Sinofuturism and Chinese Science Fiction: An Introduction to the Alternative Sinofuturisms (中华未来主义) Special Issue


SFRA Review, vol. 50, no. 2-3

Special Issue: Alternative Sinofuturisms (中华未来主义)


Sinofuturism and Chinese Science Fiction: An Introduction to the Alternative Sinofuturisms (中华未来主义) Special Issue

Virginia L. Conn
Rutgers University / USA


As a mode of global and temporal situatedness, Sinofuturism has largely emerged as a concept applied externally to China by Western observers. By compartmentalizing sociocultural development as a form uniquely tied to the nation-state while also seeking to maintain both distance and otherness, Sinofuturism differs from theorizations such as Afrofuturism (to which it is often compared) through its application to, not development from, the subjects it takes as object. As a result, the very label of “Sinofuturism” developed out of the same Orientalizing impulses that previously relegated China to a space of backwardness and barbarism (Niu, Huang, Roh 2015) and which now attribute to it a projected futurity. Yet this Western label is one that Chinese authors and artists have appropriated and weaponized for their own creative ends, without necessarily sharing unified goals.

Authors of science fiction in China have uniquely grappled with this impulse, especially insofar as digital technologies—such as the growing e-publishing industry and networked media platforms—allow for the proliferation of new voices historically barred from traditional publishing venues. (Xu 2015) Too, contemporary science fiction in China functions as a transnational form that centers a technoscientific process or material object as a means of introducing social change, rendering the aim of science fiction inherently future-oriented even when relying on the past or focused on the present. Because potential future ontologies are expected to be relevant to present extrapolations, they fundamentally rely, to some degree, not only on realistic depictions of possible technologies and circumstantial realism, but also the familiar perceptions of the extant material and digital worlds—a central tenet of Sinofuturism’s omnivorous inclusion of technology, labor, art, and the visions it makes possible. (Lek 2016)

The globalizing effect of the internet and the subsequent rise in wide-scale digital exchange, in particular, has created a space for production in which Chinese authors are writing for an increasingly global audience and shifting their goals correspondingly. As early as the beginning of the 20th century, authors and public reformers in China (such as Liang Qichao, who, in his 1902 unfinished novel The Future of New China, described a utopian 1962 in which China was the dominant global power) were envisioning Sinofutures in which China was preeminent on the world stage. The idea of China as a dominant force in the world yet-to-come continues through much Chinese science fiction today, from standout international sensations such as The Three-Body Problem to anonymously published digital short stories like “Olympic Dream.” For science fiction authors describing the Chinese future (or the future as Chinese), an awareness of the fact that American and Western media largely paints China as a place of repression and censorship is an integral part of the worlds they depict.

To the extent that this is true, publishing regulations in China mean that the internet and other digital forms of publications, such as video games and online message boards, have become increasingly important outlets for science fiction. The Three-Body Problem, for example, was serialized first in the online-only Science Fiction World before being published as a book, and Western publication outlets like Clarkesworld have partnered with China-based Storycom to publish more Chinese science fiction in translation online. Because of the expectation of a global audience that online publication ensures, science fiction is changing as readership expands, yet the balance of global power remains uneven. Noted science fiction authors such as Xia Jia still describe science fiction coming out of China as having the mission of educating Western readers (Xia 2016), while English translators are increasingly burdened with the necessity of explaining historiocultural specificities through lengthy footnotes. (Liu 2014) That is, just as the West applies the term “Sinofuturism” to an entire national development project, Chinese authors are put in the position of responding and catering to Western assumptions in order to be legible on a global scale.

Here is where the specificity of China as a technologicized imaginary, located outside of both space and time, results in a an Orientalizing impulse fundamentally different from the fetishization of a high-tech Japan seen prominently in cyberpunk and the gleamingly sexualized noir adoration of the 80s. Shaped by and reliant on Western projections of Asia as the techne through which to shape a future defined by and created for the West, Sinofuturism not only projects China as a temporal locus for the project of modernity (Niu 2008), but also posits Chinese individuals themselves as resources, not originary producers of cultural or technological capital. Reduced by the West to faceless algorithmic data points, Chinese laborers and producers are commodified in an ideologically reproductive system informed by the racial panic of outsourcing common in the early nineties with the rise of overseas data centers. (Atanasoki and Vora 2015) Chinese science fiction writers are well aware of this and increasingly find themselves in a position to either push back against it or grapple with those fears in order to appear legible to an international readership.

Some authors do this by writing directly to the negative visions of a Chinese future most commonly held by the West: Chen Qiufan’s The Waste Tide, for example, deals with the physical detritus left behind by the dreams of digital development and the environmental devastation created when those developments are made obsolete and discarded, while Ma Boyong’s “City of Silence” shows both digital message boards and spoken language as subject to the same censorship as physical media, giving lie to the aspirations of online communications as a state of expressive exceptionalism. Other Chinese content producers actively embody the digitizing impulse that seeks to turn human beings into images for consumption: Naomi Wu (Shenzhen’s “sexy cyborg”), for example, has created a 3D scan of her body and uploaded it for the purpose of 3D printing models. These models are marketed alongside 3D models of Major Motoko Kusanagi from the Japanese anime Ghost in the Shell—an explicit juxtaposition of two stylized bodies (one real, one fictional) that, in their respective worlds, represent the future through a conscientious abandonment of the biological for the constructed.

So what, then, does it mean for Chinese science fiction to attempt to depict a Sinofuturist vision in the increasingly globalized space made possible by digital technologies? And what does it mean to produce content within a framework that imagines a techno-utopic future founded on artistic labor while simultaneously reproducing racialized tropes of dehumanization? How is material production changed by an increasing reliance on the digital? In the following essays, various researchers and theorists attempt to grapple with digital imaginaries, production, labor, and futurity across a wide range of topics multiply bound in Sinofuturist space.

The idea for this special issue developed out of a workshop organized by Dino Ge Zhang as part of the WuDaoKou Futurists collective, a collective aimed at decentering Sinofuturism from its Western articulations. The workshop, “Alternative Sinofuturisms,” already presupposes Sinofuturism as a venue for alterity and retains a space for various approaches and understandings of who and what is being foregrounded. Centralized in Beijing but held online with invited speakers from four different continents, the workshop was organized around a series of provocations, most of which are included in this issue. Amy Ireland articulated a view of darkside empathy that positioned Sinofuturist visions as methods of inculcating weaponized empathy, while Gabriele de Seta argued that Sinofuturism functions as a framework for denying the possibility of coevalness to China on the part of the West. I discussed Sinofuturism as an aestheticized projection that fixed images of the country in a perpetual futur antérieur; Vincent Garton, not included here, argued for a reappropriation of the term by Chinese theorists and politicians in order to reconstruct a new world system inclusive of heterogenous futures. The organizer, Dino Ge Zhang (without whom neither the original symposium nor this special issue would be possible), expanded on his concept of Sino-no-futurism to describe a world post-pandemic, which in many ways now reads as a science fictional dream for an American and British audience trapped in the perpetual now of our own countries’ ongoing pandemic-based immiserations.

