Review of Posthuman Biopolitics: The Science Fiction of Joan Slonczewski
Bruce Lindsley Rockwood
Bruce Clarke, editor. Posthuman Biopolitics: The Science Fiction of Joan Slonczewski. Palgrave, 2020. Palgrave Studies in Science and Popular Culture. Hardcover. xiii+187 pg. $71.97. ISBN 9783030364854. Ebook ISBN 9783030364861.
The Preface to this collection of essays on the work and significance of the novels and other texts by Joan Slonczewski nicely sums up its purpose as addressing the “sustained output of major science fiction by a working scientist” that is “a fairly rare phenomenon” (v). The novels under discussion include the foundational A Door into Ocean (1986), its three successor novels in the same universe—Daughter of Elysium (1993), The Children Star (1998), and Brain Plague (2000)—and The Highest Frontier (2011). There is also discussion of Slonczewski’s textbook Microbiology: An Evolving Science, co-authored with John W. Foster and Erik R. Zinzer, now in its fifth edition (Norton 2020), her pedagogy as a Professor of Biology integrating sf into her teaching, and her blog https://ultraphyte.com/. Clarke says that the purpose of the volume is to “ratify and consolidate the professional literature on Slonczewski’s creative accomplishment and to suggest further lines of engagement” while noting that “our need for the reflective ethical practice” of her work has “never been greater” (vi).
The collection of essays, some previously published, begins with a “virtual group conversation” (1) between Slonczewski and the contributors to the text about the themes that inform her work, such as her interest in microbes and the possibility of an arsenic based ecosystem which she portrays with the planet Prokaryon in The Children Star. Stating “My entire writing career has focused on the question, ‘What does it mean to be human?'” (7), Slonczewski wants “to expand our traditional view of ‘human’ to include simians (gorilla hybrids), sentients (human-like machines), and intelligent microbes” (8). Her interests include “fact denialism” as portrayed by the Centrist Party in The Highest Frontier, molecular biology, religion, tolerance, the invention of creationism by 20th century Christian revivalists, symbiosis and complexity, and nonviolence.
The conversation sets the stage for seven essays that explore these themes in her work in detail: “Posthuman Narration in the Elysium Cycle,” by Bruce Clarke; “A Door into Ocean as a Model for Feminist Science,” by Christy Tidwell; “”Then Came Pantropy’: Grotesque Bodies, Multispecies Flourishing, and Human-Animal Relationships in A Door into Ocean,” by Chris Pak; “Bodies That Remember: History and Age in The Children Star and Brain Plague,” by Derek J. Thiess; “Microbial Life and Posthuman Ethics from The Children Star to The Highest Frontier,” by Sherryl Vint; “The Future at Stake: Modes of Speculation in The Highest Frontier and Microbiology: An Evolving Science,” by Colin Milburn; and “Wisdom is an Odd Number: Community and the Anthropocene in The Highest Frontier” by Alexa T. Dodd.
Collectively, these essays provide a comprehensive overview of the plots, characters, ideas and conflicts presented in Slonczewski’s deeply thought-through fictional universe, spread out in time and space as reflected in the first four of these novels. Implicit back stories unfold and provide lessons for the role of empathy and sharing as the question of what is human or posthuman are explored in each volume. Clarke points out in his comprehensive overview that the Elysium cycle is enormous: 4 books, 1600 pages of text, covering over 1000 years, and exploring a variety of species, some that live a normal human life span, some practically immortal, some with silicone circuits that think in microseconds, and microbes whose lives are over in hours or weeks. The diversity of size and time scale permits Slonczewski to explore “social organization, political praxis and personal autonomy in a posthuman world” (18). A Door into Ocean explores the conflict between the patriarchal planet Valedon and the “sharers” of the Moon Shora, who possess “life shaping” techniques the Patriarch of Torr wants (21-22). Clarke argues that Door is a “deep critique of modern humanity” (23): “Composed in the final years of the Cold War amidst the nuclear brinkmanship of the Reagan era [it] [. . .] brilliantly transposes the threat of human self-destruction from the nuclear to the genetic arena. An all-female society is invisibly armed with weapons ‘too deadly to be used’ other than as planetary applications of their preserved powers over the forms of life” (26).
Daughter of Elysium, the next novel in the Elysium cycle, tells of the fall of Torr (which turns out to be Earth) and the emergence of a planetary community called the Free Fold. On Shora mechanical servos are “cleansed” on “suspicion of sentience,” but one servo is given refuge on a Sharer raft under a Sharer treaty with the long-lived Elysians who have come to live on Shora, paving the way for recognition of machine intelligence as sentient (31-35). Clarke concludes with a summary of the first contact discovery of intelligent microbes and their role in preventing the terraforming of the arsenic based planet Prokaryon in The Children Star, and the conflict over competing communities of microbes that lead to human fear of being controlled by them in Brain Plague.
Each of the succeeding essays grapples with Slonczewski’s texts in distinct ways, adding to the complexity and insights found in her work. Tidwell focuses on the relative lack of women among STEM students, faculty and scientists, and the role of Slonczewski’s novels in providing a corrective to this situation. Tidwell proposes that three competing approaches to feminist views of science are reflected in SF of the 1970s and 1980s: “rejecting science, attempting to control it, and embracing it” (49). Examples of the first kind of writers she cites include Sally Miller Gearhart, Dorothy Bryant, and Judy Grahn. Examples of the second kind of feminist SF, exploring how women can do science differently or even better than men, include Joanna Russ’s The Female Man (1975) and Sherri S. Tepper’s TheGate to Women’s Country (1988). Tidwell’s “third significant approach” to feminist science accepts science but rejects it as male “without simply reversing the terms of an unequal power structure” (51). Examples she cites include Kate Wilhelm’s The Clewiston Test (1976), Anne McCaffrey’s Dinosaur Planet (1978), Janet Kagan’s Mirabile (1991), and Mary Robinette Kowal’s The Calculating Stars (2018).
Tidwell argues that there are problems with each of these often overlapping approaches, and that Slonczewski’s A Door into Ocean “neither rejects science [. . .] nor ignores feminist critiques of science. The novel illustrates the possibility of a feminist science that is not built on femaleness or femininity, does not simply invert the power structure or leave the structures of science unchanged” (52). Instead, it shows a “realistic feminist science” that acknowledges women’s past and present contributions, “challenges dichotomies and hierarchies,” and makes explicit “the political and ethical ramifications of its choices” (52). Tidwell argues that the narrative illustrates scientific principles but with an “emphasis on the organic” that “recognizes the importance of the natural world and places the scientist within that world rather than above or outside it” (56). One goal of “feminist intervention in the sciences [. . .] must involve critique of the narratives and metaphors we already rely upon. [. . .] The Sharers’ use of metaphor illustrates this kind of responsibility” (60).
Pak argues that Slonczewski uses pantropy to “question the values and assumptions that underlie the pursuit of terraforming. [. . . ] The grotesque imagery [. . .] is fundamental to the text’s challenge to colonialist domination embodied in industrial approaches to terraforming. The pantropic subjects and ecology of the planet Shora offer an alternative conception of habitation centered on responsiveness to other lives” (65-66). Through a close textual reading of A Door into Ocean, Pak “explores what it means to be an amborg subject made up of individuals whose relationships are predicated on both response and respect” (81).
Thiess focuses on The Children Star and Brain Plague to examine issues in the meaning of history and bodily aging, comparing a near immortal Elysian who wants to terraform Prokaryon with both the life shaped children who have relatively normal human life spans that are brought to colonize the planet, and the short-lived microbial life forms that already inhabit the planet. Thiess argues that in Slonczewski’s “ecofeminist Elysium novels, matters of embodiment highlight the displacements of the history that is to be rewritten by the powerful. Moreover, in paying special attention to bodies for which a range of ages is important, this novel [. . .] can be read as drawing attention to the shortcomings of cultural theorizations of embodiment that exclude age in discussions of intersectional gender, race, sex, and orientation” (86). The Elysium Cycle “presents a biological narrative in which naturally aging bodies [. . .] call attention to the biological limitations of the human” (87).
