Fungi as Destructive and Transformative in Rosewater by Tade Thompson and The Beauty by Aliya Whiteley

SFRA Review, vol. 50, no. 1

Symposium: Medical Humanities and the Fantastic

Fungi as Destructive and Transformative in Rosewater by Tade Thompson and The Beauty by Aliya Whiteley

Jonathan Thornton
University of Liverpool

In this paper I am going to explore ideas around fungi and semi-permeable bodies through the texts Rosewater by Tade Thompson (2016) and The Beauty by Aliya Whitely (2014). To do so I’m first going to outline some theoretical/conceptual ideas that discuss bodies and matter, and how fungi, with their symbiotic and parasitic interactions with bodies, disrupt the idea of the body as discrete and inviolable. Then I’m going to explore these elements through the texts. Then I’ll conclude, drawing together ideas across these two texts.

In Donna Haraway’s “The Cyborg Manifesto,” Haraway uses the cyborg as a metaphor to disrupt the humanist notion of the historically white male body as distinct from nature, woman, animal, and machine. She argues, “by the late twentieth century, our time, a mythic time, we are all chimeras, theorized and fabricated hybrids of machine and organism—in short, cyborgs.”(7) I am interested in how this notion of hybridity between machine and organism extends to the biomolecular machinery of the microbiota and the symbionts and parasites that we live intimately with. The notion of the human body as a discrete, inviable self is not compatible with our knowledge of ourselves as interactions of cellular machinery and genetic coding from varied sources both prokaryotic and eukaryotic. Haraway talks about biology as “a kind of cryptography” and further explores the idea of humans as interacting biological systems with no clearly defined boundaries in Staying with the Trouble

We are all lichens; so we can be scraped off the rocks by the Furies, who still erupt to avenge crimes against the earth. Alternatively, we can join in the metabolic transformations between and among rocks and critters for living and dying well.


Using Hawaray’s question from “The Cyborg Manifesto,” “Why should our bodies end at the skin, or include at best other beings encapsulated by skin?” as a jumping off point, Margrit Shildrick positions hybridity in relation to the disabled body and prostheses. Shildrick argues that prostheses, whether they be replacement limbs, behaviour altering drugs or transplanted organs, disrupt ideas about the body as a discrete entity and force us to rethink our ideas about embodiment:

They not only demonstrate the inherent plasticity of the body, but, in the very process of incorporating non-self matter, point to the multiple possibilities of co-corporeality, where bodies are not just contiguous and mutually reliant but entwined with one another.


Thus, considering bodies as “contiguous, mutually reliant and entwined” disrupts hierarchies of viewing non-disabled bodies as superior to disabled bodies, and allow us to rethink what constitutes a body and what its limits are. How we view embodiment also influences our ideas around subjectivity. Annemarie Mol uses the idea of eating an apple to explore ideas around embodiment and subjectivity. Through the act of eating, the subject’s role morphs from a traditional Western active subjectivity to a more complex one, as the apple is broken down and digested across the membranes of the digestive system, an action both passive yet regulated. Mol argues, “her actorship is distributed and her boundaries are neither firm nor fixed… Neither tightly closed off, nor completely open, an eater has semi-permeable boundaries” (30).

I would like to explore how two speculative fiction texts, Rosewater by Tade Thompson and The Beauty by Aliya Whiteley, use fungi as destructive and transformative agents that challenge the humanist idea of the body as discrete and inviolable, and offer ways of rethinking the body as a complex adaptive system interacting with and within other systems. In this way the texts allow us to challenge preconceived ideas about embodiment and subjectivity. 

Tade Thompson’s Rosewater is set in a near future Nigeria in which an alien incursion has occurred, in the form of Wormwood, which has burrowed under the ground and released fungi-like spores into Earth’s atmosphere. Wormwood is trapped under the dome of Utopicity, and the city of Rosewater has sprung up around it. The alien fungi, or xenoform, attaches itself to the natural fungi on human skin, forming a psychic network called the xenosphere which “sensitives” like protagonist Kaaro are able to access like the internet. In the virtual space of the xenosphere, sensitives are able to embody themselves in nonhuman forms—Kaaro appears as a Griffin, and inhabits such surreal places as a palace made of meat. But the xenosphere is more than just a recapitulation of the cyberpunk dream. In Rosewater, everyone is connected into a communal “worldmind,” the differences between discrete individual bodies called into question as consciousness extends across fungal networks and through different people’s minds. 

The dome opens once a year, releasing alien fungi into the atmosphere and healing the injured and diseased. However, this process does not always work as the people who flock to visit Rosewater might wish. Whilst some are healed, others are put back together wrong—the deformed, or mutated or remade in new and unusual ways—the remade. Even the dead are infected with xenoforms, brought back to life as soulless zombies—the reanimates. Thus, the interaction between humans and the alien fungi doesn’t so much return people to an idealised complete body but remakes it in challenging new forms. This is further complicated by Kaaro’s discovery that the xenoforms are slowly replacing human cells with more xenoforms whilst replicating the original body’s appearance, and that eventually humanity will be entirely replaced. This causes Kaaro to question his own subjectivity:

I am not the same. I don’t look at the dome in the same way. It’s now a stye or a boil, swollen with purulence, waiting, biding its time. I don’t know what my healing has cost me. How many native cells have the xenoforms driven out? Ten, fifteen percent? How human am I? I see the people touching me and the ones at the periphery staring as dead people. Conquered and killed by invaders, walking around carrying their death, but they don’t even know it.


The replacement of human cells by the alien xenoforms can be read as a metaphor for colonialism, especially as this all takes place in a Nigeria where the indigenous culture has been overwritten by the all-powerful cultural influences of the West. Thus the fungal entities in Rosewater force us to confront not just the way we think about human bodies but how we think about the body politic in the context of Western post-colonialism. 

The Beauty by Aliya Whiteley is set after a plague has wiped out all women. The protagonist Nate lives in the Valley of Stones with a community of men who have survived the plague. In the forest where the dead women have been buried, he meets the Beauty, creatures who have grown from the mushrooms feeding on the bodies of the women, who provide the men of the community with love and sex. Eventually the men become pregnant with the offspring of the Beauty, allowing a continuation of sorts for humanity. Like Thompson’s humans being slowly rewritten by xenoforms, the Beauty pose an ontological question. After two of the men murder their Beauties, the village doctor discovers that the Beauty have incorporated the bones of the women they grew from into their bodies. Nate sees the Beauty as the women returned to the community from beyond the dead; Uncle Tom and the other older men see them as a frightening and parasitic alien Other. 

The Beauty disrupt the boundary between alive and dead and human and nonhuman, eliciting disgust from the older members of the community but also from Nate when he first encounters them. However they also disrupt the gender norms of the men they come in contact with. Whilst they appear in feminine shape to arouse male desire, sexual intercourse with the Beauty results in the male humans becoming pregnant with the Beauty’s offspring. By putting the burden of pregnancy on the inviolable male body, and forcing it to undergo changes in shape and appearance, Whiteley challenges ideas around gendered bodies, and the idea of bodies as unchangeable. Nate reflects on the changes his body will go through as it shifts away from sexual potency towards nurturing and caring:

The idea of this was worse when it was happening to someone else. Now it is me and it is inevitable, and nothing inevitable is ever that bad. If I have to live with it, then how can it be unbearable? Besides, bodies betray us. That is what they do.


He comes to accept his body as mutable and permeable, whether through pregnancy or plague, it can be disrupted and altered. The pregnant body is another instance where the body becomes contiguous with another, in this case the foetus, as Nate realises on becoming pregnant: “We will meld to grow. Part human, part Beauty. Could anything be more wonderful, more terrifying? “ (59). The survival of humanity is assured only by this melding between human and Beauty, as embodied by their children. 

So, fungi in speculative fiction gives us a new way to think about the permeability of the body and the effects this has on embodiment and subjectivity. In Tade Thompson’s Rosewater, fungi connects humanity and its environment into a contiguous whole even as it rewrites the human body as its own. In Aliya Whiteley’s The Beauty, fungi disrupts preconceived notions around gendered bodies. Both books help us to rethink what the limits of the human body are.

Jonathan Thornton is studying for a Masters in Science Fiction literature at the University of Liverpool. He is interested in the portrayal of insects in speculative fiction and fantastika. He has a Masters in Medical Entomology, and works as an insectary technician at the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine. He also writes criticism and reviews and conducts interviews for internet publications Fantasy Faction, The Fantasy Hive and Gingernuts of Horror.


Barad, Karen. “Posthumanist Performativity: Towards an Understanding of How Matter Comes to Matter.” Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society, vol. 28, no. 3, 2003, pp. 801-831

Haraway, Donna. “The Cyborg Manifesto.” Manifestly Haraway, U of Minnesota P, 2016, pp. 3-90

—. Staying With The Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene. Duke UP, 2016.

Mol, Annemarie. “I Eat an Apple: On Theorizing Subjectivities.” Subjectivity, vol. 22, 2008, pp. 28-37.

Shildrick, Margrit. “‘Why Should Our Bodies End at the Skin?’ Embodiment, Boundaries, and Somatechnics.” Hypatia, vol. 30, no. 1, 2015, pp. 14-29

Thompson, Tade. Rosewater. Apex Publications, 2016.

Whiteley, Aliya. The Beauty. Unsung Stories, 2014.

Articulating the Terror of Obstetric Violence

SFRA Review, vol. 50, no. 1

Symposium: Medical Humanities and the Fantastic

Articulating the Terror of Obstetric Violence in Carmen María Machado’s “The Husband Stitch”

Lucía López
University of Salamanca

Ever since I read Charlotte Perkins Gilman “The Yellow Wallpaper” (1892) as an undergraduate student of English literature, I have been attracted to representations of the interactions of vulnerable bodies with what I call “the medical establishment” by which I mean state sanctioned clinical practice, that which follows mainstream discourse and does not consider other understandings of health but the Western one. Gilman’s text firmly aligns with this examination of mainstream medicine through the lens of literature, since the author depicts a “resting cure” popularized by Silas Weir Mitchell, a famous physician at the time, which consisted in enforced seclusion and bed rest for patients diagnosed with nervous conditions such as hysteria or neurasthenia. Perkins Gilman herself had been subjected to this cure, which she believed damaging and, in an effort to warn against its dangers, she denounced the extremely oppressive and confining prescriptions patients were forced to follow. In “The Yellow Wallpaper,” said prescriptions involve extreme confinement and prohibition of almost any social interaction or mental exercise, which seem to drive the protagonist to madness rather than to cure her, and the narration masterfully reflects the increasing claustrophobia and loss of touch with reality provoking an increasing unease in the reader that may well end in terror. 

