Two Experts on Sci Fi: Marina Galperina and Laurie Penny

by Marina Galperina on February 10, 2015 · 2 comments Experts

Laurie Penny, left (Image courtesy of Jon Cartwright) Marina Galperina, right (Image courtesy of Chloe Plumb)

Laurie Penny, left (Image courtesy of Jon Cartwright) Marina Galperina, right (Image courtesy of Chloe Plumb)

[Ed note: “Two Experts On…” is a new periodic interview series in which we’ve asked a maven in a creative field to talk shop, in nerdy detail, with a fellow specialist. 

This week, media experts Marina Galperina and Laurie Penny discuss sic fi, an area of mutual nerdery. Laurie Penny is the author of Cybersexism: Sex, Gender, and Power on the Internet. She is also a journalist, author, diehard nerd and current Nieman fellow at Harvard University. Her latest book is Unspeakable Things: Sex, Lies and Revolution and she tweets at @pennyred.

Marina Galperina is a journalist, writer and EIC at TBA. Lives in Brooklyn, tweets at @mfortki.]

Marina Galperina: So, I have a few thoughts about Black Mirror…I’m a really big fan. Do you think there are conservative overtones in the show? Talking particularly about the Christmas special and one of the older episodes [“White Bear”], when the woman wakes up and she doesn’t know who or where she is. Both episodes end with such strange punishment… the severity of it, its justifications – did you catch any weirdness there?

Laurie Penny: The clever and terrifying thing about Black Mirror is how cruel it is – it doesn’t let up on its characters, and everything gets worse for the protagonists at every single storybeat. You know that nobody is going to come out of this episode smiling.

There is a conservativism about technology in Black Mirror. It’s a different technological dystopia every week, but the reason it works is – apart from a couple of episodes – it doesn’t focus on the dystopia, it focuses on how these things affect people’s intimate lives. It expresses that better than any show I’ve ever seen – the way technological anxiety is exacted on a very private level.

Galperina: This interview is full of spoilers. [Laughs]

There’s one episode where a woman’s dead boyfriend is being resurrected out of his personal messages and social media postings [“Be Right Back”]. I remember we had a conversation when your cybersexism book came out, we were talking about how young people begin to construct and play out their identities online – from the very beginning, it’s just this livereel. I was thinking about how you could just resurrect a person and create a very accurate simulation of a person based on that. Do you think there are any privacy concerns, especially for people who are growing up and finding out who they are online?

Penny: What makes that episode so great is the fact that that particular scenario is practically already happening. The business model for loads of communications companies is to construct predictive models of people are in order to sell them stuff. Targeted distribution of services…you get different adverts, you have a very different experience based on who these sites think you are.

That’s my favorite episode [of Black Mirror] for that reason, because I’ve been thinking about that subject a lot. While I’ve been on study leave at Harvard, I’ve been focusing on issues of surveillance, privacy, and cybersecurity. And what is almost more chilling is that it’s not yet possible to construct an idea of a person which is that personal. It turns out that what Google knows about you is far less personal than that.

Recently I tried a new version of the new Google newsstand. On the first page, it offered me a weight loss magazine, a bridal magazine, and Glamour. I was like, wow, Google knows I am a young woman in this particular age category where a lot of people get married, and are worried about their weight. It’s rude! You know, I would have been less creeped out it offered me Doctor Who Magazine.

Galperina: It’s funny, I think it was 2007 when I was working for AOL from their West Coast office, and the CEO gave this speech about how browsers of the future, when you go online, will tell you what the weather is like directly outside your house, where your favorite band is playing next week, and you will never have to Google or search anything again! To me, it sounded like science fiction at the time, but that’s what’s happening… and I just bought some Swans tickets because Spotify emailed me.

