Review of Lothian’s Old Futures: Speculative Fiction and Queer Possibility

Review of Old Futures: Speculative Fiction and Queer Possibility by Alexis Lothian

Kristen Koopman

Alexis Lothian. Old Futures: Speculative Fiction and Queer Possibility. New York UP, 2018. Paperback, 352 pages, $30.00. ISBN 9781479825851.

It would be easy for Old Futures to feel scattered, covering as it does a century’s worth of source material, three different forms of media, and theory ranging from traditional SF criticism to fan studies. Yet somehow Lothian not only pulls it off, but makes it seem effortless.

Lothian’s framing argument is that futures in science fiction have historically written out queerness in favor of timelines depending on implicit heterosexual reproduction, and that queer counterfuturisms instead nurture visions of new possibilities for science, technology, gender, and race. This argument is broken down into a series of roughly chronological case studies, following an introduction that covers the theoretical basis of the book: a chapter on eugenics and reproduction in feminist utopias, a chapter on gender’s relationship with violence and fascism in dystopias written between the two World Wars, a chapter on Afrofuturistic writings in response to eugenics, a chapter linking speculative pleasures to modes of estrangement, a chapter on the (sadly few) queer SF films that create new ways of engaging with the world, and a chapter on fanvidding and remix culture as responses to visions of the future. These chapters are interspersed with three shorter digressions that show how the theories and insights of the previous chapters may be applied to other works.

While Old Futures of course draws upon traditional SF criticism (including the obligatory explanation of why the author chose to use “speculative fiction,” its associated critiques, an expression of hope that the work won’t get pigeonholed into genre-studies, and so on), the breadth of its engagements is truly impressive, as is its depth. Each chapter provides precisely the background needed to understand the particular case studies without becoming repetitive, and so each chapter could easily stand alone. Nevertheless, the chronological organization and consistent throughline of queer futurity keeps the book as a whole from feeling disjointed.

The standout chapters are the first, “Utopian Interventions to the Reproduction of Empire,” and the last, “How to Remix the Future.” The first chapter deftly unpacks the implicit reliance of most futurisms on heterosexual reproduction, noting that visions of futures are frequently visions of worlds for future children. Although the utopias studied in the chapter are feminist, Lothian points out that feminism at the time was deeply tied to other political projects: definitions of scientific and technological progress with undercurrents of eugenics, colonial visions of European futures, and the relationship between the rhetoric of futurity and contemplation of the present. These themes set up a status quo that is then critiqued in the third chapter, although both chapters stand alone well. “Utopian Interventions to the Reproduction of Empire” may be of particular interest to scholars in the medical humanities or science studies, due to its careful illustration of the eugenic values embedded in its cases.

The sixth chapter, “How to Remix the Future,” discusses the role of remix culture in refashioning narratives in mass media to present alternative visions of queer futures and to critique implicitly regressive creative decisions by makers of media. Lothian suggests that fan remix practices (such as the case study of fanvidding) may constitute (or at least contribute to) critical fandom, which counters the view of fandom as unquestioning consumption of media in favor of resistive readings and refiguring narratives. Lothian’s case study of the Firefly fanvid “How Much Is that Geisha in the Window?” is a particularly well-done analysis that is a welcome addition to fan studies. 

Yet Lothian takes this engagement with fan studies a step further and describes her own process taking up the practice of fanvidding in order to make critical contributions to fandom (in this case, Battlestar Galactica). This not only shows that Lothian takes fandom seriously as a means of critically engaging with media, but hopefully marks a path for other scholars to follow in her footsteps. As Lothian notes, fan remix practices such as vidding may provide avenues for scholars to better articulate theories and criticism of media, particularly for marginalized people; this can be seen both in the critiques of gender and heteronormative desire that Lothian describes in her own work and the racial critique of Firefly that she analyzes.

Old Futures is not without its weaknesses. The introduction, by doing much of the theoretical work of the entire text, is dense and abstract compared to seeing the theory in practice in the following chapters. The good news is that in sequestering it all in one place, it frees the other chapters to read much more easily; however, when reading the whole book through, it may be disproportionately slow going. Many of the concepts highlighted in the introduction also simply make more sense when utilized in more concrete analysis later on, which may be an artifact of the book seemingly being the author’s dissertation adapted into a monograph.

Additionally, the chapter on SF film lacks the thematic cohesion of previous chapters. This may be because the films, in Lothian’s analysis, are more focused on futurity, speculation, and politics than the traditional tropes of science fiction. While I have no objection to an expansive definition of SF, it is telling that Lothian’s analysis largely hinges on the depictions of the future in its two case studies (Jubilee and Born in Flames). The analysis is insightful in unpacking the futures depicted on-screen, but the tools of SF criticism that have been used in previous chapters are absent here, and I remain unconvinced that this analysis looks at these films as SF. Lothian does note that there is not exactly an abundance of queer SF film, but nevertheless, this is likely to be the chapter that is least useful to those looking for SF criticism.

Overall, Lothian has constructed an admirable volume that I have already begun recommending to colleagues. This is her first book, and it bodes well; I look forward to seeing what Lothian does next.

Review of Palumbo’s A Dune Companion

Review of A Dune Companion: Characters, Places and Terms in Frank Herbert’s Original Six Novels by Donald E. Palumbo

Kara Kennedy

Donald E. Palumbo. A Dune Companion: Characters, Places and Terms in Frank Herbert’s Original Six Novels. McFarland, 2018. Paperback, 189 pages, $35.00. ISBN 9781476669601.

Donald E. Palumbo’s A Dune Companion: Characters, Places and Terms in Frank Herbert’s Original Six Novels is number 62 in the Critical Explorations in Science Fiction and Fantasy series, of which Palumbo is a co-editor. The book offers less of a new critical commentary on the Dune series and more of an updated version of Palumbo’s arguments from two previous articles published in 1997 and 1998 and a book published in 2002, followed by a compilation of information from the series in an encyclopedic format.

The book is divided into two sections: a long introduction on ecology, chaos-theory concepts and structures, and the monomyth and their presence in the series, and a companion of characters, places, and terms. Both sections achieve their aim: the former to prove the existence of aesthetic integrity through consideration of chaos-theory concepts and structures present in the novels, and the latter to remind readers of characters and events. However, the two parts lack cohesion, which perhaps is unavoidable when including a type of glossary that is not intended to offer commentary or analysis.

For the reader wondering about the mention in the title of the original six novels, the introduction immediately addresses the reason for this focus: they have an “extremely-high level of aesthetic integrity” and an “unusually deep interrelationship between form and content” derived from the relationship between the ecological theme and fractal structure that other texts based in the same universe do not (1). The introduction proceeds to present a persuasive argument with ample evidence, examples, and direct quotations to show how these novels contain myriad elements of chaos theory and the monomyth. It is divided into two sections, the first on the ecological theme and chaos theory, and the second on the monomyth as fractal pattern, with a short conclusion that brings all of the arguments together. 

Although the introduction explains key terminology and theories before showing how the series aligns with them, some of the concepts could have been made more accessible to readers. Chaos theory is presented as the idea that, despite real-world systems being irregular and complex, there are laws that govern phenomena like populations, weather, and biological systems, and that complex dynamical—or nonlinear—systems are made up of interlocking feedback loops. Feedback loops are explained as a process in which the behavior of one element affects the behavior of others, such that when part of the system’s output returns as input, this then affects the output, and the process keeps continuing. Palumbo offers fractal geometry as the best-known manifestation of chaos theory, wherein a geometric procedure can be used to generate images that replicate similar structures but are not necessarily identical. The use of examples such as snowflakes—which may look identical but have tiny differences—and the branching that occurs in nature—which can be found in circulatory and bronchial systems as well as in plants—helps make the ideas more understandable, but it would have been helpful to have further explanation of them. Having introduced these concepts, Palumbo then states that the Dune series contains a fractal architecture and a fractal reiteration of plot structure, themes, and motifs, which ultimately serves to represent its universe as a dynamical system. Through this, Palumbo argues, the series’ key theme of ecology and its core concept of chaos theory are then reinforced. Palumbo makes an important note that Herbert published his first Dune novels before chaos theory was identified in the 1970s and 1980s. This shows not only that Herbert was ahead of his time, but also that science fiction authors can extrapolate scientific concepts before they are formally articulated by scientists. 

The introduction then proceeds to analyze the many variations of the fractal structure or images in the series, which readers can see signaled by the repetition of the fractal metaphor in phrases like “plans within plans,” “tricks within tricks,” “wheels within wheels,” and others (8). It examines the occurrence of this structure in the series as a whole, in each of the novels individually, and in characters, and how this structure reiterates Joseph Campbell’s theory of the monomyth. It also discusses how the repetition of themes such as metamorphosis into the Other, secrecy and disguise, and death and rebirth are subsumed into the monomyth structure and further reinforce the fractal structure. Each aspect of the argument contains numerous examples from the series and interweaves concepts from chaos theory and ecology for additional support. There is also attention and detail provided for lesser-studied characters like the Tleilaxu, which makes for a balanced discussion. 

The section on the monomyth examines the recurring elements of the monomythic hero as evidence of the existence of a clear fractal structure. It provides a brief overview of Campbell’s monomyth and the stages of the archetypal hero’s adventure, and then traces their appearance in the series. It notes some of Herbert’s unusual choices, including at times having the monomythic hero be a secondary character rather than the protagonist, and enabling female characters to share in the hero’s role. Palumbo’s attention to female characters again shows an ability to create a balanced discussion inclusive of a variety of characters and groups. Overall, although an analysis of fractal structures may be a dry topic, readers interested in the series can expect to find a new appreciation for Herbert’s writing craft based on Palumbo’s insights and extensive use of detail.

The companion / encyclopedia section of the book provides a useful reference guide to the series. It does the at-times challenging work of compiling the few details or clues Herbert gives, which offers a helpful consolidation of information as well as a reminder of characters and terms the reader may have forgotten about. Particularly valuable is the note about which book the information is derived from for each entry. An unfortunate issue is the presence of dozens of typos and other errors in spelling and tense consistencies in the entries. In addition, some entries seem overly brief in relation to their importance; for example, the entry for Voice consists of only 22 words, while the entry for krimshell fiber consists of 38 words. Reading it straight through shows the repetitive nature of some entries, but it is unlikely to be read this way when consulted as a reference work. It would be good as a reference source for researchers, especially those without access to digital copies of the texts.

