Exploring Dalit-Futurism in Caste-Flavored Techno-Scientific Worlds

Exploring Dalit-Futurism in Caste-Flavored Techno-Scientific Worlds

Priteegandha Naik

This paper introduces Dalit futurism as a methodological framework to analyze the concept of caste in English-language Indian science fiction. I use the novel Chosen Spirits (2020) by Samit Basu to demonstrate its potential to speculate about different avatars of caste against a technoscientific culture. In the Indian subcontinent, the dominant groups tend to imply that caste is an “ancient” category which does not have any contemporary relevance. However, caste continues to determine different aspects of life for all individuals, depending upon one’s caste location (high or low). Dalit futurism provides a vocabulary to engage this ancient phenomenon with modern, exaggerated versions of reality, and explore this interaction to uncover various nodes of intersection. Taking the international audience into consideration, I think it is important to explain the significance of the caste system, a discriminatory system, on which Dalit futurism is premised and the resistance mounted by the anti-caste movement. In this paper, I begin by briefly explaining the characteristics, history, and contemporary effects of the caste system and the anti-caste movement. I then discuss the concept of Dalit futurism and its foundation in order to demonstrate its potential to analyze the novel.   

The Caste System and Modes of Resistance 

The caste system is a centuries-old system of stratification, mandated by Hindu religious scriptures, that dominates the Indian subcontinent. It divides the population into four varnas. [1] The first three groups are referred to as Savarnas or the upper castes: the Brahmins, associated with learning and other intellectual activities; the Kshatriyas, the warrior caste, and the Vaishyas, the merchant caste. On the other hand, the Shudras and Avarnas (referred to as Dalits and Tribals, are outside the caste social order), are associated with manual labor; they are considered to be the lowest in the hierarchy and have to face Untouchability. [2] B. R. Ambedkar, one of the most formidable critics of the caste system, has insightfully stated that it does not just divide labor but also divides laborers as it associates each occupation with a pure or impure status (Ambedkar 14). This status is ascribed at birth and cannot be changed. The caste system has created an unequal society that privileges and discriminates individuals on the basis of their caste membership. Thus, unlike economic classes which allow mobility, caste is a rigid system that has created historical advantages for the Savarnas and historical disadvantages for the Dalits who have difficulty accessing education, employment, and several other aspects of social and cultural life because of their status as “Untouchables.” In addition, it prescribes endogamy and hereditary occupation, thereby impeding social interaction, exchange of ideas and opinions, and social networks. 

However, this system has been actively resisted by several anti-caste visionaries who have fashioned alternate modes of thought at different points of time. For instance, Gail Omvedt pitches the thoughts and ideas of anti-caste intellectuals during the Bhakti movement, especially Ravidas, a Shudra saint, as one of the earliest articulations of utopia in the Indian subcontinent (18). Ravidas’s utopia opposed caste divisions and advocated for an equal and casteless society, built on “companionship” and free movement (107). [3] Omvedt contends that these visions of an ideal tomorrow were in stark opposition to the dystopian visions embodied in Kaliyuga, [4] espoused by Hindu Brahmin saints and scriptures. Since then, activists like Jyotiba Phule, Savitribai Phule, Periyar, Ambedkar, and several others have tried to steadily establish a foundation for the growth of an anti-caste movement that challenges the dominance and supremacy of caste ideologies. Their ideology resists caste discrimination by uncovering how caste disadvantages Dalits, Adivasis, and all other marginalized sections and posits an alternate system that privileges equality and social justice.

Over time, the anti-caste movement was promulgated by writers, activists, and scholars through literature, poetry, art, music, theater, and the online avenues to highlight their perspectives and culture, thereby privileging an alternate mode of imagining their community. For instance, in literature, writers and activists used the autobiographical mode to discuss the impact of life not just on themselves but also on their community. Autobiographies like The Outcaste by Sharankumar Limbale, The Kaleidoscope of my Life by Shantabai Kamble, When I Hid my Caste by Baburao Bagul, connect their plight with the societal treatment of their community. In recent times, authors like Suraj Yengde and Yashica Dutt have used the mode to discuss the contemporary avatars of caste through their books Caste Matters and Coming Out as a Dalit respectively. Artists like Arivu, Mahi Ghane, and Sumit Samos are using hip-hop to resist caste structures. The digital medium has also added another dimension to the Dalit movement by making protest sites virtual. 

Dalit Futurism

Dalit futurism is a contemporary of these efforts. I conceptualize it as a contemporary of other Indigenous Futurisms, such as Chicano futurism, Adivasi Futurism, Subaltern Futurisms, etc. It is an analytical framework that explores the representation of caste and gender in Indian science fiction in English. It is an interdisciplinary project that draws from Dalit studies, science fiction studies, and science and technology studies. I argue that the government’s belief in technology as the solution for all issues fails to consider the inherent inequalities associated with their adoption. Thus, my project builds on extant scholarship that highlights how engineers, developers, and multi-national corporations embed their biases and prejudices in the design, development, and deployment of technology (Boeri 113; Toyama). This is visible in Indian matrimonial apps and websites, the lack of effective engineering solutions to eradicate manual scavenging, e-governance services for identity cards that do not account for landless and paperless Dalit communities, and online regulations that do not recognize caste-based hate speech (De’ 46; Pradhan and Mittal 275). As the twenty-first century rides on the back of new and emerging technologies, I suggest that it is important to understand and explore how caste interacts with technology and the emerging technoscientific culture.

I propose this investigation through Indian science fiction on caste. I theorize Dalit futurism as a methodological tool that enables the exploration of caste futures in alternate technoscientific worlds. It upholds Ambedkarism, [7] which resists caste discrimination by uncovering how caste influences different aspects of social, cultural, and political reality. It recognizes the potential in SF to defamiliarize the familiar and thereby provide freedom to its writers to explore different features of caste. As a result, it can disrupt, question, and challenge various notions about the caste system. Moreover, this defamiliarizing technique enables the genre to link past, present, and future on a single platform illustrating the contemporary avatars of caste. It uses the concepts of cognitive estrangement, the novum, and the mega-text to analyze how caste mutates in these science-fictional worlds and how our science-fictional and cultural vocabulary helps readers to comprehend the defamiliarized fictional environment (Naik 18). Dalit futurism destabilizes the boundaries between science fiction and Dalit studies to create an interdisciplinary space. It allows a simultaneous movement between the fictional and the real world. The fictional engagement with caste-flavored technologies encourages us to think about our reality. 

Dalit Futurism as a Methodological Tool

To illustrate this phenomenon, I analyze Chosen Spirits (2020) by Samit Basu, a dark, dystopian novel set in 2050s India. Basu extrapolates and exaggerates the events that led up to the Citizenship Amendment Act, 2019 [6]—both the protest and the government crackdown. The fictional world is replete with imaginary technologies that are embedded with caste biases and attitudes. These function as novums that are introduced into the market by Savarna businessmen who wish to maintain their status quo. 

Here, Dalit futurism enables me to analyze how caste is deployed in two major ways: firstly, by the amplification of the neoliberal economy that effectively sheaths caste ideologies; secondly, how this facade is maintained through the media discourse and challenged by the marginalized through the same platform. This hegemony is ensured by controlling the public discourse through the FlowVerse, a 24/7 live platform that is the major source of news and entertainment and can be compared to an amalgamation of social media platforms like Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube. 

Basu parodies the caste-corporate entities by exaggerating the social capital and networks cultivated by the Savarnas, i.e., Banias by creating the fictional “access-caste Brahmin,” a group that has been able to convert their social capital and networks to cultivate “one-degree relationships with real power” (Basu 68). This element signals the Brahmin-Bania nexus, first explained by Ambedkar, as a symbiotic relationship between the educated Madras Brahmins who were reporters and journalists, and the Banias, who provided financial support to the newspaper organizations. By pointing out the importance of historical advantages accrued by Brahmins, Ambedkar illustrates how the community has been able to re-adapt and re-fashion itself into advantageous positions, even as it acted internally, in isolation. Fuller and Narsimha’s study on Tamil Brahmins interprets this general prosperity as an art of power cultivated through accumulated social and cultural capital, which allowed them to adapt their professions and perceive upcoming opportunities while withdrawing from extremely competitive ones (27). In the novel, the success of Chopra as an access-caste Brahmin makes caste visible in political and economic governance. His investment in the development of an app to sell the lower castes, immigrants, and climate-change refugees; the antagonist Rohit’s belief in the contemporary manifestation of caste-ascribed occupations, and the hindered access to the market experienced by Dalit-run businesses all explain how caste blocks Dalit entry. 

These social inequalities are orchestrated and maintained through media organizations that operate on the FlowVerse. The FlowVerse hosts multiple FlowStars simultaneously and engineers multiple realities, a hyperbolized version of our contemporary reality wherein AI algorithms on social media craft an exclusive “feed” that is in tune with an individual’s tastes, preferences, and attitudes. Initially, the FlowVerse was being used by the marginalized to highlight their opinions, but over time was seized by caste-corporate entities. This is analogous to the Indian social reality which was reflected in the abysmal coverage of COVID-19, incidents of caste atrocities, and lopsided coverage that ignored Dalit issues or misrepresented them—indicating how news reportage has been compromised due to the nexus (Abhishek; Menon). The near-complete blackout of Dalit issues reflects the caste-prone mindset of the mainstream media, also a result of lack of effective representation as regular studies have revealed the lack of Dalits, Bahujan, and Adivasis in newsrooms (Who Tells Our Stories 1, 6). This state of affairs helps to contextualize Ambedkar’s warning about the Brahmin-Bania nexus in news organizations as the latter would be swayed by profit, not well-being. 

However, there is a secret underground movement brought together by Dalit artists and other marginalized folks that challenges the establishment. The most prominent activists in this fictional world are E-Klav and Desibryde, multi-media artists who subvert and challenge dominant narratives through Ambedkar’s ideas. E- Klav and Desibryde reject the holiness and reverence accorded to Hindu gods and goddesses and instead privilege the ideals espoused in the Indian constitution. E-Klav and Desibryde’s protests are a reflection of the Ambedkarite ideology, which promotes modern, secular attitudes.

I suggest that the performances enacted by these activists must not be considered solitary activities but efforts to build a counter-culture that foregrounds Ambedkar thought: “Educate. Agitate. Organize.” By visibly inserting Ambedkarite ideology in their protest, E-Klav and Desibryde locate oppression in caste-flavored neoliberalism. Thus, E-Klav and Desibryde’s protests are reminiscent of the multi-modal strategies utilized by Dalit activists like Thenmozhi Soundarajan, Anurag Minus Verma, Meena Kandasamy, @anti-casteCat, and others, who use an eclectic array of styles to present the Dalit perspective and challenge the neglect accorded by the mainstream media, by asserting their presence. These artists intervene in the perception of a single reality and highlight how caste privilege creates a reality that erases the struggles of the marginalized from their “feed.” This assertion amidst their mainstream negation is a powerful manner of resistance. 


[1] Varnas is a Sanskrit word that refers to social groups.

[2] Untouchability was a ritual practice prescribed by the caste system wherein the touch of the Shudras and Avarnas was considered to be “polluting.” Thus, these social groups were excluded from public spaces and institutions.

[3] This is in stark contrast to the restrictions imposed on the Shudras and Avarnas that prevented them from accessing public spaces (roads, markets, etc).

[4] Hinduism believes in four yugas, i.e., different periods of time. The world began with the age of Gods and has slowly deteriorated to Kaliyuga, the contemporary period which is ruled by greed, sins, and vices. Brahmanical saints envisioned Kaliyuga as dystopic precisely because of the breakdown of the caste system and the admixture of different castes. This “deterioration” of the social order is considered to be apocalyptic enough to lead to the end of the world.

[5] Ambedkarism is an anti-caste philosophy that is largely attributed to the ideas and thoughts of Dr. B. R. Ambedkar, but like all movements has grown and expanded in scope and reach.

[6] The Citizenship Amendment Act, 2019, is an Indian law that enables persecuted religious minorities like the Sikhs, Hindus, Christians, Parsis, Buddhists, and Jains from Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Bangladesh to gain Indian Citizenship. The Act led to widespread protests across the country and was heavily criticized for using religion as an eligibility criterion. The brutal government crackdown on these protests drew global attention. See “The Citizenship Amendment Act was the straw that broke the camel’s back” by Guarav Lele on the news portal, Newslaundry.


Abhishek, Aman. “How the Modi Government Manufactured Public Opinion during the Migrant Crisis.” The Wire, 25 June 2020, https://thewire.in/media/covid-19-migrant-crisis-public-opinion-modi.

Ambedkar, B. R. Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar: Writings and Speeches. Dr. Ambedkar Foundation, 2014.

Basu, Samit. Chosen Spirits. Simon & Schuster India, 2020.

Boeri, Natascia. “Technology and society as embedded: an alternative framework for information and communication technology and development.” Media, Culture & Society, vol. 38, no. 1, 2016, pp. 107–118.

De’, Rahul. “Caste Structures and E-Governance in a Developing Country.” Lecture Notes in Computer Science (Including Subseries Lecture Notes in Artificial Intelligence and Lecture Notes in Bioinformatics). 5693 LNCS. 2009, pp. 40–53.

Fuller, Christopher John, and Haripriya Narasimhan. Tamil Brahmans: The Making of a Middle-Class-Caste. U of Chicago P, 2021.

Lele, Gaurav. “The Citizenship Amendment Act Was the Straw That Broke the Camel’s Back.” Newslaundry, 22 Aug. 2020, https://www.newslaundry.com/2020/08/22/the-citizenship-amendment-act-was-the-straw-that-broke-the-camels-back, Accessed 14 Jan. 2023. 

Menon, Shivani. “Hathras: The Curious Case of Media Spectacle and Mockery of Gbv  Journalism.” Feminism In India, 2 Nov. 2020,  https://feminisminindia.com/2020/11/03/hathras-the-curious-case-of-media-spectacle-and-mockery-of-gbv-journalism/.

Naik, Priteegandha. “The Science-Fictionalisation of Globalisation and Image Advertising in Harvest by Manjula Padmanabhan,” Fafnir – Nordic Journal of Science Fiction and  Fantasy Research, Volume vol. 7, no. 1, 2020, pp.14–26.

Omvedt, Gail. Seeking Begumpura: The Social Visions of Anticaste Intellectuals. Navayana, 2008. 

Oxfam India and Newslaundry. Who Tells Our Stories Matters: Representation of  Marginalised Caste Groups in Indian Newsrooms, 2019.

Pradhan, S. and A. Mittal. “Ethical, Health and Technical Concerns Surrounding Manual Scavenging in Urban India.” Journal of Public Health, vol. 28, 2020, pp. 271–276.

Toyama, Kentaro. “Can technology end poverty.” Boston Review, vol. 36, no. 5, 2010. pp 12–29.

Priteegandha Naik has submitted her thesis on Dalit-futurism which discussed Dalit studies, science fiction studies, and science and technology studies. She is currently working as a research associate at Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai. 

Extractive Practices Depicted in Adrish Bardhan’s Science Fiction

Extractive Practices Depicted in Adrish Bardhan’s Science Fiction

Monali Chatterjee

The imagination of human beings, beyond all existing wonders of science and technology, often fuels the creation of scientific inventions and interventions. One of the best manifestations of such imagination is science fiction in literature. Science fiction in films is sometimes restrained or modified by production constraints. But the world of imagination in literature is unlimited for both the writer and the reader. It is for this reason that the genre of science fiction is one of the most popular genres of the postmodern era. Although science fiction originated in the West, (Roberts 24) it has travelled beyond the borders of western countries as a highly sought-after and successful genre. Some of the most lauded authors of sci-fi in India are Satyajit Ray (1921-1992), Adrish Bardhan (1932-2019), and Anish Deb (1951-2021).

