BOOKS IN REVIEW
The Many Faces of Posthumanism.
Sonia Baelo-Allué and Mónica Calvo-Pascual, eds. Transhumanism and Posthumanism in Twenty-First Century Narrative. Routledge, 2021. xxi+248 pp. $170.00 hc, $44.05 ebk.
Transhumanism and Posthumanism in Twenty-First Century Narrative features the work of fifteen scholars (the majority of whom are women) across five countries, providing diverse perspectiveson a critical apparatus that has garnered much attention in recent years. Of the thirteen essays in this investigation of posthumanism and transhumanism, four take on theoretical, pedagogical, or cultural studies approaches, most of which are included in the first section (“Theoretical Approaches: Looking Back, Looking Forward”). The remaining three sections are driven by literary or textual analysis, pairing a variety of theoretical lenses with posthumanist concerns. Standout contributions from authors such as Stefan Herbrechter and Sherryl Vint make it a valuable contribution to the field, as does its interdisciplinary appeal. There is some inconsistency in essay quality, but the few essays that are underdeveloped in argument or stylistically unrefined do not on the whole detract from the collection’s merits.
Baelo-Allué and Calvo-Pascual’s introduction, “(Trans/Post) Humanity and Representation in the Fourth Industrial Revolution and the Anthropocene,” succinctly provides the discursive threads that underlie this collection, contextualizing our present moment with the development of new technologies that have fundamentally changed our relationship with technology, with each other, and with the planet.
Defining posthumanism primarily as a school of thought that rejects elements of liberal-humanist philosophy, Baelo-Allué and Calvo-Pascual identify critical moves common to posthumanists, such as challenging anthropocentrism and human exceptionalism and interrogating the nature/ culture binary. Along the way, they introduce major players in posthumanist scholarship who will be cited regularly in the collection’s essays, including N. Katherine Hayles, Rosi Braidotti, Sherryl Vint, Stefan Herbrechter, and Donna Haraway (who does not identify as such but is nevertheless regularly quoted by posthumanists).
The framing of the introduction suggests that criticizing transhumanist discourse from a posthumanist perspective is a central project of the book, as the editors argue its rhetoric reflects an “intensification of humanism” (5). It also proved necessary to feature Braidotti’s account of posthumanism in the introduction, which links posthumanism with the anti-humanism of poststructuralist thought, as this justifies the inclusion of a few essays focusing more heavily on anti-humanism than on posthumanism or transhumanism proper.
The first chapter of section one, Stefan Herbrechter’s “Before Humanity, Or, Posthumanism Between Ancestrality and Becoming Inhuman,” is perhaps the most thought-provoking essay in the collection, maintaining what Herbrechter previously termed his “critical posthumanist” stance. Herbrechter takes particular interest in how we have attempted to define the human and the consistent failure of such endeavors. He opens the essay with a semiotic exploration of the word “before,” which simultaneously denotes the past and the future, beginning a compelling engagement with anthropology and philosophy that will continue throughout the piece. Exploring the term “before humanity,” then, Herbrechter highlights and deconstructs our temporally-bound notions of humanity, concluding that “Humanity ... remains forever deferred, or in difference” (25). Ultimately, he links the desire to overcome the human to notions of human exceptionalism. Engaging Lyotard and Nietzsche among others, he proposes a conception of the human as always becoming.
In the second chapter, Maite Escudero-Alías compares transhumanism with eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Utilitarianism, creating a novel genealogy between these two humanist philosophies. Escudero-Alías justifies her transhistorical comparison by advocating for generative rereadings of the past as a means to create improvement in the present, offering this intellectual exercise as a praxis that models the very critical thinking that she fears is in decline. Noting how both privilege facts and “sterile” reason, Escudero-Alías worries about the implications of these values in our society, particularly when compounded by shifting reading practices in classrooms today. The essay contends that “deep reading,” which develops the capacity for critical thinking and nurtures empathy, is often lost in digital reading.
In the following essay, Alexandra Glavanakova fills the gap in Escudero-Alías’s work, primarily the lack of specific examples and quantifiable data, by providing several studies on various forms of technology-mediated reading and writing. Glavanakova suggests that reading online is not as much of a threat as it may seem. In a synthesis of the literature accessible for secondary educators, social scientists, and other members of the educated public, Glavanakova maintains that the increasingly collaborative element of online reading stresses community over the isolated individual reader/thinker, the center of the liberal-humanist paradigm. Both authors, however, agree that teaching methods and technologies that foster bi-literacy (print and digital) should be further investigated and prioritized.
The second section in this collection, “Transhumanism: The Uneasiness of Human Enhancement,” opens with Loredana Filip’s well-argued analysis of Ted Talks that celebrate human enhancement through technological innovation. Filip identifies the overt transhumanist discourse at play in these presentations and exposes their inherent contradictions. Drawing attention to rhetorical appeals, visual metaphors, somatic expressions, and invocations of the sublime in this tightly organized essay, she illustrates how these speakers undermine their Cartesian ethos.
The following three essays, the last of which opens section three, are all concerned in varying degrees with theories of modernity and postmodernity or the literary movements associated with them. Francisco Collado-Rodríguez compares John Shirley and William Gibson’s “The Belonging Kind” (1986) and Dave Eggers’s The Circle (2013) in a theoretically-packed essay that draws from McLuhan (self-amputation), Baudrillard (the hyperreal), and Bauman (fluid modernity). He explores two key motifs in his source texts, concluding that they reflect the limits of transhumanist values and approaches in our present condition. Two essays on Tom McCarthy follow which elucidate the cultural criticisms levied by this complex experimental English author. Susan Onega delineates his anti-humanist gestures and Margalida Andreu aligns the ideology and style on display in Satin Island (2015) with metamodernism.
The remaining two essays in section three (“Transhumanism: Trauma and [Bio]Technology”) demonstrate the bountiful potential of combining trauma studies and critical posthumanist perspectives. Laguarta-Bueno’s “Don DeLillo’s Zero K (2016): Transhumanism, Trauma, and the Ethic of Premature Cryopreservation,” implicates transhumanist values and technology in main character Jeffrey Lockhart’s trauma. This straightforward essay highlights DeLillo’s commentary on the social and interpersonal consequences of a culture where such values are dominant.
In the sole film analysis in the collection, which focuses on M. Night Shyamalan’s Split (2016), Fernández-Santiago finds a parallel between ableist rhetoric and transhumanist discourse, which both create hierarchies of being prefigured on loss. Such an approach allows her to triangulate disability studies, posthumanism, and trauma studies, as the traumatized subject is often depicted as having suffered the loss of a formerly whole and unified self. The film portrays a character with multiple personalities, which the medical field identifies as a disorder associated with trauma. Fernández-Santiago argues that Split undermines this trauma-as-loss perspective by challenging liberal humanism’s stable individual subject. Her exhaustive explication of the film’s visual metaphors, contradictions, and slippages is a generative and absorbing application of posthumanist thinking to disability and trauma studies in textual analysis.
The final section of the collection, “Posthumanity: Post-Anthropocentric Scenarios” will be of particular interest to sf scholars. The opening essay by Justus Poetzsch situates the popular series by Jeff VanderMeer (The Southern Reach, 2014) and Cixin Liu (Remembrance of Earth’s Past, Eng. trans. 2014-2016) against each other as prime examples of posthumanism and transhumanism respectively. This brief broad-strokes reading will be instructive to students and scholars new to posthumanism, locating critical terminology in concrete textual examples and modeling methods for its application to literary study.
Exploring texts featuring shapeshifting bodies and life-forms, the essays in this section round out the collection by providing tangible embodiments of the posthuman. This allows Monica Sousa and Sherryl Vint to introduce concepts from the biological sciences and animal studies. The quality of Vint’s work is well documented, and her analysis of “Posthuman Transformation” in Helen Marshall’s The Migration (2019) is equally admirable. In this epidemic novel, infected adolescents eventually take on a new physical form, and Vint argues that the novel’s new humans “(speak) figuratively to the need to reimagine ‘the human’ philosophically in recognition of the damage done by anthropogenic climate change” (222). She draws from symbiogenesis theory, combining ecology and technology studies with feminist thought and exemplifying the fruitful marriage of science and the humanities. Vint models this herself, calling on the field of epigenetics to illustrate the many flaws in common understandings of the human and its relationship to the environment.
In “‘Am I a Person?’ Biotech Animals and Posthumanist Empathy in Jeff VanderMeer’s Borne,” Monica Sousa highlights the politics of the gaze and utilizes Deleuze and Guattari’s “symbiosis” and Ralph Acampora’s “symphysis” as she analyzes the human protagonist’s developing relationship with a bio-tech animal. She similarly calls for renewed investigation into our notions of personhood, arguing such work could foster empathy towards non-human animals.
Because it disproportionately features source-texts authored/directed by heterosexual white men, Transhumanism and Posthumanism in Twenty-First Century Narrative does not well represent the breadth of authors and creators producing work driven by or reflecting posthumanist concerns. This critic wonders what new levels of complexity this collection might have reached if, rather than including more than one essay on Vandermeer and McCarthy, the editors had featured more essays analyzing work written by women, queer people, and people of color.
The collection nonetheless demonstrates what is so useful about posthumanism. Concerned with defining the human—but doing so within specific social, economic, political, technological, ecological, and environmental contexts—posthumanism is both philosophical and material. It can bear fruit across scholarly disciplines and theoretical approaches and has practical applications outside of academia. I recommend Transhumanism and Posthumanism in Twenty-First Century Narrative to public and university libraries.—Julia Lindsay, University of Georgia
An Excellent and Much Needed History of Indian SF.
Suparno Banerjee. Indian Science Fiction: Patterns, History, Hybridity. U of Wales P, 2020. xvi+256 pp. £70 hc.
We are experiencing a critical boom in theorizations of Indian speculative literature. As of December 2021, seven separate volumes on Indian sf, including four monographs, have come out in the last three years. Books on Indian fantasy have also been published and several more are forthcoming. Almost all focus on Indian Anglophone materials, perhaps the most internationally available and familiar part of the Indian speculative scene (even if, nationally, this is the tiniest fragment of what is being written and read). This critical boom pairs well with the publishing boom in English-language speculative fiction from the region. Publishers such as Gollancz, Harper Collins, Hachette, and Tor have taken a lead in publishing Indian speculative fiction, and hardly any catalogue of major international publishers of speculative fiction lacks works dubbed Indian or South Asian sf (even if a lot of this has been written by people of South Asian ethnicity born or living in Europe or North America). Like a lot of other sf now, South Asian sf is part of a global discussion, much of which is happening outside the region. Editors and publishers of South Asian ethnicity and ancestry are publishing major sf magazines and heading large publishing houses. We are also beginning to see the formation of South Asian futurisms, with writers from different regions publishing with the same publishers, primarily located in India, the hub for much regional and international publishing. The two booms, critical and publishing, are part of a global marketing reality, one unlikely to subside any time soon.
It is important for any review of a book as important as Indian Science Fiction to highlight this context. When we now ask what Indian science fiction is, this movement, this transnationality, this formation of a global discussion is the phenomenon that Banerjee seeks to capture. Of the four recent monographs on Indian sf, this is the only one that bridges the gap to some extent between the vernacular realities of Indian speculative literatures and global Anglophone realities. Urvashi Kuhad’s Science Fiction and Indian Women Writers (Routledge, 2021) and Sami Ahmad Khan’s Star Warriors of the Modern Raj (U of Wales P, 2021) focus on the Anglophone world, while Upamanyu Pablo Mukherjee’s Final Frontiers (Liverpool UP, 2020) looks at a previous age of Indian sf, with a focus on the Bangla scene. Any theorization of Indian sf must necessarily be partial due to the mindboggling heterogeneity (including linguistic heterogeneity) of the region, but Banerjee’s use of materials in different languages clearly gives his theorization of “Indian” sf an edge.
Before we briefly dive into the book, another thing must be mentioned. Suparno Banerjee is a familiar name for those looking into Indian sf. He has published quite widely on the topic, and his 2010 PhD thesis has been a landmark for early critics of Indian Anglophone sf. Those of us who are working on or have worked on Indian sf owe much to him. Here Banerjee mostly builds on his previous work but gives us a comprehensive enough picture of the history of Indian sf for this book to be worthwhile.
