Review of Star Trek and the British Age of Sail: The Maritime Influence Throughout the Series and Films

Review of Star Trek and the British Age of Sail: The Maritime Influence Throughout the Series and Films

Russell Alexander Stepp

Stefan Rabitsch. Star Trek and the British Age of Sail: The Maritime Influence Throughout the Series and Films. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2019. Paperback, 279 pg. $45.00, ISBN 97814766-64637. EBook ISBN 9781476634197.

Since 1966, the Star Trek franchise has made significant contributions to popular culture, spanning six television series, one animated television series, thirteen full-length motion pictures, and numerous novels, comics, video games, and other media tie-ins. The franchise has frequently been described as “Wagon Train to the stars,” stemming from shared themes and a format with the television program Wagon Train, which follows the adventures of settlers in the American West during the nineteenth century as they travel from Missouri to California. The program was popular in the fifties and sixties just prior to the original Star Trek’s premiere on NBC in the fall of 1966. Wagon Train, like Star Trek, was episodic in nature, each week’s program taking place in a new location as the settlers moved West followed by a new location in the next week’s episode.

While much has been made of Star Trek’s connection to the genre Western and the mythos of the westward expansion of the United States, very little has been made of the franchise connections to a shared Anglo-American naval tradition. Stefan Rabitsch, in his book Star Trek and the British Age of Sail: The Maritime Influence Throughout the Series and Films, seeks to right that omission. This book is the first major publication to argue that Star Trek owes as much of its legacy to a trans-Atlantic naval tradition as it does to the American Western. It would be just as accurate, if not more so, to state that Star Trek is as much “Horatio Hornblower in space” as it is “Wagon Train to the stars.” The volume itself is divided into two major sections: “Elementary, Dear Trekker (A Primer)” consisting of three chapters, and “Rule, Britannia! Britannia Rules Outer Space in Star Trek! (A Voyage),” four chapters. The volume also includes a shorter preface, introduction, and conclusion, and an impressive bibliography and extensive endnotes.

Rabitsch’s approach is principally literary, rather than historical, and oriented in a post-colonial approach. He centers his argument on, but does not limit it to, C.S. Forester’s Horatio Hornblower novels, a series of novels centered on the career of a British naval officer in the Age of Sail, particularly during the Napoleonic wars. The novels were published between the late nineteen-thirties and mid-sixties, and thus were very much part of popular culture at the time that Star Trek was released. These novels were set at the height of British imperial power, and, as they were hugely popular on both sides of the Atlantic, tap into American interest into its own historical colonization and growing awareness of its increasing prominence on the world stage, as well as British notions of empire during the Age of Sail. Forester’s Hornblower was a combination of skilled strategist, charismatic leader, dedicated naturalist, and caring friend—the prototype for a Starfleet captain.

The author’s focus on Forester and his literary works should, in no way, be taken as a lack of intellectual rigor or scholarly attention. Rabitsch not only shows fluency in critical theory, but has also clearly mastered several literary corpora, which he has incorporated into his book. To begin with, Rabitsch is intimately familiar with the bulk of the Prime timeline in the Star Trek franchise consisting of the first five live-action series, the animated series, and the first ten theatrical films. He largely excludes Star Trek: Discovery, as the series was in its infancy at the time the volume was being prepared for publication, and the Kelvin timeline (i.e. the J.J. Abrams films). When necessary, Rabitsch also incorporates production notes and other archival texts related to the production and development of the franchise. His knowledge of Forester’s Hornblower corpus, as well as the life and writings of Horatio Nelson and James Cook, nineteenth century British naval officers on whom the character of Hornblower was largely based, is equally impressive. Furthermore, Rabitsch manages to interweave these various threads into his prose to create a compelling argument, frequently presenting an idea from Forester of historical accounts of the British navy, followed by a methodical analysis of the same point in each of the Star Trek series. The depth of Rabitsch’s analysis gives his work a feeling of completeness and elevates his argument that “Hornblower in space” is a much better description of the franchise than “Wagon Train to the stars.”

This is not to say that Rabitsch’s analysis is above reproach. At times, the author seems to be so concerned with his postcolonial analysis, in which he compares the Federation and Starfleet to British and American colonialism, that he ignores conflicting evidence that would undermine that narrative. This is particularly evident when it comes to Star Trek: Enterprise, which depicts a time in franchise history in which Earth was not among the more influential planets, prior to the foundation of the Federation. With this said, Star Trek and the British Age of Sail deserves praise for the quality of content, the depth of research, and the clarity of thought, and should be of value to any academic interested in the history of the Star Trek franchise.

Review of M Archive: After the End of the World

SFRA Review, vol. 51, no. 1

Nonfiction Reviews

Review of M Archive: After the End of the World

Sarah Heidebrink-Bruno

Alexis Pauline Gumbs. M Archive: After the End of the World. Durham, North Carolina: Duke UP, 2018. Paperback, 248 pg. $24.95, ISBN 978-0822370840.

Alexis Pauline Gumbs’s M Archive is the second installment in a planned trilogy that explores a speculative future landscape, ravaged by the effects of late capitalism, environmental devastation, and the exploitation of black and brown bodies. In the introduction, Gumbs credits M. Jacqui Alexander’s Pedagogies of Crossing (2006) as a literary ancestor to M Archive. For Gumbs, the “M” in M Archive has a multitude of meanings—including magic, muscles, memory, and importantly, more. She describes her text as a “speculative documentary” (xi)—an inventive literary form that she imagines could be written by future survivors, who are witnesses to “the realities we are making possible or impossible with our present apocalypse” (xi). Fundamentally, Gumbs’s work is concerned with “black life, black feminist metaphysics, and the theoretical imperative of attending to Black bodies in a way that doesn’t seek to prove that Black people are human” (xi). In other words, Gumbs uses speculative documentary as a space in which to trace the possible impact of humanity’s exploitative labor and environmental policies, which rely on the subjugation of black and brown bodies—especially women of color—in order to create profits for others.

Just as Gumbs pays homage to Pedagogies of Crossing, she also references several other key intersectional feminists and scholars of color over the course of her narrative. Writing in lower case text, she resists the linguistic conventions one typically associates with scholarly works of theory. Instead, she subtly references her foremothers, such as bell hooks, who shift the standard linguistic paradigm to create new ways to engage with theory and praxis. The result is a text that is an intriguing mix of stream of consciousness, poetry, speculative fiction, and black feminist theory.

Furthermore, each section begins with a selection of the Periodic Table of Elements, in which Gumbs highlights different elements that set the tone for that portion of the text. Told from the perspective of a futuristic researcher, Gumbs’s text invites the reader to sift through layers of detritus to uncover the cultural artifacts below, in order to understand the harm that humanity has caused to itself and the planet as a whole. She breaks her book up into the Archive of Dirt, Archive of Sky, Archive of Fire, Archive of Ocean, and Baskets (Possible Futures Yet to be Woven). Each section then explores the cause and effect of the environmental catastrophe that Gumbs imagines ruined the planet and forced the surviving members of humanity to adapt and live underground to escape from the toxins on the surface of the planet after the ozone layer had been destroyed.

