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.


“2020 Speech from the Throne –”, 2 Oct. 2020. Accessed 29 Mar. 2021.

Ahmed, Sara. “Feminist Killjoys (And Other Willful Subjects).” Scholar & Feminism Online.     Vol. 8, No. 3, Summer 2010, Accessed 22 Feb. 2021. 

—–. “Killing Joy: Feminism and the History of Happiness.” Signs, Vol. 35, No. 3, Spring 2010, Accessed 22 Feb. 2021.

—–. “The Politics of Good Feeling.” ACRAWSA (Australian Critical Race and Whiteness Studies Association) e-journal, Vol. 4, No. 1, 2008. Accessed 22 Feb 2021, ISSN 1832-3898.

—–. The Promise of Happiness. Duke UP, 2010.

Alberro, Heather. “In the Shadow of Death: Loss, hope and radical environmental activism in the Anthropocene.” Exchanges: The Interdisciplinary Research Journal, Vol. 8, No. 2, Winter 2021: Special Issue: Climate Fiction. Accessed 3 Mar. 2021.

Berlant, Lauren. Cruel Optimism. Duke UP, 2001. 

Braidotti, Rosi. “Self-styling one’s life, self-styling one’s death.” Posthuman Ethics, Pain and     Endurance (How to Live an Anti-Fascist Life and Endure the Pain), Utrecht Summer School, 24 Aug. 2018, Utrecht University, NL. Lecture.

“Build Back Stronger – Canada’s Official Opposition.” Conservative Party of Canada, Accessed 12 Jan. 2021.

Casselman, Anne Shibata. “Environmental Disaster Is Canada’s New Normal. Are We Ready?” The Walrus, Environment, 27 Mar 2020.    canadas-new-normal-are-we-ready/. Accessed 16 Feb 2021. 

Danisch, Robert. “Conservatives need to wake up: Public health is not a matter of personal     freedom, it’s the government’s job.” The Globe and Mail, Opinion, 9 Feb 2021, Accessed 16 Feb 2021. 

Dawson, Tyler. “A short history of Justin Trudeau’s scandal-plagued Liberal government.” The National Post, News, 21 Oct. 2020. Accessed 16 Feb 2021.

Edelman, Lee. No Future: Queer Theory and the Death Drive. Duke UP, 2004.

Jameson, Fredric. “The Future as Disruption.” Archaeologies of the Future: The Desire Called Utopia and Other Science Fictions. Verso, 2007, pp. 211-33.

MacGregor, Hannah and Eugenia Zuroski. “Episode 4.30 Thinking Intergenerationally Toward a Future with Eugenia Zuroski.” Secret Feminist Agenda, 4 Dec. 2020, Accessed 12 Jan. 2021.

More, Thomas, and Dominic Baker-Smith. Utopia. Penguin Books, 2012.

Morton, Timothy. Hyperobjects: Philosophy and Ecology after the End of the World. U of Minnesota P, 2013. 

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

Muñoz, José Esteban. Cruising Utopia: the Then and There of Queer Futurity. New York UP, 2009.

“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.


Barad, Karen. Meeting the Universe Halfway. Duke University Press. 2007.

Barnett, Tully. ‘Remediating the Infected Body: Writing the Viral Self in Melinda Rackham’s “Carrier”. Biography Vol. 35, no. 1, 2012. pp. 45-64.

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

Braidotti, Rosi. The Posthuman. 1st ed. Polity. 2013.

—– 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.

Evans, Richard J. The Third Reich in Power 1933-1939. Penguin Press. 2005. 

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. 

Hanass-Hancock, Jill. Stephanie A Nixon. ‘The fields of HIV and disability: past, present and future.’ Journal of the International AIDS Society. Vol. 12, no. 8, 2009.

Haraway, Donna. ‘Cyborg Manifesto’. Manifestly Haraway. ed Cary Wolfe. University of Minnesota 2016. 

Hardt, Michael and Antonio Negri. Empire. New ed. Harvard University Press. 2005.

Lynch, Lisa. ‘”Not a Virus, but an Upgrade”: The Ethics of Epidemic Evolution in Greg Bear ‘s Darwin’s Radio’. Literature and Medicine. Vol. 20, no. 1, 2001, pp. 71-93.

Melton, Monica L. ‘Sex, Lies, and Stereotypes: HIV Positive Black Women’s Perspectives on HIV Stigma and the Need for Public Policy as HIV/AIDS Prevention Intervention’. Race, Gender & Class. Vol. 18, no. 1/2. 2011. 295-313. 

Mbembe, Achille. ‘Necropolitics’. Trans by Libby Meintjes. Public Culture. Vol. 15, no. 1, 2003. pp.11-40.

Mona R. Loufty, Carmen H. Logie, Yimeng Zhang, et al. People Living with HIV in Ontario, Canada’. PLoS ONE. 7. 12. 2012. pp. 1-10. 

Oliver, Michael J. ‘Capitalism, Disability and Ideology: A Materialist Critique of the Normalization Principle’. British Library Conference Proceedings. 1999. pp.1-24.

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.

Walby, Sylvia, Jo Armstrong, Sofia Strid. ‘Multiple Inequalities in Social Theory.’ Sociology Vol. 46, no. 2, 2012. pp. 224–240.

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.


Birns, Nicholas. “The Earth’s Revenge: Nature, Transfeminism and Diaspora in Larissa Lai’s Salt Fish Girl.” China Fictions/English Language: Literary Essays in Diaspora, Memory, Story, edited by A. Robert Lee, Brill, 2008.

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.”

Pandemics in Young Adult Dystopian Fiction: Rethinking the (Post)Human

SFRA Review, vol. 51, no. 2

Symposium: Living in the End Times

Pandemics in Young Adult Dystopian Fiction: Rethinking the (Post)Human

Tânia Cerqueira

Following the worldwide popularity of Suzanne Collins’s The Hunger Games trilogy (2008-2010), dystopian narratives took the young adult publishing world by storm. The  subsequent dystopian boom in young adult literature offered readers dreadful new worlds that emerged from the ashes of contemporary society after it was destroyed by violent wars, climate change, deadly contagious diseases, and the like.

As is widely understood (and some people still pretend to ignore), our society is currently facing an infectious disease that is straining the social order. Young adult dystopian literature has often represented the consequences of a pandemic – some of which consequences we are currently facing as a society today. From novels published at the beginning of this century, such as The Way We Fall by Megan Crewe (2002) and The Last Dog on Earth by Daniel Ehrenhaft (2003), to works like The Eleventh Plague by Jeff Hirsch (2011), Masque of the Red Death by Bethany Griffin (2012-2013), and This Mortal Coil by Emily Suvada (2017-2020), to highlight a few, this literature has explored the loss of human life, the paranoia caused by the fear of being infected, the struggle to find a cure, and how the infection (or the cure) can alter the human body – the body might evolve or retrogress, changing in ways such that it is no longer defined as human.

This essay discusses how pandemics and their effects on the human body are represented in recent young adult dystopian texts through the lens of posthuman studies. My analysis will focus on three young adult series: James Dashner’s The Maze Runner trilogy (2009-2011), Marissa Meyer’s The Lunar Chronicles (2012-2015), and Rory Power’s Wilder Girls (2019). In these works, the characters are confronted with the consequences of a viral outbreak, including zombie-like creatures and “unnatural” bodily changes. Due to these bodily changes, one can affirm that the infection provoked by the viral outbreak and/or cure creates posthuman bodies—bodies that threaten social norms by being different from the rule – forcing the reader to rethink what it actually means to be human and deconstructing the dominant idea implemented by the humanist worldview, where humanity is disconnected from the surrounding world.

A Definition of Posthumanism

During the Renaissance, a new vision about the human emerged, humanism. This new cosmovision “affirmed values of the individual and the right to self-determination” and “enshrined ‘Man’ as unique, the origin of all meaning, protagonist of History, the hegemonic measure of all things” (Knickerbocker 67). Thus, a new conception of the Human as an individual being with agency, responsible for his own destiny, reigned by reason, and as the centre of the universe emerged.[1] Moreover, Man built himself in opposition to nature, the Other, and what was considered to be monstrous. Then, humanism came to influence the construction of several binaries which are now, as the young adult dystopian novels under analysis will show, being questioned and challenged by posthuman studies.

In the last decades, there has been significant growth in the corpus of theoretical and critical posthuman studies. The following influential works on this philosophical perspective deserve our attention due to their own importance to this discussion. Firstly, N. Katherine Hayles’ How We Became Posthuman (1999), stresses a vision “of the human that embraces the possibilities of information, technologies […], and that understands human life is embedded in a material world of great complexity, one on which we depend for our continued survival” (5). Secondly, in What is Posthumanism? (2010), Cary Wolfe argues that posthumanism “isn’t posthuman at all—in the sense of being ‘after’ our embodiment has been transcended – but is only posthumanist, in the sense that it opposes the fantasies of disembodiment and autonomy, inherited from humanism itself” (xv, author’s emphasis), accentuating how posthumanism defies humanist notions. Finally, Pramod K. Nayar’s Posthumanism (2013) distinguishes “transhumanism” from “critical posthumanism” as two different types of posthumanism. The latter of these “seeks to move beyond the traditional humanist ways of thinking about the autonomous, self-willed individual agent in order to treat the human itself as an assemblage, co-evolving with other forms of life, enmeshed with the environment and technology” (13).[2]

Recent studies on posthumanism and children’s and young adult fiction use these critical works as a basis for further development, such as Victoria Flanagan’s Technology and Identity in Young Adult Fiction: The Posthuman Subject (2014), an exploration of the importance of posthumanism for adolescence identity formation, Zoe Jacque’s Children’s Literature and the Posthuman: Animal, Environment, Cyborg (2015), in which she defines posthumanism as “a new ontology which goes beyond the borders of our kind” (2), and Posthumanism in Young Adult Fiction: Finding Humanity in a Posthuman World (2018), edited by Anita Tarr and Donna R. White, a volume that gathers several essays in which we can find a multiplicity of definitions regarding the concept of “posthumanism.” Some definitions of the term contradict themselves, and such happens, as Tarr and White state, because posthumanism is not “a monolithic concept” (22).[3] In her essay collected in this volume, White claims that in the twenty-first century, to be posthuman signifies “to be more or less than human, but always means being different from human” (258). Although there is an assortment of definitions and ways to interpret this concept, the posthuman bodies under analysis are indeed more or less than human, but always different from what we tend to consider human.

The Maze Runner by James Dashner (2009-2011)

After massive solar flares ravaged the Earth and permanently changed the Earth’s climate and environment in Dashner’s The Maze Runner trilogy, human civilization was devastated. Realizing there would not be enough resources for all survivors, the Post-Flare Coalition began researching methods to control population growth; that is, scientists began researching procedures to painlessly exterminate a large number of people. During their research, the Coalition discovered the Flare. An airborne virus, the Flare “attacks the brain and shuts it down, painlessly. […] [It] was designed to slowly weaken in infection rate as it spreads from host to host” (Dashner, The Kill Order 282). However, the virus did not work as expected. Instead, it slowly “ate” away the brain of those who were infected, turning them into bloodthirsty and irrational beings with no memory of their past, who killed, tortured, and ate human flesh. Those infected by the Flare came to be known as Cranks.

 When Thomas, the protagonist of the trilogy, first faces a Crank, he is left with an uneasy feeling, describing the infected man as follows:

A man stood on the other side, gripping the bars with bloody hands. His eyes were wide and bloodshot, filled with madness. Sores and scars covered his thin, sun–burnt face. He had no hair, only diseased splotches of what looked like greenish moss. A vicious slit stretched across his right cheek; Thomas could see teeth through the raw, festering wound. Pink saliva dribbled in swaying lines from the man’s chin (Dashner, The Scorch Trials 15).

The Cranks evoke the figure of the zombie, a creature that is usually represented as a monster that leaks disgusting fluids, with parts of its body often missing, and which does not even seem to know what’s going on beyond the fact that it is hungry, pissed off, or both (Greene and Mohammad 13). In recent years, zombie-like creatures have been depicted as the result of viral outbreaks, biological warfare, or even of a vaccine created to treat a pandemic outbreak that deeply changes human biology.

