Posthuman Mysticism: From the Zero Point of Humanity to the Parallel Worlds in The Gift

SFRA Review, vol. 51, no. 4

Selected SFRA 2021 Papers

Posthuman Mysticism: From the Zero Point of Humanity to the Parallel Worlds in The Gift

Sümeyra Buran

Göbeklitepe, located at Örencik village in Şanlıurfa, a city in southeastern Turkey, is the world’s first and largest temple in history. It has recently been discovered as the zero point in time that shifts human  history back to more than 12,000 years ago—7,000 years before the great Egyptian Pyramids and 6,000 years older than Stonehenge. Şanlıurfa is called the town of prophets and is mostly linked with the prophet Abraham, the ancestor of the whole of humanity in monotheistic religions, Islam, Christianity, and Judaism. Urfa is associated with the town Ur  from the Bible, and Edessa (modern Urfa) is also known as the first home of the Holy Mandylion-Christ icon on the Taurus Mountains. Göbeklitepe was built in the pre-pottery Neolithic period and is a significant point in the evolution of religions, as the root of monotheistic religions. With the temple’s 14-tonne pillars, Göbeklitepe has been on the UNESCO World Heritage Site list since July 2018. Göbeklitepe, which translates to “Potbelly Hill,” was discovered in 1963 during joint research by Istanbul University and the University of Chicago, and it was unearthed by the 1995-2006 excavations led by the German archaeologist Klaus Schmidt. In the studies carried out in Göbeklitepe and its surroundings, it was revealed that  religion, not agriculture, caused humans to shift to a sedentary lifestyle. So, Göbeklitepe has rewritten the history of the beginning of human civilization.

The 2019 Turkish Netflix series The Gift tells the (hi)story of (post)humanity by the archaeological discovery of a gate in Göbeklitepe that leads to parallel universes. Inspired by Şengül Boybaş’s novel The Awakening of the World, the series is about the “mystical” story of a young and beautiful painter named Atiye (meaning gift) who opens the doors to the past and begins to question everything between the past and the future, between the real and the spiritual.

The mysterious gate is tied to the extraordinary artifact buried for millennia and to the (her)story of Atiye, who explores her post-Goddess power throughout the history of humankind by her mysterious journey to parallel worlds. [1] As an artist living in İstanbul, Atiye discovers that she has been drawing the same symbol since childhood when she meets the archaeologist Erhan. It was Erhan who found the symbol in Göbeklitepe, which then becomes the connection point between Atiye’s different selves that exist in the parallel worlds. The series weaves the topics of awakening after death, rebirth within history, and her story of parallel worlds. The series has a plot that feeds primarily on mysticism, anthropology, and cosmology. I explore the strains of posthuman mystic reception of cosmology in Turkish SF film in the context of the myth of the mother goddess.

Metaphysical Space and Time in Myth

The Gift is an interesting representation of the posthuman condition, achieved by mixing together Turkish mythology and posthumanist ideology. There is a close relation between posthuman and mythological narratives that both live beyond time, place, and space of existence. According to Mircea Eliade, historian of religions, “the myth relates the events that date back to the origins, to the primordial and legendary time of beginnings. In doing so, it refers to realities that exist in the world, explaining the origins: cosmos, man, plants, animals, life” (6). Thus, we cannot decrease myth to a mere fantasy, fairy tale, or scientific fact. Myth “does not have a claim of realistic and historical reconstruction of the facts; it does not relate the history of the genesis and development of a reality: it says something profoundly real, that mere scientific explanation of the facts could not explain” (Valera and Tambone 354). The dimensions of space and time are sacred in the myth since, as Elaide claims, events in mythical time “make up a sacred history because the actors in the drama are not men but Supernatural Beings” (13). Thereby, the Netflix series The Gift is a symbolic expression of historical reality through the mythical expression of metaphysical nature that is not natural.

As Julien Ries explains, “[t]he myth is a symbolic expression through which the human being interprets the relationship between the current time and the origins” (6). Following Donna Haraway’s claim that “[b]y the late twentieth century, our time, a mythic time, we are all chimeras, theorized and fabricated hybrids of machine and organism; in short, we are all cyborgs” (150), Atiye is the cyborg goddess, a chimera hybrid of human and supernatural mythical organisms. The first scene of The Gift shows Atiye watching her own funeral from a distance, which symbolizes her rebirth. The posthuman narrative in The Gift deconstructs the Western dichotomies of organic/inorganic, death/life, nature/culture, male/female, fact/fiction, human/environment, natural/supernatural, past/present, soul/matter, etc., so The Gift moves beyond Western real time and space and instead enacts its own time and space. 

As a mythological heroine, Atiye gets rid of the past and the future by realizing her power over the moments she can control. This is what it takes to be eternal, and the hidden mythical element is the present, so Atiye finds her power when she stays in the present: “Eternity does not mean having endless time. It means timelessness. If you want to experience infinite enlightenment, you need to get the past, the future out of your mind. And stay in the present” ― Shams-i Tabrīzī (S1, E3). The show depicts the idea that as humans, we have always been posthumans in a divine/eternal plan and that we cannot change the past, but we can shape the future as it is also stated in the series: “Maybe time is not linear as we are told, my son, maybe the past and the future have melted into each other and we are in a dream and a delusion/illusion” (S1, E8). In this sense, as in Pepperell’s “Posthuman Manifesto,”  “[t]he future never arrives” (5) because we live in the past, present, and future at the same non-dimensional time and space that depict the posthuman turn of integral metaphysical understanding. The series depicts the past, present, and future happening at the same time:

There is no such thing as time. Everything in the universe happens at once. We only perceive things sequentially because that’s what we were taught. Yet every choice we made leads to a new possibility. We affect everything in a timeless place even if we don’t realize it. (S3 E2)

The metaphysical time and space in The Gift explain how “[e]verything that exists anywhere is energy” (Pepperell 12); that there is no need for matter in the flow of energy. There is no ultimate time and space in the posthuman myth of the Göbeklitepe as the turning point of humanity. The fluidity of Atiye’s posthuman body without physical boundaries moves beyond the spatial limits in parallel worlds and becomes whole in the eternal time of past, present, and future in human history. We see the posthuman goddess coinciding with the whole Atiye in each multi-parallel universe.

The most important mythical element in The Gift is the Sun and Moon iconography, which is also found on the actual pillars of Göbeklitepe.Archaeologist Schmidt believes the “H” sign motif located above the Kün-ay (sun-moon) motif is a reference to marriage (God-goddess) in spring, which is a kind of symbol of male and female togetherness. This type of Kün-ay/god-goddess reunion ceremony brings us to the origin of hıdırellez festivals, which is how the spring equinox is celebrated in Turkey, when nature awakens and the earth is reborn (Çığ 2014; Esin 2001). Kün-ay symbols are also seen in many ancient artworks, such as Sumerian and Akkadian cylinder seals and Proto-Turkish culture (from the Chu Turks, Hun Turks, to the Gökturks), as well as to the flag with the crescent and star used by modern Turks. The pillar also symbolizes the life-death-rebirth cycle and reminds us of the sacred marriage ceremony of Inanna, goddess of fertility and love, and shepherd Dumuzi (who is also called Tammuz) [2] in Sumerian civilization. Göbeklitepe is the first home for the fertility cults in the Anatolian and Mesopotamian civilizations. [3]

That is, Atiye and Erhan are depicted as “Adam and Eve, Jesus and Magdalene, Isis and Osiris, call them what you will” (S1, E8).Atiye represents the goddess Umay, Mother Earth (also called Ayasin or Ece); Umay is the symbol of birth and fertility, the protector of pregnant women, animals, nature, and non-humans in Turkish mythology. In Season 2, Atiye’s symbolic meaning  is directly conveyed in an inscription written in the Göktürk alphabet in tunic letters: 

