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Hot Take: Happy Holidays & a new book from Eleanor!

Updated: Dec 29, 2023

Happy holidays from your favourite jingle belles at the Good Robot podcast!  In this episode we celebrate both the holidays and Eleanor's new book, The Planetary Humanism of European Women's Science Fiction: An Experience of the Impossible, which is a history of women's utopian science fiction from 1666 to 2016. We talk about the ways that women have imagined better places and times and worse ones throughout history, as well as what utopia means politically and why we need it, lesbian bacteria, Hitchcock's The Birds, and weird deep sea fish.


Drage, E. The Planetary Humanism of European Women’s Science Fiction: An Experience of the Impossible (2023). Routledge.

Edelman, L. (2004). No future: queer theory and the death drive. Durham: Duke University Press.

Zhao, X. (2021). Iron widow.

Piercy, M. (1987). Woman on the edge of time. London: Women's Press.

Woolf, V. (2014). Orlando.

David Mitchell, 'As a child I was afraid of the sun',

Butler, O. (2007). Lilith's brood / Octavia E. Butler. New York: Grand Central.

Butler, O. (1995). Bloodchild : Novellas and stories. New York: Four Walls Eight Windows.

Bodard, A. (2022). The Red Scholar's wake / Aliette de Bodard.



Hot takes with the good robot. Hot takes with the good robot. Hot takes.


Hi, welcome to this episode of the good robot hot takes. We'll be talking about my new book, which is very exciting. And it's called the planetary humanism of women's science fiction. And it's a history of women's utopian science fiction from 1666 to 2016. I'll be talking about the ways that women have imagined better places and times and worse ones throughout history. And we'll also be thinking a bit about what utopia means politically, why we need it. I hope you enjoyed the show.


 Welcome back to our festive hot take for anyone who is watching on our YouTube. You can see we have dressed for the occasion. I am a sparkly reindeer, Eleanor is in her own words, a lamb cutlet and I homemade tinfoil crown. I think of it as junior Star Trek, but happy holidays to anyone who celebrates.

You hope that you're having a wonderful festive season. And so for today's hot take, in order to celebrate the holiday, we want to talk about some other wonderful things that have been happening, including Eleanor's new book. But just to kick us off, Eleanor, what does the holiday season mean to you? Do you celebrate anything over the holidays?

And what are your plans for this year?


I'm a Grinch. And I don't love Christmas, but I support everyone who does love it, and I hope to live vicariously through them. I am going to, I think I'm going to go see my cousins, but my parents are like, generally quite unwell over this period always, so hence the grinchiness.

But also a lot of my friends disappear and then you get asked a lot, like, when are you leaving London? And you're like, Nope, I'm staying right here. I am from here. So I just try and mark papers through it and then look forward to January when people are like, Oh no, Christmas is over.

And I'm like, yeah, I'm back. Yeah. Kerry, save me.


No, I didn't like that. I feel like I do personally benefit from you being a Grinch though, because I'm, like, very into Christmas, very into just in general festive, organized fun I really enjoy, and themed holidays and anything where I can plan menus is very much up my street.

But also I came from a family that was, like, very into Christmas. It was always a big family gathering. I have a million relatives. They're always together every year. And I also am from New Zealand, so I associate Christmas with summer. and happiness. And so all of those things, coalesce, meaning I love this time of year.

However, I'm not a huge fan of the rainy English Christmas. I like, enjoy all the sort of white Christmas snowy things and all the winter motifs make a bit more sense here. Like why In New Zealand, we're like looking at things like Santa and eating roasts on Christmas day when it's 30 degrees doesn't really make sense.

But yeah, so I'll be going to the U S where my husband's from over Christmas. I'm excited and I'm so ready to go on holiday and just, wave out 2023.


Amazing. And for those of you who don't get to do that, hit me up by email with suggestions of how to relatively enjoy yourself whilst listening to people shouting in the background. I'm an expert.


But we also have, some other things that you could be doing at Christmas is buying Eleanor's book, reading Eleanor's book and gifting Eleanor's book. Although I have to admit, I have not bought a copy. I love you, Eleanor, but it is sadly 120 pounds. But it is great. So Eleanor, thank you for showing off your book with this lovely cover so much.

