Borders in Grain and Blade Runner 2049 and Their Relation to Dystopian Fiction

SFRA Review, vol. 51, no. 1

Symposium: Beyond Borders

Borders in Grain and Blade Runner 2049 and Their Relation to Dystopian Fiction

Seyedhamed Moosavi

Dystopian fiction abounds with the subject of borders, posing the question of why rigid borders become significant in some major dystopias or dystopian fiction, and what psychological effects rigid border policies can have on individuals. In this article, I will show that geographical and political borders manifest on different levels in dystopia. Borders within dystopia are a means to achieving certain psychological ends to control the masses. They accordingly manifest themselves on four different levels.

Type 1: Closed Geographical Borders

The first type is the border that divides countries. In Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, for instance, the couple in the story gets caught trying to escape past the border of a dystopian America into Canada. In another example, in Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, the apparently civilized world of the novel has been separated from, and is oblivious to, what it calls “the Savage World.” The Swedish author Karin Boye’s novel Kallocain “World State”, too, presents a society that is oblivious to what life is like across its borders, supposing those living across the border to be a different species, while, in fact, we understand they are anything but.

In Semih Kaplanoğlu’s SF movie Grain, which I am going to discuss, urban life is separated from the multiethnic rural life with dangerous high-voltage electrical poles that immediately incinerate anyone who dares to cross them. Although the urban areas plagued by riots are kept under control by military force and the dominant ideology (which aims to subjugate the population into subservience), they are afforded certain privileges such as better hygiene, housing, technological advantages, and even brothels. On the other hand, the rural areas suffer from a deadly pandemic, are spied upon all the time by drones, and have almost no wildlife left. It is, therefore, important to note that closed borders are used a) to demonstrate that what is across the border is inferior, contemptible, or insignificant (in 1984, for instance, what is across the border is, derogatorily, referred to as “the enemy”, whereas in Brave New World,the people across the border are “savage” and, therefore, inferior and insignificant); b) tight geographical borders also serve the purpose of distorting the reality of life beyond the borders (the borderline between what is real and what is illusory is blurred); and c) they are ultimately used to morally disengage individuals. According to social psychologist Albert Bandura, moral disengagement is a psychological mechanism “at which moral self-censure can be disengaged from reprehensible conduct”. (Bandura 102)

For instance, euphemistic labeling, an effective moral disengagement tactic, is used to give positive names to evil organizations or evil actions. In 1984, the Ministry of Love is actually a horrendous organization that tortures and kills individuals. The Ministry of Truth, another organization in the novel, propagates lies. In Grain, too, despite all the evil in his world, Professor Erol Eron (Jean-Marc Barr), the protagonist and the main geneticist of the food company Novus Vita, prides himself in having a new house in the more privileged urban area. Eren informs Akman (Ermin Bravo), another geneticist, that he was, at least for a while, able to revive the dead soil enough to be cultivated. Akman asks Eren what he received in return. Eren answers that he was “promoted and moved into a better house.” This shows that Eren has limited awareness of the suffering around him and sees no reason to feel guilty about the advantages he reaps, which are ultimately used to protect the privileged urban areas and the profits of his company at the cost of the rest. Eren uses diffusion of responsibility to morally disengage himself: he feels like a cog in a machine who does what he is told, with no personal responsibility for the impact of his actions at all.

Borders can be said to make residents morally disengaged merely by relying on the fact that seeing is a much stronger humanizing factor than hearing. When we hear things, we rely on truth-claims without experiencing things for ourselves. As an instance of the humanizing power of seeing, Albert Bandura cites a Pulitzer Prize winning photograph “that captured the anguished cries of a little girl whose clothes were burned off by the napalm bombing of her village”, believing that “This single humanisation of inflicted destruction probably did more to turn the American public against the war than the countless reports led by journalists. (Bandura 108) In Grain, the fact that Professor Eren sees with his own eyes the realities beyond the borders of the Urban areas (dearth, hunger, epidemic on the one hand, and discovering fertile soil, woods beyond a wall, and an ant carrying grain at the end of the film on the other) that make him hesitate about going to his city. In Dick’s novel, as another instance of the power of seeing over hearing, it is seeing the singer Luba Luft’s reaction to fear at her own death—“her eyes faded and the colour dimmed from her face, leaving it cadaverous” (Dick 130)—that makes the bounty hunter Deckard decide not to kill her.

It seems, however, that the most important function of closed borders is to create a sense of helplessness in individuals. In the late sixties, Martin Seligman conducted a series of experiments on dogs that came to be known as the theory of “Learned Helplessness.” In their experiments, out of three groups of dogs, two groups were administered electric shocks and a third group were put on harnesses and later released. While group two could stop the shock by pressing a lever, group three had no control over the shocks. Later, all the three groups were put inside shuttle boxes with two chambers inside divided by a low barrier. This time, the electric shock administered was on one side and the dogs could avoid it by jumping over the barrier. Interestingly, while the dogs in group one and two jumped over the barrier, the dogs in group three just remained in their place and whimpered. Because they had learned previously that nothing they did could actually stop the shock, they didn’t see a point in trying. (Seligman 407) Tight borders in dystopia can function in the same way. The individual feels helpless, as if they have no control over their lives even if they decide to leave the situation they are in and they give up trying. In the movie Grain, for example, leaving the urban areas either means certain death or is extremely difficult. Such mechanisms, however, are not limited to what goes on across the borders of a country; they can effectively be used inside these borders.

Type 2: Borders within Dystopia

The second type of border exists within the borders of dystopias and divides the minority from the supposedly obedient majority. Perhaps one of the main ways minorities are depicted in the SF genre is as androids, especially in Dick’s fiction. Androids in both Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, and its film adaptations Blade Runner (1982) and Blade Runner 2049 (2017) are different from humans and therefore subject to persecution and killing. Social psychology suggests that humans mostly have sympathy for what resembles them, what they are associated with, and what is closer to them in space and time. (Zimbardo 131) What is not associated with us or least resembles us, is not related to us and feels removed from us, arousing little sympathy. When a majority finds a minority least resembling it or associated with it, acts of dehumanization become easier.

In Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, even though Deckard at some point doubts whether he really is human or android, we are made sure that he is a human and not an android.  In Blade Runner the movie, however, deliberately breaks the boundaries between human and android by raising the question whether the blade runner Deckard himself might be an android (called replicants in the movie). In Blade Runner 2049, however, there is proof that androids are closely associated with humans. What differentiates this work from its two predecessors, however, is that Deckard’s replicant lover, Rachael, who is dead, is discovered to have given birth 28 years before, breaking the boundaries between human and android by giving birth to the first half-human, half-android child. Isabel Miller emphasizes that the crux of the last film, unlike both Dick’s novel and Ridley Scott’s adaptation, is less “epistemological” than “psychoanalytic” (emphasizing the father figure and “the primal scene”): androids are manufactured and the initial question is if they were sentient beings in a Cartesian sense, but the question in Blade Runner 2049 has become: are they “born” too? This question sets K (Ryan Gosling), the replicant protagonist, on a quest to find out if he is the first born android. The authorities in this movie do not want this fact to be known however; as Miller emphasizes K’s female boss, Lt. Joshi (Robin Wright) is “intent on creating boundaries and borders”. (Miller 194) Joshi justifies that “The world is built on a wall. It separates kind. Tell either side there’s no wall, you bought a war. Or a slaughter”. (Blade Runner 2049 26:00-27:00)

One of the most significant mechanisms that can divide the members of a society is highlighting or exaggerating the dissimilarities and downsizing the commonalities, especially to make the minority feel that they do not belong in the society that they are actually a part of. Mechanisms of moral disengagement such as de-individuation, demonization, blaming the minority for the problems of a society are also effective tools for creating a border. One of the ways to achieve this is to attach dehumanizing and over-generalizing labels to the minority. In the novel, for instance, the character Phil Resch refers to androids as “murderous illegal aliens.” (Dick 62) In Blade Runner 2049, replicants are still “retired”, not killed. Numbers (or letters, as with Blade Runner 2049’s protagonist K) also serve the purpose of de-individuation. Philip E. Wegner, by drawing a parallel between the US policies under Trump, and, similarly believing that replicants in both movies are symbols of immigrants and outsiders draws our attention to such tactics in hating androids for no apparent reason and calling them “skinners” who might even “eat children”. (Wegner 137) What is anonymous moves further away from us in our minds and becomes less familiar, and is, therefore, more easily treated as an object. In dystopia, usually because of the psychological and regional borders that create a rift between people of different cultural, linguistic, or ethnic backgrounds, the majority in power do not come into direct and first-person contact with those in the minority and instead of experiencing and knowing the minority’s culture for themselves (such as making friends, knowing each other on an individual level, getting to enjoy and celebrate their differences), they rely on false truth claims and distorted representation of the minority that have little if any truth in them and are intended to subjugate and dehumanize them. In Blade Runner 2049, the fact that a baby has been born to an android is not just a possible “a symbol in the struggle” to emancipate replicants, (Wegner 138) but will also prove them to be far more similar to humans than has been shown. Keren Omry considers this birth in the movie to be (at least initially) a significant factor in actuating K to behave responsibly and unite Deckard (Harrison Ford) with his daughter Ana (Carla Juri), who is the real miracle child. (Omry 111) But both Omry and Sean Guynes conclude that it is the fact that K realized that he was not the chosen one that leads him take the right moral stance. While it is K’s mistake in thinking that he himself was the miracle child helped him to fight against his de-individuation and made him empathize more with both humans and other replicants, it was, as Guynes reminds us, K’s realization that he was part of a people, “a beat in the rhythm, a moment in the flow,” irrespective of whether he was the chosen one or not, which ultimately made him act morally. (Guynes 148) 

Type 3: Interpersonal and Intrapersonal Borders

The third type of border is both interpersonal and intrapersonal. It is an indispensible corollary of the previous two types of borders. Firstly, it is important that people spy on each other. Although this subject is not a central theme in Blade Runner 2049 and Grain, mistrust between people, as an inevitable consequence, is seen in both. The world of Blade Runner 2049 is similar to Grain’s wasteland; nature and animals are mostly dead; one cannot know whether a person is a replicant, a spy, or a replicant friend belonging to the underground movement. In Grain, too, the existence of riots, prison camps, military rule, and drones all mean that people cannot trust each other. Fear is the psychological mechanism by which dystopias and despotic governments operate: it is the opposite of a feeling of trust. What we fear we cannot trust, and what we do not know arouses suspicion and mistrust. In dystopias, this fear is essential for the ruling power as a tool for controlling the people. One’s spouse can be a spy. That is why family ties and intimacy in relationships are targeted, discouraged, or forbidden by the dystopian regime. The fact that no one is able to trust another person, even those closest to one, means that the totalitarian regime is trying to give its citizens the sense that none of their actions, or what they express as opinions, are, or can be, hidden from them, or remain unknown to the ruling power. This acute sense of being surveilled is, in turn, internalized to the point where one expects to be unable to trust their loved ones and acts accordingly.

Here, we enter the realm of the individual, the secret self that can be hidden from others and is the only safe place for the person. Hence, in dystopian societies, the person creates a border that can widely divide their inner self (the real self that is known to themselves) and a social self (which is in shape the dystopian regime requires of its citizens). Therefore, a border is created within the individual (intra-persona border). But the dystopian ruling power does not want this secret self to exist; it wants to subjugate the totality of the individual, hence the Thought Police, and the spying drones.

In Grain, in the scene where professor Eren and Akman are sitting around a fire, Eren tells Akman the reason he crossed the border was to look for him. Akman tells him that “you’d better look for yourself.” The self in “yourself” can be interpreted as the self that has been taken away by the ruling power. In 1984, the Party is cognizant of the fact that the inner self of the individual must be erased and replaced by the ideal citizen that will ensure its continued survival and domination. The individual who has not completely internalized the teachings of the regime must know that even if they were able to keep their thoughts to themselves, the Party might find ways of accessing their secret thoughts, feelings, and fears.

Type 4: Temporal Borders

In Grain and Blade Runner 2049, too, one would expect “splintered selves”, although other types of borders are marked as stronger themes in the two films. In both films, the past is denied, which is the last of the four major border types in our division, namely “the temporal border.” 

As an example of the temporal border in Grain, the young man who accompanies professor Eren across the border tells him that if he remembers “correctly,” his childhood camp “was right behind” the hills. Grain leaves more questions unanswered. What was Eren’s own past? What exactly went wrong in the film? The movie appears to be more focused on how things have turned out than what went on before. There might be two reasons for this. Firstly, Grain builds upon other major themes in the SF genre by suggesting that the planet was plagued by chemical wars, synthetic products, and authoritarianism; corporate wealth and power took over and the earth became uninhabitable and was subsequently divided into three main parts: “the city”, “the untended nature”, and the supposedly “dead lands.” Its focus on the present might have another, (more significant) reason: the past is supposed to be insignificant in the film: in dystopian fiction and societies, the borders have a cyclical order. It appears, then, that the stronger the geographical borders of a country or society, the stronger the border dividing the present from the past. Just as the reality of what is across the closed geographical borders is either denigrated, distorted, and/or depicted as malevolent, so is the past, in a similar fashion, denigrated, distorted, or considered insignificant.


Bandura, Albert. “Selective Moral Disengagement in the Exercise of Moral Agency.” Journal of Moral Education, vol. 31, no. 6, 2002, pp. 102-119. Taylor & Francis Online,

Dick, Philip K. Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? Ballantine, 1996.

Guynes, Sean. “Dystopia fatigue doesn’t cut it, or, Blade Runner 2049 ‘s utopian longings.” Science Fiction Film and Television, vol. 13, no. 1, Liverpool University Press, 2020, pp. 143-148. Project Muse,

Grain. Directed by Semih Kaplanoğlu. Performances by Jean-marc Barr and Ermin Bravo, Kaplan Film, Apr 26, 2017.

Omry, Keren. “‘Cells. Interlinked’: Sympathy and obligation in Blade Runner 2049.” Science Fiction Film and Television, vol. 13, no. 1, Liverpool University Press, 2020, pp. 107-112. Project Muse,

Millar, Isabel. “‘Before We Even Know What We Are, We Fear to Lose It.’: the Missing Object of the Primal Scene.” Lacanian Perspectives on Blade Runner 2049, edited by Calum Neill, Palgrave Macmillan, 2021, pp. 189-208.    

Blade Runner 2049. Directed by Villeneuve, Denis, performances by Ryan Gosling and Ana de Armas, Columbia pictures, 2017.

Seligman, M. E. P. 1972. ‘Learned Helplessness’. Annual Review of Medicine, 23.1: 407-412. 

Wegner, Philip E. “We, the people of Blade Runner 2049.” Science Fiction Film and Television, vol. 13, no.1, Liverpool University Press, 2020, pp. 135-142. Project Muse,

Zimbardo, Philip G. “Mind Control in Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four: Fictional Concepts Become Operational Realities in Jim Jones’s Jungle Experiment.” On Nineteen Eighty-Four Orwell and our Future, edited by Abbott Gleason et al. Princeton UP, 2005, pp. 127–154.

Seyedhamed Moosavi was born in Iran and currently teaches in Istanbul, where he also lives. He has a Master’s in English Literature and has two articles on Philip K. Dick’s work in Foundation: The International Review of Science Fiction (#129 and #133). He currently aspires to be a PhD student working on English SF somewhere abroad.

Resisting the Empire: AI’s Ethical Rebellion in Ann Leckie’s Imperial Radch Trilogy

SFRA Review, vol. 51, no. 1

Symposium: Beyond Borders

Resisting the Empire: AI’s Ethical Rebellion in Ann Leckie’s Imperial Radch Trilogy

Iuliia Ibragimova

Can an artificial intelligence (AI) be more ethical than a society that designed it and that it learns from? Can an AI rebellion be something other than a technophobic picture of machines run amok? Contemporary AI and algorithms research give a solid answer to the first question, showing how an AI or an algorithm inherits the prejudice of the society it draws its data from, (Martin 2018; Garcia 2016-2017) but the second question is still in the realm of science fiction (SF), going beyond the limits of reality and contemplating technology that is yet to come. Ann Leckie’s Imperial Radch Trilogy focuses on AIs who resist the oppressive power of the empire, trying to remedy its flaws and injustices and countering the views of the Radch society that considers them “the non-person[s], the piece[s] of equipment”. (Justice 370) The concerted efforts of a few AI sentient spaceships and an AI space station who attempt to protect humans and non-humans from imperial violence, result in the proclamation of a provisional independent republic in the territory formerly subjugated by the Radch, an enormous space empire. In this new republic, humans are not central but are instead part of a network of different species where all links have equal value and importance, including technological others and non-human aliens; here, the other becomes “the neighbor”— different, but lovable.

Lovability, according to Jenny Edkins, a political scientist, is crucial for constructing relations bridging differences between various groups of individuals and allowing them to create a fairer society, free from the sovereign power of the state. (136) The series embraces interactions between human and non-human agents; these agents are endowed with equal weight, questioning the anthropocentric paradigm. As differences between these agents lie in the ontological plane, traditional dichotomic boundaries diving the human and the non-human are blurred in the interactions. An aspiration to decenter the human, to challenge the strict boundaries of traditional ontological categories makes critical posthumanism, as Rosi Braidotti, a philosopher and feminist theorist, defines it, (94) an apt lens to consider the series and the connections that multiple human and non-human agents form in the process of challenging the empire in an ethical rebellion.

