Review of Kim Stanley Robinson

SFRA Review, vol. 51, no. 3

Nonfiction Reviews

Review of Kim Stanley Robinson

Tara Smith

Robert Markley. Kim Stanley Robinson. University of Illinois Press, 2019. Modern Masters of Science Fiction. Paperback. 248 pg. $25.00. ISBN 9780252084584.

Robert Markley’s Kim Stanley Robinson is a wonderfully crafted and targeted introduction to one of the most significant writers in 20th century science fiction. Robinson’s works of fiction depicting climate, interstellar travel, planetary politics, Martian terraforming, and utopic visions have been a vital backdrop in science fiction over the last 40 years which are only becoming more relevant today. Markley’s work in categorizing Robinson’s contributions to science fiction is the perfect volume both for an amateur who is new to Robinson and is unsure where to start, and for well-versed academics pursuing research within this field. Kim Stanley Robinson is neither a chronological index of Robinson’s work, nor is it a biography but rather a panning camera which zooms in and out to tastefully pull apart the key themes, messages, and lessons within Robinson’s major works. Robert Markley is a professor of English at the University of Illinois and is well equipped to write on Robinson, both with his friendship with the author as well as his shared interests. Markley has several publications in the field of climate change, science fiction, and the environment. These include “Ecological Footprints: Crusoe’s Island and Other Alien Environments,” in Eighteenth-Century Fiction; “Literature, Climate, and Time: Between History and Story,” in Climate and Literature; and “Nation and Environment in Britain, 1660-1705,” in Emergent Nation: Early Modern British Literature in Transition, 1660–1714 and represent a small sample of his larger canon of work and themes closely connected to Robinson’s own interests. In the Introduction, Markley examines the threads of ecological, utopian, and Buddhist threads in Robinson’s works. Markley’s volume balances deep literary analysis with a personal and engaging exploration of Robinson and his work. He devotes close analysis to Robinson’s works, treating them with the same weight he has given to other great works of literature such as Milton’s Paradise Lost (1674), whilst still emphasizing the impact of family, background, and connection to the land have had on Robinson’s fiction. This focused exploration reveals an extensive understanding of Robinson’s work and highlights why Robinson is truly a modern Master of Science Fiction.

Markley’s chapters are categorized by key works, with Chapter One being devoted to Robinson’s short fiction and Years of Rice and Salt (2002). Chapter Two and Three focus on the Three Californias Trilogy (1984-90) (which explores different visions of California) and the Mars trilogy (1992-96) respectively. Chapter Four defines Robinson’s Cli-fi through the Capital Trilogy (2004-07), an insightful exploration into this vital theme of ecology within Robinson’s canon. Chapter Five looks at four of Robinson’s novels, from both earlier and later in his career, which critique the familiar motif and celebration of intergalactic travel, unpacking the political and ecological conflicts Earth must face. Finally, Chapter Six looks at Robinson’s most recent works, Aurora (2015) and NY2140 (2017).

Chapter Six neatly tracks the direction of Robinson’s most contemporary works, focusing on two alternate futures for mankind. In Aurora, the ship narrates the lives of intergalactic explorers looking for their new home. The work problematizes and critiques the space fantasies so often explored in science fiction and asks questions about the nature of AI, environmentalism, and the problems of long-term ship life. NY2140 is a story from the perspective of a collection of different characters who try to survive in a highly capitalistic and flawed new society which has become a water-logged New York. The work is highly critical of our current passivity to climate change with a key character, the “citizen,” an unnamed everyman who berates previous generations for doing next to nothing to prevent the disasters of the new Anthropocene. Rather than producing a depressing pessimistic piece, Robinson offers hope through his depictions of people working together, sharing kindness and love, and dismantling capitalistic and selfish structures, remembering that it is vital that we take care of our environment.

Markley’s Kim Stanley Robinson is an affordable and vital exploration into the life, works, and impact of Robinson’s fiction. In the Introduction, Markley identifies the words “utopia,” “explore,” and “reframe” as key words which might arise if a word search were done on the book. In addition, I would like to add “ecology”; whilst politics, space exploration, sociology and science are key themes, Robinson (and Markley) remind us that mother nature always bats last. Robinson’s utopias and works over the last forty years are only becoming more and more relevant. Utopias are sometimes considered as pure fantasies, too removed from current situations. However, Robinson’s Utopias are grounded survival guides for a real-world future, which are only becoming more relevant today. Robinson reminds us the need and demand for skilled and ethically charged writers to create them.

Whether one is researching cli-fi or science fiction and wants to explore deeply the themes of Robinson’s works, or whether one is new to the author and unsure where to start, Markley’s introduction is both comprehensive and accessible.

The literary critic Wayne Booth states that we often “underestimate the extent to which we absorb the values of what we read” and that fiction can shape our ethics and understanding of the world (41). In a similar vein, Robinson believes that we as a society are all writing our own science fiction novel, collaborating together when we read his works. If this is the case, then what better work to mimic than one which promotes ecological conservation and community, and seeks to question capitalistic tropes.


Booth, Wayne. The Company We Keep: An Ethics of Fiction. The University of Chicago Press, 1988.

Tara B. M. Smith is a PhD student at the University of Sydney’s Department of Studies of Religion, Australia. Her PhD thesis explores the significance of Science Fiction in understanding the future and the way the genre is relevant and impacts cultural, social, religious and environmental landscapes. Tara’s interests include conspiracy theories, cli-fi, New Religious Movements, comparative religion and literature portrayals of the environment. 

