On Speculation: UC Berkeley Film and English professors discuss the politics and potential of science fiction

Illustration of Emily Carpenter and Namwali Serpell as astronauts in a sci-fi landscape
Beverly Pan/Staff

Science fiction as a film and literary genre is often delegitimized as pulpy or pure entertainment — as if the texts that entertain us couldn’t possibly be engaging in deep political or ideological discourse. In fact, sci fi often reflects the cultural anxieties of its time, whether it be in regards to nation and immigration, race and gender, or technology and belonging.

The Daily Californian sat down to talk about the genre with Emily Carpenter, a lecturer in the department of film and media, and Namwali Serpell, an associate professor in the English department — both of whom teach undergraduate classes in science fiction.

In a widely-ranging discussion of sci-fi texts of the past and present, these two women articulate representations of race and gender, discuss the ways that sci-fi reflects contemporary politics and offer interpretations of popular films — including “Black Panther,” “Blade Runner 2049,” “Her,” and “Under the Skin” — that point to where the genre is headed in the future.

Disney / Marvel Studios / Courtesy

Disney / Marvel Studios / Courtesy


The Daily Californian: How would you describe your relationship to studying science fiction?

Emily Carpenter: I have been a fan of science fiction since I was a young child. My father raised me watching a lot of “Star Trek” … and I remember having very heated discussions in the car on the way to church on the weekend about “What does this represent about our society?” — not that I had very informed or interesting or accurate political opinions, in many cases — but a part of the way we talked about the world in our family was through the texts that were most interesting to us.

Namwali Serpell: I also have a childhood relationship to sci fi. I moved from Zambia to the States when I was 8 or 9, and there’s a little red notebook from around then that has all of these ideas that I had for stories … one of them which I looked at more recently. I think it was called “Weird Science” — which I didn’t know what that was. You know, I’m a little African child, and it was basically a kid has developed a technology for mind reading, and I was clearly very interested in what is it like to be other people at this moment.

I also have a kind of path as a creative writer. My stories just started tending towards science fiction … so it’s sort of been a kind of return-to-a-childhood thing.

DC: What do you think well-known sci-fi works such as Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein” suggest about the representations of gender and race? Could you talk a little bit about the resonance of these themes in science fiction?

There is not a strong female character per se. There are only reading positions that render feminine strength — whether it’s in a female or a male body — legible. Most of us are not given the tools to see those things.

— Emily Carpenter

NS: Well, I’ll say what I know. … Mary Shelley was extremely young when she wrote (“Frankenstein”), and she had lost a child and was pregnant when she was writing it, so there’s a really interesting intersection in the kind of conception and production of that book and her own relationship to gender and childbirth.

(“Frankenstein”) … tried, with great precision, to align the developments in science at the time with mythic kind of questions, but also narrative questions. So it’s the first extreme “mash-up,” if I can put it that way, of science and fiction. And it’s also just an incredible text and it bears relation to all these different questions.

I remember at one point I was rereading “Frankenstein,” … and there were certain passages in Frederick Douglass’s “Narrative” that were resonating for me with what was happening in “Frankenstein.” I mean, Frankenstein’s racialization is something that doesn’t get talked about very much, but like Hyde in Jekyll and Hyde, these monsters figures are racialized in certain kinds of ways. So even these question about class and gender might seem more clear in the novel, but it’s also really interested in these (racial) questions.

EC: Certain writers in the past 10 years have really tried to narrativize the history of science fiction as a history of the imperial gaze: “What is at stake when we look at the other? … Not only what is it like to be other people but what is it like to be myself?” And those questions of re-distinction, if there is one between self and other, come into shape during those centuries of massive Western colonialism.

That journey of discovery, journey of domination, journey of conquest — (is) deeply tied up to these questions. … The frame of reproduction is really key because what’s at stake is not only biological reproduction but social reproduction. Colonialism is a massive engine of social reproduction of Western values, and that means reproducing discourses of race, class and sex that are deeply naturalized and deeply unnatural.

