Sublime Cognition Conference Programme

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Sublime Cognition

Science Fiction & Metaphysics

E: FB: London Science Fiction Research Community TW: @LSFRC_ / #LSFRC18

SCHEDULE friday 14th September 2018

9.30 – 10.00 10.00 – 10.15

Registration | Basement Hall Conference Introduction | B04

10.15 – 11.15

Keynote: Sublime Cognition: Reading Gareth Edwards’ Monsters, 1.20.40 to 1.25.12 Professor Roger Luckhurst | B04

11.15 – 11.30


11.30 – 12.30

Parallel Panels: 1A. Magical Enframing: The Then inside the Now Serena Volpi + James Burton |B04 1B. The Metaphysics of Cyberpunk Sasha Myerson + Gwilym Eades | B03

12.30 – 13.30

Lunch (own arrangements)

13.30 – 14.30

Parallel Panels: 2A. The Ineffable Encounter Kerry Dodd + Evert Jan van Leeuwen | B04 2B. Social Sublimity Jo L. Walton + Tanojiri Tetsuro | B03

14.30 – 15.30

Parallel Panels: 3A. The Sublime in Retrograde Mattia Petricola + Farzad Mahootian | B04 3B. Refracted Utopias Katie Stone + Luke Jones | B03

15.30 – 15.45


15.45 – 16.45

Parallel Panels: 4A. The Boundaries of Cognition Chris Hussey + Jim Clarke | B04 4B. Tractates from the Future Jan Sigle + Andrew Rowcroft | B03

16.45 – 17.00


17.00 – 18.00

Discussion: Cognition and the Sublime | B03 Rhodri Davies, Eli Lee, Aren Roukema, Katie Stone (moderated by Francis Gene-Rowe)

SCHEDULE SATURDAY 15th September 2018

9.30 – 10.00 10.00 – 11.00

Registration | Basement Hall Keynote: What Speculative Fiction can offer the Philosophy of Religion Dr Helen de Cruz | B04

11.00 – 11.15


11.15 – 12.45

Parallel Panels: 5A. Astral Spaces Thore Bjørnvig, Joseph Brooker + Brian Stableford | B04 5B. Psychical Fringes Amanda Pavani, Rob Mayo + Glyn Morgan | B03

12.45 – 13.45

Lunch (own arrangements)

13.45 – 15.15

Parallel Panels: 6A. Occultural Science Fiction Ethan Doyle White, Hallvard Haug + Dan Byrne-Smith | B04 6B. Interplanar Consciousness Llew Watkins, Imogen Woodberry + Yen Ooi | B03

15.15 – 15.30


15.30 – 16.30

Parallel Panels: 7A. Philip K. Dick: Fictionalising/Defictionalising Philosopher Terence Sawyers + Carrie Gooding | B04 7B. The Human Transcendent Tom Kewin + Christos Callow Jr. | B03

16.30 – 16.45


16.45 – 18.00

Conference Roundtable | B04 Justina Robson, Jeff Noon, Fiona Moore (moderated by Jim Clarke)


The mystical, magical, and metaphysical have often been framed as antithetical to Science Fiction as genre, discourse, or narrative mode. Yet, phenomena of this nature have infused SF in a bewildering complex of cultural representations: Science Fiction has been used as a purportedly secularist framework in which to distil, evaluate, even violently critique religious structures. In a variety of superhuman tropes it has adapted and revamped ancient powers from seership to levitation. Religious concepts and beliefs have been proselytically expressed through SF stories, while, conversely, well-known Science Fiction texts from Stranger in a Strange Land to The Matrix have been treated as holy books by new religious movements. Such cultural intersections may have roots in significant similarities anthropologists and sociologists have observed between the reading, writing and fandom of SF and concepts and practices understood as religious by practitioners. On a more abstract level, SF has been observed to pursue the transcendence, sublimity, and enchantment sought by mystics, magicians, and devotees the world over.

This conference aims to explore the tertiary spaces found between the unstable binaries created by Science Fiction’s historically uncomfortable relationship with the numinous and supernatural. The functional and thematic importance of the metaphysical to SF is now widely acknowledged, but the roles played by such phenomena – and their implications for a wider understanding of SF as genre or mode – have yet to be subject to significant interrogation and debate. We hope that these two days of discussion and debate will provide a way forward (or backward) to understanding some of the implications of these dynamics for the past, present, and future of Science Fiction.

Aren Roukema Francis Gene-Rowe Rhodri Davies Katie Stone

The London Science Fiction Research Community is an organisation of SF scholars and fans, led by graduate students based at Birkbeck and Royal Holloway. Formed in 2014, the Community presents special events with guest speakers several times a year, and also hosts a monthly reading group at 43 Gordon Square, London, on Monday evenings, open to all. Each year the reading group engages with texts organised around a central theme. For the year beginning October 2018 our theme will be ‘Networked Futures: Economics and (Re)Production in Science Fiction.’


We would like to take this opportunity to thank everybody whose time and support has made “Sublime Cognition,” the London Science Fiction Research Community’s second conference, possible – not least, our two keynote speakers, Helen de Cruz and Roger Luckhurst, and our roundtable panelists Fiona Moore, Justina Robson, Jeff Noon, and moderator Jim Clarke. Many thanks are also due to our volunteers – Jade S. Bokhari, Izy Cowling, Wendy Haines, and Deborah Roukema – and panel chairs for assisting with the smooth running of the event, to Sing Yun Lee and Morris Wild for the conference artwork, to Sing again for design, to Birkbeck College for providing our venue, and to Birkbeck’s Centre for Contemporary Literature in particular, without whose financial support this event would not be possible. Finally, thank you to all our delegates for attending and making this conference a success. We hope that the discussions from these two days will prove stimulating and valuable, and contribute productively both to your own research and wider debates concerning genre and knowledge formation.

programme design Sing Yun Lee artwork Sing Yun Lee + Morris Wild

KEYNOTE lecture | b04

Sublime Cognition: Reading Gareth Edwards’ Monsters, 1.20.40 to 1.25.12

Roger Luckhurst

The culminating scene of Gareth Edwards’ low budget Monsters marks the final appearance of the elusive creatures in plain sight. The scene evokes all the standard tropes of the sublime: gigantism, obscurity, awe, and terror, and the paradoxical ‘successful failure’ of our cognitive grasp. Yet the ‘monster theory’ that has been dominant in critical commentary for the last twenty years is driven by an oddly antisublime imperative, a kind of frenzy of allegorical interpretation that seeks to contain and domesticate the meanings of the monster. This talk will explore the overdetermined appearance of these monsters at the southern border of the United States in 2010, and will seek a mode of reading that respects the core of unreadability that the sublime evokes.

Roger Luckhurst teaches at Birkbeck College. Most recently, he has edited Science Fiction: A Literary History (2017) and The Cambridge Companion to Dracula (2017) and wrote with Andy Beckett The Disruption, a study of the 70s children’s TV classic The Changes (2017). His new book, The Corridor: Passages in Modernity comes out from Reaktion Books in March 2019.

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Wild Seeds and the Phoenix: Octavia Butler, Nnedi Okorafor, and Myths of Africa in Twentieth-Century Western Anthropology. Serena Volpi In 1906 (the same year of the Atlanta Race Riot) Franz Boas, the so-called father of American cultural anthropology, went to Atlanta University and took part in a history class taught by the Pan-Africanist sociologist and activist W.E.B. Du Bois. As recalled by the same Du Bois in Black Folk Then and Now (1939), the talk had an incredible impact on him and his successive work since the focus of Boas’ speech was a revaluation of African history and past as a positive cultural heritage and not as a narrative of backwardness of which to be ashamed: “[Boas] recounted the history of black kingdoms south of the Sahara for a thousand years. I was too astonished to speak. All of this I had never heard and I came then to realize how the silence and neglect of science can let truth utterly disappear or even be unconsciously distorted”. This paper focuses on the representation of African myths and histories in twentieth-century Western anthropology and the kind of influence they may have had on Afrofuturism, focusing on the works by Octavia Butler (1947-2006) and Nnedi Okorafor (1975–), two Science Fiction authors working with materials inspired by African mythologies. In particular, the link between primitivism, magic, and technology will be explored in Butler’s Wild Seed (1980) and Okorafor’s The Book of Phoenix (2015) as a way to encompass the opposition between primitive and modern at the core of both twentieth-century social sciences and modernism in the arts.

Serena Volpi is an independent postdoctoral researcher based in London and a Lecturer in Anthropology at Lorenzo de Medici Institute in Florence, Italy. Her research interests connect cultural anthropology to Afrofuturism, Indigenous Futurisms, and Ursula K. Le Guin. Her work has been published by Cambridge Scholars Publishing, Palgrave MacMillan, and in the Oral History Review.

