Alienating Punishment: Prisons in Science Fiction

Wetzel, Ariel. Alienating Punishment: Prisons in Science Fiction. 2014. University of Washington, PhD dissertation.

This dissertation asserts that science fiction (SF) takes a commonplace, the prison, and estranges it to make it unfamiliar and subject to critical examination. The dissertation explores this claim through two subjects: the prison as an institution and the body of the prisoner. The institution is examined through a utopian (and dystopian) lens, as the dissertation claims that utopias, prisons are intentional communities designed to be homogeneous and orderly, as both utopias and prisons are thought of as "world apart." Upon closer examination, this dissertation demonstrates how that when the fictional prison is made unfamiliar, it is revealed to be a simultaneously utopian and dystopian space, a dysfunctional project of control and perfection. This offers a new interpretation of the utopian tradition, one where the prison is always present and integral to the utopia itself. Then, this dissertation turns to examine the treatment of the prisoner in SF. It shows that SF represents the prisoner's body as figuratively estranged through speculative disciplinary technologies, where incarceration is represented as literally alien. This might take the form of virtual reality prison, where incarceration is experienced subjectively, or forced imposition into the gender binary. In both instances, the dissertation asserts, the prison imposes a mediated embodiment as punishment. This mediated embodiment can take the form of unwanted posthuman subjectivity, or it can take the form of forced gender-reassignment in which the prisoner's body becomes, as punishment, a gender she or he does not desire. Primary texts discussed in this dissertation include Marge Piercy's Woman on the Edge of Time, BBC's The Prisoner television series, Robert Heinlein's The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, George Zebrowski's Brute Orbits, Franz Kafka's "In the Penal Colony," SciFi Channel's Battlestar Galactica, Nisi Shawl's "Deep End," Alfred Bester's The Stars My Destination, Kelley Eskridge's Solitaire, and Charles Stross's Glasshouse.

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