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.

Meet the Future: An Interview with Julia Gatermann

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

Features / Meet the Future

Meet the Future: An Interview with Julia Gatermann

Julia Gatermann
PhD Candidate, Department of English and American Studies
Hamburg University / Germany
Research Assistant, SOCIUM Research Center for Inequality and Social Politics
University of Bremen / Germany

SFRA Review: Hi, Julia, could you tell us a bit about yourself? As much (or as little) as you’d like!

Julia: Hi! Thanks for inviting me—this is such an honor. I started as a PhD candidate last year at the department of English and American Studies at the University of Hamburg, Germany. I’m a meticulous writer of lists (anything, really: To Reads, To Dos, Pro-Cons…) because I like the way they structure my thoughts and give me the confidence to then (well, sometimes) just throw them to the wind and be present in the moment—because life (thankfully!!!) has a tendency of sneaking up and surprising you.

Review: How do you describe yourself professionally?

J: Looking at my research interests, they seem to be spread out unreasonably wide (something I find simultaneously terrifying and exhilarating): I’m writing my dissertation on sexual and gender fluidity (looking at contemporary films, novels, tv series, and so on) with a strong emphasis on intersectionality. I’m also employed at an interdisciplinary research project called “Fiction Meets Science II” with the subproject titled “Science in Postcolonial Speculative Fiction: Nature/Politics/Economies Reimagined” where we look at depictions of science, technology, and knowledge production from perspectives that challenge and decenter dominant Western discourse. While both areas—sexuality and gender as well as science and knowledge production—are each dauntingly vast and complex, the overlap between the two—and incidentally the aspect I’m interested in most—is the dynamics at work when you look at the margins instead of the center: the emergence of imaginary spaces that allow for a (re-)negotiation (be that of concepts, power relations, or identities) that becomes possible in the liminal spaces “in between”, resulting from the friction between center and periphery. These imaginary spaces are inherently utopian, I believe, since they, by their very nature, always already point towards the future and to the question “what if”? Which allows us to elegantly segue into the next question…

Review: Why does sf matter to you?

J: Pretty much all of my academic work at the moment is inflected by sf because I find it a good mode to think with. Similar to the conceptual friction that happens at the boundaries of two disparate cultures, for example, that allows for new imaginary spaces to emerge, sf deliberately strives to provoke cognitive estrangement that unsettles one’s familiar perspective. There are many aspects about sf that I’m in love with (and some of them are too embarrassingly cheesy to admit to publicly!), but what I think is probably sf’s most powerful capacity is how it opens our view—with a sometimes only ever so slight tilt of the angle—to aspects of our own culture that we previously might have overlooked or been blind to. Long held preconceptions and beliefs that are tightly woven into the fabric of our culture and thereby have become “white noise” to us, something we just take for granted and maybe even perceive as neutral facts of life, can be challenged in sf with a stunning ease—by just shifting the frame a bit. And this ease with which something so profound can be accomplished reveals just how brittle these values and beliefs really become when they remain unquestioned. Therefore, sf hands us powerful tools to both make visible new sides of what we thought we already knew well enough—our reality—and thereby also the power to reshape it by asking new questions—“what if…?” Sf, at its best, challenges its readers/viewers and keeps them on their toes.

Review: What brought you to sf studies?

J: I started to discover sf (as probably most of us) in my teens (if “the golden age of science fiction” is considered to be twelve, I was a bit of a late bloomer, though). In my family, education was always considered as something highly valued, yet not to be taken for granted (I am the first to have been to university). I owe my love for books to my mother who read to me tirelessly when I was little (I somewhat suspect I didn’t allow her to tire, as closure is still something I can’t go to sleep without!).

Yet when I started university, I always regarded anything “genre” as an illicit pleasure. In Germany, even more so than in Anglophone culture, we make a very palpable distinction between high and low brow culture when considering cultural artifacts, and the study of the latter was (sometimes still is) regarded as somewhat frivolous—and for someone very conscious about their class background this can become a very fraught thing. While the devaluation of pop culture had been contested for decades before I ever picked up my first sf novel, and the cultural climate at my university therefore thankfully was rather inclusive (every now and then there were seminars on detective fiction, for example), it was till my second to last semester that I encountered a loud and proud announcement of science fiction in the course catalog.

This seemed to me delightfully transgressive; the crowd this seminar drew was indeed one composed of people who also reveled in “out of the box” approaches and challenging conventional thinking, and I felt like I finally belonged! I immediately decided to write my master’s thesis on sf, went to my first academic conference (ICFA, closely followed by SFRA), spent a year researching my thesis at the Merrill Collection in Toronto, and was overwhelmed by the sense of community I encountered! Just starting out in academia, I felt seen and accepted, my opinions valued. I felt buoyed by the emotional support the academic sf community gave me in my endeavors and ambitions, making me almost giddy with happy optimism. When I returned back home to Germany, I longed to take this feeling of community and belonging with me, yearning for a similar network in the German context.

Therefore, when Lars Schmeink decided to organize an inaugural conference for the Gesellschaft für Fantastikforschung (German association for research of the fantastic in the arts) in 2010, I did what I could to help build up this academic association and provide an organizational structure for a still growing band of likeminded academic SFF enthusiasts to rally around. I feel privileged that I’ve been allowed to serve on the board of the GfF for ten years!

While my love for sf has been longstanding, I believe it was really the open-mindedness, the combination of critical acuity and creative scholarship happening in the field, and, probably above anything else, the warmhearted inclusiveness and integrity of the people within sf that made me catch fire. I feel at home in sf and I couldn’t imagine my (academic and overall) life without it.

Review: What project(s) are you working on now, and how did you get there?What question(s) really drive your work?

J: As mentioned above, the two projects I’m working on at the moment are my dissertation on representations of sexual and gender fluidity in contemporary American culture and the interdiscplinary research project with “Fiction Meets Science” on representations of science, technology and knowledge production in postcolonial speculative novels. Here, I’m looking at how author’s from the Global South or of a hybrid cultural background challenge and destabilize such notion as the supremacy of Western science in their novels, and debunk the fallacy of perceiving it as something neutral and free of any “cultural baggage”. Sf, through extrapolation, can expose problematic developments that, in mainstream society might long have become normalized, and critically question the power relations and dynamics of a capitalist economy that often harnesses scientific research for profit oriented gains, pushing for advancements while downplaying potential risks, for example.

Against the dystopian backdrop of climate change, global pandemics, war and overwhelming inequality, Western science (entangled in capitalist interests) doesn’t only seem to lack the answers but often seems to be at the heart of these problems. And while the present moment long seems to have caught up with sf, creating a strange sense of “double vision”, an inherent sense of futurity in our here and now, I nevertheless believe that sf’s capacity of extrapolation and estrangement can help us process these problematic developments as it affords us with the required conceptual distance to our own reality—it makes us take a step back—to take a good look at it.

I’m interested in how postcolonial sf (and I won’t go into the problematic history of the term here) explores questions such as how non-Western knowledge traditions might hold solutions to these problems, how a Western binary thinking in terms of a nature-culture-opposition might be broken up in favor of more fluid and interconnected understandings of the two, or how different science traditions might work hand in hand to come to creative responses to complex problems. I’m just thrilled to hear how new voices, especially those voices who previously had been silenced, contribute to the discussion, trouble and upend preconceptions and change the dialogue—even the way how we ask questions.    

Review: What do you envision for the future of sf studies and sf scholars? What do you want to see us accomplish?

