Fragmentation, Coherence and Worldbuilding in Magic: The Gathering

SFRA Review, vol. 51, no. 4

Selected SFRA 2021 Papers

Fragmentation, Coherence and Worldbuilding in Magic: The Gathering

Chris Pak

Wizards of the Coast’s Magic: The Gathering is a popular Trading Card Game, or TCG, that offers a case study of a transmedia enterprise that extends the critical debate about worldbuilding (Pak). Magic’s development as a game and storyworld depends on the fragmentation and reconstitution of elements that are continually arranged and re-imagined to build coherent narratives in multiple worlds. TCGs are suited to transmedia extension and highlight issues related to narrative, the mechanics and culture of gameplay, and the multiple constituencies that Wizards seeks to engage.

Magic’s formal properties offer us ways to think through issues related to transmedia, play, and worldbuilding. Reflecting on Magic also raises fascinating parallels to meaning-making and engagement for other games and other forms of speculative fictions. I focus today on the expansion of Magic’s narrative elements in relation to play, along with the collaborations between players in constructing stories from fragmentary elements represented by the cards themselves. I consider Magic’s early development to reflect on the logic of its worldbuilding and some of its early narrative strategies but will show how these approaches are still relevant to how Magic works today vis-à-vis worldbuilding.   

First, some background on what Magic is. Magic is a TCG created by Richard Garfield for the games publisher Wizards of the Coast. It was the first-ever TCG upon its release in 1993 and it prepared audiences and markets for the development of the TCG industry. The first core set, called Alpha, contained 295 cards; since 1993 well over a hundred core sets and expansions have been released, along with merchandise, novels, comics, digital games and platforms, and a wealth of fan-created content. Although Wizards has managed a long-standing professional competitive scene, this year that professional support has been withdrawn and the future of competitive play is uncertain.

Magic can be played in a number of ways, with various formats using different rules and card pools drawn from the total archive of cards. Many professional and casual players stream their games, for example, a competitive player, Luis Scott-Vargas, whose Twitch chat has been known to host spontaneous fantasy book discussions and to a visiting Brandon Sanderson (Figure 1). What is important about this brief introduction is how Magic exists as a multi-format analog and digital enterprise with official and unofficial products, discussions, and gaming contexts organised around the core experience of play. As demonstrated in the clip, it’s typically played between two players, who nominally take turns accruing resources and establishing control over the play environment (ChannelFireball). At the start of the game players draw seven cards from a deck, known as the library, and then draw one card per turn. They are also able to exert control over space by playing one land per turn, and may “tap” these lands for mana to play a variety of spells—visually represented by turning cards ninety degrees to the right or left.   

This is important for Magic’s worldbuilding: each of these elements invites meaning-making through narrative. Magic is a context-dependent play environment that draws on situated knowledge for narrative meaning-making. Deckbuilding is a form of worldbuilding, while gameplay is narrative. Meaning-making in relation to Magic’s approach to worldbuilding is based on juxtaposed elements within a rule-bound and thematically systematic frame. As Autumn M. Dodge argues in relation to literacy, Magic players able to interpret the sequence of meaning from this complex can build narratives during deck construction and gameplay (175). Explaining the rules of the game often relies on connecting game actions to the underlying assumptions of the Magic universe. Indeed, the library itself and the player’s hand take on functions in this world: there is a card called “Thoughtseize,” which enables a player to force another to discard a card of the caster’s choice (Figure 2).

Another card conceptualises the hand as a mind that is incrementally replenished each turn from the library. A third card, “Brainstorm,” enables a player to draw three cards and to place two from their hand back on top of their library (Figure 2). The hand is thus positioned as the player’s mind with the cards comprising thoughts or ideas. The library, as a source of knowledge, are thoughts that can be actualised through spellcasting. However, any given element might take on different aspects of the world, depending on play context. For example, the library itself is also temporal, given the “draw one” card a turn rule and the sequential arrangement of cards in the library. A card like “Approach of the Second Sun” involves replacing the card after it is cast seven cards below the first, thus drawing a relationship to time, as each turn passes the sun approaches (Figure 2). Thus the game’s mechanics encourage narrative meaning-making. 

    To emphasise what is going on, narratively speaking, in a game of Magic, I’d like to appeal to an article in the first issue of the magazine Duelist, a long-defunct publication produced by Wizards early in Magic’s history (Figure 3). This article, “Duel for Dominia,” written in 1994 by the head of the Duelists’ Convocation—the body that oversaw competitive play—narrativises a competitive game of Magic (Bishop 42–45). This story is imagined by a spectator who is positioned to engage in official, though unplanned, experiments in worldbuilding. In the story are references to the sequence of plays made by two players in the final round of the 1993 GenCon tournament. Each of the players is assigned a persona and each of their discrete plays is re-imagined as moves in a struggle for dominance over the plane now known as Dominaria, then called Dominia. There are footnotes in the narrative that direct you to each of those discrete plays, detailed in the margins. The most basic of game actions—playing a land card—is an opportunity to set the scene: to construct a landscape upon which this duel plays out. A sorcery is played: “Stone Rain,” which destroys a land, imagined in the story as unfolding amidst the character-players’ dramatic reactions in the storyworld. From its early development gameplay was imagined as a story-building endeavour that called on players to engage in their own imaginative acts of worldbuilding. Indeed, more contemporaneously, one player on Reddit evidences just this kind of storytelling but complains of how some of the more recondite strategies inhibit their ability to do so (Anon “My Need for Storytelling”) (Figure 4). A respondent offers a narrative to help make sense of the game actions being undertaken, which points to how these narratives are discussed, reflected upon and shared within the various Magic communities to make coherent the fragments that are juxtaposed within any given deck and gameplay sequence.

    This storytelling property is informed by fantasy narratives and roleplaying, in particular Dungeons & Dragons, which Garfield cites as one of several sources for the game’s development in the same issue of Duelist (8). GenCon attendees and D&D players were some of the target audiences for the game. Wizards would go on to acquire the role-playing game company known for publishing Dungeons & Dragons, Tactical Studies Rules (TSR) in 1997. The eagerly awaited though ultimately disappointing expansion of Magic called Dungeons & Dragons: Adventures in the Forgotten Realms, was released on July 23, 2021, and brings this connection full-circle (Figure 5). So Magic, while it engages in worldbuilding for its own unique worlds, also invites imaginative play in other worlds. Magic’s fragmentary nature, then, offers intertextual connections and transmedial extension across worlds as much as it remediates other gaming forms.

    This kind of worldbuilding from fragments represented by cards is intimately tied to stories and to literature. The allusion to D&D has precedents, which I’d like to end the discussion with because it offers a useful metaphor for Magic’s narrative and worldbuilding. Magic’s first expansion—as distinct from a core set—remediated the One Thousand and One Nights. The expansion, Arabian Nights, also released in 1993, included cards such as “Aladdin,” “Shahrazad,” “Bazaar of Baghdad,” and “Library of Alexandria” (Figure 6). An article in the first issue of Duelist, written by Magic head and editor Beverly Marshall-Saling, provides an account of the history of the One Thousand and One Nights to scaffold this imaginative habitation of another world (4–5). Garfield writes in the same issue that not only Arabian Nights but also Neil Gaiman’s The Sandman inspired the development of the first Magic expansion (6). Framing Magic as a game but also as a collection of gaming environments that implies a sequence of games, each with its own story to tell, aligns with Shahrazad’s storytelling endeavour and positions this literary figure as Magic’s spiritual hero and a model for transmedia worldbuilding and storytelling. The card itself—banned in all official formats—demands that players suspend their current game to play a game-within-a-game with their remaining resources before returning to the original game—an apt figure, then, for the multiplication of stories and games.

Magic is a series of different games and stories reconstituted from fragments and from players’ and spectators’ creative labour, all of which are scaffolded by worlds that are established through the cards and its associated media. Magic exemplifies a transmedia enterprise that is negotiating aspects of Jenkins, Ford, and Green’s conceptualisation of spreadable media as sticky (4). Worldbuilding in Magic is a collaborative process involving critique, compromise and negotiation between designers, players, writers, artists, and others, whose interactions and claims of ownership contribute to Magic worldbuilding. I have only been able to discuss Magic’s narrative potential in broad terms, but there is a wealth of fan-generated critique and extension of these worlds.


Anon. “An Interview with Richard Garfield.” The Duelist, no. 1, 1994, 8–15, Accessed 10 October 2021.

Anon. “My Need for Story Telling in MTG Games.” Reddit, 2018, Accessed 10 October 2021.

Bishop, Steve. “Duel for Dominia.” The Duelist, no. 1, 1994, 42–45, Accessed 10 October 2021.

ChannelFireball. “Luis Scott-Vargas Drafts…Selesnya|Strixhaven.” Youtube, 2021, Accessed 10 October 2021.

Dodge, Autumn M., with Paul A. Crutcher. “Examining Literacy Practices in the Game Magic: The Gathering.” American Journal of Play, vol. 10, no. 2, 2018, pp. 168–192.

Garfield, Richard. “The Expanding Universe: The Philosophy of Expansion Sets.” The Duelist, no. 1, 1994, 6. Accessed 10 October 2021.

Jenkins, Henry, et al. Spreadable Media: Creating Value and Meaning in a Networked Culture. New York University Press, 2013.

Pak, Chris. “Magic: The Gathering (Wizards of the Coast, 1993–Present).” Transmedia Cultures: A Companion, edited by Simon Bacon, Peter Lang, 2021, pp. 99–106.Saling, Beverley Marshall. “A History of The Arabian Nights,” The Duelist, no. 1, 1994,  4–5. Accessed 10 October 2021.

Chris Pak cast his first spell in 1994. He is a lecturer in Contemporary Writing and Digital Cultures at Swansea University. His research has focussed on terraforming, human-animal relationships, and the Digital Humanities. More information can be found on his website at

“Daughters of Earth”: Experimentations in Domesticity

SFRA Review, vol. 51, no. 4

Selected SFRA 2021 Papers

“Daughters of Earth”: Experimentations in Domesticity

Robert Wood

As Diane Newell and Victoria Lamont note, “Daughters of Earth” was originally published in 1952 as part of a shared universe between three authors with set expectations for the worlds described in the volume. Judith Merril wrote the novella at a moment of crisis in her life, during the collapse of her second marriage with author Frederik Pohl. Merril felt that the instability in her life caused her to write the draft too quickly, leading to a story that she argued “leaves much to be desired” (Newell and Lamont 53). Many of her contemporaries agreed with this assessment, criticizing the story as a part of the often-disparaged subgenre of domestic science fiction. Falling into this tendency, Damon Knight argues, “Judith Merril’s ‘Daughters of Earth’ is a truly sick-making combination of soap opera and comic book, honest ignorance and deliberate hypocrisy. Merril has a respectable talent and is in private life nobody’s fool, and certainly nobody’s weepy housefrau; I wish she would stop pretending otherwise” (249). Knight’s analysis transforms the story into something deeply conventional, a narrative that does not live up to either the genre’s or Merril’s potential. His reading entirely misses the experimental elements of the text and its reworking of the conventions of the genre. However, the story’s reputation has drastically changed over the years and has been embraced by authors and critics such as Victoria Lamont, Dianne Newell, Lisa Yaszek, and Justine Larbalstier, who have seen Merril’s work as precursor to later feminist science fiction. It also represents an early effort to bring a more experimental approach to the genre and an effort to break out of the galactic suburb.

Merril’s work needs to be placed within the context of the destruction of the popular front of the 1930s and 1940s, alongside the rise of the Cold War and McCarthyism. Ideological purges were a defining aspect of the era, occurring in locations as disparate as the university and the steel foundry. Chandler Davis notes that between the years of 1947–1950, “most institutions, from the government through the unions and universities to the American Civil Liberties Union . . . declared Communists unwelcome,” setting a precedent for the years to follow (272). Loyalty oaths utilized by those institutions not only restricted the involvement of members of the Communist Party, but also organizations with associations with the Communist Party. Radical artists had to navigate this minefield to find legitimate spaces to offer critiques of the society and avoid censure. Failure to negotiate these dangers could lead to the blacklists; that is, being unable to publish or work in the industries of popular media. The House Un-American Activities Committee deliberately sought to exclude radical artists from popular media, whether in the form of film, television, or radio, often with the collaboration of the owners of those industries. In a few cases, it led to criminal charges or expulsion from the country. Through this process, the specter of McCarthyism destroyed an entire set of cultural and aesthetic forms, as well as the organizations that helped create them.

Within that void, we began to see artistic and intellectual experimentation, albeit within the extraordinarily constrained circumstances created by the destruction of both the political and cultural infrastructure of the Popular Front. The radicals that survived the purges and the deportations of the period had to create a new style and form to be heard. While the decade of the 1950s is conventionally known for its political quiet, we can see a variety of political projects developing in a variety of manners. From an intellectual direction, writers as diverse as Herbert Marcuse, C. Wright Mills, and the slightly later work of Betty Friedan were attempting to create a type of political engagement that escaped the often-informal censorship of the Cold War period. The decade also saw a renewal of the Black freedom movement in the form of legal strategies and protest. Additionally, as Lisa Yaszek points out, a maternalist anti-war politic also became a way of escaping the censorship of a variety of political discourses and became a place of refuge for several radical and reformist projects, shifting their focus from the transformation of the country into an anti-war direction, particularly focused on the threat of nuclear war (109–13). 

Judith Merril operates in the intersection of those two discourses, using the language of science fiction to avoid the forms of political censorship of the era, and to create a new discourse to engage with middle- and working-class women, drawing from and mutating the dominant literary form of the domestic melodrama. Merril creates an intersection between domestic melodrama and science fiction to accomplish that exploration, drawing on the forms of cognitive estrangement found in science fiction to begin to mark the political contours of the present, by beginning to imagine it as a contingent historical moment. Merril explicitly frames her engagement within these terms, noting that the genre allows for an exploration of forbidden topics, radical possibilities foreclosed by the political repression of the era. The generic work of Merril begins to explore the cracks and fissures contained in the newly created domestic sphere, connecting it to the larger political structures that had been obfuscated. She begins to create a new feminist aesthetic, engaging with and criticizing the variety of expectations put upon women to stabilize the structures of Keynesian mass production. We can see the inklings of the rise of a series of new feminist struggles, struggles against the newly created domestic structures designed to preserve capitalist accumulation through the common labor of women as consumers and mothers.

