Review of Docile by K.M. Szpara

Review of Docile

Adam McLain

K. M. Szpara. Docile., 2020. Hardcover, 496 pp. $27.99. ISBN 9781250216151.

A book like Docile requires a reviewer to provide a strict content warning at the beginning. This book (and this review) contains discussions and depictions of sex, slavery, and abuse. It contains moments of harm that can be triggering for survivors of sexual violence and abuse. K. M. Szpara handles violence and forgiveness with grace and civility instead of gratuitousness and voyeurism. Under Szpara’s pen, these topics become molded into a story that is aware of the harm they can cause and the future that all survivors must live through.

Having inherited his family’s insurmountable debt, Elisha Wilder “chooses” to sell himself into the docile program, a program that allows a person to give up their agency for monetary return. The man who buys Elisha Wilder’s contract is none other than Alexander Bishop III, the inheritor of the company that patents, manufactures, and markets Dociline, the drug that makes dociles docile, numb to the choices they make and obedience to those who bought their contracts. Upon entering the contract, though, Elisha refuses to use Dociline, something usually not done but provided for as a docile’s right. The book then delves into questions around systemic capitalism, consent, and change. Switching perspectives between Elisha and Alex allows Szpara to dismantle the dystopic future he has built and thus provide readers with a possibility of dismantling the dystopic present in which we live.

In the previous paragraph, I provide quotes around chooses to highlight one of the central themes of this book. What is choice and consent? The question occurs over and over again as the characters grapple with being benefited by, trapped in, and assaulted with a system that does not let anyone out. Szpara’s text highlights the sexual and capitalistic system of a dystopian, near-future America, but the questions he poses are universal as we struggle in the relationship between humanity, humanness, and all institutions. Szpara shows a keen awareness of thinkers like Michel Foucault, Judith Butler, Louis Althusser, and so many others as he engages in dismantling and deconstructing what agency and consent mean within a system that grips the very soul of humanity; in other words, Szpara’s thoughts, questions, and beautiful eloquence are on par with (and in some cases better than) the writers and thinkers we enshrine in academia, but his text fundamentally undermines that same system that builds up, defends, and obscures knowledge. Indeed, to understand what Szpara is saying and to allow it to work within you, a reader simply needs literacy and empathy, instead of a degree or an intellectual guide.

Docile’s handling of sexual violence, consent, and capitalism is genre nuancing. On its surface, one could see it as a book about the relationship, even a form of romance, between Elisha and Alex, but its complications of this relationship turn it from a simple book into one of the most evocative written in recent years. As with dystopian novels like Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, Docile is never what it completely seems and will always evoke reread after reread as we mull over and consider what Szpara is saying about institutionalized control and (the lack of) consent within that system.

But Szpara doesn’t simply portray his capitalism as necessary of anarchistic response or proletarian revolution. Szpara realizes that systems, institutions, and the humans who make up both are more complicated than the necessity of overthrowing them. Docile grapples with the humanity that philosophical treatise and systemic interventions cannot. Through the relationship of Elisha and Alex, readers receive an intimate complexity to what it means to live in a world of systems and institutions. By the end of the novel, readers are not left with a one-way path to an answer, but they are instead given a diversity of intersectional roads by which to travel.

Not only does Docile deliver a resounding critique of debt and prison, but it also provides room for readers to think, consider, and rethink their positions. At every page turn, I found myself questioning how I viewed the systems around me and how I might be able to change them. Docile delivers where fiction is needed most: it is not a systemic takedown of an institution but rather the systemic buildup of awareness and possibility that a reader can gain in experiencing this America that almost is but hopefully never will be. It delivers the perfect package of dystopian philosophizing and fictional questioning that empowers the thoughtful reader to return to reality better equipped to battle our own tyrannies and our own docility.

Adam McLain recently graduated from Harvard Divinity School with a master of theological studies and holds a BA in English from Brigham Young University. He will be a Harvard Frank Knox Traveling Fellow in Fall 2021, studying 20th-century dystopia and the legal history of sexual violence in the UK.

Review of Star Trek: Lower Decks, season 1 (2020, TV)

Review of Star Trek: Lower Decks, season 1 (2020, TV)

Jeremy Brett

McMahan, Mike, creator. Star Trek: Lower Decks, Season 1, CBS Television, 2020.

The opening to each episode of Lower Decks has a familiar ring to viewers of Star Trek. The grand views of deep space and a mighty starship, the U.S.S. Cerritos, set to swelling music until asteroids start thudding off the ship’s hull, or until the ship arrives in the middle of a pitched battle with the Borg and immediately turns around and retreats, or until the Cerritos is seen zipping through space at warp speed with a giant bug-eyed parasite suctioned to the engine nacelles. Ideally, the audience smiles as they realize that this is not typical Star Trek nor is the Cerritos the U.S.S. Enterprise or Voyager or Discovery.

But the Cerritos is a more typical Starfleet vessel, and therein lies the beauty of this intentionally goofy show. The Cerritos is no flagship devoted to Enterprise-like missions of deep exploration; it takes on the less glamorous assignments, most notably “second contact”. As Ensign Bradward Boimler (voiced by Jack Quaid) notes in his practice ‘Captain’s Log’ in the pilot episode:

First contact is a delicate, high-stakes operation of diplomacy. One must be ready for anything when Humanity is interacting with an alien race for the first time. But we don’t do that. Our specialty is second contact. Still pretty important. We get all the paperwork signed, make sure we’re spelling the name of the planet right, get to know all the good places to eat.     

The Cerritos and its crew don’t live on the final frontier; they live behind, and maybe slightly to the left, where the scutwork gets done that gives the heroes the freedom to do what they do best. It’s an inspired concept that makes Lower Decks a show of immense humor and surprising emotional depth.

For decades, audiences have watched Star Trek almost entirely through the eyes and experiences of high-level Starfleet officers: Kirk, Picard, Sisko, Janeway, Archer, Burnham, and their command crews. In most cases, members of the lower ranks appear as extras and disappear as rapidly as they came (represented most visibly in popular culture by the concept of the ‘redshirt’—the utterly expendable crewmember who dies early, unheralded, and often nameless). But Starfleet is a massive and sprawling organization, which in order to function as peacekeeper and exploration arm of the Federation must rely on countless underlings to make everything run: namely, the ensigns. Lower Decks centers around four of these lowly officers who live and work far from the Cerritos’ bridge, taking part in missions that waver between routine and fatally hazardous, sometimes with a healthy dollop of grinding dullness.

Crammed into bunks that line the corridors at the bottom of the ship’s saucer section, the ensigns deal with their lots in life in various ways: Boimler is an anxious rule-follower who dreams of captainhood and idolizes his superiors; Beckett Mariner (Tawny Newsome) is an excited, excitable, impulsive devil-may-care junior officer who ignores Starfleet regulations and the chain of command (including her mother, Cerritos’ Captain Carol Freeman (Dawnn Lewis)). Sam Rutherford (Eugene Cordero) is an engineer with a cybernetic implant and boundless enthusiasm for constant repairs and inspections of the ship’s machinery. The last in this quartet is Deltan D’Vana Tendi (Noel Wells), new to the Cerritos and bringing comedic levels of excitement to her sick bay duties. Over the course of the season, the four grow close, forming tight bonds equaling any in Trek’s long series of shipboard friendships forged from shared loyalties, senses of duty, and curiosity about the wider universe. Much of the dramatic (and comic) tension in Lower Decks comes from the disconnect between the ensigns and their superiors, as each ensign comes up hard against the perilous realities inherent to Starfleet missions.

Lower Decks isn’t for everyone. The animation and vocal stylings are fast and frenetic, like Rick & Morty. There is much more violence than is typical of Trek, and far more sexual references. Some may find it just too silly. Arguably, however, Lower Decks adds a welcome note of hilarity to the sometimes-too-solemn-for-its-own-good Trek franchise, poking fun at some of its traditions and cliches but doing so with a sense of real love and respect for its predecessors. Not the least part of this comes from the constant shower of references to incidents and characters from previous Treks. Yes, these kinds of references are Easter eggs for Trek fans, but they give Lower Decks a lived-in sort of feel—that the show is not just a parody but part of a shared canonical universe.

One of Lower Decks’ direct inspirations is a 1994 TNG episode (also titled “Lower Decks”) in which four Enterprise-D junior officers are shown to have lives of their own, with the ship itself a setting for the lives and struggles of non-main cast members. Lower Decks follows in this narrative tradition, showing how the “regular” people—the ones that work behind the scenes undramatically and with perseverance, or whose unseen lives are lived in the wake of decisions made by major characters—have their own moments of heroism and centrality to the moment. That is certainly an inspiring notion for the legions of Trek fans who have imagined themselves as members of Starfleet and through fanfiction or cosplay written themselves into the narrative.

Some may quibble over whether Lower Decks should be considered Trek canon. Lower Decks, in fact, can be a source of fruitful discussions about what constitutes true “canon”—is there room in a media universe for a production that so differs in tone and pace from the keystone shows? Where does an animated production fit into a family of non-animated productions? This last question has been asked in Trek history before, of course, with the 1973-1974 Star Trek: The Animated Series. Is canonicity even necessary—does a particular media universe require a single accepted narrative for audiences to enjoy individual productions within it?

Lower Decks is also an example of what many in the Trek community see as a retrograde obsession with revisiting and recrafting the historical timeline. In recent years, the mainstay of filmed Trek has involved prequel material such as Discovery or the upcoming Strange New Worlds, or the Kelvin Universe of J.J. Abrams’ film trilogy. Furthermore, productions like Star Trek: Picard or the upcoming animated Star Trek: Prodigy are centered on major cast members that have been explored in previous installments. These all suggest a question: how imaginatively rich is a media enterprise that at times seems entrapped by its past, endlessly retreading the same time periods and settings and relying on appeals to viewer nostalgia through in-the-know references or memes? None of this makes Lower Decks any less enjoyable to watch, but it does raise questions about the franchise’s overall commitment to the original themes of Trek that have inspired several generations of viewers—the ever-forward progress of science and technology, the movement towards an increasingly utopian future, and a growing consciousness that humanity can and must unite for the collective good. Indeed, similar questions can be posed of other recycled franchises at this time. As time passes, expect much fruitful scholarship to be mined from Lower Decks and its relation to Trek’s classic vision of the human future, as well as to the dramatic and narrative malleability of media franchises.

 The Cerritos’ ensigns, in their imperfect personhood, are appropriate representatives of that vision: in their own quirky ways, they are always evolving into their better selves. That character development and purposeful optimism contrast with more recent Trek productions (such as Picard) that eschew confident 1960s SF for a grimmer, more cynical, and more pessimistic Federation populated by ruthless Section 31 agents and corrupt Starfleet officers. That attitude may well reflect our weary and traumatized present. Lower Decks, though, for all its irreverence and animated lunacy, is an interesting throwback extension of the Trek utopian tradition that demands a humanity moving ever forward towards a societal and technological ideal.

Jeremy Brett is an Associate Professor at Cushing Memorial Library & Archives, Texas A&M University, where he is both Processing Archivist and the Curator of the Science Fiction & Fantasy Research Collection. He received his MLS and his MA in History from the University of Maryland – College Park in 1999. His professional interests include science fiction, fan studies, and the intersection of libraries and social justice.

Review of Snowpiercer (2020-2021, TV)

Review of Snowpiercer (2020-2021, TV)

Ada Cheong

Hawes, James and Graeme Manson, producers. Snowpiercer. Netflix, 2020-2021.

There is a strange dissonance about watching fictional depictions of the end of the world when the world we live in feels about to end. As the Covid-19 virus devastated many parts of the globe, the gratuitous pleasure and morbid intrigue offered by on-screen catastrophes felt like a confirmation of the adage that it is easier to imagine an end to the world than an end to capitalism.

I was thus reluctant to give Snowpiercer (2020-2021) a go when it was pulled onto the Netflix platform. At first glance, the TV series is just another story about Humanity’s struggle to survive on an inhospitable planet, joining the many post-earth TV series on their catalogue, such as The 100 (2018-2020), The Rain (2020) and Into the Night (2020). The eponymous Snowpiercer is a train that circles an uninhabitable earth. The apocalyptic event that precedes the story is triggered by the release of synthetic coolant CW-7 into the atmosphere in an attempt to reverse global warming. Now on its seventh revolution through the earth’s unforgiving whiteness, the train struggles to stay on track as a rebellion from its tail end threatens its delicate socio-ecological balance. Consisting of unticketed passengers that have been forced into the last carriages with limited space, food, and water, the Tailies seek to rearrange the social order of the rain. The fragility of the closed container of Snowpiercer is jeopardized by an external temperature that is announced to be -119.6 degrees in the first episode. Used to execute dissidents by freezing off entire limbs in a matter of seconds, the cold makes even the smallest breach a grave threat. Snowpiercer thus becomes (for the most part) the last container of life on earth, a near-biblical ark brought to fruition by human ingenuity and technological prowess.

The TV series first premiered on TNT in the US and is based loosely on the French graphic novel series created in 1984 by Jacques Lob and illustrator Jean-Marc Rochette. The second and third volumes of the original comic were released by Benjamin Legrand and Rochette in 1999 and 2000 respectively, with Olivier Bocquet and Rochette wrapping things up with the fourth volume in 2015. Bong Joon-Ho’s esteemed direction of the Snowpiercer film in 2013, based mostly on the first and second French volumes, was produced in English. Boosted by widely recognised faces such as Chris Evans and Tilda Swinton, the narrative assumed an international reach that triggered the translation of the original French comic series into English in 2014 and 2016, re-distributed into three volumes instead of four by Titan Comics. Titan Comics also produced a two-volume prequel comic to the Snowpiercer universe in September 2019 and November 2020, written by Matz and illustrated by Rochette.

Amidst this vibrant intertextual history, Graeme Manson and co-producer James Hawes have done well with the TV series. Their version of the end of the world rejects an essentialised, undifferentiated notion of Humanity (with a capital H). It reinserts the complex material and cultural struggles surrounding resource scarcity into the dominant technocratic narrative of climate breakdown, a narrative that has long presented green technology as the main solution to the present climatological condition. The consequences of climate breakdown, they insist, will always be experienced unevenly, the blame most heavily falling on the Global North, and the consequences most greatly borne by the Global South.

As is typical of works in the post-apocalypse and cli-fi genre, energy scarcity forms a key concern, managed through human technology and ingenuity. Indeed, across all Snowpiercer’s permutations, humanity’s last vanguard of defence against a frozen death is the old energy myth of sf: the perpetual motion engine. In Lob’s graphic novel, the engine assumes a pseudo-sentient status, requiring human companionship. Although it loosely gestures towards notions of sentient AI, the comic series never really develops this, eventually choosing to take its plot off-train. In the TV series, on the other hand, as with Bong’s film, the eternal engine is completely inanimate and thoroughly engineered by human design: specifically, by Wilford Industries. Mr. Wilford, as the creator of the engine, assumes a god-like status in both film and series, something that Manson and Hawes magnify in the latter. The man is even afforded an altar in the Snowpiercer’s Tea Room, a spiritual car. In a tongue-in-cheek allusion to the Catholic practice of drawing the sign of the cross, his supporters draw a W across their chest. Wilford’s deification in the TV series most vibrantly articulates the faith in the progress of Humanity’s technological expertise that has become so characteristic of the Capitalocene. This technocratic faith is also encapsulated by the admittance of protagonist Layton’s adopted son, Miles, into the ranks of the train’s engineers, a highly esteemed role. As the brightest new mind to continue this essential work of balancing the train’s energy inputs and outputs, his full name, Miles and Miles, is a hopeful prayer for an engine truly eternal.

Keeping the carrying capacity of the train’s biosphere on track is thus a major plot engine within the TV series, involving the neo-Malthusian balancing act of limiting population size and creating food supplies. Yet, while scientists and engineers hold great esteem within the series for their ability to keep this delicate mathematical balance in check, the show makes it clear that it is not just about the math. Indeed, the TV series’ main success is its ability to strike a fine balance between the histrionic ecological emergencies that threaten to derail the train (always soothed by the hospitality team, dressed in an inoffensive faux-calm shade of teal) and the other very human, social issues that the series explores.

Manson’s Snowpiercer sheds the brutalist aesthetics of the original cramped, Soviet-like train in Lob’s comic (Bocquet). It more closely resembles the luxury liner designed within Bong’s film, by production designer Ondrej Nekvasil. Masterminded by Barry Robinson, the beauty of animal and plant life in the TV series is given space to shine around the human dramas of the train, acting as an elegy to the complex ecosystems wiped out by the manmade apocalypse. The mathematical problem of sustaining life is thus given a highly sensuous quality. Furthermore, by avoiding chrome finishes for the train’s interior and utilising copper instead (Grebey), the TV series distracts from the train’s apocalyptic dieselpunk exterior and eschews a minimalist end-of-earth aesthetic.