DC: Do you think that science fiction is a genre or a set of works that has the ability to reflect current, past, and future political climates?

The War on Terror… is also a war we lost and a war we are continually losing, and a war that puts in peril a different kind of re-re-reinvented white male body that is relentlessly the subject of white supremacism now, but also is living in the stew of its own failures in all of our texts that are about it.

— Emily Carpenter

EC: This is part of what we’re doing in my science fiction class right now — is trying to look at how the science fiction that emerges between 1979 with the first installment of the “Alien” series through the 1980s (is) processing the aftermath of Vietnam and the perceived failure of the white Western masculine body to triumph over time and space. A lot of what emerges … in the American cinema in particular — it’s all about defining the white masculine body as in crisis; we have the perpetual crisis of masculinity, but that’s because it is perpetually in crisis.

And so, (we are) working through Vietnam, working through the “hard bodies” of the Reagan era — Schwarzenegger, Stallone, etc. — who are resolutely in the course of their narratives trying to define themselves against what are feminized —not necessarily female bodies, but feminized — bodies of weakness, most often the bodies of people of color and aliens, which are in these narratives almost interchangeable.

I’m very interested in reading that post-Vietnam moment — the ‘80s and the first couple of years of the ‘90s — in parallel to our (current) moment in the aftermath of the War on Terror, which is also a war we lost and a war we are continually losing and a war that puts in peril a different kind of re-re-reinvented white male body that is relentlessly the subject of white supremacism now, but also is living in the stew of its own failures in all of our texts that are about it.

NS: I think “speculation” as a term is really important to this genre, and having that subjunctive openness to different possibilities gives us a form of analysis of political and economic systems that exist and that existed in the past.

You know, you have to know the past to be able to speculate about the future, but … I think it really opens up for new political possibilities, and this is something that I recognized in teaching “Black Science Fiction” a second time, where over the course of a couple of weeks, we managed to get to a point with an Octavia Butler novel (“Dawn”) where we started off completely identifying with and believing in the narrator, and by the end we were on the alien side, and it was like “What?”

So to overcome that radical antipathy to the other and to the new, to just put us in the position of what would it be like to have a society that had an entirely different basis of relation — nonhuman — and the way that that immediately makes you rearrange how you even think about politics and the body and its integrity and its relation to the other — … that’s very useful for thinking about political possibilities, as weird as that may sound.

“You have to know the past to be able to speculate about the future, but … I think it really opens up for new political possibilities, and this is something that I recognized in teaching ‘Black Science Fiction’ “

— Namwali Serpell

EC: That’s something that I think is happening in literature more than the cinema because the cinema is constrained formally in some ways, and maybe in the next 20 years with augmented reality we’ll be able to … push through that taboo in the precise way that (Butler) is able to have the reader do.

NS: The three films that I would think of right now that I’ve thought about this a lot with are “Arrival,” “Black Panther” and “Blade Runner (2049).” And all three of them are extremely limited in their sense of political possibility, but there are flashes, I think, in each of them — of genuine, aesthetic innovation — that open up a door for me. … (Those flashes) really have to do with the technological innovations in film that are geared toward virtual reality — like experience — where you’re actually being made by the form to feel something. If those got pushed a little more, I think it would be much more revolutionary.

DC: Do you think science fiction is populated by strong female characters? Is that a norm or an anomaly?

EC: I have a very cynical view of this — that science fiction is not populated by strong female characters, that often the female characters … exist as a spectacle to be consumed by an idealized male viewer.

This is partly informed by a bad experience I had at the movies. When “Ex Machina” came out, I went with my partner to a showing on a Friday afternoon at the Metreon in downtown San Francisco … and I was the only woman in the audience, and most of the other people in the theater were young tech workers wearing their hoodies with their companies’ (logos) on them.

They engaged in this ritualized performance of masculine anxiety, where they laughed at all the misogynist parts of the movie as though they were in on a joke. … And the moments that I thought were the most powerful moments of articulating resistance — particularly between the two female characters and their acts of resistant violence — they also laughed at, and it was laughter that expressed a discomfort and incomprehension at what was going on. … But it was still a laugh that sounded exactly like the laugh of misogyny.

