Review of Stanley, et al.’s Martian Pictures: Analyzing the Cinema of the Red Planet

Review of Martian Pictures: Analyzing the Cinema of the Red Planet by O’Brien Stanley, Nicki L. Michalski, Lane Roth, and Steven J. Zani

Thomas J. Morrissey

O’Brien Stanley, Nicki L. Michalski, Lane Roth, and Steven J. Zani. Martian Pictures: Analyzing the Cinema of the Red Planet. McFarland, 2018. Paperback. 246 pp. $49.95. ISBN: 9780786498932.

As a life-long Marsophile and having reviewed Robert Crossley’s comprehensive Imagining Mars: A Literary History and Visions of Mars: Essays on the Red Planet in Fiction and Science, edited by Howard V. Hendrix, George Slusser, and Eric S. Rabkin, and having been drawn by this book’s clever title, I jumped at the chance to read and review a new text on Martian cinema. However, the experience was not entirely satisfactory. 

Martian Pictures is a collection of thirteen essays that are reworked versions of conference papers amalgamated into a single critical text. The chapters are subdivided into three parts: ‘Exploring Mars,” “Invaders from Mars,” and “Mars and Society.” The main text is preceded by a short essay on the book’s origins, a Preface and Introduction; a Martian filmography, an extensive list of references, and an index follow. Thirteen well-chosen black and white stills from film and TV illuminate the text.

Quoting several times from Hendrix et. al., the Introduction imagines Mars as a blank canvas onto which are projected images of human frailty and the precariousness of our planet’s biosphere. These projections are shaped by the interaction between film and audience and the need for Hollywood to psyche out the audience in pursuit of success at the box office. If I am reading the authors’ intentions accurately, then these points need further discussion and consistent reinforcement in the main text. 

The chapters in Part One focus respectively on three major themes: the similarities between Martian and combat films., the role of deviant thinkers in bringing about successful missions, and the depiction of space agencies modeled on NASA. Chapter One is a rapid review of Martian film since WWII emphasizing the evolution of the genre from the Cold War-obsessed 1950’s to the early twenty-first century with its extensive Martian exploration and societal fear that science is in danger of running amok. Chapters Two and Three focus on the role of the prevalence of non-conformist characters that save the day, including those who thumb their noses at NASA, a situation best illustrated by The Martian (2015).

Although the topics are important and the theories employed to explore them interesting, the chapters do little to solidify the book’s central themes and are not user-friendly. Phrases like “as mentioned above” (32), “as mentioned in Chapter One” (36), or “as mentioned earlier” (42) occur far too frequently, especially when accompanied by lengthy plot summary without many strong transitional sentences between paragraphs. Repetitive plot summary is an issue throughout the book.

The three chapters in Part Two are loosely connected by the theme of Martian invasion. Chapter four considers the Martian as Other. Of note is the discussion of how the perennially hostile Martians of films like Invaders from Mars (1986) and Independence Day (1996) contrast with Martians as mirror images of ourselves in the 1980 TV adaptation of The Martian Chronicles and Spielberg’s War of the Worlds (2005). Chapter five offers an engaging treatment of serials in general and Zombies of the Stratosphere (1952) in particular. I do not know why 1938’s Flash Gordon’s Trip to Mars is not included since it would fit here very well. Chapter Six does what the book does best, apply theory—in this case mythic criticism—to Martian texts. The Prometheus myth has played a key role in SF since Frankenstein: or the Modern Prometheus gave birth to the genre in 1818. The film chosen for discussion is Prometheus (2012), which has nothing to do with Mars. The argument is that there are Martian films that also rely on the myth but not as well as Prometheus does. 

The third section consists of seven chapters, more than half the book’s total. Topics include class, gender, climate and comedy, among others. Chapter Seven is an ambitious discussion of feminist utopia/dystopia, especially the stories of Eve and Lilith, and their application to Martian films. The individual film discussions are convincing, as is the chapter’s conclusion. The brief chapter on climate (eight) celebrates the few Martian films that are concerned with environmental issues. Think about Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars trilogy and you will get a good idea of just how much richer print SF is when it comes to climate. 

Total Recall figures in two chapters, one of which is about capitalist exploitation and the other of which focuses on Philip K. Dick’s short story “We Can Remember it for You Wholesale” (1966) and the 2012 remake of the 1990 film. The authors see the ending of the 1990 film as a victory over capitalist hegemony, which I think is too simple a reading of this rhetorically complex movie and its final scientifically farcical or dream-like scene. 

The chapter on Mars and religion (ten) is consequential. Much of the discussion concerns Ray Bradbury’s classic novel The Martian Chronicles (1950) and the 1980 mini-series derived from it. The authors recognize the genius of Bradbury’s text and never claim that the TV version is its equal. The authors tell us that Bradbury called the 1980 production “boring,” a judgement with which it is difficult to quarrel, then write that “for our purposes, the religious themes and messages of the book and series are relatively similar, so perhaps major differences in other respects are not necessarily important” (156). I disagree; the other differences are quite important; however, the discussion of the Father Peregrine episode—a filmic representation of “The Fire Balloons”—and the transformation of a hapless Martian into a suffering Christ is well done. These events are more effectively adapted than are most of the installments in the mini-series. 

Although Martian Pictures does a good job of cataloging a large number of video productions, some quite obscure, the book has a rhetorical looseness that a unified critical text should not have. In this sense, it has not made the complete transition from a collection of conference papers to finished critical book. There is much to be learned here about the fascinating filmic history of Mars, but the book really should have had one more round of editing for clarity. 

Review of Malley’s Excavating the Future: Archaeology and Geopolitics in Contemporary North American Science Fiction Film and Television

Review of Excavating the Future: Archaeology and Geopolitics in Contemporary North American Science Fiction Film and Television by Shawn Malley

Pedro Ponce

Shawn Malley. Excavating the Future: Archaeology and Geopolitics in Contemporary North American Science Fiction Film and Television. Liverpool University Press, 2018. Hardcover. 232 pp. $120. ISBN 9781786941190.

In the epilogue to Excavating the Future, Shawn Malley’s provocative and fastidiously researched monograph on archaeological motifs in several contemporary science fiction mainstays, the author updates us on the war on terror, a central backdrop to the fictional narratives he has scrutinized in the preceding chapters: “As I compose this on St. Patrick’s Day of 2017, Iraqi and coalition forces are poised to recapture the city of Mosul, the last major ISIS stronghold in northeastern Iraq” (191). Malley’s self-reflexive envoi is as striking for what it omits as for what it remarks; given his engagement with the geopolitical truths obscured by the hunt for authentic artifacts, it’s surprising that he would not invoke the ongoing contest over truth and authenticity taking place just across the border from his academic post in Quebec. 

As I compose this review, on the other side of the Canadian border, we have just buried the 41st U.S. president, amidst a deluge of favorable comparisons to the 45th. Before nostalgia for the first and second Bush administrations has a chance to overtake us, however, we would do well to follow Malley’s scholarly trajectory: deriving a perspective on the present by assiduous scrutiny of the framing past. 