The material and cultural issues that accompany the end of the world are also given ample space to play out around the ecological and technological crises in Manson’s series. Indeed, it is in the articulation of socio-economic inequality where the series sets itself apart from the 2013 film. In the latter, Bong’s critique of capitalist inequality is couched in allegory and absurdity. Who could forget Minister Mason’s (Tilda Swinton) speech as the limb of a Tail member gets frozen off? Resting a shoe on his head, their theatrical rhetoric is at once laughable and deeply unsettling: “Would you wear a shoe on your head?” The film gestures towards the cyclical and inherently chaotic nature of capitalist progress, as Mr. Wilford is revealed to work in tandem with ex-leader of the tail, Gilliam, to spark periodic revolts. Through such rebellions, the tail population is systematically pruned by 74%, thus restoring ecological balance. Unfortunately, the momentum of Bong’s plot loses steam after Curtis successfully reaches the engine. The lengthy dialogue he has with Wilford on capitalism and its cycles of instability is an anti-climactic finish to his rebellion—saved only by the final explosion of the entire train. The derailment of the train and the emergence of the last two surviving humans into the snow (Korean girl, Yona, and 5-year-old Afro-American boy, Timmy) suggests that destroying the train is a more viable option than rehauling its existing capitalist system.

Conversely, the serialised medium of television offers Manson and Hawes more space to explore the intricacies of resource struggles. The caloric distribution of food is the most visible manifestation of such inequalities in a post-apocalyptic world. Both the graphic novel and film imagine radical changes in our food future. In the comic, rabbits are bred as meat for the most privileged, while the rest of the train’s population feed on something called the mother, the quasi-sentient blob that resembles a yeast culture. The artificial supply of meat is grotesque despite its miraculous proliferation and certain supply, disturbing in the same way as       Margaret Atwood’s chickienobs in her novel Oryx and Crake. Bong’s film similarly invokes a sense of grotesque when depicting the food of the Tail section, even exploring the trope of cannibalism. Furthermore, the dark, gelatinous slabs of protein that the Tail eats are ground from insects (roaches), an ingredient that has now received serious scientific consideration in technofixing the worlds’ shrinking food supplies.

In this, Manson’s latest reincarnation of the tale is perhaps the least original. Yet, in part because of this, it most poignantly critiques the realities of the current world food system. Synthetic and miraculous gustatory concoctions are completely missing from the TV series. The train’s food system is instead supported by greenhouses and aquariums as well as feedlots in the cars loosely grouped together as Ag-Sec. While slabs identical to those in Bong’s film are served up, their origin is not mentioned, suggesting a perhaps more open-minded attitude to non-animal protein alternatives. Despite the (just) sufficient volume of calories being produced for the entire train population, the richest eat in quality and excess, while the poorest starve. The highly familiar food system of the microcosmic train thus provides a no-frills critique of food distribution in reality, mirroring it closely.

Building on the film’s abstract critique of capitalist inequality, the TV series also more fully explores its unsustainable contradictions through its rebellion. Manson’s chosen hero, Layton, stages a more convincing revolution than Curtis in Bong’s film, with information networks and diplomatic tactics. Significantly, he forms an alliance between the Tail and Third Class section, unfolding a complex picture of class politics and the value of unionising labour as underground networks unfurl amongst janitors, caterers, and brakemen. As Miss Audrey, a key ally from Third, threatens, “Third touches every system on this train. We will be heard.”

The diverse and inclusive world of the Tailies and Third Class that displaces the wealthy population of the First Class section in the series is a key tenet of its success. The distinct rejection of a white-centric picture of Humanity’s survival, engineered through wealthy technocrats, is reflected through Manson’s and Hawes’ casting choices, containing a deliberate diversity that is absent from the graphic novels and film. Unlike a largely white, cisgendered heterosexual cast of the film, led by the face of Chris Evans, with the token black and Asian actors, the TV series features African American actor Daveed Diggs, playing Layton’s character, as its hero.

The mix of characters in the series is also far more inclusive along the lines of gender and sexuality. Unlike the film, in which Curtis stops the young female Yona from engaging in combat, the series stars strong women in the frontlines of political and military confrontation. Strikingly, the brightest engineer and character behind Mr. Wilson’s fictional persona in the first season is Melanie Cavill. She is joined by a whole host of other female characters who play key roles in the revolution: Miss Audrey (the Madonna of the Nightcar who performs the train’s healing and emotional salvation); Josie (Layton’s revolutionary partner-in-crime) and Bess Till (another frontliner in the revolution who convinces the brakemen to join the movement). The series also features several queer characters such as train detective Bess Till, chef Jinju, civilian Zarah and brakeman Osweiller.

Overall, I am surprised by the nuance of the TV series, given the limited mileage offered by the ‘last train on earth’ premise. Despite being strongly rooted within a hard sf tradition where math is critical in ensuring survival, the TV series asserts that it can only get us so far in understanding the end of the world. Beyond the abstract margins of scientists and engineers, climate breakdown and resource scarcity are experienced in highly material and uneven terms. If climate breakdown is not just a technological problem but also a cultural and imaginative one, the series offers a bold vision of what it would be like to radically re-imagine our existing socio-political structures of inequality. With the production for season 3 now in train, I am excited to see where the next season alights.


Bocquet, Olivier and Jean-Marc Rochette, creators. Terminus. Casterman, 2015.

Halperin, Moze. “We Talked to Snowpiercer’s Production Designer About Building A World Inside A Train”. Vice, 2014.

Grebey, James. “Make it a little more Ridley Scott’: How Snowpiercer’s 1,001-car train got built IRL”. SyfyWire, 2020.

Joon-Ho, Bong, director. Snowpiercer. CJ Entertainment, 2013.

Lob, Jacques and Jean-Marc Rochette, creators. Le Transperceneige. Casterman, 1982.

Legrand, Benjamin and Jean-Marc Rochette, creators. The Explorers. Casterman, 1999.

—–, creators. The Crossing. Casterman, 2000.

Ada Cheong is a PhD candidate at the Department of English in the University of Exeter. Her thesis examines contemporary sf of the Americas and the ways in which such fictions help us to navigate the late-capitalist food ecology. Sitting loosely within the field of the Energy Humanities, her interdisciplinary research looks at a variety of sf tropes such as terraformation, post-apocalyptic biospheres, zombies, etc. to illuminate the intersections between food, technology and ecology in the Capitalocene. Beyond her academic teaching and research, Ada also takes an active interest in local foodways, and is a home fermenter and baker.

Review of The Expanse (2015-present, TV)

Review of The Expanse (2015-present, TV)

Heather Clitheroe and Mark A. McCutcheon

Fergus, Mark, Hawk Ostby and Naren Shankar, creators. The Expanse. SyFy/Amazon Prime Video, 2015-present.

In 2016, an article I co-wrote (see McCutcheon and Barnetson) argued that contemporary SF markedly underrepresents organized labour (in contrast to business), with exceptions by writers like China Miéville, C.J. Cherryh, and Cory Doctorow. While the article was in press, this review’s co-author, SFF writer Heather Clitheroe, suggested The Expanse, and from the first episodes I realized that our article needs a major update—or a rethink. The Expanse bases its finely machined world and story in working-class culture, organized labor, and the political-economic context of postcoloniality—just a few reasons The Expanse repays critical attention with interest.

James S.A. Corey is the nom de plume of co-authors Ty Franck and Daniel Abraham. Leviathan Wakes, the first novel in Corey’s nine-volume roman-fleuve, was published in 2011; subsequent novels have followed almost annually. The ninth and final Expanse novel, Leviathan Falls, will appear in November 2021, with a final novella planned afterwards (Urrutia). The Expanse takes place some three hundred years from now, positing a postcolonial solar system that stretches from a climate-changed Earth and its moon, centrally governed by the United Nations, to an independent Mars, engaged in a Cold War with Earth, to the asteroid belt and gas giant moons, where “Belters,” les damnés du vide, labor on the colonial periphery in resource extraction for “the Inners” who exploit and oppress them. Belt governance beyond corporate charters is loosely organized around the Outer Planetary Alliance, or OPA, an ambiguous collective that “had begun its life more like a labor union than a nation” (Abaddon’s Gate 183) and parlays its organizing power into political power as the story unfolds. The Expanse’s interplanetary, postcolonial setting is premised on the novum of an “Epstein drive” that enables fast (but not light-speed) rocketry. To launch the plot, a second novum emerges: the “protomolecule,” an artifact of a vanished alien civilization, discovered on a moon of Saturn and appropriated for research and development by private interests seeking to weaponize it. How the solar system’s powers respond to the destabilizing effects of the protomolecule technology, competing to control or destroy it, drives the series’ storyline over nine novels, which also work as three linked trilogies. The first sets the scene, then estranges it with the “protomolecule” novum; the second—with Nemesis Games as middle volume and fulcrum of the whole—recounts the political and economic fallout wrought by the protomolecule mostly within the solar system; and the third, set later, follows that fallout well beyond the solar system.

The TV series based on the novels originated with producers Mark Fergus and Hawk Ostby and Naren Shankar as show-runner. Franck and Abraham signed on to write and produce. The first three seasons aired from 2015 to 2018 on the SyFy channel, which cancelled the show in mid-May 2018. Fans campaigned to “#SaveTheExpanse” and, before that month ended, Amazon picked up the series for its Prime Video service, where it now streams. There is postmodern irony in the acquisition of such a labor-friendly show by one of the world’s most notoriously exploitative corporations. Amazon aired Season 4 in 2019, and the fifth in late 2020—accompanied by Amazon’s announcement that the next, sixth season will be its last.

Each season of the TV series adapts mainly one novel; however, to strengthen the adaptation, the writers take bold and shrewd creative liberties with the novels (and accompanying novellas and stories), like rearranging plot points and turning minor book characters into major screen roles. Season 5 follows the main plot of Nemesis Games, integrating elements of the sixth book, Babylon’s Ashes. In purported “retribution for generations of atrocities committed by the Inners against Belters” (“Gaugamela”), a radicalized Belter faction attacks Earth with accelerated meteors (literalizing, to cataclysmic effect, the resort to rocks as the only weapons the desperate and downtrodden can wield against empire). The ensuing catastrophe embroils the series’ protagonists—especially Naomi Nagata (played by Dominique Tipper) and Amos Burton (played by Wes Chatham)—in a thriller plot of terrorism, espionage, sabotage, abductions, underground trade, double-crossing, disaster survival, and daring escapes.

The Expanse’s style, in print and on screen, emphasizes accessibility (Franck and Chatham, “Episode 8”): in linear plotting; realistic rendering of diverse, likeable protagonists; plain-speaking dialogue; and skilled interweaving of two familiar SF tropes with proven crossover success—first contact and Frankensteinian hubris. The Expanse’s accessible narrative style helps the series’ representations of working-class culture reach the popular audience that relates to them. Yet The Expanse also harbours arch allusions, ironies, and references. The writing reworks elements from a myriad of genres such as space opera, hard SF, climate fiction, noir crime, Gothic horror, pulp Westerns, and political thrillers (the fifth instalment’s title echoing Tom Clancy’s Patriot Games). Ironies abound in the series’ postcolonially informed détournement of Western tropes (frontier, first contact, shootouts) and Gothic tropes (hauntings, monsters, imprisonments). Sometimes both classes of tropes are brought together, as in the remark by protagonist Jim Holden (played by Steven Strait) that humankind’s interstellar expansion will be “another blood-soaked gold rush” (“Abaddon’s Gate”). The series also teems with literary references—often to poetry: Clarissa Mao (played by Nadine Nicole) talks about writing poetry in prison (“Tribes”); Chrisjen Avasarala (played by Shohreh Agdashloo) contemplates a line by her poet spouse (“Winnipesaukee”).

The Expanse features pervasive, refreshingly sympathetic representations of organized labor as part of everyday life, in details like union representatives, dialogue about work and working conditions, enactments of democratic and community-building practices, and leftist and labor allusions (in character names like Althusser [Nemesis 229] and Bertold, a sixth-book character introduced in Season 5, played by Stephen Tracey). Workers facing arrest can request union representatives for defence. Basic income is standard policy on Earth. Season 5 dramatizes good-faith bargaining (in Burton’s negotiation of housing for a friend, and in Mao’s advocacy for servants abandoned by their employers) and expressions of solidarity both blunt—Avasarala’s call for unity among Earth, Mars, and the Belt (“Nemesis Games”)—and subtle, like Belter idioms that suggest the internalization of union-inculcated collectivism. “The more you share, the more your bowl will be plentiful,” says a Belter family sitting to supper (“Churn”). Formally, too, a collective tells the story, in rotating focalizations of multiple characters’ viewpoints—antagonists’ included. “Everybody gets a point of view that makes sense,” says Franck of their writers’ room ethos (Franck and Chatham, “Episode 5”).

Burton and Nagata exemplify the series’ valorization of labor organizing, the entrenched capitalist class striation it challenges—and the importance of higher education to mobility. The lack of socioeconomic mobility and tertiary education experienced by characters like Burton in his early life, and the exceptionality of Nagata’s advanced engineering degrees (for a Belter) unnervingly reflect the real-world crisis of late capitalism’s “university in ruins” (see Readings), as neoliberal governments cut education budgets, tuition fees and student debt escalate, and private capital colonizes public universities.

The Belter character Camina Drummer (played by Ojibwe actor Cara Gee) exemplifies the series’ working-class grounding and how the show adapts the book to magnify that focus. In the books, Drummer is a minor character first appearing in Nemesis Games (172); in the series, Gee’s Drummer has been a lead role since Season 2. Season 5 also rewrites Drummer into the “polyam Belter fam” brought forward from Babylon’s Ashes: “It was really important to all of us,” Gee reflects, “that this queer…fluid and polyamorous [family was] represented with respect” (qtd. in Franck and Chatham, “Episode 6”). Gee’s Drummer exemplifies the TV series’ consistently creative adaptation of the books and its brilliant casting of Indigenous and international talent in the series’ many leading women protagonists, among them Nicole’s Mao, the ex-Marine Draper (played by New Zealand-Samoan actor Frankie Adams), Iranian actor Aghdashloo’s magisterial Avasarala, and the Dominican-British Tipper as Nagata. The Expanse far surpasses the Bechdel test’s threshold.

Nagata focalizes a Season 5 subplot in which she gets abducted and imprisoned by her abusive ex; then, for several episodes, this Black woman struggles to communicate her emergency, to escape, even just to breathe: first aboard a ship whose oxygen depletes because of the way she hacks its communication tech (“Winnipesaukee”), then in a spacesuit whose oxygen runs out (“Nemesis Games”). While this subplot’s context of surviving abuse and oppression is more about misogyny than racism, the season’s sustained close-up on Nagata’s struggle to breathe—set against a backdrop of terrorist conspiracy implicating a corrupt police force in arming Nagata’s captors—argues a dialectical, intersectional synecdoche, the political in the personal. Tipper’s performance of Nagata’s struggle thus makes for uncanny, harrowing viewing in the wake of 2020’s #BlackLivesMatter protests and ongoing violence perpetuated against BIPOC communities.

Corey’s series has become a genre-culture, transmedia touchstone, orbited by a satellite belt including short fiction, graphic novels, social media, and a role-playing game. The Expanse rewards science fiction studies and studies in the other aforementioned modes it reworks, as well as Cultural Studies, postcolonial and postmodern theory, socialist and labor studies, adaptation studies, and poetry. Between the latest season and whatever big finish the final novel and TV season will bring, now is the perfect time to explore The Expanse. Its world is not one of warp speeds or anti-gravity fields, and its attention to scientific realism, if not its vision of solidarity, may ruin other space opera for you. Don’t worry. It’s worth it.


“Abaddon’s Gate.” The Expanse, season 3, episode 13, 27 Jun. 2018, Amazon Prime Video,

“Churn.” The Expanse, season 5, episode 2, 2 Feb. 2021, Amazon Prime Video,

Corey, James S.A. Abaddon’s Gate. Orbit, 2013.

—-. Nemesis Games (2015). Orbit, 2016.

Franck, Ty and Wes Chatham. “Episode 5.” The Expanse Aftershow, Youtube, 30 Dec. 2020,

—-. “Episode 6.” The Expanse Aftershow, Youtube, 6 Jan. 2021,

—-. “Episode 8.” The Expanse Aftershow, Youtube, 20 Jan. 2021,

“Gaugamela.” The Expanse, season 5, episode 2, 2 Feb. 2021, Amazon Prime Video,

“Hard Vacuum.” The Expanse, season 5, episode 8, 19 Jan. 2021, Amazon Prime Video,

McCutcheon, Mark A. and Bob Barnetson. “Resistance is Futile: On the Under-Representation of Unions in Science Fiction.” TOPIA, no. 36, 2016, pp. 151-71, rpt. in AUSpace,

“Nemesis Games.” The Expanse, season 5, episode 10, 2 Feb. 2021, Amazon Prime Video,

Readings, Bill. The University in Ruins. Harvard UP, 1996.

