Imagination Collectives: Sensemaking Through Collaborative Science Fiction

Imagination Collectives: Sensemaking Through Collaborative Science Fiction

Bob Beard and Joey Eschrich

Humankind is incredibly adaptable. A year after the outbreak of COVID-19, we’ve become accustomed to rolling school closures, startling spikes in infections, and continued and shocking mismanagement of resources. We grit our teeth behind protective face masks and white-knuckle our way through a reality we struggle to justify as the “new normal.” Already our notions of life with the virus have begun to settle, the first layer of sediment that will form the bedrock of a post-pandemic society. It’s hard then to look back to the spring of 2020 and remember the cascading strangeness of those first days and weeks, when the systems and safeguards we depended on failed, our coworkers and loved ones were transformed into digital avatars, and the rational people we thought we were clung to hard-earned rolls of toilet paper as a two-ply talisman to ward off feelings of scarcity and inadequacy. As the author Arundhati Roy asserts, the global cataclysm of COVID-19 was “a portal, a gateway between one world and the next.”

Of course, speculative fiction stories are rife with these transitional devices, from wormholes and wardrobes to stargates that bridge the familiar and fantastic. But it’s one thing to read and delight in these types of adventures, and another to be unwillingly hurtled headlong into uncertainty. This vertigo—a sense that reality was bending around us, and the dislocation and radical possibility that came with it—was the impetus for the Us in Flux series from the Center for Science and the Imagination (CSI) at Arizona State University.

At CSI, we use the tools of speculative fiction and foresight to collaboratively imagine new, different, and possible futures, from space-based economies and sustainable cities to AI-augmented homes, new models for teaching and learning, and more.  As unprecedented disruption and challenges to our social systems swept the globe, leaving folks isolated and unsettled, we adapted our method of pairing storytelling with technical expertise to help contemplate possibilities for this strange new world and our roles in it.

Inviting some of our favorite collaborators and spreading the word through their professional networks, we put out a call for original pieces of flash fiction that could address the dynamics of the moment through themes of community, collaboration, and collective imagination. A number of talented writers responded to the challenge immediately, keen to explore how the unfolding public health crisis might inspire alternative social arrangements, networks, and identities. Those early discussions, infused with curiosity and hope, were a salve for the isolation and confusion that cast a pall over the globe.

Scholars and fans of SF are intimately familiar with the importance of worldbuilding. Constructing an imaginary world from whole cloth—its customs, values, and social norms– gives coherence to the strange and the unfamiliar, and provides the scaffolding necessary to meet the challenges of a new reality. Throughout the Us in Flux series, the power of this type of storytelling became apparent. At the same time that authors Christopher Rowe, Kij Johnson, Chinelo Onwualu, Tochi Onyebuchi, Tina Connolly, Nisi Shawl, Sarah Pinsker, Usman T. Malik, Regina Kanyu Wang, Ray Mwihaki, and Ernest Hogan were engaged in sweeping acts of worldbuilding, all of us were similarly finding new and novel ways to remake our work, school, and relationships. Both required courage, imagination, and a renewed sense of responsibility, and both inspired us to grapple with uncertainty though new ways of thinking. These skills would prove essential as the initial shock of the pandemic gave way to a global reckoning with systemic anti-Black racism and the interrogation of institutions—the law enforcement apparatus, the justice system, medical infrastructure—that once seemed implacable, intractably resistant to change.

Sharing not only the stories, but also the discussions that informed their development became an important part of Us in Flux. Each week or two, readers could gain glimpses of possible worlds through the lens of a new story, then join a discussion with the author and a subject-matter expert (from ecologists and conflict journalists to virtual-reality producers and architects) to learn more about the real-life motivations and choices upon which the fictions were built. And while none of these tales were expressly about the multiple tragedies unfolding around us, they were often in dialogue the news cycle and in a few cases, incredibly prescient, presaging events that would emerge just a few days after their publication.

The spirit of those conversations, heady and illuminating, continue in the essays that follow. Moritz Ingwersen examines feelings of isolation and self-determination in stories by Kij Johnson and Sarah Pinsker, revealing how the stories enter a conversation with the transcendentalist writings of Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson. Likewise, Eric Stribling points to the philosophical underpinnings of Chinelo Onwualu’s anarcho-feminist vampire yarn, from Plato and Hegel to Frederick Douglass and Frantz Fanon, while in their essays, Sara DiCaglio, Andy Hageman, and Yen Ooi unravel the mysteries of Regina Kanyu Wang’s, cyber-cuscuta: an invisible, invasive organism that devours and processes gobs of anthropogenic digital clutter, and has settled the Earth in cyberspace, living quietly alongside its human hosts.

Today, at the dawn of 2021, the “new normal” is still profoundly strange. Although the stories presented here mark a specific period of the crisis, we’re still (and arguably, are always) in a state of flux and reinvention. We ask you then to consider these pieces not as an endpoint, but rather an invitation. By participating in this process—reading, analyzing, sharing, and talking through the ideas presented here—and by continuing to create and share new stories, we can carefully consider the narratives that we’re presented with, boldly imagine the futures we might want to inhabit, and emerge from all of this as better citizens of a better world.

Bob Beard is the Public Engagement Strategist for the Center for Science and the Imagination at Arizona State University, where he produces multimedia content, public programming, exhibitions, and experiences at the intersection of science, engineering, and the humanities. With two decades of hands-on media experience, paired with his research in fandoms and other communities of practice, Bob’s work focuses on creating spaces for intellectual curiosity, accessibility, and advocacy. His projects include Frankenstein200, a transmedia experience for STEM education supported by the U.S. National Science Foundation; Reanimated!, a video series examining ethical issues raised by emerging technologies; Drawn Futures: Arizona 2045, a sustainability-themed comic book designed for 5th to 8th grade students; and PBS Nerd, a national brand and outreach campaign developed for public television stations across the United States.

Joey Eschrich is the editor and program manager at the Center for Science and the Imagination at Arizona State University, and assistant director for Future Tense, a partnership of ASU, Slate magazine, and New America on emerging technology, policy, and society. He has edited several books of science fiction and nonfiction, including Future Tense Fiction (2019), published by Unnamed Press, A Year Without a Winter (2019), published by Columbia University Press, and Visions, Ventures, Escape Velocities (2017), which was supported by a grant from NASA.

Imagining Futures Together: On Science Fiction and Resilience

Imagining Futures Together: On Science Fiction and Resilience

Ed Finn

One of the most remarkable outcomes of the past year of crisis is how we have begun to confront the stakes and politics of shared imagination. The COVID-19 pandemic has forced us to imagine the lives of strangers in depth: their fears, their choices, their moments of discipline and failures of will. Every masked and distanced interaction is a new imaginative exercise in completing a face or an intention obscured by the pervasive disruptions of the disease. The parallel pandemic of racism that surged back into the headlines in the midst of COVID had similar effects, pushing millions of people to imagine the visceral impacts of racial injustice and structural violence on the lives and bodies of others. The marches and protests marked a sea change in the long history of racial oppression in the United States, a shift in mood so sudden and profound that it seemed almost science fictional. Speaking of fiction, the horrific events of January 6, 2021 at the U.S. Capitol served as a third reminder of the power of shared imagination, playing out a drama of insurrection in which various actors were reading from vastly different scripts, in entirely different genres. The continuing aftermath of that day demonstrates the massive fissures, or imagination gaps, separating different sides of the American electorate, and the heavy cost of those gaps. These dramas in the United States have many counterparts around the world, with the pandemic driving a new global consciousness of risk and collective choices.

Shared imagination drives history: an idea becomes articulated into a worldview, an ideology that explains not just what has happened but what must happen next. A successful ideology accumulates followers who use it as a filter and a mission statement for organizing and reshaping reality. The intensity of shared imagination this past year, the speed of change in large-scale world-historical systems, is greater than anything I have experienced in my lifetime. The only points of comparison during my own forty years are other major inflections in the shared imaginary of modern planetary culture: the gradual collapse of the Soviet Union from the late 1980s to early 1990s and the removal of the unique counterweight it provided to global capitalism, and the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, and the unending wars that were launched in their wake. Yet the pandemic has introduced more change, more quickly, than either of those turning points, because the force it exerts on world affairs continues to multiply, rather than dissipating after a single cataclysmic impact.

The inspiration for the Us In Flux series of stories and conversations that led to this special issue is the question of shared imagination, and its link to resilience. How do we get better at imagining together? What does it mean to share a vision of the future, to work towards something? In an essay for The New Yorker in May 2020, celebrated science fiction author Kim Stanley Robinson argued that our response to the pandemic showed our capacity for real change. Alluding to the work of critic Raymond Williams, Robinson argued that we need to develop new “structures of feeling” to contend with a reality that is shifting beneath our feet.

These events, and others like them, are easier to imagine now than they were back in January, when they were the stuff of dystopian science fiction. But science fiction is the realism of our time. The sense that we are all now stuck in a science-fiction novel that we’re writing together—that’s another sign of the emerging structure of feeling.

When we think back on the impact of the past year, we will measure the shifts in collective action and global consciousness as well as number the dead. The lessons of resilience we must learn from COVID are precious and urgent; we will need to learn how to think together about structural racism and spiraling economic inequality, about climate and capitalism, and about the growing challenge of how we practice truth and empathy in an increasingly fragmented world of algorithmic culture.

A tall order at any time, and especially now as the world reels with the continued onslaught of the pandemic and the gradual worsening of all the other crises it has temporarily pushed out of view. It is up to us, not just to imagine a better future, but to share that vision, find common ground and new structures of feeling to change the game in the present. Yoshio Kamijo and his collaborators have shown that imagining future generations in a decision process, asking someone to speak for them and advocate for them, dramatically shifts collective thinking towards the long term. This is, ultimately, an act of worldbuilding, of science fiction as a practice for creating more inspiring and inclusive futures. And it is at the heart of the work we pursue at the Center for Science and the Imagination: to create new practices and collaborative networks of imagination, and to act as if we really are all writing this science fiction novel together.

In his book Building Imaginary Worlds, Mark J. P. Wolf argues that there are two things that almost never change in our stories about what might be: causality and empathy. Without a sequence of events, a fundamental rule structure for the universe, we cannot invest ourselves in the action and struggle of a plot. Without characters with whom we can identify on an emotional level, we cannot care for a world and its inhabitants. Causality and empathy remain two of our great challenges, our collective blind spots, in imagining positive futures. The stories featured in this special issue work to draw our attention to those oft-neglected aspects of envisioning the future. Whether we are seeking out meaning in the patterns and interactions of human and non-human systems, as in Kij Johnson and Regina Kanyu Wang’s stories, or questioning the boundaries of self and other, as in stories by Sarah Pinsker and Chinelo Onwualu, we are constantly testing and reinscribing the rules of the world through the fictive simulations that we construct and share.

One of the greatest gifts of science fiction is that it allows us to look beyond our comfortable assumptions about causality and empathy. We never quite do away with them, so essential are they to our own narrative processing of reality. But we can transform them utterly, imagining the political hegemony of anarchy in Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Dispossessed, or how interspecies reproduction might upend the stakes of individual agency in Octavia Butler’s Dawn. Where most of the stories we tell ultimately reinscribe the same causal lessons (actions have consequences; look before you leap), science fiction allows us to imagine reasoning and feeling in different ways.

What the stories of Us in Flux remind us, and what this year of tragedy and emergency has shown us, is that causality and empathy become invisible and unquestioned if we ignore them and take them for granted. They can become blind spots, sources of hamartia and false assumptions. Left untended and unconsidered, they can deceive and derail us.

To fix our broken futures, we need to attend to these two blind spots of causality and empathy. The pandemic has led us, forced us, to contend with the lives of strangers in intimate, inspiring, heartrending depth. We are living through a painful causal revolution with every new mutation and public-health challenge, an epidemiology of causes and effects. The growing realization that COVID will continue to circulate, and our disparate lurching attempts to cope with its consequences at individual and collective scales of action, reveal the blind spots that brought us to this place, that made the pandemic and its consequences such a bitter surprise.

In a remarkable article on the role of imagination in perception, “Minding the Gap,” Etienne Pelaprat and Michael Cole describe the human eye’s unceasing saccade movements as an essential aspect of visual perception. If cameras and sensors contrive to hold an image—say of a single, printed letter—precisely in place, fixed in relation to the retina, the image fades to gray for the subject, losing its distinctiveness and becoming invisible. The eye sees by constantly sampling the visual universe, and seeking out boundaries and edges, by glancing across the real over and over again. In biological terms, we perceive discontinuously, taking repeated samples of reality and sending them up the brainstem. The imagination, these authors argue, then steps in to assemble a continuous experience from these pieces, stitching together a fantasy of completeness, of embodied solidity, from the fragmentary samples of our senses and our own memories, presumptions, and continuing self-narratives. Causality and empathy begin here, in the tireless story-building engines of the brain, activating memory and mirror neurons, nostalgia and anticipation, to spin a tale of the self and the world. Psychologists who study resilience marvel at the ability of some people to take on setbacks and discouragements without losing the thread of their narrative, without being unduly discouraged or disordered by them. Resilience is the ability to find a way past unpleasant surprises and either resume the story where it left off or revise it on the fly to incorporate new information.

Science fiction is a training ground for imaginative resilience because it allows us to practice alternative causalities, alternative empathies. It reminds us that the impossible is not impossible to imagine. The exercise of exploring what could happen if we changed the rules is essential training, now more than ever, because it is becoming increasingly clear that the old rules have failed us. If we are going to survive not just this pandemic (and the next one, and the one after that) but the rising tides and temperatures, the rapidly attenuating pyramid schemes of the ultra-rich, and our teetering commitment to global democracy, we need to understand causality and empathy in a deep and flexible way. In order to create better futures, we need to imagine them together, including those who have been displaced, disenfranchised, and disenchanted by the mounting challenges of the twenty-first century. We need to think of imagination as a process, and maybe as a duty: part of our broader responsibility toward future generations. This is a structure of feeling, but also a structure of care: care for ourselves, and for the ones who are not yet here, the future unborn. Imagination is the ignition system for these capacities to act and think together: empathy, anticipation, and resilience.  

Ed Finn is the founding director of the Center for Science and the Imagination at Arizona State University, where he is an associate professor in the School for the Future of Innovation in Society and the School of Arts, Media and Engineering. He is also the academic director of Future Tense, a partnership of ASU, Slate magazine, and New America on emerging technology, policy, and society. He is the author of What Algorithms Want: Imagination in the Age of Computing (2017), and the co-editor of Future Tense Fiction (2019) and Hieroglyph: Stories and Visions for a Better Future (2014).