Review of Joanna Russ

SFRA Review, vol. 51, no. 3

Nonfiction Reviews

Review of Joanna Russ

Anna McFarlane

Gwyneth Jones. Joanna Russ. Illinois UP, 2019. Modern Masters of Science Fiction. Paperback. 234 pg. $22.00. ISBN 9780252084478. Ebook ISBN 9780252051487.

This overview of Joanna Russ’s life’s work is part of the Modern Masters of Science Fiction series, edited by Gary K. Wolfe, which has given a series of in-depth accounts of science fiction writers including William Gibson, Octavia Butler, and Arthur C. Clarke. In this volume, Jones surveys Russ’s career in extreme detail, bringing in the most relevant of secondary sources as well as interviews with those who knew her and worked with her. The book is organised into chapters that each cover a span of years in Russ’s career so that her critical works and reviews are given attention alongside the fiction of those years. This structure serves to foreground the skill of the reviewer to an unusual degree, giving some useful insight into Russ’s thinking at different periods of her life. Russ’s career as a critic was an expression of her love of and commitment to science fiction, and Jones’s structure conveys this to the reader, allowing the reviews to give a wider sense of the science-fictional context for Joanna Russ’s work. There are times where the format stifles the more interesting possibilities of such a survey. For example, the blow-by-blow account of The Female Man’s plot is perhaps a bit unnecessary; Russ’s most well-known work of fiction is recounted chapter-by-chapter and, while Jones’s descriptions are always well-written and engaging, this is perhaps not essential for a book that is still regularly to be found on book shelves and university syllabi. Perhaps this aspect of Jones’s overview will be welcomed by undergraduates and those seeking to discover Russ’s work for the first time, but if one wishes to know a text in such detail it might be wiser simply to read the novel. One might recall the final line of Russ’s short story about female writers, “Swordblades and Poppy Seeds”: “Are you truly curious? Then read our books” (quoted in Jones, 146).

Where this style does come into its own, however, is in Jones’s use of first-hand accounts of science fiction symposia, fan culture, and magazine culture. These elements, so crucial to science fiction’s production and reception, are not often given sufficient breathing space in academic accounts of the genre, and Jones redresses the balance here in some of the highlights of the book. The chapter on the Women in Science Fiction Event gives an account of the Khatru symposium, named after the magazine that organized this exchange of letters on feminism in science fiction between key figures, including Russ, Ursula K. Le Guin, James Tiptree Jr., and Samuel Delany. Jones gives a good account of the flavour of these exchanges, offering the reader the context necessary to unpick the complex personality politics of the debate. Alongside analysis of the letters and context from the contemporary period, Jones gives information gleaned from later interviews with the participants so that their insight into the event decades after the fact gives an account of the importance of these exchanges in shaping the situation of women in science fiction today. This analysis is perhaps the highlight of the book, gleaning precious insight from texts that are not widely studied and available.

The study also gives space for some useful analysis of Russ’s role in the science fiction community, with Jones describing Russ’s situation through a reading of Sam Greenlee’s novel The Spook Who Sat by the Door (1969). Greenlee’s novel tells the story of the first black CIA agent and plays on the multiple meanings of the term “spook” to refer to ghettoized African Americans, spies, and ghosts. The idea of the spook who “sat by the door” is one who is displayed prominently to give a (probably false) impression of the organisation’s progressive credentials. Jones argues that Russ was, in many ways, treated as a “spook who sat by the door” as an uncompromising lesbian feminist in a genre that had a tendency to treat women as inferior. Jones’s commentary here is fascinating, and speaks to other situations in which the sf community tends to fixate on a singular individual in order to compensate for the genre-wide failure to integrate excluded groups – an example might be the profusion of scholarship, and placement on course syllabi, of Octavia Butler as a stand-in for African American women in general, a problem that is only now beginning to be eased through the rise of authors like N. K. Jemisin and Nnedi Okorafor.

Another highlight of the book is the attention it pays to Russ’s feminist activism and writing beyond her commitment to sf. In particular, the section on her essays from 1981-89 (137-44) gives a particularly tantalising account of Russ’s engagement with feminisms during this period, an engagement that encompasses some of the movement’s key conflicts and contradictions, including the risks of essentialism and the tension between the violence of patriarchal sexuality and the urgency of finding an authentic female sexuality; a tension which Russ, in an unlikely move, negotiates through her love of Kirk/Spock slash fiction. The brief quotations from Russ’s essays of this period are an invitation to dive deeper and to discover the ways in which the contemporary debates in feminism shaped not just science fiction and literary criticism, but the parameters of feminist debate and women’s place in society today. Highlights such as these will make this book a valuable addition to any scholar seeking to understand Russ’s work in its literary and political context, while offering a detailed introduction for those approaching it for the first time.

Anna McFarlane is a British Academy Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of Glasgow working on traumatic pregnancy and its expression in science fiction, horror, and fantasy. She is the co-editor of The Routledge Companion to Cyberpunk Culture (2019) and is co-editing The Edinburgh Companion to Science Fiction and the Medical Humanities. Her first monograph is a study of William Gibson’s novels, Cyberpunk Culture and Psychology: Seeing Through the Mirrorshades (Routledge 2021).

Review of Italian Science Fiction

SFRA Review, vol. 51, no. 3

Nonfiction Reviews

Review of Italian Science Fiction

Terence Sawyers

Simone Brioni and Daniele Comberiati. Italian Science Fiction: The Other in Literature and Film. Palgrave Macmillan, 2019. Studies in Global Science Fiction. Hardcover. xvi  + 289 pg. $84.99. ISBN 9783030193256. eBook ISBN 9783030193263.