That experimentation took its fullest form in “Daughters of Earth.” The novella is concerned with the everyday life of domesticity and women’s experiences within that sphere, but the narrative spans several generations and moves from the confines of the household to the outer reaches of the solar system and beyond. The narrative shifts out of the confined critique of Shadow on the Hearth, and its inability to imagine an alternative to the conventional post-war nuclear family, to the possibility of the breakup of that formation. As Yaszek notes, it is constructed through a fictionalized account of “journal excerpts, newspaper clippings, and oral stories” producing a story that is far more discontinuous, fragmented, and scattered than the more conventional domestic melodrama. She continues, “[l]ike other feminist authors ranging from Virginia Woolf in the 1920s and 1930s to Joanna Russ in the 1970s and 1980s, Merril refuses to subsume the experiences of women into a single voice but rather insists on the multiplicity of women’s subjective experiences” (37).

The novella follows multiple generations of women as they take part in the expansion of humanity throughout the solar system and beyond. The story opens with Martha’s experience watching the first flight to colonize Pluto. It then moves to the perspective of her daughter, Joan, and her contributions to that process. The story shifts to its focus, the effort of Joan’s granddaughter, Emma, to help settle a planet, Uller, outside the solar system. This thread of the story follows her as she lands on the planet, loses her husband to one of its native inhabitants, and gradually learns that his death was caused by his inadvertent attack of the indigenous Ullern. Emma’s storyline is intertwined with a story of the debates between the settlers on whether they should develop lines of communication and collaboration with the indigenous inhabitants of the planet, or annihilate them. It then ends with her daughter’s diplomatic efforts between the two settler groups that establish peace between them and also allows for cooperation with the indigenous residents. Stemming from this, the humans and Ullerns together plan a mission to move to even more distant planets, a mission that Emma’s granddaughter, Carla, will take part in. 

The opening passage immediately establishes the scope and ambition of the narrative as one that proposes to radically rewrite the conventions of the genre. It promptly enters into conversation with three major genealogical traditions. First, Yaszek notes the immediate resemblance with the patriarchal narrative of the Bible (36). However, it deliberately reverses the patriarchal lineage of that text, shifting to a lineage of mothers, rather than fathers. The passage moves quickly from that logic into a set of tropes more closely linked to the expectations of the science fiction audience for the second genealogical tradition: the enlightenment narrative of the Promethean scientist revolting against the gods to bring light to the masses, and a parallel narrative of the birth of the genre and subculture of science fiction. However, these narratives, too, are challenged through the implications of the previous paragraph, which notes that, “this story could have started anywhere” (Merril, “Daughters” 55), marking the contingency of the beginning of the scientific narrative—the third tradition—even its arbitrariness. Each of these origin stories gestures towards the inability of those narratives to represent a set of experiences conventionally and socially linked to women. The two familiar narratives, science and science fictional, are then themselves implicitly marked as patriarchal, and set aside as the model for the narrative arc, which then offers an alternative to the singular promethean figure through an alternative pairing of an anonymous man and woman.

The concluding statement, “But in this narrative, it starts with Martha,” provocatively offers a kind of year zero for the story (56). We are promised a new narrative, a genesis that will translate into a new genealogical formation, operating in a matrilineal manner. At the same time, we are promised a new way of imagining the future, a new form. This promised futurity moves beyond the simple explanation of a strategy to avoid the censorship that Merril offers as her reason for writing science fiction. It gestures towards a radical alterity and the possibility of a social symbolic that no longer operates in the register of patriarchy. Merril’s narrative attempts to produce rhythmic tension between domestic convention—the desire to settle—and the desire to explore, discover, and colonize. Those alterations and that sense of alterity are then framed in the experience of the body as it adjusts to different spaces in the cosmos:

But however we learn to juggle our bodies through space or time; we live our lives on a subjective time scale. Thus, though I was born in 2026, and the Newhope landed on Uller in 2091, I was then, roughly, 27 years old—including two subjective years, overall, for the trip.

And although the sixty-one years I have lived here would be counted as closer to sixty-seven on Earth, or on Pluto, I think that the body—and I know that the mind—pays more attention to the rhythm of planetary seasons, the alterations of heat and cold and radiation intensities, than to the ticking of some cosmic metronome counting off whatever Absolute Time might be. (59)

Change is mapped on to the body in its experiences “on a subjective time scale.” One must understand that basic fact to engage with the shifts of historical time, which cannot be understood as “the ticking of some cosmic metronome counting off whatever Absolute Time might be.” Absolute time then stands in for empty homogeneous time, which is supplanted by the time of revolution in its most literal sense. The subjective time of the body is produced through the revolution of planets around the sun, “the rhythm of planetary seasons, and the alteration of heat and cold and radiation intensities.” Rather than gesturing towards some form of geographical anthropology, the subjective experience of the body is defined by the dialectic of environment and the social structures designed to survive it. The naturalized structures of days and years become contingent within the context of space travel. At the same time, the narrative continually emphasizes the third part of the dialectic in rhythms of planetary seasons and planetary travel, which is most directly captured in the way that social reproduction is made analogous to the experiences defined by the revolution of planets:

We still progress through adolescence and education (which once ended at 14, then 18, 21, 25 . . .) to youth, marriage, procreation, maturity, middle age, senescence and death. And in a similar way, I think, there are certain rhythms of human history which recur in (widening, perhaps enriched, but increasingly discernible) moderately predictable patterns of motion and emotion both.

A recognition of this sort of rhythm is implicit, I think, in the joke that would not go away, which finally made the official name of the—ship?—in which you will depart The Ark (for Archaic?). In any case, this story is, on its most basic levels, an exposition of such rhythms. Among them is the curious business of the generation, and their alterations: at least it was that thought (or rationale) that finally permitted me to indulge myself with my dramatic opening. (59–60) 

The conventions of social reproduction and the revolution of the planets are linked through the common concept of ‘rhythm.’ The ‘rhythms’ of human history are linked to the cyclical rhythms of the developmental phases of human life, “to youth, marriage, procreation, maturity, middle age, senescence and death,” and therefore implicitly linked to the seasons. The cyclicality of the rhythm is put in tension with the progressive narrative of expansion. These contradictory concepts are held together by the dialectical form of “the curious business of the generation, and their alterations.” The story claims to explicate the slow and evolutionary expansion of this structure, which evidently allows for its own explication. It not only makes the claim that the narrative will provide a description of profound transformations in everyday life due to space travel, but also in the meaning contained in the continuing patterns that are revealed by those transformations. Within this context, the passage both recognizes and disavows the religious dimension of revelation through its reference to the Ark, while refusing to acknowledge the biblical reference, dismissing it as a shorthand term for the archaic. If we take the disavowed metaphor of the Ark seriously, spaceflight becomes a secularized version of that narrative, gesturing towards a new social compact. The flood is replaced by the vacuum of space and each new planet points to the creation of a new social symbol. In effect, God’s promise not to flood the Earth is replaced by a rewriting of the norms of the family. 

At the same time, the stability of the narrative is continually undercut to emphasize its fragmentary and partial nature. The story uses the narrator’s, Emma’s, voice as a prime technique to disrupt any real sense of a conventional narrative. That voice enters the story to apologize for tangents and distractions. It also constantly rejects any position of authority within the narrative and goes as far as to continually slip between first and third person when describing what she did as a child and as a younger woman. That element is established after the first section of the novella. 

Frankly, I hesitated for some time before I decided it was proper to include such bits in what is primarily intended to be an informational account. But information is not to be confused with statistics, and when I found myself uncertain, later, whether it was all right to include these explanatory asides, done my own way, with whatever idiosyncratic eccentricities or godlike presumptions of comprehension might be involved. (58) 

The narrative at this moment marks itself as an interstitial one, refusing to embrace any sense of authority or conventionality. The “information” provided in the narrative is contrasted with “statistics,” creating an implicit opposition between the personalized and individualized “information” provided in the story with the homogenized knowledge that is then represented by statistics. Instead, the story will be frequently interrupted by the narrator and will be told with “whatever idiosyncratic eccentricities or godlike presumptions of comprehension might be involved.” The narrator is working with fragments and refuses to weave those fragments into any semblance of a whole. In effect, the narrative brings together a fictionalized ethnography of everyday life that will later define many feminist texts with a strongly modernist fascination with the fragmented self. That experimental writing is combined with science fictional figuration that would be recognizable to readers of the genre. It’s a narrative that synthesizes modernism, pulp, and conventions of domestic melodrama.

Those intertwining stories span generations as a way of projecting the possibilities of other forms of domesticity and family structure. It opens from the perspective of a mother, Martha, whose daughter will eventually be involved in space colonization, as she watches the first flight to Pluto. Her perspective is defined by the domestic melodrama, dependent on the normative complaints of the nuclear family. Martha, as a mother, is terrified of the prospect of space flight and resentful of its intrusion into her family’s life. Her interior monologue develops this sense of complaint, through her sense of disconnection from the official narrative, both from the nationalist narrative of the journey as represented by the canned speech of the president and the expectations put on her as a mother that she has internalized. The interiority of Martha becomes the small voice of protest against these narratives, a disruption to the hegemonic force of the Cold War space race. However, this stalled dialectic of complaint radically shifts with each succeeding space journey. Although the narrative oscillates between domestic conventionality and exploration, each succeeding generation of women lives a profoundly different type of life than the one before, destabilizing the naturalization of any form of domestic arrangement. Those shifts are captured in the description of the colonization of the planet Uller, generations after the initial story of Martha and through the experience of her great granddaughter Emma after her husband’s death. 

Despite the hardships of the early years of settlement, the colony is distinguished from its Midwestern antecedents. Rather than producing “typically frontier-puritan monogamous family patterns, divorce was, of necessity, kept easy: simply a matter of mutual decision, and registration” (97–98). The colony, while still implicitly operating within a hetero-normative logic, shifted towards a far more informal social contract of marriage. This shift in the practices of marriage is presented in moral terms, as a part of the ‘enriching’ of the rhythms of history. The shift from the general history of the colony to the history of Emma reinforces this change. After the death of her husband, Emma takes on multiple lovers and remains the moral center of the story. Her actions allow her to feel empowered as an individual, but they also let her recognize the multiplicity of emotional and romantic relationships that are possible. The narrative moves towards an abandonment of the idealization of any type of relationship along with the need to compensate for the inevitable failure that is tied to that idealization. Just as significant is Emma’s working relationship with Jose Cabrini, the main advocate for cooperation with the Ullerns, and their combined effort to understand the alien life form, creates a relationship that is emotionally foundational, but not romantic. The passage gestures towards a pluralistic approach to family structure, while never fully explicating that multiplicity. That gap points to a recognition of the contingency of any family structure, but it also cannot concretely imagine what that might look like.

At the same time, the inventiveness of the narrative, its attempt to create a fictionalized memory of the experience of generations of women, continues to reproduce the private/public binary that defines the far more claustrophobic narrative of Shadow on the Hearth. The exclusionary nature is most directly evident in the description of the conflict between the native Ullerns and the colonists. The novella refuses an easy narrative of either presenting the indigenous population as monstrous or radically innocent. Instead, the understanding of the conflict and resolution is presented through the loss of Emma’s husband, and her attempts to understand that death. She eventually realizes that the death was an accident due to a lack of knowledge on both sides of the conflict. At the same time, this somewhat sentimental journey excludes a thorough political examination of the social and political arrangements that defined the situation. We are offered little detail on how the colonists divided themselves into two opposing camps, or the nature of the forms of cooperation between Ullerns and humans, or the kind of society that is produced through that cooperation. Instead, we are offered a brief comment, putting those questions to the side:

Thad Levine wrote the story of the bitter three years’ quarrel in the colony, and wrote it far better than I could. You have heard from me, and probably from a dozen others, too, the woe-filled history of the establishment of Josetown. Jo himself wrote a painstaking account of the tortuous methodology by which the Ullern code was worked out, and I know you have read that, too. (107–08)

This passage elides any attempt to explore the social transformation that is intertwined with these changes in the domestic sphere. It ducks this question by claiming a lack of competency, placing the political narrative into the hands of the conveniently off-stage Thad Levine. While the story’s length made the inclusion of long didactic passages on economics, sociology, and political conflict impossible, its near absence keeps the story ensconced in the domestic sphere. Despite the text’s attempt to re-imagine social reproduction outside the regulatory norms of domesticity, those norms continue to have a profound hold on the imagination of the text. Just as significantly, the refusal to place the political questions of the impact of colonization within the text neutralizes the potential anti-colonial critique of the text, leaving the ethical question of the engagement with the Other intact, but erasing the questions of power and racialization central to that critique. In effect, the occlusions of the text are perhaps as significant as its engagements. The violence of colonization is condemned, but egalitarian cooperation cannot be represented.

Merril’s work begins to challenge the conventions of the domestic melodrama by showing the limitations of the isolated nuclear family in Shadow on the Hearth and by imagining transformations of the domesticity and marriage in “Daughters of Earth.” However, neither narrative entirely escapes the regulatory structures of the genre that it attempts to subvert. Merril offers a critical and symptomatic engagement with her present, a present that is powerfully defined by the mutually implicated ideological formations of the Cold War, McCarthyism, and the “Feminine Mystique.” That engagement allows for a critical exploration with those intertwined formations, exposing the structures of domination and coercion contained within them and gesturing towards the possibility of an alternative form of domesticity in the future. However, it will take the later work of Joanna Russ, Ursula Le Guin, and Samuel Delany to move questions of social reproduction from the space of the privacy of the household into the political space of the public sphere through a renewed engagement with the utopian form.


Berlant, Lauren. The Female Complaint: The Unfinished Business of Sentimentality in American Culture. Duke University Press, 2008.

