Review of Devs, season 1 (2020, TV Series)

Review of Devs, season 1 (2020, TV Series)

Miguel Sebastián-Martín

Devs. Dir. Alex Garland. Hulu, 5 March 2020.

Distributed by Hulu, Devs is an 8-episode, single-season series that has been written and directed by Alex Garland, already known for writing and directing SF films Ex Machina (2014) and Annihilation (2018). As a TV series, Devs is understandably more detailed and lengthier in its narrative development than Garland’s cinematic works, but it also shares some of their contemplative-minded design and pace. Throughout its roughly 8-hours total runtime, Devs is wholly set between the city of San Francisco and the nearby R&D campus of Amaya, a high-tech capitalist Leviathan in the likes of Silicon-Valley companies such as Apple, Alphabet or Facebook. The series mainly focuses on the character of Lily Chan (Sonoya Mizuno), a talented computer engineer at Amaya who lives with her co-worker and romantic partner, Sergei Pavlov (Karl Glusman). In the first episode, Sergei is misleadingly presented as the protagonist, and we follow him as he joins Devs, the company’s top-secret development program; however, upon his attempt to leak information, Amaya’s head of security, Kenton (Zach Grenier), assassinates him by direct order of Forest (Nick Offerman), Amaya’s owner. Thus, throughout the rest of the series, we follow Lily’s arduous search for answers and her ultimate arrival into the Devs facility—a spy-movie-like storyline that is interspersed with Forest’s and his staff’s progress with the Devs programme. 

On the whole, Devs raises a range of socio-philosophical questions, from specific dilemmas posed by the rise of surveillance capitalism, all the way to a grander pondering of the (im)possibility of free will in a seemingly overdetermined universe. Nonetheless, Devs also seems to be a site of numerous ideological ambiguities—which are not necessarily flaws, but rather provocative triggers for productive, deeper studies of the series. “What is Devs?” is the simple question that is constantly suggested by the series and explicitly asked by its characters, and it also seems to be the most fruitful question for potential scholarly examinations. At the diegesis’s literal level, Devs is Amaya’s grand ambition and Forest’s pet project: specifically, an ongoing, partially successful attempt at both predicting the future and recreating the past, doing so with the utmost wealth and preciseness of detail. Thus, thanks to Amaya’s select team of coders and to a powerful quantum computer, the Devs machine proves capable of recreating reality in all directions of time and space, showing its results as a literal video-on-demand stream, eventually one with sound and colour. 

On an immediate sociological level, the series appears as an anxious vision of the potential of predictive algorithmic/AI systems, which are currently the target of heavy investment by most surveillance capitalist corporations. Were these technologies capable of providing epistemic omnipotence, and were they concentrated upon the hands of such a secretive, cult-like few, would these be the consequences for our democracy and our individual freedoms? Relatedly, but on a more theological note, Devs (the Latin spelling of Deus, God) poses another set of questions, recently asked, among others, by Yuval Noah Harari’s Homo Deus: What would the so-called singularity imply for humanity? Will technological development turn us into gods, or rather, will technology itself emerge as a new, mechanical God?

In parallel to Devs’s social and religious echoes, the series is also worth examining for its reshaping of numerous SF motifs: for instance, the series presents Forest as a Silicon Valley Dr. Frankenstein, given his life-defining obsession with resurrecting his daughter Amaya through the Devs system. Devs thus re-imagines the Faustian-Promethean figure as an almighty capitalist entrepreneur, a high-tech guru of the twenty-first century. On another line of enquiry, lead character Lily and her ex-boyfriend Jamie (Jin Ha) are both constructed upon cyberorientalist stereotypes, given their racially marked, seemingly innate ability for mathematics and coding—although there is a degree of ambivalence in this. On the one hand, Lily and Jamie’s conformity to the stereotype could be said to reinforce cyberorientalism, but, on the other hand, there is a potential subversive quality to this, insofar as are Lily and Jamie dynamic, central characters, often with greater autonomy and self-awareness than their white counterparts.  

Regarding visual aesthetics, Devs seems profoundly ironic, since the Devs system, the very source of the series’ anxieties and fears, is shown as a beautifully designed, temple-like workplace—a connotation that is reinforced by the solemn, religiously themed music. The secret facility is a magnetically levitated, perfectly geometrical cube, with an organically shaped, tree-like computer at its core: a symmetrical machine, made of gold-seeming materials, with a “steampunk-ish” look. It is in this aspect that Devs seems to ironically juxtapose its dystopian discourse with a utopian-seeming, awe-provoking setting—an aspect in which it may be comparable to the ambivalent aesthetics of Zamyatin’s We.  Moreover, because of the series’ otherwise contemporary setting, it could also be argued that Devs blurs the limits of SF itself. Following Nilges’s “The Realism of Speculation” and his interpretation of Gibson’s Pattern Recognition, I would contend that Devs seems symptomatic of a certain conflation of cyberpunk and realism within the context of a highly speculative, future oriented economy.  In other words, because of the logics of contemporary surveillance capitalism, the series explores a classic cyberpunk theme—namely, the emergence of a sharply technocratic, extremely unequal society—without extrapolating towards the future, but by (so to speak) “extrapolating into” the present’s logics.

Finally, the series can also be scrutinised as an overtly self-reflexive narrative. In a medium-specific sense, the Devs machine is ostensibly cinematic, the source of an endless stream of audio-visual materials, and its designers and supervisors are its constant spectators, especially the obsessively voyeuristic and nostalgic Forest. Moreover, in a genre-specific manner, the machine is also a machine for extrapolation: it is a reflection of the very mode of fiction that imagines it, although one that, contra SF, seems to seal off the possibility of alternative futures. In these ways, Devs’s pondering of free will may be linked back to a timeless metafictional and existential question, repeatedly asked by numberless time-travel and SF narratives: can the future (and the present) be changed, or is it already predetermined?  Although this is absolutely not a new question, the series’ merit is to ask it in an entertaining televisual format which does not renounce provoking critical reflections on the power of surveillance capitalism. Hence, media and SF scholars, as well as sociologists, theologians and philosophers, could take Devs as a fruitful ground for reflection.


Gibson, William. Pattern Recognition. G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 2003.

Harari, Yuval Noah. Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow. Vintage, 2016.

Nilges, Mathias. “The Realism of Speculation. Contemporary Speculative Fiction as Immanent Critique of Finance Capitalism.” CR: The New Centennial Review, vol. 19, no. 1, 2019, pp. 37-59.

Zamyatin, Yevgeny. We. 1924. Translated by Clarence Brown, Penguin Books, 1993.

Review of Outer Wilds (2019, video game)

Review of Outer Wilds (2019, video game)

Jennifer Baker

Outer Wilds. Annapurna Interactive, 2019.

Outer Wilds is a space exploration game developed by Mobius Digital and published by Annapurna Interactive in 2019. The player character is a newly-minted astronaut who ventures from their home planet of Timber Hearth to explore the surrounding solar system. The worlds of Outer Wilds recall the rich environments of the Metroid series in their compelling combination of dynamic, physics-driven planetary activity with the environmental storytelling of the Nomai ruins, remnants of an ancient alien civilization that disappeared long before the time of the Hearthians. Players can explore black holes, translate Nomai writing to uncover bits of history, and chase down quantum singularities– until the solar system’s sun goes supernova, destroying the solar system and killing everyone in it, including the player.

This apocalyptic event reveals the central conflict of the game: the player is trapped in a 22-minute time loop that spans from the moment the player character wakes up beside a campfire on Timber Hearth to the destruction of the known universe. The beginning of each loop sets in motion a sequence of events that occur across all planets of the solar system: one planet pulls the sand off of the other in the manner of a vast hourglass, another planet falls piece by piece into a black hole, and the sun expands to consume a small space station circling its outer reaches. The player’s task is to observe and make sense of these events while searching for clues to discover how to escape the time loop, solve the mystery of the Nomai, and perhaps even prevent the end of the universe. However, even as the player is allowed to explore freely without much direction from the game, it becomes painfully clear that Outer Wilds is a cosmic on-rails narrative that the player merely moves through, an existential horror that the player can never truly prevent, but only make peace with.

