Bricoleurs in SF: Making Do Beyond the Walls of Utopia

SFRA Review, vol. 52, no. 1

LSFRC 2021 Papers

Bricoleurs in SF: Making Do Beyond the Walls of Utopia

Dave Hubble

‘Bricolage,’ as well as approximating to ‘DIY’ in French, is a visual arts term referring to the production of artwork from whatever materials come to hand. In cultural studies, it refers to how people acquire objects from across social divisions to create new identities, especially within subcultures—for example, punk’s subversion of the safety pin as decoration (even if that was subsequently repackaged by capitalism). There is an innate element of activism and political commentary when the artist’s choice of materials aims to bypass commercialism, using rubbish or detritus to devalue the art object and give value back to the ordinary and everyday, the lost and discarded. From this viewpoint, if discarded materials can be valued, so can people—or any other species.

Moving beyond artists making objects that look post-apocalyptic or fantastical in galleries, there is a rich tradition of bricoleur characters in SF who typically use whatever they find to create gadgets, often in extremis. Rocket from Guardians of the Galaxy is a recent popular example, and it doesn’t take many episodes of Star Trek before the crew escape peril using something they’ve made or adapted. This is something anthropologists will recognise, with Lévi-Strauss for example equating engineers with bricoleurs (16-19). However, none of this is activism per se, so where does that aspect come in?

As a visual arts bricoleur (Hubble), I see this approach as a reflection of our own valuing of ingenuity, including movements such as maker culture, makerspaces, hackerspaces, and repair cafés. They have the potential to improve equity and empowerment (e.g., Diaz et al.), although this isn’t always realised for a variety of socioeconomic reasons linked to resources, living situations, and competing demands (Barton and Tan). Regardless, the politics of using waste materials are well documented (e.g., Whiteley) and form a commentary on resource (mis)use, alongside acts aimed at decoupling from consumerism. This in turn can disrupt normative, unequal power dynamics to develop more positive imagined futures. One clear aim of bricolage is to waste less and use less, especially since the Anthropocene is here; human activity is the main driver of changes at the Earth’s surface (mineral movements, temperature change, and so on) and we are arguably causing a sixth Great Extinction (Kolbert). This is happening alongside, and intertwined with, late-stage capitalism, a period when wealth is increasingly drawn toward a multi-billionaire few whose space-travel is a non-fictional leisure activity, ego-tripping while the world burns.

Given its innate thriftiness, bricolage in a broad sense can help decouple us from hyperconsumerism where we can easily find ourselves manipulated into working such long hours that we only ever have the time to discard and replace, not repair or build, something Frederick Pohl noted in the 1950s with “The Midas Plague.” As Beder and Higgs note, consumerism, including its hyper-variant, is a deliberate capitalist ploy, replacing thrift and prudence, with capitalists using it as a means of controlling the working population. ‘Status consumption,’ trying to improve social standing through conspicuous acquisition of consumer products (Sahin and Nasir), requires ever more working hours in an increasingly competitive environment and thus the leisure-starved work-to-consume world develops (James). In turn, the skills of making atrophy, if they develop at all. In such a system, resisting compulsory consumption or normalised over-consumption is a form of activism.

In the near-future graphic novel Tinkerers set in 2024, Brin et al. explore the decline of technical ingenuity and what happens when a small town is cut off by a bridge collapse. The focus is on the decline of American manufacturing, and is very much about the nation and its systems, but also celebrates individual ability and the amateur. With this in mind, note that Derrida disagreed with Lévi-Strauss, seeing the engineer as serving static systems (the railway, let’s say, maybe even the concept of God) while the bricoleur (who could be any or all of us) is fluid, repurposing, potentially transgressive or revolutionary, and taking anything at hand to reuse as required or desired (chapter 10). After all, in our world, neoliberalism wants to maintain the status quo, however broken the system, while bricolage tries to move beyond this, including in the sphere of ideas, as it can co-opt the conceptual and intangible as well as the material. In this, bricoleurs can be seen as parasites, both in a literal sense and in the sense of philosopher Michel Serres, where parasitism is static interrupting the signal, a notion that also plays on ‘static’ as an alternative definition of ‘parasite’ in French (Wolfe 13). Since then, there have been numerous examples of artists using parasitism for the purpose of activism, as described by Fisher. This is not the mindless (or amorally single-minded) spread of self-replicating machines; following Drexler’s 1986 coining of the term, ‘gray goo’ has often been featured in SF as a threat to civilisation. For example, Iain M. Banks’s Culture craft, which are sentient spaceships, enjoy destroying smart matter or “smatter,” and the Jain war tech of Neal Asher’s Polity novels is a core plot element. Instead, though there may be some intent to weaken the host (consumerism), the aim of bricolage is typically benevolent (making society more equitable, reducing resource use, commenting critically on consumerism), or at least neutral (living more frugally but without wider societal concerns)—though of course the SF versions might see themselves the same way, just doing what they do.

So far, bricolage has typically been presented as an act of necessity, at least to some extent, a response to limited resources. However, SF explores many post-scarcity or low-scarcity utopias and near-utopias such as Banks’s Culture, Asher’s Polity, and Star Trek’s Federation. When thinking about such societies in the context of bricolage, some questions arise: What role might ingenuity or thriftiness have when there are nanotech fabricators or ships able to convert and meld energy and matter however they choose? Why make or mend something that can, in effect, be wished into being? There are a number of reasons.

Firstly, accidents happen, as do hostile acts. Any number of scenarios might mean that the relevant tech isn’t working or is unavailable. The various Star Trek series use this plot device regularly to prevent transporters, replicators, warp drives, and so on from functioning, forcing characters to scavenge and tinker. Aside from emergencies, there are those who live on the fringes or beyond, where bricolage is a vital skill in the absence of replicators or unobtainium. We then come to the crux of this topic as the question becomes, why would anyone leave utopia? It is worth qualifying the term ‘utopia’ here. In this context it is an actual utopia, at least for some inhabitants, rather than, say, an experimental living situation. For this reason, SF utopias are specified rather than real-world attempts to create them via communes and similar. A detailed examination of the latter is beyond the scope of this article but Garden covers reasons for leaving, such as reality not meeting ideals, internal conflicts, and management issues, while Bregman looks at broader changes that might be implemented, for example a universal basic income and open borders.

Returning to reasons for leaving SF utopias, some do so by choice, seeking adventure and experiences beyond their cosseted paradise. This could be seen as simply an act of privilege, an equivalent to a gap year or class tourism, going somewhere dangerous with their core selves backed up. This suggests they are just bored edgelords, but maybe they are making a point about their society and the need for self-determination. Iain M. Banks’s work has plenty of examples, such as Gurgeh, the titular Player of Games who is blackmailed into being a Special Circumstances agent—but then, his novels are intentionally set where potentially perilous ‘stuff’ happens. Most Culture citizens never encounter anything of the sort, and we never hear about them except as a generalised mass of pan-humanity. However, in a society with no formal hierarchy, joining the Culture’s Contact and Special Circumstances agencies has significant cachet. Even where that status has to remain secret, it is a way of determining self-worth by being one of the best among trillions of individuals, however that is defined when bodies and minds can be enhanced, rebuilt, replaced, and re-engineered.

For others it is an obligation or expectation, possibly based on a prior choice, for example, some Gzilt in Banks’s Hydrogen Sonata. Several civilisations in the Culture novels, including the Gzilt, reach a stage where they can “Sublime,” that is, advance to a godlike non-corporeal existence, but some Gzilt parents choose to stay in the “Real” because to sublime a child is considered unacceptable. By staying, they essentially exchange a utopia for its much-reduced remnants which will be plundered or colonised by less technologically developed races. They might remain amid this or relocate to the Culture or elsewhere, but their own utopia will be gone while the great majority of their civilisation exists in what is presumed to be a post-corporeal utopia of the mind.

Others, however well-adjusted in an era of perfect medicine and near-flawless mental health, might nonetheless experience ennui in the absence of a clear function. Joining the Culture’s Contact or an equivalent organisation might resolve this for a few, but such opportunities are limited, so without the need to earn a living, citizens of utopias may engage in self-allotted ‘work-hobbies’ or ‘life-tasks.’ This has also been explored in the real world, for example, by Kabakov, who states:

the only way and means to lead a worthy human life is to have one’s own project, to conceive it and bring it to its realization…. The project is the concentration, the embodiment of the meaning of life. Only thanks to it can one establish ‘who one is’, what one is capable of; can one receive ‘a name’. It is only from the moment of the determination of one’s project that one’s true ‘existence’ and not just ‘survival’ begins. (The Palace of Projects, n.p.)

This also challenges some of the standard objections to progressive policies such as basic income (Standing) and a short, fifteen-hour working week (Bregman). Detractors cry that people would become lazy, bored, spend their money on ‘bad’ things, that the standard of living would collapse, and so on. All of this can easily be countered and it is clear that for much of human history (and presumably prehistory) people worked only as hard as they needed to. They may have been poor, and they were certainly at the mercy of their environment (life could also be nasty, brutish, and short), but there was often an abundance of time for leisure. This doesn’t imply inactivity or even comfort; such time is likely to have involved making and mending in a world of limited resources—in essence, to be a bricoleur would have been the norm. Of course, individual regions varied depending on social structure, for example, a serf who has to work their feudal lord’s fields before their own might be short of free time if they also have their own land to tend. However, the trend continues and what changed was the development of capitalism and consumerism, the ‘time is money’ ethic, which of course means ‘your time is the bosses’ money.’ Technology allows us in principle to work less, but in practice communication devices mean we are constantly available (even when not formally at work) while also feeling uncertain about our finances, future, and well-being—a combination leading to what the World Health Organization has called a twenty-first-century epidemic of stress (Fink). We have ameliorated many horrors of the past as medicine and housing have improved, drinking water has become safer, and food supplies have become more reliable (in many places, and for now at least), but we have replaced them with contemporary problems which themselves need to be resolved if our potential utopia isn’t to become dystopian.

Returning to SF and The Hydrogen Sonata, Vyr Cossont is a Gzilt musician and military reservist who has chosen to play the titular (and notoriously difficult) piece of music, though it is widely considered unlistenable and requires the addition of an extra pair of arms and a specially made instrument. She begins the story clearly tiring of the task, but with only twenty-three days left until Subliming, determined to play the piece perfectly once. At the end of the twenty-three days, she does not Sublime, but has completed her task. She has an offer of passage on a Culture ship, no clear purpose beyond a sense of the adventure the journey might bring, and a lighter, freer feeling despite having, in effect, left her utopia. This isn’t simple contrarianism, but shows the importance of self-determination; as automated systems become less reliable post-sublimation, Cossont has to fly her small craft manually. In her world this is a significant loss; she is back in the land of the bricoleur. It’s also important to remember that the decision to remain is a long-term one. Whatever the reason for remaining, Banks is careful to clarify that delaying sublimation isn’t an option for individuals as the changes wrought in the ‘beyond’ soon mean they will be too late to join the majority who went before:

leaving it much more than an hour or so was risky; you’d get there and be isolated, those who had made the transition just hours before . . . would already have become so changed, so ascended in complexity, that you would have virtually nothing in common. You’d be on your own, or part of a hopelessly small group, effectively contextless, unanchored to anything greater than yourself, and so likely just to evaporate, dissolving into the generality of the fabric of the Sublime, meaningless. (The Hydrogen Sonata 23)

Meanwhile, some post-scarcity utopias are actually “ustopias,” a term coined by Margaret Atwood to indicate that utopias and dystopias each contain a latent version of the other. Thus SF societies might be utopian for some, but dystopian for others. It may look like someone is leaving a utopia, but from their perspective they don’t live in one to begin with. In such cases, some will leave out of desperation. For example, in Neal Asher’s Polity, a guaranteed death penalty for serious crimes (leaving an empty body for a ‘more deserving’ stored inhabitant) ensures that some will flee beyond its jurisdiction. The AIs of the Polity never forget or rescind the judgement, thus there can be no return. John Pierce’s introduction to Cordwainer Smith’s Rediscovery of Man makes it clear that “The Instrumentality of Mankind” is an ustopia, shaped by the “ruthless benevolence” to create a “bland utopia.” As lifespans are extended and labour is completed by machines and animal-derived underpeople, there is little risk from the unknown, but humanity becomes “deprived of hope and freedom” (xviii). It is a bleaker view than offered in Banks’s Culture, but there are parallels with his peril-seeking individuals. It also highlights a sense of duty as a reason to leave utopia, in this case one that we clearly see in our own world. It could manifest in many ways such as military service to help defend their ideal society against threats, scientific or other knowledge-focused postings to less secure outposts and frontiers, exploration for the greater good or even martyrdom. There are countless examples of all these in the civilisations cited so far and they are not mutually exclusive, and many of the individuals involved survive (or ultimately don’t) though acts of ingenuity—bricolage—once detached from their home utopia.

Others embrace risk culturally. In Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, as a Ferengi, Quark is a literal and figurative gambler who repeatedly derides ‘precious Federation principles,’ likening it to root beer with a distaste that the Cardassian tailor-cum-spy Garak shares, both characters acknowledging its sweet and sickly moreishness. Despite an overt avoidance of physical danger (after all, Rule of Acquisition 20 states “He who dives under the table today lives to profit tomorrow” [DeCandido]), Quark is a risk-taker, and not only at the Dabo table. He finds and acquires, whether tech or information, and uses these as he will—a bricoleur within the system but also playing his own game. After all, Rule 62 reminds us that “The riskier the road, the greater the profit” (“Rules of Acquisition”). Klingons meanwhile are famously stereotypical risk-takers, revelling in the thrill of battle and the idea of a glorious death. They are technologically advanced and presumably as post-scarcity as the Federation, but Sto’Vo’Kor, their afterlife for the honoured dead, strongly parallels the Vikings’ Valhalla, and challenges are often settled by combat rather than discussion or arbitration. Regardless, some bemoan the softening of Klingon life and leave their version of utopia as mercenaries, renegades, and the like; few if any take the ‘gap year’ option and such a life would likely be seen as dishonourable. Alongside this, many Federation citizens choose difficult existences, such as Kasidy Yates’s freighter captain, a recurring character in Deep Space Nine. There is no need to do so in a system where everyone has, in effect, a huge Basic Universal Income in the form of energy use, replicator and transporter allowances, and so on. This might not be far removed from the ‘bored edgelord’ suggestion above, but this choice to live a harder-than-necessary existence can turn into activism.

When even utopia leaves some behind, rebellion follows, as with Star Trek’s Maquis, whose homes are placed in Cardassian territory by a peace treaty. Not only do they rebel openly, but they also rely on peripheral characters such as Yates who are in a position to deliver (or smuggle depending on your viewpoint) scarce supplies. This echoes our world where elites make partition plans for India, Palestine, Chagos, and so on, while the Extinction Rebellion movement sees a global threat to human survival. With limited resources, such activism requires a DIY approach; some may find themselves relocated and dispossessed, or living in ustopias—refugee camps within sight of affluent Western cities for example. Campe de la Lande, commonly referred to as Calais Jungle, existed from 2015 to 2016, fewer than 500 metres from the Port of Calais. Places of worship, eateries, hairdressers, and other amenities were built out of junk, with help from external organisations and activists, combining bricolage with solidarity.

Some inequality is of course deliberately engineered, in SF as well as reality. Independents in the series Firefly and its film accompaniment Serenity eke out a precarious living, partly as they ideologically oppose the ruling Alliance, but also because the Alliance and its core worlds are another elite overseeing inequality of resource allocation. Within this framework, Kaylee Frye endlessly and intuitively bodges the spaceship Serenity’s engine. She is an engineer in the literal sense, but a bricoleur in the sense of Derrida. Ultimately, her work facilitates the activism of other characters: she keeps the ship going until it can deliver an Alliance-undermining message to Mr. Universe, the techno-geek who broadcasts it across all channels. Again we see the ‘official’ signal being parasitised. Humans mending and scavenging tech in The Matrix have a similar activist role, covertly broadcasting minds from their ships to rescue others, travelling via phone lines as pirate radio signals. Mockingjay (the final part of the Hunger Games trilogy) shows limited resources being used frugally and innovatively by the inhabitants of District 13 to develop an underground rebel stronghold against the tyrannical Capitol. The approach is material in nature, but transcends this. Some of the privileged of the Capitol turn out to be rebels (e.g., Plutarch Heavensbee), or shift allegiance and agree to help (e.g., Effie Trinket), willing to threaten the stability of their own utopian enclave, as the wider Panem is dystopian for most inhabitants. In this case however, the parallel with our world has become more literal. In The Hunger Games, the three-fingered salute spreads, signalling an uprising (and reprisals). It has since moved into the real world, used at pro-democracy protests in Thailand and Myanmar (Quinley) and spreading via social media. With protesters making DIY masks to counter teargas, stashing bags of essentials, making memes, placards, costumes, and so on, the bricoleur approach is clear to see.

This leads onto the realisation that bricolage doesn’t have to be material or even digital—ideas can have more power. After all, arguably the Federation’s biggest problem with the Maquis isn’t that they attack Cardassians, or even that some have broken Star Fleet oaths, but simply that they dared to leave. They broke the status quo, reusing its components, and that is the activism of the bricoleur. Similarly, in the Hunger Games, when the Hob (the venue for the Black Market) is destroyed, it is done to send a message telling the citizens to comply in place of acquiring, selling, and bartering outside the system. This is ever more relevant with the rise of intangible aspects of Virtual Consumerism, which has been accelerated by the COVID-19 pandemic (Wiederhold). This is not simply online shopping, subscriptions, and so on, but encompasses aspects such as the purchase of virtual goods with real money. If we have enough material things, capitalism provides non-things for us to buy.

While profiting from power and income, elites want to determine everyone else’s place and to make sure they know it. Bricoleurs aim to break free of this, to do what they want with whatever they find and undermine power structures along the way—by making do, things are made better. Joseph Norman’s recent The Culture of “The Culture” sees it as an evolving utopia, fluid rather than a static end-state—a grand exercise in bricolage. As Banks himself wrote in his 1994 essay “A Few Notes on the Culture,” “Briefly, nothing and nobody in the Culture is exploited.” I’m hardly the first fan to say that’s where I want to live, however ambiguous a utopia it might be at times.

To summarise, bricoleurs are activists in a consumerist and unequal world, and bricolage can be a tool to help decouple from consumerism and authoritarianism, hopefully making systems more equitable in the process. Examples from SF reflect the fringe nature of such activity in our world, highlighting issues of privilege and inequity alongside environmental considerations around waste, value, and resources.


Atwood, Margaret. “Margaret Atwood: The Road to Ustopia.” The Guardian, 14 Oct 2011.  Accessed 5 Oct. 2021.

Banks, I. M. The Player of Games. Macmillan, 1988.

—. “A Few Notes on the Culture.” 10 Aug. 1994, Accessed 02 Aug. 2021.

—. The Hydrogen Sonata. Orbit, 2012.

Calabrese Barton, Angela, and Edna Tan. “A Longitudinal Study of Equity-Oriented STEM-rich Making among Youth from Historically Marginalized Communities.” American Educational Research Journal, vol. 55, no. 4, Aug. 2018, pp. 761–800.

Beder, Sharon. “Consumerism: An Historical Perspective.” Pacific Ecologist vol. 9, Spring 2004, pp. 42-48.

Bregman, Rutger. Utopia for Realists: And How We Can Get There. De Correspondent, 2017.

Brin, D., et al. Tinkerers. Accessed 30 Sep. 2021.

Collins, Suzanne. Mockingjay. Scholastic, 2010.

DeCandido, Keith R. A. Worlds of Deep Space Nine #3 Ferenginar: Satisfaction Is Not Guaranteed. Pocket Books, 2005.

Derrida, Jacques. L’écriture et la différence. Éditions du Seuil, 1967.

Diaz, Jeremy, et al. “Are Public Makerspaces a Means to Empowering Citizens? The Case of Ateneus de Fabricació in Barcelona.” Telematics and Informatics, vol. 59, June 2021,

Drexler, K. Eric. Engines of Creation: The Coming Era of Nanotechnology. Doubleday, 1986.

Fink, G. “Stress: Concepts, Definition and History.” Reference Module in Neuroscience and Biobehavioral Psychology, Elsevier, 2009, pp. 549-555.

Fisher, Anna Watkins. The Play in the System: The Art of Parasitical Resistance. Duke UP, 2006.

Garden, Mary. “Leaving Utopia.” International Journal of Inclusive Democracy, vol. 2, no. 2, Jan. 2006. Accessed 05 Oct. 2021.

Guardians of the Galaxy. Directed by James Gunn, Walt Disney Studios, 2014.

Higgs, Kerryn. “How the World Embraced Consumerism.” BBC Future, 20 Jan. 2021. Accessed 30 Mar 2021.

Hubble, Dave. “So, I’m a Bricoleur.” Accessed 22 June 2021.

James, Oliver. “Workaholic Consumerism is Now a Treadmill and a Curse.” The Guardian, 2 May 2006, Accessed 30 Sep. 2021.

Kabakov, I. The Palace of Projects (1995–98). Artangel, 1999.

Kolbert, Elizabeth. The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History. Henry Holt, 2014.

Lévi-Strauss, Claude. La Pensée sauvage. Librairie Plon. 1962.

The Matrix. Directed by the Wachowskis, Warners Bros., Village Roadshow Pictures, Groucho II Film Partnership, Silver Pictures, 1999.