Coontz, Stephanie. Marriage, A History. Penguin Books, 2005. 

—. The Way We Never Were. Basic Books, 1992.

—. The Way We Really Are. Basic Books, 1997.

—. A Strange Stirring: The Feminine Mystique and American Women at the Dawn of the 1960’s. Basic Books, 2011.

Davis, Chandler. It Walks in Beauty: Selected Prose of Chandler Davis, edited by Josh Lukin, Aqueduct Press, 2010.

Friedan, Betty. The Feminine Mystique. W.W. Norton, 2001.

Horowitz, Daniel. Betty Friedan and the Making of “The Feminine Mystique”: The American Left, the Cold War, and Modern Feminism. University of Massachusetts Press, 1998.

Knight, Damon. The Futurians: The Story of the Great Science Fiction “Family” of the 30’s That Produced Today’s Top SF Writers and Editors. John Day, 1977.

—. In Search of Wonder: Second Edition, Revised and Enlarged. Advent Publishers, 1967.

Larbalstier, Justine. The Battle of the Sexes in Science Fiction. Wesleyan University Press, 2002.

May, Elaine Tyler. Homeward Bound: American Families in the Cold War Era. 2nd ed., Basic Books, 1999.

Merrick, Helen. The Secret Feminist Cabal: A Cultural History of Science Fiction Feminisms. Aqueduct Press, 2009.

Merril, Judith. The Shadow on the Hearth. Doubleday, 1950.

—–.  “Daughters of Earth.” Homecalling and Other Stories: The Complete Solo Short SF of Judith Merril, edited by Elisabeth Carey, The NESFA Press, 2005.

Merril, Judith and C.M. Kornbluth. Spaced Out: Three Novels of Tomorrow, edited by Elisabeth Carey and Rick Katze, The NESFA Press, 2008..

Merril, Judith and Emily Pohl-Weary. Better to Have Loved: The Life of Judith Merril.  Between The Lines Press, 2002.

Newell, Dianne and Victoria Lamont. Judith Merril: A Critical Study. McFarland & Company, Inc., 2012.

Pohl, Frederik. The Way The Future Was: A Memoir. Ballantine Books, 1978.

Yaszek, Lisa. Galactic Suburbia. Ohio State University Press, 2008.

Originally from Minnesota, Robert Wood received his dissertation in comparative literature from the University of California-Irvine. His dissertation focused on feminist science fiction in the twentieth century, from Charlotte Perkins Gilman to writers such as Judith Merril, Ursula Le Guin, and Samuel Delany. It critically engaged with the formal shifts in the subgenre of feminist science fiction as the authors respond to changing social conditions and narrative conventions. The dissertation looked at the genre as a critical lens that can help understand the creation of a disciplinary regime of domesticity in the United States and its resistances. His broader interests are social movements and subcultures, science fiction, fantastic literature, modernism and the avant-garde, and literature of social critique. His theoretical interests include cultural studies, feminism, historical materialism, literary criticism, and other forms of critical theory. He has taught at the University of California, Irvine, Santiago Canyon College, Irvine Valley College, and other schools. Along with these academic concerns, he has been involved in a variety of activist projects, ranging from anti-war movements, the anti-globalization movement, to union activism and efforts to create a truly public university.

Silicon Valley as Cult? Mystifying and Demystifying Surveillance Capitalism in Alex Garland’s Devs (2020)

SFRA Review, vol. 51, no. 4

Selected SFRA 2021 Papers

Silicon Valley as Cult? Mystifying and Demystifying Surveillance Capitalism in Alex Garland’s Devs (2020)

Miguel Sebastián-Martín

In an old essay that speaks very directly to the purposes of this panel, [1] sf writer and critic Joanna Russ warned us:

Hiding greyly behind that sexy rock star, technology is a much more sinister and powerful figure. It is the entire social system that surrounds us, hence the sense of being at the mercy of an all-encompassing, autonomous process which we cannot control. If you add the monster’s location in time (during and after the industrial revolution), I think you can see what is being discussed when most people say technology. They are politically mystifying a much bigger monster: capitalism in its advanced industrial phase. … It is because technology is a mystification for something else that it becomes a kind of autonomous deity which can promise both salvation and damnation. (246-47)

Russ was clear enough about the mystifying potential of technology –insisting that we avoid its fetishism so as to re-consider it critically. But to what extent do sf creators and critics remember this in the so-called age of surveillance capitalism? To what extent do we keep mystifying, and to what extent do we keep a critical distance from contemporary technologies? In this paper, I propose the ideological and aesthetic ambivalence of Alex Garland’s Devs (2020), an sf series which both demystifies and re-mystifies the world of Silicon Valley. But what is that world? What is surveillance capitalism, the central object of cognitive estrangement in Devs?

If that concept is now so popular, it is in a large part because of Shoshana Zuboff’s bestseller critique The Age of Surveillance Capitalism (2019), which theorises and historicises a new phase of capitalism based on the commodification of behavioural data. Although this lengthy study is “somewhat Marxish” in Rob Lucas’s words (132)—in the sense that it presents itself as a moderately anti-capitalist critique of the “rogue capitalism” of digital platforms—it seems that is as much a critique as it is a symptom of the hegemony of surveillance capitalism.  As elaborated in Cory Doctorow’s heretic sequel How to Destroy Surveillance Capitalism (2021), Zuboff’s critique in many ways conforms to a common-sense “technological exceptionalism” which hinders a full demystification of this mode of capitalism. [2] In fact, in Zuboff’s monograph, one can observe an unjustified lenience—and sometimes reverence—towards Apple, [3] as well as, perhaps more importantly, an overestimation of the manipulative influence of these kinds of corporations. Under the hegemony of technological exceptionalism, even expert critics seem to share one core belief with surveillance capitalist corporations: the belief that, as Doctorow ironically puts it, “if you collect enough data, you will be able to perform sorcerous acts of mind control” (n.p.). Extrapolating from that belief, many claim that we are on the verge of a threatening singularity, even speculating that free will shall be forever lost once corporations develop the technology to predict and predetermine individual decisions. [4] Therefore, if this critical discourse can be called anti-capitalist at all, it is perhaps only so in an extremely deterministic, mechanistic manner—anti-capitalist in a manner that rules out the possibility of resistance against almighty capitalist technologies supposedly capable of infiltrating our minds. Even though these ideas raise critical questions and fuel antagonism towards the surveillance capitalist god, they seem to imply that, in the end, we cannot escape from under the new god’s omniscience and omnipotence: that it would be futile to “seize the means of computation,” as Doctorow invites us to do (n.p.). In these ways, much of the discourse on surveillance capitalism in fact re-mystifies as much as it demystifies, since it is overestimating and even deifying the power of the system. But what is the relevance of these polemics for Alex Garland’s series? My argument is that the show both exposes and deepens these ambivalences, illustrating how, as Joel Dinerstein says, “technology is the American theology” (569).

Against the discursive background on surveillance capitalism, plot-wise Devs focuses upon a top-secret R&D group of Amaya, a fictional San Franciscan corporation. It characterises that group as a tech-fetishistic, cult-like community that is building a supercomputer capable of predicting in all directions of time-space, a project aptly named DEVS—Latin for God. Narrated primarily from the perspective of Lily (Sonoya Mizuno), a mathematician at Amaya whose boyfriend was killed after an attempted leak of information about DEVS, the series follows her trying to infiltrate and sabotage the project. In so doing, her goal is to get the justice that she couldn’t get against such a powerful company, one with massive resources and close ties to the state apparatus. [5] In these ways at least, the series positions itself as a classic dystopian narrative, focused on the futile rebellion of a powerless individual against an almighty socio-technological apparatus—but does Lily’s anti-capitalist struggle mean that the series on the whole functions as an allegorical anti-capitalist critique? A priori, it would seem that Garland’s show is (potentially) the locus of a critique of “capitalism as religion,” à la Walter Benjamin, since it imagines a surveillance capitalist corporation as “a pure religious cult” where “everything only has meaning in direct relation to the cult: it knows no special dogma nor theology” (Benjamin 259). 

Obsessed as Amaya’s developers are with engineering a computer God, this cult-like, top-secret group shows absolute devotion towards their creation. Especially once it seems to function, they all begin to believe that the universe must be predetermined, necessarily conforming to the computer’s data-driven extrapolations and audio-visual recreations. Fascinated by these recreations in particular—and notably, by reconstructed images of Christ’s crucifixion—these developers are turned from god-like creators into the passive spectators of their creation. They, and especially CEO Forest (Nick Offerman), often behave like fanatical believers, willing to protect their sacred object at whatever cost. As Marx might have said, these people (if not all of us under capitalism) are now unknowingly ruled by their own creations, since they fetishize the computer as a godlike entity, totally independent of human will. Moreover, the series masterfully highlights the characters’ devotion towards the computer with lengthy contemplative shots of their “sacred” facility, and this beautiful cinematography is accompanied by a haunting, quasi-religious musical score—all of which invites viewers to understand and even share the characters’ enthrallment. In these ways, surveillance capitalism is blatantly exposed as the fanatical cult of a sublime technological power and, at the same time, its technological apparatus is re-mystified as an object of adoration and admiration. This is why I would classify this narrative as a paradigmatic example of what I have elsewhere called “the beautification of dystopias”—deeply ambivalent dystopias in which the object of critique and the object of pleasure are one and the same (cf. Sebastián-Martín). [6]

On another front, reading Devs as an anti-capitalist critique (even if an ambivalent one), would give us a convincing counter-argument against a very common objection raised about its supposed “flaws.” Against the claim that the series’ philosophical discourse is logically unsound, and hence not “proper” sf from a hard definition, [7] we could suggest that Devs’s characters are voicing a profoundly contradictory version of philosophical determinism because theirs is rather the pseudo-deterministic ideology of surveillance capitalism. In other words, theirs is not an attempt at theorising any form of determinism, but rather a sign of their commitment to the project of rendering the world controllable through data collection. In this sense, my assumption is that the series is both criticising and extrapolating from the counterfactual-but-popular belief that data-driven prediction can eventually become predetermination—a belief that obscures both the responsibilities of the minority in power and the potential agency of everyone else. As one developer tells the CEO character, “if DEVS works, determinism precludes free will; if it doesn’t, then you’re guilty [of murder and many other crimes]” (episode 5). And ultimately, the series seems to favour the conclusion that the world is not predetermined, but full of divergent potentialities, since the DEVS machine only works properly once it is re-coded upon a many-worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics, a controversial theory that assumes that all possible measurements of quantum states are simultaneously real or true in some parallel universe. [8] Nonetheless, despite the fact that the DEVS computer works upon a many-world hypothesis, it continues to enforce one single predetermined future, which far from being a logical plot hole could be read as an illustration of how surveillance capitalist technologies are not designed to predict, but primarily to dominate by predetermination. Thus, even if surveillance capitalism (and its technologies) have to operate with an awareness of the diverging potentialities of time-space, they nonetheless operate as a repressive totalising force that disavows those alternative futures. [9]

Taking such an interpretive path could at least make us suspect that Devs’s seemingly contradictory treatment of quantum physics is probably not a mere plot hole, or maybe even convince us of the de-mystifying intent of the series, given how it apparently exposes surveillance capitalism as a corporate environment inherently bent towards total techno-domination –or at least, in a more modest conclusion, towards a more entrenched monopoly power. But does the series really favour this critical, demystifying conclusion, shifting blame away from mystified techno-divine powers and placing the focus on the politics of surveillance capitalist corporations? By way of conclusion, we should observe how the series’ ending re-introduces a set of ambiguities, especially through its re-evocation of religious iconography and symbolism, and its character-centric individualistic narrative. In the finale, Lily dies after falling into the facility’s security vacuum, and Amaya’s CEO, Forest, dies of asphyxia with her. Here, the crucial detail is that Lily, willingly and knowingly, contradicts the computer’s prediction of that moment—and this could suggest that individual agency can after all subvert technological power; that surveillance capitalism’s data-driven domination can never be total. However much distorted and disempowered, free will and individual power is thus shown to persist, but there is further ambivalence in the narrative denouement. 

After death, Lily and Forest are uploaded into a virtual simulacrum of reality run by the DEVS supercomputer: an alternate reality where they can reunite with their deceased relatives and partners. Leaving aside the myriad readings of this world as a digital or postmodern simulacrum, my assumption is that this re-opens the field of interpretation, and perhaps can serve as the starting point of further debate. According to Walter Benjamin’s reading of capitalism as a religion, Löwy explains that it would appear “the only salvation consists in the intensification of the system, in capitalist expansion, in the accumulation of more and more commodities [or, in this case, data]; but this remedy results only in the aggravation of despair” (68). From this perspective, we could ask: Is Devs suggesting, in a critical way, that surveillance capitalists (like Forest) are false prophets that re-appropriate religious anxieties for purposes of domination, or is Devs also suggesting, in a re-mystifying way, that technology will nonetheless, in divine, mysterious ways, eventually deliver us a digital utopia? And more generally, we could also ask: Does Devs function as a critical dystopia that rekindles transformative hopes for the present historical moment, or does it function as an anti-utopia that reinforces what we could call “surveillance-capitalist realism”? Personally, I believe that the series’ ideological ambivalence merits a deeper analysis than what could be sketched in this paper. Indeed, Amaya’s CEO Forest may be clearly exposed as a high-tech false prophet, but he is nonetheless a successful entrepreneur who, despite his fanatical immorality, ultimately manages to construct a heavenly virtual afterlife that compensates for the valley of tears that can be life under capitalism. But of course, the series ends showing another character’s concerned gesture while watching the simulacrum from the DEVS computer screen. Thus, considering that gesture, we may also ask ourselves: Will this really prove to be a digital utopia, or will it merely be surveillance capitalism’s gilded cage? De-mystification, or so it appears, is in Devs inseparable from re-mystification.


[1] This paper, with added explanatory footnotes and slightly adapted in response to questions raised by the audience at the SFRA 2021 Conference, was originally delivered within the panel “Technologies and Capitalism,” on June 19, 2021.