The papers contained in this special issue respond to these various provocations and the overall concept of Sinofuturism from various angles. While some are supportive, seeing in Sinofuturism an opportunity for alternative epistemologies, others criticize its foreclosure of heterogenous elements and re-centering of global development vis-à-vis the West. What’s more, while Sinofuturism is an explicitly temporal projection, it is not necessarily a science fictional one except insofar as any futurist projection is a work of imagination—as a result, some of the essays contained here do not consider science fiction at all, while still engaging with the concept of how to situate the future on a global scale. By questioning who gets to imagine the future alongside who and what contributes to bringing those visions about, these essays incisively demonstrate that the material is never separate from the conceptual and the real-world consequences of imagining such alternatives.


WORKS CITED

Atanasoski, Neda and Kalindi Vora. “Surrogate Humanity: Posthuman Networks and the Racialized Obsolescence of Labor.” Catalyst: Feminism, Theory, Technoscience, vol. 1, no. 1, 2015, https://doi.org/10.28968/cftt.v1i1.28809.

Lek, Lawrence. “Sinofuturism (1839–2046 AD).” Center for Art and Media Karlsruhe, 2016, https://zkm.de/en/sinofuturism-1839-2046-ad.

Liu, Cixin. The Three-Body Problem. Translated by Ken Liu, Tor Books, 2014.

Niu, Greta Aiyu. “Techno-Orientalism, Nanotechnology, Posthumans, and Post-Posthumans in Neal Stephenson’s and Linda Nagata’s Science Fiction.” Melus: Multi-Ethnic Literature of the United States, vol. 33, no. 4, 2008, pp. 73-96.

Roh, David S., Betsy Huang, and Greta A. Niu, eds. Techno-Orientalism: Imagining Asia in Speculative Fiction, History, and Media. Rutgers University Press, 2015.

Xia Jia. “What Makes Chinese Science Fiction Chinese?” Invisible Planets: Contemporary Chinese Science Fiction in Translation, edited by Ken Liu, Tor, 2016.

Xu Jing. “’Golden Age’ Dawns for Chinese Web-Writers.” China Daily, 6 September 2015, http://www.chinadaily.com.cn/culture/2015-06/09/content_20951494_4.htm.

SFRA Innovative Research Award 2019



SFRA Innovative Research Award 2019

Susan Ang
Awardee


The SFRA Innovative Research Award (formerly the Pioneer Award) is given to the writer or writers of the best critical essay-length work of the year.

This year’s awardee is Susan Ang for her essay “Triangulating the Dyad: Seen (Orciny) Unseen,” Foundation, vol. 48, no. 132.

Raino Isto received an honorable mention for his essay “‘I Will Speak in Their Own Language’: Yugoslav Socialist Monuments and Science Fiction,” Extrapolation, vol. 60, no. 3.


Committee Statement

Joan Haran (chair), Stefan Rabitsch, Ben Robertson.

From an apparently simple starting point—the ampersand that joins the two cities in the title of China Miéville’s The City & the City—Susan Ang raises questions of profound complexity. These questions not only bear upon the novel in question but also the hidden histories of language and the fraught relationship between epistemology and ontology in weird fiction and the wider literary landscape. As Ang writes, “The City & The City, viewed through the metaphor of the ampersand, becomes readable as an enquiry into the epistemological workings of metaphor as a mechanism or model of productive thought.” As Ang makes clear, this sort of productivity characterizes The City & the City and much of Miéville’s fiction (including Kraken and Embassytown). More importantly, Ang’s essay continues the scholarly inquiry into the larger generic ramifications of Miéville’s work, in which the ampersand and related “meta-metaphors” both create and maintain, on one hand, and undermine and destroy, on the other, the boundaries among science fiction, fantasy, and other generic categories that subtend all such scholarly discussions. In Ang’s words, in both Miéville’s position as a writer and theorist of science fiction, fantasy, and the weird and Tyador Borlu’s position as a member of Breach at the conclusion of The City & the City, “there is an implied need to bide one’s time and maintain the boundaries in order that the boundaries might eventually be worn down.”

For her attention to a seemingly small, perhaps even insignificant detail of this novel and insofar as she demonstrates the importance of that detail to this novel as well as to the scholarly conversations that SFRA cultivates, Susan Ang is well-deserving of this award.


Awardee Statement

Susan Ang
National University of Singapore / Singapore

When I received the email from Gerry Canavan telling me I was the recipient of this year’s SFRA innovative research award, my first instinct was that I must be dreaming. That’s not quite the cliché it sounds like; the email came in about 3 or 4 am Singapore time and the “bing” from my ipad woke me up. I read it, didn’t take it in, and went back to sleep. When I woke up properly, I was sure I must have dreamt it, except that the email was actually in my inbox.

My surprise was mostly because while I quite like the article which the SFRA has so kindly and generously selected for the award, it has a modest history, starting out life as an undergraduate lecture on Mieville’s City & The City for a module on sf, which I then tidied and wondered what to do with. I should explain that I’m terrified of sending off work to journals, and that my work tends to go way over the word limit decreed by most journals which makes the matter all the more difficult. I looked at Foundation, which, if I recall, wanted work no longer than 6000 words; my article at that point weighed in at about 10,000. I apologetically (and somewhat dismally) emailed Paul March-Russell, asking whether he would even be willing to read it at that length, and was resigned to the prospect of being sent off with the proverbial flea in my ear. Paul, however, is the kindest and most generous editor I’ve ever met, and he said “send it on,” and to my surprise, took it, although not without chops and edits. 

My most grateful thanks, therefore, go first to Paul, for that generosity of spirit, and for all his editorial guidance. My thanks also to Gerry Canavan for that lovely shocked moment when I realized his kind email wasn’t a dream. I am also tremendously grateful to the judges—not for the award per se—but for the enormous investment of their time and care given to reading through a year’s worth of publications before somehow deciding on mine. I am immensely humbled to have been given this award—with so much being published in the field that is brilliant and incisive, I would never have expected to be in the running at all. This is not rhetoric but fact. I’m just secretly thrilled that people liked the piece. And last but not least, I’d like to thank my students—who inspired the lecture and responded to it; there are some students who spur one on to write lectures that hope not to disappoint, and those, too, whose rigorous arguments which run counter to sections of my own reading push one to find what one hopes will be satisfactory rebuttals. I’d therefore like to add my ex-students Lim Zhan Yi and Shawn Lim to the list of those without whom this article would not have seen the light of day.

In the current situation it seems hubristic to plan any kind of travel. But if COVID is under control, I hope to be able to offer my thanks for this award in person next year. Till then, please keep safe and well.

Mary Kay Bray Award 2019



Mary Kay Bray Award 2019

Erin Horáková and Rich Horton
Awardees


The Mary Kay Bray Award is given for the best essay, interview, or extended review to appear in the SFRA Review in a given year.

This year’s awardees are Erin Horáková and Rich Horton for their essays “Trekonomics” and “Gene Wolfe,” respectively, both from issue #327.


Committee Statement

Katherine Bishop (chair), Agnieszka Kotwasińska, Jessica FitzPatrick

The Mary Kay Bray Award is given to any interview, essay, or extended review published in the SFRA Review in 2019. We chose from fiction, non-fiction, and media reviews as well as Feature pieces, roundtable submissions, and SF Retrospectives. Given the increasingly wide range of items featured in the Review, we agreed that awarding just one piece would be unfair.Therefore, we chose two winners of merit, ex æquo, in alphabetical order:

Erin Horáková, “Trekonomics,” SFRA Review, no. 327, pp. 69-71.