Norman, Joseph S. The Culture of “The Culture”: Utopian Processes in Iain M. Banks’s Space Opera Series. U of Liverpool P, 2021.

Pierce, J. J. “Introduction.” The Rediscovery of Man, Cordwainer Smith. Victor Gollancz, 1988, pp. xi-xix.

Pohl, Frederik. “The Midas Plague.” Galaxy Science Fiction, vol. 8 no. 1, April 1954, pp. 6-58.

Quinley, Caleb. “Three-Finger Salute: Hunger Games Symbol Adopted by Myanmar Protesters.” The Guardian, 8 Feb. 2021, Accessed 30 Sep. 2021.

“Rules of Acquisition.” Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, season 2, episode 7, directed by David Livingston, 8 Nov. 1993.

Sahin, Onur, and Suphan Nasir. “The Effects of Status Consumption and Conspicuous Consumption on Perceived Symbolic Status.” Journal of Marketing Theory and Practice, Apr. 2021, pp. 1-18,

Serenity. Directed by Joss Whedon, Universal Pictures, Barry Mendel Productions, 2005.

Serres, Michael. The Parasite. Translated by Lawrence R. Schehr. U of Minnesota P, 2007.

Smith, Cordwainer. The Rediscovery of Man. Victor Gollancz, 1988.

Whedon, Joss, creator. Firefly. Mutant Enemy Productions, 20th Century Fox Television, 2002-2003.

Whiteley, Gillian. Junk: Art and the Politics of Trash. I B Tauris, 2011.

Wiederhold, Brenda K. “Purchasing in a Pandemic? Virtual Consumerism in 2021.”Cyberpsychology, Behavior, and Social Networking, vol. 24 no.2, Feb. 2021, pp. 77-78,

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Dave Hubble is a visual artist and poet with a life-long love of SF. Creatively, he is a bricoleur, exploring the Anthropocene and humanity’s relationship with natural resources. He is a resident artist at The Arches studios in Southampton, U.K., where he tinkers and experiments. His first career was in ecology and this background informs his creative activity.

The Hero Doesn’t Need a Face and We Don’t Need a Hero: 3%, Social Justice, and the Shared Protagonism of Brazilian Science Fiction

SFRA Review, vol. 52, no. 1

LSFRC 2021 Papers

The Hero Doesn’t Need a Face and We Don’t Need a Hero: 3%, Social Justice, and the Shared Protagonism of Brazilian Science Fiction

Thais Lassali

In The Hero with a Thousand Faces, Joseph Campbell develops the theory that there is a common structure to many stories, myths, and legends called the “monomyth” or “the hero’s journey.” More than merely naming the main character of a given narrative, the hero is an archetype, an image that synthesizes social ideas of what heroism and valor are. This means that in a given society, all heroes share some traits, such as looking just like any other person on the outside, but having exceptional qualities on the inside (Campbell 95). And these qualities help the adventure entice him, call him to action, to travel (metaphorically or not) to achieve his own greatness; another feature of the hero is that he is meant to be great, in many cases since he was conceived or born. He is fated to be who he is.

Campbell’s idea became very influential in what audiovisual narratives assume a hero is and in the way it builds this archetype and its story. But Campbell’s ideas were not widely accepted when his book was first released. A great influence in popularizing Campbell’s work was George Lucas and his Star Wars films. It is up to debate how much influence Campbell’s work had on the making of the original script of the 1977 movie. Chris Taylor argues that based on early drafts, Sir James Frazer’s The Golden Bough and a far wider range of references were more influential (533), with Campbell’s book serving more as a “user’s manual” for understanding Frazer’s work (245).

After the movie was released, the association between Campbell’s and Lucas’s works became unavoidable. Influential critics such as Roger Ebert quickly recognized the relation between Lucas’s film and mythology, pointing to a lexicon very similar to those Campbell used in The Hero with A Thousand Faces. Through the end of the 1970s and all of the 1980s, Lucas embraced this supposed influence, turning himself into a great advocate of Campbell’s work. After Star Wars’ tremendous success, the hero’s journey spread like a plague in Hollywood, mainly in science fiction and fantasy film narratives, but also in other genres and media. Even a big player like Disney took advantage of that: a memo written in the end of the 1980s by screenwriter Christopher Vogler circulated inside the studio praising the monomyth and offering a guide to replicate it. Not by coincidence, all Disney’s big hits of the 1990s were structured around the hero’s journey.

Ursula Le Guin performs a compelling analysis of the hero in The Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction. She underlines the idea that the hero must act to be considered heroic; thus it is fair to say that the hero’s journey and, by extension, heroic stories, are centered around action-based narratives. This may sound insignificant, but it is actually important: it makes heroic narratives about those who can act and by extension, those who end up overcoming the existing power structures. As Michel Foucault states, power exists only in relation and action; power and knowledge imply one another (26-27), and narratives play a large role in spreading knowledge and, therefore, power. It is not only about who, but also about what: the hero must travel, must fight, must hurl the spear, must shoot, must kill (Le Guin 31) to overcome what he is supposed to. So the hero was born exceptional and for this exceptionality to be shown, he must sacrifice something, sometimes even himself, for the greater good. But, most of all, he must sacrifice something for his own success. This may sound like heroism, but it is also very similar to what white men did in Africa, America, and in many parts of Asia and the Middle East.

It is phenomenal how Hollywood can make these imperialist traits so ingrained with the hero figure and, moreover, how they make it look completely apolitical. Hollywood takes away the political aspects of the hero’s actions by making their narratives sound like good stories, like stories of an individual overcoming difficulties to become the hero he was meant to be. But Hollywood has also added something more to this mixture. The United States has a public self-narrative of exceptionalism and sacrifice, which some experts like Robert Bellah call the civil religion of the United States. Of course, it can be seen more clearly in politics, but it is also present in movies and especially, as one might expect, in Hollywood science fiction and fantasy. 

Don’t get me wrong, I like Star Wars a lot. I actually like Luke Skywalker, Han Solo, Obi-Wan Kenobi. And even John Connor, Neo, Capitan America, Hulk. Damn it, I like Iron Man . . . Film reception is complex; these characters aren’t just part of a plain fairy tale about the hero. They are what we make of them too, how we relate ourselves to them. But the thing is: their stories are theirs; I can make them mine, for example, but as somebody who values diversity, their stories can’t be the only ones that are distributed to the entire world. Not just because they all tell stories of white men, but because we should search for other ways to tell stories—stories that are different, not just with minorities playing the same parts.

It is important that we valorize diversity in how we tell stories. The Brazilian series 3% is a great example of that. The series, produced and streamed by Netflix, is set in the near future. In the first season, we see how the population of the impoverished Inland (“Continente,” in Portuguese) can take a chance when they are twenty years old to change their lives by participating in “The Process,” a challenge that only three percent of the participants are able to pass. Those who are accepted by The Process go to the richer and technologically advanced Offshore, or “Maralto.” In the following three seasons, we discover that Offshore hides many secrets to maintain its dominant position over Inland and its population. We watch a group of Inland youngsters in their twenties who, for many different reasons, join a rebellious movement that wants to destroy the Offshore.

From the first season, we follow the paths of Michele, Fernando, Marco, Rafael, and Joana while they try to survive and join the top 3%. While Michele and Fernando seem to take a more prominent position as the main characters, Rafael and Joana are significant in showing the viewers aspects of Offshore that, at first glance, are hidden. In turn, Marco serves as the character who shows us the complexities of Inland. At the same time, the importance of Marco, Rafael, and Joana grows through the seasons. After a period of fighting against the Offshore, they found The Shell, an egalitarian place where those who don’t believe in the Process and its hierarchy can live. With Michele taking part as a founder of The Shell, the series shows us how important the collectivity is for this place to fulfill its objective. Every one of the main characters is complex in their own way and assumes one important function in the narrative. As we might expect, Offshore doesn’t accept the existence of The Shell and its people must confront the nuances of violent fighting against an oppressive system, choosing when to negotiate with it and how to help the poor population of the Inland.

3% has an action-based narrative, and the actions that characters perform are what move the story forward. They hurl the spear, they shoot, they kill. But here we can’t separate characters into good guys versus the villains because their motivations are not black and white. Indeed, this is what gives their actions weight. In a heroic narrative, if the villain dies, most of the time we accept it, as killing the villain is the hero’s main goal. In 3% we can’t easily accept it because we don’t know who the real villain is. If there is a villain at all, it is society, and along with it, the hierarchy, the difficult circumstances in which the Inlanders live, and the conflicted relationship between Inland and Offshore.

At the same time, there are many moments in every season where the narrative takes some time to breathe, to just enjoy the complexity of each character, to contemplate joy even in a miserable reality, even if this joy might be sad. The second season has a great example of that: in a very tense moment, there is something that resembles Brazilian carnival with percussion instruments and a lot of color and happiness. But the lyric that Liniker (a Brazilian singer) is singing—“Preciso me encontrar” [I Need to Find Me], written by the famous samba singer and songwriter Candeia and made famous in the voice of Cartola—has many mixed feelings that are summarized in a popular Brazilian saying: “rir pra não chorar” [laugh to not cry], which means that in a sad situation, people can choose to laugh even if it is more rational to cry.

But what probably is the most important thing about 3% is that it does not exemplify heroism. The protagonism here is shared: Michele, Fernando, Marco, Rafael, and Joana are important in the same way, and each one of them has a complete narrative arc (with the exception of Fernando). At the same time, none of them is exceptional. On the contrary, in 3% we see the everyday lives of normal people who are full of flaws. People oppressed by Offshore, people who trust the placement of their lives through the Process, but, simply put, people. They are not archetypes like a hero; they are complex, working more on a gray scale, sometimes doing things that we can’t understand or agree with, things that are condemnable.

If the hero works in a “one for all” way, focusing on individual greatness to achieve well-being for all, in 3% we see both “one for oneself” and “all for all,” and they can be either positive or negative, depending on the situation. It depends on how others will react, on what that will lead to. That is a great way to represent a rebellion against an oppressive society because social justice is not about one person changing everything or about a hero, but about collective change, about creating new ways of living together in a place, about liberating everyone from oppressive chains, metaphorical or real. Moreover, achieving this is difficult, it is not a trip to Disney World.

Brazilian science fiction seems to be increasingly betting on collective solutions for its stories. The 2021 film Bacurau by Kleber Mendonça Filho and Juliano Dornelles, for example, tells the story of a small village in northeast Brazil called Bacurau that is attacked by a group of foreign psychopaths who intends to murder the entire population of the region just to feed their hunger to kill. To avoid that, the people of Bacurau unite to find a collective solution to their problem. It is not beautiful, but answers the attack they are suffering in the same way. With this same feeling, we also recall White Out Black In, directed by Adirley Queirós. This film is fictional and also a documentary depicting the lives of victims of police violence in the city of Brasilia, Brazil’s capital. The fictional solution the two main characters find for all the problems Brazilian state caused them is to destroy the government buildings with a sound bomb made with pancadão, a subgenre of Brazilian funk music. Again, a collective solution solves a collective problem, not in a beautiful or heroic way, but in thinking and acting collectively.

So if there is anything that Brazilian science fiction is trying to think through, of which 3% is a part, it is that we don’t need a hero, we need hierarchical changes and social justice, and that only will be achieved if we stop and think together about the Brazil that we want. At the same time, the problems that Brazil faces are not only ours, they were established in the colonial era and deepened by capitalism in many places around the world. But Brazilian science fiction doesn’t want to save the world, we want every community to unite to find solutions to their problems. That might not be beautiful and heroic, but it could be more productive than heroism.


3%. Created by Pedro Aguilera, Boutique Filmes, 2016-2020.

Bacurau. Directed by Kleber Mendonça Filho and Juliano Dornelles, CinemaScópio and Globo Filmes, 2019.

Bellah, Robert. Beyond Belief: Essays on Religion in a Post-Traditional World. Harper & Row Publishers, 1976.

Campbell, Joseph. The Hero with a Thousand Faces. 4th ed., Joseph Campbell Foundation, 2020.

Ebert, Roger. “Star Wars, 4 stars.”, 01 Jan. 1977,

Foucault, Michel. Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison. 2nd ed., Vintage, 1995.

Frazer, James. The Golden Bough: A Study in Magic and Religion. Macmillan, 1976.

Le Guin, Ursula K.. The Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction. Ignota, 2019.

Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope. Directed  by George Lucas, Lucasfilm, 1977.

Taylor, Chris. How Star Wars Conquered the Universe: The Past, Present, and Future of a Multibillion Dollar Franchise. Basic Books, 2014.

Vogler, Christopher. The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers. Michael Wiese Productions, 2007.

White Out, Black In. Directed by Adirley Queirós, Cinco da Norte, Vitrine filmes, 2015.

Thais Lassali is a Ph.D. student in social anthropology at the University of Campinas, Brazil. She also has a bachelor’s degree in social sciences and a master’s degree in social anthropology at the same university. She is a member of the Laboratory of Fiction and Science (LABFICC) and of the Atelier of Anthropology and Symbolic Production (APSA), both of the University of Campinas. Her research interests are science fiction, Hollywood cinema, film, media and gender studies, and anthropology of science. This text is a partial outcome of the doctoral research made by the author with financing of the Research Support Foundation of the State of São Paulo (Fundação de Amparo a Pesquisa do Estado de São Paulo – FAPESP), Process Number 2018/00862-6.

When was Celtic Futurism? The Irish Immrama as Proto-Science-Fiction

SFRA Review, vol. 52, no. 1

LSFRC 2021 Papers

When was Celtic Futurism? The Irish Immrama as Proto-Science-Fiction

Chris Loughlin

Here begins the voyage of Máel Dúin’s boat. . . .
An abundance of wonders was seen in the world on the blue ocean.
(Oskamp 101)

Many remarkable things, many marvels, many mysteries [was] their pleasant story, as swift Máel Dúin told. (179)

This paper investigates the historical basis for an alternative futurism: Celtic Futurism, or “cymroddyfodoliaeth” (ap Dyffrig; “Uniting Alternative Futurisms”). Fantastical voyages, which in the Irish context are “immrama,” are one of the historiographical bases for Celtic Futurism. The Encyclopaedia of Science Fiction presents a sceptical view of the long history of science fiction. The editors describe proto-science fiction as merely setting the stage for the self-conscious development of the genre in the nineteenth century (Nicholls). Adam Roberts, however, whilst providing a much more favourable analysis of proto-science fiction, claims there was a thousand-year hiatus between Greco-Roman voyage tales and their re-emergence, contemporaneously, with the Protestant Reformation and Copernican revolutions (33-39). Yet the topic is still a relatively under-researched area of knowledge. The opening quotations above, from Immram curaig Máel Dúin, demonstrate that fantastical voyages were a component of Irish medieval culture. This paper will demonstrate a strong role for fantastical voyages—the immrama (“rowing about,” or voyager, tales) of Ireland in the medieval period—in the definition of science fiction. It will utilise the stories of Saint Brendan, Bran, and Máel Dúin to re-read the history of science fiction. It will present evidence to answer the question: When was Celtic Futurism? Last, it will contribute evidence to the definition, and discussion, of alternative futurisms and further discussion about the imperial gaze.

This paper will, first, examine and discuss the immrama (literally, “rowing about”) tales and related texts. It will highlight the stories of Saint Brendan, Bran, and Máel Dúin as examples of fantastical voyages and demonstrate how these contribute to proto-science fiction. However, there are also other tales from the Irish medieval world which contribute to a long history of science fiction; the echtrai (adventures) and exile stories concern issues of the otherworld, for example, whilst other stories from the period also contain fantastical elements, most famously the Táin Bó Cúalnge [the Cattle Raid of Cooley]. Many of these tales can also be considered tributaries to the wider history of Irish science fiction, but this will not form the central analysis in this paper. The second section considers the primary source bases of the immrama and Immram curaig Máel Dúin. The publication, translation, and secondary literature on the tales will also be discussed. Last, the immrama will be discussed in relation to definitions of science fiction. It will be demonstrated here that these tales are not only fantastical voyages, but are also examples of proto-science fiction. The stories’ use of fantastical place, time, and inner worlds highlights a longer and more variegated history of science fiction. It will highlight the basis for future research on an alternative futurism: Celtic Futurism, or cymroddyfodoliaeth.

The Immrama (“rowing about”) Tales

The Navigation of Saint Brendan is the first story which is accepted in the secondary literature as a voyager tale. The story exists in 125 manuscript copies, was one of the earliest published stories, and was translated into vernacular versions (Wooding xi). The earliest version of it is the Latin Navigatio Sancti Brendani abbatis and is probably from the ninth century CE, although an earlier version is contained in the Vita Brendani (Mackley 1). In this tale Brendan is inspired to visit the Promised Land of the Saints. Fourteen monks are chosen for the crew, but three further “supernumerary” monks insist on accompanying them; they subsequently leave the crew at key moments of the journey (4). The voyage lasts seven years with returns to certain locations at key dates in the liturgical year. They visit fantastical places such as an unoccupied stronghold, an island of enormous sheep, a mobile island, which is really a giant fish or whale, and an island of birds, which are the earthly form of angels. Finally, they are granted visions of heaven and hell: the former expressed by a pious hermit named Paul, and the latter by Judas Iscariot. The Navigatio was, however, conflated with the Vita Brendani and Betha Brénnain during their transmission (Wooding xxv, xxvii-xxviii). The tale of Brendan probably forms the starting point of a wider ecclesiastical and secular tradition of voyager tales (Oskamp). There has been debate about the dating and location of the writing of Brendan’s voyage. Carney argued for an authorship in Ireland in approximately 800 CE (46), whilst Selmer attributed it to an Irish author in Lotharingia in the first half of the tenth century (qtd. in Dumville 120).

Immram Brain maic Febul, or The Voyage of Bran, son of Febul, has been dated as the earliest Irish voyager tale (Carney 73). Barbara Hilliers described this tale as “a curious composition; we might think of it as a collection of poems about the otherworld, set onto the framework of a voyager tale” (71). The poem combines elements of pagan, otherworld, and Christian allegory. Bran and his companions set out after he is invited by an otherworld woman to her island. They subsequently visit inis subai, the island of joy. They also visit tir inna mBan, the island of women. However, they leave and return to Ireland due to their homesickness. When they arrive back home, however, time has passed differently for those at home, who tell Bran, “we do not know such a one [Bran, son of Febul], though the voyage of Bran is in our ancient stories” (The Voyage of Bran 32). There are two further extant immrama, Immram Snédgusa ocus Maic Riagla and Immram curaig Ua Corra. Whilst further Irish voyager titles exist there is no manuscript record of their contents (Wooding xii). Further complicating matters is the role of the otherworld in other Irish stories. For example, these are recorded in the echtrai (adventures), exile stories, and other literature from medieval Ireland. Mackley uses the “fantastic” to analyse the stories of Saint Brendan; he highlights the broader category through which we can understand medieval Irish literature. However, arguably, the combination of imagination and reality in these tales makes the fantastic voyage and proto-science fiction more attractive concepts.

The most thorough reconstruction of Immram curaig Máel Dúin is the 1970 study by Oskamp. Máel Dúin combines elements of Atlantic and Irish geography with the fantastical and otherworldly. It survives in both a poetical and prose version. It is clearly influenced by both Christian and pagan beliefs. Máel Dúin, the titular protagonist, is a product of a liaison between a local king and a nun, but his father is murdered by rogues, and he is fostered by a different family and queen. As a youth he is taunted about his parentage and confronts his foster mother who tells him about his true heritage. He consults a druid, who tells him the number of companions he must take, and he sets out to avenge his father’s death. His foster brothers insist on accompanying the expedition and are the supernumeraries of the voyage. They visit the island where the murderers live but are driven off course by a storm. Máel Dúin “reproaches his foster brothers that it is because of their presence that he cannot reach his goal” (Oskamp 44). They are, subsequently, forced to visit over thirty fantastical islands during their journey. They visit islands inhabited by giant ants, a horse-like monster, the giant’s horse race, with a house where there are leaping salmon, wondrous fruits, the revolving beast and fighting horses, the fiery swine, the black and white sheep, the burning river, the miserly miller, and the black wailers. They also visit islands of imaginative geography, such as that of the four fences, and one with a crystal and glass bridge. They see an island of chanting birds, a wondrous fountain, and savage smiths. They also witness a sea of glass and a sea of clouds. They visit an island of silver, and one of the companions, Diurán, cuts off a piece of silver net which they bring back to the altar at Armagh. They also visit an island of women (tir inna mBan) and of different saints and hermits. Nearing the end of their voyage, they visit the hermit of Tory Island. He advises Máel Dúin to forgive his father’s murderers. He states, “slay him not, but forgive him, because God has saved you from many perils, and you, too, are men deserving death” (Oskamp 172-173). They then visit the island of the rogues who murdered Máel Dúin’s father, and he forgives the murder. This ends their journey, and they return to Ireland. Máel Dúin combines elements of pagan belief with an overarching Christian allegory of forgiveness. But the combination of fiction, imagination, and reality makes it a piece of proto-science fiction. Immram curaig Máel Dúin, alongside other immrama, utilises the sea literally and metaphorically. The latter makes them an interesting precursor to New Wave science fiction’s examination of inner worlds, psychology, and crisis. This also links the immrama to the reaction to Norse invasions, the Anglo-Norman occupation, and science fiction discussion of colonialism (a point considered further below). Next, this paper will examine the complex primary source basis of the voyager tales and the secondary literature.