[2] Doctorow uses the term “technological exceptionalism” to refer to the over-estimation of surveillance capitalist technological power: an implicit ideological assumption that the dynamics of surveillance capitalism are essentially derived from technological innovations, whereas, in fact, many dynamics cohere with neoliberal and capitalist tendencies which are autonomous of technological developments. Using one of Doctorow’s clever puns, the growth of Big Tech is inseparable from “the growth of Big Inequality” (n.p.)

[3] Zuboff is lenient towards Apple because the company does not incorporate advertising in its platforms in the ways that other companies do (which is central in her critique of and indignation towards surveillance capitalism), but we should remember that this does not exonerate Apple’s monopolistic and exploitative practices, which are arguably much more harmful and serious than being eye-bombarded with unwanted ads.

[4] Of course, assuming that predetermination is technologically possible is entirely counterfactual, but “Big Tech has been so good at marketing its own supposed superpowers” that many (including critics) are led to overestimate their capacities if they take their marketing literature and patent filings at face value (cf. Doctorow).

[5] In an allegorically obvious manner, Amaya clearly stands as a (potentially) critical analogue of real surveillance capitalist corporations (the so-called FAANG oligopoly), since it illustrates how tolerance towards monopolistic practices and government-industry revolving doors generate hypertrophied companies like Amaya that feel entitled to act beyond justice.

[6] It is important to clarify that, in proposing the notion of “beautified dystopias,” my intention is neither to reject the ideologically ambiguous character of such dystopias nor to dismiss them as pure re-mystifications, but to theorise them dialectically. Even though “beautified dystopias can (unwittingly or not, in excess to authorial intention or not) present sociopolitical dystopian scenarios under a positive, consolatory light,” they also “seem capable of self-consciously thematizing Benjamin’s maxim that ‘there is no document of civilisation which is not at the same time a document of barbarism’ (1969, 256)” (Sebastián-Martín 290). My assumption here is therefore that Devs should be not rejected for its ideological ambivalence, but rather valued for thematising such ambivalence in a non-Manichean manner.

[7] Taking IMDB user reviews as a sample, one can find claims that “this is not science fiction” because it is “full of logical holes” (griper), that it is a “Failed attempt at deep sci fi” (pandrews2104), or that is an “Anemic quasi-philosophical let down that looked promising” (martin-tosterud).

[8] Cf. the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy for a general-interest definition of the theory.

[9] For these discussions of quantum physics (which are an addition to the paper originally read at the conference) I am indebted to Steven Shaviro’s thoughtful questions during the panel, who encouraged me to speculate upon the significance of Devs’s references to the many-world interpretation of quantum mechanics within the context of Devs’s (and other texts’) critiques of the capitalist drive towards totalisation and/or (in Marxist terms) real subsumption.


Benjamin, Walter. “Capitalism as Religion.” The Frankfurt School on Religion, edited by Eduardo Mendieta, Routledge, 2005, pp. 259–62.

Bukatman, Scott. “The Artificial Infinite: On Special Effects and the Sublime.” Alien Zone II: The Spaces of Science-Fiction Cinema, edited by Annette Kuhn, Verso, 1999, pp. 249–75.

“Devs (TV Mini Series 2020) – Devs (TV Mini Series 2020) – User Reviews – IMDb.” Internet Movie Database.

Dinerstein, Joel. “Technology and Its Discontents.” American Quarterly, vol. 58, no. 3, 2006, pp. 569–95.

Doctorow, Cory. How to Destroy Surveillance Capitalism. Medium Editions, 2021.

Löwy, Michael. “Capitalism as Religion: Walter Benjamin and Max Weber.” Historical Materialism, vol. 17, no. 1, 2009, pp. 60–73.

Lucas, Rob. “The Surveillance Business.” New Left Review, vol. 121, 2020, pp. 132–41.

“Many-Worlds Interpretation of Quantum Mechanics.” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Published Mar 24, 2002; revised Jan 17, 2014. 

Russ, Joanna. “SF and Technology as Mystification.” Science Fiction Studies, vol. 5, no. 3, 1978, pp. 250–60.

Sebastián-Martín, Miguel. “The Beautification of Dystopias across Media: Aesthetic Ambivalence from We to Black Mirror.” Utopian Studies, vol. 32, no. 2, 2021, pp. 277-95.

Zuboff, Shoshana. The Age of Surveillance Capitalism: The Fight for a Human Future at the New Frontier of Power. PublicAffairs, 2019.

The Quiet Structures of Violence in Mennonite Science Fiction

SFRA Review, vol. 51, no. 4

Selected SFRA 2021 Papers

The Quiet Structures of Violence in Mennonite Science Fiction

Selena Middleton

Introduction to Mennonite Science Fiction

While Mennonite literature is well-established in Canadian literary studies—where it is known as a subgenre of wide prairie landscapes, diasporic narratives, and quiet challenges to oppressive politics—Mennonite speculative fiction is new. In a recent issue of The Center for Mennonite Writing Journal, editor Jeff Gundy outlines the sparsely populated history of Mennonite speculative writing, which is comprised of Leigh Brackett’s The Long Tomorrow (1955) and the works of A.E. van Vogt, “who hid his Mennonite roots carefully” (n.p.).  Increasingly, however, contemporary Mennonite writers are turning to speculative fiction to counter the cultural suppression of ideas and identities that conflict with the Mennonite status quo. As a Historic Peace Church known for nonresistance and conscientious objection, Mennonites can be seen as isolationists ill-suited to the imaginative expanses of science fiction. Andrew Swartley, however, counters this idea when he states that “Mennonites avoid conflict better than most, to the point of actively, viciously silencing ‘fringe’ voices in both public and private forums . . . [so] we need stories that defy our habits of silence and conflict avoidance. We need stories that start conversations” (n.p.). New voices are emerging now to challenge Mennonite silence. This is done not with malice, but with a deep love of Mennonite traditions. One such writer is Sofia Samatar, whose father is a Somali scholar and mother a Swiss-German Mennonite from whom Samatar takes her religious affiliation. Samatar’s generation ship story, “Fallow,” is the focus of this brief study as its treatment of silence and the violence of conflict avoidance is exemplary of some of the major movements of an emerging subgenre. These themes are increasingly important as we interrogate what it means to make a home—and fight for it—in the context of the deepening climate crisis.

Exodus, Survival, and Silence

Before delving into Sofia Samatar’s “Fallow” and the land relationships in that story, it is important to contextualize Mennonite silence, which stems from pacifist nonresistance. The Mennonite relationships to nonresistance and pacifism are a response to The Sermon on the Mount, in which the blessed are described as meek, persecuted, and as peacemakers (New Revised Standard Version, Matt. 5.1-10). Further, “the Anabaptist vision was the ethic of love and non-resistance . . . applied to all human relationships. The Brethren understood this to mean complete abandonment of all warfare, strife, and violence, and of the taking of human life” (Bender 21). Religious ideals, however, often come into conflict with social norms and individual human experience. The Mennonite cultural relationship to silence is linked to a history of religious persecution which included torture, martyrdom, and an exodus which forced the community across continents in search of religious freedom. Mennonite poet and scholar Di Brandt links the Mennonite separatist impulse to this traumatic persecution and how that persecution has been preserved in the culture. She says: “The founding events of Mennonite culture were told and retold to us as children. They were also memorialized in . . . The Martyr’s Mirror, which came complete with graphic illustrations and inspiring death scene testimonials by the condemned” (“je jelieda” 108). The hymns still sung by Mennonites also feature stories of martyrdom, enforcing a sense that the community is “surrounded by a host of great martyrs and of living in an atmosphere of witnessing” (Stauffer, qtd. in Redekop 17). Magdalene Redekop connects the prevailing presence of the martyr experience to contemporary Mennonite silence, stating that “torture was frequently directed at the mouth” (17), the site of religious speech which the Mennonites refused to give up. In refusing to be silent about their religious beliefs and in becoming refugees for these convictions, a paradoxical tension came into Mennonite culture that resulted in a kind of silence that is markedly different from that demanded by a religious adherence to tenets of humility and peace. In 1985 Dyck wrote that “the motif of suffering has become a major ingredient in Mennonite identity” (qtd. in Redekop) and Redekop qualifies this when she says that the “‘tension between martyrdom and survival’ may be at least as important in Mennonite writing as the theology of martyrdom itself” (Redekop 13). Perhaps a parallel can be drawn between the way Western societies venerate the sacrifices of soldiers, a veneration used in military recruiting material, and the spiritual honours bestowed upon Mennonite martyrs. Early Mennonites died in tongue screws and Brandt explains that the venerated suffering passed to future generations manifests as a quiet but persistent violence turned inward (So this 3). Given the closeness many Mennonite communities feel to the land through both their agricultural practice and their isolationism, it should not be a surprise that the land sometimes becomes the recipient of internalized violence.

Silence and the Land

Scholar of diaspora, Robin Cohen, writes that diasporic communities are marked by their “break event” (qtd. in Zacharias 187) and so the persecution of Mennonites is imprinted on their culture. Mennonite nonresistance becomes intertwined with horrors that Redekop argues were “experienced . . . as unspeakable” (18). But given that the original persecution also includes removal from original homelands, and many Mennonites experienced further exodus in the face of continuing persecution, the “break event” that is inscribed on the community also necessarily influences an attitude to the land. Brandt states that Mennonites demonstrate no desire to return to their homeland even though “the ancestral lands . . . are still so much part of [Mennonite] cultural imagination” (“je jelieda” 125). Despite the continuance of a community that remains connected to the land through agriculture, that land is theologically less relationship than resource.  Writing about growing up in rural Manitoba, Brandt stresses that “not once did [she] hear a single [preacher] talk about the land, except to pronounce gleefully that we ‘shall have dominion over it’” (So this 7). Brandt’s work contends with the pacifist ideal’s conflict with the reality of Mennonite farms as part of the Canadian colonial project (2). Even Mennonite nonresistance during wartime is marked with colonial violence: Mennonites cut timber in conscientious objector camps, both harvesting resources and opening up Indigenous land to further exploitation. Thus nonresistance on this land is a quiet complicity in the violence of colonization. This same quiet complicity in acts of violence shapes Sofia Samatar’s colonization narrative in “Fallow.”

Sofia Samatar’s Exo-planetary Diaspora

“Fallow” uses science fictional tropes to examine Mennonite exile, and to interrogate settler culture and the ways that homesteads can remain separate from a sense of community or belonging. When Mennonites are given their own world in a text, the characters’ internal attitudes rather than external corruption guarantee continued violence and, as Daniel Shank Cruz puts it, through this story, Samatar “makes the argument that [Mennonites] should interact with the world to make it a better place instead of shunning it” (221). The novella addresses this moment of cultural recovery and what a struggle for reconnection, however painful, could look like in individual characters—and, perhaps, how individual accounts when recorded and submitted to the community archive, could signal communal change.Samatar’s “Fallow” is divided into three parts, each focusing on a character that defies the strict structures of the community and bears the consequences. Each section includes a short epigraph, which I use to frame a discussion of the story’s quiet violences and how they relate to the lands of Fallow and the Earth these characters left behind.

Miss Snowfall and the Peaceable Kingdom

The story opens with Miss Snowfall the schoolteacher and her epigraph, which marks Fallow and perhaps specifically Miss Snowfall’s classroom and external life as an example of “the peaceable kingdom” (Samatar 206). The children of Fallow love their schoolteacher, who teaches through experience and narrative and shapes her lessons to her students’ curiosity and passion. Agar, the story’s narrator, calls her method “idiosyncratic” and “associative” (211) but points out in light of Miss Snowfall’s suicide that she taught “the proper curriculum” (212). It is Miss Snowfall who teaches the children about themselves and about the Ark generation ship on which their ancestors travelled to Fallow. The story of leaving Earth teaches the children about conflicts among their people too—conflicts so embedded that they resurface on Fallow, even though the people had to put aside their differences to gain a spot on the ship. Miss Snowfall teaches that there were sects within their religion that “practiced seclusion” (213). Of these sects, those who boarded the Ark decided to “accept a life dependent on advanced technology, rather than a life of war or a stillness amounting to suicide” (213). Out of those who stayed behind on a beleaguered Earth “on burnt farms, [and] among the cattle who were dying in the dust” some “shook out their sheets and curtains for the last time and went to bed, resolved not to rise until Judgment Day” (213). Perhaps Miss Snowfall recognizes herself in the histories she shares. Her experience parallels the isolated struggles of the Mennonite community on Earth and the way she labours at both teaching and keeping a peace which is referred to as “yieldedness” (226). Miss Snowfall’s story begins with the announcement that “here is the peaceable kingdom” (206), and so over the course of this first section, the reader learns that a peaceable kingdom on Fallow is one where creativity is quashed, where curiosity yields to rigid structure, where peace dies quietly at the end of a rope. If members of this community are given names based on their attributes or function in society, the reader questions whether Miss Snowfall is named after the purity of the landscape after a winter storm, or for the way the community covers that which is unwanted with a cold blanket that smothers undesirable elements.