In Archive of Dirt, the speaker begins with a description of the capitalistic greed and disregard for other living beings that caused her ancestors (us) to treat everything as though it were expendable. Gumbs’s words pack a punch, leaving the reader with reverberating images of the body as containers for waste— “simply put, every piece of the planet was filled with trash. Our minds notwithstanding. Our bodies included”. (46) From there, she delves into the painful and traumatic process by which humanity had to give up the old ways of being in order to adapt to the harsh landscape in the post-apocalyptic future. The speaker discovers that in order to survive, humanity must become one with the Earth—both by reestablishing our connection to the planet that sustains us and by moving underground. In Archive of Ocean, Gumbs makes a powerful connection between science and spiritualism, reminding the reader that water is “the place where evolutionists and creationists agree that life began, the source of all the salt we breathed to get here, lives with us”. (11) Gumbs continues to advocate convincingly for the need for a belief in both science and the soul over the course of the text, ultimately showing the reader that humanity can survive only if it attends to both.

Finally, in Baskets, Gumbs further speculates on the limitations and possibilities that could define humanity. She rejects an individualistic way of thinking and encourages readers to think of themselves as part of a larger system. Yet, she cautions that any feeling of universalism must not overshadow the dark history of human exploitation (exemplified by the slave trade) or the need for intersectional thinking when describing the experiences of people of color. As Gumbs writes, “there did come a time when the species was united on the planet as human, but it was not what anyone had dreamt. And it was too late to truly benefit those of us who had been called alien. We who had nonconsensually generated the human across time” (171). In other words, universalism could potentially be just as problematic as individualism, if it erases the identities and hardships faced by cultural “others”.

Overall, I believe this text will be of particular interest to scholars and readers who appreciate literary forms that meld poetry and theory, such as Cherríe Moraga and Gloria Anzaldúa’s This Bridge Called My Back (1981) and (Gumbs’ earlier work) Revolutionary Mothering (2016). However, I would not recommend it as a primer into intersectionality or black feminist thought, as Gumbs takes for granted the readers’ familiarity with her many references to feminist concepts and black feminist writers, including bell hooks, Audre Lorde, and Octavia Butler, among others. In doing so, Gumbs shifts the onus onto the reader—to study foundational black feminist scholars and practitioners, and to learn from their theories, in order to avoid the future that M Archive uncovers.

Review of Global Frankenstein

Review of Global Frankenstein

Sarah Canfield

Margaret Davison and Marie Mulvey-Roberts, eds. Global Frankenstein. Palgrave Macmillan, 2018. Hardcover, 344 pg. $119.99, ISBN 978-3319781419. Ebook, $89.00, ISBN 978-3319781426.

I first found Global Frankenstein, part of Palgrave’s relatively new Studies in Global Science Fiction series, when I was searching for material for my first-year seminar course titled “Global Frankenstein.” Both my idea for the class and this ambitious anthology participate in the 200th anniversary celebrations of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818), which may or may not be the first modern science fiction text. Regardless of where you may stand on that issue, the popularity of the mad scientist and the monster for those 200 years certainly justifies the hoopla. I was particularly excited by the global moniker, however, as I am always eager to learn more about how the novel has been received, translated, adapted, and transformed beyond English-speaking cultures. All too often, “global” content still remains Western and Eurocentric, and I hoped this volume would help me avoid this problem in my own course.

Sadly, Davison and Roberts have not been as successful in collecting scholarship on Frankenstein’s international travels as I hoped, a shortcoming that they admit frankly in their introduction: “Despite its title, this critical collection cannot fully convey the enormity and scope of Frankenstein’s global reach [. . ..] we acknowledge the linguistic and cultural limitations of this collection and welcome other international interrogations”. (8) As a scholar and teacher who was drawn to their text specifically because I hoped to find an English-language consideration of that global reach, I would have preferred a different title, or perhaps a subtitle that clarified these completely understandable difficulties. The blurb claims that the book “reassesses Frankenstein’s global impact for the twenty-first century across myriad cultures and nations, from Japan, Mexico, and Turkey, to Britain, Iraq, Europe, and North America.” Indeed, articles touch on works from all of these countries, but the analysis definitely focuses more substantially on direct readings of Shelley’s text and its British, American, and European afterlives than those in the other countries on this list. Nevertheless, the number of non-English Frankensteins covered within this volume is notably higher than any other collection I have seen, so perhaps my disappointment exceeds justification.

Having noted my reservations regarding the title, I must declare that the essays in this collection comprise a thorough, thought-provoking, and occasionally brilliant body of scholarship. Sixteen essays are presented in five sections, devoted to the novel’s science, corporeality, stage and screen adaptations, illustrations and literary adaptations, and “Futuristic Frankensteins.” The editors have each contributed, Mulvey-Roberts with an analysis of the surgical context of the novel and the contemporary French artist ORLAN’s radical body modifications, and Davison with an intriguing account of balletic interpretations of Frankenstein. I applied the adjective “ambitious” earlier in this review—the range may not be “global” in the specific sense that I had hoped for when I saw the title, but in terms of sheer scope and comprehensive consideration of where the influence of Shelley’s text can be found, the word is appropriate. In addition to the usual textual issues and filmic adaptations that any collection must address, the plastic surgery as art and the danse macabre are joined by stage plays, television series, picture books, graphic novels, interactive digital texts, video games, memes, philosophical riffs, and even a poem as afterword.

When these authors focus their attention on Shelley’s text, they provide cogent analysis in thoughtful conversation with earlier scholars. The editors’ introduction succinctly reviews the critical history of the novel, noting major critical insights as well as the biases that inflected them. The essays advance many of these conversations. For example, Bruce Wyse reads the novel’s deployment of disability and disgust and the evolution of those themes in texts from Bulwer Lytton to Doctor Who, noting ways in which these adaptations “broaden the representational purview of Frankenstein to clarify its subtext” (89) through the lens of disability studies. Carolyn D. Williams explores the marked lack of humor in the original novel as a symptom of Shelley’s concerns with decorum, a “dangerous strategy” because “like Gothic monsters, laughter, if banished, may return with devastating effect” (91). In addition to her careful reading of Shelley’s manuscript and revisions, Williams also considers the challenges and opportunities this creates for critics, interpreters, and adapters.

As the essays move further from the original novel to explore its global and cultural adaptations, they provide nuanced considerations of a wide array of responses to and reworkings of Shelley’s text, direct and indirect. Many essays in the collection concentrate on the visual traditions, and some of the strongest—and most international—focus specifically on illustrations, comics, and graphic novels. Emily Alder provides an especially interesting analysis of how Frankenstein adaptations for children, even in such apparently simplified forms as picture books, show exceptional sensitivity and creativity as they “alter the original’s script about otherness, acceptance, and responsibility [in order to] answer back to oversimplification of Frankenstein through film and popular discourse” (223).

Sometimes the connections become rather attenuated. Xavier Aldana Reyes pursues the creature’s influence on the specific subspecies of zombies produced through human-engineered viruses as well as recent portrayals of sympathetic zombies. While he acknowledges that most zombies are rightly distinguished from Frankenstein’s creature, Aldana Reyes argues that these “lumbering creatures who walk the line between life and death may now be embodying the most relevant aspects of the myth” (179) for current audiences. I am not sure yet if I accept the argument (in part because I don’t know enough about zombies), but I want to run it past my students. This satisfies the purpose that drew me to the collection in the first place: to stimulate my thinking about the novel and enrich my teaching with new examples, insights, and questions. Less successful for me, though still provocative, is Tanya Krzywinska’s review of Frankenstein’s impact on video games. With few direct game references to consider, Krzywinska focuses on visual and creative aesthetics several iterations removed from the original text. While I don’t doubt their lineage, I do wonder what to do with it.