J: This, I guess, is also what I hope for the future of sf studies and scholars within the field. Sf is full of diverse and brilliant voices, upending what we thought we knew, challenging us to become better thinkers. Likewise, I want to see more scholars succeeding in academia that belong to groups that previously have largely been underrepresented, marginalized, even silenced—people who can challenge white, male, Western, able-bodied, hetero, cis-normativity, take the discourse to new places and ask new questions. These strange and difficult times have shown us that “business as usual” is no longer sustainable, that closing our eyes in front of the obvious no longer is an option. We are in desperate need of change—in the face of an intricately interwoven and incomprehensibly complex global system of . . . everything . . . this is a staggering challenge. We need out of the box thinking, we need new perspectives and angles to look from, we need new ways to cooperate and collaborate, to communicate with each other across the divides of our subjective experiences. And, above all else—we need a huge portion of utopian thinking! These times seem to require sf scholarship more than ever—and the more diverse the voices within it, the better our chances to radically change our world for the better.

Review: If you could write a dream book, or teach a dream course, what would it/they be?

J: The dream book would be my dissertation. I’m interested in how expressions of non-normative sexual and gender identity are being transported and translated in contemporary culture, thereby counteracting cultural erasure and giving visibility to marginalized groups as well as breaking up preconceptions and unsettling binary thinking. Core to my work is an intersectional approach; my theoretical foundation is informed by a variety of discourses, be that critical posthumanism, postcolonial theory, posthumanist feminism, queer theory and critical race studies. I look through an sf lens at my work, firmly believing that the affordances of sf, especially estrangement and extrapolation, allow us to inspect and explore the here and now from new angles and make it possible to perceive from these perspectives what we otherwise might have missed due to our cultural blind spots that derive from an overfamiliarity with the cultural tapestry of our reality. I’m interested in novels, films and tv series that negotiate the experiences of marginal subject positions and embodiment in complex ways that decenter normative thinking, Larissa Lai’s The Tiger Flu, for example, or Alex Garland’s Ex Machina.

In terms of a dream course, I get to teach a seminar on intersectionality next semester, using Janelle Monáe’s emotion picture Dirty Computer as an example and spring board to dive into the vital importance of (self-)representation, cultural memory, and the political, utopian force of Afrofuturism.

Review: Thank you, Julia! Your labor and thoughts are valued and appreciated.

Review of The OA, Season 2

Review of The OA, Season 2

Carmen Victor

The OA. Season 2, produced by Brit Marling and Zal Batmanglij, Plan B Entertainment and Anonymous Content, 2019.

The second season of The OA picks up exactly where the first one left, and both continues and, arguably, doubles down on its strange allegorical and metaphysical take on science fiction and transdimentionality. To recap, the first season centers around a young woman named Prairie Johnson (Brit Marling) who returns to her adoptive family after disappearing under mysterious circumstances seven years earlier. Now preferring to go by “The OA”, Prairie, who had been blind for most of her life, assembles a misfit group of four local high-school students and one teacher (called the Crestwood Five) for the purposes of travelling to another dimension, utilizing a method she and another four other people developed during their time in captivity, as revealed in the first season.. Season 2 of The OA is set in the second dimension. We are introduced to a private eye named Karim Washington (Kingsley Ben-Adir), who has been hired to investigate the disappearance of a young teenage girl named Michelle. In this dimension, the captives (Homer, Rachel, Scott, Renata) as well as Hap and OA have jumped into different versions of themselves. Hap is now Dr. Percy, the director of a large psychiatric institution where Homer works as a resident psychiatrist. Rachel, who had a beautiful singing voice in Season 1, is mute in Season 2 and OA has jumped into a version of herself that did not have a car accident as a child, thus she never had a near death experience so she never lost her sight, was never adopted, and instead led a life of luxury and privilege with her biological father who was alive and present throughout most of her life. Despite her being thrust into this new dimension, OA remembers her seven-year captivity, she remembers her friends, the movements, and the Crestwood Five, as well as everything else from the dimension whence she came. The entirety of Season 2 weaves an endlessly intriguing narrative of how Karim Washington’s search for a missing teenager interconnects with the people and events surrounding the OA and the mysteries of interdimensional travel.

Whereas the first season of The OA is a told like an ordinary drama, recounting an emotional tale of narrative fiction while hinting at the trappings of science fictionality, the second season is more akin to a neo-noir thriller, told particularly effectively visually through the use of unbalanced camera angles. In addition, the narrative at times blurs the lines between good and bad, right and wrong and employs thematic motifs that include revenge, paranoia, and alienation.

Admirers of allegorical science fiction television and film such as The Prisoner (McGoohan, 1967), mystery horror drama such as Twin Peaks (Lynch, 1990-2017), supernatural drama Lost (Lindelof, 2004-10), supernatural mystery drama The Leftovers (Lindelof, 2014-17) or German science fiction drama thriller Dark (bo Odar and Friese, 2017-20) will appreciate The OA. Like these various examples of allegorical science fiction television and film, The OA engages audiences that revel most in unravelling the mysteries of decoding a myriad of literary and historical references and associations, while seeking the sophisticated underlying and cosmic meanings embedded within the show that slowly reveal themselves on multiple narrative, visual and metaphorical levels.

However, while The OA occasionally uses science fiction tropes, it does so without deploying the hard mechanics of sci-fi. For example, while interdimensional travel is a key narrative device in The OA, it generally does not use technology as a means to travel, unlike recent science-fiction films Inception (Nolan, 2010) or Interstellar (Nolan, 2014) which do employ technology as a means to enter metaphysical worlds. When science fiction technological devices become divulged towards the end of the second season of The OA, they are as a revelation because the audience has grown accustomed to the idea of achieving interdimensional travel through choreographed movements, as entirely plausible. That The OA is wholly convincing about interdimensional travel as an analogue activity, arrived at through a series of physical movements executed in unison and with perfect feeling, differentiates this series from other science fiction narratives that deal with interdimensional travel. The second season of The OA ends climactically with characters in dual dimensions jumping together to a third dimension whose conditions are immediately apparent as meta-narrative. The season-ending cliff-hanger is maddeningly self-referential, drawing to attention the idea of its own artificiality while tangibly questioning the very medium through which The OA is being told.

According to the show-runners, the entirety of the narrative arc of The OA was meant to be told over five seasons and it had all been mapped out before production began. In an allegorical work such as this, the number five is in itself significant because it is one of many emblems that is repeated throughout the series. Five seasons, presumably five dimensions, told in five distinct genres, corresponding to the five Crestwood characters, the five captives, the five connected glass chambers in which they were imprisoned, Hap’s name short for ‘haptic’ meaning the five senses, and the five movements which enable interdimensional travel.

Scholars and researchers interested in televisual works invoking intertextuality as an aesthetic strategy will recognize The OA as a profoundly postmodern media text. though not in the way Frederic Jameson defines postmodernism, which in Jameson’s view, relies too heavily on nostalgia for a past that never existed. Rather, the postmodernism expressed in The OA is more analogous to the way Linda Hutcheon describes it: “that which paradoxically wants to challenge the outer borders of cinema and wants to ask questions (though rarely offer[s] answers)” (117). Further in line with Hutcheon’s theorizing, The OA leaves behind unresolved tensions, challenges spectators expectations, and allows contradictions to deliberately manifest. The OA is shaped by adjunct literary references that elaborate a narrative which reveals clues pointing to a series of mysteries which are never entirely articulated, self-reflexively. The OA is meta-cinema. Some of the literary references in The OA are overt and others are covert. For example, Karim Washington gives Octavia Butler’s novel The Parable of the Sower (1993) as a gift to another character in Season 2. The Parable of the Sower is a sci-fi novel featuring a character with hyper-empathy following the collapse of society due to climate change. During experiments, Hap fixates on the audio recordings captured during near death experiences, which he then situates as occurring among Saturn’s Rings. That immediately calls to mind W.E. Sebald’s 1995 novel The Rings of Saturn, a hybrid work of history, myth and memoir in which themes of time, memory and identity feature prominently. Interdimensional travel and communication (not limited to human communication but interspecies communication as well) is a central focus of The OA. Prairie/Nina/The OA uses the term an “invisible river” as a poetic description of interdimensional travel achieved by executing the five movements. This reference to an invisible river in The OA recalls German poet and philosopher Friedrich Hölderlin’s influential hymn The Ister (1803) which, briefly, is a poem about the Danube River concerned with cyclical history while unpacking concepts of space and time. A documentary was made of The Ister (Barison and Ross, 2004) where well known philosophers including Bernard Stiegler, Jean-Luc Nancy and Phillipe Lacoue-Labarthe discuss myriad, interconnected relations and, of particular significance here, the film is divided into five chapters that end as the river reaches its source, seeming only to claim the failure of its own project. 

