Old futures: Speculative fiction and queer possibility, by Alexis Lothian

Melanie E. S. Kohnen

Lewis & Clark College, Portland, Oregon, United States

[0.1] Keywords—Feminism, LGBTQ, Reproduction, Science fiction, Temporality

Kohnen, Melanie E. S. 2018. Old Futures: Speculative Fiction and Queer Possibility, by Alexis Lothian [book review]. In "The Future of Fandom," special 10th anniversary issue, Transformative Works and Cultures, no. 28.

Review of Alexis Lothian, Old futures: Speculative fiction and queer possibility. New York: NYU Press, 2018. Paperback $30 (352p). ISBN 9781479825851.

[1] Old Futures maps a century of speculative fiction and media that imagine futures by transforming the confining social norms of their present. These queer "old futures" have much to say about our own time, as we continue to imagine queer futures yet often cannot think beyond the constraints of our present condition. In an expansive and rigorous analysis of early twentieth-century white British women's fiction, Afrofuturist writing, independent sci-fi films, and remix fandom, Alexis Lothian demonstrates that those on the margins of society—communities often told they have no place in an imagined straight white future—have persistently written themselves into a future. Yet in these nonnormative visions of the future, traces of empire building, eugenics, heternormativity, and classism linger. Lothian's insistence that many speculative texts contain both liberating queer images and unsettling normative messages is one of the strongest aspects of Old Futures, a result of careful close readings that unfold across chapters. Another strong aspect of the book is the inclusion of fandom as a community that creates speculative queer futures. Indeed, Lothian's discussion of her own fannish identity and the ways in which "critical fandom" has been crucial to the development of the book are among the most compelling sections of Old Futures.

[2] Lothian's book has three parts that address speculative texts drawn from across the twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. In part 1, "A History of No Future: Feminism, Eugenics, and Reproductive Imaginaries," Lothian examines works by middle-class yet marginalized white female British writers, including Katharine Burdekin, Elizabeth Burgoyne Corbett, Susan Ertz, and Charlotte Haldane, whose works offer feminist ideas that cannot be separated from imperial and eugenic fantasies. In part 2, "A Now that Can Breed Futures: Queerness and Pleasure in Black Science Fiction," Lothian turns to Afrofuturist narratives by W. E. B. Du Bois, Octavia Butler, Jewelle Gomez, and Samuel R. Delany that situate sexual and other pleasures at the center of their world building. Part 3, "It's the Future, but It Looks like the Present: Queer Speculations on Media Time," begins with an analysis of two independent films, Jubilee (dir. Derek Jarman, 1978) and Born in Flames (dir. Lizzie Borden, 1983), that challenge the conventional notion of sci-fi as a genre filled with action-driven space battles. In the chapter "How to Remix the Future," Lothian analyzes fandom in general and vidding in particular as critical transformative practice that constructs queer visions out of TV's normatively gendered and raced images of the future. Featured vids include "Walking on the Ground," "Unnatural Selection," "Us," How Much Is That Geisha in the Window," the works of the Cylon Vidding Machine collective, and some of Lothian's own vids. Brief interludes (or wormholes) between parts of the book thematically connect past to present. The first ties century-old preoccupations with reproduction and race to Children of Men (dir. Alfonso Cuarón, 2006) and the second brings Afrofuturism into conversation with Sense8 (2015–18) and Lothian's fandom journey. With the exception of a few well-known texts, most case studies are "oppositional and marginal works that tend to appear as footnotes at most in genre histories and taxonomies" (3). Lothian sought to build "an archive of [her] own" that highlights "speculative creativity produced in the margins" (23). Her struggle of wanting to hold on to the queer potential of this archive while also having to acknowledge its sometimes painful limitations is palpable throughout the book.

[3] While most of the book is of greatest interest to scholars invested in speculative fiction and/or queer temporalities, the latter half of the book, including "Try This at Home: Networked Public Sexual Fantasy" and "How to Remix the Future," open up a new perspective on fandom as a part of the history of imagining speculative futures. Lothian highlights fan engagement with television, a medium historically considered lowbrow, domestic, and addressing female audiences. The emphasis on TV in the chapter addressing the speculative fiction of the early twenty-first century represents a defiant decision to focus on an "old" medium rather than cutting-edge technologies and practices. Lothian explores fandom's long history of responding to and rewriting televisual futures to make them less heteronormative, less white, and less imperialist, and/or to show how objects of fannish affection are complicit in perpetuating exclusionary narratives. For example, Lothian argues that the vid "How Much Is That Geisha in the Window," which shows the orientalist underpinnings of the TV program Firefly (2002–3), offers "a reading lesson in global race and gender politics for science fiction TV fans," especially for white fans who may have an easier time looking past Firefly's troubling reproduction of orientalist American fantasies (234). Lothian considers these kinds of fannish interventions "critical fandom," which question and analyze normative structures in popular media and in fandom.