Studying the Immrama and Secondary Literature

The Irish voyager tales “have received relatively limited critical attention” (Wooding xvii). This is primarily due to their existence in a minority vernacular language. However, Wooding has also emphasised the comparative neglect: the old English Seafarer, a lyric of just 126 lines, has a bibliography of over 250 items; whereas the entire corpus of literature on the immrama “warrants barely 50 items” (xvii). The Navigatio Brendani has also suffered from a more surprising critical neglect. Since the publication of Wooding’s anthology of scholarly criticism, however, there has been a modest development of interest in the tales. Another issue has been the lack of scholarly editions of the immrama to encourage further study. The principal immrama were translated between 1888 and 1905 by Whitley Stokes and Kuno Meyer. Whilst a scholarly edition of the immrama was attempted in the later 1930s, their publication was interrupted by the war and then death of the translator, Anton van Hamel, in 1945. The latest scholarly translation of Immram curaig Máel Dúin was published in 1970 but did not include a glossary. Unfortunately, other immrama are only accessible in Stoke’s and Meyer’s translations, which are now very dated. As Wooding wrote in the first scholarly anthology of criticism on these tales, “this is a very unsatisfactory state of affairs and confusing even for the professional student of Celtic literature” (xix). An important issue for study of the immrama is, therefore, their existence in Latin and vernacular literatures, a situation mirrored in the secondary literature. Some of this secondary literature has not been translated, which has further hampered study of the tales in the Anglophone world. So, how does this relate to Immram curaig Máel Dúin?

Immram curaig Máel Dúin survives in four manuscript sources. Linguistically it is one of the earliest voyager tales, “as early as the eighth century or ninth” (Clancy 203). The smaller manuscript sources consist of two fragments, both held at the British Library, London (Brown and Groenewegen). Lebor na hUidre [the Book of the Dun Cow] is the earliest full manuscript source, dating to the twelfth century and earlier scribes (Oskamp 89-90). A more detailed version, both the poem and prose, exists in another medieval Irish manuscript, the Yellow Book of Lecan. Whitley Stokes translated Immram curaig Máel Dúin into English in the late 1880s and this version remains important for discussion of the story (Stokes “part 1”). Stokes amalgamated materials from all four manuscript sources. Kuno Meyer also translated Immram curaig Máel Dúin in the early 1900s and collated from the Yellow Book of Lecan and the Harleian manuscripts. Anton Van Hamel translated the text in his collection Immrama in the late 1930s. Oskamp in his 1970 book, The Voyage of Máel Dúin. A study in early Irish voyage literature followed by an edition of Immram Curaig Máele Dúin from the YBL in TCD, utilised the Yellow Book of Lecan as his source material. Alongside these primary source translations, there are also popular poetry and prose versions of the story. For example, Patrick Joyce wrote a popular English translation which was published in 1879, which was probably the source for Tennyson’s 1880 poetical version of the tale (Joyce; Tennyson). There is also a series of beautiful illustrations to the tale by J. D. Batten, included in Joseph Jacobs’s 1919 book, The Book of Wonder Voyages. However, there has also been a rather complex historiographical debate about the history of the immrama and other Irish otherworld tales.

The most important introduction to the immrama and the historical debates they have inspired, to date, is the J. M. Wooding anthology of criticism from 2000, The Otherworld Voyage in Early Irish Literature. This book details debates which have occurred around Irish voyager literature, but one of the key questions has been the relationship between Ireland’s pagan, oral culture, and subsequent Christian literate society. Some scholars, such as Rudolf Thurneysen and Myles Dillon, felt the voyager tales were originally pagan, native productions which were later written down (Oskamp 11-12). Carney, by contrast, stressed that the texts were “all written . . . in the monasteries by the monks, and that these tales were often meant as ‘Christian allegories’” (12; see also Wooding xx-xxii). Kathleen Hughes felt that the voyager tales were a reaction to Norse invasions of Ireland during the medieval period (qtd. in Oskamp 16). Further research during the twentieth century has clearly demonstrated the inter-relationship between the Navigatio and the immrama. There are, however, unresolved issues and avenues for further research. For example, the influence of The Aeneid, and other classical sources, has still been under-researched and correlates with my own claims. Mackley’s work on the Navigatio has highlighted the inter-relationship between imagination and reality by examining that text through the prism of the “fantastic.” Last, the most knowledgeable expert on Irish science fiction, Jack Fennell, has highlighted the under-appreciated contribution early Irish literature made to science fiction (Irish Science Fiction; A Brilliant Void). The final section of this paper examines some definitions of science fiction and demonstrates the immrama as examples of both fantastical voyages and proto-science fiction.

The Immrama as Proto-Science Fiction

Peter Nicholls, in an entry on the history of science fiction from the definitive The Encyclopaedia of Science Fiction, claims the genre is “impure” and did not finally take shape until the nineteenth century. Whilst elements existed in previous epochs, he has further stated that, “it requires a consciousness of the scientific outlook, and it probably also requires a sense of the possibilities of change, whether social or technological.” In further entries in The Encyclopaedia, Stableford establishes that fantastic voyages and proto-science fiction are important precursors to the field (“Fantastic Voyages”; “Proto SF”). However, Nicholls also provides a list of five key elements which became melded into science fiction: one, the fantastic voyage; two, the utopia and dystopia; three, the philosophical tale; four, the gothic; five, the technological and sociological anticipation. Clearly the immrama combine the first three elements, but arguably the voyager tales also contain the last two components. In contrast to this sceptical view is one adopted by Adam Roberts in The History of Science Fiction. Roberts claims that science fiction can be understood in much less, definitive, hard-science terms, “but rather into a delineation of the continuum by which SF can be meaningfully separated out as that form of the Fantastic that embodies a technical (materialist) ‘enframing’, as opposed to the religious (supernatural) approach we would today call ‘Fantasy’” (21). However, Roberts’s view succumbs to a hard differentiation between oral and written culture: “for over 1,000 years SF fell into abeyance as a literary mode. Its disappearance was connected, very obviously, with the more general collapse of literary culture, and of literacy itself” (30). He goes on to make the point that medieval European culture was explicitly concentrated on religious themes and science fiction was only able to re-emerge following the religious changes of the Reformation and the scientific-technological changes associated with modernity and the Copernican revolution (33-39). This, however, creates a misleading chronology as it passes over the rich fantastical voyage and journeys to the otherworld of the literatures of medieval Europe. Further, some authors have posited a relationship between colonialism, modernity, and science fiction (Rieder). As was noted previously, Kathleen Hughes noted a relationship between the Norse invasions of Ireland and the immrama. The most famous colonisation of Ireland, however, began with the Anglo-Norman invasions of the twelfth century (although the Christian invasions of Ireland could also be considered colonialist). It is therefore clear that there is a strong basis for further research into the immrama as proto-science fiction and discussion of the relationship of colonialism, modernity, and sociological and technological change. This research will further enrich knowledge of alternative futurisms and discussion of the imperial gaze.

The last area this paper will consider is the recent emergence of historiography on Irish science fiction. This work has been conducted by Fennell, Howard, and Maume. They mostly concentrate on the latter history of modernity. Fennell has mentioned that there is an argument to be made for the longer-term history of Irish science fiction, although in his monograph he concentrates on the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Fennell’s highlighting of the role of myth and mythology is a useful framework within which to consider the immrama and Irish medieval literatures. Further, Mackley’s work on the Navigatio has usefully adopted the “fantastic” as the frame within which to consider this work. Mackley’s view correlates with both Fennell and Roberts. It is unarguable that the immrama are important examples of fantastical voyages and should, therefore, be considered proto-science fiction. We should heed Roberts’s call for considering the field of science fiction as a spectrum, rather than a definitive literary category. Further, many of the stories of the Irish medieval societies contain either fantastical elements or voyages to otherworlds, or both. Immram Brain contains, for example, an important difference in experience of time: when Bran and his companions return to Ireland, they are told, “we do not know such a one [Bran, son of Febul], though the voyage of Bran is in our ancient stories” (Meyer 32). This contrasting experience of time is a motif which appears in other stories from medieval Ireland. Last, the immrama and exile tales are often discussed as expressive of Christian allegory and the sea voyage as a metaphor for spiritual journey. This fits with the expansive understanding of science fiction expressed by New Wave authors with their discussion of crisis, disaster, inner-worlds, and psychology. These themes are particularly pertinent for discussing the far-reaching impact which Christianization, Norse invasion, and colonialist occupation had on Ireland. These stories—the echtrai, immrama, and other Irish tales—offer important avenues for future research on the long history of science fiction and alternative futurisms.

Celtic Futurism

This paper tentatively set out the first evidence for the alternative futurism of Celtic Futurism. It read the immrama (“rowing about”) tales as examples of fantastic voyages and proto-science fiction. The paper utilised Rodhri ap Dyfrig’s “cymroddyfodoliaeth” (Welsh or Celtic futurism) as a framework within which to investigate Irish medieval literature. It has demonstrated that there are science fiction elements to the immrama, echtrai, and other tales from medieval Ireland. The evidence cited above, however, also highlights areas to consider for future research. First, we can further investigate the immrama and other Irish stories as proto-science fiction, for example, how they utilised conceptions of technology, time, and the otherworld requires further detailed investigation. How this relates to colonialism, crisis, and psychology will add evidence to the legitimacy of Celtic Futurism. Second, considering how these stories relate to other medieval literatures would be a useful exercise, for example, how do these Irish stories compare with the fantastical voyages and other world tales of Wales and other cultures? The comparison of these stories with Norse and Viking culture would also be a useful task. The investigation of Celtic Futurism as a form of proto-science fiction is an important area of research for the longer-term history of the field. It also has something to contribute to wider discussion of the issue of indigenous futurism and the losses caused by colonialism, modernity, and progress.


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University of Kent. “Uniting Alternative Futurisms,” University of Kent, April 2021, Accessed 29 August 2021. Wooding, Jonathan M. The Otherworld Voyage in Early Irish Literature: An Anthology of Criticism. Four Courts Press, 2000.

Chris Loughlin is a labour historian of modern Britain and Ireland. He was employed as lecturer in history at Newcastle University, 2018 to 2021, and obtained his training at Queen’s University Belfast. His first monograph was published in 2018, Labour and the Politics of Disloyalty in Belfast, 1921-39. He has also published work on civil rights, loyalty and the foundation of Northern Ireland, gender, sexualities, and industrial relations. He has peer-reviewed work for the Royal Society, Labour History Review and International Labor and Working Class History.

Exoplanets as Sites of Rebellion

SFRA Review, vol. 52, no. 1

LSFRC 2021 Papers

Exoplanets as Sites of Rebellion

Emma Johanna Puranen

Humans leaving Earth to live on an exoplanet, or a planet outside our solar system, is a common storyline in science fiction. Establishing a new society on an unfamiliar world, which might present unknown dangers to human biology or have a small margin of error to maintain human habitability, brings up fundamental questions of governance and forces characters to undergo a radical change. Pre-existing divisions among settlers can be exacerbated, and new ones can be created between the exoplanet settlers and the people back on Earth—either can lead to rebellion and revolt. In this paper, I discuss examples of how distance and harsh conditions on newly settled exoplanets in the novel Aurora by Kim Stanley Robinson, the video game The Outer Worlds, and season four of the television series The Expanse all exacerbate human rights issues and lead to conflict between settlers and people on Earth, or representatives of Earth in the form of governments or private companies. I investigate the tension inherent in the juxtaposition of these fictional revolutions to gain rights for the downtrodden with portrayals of humans moving to exoplanets that are often reminiscent of or re-enacting settler-colonialism. This paper is also inspired by the June 2021 Edinburgh Futures Institute conference The Institutions of Extra-terrestrial Liberty, which delved into many of these questions of governance and rights for space-faring humans. I draw on my position as an interdisciplinary scholar working between astronomy and literature at the St Andrews Centre for Exoplanet Science—itself an interdisciplinary organisation tackling ethical questions about potential human interaction with other worlds and lifeforms —to uplift science fiction as an underutilised source of scholarly thought on these matters. Lessons from science fiction regarding the potential future of humanity in space are especially crucial given recent interest in colonising Mars—after all, as Lucas Mix states, “we don’t do things until we imagine them.”

I will summarise three case studies of fictional revolts on exoplanets and then compare themes that emerge from the three cases. First, Kim Stanley Robinson’s novel Aurora (2015) takes place on a generation ship en route to the Tau Ceti system, a real star system about twelve light-years from Earth. The massive generation ship hosts a population of about 2000 people, living spread across twenty-four different Earth biomes (Robinson 45-46, 51). The voyage takes about 170 years at 10 percent the speed of light, spanning the initial generation who left Earth, several caretaker generations who only know life on the ship, and finally the generation that arrives at their destination, an Earth-like moon of the exoplanet Tau Ceti e, which the settlers dub “Aurora” (46, 48). When they arrive at their new exoplanet home, only to find it uninhabitable due to deadly disease-causing prions in the otherwise breathable atmosphere, a conflict emerges among the passengers. One group of settlers from Aurora attempts to return to the ship, but they are killed by those onboard to maintain quarantine. Disagreement over this action leads to brawls among the remaining people on the ship until the ship’s AI itself takes over, physically separating dissidents and referring to itself as “the rule of law” (229). With the Aurora settlement unviable, people are divided under the AI’s arbitration into one group that stays and attempts to terraform another world in the Tau Ceti system, and one that goes against their mission and returns to Earth. 

In Aurora, the survivors, called the “returners,” eventually return to Earth, resorting to novel cryosleep technology after their onboard ecosystems collapse and they run out of food. It is also revealed that the mission to Tau Ceti began with not one generation ship, but two—the other ship was destroyed in a conflict among its passengers, and the memory of this was buried so as not to provoke such a conflict in the remaining ship (232-233). Arriving back at Earth, they find that the reason for their mission was expansionism alone, and that people on Earth are still sending out generation ship after generation ship, with no indication of success from any of the missions. One space advocate argues:

It’s an evolutionary urge, a biological imperative, something like reproduction itself. Possibly it may resemble something like a dandelion or a thistle releasing its seeds to the winds, so that most of the seeds will float away and die. But a certain percentage will take hold and grow. Even if it’s only one percent, that’s success! (429)

This did not prove justification enough for the returners. When they made their decision at Aurora, they rebelled against an Earth they had never known, which had generations ago taken away their agency without their consent. As Aram, one of the returners, puts it, the engineering challenges of settling space might be overcome, but the biological ones are insurmountable: “Life is a planetary expression, and can only survive on its own planet” (428). Aurora argues that humans evolved on Earth, and living anywhere else, particularly the bottle of a generation ship, will lead to ecological collapse.

The Outer Worlds and The Expanse both feature class-based revolts with workers rising up against private companies from Earth that have used the harsh conditions of space to exert more control over their employees. The Outer Worlds, a 2019 video game from Obsidian, takes place in an alternate future in which space is ruled and settled by megacorporations. Workers and corporate elite alike have come to the fictional Halcyon system in faster-than-light ship journeys which include a ten-year cryosleep. The Halcyon system colony, ostensibly ruled by the Halcyon Holdings Corporate Board, is in disarray and features several examples of revolts on exoplanets. When colonists first arrived in Halcyon, before the events of the game, they created a colony on the world Terra-1. Terraforming Terra-1 provoked rapid mutations of the local flora and fauna that made them deadly to humans. This resulted in colonists rebelling against the Board, which then abandoned the colony and attempted to erase its existence via propaganda. By the time of the video game, a violent schism has occurred on Terra-1, now renamed Monarch, splitting the people there into two groups: one a corporate entity separate from the Board, and the other an anarchist group (“Radio Free Monarch”). The second colony attempt in the Halcyon system, on a planet called Terra-2, has gone better for the Board, but is dealing with a plague caused by malnutrition. This plague has caused a group of deserters to leave corporate towns against the will of the Board (“Comes Now the Power”). Ultimately, the Board claims to use a “Lifetime Employment Program” to put most workers in stasis to save resources, though in reality the plan is to kill them to reduce the population so the elites may live in comfort (“The City and the Stars”). The future of the Halcyon system in the story, and the extent to which the Board’s control will be weakened or strengthened, depends on the player’s actions in the video game. The combination of authoritative rule by the Board, and the biological challenges of attempting to live within alien biospheres, leads to multiple situations where human rights are abused and people rise up violently.

The Expanse is unique among the media properties I investigate here in that, in its story, many of the human settlers on the exoplanet come not from Earth but from colonies throughout our own solar system. In the world of The Expanse, which is based on a novel series by James S. A. Corey, Earth is united under the United Nations, Mars is an independent power, and a group called the “Belters” live in the asteroid belt and the outer solar system under the control of various Earth and Mars governmental and corporate powers. The Belters have lived in space for generations, and due to the change in environment and the distance between populations have developed some biological differences from the rest of humanity. They live in cramped conditions under constant resource scarcity and cannot withstand Earth gravity without a painful and expensive course of drugs to strengthen their bodies (“New Terra”).

Season 4 features a big societal change in the form of the opening of a Ring Gate built by an ancient, unknown alien civilisation that can transport people light-years away in an instant. This opens up a plethora of habitable exoplanets to humanity, and a land grab that destabilises the solar system’s already precarious political situation ensues. Our protagonists are called in to mediate in a struggle between Belter settlers on an Earthlike planet, and an Earth corporation called Royal Charter Energy (RCE) that has been granted an exploration charter by the U.N. for the same planet. The conflict is reflected in the two groups’ different names for the planet—the Belters call it Ilus; the RCE scientists call it New Terra. The Belters, who arrived first, destroy a landing pad just as the RCE ship is landing, causing many deaths (“New Terra”). The remaining RCE scientists try and exert control in the name of their U.N. charter, but this causes tension with the Belters, who have been under Earth’s control for a long time and do not wish to see that re-enacted on this new exoplanet. At the end of the season, the groups are forced to work together against an outside threat, and the name Ilus gains favour, but ultimately the conflict between Belters and Earthers is ongoing.

Although these stories are fictional, they engage with several real-life challenges that would occur if humans were to travel to exoplanets for the purpose of settlement. Chief among these is that exoplanets are isolated. Distances just in our solar system are vast—a hypothetical Mars colony, or even a lunar one, would already be the most isolated group of humans in existence. Exoplanets are orders of magnitude farther away. For humans to reach them in real life would either require a method of propulsion that can speed a craft faster than light, which is currently far outside humanity’s technological capabilities, or else a generation ship, as described in the Aurora section above. A generation ship is still well outside current technology, though certainly much more feasible than faster-than-light travel within the next few hundred years. Many SF stories solve these problems for their narratives by using some form of stasis or cryosleep, as in Aurora and Outer Worlds, or a wormhole or portal, as in The Expanse. Either way, once the exoplanet is reached, the Earth becomes both physically and emotionally distant, and often the settlers either cannot communicate with Earth or can only do so with a substantial delay. This distance necessitates the creation of new forms of government, and makes it very difficult for representatives of Earth power to maintain control in those newly established governments (The Institutions of Extra-terrestrial Liberty). Though The Expanse’s Ring Gate does allow for communication, in Aurora and The Outer Worlds Earth is effectively non-existent for the settlers, who rely on the ship’s council and eventually the AI’s “rule of law,” or the Board, respectively. These nearer bodies govern instead of Earth because it is difficult to enforce laws on people who are that far away.

A second challenge that all three stories contend with is the environments of space and the exoplanet itself. Humans living in space face a closed and fragile ecosystem that can leave them physically weaker. If they reach a planet and find it has life, they, as representatives of Earth’s biosphere, must then interact with a wholly alien biosphere, and this interaction may be dangerous to one or both parties. Lucas Mix, an evolutionary biologist and theologist who presented at The Institutions of Extra-terrestrial Liberty, stresses that evolutionary biology shows there is a link between the distance between populations and their genetic differences, and that the mutation load would be very high in space (Mix). Aurora sees settlers die of prion disease upon breathing an exoplanet’s air; The Outer Worlds sees a botched terraforming attempt render an exoplanet less human-hospitable, as well as a slow starvation of many colonists due to lack of suitable food resources. The Belters of The Expanse, adapted to a harsh life in space, have trouble adjusting to the gravity of Ilus, and some die after bad interactions with the drugs they need to withstand the planetary gravity. These challenges necessitate group cooperation to have a chance at survival. In a society with a low margin of error, authority and strong social norms are likely methods to achieve this cohesion—yet these can breed authoritarianism (Mix). The authorities can then craft a survivalist human-versus-nature narrative, as the Board does in The Outer Worlds: “Please be reminded that acting against the interests of the corporations is acting against the interests of humanity” ( Therefore, the environments of space and exoplanets can directly influence governments to restrict human rights.

A specific type of space environment often used to get to exoplanets is the aforementioned generation ship, presented in Aurora, which itself comes with a slew of ethical considerations. SF author Stephen Baxter outlined three ethical dilemmas of such worldships in his Institutions of Extra-Terrestrial Liberty presentation. The caretaker generations of Aurora somewhat successfully grapple with these dilemmas before they arrive at Tau Ceti. The first is the closure—that is, both the lack of possibility of leaving and the biological fragility and instability of a small, closed ecosystem. Second are vocational limitations, in which caretakers have limited choice in their occupation. Third is reproductive control, in which to maintain population and diversity people are told how many children they can or cannot have, and with whom (Baxter). Common among these dilemmas is the lack of agency for the caretakers as well as the generation that arrives at the destination—none of them chose to embark on this voyage. Only the first generation made the decision to leave Earth. The Belters of The Expanse have, to some extent, also been living on a worldship. Generations ago, their ancestors made the decision to move to space, and now forces of employment and biology keep them there. For the first time, with Ilus, they have the opportunity to live on a planet where there isn’t a constant danger of a depressurisation event killing everyone. Generation ships and exoplanets both present extremely challenging settings for any ethical system of governance.