I cannot conclude my review without addressing the final essay, written by the renowned Fred Botting, “What Was Man . . .? Reimagining Monstrosity from Humanist to Transhumanism.” Botting questions the relevance of Shelley’s novel today, a cultural touchstone easily mined for metaphor but otherwise displaced by more modern monsters: “Frankenstein and creature—all two-human [sic]—seem to have no place, deleted by global posthumanism, either in the voracious supersession enacted by the attractive vampires of neoliberalism or in the nonhuman hordes of walking dead that testify to a transhumanist future present, subsisting as refuse, less than meat, and barer than bare life” (310). Botting finds a powerful reimagining in Bernard Rose’s film Frankenstein (2015), but one which may mark the end point of the Frankenstein myth, clearing the way for “some cyborgs, chimeras, hybrids, and posthumans [to] begin, without fear or fantasy, to foster some other imagining” (315).

Taken as a whole, Global Frankenstein provides a varied and fascinating array of critical approaches to Frankenstein itself as well as a truly remarkable range of related works. If more of those works are from Western, and especially English-speaking, cultures than the title suggests, I recommend following Davison and Mulvey-Roberts’ excellent collection with further scholarship on the international reach of Shelley’s hideous progeny.

Review of Fake Geek Girls: Fandom, Gender, and the Convergence Culture Industry

Review of Fake Geek Girls: Fandom, Gender, and the Convergence Culture Industry

Anelise Farris

Suzanne Scott. Fake Geek Girls: Fandom, Gender, and the Convergence Culture Industry. New York, NY: New York UP, 2019. Paperback, 304 pg. $29.98, ISBN 9781479879571.

Geeks, nerds, fans, and the like are in the middle of an interesting era. Although big-name companies like Marvel Comics are devoting more energy to diversification and inclusivity, fans themselves appear to be growing increasingly divisive over concerns related to “authenticity.” This ongoing question of who is allowed to be a fan and what that entails for people of different genders is at the heart of Suzanne Scott’s Fake Geek Girls: Fandom, Gender, and the Convergence Culture Industry.

Stemming from the toxic fan culture wars over the past decade, Scott’s work is less concerned with female character media representation and more invested in interrogating how female fans continue to be marginalized by both the industry and fan culture at large. Due to Scott’s focus on the time period from 2006 to 2017, her work is significantly informed by the growing presence of men’s rights movements, anti-feminist agendas, and, of course, the results of the 2016 United States presidential election. Scott perceives the political climate to be one in which white, cisgender, heterosexual males endure under a logical fallacy, that “more for someone else [minorities] will inevitably mean less for me [white, cishet men]” (3)—regardless of whether the topic is immigration, reproductive rights, or fandom. As Scott explains in detail in Fake Geek Girls, it would be remiss to overlook how these misogynistic practices outside of popular culture have grossly impacted the making of an androcentric geek culture.

In her introduction, “Make Fandom Great Again,” Scott establishes this political lens, while also positioning her work alongside critical theorists Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer, as well as media scholar Henry Jenkins. While acknowledging that there is over half a century between the former and the latter, Scott deftly brings their voices together, along with her own. As she explains, Adorno’s, Horkheimer’s, and Jenkins’s foundational work on convergence culture gave her an entry point into more critically examining its effect on female fans. Although the convergence culture industry has empowered some fan identities, it is important to stress how it has continued to silence others. Furthermore, as Scott notes, “a key distinction is that fans themselves are now working as the agents of the convergence culture industry, reinforcing these industrial predilections and routinely using them to alternately dismiss and harass female fans” (12-13). And this is precisely what Scott theorizes about in the six chapters contained within Fake Geek Girls.

Chapter 1, “A Fangirl’s Place Is in the Resistance: Feminism and Fan Studies,” examines the feminist roots of early fan studies and the debates over whether incorporation or resistance is the better way to participate (also known as the affirmational/transformative dichotomy). In preparation for her subsequent chapters, Scott maps out how the convergence culture industry’s continued pressure to participate in the “appropriate” brand of fandom has marginalized female fans and the historically feminist practices behind the initial fan studies movement. To illustrate this phenomenon, Chapters 2 and 3 both look to specific representations of fan identity in the media, highlighting how frequently female fans are pathologized. From the 1986 Saturday Night Live “Get a Life!” sketch and a 2008 Entertainment Weekly comic to the 2011 “Idiot Nerd Girl” meme, there is no shortage of examples that depict the distinctive difference between the purported legitimacy that comes with being a “fanboy” and the dismissiveness and skepticism associated with being a “fangirl.” Scott asserts, “By identifying geek girls and fangirls as too ‘normal’ or ‘mainstream’ to be ‘real’ fans, male fans belie (or attempt to combat) their own normalcy within the convergence culture industry, positioning themselves as simultaneously the oppressors and the oppressed”. (95)

Accordingly, the unfair pressure placed on fangirls to prove their authenticity has driven many of them to fall prey to fan labor schemes perpetuated by the convergence culture industry, as highlighted in chapter 4 “Terms and Conditions: Co-Opting Fan Labor and Containing Fan Criticism.” Flowing from a discussion that takes place at the end of Chapter 4, Chapter 5 focuses on Chris Hardwick, host of Talking Dead and founder of Nerdist Industries. Here Scott analyzes the ways in which Hardwick performs as a fanboy and how he is able to use his fan identity for professional gain in a way that is currently unavailable for fangirls. The final chapter, “From Poaching to Pinning: Fashioning Postfeminist Geek Girl(y) Culture,” Scott critically examines how fangirl clothing companies such as Her Universe have perpetuated a curated fangirl lifestyle. To challenge this pre-packaged fangirl existence, Scott offers the concept of “strategic pinning” on Pinterest – inspired by the early-nineteenth century “strategic scrapbooks” created by women’s rights activists – as well as various crossplay activities, in order to highlight diverse fangirl experiences.

Fake Geek Girls: Fandom, Gender, and the Convergence Culture Industry is without doubt an important text for media scholarship and fandom studies. It’s meticulously researched, politically relevant, and it significantly revisits and reimagines early convergence culture theory. That said, due to its heavy theoretical nature, it lacks readability and, at times, appears disorganized. Due to its price point, it would be ideal to assign for a class. However, it is not textbook material. It is a book to digest slowly and sporadically, rather than read front-to-back, and Scott does not take time to explain terminology so as to make it more accessible for an interdisciplinary audience. Although an informative and interesting book on gender politics and fandom studies, due to its overall structure it is best suited for the serious media studies scholar alone.

Review of A Desire Called America: Biopolitics, Utopia, and the Literary Commons

Review of A Desire Called America: Biopolitics, Utopia, and the Literary Commons

Benjamin Blackman

Christian Haines. A Desire Called America: Biopolitics, Utopia, and the Literary Commons. Fordham UP, 2019. Paperback. 272 pg. $30.00. ISBN 9780823286959.

Christian Haines’s first book is a timely one. At a moment when the logics of American exceptionalism (e.g., “Make America Great Again”) have appeared to culminate in a bleak present whose dystopian mood is fed in part by the rise of neo-Fascist politics, rampant wealth inequality, capitalist violence, and a climate crisis that decimates non-human species and burns down cities and whose maximum effects we still tensely anticipate, Haines looks to literature from the American Renaissance (mid nineteenth-century) and postmodernism in order to recover a minor utopian tradition that offers from within exceptionalism a corrective to ideologies of exceptionalism and the systemic injustices that sustain and are sustained by such ideologies.