[4] Lothian's weaving together of literary analysis, queer theory, and fan studies demonstrates how one can include fandom as an object of analysis in a place where some may neither expect nor want to encounter it. Lothian is careful to invite in those scholars who may be unfamiliar with fandom through close readings of several vids that include numerous screenshots. She also insists that understanding fandom is no easy task and that unpacking fannish practices like vidding requires as much attention to detail and immersion in an aesthetic tradition as the other media she considers. Lothian emphasizes that we can understand "vidding as a way to remix the future," resulting in "works of speculative critique that repurpose gendered and racialized temporalities of reproduction and colonization" (218–19).

[5] Lothian's history of queer futures is also an intervention in how contemporary queer theory has approached temporality. She asserts that all queer scholarship and activism is speculative fiction of sorts; she asks, "How could attempts to envisage possibilities outside heteronormative structures not involve a certain futurity?" (5). More specifically, she challenges Lee Edelman's arguments in No Future: Queer Theory and the Death Drive (2004), which have had significant impact on the theorization of queer temporality. Lothian offers a most welcome interrogation and broadening of Edelman's concept of reproductive futurism—that is, the idea that visions of the future are frequently entwined with heteronormative reproduction that excludes queer people by default. Through her analysis of speculative fiction, Lothian demonstrates that gender, race, nation, and empire are crucial inflections of reproductive futurism. Consequently, we need to think of reproductive futurisms that are attuned to who is imagining reproduction in the future to what ends in order to discover "the deviances within what appears normative, as well as the normativities within what is, ostensibly, utterly queer" (10).

[6] In a book that is filled with unexpected yet crucial connections, Lothian's commentary on vidding as scholarly method stands out. It is through vidding that Lothian developed some of the book's most compelling arguments and sections. For example, she created vids for Children of Men, Born in Flames, and the Battlestar Galactica reboot (2004–9) to think through these texts in a way that writing cannot; she explains that vidding gave her "a sense that I could move queerly through time into archives to touch them" (248). Moreover, she shares the following: "I have often wished to use the juxtapositional logic of a vid, rather than the explanatory and linear flow of textual argument, to demonstrate how imaginary futures…both consolidate and undermine the ways power structures are embedded in temporal narratives" (252). This is a significant stance to take in a book not situated in fan studies, whose readers in literary queer studies may have never heard of vidding before picking up Lothian's book. This insertion of fandom and fannish practices where some may imagine it does not belong makes me appreciate Lothian's insistence on including both. After all, the insistence to insert yourself where you do not belong is at the core of queer speculative fiction.

[7] Lothian clearly states that her book foregrounds voices from the margins that are not often heard in the most popular visions of the future, but a few mainstream media texts with wide reach, such as Battlestar Galactica and Children of Men, also appear in Old Futures. It would be easy to dismiss both texts as troubling examples of reproductive futurism, but Lothian approaches them with more care, highlighting the ambiguous messages contained in these texts. Regarding Children of Men, Lothian observes that it can be read as a heteronormative tale of reproductive futurism in which humanity's fate depends on Kee, a black woman who does not have much agency over her life or body. But Lothian pushes beyond this insight to find the cracks in a seemingly straightforward narrative. By bringing background figures and images into the foreground—a technique that vidders also use—Lothian finds "futures unforeseen and unforeseeable, which we could access through viewing, reading, or inhabiting the film in a different way… those created by people who are Kee's ancestors and heirs according to different systems of reproduction" (95–96). Lothian's willingness to embrace the ambiguities in mainstream texts makes me wish to hear what she would say about Arrival (dir. Denis Villeneuve, 2016), a film preoccupied with temporality and reproduction, or Black Panther (dir. Ryan Coogler, 2018), often described as Afrofuturist blockbuster. Much like Lothian has looked to the past to understand our present, it is up to someone else to take her book, now the past, and apply it to our unfolding present.