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The future arrives earlier in Palo Alto (but when it's high noon there, it's already tomorrow in Asia): a conversation about writing science fiction and reimagining histories of science and technology

  • ANNA GREENSPAN (a1), ANIL MENON (a2), KAVITA PHILIP (a3) and JEFFREY WASSERSTROM (a4)

Abstract

A conversation between philosopher of digital cultures Anna Greenspan and historian of China Jeffrey Wasserstrom, speculative-fiction writer Anil Menon, and historian of science Kavita Philip, exploring the emerging work from scholars who have grown up with the global influence of science fiction in popular culture while being trained in the disciplinary spaces between science, engineering, social science, law and the humanities. The following questions are addressed: what are the prehistories of science fiction and the futures of such interdisciplinary work? How do India and China, as places where important new science fiction is being written, and as nations exploding now into emerging markets characterized by technological dynamism, fit into older historiographic frames that saw the European Enlightenment as the source of modern science, and the ‘developing world’ as destined only to ever play catch-up? How should the politics of digital futures and non-European pasts figure in historical research and in fiction writing, keeping in mind the historian's fear of presentism and anachronism, and the fiction writer's dislike of political moralism?

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This is an Open Access article, distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution licence (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/), which permits unrestricted re-use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original work is properly cited.

References

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1 Prasenjit Duara, Sovereignty and Authenticity: Manchukuo and the East Asian Modern, Lanham, MD:Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2004.

2 The original site is inactive, and the author's name has been removed from most remaining traces. A basic Facebook page remains, and the backstory is archived at the Way Back Machine at https://web.archive.org/web/20141115015755/http://designforthefirstworld.com/about-2.

3 As Obama said when he visited India during his first term, ‘India is not emerging; it has emerged’. Barack Obama, public address, New Delhi, 7 November 2010.

4 One response to this question is in this collaborative paper: Philip, Kavita, Irani, Lilly and Dourish, Paul, ‘Postcolonial computing: a tactical survey’, Science, Technology & Human Values (2012) 37, pp. 329.

5 Samit Basu, Turbulence, London: Titan Press, 2012.

6 B.P. Reardon, ‘Lucien: a true story’, in Reardon (ed.), Collected Ancient Greek Novels, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1989, pp. 619–649.

7 Joseph Miller, ‘Popes or tropes: defining the grails of science fiction’, in Gary Westfahl and George Slusser (eds.), Science Fiction: Canonization, Marginalization, and the Academy, Westwood, CT: Greenwood Press, 2002, pp. 79–87, 82.

8 Taylor Clark, The Perfectionist, interview with Ted Chiang in California Sunday Magazine, 4 January 2015, available at https://stories.californiasunday.com/2015-01-04/ted-chiang-scifi-perfectionist.

9 Anil Menon, Half of What I Say, New Delhi: Bloomsbury, 2015.

10 Param Jit Kumar, Scourge from the Sky, Chandigarh: People's Guardian Publishers, 1964.

11 Manek Mistry, Stories of the Alien Invasion, Abyss & Apex, 2007, available at www.abyssapexzine.com/archives/abyss-and-apex2007/stories-of-the-alien-invasion; Bibhas Sen, Zero-Sum Game (Katha Prize Stories, 4), New Delhi: Katha Books, 1994, pp. 244–252.

12 Joseph Needham et al., Science and Civilisation in China, 25 vols., Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1954–2015.

13 S. Irfan Habib, ‘Modern science can be pursued by any believer’, interview by Rakhi Chakrabarty, Times of India, 2 November 2012, available at http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/edit-page/S-Irfan-Habib-Modern-science-can-be-pursued-by-any-believer/articleshow/17052707.cms.

14 See Manan Ahmed, ‘Future's past’, in Adil Najam and Moeed Yusuf (eds.), South Asia 2060, London: Anthem Press, 2013; Kavita Philip, ‘Telling histories of the future: the imaginaries of Indian technoscience’, in Ravinder Kaur and Thomas Blom Hansen, eds., Identities (2016) 23(3), special issue, Aesthetics of Arrival: Spectacle, Capital, Novelty in Post-reform India, pp. 276–293, available at http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/1070289X.2015.1034129.

15 See, for example, Lindtner, Silvia, ‘Hacking with Chinese characteristics: the promises of the maker movement against China's manufacturing culture’, Science, Technology & Human Values (2015) 40, pp. 854879; Irani, Lilly, ‘Hackathons and the making of entrepreneurial citizenship’, Science, Technology & Human Values (2015) 40, pp. 799824.

16 Daston, Lorraine, ‘Fear and loathing of the imagination in science’, Daedalus (1998) 127, pp. 7395.

17 There were reasons to celebrate the democratic impulses of a nation as it rejected the dynastic, upper-caste and elite but professedly secular Congress Party that had ruled the nation with a mixture of vanguardist elitism and democratic liberalism for most of its first half-century. But historians have documented the disturbing proto-fascist roots of the new populism that has taken charge; see, for example, Tapan Basu, Pradip Datta, Tanika Sarkar, Sumit Sarkar and Sambuddha Sen, Khakhi Shorts and Saffron Flags: A Critique of the Hindu Right (Tracts for the Times 2), Hyderabad: Orient Longman, 1992; and Zachariah, Benjamin, ‘A voluntary Gleischschaltung? Indian perspectives towards a non-Eurocentric understanding of fascism’, Transcultural Studies (2014) 2, pp. 63100.

18 Anthropologist Lucy Suchman recalls hearing this in 1995, said by ‘a Silicon Valley technologist’ on National Public Radio in Palo Alto: ‘The future arrives sooner here.’ Suchman describes her own shocked reaction, ‘a bodily resistance to being hailed into this claim to the vanguard, with its attendant mandate to enact the future that others will subsequently live’. The opposite reaction appears to shape the ecstatic embrace of their place in the vanguard of global technological progress on the part of Hindu Americans who identify with Modi, and see this moment as part of their long-deserved destiny. Suchman, Lucy, ‘Anthropological relocations and the limits of design’, Annual Review of Anthropology (2011) 40, pp. 118.

19 The district was represented by Mike Honda, a liberal Asian American democrat, born to sharecroppers, and interned with his family in a Japanese internment camp in 1942. California journalists reported that diasporic Hindu American organizations (and their Political Action Committee) had raised funds and campaigned to unseat him, and to support candidates more sympathetic to the Republican agenda in the US, and to the Bharatiya Janata Party in India. For an account of how the politics of the Tea Party and Hindutva, diaspora and homeland, are deeply intertwined see, for example, Yasha Levine, ‘Ruh Ro: how the Valley's favorite politician may be foiled by a Hindu supremacist banned from the US’, available at https://pando.com/2014/05/29/ruh-ro-how-the-valleys-favorite-politician-may-be-foiled-by-a-hindu-supremacist-banned-from-the-us, 29 May 2014, accessed 1 October 2015.

20 McClure's Magazine, October 1889. In Britain, the Pears Company focused on advertisements that promised to keep fair skins fair, but the year the advertisement ran in the United States, Admiral George Dewey, who is featured as the burdened white man, had sunk the Spanish fleet in Manila Bay and imperialist enthusiasm in the US was at an all-time high.

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