Brother Lookout and the Earthmen

The second section, titled for Brother Lookout, underscores the paradox of the narrator Agar’s past and present positions in her community, first as a powerless child discovering truths about her people, and then as a writer who documents those truths and seeks to archive them for posterity. Agar’s paradox is underscored, too, by Brother Lookout’s name and epigraph. Brother Lookout is named for the thick glasses he wears, an irony that highlights an unfulfilled potential, the juxtaposition of desired insight with culturally enforced myopia. Brother Lookout is the community’s only psychiatrist, but later, when psychiatry is banned, he is the man Agar knows as “the shambling village street sweeper” (230), demonstrating a focal shift, perhaps, from the psyche of the community to how that community relates to the land as he takes up a humble form of service to put that relationship to rights. Most importantly, Brother Lookout is the character who reveals Fallow as a concept—that this exo-terran space is not a true home, but a holding place where the community waits out the death of humankind back on Earth, to return once “peace” has been restored. The cause of the anguish with which Brother Lookout entreats Brother Pin to relate the revelation of Fallow’s origin is apparent in Pin’s use of both Biblical allusion and natural imagery:

Like the priest and the Levite, we have passed by the dying man in the road. Unlike true Christians, we have given no thought to our neighbors. We have not considered those who have perished since we departed Earth long ago, their souls crying out for peace. How many have been born since our departure who, had they only been alive at that time, would have joined the trek? Are they to be punished simply for being born too late? How can we receive Gabriel’s reports so complacently? Every quarter century produces a catalogue of horrors, yet we sit here . . . like the carrion birds, the eagle and the ossifrage, waiting for others to die so that we might inherit the Earth. (236)

At Brother Lookout’s urging, Brother Pin reveals that travellers from Earth have periodically arrived at Fallow and been kept separate from the community while they are schooled in religion. These refugees are shunned if they refuse to accept community beliefs. On Fallow, exile outside of the careful technological management of the planet’s atmosphere means death. Thus the community quietly accepts death on two fronts, allowing the land to maintain their borders without admitting that they are a part of those systems. Samatar’s careful use of both Biblical and animal references in this section underscores the two fronts on which the inhabitants of Fallow have strayed from relationship and suggests an intimate connection between human and non-human relationship which have not been maintained away from Earth.

Temar’s World Is Not a Home

The conditions that force the narrator’s sister Temar to escape from Fallow are revealed as Agar comes to terms with the planet as a place that facilitates the greatest Mennonite experiment in separatist violence. The epigraph for Temar’s section—“This world is not my home”—underscores a relation which makes a parallel of Fallow and Earth and Earth and Heaven; the former places both temporary residences for the religious adherent whose faith attests that believers will eventually gain a true home elsewhere. But Temar knows Fallow in a way that other members of her family do not. Through her work at the castle—the mysterious hub which houses the technology which makes Fallow habitable, the machinery that the low-tech agrarian residents ignore—the mythologies that sustain others are revealed to Temar as hollow or even hypocritical. Following the “Rule of Mary” (249) so as to not reveal the mystery by which they live, the community maintains the guise of a simple lifestyle that Temar knows does not reflect the truth of life on Fallow. 

It’s unclear what happens to Temar after she rescues the Earthman from the castle and leaves Fallow with him. Temar’s family grieve her transgression and hold a funeral for her, an action which could be interpreted as an act of shunning the severity of which matches the gravity of Temar’s behaviour, interpreted by the community as anti-social. Holding a funeral for a family member who may not be dead indicates that the community remains locked into social structures that do not respond to the human lives that exist within those structures. But Temar’s flight is also a kind of resurrection which works to dispel the quiet but violent illusion of Fallow, leaving Agar with the knowledge that she lives in perpetual exile ensured by the harmful silences of her community. As Agar says at the end of the story, “There is a land flowing with milk and honey . . . and we will never go there” (261). This final statement reconnects the Biblical paradise with Earth and in so doing removes Fallow from the spiritual relationship the Mennonites assumed would follow them to another planet. But the questions of Temar’s survival and continued resistance, and Agar’s efforts to document the horrors of Fallow and therefore force her people to reckon with them remain unanswered points of generative possibility.


Why is an examination of Mennonite culture and the speculative fiction that critiques that culture important to non-Mennonites? Those of us who value peace and resistance as political positions and are concerned about settler attitudes to the land in a time of immense ecological change can look to the ways both pacifism and resistance become internalized and institutionalized. But Mennonite speculative fiction also offers a way forward from that somewhat static position through works like Samatar’s “Fallow,” works which use speculative forms to interrogate the connections between social structures and the human beings that live within them and in the space find a way toward resistance, resiliency, and growth.


Bender, Harold S. “The Anabaptist Vision.” Church History, vol. 13, no. 1, 1944, pp. 3–24.

The New Revised Standard Version of the Bible, National Council of the Churches of Christ, 1989.

Brackett, Leigh. The Long Tomorrow. Ace, 1962.

Brandt, Di. “je jelieda, je vechieda: Canadian Mennonite Alteridentification.” Canada in the Sign of Migration and Trans-Culturalism, edited by Klaus-Dieter Ertler and Martin Lösching, Lang, 2004, pp. 153–82.

—. So this is the world & here I am in it. NeWest Press, 2007.

Gundy, Jeff. “Introduction: SF Special Issue.” CMW Journal, vol. 11, no. 1, 2019.

Redekop, Magdalene. “Escape from the Bloody Theatre: The Making of Mennonite Stories.” Journal of Mennonite Studies, vol. 11, 1993, pp. 9–22.

Samatar, Sofia. “Fallow.” Tender, Small Beer Press, 2017, pp. 206–61.

—. Tender. Small Beer Press, 2017.

Shank Cruz, Daniel. “Mennonite Speculative Fiction as Political Theology.” Political Theology, vol. 22, no. 3, 2021, pp. 211–27,

Swartley, André. “A Case for Mennonite Horror.” CMW Journal, vol. 11, no. 1, 2019., Robert. “‘What else have we to remember?’: Mennonite Canadian Literature and the Strains of Diaspora.” Embracing Otherness: Canadian Minority Discourses in Transcultural Perspective, edited by Eugenia Sojka and Tomasz Sikora, Wydawnictwo Adam Marszałek, 2010, pp. 186–209.

Selena Middleton earned her PhD in English from McMaster University, where she works as a sessional instructor in the Faculty of Humanities. Her doctoral project, entitled “Green Cosmic Dreams: Utopia and Ecological Exile in Women’s Exoplanetary Science Fiction” examined the development of the concept of exile in ecologically focused women’s science fiction from 1960. Her research has appeared in Foundation, Quaker Theology, and in collections published by McFarland and Palgrave. She is also publisher and editor-in-chief at Stelliform Press, which she started in 2020 as an extension of her doctoral research, seeking to publish climate fiction focused on culture over technology. Stelliform Press has since published four critically acclaimed titles, two of which were nominated for awards, with five more titles planned. Under the name Eileen Gunnell Lee, Middleton has published short science fiction, fantasy, and horror stories in Nightmare Magazine, Reckoning, and Escape Pod, among others. She welcomes inquiries for collaborations both academic and creative in nature, and can be found on Twitter @eileenglee.

Human and Animal Futurity: Survival, Flourishing, and Care in Margaret Atwood’s MaddAddam Trilogy and Bong Joon-ho’s Okja

SFRA Review, vol. 51, no. 4

Selected SFRA 2021 Papers

Human and Animal Futurity: Survival, Flourishing, and Care in Margaret Atwood’s MaddAddam Trilogy and Bong Joon-ho’s Okja

Monica Sousa


When humans generally think about the future, their thoughts are often primarily concerned with what the future will be for themselves. Animals are easily excluded from their thoughts regarding the future. As Claire Colebrook asks in Death of the PostHuman, “How is it that humanity defines itself as that being that inevitably chooses life, and yet has done so by saving only its own life?” (204). Colebrook asks this in her discussion of human extinction, yet the question also suggests a focus on a wider range of human destruction towards nonhumans. While humans literally kill animals for their own preservation (for food, medicine, research, clothing, etc.), the act of excluding nonhumans from thoughts of ensuring the future acts as a metaphorical killing. These recurring literal and metaphorical killings acted out by humans in the present implies a future of inequality, where humans remain at the top of the hierarchy of moral and ethical concern. How can we, as humans, move beyond this oppressive mindset? One of the places we can begin to look to reevaluate the enforced inequality between beings of different species is the genre of science fiction. Many works of science fiction stand as influential tools teaching or reminding us that to move beyond a future of inequality, we must first recognize the ways we too often treat animal life as below ours, and then begin to practice care responses. 

Yet, we should not simply think that an animal’s permission for survival and keeping them alive is equal to them having a sufficient quality of life. Animals, including genetically engineered animals that were originally created for human consumption, should also be empowered to flourish. In demonstrating this argument, this paper examines the representation of genetically engineered pigs and their relationships with humans in Margaret Atwood’s MaddAddam trilogy—Oryx and Crake (2003), The Year of the Flood (2007), and MaddAddam (2013)—and Bong Joon-ho’s film Okja (2017). Atwood’s post-apocalyptic trilogy contains many genetically engineered creatures, including the humanoid Crakers, as well as many nonhuman animals. For this paper, I choose to focus on the pigoons, the transgenic pig hosts carrying fool-proof human organs for future transplants. In Joon-ho’s film, the “super pigs” are excessively large pigs genetically engineered for future meat consumption. Okja follows a young girl named Mija and her relationship with Okja, her “super pig” companion animal. When Okja is crowned as the best pig, she is taken away from her home in South Korea and brought to New York for the public revealing ceremony, and then to be slaughtered afterwards. Mija embarks on a journey to save her super pig. In contemporary Western culture, pigs are, indeed, commonly eaten and are often considered the best candidate for xenotransplantation. Both Atwood’s and Joon-ho’s works are culturally relevant to contemporary Western society and human attitudes towards pigs. Yet, these works also demonstrate the ways we can see genetically engineered animals less as products, and more as subjects who are worthy recipients of care. 

Through an animal ethics of care lens, this paper explores the imagined possibilities in these works on how we can relate to genetically engineered animals that were originally created for sustaining and extending human life. How would care practices consider not only the animal’s survival, but also their ability to flourish? Martha Nussbaum states that the ethical treatment of human and animal subjects revolves around how our actions enable or impede their flourishing: “to shape the human-animal relationship . . . no sentient animal should be cut off from the chance of a flourishing life, a life with the type of dignity relevant to that species” (351). In proving my argument, this paper will first analyze the decision in creating these engineered pigs and the lack of care towards them, and then consider the cooperative, trusting, and/or fulfilling relationships between the humans (or posthumans) and the pigs.

Ethics of care believes that moral actions focus on the relationships we have with others, and emphasizes actions such as care, attention, and benevolence as virtues, as well as the importance of emotional compassionate responses such as empathy and sympathy. Ethics of care asks for flexibility and careful attention to individual situations, rather than emphasizing absolutes or a set of rules. Joan Tronto defines care as “a species activity that includes everything that we do to maintain, continue, and repair our ‘world’ so that we can live in it as well as possible. That world includes our bodies, our selves, and our environment, all of which we seek to interweave in a complex, life sustaining web” (142). Some scholars in animal ethics approach animal welfare by connecting ethics of care with animal ethics to form an animal ethics of care. Their goal is to focus on the personal relationships that humans have with animals. As Daniel Engster states, care ethics opposes animal suffering “not because we wish to maximize utility or consistently apply our rights theory across species, but because we have relations with animals and care about them” (521).

A Lack of Care

In Atwood’s trilogy and Joon-ho’s film, the oppressive systems that created the genetically engineered pigs are clearly lacking in care responses. In their works, genetic engineering technologies are practiced in a society that lacks appropriate care ethics. In Oryx and Crake, the first installment of Atwood’s trilogy, we learn about the pigoons, who are genetically engineered to serve as hosts growing human-tissue organs for future transplant. They are spliced with a “rapid maturity gene” so they could “grow five or sex kidneys at a time.” Atwood writes, “[s]uch a host animal could be reaped of its extra kidneys; then, rather than being destroyed, it could keep on living and grow more organs” (27–28). In Okja, the Mirando Corporation genetically engineers twenty-six “super pigs” to be sent to farmers around the world, and then crowns the best pig ten years later. Lucy, the CEO, explains their goal for the super pigs: they will be “designed to leave a minimal footprint on the environment, consuming less feed and forage, producing less excretions. But most importantly . . . They’ll need to taste fucking good” (00:05:03). As the audience later learns, it is this last point that is truly the most, if not the only, important aspect in the eyes of the corporation. After this point in the film, members of the Mirando Corporation show no signs that they are truly concerned with their environmental footprint. Rather, the super pigs (as well as the pigoons in Atwood’s trilogy) are defined solely as bodies and reduced to what Giorgio Agamben in Homo Sacer calls “bare life,” a social system that actively separates political citizens and individuals from beings that are regarded as mere bodies, and thus, killable. While Agamben’s “bare life” does not explicitly include animals, human beings that are stripped of citizenship (prisoners or people in refugee camps, for example) are treated as if they are reduced to the status of animal. Laura Hudson explains that “[a]s the representation and embodiment of nature, the animal becomes the marker of bare life” (1664). Indeed, the genetically engineered animal is especially a marker for this category. While companion animals can be seen with sentimentality and as more than mere bodies, too often the genetically engineered animal is defined by its body and what its body can do. 

Also, the genetically engineered pigs in the MaddAddam trilogy and Okja are developed under the assumption that people’s concerns and motivations are purely self-serving and individualist, rather than caring and relational. The creators of the pigoons and  super pigs do not assume that people could form bonds with these creations. While I would not argue that a strong, intimate bond is portrayed between a human and a pigoon in the MaddAddam trilogy, Okja and Mija in Joon-ho’s film certainly convey a strong, intimate bond. Regardless, the Mirando Corporation does not care about intimate bonds between humans and super pigs. Rather, they care about how they can portray it to the media. The Mirando Corporation takes advantage of their bond by paying for Mija to come to New York City and be reunited with Okja in a public event because they want to minimize public relations damage to the company.

To Be Granted Survival

While the lack of care is certainly evident in Atwood’s and Joon-ho’s works, the potential for care ethics is also embedded throughout. Before we examine this potential for care ethics, let us first consider how and why, by the end of Atwood’s and Joon-ho’s works, the pigoons and Okja—and another super pig—are granted survival. The pigoons and the two super pigs become survivors of the capitalistic systems that created them for human consumption, either in the form of sustaining or extending human life. In MaddAddam, when a violent group of humans called the Painballers are after the human survivors and start regularly eating pigoon piglets, the pigoons want revenge and turn to the humans and the Crakers for help (269). In asking for help, the pigoons are aware that they require care from the humans in order to ensure their survival from the excess and the hyper-consumption which the Painballers symbolize. In exchange, the pigoons will agree to a truce, stop eating the humans’ crops, and strive to co-exist harmoniously. 

