Not just a means to imagine a future – Interviewing dr. Val Nolan

aberystwyth university
Aberystwyth University in Wales

Please introduce yourself and your work.

I’m a lecturer in genre fiction and creative writing at Aberystwyth University in Wales where I teach modules on science fiction, fantasy, and comics. I’ve published academic articles in journals such as Science Fiction Studies, Journal of Graphic Novels and Comic Books, Review of Contemporary FictionIrish Studies ReviewFoundation: The International Review of Science Fiction, and the Dictionary of Literary Biography. I am also a science fiction writer myself, with stories published in anthologies and magazines including Year’s Best Science Fiction,Best of British Science FictionBFS HorizonsUnidentified Funny Objects, and the ‘Futures’ page of Nature. My story ‘The Irish Astronaut’ was shortlisted for the Theodore Sturgeon Award (2014), and my anti-fascist novelette ‘Make America Great Again’ appeared in Interzone(2020) and was long-listed for the British Science Fiction Association Awards. I conducted my doctoral research on contemporary Irish fiction at National University of Ireland, Galway, and I attended the Clarion Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers’ Workshop in 2009.  

You published a beautiful piece of work on “The Polyphony” titled Science Fiction and the Pathways out of the COVID Crisis: please explain your project and how your reflection started.

Like many academics over the past year, I found myself asking how my own area of interest could speak to the COVID-19 emergency. I was drawn to the vivid imaginary accounts of pandemic scenarios, institutional responses to viral outbreaks, and personal reactions to such crises throughout science fiction. I believe that they have value beyond mere entertainment and that they can function, in some ways, to help us conceptualize our real-world pandemic (something which I think dovetails nicely with many of the qualities and practices of the medical humanities). Statistics and graphs, however crucial to research, will not connect with many people, thus I see science fiction as an alternative way of exploring the pandemic experience. It is another means to communicate and, indeed, to accumulate aspects of the present moment, and one with a much wider reach and readership than the medical journals. This aspect of the project is in line with how science fiction is, as I always tell my students, not just a means to imagine a future but is instead a way to look at what is right in front of us now. At the moment I am compiling an “open notebook” on Twitter (@PandemicFiction) where I am recording my observations (and, later, unrolling these into full threads) as I develop this project into medium length pieces, such as that for The Polyphony, and as I begin to draft full length articles. 

What you think is the role of science fiction in coping with the pandemic scenario we are all living in? What kind of tools and perspectives can this literary genre offer our everyday life?

My thinking on this has evolved a lot over the last twelve months. When I began this project, I was primarily positioning science fiction as a means of gaining perspectives on individual and societal responses to pandemics. The immediate examples which come to mind here are the emphasis on post-plague community-building in Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven, or the manner whereby Colson Whitehead’s Zone Oneanticipated the damaging capitalist rush to reopen after the initial lockdowns (that novel in particular should be required reading for civil servants!). I was looking at how the genre presented, for example, the different uses of and reactions to things like health monitoring apps (in the Planetfall series by Emma Newman) or extreme self-isolation (like the post-pandemic palanquins in the Revelation Space series by Alastair Reynolds). I still believe science fiction has epistemological value in that way, but as I watched the pandemic evolve during 2020 and early 2021 – especially how its myriad impacts merged with a renewed fight for racial justice – I began to see that simply modelling the possibilities or outcomes of specific fictional pandemics was not enough. The real tool which science fiction’s imaginary futures offers us is the ability to confront the ugly implications of our factual present. It has, of course, always been a hugely political genre. Unlike realism, science fiction has untrammeled power to show us distorted versions of our own societies (think, for instance, how the contemporary divide between those who do and do not have access to healthcare underpins the likes of Neill Blomkamp’s 2013 film Elysium). People want to use science fiction as a diagnostic instrument, but it is more like an inoculation. It’s not The Idiot’s Guide to Global Pandemics (though that might yet be a good title for a story!) but, instead, it offers ways of priming our imaginative coping mechanisms by exposing us to values, worldviews, or scenarios we may not have encountered before. In the same way that the COVID-19 vaccine “trains” the immune system so that it is not overwhelmed upon encountering the protein spikes of SARS-CoV-2, science fiction helps us to interpret massively disruptive occurrences in our lives such as the coronavirus. Reading a story set on a long-duration space mission, for example, might help us to better cope with an extended period of pandemic lockdown. Reading a novel about a planetary revolution prefigured by a virus ravaging an interstellar empire might help us better grasp how our present epidemiological crisis has brought wider issues of discrimination and economic exploitation to a head. 

As we collect narratives from people, we noticed that many of them used words and metaphors related to the dystopic imaginary to describe their view of the present, especially referring to the problem of accessibility to health care, equality and justice. Do you agree? How is this time (and space) dystopic, in your opinion?

This is an interesting question as I think this time and space have both utopian anddystopian characteristics; they are, as William Gibson said of the future, just unevenly distributed, existing side by side in the present moment. Consider the children of the global south mining rare earth elements in horrific work conditions so we can chuckle at cat memes on smartphones in our western utopia. Or think about the dystopian aspect of people in the US crowdfunding for insulin or other life-saving drugs as the executives of pharmaceutical companies live in luxury. Think too about the disparity between the orderly lines of vaccine centers in Europe or North America versus the nightmare of rivers swollen with the corpses of COVID victims in India. All of this is to say that dystopia is a subgenre throughout the global north whereas it is a reality for many who live in the global south. It is a divide which is identifiable too on a more granular scale within our individual countries, cities, or communities. Access to vaccines is dependent on whether you live in a rich country or a poor one. Access to oxygen depends on if you live in a fragment of utopia or in a wide expanse of dystopia. One of the things the COVID-19 pandemic has done is to throw this divide into ever starker relief. It has doubled down on the inequalities associated with health, opportunity, and particularly their intersection with racial justice. The dystopian impact of the pandemic has disproportionally fallen on people of color and those at the bottom of the economic ladder, these often being the very same people. Science fiction offers another way for their stories to be told.

Lastly, to end on a positive note, do you believe in happy ending after dystopia? Where can we find hope for the present and for the future?

I’m not sure I believe in happy endings per se, but I do believe in longer and longer happy stretches along the constant cycle back and forth between utopia and dystopia, with a general upwards trend over time. The post-scarcity future of Star Trekor of the Culture novels of Iain M. Banks is probably far beyond our reach for now – the literal no-placeof utopia – but I maintain that there is hope to be found in community and in cooperation (and if an introvert like me can say this…!). There is the possibility of working together for a better future, but it cannot happen without us actively working towards it. Science fiction is one way of challenging ourselves to address the worst aspects of our societies. It can cause us to question how we currently provide for health, equality, and justice (here I would point towards the recent work of Kim Stanley Robinson, big metatextual accounts of how we might begin to make our present world ecologically and economically fairer such as New York 2140 or The Ministry for the Future). When handled correctly, dystopia is a chance to critique exploitation and structural neglect. When allowed to percolate in the back of our minds, science fiction is a way of opening our hearts to fresh and unexpected points of view. That is where hope lies: working together and walking hand in hand towards the challenges to come.

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