Penny: It’s happening, but it’s not quite working yet…I think of Neil Gaiman’s rule of science fiction technology. It’s something like this: all the science fiction technology you saw and imagined and were dreaming about as a kid will come to pass. But it will also loss signal on a small stretch of the Hackney road when you’re late for a meeting

Galperina: [Laughs] Is this something you’ve experienced– reading science fiction growing up as a kid, and now something you remember reading about comes to fruition, but it’s not quite what you’d expected?

Penny: Oh yeah, of course! We now have a lot of the technology that Star Trek envisioned. I have a friend who works for a company which makes Star Trek communicators, the badge that you beep on your chest and you can talk to somebody and say “Computer!” or “Come in Number One!”

But what’s not there from Star Trek is the post-scarcity society and the vision of tolerance. Particularly in the original Star Trek– the idea of a society which has moved beyond structural inequality, beyond resource wars, is really– wonderful to watch. Even for someone who wasn’t watching in the 1960s, this still seems far-off, like a magical future world. Even the fashions on Star Trek are far less dated than they are now– people wear those skinny Spock trousers!

Galperina: [Laughs] Gymnast-wear– Star Trek, by American Apparel.

Penny: Well American Apparel does all that lamé, doesn’t it! In the original series you can tell it’s the future because everybody’s wearing gold lamé.

To completely nerd out, one of the interesting things that is not quite as present in the film remakes [is the social commentary]. Especially in Star Trek Into Darkness– the whole point of Khan as a character is that he’s an incredibly advanced super being, but he comes from a time and a world where people were still fighting over resources and trying to grab as much power as possible.

This didn’t really play out in Into Darkness– he was just supposed to be this evil dude. But the whole point of that original story was that, despite all of his amazingly superior faculties, despite being stronger and better and cleverer and more intuitive, and better at planning than everyone else, Khan is not going to win beause he’s from adifferent world. He’s from the scariest different world. He’s from the past.

Galperina: How do you see sci fi changing, as its certain communities are becoming more mainstream?

Penny: Really interesting stuff is changing in the SF community. A lot of women, people of color, and queer people are coming to the forefront as the next big writers. Catherynne Valente. Ken Liu is my current obsession– he just translated the Chinese Novel The Three-Body Problem, and his first novel is coming out soon. These are often people who’ve spent the last ten years or so writing fan fiction, developing that community online.

It always interests me when you’re in a traditional literary circle and you say to someone I haven’t read Ulysses, people will look at you like Oh my God, who are you, why are you here? But if I’m at a con like Nine Worlds and I say I haven’t read the Foundation Trilogy, people will be like Oh my God, it’s amazing, you’re gonna love it, you can get a copy upstairs!

Galperina: I’ve highlighted my favorite parts for you, we can talk about it tomorrow!

Penny: Yeah! One of the reasons I’m writing in a fantasy mode now is because if I’m published, If I end up in a professional circle, that’s the circle I want to be involved in, where art and storytelling are so much more joyful and collaborative.

There’s also much more room for experimentation because people aren’t trying to live up to a certain standard, and there’s an awareness that so much of what we love is terrible. Nobody is going to argue that early Star Trek episodes weren’t really silly.

Galperina: What was the most terrifying sci fi creature that you’ve encountered recently? Something that was kind of unique and really got to you.

Penny: Have you seen In the Flesh? They just cancelled it…the reason BBC drama is so brilliant is because it’s publicly-funded service, so they can afford to take risks and support new writers. And their funding is being cut by the conservative government, which is again how politics comes into fiction.

Anyway, In the Flesh is another zombie drama, but it makes a very prescient point, a familiar but important point, which is that the zombies aren’t the actual monsters…we are.

[SPOILER ALERT] The premise is that there’s zombie uprising, and now the people who are undead are “Partially Diseased Syndrome Sufferers” who can be rehabilitated with drugs and returned to the community. And the main character– spoiler, spoiler, spoiler– turns out to be a queer teen suicide victim. He goes back to his community in rural England and has to hide because there’s so much prejudice around PDS sufferers. The monsters in that show are the local pastor, the ex-army guy in charge of the local militia– the idea that the “monsters are us” isn’t new, but I’ve never seen it done quite so well.