The book is divided into five straightforward chapters, placed between an introduction and a conclusion. The opening chapter, “Genealogies,” is perhaps the most interesting one for those seeking a general overview of Indian sf from its origins to the present. In the more thematic chapters, Banerjee takes on worldbuilding, time, space, and the Other as four dimensions of Indian sf. Despite the thematic take, the individual chapters are generally chronologically linear, which makes sense given Banerjee’s attempt to provide an overview of the whole phenomenon and give it internal consistency. Chronology as history allows the placement of the patterns and hybridity that Banerjee seeks to present.
The book is flawless in its presentation of both the history of Indian sf and its different thematic explorations. Banerjee ranges widely in his study, looking at works in multiple languages, including both Hindi and Bangla, major producers of sf. There is hardly anything that Banerjee leaves untouched in general terms, and the patterns he identifies make sense. Almost all the authors one expects to find in the book are there, including known names such as Vandana Singh, whose work Banerjee has written on before, but also numerous others such as Adrish Bardhan, whose works are mostly unavailable in translation. Banerjee situates Indian sf and its themes in terms of its colonial and postcolonial realities, as well as in the specific terms of current Indian political realities, especially the rise of Hindu nationalism. He also makes these conversations multilingual, the only book in the field at present that does so effectively. The significance of his categorization and chronological presentation of Indian sf in the opening chapter is an especially brilliant piece of historicization. Since much of the book consists of incisive textual analysis of different works grouped under the main themes, a short review can hardly do it justice.
I do have some reservations about the book, however. First, it is old-fashioned in its coverage and approach since it focuses on written sf rather than on other media platforms, on a fairly narrow view of the extent of South Asian sf, and on the view that Indian sf is a “result” of an “encounter between India and the West” (194), a distinction that is eroding with the explosion of formations such as Afro- and African-futurisms and Indigenous futurisms. Second, it does not take advantage of much of the recent scholarship on Indian sf, including Anwesha Maity’s work with classical South Asian aesthetic theories (see, for instance, her article in SFS 43.3 ). These limitations, not trivial, also show how much work is still to be done. The book offers us the evidence of its own history and limitations as a critical framework for facing the evolving futures and futurisms of the genre.
Nevertheless, Banerjee’s book will remain invaluable for what it offers as a history and general study of Indian sf, especially of the last few decades. I would recommend this book for any readers interested in the history and themes of Indian sf.—Bodhisattva Chattopadhyay, University of Oslo
Always Already After the End of the World.
Brent Ryan Bellamy. Remainders of the American Century: Post-Apocalyptic Novels in the Age of US Decline. Wesleyan UP, 2021. 270 pp. $80 hc, $24.95 pbk, $19.99 ebk.
As the apocalyptic premises of end-of-the-world scenarios in American fiction have shifted from the atomic warfare of the post-World War II era to the pandemics and climate catastrophes of the twenty-first century, it has only become all the more apparent how much easier it is to imagine stripped down reproductions of the existing social order than any radical rearrangement of the status quo emerging from the disaster. This is the insight at the basis of Brent Ryan Bellamy’s well researched and smartly argued survey of American post-apocalyptic novels from World War II to the present. As Bellamy says at the outset, “Post-apocalyptic novels are not about the end of the world. Instead ... such stories recently produced in or about the United States express cultural anxiety about the end of US hegemony and the long, slow, painful acclimatization to life under neoliberalism” (1). Perhaps the most useful thing Bellamy does in this excellent study is to conceptualize those persistent post-apocalyptic reproductions of the status quo as “remainders.” Remainders are the fragments of the old order among which the post-apocalyptic plot spins itself out. Bellamy calls these fragments remainders rather than survivals in order to emphasize the crucial fact that they are the selective results of a process of world reduction, creating a speculative setting by eliminating important elements of the contemporary world, as Fredric Jameson shows Ursula K. Le Guin doing in a classic essay on The Left Hand of Darkness and The Dispossessed (“World Reduction in Le Guin,” reprinted in Archaeologies of the Future [Verso, 2005]; cited by Bellamy 54). As such, these ideological afterimages of the pre-apocalyptic world indicate tendentious desires rather than the causal effects of the world-ending event—indeed, as Bellamy observes, it is not infrequently the case that the thematic drive of the remainders overpowers and even erases the apocalyptic event itself. It is the selection of remainders that shapes the fictional construction of a nostalgic return to a premodern social order, the unleashing of a brutal war of all against all, the supersession of political exigencies within the constricted sphere of the nuclear family, and so on. Of course, the concept of the remainder also emphasizes the importance of what has been left out in order to allow the secondary world’s racial, gender, technological, or religious arrangements to play themselves out. It is a supple analytical tool, and Bellamy makes good use of it throughout his study.
The dichotomy of what remains and what is left out corresponds to the two sides of the apocalyptic novel’s dominant tendencies regarding the present. On the one hand, the pervasive role of scarcity “describe[s] a situation uncannily like the one that capital’s ideologues would have people believe they live in today” (2), and the majority of the novels Bellamy surveys reproduce and valorize the sort of anti-collectivism and political nostalgia typically associated with the frontier in US mythology. But on the other hand, these novels consistently “treat crisis as opportunity” (2) in ways that sometimes produce critical reflection on matters of race, gender, ecology, and technology. Echoing Louis Althusser’s famous definition of ideology, Bellamy writes that “Remainders represent the imaginary relationship of characters to their pre-apocalytpic conditions of existence” (22). Becoming more aware of what has been left out in order to represent a return to frontier hardiness or heterosexual “nature” is dependent upon readerly intervention, not simply inherent in texts, and so even retrograde fictions can be put to critical purposes. Indeed, that is exactly what much of Bellamy’s analysis accomplishes.
Bellamy approaches post-apocalyptic fiction as a mode rather than a genre (although he also calls attention to the ways it functions as a genre category in the commercial publishing industry, as will be explained further below). Understanding post-apocalyptic fiction as a mode entails paying attention to the ways it draws on various generic resources to enact a common set of purposes. Its coherence lies in its topical focus and intended effects, not its formal similarities. The modal approach triggers the methodological decision to emphasize repetition rather than individual artistry: “Rather than treating these novels on their own, this book aims to aggregate the whole set of texts that constitute the post-apocalyptic mode of storytelling” (5). In this spirit Bellamy isolates the major conventions or tropes of post-apocalyptic plots: “sole survivors navigate a less complex story world; society rebuilds, but with a difference; or small groups struggle to maintain ways of belonging to a world that no longer exists” (35). From these central tropes a coherent set of strategies arises. The less complex story world is often elaborated by cataloguing. The plot of rebuilding society lays its emphasis on the formation, maintenance, and destruction of communities. The trope of the small group entails the construction of enclaves, with a consequent detailing of protective or imposed barriers. At its most extreme the isolated enclave yields one of the oldest and most persistent of post-apocalyptic tropes, the figure of the last man. Although these tropes emerge in and respond to complex historical circumstances, over time they tend to be “delinked from their historical context and redeployed in the abstract, almost mythical time of American conservatism” so that they are “stripped of their critical traction, such as when the last human survivor becomes a symbol of the white man as a tragic victim—or worse, as a savior” (50). Fortunately, this well-worn path remains far from universal, as Bellamy points out in his readings of Octavia E. Butler, Sheri S. Tepper, Kim Stanley Robinson, Colson Whitehead, N.K. Jemisin, and others.
The bulk of Remainders of the American Century is taken up with a series of case studies that also deliver a full-bodied formal and historical survey of post-apocalyptic fiction in the US since World War II. Bellamy illustrates the world-reducing, “subtractive” procedures that typify post-apocalyptic storytelling with contrasting analyses of Stephen King’s The Stand (1978) and Sheri S. Tepper’s The Gate to Women’s Country (1988), arguing that “where King imagines a face-off between the forces of democracy and anarchy recoded in the cadence of the epic mode as good and evil,” Tepper’s novel turns the post-apocalyptic mode into compelling metafiction: “The Gate to Women’s Country symbolizes the field of post-apocalyptic writing—indeed, of science fiction writing—in the mid-1980s” and “offers a glimpse of the potential of the post-apocalyptic mode to clarify, even as it reduces, future possibility” (72-73). Later chapters focus on the myth of the frontier, race, gender, and petromodernity. Every chapter covers a good range of texts and has interesting insights to offer about them. Anyone with a scholarly or pedagogic interest in this material will benefit greatly from Bellamy’s work.
I have left out, so far, the most unusual chapter, titled “Remaindered Books.” This is an account of some of the vicissitudes of the US publishing industry from the 1950s to the twenty-first century and their impact on the publishing and marketing of post-apocalyptic novels. Bellamy’s rather complex narrative traces the impact on publishing of the decline of small bookshops due to the rise of, first, mall stores, then big box bookstores, and finally Amazon. A crucial event is the 1979 Supreme Court decision in Thor Power Tool Company v. Commissioner of Internal Revenue that companies could no longer write off the cost of excess inventory for the reason that it was unsold. In the publishing industry, the increased cost of carrying inventory from year to year led to smaller print runs and a greater readiness to dispose of unsold books by “remaindering” them—stripping them of their covers and selling them off at vastly reduced prices, or even simply pulping them. The kind of long-term, slowly accumulating sales achieved by Philip K. Dick’s early fiction becomes much more difficult for new authors to achieve under these conditions, and matters are made worse by the fact that remaindering drastically cuts any royalties income at the same time as the remaindered books undermine sales for those left at normal retail outlets: “[I]n the case of remaindered books, the publishers are being undercut by their own product which they have effectively decided is actually valueless” (98). In the face of all this, publishers have tended to become more conservative, investing either in recognized “brand name” authors (e.g., Danielle Steele) or in formulaic series such as, in post-apocalyptic fiction, Harlequin’s Deathlands series (penned by multiple anonymous authors under the copyrighted authorial signature James Axler) or the more recent Christian Left Behind series by Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins. Alongside these developments comes an increasing trend for successful writers of literary fiction to venture into genre conventions such as those of the post-apocalyptic mode. Bellamy’s prime example is Cormac McCarthy’s Pulitzer-prize-winning The Road (2006), with its remarkable combination of literary and commercial success. But such success does nothing to soften the impact on most authors of the way that the terrain of twenty-first-century publishing has become more and more uneven, split between “massive publishing conglomerates on the one hand and small presses alongside self-publishing authors on the other” (97). Bellamy sums up: “The shifts from small retailer to mall store to big-box store to Amazon.com; the power retailers have over presses; the strategies of aiming big and selling niche; and the constraints on small presses still interested in selling physical books all work together to determine the publishing field for fiction in general and for post-apocalyptic fiction in particular” (98). All this produces a situation in which the expectation that a book will be sold in stores and the author will share in the profits is undone by “a catastrophic event that renders [the publishing industry] a remainder of itself” (98). The publishing industry itself is thus operating in a mode that “eerily resonates with the fictional worlds of post-apocalyptic novels” (98).
The one complaint I have about this fine book is that the chapter on the publishing industry seems to stand apart from the rest of the book, almost as if it were (as might be the case) the undeveloped kernel of an entirely separate book. When Bellamy gets into his case studies, the complex terrain of the field of publication tends to disappear in favor of more conventional (albeit impressively well-executed) literary criticism. This complaint certainly should not be taken as diminishing the importance of the book. Remainders of the American Century is highly recommended reading for scholars of sf, popular culture, and genre practices, and the more or less stand-alone character of the chapter on publishing only makes it more so.—John Rieder, University of Hawai’i at Mānoa
Aesthetic Ambition vs. Commercial Pressures.
F. Brett Cox. Roger Zelazny. Modern Masters of Science Fiction. U of Illinois P, 2021. xii + 208 pp. $110 hc, $27.95 pbk, $14.95 ebk.