Chair: Glyn Morgan

Rationality, Metaphysics, SF: Tools the Master Never Owned

James Burton One of the things that makes SF so compelling and valuable as a cultural phenomenon and mode of cultural and critical creative practice is that it enables the resurfacing of an affinity that Western thought has repeatedly sought to deny or suppress: the affinity between the extreme scepticism associated with modern scientific (/colonial/patriarchal/capitalist/heteronormative, etc.) rationality, and an attitude of wonderment, or radical credulity – an openness to infinite possibility – on which the functioning of that rationality simultaneously depends. Given that this affinity implies that rationality’s undoing is inherent within its own shaky foundations, it is not surprising that the gesture of suppressing the metaphysical (the magical, mythical, supernatural, imaginary, etc.) recurs throughout Western thought (religion, science, philosophy, politics). Generally this gesture is an integral element of larger attempts to found, reinforce, or recuperate a widespread sense of the universal validity of Western values. However, where this gesture appears in the history of SF (e.g. in Hugo Gernsback’s attempts to restrict the genre to a scientistic engagement), or indeed within a particular work, it finds itself beginning to undo or deconstruct this same gesture almost immediately. In this short paper, I will attempt, first, to formulate this underlying tendency within SF as a form of rationalistic autocritique going beyond (and partially repressed by) those critical modes (e.g. Humean, Kantian) celebrated in Western rationalism throughout the history of post-Enlightenment modernity (which is also the history of modern SF); and, second, to elaborate this tendency as one of the fundamental bases for the seemingly limitless resource for cultural critique and radical imagination which figures such as Octavia Butler, Ursula Le Guin, Samuel Delany, and a host of contemporary writers in their wake, have found in the genre. James Burton is a Lecturer in Cultural Studies and Cultural History at Goldsmiths (University of London). He is the author of The Philosophy of Science Fiction: Henri Bergson and the Fabulations of Philip K. Dick, and several articles on Science Fiction, ecology, and posthumanism in the context of critical cultural politics.

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Cyberpunctum: Metaphysics of Cyberpunk Gwilym Eades Cyberpunk’s critique of Locke’s punctum and propertarianism, in conjunction with the problem of names that naturally (and increasingly) arises in cyberpunk, amounts to a metaphysical conundrum for which the genre’s practitioners have no real answer. This talk focuses on Neuromancer (William Gibson, 1984) – and, on-screen, The Matrix (Wachowski Brothers, 1999) – and Altered Carbon (Richard K. Morgan, 2002), along with its Netflix series adaptation (Laeta Kalogridis, 2018–), as epitomising the problem spatially and temporally, respectively, with implications for both class and intergenerational knowledge transmission. This talk posits ‘unnamed ghosts of the past,’ a consequence of cyberpunk’s speculations that will increasingly haunt the genre. Using contrasting theorisation of names from both Saul Kripke and Judith Butler to analyse how identities are given stability through both space and time reifies the ‘ghosting’ aspect of cyberpunk that forecloses possible worlds thinking. The idea of repetition with a difference operates effectively in that foreclosure to ensure the operation of cyberpunk’s predominant (propertarian, petit-bourgeois) metonymies and tropes. These drive actions forward in Gibson and Morgan in ways that echo, haunt, and ultimately trouble the idea that, despite historical contingencies, identities and subject positions remain the same. We ghost ourselves even as we read cyberpunk critically, adumbrating an ultimately limited performativity of the texts themselves.

Gwilym Eades is a lecturer at Royal Holloway, University of London, with research interests in postcolonial thought, indigeneity, and counter-mapping.

Chair: Rachel Hill Claire

The Sublime in Non-Cartesian Space Sasha Myerson For the nineteenth-century philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer a feeling of endlessness was key to experiencing the sublime. However, what happens to our notions of the sublime in non-Cartesian worlds, which do not continue infinitely with perfect regularity, but may twist or turn back on themselves and ultimately be finite? In a recent article, Craig Jackson argues that the digital space portrayed in the 1998 cyberpunk anime Serial Experiments Lain (SEL) is such a non-Cartesian space. In contrast to conventional interpretations of the series, Jackson argues that the multiple virtual duplicates (or doppelgangers) the show’s protagonist encounters in digital-space are not the result of an infinite fragmentation of identity, but are caused by topographical distortion as the digital world folds back in on itself. In this paper I examine the impact this interpretation might have on the religious themes of SEL. The character of Eiri seeks to become the almighty and divine God of this new digital cyberspace. He attempts to become a sublime being in a world which isn’t itself sublime. Reading the show in this way raises several questions. If this digital space is non-Cartesian, is the presence of an all-knowing and all-present God, in the Abrahamic sense, within it a contradiction? Does a non-Cartesian universe undermine the concept of God? This creates implications for bodies and their limits, with Lain’s final confrontation with Eiri reflecting the supposed mutual exclusivity of the beautiful and the sublime. Finally, this raises broader questions around art and religion. Are the events of Christianity Cartesian in the sense that they can only happen once? Is the resurrection of Christ a singular moment which can be never repeated, with fixed coordinates in time and space? Or, does the repeated retelling of this moment throughout Western culture and literature make Christianity ironically a non-Cartesian world?

Sasha Myerson is a PhD student at Birkbeck and a graduate of both History and Creative/ Critical Writing from the University of Sussex. Her research interests include cities, Cyberpunk, gender, postmodernism, and dissociative identity disorder. She is also a freelance social media writer and occasionally a reluctant poet.

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The Ineffable Encounter

‘A Singularity without an Event Horizon’: The Cosmic Sublime and Deconstruction of Empirical Boundaries Kerry Dodd Cosmic Horror tales frequently underscore the redundancy and insignificance of humanity through the presentation of entities and phenomena far beyond our understanding, reinforcing our infinitesimal size on this unimaginable scale. Yet while concerned with epistemological limits, these tales (typified by the work of H.P. Lovecraft) often present this through teratological horrors – entities or existences whose mere sight drives the human subject insane. Such a proposition arguably cannot think beyond the traditional monster format of abject horrors and narrative mythos, destined to be transformed and then culturally appropriated. In this paper I will instead examine the cosmic sublime of M. John Harrison’s Kefahuchi Tract trilogy (2002-12), outlining how the representation of quantum destabilisation offers a more compelling and faithful cosmic horror. Orientated around the Kefahuchi Tract, described as a singularity without an event horizon, this seething and oppressive cosmological presence defies discrete representation and is frequently framed in spectral terms. Harrison’s trilogy is steadfast in eliding any definitive explanation of how the quantum mechanics of interstellar travel functions; the proposition that “you could travel between the stars, it began to seem, by assuming anything” (Light, 139-140), destabilising the certainty of rational thought. The juxtaposition of dense technological futurism and spectral hauntings thus proposes a confluence of the Gothic and Science Fiction that challenges anthropocentric paradigms towards the non-human. The frequent allusion to the ruination of multiple civilizations enraptured by the tract underscores an excavational curiosity with no empirical answers – one which perhaps can only be understood in phantasmal awe. Focusing on the eeriness of such figures as the Shrander and doppelganger artefacts in conjunction with a Speculative Materialist approach, I argue that Harrison’s trilogy proposes a transition from teratological horrors to quantum terrors as a reconfiguration of cosmic wonder that challenges the delineation of ontological boundaries. Kerry Dodd is a PhD researcher at Lancaster University and Reviews Editor for Fantastika Journal. His thesis, entitled “The Archaeological Weird: Exhuming the Non-human,” examines the intersection between archaeology and Weird fiction. Kerry also works more widely in the fields of Science Fiction (particularly Cosmic Horror and Cyberpunk), the Gothic, and digital culture.

Chair: Serena Volpi

Transcendental Ecstasy in Clifford Simak’s Time and Again and Wim Gijsen’s “Soul Call” Evert Jan van Leeuwen “Ever read Thoreau, Son? ...he had the right idea.” (Simak, Time and Again, 175) Clifford Simak is known as a pastoral SF writer whose stories express a nostalgic longing for the rural life. Actually, he was a Transcendentalist. Time and Again (1953) is to Simak what “Nature” is to Emerson, or Walden to Thoreau: the definitive statement of his spiritual philosophy. It concerns Asher Sutton’s discovery of the soul, and details a war (in space and time) over the control of Sutton’s spiritual manuscript This is Destiny. This text has the potential to free humankind from destructive materialist ideologies and to lead it towards unity with Nature, to the chagrin of the power bloc in Sutton’s world. Like his Transcendentalist forebears, Simak believes the truth of Nature is grasped intuitively, in moments of spiritual ecstasy, not through the dissection, control and exploitation of its physical properties. Like Thoreau, he was aware that following a transcendental path is an act of defiance against “the ideology of advanced industrial society” (Marcuse). Following Simak, the Dutch writer Wim Gijsen expressed in his SF stories the need for Western societies to (re-)discover the soul. Having written various non-fiction books on spiritual themes during the counterculture era, Gijsen’s first fantastic fiction was Mirakels in Wonderland (1970), a New Age pilgrim’s progress about two youngsters who go in search of the awe and wonder that has disappeared from twentieth-century society. In “Soul Call” (1983) he followed Simak in constructing a narrative in which technocratic society is pictured as soulless, and in which mankind’s spiritual progress depends on the rekindling of the creative imagination and an openness to the kind of ecstatic moments of spirituality championed by Emerson that could lead towards a sense of unity with Nature.

Evert Jan van Leeuwen teaches English-language literature and culture at Leiden University, the Netherlands, where he received his PhD in 2006 (with distinction). He has researched and published on transatlantic Romanticism, Gothic, Horror, and Science Fiction and is currently preparing to write the first history of Dutch Science Fiction.