Despite the highly enigmatic ending of Season 2, Netflix unceremoniously cancelled The OA shortly after the second season aired, citing that it didn’t generate enough new subscriptions, which is one of the key metrics that Netflix uses to measure the success of its productions. The fandom of The OA was in an uproar, and conspiracy theories abounded about the characters having jumped into our present dimension as well as theories circulating about supposedly innovative marketing plans for subsequent seasons by faking out the audience about the show’s cancellation. A fan went on a weeks-long hunger strike at Netflix headquarters and fans raised money to install digital billboards in New York’s Times Square in protest of the cancellation. Unfortunately, at the time of writing, the series remains cancelled. The showrunners, however, stand by their 16 hours of unfettered television, which shares narrative and conceptual elements with other examples of independent, speculative fiction as exemplified in films by Benson and Moorhead: Resolution (2012), Spring (2014), The Endless (2017). As well, The OA shares conceptual commonalties with works such as Coherence (Byrkit, 2013), Arrival (Villeneuve, 2016), films written by Alex Garland 28 Days Later and Sunshine (both 2002), Never Let Me Go (2010), and Annihilation (2018) and similar radically sincere (Gilbert), independent works such as Primer (Carruth, 2004), Upstream Color (2013) and the German sci-fi Dark (bo Odar and Friese, 2017-20). 


Hutcheon, Linda. The Politics of Postmodernism. Routledge, 1993.

Gilbert, Sophie. “The Radical Sincerity of The OA.” The Atlantic, 19 Mar. 2019,

Review of Bunjevac’s Bezimena

Review of Bacurau

Dominick Grace

Bunjevac, Nina. Bezimena. Fantagraphics, 2019.

Before I get to specifics, readers should be warned that this graphic novel includes explicit sexual imagery and disturbing themes: it focuses on issues of sexual violence and consent. It tells the story of a young man who follows a woman home after finding her lost sketch book. When he discovers that the sketchbook includes graphic depictions of him engaging in sex with her and with others, he enacts the scenarios. By the end of the book, we are told that, in fact, the sketchbook belonged to a young girl who was sexually assaulted and murdered, along with two other girls, apparently by our protagonist. Readers who find this subject matter distressing should beware, and anyone should think carefully about whether this is an appropriate book for classroom use.

Bezimena, Nina Bunjevac’s third graphic novel, is an extended surreal narrative in which the line between reality and fantasy is not so much blurred as obliterated. Bunjevac identifies the myth of Artemis and Sipriotes, the gender-bending tale of Sipriotes being punished for an attempted rape by being transformed into a woman, as an inspiration. The book also echoes the myth of Diana and Actaeon, the voyeur transformed into a stag and torn apart by his own hunting dogs after seeing the naked Diana bathing in a pool. The fable of the king who puts his face into a bowl of water, finds himself in another world and another body, living another life until he removes his face from the water and is restored to himself, is also a clear inspiration. Fairy tales, especially ones such as Little Red Riding Hood, also inform the action. The work is dense, complex, and allusive—as well as elusive—requiring readers to try to make sense of the story themselves, rather than spelling it out.

The work’s obliqueness is evident from the beginning, in the frame device of two disembodied voices—the only voices to speak in the entire text—whose dialogue consists of the story we read as told by one to the other. The voices manifest as word balloons on black pages, one speaking from “below” the page (the tale-teller) and “above” the page (the auditor). We know almost nothing about who they are or what their relative locations mean. The tale teller recounts the story of a priestess who indulges in the habit of “perpetual and needless suffering” until Bezimena thrusts her face into the pool (or perhaps river—again, readers are left to judge, and how one interprets the moment may vary depending on what sort of body of water one assumes this is) by which she has prostrated herself. This act causes her spirit to separate from her body and to be reborn into a male infant in an entirely different environment, an uncannily detailed yet unidentified European city in what appears to be the early twentieth century. The boy, Benny, is an obsessive voyeur and masturbator whose childish fixation with fellow classmate “White Becky” re-emerges when, as a young man working at the zoo, he sees a woman he is sure is “White Becky.” The similarity of the names Benny and Becky, and the overt symbolic implications of the epithet “White,” are among the many ambiguities of this text that invite readerly. It is her notebook that “Becky” perhaps loses (or perhaps deliberately abandons) that serves as the catalyst for the tale. Impossibly, the sketchbook depicts events before they have happened—sexual fantasies involving voyeurism, bondage and arguably non-consensual sex—that Benny feels compelled to act out exactly as they are illustrated.

Here, perhaps, is the book’s most overtly metafictional and fantastical conceit. Bunjevac’s art is meticulously detailed, using heavy stippling to create an almost photographic effect. Most of the pages feature single images, and all the pages with pictures are devoid of words: the narrative voice occupies the verso pages, otherwise black, while the accompanying pictures appear on the recto pages, though there are occasional wordless, two-page spreads. The illustrations also frequently frame or enclose the figures, foregrounding our recognition that they are pictures, even as they depict events. Though the pictures depict actions, they are also frequently designed to appear staged and static—as drawings, rather than as depictions of life. The line between the sketchbook Benny finds and the story we are reading largely vanishes as we read.

Even the blurred reality thereby created is further compromised with the narrative twist that occurs when Benny is arrested on suspicion of murder, and the sketchbook suddenly transforms into one filled with a child’s drawings, not with the explicit sexual images Benny has seen and used to enact his fantasies. All evidence to support Benny’s version of events disappears, in effect, and readers are left to determine whether he has fantasized the whole thing, rationalizing his murders with his elaborate scenario, or whether he has been victimized by some inexplicable force. The frame narrative of the priestess apparently being punished for her self-inflicted needless suffering, the unidentifiable disembodied voices sharing the tale, and the various myth and folk echoes certainly invite readerly speculation.

Indeed, the most intriguing thing about this book, perhaps, is its interpretive openness—though that is arguably also its most disturbing characteristic. In an afterword, Bunjevac offers a personal account of two sexual assaults she suffered, inviting readers to contextualize what they have read in light of real-world sex crimes. However, the book is far from a dogmatic or polemical critique of rape culture, Instead, it raises troubling questions about desire and gender. What one is to make of the fact that the putative rapist/murderer is represented as being the spirit of a female in a male body remains open. How one is to read White Betty—a virginal victim, a temptress who takes pleasure in the transgressive sex imaged in her sketchbook, a femme fatal who leads Benny to his doom—remains open. How we are to read Benny—victim of primal urges he cannot control, monster, victim of external manipulation and scapegoat for crimes he has not really committed (facing certain conviction for his crimes, Benny hangs himself and finds himself back in the priestess’s body)—remains open. The book is simultaneously intriguing and disturbing. It is an exceptional achievement, refusing to offer pat or even palatable answers to the questions it raises. It could engender fruitful discussions about several different discussions, but students would need to be warned in advance about what they were being asked to read.

Review of Bacurau

Review of Bacurau

Joe Brace

Bacurau. Dir. Juliano Dornelles, Kleber Mendonça Filho, 2019.