The “Anglophone Bias” in science fiction consumption and scholarship is an unfortunate phenomenon whose validity, causes, and outcomes have been discussed at length. Indeed, select a science fiction aficionado at random from any English-speaking country, and generally they would be hard-pressed, if called upon, to provide any detail about the science fiction product of, say, Italy, or why they should know or care about any of it at all. This study provides that reader with a lively, coherent education while leaving a residue of unsated curiosity on their palate. Brioni and Comberiati’s book explores how the speculative fiction of modern Italy, be it in literature, film, or the sequential art narrative, has presented The Other, and to what end. The authors concede that Italian science fiction published post-unification (1861) may on its face seem to be derivative of more well-known English language works, but analysis of it informed by social and historical context reveals truths about definitions of Italian national and regional identity and how Italy’s minorities are perceived and valued. These insights extrapolate to postcolonial and neocolonial situations, and point the way to the latent value of science fiction, in “other” settings.

The monograph begins chronologically, with an examination of the relationship between colonialism, exploration narratives/travel writing, and early science fiction produced after the unification of Italy in 1861. Even before the birth of the nation, science fiction writers imagined an Italian future where outsiders such as Germany and the Vatican had been dispatched. Later, travel periodicals such as Giornale illustrato dei viaggi e delle avventure di terra e di mare [Illustrated Journal of Travels and Adventures on Land and Sea] (1878-1931) set up a dichotomy between the idealized civilized Italian explorer and the savage indigene. An important function of this dichotomy was to justify colonization and to represent it as a righteous endeavor so that the explorer was not merely appropriating land, resources, and labor, but instead providing scientific progress, order, and moral direction to beings who were perceived/depicted as little more than animals and thus lacking in any legitimate right to the exotic paradises they inhabited and the precious natural resources therein. Writers such as Paolo Mategazza, Emilio Salgari, and Yambo published science fiction stories in the early twentieth century that had all the trappings of travel writing, but these journeys were either to other planets or the Earth’s future; the protagonists continued to be Italian or European adventurers who were left to contend with and bring a civilizing force to aliens that were merely exaggerated contemporaneous racial stereotypes of Earth’s colonized peoples. Thus, early Italian science fiction provided some of the fabric in the curtain that was placed between “Italian-ness” and “Other.”

Later chapters look at narrative reactions and responses to the perceived challenges Italian national identity, calcified by tradition, faced by merely existing in the proximity of other cultures. In the decades following World War II, Italy endured a monkey’s paw-like material prosperity followed by profound political turmoil. Apocalyptic films explored the resulting fractures to Italian culture with varying levels of success and ambiguity. In Omicron (1963) the advance party for an alien invasion observes Italian society through the eyes of a southern migrant factory worker. L’ultimo uomo della terra (The Last Man on Earth [1964]) shows the last stand of an isolated white middle-aged male in the ruins of a world overrun by zombie-vampire hybrids in black shirts. In I cannibali (The Cannibals [1970]) a young heroine and her foreign companion push back against the constraints imposed upon them by the older generation in an authoritarian near-future Milan. The discussion of these latter two films affords the reader insight into how works from other times and places—Richard Matheson’s I am Legend (1954) and Sophocles’ Antigone (442 BCE)—translate into and comment on the anxieties of modern Italy.

Comberiati discusses Michele Medda, Antonio Serra, and Bepi Vigna’s dystopian science fiction fumetti Nathan Never (1991-present), which “focuses on the fear of contamination, and the borders that separate ‘pure’ humans and aliens, mutants, or cyborgs” (169). Never exists in a complex vertical society where the privileged live high above and away from the downtrodden. His adventures have him mix it up with the spectrum of social groups, and he sometimes serves as the “white messianic figure” that protects the helpless in a cyberpunk world (170). Another popular sequential art narrative, Stefano Tamburini, Tanino Liberatore, and Alain Chabat’s RanXerox (1978-97) features a title character who is as far from a charismatic white savior as one can get—he’s a hybrid of a human and a copy machine making his way in yet another vertically stratified and unequal society. RanXerox is more durable than humans in moving about his violently chaotic setting, and thus, useful to employers, allies, and friends, but is not valued as a human would be. As they move forward in time, Brioni and Comberiati explore anxieties related to the increasing presence of Chinese residents in Italy and Islamophobia in the wake of the September 11th attacks. Tommaso Pincio’s Cinacitta (Chinacity [2008]) and Pierfrancesco Prosperi’s La casa dell’Islam (The House of Islam [2009]) speculate as to what an Italy ruled by Chinese and Muslim majorities, respectively, would look like.

Aside from demographic dread, uniquely Italian issues are discussed within the context of the contemporary science fiction narrative. One such example is the economic disparity and political tension between the North and the South. Booms and upswings have not distributed prosperity equally across the country. Antonio Pennacchi’s Storia di Karel (Karel’s Story [2013]) “is the struggle between those who want to modernize and those who want to maintain the traditional way of life, a key theme in debates on the Southern Question” (186). In Gabriele Salvatore’s 1997 film Nirvana, the separatist dreams of the Lega Nord have come to pass and the resulting Northern Conglomerate is the economic and political center of the world. Quando le radici [When the Roots 1977]) shows how even economic boom times can devastate rural communities. The protagonist of that story is able to find meaning and authenticity only by adopting the way of life of the Romani, an oft demonized, misrepresented, and thus, misunderstood minority that has inhabited Italy since the Middle Ages, and has been the subject of persecution for just as long.