In the history of modern sf, few authors have had as meteoric a debut as Roger Zelazny. His first sf story was published in 1962, and by the end of the decade he had won two Nebula Awards, for his novella “He Who Shapes” and his novelette “The Doors of His Face, The Lamps of His Mouth” (both 1965), and two Hugo Awards, for his novels This Immortal (1965; aka ...And Call Me Conrad) and Lord of Light (1967). Eight other stories received nominations, including “A Rose for Eccelesiastes” (1963), one of the most widely anthologized tales in modern sf. “Eccelesiastes” was voted the third best novelette of the twentieth century in a 2012 poll conducted by Locus magazine, one of nine Zelazny stories and novels to make the overall list. As befits the author’s complex generic positioning, Lord of Light was voted both the twenty-third best sf novel and the sixty-fifth best fantasy novel, and probably the author’s most popular work was his Amber series of quest fantasies, kicked off by Nine Princes in Amber in 1970—the fifth best fantasy novel of the twentieth century, according to Locus, out-polled by only four novels: Tolkien’s The Hobbit (1937) and The Lord of the Rings (1955), Le Guin’s A Wizard of Earthsea (1968), and George R.R. Martin’s A Game of Thrones (1996). Zelazny won one more Nebula and three more Hugos, all for short fiction, prior to his death in 1995 at the relatively young age of 58, although his reputation in the field, especially the reception of his novels, underwent a steady decline after 1970.
As F. Brett Cox observes in his new critical study of the author, this decline coincided with Zelazny’s decision in 1969 to quit his day job as a claims specialist for the Social Security Administration and devote himself full-time to writing. Not long after, reviewers began complaining about “a reduction in the quality of his work” (88) as commercial considerations seemed to take precedence over aesthetic ones, with the author “more intent on writing quickly, prolifically, and profitably than on blazing new and interesting literary trails” (101). Cox quotes a number of such verdicts by the likes of Norman Spinrad and other genre luminaries, perhaps the most poignant being the lament, in a review of Zelazny’s To Die in Italbar (1973) by Sidney Coleman in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction (August 1974), that sf readers “once had something unique and wonderful, and it is gone, and what we have in its place is only a superior writer of preposterous adventures” (qtd. 90). As Cox points out, Zelazny produced almost three dozen novels, several in collaboration, between 1970 and 1995, and only three were nominated for major awards, none winning. Cox also shows, in fine detail, how commercial pressures impinged on the author’s production, compelling him to focus on the crowd-pleasing Amber series and to scale back his experimental ambitions—for example, making his 1973 novel Today We Choose Faces more of a linear narrative, since his editor was worried that readers might be baffled by its fragmented form. Cox also makes clear that Zelazny himself was sometimes his own worst enemy, due to his tremendous facility at producing what he frankly called “copy,” which led to usually stylish but often superficial work.
Cox does such a good job reinforcing the conventional wisdom about Zelazny’s aesthetic decline that he rather undermines his own stated goal of contesting its “oversimplification” of a complex career (5). Indeed, Cox’s modification of the prevailing view is ultimately slight, as he himself seems to acknowledge:
There is no denying the commercial impulses that steered Zelazny’s career, especially in his later years. But there is also no question that, even as in those later years he hurriedly fulfilled one contract so that he could move on to the next, he never lost interest in developing his craft and never failed to give himself a chance, at least once in a while, to try something different and, ideally, learn something new. (9)
Within this modest compass, Cox makes a proficient—and, I think, convincing—case for several Zelazny novels that have not received their critical due. I agree with him, for example, that Bridge of Ashes (1976) deserves respect for its calculatedly impressionistic style and its “detailed exploration of environmental themes” (106), and that Eye of Cat (1982) is “on a purely formal level ... one of Zelazny’s most ambitious novels” (134), even going some distance, in its treatment of Native American themes, to rethinking the dynamics of cultural appropriation that some critics claimed deformed his engagement with Hinduism in Lord of Light. Cox also effectively shows the author’s maturation in his handling of female characters, moving from an assortment of vixens and waifs in his early texts to the depiction of complex protagonists, especially the heroine of his superb Hugo-winning novella “24 Views of Mt. Fuji, by Hokusai” (1986).
Cox’s discussion of the great 1960s stories and novels—to which, in a tacit admission of their preeminence, he devotes three of five chapters—is consistently engaging and illuminating. He details the way Zelazny brought his startling erudition—gleaned from a diverse academic career that included a Masters from Columbia for a thesis on Elizabethan tragedy—to bear on the materials of a genre just beginning to shake free of its pulp roots. Zelazny’s highly original fiction, “heavily freighted with mythological and literary allusion” (32), often led to him being characterized as a New Wave writer, though Cox argues against this association in perhaps the least convincing section of the book. He quotes Zelazny complaining that the designation was “just a popular tag slapped on a number of writers ... who had very little in common other than temporal proximity and some interest in stylistic and structural experimentation” (qtd. 40), but this is an evasive posture understandably adopted by a practicing professional who feared being pigeonholed. A more robust engagement with the debates that divided the genre during the 1960s and early 1970s would have added texture to Cox’s discussion, especially considering that Zelazny was, along with Thomas M. Disch, one of the American authors most closely associated with Michael Moorcock’s editorial project at New Worlds, publishing three of his most striking early stories in that magazine: “The Keys to December,” “Love Is an Imaginary Number,” and “For a Breath I Tarry” (all 1966). Cox does, though, cleverly argue that the controversial 1969 novel Creatures of Light and Darkness deserves to be seen, in its delirious fragmentation, as a kind of New Wave parody, and he quotes tributes to Zelazny that appeared in personal letters from mandarins of the movement such as Moorcock and Ballard (the fruit of diligent research in archival collections of Zelazny’s manuscripts and correspondence).
Well-researched, well-organized, and well-written, this is an exemplary entry in the University of Illinois Press’s Modern Masters of Science Fiction series, and it deserves the attention of all fans and scholars of Zelazny’s work, and of modern sf generally.—Rob Latham, Twentynine Palms
Forging an Anthropocenic Awareness Through Literature.
Tereza Dědinová, Weronika Łaszkiewicz, and Sylwia Borowska-Szerszun, eds. Images of the Anthropocene in Speculative Fictions: Narrating the Future. Lexington, 2021. 276 pp. $105 hc, $45 ebk.
The challenges of the Anthropocene implicate numerous effects and concerns and call on readers, critics, and writers to respond in appropriately wide-ranging ways. The twelve chapters of Images of the Anthropocene in Speculative Fiction: Narrating the Future address the philosophical, formal, social, and political themes informing literary responses to the Anthropocene. This term is taken as an opportunity to engage in necessary boundary crossings among disciplines and fields of knowledge, given the wide-ranging and diverse impacts of the effects of climate change across societies. Central to this project is the power of speculative fictions for thinking through key Anthropocenic concerns: generational justice, dystopia, hope, and responsibility. This commitment to literature’s role in the Anthropocene is grounded in speculative fiction’s potential for exploring ideas about nature and its ability to portray the effects of climate catastrophe, its capacity to examine the social and political systems that exacerbate or ameliorate the destruction of non-human environments, and its ability to speculate on human and non-human relationships.
Literature’s role in speaking to the Anthropocene is convincingly outlined in the introductory chapter by the collection’s editors. It frames the concerns detailed above against readings of Emma Itäranta’s Memory of Water (2012, English trans. 2014), Paolo Bacigalupi’s “The People of Sand and Slag” (2004), and David Mitchell’s The Bone Clocks (2014). The Anthropocene itself, the editors argue, “can be conceptualized as a narrative, but it is not a universal narrative of humankind. It is a story woven from various voices and identities, with no omniscient narrator and no single protagonist” (11). The editors forcefully assert that storytelling and speculative fiction explore “the causes and consequences of the Anthropocene in ways inaccessible to other fields” (12). Of note is the editors’ suggestion that the popularity of YA fiction works as if “preparing the younger audiences for the global challenges and, at the same time, assuring them that they will prevail and recover from their traumatizing experiences” (14).
The twelve chapters by various authors are organized into three sections. The first, “Nature and Culture in the Anthropocene,” assembles four chapters that analyze works addressing storytelling and the nature-culture duality to show how they invite the expression of non-human agencies. These chapters investigate how the stories that have traditionally been told undergo revisions that contest humanist conceptions of human and non-human relationships. Part two, “(Post)Apocalyptic World and the Anthropocene,” gathers chapters that analyze apocalyptic visions of the Anthropocene, whether caused by plague, nuclear technologies, zombies, or ecological crisis. The final part, “Society and Politics in the Anthropocene,” explores the material, social, cultural, and narrative influences that have led to the Anthropocene. These three sections exhibit considerable crossover with one another, however, and also could have been configured in a variety of different ways.
In part one, Tereza Dědinová addresses literature’s role in the Anthropocene in “The Being that Can Be Told: The Telling by Ursula K. Le Guin as a Remedy for the Anthropocene.” Dědinová explores mimesis in fantastic literature—specifically science fiction—and seeks to connect such interpretive approaches to cognitive science, in particular Marco Caracciolo’s notion of embodied readings and Patrick Colm’s theorization of literature as simulation. Although the connections between cognitive science and theories of the fantastic and sf are not explicated, the chapter offers a useful bridge that could enrich understanding of such fiction’s aesthetic, social, and political engagement. The three levels of mimesis addressed here—allusion to historical events and locations, the presentation of future philosophies informed by contemporary ones, and what Le Guin describes as “the patterned intensity of language” (34)—offer connections to sf as an extrapolative literature. Appeal to cognitive science’s emphasis on embodied readings and these three levels of mimesis leads to an account of how fiction imitates a “rewiring” (42) of the human mind. Somewhat deterministically, the conclusion asserts that an acceptance of the positions and experiences offered by The Telling (2000) inevitably leads to a change of orientation toward care for nature and the “well-being of all other beings, the Earth” (42). Nonetheless, Dědinová argues persuasively for the potential of cognitive science in understanding how storytelling contributes to nurturing an ecocentric perspective.
Dědinová’s treatment of Le Guin’s The Telling as fantastic literature highlights an ambiguity throughout the collection about the distinctions used between modes of speculative fictions. This ambiguity has implications for some of the chapters’ arguments, though not Dědinová’s. The different senses of the terms “fantasy,” “science fiction,” and “speculative fictions” encountered throughout the collection mean that it can be difficult to understand how different modes relate to one another. Although the term “fantasy” appears in relation to diverse works of sf throughout this collection, only two chapters deal exclusively with fantasy as distinct from sf: Carrie Spencer’s chapter in part one, “Young Adult Fantasy to Save the World? Retelling the Quest in Maggie Stiefvater’s Raven Cycle” and Dariya Khokhel’s chapter in part three, “Mythological Aspect of Immigration in Fantasy: Case Study of Mercy Thompson and Alpha and Omega series by Patricia Briggs.”
Chapter six in part two illustrates this generic ambiguity. “Fantasy, Myth, and the End of Humanity in M.R. Carey’s The Girl with All the Gifts” analyzes this work of sf as a fantasy of human survival that is subverted by the recognition of the priority posthuman subjects have over humankind in the future. Maria Quigley usefully frames the novel as a response to the popular post-apocalyptic zombie narrative, which is more concerned with human survival post-catastrophe. Quigley writes, with the digital game The Last of Us (2013) also in mind, that “Presenting an infection that already exists in nature as the cause of the apocalypse pushes both texts past the boundary of science fiction, and further into the realm of possibility” (127). This characterization misunderstands Carey’s reworking of the zombie narrative and limits understanding of sf’s engagement with possibility.