After being infected by the Flare, the humans in The Maze Runner trilogy go through a decaying process. Just like the zombie, the Cranks rot and become walking bodies with no memories or cognitive capacity, ruled by their most primitive desires. By going through these bodily changes, the zombie-like Cranks deny humanism, revealing that the human being is not static and can retrogress into what is described as a primitive being—of course, this primeval transformation allows the Cranks to survive in a world that has become a wasteland, while humans find themselves close to extinction. Additionally, as Dale Knickerbocker claims, “In opposition to the free will and individualism held so dear by humanists, the zombie lacks autonomy and individual identity, each action exactly as its peers and thus functioning—literally unwittingly—as a collective” (68). Thus, by losing their memories, the Cranks, as the zombie, also lose their personality, disputing once again the humanist worldview by shattering the notion of individualism.

The Lunar Chronicles by Marissa Meyer (2012-2015)

In Marissa Meyer’s The Lunar Chronicles, a deadly pandemic, Letumosis, has killed millions of Earthens worldwide. This disease has four stages: the first stage is the incubation period in which nothing appears atypical; during the second stage, large boil-like patches in shades of blue appear on the skin; in the third stage, those who are infected become lethargic, unable to move or speak, and occasionally cough blood; in the final stage, the fingertips become tinged with blue due to lack of blood and oxygen. In New Beijing, the main setting of Cinder (2012), the ones infected are kept in a warehouse, taken care of by droids. When Cinder, the protagonist of the first novel, visits her step-sister, Peony, who was infected by Letumosis, she is faced with the dire conditions the sick live in: “the stench of excrement and rot reached out” and “flies had already caught on and filled the room with buzzing” (Meyer, Cinder 145-146). This pandemic was created in the laboratories of Luna, a country built on the moon’s surface.[4] The virus was created due to Levana’s, the queen of Luna, wish to control the Earth and enslave its inhabitants.

As observed throughout The Lunar Chronicles, Earthens and Lunars, the latter of whom are considered the Other, do not see eye to eye. They share a strong distrust and hatred, even though Lunars are descendants of human colonizers that travelled to the moon to advance space exploration. As Cinder explains, “Lunars were a society that evolved from an Earthen moon colony centuries ago, but they weren’t human anymore. People said Lunars could alter a person’s brain – make you see things you shouldn’t see, feel things you shouldn’t feel, do things you didn’t want to do” (Meyer, Cinder 43). Due to their DNA being damaged from prolonged exposure to ionizing radiation from cosmic rays, Lunars were genetically mutated and can manipulate bioelectricity – they can control other people’s minds and bodies. It can be stated that Lunars inhabit posthuman bodies – posthuman bodies that reaffirm the idea that the human is not static. Moreover, here we can see the reinforcement of the notion that what we usually consider a human body is the norm, upon which one can either retrogress, as the Cranks, or evolve, as the Lunars. Due to these abilities, the relationship between Earth and Luna was strained.

Before infecting the Earthens, Lunars developed a cure to Letumosis – yet despite the existing animosity between Earth and Luna, Lunars did not intend to exterminate humanity. Nevertheless, this cure requires the blood of Lunar shells, that is, Lunars that do not have the ability to manipulate bioelectricity. More precisely, the cure requires the platelets that can be found in their blood. Platelets contain mitochondrial DNA, which is a: 

form of DNA [that] consists of a tiny ring of hereditary material that actually lies outside the nucleus of the cell and is passed solely through the maternal line. It is not recombined between generations, as is nuclear DNA, and it seems to accumulate changes quite rapidly, which makes it ideal for analysis of recent evolutionary events (Tattersall, par. 7).

From the chimera-like monsters from ancient Greece to cinematic works such as The Fly (1986), one can perceive that there has always been an irrational fear about mixing the DNA of different species, a process seen as unnatural. This feeling of anxietymay be mostly to do with how it destabilises our perceived human uniqueness and undermines our own moral superiority” (Bastian, “The Uneasy Truth about Human-Animal Hybrids” par. 29). Thus, to survive, Earthens must take a cure in which one of the main components is the blood of the Other—their DNAs must be mixed.

Those who are cured do not go through physical changes—not like the Cranks or the characters from Wilder Girls, as we will observe later. The only hint of every being infected is small scars left by the large boil-like patches. And even those can be insignificant since “The rash from the disease grew fainter every day. He doubted it would leave many scars” (Meyer, Winter 776). Nevertheless, can a body still be the same when there is what one might consider “alien” DNA running through their veins? Could not the cured Earthens acquire Lunars’ abilities, or perhaps develop their own, due to the mixing of DNA?

Wilder Girls by Rory Power (2019)

In Rory Power’s Wilder Girls, a highly contagious disease, referred to as Tox, has been contained in Raxter, an isolated island. Once a private school for girls, Raxter is now a quarantine area where the former students must deal with the effects and dangers of the Tox with little-to-no resources. The outbreak manifests in flare-ups, which leave the girls’ “bodies too wrecked to keep breathing, […] wounds that wouldn’t heal, or sometimes, [manifested in] a violence like a fever, turning girls against themselves” (Power 13). Most girls ended up dead from the wounds provoked by the Tox or by the deadly violence that has prompted them to kill each other. Those who survive the flare-ups develop bodily mutations, such as gills, two hearts, a taloned hand, a serrated ridge of bone down the back, or a second closed eyelid. After the first mutations took place, it is understood that the Tox models the girls after the natural environment (fauna and flora) that surrounds them. Not only do the girls go through these bodily mutations, but also the animals and the vegetation that populate the island.[5] At the end of the novel, the origins of the mysterious Tox are revealed:

And there it is—the climate changing, the temperatures rising. I read once about creatures trapped in the arctic ice. Prehistoric, ancient things, coming awake as the ice melts. In Maine, on Raxter, a parasite slowly reaching into the weakest things—the irises, the crabs—until it was strong enough to reach the wilderness. Into us. (215) 

A worm—a parasite—has taken hold of every living thing in Raxter. If one is to remove this dormant parasite from their body, they become empty shells—a body without speech, feelings, thoughts, or memories. The living beings of Raxter and the parasite have developed a symbiotic relationship; one cannot survive without the other.

The bodies of the girls are no longer similar to what one usually identifies as the body of a human. After surviving for so long, the girls, who are harshly treated by those who should be helping them, are left to die on the island. Due to the structures created by humanism, speciesism is strongly underlined by our society. As Wolfe points out in Animal Rites (2003), 

as long as it is institutionally taken for granted that it is all right to systematically exploit and kill nonhuman animals simply because of their species, then the humanist discourse of species will always be available for use by some humans against other humans as well, to countenance violence against the social other of whatever species – or gender, or race, or class, or sexual difference (8, author’s emphasis). 

Thus, the girls’ mutations, a cross between human-animal-nature, deny them their human status. No longer seen as human, and once starved, probed, and tested, they have no more use to the CDC and are left to fend for themselves on a nightmarish island. Nonetheless, has not their journey on Raxter highlighted the girls’ humanity even though they inhabit a posthuman body? The presence of humanity in bodies that are no longer considered human (one might say, of a different species) undermines the humanist discourse of species since one must question the violence against these girls (or any other being) simply because of their bodily difference.


Humanism created a view of the human built in opposition to and wholly separated from the monster, the Other, and the animal. This worldview built boundaries that do not allow the human being to merge with all of the living beings that surround them. Additionally, this narrow vision built a concept of the human that stresses the idea that whatever those other beings are, the human cannot be: if the monster is vicious, the human is kind; if the Other is uncivilized, the human is civilized; if the animal is irrational, the human is rational.

As we can observe, the consequences of a pandemic viral infection in young adult dystopian fiction create posthuman bodies—the changes the human body goes through to become posthuman can be external or internal, as observed in The Maze Runner trilogy, The Lunar Chronicles, and Wilder Girls. These posthuman bodies force the reader to problematize the binary oppositions human/monster, human/Other, and human/animal established by humanism, as well as reconsider what one believes a human body to be. As the novels mentioned in this brief analysis reveal, the infection and/or cure resulted in posthuman bodies, that is, bodies that question and dismantle the aforementioned binaries. These bodies, which are strange and yet so alike, have the power to change perceptions, to open dialogue, and to unveil how powerful is the connection between human/monster, human/Other, and human/animal. Hence, in these novels, monstrosity, otherness, and animality are depicted as a part of human ontology, just waiting to be awakened by a pandemic.Therefore, the human being has always been (and will always be) interconnected to the world that surrounds them, and is part of a network of relationships that cannot be detached. Contrary to what humanism presumes., there are no boundaries, no hierarchies, no categorizations. Then, as Michel Foucault ominously declared, as the archaeology of our thought easily shows, man is an invention of recent date. And one perhaps nearing its end” (422).


[1] Needless to say, when this new view about the human was formulated, “human” actually meant white cis straight male. For that reason, I used the pronouns “his,” “himself,” and “he”.

[2] Another important study on this field is Rosi Braidotti’s The Posthuman (2013).

[3] More recently, in the field of young adult fiction, Jennifer Harrison’s Posthumanist Reading in Dystopian Young Adult Fiction: Negotiating the Nature/Culture Divide (2019) was published.

[4] Later, the plague mutates, and not only does it affect the Earthens, but also the Lunars.

[5] When Hetty, the protagonist, faces the grizzly bear that inhabited the woods, she is confronted with the deep changes the wildlife in Raxter has gone through: “The bear’s head swings up and around to look right at me. I let out a muffled scream. One half of its face is bare to the bone” (177).


Bastian, Brock. “The Uneasy Truth about Human-Animal Hybrids.” BBC Future, BBC, 22 Jan. 2017, 7 Jan 2021.

Dashner, James. The Kill Order. Delacorte Press, 2012.

—–. The Scorch Trials. Delacorte Press, 2010.

Foucault, Michel. The Order of Things: An Archaeology of the Human Sciences. Routledge, 2005.

Greene, Richard, and K. Silem Mohammad. “A New Lease of Life for the Undead.” Zombies, Vampires, and Philosophy: New Life for the Undead. Open Court, 2010, pp. 10-14.

Hayles, N. Katherine. How We Became Posthuman. Scribd, University of Chicago Press, 1999.

Jacques, Zoe. Children’s Literature and the Posthuman: Animal, Environment, Cyborg. Routledge, 2015.

Knickerbocker, Dale. “Why Zombies Matter: The Undead as Critical Posthumanist.” Bohemica Literaria, 2015, pp. 59-82.

Meyer, Marissa. Cinder. Puffin, 2012.

—–. Winter. Puffin, 2015.

Nayar, Pramod K. Posthumanism. Polity Press, 2013.

Power, Rory. Wilder Girls. Delacorte Press, 2019.

Tarr, Anita, and Donna R. White. “Introduction.” Posthumanism in Young Adult Fiction: Finding Humanity in a Posthuman World. Scribd, University Press of Mississippi, 2018, pp. 10-36.

Tattersall, Ian. “Homo Sapiens.” Encyclopædia Britannica. 11 Jan. 2019, 28 Feb 2021.

White, Donna R. “Posthumanism in The House of the Scorpion and The Lord of Opium.” Posthumanism in Young Adult Fiction: Finding Humanity in a Posthuman World. Edited by Anita Tarr and Donna R. White. Scribd, University Press of Mississippi, 2018, pp. 253-288.

Wolfe, Cary. Animal Rites: American Culture, the Discourse of Species, and Posthumanist Theory. University of Chicago Press, 2003.

—–. What is Posthumanism? University of Minnesota Press, 2010.

Tânia Cerqueira holds a Master’s degree in Anglo-American Studies from the Faculty of Arts and Humanities of the University of Porto. She obtained it with a dissertation titled “‘Are you afraid of your own shadow?’: The Monster and the Construction of Identity in Monsters of Verity.” She is currently a PhD candidate at the same university. Her PhD thesis main focus is the relationship of the Gothic tradition and young adult dystopias. She is a collaborator at the Centre for English, Translation, and Anglo-Portuguese Studies (CETAPS) and a member of the Young Adult Studies Association. Her main research areas of interest include Young Adult Fiction, Dystopian Studies, Gothic Studies, and Posthumanism.

Apocalypse Never: Walter Benjamin, the Anthropocene, and the Deferral of the End

SFRA Review, vol. 51, no. 2

Symposium: Living in the End Times

Apocalypse Never: Walter Benjamin, the Anthropocene, and the Deferral of the End

Gregory Marks

Today there is no shortage of proclamations on the end of days, either in the mode of imminent catastrophe or in the grim acknowledgement that it is already too late to change our fate. It is said that our actions on this planet have inaugurated a new geological epoch—the Anthropocene, the era of humanity—and that this epoch also marks our doom as an era of inevitable catastrophe and extinction. The concept of the Anthropocene carries within it a temporal ambiguity, as it signifies both “that there will not be complete annihilation but a gradual witnessing of a slow end, and that we are already at that moment of witness, living on after the end” (Colebrook 2014). To call this situation apocalyptic or even post-apocalyptic would be a misnomer, because the catastrophe is one without a moment of revelation, much less a redemptive relation to the history that preceded it. The end is embedded in the earth itself, and made into something always already present, as an incontrovertible fact of the human era. 