Although the protagonist’s progressive illness is disquieting on its own, I argue that a good part of the terror that Gilman’s story provokes in the reader emanates from the fact that the protagonist’s husband, who is also a doctor, is the one who takes the role of care giver and enforces the limiting “resting” cure. Thus, the narrator is doubly betrayed, first by the medical establishment that pathologizes her disinterest in the domestic as a nervous condition, and second, by her husband, who prioritizes medical prescription over his partner’s explicit desires. 

The protagonist’s betrayal by those who should have her best interests at heart may seem outdated by contemporary Western standards; after all, we live in a time where feminism has drastically changed the power dynamics of marriages and the medical institutions securely stand on scientific grounds that should not allow for abuses of power. Although the forced vulnerability of Gilman’s protagonist is evocative and vaguely terrifying for a contemporary female reader, that terror should be far removed from our personal experience. However, contemporary women’s writing is still very much concerned with how gender bias and misogyny infiltrate clinical practice to the detriment of female patients: many recently published memoirs of sickness such us Abby Norman’s Ask Me About My Uterus (2018), Sonya Huber’s Pain Woman Takes Your Keys, and Other Essays from a Nervous System (2017) or Porochista Khakpour’s Sick: A Memoir (2018) certainly express the many frustrations and potential pitfalls of navigating the medical system as a woman. Although these memoirs deal explicitly with the encounters of female embodiment and the medical establishment, it is again a short story—Carmen María Machado’s “The Husband Stitch”—which talks back to “The Yellow Wallpaper” by covering the protagonist’s medical experience with a layer of terror, highlighting the betrayal of a medical establishment that is depicted as caring more for gender performativity than the wellbeing of the patient, and a husband whose obsession with taking ownership of his wife’s body leads to doom. 

In “The Husband Stitch,” published in her debut collection Her Body and Other Parties, Carmen María Machado evokes the potential dangers of the intimacy of marriage and the embodied vulnerability of giving birth and weaves a fabric of terror that speaks to its contemporary reader in the same way The Yellow Wallpaper does: addressing through figurative language and literary representation a fear well rooted in the readers’ close reality. Ann Radcliffe’s definition of terror as a feeling that expands the soul and awakens the faculties to a high degree of life” (150) accompanied by “uncertainty and obscurity” (151), which is the vehicle to the sublime in its capacity to evoke danger and excite the imagination seems poignantly close to what Machado accomplishes in her writing: by highlighting the implicit threat in the commonplace, her text forces the reader to reimagine said threats upon the everyday that lies outside the pages of the book, very different from the experience of horror, described by Radcliffe as a cheaper version of the emotion, its “effect, though sudden and strong, is also transient” (150). In Laura Kremmel’s comprehensive chapter on Medical Horror in the new Palgrave Handbook to Horror Literature, the author considers this type of literature to “provoke the fear associated with the human body and mind’s vulnerabilities” (313). However, she points out that it is not only the “fears of the body as a threat to itself” that this subgenre draws from, but also and more prominently, “the fears of the larger medical institutions and authorities that claim absolute power over the body in their promise to care for and cure it” (314). That this promise goes unfulfilled is implicit, and thus “healing becomes exploitation, experimentation, and terrorization for a goal that circumvents the benefit of the individual patient” (314). This is what happens both in “The Yellow Wallpaper” and “The Husband Stitch,” where the medical establishment takes ownership of the female body and pathologizes what is seen as a failure to acquiesce with normative gender performance within the bounds of marriage, disregarding women’s explicit decisions regarding their bodies’ performances and medicalizing dissent. 

In her Survey of Medical Horror Kremmel distinguishes between horror of “what can happen to the body (injury, illness, or death) and horror of what can be done to treat the body” (315), and I argue that is in this latter category, that the terror of the medical experience emerges from. The very real potential vulnerability to an implicit threat that the reader feels very close to their experience resonates with Radcliffe’s understanding of terror, rather than horror, and although Kremmel does not stop to make a distinction between the two, her nuanced commentary regarding the imaginative potential of the immediate experience to instill fear in the reader, certainly aligns her vision with what Radcliffe wrote about. According to Kremmel, medical terrors that promise “an inherent relevance and imminence . . . The familiarity of medical spaces and the fears that already reside in them make patients, even potential patients, vulnerable to a medical manifestation of horror tropes” (323). In the case of Machado’s short story, it is the familiar terror of obstetric violence that provokes the reader. In a complex and nuanced short story, the author evokes the absolute vulnerability in the most intimate of physical spaces and the potential for damage it posits when we are faced with an unscrupulous clinician.

Machado’s protagonist claims at the beginning of her tale that “[e]veryone knows these stories—that is, everyone tells them, even if they don’t know them—but no one ever believes them” (5). That certainly seems to be the case with the husband stitch (the procedure, not the story); as Jane Dykema states in a much-read article in Electric Literature, a quick internet search of the term will demonstrate that there is “no entry in Wikipedia, nothing in WebMD. Instead there are pages and pages of message board entries and forum discussions on pregnancy websites.” The existence of this procedure is rarely acknowledged by medical professionals, as seen by the absence of studies or official records. Consisting of an extra stitch given after a vaginal birth to tighten the vagina of the patient after there has been either a natural tear or an episiotomy, its objective is the increased sexual pleasure of a male partner and often carries with it the accompanying pain of the patient. Despite the lack of records, as Carrie Murphy states in another article on the topic, this time in the site Healthline, “the proof is in women’s words. Or sometimes, it’s sewn into their bodies.” The thousands of personal testimonies that seem to have been unearthed after the publication of the story by Machado give testament to that: the husband stitch is not a myth, but an unrecorded, unofficial and unsanctioned medical practice where stereotyped gender performativity takes precedence over the well-being of the patient. In Machado’s story, it is the protagonist’s husband who asks the doctor while she is under the haze of a powerful sedative: “How much to get that extra stitch?” . . . “You offer that, right?” (16). And despite the patient’s lack of explicit consent, or ability to consent at all, since she is under sedation, she is given the extra stitch rumored to recreate a tightness comparable to that of a virgin. When she wakes up, the protagonist is “all sewn up” “Nice and tight, everyone’s happy . . . You’re going to need to rest for a while” (17), she is told by the doctor.

In her harrowing memoir about dealing with endometriosis, Abby Norman expresses her frustration with her doctors, who repeatedly dismiss her statements that she is absolutely decided to sacrifice her fertility if it will alleviate her pain:

I can only assume that doctors don’t feel comfortable taking a woman’s word for it when she says she’s not concerned about her fertility . . . I was slowly figuring out that not only was my pain going to be disbelieved, but it was never going to take precedence.

(Norman, Kindle Position 690-693)

Precedence, in this case, over fertility, or over her partner’s sexual pleasure, as is the case in Machado’s story. Both Norman and Machado highlight in their writing instances were the medical establishment fails to make the female body the interested party. In Norman’s experience, as well as in Machado’s story, the performativity of the female body in accordance to stereotypical gender norms, as a mother or as a lover, takes precedence over the patient’s expressed desires. Women’s agency is overruled by the doctors’ perception of what her body ought to do.

The enforced silence of women’s voices is another topic that Machado addresses in her powerful story. In stage directions, the reader is introduced to the narrator by being told that her voice should be performed “as a child, high-pitched, forgettable; as a woman, the same. . . ALL OTHER WOMEN: interchangeable with my own” (3). Intermingled with the protagonist’s life story, Machado weaves a fabric of open-ended old wives’ tales, urban legends and folktales in which women are punished for behaving outside the norm: “I have heard all of the stories about girls like me, and I am unafraid to make more of them” (7), claims the narrator as a young woman discovering sex with her future husband. However, as in the classic horror stories that we find in the text, sins have punishments in Machado’s story. In “The Husband Stitch,” which is a rewriting of the classic horror tale “The Green Ribbon,” known by most in Alvin Schwartz’s retelling in the young readers’ collection In a Dark, Dark Room and Other Scary Stories, the husband is increasingly insistent and aggressive in his attempt to uncover the mystery of the green ribbon worn by his wife. Although we are first presented with an idyllic picture of the couple’s story, where they seem to fall passionately in love, their courtship, marriage and life together is marred by the husband’s continuous attempts to untangle the ribbon that his wife wears around her neck. His greed in wanting to take complete ownership and control of his wife’s body against her will, first by asking the doctor for the extra stitch, then by unraveling the ribbon, is punished with the horror of a decapitated head at the end of the story. For the unnamed narrator, who has freely rejoiced herself in her lust, the punishment is death. As Lorna Piatti-Farnell explains in her review of children’s fairytales, “bodily violence constructs the apogee of the educational lesson in the story and is seemingly justified by the receivers’ previous ill conduct and greed” (99). In this case, the female protagonist’s enjoyment of her lust is punished twice, first by the extra stitch, who reportedly may cause severe pain for the woman when attempting penetration, and secondly by her death at the hands of her untrusting husband, whose greed brings doom to the couple.

In conclusion, “The Husband Stitch” weaves several threads of terror by introducing storytelling as a powerful force that shapes our lives. Fantasy mediates uncertainty and allows Machado to recreate the embodied terror and intimate betrayal of obstetric violence by rewriting the threatening half whispered rumors of not consensual postpartum intervention into a gory children’s story of beheading. She creates a tale where the perpetrator of such violence is not an unnamed monster but “not a bad man at all. To describe him as evil or wicked or corrupted would be a deep disservice to him” (30). “He is not a bad man, and that, I realize suddenly, is the root of my hurt,” (30) the narrator says in the moments before her death. The terror of this story that we would prefer not to believe emerges from the frivolity with which the protagonist’s agency over her own body is overruled by husband and doctor, otherwise caring and functional men, normal men. Casual misogyny and how it infiltrates every layer of reality, even those we believe are protected behind the walls of scientific objectivity, is the terror of this story.