Review of Campbell’s Arabic Science Fiction

Review of Arabic Science Fiction by Ian Campbell

Steven Holmes

Ian Campbell. Arabic Science Fiction. Palgrave, 2018. Studies in Global Science Fiction. Hardcover, 322 pages, $89.99. ISBN 9783319914329.

Editor’s note: Ian Campbell is an editor of SFRA Review. I confirm as editor that he has had no involvement in the preparation of this review for publication.

SF scholars who are interested in how SF in Arabic may differ from or critique Anglophone SF may at first wonder why Ian Campbell has such a sustained emphasis on Darko Suvin throughout Arabic Science Fiction. Suvin certainly is a formative figure in genre theory discussions about science fiction, although he is not quite as in vogue in contemporary science fiction studies as he once was. Nonetheless, Campbell sees Suvin’s conception of cognitive estrangement as significant for understanding Arabic SF and for Arabic-language SF scholars. As a result, Campbell’s project is an examination of the manifestations of cognitive estrangement in Arabic Science Fiction (ASF), and one of his central arguments builds off of Suvin directly.

Campbell presents his conception of ASF as working off “double estrangement,” which reflects the “total lack of legal protections for freedom of expression in the modern Arabic world” (6-7) and that consequently “Arab writers in all genres, especially the canonical literary fiction to which ASF aspires, have learned to conceal their critique under layers of story in order to provide plausible deniability in the face of scrutiny by the regime” (7). ASF aims toward social criticism in order to be taken seriously as art. The “double” in “double estrangement” deals with the perception of science and technology; that is, ASF “draws attention to the drop-off in scientific and technological innovation in the Arab world since the glory days of Arab/Muslim dominance” (10). ASF stories may critique the state from a post-colonial perspective, but they critique the culture for reliance on mysticism. Campbell presents this concept as a way of signaling that readers may struggle to understand the intended critique of ASF works due to the works’ critiquing multiple vectors of society simultaneously, so that there may not be one central point but several. Likewise, ASF will not tend to have analogues to Golden Age SF works, given the differences in production and audience.

The book is divided into eleven chapters. The introduction sets up the considerations of Suvin and “Double Estrangement” that shape the rest of the volume. Chapter 2, “Postcolonial Literature and Arabic SF,” outlines why ASF may be understood as “manifestly a postcolonial literature: it is produced in formerly colonized states, for readers in and from these states” (21) and thus is distinct from many works of postcolonial literature written in English by authors living in diaspora. In chapter 3, “Arabic SF: Definitions and Origins,” Campbell draws from Ada Barbaro’s work to discuss four genres of classical Arabic literature that serve as proto-SF: philosophical works that use voyages to pose arguments, adventure voyages, the utopian tradition, and mirabilia, which is a genre that focuses on real or imaginary places or events that challenge human understanding. Chapter 4, “Criticism and Theory of Arabic SF,” tries to establish a coherent framework for the relatively minimal amount of Arabic SF criticism. Partly this involves dealing with the issue of diglossia, the consequence of which is that most ASF, since it is written in the Modern Standard Arabic used for literature, is rendered “the nearly exclusive province of a small class of highly educated people” (79). That is, instead of being built on a pulp background, Arabic SF has as its audience primarily an educated and elite audience. These first four chapters do a great job of setting up the myriad ways in which ASF operates in an entirely different rhetorical and literary situation from commercial western SF.

The remaining chapters each focus on case studies. As has been the case throughout Campbell’s study, for several of these works, there is no English translation. This makes Campbell’s study essential for the scholar but somewhat less accessible for a teacher who might be thinking about texts to include in a syllabus. Chapter 5 returns to the central concept of “double estrangement” regarding Egyptian author Nihād Sharīf’s The Conqueror of Time (1972). It is a political allegory that also estranges “Egyptian society as stagnant, figuratively frozen in its obsession with the past” (119) through the novum of cryogenics. Chapter 6 focuses on two novels by Egyptian scholar Mustafā Mahmūd and the exploitation of the peasantry by urban elites. Unfortunately, even Mahmūd’s The Spider (1965), which is regarded as the first ASF novel, is hard to get access to in Western markets. Chapter 7 presents Ṣabrī Mūsā’s The Gentleman from the Spinach Field (1987) as comparable to Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World (1932), in depicting a character trying to escape a dystopian reality and failing to find a sustainable alternative. Chapter 8 discusses Aḥmad ‘Abd al-Salām al-Baqqāli’s The Blue Flood (1976). Campbell argues that al-Baqqāli uses some of the same themes as Mahmūd, but places Western culture as an additional point of view, allowing him to critique reformers “for their inability or refusal to question their patriarchal assumptions” (219). Chapter 9 focuses on Ṭālib ‘Umrān’s Beyond the Veil of Time (1985), which, unlike many of the aforementioned works of science fiction, takes place on a foreign planet. Here Campbell argues that although the novel is superficially trite, it works as particularly effective estrangement for the educated elite readership of ASF, especially their belief that an alternative to despotism can emerge without violence. Chapter 10 focuses on a three-novel series by Kuwaiti author Tība ‘Ahmad Ibrāhīm, characterized by Campbell as the only notable female writer of ASF before the 2000s. Campbell argues that Ibrāhīm’s novels serve to show a transition in ASF, where narratives about the effect of technology, modernity, and colonialism do not need to be “cordoned off from everyday life” (278); that is, ASF is starting to become slightly more direct. 

For the scholar, Campbell’s study does an excellent job of exploring how works of ASF from a range of different countries (Kuwait, Egypt, Syria) have approached the literary demands and political risks of writing speculative fiction meant to critique the existing regimes and cultural programs. The primary frustration for the reader is likely not to be with Campbell’s analysis, but with the reality that many of these novels will remain largely inaccessible to the west. Nonetheless, scholars who want to understand the specific challenges of the emergence of science fiction in postcolonial settings would do well to explore Campbell’s volume.

Review of Banerjee and Fritzsche’s Science Fiction Circuits of the South and East

Review of Science Fiction Circuits of the South and East edited by Anindita Banerjee and Sonja Fritzsche

Virginia L. Conn

Anindita Banerjee and Sonja Fritzsche, editors. Science Fiction Circuits of the South and East. Peter Lang, 2018. World Science Fiction Studies 2. Paperback, 258 pages, $67.95. ISBN 9781787075931.

Situating this project in the trajectories and “dizzying arcs of migration” (2) that have co-constituted the vast constellation of science fiction produced across the world—as numerous as stars in the sky and much of it equally unexplored—Science Fiction Circuits of the South and East opens with a beautiful personal account of the trajectories that brought the editors to their respective orientations to and within science fiction. As Banerjee points out, within her real lived experience, much of science fiction was more familiar to her, more comprehensible and close, than stories from the English canon. Using the daffodil as an image of alienation, for example, ties this collection to many other notable authors—Chinua Achebe, Jamaica Kincaid, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie—who have similarly staked their work in a recognition of the inapplicability of writing imposed from outside their lived experiences. Despite its radical recontextualizing of translation and transmission, however, this collection does not strike an essentialist argument; rather, it recognizes that the intertextuality of much “semi-peripher[al] and peripher[al]” (6) SF has been shaped by and often in response to stories already received as deeply alien. At the same time, it recognizes that the dual impulses at work in much contemporary SF theorizing—to historicize traditions outside of the historical centers of Western power while simultaneously seeking to deconstruct the center/periphery binary—tend to not be in dialogue with each other. This anthology, then, offers a unique contribution to contemporary SF studies by focusing on circulation, through which literature transforms and is transformed.

The collection traces the circulations of socialist and postsocialist SF in Europe and Asia alongside examinations of the materio-cultural productions of the global South in Asia and the Americas, a shift in contextual perspective that is mirrored in the collection’s layout. Shifting the impetus from space and location to movement and adaptation allows for fascinating juxtapositions, such as the association in the first section, “An Other Transatlantic,” of Transatlantic writings and their receptions and adaptations across socialist Russia, 1919 Mexico, and through the Soviet-Cuban imaginary of the Cold War period. Race and socialist revolution are the hallmarks of these essays, which uniformly offer unorthodox and exciting new ways of reading. The very first chapter, for example, analyzes Zemyatin’s seminal We (1924) as a radical Afrofuturist text—an unconventional reading that is meticulously researched, elegantly argued, and works specifically because of its unique perspective.

Part two, “Transnationalism behind the Iron Curtain,” focuses on East-East circulations between the Soviet Union and associated satellite states. The focus here is on the shared ethos of communist science pedagogy and humanistic grappling with what it means to confront the Other and, in doing so, how we establish our place in the universe. These essays, too, tackle who “we” are, primarily in the context of displaced contemporary anxieties mapped onto a future that has become largely homogeneous under socialism. While all the essays contained herein are geographically situated in Eastern Europe, the content they address is very different—from the dialectical materialism of Carl Gelderloos’ approach to Eastern European science fiction texts to Sonja Fritzsche’s East German cinema to Sibelan Forrester’s “elite literary science fiction” (165) and its translations. 

The final section, “Asymptotic Easts and Subterranean Souths,” deals with East-South and East-East circulations. Unlike the first two sections, which each contained three essays, this segment includes only two—a real pity, given the potential richness of the umbrella topic. As it stands, it’s perhaps not surprising that for a collection so focused on the workings of comparative literary studies outside of the imperialist center, a member of the Warwick Research Collective, Pablo Mukherjee, would be included here with an essay on race, science, and the spirit of Bandung. A wonderful distinction about this essay in particular is that it privileges the role of science in science fiction and what that means when “science” is removed from its Western epistemological dialectics and considered in a specific and localized spatio-temporal register for assessing lived, material conditions, rather than as a “mere” narrative device. This discussion of “non-aligned science” (193) and local adaptation leads seamlessly to the next essay, which focuses on the reception of a Russian writer in China and the impact his work had on reassessing the memory of revolution through non-state-sanctioned mediations. 