Each of these three SF examples includes violence sparked by conditions in which human rights have been deprioritised and taken away. The exoplanet then presents a tantalising opportunity for escape, if only to a new prison—for many of those who chose to stay and terraform in Aurora, for example, they make their decision not out of duty to the mission bestowed by Earth, but because they cannot bear to stay on the ship any longer: “It’s one zoo or another, as far as I can tell,” says one proponent of staying in Tau Ceti (Robinson 263). In order to understand why all of these fictional situations led to violence, we need to examine the reasons for going to exoplanets in these stories in the first place. In each example, there are two distinct classes of people: a privileged group who go for corporate interests/expansionism (the first generation in Aurora, the Board in Outer Worlds, RCE in The Expanse), and an underprivileged group who had little to no choice in the matter and go in hopes of new opportunities or a better life (the caretaker and arrival generations in Aurora, the workers in Outer Worlds, the Belters in The Expanse). In aiming to make exoplanets their home, both groups are endorsing and practising the colonisation of these other worlds. Baxter notes the approval of colonialism as another ethical dilemma of worldships—there is no other reason to have a worldship than to build a colony somewhere. The privileged group is making the rules, and even though the underprivileged group may be going for reasons more likely to be considered morally just, their going is really a symptom of or a reaction to the privileged group’s actions. The impetus for going is still a colonisation effort that places little value on human lives, or, indeed, exoplanetary environments.

These three stories, all published within the last decade, must be considered in light of concurrent and ongoing discussions on space colonisation, privatisation, and exploration. In real life, several private companies, including Elon Musk’s SpaceX, are currently proposing Martian colonies. These companies do not discount that the task would be arduous—in fact, Musk himself has said, quite bluntly, and quite similarly to the space advocate from Aurora quoted above, “Honestly, a bunch of people probably will die in the beginning” (“Elon Musk”). I argue that before humanity sends anyone to space, we must seriously consider why we are going, and we must establish human rights as a non-negotiable priority. Jim Schwartz, a philosopher focusing on the ethics of space exploration, argued similarly in his Institutions of Extra-terrestrial Liberty talk: “No one has any business creating novel conditions of extreme hardship, and then forcing people (especially future generations) to live under those conditions with no hope of progress or escape.” It is imperative that those in the area of human spaceflight question why they are going, and indeed where they are going. Exoplanets, as seen in these three stories, might already have their own biospheres—how do mission proposers aim to have humanity interact with a pre-existing biosphere? The time to be asking these questions is now, not after we have the technology for such interplanetary and interstellar missions.

Science fiction is often reflective of current discussions within science. SF authors imagine possible futures, and to do so they extrapolate from the world they see around them. These three recent SF stories about the dangers of taking to space without prioritising human rights, and with only expansion and greed as goals, can be read as a warning in response to the current conversation. An alternative to using SF is often to reach for historical analogies on Earth. This happens even within SF—Murtry, an RCE security guard in The Expanse Season 4, and the space advocate in Aurora both employ verbiage supporting the frontier mentality and manifest destiny of the Wild West (“Saeculum”; Robinson 429). Philosopher and anthropologist Kathryn Denning believes that there are places and uses for such historical analogies, but also that they can be messy, and writes that “instead of using past social conditions to make guesses about what would happen if a detection occurred, we might use our knowledge of present social conditions to help ensure that the science can continue to be done” (311). Denning is writing about extra-terrestrial intelligence detections, but I argue her thesis is applicable to the area of humans on exoplanets as well. I add that SF can often provide a better place to look than history when considering the human element in scientific advances like space travel.

Exoplanets often become sites of rebellion in SF because factors including isolation and severe environments create conditions where tyrannical governance can occur. But the exoplanets themselves are only the catalysts for the more deeply rooted issue of travelling to them with expansionist justifications that do not include the guarantee of human rights. It is this lack of care that leads to revolt by the abused parties. Given current popular interest in sending humans to Mars and beyond, conferences like The Institutions of Extra-Terrestrial Liberty are essential for examining the ethical considerations of such proposals. SF provides a vital bridge, accessible to all from academia and industry and the general public, that explores the social ramifications of human settlements on exoplanets. If we listen, we hear that SF is telling us that we need a good reason to go to exoplanets in the first place—and that we ignore human rights in space at our own peril.


Baxter, Stephen. “The Voyage of Six Hundred Years: The Ethical Governance of a Worldship.” The Institutions of Extra-terrestrial Liberty, Edinburgh Futures Institute, 8-11 June 2021. Online. Conference Presentation.

Denning, Kathryn. “Impossible Predictions of the Unprecedented: Analogy, History, and the Work of Prognostication.” Astrobiology, History, and Society: Life Beyond Earth and the Impact of Discovery, edited by Douglas A. Vakoch, Springer,2013, pp. 301-312.

“Elon Musk and Peter Diamandis LIVE on $100M XPRIZE Carbon Removal.” YouTube, uploaded by XPRIZE, 22 April 2021, v=BN88HPUm6j0.

The Institutions of Extra-terrestrial Liberty. Edinburgh Futures Institute, 8-11 June 2021. Online Conference.

Mix, Lucas. “To Infinity and Beyond: Biology, Ethics, and Endless Expansion.” The Institutions of Extra-terrestrial Liberty, Edinburgh Futures Institute, 8-11 June 2021. Online. Conference Presentation.

“New Terra.” The Expanse, season 4, episode 1, Alcon Entertainment, Just So, Hivemind, and Amazon Studios, 2019.

The Outer Worlds. Obsidian Entertainment, 2019.

The Outer Worlds. Accessed 10 Jan. 2022.

Robinson, Kim Stanley. Aurora. Orbit, 2015.

Schwartz, Jim. “Lunar Settlement and the Right to Return to Earth.” The Institutions of Extra-terrestrial Liberty, Edinburgh Futures Institute, 8-11 June 2021. Online. Conference Presentation.

“Saeculum.” The Expanse, season 4, episode 9, Alcon Entertainment, Just So, Hivemind, and Amazon Studios, 2019.

Shankar, Naren, executive producer. The Expanse: Season 4. Alcon Entertainment, Just So, Hivemind, and Amazon Studios, 2019.

Emma Johanna Puranen is a postgraduate researcher at the Centre for Exoplanet Science at the University of St Andrews in Scotland. A recipient of a St Leonard’s World-Leading Doctoral Scholarship, she works between the Schools of Modern Languages, Physics & Astronomy, and Biology. She is an interdisciplinary scholar using digital humanities techniques to study the portrayal of exoplanets, or planets outside our solar system, in SF. She is also a science communicator especially interested in dialogues between scientists and SF creators. Emma also writes SF, and you can find her work in Around Distant Suns: Nine Stories Inspired by Research from the St Andrews Centre for Exoplanet Science, as well as in the audio drama ROGUEMAKER, available wherever you get your podcasts.

“So we can walk forward with knowledge of who we were before”: Landscape, History and Resistance in Sarah Maria Griffin’s Spare and Found Parts

SFRA Review, vol. 52, no. 1

LSFRC 2021 Papers

“So we can walk forward with knowledge of who we were before”: Landscape, History and Resistance in Sarah Maria Griffin’s Spare and Found Parts

Gabriely Pinto

This paper is inspired by my M.A. research on the rise of dystopian young adult fiction in Ireland after the economic boom known as the Celtic Tiger and its subsequent crash in 2008. In this article, I argue that landscape in dystopian fiction becomes a site to recover history and to reclaim it as an act of resistance to a controlling ruling body. I wish to demonstrate this through a reading of Sarah Maria Griffin’s debut YA novel Spare and Found Parts. This paper is divided into three sections. First, I take a brief look at the role landscape plays in post-apocalyptic storytelling. After that, I analyze Sarah Maria Griffin’s Spare and Found Parts and investigate the ways in which the landscape is regulated by the government in this particular dystopia. Finally, I examine how landscape becomes a site of resistance by allowing teen characters to access the past which led to the current dystopia, and how they actively reclaim the landscape and its history in an effort to build an informed and better future.

The Role of Landscape

Landscapes play a significant role in world-building in post-apocalyptic storytelling and often reflect the aesthetic of a particular type of dystopia—zombie apocalypse, alien invasion, climate change, etc. The dystopian landscape becomes a symbol of the pre-dystopian past, a reminder of what came before and is no more. It emerges as a space that invokes cultural memory and feelings of nostalgia. This is quite apparent in visual media, for example, such as graphic novels and video games. Games such as The Last of Us and The Last of Us Part II, significantly, are known for their reimagining of familiar landscapes, as they show cityscapes humans fled and nature reclaimed. Games such as Horizon Zero Dawn and Nier: Automata follow a similar trend and depict human landscapes and cityscapes surviving beyond the society that lived in them. In these types of post-apocalyptic role-playing games, the landscape plays a huge part in gathering lore on the past and the civilization that inhabited these decaying spaces before, as the player character collects trinkets of a past long gone or explores buildings that have lost purpose and meaning in the current society. Landscape, thus, invokes cultural memory and, in a way, immortalizes the past that came before.

In the introduction of Arts of Living in a Damaged Planet: Ghosts of the Anthropocene, Gan et al. poignantly state that: “Every landscape is haunted by past ways of life” (2). They say this from an ecological standpoint, citing as an example plants whose animal seed dispensers are extinct (2). However, this idea of landscape carrying ghosts of the past resonates with my reading of landscape in dystopian storytelling, particularly in Griffin’s Spare and Found Parts. Irish literature, notably, has shown a disposition to memorialize loss through a distinct landscape.

As suggested by Oona Frawley, “nature and landscape become signifiers, lenses through which it is possible to examine cultural and historical developments” (1). Irish literature shows a tendency to preserve spaces by means of commemoration of the physical landscape, which often “memorializes loss” (1)—be that the loss of an individual who inspired the name of a particular place, or the social system associated with a space. Owing to the circumstances of Ireland’s history of colonization, and periods of large migration, it makes sense that loss often features in the literature and, as such, that landscape emerges as a space to represent it (1). Marie Mianowski, in her edited collection on contemporary Irish landscapes, similarly argues that “the experience of humans with place is preserved in landscape, mingled with the details of history and the power of myth” (4). Considering these views when reading dystopian settings enables us to see how loss and history associated with a particular space can be preserved by means of landscape.

By imagining a nightmarish extrapolation of modern-day anxieties, dystopias often feature a society that failed, and one that is trying to rebuild, however dubiously. Both often inhabit the same space at different times, albeit transformed by whatever catastrophic event brought the end of the previous civilization. That is, the past and the present are intrinsically connected in terms of place. The present would not be, if it were not for the past that preceded it. Judith Butler best summarizes this:

Places are lost—destroyed, vacated, barred—but then there is some new place, and it is not the first, never can be the first. And so there is an impossibility housed at the site of this new place. What is new, newness itself, is founded upon the loss of original place, and so it is a newness that has within it a sense of belatedness, of coming after, and of being thus fundamentally determined by a past that continues to inform it. (468)

Landscape in Spare and Found Parts

The landscape in Griffin’s Spare and Found Parts plays a key role in establishing the post-apocalyptic atmosphere of the novel and in showcasing the extent of the devastation suffered by the surviving community. Griffin’s novel is a dystopian YA retelling of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. The city itself, at times, resembles a monster of decay brought back to life. Dublin—or Dublin’s corpse—comes alive in Griffin’s prose. The city is renamed Black Water City after the river that runs through it, Dublin’s River Liffey, darkened by destruction. Likewise, many iconic Dublin landscapes are completely altered after a catastrophic event.

A hundred years before the novel takes place, technology had advanced greatly. Humanity came to rely heavily on androids which provided an endless source of information. An electromagnetic pulse in an event that came to be known as The Turn ended that world and introduced a disease that caused people to either die or be born without limbs. The surviving ten thousand inhabitants of Black Water City return to a simpler way of life devoid of technology and attempt to rebuild despite the echoes of the epidemic caused by The Turn. It has become common for people to have an augmented limb. Protagonist Nell Crane struggles to fit in even then, as she lost her heart because of the disease and was given a mechanical one instead, which constantly ticks and makes her feel like an outsider. Her father, a Victor Frankenstein-like figure, is credited as the inventor behind the augmented limbs many seek. The landscape and the spaces people are allowed to inhabit in this small surviving community are symbolically controlled by the government. For one, all must follow three core rules:

1. The sick in the Pale, the healed in the Pasture.
2. Contribute, at all cost.
3. All code is blasphemy. (Griffin n.p.)

The rules seek to keep the population under control. All must contribute to society when coming-of-age and computers are absolutely forbidden. One of the rules, however, manifests geographically: while the healed and wealthier are allowed to live in the Pasture with its green fields and idyllic sceneries, the sick are confined to the Pale, the greyer space which still carries the scars of the one hundred years of epidemic post-Turn:

Far outside the boundaries of Black Water City, a silent, guarded line between the Pale and the Pasture. The world changed there. The sick were raised and grew and contributed in the Pale; the healed lived and farmed and prayed in the tall grasslands of the Pasture. (24)

This spatial separation is also a class segregation: while those in the Pale are depicted as working-class and spend their days in hard labor towards rebuilding the city and serving the community, those in the Pasture seem to do minimal work, get better houses and have servants at their disposal. Significantly, those in charge of society are referred to as “The Pastoral Council.” The power lies in the Pasture, and the Pale is in service of it. The “Library Complex,” said to contain a relic of the old world—the written internet—is confined to the Pasture “away from civilian eyes” (15); very few are granted access to it. Nell dreams of being allowed to view such a source of information. But evidently, knowledge is strictly controlled by those in power.

As explained by Raffaella Baccolini, “dystopias show a profound interest in history and, more precisely, in its control, which often implies its revision and even erasure” (115). That impulse to control history is a theme largely explored in Griffin’s novel. Besides restricting access to documents of the past and rigorously prohibiting the use of technology, “official history” perpetuates that the past was singularly bad and has nothing to offer to the present. An irony, considering the ruling government refers to itself as “The Remaining Hibernian Senate” (Griffin 220), implying they are a continuation of those in power prior to the Turn. Nell, who thirsts for knowledge more than anything, is critical of people’s acceptance of this restrictive view of history:

She was sure that the rest of the folk in Black Water City were afraid only because they didn’t ask questions, because they believed what they were told. If all you’d ever heard about the history of your world was horror stories about gleaming boxes full of bad knowledge, of course you’d be afraid. (28-29)

She opposes this fear of past technology, rationalizing it as born out of ignorance. She shows an awareness of the unreliability of those who are telling the story, those with authority. As noted in another instance in the novel: “Asking for a computer was like asking for a gun . . . They frightened the wrong people, and the wrong people wanted them gone.” (121) “The wrong people” have the decision-making power to make them go away. The Council is very much preoccupied in concealing the past that led to the current society and suppressing any attempt to access the communal history related to this past. They “revise” and “erase” history to their advantage and to promote their version of the story. Not only do they seek to manipulate the distant pre-Turn past, but they also attempt to rewrite the recent past and memories of the last years of the epidemic. This is exercised in their control and use of the city spaces. The Gonne Hospital—a famous Dublin department store, repurposed to house the sick after the Turn—for example, is symbolically burned in front of the public, as if to exorcize the trauma that transpired inside:

Hundreds and hundreds of people had died there. The old building had become so contaminated that the council had decreed it unsafe and ordered that it be burned. Ostensibly this was to kill the ends of the virus and stop the aftershocks; but the whole city doomed gas masks and gathered to watch it, a terrible red ceremony. It felt like an exorcism, like ghosts of their sick past scorched out. (83)

The burning of the building aims to erase events related to the sick and the epidemic. It’s a cleanse exercise attended by the whole community. The potential of landscapes and landmarks to invoke cultural memory informs the Council’s decisions. Contrastingly to the hospital, a monument referred to as “The Needle”—the forgotten Spire of Dublin—is the first thing wrapped in plastic to be preserved after the Turn:

It had been left to stand, it was said, because it told no stories. It had no face, no body, no myth. It was just a needle, towering to the hot sky, too slim and smooth to climb, made of such stuff that nobody could even write histories upon its surface. (101)

This is indicative of the conscious totalitarian effort to control information through the regulation of landscapes and landmarks.

Landscape as a Site of Resistance

As further outlined by Baccolini, “history, its knowledge, and memory are . . . dangerous elements that can give the dystopian citizen a potential instrument of resistance” (115). Thus, knowledge of the past is crucial for the dystopian protagonist to have agency and set about changing their world. Once the Council is controlling the information passed down to people and keeping written records under surveillance at the “Library,” the landscape becomes the main source to access memory of the past, to keep its ghosts alive. The cityscape around Nell and her contemporaries is a constant reminder of pain and trauma, but also an impediment to the council’s attempt to erase history. As seen in the case of the hospital, the ostentatious display of burning down the “house of failure” (Griffin 104) is ineffective. Nell recognizes the building used to be a department store, something that no longer exists and has no use to her and her peers. Moreover, when she trespasses into the hospital years after its burning: “lo and behold, there are rooms in there untouched by the fire” (83). The records of the epidemic remain in the rooms of the building, still standing. History cannot be erased or rewritten as long as the space that witnessed it remains. The next step, thereafter, is to resist attempts to censor and regulate knowledge of the past and the spaces inhabited by survivors.

A key feature of dystopian YA is the rebellious spirit of teen protagonists, as they become aware something is not quite right with their society (Sheldon 718). Accordingly, Nell and the other young people in the novel are shown to resist the push to ignore the past and technology. For Nell, the loss of the shared memory of the past and its great discoveries is an impairment and informs her decision to create a computer that looks human, so as to not alienate her peers. Others, she learns, also long to understand their past. They, however, see in the landscape around them a chance to recover their history. They defy the rhetoric that the past has nothing to offer but regret. Their resistance is exercised in the ways they interact with the landscape around them and their conscious effort to reclaim its lost history.

This type of resistance is better actualized with a young underground group of inventors. The Lighthouse Cinema, a five-story underground building, has survived as a structure which is reclaimed by young revolutionaries as a secret base to study “forbidden” technology. While by day they work as “mechanics, bakers, researchers of plants” (Griffin 171), they have been secretly caring for the building—Nell notes the strong smell of cleaning solution, “as if all the badness of this building’s past was being scrubbed out” (156). The building is repurposed as a workshop where they can secretly study and try to better understand banned technology which they recover by exploring abandoned spaces around the city.

Nell’s first trip to The Lighthouse nearly resembles a fairy tale, as she enters a new world hidden beside her own, full of impossibilities come to life. The smell of cleaning products, the bright lights, a contrast to the rationed electricity in the city, and the tech unabashedly used all around her. The preservation of the building is shown to be a deliberate effort to recover their lost past. At first, Nell does not understand why the building is called “The Lighthouse,” however, it is explained to her:

Because that is what it was called. Before us, before anything happened, when this city was a real city with real things to do and places to go and no disease and no war. We have to honour what came before us if we can hope to even come close to rebuilding it . . . (153)

This echoes Nell’s belief that there is no future without the past. The naming is a promise to honor history and keep moving forward in the face of adversity. While the older generation seems crippled by the traumatic past, the younger generation seeks to move beyond grief and shame and attempts to do more than just survive. The building is a testament of past achievements and signals the potential to repeat and improve on positive aspects of their past, while “scrubbing out” the bad. By allowing dystopian characters to access the past that a controlling government is attempting to silence, the building itself becomes a site of resistance, a place to exercise critical thinking and rebellion.

The type of resistance present in Spare and Found Parts is subtle. Within the story itself, the resistance is referred to as a “tiny revolution.” And Nell thinks of her rebellious peers as “the small collective of revolutionaries and restorers” (171). The type of activism, of resistance, presented in the novel is quiet, underground, not ready to openly defy those in power yet, it lacks confidence—they keep waiting to discover “something more” in order to convince the council of their cause: “We’ll tell everyone when the time’s right” (164), they tell Nell. This is a quieter resistance. But the rebellious instinct is there. The spark that may start a larger-scale revolution is there. By exploring and reshaping the darker spaces of their city and the past associated with the landscape around them, the young rebels begin to access memory of the past, reclaim it and learn from it in order to respond to the injustices of their society.

We finish the novel as Nell is about to present her contribution to the council and publicly argue on the societal value of accessing their communal history. She reckons her android “can show us where the world was headed before the Turn, so we can walk forward with knowledge of who we were before, so we don’t make the same mistakes” (394). The warning at the heart of the novel is clear: there is no bright future if one refuses to learn from the past. A closer reading of Griffin’s novel allows us to examine a larger trend in post apocalyptic stories, where the landscape of a world in ruins becomes an unexpected instrument of resistance and can be the spark to set a rebellious spirit in a path of discovery and ignite a revolution.


Baccolini, Raffaella. “‘A useful knowledge of the present is rooted in the past’: Memory and Historical Reconciliation in Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Telling.Dark Horizons: Science Fiction and the Dystopian Imagination, edited by Tom Moylan and Raffaella Baccolini, Routledge, 2003, pp. 113-134.

