Reflections on our first workshop

Science Fiction and Public Engagement with Medicine

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Workshop One

Anna and I were delighted to welcome to Glasgow the two guest speakers at our first workshop: Prof. Jenny Kitzinger of Cardiff University, and David Lawrence of Manchester University. A further 20 or so participants joined us in the Wolfson Medical School Building, some from our local area (Glasgow and Strathclyde Universities), others from further afield (Manchester, Leicester, Hull).

My opening presentation gave an introduction to the project as a whole, including a sneak preview of our database search form. I concluded with my evident disquiet at research which views science fiction as entertainment education, and patrols it for misrepresentations of scientific possibility. (Can an astro-zombie be solar-powered by the energy from a flashlight? No. Might science fiction be doing something which such readings neglect? Well, probably yes.)

Jenny then spoke on the topic “Science Fiction, ethics and the body: clones, coma patients and organ harvesting”. Even with foreknowledge of Jenny’s interests (I’d seen her speak on a related topic in Edinburgh over the summer), her paper showed quite sharply the distance between the reality of vegetative and minimally conscious states, and the narratives and representations that circulate in the popular media (e.g. Steven Seagal as a musclebound, tanned sleeping beauty awoken from coma in Hard to Kill (1990)). Jenny ended with a plea for greater realism in popular representations such as the BBC medical drama Casualty.

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Jenny Kitzinger

Jenny’s conclusion seemed to me in the spirit of Susan Sontag’s work on illness as mythology and metaphor. It seemed to call for a purging of the myths (sleeping beauty) and metaphor (spiritual slumber perhaps, as in Iain Banks’s The Bridge (1986)?) of vegetative and minimally conscious states. I wondered about the difference between truth-telling, and the set of conventions that constitute realism in TV and cinema drama. How far could the latter be effectively deployed to convey not just the clinical reality, but also the emotional reality of having a relative or friend in a vegetative or minimally conscious states?

David’s presentation on “Costumed Visions of Enhanced Bodies: Ability, Humanity, and the Science of the Superhero” showcased marvellously his eye-catching postgraduate research on enhanced bodies in the superhero comic, and particularly his close engagement with makers and readers of the genre. Understanding our modern-day pantheon as potential role models and opinion formers, David explored perceptively their suitability for a less bioconservative vision of the human body, one that could counter dystopian science-fiction visions of human enhancement.

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David Lawrence

David spoke, with refreshing candour, from an avowedly positive vision of the enhanced body. I confessed to being less sanguine, and wondered if the sense of kinship between the enhanced and the hoi polloi might begin to fray. Indeed, are superhero narratives themselves more ambivalent about a prospect that has been with us since Wells’s Martians, creatures that were a thinly-veiled vision of our evolutionary future?

We hope that these debates will run, and that we can return to them in later stages of this project, such as our concluding conference – and beyond. Our thanks go again to both our speakers, and all those who attended and took part, for such a thought-provoking day. A particular thank you goes to Amy Chambers for her Storify of the workshop.

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