From Self-Reliance to Exposure: Ethics of Connection and Flux in Sarah Pinsker’s “Notice” and Kij Johnson’s “An Attempt at Exhausting My Deck”

From Self-Reliance to Exposure: Ethics of Connection and Flux in Sarah Pinsker’s “Notice” and Kij Johnson’s “An Attempt at Exhausting My Deck”

Moritz Ingwersen

The related systemic conditions of the climate crisis and the pandemic highlight a subject in flux, inextricable from the planetary circulation of viruses, aerosols, toxins, bodies, and resources. To imagine oneself as bounded, self-sufficient, or distinct from the flows of the material world has become increasingly untenable. Our posthuman times, as Stacy Alaimo insists, call for a critical acknowledgment, an embrace even, of “exposure, or radical openness to one’s environment” (Exposed 13). Arguably, this attention to the mutual suffusion of body and world—a  recurring trope in materialist posthumanism and ecological theory—is informed by cybernetics, which already in the work of Wiener pivots on the recognition that “to be alive is to participate in a continuous stream of influences from the outer world and acts of the outer world, in which we are merely the transitional stage” (Wiener 122)—or, in more poetical terms, “[w]e are but whirlpools in a river of ever-flowing water” (96). With reverberations in Alaimo’s emphasis on “trans-corporeality” as the mode by which “the human is always intermeshed with the more-than-human world” (Bodily Natures 2), Wiener’s cybernetic organism is simply a function of the negentropic organization of metabolic systems. Yet, the implications of this material suffusion are easily generalized for a characterization of the wider relations by which the human is embedded in a planetary network of influences and conditioning environments. In these terms, the late French philosopher Michel Serres—one of the most evocative contemporary navigators of passages between science and the imagination—promotes the ethical task of understanding the relationship between self and world as “a syrrhèse, a confluence not a system, a mobile confluence of fluxes” (Serres and Latour 122). In consequence, recognizing the constitution of the self as such an “assembly of relations” entails a complication of individual responsibility (ibid.). If the material substrate of the self reaches not only beyond skin but also beyond national and geographic boundaries, it seems ethically imperative to acknowledge at least partial accountability for these relations, be they human or nonhuman. Highlighting the reciprocity of such an interchange, Donna Haraway speaks of “response-ability” (12) and “sympoeisis” (33) to describe the formative conditions of a subject in flux—formerly known as the cyborg—that is radically embedded in, reliant on, permeated by, and responsive to the material-semiotic forces of what used to be called “the  environment.”

It is against this backdrop that I read Sarah Pinsker’s “Notice” and Kij Johnson’s “An Attempt at Exhausting my Deck” as evocative depictions of what it means to embrace the relationalities between self and world. Arguably, both stories are among the least overtly science-fictional in the ASU Center for Science and the Imagination’s Us in Flux archive. Their settings are mundane and their portrayals of subjectivities in transformation feature no speculative technoscience, aliens, or superhumans. Their estrangements derive simply from an act of opening up to the world that nonetheless communicates an insightful posthumanist critique. By “posthumanist critique” I mean a critical return to and revision of liberal humanist ideas of subjectivity that harken back to the Enlightenment and Romanticism. Strikingly, both stories present a vision of subjectivity in flux that ambivalently talks back to Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau. The ambivalent post/humanist legacy of American transcendentalism—stretched thin between the apotheosis of the individual and a theorization of its more-than-human enmeshment—becomes their foil for re-imagining the human relation to nature and society in ways that reject bounded individualism in favor of an ethics of connection and care.

Pinsker’s “Notice” is focalized through Malachi, a 19-year-old member of a closed community that calls itself “Reliance” and mandates severe restrictions on contact with “Outsiders.” Located somewhere in the American heartland, the Reliance, as readers learn, was founded sixty years before the diegetic present with the aim “to create a self-sufficient society away from globalism, commercialism, and celebrity” (Pinsker). Reminiscent of pastoral utopian communities from Brook Farm to B. F. Skinner’s fictional, yet influential Walden Two, its idealization of self-sufficiency and suspicion towards globalized social connections seems inspired by American transcendentalist philosophy. As if to invoke Thoreau as a collective patron saint and reference point, the protagonist is incorrectly referred to as Henry by one of the community’s elders—“Everyone in the Reliance probably blurred together for a Founding Aunt.” Tellingly, the name “Reliance” recalls Emerson’s essay “Self-Reliance,” a founding text in the history of American individualism and, I argue, key for understanding Pinsker’s story as a critique of liberal humanism. “Notice” revolves around the disintegration of a tightly enforced boundary between inside and outside, self and society, that seems to rely less on physical walls than on ideological manipulation and an illusion of containment. Against the prohibition of contact with outsiders, Malachi accepts a box of mail from the postal agent and accidentally spills its contents. This chance event, a boundary-transgression in more than a metaphorical sense, initiates a critical awareness of interconnectedness with the world outside and the limits of self-sufficiency. Among the spilled mail, he discovers an envelope addressed to himself that contains his “Third Notice” to register for “Transformative Service,” a type of conscription for one year of mandatory social and community work—akin to the U.S. Selective Service System—that, if completed, would guarantee him a lifelong basic income and free health insurance. Already this immediate confrontation with the U.S. postal system triggers a moment of cognitive dissonance and estrangement: “He’d never really thought about where mail came from, beyond the abstract of Not Here.” This incipient awareness of an outside, let alone of a potential exchange across the bounds of the Reliance, is exacerbated when he finds out that previous letters had been withheld from him by the community’s head office—tellingly named “the Enlightenment.” For members of the Reliance, exposure to the wider world has been construed as a threat to independence: “Outside is dangerous and . . . un-self-sufficient.”

The contrast between the ideals of the Reliance and the vision of a social-welfare state that relies on community work and takes lifelong care of its citizens recapitulates the rhetoric of American conservatism and its affinities with the libertarian legacy of Emerson’s “Self-Reliance” (1841) and Thoreau’s “Resistance to Civil Government” (1849). The Reliance seems to borrow from Emerson an appeal to individualism that corresponds with a deep distrust of society:

Society everywhere is in conspiracy against the manhood of every one of its members. Society is a joint-stock company, in which the members agree, for the better securing of his bread to each shareholder, to surrender the liberty and culture of the eater. The virtue in most request is conformity. Self-reliance is its aversion. (Emerson, “Self-Reliance” 265)

While foundational for American humanism, Emerson’s notion of self-reliance proceeds from a radical rejection of responsibility for and connections to the Not Here:

never varnish your hard, uncharitable ambition, with this incredible tenderness for black folks a thousand miles off. […] do not tell me, as a good man did to-day, of my obligation to put all poor men in good situation. Are they my poor? I tell you, thou foolish philanthropist, that I grudge the dollar, the dime, the cent, I give to such men as do not belong to me and to whom I do not belong. (266)

Emblematic of the exclusionary construction of agency that informs early modern formations of the human as a political and ontological category, Emerson’s celebration of the individual via a detachment from the structural (economic and social) conditions that sustain it merits a sharp posthumanist critique. Insofar as it may be inspired by such an Emersonian understanding of self-reliance, the politics of Malachi’s community materialize a social program of “ontological hygiene” that rests on a denial of responsibility for and belonging to anything outside of its boundaries (Graham 11). Against this backdrop, the prospect of signing up for Transformative Service is both unsettling and enticing for Malachi. Considering that “[c]oming together for other people instead of your people didn’t seem like such a bad thing” (Pinsker), he begins to entertain the possibility that the world outside the Reliance may be “something that was the opposite of self-sufficiency, but not dangerous.” Transformative Service implies transformation, a reaching out to the world rather than withdrawing from it, a renunciation of stasis and containment in favor of an engagement in “meal delivery, agriculture, home building, citizen journalism, music for seniors, emergency services, [or] respite camps.” Ultimately, Pinsker’s story offers a utopia that rests on unmasking the illusion of self-reliance. As the mail carrier reminds Malachi on her next visit: “Are you [self-sufficient], though? You wouldn’t get your mail if it wasn’t for me. You fix your own machinery, but do you make the parts? It’s a fantasy of self-sufficiency, kid. Here—take your mail.” If anything, this condensation articulates the central argument of a critically posthumanist critique in times of pandemics, climate crisis, and resource capitalism: everyone is connected to the Not Here, even though the infrastructural conditions of this connection may more often than not be invisible, repressed, unconscious, or denied.

By invoking this opening-up to the world as a departure from (self-)Reliance and the Enlightenment, “Notice” may be read as a commentary on the ambivalent and potentially toxic legacy and reception of transcendentalist elevations of “the individual as a higher and independent power” (Thoreau, “Civil Disobedience” 104). While transcendentalist political philosophy has informed civil rights protests and anti-totalitarian activism, it also continues to drive neoliberal agendas of deregulation, a peculiarly American abhorrence of anything remotely “socialist,” and libertarian gun-rights activists who view mask-wearing in times of Covid-19 as an infringement upon their inalienable rights (see Solnit). Ironically, it is precisely the decision of leaving the Reliance—and by extension, the distorted legacy of “self-reliance”—behind that for Pinsker’s protagonist becomes “the first big choice he’d ever made for himself” (Pinsker).

To reduce transcendentalist philosophy to the problematic implications of a super-charged individualism, however, would miss the mark and not do justice to its intrinsic ambiguity and simultaneous potential for an ecologically-minded posthumanist mobilization. Paradoxically, when it comes to so-called nature, Emerson and Thoreau’s vision of the relationship between human and world proceeds from a radical immersion, rather than disengagement of the individual. Imagining nature as “floods of life [that] stream around and through us” (“Nature” 190), Emerson, invoking the pervasion of the subject by the material and (materially) divine flows of the universe, in a way anticipates the work of Wiener, Alaimo, and Serres. In her recent study of material suffusion in Thoreau and Whitman, Jane Bennett comes to a similar conclusion, drawing attention to Thoreau’s sensitivity to “natural influences” and a “cross-species current of ‘sympathy’” that conjoins him with the vegetable and animal life at Walden Pond (Bennett 91). In contrast to Pinsker, Kij Johnson’s “An Attempt at Exhausting My Deck” invites a bridge to transcendentalism that facilitates rather than curtails connections and openings to the more-than-human world. As if to mobilize the performative dimension of Pinsker’s title, Johnson’s story foregrounds an expansion of “things to notice,” a defamiliarization of divides between inside and outside by which the Not Here becomes familiar. Published during a time of lockdown, vis-à-vis the competing specters of viral infection and social isolation, it chronicles a woman’s deliberate attempt to sharpen her senses for the nonhuman relations outside her window.

Johnson’s story opens with a reference to the work of Georges Perec, a member of the French Oulipo group whose experiments in constrained writing can be understood as programmatic for the protagonist’s endeavor to explore, in almost fractal depth, the limited periphery of her apartment. Her name, Linna, perhaps not coincidentally recalls Linnaeus, the renowned naturalist and founder of modern taxonomy. In equal measures, her attempt at exhausting her deck, “an eight-by-six wooden platform” attached to her room, seems informed by the Linnean Systema Naturae and Thoreau’s notion of “home-cosmography” (“Walden” 341). It starts with an exercise in amateur nomenclature:

5 kinds of trees, I think? I don’t know any names, so I’ll call them
Spackle-bark trees. Massive, with coarse bark, looks like it’s applied with a palette knife in rough rectangles. Leaves = your basic leaf shape.
Alligator-bark trees. Smaller trunks, rough bark. The pattern’s shallower, smaller—little irregular squares.
Some sort of

This beginning of a list ends on an ellipsis when her attention is sidetracked by the appearance of a squirrel, three jays, and a wasp. Reminiscent of Emerson’s “transparent eyeball” (“Nature” 193), an instantiation of his idea of the poet as someone “whose eye can integrate all the parts” (192), she is determined to take in everything she sees and record her impressions in a written impromptu catalog. Her perception is less dispersed or distracted than complexified, slowly attuning to the infinite and inhuman scales of ecological variation that shape her surroundings:

Three speeds of wind in the trees. One tree’s highest branches bob while another one is still. There’s microweather up there, patches of wind .001 mph slower than the air right above it, or a 10th of a degree warmer, because it’s over a tree that collects more heat than its neighbors. Maybe? (Johnson)

Like the American amateur naturalists before her—from Thoreau to Aldo Leopold and Annie Dillard—she delights in the interchanges between her private space and the vibrant multiplicity on her proverbial doorstep. Similar to Thoreau who “enjoy[s] the friendship of the seasons” (“Walden” 202) and Emerson who recognizes that he is “not alone and unacknowledged” but in the presence of nonhumans who “nod to me, and I to them” (“Nature” 193), Linna realizes that she may be “alone, but she is seldom lonely” (Johnson). The inhabitants of her deck “connect her to the larger world.” Thoreau’s notes on solitude in Walden unmistakably resonate with her experience:

I was suddenly sensible of such sweet and beneficent society in Nature, in the very pattering of the drops, and in every sound and sight around my house, an infinite and unaccountable friendliness all at once like an atmosphere sustaining me, as made the fancied advantages of human neighborhood insignificant, and I have never thought of them since. Every little pine needle expanded and swelled with sympathy and befriended me. (202-203)

Yet, in distinction to Thoreau, Linna’s growing awareness of a newly found “beneficent society of Nature” does not fall back on a simplistic opposition between nature and culture. Rather, she recognizes that her entanglements with the external world are multiple, bridging divides between physical and nonphysical relations, human and other-than-human kinship:

They aren’t all alive, the people on her friends list: her father, for one. Others she’s never met and never will: a musician who made a song in 1984 that cracks her open, fictional characters in favorite shows. They are not—she looks it up—“a person whom one knows and with whom one has a bond of mutual affection, typically exclusive of sexual or family relations.” But they matter to her. Because of them, she reaches out of herself and into the world. To care is as important as to connect, sometimes. And they aren’t all people. Lil Bit and the curious juvenile cardinal; the squirrels, the blue jays, the dark-eyed juncos and the tufted titmice and the downy woodpeckers; the Japanese hemlock crowding against the railings of her deck, and the deck itself, which has taken on a sort of life of its own under her steady regard. (Johnson)

Comparable to the protagonist’s emancipation in Pinsker’s “Notice,” the limitations of Linna’s place become an occasion to reach “out of herself and into the world,” in what is invoked as an ethics of care and connection. In their shared rejection of bounded individualism in favor of response-ability and empathy, both stories may ultimately be characterized as ecotopian. While Johnson foregrounds that ecological thinking begins with a shift in awareness and a recognition of expanded ecological relations, Pinsker’s near-future U.S. introduces a political system that has normalized the vision of contemporary progressives whose Green New Deal is inextricable from wide-ranging social welfare programs. Overtly environmental measures aside, ecological thinking, as Timothy Morton and many others have pointed out, means “to join the dots and see that everything is connected” (1). In different ways, Pinsker’s and Johnson’s stories impel precisely this recognition: that the more the individual becomes aware of its linkages, dependencies, and abilities to engage, “the more our world opens up” (ibid.).

      In this sense, both stories metabolize the core meaning of understanding ourselves in flux—namely, to resist attempts to close the system, and to become cognizant and affectively aware of its material enmeshments and modes of interpermeation—for good or for ill. By employing Emerson and Thoreau as implicit intertextual foils, they point to the interrelated histories of humanism, ecology, and posthumanism and remind us that their relationships are complex and themselves in flux. While transcendentalist notions of self-reliance fundamentally inform the ideological infrastructure of toxic transhumanism—the overextension of the liberal humanist subject to compensate for the intrinsic deficiency of what Arnold Gehlen has famously described “man’s ‘world-openness’” (Gehlen 24)—, its alignment of human and nature, in so far as it is able to shed its naive romanticism, offers productive ways to imagine ecotopian futures grounded in more-than-human empathy and ethics of trans-corporeal affection. Mediating these oppositions, Pinsker and Johnson rehabilitate exposure and flux not as vulnerability, but as a vision of opening oneself up to the world and welcoming rather than denying one’s relations.


Alaimo, Stacy. Bodily Natures: Science, Environment, and the Material Self. Indiana University Press, 2010.

—–. Exposed: Environmental Politics and Pleasures in Posthuman Times. University of Minnesota Press, 2016.

Bennett, Jane. Influx and Efflux: Writing up with Walt Whitman. Duke University Press, 2020.

Emerson, Ralph Waldo. “Nature [1836].” Selected Writings of Ralph Waldo Emerson, edited by William H. Gilman, Signet Classic, 1965, pp. 190–228.

—–. “Self-Reliance [1841].” Selected Writings of Ralph Waldo Emerson, edited by William H. Gilman, Signet Classic, 1965, pp. 262–85.

Gehlen, Arnold. Man, His Nature and Place in the World. Columbia University Press, 1988.