The study closes with an exploration of alternate histories that struggle to reckon with the legacy of the Fascist Era. The revisions of Italian history focus on Italy, in one way or another, joining the Allies and exiting World War II as one of its victors. While works by Enrico Brizzi (L’inattesa piega degli eventi [The Unexpected Turn of Events, 2008], La nostra Guerra [Our War, 2009], and Lorenzo Pellegrini e le donne [Lorenzo Pellegrini and The Women, 2012]), and Stefano Amato repudiate fascism, Mario Farneti’s “Fantafascist Trilogy” (2001-2006) celebrates it as a source of energy and power that can repel potential invaders. In Amato’s Il 49esimo Stato (The 49th State [2013]), Sicily becomes the 49th state of the United States and is thus more baldly susceptible to neocolonialism and Cold War machinations (including the collusion of corporations, the CIA, and organized crime). Brizzi’s  version of postwar Italy gains new colonies in Africa and Europe, but when Mussolini, upon his death, is succeeded by the moderate wing of the Fascist Party, the result is a contemporary Italy that in many ways resembles our own.

Brioni and Comberiati’s text is of great interest to both the scholar and the general reader who has more than a passing interest in Italian history and culture, postcolonial studies, and the effective use of science fiction to explore and uncover the important social and political issues to yield insights. Even when coming to the book’s subject, Italian science fiction, with healthy skepticism and modest expectations, readers will find that the information presented here is quite fascinating and leaves them wanting to know even more. Since Italy has been home to such a diversity of political entities, institutions, and systems of government over time, contemporary studies of it are not interesting just for their own sake, but also may provide revelations that can be applied to other subjects. Going into the book, many readers will have no context for uniquely Italian terminology, concepts, and historical events such as “Piano Solo,” “Lega Norda,” and the EUR neighborhood, but the authors do an excellent job of quickly and clearly explaining them and their relevance. The book itself is well-grounded in postcolonial theory and by the end readers have seen, as promised, just who “The Other” is via the prism of one nation’s contemporary science fiction and are well-equipped to apply what was learned to other subjects. The authors have provided a sound template to anyone who might do a similar study featuring sf works from another country or region on a particular topic, and they offer up to the scholar suggestions of authors and works for study and possible future translation.

Sean Memolo is a lover of comic books, SF, jazz, Boston Terriers, and calcio. He studied and lectured at East Carolina University in the earlier part of this century and now works in the software industry but writes the odd review or conference paper about science fiction here and there. Currently he lives a rather happy quiet life with his wife, two children, and two dogs in the land of Northern Alabama.

Review of High Weirdness: Drugs, Esoterica and Visionary Experience in the Seventies

SFRA Review, vol. 51, no. 3

Nonfiction Reviews

Review of High Weirdness: Drugs, Esoterica and Visionary Experience in the Seventies

Terence Sawyers

Erik Davis. High Weirdness: Drugs, Esoterica, and Visionary Experience in the Seventies. The MIT Press, 2019. Hardback. 550 pg. $34.95. ISBN 9781907222764.

Erik Davis’s most recent foray into the weird currents of the post-war counterculture complements his previous examination of similar territory. Where TechGnosis (1998) unfurled the occult foundations of our modern information technologies and Nomad Codes (2010) offered a glossary of key ideas in contemporary occulture, High Weirdness is a collection of three case studies of key “counter cultural seekers” that places them firmly within the context of California in the early to mid 1970s (31). Taking a critical approach described as incomplete constructivism, Davis strives to map the dynamic forces that structured the first half of the 1970s and had such a profound effect on his three seekers: Robert Anton Wilson, Terence McKenna, and Philip K. Dick. His case studies for each of these authors focus, in turn, on extraordinary experiences that they each reported, and the various methods they each deployed to help them find meaning in those experiences. This is an intimidating book for many reasons, not least of all the 550-page doorstop physicality of the current hard-back edition, so Davis’s arguments and approach will prove challenging to many humanities scholars, especially those wedded to prevailing discourses within literary studies.

When approaching the epiphanic experiences of his three psychonauts (a term he uses throughout to collectively describe his three subjects), Davis takes “the risky move of trying to take them seriously without taking them literally” (6). Religious experience is not examined here at arm’s length or with any attempt to explain away the experiences, for example, as delusion, as hallucination, etc. Instead, it is taken for granted that in each case something was experienced, and there is no handwringing on Davis’ part about how to either taxonomize these experiences or provide ontological justifications for them. Instead, the focus is on producing maps of “influences, resonances and structural dynamics” that reveal the interrelated and looping lines of force that shape, and are in turn shaped by, these religious experiences (7). It is this post-critical approach that may prove incompatible with traditions of Enlightened materialism that have been so central to the discipline of science fiction studies.

This, more religious than literary studies, approach is influenced by William James’s The Varieties of Religious Experience (1902). James’s text exemplifies the technique of incomplete constructivism by only partially committing itself to the tenets of social constructivism, hence its incompleteness. For James, and in turn Davis, strict adherence to social constructivism is too reductive, reducing all experience to the social forces that shape them while leaving no space for encounters from within or without; from within the biological bodies we inhabit or from a without that is situated outside of or beyond the frame of structured reality. Davis argues that these two spheres, the body and the cosmic, are not blank slates, with the consequence that although encounters will be structured–“organized and exploited” (23)–by social forces, they cannot always be reduced to them.