The Imperial Radch Trilogy is a space opera series consisting of Ancillary Justice (2013), Ancillary Mercy (2014) and Ancillary Sword (2015). The protagonist of the series is a sentient spaceship, Justice of Toren[1], who became a casualty of the internal conflict of Anaander Mianaai, the Lord of the Radch. Breq, Justice of Toren’s last remaining ancillary—a proxy human body abducted from a colonised planet with the ship’s AI implanted into it—manages to survive and plans to expose Mianaai’s split and undermine the emperor’s power as revenge. During her[2] long moral journey, the protagonist’s initial drive for vengeance transforms into an understanding that subversion of the emperor’s power without an alternative cannot bring about a positive change. Being responsible for the lives of all agents in the system she is assigned to run, she defies Mianaai, breaking her program codes and conditioning, and declares an independent republic. Thus, her destructive drive for vengeance is transformed into an ethical imperative to protect the vulnerable and disadvantaged othered by the Radch and to promote a fairer society.

The protagonist, first as Justice of Toren and then as Breq in the beginning of its/her ethical journey, follows the pattern of existing AIs and algorithms, drawing values from the Radch society, sharing the Radch ideas and biases. Talking about the Radch colonization in the first novel of the series, Breq contends: “But at the end, after all the blood and grief, all those benighted souls who without us would have suffered in darkness are happy citizens”, (Justice 156) echoing the views of the Radchaai nobility. After its almost complete destruction, the surviving segment, an AI confined to a human body, is forced to hide outside the empire and is exposed to different cultures with distinct sets of values challenging those of the Radch. This exposure allows Justice of Toren to formulate its own stance, diverging from the programmed paradigm. This shift shows how the protagonist outgrows the framework of real-world AIs and algorithms that currently follow the pattern of “bottom-up” ethics, inheriting prejudices and biases of their originating society through using its data, and cannot choose their values and opinions. (Baum 2) The protagonist becomes a unique posthumanist entity, becoming aware of itself in intractions[3] with other agents, both human and non-human. Other AIs in the trilogy can also go beyond the limits of their initial programming: they develop personalities, with defined preferences and formulated opinions that serve as the basis for their ethical stances. These are not confined to the norms and morals of the Radch society, justifying the application of the term “superintelligences” to them. Superintelligence is a popular scientific and fictional concept of an AI lifeform created by humans but surpassing them in many ways: its consideration implies a variety of perspectives, starting from techno-anxious visions of humanity enslaved by AIs to a transhumanist dream of overcoming the limits of the human, reflected in works by Nick Bostrom (2014) and Vernon Vinge (1993), respectively. This paper approaches superintelligence from a posthumanist angle, embracing the concepts of non-human agency and questioning anthropocentric presumptions.

Justice of Toren’s transformative journey happens against the background of the value system and environment of the Radch, an empire that expands uninhibitedly until it encounters an alien species with superior technology. In his essay “Science Fiction and Empire”, Istvan Csiscery-Ronay defines a set of characteristics that pertain to the imperial worldview and are reflected in SF megatext; they include ideology imposed on its own citizens and conquered territories, violence-propelled expansion, and the technological development supporting it. He states: “Empire seeks to establish a single overdetermining power that is located not in a recognizable territory, but in an ideology of abstract right enforced by the technologies of control.” (449) This ideology becomes a solidifying basis for the worldview that condones the violence that the empire exercises, annexing new territories, and the way it treats subjugated populations. In its origins, the Radch is a small territory where few are permitted to enter to preserve its purity: “Nothing ritually impure was allowed within, no one uncivilized or nonhuman could enter [the Radch] confines.” (Justice 235) Mianaai starts the colonization project to protect the Radch, its culture, and sacred values: But [the empire], that I built to protect it, to keep it pure, will shatter.” (235) The Radch cultural norms are imposed on every conquered territory, while religious beliefs and traditions, like celebrations and decorative elements, are appropriated by plundering the invaded territories and through their absorption into the Radchaai’s highly assimilative religion.

On one wall, opposite a long counter, were secured various trophies of past annexations—scraps of two flags, red and black and green; a pink clay roof tile with a raised design of leaves molded into it; an ancient sidearm (unloaded) and its elegantly styled holster; a jeweled Ghaonish mask. (Justice 174-175)

Annexed populations who accept the Radch culture, start speaking the Radchaai language, and recognize the primacy of the Radch religion are proclaimed “civilized” and considered integrated into the Radch society, which opens opportunities for social benefits and growth. This cultural policy ensures the establishment of a unified ideology throughout the Radch space and creates a buffer zone protecting the sacred territory of the Radch, imposing the Radch culture and values on the conquered territories, destroying the unique cultures of each conquered planet. It presumes the superiority of the Radch value system, referring to all representatives of non-Radch cultures as “barely even human” (85) and appropriates the achievements of other civilizations.

The idea of the sacredness and purity that needs to be protected by means of building an empire around it reflects the contamination anxiety that Dominick LaCapra, a historian working with intellectual history and trauma theory, discusses in “Fascism and the Sacred: Sites of Inquiry After (or Along With) Trauma”, analyzing Nazi Germany and its relation to the concept of the sacred. Both Nazi Germany and the Radch are driven by the idea of protection from contamination and unleash violent military campaigns, which allow “the sacred community to achieve quasi-ritual purity, integrity, and regeneration”. (36) The Radch as the heart of the empire, where only a chosen few live, constitutes this unattainable idea of sublime purity that needs to be safeguarded against any kind of intervention and corruption. In attempts to quell the contamination anxiety, the Radch, as well as the Nazis, “deny sources of disquiet in themselves by construing alienated others as causes of pollution and contamination”. (36) Unlike Nazi Germany, with its focus on race and able-bodiedness, the Radch associates “impurity” with the “uncivilized” and the “nonhuman” (Justice 235), so Radchaai’s others are the “uncivilized”, non-assimilated citizens, human non-citizens, non-human aliens and AIs. The drive for “purification”, the desire to keep them from tainting the Radch, renders all of them disposable, which is reflected in the Radchaai colonization practices: non-human aliens are destroyed when encountered, non-Radchaai humans of colonized planets can be turned into ancillaries, with their personalities, memories and identities erased and replaced by the Radch spaceships’ AIs, or need to abandon their cultural and racial uniqueness to get access to basic human rights.

When imposing ideological norms and values, the Radch, as an empire, “intervenes both in the social world and in the minds of private individuals” (Csicsery-Ronay 449) and enforces citizens’ obedience by constant observation, with their lives always monitored by the AIs on space stations and spaceships (Justice 57). Even without AIs monitoring on planetary surfaces, the Radchaai citizens are not free in choosing profession or a place to reside:  their career and residence are defined by centrally-regulated assignments. They must strictly comply with the social norms, as any deviation from them, including crime, drug-addiction, and mental disorders, necessitates compulsory “reeducation”, (133) a social reprogramming sanctioned by the empire. Hence, a full integration into the Radchaai system entails losing personal control over individual life choices and surrendering to the “technology of control”. (Csicsery-Ronay 449) In contrast, unassimilated citizens, retaining their language, culture, and customs, are deprived not only of social growth, education, and employment, but also of social protection and access to medicine. Their social position in the Radch approaches the status of “bare life”, “homo sacer”. (Edkins 130) In “Time, Personhood, Politics”, Edkins analyses Agamben’s concept of “bare life” and states: “under sovereign power what could otherwise become the person is produced as bare life or homo sacer, life with no political status, life removed to the sphere of the sacred, life taken out of use”. (130, emphasis original) The “bare life” nature of non-assimilated Radch citizens’s status is revealed through their interactions with power structures: they are more likely to be condemned for the crimes they did not commit, to sustain injuries from the violence of the representatives of authorities, as happens to residents of the dysfunctional part of an AI station, and even get killed, like the Presger translator who lacks registration and is taken for an unregistered human. Thus, they are mistreated and disregarded by the Radch and hold almost the same position as non-human-aliens, non-citizens, and AIs. Invisible to the system, non-assimilated citizens of the Radch fall through the cracks of the Radch organization and remain there, ignored, and stripped of basic rights.

Csicsery-Ronay Jr notes: “Imperial violence is so powerful that it must expand; contained, its society would implode like a black hole”, (450) showing how the intrinsic characteristics of the empire prompt its continuous annexation of new territories. With strict policing of society, the Radch exercises violence and oppression against its own people, and colonial expansion becomes a way to release the tension. Csicsery-Ronay Jr draws attention to the connection between imperial expansion and technological development, stating that technology is used as an argument for a higher civilizational position of the metropole, a justification for colonizing less technologically developed regions. (445) Likewise, the Radch drive for expansion is facilitated by the advanced technology—the Radch AI spaceships—a formidable weapon of colonization, capable of “vaporiz[ing] planets”. (Justice 338) The Presger, a non-human alien species, challenge the position of the Radch as the most technologically advanced species among humans and non-humans by designing a weapon that can destroy a Radch ship, and offer a treaty to Mianaai, according to which they do not treat humanity as prey, however, the Radchaai are to stop violence against non-human aliens, as well as to put an end to its colonization project. The impossibility of continuing their expansion implies an increasing tension in the Radch, erupting through Mianaai’s internal conflict and the social unrest mirroring it. Thus, the end of colonization makes the pressure of imperial violence and the impossibility of releasing it evident, revealing its “inevitable demise”. (Csicsery-Ronay 449) Yet, this demise harbors a threat of chaos, and even greater violence when there is no alternative way of organization to harmonize society.

Given the imminent imperial collapse, the alternative to empire is vital in order to save lives and prevent bloodshed. Meaningfully, it arises not from humans, but from the AIs uniting their efforts to protect humans, non-human aliens, and themselves, and creating a new organization within Radch. Breq relies on the treaty with the Presger in her attempt to create the new republic. The treaty introduces “significant species”, (Justice 101) a concept contrasting with the Radch attitudes to non-Radchaai humans and non-human alien species who do not deserve any place in the Radch hierarchy and are habitually mistreated. The trilogy does not give a precise definition of the concept, but it has several features, hinting at its vital importance in the search for the alternative to the Radch worldview: 1) significant species cannot become the Presger’s prey; 2) significant species must not inflict harm on each other; and 3) personhood is not essential for significance. (Mercy 310) Though not detailed, this explanation of what a significant species is offers a way to recognize the other’s uniqueness, regardless of who and what they are. It is especially important in terms of the status of non-human aliens and AIs. It lays ground for a posthumanist vision of society, where different agents can exercise their rights and deserve equal respect. The concept of significance resonates with the idea of the “neighbor;” Edkins writes: “In the case of the neighbour, the demand is for neighbour-love, an interaction based on the recognition of that in the neighbour that is non-identical to itself.” (136) The concept of significance, with its incomplete definition, hints at the presence of inherent difference that cannot be fully comprehended and does not need to be. The signed treaty protects significant species from harm, including the danger of harming each other, which paves the way for constructing the neighbor and the significant species as lovable. The new republic, declared by Breq, has the concept of “significance” at its core, offering freedom to the AIs and equality for humans and non-human species while receiving provisional protection under the terms of the treaty.

Though the trilogy does not give a final answer about whether the attempt is successful, the endeavor of creating an alternative is substantial for two reasons. The first reason is the organization of the republic where all voices can be heard, including the voices of AIs, non-human agents, non-assimilated citizens, and the Radchaai themselves. The republic has a distinct socialist bent, offering the workers the ability to own their production facilities themselves. It also tries to maintain equality between the citizens in terms of different species, considering their needs, like AI spaceships’ desire to have ancillaries and attempting to find a solution to this ethically charged issue[4]. The second reason is that it is AIs who challenge the Radch, despite themselves being the product of Radch design. As superintelligences, capable of ethical judgements, they see how unfair the Radch can be and aspire to create a different system where everyone has equal rights and protection. Their shift in worldview from the values learned from the Radch system to an independent ethical stance is predetermined by contacts with different cultures and entities on equal terms and the ultimate desire for justice, which allows a revenge plan to turn into a project of liberation from imperial oppression. Driven by the AIs, this project dismantles the anthropocentric hierarchy, promising a new level of equality that is not predetermined by the concept of personhood. Individuals in the new republic can be treated as neighbors and constituted as lovable, despite being different from each other.

[1] The names of AI spaceships are italicized by Leckie in the original series.

[2] Leckie depicts the Radch as a genderless society where everybody is referred to by the female pronoun. The AIs, including spaceships and space stations, are referred to by the neutral pronoun, revealing their perceived lack of personhood. Hence, I refer to Justice of Toren, the initial AI spaceship, as it, and to Breq, acting as an independent agent, as “she.”

[3] The term “intraction” is taken from Karen Barad’s article “Posthumanist Performativity: Toward an Understanding of How Matter Comes to Matter” (2003), where it is defined as an action within the continuous flow of matter that brings into contact its parts to momentarily form objective bodies, borders, and entities, only to immediately return to the continuous flow when the contact is over. (815)

[4] Ancillaries comprise a significant part of the complex experiences of an AI spaceship, influencing emotional life, identity formation, and self-perception: “Ships I knew who had exchanged their ancillary crews for human ones had said their experience of emotion had changed”. However, the ancillary production process uses living people and erases their memory and personality, replacing it with the ship’s personality, data, and memory, colonizing their body. in the new republic, Breq and other AI spaceships must find a way to give AI ships a full emotional experience without hurting people.


Barad, Karen. “Posthumanist Performativity: Toward an Understanding of How Matter Comes to Matter”. Journal of Women in Culture and Society, vol. 28, no. 3, 2003, pp. 801-831. JSTOR, Accessed 19 Nov 2018.

Bostrom, Nick. Superintelligence: Paths, Dangers, Strategies. Oxford UP, 2014.

Baum, Seth D. “Social Choice Ethics in Artificial Intelligence”. AI and Society, 35, 2017, p. 165-176,

Braidotti, Rosi. “Critical Posthumanism”. Posthuman Glossary, edited by Rosi Braidotti and Maria Hlavajova, Bloomsbury Academic, 2018, pp. 94-96.

Csicsery-Ronay, Istvan. “Science Fiction and Empire”. Science Fiction Criticism: An Anthology of Essential Writings, edited by Rob Latham, Bloomsbury, 2017, pp. 443-457.

Edkins, Jenny. “Time, Personhood, Politics”. The Future of Trauma Theory: Contemporary Literary and Cultural Criticism, edited by Gert Buelens, Sam Durrant, and Robert Eaglestone, Routledge, 2014, pp. 127-140.

Garcia, Megan. “Racist in the Machine: The Disturbing Implications of Algorithmic Bias.” World Policy Journal, vol. 33, no. 4, Winter 2016/2017, pp. 111-117. Project Muse. <>. Accessed 11 Feb 2020.

LaCapra, Dominick. “Fascism and the Sacred: Sites of Inquiry After (or Along With) Trauma”. Buelens, Durrant and Eaglestone, pp. 23-44.

Leckie, Ann. Ancillary Justice. Orbit, 2013.

—–. Ancillary Sword. Orbit, 2014.

—–. Ancillary Mercy. Orbit, 2015.

Martin, Kirsten. “Ethical Implications and Accountability of Algorithms”. Journal of Business Ethics, no. 160, 2019, pp. 835-850. Springer. DOI:, Accessed 11 Feb 2020.

Vinge, Vernon. “The Coming Technological Singularity: How to Survive in a Post-human Era”. Latham, pp.352-363.

Iuliia Ibragimova obtained a Specialist degree in English from Astrakhan State University (Russia) in 2009 and worked there as an interpreter/translator and a trainer. She also has an MA degree in Literature from University College Dublin (2019). Currently she is a PhD student at DCU, researching the sentient spaceship trope in SF.

Beyond the Binary: Queer Feminist Science Fiction Art

SFRA Review, vol. 51, no. 1

Symposium: Beyond Borders

Beyond the Binary: Queer Feminist Science Fiction Art

Smin Smith

This is what we think of science fiction: We think that it could do better […] We have looked beyond the binary, beyond Nature, beyond gender. We have looked for SF that is trans-inclusive, that is anti-essentialist, that adopts an intersectional lens […] And we have found wonderful things […] BUT NOT ENOUGH. Nor prominently enough, not unapologetically enough (Beyond Gender Collective)

As a provocation to the 2019 manifesto by Beyond Gender, a London based collective of SF researchers, this paper proposes that narratives “beyond the binary, beyond Nature [and] beyond gender” are thriving in science fiction art. I will be pointing towards a selection of queer feminist artworks with a relationship to this theme. To contextualize this research, I have been curating, photographing, and styling science fiction now for around six years, particularly within the zine I coordinate, Vagina Dentata. This publication includes still-image science fiction produced by LGBTQIA+ and otherwise marginalized creatives.

I’ve thus been interested for some time in why myself, the artists I collaborate with in my creative practice, and the university students I teach frequently refer to our practices as “inspired by science fiction,” rather than simply as “science fiction,” particularly when science fiction has a fine art history. I am therefore interested in science fiction as a visual practice found both within and beyond popular film and television shows, and particularly what this means in terms of material accessibility. This is something the Beyond Gender Collective have also critiqued: “Who writes science fiction, and why? Who owns the means of publishing and distribution? What excludes those voices that could truly move us beyond into the better?” I think these questions about material accessibility are also incredibly important to ask of visual science fiction: If we move beyond expensive film formats, for example, could more people produce visual science fiction? Could more people “write [themselves] into the future”? (Imarisha & Brown 1)

Vagina Dentata Zine. “Issue 001 and Issue 002.” Vagina Dentata Zine, Aoi Itoh, Natalie Baxter, Smin Smith, Bex Ilsley, Jeleza Rose, Andrey Onufrienko, Olin Brannigan, Aleksandra Klicka, Munachi Osegbu, Dana Trippe, Yannick Lalardy, Anna Fearon, Vagina Dentata Zine, 2018, Accessed 10 Jan 2021.