Set “a few years from now” in the sertão or caatinga, an arid region in Brazil’s northeast of xeric shrubland and thorn forests, Bacurau is a lush, hyperreal sci-fi Western about a community under siege. In the eponymous village of the title, named after the nightjar, a community has drawn together to mourn the loss of its matriarch and wise woman Carmelita. Some, like granddaughter Teresa, have travelled a long way to be there. Her journey through the surrounding outback demonstrates the extent to which her home has been isolated, the dirt roads lead past rusted police cars and collapsed school buildings. In Bacurau itself however the inhabitants are thriving, a well-attended school and bustling market defy the attempts of the state to strangle the settlement by cutting off its water supply. The arrival of a vote-hunting local politician, Tony Jr, demonstrates the immutable contempt of the inhabitants for their would-be leaders. Forewarned of the encroaching caravan of political lackeys and bodyguards, the inhabitants go to ground, hiding anything worth stealing and transforming their vibrant town-centre into a ghost town. Worse is to come however when a group of heavily armed Americans arrive and begin picking off the villagers. To face this existential threat, they are forced to turn to Lunga, a heavily made-up, androgyne bandit and his gang of outcasts to help defend their home.

In setting up the conflict between this homogenous, white, heterosexual kill-team of Americans and the racially, sexually and gender diverse inhabitants of Bacurau the film evokes the battle-lines drawn up in Jair Bolsonaro’s Brazil, which has seen the wealth and privilege of the coastal cities explicitly pitted against minorities and the interior of the country. The assassinations, which are performed with the state’s collusion (the Americans’ local fixers turn out to be Assistant Federal Judges) immediately recall the 2018 murder of gay, black politician Marielle Franco as well as the worst excesses of the military dictatorship. The “day after tomorrow” setting of the film suggests less a worsening of the social contract in Brazil and more of an uninterrupted continuation of the power relations that have existed since colonial times. Bacurau’s museum contains weapons and photographs from the time of the cangaceiros, autonomous bandits from the early 20th century who, for a time, defied the government and affected a violent and carnivalesque form of wealth distribution in the sertão. A photograph of the severed heads of cangaceiro folk heroes Lampião and Maria Bonita presages the revenge that their spiritual heir, Lunga, will take on the Americans in the museum itself. Afterwards, as the blood is mopped out the front door, the curator instructs the cleaning team to leave the bloodied handprints on the walls and they become part of the permanent display, the museum is an active site able to assimilate and process new history, recalling Michael Taussig’s ideal of a museum that “combine[s] a history of things with a history of people forced by slavery to find their way through these things,” in total contrast to the “dead and even hostile places, created for a bored bourgeoisie.”

The appearance of a flying saucer, the casual dream-like way the villagers come together in sexual congress and the wild alien landscape of the caatinga might, in another film, suggest the exoticizing lens of a “magical realism,” an absurdist “New World” fantasy-land where anything is possible and where, to quote Robert Kolker, the viewer is “assur[ed] that meaning need not upset assumptions or endanger tranquillity.” This illusion is thrust aside by the film’s desire to communicate the practicalities of how Bacurau survives, how it gets its water and the dismissal of the UFO by the gardener Damiano as a drone in disguise. In fact, the inhabitants are hyper alert to the reality of their situation. The Americans by contrast, are disturbed by the bloodstained clothes of villagers they have already killed hung prominently on a washing line, they shake their heads at this vulgar allusion to the violence that has gone before and brand them “savages.”

The Americans have in fact misunderstood the situation, perceiving the withering away of the state from the village as a situation passively accepted by the villagers rather than one they actively connive in. Like the Malagasy “almost rebellion” described by David Graeber in Lost People, the community has simply become self-sufficient and ignores all but the most invasive attempts from the state to make contact. The Americans are so complacent about the ease with which they will extirpate their “prey” that they have devised a point-system just to keep the killing interesting. On the other hand, the villagers, though distraught, are quickly able to assimilate events into their understanding of the world. The mass taking of psychotropic seeds (presumably morning glory) before the final showdown, allows them to circumvent the externally imposed “logic” of the state and the Americans and defy the presupposed outcome of the encounter. When the cringing Tony Jr. is captured, he tries to appeal to reason, telling them that now they have “got themselves into deep trouble.” “We have taken a powerful psychotropic drug,” replies the schoolteacher, “and you are going to die.”

The violence in the film, sanguinary but never sadistic, links the narrative both to the mass state reprisals of the 19th century in Brazil (including the punitive expeditions against escaped slave settlements, or mocambos, and the utter destruction of egalitarian, separatist communities like Canudos) and to the contemporary cohesion of state and organised criminal violence, described by Sayak Valencia in Gore Capitalism as “necroempowerment.” The film offers a cathartic imaginary counterpoint to this violence in the form of the bawdy, horizontalist and autonomous community in Bacurau. Other than this it offers no direct political message, where one might expect an evocative textual postscript describing the current situation in Brazil the merely notes that, “this production created 800 jobs.”

By deliberately unrooting the story temporally (whenever the film is watched, it will always be set “a few years from now”) the film speaks to a continuing set of conditions in Brazil rather than simply projecting a critique of today’s politics into tomorrow’s world. This detemporality allows the film to offer a vision of radical resistance that is not tied to a specific set of conditions. Bacurau is not about Bolsonaro’s Brazil, or it is but only as much as it is about Lampião’s Brazil, the Brazil of the runaway slaves, or the Brazil of the coming water crisis. Setting a piece of science fiction in a specific future is the surest way to defang its message and turn it into a wry milestone for nostalgic audiences. Bacurau, by contrast, is forever possible, forever just around the corner.


Taussig, Michael. My Cocaine Museum. U of Chicago P, 2004.

Kolker, Robert. A Cinema of Loneliness. Oxford UP, 2011.

Graeber, David. Lost People: Magic and the Legacy of Slavery in Madagascar. Indiana UP, 2007.

Valencia, Sayak. Gore Capitalism. The MIT Press, 2010.

Review of Wade Roush’s Twelve Tomorrows

Review of Twelve Tomorrows edited by Wade Roush

Dominick Grace

Wade Roush, editor. Twelve Tomorrows. MIT Press, 2018. Paperback, 276 pp, $19.95. ISBN 9780262535427.

Twelve Tomorrows is volume five in a series begun in 2011 with TRSF, and the first to be published in book form rather than as an issue of Technology Review magazine. A more accurate if less streamlined title might be Eleven Tomorrows and One Yesterday, as the book includes only eleven new stories, and a new retrospective on the life and career of Samuel R. Delany. The remit of the series, as explained on the series website is to offer “original stories that explore the role and potential impact of developing technologies in the near, and not-so-near future.” A Delany retrospective might not seem to be the ideal fit for that remit, since Delany’s importance is arguably more for his innovations in style and in social extrapolation, rather than specifically in speculation about scientific innovation, but on the other hand, he is one of SF’s major figures, and more can always be said about him. The eleven stories come from diverse hands, including several well-known SF names (e.g. Elizabeth Bear, Liu Cixin, Paul McAuley, Nnedi Okorafor, and Alastair Reynolds) as well as from upcoming figures and writers not usually associated with SF. The overall quality of the anthology is consistent, but perhaps more narrow in focus than its stated goal would suggest. While it is unsurprising that implications of computer technology innovations should loom large, the anthology would be more diverse and more fully meet its aim of speculation about developing technologies if the stories tackled a more broad range of topics. Roush indicates in his introduction that he generally banned dystopian stories because he likes his “SF with a dose of hopefulness. […] Pessimists don’t invent vaccines or build moon rockets [ix]; however, several of the stories here are more cautionary than celebratory, and a few are outright dystopian. 