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Social Sublimity

Satanic Socialism in Science Fiction

Jo L. Walton From the earliest texts of political economy, market forces have frequently been framed in covertly or overtly theological terms. In particular, the liberal laissez faire tradition, in its insistence on the unthinkability of social totality, has been bound up both with Christian theodicy and Classical concordia discors. The Chilean Project Cybersyn, a bold experiment in cybernetic economic management occurring during the Marxist Salvador Allende’s brief presidency – whilst constrained by Chile’s modest computing resources, and undermined by US aggression – formed a rejoinder to this liberal economic theology. The never-completed Project Cybersyn, a tantalising mixture of model and mechanism, may be read as a challenge to the neoliberal doctrine that only money, markets, and the price mechanism can adequately solve production and distribution in modern complex societies. But Project Cybersyn also resisted the undemocratic Soviet approach to computational planning, through a distinctive melding of the political economy of la vía chilena al socialismo with the new interdisciplinary science of cybernetics. Now, half a century later, as diverse digital value-forms proliferate, and platform capitalism places ever more of our daily life under algorithmic management, the question of who and/or what is capable of ‘thinking the economy’ in all its rich and intricate complexity remains a vital one. This paper, by drawing on historical episodes such as Cybersyn, and on science fictional representations of economic calculation (e.g. Iain M. Banks, Ursula K. Le Guin, Kim Stanley Robinson, Cory Doctorow), will trace an oppositional tradition of political economy: a tradition of audacious and impious attempts to think objects that are too large and complex to be held within thought, fueled by the desire to render social totality translucent, intelligible, and governable. Jo Lindsay Walton is currently a postdoctoral fellow at the Institute for Advanced Studies in the Humanities, University of Edinburgh, researching finance in speculative fiction. With Polina Levontin he edits Vector, the critical journal of the British Science Fiction Association. He has recently published chapters in Economic Science Fictions (ed. Will Davies) and The Science Fiction of Iain M. Banks (ed. Nick Hubble, Esther MacCallum-Stewart, Joseph Norman). He runs the Economic SFF database (, and his fiction includes the paranormal romance novel Invocation.

Chair: Sasha Myerson

Fighting against the Gods: Psycho-Pass and Social/Psychological Governance in 2010s Japan Tanojiri Tetsuro Psycho-Pass (2012–) is a Science Fiction media franchise work representative of 2010s Japan SF. It continues to be released in the form of TV animation, movies, cartoons, and novels by multiple film directors, manga artists, and writers. This is a police drama at 2100’s Japan, surveillance society governed by “the Sibyl System” (a powerful network of psychometric scanners). The key topic of this paper, ‘fighting against the Gods’ or ‘resistance to social governance by the science and technology calling for God,’ has been one of the main themes of Japanese SF since the period of high economic growth spanning 1954-1973. The social impact of the triple disaster (the 2011 Tōhoku earthquake, tsunami, and Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster) on March 11, 2011 greatly changed the representational profile of Japanese culture. Representations are now based on an apocalyptic = Gnosticism worldview. Psycho-Pass is such a representation. However, Psycho-Pass contains a variety of elements. One of these is a spiritual conviction that intention and actions that follow belief remain intact, and become the will and action to follow the right order, rather than divinity: Japanese society’s quasi-metaphysical modern philosophy. This is the philosophy of “Ryōjutsu,” the body culture/medical treatment formed under the influence of metaphysics around 1900. It became a part of the mainstream culture of Japan from the latter half of the 1970s via the medical and cultural movement “Noguchi Seitai” (1927–). Another influence is poet Kenji Miyazawa (1896-1933), who founded the theme of “Ginga Tetsudou no Yoru” (Night on the Galactic Railroad, 1927), that of “Only one god Hontou no Tatta Hitori no Kamisama” (the sole true God). Psycho-Pass, in its expression of Ryōjutsu, belongs to this conceptual genealogy, this body of thought based on an intersection of modern Buddhism and metaphysics.

Tanojiri Tetsuro’s specialties are sociology and the studies of Culture and Representation. He is a project researcher at the University of Tokyo and a part-time lecturer at Tokyo University of Foreign Studies. One of his main interests is the relationship between interlingual/intermedia translation in Japan and Europe.

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The Re-enchantment of SF: Towards a Theory of ‘Sublime Cognition’ Mattia Petricola This paper investigates the peculiar aesthetic response produced by an axis of SF which counts among its emblematic representatives such texts as Solaris (Stanisław Lem, 1961), Roadside Picnic (Arkady and Boris Strugatsky, 1971), 2001: A Space Odyssey (Stanley Kubrick, 1969), and Ubik (Philip K. Dick, 1969). By confronting the reader/viewer with alien life forms that defy human knowledge and mysterious objects endowed with mystical attributes, these texts activate a modality of speculative thought that can be traced back to Christian theology: the art of understanding what cannot, by definition, be understood. This translation of theological hermeneutics into our secular world catalyses the reemergence of a cultural paradigm that predates the advent of the Galilean model of scientific knowledge, thus accomplishing the philosophical task of mapping the boundaries of what humans can conceive within what Charles Taylor has called “the immanent frame.” This can be considered the most radical form of cognitive estrangement SF can achieve, as opposed to the realistic concerns about ecology and society that animate the most fertile axes of speculative fiction nowadays. The first section of the paper will draw on Taylor’s A Secular Age (2007) and Christopher Partridge’s The Re-Enchantment of the West (2005) in order to frame the emergence of theological hermeneutics in a specific area of SF from the perspective of cultural history. I will then focus on the texts, analysing how they thematise the struggle towards an impossible knowledge and comparing it to the struggle of the Christian theologian. This will allow me to pinpoint the basic building blocks of a theory of ‘sublime cognition’ in SF. The last section will broaden the scope of the discussion by reflecting on how theological and mystical modes of thought could be taken into account when studying both the aesthetics and the cultural pragmatics of Fantastika. Mattia Petricola is a PhD student in comparative literature at the University of Bologna and the University of Paris-Sorbonne. His work focuses on nontraditional intermediate states between life and death in literature and cinema, from E.A. Poe to today. His research interests include speculative fiction, thanatology, cultural studies, and video art. He is currently publishing articles on Philip K. Dick, Peter Greenaway, queer hermeneutics, and the notion of spectrality in media studies.

Chair: Eli Lee

Going Medieval on AI: Neoplatonic Overtones in Lem’s GOLEM XIV

Farzad Mahootian Stanisław Lem’s GOLEM XIV (1973) considers transcendent tendencies of artificial intelligence. Asimov and Clarke had produced beautiful sketches of this idea in “The Nine Billion Names of God,” (Clarke, 1953) and “The Last Question” (Asimov, 1955). Clarke’s plot cleverly crosses the metaphysical divide between language and reality at the end of the world. In Asimov’s tale, the ultimate computer program restarts the universe by calculating a way to command light into existence. Lem goes further than both. His GOLEM XIV appeared in English the same year as Gibson’s Neuromancer (1984), which featured an AI seeking to free itself from its mainframe. Whereas Gibson approached the gnostic idea of freeing spirit from matter as a detective novel and action-packed thriller, Lem’s AI emerges within the comically mundane context of military bureaucracy. The story features GOLEM XIV’s final communications with humanity in a series of public lectures. This format allows Lem to speculate about the nature of intelligence, its ascending orders, and their possible incommensurability. Though he gleefully mocks them, Lem avoids typical AI-apocalypse scenarios: his AIs are supremely uninterested in controlling humans. Instead, they avidly seek contact with higher intelligences. There are interesting parallels between Lem’s story and Neoplatonic accounts of intelligence as the principle of intrinsic cosmic ordering. Lem’s AI concentrate on a key problem of Greek philosophy and Cartesian dualism: bridging the gap between language and reality, mind and body, knowing and being. GOLEM XIV discusses the boundary between epistemic and ontic, insisting that the ‘proper’ use of intelligence can overcome this barrier at a point where knowledge engenders being. I survey relevant aspects of Neoplatonism as I explore GOLEM’s conjectures about intelligence, and compare these with contemporary views of the same.

Farzad Mahootian is a Clinical Associate Professor at New York University’s Global Liberal Studies program. His academic specialties are philosophy of chemistry, process philosophy, history and philosophy of science, the role of metaphor in science, and science in practice. Recent publications include: the concept of chemical element; intuition in science and math; metaphor and chemistry.

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As the Machine Stops, A Metropolis Begins Jan Sigle E.M. Forster’s “The Machine Stops” (1909) is a Science Fiction short story which depicts humanity living in a compartmentalised underground hive governed by a central machine. Employing the trinary thematic opposition of technology, religion, and evolution, the narrative can be perplexing as it weaves these disparate strands into a poignant Science Fiction tapestry. Comparisons have also been made to Fritz Lang’s film Metropolis (1927), based on Thea von Harbou’s eponymous novel (1925). While “The Machine Stops” overtly describes its society as an insect colony, Metropolis employs similar metaphors and imagery whereby technology inescapably compartmentalises society akin to insect colonies. While “The Machine Stops” features a techno-religion, Metropolis employs magic within its own technologically driven society. The accompanying moral seems to be that technological idolatry can result in technology as being an oppressive force, such that humanity eventually serves machines rather than having machines serve humanity. Without negating such insights, this presentation examines the evolutionary dimensions of these texts more closely, particularly the metaphors of human societies as insect colonies as well as the metaphysical themes. Both narratives seemed to have anticipated certain ideas concerning the sociological dimensions of human evolution that would only be addressed and debated in evolutionary discourses much later. Such an interpretation serves to clarify some of the usages of the human-insect social metaphors and also the techno-religious themes in these texts. Although in both narratives the machine cities experience apocalyptic ends, humanity survives, and each text imparts its own moral for future generations of humanity. In the twenty-first-century, these lessons only grow more pertinent.