You are the mother of the universe, nature itself, the sum of divine spirits from beyond time, the queen of souls, you are life and light, you are always the one who will always be Venus or Isis. You are the one that begins in every realm, you are the goddess with ten thousand names and you are the only one for me. (S2, E6)

The symbol of Göbeklitepe in Atiye’s art consists of the Moon, Sun, and Womb (referring to a baby in the uterus). The moon and sun are depicted on Atiye and Erhan’s foreheads and symbolize the awakening of nature and the rebirth of posthuman earth. [4] The series shows that Göbeklitepe gives birth to human and superhuman beings which then attribute it a posthuman feature.  Atiye, as the representative of the fertility goddess, is captured in the caves in Nemrut Mountain, [5] and her emergence from the cave symbolizes her rebirth. Atiye realizes the dream of Antiochus I Theos, (considered a god in human form), who built a huge mortuary with enormous statues of himself, other gods, and animals to be protected and live forever. Atiye achieves immortality as a posthuman goddess so she can protect all creatures in all universes. This rebirth scene portrays the notion that nothing dies and disappears, only time flows, so that the past might be our future, or the future may be lost in our past:

Don’t worry, everything is as it should be, we are all parts of the divine plan, we are all a continuation of each other. You couldn’t have stopped what happened, but creating what will happen is in your hands. A gift was given to you, Atiye. You really can do whatever you want. (S1, E8).

The Gift references collective consciousness and divine unity, which is also the cosmology of Sufism in Turkish culture; as Simurg explains, “[a]nd the real journey is the one where we realize we are all One” (S3, E5). Resurrection after death is explained in the series in the religious/spiritual/Sufi way as in the following quotes:

God removes the living from the dead, the dead from the living and revives the earth after his death. Thus, you shall also be removed.—Qur’an (S1, E6)

Birth begins with death. Our last day is the beginning of the first day. And when the time comes, a new age will begin with the first seed. She will come. She will open the door to real life. (S3, E3)

Death is not the end but an interlude. Really. They took me out of that interlude . . . beyond what we think we know. (S3, E4)

These lines illustrate how Atiye travels through time and places in order to complete her own inner spiritual journey. Atiye discovers her way by realizing her posthuman mythological power of resurrection in alternative universes. For example, when Atiye passes through the womb/gate of Göbeklitepe, she finds herself in a different universe where her dead sister Cansu continues her life as a different character, Elif, and does not recognize her. When Atiye, as a posthuman mythological heroine, understands her power can resurrect the dead, she brings her sister back to an alternative universe. As it is said in the series: “There is no time, no separation, everything is as it should be” (S1, E8).

Tree of Life

There is also a reference to the mythological Turkish tree of life—the great beech Ulu Kayı—in the second season, which takes place in a dystopian parallel world where women cannot get pregnant for an unknown reason. According to a belief in Turkish mythology, tying rags to trees, parks, and elsewhere  to ask Mother Earth  for children. [6] This more-than-human nature, tree, is believed to have posthuman features as it holds the sky with its arms, one touching the sun and the other the moon, and its roots reach the deepest point underground. The tree is the symbol of posthuman rebirth in the series: 

The door you are looking for is beneath that tree. 
That tree which joins the heavens/skies and earth. 
That has been here forever. 
That tree has been entrusted to you for generations and 
That will exist forever.
(S2, E7)

The great beech, Ulu Kayın, was planted by Kayrahan, the son of Tengri, the Sky God, and from the tree nine human species descended from nine branches. This also demonstrates how posthuman species have always existed in Turkish mythology and The Gift is one of the good examples of Turkish posthuman culture.

Snake-Woman: Şahmaran

The ouroboros,—a snake biting its tail—represents the multiverse; in mythologies, it describes the cyclicity of time. Superheroes are the most well-known examples of posthuman figurations in narratives. In The Gift, we encounter them in the characters of Atiye, her grandmother Zühre and her daughters, Atiye’s daughter Arden; Atiye in particular is a posthuman superheroine who tries to save the world from infertility. Atiye comes across her grandmother Zühre who suddenly appears and disappears and seems to come from another universe. Zühre represents the Şahmaran (Shahmaran), a posthuman mythological creature called the “Queen of Snakes” from a Middle Eastern mythological half-human half-snake being: 

Everyone thinks that snakes are dangerous, that they’re poison, the devil itself. But in reality, snakes are defined as knowledge and the mean rebirth. They are tasked with protecting what’s sacred. Shahmaran was the beautiful and graceful queen of snakes. She reigned a secret garden of paradise hidden underground. But then, one day . . . people came and found her and killed her, believing her dead body would create miracles. But don’t worry, when Shamaran dies, her soul passes to her daughter and continues to live within her. (S1, E6)  

The story of Şahmaran is important for the series, which depicts the posthuman mythological figures shaping the history of humankind. The miraculous abilities to heal and all the supernatural power that pass from mother to daughter in the series evoke the matriarchal system [7] that posthuman mythological goddesses de- and reconstruct the history of time, space, and existence. 


The most important message from this posthuman mythological SF is to accept what comes from the gift of life itself. I want to close my talk with Şems’s sayings in The Gift: “Instead of resisting to changes, surrender. Let life be with you, not against you. If you think ‘My life will be upside down’ don’t worry. How do you know down is not better than upside?” ― Shams-i Tabrīzī (S1, E3).


[1] The Gift focuses on parallel universes as in other series, such as Finch, Dark, and The OA.

[2] Tammuz, in Turkish Temmuz, was also the name of the month July.

[3] These symbols also have cosmic references that attribute Göbeklitepe to be built as an observatory place to observe planets and celestial objects.

[4] The symbol of Sirius in the series is used as a sign of posthuman power. 

[5] Statues of gods and goddesses are located in Nemrut Mountain (southwestern Anatolia in Turkey), home for the Commagene Kingdom (163 BCE–72 CE).

[6] Trees are also planted even in cemeteries in Turkish culture. Tying rags also dates back to the old Turkish belief shamanism, to the Turk-Mongolic native religious movement which is called Tengrism.

[7] The villagers attack Zühre’s house because they think her abilities are those of  a wizard and devil. They also kill her husband and burn one of her daughters by throwing her in the fire. Zühre’s daughters bear a star shaped birthmark and are healers who can travel through time and universes. Zühre and her dead daughter,  with the star-shaped birthmark on her forehead, help Atiye get out of the cave of Nemrut.


Boybaş, Şengül. Dünyanın Uyanışı [The Awakening of the World]. Küsurat Yayınları, 2018.

Çığ, Muazzez İlmiye. İnanna’nın Aşkı: Sumer’de İnanç ve Kutsal Evlenme. Kaynak Yayınları, 1998.

Eliade, Mircea. Myth and Reality. Waveland Press, Long Grove, 1998.

Esin, Emel, Türk Kozmolojisi’ne Giriş. Kabalcı Yayınları, 2001

Haraway, Donna J. “A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology and Social Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century.” In Simians, Cyborgs, and Women: The Reinvention of Nature, pp. 149-181, Routledge, 1991.

Pepperell, Robert. “The Posthuman Manifesto.” Kritikos. vol. 2, 2005, pp. 1-15. 

Ries, Julien. Mito e rito. Le costanti del sacro. Jaca Book, Milano, 2008.

Schmidt, Klaus. Göbekli Tepe: En Eski Tapınağı Yapanlar, translated by Rüstem Aslan, Arkeoloji Sanat Yayinlari, 2006.

The Gift, 2019. Netflix Turkish Series. 

