For the past year, Anna McFarlane has been Research Assistant for the Science Fiction and the Medical Humanities research project at The University of Glasgow. The project is funded by the Wellcome Trust and headed by Dr Gavin Miller, who is Director of the Medical Humanities Research Centre in the School of Critical Studies at the University of Glasgow.
Thanks for taking the time to answer my questions, Anna. According to the website, the aim of the SF and Medical Humanities Research Project is to investigate 'the significance of science fiction for the medical humanities, and is intended to pathfind for a future, large-scale research project.' When you started on the project, you must've thought that SF held great significance for the medical humanities. Has the last year changed or strengthened your viewpoint?
The original application for the funding was by Dr Gavin Miller, who has had interests in science fiction and medicine, particularly psychology, for quite some time now. I only came on board as a research assistant after the bid had been successful, but I did think the possibilities were intriguing. My own PhD argued that the influence of psychological discourses (particularly gestalt psychology) had fundamentally influenced the way that cyberpunk ( a branch of science fiction) described consciousness and subjectivity in the age of the internet, so that was where I saw the most potential. As the project has developed I think the most interesting avenue for me has been the way that the nexus point between science fiction and the medical humanities highlights the increasing science-fictionalisation of our culture in fields as varied as bioethics, disability studies, and political philosophy.
Most people think of science fiction as a genre to categorise certain books, films, games, etc., but the project asserts that it 'gives us a style and substance for our visions of medical progress'. Could you tell us more about the 'technoscientific imaginary'?
Of course! When we talk about the 'technoscientific imaginary' we do so to draw attention to the ways in which technology and science (including medical technoscience) are embedded in cultural understandings. Scientific research is understood in terms of human 'progress', but in reality research is guided by the priorities of funding boards, the economy, and political aims. Scientific innovations are sometimes dependent on popular engagement too; if no one wants to use a certain tool, or have a new enhanced organism released into their environment, then this can have an impact on the direction of science and technology. All of these factors – public engagement, funding, economics, and politics – affect the future of science and in our project we've been exploring how science fiction has an impact on this technoscientific imaginary. Often we see that very good science fiction criticises and complicates the idea of 'progress' and urges us to perform science in a thoughtful and considered way, being mindful of unintended consequences or actively working to think about what kind of futures we want.
The project's activities have included a series of workshops, a concluding conference, a short story competition and a themed special issue of BMJ Medical Humanities. From the variety of speakers at the conference, it seems you've had a strong response from those working in both the humanities and the sciences. What is it like to host a conference with academics covering such a variety of disciplines? Have you seen any striking differences in their approach to the project?
The range of engagement has been great with contributions from medical doctors, historians, literary scholars, and sociologists among others, but despite this wide range of disciplines I think the project has shown us that disciplinary boundaries are secondary to our interactions with science, and particularly with medicine. While only some of our contributors are medical practitioners, all of us have experienced medical treatment and have seen how medicine is, perhaps more obviously than any other branch of science, dependent on the socio-economic milieu in which it exists. This shared experience hasn't resulted in consensus, but there are definitely strong common themes throughout the work we've seen in this area, and we're hoping to bring that out in an edited collection in the near future.
Kazuo Ishiguro's 'Never Let Me Go' is undoubtedly a great novel, one of my personal favourites, set in a dystopian world where people are raised specifically to be organ donors. At the concluding conference, there was a whole panel dedicated to the novel, which also appeared in conversations throughout the day. Do you think there is something about Ishiguro's novel which makes it so appealing to study?
I think the novel offers many different things. When I first read it the style appealed to me, it reminded me of the type of novel I loved in my own schooldays, thick with characterisation and the small pleasures and resentments that build up over years of friendship. You can read it that way, from a nostalgic or realist perspective, and the movement of the story from the school setting to the organ donation narrative perhaps becomes a metaphor for the ways in which childhood ideals are crushed once school finishes and the children must conform to the 'real world'. But then there is the science-fictional reading of the story. The questions that the story raises can be frustrating, since a more seasoned science fiction writer might have spent an entire novel exploring the details of the system and explaining its workings, but these missing details render the text more enigmatic and I think that allows for the diversity of readings we saw at the conference.