As a highly acclaimed writer of both crime and science fiction, a translator, and an editor, Adrish Bardhan is an immortal name in the world of science fiction among the readers of Bengali literature. He graduated in science from Calcutta University. His ingenious science fiction immediately captured the interest of young adults and adult readers alike. The main character in his science fiction, Professor Natboltu Chakra, is a dedicated and celebrated researcher who garnered overwhelming approbation among Bardhan’s readers. Apart from translating crime and detective fiction into Bengali and other stories, he has also edited a couple of science fiction magazines, Ascharya and Fantastic. Starting in 1963, Ascharya became the first science fiction magazine in India. 

As one of the pioneers of science fiction in a regional language in India, Adrish Bardhan’s stories have been immensely popular. His corpus of stories “distinguishes its fictional worlds to one degree or another from the world in which we actually live: a fiction of the imagination rather than observed reality, a fantastic literature” (Roberts 1). Much of his science fiction, without being pedantic, subtly conveys serious messages, hoping to encourage lay readers to become environmentally cognizant and socially responsible citizens through its subtle didacticism. As a postmodernist genre, science fiction is often a hard-hitting literary channel through which a futuristic depiction of the predicament of humans. This is typically characteristic of Adrish Bardhan’s literature.

These tales are erected upon flawlessly conceivable scientific elucidations of unusual manifestations or incidences and significantly concern human existence, like the mutations of hormones or organisms, an erratic android robot, and “dark energy” or “the talking tree” warning about the inevitable catastrophe of the irreversible destruction of the world. This paper explores how such innovative representation and techno-cultural advances demonstrate the concept of extraction in varying degrees and dimensions. Through this research, an attempt has been made to examine Bardhan’s use of coherently integrated science fiction and fantasy in some selected stories by proposing revolutionary resolutions for climatic changes, natural calamities, global terrorism, and extractive practices. Bardhan’s narratives conform to a “branch of fantastic, or non-realist, fiction in which difference is located within a materialist, scientific discourse, whether or not the science invoked is strictly consonant with science as it is understood today” (Roberts 2). The criterion for selecting these stories is the projection of science fiction through the lens of extractive practices that dominates much of the neo-liberalist economy in the present day.

The notion of extraction involves the coerced removal of resources, objects, or individuals from their current habitat to another space. This coercion may involve the violence of invasion, burglary, or parasitic infestation of another organism, individual, or space. Extraction also refers to the fortification of a certain structure or system by bringing resources from another place. This may lead to the imperialist displacement of entire communities and civilizations, thereby commodifying the resources of the victims.

Bardhan’s stories concerning such extractive practices can be classified into three categories for the purpose of this research: attempts of extraction, extraction of resources, and global extraction. However, every story that is discussed in this paper does not always befit a single category. The analysis of these selected science fiction stories by Adrish Bardhan is based on an English translation, originally written in Bengali. Sci-fi is a “cultural wallpaper” (Aldiss and Wigmore 14) and some of the Bengali diction has been retained in the analysis to preserve the authenticity of the research. Most of the stories are narrated by the character of Dinanath Nath as witnessed by him or told to him by Prof. Natboltu Chakra.

Attempts of extraction in Bardhan’s tales expose the vanity of human greed and ambition. The stories that are elucidated below depict failed attempts of extraction. A perfect balance of science and fantasy comes to the rescue and prevents this extraction. The story “Maron Machine” (“Death Machine”) demonstrates the sudden disappearance of rockets launched in space by various wealthy and ambitious nations. These rockets vanish into thin air, causing nations to indict one another with allegations of theft and deceit. Astronauts had previously reported seeing a planet-like puckered sphere, or a “death machine,” before they disappeared into this “black hole.” It is only when Prof. Natboltu confronts this machine through an expedition in a one-man spaceship that he learns that the world of machines in this spherical space-ship wishes to take over the entire Universe by killing all forms of life, including humans on Earth. It is only through immense persuasion that the professor establishes that humans and machines can coexist without making one feel inferior to the other, and he miraculously leaves with a cancer-destroying virus. Here, Prof. Natboltu uses extraction to his advantage. The story demonstrates a failed attempt at aliens’ extraction of the human race. Stableford points out that “Such accounts of ominous cosmic encounters often found abundant dramatic fuel in analogies drawn between physics and psychology” (65).

A more pronounced degree of attempted extraction is visible in the story “Molecule Manush” (“Molecule Man”). Pitambar, a well-equipped excavator, consults Prof. Natboltu and successfully excavates the hidden treasures of King Jaidev of Jaigarh Fort of Kashmir from clues that he forcibly extracts from its neighbouring tribal communities. The clues indicate that out of the four secret stone rooms under a stone slab, three are stuffed with gold jewellery and sovereigns, which Pitambar greedily extracts out of the cavity (Bardhan 421). The warning in the clues indicated that the fourth room should not be opened. However, Pitambar’s avarice prompts him to force open this cubicle, which contains King Jaidev’s tomb in a glass box. Suddenly, the corpse inside vanishes and all the extracted gold splashes and sinks into River Iravati, on the edge of which this secret vault existed. Pitambar mournfully relates this failed attempt to Prof. Natboltu in a very different voice, which later turns out to be that of the deceased King Jaidev.

King Jaidev had been hibernating in his tomb, through his capacity to change the structure of molecules within himself (gifted by this courtier scientist) and can assume the appearance of anyone he chooses. Since Pitambar comes to extract his treasures, he changes the molecular structure of the vaults and the gold appears to sink in the river, but is actually restored back to its vaults. King Jaidev parasitically invades Pitambar’s body by making changes to the molecular structure and assumes his appearance. Having reported about this extraction to the professor, King Jaidev likely moves into the body of some other powerful person in order to extract wealth and power from another place. While Pitambar’s extraction fails, King Jaidev’s extraction through molecular changes triumphs at the end of the story. This echoes the notion that “Values and beliefs, understanding and interpretations change with time and place but they take hold of the human imagination at a deep level” (Nichols viii).

The extraction of resources belonging to humans by external forces or aliens is vividly depicted in Bardhan’s stories. In the story “Android Atanko” (“Android Terror”), a human-looking Android tears apart a nine-year-old tribal girl after kidnapping her to see how her body was different from its own synthetic fibres. This is an unusual extraction of a human by an android machine. This android is not an operating system in a computer or a robot but, rather, a synthesised human manufactured in a laboratory. It reads the mind of a man and assists him in pilfering a lump sum of money from an ATM, claiming that the programme of morality or ethics has not been installed into his system. On learning this from the TV news, the creator, Dr. Mathamota (translates as Dr. Fathead) of this android machine, with Prof. Natboltu’s assistance rescinds the powers of the android to save the world from further damage. In this respect, the story recalls Frankenstein by Mary Shelley.

Extraction can also be a silent pursuit instead of a violent one. This is best illustrated in the story “Sona” (“Gold”). Instead of a single case of extraction, a series of extractive practices are conducted by aliens to secure gold from traditional sources that humans have accumulated for the last ten centuries and which are a form of a national legacy for each country from which it has been stolen. Two aliens receive shelter on the deserted island of Andaman with Prof. Natboltu’s help from the government of India. However, after some time, they send a swarm of insects loudly buzzing into a luxurious resort in Japan and cart away its prized gold bathtub despite strict surveillance. The locust-like swarm of insects dissolves statues of gold weighing hundreds of tons from a pharaoh’s tomb in Egypt, Ghengis Khan’s gold coins from Iran, Baron Rez’s gold from the Middle Ages, the gold of the religious crusaders of the 13th century in Paris, Khan Batu’s two golden horses from the Sahara desert, gold burgled from the temples of the Inca civilization by Spanish and Portuguese looters that had been drowned in the stormy seas, a large golden statue from Bangkok, Thailand, and vast reserves of gold from Fort Knox in the US. When Prof. Natboltu confronts the spike-headed aliens with charges of burglary, they admit that they need gold for survival just like humans require iron for their blood. Prof. Natboltu also detects that the culprits had extracted the idea of getting a species of insects to be able to coat itself with gold from the researchers of France and Germany so that the precious metal could be pilfered from anywhere in broad daylight.

These extractive practices demonstrate the subtle and dormant but immoral inclinations that sometimes take control of trespassing humans in the world. D’Ammassa is convinced that “it is extremely unlikely that humans would be able to live on alien worlds, even with compatible atmospheres, because the biochemistry of the local plants and animals would almost certainly not provide us with viable sources of food” (313). Therefore, Bardhan brings the aliens to the Earth to project his sarcasm about human avarice.

“Kaalo Chaakti” (“Black Diskette”) is a spine-chilling tale of a ruthless, rapid extraction of human bodies by a virus that pervades the world. It depicts all the forms of extraction mentioned above. In a lonely place, a medical student, Nikhil, finds a black diskette measuring an inch and half in diameter that suddenly pricks him with its unnoticeable barb. By the time Nikhil reaches his classroom with his roommate, Abhay, he is seized with a violent flu and is rushed to the hospital. The contents of his pocket are emptied into a drawer of the cabinet of the hospital ward. When no one is around, the black diskette emits light and a ray penetrates Nikhil’s eye and changes him forever.

Nikhil returns to the university campus hostel where he stays with Abhay, feeling fit and healthy, but Abhay notices drastic mutations in Nikhil’s body and personality. His eyes become listless and emit light in the dark. At 2:10 am one morning, Nikhil shows Abhay what appears to be a meteor shower in the dark sky. Nikhil does not seem to know how he knew about the meteor shower of Pleiades (Kritika constellation). This is a subtle extraction by a virus through the black diskette that inhibits his body and mind. Nikhil gets in touch with others who have been infected in a similar way and secretly disposes off the corpse of Natowar, a hospital ward-attendant whose case was under scrutiny because of his mysterious death by the diskette. This infection spreads in a police station and, at 2:30 am one morning, Abhay finds Nikhil in a secret meeting with thirty other such infected persons.

Abhay finds Nikhil downloading software, meeting Nitu Bose (in the same city), a software titan and Nikhil’s continuous efforts in spreading the virus. By this time, the mutating virus has infected not only the people of the city, but also spread throughout the world. People infected with the virus would buy the diskettes from infected shopkeepers for infecting their own children. People who were in power in various countries are also infected. Those infected exhort the others to join the community of the infected “superhumans.” Nitu Bose writes to the UN to get infected by the virus or be prepared for war. Abhay extracts a yellow fluid from the barb of the black diskette and consults Prof. Natboltu. The UN sends military arrangements through an aeroplane to the city of the university where Nikhil studies. A diskette flies past and the plane vanishes into thin air. This implies that the diskette is capable of creating a mini black hole, which is a lethal form of extraction. Instead of being governed by an individual’s own brain, a mutated person is governed by a super brain that exists in the Milky Way.

Apart from the diskette and the meteor showers, the extractors are not visible to humans. Prof. Natboltu realises that the black diskette releases “prion” proteins into the human body, which activates a dormant lethal virus that is present in the DNA of human genes. By spreading a special kind of laughing gas using missiles all over the world (with the help of his millionaire friend and missile owner, P. G. Putatundo) and dousing the diskettes into liquid oxygen, the effect of the mutation-causing virus is finally dispelled and the human beings are liberated from the deadly virus. About sixty per cent of the total population of the world had been infected by this virus. Most of these humans die and the rest are morphed back to their original human form. The Earth becomes much lighter with the decrease in population. This helps the governments to curb poverty and unemployment.

Global-level extraction is evident in those of Bardhan’s stories in which non-humans urgently point out important messages to human beings. The subtly didactic stories remind   the readers how human beings have been extracting precious resources from the planet without being concerned about its consequences and the possible extinction of the entire human race. Under the influence of neo-liberalism, humans have been extracting a far greater quantity of natural resources and non-renewable energy in order to commodify them in the international market. The human extraction of natural resources leads to the extinction of both.

The ultimate form of human extraction by humans in the form of war, terrorism and all forms of actions that threaten world peace is poignantly depicted in the story “Dark Energy.” In order to put an end to the violent atrocities, the “quintessence” (as expounded by Aristotle) or “Dark Energy” shows Dinanath Nath around the war-smitten and terror-stricken nations of the world. “Dark Energy” depicts the reification of scientific fantasies into reality by a sudden bombardment of all the defence systems of countries that are governed by the hegemony of terrorism and tyranny. Dark Energy—represented by a very heavy marble—turns out to be a wondrous antidote to world terrorism and anarchy. However, it shows how this extraction could be avoided if human beings value world peace.

The warning against human extraction of natural resources is firmly reinstated in the story “Gaachh” (“Tree”). Prof. Natboltu finds a square stone and is hypnotically drawn to Easter Island on the Pacific Ocean. A large ancient tree on its neighbouring island, Motu Nui, communicates to the professor through its cells about the perilous consequences of climatic changes due to the continual human extraction of natural resources and deforestation. Bardhan suggests a production-oriented economy instead of an “extractive economy” (Hecht 257).

Prof. Natboltu is an unbiased scientist who has taken upon himself the task of restoring world peace and stopping any form of forcible or unethical extraction. He ensures that poetic justice is present and retribution is meted out to those who deserve it. In most of these stories, the extraction is stopped or prevented in order to bring about poetic justice in the interest of humans and the survival of the planet. Bardhan’s style of depicting sci-fi vs reality rises beyond binary aspects like nature vs technology, history vs global progress, and human beings vs nature. Extractive activities have been part of human existence since the inception of humans on the planet. Bardhan’s science fiction proposes simple solutions that may require the vast majority to think alike, towards the conservation of natural and ecological resources in order to minimise the effects of climate change. The hope that the urgent messages against extraction in Bardhan’s stories may reach a wide audience convinces Bardhan’s readers (most notably, through the story “String Bhoot”) that the science of the past may become outdated, but the science fiction of today becomes the science of the future (Bardhan 658).


Aldiss, Brian. W. and David Wingrove. Trillion Year Spree: The History of Science Fiction. Gollancz, 1986.

Bardhan, Adrish. Professor Natboltu Chakra Sangraha. Ananda Publishers, n.d.

D’Ammassa, Don. Encyclopaedia of Science Fiction. Facts on File Library on World Literature, 2005.

Hecht, Susanna. “Extraction, Gender and Neoliberalism in the Western Amazon.” Nature, Raw Materials, and Political Economy: Research in Rural Sociology and Development, vol. 10, 2005, 253–285.

Nichols, Bill. “Foreword.” Cognitive Theory and Documentary Film, edited byCatalin Brylla and Mette Kramer.  Palgrave Macmillan, 2018, v-x.

Roberts, Adam. Science Fiction: The Critical Idiom. Routledge, 2000.

—. The History of Science Fiction. Second Edition. Palgrave, 2006.

Stableford, Brian. Science Fact and Science Fiction: An Encyclopedia. Routledge, 2006.

Why Women Can’t Be Space Marines…or Priests: Warhammer 40K and Catholic Theology

Why Women Can’t Be Space Marines…or Priests: Warhammer 40K and Catholic Theology

Jess Flarity

Warhammer 40,000 (henceforth, 40k) is the world’s most popular miniature war game (“Top Five”, Harrop 3) while the Jesuits are the largest male religious order in the Catholic Church (Jesuits.org). Both institutions are founded on principles featuring women’s exclusion: women cannot serve as Jesuit priests nor become “Space Marines,” a kind of warrior-priest in 40k’s science fictional far future (the year 40,000). The Catholic priesthood officially became male-only in the late 4th century, at the Council of Laodicea near the end of the Perso-Roman War (New Advent, Cannon 11), while 40k’s fan base has remained overwhelmingly male since it debuted in 1987 (Harrop: 1 in 36 players are women; Dakkadakka.com: 7% of site users are female-identifying respondents). This essay analyzes the Church’s public response to women-as-priests by Catholic leaders, such as Jesuit Superior-General Arturo Sosa, Pope Francis, and Pope John Paul II, then draws comparisons to the response of women as Space Marines by the creators and fans of 40k; the two communities have striking similarities. This would not be surprising to German philosopher Jürgen Habermas, who stated in his treatise on the intersection between secular and religious communities, An Awareness of What is Missing: “Secularization functions less as a filter separating out the contents of traditions than as a transformer which redirects the flow of tradition” (18). The goal of this essay is to bridge what Habermas calls the “cleavage between secular knowledge and revealed knowledge” (17) and provide a clear breakdown for a devout Jesuit priest or a fanatical 40k player on how their organization directly supports the oppression of women. My intention is to create communicative action in the Habermasian sense and redirect the flow of a harmful tradition: the exclusion of women from what should obviously be gender-neutral spaces.