Could you tell us a little bit about your book? What's it on? Tell us a bit about the process of writing it. We'd love to hear more.


You're lovely. Thank you. So yes, it's prohibitively expensive, but it's great for your institution. So the book is on the history of women's utopian science fiction from 1666 to 2016, and I decided to write about science fiction, not because I was the biggest fan ever, which sounds a little bit sacrilegious, but just because there was something about speculative fiction that means a lot to people who can't exist in the way that they want to in the present. And I remember when I was at uni, and I did feminist and queer literature, and there were a lot of people in the class who really wanted to be there, being there in those lessons really meant something to them.

We were reading Virginia Woolf and Marge Piercy and books like, Women on the Edge of Time. And those books really captured something in this escapism and this need to be somewhere else and - out these other spaces and times within which to exist. And so I think politically science fiction and speculative fiction are really interesting, but what's almost more interesting is the fights that people have over what constitutes science fiction and what isn't science fiction because it's not science -y enough.

And those debates often center around gender and race and class, and exclusions of other kinds, because whether something fits into a genre or is seen to be not quite worthy of the genre has a lot to do with who counts as human.


Fantastic. I think it's such an interesting project. It's also a massive project, from 1666 to like the 2000s. But I love this way you frame it around speculative fiction being so spiritually and emotionally important for people because it's about having spaces to exist in when you're made to exist slightly out of place and out of time in the world that we live in currently.

It almost reminds me a lot of fan fiction. I'm really interested in fan fiction communities and the extent to which like those have been a really important place for queer writers and queer people in particular to be able to create different kinds of universes and stories that aren't really getting met by a lot of mainstream media.


Yeah, absolutely. And a lot of this stuff is published online, zines or eBooks, fan fiction. It's a really cool kind of exciting imaginative space with lots of people publishing in odd ways. And this means that it's more accessible for people who can't get publishing deals because publishing houses don't see their literature as being mainstream enough or discriminate on the basis of the writer themselves.

There's something really cool about being part of, or I feel like I just got one foot in the door of this immense set of communities and writers and readers who are all trying to do something cool, anarchic and build on utopian and dystopian ideas and their formulations of different futures.


So you engaged in this huge mapping project though. So I know you said you had one foot in the door, which is a testament to how rich and huge these communities are, not the size of your project. And so as you map this history of European women's utopian science fiction, what were some of the things you found about this particular trajectory of literature, about these writers that you think might be really interesting for us to know?


Yeah, so I specifically looked at, I was funded by the EU. So you have to look at European writers to a large extent, and then I could only look at books that I could read, of course. So I can read French. And then my Spanish is okay. In French they have a whole different tense that they write in.

So it's like a real pain in the ass, but Spanish, it's not the same Italian. I really fumbled my way through Google translate on your phone, you like hover over the page. My mom was like, that's the least academic way I've ever seen anyone read anything.

You should be ashamed of yourself. I'm just like, Oh, just struggling through my PhD here. Yeah, I looked at French Spanish, Italian, Writers writers in the UK and the US. But I was specifically looking at women who had explored issues of race and gender. And what that meant is that I looked at books that we might not have heard of but still have kind of a massive following in their own rights.

Science fiction is not indigenous to many different countries, for example, in Italy, The kinds of novels that are traditionally read are detective fiction, noir, neo noir, mystery, there are these very famous books called the Gialli, and so these are integrated with science fiction, which is what makes them not like standout science fiction novels, you're not allowed to recognize it as such because it's not deemed highbrow enough to be read. I've looked at six amazing books and message me if you're interested in science fiction from any of these places.

But what I was exploring was what happens when the human is pushed to its logical extreme in space. What happens to gender and race and class and disability, these things that we really rely on. And one of my favorite stories that duds this is called Consecuencias Naturales and it's by Elia Barcelo.

And in it, there's this really like self described sexy macho engineer on a spaceship. And he wants to be the first guy to fuck an alien. And the aliens arrive. And they have this kind of special meeting, the first ever physical contact meeting between humans and aliens. And he takes an alien into his dormitory on the spaceship and it looks female.