“Tribes.” The Expanse, season 5, episode 6, 6 Jan. 2021, Amazon Prime Video,

Urrutia, Doris Elin. “‘Leviathan Falls’: The 9th and final book of the epic ‘The Expanse’ sci-fi series revealed.” Space, 23 Sept. 2020,

“Winnipesaukee.” The Expanse, season 5, episode 9, 26 Jan. 2021, Amazon Prime Video,

Heather Clitheroe is an author whose stories have been published in numerous SFF anthologies and magazines, including Beneath Ceaseless Skies and Lightspeed, and she has participated in writing residency programs at the Banff Centre for the Arts, including the Leighton Artists’ Colony, and the Arrowmont School for Arts and Crafts. She has edited science fiction collections in collaboration with the NASA Exoplanet Science Institute at Caltech’s Exoplanet Demographics conference, and leads youth science fiction and fantasy writing workshops in collaboration with the Calgary Public Library. Heather has been a member of the award-winning Uncanny magazine staff since 2014 as a submissions editor, and is a full member of SFWA.

Mark A. McCutcheon is Professor of Literary Studies at Athabasca University. Mark’s open access works include the books Shape Your Eyes by Shutting Them: Poems (2019) and The Medium Is the Monster (2018), winner of the Media Ecology Association’s McLuhan Award; poems in the Exoplanet Demographics conference zine (2020), the 2019 Rhysling Anthology, and Riddled with Arrows (2018); and SF studies in scholarly periodicals like TOPIA (2016), Continuum (2011), and SFFTV (2009). His poems also appear in Beyond Earth’s Edge: The Poetry of Spaceflight (2020), and journals like On Spec, Star*Line, and Kaleidotrope. Mark’s on Twitter and Mixcloud as @sonicfiction.

Review of The Comma Press Podcast, Series 2 – Futures (2020, Podcast)

Review of The Comma Press Podcast, Series 2 – Futures (2020, Podcast)

Paul March-Russell

The Comma Press Podcast, from Comma Press, May-September 2020,

Founded in Manchester in 2003, Comma Press is one of the UK’s leading publishers of short fiction. Influenced on the one hand by such techno-inspired collections as Sarah Champion’s Disco Biscuits (1997) and, on the other hand, by Charles May’s now-classic critical anthology, The New Short Story Theories (1994), Comma Press has sought consistently to promote the short story as the vanguard of literary experimentation and artistic responses to modernity. This has meant a strong commitment to science fiction, as well as other related modes such as horror and the Weird, and to the dialogue between science and SF, for example, in Geoff Ryman’s landmark anthology, When It Changed: Science into Fiction (2009). More recently, Comma Press has responded keenly to the refugee crisis, for instance in David Herd and Anna Pincus’ collection, Refugee Tales (2016), and in the publication of émigré authors such as Hassan Blasim. This podcast series, recorded on the eve of the first Covid-19 lockdown in Britain in 2020, brings together the press’ various concerns for SF, the Arab-speaking world, ‘Fortress Europe’, literary innovation, and the politics of locale.

The main presenter is Comma Press’ founder, Ra Page, with Sophie Hughes, co-editor of Europa28 (2020), presenting episode four. Each episode, with the exception of the series opener, takes a recent Comma Press publication as its focus – Blasim’s Iraq + 100 (2016), Basma Ghalayini’s Palestine + 100 (2019), Europa28, and M. John Harrison’s selected stories, Settling the World (2020). Although ‘futures’ is the common theme, each discussion is wide-ranging – covering such topics as the resurgence of Arabic science fiction, the translation and distribution of non-Anglophone literatures, political and cultural oppression, hauntology, and the ambivalences of social media. The longer listening format of the podcast enabled free-flowing conversations, with each episode ranging in length from 60 to 90 minutes. The one exception to the series format, the opening edition, takes a more general look at the role of science fiction, its relationships to science and society, and the predictive and ethical bases for futurology.

For this introductory episode, Page’s guests are the academics Amy Chambers and Amanda Rees, and the SF writer and literary critic, Adam Roberts (a frequent contributor to Comma Press anthologies). Although Roberts begins the discussion by recounting his thesis that science fiction has its origins in the Protestant Reformation of the 16th and 17th centuries, he acknowledges that (as Paul Alkon influentially argued) the idea of futuristic fiction only began in the late 18th century as part of that period’s revolutionary ferment. Roberts’s linkage, however, between SF and scientific and political revolution enables Rees, an historian of science, to argue for SF’s pivotal role as a thought experiment rather than a pedagogical tool. It is in this role that SF most effectively communicates science to a wider public by thinking through the ethical and social dilemmas that underpin scientific discovery. Chambers, a former member of Lisa Garforth’s ‘Unsettling Science Stories’ project at Newcastle University, concurs with Rees’s position whilst drawing upon her research specialisms in SF film and TV. Page’s description of the frustration felt by scientists, participating in the Comma anthologies, towards the more sceptical responses of SF writers initiates a rewarding discussion not only of the differing responsibilities between science and SF but also of the roles of utopia and dystopia. Roberts expresses his distaste for the ultraviolence of Game of Thrones, as well as the simplistic solutions of superhero movies, whilst also lamenting the revisioning of (ostensibly) utopian franchises such as Star Trek. All three acknowledge, though, that dystopia can have a critical function which, ironically, also has a utopian purpose—by pointing out the worst possible scenarios, SF can help to safety-proof future technological outcomes.

Episodes two and three most strongly complement one another, and so form the central focus for the series. In episode two, Page is joined by the Arabic scholars, Sinéad Murphy and Annie Webster, as well as the writer Anoud, one of the contributors to Iraq + 100; in episode three, he is joined by Ghalayini, editor of Palestine + 100, the academics Barbara Dick and Lindsey Moore, and the Palestinian writer Rawan Yaghi. The first of the anthologies imagines life in Iraq a century after the US invasion of 2003 while the second imagines Palestine 100 years after the Nakba: the enforced exodus in 1948 of 700,000 Palestinians following the creation of the state of Israel. Although Murphy and Webster tend to concentrate on the current vogue for SF in the Arab-speaking world, Dick emphasises that its roots lie in the 1960s, and so is more of a revival than a new phenomenon. Anoud’s stress upon the influence of the 1001 Nights as a repository of marvellous tales and feisty heroines suggests, however, that the supposed belatedness of Arabic science fiction is a false construction. Both sets of panellists avoid comparisons with Western SF, concentrating instead upon the local conditions for the production of Arabic SF.

Page notes that, although interest in Arabic futurisms has grown in the wake of Afrofuturism, it may still be Orientalised as an exotic counterpart to Western SF. By contrast, in episode three, mention is made of Larissa Sansour’s film, A Space Exodus (2009), in which the first Palestinian in space can still not escape the historical legacy of the Nakba. Page pertinently observes that, despite the enthusiasm of Western scholars and readers, the production of Iraqi and Palestinian SF from within those countries remains precarious. Anoud, for instance, describes the hostility of US officials and the regional threat of Isis. But, whereas these oppressions drove Anoud to create her SF, the decades-long colonisation of Palestine has all but stifled local literary networks. Page notes that, while there is active émigré writing from Iraq, contact between Palestine and the West remains difficult with Palestinian writers denied the right to travel overseas. Although Anoud, Murphy and Webster emphasise the mix of absurdity and terror that constitutes life in Iraq, a generative factor (as Webster argues) for the ‘creative destruction’ of art, Palestinian life appears more rigid and controlled with fewer opportunities for creative outlets. To that end, Dick and Moore warmly celebrate the appearance of Palestine + 100, and co-opt the role of interviewer from Page to ask Ghalayini how the collection was assembled, how the translations were prepared, and how the authors have distributed their work. Their hope is that the cause of Palestinian SF may be advanced with the aid of TV and film adaptations of Arabic texts—for example, a mooted screen version of Ahmed Khaled Towfik’s Utopia (2008).

Episode four, recorded after lockdown had been introduced, changes tack by focusing upon women’s futuristic fiction from Europe. It acts, though, as a mirror-image to the previous conversations by exploring the refugee crisis from the EU’s point of view and its implications for the European project. As Hughes’s guests and contributors to Europa28, Janne Teller and Kapka Kassabova, contend, the failure to help refugees from Syria and other warzones undermines the utopian principles of the EU, born from the (literal) ashes of two World Wars and the Nazi Holocaust. In their conversation, Teller and Kassabova argue for the need for embodiment, intimacy, touch and the face-to-face encounter in contrast with the alienation of the Internet and screen culture. As Hughes and her panellists note, this demand is all the more ironic since—due to the pandemic—their conversation is reliant upon Zoom. Nonetheless, while making communication across borders technically possible, the technology also highlights the estrangement between individuals and the need for sustainable ecologies to ensure the physical survival of the public space. In the writings of Thomas Piketty, Teller and Kassabova see an economic model in which a fusion of capitalism and socialism is viable. Underlying both this conversation and the collection of stories and essays, written by twenty-eight European women, is a vision of Europe that predates the EU—an Enlightenment model consisting of the ‘republic of letters’.

The final episode is only tangentially related to the overall theme of futures through discussion of hauntology, Mark Fisher’s concept of ‘lost futures,’ and Robert Macfarlane’s reflections on the ‘eeriness’ of the English landscape. Page’s guests include M. John Harrison, the critics Andy Hedgecock and Jennifer Hodgson, and the filmmaker Adam Scovell, best-known for his popularisation of ‘folk horror’. Taking Harrison’s retrospective anthology, Settling the World, as its focus, the conversation offers a thoughtful and insightful examination of what it means to move through a landscape, to be both possessed and radically displaced by it. In comparing Harrison with other neo-avant-garde writers of the 1960s and ‘70s, such as Ann Quin, Hodgson emphasises the phenomenological basis to his fiction—the collapsing of any dialectic between inner and outer experience—, so that Harrison’s protagonists tend to treat the external world as a hieroglyph to be deciphered: only to be entrapped within its manifold complexities. Harrison concurs with Hodgson, acknowledging the impossibility of mimetic representation to describe the object in itself, but emphasising that this tendency also comes as a refusal of such literary conventions as linear narrative, closure and plot. For Harrison, his aim is for fiction to be viable—to live on its own terms—and not at the behest of such external apparatus as the science-fictional obsession with ideas. Although the exchange between Harrison and Hodgson allows Hedgecock and Scovell to discuss the now-familiar terrain of the hauntological, with mention of such writers as H.G. Wells (‘The Door in the Wall’), M.R. James and Robert Aickman, more interesting is how Harrison’s writing is positioned in relation to the avant-garde and the legacy of European modernism. This, too, would seem to dwell upon the nature of political and artistic borders as discussed in the preceding episode. Despite the excellent contributions of the other panellists, Harrison—as is so often the case—is not only the most thought-provoking writer but also the most perceptive analyst of his own work, and its sustenance of a late modernist aesthetic.

Taken as a whole, the series offers a number of engaging and stimulating conversations on the relationship between science and science fiction, the politics of writing, the role of translation, art and civic society, and the nature of landscape. The general theme of futures is somewhat stretched, not least in the final episode, but this is compensated by the quality of the conversations and the various contributors. Since the series was affected by the transition into lockdown, praise should also be given to Becca Parkinson for the editing and sound quality of the series despite at least two of the conversations being conducted remotely. Ultimately, however, the podcast acts as a shop-window for Comma Press and, on this basis, the series demonstrates how the press is not only tapping into some of the most urgent issues of the day but also contributing to the cosmopolitan ideal of the republic of letters. From the point of view of the short story, Comma Press’s anthologies emphasise the importance of short fiction in assembling voices from around the world—a veritable United Nations of writers, artists, and other unacknowledged legislators. 

Paul March-Russell is editor of Foundation: The International Review of Science Fiction, commissioning editor for SF Storyworlds (Gylphi Press), and co-founder of the feminist fiction imprint Gold SF. He is also a member of the European Network for Short Fiction Research, and author of The Short Story: An Introduction (2009).

Review of Color Out of Space (2019, Film)

Review of Color Out of Space (2019, Film)

Lúcio Reis-Filho

Color Out of Space. Dir. Richard Stanley. SpectreVision, 2019.

Produced by Spectrevision, Color Out of Space (2019) is the latest rendition of H. P. Lovecraft’s most adapted short story to date. Richard Stanley’s cosmic horror film centers on a family who moves to a remote farmstead in rural New England to escape the hustle of the 21st century. They are adapting to their new life when a glowing meteorite crashes into their front yard and melts into the earth, poisoning both the land and the fabric of space-time with a strange, otherworldly color. To their horror, the family realizes that an alien force is gradually mutating every life form it touches. The film stars Nicolas Cage as a neurotic, righteous family man who faces the odd phenomenon while his wife and children fall victims of a grotesque transformation, which takes him to the brink of madness.

The film opens with a voice-over narration of the first lines from “The Colour out of Space”: “West of Arkham the hills rise wild, and there are valleys with deep woods that no axe has ever cut…”. The plot follows that of the source material, but also dialogues with the more magical-supernatural side of the Mythos by adding a wide range of references to the storyline. In the first scenes, for example, the family’s daughter Lavinia Gardner (Madeleine Arthur) performs a Wiccan ceremony to cure her mother’s cancer. Later, a copy of the Necronomicon and a notebook with arcane symbols can be seen in the girl’s bedroom. Witch cults, occult arcana, and ancient folklore are recurring motifs in Lovecraft’s fiction, although they are absent in that specific source. In addition, the glimpse of a psychedelic dimension inhabited by alien entities whose tentacles curl up through the moving image references the Cyclopean architecture and the dream worlds of “The Call of Cthulhu” (1926) and other stories.

Stanley also brings a new color palette, which was a significant move from earlier adaptations of “The Colour out of Space”. Historically, cinema has built a correlation between the “blasted heath” and the effects of radioactivity on the environment—that was already hinted by the source itself. It’s not by chance, for example, that the “color” fluoresces green from enriched uranium in Daniel Haller’s Die, Monster, Die! (1965), the first adaptation of the story for the screen. That “green” had long become associated with radioactivity, how it reflected post-Cold War era fears, and how it taps into science fiction tropes of radioactivity and outer space. In this sense, Stanley’s color purple is innovative since it departs from the shining green, with any allusion to radiation being much subtler and almost disappearing.

It is interesting that in changing the color palette of the film, Stanley seems to be aesthetically invoking that more magical-supernatural side of the Mythos, instead of the extraterrestrial-cosmic side of it. At the beginning, the strange meteorite is implicitly summoned as a result of Lavinia’s magic ceremony. Nevertheless, the Color’s effects are just as devastating, since it infects mind and body, destroys soil and crops, and causes horrific mutations. At the climax, the color purple is dominant and leaves a trail of destruction. The newcomer hydrologist Ward Phillips (Elliot Knight) witnesses the Gardner property becoming the visual depiction of Lovecraft’s “acres of grey desolation,” with everything (even the color palette) “turning grey and brittle”, “fast crumbling to a greyish powder.”

The film also interacts with the history of horror cinema, since it plunges into body horror—a subgenre of horror and science fiction films since the 1980s. After being affected by the Color, Theresa (Joely Richardson) absentmindedly cuts off two of her fingers with a kitchen knife, spreading blood in the sink. Later, the Color fuses the mother and her son Jack (Julian Hilliard) together into a deranged, grotesque mass in the gruesome style of Sam Raimi, Stuart Gordon or David Cronenberg. In the stables, the alpacas undergo a horrible mutation and become a many-headed monster that resonates the practical effects in John Carpenter’s The Thing (1982). In a way, Color Out of Space could be said to be a film of that decade, and is definitely related to the 1980s revival being currently experienced in film and television.

Color Out of Space opens valuable avenues of interdisciplinary research. If previous generations interpreted the Color’s green as radiation—a “scientific” fear that was a product of the Cold War—, the film reveals how cosmic horror appears to have taken a departure from science fiction in recent times (excepting in media like Stranger Things and Chernobyl, perhaps). Adaptation studies may shed a light on this departure and why it has become a trend in cosmic horror films nowadays. In the field of reception, the changing in the color palette may clarify today’s audience’s fears and the metaphors Stanley is exploiting. Another point of interest, which also represents a departure from Lovecraft’s writings more generally, especially given Lovecraft’s blatant racism, concerns the main roles being played by a female actress and a black actor—Lavinia and Ward, respectively. Reminiscent of the novel Lovecraft Country (2016) and its adaptation, this choice points to the currently changing landscape concerning adaptations of period literature, and should be considered to explore key areas in gender and race studies. On a more paratextual level, the film is tackling the horror that was Lovecraft and racism in general, by casting a diverse cast. Also in the field of gender studies, Lavinia’s mystical bonds with the Color may raise questions about how the female character is represented and why it is more connected to the magical-supernatural side of Mythos.


Joshi, S.T. I Am Providence: The Life and Times of H.P. Lovecraft. Hippocampus Press, 2013.

Lovecraft, H. P. “The Colour Out of Space.” The Complete Cthulhu Mythos Tales, 2015, pp. 62–85.

Mariconda, Steven J. “Atmosphere and the Qualitative Analysis of ‘The Colour out of Space.’” Lovecraft Annual, no. 14, 2020, pp. 14-25. JSTOR, Accessed 31 Mar. 2021.

Poole, W. Scott. “Lovecraft, Witch Cults, and Philosophers.” The Age of Lovecraft, edited by Carl H. Sederholm, and Jeffrey Andrew Weinstock, University of Minnesota Press, 2016, pp. 215–230.