Butler, Judith. “Afterword: After Loss, What Then?.” Loss: The Politics of Mourning, edited by David L. Eng and David Kazanjian, University of California Press, 2003, pp. 467-474.

Frawley, Oona. Irish Pastoral: Nostalgia and Twentieth Century Irish Literature. Irish Academic Press, 2005.

Gan, Elaine et al. “Introduction: Haunted Landscapes of the Anthropocene.” Arts of Living on a Damaged Planet: Ghosts of the Anthropocene, edited by Anna Tsing, et al., University of Minnesota Press, 2017, pp. 1-16.

Griffin, Sarah Maria. Spare and Found Parts. Greenwillow, 2016.

Horizon Zero Dawn. PlayStation version, Sony, 2017.

Mianowski, Marie. “Introduction: Experiencing and Representing Irish Contemporary Landscapes in Literature and the Arts.” Irish Contemporary Landscapes in Literature and the Arts, edited by Marie Mianowski, Palgrave Macmillan, 2011, pp. 1-10.

NieR: Automata. PlayStation version, Square Enix, 2017.

Sheldon, Rebekah. “Dystopian Futures and Utopian Presents in Contemporary Young Adult Science Fiction.” The Cambridge History of Science Fiction, edited by Gerry Canavan and Eric Carl Link, Cambridge University Press, 2019, pp. 113-724.

The Last of Us. PlayStation version, Naughty Dog, 2013.

The Last of Us Part II. PlayStation version, Naughty Dog, 2020.

Gabriely Pinto holds an M.A. in Anglo-Irish literature and drama from University College Dublin, completed as the 2018/2019 recipient of the Maria Helena Kopschitz Scholarship. She has a B.A. in English and Portuguese languages and literatures from Federal University of Rio Grande. Her research interests include contemporary Irish young adult fiction, speculative fiction, and gender studies.

Dissolving the Individual: Collective Consciousness as a Rebellion Against Neoliberalism in Tade Thompson’s Rosewater and Chana Porter’s The Seep

SFRA Review, vol. 52, no. 1

LSFRC 2021 Papers

Dissolving the Individual: Collective Consciousness as a Rebellion Against Neoliberalism in Tade Thompson’s Rosewater and Chana Porter’s The Seep

Jonathan Thornton

In this paper, I explore ideas around collective consciousness and fungal networks as a rebellion against neoliberalism’s co-option of the utopian potential of the internet in the texts Rosewater by Tade Thompson and The Seep by Chana Porter. To do so I first outline some theoretical and conceptual ideas around how the internet has been used to uphold neoliberalism, how fungal networks offer a subversion of this by connecting us to each other and the nonhuman world, and how fungi, with their symbiotic and parasitic interactions with bodies, disrupt the idea of the body as discrete and inviolable. Then I explore these elements through the texts. Finally, I conclude, drawing together ideas between these two texts.

Rob McRuer has a useful definition of neoliberalism in his text Crip Theory, where he emphasises how neoliberalism’s prioritisation of the freedom of capital destroys or transforms into target markets “the public or democratic cultures that might constrain or limit the interest of global capital,” and neoliberalism’s end result of “more global inequality and raw exploitation and less rigidity in terms of how oppression is reproduced (and extended)” (2-3). This is something we can see particularly clearly in the case of the internet, whose revolutionary potential has largely been squandered in favour of propping up the status quo. Prem Sikka acknowledges that while “the internet represents the biggest advance in communication technology since the advent of the printing press,” its effectiveness in bringing about social change for the better is hampered because “it is colonised by corporate as well as radical groups seeking to change society” (765-766). We can see this in how social media, which is supposed to allow us to connect better, has contributed directly to the rise of the alt-right, Brexit, and Trumpism. Tracy L. Hawkins describes in “Facebook, Neoliberalism, and the Foreclosing of Imagination” how neoliberalism uses technology to reify its core beliefs in order to make it more difficult to imagine forms of resistance against it. Hawkins adds, “As a result of this, our ability to imagine new ways to organize society, to address issues of social justice, and to seek our ideal future is greatly curtailed” (137).

But there are many advantages to increased communication and increased connection, with great potential for activism. What would a network look like that wasn’t so anthropocentric? In his book Entangled Life, Merlin Sheldrake describes how fungi participate in symbiotic relationships that allow multicellular life to exist, from trees to humans. He says, “We are ecosystems, composed of—and decomposed by—an ecology of microbes, the significance of which is only now coming to light. . . . Symbiosis is a ubiquitous feature of life” (18). I am interested in how thinking about ourselves as ecosystems decentres the idea of the individual, and emphasises how we exist as a part of nature rather than something distinct from it. This idea is echoed in Donna Harraway’s “The Cyborg Manifesto,” which uses the cyborg as a metaphor to disrupt the humanist notion of the historically white male body as distinct from nature, woman, animal, and machine. She argues, “by the late twentieth century, our time, a mythic time, we are all chimeras, theorized and fabricated hybrids of machine and organism—in short, cyborgs” (“Cyborg” 61). This notion of hybridity between machine and organism extends to the biomolecular machinery of the fungi, the microbiota and the symbionts and parasites that we live intimately with. The notion of the human body as a discrete, inviable self is not compatible with our knowledge of ourselves as interactions of cellular machinery and genetic coding from varied sources both prokaryotic and eukaryotic. Haraway talks about biology as “a kind of cryptography,” and in “Tentacular Thinking” she further explores the idea of humans as interacting biological systems with no clearly defined boundaries: “We are all lichens; so we can be scraped off the rocks by the Furies, who still erupt to avenge crimes against the earth. Alternatively, we can join in the metabolic transformations between and among rocks and critters for living and dying well” (“Tentacular” 56). Using Hawaray’s question from “The Cyborg Manifesto”—“Why should our bodies end at the skin, or include at best other beings encapsulated by skin?” (61)—as a jumping off point, Margrit Shildrick positions hybridity in relation to the disabled body and prostheses. Shildrick argues that prostheses, whether they be replacement limbs, behaviour-altering drugs, or transplanted organs, disrupt ideas about the body as a discrete entity and force us to rethink our ideas about embodiment: “They not only demonstrate the inherent plasticity of the body, but, in the very process of incorporating non-self matter, point to the multiple possibilities of co-corporeality, where bodies are not just contiguous and mutually reliant but entwined with one another” (16). Thus, considering bodies as “contiguous,” “mutually reliant,” and “entwined” disrupts hierarchies of viewing non-disabled bodies as superior to disabled bodies, and allows us to rethink what constitutes a body and what its limits are. How we view embodiment also influences our ideas around subjectivity. This is explored in speculative fiction that engages with the fungal. While works like M. R. Carey’s The Girl With All The Gifts have made the Cordyceps fungi the go-to pseudo-scientific explanation for zombies, other works, such as Tade Thompson’s Rosewater and Chana Porter’s The Seep, engage with the fungal to imagine exciting, if ambiguous, posthuman possibilities for connectivity that echo the early utopian ideals of the internet whilst avoiding its co-option by neoliberalism.

Tade Thompson’s Rosewater is set in a near-future Nigeria where an alien incursion has occurred in the form of Wormwood, which has burrowed under the ground and released fungi-like spores into Earth’s atmosphere. Wormwood is trapped under the dome of Utopicity, and the city of Rosewater has sprung up around it. The alien fungi, or xenoform, attaches itself to the natural fungi on human skin, forming a psychic network called the xenosphere which “sensitives” like protagonist Kaaro are able to access like the internet. In the virtual space of the xenosphere, sensitives are able to embody themselves in nonhuman forms: Kaaro appears as a Griffin and inhabits such surreal places as a palace made of meat. But the xenosphere is more than just a recapitulation of the cyberpunk dream. In Rosewater, everyone is connected into a communal “worldmind,” the differences between discrete individual bodies called into question as consciousness extends across fungal networks and through different people’s minds.

The dome opens once a year, releasing alien fungi into the atmosphere and healing the injured and diseased. However, this process does not always work like the people who flock to visit Rosewater might wish. Whilst some are healed, others are put back together incorrectly—the deformed, or mutated or remade in new and unusual ways—known as the “remade.” Even the dead are infected with xenoforms, brought back to life as soulless zombies, or the reanimates. Thus, the interaction between humans and the alien fungi doesn’t so much return people to an idealised complete body, but remakes it in challenging new forms.

This is further complicated by the ways the xenosphere, like the internet, contributes to upholding some elements of the neoliberal paradigm while subverting others. Kaaro works at a bank, forming a psychic shield to prevent other sensitives from hacking the bank through the xenosphere. Furthermore, Kaaro discovers that the xenoforms are slowly replacing human cells with more xenoforms whilst replicating the original body’s appearance, and that eventually humanity will be entirely replaced. This causes Kaaro to question his own subjectivity:

I am not the same. I don’t look at the dome in the same way. It’s now a stye or a boil, swollen with purulence, waiting, biding its time. I don’t know what my healing has cost me. How many native cells have the xenoforms driven out? Ten, fifteen percent? How human am I? I see the people touching me and the ones at the periphery staring as dead people. Conquered and killed by invaders, walking around carrying their death, but they don’t even know it. (Thompson 263)

The replacement of human cells by the alien xenoforms can be read as a metaphor for colonialism, especially as this all takes place in a Nigeria where the indigenous culture has been overwritten by the all-powerful cultural influences of the West. Thus the fungal entities in Rosewater force us to confront not just the way we think about human bodies but how we think about the body politic in the context of Western post-colonialism.

If the xenosphere in Rosewater is ambiguous in how it both disrupts and upholds the paradigm, the Seep in Chana Porter’s novella of the same name is somewhat more straightforwardly utopian. The Seep, “the friendly neighborhood bodiless sentience that makes your life just a little bit easier,” (Porter 170) is never explicitly described as a fungus, but behaves much like one. The book is set in a world where the Seep has quietly invaded, infiltrated, and linked not just humans, but all life and matter on Earth. This vast interspecies network eliminates capitalism, poverty, and hunger by allowing an immediate empathy between humans, non-human animals and the environment:

The aliens changed all of that. You could hold a product in your hand and feel its history, feel people’s attitudes and emotions as they’d processed the materials. Struggles that had felt impossibly uphill were now suddenly so clear, as if everyone had awoken one morning from the same dream. It was insanity to poison your environment to save a dime. It was insanity to build bigger and bigger bombs to keep the peace. Guns were melted down into scrap metal. Police officers put their uniforms away. (13)

Within this network, neoliberalism’s prioritising of capital above all else becomes literally unthinkable as the old paradigms are swept away by new understanding. Seeptech can alter matter directly, immediately ending scarcity, healing most diseases, and opening up new possibilities for embodiment.

Yet even within this utopian world there are problems. The Seep’s fascination with humans and embodiment leads to it amassing data on every aspect of people’s lives, albeit at least not to sell to the highest bidder like Facebook or Google. The people in the world of the Seep live in a state of constant surveillance:

The Seep loved giving you everything you wanted, in exchange for information about being human. The green flash of a credit stick, at a coffee shop or a bookstore or any number of places, was a marker of where you were and what you wanted, a little dot in a vast, ever-evolving data set. Trina had resigned herself to using credit years ago, to being a little dot in the aliens’ matrix . . . (68)

The narrative focuses on Trina FastHorse Goldberg-Oneka, who is struggling because her wife has decided to be reborn as a baby with no memories of her past life. Because the Seep is a disembodied intelligence, it doesn’t properly understand embodiment and so has difficulty understanding why Trina is unwilling to erase her suffering to feel better. Trina’s embodied life history as a trans woman with Jewish and Native American heritage are important aspects of her identity that she has fought for and has no interest in giving up: “But Trina had labored for this body! She’d fought and kicked and clawed to have her insides match her outsides, and now people changed their faces as easily as getting a haircut. Trina knew then that she wouldn’t change form. . .” (145). Thus the Seep’s network, whilst opening up new possibilities for exploring embodiment, like the internet before it, can also flatten and homogenise aspects of embodied identity in favour of a majority consensus.

So, fungal networks in speculative fiction give us a new way to think about the utopian connectivity promised by the internet whilst avoiding co-option by neoliberalism. Fungi allow us a new way to think about the permeability of the body and the effects this has on embodiment and subjectivity. In Tade Thompson’s Rosewater, fungi connect humanity and its environment into a contiguous whole even as it rewrites the human body as its own. In Chana Porter’s The Seep, the Seep’s alien network connects humans with the non-human world, making capitalist exploitation of both people and the environment impossible. Both books help us to rethink the utopian possibilities of connectivity, whilst critiquing how the internet upholds the neoliberal paradigm.


Harraway, Donna. “The Cyborg Manifesto.” Manifestly Haraway, U of Minnesota P, 2016, pp. 3-90.

—. “Tentacular Thinking: Anthropocene, Capitalocene, Cthulucene.” Staying With The Trouble, Duke UP, 2016, pp. 30-57.

Hawkins, Tracy L. “Facebook, Neoliberalism, and the Foreclosing of Imagination.” The Journal of Popular Culture, vol. 52, no. 1, 2019, pp. 137-152.

McRuer, Robert. Crip Theory: Cultural Signs of Queerness and Disability. New York UP, 2006.

Porter, Chana. The Seep. 2020, Soho Press

Sheldrake, Merlin. Entangled Life: How Fungi Make Our Worlds, Change Our Minds, and Shape Our Futures.The Bodley Head, 2020.

Shildrick, Margrit. “‘Why Should Our Bodies End at the Skin?’ Embodiment, Boundaries, and Somatechnics.” Hypatia, vol. 30, no. 1, 2015, pp. 14-29.

Sikka, Prem. “The internet and possibilities for counter accounts: some reflections.” Accounting, Auditing & Accountability Journal, vol. 19 no. 5, 2006, pp. 759-769.

Thompson, Tade. Rosewater. Apex Publications, 2016.

Jonathan Thornton is in his first year studying for a Ph.D. in science fiction literature at the University of Liverpool. He is interested in the portrayal of insects in speculative fiction and fantastika. He has an M.A. in science fiction literature and an M.Sc. in medical entomology, and works as a technician at the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine. He has had articles published in the SFRA Review, The Polyphony, Fifty Key Figures in Cyberpunk Culture (Routledge, in press) and the Routledge Handbook to Star Trek (in press). He also writes criticism and reviews and conducts interviews for internet publications Tor dot com, Fantasy Faction, The Fantasy Hive, and Gingernuts of Horror.

Configuring the Caribbean through sf

SFRA Review, vol. 52, no. 1

LSFRC 2021 Papers

Configuring the Caribbean through sf

Jarrel De Matas

Caribbean literary engagement with questions of being emphasize a counter hegemonic practice of denying and henceforth reimagining of historical conceptions of the Caribbean place and its people.One of the main ways Caribbean writers assert this counter hegemony is through an attention to language practices, both indigenous and Creole. I propose Caribbean sf (Csf) as an extension of Jane Bryce’s argument of ‘outsider’ fiction. [1] Bryce’s claim that ‘outsider’ fiction is best encapsulated by Speculative Fiction excludes other kinds of ‘outsider’ fiction which also consider “what might happen if submerged, sublimated or suppressed stories, voices of philosophies became so dominant as to create a radically different world” (17). As a form of outsider fiction, Csf reimagines the colonial experience by bringing together all kinds of fiction that apply sf tropes such as advanced technology, time travel, inter-planetary settings, genetically modified being, alien(ated) subjects to envision certain futured states of the Caribbean space and its people. Csf resists the exceptionalism ascribed to the genre of speculative fiction, which Bryce upholds as “the genre, par excellence, by which popular fiction reimagines the present and pushes the boundaries of a possible future through the means of Caribbean myth and magic” (17). Focusing on Csf allows for a deeper reimagining of Caribbean being that is manifested across a spectrum of representations—not limited to myth and magic. Nalo Hopkinson, a Jamaican-Canadian speculative fiction writer acknowledges the dearth of ‘other(ed)’ experiences which have recently surfaced in Csf. Hopkinson states, “the discourse [of science fiction] is slowly coming from other experiences: the working class, women, writers of color, queer writers, disabled writers” (591).

Csf is the focus for how Caribbean writers use sf tropes—that is, tropes related to fantasy, folklore, speculative fiction, and science fiction—to develop nuanced postcolonial versions of Caribbean identity as well as challenge the traditionalist and mainstream version of science fiction that originated in pulp magazines from as early as the 1920s. [2] The designation of Csf in this follows the imperialist underpinnings of mainstream SF discussed by Eric D. Smith. [3] Smith’s argument that postcolonial sf challenges imperial hegemony (6) also offers a way to address the dearth of attention paid to science fiction literature and theory by women and queer writers of the Caribbean. [4] However, unlike New Wave SF which still grappled with issues of exclusivity owing largely to American and British literary influences, postcolonial sf developed into a spectrum of Global South SF literatures. [5] One such form of Global South SF is Csf. In what follows I first map the foundations and development of Csf before analyzing works of Csf that take up matters related to affirming Caribbean linguistic diversity.

Hopkinson’s Midnight Robber combines the experience of crossing from a high-tech planet, Toussaint, to a primitive one, New Half-Way Tree, with an intricate web of Trinidadian and Jamaican Creole English. The protagonist, Tan-Tan, is forced by her father, Antonio, into a space-pod bound for New Half-Way Tree, the mirror planet of their home, Toussaint. Tan-Tan’s journey resembles a spatial remapping of her identity. The agency she finds on New Half-Way Tree rehumanizes her by giving the space to be free of her father’s ownership over her movement and her body. Hopkinson portrays a process of reconfiguring Caribbean identity through the space-pod which takes Tan-Tan to the technologically inferior, but no less culturally and linguistically significant, planet of New Half-Way Tree. Immediately, readers are immersed in the storytelling tradition as the narrator takes on the guise of a “master weaver” who proudly says, “I spin the threads. I twist warp ‘cross weft. I move my shuttle in and out, and smooth smooth” (21). Through the narrator, Hopkinson directs attention to the technological machine of Creole English. This new language, nannysong, mixes new sounds with creole words to create a hybrid blend of communication. Nannysong, we are told, was developed by a calypsonian. Nanny’s programming reflects its creator—an agent of socio-political commentary (153). The distinctly Caribbean voices of the novel extend the depth of science fiction past its superficial treatment of linguistic diversity as criticized in the late twentieth century by Walter E. Meyers. According to Meyers, the attention to historical linguistics in science fiction is as superficial as its pulp fixation on intergalactic difference (36-37). Hopkinson’s science fiction presents a marked departure from this generalization. Midnight Robber places the accuracy of Creole English at the center of its introspection of the differences between the technologically superior Toussaint and its inferior counterpart, New Half-Way Tree. Where language has always been critical to creating a unique Caribbean identity—epitomized by Kamau Brathwaite’s quest for nation language [6]—Hopkinson creates two worlds with disparities in technological access yet sharing the same Creole identity.

Similar to the emphasis placed on amplifying Caribbean identity through the technology of language, Midnight Robber draws attention to an inter-planetary Caribbean state of being. In doing so, the novel moves away from globality and toward planetarity. As discussed by Gayatri Spivak, thinking in terms of the planet suggests that “both the dominant and the subordinate must jointly rethink themselves as intended or interpellated by planetary alterity” (347). Hopkinson portrays the tenuous relationship between the two planets, Toussaint, a technologically superior world, and New Half-Way Tree, Toussaint’s primitive, yet culturally vibrant counterpart. In the novel, the protagonist Tan-Tan is forced by her father to travel with him via a space shuttle from Toussaint to New Half-Way Tree. The narrator describes the process as occurring in different waves and crossing many veils: “The first wave hit them. For Tan-Tan it was as though her belly was turning inside out . . . A next veil swept through them, slow like molasses” (73). The novel is grounded in a uniquely Caribbean sensibility through the comparison between space travel and molasses, the latter being a by-product of the sugar-making process which was integral to the sustenance of Caribbean economies up to the twentieth century. Hopkinson overlays the dimensional shift to another planet with an historical account of the ways in which enslavement warped the African body. The transportation from the planet of Toussaint, named after the Haitian general François-Dominique Toussaint Louverture who led slave revolts as part of the Haitian Revolution, reflects a reversion from notions of independence and anti-Black racism. The transportation pod itself is likened to slave ships that crammed as many West Africans as possible to offset the certain death during the treacherous journey across the Atlantic. As a science-fictional reimagining of forced exile, Midnight Robber doesn’t only rethink history on a planetary scale, but it also reinvents the connections between technology, language, and embodiment. Hopkinson’s utilization of Creole English is rooted in an understanding of language as a technological machine. Nannysong, a sophisticated language enabled through advancements in technology, is born out of calypso and overlaid with artificial intelligence. In the novel, Antonio learns from his cousin, Maka, that nannysong was created by Granny Nanny. [7] Before she dies, Maka explains that Granny Nanny uploaded her consciousness to an open-access AI platform which later came to be called nannysong. The submerged memory of Granny Nanny is reignited and established as a foundation of Toussaint’s cultural identity. The historical significance of Granny Nanny also humanizes the people of Toussaint, as it is through Granny Nanny that the people were able to create the future they wanted for themselves using technology rooted in their historical icon. Hopkinson claims language, specifically Caribbean languages such as Trinidadian Creole, Jamaican Patois, and Papiamento, as a survival tool. 