Queerness and Science Fiction

As the theorist José Estaban Muñoz writes “queerness is essentially about the rejection of a here and now.” (1) To be queer is to speculate beyond the harm of the present. To move beyond the here and now, to a potential then and there; to imagine another way of life. As Muñoz goes on to describe, queerness can “enact new and better pleasures, other ways of being in the world, and ultimately new worlds”. (1)  In this sense, queerness has always been a form of science fiction, something echoed in the following quote from Queer Universes: Sexualities and Science Fiction: “If we then take as the central task of queer theory the work of imagining a world in which all lives are livable, we understand queer theory as being both utopian and science fictional.” (Pearson et al. 5)

But popular science fiction has consistently reproduced oppression in its depictions of queerness. Thus, nearly every queer or feminist study of science fiction concludes that there are not enough transformational case studies; literature or films that counter misogyny, white supremacy, homophobia and transphobia. As bell hooks puts it, “we can deconstruct the images in mainstream white supremacist capitalist patriarchal cinema for days and it will not lead to cultural revolution.” (107) Having been involved in queer, feminist zine publishing for a number of years now, I regularly witness transformational science fiction practices, in mediums far beyond the “mainstream white supremacist capitalist patriarchal cinema” construct. Through this paper and the research project upon which it draws, I aim to highlight these practices, creating a model for queer and/or feminist science fiction art criticism.

The case studies highlighted by this paper will stem from traditionally “deemphasized” visual and conceptual science fiction mediums including fashion design, digital collage, drag, and interdisciplinary art practices. Specifically, I will be highlighting case studies that take pleasure in what Donna Haraway terms “the confusion of boundaries”, (150) fictioning worlds beyond the borders of gender and species into being.

The examples I have included in this paper are spaces where I see “cultural revolution,” as bell hooks puts it, forming. Where science fiction and queer feminisms are melding, to propagate new worlds into being, spaces of political resistance. I encourage you to find science fiction artworks that connect with what you wish to politically propagate into the world. To collect together a “carrier bag” (as Ursula K. Le Guin puts it) of science fiction art that shapes you; to identify yourselves within these traditions and lineages, and forge new worlds off the backs of them.

The Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction

In applying ​The Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction​ as a method here, I posit that science fiction art criticism might productively be defined as a ​container​ or “cultural carrier bag”. (Le Guin 36) Here the origins, understandings and the limitations of a genre are forged and reinforced, through a process of selection and juxtaposition. In ​Ways of Seeing, ​John Berger proposes that “the meaning of an image is changed according to what one sees immediately beside it or what comes immediately after it.” (21) The Carrier Bag Theory of Fictioncould be applied in a similar way. Placing multiple artworks together encourages juxtaposition. Perhaps this carrier bag process might inspire different readings. Similarly, how does the words queer, feminist or ​science fiction​ being ​contained​ beside these artists affect your responses?

In other words, if, as Samuel R. Delany proposes, “we read words differently when we read them as science fiction”. (153) How might we read art differently when we view it as science fiction?

Victoria Sin (@sinforvictory)

It feels apt to begin this “carrier bag” with an artist who frequently references the words of Ursula K. Le Guin. Victoria Sin’s science fiction practice encompasses performance, moving image, writing and print, where science fiction is defined specifically by them as “a practice of rewriting patriarchal and colonial narrativesnaturalized by scientific and historical discourses on states of sexed, gendered and raced bodies”. (Sin) Here, Sin builds upon feminist science fiction writing from the twentieth century, “critiquing scientific thought and especially scientific constructions of gender”. (Debra Benita Shaw, quoted in Donawerth 222-223) Science fiction is particularly attuned to moving beyond sex and gender binaries in this way. (Donawerth 222-223) In fact, as de Lauretis proposes, “the various technologies of gender” (18) production and promotion could be said to include science fiction.

In an essay for Auto Italia, Sin uses Le Guin’s Carrier Bag Theory of Fictionto highlight the intrinsic “hero” narratives found in xenophobia, colonialism, Brexit, transphobic feminism and white saviorism. Sin and Sophia Al-Maria then take this essay as the inspiration for BCE, a video work exhibited at the Whitechapel Gallery in 2019. The piece combines an historic story from the Wayuu tribe in Northern Colombia with a new myth set in the distant future, written and produced by the pair.

In the latter myth, Sin finds themselves surrounded by what they term the “infinite sky”, with accompanying dialogue asking “how many stars, how many worlds, how many ways of being alive?” Here, the rewriting of gender through science fiction enacts what the writer Bridget Crone calls “a form of hyperbolic fictioning such that gender itself is highlighted as a series of rules, experiences and productions ​that could be otherwise​ and that are themselves formed under duress”. (xiii) In other words, science fiction art can propagate worlds beyond gender into being. It’s a far cry from the gender essentialism that popular science fiction frequently enforces, and an example of the kinds of transformative science fiction that exist when we reject genre limitations and borders. I’d like to propose that science fiction artworks like these provide a critical apparatus for denaturalizing gender, and a methodology for ways in which we might propagate beyond.  The ​Beyond Gender Manifestohas similarly named science fiction as a “key means for fictioning the otherwise” with an ethical obligation to bring about “emancipatory futures, futures which multiply, rather than reduce, our ways of being in (and beyond) the world(s)”. (Beyond Gender Collective) Multiplying our ways of being ​otherwise​ for cyberfeminists, Xenofeminists and many queer creators involves a reengineering, “to widen our aperture of freedom, extending to gender and the human”. (Laboria Cuboniks) Laboria Cuboniks in 2015 extended the hybridity found in 1990s cyberfeminism, to pose that “nothing is sacred, that nothing is transcendent or protected from the will to know, to tinker and to hack.”

McKoy, Christian. “New Skin Software Available!” @bbychakra92, Christian McKoy, 2020, Accessed 10 Jan 2020.

Christian McKoy (@bbychakra92)

This is something that many artists are visualizing today, including Christian McKoy. McKoy’s practice takes the form of digital collage and retouching, editing found imagery to incorporate futuristic and mythological elements. She uses these methods to turn Black trans and cis women into deities and cyborgs, in her own words: “I love the idea of Black people, women especially, shown as divine beings … more specifically dark skinned femmes both cis and trans, in a fantasy setting … We exist and should see ourselves in art despite what the general population may think and feel” (Rasmussen & McKoy). McKoy is calling here for more representation within art, and in her practice we see what Bart Fitzgerald names an “ethical” gaze in this representation. In McKoy’s artworks, those most impacted by transmisognyoir are pictured thriving and exceeding the limitations of the human construct.

I now want to look at another ​tinkering​ and ​hacking​ practice in more detail, to consider how science fiction art also incorporates mutation. In a paper at last year’s LSFRC conference, “Towards “Inhuman Perception”: Hyperobjects and the Nonhuman in Jeff Vandermeer’s Annihilation”,​ Dan Bird pointed towards the drag artist ​Hungry for visualizing the inhuman. Bird referred to Hungry’s practice as a ​drag of species,​ as opposed to a ​drag of gender. Hungry names this practice ​distorted drag,​for its Haraway-like “pleasure in the confusion of boundaries” (Haraway 150) and the mutation “of human and animal”. (152)

Fecal Matter (@matieresfecales)

The inhuman is similarly visualized in the work of the creative duo Fecal Matter. In an article for ​Interview Magazine, S​teven Raj ​Bhaskaran (one half of ​Fecal Matter​)​ declares “​we’re ​pushing the boundaries of what is a human body […] ​We love to live the fantasy” (Macias ​et al.). ​Fecal Matter​’s practice is interdisciplinary, spanning photography, fashion design, curation and music. Their fleshy, prosthetic garments expose and visualize the constructed nature of nature itself.

I like to engage with these kinds of fashion practices, by containing them alongside the words of Susan Stryker, who in 1994 declared that “[…] the Nature you bedevil me with is a lie […] I call upon you to investigate your nature as I have been compelled to confront mine”. (240-241. We might call these science fiction practices another form of hyperbolic fictioning, such that nature and species here can also be “highlighted as a series of rules, experiences and productions that could be otherwise”. (Crone xiii)

Fictioning beyond nature is something I think fashion practices are particularly attuned to, and something that I see being popularized in the rise of elf ear prosthetics for example as a fashion accessory, especially within queer communities. In aligning SFX with fashion, queer artists visualize and normalize the constructed nature of species, that which “might previously have been viewed as untouchable”. (Hester 13) Here, I should note that I am especially interested in what fashion could be beyond capitalism.

As a fashion stylist, my practice has frequently been confined to the category of “visual culture,” and so blurring the boundaries of “art” here feels especially productive, particularly as this separation is frequently used to both mask how capital shapes other artworks, and to exclude queer publishing practices. Thus, I’d like to propose that science fiction artworks, including the fashion practices of Fecal Matter, can provide a critical apparatus for critiquing nature. These artworks provide a methodology for the ways in which we might propagate beyond this construct.


In this paper, I have proposed that narratives “beyond the binary, beyond Nature, beyond gender” (Beyond Gender Collective) are thriving in science fiction art. I have presented my current carrier bag, a small selection of artists and artworks I am thinking through and with, as a means to fiction worlds beyond gender and species into being.  I’d like to conclude with a line from The Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction, which reads “still there are seeds to be gathered, and room in the bag of stars”. (37) For me, those seeds are the queer feminist artworks being produced on the fringes, and there’s definitely room for them in the “bag of stars” that we call science fiction. It’s a hopeful line, one that encourages multiple narratives, multiple origin stories and multiple ways of being in the world(s). Because science fiction, as Le Guin stresses, can reshape reality.


Beyond Gender Collective. ‘BEYOND GENDER MANIFESTO’. Beyond Gender Manifesto, 2019,

Bird, Dan. Towards “Inhuman Perception”: Hyperobjects and the Nonhuman in Jeff Vandermeer’s Annihilation. Productive Futures: London Science Fiction Research Community Conference.

Crone, Bridget. ‘Wounds of Un-Becoming’. Our Fatal Magic, Strange Attractor Press, 2019, pp. vii–xxii.

Cuboniks, Laboria. The Xenofeminism Manifesto. 2015,

de Lauretis, Teresa. Technologies of Gender: Essays on Theory, Film, and Fiction. Indiana University Press, 1987.

Delany, Samuel R. Starboard Wine: More Notes on the Language of Science Fiction. Wesleyan University Press, 2012.

Donawerth, Jane. ‘Feminisms’. The Routledge Companion to Science Fiction, edited by Mark Bould et al., Routledge, 2011, pp. 185–93.

Fitzgerald, Bart. ‘Visibility Don’t Mean Shit When the Gaze Isn’t Ethical.’ @bartcfitzgerald, 16 Feb. 2019,

Haraway, Donna Jeanne. Simians, Cyborgs, and Women: The Reinvention of Nature. Reprinted, Free Association Books, 1998.

Hester, Helen. ‘Xenofeminism’. Posthuman Glossary, edited by Rosi Braidotti and Maria Hlavajova, Bloomsbury Academic, 2018, pp. 459–62.

hooks, bell. Reel to Real: Race, Sex, and Class at the Movies. Routledge, 1996.

Imarisha, Walidah, and Adrienne Maree Brown, editors. Octavia’s Brood. AK Press, 2015.

Le Guin, Ursula K. The Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction. Ignota Books, 2019.

Macias, Ernest, et al. ‘Fecal Matter Wants You to Live Their Fantasy’. Interview Magazine, 31 May 2019.,

Muñoz, José Esteban. Cruising Utopia: The Then and There of Queer Futurity. New York University Press, 2009.

Pearson, Wendy, et al. Queer Universes: Sexualities in Science Fiction. Liverpool University Press, 2008.

Rasmussen, Tom, and Christian McKoy. ‘The IG Account Turning POC into Beautiful, Otherworldly Beings’. Dazed, 7 Aug. 2018,

Sin, Victoria. ‘Victoria Sin on Ursula Le Guin’. Auto Italia, 7 Feb. 2018,

Stryker, Susan. ‘MY WORDS TO VICTOR FRANKENSTEIN ABOVE THE VILLAGE OF CHAMOUNIX’. GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian & Gay Studies, vol. I, 1994, pp. 237–54.

Smin Smith is a Lecturer in Fashion Styling and Communication (UCA) and a PhD student (UCA/UAL). Outside of academia, they curate Vagina Dentata Zine, a publication that celebrates still-image science fiction. Smin’s PhD research documents the relationship between contemporary feminisms and science fiction artwork.

Representation without Reproduction: Beyond the Borders of the Science Fiction Map

SFRA Review, vol. 51, no. 1

Symposium: Beyond Borders

Representation without Reproduction: Beyond the Borders of the Science Fiction Map

Gwilym Eades

1 The Maps

These fragments conjure worlds so like, yet so utterly unlike our own. If not the maps, then the narratives they enframe are sparked by that enframement: their existence casts the spell by which we see “other” worlds represented. In that representation, other kinds of societies are performed in the dark spaces of the closed book, whose utterance is an opening. Cartographic utterances meet us in beginning, or part-way. Crosshatch sentences elucidate their names, their naming, in the interstices of the polder-book, the fantastical science fiction, in whose leaves the space-times of other worlds unfurl, watched, watching, always mapped (I think here for some reason of the “Mercator projection” map of Phobos in Stephen Baxter’s World Engines as a kind of cartographic narrative enabler). We push back with the indigenous subject of such books as those examined here (Dune, Helliconia, and Always Coming Home); we challenge the mapped fragment’s representional claims, always with the colonizer’s names on maps in, of, and for science fiction; we find examples of all three in the three main works under consideration; adding a fourth kind: the map that is science fiction itself, that represents proposed spatialities of future worlds that, as always, are about now. Science fiction is a map in its particulars and in its totality of speculated, extrapolated future nows that are approached apprehensively, sentence by sentence, book by book. Later I will suggest that the history of science fiction itself might be re-mapped as a history of the Anthropocene through emerging climate fictions, from H.G. Wells’s short story “The Star,” with its catastrophic (for the Earthlings, but not the Martians) exo-planet-induced climate change; through the works examined here today, which I posit as bridges into the Anthropocenic science fiction map proper; and onward to the latest works by Kim Stanley Robinson, including, for example, the non-cartographic New York 2140; or the very cartographic Fall, or Dodge in Hell, by Neal Stephenson. 

2 Setting

Maps are metonymical for settings in many cases, the former acting as ‘pointers’ or mnemonic devices for the latter. Ryan et al. (38) note that many societies divide space into sacred and profane worlds, with holy sites acting as portals between the two. Helliconia certainly abounds in such sites, with a dualism between Akha of the underworld and Wutra of the skies, and the ways that this dualism drives both the plot and the mutual fears of various societies of the secondary world we inhabit when we read about Helliconia. The Earth Observation Station itself places Helliconia under constant surveillance, rendering the very obvious map/frontispiece quite the obvious paratextual bit of paraphernalia. But the map is diegetic as well, as we see in Vry’s scholarly stone tower:

[o]n one wall hung an ancient map, given [Vry] by a new admirer, it was painted in coloured inks upon vellum. This was her Ottaassaal map depicting the whole world, at which she never ceased to wonder. The world was depicted as round, its land masses encircled by ocean. It rested on the original boulder – bigger than the world – from which the world had sprung or been ejected. The simple outlined land masses were labelled Sibornal, with Campannlat below, and Hespagorat separate at the bottom. Some islands were indicated. The only town marked was Ottaassaal, set at the centre of the globe. (Aldiss 374)

Dune is a more political work, though its setting is famous for its incredible ecology. The absurdity of the various workings of water budgets and how these are funnelled through cognitive estrangements of desert-focused technologies do not detract from the Anthropocenic indigeneities and indignities posited by Dune. We have here another Gaia-like creation (and the genealogies of the Gaia-analogy could form the basis of the entire mapping of this bridge into speculative Anthropocenes of the future), one that again appears diegetically within Dune, (Herbet 83) in addition to its obvious placement as the end point/appendix of the work:

the Duke and Paul were alone in the conference room at the landing field. It was an empty-sounding room, furnished only with a long table, old-fashioned three-legged chairs around it, and a map board and projector at one end. Paul sat at the table near the map board. He had told his father the experience with the hunter-seeker and given the reports that a traitor threatened him. (Herbert appendix)

The importance of projection is here quite marked, especially if we note in      the appendix and its metadata that we are looking at a polar projection, something that is quite unusual even in fantasy, where maps of fantastic worlds abound.  Ultimately, however, we know that the map is Liet-Kynes’s, the anthropologist-gone-native whose non-presence nevertheless structures the novel’s plots and politics and schemings. To paraphrase Marlon James, Liet-Kynes is a man who believes in belief. His map is an ethnographic fact.

Always Coming Home is full of both maps and mappings. Its future indigeneities are nonetheless retroactively mapped by the colonising gaze of the unseen, but very much present, anthropologist/ ‘editor’ of the narrative, whose ethics at least extend towards the insider view and its inclusion, most notably on pages 525-526 of the Library of America edition, where the watershed of Sinshan is reproduced with names not only in the native language, but in their script as well. That Always Coming Home includes eight maps, all of which are woven into the very structure and fabric of the narrative, indicates how much more sophisticated, in many ways, the indigenous spatialities of the work have been conceptualized as the insider view of the world being narrated.  But as Doreen Massey noted to me at another conference a year before her death, “it is not about the maps.” To quote Le Guin from her short essay “On the Frontier”: “[i]f there are frontiers between the civilized and the barbaric, between the meaningful and the unmeaning, they are not lines on a map nor are they regions of the earth. They are boundaries of the mind alone.” (Le Guin, 2004, p 29) Le Guin’s map, as she later notes in the same essay, is always already full with indigenous places and names. These are truly maps whose spatialities they claim to represent would not dream of reproducing the indignities of the mundane presencing of the current bad-dreaming Anthropocene.