Valera, Luca, and Vittoradolfo Tambone. “The goldfish syndrome. Human nature and the posthuman myth.” Cuadernos de bioetica: revista oficial de la Asociacion Espanola de Bioetica y Etica Medica, vol. 25, no. 85, 2014, 353-66.

Sümeyra Buran is a visiting associate professor at the University of California Riverside (from Istanbul Medeniyet University) since she was awarded a research grant by the Scientific and Technological Research Council of Turkey (TUBITAK) in 2018. She is the founding and coordinating editor of Journal of Posthumanism, the editor of Posthumanism Series by Transnational Press London, the editor of the collection Posthumanism in Literature (Edebiyatta Posthümanizm 2020), co-editor with Sherryl Vint of Technologies of Feminist Speculative Fiction: Gender, Artificial Life, Reproduction by Palgrave (soon), co-editor with Jim Clarke of Religious Futurisms (2022), and co-editor with Jire Gozen of Beyond the Occident: Perspectives on Past, Present and Speculative Future in Fiction, Art, Media and Film (2022) to be published by Routledge. She is also co-editor of the first Turkish Anthology of Science Fiction (2022). She is also a scientific coordination committee member of the European Observatory on Femicide (EOF), a committee member of BIPOC at IAFA, and a country representative (Turkey) at SFRA. Currently, she is writing her monograph, Su-fi: Sufi Science Fiction, to be published by Routledge (tentative).

Roundtable: Can Chinese Science Fiction Transcend Binary Thinking?

SFRA Review, vol. 51, no. 4

Selected SFRA 2021 Papers

Roundtable: Can Chinese Science Fiction Transcend Binary Thinking?

Mia Chen Ma, Angela YT Chan, Yen Ooi, Frederike Schneider-Vielsäcker and Regina Kanyu Wang

Mia Chen Ma: Hello everyone, welcome to our roundtable discussion on Chinese science fiction. Our discussion today will be driven by one central question: Does Chinese SF inspire us to transcend binary thinking—and how? 

Amid the popularity of contemporary Chinese SF across the globe, there is still a lack of examination on the ambiguity and complexity of gender representation in Chinese SF. In the meantime, we can see how an increasing amount of SF stories, across cultures and languages, have addressed that there are more genders than two, and how gender exists in many forms—gender can be fluid. Under this context, there are so many questions that still remain unanswered by Chinese SF writers and researchers. For example, are the majority of Chinese SF works still producing gender stereotypes? In what ways have Chinese SF stories demonstrated their potential of writing resistance, generating a reconsideration of gender inequality? How do we understand the outcome of such resistance, does it inspire us to take actions in real-life context, or has it involuntarily produced even more binaries? With all these questions in mind, we want to ask if and how Chinese SF can join the global discussion in terms of post-binary gender.

We are hoping to bring awareness to the importance of rethinking how gender bias/diversity are presented in some well-known Chinese SF works, and also the importance of  rediscovering the HERstory of Chinese SF, including stories from other marginalized genders in contemporary China. By doing so, we want to discuss how Chinese SF can transcend binary thinking and point to a more gender equal and sustainable future.

The first question we want to discuss is: How exactly are gender roles depicted in contemporary Chinese SF? For audiences who have not read many Chinese SF works, some of our panelists can give a few examples and share their thoughts on how genders have been presented in contemporary Chinese SF. 

Yen Ooi: In thinking about gender roles depicted in contemporary Chinese SF, I’m going to generalize and categorize them into three different groups—this is also how I feel about fiction in general. First, there’s a group of stories that when you read or when you consume them, you don’t really think about the gender of the characters. I think these stories feel gender neutral and most of the time you could probably swap genders and no one cares while they’re reading it. Then, there’s another group which purposely challenges the norms of gender representation. And there’s a third group which then re-emphasizes gender stereotypes. I’ve picked an example for each and I’ve purposely picked female writers to promote more female writers and their writing. When we think about stories that feel gender neutral and don’t pay much attention to what gender is, I suggest The Strange Beasts of China (Yishouzhi 异兽志, 2012) by Yan Ge (颜歌, b. 1984) which I recently read in English (translated by Jeremy Tiang, 2020). There are obviously spots where there are actions that are gender-specific, but in general, if you read the whole book, you can probably swap the gender roles of the characters and not feel too annoyed or bothered by it—the story would still stand. On the other hand, a book that really challenges gender norms or gender thinking is An Excess Male (2017) by Maggie Shen King. In her debut novel, Shen King places all of the people in the female gender role. She places the state or the government in the male patriarchy role, so the power lies with the state, and everyone else—the people—becomes feminized and is looked down upon. That’s a very interesting story if you’ve not come across it yet. And in terms of stories that emphasize gender stereotypes, unfortunately there are still quite a lot of those out there at the moment. One that I will mention is Vagabonds (Liulang cangqiong 流浪苍穹, 2016) [1] by Hao Jingfang (郝景芳, b. 1984). Throughout the novel, there are a lot of problematic descriptions that really emphasize the female in the characters and it’s really hard to ignore them when you’re reading the story. She’s a brilliant writer nonetheless. I think all these kinds of stories are good in bringing awareness to the reader in terms of challenging gender representation or being aware of how gender is represented in contemporary Chinese SF.

Frederike Schneider-Vielsäcker: I agree with Yen that there are these three types of gender representations in Chinese SF literature. In my research, I pay a lot of attention to women’s representation and female roles in contemporary Chinese SF. I have observed that in most of the works, women are still depicted in a stereotypical role even though in reality they receive higher education and are professionals. This is a point that I would like to discuss a little more as Yen has already given us some very good examples. In contemporary Chinese SF writings, there are three stereotypical female roles: first, we still find the woman as the male protagonist’s love interest; second, as the prostitute, and third, as the mother. Interestingly, the mother’s role is also prevalent in many works written by female authors. 

There are a few stories in which female characters possess some kind of knowledge and thus enlighten the male protagonist. On the other hand, we also encounter male protagonists who are anti-heroes. For example, in “The City of Silence” (Jijing zhi cheng 寂静之城, 2005) [2] by Ma Boyong (马伯庸, b. 1980) and “Ether” (Yitai 以太, 2012) by Zhang Ran (张冉, b. 1981), [3] the male protagonists suffer from depression. In these two stories, it is the female character who leads them to their remedy. But overall, women play insignificant roles in most of the stories. This gender representation is connected to and reflects the patriarchal Chinese society that still constructs femininity as passive and reduces women to their reproductive functions. Since these gender norms are internalized by some female writers in China, it becomes problematic because their stories reinforce stereotypical gender roles. As Yen mentioned, Hao Jingfang’s novel Vagabonds is a really good example of this issue. Works like hers also reveal the resurgence of Confucian values in twenty-first-century China. Nonetheless, there are some outstanding examples that portray women as strong female protagonists that we are going to explore this a little more later on in our discussion. After all, it is among the young writers’ generation that more and more female authors are gaining awareness of gender inequalities and touching upon them in their writings.

One last thing I would like to mention now is that the works of female Chinese SF writers tend to use the strategy of a “double-voiced discourse,” a concept coined by Mikhail M. Bakhtin and adapted by feminist literary studies. It means that the stories written by women seem to comply with patriarchal power structures and traditional roles, but at the same time they articulate their dissent in the subtext. According to Elaine Showalter, “women’s writing is a ‘double-voiced discourse’ that always embodies the social, literary, and cultural heritages of both the muted and the dominant” (201). In my opinion, this is the case with Hao Jingfang’s writings. For example, in her novella Folding Beijing (Beijing zhedie 北京折叠, 2014) [4] men are the ones in charge of the future city, whereas the female protagonist works as a part-time assistant to the management of a bank and is married to a rich business man instead of being with her true love, a student, because she does not want to give up her luxurious lifestyle. In addition, there are the robot waitresses with short skirts and the sexist remarks of the male protagonist that reduce women to their appearances. These aspects can also be read as a critique of the patriarchal society.

