Old Futures: Speculative Fiction and Queer Possibility by Alexis Lothian
Nonfiction, American Studies
Print: 352 Pages
Publisher: NYU Press (2018)
Alexis Lothian’s Old Futures: Speculative Fiction and Queer Possibility thinks through alternative futures found in fiction and media such as film, tv, and the online fan video remixing medium known as vidding. While I want to focus on her last chapter, as I think her discussion of vidding (we’ll get to that) is perhaps of most interest to academics and nonacadmics alike, I want to give a quick overview of breadth of the book.
Old Futures details how speculative futures (futures that involve science fiction or fantasy elements, be they utopic or dystopic) created by early feminists, individuals of the queer community, and people of color often focus on possibilities for these groups. As communities who have historically been denied access to futures, speculative fiction and media allows for the exploration of potential futures where they do have access. What is most useful here is thinking through how mainstream speculative fiction and visual media dreams up futures with traditional reproductive futurity. Or in other words, and as queer scholar Lee Edelman laid out in his critical queer theory text No Future, these futures tend to revolve around either saving the future for the children (as does our present) or paternal reproduction (ditto). A vampire story then, as Lothian illustrates using Jewelle Gomez’s The Gilda Stories, “queers” traditional reproductive futurity because the vampires do not need to have reproductive sex in order to “birth” a new vampire. A vampire can imagine a new future and family simply by “turning” a human into a vampire.
Lothian demonstrates that whether the works she reviews contain queer characters or not, looking at their futures allows us to think through questions such as, What do imagined futures mean for the marginalized populations and individuals that imagine them? and What do these queer futures make possible and what do they exclude?
How to Remix the Future
Lothian’s final chapter, “How to Remix the Future,” introduces vidding, a fan-based audiovisual form which “remixes” a film or films visuals into the form of a music video. She describes this fandom (of which she is a longtime member) as a critical medium that reconstitutes or remixes source materials in new ways to imagine new spaces through new storylines, new character relationships, or new juxtapositions of images. And, of course, by providing a new score to the source material, these images take on new meanings against. Or, as she puts it:
unsuturing video sequences in order to reformulate them according to a sonic temporality appropriated from somewhere else… necessitates a creative and counterintuitive relationship to media flows, regardless of the content of the result (221).
This chapter is great as she not only discusses vidding as a medium ripe for queer theory discussions but she also provides a history of vidding in the process (with kudos to Francesca Coppa’s previous scholarship). We begin with discussion of Kandy Fong’s 1975 fan-made slide show that remixed images of Star Trek‘s Kirk and Spock. One can easily imagine the queer possibilities such splicing opens up. It’s little wonder that this pairing remains quite the fan favorite in slash fanfiction.
Lothian doesn’t quite explain how, but notes that slide shows that remixed tv shows became VHS vids that remixed scenes of shows. Cited as the first of these, 1991’s “Encuentro entre dos reinas” (“Between Two Queens”) by Cecilia Barriga “edit[s] together a steamy affair between Marlene Dietrich and Greta Garbo” through a two-VCR technique using scenes they appeared in in several films (223). Unfortunately, this video is not available online, but this image maybe invokes a little bit of Barriga’s vision:
Luckily, Flummery’s much later 2005 vid “Walking on the Ground” is available to watch:
Lothian breaks down how this vid “writes subcultural history into an evolutionary narrative of technological obsolescence, angst, and renewal” (223). In other words, this remix, set against Sheldon Allman’s song “Walking on the Ground” depicts vidding’s history from Fong’s early Star Trek inspired slide show through the mid 2005’s while contrasting the growing subculture’s popularity with the anxiety technology creates. The future here, as Lothian notes, is dystopian and yet a “few” are left. Those few, unsurprisingly, have computers at their fingertips. Flummery’s vid ultimately not only provides viewers access to vidding’s past but also to a bright future in which vidding continues to flourish, no longer be subject to copyright infringements:
Through labors of piracy, file-sharing, and informal education to teach the technical skills that make video remix possible, popular media becomes a shared archive, its images as cathected to personal lives as family photographs. The process involved in vidding—both for the creator and for the watcher—are as important as the narratives they create (227).
2007’s “Us” by Lim also speaks back to Fong’s queering of Spock and Kirk, as well as commenting on other science fiction worlds:
Why, other than opening up new sexy possibilities in media, are these vids (and the study of these vids) important?
According to Lothian, such fandoms, created by a marginalized community or communities (remember that vids are largely a feminist, queer, and person of color enterprise) are a “decolonial space” because they allow us to imagine possibilities or futures different from our current reality. This is important not only to the fandom of vidding, but also to speculative fiction and media in general as they challenge the status quo and indicate that there could be new possibilities in science fiction and fantasy narratives. The last two vids Lothian discusses are key examples of this point.
“How Much Is that Geisha in the Window?” created by Lierdumoa in 2008 takes Joss Whedon’s Firefly to task for its treatment of race by repeatedly pointing out how Chinese culture is used in Firefly but Chinese individuals and their labor, experiences, and traumas are actively erased from the show:
As the science fiction future is remixed to show how it reproduces the erasures of the United States’ racial past and present, we might also come to think about the labor and the violence that are hidden in our production and consumption of the digital future itself (237).
Lastly, Lothian takes a look at “The Enemy Within,” a 2009 Battlestar Galactica remix by the Cylon Vidding Machine (CVM, a collective). A quick plot summary of BSG for those outside the fandom: Humans get greedy and decide to create AI to do all their labor. AI’s rebel. Humans must now fight for their survival. Or, looked at another way: Humans create a new labor force to colonize, the enslaved labor force revolts, turning against their human enslavers and slaughtering them in droves. I’ve never been quite sure who the show wants us to sympathize with more, but this fan has always been #TeamCylon.
Lothian notes that CVM, like many fans, were acutely aware of that as the show began to wrap up, women, POC, and LGBTQ+ characters were subsequently terminated. This video reimagines a future for these characters so that they do not die at the hands of the human colonial power. #TeamCylon.
Lothian’s “How to Remix the Future” demonstrates how vidding itself can be a scholarly act, a queer act, and a decolonial act. If this sounds up your alley, make sure to check out Lothian’s Old Futures as it has much, much more to offer.
For more on the history of vidding, check out “Genealogy of Vidding with Francesca Coppa.”
Alexis Lothian is Associate Professor and Director of Graduate Studies of University of Maryland’s Department of Women and Gender Studies. Her work in queer theory, media and cultural studies, speculative fiction, and digital humanities has been published in Journal of Digital Humanities, Cinema Journal, Camera Obscura, and elsewhere. For more information, visit her website at www.queergeektheory.org.