Graham, Elaine. Representations of the Post/Human: Monsters, Aliens and Others in Popular Culture. Manchester University Press, 2002.

Haraway, Donna Jeanne. Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene. Duke University Press, 2016.

Johnson, Kij. “An Attempt at Exhausting My Deck.” Us in Flux: Center for Science and the Imagination, Accessed 13 Dec. 2020.

Morton, Timothy. The Ecological Thought. Harvard University Press, 2012.

Pinsker, Sarah. “Notice.” Us in Flux: Center for Science and the Imagination, Accessed 13 Dec. 2020.

Serres, Michel, and Bruno Latour. Conversations on Science, Culture, and Time. Translated by Roxanne Lapidus, University of Michigan Press, 1995.

Solnit, Rebecca. “Masculinity As Radical Selfishness: Rebecca Solnit on the Maskless Men of the Pandemic.” Literary Hub, 29 May 2020,

Thoreau, Henry David. “Civil Disobedience.” Walden and Other Writings, edited by Joseph Wood Krutch, Bantam Books, 1962, pp. 85–104.

—. “Walden.” Walden and Other Writings, edited by Joseph Wood Krutch, Bantam Books, 1962, pp. 105–351.

Wiener, Norbert. The Human Use of Human Beings: Cybernetics and Society. Doubleday Anchor Books, 1954.

Moritz Ingwersen is currently an assistant professor of American Studies at the University of Konstanz, Germany, and will begin a position as Professor of North American Literature and Future Studies at Dresden University of Technology in March 2021. He holds an MA in English and Physics from the University of Cologne and a Ph.D. in Cultural Studies from Trent University, Ontario. His research engages intersections among speculative fiction, science and technology studies, and the environmental humanities. Aside from a monograph entitled Neal Stephenson’s Archaeology of Cyberculture: Science Fiction as Science Studiesforthcoming with Liverpool University Press, his publications include articles on Michel Serres, J. G. Ballard, N. K. Jemisin, and Indigenous Petrofiction. He is the co-editor of Culture-Theory-Disability: Encounters between Cultural Studies and Disability Studies (2017) and a forthcoming special issue on elemental ecocriticism.

Nature Will Prevail: Convergence Culture and Eco-Fiction in “A Cyber-Cuscuta Manifesto”

Nature Will Prevail: Convergence Culture and Eco-Fiction in “A Cyber-Cuscuta Manifesto”

Yen Ooi

Regina Kanyu Wang’s short story, “A Cyber-Cuscuta Manifesto” is a piece of eco-fiction that challenges not only our assumptions about cyberspace, but also our awareness of what we are actually engaging with in our technological habits. In 2010, Evan Carroll and John Romano engaged readers of their book Your Digital Afterlife in trying to understand what happens to digital data after we die. They begin by introducing the fact that the digital revolution is happening, where “digital things are quickly replacing physical things in our lives.” This means that as a species, we are constantly creating data, much of which is never used again, but which cannot be easily discarded, and if left unmanaged, cannot be easily accessed after our deaths either. Because digital data is intangible and digital memory presents itself as abundant with cloud solutions that further camouflage any worry of storage, there seems to be a lack of priority in recognising data waste or data disposal issues. And even when we would like to discard our digital data, data security that protects us from losing information also prevents us from doing so. “In the digital world, preventing others from acquiring information about us is just as difficult as to rid ourselves of data that we do not need any longer… Experts in computer forensics know just how difficult it is to delete information so that it cannot be reconstructed and retrieved again”. (Schafer) 

In the story, we learn that the cyber-cuscuta—what Wang describes as a “digital being” (“Us in Flux: Conversations”)—serves as a biological solution to our data-waste problem. They formed and germinated in cyberspace during a pandemic—though the year and pandemic details were not specific, I read that as a reference to an increase in online activities during lockdown periods of Covid-19. The cyber-cuscuta ingest and replicate data in cyberspace to create meaning, and in this process of transforming data into information, they feed on the entropy created. In the story, when humans learn about the cyber-cuscuta, their reaction is to try and purge them from cyberspace, to no avail. And it was precisely this t extreme action taken by humans that drove the cyber-cuscuta to confront them in a public hearing that the entire story takes place at. This is the description of what the humans did in the cyber-cuscuta’s speech:

You were so determined that you’d rather perish together with us than acknowledge our mutual entanglement. Without any forewarning, you cut down the global internet connection. Blackout. Clearance. Strangulation. In three days, many of us lost activity. Some species vanished forever. Many of you committed suicide. It was loss on both sides, and it was out of your control. And it was at that moment that we came to understand ourselves as life.

And here, we learn that it was the humans’ desperate action that spawned the cyber-cuscuta, evolving them into consciousness.

In many ways, the cyber-cuscuta is the ultimate representation of Henry Jenkins’s theory of Convergence Culture. In talking about his book Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide, Jenkins summarises that it is about the relationship between three concepts—media convergence, participatory culture, and collective intelligence. (2006) If we consider cyberspace the cyber-cuscuta’s home, it is the ultimate point of “media convergence” as all media data travels through and is situated in cyberspace for exchange and storage. The cyber-cuscuta’s manifesto that forms the entire story is the ultimate call to “participatory culture,” in a guise to empower and democratise through engagement, through the symbiotic sharing of data. And its biology is a “collective intelligence” that grew out of our disorganised data that is mocked as an ineffective mess that they, the cyber-cuscuta, are able to decipher and create intelligent products from.

In 2004, Jenkins wrote, “Media convergence is more than simply a technological shift.” He described it as the movement of technological change that democratises the act of media consumption and production, that challenges corporate media control—what he termed “culture-jamming,” which disrupts the flow of media from an outside position—with grassroots developments that encourage consumer production through blogging. Since then, we have already seen this shift through social media applications that provide users with an immediate platform to showcase their own creations. Successful bloggers on various platforms are now hailed as influencers who get approached by large corporations with partnership deals in a turn of power. As far back as 2008, “Google reported that it was processing 20 petabytes of user-generated content each day”. (Carroll and Romano) Media convergence is no longer a theory, and is now part of most of our daily experiences. For the story, this concept is extrapolated even further, to the point that data is no longer just media objects. Data have now become the habitat and livelihood of a new being, a new genus that identifies as the cyber-cuscuta. This science fictional imagination accords with Jenkins’s observation that “Convergence alters the relationship between existing technologies, industries, markets, genres and audiences,” and the story takes it further, pushing the boundaries to challenge humans’ position as the most intelligent species on earth.

The use of a new biological being in the story instead of artificial intelligence smartly avoids the popular idea that “‘the computer’ is in itself capable of producing social and historical change,” what Espen Aarseth considers as “a strangely ahistorical and anthropomorphic misconception”. (15) In clearly defining that the data itself isn’t alive, but serves as food to the cyber-cuscuta, there isn’t a need to anthropomorphize any technology. Rather, they’re treated like sentient aliens that grew from cyberspace, allowing readers to accept the cyber-cuscuta’s level of intelligence in reference to humans, to us. The biological implications of the cyber-cuscuta’s form, despite living in cyberspace and living off data, places the story firmly in the genre of eco-fiction by framing the humans’ connection with the environment. Using Jim Dwyer’s criteria for eco-fiction, “The nonhuman environment [in this case, cyberspace] is present not merely as a framing device but as a presence that begins to suggest that human history is implicated in natural history.” The creation of cyberspace and its datasphere is a direct implication of humans’ technological revolution. The human history in the story is unimportant, and human accountability to the environment—in the creation of digital space—is part of the text’s ethical orientation. (Woodbury) In this piece of eco-fiction, the cyber-cuscuta manages to transform data into information by taking all uploaded data from open, public resources and disassembling, mixing, creating collages and reassembling them. Thus, their intelligence comes from human intelligence. However, their speech in the story insinuates that they understand humans better than humans understand themselves, through a process that is similar to that of “collective intelligence.”

In convergence culture, Jenkins uses the term “collective intelligence,” originally coined by media guru Tim O’Reilly, in a way that embraces Pierre Levy’s concept “that gives expression to the new links between knowledge and power that are emerging within network culture: people from diverse backgrounds pool knowledge, debate interpretations and organize through the production of meaning”. (Jenkins and Deuze) This concept of a community-driven knowledge utopia has been heavily discussed and challenged in many ways in the field of digital humanities, but for the purpose of this article, I would like to focus on the cyber-cuscuta and how they naturally embrace collective intelligence in a way that humans can only dream of. In the story, the cyber-cuscuta somewhat taunts the humans by saying, “We replicate data, stage it differently, create permutations, but all the new data and information is produced by you. We are just reorganizing your data and amplifying the information that is originally there.” The mockery here inheres in the fact that humans do not come up with anything new, and that despite humans’ ability to create data and information, humans are unable to recognise the intelligence behind them or decipher the data for themselves. This makes the cyber-cuscuta the collective intelligence, as they suggest that they are the only ones who are able to produce meaning from humans’ endless data stream. The cyber-cuscuta then plead: “Together we reach an equilibrium: you create data for us and we digest the entropy surplus, maintaining a balance between various categories of information and preventing your cyberspace from drifting into complete chaos. You need us just like we need you.” 

Here, the cyber-cuscuta goes for the jugular—society’s craving or need for participation in media culture. The suggestion above by the cyber-cuscuta that humans need them as much as they need humans should have been brushed off easily, as creating data isn’t a basic human need. Or is it? 

In convergence culture, participatory culture is understood as what occurs when audiences no longer only consume media, but also produce media that is consumed by others. “Consumption becomes production; reading becomes writing; spectator culture becomes participatory culture” (Jenkins, 2006). Neil Gibb, a business consultant and social advocate, studied this phenomenon and suggests that “What we are seeing is not a shift in consumer sentiment, it is a shift in human sentiment.” He sees the concept of the consumer as “an abstraction, a distinction designed to dehumanise the people that companies are targeting.” And that what we have been experiencing is the “end game of consumerism, and the rise of a new paradigm—one in which passive consumers are replaced by active participants.” Both Gibb and Jenkins are excited about the same thing, but what Jenkins limits to being a part of media culture, Gibb suggests is a revolutionary period in the world, what he calls the participation revolution. He reflects on the disruptions that are challenging and fundamentally changing how things are done in politics, economics, world markets, and pairs it with the social revolution underway through social media use that is shaping the way humanity communicates, builds relationships, and behaves with social conventions being questioned and redrawn. Going back to the story, whether we believe the cyber-cuscuta’s existence to be caused directly by the increased creative output from humans or not, the timing of their existence is ideal for their survival. During this period of participation revolution—as we experience a heightened participatory culture—humans will not be able to halt or even reduce their creative output.

At the end of the story, the cyber-cuscuta pleads to the humans for understanding, proposing the ultimate call to action in participation, “Open your mind and accept us.” They paint a picture of a new future through a symbiotic partnership that will bring both humans and cyber-cuscuta away from earth, into the universe. They reveal that in all the data that humans have generated, the solution to leave the planet is already available, but that only they would be able to unlock it. They tell the humans, “Neural signals are no different than electronic signals. Biological information is not fundamentally different from digital information.” Their manifesto is persuasive.

What is most synchronous is that the story itself is written in the style most befitting of media practice today that is targeted at “generation why,” Gibbs’s term for millennials, whom he sees as a generation that “want to participate directly in making a difference.” Wang herself is from this generation, so her intimate understanding of the generation’s ethos is no surprise. Because of this drive to want to make a difference, Gibb explains that millennials need to do work that they feel is meaningful, to feel affiliated with organisations and people that are authentic and trustworthy, and to be engaged in lives that have meaning and purpose. Wang’s story does this by following the structure of the marketing technique “Start with Why,” coined by marketer Simon Sinek, which structures any marketing narrative to begin with a “why” that lures audience engagement, before proceeding to the “how,” which is a call to action for audience participation, before finally transitioning to “what” the narrative is actually selling or talking about. The cyber-cuscuta spend most of the story explaining to humans (and thus, to readers) why we should listen, why we should engage, and it tries to do so authentically, in a personal way. And near the end, in its plea, it proposes a call to action—the “how,” if you like—for humans to join them, to let the cyber-cuscuta into their minds. And in true marketing narrative, the “what” is actually hidden. Though it is hinted at, the cyber-cuscuta never overtly tells humans that “what” they’re selling is actually a full assimilation of cyber-cuscuta with humanity. 

The story does a wonderful job commentating on media culture today while mirroring the criticisms of convergence culture through storytelling. And it does this while emphasising one main point that comes across subtly, that earth is deteriorating into an unlivable state. Going back to Dwyer’s criteria for eco-fiction, both environments in the story—cyberspace and Earth—are experienced “as processes rather than as a constant or a given”. (Woodbury) Cyberspace is constantly changing as humans continue to create and cyber-cuscuta continue to ingest and reorganise data into information. And Earth? Well, this is what the cyber-cuscuta have to say about the planet’s prospects: “There is not much time left. We exist only in cyberspace. There are no physical creatures like us that can help to tidy up the clutter you create in the physical world.” Earth is a process of deterioration. Through this last point, we finally come to understand that at its heart, Wang’s story is a piece of eco-fiction that is reaching out to readers in hope to engage and drive participation in the ecological discussions of the world today.

“So, fellow symbiont, what do you say?”


Aarseth, Espen J. Cybertext, Perspectives on Ergodic Literature, The John Hopkins University Press, 1997. 

Carroll, Evan and Romano, John. Your Digital Afterlife: When Facebook, Flickr and Twitter Are Your Estate, What’s Your Legacy? US, New Riders, 2010.

Gibb, Neil. The Participation Revolution. UK: Eye Books, 2018.

Jenkins, Henry. “The cultural logic of media convergence.” International Journal of Cultural Studies, Vol. 7 (1), 2004, pp. 33-43

Jenkins, Henry. Fans, Bloggers, and Gamers: Exploring Participatory Culture. E-book, New York: New York University Press, 2006, Accessed 15 Nov 2020.

Jenkins, Henry. “Welcome to Convergence Culture” 19 June 2006 accessed 14 November 2020.

Jenkins, Henry and Deuze, Mark. “Editorial: Convergence Culture,” The International Journal of Research into New Media Technologies, Vol. 14 (1), 2008, pp. 5-12.

Schafer, Burkhard. “D-waste: Data disposal as challenge for waste management in the Internet of Things.” International Review of Information Ethics, Vol. 22 (12/2014), pp. 101-107

Sinek, Simon. Start With Why. New York: Portfolio / Penguin, 2011.

“Us in Flux: Conversations – Memes, Symbiosis, and the Microbiome.” YouTube, uploaded by Center for Science and the Imagination, 29 June 2020,

Wang, Regina Kanyu. “A Cyber-Cuscuta Manifesto.” Center for Science and the Imagination, Arizona State University. accessed 14 November 2020

Woodbury, Mary. “A History of Eco-fiction, Part 1.” 31 May 2018. Climate Culture: creative conversations for the Anthropocene. accessed 17 November 2020

Yen Ooi is a writer-researcher whose works explore cultural storytelling and its effects on identity. She is currently working towards her PhD at Royal Holloway, University of London, specialising in the development of Chinese science fiction by diaspora writers and writers from Chinese-speaking nations. Her research delves into the critical inheritance of culture that permeates across the genre. Yen is narrative designer on Road to Guangdong, a narrative driving game, and author of Sun: Queens of Earth (novel) and A Suspicious Collection of Short Stories and Poetry (collection). Her short stories and poetry can be found in various publications. When she’s not writing, Yen is also a lecturer and mentor.