Outer Wilds began as creator Alex Beachum’s Master’s Thesis at the University of Southern California. He had developed a number of planetary tech demos, small projects that model a particular game mechanic or physics simulation, but struggled to find a thread to bind them together into a coherent game. He then designed an “emotional prototype”, a project similar to a tech demo that would establish the game’s mood. Beachum set the player on a planet next to a roaring fire, where the player character would peacefully roast marshmallows until they were consumed by the nearby sun going supernova. This set the tone for the rest of the project (Cameron). According to Beachum, there were three pillars that guided the game’s design: curiosity-driven exploration, a world that changed outside of the player’s control, and a deliberate centering of the “feeling of space … a camping in space aesthetic where you still felt vulnerable” (Wallace). Beachum has since stated that the intent was to “tell a story that only a video game could tell” through elements such as environmental storytelling and limiting the player’s agency (O’Dwyer). As a video game that so self-consciously utilizes all elements of the medium to tell a speculative narrative, Outer Wilds is ideal for any number of theoretical interventions.

As a science fiction narrative told through a game medium, Outer Wilds grapples with a number of science fictional concerns that are both conveyed through and complicated by game mechanics. A reading of genre conventions, for example, suggests that Outer Wilds is a sort of space western with its banjo-heavy soundtrack, ramshackle spacecraft, and aliens in cowboy hats, but the game cleverly undercuts the self-aggrandizing and colonial positioning immanent in the genre though the player’s relative lack of agency. In a similar vein, Outer Wilds engages science fiction’s propensity for literalizing its metaphors by embodying Janet Murray’s definition of a video game, “a kind of abstract storytelling that resembles the world of common experience but compresses it in order to heighten interest” (176). In Outer Wilds, this compression is realized in planets that are small enough to be thoroughly explored by the player within the 22-minute timeframe. Another potential research intervention is Aki Järvinen’s framework for analyzing video games through emotional processes, which reveals the connection between the emotional effects of narrative and the paradox of player agency. The Rumor Mode system in Outer Wilds displays points of interest that the player has found as an interconnected web of “rumors”. This interface “embodies the unknown,” establishing curiosity as the game’s driving force and primary source of pleasure (Järvinen 103). As players sate their curiosity, however, they also must come to terms with their complete lack of agency in the universe. The more points of interest the player uncovers, the more it becomes obvious that the player is not the center of the story, but one small, insignificant piece of it. Observation is a paradox that effaces agency each time agency is exercised.

Outer Wilds is ultimately an existential project that suggests modes of meaning-making in the face of a vast and uncaring cosmos. True to the creators’ intent to create a story that could only be told through a video game, it is an exceptional example of a text that demands analysis in all aspects of video game modality, from level design to player agency and immersion, to narrative design, to visual elements. Outer Wilds is a model text for the necessity of interdisciplinarity in science fiction studies as it engages with video games as a new frontier of speculation.


Cameron, Phill. “Road to the IGF: Alex Beachum’s Outer Wilds.” Gamasutra, 27 Jan. 2015,

Järvinen, Aki, “Understanding Video Games as Emotional Experiences.” The Video Game Theory Reader 2, edited by Bernard Perron and Mark J. P. Wolf, Routledge, 2009, p. 85-108.

Murray, Janet H. Hamlet on the Holodeck: The Future of Narrative in Cyberspace. The MIT Press, 2017.

O’Dwyer, Danny. “The Making of Outer Wilds – Documentary.” YouTube, uploaded by Noclip, 1 Jan. 2020,

Wallace, Chris. “Mobius Digital on the multi-BAFTA award-winning Outer Wilds.”
MCV/DEVELOP, 3 April 2020,

Review of Economic Science Fictions

Review of Economic Science Fictions

Bruce Lindsley Rockwood

William Davies, editor, Economic Science Fictions. Goldsmiths Press, 2018. Goldsmith Press PERC Series. Hardback. 400 pg. $29.95. ISBN 9781906897680.

Economic Science Fictions is a diverse collection of essays and stories aimed at using science fiction tropes and examples to bridge the gap between conventional economic thinking and the unreliable nature of contemporary economic reality through a mixture of critical theory and unexpected, stimulating short fiction.

After a thoughtful introduction by William Davies, the book has 17 chapters by a variety of contributors divided into four Sections: (I) The Science and Fictions of the Economy; (II) Capitalist Dystopias; (III) Design for a Different Future; and (IV) Fumbling for Utopia. The goal of the collection, in the words of Mark Fisher, is to come up with “a multiplicity of alternative perspectives” for a post-capitalist society “each potentially opening up a crack into another world” (xiii).

William Davies’s introduction rehearses the history of market economics, the challenges of planned economies and socialism, the rise of neoliberalism in the late 20th century, and the impact of big data on 21st century economies and societies. He asks how we can visualize viable alternatives to money, markets, and potential ways of simply living and valuing ourselves and our communities (1-11). He is troubled by “the various innovations in the monitoring of emotion and affect that have taken off since the 1990s. These include neuroscientific representations and techniques of ‘affective computing,’ which [. . .] allow computers to detect emotion via [. . .] machine learning, monitoring of bodily movement and data capture from online communication” (11-12). He contrasts the “avant-garde modernists of Mises’ time” who believed the “future is to be imagined, invented, designed and planned” with von Mises and  his followers who thought the market and the price system should suffice to mediate between “evolving visions, ideas and tastes”(14). The problem becomes the impossibility of “wholesale transformation of society” if all of your options for the future have to be channeled into a market, governed by “consumerism plus the mathematical rationality of risk” (14). Ideas can be as constricting as institutions, and this collection of essays seeks to release some of those constraints.

Davies cites Fredric Jameson’s critique of the post-modern (16) and argues that science fiction “enables us to imagine ourselves looking back upon the present, with a critical eye. It is thereby a political resource [. . .] to see the present as amenable to conscious transformation” (16). One concern with this essay is its failure to explicitly reference examples of science fiction which could support his argument – Philip K. Dick in his reference to Prozac, powerlessness and depression (16) for example, or Kim Stanley Robinson in reference to the role of SF in addressing a “need in the face of some lack” such as that posed by climate risk (18). Davies may be setting up the theoretical interdisciplinary context for the rest of the text to explore, making oblique references to phrases (“cool hunting” or “collapse of history” and “No past other than that which has been captured as data,” all at 20).  He argues that “economics deals in all manner of things that do not exist outside the economics profession” (24) and makes the same claim for lawyers who “see their role in terms of interpreting existing rules, but far less commonly in terms of inventing new ones,” an assertion belied by the role of story in law making as well as in what he calls “partly imaginary” economic institutions (24). In short, engaging with this introduction requires a close reading but sparks many responses.

What follows in Section I is an overview of “Economics, Science Fiction, History and Comparative Studies” by Professor Ha-Joon Chang, who argues that much of neoclassical economics is already a kind of SF in two senses: it claims that economics is a pure science free of moral constraints, and that it can solve all problems if you give people the right incentives (31-32). He shows why both claims are false, first arguing that SF writers would be more effective if they had a sounder understanding of economics (34). For example, Ward Moore’s Bring the Jubilee (1953) has the  “implausible premise” that the South could have won the American Civil War, when it could not have done so given the shift in economic development to industrial development in the North (34-35). On the other hand, economists would benefit from knowing more about SF because its portrayal of alternative realities and dystopias can enable economists to “rethink the assumptions” they usually take for granted (35).

Laura Horn’s “Future Incorporated?” explores the portrayal of corporations as displacing, or merging with, nations as portrayed in SF, and their lessons for thinking about whether the future must indeed be dominated by corporate structures, citing Pohl and Kornbluth’s The Space Merchants (1952), and films or television shows such as  Blade Runner (1982) and Mr. Robot (2015-2019).  She argues that by “mobilizing utopias [. . .] of worker cooperatives” we can conceive of a “future that does not necessarily have to be incorporated” (42). These may be “post-scarcity Star Trek fashion,” “non-capitalist utopian visions” such as Ursula Le Guin’s The Dispossessed (1974), or the “co-operative economic organization” in Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars trilogy (49-54).