Before Malley gets to the second Bush administration, his study takes us to the cradle of civilization, via the history and mythology surrounding Babylon. The human heritage associated with the ancient city and its Mesopotamian environs, as well as the threat to this heritage presented by the war on terror, implicates the stakes of preserving its artifacts for posterity. But this stewardship, a significant part of the U.S. mission after 9/11, is not without strategic value in the larger conflict between West and East. Malley unearths telling parallels between the war and preservation efforts mounted around the second Gulf invasion. Just as the Department of Defense issued a deck of cards featuring images of Iraqi “most wanted” in 2003, four years later, DOD’s “Legacy Resource Management Program issued its own deck of cards, this time representing archaeological sites in Iraq and Afghanistan [featuring] instructive slogans about the archaeologically rich terrain upon which soldiers are fighting and to which they should feel historically and culturally connected” (36). 

Even more suggestive than the links between soldiering and stewardship in the theater of war are their contemporaneous representation in SF film and television. Central to this representation is the pursuit of ancient artifacts that do much more than drive the plot, according to Malley’s introduction: “as a source of objectified temporality in SF, archaeology is a critical tool for unearthing the contradictions and fissures of political discourse displaced into imagined futures” (3), as well as “an important critical medium for teasing out ideological subtextures of historical representation within the genre” (7).

Malley culls from several fan favorites to make his points: Stargate SG-1 (1997-2007), Smallville (2001-2011), and the rebooted version of Battlestar Galactica (2004-09). Other choices might seem more questionable—the SyFy channel original film Manticore (2005), the second installment of Michael Bay’s Transformers reboot (2007), the pseudo-documentary series Ancient Aliens (2009- ), and Ridley Scott’s disappointing Alien prequel Prometheus (2012). More often than not, though, Malley makes these and other excavations of the future richer through his rigorous historical and theoretical framing. The titular monster in Manticore is unleashed by Iraqi insurgents in possession of a looted magic amulet. More than a topical creature feature, the film exposes the uncomfortable synergies between military occupation and the media, between hearts and minds and shock and awe: “Sanitizing the archaeological past of its association with dictatorship, the SF telefilm implicitly exonerates the destructive effects of Operation Iraqi Freedom and the West’s invention of WMDs. Like the Iraqi extras in this film, the material remains of Mesopotamia play bit parts in cultural spectacles of propriety and control” (42). Malley observes a similar dynamic at work in Transformers 2, in which director Bay “repositions archaeological ‘landmarks’ separated by hundreds of kilometres into a single diegetic field” to represent a battle scene around the Great Pyramid at Giza (66). This aesthetic displacement is just another form of cinematic violence that resonates with the structural violence obscured by the spectacle. Observes Malley, “Tongue-clacking goat herders, whooping Bedouins with their camels, and ubiquitous squawking chickens are atmospheric and anachronistic extensions of the pyramid, a monolithic Orientalist chronotopic threshold waiting activation by [hero] Sam [Witwicky], the Autobots, and the U.S. military” (67).

Malley’s reading of Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008) invites comparisons between 9/11 and its cataclysmic precursor in the American mind: the mushroom cloud. Malley discerns this parallel when archaeologist Jones witnesses a nuclear test in Nevada:

If in the moment the audience confuses Jones staring in awe at the detonation with our mediated ground-level views of the towers collapsing in inverted mushroom clouds, the ghostly apparition of the crystal skull is a crystal ball for a post-9/11 America experiencing resurgent Cold War anxieties in the form of nuclear brinksmanship with terrorist states like Iran, Pakistan and North Korea.


The rebooted BSG and Prometheus gain depth, if not complete coherence, from Malley’s cybernetic reading. In the former, the Galactica itself is an artifact which preserves what remains of humanity after Cylons attack. The search for Earth that galvanizes the narrative is replete with excavations for other artifacts that serve as guides, not just to a new home planet, but to the intertwined destinies of humans and the enemy cyborgs they created. “In BSG,” notes Malley, “archaeological sites are places of assembly, contestation and ultimately critical reflection on the dangerous antagonisms and imperial politics that have brought humanity to the brink of extinction” (147). And by going into the intertextuality between Prometheus and the 1962 film Lawrence of Arabia (the archaeological classic that the cyborg David watches avidly as the crew of Prometheus sleeps), Malley makes a strong case that the film’s real plot is not about the human past but the cyborg future: “If Prometheus ultimately fails to break radically from the parasite of franchise mythology, the film does gesture towards a cyborg subjectivity beyond recycled myths of biological or mechanical reproduction” (185), adding that “[h]aving given birth to an alien life form herself, [Dr. Elizabeth Shaw, the sole human survivor at the film’s conclusion] is also a cyborg, suggesting a co-evolutionary future alongside [David] her artificial companion” (188).

Invoking such heavy-hitters as Roland Barthes, Jean Baudrillard, and Homi Bhabha, Excavating the Future is best for scholars or advanced students already acquainted with a fair amount of theory. Nevertheless, Malley maps rich territory at the intersection of literature, media studies, history, and geopolitics.

Review of Bolton’s Interpreting Anime

Review of Interpreting Anime by Christopher Bolton

Chris Reyns-Chikuma

Christopher Bolton. Interpreting Anime. University of Minnesota Press, 2018. Paperback. 336 pp. $24. ISBN-13: 9781517904036.

Over the past 25 years, anime has continuously attracted not only fans but also academics. Bolton’s brilliant book joins a growing collection of outstanding academic works about Japanese animation, such as those by Anne Allison, Jacqueline Berndt, Ian Condry, Thomas Lamarre, and Susan J. Napier, as well as works in Japanese by Murakami Takashi, Otsuka Eiji, and Azuma Hiroki, most of which are rarely translated. That these texts converge in Bolton’s study is one of its major strengths. Being both a Japanologist and a comparatist, Bolton is able to read and bring together rich Western texts like Lamarre’s, Lacan’s, and Jameson’s with scholarly works written in Japanese, sometimes to corroborate or complement each other and at other times to challenge prevailing Western views on anime and Japanese culture. 

Although younger than its Anglo-Saxon counterpart, Japanese science fiction (SF) has been prevalent in literature and other media since the 1960s, especially in anime. Although anime covers all genres (historical, romantic, erotic, pornographic, etc.), SF, with its subgenres like mecha and cyberpunk that originated as anime, is ubiquitous. As a specialist in Japanese studies, Bolton also has expertise in SF. He is the author of two books on the subject, one on avant-garde writer Abe Kobo (2009) and another, Robot Ghosts and Wired Dreams, Japanese Science Fiction from Origins to Anime (2007), for which he served as co-editor. He is also a founding member of the editorial board of Mechademia, the academic journal on anime.

