An interesting reflection by Rob Kitchen on the relationship between academic and fiction writing and storytelling on the Transforming Society blog. He says:
The usual approach to writing an academic article or book is to produce a factual, discursive narrative that weaves together theories, observations and findings, contextualising the contentions made with respect to the existing literature.
In contrast, storytelling is inherently a more engaging and accessible register for communicating ideas and providing a critical lens to reflect society.
For example, science fiction uses extrapolation and speculation to explore possible futures given present trends. In particular, science fiction employs the tactics of estrangement (pushing a reader outside of what they comfortably know) and defamiliarisation (making the familiar strange) as a way of creating a distancing mirror and prompting critical reflection on society, now and to come. Perhaps unsurprisingly, there is a long history of academics drawing on the imaginaries of science fiction in their analyses, and also science fiction writers using academic ideas in their stories – a relationship examined in the book Lost in space I co-edited with James Kneale.
Elsewhere on this blog, I have referred to my interest in television and film science fiction as a different way of conducting philosophical reflection. Much current science fiction is highly disappointing on this score – the mainstreaming of the genre has led to the proliferation of films and series which simply don’t include that essential reflective element. But exceptions to this new rule remain: I have just finished watching what is probably the best recent entry in my own personal pantheon of philosophical science fiction, namely the 2015-2018 television series, 12 Monkeys.
This time travel series begins with a pandemic in 2017, and watching the series during the current global health crisis creates a complexity of rich resonances that the creators could not have foreseen. The first season is a little hard to push through, but the series really takes off from season 2 onwards, a perception widely shared in the fan and critical reception. It is to the credit of the Syfy channel that it allowed the series to get off the ground without simply ruthlessly cancelling it. This incidentally has been the fate of a number of promising science fiction series. One that particularly leaps to mind, for me at least, is the 2002 Canadian series Odyssey 5, another time travel series. It seems this was cancelled, in spite of good audience ratings, when a new executive who had little interest in science fiction took over the production company .
12 Monkeys reflects on the nature of time, choice, fate, family vs the broader social contract, friendship, the paradoxical nature of action as well as other concepts. One particularly striking feature of the series is how well it is plotted and organised. This is a real rarity when it comes to television series which often lurch from one ad hoc storyline to the next, most often due to a whole range of external production factors, including subsets of fan reception. This generally has disastrous consequences for consistent and innovative story, characterisation and character development.
Several rave reviews have been written about the wonderful – and complex – ending to the series which as one reviewer says, while tying things up in a very satisfying manner, still allows further room for reflection and debate.
The other recent TV series I found of philosophical interest was the more uneven 2011-2016 entry Person of Interest. This series dealt with ideas around surveillance, power and the deep state – Foucauldian resonances of course!
If I get time, I will continue these reflections at a later date…
Quick note for Australian readers: 12 Monkeys is currently available to stream for free on SBS on demand.