Horáková employs an engaging and distinct voice as well as very clear organization in this lovely-in-execution negative review. She is respectful, but not overindulgent of, the reviewed text. Attending to matters of race, global economics, and cultural production while drawing upon her wide-ranging acumen to comment upon the matter at hand, Horáková fearlessly takes the author of Trekonomics to task with humor and sensitivity in a review that feels refreshingly honest, bold, bright, and necessary.

Rich Horton, “Gene Wolfe,” SFRA Review, no. 328, pp. 5-7.

The best thing an obituary can do is to bring a glimmer of the deceased back into the world. Horton does this. He celebrates Gene Wolfe’s life without venerating him, deftly reminding the audience of Wolfe’s humor, brilliance, and humanity. Along the way, he adds colorful details such as Wolfe’s part in making Pringles and an anecdote about finding the author paused in humble gratitude in front of his book on a shelf in a mall bookstore.

Thank you to all who contributed to the SFRA Review over the year! Your scholarship is greatly appreciated. 


Awardee Statements

Erin Horáková
University of Glasgow / Scotland

Thank you to Sean Guynes for telling me to write the review for which I’m being recognized rather than simply stew in annoyance on a locked Twitter account for an improbable amount of time, like a boeuf bourguignon of regret. Thanks also to the award committee and to SFRA.

Rich Horton
Science Fiction Critic / USA

I cannot readily express the surprise and joy I felt to learn that I had been awarded the 2020 Mary Kay Bray Award. I am humbled to share this award with Erin Horáková, whose essay “Treknomics” is something I can only admire. I wish I could be standing in front of all of you to say this—and I am sure that, leaving aside any consideration of the value of what I might say, all my readers wish that it had been possible for any of us to go to conventions in July!

Finally, on rereading my piece on Gene Wolfe, I realize that the man I really must thank is Gene himself. I feel this way any time someone thanks me for a review of their work—all thanks are due to the writer who inspired me to write a nice review. And doubly, triply, infinitely are thanks due to Gene Wolfe. His writing inspired me to believe that there was value in writing about this science fiction that I love so much. Without writers like Wolfe (and Le Guin, and others) I would not have this avocation—criticism—that is so enjoyable. Do I think my award-winning essay is good? Yes, I do, I admit. But it is good because of its subject—it is good because I had such wonderful work to write about, from a writer who was a model for any writer. I hope only that what I have written might lead to those who loved Gene’s work remembering it the more after his death; and to those who haven’t discovered him yet to discover him now.

In close, I’ll quote the closing words of Gene’s great story “Forlesen” once more, changed a bit: “I want to know if it’s meant anything . . . if it’s been worth it? ‘Yes. Yes. Yes. Yes. Yes. Yes.’”

SFRA Award for Lifetime Contributions to SF Scholarship 2019



SFRA Award for Lifetime Contributions to SF Scholarship 2019

Sherryl Vint
Awardee


Originally the Pilgrim Award, the SFRA Award for Lifetime Contributions to SF Scholarship was created in 1970 by the SFRA to honor lifetime contributions to SF and fantasy scholarship. The award was first named for J. O. Bailey’s book, Pilgrims through Space and Time and altered in 2019.

This year’s awardee is Sherryl Vint of the University of California, Riverside.


Committee Statement

Joan Gordon (chair), Amy Ransom, Art Evans

Sherryl Vint is one of the hardest working and most modest scholars now working in science fiction. She is also certainly one of the best. I have found her scholarship invaluable ever since her first book, Bodies of Tomorrow: Technology, Subjectivity, Science Fiction (2007). Her second, Animal Alterity: Science Fiction and the Question of the Animal (2010), is very important to my own work in animal studies and science fiction. She has published two other books and co-edited four more, all vital to any decent collection of sf scholarship. All these books are widely read and cited in sf scholarship.

But wait, that’s the least of it in some ways. As Professor of Science Fiction Media Studies at the University of California, Riverside, she has made Riverside a mecca for sf study, growing a strong department, nurturing graduate students and launching them into the academic world. She has hosted wonderful conferences there, wrangled the International Association of the Fantastic in the Arts as their president, been a keynote speaker on sf all over the world, and written many fine articles. In between all this work she managed to found, with Mark Bould, the journal Science Fiction Film and Television.

Most importantly of all in my universe, she is a co-editor of Science Fiction Studies, where I and five others share editorship. I know for sure how much work that involves–I only feel vaguely on top of things now that I’m retired but she’s doing it along with teaching, administrating, writing, speaking, etc., etc., etc. And doing it as meticulously and thoroughly as she approaches all those other things. She is a wonderful scholar, a wonderful colleague, and a wonderful companion. That’s just my opinion (one shared with the other editors at SFS). Our committee took about five minutes to decide that the Award for Lifetime Achievement in Science Fiction Scholarship should go to Sherryl because my opinion is also that of the award committee as a whole, and I feel confident it is an opinion that the members of SFRA share. 


Awardee Statement

Sherryl Vint
University of California, Riverside / USA

I am honoured and humbled to be selected to receive this award, joining so many scholars I admire. I am tremendously grateful to this field for welcoming me into your conversations and giving me an academic home that has not only inspired my scholarship, but also enabled me to meet people whom I consider among my closest friends. I believe that such generosity is a significant part of why the sf research community produces important and relevant scholarship that strives to make a difference in the world.

Thank you to the SFRA Executive and those who work on committees for your role in fostering this field of study, and especially for your role in preserving this space for younger scholars to continue to expand and improve.

I must also thank Douglas Barbour, my PhD supervisor, who introduced me to sf as a field of study. Unlike many, I came to sf scholarship not through fandom but through critical theory: sf writers engaged the questions that most excited me in my critical reading, and with Doug’s support I thus transformed my planned area of study. I’ve followed in the footsteps of so many great scholars whose work showed me what was possible in the field, chief among them Veronica Hollinger, whose essays on gender and more showed me a model of the kind of scholar I wished to become. I first met Veronica as the external examiner on my dissertation, and I’m so pleased that today I can call her my colleague and friend.

I feel fortunate to be part of a community that prioritizes thinking about how and why the world might be otherwise. Such thinking is vitally important today, a volatile moment in history in which competing visions of the future—even about the nature of reality—are highly contested topics. In my research, I have aspired to show that sf is a significant site of political engagement that grapples with central theoretical and ethical issues. To me, the struggle over the imagination has never seemed more urgent than it does today, a time that feels on the cusp of momentous cultural change—although whether this will be to reimagine social inclusion and extend measures such as debt relief that have suddenly become “possible” in the wake of the pandemic, or to intensify the racialized inequalities the pandemic has made all-the-more visible in an austerity-driven return to “normal” remains to be seen. In her National Book Foundation Medal acceptance speech in 2014, Ursula K. Le Guin reminded us that sf is the voice of those who can “see alternatives to how we live now,” who recognize that what is described as “inescapable” is, in fact, contingent. I’m privileged to be part of a community that cultivates the imagination of a better world, that takes the struggle to imagine the future as serious political work, and that provides hope and vision to enable us to make as well as to imagine change. Over the past decade, I’ve seen the field grow and change in ways that are consistent with this ethos, led by visionary writers and scholars.