In Interpreting Anime, Bolton has chosen six SF anime, some already famous, to make a case for the richness of these “texts.” He begins by asking, “What can anime do that other media cannot?” (6), and although I would argue that his answer to this question is not convincing, his chapters are nonetheless thorough and illuminating. Bolton argues that what most long-feature anime do best is to strike a balance between immersion and distanciation. The shortcomings of this argument are that the question is too general, and he inevitably focuses only on examples that support his thesis. The question asked in the title of the last chapter, “It’s Art but Is It Anime?” (233), is revealing: Miyazaki’s artful animation would not be considered anime because they tend to be mostly immersive. Similarly, one could argue that some American animations, which are not mentioned at all, could also be interpreted as using the same balancing technique (see for example Eric Herhuth’s Pixar and the Aesthetic Imagination, 2017). Therefore, readers are not given a satisfying answer to his too general question about anime.

Undeniably, Bolton’s hermeneutical methodology (obvious from its book title) provides sophisticated arguments and analysis that should convince the few remaining skeptics who are unconvinced that popular media/genre is potentially as rich as our literary texts. To this, Bolton adds two strong specificities. The first one is that he analyzes not only narrative devices and dialogues but also visual language in a very detailed, precise, and convincing way. The second is that, being also a comparatist, Bolton performs “text” analysis within a comparative paradigm by comparing the same narrative in various media, i.e., anime with theatre, manga, TV anime, and novels. However, Bolton emphasizes the abundance and richness of self-reflective symbolic devices, such as the mirror and the half-opaque window, as an insightful postmodernist reader-scholar, but what of the immense majority of other viewers who are not academics? We see here the weak point of his study: the absence of the readers’ agency within these insightful interpretations. Hence, in Chapter 4, when he first considers the otaku in his analysis, it is to make “it” (the otaku) play a role inside the “text” as another distancing device. Interestingly, Bolton sees the otaku not as a “separate group or even a separate way of reading but to describe a potential in any viewer and any viewing—the potential to have a third eye open as we become aware of the artifice or artificiality, and become able to see ourselves watching the text” (156). This otaku reading would be more idealized, “a mode of reading associated particularly if not exclusively with anime and its viewers” (168). Moreover, the author favors progressive critical readings rather than conservative ones, or rather he favors the tensions between these two readings, when most people might see one or the other in the anime but not both.

In Chapter 6, after using Lamarre’s subtle hermeneutical methodology, Bolton directly mentions other methodologies, such as Allison’s and Condry’s ethnographic approaches. He then addresses Otsuka Eiji’s character and “grand-non-narrative” (216) interpretation, as partly integrated by Marc Steinberg in his media studies approach, by writing, “With their ideas about the decline of individual narratives and individual auteurs, and/or the need to focus more broadly on characters, collaborations, franchises, and commercial contexts, the critics above position their work variously as a supplement, alternative, or replacement for the kind of interpretive close readings of individual anime and individual directors practiced in this book” (217). He then considers whether we can combine these two approaches by evaluating three different franchises of Blood. His answer, although well-rounded, is not completely convincing. 

To conclude, this book is a very useful and enlightening reading for many scholars and students of literature and media. This is especially true for those without much knowledge about Japan and/or anime. But, as the book insists, if students, like anime fans, read in a more participative way through the balancing act of immersion and distancing, anime (and other media) studies need to integrate their points of view. In his book, Bolton uses “we” a lot; however, if “we,” as academics, still want a grand narrative of tolerance and social progress, we need to teach and write not only through lectures, regardless of their quality, but from the students-readers-viewers-fans-producers’ perspectives also.

Review of Rickman’s Philip K. Dick on Film

Review of Philip K. Dick on Film by Gregg Rickman

Terence Sawyers

Gregg Rickman. Philip K. Dick on Film. Arrow Books, 2018. Paperback. 176 pp. $29.95. ISBN 9780993306082.

Gregg Rickman is an established commentator on Philip K. Dick who occupies contradictory positions within the broad community of Dick fans and scholars. On the one hand, Rickman’s retrospective psychoanalysis of Dick in To the High Castle, Philip K. Dick: A Life, 1928-1962 (1989, repeated in truncated form on page 114 of this text) is treated with much suspicion within this community of fans and scholars. Yet he remains a trusted source of first-hand material and collector of Dick anecdotes. Furthermore, Rickman moves between the spheres of academic and non-academic publishing, a boundary that is traversed by only a select few Dickian commentators.

Rickman’s liminality is relevant when approaching his recent monograph Philip K. Dick on Film, as there is some slipperiness when trying to establish the best contextual frame from which to review it. Even the title is suggestively ambiguous. Is this a book about Dick’s attempts to make films and contribute to TV shows, Dick’s own opinions of film as an art form, or the adaptation of Dick’s work into film by third parties? Ultimately, all three of these positions are touched upon, though the latter represents the primary focus.

Rickman’s text can be divided into two sections, with the first comprising chapters one through five and covering Dick’s biography, a discussion of Dick’s major themes and an insight into Dick’s relationship with Hollywood and filmmaking more generally. These chapters offer a neat overview to the key debates in Dick studies as well as providing some keen insights from Rickman. The little over four pages dedicated to Dick’s biography succinctly introduces the reader to Dick’s biographical highlights as well as communicating the complexities and contradictions that make Dick’s biography so exciting. For a casual fan of Dick who is interested in why media organisations keep returning to his literature as a source for film and TV adaptations, these early chapters are a helpful roadmap. While the more dedicated Dick scholar may fail to find anything new in these chapters, they will appreciate both the chapters’ concision and the many suggested routes (trailheads) of further investigation.

However, chapters six through twelve discuss the direct adaptations of Dick’s fiction into film and TV, and for those interested in Philip K. Dick, film studies, or adaptation studies, these chapters will disappoint. This is due to three problematic positions that inform Rickman’s methodological approach. First, he engages in a comparative analysis that heavily favours Dick’s fiction as an originary source. Following this form of analysis, any adaptations must strive, and ultimately fail, to “live up” to the original. This tautological argument is not uncommon in cycles of fandom, and therefore is not unheard of within SF studies; the “original” is always best at being the “original.” The argument’s circularity makes it uninteresting and provides no opportunity for serious discussion.

Second, Rickman purports to be offering readers a juxtaposition of his own comments and Dick’s (hypothetical) opinions on the various film and TV adaptations. This interpretative strategy seeks to extrapolate the opinions of a deceased writer based on his extant commentary. As dangerous as this strategy is, and in the case of Dick it is fraught by added complications due to his well-documented capriciousness, one needs to ask whether it is at all interesting. This approach assumes the primacy of the star-author as a site of meaning-making and authority (at the expense of critics, scholars, readers, and fans) and by contemporary standards is an outmoded method of engaging with texts, adapted or otherwise.

Third, Rickman takes for granted that contemporary commercial filmmaking is in an “unhappy state” and he rests this reductive criticism on rather narrow shoulders (89). For Rickman, the formulaic nature of storytelling is the primary cause of a creeping mediocrity that has been developing within Hollywood since the 1980s. Rickman goes on to argue that, although there are many vectors via which these formulae have been disseminated, the primary method is via screenwriting manuals, and he reserves particular attention for the successful 2005 manual Save the Cat! by Blake Snyder.