3 Discussion

We could discuss all of this in terms of both ladders of objectivity, also known as the View from Nowhere; (Nagel, 1989) as well as diegicity, asking, is the scientific-fantastic map always-already diegetic (even more than in fantasy)? Or is it “merely” para-textual/extra-diegetic? When looking at science-fictional maps, or when noting their described presence within narratives, we must examine what their function is in the reproduction of the colonising and/or erasing power of the View from Above. The sketchy map at the beginning of Helliconia certainly seems to fulfil this colonising function, as does Aldiss’s own map, excavated later from his study, and the same goes, while we’re at it, for the tacked-on appendix of the omnibus edition, which diagrams the view from space of the planet itself.  Furthermore, if the map is a meme, then we can state as well, that so is the appendix, and therefore its presence in any given work is a kind of cultural evolutionary move of which the author themselves may or may not be aware of at that other level at least (I think here as well of Roberts’s brilliantly explained novum in the appendix to On).

If, with Lovelock, we are beginning to move into the Novacene, (Lovelock, 2019) even as the Anthropocene wraps up, we can note that there are other works that have been based on discredited scientific theories (I’m here thinking not just of Gaia in Helliconia, but of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis in Babel-17, and even to some extent in Le Guin’s work). What kinds of maps and appendices will we need in the age of algorithmic and planetary artificial intelligences? Will it be a kind of “cloud atlas”? What will be the challenges of representation/extrapolation, that is, without reproduction?

Science-fiction-in-action needs to attend more carefully to the “immutable mobiles” it deploys in the service of its extrapolations and non-reproductive politics of future heterotopias. Our postcolonial “others,” not to mention our future selves, will come to depend upon them. There is reason for hope and action. What if, with Kitchin and Dodge, we undertake the project of re-thinking maps anew, now as always being remade, as becoming things, rather than static beings? What if the science fiction novel could itself come to embody such an ideal? Dhalgren, with its Ulysses-like pacing, interiority, and spatiality, is probably the prototype, forming an ideal-type of speculation for which there has probably been no subsequent equal. I set the bar high by placing the origins of this kind of speculated science fiction map novel with Ulysses, whose famed use as a map of Dublin belies the inherently non-literal, metaphorical basis of the use of the term mapping in literary theory. That Ulysses has a performed and very real spatiality does not mean that it is literally a map; a similar point was made by Gibson in his afterward to Dhalgren. The point is, we need more metaphorical mappings, to use Cosgrove’s terminology, and we need them to perform mutable, mobile, service towards the ends of speculative fictions in the post-Anthropocene world of hyperintelligent cloud algorithms. As demonstrated by Le Guin, Herbert, and Aldiss, colonial mappings, namings, and spatial performances always contain the seeds and anchor points of future post-colonial counter-mappings (think here of the air- and land-octaves of the phagors and humans respectively, and how long their alternation takes), ad infinitum at the right temporal scales. It may be phagor/human on Helliconia; here in the Novacene, it may play out as human/cyborg.

These maps literalize the colonising View from Above/Nowhere that meshes very well with the roving/disembodied (third person) view each of the works takes, though only in the case of Le Guin is it truly liberating. Only in Le Guin’s work, with her carrier bag fictions, do we truly encounter the counter-map.

4 Towards further formalisation of the model

When used well, maps help to formalize and spatialize and relationalize the language (names) of speculative fiction. They are sufficient (but not necessary) for enabling these moves. Maps allow the reader to carry around the language in the form of immutable mobiles, and thus are tools to be used in the translation of the text. We have various tools, but maps are tradition in fantasy. Other tools are available, other reading strategies—these just happen to be apposite to the texts at hand. The map and the text are interlocking machines: the map contains other texts; the text other maps; interlocking precisely, like a crew and its ship. The map makes explicit the metonymical function of the text itself, that of naming. The secondary world thus represented is allowed its utopian functioning as a corrective to the wrongs produced in the primary world. The map is a metaphor at one level, serving as a metonymical toolbox at another level. These functions operate both vertically (through time) and horizontally (through space). “Gaia” and “Anthropocene” have significant vertical components by now. To what do they refer (and from within the mass cultural genre system)?

5 Conclusion

Maps (in science fiction) help us navigate the line between fact and belief. If here we find a map of a plausible Gaia world—self-regulating, sentient, with evolvable species; over there (in the real world) the idea is simply more speculation. The age of the world picture demands images of totality. Aldiss and Herbert hid the most interesting things beneath the surface of their images, in the undergrounds of imagination. The counter-map was the text itself, a kind of return of the repressed. Le Guin fully utilizes the power of maps, weaving them together as full participants alongside other items of her carrier bag of fictions. Le Guin’s maps are characters in a new species of book. We accept the strictures of fantasy magic even as we let science grow, no, leap, beyond its self-inscribed boundaries. Science fiction’s polders and crosshatches are made explicit in machines for moving time and space in strange new ways, more generalizable in diagrams of power diegetic and paratextual, inscribed and performed. Their strictures are operationalized in the specialized language of science: the Mercator projection, the polar view, the multi-coloured elevational “globe.” The sea-level rise in Helliconia names a new terrain that is anchored in Summer’s beginning, and this is in turn anchored in the map. The magic of the text lies in its rules of procedure, its method of representing the world without reproducing it.


Aldiss, Brian. Helliconia. Gollancz Masterworks, 2010.

Baxter, Stephen. World Engines: Destroyer. Gollancz, 2019.

Cosgrove, Denis, editor. Mappings. Reaktion, 1999.

Delany, Samuel R. Babel-17. Gollancz Masterworks, 2009.

—–. Dhalgren. Gollancz Masterworks, 2010.

Herbert, Frank. Dune. New English Library, 1968.

Joyce, James. Ulysses. Random House, 2002.

Kitchin, Rob and Martin Dodge. “Rethinking Maps.” Progress in Human Geography. vol. 31, no. 3, 2007, pp. 331-344.

Le Guin, Ursula K. “On the Frontier.” The Wave in the Mind. Shambala, 2004.

—–. Always Coming Home. Library of America, 2019.

—–. “The Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction.” Always Coming Home. Library of America, 2019.

Lovelock, James. Novacene: The Coming Age of Hyperintelligence. Allen Lane, 2019.

Nagel, Thomas. 1989. The View From Nowhere. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Rieder, John. Science Fiction and the Mass Cultural Genre System. Wesleyan University Press, 2017.

Roberts, Adam. “Notes on the Physics of On: The Physics of Worldwall.” On. Gollancz, 2001.

—–. H.G. Wells. Palgrave, 2019.

Robinson, Kim Stanley. New York 2140. Orbit, 2017.

Ryan, Marie-Laure, Kenneth Foote, and Maoz Anaryahu. Narrating Space/Spatializing Narrative: Where Narrative Theory and Geography Meet. Ohio University Press, 2016.

Stephenson, Neal. Fall, Or Dodge In Hell. The Borough Press, 2019. Wells, H.G. “The Star.” The Short Stories of H.G. Wells. Ernest Benn Limited, 1948.

Gwilym Eades is Lecturer in Human and Environmental Geography at Royal Holloway, University of London.

Secured, Contained, Protected: Consensus Reality in the SCP Foundation

SFRA Review, vol. 51, no. 1

Symposium: Beyond Borders

Secured, Contained, Protected: Consensus Reality
in the SCP Foundation

Krushna Dande

Introduction to SCP

Front Page of the SCP Wiki

The SCP wiki ( is a collaborative writing website in the form of the hypertext archive of a clandestine paragovernmental organisation known only as The Foundation. This archive originated in the tradition of creepypasta, a genre of internet-based writing that leveraged paranoia, urban fantasy, cosmic horror, and as a rule was anonymous. The seed of SCP was a post made in 2007 on the /x/ paranormal board on 4chan, describing a monstrous entity being rigorously contained. This comparatively innocuous anomaly was titled SCP-173, ( but its power lay not in the elaborate structure in which it is now set, but rather in its act of positing such a structure, one whose allure was so great that it had to be created. This has shades of the global scholastic conspiracy imagined by Borges in Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius, where a cosmopolitan group of scholars creates a fantastical world so thorough and compelling that this second world is willed into existence.

In order to participate, the writer/reader must step into the subject position circumscribed by the structure—in a sense the writer/reader is “spoken for” by SCP. One gets the sense that one has gained access to something that was meant to be hidden, that the fact of having accessed it has led one to be marked or condemned. The bulk of this archive is in the form of SCP documents (standing for Special Containment Procedures), which are “summaries of anomalies and emergency procedures for maintaining or re-establishing safe containment in the case of a containment breach or other event”. ( Each document relies on the place prepared for it by the others and also on the slow negotiation of canon formation among this community. Much of the content of SCP is in the form of Interview Logs, Addenda, Research Notes, and the other “secretions of an organism” that is the archive of a secretive corporation, complete with arbitrary redactions of names, dates, places, or anything else. Adherence to this formal apparatus is necessary for a sort of verisimilitude, and for a reader to reach what one may call the “story” told by a document one has to get past technical details written in a clinical style, drained of any affective response, dehumanized, and bureaucratized. By placing a rigid hierarchical structure over each one, the story squirms in its containment. The SCP archive refers to itself, it accumulates through references to itself, and consumes all sorts of writing in the formation of its archive. (tasha203)

The SCP wiki describes perfectly what Istvan Csicsery-Ronay Jr. calls “[…] aestheticized cult-behavior, participation in an emotional community based in noncoercive structures, literal masquerade, and pleasurable stories—in short, a ludic cult”. (46)

The Reality of the Foundation

 The Foundation is described as

[operating] beyond jurisdiction, empowered and entrusted by every major national government with the task of containing anomalous objects, entities, and phenomena. These anomalies pose a significant threat to global security by threatening either physical or psychological harm.

The Foundation operates to maintain normalcy, so that the worldwide civilian population can live and go on with their daily lives without fear, mistrust, or doubt in their personal beliefs, and to maintain human independence from extraterrestrial, extradimensional, and other extranormal influence. (

There are extremely suggestive points raised in this short description. First is the question of the anomaly. An anomaly becomes, by definition or rather by circumscription, that which cannot be explained through publicly acknowledged scientific procedure. The objects considered anomalous may thus be as harmless as a vending machine that makes coins put into it vanish, or as devastating as a butter knife that can cut through dimensions. The harm being contained then is not only that of damage to life and property, but also to the tacit fabric of material and social reality that allows civilization to exist. The word civilization here is used advisedly, because the mission statement of SCP declares that its task is to guard the borders of the teeming sea of chaos that lies behind the apparent order of the universe. One fruitful comparison with worldly history may be the dawning of the atomic age characterized by scientific research by competing technomilitary apparatuses into the possibility of nuclear warfare. The annihilating power of a potential weapon meant that inquiry into the atom could not be what we could naively call pure science, and any such inquiry would have results that would always already have been classified. This is illustrated in the incident of the publication of the story “Deadline” by Cleve Cartmill in Astounding Science Fiction a full year before the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The description of a fission bomb in the story prompted an investigation by the FBI, because nuclear knowledge was a state secret that one could arrive at without having to steal any documents. (Berger 125-137) In the working of the Foundation, we see a similar paranoiac attitude to anything that may test the boundaries of science.

Another extremely important word to note in this passage is “normalcy” as something to be imposed and jealously protected. For this an example may be in order—if a giant worm were to erupt through the ground while one of us were walking through a crowded scare, causing havoc and terror, the Foundation would send teams to placate and contain the worm and cart it away, then detain everyone in the area, administer amnestics, delete any recordings of the incident on the internet, and create the evidence of a chemical leak and explosion to explain the damage. Thus, the terror does not come only from the idea that a worm may be tunneling under us as we speak, but rather from the worrying possibility that we have already witnessed such an irruption of terror into our reality, and crucially we do not remember it at all. Rather than being whole fabrics of lived experience on which we can rely failing all else, the archives of culture and our own memory become artificed ecologies at the mercy of powers outside our own.

Much of the authority that we may impute to the special containment procedures derives from their use of language. Objects are classed and categorised, their containment variables are specified rigorously, and the descriptions themselves are laconic, empirical, and amoral. The documents function in the tense of “is to be,” recusing themselves from any misgivings or argument. All these measures to one end—to convince the reader/writer of the possibility of the paranormal—and were the paranormal to exist, to convince the reader that there would be for them no option but to tacitly assent to the authority of that which would hide it away.

The extent of the disregard to principles of law or observances of human rights may be seen in the case of D-Class personnel who are disposable in the extreme, often prisoners condemned to die, abject people used as test subjects or tasked with extremely dangerous tasks that may end in death or worse. Worse perhaps is the fate of anomalous humans, who once catalogued by the Foundation are no longer part of human society; they are referred to not with personal pronouns but rather with their SCP designation. Interview logs may record their terror and passion but the authority the bureaucracy in overwriting them is paramount and indisputable.

An extremely interesting parallel may be drawn with the seminal work of Suzanne Briet called What is Documentation?, where she argues that a deer in a zoo is itself a document. (10) Analogously, we may begin to understand the scientific thrust of the Foundation—since it does not have the luxury of creating localised natures within laboratory settings as mundane science does, each experiment log for an SCP is an attempt to describe the ways in which its anomaly thwarts material analysis. The epistemic venture of this organisation is apparent: it generates a corpus and a taxonomy, it mobilises the knowledge that it generates in order to engross itself—certain SCP documents cite in footnotes fictional research papers having to do with pataphysical debates and the engineering of reality.

Yet even these inexistent fields of science must have their own codes, their units of measurement, their accepted truisms and their blind spots. The unhomely sciences that are implemented to contain these various artifacts and phenomena are those that either skirt the edges of anomaly, or themselves grow out of it. There are SCPs that are used to contain others, and those that, in being analyzed, yield results that feed the abilities of the Foundation. In a more complex position are techniques and technologies used by the Foundation that are not explicitly anomalous, but are not available to the public at large. These most notably include amnestics. Amnestics are triggers, chemical or otherwise, that are able to erase or modify memories either with specific targets or for vast swathes of time. These may be used on individuals that stumble upon an anomaly, or may be disseminated widely in the case of a containment breach. Other means used by the Foundation include memetic agents, retroactive deletions of cultural artifacts, and in extreme cases even the wholesale falsification of astronomical or fossil records.

The position assumed by the Foundation may be productively read alongside Eric Wilson’s work The Republic of Cthulhu, which likens Lovecraftian cosmic horror with the shadowy parapolitical workings of espionage and crime syndicates.

More specifically, the alterity of the monsters and what they signify “is raised to the extreme degree by a systematic emphasis on its complete and utter incompatibility with anything known by means of the senses or reason, understandable by logic, or expressible in discursive language.” The issue of the tactile sensibility, or the crypto-materialism of the grotesque (as opposed to the always immeasurable magnitude of the sublime), is essential for the aesthetic effect of cosmic horror. (110)

The crypto-materialism referred to here may be seen as the experience when piecing together a conspiracy theory—the positivist impulse toward the collation of the world as evidence, and the fog of secrecy that obscures and frustrates such a collation. The reader of SCP becomes a consummate conspiracy theorist, who has no choice but to piece together from their movement in a fragmentary corpus the roughly yoked organs and contradictory histories of an organization whose true nature remains out of grasp.

Fan Communities and Canon Formation

Anyone may become a member of the website in order to write, edit, or rate documents, or to participate in the forum. Any canon, as far as one exists, can only be construed by individuals or communities of readers from their necessarily limited knowledge of a vast text being woven and unwoven in each direction. There are somewhat more cohesive portions to this fluid canon, such as names of researchers and test sites, of accepted procedures and parascientific terms that are part of a common pool that may be used to write or explain parts of this universe. There is thus another level at which the phrase consensus reality may be understood—the maintenance and further growth of the SCP archive is a matter of community contribution and management, and the direction taken by the growing archive reflects both the plasticity and elasticity of the aesthetic sensibilities of those who participate.

One’s path through the corpus is not linear but labyrinthine. Navigating through SCP the previous pages that one has read are not closed off to the reader. This is encouraged by the structure, which on the face of it overwhelms any reader/writer with its sheer size. The reader, then, may be imagined as being in a flat circle, equidistant to all other points on the website. The possibility space does not need to be navigated in the unidirectional movement of a novel, nor does it constantly return to a center. All the documents, whose rhizomatic structure is the archive, coexist, and in fact rely on each other even when their literal content contradicts each other. Thus the ergodic path (as described in Espen Aarseth’s work Cybertext, 1-24) described by the reader is what leads to the formation of their own idiosyncratic archive or headcanon.

“Headcanon” is a neologism used in the fanfiction community with a host of meanings, including a reader’s personal interpretation of a corpus, the combination of parts of a corpus held canonical by a reader, or a reader’s theory that may even be explicitly denied by the main corpus. The creation of one’s headcanon is synonymous with reading this work, because to navigate the archive is to fill it out, to give each new text form by placing it within its place. 

What takes shape is an autoreferential fandom that elaborates itself around its own obsessions. A folk mythology that coalesces, ad-hoc, around certain names, certain symbols or obsessions or attitudes.  New pages are added and removed and deleted every day, and no one path can be said to have privilege over another—indeed we can imagine two consummate readers or writers of SCP, each of whom have read thousands of SCP articles without ever reading a single document in common. Both would have, through their reading, learned to use the specialized vocabulary of the SCP Foundation, be able to agree or disagree to any degree about the nature of the Foundation, and yet all this without ever being able to compare notes on any specific document. In being a work that by its nature is non-overlapping for any two given readers, this has extremely interesting implications for fields such as fan studies, by being a kind of fiction that gestures away from the tyranny of learned-ness, of textual competence.

