Workshop 2: Science Fiction, Medicine and Utopia

In our second workshop we began with a discussion about the Qualcomm Tricorder XPrize which encourages inventors to come up with a real life tricorder, a medical jack-of-all-trades that features in Star Trek and fits in the palm of the hand. Some contributors expressed scepticism, suspecting that the promotion of the prize relied on a utopian promise that the device itself could not deliver; of course, an individual doctor would be far superior, and a tricorder might serve to justify the continued defunding of public health services. However, others felt that the tricorder might represent the democratization of healthcare and be a valuable tool for people in societies without public healthcare where seeing a doctor might be, to all intents and purposes, impossible.

Discussions about utopia and medicine were well under way then when Dr Chris Pak gave the first presentation of the day, entitled ‘“Medicine, Magic, Witchcraft, Fountains of Youth and Utopia”: Science Fiction and the Medical Humanities’. Chris focused on Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars trilogy and James White’s Sector General series to find utopian moments in medical science fiction. Some of the themes he discussed can be found in his forthcoming book with Liverpool University Press, Terraforming: Ecopolitical Transformations and Environmentalism in Science Fictionavailable from the 4th of April.

Our second presentation was from Richard Ashcroft, professor of bioethics at Queen Mary University, London. Professor Ashcroft’s paper, ‘Weird Bioethics: Reflections via M John Harrison’s Signs of Life’, argued that the field of bioethics was sometimes guilty of having a utopian approach perhaps, in part, because of the uncertainty of the field’s methodology. Bioethics defines itself in terms of the problems it seeks to address, rather than through focusing on the field itself, and this has sometimes hampered its ability to think in terms of practical reality, as opposed to utopian idealism. Professor Ashcroft explored these themes through an analysis of M John Harrison’s Weird novel Signs of Life (1997), an analysis that he hopes to include in a chapter on ‘future emotions’ in his forthcoming book, provisionally entitled Utopian Biofutures.

The discussions on the day, both at the workshop and informally afterwards, were exceptional, so thank you to all delegates for their contributions. The next workshop, The Politics of Science-Fiction Medicine, will take place on the 15th of April at the University of Glasgow’s Wolfson Medical School Building. Watch this space for further updates and for the opportunity to register.

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