40k and the lore surrounding the game is a particularly useful comparison to Catholicism because of how quickly it grew from being a niche hobby into something like its own religion. What started as a tabletop battle system has transformed over three decades into a multimedia platform that publishes novels, video games, and a variety of other content all marketed towards its predominantly male audience; its parent company, Games Workshop, now has market capital of more than a billion British pounds (Hern). Violent games and the surrounding “geek culture” have been overwhelmingly masculine since their development in the 1970’s, as the Atarigame console and pen-and-paper games like Dungeons and Dragons were developed and tested almost exclusively by men. While this “default maleness” in geekdom has slowly shifted to be more welcoming to women in recent years, incidents such as 2014’s Gamergate and the Sad/Rabid Puppies controversy at Worldcon continue to prove how reluctant these conservative cultures are to accepting women as full members of their communities.

While 40k players tend to be middle-class, white “geeks” between the ages of 15 and 40 (Hern), Jesuit priests are a diverse congregation known around the world for their academic contributions and their commitment to helping impoverished communities. This is despite the fact that the Order’s modern vow of chastity is based on Saint Augustine’s incredibly biased theological writings equating a woman’s sexuality with sin (Torjesen 223), creating a dynamic that psychologist and laicized Catholic priest Eugene Kennedy calls, “[a] signature [that] has been branded so deeply into the ecclesiastical organizational tree that it seems as natural to those who tend it as the grain of the wood itself” (174). As of August 2022, Pope Francis continues to block any attempts allowing priests to marry, or for women to be elevated into the lesser role of a church deacon, even though he stated in 2018’s Synod for the Amazon, “Let us not reduce the involvement of women in the Church, but instead promote their active role in the ecclesial community” (Chapter V, 99).

In a similar tactic to skirt accusations of misogyny, the newest Eighth and Ninth editions of 40k feature female characters as centerpieces in Games Workshop’s promotional materials (“Warhammer-Community”), and the previously sexualized models in the armies called the Sisters of Battle (space nuns) and the Dark Eldar (space elves) have been “toned down” since their original creation, possibly in response to related feminist backlash against the game in the early 2010’s. Despite the increase of women’s roles in media portrayals, the various factions of the male-only Space Marines continue to dominate in popularity among casual and tournament players, comprising over 50% of all the armies fielded in 2019, while the Sisters of Battle were less than 2% of all the armies fielded (40kstats.com). In addition, Space Marine characters serve by far as the most common protagonists for the game’s supplementary materials, such as the hundreds of in-universe novels, as well as in related movies and video games (Black Library).

The fact that Space Marines can only be men is echoed throughout the ranks of every Catholic priesthood, but this essay will focus specifically on the Jesuits, as the Order’s reputation of being the most “liberal” wing of the Church was first recognized in the secular American consciousness during the 1960’s (McDonough: “Metamorphoses” 329), suggesting that individual Jesuit priests may secretly be in favor of ordaining women in spite of their current leader, Arturo Sosa, stating in 2017 that women’s full inclusion into the priesthood “has not yet arrived” (“Stirring the Waters”). In contrast to Sosa, feminist scholar and practicing Catholic Tina Beattie positions female priests as a modern necessity in the introduction of New Catholic Feminism:

…until women are recognized as full and equal participants in the life of faith, until we are acknowledged as persons graced with the image of God, capable of representing Christ to the world as fully and effectively as men do, the Church herself will continue to be a spiritual desert where men’s fears and fantasies lead them to refuse the grace that female sacramentality might bring to Catholic liturgical and institutional life (2).

Beattie’s idea that men’s “fears and fantasies” control their views of women is a critical building block in the philosophical parallels between 40k’s history and Jesuit theology. Strict adherence to holy scripture/game lore is necessary for maintaining the identity of a priest/player, and unfortunately, blaming women’s biology, specifically its reproductive or sexual power, serves as a scapegoat for these individuals having to reflect on their institution’s own problematic teachings.

Fictional Game Lore Functions as Religious Doctrine

When Catholic priests and 40k players follow a “divine” canon, it relieves them of personal responsibility regarding their beliefs and actions related to these beliefs. This technique is a very common one in conservative circles, and was used to negate any chance of women Catholic priests by Pope John Paul II in his 1994 apostolic letter, Ordinatio sacerdotalis:

I declare that the Church has no authority whatsoever to confer priestly ordination on women and that this judgment is to be definitively held by all the Church’s faithful…The fact that the Blessed Virgin Mary…received neither the mission proper to the apostles nor the ministerial priesthood clearly shows that the nonadmission of women to priestly ordination cannot mean that women are of lesser dignity, nor can it be construed as a discrimination against them. Rather, it is to be seen as the faithful observance of a plan to be ascribed to the Wisdom of the Lord of the Universe.

This statement leads devoted Catholics to absolve John Paul II of any moral failure related to the ostracization of women because it is the Church which “has no authority”—and his repeated message of obedience or faith to a mysterious “plan” further reinforces his helplessness as an individual. This type of cognitive bias serves as not just one, but two of the central pillars of Jesuit vows to obedience (Jesuits.org). Another trait visible in the Pope’s statement will feature as a motif in this essay, and that is the role of paying “lip service” to women while also treating them unequally, as this kind of “cheap talk” does not require communicative action in the Habermasian sense (Risse). John Paul II states that “nonadmission of women to priestly ordination cannot mean women are of lesser dignity” or “be construed as discrimination,” but nearly all feminist scholars as well as many female Catholics are clear in their disagreement with this position. Pope Francis has continued the tradition of mitigating the potentiality of female priests as recently as 2020, stating in the Querida Amazonia Apostolic Exhortation:

[Involving women in the Church] summons us to broaden our vision, lest we restrict our understanding of the Church to her functional structures. Such a reductionism would lead us to believe that women would be granted a greater status and participation in the Church only if they were admitted to Holy Orders. But that approach would in fact narrow our vision; it would lead us to clericalize women, diminish the great value of what they have already accomplished, and subtly make their indispensable contribution less effective (100, emphasis mine).

According to Pope Francis, the clericalization of women into advanced leadership roles within the Church will somehow “subtly make their indispensable contribution less effective,” though he provides no evidence to support his reasoning as to why, and he goes on to state:

In a synodal Church, those women…should have access to positions…that do not entail Holy Orders and that can better signify the role that is theirs…This would also allow women to have a real and effective impact on the organization, the most important decisions and the direction of communities, while continuing to do so in a way that reflects their womanhood (103, emphasis mine).

Pope Francis establishes that “appropriate” gender roles are the true foundation of Catholicism, and his command that women should serve in a way that “reflects their womanhood” is a familiar conclusion the Church has been claiming for over a thousand years. Academic researcher Peter McDonough criticized this viewpoint in 1990:

In a patriarchy, the institutional consequences of [reforms] in what might seem to be merely symbolic quandaries about the role of women are potentially very great. The connections between gender inequality, psychosexual identity, and organizational authority are—or once were—extraordinarily tight in Catholicism. Change in this area, which poses a crisis of individual and corporate identity and purpose, is centered on the working out and sustenance of a male role and personality in opposition to women (“Metamorphoses” 334).

A devoted 40k player undergoes an identical form of disassociation regarding the role of women as Space Marines; this person is heavily invested in the “world” of the game, as they have developed a kind of mental landscape out of the myriad of details regarding the different armies and alien races across a ten-thousand-year timeline that also includes many lengthy characterizations of the universe’s key human figures. In this fictional universe, the God-Emperor of Mankind is the most important character, similar to how Jesus or God plays a central role in the life of a Jesuit—when John Paul II uses terminology such as “the Lord of the Universe,” it is not difficult to see the connection between the two different mindsets. In fact, the origin story of 40k’s God-Emperor and the creation of the Space Marines from his own genetic material was intended to be a satire of religion and was partially inspired by Milton’s Paradise Lost (McAuley 192).

The ever-expanding 40k lore is known within the community as the “fluff.” While some players pay minimal attention to the fluff and instead focus on the tabletop, skirmish-based combat of the game or the hobby of painting its miniature models, other players become monk-like chroniclers of this information, with some even contributing their own material to the canon, establishing a greater ethos in their “faith” in a process not unlike being formally accepted as a priest. As of June 2020, there were over three hundred books set in the 40k universe published under Games Workshop’s literary imprint, the Black Library; some of these stories began as fan fictions which won a sponsored competition (Walliss 129). As one player stated in Walliss’ 2012 study on gender in 40k fanfiction: “the existing fluff is a kind of Bible of sorts…the established fluff is law, and breaking that is to commit some unwritten crime” (123). A central pillar of this “40k Bible” is that Space Marines can only be male, according to the original lore by Rick Priestly, and this outlook is still quietly supported by Games Workshop. A lengthy article on the game’s official website contains many explanations and diagrams regarding the pseudo-scientific enhancements a Space Marine must undergo to become an immortal, godlike super-soldier, and one section states, “…only a small proportion of people can become Space Marines. They must be male because zygotes are keyed to male hormones and tissue types, hence the need for tissue compatibility tests and psychological screening” (“Rites of Initiation”, emphasis mine).

This innocuous detail supports the baseline of a misogynistic worldview in the fictional far-future of 40k: because the vast majority of its players are male, many don’t even recognize how this element effectively denies a woman a sense of normality in the game’s hierarchy, where the Space Marines, like bishops or cardinals in the Church, are at the very top of the organization’s bureaucratic power structure. This is in part due to an internet phenomenon known as Poe’s law. First recognized in response to a Creationism forum in 2005, Poe’s law states: “Without a winking smiley or other blatant display of humor, it is utterly impossible to parody a Creationist in such a way that someone won’t mistake for the genuine article” (Ellis). Poe’s law functions as a philosophical shield for a 40k player who can point to the game’s hypermasculinity and hyperbolic levels of violence as a parody of the space opera genre, allowing them to safely assert that its feudal, “grimdark” setting should not be taken seriously, thereby inoculating its lore, and their personal beliefs, against all arguments regarding gender politics. This is in direct opposition to one of the game’s primary creators, Rick Priestly, who stated in an interview in 2015:

To me the background to 40k was always intended to be ironic…There’s no guarantee that the Emperor is anything other than a corpse with a residual mental ability to direct spacecraft. It’s got some parallels with religious beliefs and principles, and I think a lot of that got missed and overwritten (Duffy).

Many modern 40k fans and writers have fallen into the trap of Poe’s law and are unable to discern the satirical elements of the game from the parts they actively enjoy: the actual misogyny is indistinguishable from the ironic misogyny. One of many, many examples of this fractured mental state is in the 2006 novel focusing on the Sisters of Battle, titled Faith & Fire, by James Swallow. Throughout the book, male characters often muse about what it would be like to “bed” one of the Sisters, and the women are referred to constantly as “church bitches,” “wenches,” “harlots,” and “whores” throughout the text. But this one book is just the tip of a misogynist iceberg; these books inhabit shelf space at your local library and used book stores around the world, with some even appearing on the New York Times bestseller list (Harrop 4). Nearly every book is by a male author, and they are so riddled with casual sexism that the mindset of these super-fans lies in the same state Kennedy writes about Catholic priests, with “the signature branded so deeply into the ecclesiastical organizational tree that it seems as natural to those who tend it as the grain of the wood itself.” Priestly recently spoke against this trend in another interview in 2019:

…in the ‘history’ of the Imperium I always imagined there were a number of eras during which human space was divided or where societies diverged and different moral or ethical values prevailed—however—[Games Workshop] always tended towards ‘Waagh the Emperor’—for such is the nature of the business—so the portrayal of the Imperium as one, simple idea became the things that it was possible to promulgate through the business as a whole…I always thought of the Imperium as a vast self-serving bureaucracy in which no-one really knew what they were doing but they continue [to] do it out of a sense of tradition and routine—so status and power become bound up with all kinds of half-baked assumptions, received wisdom and superstition. Much like the real world really (BaronBifford).

Unfortunately, the tradition of excluding women in 40k has become “bound up” as Priestly says, with “status and power and half-baked assumptions,” but this is also an accurate portrayal of the Catholic church when addressing issues related to feminism. Tina Beattie notes the Church’s bias in her response to a 2003 letter to the public from Pope John Paul II:

Instead of seeking a balanced engagement that would acknowledge affinities as well as dissonances between Catholicism and feminism, the letter sets the (male) authority of the Catholic hierarchy over and against feminism, in such a way that all feminists are discredited and the Church’s expertise in humanity is confidently asserted (New Catholic Feminism 18).

Many 40k fans response to feminist arguments like this one in the exact same way as Catholic leaders: they assert their ethos as players/priests and cite examples of lore/doctrine as “proof” that the sexism was already there all along. What’s worse is that while these arguments are circulating, a vast amount of mental inertia accumulates as a form of religious interpretation; in over three decades of 40k’s existence, Games Workshop has slowly grown and adapted to this audience as a source of income. The company determines what remains in the canon, and radical adjustments to the lore would turn away the “hardcore” players, who are their best customers. Thus, the only hope of changing the rule of “male hormones and tissue types” for Space Marines lies in lobbying 40k’s core audience to ask for this change—the male fans—making the task appear impossible. Brunkhorst notes this obstacle in her summary of Habermas’ philosophy: “[Habermas] has never abandoned the Marxist thesis that the economic forces that determine social action have become autonomous and therefore represent a problem…” (30).

Much like other geek-identified spaces, such as Magic: The Gathering and online video games, the road to equality begins with convincing a single, biased individual to self-reflect and choose to change his thinking or behavior regarding his own sexism (Muñoz-Guerado and Triviño-Cabrera 195). But this is an incredibly difficult proposition for a population who use their identities as geeks as a form of escapism: their loyalty to the game supersedes their loyalty to any moral arguments surrounding gender equality, which many fans with traditionally conservative beliefs may actively fight against anyways. McDonough puts the Jesuits in a similar position in his book Passionate Uncertainty, which analyzes the worldviews of American priests, stating, “The Jesuits are in a bind. They cannot go back, insofar as that course would entail a return to clerical dominance in an age of lay ascendancy. But they cannot move forward without placing their clerical identity at risk” (2). Likewise, the majority of 40k fans are trapped in a cycle of moral limbo regarding the more problematic aspects of their fictional universe, and it is often easier for individuals to convince themselves that it is all “just a game” and return to a state of sublime indifference as they paint the imaginary boltguns of their immortal, eight-foot tall warrior-priests…who can only be men.

The Problem of Women’s Bodies

Perhaps what is most surprising about 40k pre-2017 was its total erasure of empowered female characters across the in-game universe, as succinctly pointed out by Muñoz-Guerado and Triviño-Cabrera (198-205). Their essay proves that it doesn’t matter which army a player chooses across the dozens of different factions and species available in the game: women are inevitably silenced, invisible, deceitful, or cruel, and when they are present, such as in the Sisters of Battle or with the elf-like Eldar, they are always subjected to the male gaze (200). But a striking example of Games Workshop shifting into post-sexism, defined by Lorente as needing to create its own aesthetics to break away from its previously stale, virile image, is with the Repentia, a squad of Sisters of Battle who have failed in their oaths to the Emperor and given up one of their “senses,” transforming them into zealous warriors. The older, pre-2017 Repentia models featured women wearing scraps of clothing, exposing oversized breasts ubiquitous in female characters throughout fantasy and science fiction settings, but in the newer, version eight models, these women are more realistically muscular and they now wear modest shorts and tank tops (“Warhammer-Community”). But nothing else about the lore surrounding this squadron has changed—these women are still whipped into a frenzy with a literal whip as punishment for their “loss of purity,” which is an echo of Christianity’s obsession with virginity and a nod to the Inquisition’s practice of flagellation. Making any alterations to the lore surrounding the Repentia would be considered heretical by most players, as adhering to the game’s “grimdark” tone makes it so that the universe is in a process of endless war: every character (male, female, or alien) is effectively dehumanized as a form of necrocapitalism, or the subjugation of life to the power of death by political and economic forces (Banerjee 1). Changing the rules or backstory of even a single problematic squad, such as the Repentia, is an impossibility because of the multiple novels, tactical books, and physical models that are already in the hands and minds of players, reinforcing the unit’s existence as a “fact.”