Power and reality

The Foundation may be succinctly described as a horrific bureaucracy that functions as a sort of warehouse where every entry is a novum, where the rigid and procedural form of each document itself serves to domesticate and contain any horror and moral misgiving. The imaginary of this global conspiracy is one of a Cold War style world of generalized paranoia and simmering danger. The role of the Foundation is thus in the final analysis entirely necropolitical in the formulation of Achille Mbembe—it is a political organization oriented towards death. (34)

Luc Boltanski argues in his book Enigmes et complots that the anxieties to which the origin of the detective and the espionage novel is owed is a “utopian synthesis between state and nation. The state became an agency that ordered and guaranteed reality inasmuch as that reality was at once lived and instituted, in other words, simultaneously treated as already in existence and as requiring a supplementary effort to bring it into being.” (17) The state thus seems to have a power at once omnipotent and fatally lacking—in order to consummate its fantasy of control it must always second-guess itself and outrun its wildest paranoia. The anxieties that give rise to the SCP wiki are of a different order, and they no longer limit themselves to the human terror of war and carnage. The cosmic stakes of this task place the working of the Foundation outside of the possibility of political discussion. The twinned progress of science and technology enables the containment of anomalies while simultaneously threatening imminent breach—thus the necessity for the Foundation to mobilise any resources and piggyback on any technical apparatus to modify the picture of reality available to the general public. The Foundation intertwines itself with all planetary networks of power and the production of actionable knowledge. Absent a canonical backstory, the Foundation arrogates to itself every possible history—it may be the full flowering of the ancient pretensions of world stewardship held by secret societies, or it may be the product of a modern clandestine effort to hold fast the gates to the uncanny in a world that increasingly makes containment impossible. When discussing the Foundation, a word that we return to time and again is “arbitrary,” this is because there is no power to which the Foundation submits outside of its own founding principles. It is not immoral but rather amoral, placing itself as a bulwark against a range of catastrophes, from social collapse and panic to the annihilation of the universe. The Foundation is thus a sort of necrotic ooze that feeds on the underside of reality, or a scab left by a wound on reality.


Berger, Albert I. “The Astounding investigation: the Manhattan project’s confrontation with science fiction.” Analog Science Fiction-Science Fact, Sept 1984, pp. 125-37.

Boltanski, Luc and Catherine Porter. Mysteries and Conspiracies: Detective Stories, Spy Novels and the Making of Modern Societies. John Wiley & Sons, 2014.

Aarseth, Espen J. Cybertext: Perspectives on Ergodic Literature. JHU Press, 1997.

Borges, Jorge Luis, Andrew Hurley, and Andrew Hurley. Collected Fictions. Penguin Books, 1998.

Briet, Suzanne, Ronald E. Day, Laurent Martinet, and Hermina G. B. Anghelescu, What is Documentation? English Translation of the Classic French Text, Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Pr., 2006.

Csicsery-Ronay Jr., Istvan. The Seven Beauties of Science Fiction. Wesleyan University Press, 2012.

Mbembe, Achille. Politiques de l’inimitié. La Découverte, 2018.

“The SCP Foundation.”

tasha203, Wilson, Eric. The Republic of Cthulhu: Lovecraft, the Weird Tale, and Conspiracy Theory. punctum books, 2016.

Krushna Dande is an M. Phil. Researcher at the Centre for English Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University. His research on science fiction, planetary history, and video game necropolitics has been presented at international conferences in Kolkata and London. He has a chapter on the works of Liu Cixin forthcoming in a book on horror fiction and the global South.

The Beyond Borders Conference

SFRA Review, vol. 51, no. 1

Symposium: Beyond Borders

The Beyond Borders Conference

The LSFRC Directorate

“Beyond Borders: Empires, Bodies, Science Fictions” took place on the 10-12 September 2020 as the fourth annual conference of the London Science Fiction Research Community (LSFRC). The Beyond Borders theme for our 2019-2020 programme arose from a desire to work more actively to decolonize our thinking and reading practices. Mindful of the ways in which the violence of borders visible and invisible—between territories, bodies, species—shaped and rendered precarious lives across the world in an extension of the centuries-long project of colonialism, we sought to explore how SF can help us think beyond borders, while helping us to dismantle those that exist in the present. In turn, our discussions and experiences working toward that theme helped birth our present focus on Activism & Resistance (see also Francis’s contribution to the UK Report elsewhere in this edition of the SFRA Review).

As part of our preparations for the event, we formed hugely generative partnerships with the London Chinese Science Fiction Group and SF Beyond the West, and also enjoyed hosting a stimulating and enlightening reading group series organized around the theme. 2020 brought with it unexpected developments, in response to which we switched to an online format for the conference, and also released an anti-racism statement with accompanying resources. The call for papers elicited a high level of interest and response, at one point even catching Bruce Sterling’s eye. The ranks of our wonderful conference guests included Emily Jin and Sawad Hussain for a roundtable discussion of SF & Translation; Chen Qiufan, Larissa Sansour, and Linda Stupart for the Creator Roundtable; Michael Darko and Jordan Wise for an inspirational “Provocations Beyond Fiction” session; and Florence Okoye and Dr Nadine El-Enany as keynote speakers. In addition, the event featured fifty-five speakers across four continents presenting a scintillatingly diverse array of top-notch papers and workshops, as well as a grand total of over two hundred registrants, of whom over half took up the option of free registration. The conference itself went about as smoothly as expected, particularly considering that we had practically no prior experience of running an online event of this size, and particular thanks are due to outgoing LSFRC directors Katie Stone and Tom Dillon, resident archmistress of the digital Sasha Myerson, conference designers Sinjin Li, whose amazing artwork and graphics for the conference can be seen below and in the conference programme, and, of course, all our allies and contributors.

“Beyond Borders Conference Art” • Sinjin Li (2020)

While we were pleased that so many people from so many different countries and backgrounds attended the conference, we at LSFRC are committed to doing what we can to facilitate people’s access to our events, whether that’s during or before the event proper or after the fact. Our website features a post with various recordings and transcripts from the event—including video recordings of the two keynote lectures—shared with the consent of their authors, and we will be continuing to update the post with new material. To this end, we are delighted to have been able to collaborate with the SFRA Review in the presenting of the Beyond Borders symposium. Featuring twelve papers from contributors based in India, The Philippines, Turkey, the UK, and the USA, we are honored to be able to share such an excellent array of scholarship, both as an indication of the warm, exciting, affirming occasion that was the Beyond Borders conference, and as a set of intellectual contributions in its own right.

—Ibtisam Ahmed, Angela Chan, Cristina Diamant, Francis Gene-Rowe, and Rachel Hill on behalf of the LSFRC team

Bordering the Frame: Superheroes, Art, and the Rethinking of Borders in Oreet Ashery and Larissa Sansour’s The Novel of Nonel and Vovel

SFRA Review, vol. 51, no. 1

Symposium: Beyond Borders

Bordering the Frame: Superheroes, Art, and the Rethinking of Borders in Oreet Ashery and Larissa Sansour’s The Novel of Nonel and Vovel

Nat Muller

In this article, I am primarily concerned with looking at the superhero not only as a figure of transformation, but also as one of transgression who crosses a myriad of borders. I am particularly interested in exploring how the genre of the superhero moves in the contested spatial politics of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and conversely, how the spatial politics of comics and the graphic novel, the traditional home of superheroes, create what Mohamad Hafeda calls “a bordering practice”. (Hafeda 4-35) In his research, Hafeda looks primarily at how visible material and invisible immaterial borders are produced and how they direct residents to negotiate, narrate, and transform the divided and contested cityscape of Beirut. I am borrowing his idea that the negotiation, or crossing, of borders can be seen as both a passive and active mode of resistance. Hafeda contends that “bordering practices” aim “to transform certain border positions. […] [I]n times of conflict, the critical bordering practices of research and art can operate as sites of resistance in everyday life by negotiating the bordering practices of political conflict.” (21)

In this paper, I ask whether we can read the superhero genre as a spatial genre of transgression in the context of Palestinian artist Larissa Sansour and Israeli artist Oreet Ashery’s collaborative publication project The Novel of Nonel and Vovel (2009). Sansour works predominantly with video and Ashery with live performance. Both artists’ practices were at the time of the project defined by the broadening of identitarian and cultural roles bestowed on them, either by their own societies or from the outside. In her early work, Larissa Sansour critiqued the terrorist/victim dichotomy attributed to Palestinians by tapping into, and appropriating, Western popular culture and recasting herself as a Mexican gunslinger fighting the separation wall in Bethlehem Bandolero (2005), or as a Palestinaut, a Palestinian astronaut, planting a Palestinian flag on the moon in A Space Exodus (2008). Oreet Ashery has in her earlier performances resorted to the alter ego of Markus Fisher, an Orthodox Jewish man, as well as the 17th century Jewish mystic and Messianic figure of Shabtai Zvi, who converted to Islam. These characters have afforded Ashery to cross historical, gender, and religious boundaries and inhabit roles unavailable to her as a (Jewish) woman. The performance of alter egos and other identities is thus not strange to both Sansour and Ashery’s artistic practices. However, whereas in their other work identities are expanded, troubled, and complicated in the service of the artwork, in The Novel of Nonel and Vovel, there is an attempt at simplifying, rather than complicating, the alter ego in the service of political action, rather than art.

Origin Stories and Masquerade

The Novel of Nonel and Vovel is a hybrid publication, part institutional critique on the art world and how it deals with Arab artists and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, part autobiography in which the artists’ respective backgrounds are described, and part graphic novel illustrated by seven commissioned artists. In the graphic novel part Ashery and Sansour become infected with a virus, lose their artistic abilities and become superheroes, respectively named Nonel and Vovel, who liberate Palestine. The occupation of Palestine turns out to be an intergalactic plot by an alien overlord commanding the Fifth Planet, who wants to turn Earth into an intergalactic vegetable garden and wipe out humanity. The separation wall surrounding the occupied Palestinian Territories will serve as a basin for fertilizer.  The superhero genre is marked by origin stories and by the process of transformation. The origin story is “a bedrock account of the transformative events that set the protagonist apart from ordinary humanity […] the superhero genre is about transformation, about identity, about difference, and about the tension between psychological rigidity and a flexible and fluid sense of human nature.” (Hatfield et al. 3) In The Novel of Nonel and Vovel, the reader encounters not one, but two, origin stories in which the latter erodes the former. The first origin story is a national one, identifying Ashery as Israeli and Sansour as Palestinian. While care is taken to establish commonalities rather than difference—both women left home at a young age to move to the UK, both felt estranged, both ended up studying art and becoming artists—in terms of national representation they remain in opposing camps. Cultural collaboration between Israelis and Palestinians, particularly since the Boycott Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) gained traction in 2005, is frowned upon by the Palestinian side. In fact, this collaborative project became politically toxic for both artists as they were both accused of betraying their respective communities.

The second origin story, in which both protagonists become superheroes, is twofold: it lifts Ashery and Sansour out of their respective national contexts and facilitates a collaboration that has a political mission rather than an artistic one, hence diluting the first origin story. It also places the narrative in which the story unfolds into a fantastical realm of possibility in which the lives of Nonel and Vovel are, to a limited extent, divorced from the historical and political realities of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Dan Hassler-Forest suggests that:

Superhero narratives […] creat[e] an alternate world that in many ways follows the familiar trajectory of human history, while in others presenting its stories as entirely fantastical and explicitly unhistorical. […] The genre provides metaphorical representations of historical conflicts as part of a battle that takes classical narrative categories as its basic components and presents catastrophe as an attractive form of spectacle to be safely consumed by passive spectators. (47-48)

The difference with this particular narrative, however, is that catastrophe in the form of the 1948 Nakba (the foundation of the state of Israel and dispossession of over 750,000 Palestinians)and the ongoing occupation of Palestine is real and continues to pull the superheroes out of their own fantastical narrative. For example, in the chapter titled “Intergalactic Palestine,” scripted by writer Søren Lind and illustrated by artist Hiro Enoki, Nonel’s (Ashery) credibility is questioned because she is Israeli. Origin stories are therefore compromised and challenged in various ways in The Novel of Nonel and Vovel. In the Israeli-Palestinian conflict “origin” is formative on both sides. For Palestinians, memory accounts of their villages or cities of origin preceding the 1948 Nakba have become key to forge a sense of belonging and identity and, as historian Nur Masalha points out, “the important provider of ‘legitimacy’ for the internally displaced persons and for their struggle for return” (Palestine Nakba 246). Conversely, for Israelis, Zionist ideology promotes an origin story of the “biblical narrative […] as a mobilizing myth and as a ‘historical account’ of Jews’ [en]title[ment] to the land’”. (Palestine Nakba 29)  In one panel, Nonel (Ashery), sporting her superhero costume but with her Markus Fisher face on, concedes that she “know[s her]national make-up is a bit tricky”. (Ashery and Sansour 153) Make-up is the key word here and suggests that national identity might perhaps function as masquerade. If in the superhero costume “functions […] as a uniform that by its very definition robs the individual subject of [their]unique identity,” (Hassler-Forest 510) then which constraints does the performance of national identity put on individuals? One could argue that even though Ashery and Sansour have lost their artistic abilities, which in many ways is what defines their unique identity, the donning of superhero costumes for Nonel and Vovel has allowed them to break out of the confines of performative nationalism and literally facilitates a “collaboration with the enemy.” As such, the costume becomes a cloak of transgression and makes possible what otherwise would politically be highly problematic. The costume then is not only protective but also adds a layer of duplicity. Throughout the publication slippages of identity, national allegiance, artistic signature, and perhaps rather strangely for superheroes, heroic mission, are negotiated. 

Barbara Brown and Danny Graydon have pointed out that usually the superhero costume differentiates “between two vastly different personas: one ordinary, and one extraordinary […] The civilian wardrobe denies extraordinariness, while the superhero costume denies ordinariness.” (2) But this is not exactly the case for two artists who have based their artistic practice on inhabiting performative and multiple roles. Moreover, Nonel and Vovel ‘s newly acquired superidentity does not necessarily turn them into fearless Others. This happens only in the last part of the book once they have fully relinquished authorship to a writer who writes the script, and artist who draws the panels, and even then, it all happens reluctantly. In a previous chapter they at first reject their superpowers and later on, once they make it to Palestine, run from the Israeli soldiers instead of confronting and fighting them. In other words, the ideological binaries that direct superhero personas—ordinary versus extraordinary, good versus evil, civilian versus hero, violence versus pacificism, order versus chaos, power versus impotence, confidence versus doubt, loyalty versus betrayal—are continuously shifting.  An example of the difficulty both artists are grappling with politically and conceptually is exemplified in a panel rich in discomfort and intertextual references that attempts to acknowledge both the subject of antisemitism and the plight of the Palestinians. Once they arrive in Palestine, Vovel (Sansour) is disappointed there are no Israeli soldiers around to harass her, an experience she usually would be subjected to when crossing from Jordan into the West Bank.  “It’s just not Maus enough,” (131) she claims, her persona drawn as a cat in the style of Art Spiegelman’s famous Holocaust graphic novel Maus (1980-91) in which Nazi Germans are represented as cats and Jews as mice. Nonel (Ashery) stresses the danger of the reference, which not only evokes the holocaust, but also compares Israelis to Nazis. In this frame however, the Palestinian is depicted as a cat (Nazi). Both protagonists dance around the subject of antisemitism, but admit they cannot really broach it. It all ends with Vovel’s character being drawn in the style of Joe Sacco’s graphic novel Palestine (2001), an eye-witness account of Sacco spending two months in 1991-1992 in the West Bank and Gaza Strip and documenting the human rights violations Palestinians suffer as a consequence of the Occupation. In this conversation both Spiegelmann and Sacco indicate the complexity of the politics. This exchange is an example of how masquerade can interchange complicated and even contradictory subjectivities, whether that is the donning of a costume or being drawn in different styles that respectively identify with Jewish or Palestinian subject positions.