Lucía López is a MA student of the University of Salamanca, where she will begin her doctoral studies in September. She has been dedicated since her undergraduate thesis to studying the intersection of medical humanities and fantasy, science fiction and postcolonial literatures, attempting to draw attention to the behavior of the medical field towards those relegated to the fringes of society. She was awarded a prize for outstanding academic performance for her project “Marginal Bodies in Science Fiction,” recently presented at the (Post)Colonial Health Conference in Leeds and is currently researching the works of Indigenous author Lee Maracle.


Dykema, Jane. “What I Don’t Tell My Students About ‘The Husband Stitch.’” Electric Literature, 10 Oct. 2017,

Kremmel, Laura. “‘And Send Her Well-Dos’d to the Grave’: Literary Medical Horror.” The Handbook to Horror Literature, edited by Corstorphine and Kremmel, Palgrave Macmillan, 2018.

Machado, Carmen Maria. “The Husband Stitch.” Her Body and Other Parties. Serpent’s Tail, 2017.

Murphy, Carrie. “The Husband Stitch Isn’t Just a Horrifying Childbirth Myth.” Healthline, 24 January 2018,

Norman, Abby. Ask Me About My Uterus: A Quest to Make Doctors Believe in Women’s Pain. Bold Type Books, 2018.

Perkins Gilman, Charlotte. “The Yellow Wallpaper.” American Fantastic Tales: Terror and the Uncanny from Poe to the Pulps, edited by Peter Straub, The Library of America, 2009, pp. 131-47.

Piatti-Farnell, Lorna. “Blood Flows Freely: The Horror of Classic Fairy Tales.” The Handbook to Horror Literature, edited by Corstorphine and Kremmel, Palgrave Macmillan, 2018.

Radcliffe, Ann. “On the Supernatural in Poetry.” The New Monthly Magazine and Literary Journal, vol. 16, no. 1, 1826, pp. 145-152.

Schwartz, Alvin. “The Green Ribbon.” In a Dark, Dark Room and Other Scary Stories, HarperCollins Children’s Books, 1984.

Obese Characters as Obstructive and Antagonistic in Horror-Based Digital Games

SFRA Review, vol. 50, no. 1

Symposium: Medical Humanities and the Fantastic

“That tub a’lard’s in our way!”: Obese Characters as Obstructive and Antagonistic in Horror-Based Digital Games

Connor Jackson
Edge Hill University

A number of horror-based digital game characters conflate notions of obesity, overeating and monstrosity. For instance there is Eddie Dombrowski from Silent Hill 2, an overweight man who is shown eating pizza in a bowling alley, loitering in a prison cafeteria and is later fought in a meat locker—here it is revealed that he is a sadist who killed a bully’s dog before shooting him in the knee prior to the events of the game. In addition, there are the large Twin Chefs from Little Nightmares who prepare food in the macabre kitchen stage of the game when they are not trying to capture the player-character. Failing to flee from them can result in the avatar being thrown into a saucepan, an oven, and even a meat grinder. However, the abovementioned conflation is more discernible in zombie-based games in particular: a subset of horror-based games that are usually concerned with the struggle for survival of one or more humans during or after a zombie outbreak. This is evidenced by the Boomer from Left 4 Dead and Left 4 Dead 2, the Whopper from Resident Evil 6, and the Bloater from The Last of Us. Each creature is significantly large (as their names imply) and signifies both overeating and monstrosity due to its condition as a zombie: a being that has come to be renowned for its insatiable appetite. What is more, they are symptomatic of a broader trend in zombie fictions which, after the turn of the century, have become increasingly preoccupied with the production and consumption of food: particularly fast and processed foods. 

As a result of the contemporary zombie’s association with fast food, Michael Newbury reads zombie films as the fictional counterparts of food crisis texts: an umbrella term used to describe non-fiction books, documentaries and journalistic publications that “dwell at some length on what they understand to be an imploding system of industrial food production” (90). The goal of food crisis texts, then, is to combat the alienation of consumers from the origins and contents of the food they eat by exposing the mistreatment of animals under agribusiness, revealing the adverse effects of additives, and uncovering the risks fast food pose to consumer health. Moreover, some food crisis texts offer an alternative means of obtaining food by valorising local and organic food production. In opposition, Newbury asserts that the zombie film “extinguishes with brutal enthusiasm all aspirations to retrieving the pastoral, the natural, or alternatives to the industrial food chain” (97). Instead, these films revel in the nihilism of food consumption run amok through the cannibalistic consumption of the undead as well as their associated landscapes, which are abound with visualisations of both real and fictional food products and brands.

Despite the associative connections between the undead in zombie films and fast food, a significant point of departure from food crisis texts in these films is that typically they do not explicitly tie their apocalyptic visions to fast food corporations. As Newbury points out, food crisis texts often link prophecies of devastating diseases and bacterial infections such as Escherichia coli (E. coli) to the practices of agribusiness, whereas zombie films rarely implicate “food corporations as the specific catalyst for apocalyptic contagion” (100). The reluctance of zombie films to explicitly implicate agribusiness in their outbreaks is not resolved in the aforementioned zombie games; their antagonistic characters do connote rampant food consumption due to their obesity but like Newberry’s filmic examples they are not narratively bound to agribusiness. In this respect, when the Whopper receives verbal abuse for its weight—one non-playable character shouts “[t]hat tub a’lard’s in our way!” as the monster blocks their path to safety—the body shaming that this monster endures seems to exist in order to prompt a cheap laugh rather than tying into a larger critique of agribusiness. This changes in Capcom’s Dead Rising series, which depicts its overweight characters (both living and undead) negatively for the sake of satirising what it perceives as the gluttonous eating habits of U.S. citizens perpetuated by agribusiness.

In the first Dead Rising game non-playable character Isabela Keyes, sister of the terrorist who caused the zombie outbreak in the town of Willamette, reveals that the zombies originated from an American “Livestock Research Facility” built in her Central American hometown. Furthermore Dr. Russell Barnaby, the lead scientist behind the operations in this facility, expands upon the motivations of his team of researchers in his dying breaths: “We were… conducting… experiments to… reduce the costs of breeding… We… accidentally… made zombie livestock… […] We were trying to mass produce cattle. Do you… have any… idea… how much meat… Americans consume… in a single day!?” The aim of these scientists was to produce more food for a country that was simply consuming far too much. Sustaining vast levels of consumption was their goal, and ironically was also the outcome of their work. As such, the cannibalistic nature of the undead in the Dead Rising series—many of which are presented with overweight character models—is not just taken as a given. Rather than simply imbuing zombies with a means of threatening the player-character’s life and consequently the player’s agency within the game, their cannibalism also functions as a satirical twist on the relentless intake of meat perpetuated and encouraged by U.S. agribusiness. Furthermore, the unquenchable appetites of living American citizens, which existed before (and indeed lead to) the outbreak, are maintained and explored post-outbreak. 

In most zombie narratives the undead are ravenous, but they are not the only hungry consumers; humans must gather food to survive in their post-apocalyptic environments. For Newbury the food consumption of humans in zombie films functions cathartically. For example, candlelight dinners in 28 Days Later and the Dawn of the Dead remake (as well as Romero’s 1978 original it should be noted) serve as temporary releases from horrors of the present moment. They construct for their participants a façade of sophistication in an unbearably savage world. Cammie M. Sublette furthers Newbury’s analyses of human food consumption in zombie films by investigating not just what these meals achieve in terms of escapism, but how they accomplish this. The decimation caused by zombie outbreaks often leaves survivors searching and squabbling for sustenance but Sublette points to a type of consumption distinguishable from that engaged in for necessary nourishment, one that is pursued for pleasure. This “food hedonism is nearly always linked to some variety of nostalgia, often with an idealized or revised past providing temporary psychological escape from the horrors of the zombie apocalypse” (179). No matter how fleeting the experience might be, human food consumption in zombie films enables survivors to indulge in fantasies that centre on what once was and what could have been. They alleviate tension and enable survivors to reminisce over real or imaginatively adapted past experiences, as well as forge communal bonds with one another. 

This culinary bliss is unequivocally absent from the Dead Rising series, in which food is consumed by non-playable characters as a result of their rapaciousness. Additionally, Newbury claims that “[t]he food one eats and the way one eats it become primary signifiers of distinction between the malevolent dead or infected and those struggling to retrieve or retain a measure of human distinction from them” (104), but this statement does not apply to the Dead Rising series. In these games the food intake of survivors works toward the opposite effect. Survivors demand, hoard, and gorge upon food. They also eject food from their bodies by vomiting due to overeating. Their relationship with food is one of excess, thereby positioning them parallel to the undead as satirical and condemnatory exemplifications of human gluttony perpetuated by the industrialised food chain. This is made explicit from the first game in which the terrorist behind the outbreak, Carlito Keyes, declares that “all [zombies] do is eat, and eat, and eat, growing in number… Just like […] good red white and blue Americans”—this remark about zombies continuously eating is also repeated during the prologue of Dead Rising 4, thereby emphasising its relevance across the series. 

The message conveyed by Dead Rising is clear: zombies are gluttonous monsters and so are American citizens. This is evidenced in the first game when player-character Frank West encounters fellow survivor Ronald Shiner in a restaurant. The player can recruit and rescue this overweight survivor under one condition: they must give him a food item. These are scattered around the environments of this game (and its sequels) and are usually present within the eatery itself but become absent from this location once the side mission is triggered. The obvious implication is that despite Ronald’s claim that he is “starving to death” he has gobbled up the food in this area, which usually consists of two cartons of orange juice, four baguettes and four pies. Consequently, to recruit Ronald the player must give up one of their food items should they possess one, or worse endanger their player-character by going to the trouble of finding one elsewhere and returning it to him. Through the refusal of this character to adapt his eating habits in the midst of a zombie outbreak, Dead Rising constructs a topical satire on the self-destructive reliance of American citizens on industrialised junk foods whilst simultaneously shaming obese individuals. 