There are so many people to thank who have educated, inspired, and supported me along the way, as scholars and as friends. The list (which inevitably will fall short) includes Jonathan Alexander, Andrew M. Butler, Gerry Canavan, Grace Dillon, Paweł Frelik, David M. Higgins, Roger Luckhurst, Farah Mendlesohn, Colin Milburn, Keren Omry, John Rieder, Steven Shaviro, Rebekah Sheldon, and Taryne Taylor. I’m lucky to be able to call these people friends as well as colleagues. I’ve frequently collaborated with Mark Bould, whose scholarship deserve special acknowledgement in shaping my own. My colleagues on the Science Fiction Studies board—Arthur B. Evans, Joan Gordon, Istvan Csicsery-Ronay Jr., Veronica Hollinger, Carol McGuirk, and Lisa Swanstrom—continually teach me and have become a second family. My sf colleagues at UC Riverside—andré carrington, Nalo Hopkinson, and John Jennings—exemplify all that is best about collegiality in our field and enable me to work in a research culture that epitomizes what I value about this field. Finally, I want to thank my graduate students, whose cutting-edge and politically engaged work shows me that the best is yet to come.

I’m so pleased to accept this award and I thank you for this recognition. 

Review of Nevala-Lee’s Astounding: John W. Campbell, Isaac Asimov, Robert A. Heinlein, L. Ron Hubbard, and the Golden Age of Science Fiction



Review of Astounding: John W. Campbell, Isaac Asimov, Robert A. Heinlein, L. Ron Hubbard, and the Golden Age of Science Fiction by Alec Nevala-Lee

Andy Duncan

Alec Nevala-Lee. Astounding: John W. Campbell, Isaac Asimov, Robert A. Heinlein, L. Ron Hubbard, and the Golden Age of Science Fiction. Dey St., 2018. Hardcover. 544 pp. $28.99. ISBN 9780062571946.


In his first non-fiction book, novelist and longtime Analog contributor Alec Nevala-Lee tackles a daunting topic: a braided biography of the affinity group of science fiction writers that once centered on John W. Campbell Jr., the longtime Astounding/Analog editor who for a decade shaped a field that subsequently arrayed itself largely in opposition to him. 

One must admire the feat of distillation this book represents. Nevala-Lee appends 83 pages of notes and an eight-page, 94-item secondary bibliography, but he also seems well acquainted with all the works of his notoriously prolific subjects, and the complete contents of 30-plus years of Campbell’s monthly magazines. In shaping this prodigious mass of material, Nevala-Lee’s storytelling skills serve him well. Throughout, he maintains firm control of his multiple narratives, and his pacing never flags.

Nevala-Lee acknowledges that he is “particularly indebted” (415) to Asimov’s three volumes of memoirs, to William H. Patterson’s two-volume Heinlein biography, and to Russell Miller’s Bare-Faced Messiah: The True Story of L. Ron Hubbard (1987). But the Asimov and Patterson books are forbidding tomes of layered minutiae that dissatisfy in different ways (Asimov by blithely ignoring the difficult material, Patterson by forcing his protean subject into a manageable libertarian box), while Miller’s bracing muckrake has been legally unavailable in the United States for decades thanks to Scientologist litigation. (If you’re content with a PDF, the robust anti-Church of Scientology web can fix you up.) Nevala-Lee’s judicious and clear-eyed sampling of these predecessors is thus something of a public service.

Every page of Astounding is engaging and thought-provoking, and even those familiar with the era will make discoveries here. Especially intriguing are Nevala-Lee’s character sketches of the women who eventually broke free of their husbands’ concentric macho orbits, one way or another; Dona Campbell, Leslyn Heinlein, and Sara Hubbard deserve a collective biography of their own. 

Many of Nevala-Lee’s most compelling passages involve John Campbell, a confounding and ultimately tragic figure who understandably has eluded biographers until now. Nevala-Lee details Campbell’s unhappy adolescence and complex family life; the development of his lonely conviction that science fiction was somehow central to the 20th-century American enterprise; his ability to attract disciples and repel them in equal measure; and the racist attitudes that poisoned much of his later thinking.

Above all, Nevala-Lee explores Campbell’s genuinely “astonishing” capacity for self-invention, which often was indistinguishable from self-deception. That he infamously was given to identifying himself, without evidence, as a nuclear physicist pales beside some of Campbell’s grander claims, for example that he once pinned the hapless Asimov to a chair through sheer hypnotic will power, or that his biofeedback control of his own cell structures meant he could never die. Fans of Mary Roach’s and John Grant’s books on pseudoscience and fringe science will find much to appreciate here.

Nevala-Lee’s most poignant chapter details the grief-stricken Campbell’s characteristic reaction to his stepson Joe Kearney’s fatal 1955 car accident on the Pennsylvania Turnpike: a vow to solve the problem of “the relationship between the present human mental mechanism and the operation of high-energy, high-performance, extreme-endurance machines” (314). Nothing came of it, other than everything: “Joe’s death was too painful for him to abandon it entirely,” Nevala-Lee writes. “The answer, he decided, was psionics, which would serve as a source of objective data on the brain. . . . It was a turning point in the history of the genre, and although Joe was never mentioned again, he provided its unspoken motivation, haunting it to the end like a ghost” (315-316).

Nevala-Lee’s final hundred pages, though they climax with the science-fictional triumph of Apollo 11, comprise a long dying fall, as his principals go their separate ways from the 1950s onward. Heinlein turned to “slick” magazines, YA fiction, and eventual cult status in both the Haight and the Pentagon; Asimov embraced popular science and gained household fame as a go-to expert on all subjects; and Hubbard steadily faded from view behind the impenetrable cloud layers of the church he founded. Moreover, all of them largely kept their distance from their onetime mentor, until Campbell’s death in 1971 triggered a spasmodic wave of nostalgia in the field for all that he once signified. He should have lived to participate in the tacky yet touching 1972 ocean cruise promoted as the Voyage Beyond Apollo, described in Nevala-Lee’s epilogue. I’m sure no participant ever quite forgot that voyage, much as they may have tried.

Nevala-Lee has a good story to tell, and he tells it well, but what is its larger meaning—other than perhaps to underscore the late Thomas Disch’s argument, in The Dreams Our Stuff Is Made Of (1998), that the history of science fiction is inextricably tied to cranks, charlatans, and hoaxers? On the last page of his back-of-the-book Acknowledgments, Nevala-Lee writes, “My greatest hope is that this book will inspire a larger conversation about the history of science fiction” (411). One could argue that the conversation is already under way, and that Campbell and company are not terribly relevant to it. Three recent brilliant pop-culture biographies—Julie Phillips on Alice Sheldon a.k.a. James Tiptree Jr., Ruth Franklin on Shirley Jackson, and Jill Lapore on Wonder Woman—make their eccentric 20th-century subjects seem quite timely, inspiring to a new generation of creators, and relevant far beyond genre borders. Can such a brief be made today even for Asimov and Heinlein, much less Campbell and Hubbard?

Packed with rich, weird details and told with a storyteller’s brio, Astounding is a welcome account of the field’s pulp origins. As I enjoy and admire it, I can’t help but wonder whether it hasn’t been published a generation too late.