It is the argument of this paper that this vision of an end to human history that is at once finished and unfulfilled is not an innate fact of our ecological predicament, but is rather symptomatic of our present historical juncture of late capitalism—which is itself interminably caught on the verge of global climate catastrophe but seemingly without alternatives. To attribute the ecological disasters of a historically novel economic system to the geological epoch of humanity itself risks reifying that system into something ahistorically innate to human nature, and therefore without changeability or recourse. The narrative of the Anthropocene is thus characterised by a mournful order of time—which shrinks from historical consciousness and envisages humanity as fossils in the making.

To make sense of this melancholic disposition, I will turn to the works of Walter Benjamin to give a typology of the forms of time available to us. Specifically, I will examine Benjamin’s early writings on baroque drama, which stages a model of history in which all human action sinks into the mute eternity of the natural world. This form of time stands in contrast with Benjamin’s more famous formulations of industrial capitalism’s homogeneous, empty time and the messianic time which marks the moment of historical fulfilment. If, as Benjamin claimed, the funereal vision of nature’s eternity is a mark of historical failure, we are today confronted with a failure of world-historic proportions that threatens to sweep up even the most critical minds in its tide. 

The subject of Benjamin’s 1925 habilitation thesis is the ‘trauerspiel,’ which may be best defined as an obscure genre of baroque drama originating from sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Germany. The trauerspiel has its counterparts elsewhere in Europe, although the most famous of these—Shakespeare’s Hamlet and Calderón’s La vida es sueño—are marked by their transcendence of the trauerspiel form, which in Germany remained an esoteric, even stagnant, genre without a claim to greatness. The term trauerspiel is variably translated into English as ‘baroque tragedy’ or ‘German tragic drama,’ although both translations risk assimilating the trauerspiel to tragedy proper. 

Unlike tragedy in its classical sense, the trauerspiel lacks a historical dimension, in which its heroes attain the immortality of a fulfilled fate. The plot of the tragedy sustains itself on the interplay between fate and character, and the eventual fulfilment of both in the hero’s fulfilment of his destiny. His death is his gateway to greatness, and therefore a paradoxical kind of immortality as the heroic forefather of a city, a culture, or a faith. As Benjamin writes, “in tragedy the hero dies because no one can live in fulfilled time. He dies of immortality. Death is an ironic immortality; that is the origin of tragic irony” (Origin 262). As we shall see, the trauerspiel lacks access to an immortal or historic register because it admits neither a permanence to worldly affairs nor a transcendence from the world of creation. 

Yet in its lack of historical consciousness, the trauerspiel is in every respect a reflection of its historical context. Emerging from a Europe ravaged by the wars of religion, culminating in the prolonged bloodshed of the Thirty Years War, the trauerspiel was a narrative form that expressed the hideous violence of the age. For the heroes of the trauerspiel there is no immortality following great deeds, much less any redemption conferred from on high for the victors of the bloody squabbles that take centre stage. 

Translated literally, the trauerspiel is a ‘mourning play’ or even a ‘funeral pageant’—terms which better express the melancholic disposition of the genre. It is the prevalence of mourning that informs the trauerspiel’s unique relation to time and history, which it conceives under the symbol of the ruin: a marker of humanity’s passing, where historical triumph is recognised in decay, and nature reasserts itself over the greatest of human achievements. As a measure of decay, the time of the trauerspiel is marked by its transience and the sinking of historical time into the timelessness of non-human nature. “With decay, and with it alone, historical occurrence shrinks and withdraws into the setting” (Benjamin, Origin 190). Its narrative, and the prevailing symbol of the ruin, provide a model for a conception of history that is inevitably fated for decline. The ruin figures the failure of history to achieve any ends beyond inescapable death.   

If the trauerspiel occupies a curious position in relation to historical time, this relation is only complicated by its conception of nature and the natural world. As Benjamin writes, “what has the last word in the flight from the world that is characteristic of the Baroque is not the antithesis of history and nature but total secularization of the historical in the state of creation” (Origin 81). This is not an opposition between history and nature, but the total submergence of the former within the latter, silencing historical consciousness in favour of a melancholic rumination upon the cruel whims of nature. Human history is caught within the much wider movement of nature itself, and inevitably cycles downwards from glory to desolation. It is this turn from history to nature that marks the barrier between classical tragedy and the trauerspiel; as Fredric Jameson suggests, “tragedy brings history into being by emerging from legend, by overcoming myth; Trauerspiel is condemned to a history without transcendence, which it can only think my means of natural categories, cycles, organisms, the seasons, the eternal return” (68). This nature appears “not in the bud and blossom but in the overripeness and decay of its creations. Nature looms before them as eternal transience” (Benjamin, Origin 190). Nature in this sense is not merely the non-human world or the earthly basis for human affairs, but a force external to history which constantly intervenes to dash the dreams of historical permanence. 

Although preoccupied with death, the trauerspiel is not an apocalyptic vision of the end of history, because there is no end to speak of. Eternal transience destroys all sense of permanence, but it also precludes any fundamental change to the state of the world. It is in this interminability of natural history that the time of the trauerspiel shows its diabolical face. The eternity of nature’s dominion is experienced as the endless torment of perdition. In the trauerspiel’s bloody dramas the most boastful of nature’s creations are the most overripe, and the most accomplished are the ones most ready for decay. Something abyssal is recognised at the heart of humanity, god’s fallen children who cannot be anything but the imperfect mirrors of a creation lacking all transcendence. The subsumption of history within nature begets a theory of human nature: a bloody turmoil, a lust for power, and a war of all against all. History does not end, because it can come to no lasting conclusion; it eddies in the vastness of nature but does not entirely subside. “History finds expression not as [a] process of an eternal life but as [a] process of incessant decline” (Benjamin, Origin 188). The narrative of the trauerspiel realises a melancholy negation of historical consciousness, which retains the historical interest in disputes of power while simultaneously undercutting the lasting achievements of those historic struggles. 

But where does this damned, earthly time of the mourning play find its expression today? If this melancholy resignation to the vicissitudes of nature came to the fore of German drama during the social crises of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, I argue that similar attitudes toward history and formulations of time are also near at hand for many who today see climate change as the augur of a new, posthuman age. As we have seen, the time of the trauerspiel has four key traits: (1) It is, first and foremost, a time which is historically unfulfilled: a litany of lost causes; (2) it is a spectral time in which history is understood under the symbol of the ruin; (3) it naturalises eternal transience as the order of the world at large; (4) its drama is one of earthly creation without hope of messianic redemption. Now it remains to be shown that the grand narrative of the Anthropocene possesses parallel traits to those of the trauerspiel narrative, allowing it to be understand as both an anti-historical narrative of naturalised decline and as a symptom of the world-shattering catastrophe that it purports to describe. 

As in the narrative of the trauerspiel, the concept of the Anthropocene carries with it a sense of time that twists back on itself, projecting its catastrophic epoch back to the primordial origins of humanity and far into a post-human future. As Deborah Danowski and Eduardo Viveiros de Castro write, although the Anthropocene is an epoch “in the geological sense of the word,” it also “points toward the end of epochality as such, insofar as our species is concerned.” Danowski and Viveiros de Castro continue: 

It is certain that, although it began with us, it will end without us: the Anthropocene will only give way to a new geological epoch long after we have disappeared from the face of the Earth. [It is] a present ‘without a view,’ a passive present, the inert bearer of a geophysical karma which it is entirely beyond our reach to cancel (5).

The Anthropocene, from this perspective, is not only a description of a new era, but an injunction to think of the present time with resignation. Danowski and Viveiros de Castro’s invocation of ‘karma’ is no anomaly. Among the proclamations upon the changed circumstances of history, there is no shortage of statements on the moral meaning of those changes. The discovery that we have entered not only a new era of history but a new geological epoch has brought with it a chiliastic fervour, spoken in, for example, Roy Scranton’s manifesto for Learning to Die in the Anthropocene and Patricia MacCormack’s argument in The Ahuman Manifesto that human extinction may well be the only solution to climate change. 

It is little wonder that the trauerspiel has not gone unnoticed by some theorists of the Anthropocene. As the editors of the Haus der Kulturen der Welt’s Anthropocene Project write, “the Trauerspiel plays on in the Anthropocene, for ‘the catastrophe here is in the form of the age itself, meaning our entire civilization, and its requisite way of life, is already a ruin’” (Klingan et al. 34). The Anthropocene is rendered as a trauerspiel drama for the entire globe: 

A return to the earthly conditions of man, the name of a fated history, the passing away of Renaissance humanism, humans above all, for a general ideology of the creaturely, an immanent intermingling between rocks, trees, angels, and tyrants. (Klingan et al. 29-30) 

A rosy picture, but one we will not be fated to see with our own eyes. What at first sounds like an eschatological vision of paradise returned to earth belies the infernal heart of the trauerspiel. In its shock at the unrepresentable catastrophe that lies before it, the trauerspiel finds solace in a catastrophic conception of nature itself. In the eternal stretch of natural time, we are already dead; a fate we must contemplate in melancholic resignation. In Anthropocene theory, too, there is a recognition of shock, a desperate need to make sense of a world that no longer conforms to the myth of progress—and the answer these theorists provide is a new, earthly myth. At precisely the moment that the planetary reign of Anthropos is declared it is disavowed, and the eternal transience of nature’s dominion is reaffirmed.

If the Anthropocene contradicts the narrative of historical progress by naturalising decline in the place of ascent, this is not to say that it has no relation to the mechanical time that Benjamin identifies as the source of progressive modernity in his 1940 “Theses.” In fact, the time of the Anthropocene depends just as much upon a homogeneous, empty construction of time as does the myth of progress. But whereas the universal history of progress sees a timeline stretching indefinitely upward into the heavens, the Anthropocene envisages a timeline that infinitely curves back upon itself across millennia. As Claire Colebrook writes, conceptualising the Anthropocene means envisaging a world without us which is already present, virtually, at this moment: 

The positing of an anthropocene era (or the idea that the human species will have marked the planet to such a degree that we will be discernible as a geological strata) deploys the idea of human imaging—the way we have already read an inhuman past in the earth’s layers—but does this by imagining a world in which humans will be extinct. (28)   

This construction of time is no less uniform than its progressive counterpart, but whereas the latter takes the clock as its model the Anthropocene measures itself on a cosmic scale. In the place of the seconds, minutes, and hours of the clockface, the Anthropocene’s homogeneous, empty units are geological layers—trace remnants that we imagine ourselves as in advance. Chronological time is distended across an inhuman expanse of time, projecting forward a future in which we must necessarily meet our demise—a future that is then brought back to the present as the lesson that our fates are already sealed: sic transit gloria mundi. Just as mechanical time and its universal history of progress work to negate true historical consciousness by turning our gaze from the sacrificed dead to an imagined future paradise, so too does this vision beget an ahistorical image of eternity: which seals up the past and future alike in forgotten aeons. 

In its retreat from historical time, the concept of the Anthropocene is opened to a mythic sensibility, which discovers in the inhuman void of extinction a hard-faced divinity staring back. Isabelle Stengers has made much of James Lovelock’s ‘Gaia hypothesis,’ taking seriously the theory’s personification of an impersonal planetary system. For Stengers, Gaia is a strange kind of god, who announces the end of days but does not preside over the casting of judgment or distribution of redemption: 

Gaia is the name of an unprecedented or forgotten form of transcendence: a transcendence deprived of the noble qualities that would allow it to be invoked as an arbiter, guarantor, or resource; a ticklish assemblage of forces that are indifferent to our reasons and our projects. (47) 

Mirroring the demiurgic divinity of the trauerspiel, this is a ‘transcendence’ that does not, in fact, transcend, but remains mired within the world it governs without recourse to a world beyond. This curiously non-transcendent divinity also finds its spokesperson in Bruno Latour, in his lectures on natural theology, who proclaims the coming rule of Gaia over a terrestrial world of “immanence freed from immanentization” (212). Whereas for Stengers the inauguration of a new mythology for the era of climate change stops short of a definite political project, for Latour the intrusion of Gaia means a return to the bellum omnium contra omnes of Hobbes, the ‘earthly’ politics of Carl Schmitt (149-50), and the repudiation of the modern world proclaimed by Eric Voegelin (242-5). For this mystified faction of Gaia, the world as we know it is damned, and all that remains to be done is to make a choice of future barbarisms. An apocalypse is proclaimed, but redemption is postponed, as myth reasserts itself over a humanity with neither a history nor a future.  