Mia Chen Ma: This is a very interesting point. While reading Folding Beijing, I am also bothered by such a construction, possibly involuntarily, of the “ideal woman” in a much less obvious way than some other male writers like Liu Cixin. Yiyan is depicted as an “ideal woman” who is desired and admired by people from different social classes, and Lao Dao wants to raise his stepdaughter Tangtang to become another Yiyan, another ideal woman. To some extent, the story seems to imply that it is the obsession with ideal women that motivates the male characters Lao Dao and Qin Tian, to break space and time barriers, challenging the very strict system of social hierarchy. Such fantasy about the “ideal woman,” representing gender inequality to the greatest extent, then strangely, becomes the hope of initiating resistance to social inequality in this story.

In comparison with such ideas of the “ideal woman,” there are also narratives of a “mad woman,” which can be traced way back to traditional Chinese literature. And in contemporary Chinese SF, there are also many examples of “mad woman”: they exist in the forms of cyborgs, human-animal hybrids, etc. They often represent destructive power, and such power can be written in a very feminist way, with madness becoming resistance. However, it somehow feels that no matter what, women are so easily instrumentalized, regardless if they decide to stay calm and content or spiral into madness.The depiction of female roles is generally meant to fulfill a specific purpose that often caters to the male gaze. It is worth noting that such problematic presentations of women can be traced not only in the works of male authors, but also of some women and non-binary authors as well—Hao Jingfang, for instance. This explains why it is so important that we pay more attention to the complexity and ambiguity that lie behind gender representation in Chinese SF. Not only does it facilitate misconceptions on gender, it also produces even more cultural stereotypes, navigating toward a grotesquely unequal future. From this instance we want to ask the second question: What should we do to possibly change the current situation? Can the science fictional mode be used to sensitively contend with the body as a site of conflicting powers to resituate agency and empowerment?

Angela Chan: When we are thinking about what the body actually means, it is quite interesting to think of its finiteness. From birth to death, that whole cycle of drama and activity and processes is really interesting as a kind of span for us to start interrogating these ideas of power dynamics. A famous example of the body and rebirth is Wang Jinkang’s (王晋康, b. 1948) short story “Reincarnated Giant” (Zhuansheng de juren 转生的巨人, 2005), which is about an extremely wealthy, aging man who fears death. He undergoes the most advanced technological procedure to have himself reincarnated as a baby, so that he is reborn with his mature, adult consciousness remaining intact. It allows him to continue with his business empire and stay on top of the legalities of his changed personhood. Throughout the story he extracts and exhausts numerous natural resources, such as the food of his own nation. Particularly disturbing is how this also includes human resources, namely the wet nurses that he feeds upon. This speaks to the gendered exploitation of labour, as well as the disposability of working bodies, with the story detailing how the wet nurses’ contracts are calculated to effortlessly favour the neoliberal campaign of the elite. Eventually the protagonist grows into a baby that is as big as a mountain, and finally, he passes away from the unsupportable weight of his head. We can observe his strategy of physical manipulation of the body as a metaphor for unsustainable growth.

To give a rather different narrative of the body as a contested site of power, we can look to SF pieces in contemporary art. For me, with a background as an artist and curator, I think it is really exciting to see SF not just in the container of literature, but also as something expansive that has always flowed throughout artistic disciplines, and as a vehicle for different ways of thinking. I think about Lu Yang (陆扬, b. 1984), a media artist whose work reestablishes our perceptions that are beyond the binary, beyond gender. Exploring concepts like the meaning of existence and death through religion, like Buddhism, Lu Yang inquires what it means to have a body that you then perhaps materially exhaust, and in death you put it away while moving on to another type of vessel for your consciousness afterwards, which may be more immaterial. Throwing this together with neuroscience, psychology, technology, and hypercaptialist consumerism through pop sub-culture and animé motifs, a lot of the artworks are actually reinvented avatars of the artist: an androgynous person, without genitalia, usually naked, bald. This avatar moves through different types of gamified worlds, which is really thoughtful as well as fun. One video or game piece made back in 2013 is Uterus Man. With this superhero character you zoom into the biological structure of the body, like analysing the anatomy of the uterus. There is a lot of humour too. For example, this character uses a Sanitary Pad Skateboard to travel, there is a Pelvis Chariot Flying Mode in the game, and then attacks can be made with things like DNA Attacks, an Umbilical Cord Whip and even a Baby Beast Mode. I think this humour is very useful to play on the binary set of gender norms, as it also makes it more appealing to conversative outlooks to start rethinking the body and our existence in more empowering liberations beyond the gender binary.

I will finish by introducing a game that is still a work in progress, with a preview called Material World Knight—Game Film Ver1 (2020). The Material World Knight protagonist begins by being confused about their own body and what it means to exist in this very material world of saturated media driven by capitalist consumerism. They also question the biological self, where the elements of water, earth, fire, and wind are very finite, and their flows determine when you pass on. They go into an MRI machine and enter into another world where they attempt to seek a lot of answers to questions, such as “Confined by binary oppositions, can we see anything that’s beyond our preconceptions of this world?”. Beginning with these examples, I think it is really insightful to look at the representations of the body across SF in wider arts.

Frederike Schneider-Vielsäcker: I also think that SF in general allows the writers to imagine futures or far-away planets where all genders are equal and I also see this in contemporary Chinese SF where the body is used as a trope. One striking example is “Nest of Insects” (Chongchao 虫巢, 2008) [5] by Chi Hui (迟卉, b. 1984). Unfortunately, there is no English translation yet, but I can quickly summarize the plot. On the planet Tantatula lives a peaceful matriarchal alien society until the harmony is disturbed by human colonizers. The Tanla species only gives birth to female children who plant and carry their humanoid tree male partners around in a flower pot. Through this metaphorical vision, the story partly solves the issue of women’s reproductive responsibility. Interestingly, after adolescence the alien female and male bodies merge into one, and through metamorphosis they become a huge insect. This can be interpreted in various ways, but one reading is that gender should not matter since all human beings combine female and male qualities. After all, what is considered a female or male characteristic is constructed by society. The narrative further questions this social construction of gender and emphasizes that in the end we are all human beings. I think this is a really good message. 

Another example is “Reflection” (Daoying 倒影, 2013) [6] by Gu Shi (顾适, b. 1985). The omniscient male protagonist has a split personality, in which the clairvoyant personality is female. Possessing the ability to see into the future, the female character is not only very powerful, but also crucial to the story. However, this powerful female can only exist in a male body. Similar to Chi Hui’s “Nest of Insects,” Gu Shi’s story raises the question of what is male and what is female or if it is necessary at all to think in these categories. By imagining a male protagonist with a female personality inside, the story blurs gender boundaries and highlights that a man can very well be feminine. Thus, it transcends the heteronormative gender roles and representation—it constructs and deconstructs gender.

Mia Chen Ma: I think both Rike and Angela have offered some great examples about how Chinese SF works, like Chi Hui’s “Nest of Insects,” Gu Shi’s “Reflection,” and Lu Yang’s artistic pieces, have addressed gender fluidity, with questioning how gender binary is completely unnecessary and significantly preventing us from enriching the meaning of “body.” It keeps producing and reproducing problematic interpretations of humanity. 