Rebecca M. Puhl and Chelsea A. Heuer produce an extensive consolidation of literature pertaining to the perceptions and treatment of obese adults. Their amalgamation of research pertaining to healthcare settings more so than that conducted with regards to employment and educational contexts emphasises perceived reasons as to why people are obese. Sources invested in a number of healthcare professionals (physicians, nurses, medical students, fitness professionals and dieticians) show a recurring commonality in their values. Generally, these people view obese individuals as “lazy, noncompliant, undisciplined, and [having] low willpower” (934); consensus among these professionals determines that obesity is a personal responsibility. Significantly, this responsibility is repeatedly linked to food consumption. Overweight people are assumed to have an excessive body mass due to “overeating” and having an “unhealthy diet” (944). Their weight is understood as a result of their “personal choices about food” and their “poor eating behaviours” as well as their intake of “too much junk food” (945). This viewpoint is perpetuated by negative portrayals of obese people in mainstream media, particularly in what Heuer calls “fattertainment” (n.p.). For instance, in filmic or televisual entertainment overweight characters are marginalised, often by relegating their inclusion to that of supporting characters or objects of ridicule (Puhl and Heuer, 951; Heuer). This is even evidenced in children’s media such as cartoons and books. Here, even when larger characters are not eating, they are shown to be “thinking about […] food” (Puhl and Heuer, 951). Of course, as the Dead Rising series demonstrates, film, television and children’s entertainment are not the only avenues through which obese people are represented in an unsavoury fashion; parallels can be drawn between their depiction in these formats and those found in digital games. 

The aforementioned character Ronald coincides with notions of sizable characters continuously thinking about food even when they are not actually eating. His description in the player-character’s notebook attests to this, simply expressing that he “[t]hinks only of eating.” However, of further significance in the Dead Rising series is the blending together of obesity and antagonism. Puhl and Heuer determine that overweight characters in popular culture are attributed with “physical aggression” (951) much more than their underweight counterparts. In Dead Rising this is especially true, as the volatility of certain hostile characters throughout the series is bound explicitly to gluttonous food consumption. Arguably the most noteworthy example of this is the antagonistic Darlene Fleischermacher from Dead Rising 3. Hiding out in Uncle Billy’s Buffet, she is introduced to the player during a cutscene. Here, player-character Nick Ramos ventures into the diner and sees an unnamed male survivor attempting to unlock the door to the kitchen. Unfortunately, they attract the attention of Darlene. She is severely obese and bound to a motor scooter as a result. She tears away at a large chicken thigh. Food stains cover her clothes, which consist of a bib stylised with the image of a lobster and a bright yellow dress pattered with a cupcake design that her enormous stomach has actually torn through. Everything about her exaggerated appearance signifies food in excess. When she spots Ramos and the other unnamed survivor she yells “get away from my food”—clearly, she is under the impression that the entire buffet belongs to her. Ramos asserts that the eatery contains enough food for everyone while the other man argues that Darlene could not possible eat all of it. However, rather than being persuaded to share the buffet Darlene takes this last comment as a challenge, shovelling multiple burgers into her mouth and swallowing them whole. When the unnamed man attempts to bypass her and claim some food for his own, she grabs a large spork and stabs him to death. Once again Dead Rising rejects the notion of human food consumption as representing reclamations of civility as proposed by Newbury, or evoking nostalgia as argued by Sublette. 

Gluttonous food consumption is not only satirised by obese characters in the Dead Rising series, but also through the player’s choices during gameplay. Consuming certain foods has an adverse effect on the player-character in the first three Dead Rising games (stomach cramps in the first and vomiting in the second and third). These outcomes can be prompted by the consumption of food that had become “spoiled” over time. This is evidenced by the transformation of “Raw Meat” to “Spoiled Meat” and “Steak” to “Spoiled Steak” for example. Tying in to the series’ satire on voracious food consumption, the player is chastised for their dubious food intake and virtual gluttony should they choose to perform such foolish consumption practices. This punishment is made clear as their agency is momentarily stripped away while the player-characters doubles over in pain. In doing so they drop whatever item they were currently holding and leave themselves open to attack. This would be particularly detrimental to the player-character’s wellbeing if it should occur as the player was aiming to navigate through a crowd of zombies. 

The Dead Rising series connects zombies to agribusiness by revealing the origin of its zombie infection as the result of unethical research into the mass production of cattle. In this way it coincides with twenty-first century zombie films, in which Newbury asserts that the undead “seem to emerge from and are profoundly associated with the landscapes of fast and junk food” (100). However, Newbury also claims that these films rarely implicate the food industry directly as the cause of their zombie outbreaks and offer no form of redemption from current food intake practices damaging people and the ecosystem at large. Contrastingly, Dead Rising makes its connections between zombies and fast food explicit, satirises overeating in the United States by portraying a number of troublesome and antagonistic characters as obese, and supports a sensible approach to fast food consumption through satirical gameplay consequences that punish the player for overeating.

Connor Jackson is a PhD student in the Department of Media at Edge Hill University, where he currently works as a Graduate Teaching Assistant. His research interests include depictions of the zombie in popular culture, with a primary focus on their presence in digital games. His work can be found in Romancing the Zombie: Essays on the Undead as Significant “Other”—part of McFarland’s ongoing Contributions to Zombie Studies publication series.


28 Days Later. Directed by Danny Boyle, Fox Searchlight Pictures, 2002.

Dawn of the Dead. Directed by George A. Romero, United Film Distribution Company, 1978.

Dawn of the Dead. Directed by Zack Snyder, Universal Pictures, 2004.

Dead Rising. Capcom, 2006.

Dead Rising 2. Blue Castle Games, 2010.

Dead Rising 2: Off The Record. Capcom Vancouver, 2011.

Dead Rising 3 Capcom Vancouver, 2013.

Dead Rising 4. Capcom Vancouver, 2016.

Heuer, Chelsea A. “‘Fattertainment’—Obesity in the Media.” Obesity Action Coalition,

The Last of Us. Naughty Dog, 2013.

Left 4 Dead. Valve, 2008.

Left 4 Dead 2. Valve, 2009.

Little Nightmares. Tarsier Studios, 2017.

Newbury, Michael. “Fast Zombie/Slow Zombie: Food Writing, Horror Movies, and Agribusiness Apocalypse.” American Literary History, vol. 24, no. 1, 2012, pp. 87-114.

Puhl, Rebecca M. and Heuer, Chelsea A. “The Stigma of Obesity: A Review and Update.” Obesity, vol. 17, no. 5, 2012, pp. 941-964. 

Resident Evil 6. Capcom, 2012.

Silent Hill 2. Konami, 2001.

Sublette, Cammie. M. “The Last Twinkie in the Universe: Culinary Hedonism and Nostalgia in Zombie Films.” Devouring Cultures: Perspectives on Food, Power, and Identity from the Zombie Apocalypse to Downton Abbey, edited by Cammie M. Sublette and Jennifer Martin, U of Arkansas P, 2016, pp. 190-205.

The Fantastic Autistic: Creating Narrative from the “Anti-Narrative” Poetics of Neurodivergence

SFRA Review, vol. 50, no. 1

Symposium: Medical Humanities and the Fantastic

The Fantastic Autistic: Creating Narrative from the “Anti-Narrative” Poetics of Neurodivergence

David Hartley
University of Manchester

Introduction: Just Joking

“Are you just joking, David?”

This is one of my autistic sister’s most common phrases which acts as a kind of verbal buffer to misunderstandings and miscommunication between our different neurotypes. She has learned that jokes are gentle disruptions to the order of things, which are usually intended to provoke positive feelings. Jokes, puns and silliness easily arise in our family unit and have persisted; thanks, perhaps, to the presence of Jenny’s autism at our core. Whenever Jenny misunderstands something, or an instruction threatens the established order, her question “are you just joking?” helps to paper over the crack. Even if the statement wasn’t a joke, her response has helped her to at least get a hand on the tiller. 

As part of my PhD in Creative Writing, I am writing a fantastical novel about autism and ghosts. The main autistic character is based on Jenny. She is three years older than me, the eldest of three siblings, and she is autistic with learning difficulties. The impulse to write a novel about her has been with me for a long time. I have still never seen a cultural representation of autism which in any way accurately reflects Jenny. I’ve recognised certain traits that match up, but Jenny’s version of autism eludes (or, perhaps, is avoided by) creatives who engage with the condition in one form or another. This exclusion has never sat comfortably with me and this discomfort became the foundation for the novel.

However, there was a second impulse. I wanted to confront a tendency that I’d seen emerging in my creative practice over the last ten years. This is my continual engagement with the weird, the strange and the absurd, all of which regularly echo into my short stories, often as a core structural factor. I found I also wanted to use the novel to explore whether my deep affection and affiliation for the fantastic had arisen from the fantastical habits, behaviours and languages of Jenny. I wanted to explore if growing up alongside autism had meant I’d grown up alongside a sort of living version of “cognitive estrangement” (Suvin, 3). I don’t, however, necessarily mean cognitive estrangement in the exact way that Darko Suvin theorised it – as a categorizing framework for the science fiction genre. Rather, I approach a sort of queered version of the theory; a neurodivergent estrangement, where the ideologically problematic concept of “cognition” (see; Mieville, 235) is replaced by the principles of what autistic activist Nick Walker has termed “the neurodiversity paradigm” (225). This latter, Walker explains, is the assertion that difference in brains and minds “is a natural, healthy, and valuable form of human diversity” (228). Furthermore, Walker argues, this fundamental element of neurodiversity establishes that “there is no ‘normal’ style of human brain or human mind, any more than there is one ‘normal’ race, ethnicity, gender, or culture” (228). Neurodivergent activists insist upon this healthy variance of human minds and argue that attempts to “normalize” are futile and violent actions. 

For “cognitive estrangement,” the presence of neurodivergence fundamentally undermines the stability of the universality implied in the “cognitive” side of the taxonomic equation. And so, in my pursuit of the estrangement of autism in my own creative practice, I use the structure of Suvin’s theory but queer its content. Instead, I am looking for a form of “neurodivergent estrangement” which can better accommodate both the reality and magic of autistic people like Jenny.