Several are about AI, or variations thereof, again unsurprising at this juncture. One of the few overtly dystopian tales here, McAuley’s “Chine Life,” offers a far future in which AI has mostly supplanted humanity and has split into factions, one of which wants humanity eradicated and the other of which ostensibly wants to help, but literally colonizes the bodies of human beings in order to do so. McAuley here offers a neat sort of twist on invasion/colonization. Somewhat differently, Clifford V. Johnson’s “Resolution” (told in comics format, a welcome innovation, though John’s style is functional) offers something of a variation, imagining a future in which an alien invasion goes unnoticed because the aliens (who are apparently incorporeal) have passed themselves off as the AI the protagonist thought she had developed. Bear’s story, “Okay, Glory,” is about a wealthy recluse whose AI is hacked into believing there has ben a catastrophe in the outside world, so confines him to his impregnable fortress of a house, until he pays the hacker/extortionists $150,000,000. The cautionary tale about the susceptibility of computer tech to hacking is competently enough handled, if not new, but the story suffers from a major plot hole: if one expects to be paid a huge pile of money, one must leave the person they are extorting a way actually to get to the money. Sarah Pinsker’s “Caring Seasons” also involves smart tech (whether actually AI or not is not spelled out) run amok, as it presents a retirement facility in which the medical protocols designed to protect residents instead become the tools that imprison them. J.M. Ledgard’s “Vespers” imagines the first interstellar spaceship, run by an AI that spends the story ruminating about its situation. Almost half the stories here, therefore, are essentially variations on a theme. As such, this group represents a suite of stories that might be considered in tandem in a classroom to discuss how SF deals with AI.

Most of the rest of the stories also play on the implications of computer tech, in one way or another. Ken Liu’s “Byzantine Empathy” presents an intriguing story about attempts to co-opt cryptocurrencies to serve charitable ends—or, conversely, to allow one charitable organization to become the most powerful charitable organization in the world—by melding social media and giving. Liu Cixin’s “Fields of Gold” (which might also be connected to the AI stories) posits that the accidental launch of a woman into space on a doomed voyage may become something that would unite the world in an attempt to reach the stars, but we ultimately learn that the real woman is long dead and replaced by a computer simulation, when the rest of Earth catches up and sends out a ship that can catch up to hers. Reynolds’s “Different Seas” carries remote control to an extreme by positing humanoid helpers that can be inhabited remotely to aid people in crisis. The story includes an ironic twist that is perhaps unnecessary. Malka Older’s “Disaster Tourism” might be seen as a complementary piece, as it involves the use of drones in rescue work, when an inexplicable infection breaks out.

Only the remaining two stories carry us any distance from computer tech, S.L. Huang’s “The Woman Who Destroyed Us,” and Okorafor’s punningly titled “The Heart of the Matter.” The former deals with a medical innovation that allows for the tweaking of brains, which can allow for the cure of mental conditions, or simply for self-improvement. Whether such tech makes one more truly oneself or whether it transforms people into something else—whether this is an advance created by a Frankenstein, or a genuine boon to humanity—is treated with some nuance. The story is neither a stereotypical warning about science daring to tread where it ought not, nor a paean to advancement, though it perhaps skews in the latter direction, as it is narrated from the point of view of a woman who initially views it as the former and hopes to destroy its creator but who comes ultimately to see value in the procedure. “The Heart of the Matter” explores age-old fear of scientific advancement by representing the replacement of a Nigerian President’s heart with an artificial one as something that inspires superstitious fear in some—a fear exploited by a would-be usurper, who takes advantage of credulous equations of new technology with witchcraft.

Overall, then, this is a strong volume that does indeed offer speculations about new and emerging technology. The stories are all solid, if thematically and stylistically for the most part fairly staid (I imagine many readers will have recognized familiar themes and plot points in the brief precis above). The book is possibly useful for a course on SF and tech, or on contemporary trends in SF.

Review of Stephen King’s The Institute

Review of The Institute by Stephen King

Dominick Grace

Stephen King. The Institute. Scribner, 2019. Hardback, 576 pp. $30.00. ISBN 9781982110567.

The Institute, Stephen King’s most recent novel, is one of his few books that might arguably be regarded as SF, or at least SF-adjacent. King’s work usually falls squarely into the horror category, but SF tropes occasionally assume central roles in his books (e.g. though clearly horror, The Tommyknockers’ monsters are the aliens—or the ghosts of aliens—associated with a spacecraft that has been buried for millennia, a plot device many will recognize). Of these, the most frequent are paranormal abilities such as telepathy, telekinesis, precognition, and other powers of the mind, which are usually permitted in SF despite having little in the way of scientific justification. Indeed, King’s career began with Carrie (1974), ostensibly horror but focusing on a teen-aged girl with telekinetic powers, rather than on fantastical creatures or monsters. The Institute is another such novel, this time focusing on children possessed of telekinetic or telepathic power who are being kidnapped and dragooned into the service of a shadowy organization for ends that remain obscure until well into the book, providing a modicum of expense. Surprisingly, the organization in question is not The Shop, as long-time readers might have anticipated, since it was The Shop who came after pyrokinetic Charlie McGee in Firestarter (1980) and who turned up to mop up at the end of The Tommyknockers.

Thematically, though, the novel most clearly hearkens back to The Dead Zone (1979). Johnny Smith, that novel’s protagonist, acquires a precognitive ability that allows him a glimpse onto a potentially apocalyptic future, one that he decides to prevent by assassinating Greg Stilson before he can become President and begin a nuclear war. Smith’s solo mission is institutionalized in this latest novel, as the unnamed Institute kidnaps children with paranormal abilities and experiments on them (in ways that effectively amount to torture) in order to use their precognitive abilities to foresee potential future catastrophes and then their telepathic and telekinetic abilities to kill those who will cause said catastrophes. Doing so quickly uses up these children, effectively destroying their conscious minds, leaving behind only shells whose remaining mental powers serve as the battery for weaponized telepathy and telekinesis.

The idea of using precognitive abilities (or of other ways of gathering information, such as time travel) to engage in first-strike prevention is far from new in SF. Nor is the idea of children with special abilities being used (whether with their consent or without) being trained to intervene in world events—Marvel’s X-Men perhaps being the pre-eminent example. King’s take on these ideas is perhaps less original than it is a synthesis of possibilities. He uses it to comment on the extent to which ostensibly good ends can be used to justify increasingly horrifying means. The argument Institute leader Mrs Sigsby, among others, makes, is that the work they do has saved the world multiple times, because by combining the knowledge they glean from precognitives with the powers they can exploit and enhance in the telepathic/telekinetic children, they can use those mental powers to kill those who would create disasters.

However, King’s focus is on children who have been kidnapped, and who have also usually also had their families murdered during the kidnapping—protagonist Luke Ellis has been represented in the media as a runaway who slew his family, as a way not only of eliminating parents who would look for a lost child but also as a way of tainting Luke should he ever escape. Their training is often indistinguishable from torture. As a result, readerly sympathy is clearly aligned with them, to make the figures running the Institute (and, we can assume, those running the numerous other facilities around the world, that we learn about later in the book) come across as monstrous. And since for much of the book, we do not know why these children are being used the way they, we are readers are further encouraged to side with the children. Furthermore, all the characters on the side of the Institute, with one exception, are depicted, to a greater or lesser extent, as sociopathic or otherwise morally corrupt. That their essentially evil (for want of a better word) behavior may itself be caused by or at least enhanced by toxic psychic contamination bleeding into their own heads as a side effect of the experimentation and exploitation they inflict on the children may be read as a metaphor for how power corrupts.

King therefore largely games the system, leaving little room to consider whether the ends do indeed justify the means. Here, they clearly do not. In the current world of rising nationalism and authoritarianism (and King is vocally anti-Trump) this is not necessarily a bad message. It’s just not a very subtle one. But then, King has never been renowned for his subtlety.

Review of Timberlake’s Landscape and the Science Fiction Imaginary

Review of Landscape and the Science Fiction Imaginary by John Timberlake

Patrick Whitmarsh

Timberlake, John. Landscape and the Science Fiction Imaginary. Intellect, 2018. Paperback, 250 pages, $28.50. ISBN 9781783208609.