This collection offers a meticulously-researched, compelling approach to an aspect of global science fiction that is at once constantly mutable and yet tied to specific sites of production. Both Fritzsche and Banerjee are renowned scholars in their own areas of expertise, and together they make a formidable pair of editors. The essays collected here are significantly more polished and subtle than many similar attempts at anthologies, in no small part—as many of the authors explicitly acknowledge—thanks to the incisive eye for detail Banerjee and Fritzsche have brought as editors. 

Not only are the essays excellent taken individually—each one deserves its own response essay—but the collection as a whole works beautifully to illustrate its overall theme of transmission and adaptation. The rhizomatic scaling of topics contained in this collection illustrates the complexity of working with multiples sites of production as located in specific geographic milieus while simultaneously connecting and branching to numerous other material productions; there is no one canon of “world SF” in much the same way that we cannot speak of one internet. This rhizomatic internet analogy is made explicitly at the conclusion of the introduction and finds a fascinating mirror complement in the final essay by Jinyi Chu, which touches on unofficial internet translations and their role in shaping and disseminating information. So, then, even in layout and flow the collection serves to illustrate its own theme. Ultimately, while this groundbreaking anthology might be most warmly received by those working outside the Western Anglophone canon, its unique approach to the assessment of literature in circulation makes it a critical addition to any SF scholar’s library.

Review of Michaud and Watkins’s Iron Man vs. Captain America and Philosophy

Review of Iron Man vs. Captain America and Philosophy: Give Me Liberty or Keep Me Safe edited by Nicolas Michaud and Jessica Watkins

Michael J. Hancock

Nicholas Michaud and Jessica Watkins, editors. Iron Man vs. Captain America and Philosophy: Give Me Liberty or Keep Me Safe. Open Court, 2018. Paperback. 288 pages, $13.56. ISBN 9780812699760.

In May 2019, the release of Avengers: Endgame served as the culmination of the Marvel Cinematic Universe thus far, a franchise of twenty-two films released over eleven years. This essay collection, Iron Man vs. Captain America and Philosophy: Give Me Liberty or Keep Me Safe, edited by Nicholas Michaud and Jessica Watkins, focuses on a key installment in that franchise, Captain America: Civil War (2016). In the film, Avengers Iron Man (aka Tony Stark) and Captain America (aka Steve Rogers) have a falling out over ceding the Avengers’ authority to a governing body and the fate of Bucky Barnes, Cap’s brainwashed former best friend. Each of the twenty-four chapters in the collection considers the characters’ respective cases, resulting in a book that uses philosophy to evaluate the superhero genre, and vice versa.

The first section of the book features six essays that favor Iron Man’s perspective, that superheroes need to be regulated for the greater good, and more generally, Iron Man is the better hero. Three particularly stand out. Daniel Malloy argues that Tony is ultimately a better hero because he is more flawed but struggles against those flaws. This argument reflects a popular framing of the difference between Marvel and DC superheroes, that DC’s are more iconic, but Marvel’s, through their flaws and insecurities, are more relatable. Heidi Samuelson maintains that despite Captain America’s overt patriotism, it is billionaire entrepreneur Tony Stark who better represents the values of the United States. The argument is perhaps pessimistic, but it does very well in tracing the ideas of Locke and Smith into contemporary neoliberalism. Finally, Cole Bowman closes the section with an examination of friendship from Aristotle to Derrida, arguing that while Cap shows great loyalty to a single friend, Bucky Barnes, he endangers his other friends, whereas Iron Man acts for the greatest benefit of all.

The second section takes the opposite approach, with nine essays in favor of Captain America and his insistence on remaining free from regulatory power. Many of these arguments focus on Captain America’s relation to universality: for example, Rob Luzecky and Charlene Elsby argue that Cap recognizes Camus’ paradox of humanity, striving for a universal good while remaining rooted in the particular: he neither surrenders to circumstances nor, as Tony does, maintains an idealized principle over the people around him. Nathan Bosma and Adam Barkman use Kant to argue that Cap’s ideals make for a better universal principle than Iron Man’s, explaining Kant’s categorical imperatives in an accessible manner. Last, Maxwell Henderson argues in a dialogue with an imaginary idealized comics fan that, via analogy to Bertrand Russell’s set theory paradox, Iron Man’s entire premise is flawed—choosing regulation endangers those close to them, but defying it, according to Iron Man, places people in danger. Thus, even framing the question places superheroes in an unsolvable paradox.

The third and fourth sections are framed around the notion of a tie between the two and a focus on the war itself, respectively; in practice, that means illustrating that Tony’s and Cap’s arguments are equal or equally flawed, and questioning the entire premise of superheroes. For example, Christophe Porot argues that both heroes concentrate on extending their capacities: Tony extends himself through technology and Steve through people, convincing others to join his cause. However, Cap then takes responsibility for the actions performed by people acting as his extension, which sounds noble, but Porot makes the case that in doing so, he dismisses their emotional response to those actions, thus moving against the personal autonomy he seems to champion. In one of the most interesting essays of the collection, Jeffrey A. Ewing argues that the Civil War event, in both its comic book and film forms, draws out the challenge superheroes pose to nation-states. As forces that operate within a nation-state’s border but outside of its monopoly of force within those borders, superheroes, through their existence as independent agents, challenge the nation-state’s claim to sovereignty; like Henderson, Ewing draws out how Civil War speaks to the tensions at the core of the genre.

This collection seems intended primarily for an audience of interested lay people already interested in superheroes and curious about philosophy. But with some guidance from the instructor, it is also well-suited for use in the classroom, as I can attest; while I was reading it, I somewhat serendipitously had a student who chose to write their final paper on Captain America: Civil War, and reference to the ideas in this book made it much easier for the student and myself to clarify what ideas from the film they wanted to address. This instance demonstrates the book’s value: that its topic is one students are already willing to engage. However, as the 115th book in the Popular Culture and Philosophy series, Iron Man vs. Captain America faces a challenge its compatriots do not: by centering itself on this particular conflict between heroes, the collection limits its potential scope. It does so more gracefully than a similar, earlier book in the series (Batman, Superman, and Philosophy) but there is still a sense of repetition, as the reader is told yet again the events of Civil War. I greatly appreciate that many authors do go a bit beyond the film’s boundaries to incorporate the comics, though it’s a shame the comics are omitted from the references list.

In the aftermath of End Game, it is tempting to read that film as erasing the consequences of Civil War, that Tony and Steve set aside their differences figuratively and literally, each explicitly adopting advice given by the other. However, to do so would also be to erase the questions the film raises about the superhero genre, questions of having authority to act and responsibilities toward others. The most common superhero question always seems to be who would win in a fight; by transitioning that question into a fight of ideas, Iron Man vs. Captain America illustrates how the questions of fans and the questions of philosophers are already in conversation.

Review of Ransom’s I Am Legend as American Myth: Race and Masculinity in the Novel and Its Film Adaptations

Review of I Am Legend as American Myth: Race and Masculinity in the Novel and Its Film Adaptations by Amy J. Ransom

J.R. Colmenero

Amy J. Ransom. I Am Legend as American Myth: Race and Masculinity in the Novel and Its Film Adaptations. McFarland, 2018. Paperback, 231 pages, $45.00. ISBN 9781476668338. 

Although it misses some opportunities to engage more rigorously with theories of race and masculinity, Amy J. Ransom’s comprehensive book about Richard Matheson’s horror/sci-fi novel I Am Legend and its many screen adaptations is an eminently readable and useful addition to critical literature on the horror/science fiction genre, studies of Richard Matheson’s oeuvre, and the intertwined histories of literature, film, and mass media in twentieth and early twenty-first century texts. Before reading this book, I was mostly ignorant about the pervasive nature of Matheson’s 1954 text in structuring horror/sci-fi conventions of the late twentieth century. After finishing this book, I’m convinced that I Am Legend deserves an exceptional position as a reflecting pool for social concerns about masculinity as well as race and race-mixing in a United States context. 

The best part of American Myth is in its lucid treatment of the historical and cultural context for the series. Ransom is thorough in discussing literary and filmic antecedents for the “last man” apocalyptic narrative (such as M. P. Shiel’s novel The Purple Cloud [1901] and The World, The Flesh and the Devil [1959], written and directed by Ranald MacDougall). Historical details — of production and direction of the adaptations, as well as of Matheson’s response to those adaptations — are interestingly and usefully explained in an accessible way. Finally, Ransom’s overall argument about the most recent iterations of I Am Legend as conjecturing a “post-white” United States is persuasive (181). 

The first chapter, “The Trauma of World War II and the Decline of Western ‘Right’,” includes a thorough critical summary of the originary novel, situating Matheson’s work both historically — as a response to post-WW2 and Cold War fears — and generically, as the vampire novel Matheson intended it to be. Thematically, Ransom is most concerned with the figure of the protagonist and the different interpretations of the Robert Neville character. Even in the 1954 original text, Matheson’s Neville “problematizes the white male’s role as arbiter of right” with his erratic behavior and symbolic castration (being the only surviving human foreclosing possibilities for reproduction) (56). One of the interventions of the original narrative is its illustration of the “Last Man” post-apocalyptic narrative, one that is “symptomatic of the gravity of the national crisis in white masculinity and its traditionally perceived prerogatives” (82). Ransom’s use of “star” theory guides the second and third chapters, in which she analyzes the first filmic adaptations of Matheson’s book, the 1964 film The Last Man on Earth and 1971’s The Omega Man. 

Chapter 2 is a well-reasoned argument that reads Matheson’s two novels The Shrinking Man (1956) and IAL in order to establish Matheson’s thematic interest with depicting a “crisis of masculinity” (112). This claim is then used to examine the casting and performance of Vincent Price as the protagonist in the first film adaptation of IAL and how Price’s interpretation of the character makes clearer the more submissive and perhaps queered role of a bachelor being pursued by “lustful” vampires and locked in a passionate relationship with his vampire suitor, neighbor and friend-in-a-former-life Ben Cortman. The third chapter, “The Last White Man on Earth: Charlton Heston in The Omega Man,” intervenes in critical conversations about the film that have overly relied on the “star persona” (12) of Charlton Heston and his reinforcement of a strong, masculine protagonist (in contrast to the earlier film starring Price) to define their interpretation of the film. Indeed, Ransom comes to show that Omega’s messages regarding race and masculinity are more ambivalent than critics have historically argued, and that the film “retained the subversive core of Matheson’s novel and its interrogation of its white hero and his moral imperative” (127). 