Near the end of Joon-ho’s film, an economic exchange ensures Okja’s survival. Mija, however, refuses to see Okja in terms of economic value until the moment she is forced to do so by an uncaring system so she can save Okja’s life. When Okja is about to be slaughtered, Mija offers a pig figurine made from solid gold to Nancy, the new CEO of the corporation. Mija states, “I want to buy Okja. Alive” (01:45:13). It is this act that saves Okja from the slaughterhouse. Nancy remarks that the figurine is “worth a lot of money” (01:46:04), then congratulates Mija on her purchase. While typically it would not be viewed as caring to treat Okja in terms of economic exchange, the conditions in which Mija is operating forces her to be flexible and to consider the fact that in order to care about and care for Okja, she must start thinking in terms of economic exchange. 

Yet, while Okja’s survival is approved, almost all the other super pigs at the slaughterhouse do not receive this privilege. Near the film’s end, when Mija leaves with Okja after the economic exchange, hundreds of super pigs watch them through a feedlot fence. Two of these super pigs then engineer the escape of a piglet (presumably their baby), pushing the piglet through the fence. As Mija and Okja leave the feedlot (while Okja hides the piglet), they—and the audience—hear the cries of the hundreds of the super-pigs left behind. Sherryl Vint states that “[i]f we are to learn to see animals as others who can make ethical appeals upon us . . . humans have to accept that much of what animals may want to communicate to humanity is not what we might want to hear” (86). What we hear echoed back to us with the sound of their cries is human guilt—for our mistreatment of animals, and for the fact that we may not be doing enough to save them. Yet, we must also not forget that Mija, a young child, is certainly in no position where she can save and care for all the super pigs. It is also important to acknowledge that her decision to save the one piglet demonstrates caring about and reveals her compassion towards the rest of the super pigs.

Caring-for, Caring-about, and Flourishing

What we also see here in these examples of how the pigoons, Okja, and the piglet are able to survive is a difference between caring-for and caring-about. As Nel Noddings explains, “Caring-for describes an encounter or set of encounters characterized by direct attention and response. It requires the establishment of a caring relation, person-to-person contact of some sort. Caring-about expresses some concern but does not guarantee a response to one who needs care” (xiv). Noddings acknowledges that it is impossible for us to provide care for everyone in the world; even if we care about animals, we are limited by time, resources, and space. Mija is only in the position to care for two of the super pigs. Nonetheless, Mija has gained awareness of the mistreatment of animals through her exposure to the cruel system that created and abused Okja. Caring-about, then, also aligns with Josephine Donovan’s assertion that animal care ethics requires attention: “Attention to the individual suffering animal but also . . . attention to the political and economic systems that cause the suffering” (3). In contrast, while the humans do provide care for the pigoons by helping them and honoring their truce, it remains ambiguous at the end of MaddAddam whether the humans are doing this because they care about the pigoons, or if they mostly care about peaceful co-existence. 

In comparison to the ending of MaddAddam, a scene in Oryx and Crake shows Jimmy caring-about the pigoons, but he cannot, at the time, care for them. As a child, Jimmy feels distress when the men at his father’s work make jokes about the pigoons being in the meals: “he [Jimmy] didn’t want to eat a pigoon, because he thought of the pigoons as creatures much like himself. Neither he nor they had a lot of say in what was going on” (24). Jimmy cares about the suffering of the pigoons, sees them as “creatures much like himself,” and can recognize their inability to speak against their own oppression. While the use of the pigoon for medical reasons is accepted by the general public, there are many objections to eating the pigoons. Their objection is not because of any compassion towards the creatures, but because human DNA exists in them. While the public are only opposed to eating pigoons because they are concerned with the disgrace of the human (through the consumption of pigoons), Jimmy cares about the pigoons’ wellbeing. 

While it would be ideal for caring-for and caring-about to always work in conjunction, it is caring-for that allows the genetically engineered pigs the widest opportunity for flourishing. In MaddAddam, years after the battle with the Painballers, the humans and pigoons are still respecting their truce. The final pages of the novel show us that the pigoons are living happily in forests, untroubled by the human survivors. They are able to live this untroubled life because the humans, after helping them with the Painballers, allow them the space to live their lives undisturbed and as they wish. Yet, this form of caring would not have been possible without the Crakers first caring-about the pigoons. It is the Crakers who inform the humans that the pigoons need help, through their form of telepathy. It is the fact that the Crakers, this group of humanoid posthumans created by Crake, initially care about the pigoons and then express this caring to the humans which allows the humans to then care for the pigoons. Lars Schmeink notes that it is through the Crakers where “Atwood . . . introduces compassion for the pigoons” (93). Compassion, which is a sympathetic concern for the suffering or misfortunes of others,  implicitly indicates a caring-about. Throughout the trilogy, the Crakers are characterized as benevolent and nurturing. The fact that they are the ones who can easily feel compassion towards the pigoons and show their caring-about them by voicing their concern to the humans suggests a vision for a future of posthumanity: what comes after human-centric mindsets. Caring-about other species, even ones that were originally created for human consumption agendas, is a frame of mind that can be cultivated and practiced. 

In The Year of the Flood, Toby (a protagonist in the novel and a member of an environmental religious group) often treats the pigoons as abject nuisances. She shoots one of them to protect the food supply in her garden, and when witnessing them having a funeral for the boar she calls it “truly frightening” (328). Yet, in MaddAddam, her mindset shifts, and she even accepts that the pigoons have a culture. As Nussbaum writes, “[p]art of respect for other species is a willingness to look and study, learning the internal rhythms of an animal community and the sense of value the way of life expresses” (372). Toby also shows the potential for care and multispecies cooperation. When Jimmy wonders if the pigoons are leading them astray to ambush and then eat them, Toby responds: “I’d say the odds are against it. They’ve already had the opportunity” (348). In the face of uncertainty, Toby chooses to believe in the intellect and potentially compassionate capacities of the pigoons. She recognizes the fact that the pigoons are able to think about themselves as well as the humans and the Crakers—and that humans should adopt that same empathetic practice.

In Joon-ho’s film, Okja is given the chance to have a flourishing life. When Johnny the zoologist, in awe of how well Okja was raised, asks Mija’s grandfather what his methods were, the grandfather responds: “I just let her run around” (24:54). Indeed, Okja is given lots of space outside to run, play, and carry out the life of a regular pig. While it is true that she needs to be raised well to eventually carry on her super-pig duty (to be slaughtered for meat), by the end of the film Okja and the other piglet are running around outside, this time without the oncoming threat of slaughter. Okja also flourishes by having a compassionate caregiver. While one does not necessarily have to truly care about someone in order to be in the position of caregiver, Mija does indeed care about in addition to caring for Okja. Even before Okja is taken away, Mija shows compassion in many ways, ranging from removing burrs from Okja’s paws, and treating her body for injuries when Okja hurts herself. These moments are shown early in the film, which allows the viewer to recognize early that care requires work as well. Near the beginning of the film, Mija also shows compassion by showing great distress when Okja falls off the cliff that she saves Mija from falling off. As the two of them embrace, the camera captures Okja’s eye, and the gaze exchanged between her and Mija. By showing Mija whispering in Okja’s ear and the close-up of Okja’s eye, we can recall Jacques Derrida and his cat in The Animal that Therefore I Am. When Derrida looks at his cat, and sees her looking back, he is not looking at Cat as a representative of the entire species or as a metaphor or an allegory, but at an individual cat (6). The first step in connecting with the Other is to recognize it is not simply a placeholder of a group or a symbol. By showing Mija whispering in Okja’s ear and the close-up of Okja’s eye, the audience sees how Mija is looking at an individual super pig—not just an animal bred for productive purposes. In these moments of touch, gaze, and senses meeting, we see interspecies communication. Donna Haraway explains that “touch ramifies and shapes accountability” and emphasizes the importance of “accountability, caring for, being affected, and entering into responsibility” (36). When species meet—as Haraway would put it—we see a moment of encounter that can arouse care and empathy.

On the Question of Autonomy

Donovan asks, “how does one generalize beyond the individual particular instance of caring or compassion to include all creatures within an ethic of care?” (184). One important critique of ethics of care is the idea that it is more well-suited for individual animals that have been domesticated and that people have personal, close encounter relationships with, and not as useful when talking about wild animals or other animals that people typically do not have intimate relationships with. Grace Clement shares this concern and argues that when considering wild animals, ethics of care should still be present, but it should also be willing to incorporate elements of what care ethicist Carol Gilligan refers to as justice-based ethics, which is a type of ethics that encourages moral choices based on a measurement of rights. Factors such as autonomy and respect are key ideas in justice-based ethics, and Clement argues that animal ethics also needs to also incorporate these factors. As she points out, “an ethic of care which does not value autonomy tends to result in forms of ‘caring’ which are oppressive to either the caregiver or the recipient of care” (309). In MaddAddam, the pigoons want to be able to live their lives in the wild unbothered, with respect, and separated from humans. In respecting their wishes, the humans care for them by allowing them their autonomy. In comparison, Okja spends a lot of time outside, but I claim that she is more domesticated than the pigoons. While domestic animals certainly rely on human support more in comparison to wild animals, there is a fine line between caring for a domesticated animal and limiting their autonomy. 

Ultimately, an animal ethics of care needs to also be attentive to this justice-based tenant of autonomy.  I would argue that ethics of care already hints at recognizing this through its assertion that a proper ethics of care, as Adams and Donovan explains, is attentive to the political systems that shape certain oppressions (3). As I previously mentioned, Mija is undoubtedly affected by her experience seeing Okja and the hundreds of other super pigs in the slaughter factory, even though she only comes home with two of them. While she is only in the position to allow the autonomy of those two super pigs, Mija is certainly aware that the hundreds of other super pigs are denied their autonomy. Mija’s discovery of where Okja came from and the larger group of which she is a part demonstrates how an ethics of care needs to recognize that the individual is never entirely separate from the collective of which they are a part—nor should they be.


While some may worry that animal ethics of care is anthropocentric in how it draws attention to the humans performing the care, animal ethics of care does try to jettison this implied anthropocentrism and instead foreground other significant elements that this ethics emphasizes, such as interconnectedness and responsibility. Furthermore, an element of ethics of care is reciprocity; this reciprocity does not imply that there needs to be an equal trade between both participants, but instead implies reciprocation in the sense that when the caregiver gives, the care recipient will have a response to that care. It is up to the caregiver to pay attention to the care recipient and how they respond to the care. By using what partial knowledge they possess to interpret their response, they should then re-evaluate, if need be, or learn more about how to provide that care for that individual. This willingness to learn, evolve, and transform can allow for posthumanism and care ethics to compliment each other. This reciprocity is suggested in Atwood’s and Joon-ho’s works. In MaddAddam, the pigoons can flourish by living a life undisturbed in the forests, with the humans and Crakers separated but close enough, respecting them and their wishes. In Joon-ho’s film, Okja and the piglet can flourish not only by living a life with the freedom to roam, but also through their compassionate relationship with Mija. The pigoons and the super pigs desire different types of care, which demonstrates their role as active participants in their care relations with humans.

In this paper, I examined Atwood’s MaddAddam trilogy and Joon-ho’s Okja to argue for human care towards the flourishing of genetically engineered animals originally created for human use. These works of science fiction demonstrate how the genre is not only a useful vehicle for showing us different ways of being, but also for emphasizing a multi-species interconnection or kinship. Yet, why genetically engineered animals? Why specifically care about their flourishing? Genetically engineered animals are created/altered through biotechnology. Both animals and machines are traditionally seen as separate from humanist constructions regarding the human condition, and so connecting the two may lead to feelings of abject horror. Since genetically engineered animals are discoursed in this unfair way and have no say in what is done to their bodies, humans especially have a sense of responsibility and especially owe them possible opportunities for flourishing. 

As Nussbaum writes, “[t]he purpose of social cooperation, by analogy and extension, ought to be to live decently together in a world in which many species try to flourish” (351). To heighten our chances of moving beyond a future of inequality, we should foster mindsets and practices that encourage both caring-for and caring-about. What is ultimately at stake in not doing so is not only the lives of nonhumans, but a future notion of humanity that is caring, empathetic, cooperative, and considers the livelihoods of both humans nonhumans.


Adams, Carol and Josephine Donovan, editors. The Feminist Care Tradition in Animal Ethics. Columbia University Press, 2007.

Atwood, Margaret. MaddAddam. Knopf Canada, 2014. 

—. Oryx and Crake. Knopf Doubleday Publishing, 2004. 

—. The Year of the Flood. Knopf Canada, 2010. 

Clement, Grace. “The Ethic of Care and the Problem of Wild Animals.” The Feminist Care Tradition in Animal Ethics. Columbia University Press, 2007.

Colebrook, Claire. Death of the PostHuman: Essays on Extinction. Open Humanities Press, 2015.

Derrida, Jacques. The Animal that Therefore I Am. Edited by Marie-Luise Mallet, translated by David Wills. Fordham University Press, 2008.

Engster, Daniel. “Care Ethics and Animal Welfare.” Journal of Social Philosophy, vol. 37, no.4, 2006, pp. 521-536.

Haraway, Donna J. When Species Meet. University of Minnesota Press, 2008.

Hudson, Laura. “A Species of Thought: Bare Life and Animal Being.” Antipode, vol. 43, no. 5, 2011, pp. 1659-1678.

Noddings, Nel. Caring: A Relational Approach to Ethics and Moral Education. University of California Press, 1986.

Nussbaum, Martha. Frontiers of Justice: Disability, Nationality, Species Membership. Harvard University Press, 2006.

Okja. Directed by Bong Joon-ho, Plan B Entertainment, 2017. Netflix. 

Schmeink, Lars. Biopunk Dystopias: Genetic Engineering, Society, and Science Fiction. Liverpool University Press, 2016.

Tronto, Joan. Caring Democracy: Markets, Equality, and Justice. New York University Press, 2013.Vint, Sheryll. Animal Alterity: Science Fiction and the Question of the Animal. Liverpool University Press, 2012.