Granny Nanny’s history, which stands in for the society’s collective memory, converted into nannysong, survived because her consciousness was converted into four-dimensional memory space. The transhuman overtones of technologizing consciousness establishes an intergenerational relay anti-colonial history which sees knowledge of Granny Nanny passed down to Tan-Tan through the utilization of digital space. This digital space incorporates cloud technology wherein nannysong becomes easily accessible and of unlimited capacity. Maka’s description of the birth and growth of nannysong through a sound filter engineered by a calypsonian mirrors the forms of techno-driven change discussed by Curwen Best. According to Best, innovations in art forms such as soca and calypso “demonstrate how Caribbean music was being reconfigured by technology, indeed, how Caribbean culture is presently being co-constructed by technology” (32). Midnight Robber overlaps cultural memory and Caribbean music with techno-driven change. Where calypso was created out of a challenge to systems of power and some technologies evolved out of a need to communicate, nannysong represents a mode of resistance to Standard English, a survival of cultural memory, and an assertion of Creole identities. 

Hopkinson suggests that Creole survives and is sustained through the memoryspace of nannysong. Nannysong is Hopkinson’s version of a futured language that has undergone technoscientific syncretism of Creole identities. The “four-dimensional programming code” (Midnight Robber 153) of nannysong propels Creole into a higher, more complex space-time dimension. In this fourth dimension of memoryspace, Caribbean existence combines multiple and alternate perspectives of historical, cultural, and linguistic change. [8] The technology of nannysong, which naturally evolved from calypso and grows through artificially intelligent machine-learning, resembles an elaboration of Kamau Brathwaite’s Sycorax style. Sycorax, Caliban’s mother in The Tempest, who is unseen yet imbued with malevolent power, is native to the island on which Prospero becomes stranded. By naming his computer Sycorax (ConVERSations 176), Brathwaite claims the marginal figure as a muse for his own reinvention of colonial language. The videolectic style, enabled by Sycorax, takes on added proportions, and dimensions, in Midnight Robber. Brathwaite’s videolectic style of decolonizing language and identity sees him defy typographic conventions in the search for new forms of expression. In ConVERSations, Brathwaite’s description of Sycorax’s ability to reconceptualize language foretells the ability of nannysong in Midnight Robber to be an evolutionary form of Creole. Beginning with orality in the same way that Hopkinson would later do through calypso, Brathwaite explains that “the/thing about ‘oral po-/etry’—the Oral Trad/ition [OT] today—in a world of electronic/(s)—is that it’s allowing us at last to mix the two ‘traditions’ into sound/visual; to convert/script into sound via/the spirit” (217). Nannysong in addition to being language transposed in a different style—that is, tonal—substantiates the oral tradition through its extrasensory transmission among the people of Toussaint.  

Nannysong contains the essential elements of nation language in that it is adapted to Toussaint’s environment and the cultural imperative of historical preservation. What Brathwaite refers to as the “software” of nation language, that is the rhythm and syllables of Caribbean poetry (9), takes the form of an actual software program in Midnight Robber. The foundation of nannysong is its “one hundred and twenty-seven tones” sung in “basic phrases” for human intelligibility (Midnight Robber 154). The “impossibly intricate nannysong” speech pattern (44) resembles Glissant’s claim of Caribbean speech which is “first and foremost sound” (Caribbean Discourse 123). The sonic structure of Caribbean speech enables its own process of reclamation. Glissant goes on to say that “This is how the dispossessed man organized his speech by weaving it into the apparently meaningless texture of extreme noise” (124). Where nannysong represents a re-possession of Caribbean identity, Hopkinson portrays a reversion of dispossession when Antonio and Tan-Tan leave the technologically sophisticated planet of Toussaint for New Half-Way Tree. Although New-Half-Way Tree is not technologically sophisticated, it is no less dynamic than Toussaint. It is also no less human than Toussaint. In fact, Tan-Tan finds that the douens might be more human than the actual humans of her technology-driven home planet.

The “dimension veil” separating Toussaint from New Half-Way Tree reveals non-human beings with human sensibilities. Existing alongside the strange flora and fauna of New Half-Way Tree are the douens—creatures with heads resembling a bird, arms with fingers, leathery chests, no genitalia, legs with knees bent backward, and feet like a goat. One of the douens, Chichibud, functions as the repository of New Half-Way Tree’s history. As he guides the aliens, Tan-Tan and Antonio, from their space-pod to his home on New Half-Way Tree he interweaves the history of New Half-Way Tree with veiled criticism of the people of Toussaint. When Antonio tells Tan-Tan, “We don’t know nothing about this beast” (Midnight Robber 270), Chichibud replies: “Beast that could talk and know it own mind. Oonuh tallpeople quick to name what is people and what is beast” (270). The exchange between Antonio and Chichibud reflects the projection of animality by Western humanist thought. [9] To some extent, the beastialization of Chichibud points to a process of queering the Caribbean human. Hopkinson shatters conceptions of who and what is considered non/human by reconfiguring the bases of humanity. Chichibud’s compassion for his daughter humanizes him and counters Antonio’s reckless reproduction of colonial stereotypes which, to recall Césaire, applies thingification to beings that do not look ‘typically human.’ As with nannysong, a high-tech consolidation of nation-language, the douen’s ability to speak Anglopatwa, Francopatwa, Hispanopatwa, and Papiamento call to mind Brathwaite’s discussion of nation language as representing the vast, diverse Caribbean space. 

Hopkinson uses douen folklore in the novel to challenge notions of Caribbean culture and its people as backward, insignificant, or non-human. The folkloric aspects which are submerged, to use Brathwaite’s term, on the other(ed) planet of New Half-Way tree, are portrayed as essential to Tan-Tan’s cultural consciousness. Despite not looking typically human, the douens are nonetheless human in their linguistic identity, sentience, and affect. Through the focus on the douens, alternate-beings, who are more human than their non-human physical features would suggest, Hopkinson replicates Glissant’s call for a “defiance of a universalizing and reductive humanism” (Glissant 133). The ethnopoetics of Midnight Robber which to Glissant’s point “belongs to the future” (Glissant 134) takes place on the parallel planet of New Half-Way Tree. Hopkinson’s vision of Caribbean futurity provides a response to Glissant’s argument that “The tool is the other’s property; technology remains alien” (132). Midnight Robber uses the tools of sf to exalt nation language and folk culture. In an interview with Alondra Nelson, Hopkinson explains that the term spec-fic—which this paper incorporates into the overarching term Csf—is “a set of literatures that examine the effects on humans and human societies of the fact that we are toolmakers . . . Those tools may be tangible (such as machines) or intangible (such as laws, mores, belief systems)” (98). Both tangible and intangible tools are used in Midnight Robber to conceptualize Caribbean resistance and reclamation of place and personhood in futuristic, and technologically regressed planets. Like both types of tools Hopkinson uses, both planets are necessary to reimagining the complexity of Caribbean ontology. 

The relatively new field of Csf reckons with the future of Caribbean identity and being that is very much rooted in its history. The emphasis on native language as a counterhegemonic tool takes the form of different Caribbean languages coalescing in Midnight Robber. As a writer of Csf, Hopkinson develops our understanding of native and folk ontologies through a focus on the survival of native Caribbean languages. This survival is enabled through a technological interface called nannysong as much as a cultural appreciation of indigenous folklore.


[1] I use the lowercase ‘sf’ as opposed to the mainstream, capitalized form ‘SF’ which has historically been used to refer to science fiction. Because science fiction is only one component of Csf, others being fantasy, folklore, and speculative fiction, the lowercase ‘sf’ is more appropriate.

[2] The pulp era of science fiction began under the label ‘scientifiction’ with Hugo Gernsback’s Amazing Stories magazine series. These stories of science fiction more often than not tended to feature white, male, and heterosexual protagonists who fought physically and ontologically ‘alien’ species. Although magazines were dominated by male writers, Lisa Yaszek argues that women authors were very much present though disguised behind male pen names (10). However, when paperbacks began to rival magazines during the 1960s, Eric Leif Davin revealed that fewer women “made the transition to the new medium of novels” (306). The gradual waning of women’s voices in science fiction owed to the lack of transition to the novel form is one point of restitution that is brought to the fore by Csf.

[3] See the introduction to Globalization, Utopia, and Postcolonial Science Fiction for Smith’s characterization of postcolonial science fiction as born out of a challenge to imperial hegemony.

[4] Melzer argues that SF “has a tradition of conceptualizing themes of colonialism and social orders in conservative, and at times reactionary, ways. Beginning with the New Wave in the 1960s, Western science fiction texts and criticism have developed from a mainly White, male, heterosexual genre into a more diverse body of texts with the potential to radically reconceptualize power relations” (5).

[5] The classification of Csf as part of a broader Global SF field is informed by O’Connell’s argument that Global SF’s “decentering of the West as the singular site and progenitor of futurity . . . takes places alongside a postcolonial critique that interrogates SF’s relationship to technoscience” (682), amongst other things.

[6] See Brathwaite for his theory of nation language which is “the kind of English spoken by the people who were brought to the Caribbean, not the official English now, but the language of slaves and labourers” (History of the Voice 5).

[7] Granny Nanny, also called Queen of the Maroons, is credited as one of the pivotal leaders of the Maroons—a group of self-liberated West Africans who used guerilla tactics to resist Spanish and British control in early eighteenth-century Jamaica.

[8] See Linda Dalrymple Henderson’s “Science Fiction, Art, and the Fourth Dimension,” pp. 69-84, for a discussion of the ways in which science fiction writers use references to a fourth dimension to give a deeper “space sense” of reality.

[9] See Zakiyyah Iman Jackson for a discussion of African diasporic writers who “not only critique animalization but also exceed critique by overturning received ontology and epistemic regimes of species that seek to define blackness through the prism of abject animality” (34).


Bernabé, Jean et al. “In Praise of Creoleness.” Callaloo, vol. 13, no. 4, 1990, pp. 886-909.

Best, Curwen. “Technology Constructing Culture: Tracking Soca’s First ‘Post-’.” Small Axe, vol. 5, no. 1, 2001, pp. 27-43.

Brathwaite, Edward Kamau. ConVERSations with Nathaniel Mackey. We Press, 1999.

—. History of the Voice: The Development of Nation Language in Anglophone Caribbean Poetry. New Beacon Books, 1984.

Bryce, Jane. “Adventures in Form: ‘Outsider’ Fiction in The Caribbean.” JWIL, vol. 22, no. 2, 2014, pp. 7-25.

Davin, Eric Leif. Partners in Wonder: Women and the Birth of Science Fiction 1926-1965. Lexington Books, 2006.

Glissant, Édouard. Caribbean Discourse: Selected Essays. Translated with an Introduction by J. Michael Dash. Virginia UP, 1989.

Henderson, Lina Dalrymple. “Science Fiction, Art, and the Fourth Dimension.” Imagine Math 3: Between Culture and Mathematics, edited by Michele Emmer, Springer, 2015, pp. 69-84.

Hopkinson, Nalo. Midnight Robber. Warner Aspect, 2000.

—. Interview by Alondra Nelson. “Making the Impossible Possible: An Interview with Nalo Hopkinson.” Social Text, vol. 20, no. 2, 2002, pp. 97-113.

Jackson, Zakiyyah Iman. Becoming Human: Matter and Meaning in an AntiBlack World. NYU Press, 2020.

Melzer, Patricia. Alien Constructions: Science Fiction and Feminist Thought. U of Texas Press, 2006.

Meyers, Walter E. Aliens and Linguists: Language Study and Science. Georgia UP, 1980.

O’Connell, Hugh. “Science Fiction and the Global South.” The Cambridge History of Science Fiction, edited by Gerry Canavan and Eric Carl Link, Cambridge UP, 2018, pp. 680-695.

Smith, Eric D. Globalization, Utopia, and Postcolonial Science Fiction: New Maps of Hope. Palgrave, 2012.

Spivak, Gayatri. An Aesthetic Education in the Era of Globalization. Harvard UP, 2012.

Yaszek, Lisa. “Introduction.” The Future is Female! 25 Classic Science Fiction Stories by Women, from Pulp Pioneers to Ursula K. Le Guin, edited by Lisa Yaszek, Library of America, 2018, pp. 10-22.

Jarrel De Matas is from Trinidad and Tobago. He holds an M.A. in English literature from the University of the West Indies. At present, he is a doctoral candidate and teaching associate of college writing at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. His research interests include postcolonial criticism, posthuman theory, and Caribbean science fiction. He has published in the Journal of West Indian Literature, Caribbean Journal of Cultural Studies, and Criterion, to name a few. Jarrel is also the producer and host of the podcast “The Caribbean Science Fiction Network,” available here:

Politics of the Margins in Octavia Butler’s Kindred: Queerness, Disability, Race

SFRA Review, vol. 52, no. 1

LSFRC 2021 Papers

Politics of the Margins in Octavia Butler’s Kindred: Queerness, Disability, Race

Marietta Kosma

Throughout Octavia Butler’s Kindred, the author raises numerous tensions around the notions of accessibility, disability, equality, and inclusion, exposing the crisis of black futures. My analysis focuses on the way that disability informs the protagonist Dana’s experiences in the context of slavery, her positioning in the contemporary discourse of neo-liberalism, and her positioning in the prospective future. Very few scholars perceive Dana’s subjectivity as an actual state of being that carries value both materially as well as metaphorically. The materiality of disability has not constituted part of the larger discourse of the American slave system. By examining how Butler  renders disability both figuratively and materially, I establish a connection between the past, the present, and the future. The different figurations of space and time exposed through Dana’s time-traveling help conceptualize her accessibility in different structures. Previous scholarship has focused exclusively on the origin and legacy of trauma, inflicted on the black female body of the twentieth century; however there has been too little criticism in relation to the active construction of black female subjectivity, located at the level of the body. I wish to explore how spectacles of violence against black female bodies function in the wider political imagery of the twenty-first century. The physical and psychological displacement of Dana, as a black female body, exposes her trauma and the difficulties she faces in order to reclaim her subjectivity in a society burdened by a history of violence and exploitation. Even though Kindred was written before the Black Lives Matter movement emerged, it can be analyzed in a way that asserts the continuity of African-American trauma, the perpetuation of systematic racism in the United States, and the crisis of blackness in the future. Systematic violence threatens black women’s wholeness and renders their bodies at risk.

This article discusses how Octavia Butler’s Kindred depicts how disability can be conceptualized as some form of ideological denaturalization of the domesticated able-bodied self. I take concern with issues of home, subjectivity, and health. Kindred depicts the collision of two different worlds: the antebellum past and twentieth-century Maryland. In an interview with Larry McCaffery, Butler states that Kindred originated from “a concern with how and why people reacted to slavery” (65). She wanted to describe the idea of how individuals engaged with the discourse of slavery. Through Dana, she describes how any person might react if transplanted to the antebellum past. The focus of this article is issues of health and disability, which I see as grounding race relations. Butler’s commentary on race, gender, and disability is bound to the concept of domesticity. The novel opens up in 1976, the United States’ bicentennial, when Dana and her husband Kevin have just moved to their new home in Maryland. Once they start unpacking, Dana is violently torn away to the nineteenth century to save Rufus, her white ancestor. Over the course of the novel, Dana is involuntarily summoned to the past to save Rufus when his life is in danger. The importance of the imminent change of spatiality and temporality through Dana’s time-traveling is brought to the forefront from the very start of the narrative.

Dana exists between two different homes. The concern of domesticity is clearly articulated through the first sentences of the narrative, “I lost an arm on my last trip home. My left arm. And I lost about a year of my life and much of the comfort and security I had not valued until it was gone” (Butler 9). In this passage, the ethical implications of the individual inhabiting spaces among homes arise. More specifically, “the world of healthy Cartesian subjects is a home of comfort and security, familiarity, and acceptance” (Comer 88). Therefore it is necessary to consider what ‘home’ means for Dana since none of the spaces where she exists provides her with comfort and security. Each time she goes back to the past, Dana forms a better understanding of her family’s history. Dana, a twentieth-century racially conscious black woman “is made a slave” [1] in the sense that she needs to endure the physical burden of slavery, (multiple beatings, attempted rapes, lashing, and forced labor) but also the psychological burden of slavery. More specifically, Dana’s ultimate torment is deciding whether to help her ancestor Alice preserve her life or whether to become complicit in Alice’s rape to ensure the continuation of her African American family’s ancestral line and by extension, her own life, both in a literal and metaphorical way. Dana is skeptical toward this responsibility of hers from the first time she encounters Rufus. She wonders “Was that why I was here? Not only to insure the survival of one accident-prone small boy, but to insure my family’s survival, my own survival? . . . If I was to live, if others were to live, he must live. I didn’t dare test the paradox” (Butler 29). The decisions she makes are impacted by the instinct of self-preservation.

Through time–traveling, Dana emerges as an itinerant subject. As a woman who belongs in 1976 California, Dana feels disdain toward her foremothers. At first, she exposes contempt and disdain towards Alice who chooses to do “the safe thing” and views her as “the kind of woman who might have been called ‘mammy’ in some other household” (Rushdy 163). Alice is viewed as embodying the stereotype of the Mammy, the female equivalent of Uncle Tom. Dana separates herself from Alice’s stance and refuses to enact the role of the mammy. She disrupts the collective mandate placed on her to create generations. Therefore, viewing Dana as a maternal figure is extremely troubling. Beaulieu and Mitchell perform such a reading and disrupt Dana’s positioning as the mother of Rufus. Even though Dana takes care of Rufus, being his mother would go against her personal strategies of self-preservation. The characters in the nineteenth century view Dana as a queer figure, as she encompasses many characteristics that were diverse to other women of her community. Her actions are acts of “resistance to being confined to the roles of motherhood and domesticity” (Miletic 273). She further develops other roles in relation to her standing in the present. More specifically, Butler states from the beginning of the narrative that Dana is a writer. Dana and Kevin meet through their common interest in writing, as they work at “a casual labor agency” that “regulars called . . . the slave market” (Butler 52).

What seemed more troubling was the fact that while at first Dana was sternly resisting her designation as an enslaved female body during the past, eventually she became accustomed to mistreatment. As mentioned during the following excerpt:

Time passed. Kevin and I became more a part of the household. Familiar, accepted, accepting. That disturbed me too when I thought about it. How easily we seemed to acclimatize. Not that I wanted us to have trouble, but it seemed as though we should have had a harder time adjusting to this particular segment of history—adjusting to our places in the household of a slaveholder . . . and I was perverse enough to be bothered by the ease. (Butler 97)

It is troubling that as time was passing Dana became so accustomed to her new home. The degree to which she became complacent to Rufus’s violence and to systemic violence overall should get questioned. It could be argued that Dana turned into a stranger in the territory she inhabits. This aligns with Du Bois’s question, “Why did God make me an outcast and a stranger in my own house?” (8). Butler problematizes being at home. This is further extrapolated when Dana and Kevin observe some children of the slave community, playing an auction block game. Dana and Kevin remained hidden and look at the children while they:

went on with their play. . . . “Now here a likely wench,” called the boy on the stump. He gestures toward the girl who stood slightly behind him. “She cook and wash and iron. Come here, gal. Let the folks see you.” He drew the girl up beside him. “She young and strong,” he continued. “She worth plenty of money. Two hundred dollars. Who bid two hundred dollars?” The little girl turned to frown at him. “I’m worth more than two hundred dollars, Sammy!” she protested. “You sold Martha for five hundred dollars!” “You shut your mouth,” said the boy. “You ain’t supposed to say nothing. When Marse Tom bought Mama and me, we didn’t say nothing.” (Butler 99)

This passage shows that the ideology of slavery is passed on to the community from a very young age. The stance of endurance of the children is in opposition to Dana’s stance as a disabled body. These children unconsciously reproduce the roles that were prescribed for them by the antebellum south. By engaging in this game through role-playing, the actual auction block becomes normalized. This is troubling because it entails children from a very young age to reiterate the structure of slavery. In this game the little girl seems to be at a more disadvantaged state than her male counterpart as she is taught by her mother to endure the commands given to her by the boy in order to avoid greater harm. She knows that she needs to follow the boys’ commands and she employs endurance as a strategy of survival. In this context, having a black body is synonymous with objectification and degradation, of subjugation and dehumanization. It carries the power to suffocate and stifle the individual. The black female body is reduced to being a silent object that needs to remain invisible, unseen, protected from the male gaze, while embodying resilience.This scene brings to the forefront the way that black women are continuously negotiating questions of racialized denigration.

Dana differentiates herself from other members of her community and sets limits for her own body. Her standing as a member of the post-civil rights era helps her conceptualize the action of rape as criminal, while members of the antebellum era had to endure such criminality. Dana says to Kevin that:

“[Rufus] has to leave me enough control over my own life to make living look better to me than killing and dying.” “If your black ancestors had felt that way, you wouldn’t be here,” said Kevin. “I told you when all this started that I didn’t have their endurance. I still don’t. Some of them will go on struggling to survive, no matter what. I’m not like that.” (Butler 246)

She believes that she has to have the right to make her own choices instead of her whole life being dominated by Rufus. Dana believes that she needs to employ nonviolence “a practice of resistance, that becomes possible, if not mandatory, precisely at the moment when doing violence seems most justified and obvious” (27). Dana’s choice not to harm Rufus is a conscious one. While pursuing her self-preservation Dana makes sure to establish Rufus as the patriarch, even though her action entails violence towards a member of her community. She rather adopts an individualistic stance and tries to escape the predicament of victimization.

