Associate Professor of English and Adjunct Professor of American Studies,
Department of English
De Witt Douglas Kilgore is the author of Astrofuturism: Science, Race and Visions of Utopia in Space (2003). His recent work includes, “Seeking the Galactic Club: Fred Hoyle, Carl Sagan and the C/SETI Novel” in The Palgrave Handbook of Society, Culture and Outer Space (2016), a review of Past Futures: Science Fiction Space Travel, and Postwar Art of the Americas for the Los Angeles Review of Books (24 September 2015), and “Afrofuturism,” a chapter in the Oxford Handbook of Science Fiction, edited by Rob Latham (2014).
My primary interest is the expressive traffic between science and culture in the twentieth century. I am particularly fascinated by how futurist narratives in science and technology engage contemporary struggles around race and gender. While twentieth century science and literature is my general field the core of my practice is science fiction studies.
My first book, Astrofuturism: Science, Race and Visions of Utopia in Space, is an incisive engagement with the science writing and science fiction produced by the modern spaceflight movement. As a history it takes seriously the (sometimes progressive) hopes of those scientists and engineers who wrote the space age into being as a great cultural project. As a critique it turns a cold eye on those narratives of disciplined futurism to which I, as an ordinary native of the 1960’s and ’70’s, was (and still am) vulnerable. My general research agenda is to recoup the liberatory potential of sciences and narratives ordinarily prescribed as closed to non-white, non-male, and non-middle-class people.
My current project, The Galactic Club: Seeking a Post/Racial Universe in Science/Fiction, is concerned with the philosophical and social narratives that have emerged from SETI (the search for extraterrestrial intelligence), a relatively new science founded by astronomers in the late 1950s. SETI science brings my research down to earth, so to speak, focusing on the expressive work of writer-scientists who explore the universe from home, building both new knowledge and the audiences for it. This work follows the general thrust of Astrofuturism in that it exploits my fascination with the process of how new sciences gain credibility as adjuncts to the social imperatives of our time. However, in this study my concern is less with the making of the future (even though this is never far away) and more with the genesis, structure and meaning of the social narratives we employ to explain its emergence. If we can sustain disciplined arguments about the existence of life and intelligence elsewhere then how do we make the search relevant to the way we live now? What effect would it have on us to encounter an actually alien race, a species unrelated to our biology and history, to whom we could talk and from whom we could, perhaps, receive answers? Would first contact with unearthly Others force maturity on the human species, opening the way to some blessed age? Would we instead falter and fall into decline, having lost the assumption of uncontested intelligent supremacy? As it argues for its place in our culture SETI science explores these questions and proposes a future in which a new human commonwealth transcends current investments in culture, nation and race. It should not be a surprise, therefore, that the hypothetical scenarios produced within SETI are a consequence and, in some cases, a self-conscious dissent from the legacy of terrestrial exploration. Therefore, it is the historical tradition of race and empire that sets the stage for SETI and sparks my engagement with this particular intersection between science and social thought.