While The Last Man on Earth and The Omega Man register cultural fears about the Cold War and Vietnam respectively, Ransom situates the two most recent adaptations of Matheson’s text — two films produced in 2007, Francis Lawrence’s I Am Legend and Griff Furst’s I Am Omega in their position as post 9/11 U.S. cultural productions. The section on Lawrence’s I Am Legend takes up the question of “what it means when the last man on earth is black” (160). Although it is Lawrence’s film that has garnered the most critical and popular attention in recent years, I also appreciated Ransom’s exegesis of its straight-to-DVD homologue, a more flashy interpretation of the original text — this time featuring cannibalistic zombies and martial arts — that nevertheless raises interesting questions about the future of an increasingly multiracial U.S.

While it’s a given that there is no single totalizing mythos that defines the history of the United States, reading race and gender at the center of U.S. horror/science fiction endeavors is a sound place to start. If anything, I wish that Ransom had engaged more with foundational theory about race and feminist theories of masculinity. Since the book already utilizes critical terms such as “star” theory and adaptation to inform the argument, I think a deeper engagement with critical race theory as well as theories about masculinity to inform her reading of the protagonists’ various identities throughout the adaptations would have been helpful.

Ultimately, Amy J. Ransom’s book is clever, well-argued, and accessible to lay readers interested in the horror/science fiction genre, movie adaptations, and 20th century film and “star” histories. Because of the nature of the subject matter (using a variety of theoretical lenses to study a text and its adaptations by different people at different times), it is also an ideal book for undergraduates to learn how to usefully compare and close-read texts and their adaptations. For the more serious scholar of Matheson, Ransom offers both a comprehensive introduction to literary criticism about I Am Legend, as well as lucid new readings of the significance of the text, reminding us that the barriers between “literature” and “mass media” are increasingly permeable, and best understood as the inextricable realities that they represent.

Review of Caroti’s The Culture Series of Iain M. Banks: A Critical Introduction

Review of The Culture Series of Iain M. Banks: A Critical Introduction by Simone Caroti

Edward Carmien

Simone Caroti. The Culture Series of Iain M. Banks: A Critical Introduction. McFarland, 2015. Paperback. 252pp, $29.95. ISBN 978-0786494477. 

Simone Caroti memorializes Iain M. Banks in his dedication to The Culture Series of Iain M. Banks: A Critical Introduction. “To the Memory of Iain Menzies Banks (1954-2013). Thank you for everything, Sir.” As Banks fell ill and passed away unexpectedly, Caroti did not intend for his book to bear this inscription, but this text serves as an admirable cenotaph to Banks, taken from us with books unwritten and years unlived. In its eight chapters (and preface, introduction, conclusion, chapter notes, bibliography and index) Caroti presents what he promises: a critical introduction to this important writer’s Culture series. 

Like Caroti, I remember my first encounter with Iain M. Banks, if less clearly. Thirty years ago, as a graduate student in northwestern Ohio, I cracked open the first of the Culture novels, Consider Phlebas (1987). Caroti fell harder for Banks and his work than I did, for while I was immediately entranced by his take on space opera and aware something special was afoot in the field, Caroti decided upon his first reading of Banks to write a book. This is just that book. 

Caroti comprehensively surveys the dual nature of Iain Banks and Iain M. Banks. Banks, who published novels without obvious SF content, added the ‘M’ when he published the first of the Culture series. By presenting Banks as an author who transgresses traditional categories, Caroti effectively introduces us to the narrow focus of his critical introduction. Here and elsewhere he demonstrates an excellent grasp of the existing work on Banks, especially that by John Clute, and on the directly related field of Utopian studies, the primary critical instrument he brings to bear on the Culture series. 

“1. Beginnings” surveys Banks’ early life and speculates about his drive to write. Caroti shows the Culture series, despite not the first of Banks’ work to appear in print, were written early in his writing career. Having found success with The Wasp Factory (1984), Banks rewrote and refined the early Culture novels. To the outside world, Banks’ science fiction seemed a new turn for the author. Caroti shows the centrality of the Culture as a created entity, Banks’ fictional expression of worldview that so distinguishes his work from American space opera. 

Caroti then addresses the individual works of the Culture series, starting with Consider Phlebas and how it helped redefine the space opera genre. He claims Banks “did reclaim the moral high ground for the left, and he did demystify the garish glamour of space opera…he also rejuvenated the entire subgenre…” (44). He later acknowledges that other authors had started this process before Consider Phlebas saw print. Caroti describes the critical context that shaped the novel as well as the novel’s impact on the sub-genre. 

In publication order the rest of the Culture series receives the same thorough treatment, from The Player of Games in Chapter 3 to the double-header of Chapter 4: The State of the Art and Use of Weapons, linked by the utopian agent Diziet Sma, an important figure in the Culture novels and in Banks’ expression of the utopian ideal. For while the people of the Culture are utopian, they have an activist branch called Contact, and a very activist group that handle Special Circumstances, or SC for short. 

SC interferes. The claim is, backed by the sentient super-minds of the Culture and their statistics, that interference helps and that more good comes from their dirty deeds than would result from doing nothing. Those raised in a utopia, Banks argues throughout his Culture novels, are singularly unsuited to espionage dirty-tricks. Illustrating Diziet Sma’s role as a recruiter of barbarian, non-utopian outsiders allows Caroti to observe Sma is “of the Culture, yes, but she’s also a citizen of the fringe, the place where utopia meets its twin, where the morally correct choice reshapes itself after every iteration…” (104). Banks presents interference as utopian, which as one might imagine requires a singular narrative rhetoric and as it happens one of the key features of the Culture series. 

Banks paused in his publication of the Culture series. The first set were rewrites of manuscripts he’d written before he broke in to the business with a “mimetic” text, The Wasp Factory. Prior to Excession (1996), addressed in Chapter 5, Banks took a six-year break in his Culture series production. It is here Caroti more fully addresses the issue of “The Culture as a Critical Utopia,” the chapter’s subtitle. It is here he most fully engages a critical discussion; calling some critics to task and valorizing others in how they have addressed (or failed to address) Banks and his Culture series. 

Chapters 6 and 7 return to more novel-centric discussion. Caroti paints Excession and Inversion (1998) as directional mirrors, one up and out, the other down and in, and he provides what a reader has come to expect in thoroughness and critical perspective as he does so. The following chapter focuses upon Look to Windward (2000), a title that references the same Eliot poem as Consider Phlebas. This novel’s publication date, subject matter, and the 9/11 attacks in the United States coincide closely enough to enable interesting commentary alongside Caroti’s continuing and highly effective analysis of the series in the context of critical utopia. Titled “The Encroachment of Reality,” this chapter ties to an additional layer of material, while remaining introductory in nature. 

The bookending of Eliot quotes might have served Banks as signposts where the Culture series begins and ends, but after a break of some years he produced three more novels: Matter (2008), Surface Detail (2010), and The Hydrogen Sonata (2012). Discussion of these final Culture novels rounds out the book’s eighth chapter, with each receiving a thorough going-over that both contextualizes them and analyzes content. If a reader of the Culture series ever wondered why it never devolved into a “more of the same” exercise of mere formula, the answer is here: Banks always had literary purpose, and he did not repeat that purpose, or ask the same question twice. This made for readers always hankering for the next “M.” novel frustrating waits–once of six years, once of eight–but very rewarding reads. 

For the critic, new or otherwise, The Culture Series of Iain M. Banks serves as an excellent foundation, an introduction indeed. From it one finds numerous ways to travel further into not just utopian studies, but space opera. Very few readers of Banks’ Culture novels will leave without some new insight. 

Simone Caroti’s smoothly written, thoroughly researched and documented book serves as a monument to Banks and his Culture series. As a cenotaph it does not contain the mortal remains of Iain M. Banks, but expresses critical appreciation of his work, of the Culture, of artistic transgression that livens and renews a genre and subgenre. I recommend it both as a resource on Banks and as a model for others to follow, should they be taken, upon reading an author for the first time, with the urge to write a book. 

Sickness and Sexual Dissidence in the Victorian Gothic Imagination

SFRA Review, vol. 50, no. 1

Symposium: Medical Humanities and the Fantastic

“Sick with Longing”: Sickness and Sexual Dissidence in the Victorian Gothic Imagination

Brontë Schiltz
Manchester Metropolitan University

Sexual transgression features so frequently and prominently in eighteenth and nineteenth century Gothic fiction that William Hughes and Andrew Smith posit that “Gothic has, in a sense, always been ‘queer’” (1). Furthermore, as George Haggerty argues in Queer Gothic, “Gothic fiction offered the one semirespectable area of literary endeavor in which modes of sexual and social transgression were discursively addressed on a regular basis,” and, therefore, it actually “helped shape thinking about sexual matters—theories of sexuality, as it were” (3). Whether that thinking was positive or not, however, remains a contested issue. Ardel Haefele-Thomas argues that “some authors employed Gothic frameworks to defend queer and other marginalized characters in ways that were quite subversive. For other authors, Gothic as a genre allows them to express their ambivalence regarding “others” in society” (2). For Ellis Hanson, ambivalence is more typical:

the Gothic often reproduces the conventional paranoid structure of homophobia and other moral panics over sex, and yet it can also be a raucous site of sexual transgression and excess that undermines its own narrative efforts at erotic containment.


Hughes and Smith agree that, while early Gothic narratives set themselves apart from other literary genres in that they regularly explored transgressive configurations of gender and sexuality,

a fearful publishing industry demand[ed] that these troubling things should be contained by the eventual triumph of a familiar morality. In consequence, the genre frequently espouse[d] a characteristically conservative morality, and frequently a conventional and rather public heterosexuality.