It has a kind of like breasty structure. And before they have sex, the alien says, have you taken birth control? And obviously as a man, he was like laughing inside, but the alien waited until he had done something. So he like took a Neurofen and then sure enough, he becomes pregnant and he handles it where there's little grace as humanly possible.

And it's a kind of comedy of sorts, but it shows the reliance on different kinds of gender structures in order to self perceive as human. But it also doesn't position the humans as bad and the aliens as good. It's always much more complicated than that. So the aliens have this really low birth rate. They're looking to procreate with other species in order to expand but also repopulate their planet. And so there's a really nice, quite gentle look at these different species in a way that's not just like alien colonization, everyone dies, good versus evil, but explores different negative and positive attributes of kind of individual species and different genders in different locations over time.

Spain has a real problem with machismo, certainly in Latin America as well. And so it's also a social commentary, a cultural commentary that we don't always get in science fiction because normally the stuff is set in LA or in the States. So I'm really interested in the stories that are told from the perspective of other writers and located in specific parts of the world.


That story is first just amazing and I desperately want to read that. That absolutely reminded me of our conversation with Jack Halberstam on this podcast, where Jack was talking about the film Ex Machina, and he says, the only thing that Nathan Bateman, the kind of genius AI creator in the film, has the imagination to do is to create sex robots. And that's the limit of the masculinist imagination.

And it's such a failure of the imagination. And it's a failure we see in the tech industry, a failure we see in a lot of mainstream sci fi, which is why it's so refreshing to hear about these stories where people are not only counteracting this and critiquing it, but coming up with these like really innovative responses that critique and challenge the boundaries of gender and race.


Yeah, absolutely. It's exactly the case in this story where this guy, I think he's called Nacho, literally cannot see beyond his own nose. There is no imagination there of what this totally different species from a totally different place could do. Only that it must function within our own way of thinking about these social structures.

And this is the kind of failure of the imagination, as you say, that we see. But also not being able to imagine that just because you think that the world is, I am woman, he is man, that is the same world for everybody else. So it's also about finding a kind of generosity of spirit and dealing with the shock and the surprise and the existential terror that comes with realizing that the world is actually a lot more exciting than you think it is.


I also do have to say though if I was this dude and I was like, I'm gonna go have sex with an alien, the alien was like, have you taken birth control? Would you not be concerned? I'd be a little bit like, I don't know, I just feel like I'd be like, maybe I should be worried about this scenario.

I love the fact that he was just like, take my Panadol and off I go.


Yeah, I think actually inside me, I have a little bit of a Nacho. I'm just like, yeah, fuck it. know that you have a slightly different risk management mechanism, which is only a good thing. And I think at the end of the day, I would be the like pregnant with the alien person and you'd be like, Nope, I'm good.


I do just feel, like just for context for listeners, Eleanor is like a normal person who like has a nightlife and enjoys things and I'm like, David Mitchell and that bit on one of the panel shows and he's as a child, I was afraid of the sun, like that person of a timorous variety.

I like to think of myself as having very strong survival instincts I would be fine in the wake of some catastrophe, I also, maybe it would serve me very well in one of these sci fi novels, maybe not. I think having the opportunity to sit and delve into these extraordinary sci fi universes and ideas is wonderful.

And I was wondering, if you could tell us a little bit more about Some of the stories that you looked at and were there any in particular that really surprised you really jumped out to you as saying, okay, this has actually made me think really differently, not just about science fiction, but maybe about technology itself as a whole.


Yeah, absolutely. Bear in mind that pretty much everything I look at is trying to make our world uncanny. It's trying to throw everything that we think we know about life into disarray and see again what happens to the world when we look at it with fresh eyes.

This is quite a simple idea, I think, but it comes from Paul Gilroy's idea of planetary humanism and Gayatri Spivak, who's an an Indian post colonial philosopher based at Columbia her ideas of planetarity. So thinking about how can we make the world new by looking at it with fresh eyes, and that's something that utopian writers and dystopian writers have tried to do for a very long time, much before 1666, which is this kind of arbitrary date I threw in there because Margaret Cavendish is the blazing world came out then. But there was lots of science fiction writing before that. It just sounded neat. 1666 to 2016. And she's a brilliant writer. So there's a really cool story by uh, lola Robles and Maria Reguero Barceló, where there is a planetoid that is that humans are trying to terraform, which basically means they're trying to move on to that planetoid in order to expand because of ecological problems at home, a classic storyline, except with this one, people are sent onto the planetoid in return for IVF. So IVF, very expensive. In Spain, it's still quite inaccessible to lesbians. And so a lot of the people that go onto this planetoid are queer women looking to do this kind of hard, difficult manual labor in return for IVF treatment.