At the end of the novel, Dana escapes rape, as she views it as an occurrence that is even worse than death. She refuses getting raped by exposing itinerancy. She refuses the role of the victim and, for the first time, imposes her own conditions on her relationship with Rufus. She says, “I could accept him as my ancestor, my younger brother, my friend, but not as my master, and not as my lover” (260). When Rufus attempts to rape her, Dana kills him and returns to the present. Dana’s newfound sense of herself leads to an emancipatory revision of history. A few seconds before Rufus dies, he desperately tries to grab Dana’s arm. When Dana returns to consciousness she is back at her house in Maryland. She realizes that her arm is fused into the wall of her bedroom. Through the trope of time-traveling, Dana escapes the communal longing of reproduction and reconstructs her community’s history. She manages to survive and at the same time she rewrites history by reaching a more complex understanding of her standing in the present. She operates in her best interest as she ultimately kills the person to whom she was previously committed and protecting up to this point. The ultimate strategy that Dana chooses is refusing to allow Rufus to rape her. By killing him, she asserts her own authority. She asserts her subjectivity by resisting sexual victimization. She sets Rufus’s plantation house on fire, actively challenging the white master’s authority. By destroying the house, she renders impossible the continuation of the lives of slaves in the plantation. She provides them the possibility to escape from Rufus’s domination. By burning down the house, she gives them the opportunity to flee to the north and escape the plantation site.

I read Dana’s act as libratory to herself and others, as she gives them a chance to escape their position as slaves. She also provided the other members of the plantation with the psychological outlet of escape from slavery, as she gave them the opportunity to conceptualize a different future. However, it should be noted that she cannot be sure of the effects of her action on the slaves of plantation. Even though Dana acted in “self-defense,” she is aware of the danger in which she places the other members of her community. She voices her fears that the outcome of her own choice would have a “cost . . . [on] Nigel’s children, Sarah, all the others” (264). She values their lives but gives ultimate value to her own self-preservation. Dana’s violence takes on an institutional form, as it is addressed against the institution of slavery that renders the female body as property. Dana contests Rufus’s institutional power and intends to diminish the system that had previously enslaved her. Dana wants to protect her story as an individual, sustain herself and reach a more complex understanding of herself. There is no final resolution in the narrative, nor does Butler provide an insight to the afterlife of the other members of the plantation. As Dorothy Allison states, “Butler offers no resolutions at the end of Kindred . . . Dana is left wounded . . . [and] we do not know what will become of her marriage to Kevin, a white man” (476). Butler does not provide a resolution in the end, however she allows Dana to reach a more complex understanding of herself as she now understands the ways in which her past has affected her present. Dana “will always bear the mark of her kindred” (Salvaggio and McKee Chamas 33). Her individual needs and her communal obligations are in conflict but at the same time they are mutually supportive to a point. Even though she is in conversation with the history of her foremothers, at the same time she moves away from it.

In Kindred, disability and otherness are intricately linked. Disability “becomes an apt figure for both having one’s identity (with all the domestic violence that that implies) and not having it” (Comer 99). Disability is revealed as an oscillated exposure, between agency and submission. The assimilation of otherness from the outside to a domestic inside does not fully occur, as wholeness is not necessarily synonymous to being at home. Part of Dana’s arm is trapped in her nineteenth-century home and part of it rematerializes in a wall in her 1976 home. Her arm is a “literal and visceral reminder of her exposure to Rufus [as she is] physically strewn between two times, she will never be at home” (99). The loss of her arm not only reflects the eradication of the Other, Rufus, but also it is a highly performative act that functions as a reminder of a series of actions that cannot be wholly repressed. Dana’s murder of the Other function as the ultimate step of self-fashioning preserving the last kernel of her individualistic self. Violence against the other entails at the same time violence against one’s self. As Comer explains, “To be ontologically whole is to remain connected to others in the face of mortality—to keep the ‘house’ and all that it implies at some distance” (100). This is evident when Dana travels to the past in order to save Rufus when he and his home are in danger. She then returns to the future when she is faced with total eradication of herself. Even though she starts heading once at home, a closer look reveals that her healing begins once she is removed from Rufus’s presence. Both spaces can become domesticated as mortality functions as the origin of her oscillation between past and present and subsequently between Self and Other.

In conclusion, homes created within a normalizing ideological context become estranged in view of a disabled body. The disabled body exists both within yet outside of spatial arrangements. Dana is ideologically interjected in the discourse through her disability. Ideology “substantiates a status quo and uses actions to interpolate its subjects” (Comer 108). Then a crucial question arises: If identity is established through one’s acts, do those who are unable to perform some acts due to their disability continuously experience defamiliarization from home? Butler’s emphasis on embodiment in Kindred is agential in “refus[ing] to account for identity as reducible to the texts produced by political and cultural power for the purposes of oppressing those who do not merit representation” (Robertson 366). Her main focus is embodiment within the context of the United States’ history and therefore places the body at the very center of larger socio-cultural concerns. Instances of empowerment emerge through the process of decolonization, through undoing the oppressor’s ideology that only “able bodies” are worthy of attention. Butler’s Kindred constitutes a continuation of Du Bois’s discourse in regards to disability. Butler interrogates the privileging of wholeness, domestic boundaries, and normative bodies. Instead of dismissing the body in the pursuit of transcendence, she embraces the body, its non-domesticity, its finitude, its non-normativity, its disability and ultimately gestures toward a different way of being.


[1] My reference is to a chiasmus from Frederick Douglass’s Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an African Slave: “You have seen how a man was made a slave; you shall see how a slave was made a man” (294).


Allison, Dorothy. “The Future of Female: Octavia Butler’s Mother Lode.” Reading Black, Reading Feminist: A Critical Anthology, edited by Henry Louis Gates Jr., Meridian, 1990, pp. 471-478.

Butler, Octavia E. “An Interview with Octavia E. Butler.” Across the Wounded Galaxies: Interviews with Contemporary American Science Fiction Writers, edited by Larry McCaffery, U Illinois P, 1990, pp. 54–70.

–. Kindred. Beacon Press, 1979.

Comer, Todd. “The Domestic Politics of Disability in Octavia Butler’s Kindred.” JNT: Journal of Narrative Theory. vol. 48, no. 1, 2018, pp. 84-108.

Douglass, Frederick. “The Significance of Emancipation in the West Indies,” The Frederick Douglass Papers, Series One: Speeches, Debates, and Interviews, edited by John W. Blassingame, vol. 3, 1855-63, Yale University Press, 1985.

Du Bois, W.E.B. The Souls of Black Folks. 1903. Vintage Books/Library of America, 1990.

Miletic, Philip. “Octavia E. Butler’s Response to Black Arts/Black Power Literature and Rhetoric in Kindred.” African American Review. vol. 49, no. 3, 2016, pp. 261-275.

Robertson, Benjamin. “‘Some Matching Strangeness’: Biology, Politics, and the Embrace of History in Octavia Butler’s Kindred.” Science Fiction Studies, vol. 37, no. 3, 2010, pp. 362-381.

Rushdy, Ashraf H. A. Neo-slave narratives: Studies in the Social Logic of a Literary Form. Oxford University Press, 1999.

Salvaggio, Ruth and Suzy McKee Chamas. “Octavia Butler,” Octavia Butler, and Joan D. Vinge, edited by Marleen S. Barr, Ruth Salvaggio, and Richard Law. Starmount House, 1986, pp. 1-44.

Marietta Kosma is a second year Ph.D. student in English at the University of Oxford at Lady Margaret Hall. Her academic background includes a master’s degree in English from JSU and a master’s degree in ancient Greek theater from the University of the Aegean. Her research interests lie in twentieth-century American literature, post-colonialism, and gender studies. Her research has been published internationally in Right for Education, U.S. Studies online forum for new writing, EJAS, Ideas and Cambridge Scholars Publishing among others . She has presented at BAAS Postgraduate Symposium 2021 and the Science Fiction: Activism and resistance conference among others.

Greg Sarris’s How a Mountain Was Made: Stories as a Transformative Indigenous Futurism

SFRA Review, vol. 52, no. 1

LSFRC 2021 Papers

Greg Sarris’s How a Mountain Was Made: Stories as a Transformative Indigenous Futurism

Arwen Spicer

This is how Greg Sarris tells it: “I begin my American Indian literature course by telling a story told to me by my Kashaya Pomo elders. I then ask students . . . to repeat the story as they heard it. Invariably their stories tell them more about themselves than about the story or the speaker and culture from which the story comes” (Keeping 149). As a white reader of Sarris’s story cycle How a Mountain Was Made: Stories, I am a student, my retelling inflected by where I come from. In a science fiction studies context, I identify the text as indigenous futurism, though, to my knowledge, this is not a label Sarris has claimed. By default, I read the text first and foremost as a message to me, though its primary audience is clearly Sarris’s Pomo and Coast Miwok people. My engagement with these stories is partial, both in the sense of “incomplete” and “biased,” yet this text is partly written to white settlers like me, especially us folx who come from the Mountain—Sonoma Mountain, that is, near Santa Rosa, California. Sonoma Mountain is my home, and these stories summon me as a white settler to be part of the work of decolonizing my homeplace, with all the hope and responsibility that work implies. In a 2012 interview, Sarris, who is the chairman of the Federated Tribes of the Graton Rancheria, discusses the benefits of the casino they had recently opened, observing, “I have a big dream that it can somehow bring us all—Indian and non-Indian—home again. And the big question for today is, how do you stop this us/them dichotomy that is a cancer that will kill us?” (“Dreaming” 19). The story cycle he published five years later is, I think, a piece of the answer. It is a call to all of us from the Mountain to come home.

Framing: The Act of Transmission

How a Mountain Was Made consists of sixteen short stories from the time when animals looked like human beings, framed by a series of conversations between Question Woman and Answer Woman. These two sisters rely on each other for the transmission of stories: Question Woman cannot remember the stories on her own, and Answer Woman cannot tell them unless asked. This structure echoes a theme of Sarris’s scholarship: that stories always exist within an act of transmission. Sarris recounts how his elder relative Essie Parrish, religious leader of the Kashaya Pomo people, would add a narrative frame (“This is a story of . . .”) to stories told to white scholars but not to her own daughter; in the same way, all stories are molded by the context of the telling (“Encountering”). How a Mountain Was Made exists within diverse contexts, and the answers it offers depend on the questions brought to it. As a story cycle, the textis recursive, looping on itself to generate multiple layers of meaning. I have structured this essay the same way.

Layer 1: What Does it Mean to Live Respectfully?

On a basic level, the stories follow a consistent pattern: some character becomes discontent with what they have and resorts to selfish, underhanded behavior to get what they want. Their malfeasance is exposed, and they face some consequence. Mole, for example, marries the beautiful Fog, but when he meets and marries a second woman, Warm Wind, he forgets about his first wife. Incensed at his neglect, Fog spurns him. Warm Wind also disapproves of his fickleness and kicks him out of her house, leaving Mole humbled and hiding in the ground. In this case, Mole’s selfish behavior is his neglect of one family in favor of another, and the consequence is losing both his wives and being shamed.

The story cycle’s structure teaches that the cardinal social ill is greed, whether it is Mole’s discontent with one wife, Coyote scheming to get fantastic clothing, or a woman obsessed with gathering rocks for a gorgeous necklace to impress a man. Whether it is desire for more possessions or more attention, grasping after more than one’s fair share damages relationships, and it always backfires on the greedy individual. Mole loses his wives, Coyote ends up looking like a fool, and the woman is left searching vainly for rocks. Greed is bad: this message sounds simple, but it stands diametrically opposed to the hegemonic assumptions of capitalism, grounded in the idea that perpetual increase in consumption is essential to preventing economic collapse. Or as infamously summed up by profiteer Gordon Gekko in the 1987 film Wall Street, “Greed is good.”

Yet resisting greed is essential to the Honorable Harvest, which Potawatomi environmental scientist Robin Wall Kimmerer characterizes as taking only what we are given, sharing, showing respect, and minimizing harm (183). Sarris’s characters break these guidelines repeatedly. They trick friends out of their possessions. They call in favors to demand an unreasonable amount of work. They break the rules set as conditions for borrowing something. Sometimes, they even act out in violence. Their missteps describe a cautionary framework for approaching the fundamental question of how to live in a respectful relationship. Kimmerer observes that while indigenous ancestors devoted immense thought to the question of how to consume respectfully, modern society largely ignores it (177). Our dominant culture does not recognize exploitation, extraction, and the greed that underlies them as problems. In fact, to centralize greed as a sickness requires reimagining our entire socioeconomic system, a visionary futurism, but one which our current ecological emergency demands with increasing urgency. Such fundamental change is not easy, however, and one of the impediments to overcoming greed is trauma, which reinforces it.

Layer 2: How Does Trauma Impact Life Choices?

How a Mountain Was Made takes place in an age before animals took on their present-day animal shapes. It simultaneously takes place in modern times, coexisting with fences, bicycles, and asphalt roads. This slippage between ancient and modern sharpens the relevance of cultural rootedness to the work of healing indigenous trauma sustained through generations of colonial violence. Sarris observes, “I try to make people conscious of the homelessness that seeps in the pores of my people. Why do we turn against one another? Why do we destroy one another? That’s what we know from colonization” (Sarris, “Dreaming” 17). The stories in How a Mountain Was Made condemn greed while honoring the reality that greed is an outgrowth of anxiety and self-doubt. While we all experience these feelings to some degree, trauma can endow them with outsized power, leading to destructive patterns.

In some of the stories, the patterns of greed evoke addiction, a common mechanism for coping with the stress of ongoing trauma (Maté 207). The woman obsessed gathering beautiful rocks does not need those rocks, yet her craving is so dire that she browbeats her friends into helping her make a necklace of them, overworking them until they quit and she is left alone, “wandering about, wondering how she will get someone to help her make a necklace” (Sarris, How 11). Though she does not really need the necklace, she does need something and is living under an unrelieved stress that urges her to seek a substitute for solving her real problem: her lack of belief in her own self-worth. This is the fundamental pattern of addiction, and Sarris’s emphasis on it speaks to the twenty-first-century context of his narrative. It is a narrative for people carrying the trauma of colonization; it is also a narrative of healing.

Layer 3: How Can the Community Heal?

The stories in this cycle all involve some wrongdoing and accountability, but they don’t stop with punishment. The final step is reconciliation and reintegration of the community, a stance that walks hand-in-hand with the principles of transformative justice. According to Ejeris Dixon, “Transformative justice and community accountability are terms that describe ways to address violence without relying on police or prisons. These approaches often work to prevent violence, to intervene when harm is occurring, to hold people accountable, and to transform individuals and society to build safer communities” (16). While transformative justice focuses on physical violence, the principles can apply to any kind of harm. Transformative justice differs from restorative justice in that the former seeks solutions outside state systems and the latter seeks solutions within them, by reforming them. Like many involved in transformative justice work, Sarris has expressed ambivalence about restorative justice. In conversation with Cristina Perea Kaplan, he discusses restorative justice in schools:

I think Restorative Justice is a great idea. But again, from what little I know of it, and I have talked to some people in this area about it, you’ve got people who are not prepared to really deal. It’s an idea. I hate to say it, it’s a liberal, I hesitate to say, a white liberal idea of doing the right thing. They don’t know our people. . . .

But, fundamental change has to be in our communities. And so, if you’re going to have Restorative Justice, you have to have people who are prepared to talk to our folks and council [sic] our folks, our students, and be familiar with where they are coming from and what has motivated them to fall away. (Sarris, “Learning” 13)

While restorative justice requires larger systems to reach out to communities, transformative justice originates within the community itself. It unfolds through the people directly affected.

In How a Mountain Was Made, the form this community reintegration takes varies from story to story: no single solution works for every situation. The price of Coyote’s attempts to dress impressively is merely Coyote looking like a fool. Other times, solutions are not so easy: Mole’s fickleness leaves him scorned and alone. That’s the end of one story but not the end of the transformations. A full seven stories later, Mole resurfaces, this time to warn his daughters that their jealous husbands, the Bat Brothers, will do them harm. At first, they do not believe him. As the oldest asserts, “You were an untrustworthy husband and Mother had to raise us by herself . . . Why should we believe you?” (How 158). But when his warning helps them evade their husbands, trust begins to regrow, and Mole and Warm Wind eventually reconcile. Transformation is a process that does not answer to a timeline or follow a formula. Sometimes, it takes more than one story to hold.

One theme, however, remains constant: no one is expelled, not Mole, not the jealous Bat Brothers, no one, not even Coyote after he discovers Death by inadvertently killing his own sons. This radical inclusivity is more than just a thought experiment. The Graton Rancheria itself enacts this principle by specifying in their constitution that “no current members or their offspring can ever be disenrolled” (“Dreaming” 16). That means they are always a part of the community, regardless of any harm they may commit. It should go without saying this is not a free pass to do harm; rather, it is an expression of the principle that harm is a community phenomenon and must be addressed within the community, even when doing so is messy and solutions incomplete. Exclusion cannot be the answer. As Alexis Pauline Gumbs asserts, in the work of transformative justice, “there is no way beyond but through” (2). 

And when trauma is severe, the only way through it is the promise and the pain of radical transformation. In the story “Ant Uncovers a Plot,” four doctors conspire to keep Eagle sick so that they earn more pay from treating her, and in their selfish ignorance, they bind her legs so tightly that her legs become infected and fall off, thus introducing Pain into the world. In this case, the harm the doctors have caused is so heinous that only fundamental transformation can redress it. Thus, Coyote, the headman, declares the doctors will give up their former lives to become the four local mountains: Mt. Tamalpais, Mt. St. Helena, Mt. Taylor, and Sonoma Mountain, each with its own essential healing property. Ultimately, Coyote explains that while pain is now a feature of life, the four doctors “have learned their lesson well and yearn each and every day to be of service to us” (Sarris, How 180). They learned their lesson but had to become new beings to do it.

It is not an accident, I think, that cycle’s grisliest story is also its titular story, the story of how the Mountain was made. It is a story of trauma yielding a different understanding of life. A community working through intense traumatization can never be the same community it once was. It can, however, climb higher, like the flat land transformed into the Mountain. The story of the Mountain’s making is simultaneously ancient and happening now. It is a story of atonement, transformation, and healing in the midst of irrevocable pain. 

Layer 4: Why Does Remembering Matter to Healing?

Remember the woman who ended up looking vainly for pretty rocks to impress a young man? That was her first story, not her last. In the cycle’s final story, her father attempts to shift her attention onto a different necklace, one that contains the songs and stories of the people. She listens to him, “but only as before, with the desperate hope that she might at last capture the young man’s heart” (188). Her learning is piecemeal, like any journey through trauma. There’s a small change; half of a message reaches her. After several misadventures, however, the songs and stories this other necklace holds begin to capture her interest, redirecting her eyes to her home and people. Eventually, she herself becomes a storyteller, and in the end, it is her storytelling that wins the young man’s heart. Transformations don’t happen all at once, but step by step and sometimes when least expected.

Hers is a story of decolonization. The woman’s obsession with pretty stones is symptomatic of a fundamental fear she is unworthy, that she can’t “[stand] on her own merits” (11). It is a fear built on generations of derogation under colonialism. Over the course of the story, this fear evaporates as she rediscovers her cultural identity and the worth already inside her. Finally, she finds meaning not by dazzling someone into loving her but by reconnecting with her home and sharing her knowledge. Self-worth, contentment, healing: these transformations of trauma come from remembering, from looking back.

Sarris articulates the scope of this work in a 2005 speech at the Jewish Community Center in San Francisco:

There are 1,079 enrolled members of the Federated Indians of the Graton Rancheria. All are descendants of 14 survivors. None has living memory of any of the thirty to forty aboriginal villages. None is fluent in any of the ten to twenty native languages. None has memory of the ancient redwoods, the bunch grass, or the purple needle grass. None has seen a flock of birds so thick that it obscures the sun. None has seen a single pronghorn, a wild elk, or a grizzly bear within the native landscape. None can read that native landscape well. Never mind memory, the place has been all but destroyed. . .

Still, we sing. We dance. We speak some old words. Humbled and hurt as we face Creation, that is, as we face this place that remains home, no matter how uncomfortable at times, we pray. . . . We hope that each new song learned, each word, each dance, each remarkable basket will do what it has always done for us: awaken us to our home, and, in turn, awaken our home to us. (“Culture” 19-20)

The full title of this story cycle is How a Mountain was Made: Stories, and the subtitle is the answer to the question. The stories made the Mountain and can heal it and us. Remembering is a central metaphor for the work of decolonization, but it is not only the colonized people who need to remember.

Layer 5: What Does it Mean to Remember as a Forgetter?

In “Apocalypse Logic,” Cowlitz essayist Elissa Washuta states, “the most thorough answer to the question, ‘What can [white people] do?’ is, ‘Remove your settler state from this land and restore all governance to its forever stewards.’” When I read this, I thought, “Yes, that’s the truth,” yet I am not sure what role it asks me to fill. If the settler state of the United States ended, would I live under tribal governance? Would the tribes want to govern hundreds of millions of non-indigenous people—and if so, how? And if not, would I be repatriated to Europe? In this case, I have to say Europe is not my home. Sonoma Mountain is my home; I am inseparable from it. Yet it’s a home where I have no right to be. Indeed, for a long time, I have been aware that I do not belong in the land I belong to.

