Esko Suoranta is a doctoral researcher in English literature at the University of Helsinki. He is currently on a research visit at the University of Birmingham. He took some time from his research activities to talk to us about his work.
Could you tell a little bit about your current research project? What is it on, what are your aims for the project?
“I’m working on finishing my dissertation in English literature at the English Unit of the University of Helsinki – and now visiting the University of Birmingham for some added support for my theoretical introduction. My research focuses on contemporary Anglo-American speculative fiction through a cognitive literary studies approach.
In my dissertation, I try to identify how what I call technonaturalist novels by authors like William Gibson, Annalee Newitz, Malka Older, and Thomas Pynchon, among others, create possibilities for considering complex, systemic phenomena like digital capitalism or the future of the climate crisis. I’m especially interested in how the authors in my corpus employ the literary form in ways that become salient for readers, having them come face to face with phenomena that are challenging to represent in straightforward ways. In so doing, I argue, they create affordances through which readers can engage these, sometimes baffling, phenomena of our time.
By technonaturalism, I mean a mode of more-or-less contemporary speculative fiction that foregrounds, first of all, technonature, that is, locales that bring together technology and nature in various ways. For example, server farms or container ports are technonatural as they combine electricity infrastructures, natural formations, computer code, and labor, to name just a few elements. In technonaturalism such sites become aesthetic focal points as well as symbols for digital capitalism’s complexities.
Second, technonaturalism approaches its 21st-century subject matter in a similar way as literary naturalism in the 19th and 20th centuries did industrialization and its effects: it focuses on material realities, malfunctions, marginals, and pluralities. The mode’s scepticism toward the promises of new technology is also grounded in a nuanced understanding of how digital capitalism works, rather than dystopian alarmism or techno-optimism.”
Why did you choose this topic? What is it about the topic that interests you?
“I originally detected a tendency in certain speculative-fiction novels of the 2000s and 2010s where imagining things like sentient artificial intelligences or dystopian futures was replaced with speculative interpretations on the then-contemporary moment. Instead of distilling concerns about the future into stock figures like humanoid robots, for example, the texts laid out stories of corporate cultures, the powers and pitfalls of internet technologies, and the effects of digital technologies on democracy. The novels seemed to be saying interesting things about where capitalism, especially in terms of its digitization, was going.
From this broadly societal concern into my primary texts, I’ve then amended my analysis with a cognitive literary studies approach. It started to become evident that in addition to the thematic commonalities, the authors I study are doing interesting things with the form of the speculative fiction novel. Things started to click when I studied the theory of affordances and started considering literature as a cognitive environment with which both writers and writers engage in active, embodied, and socially and historically determined ways. For me, such a cognitive understanding of literature has promise to explain both how literature in general “works,” but also how different modes achieve their specific effects. For instance, we might note how speculative fiction makes things like fictional world-building very explicitly – Tolkien goes through dozens of steps in plain sight, so to speak, to bring Middle-Earth into existence – but similarly a realist novel relies on building a fictional world, despite generally hiding the process of doing so.”
How does your research visit relate to or support the project? What are you hoping to get out of the visit?
“During my visit at the University of Birmingham, I’m working with Dr Matt Hayler at the Department of English Literature and Centre for Digital Cultures. Matt is an expert in contemporary literature, cognitive approaches, and posthumanism, so putting my head down to writing with his help is extremely useful for the completion of my dissertation as a whole. In addition, I get to share my work with local researchers and we’re organizing, for example, a reading group on the concept of affordances during my stay which I very much look forward to.
My specific goal for the visit is to recast the classic theory of science fiction as the literature of “cognitive estrangement” in terms of a contemporary understanding of cognition and affordances that I believe is missing from its formulations thus far. I hope to show both that SF theory benefits from a cognitive approach, but also that its central tenets, so redefined, will prove illuminating for literary theory in general.”
What do you think literary analysis of speculative fiction can tell us about our own society in the age of digital capitalism and surveillance in the digital age? Is there something that we should learn from these stories?
“There are definitely lessons to be learned from technonaturalist novels and their kind. I think one of the most important moves they do is a perspective shift from the oft-simplistic imaginaries of mainstream SF to the nuances and unforeseen consequences of complex interactions between technologies, markets, societies, and individuals.
The novels also generally avoid clear-cut resolutions, often signalling toward a view of history as ongoing and open-ended, where possibilities for change remain despite hegemonic capitalist power, its developments, and upheavals. Teaching texts by some of the authors in my corpus I’ve also noticed how they don’t always even register as speculative fiction when they describe the effects of technology on our experience – such tensions are also extremely productive for the critical appraisal of our circumstances.”
Is there anything else you would like to tell us that we did not know to ask about your research or otherwise?
“You should definitely ask for fiction recommendations! I’ll happily provide some that readers can click right into:
Excerpt from The Every by Dave Eggers, 2022.
Eggers’s novel revolves around hegemonic aspirations of the eponymous Silicon Valley behemoth. Sequel to The Circle (2013), it is a hyperdrive leap into a world in which one company controls data to control human behavior in ever-more imaginative, and terrible, ways.
“Line Go Up” by Tim Maughan, 2022.
The non-fungible token short story you did not know you needed. Maughan’s story presents a harrowing view into a very-near future in which art would follow the ups and downs of cryptocurrency-related markets.
Excerpt from Infomocracy by Malka Older, 2016
Older’s trilogy reimagines global democracy without nation states, dependent on a ubiquitous information network administering both elections and the free and accurate circulation of information. It is not without its problems!
Esko Suoranta has received TelepART support for his research visit.
Image: Esko Suoranta