But despite having many instances of sexualized female characters in 40k’s models, art, and story descriptions, most lore contrasts any imagery of a woman’s body with a strong de-emphasis on romantic or consensual relationships; these are stories about brothers-in-arms going to battle, even if the characters are women (The Black Library). The “eye candy” is for the player only, as Space Marines are entirely asexual, evidenced by Dembski-Bowden when he writesupon the mindset of a new soldier,“Sexuality is a forgotten concept, alien to his mind, merely one of ten thousand humanities his consciousness has discarded” (9). In accordance with the fluff, 40k remains a tabletop war game that, like the Space Marine character, has no need for sexuality, and is powered by what Wallis calls, “a universe of testosterone-fueled conflict with little or no room for the emotional complexities or morally grey areas that characterize everyday life” (130). Because of this purposeful choice in tone by both fans and Games Workshop, a woman in this universe, the same as a man or an alien, exists only as an object that produces or absorbs violent acts. This leaves no space for empathy, confirming what J.J. Bola writes in Mask Off: Masculinity Redefined:

The effect of [violent games] is not only that extreme violence is normalized, and a social talking point for boys and men, but these games also constantly reinforce the idea of an ‘Other’; an enemy. Many boys grow up thinking that there is always someone to fight against, inculcating a kill or be killed mentality… (55).

For many 40k fans, the Beauvoirian idea of the feminine Other becomes synonymous with the enemy Other, as the nearly all-male fanbase engages in conversation with itself about the game. Some psychologists, such as Donald Meltzer, might compare this behavior with that of an individual trapped in a level of pseudo-maturity that results in masturbatory behavior; or sociologist Michael Messner could assert this is another form of “soft essentialism” which creates a naturalized version of men who society dictates can’t control their actions, as both these comparisons have been drawn from academics analyzing a variety of gaming and “men’s rights” communities on the internet (Ging). In either case, voluntarily celibate priests or involuntarily celibate players may manifest a subconscious fear and hatred of women as the source of their sexual frustration. Beattie draws this conclusion:

While celibacy can be a beautiful vocation and an inspiring witness to faith, it can also be a form of gynophobia if it leads men to form closed communities as a way of avoiding contact with women. Gynophobia infects church teaching with an impetus to dominate women through various tactics of sexual and reproductive control and priestly exclusion (“Empire of Misogyny?”).

In contrast to Games Workshop’s shift into post-sexism, the Catholic church refuses to budge even remotely on their position regarding women’s bodies as representations of sin and sexuality, having lapsed since the 1960’s into what one Jesuit has called “pelvic theology” (McDonough, Passionate Uncertainty 1). The current doctrine of Catholic beliefs in this area is still influenced primarily by the conclusions made by St. Augustine in the early 400’s, as his teachings became the Church’s main structuring device since Pope Pius XI in 1930, even though many references regarding marriage and sexuality existed before him (Clark 1-2). According to Augustine, the root of evil lies in the emotion of sexual passion, a necessity required to stimulate an erection, which results in a pleasure that is not on the account of God, and because of this, the only way to entirely avoid sin is to refrain from marriage and become celibate (On Marriage 1.19, 1.27). Because a woman’s sexuality—the sensory experience of her body by a man—is what triggers this “blush of shame” (Chapter 7), her uncontrollable physicality is what separates her from the purity of the priesthood and God. Thus, the requirement of celibacy in the Jesuit priesthood is inextricably linked to both a woman’s physical body and her ability to become ordained in their Order, creating a similar philosophical conclusion to the impossibility of female Space Marines in 40k. The Catholic church and Games Workshop teach that a woman has the wrong “tissues,” and this mantra remains a cornerstone of these biased institutions. A final warning about the lengths the Catholic church is willing to take against women comes from Beattie, who has been erased in the real world by the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith. She spoke out against the hypocrisy being perpetuated by Pope Francis, stating in 2018:

Yet far from offering a genuine model of equality in difference, [Catholic] theology of the body is ridden with sexual stereotypes and essentialisms that are largely motivated by a resistance to feminism, women’s ordination, homosexuality, abortion, contraception and, more recently, what is usually referred to in magisterial documents as “gender ideology” (“Empire of Misogyny?”).

Her arguments here were partially in response to having speaking engagements at both churches and Catholic universities cancelled, the modern-day equivalent of being branded as a heretic.

Inequality is Equality: Sisters of Battle and Nunneries

The most common argument against female Space Marines or female Catholic priests is that women already have their place within their respective institutions: in secular, working positions and nunneries for the Church, and as Sisters of Battle or in minor roles of other armies in 40k. The fact that priests/players have difficulty fathoming how weak these female organizations are when compared to their powerful, male-only counterparts is due in part to what social philosopher Zygmunt Bauman has termed “liquid modernity,” which emphasizes globalization and individualization as the major factors that have shaped our modern world, resulting in a depersonalized sociality. Sociology scholar Ross Abbinnett meshes liquid modernity with the philosophy of Emmanuel Levinas, stating that the proximity of close relationships, such as the “brothers-in-arms” mentality of priests/players, creates an ethical bond where the principles of justice do not apply to the strange Other (107), and draws this conclusion:

This then is the mechanism of destitution that is implicit in liquid modernity: the constant re-creation of vast tracts of waste humanity who are deprived of means of securing a place in the productive networks of global capitalism…if one falls below, or never acquires, a given level of social and economic capital, one is permanently cut adrift from all but the most basic necessities of life (114-115).

Abbinnett is referring here to poverty-stricken populations who are kept in the cycle of endless need, but this lesser social status parallels the position imposed on nunneries and the Sisters of Battle. By never being allowed an equal foothold within their institutions, they are limited to the “basic necessities” of their status, which translates to fewer model options and less powerful units in 40k, and women serving only as workers in Catholicism, i.e., having subservient roles that do not participate in the higher echelons of the Church’s decision-making hierarchy; examples of this include the appointment of an all-male Catholic Council for the Economy in 2014 (Zagano), and the more obvious fact that all of the voting members at the 2019 Amazon synod were men despite Pope Francis declaring earlier that year that women “should be fully included in decision-making processes” (Viggo Wexler) as yet another example of his “cheap talk” that fails in the Habermasian sense.

Games Workshop has majorly mitigated the Sisters of Battle since their inception, resulting in the army having only expensive, metal models for over twenty years, as well as a lack of flexibility in customization of their units, and a higher “point-per-unit” cost on their current models. Even though Gav Thorpe wrote the original Sisters of Battle codex in 1997, the models were only available as pewter figurines, by far the most expensive method of production (Floyd), meaning that a playable “army” of Sisters could cost a player well over a thousand dollars. This created a chicken-and-egg problem: because the Sisters had such a high price point, they sold poorly, and because nobody bought them, there was no incentive to produce plastic models. As a macabre example from my own experience with 40k, one of my fellow players bought a few Sisters models only because he thought they made exquisite corpses—he would mutilate their bodies and place them under the feet of his mighty Chaos Marines.

Even though Games Workshop finally committed to the promise of selling cheaper, plastic units for the Sisters in 2019, this army is still more costly by a wide margin than a Space Marine army of equivalent point value. As a comparison, creating a 650 point “field” for both armies using the official website, the Sisters cost $415 (U.S.), while the Space Marine army of equivalent points is only $185 (“Warhammer-Community”, prices in June 2020). In addition to this “pink tax” where the Sisters are more than twice as expensive, there are only about thirty different models for sale in their army, while the variety of Space Marine units is in the hundreds. Also, even though this army is the Sisters of Battle, five of their available units are still male models, and the masculine presence in this supposedly all-women organization breaks the common fan argument of “there can’t be female Space Marines because there are no Brothers of Battle.” In contrast, the only female unit that can be included in a Space Marine army is from the Emperor’s elite assassins, a woman whose shape-shifting capabilities only function because the drugs are “compatible with her gender,” reinforcing the woman-as-betrayer trope that is so frustratingly common throughout 40k (Muñoz-Guerado and Triviño-Cabrera 202).

This game-based data shows a measurable, mathematical way of tracking how the Sisters of Battle are at best, a third-rate competitor to the Space Marines, but correlating data from the Catholic church regarding various female-only groups of nuns and male-only groups like the Jesuits is more of a challenge. According to a survey in 2014, the number of the Catholic sisters in the U.S. has fallen from 180,000 in 1965 to about 50,000, whereas the total number of priests has dropped comparatively less, from 58,000 to 38,000 during the same time period (Lipka); the percentage of male priests has dropped by 34%, while the nuns have dropped by over twice that, at 72%. While the reasons for this discrepancy are multifarious, the main culprit appears to be tied to the secular women’s rights movement: in 2012, an all-women Catholic organization, the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR), 80% of whom are Catholic nuns, was investigated by the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith—the same Church branch which has branded Beattie as a dissenter—and many of the letters exchanged between these two factions were kept from the eyes of the public (NCR Staff).

 Leaders in the LCWR have made their voices heard regardless of any sanctions the organization received: these women are simply demanding equality in the Church, yet are continually told to “rediscover their identity” by conservatives (Fiedler), causing many women to simply abandon traditional Catholicism in favor of more progressive interpretations of the doctrine. One such group is the Roman Catholic Women Priests, who reject the penalty of excommunication imposed on them by the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith in 2008, and identify as “loyal members of the church who stand in the prophetic tradition of holy obedience to the Spirit’s call to change an unjust law that discriminates against women” (Roman Catholic Women Priests). Unlike 40k, where there are so few female players that their voices go unheard, Catholic women are loudly proclaiming and making statements in the public sphere regarding the unjust practices of the Church, who continue to engage in cheap talk in response to them—the only strategy that has proven effective in creating change, regrettably, is for women to leave their own Faith.

The Jesuits often contradict themselves on the issue of women’s ordination. Norbert Brieskorn, a Jesuit and Professor of Social and Legal Philosophy in Munich, responded to Habermas’ initial argument in An Awareness, stating, “The protection of human rights and the freedom of the religious communities to organize themselves must be guaranteed no less than the limitations placed on religious communities by generally valid laws” (35). Brieskorn believes that a religion, in this case Catholicism, should be allowed to organize itself however it wants, with an all-male voting leadership, for example, in response to the limitations placed on the religion by “generally valid laws,” which intersects meaningfully with the German Constitution, which was changed in 1994 to read: “Men and women shall have equal rights. The state shall promote the actual implementation of equal rights for women and men and take steps to eliminate disadvantages that now exist” (Article 3). Brieskorn, like the majority of Catholic priests, has decided that this particular portion of the German Constitution is one of the “not generally valid laws,” and therefore believes the Church does not need to follow a State document and take the necessary steps to eliminate the sexist disadvantages in his own Order. He defends his position thusly: “There cannot be a state Church. Reason does not presume to act as a judge concerning truths of faith and it does not require that religion should be truncated into socially useful morality” (35, emphasis mine). One of these “truths of faith” in the view of a male priest like Brieskorn is that women cannot be ordained, so the rules of the State do not apply, and thus their religion cannot be “truncated into socially useful morality,” despite the Church’s continued claims of serving as a moral authority on many social issues. Feminist theorists are exasperated by this type of reasoning, as it sets up what Beattie calls “draping [the implications of dominating women] in the romantic language of maternal nature and ‘feminine genius’” (“Empire of Misogyny?”).

An example of this “draping” is when Arturo Sosa, Superior General of the Society of Jesus, argues that the Jesuits are making movements in the direction of equality, even though his rhetoric falls into the same lip service category as the statements made by Pope Francis. He made many compliments to the “feminine genius” at the Vatican in 2017, ironically concluding with, “We can listen carefully to the experience of women in the public sphere, hear how they work together, and be inspired by their courage. These are stories of doing the impossible” (“Stirring the Waters”). To be clear, this is the message women are getting from the Catholic World Church: We will listen to you, and then change nothing.

In 2017, as a way of maintaining his liberal persona, Pope Francis created a “Study Commission on the Women’s Diaconate” to explore the history and role of women in the Church structure, and to many of the Faithful, the act of making this commission looked like an extended hand to build communicative power with women in the Habermasian fashion. But members of the academic and secular community now see this motion as a massive failure: the commission finished its research in 2019 and not only did the review board advise the Pope that women can’t be priests, even the matter of making them deacons, a lesser role that still has little power in the Church hierarchy, was questioned—and yet another commission has been formed to look into that matter (Winfield). Again, because of the rapid pace people live under during “liquid modernity,” Pope Francis and his successors only need to keep making commissions where the board members draw disapproving or mixed conclusions, and then the argument for making women priests, or even deacons, can be suspended indefinitely.

Conclusion: No Girls Allowed?

If Arturo Sosa truly wants to make a difference in the lives of women, he must follow his own advice and do more than just listen—he should reach out to the Women’s Ordination Campaign (WOW). Founded in 1996, WOW has meticulously documented all the ecclesiological arguments necessary to ordain Catholic women priests and has support from individual Jesuits, though usually posthumously or on their deathbeds (Sagado). With the combined efforts of WOW, the LCWR, Roman Catholic Women Priests, and other like-minded organizations, the Jesuits have the unique opportunity to blaze a new path by being the first Order in the history of the Church to ordain women. But Sosa, like all the other male-only priests, possibly fears repudiation at the hand of Pope Francis, who upholds traditional doctrine and has excommunicated both male priests who support the ordination of women and also women who try and become priests, as well as any advocates for other hardline topics such as gay rights or the right to an abortion (Dias and Gorny). Likewise, Games Workshop fears the loss of their hardcore male fanbase if they are too openly “woke” in regards to female Space Marines.

Patriarchal institutions stay in power because of the collective like-mindedness of their male populations while also keeping access to resources restricted to the men in their leadership roles. By comparing the beliefs and behavior patterns of members of the Jesuit faithful to the nonreligious members of the 40k gaming community, this essay implores both priests and players around the world to undertake action on the personal level and begin lobbying their institutions to stop the cheap talk regarding the subjection of women. As Habermas states near the end of An Awareness:

Violations of universally accepted norms of justice can be more easily established, and denounced with good reasons, than can pathological distortions of forms of life…I suspect that nothing will change in the parameters of public discourse and in the decisions of the politically empowered actors without the emergence of a social movement which fosters a complete shift in political mentality (73-74).

The lack of gender equality in 40k and Catholicism is a pathological distortion that people everywhere should no longer abide. As Samuel Taylor Coleridge wrote in 1825, “He who begins loving Christianity better than truth will proceed by loving his own sect better than Christianity, and end in loving himself better than all” (Dupre 173). Whether these men read the Bible or a Space Marine codex, pray to Jesus while kneeling behind a pew or to the Chaos Blood Gods when rolling attack dice in a Games Workshop store, Catholic or secular, their sexist beliefs remain the same. It’s past time we made the change: we need Jesuit women and female Space Marines, not 40,000 years in the future, but today.


40kstats.com. “Faction Breakdown Report.” Database. 2019.

Abbinnett, Ross. “On the Liquidity of Evil.” Liquid Sociology: Metaphor in Zygmunt Bauman’s Analysis of Modernity. Ed. Mark Davis. Taylor and Francis Group, 2013, pp. 107-115.