Vint notes that “Rethinking our species beyond the limiting frameworks of the human and into the expanse of the posthuman has become a central focus of scholarship in the humanities, much of it attentive to our entanglement with the lives of other species” (111). After reviewing the literature of the posthuman in the works of Haraway, Wolfe, and Braidotti, she cites Anna Tsing’s argument that becoming posthuman may be necessary for “collaborative survival” (112). This becomes her thesis in a close reading of The Children Star, Brain Plague and The Highest Frontier, which she argues offer “a compelling model of Tsing’s ethics of collaborative survival” (113). She includes a section on “Microbial Political Life” that discusses the idea that the human body is a supra-individual because of the microbiome that lives within it, citing the work of Lynn Margulis, Hird and Landecker. This section on the research on horizontal gene transfer in microbial life provides a scientific foundation for the fictional microbial lives portrayed in The Children Star and Brain Plague, and the concept of the invading Ultraphytes in The Highest Frontier (114). Vint continues with a close reading of each text, concluding that “Slonczewski’s fiction offers us a posthuman ethics whose transformations aspire far beyond the mere augmented bodies of her characters” (129).
Milburn examines the “self-reflexive” pedagogy sf provides through a reading of The Highest Frontier and Slonczewski’s co-authored textbook, Microbiology: An Evolving Science. He notes that each “suggests that speculation is a double-edged sword, describing both the future-generating and future-confining forces of our world. But the virtue of sf is that it can teach us to see the difference and imagine better” (134). Slonczewski is quoted as suggesting that “My science fiction offers a way out—a way forward” (140), reminiscent of Frederik Pohl’s remark to me that one of the purposes of sf is not to predict but to prevent the future. Milburn then does a stimulating deep dive into how Slonczewski uses sf to teach and motivate students, and to promote the practice of creative speculation in doing science. Slonczewski’s “praxis: fiction, science, and ethics” is, he argues, essential for the “adventure of education [. . .]. With nothing less than the future at stake” (155). Milburn clearly believes this, reflected in his excellent and comprehensive notes and references.
Dodd pursues a thorough analysis of the role of community, wisdom, humility and a willingness to listen across difference through an insightful and close reading of The Highest Frontier. Politics, the meaning of the Anthropocene, religious conservatism, and fear of the invading ultraphyte are all explored in what is also a clever academic and political satire, the first in a projected new trilogy. Dodd provides a solid discussion of the origin, literature and implications of the term Anthropocene, and then examines the plot of the novel through sections on Community, Wisdom and Humility, and Mary the Ultraphyte, before coming to an assessment of Gaia and Human Responsibility: “Mary, as an ultraphyte, can serve as yet another example for humans. Humans, like ultra, have harmed the Earth. But if we can learn to adjust to our new role as the dominant species and become a wise community, maybe we can save the earth” (175). The essay concludes with an exploration of the possibility that there is another solution to human problems, out there in space.
Collectively, these essays provide a marvelous starting point for the continued exploration of the significant work of Joan Slonczewski, in sf, science, education, and as a moral spokesperson for our troubled times. Published in January 2020 just as the novel coronavirus has us all huddling in place, with the science and policy recommendations of public health criticized by ignorant leaders in several countries, and the challenge of the Anthropocene doubling down on a myriad of challenges facing us all, survival of a human, or posthuman, community remains in doubt. The fiction of Joan Slonczewski addresses this in significant ways and merits continued academic study as well as incorporation into undergraduate and graduate courses. Posthuman Biopolitics is an excellent collection. It should be in every academic library, and one can only hope a less expensive paperback version will be available in the near future to kickstart further work.
Bruce Lindsley Rockwood, Emeritus Professor of Legal Studies at Bloomsburg University, Pennsylvania, is a long-time member of SFRA, having served as Vice President (2005-2006), and regularly writes reviews for SFRA Review from his retirement home in Midcoast Maine. He has taught and published on law, literature, climate change and science fiction, and attends SFRA and WorldCon with his wife Susan when possible (most recently in Montreal, Spokane, and the June 2021 virtual SFRA).
Review of Dread Trident: Tabletop Role-Playing Games and the Modern Fantastic
Curtis D. Carbonell. Dread Trident: Tabletop Role-Playing Games and the Modern Fantastic. Liverpool UP, 2019. Liverpool Science Fiction Texts and Studies. Hardback. 256 pgs. ISBN 9781789620573. $120.00.
Dread Trident: Tabletop Role-Playing Games and the Modern Fantastic contributes to a growing body of interest in game studies and adds to Liverpool’s UP’s substantial series on science fiction and fantasy criticism by including a work exploring tabletop role-playing games (TRPGs). Several recent works in game studies have offered examinations of role-playing games including José P. Zagal’s and Sebastian Deterding’s edited collection, Role-Playing Game Studies Transmedia Foundations (2018), and Jon Peterson’s The Elusive Shift: how Role-Playing Games Forged their Identity (2020). Dread Trident distinguishes itself in its specific focus on TRPGS (as opposed to digital games) and its exploration of them through the literary and cultural aspects they draw on from science fiction and fantasy literature in their realized worlds, adding critical exploration to a range of gametexts and their universes. Carbonell’s focus on written gametexts as archives of popular culture makes a significant contribution to this still underrepresented area of academic study, especially in its examination of them through the lenses of the modern fantastic and trans/posthumanism to draw academic attention to the spaces for creative world/character building and game-play experience through the gametexts and modes of embodied play.
Carbonell examines six popular TRPGs through literary and cultural studies approaches to their hybrid modes of gameplay that engage both digital and analogue elements. A central aim of Dread Trident is to explore how our understanding of the modern fantastic is expanded through theorizing gametexts as foundational mechanisms that give rise to realized worlds through their settings, forms of gameplay, and mechanics. Carbonell concentrates his analysis on analogue gametexts and their combinations of draconic (fantastic) and post/transhuman (science fictional) genre tropes to argue that they provide a means of mediating the technologized existence of modern reality through the embodied gameplay. Carbonell weaves this hybridity into his analysis by positing a “draconic-posthuman figure” that he argues is essential to contextualize the modern fantastic (18). By engaging with posthumanist modes of thought, Carbonell suggests that these realized fantastic worlds are built through complex hybrid combinations of digital and analogue tools, enacting, a “process of posthumanization” that directs attention to the “spaces in which subjects emerge” (3). Dread Trident’s extensive study of analogue games makes a compelling argument for the significance of gametexts and their tools for putting the modern fantastic into context with our contemporary, highly technologized ways of being in the world by creating complex spaces where these fantastic and posthuman subjectivities can develop and exist.
Dread Trident is structured in the form of case-studies where each chapter focuses on one modern game system or gametext, placing these gametexts/series alongside works of fiction and broader genre and pulp movements in modern fantasy, science fiction, and horror in order to contextualize the draconic and posthuman elements that emerge through engaged play in the game-worlds. Carbonell examines several well-known TRPG games/game series spanning fantasy, science fiction, weird, science fantasy, and horror genres including Eclipse Phase (2009), Dungeons & Dragons (1974-present), World of Darkness (1991-2006), Call of Cthulhu (1981-2014), Warhammer 40000 (1987-Present), and Numenera (2013) to ask, “what do TRPG gametexts and tools reveal in their clarification of the modern fantastic?” (51). For Carbonell, the answer is that these games offer a space where the self might be fashioned through the spaces created by their embodied gameplay and their combinations of analogue and digital game tools.
Those approaching Dread Trident from the perspective of genre theory may take issue with Carbonell’s elision of fantasy and science fiction into opposite poles of a shared umbrella of the modern fantastic—a fact that he acknowledges. However, Carbonell’s use of gametext archives in Dread Trident enables him to observe the generic shifts in the fantastic occurring in games through many editions and settings over time, including recognizing the way that both draconic and posthuman elements manifest across games occupying different genre categories. An example of this is in his chapter “Worlds of Darkness” where he traces the use of reimagined Gothic tropes from the original World of Darkness (WoD) game settings of the 1990s, Vampire: The Masquerade (1991) and Werewolf: The Apocalypse (1992), to the Weird tropes of the more recent edition of WoD, Chronicles of Darkness (2015), which focuses game exploration on uncovering truths about the hidden and indescribable God-Machine entity. Carbonell contends that this movement offers an example of the Gothic transitioning into cosmic horror and supports his argument for increased attention to TRPG texts by offering a means of examining them for their reflection of changing representations of tropes and fantasy/horror/science fiction features through their archive of gametext editions.