There are many problems with this claim, and it reveals a writer who is not conversant in the history of film, the current debates in film studies, or the contemporary reality of commercial filmmaking. To tease out just one of these problems, it exposes a logocentrism that assumes films can be equated with their scripted antecedents, reducing the complexities of an audio-visual text to nothing more than its content or story. The irony here is that Dick’s fiction has highly repetitive qualities that often follow a generic formula. A reduction of Dick’s fictions to their story and a map of their plot points (“beats”) will emphasize sameness while overlooking what distinguishes Dick from other SF writers or Dick’s stories from each other.

Turning to the formal qualities of this monograph, the publisher, Arrow Films, has not helped here, with poor editing, formatting, and design choices. For example, an error where the wrong film is referenced and inconsistent use of footnotes, that sees some tangential anecdotes footnoted and others left within the text, should have been picked up on and corrected before publishing. From a formatting perspective, inconsistency is again the watchword, with the footnote superscripts switching between grayscale and salmon. While throughout the body of the work the font oscillates between grayscale and black, sometimes within the same sentence. These inconsistencies are very distracting for the eye while also undermining the legitimacy of the work.

As part of the design, cover pages from Dick’s published fiction are interspaced throughout the text. As nice as these are to see, they bear no relevance to either the overall aims of this monograph or to the specific sections that they are included within. This is an odd design choice that stands in contrast to the book’s cover, which includes an arresting panoply of icons from the various Dick adaptations under discussion. These cover pages highlight the confused focus of a text that seems trapped between what it sought to talk about, the film and TV adaptations of Dick’s literature, and what it couldn’t help talking about, how much Rickman likes Dick’s literature.

Review of Lee’s Exploring Picard’s Galaxy: Essays on Star Trek: The Next Generation

Review of Exploring Picard’s Galaxy: Essays on Star Trek: The Next Generation edited by Peter W. Lee

Todd L. Sformo

Peter W. Lee, editor. Exploring Picard’s Galaxy: Essays on Star Trek: The Next Generation. McFarland, 2018. Paperback. 262 pp. $39.95. ISBN 9781476666617.

While I don’t recall much about an essay I read in the 1990s on Gilligan’s Island, I do recall one line: “linguistically speaking, Gilligan owns the island.” So when I came across the title Exploring Picard’s Galaxy, ownership of the galaxy sprang to mind. In a way, the 15 essays in this book have something to do with ownership, not of the galaxy, of course, but of interpreting that unique SF state of being: humanity’s historical future. According to P.W. Lee’s Introduction, this volume commemorates the 30th anniversary of The Next Generation (TNG) and is the first book to “solely” employ TNG as a “lens” (2) on issues ranging from government to multiculturalism (Part I), identity to gender (Part II), and martial arts to music and history itself (Part III). Since SF is a comparative argument on human progress, each essay considers the historical future as baseline, assessing whether both the real present and the TNG galaxy live up to ideals 24th century human progress. 

As comparative argument, the essays tacitly grant that TNG represents the progress a “fantasized humanity has made” (64, Achouche. Also see the chapters by Olaf Meuther and by Justin Ream and Alexander Lee), but the authors most often see a lack of advancement, with the culprit being the imposition of 20th century values upon the 24th century; hence, all three parts of the book, to varying extents, consider the Federation and its enlightened values as a starting point for comparisons with recent history, including the Cold War (Anh T. Tran), the Reagan Era (Simon Ledder, et al.; Bruce E. Drushel), and the economics of network TV (Katharina Thalmann). 

The essays, especially in Part I, find that the socio-political climate of the 1980’s and early 1990’s is reflected in the narrative and characters but also highlight differences. Alex Burston-Chorowicz points out Picard’s inconsistency when responding to other cultures, sometimes by non-involvement and other times with a more colonial attitude, perhaps informed by U.S. foreign policy during the Reagan Era. The episode “The Neutral Zone,” on the other hand, “reinvent[s]” (16) the Cold War, contrary to real world events. Alexander Simmeth shows “the future is not always ‘better’ than the past” (241) when focusing on “Journey’s End.” Here, the Federation orders Picard to resettle Native American descendants. Larry A. Grant’s essay on the Prime Directive (PD) questions its “unenlightened form of sovereignty” (29) that has a close association between real world concepts of national sovereignty and unlawful intervention, mentioning the delayed response to the genocide in Rwanda. While no direct connection is made between Rwanda and TNG, Grant judges that blind adherence to the PD is not the solution. Tran focuses on a single topic—the policing of civil society by the FBI, noting similarities to the Tal Shiar and Deep Space Nine’s Section 31. In three separate essays, Erin C. Callahan, P.W. Lee, and Jared Miracle discuss changes made to Yar’s character leading to her “unnecessary feminization” (173). Citing interviews with Denise Crosby and others as primary evidence, these essays in general describe the transformation of Yar as due to interference by the network, imposing conservative Reagan Era values in the hopes of higher ratings. 

In Part II, a few authors begin their comparative analysis with a theoretical approach. Ledder, et al. examine “biopolitics” via Foucault, noting that TNG allows for heterogeneity in race and abilities, contrasting to more culturally homogeneous, and therefore, restrictive, societies such as Klingons, but concluding that “TNG produces an ambivalent position” (109). Ream and A. Lee cite Hegel to make the case of TNG accepting Others by subsuming them under the rubric of a “utopia of bureaucracy” (75). Joul Smith considers previous interpretations of Troi as stereotypes and reinterprets the “Troi Effect” as a positive sign of mental health awareness in comparison to other media depictions of mental health. Thalmann contrasts Kirk and Picard, noting the latter’s heroism as multi-dimensional, more vulnerable, cut from a more fatherly, diplomatic cloth than Kirk’s. This essay then questions the growth of the “Action Picard” in the ST movies. Technological advance is taken up by Meuther in relation to rights and the definition of life within the patriarchal federation and matriarchal Borg. Drushel uses the historical association between villainy and gender to examine the behavior of particular characters, concluding there is insufficient evidence to make this connection and stating, “[t]o be fair, one must acknowledge that the failure of the producers of [TNG] to populate the cast with identifiable lesbian or gay characters has many plausible justifications” (162). I was left with the impression of a scientific paper acknowledging the lack of statistical significance to reject the null hypothesis. 

Part III of the book differs from I and II in that it attempts to trace the 24th century’s use of 20th and 21st century’s humanities and history. Miracle’s martial arts essay emphasizes the bat’leth developed by Dan Curry and the coinciding rise in mixed martial arts in Ultimate Fighting Championships in relation to TNG’s extended portrayal of Klingon martial arts. Tom Zlabinger’s chapter highlights the personal growth of Picard and Data as explorers of the physical and the ephemeral through music making. Simmeth analyzes the “appropriation of history” (245) in TNG, including a critique of capitalism as narrative technique for exploring human progress. 