The Anti-Narratives of Autism

It soon became clear that the exclusion of Jenny’s particular version of autism was partly due to the fact that it does not easily fit into typical modes of structuring narratives. Mark Osteen has charted the various clichés and stereotypes that have haunted depictions of autism in both non-fiction memoirs and popular literature. He contends that the possible reason for persistent misrepresentation is because autism itself “seems uniquely resistant to narrative” (267). He finds that in many autism stories there is a conflict between “stasis and chaos,” brought about by autism being a disruptive condition which nevertheless thrives on orders, systems and routines (268). This, he argues, appears to be too much of a challenge to translate into normative modes of narrative. This thinking leads him to pose the question: “is it possible to narrate autism authentically […]?” (280). This became quite the challenge—and quite the worry—for someone who very much wanted to narrate autism authentically. However, more recent writing by neurodivergent scholars have started to challenge this notion of the un-narratability of autism. Melanie Yergeau’s book Authoring Autism is one such example. Yergeau covers much of the same ground as Osteen but looks at autism from the position of rhetoric. She finds in medical, cultural and social rhetoric a sort of conspiracy of language that “figures autism as anything but rhetorical” (5). She contends that the seemingly arhetorical expressions of autism are in fact full of non-normative meanings which are persistently and insidiously misunderstood by non-autistic observers. She extends this further and, in a move which questions the very basis of her own field, asks why should every expression have some sort of meaning:

I also want to put forth that, at times rhetoric is meaningless. Meaninglessness is not the pejorative so many of us would presume. I feel most autistic when I’m not making sense of anything


Why can’t expression be actively, and rebelliously, arhetorical? Such resistance to sense-making forms the basis of her core theoretical concept of the “neuroqueer.” Recognising an intertwined history of the attempted “straightening” of autistic minds with the same attempts to “straighten” the queer, Yergeau fuses the two to figure autistic people as the “ultimate asocial beings’ who defy social order by failing “to acknowledge social order’s very existence” (27). This subversive idea, as Justine Egner has shown, presents a new and radical way “to deconstruct identity categorisation and challenge hierarchies” (142). 

Yergeau concludes her book by suggesting that autism inhabits a living “in-betweenity,” a middle ground experienced as “a negotiation between rhetorical and arhetorical worlds” (205). For me, this phrase, and its “neuroqueer” underpinning, signalled the affinity between autism and the fantastic that I’d been trying to reach for. At the core of cognitive estrangement, especially when adapted towards neurodivergence and the neuroqueer, is the same negotiation between the real and the unreal, between the familiar and the uncanny, between the wonder and chaos encountered when we answer the call of Cthulu.

Neuroqueer Estrangement in Action

Osteen and Yergeau yearn for narratives and rhetoric which encounter autism on its own terms and recognise its potential. It’s my contention that the fantastic has, within its unique powers, the capacity and capability to do this. This, therefore, became the challenge for my fantastical novel: aim for an authenticity of autism, both in terms of content and form, where the representation of autism is accurate, and the poetics engages in some manner with autistic “neuroqueer” expression. Before I started the first draft, I wrote out a list of principles to follow to help me avoid the clichés that Osteen outlines and enable me to lean towards the neuroqueer paradigm of Yergeau. The principle which emerged as the most important and useful was the second one: “Include more than one significant autistic character.”

One of the key problems with representations of autism is that there only tends to be one significant autistic character within a text. This leads to a distillation of autism into this one character which then flattens out the complexities and depth of the spectrum. The result has been a mass of cookie-cutter autistic characters such as Raymond Babbit from Rain Man (1988), Christopher Boone from The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, Sheldon Cooper from The Big Bang Theory (2007-2019), Rory McKenna from The Predator (2018), Sam Gardner from Atypical (2017-present), Dr Alfred Jones from Salmon Fishing in the Yemen (2011), and Adam Raki from Adam (2009). All the characters listed here are white, male and middle-class. Most are young, adorable, serious, detached, and non-threatening. They are good at maths and science, but bad at love, relationships and other emotional connections. While there are some emerging representations of autism which diverge from these clichés, a legitimate set of questions have arisen: where are all the stories of black autism? Female autism? Autism with other disabilities? Working class autism? Historical autism, future autism, intersectional autism—and so on.

I didn’t want to disrupt the authenticity of my sister’s character by changing her race or class background, but in order to encounter and apprehend this issue properly I needed a strategy that would allow me to incorporate a multitude of autistic voices and experiences. This is where Yergeau’s “negotiation between rhetorical and arhetorical worlds,” reorganised as a “neuroqueer estrangement’, really started to help. To demonstrate this, I will now explain the core fantastical concept at the heart of the current draft of the novel.

Welcome to The Wing

Welcome to The Wing. A place of life after death. A limbo of memories and sensations; a vast solitude where you relive your fears and nostalgias until someone comes along and moves you on. But this is not the afterlife for everyone. The Wing only takes the autistic.

(Blurb from current draft of the unpublished novel, 2019)

In the world of the novel, when a person dies their afterlife destination depends on whether they are autistic or non-autistic. Autistic ghosts go to “The Wing,” while non-autistic ghosts go to a very different place: “Realm.” Whereas The Wing is an elaborate landscape of memories, structures, and sensations, Realm is a vast, barren desert of nothingness. Each individual arrives at their own separate manifestation of either The Wing or Realm and they wander around until someone intervenes to move them on to the next phase of existence.

The protagonist of the book is Leo. He is a living, non-autistic man whose job is to enter The Wing and rescue the autistic ghosts that have become stuck there. But, as is the nature of such things, all is not quite what it seems. Further conflicts arise when, back in the land of the living, Leo must suddenly become the main carer for his autistic sister, Teresa (the character based on my sister, Jenny). Eventually, Teresa and The Wing end up coming into contact and various fantastical adventures ensue.

The conception of The Wing came from the marriage of the estranging element of autism as a state-of-being with the principle I’d laid down for myself regarding the inclusion of multiple autistic characters. The Wing, and Leo’s job role, give me a legitimate method of negotiating this necessity for inclusivity. Leo goes on regular missions into many different manifestations of The Wing and encounters autistic ghosts from across the spectrum and along the manifold of intersectionality. Some of these encounters are brief while others are developed into the “significant” characters my guiding principle requires. Because death is the great equaliser, and because the afterlife has such a rich fantastical heritage, The Wing opens up an opportunity to get at some of the complexities of autism in a broad, social sense which is often missed by other representations where the focus is too narrow. In this way, the book develops from the local, familial story between Leo and Teresa into a broader reflection on neurodiversity and the neurotype divide between autism and non-autism. This division, which is apparent in the difference between The Wing and Realm, is a deliberate provocation resolved, in the end, by cross-neurotype collaboration.

It is the nature of ghosts and spirits to be invasive, interruptive, and disorderly in much the same way that autism can be invasive, interruptive and disorderly. But instead of this being something negative that needs suppression and control, the fantastic allows a subversive space for it to be considered in a neuroqueer fashion; autistic “disturbance” as chaotic but productive, interruptive but fundamental.


Following the neuroqueer approach of Julia Miele Rodas in her theorization of autism poetics, I offer an “unconclusion” in place of a traditional conclusion (Rodas, 2018 179). Rather than summarise the paper, I’m going to offer up a simple exercise for the reader. I will describe an action that my sister Jenny regularly performs, which I have incorporated into the current draft of the novel. It is an autistic gesture of sorts which is simple to teach but can feel a little weird to perform. It’s something I’ve observed Jenny doing, but it’s only when I tried it for myself that I began to understand the reasons for it. 

Jenny gets a lot of sensory pleasure from certain sounds. She likes the hums and beeps of microwaves, the ignition and vrooms of car engines, the rhythms of music, and the tenor and flexibility of voices, especially her own. Through a simple habit, Jenny has discovered a way to enhance the listening experience of her own voice and I invite you, dear reader, to experience it for yourselves.

Place the bottom edge of your palms together so that your wrists meet and you create an open lotus flower shape with your hands. Now bring that edge up to your mouth so that your fingers reach back towards your ears. It will be like you are using your hands to create a surgeon’s mouth-mask, or the facehugger from the Alien franchise. Don’t press your hands against your mouth but hold them close. Now hum, or speak a phrase, into your hands and listen to how it modulates the sound of your voice. Speaking works best; read out the last few lines of this paragraph.

Hopefully you got the sense of that. The sound intensifies as it hits your palms, travels along the insides of your fingers and reaches your ears. Jenny does this regularly for words, phrases and hums and she clearly gets a lot of pleasure and satisfaction from doing it. It’s a strange thing to do, but it’s also remarkably simple and effective. Here, in this natural and personal autistic movement, there is the glimpse of a fantastical negotiation “between rhetorical and arhetorical worlds.” It is fantastical because it cuts against established social “norms” of how to behave and would be interpreted, from a non-autistic domain, as “weird” and aberrant: a worthless, arhetorical oddity. And yet, for Jenny, it is rich with rhetorical potential and, when we try it for ourselves, we can access a sense of it, even if we never make it a part of our own behaviours. That, in both meanings of the word, is the “fantastic” autistic I’m looking for.

David Hartley is a writer, performer, and Creative Writing PhD student based at the University of Manchester. His critical work examines the intersection of neurodivergence and the fantastic, while his creative endeavors find him battling with a novel about autism and ghosts. His short stories have been published in numerous literary magazines including Ambit, The Shadow Booth and Black Static. He tweets at @DHartleyWriter.


Adam. Directed by Max Mayer, Fox Searchlight Pictures, 2009.

Atypical. Created by Robia Rashid, Netflix, 2017-present.

The Big Bang Theory. Created by Chuck Lorre and Bill Prady, CBS, 2007-2019 

Egner, Justine E. “‘The Disability Rights Community was Never Mine’: Neuroqueer Disidentification” Gender and Society, vol.33, no.1, 2019, pp. 123-147.

Haddon, Mark. The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. Jonathan Cape, 2003. 

Mieville, China “Cognition as Ideology: A Dialectic of SF Theory.” Red Planets: Marxism and Science Fiction, edited by Mark Bould and China Mieville, Pluto Press, 2009, pp.231-248.

Osteen, Mark. “Narrating Autism.” Worlds of Autism: Across the Spectrum of Neurological Difference, edited by Joyce Davidson and Michael Orsini, U of Minnesota P. 2013.

The Predator. Directed by Shane Black, 20th Century Fox, 2018

Rain Man. Directed by Barry Levinson, United Artists, 1988.

Rodas, Julia Miele. Autistic Disturbances: Theorizing Autism Poetics from the DSM to Robinson Crusoe. U of Michigan P, 2018.

Salmon Fishing in the Yemen. Directed by Lasse Hallström, Lionsgate, 2011.

Suvin, Darko. Metamorphoses of Science Fiction: On the Poetics and History of a Literary Genre. Yale UP, 1979.