A similar issue attends the analysis of Keygan Sands’s otherwise strong chapter in part three, “Apocalyptic Visions: N.K. Jemisin’s The Stone Sky and the Socio-Cultural Origins of the Anthropocene.” This chapter takes a geological perspective informed by deep time, an acknowledgment of non-human agency, and the entangled webs of energy and human life. Sands rightly considers The Broken Earth series (2015-2017) as fantasy and sf, or science-fantasy, but asserts that “Fantasy like Jemisin’s is uniquely situated beyond speculative fiction: by moving parallel rather than forward or backward in time, we can speculate at a greater remove” (184). Although Sands offers as contrast authors Kim Stanley Robinson and Dale Pendell to help us situate Jemisin’s novel in this framework (the labels attached to these two writers are “speculative fiction and science fiction,” in that order ), the example confuses more than it clarifies the context. It is not clear how Jemisin’s texts move in parallel rather than being positioned in the far future, and thus it is not clear whether the implications of Sands’s argument apply to all far-future fictions or where the threshold lies. A more careful unpacking of modes can be found in Dwight Tanner’s “The Development of Realist Speculative Narratives to Represent and Confront the Anthropocene,” also in part three. Tanner analyzes Barbara Kingsolver’s Flight Behavior (2012) and Ian McEwan’s Solar (2010) to consider how the fantastic emerges in unremarkable settings to draw attention to “the fantastic nature of quotidian life” (235).
While most of the chapters offer analyses of a selection of works, two chapters offer surveys that usefully situate their respective foci in relation to the Anthropocene. In part one, Britta Maria Colligs, in “The Forest as a Voice for Nature: Ecocriticism in Fantasy Literature” (which, despite its title, also addresses sf), engages with the socially relevant literature outlined in its introduction (67) to show how forests are positioned as a heterotopian space, a symbolic voice for nature, a vital component of Earth’s ecosystems, and a metonymy for the Earth as a whole (70). In part two, Jiří Jelínek’s “Anthropocene vs. Plague: Disastrous Diseases and Their Impact on Society as Seen in Literature from Thucydides to Modern Speculative Fictions” takes a historical approach to investigate how modern speculative fictions introduce inversions to the plague narrative that shift the locus of terror from the supernatural to nature in ways that align with Bakhtinian carnivalesque inversions.
In another chapter in part one of the collection, “The Fantasy of Wilderness: Reconfiguring Heroism in the Anthropocene, Facing the Age of Ecocentrism,” Lykka Guanio-Uluru reads Greg Garrard’s notion of wilderness in relation to Stephanie Meyers’s Twilight (2005) and Scott Westfield’s sf YA novel, Uglies (2005). Guanio-Uluru argues that Meyer inadvertently achieves what Adam Trexler describes as the difficult task of creating an Anthropocene villain in her portrayal of the vampires’ affluence. Likewise, the move toward ecocentrism is, as Guanio-Uluru argues, undermined by an anthropocentric privileging of a human subject, though this reading depends on an acceptance of preservationism and an erasure of the interconnectivities between the urban and wilderness, which Guanio-Uluru notes is not addressed in Uglies. This model supports a split between the human and non-human, thus shoring up a humanist exceptionalism that could be non-ecocentric in itself.
Chapters seven and eight in part two address issues related to posthumanism. Anna Bugajska in “Beyond the Anthropocene: Human Enhancement, Mythology, and Utopia in James Patterson’s Maximum Ride Cycle” considers chimerical animal-human hybrids against evantropia—a utopia of Human enhancement—and Christian apocalypse, to argue that the cycle offers a vision of the bridging of humans and animals: “the hybridization of humanity and the humanization of animals” (152) moves us toward a post-Anthropocene future.
In one of the collection’s strongest chapters, Joanna Krystyna Radosz considers a key work of Russian transmedia in “At the Crossroads of Ideas: The Russian View on the Anthropocene in Metro Series by Dmitry Glukhovsky.” Radosz situates the reading of the Metro series (2002-2015) against trends in Russian speculative fiction and provides an overview of the significance of the metro trope in Russian literature. The nuclear apocalypticism of the Metro series positions the metro as both a shelter and an enclosure that precludes solitude and freedom. Only by accepting the mutants who have emerged in this nuclear future can a bond with nature be restored (171).
Aleksandr Kolesnikov’s chapter in part three, “The Politics of Language and Culture in China Miéville’s Novel Embassytown,” demonstrates how Miéville’s novel, while a successful examination of postcolonial politics, fails as a work of Anthropocenic literature. Language as a tool of politics and struggle, and its foundation in an originary split between the mute animal and the rational speaking human, introduces an unavoidable anthropocentrism that prevents Miéville from engaging sufficiently with a non-anthropocenic vision. While acknowledging that Miéville is primarily concerned with issues of social stratification, Kolesnikov maintains that by comparing the Ariekei to animals prior to their acquisition of metaphorical speech, Embassytown (2011) reduces otherness to sameness and fails to move beyond anthropocentrism.
This collection is best positioned for students and those interested in understanding speculative fiction’s diverse approaches to thinking through key challenges of the Anthropocene. The twelve chapters demonstrate how various speculative fictions explore possibilities for moving beyond the current moment to imagine futures capable of grappling with the Anthropocene. While the sections themselves could be reorganized to foreground their dialogism, the three sections do provide useful ways to frame the contributions. Apart from the confusions attendant on the diverse uses of genre terms throughout the collection, perhaps one aspect of the text that could be addressed is the repetitiveness resultant in the overviews of the Anthropocene in each chapter. While different chapters emphasize different aspects of the Anthropocene, there is considerable overlap that could be ameliorated by placing this information in the introduction. The chapters can nevertheless be profitably read against one another to extend the debate about the various dimensions related to storytelling, apocalypse, and posthumanism.—Chris Pak, Swansea University
A Generation of Charred Ruins.
William O. Gardner. The Metabolist Imagination: Visions of the City in Postwar Japanese Architecture and Science Fiction. U of Minnesota P, 2020. viii+223 pp. $108 hc, $27 pbk.
Architect Tange Kenzō’s Yoyogi National Gymnasium, a dramatically balanced masterpiece of massive concrete and tensile steel, appeared as a minor venue during the 2021 Tokyo Olympics. Completed in 1964 for that year’s Summer Games, it is a local landmark and an icon of Japan’s rapid postwar climb. Nearly 60 years later, it remains formally creative, structurally innovative, and perhaps most surprisingly, functionally useful. In William O. Gardner’s The Metabolist Imagination, a photograph of the gymnasium is given a spread in the first chapter (30-31), where we learn of Tange and his place in the midst of Japan’s exploding development through the 1960s. Tange served as a sort of orbiting mentor to his younger architectural peers Kikutake Kiyonori, Maki Fumihiko, Kurokawa Kisho, and the critic Kawazoe Noboru, who all came together as the Metabolist group of architects with the publication of their manifesto, Metabolism 1960: The Proposals for New Urbanism (1960). Similar to other radical “paper architecture” groups of the era, such as England’s Archigram and Italy’s Superstudio, the Metabolists rendered futuristic urbanscapes populated with structures staggering in scale. Like their counterparts, their visions were self-aware reactions to the devastation of the recent war, and so a morbid undercurrent runs through their work.
What set the Metabolists apart was that, shockingly, they saw some of their concepts realized in the built world, culminating in the Osaka Expo of 1970. Gardner’s text explores the themes behind their work and its far-reaching influence, ultimately demonstrating how relevant and grimly useful it feels today, as we consider the scale and urgency of our ongoing global challenges, including environmental collapse, pandemic, and war. While the Metabolist group’s members envisioned and executed science-fictional concepts, they also enjoyed a hard connection to sf literature, as the great Japanese author Komatsu Sakyō co-founded the Future Studies Research Group with Kawazoe in 1966. Komatsu also contributed to the 1970 expo, collaborating with Kawazoe and Isozaki Arata and co-authoring an essay series with Kurokawa.
Gardner aims to “juxtapose architecture and fiction as two interrelated forms of artistic simulation” (1). His introduction begins with a series of urban fantasies described by several architects and authors. In the setting of a rapidly developing postwar Japan, these visions are focused on the country’s ambitious future, but are inevitably affected by the experience of trauma—the total destruction of war that preceded recovery and high growth. A distilled summary of the movement is offered later:
The central idea of metabolism is to conceive and design buildings and other urban forms not in terms of built, completed, or potentially completed plans or structures but rather as entities capable of constant ongoing processes of metamorphosis, just as the material of a living organism undergoes a process of birth, growth, decay, and replenishment. (33)
Setting themselves apart from the Cartesian rigor of the international style—the influence of Le Corbusier and CIAM (Congrès Internationaux d’Architecture Moderne) evident in Tange’s early projects and those of the earlier generation of Japanese modernists—the group, in Kawazoe’s words, instead intended to “strive for a ‘continuous program,’ whereby ‘not a single part should be visualized as capable of completion; each part should be so designed that intense metabolic changes can take place freely inside it’” (qtd. 34). Gardner’s introduction then presents themes central to Metabolist work that will reappear in subsequent chapters: megastructures, the capsules that sometimes plug into them, and apocalypse.
The first chapter, “City Visions: Metabolism and Science Fiction,” provides a thorough overview of the economic and cultural setting of postwar Japan. State-sponsored megaprojects transformed its cities, as ubiquitous housing blocks, the 1964 Olympic grounds including Tange’s focal gymnasium, expressways, and bullet trains were willed into existence at unfathomable speed. Gardner does well to remind readers of the simultaneous ongoing criticisms to such giddy achievements, as the tumultuous 1960s were kicked off with massive student protests and demonstrations against the renewed US-Japan Security Treaty and the government’s pro-growth, business-oriented policies. Meanwhile, following the Metabolists’ manifesto distributed at the 1960 World Design Conference, a prominent group of young Japanese architects introduced the various audacious imaginings that they would elaborate upon over the next decade, such as Kikutake Kiyonori’s cylindrical towers populated with plugged-in living units and Kurokawa Kisho’s Helix City, where floors of housing spiral around vertical cores. Soon after a public New Year’s Day television broadcast, Tange presented his famous 1960 Plan for Tokyo, which stretched the city across the bay on linear, branching axes.
After exploring the major themes in these works, Gardner ties them to several linked literary pieces, beginning with Komatsu’s light-hearted young adult novel City in the Air 008 (1969), whose future setting explicitly included Kurokawa’s Helix City. In contrast to the utopian optimism of this novel is architectural critic Kawazoe’s essay, “The Last Days of Greater Tokyo” (1961), which describes future progressions of Tokyo as it slides into political- and climate-change-driven ruin, despite attempts to stave off the inevitable with resilient mega-structural urban strategies reminiscnt of Tange’s and Kikutake’s work. Next, Gardner discusses two experimental prose fantasies by architects. Isozaki Arata’s “City Demolition Industry, Inc.” (1962) features a violent protagonist who wishes to destroy the city and cynically contemplates how difficult it is to do so, since Japan’s postwar resurrection demonstrates that physical destruction is insufficient. Itō Toyoo’s dreamlike essay “The Logic of Uselessness” (1971) blends observations of recent architectural influences with fictional depictions of his own residential design concepts transformed into “URBOTs,” mechanical plug-in dwelling capsules that become autonomous, sentient, and cautiously apprehensive of their superstructure.
Chapter 2, “Ruined Cities: Isozaki Arata and Komatsu Sakyō,” digs further into the way the movement was catalyzed by the experience of destruction. In Kurokawa’s words: “in the heart of all the members of this generation are the traumatic images of events that took place when we were in our formative childhood years: the sudden, tragic destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki by atomic bombs and the virtually total reduction of cities and buildings to ashes” (qtd. 53). Komatsu darkly contemplates, “perhaps those ruins are the only absolute reality, and the many works of humans and the prosperity that followed … perhaps these are only a mirage, floating on top of those absolute ruins” (qtd. 54). Gardner explores this heavy theme in further detail through Isozaki’s provocative collage “Hiroshima Ruined Again in the Future,” exhibited in 1968, and Komatsu’s disaster novels The Japan Apache Tribe (1971) and Virus: The Day of Resurrection (1964).
The next chapter, “Planetary Cities,” again focuses on Komatsu Sakyō’s work, analyzing themes of global connectivity in the context of catastrophe primarily in Virus, Japan Sinks (1973) and The Capital Vanishes (1985). Gardner shows how these disaster novels are an illuminating foil to the optimism of the 1970 Osaka Expo, while also exploring the novels’ problematic chauvinism. Breaking from the previous chapters and introduction, “Planetary Cities” is narrowly focused and does not pull much from Metabolist architecture. Chapters 5 and 6 are similar, in that they focus on specific works with interesting connections to Metabolism, whose themes run along in a sort of background current.