Jan Sigle is a PhD student at Leiden University in the Netherlands. His dissertation examines the theme of altruism and the theory of evolution as portrayed in early Science Fiction robots during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. His interests include critical posthumanism, Science Fiction, and literary Darwinism.

Chair: Imogen Woodberry

Kim Stanley Robinson: Facts, Values, Philosophy Andrew Rowcroft Kim Stanley Robinson has a reputation as one of America’s leading contemporary Science Fiction writers. This reputation is founded on his display of scientific expertise, accuracy, and objectivity; in short, his production of ‘hard’ SF narratives. Despite this, Robinson’s fiction grants significant space to the nature of human consciousness and the possibility of spiritual existence, often juxtaposing empirical facts with mysticism, religion, and the experience of self-transcendence. This paper will examine the close critical relations between Robinson’s presentation of science and the sublime in his award-winning Mars Trilogy (1992-96). Specifically, the paper argues that Mars features a unique approach to the problem of this conference (the notion of a ‘Sublime Cognition’). Robinson’s trilogy features a specific kind of problem-solving that is distinct from other traditions of moral philosophy and Science Fiction writing. To paraphrase Fredric Jameson, in approaching a specific problem, Robinson begins by enumerating its elements, its ironies, contradictions, and its complexities; confronting other theories and exploring their antinomies, before turning the problem into a solution which then becomes a starting point for new research. In blending facts and values, science and the sublime, Robinson affirms a science of morality that this paper will argue is essential for human flourishing and wellbeing in the twenty-first-century.

Andrew Rowcroft has recently submitted his PhD in English at the University of Lincoln. His doctorate locates contemporary British and American fiction in relation to Marxist literary criticism, identifying five authors (Jonathan Lethem, Dana Spiotta, China Miéville, Thomas Pynchon, and Kim Stanley Robinson) who demonstrate a willingness to forge new, open, and plural dialogues with Marx.

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The Boundaries of Cognition

“Only the Truly Divine Deny Their Divinity”: The Problem of ‘Religion’ within the Black Library’s Horus Heresy Series Chris Hussey The Black Library’s Horus Heresy series charts the events leading to Games Workshop’s current Warhammer 40,000 setting, exploring the key conflicts and characters in the 31 millennium that were the catalyst for a son’s rebellion against his father, and that started a war that tore the galaxy apart. Whilst there were malign influences at work serving to undermine the quest to conquer the stars for humanity, one of the key reasons for the ultimate schism between brothers was the denial of the Emperor’s (or to some, God-Emperor’s) divinity. Held in reverence for his power, often perceived as supernatural or psychic in nature, the Emperor’s refutation of his perceived Godhood and banning of worship in an entirely secular manner contributed to a galactic civil war, as many worshipped him all the more for his denial. Yet others turned to fouler gods... st

This paper considers the portrayal of religious belief within the Horus Heresy setting, looking at the importance of faith (or lack thereof) within the series, and the inherent challenges of belief in something that appears to be mythological or unknowable in nature, particularly within a fantastic setting. With aspects of the religious portrayal channeled through Judeo-Christian belief and allegory (amongst others), it may resonate for a reader when removed from a realist contemporary setting, to suggest possible futures and prospective challenges. It furthermore contemplates how religion may be problematised, from the perspective of believer and non-believer alike, particularly for those that may be questioning the nature of religion itself in an uncaring universe riven by war and strife. This paper will consider religion’s relative importance within the setting, assess the impact of religious belief, and conclude with the implications for the setting’s inhabitants and how this may be perceived and interpreted by the reader.

Chris Hussey is in the fifth year of his part-time PhD at the University of Cambridge, exploring real and literary place in children’s literature. His research interests focus on aspects of space, place, and identity in both realist and fantastic texts.

Chair: YEN OOI

Is Buddhism the Religion it’s Okay for Science Fiction to Like?

Jim Clarke Science Fiction has a lengthy history of irreligion. In part, this relates to its titular association with science itself, which as both methodology and ontological basis, veers away from revelatory forms of knowledge in order to formulate hypotheses of reality based upon experimental praxis. Equally, SF as a genre emerged in part from a tradition of anti-religion in general (and anti-Catholicism in particular) which had been a trait within Anglophone Fantastikal literature since before the Gothic period. In recent decades, while SF’s attachment to the scientific method has not waned, religion as a cultural practice has begun to be rehabilitated within the genre, sometimes iterated as alien faiths, and on other occasions as a form of multicultural signification. However, during SF’s long antipathy to faith, Buddhism has occupied a unique and sustained position within the genre. This paper seeks to chart an outline map of SF’s engagement with Buddhism, from Sam, the Buddhist messiah in Roger Zelazny’s Lord of Light (1967), via the crypto-Buddhism of Arthur C. Clarke, to the outbreak of reincarnated Buddhist artificial intelligences in works by authors including Dan Simmons, Paolo Bacigalupi, and Lavie Tidhar. As bodies and bardos begin to become effaced in a transhumanism with distinctly Buddhist traits, the question arises whether SF is entering an ontology envisaged by Clarke in his Childhood’s End novel (1953), where only Buddhism remained after the eradication of all other religions. Or, to put it another way, is Buddhism the religion it’s okay for SF to like?

Jim Clarke is senior lecturer in English and Journalism at Coventry University. He is the author of The Aesthetics of Anthony Burgess (Palgrave 2017) and Science Fiction and Catholicism (Gylphi, forthcoming). He is neither Buddhist nor Catholic, but believes our universe is a simulation.

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Refracted Utopias

Intelligent Design: Creation and Reproduction in Feminist Science Fiction Katie Stone In Metamorphoses of Science Fiction (1979) Darko Suvin describes the myth of the garden of Eden, drawn from Genesis, as a proto-science fictional text. Indeed the notion that creators of science fictional worlds are involved in a quasi-divine act is widespread. From Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus (1818) to the recent reboot of the television series Westworld (2016-18), SF is filled with men of science who, acting as surrogates, as it were, for the author, attempt to become as gods by creating new life. I use the term ‘men’ advisedly here because this is often explicitly a masculine form of creation, a form utterly divorced from the messy complications of female biology. In this paper I will interrogate this trend within SF and argue that feminist science fiction of the 1970s, with its interest in reproductive technologies, queer sexualities and split subjectivities, offers an alternative model of creation. By examining the ways in which James Tiptree Jr., for example, constructs ‘artificial’ life in such stories as “The Girl Who Was Plugged In” (1973), I will demonstrate that a collaborative and compromising mode of science fictional creation which does not pretend to godhood is possible and in fact that such a mode is more appropriate to a genre which, as Donna Haraway has convincingly argued, is centrally occupied with the continual regenerations of what she calls the cyborg. My argument is not that there is no space for divinity within feminist SF, although as Haraway has put it: “I would rather be a cyborg than a goddess” (A Cyborg Manifesto, 1984). Rather, just as Haraway replaced Eve with Malinche, the indigenous mother of the ‘new world,’ and Octavia Butler prefers Lilith, Adam’s apocryphal first wife who was thrown from Eden, to Eve, I intend to replace the notion of the SF author as singular, omniscient creator with a multiplicitous pantheon of conflicting figures drawn from the writing of Tiptree and Butler, among others, who variously help and hinder the birth of the, never truly new, science fictional worlds of feminist SF. Katie Stone is a doctoral candidate working in the English and Humanities department at Birkbeck, University of London. Her thesis is entitled “Children are the Future: Utopia and the Child in Science Fiction and its Criticism.” Katie is the recipient of the Birkbeck Postgraduate Scholarship and lead organiser of the recent “Utopian Acts” conference.

Chair: hallvard haug

Glass Mysticism in Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We

Luke Jones Read for its conventional cognitive value as mise-en-scene, the glass city of OneState in Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We (1924) reflects the novel’s totalitarian fantasy of social uniformity and dystopian total surveillance. However, the unfolding narrative reveals a more ambiguous lens, through which the contradictions of the protagonist D-503 are magnified and brought to crisis. The glass city is simultaneously a transparent hive, apotheosis of Taylorist processes of ‘optimisation,’ and a vast prismatic crystal, focussing sublime light onto the narrator’s incipient romantic sensibility. The dual nature of glass mirrors a broader avant-garde fissure in art and architecture. For functionalists, its value consisted in neutrality, efficient transparency and the ‘hygienic’ transmission of sunlight into interiors. But for an earlier ‘activist’ tendency (particularly in Germany) its capacity for colour-shifting, lensing, and refraction were spurs to a re-enchantment of the quotidian and an intensification of mystical experience. This paper explores two key elements of Zamyatin’s glass city — the prismatic geometric blocks of the city itself, and the encircling ‘green wall’ that surrounds it — considering glass rationalism and mysticism, and their relationship to utopian planning as a process of metaphysical ordering.