Davis’s transgressive engagement with the prevailing norms of humanities scholarship is furthered by his sympathy for the ideas of polarizing public intellectual Bruno Latour. Latour’s storied career has seen his arguments gain both vociferous attack and celebrated acceptance across the disparate schools that make up the broader humanities. For Davis, Latour is useful twice over. First, Latour’s mapping of the discourses of power that structure knowledge production and legitimization emboldens Davis in his position-taking as a primarily religious studies scholar, a sub-discipline that has (until recently) been in the proverbial doghouse. Second, Latour’s problematizing of cause and effects arguments through his concept of networks and forces of interrelation is a key tool that Davis deploys in order to unlock the interrelationships that produce, and are produced by, the various encounters explored as part of High Weirdness.

Though I have described Davis’s tome as intimidating, this can be somewhat pushed against. Though a dense text, filled with challenging ideas, the structure is designed to be modular, which is often aimed for in longform academic writing but rarely achieves this degree of success. Chapters are separated into sub-sections, and then into further entries that average out at about 4-5 pages each. Davis invites readers to jump about and read the entries that appeal to them, in the order they choose. Each entry is both discrete from its neighbors while also being one part of a larger jigsaw. This allows flexibility for the reader, who may be pursuing a specific narrow interest, may want to pore over the same entry repeatedly or may want to read the book cover to cover. There are three comparisons that I think are apt here when considering this modular reading as an actualization of potential: first is The Atrocity Exhibition (1970) by JG Ballard; second are the exegetical writings of Philip K. Dick, which are synchronistically covered as part of High Weirdness’ case study on Dick; third the Bible, and other religious books that invite one to move between procedural and selective reading.

The success of this modularity makes Davis’s work far more accessible than might be suspected. One does not need a strong foundation in occult literature or religious studies before tackling this text, nor is it necessary to be a keen reader of any of the three writers focused on: Wilson, McKenna and Dick. However, those already conversant in the existing scholarship are afforded the opportunity to see a leading scholar of religious studies act as part of the vanguard of an increasingly self-confident sub-discipline no longer satisfied with existing on the periphery of the broad humanities.

For science fiction scholars, critical frameworks being developed as part of the respective studies of the weird, the occult, and New Religious Movements can prove challenging to those wedded to secular Marxism and ideology critique (which both make up part of the foundational DNA of SF studies). For scholars who welcome this challenge, the post-critical approach used by Davis could open new approaches to SF texts as well as productively problematizing the boundaries of genre and of form that characterize speculative expression. In this respect, High Weirdness puts its money where its mouth is by including Philip K. Dick as its third, and most extensive, case study. Dick, who proved so important to the legitimatization of the nascent discipline of Science Fiction studies, may also prove, via the work of scholars like Davis, to be a key gatekeeper that moves SF studies into the weirder territory that lies beyond.

Terence Sawyers is a film and media scholar who insists he is not a SF scholar; despite this the vast majority of his research continues to overlap with SF scholarship, go figure. His primary research area is the adaptation of SF writer Philip K. Dick into film and television. He also side-lines as a conspiracy theory theorist and is a dabbler in the history of occultism.  When not sifting through layers of simulated hyperreality he can be found hosting About Film (, a regular public engagement event held in the meat-space that is Edinburgh, Scotland.

Review of Star Wars Meets the Eras of Feminism

SFRA Review, vol. 51, no. 3

Nonfiction Reviews

Review of Star Wars Meets the Eras of Feminism

Kara Kennedy

Valerie Estelle Frankel. Star Wars Meets the Eras of Feminism: Weighing All the Galaxy’s Women Great and Small. Lexington Books, 2018. Hardcover. 353 pg. $120.00. ISBN 9781498583862.

Valerie Estelle Frankel takes on the daunting task of analyzing all of the women who appear in the Star Wars Universe in Star Wars Meets the Eras of Feminism: Weighing All the Galaxy’s Women Great and Small. The resulting study is a pleasurable and enlightening trip through the decades of Star Wars media, where one may be simultaneously cringing in agreement with the criticism while marveling at the many interesting ways of examining the representation of women. It is clear that Frankel has a solid grasp of the vast amount of material to be able to discuss women in the films and television shows, as well as the comics, novels, video games, and other media from the legacy expanded universe and the Disney canon. It is unfortunate that the book was published before the final film in the Sequel Trilogy was released, but there is certainly room for continuing studies as new media are produced. For those who have not had the time to keep up with the Star Wars Universe, this book may spark interest in reengaging with the franchise to discover characters such as rogue archaeologist Doctor Aphra, who currently only appears in the comics and an audio drama adaptation.

Frankel takes advantage of a variety of metrics in her analysis, moving between lenses such as the male gaze, the Bechdel Test, agency, and diversity to discuss the representation of women and intersectional issues of race and sexuality. The resulting richness and multi-layered nature of the analysis demonstrate the value in drawing from a wide theoretical pool. Her study brings together conversations and critical perspectives largely occurring in popular culture publications alongside theories and analyses found in academic articles and books. This provides a real sense of a larger picture unfolding in the world of science fiction and fantasy about the place of women and other marginalized people.