And you get a lot of these kind of social commentaries in works of women's utopian science fiction. And then the unexpected happens because it turns out they are not alone on the planetoid. No, there are these bacteria that impregnate the women on the planet, and it's a kind of odd story because I think, when you're trying to decrypt what's going on, you think, are they good bacteria? Are they bad bacteria? Why are they doing this? But they're giving women an opportunity to create another species. For free, which those women may not want, like it's not consensual. They didn't know that this is what they were getting in for. It is a different kind of pregnancy, but it's still a pregnancy.

And so it's difficult to read these things without flattening out the arguments. But what I think is quite nice about the story is that the bacteria are like, Hey, we're here. Can you please not ignore us with what is colonial effort to eradicate all other species. And the bacteria are like, no, we're going to fight for our right to remain and in doing so trouble what it means to be human. So I think that's a really interesting story and it can be read in lots of different ways.


Wow. Yeah. I, we always jokingly call this your lesbian bacteria story, but it's really interesting to hear the full context of that story. And it reminds me of, Iron Widow. Sorry, this is going to be a spoiler.

So if you have not read this book yet and you want to read it, skip ahead now. The kind of conceit of the book at the end is that this entire time, the sort of main protagonist has been part of this sort of guard force which has been fighting against these machine like robots.

But every time they kill one of these robots the protagonist gets a sense of their kind of immense grief and the kind of general sense that is emanating from these robots is, like, why are you here? And then, the conceit at the end, she finds out that actually, they are the colonizing force.

She's been told that these are robots which are invading our planet and actually, no they've actually been living on another planet the whole time. And they've been the ones trying to eradicate the home population. And so I am waiting for the second book to find out what happens next.

But what I was also really interested in with this kind of lesbian bacteria story, but also the male pregnancy story you mentioned was like how central sort of pregnancy and reproductivity is to these sci fi stories. I was gonna say utopias and that was like, are they utopias? it would be interesting to discuss more, but these interesting sci fi stories it reminds me of, Octavia Butler's work in Bloodchild and Xenogenesis, the way that specifically this Alienoid and alienating process of pregnancy gets brought out in the sci fi narrative.

And so I was wondering is that a strong theme across a lot of the stories you looked at? And yeah, what are your thoughts around the importance of pregnancy and reproduction in these narratives?


Pregnancy is the way that we as a human species reproduce, but it's also central to heteronormativity. It's associated with marriage, with a continuation of the species it's thought of as essential, the only essential thing in order to survive. And that's why we get these horrible Darwinian misreadings of what it means to not reproduce. It doesn't matter whether you're queer or not.

To queer the human, to queer what it means to be human, also necessarily involves a queering of reproduction. There's a great short story called Mio non è un mostro, which means my son is not a monster. And it was a woman writing about a planet where once women start reproducing, their children are monstrous in that they look unlike any human anyone's ever seen. However, they are perfectly adapted to the environment. They are perfect for the planet on which they live. And I think, at that moment, it was important for women to, show mother's love towards the offspring that she wanted to protect at all costs.

It's a story of acceptance and nurturing, which is very unlike the science fiction at the time. And it was a story that questions what is monstrosity. And if anyone who's studied literature you know that there's this trope of the monstrous woman and the monster being associated with femininity in general.

So in Jane Eyre you've got the monster in the attic, Bertha, the mad woman. And she's the, the exemplary monster that's hidden away that shunned. And we don't know why that's happened. We don't know whether she is monstrous or mentally ill or what. But in this story, the monster is not a monster at all.