Carbonell’s case studies demonstrate a great depth of knowledge of the gametexts and the archives of tools, manuals, content, and fan contributions that have become parts of these fantasy, horror, science fiction, and weird TRPG worlds. His critical examination of the multiple elements of the gametexts in their structure, imagined realities, mechanics, and engagement of players makes a convincing case for them as valid objects of academic attention, especially in their interconnections and contributions to literary and popular culture. A few of Dread Trident’s chapters also include discussions of literary works including Bruce Sterling’s Schismatrix stories, China Miéville’s Bas-Lag trilogy, and H.P. Lovecraft’s fiction. Carbonell dedicates an entire chapter to examining the legacy of H.P. Lovecraft in the Call of Cthulhu TRPG game series in terms of both the Mythos crossing from a literary world into a gametext and Lovecraft’s materialism and impulse to categorize in rich description—an impulse which Carbonell argues is also reflected in early TRPGs. While these chapters that combine analyses of gametexts with works of science fiction and fantasy literature help establish the connections and differences between the approaches to and realization of worlds in the literary fantastic and TRPG gametexts, they are successful to varying degrees. Dread Trident’s chapter on Eclipse Phase balances a pairing of it with Bruce Sterling’s Schismatrix stories to facilitate further understanding of the latter’s genre-blurring of the draconic/fantasy aspects with those of the posthuman through Sterling’s posthuman embodiments. This blending results in the advanced technology in the game operating “in the same manner as the marvelous in fantasy roleplaying games” (71), thus creating a space for the emergence of imagined post/transhuman subjectivities under the myth of living in a singularity future. However, Carbonell’s chapter examining Numenera alongside works by China Miéville, Jorge Luis Borges, Gary Wolfe, Thomas Ligotti, and HBO’s first season of True Detective lacks the same coherency in its focus.The chapter offers insightful ideas about each of these works and their rich and complicated settings’ relationships to the fantastic—especially the evolution of the weird and new weird—but so much is packed into the chapter that it lacks the clarity and cohesion of other chapter in the monograph and would have benefitted from greater critical attention to Numenera itself.
One of the most effective chapters in Dread Trident is Carbonell’s chapter on Dungeons & Dragons’ multiverse, which focuses its attention on the large archive of Dungeons & Dragons (D&D) gametext editions and settings as well as how that multiverse of shared world expands through fan-created materials and the inclusion of digital media and game tools. This chapter also demonstrates Carbonell’s extensive knowledge of the game’s archival history as he traces its evolution from its earliest editions into an assemblage multiverse where the current 5th edition “encourages new forms of entertainment beyond those found in the sourcebooks” (107). Further discussions of multiple media forms in the subsequent chapter on the World of Darkness series discussing the success of Vampire: The Masquerade and its spin-off video game, television show, graphic novels, collectible cards, and fan-created content help highlight the significant—and often overlooked—influence that TRPGs are having on the fantastic across diverse types of media and in shaping fan communities. Carbonell’s recognition of these areas of cross-pollination between TRPGs and other media opens a space for further examinations on the flow of creative content across fan, popular culture, and creator communities in game studies, as well as expanded work on the effects of hybrid tools on TRPG styles of play, experience, and world creation. The presentation of the interconnections of science fiction and fantasy as two poles of the modern fantastic and the genre blurring that occurs within many of these TRPG gametexts and their realized spaces also speaks to the benefits of including role-playing games in academic studies of the fantastic, something that will hopefully increase in prevalence as the diversity and influence of these TRPG games continues to expand.
Overall, Dread Trident offers a theoretically rigorous and informative exploration of its focal gametexts and the use of game archives to critically explore how the modern fantastic as a genre evolves in them over time. Carbonell’s approach to theorizing these gametexts as using digital and analogue tools to generate realized worlds which “encourage creativity and agency for the broadest number of persons, as well as the expansion of these fantasy spaces across a variety of platforms” (29) is innovative and compelling.
Dread Trident is best suited to more advanced levels of study and those working specifically in genre studies, popular culture, and game studies due to the complexity of the literary and cultural theories involved in approaching the different case studies including theories of genre, trans- and posthumanism, and embodiment. The arguments regarding embodied space in these realized worlds and the combinations of posthuman with draconic tropes in these games also makes it of interest to those working in posthuman studies. While Dread Trident would have benefitted from more attention to laying out the direction and reasoning behind each chapter to better connect its many arguments, it does make an effective case for TRPGs as objects of academic study within SF/F studies, especially in Carbonell’s applications of genre and posthuman theory to tabletop role-playing gametexts and tools and the imaginary spaces they create. Carbonell’s monograph offers those working in game studies an informative scholarly examination of several iconic TRPGs, and it will hopefully be joined by many future works drawing academic attention to the growing diversity, depth of content, and creative spaces emerging from the TRPG community.
Clare Wallis a Toronto-based educator and independent scholar. She holds a PhD from York University in English Literature. Her research interests include contemporary posthuman climate fiction, nonhuman agencies, and ecologies of the future. Her academic writing appears in TheCanadian Fantastic in Focus (2014) and the forthcoming anthology Interrogating the Boundaries of the Nonhuman: Literature, Climate Change, and Environmental Crises (2022). Clare’s creative contributions appear in the cyberpunk role-playing game expansion The Veil: Cascade (2018).
Graham J. Murphy and Lars Schmeink eds. Cyberpunk and Visual Culture. Routledge, 2018. Paperback. 326 pg. $54.95. ISBN 9781138062917.
Cyberpunk is undeniably part of our cultural fabric and has never been more visually recognizable since the 1980s than it is today. Not just a SF sub-genre craze, Cyberpunk informs contemporary technological development and lies at the heart of many mainstream realist media representations. The troubled launch of Cyberpunk 2077 (2020) catapulted ‘Cyberpunk’ into prime-time news headlines and ironically revitalized cultural awareness of the genre via the very neoliberal crunch culture that it notionally interrogates. Cyberpunk and Visual Culture, edited by Graham J. Murphy and Lars Schmeink, has in many ways only become more critically relevant, then, since its release, particularly given the pandemic’s fast-forwarding of labor and leisure into virtual spheres which have reinforced global concerns towards technological accessibility. Murphy and Schmeink’s edited collection of 15 essays commendably engages with a profusion of media formats to highlight the visual styles iconic to Cyberpunk and argue for the centrality of such aesthetic paradigms within contemporary ‘realistic’ settings. Through this targeted focus the selected chapters exhibit a coherence of thought and criticism that is often lost within other broader collections, marking this title as both an important contribution to critical debate and companion to our current Cyberpunk-inflected times.