Frankel begins her study in section one, “The Original Trilogy Meets Seventies Feminism,” with a thorough discussion of Princess Leia Organa and other Original Trilogy women in relation to second wave feminism of the 1970s. She weaves together commentary on Leia’s costuming, changes in agency across the trilogy, and the extent to which she reflects tropes about princesses and damsels in distress. Frankel acknowledges the breakthroughs Leia represented in the historical time period, but she does not shy away from interrogating problematic areas. The analyses in this section of characters such as Leia, Mon Mothma, and Oola the Twi’lek are important in establishing the context for the discussion of women in Star Wars and also allowing for comparisons with later depictions of the same characters or species. Frankel thus carefully layers her arguments to be able to demonstrate some movement away from stereotypical portrayals of women.

In “The Girl Power Prequel Era,” Frankel moves into an analysis of women in the Prequel Trilogy and legacy multimedia and how they reflect aspects of third wave feminism and girl power. For example, her critique of Padmé/Queen Amidala reveals a complicated web of images that help explain the difficulty in labeling female characters in simple terms. Indeed, Frankel calls this “an era of contradictions, seen in the variously empowered and weakened character” (43). The analysis of Padmé’s complex costumes and the downward trend of her agency is insightful and further strengthened when placed in conversation with the idealistic markers of third wave feminism and key texts such as Mary Pipher’s Reviving Ophelia: Saving the Selves of Adolescent Girls (1994).

In the final section, “The Fourth Wave Hits the Sequel Era,” Frankel covers the increased presence of women in the franchise since 2008 and explores the extent to which they align with fourth wave feminism. Moving fluidly between major characters, their expanded characterization in other media, and minor characters, she is able to show both progression and setbacks in the franchise’s movement toward greater inclusion of a diverse range of women. There is significant attention to female Force users such as Ahsoka Tano and Rey, and the increased diversity in the Sequel Trilogy and Rogue One. Even the more experimental media of the Forces of Destiny cartoons—designed as tasters of the larger universe for young girls—receive coverage. The closing analysis of the women in Solo shows a return to traditional archetypes; however, Frankel suggests that the droid L3-37 represents a stand-out character as “a delightful voice for empowerment” who, though cast as humorous, reminds the audience of the rights some characters must still fight for (318).

Accessible and engaging, this book offers a solid addition to the growing body of scholarship on Star Wars, and the representation of women and diversity in particular. One of its advantages is its comprehensiveness with regards to the sheer amount of media covered in both primary and secondary sources. The strength of Frankel’s arguments is fairly even throughout, though there are some rare places where her conclusions seem overly generous in trying to find positive representations. She relies on relevant direct quotations to support the thread of her analysis, which enables a multiplicity of voices to comment on the material under discussion. The study thus adds value by bringing key points of previous material in conversation with each other as filtered through Frankel’s perspective of each character, though sometimes the other voices dwarf Frankel’s own. This book would be useful to scholars and students in a cross-section of disciplines including science fiction and fantasy studies, feminist and women’s studies, film and media studies, and cultural studies. However, it is also presented and written in a way that can engage general readers with an interest in analyses of the Star Wars universe.

Kara Kennedy is a researcher and writer in the areas of science fiction and digital literacy. Her doctoral work focused on women in Frank Herbert’s Dune series, and she has also published articles on world-building in the series. She has forthcoming works on other topics in the series and posts literary analyses of Dune for a mainstream audience on her blog at

Review of Inception (Constellations: Studies in Science Fiction Film and TV)

SFRA Review, vol. 51, no. 3

Nonfiction Reviews

Review of Inception (Constellations: Studies in Science Fiction Film and TV)

Bruce A. Beatie

David Carter. Inception. New York: Auteur (Columbia UP), 2019. Constellations: Studies in Science Fiction Film and TV. Paperback. 120 pg. $15.00. ISBN 9781911325055. E-book $14.99. ISBN 9781911325062.

This small (3.5” x 7.5”) and short (120 pages) monograph is part of a brief series published since 2016; the first volume on Blade Runner by Sean Redmond had appeared first in 2008 as “Studying Blade Runner.”  Jon Towlson’s Close Encounters appeared in 2016, and all of the subsequent half dozen in the series appeared in 2019.  I was interested in reviewing this volume because, shortly after Christopher Nolan’s film appeared in 2010, I reviewed a 2011 volume of semi-scholarly articles on Inception (Extrapolation 54, Winter 2013, pp. 316ff.), and I wanted to see how critical views might have changed over those years.  What strikes the reader immediately, however, is that within the book’s ten numbered chapters plus “Notes” and “General Bibliography” are 57 titled sections and subsections—an average of some two pages per section; the “Contents” page alone lists seven of the subtitles. Clearly, the brevity of these sections would not do justice to a discussion of changing critical views. In a very brief “Introductory Remarks” that includes a “Synopsis” of Nolan’s films (7-8), Carter introduces us to “Christopher Nolan: The Director and His Work” (9-29) with summaries of his films from Memento (2000) to Dunkirk (2017) and stills from all the films but the second and third Batman films. After a very brief chapter 3 (“The Industrial Context of Inception from Production to Premiere” 31-32), chapter 4 (“The Question of Genre” 33-49) discusses “The Notion of  Genre,” “The Heist Film Genre,” and “The Sci-Fi Film Genre,” concluding with a brief “Note on Tech-Noir.”  In chapter 5 (“Dreams in the Cinema 51-78), Carter finally focuses on the title film Inception; after shorter subsections, he turns to “How Inception Uses Dream Theory” (54-78), illustrated with eleven images from the film.

