Having read huge amounts of Science Fiction literature when I was younger, I am always a little jealous of people who have chosen SF as their academic field. Oh, the joy when I will now finally get the chance to write a paper together of one of those persons who can attend an SF convention and (with good conscience) say that he is actually "working" (although I have done it once myself).
So I have submitted a 500-word abstract together with the literature scholar Jerry Määttä (Uppsala University) that combines our interests and that fits the theme of the academic track at the upcoming 75th World Science Fiction Convention (Wikipedia) to be held in Helsinki in August next year. The theme of the academic track is “100 Years of Estrangement”. From the call:
"Estrangement, or defamiliarization (ostranenie), has long been a crucial concept in our understanding of speculative fiction. Since its first appearance in Viktor Shklovsky’s essay “Art as Technique” (or “Art as Device”) in 1917, estrangement has made its way into the theories of prose fiction, of theatre, and of film, and it forms the core of some of the foundational works in the theory of science fiction"
Proposals about various topics related to the concept "estrangement" are encouraged, including but not limited to:
- What is the dynamic between defamiliarization, mental transportation and identification? How do estranging and fantastical effects impact the reader’s perception of the storyworld or sympathy towards the characters?
- How do works of speculative fiction balance estranging or defamiliarizing techniques and the naturalizing effects inherent to its worldbuilding and characterization? How does defamiliarization relate to the realistic illusions created by speculative fiction?
- How is defamiliarization used in fantastic genres to question or critique societal issues and/or social identity categories (e.g. gender, sexuality, ethnicity, age, social class)?
Our submissions is all about estrangement/defamiliarization and it's partly about Science Fiction too, but it's also partly about (engineering) education. It is in fact the first out of several papers I plan to write about ways of visualizing the extravagant use of resources (primarily energy) that we nowadays assume is "normal", but from a historical point of view in no way is.
I'm not sure I will attend the world SF conference but my co-author Jerry will. He has in fact already bought his ticket and he will also be the presenter of our paper there should it be accepted.
Teaching Abstract Concepts through Making Strange
Jerry Mättä, Department of Literature, Uppsala University and Daniel Pargman, Department of Media Technology and Interaction Design, KTH Royal Institute of TechnologyFew people intuitively grasp the energy needs of our everyday technology (smartphones, computers, cars), or indeed our bodies (the daily caloric intake), and it is often equally hard to understand the concomitant but invisible carbon emissions that are the result of our modern, high-energy technological lifestyle.
The aim of this paper is to examine and discuss one possible way of alleviating these difficulties, namely through the use of images, metaphors, and estrangement, enabling especially students to defamiliarise abstract concepts such as energy by forcing them to conceive these terms as concrete, tangible, and manipulable. Apart from discussing estrangement as a concept and some of the numerous interpretations and developments of Viktor Shklovsky’s ostranenie (not least Bertolt Brecht’s Verfremdung and Darko Suvin’s cognitive estrangement), this paper analyses a few examples where science fictional estrangement can be used in teaching abstract concepts – in this case pertaining to energy and sustainability.
For instance, one way of defamiliarising students to the abstract concept of energy is through the term or unit ‘energy slave’, standing for the potential energy output of one well-fed and fully functional human being: 75 watts during an 8-hour day, for a total of 600 Wh (0.6 kWh) per day (Nikiforuk 2014; Avallone et al. 2007). The ‘energy slave’ unit is thus comparable to the ‘horsepower’ unit – where one horsepower corresponds to about 10 energy slaves – but also to fossil fuels, where a barrel of oil (159 litres) is “roughly equivalent to 25 000 hours of human labour” (McKibben 2011).
While the invocation of the term ‘energy slave’ might be perceived as inappropriate in some contexts (e.g. in a society that still grapples with the consequences of actual historical slavery), we use it here due to the saying that, according to the ancient Greek philosopher Protagoras, “man is the measure of all things”. The term ‘energy slave’ brings a tangible, skin-in-the-game aspect to the act of imagining or estranging energy, and through mental exercises such as this, it becomes much easier to both make sense of and get a feeling for various calculations about everyday energy consumption as well as our dependency on fossil fuels.
Apart from the fact that thought experiments on sustainability often read much like science fiction in themselves (going back at least as far as the metaphor of “Spaceship Earth”; see Höhler 2015), this paper examines how concepts that are often used within literary scholarship, and particularly within science fiction studies, can shed light on pedagogical challenges and didactic practices within the field of teaching energy and sustainability. Besides the concept of ‘energy slaves’, this paper also explores the didactic employment of images, metaphors, and estrangement from works ranging from Jonathan Swift’s proto sf Gulliver’s Travels (1726) to Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Windup Girl (2009).
Avallone, E.A., T. Baumeister III, T. & Sadegh, A.M. (2007). Marks' Standard Handbook for Mechanical Engineers, 11th Edition. Mc-Graw Hill
Höhler, S. (2015). Spaceship Earth in the Environmental Age, 1960-1990. Pickering & Chatto
McKibben, B. (2011). Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet. Random House LLC
Nikiforuk, A. (2014). The Energy of Slaves: Oil and the New Servitude. Greystone Books Ltd.
Shklovsky, V. (1917). “Art as Technique”, in Russian Formalist Criticism: Four Essays, eds. Lee T. Lemon & Marion J. Reiss. U of Nebraska P (1965), pp. 3-24
Suvin, D. (1979). Metamorphoses of Science Fiction: On the Poetics and History of a Literary Genre. Yale University Press
Jerry Määttä is an Associate Professor at the Department of Literature at Uppsala University, Sweden. He has published on science fiction, sociology of literature, the Swedish book market, popular fiction, audio books, literary prizes and awards, and has recently finished a project on British and American apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic narratives in film and literature since ca. 1950.
Daniel Pargman is an Associate Professor at the Department of Media Technology and Interaction Design (MID) at KTH Royal Institute of Technology, Sweden. He is interested in energy research and social science, teaching sustainability and computing within limits. He blogs at danielpargman.blogspot.com.