Part I begins with the intersection between text and image in the visualization of Cyberpunk futures, extrapolating from Gibson’s iconic description of the sky being ‘the color of television, tuned to a dead channel’ as a refocusing of criticism between graphic and prose mediums. Christian Hviid Mortensen’s opening chapter astutely notes that Gibson’s vision of the future now feels anachronistic to contemporary readers, where the more common blue hue of untuned channels unwittingly inverts the original visual. Focusing on ‘gonzo-journalism’ in the graphic novel Transmetropolitan (1997-2002) Mortensen grapples with the retrofutures left behind by technological change and deploys Marshall McLuhan’s concept of the ‘anti-environment’ to demonstrate how the text’s blending of media-anachronism and media-futurism can create a space that is ‘necessary to effect needed social observation, if not social critique’ (13). Timothy Wilcox’s subsequent chapter continues this exploration through ‘failures of imagination’ via the comic book series The Surrogates (2005-2006) by shifting the focus on the materiality of Cyberpunk futures. Through a discussion of the text’s eponymous surrogate robot bodies Wilcox critically examines the importance of visualizing physical re-embodiment to reveal the everyday manners in which we encounter ourselves and others via posthuman materialities – an important consideration that is often lost within criticism amidst the emphasis on ‘cyber’ futures, but one that should equally consider the non-human and ecological consequences of such speculations. Murphy’s own chapter meanwhile provides a compelling extended study of animal representation and motifs in Boom! Studios’ comic book adaptation of Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep (2009). Opening with an eloquent demarcation of how Do Androids is not necessarily a classic Cyberpunk text but is both influential to and of that milieu, Murphy demonstrates how the original novel and graphic adaptation define empathetic understanding via animal husbandry and cruelty – a refreshing reading of an oft-cited text that emphasizes a consideration of how Cyberpunk’s imagination impacts beyond the human. Stina Attebery and Josh Pearson follow by considering the importance of fashion and style within the table-top role-playing game Cyberpunk 2020 (1998), shifting the discussion of visuality from cyberspaces and cityscapes to the centrality of self-expression and personal image to Cyberpunk through an exploration of precarious social identities within metropolitan spaces. While this chapter illuminates an oft-overlooked aspect of the field, there is only a brief engagement with the text’s concerning conflation of bodily modification with a ‘humanity cost’ (that causes anti-social behavior) which would have benefitted from a more nuanced consideration and additional reflection of the capitalist driven generation of fashion waste. Paweł Frelik concludes the section by examining the interplay between light and Cyberpunk visions of the future. Astutely noting that many SF texts are predicated on a future of energy abundance, Frelik demonstrates how the ‘near-absolute absence’ of any explanation of such plenitude ‘rings loud’ from a contemporary perspective (94). Focusing on a variety of textual media, the chapter emphasizes how light’s integral presence to Cyberpunk aesthetics is not only a retrofuturistic imagination of outdated neon technology but also emblematic of the genre’s complicated relationship to contemporaneous social-political tensions.
Part II explores virtual and visual terrains, tracing developments of both the digital gaze and rendering of cyberspaces. Christopher McGunnigle begins with the cyborg posthuman body in the RoboCop franchise through an examination of the titular character’s digitally overlaid sight as a form of ‘subjective shot’ (107). Moving from a consideration of the ‘male’ to ‘cyborg’ gaze, McGunnigle examines how the series challenges traditional conceptions of hypermasculinity and disembodiment to configure and reclaim human subjectivity in symbiosis with cybernetics. The discussion crucially avoids tackling who programs and controls such a gaze, however, which given historic discriminatory practices around face ID recognition underscores the necessity of understanding the biases that underpin algorithmic sight. Ryan J. Cox’s subsequent chapter meanwhile provides a detailed analysis of Makoto Kusanagi within the Ghost in the Shell film (1995) and Stand Alone Complex anime series (2002-2005). Contrary to early hacker idealism towards cyberspace being free from the trappings of embodied prejudice and persecution, Cox astutely demonstrates how Kusanagi is a far cry from disembodied freedom and is rather subject to and a participant of meat space ideologies. Kusanagi’s own repeated inhabitation of bodies with similar physical characters then is ‘not an attempt to seal the rupture between ghost and shell, it is an act of self definition’ (136) that affirms the centrality of the body to enduring paradigms of self-expression. Mark R. Johnson’s following chapter explores historic visualizations of cyberspace within video games, poignantly noting that such landscapes represent fundamentally digital objects—data comprised of zeros and ones—through human visual paradigms. Focusing on the utilization of space, color and shape within various depictions, Johnson moves from early grid-based systems to more contemporary avatar renderings in a study that highlights a lack of creative re-imagining towards virtual spheres. The discussion itself however is predominantly descriptive and limited in scope, particularly as the chapter could have formed the foundation for a more convincing argument towards the potential of revitalizing how humanity visualizes and encounters cyberspace. Stephen Joyce’s chapter, however, complements the previous discussion by focusing on the potential of video games to replicate Cyberpunk agentic tensions between gameplay freedom and narrative control in the Deus Ex (2000-2016) franchise with a specific focus on Deus Ex: Human Revolution (2011). Joyce argues that the players’ navigation of the game as a form of cyberspace encourages their immediate immersion within transhumanist values and demonstrates not only the medium’s reflection of contemporary social-technological debates but also the ‘cost’ of such capitalist driven depictions, where ‘the “free choice” of transhumanism is never as free as it seems’ (167). Cyberpunk video game’s potential for capitalist critique therefore stems from a fault that ‘lies not in the medium but in ourselves’ (171), where nuanced criticism of the processes that have led to deregulated market control are more effective than arguments towards nebulous concepts without any proposed alternative. Jenna Ng and Jamie Macdonald close Part II by focusing on a distinctly recognizable ‘cyber’ future in the video game Watch Dogs (2015) where all electronic devices are connected to the ctOS (Central Operating System) surveillance-state metropolitan network. Shifting from traditional discussions of jacking into cyberspace, the authors demonstrate how contemporary data-driven systems represent an entwinement of virtual and ‘real’ spaces, one that the game’s hacker-protagonist Aiden utilizes to subvert the ctOS system and forge his own sense of urban agency. This discussion however avoids directly challenging the rather simplistic representation at the heart of Watch Dogs hacktivism, where Aiden is seemingly able to control the cityscape and freely access central databases in a manner that is divorced from contemporary practice.
Part III draws the collection to a close by focusing on Cyberpunk as a form of SF realism, where visions of the future reflect more upon the contemporary moment than any distant possibility. Evan Torner shifts the discussion away from American and Japanese stereotypes by introducing two often overlooked examples of German Cyberpunk films – Kamikaze 1989 (1982) and Nuclearvision (1982) – which resonate with the concerns articulated elsewhere in the collection. Torner demonstrates how the deeply pessimistic tone of both films, particularly within their late cold war context, offers a moral and ethical ambiguity that is frequently lacking in Hollywood depictions, where glamourous and gritty portrayals of technological liberation or servitude will often depend upon the audience’s own socio-political views in a manner that fails to query ‘whose interests are supported by which technologies’ (210, original emphasis). The danger therefore lies in systems that are notionally beyond self-reflective critique, causing Torner to ask, in a very meta-cyberpunk manner, ‘what makes the white western male incapable of grappling with these systems of his own creation’ (209). Mark Bould’s following chapter further critiques the anglophonic bias of mainstream Cyberpunk media through both the genre’s blindness and marginalization of African people, Africa and its diaspora. While Bould notes that aspects of his cited examples may ‘look very familiar to western eyes’ (231)—as shown via the work of Nadia El Fani, Sylvestre Amoussou, Jean-Pierre Bekolo and particularly the Holloywood-esque spectacle of Neil Blomkamp’s cinematography—his movement between the molar and molecular scales pinpoints how ‘they use those pieces to play an often different game’ (231). He poignantly concludes that ‘no matter how things fall apart, the center will find ways to hold’ (231), and when we consider that this ‘center’ not only represents colonizing hegemony but equally deracinated global corporations then the impetus of such a critique is not only urgent but globally relevant. Anna McFarlane’s following chapter returns to the blurring between representation and reality through Katherine Bigelow’s Strange Days (1995) and Zero Dark Thirty (2012), persuasively arguing that the latter may not appear as a traditional Cyberpunk film but does undeniably return to thematic and cinematographic aspects that are central to the director’s wider work. For McFarlane both films are positioned either side of the epochal millennial shift, where Strange Days sees the future as something potentially horrifying and wonderous while the ‘post’ 9/11 response at the heart of Zero Dark Thirty struggles with the prospect of an optimistic future. The different reflections of virtual reality, surveillance monitoring, remote viewing and the tone central to both films crucially returns to the increasing manners in which the contemporary moment is both visualized and represented via Cyberpunk motifs. Sherryl Vint expands upon this notion in an excellent chapter that explores the fusing, or collapsing, of material and virtual environments in a range of military-sf films that continually align warfare with digital game culture. As Vint notes, the audience’s perceived ability to differentiate what is real from representation lies in our expectation of what cyber-, military and game space should look like, where the inversion of topographical expectations in such films as Ender’s Game (2013) and Source Code (2011) reinforces technological and ethical concerns around being unable to distinguish artifice from authenticity. From this Vint draws connections to contemporary remote warfare in the film Good Kill (2014) by illustrating how drone combat physicalizes such an anxiety in contemporary terms and thus underscores the importance of sf critical studies to a cultural appreciation of a present built upon Cyberpunk visualizations. Schmeink draws the collection to a close with an afterword that appropriately focuses on counter visuality and Cyberpunk’s fundamental relationship of seeing and being seen within cities, cyberspaces and posthumanism.
