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John Fekete Lecture Series: science needs science fiction

All photos by Samantha Moss

Dr. Colin Milburn (English/Centre for Science and Innovation Studies, UC Davis) delivered an engaging lecture on November 5.  His talk, “Science Fiction and the Project of Posthumanist Science,” was held in Bagnani Hall at Traill College, and was very well-attended by Trent students and faculty as well as community members.

Dr. Milburn was invited to Trent as the third annual John Fekete Distinguished Lecturer, hosted by the Cultural Studies department. The lecturer’s research area aligned with the interests of Trent’s Cultural Studies program, both past and present.

Importantly, Dr. John Fekete (Emeritus, Cultural Studies) developed and taught science fiction studies courses in the 1970s, and a number of current PhD students work in the field.

Further, Veronica Hollinger (Emeritus, Cultural Studies) most recently taught undergraduate courses on SF before taking her retirement. Dr. Hollinger introduced Dr. Milburn, but prior to her remarks, she was greeted with much applause. Dr. Jonathan Bordo (Chair, Cultural Studies PhD) expressed his admiration for Dr. Hollinger and lamented her absence.

An audience gathers at Bagnani Hall

Milburn’s talk sought to locate the interstices between the Golden Age of SF novels and the theoretical writings of Dr. Gerald Feinberg. Feinberg became a well-respected physicist in the 1960s and after that success, according to Milburn’s readings, wrote what might be called speculative non-fiction in the late 1960s.

Milburn was particularly interested in John Blish’s short story “Beep” (1954) and Feinberg’s The Prometheus Project (1969). His comparative literature approach, often reserved for fictional texts, led Milburn to some promising conclusions about the significance of SF for the history of ideas.

The characters in Blish’s “Beep” make use of a “Dirac” device, a device that can receive messages of or about the future. Those in the present are tasked with “reading the future” and making sure these futures successfully happen. An appropriately named “Event Police” aids in this process.

Feinberg wrote his Prometheus Project using similar terms. The physicist concluded that a number of SF tropes, devices, and gadgets are inevitable.

Feinberg suggested that we marshal the present to bring about these futures. He desired rigorous, scientific development of long-range scenarios that some individuals could work toward, i.e., plan for the arrival of a science (fiction) future.

Preparations for the future include determining the possibility of collective or expanded consciousness, and the elimination of death. On the former, Feinberg saw the various SF accounts of hive mind as an indication of a new form of consciousness emerging in humanity’s future. We can pre-adapt our bodies and social institutions for this moment.

Pictured: Dr. Colin Milburn

The elimination of physical deterioration and death is a tougher scenario to plan. Since individuals think around their own finitude, any planning for a future without death would demand a new kind of thinking or, put differently, a reconceptualization of our ontology.

Cryogenics is one such technology already established, Milburn notes. The frozen individuals place their faith in science fiction, i.e., a fantasy that the future will unfreeze and cure them.

Milburn concludes by drawing on Arthur C. Clarke’s Childhood’s End (1953). Similar to Blish, in this novel the future is treated like a memory, i.e., something that has already happened. What is posthumanist about this kind of literature and the science proposed by Feinberg is precisely its preparations for a futurity without our contemporary ethos, ontology, and institutions.

While not necessarily a manifesto for action, Feinberg’s “preposterous Prometheanism” nevertheless serves as a scientific text that draws on fictions to establish scientific futurity. But the physicist’s work, and others who proposed similar models, is not without its issues.

This sort of scientific futurity poses ethical and ontological questions. Dr. Liam Mitchell (Assistant Professor, Cultural Studies) termed Feinberg’s project an “ontological totalitarianism,” which is to say a policing of an individual’s being-in-the-world, their being-with-others, and existence as a being-towards death.

Milburn finds positions such as Feinberg’s illuminating, albeit problematic. Regardless of the problems, Feinberg offers a way of thinking about the possibility of futurity, or the possibility of multiple possibilities that demand exploration, even in SF terms.

Whether we read theoretical physics or SF, we are challenged to imagine social, political, and philosophical implications of a posthumanist world.

For more on Dr. Colin Milburn’s research, visit:


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