While the essays raise interesting questions about science fiction and society, I have two concerns that distract from the book: 1) the promise of wide-ranging scholarship is sometimes unfulfilled, primarily due to the use of broad historical periods and nominally mentioning philosophical concepts without adequate critical attention; 2) some essays are slow to get to their main point, listing peripheral details and summarizing characters or incidents without leading to insightful analysis. Overall, however, the essays interestingly teeter on a fulcrum of inferential history that swings between humanity’s conjectural future and ownership of our flawed, recent past. When the inferred future is unrealized in the show, it is due to contemporary norms and values being imposed upon it. These essays highlight our imperfect selves in TNG, revealing the present values we must struggle with to come closer to the ideal.

Review of Derry and Lyden’s The Myth Awakens: Canon, Conservatism, and Fan Reception of Star Wars

Review of The Myth Awakens: Canon, Conservatism, and Fan Reception of Star Wars edited by Ken Derry and John C. Lyden

Jessica Stanley

Ken Derry and John C. Lyden, editors. The Myth Awakens: Canon, Conservatism, and Fan Reception of Star Wars. Cascade Books, 2018. Paperback. 186 pp. ISBN 9781532619731.

The Myth Awakens: Canon, Conservatism, and Fan Reception of Star Wars collects chapters that explore fan receptions of the Star Wars saga, focusing primarily on Episode VII: The Force Awakens (2015). While the title suggests discussions of conservatism, most chapters focus on close readings and fan reception of Star Wars in a concise, easy-to-digest manner. The result is a diverse and engaging collection that would be of interest to both scholars and students interested in science fiction or fandom.

The introduction, written by editor Ken Derry, positions Star Wars within the context of religious studies and myth, and makes a case for why scholars may want to consider the franchise as a means of “lowering the stakes” when discussing controversial issues like violence, good/evil, and morality (9). 

The first two chapters of the book both make use of Joseph Campbell’s monomyth. In Chapter 1, “The More Things Change: Historical and Political Context and The Force Awakens,” John C. Lyden argues that while A New Hope (1977) and The Force Awakens are, at their core, very similar films, the way fans receive them is vastly different due to changes in society and politics. Lyden explains that both liberals and conservatives read their own politics and current events into A New Hope, and that while the same may be true of The Force Awakens, its moral ambiguity points to a larger shift in political climate. 

Chapter 2, “The Brightest Shadow: From Fighting Darkness to Seeking It,” by Lindsey Macumber, explores Darth Vader and Kylo Ren in terms of their relationship to Campbell’s shadow archetype. In one of the clearest and most concise chapters, Macumber provides a definition of the shadow archetype and its function in myth, arguing that confronting the shadow is a necessary part of growth for characters and viewers. The author explains that Darth Vader once served this purpose, but that in The Force Awakens, Kylo Ren fails to fit the archetype. Macumber ends the chapter by connecting Ren to current culture, noting that his arc provides an opportunity for audiences to navigate contemporary situations “where the evil of […] real life villains is not the result of principle or conviction, but of reactionary impulsivity” (45).

The next two chapters both address gender and female representation in Star Wars. One of the standout chapters, “’Leia the Hutt Slayer’ and ‘Rey the Next Generation Badass Boss Bitch’: Heroism, Gender, and Fan Appreciation,” argues that calling Rey the first female hero in Star Wars discounts Leia’s contributions to the saga. Chris Klassen uses Campbell’s definition of heroism and Valerie Estelle Frankel’s “heroine’s journey” as the framework to analyze Rey and Leia’s contributions to the Star Wars narrative. She argues that Rey and Leia are both heroes in different ways, with Rey representing Campbell’s hero and Leia representing Frankel’s. Rey follows a journey similar to Luke’s, positioning her both as a role-model and a target for derision from fans who believe she should not be placed in the same role as male characters. Leia wields a different kind of power through her leadership and political acumen, positioning her closer to Frankel’s Great Mother figure. Both characters, Klassen argues, serve to broaden the definition of heroism. Chapter 4, “I’ve Heard That Somewhere Before: The Myth-Making Implications of Han and Leia’s Theme,” by Kutter Callaway, analyzes the use of music in The Force Awakens, focusing on the leitmotif of “Han and Leia’s Theme.” The chapter addresses the complicated function of gender in Star Wars, and Callaway asserts that the franchise has always been as much, if not more, about the women characters than the men. Callaway argues that the use of the “Han and Leia Theme” in the controversial The Force Awakens hug scene between Leia and Rey helps to shift the franchise in that direction.

The fifth and sixth chapters focus on race in the Star Wars saga and the Expanded Universe. Chapter 5, “The Racism Awakens,” attempts to spark a dialogue about racism in Star Wars. Daniel White Hodge and Joseph Boston begin the chapter by summarizing the complicated relationship between Hollywood and race, defining the Black character tropes most common in films, and then applying them to Finn in The Force Awakens. According to Hodge and Boston, on the surface, Finn’s character represents a positive change in the Star Wars franchise, but upon examination, Finn and other Black characters fall into several of the Black character tropes and are products of hyper-tokenization. The authors contend that the lack of representation in Star Wars, paired with the racially charged fan response to characters like Finn, reveal deep issues within the franchise. Chapter 6, “Do or Do Not: There is No Try: Race, Rhetoric, and Diversity in the Star Wars Universe,” compares identity and representation of race in The Force Awakens and the Star Wars Expanded Universe. Joshua Call explores Finn’s portrayal, noting similar issues of agency and tokenization as the previous chapter. He juxtaposes these issues with the “normalization of diversity” in the game Knights of the Old Republic, arguing that the games provide a space for fans to see themselves in the Star Wars universe (102).

The final three chapters center on canon and fan communities. Chapter 7, “Ritual, Repetition, and the Responsibility of Relaying the Myth,” focuses on George Lucas’s complicated relationship with his films and their fans. Justin Mullis defines fans as “those who consume media and who are actively and willingly consumed by it,” and explains that the Star Wars fandom is not the first to conflict with the creators (109). He charts Lucas’s many revisions of the films which led to his rejection by fans and asserts that part of the success of The Force Awakens was due to the sense of comfort and familiarity created by its similarities to the original film. 

Chapter 8, “Memory, History, and Forgetting in Star Wars Fandom,” focuses on the collapse of the Expanded Universe after Disney’s purchase of the Star Wars franchise and George Lucas’s multiple film revisions. Using theories from the “first generation of fan studies,” Syed Adnan Hussain argues that when Lucas or Disney imposed new rules on the canon, rather than erasing part of the fandom’s collective memory, the moves created splinter factions, not unlike those that arise in major religions (136). Hussain asserts that understanding these various traditions of fandom is essential to truly understanding Star Wars fandom. 

In Chapter 9, “The Ion Canon Will Fire Several Shots to Make Sure Any Enemy Ships Will be Out of Your Flight Path: Canonization, Tribal Theologians, and Imaginary World Building,” Kenneth Mackendrick argues that Star Wars provides a means of understanding canonization in a religious context. He argues that canonization relies on the interpretation of an authoritative interpreter and then allows for world building through cooperation by fans. 

As an edited collection, The Myth Awakens flows together seamlessly thanks to the chapter organization, overlap in critical approaches, and overall tone. The approaches to gender, race, and fandom can easily be applied to topics outside of Star Wars, making this an excellent collection for emerging scholars and university libraries.