I want to add that in the canon of Chinese literature, including SF,  writers of different genders are being asked disparate questions when it comes to their depictions of bodily sufferings and struggles. For example, when male writers write about the suffering or transformation of the human body (usually women’s bodies), it is often treated as a representation of the trauma of the society, or the traumatic past of the entire nation. And when women write about similar bodily struggles, it is often considered to be a reflection of and associated with their own personal experiences. There is an invisible discrimination that male authors write more about the society and the world, and take on more social responsibilities, whereas women writers are expected to write more about personal emotions and struggles. However, all writers, regardless of their gender identification, are actually writing about both themselves and the world. In the meantime, we should encourage more narratives from women and non-binary authors, using SF as a powerful site to initiate resistance and to clearly specify their own stance.As Angela briefly mentioned, Lu Yang borrowed some Buddhist concepts to develop her artistic piece.  In this instance, we want to address our next question: Can the main philosophies and theories from ancient China, for example Confucianism, Buddhism, and Daoism, be integrated into Chinese SF to imagine a more sustainable, gender-equal future? Recently, many Chinese SF  writers seem to resort to concepts and themes from ancient Chinese thoughts, to enrich the cultural profoundness of their narratives.

Regina Kanyu Wang: Influences of those ancient philosophies may not be so obvious, but instead, they have a subtle impact on Chinese culture and the daily life of Chinese people in general. We may draw from those philosophies consciously or unconsciously. Sometimes we can see Confucian, Buddhist, or Daoist thoughts represented in some stories, but maybe the authors don’t even think about that. Since the modernization of China, we don’t really learn about those ancient philosophies in school as subjects. We do recite some of the classics, but not in a structural way at all. However, in our daily lives, we are still immersed a lot in various cultural branches influenced by those philosophies, for example Chinese medicine, Taiji (太极), Fengshui (风水) and more. They penetrate into our daily lives at such a deep level that we don’t think much about them. My research interest focuses on gender and environment in Chinese SF, so here I want to focus on an important conceptual pair in ancient Chinese cosmology, yin (阴) and yang (阳), which still have a huge influence in contemporary China. Dai Jinhua, who is a famous female Chinese scholar, said that female as a gender concept was constructed in China early in the twentieth century, introduced from the West during modernization; and in pre-modern China, we used yin and yang to refer to female and male, but this gender view differs a lot from the absolute gender dualism (32–33). They can represent many other conceptual pairs as well, such as darkness and light, non-living and living, river and mountain. And they are never dualistic or static, but always interdependent on and interchangeable with each other, seeking a neutral balance. In some of the Chinese SF stories, there is a tendency to show this balance, in the interaction and interdependence of yin and yang. Those stories don’t necessarily focus on gender, but they do showcase two forces interdependent on each other and seeking balance. For example, in both Nian Yu’s (念语, b. 1996) “The Equilibrium Formula” (Hengping gongshi 衡平公式, 2018) [7] and Congyun “Mu Ming” Gu’s (慕明, b.1988) “The Heart of Time” (Shijian zhi xin 时间之心, 2018), [8] both yet untranslated, there are two imagined symbiotic species living in an alien world, facing a challenge like global warming or catastrophic heat wave, which can be seen as a metaphor for climate change. Those two species have to collaborate with each other, seeking coexistence and survival in their world. I see that as a representation of seeking a balance between yin and yang.

Mia Chen Ma: There have been many confusions and even criticisms on the yin yang concept. For example, I have been asked before: “Isn’t yin yang a binary itself?” But actually, it’s not what Daoism refers to. James Miller’s construction of “liquid ecology” might provide an apt explanation on how the yin and yang are embedded within each other, constituting liquid vitality (qi 气) (44). It stresses on the distribution of agency among various subjectivities, rather than separating one from another. In this instance, the circulation of liquid vitality among different entities and subjectivities constitute the core element of individuality rather than gender differences. 

Echoing what Regina just said, I agree that Daoism can inspire both Chinese SF writers and SF researchers. Similar to ecofeminism, Daoism also treats nature as an important lens to look into the construction of gender and subjectivity. However, different from the ecofeminist approach, Miller clarifies that Daoism clearly specifies that the subjectivity of nature “dwell[s] within” the human body (34). And “the mode of transaction,” which refers to the distribution of agency among all entities, generates creative power to achieve four important goals: transformation, alignment, prosperity, and simplicity (39–41). From this respect, Daoism conveys two important messages about gender that can often be found in Chinese SF as well: first, the uniqueness and individuality of every human being, regardless of gender, are celebrated and informed by the subjectivity of nature, and their further development depends on how the Dao is specifically constructed in each life; and second, all actions are generated by the transactional agency of Dao, which is context-specific and relies on the reactions from the various subjectivities of the world, not the gender difference. It is the circulation of liquid vitality, instead of the gender difference, that determines who we are and where we are heading. In this respect, Daoism unlocks the truly transformative power to transcend binary thinking, reshaping our understanding of the problematic discourse of gender differentiation and bias.

Yen Ooi: Yes, one of the important things about SF in terms of the Western concept in the Western genre is rationalism—to be rational in thinking, to be scientific in thinking. Rationalism in the West is very much binary, influenced by the development of Greek mythology (Hui 16–17): life/death, black/white, man/gods, etc. I think this is where we’re going to get to see a lot more interesting writing coming out of Chinese SF, because Chinese SF is able to take from the non-binary of Daoism, of yin and yang, of all these kinds of ancient philosophies and thinking that can create new kinds of texts or new kinds of fiction that will generate thinking around multiplicity and diversity, while also emphasizing a balance on the ability to complement each other rather than oppose or go against each other. I think that’s a really important point in terms of ancient philosophies and thought. I also just want to quickly mention Confucianism, because it is an area that I’ve been researching in more detail recently. One of the really interesting things is if you take Confucius away from the inherent problems and politics of the period that he lived in—for example if you take away the issues of patriarchy and state control—what Confucius tries to teach is actually a very balanced way of thinking in terms of how humans interact with other humans and how humans interact with the world around us. It’s about knowing your place in terms of your role—what your agency is, where you can influence positivity and affect that on the world. So, if we start to take everything word for word and just assume that everything that comes from the ancient times is patriarchal and is problematic and all that, we won’t be able to move on. But the truth is, these philosophies and teachings have been in East Asian and Southeast Asian lives for the last three, four thousand years and they have developed themselves into a place that actually exists in modern society. So, I think there is a really good place for it in contemporary Chinese SF and that it will generate new and more positive stories coming out.

Mia Chen Ma: I think sometimes we also need to disassociate these ancient texts from their specific political and historical contexts. First and foremost, we should acknowledge that these texts might have once been produced and interpreted in a very politically driven way, but they are not entirely political and can be depoliticized. One of the most common conceptions of Confucianism is that it constitutes the dominating cultural infrastructure in China, playing a vital role in the attempt to promote a positive image of the country. We should note that such assumptions, although being partly true, easily overshadow what Confucianism may inspire us about other aspects of contemporary society, for instance, its interpretation of the sense of community and its impacts on ecology. 

The re-examination of some ancient Chinese texts, including going back to our traditional cultural roots, also drives us to explore a variety of Chinese SF texts. For example, there have been many discussions about how to uncover the existence of HERstory in Chinese SF. Our next question will be: Can the discovery/rediscovery of HERstory in Chinese SF facilitate the uprising of gender equality?