Banerjee, Subhabrata Bobby. “Necrocapitalism.” Organizational Studies (2008), pp. 1542-1563.

BaronBifford. “Follow-up Interview with Rick Priestly.” 23 July 2018. Reddit. 10 August 2021.

Beattie, Tina. “An Empire of Misogyny?” Catholic Women Speak 28 April 2018.

—. New Catholic Feminism: Theology and Theory. Routledge, 2006.

Black Library. The Black Library. 11 June 2020.

Bola, JJ. Mask Off: Masculinity Redefined. Pluto Press, 2019.

Brunkhorst, Hauke. The Habermas Handbook. Ed. Hauke Brunkhorst. Columbia University Press, 2018.

Clark, Elizabeth A. St. Augustine on Marriage and Sexuality. The Catholic University of America Press, 1996.

Dakkadakka.com. What Percentage of 40k fans on Dakka are female. 7 September 2019. Accessed 10 August 2021.

Dembski-Bowden, Aaron. Night Lords: The Omnibus. Black Library, 2014.

Dias, Elizabeth. “Pope Francis Excommunicates Priest Who Backed Women’s Ordination and Gays.” Time, 25 September 2013.

Duffy, Owen. “Blood, dice, and darkness: how Warhammer define gaming for a generation.” Unplugged Games, May 2016.

Dupre, Ben. 50 Philosophy Ideas You Really Need to Know. Quercus Publishing, 2007.

Ellis, Emma Gray. “Can’t Take a Joke? That’s Just Poe’s Law, 2017’s Most Important Internet Phenomenon.” Wired Magazine, June 2017.

Fiedler, Maureen. “When it comes to LCWR, the problem is Müller.” National Catholic Reporter, 4 September 2014.

Floyd, Wesley. “GW Puts Pewter Sisters on Last Chance to Buy.” 4 October 2019. Spikey Bits. Accessed 10 August 2021.

Games Workshop. “Rites of Initiation: The Making of a Space Marine.” Codex: Space Marines. Games Workshop, 2002.

German Constitution. “Germany’s Constitution of 1949 with Amendments through 2012.” Constitute Project, 2012. Government Constitution.

Ging, Debbie. “Alphas, Betas, and Incels: Theorizing the Masculinities of the Manosphere.” Men and Masculinities (2019), pp. 638-657.

Gorny, Nicki. “Vatican excommunicates local woman priest; Toledo Bishop Daniel Thomas warns against affiliation.” The Toledo Blade, 27 May 2020.

Habermas, Jürgen. An Awareness of What is Missing: Faith and Reason in a Post-Secular Age. Polity Press, 2010.

Harrop, Micheal et al. “Everyone’s a Winner in 40k (or at least, not a loser).” Authors and Digital Games Research Association (2013).

Hern, Alex. “‘Heroin for middle-class nerds’: how Warhammer conquered gaming.” The Guardian, 21 January 2019.

ICV2 Correspondence. “Top 5 Non-Collectible Miniature Games 2019.” 31 July 2019. ICV2. Accessed 10 August 2021.

Jesuits.org. About Us. 18 June 2018. Accessed 10 August 2021.

Kennedy, Eugene. The Unhealed Wound: The Church and Human Sexuality. St. Martin’s Griffin, 2001.

Lipka, Micheal. “U.S. nuns face shrinking numbers and tensions with the Vatican.” Survey. 2014.

Lorente Acosta, Miguel. Ágora Espacio de Formación Feminista. 17 June 2020. Accessed 10 August 2021.

McAuley, Alexander. “The divine Emperor in Virgil’s Aeneid and the Warhammer 40k universe.” Once and Future Antiquities in Sicence Fiction and Fantasy. Bloomsbury Academic, 2018. 183-198.

McDonough, Peter and Bianchi, Eugene C. Passionate Uncertainty: Inside the American Jesuits. University of California Press, 2002.

McDonough, Peter. “Metamorphoses of the Jesuits: Sexual Identity, Gender Roles, and Hierarchy in Catholicism.” Comparative Studies in Society and History (1990): 325-356.

Muñoz-Guerado, Alejandro and Triviño-Cabrera, Laura. “The erasure of female representation in geek spaces as an element for the construction of Geek identity: The case of Warhammer 40.000.” Catalan Journal of Communication & Cultural Studies (2018): 193-211.

NCR Staff. “Timeline of the interactions between LCWR, doctrinal congregation.” National Catholic Reporter, 8 May 2014.

New Advent. Synod of Laodicea. 17 January 2021. Accessed 10 August 2021.

Paul, John II. “Ordinatio sacerdotalis.” Libreria Editrice Vaticana, May 1994. Apostolic Letter.

Pope Francis. “The Amazon: New Paths for the Church and for an Integral Ecology.” 27 October 2020. Synod.va. 10 August 2021.

Priestly, Rick. “The Origins of the Legiones Astartes.” White Dwarf,February 1988.

Risse, Thomas. “Arguing and Deliberation in International Relations.” The Oxford Handbook of Deliberative Democracy. Oxford University Press, 2018.

Roman Catholic Women Priests. About Us. 2002. Accessed 10 August 2021.

Sagado, Soli. “Jesuit Made Deathbed Call for Women’s Ordination.” National Catholic Reporter, 23 March 2015.

Saint Augustine. The Complete Works of Saint Augustine. Amazon.com Services LLC, 2011.

Stirring the Waters: Making the Impossible Possible. By Arturo Sosa. Perf. Arturo Sosa. The Vatican. 8 March 2017.

Swallow, James. Faith & Fire. Black Library, 2006.

Torjesen, Karen Jo. When Women Were Priests. Harper San Francisco, 1993.

Viggo Wexler, Celia. “Pope Francis put a woman in a top Vatican role. It shows how little power Catholic women hold.” NBC News, 21 January 2020.

Walliss, John. “Stories By/For Boys: Gender, Canon and Creativity within Warhammer 40,000.” Fan Culture: Theory/Practice (2012).

Warhammer-Community. Into the 41st Millennium. 9 June 2020. Accessed 10 August 2021.

Winfield, Nicole. “Pope creates new expert commission to study women deacons.” Crux, 8 April 2020.

Zagano, Phillis. “Following the money, part 2.” National Catholic Reporter, 12 March 2014.

The SF in Translation Universe #16

The SF in Translation Universe #16

Rachel Cordasco

It’s definitely been a year, and there’s a lot to catch up on here in the SFT Universe. Let’s hope that 2023 brings us all peace, joy, and a lot more SFT! For this column, I’d like to do something different—instead of highlighting current and upcoming SFT in roughly chronological order, I intend to tell you about everything SFT (that I know of, of course!) that’s come out between June and December of 2022. Furthermore, I will present the texts according to their format (anthologies, novels, etc.), since that order helps us see some interesting patterns in SFT from this past year. Let’s do this thing!

Anthologies consistently make up the smallest percentage of SFT each year, but during the last half of 2022, we had five (!) anthologies. Perhaps this means that readers are demanding more varied stories from a diverse array of authors, and from many different places. Thanks to the untiring editor and author Francesco Verso, Anglophone readers can get their hands on two very different and important anthologies: Kalicalypse: Subcontinental Science Fiction (co-edited with Tarun K. Saint and Bodhisattva Chattopadhyay, Future Fiction) and Freetaly: Italian Science Fiction (Future Fiction). I include Kalicalypse here, despite the fact that most of the stories were originally written in English, because the anthology is a dual-language edition (English and Italian) and two of the stories were translated from the Bengali. These excellent texts come from Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and India. Freetaly is a landmark book in the SFT world because it is the first collection of Italian science fiction published in English. Among the many talented authors included are Linda De Santi, Alessandro Vietti, Verso himself, Clelia Farris, and Nicoletta Vallorani (whose story “The Catalog of Virgins” was translated by yours truly and originally published in Clarkesworld Magazine).

Anthologies of Chinese and Kurdish speculative fiction are also out now from Clarkesworld Books and Comma Press, respectively. New Voices in Chinese Science Fiction continues Neil Clarke’s efforts to make Chinese SFT mainstream in the Anglosphere. The stories included have never before been published in English. Comma Press’s Kurdistan +100: Stories from a Future State is the publisher’s latest collection of stories from countries where authors have been asked to imagine their collective future. Here, Kurdish writers are asked to create worlds located in 2046—a century after the short-lived independent Kurdish Republic of Mahabad. This anthology won the PEN Translates Award for 2021.

Last, but certainly not least, is the massive and fascinating Best of World SF 2 (Head of Zeus), edited by powerhouse author, editor, and translator Lavie Tidhar. This anthology follows his five-volume Apex Book of World SF series and the Best of World SF volume, and includes stories from Bolivia, Mexico, the Czech Republic, Italy, and everywhere in between. Readers will recognize names like Clelia Farris, Julie Novakova, Bo-Young Kim, K. A. Teryna, and many more. And did I mention that this book is really big? The more wonderful things to read, my dear!

If you’re more of a novel kind of reader, you’re in luck. 2022 brought us not only the latest Fresán book but new texts by Fresán’s fellow Argentine author César Aira, Polish author Andrzej Sapkowski, and (squeals excitedly) a trilogy by Israeli writer Shimon Adaf. Fresán’s The Remembered Part (tr. Will Vanderhyden, Open Letter) brings to a close a monumental trilogy about literary creation, narration, metatextuality, and memory. If you haven’t read Fresán, that’s something you need to rectify right now. And speaking of metatextuality…Aira’s The Famous Magician (tr. Chris Andrews, New Directions) also concerns itself with the writer’s craft, though here it is mixed up with a (potential) magician and the protagonist-writer’s uncertainty about whether or not his publisher and even his wife are also magicians.

Those looking for epic fantasy should look no further than Book 3 of Andrzej Sapkowski’s Hussite Trilogy, Light Perpetual (tr. David French, Orbit). Here the protagonist Reynevan must continue to run from his enemies (both human and mystical) and exchange his tools of healing and peace for those of a dangerous spy. Shimon Adaf’s sprawling and multilayered Lost Detective Trilogy (tr. Yardenne Greenspan, Picador) similarly employs magic, but also other subgenres: detective, murdery mystery, and science fiction to tell a complicated yet electric story. While it begins with the mysterious murder of troubled rock singer Dalia Shushan, it very quickly dives into Israeli society and politics, the perpetual ghost of the Holocaust, and a horrifying experiment that opened doors to another world. If you’ve never read Adaf, you should—you’ll thank me (my email address is below).

The collections from the second half of 2022 are as diverse as they are alluring. From the Japanese we get 3 Streets by Yoko Tawada (tr. Margaret Mitsutani, New Directions), where ghosts freely mingle with humans in health food stores and on the street; from Uruguay, we have Horacio Quiroga’s Beyond (tr. Elisa Taber, Sublunary Editions), with stories that hover between two worlds: the living and dead, the sane and insane, and civilization and nature. Swedish author Anders Fager brings us Swedish Cults (tr. Henning Koch and Ian Lemke, Valancourt Books), where the dark and monstrous emerge (bloody sacrifices in the woods, mysterious illnesses, and more). The disturbing and mysterious likewise make Samanta Schweblin’s Seven Empty Houses a collection you won’t be able to put down (tr. Megan McDowell, Riverhead). Here characters are filled with dread because of houses, relationships, and their own histories. Schweblin’s gift for writing stories that settle deep in your mind and refuse to leave is on full display in Seven Empty Houses.

So while we may have been busy and stressed in 2022, at least we could put our hands on great SFT! Thanks for reading, and I’d love to hear what you’re reading now and what you’re looking forward to: rachel@sfintranslation.com. Until next time in the SFT Universe!

Masculinity in Dystopian Science Fiction: Masculinity Construction in the Context of Gender Roles in R.U.R.

Masculinity in Dystopian Science Fiction: Masculinity Construction in the Context of Gender Roles in R.U.R.

Meltem Dağcı

Although it is known that the gender gap between professions continues both in the world and in the slowdown of developments in the field of artificial intelligence, algorithmic technologies have brought the relationship between robotics, gender, artificial intelligence, and professions to the forefront. In this context, some studies have investigated whether there is a gender-based difference in social life in terms of accepting and adopting the existence of robots. Due to the developments in artificial intelligence systems, artificial intelligence engineers have technologies that can produce robots or load different algorithms on the robot. The most difficult thing in the field of artificial intelligence is to prevent gender inequality in the field and to work so that artificial intelligence does not turn into a technology that develops under the patriarchal mentality. In this context, there are some studies investigating whether there is a gender-based difference in social life in accepting and adopting the existence of robots.

By analyzing Karel Čapek’s male robots in the play R.U.R. (1920) and their performance of masculinity, this paper illuminates how, according to the text, the concepts of masculinity can also be transferred through machines. The human creation project of the positivist old Rossum and the industrial knowledge and capitalist leanings of the young Rossum reinforce the purpose of the fiction. An analogy with God can be made for the idea of a human creation project. The human-robot duo is also suitable for this situation. He wants the real person to reflect himself with the artificial person. We see the purpose of being God through our belief that he will see man as imperfect and incomplete and create something better. Rossum’s robots are intelligent and skilled mechanical workers who initially serve the “human master.” It may be ideal for production, but it lacks human sensibilities, emotions, and reproduction. Čapek wants us to see the insatiable appetite of capitalism (Turan, 1-2). The idea of being a god is the product of a traditional masculine mentality, and as you can see, the idea of being a god in R.U.R. was again put forward by a man.

Rossum’s aim is to eliminate inequality between people by integrating robots into the system. Thus, the class difference that exists between humans will be between humans and robots. While all humanity lives in prosperity, robots who feel nothing endure hardship. It allows us to understand whether there is a perceptual, behavioral, or intellectual difference between male and female robots (Showkat 2018; Yan 2014; Hung 2012; Kuo vd. 2009; Nomura vd. 2006).

There are five central characters in R.U.R.: Marius, Sulla, Radius, Primus, and Helena. As can be understood from the character structure, there are two female robots. These two female robots, Sulla and Helena, are labed robotka by Čapek to symbolize femininity. It will be seen that most of the robots and executive robots in R.U.R. are male. Among this branch of characters are ten male robots.

The masculine gaze has also infiltrated the way females see, judge, and evaluate themselves. Women are forced to be drawn to the images produced by the masculine gaze; they are conditioned to fill this masculine frame. It is the pressure to conform or simply accept the patriarchal viewpoint, to be accepted and approved by it, or to tolerate being seen as such. It also shapes the way women think and know about their own bodies, abilities, and place in the world. The dialogue between Helen and Domin in R.U.R. is a testament to that. Domin insists on a situation involving Helena’s body, forcing her into a situation in which she is not comfortable. The male robot persistently touches the female robot’s private areas and body. It is not possible for Helena to consent and approve this situation because she is disturbed by the unnecessary insistence and behavior of the male robot. She does not want it to come close to her body. It is seen that Helena cannot clearly express the discomfort inflicted upon her body. Based on Helena’s reaction, Domin diverts the conversation to another area with a different question. Thus, Domin speaks in a traditionally masculine manner, imposing his opinion on the other side. The dialogue representing the masculine mentality is as follows:

Domin: Thank you. Would you do me the favor of lowering your veil?
Helen: Of course. You want to see my face. . .
Domin: Sir?
Helena: Could you please let go of my hand?
Domin: (dropping) I’m so sorry. I forgot.
Helena: (drops her veil) You want to know if I’m a spy. How careful are you here?
Domin: (looking at her with deep interest) Hmmm, of course! We. . .we are! (Čapek 26)

While the traditionally masculine view encourages women to devalue themselves and to respect men, patriarchy, and the values ​​they reinforce, it prevents women from becoming stronger, getting out from under the power and control of the masculine view, and gaining the ability to defend themselves. So, living under the male gaze involves the power of looking, which determines how men look at women, how women look at themselves, and how they look at other women. Seeing and judging themselves and other women from this perspective is extremely hurtful, worthless, and destructive as women try to affirm and establish their own values ​​within this perspective (Arslan). In the syntax between male and female robots in dialogues and daily conversations, it is seen that the male robots speak with a dominant, masculine mentality. This shows that in terms of the concept of gender in society, we can encounter a strong, invincible, authoritarian, and masculine language in the world of men. The dismantling of patriarchal masculinity first begins in language. Avoiding sexist expressions in daily speech and language use ensures gender equality. The development process in language is positively reflected in the expressions of men towards women.