​The villains in the second series are populist far-right politicians. I look at the UK, and that’s where the monsters are– the monsters are standing on public podiums talking about how immigrants should be sent home, how women should be denied abortions. Sorry, that sounded a bit grandstanding, but that’s what great science fiction does.

Galperina: If you had to come up with a sci fi hero or fix for the present time, what would you imagine?

Penny: Well, it’s really interesting to me how convinced people are that technology will fix everything, but they’re not using the tech that they’re building to fix basic social problems.

I’ve spent a bit of time in San Francisco recently. You go into these astonishing start-ups which produce this amazing technology, and you have to literally step over five homeless people to get in there. The basic infrastructure of the city can’t cope with the massive influx of homeless people and the staggering inequality, and yet people are sitting in these incubators inventing pizza-delivery drones.

An American friend of mine got in a car crash recently, and she might lose her foot. And her friends are crowdfunding for her recovery, her medical costs, her care. On the one hand, this is fantastic, we can now fundraise for this stuff in a short amount of time. But on the other hand, this wouldn’t be a problem if you just had, you know, socialised medicine and the basic mechanisms of compassion. It shouldn’t be so hard, we shouldn’t need that kind of technological fix. The stuff that we actually need to fix society has been around for a long time. You can’t go in to a startup and produce wealth redistribution. We have the technology we need to make a better world right now- the network infrastructure, the robotics, the synthetic biology. What we don’t have is the political will. Compassion, tolerance and a real belief in a more hopeful future- that’s what’s missing. Capitalism is great at giving us some of the tools to create a new society whilst stripping us of the capacity to use them properly, or even envisioning how they might be used.

Can we talk about feminist science fiction?​

Galperina: Yeah, definitely.

Penny: Feminist science fiction…it’s a whole genre unto itself, and it’s becoming more and more important. More people now are reading Octavia Butler, Margaret Atwood. But still, within the SF community, it’s astonishing how many people haven’t read this stuff! People who claim to be really huge science fiction fans.

I’ve being going back to some of the golden age classics– Heinlein, Asimov…it’s interesting that so many of these guys could envision a world where technology entirely changed social and economic relations, and yet women were still two-dimensional characters. In the first book of the Foundation Trilogy, there are two female characters with speaking roles, and they have a conversation about jewelry. And that’s it. Apparently the Foundation Trilogy is now being developed for an HBO series, and I have no idea how they’re going to do it. They’re going to have to at least gender-flip some of the characters, because it’s basically all men in rooms talking about politics.


Essay series founded and edited by Whitney Kimball. For more “Two Experts”, see links below: 

Two Experts on Art Law

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strunken white February 10, 2015 at 1:07 pm

The “not yet” part of what you’re saying about analytics (specifically the “yet” part; that it’s ) is what I get more creeped out by. It’s like a baby that can’t talk yet, but has a couple words down and will probably get pretty good soon.

Also kind of like why Macs had the reputation of being immune to viruses; they just had (and have, even now) a considerably smaller market share than Microsoft and were less of a target for hackers. The reputation is old though, and this is changing. (MacKeeper, anyone?)

A while back I remember reading something on the New York Times about predictive analytics with one individual tapped for the article proudly telling this story of a man angrily approaching a retailer about the maternity-related product circulars that were being mailed to his 16-year-old daughter. The company apologized but then the man returned to himself apologize as it turned out she was in fact pregnant. The ability to interpret what foods she was buying (not pregnancy tests, not diapers) was what allowed them to come to that conclusion.

The amount google knows about you varies from demographic to demographic; the two of you could probably be called early-adopters of platforms that intend to reach a wider audience, which is to say much of the data being collected and analyzed may not be calibrated to interpret you beyond very general terms which, for the right (probably considerably larger) demographic, actually can be very precise.

WhitneyKimball February 10, 2015 at 1:38 pm

Just looked up that NYT article, and I am posting the link here for posterity. Creepy.

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