A total of 634 short stories were entered for the short story writing competition. Did you see any emerging themes? Was there evidence of stories bring influenced by themes covered in workshops?
The theme of organ transplantation is certainly one that appears regularly throughout our submissions. The saving of one person with the flesh of another – flesh that ultimately becomes a part of the recipient – is certainly one that inspires. Another common theme is the character of the doctor. Is the doctor manipulative, abusing his patients' trust to perform experiments? Is the doctor being controlled by unseen forces to support an exploitative society? These are some of the anxieties that we see coming out in our stories, and you'll be able to read them for yourself very soon; the winning stories will be published in an anthology early next year.
Many times throughout the project, we saw examples of where science fiction has provided a misleading take on a health-related subject. How can SF authors best balance creativity with a commitment to supporting the medical humanities? Is it something you think authors should be consciously aware of when they write?
I don't think it's the job of the science fiction writer to produce an educational or factual account of the subject in question, whether medical or not. But what you do see is that science fiction has a lot of potential to extrapolate from the present, to show us a logical conclusion of our present actions and to highlight the potential misuse or unintended consequences when research (or any human activity) is pursued with an eye only to immediate expedience. I wouldn't presume to tell science fiction writers how they should be doing their craft, I can only say that it's these kinds of thoughtful stories that attract me and I think are shown to be the classics of the genre as time goes by.
The project was funded under Wellcome new Seed Awards Initiative, which 'help researchers develop compelling and innovative ideas that may go on to form part of larger grant applications.' The Wellcome Trust funds 'great ideas' to improve health and supports initiatives in the biomedical sciences, humanities, social science, public engagement and the creative industries. The current funding round for the new Seeds Awards Initiative is on the theme of sexuality and health. Do you have any advice to offer those in the humanities or creative industries looking to apply for funding from Wellcome Trust for their project?
Like any funding body the most important thing you can do is to show how your project will explore the unexplored, argue some innovative points, and create or contribute to new scholarly communities. Specific to the Wellcome Trust, I would just encourage anyone thinking of applying to look at the resources at the Wellcome's library in London which has an excellent collection of medical material and is a wonderful place to do research.
The SF and the Medical Humanities database continues to grow and you're still looking for entries. How long will the database be open for suggestions? And can you tell our readers a little more about how they can contribute to the project?
The idea of the database is to produce a resource for researchers who want to study science fiction in a medical humanities context. The database is searchable and readers can contribute by adding any science fiction text (film, novel, television series, or academic work) that is pertinent to the medical humanities. All you have to do is log in and you can start creating entries and tagging them with helpful keywords. I'm not sure how long the database will be open, but we're hoping that this project will lead on to future activities so hopefully it will be going strong for a while yet.
What's next for you?
My plan is to apply for future funding to continue working on science fiction and the medical humanities while finishing my first monograph; this deals with cyberpunk and psychology, themes that I explored in my PhD, but which I take further in the monograph to show the wider cultural and political impact of cyberpunk's construction of consciousness and artificial intelligence. As far as this project goes, there's still the short story collection and the edited collection to shepherd into publication, so I'll be kept busy whatever happens.
What science fiction have you read or watched recently that you think everyone should know about?
I'm a big fan of the television show Orphan Black (BBC America, currently available on Netflix) which deals with a number of medical issues, including cloning and scientific research funding, while ramping up the tension and showcasing a fantastic performance by its lead, Tatiana Maslany. In the literary world I loved Adam Roberts' most recent novel The Thing Itself which manages to do a science-fictional extrapolation of Emmanuel Kant's philosophy while paying homage to John Carpenter's The Thing. I would also recommend Adam Curtis's new documentary HyperNormalization (currently on the BBC iPlayer) which shows how science fiction influences reality much more than people might realise, a fascinating watch.
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References & Further Reading
- Science Fiction and the Medical Humanities website.
- Follow the project on Twitter.
- Follow Anna on Twitter.
- Wellcome Trust website.
- Ishiguro, Never Let Me Go, Faber and Faber (2005).