If readers were to judge John Timberlake’s Landscape and the Science Fiction Imaginary by its title before cracking the book open, they would be in for a pleasant surprise. One may anticipate accounts of environments and settings in various works of science fiction, and although Timberlake does take such elements into consideration, his primary argument concerns neither environment, setting, nor landscape per se, but vision. More specifically, he examines the ways that both sf and non-sf works construct visual relationships with their diegetic environments, or landscapes. Timberlake refers to this relationship as “ocularity,” which connotes a historical dimension as much as a physical, or spatial, one: “it is shaped by a futurism based on the extrapolation of emergent technological tropes, grounded in historically extant forms” (4-5). This ocular relationship emerges, according to Timberlake, by way of what W. J. T. Mitchell calls “landscaping,” or the assimilation of anachronistic or futuristic images into one’s historical perspective, and Timberlake effectively connects Mitchell’s term to William Gibson’s famous, quasi-apocryphal suggestion that the “future is already here, it is just not evenly distributed” (qtd. in Timberlake 4). One almost wishes Timberlake’s book was titled Landscaping the Science Fiction Imaginary, if such phrasing didn’t give the impression of a how-to book about maintaining lawns on alien planets.

Indeed, Timberlake’s chapters focus less on the particulars of landscape aesthetics than on perceptual discrepancies of scale, as in the first chapter, “Land of the Giants.” Moving easily from ancient mythology to postmodern cinema, Timberlake examines how fluctuations in physical size influence social relations, yielding a tragic framework in which physical environments exhibit an “elemental indifference” to human presence (47). He performs a similar temporal leap in chapter two, building a conceptual bridge between Francisco Goya’s The Game of Pelota (1779) and contemporary digital gaming. Timberlake makes the compelling claim that Goya’s decision to place modern players within ancient ruins “can be read as a form of virtual projection,” effectively anticipating the contained temporalities of late-twentieth-century gaming media (58). Such moves reveal the nuanced, and occasionally understated, methodology of Landscape and the Science Fiction Imaginary. Less a study of sf per se, it rather illuminates in sf a visual imperative that Timberlake argues is at work “across the centuries,” connecting works as diverse as Goya’s painting and video games such as Metal Gear Solid (73).

The remaining chapters examine ocularity in post-1945 visual media: specifically, the drawings of Chris Foss, photographs by Yosuke Yamahata, and Pavel Klushantzev’s and Chesley Bonestell’s “fictions of science” (123). It’s in these chapters that the book’s methodology shines, as Timberlake explores the science-fictional dynamics of artistic impressions, photography, and film sets. Of the figures listed above, the one closest to science fiction is Foss, whose drawings and book jacket designs draw explicitly on sf iconography. Timberlake argues that Foss’s work exhibits an accelerationist vision of the technological present, depicting vaguely familiar objects as though they occupy a decrepit, decaying future. In his treatment of Foss’s drawings and Yamahata’s horrific photographs of post-detonation Nagasaki, Timberlake uncovers a key strategy of uncanny futurity: “all the commonplaces of science fiction,” he writes, “but rendered with a curious familiarity” (80). The estranging experience of the Japanese survivors photographed by Yamahata derives from “the destruction and horror visited upon them in their regular haunts and domiciles” (104). For Timberlake, the import of such ocular extrapolation lies in its capacity for unfolding present material conditions into potential realities.

In this respect, images act as a way for these artists to schematize cultural attitudes about history and the world, and the recurring attitude that Timberlake returns to is the one we experience toward our place in the cosmos, culminating in his final chapter’s discussion of spatial expanse in works ranging from Frederick Sommer’s Arizona Landscape, 1943 to Sebastian Cordero’s film Europa Report (2013). According to Timberlake, the ocularity of such works allows spectators to experience the scale variance that occurs between, for example, human political conflicts and the awareness of our insignificance in the cosmos, embodied in the juxtaposition of human subjects against desert vistas and interstellar gulfs. He elucidates this science-fictional dimension through discussions of numerous examples, from the fiction of Philip K. Dick to works of contemporary sf cinema. The structure of Timberlake’s approach may be a caveat for readers seeking an in-depth and focused study of sf as a genre, whether in literature or film. It certainly attends to numerous sf texts, yet Landscape and the Science Fiction Imaginary is more interested in what might be called the science-fictional dynamic of visual media, and although its approach can be (and often is) directed toward works of sf, they aren’t the author’s central focus.

Perhaps understandably, given Timberlake’s frequent pinballing between various works, it can sometimes feel as though certain examples are treated too briefly, or abandoned too hastily. Yet the connections between sf and non-sf texts feel justified and often prove illuminating when considering the author’s emphasis on landscaping and ocularity. They would be even more effective, however, with a bit more attention to the critical discourse surrounding visuality and its relationship to science and observational media. One noticeable omission is Martin Willis’s Vision, Science, and Literature, 1870-1920: Ocular Horizons (2011). Although focused on literature, Willis’s discussions of ocular media and their impressions of scale are certainly relevant for Timberlake’s ambitious study. Also noticeable are the book’s many unfortunate typographical errors, some of which interfere with sentence-level meaning. These errors range from missing or incorrect words (of in place of as, for example) to long sentence fragments that inevitably draw the reader’s pace to a halt. Admittedly, these can’t be blamed entirely on the author, but one wishes that a bit more time had been spent proofreading the manuscript.

These small quibbles notwithstanding, the conceptual gravity of Timberlake’s study is undeniable, and his compelling readings make Landscape and the Science Fiction Imaginary a valuable contribution to the field of sf criticism and visual media theory.

Review of Benford, et al.’s Bridges to Science Fiction and Fantasy

Review of Bridges to Science Fiction and Fantasy: Outstanding Essays from the J. Lloyd Eaton Conferences edited by Gregory Benford, Gary Westfahl, Howard V. Hendrix, and Joseph D. Miller

David N. Samuelson

Gregory Benford, Gary Westfahl, Howard V. Hendrix, and Joseph D. Miller, editors. Bridges to Science Fiction and Fantasy: Outstanding Essays from the J. Lloyd Eaton Conferences. McFarland, 2018. Paperback, 263 pp, $49.95. ISBN 9781476669281.

In 1979, scholars and authors of science fiction and fantasy literature first met in Riverside, California, for a conference sponsored by the University library’s enormous collection of speculative literature. Hosted by George Slusser and others, each three-day affair typically focussed on one broad aspect of the field and led to a volume of papers. Annual at first, it later became more sporadic and peripatetic, ending in 2017.

Scholarship in this area is hampered by a vast creative landscape and the largely imitative nature of its creations, which many social and literary scholars dismiss. Exceptions always plague generalizations about science fiction (“sf”) and fantasy, a problem exacerbated by their spread beyond the U.S. and growing popularity on film and streaming tv. The core of all literature, fantasy was not recognized as a distinct literary genre until the rise of realism, and did not produce much commentary before the 1960s. A subset of fantasy, sf is Eaton’s usual focus, excluding future studies, technological forecasting, urban planning, and a variety of “topias,” let alone sword-and-sorcery, ghost stories, and other recyclings of the supernatural. Often renovated by new scientific discoveries and dismissals of old ones, sf sometimes revives its own lost dreams, and the spectre of deconstruction hovers over the entire enterprise of the humanities, reminding us that the ultimate value of literature and criticism may lie more in questions raised than arguments settled. Omitting essay titles and chronological order, what follows on a thematic spectrum summarizes principle arguments, adding some personal reactions, comparisons, and evaluations.


Patrick Parrinder locates sf’s parentage in the literary epic vs. the “costume dramas” of romance typical of fantasy. Noting the anti-humanism of Wells’ “scientific romances,” he sees both speculation and prophecy in The Time Machine (1895), his prime example. Broadening the scope, Eric S. Rabkin sources fantasy in the human need to use words and tell stories to understand virtually anything (including science). Given the fallibility of our senses, language, and cultures, fantasy is an inevitable admixture of everything we think we know. Probing even more deeply, Stephen Potts shows Stanislaw Lem’s Solaris (1961) positing that nothing can be known for certain about that alien planet’s global life form, implying the same limits apply to us and our world. Even empirical evidence is interpreted variably across cultures and over time.