But when I first read the stories, my world tilted. I learned that I do, in fact, come from the Mountain. In “Coyote Creates People,” Coyote’s shenanigans end up creating duplicates of the people of his village. These new people, my ancestors, eventually learn the stories of the Mountain and most go off to create new villages. We settler colonists, metaphorically, are from the Mountain too, the descendants of the ones who left. But by the time we returned, we had forgotten the stories. As Answer Woman explains,

[T]he Forgetters . . . killed all of the bears and the elk and the pronghorn. They cut down trees. You see, they forgot the stories. They forgot we are all one People, and the animals, indeed the entire Mountain, began to suffer. Now, we must all try to learn to live together. We must remember the stories again. (Sarris, How 176)

This is Sarris’s futurism, a world in which everyone remembers the stories, indigenous and non-indigenous alike. It is a gentle way to speak about people who have destroyed your world and continue to destroy it. To call us not genocidal or terracidal, but people who have forgotten is more generous than we deserve, but it is also sagacious in reaching out to an audience that includes white settlers. The story is shaped in transmission, and if the message is that we need to work together, it makes sense to provide a path for that work.

I opened with Mole’s misadventures with Fog and Warm Wind because this is the story of my home. While most of the stories are set on the west side of the Mountain, Mole’s village, like mine, is on the east, the side where the Mountain often blocks out the cooling effect of the Pacific Ocean. The first time I read it, I could picture it exactly. Fog appears over the western slopes, singing,

I am coming
Singing, I am coming
The people of your village rejoice. (32)

And I thought, “Yes. Yes, we do.” Those hot summer evenings, when Fog rises in the west, I can assure you we rejoice because the next day is not going to broil us. But when Warm Wind saunters over, I wrote in the margin of my book, “No!” like a squeaky Darth Vader because I know Warm Wind too from those summer days, when she sweeps off the Central Valley like a furnace blast and drives all prayer of Fog away. I know Warm Wind in the summer. But the story is referring to Warm Wind in the spring, the wind that brings the flowers. I know the flowers, yet truth be told, I have no particular memory of Warm Wind in the spring. I think this is because summer on the east of the Mountain has always been something to reckon with. The heat describes what we can or cannot do and what times of day we can do it. That requires communication with the land, something a little bit like the awareness of the Old People. But spring is easy to live with. And because we do not rely on the Mountain directly for our food, we are not required to observe spring very deeply. In spring, we laze and let the details flow by us. I have seen over forty years of springs on the east of the Mountain, and I never paid attention to Warm Wind. I had forgotten the story.

This liminal space between intimate recognition and revelation encapsulates my experience as a Forgetter. It is a reawakening to what has always been there. We on the east side have always been Mole, pinched tight between Fog and Warm Wind. I have always known it, and I have never known it. If you asked me at any point of my life where I came from, I would have said Glen Ellen because that is the town where I was raised. I would have said I come from the west, from the West Coast of the United States, a person of Western European descent, with no ethnic roots anywhere but Western Civilization. But now I know I come from the east, and the map of my life is reversed. 

Coda: How Can We Remember the Future?

How a Mountain Was Made is a call to healing, and any such call implies action in the world. If the task is to restore the stories, the work is fundamentally educational, and the text was written with explicitly educational intent. In fact, Sarris wrote several of the stories as a collection of theatrical works already performed in over ninety schools before the book was published (Mansergh). Sarris says of the book, “I hope kids will get the message that we are all beautiful, we are all special and the minute we think we’re better than, or separate from, or want to exploit somebody, or disrespect somebody, karma will happen. . . . We’re going to need young people with a deep ethic of place and land if we’re ever going to survive” (qtd. in Rose). I am not a kid, but I am (re)learner, and as I continue to deepen my own knowledge of my home and its Old People, I hope to live into my own responsibility to lend my partial and imperfect voice to the work of bringing the present and future back into continuity with the indigenous past and, thus, help us all to be whole again.


Dixon, Ejeris. “Building Community Safety.” Beyond Survival: Strategies and Stories from the Transformative Justice Movement, edited by Ejeris Dixon and Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarainha, AK Press, 2020, pp. 15-25.

Gumbs, Alexis Pauline. “Foreword.” Beyond Survival: Strategies and Stories from the Transformative Justice Movement, edited by Ejeris Dixon and Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarainha, AK Press, 2020, pp. 1-3.

Kimmerer, Robin Wall. Braiding Sweetgrass. Milkweed Editions, 2013.

Mansergh, Gil. “Petaluma Profile: Greg Sarris Brings Miwok Myths to Life.” Greg Sarris, 23 Mar. 2018,

Maté, Gabor. In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts: Close Encounters with Addiction, Foreword by Peter Levine, North Atlantic Books, 2008.

Rose, Jimmy. “Graton Rancheria Chairman Greg Sarris Releases Book of American Indian Stories.” Greg Sarris, 29 Jan. 2020,

Sarris, Greg. “Culture and Memory: What Has Been Lost? What Can Be Recovered?” News from Native California, Spring 2006, pp. 16-20.

—. “Dreaming Us Home Again: Greg Sarris.” Interview by Malcolm Margolin. News from Native California, Fall 2012, pp. 16-20.

—. “Encountering the Native Dialogue: Critical Theory and American Indian Oral Literatures.” College Literature: A Journal of Critical Literary Studies, vol. 18, no. 3, 1991. 

—. How a Mountain Was Made: Stories. 2017. Heyday, 2019.

—. Keeping Slug Woman Alive: A Holistic Approach to American Indian Texts. U of California Press, 1993.

—. “Learning to Belong to the Multicultural Chorus: Interview with Greg Sarris.” Interview by Cristina Perea Kaplan. ReVision, vol. 33, no. 2, Spring 2020, pp. 11-18.

Wall Street. Directed by Oliver Stone, performances by Charlie Sheen, Michael Douglas, and Tamara Tunie, American Entertainment Partners and American Films, 1987.

Washuta, Elissa. “Apocalypse Logic.” The Offing, 21 Nov. 2016, insight/apocalypse-logic/.

Arwen Spicer comes from Sonoma Mountain in California and is an associate English professor at Clark College in Vancouver, Washington. Her doctoral work at the University of Oregon focused on evolution and ecology in utopian science fiction. Her recent scholarship includes studies of culture and ecology in the science fiction of Jeff VanderMeer and Ursula K. Le Guin.

Teaching Law and Science Fiction at the University of Mississippi

SFRA Review, vol. 52, no. 1

LSFRC 2021 Papers

Teaching Law and Science Fiction at the University of Mississippi

Ellie Campbell and Antonia Eliason

In his 2011 article “Making Space: Law and Science Fiction,” Mitchell Travis argued that greater attention should be paid to science fiction in sociolegal scholarship for two reasons: first, that the law and science fiction are already intertwined (for example, he references a number of judicial opinions comment on science fiction texts or tropes) and second, that science fiction “allows for a space in which alternate social and legal systems, conditions, and variables can be considered” (1). Travis saw these alternate systems as useful because they reflect popular attitudes that influence law. While teaching our class on law and science fiction at the University of Mississippi, we found that science fiction also allows us to consider alternate worlds that do not reflect mainstream attitudes but are particularly good for critiquing the law from a social justice standpoint.

The legal field is currently wrestling with a number of social justice issues that cannot be solved by our current system—these include racial justice, climate change, and the effects of a worldwide pandemic, all topics addressed by three of our Law and Science Fiction modules. When teaching the course, we took a “law and society” approach, where we constructed five modules around different themes and asked students to reflect on how the works helped us think about the law, its work in the world, and how it might be changed. In this essay, we discuss our approach to teaching three of our modules: race and ethnicity, climate change, and disability.

Race and Ethnicity

Working for the University of Mississippi made it particularly important to talk about race and ethnicity, both because of the history of the institution and the events that happened while we were teaching the class. UM has a long racially fraught history—the school was founded as an alternative to Northern schools for the children of the white elite in the state, who didn’t want their kids learning about abolition. Several buildings on campus bear the fingerprints of the enslaved people who built them. The entire student body quit during the Civil War and joined the Confederate Army to preserve the enslavement of other human beings; almost all were casualties in the conflict and their actions contributed to Lost Cause narratives about the university. The campus famously shut down during a two day long riot when James Meredith desegregated it in 1962. Many buildings on campus are named after white supremacist political leaders. The school’s nickname, “Ole Miss,” was a common term for the mistress of a plantation. In the years while we were teaching the class, students on campus organized to take down the state flag—which previously had the Confederate battle flag as part of its design—and to move the Confederate statue from the center of campus to the periphery. Those campaigns were ultimately successful, but they were accompanied by racist backlash that included a number of racist incidents on campus, involving everyone from fraternities to major donors.

For our race and ethnicity module, we gave students a chapter from Delgado and Stefancic’s Critical Race Theory: An Introduction that gave an overview of several key ideas from the field, including the normality of racism, interest convergence, the social construction of race, differential racialization, and voice-of-color thesis, and asked them to apply some those ideas to the fiction we read or watched for the week.

Derrick Bell’s short story, “Space Traders,” always led to an excellent discussion. Second- and third-year law students could easily pick out the legal references Bell makes in the story, encompassing not only the United States’ history of slavery and Jim Crow, but also Indigenous removal and the incarceration of Japanese Americans during WWII. Bell’s story always worked to bring our discussions into the present day; many of our students were used to narratives that place racial discrimination in the past, and Bell’s story displaces those narratives by bringing that past into a near future scenario, leading us to think about how the United States has and has not changed.

W.E.B. DuBois’s short story “The Comet” also worked to situate racism in American history; though it was originally published in 1920, it still resonated with our classes and helped us to discuss when and where race asserts itself in our society, and whether we have any hope of ending racism and the legal structures that uphold it.

We used several different iterations of Black Panther—first the comic book, and then the movie, once it was released—to talk about governance and gender issues. Students found the imaginary space of a never-colonized African country fertile ground for thinking about alternatives to the United States and its history. Discussions around Black Panther often involved thinking about what a truly different form of governance might look like: Governance by and for only African and African diaspora communities? Governance in which everyone is truly represented? The comic book and movie also touch on, albeit in different ways, issues of gender and colonialism, giving us room to discuss intersectional aspects of governance, and how only focusing on race doesn’t guarantee equity.

At the University of Mississippi, our students didn’t need us to tell them that racism is common and still exists in the present, or that race is socially constructed but still has material consequences. But giving them speculative fiction and an introduction to critical race theory as a framework helped us analyze our own experiences and begin thinking that other worlds, other social relationships, other campuses, might be possible.

Climate Change

Coming to terms with climate change is a difficult proposition. However much we may understand the science of climate change and its effects on our world, the realities of climate change are so profound as to manifest in almost inescapable climate grief. In Mississippi, climate change is both visible, particularly in its effects on the Gulf Coast, where sea levels are rising, and where the increasing intensity of hurricanes is being felt, and yet also ignored through climate denial.

With respect to climate change, we engaged students with material that was both speculative in a visionary sense, as in Donna Haraway’s “The Camille Stories,” which goes far beyond our anthropocentric focus to look outside of our species for solutions, and speculative in a more traditional dystopian sense, as in Sean McMullen’s “The Precedent.” Apocalyptic futures with extreme legal environments (shaped by the extreme natural environment), as “The Precedent” offers, allow students a jumping point to immediate discussion—a way to point to the legal system established in the story as a way of drawing connection with our legal system and how we deal with climate change. In “The Precedent,” people are prosecuted for their past actions—for their use of carbon—for charges such as “squander” or “denial” or “display” (174). For students used to thinking in legal terms, this is an open door for drawing connections to our criminal legal system.

Teaching about climate change requires more than just dwelling on the dystopian, however, even for law students. This is where the visionary writings of Donna Haraway provided a more challenging look to what the future could look like. “The Camille Stories” is a chapter from Haraway’s Staying With the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene, in which she outlines a fictional narrative following the creation of alternate social structures designed to bring humans into closer communion with endangered and extinct species. Our class guided students with discussion questions, particularly on “The Camille Stories,” as we recognized this might be outside the scope of traditional science fiction formats.

Allowing the imagination of students to move from systems accounting for capitalist destruction of the planet to visions of futures that go beyond capitalism provided a platform for robust discussion of personal concerns as well as larger scale existential questions—an avenue to come to terms, or at least to engage with, climate grief.

These examinations of speculative fiction and their interpretations of our future also opened the door to fascinating discussions about actual legal instruments that are being used as tools in the fight to change our course—the public trust doctrine, for instance, which says that countries must hold in trust certain resources for future generations. This ancient Roman doctrine recognized the sea, shores, air, and water as being in the public trust. With respect to climate change, lawsuits have been brought, sometimes successfully, that a lack of action with respect to climate change is violating this doctrine by endangering future generations. This doctrine is a perfect example of where the speculative meets the law—where what may happen in the future is taken seriously in the present.

In 1972, Christopher Stone published a monograph, Should Trees Have Standing?: Law, Morality, and the Environment. This work, which imagined giving legal rights to natural objects, sparked a lot of discussion at the time, but was dismissed by most as being somewhat fanciful. Today, we are seeing efforts to give rights to natural bodies, from rivers to mountains, sometimes as a response to violent acts of colonialism, such as those in New Zealand, sometimes as a means of trying to protect the environment.

Introducing our students to these areas of law, intertwined with our discussions of the speculative, was a springboard for incredible discussions that left our students, and ourselves, feeling as hopeful as one could feel in a world of climate change and destruction.

Climate change also intersects with labor. In teaching the film Sleep Dealer as part of our unit on labor in our course, while we centered our discussion on issues of labor rights, climate change drives the narrative in that film, and discussion of water shortages, industrial agriculture and the effects of climate change on migration were an important part of the conversation on law and labor.


Speculative fiction, much like our society and its laws, often falls short in discussing disability. Many works of speculative fiction that depict disability treat it as a problem to be solved with a technological or magical fix, rather than recognizing disability as a state of being, a process of becoming, or a part of a person’s identity and worldview. In our unit on disability and science fiction, we focused on works that recognize disability as a quality or a process rather than a problem in need of a solution, without minimizing the impact of disability in different contexts.

Several of the short stories we taught came from the anthology Accessing the Future, which at the time of the course (Spring 2018) was one of the few disability-themed collections of speculative fiction to focus on disabled voices. Since then, Uncanny Magazine has published a special issue, “Disabled People Destroy Science Fiction!” in the fall of 2018, featuring many of the contributors and editors from Accessing the Future, and a few more collections have been published or are in the works. Speculative fiction that treats disability as something more than just a problem to be solved, however, remains rare, as does critical work that examines the connections between disability studies and speculative fiction.

Nicole Barischoff’s “Pirate Songs” is the first story in Accessing the Future. The main character, Margo, the daughter of a wealthy ambassador, has been captured by space pirates. Margo cannot walk and struggles on the ship without her mechanical chair, though she comes to identify with her captors as she realizes that many of them also have physical disabilities resulting from the harsh life in space. She ultimately aids them in demanding her ransom and gains a greater sense of agency in her life. Barischoff’s story helped our class unpack how class, labor, and disability can intersect; Margo can afford technology that makes her daily life easier, while the pirates have missing limbs from industrial accidents and harsh labor conditions, and have to live without being able to afford augmentation.

Aliette de Bodard’s 2012 short story, “Immersion,” won the Nebula and Locus awards for best short story and was a finalist in that category for several others, including the Hugo. Though not a story about disability in the classic sense, the narrative follows Agnes, a character from the Rong culture, who wears an “immerser” that augments her brain and allows her to speak and think in Galactic, a culture that has colonized the Rong. De Bodard uses her fictional technology to examine colonial encounters, and this story aided our class in reconceptualizing disability and technological “fixes.”

The story in “Screens,” by Samantha Rich, takes place a few years after a civil rights victory was won by the Visibility Movement, which resulted in everyone being required to wear monitors that show their emotions. The tension in the story between the legal victory that resulted in invisible impairments being made visible and the right to privacy that the protagonist, a high school student, grapples with reflects our reality, where legal victories are often more complicated than they appear at first glance. In our discussion, we asked students to reflect on the nature of cures and impairments, and what visibility entails.

The short-lived near-future science fiction legal drama TV series Century City provided a different look at disability in the context of its episode “Love and Games.” Featuring a young baseball player with a bionic eye, the episode asks whether certain adaptive technologies could act as unfair physical enhancements. Classic science fiction stories often constructed disabilities as a “problem” that needed to be “cured” with some sort of scientific or technological fix. As Kathryn Allan writes, “technology is often positioned as a solution to overcome the physical or mental limitations of the human body, but the quest to transcend the body ignores the lived realities of laboring, feeling, and suffering bodies, and is generally the luxury of the healthy and able-bodied” (11).

We also experimented with having our students read parts of the American with Disabilities Act (ADA); the first time we taught this module, they read the preamble from the Federal Register, explaining how the agencies had applied the ADA when creating regulations to enforce the statute. The technical language proved to be less interesting for our discussion than the short stories and television episode, so the next year we had them read the “Findings and Purpose” section of the ADA itself, which was both shorter and more useful for discussion. Bringing primary law into the discussion let us think through how American law conceptualizes disability, and pairing that with fiction led us to think about how the law and our society might be changed if we did not think of disability as a problem to be solved, but rather as a quality, state of being, or process. Our students often brought their own experiences with illness and disability to the discussion, reinforcing the idea that these experiences are often invisible, very common, and affect our lives in a wide variety of ways. Giving our students space to speak about their own experiences and how they were addressed—or not addressed—by our laws gave us ways to imagine very different worlds.


Our Law and Science Fiction course was often too relevant to our daily lives: one year, we taught our gender and sexuality module one week before #MeToo and stories about Harvey Weinstein broke in the news. Concerns over race and ethnicity were always present on our campus in particular. Race and ethnicity week often coincided with instances of police brutality or other race-related events in the news. Climate change followed a similar trajectory. And COVID-19 has only made discussions about disability and health more relevant.

Law and Science Fiction is a course that can be continuously reorganized to incorporate new materials, reflecting a greater diversity of voices. With many of the topics we initially covered only gaining in relevance, the breadth of material to incorporate into the classroom will continue to grow. The challenge lies in finding a balance between the legal and the fictional and ensuring that students aren’t overwhelmed with too much material. Our course has its limitations: ultimately, it only serves as the first step in moving students towards praxis, described by Paolo Freire as “reflection and action upon the world in order to transform it” (133). Our Law and Science Fiction course engaged students in conversation that will hopefully lead to action in their future legal careers.

In our course, we addressed various social and political topics. Throughout, students responded positively to the space for exploration of difficult topics that was given to them. Law school can be very rigid; you learn rules and are expected to conform to certain narratives. The law itself is not—or more importantly—should not be that. Law is subject to change and to imagine a better world requires imagining better ways of approaching the law. Speculative fiction gives us an avenue to explore radical reimaginings and hopefully will gain more acceptance as a means of teaching students to think more broadly about the issues of the day.


Allan, Kathryn and Djibril Al-Ayad, editors. Accessing the Future. Publishing, 2015.

Allan, Kathryn, editor. Disability in Science Fiction: Representations of Technology as Cure. Palgrave MacMillan, 2013.

Barischoff, Nicolette. “Pirate Songs.” Accessing the Future, edited by Kathryn Allan and Djibril Al-Ayad, Publishing, 2015, pp. 7-26.

Bell, Derrick. “Space Traders.” Dark Matter: A Century of Speculative Fiction from the African Diaspora, edited by Thomas, Sheree R., Warner Books, 2000, pp. 326-355.

Ed Zuckerman, creator. Century City. Heel and Toe Films and Universal Network Television, 2004-2005.

Coates, Ta-Nehisi and Brian Stelfreeze. Black Panther: A Nation Under Our Feet, Vol. 1. Marvel, 2016.

De Bodard, Aliette. “Immersion.” Clarkesworld Science Fiction and Fantasy Magazine, June 2012.

Delgado, Richard, and Jean Stefancic. Critical Race Theory: An Introduction. 3rd ed., New York UP, 2017.

DuBois, W.E.B. “The Comet.” Dark Matter: A Century of Speculative Fiction from the African Diaspora, edited by Thomas, Sheree R., Warner Books, 2000, pp. 5-18.

Freire, Paulo. Pedagogy of the Oppressed. 30th Anniversary ed., Bloomsbury Publishing, 2014.

Haraway, Donna. “The Camille Stories.” Staying With the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene. Duke UP, 2016, pp. 134-168.

“Love and Games,” Century City. Created by Ed Zuckerman, Heel and Toe Films and Universal Network Television. Aired March 27, 2004.

McMullen, Sean. “The Precedent.” Loosed Upon the World: The Saga Anthology of Climate Fiction, edited by John Joseph Adams, Saga Press, 2015, pp. 172-202.

Rich, Samantha. “Screens. ”Accessing the Future, edited by Kathryn Allan and Djibril Al-Ayad, Publishing, 2015, pp. 65-72.

Sjunneson-Henry, Elsa, et al., editors. Uncanny Magazine: Disabled People Destroy Science Fiction!, Issue 24, Sept./Oct. 2018.

Sleep Dealer. Directed by Alex Rivera. Likely Stories Productions, 2008.

Stone, Christopher D. Should Trees Have Standing?: Law, Morality, and the Environment. 3rd ed., Oxford University Press, 2010.

Travis, Mitchell. “Making Space: Law and Science Fiction.” Law and Literature, vol. 23, no. 2, 2011, pp. 241-261.

Ellie Campbell is a reference law librarian and clinical associate professor of law at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill. She has published on southern legal history, southern music, and utopian science fiction.

Antonia Eliason is an associate professor of law at the University of Mississippi, where her research focuses on climate change, international trade, and the decolonization of international law.