In “Currencies of Social Organization: The Future of Money,” Sherryl Vint explores the varieties of currencies deployed in SF, such as poscreds  in Philip K. Dick’s Ubik (1969), gold-pressed latinum valued by the Ferengi on Star Trek, or the “reputation-based currency of the whuffie in Cory Doctorow’s Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom (2003)” (59). The world uses money, but no one is exactly sure what it is, how it works, or how tokens of value are supported. Vint argues that “as a genre that defamiliarises the present by exaggerating it into an imagined future, science fiction can serve a vital role in reminding us that money is a social technology, not a thing,” citing Andrew Niccol’s film In Time (2009) as an example, where “the unit of account is simply time” (63). Time becomes “capital” that the rich accumulate and the poor cannot acquire, showing the “fundamental injustice” of the economic system (64-65). She draws a parallel to the impact of austerity imposed by the IMF on the debt burdened world, calling for a cancellation of debt like the “Biblical Law of the Jubilee” (68-72).  

The fourth essay is a close reading by Brian Williams of Robert Heinlein’s The Moon is a Harsh Mistress (1966), “Automating Economic Revolution” (73-92). Utopian ideas of an automated, workless future with a guaranteed basic income in a decarbonized world are both “tropes of science fiction as potential signposts for a future economics” and unlikely to be realized if the future is seen as on “lockdown” with all options “subsumed by neoliberal strategies” (74). Citing Fredric Jameson’s comment that “it is easier to imagine the end of the world than to imagine the end of capitalism” (75), Williams explores how economic change could be “automated” and “create utopia in the midst of [. . .] depression” (76) and argues that Heinlein’s novel demonstrates how this can be accomplished, relying on the centralized computer AI personality of Mike, who creates the blueprint for revolution that the prison colonists on the Moon are able to implement with Mike’s help (77-92). The “revolutionary cell group” with Mike as its center (almost like a god) is one version of how automated revolution could occur (80). Williams shows parallels in Heinlein’s novel to Norbert Wiener’s cybernetics similar to the concept of “performative economics” seen in the Black-Scholes-Merton model of options trading’s impact on the economy (81), and explores the role of computers in enabling high frequency trading (HFT), the rise of derivatives, options and collateralized debt obligations (CDOs) (87-92), all of which had unfortunate consequences for humanity in the financial crisis of 2007-2010.

Section II (“Capitalist Dystopias”) includes Carina Brand’s exploration in “Feeding Like a Parasite” of the “dystopian, expansionary drive of capitalism” through the concept of “extraction,” including the harvesting of our digital data to “extract value from us during the full 24-hour day” (103). Next are two fictional pieces, one by the artists’ collective AUDINT called “Pain Camp Economics” which hypothesizes a world in which corporations and nations are merged to address scarcity of resources by creating a currency based on human pain, followed by Khairani Barokka’s story “AT392-Red” (139-146) in which a case study of an arson investigation explores how an inhuman scheme of “Biodiversity Credits” to ration and allocate disability benefits might be implemented and the resistance it would provoke. Davies suggests that this is a satire of the UK’s “punitive welfare reforms brought in under austerity” (94), but it could equally apply to attempts to restrict social security disability in the Trump administration, or the abuse of carbon offset credits to excuse continued carbon pollution by industrial nations. Nora O Murchú’s “The New Black” shows the depressing impact of “post-Fordist work” (94) where there are no boundaries between life and work, the passage of time is seized by management, and life is consumed by overtime and compliance with the system.

Dan G. Brady and James Pockson, writing as PostRational, conclude this section with a faux consultancy report: “Fatberg and the Sinkholes: A Report on the Findings of a Journey into the United Regions of England.” Fatberg represents London, from which the rest of England has seceded to form the United Regions (URE), and the essay compares the concentration of wealth in London, where things “are going well. [. ..] Productivity and the economy are booming. Disrupt, capitalize, optimise, repeat” (167) with the more diffuse, cooperative and low-tech style of life that has evolved in the regions under the rubric of “absorbism.” The premise is that the URE were exhausted and exploited by diversion of wealth to London, and developed an “interest in resilience, not growth” (176). Looking at infrastructure, architecture, and personal relations, the essay highlights the contrast between the individualism implicit in capitalism with the cooperative decision-making of absorbism: “Absorbism means withstanding shock, a person is a member who forms relationships” (198).

Section III, “Design for a Different Future,” begins with an illustrated historical piece by Owen Hatherley, “Prefabricating Communism: Mass Production and the Soviet City” (207-235). Next is Mark R. Johnson’s essay “Megastructures, Superweapons and Global Architecture in SF Computer Games” with examples from games Halo, Half-Life, Killzone and Mass Effect. Johnson argues that “in game constructions [. . .] are serving as the site for experimenting with possible techno-economic futures [. . .]” (238). The games all posit megastructures left behind by a long departed super race, and they appear to rely largely on assumed techno-science solutions, abundance of resources in post-scarcity societies, or slave labor, none of which provides a plausible setting for actual possible futures. Focusing on games, the essay overlooks the classic example of Larry Niven’s Ringworld (1970) and its sequels in the Known Space universe, though it does acknowledge the appearance of megastructures in the Star Wars and Star Trek franchises (252). The games create “entire worlds to be experienced by viewers and players” (255), and are both time-sinks and a source of fun. But it is implausible to think that they can provide insight into actual solutions for the here and now on Earth. Indeed, the proliferation of data miners and gold farming on-line in China and other developing countries to raise real-world cash, the tricks of some to curtail this by inserting “Free Taiwan” into data streams, and the political reaction to some game content on streaming sites shows that the impact of gaming may simply be to reinforce the existing system.

The two remaining essays in this Section focus on using design methods for thinking about “alternative economic paradigms” (Bastien Kerspem) and using speculative design to reimagine “economic life and realization of utopian plans” (Tobias Revell (206). The latter cites the history of SF exploring diverse economic conditions, from Star Trek’s “post-scarcity” to Margaret Atwood’s free market in Oryx and Crake (2003) or the “calorie economics” of Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Windup Girl (2009) (281). It reviews a variety of projects aimed at challenging the underlying assumptions in designed objects, and suggests “changes in social, economic or cultural conditions” that can then be reflected in newly “designed material objects” and “challenge and disrupt” the assumed “techno-utopia” in objects as they exist today (282-283).

Section IV concludes with four distinct approaches for considering how to work towards utopias. Tim Jackson’s very personal essay, “Shooting the Bridge: Liminality and the End of Capitalism,” explores the question of transformation from older more physically demanding modes of transport and exploration to the faster, more technological present by narrating a sailing trip with his children where it is imperative to drop sail and lower the mast at just the right point of tide to be able to get through the low arch of a Medieval bridge and cross the threshold to what lies beyond. His journey  explores the concept of the liminal as a “fertile one in understanding [. . .] transitions of a social as well as a personal nature.[ . . .] [W]hat happens as one social order begins to break down and before another is established” (301). 

Anthropologist Judy Thorne creates a narrative based on interviews with students “struggling with day-to-day” realities who express both their concerns and their hopes for a better world (311). Miriam A. Cherry presents an alternative history of England’s Luddite movement during the early 19th century and proposes how it might have led to a more cooperative, non-violent and creative future leading us to an earlier expansion into space.  

Jo Walton concludes the volume with the story “Public Money and Democracy,” which portrays a world where fake news is a given despite passage of the “I said, I’M SORRY” law (342); a free-lance journalist named Laing covers monetary policy reform with a commitment to evidence, and the government is seeking to control the money supply for its militaristic purposes. Preferable policy options are demonized and government gets the policy (and news coverage) it wants. An alternative more democratic monetary policy is designed as a hobby by Laing’s friend Abiodun (an eternal intern) that supports a more hopeful future, through the design of “indie markets” he puts “up on KickMarket” as he “designs whole regional economies […] [and] makes up churning cities where everyone can be welcome and fed and safe, and wise and healthy and happy and free”(348). Walton concludes with a pitch for “Positive Money,” including the idea that when the Bank of England (or any central bank) creates new money, rather than channeling it through the usual banking institutions, it simply deposit it in individuals’ accounts to use as they please, or give to charity. The only rule is it must be spent or given away within a certain time, to bolster the economy (357), but creating currency this way would be more democratic and socially beneficial. The various ways nations are responding to the COVID-19 virus economic downturn reflect competing choices of this sort.