Even apart from these more explicit attempts to formulate a mythology for the era of ecocide, the Anthropocene has been subjected to a great deal of scrutiny for its ahistorical qualities. One cogent expression of this critique has been given by Andreas Malm, who writes that the main paradox of the Anthropocene narrative is that, within it “climate change is denaturalised in one moment—relocated from the sphere of natural causes to that of human activities—only to be renaturalised in the next, when derived from an innate human trait. Not nature, but human nature—this is the Anthropocene displacement” (270). For Malm, the core problematic of the Anthropocene is a sleight of hand, which displaces the culpability of industrial capitalist society onto a wider complicity of ‘human nature,’ presumably including the masses of humans today and in the past who did little to fuel the climate crisis. Seen through the lens of the trauerspiel and Benjamin’s typology of temporal forms, we can see how this act of legerdemain extends into the heart of the Anthropocene concept. As the proclamation of the first human epoch, the Anthropocene naturalises the present state of humanity and its crises as symptoms of human nature specifically and nature itself in general. 

Against this naturalisation of history it is necessary to historicise nature; to understand the recursive, or dare we say dialectical, feedback loop between history and nature, and the way in which both are composed in a mutually dependent natural history. The merely natural processes of the world—from weather, to digestion and respiration, to the architecture and fashion we take for granted as part of our living environment—are, Benjamin insists, only those things of which we remain unconscious, allowing them to slip into the subterranean zones of dream and myth. To the dreaming collective, these phenomena “stand in the cycle of the eternally selfsame, until the collective seizes upon them in politics and history emerges” (Benjamin, Arcades 390). This is the meaning of historicised nature: the emergence of unconscious forces into the light of day, transforming their motions from the vicissitudes of chance or fate into the known causes of a totality in which nature and history are inextricably linked. The failure to recognise the historical component of this system is to lose this foothold, and to conceive of nature as an unconscious and seemingly inalterable force that slowly engulfs history in its myths. As in the trauerspiel narrative, we find in Anthropocene theory a recognition of historical crisis that precludes a consciousness of history itself. Rather, crisis is naturalised and made the founding myth for a melancholic model of history. According to this narrative, we are the doomed creatures of a monstrous world, residing in the ruins of a geological epoch that will stretch far beyond the life of our species. But even though extinction is at hand, the end is nowhere in sight as we drift further into an anti-apocalypse; an event that mutes revelation and casts its transient shroud across our collective horizons. That is, until we can grasp the historical as well as the natural genesis of the present conjuncture—to understand that the present epoch is not the consequence of an eternal order but the work of human hands; hands that, if conscious of the work they do, can just as well halt what they set in motion. 


Benjamin, Walter. The Arcades Project. Translated by Howard Eiland and Kevin McLaughlin, Belknap Press, 1999. 

Benjamin, Walter. Origin of the German Trauerspiel. Translated by Howard Eiland, Harvard University Press, 2019.  

Colebrook, Claire. The Death of the PostHuman. Open Humanities Press, 2014. 

Danowski, Déborah and Eduardo Viveiros de Castro. The Ends of the World. Translated by Rodrigo Nunes, Polity, 2017.  

Jameson, Fredric. The Benjamin Files. Verso, 2020.  

Klingan, Katrin, et al. Textures of the Anthropocene: Manual. MIT Press, 2015.  

Latour, Bruno. Facing Gaia. Translated by Catherine Porter, Polity, 2017. 

Malm, Andreas. Fossil Capital. Verso, 2016.  Stengers, Isabelle. In Catastrophic Times. Translated by Andrew Goffey, Open Humanities Press, 2015. 

Dr. Gregory Marks is a recent PhD graduate and tutor in English and Creative Writing at La Trobe University, Australia. His thesis was on the Gothic narratives and posthuman nightmares of Thomas Pynchon’s novels. He has presented locally and internationally on Gothic fiction and its intersections with ecology and philosophy. His chapter “Undead Matters: The Life and Death of Gothic Materialism” in Dark Glamor: Accelerationism and the Occult is forthcoming (Punctum 2021).

The Underside of Time

SFRA Review, vol. 51, no. 2

Symposium: Living in the End Times

The Underside of Time

Laura Denning

‘Pandemics and the spectre of eco-apocalypse don’t signal the end of all worlds or times but merely of the world as presently constituted; there is always the vital question of what comes after.”[1] The Present as a future archaeological past is, currently, often identified as the Anthropocene. This contested term, however, continues to calibrate our human-scale perception of time as central to deep pasts and deep futures. This poem-film draws upon a recent collaboration with paleo-archaeologist Suzi Richer, to question that calibration, and to consider ‘change’ within these massive scales. Some of the questions that surfaced were: How can we un-map, backwards? What is revealed in the shift from the polar view to the equatorial view? What stories might evolve as companions in a changing world? What can we do with furrows, spores, apertures and spikes? Could hydrophobic materials adapt back towards their origins? Do humans just need to get over themselves? Could metals become future pollinators? How would oxidisation fold into future fertility narratives? And so forth. 

Timefullness, says Marcia Bjornerud, references literacy in relation to the longer view. She says ‘We need a poly-temporal worldview to embrace the overlapping rates of change that our world runs on, especially the huge, powerful changes that are mostly invisible to us’. The Underside of Time is an evocation of these insights, realizsed through visual and sonic metaphor. The short film and subsequent poem is situated long after 6th or even the 9th mass extinction, and offers a speculative and fictional account of how OUR present is a future archaeological past, asking what a poly-temporal world view might offer, in terms of how we live and what we leave behind, in a post-pandemic world.

The Underside of Time

It’s Over
Get over it
Get Over Yourself
Humans are Zero
Gone, Nada, Zilch
Here, on the Underside of Time
Just Ice and Stardust
Carried in the wind.

Traces of you
(Just the ruins really)
Pock the fringes of this planet still.

You were always building
Then unbuilding
Further and further away from yourself
You scared the weather
You scared the birds
But you’re just zero now.

Careful Now
Do you suppose that the
Underside of Time
Is a place?
That can be known?
Mapped? Somewhere?
On the inside of
You? Surrounded by your own detritus.

Careful Now
Time moves on 
Without you
But this isn’t History
History is a human thing
The world breathes without you
Time and History
Are set free.

Your detritus pollinates other possibilities
Form and Function adapt
Earth’s secrets
Seeding new stars

Tempests hurl
All this matter
(That doesn’t matter)
But still
Reaching out.

Reaching across multiverses
Weaving myths of connection
Spectacular Tentacular
Temporal acrobatics
That you will never see.

Death Star
Killing everything
Chasing the shiny new
Extracting pasts
Sinking in your own discharge
Always with strings attached
You tried to compress time
But you merely killed time
Without you
There is just
The Underside of Time.

There were jungles everywhere
Before the extractions
There were diamonds dancing on veils of silver
Before the Deluge
But the light faded
Leaving nothing but
The Underside of Time.

Laura Denning ©2020


[1] Taken directly from the CFP for Pandemic Imaginaries 2020.

Recipient of the inaugural scholarship in Environmental Humanities at Bath Spa University, Laura Denning has recently successfully defended her PhD thesis “Hydrofeminism: bodies, spaces, practices”. This practice-led research positioned art practice within experimental geography in order to open up the registers within which art might operate, and to foreground the environmental and ecological focus of her art practice. Using Hydrofeminism as a trigger to generate speculative artworks, all of which attracted Arts Council England funding, Laura is now developing new works as proposals for post-doctoral opportunities that have an arts/science crossover. These works explore transcorporealities in relation to temporal shifts – including the moment, and extending to considerations of deep time. Laura is the recipient of a number of awards and commissions and her work has featured in a number of publications.

The Wrong Kind of Viral: Post-Apocalyptic Pandemics in Contemporary North American Fiction

SFRA Review, vol. 51, no. 2

Symposium: Living in the End Times

The Wrong Kind of Viral: Post-Apocalyptic Pandemics in Contemporary North American Fiction

Katrin Isabel Schmitt

Narratives of catastrophe are omnipresent. They range from the latest concerning headline about the COVID-19 outbreak to canonical movies such as Roland Emmerich’s The Day After Tomorrow (2004). A prominent and iconic story of disaster is that of the apocalypse, which goes back to the Bible, especially to the Book of Revelation. While the term ‘apocalypse’ still evokes strong associations to the biblical narrative, in the twenty-first century, it is primarily used to refer to large-scale disasters or drastic changes of any kind. Consequently, the apocalypse has undergone a conceptual expansion. Now, it encompasses doom, downfall, and disaster, a “modern conflation” (DiTomasso 478) of the end of the world. Concerning literary renditions, the apocalyptic event has ceased to be an ultimate endpoint in contemporary narratives. Rather, as James Berger argues, in “nearly every apocalyptic presentation, something remains after the end” (5–6). As there are survivors and other remnants of former times in the post-apocalyptic world, the catastrophe is not only destructive, but also bears the potential for new beginnings and therefore signifies hope. In this regard, Mary Manjikian points out that it is not primarily the apocalypse as such that is at the center of post-apocalyptic stories. According to her they are rather “concerned with the consequences of the apocalyptic moment, the ways in which society’s norms and values and social practices will be changed as a result” (64-5).

It is an inherent feature of apocalyptic representations that they are adapted to and influenced by the time of their creation. Accordingly, they pick up on prevailing individual and collective fears, and draw attention to potential threats and dangers within society. This is already disclosed in the Ancient Greek root, apocalypsis, which translates to ‘revelation’. The spread and impact of COVID-19 poses an ongoing threat to the global community. Years before the spread of COVID, contemporary post-apocalyptic novels took up the theme of worldwide pandemics. Although these works follow the same genre conventions – a world-changing catastrophe, few survivors struggling to carry on, and destroyed urban spaces – they are also diverse in their structures and themes. In this paper, I focus on three particularly felicitous post-apocalyptic novels by North American writers that feature a deadly virus: Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake (2003), The Dog Stars (2012) by Peter Heller, and Station Eleven (2014) by Emily St. John Mandel. This comparative analysis allows to highlight how contemporary works approach apocalyptic pandemics, especially concerning new beginnings and the element of hope in the post-apocalyptic space.

Oryx and Crake features the protagonist Snowman, who is the (apparently) sole human survivor of a pandemic and shares the world with posthuman creatures called Crakers. The Dog Stars follows Hig, who has outlived a flu that killed almost everyone around him, and his struggles in a post-pandemic space. In the third example, Station Eleven, a deadly virus spreads in North America and eradicates most of humanity, apart from a few survivors like the actors and musicians of the ‘Travelling Symphony.’ While all three novels present a pandemic setting, they vary in their representations of catastrophe and the changes caused by it. To compare them, I will analyze the respective pandemics as catalysts of change, to then describe the remains in the post-apocalyptic world. As a conclusion, my paper will highlight elements of the hope for new beginnings in post-apocalyptic literature, mirrored most prominently in the re-emergence of nature and communities. Based on these findings, I will discuss whether the respective pandemics in these novels are, in fact, the wrong kind of viral.

All three novels feature a pandemic that overthrows civilization and disrupts modern life. In Station Eleven, the “Georgia Flu” (Mandel 17) brings an end to the modern world. It has a short incubation period—”if you’re exposed, you’re sick in three or four hours and dead in a day or two”—and a “mortality rate at 99 percent” (20, 253). Throughout the novel, it remains unclear who is responsible for the emergence of the virus, thus giving it a sense of agency of its own. For example, the virus is characterized as so “efficient that there was almost no one left” (192). Similarly, in The Dog Stars, a “[m]utation of a superbug” (Heller 197), which supposedly originated in New Delhi, kills almost everyone. However, it turns out that the virus was fabricated in the national weapons lab in Livermore, California, and then spread in a plane crash, making a governmental institution responsible for the catastrophe. In contrast, in Oryx and Crake, the outbreak of a pandemic is intentionally caused by the scientist Crake with the objective of freeing the world from harmful and morally corrupt humanity to make room for the posthuman Crakers. 