NS: We’re not interpellated that way by the film.

EC: Right. I don’t want to say that there do not exist marvelous characters who do do that resistance thing, including the characters from “Ex Machina,” … but there is not a strong female character per se. There are only reading positions that render feminine strength — whether it’s in a female or a male body — legible. Most of us are not given the tools to see those things.

NS: I would agree. I think a lot of people talk about the young female protagonist in relation to more recent (young adult) fiction, speculative fiction like “Twilight” and “The Hunger Games.” … In those cases as well, I think there’s a tension: You can’t let that protagonist just be a protagonist. That protagonist has to have a love interest dilemma. … It comes back to that dynamic, even though that person is given agency and choice.

And so I agree. It’s been interesting to think about whether “Black Panther” is feminist for me, because a lot of people are saying it is. It’s a very strong representation of women. We don’t have a male gaze that’s oriented toward the female body as sex object — in fact, if anything, we have a gaze toward the male body as sex object. … That said, the female characters are only considered or valued in terms of strong — along an axis built on masculinity — so it’s still physical strength. And so, it’s a real conundrum. … We’re far behind in gender politics — in film especially. We’ve got a ways to go.

Danai Gurira in Black Panther

Disney / Marvel Studios / Courtesy


EC: I couldn’t agree more. For me, this thing where the woman is only read on the axis of masculinity is also reflected, and this sort of goes back to one of the questions in the beginning, which is this obsession with reproduction. “Arrival” and “Blade Runner (2049)” are both obsessed with the mommy and the daddy and the baby. This is a question of confusing biological reproduction with social reproduction.

NS: I can already see it hovering over “Westworld,” that it’s going to end up being about whether they make babies. It’s so sad, because there are other things that I can think about.

EC: Way more interesting things!

NS: I don’t want to go down the rabbit hole of critiquing “The Handmaid’s Tale,” where its premise is that we can’t make babies anymore and that’s a crisis. It’s a failure of imagination, especially in an overpopulated world.

DC: What’s a film or book that’s interesting to you because it gives you hope or because it’s commonly misread?

EC: In “Her,” she does escape the narrative (of) not (being) wedded or (attached) to a baby … into a plurality of subjects that have many incomprehensible forms of intimacy. It’s both a wonderful irony and a real misstep that the film ends as his story and not hers. The film gives credence to her experiences without pursuing why it is in fact the more interesting one.

I think the film was very well-cast, in the sense that if they had to have this … woman who is not even disembodied but who has never had a body in the film’s logic — they cast Scarlett Johansson to play that role — (and she is) relentlessly embodied for all of us who have ever seen one of her films. And so, the interesting political potential of her as a sort of anonymous, disembodied, feminine, multiple figure is completely (undermined) by the widespread cultural sexualization of the woman who voices her. There is a really cool, radical reading of the film that will not work for most people who see it, which is not the failing of those people, or the film necessarily — it’s just a cultural problem.

NS: I agree with that reading entirely. I wrote a review of that film in relation to “Under the Skin.”

EC: What! That’s a really good one.

NS: In “Under the Skin,” Scarlett Johansson barely speaks, so she’s all body, and in “Her,” she’s all voice. … I think “Under the Skin” is a remarkable movie. I think it gets misread as well, insofar as I think people really see it as this kind of chance to see “ScarJo” basically naked and seducing men.

BFI / Film4 / Courtesy

BFI / Film4 / Courtesy


But I actually think … the film itself is enacting a very intense critique of gender norms across the way. It’s a very dark picture of what gender is. … It parodies these various aspects of gender relations and various moments in ways I haven’t really seen being picked up by most viewers. It’s an incredibly scathing critique of heterosexist norms, and the end is devastating in that way. I think more people should see it.