Review of Heller’s Strange Stars: David Bowie, Pop Music, and the Decade Sci-Fi Exploded

Review of Strange Stars: David Bowie, Pop Music, and the Decade Sci-Fi Exploded by Jason Heller

Nathaniel Williams

Jason Heller. Strange Stars: David Bowie, Pop Music, and the Decade Sci-Fi Exploded. Melville House, 2018. Hardcover. 254 pp. $26.99. ISBN 9781612196978.

Jason Heller’s Strange Stars: David Bowie, Pop Music, and the Decade Sci-Fi Exploded covers the synergy between science fiction and popular music during the 1970s, and it comes at an important point in SF history. More on that last bit later. First, let me cover a few representative factoids the book presents:

  • David Jones—before changing his last name to Bowie and penning the song “Starman”—read Robert Heinlein voraciously, including the author’s 1953 juvenile novel coincidentally(?) titled Starman Jones
  • Pre-teen Jimi Hendrix was such an SF-media fan he insisted on being called “Buster,” after Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon serial star, Buster Crabbe.
  • The Byrds loved Arthur C. Clarke and composed their song “Space Odyssey” when they learned that would be the title of a film adaptation of Clarke’s “The Sentinel.” 
  • A 1968 song mocking American astronauts, Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band’s “I’m the Urban Spaceman,” was produced by “Apollo C. Vermouth,” a pseudonym that hid its actual producers–the Beatles’ Paul McCartney and Gus Dudgeon, who went on to produce Bowie’s “Space Oddity.” 

These insights are from just the first 14 pages of Strange Stars, and it’s a fair accounting of the rest of the book’s contents. About every third page offers some remarkable, obscure fact about science fiction touching rock history or vice versa. Readers fascinated by such moments will have a blast reading Strange Stars.

But Heller’s book is more than just a cornucopia of hipster trivia. It’s a compelling, comprehensive work that invites us rethink two of the twentieth century’s most influential pop cultural creations. Heller skillfully uses David Bowie’s career as a through line, which prevents the book from simply becoming a list of neat coincidences. Moreover, he focuses exclusively on the 1970s, which may disappoint readers interested in more recent SF/pop artists, but nevertheless provides the book a much-needed focus. The 1970s gave us both Devo’s Island of Dr. Moreau (1896)-inspired album Are We Not Men? and Meco’s Star Wars-inspired disco music; Heller joins these dissimilar stories into an intelligent whole.

The highlights you’d expect are here: Michael Moorcock collaborates with the band Hawkwind; Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land (1961) inspires David Crosby’s ode to threesomes, “Triad”; Paul Kantner and Jefferson Starship get a 1971 Hugo nomination for their concept album Blows Against the Empire; etc. Heller, however, also covers many lesser-known acts, such as the synth band Lem (named for Solaris author Stanislaw) and French group Heldon, who composed an entire album inspired by Frank Herbert’s Dune (1965). Heller also recognizes heroines like Nona Hendryx, who used her interest in SF to influence the song content and fashion design of funk band Labelle. 

Bowie—who inspired many SF-related bands, praised them in the press, and hired their members as backing musicians—ties to the book’s chronological structure and its thesis. He enters the 1970s known primarily for “Space Oddity,” the quintessential SF subject-matter song. He quickly assumes his Ziggy Stardust persona, embodying the science-fiction character on his eponymous album. He ends the 1970s having left behind Ziggy’s overtly sf narrative lyrics (“I’m a space invader”!) in favor of synthesizer-driven, atmospheric albums like Low (1977), a whole different kind of otherworldliness. Heller states, “Like his new friends in Kraftwerk, [Bowie] had come to eschew singing about science fiction. Instead he was science fiction” (148). This figures into Heller’s argument that there are really several strains of science fiction music. One is primarily narrative (think Rush’s 1976 album 2112). Another appropriates SF’s imagery (think guitar/starships on Boston’s album covers). Artists who encompass all those strains—like Bowie, Gary Numan, and P-Funk’s George Clinton, who built from Sun Ra’s Afrofuturist template—deservedly get the most coverage from Heller. 

It’s not perfect. Direct artistic influences can be notoriously hard to prove. Heller relies on “likely inspired,” “plausibly,” and similar phrases a little too often, although he’s admirably honest when a perceived influence isn’t 100% verifiable. His consistent use of “sci-fi” rather than SF may frustrate grumpier scholars. My only other quibble is the book’s index; a work that drops this many names needs a more complete one. 

Strange Stars offers a canon of SF music and also beckons readers to seek out older SF that influenced musicians. Heller includes a discography of major SF-related songs at the book’s end that will satisfy audiophiles. Just as interesting, however, are moments when specific works pop up more than once. Heller reveals that Moorcook’s novel The Fireclown (1965) inspired musical tributes by both Pink Floyd and Blue Öyster Cult. Maybe it’s time to (re)read The Fireclown? Similarly, Heller recounts how Philp José Farmer’s 1957 novel Night of Light brought the term “purplish haze” to Jimi Hendrix’s attention, and how Kantner used Eric Frank Russell’s The Wasp (1957) for inspiration. There’s a whole, neglected sub-canon of 50s and 60s SF that inspired musicians. Instructors who regularly teach New Wave-era SF could conceivably look to Strange Stars for new syllabus material. 

Finally, the SF community needed a book like Strange Stars. In 2013, we lost Paul Williams, the Philip K. Dick scholar and founder/editor of Crawdaddy!, one of rock journalism’s earliest major periodicals. David Hartwell (to whom the book is dedicated) began his career writing for Crawdaddy! and became one of SF’s leading editors before his death in 2016. The individuals who were at Ground Zero for the SF/rock ‘n’ roll explosion—who loved both phenomena and understood their interconnectedness at a cellular level—are leaving us. Spurred on by those deaths, as well as Bowie’s in 2016, Heller understands that these stories needed to be documented while their sources still live. Some of the book’s more rushed moments seem attributable to this sense of urgency. Strange Stars probably isn’t for every science fiction scholar or fan, but for anyone who cares about SF’s conversation with twentieth-century pop culture, it’s indispensable.

Review of Drew Magary’s Portal B (a teleportation love story)

Review of Portal B (a teleportation love story) by Drew Magary

Jonathan P. Lewis

Drew Magary. Point B (a teleportation love story). Independently Published, 2020. 461 pp. Paperback. $13.99. ISBN 9798637737680.

Drew Magary’s voice in his SF novels The Postmortal, The Hike, and now Point B, remains steadfastly blunt: he hammers and harrows his characters and his readers with to-the-point prose and blistering dialogue. He recently told me that “there’s a LOT of dialogue in Point B, because I had written a couple of novels already that were more spare in dialogue and wanted to go the other way. Dialogue is a blast to write.” Coming from the sports blogosphere into popular SF, Magary follows the long tradition in his fiction of posing interesting questions about the possibilities of technological revolution, and then measuring the fall-out of such novums as the end of disease and instant travel through space-time.