A comparison of the novels stresses that the representations of the viruses vary and hereby set different emphases. In Station Eleven, the origin of the flu is not revealed, which signifies a lingering anxiety concerning the unknown and the unpredictability of life. In The Dog Stars, the pandemic spreads due to the error of a governmental institution, which symbolizes fear of the misuse of political power and influence. Only Oryx and Crake portrays a virus that is purposefully created to sentence sinful humanity, thereby evoking Judgment Day in the Book of Revelation. While the biblical apocalypse leads to a better place, New Jerusalem, Crake’s approach is merely destructive—at least for humans. 

It is striking that in both Station Eleven and The Dog Stars the pandemic is ascribed to foreign countries, namely to India and the Republic of Georgia, respectively. Hence, the characters in the novels perceive the viruses as a representation of the Other, something caused by an alien force. These perspectives are also reflected in the pandemics’ names: Georgia Flu and Africanized bird flu. There appears to be an inherent need to find a logical explanation for the catastrophe. If none is to be found, as the characters experience in the novels, people try to find a scapegoat—a scenario quite familiar after the year 2020 and the rhetoric of the ‘China Virus.’ The anxiety that powerful scientific knowledge might be abused is reflected in Oryx and Crake, as a scientist with a biocentric value system makes the conscious decision to eliminate humanity. 

Although the novels’ pandemics differ in their causes, they share the representation of a clear-cut “divide between a before and an after, a line drawn through… life” (Mandel 20). Yet, the apocalypse is not a conclusive end, as there are some survivors and physical remains of pre-pandemic modernity. August, one of the members of the Travelling Symphony in Station Eleven, remarks: “The world didn’t end . . . It’s still spinning” (Mandel 202). While the pandemics may not prove to be the end of the world, they significantly alter the world and demolish the achievements of civilization. Heather J. Hicks claims that post-apocalyptic fiction “interrogat[es] the category of modernity” as the apocalypse destroys “physical structures, social formations, and values of modern life” (2, 4). In this context, it is not the question of whether something remains that is relevant. What is significant is what persists, how the apocalypse transforms the remnants, and what emerges in the spaces almost completely void of humanity. 

All three novels feature the destruction of infrastructure and social systems in the pandemic, which are virtually non-existent in the post-apocalyptic world. The breakdown of modernity is prominently depicted in ruined urban spaces as the pandemics lead to an “industrial wasteland” (Mandel 191), desolate cities, and collapsed buildings; worlds where it “won’t be long before all visible traces of human habitation will be gone” (Atwood 222), as proposed in Oryx and Crake. With the collapse of societal structures and depictions of ruins, the novels present the familiar “end of the world as we know it” (Hall 3). Previously held humanist values are shattered together with these structures. The few remaining people live in a “world that’s way past diplomacy” (Heller 203) and fight for their survival, regardless of the consequences for others. The apocalypse is not only an end on the physical level, it also demolishes the core concepts of human interaction and existence.

As human lives and structures disappear, nature can reclaim the spaces they once occupied. From a biocentric perspective, which according to Timothy Clark aims to “identify with all life or a whole ecosystem, without giving . . . privilege to just one species” (3), the novels under discussion reveal a sense of purpose in the ruins as they are re-naturalized. For example, Station Eleven describes “beauty in the decrepitude, sunlight catching in the flowers that had sprung up through the gravel of long-overgrown driveways.” This image of serenity is strongly contrasted by the remains of urban life, as houses contain “only trash from the old world” (Mandel 296). While the pandemic brings the damaging environmental impacts of humans abruptly to an end, the long-lasting effects of climate change brought on and precipitated by them are still visible. Although there might not be a clear future perspective for humanity, nature is recovering. In Oryx and Crake, the former urban structures are annihilated by the natural world as “the botany is thrusting itself through every crack. Given time it will fissure the asphalt, topple the walls, push aside the roofs” (221-2). Natural space conquers human constructions. To summarize, in all three novels, nature gains more space to flourish and regenerate than in the pre-apocalyptic world. 

The pandemics are presented as a positive event from a biocentric perspective in which non-human life forms no longer suffer under a hierarchy shaped by human exceptionalism. The survivors in Station Eleven and The Dog Stars adjust to the situation and sometimes even enjoy peaceful pastoral moments. For Snowman in Oryx and Crake, in contrast, nature continuously poses a threat and he cannot accept a subordinate role within the new ecosystem. In addition to the struggle for survival, the post-apocalyptic world also provides space for the formation of new human communities. Although most characters in these three novels start out as lonely survivors, almost all of them establish new social bonds and forms of familial ties. Eva Horn asserts that those who survive are “either communities that fight or nuclear families–communities, in any case, whose bonds are based on blood, the blood shared by kin or the blood shed by the enemy” (100). Within this framework, it is a central concern, whether the new collectives attempt to reproduce the past or if they are future-oriented. 

A prime example is the newly formed community at Severn City Airport in Station Eleven. Shortly after the pandemic, the survivors are keen for their lives to go back to the way they were before, waiting for “the army coming in and announcing that it was all over, this whole flu thing cleared up and taken care of, everything back to normal again” (Mandel 179). However, as they start to realize that there is no way back, they accept their situation and find a new purpose in life. Starting out as individuals and small groups from all over the world who are stuck at an airport, the survivors soon begin to cooperate, developing shared survival strategies, and establishing new traditions, such as a topical bonfire every night. This new beginning is most strikingly manifested with the burgeoning of new life, as a woman at the airport giving birth to a baby is “the only good thing that had happened in that terrible first year” (233). 

Similarly, The Dog Stars opens with Hig dreaming of returning to the past as well, sleeping outside so he can “pretend there’s a house somewhere else, with someone in it, someone to go back to” (Heller 30). His only close contact is Bangley, although the two form an efficient survival team rather than being friends. Nevertheless, they grow closer and add to their community by letting Cima and her father join them. As Hig and Cima become romantically involved, there are grounds for a new nuclear family, which Hig even considers to be his “patriotic duty to follow… through.” Although the novel ends before there is any potential offspring, the topic of new life is further evoked with Cima bringing a male and female lamb with her, “[l]ike the Ark” (250, 265). The reference to the biblical flood narrative underscores that, theoretically, it only takes two to repopulate a species. In Oryx and Crake, in comparison, Snowman roams the earth as a lonely last man, only encountering other survivors at the end of the novel, although it remains unclear whether he will approach them or not. He desperately yearns for what he has lost. His post-apocalyptic present is significantly shaped by nostalgic memories he cannot let go. Constantly on his own and longing for the past, Snowman is unable to develop a perspective for the future and is incapable of building a new existence in the post-pandemic space. However, a new, future-oriented community is introduced in the form of the posthuman Crakers, who are perfectly adapted to the harsh environmental conditions and have a harmonious relationship with nature. To ensure that this equilibrium is maintained, Crake removed all attributes he considered to be human flaws in his creation, making racism, hierarchy, and territorial behaviour impossible for Crakers. While there seems to be little hope for humanity, the Crakers prosper in the post-pandemic space.

New communities are established in different variants in these novels. In Station Eleven, there are several new collectives, for example a cult led by a prophet, who think “they were saved from the Georgia Flu and survived the collapse because they’re superior people and free from sin” (Mandel 115), and the Travelling Symphony. At first glance, these groups appear to be transformational and novel. Nevertheless, at the end of the novel, the survivors spot a town “whose streets were lit up with electricity” (311), a sight that foreshadows the redevelopment of other structures of modern life. The Dog Stars presents a traditional nuclear family, thus reinstating former societal values. Consequently, these two novels contain the hope that former times can be reconstructed. Yet, this hope also contains the threat of cyclically repeating mistakes, potentially leading back to apocalyptic circumstances. In Oryx and Crake, in contrast, a unique and promising posthuman community is introduced. However, the Crakers, contrary to Crake’s plans, start to mirror human behavior, such as symbolical thinking and the formation of hierarchical structures. There is consequently the risk that they will repeat human mistakes as well, which diminishes the utopian traits of their new beginning. 

In sum, this comparative analysis has shown that the selected novels are representative for the range and depth of North American post-apocalyptic fiction as a negotiation of political, philosophical, and bioethical questions and values. Although the works considered here create a scenario in which viral pandemics are vastly destructive and cause the annihilation of social (infra-)structures and large percentages of humankind, there are also new beginnings. The surviving humans rebuild communities, which are adapted to the post-apocalyptic space while simultaneously replicating elements of pre-pandemic times. The element of hope is a double-edged sword, as there is an underlying threat that history might repeat itself for humanity. Nature, however, thrives in the post-apocalyptic spaces, stressing its intrinsic value outside the anthropocentric framework of human perception. In the end, pandemics are, from a biocentric perspective, the right kind of viral after all.


Atwood, Margaret. Oryx and Crake. Bloomsbury, 2003. 

Berger, James. After the End: Representations of Post-Apocalypse. University of Minnesota Press, 1999.

Clark, Timothy. The Cambridge Introduction to Literature and the Environment. Cambridge University Press, 2011.

DiTommaso, Lorenzo. “Apocalypticism and Popular Culture.” The Oxford Handbook of Apocalyptic Literature, edited by John J. Collins, Oxford University Press, 2014, pp. 473–509. 

Hall, John R. Apocalypse: From Antiquity to the Empire of Modernity. Polity, 2009.

Heller, Peter. The Dog Stars. Headline, 2012.

Hicks, Heather J. The Post-Apocalyptic Novel in the Twenty-First Century: Modernity Beyond Salvage. Palgrave Macmillan, 2016. 

Horn, Eva. The Future as Catastrophe. Columbia University Press, 2018. 

Mandel, Emily St. John. Station Eleven. Alfred A. Knopf, 2014.

Manjikian, Mary. Apocalypse and Post-Politics: The Romance of the End. Lexington Books, 2014.

Katrin Isabel Schmitt is a doctoral researcher in the field of Literary and Cultural Studies at the University of Konstanz and holds a doctoral scholarship from the Konrad Adenauer Foundation. She is currently working on her dissertation project titled “Beginning after the End: Narrative and Trauma in Twenty-First Century North American Post-Apocalyptic Fiction” under the supervision of Prof. Dr. Reingard M. Nischik and Prof. Dr. Silvia Mergenthal. Prior to that she successfully completed her state exam in German and English (teaching degree), including an Erasmus stay abroad at the University of Glasgow, Scotland. Her focus on contemporary North American Literature is also reflected in her teaching at the University of Konstanz, namely in seminars such as “Margaret Atwood’s Dystopian Fiction” and “North American Post-Apocalyptic Short Fiction” for graduate and undergraduate students. Further research interests of hers include Contemporary Literature, Speculative Fiction, and Environmental Humanities. Additionally to her research, Katrin Isabel Schmitt is employed as a startup officer specialising in marketing and communications at the University’s startup-initiative Kilometer1.

Imperialism is a Plague, Too: Transatlantic Pandemic Imaginaries in César Mba Abogo’s “El sueño de Dayo” (2007) and Junot Díaz’s “Monstro” (2012)

SFRA Review, vol. 51, no. 2

Symposium: Living in the End Times

Imperialism is a Plague, Too: Transatlantic Pandemic Imaginaries in César Mba Abogo’s “El sueño de Dayo” (2007) and Junot Díaz’s “Monstro” (2012)

Giulia Champion

As the world is in the midst of a global health pandemic, focus on the continued other crises that have plagued our world is both minimised and increased. It is minimised because COVID-19 seems to have taken centre stage in all news outlets and in much academic research and it continues to impact everyone’s daily life. However, it has also increased the focus on structural and systemic inequalities, which are pandemics of sorts as well. The very marginalised communities that are more vulnerable to COVID-19 have also continually suffered from these inequalities in the past. Our current health crisis is entangled with all these other ones, including our climate emergency, our racism pandemic and many others. 