Review of Gallagher’s Telling It Like It Wasn’t: The Counterfactual Imagination in History and Fiction



Review of Telling It Like It Wasn’t: The Counterfactual Imagination in History and Fiction by Catherine Gallagher

Glyn Morgan

Catherine Gallagher. Telling It Like It Wasn’t: The Counterfactual Imagination in History and Fiction. University of Chicago Press, 2018. Paperback. 359 pp. $35. ISBN 9780226512419.


Catherine Gallagher is Professor Emerita of English at the University of California, Berkeley. In her distinguished career, she has become best known as one of the leading contemporary figures associated with New Historicism, a school of literary criticism that seems to work quite naturally with a study of alternate history and counterfactual thought. Telling It Like It Wasn’t is the culmination of lengthy research project, bringing together arguments initially laid out in articles such as “War, Counterfactual History, and Alternate-History Novels” (Field Day Review 3 (2007): 52-65) and “What Would Napoleon Do? Historical, Fictional, and Counterfactual Characters” (New Literary History 42 (Fall 2011): 315-36). It is an important and timely text which broadens our thinking about counterfactual thought beyond the alternate history novel, military history essay, and political hypothesis to encompass theological thought, philosophical proposition, and legal argument.

Gallagher begins by presenting the long-history of counterfactual thought, pausing only briefly to acknowledge then discard the most commonly cited first example: the Roman writer Livy. Instead, she chooses to truly begin her account of the history of alternate history with Gottfried Leibniz. Gallagher argues that, with his ardent belief in God’s Providence, Leibniz is not the preventer of counterfactualism which he is more conventionally portrayed as, but that in fact his “apparently paradoxical theorization of contingent imminent historical causes as the basis of divine supervision” is one of the first significant developments in counterfactual thought (17, emphasis in original). God, Leibniz argues in his Theodicy (1710), sees all possibilities of all timelines and selects for us the best possible route. Hence, when some disaster befalls us we must have faith that it is part of a divine plan to a better reality. From this new foundation stone, Gallagher demonstrates the construction of counterfactual thought as a tool in theology and philosophy, via amongst others Voltaire and D’Israeli, to its deployment as a tool in critical military history. Here, Gallagher argues, counterfactual thought becomes truly established as a legitimate method of analysis and reflection, culminating in Carl von Clausewitz’s various discussions in his treatise on the nature of warfare: On War (1832). “Military historians are at ease with counterfactualism,” she writes, “because wars are notoriously full of unpredictable turning points, meeting the counterfactualists’ need for contingency and multiple possibilities, and yet they have unusually long-range and widespread ramifications” (27). This remains true today with battles and wars providing the background material, if not the entire subject matter, for a vast array of essays by historians and analysts, as well as novels and short pieces by authors of fiction.

Gallagher’s history of counterfactualism is pleasing in its scope and the breadth of its sources, taking in early tabletop war games, through to the use of counterfactual arguments in law and political debate. This wide-ranging familiarity with the historical sources, non-fiction counterfactual essays and experiments, and the political and cultural contexts in which each piece was created follows through to her discussion of fictional texts in the subsequent chapters. Gallagher introduces an interesting distinction to her terminology when discussing counterfactual thought in fiction. In line with most scholarship on the subject, she retains “counterfactual histories” as the term to discuss analytical essays and speculations, but narrative forms are split into two categories: the “alternate history” and the “alternate-history novel,” the distinction being that the alternate history describes “one continuous sequence of departures from the historical record . . . drawing the dramatis personae exclusively from the historical record,” whilst alternate-history novels invent “not only the alternative-historical trajectories but also fictional characters” (3). She later gestures towards the reader’s possible confusion at this distinction when she writes that “the word ‘novel’ may be losing this precision of meaning, but this study will insist on its retention” (325).

These distinctions in place, Gallagher’s next chapter charts the changes in counterfactual thought through the nineteenth-century, taking particular note of the rise of the novel in France, the United States, and England. However, the remaining text is largely split into analyses of texts in two thematic categories: those, by American authors, which imagine scenarios where the Union loses the American Civil War, and those, by British authors, which imagine scenarios in which Britain is occupied by Nazi Germany in the Second World War. Limiting the pool of writers to those native to the country in question limits Gallagher’s discussion somewhat by removing some particularly interesting texts, but it also allows the author to avoid the risk of undermining her central argument that these counterfactual scenarios are being written in response to some cultural or political shift or event contemporary to the writer. For example, that writers in the Jim Crow era saw that “the racial situation in the South was so bad that it could not have been worse and would have been better if the Confederate states had seceded” (113, emphasis in original), reflected disillusionment with the war’s outcome because though free, the former slaves were now subject to terrible conditions and laws which were also rapidly being normalised in the Northern states. In effect, Gallagher argues, these writers were easily able to imagine that the North had lost the Civil War because it felt to them like they actually had.

The resulting volume presents a very neatly packaged argument for the relevance and critical worth of counterfactual thought in both historical writing and narrative fiction, with no snobbishness about science fiction’s role in this process, but also an awareness of its deeper roots. If anything, it sometimes feels almost too neat, a result of Gallagher’s precise calibration of texts to contexts with each author carefully orientated to appear as a reflection of their time and place. As is so often the case with such arguments, it leads us to wonder about the authors who write similar material in different places, or those writers who are perhaps old-fashioned in their approaches (writing in the mode of the previous generation) or indeed ahead of their time. Yet this is a minor complaint in an otherwise excellent discussion of alternate history and counterfactualism.

Review of Frankel’s Women in Doctor Who and The Women of Orphan Black



Review of Women in Doctor Who and The Women of Orphan Black by Valerie Estelle Frankel

Jeanne Hamming

Valerie Estelle Frankel. Women in Doctor Who: Damsels, Feminists and Monsters. McFarland, 2018. Paperback. 253 pp. $29.95. ISBN 9781476672229.

Valerie Estelle Frankel. The Women of Orphan Black: Faces of the Feminist Spectrum. McFarland, 2018. Paperback. 226 pp. $39.95. ISBN 9781476674124.


A quick Google search of Valerie Estelle Frankel paints a clear portrait of a prolific, detail-oriented independent scholar who has found her niche: pop-feminist analyses of pulp genres and cult science fiction and fantasy favorites—Doctor Who and Orphan Black, but also Outlander, Game of Thrones, Harry Potter, Hunger Games, True Blood, Wonder Woman. The list goes on. It’s clear that Frankel is a pop culture super-fan, which equips her with the enthusiasm, if not the academic bandwidth, to produce the meticulous compendia of observations that comprise the two volumes reviewed here. 

The Women of Doctor Who is a timely addition to critical work on the long-running series given that the 2018 season brings viewers a female doctor for the first time, played by actor Jodie Whittaker. Frankel’s review of human and non-human female characters in the series and its spin-offs (The Sarah Jane Adventures, Torchwood, Class, K9) is exhaustive, arranging Doctor Who’s treatment of women into broad categories: sweet girls, experts, bad ladies, tough girls, and outsiders. From there, Frankel further identifies female characters in the series by their established archetypes: sexy damsel, evil ice queen, trickster-seductress, and so on. While this convenient conceptual schema works well for a quick reference guide, it is less conducive to a deeper exploration of the critical issues surrounding gender, race, species or their intersections, including analysis of the recent trend to gender- and race-flip established characters and the implications, good or bad, of this particular cultural zeitgeist.