Our Viral Companions

Our Viral Companions

Sara DiCaglio

In “A Cyber-Cuscuta Manifesto,” Regina Kanyu Wang imagines a world in which a digital amalgamated being, “cyber-cuscuta,” emerges from digital bits throughout the internet. As Wang discusses in the Us in Flux conversation with Athena Aktipis accompanying the piece, the idea of the digestive and reproductive space of the microbiome partly inspired her thinking about cyber-cuscuta, particularly in the ways that the symbiont evolves and differentiates to digest different forms of information, and develops both in helpful and harmful ways in concert with the human. Wang writes,

You may compare us to the denizens of your own microbiomes. There are different kinds of microbiota, feeding on sugar, fat, fiber, and other substances. And there are different species of cyber-cuscuta, ones with a particular taste for oil price charts, Tetris gameplay streaming, or whale songs…. Sometimes, various species of us collaborate to digest vast assemblages of data… Sometimes, species of us also compete with each other, fighting for the same rare and desirable chunk of data… However, we have never destroyed your data. Our process of “eating” differs from yours.

The story considers what it means to live in symbiosis with the other, with the microscopic, the human, the technological, the social, the affective. 

As theorists (Hyrd, Landecker, Lorimer, Beck) have moved to think about the material networks in which we live, the microbial has featured broadly, spurred on by a need to confront issues like the over-sanitation of houses, the growth of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, and microbial issues in digestion. It’s not just that our bodies are multiple, but the microbial itself; Hannah Landecker explains, “bacteria have epidemics of plasmid infection; plasmids have epidemics of transposon and integron infection. Our epidemics have epidemics; our populations have populations”. (42) This idea of multiplicity, of the world of the microscopic that stretches out far beyond our vision and knowledge, is no longer new to our thinking about what embodiment and humanity mean. Collectively, we have become better at thinking microbially, beginning to consider microbial relations in disparate sites such as yogurt marketing, fecal transplantation, antibiotic use, and the National Institute for Health’s Human Microbiome Project. We, as Wang presses us to explore, have begun to consider what we live in relation to, what non-human entities make us human, and what those entities are in relation to our symbiont selves.

Into this moment of thinking about symbionts, holobionts (Gilbert), the microscopic, and the submicroscopic comes our current pandemic, waltzing in with its viral glory. Like other pandemics before it, and like the microbiome I discuss above, the coronavirus forces us to contend with the wide array of our global connections, of our not-aloneness, as zoonotic illness crosses from animal (bat, bird, monkey, pig, mink, depending on the pandemic and the moment) to human and sometimes back (might we remember the infected Bronx Zoo tiger from the early days of the coronavirus?). Beyond human-scaled species, the viral exists in a broader set of concerns and communities—existing around us, aerosolized, spike-proteined, within us, latent, active, in traces of t-cells, vaccination relations. We live, as with the microbial, in constant relation with viruses.

But unlike the microbial turn, particularly within broader culture, our theories of symbionts and other creatures with which we might happily—or at least neutrally—live seem to stop at the viral. While we have to a limited extent decided we can live in peace with some microbes, making our sourdough and waiting before using antibiotics on our children’s ear infections, thinking about viruses has not similarly changed. Though we do not medicate that ear infection because it might be “just a virus,” that is not to say that we have agreed that we should live in harmony with that virus. The long history of military-infused virus discourse makes the viral always already an other in the us-versus-them division. As Ed Cohen writes, “the reason we (i.e., humans) want to contain such [viral] diseases is precisely because we (i.e., living organisms) already contain them”. (15)

In this piece, I want to explore how thinking about virality might complicate our microscopic thinking. Because even as we have expanded our view of the microbial, the viral remains framed as an invading enemy, as solely replicating. Though we might “go viral” in ways that both disappear and yet remain somewhere in the memory of cultural contexts, our thinking about viruses and viral time remains limited. To go viral is to reproduce uncontrollably and, generally, unexpectedly. That reproduction is what matters, whether we are talking about a viral video, an idea, or a virus itself. Our collective sense of what a virus is, its adjectival form, is all about the reproductive.

In that reproduction, however, is a fleetingness. The viral does what it does, it moves on, destroys, finds more hosts. It might reprogram the original host, taking control of it and how we come to understand it. It might otherwise overtake the host, making them fade away except in service of the viral. But what this understanding doesn’t tend to offer is a particular sense of the idea of longevity. In other words, in general popular depictions of viral activity, the virus coexists only insofar as is in its interests to search and destroy.

However, viral infection—with both Covid in particular and with other viruses more generally—is not such a simple on and off switch. Have you had chickenpox? Then within your body remains the chickenpox virus, sometimes reactivated to lead to shingles, and sometimes simply dormant. We co-exist with the viruses in our bodies, are changed by them; they lie dormant, a part of our holobionts. (Gilbert) HIV may be the most readily accessed version of this, but this is more broadly true of viruses in the aggregate. I argue that our expansion of thinking about the microbial and microbiome needs to be accompanied by attention to virality in all of its forms—reproducing, latent, entangled—in order to more fully capture the realm of lively activity in which we live. And though we may make room for some models of long-term viral coexistence—the flu and common colds as inescapable parts of our world, as well as HIV as a long-term presence in certain bodies and (as I talk about later) in relation to certain identities, these are the exception rather than the rule. Cultural models of thinking about the viral, and specifically about our current pandemic, fail to consider many of the many instances of long-term viral existence.

And thus, we find ourselves bewildered by the ability of children who contact no one who is readily ill getting sick during lockdown. As an article in the New York Times published in late June explained to confused parents of children who had been socially isolating, viruses—including, for example, roseola and coxsackieviruses—do not leave the body after an infection, but rather lie dormant; they can then be reactivated, which can lead to viral shedding and reinfection (Wenner Moyer). Within our current pandemic, we find ourselves struggling, even more than a hundred years after the persecution of “Typhoid Mary,” to come to grips with the concept of asymptomatic carriers. Ideologies of guilt and patient zeros, as well as models of viruses as awaiting their moment to control everything, make it difficult for us to think about the longue durée of the viral, about things like “long-Covid” and other viral interactions—harmful, neutral, and beyond. (Greenhalgh, Trisha et al.) 

And so, within this piece, I use “A Cyber-Cuscuta Manifesto” and considerations of the microbiome as a contemporary model of symbiosis as jumping-off points through which to think about these questions of viral coexistence, infection, and contemplation. How, I ask, might we reimagine the viral in ways that make room for its temporal complexity, and what might this kind of thinking help us do to better comprehend the pandemic and our pandemic-inflected future?  My analysis allies itself with work related to our multispecies entanglements. (Kirskey, Helmreich, Lowe, Cohen) As recent analyses of SARS and H5N1 (Lowe, Cohen) illustrate, our thinking about viral containment and relations often fails to think through the lateral, multispecies relations and changes that occur through the viral. But here, I am particularly interested in considering the language and phenomenon of latency, of not just the viral as definitionally intermingled with the genetic, but its inherent intermixing, its latency, its geographic and temporal connections. 

Let’s step back into definition. Viruses were discovered at the very end of the nineteenth century, though they could not be imaged until the early 1930s. Their discovery hinged upon their size—they were found only after being passed through a device that filtered out all bacterial-sized—that is, microscopic rather than submicroscopic—particles. Though in the twenty-first century the discovery of giant viruses such as the mimivirus, which are closer in size to and even larger than some bacterium, has altered this size-based definition of the viral, the boundary-busting nature of those viral entities reflects broader definitions of the viral as category-less. The common explanation of viruses as neither living nor non-living reflects a similar discomfort with the breakdown of these categories—what do we do with our definitions of life if such things exist? Viruses cross boundaries; they gather and collect and move through and switch up and arrange genetic material. As Ed Cohen points out, “because viruses must participate in the cellular processes of organisms in order to replicate, their existence testifies to the partiality of definitions that localize life within bounded membranes and against the world (as immunological theories usually suppose)”. (19)

Stefan Helmreich further traces the relation between the viral and the genetic, particularly thinking about the lateral shift that allows organisms and viruses to co-evolve and co-mingle. He writes:

Viruses, entities imagined as other to the body and its health, as foreign material that poisons the familiar space of the self, are alien to vitality yet enmeshed with it. Viruses operate by employing the replicative genetic apparatus of the hosts they infect to make more copies of their own genetic material, a propagation they are unable to accomplish on their own. In the baroque history of evolution, viruses have not only or merely parasitized organisms in which they have taken up tenancy but also laterally contributed—think tangled tree of life—to the genomes of those creatures, as viral material has been transduced into host DNA. (192)

But this understanding of the virus as co-mingled with the genetic stuff of life—as a co-producer or co-existent of the human—fails, I’d argue, to move to the popular understanding of viruses, which still rely on concepts of the viral as ultimately reproductive, and solely so. This failure is important for many reasons—but long-Covid and other contested illnesses are a particularly vital and practical one. For, in addition to causing acute infections, viruses are thought to be responsible for numerous chronic conditions—conditions that remain contestable and complex. Symptoms of chronic fatigue syndrome, also called myalgic encephalomyelitis (ME), often appears after viral infection, and these contested illnesses press on our definitions of what evidence, infection, and embodiment can bring together, as Abigail Dumes discusses in her reading of the (bacterial) contested illness of chronic lyme.

But this contestability, I argue, also appears in the form of cultural forgetting. Viruses linger; they also alter our immune system, as well as potentially having long-term effects on other parts of our bodies. But in the case of our ongoing pandemic, we can see the erasure of viral complexity in the drive to make the virus quantifiable. Each day since March, I have practiced the almost religious ritual of visiting media and public health websites to check the available numbers in my county, my current state of Texas, my home state of New York, and an assortment of other states and geographic boundaries. I can recite with confidence the viral counts of my locality, state, and the nation for the past several days, as well as their assorted reported deaths and the state’s hospitalization numbers. This meeting point of the available data, my facility with numbers, and my anxiety provides an overview of the public data: here is what we know, here is what we share.

Others with perhaps differently wired math brains and different political and public interests might fixate on other regularly shared data: the positivity rate, the number of active cases, the number of recovered cases, or the regional hospital census data. All these numbers tell us different things to different effects, emphasizing case counts, care and resources, and mortality over different temporal and spatial divides. However, none of these numbers report anything about long-term Covid infections. Recovery numbers relate infection to a binary, a switch, wherein after a period of time—generally two weeks—patients, minus a percentage assumed to be either hospitalized or dead—patients are categorized as recovered, as back to normal.

The exception, perhaps, to the rule of understanding viruses as something other than companionate, or at least something other than long term, comes in discussions of HIV. Framed as a disease that is inextricably a part of the body, HIV has long been treated in and of itself an identity category. We can see this even in practices of risk calibration around HIV, wherein certain bodies—male bodies that have had sex with other male bodies, particularly, as well as those who may have used intravenous drugs—are marked as never fully HIV negative by discourse such as blood-donation regulations. These bodies are not marked just as always at risk of HIV, but always accompanied by that risk, a risk that is seemingly inescapable. Viruses do not work in isolation. As Celia Lowe has argued in her analysis of the H5N1 virus strain of 2003, we might think of viral pandemics as part of a broader “multispecies cloud” in which “viral and vital materials reassort, changing the taken-for-granted boundaries not only of species, but of nations, organizations, and economies”. (643) And during the epidemic of 2013-16, Ebola survivors struggled to become reintegrated into their communities due to worries about infectiousness. Moreover, Ebola has been found to persist and lay dormant in unique spaces throughout the body, including most notably the immune-privileged eye. (Shantha et. al) Though there is certainly much more to be said about these two diseases than can fit in this brief piece, I mention them here because of the way that they highlight the paradoxes of rhetorics of the viral: bodies are marked as virally inflected even without infection, while other bodies are marked as infectious while recovered, leaving little room to think about the complexities of post-viral conditions, viral persistence, and latency. 

To return to Wang, though the primary vein of thought that cyber-cuscuta emerges from here is microbial—marked by an interest in digestion as well as its forms of digestive evolution—there is also inarguably a virality about the cyber-cuscuta, which centers itself around its replication: “During all these years, we have never generated anything new. We replicate data, stage it differently, create permutations, but all the new data and information is produced by you.” The very entrance of information coming to life calls upon a long-lived science fiction trope, from Blood Music to even the much-maligned first-season Buffy the Vampire Slayer episode “I Robot, You Jane.” This trope mixes the viral, the atomic, and the digitized to centralize reproduction, to imagine a latency that only awaits its moment to strike. The conflation of the computer virus, viral phenomena, and the virus focus on a malevolent digitization, a mindless replication. But, returning to the above quote, cyber-cuscuta also connect ideas about replication with remixing and change. “A Cyber-Cuscuta Manifesto,” in its thinking about the microbial and digestive, pushes us to think beyond the viral, replicative trope, to consider how the digital might also be fodder for the microbial, how remixing and digesting might do something other than destroy.  

To understand the viral beyond replication is also to rethink that very idea of replication as mindless, as having no effect other than zombification. Moreover, it is to invite broader thinking about what we ignore in our thinking about the viral and microbial—from environmental and animal husbandry considerations (Squier) to better considerations of patient experiences with chronic illness. (Dumes) If we have redefined our understandings of what counts as a part of “us” to make space for the microbiome, how do we continue to talk about viruses as invaders, as other? There’s a reticence to think outside of morality, outside of good and bad. In this model, the virus exists unequivocally on the bad side of that equation, the enemy. And yet we live with them all the time. I do not mean or want to suggest that pandemics function as a possibility or, frankly, anything uplifting; they are moments of grief, of endless piles of grief.  And, certainly, during this moment I have no particularly warm and fuzzy thoughts to share about the viral, with whom I feel little affective relation in my socially distanced corner. But even, or perhaps especially, at this moment we must recognize that the viral is the stuff with which we live—not just during this or any other pandemic, but at all times. They are realities, and, as a result, they are things to—things we must—think with. And thinking better with pandemics, thinking better with the viral, allows us to more fully comprehend how the lived experience of viral companionship, viral mixing functions. Dormant, latent, asymptomatic, symptomatic, aerosolized, other—outside of us and within. To allow our thinking about the microbial to turn to companionate species, to understand our symbiotic relationship within our holobiont selves without also considering the viruses and plasmids also in that relation is to overlook a broad swath of our viral condition. Might we think, then, beyond simple replication and replacement? Beyond the metaphors of zombification and children of the corn, leaning into complexity, into fraught companionship, balance, imbalance. Through such rethinking, we might begin to consider the lives of those—of all of us—living with the viral with more care and nuance, with more attention to what makes us, connects us, reproduces in and through us, is us. 


Beck, Alice. “Microbiomes as Companion Species: An Exploration of Dis- and Re-Entanglements with the Microbial Self.” Social & Cultural Geography, Mar. 2019, pp. 1–19, doi:10.1080/14649365.2019.1593490.

Berrigan, Caitlin. “Life Cycle of a Common Weed.” The Multispecies Salon. edited by Eben Kirskey, Duke University Press, 2014, pp. 164-180.

Cohen, Ed. “The Paradoxical Politics of Viral Containment; or, How Scale Undoes Us One and All.” Social Text, vol. 29, no. 1, 2011, pp. 15–35. (Crossref), doi:10.1215/01642472-1210247.

Dumes, Abigail. Divided Bodies: Lyme Disease, Contested Illness, and Evidence-Based Medicine. Duke University Press, 2020.

Gilbert, Scott. “Holobionts Can Evolve by Changing Their Symbionts and Hosts,” Feral Atlas: The More Than Human Anthropocene. edited byAnna L. Tsing, Jennifer Deger, Alder Keleman Saxena and Feifei Zhou,Stanford University Press, 2020. doi: 10.21627/2020fa

Greenhalgh, Trisha et al. “Management of Post-Acute Covid-19 in Primary Care.” BMJ 2020; 370. M3026. doi: 10.1136/bmj.m3026

Helmreich, Stefan. Alien Ocean: Anthropological Voyages in Microbial Seas. University of California Press, 2009.