This brief paper engages with pre-COVID-19 pandemic imaginaries in two short stories. The first is authored by Equatoguinean César Mba Abogo entitled “El sueño de Dayo” (“Dayo’s Dream”)[1] (2007) and the second is by US-Dominican author Junot Díaz and entitled “Monstro”, first published in The New Yorker in 2012. The transatlantic connections between these two works inscribe pandemic imaginaries into the history of the Atlantic trade and colonialism, the diseases developed then, and into contemporary histories of mobility and migration, put into a halt in time of lockdown. This comparative investigation proposes to identify the use of the pandemic trope in fiction as a manner to emphasise colonialism as a metaphorical pandemic. I argue that the mobilisation of contagion and disease in the short stories serves to highlight the continuity of uneven developments and dynamics in formerly colonised spaces. This is crucial when considering that sf tropes like alien invasions and abductions, environmental apocalypses, and contagion plots, such as pandemics, are not merely works of the imagination; they are a reality, having taken place for indigenous and previously colonised communities (Whyte). Moreover, to support this argument, I also focus on the fact that in both narratives one can displace monstrous tropes from a colonial and racist rhetoric onto (neo-)imperial practices to signify the consequences of colonial dynamics as bringing forth destruction and extinction. This is seen in particular by identifying “Western” countries—broadly described as “United Powers” and the “Great Powers” in each short story—as responsible for the creation and spread of the epidemic and pandemic scenarios depicted. The conflation of these Euro-American-based powers in the two stories emphasises how most of the Global North can be seen as having benefitted and continuing to benefit from colonialism, whether through formal colonial relations or mercantilism and because of the advantages it generated for the Global North, which continue to be at the basis of its current wealth and productive economies.

Colonisation also continues to impact former colonies economically, socio-politically, environmentally and infrastructurally. This is the reason why imperialism can be articulated as a metaphorical pandemic, though one with material consequences: It invades, exploits to the level of extinction and then leaves its victims like patients affected by an illness’s long-term effects. Countries on the African continent—as noted below Mba Abogo’s narrative operates a specific conflation of the continent to exemplify these dynamics—and Haiti, as the spaces of the two narratives considered here, are crucial for this discussion. Indeed, through different yet similar histories of colonisation and (neo-)imperialism, they continue to live through these uneven consequences, as I will discuss below.[2] It is important, though, that these spaces are more than this history and, as Gina Athena Ulysses and Felwine Sarr argue in each context, they are more than depictions of victimisation and monstrousness.

Mba Abogo’s short story is part of a collection entitled El porteador de Marlow. Canción negra sin color (Marlow’s Helmsman. The Black Song without Colour) and the work considers throughout the way in which all of Europe has profited from colonialism and is still profiting from its extension in various forms of imperialism today. This is done in particular through the setting of all the pieces in different invented places located on the European and African continents. Indeed, the collection does not directly refer to Equatorial Guinea or Spain, but rather sets its writings in imaginary places referring to Africa and Europe more broadly and “[t]hus [the pieces in the collection] transcend particular national contexts and point to more abstract geopolitical power structures determined by notions of ‘center’ and ‘periphery,’ of belonging and alienness, and by positionalities of privilege and exclusion” (Brost 35). In these terms, it becomes clear that the collection attempts to give a voice to different diasporas across the European continent, and to re-centre the “Black subject” which has been marginalised in different socio-economic, political and cultural spheres. 

In “El sueño de Dayo” (“Dayo’s Dream”), the narrator and character Dayo, a young man from an unnamed African country who has recently moved to Europe to study, dreams that Africa stops existing after the receipt of humanitarian aid afflicts all Africans with a strange illness from which they cannot seem to recover. This echoes dynamics in Díaz’s short story “Monstro”—taking place in the Dominican Republic as a strange and unknown epidemic is slowing developing on the other side of the border in Haiti—in which we are made to recognise that apocalyptic scenarios often speak to the daily lived experiences of formerly colonised countries. Monstrosity in particular comes to play a crucial role in both narratives: in Mba Abogo’s short story African characters are described as “savage” and violent towards each other following the receipt of the fatal aid: “Los negros se enfrentaron unos a otros como perros por aquellos alimentos, se arrancaron la piel a tiras y se devoraron unos a otros” (“Black people fought each other for this food, they skinned each other, devoured each other”) (20). This depiction is followed by the description of major news outlets’ coverage, including that of BBC and CNN, of the humanitarian intervention and its subsequent result in a pandemic. The news outlets appear as voyeuristic and feeding on people’s misery as they cover live what they describe as “el Apocalipsis de la estirpe condenada a cuatrocientos años de agonía” (“the Apocalypse of the lineage condemned to four hundred years of agony”) (20). This phrase invokes the four hundred years of colonisation and exploitation of the continent as a catastrophic and ongoing event. This illuminates a connection between the literal pandemic unfolding and the metaphorical one that colonisation has been for the continent. This type of discourse is associated with Euro-American fantasies concerning formerly colonial spaces, in particular narratives of the African continent, which, as Patrick Brantlinger argues “grew ‘dark’ as Victorian explorers, missionaries, and scientists flooded it with light, because the light was refracted through an imperialist ideology that urged the abolition of ‘savage customs’ in the name of civilization” (166).[3] Outside of the fictional world, this imagery is still powerful in the perception of the continent abroad, which is often conflated as one big country and described as a place of hunger, violence and “under-development”, fetishised through images of starving children and violent strife. 

A similar monstrosity is deployed in Díaz’s short story in the increasingly violent depiction of the victims of an unknown pandemic. The action of “Monstro” unfolds from the perspective of a first-person narrator who has returned home from the US during the summer break to visit his mother in the Dominican Republic. She had moved back to the island to seek treatment being unwell, facing a much more dire situation in the US given the costliness and unevenness of its health care system. While this is a pre-COVID-19 imaginary, this type of situation only appears more prescient in the current health crisis that crowds hospitals all over the world and, in the US in particular where minorities have the least access to the health care system and are often the primary victims of the pandemic due to systemic and structural inequalities (“Health Equity Considerations and Racial and Ethnic Minority Groups”). In “Monstro”, the depictions of the people affected by the epidemic, which at first is concentrated in Port-au-Prince, evolves from describing them as “viktims [sic]” (84) to “possessed” (98) to “invaders” (101), and, as the illness evolves the city is bombed to avoid further contagion:

Nothing was working except for old diesel burners and the archaic motos with no points or capacitors. People were trying out different explanations. An earthquake. A nuke. A Carrington event. The Coming of the Lord. Reports arriving over the failing fatlines claimed that Port-au-Prince had been destroyed, that Haiti had been destroyed, that thirteen million screaming Haitian refugees were threatening the borders, that Dominican military units had been authorized to meet the invaders – the term the gov was now using – with ultimate force. (101, emphasis in original)

The use of the term “invaders” raises the issue of migration and the appalling treatment of Haitian labour migrants in the DR since the establishment of Rafael Trujillo’s race-based anti-Haitian autocratic rule that resulted in violence such as the El Corte (the cut) massacre that took place in 1937 (Martínez 115-116). This is continued in the 21st century in the obscene 23 September 2013 ruling by the Dominican constitutional court, “[a]ptly described as civil death, social apartheid, and administrative genocide” (Shoaff 59), which established that only persons born in the DR to Dominican parents or legal residents are regarded as citizens. Considering Díaz’s background as a US-Dominican author, this depiction of migrants’ treatment can be read as spilling over from the Haitian-Dominican context to that of the South-North migration, especially when bearing in mind the treatment of immigrants in the US under the Trump administration. Migration is, to many extents, a legacy of colonialism, because of the lack of infrastructure in the countries that were drained (of resources and peoples) and exploited during the colonial period and then forced to take IMF loans during the decolonial period.[4] As Christina Sharpe argues, the:

ongoing crisis of capital in the form of migrants fleeing lives made unlivable is becoming more and more visible, or, perhaps, less and less able to be ignored. […] The crisis is often framed as one of refugees fleeing internal economic stress and internal conflicts, but subtending this crisis is the crisis of capital and the wreckage from the continuation of military and other colonial projects of US/European wealth extraction and immiseration. (59) 

The racist and discriminatory rhetoric surrounding immigration in the Global North can also be seen as such a legacy as it stems from residual traces of colonial and imperial discourse.

Moreover, monstrosity is suggested by the short story’s title itself, which as Sarah Quesada notes is “phonetic for monstruo in Spanish” (292), which she argues reflects the term’s “Latin root monere, which, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, means to warn and to instruct” (292). Scholars have, in general, focused solely on this connection of monstrum to monere: interestingly, none seem to have considered the close etymological relation that the term ‘monster’ bears with ‘monument’. Indeed, monere also means “to remind, bring to one’s recollection”, which is the root for the term monument, to which the adverbial suffix –mentum is added (“Monster”). The myriad of terms associated with memory and commemoration implied in the word is crucial in understanding monstrosity and monstrous figures as monuments of colonialism. Crucially, monuments play a critical role in relation to colonisation, being physical reminders of western hegemony. Hence, the monstrous figures in these short stories—the zombie-like “viktims” in “Monstro” and the cannibal-like ill Africans in “Dayo’s Dream”—can be understood as literary monuments of colonial relations, signifiers that represent a vestige of this history, and they can be read as depicting the monumental ruins, or material traces, of colonial pasts and monstrosity as representing the corporeal embodiment of empire’s violence. 

In particular, this violence can be seen in the fact that both pandemic scenarios depicted in Mba Abogo’s and Díaz’s works can be identified as resulting from colonial and neo-imperial dynamics and are considered to be the responsibility of Euro-American countries. In Mba Abogo’s short story this link is made in the following description: “un doctor escandinavo, con la piel tan blanca que daba pena mirarle, denunció que el mana lanzado a los negros, por un descuido que nadie sabía bien cómo, transmitía una enfermedad mortal y contagiosa” (“a Scandinavian doctor, whose skin was so white it was painful to behold, reported that the mana thrown to black people, due to an unexplainable oversight, transmitted a contagious and fatal illness”) (20). In this quotation, the description of the “Scandinavian doctor”’s whiteness as painful to behold inverts racist discourses and thereby emphasises the arbitrary and epistemic violence of these types of rhetoric that are themselves monstrous monuments of colonialism. Along the same line, the identification of all Africans here as only black people plays on usual Euro-American stereotypes that conflate the continent to one country and ethnicity overlooking its heterogeneity. 

Moreover, the identification of humanitarian aid as responsible for the pandemic highlights the unintended issues that these aid programmes often create, which perpetuate uneven dynamics already in place as consequences of colonialism. In Díaz’s short story, I argue that the association of the epidemic with climate change similarly aligns the responsibility for global warming with the Global North as different colonial dynamics have accelerated and exacerbated anthropogenic climate change in former colonies and in particular in the Caribbean.4 Indeed, it is notable that from the beginning of the short story, the narrator continually describes the epidemic alongside issues related to anthropogenic climate change, such as abnormally fluctuating temperatures: “The infection showed up on a small boy in the relocation camps outside Port-au-Prince, in the hottest March in recorded history” (81) or the exploitation of nature: “Strangest thing, though: once infected, few viktims died outright; they just seemed to linger on and on. Coral reefs might have been adios on the ocean floor, but they were alive and well on the arms and backs and heads of the infected” (82). This rhetorical device informs the reader of the connection existing between the impending climate crisis, the culpability of the Global North, and the epidemic narrated in the short story. This connection continues to exist outside of this fictional world, considering the context in which COVID-19 emerged, wherein the destruction of natural habitats for a number of animal species has allowed for zoonotic diseases to spread more easily, as contact zones between humans and non-human animals continue to be compressed (Dobson et al.).

Furthermore, in both short stories, the solutions proposed and enacted to resolve the pandemics are genocidal. In “Dayo’s Dream”, the description is reminiscent of the stereotypical view of the “new-world-explorer” machete in hand traversing the jungle: “Con machetes y trajes especiales suministrados rápida, diligente y eficazmente por las Potencias Unidas, y sudando copiosamente, iban rematando a todos los enfermos. No se podía correr el riesgo de que le transmitieran la enfermedad a alguien. La operación fue un éxito. Se mataron a niños, mujeres, hombres, ancianos” (“With machetes and special garments rapidly, diligently and effectively supplied by the United Powers, and sweating profusely, they went to finish off all the people who were sick. One could not take the chance that the illness be transmitted to anyone else. The operation was a success. Children, women, men and elderly people were killed”) (20-21). Additionally, in the narrative, the “United Powers” erect a monument in front of their headquarters to commemorate the victims of this sacrifice (21), allowing us once more to associate monstrosity, monuments and colonialism with the extinction that colonialism brings forth and that a statue cannot replace.