Monica Sousa received her BA and her MA from Brock University. She is currently a PhD candidate in the department of English at York University. Monica specializes in contemporary literature, and her research focuses on animal studies, posthumanism, and biotechnology in contemporary science fiction. Her dissertation explores human and nonhuman animal relations in contemporary science fiction, with a focus on biotechnologically engineered animals (including genetically modified animals or animals with cybernetic/robotic enhancements). She is interested in care responses and in the ethics regarding how we treat these animals and care for and about them after they have been created. In 2021, Monica contributed a chapter to Posthumanist Perspectives on Literary and Cultural Animals (2021), published by Springer Nature, and to Transhumanism and Posthumanism in Twenty-First Century Narrative (2021), published by Routledge (on Jeff VanderMeer’s novel Borne). In 2020, she contributed a chapter to Critical Insights: Life of Pi (2020), published by Salem Press. She has presented conference papers at many conferences, including WorldCon, the International Conference on Contemporary Narratives in English, the European Association for Critical Animal Studies, the Academic Conference on Canadian Science Fiction and Fantasy, and the Science Fiction Research Association. 

Economics of Poverty Between the Posthuman and the Other in Ancillary Sword

SFRA Review, vol. 51, no. 4

Selected SFRA 2021 Papers

Economics of Poverty Between the Posthuman and the Other in Ancillary Sword

Amanda Pavani Fernandes

Narratives about cyborgs, artificial intelligences, and genetically modified beings have contributed to criticism regarding previously closed definitions about humanity, about sentience, and especially about gender. Ann Leckie’s literature, notably her award-winning Imperial Radch trilogy, has been particularly relevant to all these areas of study. However, research about her writing has not considered as profoundly the intersection between posthumanism and economic structures of inequality. While there is much scholarship regarding the tension between corporeal and virtual experiences for posthuman characters on the one side, and solid arguments for Leckie’s colonial criticism and political debate, these perspectives have rarely intersected. In this paper, I propose a discussion focused precisely on the liminal figure of Breq, Leckie’s protagonist. 

Counterintuitively, Breq’s previous experiences as a being with reduced agency and subjectivity have led her to a position in which her actions foster communal empathy and even subvert economies of poverty. When I use the term “economies of poverty,” I refer to all systems whose function depends on fabricating and maintaining poverty—that is, capitalist and colonialist societies in fictional environments. For this analysis, I focus on Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Sword, published in 2014, the second instalment in her Radch series. This study centres around Breq, former ancillary and current Fleet Captain, from two main perspectives in relation to her actions in the plot of the novel: as a multiple entity that must deal with a sudden and cruel individuality, and as an empire representative. I propose that her inner conflict resulting from the loss of her ship and multiple bodies unravels a sequence of events that results in the exposure of a slave trade in one of the empire’s systems, provoking a strike amongst the oppressed peoples and realignment between governance and colonial values. To accompany my thesis, I consider David Le Breton’s remarks about corporeality in cyberpunk and cyberspace in L’Adieu au corps [1] for my first section on Breq’s conflict as a newly found individual, Kathi Weeks’s feminist and Marxist analysis in The Problem with Work on the association between value and work, as it creates positions of hierarchy, and Dillon and Dillon’s links between sovereignty and governance in Leckie’s first novel. I propose that Breq escapes common artificial intelligence tropes, and that her unique set of experiences—as a Ship, as an ancillary, as a Fleet Captain for the Radch—puts her in a position to challenge the supposed unity of the sovereign, as she aligns herself, through governance power, with the oppressed ethnicities in the Athoek system.

In the first part of this paper, I look specifically at Breq’s subjective trajectory. In Ancillary Sword, the character makes it explicit that she was born a “normal” person—that is, a common human with an individual body—but that around the age of seventeen she was kidnapped, her mind emptied of the person she used to be, and later transformed into in ancillary. In Leckie’s universe, ancillaries are human-born enhanced series of servants, or, as Breq puts it, “part of the Ship. There was, often, a vague, paradoxical sense that each decade [each series of ancillaries] had its own almost-identity, but that existed alongside the knowledge that every ancillary was just one part of the larger thing, just hands and feet—and a voice—for Ship” (Sword 57). Ancillaries, then, are humans implanted with a technology that grants them inhuman strength but, more importantly, a near-immediate constant experiential connection with other ancillaries of their series, known as their “decade” in the novels, and with their ship. The first novel in that series, Ancillary Justice (2013), focuses on her previous experiences as the Ship Justice of Toren and subsequently as the isolated ancillary, One Esk. Although the first instinct would be to read Breq, through all her subjective perspectives, as a typical cyborg whose existence is largely virtual, clad with enhancements, or even with a longing for her lost human identity, the protagonist is actually marked by her several experiences of body, her “corporealities,” even.

In Le Breton’s L’Adieu au corps, the thinker approaches at large the issue of body and mind in classical cyberpunk, highlighting the trend of abandoning the body as obsolete in order to transcend towards more evolved or elevated experiences. In Sword, however, Leckie gives her readership a cyborg-like creature for whom bodies and their experience are central to existence. While Le Breton claims that, “connected to cyberspace, bodies dissolve. . . . The infosphere traveller no longer feels imprisoned in a physical body” (124, my translation); for Breq, her experience as Justice of Toren and One Esk consisted of navigating the empirical world through multiple bodies. She had always been able to tap into whichever ancillary was looking and experiencing without thinking about it: her subjectivity, thus, is rooted on bodies and on sharing their experiences. 

In Ancillary Sword, however, the reader watches her grapple with being an individual, even if a partially connected one. As Fleet Captain, she can monitor her crew through the Ship, but now she is not integral to the artificial intelligence behind it all; she becomes a commander and passes as human. Roosa Töyrylä, in her master’s dissertation, observes that Breq can now “perceive the world via other people’s senses, but she does not perceive it via their knowledge, emotions, or ideologies” (25). Therefore, while cyberspace stories tend to focus on the dissolution of bodies, Leckie’s ancillaries highlight the shared experience of having multiple bodies, instead, which brings a new perspective for cyborgs, automatons, and artificial intelligences. While the latter tend to be similarly omnipresent, they are rarely corporeal. In addition to that, Leckie’s narration includes the many ruptures and instances of trauma involved in going from being a human person to a Ship, to an ancillary, to an enhanced individual passing for human again. 

Breq explicitly mentions her trauma when confronting another recently emptied human. Upon revealing that her Lieutenant Tisarwat was in fact an empty vessel for Anaander Mianaai to spy on her, she tells her, “I was the same age when it happened to me” (Sword 55).  Moreover, Breq is an individual profoundly marked by isolation and by the experience of being reified into an ancillary, despite not remembering her original self. That is one of the factors that enables her to become an agent of economic and social change in the Athoek system as a Fleet Captain for the Radch Empire. Her experiences make her, ancillary or not, rooted in collective experiences, but these experiences would not resolve by themselves: the events in Sword make her question her trajectory. The novel opens with a conversation she has with one version of Anaander Mianaai. The emperor says, “I’ll miss you, you know . . . few have the . . . similarity of background you and I have,” hinting at the fact they are both multiple and yet separated from their former parts. However, Breq does not consider that an equal position. Her inner monologue comments, “Because I had once been a ship. An AI controlling an enormous troop carrier and thousands of ancillaries, human bodies, part of myself. At the time I had not thought of myself as a slave, but I had been a weapon of conquest, the possession of Annander Mianaai, herself occupying thousands of bodies spread throughout Radch space” (4). Her collective-oriented character results both from trauma and from reflection about her condition. 

Throughout the novel, as she navigates political forces and corruption around inequality, she is also grappling with a loneliness that is unique to her: she misses being connected, not merely virtually, but in terms of body. She does not miss sex, but the lack of bodily and mental connection affects her deeply. Seivarden, the only lieutenant who knows her true identity, speculates about the effects of her trauma, saying, “it must be like having parts of your body cut off. And never replaced” (46), but Breq refuses to elaborate on it. Later, when describing decade quarters, she comments on the enclosed space, restless for human officers, but somewhat comforting for ancillaries (27). Breq, then, is a cyborg that is in conflict with the bodily experience; Leckie’s protagonist is evidence that virtual and enhanced intelligences may be more than an escape from supposed limitations of the flesh, but to expand on how one perceives the world materially. Le Breton’s view, then, of the body as prison, is subverted: the body, in Leckie’s series, comforts and empowers. That materiality, added to her conscience about slavery, instrumentalises her to act towards change in Athoek.

That perspective provides a window into the second section of this argument: Breq the Fleet Captain. Sarah Dillon and Michael Dillon, in their chapter for AI Narratives (2020), look into the structures of sovereignty and governance in Leckie’s universe. In Ancillary Sword, Breq represents governance, or the “changing contingent and particular circumstances” (334), that is, as the administrative labour enforcing the rules dictated by the sovereign, the multiple-bodied Anaander Minaai. However, that sovereign is also multiple, incongruent, and at war with herself through (at least) three factions. While the sovereign, in its figure, must be a symbol of unity, its breakage provides an opening from which governance, that is, the instrumental staff in the Mercy of Kalr, does not take over, but manages based on partial empirical ideology. By partial empirical ideology, I mean that their management is based on the image of empire values they have and the experiences they have retained about Mianaai—which is, incidentally, at times as broken as the subject of the sovereign herself. As Dillon and Dillon emphasize, governance is inherently heterogeneous (335), in its negotiation between regulations and enforcement in practice. In Ancillary Sword, Breq does not hide that she is operating under the order of Anaander Mianaai nor that the sovereign has been fractured for more than a thousand years. Some characters question her authority under that knowledge, at which Breq only replies simply, “But I really do have orders” (Sword 122). That response is often successful to the extent that these other characters recognise her as a powerful subject, as well. It also functions by reminding them that no action there is autonomous, recalling the image of the sovereign (while thinly reshaping what the image of the sovereign may be) and its supposed unity.

Of course, Breq is not entirely disinterested in her choice of location to intervene. Athoek is the birthplace of former Lieutenant Awn, her superior when she was Justice of Toren. While seeking to compensate for Awn’s demise to her living sister by making her Breq’s heir, the Fleet Captain discovers an economics of poverty that had been feeding off citizen bodies like they were ancillaries. Other colonialist practices of fabricating poverty include, for example, indentured work and exorbitant systems of debt upon wages, added to a fetishization of luxury products such as hand-picked tea leaves. 

Athoek, the narrator establishes early on, is a planet whose economy revolves around the production of tea leaves. Several ethnicities seem to compose its population, each with its own economically assigned role and subsequent stereotypes. Athoeki are, according to the people in power, mainly the Xhai; the Samirend are described as a people who were colonised “successfully” and who achieved certain level of success; the Ychana and the Valskaayan, on the other hand, are described as uncivilised and “good for nothing.” The richest tea farmer describes them as lazy, echoing typical coloniser discourse on people who refuse to be assimilated: 

They have plenty of opportunity to become civilised. Why, look at the Samirend! . . . The Valskaayans have every opportunity, but do they take advantage of it? I don’t know if you saw their residence—a very nice guesthouse, fully as nice as the house I live in myself, but it’s practically a ruin. They can’t be bothered to keep their surroundings nice. But they go quite extravagantly into debt over a musical instrument, or a new handheld. (213, emphasis in original)

Fosif Denche, said tea farmer, criticises his [2] workers for using their wages (and more) to acquire consumer products, ignoring that he is the one providing and setting the prices for these products. Sisix, the Ychana character who accompanies Breq, reveals the true side of that subordinate relationship, saying,

There are generally some garden plots if they want to grow vegetables, but they have to buy seeds and tools and it’s time out from picking tea. They’re houseless, so they don’t have family to give them the things they need, they have to buy them. They can’t any of them get travel permits, so they can’t go very far to buy anything. They can’t order things because they don’t have any money at all, they’re too heavily in debt to get credit, so Fosif sells them things—handhelds, access to entertainments, better food, whatever—at whatever price she wants. (199)

As Kathi Weeks notes in The Problem with Work, “waged work remains today the centerpiece of late capitalist economic systems” (6); as such, Leckie’s tea farmer exploits the people picking tea by following the rules whilst bending them through a monopoly of entertainment, sustenance, and general survival. Such a practice of isolation and indentured work has many examples in the many years of class struggle—a notable one, for example, is the Massacre of Eldorado dos Carajás, in 1996, in the Brazilian state of Pará, when workers revolted by invading a farm. Later, they gathered over four thousand people to march to Belém protesting for land rights; on the way, they were brutally shot at by the state’s military police; nineteen people died, and many were injured. [3]

Weeks also observes the discursive practice of making work individual and private, not structural and collective. According to her, “this effort to make work at once public and political is, then, one way to counter the forces that would naturalize, privatize, individualize, ontologize and also, thereby, depoliticize it” (7). She also adds that the analysis of work relations of subordination and domination are at the root of wage contracts—a notable phenomenon in the economic and social system at Athoek.

Considering the system’s configurations, there are both Fleet Captain Breq and the longstanding economy of poverty in Athoek. Upon her arrival at the Station, she takes residence at Undergarden, an abandoned section of the old station, inhabited by many Ychana, among others. When there is an accusation of vandalism in that territory, she does not assume that Fosif’s daughter was innocent simply from her house name. Called an “uncomfortable company” by the governor (Sword 75), Breq mediates the conflict towards the resolution of the novel, revealing on top of the exploitation and alienation imposed upon the colonised peoples in Athoek an ancient structure of sexual abuse and slave traffic. Although Breq justifies her intervention through Radch ideology (“if there’s injustice here, it is only because the Lord of the Radch isn’t sufficiently present” [231]), she simultaneously and purposefully ignores that the Lord of the Radch has not been one for a long time and, therefore, that the ideology of assimilating peoples, providing them with citizenship, right of passage, and fair work, remains a part of the sovereign. 

Governance power, originally meant to reinforce political power, exposes an economy of poverty that leads the Valskaayan to exert for the first time their refusal of work. However, that chain of events is unlocked as a result of Breq processing her own corporeal trauma, becoming capable of identifying similar systems of inequality and oppression around her, and using her position of governance to enact change. As the novel is concluded, the Valskaayans strike and begin bargaining for labour rights. Breq’s unique position, which lets her visualise structural flaws (her broken identity and previous multiple bodies) pushes her to act upon them at the same time, enabling a reform in economic and societal norms.