While some chapters are more persuasive in their cultural and critical argumentation than others, the writing throughout is consistently engaging, making it accessible to Cyberpunk novices or enthusiasts and is a testament to the rigorous work of the editors. Far from treading pre-established ground, Cyberpunk and Visual Culture proves the enduring relevance of Cyberpunk visuality to understanding the ‘reality’ that surrounds us daily. Certainly, it would have been productive to see further discussions of texts more contemporaneous to the book’s release—as only a handful of chapters discuss media released in the early to mid-2010s—but this title is undeniably an excellent guide to our constantly developing cyberpunk present and will surely be a steadfast companion for those who look to take this research further.
Kerry Doddcompleted his PhD at Lancaster University, UK. His thesis, entitled “The Archaeological Weird: Excavating the Non-human,” examined the intersection between archaeology and Weird fiction. Focusing on the cultural production of the artefact encounter, his thesis explored how archaeological framings can offer a re-conceptualization of object ontology through the Weird. He is currently working on a monograph that explores the representation of materiality and objects in archaeological fiction. Kerry also works more widely in the fields of Science Fiction (particularly Cosmic Horror and Cyberpunk), the Gothic, and glitch aesthetics.
Review of The Routledge Companion to Cyberpunk Culture
McFarlane, Anna, Graham J. Murphy, and Lars Schmeink, editors. The Routledge Companion to Cyberpunk Culture. Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group, 2020. Hardcover. 474 pg. $225.40. ISBN 9780815351931.
The Routledge Companion to Cyberpunk Culture, edited by Anna McFarlane, Graham J. Murphy, and Lars Schmeink, aims broadly, as outlined in the text’s introduction, “to track cyberpunk’s diversity and far-reaching influence” (xx). Made up of contributions from more than fifty scholars, the sizable anthology is divided into key three sections: Cultural Texts, Cultural Theory, and Cultural Locales. The first section is made up of traditional analyses of the cinematic and literary roots of cyberpunk and notably replaces examinations of typical works such as Neuromancer (1984) and Blade Runner (1982) with other texts such as Pat Cadigan’s Synners (1991) and Charles Stross’s Accelerando (2005). Containing theoretical assessments of disparate topics such as identity, ecology, class, and political power, the second section of the anthology, Cultural Theory, explores cyberpunk through the lenses of diverse theoretical frameworks including queer theory, Afrofuturism, and feminism. The final segment, Cultural Locales, complicates assumptions that cyberpunk is an Anglo-American mode constructed through the appropriation of other cultures’ imagery and tropes. As this companion emphasizes, cyberpunk, though perhaps initially a North American phenomenon, has manifested in pivotal ways within various polities. The essays making up Cultural Locales examine these cultural manifestations of cyberpunk and their relationships to the complex systems operating within and influencing these societies. This anthology is a valuable resource due to its close examinations of cinematic and literary manifestations of cyberpunk and for its analyses of identity and the political actions of cyberpunk media in relation to discussions of governing power, ecologies, and class. It is additionally pivotal due to the questions it raises about cyberpunk as a global phenomenon that reflects and shapes our understanding of living in the 21st century (xx).
This companion continues the work of scholars interested in cyberpunk as a method for better understanding contemporary life. Unique to this collection is its emphasis upon cyberpunk as not simply a genre of writing but instead “a cultural formation, a means of engaging with our 21st-century technocultural age” (xx). Recognizing the limitations of treating this phenomenon as a mere literary school, Anna McFarlane, Graham J. Murphy, and Lars Schmeink construct a broader framework for their collection and therefore widen discussions concerning the relationship between cyberpunk and contemporary culture. Since Bruce Bethke initially utilized the term in his short story “Cyberpunk,” published in a 1983 issue of Amazing, and Bruce Sterling edited an influential collection of fiction under this classification, Mirrorshades: The Cyberpunk Anthology (1988), cyberpunk scholarship has flourished but maintained a predominant focus upon literary and cinematic generic functions. Larry McCaffery’s edited collection Storming the Reality Studio: A Casebook of Cyberpunk & Postmodern Science Fiction (1992), for example, drew together the fiction of contemporary writers and the critical commentaries of scholars to diagnose cyberpunk as the quintessential postmodern literary form through which writers use the resources of a fragmentary culture to comment on how technology shapes modern life. While subsequent major collections such as The Cambridge Companion to Science Fiction (2003) and The Oxford Handbook of Science Fiction (2014) contain minor sections focused upon cyberpunk, The Routledge Companion to Cyberpunk Culture is a significant resource for scholars due both to its predominant focus upon this cultural formation and its recognition of cyberpunk’s influence and presence outside literary and cinematic borders.
Emphasizing such a far-reaching impact and manifestation of cyberpunk, this anthology is best suited for scholars seeking a helpful companion for undergraduate courses focused on this topic or emerging scholars desiring a guiding resource through this cultural terrain. Moving beyond the most influential cyberpunk texts, it provides a broader understanding of how cyberpunk permeates disparate genres and media including video games, music, fashion, role-playing games, manga and anime, comic books, novels, and films and therefore enables scholars to re-envision cyberpunk as not merely a North American genre of speculative fiction but instead in a more accurate sense as a global response to late capitalism. This companion additionally provides theoretical tools for young scholars and students seeking to better understand how to interrogate cyberpunk as a tool for negotiating a complex, technocultural age. By providing key critical works utilizing various theoretical foundations including feminist, race, and queer frameworks, this anthology acts as an ideal tool for young scholars and students seeking an entry point into discussions surrounding this cultural formation and its commentary on identity in 21st-century societies. Though a somewhat limited resource for advanced scholars versed in the history, theoretical apparatus, and cultural products of cyberpunk, The Routledge Companion to Cyberpunk is a valuable collection for developing scholars seeking a broad understanding of this cultural phenomenon.
Michael Pittsis assistant professor at the University of South Bohemia. He specializes in masculinity studies, queer theory, SF studies, and utopian studies. His articles have been published in Extrapolation and The European Journal of American Studies and his first monograph, Alternative Masculinities in Feminist Speculative Fiction: A New Man, was published by Lexington Books in 2021.
Review of Tolkien’s Cosmology: Divine Being and Middle-earth
Sam McBride. Tolkien’s Cosmology: Divine Being and Middle-earth. Kent State UP, 2020. Hardcover. 304 pg. $55.00. ISBN 9781606353967.
Many books on J. R. R. Tolkien and religion focus on the religion of the man himself. They attempt to piece together how Tolkien’s Catholicism and Christian faith are interwoven into his text, seeing Christianity as a driving force of the books or as intricately hidden within the hundreds of pages of drafts, published texts, and notes Tolkien left. Instead of approaching Tolkien’s work as representative of Tolkien’s personal religion, Tolkien’s Cosmology seeks to understand the religion within the texts as religion itself rather than representative of another. McBride takes upon himself a large and daunting task of describing not only the cosmos of Tolkien’s universe but also how that cosmos involves itself with the machinations of Tolkien’s terrestrial world. In this explanation, McBride finds himself grappling with a large pantheon of gods, an author’s deft touch on a text to allow divine intervention, and soteriological and eschatological questions answered in primary and extraneous texts. As an approach to the cosmology, this text provides a stunning grasp of the complexities and vastness of Tolkien’s texts, while allowing for newcomers to this vast universe to be welcomed into its wide depths.