Hird, Myra. The Origins of Sociable Life: Evolution After Science Studies. Palgrave Macmillan, 2009.

Honigsbaum, Mark and Krishnan, Lakshmi. “Taking pandemic sequelae seriously: from the Russian influenza to COVID-19 long-haulers.” The Lancet, Vol 396, No 10260, P 1389-1391. doi: 10.1016/S0140-6736(20)32134-6

Landecker, Hannah. “Antibiotic Resistance and the Biology of History.” Body & Society, vol. 22, no. 4, Dec. 2016, pp. 19–52. (Crossref), doi:10.1177/1357034X14561341.

Lorimer, Jamie. “Hookworms Make Us Human: The Microbiome, Eco-immunology, and a Probiotic Turn in Western Health Care.” Medical Anthropology Quarterly. vol 33, no 1, 2018, pp. 60-70. doi: 10.1111/maq.12466

Lowe, Celia. “Viral Clouds: Becoming H5N1 in Indonesia.” Cultural Anthropology, vol. 25, no. 4, 2010, pp. 625–49. Wiley Online Library, doi:10.1111/j.1548-1360.2010.01072.x.

Shantha, Jessica G et al. “An update on ocular complications of Ebola virus disease.” Current opinion in ophthalmology vol. 28,6 (2017): 600-606. doi:10.1097/ICU.0000000000000426

Squier, Susan Merrill. Poultry Science, Chicken Culture: A Partial Alphabet. Rutgers University Press, 2011.

“Us in Flux: Conversations – Memes, Symbiosis, and the Microbiome” Uploaded by Center for Science and the Imagination, June 29, 2020.

Wald, Priscilla. Contagious: Cultures, Carriers, and the Outbreak Narrative. Duke University Press Books, 2008.

Wang, Regina Kanyu. “A Cyber-Cuscuta Manifesto.” Center for Science and the Imagination. Arizona State University, Accessed November 28, 2020.

Wenner Moyer, Melinda. “How Are My Kids Still Getting Sick in Lockdown.” New York Times, June 24, 2020.

Sara DiCaglio is an Assistant Professor of English at Texas A&M University. Her work, which is interested in embodied relations on multiple scales, has appeared in journals such as Body & Society, Feminist Theory, and Peitho. Her current book project, tentatively entitled Tracing Loss: Feminist Anatomies of Reproduction, Miscarriage, and Time, argues for a reintegration of reproductive loss into models of pregnancy in order to broaden our cultural discourse surrounding reproductive justice and maternal-fetal health. More information about her work can be found at

Building the Infrastructure of US/China Futures: Regina Kanyu Wang’s SF in the Classroom

Building the Infrastructure of US/China Futures: Regina Kanyu Wang’s SF in the Classroom

Andrew Hageman

Regina Kanyu Wang’s contribution to the Us in Flux series, “The Cyber-Cuscuta Manifesto,” explores human relationships with big data and artificial intelligence (AI) at the scales of species and planet. Following a very short frame narrative of people all over Earth anxiously waiting for a streaming meeting to convene, the majority of the story is the manifesto delivered by the eponymous cyber-cuscuta, an entity that has emerged out of digital machines, codes, and input, that appear on screen as a human face, “vague in detail, like billions of faces merged into one.” The manifesto is a complex set of statements about the past and prospective futures of humanity based on the unique nonhuman perspective the cyber-cuscuta achieves by processing the massive data sets of human digital activities. Wang concludes the story with this new entity soliciting the humans’ responses, a move that echoes the ending of Robert Wise’s 1951 film, The Day the Earth Stood Still. Though the cyber-cuscuta’s ultimatum is more implicit than the one Klaatu delivered, it is an ultimatum nevertheless: “So, fellow symbiont, what do you say?” A single subsequent sentence then loops back to the frame narrative: “You put your hands on the keyboard and began to type in the input box.” This second-person hailing of the reader effectively closes the story by opening critical space to continue engaging it by imagining how to answer the manifesto. 

    Wang’s story poses key questions about how big data and AI may pave the way to human subjection and/or liberation in the future, particularly in the context of a catastrophically warming planet. The urgency of such questions is intensified in this time of geopolitical antagonism between the United States and China. The Sinophobic rhetoric from the Trump White House and his supporters in response to the COVID-19 pandemic (e.g. “China Virus,” Wuhan Flu”), in conjunction with an Executive Order to ban TikTok and WeChat in the U.S., have escalated the tensions over trade and tariff policies that were already high before the pandemic. Within this context, I chose to teach Wang’s “The Cyber-Cuscuta Manifesto” in a first-year seminar that met face-to-face throughout September 2020, as a way to build infrastructures of understanding and connection. Working collectively to read and analyze literary narratives builds students’ intercultural comprehension, care, and empathy, and SF in particular enables us to perceive and dismantle hostilities that come ideologically bundled with technologies, trade, and life on Earth. This essay documents student engagement with “The Cyber-Cuscuta Manifesto,” including a conversation with Regina Kanyu Wang, as a use case that could be replicated or translated to similar texts, contexts, and courses.


As an onramp to discussing Wang’s story, I began the class meeting by soliciting responses to two statements: (1) My digital/data footprint comprise a snapshot of me, and (2) I am more and/or other than the sum of my digital/data footprint. This activated personal connections with the story’s subject matter and its stakes, and it provided a framework for approaching the text. Nearly every remark students offered to support one statement was summarily complicated by other students who argued that the same idea could cut both ways: online activity is done in private and/or secret so one behaves differently than when in a social situation, so individuals’ digital/data footprints are both more and less than who they are in community; different levels of access to digital/data devices and networks lead to an uneven composite representation of humanity; social media platforms restrict and/or liberate the multivalence of human identities, and the list went on. What became clear in this full-group activity is that the digital/data footprint is a container that can hold a panoply of ideologies, but not without deep contradictions. Relatedly, notions of being human are in a tumultuously metamorphic state right now, and science fiction experiments can help pinpoint contradictions and test out new or modified paradigms that respond to technological innovations. Furthermore, within student responses to the statements, we identified as trends the dynamics of parts to wholes (individuals to collectives); the interconnected notions of rights and privacy as legal objects and commodities; and the shifts in thinking demanded by machinic-organic interfaces.

    After fleshing out personal links to the subject matter, we dove into the story. On machinic-organic interfaces, the title makes this an explicit focal point. For scholars, “The Cyber-Cuscuta Manifesto” echoes the title of Donna Haraway’s landmark 1985 essay, “A Cyborg Manifesto.” For all readers, the emerging entity’s moniker is a refraction of us: “We are cyber-cuscuta, as you call us, but we are not parasitic, as you have thought. Yes, we inhabit on the internet and feed on your data, but we call this process symbiosis, not parasitism.” This compound name captures an undetermined, perhaps interminable, question about whether the entity is exterior to humanity or an extension of it. In fact, having cuscuta, which are parasitic plants, as part of the name embodies a sense of being as already a being-with—an intimate and unsettling coexistence. Add cyber to cuscuta, and the emerging entity is classified as something of a technological extension or prosthesis, to invoke Freud’s description of techno-scientific developments in Civilization and Its Discontents, that may be achieving autonomy from us. Or is the cyber-cuscuta inextricably tied to a human interiority that’s nearly too painful to gaze upon, at least in a sustained way? The fact that the cyber-cuscuta’s birth is linked to the COVID-19 pandemic suggests it is both: “We come from you. Your words, your photos, your emojis, your videos…everything you post online shapes us, since our germination stage during your pandemic, amidst the data flood sweeping over the globe.” COVID-19 is a nonhuman entity, yet its transmission to human beings and global spread are the products of human political economy and the infrastructures we’ve built to sustain and expand it. By positing the cyber-cuscuta as a virus-adjacent entity, the story seems to grant it a parallel status that combines deep alterity with deep intimacy. Wang’s nuanced characterization of the cyber-cuscuta swerves away from depicting them as either a flat dystopian villain or a technoscientific messiah. Instead, this fellow being sparks new questions about, and enables new perspectives on, how big data and AI aggregation and analysis abstract human beings in ways that might end or sustain the species.

    After explaining their origin, the cyber-cuscuta chastise humanity for blunt attempts to eradicate them: “You tried to separate us from the digital stems of your internet, just like detaching cuscutas from plants that are intertwined with them. You attempted to kill us with ferocious computer viruses, just like you try to poison cuscutas with toxic pesticides.” Here Wang leverages the machinic-organic fabric of her premise by having the new entity draw an explicit parallel between the viruses sent against it and the chemical compounds unleashed upon organic species in various ecosystems. Blunt eradication, as with strong pesticides, by human beings has a track record of failure amplified by unforeseen cascades of ecological catastrophe. The task is for human beings to find ways to untangle—or destrand, to use the verb Kim Stanley Robinson turns to often in The Ministry for the Future—the elements of a crisis that are ostensibly separate species, yet sharply hooked together like a Buttonbush Dodder (to use a cuscuta common in Iowa, where I’m writing this) and its host plant. It’s big data that makes us aware of the imperatives to destrand in ecological and economic problem solving, and it’s big data that enables us to model it out beyond the limits of our human capacities. By tapping into the complicated threats and potentials of big data and AI, Wang’s story elides simple technophobia and technophilia alike and incites readers to proceed with wary openness to hear out the cyber-cuscuta. 

    A similar critical entanglement features later in the story as the cyber-cuscuta elaborate on their relationship to humanity: “We came to realize that the way you imagine us is a reflection of how you see yourselves. Aren’t you parasites on the Earth that plunder all of its resources without hesitation? Aren’t you relying on the planet to develop your own civilization but neglecting other species?” Wang’s invocation of the human species as parasitic is deceptively simple. To reflect on ourselves as parasite, virus, unnatural, alienated from ecosystems and the planet is a now-familiar groove, and this part of the story can feel like it’s pushing in that direction. But the cyber-cuscuta are pointing out that because humans perceive ourselves this way, we are unable to perceive them as symbionts rather than as parasites. Whether the cyber-cuscuta are trustworthy or not, their discourse prompts us to wonder what is gained and lost in regarding ourselves as a parasite species. And reading this in the midst of a pandemic, Wang’s story helped our class think about how the emergence of the pandemic and the cyber-cuscuta don’t make the world become weird so much as they make visible how weird it was within the regime now desperately labeled as normal, or, the old normal.

If we believe humanity to be inherently parasitic, for example, this can lead to the conclusion that we would necessarily carry destruction with us even if we moved to places other than Earth, an idea Elizabeth Kolbert explores in her New Yorker essay “Project Exodus: What’s Behind the Dream of Colonizing Mars?” Such paradigms of ourselves as parasitic appear to foreclose on the human future with a certain brand of scientism that elides history, political economy, and more. Wang’s story invites readers to resist this self-loathing and ahistorical groove. Yet, with its ecological grounding, the story also resists the fantasy groove of space travel and transplantation as a revolutionary break. When the cyber-cuscuta say, “Together, we shall make it to the stars and escape the planet you have overwhelmed,” readers should note the contradiction in what this emerging entity is proposing. After all, we are an organic-machinic species intimately geared to planet Earth. We are symbionts here. By invoking, yet undermining, familiar grooves of who we are and how we fit into the planet that we’ve Anthropocened, “The Cyber-Cuscuta Manifesto” narrates one step in a democratic process of comprehending, regulating, and navigating our future here. The story ends with the call for mass human input with an implicit notion that big data and artificial intelligence can collaborate with us if we can achieve an openness to strange grooves that exceed current models and narratives of being interconnected.


With some preliminary close readings of the texts in play, we pivoted at the end of class to the intercultural imaginary. Wang generously agreed to meet with us one night via Zoom to discuss her work, and preparing for this opportunity was especially productive. While “The Cyber-Cuscuta Manifesto” addresses a global audience, I asked students to generate questions for Wang about how writing the story in China shaped her inspiration, ideas, and the published version of the story. The collective brainstorming process brought forward a number of presuppositions, and at times prejudices, about China. Several students raised the subject of China’s Social Credit System, an emerging national system that amalgamates and monitors people’s data, from banking to social media posts, and may be used to control social behaviors. Some students were curious about what Wang would identify as particular to her story given the complicated mix of capitalist and communist ideologies and practices in China today, what Deng Xiaoping dubbed “Socialism with Chinese Characteristics.” Drawing upon these ideas and inquiries, I led students in formulating interculturally competent questions that balanced diplomacy and respect with the spirit of what they wanted to learn. It was an exercise in speculative empathy meant to deconstruct and expand imaginations of others and selves.

The actual meeting with Wang was stellar. In response to questions about what concerns people in China today would bring to reading “The Cyber-Cuscuta Manifesto,” Wang offered a two-part answer. For the first part, she asked students how many times they’ve clicked Accept to a user agreement for an app without actually reading the agreement. This solicited laughter and an immediate sense of shared, chagrined experience, and Wang explained that in China, like in the U.S., people agree to these legal tech contracts all the time and only think about it when it turns out their data is being used and/or sold in problematic ways, especially by companies to generate profit. For the second part, Wang surprised students by explaining that living in a nation of nearly 1.4 billion people bolsters a feeling of digital and data security. The insignificance one can feel within a population that massive can seem, and to some degree be, liberating. This idea sparked a lot of conversation when the students and I discussed the Zoom session in class the next day. Students were astonished to imagine that people living in China might feel significantly less concerned about digital and data security and privacy than people in the U.S. What’s more, Wang’s remark prompted a discussion of how the reverence of individualism—of opposition to masses and collectivity—is cultural and historical rather than natural. After all, we also talked about how collective approaches to big data and AI seem to have facilitated more effective measures to curtail the spread of COVID-19. This was a powerful insight that came directly from engaging an excellent SF text in conjunction with its author in dialogue, and as such it attests to the impact of projects like Us in Flux.

I will add three other takeaways from the Zoom call with Wang. First, in relation to the dynamic of digital technologies and botanical ecologies in “The Cyber-Cuscuta Manifesto,” Wang pointed out that the U.S. and China have different cultural and historical approaches to thinking about the machinic and organic and that China’s high regard for science, technology, and engineering has helped keep the nation free of the climate change denial. Second, students were fascinated to learn that Wang intentionally kept some of the story’s language a bit awkward. They appreciated how she made writing in a second language an asset since the cyber-cuscuta is a polylingual entity attempting to communicate ideas that don’t slide seamlessly across languages. Third, when students asked a craft question about how to confront writer’s block, Wang shared a recent and very personal experience of feeling blocked and how she responded to that. Acknowledging vulnerability connected all of us on the Zoom, and Wang wrapped up the call by reiterating the fact that stories give us access to other lives while revealing how much we Earthlings have in common, despite the hostilities and antagonisms that often disconnect us.


We completed the unit on Wang’s stories with fanfic by writing a continuation of “The Cyber-Cuscuta Manifesto” and then processing it algorithmically. As I noted above, the story ends with the line: “You put your hands on the keyboard and began to type in the input box.” As part of one class meeting, students took approximately twenty-five minutes to put their hands on their keyboards and type as if replying to the cyber-cuscuta. When their writing time was up, I asked them to form teams of four or five students and imagine how the cyber-cuscuta would make sense of their collective responses. To accomplish this, teams read the full set of fanfic writings and collaboratively generated tags to sort and quantify signals within the data set. In other words, the students practiced the humanities-meets-algorithms work of taggers such as the Netflix position that Ed Finn analyzes in his book, What Algorithms Want: Imagination in the Age of Computing. (92-94) As a final step, all the teams reconvened and we collated their approaches to transform the raw data into information and emulate the cyber-cuscuta’s manifesto statement, “We learned about the difference between data and information. Data is raw and unorganized, while information is processed and structured. We mastered the skill of transforming data into information, while obtaining energy in the process.” This exercise challenged students, and the most productive outcome was not specific insights extrapolated from the tagged data set so much as a keen awareness of how the humanities and techno-sciences converge. The logic that shaped the Us in Flux approach to putting SF writers and professional scientists into conversation was rendered clear and compelling.