Regina Kanyu Wang: Yes, recently I have been looking at the HERstory of Chinese SF. A few years ago, I contributed a piece on the brief history of Chinese SF, which was first translated for the Finnish fanzine Spin (February 2015). The English version was published in Mithila Review (2017) and then included in Broken Stars (2019, edited by Ken Liu). Later on, I found that the history was very much written in the narrative of a male dominant way. So, I composed another essay about the HERstory of Chinese SF. Actually, one of the earliest translators who brought SF into China, Xue Shaohui (薛绍徽, b. 1866–1911) was not only a female translator and intellectual, but also one of the early feminists in China. Together with her husband Chen Shoupeng (陈寿彭,b. 1855–?), Xue translated Jules Verne’s Around the World in Eighty Days into Chinese under the title Bashiri huanyouji (八十日环游记, 1900). In the late Qing dynasty (1840–1912), there were also examples of feminist SF, like Haitianduxiaozi’s (海天独啸子, b. ?) novel The Stone of Nüwa (Nüwa Shi 女娲石, 1904), in which the protagonists seek to create a female utopia and save the country, although the author seems to be a male. Recently, there have been many exciting projects going on, including several anthologies dedicated to all-female and non-binary authors. For example, The Way Spring Arrives and other Stories (Chuntian lailin de fangshi 春天来临的方式, forthcoming 2022), co-edited by me and Yu Chen (于晨, b. 1982), is forthcoming next year with Tordotcom in English and Shanghai Literary and Arts Press in Chinese, in collaboration with Storycom (Weixiang wenhua 微像文化). In that anthology, we not only include all-female and non-binary authors, but also translators, essayists, editors, and artists, trying to provide a larger context of Chinese speculative fiction writing from those historically marginalized groups. Another project is called Her (Ta 她, 2021), only in Chinese now but also seeking to be published in English. It’s edited by Cheng Jingbo (程婧波, b. 1983) and initiated by Ling Chen (凌晨, b. 1971), who are both established female SF writers. They focus on the thirty years of history or HERstory in Chinese SF and include representative Chinese women SF authors from the earliest ones who began to publish in around the 1980s till the very recent years. And one other project is edited by Chen Qiufan (陈楸帆, b. 1981), which is a four-volume book including a series of women authors’ stories, named Her Science Fiction (Ta kehuan 她科幻, 2021). More and more projects in the same vein are in the planning stage, and at least one Chinese female SF anthology is being translated into Japanese via Future Affairs Administration (Weilai shiwu guanliju 未来事务管理局). All those different projects are suddenly emerging because now we are at the point when feminism is a heated topic in China, not only within the SF community, but also in the larger society. Also, I want to point out that someone may say “Okay, yeah, but there have never been all-male anthologies in Chinese SF,” but the truth is that they used to publish anthologies featuring only male authors but were not marketed as all-male projects. Such books are still being published these days. It doesn’t mean that it’s wrong, just that we should pay more attention to gender balance. So, I see those book projects featuring all-female and nonbinary authors as a manifestation. This year, I have been very lucky to be supported by the Applied Imagination Fellowship Program at the Center of Science and Imagination of Arizona State University, in which I plan to do a series of interviews with female authors, editors, fans, and more from the Chinese SF community, to discuss with them ideas about gender, the future, and nature. This is also related to my PhD project as part of the CoFUTURES project at the University of Oslo. I want to feature more female faces for the international audience. I’m really looking forward to that!

Mia Chen Ma: It is so interesting when you mention how the male authors complain about the lack of anthologies of male authors, being completely unaware of their long-standing publishing privileges. This is further evidence of the importance and urgency of discussing gender issues in contemporary Chinese SF. Our last question wants to address how Chinese SF possibly un/mis-gendered humans, as gender studies grows to utilise gender in wider theories.

Angela Chan: I think about this question in terms of what is human in the first place as well. I look to an artist who I believe poses very interesting questions to ask right now on this issue we’re raising. Sin Wai Kin, formerly known as Victoria Sin, is a London-based multimedia artist using SF within their performances, as well as moving image films and writing. These works challenge what the normative processes of desire and identification and objectification do for us, when we rethink what binaries mean as we write our own narratives. I want to refer to what others have been talking about in terms of Taoist allegories, and I quote Sin that these “undo binaries that have to do with just being human. So, they’re not only about gender, but also thinking about life, death, self and the other, dreaming and waking.” Many of the characters that Sin fictions in their narratives, especially in their performances and video work, namely A Dream of Wholeness in Parts (2020–2021), are constantly evolving and Sin takes a lot of inspiration from Octavia E. Butler’s  notion of creating change by storytelling. Pointing out another of Sin’s projects, Dream Babes (2016–present) they have been putting on workshops and SF reading groups, centering queer people of colour. I will read a sentence from the introduction: “The speculative imagination of Dream Babes has included drag as embodied speculative fiction, clubs as queer heterotopias, pornography as pedagogy, and queer collectivity as the means of survival.” When we really think about what it means to have plural forms and narratives by a diverse range of voices in SF, this is what I really look to and feel empowered by. In Dream Babes Zine 2.0 (2019), I interviewed Xia Jia (夏笳, b. 1984), who is a Chinese SF writer, and she talks with me about her writing processes. So I think about your question, Mia, in a way that reassesses that feminism—we need trans-feminism that is inclusive of all genders. 

Thinking further about what types of justice we want to reach, beyond the human as well, when we think about a more cosmological sense, it’s really fun! Another artist, Angela Su, who’s a Hong Kong-based practitioner, works a lot with bacteria. Actually, before the COVID pandemic happened, she opened her show called Cosmic Call (2019), which looks at viruses and bodies changing. She imagines how external influences of bacteria are coming from extraterrestrial life forms. When we play with SF in this kind of way, we not only speculate what it’s like inside our bodies but also outside them and beyond the planet as well. I think it’s really interesting that we can bring in the bodily, environmental, and medical explorations to interact with our day to day in a more holistic way.

Yen Ooi: I think it’s also important to add that the issues of gender and body that we talked about today aren’t new to Chinese literature. The Chinese legend, The Butterfly Lovers, is a classic example that deals with all of that, and more. In a quick summary, it is a story about a woman who pretends to be a man in order to pursue an education. She falls in love with her roommate but isn’t able to tell him. After they complete their course, she returns home to be betrothed, and when her roommate learns that she’s actually a woman and realises that he is in love with her too, he is too late. He dies, heartbroken, and on her wedding day, she stops by his grave and jumps in to join him. After the chaos, right in the end, butterflies appear. This story that originated over 2,000 years ago and has seen version after version throughout the years, engages directly with all the points that we talked about today. And this can act as an important reminder to us that concepts of gender and bodily fluidity aren’t new or modern.

Mia Chen Ma: I think like Angela just emphasized, and all our other speakers have also similarly touched upon, the gender issue is never just about gender differentiation or gender bias. It has always been associated with all the other marginalized groups within our society, being embedded within all the inequalities that are prevalent in every aspect of our contemporary life. 

It is utterly important that we call for a more inclusive approach when analyzing gender issues, always probing into those invisible yet powerful underlying contexts. A broader approach will guide us to achieve gender equality, navigating toward a more sustainable future.


[1] The novel was originally published in two parts: Wandering Maerth (Liulang Maesi 流浪玛厄斯, 2011) and Return to Charon (Hui dao Karong 回到卡戎, 2012). In 2016, it was republished in its entirety under the title Wandering Under the Vault of Heaven (Liulang cangqiong 流浪苍穹). Ken Liu’s English translation titled Vagabonds appeared in 2020.

[2] In May 2005, the short story was originally published in China’s leading SF magazine SF World (Kehuan shijie 科幻世界). Ken Liu’s English translation is included in his anthology Invisible Planets (2016).

[3] In September 2012, the short story first appeared in SF World. In January 2015, the English translation by Carmen Yiling Yan and Ken Liu was published in Clarkesworld Magazine (, accessed 16 Sept. 2021).

[4] In December 2012, Hao Jingfang posted her novella online on the student’s forum of Tsinghua University (Shuimu Qinghua 水木清华). In 2014, it was issued in two Chinese literature magazines, The Literature Breeze Appreciates (Wenyi fengshang 文艺风赏) and Fiction Monthly (Xiaoshuo yuebao 小说月报). Ken Liu’s English translation was published in Uncanny Magazine in 2015 (, accessed 16 Sept. 2021) and was reprinted in his anthology Invisible Planets in 2016. 