EC: I’m with you. One of my favorite moments in that film is a scene that, whenever I’ve taught it, has given rise to incredible questions and fights. … There’s this moment where she discovers that she may or may not have a vagina. And we don’t ever know whether she’s startled because she does or startled because she doesn’t. But the evidence that the film has given us is already that her body is impenetrable. … And so, I’m really interested in that as … a critique of heterosexist norms, because of the way that that scene plays with our expectations and then does not deliver leaves us with our own feeling of “Why is this so important to me to know whether she does or does not have a vagina?” Because it’s all important to our culture — whether her body is penetrable and thus all of the things that come with that.

NS: And that quality of what is “under the skin” but is also the (surface) … that’s another moment of medium innovation and aesthetic experiment that I think is really, really pushing our boundaries of what is wholeness, what is containment. … It’s incredible, I feel like it’s almost Lovecraftian — it’s a strange (surface) that doesn’t quite fit any of our biological or chemical preconceptions. That really contributes to what the film is doing.

EC: And it’s also unmarked in this way, that her body is also unmarked.

NS: And unmarkable.

EC: And unmarkable, exactly. We can’t tell foreground from background. And then, corollary to that, I’m really interested in how they use that same aesthetic to represent the space of encounter between Eleven and the Demogorgon in “Stranger Things.” It’s the same space.

NS: Oh yes, I noticed that!

EC: And so, what is that space doing? It has this unmarked, unmarkable quality, but the way in which, in “Stranger Things,” she’s moving between domestic spaces, right? I’m really interested in that nonspace, too, and how it frustrates a lot of things.

NS: And it’s a little bit the (“sunken place”) in “Get Out” … which is both the universe, but also this weird embryonic space and the domestic space, too — the hearth that he can see, it’s like a TV.

EC: This demands to be written. This is a really good essay that we’re writing together right now.

DC: Where do you see these points of what’s possible for the medium of cinema, maybe in “Black Panther” or “Blade Runner 2049”?

NS: So I’ve written a review of each of them for the New York Review of Books. In “Blade Runner (2049)” — which I felt was an extremely regressive representation of gender — there’s a moment that a lot of people were referring to as a “virtual threesome,” where there’s a holographic android and a real woman … and they’re kind of overlaid with each other and then they’re having sex with Ryan Gosling’s character.

What I thought was really wondrous about it… (is) that you might not be identifying with Ryan Gosling, who gets to sleep with two women, but actually be identifying with one of, or both of, the women. That idea of being two people and being both a body and a desiring bodiless human felt to me like a radical possibility for my own self as a female body.

But it also occurred to me that it was closest I’d seen depicted in film of the experience of dreams where you are both someone and someone else, which for me has sometimes actually crossed genders. To have that again starts to put some pressure on the idea that we are one single subject with one single body, and to have that haptically available, was really cool to me, (though) not necessarily something the filmmaker intended. In “Black Panther,” I was most keen on the technology of the “black sand,” which seems to be granular vibranium, but it produces these vehicles that you can inhabit and then that fall away.

EC: And it’s physical.

NS: Exactly, it’s the combinatory style of it. They also use this in the sequence where they’re describing the kingdom of Wakanda. They use this kind of sand animation.

EC: And it becomes the black skin, and it becomes the Black Panther.

NS: Exactly. So to me, (the sand) that offered an aesthetic model, a figure, for syncretism, which is the bringing together of multiple cultures, rather than a reduction to flatness of African culture — so again, starting to think about how we can actually model different ways of thinking about culture and about other places. … It’s also a beautiful figure for diaspora, which is a word that comes from “scattering” but is actually also about solidarity — things coming together and scattering. … The idea of a transient, adaptive politics you see as a thread, especially in Black feminist thought — brief coalitions that never coagulate or fix into authoritarian ideological structures — so to see that actually enacted in the form was really stunning to me. 

EC: I love that: the non-essentializable affinity that does not objectify. It’s plural. That’s awesome.

NS: Again, I don’t know how much (director Ryan) Coogler intended that.

EC: I don’t think it matters if he intended it. … I think it matters if you see it. … I’m happy that you’ve written this already. It’s very exciting.

Contact Anna Tseselsky, Bailey Dunn and Sophie-Marie Prime at [email protected].