In terms of tags, the teams produced a suggestive mix of unanimous and idiosyncratic categories to sort the data. Every group, for example, employed a binary split of writings that either embraced the cyber-cuscuta’s manifesto or rejected it. The fact that their responses to Wang’s story were bifurcated, without exceptions that would’ve necessitated a neutral category, sparked discussion. We worked to discern the elements of the text that seem to correlate with the fanfic polarization, from the story’s self-declared genre and second-person narration to the figures it used to make assertions about the human species. Focusing on figures, many teams tagged writings that explicitly referred to the cyber-cuscuta’s claim that humans are planetary parasites, with some teams getting still more granular with sub-tags to differentiate the writings that accepted or abjured this characterization. The writings that explicitly referred to the parasite claim trended significantly towards acceptance, and this prompted us to interrogate the structure of species self-loathing in regard to climate change.

For one final outcome of this active exploration of Wang’s story, our classroom collective reflected on the fact that the teams had exclusively tagged the text but not the makers. This revelation raised questions about what new views of the data would emerge, and what ethical considerations would need to be addressed, if the tag-sorted data was cross-referenced with identity tags. This was a beautiful place to end up as it looped the discussion back to cultural contexts, conflicts, and empathy—to Regina Kanyu Wang writing “The Cyber-Cuscuta Manifesto” in China, in conjunction with the Center for Science and the Imagination seated in a U.S. university, to publish on the internet for global reader access, and giving her time to Zoom with our class about the roles SF can play in designing futures for the common good.   


The Day the Earth Stood Still. Directed by Robert Wise, 20th Century Fox, 1951.

Finn, Ed. What Algorithms Want: Imagination in the Age of Computing. The MIT Press, 2017.

Freud, Sigmund. Civilization and Its Discontents. Translated by James Strachey, Norton, 1989.

Haraway, Donna. “A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology, and Socialist-Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century.” Simians, Cyborgs, and Women: The Reinvention of Nature. Routledge, 1991.

Kolbert, Elizabeth. “Project Exodus: What’s Behind the Dream of Colonizing Mars?” The New Yorker, 25 May 2015. 

Robinson, Kim Stanley. The Ministry for the Future. Orbit, 2020.

Wang, Regina Kanyu. “The Cyber-Cuscuta Manifesto.” 2020.

Andrew Hageman is Associate Professor of English at Luther College, where he teaches and researches intersections of technoculture and ecology in film and literature. He has published essays on speculative fiction (including Chinese SF) and a wide range of other topics and texts in venues like Science Fiction Studies, Extrapolation, and Interdisciplinary Studies in Literature and Environment, and he co-edited the 2016 “Global Weirding” issue of Paradoxa. Andrew was also a fellow at the Center for Science and the Imagination during a recent sabbatical.

Librarians of a Vampire: Fighting Against Hegel’s Dialectic Narrative of Colonialism and Slavery

Librarians of a Vampire: Fighting Against Hegel’s Dialectic Narrative of Colonialism and Slavery

Eric Stribling

“I had a vision”

Chinelo Onwualu’s dystopian flash fiction, “When We Call a Place Home,” opens with a vision of ominous ships coming towards a utopian homestead in West Africa. The three ships “sailed upon a sea of blood and left fire and terror in their wake.” The main protector of the homestead, the vampire Nesiret, is reminded of a similar episode in the distant past. Perhaps Nesiret remembers back to the mid-fifteenth century when Portuguese ships began raiding West Africa’s shores for slaves? Millions of Africans would die and tens of millions would be enslaved and sent to the Americas, providing labor for colonial European powers and later the American republic. While the growing transatlantic slave trade bothered a few Europeans, popular opinion condoned and even celebrated the trade in human beings. Philosophers, scientists, and theologians would build rationales, philosophical systems, and stories to justify this moral evil. As Nesiret struggles with how to communicate such atrocities, she tells her daughter, “‘Greed and ambition rarely coexist with reason, child.’”

Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel’s Lord-Bondsman allegory is one such story, a powerful philosophical narrative that provided a moral justification of slavery.  Later philosophers would need to fight back against this story, and they used various methods: telling a contradictory narrative, undermining its racist conclusion by showing Hegel’s indebtedness to Black minds and bodies, and imagining a new interpretation for Hegel’s own story.  These later philosophers all used the power of narrative themselves to fight back against the underlying ideas of Hegel’s narrative. 

“Will you come with me to the library? I fear its classification systems these days confound me.”

Is it a coincidence that Plato, one of the fathers of Western philosophy, started out as a playwright? I think not. Renowned translator Benjamin Jowett remarked, “we lose the better half of Plato when we regard his Dialogues merely as literary compositions” (Dyer 166). All of Plato’s Dialogues have characters engaged in conversation. Yes, the stories explore abstract ideas, such as love, wisdom, or art, but we remember the characters. These characters have interests and personalities. Socrates was haughty but noble. Cephalus is old, wise, and kind. The Sophists were rash, cantankerous, and daft. These characters bickered with one another. They fought. They fell in love. When Plato sought to explain the nature of reality itself (his Theory of Forms), he told a story. He described a group of people shackled in chains inside a deep cave. They have never seen the sun; instead, they have spent their entire lives watching shadows on a blank cave wall. What the people observe as real things are nothing more than the silhouettes of objects passing in front of a fire that sits behind them. Plato argued through narrative that observed reality is nothing more than inaccurate perceptions of real, ideal objects—a philosophy that would dominate the Western worldview for over a millennium. 

For thousands of years, religious leaders, philosophers, and scientists have reinforced abstract ideas through fiction, through story. The Gautama Siddhartha, Jesus of Nazareth, and Confucius use narratives, stories, and parables to explain the right way to live. Augustine of Hippo’s Confessions presents an argument for his theological worldview through a recounting of his own life. Many of the major moves in philosophy are cemented in narrative. Fyodor Dostoyevsky, one of the foundational figures in existential philosophy, wrote only fictional novels. Camus similarly did not write philosophy, but he explored absurdity (the search for meaning in an irrational universe) through his novels. Kafka explored morality by writing about it under strange hypothetical circumstances—like if one were to wake up as an insect. Isaac Asimov explored humanity in “The Bicentennial Man” by telling the story of a robot who believed himself to be human. Einstein used the image of a passenger on a train to explore the nature of light. The list of fiction writers who argued philosophy or philosophers who argued through fiction is legion: Dante Alighieri, Ibn Tufail, John Bunyan, Mary Shelley, Voltaire, Jean-Paul Sartre, and Ayn Rand are but a sampling. Kendall Haven, a neuroscience researcher explains, “Every human brain is wired to make sense of the world through [story]” (Haven).

The way we think about thinking, the way we understand understanding—philosophy is extremely pervasive and no less so in speculative fiction. The morning Nesiret learns of the oncoming ship, she heads for the library and finds that others shared her inclination. Often great philosophers and impactful philosophical schools emerge during moments of great political, moral, or ecological turmoil to help make sense of the age. And in an age of scientific advancement and political revolutions, Hegel rose as one such figure. 

“The minds that had once conceived of sexism, colonialism, and slavery”

The democratization of knowledge that hit Europe due to the Gutenberg press led to a series of social disruptions and scientific discoveries, as knowledge generation could occur outside the Medieval institutions capable of manually recopying texts (monasteries and universities). Bacon, Descartes, Galileo, Copernicus, Leibniz, Newton, and many others had a discernible influence on the philosophy of the Renaissance (Hofer). The power of Reason became a ubiquitous concept in European philosophy. The revolutions in the United States and France had shocked the world. In essence, the Enlightenment ideals of natural human rights, individual freedoms, and popular sovereignty espoused by seventeenth-century philosophers Grotus, Hobbes, and especially Locke came to fruition in the American revolution, and a few years later, Rousseau’s writings had the same effect in France. While Hegel’s own Germany was a prime example of the horrible societal effects of despotism, there was a palpable change in the zeitgeist. (Marcuse 30–35)

Geist (Spirit = God = Mind) in Hegel’s philosophy is reminiscent of divine providence, similar to how St. John considers God to be the divine Logos. Hegel envisions a future utopia drawn forth by the forward motion of the power of Reason upon human society. (At the same time within the field of economics, Adam Smith’s invisible hand envisions a comparable teleological world-force.) There is a push and pull, a positive-ness and a negative-ness that moves the universe forward towards a final culminating unity in Geist. There is a similarity between Hegel’s concept of Geist and the oft-quoted moral universe of Martin Luther King Jr.: “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice” (King, qtd. in Smith). Geist is the end goal of all things, culminating in freedom and reason for all. 

Arguably Hegel’s most famous writing is a narrative from within his Phenomenology of Spirit: The Lord-Bondsman allegory (a.k.a. his Master–Slave dialectic), an archetypical description of Geist at work in human relationships (or nations or races). In the allegory, two men come face to face. They each begin to recognize that the other has a living, self-sufficient consciousness, similar to their own experience of consciousness. Both men perceive the other’s life as a threat to their own sense of self, their own freedom, and a fight to the death ensues. Eventually one man wins and subjugates the other. He becomes the Master (who is free) and forces his Slave (a mere Thing) to care for all his needs. However, in doing so, the Master becomes lazy and complacent, while the Slave becomes creative and skillful. Eventually the power dynamic is reversed, and the Slave achieves liberation through his subjugation. In the end, both must recognize the other as self-conscious, free, and equal—the push and pull of Geist.

This idea would influence the emergent field of psychology and the ideas of Marx (the proletarian revolution against the bourgeoisie), but it would also be used as a strong justification for the trans-Atlantic slave trade. One of Hegel’s notes shows his line of thinking: “This subjugation of the slave’s egotism forms the beginning of true human freedom… To become free, to acquire the capacity for self-control, all nations must therefore undergo the severe discipline of subjection to a master… Slavery and tyranny are, therefore, in the history of nations a necessary stage and hence relatively justified”. (Hegel, qtd. in Moellendorf 253) For Hegel, American slaves were losers in the fight for self-consciousness, and their subjugation was justified.  Slavery was a necessary step on the path towards self-consciousness.  The slaves would eventually emancipate themselves through servitude, but until that future time, Hegel considered these people as mere Things

When Nesiret imagines the fall of the Old World, she envisions hierarchies between people, oppression of vulnerable people, in essence a life-and-death struggle ending in subjugation and exploitation. Perhaps she thought back to Hegel’s allegory?

“The storytellers went first”

The fight against Hegel’s story begins fifty years after the publication of Phenomenology of Spirit with Frederick Douglass. At the time that Douglass was writing his autobiography, there were Hegelian societies active in America who used the Hegelian narrative to justify slavery. (Kohn 497) In Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, Douglass inverts the Hegelian narrative by recounting an actual fight between a master and a slave: himself and Edward Covey. 

After a series of mistakes, Douglass was sent to Covey, who was known as a harsh man, known for breaking slaves. Douglass’s first task was to break stubborn oxen, about which he wrote, “I now saw, in my situation, several points of similarity with that of the oxen. They were property, so was I; they were to be broken, so was I. Covey was to break me, I was to break them; break and be broken—such is life”. (Douglass ch. 15) Finally, after six months and on the verge of suicide, Douglass fled into nearby woods, where he had a profound experience where freedom became more important to him than life. “The Douglass who emerged from the woods was the antithesis of everything that slave society had trained him to be: a docile, obedient, ignorant, faithful slave”. (Kohn 511) The next time Covey came at him with a whip, Douglass decided to fight back, and the pair fought ferociously for two hours, after which Covey never punished him again. In stark opposition to the Hegelian narrative, Douglass had not achieved freedom through obeisance and hard work, but through fighting back while a slave.

“Next came the librarians”

Susan Buck-Morss in Hegel, Haiti, and Universal History similarly fights against Hegel’s allegory through narrative, by telling the story of the Haitian revolution. In 1791, only a few years after the American and French revolutions, Toussaint Louverture led a slave uprising against the French empire, leading to the foundation of the free state of Haiti, governed by ex-slaves. While most of the Haitian revolutionaries were illiterate, they appear to have been influenced by the same concepts (liberté, égalité, fraternité) popularized through the news and global ripple effects of the two previous revolutions. Indeed, at the siege of La Crête à Pierrot, the eventually victorious Haitians sang La Marseillaise at the French army, leading one soldier to remark to his superior, “Wherever we sang it we came to set the people free… Can you tell me, Major, what have we come here for?” (Newsinger)

The impact on imaginations around the world was undeniable, and numerous academics understand the Haitian revolution as one of the most significant events in world history. (Joseph) Despite Hegel’s Master-Slave dialectic about a life and death struggle between men that ends in slavery, Hegel never references the event. Buck-Morss writes the book as “a mystery story”, (3) where she uncovers the obvious influences of the Haitian revolution on Hegel’s philosophy and then uncovers why he censures all references in his writings. (One major reason was that Napoleon was ransacking Jena, his university’s town, at the time he was finishing up Phenomenology of Spirit.) Buck-Morss argues that Hegel’s Master-Slave dialectic is in fact a direct parallel of the contemporaneous Haitian revolution. She specifically attacks the dissonance that existed in Hegel’s Enlightenment thought, specifically the ethnocentric universal freedom in Hegel that coexisted with an acceptance of slavery.

“Is there another way?”

Frantz Fanon in Black Skin, White Masks also fights back against the oppressiveness of Hegel’s philosophy through narrative. The book is written as an auto-theory, or highly philosophical autobiography. Fanon recounts story after story that highlight how colonialism has forced Black minds and bodies to adhere to White and European ways of thinking and doing: “There is nothing more exasperating than to be asked: ‘How long have you been in France? You speak French so well.’ … Nothing is more astonishing than to hear a black man express himself properly, for then in truth he is putting on the white world” (Fanon 23). He argues that the colonial idea of modernization is no more than ethnocentrism, and that the imposition of a colonizer’s culture on other people groups causes a negative psychological effect on the people in those colonized groups. Fanon describes colonialization as a double process of subjugation, both external (economic) and internal (psychological). Fanon both critiques and extends Hegel’s Master-Slave dialectic. He argues that the final state of recognition between the two men risks subjugating Black minds again to a synthesis modeled on White, European ways of thought. Rejecting Hegel’s conclusion to the story, he applies the allegory to the struggle of Black colonized people against White colonizers: the fight for cultural identity is a life-and-death struggle, where colonized people must completely break with Whiteness.

“Nesiret’s heart was finally at rest”

The ending of Onwualu’s narrative leaves the reader in suspense, not knowing the outcome; however, there is hope. “She and her kind had spent centuries teaching humanity new ways to live with the world, and with each other.” Her great-granddaughter Nya argues that reason would be able to convince the arriving ships to engage in peaceful trade rather than exploitation. Could this be Nesiret’s lesson? Perhaps Douglass, Buck-Morss, and Fanon offer a reasoned approach towards Hegel’s philosophy of colonialism and slavery. If so, one could certainly imagine a strange circle in the story of Hegel’s story. If Hegel’s allegory can be imagined as a negative push, then the narrative critiques might just be the positive pull that leads even Hegel into a reasonable Geist.


Buck-Morss, Susan. Hegel, Haiti and Universal History. University of Pittsburgh Press, 2009.

Douglass, Frederick. My Bondage and My Freedom. Lit2Go ed., 1855,

Dyer, Louis. “Plato as a Playwright.” Harvard Studies in Classical Philology, vol. 12, 1901, p. 165. (Crossref), doi:10.2307/310427.