Focusing on the work of Emily Dickinson, Walt Whitman, William S. Burroughs, and Thomas Pynchon, Haines cultivates a series of readings that builds toward a vision of what he calls a “singular America,” a “refunctioning of nationality: a nation without nationalism, a people without the exclusionary logic of citizenship, a collective bond without the mediation of the state”. (7) Unlike futuristic or exoplanetary societies found in science fiction, a “singular America” exists here and now, residing in the contemporary moment alongside and within neoliberal and capitalist forms of social and political arrangement. If this notion of a singular America is a utopian one that offers a more fair and just society, Haines urges us not to see it as fundamentally opposed to the logics of exceptionalism but instead part of the very same structure of desire for “unique social, political, and cultural vitality”. (3) As such, each of these writers works toward a singular America not by imagining other worlds distinct from our own but by remodeling America (or the concept of America) from the inside out, pushing “the revolutionary potential of American exceptionalism to the point where its nationalist-capitalist frame breaks”. (3) Many years before Thomas Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence, Lucretius explained that a thing contains within it what happens in its past, present, and future. America, too, as Whitman would put it, “contains multitudes.” If this singular version of American society sits captive in the present, Haines offers literature as a vitalizing agent. Imbuing literature with the power to help realize a culture of the commons, and drawing on Foucault’s work on biopolitics as a theoretical framework through which to locate the emergence of utopia in the body itself – from a site within the bounds of the nation – Haines advances what he calls the literary commons as the socio-political form of a singular America. Each of these writers offers a vision of a singular America mobilized by the utopian impulse which sits at the heart of American exceptionalism. Indeed, this utopian impulse is baked into the very concept of America, even if today that impulse has been largely co-opted by neoliberalism, wrapped in rhetoric that promises a return to a Golden Age that never really existed (or was only goldenfor a certain population), conjuring a future that might appear different but merely reifies the conditions of the present.

Early in the book’s introduction, Haines cites Thomas Paine writing on the American Revolution, paying special attention to Paine’s language which frames the Revolution as a kind of historical rupture – a chance to, in Paine’s words, “begin the world over again.” It’s here, towards the end of Paine’s Common Sense, that Haines grounds his theorization of utopianism with exceptionalism. Noting that Paine’s “new world” rhetoric rehearses colonial narratives of the American continent as an “exceptional space…[that] consecrates violence against indigenous peoples in the name of ‘Man,’” Haines nevertheless identifies in Paine’s language “a surplus of social potentiality immanent in the long arc of American exceptionalism – a singular America that doesn’t transcend exceptionalism but lives within and against it”. (4) Crucially, Haines does not read the utopian nature of Paine’s writing in opposition to the presence of a colonial narrative that promises the genocide of Native Americans, nor does he dismiss Paine’s utopianism as merely false. Rather, he holds these positions together, if painfully at first, in order to extract a disquieting yet liberatory insight: that the intensification of American exceptionalism over the last two centuries or so might well be understood as itself the product of utopian resolve. As Margaret Atwood reminds us in The Handmaid’s Tale (1985), “Better never means better for everyone…It always means worse, for some”. (211) Yet, recognizing this relationship between utopia and exceptionalism brings our attention to the fact that utopia does not exist elsewhere in space or time, but lies dormant in the very structures of Americanism itself.

Scholars of American culture and literature will find Haines’s reading of these canonical American writers compelling, not least because each is mobilized by a utopian imperative that offers new, peripheral ways for thinking through forms of the American speculative imagination outside mainstream traditions of early and canonical science fiction. Scholars of science fiction, too, would be wise to read this book for its deft sensitivity to the nuances of the speculative imagination and its grasp on the role of utopia in a politically turbulent present. Drawing on the language and theories of science and speculative fiction (citing Suvin and Jameson), and rarely shy in addressing what is his visibly American audience, Haines offers a praxis of utopian hermeneutic that encourages us to recognize the commons in our literature, and take up the work of estrangement ourselves so that we might see our home again for the first time.


Atwood, Margaret. The Handmaid’s Tale. 1985. Anchor, 1998.

Review of SHE-RA AND THE PRINCESSES OF POWER, Seasons 1-5 (2018-2020, TV)

seasons 1-5

Adam McLain

SHE-RA AND THE PRINCESSES OF POWER. Seasons 1-5. DreamWorks Animation, Netflix. 2018-2020.

Riding the success of the He-Man and the Masters of the Universe show and toy line (1982–1988), the children’s toy company Mattel sought to capitalize on its sword and sorcery moment by introducing a female-focused toy line, Princess of Power, centered around He-Man’s sister—Adora in her human form, She-Ra in her empowered form. From 1985 to 1987, She-Ra fought the Evil Horde, its leader Hordak, and her nemesis Catra through twenty-two action figures, thirteen comics, several children’s books, and a two-season animated cartoon series created by J. Michael Straczynski and Larry DiTillio. Throughout the ensuing thirty years, Adora/She-Ra would appear numerous times in toy lines and cameos, but she would never be as popular—nor, one could say, as marketed—as her brother, Adam/He-Man.

In 2017, Netflix and DreamWorks Animation announced their plans to reboot the franchise as She-Ra and the Princesses of Power, with Noelle Stevenson, an award-winning author, helming the project as executive producer and showrunner. This move came as part of a series of repackaging of old intellectual property for new audiences (e.g., DreamWorks/Netflix’s Voltron: Legendary Defender). As showrunner, Stevenson chose to pay homage to the past show while inventing a new future for it and for animated fantasy children’s shows. Stevenson’s direction chose to focus on diversity and representation, reimagining all the characters to portray more LGBTQ+ characters and characters of color onscreen. Indeed, the reimagining even goes so far as to portray various body types and emotional and mental capabilities. This diversity breathed new life and vitality into the sword and sorcery franchise and created a show that crossed genre boundaries and pushed back against a television culture that consistently shies away from representation, especially queer representation, in shows created for a young audience.

She-Ra and the Princesses of Power has the same premise as She-Ra: Princess of Power: raised in the Horde, Adora abandons it to fight for the Rebellion after finding the sword that gives her the power of She-Ra. Although sharing the same premise, She-Ra diverges from its source material by changing age, gender, and complexity. Adora is joined by her new friends Glimmer, the princess of Bright Moon and a young woman with mother problems, and Bow, a young Black man and Glimmer’s best friend who believes that love and friendship can conquer any insurmountable obstacle. The team of friends sets out to reestablish the Princess Alliance so the Rebellion can defeat the evil Horde (Season One). However, defeating the Horde is not as simple as gathering a few superpowered friends. As the Horde and Rebellion battle back and forth, the show, through its five seasons, weaves together a story of magic and adventure with more sinister and galaxy-wide intrigue. Seasons Two and Three introduce a long history of She-Ra connected to the ancient First Ones, beings who connected the She-Ra power to the magic of Eternia, the planet. As Adora learns more about her power and the true, ancient, intergalactic war that is being brought to Eternia’s doorstep, she grapples with her identity and destiny, striving to be her own person as she is driven to a certain end goal by other forces. Indeed, Season Four introduces weapons of mass destruction and interdimensional travel, culminating in Adora shattering her destiny, and her connection to She-Ra, in order to save her planet and the rest of the galaxy. This event, though, brings Eternia back into a dimension of space controlled by an evil despot—a despot who wants Eternia’s weapons to arrest full tyranny over the galaxy.

In Season Five, Adora must take to the stars to rescue Glimmer and Catra from the clutches of the true Horde, led by Horde Prime. Season Five is the culmination of four seasons that have woven seamlessly into each other, building up to the point where Adora must overcome her self-sacrificing nature or let the universe fall into the iron grip of Horde Prime and his army of clones. At the same time, Glimmer must come to grips with her mantle of leadership, having almost caused the destruction of the universe, and Catra must realize her love and adoration of Adora. Season Five presents a strong message of companionship, empowerment, and self-realization.