Walker, Nick. “Throwing Away the Master’s Tools: Liberating Ourselves from the Pathology Paradigm.” Loud Hands: Autistic People Speaking, edited by Julia Bascom, The Autistic Press, 2012, pp. 225-237.

Yergeau, Melanie. Authoring Autism: On Rhetoric and Neurological Queerness. Duke UP, 2018.

Medical Humanities and the Fantastic: Introduction to the Liverpool Symposium

SFRA Review, vol. 50, no. 1

Symposium: Medical Humanities and the Fantastic

Medical Humanities and the Fantastic: Introduction to the Liverpool Symposium

Beata Gubacsi
University of Liverppol

In the SFRA Review’s 2016 winter issue Anna McFarlane reports on the launch of “Science Fiction and the Medical Humanities” research project at the University of Glasgow, led by Gavin Miller, and funded by the Wellcome Trust, the largest organisation for health-related research. She notes how “in recent years academic concerns with the intersections between medical ethics and technology have particularly arisen through the field of the medical humanities” (3) and goes on to define medical humanities as “an academic field discipline [that] aims to explore the ways in which humans (or, indeed, animals) come into contact with medicine and how such encounters must change both living beings and medicine itself.” (4) This is of course evidenced by the Wellcome Seed Award itself, and also reflected in the British Medical Journal’s (BMJ) 2016 special issue Science Fiction and Medical Humanities, edited by Gavin Miller and Anna McFarlane, addressing the commonplace “headline”: Science Fiction Becomes Science Fact.

In their editorial introduction they point out the vitality of interdisciplinary research: “Research in this area challenges the limitations of disciplines such as science studies and history and philosophy of science. Lacking the analytic training and vocabulary developed in English Literature, and Film and TV studies, the sociological and historical disciplines have great difficulty in apprehending the complex social and political engagement that may be found in science fiction.” (213) They explore the theoretical framework which allows a wider interpretation of science fiction as well as allowing science fiction to function as analytical tool in the wider context of humanities, utilising Jauss and Benzinger’s notion of “horizon of expectations” and Darko Suvin’s “cognitive estrangement.” The BMJ issue itself features relevant discussions of seminal science fiction writers, such as, Stina Attebery’s piece on Mira Grant’s Parasitology trilogy, John Carlo Pasco, Camille Anderson and Sayantani DasGupta’s article exploring the “visionary medicine” of Octavia Butler’s “Bloodchild,” Donna McCormack’s work on “decolonialising transplantation” in Nalo Hopkinson’s Brown Girl in the Ring, as well as Fran Bignan’s paper “Pregnancy as protest in interwar British women’s writing: an antecedent alternative to Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World.” The Glasgow-based “Science Fiction and Medical Humanities” Wellcome research project with its website, workshops and conferences became a platform for further discussions, culminating in the publication of a short story collection A Practical Guide for the Resurrected, exploring how technology has and will affect the non/human body and psyche. 

The Medical Humanities and Science Fiction research project and the aforementioned anthology were also featured at the First Inaugural Congress of Medical Humanities in 2017, organized by the North West Medical Humanities Research Network. The conference series, which have been running successfully for three years now, provides examples of further engagement and entanglement between medical humanities and science fiction. As I write in my introductory blog post for the column, “Medical Humanities 2.0” at The Polyphony, “the first panel in 2017 was dedicated to “Medical Posthumanities,” where Amelia DeFalco (University of Leeds), drawing on examples from both literature and film, discussed how companion and caregiving robots embody and possibly subvert the gender and racial inequalities surrounding the economies of care work.” Later at the same event, I suggested and led a small group discussion on monstrosity in medical humanities, reflecting on topics like pregnancy, madness and disability, across eras, disciplines, and media.

The second NNMHR congress was also relevant for showcasing links between medical humanities and fantastic scholarship. The first keynote speaker was Esther L. Jones (Clark University), author of Medicine and Ethics in Black Women’s Speculative Fiction (2015), drawing attention to parallels between the biopolitics of Octavia E. Butler and the exploitation of Henrietta Lax, whose illness has led to a major scientific breakthrough. In her lecture she was talking about how speculative imagination is key to understanding biases and their consequences. The conference also had a transplantation panel featuring two distinguished scholars: Sarah Wasson (Lancaster University), leader of Translating Gothic Pain AHRC research project, whose new book, Gothic Transplantation, is forthcoming, and Margrit Shildrick, author of Embodying the Monster: Encounters with the Vulnerable Self (2001), in which she utilises the framework of monstrosity to discuss disability.

Following and engaging with these developments with increasing interest and fascination, I was wondering how can we theorise the fantastic within medical humanities and how can the fantastic facilitate research and engagement relevant to medical humanities? Consequently, organising a conference at the intersection of these fields was long in the making and a real passion project. The Medical Humanities and the Fantastic Symposium, funded by the North West Consortium Doctoral Training Programme (NWCDTP), was held at the University of Liverpool, on 19th July 2019. It provided an opportunity to explore these interdisciplinary challenges, and attracted so many fantastic (pun intended) scholars of different backgrounds. It was a long and exciting day with three keynote speakers, the aforementioned Amelia DeFalco, Anna McFarlane and Sara Wasson, and ten delegates across three panels (whose work with a few exceptions is published in this issue), and numerous guests.

The day began with Amelia DeFalco’s keynote lecture “Robot Funerals and Clone Completions: Boundary Creature Disposal in Recent Speculative Fiction,” exploring care and companionship from a critical posthumanist point of view, which introduced the “Fantastic Biases and Where to Find Them” panel. Out of the three talks three are featured in this issue: David Hartley’s exploration of autism and the poetics of neurodivergence, Connor Jackson’s talk on antagonistic representation of fatness in video games, and Lucia Lopez’s reading of Maria Machado’s “The Husband Stitch” drawing attention to oppressive gynaecological practices. Together these papers dissolve the boundaries between normal and abnormal minds and bodies, pointing out how those boundaries represent oppression. Staying with the idea of boundaries, Anna McFarlane’s keynote lecture “Bleeding Genres: Pregnancy and Fantastika” bringing together Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and Lars von Trier’s Antichrist introduced the second panel, “Chimeras and Contamination,” revolving around non-human embodiment and the entanglements of science fiction and horror with the medical. Two papers featured in the issue engage with these notions differently: Johnathan Thornton discussed fungi as a transformative agent in Tade Thompson’s Rosewater and Aliya Whitely’s The Beauty, followed by Lucy Nield’s paper on xenotransplantation in Margaret Atwood’s Maddadam trilogy. The last panel was taking us back to the Gothic origins of (modern) medicine and the fantastic as well as reminding us how incredibly relevant Gothic aesthetics (and ethics) are: Jenni Hunt explored freakshows from the perspective of museology, and Bronte Schiltz talked about queerness in Gothic narratives. Sara Wasson’s keynote address, “Spectres, Strangeness and Stigmatisation: Chronic Pain and the Fantastic” pointing toward formulating answers to the symposium’s main questions, closing the long day of presentations.

Finally, I am really grateful for all the speakers who took part in this initiative, and the SFRA Review’s editorial team for supporting this project by publishing the proceedings of the symposium.


McFarlane, Anna. “Science Fiction and the Medical Humanities.” SFRA Review, no. 315, pp. 3-6.

Miller, Gavin, and Anna McFarlane. “Science Fiction and the Medical Humanities.” Medical Humanities, vol. 42, no. 4, 2016, pp. 213-218.

Meet the Future: An Interview with Sarah Lohmann

SFRA Review, vol. 50, no. 1

Features / Meet the Future

Meet the Future: An Interview with Sarah Lohmann

Sarah Lohmann
PhD Candidate, Department of English Studies
Durham University, UK

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

Sarah: Hello! I’m a final-year PhD student at Durham University in North-East England, and I’ve just submitted my doctoral thesis entitled “The Edge of Time: The Critical Dynamics of Structural Chronotopes in the Utopian Novel,” which I completed under the supervision of Professors Patricia Waugh and Simon James. I’ll be defending my thesis in a viva in April, and then I’ll be applying for academic jobs far and wide, particularly within the fields of contemporary British and American literature, speculative fiction (especially sf), women’s writing, and anything related to utopianism.

I’m originally from Munich, Germany (with a bilingual German/American upbringing), and after graduating from a German high school, I moved to Scotland to study English literature and philosophy at the University of St Andrews. After that, I completed an English literature MLitt degree in ‘Women, Writing and Gender’ as well as an MLitt in analytic philosophy, both also at St Andrews, before moving to Durham to start my PhD. My current research is still informed to a large extent by my interest in philosophy, particularly with regard to moral philosophy and epistemology, and I would like to continue incorporating interdisciplinary approaches in my work in the future.

My PhD thesis, in fact, is fundamentally interdisciplinary in that it employs both ethics and systems theory in suggesting that examples of utopian fiction are best understood as science-fictional thought experiments whose success is determined by their dynamic structures. I argue that these structures, which I present as Bakhtinian chronotopes due to their reliance on spatiotemporal placement and movement, are in turn either functionally closed, homeostatic systems, as described in the work of Walter Cannon on homeostasis and Humberto Maturana and Francesca Varela on autopoiesis, or open systems that can be read as examples of complex adaptive systems as described by complexity theorists such as Ilya Prigogine and Paul Cilliers. Ultimately, I suggest that the utopianism of several of the novels that Tom Moylan terms ‘critical utopias’ – Marge Piercy’s Woman on the Edge of Time, Joanna Russ’s The Female Man and Ursula K Le Guin’s The Dispossessed – can therefore be understood as inherently dynamic and thus sustainable: both the utopian societies described as well as the novels’ fragmented, cross-temporal narrative structures can be seen as complex systems that are self-organising and self-optimising in a sustainable manner predicated on the non-hierarchical nature and inherent dynamism of complexity. Moreover, I argue that it is these underlying complex mechanisms that render these novels truly critical of their ‘zero worlds’ in Moylan’s terms, in that their open networks connect utopia and zero world in a transformative relationship of cognitive estrangement. By contrast, I suggest, examples of traditional utopian literature such as Plato’s Republic, Thomas More’s Utopia and fin-de-siècle novels such as Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward, William Morris’s News from Nowhere and H. G. Wells’ A Modern Utopia ultimately undermine the dynamic potential of their own utopian systems through homeostatic closure, reliant on forced equilibrium – this, in turn, creates the utopian presentism and social stasis that has historically been associated to the genre. The ethics-related element of my thesis, then, is that I identify a certain ‘ethics of complexity’ in the critical utopias, linking the inherent features of complex systems with the feminist equity-based functioning of their societies, and contrasting this with attempts at utilitarianism or virtue ethics within the aforementioned traditional utopias, which I believe to be hindered through their homeostatic functioning.