Consequently, as Dale Townshend argues, “queerness in early Gothic is consistently bound up in the problems of negative representation,” yet “while Gothic writers, almost without exception, would recoil in horror from the queerness that their texts entertained, most, often to the point of social notoriety, were of a queer disposition themselves” (27). While this may initially seem surprising, it is surely natural that living under the oppressive conditions of criminalisation and pathologization would foster a sense of ambivalence. Such appears to be the case for both Emily Brontë and Vernon Lee, Victorian Gothic writers respectively speculated (see Kennard) and known to have had a sexual preference for their own sex, and for whom this ambivalence takes aesthetic shape in Brontë’s Wuthering Heights (1847) and Lee’s “A Wicked Voice” (1890) and “Prince Alberic and the Snake Lady” (1896).

In nineteenth century England, homophobia and xenophobia were closely related. As Haefele-Thomas explains, sodomites, or inverts, “were seen as ‘foreign’ or ‘another race’” (122). In this sense, in Wuthering Heights, Heathcliff’s racialised body is constructed as Other in much the same way as the bodies of those who transgressed sexually, his particular nebulousness especially reflecting the liminal position of queer individuals in this period. Although he is of indeterminate ethnicity, he laments that he apparently “must wish for Edgar Linton’s great blue eyes and even forehead,” to which the Earnshaws’ servant, Nelly, replies: “A good heart will help you to a bonny face, my lad … if you were a regular black … Who knows but your father was Emperor of China, and your mother an Indian queen[?]” (Brontë 84). Discussing the role of physiognomy in early Gothic texts, Corinna Wagner argues that “the body demonstrates truths about the self that the individual could not—or would not—articulate” (80). However, she acknowledges that this is not always the case, and that sometimes

immorality, deviance and crime are not the result of science or social institutions failing to control or understand the body; rather immorality, deviance and crime are a result of those institutions themselves.

Wagner 86

In the context of Wuthering Heights, it is interesting to consider how physiognomy figures within the institution of the home. From the moment he is introduced to the Earnshaw household as a young child, Heathcliff is vilified. As Sue Chaplin notes, he is “referred to repeatedly as demonic or monstrous; he is an ‘evil beast,’ an ‘imp of satan’ and ‘a goblin’; his eyes are ‘black fiends,’ his teeth ‘sharp, white’” (83). Even the benevolent Mr. Earnshaw, his ostensibly adoptive and potentially biological father, dehumanises him, describing him as “as dark almost as if it came from the devil” (Brontë 64, emphasis added). Likewise, upon first seeing him, Nelly “was frightened, and Mrs. Earnshaw was ready to fling it out of doors” (Brontë 64-5, emphasis added). Cathy’s brother Hindley also immediately acquires a vehement hatred towards him. He is condemned from the outset because, before anything is known of his personality, his appearance is deemed unacceptable. He is thus shaped into the monster he later becomes, given no opportunity to become anything else. This is also principally what makes Cathy’s desire for Heathcliff transgressive—as she bewails,

I’ve no more business to marry Edgar Linton than I have to be in heaven; and if [Hindley] had not brought Heathcliff so low, I shouldn’t have thought of it. It would degrade me to marry Heathcliff now; so he shall never know how I love him.

Brontë 106

Emily Brontë does not, however, condemn Cathy and Heathcliff’s desire for one another in light of its transgressive properties. Instead, her condemnation is directed at attempts to annihilate it, in radical opposition to the hegemonic discourse espoused by her contemporaries.

The nineteenth century marked a radical shift in thinking about dissident sexuality when, in 1886, the German sexologist Richard von Krafft-Ebing popularised the term “homosexuality” in Psychopathia Sexualis, categorising it as a pathological condition and thus lending credence to existing widely-held beliefs about sexual transgression. In Effeminate England, Joseph Bristow discusses what he refers to as “Wilde’s fatal effeminacy,” writing that “Wilde was indisputably a pathological figure” and that, in this sense, “the sexual criminal had transformed by degrees into something of a gothic spectre” (16, 18). Significantly, Wilde’s pathologization was explicitly related to physiognomic views of effeminacy—Arthur Symons, describing Wilde in his memoirs, wrote that “no such mouth ought ever to have existed: it is a woman’s that no man who is normal could ever have had,” and proceeded to characterise Wilde as “[a] man with a ruined body and a ravaged mind and a senseless brain” (146-7). Wilde was aware of the manner in which he was perceived, referring to himself in a letter as “a pathological problem in the eyes of German scientists” (695). It is noteworthy, then, that he explores sickness in The Picture of Dorian Gray, and yet, in doing so, shifts its cause from internal deviance to external jurisdiction. In the novel, Lord Henry describes how the “soul grows sick with longing for the things it has forbidden to itself, with desire for what its monstrous laws have made monstrous and unlawful” (Wilde 74-5). Sickness, for Wilde, is not symptomatic of transgressive sexuality, but of its repression. This is likewise the position adopted by Brontë and Lee in their respective works, in which sense Lee is exceptionally modern in her thinking, and Brontë is half a century ahead of her time.

In both Wuthering Heights and “A Wicked Voice,” transgressive desire leads directly to sickness, yet not in the manner connoted by the work of early sexologists. Immediately after Heathcliff’s departure from Wuthering Heights after hearing that Cathy is engaged to Edgar Linton, Cathy suffers a “commencement of delirium” and is pronounced “dangerously ill” (Brontë 113). As Jean Kennard, who reads Wuthering Heights as a narratological allegory for Emily Brontë’s own queer sexuality, puts it, “[t]he separation of Heathcliff from Catherine makes Catherine ill” (128). When he returns, after Cathy’s marriage, much to Edgar’s displeasure, Cathy declares that “if I cannot keep Heathcliff for my friend—if Edgar will be mean and jealous, I’ll try to break their hearts by breaking my own” (Brontë 142). She subsequently becomes seriously ill with “a brain fever” (Brontë 157) once again, and dies soon thereafter. It is not her transgressive desire for Heathcliff that marks the destruction of her health, but her inability to indulge it—as she remarks to Nelly, “we separated! … Not as long as I live, Ellen: for no mortal creature. Every Linton on the face of the earth might melt into nothing, before I could consent to forsake Heathcliff” (Brontë 106). Later, as she lays dying, Heathcliff chastises her:

I have not one word of comfort. You deserve this. You have killed yourself. … You loved me—then what right had you to leave me? What right—answer me—for the poor fancy you felt for Linton? Because misery and degradation, and death, and nothing that God or Satan could inflict would have parted us, you, of your own will, did it. I have not broken your heart—you have broken it; and in breaking it, you have broken mine.

Brontë 183

Cathy suffers not because she loves Heathcliff, but because she cannot allow herself to love him as she really wants to. If, as Kennard argues, Emily Brontë’s own transgressive sexuality is encoded in Wuthering Heights, then the implication is that her source of torment was not that sexuality itself, but her unwillingness, or perceived inability, to indulge in it. It is notable, therefore, that Cathy and Heathcliff are eventually reunited in death: “a little boy” tells the narrator, Lockwood, that he saw “Heathcliff, and a woman” roaming the moors (Brontë 347). As Alison Milbank notes, “the most vivid materiality is accorded to the ghosts of the novel” (162)—when Lockwood encounters Cathy’s ghost, she bleeds—he “pulled its wrist on to the broken pane, and rubbed it to and fro till the blood ran down and soaked the bed-clothes” (Brontë 54). The reunion of Cathy and Heathcliff is not, in this sense, only a spectral one, but a bodily one, too. Significantly, their spectrality does not evoke horror—the novel’s final image is of “moths fluttering among the heath and hare-bells” and “soft wind breathing through the grass” (Brontë 348). Even if the indulgence of their desire for one another is permissible only in death, it is permissible nonetheless, and not only permissible, but beautiful.

Likewise, in “A Wicked Voice,” exposure to the voice of Zaffirino, the eighteenth-century Venetian singer whose voice haunts Magnus, a composer with a passionate hatred for singing, leaves Magnus “wasted by a strange and deadly disease” (Lee 158). Catherine Maxwell and Patricia Pulham write that, for Lee, “[d]esire … is always a risky business, all too often bringing death and destruction in its wake” (12). In fact, Lee herself referred to desire, and transgressive desire in particular, in terms of illness in a private journal in 1885:

may there not, at the bottom of this seemingly scientific, philanthropic, idealizing, decidedly noble-looking nature of mine, be something base, dangerous, disgraceful that is cozening me? … may I be indulging a mere depraved appetite for the loathsome while I fancy that I am studying diseases and probing wounds for the sake of diminishing both? Perhaps.

quoted in Psomiades 28

Crucially, however, she goes on to ponder “which of these two, the prudes or the easy-goers, are themselves normal, healthy?” (qtd. in Psomiades 28, emphasis added). In her essay, “Deterioration of the Soul,” she also poses a question which is echoed in Wagner’s aforementioned commentary on the institutional production of deviance: “does society not produce its own degenerates and criminals, even as the body produces its own diseases, or at least fosters them?” (Lee 942). Like Wilde, she appears to conceive of sickness not as emerging from dissident desires, but from the societal obligation to resist them.

Intriguingly, “A Wicked Voice” was inspired by a real encounter with a portrait of an eighteenth-century composer while Lee was visiting the Bologna music school with John Singer Sargent in 1872, during which “she and Sargent had both wished that they could hear the dead singer’s voice—a voice that had historically been said to have curing properties” (Haefele-Thomas 125). The voice which inspired the story was associated not with infection, but with medicinal healing. It is notable, then, that Zaffirino is not an inherently malicious figure. Relaying the story of the death of his aunt, the Procuratessa, a Venetian nobleman, Count Alvise, describes how, in life, Zaffirino “was in the habit of boasting that no woman had ever been able to resist his singing” (Lee 132). The Procuratessa “laughed when this story was told her, refused to go to hear this insolent dog, and added that it might be quite possible by the aid of spells and infernal pacts to kill a gentildonna, but as to making her fall in love with a lackey—never!” (Lee 132). It is not the threat of death which the Procuratessa disbelieves, but the threat of desire. Drawn to her resistance, “Zaffirino, who piqued himself upon always getting the better of any one who was wanting in deference to his voice” (Lee 132), visits the Procuratessa, and, as had been forewarned, “at the third air … she gave a dreadful cry, and fell into the convulsions of death” (Lee 134). It is significant that exposure to Zaffirino’s charms is not intrinsically fatal—the Count states that he “could” kill his victims “if he only felt inclined” (Lee 132, emphasis added); it is not a foregone conclusion. The Procuratessa died not because she desired Zaffirino, but because she was resistant to that desire.