Journalist and writer Zehra Çelenk expresses the following about masculinity, arrogance, and the borderline: the fact that writing is an act of “drawing a boundary, forming a framework” is remarkable in itself. Used as the broader, plural meaning of “border,” “owner” becomes a representation of many things that surround the world when taken to mean “border is honor.”

Helena: Can we go to the factory now?
Domin: Yes. Twenty-two I guess?
Helena: What is twenty-two?
Domin: Your age.
Helena: Twenty-One. Why do you want to know?
Domin: Because. . . well . . .(enthusiastic) You’re going to be here a long time, aren’t you? (Čapek 26)

Boundaries regulating relations between individuals and countries are not only the subject of politics and diplomacy, but appear also in many fields, from those concerning human rights to gender. The binary and sequential dialog show that the male robot has exceeded its communication limits (Çelenk).  

It is noteworthy that the male robot enters the field and boundaries of the female robot without knowing its place in the drama and asks certain questions in a cynical masculine style. The age-related conversation continues as the male robot infers about the length of stay of the female robot in the factory:

Helena: But for God’s sake! I don’t want.
Domin: (putting both hands on her shoulders) One minute left! Now you either look me in the eye and reject me sternly and then I leave you or . . .
Helena: You’re such a bully!
Domin: It’s okay. Every man should be a little bit of a bully. It’s part of being a man. (Čapek 50)

The woman is so educated and prepared, but she begins to perceive herself as an object. Her self-perception as an object and the excessive socialization of women means that she deeply realizes that the driving force of the social order is the traditionally masculine mind, desires, and tendencies (Işıklı 20). We see the domination of the female body and the effects of traditionally masculine behavior/words upon the female body.

In the play, Domin makes comments about Sulla’s body. He deduces from her body that she is a robot, has no emotions, and has features like human skin. He warns Sulla to rotate her body back and forth during the presentation. Thus, it ignores the privacy of the female robot. As can be understood from Domin’s explanations here, a physiological distinction has been made over the female robot, even if it is the robot in question because the probability of a female robot behaving this way and expressing it verbally is very low. For this reason, discrimination in terms of work/duty load is also made between robots. In the case of job sharing, the body structures of female robots are taken into consideration. In this sense, the problem of gender inequality arises when it comes to female robots that are left in the background. We understand this situation from the dialogue between them:

Helena: (sits down) Where are you from?
Sulla: I’m from here. Factory.
Helena: Oh, so you were born here.
Sulla: Yes, I was made here.
Helena: (surprised) How so?
Domin: (laughing) Sulla is not a human, Miss Gloryova; she is a robot.
Helena: Oh, forgive me, please.
Domin: (puts his hand on Sulla’s shoulder) Sulla doesn’t get angry; he has no feelings. Look, Miss Gloryova, touch his face; look at the leather we made; examine it, please.
Helena: Oh, no, no.
Domin: It’s just like human skin. Sulla even has facial hair that you can see in a blonde. Sure, his eyes are a little small, but look at that hair. Turn around, Sulla.
Helena: Enough! (Čapek 32)

The concept of gender is used to explain the genetic differences of the individual, to emphasize the biological aspect of being a man and a woman, and to explain the physiological differences between men and women. The term was first coined by Robert Stoller, a professor of psychiatry working on transgender studies in 1968 and later developed by British sociologist, feminist, and writer Ann Oakley to describe gender and social roles and norms through genders. In addition to the feminist movement, the field of sociology, emphasizes gender more and a gender-gender distinction is made with the effect of studies that observe the “relationships” between the sexes by some authors. “Gender is a mechanism by which masculine and feminine concepts are generated and naturalized,” posits Judith Butler (75). As can be understood from the definition, with the concept of gender, a number of roles are assigned to women and men in society. These roles involve societal expectations that limit the activities that men and women can do (Kalan 77). As Butler points out, the concepts of masculine and feminine give roles to both men and women in society. Domin is a male robot who uses these roles well. He pressures and imposes sanctions on Helena to have a say over the woman’s body. This speech, which narrows Helena’s fields of activity, raises the expectations of women. Talking and reflecting gender norms through the physical structure of women leads to gender inequality.

Elements such as beauty, attractiveness, and seduction imposed on the female body cause women to be seen as sexual objects and cause more harm to women. Most of the time, only women are thought of as sexual beings, as if there is no sexuality between two individuals, male and female. A woman is under heavy burdens due to the norms of beauty and youth and the sexualized display of the body imposed upon her (Bilgin 21).  

In Domin’s speech, we see efforts to ignore, restrict, and reduce the presence of women in the private/public space. There is a traditionally masculine mentality that puts female robots in the production mold and sees them only as tools in terms of reproduction.

Helena: Are you mad at me?
Domin: God, no! We. . . I just thought we should talk about other things. We’re just a handful of people here surrounded by hundreds of thousands of robots and no women. And all we talk about all day is production rates. It’s like a curse on us, Miss Gloryova. (Čapek 37)
Helena: Maybe it’s a silly question, but why are you building female robots… I mean…
Domin: Gender doesn’t mean anything to them, does it?
Helen: Yes.
Domin: It’s a supply and demand issue. You see, maids, clerks, secretaries… People are used to women working in these jobs.
Helena: But…but…Tell me, male and female robots are mutual…so nothing?
Domin: They’re completely unrelated. There is nothing about emotional attraction between them.Helena: Oh, that’s so scary! (Čapek 48)

Rossum’s Robots are intelligent and skilled mechanical workers who initially serve the “human master.” It may be ideal for production, but it lacks human sensibilities, emotions, and reproduction. The idea of being a god is the product of a patriarchal mentality, and as you can see, the idea of being a god in R.U.R was again put forward by a man.

In conclusion, Karel Čapek shows that in the modern age, the unimaginable mechanization is over-glorified and the spiritual aspects of people can be deformed. The emergence of artificial intelligence in R.U.R. and the fact that the machine completes the tasks that humans cannot achieve does not eliminate the patriarchal, masculine mentality. As can be seen in the text, traditional masculinity and gender roles have been implemented through robots. Thus, the pay emphasizes how the concept of gender serves the capitalist system together with gender inequality, gender-based consumers, and the roles/duties given to robots.


Arslan, Umut Tümay. “Eril Bakış.” FeministBellek, https://feministbellek.org/eril-bakis/. Accessed 6 July 2015.

Bilgin, Rıfat. “Geleneksel ve Modern Toplumda Kadın Bedeni ve Cinselliği.” Fırat Üniversitesi Sosyal Bilimler Dergisi, vol. 26, no. 1, 2016, p. 21.

Čapek, Karel. R. U. R. (Rossum’un Uluslararası Robotları). Translated by Bilge Kösebalaban, İthaki Publishing, 2021.

Çelenk, Zehra. “Hadbilim Ve Empati.” Gazete Duvar, https://www.gazeteduvar.com.tr/hadbilim-ve-empati-makale-1574408. Accessed 23 July 2022.

Işıklı, Şevki. “Kadına Tahakküm ya da Eril Usun Tavırları.” Akademik Bakış Dergisi, vol 43, 2014, pp. 1-20.

Kalan Gündüz, Özlem. “Reklamda Çocuğun Toplumsal Cinsiyet Teorisi Bağlamında Konumlandırılışı: Kinder Reklam Filmleri Üzerine Bir Inceleme.” İletişim Fakültesi Dergisi, vol. 38, no. 1, 2010, pp. 75-89.

Kolektif Dergi. “Toplumsal Cinsiyet Düzenlemeleri.” Cogito Feminizm Özel Sayısı, vol. 58, 2021, pp. 73-92.

Showkat, Dilruba. Gender Differences in Robot Teleoperation. 2018. Oregon State University, Master’s Thesis. Presented on June 6, 2017.

Turan, Aynur. “Kendini Gerçekleştiren Kehanet.” Litera, https://www.literaedebiyat.com/post/kendini-gerceklestiren-kehanet. Accessed 14 April 2021.

After graduating from Ondokuz Mayıs University Computer Programming, Meltem Dağcı graduated from Anadolu University, Department of Turkish Language and Literature. Her stories, book articles and interviews have been published in various magazines and newspapers. She has been on the team of the Edebiyat Nöbeti Magazine for eight years. She has been continuing her conversations with the Writer’s Room in Edebiyat Haber for three years.

Mutating the Margins: A Disability Studies Reading of the Undertheorized in/Human in SF

Mutating the Margins: A Disability Studies Reading of the Undertheorized in/Human in SF

Michael Dale Stokes

Thanks to a history of disease, injury, and immolation, my body has been scrutinized using all sorts of technology: x-rays, magnets, ultrasounds, even swallowing highly reactive alkali metals. In all of this internal reflection, I’ve come to learn that mine is a mutant body. My mutations are not detrimental or life threatening; they’re barely even apparent without the aforementioned medical scrutiny. I have supernumerary floating ribs, ​​os peroneum (extra foot bones), and a circulatory system that can spontaneously cause tiny, needle-like crystals of acid to form in my joints.

Thinking about this body I have, I often slip into the language and sensationalism of science fiction. This process reflects historic treatments of the genre by Darko Suvin, Samuel Delaney, and others. Science fiction provides an aesthetic and logical framework for transforming my understanding about the world and my place in it. One qualifying metric for being a human adult is having 206 bones. With my extra ribs and foot bones, I have 210. Am I a human, and if not, what am I?

By the logics of the society I exist in, I am, of course, human. In Western logics of humanity, I am quickly identifiable by characteristics around which the category of human was formed. White. Masculine. Seemingly able-bodied. Educated. These boundaries which position me within the category of man are used, consciously and unconsciously, to exclude people. The work I do in sf follows the genre through a particularly mutagenic window to track the ways in which it reified and altered the boundaries of “Man” through repeated questioning of the category. I do so by focusing on an undertheorized, dismissed, and yet ultra-present archetype—the mutant—as a means to test and shift these boundaries.

Testing the boundaries of humanity causes discomfort in presumed-to-be-human readers by threatening the assumed stability of their identity. When the boundaries are tested, the reader faces a conceptual threat: either they find themselves outside of what it means conventionally to be human, or they must extend their care and understanding to beings they didn’t previously recognize as human.

In contrast to extensively documented and categorized encounters with alien others in sf, the category of the mutant is largely absent from the large sf histories that shape the field such as Adam Roberts’s The History of Science Fiction, Brian Alidss’s The Trillion Year Spree, and Alexi and Cory Panshin’s The World Beyond the Hill. In Aldiss’s seven-hundred-page text, the term “mutant” appears nine times; in Roberts’s five hundred and thirty-seven pages, it appears ten; and in the Panshin brothers’ work, a whopping twenty-one. While sf of the first half of the twentieth century, as well as all of the twentieth century’s sf production, utilizes mutants frequently, they are an under-discussed and under-theorized figure within sf.

Using disability studies and the aesthetics of science fiction, it is possible to mobilize a reading of the figure of the mutant as a category that is striking and under-theorized precisely because it denies or otherwise defies resolutions that the alien offers. I use Ato Quayson’s work on aesthetic nervousness and Tobin Siebers’s theories of disability aesthetics to question how disabled characters and narratives shape readers’ understanding of mutation over time. Quayson’s work on aesthetic nervousness focuses on the ways in which disability short-circuits readers’ perception of a narrative while charging the experience affectively. Such oscillation of shock and mis/recognition opens the texts up to new readings of presumptions about how bodies ought to be displayed, read, and rendered as symbols. Tobin Siebers’ work on Disability Aesthetics (in the book of the same name), argues that variety—and to that end disability (which is defined by variance, deviance, variety, difference, and other positively and negatively charged terms)—is central to the appreciation of aesthetic elements. I carry this further to argue that disability is central to science fiction which relies on a variety of bodyminds to stimulate and otherwise shock readers. Mutation is the recognition and acceptance of variance among humanity—anathema to practices of separating and isolating which sf enacts. The figure of the mutant cannot be made binary from the human precisely because it is born of humanity. The mutant resists resolution precisely because it is unpredictable; it stumbles into the narrative weighed down by centuries of ableist assumption, tripping over the one-way narrative of Western progress, and twitching through its performance of the eugenic bogeyman. 

The threat of the alien bears resolution: it can be triumphed over, succumbed to, rendered knowable, or returned to the box as utterly arcane. The mutant lingers. The mutant is the unseen and unknowable variable that arises through the countless repetitions the pulp genre offers. The mutant is the only means to creating the superman while simultaneously carrying the risk of species-wide contagion. Indeed, it is the mutability and uncertainty of the mutant as a category that grants it both broad aesthetic appeal and limited resolution. 

The 1950 short story “Born of Man and Woman” by Richard Matheson is introduced by the Robert Mills, the editor of The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction,as featuring a “protagonist who tells it with a mind such as you have never met, housed in a body you have never imagined” (Mills 108). This story, which is told in the first-person perspective of a mutant, ungendered child narrates the abuse visited upon them by their parents for not looking “like mother and father. Mother says all right people look like they do” (Matheson 109). Mutants, here and wherever they appear in science fiction media, highlight key twentieth-century anxieties about supposedly “non-normative” and “wrong” human reproduction, and feature a dissonant aesthetics that quickly excites, stimulates, and discomforts readers. Matheson’s story concludes with the mutant plotting retribution against their abusive parents: “I will screech and laugh loud. I will run on the walls. Last I will hang head down by all my legs and laugh and drip green all over until they are sorry” (110). In this climax, the body “never imagined” by the editor—and presumably never imagined by the audience—becomes a threatening spectacle. It is fearsome, it is grotesque, and it is far more complicated than is first apparent. In the concluding paragraphs, the reader is asked to choose sides again given new information: Should the reader embrace a gender-defying, multi-limbed, green-spewing mutant, or the horrified suburban parents who violently punish non-normativity? In this way the story’s surprise ending becomes an affective shock and reversal: How can the audience find kinship or connection with a mind like they have never met and a body that they have never imagined?

Yet, this excitement and thrill of experiencing the unimaged and unimaginable is a core element of the aesthetic experience of science fiction. As a genre, science fiction has been utilized as a way to perceive and theorize the unknown and to make it knowable and understandable. Darko Suvin, in Metamorphoses of Science Fiction, defines science fiction as “an interaction of estrangement and cognition” facilitated by a novum, or a new thing (37). Mutants insist and provide evidence that variation is not a new thing—even when not apparent to empirical observers. As such, the mutant defies cognitive separation between the now and the new. It insists that the audience is a responsible party (much like a parent) in shaping speculative futures. This responsibility is the driving force behind the affective impact of the mutant. While other figures are marked by alterity, isolation, and otherness, the mutant insists on an immediate relationality to the audience. Mutants and mutation are often defined by their connection to and deviation from the norm. 

This discomforting engagement with mutation is evident in Matheson’s work. The child of the story is at first at least somewhat recognizable as some form of “human.” They have language that they use with some proficiency. They have relationships with their parents who provide some care and comforts in the form of a bed and a magazine. Their parents, however, are also abusive and cruel. All of these traits make for an empathetic and caring connection. In the conclusion of the story this extension of care is troubled when it is revealed to the reader that they have offered human-care to a mutant with too many legs and that drips green goo. It is in this moment that the reader must reconcile their empathy and care with a figure who is beyond their definition of humanity.