In general, I am fascinated by the dynamic networks and organic or coercive forces that underlie all relationships, human and non-human, and of the value that lies in recognising these networks and enabling them to function in ways that allow for the organic flourishing of all participants. In fact, my final thesis chapter explores what happens when supposedly inclusive complex networks are once more imbalanced through inadvertent bias and exclusion, using the examples of Naomi Mitchison’s Memoirs of a Spacewoman and Joan Slonczewski’s A Door into Ocean; this once more highlights the intricate workings of self-organising systems as well as the ease through which their balance can be upset.

As per the prompt, I think I would therefore say that a secret of the universe that I’ve discovered for myself (not uncovered, sadly!) is that we are only at the very beginning of understanding the myriad ways in which we are all integrated into the constantly shifting and evolving connections between us and our human and non-human environment – one might even say that it is nonsensical to speak of individuals or even humans in general as being in any meaningful way distinct within these networks. In my future work, I would love to explore these dynamic connections further and investigate what they mean for human behaviour and social planning in the Anthropocene, as well as tracking the various ways in which they have been interpreted in literature, both speculative and traditional.

Finally, an interesting fact about me is thus perhaps that this research focus has also changed the ways in which I move through the world – I try to tread as lightly as possible and live respectfully alongside my human and non-human neighbours, which has so far informed everything from my plant-based diet to my interest in sustainable housing and green politics in general, particularly in response to the climate crisis. 

Review: How do you describe yourself professionally?

S: I am a researcher at heart, driven by curiosity and the joy of discovering new patterns and connections in my research, but I also love teaching: I enjoy creating an intellectual atmosphere in which students have the support and freedom to explore their own ideas among their peers and feel excited about pursuing further research. Having previously worked to become a Fellow of the Higher Education Academy (HEA), I am therefore currently completing the final stage of this programme at my university to attain the full PGCAP (Postgraduate Certificate in Academic Practice), a certificate in education at university level that will allow me to feel confident in my future teaching of both undergraduate and postgraduate students.

In the next few years, I hope to have the opportunity to conduct both research and teaching across a broad range of eras and genres and with interdisciplinary components. My thesis research has taken me from antiquity to the present day, while my university teaching so far has mainly focused on the history of the novel from Daniel Defoe’s Moll Flanders up to graphic novels such as Alan Moore’s Watchmen; this work has allowed me to come up with various ideas for future research and teaching across historical stages and disciplines that I would love the chance to develop further at some point.

Review: Why does sf matter to you?

S: Sf forms the backbone of my academic interests because of its inherent suitability for social critique through cognitive estrangement; in my opinion, no other genre is capable of holding up a mirror to our world in quite the same way, and with the same formalised imaginative rigour. Moreover, sf’s generic tropes such as time travel, alternate realities and far-future settings allow for a particularly extensive development of nova that can allow us to reimagine or extrapolate on so many aspects of our current existence – the possibilities are endless! In particular, I enjoy utopian, dystopian and post-apocalyptic sf because of its large-scale capacity for social restructuring, especially in terms of social roles related to marginalised identities, but I also appreciate the more subtle estranging capacity of sf mechanisms applied to more straightforwardly mimetic fiction.

I believe that especially in the current age of rapid environmental change and technological development, sf is an institutionally under-appreciated genre despite its astonishing critical potential, and I would love to see more extensive engagement with sf studies in university departments as well as a greater appreciation of the genre in culture-focused media.

Review: What brought you to sf studies?

S: I had hardly read any sf growing up, but an undergraduate module on the topic at the University of St Andrews piqued my interest – it ended up being a fascinating course, brilliantly taught by Dr Jim Byatt, which put me on track to what will most likely be a life-long interest in the genre! As an undergraduate student undertaking a joint degree in English literature and philosophy, I had a fair amount of freedom in choosing modules in both disciplines, and I’m so glad that I ended up picking this particular one: after completing my undergraduate degree, I went on to write my first master’s dissertation on feminist utopias and four-dimensionality from an sf perspective, and this later fed into my PhD on structural chronotopes in the utopian novel, again grounded in sf theory. Although I do look forward to expanding my academic repertoire, as mentioned above, I know that I will always value and return to the imaginative potential that is unique to sf, and I hope to encourage any interested students to do the same.

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

S: At the moment, I am beginning to prepare for my viva, as well as continuing on with my tutorial teaching, completing my PGCAP, and starting to apply for academic positions elsewhere.

In addition, I am always on the lookout for interesting conferences and projects – over the course of my PhD, I presented my work at many national and international conferences, particularly within the fields of sf and utopian studies, and I am very grateful to have become a part of a wonderful academic community in doing so. I am also always keen to take part in any promising cross-university and/or interdisciplinary projects that relate to sf or utopia: over the past few years, I have been lucky enough to participate in several interesting projects, including co-hosting the podcast ‘Exploring Utopian York’ with Dr Adam Stock, being interviewed for Paul Walker-Emig’s podcast Utopian Horizons, running two interdisciplinary seminar series at Durham University (which featured influential sf scholar Mark Bould, among others), giving a keynote speech on feminist utopias for an MA graduate conference at Teesside University, and serving as Project Officer for an exhibition on time travel and narrative (‘Time Machines’) at Palace Green Library in Durham. I would be very happy to contribute to similar interesting projects in the future, and to collaborate with people in various fields.

This also applies to publications, of course, an area that I will be able to spend more time focusing on now that I have submitted my thesis: so far, I have begun with a published book review (of Patrick B Sharp’s brilliant Darwinian Feminism and Early Science Fiction: Angels, Amazons and Women), and I am looking forward to the publication of my first book chapter, entitled ‘“What isn’t living dies”: Utopia as Living Organism in Joanna Russ’s The Female Man and Marge Piercy’s Woman on the Edge of Time’, which is forthcoming as part of an edited collection in honour of Lucy Sargisson on the occasion of her retirement (edited by Lyman Tower Sargent and Raffaella Baccolini).

I have touched above on the questions that really drive my work: an interest in deeply interconnected human and non-human networks and relationships, as well as the dynamic forces that drive them; I would here add to this the more philosophical consideration of how exactly we try to find meaning in a rapidly shifting world in which subjective experiences of reality have become radically divergent, and how literature and especially sf can provide us with unique tools to work through these questions and experiences and explore them in countless thought-provoking ways.

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

S: As mentioned above, I would love for sf studies to gain more academic clout within university departments, but I would also like to see more collaboration across disciplines that touch in various ways on human experience and cross-temporal and spatial possibilities within this world and others. Ultimately, I see the future of academia as lying in collaboration and mutual support driven by specific research questions and areas of interest, and ideally as less tied to traditional disciplines and vocation-led curricula. Of course, this vision is somewhat utopian, but as a utopian studies scholar, I do always stress the positive potential of utopian thought to create tangible change in the real world!

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

S: At the moment, my dream book would be based on my thesis, described above – in part, the dream would lie in properly including several utopian texts that I did not have the space to discuss at length in my thesis, particularly those from more distant historical periods in which sf and utopia were approached very differently to today, as I would love to do them justice and explore their unique employment of structural dynamic chronotopes.

Moreover, regarding my dream course, I am in fact currently designing a university module as part of my PGCAP certification that could be taught at either undergraduate or master’s level, and that I imagine would be quite rewarding to teach. Also loosely based on my thesis, this course examines women’s utopian writing through the ages while also expanding on this focus and using it as a ‘threshold concept’ (Schwartzman 2010) to discuss larger questions surrounding the canonisation of literature, genre conventions and academic gate-keeping with regard to sf, utopian literature and women’s writing in particular. It thereby challenges students to develop independent critical approaches to the study of genre, historical source material and literature in general; the ultimate aim of the course is to use women’s utopian writing and genre/canonisation as springboards for a ‘pedagogy of uncertainty’ (Shulman 2005) to help prepare students for critical and unbiased participation in a wide range of intellectual environments, giving them the tools to question received knowledge and together build better intellectual paradigms. Although the design of this particular course is intended as an intellectual exercise for my PGCAP degree, I could certainly imagine teaching this or a similar module as part of an undergraduate or master’s curriculum at some point in the future. Indeed, I would particularly enjoy preparing and teaching any course that would allow me to relate the critical potential of speculative fiction, and sf or utopian literature in particular, to other literary genres, and to encourage students to critically engage with the various ways of seeing and relating to the world that characterise and sometimes cross-fertilise these approaches. However, for the time being I would be grateful for the chance to teach anything that is loosely related to sf, utopia or speculative fiction in general – in addition to my teaching on the history of the novel, I have in the past few years had the chance to design and teach a short sf course as part of a ‘Supported Progression’ summer school for promising Year 12 students in the North East (who are applying for undergraduate study at Durham), and I would love to expand on this material, for example.

Whatever may come, however, I hope that I will be able to stay involved with the academic networks surrounding sf and utopian studies, as I have found a real home within these communities over the years. In fact, I have recently attained British citizenship (alongside my German and American nationalities) in part so that I may have a better chance of remaining part of these networks, and possibly also work at a university in either the UK or the US in the future, despite the horrible uncertainties of Brexit and US politics. In any case, I refuse to give up hope that things will eventually turn out all right, even if they are looking somewhat bleak at the moment – again, this must be the optimism of a utopian studies scholar!

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

The SF in Translation Universe #7

SFRA Review, vol. 50, no. 1

Features / SFT Universe

The SF in Translation Universe #7

Rachel Cordasco

Welcome back to the SF in Translation Universe! The first third of 2020 is shaping up very nicely, with some sequels, new translations, and exciting collections.