It's just extremely well adapted to the environment. So yeah, I think reproduction is a really interesting thing to consider in space because it's icky, it's gross, it's disgusting. Even if you think about the alien movies, Ridley Scott and the chestbursters that burst out of the male astronauts, and that's how they reproduce. And it's a violation still. It's a kind of inverse rape because the chestbursters are literally bursting out non consensually, but at the same time, those humans have arrived on their planet. Also without asking, destroying them just because they're gross.

And the story, I think, invites you to say just cause you think they're gross and they were there first, that doesn't mean that you need to eradicate them but in that process of them fighting back, they become even more disgusting. So it really questions our own ideas of what we think is icky but also fascinating at the same time.


Yeah. And I really think as well, there's such a fascinating inversion of like reproductivity here as human normativity is gender normativity, but also, as you pointed out, as a sort of racial normativity, because, As you said, when you get your ideas of Darwinism, like reproduction and pregnancy is so central to ideas of eugenics and race science that were, not only extremely common in the 18th, 19th, 20th centuries, but also particularly influential in science fiction and sci fi thinking from HG Wells's work through to, some early kind of feminist Work like Gilman's Herland and other books, often these were like really explicitly influenced by white supremacist and eugenicist ideas, and which is why it's also, I think, really important to flip the script and show that we actually have this rich body of sci fi writing that was really pushing against this particular kind of noxious strain of speculative thinking.


Yeah, absolutely. I always loved Lee Edelman's No Future. So he's a a queer scholar wrote amazing critiques of heteronormativity of reproduction, that kind of line from birth to marriage to death, reproduction to death and queering it by being like, no, I'm not going to reproduce, and I'm not going to do all these things that I've expected to do along the way.

And showing how that is a kind of death. It's considered to be not living. So a dying within the system of living. And yeah I just, I love that idea. I love how science fiction plays on that with destroying normative reproduction and making it something that is existentially terrifying for the people involved, but laughable from the outside.


Lee Edelman's work, like I think, in queer theory, it's like hugely influential. I have to admit, all it did was like further exacerbate my fear of birds because he has there's a really long analysis of Hitchcock's The Birds, which I haven't seen, but it's got a lot of images from it.

And, in the same way of, As a child, I was scared of the sun. I am quite frightened of large birds. And so this really did not help my kind of general timorous nature.


Yeah, I think what Edelman draws our attention to this kind of construction of this heteronormative family line and also how that shapes our gender roles and our kind of broader societal role still does ring quite true for me.


I definitely remember the first time this year that I went to a pharmacy just to pick up some of my own medication and pharmacist said, Oh, are you is this for your child? Are you picking this up for your children? And I'm first also just not that old and I was like, rude. Maybe I need to change how I present, but also I just thought it was really interesting.

So I was like, wow, am I now at that life stage where like my actions get interpreted through the lens of this particular idea of timelines or this particular idea of this is now your social role. And also, I would be interested to know has my husband ever been asked, when he goes to pick up his medication or groceries are you picking this up for your child?

And so I do find it really interesting that we also have a lot of science fiction stories that are deliberately trying to disrupt these ideas of kind of heteronormative gendering and parenting, and to say that these two things don't have to coexist, that we can have parenting and queer families and forms of relationality, which are incredibly significant, but that aren't bought into this particular sort of very heterosexual idea of gender.


Oh my god, I can't believe that they said that.


Speaking of things which we perceive to be weird and gross but deserve to exist with your analysis of the film Aliens. I love looking at those like extremely weird deep sea fish. And I know they probably look at us and think we look weird, I think I love this idea that there's this incredible capacity for life that we just don't understand.


What I like about the science fiction community is that they're not afraid of weird, I think it's really nice to be embraced by like a big group of people who are like, no, you're not weird. If you, even if you're interested in I don't know, smutty pirate fan fiction. That's not weird.

There's a ton of us who enjoy it. And there was all these like 18 plus events at the science fiction conference I went to in Helsinki after 9pm. You had to like show your ID. I loved it.


First, I think that is really wonderful. But second, I was just enjoying the fact that you're saying this. You're like, I love that the sci fi community embraces weird while you're literally wearing like a hat made out of tinfoil. Like conspirator or like conspiracy theorist people.


I think I look like, less like the end of a lamb chop and I think I look a little bit more space helmet y now.


It's now at a jaunty angle but yes do check us out on our YouTube if you want to get other similarly important insights into our lives.