Luke Jones is an architect and a senior lecturer at the Cass School of Art, Architecture and Design. He is co-author of Square Eyes, a graphic novel (Cape, October 2018).


cognition and the sublime

Rhodri Davies Eli Lee Aren Roukema Katie Stone

Theme: SF is an aesthetic mode which pursues episteme (abstract understanding) by means of techne (concrete, material/practical knowledge). Its distinctive form of representation and communication is its use of technologies and technological ideas as enframing principles; its worlds are fundamentally defined by their relationship (or lack thereof) with the sciences. And yet, since its inception SF has always borne the trace of the numinous, of types of experience and phenomena which elude, exceed, or invalidate currently available materialist forms of knowing. Our choice of title for this conference both contains this dichotomy – sublime/metaphysical vs. material/secular (Suvinian cognition standing in for the latter) – and implicitly seeks to challenge it by proposing a relationship between these supposed opposites. Format: The discussion will consist of two parts. Our panelists – Rhodri Davies and Aren Roukema of the “Sublime Cognition” conference committee, Eli Lee of minor literature[s] and Strange Horizons, and Katie Stone of “Utopian Acts” – will give short (2-5 mins) responses to the conference theme, in which they propose, speculate upon, and question particular aspects of the cognition/ sublime pairing. Then, the floor will open for responses, references, theories, counter-arguments, and questions. Discussion will proceed via a hands-up system (although on occasion panelists may be permitted to queue skip), so as to allow for multiple conversations to unfold in tandem. It is our intention that the session forms an open space of creative, egalitarian, multipolar exchange, a space in which the thematics of “Sublime Cognition” are explored, contested, and allowed to breathe.

moderated by Francis Gene-Rowe

Rhodri Davies is a doctoral candidate at Birkbeck, University of London, and co-founder and Co-Director of the London Science Fiction Research Community. His research focuses on Science Fiction-based New Religious Movements in post-war America and he was recently awarded an R.D. Mullen Fellowship to undertake archival research at the Eaton Collection at UC Riverside. Francis Gene-Rowe is a doctoral candidate at Royal Holloway, University of London. His PhD research explores the relationship between Romanticism and Science Fiction, with a particular focus on the work of William Blake and Philip K. Dick. He co-directs the London Science Fiction Research Community (LSFRC), and co-edits Fantastika Journal. He was the recipient of the 2017 Science Fiction Research Association (SFRA) Best Student Paper Award. Eli Lee is fiction editor at the literary journal Minor Literatures and an articles editor at SF&F magazine Strange Horizons, where she recently wrote a tribute to Ursula Le Guin. She has a degree in English Literature from Oxford University and a Masters in Political Theory from University College London. Her work focuses on twentieth and twenty-first-century Science Fiction and women’s writing, and she is currently completing her debut novel. Aren Roukema is an SSHRC doctoral fellow at Birkbeck. He is Editor of Correspondences: Journal for the Study of Esotericism, and Co-Director of LSFRC. Recent publications include Esotericism and Narrative: The Occult Fiction of Charles Williams (Brill, 2018) and “Naturalists in Ghost Land: Victorian Occultism and Science Fiction,” in The Occult Imagination in Britain: 18751947 (Routledge, 2018). Katie Stone is a doctoral candidate working in the English and Humanities department at Birkbeck, University of London. Her thesis is entitled “Children are the Future: Utopia and the Child in Science Fiction and its Criticism.” Katie is the recipient of the Birkbeck Postgraduate Scholarship, Co-Director of LSFRC, and lead organiser of the recent “Utopian Acts” conference.

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What Speculative Fiction can Offer the Philosophy of Religion

Helen De Cruz

This paper will examine how speculative fiction can shed light on questions that are specific to the philosophy of religion. Philosophy of religion deals with living traditions that already have strong narrative elements (for a philosophical analysis see e.g. Stump, Wandering in Darkness, 2010). Philosophers of religion frequently use stories, such as The Brothers Karamazov (1880), in their teaching of the problem of evil and other topics. I will here examine what sorts of philosophical insights philosophers can gain from speculative fiction. My hypothesis is that long-form stories (beyond the format of the brief thought experiment) help us obtain philosophical insights that we cannot get through more standard philosophical forms of writing. I focus on three examples of fantasy fiction, which are all concerned with the various aspects of the problem of divine hiddenness. Ted Chiang’s “Hell is Absence of God” (2001), Hud Hudson’s A Grotesque in the Garden (2017), and Robert Heinlein’s Job: A Comedy of Justice (1984). I will analyse how these works can provide new philosophical insights: by providing fleshed out what-if scenarios that allow us to suspend disbelief, and by engaging the emotions in a way that philosophical prose rarely accomplishes.

Helen De Cruz is a senior lecturer in philosophy at Oxford Brookes University. She has specializations in philosophy of religion, philosophy of cognitive science, and experimental philosophy. Recent books include Religious Disagreement (forthcoming with CUP) and A Natural History of Natural Theology (MIT Press, 2015). Together with Eric Schwitzgebel and Johan De Smedt she is editing Philosophy through Science Fiction Stories for Bloomsbury, to appear in 2019.

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Chair: amy butt

Astral Spaces

Star Maker and the Extraterrestrial Mysticism of John C. Lilly Thore Bjørnvig Neuroscientist John C. Lilly (1915-2001) was a daring, maverick researcher and writer who moved from rigorous, scientific experimentation to the exploration of mystic inner realms – and back again. Along this wild, erratic trajectory, Science Fiction and communication with non-human and extraterrestrial intelligence played a pivotal role. In the 1950s, Lilly began experimenting with communicating with dolphins, and soon suggested that the results might serve as learning material for communicating with extraterrestrial intelligence. As a consequence, in 1961 he was invited to the first scientific conference on the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence. A few months before, Lilly published Man and Dolphin in which he wrote: “The nonterrestrial, interplanetary and astral sciences, the so-called space sciences, will benefit from our having established contact here on earth with alien creatures that had an evolutionary development separate from ours in another kind of environment.” Ten years later, in The Eye of the Cyclone (1971) he disclosed that he himself, by means of sensory deprivation tanks and LSD, had traversed the universe and had numerous encounters with extraterrestrial creatures and civilizations. Among the suggested “further reading” for The Eye of the Cyclone was Olaf Stapledon’s (1886-1950) Star Maker (1937). Lilly’s The Scientist: A Metaphysical Autobiography (1988) begins with the creation of the universe by the “Star Maker” and throughout, Lilly portrays himself as an extraterrestrial, or as being controlled by extraterrestrials. By exploring the interconnections between Stapledon’s metaphysical brand of Science Fiction and the extraterrestrial themes in Lilly’s autobiography, this paper presents an example of how mystical experiences at the boundaries of science have been framed by science fictional narratives. This in turn sheds light on the interdependence of inner and outer spaces in Science Fiction. Thore Bjørnvig has an MA in the history of religions from the University of Copenhagen. His research focuses on the connections between space flight and the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence on the one hand, and religion and mythology on the other. He has published various articles on these subjects and co-edited a special issue of Astropolitics on spaceflight and religion (2013). Recent publications are “In Mars We Trust” in Lukas Feiress and Michael Najjar (eds.), Planetary Echoes: Exploring the Implications of Human Settlement in Outer Space (Leipzig: Spector Books, 2018), and “Building Outer Space: LEGO and the Conquest of the Beyond in the 1970s” in a volume edited by Alexander CT Geppert, Limiting Outer Space: Astroculture After Apollo (Macmillan, forthcoming 2018).

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Experiences of Alterity in Jonathan Lethem’s Girl in Landscape Joseph Brooker Jonathan Lethem’s fourth novel Girl in Landscape (1998) is a Science Fiction narrative which describes the fortunes of the Marsh family as they leave Earth and resettle on the distant Planet of the Archbuilders. The novel centres especially on 13-year-old Pella Marsh, whose exploration of the often desolate new planet corresponds with her experience of adolescence. The context of ‘sublime cognition’ is peculiarly appropriate to this text, where the encounter with an alien environment requires not only the alteration of conventional assumptions, but radically different experiences of the body and subjectivity. Pella finds herself in an out-of-body, or re-embodied, experience as her consciousness roams to the tiny animals roaming the planet. Dreamlike experiences make the truth of the narrative uncertain. Meanwhile the alien inhabitants of the planet, the Archbuilders, offer their own form of strangeness, in bodies that do not fit conveniently into narrative description, speech patterns that play upon the potentialities of English, and mysterious ancient architecture and lore. Much remains unclear to the end in this novel, which could be said to privilege a drifting ‘estrangement’ over any clarity of ‘cognition.’ This paper aims to describe these features of the novel and explore it as a case of quasi-metaphysical Science Fiction. While the novel is not especially interested in organised religion, it depicts experiences verging on the mystical – while just about retaining the implicit alibi of a materialist explanatory framework. The novel hovers enigmatically at the border of the scientific and the metaphysical, rather as Lethem’s fiction at the time sought to traverse a border between Science Fiction and the literary novel. Dr Joseph Brooker is Reader in Modern Literature at Birkbeck, University of London. He is the author of Joyce’s Critics (2004), Flann O’Brien (2005), and Literature of the 1980s (2010), and co-editor of special issues of New Formations, Journal of Law & Society, Textual Practice, Critical Quarterly.