[5] In December 2008, the story was originally published in SF World; thus far, it is still to be translated into English.

[6] In July 2013, the story was originally published in the magazine Super Nice (Chaohaokan 超好看). Ken Liu’s English translation appeared in his anthology Broken Stars (2019) and was reprinted in December 2020 in Future Science Fiction Digest.

[7] The story was originally published in Chinese in Nian Yu’s individual collection Lilian is Everywhere (Lilian wuchubuzai 莉莉安无处不在, 2018) and translated into English by Ru-Ping Chen under another title, forthcoming in Yu, Chen, and Wang, Regina Kanyu editors. The Way Spring Arrives and Other Stories. Tordotcom, 2022.

[8] The story was originally published in Chinese in Time Non-Exist (Shijian bucunzai 时间不存在, 2018), not available in English.


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Nian, Yu 念语. “Hengping gongshi” 衡平公式 [“The Equilibrium Formula”]. Lilian wuchubuzai 莉莉安无处不在 [Lilian is Everywhere], Wanjuan chuban gongsi 万卷出版公司 [Wanjuan Press], 2018. 

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Mia Chen Ma is a PhD candidate at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), University of London. She is an active researcher in the field of East Asian Languages, literatures and cultures, with particular interests in Chinese literary and cultural representations of ecology. She delivers presentations at a wide range of international academic conferences and other events including ASLE, EACS, SFRA among others. Her PhD project, funded by the Universities’ China Committee in London (UCCL), focuses on the increasing role of science fiction as a way of thinking about other fields, such as ecology, urbanism, and politics in the contemporary Chinese context. She co-directs the London Science Fiction Research Community (LSFRC), and coordinates with institutions and other organizations in hosting and participating in a series of academic and cultural events on issues ranging from global e-waste and climate justice, to anti-racism and science fiction as activism and resistance, as well as the preservation of East and South East Asian cultural heritage. When she is not working on academic projects, Mia enjoys nature’s company or escapes into the world of movies.

Angela YT Chan is an independent researcher, curator, and artist. Her work reconfigures power in relation to the inequity of climate change, through self-archiving, rethinking geographies, and speculative fiction. Her current research-art commissions span climate framings, water scarcity and conflict, and she has held residencies with Arts Catalyst, FACT/Jerwood Arts’ Digital Fellowship, and Sonic Acts’ environmental research residency. Angela produces curatorial projects and workshops as Worm: art + ecology, collaborating with artists, activists, and youth groups. She holds a postgraduate degree in Climate Change (KCL) and is also a research consultant in international climate and cultural policy. Angela co-founded the London Chinese Science Fiction Group and co-directs the London Science Fiction Research Community.

Yen Ooi is a writer-researcher who explores East and Southeast Asian culture, identity and values. Her projects aim to cultivate cultural engagement in our modern, technology-driven lives. She is a PhD candidate at Royal Holloway, University of London looking at the development of Chinese science fiction by diaspora writers and writers from Chinese-speaking nations. Her research delves into the critical inheritance of culture that permeates across the genre. Her critical works can be found in Vector and SFRA Review, and forthcoming in SF in Translation (Palgrave). Yen is narrative director and writer on Road to Guangdong, a narrative-style driving game. She is also author of Rén: The Ancient Chinese Art of Finding Peace and Fulfilment (non-fiction), Sun: Queens of Earth (novel), and A Suspicious Collection of Short Stories and Poetry (collection). When she’s not writing, Yen lectures and mentors.

Frederike Schneider-Vielsäcker is an assistant professor at the Institute of Chinese Studies at Heidelberg University. She received her PhD in Chinese Studies from the Free University of Berlin in June 2021. Her thesis focused on socio-political discourses in contemporary Chinese science fiction literature written by authors of the post-80s generation. She participated in international conferences and gave talks on Chinese SF at the MLA, ACLA and SFRA Annual Conventions, Stockholm University, University of Geneva, and Lund University. Recently she co-hosted an event series with major Chinese SF writers in Berlin and organized panel discussions for the Frankfurt book fair. When she is not sitting in front of her computer or behind her books, Frederike explores nature by hiking or horse riding.

Regina Kanyu Wang is a writer, researcher, and editor, currently pursuing her PhD under the CoFUTURES project at the University of Oslo. She has received funding from the European Research Council (ERC) under the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme (Grant agreement No. 852190). Regina writes science fiction, nonfiction, and academic essays in both Chinese and English. She has won multiple Xingyun Awards for Global Chinese SF (Chinese Nebula), SF Comet International SF Writing Competition, Annual Best Works of Shanghai Writers’ Association, and more. Her stories can be found in her individual collections Of Cloud and Mist 2.2 and The Seafood Restaurant, as well as in various magazines, and anthologies. Her critical works can be found in Vector, Modern Chinese Literature Criticism, Wenyi Daily, and forthcoming in Routledge Handbook of CoFuturisms. She is co-editor of the Chinese SF special issue of Vector, the critical journal of BSFA, The Way Spring Arrives and Other Stories, an all-women-and-non-binary anthology of Chinese speculative fiction, and the English version of The Making of The Wandering Earth: A Film Production Handbook. When she is not working on science fiction related projects, you can find her practicing krav maga, kali, boxing, and yoga, or cooking various dishes.

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:

The SF In Translation Universe #13

The SF In Translation Universe #13

Rachel Cordasco

Welcome back to the SF in Translation Universe! Fall in Wisconsin is my favorite time of year: it’s chilly but not cold, pumpkins are everywhere, and I get to wear my favorite sweaters again. What better time, then, to curl up and read some of these figuratively chilling works of SFT about reeducation facilities, curses, and bizarre new species? And though I’ve only found five works of SFT that come out between October and December this year, these books are worth savoring, preferably while drinking hot chocolate as a cat purrs on your lap.

Speaking of reeducation facilities: Czech author Petra Hůlová’s novel The Movement (tr. Alex Zucker) imagines what could happen if basic human attraction was eliminated and replaced by a more cerebral appreciation not dependent upon physical characteristics. Those men who resist this change and continue to be attracted to women’s bodies, rather than their brains, are sent to an Institute to learn the “correct” way of finding a mate. Here, Hůlová asks readers to consider just what it would take for an ideology to suppress one of our basic human instincts.

With Life Sciences (tr Laura Vergnaud), French author Joy Sorman takes on the limitations of modern medical science. When Ninon, descended from generations of women afflicted with strange and inexplicable diseases, begins experiencing one of her own, the doctors and scientists whom she consults are unable to help her. Even the most sophisticated tests can’t provide any answers. A meditation on the often inscrutable nature of our own bodies, Life Sciences invites us to think more broadly about our embodied experiences.

Un-su Kim’s The Cabinet (tr. Sean Lin Halbert) explores this theme of human embodiment via characters who also experience strange symptoms, though these people may be the harbingers of an entire new species. Each of them has a file housed in Cabinet 13, overseen by the harried and overworked Mr. Kong. This theme of species transition and the future of the human race makes me think of Dempow Torishima’s wildly unique work of body horror, Sisyphean. Humorous and weird, The Cabinet highlights the unexpected that lies at the heart of each person’s seemingly mundane life.

Like The Cabinet, Djuna’s collection Everything Good Dies Here (tr. Adrian Theiret) adds to the ever-growing corpus of Korean speculative fiction in English translation. Djuna’s work has appeared in English before: her “Squaredance” and “Trans-Pacific Express” were featured in Acta Koreana in 2015, while “The Second Nanny” appeared in Clarkesworld four years after that. Everything Good includes the six stories that make up her “Linker Universe,” in which a mutating virus alters its host’s genetic structure and merges it with its environment. Zombies, vampires, and more combine in this book to produce a dizzying yet enticing reading experience.