In chapter 6 (“Cobb’s Emotional Journey: From Guilt to Redemption” 51-78), the only chapter with no subtitles, Carter provides a close analysis of the film itself. The only image is taken from the end of the film: the image of “The spinning top, now still” (88). The chapter concludes: “The final ambiguous image in the film of the spinning top and Cobb’s reunion with the children can therefore be interpreted as implying that maybe it does not matter whether the scene is real or not” (93).

The concluding chapters are very brief:  Chapter 7 (“Inception and the Arts,” 95-97) includes images by M. C. Escher and Francis Bacon. Chapter 8 (“The Ending:  Dreams, Reality and Ambiguity” 99-100) provides a narrative of the final minutes of the film, in which Cobb and the team apparently return to current reality; it includes an unidentified photo (100), titled “Dream or reality?” which looks like a desktop covered with obscure objects, perhaps toys. The penultimate chapter 9 (“Critical Reception” 101-103) briefly describes a few reviews, negative and positive. In the final chapter (“10. Further Lines of Inquiry” 105-108), the most interesting line provides a partial text, in both French and English, of the Edith Piaf song, a few lines of which one hears frequently in the film. The “Notes” section (109-113) contains the sources of texts referred to in the text, and the “General Bibliography” (115-116) lists “works recommended for further reading on specific topics.”

Since my university library does not own any of the monographs in this series, I cannot compare Carter’s study of Inception with the other publications in this series. The substance of the book is in chapter 4-6, but only chapter 6 deals exclusively with the film. What I found most interesting was the discussion in chapter 4 of Inception as a heist film, a concept new to me. Carter’s only direct reference for the film is to Daryl Lee’s 2014 The Heist Film: Stealing with Style; a check of its contents shows that Lee does not deal with Carter’s Inception. Carter fails to mention sources available on the internet, including an online article of 2018 (“The Best 25 Heist Films of All Time”) that mentions Inception as the 5th best heist film. Wikipedia has a very detailed 30-page anonymous entry on Inception with 178 references; only some 30 of the references were published later than 2012. Carter’s “Notes” fail to mention the 2011 collection of studies I mentioned in the first paragraph; in that book, the essay by Sylvia Wenmacker is the most instructive writing on Nolan’s film than I have come across. In short, this little book is, for me a least, more frustrating than informative.

Review of Science Fiction Rebels: The Story of the Science Fiction Magazines from 1981 to 1990

SFRA Review, vol. 51, no. 3

Nonfiction Reviews

Review of Science Fiction Rebels: The Story of the Science Fiction Magazines from 1981 to 1990

Bryce L. King

Mike Ashley. Science Fiction Rebels: The Story of the Science-Fiction Magazines from 1981 to 1990. Liverpool University Press, 2020 (hardback: 2016). Liverpool Science Fiction Texts and Studies 54. Paperback. 495 pg. $39.10. ISBN 9781789621716. Ebook ISBN 9781781384404.

To fully and accurately account for the history of science fiction remains a difficult task for scholars of the genre due to its ever-changing subject matter, fluctuating surges, and mixed public receptions, as well as the bordering genres it can include, depending on who one asks and in what time period, and the colossal range and measure of the genre in itself. It seems to be to this end that Mike Ashley, a legendary scholar, editor, and anthologist of science fiction, fantasy, and mystery, attempts to recount the history of specifically science fiction (hereafter “SF”) magazines by time period in his ambitious collection of volumes entitled The History of the Science Fiction Magazine. The series includes the previously published The Time Machines (2001), Transformations (2005), and Gateways to Forever (2007) and the subject of this review, Science Fiction Rebels: The Story of the Science-Fiction Magazines from 1981 to 1990 (2016), the latest volume, although a projected fifth volume entitled The Rise of the Cyber Chronicles is set to cover the 1990s. Unlike most existing scholarship on science fiction magazines, Science Fiction Rebels microscopically focuses on the publication and editing history of the magazines while occasionally mentioning the trends of the genre, namely the cyberpunk movement, slipstream SF, and the radical hard-SF renaissance. This volume heavily centers on the editors and sales trends of the SF magazines around the world along with their format, level of professionalism, circulation, and samples of their content. Science Fiction Rebels proves to be an irreplaceable companion for study of SF magazine editorship in the 1980s and, though it is not ideal for new or casual SF fans, those interested in specifically SF magazine editing will find this volume as a useful resource for surveying editorial hardships and might view the decade as more difficult for SF writers to prosper in than originally thought. Besides arguing for better publishing and editorial techniques, Ashley displays no interest in hypothesizing an argument from his data, but instead offers it up to future scholars as a prime literary source on SF magazine culture in the 80s.

In Science Fiction Rebels, Ashley organizes the magazines by prozine—meaning professional magazine, semi-prozine—to mean semi-professional magazine, and small press magazines, approaching them in mostly that respective order. Ashley also divides the magazines by region, starting with America, Britain, Canada, Ireland, Australia, and South Africa, ending with non-English speaking regions covering Asia, Western Europe, Eastern Europe, and the Americas. Ashley concludes the volume with five appendixes that are astoundingly detailed and absolutely unparalleled in bibliographic utility, recounting the names and issues of the magazines, a directory of the magazines’ editors and cover artists, and the magazines’ circulation figures. Interviews with editors, a few authors, and clips of reviews and even some magazine reader reviews are frequently made use of throughout Science Fiction Rebels to establish public attitudes and behind-the-scenes stories surrounding the magazines.