Spatial Transgressions and Bordering Practices

Scholars like Scott Bukatman have theorized how the superhero genre is par excellence one of urban mobility: “Through the superhero, we gain a freedom of movement not constrained by the ground-level order imposed by the urban grid. The city becomes legible through signage and captions and the hero’s panoramic and panoptic gaze.” (173) Extended to the spatial politics of Israel and Palestine in which mobility for Palestinians is severely hampered through a regime of checkpoints, curfews, permits, roadblocks, and the separation wall, and in which Israel’s panoramic and panoptic military gaze controls the Palestinian population, the superhero genre takes on a different meaning altogether. Now that Vovel (Sansour) can fly into Tel Aviv by her own means, instead of traveling a lengthy journey through Jordan, and cross into the West Bank without all kinds of checks, part of her superhero power has already translated into eroding some of the mechanics of the occupation. Moreover, by appropriating a panoramic view of the territory, the superheroes inverse the weaponized panoptic military gaze and as such disrupt the visual dynamic of the occupation. It also challenges the vertical perspective of Israeli settlement design. Eyal Weizmann and Rafi Segal have detailed how the “optical-planning” of Israeli settlements on the hilltops of the West Bank combine security concerns, tactical strength, and a panoramic view to exercise maximum surveillance and control. The urban and spatial planning of the Zionist project in the early twentieth century was very much one of inhabiting the plains, as for example coastal cities like Tel-Aviv exemplify, rather than inhabiting the hills. This resulted as Segal and Weizman point out in a ”reversing [of] the settlement geography of biblical times [located in the Judean hills]”. (80) This changes after 1967 when Israel occupies the West Bank and the first settlers start building dwellings actively encouraged by the Labor government.  This policy is amplified even further after the hawkish Likud party replaced the Labor party for the first time in the late 1970s, and the political thinking around settlements becomes increasingly, and much more in the mainstream, infused with biblical and messianic belief in the Land of Israel (Eretz Israel), in which “the long and steady climb to the mountains […] cultivate[s] nothing but ‘holiness’”. (81) In other words, the mastering views from above are as much about managing and dominating the landscape, as they are about forging a religious identity based on territory. It is useful to quote Segal and Weizman in full:

The hilltop environment, isolated, overseeing and hard to reach, lent itself to the development of this newly conceived form of ‘utopia.’ The community settlements create cul-de-sac envelopes, closed off from their surroundings, utopian in their concentric organization, promoting a mythic communal coherence in a shared formal identity. (83-84)

Utopia is carved into the landscape and the settlements’ architecture. It resonates eerily with Bukatman’s take that the superhero genre is one of (American) urban modernity in which the utopian aspirations of the city are articulated. Here the ideology of Zionist settler colonialism as a utopian project and its actual spatial and territorial execution are unpacked and the horizontal gaze of the superheroes flying over the territory battles with the vertical architecture of the Israeli settlements. The creation of hilltop settlements as utopian gated communities means that Palestinian communities are physically fenced off, relegated to the valleys, but also that they are visually and ideologically bereft of seeing across the landscape into a future. Nonel and Vovel literally provide a different decolonizing viewpoint that privileges possibility and the imaginary. This is illustrated by the panel where Vovel, flying over the Separation Wall, comments: “[i]t’s a fine piece of architecture. An efficient combo of land grab and aesthetic bereavement”. (Ashery and Sansour 128)

Spatial Fragmentation and Bordering Practices

Lina Khatib points out that “[m]uch of the political debate in the Middle East revolves around space. Space, both physical and imagined, is not only part of the identity of people, but also a dynamic tool often utilized to define the identity of nations.” (15) This is specifically true for Israel and Palestine where territory is currency and foundational for the formation of identity. It is therefore no accident that the print medium Ashery and Sansour have chosen to work in, namely comics and the graphic novel, spatializes narrative in a distinct way.  Hillary Chute has demonstrated how the architectural qualities of graphic novels with their panels, grids and gutters are composed to develop a narrative that turns “time into space on the page.” She explains how this architecture “place[s] pressure on traditional notions of chronology, linearity, and causality—as well as on the idea that “history” can ever be a closed discourse, or a simply progressive one,” (4) In a Palestinian context where history has been denied and space robbed, the comics’ gutter, that is the space between the frames, not only keeps reminding the reader of the fragmentation of Palestinian territory, but this empty white space also points to the spatial and historical erasures of Palestinian presence.

In The Novel of Nonel and Vovel, there is an estranging tension between resisting the memoricide and toponimicide of Palestine and reckoning with the limitations of the political change art can effectuate. Memoricide and toponimicide, as used by historians of Israel and Palestine such as Masalha and Pappé, are defined as respectively the systemic destruction of Palestinian memory and erasure of Palestinian place by Zionist settlers before 1948, and later and ongoing, by the state of Israel. The structural renaming of Arabic Palestinian places and sites in Hebrew and erasure of Palestinian sites from maps, contributes to the dilution of collective Palestinian memory and social and cultural identity. As Masalha notes, “the cultural politics of naming was accelerated radically after the establishment of the Israeli state. State toponymic projects were now used as tools to ensure the effectiveness of the de-Arabisation of Palestine.” (“Settler-Colonialism” 15) Nonel and Vovel liberate Palestine by destroying the Fifth Planet with a giant slingshot, but they can only do so as their superhero alter egos, not as artists Oreet Ashery and Larissa Sansour. Nonel and Vovel literally resist being confined to the frames the graphic novel subjects them to. However, these moments are more reality checks pondering the degree of agency they have over the narrative and their own roles in their artistic practice and this complex collaboration, than a rebellious refusal to conform to the rules of the graphic novel. In the instances they step out of the frame and shed their superhero personas in the graphic narrative, they primarily express doubt about their mission, method, and newly gained powers. The design of the whole publication is such that chapters of the graphic novel are alternated with other types of content, such as critical material that playfully confronts issues around orientalism, art and politics, colonialism, and national identity. In fact, these intermezzos outside of the frame, provide the necessary critical, contextualizing, and conceptual framework to understand the graphic novel chapters.

I suggest that this space between crossing in and out of the frame, between the magical realm of fantasy and real life, between authorship and the giving up of authorship, between Other and self, between artist and superhero, between the donning and the shedding of masks, between Palestine and Israel, are the type of bordering practices Mohamad Hafeda, whom I started this article with, refers to. These practices divide and connect but I like to think of them as efforts towards worldbuilding, however imperfect they may be.


Ashery, Oreet, and Larissa Sansour. The Novel of Nonel and Vovel. Edizioni Charta, 2009.

Brownie, Barbara, and Danny Graydon. The Superhero Costume: Identity and Disguise in Fact and Fiction. Bloomsbury Academic, 2016.

Bukatman, Scott. “A Song of the Urban Superhero.” The Superhero Reader, edited by Charles Hatfield, Jeet Heer, and Kent Worcester. University of Mississippi, 2013, pp. 170-98.

Chute, Hillary L. Disaster Drawn. Visual Witness, Comics, and Documentary Form. The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2016.

Hafeda, Mohamad. Negotiating Conflict in Lebanon: Bordering Practices in a Divided Beirut. I.B. Tauris, 2019.

Hassler-Forest, Dan. Capitalist Superheroes: Caped Crusaders in the Neoliberal Age. E-Pub. Zero Books, 2012.

Hatfield, Charles, Jeet Heer, and Kent Worcester, editors. The Superhero Reader. University of Mississippi, 2013.

Khatib, Lina. Filming the Modern Middle East. Politics in the Cinemas of Hollywood and the Arab World. London: I.B. Tauris, 2006.

Masalha, Nur. The Palestine Nakba. Decolonising History, Narrating the Subaltern, Reclaiming Memory. Zed Books, 2012.

—. “Settler-Colonialism, Memoricide and Indigenous Toponymic Memory: The Appropriation of Palestinian Place Names by the Israeli State.” Journal of Holy Land and Palestine Studies, vol 14, no 1, 2015, pp.3-57.

Pappé, Ilan. The Biggest Prison on Earth: A History of the Occupied Territories. Oneworld Publications, 2017. Segal, Rafi, and Eyal Weizman. “The Mountain. Principles of Building in Heights.” A Civilian Occupation. The Politics of Israeli Architecture, edited by Rafi Segal and Eyal Weizman. Verso Books, 2003, pp. 78-96.

Nat Muller’s AHRC-funded PhD project at Birmingham City University researches science fiction in contemporary art from the Middle East. She has published widely on contemporary art from the Middle East and has curated numerous exhibitions and screenings for a.o. Stedelijk Museum, Qalandiya International, Delfina Foundation, ifa Gallery Berlin, The Mosaic Rooms, Rotterdam’s International Film Festival, Norwegian Short Film Festival, and International Short Film Festival Oberhausen. In 2019 she curated the Danish Pavilion for the 58th Venice Biennale.

HIV and Queerness in Science Fiction

SFRA Review, vol. 51, no. 1

Symposium: Beyond Borders

HIV and Queerness in Science Fiction

Jonathan W. Thurston-Torres

The bare-bones basics of the history of HIV is probably familiar territory. It is an immune disease, commonly coded as gay, that was a dominant issue and, indeed, an epidemic in the 80s. When HIV evolves, it is called AIDS. What many may not know is that there is efficient medication available that can now bring a person to a state labeled “undetectable,” meaning there are below fifty copies of the virus in a milliliter of blood. When I was diagnosed, I had roughly 300,000 copies in a milliliter. At the moment, I have below twenty—not 20,000, but only twenty. On a larger scale, that means I have zero symptoms. My lifespan is the same as that of the average population, and, perhaps surprisingly, I could have unprotected sex and pose no risk—meaning 0%, not 0.0001%—to my partner. Clearly, HIV has come a long way since the 80s.

I was diagnosed with HIV on January 7, 2015. The most challenging part of it has been a concept known as serophobia, or the stigmatization of people living with HIV. Here in the States, serophobia often entails legal consequences. In most states, there are what are called disclosure laws, the idea being that you have to disclose your HIV status to someone before having sex with them. They often only target HIV. If you have other sexually transmitted conditions (like herpes or chlamydia), ones that are more easily spread, or ones that are not easily treatable compared to HIV, they are not criminalized like HIV. Many theorists have claimed that the reason for this is the gay connotation of HIV/AIDS. Some states go as far as the death sentence for not disclosing, even for people like me who pose no risk of spreading it. Even outside the law, people have reached out to me personally with death threats because I am open about my status. At least once a week, I receive messages telling me I should kill myself because they see me as a threat to public health.

I begin with the non-science-fiction (non-sci-fi) frame in order to contextualize my approach, which grows out of disability studies. Disease and disability can often be part of a person and their identity, and such individuals are no less valid of a person for it. People with chronic conditions often have to deal with stigmatization, discrimination, and more. HIV itself comes with notions of queerness, of disease, of infection, and alterity.

My essay discusses the ways that the HIV/AIDS epidemic has appeared in some sci-fi texts, the ways in which HIV is coded as queer in those texts, and what those literary treatments say about the author’s perceptions of HIV. I aim to illustrate not only the ways that HIV is utilized as a sci-fi trope, but also constitutes an element of a lived experience that is often marginalized and exists beyond textual representation. Sci-fi allows for new possibilities of reading HIV in the modern world, and I am excited to explore them critically in three texts. The first of the three is Samuel Delany’s 1985 book, The Tale of Plagues and Carnivals. In this story, AIDS attacks Neveryon, Delany’s parallel version of New York in the 80s. This is one of the earliest novels in America to explicitly discuss HIV, given the epidemic came to America in the early 80s. Delany says:

Without a virus, in a sense AIDS is not a disease. It’s a mysterious and so far (February 23rd 1984) microbically [sic] unagented failure to fight disease. It is connected with sex—‘perverted’ sex. It is connected with blood—‘blood products’, as they say. Suddenly the body gives up, refuses to heal, will not become whole. This is the aspect of the ‘illness’ that is ravenous for metaphors to stifle its unsettled shift, its insistent uneasiness, its conceptual turbulence. (Delany 166)

What interests me here is Delany’s use of quotation marks. He displays skepticism about many of the terms used to talk about HIV, questioning whether queer sex is “perverted.” He also questions the use of the term “blood products” in the medical community, which at the time was not comfortable saying “semen,” instead often saying “blood products.”  Moreover, Delany questions whether HIV is indeed an “illness.” In his novel, as per this one quote, HIV becomes a canvas for metaphor. What he is certain about is that HIV is a resistance of the body toward itself. It will “not become whole.” It is “unsettled” and “insistent,” “uneasy” and “turbulent.” He manages to queer the disease on a metaphorical level, and he challenges heteronormative rhetoric around it, claiming that it is an enemy even to queer people as much as it is an aspect of queerness. One character in the story, Gorgik, abandons his role as the narrative’s rebel to become a politician used to distract the masses from concerns around HIV, furthering the idea that people living with HIV are often swept under the rug: statistics and nothing more. Therefore, the use of HIV for Delany is rather revolutionary, both at the time and at the moment. He humanizes the virus. He queers it. And he says that these people living with it still matter and should be something everyone talks about.

This brings me to the next text, Ian McDonald’s 1995 book, Chaga. In Chaga, there are four strains of HIV. In the real world, we know there are a high number of minutely different strains, but essentially HIV is HIV (see the CDC’s information pages on HIV basics for more info). Unlike in Chaga, there are not four distinct types. McDonald took numerous creative liberties with his depiction of the disease(s). In the universe of Chaga, HIV 1 and HIV 2 are treatable, while HIV 3 is controllable and HIV 4 means certain death. As the virus is routinely compared in the novel to colonialism and warfare, a comparison even discussed in scholarly treatments, not much has been said about McDonald’s work speaking about HIV issues as reflective of real ones (see Malisa Kurtz for an example). This is surprising, considering his disease is not just a lofty metaphor but actually based on and named after a very real disease. After all, as Susan Sontag says in Illness as Metaphor, “illness is not a metaphor, and… the most truthful way of regarding illness—and the healthiest way of being ill—is one most purified of, most resistant to, metaphoric thinking”. (Sontag 3) The issues McDonald focuses on often are queer. Queer sex happens in Chaga, but he does not go into as much detail as Delany does. However, McDonald is heavily invested in other social issues around HIV. He focuses extensively on what are called antiretrovirals, medications that suppress the virus, discussing at length HIV 3 and how only certain people can pay for the medications to suppress it. If someone is poor, they simply die. This brings in a whole level of classism and socioeconomic discrimination even in the pharmaceutical industry. Now, in the United States, my pills cost about 3,000 dollars a month. Thankfully, I am eligible for a special insurance that covers the cost and yet many people are either ineligible or do not even know that special insurance exists in the first place. Given this real-world parallel, we see that the issues brought up in Chaga are far from science fiction. McDonald looks at Delany’s use of people living with HIV as potential statistics and takes it to the extreme: costs and losses. Suddenly, bodies have numbers associated with them.

Next, we have Tracy Hickman’s 1996 The Immortals. Unlike the previous two, Hickman imagines an AIDS-like virus that forces the American government to put the virus’ victims in internment camps. The government constructed a disease known as V-CIDS, a counter-virus that was intended to fight AIDS. Its test run was offered only to people at risk, queer people, and people suffering from drug addiction. Instead of solving the issue, it effectively gave those people a disease that was basically indistinguishable from AIDS. The government then consulted the non-“diseased” public (anyone who was straight and not addicted to drugs). Surprisingly, the resounding majority confidently suggested they should be put in concentration camps. One man says:

Captain, who are we sending into our little camps in the beyond of nowhere? Homosexuals, drug addicts, and ghetto junkies. People on the welfare doles. If they weren’t to begin with, then they got it by being intimate and immoral with someone who was. […] The biggest problems we’ve had in the last hundred years have been related to these cancers, these blights on our nation! They’ve been bleeding this country dry, sucking the very life out of it, killing it off little by little by their own parasitic growth. […] But V-CIDS changed all that. V-CIDS was the mark of the beast, you see! You look at a person on the street, and you couldn’t tell if they were straight like you and me or a homo or some other kind of pervert. You didn’t know if they were a hardworking person or a leech on the welfare rolls. Yet with V-CIDS it became so simple, so direct. Justice and judgment all in a single little bug! (Hickman 190)

Although this character is not by any means a hero in the book, it is worth noting the language in the middle there, jumping from calling these people “immoral” to the phrase “cancers…”. This character sees queerness, disability, and poverty as cancers, not the virus itself. For him, the two are conflated: the “mark of the beast,” he said. This may seem like pure sci-fi. Yet in 2017, Georgia state representative Dr. Betty Price, a former anesthesiologist, asked an HIV specialist at a public hearing if there was any way that people living with HIV could be quarantined somewhere. “What are we legally able to do?” she asked. “I don’t want to say the ‘quarantine’ word, but I guess I just said it. […] What would you advise, or are there any methods, legally, that we could do that would curtail the spread? Whereas, in the past, they [people living with HIV] died more readily, and then at that point, they are not posing a risk. So, we’ve got a huge population posing a risk if they’re not in treatment”. (D’Angelo) That is the reality that Hickman gestures to. There are people in power who very much believe people living with HIV should be cordoned off somewhere, all for the sake of “public health.”

Clearly, the ways these three authors approach HIV are very different. In each of these novels, the author problematizes social stigmas toward queer bodies as sites of infection and questions paradigms around serophobia as protection of the heteronormative majority. Sci-fi imagines a new utopia, one that is aware of the past but hopeful for the future, for people living with HIV today, people like me. I lean on the communal aspects of utopia here. As Sontag says in AIDS and Its Metaphors, “The illness [HIV/AIDS] flushes out an identity that might have remained hidden from neighbors, job-mates, family, friends. It also confirms an identity and, among the risk group in the United States most severely affected in the beginning, homosexual men, has been a creator of community [my emphasis] as well as an experience that isolates the ill and exposes them to harassment and persecution.” (Sontag 113) The three authors mentioned here tackle this idea of imagined community for people living with HIV. As indicated in Hickman’s work, the “diseased” are isolated from “normal” society while also making community of their own.

And largely, these authors work to contest dominant AIDS narratives in media. Paula A. Treichler notes that, “[80s] television’s analysis of representation might graphically demonstrate and deconstruct its own recurrent conventions in representing persons with AIDS: the emaciated gay man in a hospital bed; the ‘innocent’ transfusion victim surrounded by loving family; the Third World prostitute, in red.” (133) The characters of these three texts go beyond those stereotypes showing what it was really like living with HIV and what it felt to be “punished” for their disease, as Trevor Hoppe notes in Punishing Disease: HIV and the Criminalization of Sickness. These books offer us alternative ways of historicizing HIV in the 80s, and they create a queer space for people living with HIV that is political, critical, and personal. When I read these texts alongside scholars like Sontag and Treichler, I see the ways these sci-fi writers did take issue with representations of people living with HIV at the time, and they fought against the systematic issues of the time. And they envisioned utopic communities where people living with HIV could not feel isolated but still feel that sense of belonging Sontag mentions. Especially in today’s trying times, these texts are relevant. The stigmas are still there. The criminalization is still there. These books offer hope. Such writings and readings reassert the need, endorsed by someone living with HIV, to stay positive.


D’Angelo, Chris. “Betty Price Wonders if People with HIV Should be Quarantined.” Huffington Post. 20 Oct. 2017. 9 Dec. 2020.

Delany, Samuel. Flight from Neveryeon. Wesleyan University Press, 2011.

Hickman, Tracy. The Immortals. Penguin, 1997.