Chapter 5, “Liquid Cities: The Technopolis from Expo to Cyberpunk,” explores the emergence of information and imagery as dominant shapers of urban experience. The Osaka Expo was an early experiment in “managed societies,” tracking guests and collecting data while surrounding them with moving images, light shows, and sounds, many emanating and controlled, bizarrely, by two abstract giant robots of Isozaki’s design. The chapter then moves on to Itō Toyoo’s writings and works from the 1980s and 1990s, which present and riff on the dematerialization of the city, before concluding with an informed look at how Japan’s cities came to represent the susceptibility of the cyberpunk future to “techno-orientalism.”
The last chapter, “Metabolist Echoes: Akira, Patlabor, and Yanobe Kenji,” mines three anime films from the late 1980s and early 1990s and a millennial performance art series for Metabolist themes. Ōtomo Katsuhiro’s Akira (1988) and Oshii Mamoru’s two Patlabor films (1989, 1993) depict a future Tokyo in which the city has sprawled upwards and outwards in ways reminiscent of some of the Metabolistic urban visions, as well as becoming embattled and occasionally destroyed in ways that resonate with many of the themes Gardner traces in the previous chapters. The artist Yanobe Kenji documented himself wearing a bright yellow, futuristic “Atom Suit” among the ruins of Pripyat and the abandoned Expo site (1998). The artist “referred to both Pripyat/Chernobyl and the Osaka Expo as ‘Ruins of the Future’ (mirai no haikyo), echoing architect Isozaki Arata’s words in his poem ‘Incubation Process’ that ‘future cities are themselves ruins’” (159). Gardner convincingly links these three creators’ works to Metabolism but, as they are so specific and distantly connected, there must be any number of other cultural works that would reveal similar “echoes” if interrogated. Perhaps Metabolism shows us how architecture at its most grandiose and multidisciplinary can not only reflect and illuminate its cultural context, but also come to shape and influence that culture.
I return to Chapter 4, “Future City: The 1970 Osaka Expo,” standing on its own as an insightful overview of the Expo, a utopian, futurist spectacle populated with pneumatic structures, modular plug-in capsule pavilions, and Tange’s enormous space frame “Big Roof” punctured by Okamoto Tarō’s expressionistic tower sculpture. In addition to the fantastical built environment, visitors were bombarded with information in many media. The International Symposium of Science Fiction was held in Japan at the same time and included tours of the site (89). Gardner explores how the grounds’ computer-managed experiences were both harbingers of future cities and also valid criticisms of a carefully manicured “information society.” Most notably, both Kawazoe and Komatsu, involved in the production of the expo, had intended to exhibit cautionary information about how the future will be shaped by climate change, discrimination, and nuclear war, only to have government officials override them (105).
Overall, The Metabolist Imagination is a well-sourced examination of the Metabolist group, focusing on their futuristic themes and connections to Japanese science fiction. An important related work is Project Japan: Metabolism Talks (Koolhaas and Obrist [Köln: Taschen, 2011]), a heroically scaled retrospective effort to document the Metabolist movement and to collect (particularly for English readers) its history, ideas, and criticisms firsthand from those involved, as their generation of “charred ruins” dies out. It shows up as one of many sources for Gardner, though The Metabolist Imagination’sfocus sprawls far beyond. While Koolhaas and Obrist look to memorialize Metabolism’s architectural and urban planning ideas before they fade from memory, Gardner convincingly shows us how these ideas have reached far outside design and well beyond the movement’s lifespan. He also enhances his study by pulling insightful information from much original and secondary literature in both Japanese and English and by alerting the reader to some of the rich linguistic meanings typically lost in translation for English readers. The copyright page reveals that most of the chapters were previously published, partially or as earlier versions. Unfortunately, this is occasionally evident in the text, where works made familiar to readers in a previous chapter are re-introduced later in the book, or connections between chapters feel tenuous. Some heavier editing might have smoothed things out to result in a more enjoyable read. Several chapters’ theses lean on Metabolist outliers such as Tange, a mentor; Isozaki, a rogue; and Itō, a disciple of sorts, who began his career working under Kikutake. Despite these minor gripes, this study is a valuable and critically balanced look into the Metabolist movement, its impact, and its current relevance.—Mordecai Scheckter, Ross-Barney Architects, Chicago
Interrogating and Decentering Whiteness in Young Adult SF.
Meghan Gilbert-Hickey and Miranda A. Green-Barteet, eds. Race in Young Adult Speculative Fiction. UP of Mississippi, 2021. xii+266 pp. $30.00 pbk.
Meghan Gilbert-Hickey and Miranda A. Green-Barteet introduce their edited volume Race in Young Adult Speculative Fiction by positioning young adult speculative fiction (YASF) as a narrative space through which racialized youth envision future continuance against the backdrop of historical and present survival and resistance. Summarizing the text’s purpose as a consideration of “how characters of color are represented in YASF” and “how they contribute to and participate in speculative worlds” (4), throughout the introduction the editors navigate the nuanced ways in which race is, or is not, addressed: are authors using speculative world-building to imagine beyond racial hierarchies of power, or are they adopting color blindness but nevertheless drawing upon dynamics of racism? If speculative worlds represent worldviews, how does one critically consider the (de)centering of race, racism, and racialized otherness within speculative world construction? How does YASF perpetuate default whiteness when imagined worlds are framed as postracial?
The chapters that follow offer analyses of specific texts through critical race theory, gender theory, whiteness studies, and posthumanist theory to examine how YASF engages with race. Four sections organize the volume’s contributions: Section One, “Defining Diversity,” considers texts that explore racism and diversity without openly engaging with issues of race, often to great problematic effect; in Section Two, “Erasing Race,” color blindness is problematized and examined in relation to perpetual neoliberal ideologies and racist discourse; Section Three, “Lineages of Whiteness,” explores how whiteness is privileged in texts that discuss race and concurrent forms of marginalization; and in Section Four, “Racialized Identities,” contributors envision how representations of intersectional characters can help articulate new speculative possibilities for authors and readers alike. The chapters in each section work in tandem to articulate and exemplify new modes of analyses and inquiry through which YASF texts and their impact can be examined along lines of race, racism, and racialized otherness. This is an important hermeneutic move towards equity given the influential power of YA fiction and the frequent privileging of white protagonists within YASF.
The contributions in the first section identify opportunities in YASF to complicate diversity. In the first two chapters, “Blood Rules: Racial Passing and the Commodification of Difference in Victoria Aveyard’s The Red Queen” by Sarah Olutola and “The Fairy Race: Artemis Fowl, Gender, and Racial Hierarchies” by Kathryn Strong Hansen, both authors interrogate lost opportunities within texts that fail effectively to engage with diversity, or otherwise undercut the representational possibilities promised within the texts. Olutola specifically problematizes Aveyard’s commodification of racial power hierarchies without discussing race as such, and poses an important question which thematically sets up the rest of the volume:
As teen readers devour these stories of systemic oppression, as they identify with the plight of the protagonists, what narratives are they really consuming, and whose ideological aims do the books truly serve? (16)
Through providing the largely ignored historical context of Aveyard’s storyworld, Olutola highlights how The Red Queen (2015) appropriates racial struggle without dismantling oppressive systems in the fictional world. In the following chapter, through positioning Eoin Colfer’s Artemis Fowl (2001) as a text that superficially celebrates racial diversity and queerness without questioning or dismantling oppressive systems, Strong Hansen expands on Olutola’s concerns and argues that “while science fiction has the potential to critique racial hierarchies, it often instead reinscribes them” and that “even well-intentioned attempts at inclusivity fail when they reify social hierarchies” (Strong Hansen 44-45). In the final contribution to this section, “Enchanting the Masses: Allegorical Diversity in Fairy-Tale Dystopias,” Jill Coste exploresthe affordances of allegorical dystopia, with particular attention to texts that draw upon fairy tales to critique racist systems and structures in what appear to be “postracial” worlds. The first of many contributors who examine Marissa Meyer’s Lunar Chronicles series (2012-2015), Coste argues that while both dystopia and fairy tales have an ongoing tendency to privilege whiteness, fairy tales can also be important tools to help young readers unpack questions about race and explore transformative orientations towards change. Where the previous chapters in this section identify failures, Coste explores what it means to place diversity and societal change at the heart of speculative storytelling that can assist young readers in (re)examining contemporary contexts and resisting hegemonic power structures.
The second section, “Erasing Race,” opens with Sean P. Connors and Roberta Seelinger Trites’s “Neoliberalism’s Erasure of Race in Young Adult Fiction: Sherry L. Smith’s Orleans as Counterexample.” This contribution considers how, and to what extent, neoliberalism influences the erasure of race in YA dystopias by examining three examples—Meyer’s Cinder (2012), Suzanne Collins’s The Hunger Games (2008), and Marie Lu’s Legend (2013)—that all highlight individual, exceptional talent as a response to oppressive neoliberal systems. In contrast, the authors offer Smith’s Orleans (2013) as a counterexample that instead emphasizes the power of community. By comparing these texts, they highlight how emphasis on the exceptional individual—often a white, young female protagonist—serves problematically to erase racism and the systemic barriers that face racialized individuals. While the authors’ reading of the texts is rushed, they nevertheless identify an important overarching theme spanning much of YA dystopia and effectively critiques the privileging of the individual in dystopian fiction. In chapter two of this section, “(De)Stabilizing the Boundaries between ‘Us’ and ‘Them’: Racial Oppression and Racism in Two YA Dystopias Available in Swedish,” Malin Alkestrand uniquely explores Swedish YA dystopia and articulates the importance of conversations about race in YASF in non-anglophone contexts. In the final chapter of this section, “Postracial Futures and Colorblind Ideology: The Cyborg as Racialized Metaphor in Marissa Meyer’s Lunar Chronicles Series,” Sierra Halebegins by acknowledging the historical whiteness of sf and applies the concept of ethnoscapes to critique postracial speculative fiction. The concept of ethnoscapes is a critically important offering within the volume, framed by Hale as “a way to understand how race operates implicitly within SF texts” (112). This is particularly crucial when world-building contradicts overt messaging by the author, and Hale convincingly argues that even a series such as Lunar Chronicles that deals directly with discrimination causes damage when it does not directly address the legacy of racism when writing about postracial worlds.
Section Three, “Lineages of Whiteness,” begins with Meghan Gilbert-Hickey’s “‘I’ve Connected with Them’: Racial Stereotyping and White Appropriation in the Chaos Walking trilogy.” Offering a thorough analysis of Patrick Ness’s Chaos Walking trilogy (2008-2010), the author maps out how the overt critique of heteronormativity and colonialism central to the text is in direct conflict with the narrative structure that Ness employs—one that routinely highlights the perspectives of the white protagonist, Todd. Gilbert-Hickey effectively argues that even texts that intend to engage critically with colonialism serve only to bolster racism when racialized histories are whitewashed, and white characters are positioned as the only ones capable of solving societal problems. Elizabeth Ho’s “Asian Masculinity, Eurasian Identity, and Whiteness in Cassandra Clare’s Infernal Devices Trilogy” continues the thread of analyzing the whitewashing in YASF through exploring the character Jem (Jian) in Clare’s Infernal Devices trilogy (2010-2013). While this trilogy, as a neo-Victorian prequel series to Clare’s The Mortal Instruments trilogy (2007-2014), is intended to set up an alternative timeline that justifies the postracial context of the latter series, the misrepresentation of Jem as Chinese serves to erase the already troubling history of Eurasian treatment characteristic of Victorian-era reality and thus fails to move this storyworld into an unproblematic, postracial space. While at times condescending about the series’ readers and what they want in a neo-Victorian text—“young; often female; ... a powerful demographic comfortable with mass consumption; ... untroubled by anachronism and inauthenticity” (Ho 149, italics mine)—Ho also explores fan engagement, offering an important, often overlooked element to her analysis by focusing on young readers’ voices directly when assessing the impact of racial representation across both trilogies.