Echoing Mba Abogo’s “United Powers”, in Díaz’s “Monstro” the narrator describes the decision of the “Great Powers” to bomb Port-au-Prince (99). The aftermath is felt as far as Cuba, Puerto Rico and Florida and it has many consequences, including a power outage, which itself provokes more death: “Tens of thousands died as a direct result of the power failure” (101). While this line appears to have further meaning in the wake of the 2010 Haiti Earthquake, which inspired Díaz’s narrative, it also now echoes the state of other Caribbean islands since the repeated hurricanes and violent storms of 2017 and 2019, which have destroyed infrastructure across the region, leaving countless people without electricity or shelter. Additionally, as Quesada notes, the use of language in describing the event, and particularly of the word “white”, leaves space for multiple interpretations: “The Detonation Event—no one knows what else to call it—turned the entire world white” (Díaz 99). Quesada focuses on its relation to the race binary and its extension to lightness and illumination: “In this case, whiteness as the counterpoint of its binary other is produced by such intense illumination that it does not reveal clarity. Rather, its brightness is blinding, both literally […] and figuratively, as it occludes the distinction of reality. The reinscription of the universal in light, like the dichotomy of blanqueamiento [whitening] and negrura [blackness], is thus reversed in ‘Monstro’” (312-313). She discusses how the lack of illumination destabilises the race binary and thus re-evaluates it, showing how, in fact, whiteness and light provoke “occlusion and blindness” (313). I want to bring this argument further by proposing that the use of the term can also be seen as a “whitening” or “white-washing” of history and identity. The bombing, metaphorically, represents European and North American colonial and imperial agendas and interventionism in the Caribbean and South America; the destruction symbolises the writing of this region’s history and identity from a one-sided Euro-American-centric perspective, which returns to my above discussion concerning the use of monstrous figures and tropes to describe former colonies.

As Mba Abogo’s story progresses, Dayo, the main character repeatedly dreams about the disappearance of the African continent provoked by the pandemic, which fills him with dread. The storyline begins to blur the boundaries between dream and reality, pushing Dayo to confront his fear and his dream. As he does, death comes upon him and, as he is about to die, he understands that “[s]u vida estaba anclada en la historia” (“his life was anchored in history”) (22). This quote can be read through what Sharpe describes as “a past that is not the past” (13), insofar as the final line of the short story concludes its message by inviting the reader to reconsider contemporary events and developments as consequences of our colonial and neo-imperial past. Crucially, Sharpe explains this as one of the ways in which black people globally live in the wake: 

The work we do requires new modes and methods of research and teaching; new ways of entering and leaving the archives of slavery, of undoing the ‘racial calculus and . . . political arithmetic that were entrenched centuries ago’ (Hartman 2008, 6) and that live into the present. […] I’ve been trying to articulate a method of encountering a past that is not past. A method along the lines of a sitting with, a gathering, and a tracking of phenomena that disproportionately and devastatingly affect Black peoples any and everywhere we are. (13, my emphasis)

The formulation of “a past that is not the past” reminds us that colonialism, neo-imperialism and racism are a pandemic too, one that began a long time ago and that continues to spread and perpetuate structural and systemic inequalities. Díaz’s “Monstro” and Mba Abogo’s “Dayo’s Dream” remind us of this reality and demonstrate how epidemic and pandemic imaginaries can be mobilised to articulate colonial and (neo-)imperial realities.


[1] All translations are mine unless specified otherwise. I would like to acknowledge Nora Castle’s help which significantly improved this brief intervention.

[2] See for instance Walter Rodney’s seminal study on this for the African context.

[3] Though migration is also a pre-capitalist phenomenon, considering many nomad groups for instance, the specific fluxes and routes that are established today often follow the Global North/South or Metropole/Periphery divide established during colonialism.

[4] See in particular Watts 1990.


Brantlinger, Patrick. “Victorians and Africans: The Genealogy of the Myth of the Dark Continent.” Critical Inquiry, vol. 12, no. 1, 1985, pp. 166–203.

Borst, Julia. “‘To Be Black in a “White” Country’: On the Ambivalence of the Diasporic Experience in César A. Mba Abogo’s El Porteador de Marlow. Canción Negra Sin Color (2007).” Research in African Literatures, vol. 48, no. 3, 2017, pp. 33–54.

Díaz, Junot. “Monstro.” Latin@ Rising: An Anthology of Latin@ Science Fiction and Fantasy, edited by Matthew David Goodwin, Wings Press, 2017, pp. 80–102.

“Health Equity Considerations and Racial and Ethnic Minority Groups.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Accessed 25 March 2021.

Martínez, Samuel. Peripheral Migrants: Haitians and Dominican Republic Sugar Plantations. The University of Tennessee Press, 1995.

Mba Abogo, César. “El sueño de Dayo.” El porteador de Marlow. Canción negra sin color, IAL Ediciones, 2007.

“Monster.” Oxford English Dictionary, Accessed 10 May 2019.

Quesada, Sarah. “A Planetary Warning?: The Multilayered Caribbean Zombie in ‘Monstro.’” Junot Díaz and the Decolonial Imagination, edited by Monica Hanna et al., Duke University Press, 2016, pp. 291–318.

Rodney, Walter. How Europe Underdeveloped Africa. Bogle-L’Ouverture Publications, 1972.

Sarr, Felwine. Afrotopia. Éditions Philippe Rey, 2016.

Sharpe, Christina. In the Wake: On Blackness and Being. Duke University Press, 2016.

Shoaff, Jennifer L. “The Right to a Haitian Name and a Dominican Nationality: ‘La Sentencia’ (TC 168–13) and the Politics of Recognition and Belonging.” Center for Black Studies Research, vol. 22, no. 2, 2016, pp. 58–82.

Ulysses, Gina Athena. Why Haiti Needs New Narratives: A Post-Quake Chronicle. Wesleyan University Press, 2015.

Whyte, Kyle P. “Indigenous Science (Fiction) for the Anthropocene: Ancestral Dystopias and Fantasies of Climate Change Crises.” Environment and Planning E: Nature and Space, vol. 1, no. 1–2, pp. 224–42.

Dr Giulia Champion is an Early Career Research and Teaching Fellow at the University of Warwick. She is currently working on transdisciplinary climate change communication, material histories, and the Energy and the Blue Humanities. She recently co-edited a collection entitled Ethical Futures and Global Science Fiction with Palgrave Macmillan (2020), and edited one entitled Interdisciplinary Essays on Cannibalism: Bites Here and There, forthcoming with Routledge in May 2021. She is currently co-editing two journal special issues, one on “Activism and Academia in Latin America” with the Bulletin for Latin American Research with Dr Jessica Wax-Edwards (Royal Holloway) and Gabriel Funari (Oxford), and other one on “Animal Futurity” with Green Letters: Studies in Ecocriticism with Nora Castle (Warwick).

Podcasting in a Pandemic: Dystopian Audio Drama in 2020 Brazil

SFRA Review, vol. 51, no. 2

Symposium: Living in the End Times

Podcasting in a Pandemic: Dystopian Audio Drama in 2020 Brazil

Benjamin Burt

Introduction: Negotiating Dystopia in the Country of the Future

As the twenty-first century enters its third decade, Brazil’s enduring associations with Edenic bounty and predestined prosperity have succumbed to a dystopian imaginary (Sadlier 1-9). Optimistic visions eliding the darker aspects of Brazilian history have long characterized the place that Stefan Zweig famously called A Land of the Future in the subtitle of his 1941 nonfictional book, Brazil. In recent years, however, fatalism has largely eclipsed such hopefulness. The 2016 parliamentary coup against Dilma Rousseff, the election of far-right congressman Jair Bolsonaro as president in 2018, major fires in the Amazon rainforest, and the emergence of COVID-19 in 2020 have fueled a consensus that Brazil has become a dystopia (Fernandes; Fuks; Lavinas and Stefanoni).[1] The pandemic has been particularly damaging, with Bolsonaro overseeing the world’s worst national response according to a January 2021 study by the Lowy Institute. 

As the coronavirus spread in Brazil, most collective artistic production became potentially dangerous. Unlike cinema, television, and the theater, however, podcasting required minimal adaptation to continue apace. Audio dramas released via podcasts thus stand alone as full-cast, fictional productions released in their standard form during the initial months of the pandemic. This article analyzes three such works released in July and August 2020: Jacqueline Vargas’s #TdVaiFicar…  (#EverythingWillBe…), Projeto Pytuna’s Pytuna: Estação Nacional Libertadora (Pytuna: National Liberation Station), and Spotify Studios’ Sofia. While these series are united by their contemporaneous debuts and their exaggerated depictions of social ills, their production histories and the foci of their respective sociopolitical critiques diverge widely. As reflected by #TdVaiFicar’s COVID-centric script, Vargas conceived of her podcast entirely during the pandemic (Vargas, “Como”). Pytuna sought public funding as an audiovisual project yet transformed into an audio drama in 2020 (Crisci). Although it was recorded in lockdown, Pytuna does not incorporate COVID-19 into its critique of Brazilian fascism. In contrast to these independently produced works, Spotify’s Sofia is not an original drama but rather an adaptation of Matthew Derby and Kevin Moffat’s 2018 podcast Sandra.[2] The absence of COVID-19 in the Brazilian version directed by Mabel Cézar is unsurprising given its close adherence to the American original.[3] In fact, the exact timeframe of Sofia’s realization is unspecified in any production materials, meaning that it could have been recorded prior to March 2020. Still, the podcast’s debut during the pandemic recontextualizes its topical yet temporally indefinite depiction of technology’s detrimental social effects. By comparing these three projects, this article considers podcasting’s status as a medium for speculative critique and the uncertain ethics of dystopian narration during moments of collective crisis. 

Compounding Tensions: Form, Genre, and Field of Production

Faced with the logistical challenges of production during pandemic, the selected podcasts adopt similarly conventional approaches to form and narrative. Sofia maintains Sandra’s episodic structure and original sound design,  while the independent productions are similarly serialized and sonically straightforward. Journalist Leonardo Sanchez highlights the theatricality common to all three works, tracing their aesthetic roots to the radionovelas popular in Brazil in the 1940s, 50s, and 60s. This shared traditionalism, however, constricts the shocking elements of each work’s dystopia, characterized by “plac[ing] us directly in a dark and depressing reality, conjuring up a terrifying future if we do not recognize and treat its symptoms in the here and now” (Gordin et al. 2). By maintaining a conception of audio drama as the “theatre of the mind” rooted in radio plays, these podcasts foreground cognitive interpretation without engaging the expressive, avant-garde representational possibilities outlined by Farokh Soltani (200). While more experimental approaches to auditory dystopia might incorporate discordant music or cacophony, for example, these podcasts describe their heightened societies primarily through dialogue and narration. 

These tensions between form and content produce cognitive dissonance that limits the critical possibilities and utopian impulse of each work’s dystopian vision. For Michael Gordin et al., dystopia and utopia comprise a dialectic rooted in reciprocal functions of social critique: “Every utopia always comes with its implied dystopia – whether the dystopia of the status quo, which the utopia is engineered to address, or a dystopia found in the way this specific utopia corrupts itself in practice” (2). Dystopia functions as utopia’s negative, exaggerating social flaws to reveal the need for targeted, constructive imagination. The object of this critique may be explicitly identified, as in the works Lyman Tower Sargent categorizes as “critical dystopia,” or remain implicit (5-7). A work that is uncritical or entirely hopeless, however, should not be considered a dystopia but rather an anti-utopia (Baccolini and Moylan 5).  

A brief overview of the field of Brazilian podcasting will contextualize each work’s embrace of dystopian criticism. For Pierre Bourdieu, fields of cultural production are intricately structured social spaces wherein agents compete for cultural (and economic) capital through a series of position-takings (29-73). The cultural capital available for Brazilian podcasters has risen precipitously in recent years. In his study of the medium, Lúcio Luiz identifies rapid expansion in the early 2010s, arguing that the national “podosphere” included programming on nearly any subject by 2014. By 2019, Brazil was the world’s second largest podcast download market, trailing only the US (Blubrry). 

Despite this increased popularity, profitability has lagged (Luiz). In response, Brazil’s podcasters have traditionally embraced a collaborative ethos (Bonassoli). Due to this sense of community and cheap costs of production, podcasting has remained attractive for creators despite the unlikelihood of financial gain. #TdVaiFicar and Pytuna embody this low-stakes, risk-taking tradition despite the involvement of television professionals in each project. Developments during the late 2010s portend significant changes to the field, however, as domestic and international media companies seek leadership in a consolidating market. 