McBride uses his text to provide descriptive analysis of Tolkien’s mythology. Throughout much of the text, McBride describes, outlines, and summarizes the pantheon of gods (including Eru Ilúvatar, the supreme deity, and the pantheon of gods and minor deities), the genesis of creation, the divine intervention of the gods throughout Arda’s history, and the eucatastrophe of the end to the world. For example, in describing the understanding of deity in Arda, McBride coins the term polytheistic monotheism: worshipping one ultra-deity (Eru), while also engaging with, believing in, and praying to minor deities, who at times can supersede the ultra-deity in the centrality of worship from lower beings. This term helps McBride explain how, throughout its history, the divine influence on the world can be seen not just through Eru’s machinations but also through the efforts of other deities who can be believed to be the singular God or one of many gods, depending on the person or people who are worshipping (chapters 1 through 4 deal with explaining and expanding how polytheistic monotheism influences Tolkien’s universe). Additionally, McBride delves into and examines the themes of evil (chapter 5), death (chapter 6), and the end of the world (chapter 7), three topics that religion, generally, should be able to at least address. In these examinations, McBride shows his argumentative finesse, engaging with scholars who have attempted to examine these topics and using his new framework—a cosmology scaffolded by all the works of Tolkien—to show the differences a new view makes.
To approach Tolkien’s oeuvre, a scholar must decide how to incorporate the copious extant notes and drafts. While many scholars of Tolkien have approached his work as developing across the course of his writings, McBride chooses to engage with Tolkien’s work in its totality. Instead of tracing the chronological development of ideas, McBride unites all of the ideas, from notes to early drafts, to envision a cohesive cosmology, mythology, and theology throughout Tolkien’s work. This effort helps McBride build a pantheon for the books themselves, writing an in-universe revelation of what could be; however, it stifles the understanding of Tolkien’s books as Tolkien’s creation. Instead, in forming this cosmology, McBride almost becomes coauthor with Tolkien, not necessarily exegetically or eisegetically engaging with the world but rather working with Tolkien to form an understandable cosmology.
Although McBride’s book’s genesis comes from Tolkien’s assertion that The Hobbit (1937), The Lord of the Rings (1954/1955), and The Silmarillion (1977) contain and discuss religion, McBride spends little time problematizing or recognizing the fraught history of the term and the study of it. Indeed, he simply says there is religion and continues forward into a descriptive analysis of the deities and their interactions with the world. As a result, scholars of religion have a foundation in McBride’s book upon which to understand fantastical and created religions, while also using Tolkien’s work to further the study of religion. Tolkien’s Cosmology, then, can be seen as laying a good groundwork for many future articles and books on the subject.
This robust description and analysis of Tolkien’s cosmology will aid any Tolkien researcher and scholar of fantasy literature in approaching not only his work as a whole and his entire created world but also any other attempt by authors at worldbuilding. Indeed, McBride’s engagement with not only the published source material but Tolkien’s archive of notes and drafts provides insight into the mind of one of the twentieth century’s greatest creators. His astute analysis, humbled through awareness of his different methodology, provides grounds on which the novice and experienced author can discover new things about Tolkien’s work. McBride’s text is meant to be one that supports wandering without getting lost.
Adam McLainresearches and writes on dystopian literature, legal theory, and sexual ethics. He is currently a Harvard Frank Knox Traveling Fellow, studying twentieth-century dystopian literature and the legal history of sexual violence in the UK. He has a bachelor’s degree in English from Brigham Young University and a master of theological studies from Harvard Divinity School.
Star Girl on the Time Train: Children’s Science Fiction by Hungarian Women Authors in the Kádár Era (1956-1989)
The Kádár era (1956–1989) was a distinctive period of Hungarian history in the twentieth century. After the occupying Soviet army brutally ended the 1956 anti-Soviet uprising, the regime named after Communist premier János Kádár offered a period of relative calm and slow, gradual modernization and democratization. The era lasted until the collapse of Communist rule and the end of the Soviet occupation in 1989. The Kádár era was more culturally liberal than the preceding Rákosi era, whose repressive features led to the 1956 uprising. Yet, the Kádár era was still characterized by a lack of freedom of speech affecting all areas of publishing (Czigányik; Horváth).
Censorship mechanisms in this era did not adopt the Soviet approach of centralized, regulated oversight in its entirety; but just like in the Soviet Union, works were subjected to external oversight. First and foremost, authors were expected to self-censor, and most interactions happened in an informal context between editors and authors (Gombár; Sohár; Panka). While self-censorship was also an expectation in the Soviet system, in Hungary, informal networks developed so that work would receive oversight before reaching an official censor.  Translations were often censored in a similar manner, and many foreign works were banned (Horváth)—both in literary and genre fiction.
Like elsewhere in the former Soviet sphere of influence, some Hungarian authors originally interested in writing for adults found a refuge from repression in children’s publishing.  Science fiction was also an outlet with relative freedom. Under the leadership of Péter Kuczka, the Galaktika SF anthology, then magazine and attached imprints could publish writing that could not be printed as literary fiction: among others, the works of Borges and Eliade (Falcsik; Szatmári). While Kuczka himself generally worked with adult manuscripts and authors, his work allowed SF to develop a reputation for comparatively less censorship than non-genre literature, which probably also influenced children’s SF. There were no dedicated children’s SF novel imprints, but the main children’s publisher of the era, Móra, frequently released SF novels.
Women authors fit into the Hungarian publishing landscape uneasily: massive gender disparities existed throughout the Kádár era, and even prolific and popular women writers like Magda Szabó or Erzsébet Galgóczi were often excluded from the literary canon (Várnagyi 26–27). Hungarian society in the Communist period was gender-egalitarian in terms of political rhetoric, like elsewhere in the Eastern bloc. A characteristic figure of Rákosi era propaganda, also popular later on, was the woman tractorist, demonstrating that women could perform any job (Farkas). However, society remained sexist in everyday practice (Kiss). People were legally mandated to work regardless of gender, citing the ideological approach of Engels that this was a precondition of achieving true gender equality; but while the expression ‘working woman’ (dolgozó nő) was often used in propaganda and common parlance alike, there was no parallel ‘working man’ (Göndör 123-124). While most people were employed, forcibly or not, women were also expected to manage the household and child-rearing—with men often not participating in these tasks, or only to a severely limited extent.  Women intellectuals sometimes turned to translation as a form of work that could be performed in a flexible time frame and while maintaining a work-from-home lifestyle, or even during maternity leave (Sohár 17); and the same probably holds true for writing in general.
All these trends combined in the case of women authors of children’s SF. While the publishing industry was not gender-egalitarian, the nature of the work allowed for relative flexibility: both children’s publishing and SF were less affected by restrictions on freedom of speech, and the labor of writing itself allowed people to choose when and where to work. In this time period, women authors often worked full time either as writers or in some other related job in the industry (e.g., in editorial), a form of employment comparatively less common among Hungarian women authors today. Still, women writers had a variety of motivations in choosing these career paths. Some turned to children’s publishing after having been excluded from adult publishing and then returned to fiction for adults after the Communist regime collapsed, but some continued to write for children.
To investigate children’s SF by women authors in the Kádár era, I outline three research questions:
What were the children’s SF books by Hungarian women authors produced in this time period? (i.e., a comprehensive survey of all available works produced by systematic search, which had not been conducted previously.)
How can we characterize the speculative settings these works presented, and how did they depict future societies? By so doing, how did they reach and/or subvert the desired aims of the Communist state?
How did these speculative worlds relate to women authors’ social-political context, and how did they fit into their authors’ oeuvres?
I constructed a comprehensive list of children’s SF books by Hungarian women authors published in the Kádár era using the following methods:
Searching in my own collection of Hungarian SF from this time period
Searching on Moly.hu (the largest Hungarian social book website akin to GoodReads) by combining the tags “sci-fi” + “ifjúsági” (kidlit) + “női szerző” (woman author), and also “sci-fi” + “ifjúsági”, then reading through the results list to find Hungarian women authors.
Crowdsourcing titles through asking people in Hungarian SF groups on Facebook.
Querying current Hungarian women editors of SF.
Each method garnered books not found via the other methods, though there was some overlap.
Exclusion criteria were the following: purely fantasy, mythic and fairytale books were not included. In case of series where only some of the volumes had SF elements, volumes without those elements were excluded. (This affected the series Pöttyös Panni by Mária Szepes, and the loosely connected children’s books of Franciska Nagy.) I did not survey short stories, but I did survey works that were novella length, because the distinction between novel and novella was not sharp in this time period. Inclusion criteria were the following: SF books with at least one woman author in case of shared authorship, and a first publication date between 1956 and 1989, were included. I also included multi-genre books as long as they had SF elements; e.g., in Tündér Lala by Magda Szabó, fairies use a fairy X-ray machine to determine if fairies have human organs inside their bodies. I also included books where critics disagreed about the target age range—despite expectations, this only affected one book, Oxygénia by Klára Fehér. I identified ten books, by six authors—see the complete list in Table 1.