 Frankel’s encyclopedic approach works well to highlight the ways that, despite attempts to explore future and alternative worlds, female characters in the series remain firmly fixed as products of twentieth and twenty-first century attitudes that limit the depth and range of the roles women are expected to inhabit. Frankel offers an account of the evolution of women’s roles, from pubescent damsels like Susan in the first seasons, to more “competent” (read: contrary) women in the series’ reboot— e.g. Donna Noble and River Song. This trajectory is both fascinating as it charts the shifting history of feminism’s impact on popular culture, and distressing as you come to realize how little has changed in the past six decades, and how, as Frankel observes, these women remain “trapped within the patterns of their archetypes” (3). One consistently defining characteristic of the Doctor’s companions, Frankel points out, is their collective obligation to serve as his moral compass, to provide, in today’s parlance, invisible emotional labor. While his companions exist to nurture privately the Doctor’s better angel and steer him away from more destructive impulses, he remains free to play the public hero. This narrative through line is brought into starkest relief during the “War Doctor” arc when Billie Piper returns as both the specter of Rose Tyler and as “Bad Wolf,” a sentient weapon of mass destruction that, nonetheless, has a heart (Frankel, Doctor Who 167-168). 

In The Women of Orphan Black, Frankel organizes her analysis of the show around two intersecting histories: the evolution of feminism from first to fourth wave and how this history has been shaped by emerging bioethical issues, especially as they relate to the biopolitical battle over control of women’s bodies. Rich with excerpts and insights from the show’s creators, actors, and consultants, including the fascinating science advisor, Cosima Herter, on whom Cosima the clone is based, Frankel explores how the series deliberately engages in contemporary debates over reproductive rights, bodily autonomy, tensions between science and religion, gender, and globalization. Cleverly, Frankel shows how each female character in the series embodies various feminist waves, from the radical seventies feminism of Mrs. S, to Cosima as second wave feminist-lesbian, to Sarah as radical, “punk” feminist, to Mika/M.K., the elusive cyber-feminist whose hacktivism brings viewers’ attention to issues of disability, virtuality, and neurodiversity (M.K. is portrayed as being on the autism spectrum). Perhaps the most useful part of Frankel’s close look at Orphan Black is her exhaustive catalog of the series’ numerous “easter eggs,” from the literary references in each episode’s title to the allusions embedded in the show’s narrative. Frankel carefully teases to the surface allusions to Charles Darwin, Isaac Newton, Francis Bacon, William Wordsworth, Aldous Huxley, Arthur Conan Doyle, Richard Dawkins, and Donna Haraway, among others, demonstrating how the show’s fast-paced adventure narrative is smartly informed by philosophical, scientific, and literary histories.

The strength of Frankel’s contributions to discussions of Doctor Who and Orphan Black is more curatorial or archival, and one can imagine that this kind of work would make for good starting points to stoke the interests of high school students, undergraduates, or science fiction fans looking to enter mainstream conversations about representations of women and bioethics.

Review of Ahmed’s RoboCop



Review of RoboCop by Omar Ahmed

Dominick Grace

Omar Ahmed. RoboCop. Auteur, 2018. Constellations Studies in Science Fiction Film and TV. Paperback. 117 pp. $15. ISBN 9781911325253.


It is disappointing, though no longer surprising, to see an academic book so riddled with compositional errors and infelicities as this one is make it into print. One can find writing problems—sometimes more than one—on many pages in this book. These range from the relatively minor (e.g. recurrent problems with punctuation, or inconsistent italicizing of titles—especially problematic when the main character and the movie have the same name) up to sentence-level issues. On page 25, for instance, a sentence says the opposite of what it evidently means: “A departure from the whiteness of the American Western is reversed by the presence of a black sergeant”; presumably, the black sergeant’s presence reverses the whiteness of the Western, so a departure from that reversal would in fact restore said whiteness. On the following page, we read, “By having Reed refuse the advances of the lawyer signifies both his authority as an honest blue-collar lawman and establishes the power he exercises over the precinct” (26). Such sentences suggest, at best, inept revision, but the problems seem more basic and extensive than that. For instance, a sentence such as “[Outland] reworked Alien’s theme of the merciless corporation with a deceptively savage rapt” (49) is simply incomprehensible (unless “rapt” as a noun has some specialized meaning that escapes me—and the dictionary). Incorrect or eccentric word choices are especially problematic; for instance, we read of an “apocryphal clash” (93) between Boddicker and RoboCop, when, presumably, “apocalyptic” might be the intended word, but if so, it’s not really an appropriate word in that context, either. That such extensive and basic slips, whether merely accidental or the result of poor writing, survived the editing and proofing process is disheartening. Nor do such problems encourage one’s faith in the content; if writing problems are so pervasive, can we rely on what the book is actually saying to be accurate? A professionally-published book should not be this riddled with basic errors.

Such problems are especially unfortunate, as a short (under 100 pages of actual text), basic reader such as this could be a useful and inexpensive tool for undergraduate students. The frequently casual and subjective tone of this book suggests that its target audience is the general reader or student rather than the more seasoned academic, though Ahmed certainly shows that he has done his research. Despite its brevity, the book does show a good range of scholarly influences and cites reasonably extensively from earlier work on RoboCop. Unfortunately, though, the book lacks an index, so tracking how Ahmed uses his sources (and even where in the book key scenes or characters are discussed) is a bit of a challenge.

The book is divided into four chapters, plus an introduction and afterword. The first chapter focuses on “Genre Mutations,” and explores the generic hybridity of the film. Its main focus is the ways in which RoboCop plays on the tropes of the Western, though other genres, such as horror, noir, and the cyborg film, are also considered. RoboCop’s echoes of the Western have been explored before, but Ahmed’s reading provides some additional insights. His comments on race, for instance, are of value, though the blackness of corporate drone Johnson is oddly ignored.

The second chapter, “Neo-fascist Corporate Bodies,” addresses the film’s politics, especially its ambivalent treatment of RoboCop’s relationship with OCP. The focus here is perhaps a bit fuzzy—more on ambivalence than on constructing a reading—but again, Ahmed has some interesting things to say, albeit arguably more for those less familiar with the critical tradition. Chapter three, “American Jesus,” is potentially the most interesting but also the least successful, as it does not have a sufficiently sharp focus on the film itself.

The final chapter, on “The Legacy of RoboCop,” offers a brief account of how the film was initially reviewed (more positively in England than in North America), how it was marketed and franchised, and how it might be seen in relation to some of Verhoeven’s later films, notably his other SF films: Total Recall (1990), Starship Troopers (1997)—which together with RoboCop tend to be viewed as a loose SF trilogy, the former of which is overrated and the latter of which is underrated, according to Ahmed—and The Hollow Man (2000), Verhoeven’s final SF, and final Hollywood, movie. The shortness of each chapter does not allow for close or detailed reading, so generally the book offers limited insights. All the books in this series are similarly brief, so Ahmed cannot be faulted for the limitations the brevity imposes, but nevertheless, the book is unable to offer much depth or detail.

