In September 2020 the Centre for Science Fiction and Fantasy hosted an online conference to discuss walls and barriers in science fiction. A significant additional barrier had of course emerged since the initial call for papers – Covid-19 made it impossible for us to meet in the real world – but presenters all rose to the challenge of making our virtual conference a very successful and enjoyable event.
Conference delegates were able to access several presentations in advance of the day. The conference organiser, Sarah Annes Brown, offered a short informal paper on recent Brexit-themed science fiction; Ezri Carlebach provided a fascinating insight into John Sladek’s uncannily prescient The Great Wall of Mexico and Nick Hubble’s “Switching Beyond the Boundaries” offered a wide-ranging exploration of the ways in which science fiction writers have explored issues of fragmentation and national identity.
It was great to have two of our own postgraduate students presenting pre-recorded talks on their research – Eyal Soffer spoke about the significance of walls in A Song of Ice and Fire and Dune, and Lily Brown introduced her work on Edenic Barriers in YA fiction. They were joined by Andrew Butler, who explored the complex significance of barriers in the film Monsters, and Robert O’Connor, who brought together a real world boundary – in Israel/Palestine – and the mysterious schism at the heart of China Mieville’s The City and The City.
On 12 September our opening keynote speaker was novelist Chris Beckett who gave an absorbing and challenging account of how he came to write Two Tribes, his exploration of Brexit Britain through a 23rd century lens. Joe Davidson then made some intriguing connections between two recent dystopias, Claire North’s 84K and Laurie Penny’s Everything Belongs to the Future in his paper “Decrepit Albion: Brexit, ‘Gentlemanly Capitalism’ and Recent English Dystopias”. Umberto Rossi introduced Italian novelist, Tullio Avoledo – a talk which made me regret that his enigmatic novels haven’t been more widely translated. Sarah Canfield then offered an illuminating comparison of the ways Sherri Tepper and Octavia Butler depicted the perils of erecting boundaries to separate communities.
The last presentation of the day ‘Science Fiction: “The Realism of Our Times”’, was given by our second keynote speaker, Sherryl Vint. This was a suggestive and sophisticated exploration of the relationship between Brexit, post-truth, history and speculative fiction, and a fitting end to a very stimulating and thought-provoking day.