Likewise, Magnus also obviously desires Zaffirino, but fiercely resists those desires. His distaste towards singing is explicitly tied to the flesh: he describes “the voice” as “that instrument which was not invented by the human intellect, but begotten of the body, and which, instead of moving the soul, merely stirs up the dregs of our nature!” (Lee 129). Yet, when he is about to first come into contact with Zaffirino’s voice, he feels that he “was going to meet [his] inspiration, and [he] awaited its coming as a lover awaits his beloved” (Lee 139). He comes to desire contact with Zaffirino and, in attempting to suppress this desire, he almost comes to meet the same fate as the Procuratessa. In the same manner as Wuthering Heights, “A Wicked Voice” is therefore radical: it is not transgressive desire itself which is associated with sickness, but attempts to resist it.

Similarly, in “Prince Alberic and the Snake Lady,” the young Prince Alberic falls ill after being told the story of his ancestral namesakes’ involvements with the Snake Lady, a beautiful and seemingly immortal woman cursed to live as a snake for all but one hour each day. Notably, the language with which this malady is described has much in common with the language typically used by religious bigots to condemn homosexuality—the priest who is sent for to attend him describes him as “just escaped from the jaws of death—and, perhaps, even from the insidious onslaught of the Evil One” (Lee 51). Yet, when Alberic learns that not only is the Snake Lady alive, but that she is the very woman he has come to know and adore as his godmother, he almost immediately recovers, and the priest remarks that “the demon has issued out of him!” (Lee 54). The following day, “his limbs seemed suddenly strong, and his mind strangely clear, as if his sickness had been but a dream” (Lee 254). Once he acknowledges his freedom to indulge his desires, even if he must keep them secret from the outside world, Alberic’s illness passes. Once again, transgressive desire is portrayed not as an illness in itself, but as a means of escape from it—a proximity to Wilde’s portrayals of illness and repression which illuminates Emma Liggins’ reading of the tale as homage to him, “published at a time when Oscar Wilde was persecuted and imprisoned, like Alberic will be, for his aesthetic and sexual beliefs and practices” (47-8). It is notable that Alberic first encounters the Snake Lady through a “tapestry of old and Gothic taste” (Lee 19-20), since Lee believed in a relationship between art and wellbeing. In Kathy Psomiandes’ words, “[t]he human animal … has a biological and a bodily need for art’s healthful effects … [w]e become the beautiful through perceiving the beautiful, and perhaps even more importantly, we become healthy” (32-33). The Gothic, transgressive Snake Lady does not threaten Alberic’s health, she produces it.

Psomiades describes Lee as “a woman thwarted by the demands of Victorian morality from getting what she must have really wanted” (29-30)—sexual communion with other women. In light of this, “A Wicked Voice” can be read as an exploration of Lee’s ambivalent relationship towards her own desires. While she, like Brontë, if Kennard’s view is accepted as fact, appeared to view them as something to be repressed, as in much of Gothic fiction, repression is rarely successful, and attempting to maintain it can only ever be disastrous.

George Haggerty argues that “gothic fiction can be read as reinscribing the status quo. Gothic resolutions repeatedly insist on order restored and (often) on reassertion of heteronormative prerogative” (10). It is this convention which Emily Brontë and Vernon Lee appear to set out to challenge in their works. While Wuthering Heights does conclude with a restoration of order, that restoration involves the spectral reunion of Cathy and Heathcliff, the most transgressive characters in the novel. In “A Wicked Voice” and “Prince Alberic and the Snake Lady,” meanwhile, order is not restored at all—Magnus “can never lay hold of [his] inspiration” (Lee 158) due to his total preoccupation with Zaffirino’s voice, which he longs to hear again, and the concluding deaths of Alberic and the Snake Lady, the latter being murdered in her reptilian form by Alberic’s grandfather’s Jester and the former subsequently dying of grief, are presented as tragic, not comforting. In this sense, despite the proliferation of representations of transgressive sexuality in Gothic fiction from its inception, Brontë and Lee demonstrate not only originality, but also genuine radicalism. Despite these texts’ ambivalent treatments of transgression, they offer a glimmer of hope in a world which was deeply hostile to those marked in any way as “queer.”

Brontë Schiltz is a Masters student with the Manchester Centre for Gothic Studies at Manchester Metropolitan University. She previously graduated from Royal Holloway University of London with a degree in English and creative writing. Her research interests include the queer Gothic, the neoliberal Gothic and the Gothic in popular culture.


Brontë, Emily. Wuthering Heights. Collins Clear-Type Press, 1960.

Bristow, Joseph. Effeminate England. Columbia UP, 1995.

Chaplin, Sue. Gothic Literature. York Press, 2011.

Haefele-Thomas, Ardel. Queer Others in Victorian Gothic: Transgressing Monstrosity. U of Wales P, 2012.

Haggerty, George. Queer Gothic. U of Illinois P, 2006.

Hanson, Ellis. “Queer Gothic.” The Routledge Companion to Gothic, edited by Catherine Spooner and Emma McEvoy. Abingdon, Routledge, 2007, pp. 174-182.

Hughes, William and Smith, Andrew. Queering the Gothic. Manchester UP, 2011.

Kennard, Jean. “Lesbianism and the Censoring of Wuthering Heights.” NSWA Journal, vol. 8, no. 2, 1996, pp. 17-36.

Krafft-Ebing, Richard von. Psychopathia Sexualis: With Especial Reference to Antipathic Sexual Instinct. New York, Arcade Publishing, 1998.

Lee, Vernon. Quoted in Psomiades, Kathy. “‘Still Burning from This Strangling Embrace’: Vernon Lee on Desire and Aesthetics.” Victorian Sexual Dissidence, edited by Richard Dellamora, Chicago, U of Chicago P, 1999, pp. 21-42.

Lee, Vernon. “A Wicked Voice.” Supernatural Tales, Peter Owen Publishers, 2004.

Lee, Vernon. “Prince Alberic and the Snake Lady.” Supernatural Tales, Peter Owen Publishers, 2004.

Liggins, Emma. “Gendering the Spectral Encounter at the Fin de Siècle: Unspeakability in Vernon Lee’s Supernatural Stories.” Gothic Studies, vol. 15, no. 2, 2013, pp. 37-52.

Milbank, Alison. “The Victorian Gothic in English novels and stories, 1830-1880.” The Cambridge Companion to Gothic Fiction, edited by Jerrold E. Hogle, Cambridge UP, 2015, pp. 145-166.

Psomiades, Kathy. “‘Still Burning from This Strangling Embrace’: Vernon Lee on Desire and Aesthetics.” Victorian Sexual Dissidence, edited by Richard Dellamora, U of Chicago P, 1999, pp. 21-42.

Pulham, Patricia. “The Castrato and the Cry in Vernon Lee’s Wicked Voices.” Victorian Literature and Culture, vol. 30, no. 2, 2002, pp. 421-437.

Spooner, Catherine and McEvoy, Emma, editors. The Routledge Companion to Gothic. Routledge, 2007.

Symons, Arthur. The Memoirs of Arthur Symons: Life and Art in the 1890s. Pennsylvania State UP, 1977.

Townshend, Dale. “‘Love in a convent’: or, Gothic and the Perverse Father of Queer Enjoyment.” Queering the Gothic, edited by William Hughes and Andrew Smith, Manchester UP, 2011, pp. 11-35.

Wagner, Corinna. “The Dream of a Transparent Body: Identity, Science and the Gothic Novel.” Gothic Studies, vol. 14, no. 1, 2012, pp. 74-92.

Wilde, Oscar. The Letters of Oscar Wilde. Rupert Hart-Davis, 1963.

Wilde, Oscar. The Uncensored Picture of Dorian Gray. Belknap / Harvard, 2011.

Freaks and Freakery in Film and History

SFRA Review, vol. 50, no. 1

Symposium: Medical Humanities and the Fantastic

Freaks and Freakery in Film and History

Jenni Hunt
University of Leicester

My focus here is on representations of disability and freakery in the media and within history. My wider research is focused on the representation of disability and, within this paper, I will consider how museums can use the ongoing interest in stories of freaks and freakery to tackle stereotypes and stigmas surrounding disability for their audiences. Initially examining the wide range of disability stereotypes that exist within the media, I will move on to consider the history of freak shows and freakery, before ending by examining how museums can make use of this.

Images of disability are widespread within Western popular culture, but disability is often presented in such cases as a source of stereotypes or as a narrative device in which the disabled are “blessed or damned but never wholly human” (Gartner and Joe, 2). Throughout history, disabled people have been cast in various roles: often that of the villain, the object of pity, or else as an inspirational innocent, rather than a person.

Characters such as Shakespeare’s Richard III, driven by vengeance and fury, and the disfigured Batman villains Two-Face and the Joker are archetypes for Western culture. The romantic drama Me Before You depicts a disabled man choosing to die rather than continue with his life, whilst the X-Files presents disabled teenagers as “not meant to be” and deserving of mercy killing. Depictions of mental illness and physical disfigurement dominate in the horror genre. Young people growing up with disability are faced with images that present them as monsters.

With the very point of cinema being its spectacle, physically disabled bodies are often featured within film—in particular, cult films and exploitation films that use freakery to show images that are taboo, aiming to shock, horrify, and titillate audiences—and, in doing so, further marking out the disabled body as other (Church). This presentation can have harmful consequences. Much criticism of this type of film, however, like criticism of the freak show before them, centres around the idea of outraging public decency rather than concern for those who are shown. Fans of such shows can indeed find themselves accused of mental illness or insanity, separated by their interest in such “unnatural” images.