As a finale, Season Five touches on the themes that have been developed throughout the show. Delving into ideas of cowardice, bravery, honor, friendship, and agency, the fifth season is a heart-wrenching experience as the characters realize the culminations of their journeys of self-discovery. For example, one of the princesses, Entrapta, has been an enigma throughout the entire show. Beginning as a princess who joins the Princess Alliance, she is captured by the Horde, thought dead by her friends who leave her behind. Entrapta, lover of technology, thrives within the Horde, joining their side and building them weapons of destruction. In one of her culminating scenes, as she tries to obtain the tech that will save Glimmer and Catra, who are lost in space, Entrapta says, “I’m not good at people, but I am good at tech. I thought maybe if I could use tech to help you, you’d like me” (Season 5, Episode 2),. Entrapta’s growth is just one example of the growth of all the characters on the show—growth that compliments the gender and sexual diversity of the show. The fifth season delivers on the many plot threads, character arcs, and disparate secrets to which the show has been building.

She-Ra is able to take cultural touchpoints—like LGBTQ+ conversations, for example—and present them in ways that are both inclusive and metaphoric. For example, at the end of Season 2, Episode 7, the show introduces the viewer to Bow’s parents, two male historians. The fact that his dads are the gay parents of thirteen children is accepted by everyone in the show. Instead of being a story about struggling with coming out or queer acceptance, the story shifts the focus to the dads. Bow’s parents, who want Bow to become a historian like them, must overcome their former hopes and dreams for their child in order to love him as he is, a warrior in the Rebellion who loves adventure. Like much of the show, the expected tropes—like the unaccepting parents who must come to love their queer child for who they are—is refracted through a different lens. This refraction, present in much of the show, allows viewers and scholars alike to reapproach different ideas in fields like queer theory, film studies, and children’s literature, and conceptualize these in new and intriguing ways.

Along with innovative metaphors for LGBTQ+ representation, the show itself helps to bring more diversity and representation to the animated screen. From the beginning, the show makes it clear that Spinnerella and Netossa, two princesses, are married. Additionally, many of the characters are characters of color, from Bow and Netossa to Frosta and Mermista. As already mentioned, Bow and his twelve siblings were raised by two fathers. Introduced in Season Four, Double Trouble, a shapeshifting mercenary, is nonbinary, uses they/them pronouns, and is voiced by the LGBTQ+ rights activist and actor Jacob Tobia. Additionally, throughout the entire series, and culminating in Season Five, the show develops a strong relationship—from friendship to enemies to lovers—between Adora and Catra as they come to understand the complexities of love. For a DreamWorks show on Netflix, this representation is very welcome, especially after the fleeting representation in previous shows. She-Ra can be firmly placed into the history of LGBTQ+ representation in media, improving upon the dismal efforts of Legend of Korra and Voltron and leading to the lauded work in Kipo and the Age of Wonderbeasts.

As a show is progressive and innovative, however, it also echoes a continual problem that has been revealed over the last years: nostalgia and the recreation and repackaging of intellectual property. This move within science fiction can be a boon and a curse. Reapproaching old property with fresh eyes allows creators to invigorate a universe, helping to bring it into conversation with current questions and interrogations; however, at the same time, repackaged universes must grapple with histories and futures that are tainted with ghosts of the past.

Review of WESTWORLD, Seasons 2-3 (2016, TV)

Review of WESTWORLD, seasons 2-3

Amandine Faucheux

WESTWORLD. Nolan, Jonathan, and Lisa Joy, creators. HBO Entertainment, 2016.

It took me two rewatches of the last two seasons of HBO’s SF blockbuster to appreciate its genius; my partner vowed never to watch the show again after season three. We probably represent a good average of reactions from fans, but, like Dolores, I maintain that Westworld warrants “seeing the beauty” of its fictional universe — that is, to overlook some of its glaring aspects to favor what is unique about the show. Season two delivers all the violent promises set up by season one as we follow the key awakened hosts (Dolores, Maeve, and Bernard)[1] as they take control of their destiny and seek vengeance, freedom, or to fulfil their purpose. It is a glorious, complex, audience-sensitive season that pushes its characters in new and intriguing ways. Season three takes a big leap of faith by leaving the show’s fantastic and gorgeous worldbuilding behind to set the action in the ‘real’ human world, a nightmarish vision of corporate neoliberalism. It’s a gamble that pays off only because the characters’ storylines, delivered by a stellar cast, compel us to keep on watching. This season also unfolds the ideological conundrum of the premise: a world in which technology serves the purpose of a eugenic population control system to maximize labor.

In Michael Crichton’s original 1973 movie Westworld, the hosts of the parks turn evil because of something akin to a technological plague, and the human guests are punished for their hubris by violent death. It probably inspired in great part the wave of cult classic SF movies that follow this morale: The Terminator, The Matrix, Ex Machina. But in HBO’s version, of course, it is human beings who are the villains who rape, torture, and murder the hosts made innocuous by their inability to defend themselves or remember. The audience, therefore, feels satisfied upon seeing the tables turned on the members of the Delos board, no less, in season two. While Dolores leads her group of hosts within the Delos headquarters and massacres people along the way, Maeve looks for her daughter across the park, which eventually leads her and others to the “Valley Beyond”—an Eden-like virtual world in which the hosts may escape the control of Delos. In this way Dolores and Maeve represent the two extremes of the hosts’ reaction to their awakening: vengeance and destruction or escapism. Meanwhile, Bernard’s (revealed to be a host in the previous season) fragmented consciousness—whereby he can no longer recognize memories from the present time—provides the season’s nonlinear narrative structure. Just like its predecessor, season two is complex, original, and rich in lyrical writing. Much has already been written about episode 8, “Kiksuya” (Lakota for “Remember”),[2] in which Akecheta (Zahn McClamon) tells his story, mostly in Lakota, to Maeve’s daughter, which explains the stereotypical scene in which Ghost Nation members attack Maeve’s encampment. This episode and the metafictive episode 5 “Akane no Mai,” featuring the shogunate-version of the Mariposa narrative, represents some of the strongest episodes of the season.

Overall, one of the best aspects of this season is in the power it gives to the characters made passive by a combination of racialized and gendered ideologies, as the two episodes just mentioned illustrate. In the shadow of Dolores’s and Maeve’s character development from feminized and sexualized narratives (as the rancher’s daughter and the brothel madam, respectively), to full-fledged heroines lies the fascinating characters of Teddy (James Marsden) and Hector (Rodriguo Santoro). Teddy’s role as a host mirrors that of Dolores’s: he is supposed to introduce guests to the park and take them on easy adventures. Like her, he dies often and violently, and like her, he also possesses the sort of forgettable character-traits of a basic RPG character: guests are seen making fun of him on multiple occasions. But while Dolores grows out of her role and indeed comes to embody almost the exact opposite—the violent, ruthless, and powerful “Wyatt”—Teddy cannot quite grow out of his character. While he follows Dolores in season two, he tries multiple times to convince her to leave the revolution behind and escape with him. In episode 5, Dolores ends up manipulating his core drives to make him less sensitive and more merciless, which results in his suicide in episode 9. In contradiction to his persona as a romance-novel pistolero of season one, in season two Teddy thus comes to take on the feminized role of the lover who, as a result of their romantic nature, cannot follow their partner’s path to violence. Likewise Hector, playing the role of the archetypal and uber-masculine bandit, embodies in season two and three the tragic figure of the lover one cannot save. In spite of his awakening, Hector never manages to survive his reboots and he indeed dies presumably irrevocably in season three. In both cases, it is the female characters who lead the plot intellectually and physically, and the two representatives of the mythological Wild Wild West masculinity take on a passive, feminized role. This reversal of expectations at the cross-section of two genres heavy with polarized gendered tropes (the western movie and science fiction) represent one of the many ways the show transcends.