It is in this shuddering revelation that I hope to better understand what mutants do to the boundaries of humanity, how mutants trouble the category of the human, and how their presence in science fiction changes aesthetic and cultural assumptions about humanity. I also work to draw out the connections between literary mutants and the self-aware mutative practices of science fiction authors and publishers. Campbell himself discussed his editorial mutations in 1938 to better align sf with human perception. Disabled editor of Amazing Ray Palmer frequently leaned toward stories of psi, freakishness, and mutation. Mutation is frequently a marker taken on by disparate authors of SF, as comes up in The Proceedings of the Institute for Twenty-First Century Studies. In a rhetorical condemnation of conservatism among writers of science fiction, Phil Farmer remarks: “Strange, isn’t it, that a field supposedly dedicated to the future, to mutation, has so many conservatives, die-hards, and fossils in it” (139).

Thinking across the mutants of the page, mutants on the silver screen, mutants bound in comic panels, and their mutated creators, I follow the ways disability studies informs understandings of mutation, and how mutation provides practices for shifting the boundaries of who and what qualify as human. 


Cogwell, Theodore R. Proceedings of the Institute for Twenty-First Century Studies. Advent, 1993.

Farmer, Phil. “Phil Farmer.” The Proceedings of the Institute for Twenty-First Century Studies, Advent:Publishers / ReAnimus Press, 2020, p. 139.

Matheson, Richard. “Born of Man and Woman.” The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, edited by Robert Mills, July 1950, pp. 108-110.

Mills, Robert. Introduction to “Born of Man and Woman.” The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, edited by Robert Mills, July 1950, p. 108.

Quayson, Ato. Aesthetic Nervousness: Disability and the Crisis of Representation. Columbia UP, 2007.

Siebers, Tobin. Disability Aesthetics. University of Michigan Press, 2010.

Suvin, Darko. Metamorphoses of Science Fiction: On the Poetics and History of a Literary Genre. Yale UP, 1979.

Michael Dale Stokes is a scholar whose work engages with the complex entanglements of disability narratives, science fiction/horror, race, and culture. He is a Ph.D. candidate at Michigan State University and co-founder of the HIVES Research Workshop and Speaker Series. His work focuses on the literary figure of the mutant in science fiction pulps, film, and comics between 1904 and 1964. Michael’s work has been published in The Museum of Science Fiction’s Journal of Science Fiction and The Journal of Analogue Game Studies.

Delhi at the Margins

Delhi at the Margins

Aishwarya Subramanian

In this paper, I talk about two short stories by Vandana Singh, both set in Delhi, which is also my home. Delhi is generally understood to be made up of seven, overlapping, older cities which were built by various dynasties from the eighth century CE (Biswas Sen 360). When, in 1911, New Delhi was created as the capital of British India, the move was understood as an attempt to legitimize British rule within a lineage of power in the subcontinent (360). I mention this because this paper is part of a larger project examining how recent speculative fiction set in Delhi builds its understanding of this affinity to power into its portrayal of the city.

I focus on one particular aspect of that power: space, both where we are located in space, and how we move through space. Spaces associated with New Delhi in particular are often used in Indian political discourse as a metonym for cultural and political power–those familiar with Indian politics might recall the use of terms like “Lutyens’ Delhi” (the central, administrative area of the city, designed by Edwin Lutyens) in this context. 

I start off with a couple of scenes from Vandana Singh’s story “Delhi,” first published in 2004, and told from the perspective of Aseem, a man who is sometimes able to see visions from the city’s past and future. 

The girl he is following is just another Delhi University student looking for a bargain, trying not to get jostled or groped in the crowd, much less have her purse stolen. […]

She parts with her money with a resigned air, steps out into the noisy brightness and is caught up with the crowd in the street like a piece of wood tossed in a river. She pushes her way through it, fending off anonymous hands that reach for her breasts or back. (23)

This scene is set in the Delhi I grew up in; a young woman walking along a crowded street, and very aware of the possibility of sexual assault. To many of us, particularly women from crowded cities, this tentative negotiation of public space is very familiar. As Srila Roy has demonstrated, Indian women’s access to public space is in a constant state of negotiation (74); it’s perhaps understandable that this story about walking through Delhi is told from the perspective of a man, though as an unhoused person Aseem also frequently finds his right to public space challenged.

Later in the story, Aseem meets a woman from the future; an immigrant to a future Delhi, which she refers to as “The Immaculate City.” The woman has “heard many stories about the fabled city, and its tall, gem-studded minars that reach the sky, and the perfect gardens. And the ships, the silver udan-khatolas, that fly across worlds” (32). Yet while the powerful may “fly across worlds,” that doesn’t seem to be true of everyone else. The woman has lost her documentation, a dangerous thing in this future, and one that causes her to panic about the possible consequences to her: “They say you must have papers. Or they’ll send me to Neechi-Dilli with all the poor and the criminals” (32). “Neechi-Dilli,” literally lower Delhi, turns out to be the world of the dispossessed that Aseem sometimes glimpses in his visions while underground on the Delhi Metro. Though in this future, the division of space appears vertical rather than horizontal, as in Aseem’s present, movement for ordinary people is constrained by paperwork, as well as fear of gendered, caste, class, or religious violence. [1]

While clear boundaries affect movement through the city, “Delhi” depicts the space of the city itself as fundamentally unstable. Singh invokes the image of the seven medieval cities upon which Delhi is built, and Aseem’s visions ensure an overlaying of temporalities so that all of Delhi’s past and future cities are present at once. Here, the boundaries of the city are both constantly in flux and potentially predatory:

The city’s needs are alien, unfathomable. It is an entity in its own right, expanding every day, swallowing the surrounding countryside, crossing the Yamuna which was once its boundary, spawning satellite children, infant towns that it will ultimately devour. Now it is burrowing into the earth, and even later it will reach long fingers to the stars. (38)

Delhi’s outward expansion also extends its politics of power and exclusion. The space of the city itself seems to deny the possibility of transformation, or of a more egalitarian social order. Compare this with another opening image, from Singh’s story “Indra’s Web,” first published in 2011: 

Mahua ran over the familiar, rock-studded pathway under the canopy of acacia trees, her breath coming fast and ragged. She would have to stop soon, she wasn’t as young as she used to be, and there was a faint, persistent pain in her right knee—she loved this physicality: heart thumping, sweat running down her face in rivulets, the forest smelling of sap and animal dung, grit on her lips from the dust. The forest was where she got her best ideas; it was an eternal source of inspiration. (125)

There’s none of the negotiation of space that we saw in the previous story; Mahua’s freedom of movement allows for this description to both be very physical but also allows the character to be distracted by several ideas that are unconnected to her personal safety.

“Indra’s Web” takes place in Ashapur, a near-future, sustainable utopia. We are told that this settlement, whose name means “city of hope,” was a former slum on the edge of Delhi, populated by climate refugees from Bangladesh. Throughout the story we’re reminded that all residents have the freedom to travel through the space, and an understanding that all have a stake in their home. A meeting of residents trying to solve a problem with a malfunctioning solar tower, for example, involves “arguments and discussions in Hindi, English and Bangla: Salman, deep in conversation with Namita and Ayush; Hamid, a young trainee who had once begged on the streets as a child, patiently explaining the situation to the boy who had brought the tea” (129). Shortly after, we meet “a sleepy boy . . . one of the former street urchins” (133) in the control room of the suntower. This is a radically egalitarian vision of the city as accessible to all of its citizens, both in its spaces and in the process of its governance. 

Within the story, Ashapur is an outlier, a visionary experiment whose residents are still having to convince outsiders of its viability. It is significant that Ashapur can only exist on or outside the boundaries of Delhi itself, that change on this scale can only be realized when we leave the space of the imperial city altogether.

Despite this, I want to argue that there are some significant commonalities across these two stories. The notion of the titular web underpins “Indra’s Web”; it’s in the myconet that Mahua listens to as she runs, the solar energy grid, and the networks and webs of ideas and emotion between humans and the world they live in. Like Aseem in “Delhi,” Mahua has an unusual perspective—her apophenia ensures that the reader is constantly reminded of the interconnectedness of her world. In “Delhi,” Aseem struggles to come to terms with his own place within a vast network of relationships across time and space. Yet the story ends with a coming-to-terms and a renewed commitment to his place within that network; “looking out for his own kind, the poor and the desperate, and those who walk with death in their eyes” (“Delhi,” 38). Like Mahua, he visualizes the system he’s a part of as a network; in his case, a satellite image of “knots of light [. . .] stretching tentacles into the dark” (38).

In her recent essay, “Utopias of the Third Kind,” Singh returns to this metaphor of webs and weaving:

The metaphor of weaving is particularly natural for me, having grown up with the songs of the fifteenth-century Indian mystic poet and weaver Kabir, so it makes sense to me that we are weaving the world and simultaneously being woven by it, into being, into change! And this leads me to another realization, that proto-utopias of the Third Kind may sometimes exist here and now without our noticing—in temporal, embryonic ways, in small spacetime pockets even in colonial and capitalist spaces. These pocket proto-utopias, at once individual and collective, exist briefly in the places and moments when we sense—when we make and are made by—the relationships that make the world whole (33).

And this is key in the context of some of the conversations I heard at the 2023 SFRA conference—that utopias can exist at many scales, can be specific and relational and interlinked, can exist at the margins of power. Singh draws for her metaphor on Kabir; I want to invoke one of his contemporaries and juxtapose Ashapur with “Begumpura,” the utopian city imagined by the fifteenth-century Bhakti poet Ravidas. This “Sorrowless City” is one in which there is no pain, no property ownership, no difference in status (“none are third or second—all are one”). “Begumpura” is an unusual poem for a Bhakti poet in that there’s no mention of god; the utopia it imagines is an earthly one (Omvedt 106). And crucially, it is a utopian space, whose denizens “do this or that, they walk where they wish, / they stroll through fabled palaces unchallenged. / Oh, says Ravidas, a tanner now set free, / those who walk beside me are my friends” (this translation by John Stratton Hawley and Mark Juergensmeyer [qtd in Omvedt 106–107]). Ravidas, from an oppressed caste, imagines walking “unchallenged” through space; a world where, as Omvedt notes, “the rich and privileged castes cannot impose restrictions of place upon the subordinated castes and the poor” (107). But beyond this he also imagines walking with others; there’s an extending of kinship and connection. And beyond its resonance with Singh’s two stories, this is the act of citizenship, in its sense of “city dweller.” I think of the work of Teresa P. R. Caldeira, for whom citizenship is an active commitment to and reimagining of the city, and of adrienne maree brown’s work. 

There’s a lot more to be said about the model of utopia that Singh is proposing in that essay, and how/where it intersects with other conversations about speculative fiction, activism and utopia, and what this means for the future Delhis we might imagine, but that is beyond the scope of this paper. 


[1] Reading this exchange in the context of India’s recent Citizenship Amendment Act is particularly chilling.


Biswas Sen, Lipi. “From Cybermohalla to Trickster City: Writing from the Margins of Delhi.” Journal of Postcolonial Writing, vol. 54, no. 3, 2018, pp. 360–371.

brown, adrienne maree. Emergent Strategy. AK Press, 2017.

Caldeira, Teresa P. R. City of Walls. U of California P, 2001.

Omvedt, Gail. Seeking Begumpura: The Social Vision of Anticaste Intellectuals. Navayana, 2009. 

Roy, Srila. “Breaking the Cage.” Dissent, vol.  63, no. 4, 2016, pp. 74–83.

Singh, Vandana. “Delhi.” 2004. The Woman Who Thought She Was a Planet and Other Stories. Zubaan, 2008. pp. 19–38.

—. “Indra’s Web.” 2011. Ambiguity Machines and Other Stories. Small Beer, 2018, pp. 25–134.

—. Utopias of the Third Kind. PM Press, 2022.

Dr. Aishwarya Subramanian is an assistant professor of English at O.P Jindal Global University in Haryana, India. Her research encompasses popular and genre fiction, children’s literature, spatiality and postcolonial nationalisms, with a particular focus on post-imperial Britain. Her recent work can be found in Comparative Critical Studies, Space and Culture, The Lion and the Unicorn, and Jeunesse.

Calling from the Margins of Perception in Contemporary Chinese Science Fiction

Calling from the Margins of Perception in Contemporary Chinese Science Fiction

Bo Ærenlund Sørensen

As a genre, science fiction aids our mental exploration of what new technologies may do to human subjectivity, family relations, state-society dynamics, and to our embodied selves. Such new technological inventions often augment human sensory capabilities, allowing individuals or governments to look through walls, read the thoughts of others, or curse us with infinite recall. In this paper, I’m interested in the opposite, namely in science-fiction stories where human sensory capacities, instead of being augmented, come to seem problematic; where what is at the center of the story is not the expansion of the sensory apparatus, but rather a curious and often painful inability to make sense of sensory input. Or, to put it differently, I wish to examine what we find at the margins of human perception and thought in Chinese science fiction. One example of a story where communication is sonic rather than semantic can be found in this snippet from Hao Jingfang’s Invisible Planets

The tongue and the ear have the most meaning on Chincato. For the people of this planet, speech is not a mere way to pass the time, but a necessity for existence. [. . .] The Chincatoans do not have eyes or any organs that sense light. They rely on sound to locate one another. Their ears are both for listening and observing. Actually, to be precise, they don’t have ears. They listen with their entire body. [. . .] So all day long, the Chincatoans talk and listen without pause. They emit sounds to feel the presence of others, and also to let others know of their own existence. They cannot be silent. Silence is dangerous and makes them panic. [. . .] Some children are born with defects in their voice organs. These children almost cannot survive. They’re always in danger of being run over by others much bigger and faster. And then no one would even know such a child once existed. (215f) 

I should say at the outset that this is work in progress and that it is part of a larger project about sensory perception in twentieth-century Chinese history. For this paper, however, I focus only on the topic of hearing in contemporary Chinese science fiction. I limit myself even further, namely, to discussing works by contemporary science fiction writer Han Song, who also works as an editor for the mainland Chinese news agency Xinhua. 

Han Song’s short story “Submarines” begins as follows:

It was an early autumn night. Loud noises woke me from sleep, and it seemed as if the whole city had boiled over. My parents dressed me quickly, and we hurried out the door, heading for the river. We became part of a surging crowd whose thumping footsteps and worried cries were like exploding firecrackers on New Year’s Eve. I was so scared that I covered my ears, unsure what was happening. (121)

What has so perturbed the adults is the arrival of submarines in the local river, but the memory is clearly coded into the memory of the protagonist-child primarily as an auditory event. The entire story is told in the form of a flashback leading up to the catastrophic conflagration that swept from submarine to submarine and that none of the resident villagers did anything to prevent. This haunting event, did not, however, so the narrator repeatedly assures himself, affect his subsequent life in any way: 

A sense of unresolvable solitude gripped me, while I knew also that my own future would not be affected in any way by what I was seeing. [. . .] Morning finally arrived. Dim sunlight revealed lifeless hunks of blackened metal drifting everywhere on the river. In scattered rows, circles, clumps, they reflected the cold, colorless light, and the air was suffused with the decaying odors of autumn. The city-dwellers brought forth cranes to retrieve the wreckage of the submarines from the river and trucked the pieces to scrap metal yards. The whole process took over a month. After that, no submarines came to the Yangtze River. (122f)

Obviously, when a narrator repeatedly tells you that a particular past event is unimportant, you know that this narrator is misreading himself or herself, as our memory does not obsess over unimportant trivialities. What I find interesting in this story is how Han Song manages to let the events unfold almost without dialogue and almost without sense-making. Equally interesting is the shift in sensory modality: the story starts out as an unnerving audible event, but by the end, sounds seem to have been drained from the scene to be replaced by the painstaking reinstitution of orderliness by cleaning up the landscape visually. Through the youthful narrator’s matter-of-fact relating of details, Han Song suggests that what has imprinted itself on the mind of the narrator are sensory perceptions, which have never been processed into schemes of meaning. This may account for the fact that the impressions still seem so raw and consequential to the narrator, despite protestations to the opposite. 