Science and Aliens 

David Brin’s wandering essay recognizes that mastering new science is difficult but privileges science (searching for what may be) over engineering (how to deal with it). Asking if we are running out of subject matter for “hard” (science-based) sf,. he claims that “what if” stories may prepare us for future reality, which I think it is minimally adumbrated in, and seldom invented for the fiction itself. 

For Gregory Benford the alien or strangeness is sf’s primary theme. Reliance on comparisons and metaphors assimilates it to the familiar, or uses Modernist “trapdoors” like those of Philip K. Dick, and Star Trek reduces it to engineering problems. The truly alien in Solaris, however, challenges humanistic conceptions of reality. Depending on conventional scales relying on sense impressions, science may never be certain, but sound extrapolation placed in context relies also on data, i.e. objects, causes, qualities, and especially math.. Benford’s afterword says new forms of beacons help us seek aliens, and recognizes the effects of economic limits, ours and theirs. 

Poul Anderson shows how he builds an alien world and how setting impacts the nature and actions of characters. Fantasy worlds also need cohesion, but they are less inventive than historical, ahistorical, even playful, with exceptions for mental worlds like those of Phillip K. Dick and private myths exemplified by Ursula K. Le Guin and Lewis Carroll. John Huntington sees sympathizing with aliens as all but impossible; our inherent hostility to the other makes a benign alien a contradiction in terms. Aliens may be too different to conceptualize, like Tweel in Stanley Weinbaum’s “A Martian Odyssey (1934).” My sense is that Tweels’s apparent trouble expressing emotions may reflect our social and psychological perception.

Human Limitations 

“Nonsense” terms (as in Lewis Carroll) illustrate for Joseph D. Miller fun for its own sake but also the necessary ambiguity of description. In another slight piece, Gary Westfahl finds food distasteful in many sf futures, which approximate a “hospital” environment. Taking a different angle on food, Paul Alkon finds cannibalism in sf and fantasy distinctly estranging and grotesque. Class-determined, it suggests tribal or even alien behavior, from Swift’s “A Modest Proposal” (1729) to vampires and Wells’s Morlocks, and several works by Robert A. Heinlein. Extremely rare, tales of self-consumption usually involve deprivation, but in Komatsu’s”The Savage Mouth” (1968) future science shows it as deliberate and almost complete.

Befor the contemporary rise of sf and modern medicine, H. Bruce Franklin shows how women had been largely superior healers, their herbal skills leading incompetent male medics and Church officials to brand them as witches. The deaths of Mary Shelley’s mother and children may have led to her killing off both “mothers” of Elizabeth Frankenstein, and the whole human race in The Last Man (1826). Real science effects medical cures today, but sf mostly blames technology for apocalyptic plagues, with the exception of AIDS. Franklin’s afterword recognizes that post-mortal characters today as in Ghost in the Shell (2017; manga 1989), recall Frankenstein, and names only warfare and climate change as today’s manmade plagues, not acknowledging the rise of Ebola and germs’ increasing resistance to antibiotics. 

Mediating between human lifespans and the scope of the universe, Robert Crossley finds a minimal attempt to overcome mortality in museums, libraries, cathedrals and even the city of Rome (in The Last Man). Like the Palace of Green Porcelain in The Time Machine, reliquaries in Last and First Men (1930), Earth Abides (1949) and Riddley Walker (1980) (1980) both reveal and deprecate human vanity. Childhood’s End (1953) nd The Drowned World (1962) enlarge and deepen the perspective beyond Earth as we know it. His afterword cites more recent books portraying sf’s museum function, and points out that even sf itself now has a place in museums. 

N. Kathleen Hayles finds immortality narratives embody their opposite, but cyber immortality opens new vistas and questions. “Embodied virtuality” provides continuity with an on/off switch and variable memory (comparable to time travel alterations). William Gibson’s cyberspace is crowded, and its point of view literally creates characters. Cyber immortality even inverts biological gender: immersion is treated as female, male as escape. Her afterword sees today’s cyber reality as more implausible and interesting than even sophisticated fiction depicts. 

As in Bernard Shaw’s Back to Methuselah (1922) Frederic Jameson’s turgid and verbose essay inevitably finds in longevity a metaphor for class struggle. Extended life recasts morality and forecasts ultimate boredom, for which death is a solution. Frank McConnell sees little interest in the failures of technological and theological immortality. Remembered speech, story promises a kind of immortality, but even stories require closure. Dave Bowman becomes Starchild, but 2001 (1968), Dune (1965), and Blade Runner (1982) all face mortality. Sf stories present a gnostic and pastoral phase before the “homecoming” of death.

Visual SF

Vivian Sobchack says American sf films typically address, displace or condense male fear and desire in action and dreams, despite some counter examples. In a technological world the U.S. treats as masculine, biological sex is rare, distracting, or displaced racially or mechanically. Ships penetrate space and alien takeover is rape; even Ripley in Alien (1979) is masculine in ship routine and battle scenes, though she is stripped at the end.. Her lengthy afterword argues that after 9/11 (America’s castration) abnegation replaced repression, while perpetual danger, ambiguity, weakness, time travel do-overs, and selfies increase as in The Edge of Tomorrow (2014). Reaction to disaster is muted, males more nurturing, and women more prominent although “othered.” Teenage disaster flicks feature female protagonists, albeit with repressive older females, while abjection is clearly denied in The Martian (2015) with its helpful female administrator.

In their discussion of comic books and “bandes dessinees,” Danielle Chatelain and George Slusser compare French and American treatments of space travel. French illustrations once treated rockets as trains, and their juvenile comics follow Verne’s emphasis on nuts-and-bolts. American comic books retain flying man characters, while spaceships in French cover art are often metaphors for regressive and inward-looking adult stories using space as a mental image.

Kirk Hampton and Carol MacKay praise the late Richard Powers’s paperback cover art, typically fusing flesh and technology, progressing toward abstraction and surrealism comparable to that of Yves Tanguy . Much of it treats sf as reaching toward the unknowable or the end of time. His portfolio Spacetimewarp (1983) also sparkles with witty commentary. Afterword: The internet and numerous blogs have increaaed wider sharing of his work which includes larger canvasses and has had wide-ranging influences. [Why cut this?]

Howard Hendrix shows Omni magazine gentrifying sf fiction publications in the 1960s. Slick in size and material, it was more general, sexy, and expensive, aimed at an older, wealthier and more cosmopolitan audience. Reflecting late capitalism and the global economy, its postmodern posturing merged fiction with other elements, but its proportion of content focusing on science and the future gradually shrank. Cyberpunks were its stepchildren, apolitical, amoral, valorizing the status quo, while digest magazines preserved traditional sf and its warnings and social criticism. His aftereword reaffirms that conclusion without mentioning other slicks that have surfaced, mostly emphasizing fantasy and cinema.

Canonical Issues

Rebuked for teaching and writing about sf, and even for departing from the sf canon, Marlene Barr argues that reading sf, especially women authors, challenges the feminist dystopia of the patriarchal world. Pointing to Donald Trump, her afterword reaffirms her feminist argument, but has little to do with sf.. The perpetual hostility to sf of the academic canon is ironic for Thomas Shippey. Its inherent novelty challenges conservatism, yet Modernist academia loves other kinds of novelty. Darwinism in The Island of Dr. Moreau (1896) inverts Odysseus’ encounter with Circe, discounting significant differences between man and beast. The Time Machine also forecasts a blasphemous upending like that of Gulliver’s Travels (1726), dismissing predecessors, challenging authority (i.e., imperialism), and promoting the authority of science. While Postmodern theory rejects all authority, engineer elevated sf is intertextual, building on other sf and on science.