Lúcio Reis Filho is a Ph.D. in Media Studies (University Anhembi Morumbi, 2019), film critic and historian specializing in the relationships between cinema, history, and literature, with a focus on the horror genre. Addressing the echoes of H.P. Lovecraft in Clive Barker’s works, he wrote the chapter “Demons to Some, Angels to Others: Eldritch Horrors and Hellbound Religion in the Hellraiser Films,” in Divine Horror: Essays on the Cinematic Battle Between the Sacred and the Diabolical (McFarland, 2017). His award-winning research funded by CAPES (Coordination for the Improvement of Higher Education Personnel, Brazil) “Lovecraft out of Space: Echoes of American Weird Fiction on Brazilian Literature and Cinema” was published in Lovecraftian Proceedings No. 3. He also wrote essays on zombies in contemporary Latin American films, published in journals such as the SFRA Review and horror-themed anthologies. Currently, he investigates Lovecraft’s works and its cinematic adaptations in the late twentieth century

The Failure of Progress and the Example of Fraternity in Mary Shelley’s “The Last Man”

SFRA Review, vol. 51, no. 2

Symposium: Living in the End Times

The Failure of Progress and the Example of Fraternity in Mary Shelley’s “The Last Man”

Zsolt Czigányik

The Covid-19 pandemic naturally turns readers’ interest toward books that feature epidemics; the usual suspects are Bocaccio’s Decameron, Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year, and Camus’ The Plague. This paper focuses on a similarly important book, Mary Shelley’s 1826 pandemic narrative, The Last Man.[1] Its plot takes place in the end of the fictive 21st century, when England has become a republic but any social progress is annulled by a global plague epidemic that wipes out humanity. The Last Man culminates in a tragic exodus of an ever-decreasing number of the remaining members of humankind through a devastated Europe, until the narrator can find no more living persons on the continent. As Madeleine Joelson argues, the widowed Mary Shelley was also very lonely at the time of writing the book, and thus the narrative’s “infectious disease is not only a physical or biological phenomenon, but a sociological one as well” (Joelson, np). In building on this assertion, my short essay draws conclusions that concern modern societies, and offers a twenty-first century reading of The Last Man with the current pandemic in mind. I believe that Shelley’s book might help us understand how and why we should live our lives differently after the pandemic, rather than returning to the same practices of the individualism of a consumer society that has been one of the main causes of global warming and which has also had a significant impact in the development of the current pandemic. 

Éva Antal argues that The Last Man is three novels in one—the first part being “a romantic narrative of six characters’ life and their relations, the middle one is an apocalyptic narrative of the plague, while the last, post-apocalyptic volume describes the melancholy of the end of the world” (4). Muriel Spark also points out these three parts, identifying them as the decomposition of the family, of society, and of mankind, respectively (181). Yet these three parts are not interwoven seamlessly, and nothing beyond the suspicious title suggests, until roughly halfway through the book, that The Last Man is going to be about a devastating pandemic. I suspect that, in 1824, when Mary Shelley began her work, she did not know yet that it would be mainly about a plague. It is likely that her thoughts were turned towards this topic in the following year, in 1825, by the publication of The Diary of Samuel Pepys, with its detailed descriptions of the 1665 London plague. Yet this is speculation, as her journals unfortunately reveal no such evidence: in this period, neither Shelley’s letters nor her journals reflect on either her readings or her work, so the fact that she does not mention Pepys does not mean that she did not read it.[2] What we can state for certain is that the uneven structure of the book reflects the uncertainties and significant personal and literary events during its composition.

Turning from the circumstances of the composition to the contents, we may note that the political and military conflicts of the early nineteenth century that seriously concerned the Shelley family are present in the fictive future of The Last Man. In Shelley’s novel, the Ottoman Empire has held out much longer than in historical reality. The liberation of Greece from Turkish rule is still not completed in the fictive twenty-first century. Yet the book depicts a successful campaign to liberate Greece and, in fact, even Constantinople (the present-day Istanbul) is under siege by the allied Christian armies. They manage to take the city and end the Ottoman rule in Europe, yet this victory has unexpected consequences.

It is during the siege of Constantinople that the second, apocalyptic part of the novel begins: the pandemic kills the defenders of the city, infects the liberators, and, within years, spreads all over the world. The narrative later reflects on the events in England. The spread of the plague is slow at first, but after a few years, the whole country is infected and human life comes to a halt: towns become devastated, and commerce and agriculture stops. Yet it is still a better situation than in other parts of the world, and a migration toward England begins. The situation is becoming anarchic but, finally, order is temporarily restored. As the lethal pandemic cannot be stopped, soon only a few thousand inhabitants remain alive in England, who decide to begin a huge pilgrimage to the continent. 

They first cross to the continent and, from devastated France they decide to move to Switzerland, but only fifty survivors reach the vacant Alpine country. From here they take a route to Italy, but a mere three survivors reach Venice, and finally, only one of the main characters, Lionel Verney, the narrator and titular last man, reaches an empty Rome, where he plans to sail around the globe in search of more survivors. This makes the narrative situation of The Last Man somewhat embarrassing: Verney, the only survivor, tells the story to no one after every human being has died. Instead, the introduction gives a mystic explanation of the origin of the text: the notes were found by Shelley near Naples in Sybil’s cave more than two hundred years before the events described in them (Shelley 2-4). As Antal argues, the “frame narrative projects the last man’s testimony into the past and, if we think of the great cycles of man, in its vortex, the text still foreshadows a catastrophic future” (5). The issue is problematized by the narrator as well: “I also will write a book, I cried—for whom to read?—to whom dedicated? And then with silly flourish (what so capricious and childish as despair?) I wrote, DEDICATION TO THE ILLUSTRIOUS DEAD. SHADOWS, ARISE, AND READ YOUR FALL! BEHOLD THE HISTORY OF THE LAST MAN” (Shelley 364). This dedication is in an interesting parallel with Winston Smith’s dedication of his illegal diary from George Orwell’s 1984: “To the future or to the past, to a time when thought is free, when men are different from one another and do not live alone—to a time when truth exists and what is done cannot be undone” (26). Under completely different circumstances, the last man living and the last man thinking (Orwell’s working title was The Last Man in Europe)[3] face very similar challenges: they write to a supposedly non-existent audience. 

The pandemics in both Shelley’s book and in 2019 begin in Asia. Similarly to Daniel Defoe’s description in A Journal of the Plague Year (1722), the pandemic comes from the East. The apocalyptic narrative about the spread of the epidemic ends in  complete destruction and offers no hope. The plague proves to be unstoppable. An ambivalent depiction of technological and social progress is also a significant element of the book, as any form of progress, be it social or technological, proves to be futile with the plague sweeping across the world and destroying all human life. Distress and perseverance prove to be equally pointless, yet examples of human greatness, altruism, and hope (despite the hopeless situation) are depicted as positive examples. 

In the last exodus of the remainder of humankind, there is no purpose that gives meaning to this pilgrimage of a smaller and smaller number of survivors. It is a meaningless quest for nothing. One would believe that such final meaninglessness renders all action up till that point meaningless, but this is not the case in the narrative. Two scenes will illuminate how, in Shelley’s book, there is a difference between fear and bravery, between egoism and altruism. The negative example is the sect in Paris formed by a false prophet, who promises health to his followers. Many people give up both freedom and common sense for a false hope. As the promise cannot be kept, the episode ends tragically, with the followers killing the prophet and all of them ultimately dying in the epidemic.

Another episode in England looks completely different: 

In the village of Little Marlow an old woman ruled the community. She had lived for some years in an alms-house, and on fine Sundays her threshold was constantly beset by a crowd, seeking her advice and listening to her admonitions. She had been a soldier’s wife, and had seen the world; infirmity, induced by fevers caught in unwholesome quarters, had come on her before its time, and she seldom moved from her little cot. The plague entered the village; and, while fright and grief deprived the inhabitants of the little wisdom they possessed, old Martha stepped forward… She entered the cottages of the sick; she relieved their wants with her own hand; she betrayed no fear, and inspired all who saw her with some portion of her own native courage. She attended the markets—she insisted upon being supplied with food for those who were too poor to purchase it. She shewed them how the well-being of each included the prosperity of all. She would not permit the gardens to be neglected, nor the very flowers in the cottage lattices to droop from want of care. Hope, she said, was better than a doctor’s prescription. (212-13)

Even though the town is struck by a lethal epidemic, Little Marlow becomes a utopia of people caring for each other, an example of hope and of mental hygiene also symbolized by the flowers. Death cannot be prevented, but the rest of their lives are not spent in misery and fear. Martha in Little Marlow achieves something that Pope Francis, the head of the Catholic Church, reflects on in his latest book, Let Us Dream – The Path to a Better Future, published as a reflection upon the current pandemic. Pope Francis claims that, out of the three chief targets of enlightenment—that is, liberty, equality, and fraternity—humankind has made great efforts to reach the first two, and now it is time to turn toward fraternity as well (7). This kind of fraternity is what appears through the example of old Martha in Shelley’s book. I consider this idea relevant in our analysis of The Last Man as in this narrative, liberty becomes extremely reduced in the context of the destruction of mankind, whereas equality becomes simply the equality of all people being mortal. Yet, in the scenes where fraternity becomes apparent, an existence worthy for humans becomes available, even if death cannot be avoided. As it is suggested by Pope Francis, “[i]f we are to come out of this crisis less selfish than we went in, we have to let ourselves be touched by others’ pain” (5). Martha in Shelley’s book is an apt example of this attitude, and so are all the other characters who act out of altruism, overstepping their individual fears and interests. A more secular source, Gregory Claeys, argues that “most utopias are linked by their commitment to a form of enhanced sociability, or more communal form of living, sometimes associated with ideals of friendship” (145). The Last Man is about the destruction of the large community that is humanity; however, throughout the book, we find instances of the power of small communities and the importance of solidarity, fraternity, or enhanced sociability. Such instances, as we see in the above example, may even lead to a more or less utopian model of communal existence, even when it can only appear in the context of death, the unavoidable fate of all humanity.

If we look at Shelley’s book as an allegory, death is unavoidable: the death of the individual surely comes. Under normal conditions, humanity survives because the many individual deaths do not occur simultaneously or in close proximity. These deaths in The Last Man would normally occur across decades; what makes the narrative horrible is that Shelley brings them together within a few years, and so many deaths occurring within such a short time destroys the structure of human society. The devastation, however, does not reduce the importance of solidarity; rather, it highlights the necessity of a fraternal relationship between the members of humankind. 

The envisioned political changes that take place in Britain over the 250 years that pass between the time of writing and the fictive future the book narrates are significant, as the country has turned into a republic. However, it is still an aristocratic and highly hierarchical republic, where even members of the former royal family have a significant role and birth still defines social rank and marriage prospects. Shelley’s social and political imagination is, in fact, very much linked to her own time. Rather than depicting new social structures, the betterment of the world in The Last Man is attempted by virtuous people who primarily triumph over their adversaries using their rhetorical skills. A large number of social and political conflicts are depicted, yet they are not defined by social trends or structures, but in an intentional vein. 

Neither is the narrative concerned with technological progress. The 1820s, when the book was written, was significant from a technological-industrial point of view, being as it was the heyday of the industrial revolution. It was in 1809 that Robert Fulton began commercially running regular passenger steamboats and, in 1819, the first hybrid steamship crossed the Atlantic, and in 1825, only a year before the book was published, the first regular railway began its operation in England. Such important inventions are not reflected in Shelley’s futuristic book—with the exception of a faint reflection of the Montgolfier brothers’ 1783 experiment with balloon flight (Shelley 92), and also one mention of a steamship (Shelley 166). But these are the exceptions to the rule that the technological details in the novel reflect the beginning of the nineteenth century. In The Last Man, people travel on horseback or horse-drawn vehicles and on sailboats. Certain elements even prompt a historical rather than a futuristic fiction, like soldiers using muskets (Shelley 235), and no mention is made of industry. What is even more salient is the lack of medical progress. In Shelley’s book, no significant attempts are made to fight the illness, leaving everybody completely helpless against the plague.

The technical aspects of utopianism are not within the interest of Shelley in this novel (unlike in Frankenstein). As Antal argues, The Last Man “is not really an SF [novel] … it is more a warning about a possible future, it is an ecofeminist novel” (12). Antal also points out that nature is always female in the novel: “mother nature and her sister the epidemic ultimately eliminates mankind” (5). We should not believe, however, that progress is completely irrelevant for Shelley. Let me quote from a longer speech of one of the protagonists, Adrian. This speech is made before it becomes obvious that the plague cannot be stopped: “The choice is with us; let us will it, and our habitation becomes a paradise. For the will of man is omnipotent, blunting the arrows of death, soothing the bed of disease, and wiping away the tears of agony” (60). Adrian can be seen as the alter ego of Percy Shelley,[4] and as Anne McWhir reminds us, these lines may be a reflection of Julian and Maddalo: “it is our will / That thus enchains us to permitted ill” (McWhir 60). Shelley wrote in a reflection on Prometheus Unbound that Percy “Shelley believed that mankind had only to will that there should be no evil, and there would be none” (McWhir 60). In the context of the tragic ending of the novel, the reflection on “blunting the arrows of death and wiping away the tears of agony” (Shelley 60) can only be interpreted in an ironic manner. As Madeleine Joelson argues, the main characters of The Last Man are “thinly veiled portraits of Byron, Percy Shelley, and Claire Clairmont: depictions that not only allow Shelley to mourn her friends, but also to think critically about their ideals and the ideals of their cultural moment. Shelley’s idealism, Wordsworth’s naturalism, Byron’s ego and heroism—even the progressive politics of her parents, Mary Wollstonecraft and William Godwin—are each examined and rejected in turn” (Joelson, np). Or, as Antal reflects on this phenomenon, a “parody of millennial wishful thinking” (4) is characteristic of the novel. This is how the book becomes a tragic satire of the notion of progress and the belief in the unlimited capabilities of humanity. Yet struggle itself is not satirized, and solidarity, fraternity, and altruism are shown in a positive light, despite the complete destruction of mankind.

In conclusion we may state that, in Shelley’s The Last Man, the human will cannot resist the blind powers of nature. Suffering and the destruction of humankind are inevitable, yet there are significant differences between the attitudes of humans toward the demise of our species. The attitude of fraternity that is manifested as solidarity of small communities may not stop dying, but it creates a social atmosphere where the well-being of the individual may not be the cause of the destruction of others. If Shelley’s book, written two hundred years ago, has any continued relevance, in my opinion it is the question of whether we can call something progress that destroys our environment and culminates in endless consumption. I hope the present pandemic gives us a chance to re-discover the structures of fraternity. 


[1] An earlier version of my paper was published in Hungarian as “Az utolsó ember: a halálfélelem utópiája.”

[2] See Feldman, Pamela, and Diana Scott-Kilvert, editors. The Journals of Mary Shelley 1814–1844. Clarendon Press, 1987.

[3] In George Orwell’s letter to F. J. Warburg on 22 October, 1948, he writes, “I haven’t definitely fixed on the title but I am hesitating between ‘Nineteen Eighty-Four’ and ‘The Last Man in Europe’” (Orwell and Angus 448).

[4] Antal asserts that “all of the characters recall reminiscences in Mary Shelley’s life: Adrian alludes to Percy Bysshe Shelley himself.”  See Antal, Éva. “The Last Man and ‘the First Woman’: Unmanly Images of Unhuman Nature in Mary Shelley’s Ecocriticism.” Perichoresis: The Theological Journal of Emanuel University, vol. 18, no. 1, 2020, pg. 6.


Antal, Éva. “The Last Man and ‘the First Woman’: Unmanly Images of Unhuman Nature in Mary Shelley’s Ecocriticism.” Perichoresis: The Theological Journal of Emanuel University, vol. 18, no. 1, 2020, pp. 3-16,

Bennett, Betty, editor. The Letters of Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley. Johns Hopkins UP, 1980.

Bocaccio, Giovanni. Decameron. Wordsworth, 2004.

Camus, Albert. The Plague. Penguin, 2015.

Claeys, Gregory. “News from Somewhere: Enhanced Sociability and the Composite Definition of Utopia and Dystopia.” History, vol. 98, April 2013, pp. 145-173.

Czigányik Zsolt. “Az utolsó ember: a halálfélelem utópiája.” Rare Device, edited by Ruttkay Veronika et al., ELTE BTK, 2011, pp. 104-115.

Defoe, Daniel. A Journal of the Plague Year. Penguin, 2003.

Feldman, Pamela, and Diana Scott-Kilvert, editors. The Journals of Mary Shelley 1814–1844. Clarendon Press, 1987. 

Joelson, Madeleine. “The Last Woman: Mary Shelley’s apocalyptic vision.”

McWhir, Anne Ruth. “Introduction.” In Mary Shelley’s The Last Man. Broadview Literary Texts, 1996.

Orwell, George. 1984. Signet, 1961.

Orwell, Sonia, and Ian Angus, editors. The Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters of George Orwell. Volume IV. Secker and Warburg, 1968.

Pepys, Samuel. The Diary of Samuel Pepys. Random House, 2010.