The book ends without a summing up or concluding essay by the editor. There is an index, and sources are well documented in footnotes, but there is no bibliography. The mixture of serious scholarship and unusual, intriguing and sometimes whimsical fiction and design theory makes for a pastiche or bricolage effect on the reader who will bear with the dense theoretical introductory material. It is aimed in part at getting economists to think about using science fiction to broaden their minds, and getting SF fans and authors to be more thoughtful as they design plausible and livable future worlds for their stories. I recommend this for library collections, editors and scholars, and in light of the current crisis, perhaps even for the general reader of SF.

Review of Thrills Untapped: Neglected Horror, Science Fiction and Fantasy Films, 1928-1936

Review of Thrills Untapped: Neglected Horror, Science Fiction and Fantasy Films, 1928-1936

Michael Pitts *

Michael R. Pitts. Thrills Untapped: Neglected Horror, Science Fiction and Fantasy Films, 1928-1936. McFarland, 2019. Paperback, 348 pg. $49.95. ISBN 9781476673516.

* Editor’s Note: The author of this review is not the same person as the author of the book under review.

Thrills Untapped draws attention to serials, documentaries, and sound era films widely overlooked in current scholarship and in this way contributes significantly to science fiction film studies. Choosing to omit evaluations of largely celebrated works such as Dracula (1931) and The Mummy (1932), Michael R. Pitts instead examines those lesser known works likely to produce new, fruitful research into early genre films of the sound era. His research therefore spans the beginning of the sound era, 1928, to the year in which the British film ban went into effect, restricting the production of horror films, 1936. As Pitts states, the goal of his volume “is to chronicle these mostly ignored movies, providing the exposure they so rightfully deserve” (1). In presenting to his audience in-depth analyses of nearly 150 mostly forgotten films spanning the horror, science fiction, and fantasy genres, he provides an invaluable resource for researchers at the intersection of film studies and science fiction studies.

A particular strength of Thrills Untapped is the expansive quality of its analyses, which move beyond simple summations and evaluations of these films. While detailing the salient elements of each film’s plot, for example, this collection presents invaluable extratextual information, including the cultural context within which each film was produced, important details related to its production, the origins of the cinematic project, its place within larger trends of the time, and popular and critical evaluations of it upon its release. In citing, for example, a review from the Philadelphia Exhibitor published soon after the release of the film upon which it focuses, The Mystery of the Marie Celeste (1935), Pitts both emphasizes the technical, editing problems of the movie and presents the response of critics at the time to these weaknesses. The film review states, “this is pretty poor. The actors are positively hammy; the recording, the photography are awful; [Bela] Lugosi is an unbelievable, silly menace, the editing leaves out whole scenes so that the story is annoyingly choppy” (177). The works making up this collection, therefore, take into consideration myriad aspects related to the production, quality, and reception of these overlooked films. In this way, they assess the value of these films and emphasize the complex, interwoven evaluations of them by earlier and contemporary critics and scholars. Such a widened focus significantly strengthens and complicates the analyses making up this text.

Still, this collection, while otherwise an invaluable overview of this era of genre film, is somewhat problematized by its parameters, which are at times vague and inconsistent. While horror, fantasy, and science fiction films receive the most attention, and the inclusion of mystery films is successfully justified according to the horror elements they possess, those works representing the “B” western and broadly defined foreign genres appear to stray from the purpose of this research project. Blue Steel (1934), a conventional western starring John Wayne, is, for example, noted as a suitable inclusion to this collection due to scenes presenting a storm, a shadow-engulfed way station, and a particularly brutal murder. The analysis of the film and the critical responses of others that are woven into the analysis present the film, however, as predominantly a western typical of this era. Its inclusion and that of other western films seems at odds, therefore, with the overall purpose of the study. 

Similarly, foreign films are included in the text, but the parameters determining their inclusion are at times vague and inconsistent. Though they, like their American counterparts, satisfy the requirement that they include “sound, be it dialogue, sound effects, or a music score,” there is no additional justification for those selected since, among these foreign features, most but not all “received United States release” (1). While a valuable overview of science fiction, horror, and fantasy films in this era, the text could therefore be strengthened by its inclusion of further foreign works or their exclusion according to such a requirement concerning a United States release. Similar also to the issue plaguing the “B” western movies analyzed, there is an inconsistency concerning some of the foreign films included. While Pandora’s Box (1929), with its dark visual elements and equally horrific plot involving Jack the Ripper, possesses qualities matching the purpose of this study, there are other foreign movies included that venture from these parameters. The inclusion of the widely influential historical film The Passion of Joan of Arc (1929), for example, departs from the stated intension of the collection since it, while including violent depictions of public execution and mob violence, does not belong to the horror genre. 

Though Thrills Untapped does, therefore, venture occasionally from its focus, it is a predominantly robust overview of overlooked horror, science fiction, and fantasy films. Besides the aforementioned depth and breadth of its analyses, the form and organization of the text provide additional strength to this publication. It is divided into five sections—preface, film analyses, appendix, bibliography, and index—that simplify efforts to locate particular films, references, and timelines. The film analyses section is organized alphabetically by movie titles, and each entry outlines key information, such as its production credits and cast members. Following this information is a summary and analysis of each movie into which is synthesized the voices of notable critics and scholars. An appendix is additionally included that lists the films in chronological order. The text contains a bibliography outlining books, periodicals, and websites germane to this research. Concluding the collection is an index listing the names of the reviewed films and individuals related to their production with corresponding numbers for the pages on which they are discussed. Ideally and logically organized, this text enables effective, timely research into its subject matter. 

Suitable for scholars focused predominantly upon horror, fantasy, and science fiction films of the early sound era, Thrills Untapped continues the work of researchers at the intersection of genre fiction and film. Seeking to emphasize the value of these early motion pictures, it includes alongside original analyses valuable and in-depth information related to the production and reception of these movies. At times, the text ventures from its stated focus and evaluates films unrelated to the identified genres. Still, in illuminating widely overlooked movies and illustrating their importance for current film and science fiction studies, it fills a current gap in research and is therefore a valuable resource for scholars working in these fields. 

Review of Desire and Empathy in Twentieth-Century Dystopian Fiction

Review of Desire and Empathy in Twentieth-Century Dystopian Fiction

Adam Heidebrink-Bruno

Thomas Horan. Desire and Empathy in Twentieth-Century Dystopian Fiction. London, UK: Palgrave Macmillan, 2018. Hardcover, 212 pp, $99.99, ISBN 9783319706740.

Thomas Horan’s study of twentieth-century dystopian fiction is a recent addition to the Palgrave Studies in Utopianism series. This collection selects academic studies based on their broad subject appeal and their importance to the long history of utopian thought. Horan’s text is no exception. In this study, Horan traces the role of desire and empathy in seven of the most popular dystopias of the twentieth-century (Jack London’s The Iron Heel [1908], Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We [1924], Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World [1932], Katherine Burdekin’s Swastika Night [1937], Ayn Rand’s Anthem [1938], George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four [1949], and Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale [1985]) to make sense of a key narrative trope that appears in all seven novels; namely, why does sexual desire always precede political subversion? 

In each of the novels Horan examines, two characters meet, express unsanctioned desire for one another, and ultimately engage in some sort of illicit sexual activity. The sexual liaisons take place between a revolutionary thinker and a docile member of the totalitarian state resulting in the political awakening of the orthodox character. After seeing this literary trope appear time and again, Horan argues that sexual desire is “an aspect of the self that can never be fully appropriated by the totalitarian state” (1). Accordingly, Horan recognizes that sexual desire has a powerful political role. As he explains, desire serves as an effective means of political subversion that motivates resistance, humanizes the opposition, and produces empathy for people in situations vastly different than one’s own. Among the dystopian backdrops of the narratives in Horan’s study, desire is the only force strong enough to resist the allure of losing oneself to the false promises of totalitarianism.