In contrast with the emphasis on critique in previous sections, the final section moves towards celebrating intersectional representation in texts that epitomize the potential of speculative world-building. In the first chapter, Joshua Yu Burnett focuses on Nnedi Okorafor’s novel Zahrah the Windseeker (2005).Building off the contradictory nature of many dystopian texts simultaneously to portray destroyed societies that have also somehow resolved systemic injustice and inequities of myriad sorts—as is often implied in postracial dystopias—Burnett offers Okorafor’s work as an intersectional alternative. The author thoughtfully weaves together a summary of the novel, a reflection on Okorafor’s own complicated relationship with speculative fiction in relation to race, and the enduring need for intersectional and complex representations of different, speculative futures centering black youth navigating, disrupting, and dismantling racist systems of oppression. The third chapter in this section, Esther L. Jones’s “Black Girl Magic: Bioethics and the Reinvention of the Trope of the Mad Scientist in Black YA Speculative Fiction,” further builds upon the critical value of Okorafor’s work alongside Tomi Adeyemi’s Children of Blood and Bone (2018). Using contemporary mental health crises as a springboard, Jones examines how different depictions of rage and madness in YA can lead to forming a “Black Girl Magic bioethics,” wherein “a young, Black, female-centered ethics of relationality that functions as an important site for thinking through the rescripting of powerful sociocultural narratives of mental health and illness” can be brought to the fore (225). For the characters that Jones identifies, their “madness” becomes their capacity to transform the world. In the final chapter, “Fore-fronting Race and Law: Ambelin Kwaymullina’s The Interrogation of Ashala Wolf and Challenging the Expectations of Idealized Young Adult Heroines,” Zara Rix centers Indigenous futurism as a distinct genre with a discrete function in YASF. Through analyzing the novel, paratextual materials and educational resources, and the enduring, historically situated context of Australian Indigenous-settler relations, Rix argues that Indigenous futurism in YASF offers an important means through which concepts such as citizenship and Indigenous sovereignty can be thought anew within and beyond colonial systems of power. This section offers dynamic suggestions about change and possibility as the authors highlight intersectional examples of what YASF publishing could be.
Race in Young Adult Speculative Fiction effectively contributes to ongoing conversations regarding the whiteness of speculative genres—and the ways in which the publishing industry continues to privilege whiteness in the YA market—while at the same time celebrating the important contributions that racialized authors and authors of color are making to the contemporary, shifting YASF landscape. While in their introduction the editors acknowledge significant recent changes within YASF publishing towards diversity, this volume remains relevant to anyone with an interest in reading, teaching, writing, or critically engaging with texts that speculatively explore race. Although many contributions overlap in content—a reader engaging with this text will encounter repeated contextualizing information and will see analyses of the same texts throughout—this collection nevertheless provides a comprehensive toolbox of approaches through which race can be critically engaged in YASF. Accordingly, it encourages a move towards a deeper understanding of how race is or is not represented both in distinct texts and across the genre as a whole and maps out changes necessary to realize fully the influence that YASF might have by inspiring youth to disrupt and dismantle oppressive systems of power. While the ways YASF is structurally suited to influence youth is not always explored as deeply as it ought to be, yet taken together the chapters provide an excellent path forward towards harnessing this capacity within shifting cultural contexts and a publishing industry in need of further change in service of youth exploring both speculative worlds and their own contemporary moment.—Brittany Tomin, University of Regina
Resistance and Survival in Latin American SF.
M. Elizabeth Ginway. Cyborgs, Sexuality, and the Undead: The Body in Mexican and Brazilian Speculative Fiction. Vanderbilt UP, 2020. xi+247 pp. $99.95 hc, $34.95 pbk.
Ginway’s latest book opens on a personal note, with the author observing how different it is to write a book in the later stages of one’s career than at the start. What she does not mention is that a book of this intellectual caliber and depth can only result from decades of dedicated reading, thinking, and writing. Cyborgs, Sexuality, and the Undead is a gift to the academic community: a far-ranging, original, and important exploration of familiar tropes from science fiction and horror that sees in them strategies for resisting and surviving economic and social change and the legacies of slavery, colonialism, and harmful state narratives of racial democracy. I did not find Cyborgs an easy read—especially in the theoretical discussions I longed for more clarifying examples and less abstract, academic language—but Ginway’s book educated and inspired me, and I predict that it will become an essential reference work that will be widely cited by literary and cultural scholars.
Cyborgs contains an introduction, four thematically based chapters, a brief afterword, several pages of informational notes, and an extensive bibliography. Ginway covers a lot of territory in the introduction and a careful reading of it is essential. She justifies her focus on altered mechanical and biological bodies and on nontraditional sexualities on the grounds that they are expressive of the social and political body, of liminality and transition. In Cyborgs, Ginway, a Brazilianist, expands the scope of her previous scholarship to include writers from Mexico, and in the introduction she provides readers with points of similarity and difference in the two influential nations’ cultural traditions and their histories of colonized and enslaved bodies. She correctly notes the prevalence of body imagery in Latin American political and cultural practices, from the sacred bodies of indigenous religions and of Catholicism to the last century’s corporatist political philosophies embraced by both Brazil and Mexico (170 n3). Each of these two nations’ strong, centralized governments propagated “mythologies of national identity through mestizaje/mestiçagem [racial democracy] in the twentieth century,” a toxic social legacy that Ginway sees being called to account in many of the narratives she analyzes (3).
Most importantly, the introduction is where Ginway lays out the theoretical framework central to her subsequent textual readings. The dominant theory, at least for the first two chapters, is the Ecuadorian philosopher Bolívar Echeverría’s concept of the “baroque ethos.” That is his name for one of four attitudes he identifies as strategies that Latin América’s subaltern classes have developed and employed in order “to survive and prosper in the face of the historic injustices and economic difficulties that have been imposed on them by colonialism and capitalism” (Ginway10). The baroque ethos is expressed through subtle and less confrontational forms of resistance to authoritarianism, and Ginway’s project is to read selected Brazilian and Mexican speculative fiction narratives through this conceptual lens, seeing in their treatment of cyborgs, sexuality, and the undead—narrative expressions of the social and political body—a uniquely Latin American way of contesting the threats posed by social and economic change.
After fueling herself and her readers with history and theory, Ginway heads down the road of textual analysis and, oh, the places you will go! Each chapter starts by establishing the conceptual groundwork for her approach to the texts. This is followed by three or four subsections packed with Ginway’s deft, insightful interpretations of canonical and noncanonical works of speculative fiction, carried out in conversation with a remarkable number and range of scholarly works. I find it impossible adequately to capture all that goes on in Cyborgs’s four chapters; although each neatly revolves around a central theme whose main points are cogently summarized in a short conclusion, there are innumerable side observations that cannot be included in this brief review. The best I can do is outline each chapter’s principal arguments and hope it will be sufficient to encourage interested readers to discover for themselves the scholarly treasure trove that is Ginway’s book.
Chapter 1 looks at three kinds of historically situated gendered cyborgs as allegories of modernization in Mexico and Brazil: feminized fetish cyborgs in the long nineteenth century, mid-century industrial cyborgs, and neoliberal cyborgs. Ginway’s readings of select texts show how these gendered cyborgs “simultaneously exemplify and undermine elite modernization by subverting or resisting dreams of wealth, civilization, and science” (22). She shows how over more than a century of writing, the technologically altered body has functioned to push back slyly against the obsessive, oppressive pursuit of industrialization and economic growth that perpetuates social inequities and leads to the commodification of the human body for, among other things, its labor potential.
Chapter 2, “The Baroque Ethos, Antropofagia, and Queer Sexualities,” extends the project of revealing indirect strategies of resistance and survival in Brazilian and Mexican speculative fiction texts that accentuate sexuality. Ginway describes antropofagia (man-eating)and its cousin, codigofagia (code-eating) as the critical assimilation and strategic reinterpretation of European and North American cultural forms and social movements. For this, she draws inspiration from João Nemi Neto’s dissertation, The Anthropophagic Queer (CUNY, 2015), which posits that in Brazil and, in all likelihood, elsewhere in Latin America, expressing queerness is done in a more fluid, ambiguous, and less confrontational manner than the “coming out” paradigm associated with the North. In this chapter’s three subsections, Ginway looks at texts featuring “women warriors” who employ deceptively oblique strategies —passivity, evasion, and sleep—to challenge the foundational fictions that undergird colonialism and reveal the sexual violence at the heart of mestizaje/mestizagem.
I particularly enjoyed Chapter 3, “Trauma Zombies, Consumer Zombies, and Political Zombies,” which understands zombies as “harbingers of change, embodying the viral, uncontrolled paradigms of economic or political upheaval” (24). In this chapter, Ginway draws inspiration from Roberto Esposito’s monograph, Immunitas (2002; English trans. Immunitas: The Protection and Negation of Life, 2011). Ginway develops Esposito’s ideas on biopolitics and community and his metaphorical use of (auto)immune systems in order to show how Latin American literary zombies portray “both the invading pathogen from which the community must protect its individual members and the targeted individual members trying to protect themselves from an autoimmune overreaction by the community” (17). That is, they can embody the viral pandemic of global capitalism in narratives about gold fever and obsessive consumerism; they can, as well, channel society’s recurrent fear of the loss of individual agency and identity in the face of zombifying bureaucracies, corporations, and invasive technologies. Ginway, always an intelligent and imaginative reader, is particularly inspired in her discussion of the political zombie, first explaining how the fate of the political class in mid-century Mexico and Brazil was tied to the success of protectionist policies meant to provide immunity from invasive external economies, and then showing how certain speculative fiction texts use reanimated corpses and other figures to symbolize “zombie dissent” or a “counter-immunological reaction” to both foreign and domestic threats (129).
Chapter 4 tackles vampires in Latin American speculative fiction, monsters with greater intelligence and individuality than their zombie counterparts. In two of the three chapter sections, Ginway further develops Esposito’s concept of immunity, seeing vampires alternately as a threat to the national body politic and as champions of the underdog who “uncharacteristically ... wreak havoc on former colonial masters and side with the oppressed by acting on behalf of the marginalized” (25). Contrary to the norm, where vampires represent insatiable state and economic powers feeding off the defenseless, in these texts vampires forge alliances with the marginalized as an alternative model to overt resistance. In the section titled “The Vampire, Female Defiance, and the Tropical Gothic,” traditionally female spaces (the home, the garden) as well as Latin American institutions and practices (the Catholic Church, patriarchal authority) are the menacing forces that threaten women’s physical and mental well-being.
Cyborgs, Sexuality, and the Undead is meticulously researched and convincingly argued by a scholar in excellent command of her information and ideas. I have done some exploration of the cyborg figure in Chilean science fiction written during that country’s mid-century import-substitution phase, and I am excited by the new ideas sparked by reading Ginway’s work. Cyborgs is unique in its in-depth comparative analysis of Mexican and Brazilian speculative fiction, but its value extends far beyond that. I highly recommend it for individual scholars, especially those working on postcolonial literatures, and for all academic libraries.—Andrea L. Bell, Hamline University
Excavating Early SF in China.
Jia Liyuan. “Xian Dai ” yu “Wei Zhi ”: Wan Qing Ke Huan Ziao Shuo Yan Jiu [The Modern and the Unknown: A Study of Science Fiction in the Late Qing Dynasty]. Beijing UP, 2021. 316 pp. ¥59.00 pbk.
Jia Liyuan is a professor in the School of Literature at Tsinghua University in Beijing. His monographfocuses on science fiction in the late Qing dynasty (1840-1912) from the thematic perspective of “the modern and the unknown,” suggesting the difficulty and complexity of using “modern” visions to explore “unknown” space-times, and demonstrating the excitement and confusion of novelists in the late Qing period when trying to imagine the future Datong [Great Unity] world and the possibilities of interstellar exploration. Focusing on sf texts written by intellectuals, Jia’s monograph enables readers clearly to understand the attitude of these elites toward science. The fundamental purpose of science fiction in that era was to save a backward and corrupt government, and its mission was to publicize science and technology. Jia argues that the motif of “soul separated from body” that concerned novelists at that time still appears in contemporary Chinese sf. The relationship between “heart” and “body” (to which I return below) in these early fictions later became the motif of Chinese sf in the twentieth century (276).