Season two also increases the layers of complexity of Delos’s sinister plans. The parks serve not as touristy attractions but rather as a massive system of data collection of the guests for the purpose of population control, the plot of season three. In this way hosts and guests are aligned as victims of a system that would rewrite their core narratives, endlessly providing the illusion of freedom (the mythical Wild Wild West on one hand, meritocracy on the other) while stripping away their power of will to its core. Thus Dolores’s vengeance does not, like in the Crichton movie, represent the main threat to human beings; rather, she becomes in season three the revolutionary hero who might save humans from themselves, and in particular from the system that a character like Liam Dempsey (John Gallagher Jr.) stands for—decadent, unfettered, nepotistic capitalism at its worst.

Unlike the hosts, who showcase complex ‘human’ emotions and relationships, human beings in the show are consistently incapable of relating to one another in any positive or meaningful way. For example, Felix (Leonardo Nam) and Sylvester (Ptolemy Slocum), the two Delos employees who Maeve blackmails into helping her, do not exchange a single line that is not antagonistic (for instance, Sylvester calling Felix a “ding dong”), in spite of the show’s implication that they are friends and in spite of their shared trauma of being kidnapped by Maeve and her crew for most of season two. In fact, all of Delos employees frequently trade insults and derogatory remarks with one another. The most significant characters, like Charlotte Hale (Tessa Thompson) represent corrupt executives who routinely abuse their staff; for instance, Charlotte purposely opens the door to Theresa (Sidse Babett Knudsen) stark naked, which in any context should be construed as sexual harassment.

Even in the world outside the park, the nightmarish capitalist context intrudes on human relationships. Friendships only exist within the gig-economy criminal hustle in which Caleb Nichols (Aaron Paul) participates, and even familial relationships do not survive the ultra-competitve, manipulative nature of this universe. Every one of the plotlines that connect the most important human characters in these two seasons—William (Ed Harris), James Delos (Peter Mullan), Caleb, and Liam Dempsey—are defined by families fractured by violence, addiction, and corruption, all of which intimately tied to the demands of capitalism. What’s more, in this world there seems to be no recognizable laws (or not any that serve to protect people), nor ethics concerning the value of human lives. Delos, for example, seems totally untouched by the brutal murders of people (including their own board members) that took place in their parks; one remaining board member only mentions the impact on Delos stocks. Police can be bought as mercenaries, and people seem to be routinely assassinated without any consequence. Democracy itself is portrayed as a joke, as illustrated by the villain Serac (Vincent Cassel) threatening the Brazilian president with a coup if he does not comply with his requests.

It is by resisting the impulse of portraying a Disneyfied corporate utopia of the ‘real world’ and instead building a subtle dystopia, the show is capable of transitioning from the host-centered plot of season two into the host-human revolution that takes place in season three. And although fans might not like this season as much, it’s for that courageous transition that I believe it should not be dismissed. The plot centers on Dolores (now made to look like a modern woman) as she attempts to use the system, an AI called Rehoboam[3] who can predict the future of human beings based on the data collected by Delos, not to destroy human society but to free human beings from this eugenic population control. She recruits Caleb, a former soldier who was controlled by the US military into being a mercenary and then brainwashed, as the leader of the revolution. Maeve, hired by the improbably named Engerraund Serac, who promised to reunite her with her daughter in the Valley Beyond, attempts to stop her.

At the end of season two, Dolores makes a Charlotte-Hale host for herself and steals five host “pearls,” and this season builds a sense of mystery as we do not know which hosts she brought into the real world. Slowly, it is revealed that Dolores in fact copied her own identity over; there are now five Doloreses disguised as various characters. I think this decision is one of season three’s strokes of genius. It would have been easy to build on nostalgia for the park by bringing back our favorite characters—Teddy, say, or Clementine (Angela Sarafyan)—but instead the Doloreses both complexify her character and offer another interesting take on gender. The distinct Doloreses start taking on different personalities and even resist the original Dolores’s plan; the Charlotte-Dolores, for instance, starts caring about her family and attempts to avenge their death in the latter part of the season, showcasing yet another case of hosts being more human than humans.

Furthermore, season three continues the show’s subtle yet intriguing representation of gender as a meaningless facet of identity. The “male” Doloreses are still identifiable as her. In season two, Dolores’s “dark” personality—the polar opposite of her character as a host as the rancher’s sweet daughter—was named Wyatt, a ruthless and even insane assassin represented as a man in  the hosts’ imagination. When Dolores calls herself Wyatt, the other characters, including William, accept it without question. Thus, Westworld embodies a visual example of the radical ways in which SF texts of the last two decades have handled questions of sex, gender, and sexuality: deregulate it while keeping it as a completely innocuous part of the worldbuilding.[4] Where an older feminist tradition of SF put their non-normative representation of gender and sexuality at the center of the plot or the worldbuilding (i.e. through alien societies for example), our generation’s SF shows off with a shrug.

This is not to say that season three is perfect, or indeed as good as the previous two seasons. One of the most egregious problems is the villain Serac’s plot, which is cartoonish at best. Because of the (unexplained) destruction of Paris when he was a child, Serac and his brother resolve to build a system that can predict the future of humanity so that they can essentially eliminate violent criminality—and therefore the destruction of European capitals, we must assume. I suppose we are meant to see a connection between Serac’s loss of his home and hosts’ loss of theirs, but it’s a flimsy connection. Serac’s technology serves a violently eugenicist project and the absurd nature of his backstory make it difficult to believe in his own humanity, or in him as a fully-fledged character.

Moreover, while Caleb’s character and plotline are interesting throughout the season, the effect of his role is dampened quite a bit when we get to the reason why Dolores picked him in the last episode. It turns out that as a soldier, Caleb was trained in a Delos park and actually helped save Dolores and other hosts in a simulated situation. But Dolores selects him in particular because he prevented the other soldiers from raping the hosts at the end of their mission. Therefore, Caleb’s heroic nature stands only from the fact that he didn’t abuse his power over the hosts, thus representing a sort of opposite to William, for whom the park unleashed his violent and ruthless nature. Compared with the hosts’ more-than-human humanity, however, Caleb’s heroism pales. 

Serac and Caleb’s backstory aside, I do believe season three delivered the promises set up in the previous seasons in original and intriguing ways, and while fans might miss the park’s beautiful landscapes, the show continues to dazzle with its unique aesthetic and grand action scenes. Season three will be particularly fruitful to scholars interested in contrasting the other two seasons’ truncated utopia with the realistic and unsettling dystopia set up in the outside-the-park universe. Furthermore, Dolores’s character—split into five different personas—will provide interesting discussion about hiveminds and other disembodied consciousness that seem to be at the forefront of contemporary SF.

[1] Played respectively by Evan Rachel Wood, Thandie Newton, and Jeffrey Wright.

[2] See for example Tom VanDerWeff’s and Aja Romano’s discussion; David Sims, Spencer Kornhaber, and Sophie Gilbert’s discussions

[3] Named after the Biblical character.

[4] For example, see the treatment of gender in Ann Leckie’s Imperial Radch trilogy. For casual yet crucially innovative representations of gender expression, queerness, and non-monogamy, see Seth Dickinson’s ongoing Masquerade series.

Review of UPLOAD (2020, TV)

Review of UPLOAD

Nora Castle

UPLOAD. Prime Video, 2020.