Discussing the illicit sexual relationships in twentieth-century dystopia is not new. After all, the relationship between Winston and Julia in Nineteen-Eighty-Four, for instance, is one of the most recognizable displays of unsanctioned desire in the English literary canon, and dozens of articles have been published on the significance of their relationship. Moreover, according to Horan’s own research, arguments about desire and resistance in twentieth-century dystopian novels date back over a century to a time when the contemporaries of Jack London and Yevgeny Zamyatin contemplated the role of subversive desire in The Iron Heel and We, respectively. 

Given the prolific and lasting interest in the subject, Horan’s most difficult task in this study is making room for his contribution in a field that is already saturated with arguments about dystopia and desire. He accomplishes this not by adding something entirely new to any one specific novel, but rather by synthesizing the immense body of scholarship already published on the subject and comparing the details and nuances of sexual desire across some of the most iconic relationships in the genre. Horan approaches the study comparatively. While each chapter is purportedly about one novel, it never quite seems that way. At key moments in each chapter, Horan looks back at relationships he investigated earlier in the study to draw out connections and then gestures toward the relationships appearing in subsequent chapters. As a result, readers of this study will not only acquire a strong understanding of desire in seven specific dystopias, but also walk away with knowledge of how they all fit together as a genre convention.

The study’s broad, comparative approach also makes this text a remarkable introduction to these seven important novels. Despite the focus on desire and empathy in the book’s title, the study goes into great depth on topics as disparate as genre conventions, totalitarian politics, and religious rhetoric. As Horan is also the editor of critical editions of Nineteen Eighty-Four and Animal Farm (1945), perhaps his survey of key themes is unsurprising. Nevertheless, this approach results in a thematic study of desire and empathy that also serves as a general overview of the major discussions surrounding these popular dystopias, making individual chapters from this study valuable for many students of dystopian literature.

Horan’s meticulously comparative approach in an already saturated field has some limits, as well. The study’s heavy investment in secondary scholarship detracts from the author’s own reading of the texts and makes his argument feel marginal or even insignificant at times. In many chapters, Horan doesn’t assert his own position on the use of illicit sexual desire in the novel until the very end of the discussion, summarizing the voices and arguments of previous scholars much more thoroughly than advancing his own. The majority of quotations Horan includes in the study, for example, are from secondary sources rather than the novels under investigation. While this strengthens his claims about the genre’s use of desire, it also restricts his ability to make definitive claims about the texts individually and makes it difficult for individuals unacquainted with the secondary scholarship to follow the thread of his argument.

The central value of this study is in Horan’s ability to build connections between a wide range of dystopian texts. The variety of novels examined in the study allows readers to see how twentieth-century authors employed desire in a variety of ways depending on their own political position. Scholars rarely have the chance to see an author as conservative as Ayn Rand situated as part of the same tradition as Aldous Huxley or Margaret Atwood, and yet there is much to learn about how desire functions across political differences by reading these texts together. Moveover, the inclusion of both male and female authors as well as discussions about heterosexual and homosexual desire makes this study a valuable asset to feminist and queer scholars interested in dystopian literature. 

In the end, Horan does contribute something new about dystopia and desire despite the abundance of scholarship already available on the subject, but it doesn’t come from reading individual novels. Instead—much like the political awakenings in the novels themselves—this new understanding of the genre emerges from the surprising and sometimes troubling relationships between these seven authors. Alone, each of these authors envisions a totalitarian nightmare. But together, as Horan explains, they paint a more hopeful picture: one that speaks to the power of desire to create empathy and inspire action across profound ideological differences.

Review of Alternate Worlds: The Illustrated History of Science Fiction

Review of Alternate Worlds: The Illustrated History of Science Fiction

Donald M. Hassler

James Gunn.  Alternate Worlds: The Illustrated History of Science Fiction. Third Edition. McFarland, 2018. Paperback, 336 pages, $49.95, ISBN 9781476673530.

Back in 1976 when the master James Gunn won two major awards for the first edition of this work with its Introduction by Isaac Asimov, vision and youth and optimism ruled in the genre. Star Trek was fresh in our heads with all of its visuals and color. Asimov was working at the top of his creativity and was beginning to speculate autobiographically about “golden ages” that were coming to a close for all of us. Large picture books of the colorful, pulp genre were selling, so Gunn provided one. Just at the same moment, of course, with John Clute and Peter Nicholls working on the SF Encyclopedia (1979) and with Neil Barron’s first edition of The Anatomy of Wonder (1976), the detail and the systematic accuracy in reference books increased to a new level for this literature.  But the Gunn “illustrated history” was history with vision and purpose; it expressed the enthusiasm and sheer love for SF. There was a second edition that I failed to notice and, now, this handsome third edition. Much is still the same, but much has changed. 

In the short space available here, I will describe what I see as changes as well as the ruling Vision and Purpose. In chapter one of both editions, Gunn uses the phrase “science fiction and the world.” The phrase is Romantic and purposeful, and the Gunn vision and sense of purpose fit well with the trending Asimov focus in his career, his obsessive sense of self and its awareness of Golden Age potentials. Expansive heroism and the youthful loneliness of real adventure that become muted a bit in the many years between the first edition and the third edition can be seen represented even in the cover art for the two books. On the 1975 cover, we see a classic and lonely rocket resting on its tail fins. The resting point seems to be one of the moons of Mars, with the huge red planet looming before it and dominating half of the cover in its lonely redness. The Third Edition cover shows a complex and populated space station in orbit above Earth or some similar planet that sports clouds, indicating water, and varied colors, maybe Gethen even, but certainly not the Romantic emptiness of mysterious Mars. In the latter, I sense the presence of much greater complexity and dystopia, but more on that below when I get to the text in the book, as well as more on the sense of predatory competition in the genre. The latter notion seems to be ignored by the gentlemanly Gunn. But basically, I think, he is a hard fighter in his work who hopes to survive in the not-so-visionary Darwinian competition.

Even though he has been dead now for more than half the interval of time between the First Edition and this Third Edition, Asimov still provides Gunn with the laudatory Introduction to his Vision history—an early sign of Gunn’s Romantic denial of the possible predatory nature of death. The text has not been changed, of course. Gunn and Asimov have always seemed to me somewhat of an “odd couple,” even though Gunn did write an early study of Asimov’s work that was published by Oxford University Press (1982).  But the men, about the same age, came from very different backgrounds. The males in Gunn’s family were printers and hawkers of short pulps of the classics called “blue books” throughout the Midwest (see his own autobiography, Star-Begotten: A Life Lived in Science Fiction, 2017). Asimov was a New York fan who grew into the genre as part of the Futurians and by writing fan letters to the pulps of the thirties. Asimov learned his craft in this way and by talking with Campbell. What they shared was the great Romantic vision of the expanding “American” potential for speculative and adventure storytelling. His Introduction in both editions I have before me is actually one of his autobiographical pieces about the meaning to him of SF—“a love affair.” He wrote this for Gunn a bit after his anthology Before the Golden Age (1974) and while he was working on his massive autobiography, the first volume of which appeared as In Memory Yet Green (1979). Note the rich color image in the Asimov title—so Romantic, so much Vision. The two editions of the Gunn history are rich in color.

For the practical use as reference books, however, the color and vision may often serve as a mirage. In both his original conception and, especially, in the later editions, Gunn seems to me a little cavalier in his handling of the details of black and white fact, and these moves relate to his Vision. The actual text writing does resemble the verve and energy we read in Billion Year Spree (1973) by Brian Aldiss. That book is a history, of course, coming a little before Gunn, and Gunn does mention it. But the important hard historical and research work done especially by Clute and Nicholls and by Neil Barron that Gunn was immediately competing with in his own historical work simply is absent from this Third Edition. Gunn had done his own “Encyclopedia” shortly after the Clute and Nicholls work appeared in 1979, and the Gunn efforts had been completely “eaten up” by the success of Clute and Nicholls that now has become a huge database. In fact, this is the hard, predatory world of competition that does not fit well with the youthful energy and vision that both Gunn and Asimov believe in; the wonderful color and pictures hold the Vision. It is a vision we still believe in, and we are delighted to hold and admire this more compact but still lovely Third Edition. The work of James Gunn over his 97 some years of believing is, indeed, inspiring. But even his editorial choices, it seems to me, indicate a somewhat less Romantic scenario that also drives our work. We are grateful for all that the literature of science fiction gives us, both in hard detail and in Vision, even if the Vision itself must be a little predatory in ignoring its competition.