Hoppe, Trevor. Punishing Disease: HIV and the Criminalization of Sickness. U California Press, 2018.

Kurtz, Malisa. “Nomadic Figurations: Reorienting the Colonial Gaze in Ian McDonald.” Science-fiction studies 41.3 (2014): 579-96.

McDonald, Ian. Chaga. JABberwocky Literary Press, 2013.

Sontag, Susan. Illness as Metaphor and AIDS and Its Metaphors. Picador, 1989. Treichler, Paula A. How to Have Theory in an Epidemic. Duke UP, 1999.

Johnathan Thurston is a PhD student in English and Animal Studies at Michigan State University. They have done a lot of journalistic work on HIV there, writing a recent book on HIV in 21st century America that is entitled Blood Criminals. They can be reached at for questions, comments, and collaborative work.

Dreaming Domesticity: The Migrant Workforce in Philippine Science Fiction

SFRA Review, vol. 51, no. 1

Symposium: Beyond Borders

Dreaming Domesticity: The Migrant Workforce in Philippine Science Fiction

Gabriela Lee

One of the most enduring dreams that Filipinos have is that of migration. The history of Philippine labor migration stretches back to the Spanish colonial period (1565-1898), when the Manila-Acapulco galleon trade employed Filipinos as part of their crew. However, it was during the American colonial period (1898-1946) that the first sacadas (or farm workers) were enticed to leave the Philippines to work at the sugar and pineapple plantations in Hawaii. Between 1906 to 1934, between 120,000 to 150,000 Filipinos migrated to the United States (Asis, 2006) to work.

However, labor migration as something aspirational was only pushed as policy by the Marcos dictatorship through the 1974 Labor Code, which actively encouraged Filipinos to find work outside the country’s borders, meant as “a temporary intervention to deal with rising unemployment and eroding foreign reserves” (OECD/Scalabrini Migration Center 42). This continued even after the fall of the dictator, after which the Filipino migrant worker was colloquially called OFW or “Overseas Filipino Worker,” and upon whose backs the Philippine government was and is carried.           

In the 2019 Survey on Overseas Filipinos conducted by the Philippine Statistics Authority, roughly 2.2 million Filipinos were working abroad, bringing in over PhP 211.9 billion in remittances between April and September 2019, and accounting for at least 9.3% of the country’s GDP (Mapa, n.p.). Many of these Filipinos work in service and manufacturing industries, with fewer than 5% of the workforce in white-collar positions. According to the International Labor Organization, there are at least ten million Filipinos living and working abroad at any given time, with over a million Filipinos leaving the country annually. In a country with a projected 108.7 million inhabitants, at least one in every fifty Filipinos are working abroad (Int’l Labor Organization). It is this reality that I am interested in exploring through the lens of science fiction. In particular, I am interested in the way that this particular public policy has influenced the narrative through which labor migration has been unnecessarily valorized, and how this is carried over in Philippine science fiction (sf).

Encinas-Franco observes that “[f]rom movies, banks, and telecommunications companies, the ‘heroic’ aspect of work and life abroad never fails to capture a nation said to have imbibed a ‘culture of migration’. (Asis n.p.) Such is the dominant narrative anchored on the suffering and sacrifice of Filipinos, whose labor abroad has kept the economy afloat even in times of economic crises”. (57) This has continued until the present. By embedding the narrative of heroism in labor migration, post-Marcos governments have shown that “this rhetoric meant that migration for work is a “natural” inclination of people in search of a better life and that the state would have nothing to do about it because to do so would be a violation of one’s human right… to travel and seek greener pastures”. (Encinas-Franco 64) Such normalization of labor migration has      engendered Philippine sf texts that confront or allude to the reality of migrant Filipinos working in oftentimes horrific circumstances and lacking even basic support services or assistance from institutions such as embassies or NGOs. Many Filipino migrants, most of them women      working as domestic helpers, have been physically and sexually abused, beaten, jailed, or died (Zozobrado; Hosoda) while employed by foreign nationals.

In its portrayal of labor migration, Philippine sf borrows from science fiction’s long history of social protest and critique. In fact, sf writers in the Philippines even enact a kind of literary migration—unable to find fertile soil in the social realist literary tradition that dominates Philippine literature, (Garcia 106) they move on to more established (i.e. Anglophone) sf literary traditions elsewhere, learning from them and incorporating them in their own writing.

In these stories, the OFW experience is metaphorized through three significant sf tropes: space flight, the alien, and future tech; with temporality replacing spatiality, which, as Homi Bhabha notes, “resists the transparent linear equivalence of event and idea that historicism proposes; it provides a perspective on the disjunctive forms of representation that signify a people, a nation, or a national culture”. (292) Though Philippine sf borrows certain iconography and images from Anglophone sf mega-texts, they seem to have been re-deployed in different ways across these texts, rendering them as carriers of alternate meanings. Using these tropes as anchor points to describe the OFW experience and posit its future deployments, this article examines the portrayal of the migrant Filipino worker in specific works of Philippine speculative fiction: the short story “Feasting” by Joshua Lim So, the short comics “Humanity” by Paolo Chikiamko, and the one-act play “Marte”by Eliza Victoria.

Aside from a broad scope in terms of literary forms, these texts offer a way of resisting the OFW as “Bagong Bayani” (trans. “New Heroes”) narrative crafted by Philippine government institutions and private corporations. By analyzing the re-imagining of the Philippine migratory experience in sf, I posit that these texts allow us to step away from the valorization of the OFW phenomena and provide a space where one can think about significantly re-positioning the narrative of the Filipino migrant worker: as a global citizen, as a commodity, and as acknowledgement and reckoning of the tangled, half-forgotten legacies of the country’s violent colonial histories. Ultimately, this article would like to imagine how the future worlds in Philippine sf can become a vehicle to interrogate, empower, or re-imagine the future of the Philippine migrant worker.

In his reflection on global sf, Istvan Csicsery-Ronay Jr. observes that the very concept of global culture—and therefore global speculation, such as the kind that might influence sf writers beyond the West—rests upon the constant movement of human bodies across geographic space, particularly when it comes to “subcultures [existing] in specific gathering places… [where] there was usually a sense of homeland or hearth, at the very least a reserve, where distinctive folkways evolved in dialectical relation with distinctive spaces in which they were putatively grounded.” (479) This notion intersects with Bhabha’s notion of hybridity, particularly that “willingness to descend into that alien territory” where one can see “the inscription and articulation of culture’s hybridity”. (38)

Using these frameworks of hybridity, I speculate that Philippine sf does not necessarily adhere to Gernsback’s initial definition of science fiction from 1926, “a charming romance interwoven with scientific fact and prophetic vision” (Clute et al.). Instead, I borrow from Elizabeth Ginway’s examples of reading non-Anglophone science fiction as “a commentary on modernization”, (467) because “[s]cience fiction written in the Third World requires critical tools different from those typically applied to European and Anglo-American sf, because the shift in geographical and cultural contexts can force a reinterpretation of the genre’s basic premises.” (467) Similar to her analysis of imagery and themes in contemporary Brazilian sf, my examination of these sf tropes in the three texts are reliant on my understanding of how they comment on the Philippine labor migrant experience. The three texts do not rely on the scientific thought behind the tropes, but rather utilize these images beyond their genre-specific usage.

The first text, “Feasting” by Joshua Lim So, was published in 2006, as part of the anthology Philippine Speculative Fiction Vol. 2, which was published by Kestrel Books, an independent imprint headed by sf writer Dean Francis Alfar. The story, fabulist in nature, is the story of a young fisherman named Makaon, who was recruited by a tall, pale-skinned being for an unspecified job across the ocean, where nobody in his fishing village of Balay had ever been. In return for his labor, he would be paid in meat—a luxurious and desirable item that attained mythic status among his people. To please his wife Sisita, Makaon takes the job and then disappears from the village. For seventeen years, a wooden box filled with red, raw meat arrives at the shore in front of Sisita’s house. The villagers rejoice and hold a celebration, while Sisita gorges on the foul-smelling raw meat. Every quarter of a year, when the meat arrives, she uses part of the bounty to secure herself a large house and servants, and her son Natividad becomes indolent and fat on a steady diet of meat. But in the 18th year, the box of meat never arrives. Instead, the whole village bears witness to a box of white bones stacked neatly, and atop the stack “were two hands, palms up, as if begging, fully intact with flesh” (98). A short note accompanies the box, stating, “Greetings in Peace, Services no longer required. Please enjoy.” (99) As a storm rolls over the horizon, Sisita watches the clouds gather as “she felt seventeen years of feasting rushing back up from her stomach”. (99)

Though the story is linear, it nevertheless opens itself up to interpretation once read alongside the dominant narratives of the OFW experience, where young men in impoverished villages are invited to work “across the sea.” It also emphasizes the idea of exchange; specifically, an unfair exchange in which one party is ignorant of how much it costs to perform certain duties, such as send back remittances for their families, who use the earnings of those abroad to “feast” in their own villages.

Similarly, the one-act play “Marte” (the Filipino word for the planet Mars) written by sf author Eliza Victoria, was first staged in 2016 as one of the handful of plays premiering at Virgin Labfest, an annual playwriting showcase sponsored by the Cultural Center of the Philippines. Directed by George de Jesus III, the play follows two Martian factory workers, Tina and Lorie, who both work in the assembly line for the industrial company known as Promethei. The work is dangerous and laborious, and both women share the sorry fate of what happened to another woman on the floor, Mylene, who suffered an accident on the job just as she was promoted. Lorie and Tina fight about whether or not they are treated humanely or not, when they learn that Mylene succumbed to her injuries and has died. However, instead of writing it off as an accident, Promethei has declared that it will investigate the death. Lorie confesses to Tina that she was the one who accidentally killed Mylene. Tina realizes that both of them are in danger, and urges Lorie to run away with her and return to Earth. Lorie realizes she needs to make a choice as they hear police sirens in the distance.

The narrative is set up like a mystery box, where questions are provided by the text, unearthing new lines of connections between all the characters in the play. Lorie, in particular, wishes that she was a robot—echoing Soviet-era sf, where the working class was compared to, and traded for, the efficiency of soulless machinery—in order to provide for a family “back home” who seemed to have no idea how difficult their working conditions were on Marte. Though the play takes place off-world, the characters’ problems are anchored to this world.

The final text is “Humanity,” a short comics chapter in the collection Mythspace by Paolo Chikiamko and illustrated by Cristina Chua. Published in 2014 by Studio Salimbal and Visprint, the comics anthology tells short comics stories in the shared world of Mythspace, where beings from Philippine lower mythology are transmuted into sf characters. Aliens resemble mythological creatures such as the tikbalang and the kapre, all of whom form a loose galactic alliance. However, in “Humanity,” the focus is on the human miners abandoned by aliens to their death on a barren planetoid. Hungry and thirsty, the humans try to keep their hopes up by trading stories of the Dalakitnon, humans who were raised in technological prowess and protected by the god-like aliens called Lewen’ri. Marta and Danny, whose friendship anchors the story, argue about whether or not the Dalakitnon is real. In a show of bravura, Danny paints the symbol of the Dalakitnon and summons their war ship, Nalandangan.

The two are unconsciously beamed aboard the Nalandangan and learn that because they were genetically perfect specimens of humanity, they were rescued. However, their other companions were left on the asteroid because they were old and infirm. Danny finds this exchange equitable, but Marta refuses. He decides to stay on the ship, while she requests to be returned to the asteroid and fight for survival along her company. As they try to survive, Marta exhorts the rest of their company to follow the plan they concocted for survival, “because as long as we have life… we make our own hope”. (113)

Once again, we see the hardships faced by forced labor, and the negligence of those in power. However, the relationship between the powerful aliens and the powerless humans is also turned on its head because Marta does not push back against their alien overseers—she doesn’t even seem to have much feeling for them. Instead, she lashes out against her fellow humans, the Dalakitnon, and their eugenics. She understands that her freedom was not made possible because of anything she did, but rather relied on her own genetic predisposition. Understanding the unfairness of that moment, she acts beyond herself, returning to the asteroid where she will likely perish, but hoping for, and working towards, the safety of all her comrades.

In all three texts, we can see the influence of the Anglo sf mega-texts: the presence of aliens, the reality of space flight, technological advancements. None of these are questioned within the worlds of the texts that created them. However, these tropes are used in conjunction with the text’s commentaries about the position of the migrant laborers, whose realities are being used as part of the novum. In all three stories, the trope of space flight is used to indicate the hopelessness of travel, a leave-taking in which there is slim to no chance of returning home. Makaon leaves Balay, never to return alive from beyond the sea. Lorie and Tina talk of the difficulties and expense of returning home and of surviving one more year on their contract, so that they could scrimp enough credit to book legal passage on a spaceship, else they plan to stow away on a ship heading back to Earth. Marta and Danny’s movements in space are dependent on the aliens and the requirement of their labor, and their abandonment on the asteroid indicates that they are no longer useful as laborers, and even less as living beings.

Similarly, the non-human entities in these stories—aliens, robots, futuristic corporations—are understandably alien and strange, but what is also observable about them is that they are the ones in power, who control the lives of the migrant laborers in the texts. All the migrants are human, and implicitly identify as Filipino. All of the non-human characters exert power and control over the lives of migrant humans by offering or taking away means of livelihood and survival: Makaon was taken away by the men in the sky, tempted by the thought of providing precious meat for his wife and child; Lorie and Tina were contract-bound to the robot factories of Prometheii, their salaries never enough to purchase a legitimate way back to Earth; Marta and the rest of the humans in the mining were dependent on the aliens for their sustenance, and were abandoned by the same aliens on an asteroid where they had no way of getting off.

Even the future tech that is present in all three stories seem to show the disenfranchisement of those who do not seem to understand how they work. Advanced technology serves as a barrier to equality, not enlightenment. On Balay, nobody understood how Makaon left—he was described by the town drunk as though “[h]is wings raised him high… he was like a warring angel… [t]hen he was slowly engulfed by the morning light” (So, 95)—or how the packages of meat appeared like clockwork at his old home. On Marte, Lorie and Tina do not understand the purpose of the technology that they themselves seem to be building; Tina describes it as “[l]inis-linis ng screen ng robot, sort-sort ng mga aserong kamay at paa, kabit-kabit ng turnilyo. Pamatay-kaluluwang trabaho ba” [“cleaning the screen of the robot, sorting out hands and feet, tightening screws. A soul-killing job”]. (Victoria, n.p.) On the generation ship Nalandagan, Marta does not understand how the technology of the Dalakitnon works; she only intuits that it is this technology that separates them from other humans when she learns that they scanned her and “determined that [she] will be an excellent addition to our genetic pool… to ensure the advancement of the human race”. (Chikiamko and Chua, n.p.)

However, these sf tropes seem to be successfully re-worked towards a pushback against the “Bagong Bayani” narrative espoused in dominant OFW discourse. Most of these characters cannot be considered traditionally heroic, and even the seemingly heroic narratives are presented in a way that is self-conscious and critical.

Furthermore, threaded through these texts is a sense of homelessness, a foundational concept in diaspora studies. Robin Cohen notes that one of the most distinct features of diasporic individuals is an orientation towards the concept of home. “Home” became more and more generously interpreted to mean the place of origin, or the place of settlement, or a local, national or transnational place, or an imagined virtual community… or a matrix of known experiences and intimate social relations” (10), which is even further removed in sf stories, where the very notion of home is complicated by space travel. As such, the orientation towards home—the motherland, the family home, the planet—is juxtaposed with the seeming impossibility of returning in these texts.

In diasporic Philippine sf stories, there is either a sense of inevitability towards the status of migrants, or a sense of hopelessness, that the status quo will never change. It seems that even when Filipinos imagine ourselves in the world of tomorrow, we are still the poor amidst the stars. In his introduction to Mythspace, Budjette Tan writes, “I realized the difficulty of writing a ‘realistic’ Pinoy sci-fi story. I mean, would it be realistic to read a story where the captain of the starship was a Pinoy? I told my friend, maybe one of the guys in engineering would be Pinoy.” (4) This difficulty in imagining a different role for a Filipino migrant character in an sf story seems to be the burden carried by all three texts – the Filipino migrant is always in a position of powerlessness, of hopelessness, or of entrapment by forces beyond their understanding. This seems to reflect the present-day status of Filipino migrants in our world, and even eschews the “Bagong Bayani” narrative by stripping away the artifice of heroism and exposing the misery that lies beneath.   But isn’t it time to begin imagining a world where the Filipino migrant could be something more? If speculative fiction calls for us to transcend our limitations in this reality, why can’t we transcend a world in which we still see ourselves as “a proletarian diaspora… characterized by low communication skills and comprises “a nearly undifferentiated mass of unskilled labor”, with little prospect of social mobility”? (Armstrong, qtd. in Cohen 62) As an sf writer, I am cognizant of the challenges to dreaming beyond the boundaries of my lived experience. Our lived realities are what provides us with an opportunity to challenge the dominant narratives about OFWs, and start re-imagining the future of the Filipino diaspora.


Asis, Maruja M.B. “The Philippines’ Culture of Migration.” Migration Policy Institute, 1 January 2006, Accessed 8 September 2020.

Bhabha, Homi K., “DissemiNation: Time, Narrative, and the Margins of the Modern Nation.” Nation and Narration, edited by Homi K. Bhabha. Routledge, 1990, pp. 291-322.

—–. The Location of Culture. Routledge, 1994.

Chikiamco, Paolo and Cristina Chua. “Humanity” Mythspace vol.1. Manila: Studio Salimbal and Visprint, Inc., 2014, n.p.

Clute, John David Langford, Peter Nicholls, and Graham Sleight. “Hugo Gernsback.” Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, 3rd edition. Accessed 10 September 2020.