Finally, we have Sinopticon (ed. and tr. Xueting Christine Ni), an anthology of thirteen never-before translated stories showcasing the richness and variety of turn-of-the-century Chinese science fiction. With fiction by Jiang Bo, Regina Kanyu Wang, Anna Wu, and others, readers will be inspired to check out previous similar anthologies (Invisible Planets, Broken Stars, and The Reincarnated Giant) for more by these creative and innovative writers.

Thanks for reading, and I’d love to hear what you’re reading now and what you’re looking forward to:

Until next time in the SFT Universe!

Chinese Science Fiction Studies in Japan

Chinese Science Fiction Studies in Japan

Noriko Yamamoto
Translated by Jin Zhao


In Japan, the study of Chinese science fiction started quite late, and only one outstanding academic book, Chinese Science and Fantasy Literature Museum (2001), written by Takeda Masaya and Hayashi Hisayuki, has previously been published. Since then, no book has been published, including translations, that surpasses this masterpiece. This means that if a Japanese person wants to learn about Chinese science fiction, they would have no other options but to read this book. It is fair to say that for a long time, Japan’s understanding of Chinese science fiction has been extremely limited and outdated. Admittedly, the Chinese Science Fiction Research Association, with Hayashi Hisayuki as its president, has persistently introduced and translated Chinese science fiction works into Japanese over the years, but the fact is that as it is only a doujinshi [1] (同人誌), its influence is inevitably modest. Its activities are well known to a small group of fans and enthusiasts, yet remain completely unknown to most.


In 2007, the situation began to change. At the World Science Fiction Convention in Yokohama, a number of guests from the Chinese science fiction community came to Japan and had a series of discussions with Japanese science fiction writers and editors. It was this meeting that prompted Hayakawa Publishing’s S-F Magazine to publish a special issue of Chinese science fiction the year following (S-F Magazine September 2008 Issue), in which works by major writers such as Liu Cixin, Han Song, and Jiang Bo were published, along with a column by Yao Haijun. This was the first time that an entire issue was exclusively dedicated to Chinese science fiction, which was a huge step forward. However, although this special issue successfully introduced Chinese science fiction to the Japanese science fiction community, the reality is that to most Japanese people, Chinese science fiction is still little known and inaccessible, and as a result, hardly attractive.

The situation suddenly changed with the appearance of Chinese-American science fiction writer and translator, Ken Liu, whose The Paper Menagerie (2015) became a huge success as soon as it was released in April 2015. This book was so well-received in Japan that even people who don’t normally read science fiction started to read it. As a result, Chinese science fiction came under the spotlight for the first time since its brief popularity in 2007. Readers eagerly looked forward to reading Ken Liu’s translations, firmly believing that as long as they were translated by Ken Liu, they would be interesting. Since then, a series of works such as Chen Qiufan’s The Year of The Rat and Han Song’s Security Check have been translated into Japanese through Ken Liu’s initial English translations and subsequently introduced in S-F Magazine. The point, however, is that these works were not translated from Chinese into Japanese, but from their English versions into Japanese. Admittedly, Ken Liu’s English translations are excellent, but the question that inevitably sprang up in the reader’s mind was, “Why not just translate these works directly from Chinese into Japanese?” However, the sad fact is that at the time Chinese science fiction was not yet acknowledged by the Japanese market, and it was still a product that had to be tagged with Ken Liu’s name before it could be approved.

It was not until 2019, when Hayakawa Publishing published Liu Cixin’sThe Three-Body Problem, that we could be rescued from this embarrassing situation in any real sense. Upon its release, the book immediately became a bestseller, with sales of over 100,000 copies, an unprecedented figure for foreign science fiction publications in Japan. The book has a huge readership, and many businessmen in particular are keen to read The Three-Body Problem. It is safe to say that The Three-Body Problem fever has already evolved into a social phenomenon in Japan.

It was also thanks to The Three-Body Problem that Chinese science fiction began to be translated directly from Chinese into Japanese, changing the old tradition wherein Chinese science fiction had to be translated into Japanese via English. A new model of translation has gradually taken shape. With this model, editors will read the English translations to get a good understanding of the stories, but in the meantime people who are proficient in Chinese will preview the relevant works. They will then recommend those works that are suitable for translation, offering suggestions and consulting with editors over details. In the subsequent years, a series of Chinese science fiction works have been translated and published, including The Ladder of Time: Selected Works of Modern Chinese Science Fiction (2020 ); the second book in Liu Cixin’s The Three-Body Problem trilogy, The Dark Forest (2020); Chen Qiufan’s The Waste Tide (2020) (translated from its English version into Japanese); and Hao Jinfang’s The Other Shore of Man (2021). In May 2021, the third book in The Three-Body Problem trilogy, Death’s End, will be released as well. With many more works scheduled to be published in the coming years, it is expected that there will be many more opportunities for Japanese readers to read Chinese science fiction in Japanese.


Thus, under such a situation, how should we study Chinese science fiction in Japan? First, there are virtually no universities or institutions in Japan that specialize in the study of science fiction in general, let alone Chinese science fiction. Certainly, we do have distinguished scholars such as Professor Tatsumi Takayuki at Keio University, who enjoys a high reputation not only in science fiction, but also in American literature. Arguably, his accomplishment in science fiction studies is entirely outside of his high professional competence. However, when we look at the current situation of science fiction studies in Japanese universities as a whole, we find that science fiction studies are not yet well-organized, and there is not even a professional academic group devoted to their study. The truth is that, in Japan, science fiction studies can only be done through the efforts of some individual professors. As a result, the first thing to do when you try to study science fiction is to look for a competent teacher. Moreover, since American and English science fiction is the predominant genre of science fiction nowadays, we are thus faced with the dilemma that we find neither teachers nor majors when we try to study Chinese science fiction in a symposium or a university graduate school. Actually, until very recently, it was practically impossible to study science fiction on a professional level other than to study under the tutelage of Professor Takeda Masaya at Hokkaido University. Fortunately, thanks to the translation boom of Chinese science fiction, many Japanese scholars of Chinese literature have finally begun to draw attention to Chinese science fiction, among whom are professors specializing in pure literature [2] (純文学). Some of them have begun to read science fiction, and many others project to write theses on science fiction as their subject. Hence, it is our expectation that in the forthcoming years, we will see a field dedicated to the study of Chinese science fiction taking shape and taking root in Japan.


[1] Doujinshi (同人誌) is a Japanese term for self-published print works, such as magazines, manga, and novels. Being part of a wider category of doujin (self-published) works, doujinshi are usually derivative of existing works, and are often created by amateurs, although some professional artists are also involved in order to publish material outside the regular industry.

[2] Pure literature (純文学) is a term in Japanese literature that refers to novels that place more emphasis on artistry than entertainment, as opposed to popular novels.

Noriko Yamamoto, known by her pen name Tōya Tachihara, is a Japanese scholar, translator, novelist, and associate professor of literature at Hokusei Gakuen University. She is the translator and editor of the Japanese edition of The Three-Body Problem series. In 2020, she was awarded the Nihon SF Taisho Award for her contribution to translation and introduction of Chinese science fiction works.

Jin Zhao is a science fiction enthusiast, science fiction scholar, science fiction translator, and science fiction writer. For many years, she has devoted herself to the comparative study of Chinese and Japanese literature and culture and the study of science fiction literature. Currently, she is working on a dissertation devoted to the study of Japanese science fiction culture.