    Audio dramas retain a niche position in a field dominated by a conversational, nonfictional format derived from live radio. The 2019 edition of the biannual PodPesquisa market research survey, for instance, does not list a single narrative work in its top twenty ranking (Associação). Still, Marcelo Abud et al. identify surplus demand for fictional podcasts (13). Spotify’s investment in Portuguese-language audio drama seeks to capitalize on this dynamic. Initial results suggest that this Swedish firm has effectively leveraged its position as the dominant delivery system for Brazilian podcast listeners (Associacão). Sofia is among the most popular fictional podcasts on Spotify’s rankings and the only featured podcast in the company’s overall top 200 list (, “Spotify Podcasts: Brazil”). While this success might translate to heightened awareness for independent dramas like #TdVaiFicar and Pytuna, Spotify’s billions pose a clear threat to the collaborative spirit underpinning these works. 

Catastrophe, Cognitive Dissonance, and Conformity: Analyzing 2020’s Dystopian Podcasts

    Set in a near future where COVID-19 has run amok, #TdVaiFicar embraces the exaggerated darkness of dystopia. Even so, the podcast’s explicitly “vintage” aesthetics rooted in theatricality and serialization evoke a sense of normality that belies its production during lockdown (Vargas, “Como”). While the series effectively evokes the dramas of yesteryear, this unexpected ordinariness at times dilutes the urgency of the work’s social critique and accentuates the ethical challenge of representing an ongoing crisis. 

The podcast’s primary narrative takes place in a single location: the upscale Edifício Harmonia (Harmony Building) in São Paulo. Millions have died from COVID-19, which has now evolved into multiple, vaccine-resistant strains. Much of the drama is quotidian, but one fantastical subplot follows a conspiracy to forcibly vaccinate all of São Paulo with an airborne, untested remedy. In addition to the main storyline, Vargas intersperses occasional narration by building resident Débora from an unspecified point further into the future. Backed by the sound of rain and thunder, this intradiegetic narrator repeatedly affirms the hopelessness of the narrative future.

At its best, #TdVaiFicar conjures the darkness of March and April 2020 alongside the resilience and hopefulness of this frightening time. During emotional moments like Ulises’s revelation that his physician wife died working in a COVID ward, Vargas takes advantage of the intimacy of earbud listening that Martin Spinelli and Lance Dann identify as a distinguishing characteristic of the podcast medium. Such moments of vivid pathos fortify #TdVaiFicar’s illustration of unexpected solidarity between acquaintances, hinting at the prospect of localized utopian praxis rooted in collective trauma. 

Other elements of the series, however, undercut this constructive impulse. Any political critique remains fragmentary, as Vargas eschews the specificity and historical focus of critical dystopia to focus primarily on interpersonal drama. Since overcoming a pandemic requires large-scale, collective action, this absence dilutes the series’ transformational imagination. Devoid of political perspective, Débora’s dispatches from the narrative future fail to add urgency and instead imply that community-based solidarity is impotent when faced with authoritarian governance. #TdVaiFicar’s social criticism similarly fails to outline any radical utopian horizon for the post-pandemic world. Good intentions reconcile class differences between building residents and employees, while neither the script nor the series’ casting address racial disparities. As proven by the outsized effect of COVID-19 on Brazil’s Black and indigenous populations, these historical divisions must be addressed to realize a more socially just future after the pandemic recedes.[4]

In an interview with Luciano Guaraldo, Vargas asserts that dystopia produces a cathartic effect by allowing an audience to confront their fears in fictional form (Guaraldo). Indeed, a comparison of the real and fictionalized pandemics at the time of #TdVaiFicar’s release would suggest that the worst-case scenario did not come to pass. Nonetheless, the surge of the more infectious P.1 variant across Brazil in February and March 2021 underscores the prematurity of this sense of relief.[5] With Brazil increasingly resembling #TdVaiFicar’s dystopian future, the podcast’s implicit optimism appears misguided. Disconnected from any specific vision of sociopolitical reform, the implication that the pandemic could have been much worse fuels a potentially dangerous sense of complacency that approximates the resigned worldview of anti-utopia.

Pytuna avoids any such fatalism, instead constructing a paradigmatic critical dystopian denouncement of Brazilian fascism. Despite its well-defined target, this podcast adapted by Vitor Paranhos from an idea by Francesco Crisci struggles to synthesize its focus on the present with its broader allegory of twentieth century history. Although the series’ script predates the pandemic, the exclusion of COVID-19 fuels dissonance related to this engagement with current events. Whereas #TdVaiFicar’s virus-centric narrative would benefit from more specific sociopolitical critique, Pytuna reveals how this catastrophe’s gravity challenges critical dystopian representation of other phenomena. 

The series’ narrative recounts the struggles of a racially and sexually diverse group of rebels forced into hiding by a fascist regime in 2025. The journalist Clarissa hopes to bring down the Novo Regimento (New Regime) government by proving that its founder and his wife, evangelical leader Mara Summer, enslaved an indigenous girl. Pytuna’s heightened depiction of religion, politics, and censorship draws from several moments in Brazilian history: the integralist movement of the 1920s and 1930s, the Estado Novo dictatorship of 1937-45, the military dictatorship of 1964-1985, and the Bolsonaro government. However, explicit references to the earlier moments are largely confined to the podcast’s blog while the narrative allegorizes recent scandals.[6] The character of Mara Summer, for instance, derives her name from right-wing agitator Sara Winter, while the story of the exploited adolescent Aracy derives from evangelical government minister Damares Alves’s controversial adoption of an indigenous child. These references underscore dystopian aspects of contemporary Brazilian society, but this specific attention to comparatively minor crises throws the pandemic’s absence into relief. 

Pytuna’s utopian aspirations, outlined in the series’ paratextual materials, are recurrently curbed by a script that emphasizes survival rather than social reconfiguration. In his blog introducing the podcast, Crisci argues that radio can serve as a liberating medium of democratic expression for Brazilians engaged with myriad social justice struggles. The decision to adapt his screenplay into an audio drama due to insufficient funding exemplifies this belief (Crisci). In Pytuna, Paranhos and Crisci incorporate the aesthetics of radio to generate identification with the rebels. As the first episode begins, the listener hears snippets of music and a sermon as if they were “tuning in” to the resistance’s pirate broadcasts. In later episodes, the audience is privy to shortwave radio communication between individual guerillas. However, the rebels’ ultimate failure to broadcast their incriminating evidence appears to acknowledge this medium’s limited cultural reach. While the series could yet become a cult favorite,’s rankings confirm that the series’ creators encountered similar difficulty connecting with a broad audience (“Apple Podcasts: Brazil: Fiction”).

Crisci’s blog also invites collaborators and audience members to project the future they wish to see. The rebels reflect this collectivist ethos, yet they too often appear as secondary characters eclipsed by the vaudeville villainy of Mara Summer. For instance, the series offers minimal details about the resistance’s governance of the Park of Monsters, a rural area contaminated by a Chernobyl-like meltdown, while an interview with Summer fills an entire episode. Apart from its admirable embrace of diversity, Pytuna fails to project a radically different society and instead limits its vision to exaggerating undesirable aspects of the present.

By excluding COVID-19, Pytuna partially avoids the ethical challenges faced by #TdVaiFicar. Nonetheless, this absence could be construed as negligent in a work recorded during the pandemic and otherwise actively engaged with contemporary politics. Given its devastating impact in Brazil, COVID-19 will cast a long shadow over national artistic production regardless of the virus’s narrative inclusion in a particular work. Pytuna thus foreshadows the delicate balance that socially engaged works whose critical priorities lie elsewhere must seek. At the same time, the series’ lack of narrative resolution suggests that Paranhos and Crisci’s critical vision remained constrained by the financial difficulties that undermined their initial ambitions. 

Unlike most independent podcasters, Spotify has vast resources at its disposal. The company’s arrival in Brazil could thus reshape the field of podcast production and the niche of audio drama. Given this context, Sofia’s dystopian bona fides derive as much from its status as a potential harbinger of a homogenous future as from its heightened portrait of technological alienation. The series’ Brazilian localization only changes character and place names, maintaining the rest of the original, American script verbatim. Sofia’s critical view of corporatized technology applies to Brazil, yet the series does not engage with current events or distinct aspects of contemporary Brazilian society. Deprived of the cultural and historical specificity inherent in critical dystopia, the series’ analysis foregrounds a moralistic rejection of technology disconnected from any constructive projection. 

This series’ plot follows Helena as she begins working in a call center whose employees are the true voice behind the popular virtual assistant Sofia. Although she initially aspires to leverage her position to escape her dreary hometown, Helena later perceives the corrupting influence of corporate culture and her employer’s technology. Given the script’s roots in 2018, the exclusion of COVID-19 is unsurprising. However, Sofia maintains a brief discussion of an imaginary pandemic from the original script that now produces a striking moment of cognitive dissonance. Despite the coincidental nature of this incongruity, this moment demonstrates Spotify Studios’ disinterest in adapting Sofia to address Brazilian reality at the time of the podcast’s release. 

The series is entertaining, with high production values and an effective plot twist whereby Helena’s attempts to create interpersonal connections accidentally enable a domestic abuser. After ignoring mounting evidence that technology facilitates destructive impulses, the protagonist abandons her professional ambitions and attempts to save the woman whose life she endangered in the series’ final moments. Still, Helena’s decision does not represent conscious engagement with utopian possibility but rather an attempt to limit the disastrous effects of her corporate ambitions. 

Although Sofia effectively exaggerates negative repercussions of technological ubiquity, the series’ ambition to remain evergreen limits the impact of its critique. The call center’s technical capacities suggest a near-future setting, yet the podcast does not include temporal markers. The topicality of its themes and setting in recognizable geography associate the narrative with contemporary Brazilian reality, yet there are no references to public figures or historical events. This aesthetic does not affect the podcast’s broad denouncement of corporatized technology as morally corrupt, but it does preclude the specificity of critical dystopia. Consequently, Sofia’s social analysis and its final utopian gesture towards a less-connected future are simultaneously sweeping and superficial.

Conclusion: Problems without Solutions 

None of the three podcasts analyzed in this article ultimately project the radical aspirations that Gordin et al. associate with dystopian narratives: “dystopias by definition seek to alter the social order on a fundamental, systemic level. They address root causes and offer revolutionary solutions” (2). #TdVaiFicar effectively recalls the trauma of the pandemic, but its premature satisfaction that this crisis could have been worse leaves little space for the series’ critical impulse. Pytuna approximates the critical dystopian interest in root causes, yet this analysis is too often eclipsed by denouncements of recent scandals. Sofia’s adherence to its American predecessor requires a broad vision that precludes granular critique. At the same time, the indefinite temporality of the Spotify Studios production throws the historical rootedness of the independent works into relief. Neither #TdVaiFicar nor Pytuna outline revolutionary alternatives to the present, but they do analyze contemporary Brazilian society with constructive intent. As a result, it remains possible that future artists (in less trying circumstances) will draw inspiration from these works’ inchoate utopian desires while outlining their own visions for radical change. Such works will likely be marginalized, however, if major corporations continue to colonize the Brazilian podosphere.


[1] Recent headlines confirm the prominence of this pessimistic vision across academic disciplines and national borders. To cite but a few examples, French political scientist Gaspard Estrada (in an interview with Daniela Fernandes), Brazilian author Julián Fuks, and Brazilian economist Lena Lavinas (in an interview with Pablo Stefanoni) each describe Brazil as dystopian in articles published in 2020.

[2] Sandra was produced by Gimlet Media, which was purchased by Spotify in 2019. Part of Spotify’s larger experiment with localization, Sofia was released alongside German-, French-, and Spanish-language translations of Sandra

[3] Cézar’s presence as director of an entirely Brazilian cast explains  Sofia’s classification as a Brazilian podcast.

[4] Consult Dom Phillips’s article “‘Enormous disparities’: Coronavirus Death Rates Expose Brazil’s Deep Racial Inequalities” (2020) for an overview of this dynamic.

[5] This strain of COVID-19 drew international attention by overloading Manaus’s healthcare system in January 2021. It is known colloquially as the Manaus variant or the Brazilian variant.

[6] See Marcela Silva’s  “O fascismo tupiniquim” (2020), included on Pytuna’s page, and Rafael Patiri’s “Plano Cohen” (2020), published on the series’ website.


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Benjamin Burt is an Assistant Adjunct Professor in UCLA’s Department of Spanish and Portuguese and a Research Fellow at the UCLA Center for Brazilian Studies. His dissertation “Cities of Dreams and Despair: Utopia and Dystopia in Contemporary Brazilian Film and Literature” (2020) uses a utopian studies framework to analyze recent representations of Brasília and São Paulo. His current, comparative research project considers ecological dystopia and post-utopia in Brazil, Cuba, and Mexico.