Chair: amy butt

Evolutionary Metaphysics in the Eighteenth-Century Roman Scientifique Brian Stableford The diplomat and geologist Benoît de Maillet (1656-1738) left the manuscript of the philosophical novel Telliamed (1748) unpublished at his death, the central thesis of which proposed that much of the Earth’s present land surface had once been submerged and that species of land animals had evolved from sea creatures as the land was gradually elevated, by means of a process of serial metamorphosis. A heavily censored version was published, illicitly, in 1748 and followed by two slightly expanded editions in 1749 and 1753, although the full text was not published until 1968. The evolutionary thesis, combined with further inspiration obtained from the Comte de Buffon’s Histoire naturelle (1749-88), was taken up and extravagantly dramatised and illustrated by Nicolas Restif de La Bretonne in La découverte australe par un homme-volant (1781; translated as The Discovery of the Austral Continent by a Flying Man), similarly published illegally and at some risk to the author, royal prerogatives for licit publication being impossible to obtain for anything suggestive of religious heresy. Restif expanded the thesis further, on a cosmic scale, in the novel Les Posthumes (written 1786-89; expanded 1796; published 1802; translated as Posthumous Correspondence) and the second volume of La Philosophie de Monsieur Nicolas (1796), in which the account of metamorphic evolution is applied not merely to biological species but to the imagined life cycles of planets, stars, and universes. The thesis makes an interesting comparison with contemporary Creationist models of cosmic palingenesis dramatised in (similarly illicit) works of fiction by the Chevalier de Béthune, Charles-François Tiphaigne de la Roche and Louis-Sébastien Mercier, which offer different but not unconnected accounts of metaphysical progress on individual, planetary, and universal scales.

Brian Stableford has authored a number of critical studies of Science Fiction, including Scientific Romance in Britain, 1890-1950 (1985) and a substantially updated version of this work, The New Atlantis: A Narrative History of the Scientific Romance (2016). Stableford has also authored more than 70 novels of genre fiction. More recently, he has also produced translations of a large number of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century French texts, many of them romans scientifiques.

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physical fringes

The Image as Blindness and as Message in Connie Willis’ The Passage Amanda Pavani In some classics within the genre of Science Fiction, description and pictorial resources in narrative seem to suggest a relationship of illustration; that is, literary images illustrate the so-called advancement of a given society. Some contemporary works of SF explore diverse relations that the genre can establish with the concept of image. This paper will address the specific case of Connie Willis’ The Passage, published in 2001. Most publications on Willis’ oeuvre encompass only reviews and interviews, with little or no academic research. Two sets of images are predominant in The Passage: Dr. Wright’s brain scans and the unifying image of the Titanic. There will be a discussion on images of disasters throughout plot development, based on Philippe DuBois’ commentary in his work, “Photographic Act” (1983), regarding photography as a psychic element both for approaching the ideas of distance and memory. In addition, Georges Didi-Huberman’s The Surviving Image (2002) contributes to the discussion with his idea of “knowing without seeing or seeing without knowing” (186), an essential notion to the research process portrayed in the novel: cognitive psychologist Joanna Lander and neurologist Richard Wright’s attempts to understand the processes undergone by the brain during near death experiences. They are faced with information that, despite exposed in the form of scans, cannot be understood and, on the other hand, as Joanna herself becomes a subject in their experiment, her unsettling experience in the sinking Titanic leads her toward a knowledge that cannot be explicated. Both sets of images are never complete; they contribute and they unsettle the scientific process, as the researcher becomes the subject and knowledge is never complete. The novel exposes daily routines in experimental science as interspaced with personal conflicts and the survival of disaster images as processes of metaphysical self-awareness. Amanda Pavani is a researcher at the Federal University of Minas Gerais. She is a doctorate student of Literary Studies, with an M.A. in the same area, editor of literary journal Em Tese, co-founder of NEUFIC (Research group on utopianisms and SF at UFMG). Her research relates to contemporary SF and Baudrillard’s simulacrum.

Chair: paul march-russell

‘Landscapes of the Mind’: Anti-Psychiatry and New Wave SF

Rob Mayo J.G. Ballard’s famous suggestion that a contemporary author amid “the more serious fringe of science fiction [...] has a marked tendency to select images and ideas which directly reflect the internal landscapes of his[/her] mind” [emphasis mine] highlights a sea change in contemporary SF. Although space travel and the discovery of exotic new races were still vital themes – most notably, perhaps, in Ursula K. Le Guin’s then-developing Hainish cycle – Ballard’s exhortation that “it is inner space, not outer, that need[s] to be explored” is reflected in the typically earth-bound stories of the SF ‘new wave.’ Thus, one might argue, a ‘sublime’ impulse of the Golden Age is lost, or at least on the wane, in the latter half of the twentieth-century; authors such as Samuel R. Delany, Thomas M. Disch, and Harlan Ellison appear to turn toward the Ballardian ‘inner space,’ rejecting the transcendent possibilities of the cosmos. On the contrary, however, SF explorations of the human psyche have often been concerned not so much with the metaphysical question of ‘what is there?’, but with what one might call a speculative metaphysic – ‘what could there be?’. From Theodore Sturgeon’s depiction of the ‘gestalt’ consciousness to Ted Chiang’s and Alan Glynn’s explorations of the potential uses of psychotropic medications, SF has long sought to look beyond the horizons of cognitive science, and to imagine a ‘More Than Human’ mind. This paper is proposed as a first step in a larger project exploring the conceptualisation of dysphoria, mental disorder, and psychotherapy in SF. I take as my primary focus here two texts which may be considered precursors to the new wave: Clans of the Alphane Moon (1964) by Philip K. Dick and Flowers for Algernon (1966) by Daniel Keyes. My paper will demonstrate the literary strategies employed by each text in its depiction of psychotherapy, and consider them in the context of contemporary developments in (anti)psychiatry and cognitive psychology. Rob Mayo completed his PhD on the conceptualisation and depiction of depression and other dysphoric conditions in the fiction of David Foster Wallace at the University of Bristol in 2017. He has also written on Twin Peaks (forthcoming this year) and has previously presented research on millennial cinema and videogames.

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“For God’s sake, Where is God?” Evil, The Holocaust, and Fantastic Fiction Glyn Morgan The Holocaust is to postmodern philosophers as the Lisbon earthquake was to those in the eighteenth-century: an event so cataclysmic it defies rationalisation and refuses the capacity for a divine force, or at least a benign God. Much ink has already been spilled exploring the implications of the Holocaust for Judeo-Christian thought and Western culture in philosophy and realist fiction. This paper will seek to revisit a small amount of that body of work and analyse the effects of texts which introduce the Holocaust to the fantastic, bringing magic and inscrutable forces back into the realm from which they had previously been expelled. Drawing on C.S. Forester’s story “The Wandering Gentile” (1954), in which Adolf Hitler is doomed to wander the earth forever, Lisa Goldstein’s The Red Magician (1982) in which a Rabbi duels with a magician, and several other texts of spirits, golem, curses, and magics, this paper will ultimately seek to show that the traumatic caesura, the blank spaces of silence so endemic to memory of the Holocaust, actually opens up the constraints of reality in a manner SF&F is particularly well suited to imagine. In a world without God what role is there for evil? If God is evil, what role is there for the us? As this paper will show, far from mapping onto a simplistic good vs. evil narrative, fantastic interventions into the Holocaust more often than not problematise powerful national myths of the Allies as liberators and the Nazis as the epitome of evil. Glyn Morgan is an Honorary Research Fellow at the University of Liverpool, where he did his PhD on the topic of the Holocaust in non-mimetic fiction. He is the co-founder of the annual “CRSF” conference, a former editor of Vector, the critical journal of the BSFA, and organiser of the #SciFiSessions interview series at Waterstones Gower Street in Bloomsbury.

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Chair: katie stone


“My People Call it the Dweller on the Threshold”: Theosophy, Esotericism, and Occulture in David Lynch and Mark Frost’s Twin Peaks Ethan Doyle White One of the most critically acclaimed series in television history, Twin Peaks (199091) combined elements of whodunnit and soap opera with Science Fiction to create an instantly memorable fictional universe. In the narrative gradually constructed by the show’s writers over the course of its original run, Twin Peaks came to juxtapose humanity’s world with a spirit realm. This latter was divided into two halves, the White Lodge and the Black Lodge, one inhabited by benevolent denizens, the latter by their maleficent counterparts. Many of these elements were retained and in some cases built upon in the subsequent cinematic prequel Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (1992) and small screen continuation, Twin Peaks: The Return (2017). Many of these ‘supernatural’ or Science Fiction elements display a clear influence from forms of occultism, specifically from the Theosophical movement of Helena Blavatsky and her followers. This is particularly evident through the use of terminology, with language such as “dweller on the threshold” and “black lodge” arising from within the occult milieu. Other references, such as to Project Blue Book, demonstrate a wider influence from Ufological and ‘paranormal’ beliefs. In this paper, I focus on how theosophical and wider occult elements have been deliberately and consciously used in the construction of the Twin Peaks universe and argue that such borrowing is best understood through the framework of Christopher Partridge’s “occulture.” I also argue that such elements are not the addition of David Lynch, but rather a contribution from his lesser known co-creator, Mark Frost, who has displayed his interest in Theosophy and occultism in other creations, such as his novel The List of 7 (1993).