Pope Francis and Ivereigh, Austen. Let Us Dream – The Path to a Better Future. Simon & Schuster, 2020.

Shelley, Mary. The Last Man. Broadview Literary Texts, 1996.

Shelley, Mary. Frankenstein. Harper Collins, 2010.

Spark, Muriel. Mary Shelley. Meridian, 1988.

Zsolt Czigányik is an associate professor at the Department of English Studies of Eötvös Loránd University (ELTE) in Budapest, Hungary. His research interests include utopian and dystopian literature, the relationship of literary studies and the social sciences, and contemporary literature. His publications include a monograph written in Hungarian on the role of human freedom in modern dystopias, and an edited volume on the relationship of ideology, politics and literature (Utopian Horizons, 2017). Currently he is working on a book project on Hungarian utopian literature.

Living Beyond the End Times: An Argument for Queer Utopianism

SFRA Review, vol. 51, no. 2

Symposium: Living in the End Times

Living Beyond the End Times: An Argument for Queer Utopianism

Ariel Kroon

More concretely, this refusal that I describe as queerness is not just homosexuality but the rejection of normal love that keeps a repressive social order in place.

– José Esteban Muñoz, Cruising Utopia 134[1]

In the fall of 2020, American politics dominated the news headlines here in Canada; an unavoidable reality, especially given that Canadian politics often takes cues from American campaigns. This year was no exception. President Joe Biden’s website for his transition, for example, is called, and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau used the phrases “build back better” and “building back better” a few times in his own speech from the throne (delivered by Governor General Julie Payette)[2] back in September 2020 (Moscrop). This slogan was picked up on immediately by the Canadian Conservative party – their website states that Liberal policy is to “build back better” and contrasts that with their own new motto of “Build Back Stronger” (“Build Back Stronger”). The original “Building Back Better” strategy, however, was not a political slogan but the name for a specific approach adopted by the UN in 2015 in the aftermath of natural disasters such as hurricanes, typhoons, or earthquakes, and was used as early as 2006 during the 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami relief effort by UN officials. The strategy aims to reduce the risk to communities in the wake of future disasters by integrating disaster risk reduction measures into the restoration of physical infrastructures, social systems, and more (“Sendai Framework”).

Current political discourse has taken the concept of disaster as a natural occurrence and applied it to the realm of sociopolitical relations as a precondition for justifying their campaigns’ focus on the past; for example, the Trump presidency was “a disaster” in many ways, or Liberal policies have been “a disaster” for the Canadian economy, or to elect a Conservative government would be “a disaster.”[3] Regardless of left- or right-leaning political agendas, it is unanimously agreed upon by politicians and journalists alike that a disaster of some sort has occurred—and perhaps is still even unfolding—in the sociopolitical sphere and that the state and the electorate must recover from it. The slogans “Building Back Better” and “Building Back Stronger” are almost identical in their emphasis on building back. It is immediately evident that both of these mottos are ultimately conservative ideas of a future made perfect by either an augmentation or concentration of past social structures and policies in order to achieve an ideal state or utopia. Thomas More’s original Utopia was not a new or even progressive social formation (Jameson 229), just one transferred to a distant land where the totalitarian governing system functioned smoothly and without meaningful dissent to disrupt the static social order. This paper argues that since conventional (or ‘abstract’) ideas of utopia uncritically idealize the past and seek to bring about a sociopolitical order based on the continuation and rehabilitation of a glorified past, it is necessary to adopt a praxis of queer utopia in order for society to truly move forward.

Queerness as a utopian formation is future-oriented, but with firm roots in the context of the contemporary moment. José Esteban Muñoz grounds queer utopia in a praxis of hope as a critical methodology in his book Cruising Utopia and describes queer utopia as “a backward glance that enacts a future vision” (16); by looking to the past, queer utopian dreamers see what can be redeemed but also what can be avoided. The past is not a template, but more a loose collection of guidelines or a ‘moodboard’ that provides inspiration and a target for utopian hopes, which may well be disappointed at times by the events that transpire on the way to the future. But just because hope can be disappointed (and is prone to it) is not, Muñoz writes, a reason to forsake it as a critical thought process. Disappointment needs to be risked in order to resist certain impasses (Muñoz 20), such as the despair induced by the slow-moving but ever-present threat of climate catastrophe, or the long dreadful waiting of coronavirus lockdowns, or the intensification of current political fascisms. Further to this paper’s discussion, Muñoz writes that the strategy of turning “to the past for the purpose of critiquing the present, is propelled by a desire for futurity” (43). Queer utopias are a practice: not a noun, but a verb, always informed by a critical methodology of hope that evaluates the past to make sure that the future is worthwhile.

This paper builds on Muñoz’s discussion of queer utopia as it stands in contrast to conventional ideas of utopia, which Muñoz calls abstract utopias and describes as “dead ends, too often vectoring into the escapist disavowal of our current moment” (43). While Cruising Utopia discusses the nature of utopian dreaming in the context of queer politics’ mid-90s obsession with achieving marriage equality, Muñoz’s critical interrogation of the way that utopian dreaming is mobilized politically is useful to apply to the contemporary sociopolitical moment of coronavirus and climate catastrophe. Muñoz explicitly likens the abstract utopian desire for the attainment of marriage equality with what Lauren Berlant calls a “stupid” form of optimism: “the faith that adjustment to certain forms or practices of living and thinking—for example, the prospect of class mobility, the romantic narrative, normalcy, nationality, or a better sexual identity—will secure one’s happiness” (126). Muñoz critiques the desire for marriage equality as an investment in a surface-level issue that grants the appearance of utopian achievement, but is still dictated by the standards set by heteronormativity and does nothing to change the deeply homophobic—often violently so—structuring of society. 

I argue that a similar phenomenon can be seen in the way that Canadian and American politicians mobilize their political slogans to present the appearance of utopia through the promise of surface-level policy change that will in fact only strengthen, as opposed to dismantle, the structural inequalities of the status quo. For example, the stupid optimism of a slogan like “Build Back Better” assumes that happiness can be secured for every citizen by a return to a vague, unspecified “Time Before,” that has been altered just slightly by progressive policies that grant a modicum of dignity and humanity to women and minorities. Something like the 1980s, but also post-#MeToo and #BlackLivesMatter and #IdleNoMore, a society that is still built on deeply embedded structures of racism, classism, and sexism, not to mention its devotion to neoliberal policy and economic gain at the cost of human happiness. The dream of building back better ignores the way that these underlying forces continue to perpetuate the need for campaigns such as #MeToo, uncritically believing that if a society looks diverse and and appears to be thriving on the surface, there is no need for any deeper commitment to dismantling structural oppression. The abstract nature of traditional utopian politics is most evident in the conservative slogan “Build Back Stronger,” where no such augmentation is promised and the promises of liberation for women, queer, and Black folks would be in fact detrimental to the happiness of a lot of conservative voter bases in the Western world (Ahmed “Feminist Killjoys,” “Killing Joy,” and “The Politics of Good Feeling”).

The rhetoric of “building back” is intensely problematic not just for the above reasons, but most significantly for its depiction of an alternate reality that clashes with the bald fact that there is no place for anyone, no matter their identity, to which to return where their pre-climate change way of life can be continued happily and safely. The Anthropocene progresses; climate catastrophe progresses, whether politicians want it to or not (Casselman). Politics as usual deliberately ignores the fact that climate catastrophe is much larger than the concerns of human political campaigns, implicating and affecting all life on the planet (human and non-) and, as Timothy Morton points out, reaching backwards into geological time as well as forward into the future (49-51). Berlant terms the abstract utopic desire for the ‘good life,’ despite the fact that the world as we know it is actively falling apart, as “cruel optimism,” describing it as “the condition of maintaining an attachment to a significantly problematic object” (24), even if that object is what prevents the ‘good life’ in the end—for example, a treasured car whose fossil fuel emissions contribute to the warming of the world that will in turn drive up the price of the fossil fuels the vehicle needs in order to run. Abstract utopia can be seen most clearly in conservative politicians’ wishful thinking to return to a less complicated time when citizens (aka cismale white heterosettlers) were prospering, the economy was doing well, and climate change was not a thing that existed to be worried about. 

In contrast to the wishful abstraction of classic utopianism, queer utopia as presented by Muñoz is concrete and actionable, in keeping with present reality—climate catastrophe, racism, homophobia, sexism, transphobia and all—and still dares to hope for the future. Muñoz writes that, while these ‘concrete’ utopias can seem like daydreams, they are “the realm of educated hope” (15) that directly contrast the abstract, uncritical utopia—“‘utopia’ in its pejorative sense, the good place that is no place” (Alberro 20). This paper could exchange “educated” for “informed” or “radical,” the kind of clear-eyed hope that assesses and understands the past and present in order to inform the future.    

Queer utopia relies on a praxis of explicitly radical hope, separating out wishful, uncritical versions of hope from a more concrete, informed, earned hope. Hannah MacGregor, in conversation with Eugenia Zuroski, observes that uncritical expressions of hope “[come] so often packaged in … toxic positivity” that insists that “we are all in this together” and that “we will get through this terrible situation,” yet for many people (especially people of colour and queer people) “we don’t always get through this” (11:52-12:05). Zuroski therefore posits a “radical hope” as a hope that is earned: the kind of hope that marginalized people such as Black, Indigenous, people of colour, LGBTQ2S+ and disabled people, have been “earning all along … just by living under conditions that are designed to deprive you of … hope for yourself … for your own survival, your own flourishing, and your own future” (13:52-15:25). Radical hope is an outgrowth of a kind of political consciousness that comes from being trapped inside a system that is wholly devoted to a cruelly optimistic promise, of a recognition of that promise of the good life as cruel, denying it, and searching elsewhere for optimism. 

The hallmark of the abstract utopia is its foundation upon wishful thinking disguised as hope, which furthers the distortion of past, present, and future reality, instead of the radical hope that brings about concrete change. Zuroski elaborates on the difference between wishing and hoping with the example of someone prefacing their opinion with the phrase “I hope this isn’t racist,” and then going and saying something egregiously racist (17:21). Zuroski identifies how, in this example, the speaker uses the terminology of hope to express the wish that their sentiment were not racist, because they wish that they themselves were not racist. However, that wish is contrary to the reality of the situation and, to quote Zuroski again, “you can’t hope for realities not to exist” (17:21); hope is not an applicable word in this situation. Zuroski goes on to say that in order for marginalized people and their allies to access truly radical hope, it is necessary to dedicate time to “thinking about temporality … your relationship to histories [and] to the present …. and let that inform how you build a relationship to the future, which is what hope is…. hope is the name for relating to a future of some kind” and that “you can’t just hope out of nowhere. You have to do the work of understanding… where we’ve come from, where we all are right now, where you are in the middle of all that, then you can start to…build your hope” (18:03). Change, MacGregor agrees, has to be intrinsically tied to will and to action, not an ephemeral wish for a better future to abstractly happen, somehow.  

The ability to access radical hope and queer utopia thus lies in what Sara Ahmed calls “being for being against,” a move that affirms a specific type of negation. Saying yes to a no, or affirming negation, Ahmed writes, is still in the end an affirmation, which could “reinstitute a certain yes as the proper signifier of queer politics, even as a yes to what’s not” (The Promise 162). For example, saying yes to a no could take the form of choosing to celebrate instead of being ashamed of one’s queer identity despite pervasive homophobic messaging from one’s family and culture. This responds in large part to queer people being defined by the negative and characterized by political or social propagandists as anti-family, anti-heterosexual, anti-woman, anti-man, anti-child, and more.[4] The practice of saying yes to a no, however, does not mean that now the individual can only experience depression and despair. Ahmed makes the point that it is possible to explore “the strange and perverse mixtures of hope and despair … within forms of politics that take as a starting point a critique of the world as it is, and a belief that the world can be different” (The Promise 163). Radical hope can therefore be accessed via saying yes to non-normative ways of being, by investing in alternative lifeways that contribute to the flourishing of human and non-human beings into the future. Acting on that radical hope is performing a queer utopia into being.   

Indigenous scholar Kim Tallbear illustrates how radical hope illuminates a queer utopia in the Anthropocentric present, as she turns to the past with the purpose of envisioning a future despite ongoing catastrophe. Tallbear, who is Dakota, finds hope and what she terms a “hostile joy” in the “implosion of the settler narrative,” (0:20:57) which assumed the inevitable failure of Indigenous lifeways in the United States and Canada. She finds hope in the changes in “mythologies and thinking” and the demise of violent intellectual systems (such as terra nullius, extractivism, and petroculture) as humans are now reckoning with “earthly systems’ agitation against anthropogenic change” (Tallbear, 25:28). For example, Tallbear remembers that after floods in 1997 in Minnesota, the farms were transformed into wetlands and she does not see endings there, but instead the regeneration of the prairies, returning to themselves (26:40). She does not celebrate the devastation of planetary ecosystems or the most vulnerable humans and non-humans, but instead finds a radical hope in “trusting in the collective genius of all the people who have survived these ‘wicked systems’” (Tallbear, 20:57). Her hopefulness is not a narrative, Tallbear emphasizes, of redeeming the colonial empire to make it more inclusive (as a liberal politics wishing to “build back better” would have it), but instead an opportunity to be in relation and to care for each other as relations in the present (22:40). Tallbear’s radical hope is selective in its celebration of certain resurgences of the past—such as land reclamation and rediscovering of kinship and relational modalities—and her deliberate “hostile joy” in the demise of ideologies rooted in the past that are in the process of falling by the wayside of history. The future is as much about what is present as what is absent; queer utopia is deliberate about its inclusions and exclusions.

The ‘failure’ of certain lifeways and political systems is no reason to abandon them to history; in fact, this paper argues that these social systems’ failure is key to keeping them from being cast as wishful thinking and categorized as abstracted utopias that did not work because of their ideological impracticability, instead of deliberate opposition from sociopolitical forces that made these lifeways impossible in the past. Muñoz reads the failure of queer people to conform to heteronormative dictates as a kernel of utopian potentiality, writing that utopia’s rejection of pragmatism is often associated with failure, and that queer utopia represents “most profoundly” a failure to be normal (172). Queer utopia does not dream of the past entirely as an abstracted good that it wishes for the future, but grounds itself in the refusal of oppressive elements of past society as much as it affirms others for inclusion in the utopic future, bringing forward a patchwork of sustainable lifeways that can ensure the flourishing of the queer (and/or Indigenous/feminist/POC) subject despite the present presence of oppression, sociopolitical or otherwise. As feminist philosopher Rosi Braidotti reminds us, affirmation is not banal optimism, but “the process of transforming pain into praxis” (“Self-styling”).

Queer utopia stands in contrast to the slogans of building back better in its fundamental refusal to believe in the inherent good of the sociopolitical structuring of the world before COVID-19. A practice of radical hope, to me, is not wishing for a world in which the same neoliberal policies, petroculture, patriarchy, and heterosettler society of the Canadian state is restored by way of a vaccine, but instead a fierce sort of hope for a radical restructuring of the status quo that recognizes indigenous sovereignty, tackles climate change as much as possible, and makes a just recovery from the pandemic that recognizes and prioritizes the health and wellbeing of all. Practicing radical hope also means a daily engagement with building the conditions by which certain elements of queer utopia can be made possible: relation-building, advocating for climate policy, standing up for the rights of oppressed peoples, working to undermine capitalist modes of transaction and exchange in favour of communitarian and social endeavours. Braidotti states that it is not enough to be against: the critical dissatisfaction of utopian dreaming that Muñoz describes as queer must always be married to action inspired by radical hope. This hope will be disappointed again and again – as Muñoz reminds us, utopia is always destined to fail. This paper argues that instead of building back, we need to take up the practice of queer utopia, and, in spite of failure, to build forward.


[1] This was a virtual presentation, but the author would like to acknowledge that she lives and works in amiskwacîwâskahikan, located on Treaty 6 territory, the traditional lands of First Nations and Metis people and historically a gathering place for diverse indigenous peoples including the Cree, Inuit, Metis, Dene, Anishinaabe, and many others whose culture and history continues to influence this place and inform her thinking as a settler scholar.

[2] Each new session of the Canadian Parliament is opened by the speech from the throne, delivered by the Governor General as the Queen’s representative. For more information, please see “2020 Speech”.

[3] A DuckDuckGo search of “Trump presidency disaster” performed 16 Feb. 2021 resulted in too many articles to cite. Canadian news headlines are more circumspect: the first page of results returned by searches for “liberal Canadian government disaster” and “conservative Canadian policy disaster” yielded, respectively, a National Post article on fiscal scandals plaguing Justin Trudeau’s liberals, and a Globe and Mail op-ed about healthcare: see Dawson 2020 and Danisch 2021.

[4] Please see Lee Edelman for further elaboration of this cultural bias.


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Moscrop, David. “Trudeau’s new agenda is full of old promises and unrealized hopes.” The     Washington Post, 23 Sept. 2020, Accessed 16 Feb. 2021.

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“President-Elect Joe Biden: Official Transition Website.” Biden-Harris Transition, Accessed 12 Jan. 2021. 

“Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction 2015-2030.” United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction,    reduction-2015-2030. Accessed 12 Jan. 2021.

Tallbear, Kim. “A Sharpening of the Already-Present: An Indigenous Materialist Reading of     Settler Apocalypse 2020.” Humanities on the Brink: Energy, Environment, Emergency, 23 Jul 2020, hosted online by University of California Santa Barbara, Plenary Address.

Ariel Kroon is a PhD candidate in English Literature, studying narratives of crisis as they can be found in Canadian post-apocalyptic science fiction published between 1948 and 1989 in order to think about how the imagination of disaster and survival has been shaped in North American science fiction throughout the latter half of the twentieth century. Human action is predicated upon the scenarios that can be imagined as possible and, for too long, the imagination of post-apocalyptic survival has operated on the assumption of violence, xenophobia, and an ethic of “might makes right” in the wake of sociopolitical upheaval and environmental destruction. This line of study has become distressingly relevant of late. Her latest publication, on the Anthropocene, solarpunk, and feminist posthumanism, can be found for free online here:

Connectivity and Collectivity: Network- Oriented Sociological Storytelling, Intra-Action, and the Pandemic Response Scenario in Greg Bear’s “Darwin’s Radio”

SFRA Review, vol. 51, no. 2

Symposium: Living in the End Times

Connectivity and Collectivity: Network- Oriented Sociological Storytelling, Intra-Action, and the Pandemic Response Scenario in Greg Bear’s “Darwin’s Radio”

Ben Horn and Jayde Martin

This paper examines Greg Bear’s depiction of a pandemic crisis response scenario in his text, Darwin’s Radio (1999). It analyses his portrayal of the biopolitical and necropolitical impacts of this response under neoliberal capitalism. We seek to explore how Bear represents the biopolitical and necropolitical pressures of a pandemic and the effects of this on characters who embody intersectional struggle. We do this by examining Bear’s use of what we term Network-Oriented Sociological Storytelling (NOSS). NOSS is an identification of the networked connections of an existing social order and its resulting social phenomena. Borrowing concepts from posthumanism and feminist new materialism (Rosi Braidotti and Karen Barad),1 we examine Bear’s ontology of networked agency and emergence that produces these phenomena. This is then considered alongside Michel Foucault and Achille Mbembe’s analyses of institutional networks of oppression (biopolitics and necropolitics). By bringing these methodologies and Bear’s use of NOSS into conversation with one another, we reveal the extent to which Bear relies upon the construction of networks within Darwin’s Radio.

NOSS is a worldbuilding method that treats social connections and their resulting phenomena as the objects of its critique. By combining them with sf’s speculative nature, NOSS identifies existing social relations in the light of an imagined future to make them the subject of critical inquiry. In Bear’s case, his text elaborates on observations of actors from the historical context of 1990’s and early 2000s America and its accompanying networks of social institutions, which remain with us into 2020/2021. Darwin’s Radio is a form of NOSS that helps us to better examine real-world reactions to pandemics. In Bear’s text, the protagonists, biologist Kaye Lang and archaeologist Mitch Rafleson, discover that the fictive SHEVA (Scattered Human Endogenous RetroVirus Activation) is not a virus, but a part of the human genome, capable of short-term, directed evolutionary adaptation that spreads like a virus.

Bear’s text is a composite of sf and pandemic fiction. His choice to write within the genre of sf contributes to Darwin’s Radio’s enduring relevance (Haraway 6). Sf is noted for its ability to create thought experiments that act as self-reflexive critiques of contemporary social reality, which may be repurposed for different periods. The act of speculation involves constructing possible alternative realities based on the networked relations that underpin sociological phenomena. By identifying such patterns in the relations between agential networks, future developments can be imagined. The manufacture of these new realities is a key component of NOSS and one frequently present in sf.[2] With a focus on social connections and their resulting phenomena, sf texts can remain pertinent beyond their historical context. This is because some of the larger cultural social actors within the networks they examine continue to exist (capitalism, sexism, racism, etc). Greg Bear’s Darwin’s Radio is one of these texts that exhibits its significance through its use of NOSS.

We argue that the sociological interactions that are the basis of NOSS in Darwin’s Radio are what feminist new materialist philosopher Karen Barad calls “intra-actions,” material-discursive relations that produce social phenomena (33).  She states that “the neologism ‘intra-action’ signifies the mutual constitution of entangled agencies” in contrast to the interaction of established bodies. “These entangled entities are productive, on multiple scales; different intra-actions produce different phenomena” (Barad 58). The objects of measurement “emerge from, rather than precede, the intra-action that produces them”. Therefore, in this paper we focus exclusively on the result of multiple sociological intra-actions and the social phenomena they produce (128). Intra-action illustrates the interconnectedness of social phenomena and their physical, material effects upon one another.  Intra-actions refuse to artificially separate agency into distinct categories. Instead, intra-actions attribute agency to all phenomena, at the macro and microscopic scales. Thus, the concept of the intra-action itself provides a formula of networked agency that resists the conflict between seemingly innate material characteristics and contextual environmental factors and relationships. In this model, agency emerges through relations, which can change. These dynamic forces include natural and social phenomena. The model also includes the material phenomena these connections produce.  How these intra-actions are/could be put to work means that they could be utilised for either politically oppressive or liberating ends. Therefore, Bear uses NOSS to highlight the problematic aspects of state and industry involvement in pandemic responses under neoliberalism.

As organisms integrate environmental and genetic information at all levels, there is no line dividing where genetics ends and the environment begins. Bear’s text highlights the significant societal responses to genetic differences, so the intra-actions stemming from SHEVA form the basis of our analysis. Intra-action thus removes agency from exclusive reference to the subject of liberal humanism and instead situates agency in the realm of entangled human and non-human entities. Darwin’s Radio also depicts agency as the exclusive property of neither the human subject nor of pre-established bodies. Rosi Braidotti notes that classical humanism distinguishes what is human (the properties, abilities, capacities, etc associated with the human) from the non-human through “the dialectics of self and other, and the binary logic of identity and otherness” (Braidotti  23). Here, the human needs the non-human for its definition, while the non-human is only defined negatively; as “other” to the human (23).

Subjects are deemed non-human, or less than human, in relation to signifiers of difference, imagined or otherwise. This applies to discourses of health, disease, and disability, forming part of the mechanisms by which such identities are produced and maintained. But this alterity is not given but produced. The consequence of this production of alterity are the practices of biopolitics and necropolitics. Biopolitics is a political rationality that takes the administration of life as its subject. ‘Life’ applies to individuals, populations (groups, localities, states), or the species Homo sapiens. It draws on the biological body of the human, but also discourses of biology, ethics, politics, and sociology. During pandemics, the desire to categorise and classify the infected from the uninfected intensifies the power of biopolitical mechanisms. As a result, surveillance and additional measures of control are imposed under the guise of protecting citizens from becoming biologically compromised. Initially developed by Michel Foucault, biopolitics is defined as “the means to ensure, sustain and multiply life, to put this life in order’” (Foucault 138).

To “put this life in order” means to establish heterogenous categories according to which forms of life can be classified and disciplined. The product of these power relations can result in material and immaterial forms of domination, such as the conflation of physical health with moral health, or the treatment of physical health and abnormalities with social ills. Likewise, this can lead to conceptual identification of marks of criminality on the bodies of those who do not or fail to adhere to the prevailing forms of categorisation. On the topic of capital punishment, Foucault points out the conflation of the rhetoric of disease with material practices of discrimination:

[C]apital punishment could not be maintained except by invoking less the enormity of the crime itself than the monstrosity of the criminal, his incorrigibility, and the safeguard of society. One had the right to kill those who represented a kind of biological danger to others (138).

In the text, SHEVA mutations produce visible changes in the body, which distinguish the uninfected from the infected ‘other.’ As SHEVA affects the species Homo sapiens, the text shows society’s attempts to maintain an image of the species against the possibility of genetic difference. According to this, life and its growth may be allowed or disallowed, to the point of death. This power over life and its continual development is what Foucault calls ‘biopower’ – an apparatus that entails the classification, administration, and regulation of individuals and populations, and even whole species, in accordance with norms: “[Biopower emerges with] numerous and diverse techniques for achieving the subjugation of bodies and the control of populations” (Foucault 140). The intra-action of these different discourses within and between institutions, is instrumental to the functioning of biopolitics. 

In Darwin’s Radio, Americol (Bear’s representative for the pharmaceutical industry) and the American state intra-act to continue profit production during a pandemic. In contemporary capitalism, social relations become indistinguishable from productive forces, as both are geared towards profit production and administration. Writing of biopolitics after Foucault, Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri argue that post-Fordist capitalism is explicitly biopolitical, an arrangement in its prime at Bear’s time of writing. What is produced under post-Fordist capitalism are subjects able to labour and consume, constituted through economic, social, and biological relations, which in turn are consumed and geared towards profit production: “Production becomes indistinguishable from reproduction; productive forces merge with relations of production” (Hardt and Negri 385). Therefore, policing and sustaining the normative body and its reproduction is integral to capitalism.

Both Marc Augustine (head of the CDC) and Marge Cross (CEO of Americol) are symbolic of biopolitical regulation. At one of their meetings, Cross and Augustine “embrace” and “kiss” (Bear 155).  Their romantically coded encounter symbolises ways in which wealthy pharmaceutical industries court the cooperation of the American government in regulating healthcare and, by extension, the population, creating a literal public-private partnership.[3] The profitable social phenomena from their intra-action is the manipulation of the president to acquire more funds and the exploitation of biologist Kaye Lang to marketize the SHEVA cure. 

Kaye’s services are utilised to research the SHEVA virus with the aim of finding a cure and to produce biopolitical bodies able to labour under these conditions. This fusion of intellectual labour, with  institutional, political, and scientific rhetorics becomes the absolute of biopolitical rationality: 

The symbiosis between intellectual labor and institutional, political, and scientific rhetorics became absolute on this terrain, and every conceptual formation came to be marked by it: the formalization of politics, the instrumentalization of science and technique for profit, the pacification of social antagonisms (Hardt and Negri 80).

When Kaye initially agrees to work for Marge Cross, she is told her research and presentability are profitable, indicating the subordination of scientific labour to profit-production. She reduces herself to being “Kaye Lang the corporate item” (Bear 142). She uses the idea of “corporate item” to express her self-exploitation and to berate her choice to comply with capitalism for better “dresses” and “silk blouses” (Bear 142) because she doubts Americol’s stated goals of population protection for scientifically sound reasons. She is not sure that SHEVA is a virus that should be eradicated via a cure, yet she still works towards this goal.  Her sense of self is subsumed into Americol’s property. The consumption of her body as an Americol asset further demonstrates its likeness to an immune response, turning her from a threat into an advocate for its cure and its subsequent marketization. Kaye is even told that she “is… female and presentable enough” to “ease the public” (Bear 141-142) when discussing the disease on TV. She is also “famous” and “presentable” (Bear 141-142), which demonstrates how celebrity culture serves to marketise both the virus and its cure through a medium that already exerts a strong amount of biopolitical power. Augustine manipulates the political system using fear of “mutant children” (154) to force the president to adhere to his agenda. The birthing body is legislated by those in power, transforming SHEVA mothers and children from subjects to “reservoirs” of infection: “[Augustine]: “If the babies get out in the general public, they’ll be vectors. All it took for AIDS was a few” (331). The ruling class attempts to reproduce itself, and its ideological image of humanity, through the intra-action of state and private companies.

Bear highlights the mechanisms of stigma and control that operate on a macro-level (global and state) by introducing the reader to publicly sanctioned violence, and the micro-level by including characters that exemplify the intersectional oppression faced during global pandemics. Here, states, institutions, and individuals intra-act to produce ideologies of discrimination that are often violent. Bear represents these to make them objects of critique.

SHEVA patients experience changes in skin pigmentation, second pregnancies post-miscarriage, and cold- and flu-like symptoms, which become signifiers for the dualisms of self/other and uninfected/infected other. These divisions—based on physical differences—are grafted onto the human/non-human split. Such dualisms are typically codified by a series of social norms, from which the infected, or unhealthy ‘other’ are seen to deviate. Norms are both a common standard and a unit of measurement against this standard. In biopolitics, distribution around norms creates categories into which individuals may be grouped along  medical, political, and moral lines (Foucault, Discipline 197-198): healthy and unhealthy; able-bodied and disabled; sanity and madness; typical and atypical, etc. Within Bear’s text, this manifests as the dualism between infected and uninfected. This power produces subjectivities, and at the same time excludes them through apparatuses of stigmatization based on bodily characteristics, which are treated as signifiers of infection. People who display such signs are not only the target of social, political, and medical stigmatization, but likewise have their political status partially or completely revoked. 

Neoliberal values of responsibility, individualism, and rationality,[4] are also some of the characteristics defined as being part of liberal humanist ideology (Braidotti, Posthuman 29).[5] Liberal humanism elevates a “partial image of Man,” one with these qualities, to “the top of a hierarchy” measuring ontological worth (Braidotti, Posthuman Knowledge 105).

That [exclusionary] humanist image of ‘Man’ also implemented social systems built on sexism, homo-and-transphobia, colonialism and racism that turned cultural specificity into a fake universal and normality into a normative injunction (105).

In the worst cases, this dialectic of self and other is naturalised, and thus ‘social systems’ that create “a fake universal normality” also create the domination of disposable bodies. By establishing such hierarchies of decreasing worth, humanism mistakes this partial image of ‘Man’ for the differential reality of Homo sapiens because pandemics trouble the idea of what constitutes a healthy body.  Consequently, the SHEVA virus infection exposes the falsity of this image of ‘Man’ (Tully 45). The construction of a healthy body is dependent on a medical checklist to identify and categorise the human body as healthy, creating heterogenous categories of appearance, functionality, mental states, and their corresponding pathologies, around which norms are distributed and maintained. 

It can be said, then, that Bear’s text and its representation of a pandemic destabilises the ontology of philosophical humanism. The emphasis on a uniformity of the human body, and therefore identity, on functionality and action, is because of a capitalist focus on the ‘healthy’ human body as one that can both labour and consume (Oliver 4). Those who fall outside of this category are then classed as disabled (Turner 1-6). This dualism of able and disabled stigmatizes those unable to labour in the expected manner. These anxieties are projected onto SHEVA children because their ability to communicate differently is an unexpected anomaly and one that affects their ability to labour and consume in a predictable fashion.

Bear illustrates a form of necropolitics in the violence and “social death” (Mbembe 21) of SHEVA patients, up to and including the internment of children in “concentration nurseries” (Bear 344). SHEVA occupies a liminal space between the biopolitical and necropolitical policing of populations. Bear introduces the reader to institutionally sanctioned stigma and the discrimination it engenders through his inclusion of genocidal measures of pandemic control. Bear compares the American approach to SHEVA to that of the country of Georgia, both contemporary and under Stalin, to demonstrate global similarities to pandemic responses. Their reactions are the same, they both follow similar populist reactions to SHEVA infected people, the only differences being their national and cultural contexts. 

Bear uses the Nazi regime, an extreme example of biopolitical control, to inform his depiction of the genocidal administration and the generalised instrumentalization of death. By doing this, Bear brings the mechanism of stigmatisation and its signifiers to the forefront of his text.  The SHEVA infection manifests in literal, visible marks that can be identified, classified, and used as a target for discrimination. These visible markers identify, isolate and segregate those who do not fit societal norms and are cast into a necropolitical zone of death: 

Reliable sources in the Ukraine had told him of women bearing subtle, and not so subtly different children, of children immaculately conceived, of entire villages razed and sterilized… in the wake of a plague of miscarriages (Bear 49).

Thirteen thousand men, women, and even children were killed in Georgia, Armenia, Abkhazia, and Chechnya because they were believed to spread a disease that caused women to abort. Fifteen thousand pregnant women [in the USA] were murdered in the last six weeks. Fifteen thousand, Christopher (153-154).

This resembles Nazi campaigns to find individuals who apparently belonged in internment camps, such as ‘a-socials’ or ‘hereditary degenerates’ (Evans 74, 80) to remove them from the public based on assumptions of inherent criminality. It also animalizes the subjects in question, meaning not as political subjects, but as beings that can simply be killed; their deaths become a technical question. By including this practice of eugenic purging, Bear demonstrates how the American state retains the right to kill off older sovereign societies. Though not as overt as the Nazi regime, Bear demonstrates that the US state has internalised the same compulsions to produce a ‘healthy’ body by eliminating those perceived as carriers of infection. The necropower these regimes exercise becomes self-defeating and auto-genocidal. As SHEVA is part of the genome, the virus is conflated with bodies and hereditary, meaning the only way to eliminate it is to eliminate anyone who has, is, or could carry it.

At the micro-level, Bear’s character Delia exemplifies similar injustices marginalised people face during a neoliberal pandemic response. NOSS enables Bear to connect the different types of discrimination and how their intra-action results in the oppression of vulnerable people during a pandemic. An intersectional analysis of Delia’s circumstances examines the intra-actions of sociological phenomena that create multiple systems of oppression. Through the classification inherent in dominant liberal humanist ideology, those made less-than-human in the hierarchy of worth face different types of discrimination. The relationship between one identity category and the humanist image of humanity intra-acts to create discrimination. However, when a subject is ascribed more than one of these less-than-human identities, their associated oppressions intra-act, resulting in harsher and more violent forms of discrimination. 