Magary, formerly of Deadspin, GQ, and other outlets, now writes for GEN, Medium’s cultural magazine, Vice, and SFGate where he can hurl bile at the inequities and cruelty of our contemporary world. But ultimately, Magary is a humanist in the Vonnegut tradition, looking at how bad actors will always pursue money and power at any cost to human lives, and Point B is a strong novel for the strange times we find ourselves in. 

Because of breakthroughs in “anti-hydrogen,” the novel tells us, people can use their smartphones to instantly teleport from nearly anywhere on Earth to nearly anywhere else on Earth—China, e.g. has locked down the country and so there is no access in or out—but while the tourism business booms for popular destinations, whole industries such as car manufacturing and airline travel have completely tanked. Global climate change is solved because who needs to burn fossil fuels to move about? Whole cities such as Cleveland are abandoned for who needs to live in Cleveland when work opportunities are everywhere and anywhere—temporary housing is easy to come by and travel costs are negated.

Point B follows the adventures of 17 year old Anna Huff as she enters Druskin, an elite preparatory school in New Hampshire. An accomplished diver and pianist, Huff is awarded a full scholarship to the school and finds herself rooming with the daughter and half-sister of the novel’s respective antagonists, Emilia and Jason Kirsh. Huff becomes quickly enamored of Lara Kirsh, but Lara leaves Druskin after just a few days after the girls are caught in a late-night swimming excursion in the on-campus river. Finding friends in two boys named Burton and Bamert, Huff tries to survive her time in detention as a test subject for Jason Kirsh’s attempts to broaden transportation weight-limits from 2 kilograms to 3 in teleportation. Kirsh is a sociopath who, Anna learns, tortured her sister into suicide by using secret teleportation protocols to stalk Sarah.

Point B has a great deal to say about stalking, sovereignty, security, and other techniques of domination in our seemingly always connected world and much of it should give us pause. Magary’s best moments in The Postmortal and The Hike asked us to consider the Faustian bargains we make every day in the name of convenience and connectivity and of life without disease or introspection that can rob us of real meaning. In Point B, when a boy dies on Everest because he can port near the summit without any mountaineering experience, most in the novel’s world take it as a dumb stunt gone awry—the thrill seeker getting his just deserts. But Magary takes it a step further, looking at how the boy’s death leaves a hole in his family and how his mother’s quest for truth leads her to be, the novel suggests, another of Jason Kirsh’s victims who asked too many questions of the purveyors of so-called easy happiness and infinite, instant, once-in-a-lifetime experiences.

Point B also asks us to consider the impact and limits of education—especially elite educational state apparatuses—in creating responsible citizens when anyone, can step past the old velvet ropes and create Insta-stories formerly only available to the ultra-rich and powerful. How will the powerful set up new boundaries to keep the plebes out? Why spend time in a school when nearly anywhere in the world can be seen and experienced first-hand and what will those who run such powerful institutions as Druskin do to keep their privilege? For the novel, the answer is nearly anything—the Kirshes, mother and son, donate huge amounts of money to the school to buy access not just to power but to control how the powerful continue to exist at all. Magary further uses that cliché of prep school life, the monied dandy with a drinking problem at 17 because Daddy doesn’t love him, to look at the toxic values institutions like Druskin can promote and sustain. (For the record, I also went to a New England prep school and knew a few Bamerts who bounced from school to school with fine minds who only used them to scheme their way into securing alcohol and hiding their Kodiak addictions because why bother studying when the path to financial success was already set in stone through family connections?)

Overall, I recommend Point B and am surprised that Penguin, Magary’s publisher for The Hike and The Postmortal, passed on the novel. It’s a good diversion in these trying times, and like the best of mainstream SF, has a great deal more to say than celebrating a novum like teleportation and what it might offer to us.

Review of Ford and Mitchell’s Apocalyptic Visions in 21st Century Films

Review of Apocalyptic Visions in 21st Century Films by Elizabeth A. Ford and Deborah C. Mitchell

Michele Braun

Elizabeth A. Ford and Deborah C. Mitchell. Apocalyptic Visions in 21st Century Films. McFarland, 2018. Paperback. 237 pp. $49.95. ISBN 9781476672731.

Introducing Apocalyptic Visions in 21st Century Film, Elizabeth Ford and Deborah Mitchell contextualize their study by hypothesizing that the “American bedrock shifted” (2) after September 11, 2001 and that human beings process reality, fear and angst through art. The central premise is that 9/11 introduced new apocalyptic themes into filmmaking. This cultural contextualization offers potential as a unifying theme within the volume, but, disappointingly, its application is uneven across the chapters that follow. 

The first chapter, “Envisioning the Apocalypse,” states it will address some of the texts that do not fit in the remainder of the volume. It describes apocalyptic film as grounded in a climate change-induced fear of tsunamis, zombie-infected cities, and the contrast between the loveliness of ordinary life and the desolation of post-apocalyptic landscapes. It reads as an attempt to use filmic features, like special effects, setting, and light and color, to lay the book’s groundwork, though it never explicitly says so. 

Another organizing chapter, “Hollywood’s Doomsday-Prepper Backpacks” suggests that apocalyptic film produces character types such as the Apocalyptic Denier, the Unselfish Pragmatist, the Romantic Moralist, the Lotus Eater, and the Fetishist, by drawing from Neville Shute’s 1953 On the Beach and its 1959 film adaptation. The reader expects these to serve as models for 21st century apocalyptic film, but is instead offered additional types, which leaves one wondering the purpose of establishing the On the Beach reference.

The bulk of the book’s remaining chapters chronicle the post 9/11 effect on subgenres of apocalyptic narrative. Young adult film is rife with apocalyptic imagery, and the analysis of WALL-E‘s (2008) social commentary and warning is insightful as it focuses on narrative, in the chapter “Coming of Age in Post-Apocalyptic Worlds.” The post-apocalyptic landscape of WALL-E contrasts with the optimism and joy that WALL-E extracts from his work and encounter with Eve, producing a film that suggests it’s not too late to reconnect with each other and prevent apocalypse by environmental disaster. 

“Speaking to Them, Speaking to Us” traces the changing social context for two iconic apocalyptic films: War of the Worlds (2003) and The Day the Earth Stood Still (2008). The authors argue that the isolationist, survivalist approach of Ray Ferrier (Tom Cruise) in Spielberg’s War of the Worlds is an analog for the fearful response post 9/11 to arm oneself and only worry about oneself and one’s family. This contrasts with the final chapter of the volume, “The New Superhero Dynamic,” which suggests that the upsurge of superhero movies in the last two decades reflects a turn to community and cooperation as a means of saving us from irresponsible leadership, fragmented communities, and social problems like poverty, racism, and crime in a post-911 landscape. It’s difficult to reconcile these two approaches to apocalypse, and the fantastical nature of the superhero genre would suggest it is idealistic while the isolationist approach is the more realistically viable one. 