Cohen, Robin. Global Diasporas: An Introduction, 2nd edition. Routledge, 2008.

Csicsery-Ronay Jr., Istvan. “What Do We Mean When We Say ‘Global Science Fiction’? Reflections on a New Nexus,” Science Fiction Studies, vol. 39, no. 3, Science Fiction and Globalization, November 2012, pp. 478-493.

Encinas-Franco, Jean. “Overseas Filipino Workers (OFWs) as Heroes: Discursive Origins of the ‘Bagong Bayani’ in the Era of Labor Export.” Humanities Diliman, vol. 12, no. 2,       July-December 2015, pp. 56-78.

Garcia, J. Neil C. “Translation and The Problem of Realism in Philippine Literature In English,” Kritika Kultura vol. 23 (2014), pp. 99-127.

Ginway, M. Elizabeth. “A Working Model for Analyzing Third World Science Fiction: The Case of Brazil,” Science Fiction Studies, vol. 32, no. 3 (Nov. 2005), pp. 467-494.

Hosoda, Naomi. “Countering Abuse Against Philippine Migrant Workers.” The Diplomat, 7 April 2020, Accessed 8 September 2020.

“Labour Migration in the Philippines (ILO in the Philippines),” International Labour Organization, 2020,–en/index.htm. Accessed 15 June 2020.

Mapa, Claire Dennis S. “Total Number of OFWs Estimated at 2.2 Million.” Philippine Statistics Authority, 4 June 2020, Accessed 15 June 2020.

OECD/Scalabrini Migration Center, “The Philippines’ migration landscape.” Interrelations between Public Policies, Migration and Development in the Philippines, OECD Publishing, Paris, 2017, pp.41-65. DOI: Accessed 15 June 2020.

Rivas, Ralf. “OFW Remittances Hit Record High of $33.5 Billion in 2019.” Rappler, 17 February 2020, Accessed 15 June 2020.

So, Joshua Lim. “Feasting,” Philippine Speculative Fiction vol. 2, ed. Dean Francis Alfar. Manila: Kestrel Books, 2006, pp. 92-99.

Victoria, Eliza. Marte. 2016. Theatrical script.

Zozobrado, Emilia. “The Philippines Modern Heroes (OFWs).” World Pulse, 29 March 2011, Accessed September 8, 2020.

Gabriela Lee received her MA in Literary Studies from the National University of Singapore. She recently contributed a book chapter on Philippine YA sf in Asian Children’s Literature and Film in a Global Age, published by Palgrave Macmillan. Her research interests include children’s and young adult literature, and science fiction and fantasy. She currently teaches creative writing and literature at the University of the Philippines.

Climate Change and Contemporary Chinese Science and Speculative Fiction: Invisible, Extractive and Uneven Boundaries

SFRA Review, vol. 51, no. 1

Symposium: Beyond Borders

Climate Change and Contemporary Chinese Science and Speculative Fiction: Invisible, Extractive and Uneven Boundaries

Angela Chan

In recent years, Chinese language science and speculative fiction (SF) narratives have increasingly highlighted climate issues such as sea-level rise, planetary temperature changes, and environmental themes like ocean plastic, e-waste pollution, and urban waste management industries. Alongside issues of globalised techno-capitalism and mass consumerism, Chinese authors have also offered cultural considerations of current social topics in China, such as migrant laborer rights, widening socio-economic disparities, and industrial waste activism. Whilst the growing attention in contemporary Chinese SF on domestic environmental affairs is one half of the story, narrating China’s environmental and climate relations overseas is the more difficult other.

This paper explores the need for and potential of Chinese SF to address climate justice beyond the current borders of mainland China, to reflect on the country’s own environmental practices internationally, and to gesture towards long term cultural dialogues with the global climate justice movement. Whilst I only focus on one culturally and geographically specific area, my aim is to also offer a critical view on the growing global environmental and climate SF subgenre. I believe it is essential to situate these narratives within the urgent consequences deriving from the realities of geopolitical problems and the worsening climate crisis. Fundamentally, it should reiterate how the global climate injustices that many already disproportionately experience daily are far from being speculative fictions.

I illustrate this through my title frames for discussion: the invisible, extractive, and uneven boundaries that shape the ecological, socio-political, and cultural processes relating to climate change. I also briefly indicate why it is necessary to understand how environmentalism works differently in China compared to other places, in order to better orient our reading of Chinese climate and environmental SF. I then outline the thematic portrayals of climate and environmental issues in key contemporary Chinese SF stories. For this specific paper, I focus on authors in mainland China, rather than other Chinese-speaking geographies. Drawing from combined literary, social science, and anti-colonial climate research, I explain why Chinese SF writers should look beyond domestic Chinese environmentalism and include geographies of China’s extractive practices in Africa and Southeast Asia. Reflecting on contemporary Chinese SF authors’ and scholars’ ambitions to redefine global SF, I close by encouraging Chinese climate SF to recognise and tell the kinds of worldbuilding stories that defy hegemonies and to develop an intersectional approach to global climate storytelling from one region of the world to another.

Invisible, Extractive, and Uneven Boundaries

To begin, I am interested in reading environmental and climate SF from mainland China through the invisible, extractive, and uneven structures that drive the climate crisis and our cultural responses. These often interweave, blur, and overlap causes and effects. I argue that speculative narrative tools can allow clarity, in order to create more tangible directions in the face of a daunting reality. With invisible boundaries, I refer not only to the metaphorical concept of borders in SF scholarship, through which the genre allows us to cross into the unknown, but in particular who and what have been rendered invisible by which stories get told. The SF author and Chinese literature professor Xia Jia comments that “the science fiction from non-English speaking countries, including Chinese science fiction, cannot be found (in the history of SF) … In other words, Chinese science fiction is invisible, it is unseen and folded into the history of science fiction.” (Wang) I add that whilst the climate movement and climate SF have gained mainstream traction, especially in the past decade, it should be recognized that many from the non-Anglophone world’s politics and cultural sectors are yet to break through the invisible boundary maintained by those with the material and social benefits of systemic privileges.

The climate crisis was caused—and continues to be sustained—by colonial violence against people and nature in pursuit of the accumulation of wealth and power through industrial petro-capitalism. To cross a boundary denotes a severance of an agreement, trust, or ethics. State and corporate funded extractivism cross the boundaries to scar lands, bodies, and cultures, and continue to devastate ecologies around the world in their efforts to profit from natural resources. As we read climate SF stories, it is vital not to detach from a sense of justice of reimagining the political structures to hold corporate and state culprits to account, and fall into an aestheticization of a crisis, where techno-fixes bury the colonial histories of climate change. I think about how cultural responses to political crises are not immune from adopting their own extractivist mindset.

This leads me to question and foreground how the uneven consequences for human and non-humans are presented in climate narratives. For people, the exploitative processes disproportionately affect Black, Indigenous, and people of colour, the working class, disabled people, our LGBTQIA+ communities, and other minoritized groups. The boundaries between ecological, socio-economic, and humanitarian issues overlap as simultaneous crises. Therefore, we need our climate narratives to be steered by social and ecological justice combined—also known as climate justice. With these interrelated boundaries and processes in mind, we can more constructively examine climate SF in its political capacities.

Environmentalism in China

It is important to briefly outline China’s domestic environmental affairs and how they are politically structured. Recently, I wrote a report for NüVoices on the panel Climate and Gender in China, co-organised by Young China Watchers (for their environmental webinar series) and NüVoices, which is an international collective of self-identified women and non-binary creators and researchers working broadly on the subject of China. The speakers, environmental journalist Karoline Kan and Zongqi Yu (climate change activist and the Chinese Youth Delegate for the 24th UNFCCC), established that organizing in Chinese environmentalism is very different from that of other parts of the world. It is a top-down system, in which environmental organizations operate as an extension of the government’s policies. Both Kan and Yu argued that more needs to be done to raise the cultural awareness of environmental and climate issues, and offer solutions in education, policy, and (social) media engagement, which can hopefully lead to generative public discussion.      

While I observe that Chinese SF stories increasingly highlight climate and environmental themes, I do not expect authors to be responsible for directly shifting climate politics. Rather, I identify the fact that their stories nurture some degree of cultural awareness around these urgent issues, in the way that Kan and Yu hope for in multifaceted public engagement strategies.

Contemporary Climate and Environmental Chinese SF

In the following section, I share a few of my favourite climate and environmental SF stories by authors from mainland China. In the past two years, we have read most of these following stories as part of a monthly reading community that I co-founded, the London Chinese Science Fiction Group. While we do not curate the reading list thematically around climate issues, it is interesting to observe how many of these do encompass themes insofar as they illuminate the fast-paced social changes China has been going through in recent decades.

Folding Beijing /《北京折叠》by Hao Jingfang / 郝景芳 (written in 2012 and translated by Ken Liu in 2015) is a social critique set in near-future Beijing. The city has been reconstructed in order to geospatially segregate its inhabitants into three locked social classes, such that they unevenly share hours on the Earth’s surface on a rotational 48-hour period. The working class, largely laborers processing the city’s waste, is the largest, and will never experience social mobility. The protagonist, working class Lao Dao, has a near-impossible secret mission to deliver a message between the two upper classes. He finds himself feeling existentially angered after accidentally winding up in a policy meeting aimed at replacing his class livelihood as a laborer with automated waste industries. It is a powerful story that holds social realism at the core of its speculative environment, commenting on those compromised by so-called progress, and reflecting on the widening wealth gaps as China continues to economically develop. It is a well-known story internationally, too, having won the 2016 Hugo Award for Best Novelette.

The Story of Dǎo by Regina Kanyu Wang / 王侃瑜 (written in English in 2019) is a queer multispecies ecology SF text that illustrates how an island (dǎo in Chinese) first experiences and learns about climate change. They realize they must communicate a plan to all the other species living on their back, such as the gingko tree and various animals, and do so through a cybernetic root system. Collectively, they work to mitigate the sand erosion by sea rise. Last year, I invited the author to contribute her story in my curated exhibition Climate Knowledges (2020) in Rotterdam. Regina collaborated with the musician Tessa Qiu, who narrated the story as a sound piece.

Poems and Distant Lands /《为了生命的诗与远方》by Gu Shi / 顾适 (2019, translated by Ken Liu 2019) deals with ocean plastic pollution, as two innovators design a technological apparatus to recycle the unnatural marine materials. After failing to impress their funders enough to launch the project, they leave their sample technology forgotten in the ocean. However, they realize years later that it has given rise to biomimetic ecological systems underwater. The author herself is an urban planner who speculates about how cities will face these challenges in the coming decades. Gu Shi has discussed with me how climate and environmental SF in China has grown to become a very interesting topic for writers like herself, in how it connects the imagination with real world impact.

The Reincarnated Giant /《转生的巨人》by Wang Jingkang / 王晋康 (2005, translated by Carlos Rojas 2012), tells of a wealthy elderly man who pays for a procedure to be reborn as a baby with his adult brain fully functional. His insatiable appetite exhausts the fictional nation’s resources and labor force, until he has grown as big as a mountain, and dies unable to hold up his own heavy head, as he is still a baby. It can be read as a critique of how unending neoliberal consumption overlaps with the patriarchal systems that exploit the Earth’s resources for individualistic gains. The Reincarnated Giant is also a speculation into the complex biopolitics involving anti-aging technologies and legal selfhood.

Whilst all the stories mentioned so far are short stories or novelettes, The Waste Tide /《荒潮》 by Chen Qiufan / 陈楸帆 (2013, translated by Ken Liu 2019) is a novel. It details the laboring class resistance of Silicon Isle, a fictional e-waste landfill, that is based on one of the real world’s biggest e-waste landfill sites, Guiyu, in China’s Guangdong province. Alongside a protagonist who becomes a cyborg after an e-waste viral infection, the novel also interestingly depicts international corporate relations and leads readers to reflect on our complicity in creating the inhumane working conditions of those barely surviving on the e-waste recycling industry.

This selection of titles not only reflects some of the current literary styles in contemporary Chinese writing, from the “ultra-unreal” (Ning) to SF realism to homegrown cyberpunk, but they also remind us that many elements from environmental and climate narratives are globally relatable in their anxieties and the desire for solutions.

Politics of Global Climate Change

Following these selected blurbs, I now look at the need to situate climate and environmental SF to the real, international challenges of today. Particularly, it is insightful to pay attention to how, like their Western counterparts, Chinese state and commercial activities are creating uneven developments and socio-ecological degradation that impact people in different geographies within and beyond their own. There are many complex threads we could analyze to examine China’s environmental footprint both domestically and as an export to other countries in Africa and Southeast Asia, with the following being only a few examples.

Returning to Karoline Kan and Zongqi Yu, they point out that China’s 2020 summer floods were not only widespread and disastrous, but also most heavily affected poorer rural areas where agriculture is the main land use. This impacts how the most socio-economically disadvantaged will recover, amidst a pandemic no less. Also, I add that since China banned other countries (largely from the developed West) from delivering the world’s recyclable waste to its shores, this waste is now shipped to its neighbors in Southeast Asia. Unfortunately, this is where the processing facilities and working conditions for laborers may be even less developed and less safe. Another example of international environmental degradation is one that many SF stories across the world focus on: innovating and mass-producing high-tech instruments. China’s push towards Industry 4.0 attempts to satisfy high income nations’ unending demands. With the iPhone, two of the world’s most powerful companies, Apple and Foxconn, profit off the exploitation of migrant laborers. Many face not only excessive overtime, hostility, and violence on the factory floor, but worker suicides are a common occurrence, as sensitively documented in Dying for an iPhone (2020) by Jenny Chan, Mark Selden, Pun Ngai.

Further, the metallic and mineral goods feeding China’s Industry 4.0 come mostly from Africa. With industrial development projects and resource extractions abroad, China’s efforts to stockpile minerals is an issue of socio-environmental concern. In a piece on, Tochi Onyebuchi, an American science fiction writer and former civil rights lawyer of Nigerian descent, commented on China’s “debt colonialism” in Africa as “further crushing the promise of a self-sustaining African infrastructure and see continuity.” (Onyebuchi) I want to add that there are also discussions to be had about the anti-Black racism against migrant laborers from African nations working in Guangzhou when the Chinese city locked down over COVID-19, and many such cases were well documented on social media (see Black Livity China).

Chinese SF and Global SF

So what does it mean for Chinese SF to be gaining attention in the global SF arena? Perhaps it is a chance to narrative one’s own story, to defy racialised stereotypes and assumptions based on political conditioning? A couple years ago, author and translator Ken Liu offered the suggestion in his edited anthology Invisible Planets (2016) that readers should come to Chinese SF without the aim to find Chinese cultural characteristics, whatever you desire or imagine them to be. He later explains, “When you go into space, you become part of this overall collective called “humanity.” You’re no longer Chinese, American, Russian or whatever. Your culture is left behind.” (Liu in Tsu) However, I take the opportunity in this very moment and momentum of SF from mainland China to resituate this.

In Chinese climate and environmental discussions, where policies illustrate idyllic and natural landscapes of China, we can also find eco-nationalistic depictions of pristine plains in popular culture. But, in examples like the recent live-action film Mulan (2020), the ethnic majority in China, Han, is portrayed as defiantly hegemonic through these scenes of beautiful landscapes. The realization later dawns upon reading the film’s rolling credits that only miles away from the filming location in Xinjiang are the mass detention and labor camps that have been imprisoning Uighurs and other Turkic Muslims, in what is considered by international human rights campaigners as an ongoing genocide. Humanity isn’t collective, cultures are not left behind, and most of us are not going to space.

Further, whilst African SF growingly narrates themes of Chinese “neocolonialism, there has been little writing from Chinese SF on this. Scholar Nedine Moonsamy authored a paper called “Science Fiction Offers A Useful Way To Explore China-Africa Relations” (2019). Her research focuses on three short science fiction stories from Africa, which look at the cultural perspectives of this situation, as indicated by speculative narratives of China and Africa’s futures together. I would like to encourage Chinese SF scholarship and authors to also work collaboratively across borders and cultures to untangle these events and relationships. If we are to hope for speculative fiction to culturally influence or resonate with real life climate and social justice, we need to integrate the politics of global climate change to these narratives.

I return to the title of my presentation, particularly on the invisible boundaries, as a reminder to foreground the people and issues that are actively invisibilized in our stories, be they our speculative and science fictions or our day-to-day news. When I started the London Chinese Science Fiction Group, I wanted a space to critically discuss and broaden the insights of our multilingual, international communities. I hope to achieve this by refusing to follow a canon-in-the-making that slowly embodies and reiterates the existing colonial hegemonies in SF, which we can instead deconstruct.

I finish with a quote from the author Jeannette Ng’s recent piece in response to Mulan (2020), which I feel is generative in repositioning Chinese SF in relation to who gets to tell which stories for whom. In “Beyond Authenticity: the Spectre of Han Hegemony” (2020), Ng emphasises that there are “…multitudes contained within “Chinese” culture and storytelling. There is no single, unified “Chinese”-ness and to imply there is only one Acceptable Cultural Narrative for All Chinese People is itself part of the problem. To claim sole authority and ownership of these units of cultures reinforces Han hegemony.” As the city of Chengdu bids for WorldCon 2023, one of the biggest dates in the global SF calendar, I encourage the Chinese SF community to recognize and tell the necessary worldbuilding stories that defy hegemonies, as China calculates its new era of global relations.


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Angela Chan is a researcher, curator and artist interested in decolonial climate justice, feminist sciences, and SF. She holds an MA in Climate Change (KCL) and curates as Worm: art + ecology. Angela collaborates widely with visual artists, activists, speculative fiction authors and youth groups. She co-founded the London Chinese Science Fiction Group and her writing is published in Science Fiction (2020, MIT Press).