Review of “The Sweet and the Bitter”: Death and Dying in J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings

Review of “The Sweet and the Bitter”: Death and Dying in J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings

Dominick Grace

Amy Amendt-Raduege. “The Sweet and the Bitter”: Death and Dying in J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. Kent State University Press, 2018. Paperback, x + 160 pages, $30.00. ISBN 9781606353059.

Amy Amendt-Raduege’s slim volume takes as its impetus the fact (supported by numerous sources cited by Amendt-Raduege) that those facing the risk or even the imminence of death, such as soldiers in combat zones or the terminally ill, seem to find J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings a text that helps them deal with their impending mortality. Her overt agenda is to argue that the novel “works like an ars moriendi—a guide to the art of dying well” (3), thereby filling an important need in this secular age in which such guides have largely fallen by the wayside. Divided into five chapters, the book deals with the good death in chapter one, “The Wages of Heroism”; the bad (though not necessarily irredeemable) death in chapter two, “The Bitter End”; the memorialization of the dead, via both literary and physical markers, in chapter three, “Songs and Stones”; the significance of ghosts and revenants in chapter four, “”Haunting the Dead”; and finally with how Tolkien’s overall treatment of death acquires applicability (thereby adopting Tolkien’s preferred term, in place of allegory, when readers attempted to find hidden meaning in his work) for the twentieth- and twenty-first-century reader, in the concluding chapter, “Applicability: ‘Hope without Guarantee.’”

Despite its brevity, the book is well-grounded in Tolkien scholarship and in an understanding of relevant historical and literary antecedents for Tolkien’s treatment of death. Amendt-Raduege uses not only Tolkien’s texts (though she sticks primarily to The Lord of the Rings, she often draws in relevant passages from other works) but also the knowledge of history and literary history that clearly informs Tolkien’s writing. Though some readers will no doubt already have some idea of the debts Tolkien owes to Anglo-Saxon, Icelandic, Norse, medieval English, and other literary/cultural sources and inspirations, Amendt-Raguege adds to our understanding of the importance of these antecedents thanks to her tight focus on how Tolkien’s representations of death and the trappings of death are often rooted in such materials. 

While different readers might find different interventions most useful, for me the most insightful chapters were three and four, which document and analyze Tolkien’s treatment of burial customs across the different cultures of Middle-earth, and how, especially, the restless dead—encountered in the Barrow Downs, the Paths of the Dead (significantly, themselves beneath the mountain Dwimorberg, a Tolkienian neologism that Amendt-Raduege argues persuasively has etymological links with “barrow”), and the Dead Marsh. Chapters one and two cover four significant “good” deaths—those of Théoden, Gandalf (acknowledging that her challenge here is significant, since wizards rarely are accorded noble ends—and in any event, Gandalf, unlike the others, is resurrected), Aragorn and, problematically, Boromir, whose “good” death is tainted by the corruption that precedes it—and that precipitates the breaking of the Fellowship—and, in parallel, four significant “bad” deaths—those of Denethor, Gollum, Saruman, and Grìma Wormtongue. While the structure is not schematic, Amendt-Raduege not only reminds us of the obvious pairings—Théoden/Denethor, Gandalf/Saruman—but also offers up intriguing intimations of ways to see the deaths of Gollum and Grìma in relation to the good deaths, as well. Notably, she makes a tempting, if not entirely convincing, case for Gollum as redeemable. Chapters three and four, however, do more to explore new (or at any rate less-frequently-travelled) territory.

Amendt-Raduege’s exploration of the death and burial customs of the Elves, Dwarfs, and humans (which vary from culture to culture) offers useful insights into the sorts of cultures Tolkien imagines them as being, with their conceptions of and relationships to death revealing (or at least suggesting) significant aspects of their self-conceptions and preoccupations. Especially illuminating is her consideration of the contrast between Rohan and Gondor in this regard. Though she reiterates at least once too often that the way death is hidden away and suppressed in Gondor can be tied back to the Nùmenorean ancestry of the people of Gondor (indeed, despite its brevity this book would have benefitted from some tightening and closer editing), her exploration of Middle-earth’s human cultures and of what death means to them is, for me, the most useful aspect of the book. Aragorn excepted, it would seem, the people of the West have forgotten the ars moriendi, whereas the Rohirrim have not.

Amendt-Raguege’s focus on The Lord of the Rings as ars moriendi does lead her (perhaps unsurprisingly) into ideologically-grounded assumptions about death and its meaning. Insofar as Tolkien was a Catholic, and despite leaving out almost entirely (Amendt-Raduege notes one significant exception, Tolkien’s invocation of the idea of heathenism) anything smacking of explicit or even implicit Christian allegory in the text, his own beliefs clearly informed much of the novel, and one can easily find Christian “applicability” (if not allegory) in the text—most overtly, of course, in Gandalf’s death and resurrection. Tolkien’s underlying point, Amendt-Raduege argues, is that one can face death best only when one faces it with hope, without guarantee, that death is not the end. Tolkien may have believed this (and indeed, believing it for the soldiers and terminally ill who find comfort in the book may be useful for them), but at times the book seems to cross the line between analyzing Tolkien’s ideology and  (implicitly, at least) endorsing it. Her assertion, for instance, that “[d]eath is only meaningful if life is sacred” (111-12) seems to represent a given for this text, rather than simply a given for Tolkien’s text. I am inclined to think her argument might have been stronger, or at any rate less tendentious, if it interrogated rather than simply accepting such a view. Nevertheless, this book is clearly-written (if under-edited), accessible, and insightful. It is probably of more value to the student than the scholar of Tolkien, but scholars will find much of use here, as well. 

Review of Girls on Fire: Transformative Heroines in Young Adult Dystopian Literature

Review of Girls on Fire: Transformative Heroines in Young Adult Dystopian Literature

Kelly J. Drumright

Sarah Hentges. Girls on Fire: Transformative Heroines in Young Adult Dystopian Literature. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2018. Paperback, 290 pages, $39.95, ISBN 9780786499281.

With Girls on Fire: Transformative Heroines in Young Adult Dystopian Literature, Sarah Hentges offers a panoramic view of the literary archetype (turned multi-media cultural phenomenon) exemplified by Katniss Everdeen, the “girl on fire” protagonist of Suzanne Collins’s Hunger Games trilogy. Hentges challenges common critiques of YA dystopia as one-dimensional and escapist by emphasizing the complexity of the author’s worldbuilding and the protagonists’ struggles for social justice. Girls on Fire builds on some of the ideas articulated in the edited volume Female Rebellion in Young Adult Dystopian Fiction (Routledge, 2016) as well as scholarship about the Hunger Games, with the important difference of centering the voices of more marginalized writers.  

Despite the section’s name, those looking for a theoretical deep-dive into young adult dystopia as a genre will not find it in “Part I: Excavating Theories and Legacies,” but Girls on Fire has many other strengths. For one, Hentges commits to an interdisciplinary and intersectional critical framework that includes American Studies, Cultural Studies, Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies. Additionally, Hentges excels at taxonomizing the formidable corpus of 140+ primary texts, illustrating connections between series with diagrams she calls “dystopia trees” (249), which help readers visualize the influences of the Girl on Fire (roots), the core texts (trunk), and the proliferation of diverse examples (branches and leaves).  