Overall, the book would work best as a basic introduction to the film for undergraduates, if not for the extensive writing problems. Those already steeped in the critical tradition surrounding the film, or SF film generally, may find occasional insights and useful rehearsals of the film’s key elements, notably its satirical and subversive agenda, but will not find much new. However, I cannot advise assigning this book for students, either, given its extensive compositional problems. Overall, then, this is not a book I can recommend, for either the advanced or the beginning scholar.

Review of Tarr and White’s Posthumanism in Young Adult Fiction: Finding Humanity in a Posthuman World



Review of Posthumanism in Young Adult Fiction: Finding Humanity in a Posthuman World edited by Anita Tarr and Donna R. White

Anelise Farris

Anita Tarr and Donna R. White, editors. Posthumanism in Young Adult Fiction: Finding Humanity in a Posthuman World. University Press of Mississippi, 2018. Hardcover. 290 pp. $70. ISBN 9781496816696.


Since the 19th century, liberal humanist thought has encouraged the view that the ideal human being is unified, authoritative, and entirely autonomous (and generally male, white, and heterosexual). Not only does this favor a certain type of individual, but it also promulgates speciesism and fails to account for the ways in which our bodies interact with other forms of matter and different environments. Posthumanism, in contrast to traditional humanism, approaches the human as a hybrid, boundless subject. Through this lens, scholars critically examine the relationship between human beings and their environment, technology, and other species. 

In Posthumanism in Young Adult Fiction: Finding Humanity in a Posthuman World, editors Anita Tarr and Donna R. White have compiled twelve essays that emphasize the unique applicability of posthumanist thought to the study of young adult literature, where issues related to the changing body are paramount. Following a comprehensive yet concise introduction in which Tarr and White define the many forms of posthumanism, the collection is divided into four parts. Part one, “Networked Subjectivities,” includes two chapters that theorize a posthuman understanding of subjectivity—one that moves away from the singular self to an ethical understanding of one’s plurality. Mathieu Donner, in his reading of Octavia E. Butler’s Mind of My Mind (1977), questions the possibility of achieving unity without sameness, and Shannon Hervey reflects on social media as a type of collaborative, networked self-writing.

“The Monstrous Other: Posthuman Bodies,” the second part of the collection, contains five chapters that deal with adolescent bodies that are transformed either through magic or medicine. Several of the chapters look at material embodiment in Marissa Meyer’s Cinder (2012) and Julianna Baggott’s Pure (2012), while others look at Leigh Bardugo’s Grisha trilogy (2012-present), Michael Grant’s Gone series (2008-present), and works by Nancy Farmer. A unifying concern among the chapters in this section is how to manage the dangers inherent in an increasingly technologized society. Part three, “Posthumanism in Climate Fiction,” collects Lars Schmeink’s “Coming of Age and the Other: Critical Posthumanism in Paolo Bacigalupi’s Ship Breaker and the Drowned Cities” and Phoebe Chen’s chapter “Posthuman Potential and Ecological Limit in Future Worlds.” Both of these chapters are concerned with posthumanism as a political movement with a zoe-centric worldview and agenda. The final part, “Accepting/Rejecting Posthumanist Possibilities,” features three chapters that cover both film and literature: Ridley Scott’s Prometheus (2012), Lev Grossman’s The Magicians (2009), and novels by China Miéville. 

As evidenced here, the collection as a whole provides interdisciplinary insight into a significant number of understudied young adult texts. Posthumanist theory is dense and complex, and this collection offers an accessible and beginner-friendly introduction to the discipline. From defining key terms and the different branches of posthumanist thought to drawing attention to key scholars in the field—such as Pramod K. Nayar, N. Katherine Hayles, and Cary Wolfe—the introduction does an excellent job of preparing readers for the chapters included here. That said, for scholars familiar with posthumanism, the theses and general observations made by the authors are in danger of coming across as obvious or derivative. 

Many of the chapters included here still find themselves asking, in a very basic manner, what it means to be human, to be posthuman. Consequently, the authors speak to the same theories and conversations that have been in circulation for the past few decades, without providing us with new readings, just merely old readings of new texts. One of the more novel points the collection posits is that posthumanism must incorporate liberal humanism into its being, “as part of the assemblage” (White 153). What this necessitates, however, remains unresolved.

There are several other problematic aspects of Tarr and White’s collection, the first being that there is a sustained attention to technology as disturbing and negative. Although posthuman bodies are nothing new, the proliferation of technology and climate change has forced us to acknowledge posthumanist concerns with greater urgency. Yet, for some reason, this reality—as presented in this collection—is regularly regarded with distrust and fear. A lone voice among the host of scholars here, Lars Schmeink, rightly urges readers to recognize the “possibility of utopian hope in the face of dystopian systems” (177). 

The second major concern involves the application of the label young adult to texts that do not necessarily fall into that category: Ridley Scott’s Prometheus and Lev Grossman’s The Magicians. Torsten Caeners, in his chapter on Prometheus, spends only one sentence defending the inclusion of this text in a YA collection. Caeners holds that it is young adult fiction because “it focuses on one of the major themes of young adult fiction . . . finding one’s identity” and is “readily available to all audiences” (199). Not only does this present a simplistic understanding of YA literature, but it also broadens the category to such an extent that nearly any text can be read as young adult. Meanwhile, Tony M. Vinci, in his reading of The Magicians, offers no reason whatsoever for reading Grossman’s series as young adult. It is, and always has been, marketed as an adult series, and to include it here merely because it’s a magic school story suggests, once again, ignorance of what young adult literature entails. 

It is difficult to recommend the collection Posthumanism in Young Adult Fiction: Finding Humanity in a Posthuman World, especially at the price point. For individuals unfamiliar with posthumanist theory, the introduction is valuable, and the third part on climate fiction provides the best example of the positive potential of posthumanist thought. However, for a handful of essays, the collection, for individual purchase, is passable. It would be best suited for university libraries, as individuals can pick and choose what to take from the collection. While recognizing the possible dangers that technology can bring, we in the (post)humanities must begin to move forward and cultivate a positive, hybrid understanding of embodiment—something that, unfortunately, this collection illustrates is not likely to happen any time soon.

Review of Idema’s Stages of Transmutation: Science Fiction, Biology, and Environmental Humanism



Review of Stages of Transmutation: Science Fiction, Biology, and Environmental Humanism by Tom Idema

Nathaniel Doherty

Tom Idema. Stages of Transmutation: Science Fiction, Biology, and Environmental Humanism. Routledge, 2018. Hardcover. 176 pp. $140. ISBN 9780415788229.


Part of the Perspectives on the Non-Human in Literature and Culture series, Tom Idema’s Stages of Transmutation: Science Fiction, Biology, and Environmental Posthumanism roots itself squarely in contemporary European posthumanism (with a feminist inflection). Idema’s introduction helpfully sketches out what he means by the term “posthumanism,” noting specifically the strain of posthumanism preoccupied with transformation and relationships between species and environments. From here the chapter proceeds to define and situate the book’s central premise, outlining the idea of environmental posthumanism as it manifests in Octavia Butler’s Lilith’s Brood novels (1987-89), Greg Bear’s Darwin’s Radio (1999), Jeff VanderMeer’s Southern Reach trilogy (2014), and Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars Trilogy (1992-99). Each chapter pairs a few key, usually somewhat current and innovative, scientific concepts with Idema’s reading of a primary SF text in order to suggest that human transformation in response to environment can be read productively through the lens of environmental posthumanism in both fiction and science. Because Idema brings his scientific sources into relief through heavy use of citation, this text can serve as a primer on the scientific background of environmental posthumanism or as an introduction to the resonances between science and general posthuman thought.