[1] In this paper, I refer to the Brazilian Portuguese version, translated by Marina Appenzeller (2003).

[2] Editor’s Note: We do not know the biological sex nor the gender of Denche nor of most of the other characters in the series.

[3] There are not many sources in English; one of them is Amnesty International’s website <>. Other sources in Brazilian Portuguese include <> and <>. All pages were accessed on Aug. 18, 2021.


Dillon, Sarah; Dillon, Michael. “Artificial Intelligence and the Sovereign-Governance Game.” AI Narratives: A History of Imaginative Thinking about Intelligent Machines, edited by Stephen Cave, Kanta Dihal, and Sarah Dillon, Oxford UP, 2020, pp. 333–56.

Le Breton, David. Adeus ao corpo: Antropologia e Sociedade. Translated by Marina Appenzeller. Papirus, 2003.

Leckie, Ann. Ancillary Justice. Orbit, 2013.

—. Ancillary Sword. Orbit, 2014.

Töyrylä, Roosa. “I might as well be human. But I’m not:” Focalization and Narration in Ann Leckie’s Imperial Radch Trilogy. 2020. University of Helsinki, Master’s thesis. Weeks, Kathi. The Problem with Work: Feminism, Marxism, Antiwork Politics, and Postwork Imaginaries. Duke UP, 2011.

Amanda Pavani Fernandes has a doctorate in Literatures in English and a master’s degree from the Federal University of Minas Gerais, Brazil. Currently she is a professor of English Language and Literature at the State University of Mato Grosso (UNEMAT). She is a co-founder of research group NEUFIC, based in Minas Gerais, focusing on science fiction and utopianisms. Her research interests include sf, artificial intelligences, the simulacrum, utopia and education, amongst other topics. Contact:

Some Thoughts on Capitalist Futures: An Excerpt from the SFRA 2021 Keynote

SFRA Review, vol. 51, no. 3

From the 2021 SFRA Conference

Some Thoughts on Capitalist Futures: An Excerpt from the SFRA 2021 Keynote

Lars Schmeink

I would again like to thank Graham J. Murphy and the executive committee of the SFRA for the kind invitation and the opportunity to speak at SFRA. It was a really enjoyable experience and I regret that it wasn’t possible in a personal format. When asked by the SFRA Review to publish the keynote, I had to admit to myself that it did not feel ready for publication in its current form. I feel it needs further exploration, giving me a chance to incorporate aspects that were cut short from the text, adding new thoughts from the discussions afterwards and so on. But I still felt that some form of it should be included in this issue to mark its presence at the conference, whose topic “The Future of/as Inequality” is just too entangled with the exploits of capitalism to not comment on it in one way or the other. This short essay is my way of letting you in on my thought process. I have trimmed the keynote ramblings and instead offer up an extract from my “50 shades of capitalism” and their expression in science fiction.

            So, as with the keynote itself, I wanted to start with a two preliminary remarks. The first is that the ideas expressed are largely based on my research for the “FutureWork” project, which is funded by the Federal Ministry of Research and Education. [1] And the second is a self-position. Given the intersectional nature of inequality, I would like to acknowledge that I am in many ways privileged: a white, male, cis-hetero European. But inequality is intersectional, and I would like to mention that I am a first-generation academic, struggling my whole professional life with the precarity that has become so endemic to academia. And I struggle still to this day without a full-time and secure position, even though funding from a Federal source sounds like quite a feat. The irony of this is not lost on me. This essay, then, wants to explore the underlying socio-political construction that enables, entrenches, and arguably generates these inequalities. Yup, you guessed it: It’s capitalism.

Following Chris Harman, I would argue that capitalism is the central reason for many, if not most, of the problems, we are facing:

Capitalism transforms society in its entirety as its sucks people […] into labouring for it. It changes the whole pattern by which humanity lives, remoulding human nature itself. It gives a new character to old oppressions and throws up completely new ones. It creates drives to war and ecological destruction. It seems to act like a force of nature, creating chaos and devastation on a scale much greater than any earthquake, hurricane or tsunami. Yet the system is not a product of nature, but of human activity, human activity that has somehow escaped from human control and taken on a life of its own. (11)

Thus, when thinking about the future as/of inequality, I return, evermore, to the idea that the central aspect we need to address is capitalism. As Marc Fisher argues, we need to articulate “new economic science fictions” as it becomes a “political imperative” to oppose capitalism and counter it by “economic science fictions that can exert pressure on capital’s current monopolisation of possible realities.” In this essay, then, I want to pause and consider what futures our current science fiction has in store for us.

There are so many different forms of capitalism that it is hard to limit one’s exploration, so I decided against the more “classical” forms such as mid-20th century industrial capitalism or European-style Rhine capitalism. And I also excluded attempts to paint capitalism more positively, such as sustainable capitalism or green capitalism, both of which argue that the structure of capitalism can be used to promote ecological policy. Instead, I describe today some examples of what I call the “50 shades of capitalism” of the 21st century, which we encounter in an ever-growing amount of scholarly work.

            A good and recent example is what Naomi Klein has termed “disaster capitalism,” by which she means “orchestrated raids on the public sphere in the wake of catastrophic events, combined with the treatment of disasters as exciting market opportunities” (6). In Germany, we are currently seeing examples of this in the way the Corona-crisis is being handled with disaster capitalists making huge profits of medical masks, testing, and app development. And I am sure there are similar examples in other countries around the globe. In popular culture, Steven Soderbergh’s science-fictional film Contagion (2011) shows us Alan Krumwiede (Jude Law), who peddles a homeopathic drug called Forsythia through creating fake news stories, ending up making millions in stock options.

Biocapitalism, as another example, takes “materials such as egg-cells, sperm or organic tissue […] as disposable things” and uses them for “processes for capitalist accumulation” (13), as Susanne Lettow argues. The human (and non-human) body—not its labor, but the biomaterial itself—generates value. A famous example here would be the immortal cell line taken from Henrietta Lacks in 1951, which is to this day used for research and capitalist exploitation. Thierry Bardini takes this concept further, extrapolating a “genetic capitalism” (130) that will extend the idea of biocapitalism to include gene sequences, leading capitalist society not just to discipline or control its subjects but ultimately to generate them. And here we are fully in the realm of the future as inequality as expressed in the dystopian worlds of biopunk and its explorations of a posthumanity.

In the worlds of Paolo Bacigalupi, for example, posthumans are specifically engineered for obedience and servitude. In The Windup Girl (2009), the title character is described as an object—and here the novel can be criticized for including a problematic racialized and gendered reduction of the character. Emiko, the windup girl, is a Japanese invention created in the image of Geishas to serve the whim of a society growing old. Into her genetic make-up, her creators inject genes of loyalty and obedience taken from dogs and other companion species. A similar loyalty is bred into the warrior species, so called augments or half-men, in the Ship Breaker trilogy. [2] Tool, the character linking all three novels, has overcome this genetic programming which binds him to military obedience, when his generals slaughter his whole pack and leave everyone to die. Both Emiko, the server, and Tool, the military grunt have been created merely to fulfill a purpose within the framework of capitalist value production.

The economic frame behind the genetic engineering becomes even more obvious in Stephanie Saulter’s Gemsigns (2013), in which humanity becomes sterile, forcing massive shifts in demographics. Genetic engineering of servile workers becomes the solution to re-establish a growing economy, and posthumans are engineered so that they can fulfill a range of services, from autistic mathematical savants to superabled physiques for heavy work. The so-called ‘gems’ are property of large biotech corporations and only after years of exploitation are finally granted civil freedoms. The novel discusses the problematics of inequality, the need of the society to have gems work for the well-being of all. For genetic capitalism to function, gems need to be seen as objects, similar to dangerous machinery, in need of maintenance and supervision. In the novel, biotech corporations retain a narrative of differences of species in order keep up hegemonic superiority and the extraction of surplus value.

But not only does capitalism gain from the building blocks of life, controlling and genetically creating life, as Bardini argues. Capitalism has also found a way to accumulate profit from the “dispossession and the subjugation of life to the power of death,” as Subhabrata Bobby Banerjee claims, resorting to “death, torture, suicide, slavery, destruction of livelihoods, and the general management of violence” (1548). Based on Achille Mbembe’s idea of necropolitics, Banerjee calls this necrocapitalism. By using colonial legacies to declare continuous states of exception, necrocapitalism is able to define death worlds in which, as Warren Montag argues Giorgio Agamben’s homo sacer has found a sibling: “he who with impunity may be allowed to die, slowly or quickly, in the name of the rationality and equilibrium of the market” (11). 

With the effects of the plague thus comes the need for workers, the need to replace the dying labor to uphold the privileges of the elites—so a leading biotech company in the novel clones Asian women as slave labor. But with most men dead, the species also needs another way of procreation. The solution is the genetic engineering of the clones, splicing with lizard and other animal DNA to select for special traits such as the ability to regrow organs and function as donors, or the ability to self-reproduce through parthenogenesis. The so-called ‘Grist sisters’ are the ultimate commodity for necrocapitalist practices, as their organs can be sold to the rich, while their self-reproduction in litters of four to six clones allows them to be slowly worked to death with a constant flow of new sisters being born. Gatermann here pointedly argues that Lai employs these necrocapitalist practices as a critique of techno-Orientalism reducing the Asian body to a machine—a critique that here produces a “powerful image of colonial exploitation and dehumanization”. 

But so far, we have a blank spot in our discussion, that of Information, capital-I. There are a variety of ways to describe this—more shades of capitalism. Yann Moulier Boutang calls this “cognitive capitalism” and argues that it “is interested in the valorisation of intelligence and innovation” (41) based on “collective cognitive labour power” (37). Shoshanna Zuboff calls it “surveillance capitalism” that “claims human experience as free raw material for hidden commercial practices of extraction, prediction, and sales” and uses it for “behavioral modification”. Lastly, Mackenzie Wark argues that this is indeed not capitalism anymore, but something else, something worse. Wark claims that there is “a whole political economy that runs on asymmetries of information as a form of control” that should not be lumped together with capitalism as it is determined by a new level of abstraction:

It may even amount to a new kind of class relation. Sure, there is still a landlord class that owns the land under our feet and a capitalist class that owns the factories, but maybe now there’s another kind of ruling class as well—one that owns neither of those things but instead owns the vector along which information is gathered and used.

Wark calls them the ‘vectoralist class,’ which is exploiting its own labor form, the ‘hacker class,’ people “who produce new information out of old information.” Wark continues: “This is not capitalism anymore; it is something worse. […] The dominant ruling class of our time owns and controls information.” And vectors are present in all of today’s capitalist practices, be it GM, Nike, or Pepsico. Today, Wark argues, a “company is its brands, its patents, its trademarks, its reputation, its logistics, and perhaps above all its distinctive practices of evaluating information itself.” Vectoralism is post-capitalist in the sense of creating a new mode of production, a new political economy.

In SF we find this new political economy most prominently expressed in the British TV series Black Mirror (2011-19), with many episodes commenting exactly on the issue of information, vectors and who has access to them. In “The Entire History of You,” a device allows for the recording and playback of all of a person’s experiences, which leads to a close scrutiny of personal performances and decisions, every memory painstakingly available for revision. In “Be Right Back,” a new online service creates virtual duplicates of deceased love-one via all their social media history and the information that is available about them. “Nosedive” explores a society based on the rigorous evaluation of each and every social interaction, gathered in a social score that determines benefits and restrictions within this society. And “Hated by the Nation” investigates the idea of shitstorms and social media rage becoming a real threat when the hashtag #deathto is used to kill people with controversial media performances. In all, the series explores different examples of how vectoralism might be seen as the “something worse” that Wark warns us moves beyond ‘mere’ capitalism. Vectors of information, today, are engrained in all aspects of our social, cultural, economic, and political life—the vectoralist class thus exerting new power relations over us.

To conclude, then, science fiction today shows us how strong capitalism (or vectoralism) is still going strong. Whether we have to accept this, accelerate through them, or fight to abolish them depends on our ability to form new economic scenarios in which post-capitalist worlds are possible, in order for us to form them into realities. Science fiction can help us to understand how capitalism impacts us, but it can also help us formulate those new scenarios and hopefully save ourselves from the abyss that we are currently staring down into. Thank you very much. 


[1] Funded by the Bundesministerium für Bildung und Forschung (BMBF) under the funding numbers 02L18A510 and 02L18A511, supervised by the Projektträger Karlsruhe (PTKA).

[2]  A young adult series comprised of Ship Breaker (2010), The Drowned Cities (2012) and Tool of War (2017).


Banerjee, Subhabrata Bobby. “Necrocapitalism”. Organization Studies vol. 29, no. 12 (2008), pp. 1541–63.

Bardini, Thierry. Junkware. University of Minnesota Press, 2011.

Fisher, Mark. “Foreword.” Economic Science Fictions, ed. by William Davies. Goldsmiths P, 2018. eBook.

Gatermann, Julia. “Groomed for Survival: Queer Reproductive Technologies and Cross-Species Assemblages in Larissa Lai’s The Tiger Flu.Technologies of Feminist Speculative Fiction, ed. by Sümeyra Buran and Sherryl Vint. Unpublished manuscript.

Harman, Chris. Zombie Capitalism: Global Crisis and the Relevance of Marx. Haymarket Books, 2010.

Klein, Naomi. The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism. Metropolitan, 2013.

Lettow, Susanne. “Biocapitalism.” Krisis: Journal for Contemporary Philosophy vol. 2 (2018), pp. 13-14.

Montag, Warren. “Necro-economics: Adam Smith and death in the life of the universal’. Radical Philosophy vol. 134 (2005), pp. 7-17.

Moulier Boutang, Yann. Cognitive Capitalism, transl. by Ed Emery. Polity Press, 2011.

Wark, McKenzie. Capital is dead: is this something worse? Verso, 2019. eBook.