While a helpful chart in the introduction provides an overview of the Girl on Fire’s most salient characteristics, it is not until “Part II: Excavating Fiction, Imagination and Application,” that Hentges unpacks the titular archetype more fully in the textual analyses that form the volume’s core. With the exception of sections on the Hunger Games trilogy and Octavia Butler’s oeuvre as precursor to the Girl on Fire archetype, Hentges carries out the analysis point-by-point. This approach has its advantages— namely, illuminating trends and highlighting connections between a massive corpus of texts— but necessarily sacrifices in-depth explorations of a single character, text, or series. Standout sections such as the discussion of white supremacy’s pervasive influence on YA dystopia in Chapter 6, “Othered Girls Towards Intersectional Futures,” provide important reminders for other scholars and students to question “assumptions of whiteness” (8). Ultimately, Hentges has opted for the approach that most closely fits her final goal: to describe an archetype, mining the richness of its myriad iterations for insights into our present cultural moment. 

One of the most refreshing aspects of Girls on Fire is Hentges’s candid self-identification as a fangirl: “Fangirling shapes my relationship to this literature as a teacher, a scholar, and a critic” (75). Readers yearning for the distant, antiseptic tone that often characterizes literary scholarship will be disappointed by Girls on Fire. Rather, Hentges’s dynamic voice, optimism, and transparent appreciation coupled with critique honor the characters she describes as “compelling and hopeful subjects” (3). In this way, form follows content, as Hentges argues that any textual analysis of YA dystopia is incomplete if it willfully ignores the affective dimension that makes these books so engrossing. 

Hentges knowingly positions herself as a fan regardless of the possible pitfalls attendant in doing so, admitting that “Fangirls can be too close to our subject, but we can also provide insights that a reader without a passion for the texts might not” (75). Girls on Fire certainly benefits from Hentges’s enthusiasm; after all, successfully wrangling a massive corpus into an accessible volume of scholarly critique requires passion and tenacity. To my mind, however, Hentges’s proximity to the subject holds the book back in two ways. First, Hentges’s encyclopedic knowledge can manifest in the tendency to list examples as support for claims, resulting in a frenzied pace that can leave the reader feeling unmoored. Furthermore, because of the thematic structure of her analysis and the extensive corpus, these examples often require a brief plot synopsis that interrupts the argument’s rhythm. Secondly, Hentges sometimes revels in the exception— extensively analyzing outstanding books or characters that transgress the genre’s norms— while her critiques of certain thornier trends (e.g., the focus on romance, heteronormativity), which she rightly identifies as central to YA dystopia, remain relatively superficial. However, these elements are not enough to discount the important contributions of the ambitious project that is Girls on Fire

Accessing this book’s content demands familiarity with the genre of YA dystopia, not expertise; even superficial knowledge gleaned from a casual viewing of the Hunger Games film adaptations will suffice. The volume is accessible to audiences inside and outside of academe, although readers less familiar with the genre may find themselves in one of two positions: either overwhelmed by the scope of the project’s primary corpus or invigorated by their growing TBR (to-be-read) lists. Fortunately for her readers, Hentges has included a rather unorthodox “Appendix 2: Something Like a Rating System,” in which she shares “brief sketches of [her] ‘likes’ and ‘dislikes’ of these books as well as some of the main elements” (249). 

Most importantly, Girls on Fire is a goldmine for educators. With her literary analysis, Hentges models how to engage popular texts with intersectionality at the fore, and these sections would make accessible readings for undergraduate students. Readers will notice that the book is structured with pedagogy in mind, moving from theory and methodology to application via textual analysis, and finally, to the classroom and beyond. In Chapter 7, Hentges generously shares resources such as “action projects” that challenge students to apply their knowledge outside of the classroom (209-214). Although the “action projects” Hentges details are tailored to YA dystopia, they could easily transfer to other fields. As educators, we would do well to follow Hentges’s example when she states, “I have always encouraged my students to critique the thing they most love” (75). Girls on Fire certainly provides many tools and examples of how to do so.

Review of Other Worlds: Spirituality and the Search for Invisible Dimensions

Review of Other Worlds: Spirituality and the Search for Invisible Dimensions

Aga J. Drenda

Christopher G. White. Other Worlds: Spirituality and the Search for Invisible Dimensions. Harvard UP, 2018. Hardback. 384 pg. $35.00, ISBN 9780674984295.

In Other Worlds: Spirituality and the Search for Invisible Dimensions Christopher G. White explores the history and imaginative power of the idea that the universe has higher, invisible dimensions. To accomplish his goal, White assembles an unusual cast of characters: visionary mathematicians, fantasy writers like George MacDonald and C. S. Lewis, mystical physicists, spirit channelers, television producers, hippie scientists, New Age prophets, social reformers, indefatigable parapsychologists, and artists like Max Weber (3). White argues that the diversity of this group is dictated by the desire to make a larger point about science and religion, which are often seen as implacable enemies. He posits that scientific and religious ideas come braided together and influence each other to a degree that has gone unnoticed, and he strives to address it (13). 

White treats the idea of the invisible dimensions historically and structures his book accordingly. He begins with the mid-nineteenth century mathematical discoveries of the idea of the fourth dimension and moves through the evolution of the idea across various disciplines until the modern day. This historical approach to the subject makes the structure of the book easy to navigate, especially as chapters are also thematically focused on areas of interest. For example, chapter one is focused on Edwin Abbott’s life and career, with special attention paid to Flatland (1884), a text that has become a classic for scholars of science fiction, students of mathematics, and spiritual seekers alike. Chapter two discusses the turbulent career and private life of Charles Howard Hinton, the inventor of the four-dimensional cube called “tesseract.” The ideas fleshed out in these two chapters are fundamental to the rest of the book, because White traces and refers to them consistently in every chapter that follows. Abbott’s allegory of the world existing only on a two-dimensional plane and Hinton’s conceptualisation of the “tesseract” serve as two points of reference throughout the history of invisible dimensions. These points create a referential springboard which White applies to move seamlessly between chapters, from one discipline to another, one time period to another. The example of the transition between chapter four and five illustrates it well. White devotes chapter four to a detailed analysis of the life and work of an architect Claude Bragdon, a man described by his contemporaries as fully as great an architect as Frank Lloyd Wright but lacking Wright’s talent for self-promotion (108). Bragdon incorporated higher-dimensional philosophy in architecture by designing hypercubes and other objects into otherworldly ornamentation. By showing the links between Abbott’s and Hinton’s ideas and Bragdon’s work in the early twentieth century, White sets up a transition to chapter five, in which the same ideas are highlighted throughout the art of the period. In chapter five the main area of interest is the evolution of impressionism into cubism and the life and work of Russian-born American painter Max Weber. The philosophy of invisible dimensions is a consistent lens through which White shows the last two centuries to his readers.    

My only criticism of Other Worlds is that in his analysis of many famous literary works, such as C. S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia (1950-1956) and Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time (1962), White rarely engages with the abundant literary scholarship produced on the works so far, but rather focuses on the bibliographies and philosophical views of the authors. In this, however, White remains true to his analytical lens of invisible dimensions. When discussing genre literature, White also remains true to his speciality. As a professor of religion, he is interested in how the mythopoeic nature of genre literature influences belief. He argues that “the lesson of modern Christian fantasy and sci-fi is not just that belief takes practice but that objects of belief have to be made believable again for new generations” (228). 

Other Worlds is a generous hardback, as it offers over 300 pages of material, along with bibliographical notes, credits, and a useful index at the end, all of which enhance the reading experience. It is a valuable resource for those interested in the intersection of science and religion. Scholars and students, fans and creators, specialists in science fiction, fantasy, popular culture and art will be able to find something of interest in this volume. Its historical structure offers the story of invisible dimensions and encourages the reader to treat the book as one would treat a work of fiction. However, the chapters are so diverse and holistic in their internal structure that they can easily stand up to selective reading. I can imagine chapters from this book being used selectively as reading material for a variety of teaching modules. A science fiction scholar might, in the words of L’Engle, “tesser with joy” through a selection of short stories analysed by White (242), such as Algernon Blackwood’s “Victim of Higher Space” (1914), Robert Heinlein’s “And He Built a Crooked House” (1941), William McGivern’s “Doorway of Vanishing Men” (1941), and Mark Clifton’s “Star, Bright” (1952), to name only a few. Other Worlds achieves its goal of delineating how the scientific idea of a higher dimension has spread across popular culture. More importantly, in an impressive feat of scholarship spanning across several disciplines, White manages to revise the conventional way of writing about the modern “conflict between science and religion” by showing how scientific insights were used sometimes not to attack spiritual beliefs but to buttress them in unexpected ways (3).