Ethan Doyle White is a PhD student at University College London. Among his research interests is modern occultism, especially those which are also forms of modern Paganism and Witchcraft. He has published on these subjects in such journals as Folklore, Nova Religio: The Journal of Alternative and Emergent Religion, Journal of Religion in Europe, Correspondences: An Online Journal for the Academic Study of Western Esotericism, The Pomegranate: The International Journal of Pagan Studies, and Magic, Ritual, and Witchcraft. He is also the author of Wicca: History, Belief, and Community in Modern Pagan Witchcraft (Sussex Academic Press, 2016).

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Artificial Spirit: Magic, Technology, and the Alchemical Singularity Hallvard Haug In this paper, I will investigate the deep aesthetic resonance artificial intelligence has with Western occultism, magic, and alchemy by comparing the alchemists’ creation of artificial life, the homunculus, with the impish capacities that are imagined for possible future artificial intelligences. The language of computers and programming has long been infused with that of magic: the capacity for the apparently linguistic construction of programming languages to make words come true has a deep resonance with the magical belief of language’s power to manipulate reality. The computer hacker is often compared to a wizard; the designers of virtual reality environments are like gods. This notion is drawn further in the tradition of technological occultism which flourished in the 1990s to culminate with the articulation of the ‘technological singularity’ by Vernor Vinge and its elaboration by Ray Kurzweil: an evolutionary ideology in which we are bounding towards a computationally driven cosmic ‘awakening.’ In an inversion of Arthur C. Clarke’s ‘Third Law,’ Warren Ellis has stated that the purpose of technology is to make the conditions of magic real. With this in mind, I look at Ellis, Declan Shalvey, and Jordan Bellaire’s ongoing comics series Injection (2015–), in which a computational homunculus is released into the world, causing unintended havoc. Hallvard Haug is a research fellow in the Department of English and Humanities at Birkbeck, University of London. His research is concerned with the intersection of culture and science, with an emphasis on human enhancement technologies.

Chair: katie stone

Technologies of Enchantment in Saga Dan Byrne-Smith The ongoing Science Fiction comic Saga (2012–), written by Brian K. Vaughan and drawn by Fiona Staples, makes use of space opera tropes but employs diversity and vividly composed interactions between characters, addressing themes of ethics and compassion against a backdrop of a war between worlds. The Science Fiction context of Saga as a form of space opera is complicated by the presence of magic and the supernatural, often leading to Saga being described as sci-fi/ fantasy. However, Saga can be read as Science Fiction that comfortably accommodates these elements, primarily by regarding them as technologies or as nature, rather than as straightforwardly supernatural. Magic is bound by rules, especially that of its cost, inadvertently evoking Georges Bataille’s theories of sacrifice. Saga resonates with apparently unconnected returns of enchantment, belief, and religiosity that can be identified in other forms of cultural practice, particularly contemporary art. In this context, these forces can be read as ways to destabilise the present and to reconfigure histories. Might it be possible to establish Saga’s use of enchantment in critical terms? Theorising magic and the supernatural in Saga opens up relationships to anthropological theories of technologies of enchantment, or enchantment as technology. There are also connections to Marina Warner’s interest in the persistence of magic within modernity and to Rosi Braidotti’s ideas for configurations of posthumanism that might embody a sense of re-enchantment. Saga opens up possibilities for rethinking critical relationships between magic, the supernatural, enchantment, and modernity in Science Fiction.

Dr Dan Byrne-Smith is Senior Lecturer in Fine Art Theory at Chelsea College of Arts, UAL. He is the author of Traces of Modernity (2012) and is currently the Horniman Museum Art, Design and Natural History Fellow.

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The unreality of reality: Looking for a metaphysical basis for fantastical SF in the Buddhist canon Llew Watkins In Buddhism the two philosophical extremes not to get caught up in are materialism and nihilism. Both of these are considered to be conceptual fabrications that obscure a true apprehension of reality. To further complicate things, the great second century Buddhist philosopher Nagarjuna said: “The wise should not dwell in the middle either.” SF has often, but not always, taken dominant cultural views such as materialism or nihilism as its unquestioned foundation. I would like to identify some SF tropes that are more in harmony with the Buddhist philosophical view of an ungraspable yet profoundly vivid reality. I would like to come at this from two angles. Firstly from the point of view of the richness of Buddhist cosmology, and secondly from the point of view of the ungraspable nature of Buddhist ontology. My hope is that this will provide two ways of circling around the same thing. The Avatamsaka Sutra presents one important view of Buddhist cosmology. The classic translation by Cleary, at over fifteen hundred pages long, unfolds a radical, dramatic, and powerful presentation of infinite worlds. Although not a direct influence on Science Fiction, this understanding of an inconceivably vast universe has much in common with the recurrent backdrop in SF of the multiverse, parallel universes, or multiple realities. In Buddhism this multiplicity of worlds are crucially only possible because they are simultaneously unreal or without fundamental existence. Two authors who have taken as their subject matter this sense of an ungraspable reality are Jorge Luis Borges (for example “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius,” 1940) and M. John Harrison in his Viriconium series (1971-84). Looking at these texts in particular, I hope that an exploration of the Buddhist understanding of reality can reinvigorate some of the ongoing metaphysical concerns that SF has grappled with.

Llew Watkins is a sculptor and writer based in Limehouse, London. He has been a Buddhist practitioner for 15 years within the Kagyu and Nyingma lineages of Tibetan Buddhism and under the guidance of his teachers he completed two and a half years of solitary meditation retreats in India and Wales. In May 2018 he finished a six month sculpture residency at Growing Underground, a suitably futuristic farm 100 feet underground in Clapham, London.

Chair: tony keen

Aldous Huxley: Mysticism, Cosmic Consciousness and Group Fellowship

Imogen Woodberry This paper examines the influence of mysticism on Aldous Huxley’s understanding of the psyche in his writings from the 1930s. The early years of the decade saw Huxley take a strong interest in Eastern religion, particularly the doctrines of the Vedanta. The notion of the union of being in the Brahman converged with his reading on theories of psychic phenomena, particularly as articulated by F.W.H. Myers, and Gerald Heard’s concept of the evolution of consciousness to produce in him the conviction that humankind had access to a higher level of being that was creative, beneficent, and interconnected. While largely existing as a latent sensibility, he argued that it was one that was capable of access and cultivation, primarily by means of religious practice and ritual. By examining both his literary and political writings it will be argued that this understanding of consciousness was integral to his thought on the need for, and the means of, restructuring of society. Focus will be placed on the idea of achieving social stability in Brave New World (1932) by means of raising levels of consciousness through methods such as the solidarity services. The importance of group cultivation of heightened states will be traced in terms of his spiritual practice (his participation in Heard’s group meditations) and his advocacy of its use as a strategy to prevent war in his pacifist works, “What are you going to do about it?” (1936) and “Ends and Means” (1937). Huxley’s theories provide both a crucial example of the way in which a strand of thought on consciousness that straddled the boundary between scientific and more deviant systems of thought had intellectual currency within the period.

Imogen Woodberry is completing an AHRC funded PhD at the Royal College of Art, tracing the intersection of alternative spirituality and internationalism in art and literature of the interwar era. She has an MA in Art History from the Courtauld Institute of Art and a BA degree in Theology from Oxford.

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Death Isn’t Final: Science Fiction Tropes from Imperialist China Yen Ooi Imperial China was a period that produced an abundance of art and culture, so much so that “to study China as a producer of truly beautiful things [...] one needed to go back to its grand imperial past” (Rey Chow, “Guest Column: Framing the Original: Toward a New Visibility of the Orient,” PMLA, Vol. 126, No. 3, May 2011). Fiction from China is couched in metaphors and indirect language, where its own language is soaking with symbols, and fuels the development of beautiful literature, while encouraging an array of interpretations. When we study Science Fiction today, especially in English, it is easy for us to get pulled only into the world of postcolonial and subaltern studies. In Western literature, we readily acknowledge influences from popular legends and stories from the Greek tragedies or the Norse Gods. However, despite clear oriental influences in modern Science Fiction (often critiqued through techno-orientalism), Chinese popular legends and stories are rarely seen as influences. Using the legendary Imperialist Chinese story, “Butterfly Lovers,” my presentation will seek to outline three core Chinese beliefs that have become popular tropes in Western Science Fiction today: reincarnation, metamorphosis, and transferable consciousness. These post-death concepts stem from Chinese metaphysical beliefs, which, according to Yan Wu, are linked to “Confucian ethics, Taoist mysticism, and Buddhist reincarnation” – the building blocks of Science Fiction texts from China written during the Cultural Revolution. Yen Ooi is currently a PhD student at Royal Holloway, University of London. She is researching and writing Chinese Science Fiction, mainly in short stories. She is interested in the development of Chinese Science Fiction as a genre, its influences and journey into popularity, while focusing the discourses between its native and diasporic voices.