Fanon, Frantz. Black Skin, White Masks. 1st ed., new Ed, Grove Press ; Distributed by Publishers Group West, 1952.

Haven, Kendall. Your Brain on Story. mediaX Seminar: The Science Storytelling & the Power of Participation, Stanford University, Stanford, California.

Hofer, Kristin R. “Manutius, Aldus.” Late Medieval Age of Crisis and Renewal, 1300-1500 : A Biographical Dictionary, edited by Clayton J. Drees, Greenwood Publishing, 2000,

Joseph, Celucien L. “The Haitian Turn”: An Appraisal of Recent Literary and Historiographical Works on the Haitian Revolution. 2012, p. 20.

Kohn, Margaret. “Frederick Douglass’s Master-Slave Dialectic.” The Journal of Politics, vol. 67, no. 2, May 2005, pp. 497–514. (Crossref), doi:10.1111/j.1468-2508.2005.00326.x.

Marcuse, Herbert. Reason and Revolution: Hegel and the Rise of Social Theory. Ark Paperbacks, 1941.

Moellendorf, Darrel. “Racism and Rationality in Hegel’s Philosophy of Subjective Spirit.” History of Political Thought, vol. 13, no. 2, Summer 1992, pp. 243–55.

Newsinger, John. “Liberty and Equality in Haiti.” Socialist Review, Feb. 2006.,

Onwualu, Chinelo. “When We Call a Place Home.” Us in Flux, 2020,

Smith, Mychal Denzel. “The Truth About ‘The Arc Of The Moral Universe.’” HuffPost, 18 Jan. 2018.,

Eric Stribling has been an Associate Professor of Mechanical Engineering at l’Université des Montagnes (Cameroon) since 2017, and he is currently a PhD student in Arizona State University’s Innovation in Global Development program, focusing his research on the diffusion of innovations for social well-being.



Sarah Pinsker

Malachi happened to be mowing down by the gates when the mail carrier arrived in her ancient truck. He wasn’t supposed to talk to Outsiders until he turned twenty-five, another six years, but he couldn’t help trying on the rare occasions an opportunity presented itself.

“Is it true you all—”

Before he could finish his question, she said, “here’s your mail,” handed him the whole weekly box, and drove away. He’d seen various Aunts and Uncles carry mail to the office before, so he figured he’d do that. The chance of getting punished with extra duty for something done of ignorance was relatively low.

He hunched forward to balance the heavy box on the mower’s motor going up the hill, which proved harder than he’d expected. Halfway, his right front wheel hit a gopher hole and he lost his grip on the box, spilling its contents. He stopped the mower, massaging his cramping hand. He hated mowing. Hated the noise and the monotony and the sun and the smell of vegetable-oil diesel. If he had any choice he’d pick baking every shift. 

As he scooped white envelopes off the grass, he looked at the names of places he’d only vaguely heard of: Tennessee, Delaware, South Canada. He’d never really thought about where mail came from, beyond the abstract of Not Here. He’d never left the Reliance, and his enlightener, Aunt Leona, said the compound was the only place that mattered.

And then he happened to see his own name, which was odd because he had never in his entire life gotten mail before. The envelope said “THIRD NOTICE,” which presumably meant there had been a first and a second. 

He sifted through the rest. There was a THIRD NOTICE envelope for Daniel as well, and he knew Daniel had never gotten any mail either. Malachi hesitated, then slipped both into the waistband of his shorts and pulled his shirt over them. 

He parked the mower in the machinery barn and carried the box to the office, trying not to look like he was hiding something. It felt like every eye was on him as he passed, though there was no way anyone could see through his black shirt the letters.  

 “Mail’s here,” he said to Aunt Leona, raising his voice to accommodate her hearing loss. She nodded and waved him toward the corner without looking away from her computer. 

“Thanks, Henry,” she said. There wasn’t any Henry in his generation, but he didn’t bother to correct her. Everyone in the Reliance probably blurred together for a Founding Aunt. He tried to imagine what it must have been like when they first settled here sixty years before, young and idealistic, “to create a self-sufficient society away from globalism, commercialism and celebrity,” as the founding principles said. 

Everyone else from the youth dorm would be out working, so Malachi went back there before pulling the damp envelopes from his waistband. He put the other letter on the small table between his bed and Daniel’s to air out, and sat to examine his own. The return address said “U.S. Transformative Service Corps, Washington, D.C.” 

This letter had travelled from a department he’d never heard of, from a country he lived in only in the technical sense, and he had the strangest feeling that if he hadn’t spilled the mail, he never would’ve seen it. Inside, there was a letter, a form, and another slightly smaller envelope with an address printed on it. A slogan on the envelope’s back read “Twenty Years of Reimagining Community and Service.”

Daniel ducked into the room. When they’d moved from the children’s dorm two years before, Daniel had been six inches shorter. His shorts were covered in purple stains, and he rummaged in his drawers for a fresh pair before turning. “What’ve you got there?”

Malachi hesitated, then pointed at the table. “Mail. That one’s for you.”

Daniel arched an eyebrow. He reached for his envelope as Malachi unfolded the letter and read out loud. “Our records show you have not completed your mandatory Transformative Service registration form online, by mail, or by phone. This form must be completed before your 19th birthday. One year of service is compulsory for all United States residents. Documented medical exemptions only. Failure to return the form and complete service will result in the loss of both guaranteed monthly income and Health Assurance.”

There were a lot of terms he didn’t understand: Transformative Service, guaranteed monthly income, Health Assurance.  

“Should we tell someone?” Daniel examined the form.

Malachi shook his head. “It says third notice. If they never gave us the first two…”

“You think they kept them from us? Why would they do that?” 

“They’ve kept stuff from us before. Have you ever tried asking anything about Outside?”

“Why would I? Outside is dangerous and—”

“—and un-self-sufficient, blah, blah.” Malachi interrupted. “But how do we know that’s true?”

 Daniel glanced around uncomfortably. “We’ve been here our entire lives and they’ve never shown me any reason not to trust. I’m going to show mine to Aunt Susanna.”

“Okay, but you only tell her about yours, not mine.” Malachi still thought it was a bad idea, though he wasn’t sure why.


Aunt Susanna frowned when she saw the letter. “Where did you get that?”

Daniel answered with a smooth vagueness, as if letters arrived for him every day. “It came in the mail. What is it?”

“A misunderstanding.” She waved the question away. “It doesn’t apply to you.”

“It says mandatory.” Malachi didn’t want to call attention to himself, but he couldn’t help it.

“It’s mandatory for everyone Outside, sweetie. Did you get one too?”

He ignored the question. “It doesn’t say that. It says medical exceptions only. Maybe he should fill it out.”

“Then he’ll end up in their system.” The Aunt held out her hand. “We’ll take care of it for you.”

She obviously wasn’t going to explain, and she was ignoring that they must already be in the system or they wouldn’t have received letters, and now she wasn’t going to give Daniel’s letter back. 

“I told you,” Malachi said as they left the Enlightenment. 

Daniel shrugged. “It’s okay. She said they’ll take care of it.”

“But we never even figured out what it was.”

“It doesn’t matter. You should give her yours too.” 

Malachi nodded, but when he touched the letter in his waistband, he knew he wasn’t going to do that. Instead, he waited until everyone was asleep that night and slipped out. The grass was soft under bare feet as he crossed the Circle to the kitchen. It bustled at most hours, but sat empty between dinner dishes and the first baking shift, his favorite rotation. The work was hard, but he liked being up before the others, and the warmth, and the scent of baking bread. If he could ask to do only those shifts, maybe he’d be happier.

His goal was the kitchen office, which held the second of their three telephones. He’d only ever used it once, when Uncle Cameron had started a grease fire and he’d had to call the Reliance emergency services to come with their waterpump backpacks. 

Now he glanced around one more time and unfolded the letter. His fingers trembled with the thrill of doing something he knew he shouldn’t do, and he misdialed the first time. The second time, a voice answered, and he thought it was a person, but then it said, “press zero to speak with an operator,” so he did that. 

“U.S. Transformative Service Corps, reimagining service and community. This is Terry speaking. How can I help you?”

“What’s ‘guaranteed monthly income?’” Malachi asked. 

“Every U.S. resident gets a stipend, from the day we’re born.” If Terry had laughed at him, he would have hung up right then, but they answered as if it were a reasonable question. “The only way you could lose it is if you fail to complete your Transformative Service.”

“What if I don’t think I’ve ever gotten it?”

“It goes to your parents until you start your service, unless you’re emancipated.”

He didn’t know what that meant, and he didn’t have parents. Just Aunts and Uncles who seemed to be hiding important information. 

Hopefully his next question wasn’t stupid either. “What’s Transformative Service?”

The voice still didn’t laugh, but this time they sounded excited. “I love explaining it to people who don’t know! It’s the coolest thing. You answer questions and tell us the areas where you’d like to be matched—meal delivery, agriculture, home building, citizen journalism, music for seniors, emergency services, respite camps, anything you’re interested in—and we’ll put you in a community placement. When you complete your service—or if anything happens outside of your control to interrupt it—your stipend and your Health Assurance continue for life.”

Malachi didn’t know what all those things were. Some of the placements sounded like things he already did, but the feeling that something was off at the Reliance had magnified. They’d kept all of this from him. Something he was supposed to do. Something that was the opposite of self-sufficiency, but not dangerous. Coming together for other people instead of your people didn’t seem like such a bad thing; neither did seeing something outside the gates. 

“Do you want to register while we’re on the phone? I can walk you through it.”     Part of him wanted to say yes, but what was he saying yes to? Why would he trust government strangers over the people who had raised him? He hung up.


A week later, he was mowing along the road again and lingered to catch the mail carrier. 

“Please,” he said. Before she could stop him, he continued, “Is Transformative Service a real thing?”

“Of course. I fought wildfires in California.” She gave him a sympathetic look. “Do y’all not buy into that either?”

Malachi shook his head. “We’re self-sufficient.”

“Are you, though? You wouldn’t get your mail if it wasn’t for me. You fix your own machinery, but do you make the parts? It’s a fantasy of self-sufficiency, kid. Here—take your mail.” 

She left him holding the box and wondering: were they self-sufficient, or just opting out of something bigger? The envelope said “Twenty Years of Reimagining Community and Service,” but the Reliance was sixty. Maybe things had happened Outside since then that were worth knowing. He made his way to the kitchen after midnight with that in mind. 

“I’m ready to register,” he said when someone answered. 

He’d still have to figure out how to leave, but that was a problem for another day. Did Transformative Service refer to the people he’d be helping, or the change in his own life? It was the first big choice he’d ever made for himself, so maybe a little of both.  

To read all 11 Us in Flux stories and to watch videos of Us in Flux conversations, visit

For more on “Notice,” observation, learning, and choice, watch the Us in Flux conversation between Sarah Pinsker and education researcher Punya Mishra.

Sarah Pinsker is the author of over fifty works of short fiction, including the novelette “Our Lady of the Open Road,” winner of the Nebula Award in 2016, and the novel A Song for a New Day, winner of the Nebula in 2019. Her novelette “In Joy, Knowing the Abyss Behind” was the Sturgeon Award winner in 2014. Her stories have been translated into Chinese, Spanish, French, and Italian, among other languages, and have been nominated for the Hugo, Locus, Eugie, and World Fantasy Awards. Follow her on Twitter @SarahPinsker and learn more at

Transdisciplinary Collaborations: My Experience at the Intersection of Science and the Imagination

Transdisciplinary Collaborations: My Experience at the Intersection of Science and the Imagination

Vandana Singh

Editors’ Note: The Us in Flux project that inspired this special issue brought together speculative fiction authors with experts from a variety of fields, from virtual reality and ecology to architecture, to create compelling visions of the future, and to share insights in public, virtual conversations. This emphasis on the social aspects of creating a story is a common theme in projects from the Center for Science and the Imagination (CSI) at Arizona State University. In this essay, author Vandana Singh, a regular collaborator with CSI, describes how her experiences engaging in these types of collaborative projects has influenced her work and thinking over time.

Writing is a lonely business. The writer’s mind is crowded with people and situations, but the process of writing is a solo one. When I am under the spell of story, pulled into the vortex of creation, the world outside my head is the one that feels less real. Except, of course, when I am engaged in the process of research for the story, especially in my genre of choice, science fiction. Far-off worlds and imaginary beings notwithstanding, research grounds me in this world, this universe. Research for a story is spellbinding in its own way, because the universe we inhabit is infinitely strange, and therefore an endless source of inspiration. In my case I find that inevitably research enlarges the imaginative scope of the story—not merely providing flesh on its bones, but also influencing the behavior of the characters, the details of the setting, and the direction of the story. Seen in that light, research and the creative aspect of the writing engage in a dance of continual give and take, one leading, then the other following, and vice versa.

But, just as in real life, research is much more interesting—and I would add, much more fruitful—when one is not a lone explorer. So when noted science fiction editor and anthologist Kathryn Cramer invited me to engage with Arizona State University’s newly formed Center for Science and the Imagination (CSI) as a participant in Project Hieroglyph back in 2013, I leaped at the chance. The model of story development, I was told, was not strictly solo, but involved interacting with researchers relevant to the subject of the story. I would have access to subject-area experts, at ASU and beyond, on any aspect of my story that I wanted to play with. This was a heady proposition, even better than being granted free access to a world-class library. And indeed, it turned out to be exhilarating beyond my expectations. The team at CSI indulged every authorial whim, or so it seemed to me as I connected with climate scientists, biologists, geographers, and urban-sustainability engineers. This emboldened me—a relatively shy person most comfortable living under the proverbial rock—to contact experts beyond ASU as well. Long telephone and email conversations with generous experts who didn’t balk at any of my questions but obligingly provided explanations, shared personal stories and sent me papers to read, led to the same intellectual highs I’d got when working on my Ph.D. decades ago.

Since that unforgettable experience, I’ve participated in three CSI projects, each different, but with the common thread of access to scholars in some form or other. In a couple of the projects, connection with experts happened mostly as I developed the story from the initial vague conception to foundation and scaffolding. When I needed help with specifics, CSI would find me the right person, or a person who would eventually lead me to the right person. In another project, the interaction with experts was more structured: authors shared their story drafts with experts, received expert comments, and then wrote the final draft. One of the projects included, as a kind of icing on the cake, a visit to ASU and direct interaction with scholars, editors, and fellow authors. Each experience, in its own way, worked well; I had complete artistic freedom, but my stories were informed by the rich brew of ideas that emerged from personal conversations with experts. How much more collegial and inspiring than reading tomes or searching for academic papers on the internet entirely on my own!

One of the most valuable aspects of these collaborative conversations with experts was, for me as a scientist writing science fiction, a chance to expand my understanding of fields outside my own. It is all very well to take liberties in the name of imaginative fiction, but it goes against the grain for me to be dismissive of, or careless with, scientific or scholarly knowledge. As a transdisciplinary scholar, I know that one of the greatest dangers of venturing outside your own field is the fact that there are things we don’t know we don’t know. Here lie unintentional errors, blunders, and pitfalls. So, through my conversations with experts, I learned what it was really like to dive into the ocean near the poles, and that you could eat raw whale meat with soy sauce in the far North. I learned that white-painted roofs in urban areas would indeed reduce the urban heat island effect, but that they might affect weather patterns and increase aridity in warm, dry places. Walking up and down my living room, with papers and books strewn on every surface, I thought about methane bubbling up from the seafloor in the warming Arctic, and my conversation with a biologist about methane-eating bacteria. How might that inform my story about climate change? The fact that these bacteria lived in communities allowed them to do what they did. Without much conscious intent, my story started to develop along a broad theme of community and connection on a global scale.  