From this point on, we will use the sociological study of HIV/AIDS and the impact this has on social relationships as a model for discussing SHEVA and the discrimination faced by SHEVA patients. Bear links SHEVA to HIV/AIDS in his afterword when discussing his interest in Human Endogenous Retroviruses (HERV). He states that scientific research changes fast, but he read about the role that HIV developed in combination with HERV to potentially mutate to be resistant to potent drugs. It is safe to say then that the HIV pandemic, given its biological interaction with HERV, acted as a model for Bear’s fictional virus (Bear Afterword). 

 HIV scholarship has established that one of the many causes of mass death during the pandemic was, and still is, the stigma around being infected (Loufty et al. 1). This stigma is supported by the popularly accepted dualistic binary of infected/uninfected, which in turn is part of the larger binary of healthy/ unhealthy, able/disabled (Hanass-Hancock). HIV/AIDS patients have also said that sociological stigmatisation stems from a cultural mark associated with the disclosure of infection (Earnshaw et al 1160-1178). This mark is invisible, therefore, conceptual. However, Bear literalises this through SHEVA’s pathology and his patient’s marks. The sociological impact of SHEVA closely follows the model of the fallout from the HIV pandemic. Many disability scholars classify HIV/AIDS as a disability based on its impairment of the body to the point of inability to labour, produce, and consume in the expected and desired manner. We class the SHEVA infection as a disability because it has the same effect – human bodies cannot labour and reproduce in the expected and desired manner; their process of labour is different, incompatible with the uniformity that capitalism requires to function.

While it is problematic that Bear only conveys such struggles through one character who is taken to embody them, Delia’s placement in the narrative allows readers access to the experience of other injustices relating to intersectional discrimination present in societies operating under systems of neoliberal capitalism. Delia is a young, Black, and homeless SHEVA mother who meets the protagonists through hitch-hiking with her friends. Her bi-racial heritage and visible SHEVA marks create an intersectional discrimination borne of both racism and ableism. Black women with HIV have identified that their source of comfort and support about their diagnosis and all it entails are their families and other Black women with HIV (Melton et al 300). Assuming similar circumstances for SHEVA patients, the fact that Delia is with her two white friends demonstrates that she is removed from adequate comfort and support.

“’The girl’s face was blotched and mottled, as if splattered with reddish-brown paint […] “Delia was pregnant, but her baby was born dead,” he said. “She got some skin problems because of it.”’ […] “He was a white boy,” Morgan continued, […] “and Delia is partly black.” […] “I am black,” Delia said […] “[he] said she was making him sick” [..] The pattern of demelanized, teardrop-shaped dapples, [were] mostly on her cheeks with several symmetrical patches at the corners of her eyes and lips. As she turned away from Kaye, the marks shifted and darkened. “They’re like freckles,” Delia said hopefully. “I get freckles sometimes. It’s my white blood, I guess.” (Bear 295)

There is also a triple layer of privilege being exercised by Delia’s boyfriend when her situation is analysed through the lens of intersectionality (Walby et al 240). His assumption of being able to hit her is based on a history of American acceptance of publicly sanctioned white violence against Black people, the conflation of her infection with genetic pollution, and reproductive sexism. Bear states that men’s bodies are most likely the vectors of infection. However, women are still blamed for the spread of SHEVA, due to patriarchal views about feminine bodies and sexual morality. Therefore, Delia’s apparently unhealthy SHEVA body infects and supposedly feminises her boyfriend by placing him in the ‘passive’ position of receiver. The loss of privilege that comes from having his white, able-bodied, masculine identity challenged leads to him projecting his anxiety and aggression onto Delia in a violent outburst. Delia’s boyfriend fits the identity categories Braidotti notes as being at the top of a hierarchy of ontological worth. His loss of this privilege (losing this status) leads to his violent attack against Delia, believing her infection to be the source of this loss.This paper has examined the responses to a pandemic crisis scenario in Darwin’s Radio by examining the networked intra-action of different social forces and their biopolitical and necropolitical consequences by analysing Bear’s use of NOSS. It has observed the linkages between Bear’s critique of biopolitics and a latent critique of capitalism, as well as the links between SHEVA and HIV, signifiers of discrimination, and institutionalised eugenic practices. Finally, it has demonstrated how Bear utilises characters such as Delia to represent the effects of such intra-actions at a personal level, as well as how neoliberal pandemic responses intensify the injustices suffered by already vulnerable members of the population. The focus on networks and the social phenomena they produce within Bear’s text gives us a critical framework with which to analyse and better evaluate the impacts of existing equivalents, such as the fallout from the Covid-19 pandemic.


[1] Posthumanism is a non-anthropocentric and post-dualistic critical methodology. For further definitions of Posthumanism, see Braidotti and Ferrando, but early expressions of this thinking are present in the work of Haraway. Feminist New Materialism critically engages with systems of entanglements and non-anthropocentric agency. For further definitions of Feminist New Materialism see Coole and Frost and Barad.

[2] Significant modern SF primarily discusses the political, psychological, and anthropological use and effect of scientific knowledge. For more details see Suvin. Metamorphoses of Science Fiction: On the Poetics and History of a Literary Genre pages 14-15.

[3] Public-Private Partnerships (PPP) are a key component of neoliberalism. See Roehrich. Lewis, and Gerard, 2014, pages 110-119; Philip and Sawyer, 2005, pages 199-208. For more details on PPP and the pharmaceutical industry, see Sekerka and Benishek, 2018, pages  113-141.

[4]  For the use of ‘autonomy’ in neoliberalism, see Sinha, 2005, pages 163 and 166; for rationalism and individualism, see Munck, 2005, pages 61 and 64.

[5] Braidotti quotes Todorov’s Imperfect Garden: The Legacy of Humanism, 2002, as a key text that informs her definition of liberal humanism. For details on liberal humanism, see Todorov.


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Bear, Greg. Darwin’s Radio. Harper Collins Ltd. 1999. 

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—– Posthuman Knowledge, 1st ed. Polity, 2019.

Earnshaw, Valerie A. Stephanie R. Chaudoir, ‘From Conceptualizing to Measuring HIV Stigma: A Review of HIV Stigma Mechanism Measures’. AIDS and Behavior. Vol. 13, 2009. pp. 1160-1177.

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Foucault, Michel. Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison. Trans. Alan Sheridan. Penguin Books, 1975. 

—– The History of Sexuality. Vol 1. Trans. Robert Hurley. Pantheon Books, 1976. 

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Turner, David M. Kirsti Bohata, and Steven Thompson. ‘Introduction to Special Issue: Disability, Work and Representation: New Perspectives’. Disability Studies Quarterly. Vol. 37, No. 4, 2017. pp. 1-6.

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Ben Horn’s project examines selected science fiction texts (both long and short form) by Philip K. Dick through the lens of ‘Speculative Realist’ philosophy. Drawing on thinkers such as Graham Harman, Ray Brassier and Timothy Morton, his work examines how Dick’s fiction critiques post-Kantian ‘correlationist’ philosophy (Meillassoux, 2007). His interest in ontology, genre fiction, and science has developed since his undergraduate dissertation. His project is supervised by two literary critics, one trained in phenomenology, the other in post-humanism. He is a fellow of the English PEN society, has participated in the ‘Anthropocenes’ and ‘Productive Futures’ conferences, and co-organised the ‘Speculative Futures’ event at the university of Birmingham (£200). He has co-authored a chapter for the upcoming book, Posthuman Pathogenesis with Jayde Martin and presented with her at the 2021 ‘Living in the End Times’ conference. He has likewise given seminars on the topic of science fiction, futurity, and crisis. He was an affiliate of the Centre for Digital Cultures During his undergraduate degree, he was awarded a Royal Holloway bursary and his work has been published in Foundation and Fantastika. He is also co-founder of the University of Birmingham Contemporary Theory Reading Group (CTRL Network).

Jayde Martin is a UKRI funded PhD student at the University of Birmingham. She has also been previously awarded a research grant for her MA in Literature and Culture. Her thesis analyses the representations of genetic science in feminist science-fiction by three authors: Octavia Butler, Nancy Kress, and Margaret Atwood. She uses posthumanist and transhumanist philosophy as a critical framework within her project. She has a special interest in the capability of science-fiction to act as a form of popular science communication. She has organised and chaired a panel on the importance of humanities methodologies in science and technology studies at the Nordic STS conference in 2019. Alongside this, she has co-founded two research networks These are the Central Posthumanism Research Network, and the Midlands Network of Popular Culture. She has previously contributed to the field of object-oriented research; her work explored museology as a key component of science (mis)communication. Her article Gender Identity: Friedrich Ziegler’s (1850-1920) Wax Models has been published in the journal Midlands Art Papers. She has co-authored a chapter for the upcoming book, Posthuman Pathogenesis with Ben Horn and presented with him at the 2021 ‘Living in the End Times’ conference.

Dreaming as Pharmakon in Larissa Lai’s “Salt Fish Girl” and Cherie Dimaline’s “The Marrow Thieves”

SFRA Review, vol. 51, no. 2

Symposium: Living in the End Times

Dreaming as Pharmakon in Larissa Lai’s “Salt Fish Girl” and Cherie Dimaline’s “The Marrow Thieves”

Özlem Öğüt Yazıcıoğlu and Allison Mackey

Stories are wondrous things. And they are dangerous […] Want a different ethic? Tell a different story.

Thomas King, The Truth About Stories (11, 124)

Larissa Lai and Cherie Dimaline, Canadian authors of Chinese and Métis descent, respectively, interweave in their writing different epistemologies that inform their complex cultural heritage— understood as rational, Western, and scientific on the one hand, and embodied, Indigenous and/or mythological, on the other. While dismantling the hierarchical dichotomies of the Western cultural tradition, they also avoid ethnocentric or nationalist essentialism that would generate new forms of exclusion. Rather, both authors’ critical engagements with colonial history signal what indigenous feminist critic Zoe Todd calls “a reciprocity of thinking” that requires us to pay attention to who else is “speaking alongside us” (19). By employing native myths and storytelling traditions, Lai and Dimaline show how the historical memories saved in myths and stories, as well as the processes of their transmission through oral and graphic modes of communication, can open vistas beyond dominant white anthropo- and andro-centric paradigms. While we have adopted a central metaphor from one of the seminal texts of the Western philosophical canon, Plato’s Phaedrus, as revisited by Jacques Derrida in “Plato’s Pharmacy”— namely, the figure of the pharmakon as simultaneously poison and remedy—for our discussion of dreams in Lai’s Salt Fish Girl (2002) and Dimaline’s The Marrow Thieves (2017), our intention is not to impose a Western philosophical framework on the novels’ presentation of myths, stories, and dreams, but instead to show what new perspectives they can bring to the dominant frameworks that have marginalized them.

Derrida’s unconventional reading of the Phaedrus is centered around the irony that Socrates, as representative of the Western logocentric tradition, rejects the value of writing by resorting to myth which he had also dismissed in the name of truth and (self-) knowledge. The “kinship of writing and myth” (Derrida 75) thus established gains new perspectives in the novels of Lai and Dimaline, who weave elements from oral cultures into their textual web in ways that traverse the boundaries of dream and reality, past and present, and body and story. Both of these novels feature the conceptual framework of dreaming as pharmakon, understood as both disease and cure. In each case, the “illness” stems from an exploitation of human and (hybrid) non-human bodies within capitalist systems of resource extraction that brings society to the brink of collapse. 

Throughout Derrida’s essay, the recurrence of metaphors such as “texture,” “textile,” “loom,” and “web” entwine text with body and matter, neither being reducible to the other, which shift the focus from the subject of the cogito to the body caught in a process of re-inscription. The text emerges as an organism, “indefinitely regenerating its own tissue behind the cutting trace,” since “[t]here is always a surprise in store for the anatomy or physiology of any criticism that might think it has mastered the game, surveyed all the threads at once” (63). This idea of text as an inexhaustible resource that can never be fully consumed is reflected in Lai and Dimaline’s open-ended novels that, as in Alison Ravenscroft’s description of Indigenous textualities, make “cuts” in language that unsettle the Western sovereign subject and call for a move from the lexicon of ‘hold’ and ‘grasp’ and ‘apprehend’ toward something more liminal, provisional, tentative, experimental” (358). These novels not only resist monological readings, but they also signal boundless possibilities for bodies and minds to escape from oppression and reconfigure ways to survive and thrive.[1]

As Patrisia Gonzales writes, “For many Indigenous cultures, dreams are both the site of knowledge and a way of knowing, as well as a method for organizing experience, interpreting data, and diagnosing illness and imbalance” (171). Dreaming, as both remembrance of a mythical past and (re)imagination of the future, emerges in both novels as pharmakon for capitalist systems of resource extraction. It compels one to “stray from one’s general, natural, habitual paths and laws” (Derrida 70) so as to challenge the status quo which, in both novels, is maintained through the exploitation of human or (hybrid) non-human bodies. The novels, which end with escape, rebellion, and/or revolt, feature the body as the locus of the (hi)story of the past, and of visions or stories about the future, both of which are associated with dreaming. 

In Salt Fish Girl, a dreaming epidemic leaks the past into the present, evoking vivid “memories” and driving sufferers to commit suicide by drowning; in The Marrow Thieves, the non-Indigenous population has lost the ability to dream, driving them to harvest the dreams from the bone marrow of a people for whom dreams have a spiritual and cultural significance. Evoking Derrida’s textual webs, dreams are understood as a story that is materially written upon (or coded within) the body. As Migwaans states in The Marrow Thieves, “Dreams get caught in the webs woven in your bones. That’s where they live, in that marrow there” (Dimaline 19), while in Salt Fish Girl, the body is understood as a “language,” as evidenced in Dr. Flowers’ “dissections on TV” where he “rearranges the organs of the afflicted” (Lai 76). Heather Latimer suggests that Lai’s novel connects “the creation of new bodies” via new reproductive technologies to the “creation of new texts” and to “new myths and stories of origin” (125). The kind of “experimentation” that is linked with the scientific methods in the novels—for example, the “Department of Oneirology” (Dimaline 4) in The Marrow Thieves, or Rudy Flowers’ laboratory in Salt Fish Girl—proves insufficient for grasping or apprehending the dreaming sickness.

In both novels, dreaming is associated with disease. At the same time, however, in each case dreaming also provides an impetus for resistance against exploitation and for new and affirmative re-conceptualizations of life and social existence. The dreaming disease cannot be prevented by rational medical methods, but necessitate a re-appraisal of conceptions of health and healing.  The novels feature dreaming as pharmakon, namely, as a means to recuperate difficult or painful memories and histories, and as a source of inspiration to imagine alternative ways of engaging with the world and others. Like the difficult yet necessary migrations that each of the characters undergoes, dreaming removes one from the safety of one’s habitual context; yet, despite the discomfort that such dreaming provokes, it nevertheless appears as a force for configuring less violent futures.2

Lai and Dimaline suggest possibilities for decolonizing imaginaries by revisiting the significance of dreams and stories and linking them to speculative postcapitalist and dystopian contexts. Both novels imagine possibilities offered by non-dominant cultures’ conceptions of dreaming and being that cut across bodies and stories, underscoring the transformative potential of oral, written, and graphic “texts.” Native myths and stories, as well as dreams, are embedded in the embodied lives of the characters and constitute the very forces that compel them to cross zones and transgress boundaries as they attempt to escape from the sickness of post-capitalist dystopias, in order to forge new and inclusive communal bonds. However, far from making a call to revert back to some kind of pure (Chinese or Indigenous) origin, or presenting a universal idea of hybridity as the defining feature of diasporic or colonial experience, the novels contest ethnocentric, nationalist, and universalist claims of identity, by foregrounding the singularity of each diasporic experience as an antidote to toxic monocultures. 

In Salt Fish Girl, the stories of the three incarnations of Nu Wa reflect the fraught history of colonial and diasporic experience in three different contexts. In the futuristic Ontario landscape of The Marrow Thieves, after the “world’s edges had been clipped by the rising waters, tectonic shifts, and constant rains,” the non-Indigenous population of North America have “stopped reproducing without the doctors, and worst of all, they stopped dreaming. Families, loved ones, were torn apart in this new world” (28). The loss of the ability to dream—understood as a “plague of madness” (53)—is intricately linked to the breakdown in relationships to kin, to community, and to land. This relationality has been lost in a society that has cultivated an extractivist relationship to the earth that sustains its very being. This is the same suicidal culture that now wants to retrieve the ability to dream by sending “Recruiters” to capture fleeing Indigenous populations and extract the dreaming from the marrow of their bones. 