Following in the vein of shows like The Good Place (2016-2020) and Forever (2018), Amazon Prime Video’s Upload (2020) tackles the question of what happens after we die. A bingeable, comedic SF TV show set in 2033, it depicts an Earth in which the death of the body does not spell the end for the mind; with sufficient warning (and a sufficient budget), humans can ‘upload’ into one of a variety of pay-to-play virtual-reality (VR) ‘heavens’ and live on, interacting with the living as well as their fellow ‘uploads’. Nathan Brown, the protagonist, is a coder working on a freeware version of one of the many ‘heavens’ currently on offer from mega-corporations such as Oscar Meyer Intel and Nat Geo Instagram—the irony that this show is produced by one such mega-corporation should not be lost on the viewer. After his autonomous vehicle crashes, Nathan, dazed and dying, is pressured by his overbearing girlfriend, Ingrid, into uploading his consciousness into Lakeview by Horizen, “the only digital afterlife environment modelled on the great Victorian hotels of the United States and Canada” (“Welcome to Upload”). Among his fellow residents are a multibillionaire, a veteran who ‘suiscanned’ (i.e., committed suicide by upload), and a child who fell into the Grand Canyon on a school trip.

With the first (46 min) episode given over primarily to exposition, the remaining installments of the show’s 10-episode arc (ranging in duration from 24-32 min) deal with Nathan’s difficulty adjusting to a stuffy digital eternity where every purchase must be approved by Ingrid, his budding romance with his Angel (aka customer service rep), Nora, and the increasingly realization that his death was in fact a murder. Part-romcom, part-mystery, Upload is effectively what would happen if a Hallmark movie crashed a Cyberpunk convention.  The show draws heavily on video game tropes, with the portrayal of Lakeview invoking a kind of massively multiplayer online game, complete with in-app purchases, pop-up ads, and a Street Fighter gamer mode. The non-VR world of the show is one similar to our own, with a neoliberal gig-economy and stark wealth disparity, albeit with some significant technological advances. These include innovations with regard to driverless vehicles—which, importantly in the series, allow the user to “prioritize passenger” or “prioritize occupant” in the event of a crash—and 3D-printed foods, though the most significant advancement is undoubtedly the posthumanist digital afterlife itself.

Virtual (after)lives are, of course, nothing new in the world of SF. As early as 1933, Laurence Manning imagined in The Man Who Awoke a world in which machines could replace human senses with electrical impulses, allowing people to escape to a virtual life of their choosing. Even uploading consciousness into virtual reality (VR) after death—as opposed to re-downloading into human bodies as in Altered Carbon (novel: 2002, TV show: 2018-2020), transferring into androids like in Rudy Rucker’s Software (1982), or uploading into computer consoles as in Cory Doctorow’s Walkaway (2017)—has a number of precedents, including Philip K. Dick’s Ubik (1969), Iain M. Banks’ Surface Detail (2010), Black Mirror’s “San Junipero” episode (2016), and Neal Stephenson’s Fall (2019). It is interesting to note that the society in Upload is, in fact, striving for the Altered Carbon model of re-downloading consciousness, though so far only with disastrous results. What makes Upload unique, however, is its comedic take, opting for a more optimistic vibe even while depicting a variety of social ills such as ubiquitous surveillance, overbearing labor, and social control via Uber-style star-ratings.

Designed to be easily watchable with an adequate—but not obtrusive—dose of social awareness, Upload is less genre-bending than genre-melding, and the murder plot and digital-panopticon milieu tend to get overlooked in deference to the garden-variety love story. Fans of hard SF will no doubt struggle with the mismatch in the technology portrayed, with, for example, the immense leaps in data-storage for consciousnesses met with chunky VR glasses that already appear outdated for 2020—not to mention the slasher-comedy-esque head-zapping upload sequence.

The series in general seems to have difficulty maintaining a clear focus, and often, in trying to do too much, it ends up doing too little. This includes the character development of its protagonist, who is somehow simultaneously comically narcissistic and impressively altruistic. Intelligent enough to build his own Upload, he doesn’t realize the suspicious circumstances of this death until they are spelled out to him by a neighbor: “Yeah, sure… you just threatened a 600-billion-dollar-a-year industry, and no one murdered you” (“Five Stars”). Nevertheless, it does address a number of themes worthy of scholarly exploration. It does so while treading a middle ground of not-quite biting the hand that feeds it (i.e., Amazon), which in itself may be interesting to analyze for media studies and/or cyberpunk scholars, especially given Sean McQueen’s assertion that “Cyberpunk’s subversive strategies were quickly adopted by, and became indistinguishable from, the corporate structures they initially opposed” (McQueen 5).

Upload is worth watching for those interested in posthumanism, digital worlds, video game studies, artificial intelligence, and biocapitalism, as well as those interested in portrayals of neoliberalism and/or contemporary labor relations. Related to its portrayal of stratified society, it also obliquely addresses questions of racial inequity through its casting and visuals, though there is not anything terribly new there for critical race scholars. The series will be interesting for food studies scholars due to its portrayal of 3D-printed foods and its making visible of the deep enmeshment of food companies in the capitalist world-system (e.g. Nokia Taco Bell, Panera/Facebook). The latter will also make it of interest to scholars working on the Anthropocene/Capitalocene/Plantationocene, though Upload pointedly avoids any mention of climate change. Environmental humanities scholars may also find it interesting in its invocation of a (digital) pastoral sublime. Despite its lukewarm story arc, Upload is eminently topical, and its Amazon backing adds a paratextual dimension which makes it a cultural artifact worth at least passing consideration.      


Daniels, Greg. “Welcome to Upload.” Upload, 1, Amazon Video, 1 May 2020.

—. “Five Stars.” Upload, 2, Amazon Video, 1 May 2020.

McQueen, Sean. Deleuze and Baudrillard: From Cyberpunk to Biopunk. Edinburgh University Press, 2016.

Review of THE ORVILLE, season 2 (2018-2019, TV)

Review of THE ORVILLE, season 2

Jeremy Brett

THE ORVILLE. MacFarlane, Seth, creator. Season 2, 20th Century Fox Television, 2018-2019.

It seems an axiom that any television show involving humanity’s future in space must inevitably be compared to Star Trek, the mother of them all. That makes sense, given the long shadow of cultural and aesthetic influence that the Trek franchise casts on televised science fiction. That shadow received particular notice in 2017-2018, when a brief online war erupted between dueling fans of Star Trek: Discovery and the comedic drama The Orville over which show was more worthy of carrying on Star Trek’s cultural mantle. Fans of the former contended that The Orville was a derivative and unfunny farrago of Seth MacFarlane-penned Family Guy nonsense, while adherents of the latter pinned Discovery as pointlessly dark and gritty Trek that overturned franchise history for no good reason and continued the Star Trek Enterprise/Kelvin Universe obsessions with revisiting and reworking the past. Like a great many Internet wars, there was evidence to support both cases. However, I submit that Season 2 of The Orville demonstrated that MacFarlane may prove a better custodian of the Trek legacy–Orville has inherited, much more deeply than Discovery or the Abrams films or even Star Trek: Picard, the spirit of Star Trek at its most thoughtful, optimistic, and socially conscious.

