ENGL 548: Science Fiction and Planetary Computing

“We’re in a science fiction novel now, which we are cowriting together.”
—Kim Stanley Robinson, “The Realism of Our Times”

A few weeks into Spring 2020’s COVID-19 pandemic, Benjamin Bratton of the Strelka institute released “18 Lessons of Quarantine Urbanism.” Some of the lessons included “an epidemiological view of society” emphasizing the biological relationality over individualistic substance; and “governing model simulations” in which algorithmic surveillance and predictive mathematical models become central to governmental decision-making about pandemics and climate change. Bratton’s comments about the quarantine follow his argument in 2015’s The Stack: On Software and Sovereignty that the Westphalian model of governance, focusing on human beings and social institutions, is being replaced by an “accidental megastructure” composed of ubiquitous computing and the human and non-human accidents it manages and engenders.

Central to Bratton’s argument is what he calls “information realism,” in which the “accident” of computerized visualization allowed for new theories about biological relationality to emerge aligned with the new materialism of Gilles Deleuze and Jane Bennett. This course will explore how science fiction authors are already designing for the future of platform governance, complicating claims that such fiction is simply about representing history. Instead, science fiction speculation helps us to, in Bratton’s words, “design for what comes next, what comes outside, what has already arrived” (289). Meanwhile, the course will also chart how scholars from Elizabeth Povenelli to Amit Rai and Zakiyyah Inman Jackson have provided theoretical models for analyzing algorithmic governance and information realism that compliment the perspectives in Bratton’s work. Povinelli, for instance, demonstrates how Western dichotomies between living and dead matter underwrite land rights legislation. These assumptions undermine indigenous attempts to defend ancestral lands when faced with corporate mining and resource extraction. The Stack will act as the spine for the course, and each of its layers (Earth, Cloud, City, Address, Interface, and User) will be supplemented with readings in contemporary critical theory and science fiction from a variety of authors.

Week 1
Bratton, The Stack: On Software and Sovereignty, “Introduction” and “Nomos of the Cloud”
Alain Liu, “Toward a Diversity Stack: Digital Humanities and Diversity as Technical Problem.” PMLA 135.1 (2020): 130-151.

Week 2
Bratton, The Stack, “Earth Layer”
Elizabeth Povinelli, “Can Rocks Die?” from Geontologies: A Requiem to Late Liberalism

Week 3:
NK Jemisin, The Fifth Season.

Week 4
Kim Stanley Robinson, The Ministry for the Future
Kim Stanley Robinson, “The Coronavirus is Rewriting Our Imaginations”

Week 5
Bratton, The Stack, Cloud Layer
Tero Karppi, “Connect,” from Disconnect: Facebook’s Affective Bonds

Week 6
Bratton, The Stack, City Layer
Jasbir Puar, “ ‘Will Not Let Die’: Debilitation and Inhuman Biopolitics in Palestine.” From The Right to Maim: Debility, Capacity, Disability

Week 7
Chen Quifan, Waste Tide

Week 8
Bratton, The Stack, Address Layer
Melody Jue, “Vampire Squid Media” from Wild Blue Media: Thinking Through Seawater

Week 9
Sue Burke, Semiosis

Week 10
Bratton, The Stack, Interface Layer
Amit Rai, “The Affect of Jugaad: ‘Frugal Innovation’ and the Workaround Ecologies of Postcolonial Practice” from Jugaad Time: Ecologies of Everyday Hacking in India

Week 11
William Gibson, The Peripheral

Week 12
Bratton, The Stack, User Layer
Zakiyyah Inman Jackson, “ ‘Not Our Own’: Sex, Genre, and The Insect Poetics of Octavia Butler’s ‘Bloodchild’ from Becoming Human: Meaning in an Anti-Black World

Week 13
Octavia Butler, “Bloodchild”
Octavia Butler, Dawn

Week 14
Conclusions
Bratton, The Stack, The Black Stack

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