In the final days of the Qing dynasty, when ancient and modern ideas collided fiercely, intellectuals looked at social changes with new eyes and began to speculate in their fictions about future worlds. At this time there was no entry for “science fiction” in Chinese dictionaries. The subtitle of Jia’s monograph, Science Fiction in the Late Qing Dynasty, is obviously a retrospective identification of its origins in China, something of great interest to Chinese researchers nowadays. Jia’s study looks at late Qing sf from three perspectives: sf’s origins in the late Qing era, the ways in which sf was expressed in these early writings, and the sf themes that were of particular interest to these early writers. The Modern and the Unknown is comprised of an introduction, four chapters, and a conclusion.
Jia’s introduction is entitled “What Is Science Fiction in the Late Qing Dynasty?” During this period, the Dowager Empress Cixi and her ministers decided to introduce elements of modern western civilization, hoping to reform the state system and reinvigorate China. The intellectuals began to learn new methods of observing the world, such as theories of evolution and scientific positivism. For these writers, the exploration and conquest of unknown islands or planets was the “panacea” for China’s rejuvenation and the guarantee that China would lead humanity into the Datong world (roughly equivalent to pantisocracy) after becoming world ruler (3). The novelists of the late Qing outlined imaginative future worlds in the hopes of enlightening a benighted people and inspiring them to take action.
Jia’s first chapter is entitled “Liang Qichao: The Precursor of Chinese Science Fiction.” In 1902, Liang Qichao wrote his only work of fiction, The Future of New China, in which he imagined that 60 years into the future China has become prosperous and strong. Representatives from countries all over the world have gathered in the capital Nanjing to hold a peace conference. Because of disputes over the sovereignty of Tibet and Mongolia, the Qing government has gone to war with Russia. At the end of the novel, through the mediation of Hungary, the contradiction is resolved. The action is presented as set in a “revolutionary past” that is being recalled from the “future.”
The Future of New China demonstrated a modern consciousness and a new aesthetic attitude towards the future, providing a beautiful vision to be filled in by a future humanity. The second chapter is entitled “Mirror and Image: New Stone Story and Wu Jianren’s Ways of Observation.” Wu Jianren published important works in the journal The New Novel, founded by Liang Qichao, and Wu became the main writing force of the journal. Among his many works, his novel New Story of the Stone (1905) is particularly gripping. It shows Wu’s eager concern for the difficult situation of the late Qing dynasty. He tried to achieve a global understanding of China’s problems through science fiction (122). New Story of the Stone is adapted from the plot of A Dream of Red Mansions (mid-eighteenth century; also called The Story of the Stone), one of China’s four classical masterpieces. Wu’s version focuses on describing a utopian world of advanced science and technology and a unified morality. He combined western scientific knowledge and Chinese mythology to create a unique form of writing, and New Story of the Stone is outstanding among the sf texts of this period (58).
Chapter three is “The Golden World: The Future and Space in Science Fiction in the Late Qing Dynasty.” Many intellectuals of the time felt an unprecedented crisis as late-Qing China was reduced to a semi-feudal and semi-colonial country because of the encroachment of western powers. They located the fantasy of national revival in the genre of science fiction. This chapter specifically refers to the anonymous unfinished novel, The Lunar Colony; published in 1904, it is considered to be the first work of Chinese science fiction. Among other things, the novel constructs a concentrically arranged colonial system: “Asia-Europe-Moon-Outer Planets.” The Lunar Colony may be the first attempt in Chinese literature seriously to imagine an extraterrestrial civilization (151). In the Datong world described by novelists of the late Qing dynasty, the protagonists travel in space, land on the moon, and even rule the universe. These whimsical writings can be regarded as escapist refusals to face reality, but the establishment of such a “Golden World” provided spiritual comfort for the people of the late Qing.
Jia’s fourth chapter is “The Skills of Governing the ‘Heart’: ‘Heart’ and ‘Soul’ in the late Qing Dynasty.” The intellectuals of the late Qing dynasty explored “unknown” time and space in a “modern” way and focused on their inner “heart.” China has its own set of ideas about how to govern the “heart.” In the late Qing dynasty, in the name of science, “heart” became a newly mysterious field. In 1896, the Chinese translation ofHenry Wood’s Ideal Suggestion through Mental Photography (1893) was published and it had a great impact on the society of the late Qing dynasty. The most striking position in Wood’s book is that if someone falls into illness, there must be something wrong with his “heart” and his “heart” must be cured first (194). This chapter also focuses on the popularity of hypnosis during this era. In the eyes of its supporters, it was an emerging science with unlimited potential, capable of changing a patient’s mentality and self-awareness (262).
Jia’s conclusion, “Hope Lies in the Future,” examines how intellectuals in the late Qing dynasty began to explore “unknown” worlds using “modern” cognitive methods, historical concepts, and new aesthetic forms. The entanglement of “science” and “fantasy” in this fiction has become a core issue in the development of Chinese sf in the twentieth century. “Modern” implies not only an historical concept, a rational spirit, or time and space cognition. It is also the material reality of a national system, encompassing economics, industrial systems, scientific communities, social management, mass mobilization, and so on. (291) After the collapse of the Qing dynasty, science fiction gradually disappeared. Instead, the new realist literature of the “May 4th Movement” dominated Chinese literary circles in the early twentieth century and played a crucial role in reshaping China’s literary production.
The emergence and prosperity of science fiction in the late Qing dynasty was an important phenomenon in the history of Chinese literature. In the late Qing dynasty, scientific fiction was not regarded simply as the special preference of a particular group for a certain type of literary genre; rather, it was a universal way of exploring the world. Late Qing sf writers looked to the “unknown” future to produce fantastic fictions that had never existed before in Chinese literature. Although the science fiction of the late Qing dynasty was limited by its historical and cultural frameworks, its pioneering position in the history of Chinese sf should never be underestimated.—Shaoming Duan, Renmin University of China (supported by the Outstanding Innovative Talents Cultivation Funded Programs 2021)
Shaping God and Shaping Change.
Roger A. Sneed. The Dreamer and the Dream: Afrofuturism and Black Religious Thought. Ohio State UP, 2021. xiv+181pp. $99.95 hc, $29.95 pbk & ebk.
Roger A. Sneed’s The Dreamer and the Dream: Afrofuturism and Black Religious Thought is an important contribution to the critical scholarship that addresses Black science fiction and spirituality. Given his academic background, Sneed offers a corrective to traditional forms of Black spirituality found in Black liberation theology. For scholars such as bell hooks, James Cone, and Cornell West, Black spirituality remains tied to Christian ideology, limiting the possibilities for Black queer identities and thought. Sneed’s perspective, however, is unbounded by previous ideas regarding Black religious thought. Necessarily, then, he begins his book by making a distinction between Black religion and Black church in order to clarify his terminology. Distinguishing himself from traditional schools of Black spirituality, Sneed likewise encourages readers to broaden their views of Black spirituality to encompass the imaginative properties essential to Afrofuturism. Free from the limitations of rigid theological confines, the Afrofuturist can engage in all modes of spirituality, which is inextricable from both “nam[ing] (and shap[ing]) God” (3).
Mirroring the spiritual endeavors of Lauren Olamina in Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower (1993), Sneed likewise contends that “God is change. Change is God. We shape that change, and that change shapes us” (2). For Olamina and Sneed alike, institutionalized forms of spirituality often “rob us of the creative possibilities inherent in the encounters with God-as-world” (2). According to Sneed, regardless of their spiritual backgrounds, human beings are critically involved in shaping God and shaping future possibilities for Black people. Afrofuturism is an eschatological endeavor in which humans create a future that, if we are to have any hope, does not mirror the horrors of a collective racist history.
Despite the fact that theological training comprises much of his educational background, Sneed asserts that he is “not writing theology” (xii). Yet his writings are not entirely agnostic either. In opposition to spiritual binaries, Sneed offers an alternative space by bringing Black spirituality together with Afrofuturism, a combination he sees as productive and helpful for imagining future possibilities freed from oppressive bounds of racist thinking. For Sneed, engaging in Afrofuturism is inherently both prophetic and imaginative (3). Afrofuturism resists not only the religious circumscription of former modes of Black spirituality, but is also an important tool of resistance against white supremacy that delimits the potential possibilities for Black life.
Although Afrofuturism counters the racist ideology of white supremacy, “racism is not necessarily Afrofuturism’s central concern” (151). Likewise, as a formidable counter to narratives that center white characters and marginalize Black ones, Afrofuturism is unabashed in its assertions of Black centrality: “Afrofuturistic consciousness yields a vision of Blackness that ... is not bound by whiteness” (2). Afrofuturism not only represents Black concerns but also centers on the power and triumph of Black hope. In this way, Afrofuturism maintains a focus both on Black characters and Black audiences.
Sneed defines Afrofuturism as “Black people throughout the African diaspora taking science fiction, horror, fantasy, and other forms of speculative fiction and repurposing them into the service of more fully describing Black lives, experiences and concerns” (20). As such, Afrofuturism can be seen as a mechanism to expose the systems of oppression that have historically (and presently) function to threaten and exploit Black lives. According to Sneed, Afrofuturism at its best is intersectional, providing space for a multitude of Black identities. In contrast to both the white straight males pictured in much of traditional sf and the heteronormative Blackness inherent in Black liberation theology, Sneed argues that Afrofuturist writers often write, sing, and envision characters with expansive, intersectional identities.
For example, as Sneed suggests, all of Octavia Butler’s protagonists are Black women who often hold non-traditional beliefs and/or orientations. Following this model, Afrofuturism is concerned not just with representing peoples of various races and genders, but also those who maintain different modes of being in the world, including but not limited to their sexuality, religious views, cultures, and geographical locations. For Sneed, the Afrofuturistic vision is ideally diasporic in nature, “examin[ing] the intersections of technology, race, gender, and class and ... offer[ing] ways to revision Black life and thriving in the midst of crisis” (163). Intersecting identities are important to counter fixed, oversimplified modes of Blackness and to reveal the interlocking systems of oppression existent in societies worldwide. Afrofuturism explores past and present struggles as well as future possibilities available to characters with intersectional identities. Afrofuturism transcends time and space both to re-envision the past through a lens of Black survival and envision new future possibilities for Black existence.
Sneed’s book is dynamic in its analysis of a myriad of works representing a broad scope of mediums and spanning multiple genres. While chapters one and two introduce and orient Sneed’s argument, chapter three discusses the contributions of Octavia Butler: a “shaper of Afrofuturism, an architect of intersectionality within Afrofuturism, [who] consciously sought to alter the terrain of Black culture and religious life and thought” (42). Sneed delights in Butler’s positioning of religion as a core component of the human experience as she “interrogate[s] race, gender, and sexuality via the field of science fiction” (43). Thus, for Sneed, Butler’s Parable duology (which includes The Parable of the Talents ) is a fundamentally “liberative work that could be called Afrofuturistic feminist religious criticism” (47). Sneed argues that Butler’s works do not “confirm the rightness or efficacy of Black liberation theologies” and consequently are overlooked by those who subscribe to this mode of thinking (48). Nevertheless, Butler maintains a critical role in shaping current intersectional, womanist Afrofuturism, inspiring many Black women authors who have continued in her footsteps by prioritizing intersectional Black female characters.
In chapter four, Sneed analyzes Janelle Monáe’s music and alter ego, Cindi Mayweather, as “sav[ing] us from our myopia via Afrofuturism” (62). Like Butler, Janelle Monáe “expand[s] the frontiers of Afrofuturistic thought as well as uses Afrofuturism and the Black science fictional imagination to offer not only critiques of religion but also other pathways of understanding and formulating Black religious lives” (77). Monáe’s musical content and performances—including Metropolis (2007), The ArchAndroid (2010), The Electric Lady (2013), and Dirty Computer (2018)—herald Black, queer, female protagonists while evoking questions about identity. Monáe’s performance persona Cindi Mayweather allows her to transcend the limitations of her identity to explore and transgress society’s confines while remaining unscathed by negative ramifications for such actions. For Sneed, “Monáe utilizes the cognitive estrangement of her androgynous, queer, pansexual selves in order to offer alternatives to rigid narratives of Black identity” (73). The liminal space of Monáe’s music and music videos creates a fertile, imaginative space that requires us to envision new modes of being that do not subscribe to patriarchal, heteronormative, and white modes of being. Further, Monáe’s celebration of female sexuality and her use of the erotic is a liberating force through which viewers can confront their own expectations and identities. Ultimately, Monáe’s emphasis on the erotic queers “our messianic hopes and expectations,” calling readers to envision a queer Black future (75).