Disabled bodies can become props in fantasy settings, presenting an image of otherness, often relegated to the background, as in the recent hit The Greatest Showman. One fantasy film which deals directly with the idea of disability is Edward Scissorhands—Tim Burton’s gothic tale in which the protagonist is an unfinished creation, who has scissors for hands. His story is one about the importance of looking past appearance, yet his disability is “symbolic of an inner emotional deficit—feelings of exclusion and an inability to be understood and loved” (Church). We see the reactions he faces as he ventures into society, with some people repulsed by him, others wanting to cure him, and others wanting to use him only as a tool. In this, he experiences a number of reactions common to people with disabilities. The story humanises the monster, but in the end it is his monstrous nature which overwhelms him as he accidentally kills someone, and he finds himself retreating back into the darkness that previously defined him. Therefore he is again removed from society, and while the narrator shows her sympathy for him, it is clear that he is neither welcome in, nor suited for, society. In this way, a film which shows a disabled individual in a mainly positive light again ends up condemning them to solitude.

Having examined the range of stereotypes that are depicted in the media and the isolation and dehumanisation that it causes, I now move on to a more historical understanding of freakery. Despite the negative connotations of the word “freak” today, freak studies scholars (Bogdan; Chemers) have argued that enfreakment was a socially constructed performance, based not on an inherent quality within the individual but on a manner of presentation. Bogdan argues, for example, that while Robert Wadlow was very tall, he wasn’t a giant, as he did not cultivate the performance and persona necessary to be considered as such (272-274). Chemers argues that freakery consists of the “intentional performance of constructed abnormality as entertainment” (24), exaggerating perceived deviance for monetary gain. Framed as “wonders” and “marvels,” the disabled performers within freak shows were seen not as objects of pity, but as entertainment. This sense of wonder can be seen within the carte d’visites that many performers sold—these functioned as a visual resume, highlighting their difference and advertising their performances (Garland-Thomson, “Seeing the Disable,” 351). Within the freak show, the difference of the individual is highlighted, but framed as something unique and valuable—at least within the context of the performance itself and the money it could create. Such framing also set disabled people apart, however, implying that they were better off with their own kind rather than being included within the social environment of the world as a whole (Bogdan, 279). Freak shows faded from popularity in the early 20th century, as they were targeted for outraging “social decency” (Church).

Displays of disabled bodies have not gone away, however, nor have they faded from the public consciousness, even when medicalisation has meant that any celebration of disability was viewed as “a perverse celebration of disease” (Chermers). Individuals with disabilities have responded to this lack of representation in a number of ways—with Garland Thomson considering the work of several disabled artists who present their bodies on their own terms. Such performances are not without controversy, both within the disabled community and from outside. The statue of the artist Alison Lapper faced criticism for being a “drab monument to the backward pieties of the age” (O’Neil), with the commentator contrasting his admiration for Alison Lapper—who has “overcome great challenges”—to his revulsion at the statue itself. Here he shows a response of pity, rather than seeing the image as a celebration of disabled women’s sexuality, a topic often ignored. Similarly, the inclusion of a disabled presenter on the show Cbeebies led to unpleasant comments online, with the woman in question told she would give children nightmares (Dowell). However, Cerrie Bernell, the woman involved, used this hatred as an opportunity to start a discussion on the media’s focus on the perfect body, and was therefore able to reclaim her image.

This reclamation of identity can also be seen within the work of historic freaks. They were people who would find themselves stared at, and who chose to use this curiosity as a way of earning a living, expressing their agency, and travelling the world. This is not to say that people who worked in freak shows were not exploited—many were, with some trapped in conditions of slavery. However, for some the ability to control their own image enabled them to live out a life that would have been unimaginable had they been non-disabled. Simply because attitudes towards acceptability have changed is no reason to ignore what was achieved by these disabled pioneers, especially when modern understandings of disabled history can often be limited.

Questions remain over the limits of acceptability, especially when it conflicts with modern sensibilities. Bogdan (279-281) examines the case of Otis Jordan, a disabled man who performed as “Otis the Frog Boy” in the 1970s. He was proud of his job, publicly saying that to him the circus showing up was “the best thing that ever happened.” However, he was temporarily put out of a job due to the complaints of another individual who felt his work was a symbol of the degradation of disabled people. He fought back against this, stating, “I can’t understand it. How can she say I’m being taken advantage of? Hell, what does she want for me—to be on welfare?” His protests were successful, and he was able to resume work until his death in 1990.

Here, conflict arises as to what is an acceptable role for a disabled person within society, and who is best placed to make such judgements. Within a modern context, such exhibition for profit is seen as distasteful and dehumanising, however this denies the historical work, and cultural impact of, those who made their living by performing as freaks.

It is clear, therefore, that our initial conceptions of freakery as exploitation are in some ways a misunderstanding. Exploitation has undeniably occurred, but it has also brought with it opportunities that would be beyond the reach of many others who lived during that time. This is a topic that I feel museums should approach, as it shows agency in the lives of those who performed and acknowledges that they were able to make decisions rather than simply being acted upon.

Museums are seen as influential and to be treated with respect, with the messages they give out likely to be believed. When attention first turns to the concept of displaying disability, the shadow of the freak show looms large—with Sandell (161) discovering that curators “invoked the freak show, and a desire to avoid freak show-style approaches” as a reason to avoid displaying the lives of people who had disability within their collections. When people with disabilities face widespread discrimination and prejudice, however, it is important that their stories are told and that this happens with respect. Care must be taken to avoid encouraging further discrimination for disabled individuals, and to prevent dehumanising them. Whether the individuals discussed are historical or present-day, they need to be shown in a way that acknowledges their individuality and agency.

There are numerous ways that these stories could be told and objects related to these lives displayed. The method that museums choose will provide a signal of the value that they attach to disabled lives, and the meanings that they give them. Simply ignoring disabled individuals treats them as unworthy of attention. Instead, museums should present historic freaks as people, celebrating their achievements in a world that was working against them, while also acknowledging the hardships that they faced. People are interested in freaks—but beyond that, they are interested in stories. Sharing information about people who travelled the globe, putting on performances and showcasing their talents, is something that museums should see as an opportunity to increase understanding, rather than as a threat.

This can be seen in an interview conducted with David Hevey: 

I want people to come away thinking “Wow. Disabled people changed the paradigm, changed the world. And have fought for kind of justice.” And not, you know, sitting in back rooms in a kind of non-agency pity way. They claimed back their agency, you know. So that’s what I want. And I… the fundament is I want people to think “Yeah, I hope they win. I hope that lot win.” Which is always the essence of a good story.

By seeking out these stories full of agency, whenever they occurred in history, new understandings can be given to audiences.

I hope that this paper has given you another way of looking at these stories, and considering how they can be told in new ways, in order to increase understanding and empathy for visitors who may have little prior knowledge of disability history. Whilst any such presentation is an oversimplification, it may enable non-disabled audiences a view of agency that they would not otherwise have considered.

Jenni Hunt is studying for her PhD at the University of Leicester. She is interested in the relationship between museums, social justice, and inclusion. In particular, she is examining how museums present disability, and how they are working with disabled people to share these stories. Her supervisor is Professor Richard Sandell.


Bogdan, Robert. Freak Show: Presenting Human Oddities for Amusement and Profit. U of Chicago P, 1990.

Chemers, Michael M. “Staging Stigma: A Freak Studies Manifesto,” Disability Studies Quarterly,vol.  25, no. 3, 2005,

Church, David. “Freakery, Cult Films, and the Problem of Ambivalence.” Journal of Film and Video, vol. 63, no. 1, Spring 2011, pp. 3-17.

Dowell, Ben. “TV Presenter’s Calm Take on Prejudice.” The Guardian, 27 February 2009,

Garland-Thomson, Rosemarie. “Seeing the Disabled: Visual Rhetorics of Popular Disability Photography.” The New Disability History: American Perspectives, edited by Paul K. Longmore and Lauri Umansky, New York UP, 2000, pp. 335-374.

—. “Staring Back: Self-Representations of Disabled Performance Artists.” American Quarterly, vol. 52, no. 2, 2000, pp. 334-338.

—. Staring: How We Look. Oxford UP, 2009.

Gartner, Alan, and Tom Joe. Introduction. Images of the Disabled, Disabling Images, edited by Alan Gartner and Tom Joe, Praeger, 1987.

Hevey, David. Personal interview. 9 Dec. 2018

O’Neill, Brendan. “Statue of Limitations.” The Guardian, 17 May 2007,

Sandell, Richard. Museums, Prejudice, and the Reframing of Difference. Routledge, 2007.

Xenotransplantation: The Haunting Possibilities for the Future

SFRA Review, vol. 50, no. 1

Symposium: Medical Humanities and the Fantastic

Xenotransplantation: The Haunting Possibilities for the Future, within Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake

Lucy Nield
University of Liverpool

In 1997, a photograph of a mouse was released with a human ear growing on its back. This caused strong reactions with the press and raised questions concerning the bio-ethical implications of xenotransplantation. Since, interest in the medical possibilities concerning xenotransplantation, have spread across various mediums, including fiction. Margaret Atwood’s MaddAdam trilogy explores such possibilities for our future; focusing on modifying food, animals and plants all for profit and human benefit. This paper will aim to review contemporary advances of xenotransplantation as well as explore Atwood’s futuristic world and the haunting medical possibilities, it feels, she is predicting.

According to the FDA, in 2019,

Xenotransplantation is any procedure that involves the transplantation, implantation or infusion into a human recipient of either:

A) live cells, tissues or organs from a nonhuman animal source, 

B) human body fluids, cells, tissues or organs that have had EX VIVO contact with live nonhuman animal cells, tissues or organs.

According to D.K.C. Cooper in his paper “Xenotransplantation—The Current Status and Prospects,” the growing interest and increased research surrounding xenotransplantation comes from the “continuing worldwide shortage of organs from deceased human donors for transplantations into patients with organ failure.” Throughout the paper, Cooper discusses these shortages and the problems that follow; “In the USA alone, in 2016, 98,000 patients started the year on the waiting list” for new kidneys, with only 20% transplanted. Since 2005, according to Cooper’s research, over 9,000 wait-listed patients died or became too sick to transplant, thus causing the interest and continued efforts to make xenotransplantation a reality.

