Report on the Migration & Exile in SF conference with Keynote video

Report on the Migration & Exile in SF conference with Keynote video

Below is a write-up on the conference by Alfa Runnegar, who has just completed the second year of her English Literature degree. This summer she is working on an ARU Social Innovation Fund studentship in conjunction with the CSFF and the Clarke Award.


On 12th June 2021, The Centre for Science Fiction and Fantasy and New Routes Old Roots: Art, Migration, Exile at Anglia Ruskin held a conference to mark Refugee Week and World Refugee Day. This event included a variety of papers that discussed the theme of migration and exile in science fiction, and how displacement is presented within the genre. The event was organised by Dr Jeannette Baxter, Associate Professor, and Sarah Brown, Professor of English Literature, both from Anglia Ruskin University.

Dr Baxter opened the conference by introducing the main themes of the conference and how throughout science fiction these sensitive topics can be re-analysed through a different perspective as we either look to the future or the past. Dr Baxter then introduced keynote speaker Dr Helen Marshall and her paper ‘Storytelling, Worldbuilding Problems, and How Science Fiction Can Save the World.’ [NB: you can view a video of this keynote at the bottom of this post.]  Dr Marshall examined ideas of displacement in conjunction with her recently released novel The Migration and how worldbuilding allows for current world issues to be magnified and viewed from a different perspective. Dr Marshall considered how the strength of science fiction isn’t predicting the future but pushing us to question it. Science fiction should resist literalisation and instead push at the boundaries of our imagination. It is a genre that can both predict and imagine extreme and unique futures, yet still resonate with current world issues and debates. Through Science Fiction readers are pushed to re-evaluate their own pre-conceived ideas, the distance between story and real life so extreme that this distance can provide room for reflection.

The first panel began with Thomas Andrews’ paper ‘Heptapods and Hosts — Language as a Resource in Ted Chiang’s “Story of Your Life” and China Mieville’s Embassytown‘. Andrews looked at how both novels depict language as a resource and a key factor for either survival or destruction, rather than just a way of communicating. Language is used to physically control and manipulate in Chiang and Mieville’s work, yet what can also be considered is how language in the 21st century covertly controls and manipulates us. Andrews suggested in discussion surrounding his paper that naming, identity and language have the power to shape our interpretation of a group. This idea resonated with modern discourse surrounding language and how powerful it can be whilst also resonating with the next two papers in panel one.

Graham Minenor-Matheson and Jake Casella Brookins’s papers looked at how migratory groups and refugees are represented within science fiction novels and how this reflects current discourse surrounding migration. Matheson’s paper ‘Refugees in space: Migration in the work of Kim Stanley Robinson’ highlighted how identity is influenced by migration and what is considered to be a ‘homeland.’ Diasporas have a generational impact as within Kim Stanley Robinson’s work migratory groups are forced to choose whether they cling to their ancestral homeland or establish a new one. It brings forward the discussion as to whether it’s the place that holds power when establishing a cultural identity, or instead power comes from naming a place as a ‘homeland.’ How something is described and named has power because it shapes people’s interpretations, for the better or worse.

This idea was developed further by Brookins’s analysis on the representation of refugees in C.J. Cherryh’s fiction. In the paper ‘Blue-Skyers and the Dark: Refugees, Scarcity, and Plentitude in C.J. Cherryh’s science fiction,’ Brookins touched upon how refugees are considered by other characters as being diseased and needing to be ‘quarantined’ from the rest of society. Brookins commented on how ‘quarantine’ has taken a new meaning due to the emergence of Covid-19 in 2020, yet when used in Cherryh’s fiction the semantics surrounding the refugees breaks down their individuality and dehumanises them. The refugees’ erased identity was likened by Brookins to the description of a zombie hoard as the group becomes a problem that needs to be handled, rather than individuals with their own rich and fulfilling lives. Brookins concluded that lifeboat ethics and the need to destroy one group to save another is a popular topic in science fiction. However, in the 21st century these cold equations are unnecessary because rather than making a brutal sacrifice a compromise can always be made. Language and naming shapes people’s perceptions of groups and can mean that people come to use these perceptions to decide a group’s value in comparison to others. Yet when viewing these judgements as readers we can see their flaws. Minenor-Matheson and Brookins both put forward the idea that language is powerful, yet it’s also important to view places or people objectively rather than allowing language to control our perceptions. These papers and the stories they discuss remind the listener/reader that the language surrounding migration and exile in the 21st century can warp our perception so that it’s not based in fact.

After a short break, the conference continued with a panel of two papers from Eyal Soffer and Professor Sarah Brown which both addressed ways in which rhetoric surrounding different heritages and groups of people has a profound impact. Soffer’s paper ‘Freefolk Or Wildlings? The Black Brothers’ Reaction To The Northerners’ Forced Migration In George R.R. Martin’s A Song Of Ice And Fire’ examined the Freefolk/Wildlings and the negative connotations surrounding them as they are considered to be savages, rapists, killers, and thieves. They are referred to as wildlings by those south of the wall because they are outside of their control. They identify themselves as Freefolk, because they place value on their freedom, and they don’t want to be controlled by the ‘kneelers’ in the south. Language is so impactful in the discourse surrounding migrants and refugees; when the Freefolk are forced south because of an unbeatable enemy, bias against them because they are ‘wildlings’ means they receive no sympathy, only distrust. Soffers considers how Martin provides readers with a mirror to our own society and the difference between how other people perceive us compared to how we perceive ourselves

Professor Brown brought the second panel to a close with her paper ‘Shakespeare in Exile: Reimagining the past in William Sanders’s “The Undiscovered”’ where Prof. Brown explored stories that decentred Shakespeare and placed him in an alternate history. Brown considered how when placing Shakespeare in these alternate histories writers and readers are able to explore how different his writings could have been. The plays he wrote would have been different, or perhaps Shakespeare could have given up writing altogether. When considering the theme of migration and exile, this paper provides a different perspective on ‘otherness’ in which Shakespeare is the outsider to another culture rather than being the one who creates it. In one highlighted story, Shakespeare struggles to communicate with those who come from other cultures and backgrounds, so when they don’t value his plays as much as those in England would have, Shakespeare becomes depressed and loses faith in his own ability as a writer. Shakespeare’s inability to communicate or have his work appreciated causes him distress as he doesn’t feel understood. This in some ways reflects frustration felt by migrants, both past and present, when they are undervalued or misunderstood because their culture differs from that of where they have migrated to. Focusing on one of the most renowned playwrights experiencing these emotions amplifies feelings of anger and injustice in readers because history has already shown the potential Shakespeare has. Language is powerful as a way to communicate and be understood, but also as a tool for pushing readers to re-evaluate their views on migration as groups of people are unfairly exiled from mainstream society for no reason other than because they are different.

After some short discussions regarding the papers, the conference was brought to a close. Thank you to Dr Jeanette Baxter and Professor Sarah Brown for organising this event in collaboration with the Centre for Science Fiction and Fantasy and New Routes Old Roots: Art, Migration & Exile at Anglia Ruskin. Thank you to each of the speakers who came together to create an insightful discussion surrounding how science fiction invites readers to reconsider and view migration and exile in a different and new light.


Dr Helen Marshall’s keynote address:


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