Imaginary Futures and Future Societies
How did Hungarian women authors of children’s SF imagine the future, and which characteristics did they ascribe to future societies? Four characteristics emerge:
The protagonist’s perspective compared to the society shown (interior, exterior or both—are they members of the society that they observe / describe?)
Speculative element (anything not commonly considered as attested in observable reality; e.g., extraterrestrial beings)
I classified each book along these dimensions; the results are in Table 2.
Works were split almost evenly along an interior or exterior perspective; five novels used a predominantly interior viewpoint, four an exterior one, and one novel showed two different future societies—one from an interior and one from an exterior perspective. Works were more clearly associated with the future, with six works having an unambiguously future setting, and two further time travel novels both starting out from the present and traveling into the future. Only two works were set in the then-present. There was a wide spread of main speculative elements, with the most common one being extraterrestrials/aliens appearing in five books. In two novels, the main element was the extrapolated future setting itself, in two others, it was time travel into the future. In one book, the speculative features involved a hidden, high-technology world of fairies coexisting with our own present. (While the fairies could be characterized as a nonhuman sentient species, they were not portrayed as extraterrestrial.)
The majority of novels were utopian, with six characterized as utopian, three showing both utopian and dystopian societies in the same setting, and only one shown as dystopian. Even in the sole dystopian novel, the assumption was that the main characters were from a utopian society marooned in a dystopian one, even if their home society was not described in detail. While works sometimes showed negative aspects of utopian and positive aspects of dystopian societies, generally the speculative settings all had a positive or negative emotional valence and did not present a ‘neutral’ setting, or one with balanced positive and negative characteristics.
A striking association between these features concerned perspective and valence. Societies shown from an interior perspective tended to be utopian, modeling a hopeful future—contrary to expectations, infrequently identified as Communist, and never identified as Soviet.
Overall, science fictional elements were used to demonstrate future development of societies in a positive fashion; by contrast to e.g., contemporary American children’s SF, where dystopian elements can also take front stage.
Was any of these works intended for a dual audience of children and adults? Klein Tumanov describes the phenomenon of Aesopian fiction in the Soviet Union, where works written ostensibly for children include political subtext critical of the regime aimed at adults; a function of censorship and attempts to evade it. While this phenomenon has been described in Hungarian literature (Hammarberg), and Soviet SF authors like the Strugatskys have been called Aesopian (Givens 4), it hasn’t been investigated whether Hungarian children’s SF used Aesopian strategies. Women authors might have been likely to use this approach as they were relatively marginalized in publishing.
To explore these topics, we will take a look at where each of these works could be situated in their authors’ oeuvres, and examine what this could tell us about author motivations.
Author Motivations in Choosing Children’s Literature in an Oppressive Regime
Authors who wrote primarily for an adult audience include Magda Szabó, Mária Szepes, and Klára Fehér. Authors who wrote children’s books first and foremost include Franciska Nagy and Zsuzsa Kántor. (Zsuzsa Keller only had one book publication, so in her case such a distinction could not be made; but her oeuvre as a scriptwriter and playwright featured both children’s and adult works.) These authors had different trajectories, and as far as it can be reconstructed, different motivations in writing for children.
Klára Fehér (1919-1996)
Klára Fehér started her career in the Rákosi era, writing journalism and political nonfiction with a heavy pro-regime slant, then also moving into children’s and adult fiction. As a journalist, she became increasingly disillusioned with the Rákosi regime. Her husband László Nemes, working at the same newspaper, experienced repression and was fired, at least partially due to antisemitic reasons. After the 1956 uprising, the two of them left and did not rejoin the Party, and according to Nemes’s description, agreed not to find day jobs in publishing (Várnai). Fehér only became a full-time writer in 1979 (Csuti).
She created work in a wide range of genres, from travel writing to Jewish family saga. She wrote two children’s SF novels at different points in her oeuvre. Her A földrengések szigete [The Island of Earthquakes] is a science-based adventure story for children set in a utopian far future, published in 1957; while her Oxygénia [Oxygenia] from 1974, a work aimed at an older teen audience, presents the escape attempts of a just-married young couple marooned on a planet ruled by an oppressive regime. This novel is the clearest example of a dual-readership text on our list; it was reprinted by adult publisher Gondolat in 1988.
Magda Szabó (1917-2007)
Magda Szabó, author of the adult literary classic The Door, is probably the best-known Hungarian woman author globally. She started out as a poet in the 1940s, but experienced a complete ban on publication between 1949–1958 due to her political views and her family belonging to the upper middle class (contrasted with working-class and/or rural writers favored in this period). In those years she worked as a schoolteacher, together with her husband, also a banned author. She kept on writing without any hope of publication; she moved from poetry to fiction. She struggled with the ban: “If [my husband] hadn’t stood by me, I would’ve smashed my typewriter with a hammer instead of writing . . . ‘Write it for me!’ he asked me when I was about to quit it all for good” (n.p.).  The ban was lifted in 1958, and two of her novels she had drafted earlier were published in rapid succession. She transitioned to working full time as a writer and playwright in just a year, with the support of Party functionary György Aczél, leader of Kádár era cultural policy (Oikari).
Szabó wrote primarily for adults, but she enjoyed trying different approaches and writing for different age groups. Her first children’s work published in 1958, Bárány Boldizsár [Balthasar the Sheep], remains popular to this day. She published her only SF novel for children in this time period as well, possibly as part of her newfound relative freedom: Tündér Lala also pushed against the boundaries of genres, using both SF and fantasy to tell the story of a young prince escaping a high-tech fairy kingdom to live among the humans. Her publisher described this work as a ‘speculative fairy tale novel’ (fantasztikus meseregény) and while she wrote children’s fantasy and fairytales, she did not explore adult speculative work.
Zsuzsa Kántor (1916-2011)
Zsuzsa Kántor was a prolific author of books and short stories for children and teens, most of them focused on contemporary everyday situations, with the occasional historical work. She wrote an SF trilogy focused on far-future Young Pioneers and their adventures which included alien contact and political upheaval. She was considered a writer aligned with the Communist regime; she wrote a novel for teens (Práter utca) which portrayed the 1956 uprising as reactionary. Interestingly, her SF contained subversive elements and tackled topics such as censorship of art and large-scale breakdown in a utopian society, bringing to mind the Aesopian concept. Some of her contemporary fiction also pushed boundaries—e.g., her novella Szerelmem, Csikó [My Beloved, Csikó] explored gender nonconformity (Takács, in preparation).
She worked as a librarian and schoolteacher, eventually becoming a school principal (Mán-Várhegyi). She stopped publishing after the regime change in 1989, though she only passed away in 2011. Her eulogy authored by her son, poet Péter Kántor, discussed that she did not stop writing even at an advanced age (Kántor).
Mária Szepes (1908-2007)
Mária Szepes was primarily a writer of occult fiction and nonfiction, areas of state-mandated suppression during the Communist period. Her alchemical novel A Vörös Oroszlán [The Red Lion] had originally seen publication shortly after World War II, but was banned when the Communists came into power (Szepes). Many of Szepes’s adult works, extant earlier in manuscript, were only published after the collapse of the Kádár regime; like her series of occult-themed novels Raguel hét tanítványa [The Seven Disciples of Raguel] that she considered her magnum opus. She wrote this series between 1948 and 1977, but it only saw publication in shortened form in 1990, and at its full length in 1999.
Looking for acceptable topics after the Communist takeover, she turned to children’s literature—her biography by the Mária Szepes Foundation states that she “hid away in children’s stories” (n.p.). She published a lengthy children’s book series titled Pöttyös Panni [Panni Polka-Dots] with Móra, about a young girl in a contemporary everyday setting. Pöttyös Panni became a smash hit, and the kind and gentle stories were popular with children and their parents alike. In one of the last volumes of the series, Pöttyös Panni az Idővonaton [Panni Polka-Dots on the Time Train], she brought in SF themes: Panni traveled into the far future using artificially produced ball lightning. Her earlier children’s SF novel Gyerekcsillag [Kidstar], a stand-alone work, likewise presented transdimensional travel.