In its worldbuilding, The Orville greatly resembles its television ancestor. The show is set in the 25th century, taking place primarily on board the eponymous vessel, an exploration ship serving the Federation-like Planetary Union. The show’s lead is Captain Ed Mercer (MacFarlane), a Union officer whose career took a downturn after his adulterous betrayal by ex-wife and first officer Kelly Grayson (Adrienne Palicki). The first season, as is often the case, was an opportunity for worldbuilding – we learned about a number of the species that populate (and some that oppose) the Union, most notably the Klingon-like Moclans, an aggressive single-sex species of which one member is Orville’s second officer Bortus (Peter Macon). We also encounter the Xelayans, a humanoid species noted for their great strength in Earth-like gravities, through the ship’s security officer Alara Kitan (Halston Sage), as well as the reptilian Krill, powerful enemies of the Union. By the end of the first season, the Orville had truly come together as a cooperative crew, and Mercer and Grayson had generally reconciled their emotional issues. Although the first season was marked by a not-insignificant amount of MacFarlane’s characteristic mixture of lowbrow humor and pop culture references (the subject of much of the criticism leveled at the show in the media), it also contained several episodes that would have not been out of place on Star Trek: The Next Generation or Star Trek: Voyager, and that demonstrated the show’s potential for emotional range and character complexity.

Season 2 embraces that range and complexity. True, the lowbrow humor does not disappear entirely. Indeed, when it does appear, it has the effect of making the characters more relatable and, oddly, more human. The Orville, by and large, avoids the temptation to which iterations of Star Trek have sometimes fallen to make its characters permanently upstanding and so serious and morally earnest they can seem artificial. Although most of the heavy lifting for MacFarlane’s humor falls in Season 2 onto helmsman Gordon Malloy (Scott Grimes), there is enough of it go around to make Orville’s crew seem more natural in their humanity., less the cardboard cutouts of polite perfection that the Next Generation crew, for example, sometimes became. But, broadly speaking, in Season 2 The Orville truly comes into its own as a show of characters with inner lives and rich emotion. Show creator MacFarlane has the gift of understanding what gives Star Trek its particular charm and identity, and he brings that to The Orville. He is well aware that what made Trek so beloved was never the plots or the action scenes or interstellar combat. It was never even Trek’s particular commitment to exploring social issues. Like the best of Trek, The Orville shines because its characters are less a collection of crewmembers than a family; the show succeeds because it focuses on exploring the emotional bonds – expressed via empathy, concern, inside jokes, anger, exasperation, fear, love, and joy – that a close family forms through shared experiences, as well as how those bonds can tighten or fray in times of crisis.

Those personal crises abound in Season 2. In “Primal Urges”, the ship’s mission to rescue the remnants of a civilization from the expansion of its red star is put at risk from a shipwide computer virus. The source of that virus? A VR pornographic program used by Bortus, who is hiding from his husband Klyden (Chad Coleman) both his addiction to pornography and his growing emotional distance from Klyden. The crisis is resolved in time (though not without Bortus having to bear Mercer’s fury), but Klyden and Bortus face a crisis in their marriage that they mutually agree to face and overcome together. The strains in their relationship are sources of ongoing conflict for the remainder of the season. The episode “Nothing Left on Earth Excepting Fishes” gives us Mercer enjoying a happy romantic relationship with Lt. Janel Tyler; that romance is shattered when Tyler is revealed as Teleya (Michaela McManus), a Krill operative disguised as a human and sent to capture Mercer in order to secure his Union command codes. The two are thrown together in a mission to survive an attack from another species; in the course of this struggle, the two develop a grudging respect for each other, and Mercer chooses to release Teleya to her people in the hopes that good relations may open as a result. The episode is charged with Mercer’s sense of betrayal and violation of trust, as well as Teleya’s own complicated feelings towards him.

There is no overarching story arc to Season 2, but one relationship marks the most dramatic events of the entire season. Orville medical officer Claire Finn (Penny Johnson Jerald) finds herself falling in love with science officer Isaac (Mark Jackson). Isaac is a Kaylon, a unit of a race of artificial life forms, sent to the Orville to observe organic life and pass back reports to his homeworld. Isaac initiates a romantic/sexual relationship with Finn as part of his study of humans, but finds himself developing a true emotional bond with her. This relationship takes a fateful turn in the dark, high-stakes double episode “Identity”, in which the Orville returns a malfunctioning Isaac to Kaylon 1; what follows is the Battlestar Galactica-like revelation that the Kaylon wiped out the humanoid species that created them and now intend to launch an invasion of the Union and destroy all organic sentient life. The Kaylon hijack Isaac and the Orville,and send a massive armada to Earth. The resulting space battle between the Kaylon, the Union fleet, and the Union’s recent enemies/new allies the Krill,  is one of the most elaborate and well-shot battles ever made for televised science fiction. In the end, the invasion is thwarted in large part because Isaac has formed deep family ties to Finn and her children, and turns against his own species. The consequential importance of strong emotional relationships is reaffirmed in the season finale “The Road Not Taken”, where an alternate timeline is formed in which Mercer and Grayson never go on a second date and therefore never marry. Without that marriage and subsequent divorce, Mercer never commands the Orville, Finn never meets and falls in love with Isaac; the Kaylon invasion thus succeeds in conquering the Union because Isaac never develops the feeling of family he used in the original timeline to inspire his changing alliances.

These stories and others in the season demonstrate that The Orville is not just Star Trek with Family Guy jokes; it is rather a surprisingly good example of character-driven televised science fiction with a strong, emotionally resonant core. Orville makes the case that an SF television show need not sacrifice humor or lightheartedness or human failings in order to chronicle progress towards the final frontier. Those character traits – all part of the rich emotional mosaic of humanity – provide substantial character development and story depth, that provide relatable, fallible characters free of the moral earnestness that ofttimes afflicts the Trek franchise. With The Orville, MacFarlane makes entertaining use of humanity’s light and dark sides alike, as he champions and celebrates the human drive towards exploration and discovery.

From the Editor

Winter 2021

Ian Campbell
Editor, SFRA Review

I’d like to thank you for reading SFRA Review. This is my first issue as senior editor, and while I cannot hope to surpass the standards Sean Guynes instituted during his tenure, I can try to maintain these standards. In fact, this issue is really his, as Sean directed the content, while I merely arranged it. We have him to thank for everything that’s been done to professionalize the Review and raise its visibility.

I live in Atlanta, in the lovely and newly-blue state of Georgia, where I work at Georgia State University. I primarily write about Arabic-language SF, though I also publish on postcolonial Moroccan literature in Arabic and French, and sometimes on Anglophone SF. I grew up on old-school Anglo-American SF, but have gradually learned not to reread the sort of things my teenage self thought magnificent.

It is in the spirit of looking back upon things we once thought magnificent, now with a more mature and critical eye, that we present to you the only part of this issue that is my contribution rather than Sean’s. The Review has been publishing for fifty years, now: half a century of discourse on SF as serious literature. We invite creators, critics, scholars and fans of all generations to take a look at what we’re calling Interrogating Our History, and to consider the call for papers, through which you can consider submitting a reflection upon works the critics, scholars and fans of the year 1971 considered influential. Please consider submitting: the papers will be published in the year’s remaining issues.

My role here is to boost the signals of other people: writers and artists, reviewers, graduate students, emerging scholars, established scholars, independent scholars and scholars from outside the Anglophone world. The Review provides a platform for anyone to make observations or draw conclusions about the vast, increasing diversity of SF and related genres. As an international publication, we have the reach to enable scholars from all over the world to discuss speculative fiction and how it manifests in corners of the world that my teenage self only knew about through stereotypes and Orientalism. Do you have a point to make, or an axe to grind? Contact us.

For now, little will change, especially structurally. Sean did a great job raising the level of professionalism, and I hope to build upon that. In this issue, in addition to reviews and feature articles, our editorial team brings to you papers from Us in Flux and Beyond Borders; future issues will maintain these symposia and special sections. Are you organizing a conference or part of a group of scholars who wish to present multiple perspectives on the same topic? Again, contact us. We look forward to hearing from you.