In chapter five, Sneed analyzes Deep Space Nine’s “Far Beyond the Stars” (S6E13, 1998) in which Captain Benjamin Sisko, who is suffering mental distress caused by a long military conflict in the Gamma Quadrant, has a strange encounter: suddenly he is an sf writer in the 1950s named Benny Russle. Benny, who experiences discrimination at work and is harassed by racist cops, meets a street preacher who tells him to proclaim his truth. In response, Benny pens a story called “Deep Space Nine,” starring the Black captain of a space station. His editor, Pabst, deems it unrealistic due to its Black protagonist’s status as captain. Determined to continue his series regardless of the disapproval of management, Benny is eventually fired, causing him to experience a mental breakdown. During his breakdown he sees a spaceship. When Captain Sisko awakes, he is in the infirmary of his ship. Sneed argues that this episode reveals the power of the Black imagination as encapsulating “prophetic possibilities ... the potential to show us better worlds” (84). Because Benny’s wildest dreams of a Black space captain are in fact reality. Benny is both “the dreamer and the dream,” imagining faraway places that are future realities (85). In this episode, Benny imagines something that is impossible in the current world but a future possibility. Sneed argues that this episode “casts dreaming as a subversion of what we call reality” and emphasizes the prophetic nature of Black imaginations that disrupt white supremacist constructions (3).
In chapter 6, Sneed analyzes Marvel Studio’s Black Panther (2018) as an Afrofuturistic text that challenges “the Western monomyth” regarding Africa (98). Sneed takes particular interest in how Black Panther “subverts the typical masculine savior figure trope” (98), reversing stereotypes of Africa as “uniformly impoverished and ‘backward’ (100) and promoting strong female characters “as an antidote to the toxic masculinity that is the invisible enemy within this movie” (98). Ultimately, Black Panther “helps Black people envision a reality in which all Black bodies matter and are valued” by rejecting a Westernized construction of Africa and of Blackness as well (112). In contrast to the idea of Africa as a backward continent in need of a white savior, as a far more advanced society Wakanda “isolates itself from ... a world dominated by colonialism and global white supremacy” (100). Further, Black Panther’s presentation of alternative spirituality and its centering of Black women as “the movie’s humanistic soul” make it an important reimagining (108) of Black possibilities.
In chapter seven, Sneed analyzes the music of Sun Ra and the beliefs of the Nation of Islam as important reconfigurations of Christian eschatological beliefs. According to both Sun Ra and the Nation of Islam, Black Christianity is incapable of providing true liberatory spaces for Black people. In contrast, Sun Ra viewed music as a transformative force capable of leading Black people to new possibilities. Likewise, Sun Ra saw the need to venture beyond the earthly plane, viewing “space as the place where Black people could finally achieve transcendence” (119). As Sneed notes, Sun Ra borrowed from Christian eschatological principles while locating utopian ideals of heaven in a new setting. At its core, Sun Ra’s unique blending of musical styles combined with his revolutionary views, show his investment in creating a future “that centers Black freedom and creativity” (123). Likewise, the Nation of Islam reframes Christian beliefs to envision the possibility of transformative Black futures: “Elijah Muhammad repurposes the Wheel in the Sky and describes it as a powerful UFO that will defeat the forces of white supremacy and usher in a more just world order” (126). Considered in tandem, Sneed argues, Sun Ra and the Nation of Islam offer “new visions of Blackness” (132) that transcend the current existing order.
In his eighth chapter Sneed argues that Afrofuturism has the potential to reverse estrangement: it is capable of undoing the harm caused to Black identity with its imaginative potentials. According to Sneed, Afrofuturism grants Black people the agency to re-envision themselves in new ways free from the restrictions of traditional forms of Black spirituality. Therefore, “Afrofuturism gives us a new sense of who we are in that we are able to construct and reconstruct Black identities vis-à-vis the possibilities presented in Black speculative fictions. The digital metropolis gives Black people new spaces through which we can construct new Black religious lives and identities” (147). Ultimately, Afrofuturism is a liberating project that maintains that “if all of us do not get free, none of us get free” (163; emphasis in original). Consequently, its importance cannot be overstated.
Roger A. Sneed’s The Dreamer and the Dream provides an expansive look into various manifestations of Afrofuturism across mediums and genres, testifying to the horrific oppression of Black people’s multiple and intersecting identities and exploring ways in which they may continue to do so. While The Dreamer and the Dream includes a diversity of mediums and genres, Sneed unites his chapters through the tropes of Afrofuturism and Black spirituality. Altogether, The Dreamer and the Dream is forward thinking, embodying the values of Afrofuturism. Sneed ends by invoking Black people as both the dreamer and the dream: their task is to continue shaping God and shaping change.—Ruth Myers, University of Georgia
You Do The Math.
Jerome Winter. Citizen Science Fiction. Lexington, 2021. 222 pp. $100 hc, $45 ebk.
Citizen Science Fiction melds two phrases: the one we readers of this journal know, sf, and one with which readers may be less familiar, citizen science. The latter component names a set of practices and techniques that enable and empower non-scientists to take part in scientific research. Media scholars such as Jennifer Gabrys have been advocating for Citizen Science through projects such as Citizen Sense, which serves as a strong example of the kind of thing the book is interested in. The Citizen Sense website explains that “Practices of monitoring and sensing environments have migrated to everyday participatory applications, where users of smart phones and networked devices are able to engage with modes of environmental observation and data collection.” Winter’s book bridges citizen science and sf in the third space of the writing and rhetoric classroom. This book acts as a field report and a primer on sf texts (apps, books, games, media), citizen science, and engaged writing pedagogy.
Winter opens by introducing the Crowdsourcing and Citizen Science Act of 2016, which describes citizen science as “a form of open collaboration in which individuals and organizations participate in the scientific process” (qtd. in Winter 2). Winter notes in bold prose that citizen science might be “characterized as overworked and underfunded scientific experts, experimenters, and authorities deploying manipulative guile to dragoon unpaid menial labor from entitled, naïve dilettantes who have the privileged luxury of flaunting their civic status and donating their precious leisure time to their glorified hobbies” (2). Yet Citizen Science Fiction opts to address the utopian possibilities and prefigurative potential of citizen science, treating it as “a remarkable evolution of crowd-funding projects, an intensification of a globally affiliated network of cosmopolitan citizens, a sociological sea change in the scientific establishment” (2-3). Moreover, Winter pulls citizen science into the writing classroom in order to establish a series of novel and impactful exercises and prompts drawn from the space where citizen science and science fiction overlap. In this way, Winter develops a detailed analysis of sf in service of a pedagogical invitation, aid, and provocation: “It is the chief argument of this book Citizen Science Fiction that provoking interactional and contributory engagement with citizen science necessitates supplementing such instruction with the well-matched learning supports of sf literature and media” (142). Furthermore, Winter implicitly argues for what Ida Yoshinaga describes as sf studies 3.0, which centers on makers and practitioners as well as professional writers and academics (see Uneven Futures: Lessons for Community Survival from Speculative Fiction [ed. Yoshinaga, Sean Guynes, and Gerry Canavan, MIT forthcoming]. Here, Winter advocates for citizen science in a similar way to Yoshinaga’s call for a dispersed, just, meaning-driven study of science-fictionality.
How does this book work, practically speaking? Citizen Science Fiction transforms the logic of the syllabus into a field guide for research projects, writing courses, or critical study: each chapter opens with a dossier of primary references. As a person with dyslexia, I find the clear aid at chapter start to be a practical help. These overviews formally renovate my expectations of an academic book. Each chapter opens with a kind of inventory of texts arranged under three consistent section headings—“Citizen-Science-Affiliated Projects, Services, and Games,” “SF Literature and Reading,” and “SF Media and Multimodal Texts.” Below these headings, Winter populates lists. For instance, chapter two, “Educating the Anthropocene: Citizen Science, Science Fiction, and Climate-Change Relations,” lists iNaturalist, Seek, Global BioDiversity Information Facility, and eBird under the first heading. It lists several sf texts, such as N.K. Jemisin’s The Broken Earth trilogy (2015-2017) and Pohl and Kornbluth’s Space Merchants (1953), under the second heading. Finally, it includes director Alex Garland’s film Annihilation (2018), musician Björk’s album Biophilia (2011), and author Philippe Squarzoni’s graphic novel Climate Changed (2014) under the third category. Before beginning Winter’s field report and analysis, readers can get a strong sense of the trajectory of the chapter, or what to familiarize themselves with ahead of reading. This approach outlines an area of scientific concern so that creative and scientific interlocutors are made clear.
Winter writes the book for instructors of writing, enthusiasts of sf, and aficionados of science. The book blends all three concerns in its critical overview and five chapters, relying on analytical discussion of its examples to further the reader’s understanding of the mission. Winter’s chapters cover genetics, climate change, artificial intelligence, the cognitive science of emotions, and inner and outer space. My favorite sections of the book are precisely moments when Winter dives into texts. His reading of Gene Wolfe’s The Book of the New Sun quartet (1980-1983) in the penultimate chapter on brain science is clever, well-researched, and engaging. It perfectly illustrates the way neuro-literacy and the cognitive science of emotion work through Wolfe’s celebrated prose. His reading of Ta Nahesi Coates’s Black Panther graphic novel (2016-2018)—heck, even of Star Wars films—in the final chapter on mindfulness and cosmic science is illuminating.
How might sf spur enthusiasm about science and engaged writing? Could such a tri-force work for the democratization of science, the imagination of just futures, and cleaner prose? In the classroom, absolutely! Citizen Science Fiction is bursting with thrilling ideas for writing prompts, class debates, essay topics, and assigned materials. In book form, the goal is clear, but the organization does not always suit the insights on offer. The aforementioned helpfulness of Winter’s close readings only carries each chapter so far, because I also found myself lost at times as to the throughline. There is a certain kind of signposting or what I might describe as middle writing that would have benefited the book and its readers. One cannot fault Winter for his obvious intellectual love of these materials, yet at times the texts dominate as the critical discussion loses touch with citizen science and gets caught up in the analytical nuance of sf objects. Ironically, for instance, hilariously even, Winter’s reading of Alien overtakes the chapter on genetics. The discussion transitions through David Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust (1972) before returning to the core assumptions of the chapter with Octavia E. Butler’s Xenogenesis trilogy (1987-89). The range here is impressive, as is Winter’s facility with many mediums and modes of sf. I think the book would have been even more helpful had it drawn the pedagogical impulse to the forefront and made offhanded remarks about writing prompts more core to its project. Is this a book about a new way of reading sf or a book about teaching sf and citizen science in the writing classroom? I think it would have been better if it had more directly chosen to be one or the other.
Having this criticism in mind from the outset would certainly benefit readers who want to read the book in either of these ways (i.e., as critical argument or as pedagogical guide). Certainly, it raises compelling questions about the structure and form science takes today. What is a citizen scientist? Is this a classification based on who can belong or on getting something done? How do the operative terms modify one another? What can sf teach us about being a citizen scientist and vice versa? My sense is that the underlying desire expressed in the book—let’s get more people thinking scientifically and carrying out scientific inquiry—is not about increasing access to knowledge per se, but speaks to a desire for more creatively curious, intellectually engaged citizens. I like to imagine that had Winter included a conclusion here it might have addressed the lurking problematic of that other form of citizen scientist: the anti-vaxer or anti-masker who has carried out their own research in order to disregard or protest public health mandates during the currently ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Perhaps a subsequent edition might take this figure on.—Brent Ryan Bellamy, Trent University/Ontario Tech University
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