The answer to why “Why Super 8 Can’t be E.T.” lies firmly in the thesis of the book: that 9/11 changed the collective American imagination of apocalypse and our attitudes towards aliens (and alien encounters). A friendly and harmless E.T. is replaced in Super 8 (2011) by an alien treated by the military like a high-value terrorist. The introduction of “terrorist” into the American lexicon after 9/11 transforms the alien from curious lost traveller to threat. This chapter does lead nicely into the next, “The Difficulty of Framing a Real Apocalypse,” though the exploration of film that directly references 9/11 oddly pairs Stephen Daldry’s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close (2011) with Martin Scorsese’s Hugo (2011), using trauma to link the fatherless children at the center of each narrative. The parallels between the texts are numerous (as critics have already noted), though the traumatic connection is about parental loss rather than experience of apocalypse per se and thus is limited in its contribution. 

The brief discussion of Warm Bodies (2013) at the end of “The Apocalyptic Landscape of Love” explores the hope inherent in R’s gradually reawakening heart, suggesting that a zombie apocalypse does not need to be the end. The hopeful ending of the other texts analyzed in the chapter, the Twilight films and Beautiful Creatures (2013), however, is a result of individual triumph over evil, which creates an apocalypse of two, which is more limited than the usual conception of apocalypse as an event that destroys whole civilizations.

This liberal reimagination of apocalypse continues in the next chapter. While the authors admit that the films discussed in “Emmerich’s Apocalyptic Visions of Shakespeare” may not be obviously apocalyptic, they explain that Emmerich’s Anonymous (2011), which suggests that Shakespeare didn’t write the plays and poems credited to him, reflects the dystopian ethos of the 21st century, an age of questioning everything. They draw parallels between the contested identity of Shakespeare as presented in Anonymous and the birther movement in the U.S. that sought to discredit Barack Obama’s presidency by contesting his nationality, though how either fictional or real contested identity is apocalyptic is not made clear. 

There are some excellent insights into 21st century American films in this volume that make it worth reading. However, the connection of these texts to each other and to apocalypse is often tenuous. The challenge with linking 9/11 and apocalypse is that together they inscribe only a small slice of an overlapping Venn diagram whose totality is much larger. Additionally, the repeated references to the home state of the authors (Ohio) and their country provide local examples for a global thesis about 21st century apocalypse. The nature of this relationship between the local and the global is never clear, and one gets the sense that many of the chapters may have stood better on their own than forced into a book with a theme of apocalyptic film.

Review of Nancy Kress’s Sea Change

Review of Sea Change by Nancy Kress

Jeremy Brett

Nancy Kress. Sea Change. Tachyon, 2020. Paperback. 191 pp. $15.95. ISBN 9781616963316.

It’s a singular book that begins with a runaway self-driving house, and Nancy Kress has mastered the art of the opening line. Sea Change begins with the words “The house was clearly lost.” It’s a funny, yet at the same time jarring, line that instantly tells the reader that something has clearly shifted in the world. And so it has. Kress gives us a United States where normal life is increasingly rare as the effects of climate change and man-made environmental collapse encroach more and more on society. Of course, in our age of climate change this is not groundbreaking in itself, but Kress puts a unique spin on it by avoiding a simple “Us (environmentalists) vs. Them (the government, or Big Business, or terrorists)”. Instead, in Sea Change Kress presents a bio-thriller with a multifaceted setting in which environmental groups battle the government but also compete amongst themselves with different agendas and tactics. The tendency of humanity to fracture runs deep through Kress’s book; however, just as strong is humanity’s endurance in the face of catastrophe. As protagonist Renata notes:

Most of all, I felt fear. Not for myself but for the organization that always hovered between detection and ineptitude, the organization made of dedicated amateurs up against both law-enforcement professionals and a stupid public, the organization that I would protect with everything in the world until we’d succeeded in our quixotic attempt to save that—probably unworthy—world from itself, whether it wanted that or not.

Sometimes the world doesn’t know what’s best for it.


Climate change fiction faces unique challenges. It’s easy and even seductive to simply write an apocalyptic dystopia where we’re all going to die and where humans in the last days of civilization carve out meager or desperate existences by feeding on others. That kind of dark pessimism has run through science fiction since its beginnings, carrying into the Cold War with its numberless tales of nuclear holocaust through the environmental disasters chronicled by Brunner and Harrison, into today’s endless, increasingly tiresome zombie apocalypses. However, writers like Kress are also finding a space in their climate change fiction for hope. We need hope, if we are to survive the existential and psychological crisis that climate change represents. We need stories in which humanity actively works to slow or repair the damage it has caused. We need them so very desperately, and as readers we are fortunate enough to have a cadre of hopeful authors such as Kim Stanley Robinson, Kelly Robson, L.X. Beckett, Neil Stephenson, and others who chronicle our drive to be better, to do better, to fix what we have broken. 

Sea Change is such a work, wrapped in the fabric of a well-paced biothriller. Kress chronicles a world suffering in the aftermath of “the Catastrophe”: a widespread drug is infected by a genetically modified bacterium that picks up a lethal gene; hundreds of children die as a result. In the aftermath, worldwide protests—many of them violent—against genetically modified organisms (GMOs) cause deaths, widespread economic collapse, and government overstrain and neglect. In Kress’s new world, GMOs are outlawed, their ban heavily enforced by the US government (through a powerful new Department of Agricultural Security), with the result that massive food shortages are endemic. And underground organizations fight back. Renata is a member of the Org, a resistance group working, as she says, “to restore genetic engineering to a country that had rejected it, and so feed the United States and the world as climate change, desertification, and rising seas changed the face of the globe” (71). One of the ways the Org fights back is through a covert, fragmented network of isolated farms that use engineered crops. It’s an unusual resistance strategy and one of the things that makes Kress’s book so unique. 

Quiet, determined resistance is the hallmark of Sea Change (although the book certainly has its share of more dramatic actions, much of it hinted at or appearing ‘offscreen’, as it were). Renata moves forward in the face of unspeakable personal tragedy, including the death of a child, caused ultimately by effects of climate change. She and her compatriots operate an underground group, that seeks to change the world, not violently, but rather through the distribution of scientific achievement and accurate information. They operate with a hopeful belief that change is possible.

Near the end of the novel, following a massive pro-GMO information dump across cyberspace by different environmental groups, Renata notes that “seeds had been planted, and the harvest of changed perceptions might grow” (183). Here is Kress’s optimism, here is the hope that people can change their minds for the better, that they can overcome their fears and their distrust to make a potentially better future. This is not easy; Kress expertly and simply delineates what a society permeated by fear and suspicion looks like, and it is not an easy one to escape. But recall that the term ‘sea change’, taken from Shakespeare’s The Tempest, denotes a substantial change in one’s perceptions. If the change comes, as the Catastrophe did, it must be large-scale and it must produce a long-lasting alteration in people’s behavior. The future of the Earth demands it. Sea Change is a welcome addition to the growing subgenre of climate change fiction that bursts with hope. If nothing else, if we ignored Kress’s clever worldbuilding and her engaging characterizations, that belief in hope makes it worthy.