I agree with Carl Freedman that the “Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution” (1959) pales next to the 19th century debate between Thomas Henry Huxley and Matthew Arnold. He shows that F.R. Leavis and C. P. Snow understood little of each other’s positions, although both showed a preference for Tolstoy and 19th century realism. Both physics and Modernism were already inaccessible to lay audiences, and sf’s attempt to mediate between the “two cultures” was itself estranging, His afterword: finds Leavis’s reputation higher and Snow’s lower, while mutual incomprehension remains. He does not acknowledge that sf and fantasy may have become more popular and understood since midcentury.

This collection is not a “best of,” but it documents the spectrum of scholarship and analysis of sf and fantasy as it became a cottage industry. Few of these articles were groundbreaking even when first presented, but this volume collects in one place the growth of scholarship and criticism in the field, which should be of interest to libraries, scholars, teachers and even some fans whose curiosity runs in that direction.

Review of Rabitch, et al.’s Set Phasers to Teach!

Review of Set Phasers to Teach! Star Trek in Research and Teaching edited by Stefan Rabitsch, Martin Gabriel, Wilfried Elmenreich, and John N.A. Brown

Bruce Lindsley Rockwood

Stefan Rabitsch, Martin Gabriel, Wilfried Elmenreich, and John N.A. Brown, editors. Set Phasers to Teach! Star Trek in Research and Teaching. Springer, 2018. Paperback, 236 pages, $39.99. ISBN 9783319737751.

The four co-editors of Set Phasers to Teach include three Austrian academics specializing in American Studies, History, and Computer Science, respectively, and one independent scholar and consultant (John N. A. Brown) specializing in UX (User) Research. All appear to be enthusiastic supporters of the feedback between Star Trek in all its iterations and the scientific and academic communities. This enthusiasm is reflected in the heading of their Preface: “‘Engage!’ Science Fiction and Science Inspire Each Other and Move Society Forward” (ix). Their fifteen contributors lay out in fifteen distinct and concise essays the variety of ways in which specific episodes, events and characters, and the overall themes and trajectory of the franchise facilitate this positive feedback loop.

The format and layout for each essay in the book includes original illustrative cartoons highlighting the theme of each essay, an abstract with keywords, a brief “Editors Log” summarizing the thesis of the essay, and illustrative quotations from specific episodes of one or more Star Trek episodes. Essays are broken down with informative subtitles, and contain Works Cited (Endnotes) and sometimes additional Recommended Readings and in-text footnotes. 

The appendices are comprehensive lists of every Star Trek episode (through Discovery, Season 1) and film, listing them by Season, Episode, Title, Stardate, Director, Credited Writers, and Original air date, all derived from Wikipedia and the Memory Alpha Wiki. This information will enable a reader interested in following up specific themes and episodes mentioned in the essays to track them down and facilitate streaming them (or excerpts) for use in teaching and research.

The editors and authors make good use of available primary sources (the episodes and films) as well as commentary by contributors to their creation, and scientists, astronauts, and others who have commented upon the influence of Star Trek on their own lives and work. The emphasis is on the power of narrative to, as they quote Gene Rodenberry remarking in the Introduction to Star Trek: The Next Generation Technical Manual, “show humans as we really are. We are capable of extraordinary things” (xi).

The essays cover a wide range of topics, including using Star Trek to teach literature by highlighting its frequent uses of and references to classical literature, and the ways episodes can be used to bring out themes such as self-sacrifice, revenge, and pride (Elizabeth B. Hardy, at 9). Erin K. Horáková provides an illuminating essay and critique of how the series engages “with Post-war American Jewish Identity” (13-27). Stefan Rabitsch explores the role of the original series in translating American culture to tell “modern morality plays” in the historical period of the Cold War when America was replacing Britain in a “benevolent” role as “protector and defender of the western world” (29-43). He notes, “Even though the original run ended in 1969, the Star Trek formula was such that it could easily be adapted to changing contexts by virtue of the frontier’s inherent metaphorical characteristics while supported by a stable utopian world of scientific progress and discovery” (39).

“How to Name a Starship: Starfleet between Anglo-American Bias and the Ideals of Humanism,” by Martin Gabriel (43-50), argues that the dominance of Anglophone names of Starships “shows us that the ethnocentric traditions of the twentieth century, maybe even an imperialist approach to cultural history, were vivid throughout the production of the franchise” (49). 

“The Computer of the Twenty-Third Century: Real-World HCI Based on Star Trek,” by Gerhard Leitner and John N. A. Brown (51- 61), explores how the Human-Computer Interface (HCI) was portrayed in the original series, how it inspired further developments, and what remains to be done to address reliability, security and privacy concerns, and ease of use, concluding “despite the many examples of advanced HCI that already exist in the home, we are still very far from the twenty-third century. . . That said, one of the next steps has already been taken. It is now possible to have reliable and secure voice-based interaction that seems natural and intuitive to the user, provided designers and developers are willing to take the time needed to build it” (60). In the context of the challenge to aircraft safety posed by the recent crashes of the Boeing 737 Max attributed at least in part to software updates, loss of pilot control over aircraft computer systems, and training failures, this essay is a particularly interesting contribution to the collection.

Other essays explore the energy system that propels the Enterprise and other Starships, comparing the required power to the available power on Earth itself (63-70); the relationship of Starfleet to pre-modern societies and the role of the prime directive (71-81); and the way Star Trek has inspired innovations in science and technology, citing the 2017 Qualcomm Tricorder XPrize and the close relationship of the franchise to NASA (83-93). Carey Millsap-Spears presents an exploration of the use of Star Trek in teaching rhetoric and process writing while addressing the concerns and issues facing the LGBTQ+ Community in the context of a college composition course, developing research and critical thinking skills (95-105).

Additional essays address “Using the Borg to Teach Collective Computing Systems” (107-115); “Telepathic Pathology in Star Trek” (117-124); and an intriguing proposal for a better designed Video Game based on Star Trek after an assessment and critique of the games previously released since 2000 (125-135). Vivian Fumiko Chin presents a thorough review of the critical literature and interesting discussion of “Cognitive Science and Ways of Thinking About Narrative, Theory of Mind, and Difference” that explores the use of examples from Star Trek to introduce students to these concepts and ways of thinking about empathy and respect for difference, using Spock’s mind meld with the Horta in the original series (TOS) episode “The Devil in the Dark” as one example (1371-47).

In “La Forge’s VISOR and the Pictures in Our Heads,” Nathaniel Bassett gives a review of the critical literature and an explanation of the role of media studies and how socio-technical systems help mediate our experiences (149-160). In a concluding essay, John N. A. Brown discusses anthropology-based computing (ABC), cognitive bias, and the use of Star Trek to teach about scientific thinking (161-172). He observes, “A scientific thinker separates their personal perception of their own self-worth from their faith in what they think they know. They do this by assuming they are wrong and asking others to check their work. . . And that is the purpose of teamwork in Star Trek: using many minds to improve ideas. In this way they show us how to seek new facts and new information; to boldly disprove ideas that everyone has believed before” (171).

Together these essays make an entertaining and rewarding overview of the many ways one can employ Star Trek in teaching and research. They can be deployed at all levels of education, regardless of discipline or areas of expertise. The book is printed on acid free paper, is well designed, and presents its materials in a manner accessible to a general reader while giving guidance for further research to faculty and students alike. It deserves to be widely read.

One omission from my perspective is any discussion of the use of Star Trek in teaching about legal issues, which has been explored on a number of occasions, e.g., Paul Joseph and Sharon Carton, “The Law of the Federation: Images of Law, Lawyers and the Legal System in Star Trek: The Next Generation,” 24 U. Tol. L. Rev, 43 (1992); Michael P. Schartf and Lawrence D. Roberts, “The Interstellar Relations of the Federation: International Law and ‘Star Trek: The Next Generation,'” 25 U. Tol. L. Rev. 577 (1994); “Law, Literature and Science Fiction: A Symposium,” Bruce L. Rockwood, editor, 13 Legal Studies Forum 267 (1999). Perhaps the editors will bear this in mind if they pursue a follow-up collection, since the subject will continue to attract fans and scholars alike.