The most important thing I think about this book is that because it tells you a range of stories from, women's utopian fiction in the 17th century where women just want to escape from their husbands and live alone in libraries in the middle of France or whatever, to really queer science fiction stories where people are like chasing their lovers around in different points of time, it really makes you respect the different kinds of utopias that women imagine and want to exist in. I say like women's utopian science fiction, this is, this just means people who identify as women, but also the point of archival work is that you can't necessarily identify people, like there was lots of women writers that, I think are women writers, but I'm not sure.

And there's a troubling of that term within the book itself, which was really important to me. But yeah, just respecting the different sorts of utopias that maybe were utopias for my grandma, but not for me. Or that my mom thinks is like gender equality, but I wouldn't. And allowing those all to coexist and within a single book and find find meaning and hold hands between these different generations of utopian writers, I think was really important.


And I think that intergenerational aspect is really fascinating. It's something we've touched on a little bit on this podcast. We have an episode of the Sneha Revanur who founded Encode Justice and speaks a lot about the kind of importance of intergenerational activism around AI and technology, but also intergenerational feminisms, encourage you to check that out. And this episode and also all of our other episodes, we will have a full transcript available on our website. www. thegoodrobot. co. uk and there we will have linked Eleanor's book if you're in need of a Christmas present to yourself or more likely to your university library.

Some of the stories that Eleanor has talked about and some others that she hasn't had an opportunity to talk about yet, but are available online, like the work of Aliette de Bodard and other fantastic sci fi writers. So you can find those all there. But just I guess to finish off where are you excited to take this work next?


I, I was so lucky to be at the place where Kerry and I are now, the Center for Future Intelligence at Cambridge, because we look at narratives around science fiction.

So the way that AI is talked about in popular culture, in the media in businesses, and often people talk about AI and then talk about Terminator in the same breath. So part of what I value so much in this book is knowing about other stories that we need to make into Hollywood. Stories about science fictional universes where Vietnam has become the kind of cultural and global elite, and therefore there's AIs that are woven into ancestor spirits and animals and different ways of being and thinking. And we need to put these kinds of stories forward stories that understand And and make accessible how colonialism lives through the technologies that we distribute throughout the world technologies that are usually based in the West, what ways that women can occupy these key roles in imagining the future.

I'm lucky to be in a center that actually really cares about these issues. And then the philosophy that's in it, which is a mainly post humanist philosophy from feminist scholars like Rosi Braidotti, who has this really lively vitalistic way of seeing the world of seeing relations between humans and non humans...

Think that's my doorbell. I'm so sorry. I bought from a latex shop. I bought a belt.


Ah, love.


So all these ideas that I'm working with are essential to the way that we understand race and gender and how they interact with technologies. The way that we were thinking about what it means to produce race and biometrics or in hiring technologies, whether the eradication of race is possible in hiring technologies that claim to be able to strip race and gender from candidate profiles.

All of those are definitely indebted to the ideas in this book. So it's a bit of a challenge to interweave contemporary philosophy and science fiction in a way that makes sense, while also tracking this 400 year history of science fiction


and I think what I really love about this book and like your work broadly in this area is I think something I often get challenged with is people will say, okay, you're critiquing mainstream representations of AI and science fiction and saying, we need different sci fi narratives, but like, how do we make those happen?

Like you're just saying that there's lots of problems, you're not providing alternatives or solutions. I think that's why it's really important to point towards these rich bodies of literature that have existed for a long time and just saying, the point is not that these stories aren't there, but that they're not getting funded or they're not getting acknowledged or they're seen as too weird or they're seen as not real science fiction.

And there's a really important space there for these kinds of projects to be nourished and to grow. And so I think your work does a really good job of kind of bringing this wider platform to these stories. But I believe that we are finally near the end of our time, partly because for those of you who are listening and we're not aware of this, it took us an extremely long time, despite our like six degrees between us to figure out how many years passed between 1666 and 2016, we have figured out it is 400 years.

So congrats to Eleanor for Publishing this fantastic book and for all of our listeners, a very happy holiday period, and we can't wait to see you back at the Good Robot for the new year.


Hot takes with the good robot. Hot takes with the good robot.

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