Ashley spends little time speculating or judging what makes an SF magazine attractive or successful, but rather suggests that future magazines learn from the mistakes of the many failed magazines of the 1980s. He postulates, using the recounted tales of fallen SF magazines in the 80s as evidence, that insufficient funding, inadequate planning, and lack of an open, devout, manifold publishing and editing team as combined and individual factors steered the magazines, professional or not, into their demise. Other than this, however, Ashley does not attempt to argue over the best of the magazines, their content or art, nor the theory surrounding their content. Ashely’s main objective in Science Fiction Rebels is to give a mostly historical account of SF magazines in the 80’s, not more, not less, with microscopic detail and momentous collections of data, focusing mainly on the editorial side of the magazines. Throughout Science Fiction Rebels, the rapid imparting of editorial history and name-dropping might be overwhelming for less than serious SF readers, but to advanced SF enthusiasts and scholars, the brisk history is welcome for academic purposes, and the name-dropping is an exciting discovery of beloved authors who started their careers in SF magazines. However, to both types of readers the repetitiveness of recounting the back story and demise of the literary magazines can become tedious.

Thus to start, in chapters 1 and 2, Ashley recounts the stories of the prozine SF magazines, Isaac Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine, The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, Weird Tales, Amazing Stories and Analog Science Fiction and Fact, and Omni. Here Ashley retells the birth of cyberpunk and the competition between SF magazines as well as their conformity to a slick magazine design or tradition, as well as the ways in which formatting and content changed and affected sales. Ashley briefly mentions public opinions on each magazine while paying most attention to the editors behind the magazines and sales and circulation history. As with most of the magazines discussed in Science Fiction Rebels, Ashley offers brief bibliographies of some authors and summaries of stories within these magazines to provide a glimpse into what each magazines’ interests and readerships were like. Ashley spends the most time on these magazines, rightfully so given their legendary legacies and impact on not only SF magazines, but SF as a whole.

Chapter 3 details the related cousin of SF in horror and dark SF, mentioning splatter punk. Here Ashley describes the histories of Rod Sterling’s The Twilight Zone magazine, Night Cry, The Horror Show, and Pulphouse, amongst other small press magazines, giving an overview of their birth, life, and fall. Here Ashley draws attention to the blurring and mixing of genres that SF was undergoing in America while also emphasizing the competition between SF and other genre magazines. Recounting the hard-SF renaissance, though there is relatively little commentary on what contributed to it, chapters 4 and 5 tell the histories of SF magazines in English-speaking countries other than America. These include Interzone, Something Else, Back Brain Recluse, Dream Magazine, Stargate, Tesseracts, Omega, and, of course, others. These chapters illuminate the reversion to hard SF in other countries besides America, which was experiencing a pushing of SF boundaries and a “Cyberpunk Daze,” (212)  as Ashley coins it.

At the end, chapters 6 and 7 encompass slipstream SF’s and speculative fiction’s places in the SF magazines, discussing the history of Last Wave, Modern Stories, New Pathways and others. The chapter also offers a much-needed highlight on the short-lived but influential small press magazines of the 80s. Lastly and interestingly, appendix 1, which seems out of place as an appendix and could have easily been a chapter 8, details the history of SF magazines that took root in non-English speaking countries; here Ashley manages to cover multiple countries from every region of the world. The other appendixes are collections of data tables involving sales figures, production, and contributors.

Though Science Fiction Rebels offers an unparalleled collection of data and a detailed editorial history, it excludes historical events and social justice issues of the 80s that impacted SF. For instance, there is no mention of the AIDS epidemic, the Cold War, the election of Sandra Day O’Connor (the first female U.S. Supreme Court Justice), the Ronald Reagan campaign, or the savings and loan crisis, all of which impacted either the economic or the content side of SF. Ashley makes no connection between general history and the history of SF magazines, not even to make commentary or connections on the impact of the world on the genre, its authors or editors.

There is also no mention of or allusion to the relationship between SF magazines and the massive blockbuster SF films of the 80s such as Back to the Future (1985), E.T. (1982), Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back (1980),  or Star Wars: The Return of the Jedi (1983), all of which sparked mainstream and widespread interest in SF. Ashley does not speculate about whether the magazines received any benefit from this SF explosion or if the content was influenced by these major films. Given the hard-SF renaissance, it seems impossible to not discuss these major films and their impact on authors. Part of this omission could be due to the fact that Ashley seems less interested in analyzing the literary content of the magazines than in focusing on the sales and editorship of the magazines, in an attempt to avoid arguments over the magazines’ stories and literary themes. This remains the only, albeit major, downside of Science Fiction Rebels. With no opinion or connection between the world of SF outside of magazines, a microscopic view of the 1980s SF magazines editorship becomes the result.

Besides its lack of historical context and linguistic repetitiveness, Science Fiction Rebels fills a niche but tremendous void in SF scholarship of 80s literary magazines and history. Giving an origin story of cyberpunk and slipstream SF, along with over 200 pages of appendices of editorial data and a developed recounting of the history behind the SF magazines of the 80s, Ashley gives other scholars of SF magazines valuable insight to the world of editing SF in one of the world’s most eclectic decades. Ashley makes Science Fiction Rebels a scholarly must-have for research and editorial history within 80s SF.

Bryce King is an MA graduate student and instructor at Florida Atlantic University with a concentration in SF and Fantasy. She is an ICFA, PCA/ACA and SFRA member and has presented at each of the 2021 conferences for those associations. Her master’s thesis will be an ecocritical look at The Witcher series and she is a proud working member of Heartwood Books and Art, an antiquarian and rare book seller.