Whilst the use of xenotransplantation raises concerns regarding infections, Bio-ethical fears and the moral implications surrounding the subject, research and experiments are still going ahead. Particularly in the field of “genetically engineered pigs,” which contemporary researchers, such as Cooper, imply could resolve the problems facing the medical community today. Cooper states that, today, research and experiments in “utilizing genetically modified pig kidneys and other organs are moving towards clinical trials in humans,” revealing the rapid progression and enthusiasm in the field.

Xenotransplantation: A History 

Xenotransplantation, or “clinical cross species transplantation,” has a “long history going back to blood transfusions across species in the 17th century” (Cooper). According to the Science Museum, London:

Most animals used for [early transplantation attempts] were apes (or nonhuman primates), as they are our closest animal relative. Throughout the 1960s, as organ transplants between humans became more common, the possibility of animal-to-human transplants appeared feasible. It was also seen as a way of getting around the problem of the shortage of donor organs.

(“Animal-Human Transplants”)

However, numerous attempts at nonhuman primate organ transplantation in patients were carried out in the 1960s, the longest surviving patient of these attempts returned to work for 9 months on a pair of chimpanzee kidneys, before rejection began. However, with new technologies, cloning, genetic engineering and new medication it is perceived that pigs may be the animal most likely to resolve the donor organ shortage problem.

Oryx and Crake

In 2003, Margaret Atwood published the first book of her MaddAddam trilogy, Oryx and Crake. Sarah Akaws argues that “The book, preferably described by its author as being Speculative Fiction, rather than Science fiction, offers the readers an insightful review of where our world is heading,” society is separated into either “rich” or “poor” classes, corrupt governments and corporations, “and the growing, evolving branch of science,” revealing a future that we might encounter if humanity stays on its current path of scientific advances. In her article, Akaws focuses mainly on humanity’s progression in medicine, xenotransplantation, and genetic engineering. Whilst there are several examples of genetic modification, species splicing and xenotransplantation, the best example of xenotransplantation and speculations concerning such procedures within Atwood’s world, would be the Pigoons.

The Pigoons are introduced to the reader by the protagonist Jimmy (25). Jimmy grew up within large corporate compounds, including “OrganInk Farms,” which is where he first meets the Pigoons. His father works as a genographer, on “The Pigoon Project,” along with a team of “transplant experts and the microbiologists who were splicing against infections” (25). As Jimmy historicizes it, “The goal of the Pigoon project was to grow an assortment of foolproof human-tissue organs [inside] a transgenic knockout pig host—organs that would transplant smoothly and avoid rejection, but would also be able to fend off attacks by opportunistic microbes and viruses” (25).

However, the team were not only using the Pigoons to grow organs, “they were [also] perfecting a Pigoon that could grow five or six kidneys at a time. Such a host animal could be reaped of its extra kidneys, then, rather than being destroyed; it could keep on living and grow more organs, much as a lobster could grow another claw to replace a missing one. That would be less wasteful, as it took a lot of food and care to grow a Pigoon” (26). As a result, “The Pigoons were much bigger and fatter than ordinary pigs, to leave room for all the extra organs” (29). The more modifications and experiments that were conducted within the text, the more examples and possibilities Atwood presents in terms of xenotransplantation. “The Pigoon organs could be customised, using cells from individual human donors, and the organs were frozen until needed. It was much cheaper than getting yourself cloned for spare parts—a few wrinkles left to be ironed out there” (27). Here Atwood not only reveals a conceivable answer for donor shortages, but she also brushes over the idea that using genetic modification and xenotransplantation are stepping stones towards cloning human beings.

Not only are the Pigoons being used to grow organs and offer those in need an opportunity to get well and live longer, but they are also used to grow new human skin. At another compound, called NooSkins, there were also Pigoons, “just as at OrganInc farms, but these were smaller and were being used to develop skin-related biotechnologies” (62). This compound appears to be working on making anti-wrinkle/anti-aging creams obsolete, “‘NooSkins for olds’ said the snappy logo” (62-63). “The main idea was to find a method of replacing the older epidermis with a fresh one, […] a genuine start-over skin that would be wrinkle—and blemish—free” (62). However, even within the text this is a work in progress, as human trials have started and people came out “looking like the mold creature from outer space,” with green and peeling skin (63).

Atwood presents these possibilities in a defamiliarized and almost phantasmagorical manner, to force the reader to think about the possibilities for the future. Although the world of Oryx and Crake is fiction built from the assumptions surrounding certain scientific advancements and speculative theory, there is certainly contemporary truth within her work.


For the first time “xenotransplantation allows modifications of the donor and not only treatment of the recipient” (Cooper). This is viewed as positive progression in the field, as:

genetic engineering may also contribute to overcome any of the physiological barriers that might be identified as well as in reducing the risks of transfer of a potential infections within the organ […] With the new technology now available, it is becoming quicker and cheaper to achieve multiple genetic manipulations in pigs, thus accelerating progress towards clinical implementation of the technology.


Whilst within Atwood’s work the implication appears to be “NooSkin” for older customers, or people attempting to achieve immortality in appearance and health, there is an indication that the new pig skin could be good for those in need a skin graph—once the method has been perfected (62). In reality, obtaining sufficient autologous skin is a challenge. “Skin allografts from deceased donors, various artificial dermal substitutes, or skin xenografts may be transplanted to provide temporary coverage,” but little more (Cooper). Attempts have been made to transplant genetically engineered pig skin, however this is still at the stage of failure, but does provide adequate skin covering whilst an alternative cover is found (Dooldeniya and Warrens). As in Atwood’s text, in reality:

the immune response to a xenograph is generally more extreme than that seen in same species transplantation and it ultimately results in xenograph rejection, or in severe cases, recipient death. Pigs have molecules on their cell surfaces […] that humans do not have. (Dooldeniya and Warrens)

Thus, when “pig organs are transplanted into humans, the immune system recognises these molecules as non-self and begins to attack the pig tissues, leading to immediate rejection of the organ” (Tena). The two main issues with Pig organs and xenographs are size and longevity. Atwood confronts this issue within her text by growing actual human organs within the Pigoons, whilst contemporary researchers, such as Adesa Tena, are attempting to use organic pig organs as they “are a similar size and physiology to human organs,” this makes them ideal “candidates” for transplant and would be readily available when needed (Tena).

Another issue that has been encountered recently concerns the body temperature of pigs. “The body temperature of pigs is roughly 39°C, whereas human body temperature is about 37°C,” the functional implications of this for the activity of certain enzymes, within organs and skin, at the lower temperature of the human body remain unclear at this time (Tena).

Making Xenotransplantation a Reality

According to a research paper published in 2015 by Aseda Tena, “if we could eliminate the pig proteins that humans don’t have and introduce necessary human proteins into the pigs via genetic engineering, the chances of rejection could be minimised. The creation of such genetically modified pigs could solve the problem of organ availability.” Here, Tena indicates that with these changes, if they were possible, risks of infection, rejection and potential issues caused by the differing body temperature would be diminished. 

Since this time, according to a paper published in 2018 by Parsia Vagefi, researchers have been creating such genetically engineered pigs, concentrating on kidneys. These pigs are not quite as modified as Atwood’s Pigoons, but the modifications made include successfully replacing “pig kidney proteins with human proteins,” which has reduced the severity of immune responses and incompatibilities between the human and the pig, thus allowing humans to accept pig organs. Vagefi ends his paper; “With each advancement, researchers are approaching human trials for xenotransplantation. The ongoing research is extensive, and it is hard to predict when it will become a reality—but it appears to be coming.”

Reading the current research and progression surrounding xenotransplantation feels almost like reading Atwood’s work. Her hauntingly realistic speculations of where medicine may potentially lead are uncannily parallel with current research. Even those in the field of xenotransplantation are astounded by the progress that has been made in recent years. Whilst there are still issues to be ironed out, recent experiments have given them nothing but encouragement and enthusiasm. Muhammad Mohiuddin, a lead researcher, was quoted in a paper on the subject, amazed by how close they are to human trials and stated “this is not Science Fiction, this is really for real now.” (qtd. in Chen). Statements such as Mohiuddin’s, alongside experiments and research that are actually happening, brings humanity and modern medicine closer to the haunting and thought provoking ideas that Atwood presents within Oryx and Crake.

Lucy Nield is a PhD student in the Department of English Literature at the University of Liverpool. Her research interests include animal studies, the anthropocene, and posthumanism within science fiction. She is an organiser for the Current Research in Speculative Fiction conference at the University of Liverpool and has also had her poetry published, which can be found within the Pandora’s Box series and The Lovely Word.


Akawas, Sarah. “Pigoons: Future Life Savers.” Splice, 24 Mar. 2012,

“Animal-human Transplants.” Science Museum, Brought to Life: Exploring the History of Medicine, n.d.,

Atwood, Margaret. Oryx and Crake. Bloomsbury, 2013.

Chen, Angus. “Baboons Survive for Half a Year after Heart Transplants from Pigs.” Scientific American, 5 Dec. 2018,

Cooper, D.K.C. “Xenotransplantation—The Current Status and Prospects.” British Medical Bulletin, vol. 125, no. 1, Mar. 2018, pp. 5-14.

Dooldeniya, M.D., and D.N. Warrens. “Xenotransplantation: Where are we today?” Journal of The Royal Society of Medicine, vol. 93, no. 3, Mar. 2003, pp. 111-117.

Tena, Aseda. “Xenotransplantation: Can Pigs Save Human Lives?” Harvard University: The Graduate School of Arts and Sciences Blog, 2 Nov. 2015,

Vagefi, Parsia. “Xenotransplantation: How Pigs Could One Day Save Kidney Patients’ Lives.” UT Southwestern Medical Centre Blog, 26 Apr. 2018,

“Xenotransplantation.” U.S. Food and Drug Administration, 28 Mar 2019,