You’ve probably heard by now about the ongoing translation of Jin Yong’s incredibly popular Legends of the Condor Heroes series, which is bringing wuxia (Chinese martial arts fantasy) to a broader audience. A ton of translated wuxia is available on the internet already, and hopefully Anna Holmwood and Gigi Chang’s translations will encourage readers to seek out more wuxia online. January brings us Anglophone readers the third book in Jin Yong’s series—A Snake Lies Waiting—in which the brave and noble Guo Jing has walked into a trap (blinded by his love for Lotus Huang) and must fight for his own survival and his people’s freedom.

If you’re looking for German dystopian satire, look no further than Marc-Uwe Kling’s QualityLand (tr Jamie Searle Romanelli). Here Kling sends up 21st-century consumer-driven technology-obsessed capitalism by taking such innovations as driverless cars, wireless-adapted glasses, and a gargantuan online store (TheShop) to their extremes. As this novel argues, the seemingly simple task of returning, for example, a pink, dolphin-shaped vibrator delivered to you in error is far more complicated than you might think.

Interested in a wartime love story set in 1990s Turkey and told from the perspective of a dog? Then Kemal Varol’s Wûf (tr Dayla Rogers) is for you. Here a street dog named Mikasa, who is forced to work as a minesweeper for the Turkish army, tells his tale to other dogs at a kennel, where he finds companionship and even cigarettes. Inviting readers to look at war and brutality from a new perspective, Wûf is a unique book from an underrepresented source language.

But perhaps you’re looking for a novel that plays with your mind even as it plays with language and your sense of reality. No, I’m not talking about a Zivkovic story, but Peter Stamm’s The Sweet Indifference of the World (tr Michael Hofmann). When Lena and Christoph, two complete strangers, meet up in a Stockholm cemetery, they realize that, twenty years before, they each fell in love with the other’s double. Is Christoph’s novel (which grew out of his breakup with Magdalena) somehow influencing his new relationship with Lena? Or has he begun to confuse reality and fantasy?

If you think January sounds intriguing, just wait until February. We’re getting Russian, Spanish German, and Indonesian SFT then, including a new translation of an older title by the Strugatskys. Originally brought into English as Prisoners of Power in 1977 (based on a heavily censored version thanks to the Soviet authorities), The Inhabited Island (as it’s now called) is the story of Maxim Kammerer, an explorer from the 22nd century, who crashes on a war-torn world and is drawn into its inhabitants’ terrifying reality. The first of the Kammerer subsection of Noon universe books, this book portrays a civilization that is technologically advanced (they have atomic bombs) but socially oppressive.

Also translated from the Russian is a new psychological fantasy thriller from Marina and Sergei Dyachenko called Daughter From the Dark (tr Julia Meitov Hersey). You’ve probably been hearing about their previous brain-bending, haunting book—Vita Nostra (also translated by Hersey)–that fully deserves all the praise it has been given. Daughter from the Dark (which I am just 40 pages shy of finishing) asks us to imagine the consequences of stepping out of our comfort zone and doing a single good deed (like giving a seemingly lost little girl shelter and protection). How might it completely change a person’s life, and oh yeah, what if that little girl was actually a creature from another plane of existence and your life just became a billion times more complicated? And is her little teddy bear actually a blood-thirsty beast that kills whenever the girl is threatened? Mmmmmaybe.

From Ray Loriga comes a dystopian story about authoritarianism and the disappearance of privacy. Surrender (tr Carolina de Robertis) tells of the nightmarish reality that war can create, where children disappear and entire communities are forced to move to “transparent cities,” in which transparency is a literal mandate and all necessities are provided so long as the inhabitants “behave.”

We get even more German SFT in February, this time in the form of an epic fantasy by Bernd Perplies called Black Leviathan (tr Lucy Van Cleef). In this world where dragon-hunting is the norm, one man joins the crew of a ship that flies through the Cloudmere on a very specific mission—the pursuit and capture of a dragon known as the “Firstborn Gargantuan.” The captain’s rage-driven quest echoes that depicted in Moby-Dick, only dragons are, well, more terrifying than whales…

Also out in February is a novel by Intan Paramaditha entitled The Wandering (tr Stephen J. Epstein). Paramaditha’s previous book, the collection Apple and Knife (2018), was inspired by horror, myth, and fairy tales. The Wandering, too, brings together multiple subgenres in a story about what it means to wander the globe. When an English teacher in Jakarta seeks escape from a boring life, their wishes are granted in a pact with a devil, who gives them a pair of red shoes that will take them anywhere they’d like to go. But there’s a warning attached to this gift…

So far, March is only bringing us a single work of SFT, but it sounds excellent. That We May Live: Speculative Chinese Fiction (tr Jeremy Tiang and Natascha Bruce) expands the availability of Chinese SFT by offering us fantastic and phantasmagorical tales involving people living in giant mushrooms, twisted desires, and mysterious beverages. With stories by Dorothy Tse, Enoch Tam, Zhu Hui, Chan Chi Wa, Chen Si-an, and Yan Ge, That We May Live promises to enthrall.

In terms of short fiction, so far we’ve gotten stories about a woman absorbing alternate dimension versions of herself (“The Perfect Sail” by I-Hyeong Yun, tr from the Korean by Elisa Sinn and Justin Howe, Clarkesworld), a father inspiring his son to bring an ancient art into the future via virtual reality (“The Ancestral Temple” by Chen Qiufan, tr from the Chinese by Emily Jin, Clarkesworld), and a woman seeing her reflection in a subway window…but it isn’t hers (“The Other Woman” by Bibiana Camacho, tr from the Spanish by Cecilia Weddell, World Literature Today).

With such an excitingly diverse array of themes, source-languages, and sub-genres, 2020 is looking like another excellent year for SFT.

Thanks for reading, and I’d love to hear what you’re reading now and/or looking forward to:

Until next time in the SFT Universe!

From the Vice President

SFRA Review, vol. 50, no. 1

From the SFRA Executive Committee

From the Vice President

Sonja Fritzsche
Michigan State University

It is out! Check out the call for papers for the SFRA 2020 conference at Indiana University in Bloomington, Indiana. The theme is Forms of Fabulation. Questions and abstract submissions should be sent by March 15, 2020 to See the website for any questions concerning the conference, logistical or otherwise. You can also contact our intrepid conference hosts Rebekah Sheldon and De Witt Kilgore Consider submitting a paper, or even better, organize a panel or a series of panels! Send in your abstracts!

Yes, IU will give society members a big Hoosier welcome from July 8-11, 2020 this summer! For those of you who have not spent time in this fair city, it is a beautiful drive between Indianapolis and B-town, only 1 hour south. It has developed a wonderful restaurant culture over the past twenty years. For you cycling buffs, the film Breaking Away was filmed here. The Memorial Union building is one of a kind in the center of a wooded campus and a winding river where many superior conversations on science fiction will be had! Make sure you take a walk and explore.

It is also exciting to say that SFRA has committed to a site for the 2021 conference at Seneca College in Toronto, Canada to be hosted by Graham Murphy. SFRA also has a location for the 2022 conference! This will be at the University of Oslo in Oslo, Norway generously to be hosted by Bodhisattva Chattopadhyay. Thanks to everyone who has committed to host in such exciting locations.

We have a growing list of country reps. For more information, select the “country reps” menu on the SFRA website. I’m going to organize a get-together for country reps who are able to attend the conference, so that we can touch base on strategies, initiatives, and other ways that the SFRA can support the reps and they can support each other and the science fiction network in their countries. If you are interested in being a representative, please contact me at

From the President

SFRA Review, vol. 50, no. 1

From the SFRA Executive Committee

From the President

Gerry Canavan
Marquette University

It’s my pleasure to write my first SFRA President’s letter in the impossibly distant future of 2020, a number I don’t think I’ll ever get used to seeing as the actual year. I’ve been getting back up to speed on what’s been going on with the organization since my term as VP ended and I am looking forward to some truly great years for SFRA ahead, including our upcoming conferences in Bloomington, Toronto, and Oslo. Before anything else, a few thanks are in order: thanks to Keren Omry for serving as president for the last three years and serving as immediate past president for the next three, and thank you to Jenni Halpin for her absolutely indispensable service as SFRA secretary this last term. Thanks also to Pawel Frelik, whose improbably long term as immediate past president has now finally come to an end, to our great regret! While we’re at it, thanks to Sonja Fritzsche, Hugh Charles O’Connell, Katherine Bishop, and Sean Guynes, who I’m very excited to be working with on the executive committee the next few years.

I’d also like to thank Rebekah Sheldon, Graham Murphy, and Bodhisattva Chattopadhyay for all the work they have done, are doing, and will do over the next few years on behalf of the organization in hosting a conference. Having done it recently, I know it is no small thing! We are all very much in your debt.

Finally, I’d like to note the work done by Sean Guynes, Jeremy Brett, and Hal W. Hall to make the early years of the SFRA Review available digitally. With the help of the Cushing Library at Texas A&M, Hall’s personal collection of the first thirty issues of what was then called SFRA Newsletter is now available at the journal’s website. This is a terrific boon not only to our scholarship but to our organization’s understanding of its own history, so we are incredibly grateful for those who went above and beyond to make this happen.

It’s a very exciting time for SFRA, and I’m looking forward to working with you on our shared projects in the coming year. One thing we’ll be looking to do is continue to grow and internationalize the membership, as well as forge new connections and partnerships with adjacent disciplinary organizations. If you have ideas about ways we might accomplish that, or would be interested in serving as a local country rep, please, contact me! I’m also always open to any ideas that you may have about making SFRA a stronger and better scholarly organization; please, send me an email, anytime… Thanks all! See you in the next Review.

From the Editor

SFRA Review, vol. 50, no. 1

From the SFRA Review

From the Editor

Sean Guynes
Editor, SFRA Review

This issue brings with it a further few changes, the last for a while as we settle in to our newly redesigned and revamped era of the Review.

The winter 2020 issue welcomes two new reviews editors: Jeremy M. Carnes, as fiction reviews editor, and Megan N. Fontenot, as fiction reviews assistant editor.

The second change is superficial but nonetheless an important signal of the Review’s standing in the SF research community: we have adopted a volume/number scheme, making the first issue of 2020 volume 50, number 1.

In addition to more than a dozen reviews of recent scholarship, fiction, and media, 50.1 features a symposium collecting papers from the day-long Medical Humanities and the Fantastic conference held at the University of Liverpool last July, compiled and edited by Beata Gubacsi.