Science Fiction, Utopia, and Digital Humanities

Virtual archives, ideal libraries, new heuristics of the network

This article was first featured in Italian on the website of Apice (Archivi della Parola, dell’Immagine e della Comunicazione Editoriale, functional centre of the University of Milan), March 9, 2021. The author would like to thank Lodovica Braida for permission to translate and reproduce it here.

Interested in the relationship between humanity and techno-science, the speculative imagination thrives in the digital world. Indeed, science fiction has functioned as a hypothetical laboratory for experiments that have profoundly shaped the intersections between digital and humanistic studies. Starting at least with H.G. Wells’ World Encyclopaedia, with its neural structure – a prefiguration of our relational electronic databases -, concepts such as immersive virtual reality or artificial intelligence, and key reflections on the relations between corporeal physicality and digital dematerialisation have taken shape in the novels of authors such as Philip K. Dick, Anne McCaffrey, and William Gibson.

We therefore invite our readers to a brief survey of science fiction in the digital world, starting with this question: does speculative and utopian imagery constitute a particularly fruitful field of research for the humanities in the digital world? The answer – we are going to demonstrate with a few examples – can certainly be positive, at least in some important aspects of that multifaceted field undergoing tumultuous developments which goes by the name of digital humanities.

From the point of view of the accumulation and retrieval of textual information and bibliographic metadata, initiatives such as The Internet Speculative Fiction Database (started in 1995 and constantly being updated) show an impressive quantitative scope, and exploit the potential of crowd sourcing and cooperative construction procedures to support an open access model in favour of the end user. Cataloguing and encyclopaedic initiatives in the English-speaking world reflect an increasing global circulation of culture and translation trends that are bringing texts from non-European and non-Atlantic areas, such as China and Japan, to the international market. Exemplary of this is the space devoted to non-English speaking authors and works in the 18,000 entries of the Encyclopaedia of Science Fiction. Conceived by Peter Nicholls at the end of the 1970s, the SF Encyclopaedia came to the web in 2005, after several editions on paper and on CD-ROM – media that today would no longer be able to contain its extension. With its numerous international contributors and its team of editors-in-chief, it represents a mediation between open collaboration and authoritative authorship that is in many ways an alternative to the model typified by Wikipedia. The French-speaking world has also moved in this direction with the encyclopaedic portal Noosfere, which has been developed since 1999.

The web also makes multilingual resources or those that straddle linguistic-geographical borders accessible. Today, the European enthusiast can consult the young 中文科幻数据库 (CSFDB, Chinese Science Fiction Database) with the same browser with which she accesses the retrospective SF, Fantasy and Horror Catalogue founded by Ernesto Vegetti in 1958, which passed from computers and floppy disks to the Internet, and was closed in 2009 after having surveyed the fantastic in the history of books in Italy since 1602.

These are initiatives that have virtual communities behind them (not public and/or academic institutions) and therefore make the most of the possibility – made available by the Internet, and more specifically by the web – of structuring and operating groups of individuals who would otherwise be distant from each other, and of building ideal library catalogues that do not refer to physically existing collections.

In the academic field, may be mentioned the impressive utopian bibliography from 1516 to the present, compiled by Lyman Tower Sargent and hosted on the servers of the Penn State University Libraries, and the cornucopia of critical materials, bibliographical references, concordances, and electronic editions dedicated to the father of European utopia, The Essential Works of Thomas More, the result of collaboration between various scholars.

As for catalographic resources offering a web-based access point to real collections, one could list, alongside Apice’s catalogue, those of collections such as the Arthur O. Eaton Collection of Science Fiction and Fantasy (University of California), the Science Fiction Hub and Special collection (University of Liverpool), the Utopian Studies Collection (University of Missouri-St. Louis), or the Arthur O. Lewis Society for Utopian Studies papers (Pennsylvania State University). These are just a few representative examples of a much more articulated galaxy, surveyed by the SF Archival Collections Wiki maintained by librarians of various institutions, and literally mapped in SF Archival collection, administered in Googlemaps by The Eaton Journal of Archival Research in Science Fiction.

The Internet in 2003. Visualisation by OPTE Project –, licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License. Graph engine LGL. Graph colours: red – Asia Pacific, green – Europe/Middle East/Central Asia/Africa, blue – North America, yellow – Latin American and Caribbean, light blue – RFC1918 IP Addresses, white – Unknown.

Much could be said about how the world of fantastic speculation has embraced the potential of digital content distribution – with scientific and amateur journals, directories, and resource portals – and communication – from yesterday’s BBSs to today’s newsletters, forums, and websites. It is perhaps more interesting, however, to offer some remarks on those areas with a specific heuristic potential. If we answered positively to the question “has science fiction contributed to shaping the digital humanities?” we can ask ourselves, on the other hand, if and how the tools that are now being developed in the field of digital humanities contribute to a better understanding of speculative fiction.

In this context too, key texts of the European tradition such as More’s Utopia continue to attract the attention and creativity of scholars. The Open Utopia project by Stephen Duncombe (New York University), for example, proposes a hypertextual and multi-codical edition as a starting point for new readings and actualisations of the text, and connects the main site to a collective writing project on a wiki platform.

Marking up texts and organising textual corpora open up new possibilities of constructing analyses and visualisations. Moving from books to texts, to data, to data analysis, the science fiction researcher sees the promising territories of geo-referencing, spatialised narration and network analysis ahead. Between Moretti’s distant reading and new semantic and formal-structural investigations, a multitude of possible quantitative and qualitative investigations are been made available.

Thus, we begin to circumscribe and process sets of sources in order to capture the evolution of interests and tastes, from the perspective of cultural history and sociology (the text-mining of science fiction corpora in current researches such as that of Alex Wermer-Colan‘s) or literary history (the analyses and visualisations of a Gibsonian corpus carried out by Stefania Forlini, Uta Hinrichs, Bridget Moynihan, and John Brosz) and stylistics (the computational stylometry applied to C. S. Lewis by Michael P. Oakes), or building catalographic and popular applications.

In conclusion, utopian and science-fictional speculation is confirming, in the digital world, its ability to straddle different methodological traditions, and to rediscover and make fruitful a common epistemological background that is often little visible in our contemporary system of knowledge.

Giulia Iannuzzi

University of Florence – University of Trieste

Cite this article as: Giulia Iannuzzi, "Science Fiction, Utopia, and Digital Humanities," in Geographies of Time, 14/03/2021,

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