been talking about.
It’s not as though cyborgs themselves are the thing that I’m obsessed with studying. It’s Haraway’s intellectual mode, her attention to the intersections between organic bodies, technology, fiction and research, public response, and an ethical commitment. All of those things remain important to the work that I do. So that essay continues to be a model for the kind of scholar I’ve tried to be.
Haraway says that cyborgs are creatures of social reality and science fiction. For her, the cyborg is neither male nor female, neither human nor machine: it’s both mixed together, crossing and confusing the boundaries that separate the two in our thinking and language and fiction. She writes that “the boundary between science fiction and social reality is an illusion”—the domains are interwoven, and indissociable. That blending and blurring has been central to my thinking since I started working in this field.
Special thanks to Elizabeth Garbee for editorial assistance and expert co-editing!