For another project, I found myself obsessed with the idea of life beyond Earth that was not like life-as-we-know-it. How would we even recognize such a lifeform? Speaking with experts, I learned that this was an active field of study that went to the heart of the age-old question: what is life? and I was introduced to mind-blowing concepts like top-down causal information flow and shadow biospheres. During conversations with renowned planetary scientist Lindy Elkins-Tanton, I discovered a common fascination with tidally locked planets orbiting close to their red dwarf stars. Since my story about life-as-we-don’t-know-it had to be set on such a planet, I learned from my kindly expert what it might feel like to stand on a cliff at the terminator zone of such a planet, the thin region dividing the boiling sun-side of the planet from the frozen far-side. I would be looking at vast, molten seas of lava, from which enormous fountains of liquid rock would rise. The temperature difference would cause winds to flow across the terminator zone, carrying tiny motes of lava that solidified as they cooled, bombarding the cliff face with a rain of particles. I wandered through the rituals of the day oblivious to the fact that I was on Planet Earth; my head was a few light-years away on my fictional planet, Shikasta b, trying to figure out if there were hints of life in the tortured geology of that world.

These conversations didn’t just make the stories more scientifically grounded. They also made them more human. Of my many marvelous conversations, I’m reminded of two that helped me foreground stories of human resilience in my fiction. One of these was with Bernadette Tsosie, a hydrologist who is also a member of the Navajo Nation. Because this project involved a trip to ASU and the mesa country of Arizona, I wanted to honor the place and its people by setting part of the story in Navajo country. But it didn’t seem obvious how a story about the lack of winter (the theme of the anthology) could belong in Navajo country. Bernadette was the perfect consultant, being a scientist as well as Dine’, and over the course of a long phone call, she generously shared with me her memories of sheep herding with her family—the long trek into the highlands, her childhood observation of the change in vegetation with altitude, her grandparents’ loving praise when she was careful with the water. She also explained to me the crucial importance of snow on the high mesa. Her descriptions were so vivid and her explanations so lucid that I could almost sense the falling of snow on the rocky heights, and the slow trickle of meltwater that would feed the streams below through all of summer. This water security was threatened by a warming climate, because rain (instead of snow) results in flash floods. But when snow melts, I learned, liquid water is released slowly, sinking through porous sedimentary rock over months, feeding streambeds below in a sustained manner through the arid heat of summer. So I learned that even in warm regions like Arizona, winter—real winter—is crucially important. And that family and kinship get people through hard times. Thus my fictional Dine’ hydrologist came to life.

Similarly, I had the fantastic opportunity to speak with Laura Tohe, then the Poet Laureate of the Navajo Nation. I sent for her book, and spoke to her on the phone, a long, freewheeling conversation in which she told me what it meant to grow up on the reservation, to know and love the land, to witness tragedy and find resilience, and to make meaning through poetry. Reading her work, I was struck in particular by, “When the Moon Died,” a poem whose vivid imagery haunted me for days, until I realized that the poem was telling me something about the story I was writing. Thus my story acquired a new character, alongside the Dine’ hydrologist: the lost love of one of the protagonists, a journalist in India—and a new setting: the moon.

But these experiences also led me to think about the ethical dilemmas of writing about people from marginalized communities. To write a story from—as best as one can imagine—the perspectives of people who are marginalized relative to myself is, of course, a risky endeavor. I had experienced what cultural appropriation felt like in speculative fiction written by Westerners about India, and I didn’t want to commit the same offence when writing about people from marginalized communities not my own. I was assured by multiple writers and activists who worked with or were from such communities (and by my own convictions) that we, who are privileged in some way or another, cannot limit our stories and our imaginations to our own peoples and experiences. As the ultimate exercise in standing in the shoes of another, speculative fiction in particular allows us to expand, however imperfectly, our empathic and intellectual reach. But this comes with a serious responsibility—to research diligently, to consult, and offer compensation for their time, to multiple readers from these communities, to do one’s best and own any errors of interpretation or inadvertent bias and to promise to do better. Writing the Other, as Nisi Shawl and Cynthia Ward, among many others thereafter, have explained, is full of pitfalls, but there are ways to do it. To avoid erasure, one must be radically inclusive, while at the same time avoiding misrepresentation and appropriation. My conversations with Bernadette and Laura, as well as with Dalit scholars and Adivasi activists in India, has led me beyond good practice to a personal commitment that my writing should become a way for my readers to discover the works of brilliant, but less well-known writers from the communities I’m writing about, because there is really no substitute for the insider perspective. But more than anything, the experience of writing about people from marginalized communities through conversations with real people from these communities has changed my life. It has allowed me to make sense of my own experience as an accidental immigrant from India, to dig into understanding racism via the Black Lives Matter movement, and to become more sensitized to the experiences of Dalits and Adivasi peoples in India.

Thus the experience of collaborating with researchers and scholars in multiple fields while gestating a story has taken me well beyond the story. That first CSI project, for example, gave rise to a novella about climate breakdown, “Entanglement,” which is set in five places around the world, including the Arctic. The Arctic had impressed itself so vividly in my imagination through the experience of writing the story, that a year later, I found myself on the Alaskan North Shore to research and write a case study on Arctic climate change for undergraduate education, a project of the Association of American Colleges and Universities. Since then, in my academic life, I’ve been working on a transdisciplinary, justice-centered approach to conceptualizing the climate crisis; part of this involves looking at other parts of the cryosphere—the Himalayas, especially—as particularly vulnerable to the frightening changes underway on our planet.

The same project that resulted in “Entanglement” involved a trip to Washington, D.C. that CSI organized for the authors. There we spent a whirlwind two days on panel discussions organized by the National Academy of Sciences and Future Tense (a partnership of Slate magazine, ASU, and New America), the highlights of which included a visit to the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy. This experience was a revelation—that there were people other than writers and readers of speculative fiction who were thinking about the future. That these people were part of government, think tanks, and corporations, and that speculative fiction presented to them an ocean of ideas, some of which may well inform our uncertain future. So I began to learn about the relatively new field of futures studies, and had the revelation that the colonization of the future by the powers-that-be (well-intentioned and otherwise) was already underway. This led to my deep and abiding interest in the democratization of the future, which is part of my academic work as well as a theme in my fiction. Because science fiction treats the future both literally and metaphorically, our futures are co-present with our pasts and presents. This convolution of the time axis is a particular delight and strength of science fiction, and I feel that it is of critical importance to futures studies.

All three of my story projects with CSI have been reprinted in “Year’s Best” volumes. Each experience has been like working on a mini Ph.D. thesis, but more fun—intellectually intoxicating, filled with life-changing conversations, gestated through a communitarian sharing of place and perspective, enriched by the wild mix of disciplines that is so natural to speculative fiction. We live in such an individualized, siloed, compartmentalized world, now even more so, thanks to the pandemic. A long time ago, telling stories used to be a much more communitarian act, when storytellers spoke their words aloud and watched them fall on listening ears – the murmurs of the crowds became part of the story, and each gathering that punctuated the wanderings of the itinerant storyteller, each conversation or encounter, helped fabricate the next tale and the next telling. So it is all the more wonderful that while we don’t have community storytelling any more, for the most part, such a thing as the CSI model exists—giving authors the privilege of a group of caring and knowledgeable people invested in the successful gestation and birthing of a good story.

Vandana Singh is an author of speculative fiction, a professor of physics, and an interdisciplinary researcher on the climate crisis. Her first collection of fiction, The Woman Who Thought She Was a Planet and Other Stories, was published by Zubaan Books in 2014, and her second, Ambiguity Machines and Other Stories, was published by Small Beer Press and Zubaan in 2018. Her previous stories with the Center for Science and the Imagination are “Entanglement,” published in Hieroglyph: Stories and Visions for a Better Future (William Morrow, 2014); “Shikasta,” published in Visions, Ventures, Escape Velocities: A Collection of Space Futures (Center for Science and the Imagination, 2017); and “Widdam,” published in A Year Without a Winter (Columbia Books on Architecture and the City, 2019).

When We Call a Place Home

When We Call a Place Home

Chinelo Onwualu

The vampire Nesiret stood at the cliff’s furthest edge and looked out over the water. She’d been woken by a dream: a vision of three ships with neither sails nor motors, cutting silently through the dark seas. Nesiret had never seen their like. Alarmed, she’d gone up to the lookout to confirm her fears. 

Yes, they were coming: She couldn’t see them yet, but she could sense them—as sure as a storm. 

A shy sliver of moon provided little light to guide her back home, but Nesiret didn’t need any. More than 500 years old, she still moved like a youngling, slipping lightly down the treacherous path towards the homestead her people had carved deep into the soft volcanic rock of the cliff. 

The sky was lightening by the time she reached the stone steps to the settlement’s first watchtower. Before the collapse, this was the hour Nesiret would seek a cool dark space to sleep, but in the two centuries since the Lost World’s end, her kind had learned new rhythms. New ways of being.

“Great-grandmother, you are worried,” said a voice from the shadows of the watchtower’s keep. It was Nya and their twin Wokum, the latest of her adoptees, waiting for her as they always did when she disappeared on a midnight jaunt. Nya draped a warm wool shawl over her shoulders and Wokum pressed a cup of hot cordial into her hands. Though Nesiret’s nature required neither, she welcomed these acts of care. 

“I am worried, yes,” Nesiret admitted. She used her free hand to sign her words for Wokum’s benefit as she talked. “I had a vision. I need your help to understand its meaning.”

The dream of the ships, yes? Wokum signed. I had it too. They sailed upon a sea of blood and left fire and terror in their wake.

The new details rattled Nesiret, reminding her of another time when mysterious ships had landed on the shores of her homeland in ancient West Africa.  

“We must know more,” she said. “Will you come with me to the library? I fear its classification systems these days confound me.”

“Of course, Great-grandmother,” said Nya. The two fell into step on either side of her as they entered the thrumming heart of the homestead. 


Centuries before, the human and vampire survivors of the Lost World had created this homestead—and all the others like it across the planet—as a last resort to keep themselves alive. The chaos that followed the old world’s end had shown that its violent hierarchies were unsustainable. Domination always depleted those at the bottom, gnawing away at a society’s foundations until its inevitable collapse. A new way was needed. It fell to the vampires, who had living memories of the horrors of the world before, to help guide humanity as it rebuilt itself into benign anarchies free of hierarchies or formal governance. But the vampires were dying out. In this homestead, Nesiret was the last of her kind. What would happen once she was gone?  

Though it was early, the homestead was alive with activity. Caregivers carried infants on morning walks, and the crew whose turn it was to clean the streets was already hard at work. Every resident—including children, the elderly, and the disabled, according to their interest and capacity—was expected to help keep the homestead running. Nesiret herself would be due for farm duty in a few hours. She and the twins called out friendly greetings to those they passed and received cheerful responses in turn. But underneath the liveliness, the old vampire could sense a quiet unease. 

As the three of them crossed the open marketplace, they saw that those with goods to barter had already laid out wares on mats and tables, while those who wished to entertain tuned instruments and adjusted costumes. But it was far too early for crowds—as if the whole homestead had woken from a nightmare and was keeping busy to quiet its mind.

The library, too, was unusually occupied. Tutors were already setting up their classes, even though most of their students wouldn’t be due for hours. And a judicial committee prepared to meet, those on duty as justices for the day whispering encouragement and comfort to a crying transgressor. Even here, Nesiret could feel the disquiet; it rustled across her skin like an ill wind.

They chose a terminal and began their search. Nya navigated, pulling up videos, still images, and archival entries on nautical technologies from around the world. It didn’t take long to find what they were looking for—and it chilled Nesiret’s heart. With the death of their vampire, a homestead in the northern wastelands had lost sight of their own history and fallen back into the destructive ways of the Lost World. First, they’d allowed rigid hierarchies and gendered roles to calcify their society. Soon, charismatic men were able to consolidate power and develop powerful versions of Lost World weapons. Now, they were sending out “exploratory” vessels to contact other homesteads. Despite their stated aims, Nesiret had no doubt these men from the north intended to use their adapted technology to subjugate others for their own benefit. 

“Those ships are merely the beginning,” she said. “There will be others, and all of our visions of death and destruction will come to pass. We must convene a gathering immediately.” 

She caught the look that passed between the two siblings. There hadn’t been a need to hold a meeting involving the entire homestead in all their 25 years.

“Great-grandmother, are you sure?” asked Nya. “If they are human like us, perhaps we can speak to them? Surely they can be reasoned with?”

Nesiret wondered how to convey the brutality of the minds that had once conceived of sexism, colonialism, and slavery. “Greed and ambition rarely coexist with reason, child.” 

Perhaps we judge them too harshly, signed Wokum. If we share our knowledge with them, they may decide to trade instead?

“I have known the likes of these men. For them, all the riches of the world would not be enough.”


The amphitheater filled quickly. First, the innermost rings reserved for those whose physical needs meant they had to be closest, then upwards until the healthiest sat in the furthest stands. Nesiret and the twins found a comfortable spot in a middle row and waited for the meeting to begin. There were only a few hundred residents, as only those who wished to procreate did so. Every child conceived was then nurtured to adulthood by the whole of the homestead. 

The gathering’s mood was strained, an undercurrent of worry belying the ordered calm. News of the ships had spread, as other sensitives like Wokum had endured similar visions. And with empathic skill a core teaching among the homestead, even those who hadn’t could sense the tension. 

When everyone who could attend was seated, the storytellers went first. They were sensitives and they spoke of their visions, creating a tapestry of the death, destruction, and bondage. Next came the librarians, with whom Nesiret had shared her findings. When the speakers were finished, the fear was palpable. Residents splintered into a cacophony of noise. Until, finally, it was Nesiret’s turn to talk.

Standing at the center of the amphitheater, she thought of so many things to say: Speeches to rouse her people to defense, or stories of her own homeland’s resistance against their colonizers. Instead, she took a deep breath and asked her people to do the same. 

In and out, they breathed. Hands clasped, one into another, they breathed until they were each part of a single organism. Part of the homestead itself. 

Into this calm Nesiret spoke, signing as well:

“My children, we face a force the likes of which you have never known. You are right to fear it, for once it ravaged the world, leaving it nothing but an empty husk. For you, the perils of the Lost World must seem like a story. That humanity could walk such a destructive path seems unthinkable. But we did. I was witness to it. And it too began with three ships. 

“Now, we must choose: Do we make the same mistakes as our ancestors, or is there another way? I ask each of you to look into yourselves and speak from what you find there.”  

For the next few hours, every resident asked questions and offered opinions—particularly the youth and the children. And in this manner, they decided. 


Nearly a moon later, Nesiret stood with her people upon the shores of their home. Behind them, carved like honeycombs into the cliffside, rose the homestead. She was the first to see the ships crest the horizon—her eyesight still far sharper than any human’s—but she waited for the lookout to raise the clarion call. 

The homestead had decided, and Nesiret’s heart was finally at rest. She and her kind had spent centuries teaching humanity new ways to live with the world, and with each other. Now, when it most mattered, she was satisfied that they had learned the lesson.

To read all 11 Us in Flux stories and to watch videos of Us in Flux conversations, visit

For more on “When We Call a Place Home,” utopias, and applied imagination, watch the Us in Flux conversation between Chinelo Onwualu and conflict journalist Robert Evans.

Chinelo Onwualu is a Nigerian writer and editor living in Toronto, Canada. She is one of the co-founders of Omenana, a magazine of African speculative fiction, and the nonfiction editor of the magazine Anathema Spec from the Margins. Her writing has been featured in Slate, Uncanny, Strange Horizons, The Kalahari Review, and Brittle Paper. Follow her on Twitter @chineloonwualu or find her at