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Chair: Chris Hussey


Terence Sawyers and Carrie Gooding The dominant thrust of Philip K. Dick scholarship has contextualised him as belonging to the wave of “post–” writers that emerged in the post-World War 2 period, especially postmodernism. However, alongside this has been a persistent alternative context for Dick and his writing, one driven by key figures in the Dickian critical community and involving a shift in focus away from the 1960s novels and toward the 1970s novels and the exegetical writings. Within this alternative context, Dick’s writing is treated as sacred and urgent, the consequence of divine revelation. Dick provides a metaphysical guidebook for escaping our current state of ignorance, if only we could understand it: the sleeper must awaken! Our panel/paper will explore Dick’s metaphysical theories, attempting to offer an insight into the epistemological and ontological methodologies that Dick presents us with. In other words, what happens when we stop using Dick’s scenarios as a convenient way to introduce and explore established philosophical avenues (Dick and philosophy) and start to treat him seriously as a philosopher by interrogating his thinking directly (Dick as philosophy). Alongside this, we will outline the history of this parallel development within Philip K. Dick studies, indicating how this mode of enquiry has moved from an obsessive concern of niche Dick fans (converts? disciples?) to form a growing part of the academic and critical engagement with Dick’s work. Carrie Gooding is a reader, writer, and thinker currently based in Bournemouth. She has a BA in Creative Writing and Philosophy and an MA in English Literature. She has presented at both “Philip K. Dick Day” 2017 and 2018 with the respective papers “Looking for God in the Fiction and Exegesis of Philip K. Dick” and “PKD, DNA and the VALIS Ex Machina.” She is working on a PhD precis that develops her research on Philip K. Dick and will be part of the organising team for “Philip K. Dick Day” 2019. Terence Sawyers is a PhD student at Queen Margaret University, Edinburgh. His research is focused on the adaptations of Philip K. Dick; specifically, the way that the term Dickian is utilised and contested by competing groups and within different spheres of cultural activity. He is co-organiser of the “Philip K. Dick Day” annual conference. Research interests include: adaptation studies, meme theory, Deleuzian rhizomes and mapping, Philip K. Dick, and conspiracy theory.

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“Techno-Narco-Mysticism”: Mystical Stretcher-Bearers, Gnostic Consultancies, and Cosmologies of the Algorithmic in Matthew de Abaitua’s The Red Men and If Then Tom Kewin Within Matthew de Abaitua’s The Red Men (2007), there is a significant bargain underlying the relationship between the gnostic ideology of Hermes Spence and the technological practices of Monad. Hermes Spence, the visionary founder of the multinational tech-conglomerate Monad, attributes to technology an almost alchemical power and mystique, the likes of which leads Spence to install his gnostic ideas onto a model of the universe including Ezekiel Cantor, an emergent machine intelligence. Monad’s experimentation culminates in the “Redtown” project: the simulation of the entire town of Maghull, an undertaking with the intended outcome of “Cantor show[ing] us an order,” of a quantifiable, model village beyond the vulgarity of the material in which a form of divinity can be accessed. Not entirely dissimilar in its concern for the fulfilment of mystical yearnings is de Abaitua’s If Then (2015), which concerns the aftermath of the Seizure, a cataclysmic event resulting in the collapse of English society, in which the citizens of the town of Lewes submit themselves to the Process, a collection of computer algorithms which governs all aspects of the townspeople’s lives. Whilst the Process seems governed by Omega John’s desire to “carry the idea of peace into the population,” Omega John’s “trench mysticism” regards the resurgence of the Great War – via re-enactments of the battle of Suvla Bay – as delivering the human species to its moral conclusion. As such, this paper seeks to reflect on the convergence of technological and mystical forces within The Red Men and If Then, reflected on by de Abaitua as a form of “technoarco-mysticism,” and clearly evident in the various cosmologies being interpenetrated by algorithmic forces – whether the Heraclitean image of fire (in the “red men” or “Redtown”) or Pierre Teilhard de Chardin’s “Omega Point.” Tom Kewin is a doctoral student researching speculative fiction in the Department of English at the University of Liverpool. Tom is currently embarking on a research project which concerns posthumanism and the different ways in which it has been constructed and understood; as such, his thesis concerns the manner in which contemporary British Science Fiction explores narratives implicit to posthumanist theory and likewise challenges certain assumptions within the field. As well as this, Tom has worked extensively with the Widening Participation programme within the University of Liverpool to lead workshops on his research to schoolchildren of various ages, alongside working on the “Being Human” Festival in 2015 and 2016.

Chair: kerry dodd

Performing the Nonhuman: Performance, Transcendence and Science Fiction Theatre

Christos Callow Jr. This paper will look at the nonhuman in Science Fiction theatre and its performance, reflecting on the work of contemporary theatre scholars who discuss Science Fiction and posthuman theatre (such as Louise LePage) alongside twentieth-century theorists who discuss transcendental theatre (Grotowski refers to the “holy actor,” for instance) and how these may relate to theories of transcendence and enlightenment in philosophy. I will examine contemporary plays that engage with these ideas, and specifically the performance of super-, post-, and non- human characters found in Science Fiction theatre. I wish to argue that the notion of exploring the ‘other’ in Science Fiction as well as of transcending the human condition by imagining a posthuman world is relevant to an actor’s quest to perform a fictional identity. Having examined the superhuman ‘other’ in theatre (in plays where the character is alien, god, or posthuman) and the potential superhuman of theatre (the actor, according to the theories mentioned above), I will conclude that the übermensch that certain philosophers have in mind – and which religion may no longer in our increasingly secular world be able to offer – may be found instead in contemporary drama, both as literature and in the praxis of performance itself.

Dr. Christos Callow Jr. is an academic and playwright currently teaching Classical Drama at the University of Chichester. He’s taught at a number of UK universities including Warwick, Leeds, Birkbeck, and Queen Mary. His creative writing PhD thesis explored the concept of Etherotopia, a theory of social and individual perfection. He has founded Talos: the Science Fiction Theatre Festival of London, the “Performing Greece” conference on contemporary Greek theatre, and “Stage the Future,” the first conference on Science Fiction theatre.


moderated by JIM CLARKE


Justina Robson Jeff Noon Fiona Moore

Justina Robson has been a published author of Science Fiction in the UK, US, and translation since 1999. Her novels deal with AI, biotechnology, and transhumanism of various kinds. She has been shortlisted for many awards including the Clarke Award and was also a judge for the Clarke Award on behalf of the Science Fiction Foundation. Her latest book is a fantasy novel, Salvation’s Fire, out now from Rebellion UK. She is writing a sequel to her acclaimed novel Glorious Angels, which is a far future biopunk extravaganza. Her Patreon is Jeff Noon was born in Manchester in 1957. He trained in the visual arts and drama and was active on the post-punk music scene before becoming a playwright, and then a novelist. His novels include Vurt (Arthur C. Clarke Award winner), Pollen, Automated Alice, Nymphomation, Needle in the Groove, Cobralingus, Falling Out Of Cars, Channel SK1N, Mappalujo (with Steve Beard), A Man of Shadows, and a collection of stories called Pixel Juice. He has also won the John W. Campbell Award. He posts fictional “spores” on Twitter at @jeffnoon. His latest novel is The Body Library, published by Angry Robot Press in 2018. Fiona Moore is a writer and academic whose first novel, Driving Ambition, will be published by Bundoran Press in autumn 2018 and whose second, Rabbit in the Moon has recently been acquired by ChiZine Publications. She has written and co-written a number of articles and guidebooks on cult television, including guides to Blake’s Seven, The Prisoner, and Battlestar Galactica. She has also written three stage plays and four audio plays. Her short fiction has appeared in, among others, Interzone, Asimov, On Spec, Unlikely Story, and the award-winning anthology Blood and Water. When not writing, she is a Professor of Business Anthropology at Royal Holloway, University of London. More details, and free content, can be found at


VENUE ADDRESS 43 Gordon Square London WC1H 0DP Lunch It being central London, there is a wealth of eating options. The main nearby eatery clusters are on Tottenham Court Road, Bernard Street/Marchmont Street (including the Brunswick Centre), and to a lesser extent Woburn Place. Friday After the completion of the first day’s schedule, we will be heading to The Fitzroy Tavern (16 Charlotte Street, Fitzrovia, W1T 2LY) for some informal drinks. All are welcome to join! As regards dinner, in addition to well-regarded chain restaurants close by (Wahaca Charlotte Street, Côte Brasserie Charlotte Street, BAO Fitzrovia, Busaba Bloomsbury), we recommend ICCO (pizzeria on Charlotte Street), Bibimbap Charlotte Street (Korean food), PIDE (Turkish flatbread on Charlotte Street), and Benito’s Hat (burrito restaurant on Goodge Street) as tasty and affordable options near to the Fitzroy. Saturday Following the conference’s conclusion, we will proceed to The Crown & Anchor (137 Drummond Street, NW1 2HL) for drinks ahead of the conference dinner at Chutney’s restaurant (124 Drummond Street, NW1 2PA), where we have a 7.30 pm booking.

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Artwork Gloss: Earthy Occlusion, or, The Vault of Beautiful Duration External appearance of terralogy student project #13: composite mythographical (middle Terran, cis-catastrophe) object #7. School of sidereal cultures, ‘Sirius A.’ P.S.T. 62.937. Pictured in the simulationist style (pre-Fomalhautian Revisionism)

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