19:15 - 19:45

Short thesis

Science fiction has long known this and has bequeathed this knowledge to digital culture: to liberate is to create new ways of being but first, one needs to describe a new place for them to be. And in what space is the (post)modern world defined? None other than the city. This too, science fiction has long known and has bequeathed to digital culture. From its genesis, science fiction has been obsessed with the city, imagining and re-imagining it in beautiful, ugly, invigorating and depressing ways.


As Henri Lefebvre says: "'Change life! 'Change society!' These precepts mean nothing without the production of an appropriate space[...] new social relationships call for a new space, and vice versa".

Urbanity was seen in turn as crucial for and inimical with progress, as both a great catalyst for change and progress and as a cruel, crushing system of oppression, nothing more than a subtle and massive prison. Its denizens, those citizens who give it life, were also viewed sometimes as saviors, sometimes as betrayers and often as both. The discussion has revolved around nature, economy, ecology, gender, race, inequality, imperialism, art and much more.

Nor is this strictly a modern phenomenon. The first utopias, whether Plato's Atlantis or More's eponymous Utopia, were conceived as cities and insulated ones at that. This isn't a mistake or coincidence as the history of society and that of the city are closely interlinked, whether in Europe or outside of it. So too, science fiction's cities. Their ideas and ideals spring from and grow with changes in society: feminist, post-colonial and neo-liberal ideas seep into these conceptions and representations, changing them as the face of society and its cultural discourse changes.

The so called "digital age" has also had its effect on them. While science fiction cities lose their physical foundations, they gain complex societal and economical roles within the new digital spaces envisioned by cyberpunk and its inheritors. While their basic form remains, imagined this time by consumers of data, it has retain its ambiguity: both safe harbor and dangerous trap, refuge and the domain of the oppressor. 

During my talk, I will attempt to explore the different representations, whether actual, virtual or otherwise, of cities in science fiction and how these representations continue to define the discourse within digital culture about space, freedom and communication. Focusing on present issues of borders, social justice, refugees, gender and race, I will attempt to show how science fiction has both failed and succeeded in dealing with these issues. Ultimately, I will claim, following in Lefebvre's footsteps, that the conception of new spaces, both urban and otherwise, is necessary in order to critique and finally change our current ways of life. 

While the field of urban science fiction is vast, I’ll attempt to look at prominent examples: China Mieville’s Embassytown, alluded to in the title, Arthur C. Clark’s The City and the Stars, Warren Ellis’s Transmetropolitan, Ursula K. Le Guin’s Four Ways to Forgiveness, Jeff VanderMeer’s Veniss Underground and many more. I will attempt to give pride and place to diverse eras, voices and styles within science fiction, eschewing the temptation to settle on one era of this complicated genre.

Lastly, my aim can be seen as political: as we have learned to do with other parts of our lives, we must not look at urban planning as a “naïve” attempt at pragmatism or efficiency but rather as a “deeper”, often subjugating, attempt at control of discourse and our ways of life. Science fiction, like in many other fields, can either assist us in our critique and struggle or further solidify and serve the current, entrenched order of life. It can conceive of cities as spaces containing news ways to be or as maps for the ways power wishes it to be.