In both novels, the dreaming sickness is connected to dystopian visions of dominant society, whose survival is deemed impossible without relying on capitalist systems that feed off the bodies of “peoples of the so-called Third World, aboriginal peoples, and people in danger of extinction” (Lai 160). The corporate compounds in Salt Fish Girl depend on the labour of factory workers with brown eyes and black hair, just as the dominant Canadian population in Dimaline’s novel depends on the harvesting of bone marrow from Indigenous peoples. In both cases, as a direct result of the dominant society’s alienated and destructive relationship to the earth, survival is impossible without the bodily exploitation of Indigenous and/or cloned populations. 

While the scientific methods of resource extraction have failed to ensure a sustainable existence in Dimaline’s dystopia, Lai presents a similar image of landscapes in the process of being destroyed: the dreaming sickness slowly reaches “the point of epidemic” (71) at first in the Unregulated Zone (85), but eventually even in the walled corporate compounds which, despite their relative affluence, cannot escape “danger of infiltration from the ground, the danger of attack from the land itself, fighting back” (244). This pandemic indicates an impasse in dominant technocratic culture as the logical end point to scientific rationalism. Yet the ideology and practices of the privileged few are self-defeating, given that continuing along the lines of the status quo will only bring inevitable self-destruction. Likewise, the extraction of Indigenous dreams in The Marrow Thieves is an unsustainable solution to the problems of the white population since they are, after all, destroying the very people whose dreams they need for their survival. 

Sonia Villegas-Lopez notes the way Lai’s novel engages with bodies that have been “besieged by the effects of globalization, capitalism, and scientific engineering,” and with “the means devised by diseased, hybrid, and queer bodies to rebel against social, sexual, and ethnic homogenization” (27). Lai’s character Miranda reworks her mother’s song lyrics and her own artwork in order to produce a series of graphic designs and slogans to sell brand-name running shoes, at the same time collaborating with her girlfriend, Evie—one of the cloned factory workers known as “Sonias”—who is trying to subvert the same exploitative capitalist system that gradually reveals itself to be the real sickness in the novel. This is a disease that cannot be cured without attending to the dream-memories that are driving people to suicide.  Understanding this suicidal drive in line with the toxic lack of dreaming in The Marrow Thieves, we might suggest that disease is linked to a blindness or refusal to confront difficult histories.[3] In this way, Miranda and the Sonias’ willingness to “embrace the contagion” (189) represents a potential threat to the dominant corporate structure, specifically by recuperating alternative histories in order to imagine alternative futures, just as in The Marrow Thieves, where the colonial system is “torn down by the words of a dreaming old lady” who “called on her blood memory, her teachings, her ancestors” and “brought the whole thing down” (Dimaline 172, 173). 

As pharmakon—which, like any technology, has both positive and negative potentials—the dreaming illnesses are ambivalent but hopeful conditions. Likewise, the act of writing itself is figured as a risk, albeit a potentially transformative one, in both novels. Each narrative draws attention to a complex dialogue between the oral and the written in the tension between “official” writing (contracts, books, legal documents) and more relational stories, songs, dreams, and graphic engravings, which are cast as potentially revolutionary. For example, the fact that Miranda is seduced into signing a legally binding contract commercializing her mother’s songs (Lai 239) does not diminish the creative potential of her drawings and oral memory, which are at the same time rooted in the body (91). The revolutionary slogans inscribed by the Sonias on the soles of the “sabot” shoes they produce in sweatshops “left a textual imprint behind” (237) as a form of “economic sabotage” (246). Given that some of the imprints “told the stories of individual Sonias’ lives, some were inscribed with factory workers’ poems, some with polemics, some with drawings” (248), this act of sabotage is simultaneously an act of communal storytelling.[4] 

Also like the Sonias and their sabot/age shoes, the revolutionaries in The Marrow Thieves understand the paradoxically limiting and liberating role of writing, supplementing their traditional oral storytelling with the use of graphic signs, in the form of engravings on trees and the “syllabics” of written language (155) in order to communicate with one other and organize the resistance. At the same time, they are well aware of writing as dangerous techné, as in the genocidal residential schools based on the “book that was like a vacuum, used to suck the language right out of your lungs” (107), not to mention that other book that regulates virtually every aspect of Indigenous life in Canada, the Indian Act.5 “They turned to history to show them how to best keep us warehoused, how to best position the culling,” says Migwaans, and the new schools were set up when “they had found a way to siphon the dreams right out of our bones” (89). This dystopic dream culling is just a (less metaphorical) version of the cannibalistic tactics of ongoing colonization.

The powerful legacy of song in Salt Fish Girl can be compared to the “key” of the old language, as linked to Minerva’s and others’ dreaming, in The Marrow Thieves. Central to the narrative is the articulation of individual memory through the telling of the “coming-to” stories of the protagonists: Migwaans remarks, “Everyone’s creation story is their own” (79). Yet, at the same time, these stories together constitute “Story” in a collective sense. The fugitives share memories, dreams, and visions, and the individual and communal stories of those who are lost along the way are preserved in the texture and textile of Story, as it is reshaped by each new addition to the community. The Canadian government’s techno-extractivist approach to Oneirology is set against Indigenous dream narratives and the sharing and interpretation of stories. Frenchie feels “sorry for a minute for the others, the dreamless ones” (19) who are disconnected from collective memory. In a sense, the most dangerous illness comes from living a hyper-individualized existence, instead of forming an integral part of “metaphors and stories wrapped in stories” (20) of communal history. Woven into the diasporic memories of individuals from various nations and backgrounds, “Story” emerges as a store of memories of individual and communal history, in a dynamic co-creative process that envisions time as a continuum in a constant re-inscription of the past.

In both novels, dreams are carved within memory and passed on through stories, songs and poetry, and as such constitute a source to healing through emerging forms of kinship and community that cut across boundaries of various kinds. Importantly, both novels foreground the idea of communal futurity in hybrid and non-heteronormative terms. At the end of The Marrow Thieves, Frenchie chooses to leave his biological father behind in order to make a home for himself with his chosen family; even though this decision in large part depends on his feelings for Rose, the narrative (narrowly) avoids following a heteronormative model by conclusing with a powerful vision of same-sex love. As Indigenous scholar Kim TallBear suggests, colonial nation-building projects continue to impose a (heteronormative and monogamous) nuclear family model upon the vibrant webs of family relations in Indigenous communities. In this respect, (open-) endings that prominently feature reconfigured kinship networks present an important challenge to the shaping of population in a colonial mold by the settler state.

As Villegas-Lopez argues, in Salt Fish Girl Lai proposes “a new ontology of the body that fosters productive and enriching readings of interbreeding, same sex relationships, and cyborg politics” that suggest ways to “imagine worlds in which body technologies have made it possible to think differently about sexual relations and to go beyond heteronormativity” (28).  The Sonias are able to “seize reproductive power and change their abject origins, creating a redemptive space and a female community” (Latimer 131). By implanting human genes into the fruit of the durian tree the Sonias are able to take control of their own futures: 

We are the new children of the earth, of the earth’s revenge. Once we stepped out of mud, now we step out of moist earth, out of DNA both new and old, an imprint of what has gone before, but also a variation. By our difference we mark how ancient the alphabet of our bodies. By our strangeness we write our bodies into the future. (Lai 259)

Even though the Sonias and their babies are destroyed, the novel ends with the birth of Miranda and Evie’s baby girl in the hot springs of the Rocky Mountains. Latimer suggests that “although it involves a womb birth,” this “reproduction is both human and technological without being paternal” (132).  Not unlike “the seeds of the durian tree” which are “not quite organic, not quite technological,” this “is a birth that acknowledges how the creation of new cyborg bodies through innovative reproductive technologies might lead to the creation of new myths and new ways of imagining and representing the world” (132). The setting is also important: the birth occurs close to the Burgess Shale (Lai 160), where some of our oldest non-human, ocean-dwelling ancestors are quite literally written on the earth: “the ancient imprint of their bodies to sleep beneath ice and snow, smelling faintly of salt. Here they lay on this dry, cold ocean, dead or dreaming, I couldn’t quite tell” (268).  This nod to the fossil record at the very end of the novel resonates with the idea of “making kin” in Haraway’s sense, as a “flourishing for rich multispecies assemblages that include people” (160), and thus not only decenters the heterosexual family as the norm, but opens the notion of kinship to include non-human others.

As a “key” (Dimaline 227) to accessing the future through a re-inscription of the past, dreams signal the recuperation of individual and communal history, while at the same time refusing to idealize any kind of essentialist or “pure” origin. In his reading of the Salt Fish Girl, Nicolas Birns aptly remarks that Lai not only offers no return to prelapsarian purity, but also stresses that “hybridities can be radically different from each other” (163). Similarly, Sabine Sharp makes use of Lily Cho’s notion of “diasporic solidarity” to identify in Salt Fish Girl an “affirmative politics wherein a monstrous collective of marginalized voices attends to the entangled histories of racialized and gendered oppression” (226). In both novels, there is a certain skepticism toward “purity” in a biological as well as a cultural sense: Evie tells Miranda, “I’m not human…. I am a new life form” (Lai 258); Frenchie carries the complex mixed history of Métis ancestry; Rose’s father is black; the Guyanese nurses are important allies; and one of the most important “keys” to resistance and survival is Isaac, who is part European but nonetheless dreams in Cree. 

Gonzales suggests that “dreaming is a simultaneous co-creative process that involves the bodyspiritland and life-moving powers in which there may or may not be borders between flesh, mind, spirit, cosmos, or place” (172). The Marrow Thieves concludes with its young protagonist finally understanding that “as that as long as there are dreamers left, there will never be want for a dream … I understood just what we would do for each other, just what we would do for the ebb and pull of the dream, the bigger dream that held us all. Anything. Everything” (231).  Dreaming is the only way that broken relationships to land, as well as to human and non-human others, can begin to be repaired: Migwaans suggests that “when we heal our land, we are healed also…maybe not soon, but eventually” (193). Minerva’s last words to Frenchie are “Kiwen,” which means “you must always go home” (211). Apart from signaling the importance of connectedness to land (as well as land claims) for Indigenous communities in Canada, the narrative suggests a more general necessity of going home to a certain relationship to the earth itself, to the cycles of nature, to the land as our dwelling place. 

Lai and Dimaline engage with the notion that storytelling and myth are both necessary and dangerous, painful, and liberatory. In contrast to diseased extractive ideologies, the novels showcase the creative, (re)generative, and renewing potential of stories oriented towards the future, without turning their backs on the baggage of the past as well as the present. As Christopher B. Teuton argues, stories “enable us to create our worlds” (xii), while at the same time they are “a source of reflection on the responsibilities of being” (xiii). The ability to dream is the ability to imagine the future in a speculative sense: the interwoven stories of the characters in these novels highlight the importance of telling different kinds of stories in order to imagine that healthier futures might still be possible.


[1] In Salt Fish Girl, material/bodily traces are texts that invite further reading but will never be fully deciphered by existing paradigms. For example, the durian seed holds within it the secret code for life in the past- present-and-future of the novel: “a pearl in the mouth…something cool and precious to lay in the cavity from which speech comes. The dark and empty rooting place of language. A pearl, a seed, how little space it takes to record all that is essential to know about life” (Lai 206).

[2] The significance of a change in setting —the characters’ movements to and from the Unregulated Zone in Salt Fish Girl, and from the city to the forest in The Marrow Thieves— reflects Derrida’s observations about the significance of the geographical space in which Socrates felt the need to refer to myths. The river outside of Athens where he and Phaedrus sit and converse is the same river where one the myth of Pharmacia had allegedly taken place. In Salt Fish Girl, for example, Miranda would not have met Evie if her family had not been exiled from Serendipity; at the same time, she would not have been born if her father had not secretly brought the durian from the Unregulated Zone.

[3] Miranda herself does not register her affliction as negative: “I did not think of myself as a child afflicted by history, unable to escape its delights or its torments” (70). In fact, despite her father’s deep shame, she says, “I did not feel unwell” (167).  On the contrary, she says, “my dreams comforted me. I dreamt often of the sea, but not of drowning” (168). For Miranda, the disease brings back ancient memories of humans’ evolutionary history, and this lineage is heightened in the novel by the presence of the cloned Sonias who share their DNA with “freshwater carp” (158).

[4] This act of sabotage is, in turn, re-absorbed within the capitalist system, when the “memory-proof soles” are advertised by Pallas as “protection from the dreaming disease” (Lai 244). The Marrow Thieves similarly problematizes the dangers of the cultural assimilation of that which is potentially transformative: “At first, people turned to Indigenous people the way the New Agers had, all reverence and curiosity, looking for ways we could help guide them,” but quickly they looked “for ways they could take what we had and administer it themselves. How could they best appropriate the uncanny ability we kept to dream? How could they make ceremony better, more efficient, more economical?” (Dimaline 88). The problematic appropriation of Indigenous knowledge is also reflected in Salt Fish Girl: the building in the mountains was designed by a “Native architect,” “as though purchasing her labour would somehow connect their project to the land” (Lai 267).

[5] The almost complete loss of language for Indigenous people in Canada echoes Nu Wa’s experience on the Island of Mist and Forgetfulness, where she acquires the “gift of speech” “albeit at the expense of” her “native tongue” (132)—not to mention her kinship, culture, and community.


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Derrida, Jacques. Dissemination. Translated by Barbara Johnson, University of Chicago Press, 1981.

Dimaline, Cherie. The Marrow Thieves. Cormorant Books, 2017.

Gonzales, Patrisia. Red Medicine: Traditional Indigenous Rites of Birthing and Healing. The University of Arizona Press, 2012.

Haraway, Donna. “Anthropocene, Capitalocene, Plantationocene, Chthulucene: Making Kin.” Environmental Humanities, vol. 6, 2015, pp. 159-165.

King, Thomas. The Truth About Stories: A Native Narrative (CBC Massey Lectures). House of Anansi Press, 2002.

Lai, Larissa. Salt Fish Girl. Toronto: Thomas Allen Publishers, 2002. 

Latimer, Heather. Reproductive Acts: Sexual Politics in North American Fiction and Film. McGill-Queens UP, 2013.  

Ravenscroft, Alison. “Strange Weather: Indigenous Materialisms, New Materialism, and Colonialism.” Cambridge Journal of Postcolonial Literary Inquiry, vol. 5, no. 3, 2018, pp. 353–370.

Sharp, Sabine Ruth. “Salt Fish Girl and ‘Hopeful Monsters’: Using Monstrous Reproduction to Disrupt Science Fiction’s Colonial Fantasies” Contemporary Women’s Writing, vol. 13, no. 2, 2019, pp. 222-241.

TallBear, Kim. “The Emergence, Politics, and Marketplace of Native American DNA.” The Routledge Handbook of Science, Technology and Society, edited by Daniel Lee Kleinman and Kelly Moore, Routledge, 2014, pp. 21-37.

Teuton, Christopher B. Deep Waters: The Textual Continuum in American Indian Literature. University of Nebraska Press, 2010.

Todd, Zoe. “An Indigenous Feminist’s Take on The Ontological Turn: ‘Ontology’ Is Just Another Word for Colonialism.” Journal of Historical Sociology, vol. 29, no. 1, 2016, pp. 4-22.

Villegas-Lopez, Sonia. “Body Technologies: Posthuman Figurations in Larissa Lai’s Salt Fish Girl and Jeanette Winterson’s The Stone Gods.” Critique: Studies in Contemporary Fiction, vol. 56, no. 1, 2015, pp. 26-41.

Özlem Öğüt Yazıcıoğlu is Associate Professor in the Department of Western Languages and Literatures at Boğaziçi University, Istanbul. She holds a Ph.D in Comparative Literature from Purdue University. Her areas of research include modern and contemporary fiction, postcolonial literature, gender and ethnic studies, ecocriticism and critical animal studies. She authored a book titled Major Minor Literature: Animal and Human Alterity (Simurg, 2017). Her most recent publications include an article titled “Dressing the Cuts of the Past, Seaming a Glocal Future in Louis Erdrich’s Tracks and Zakes Mda’s The Heart of Redness”  (JLS 2018), and two book chapters co-authored with Ezgi Hamzacebi:  “Writing Beyond the Species Boundary: Bilge Karasu’s The Garden of Departed Cats and Sema Kaygusuz’ Wine and Gold” in Animals, Plants, and Landscapes: An Ecology of Turkish Literature and Film (Routledge, 2019), and “Precarious Lives of Animals and Humans through the Lens of Contemporary Turkish Literature” in Turkish Ecocriticism: From Neolithic to Contemporary Timescapes (Lexington Books, 2021). She chaired the organizing committee of the Interdisciplinary Ecological-Ethical Encounters Conference series held at Boğaziçi University in 2017, 2018 and 2019.

Allison Mackey is Professor of English Literature at the Universidad de la República, Uruguay, and Research Associate in the Department of English at University of the Free State, South Africa. Her research interests straddle the areas of human rights & literature, postcolonial literary & cultural studies, and environmental humanities, focusing on ethics/aesthetics/affect from feminist, queer, and critical posthuman(ist) perspectives. She has published her work in a selection of international peer-reviewed journals. As founding member of her university’s environmental humanities research group, she is currently co-editing a special issue of Tekoporá: Latin American Journal of Environmental Humanities and Territorial Studies, on “Writing Environment, landscape and territory: ecocriticism and cultural studies in South America.”