Idema’s idea is that certain SF texts interface with posthumanist reevaluation of humanity through an emphasis on reduced anthropocentrism. Environmental posthumanism comes into focus when this anti-anthropocentric change is brought about by human characters’ interaction with their environments. When Idema lays out his uses of “stages,” on which these transformations are elaborated, the book encounters one of its few weak points. This idea of several stages—temporal, spatial, epistemological—complicates the book’s central argument about environmental posthumanism in a way that is sometimes more distracting than illuminating. One of Idema’s obvious strengths, however, is his ability to weave a relationship of interpretive collaboration between innovative scientific approaches and science fiction narrative thought. Idema reads science fiction as a “privileged literary genre for thinking about environmental change in a posthuman vein” (7).

In the introduction to Stages of Transmutation, Idema lays out the background of his environmental posthumanist approach, emphasizing the work of Rosi Braidotti in particular, and provides a short but detailed history of SF narratives that engage heavily with the idea of environment. He then traces the development of environmentally-oriented strains of posthumanism in contrast to strains that are focused specifically on technological innovation. This sketch also distinguishes both forms of posthumanism from transhumanism, a movement identified by posthumanist thinkers like Rosi Braidotti and Cary Wolfe as distinguished by its disinterest in revising the role of “the human” in philosophical, social, and governmental landscapes in favor of maximizing human agency. Idema notes an increasing visibility, in contemporary scientific thought, of approaches that de-center genetics in favor of interactions between organisms and the environment. These approaches are frequently linked to environmental posthumanism throughout the text; particularly the focus is on empirical science’s overlap with philosophy and science and technology studies. The introduction closes with a consideration of the roots of resistance to the idea of environmentally-driven human transformation in anthropocentric religious, civic, and scientific traditions.

The first chapter is titled simply “Introduction,” resonating with the central focus of the chapter, which is a refinement of concepts surrounding just who counts as a responsible actor in mutually transformative ecological relationships. Idema takes the scientific work of Susan Oyama and pairs it with Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars trilogy, weaving them together around the idea of terraformation. In Idema’s reading, the trajectory set by Oyama’s thought is important for the notion of “intra-actions,” a way of understanding the mutually-constitutive aspects of the relationship between organisms and their environment. Oyama and several scholars following her lead contribute evidence of the responsiveness of the genetic code to its surroundings, de-centering theories that position genetic transformation as the cause of environmental change. Idema identifies this dynamic in Robinson’s Mars trilogy as “the tension between anthropocentric and ecocentric perspectives” which “is . . . played out in the contrast between human focalization and (quasi-)scientific narration” (63). For the Mars trilogy, this means that the central scientists’ attempts to terraform Mars become impossible to disentangle from the process by which Mars “areoforms” the humans introduced to it. The striking novum, in Idema’s understanding, is the humans’ nearly total mastery of physics, biological manipulation, and both genetic and mechanical engineering. Even with this mastery, the humans find it impossible to control the evolution of the Martian environment without being changed by it, both socio-politically and biologically. Idema argues that this entanglement of politics and biology is how Oyama’s oeuvre and Robinson’s trilogy work together to push science and science fiction into the realm of environmental posthumanism. For Idema, science and politics become necessarily interconnected as a result, in opposition to what he terms the modern idea of science as an apolitical realm of objective observation.

Chapter two is less cohesive and more focused on using literature to explicate environmental posthumanism. Casting Bear’s Darwin’s Radio as a work of “informed speculation” allows Idema’s reading of the novel to be a stage for a broad claim about SF in general: that it is the imaginary creative space in which informed authors actually contribute to both literature and science by pushing the boundaries of science more broadly than is allowable in the laboratory. Science Fiction, when written by a scientifically well-informed author, acts as a laboratory for thought experiments that help both SF and science improve. Darwin’s Radio is particularly suited to Idema’s purpose because it illustrates different approaches to science’s relationship with institutions. The chapter contains a detour through the fruitful but meandering pathways of Deleuze & Guattari’s A Thousand Plateaus. While this allows Idema to provide a thorough primer on the concept of “nomad science,” which is relevant to his point in the chapter, the explication is too long at six and a half pages, moving too far afield of the discussion of Darwin’s Radio. 

Chapter three’s primary claim is that Jeff VanderMeer’s Southern Reach trilogy dramatizes the dissolution of the apparatus of androcentric epistemology and communication that structures humanity in the 21st century through the physical and mental transformation of the central characters. Idema links this narrative pattern with what he identifies as the trilogy’s postmodernist pastiche of genres. This literary-critical observation works alongside a series of contemporary scientific approaches that emphasize the capacity for the environment to function as an actant that displaces the human, and human knowledge constructs like literary genres, from the center of epistemological relevance. Stuart Kaufman’s theory of evolution and Rosi Braidotti’s ethics of sustainability are particularly important here. Kaufman’s theory mirrors Idema’s reading of the activity of the environment in the trilogy, and Braidotti’s ethics offer a lens through which to read one central character’s willing engagement, even fascination with, forces and processes outside the individual that seemingly dissolve and transform the very concept of individuality. 

In chapter four, Idema’s central literary argument is that Octavia Butler’s Lilith’s Brood “is an exploration of interspecies relationality and subjectivity that fundamentally questions anthropocentrism” (139). This interpretation rests on the argument that the trade of genetic material for survival between the Oankali—extraterrestrials with inborn genetic engineering abilities—and Earth’s few surviving humans is not coercive in a colonialist or capitalist sense because the Oankali are also profoundly changed by the exchange and do not have full control over the process of blending their genome with that of the humans. As a result, at the end of the trilogy, there has been a merger between humanity and the Oankali that allows both to coexist where before both would have died out. Idema does not manage to completely refute the understanding of the Oankali as coercive because he does not directly approach the Oankali’s control over which humans are allowed to be involved in the process of deciding or the coercive nature of the offer to exchange or die out. Idema’s argument that comparing the trade to biotechnological capitalist exploitation ignores textual details is more convincing given his elaboration of the unpredictable results of the species merger and how the human insistence on confrontation and the value of both purity and separatism is mirrored between resistant human characters and readers that emphasize the coercive aspects of the bonding. Calling the reader to face the ways in which their thinking is limited in exactly the same way as characters’ is a convincing rhetorical move. Idema manages to explain the discomfort elicited by, and depicted in, the Lilith’s Brood trilogy in a way that leaves the discomfort intact but makes its profound interpretive weight clear. His use of Braidotti’s posthuman ethics alongside Donna Haraway’s work on companion species renders his identification of the uncomfortable and profound interconnection forged between species as the primary novum of the series convincing.

Overall, Stages is a very useful work for scholars interested in both science studies and science fiction. This work’s occasional lack of clear transitions between ideas and vocabulary of different disciplines should be forgiven given the complexity of the task Idema has attempted in this slim volume. Working through those challenges will be rewarding.