Review of None of This Is Normal: The Fiction of Jeff VanderMeer

Review of None of This Is Normal: The Fiction of Jeff VanderMeer

Thomas Connolly

Benjamin Robertson. None of This Is Normal: The Fiction of Jeff VanderMeer. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 2018. Paperback, 208 pages, $19.95, ISBN 9781517902933.

Despite his long-standing critical and (following the publication of the Southern Reach trilogy) commercial success, scholarly attention to Jeff VanderMeer has so far been rather scant on the ground. None of This Is Normal comprises the first book-length study of VanderMeer’s weird fiction—Robertson notes in his introduction that, at the time of publication, there were only two other scholarly articles on VanderMeer’s fiction, both published in the same issue of Paradoxa.

This relative paucity of scholarly publications on VanderMeer is surprising: anyone who has attended a recent conference on a theme related to SF or fantasy will be aware of the popularity of, and evident critical consideration given to, VanderMeer’s fiction. (Indeed, Robertson acknowledges this unusual imbalance.) This attention forms part of a wider scholarly interest in the political, literary, and philosophical ramifications of the “new weird,” a literary genre which has proved to be both nebulous and subversive in its literary aims. Whereas the original weird, à la Lovecraft and M.R. James, sought to dramatize the insufficiency of human reason in the face of an indifferent and incomprehensible universe, the new weird, according to Robertson, stresses not indifference but abdifference, the rejection of difference altogether as a viable category for grappling with the challenges of the Anthropocene.

Such is the political impetus of Robertson’s work, which comprises both a study of VanderMeer’s fiction and an impassioned call for new modes of thinking that move beyond the humanist tenets of liberalism, environmentalism, and representationalist literary criticism. The political urgency behind Robertson’s work is evident from the first page of the introduction, in which Robertson paints a grim picture of the spiralling political chaos—Brexit, Trump, the resurgence of right-wing xenophobic nationalism—of recent years. “None of this,” Robertson remarks, borrowing a phrase from VanderMeer, “is normal” (2). Even liberalism, he later argues, is not free from the taint of humanist preconceptions, since such ideological worldviews are underpinned by the assumption that all differences can be collapsed into a fundamental sameness, an “inside opposed to an outside” (140). Such an inside, Robertson remarks, is defined by arbitrary borders that delimit nothing so much as the incapacity of the human mind to exist without such comforting constructs.

The political value of weird and new weird fiction, then, lies in its ability to think outside such delimiting conceptions. Such works demonstrate “the possibility of other norms” (2) that may move us beyond the humanist tenets of western thought. This is achieved, Robertson argues, through the creation of what he repeatedly calls “fantastic materialities” (10 etc.), a key concept underpinning the study. One of the most profound insights of Robertson’s work is also perhaps the simplest: that all texts, and all narratives, rely on materiality, which conditions all “patterns and modes of thought” (8). The question that VanderMeer poses in his fictions, according to Robertson, is likewise a relatively simple one: “How does this entanglement of materiality, subjectivity, situation and norms operate when the first term in this list is wholly other—when it is a separate or secondary materiality, a fantastic materiality?” (8).

Robertson’s study here owes an intellectual debt to the recent “materialist turn” in critical theory, and in particular to the notion of “cultural geology” developed by Mark McGurl. Cultural geology aims at “crack[ing] open the carapace of human self-concern, exposing it to the idea, and maybe even the fact, of its external ontological preconditions, its ground” (McGurl 380). This “ground” can be understood, quite literally, as the ground, the fact of human material dependence on a planet that does not obey human laws. As Robertson puts it in a compelling passage, “[no] amount of power to declare borders will forestall the inert force of a nonliving geos” (142), and so there is an evident need to engage critically with the actually-existing fact of material conditions. This need informs the shape of Robertson’s study: following an initial chapter outlining these theoretical and material frameworks, each subsequent chapter examines one of VanderMeer’s fantastic materialities: the Veniss milieu, the Ambergris novels, and the Southern Reach trilogy. In each chapter, Robertson strives to demonstrate how VanderMeer’s works must be understood as offering “other norms” (2)—ways of thinking and being conditioned by materialities radically other to the familiar materialities of the world of author and reader.

Considering the Veniss stories, Robertson critically examines the concept of setting, and the manner in which this concept “makes meaning by drawing boundaries around heres and nows,” and thus reconstitutes space and time within the limited parameters of human meaning (56). The Veniss stories, in contrast, comprise not a setting but a “milieu,” an unbounded and discontinuous collection of spaces and times that do not cohere into a recognisable whole. For Robertson, this milieu invokes—without, importantly, allegorising—the experience of living in the Anthropocene, itself a material milieu that refuses to be collapsed down to human-centred frames of reference.

Regarding the Ambergris stories, Robertson turns to look at how the textuality of these novels, which deploy the self-referential techniques of postmodernist writing, invokes a materiality that such techniques often serve to deny or subvert. Robertson highlights how sections of City of Saints and Madmen, for example, require the reader to decode numerical sequences that refer to specific paragraphs and sentences earlier in the text. The textual meaning here depends on the physical materiality of the book itself—a “materiotextualisation” which, because it neither claims nor denies the possibility of representing the “real” world, avoids the pitfalls of both realist and postmodernist fiction (108). Ambergris is a secondary fantastic world whose material laws are created and conditioned by the very textuality of the Ambergris texts—impossibilities and contradictions occur in Ambergris, Robertson argues, precisely “because that can happen in books” (108). The novels thus confront the reader with a textuality not separate from, but fundamentally constitutive of, a fantastic materiality.

In the final section, Robertson turns to the Southern Reach trilogy, and to the question of borders mentioned above. The achievement of this trilogy, he argues, lies in its creation of a world without borders. Area X offers an example of a “weird planet,” a material geos whose relationship to humanity can never be known, since to know such a thing would require the very act of bordering (defining a limited time and space in which to examine causes and effects) that Area X resists. Area X is not indifferent to humanity, as are the “Great Old Ones” of older weird fiction, but abdifferent, that is, existing “outside” (to use an insufficient spatial metaphor) the limits of humanist thought demarcated by such notions as “same” and “different.” There is no “away” from Area X, Robertson argues, because it is already everywhere. To paraphrase Roger Luckhurst (quoted by Robertson), Area X does not “breach” the ordinary world—“It is (in) Breach” (114). The relevance of such fantastic materialities to the condition of humanity in the Anthropocene is clear: Area X is a “materiality ignorant of the rules by which humans measure themselves and their productions” (142).

Following a discussion of Borne in the conclusion, Robertson ends the volume with the following: “VanderMeer teaches us that even if the production of such fictions will not save us, they may show us the planet saving itself” (158). If this seems like a rather pessimistic note on which to end, it perhaps reflects a broader pessimism regarding the capacity for humanity to actually deal with the challenge of the Anthropocene—how does one confront a problem that transcends even the possibility of setting, or of bordering? This is not a question that Robertson answers, nor would it be fair to expect such an answer—the value of Robertson’s study is rather to be found in the manner in which it frames the issue. The “problem” of the Anthropocene, he notes in the conclusion, is only a problem within a humanist paradigm that recognises the relevance of such concepts as “problems” and “solutions.” It is likely that much of humanity (and Robertson is at pains to stress the particular vulnerability of certain human groups—and the culpability of others—in this regard) will very soon find themselves confronted with a much different paradigm, one that, like Area X, will remain ignorant of human attempts to understand or control it.

Robertson’s work provides us with a much-needed critical vocabulary for engaging with these and other challenges of the Anthropocene. For this reason, and for Robertson’s intelligent and thought-provoking readings of VanderMeer’s fiction, None of This Is Normal is required reading for those looking to better understand the new materialist paradigms with which we are—or are soon to be—confronted.


McGurl, Mark. “The New Cultural Geology.” Twentieth Century Literature, vol. 57, no. 3/4, Fall/Winter 2011, pp. 380-390.