Unlike any of the other women authors of children’s SF in this time period, she also published several adult SF novels with Galaktika; Péter Kuczka even managed to release a revised and censored version of A Vörös Oroszlán in 1984.
Franciska Nagy (1943-present)
Franciska Nagy is probably the only author on the list who is still active. She studied journalism and worked as a journalist in the 1960s, then turned to writing and editing full time in 1966. She predominantly writes children’s fiction, often with fantasy elements. Some of her works are set in a shared continuity, but out of these, the only one that includes SF topics is her novel Űrbicikli [Space Bike]. In this book, an extraterrestrial child crashlands in contemporary Hungary with his space bike, causes untold trouble while trying to repair his spacecraft, and enlists a group of children to his aid—while a detective is already on his trail.
Nagy continued to write children’s books after the regime change, up into the early 2000s—in her case, we can probably say that writing for this age group was not imposed on her by the political context. In the late 1990s, she published two adult mystery novels with ghost story elements. She currently works at the journal Magyar Iparművészet [Hungarian Applied Arts] (Nagy).
Zsuzsa Keller (?-present?)
Little biographic information is available about Zsuzsa Keller; she primarily worked as a playwright and screenwriter, on both children’s and adult productions. Her only published book, Csillaglány [Star Girl], was an adaptation of one of her stage plays for children that also existed as a television recording of the theatrical performance. (She later obtained funding from national arts board NKA in 2001 to produce a script for a movie adaptation, but to my knowledge, the movie was never filmed.) In Csillaglány, an extraterrestrial who assumes the shape of a young woman escapes to a future Earth from an evil power, then enlists a ragtag band of kids, adults and talking animals to fight back. Earth is portrayed as idyllic and has seemingly no ties to the present day of the author. This is an unusual, atypical novel published shortly before the regime change that might be considered somewhat of a bridge to 1990s children’s fiction—a period that was characterized by stylistic and thematic explorations in a rapidly changing publishing marketplace after the collapse of the Communist regime.
Even though the ten novels presented disparate speculative approaches and used perspectives that were both exterior and interior to the societies they portrayed, they showed remarkably cohesive trends. While the futures on display were potentially Communist, these elements were underemphasized in contrast to their “international” nature, with freedom of movement—inaccessible to Hungarians in this time period—often depicted as a positive. None of the novels spoke of the specifically Soviet nature of society, and only Kántor’s trilogy featured elements of Communist life prominently: specifically, the Pioneer youth movement. (Even this series shied away from portraying Communist ideological tenets in an explicit, didactic manner.)
Contextualizing these works in their authors’ oeuvres demonstrated that even as many women authors of children’s SF had experienced friction with the political regime, the bulk of these conflicts started in the Rákosi era and gradually lessened in the Kádár era.
SF was not the main genre of any of the authors; they were literary writers open to experimenting with genres and approaches, and SF was one component of that. Only one of them, Mária Szepes, wrote SF for adults. Most authors also wrote non-genre fiction for adults, with the exception of Zsuzsa Kántor.7
SF offered a form of experimentation to these authors that allowed them to make statements about society while evading censorship. The imaginaries presented were partially, but not entirely in line with the official ideology of the Kádár regime; just as they pushed boundaries of genre, they also pushed boundaries of what was expressible and desirable.
Close readings of each work could potentially reveal how the mechanisms of Aesopian fiction influence presentations of future or alternate-present societies. It might be just as fruitful to investigate author positionality and how this fits into the broader context of Kádár-era Hungarian society, especially with respect to mechanisms of oppression within publishing.
Some writers were marginalized in other ways besides gender; at least three authors (responsible for six books) were of a Jewish background. (One author was an ethnic majority Hungarian; for two others, biographical information was inadequate to determine their ancestry.) Jewish authors experienced more conflict with the regime and more censorship; a phenomenon described in Hungarian literary fiction, the arts, and public discourse about Jewish topics in the Kádár era (Szécsényi). This hints at potential intersectional aspects of censorship affecting Jewish women authors, that might be investigated also among authors of non-genre fiction in this time period.
The further development of children’s science fiction, and the role of women authors in it, could likewise be explored. After a relative lack in the 1990s–2000s, the 2010s have seen many new works by women authors, with over twenty books just in the past decade. Genre boundaries have also loosened, especially with the introduction of steampunk themes. These new authors often follow and react to Anglo-Western—and less commonly also Japanese—trends in speculative media, rather than building directly on their forerunners’ oeuvres. Still, they do incorporate specifically Hungarian aspects of storytelling, and not only in their choice of locales and themes, but structurally as well: for example, the Időfutár [Time Courier]series of novels, with multiple women contributors, is an adaptation of a radio drama series similarly to how Endre László’s Szíriusz kapitány [Captain Sirius] series also had popular novelizations published in the 1980s. I am currently planning a follow-up article that will address some of these topics.
Many questions remain and this brief survey could only provide the first step. Hopefully it will serve as further inspiration to investigate Hungarian literatures often excluded from the literary canon, be it due to their choice of genre, audience, or the gender of their authors.
 See, e.g., Voloncs about television writing.
 For a Soviet parallel, see e.g., Klein Tumanov’s analysis of Daniil Kharms’s oeuvre (140).
 For Soviet parallels, see Lemberg.
 Translated into English as The Gift of the Wondrous Fig Tree by Noémi M. Najbauer, published by Európa in 2008.
 Two different societies are shown, but both from an exterior perspective.
 “Ha ő nem áll mellettem, kalapáccsal verem szét az írógépemet írás helyett . . . ‘Nekem írd meg!’—kért, mikor végképp abba akartam hagyni mindent” (Szabó)
 While this article did not survey men, men authors who wrote children’s SF predominantly or exclusively did exist in the time period, like Péter Tőke or Endre László.
Czigányik, Zsolt. “Readers’ responsibility: literature and censorship in the Kádár era in Hungary.” Confrontations and Interactions: Essays on Cultural Memory, edited by Bálint Gárdos, Ágnes Péter, et al. L’Harmattan, 2011, pp. 223–34.
Givens, John. “The Strugatsky Brothers and Russian Science Fiction.” Russian Studies in Literature, vol. 47, no. 4, 2011, pp. 3–6. doi:10.2753/rsl1061-1975470400
Gombár, Zsófia. “Literary Censorship and Homosexuality in Kádár-Regime Hungary and Estado Novo Portugal.” Queering Translation, Translating the Queer, edited by Brian James Baer and Klaus Kaindl. Routledge, 2017, pp. 144–56.
Göndör, Éva. Munka és család a munkajog tükrében. Universitas-Győr, 2015.
Klein Tumanov, Larissa. “Writing for a Dual Audience in the Former Soviet Union.” Transcending Boundaries: Writing for a Dual Audience of Children and Adults, edited by Sandra L. Beckett, Garland, 1999, pp. 129–48.
Horváth, Attila.“A cenzúra működési mechanizmusa Magyarországon a szovjet típusú diktatúra időszakában.” Magyar sajtószabadság és –szabályozás 1914-1989. Médiatudományi Intézet, 2013, pp. 80–98.
Kiss, Yudit. “The second ‘no’: Women in Hungary.” Feminist Review, vol. 39, no. 1, 1991, pp. 49–57.
Lemberg, R.B. “Ungendering the English translation of the Strugatskys’ Snail on the Slope.” Science Fiction in Translation, edited by Ian Campbell, Palgrave Macmillan, 2021, pp. 55–78.
Bogi Takács (e/em/eir/emself or they pronouns) is a Hungarian Jewish author, critic and scholar living in the US. Bogi has won the Lambda and Hugo awards, and has been a finalist for other SFF awards, including the Hexa award for advocates of Hungarian SFF. Bogi has academic book chapters forthcoming about Hungarian SFF in Lingua Cosmica II and the SF in Translation volume edited by Ian Campbell. Bogi is also currently a judge for the largest Hungarian speculative fiction award, the Zsoldos award.