Another Han Song story in which sounds play an even more central role is “Regenerated Bricks.” In this story, which plays out in the aftermath of the terrible Sichuan Earthquake of 2008, the debris left by the earthquake is used as building materials for new bricks which are described as very crude-looking, but they become very highly sought after because they emit sounds of muffled whispering. People who put their ears to the bricks are not able to make out what the murmuring voices are saying, and this seems to be exactly what makes the bricks into such pleasurable objects. 

Throughout the story, voices are of central importance, but it is usually not the meaning of what is said or shouted that matters, but rather the voice as a sonic object. An example of this is when the architect desperately tries to have various factories produce bricks that fulfill his specifications: “Should I call a second time to make sure they got it right? We discussed it a bit and decided not to call, since we feared that if we called again they would add too much straw. My feeling was this: ultimately my tone of voice determined the proportions” (7).

Another example comes a few pages later when it does indeed turn out that the factory has messed up another batch of bricks: 

More cement had been added, but now there was no time. Things did not look good, and yet another woman came out, her combat style completely the same as that at the factory. But now I had some experience, and with a shout from me she retreated. The proprietor of the workshop realized there was some mistake, and even though his intentions had been good, he had done wrong, so his tone was very mild. (10)

Here we see once again how communication is not decided by semantics, but by the sonic properties of what is said, shouted, or murmured. As the architect becomes increasingly involved with the production of the bricks, he turns into a hybrid of machine, birthing mother, and undulating swamp. He momentarily seems to transgress the boundary between life and death, and as he begins to groan like the nefarious landmass, the land of the living is reduced to a state of anxious listening. 

His face was as pale as tinfoil, as if he were a ghost and let the yellow moonlight shine brightly into the tent. The architect seemed to be pondering how he had managed to turn himself into a brick, and a brick that would immediately begin asexual reproduction and rapidly produce great numbers of buildings so as to allow any conscious bipeds to move into as soon as they could [. . .] A silly gray smile crossed the architect’s face, as if he were in labor, and an intermittent moan issued forth from his mouth, as if from a swamp. And behind him and the villagers, outside the tent, was a dense blackness, land that, although it had endured grievous wounds, was still rich and abundant and was arrogantly clearheaded as it casually pressed down upon the bodies of the dead, looking at them as if listening to a joke. The living dared not utter a sound. (11)

A multitude of related examples can be found in works by Liu Cixin, Xia Jia, and Chen Qiufan—which are in some ways different and in some ways similar. What is central in all of them is that sounds play a very important role, and that sound as physical presence very often trumps the semantic content of speech. The plots of these stories are ceaselessly driven forward by the sonic, but for the characters in the stories the meaning of the sounds remain opaque, leaving them to deal only with the effects of the sounds. If we employ Darko Suvin’s idea that science fiction is characterized by cognitive estrangement, we might say that in these stories cognitive estrangement is performed by sounds figuring as powerful sonic agents, yet remaining somehow marginal to the sense-making of the characters. How to interpret this is the topic for the longer version of this paper. 


[1] In the case of Rallya, her age introduces a third barrier, as the reader has to assume that she has entered menopause.


Han Song. “Regenerated Bricks.” The Reincarnated Giant: An Anthology of Twenty-First-Century Chinese Science Fiction, edited by Mingwei Song and Theodore Huters, Columbia UPPress, 2018, pp. 3–44.

—. “Submarines.” Broken Stars: Contemporary Chinese Science Fiction in Translation, edited and translated by Ken Liu, 1st edition, Tor Books, 2019, pp. 113–122.

Hao Jingfang. “Invisible Planets.” Invisible Planets: Contemporary Chinese Science Fiction in Translation, edited and translated by Ken Liu, Tor Books, 2016, pp. 199–218.

Suvin, Darko. Metamorphoses of Science Fiction: On the Poetics and History of a Literary Genre. Yale UP, 1979.

Bo Ærenlund Sørensen, a graduate from the Danish Academy of Creative Writing, holds a B.A. in comparative literature, an M.A. in history, and a DPhil in oriental studies from the University of Oxford. He is currently employed as assistant professor of China Studies at the University of Copenhagen. He has previously worked at Novo Nordisk and at the Danish Broadcasting Corporation. His general research interests include modern Chinese history and literature, global history, cognitive literary studies, memory studies, and digital humanities. He is working on a translation of contemporary Chinese science fiction into Danish.

Queer Time in Space: Helen S. Wright’s A Matter of Oaths and Non-reproductive Futures

Queer Time in Space: Helen S. Wright’s A Matter of Oaths and Non-reproductive Futures

Sabina Fazli

In 2017, Bloomsbury republished Helen S. Wright’s science-fiction novel A Matter of Oaths, which had originally appeared in 1988 with Methuen in the United Kingdom and Popular Library in the United States. The novel unfolds a space operatic vision of opposing galactic empires and a cyberpunk technology that harnesses pilots’ minds to power spaceships. On her website, Wright features the novel’s new cover and a short passage titled “A Question of Covers,” commenting on the original editions and their choice of cover design: in the 1980s, both publishers, Wright points out, engaged in White- and agewashing, rendering the main male protagonist White on both cover illustrations, and depicting the main female protagonist as a young woman rather than close to retirement.

These instances of visual packaging that disregard the text’s diverse cast of characters highlight the norms at play in the genre and marketplace. Moreover, the presence of a conventionally attractive man and woman on the Popular Library edition’s cover implies a heterosexual romance that the novel does not bear out. The relative but belated success in 2017 suggests a sense of untimeliness: what seems to have been a marketing conundrum in the late 1980s now situates the novel squarely in a wave of women-authored SF, concerned with the speculative politics of gender, sexuality, and race as well as the entanglements of human and machine. In the same vein, blurbs by Ann Leckie and C. J. Cherryh on Wright’s website illustrate how the republished text chimes with contemporary sensibilities in 2017.

The short preface by Becky Chambers introducing the re-published text draws on this notion of timeliness. Chambers frames Wright’s novel as having come “too early” for her as a young reader. As a queer child looking for fiction resonating with her experience, Chambers writes: “I didn’t read A Matter of Oaths when I should have. . . . I needed this book a decade later, when I was devouring the written side of science fiction like I’d been starving my whole life prior. But by then, A Matter of Oaths was out of print” (Chambers 1). Chambers goes on to inscribe the novel in a feminist and queer archive claiming Wright as a forgotten precursor of recent SF like her own: “Female leads, queer characters, characters of colour—these did not spring forth from the 2010s, Athena-like, a stunning new dawn in the realm of science fiction” (3). Instead, she holds, readers and writers need to remember and recover the writing of marginalized authors and acknowledge their contribution, despite their absence from the canon and bestseller list: “we have a short memory, we humans. It’s a definite trait in the science fiction community, and a particular irony, as we revel in thinking as far out as we can” (2). This brief look at the novel’s publication history illustrates how it jarred with contemporary notions and sensibilities governing the marketplace in the 1980s. Chambers’s preface and Wright’s own website both draw on notions of timeliness and temporal misses in the way that the novel mis/aligns with particular moments. This throws into relief themes that recur in the novel itself. Biographical time, temporal disjunction, and memory and the archive play a crucial role in the plot, bridging text and paratext in a surreptitious crossing.

My reading of A Matter of Oaths focuses on the way that time in the novel is bent into queer time to accommodate the protagonists’ identities and relationships in a hopeful reconfiguration of the SF trope of immortality. This temporal biographical anomaly is at the root of the central conflict and emerges as the surprising discovery at the end of the novel. The novel opens with Rallya, the aging commander of a spaceship, taking on a new officer, Rafe, who has been “identity wiped” because he has allegedly broken his oath of serving only one of the immortal twin emperors ruling over the galaxy. He joins Rallya’s ship, falls in love with a crewmate, Joshim, and becomes the target of assassination attempts, which neither of the characters can explain. The narrative starts to cover not only the present, but also the past as Rafe and his friends and lover try to recuperate the memories of his life before they had been erased. It turns out that he had been kidnapped and identity wiped by the Old Emperor to spite the New Emperor, who had been Rafe’s lover. These memories resurface because Rafe’s present lover looks exactly like the New Emperor, an unwitting doppelgänger, and a coincidental mnemonic trigger. Eventually, in an instance of dramatic irony, Rallya realizes that the reason for the emperors’ interest in Rafe is that he, too, is immortal, a fact that Rafe is ignorant of.

This constellation pits different biographical and temporal trajectories against each other: Rallya stubbornly clings to her position on the ship but will eventually have to appoint a successor. Her aging is explicitly framed as embodied physiological deterioration, for example, when “her hip was troubling her. The surgeons talked about the inevitable effects of age, suggested drugs that would keep her out of the web, and were surprised when she would not listen to them” (Wright 26). At the same time, Rallya is an important character and mover in the story, occupying a position of power and agency. Although the depiction of her aging seems ordinary in the SF setting, her prominence in the story is extraordinary in that it centers on an aging yet still desiring female body. Joshim provides another foil for the ordinary and extraordinary biographical chronologies embodied by Rallya and Rafe. As an adherent of Aruranism, he believes in reincarnation and engages in mnemonic techniques to remember his previous lives, which the text suggests is successful. The plot is organized around the puzzle of Rafe’s memories and their recuperation, which entails an active recreation of his identity. With every newly recalled detail about his past, his relationship with Joshim and the other protagonists shifts. This recuperation relies on guesswork from flashbacks, déjà vu moments, dreams, and a trance induced through a ritual inspired by Aruranism. The halts, gaps, and jumps in this reconstruction are juxtaposed with the ‘official time’ of documents pulled from the Empires’ archives and reproduced at the beginning of chapters. While the recovery of Rafe’s past is a creative process animating the plot and keeping relationships in suspense, it also drives home the idea of identities and memories as unstable markers. My brief summary already assembles different configurations of time that may run parallel or across each other: end-less and end-stopped biographical trajectories, cyclical and remembered time, and fixed and official calendar time. Although the text may be productively mined for any of these, I specifically focus on Rafe’s immortality and how it is couched in the queer, that is, emphatically non-reproductive time of ‘webbing.’

These different ‘times’ play out in a horizon in which sexual reproduction as the main structuring element of ‘straight time’ is missing. This absence is over-determined in the text: Firstly, the sexual relationships among the crew are almost exclusively gay, and secondly, participating in ‘webbing,’ that is, in piloting spaceships by fusing the crew’s bodies and minds with the ship comes with the inevitable side-effect of infertility. [1] This emphasis on non-reproductivity becomes even more obvious when considering how ‘webbing’ is imagined in terms of intimacy and sexual pleasure. The web as a technological device and a metaphor is lifted from cyberpunk but, I would argue, Wright modifies its meaning. The web room is a special part of the spaceship where the members of the crew submerge themselves in a gelatinous liquid and connect their bodies’ neural systems with the ship’s conduits to control it. The web designates both this virtual space and the artificial modification of the webbers’ bodies that allows them ‘to web.’ The effect is not a renunciation of the body, as in cyberpunk, but the joyful embodied experience of exclusive sociality in terms of sexuality: 

In the web, your brain was linked to the body of the ship, your nerves carried sensations that nonwebbers would never know. You only had to loosen the chains of discipline a little to tap the web’s full potential, to create new sensations, to explore new pathways through your extended body, a body that encompassed your companions in the web as their bodies now encompassed you. (Wright 129) 

Thus, unlike the cyberpunk trope of virtual reality as a refuge from or for the body, there is a continuity between the intimacy of the web and the corporeal romantic and sexual relationships lived by the participants outside it. Both spaces complement each other and both present versions of queer, non-dyadic, non-monogamous sexual pleasure. Significantly, in this constellation, sex is always non-reproductive because infertility is an inevitable side-effect of webbing, a fact that is never raised as a ‘problem,’ but as a scientific if inconsequential fact. Instead, ‘family’ is created through affinity and allegiance, epitomized in the eponymous collective oaths that signify elective kinship.

The web as a queer space also codes gay pasts. The webroom bears overtones of historical bathhouses: it teems with the “tangle of bare skin, dark and pale, brown, yellow and red” (35) around tubs, showers, and locker rooms that are also the site of erotic encounters. The material infrastructure of the ‘web’ thus gestures towards earlier historical spaces of gay culture and public sex which functioned as utopian subcultural pockets of possible futures (cp. Muñoz 33ff). The web figures as a queer knot of virtual space-time that carries echoes of the past and transposes them into the far future so that it connotes images that elasticate its meaning by drawing in the present and ghostly past of actual queer places and times.

In this context, Rafe’s immortality may be framed as the expression of queer temporality through a generic trope that is turned into a hopeful and reparative image. The chrononormative (Freeman 3) progress of the individual from childhood and youth to maturity, marriage, reproduction, and death underwrites the trajectory of the bildungsroman following the male subject gradually growing into heterosexual and national citizenship. Within and aslant this time, however, exists queer time, “unscripted by the conventions of family, inheritance and childrearing” (Halberstam 2) and instead organized around subcultural “transient, extrafamilial and oppositional modes of affiliation” (154). This appears affectively asynchronous to straight time through delays, repetitions, and a utopian charge that reaches beyond the straight horizon of history and generation into what Muñoz describes as “anticipatory illumination of queerness” (22). A Matter of Oaths offers a queer timescape for its plot to unfold, in which the structuring elements of generation and reproduction are irrelevant. Instead, Rafe’s posthuman lifespan signifies biography beyond chrono- and heteronormativity. The Old Emperor, another immortal, is described as having a “face alarming in its apparent youth. A thousand years or more older than Ayvar [the New Emperor]; he looked as if he had been frozen as a gauche adolescent” (Wright 238). Suspended in puberty, he literalises Halberstam’s epistemological centering of youth to understand the “alternative temporalities” of queer subculture that forego chrononormative adulthood (Halberstam 2).

As the most prominent gay character in the novel, Rafe’s ‘chronic condition’ also emerges as a reparative metaphor. First published in the late 1980s, the text suggests “the temporalities of HIV” (Dean 77) as another horizon in which to understand the trope of immortality. Tim Dean describes the affective temporal disjunction that infection engenders as “death sentence time” (80) to capture the uncertainty and asynchronicity of living with HIV. In this context, Rafe’s immortality also figures as a utopian image of survival against all odds whose temporal hyperbole contrasts sharply with the reality and experience of “death sentence time.” Alexis Lothian has made a similar argument about the vampire’s immortality in relation to indigeneity (discussing Jewelle Gomez’s The Gilda Stories), writing that “the stretched-out life narratives of immortality . . . breed futures for communities whose past has been lost or stolen” (123). A Matter of Oaths proffers a similar reparative reading that values queer temporalities through speculative metaphor.


[1] In the case of Rallya, her age introduces a third barrier, as the reader has to assume that she has entered menopause.


Chambers, Becky. Introduction. A Matter of Oaths, by Helen S. Wright. Bloomsbury, 2017, pp. 1–3.

Dean, Tim. “Bareback Time.” Queer Times, Queer Becomings, edited by Mikko Tuhkanen and E. L. McCallum. State U of New York P, 2011, pp. 75–99.

Freeman, Elizabeth. Time Binds. Queer Temporalities, Queer Histories. Duke UP, 2010.

Halberstam, Jack. In a Queer Time and Space. Transgender Bodies, Subcultural Lives. New York UP, 2005.

Lothian, Alexis. Old Futures. Speculative Fiction and Queer Possibility. New York UP, 2018.

Muñoz, José Esteban. Cruising Utopia: The Then and There of Queer Futurity. New York UP, 2019.Wright, Helen S. A Matter of Oaths. Bloomsbury, 2017.

Sabina Fazli is a postdoc in the collaborative research centre Studies in Human Categorisation at Mainz University, Germany, where she is working in a project on popular and independent magazines at the Obama Institute of Transnational American Studies. She is co-editor of a German-language handbook on magazine studies published in 2022. Sabina received an M.A. in English literature, comparative literature, and cultural anthropology and a Ph.D. in English literature from Göttingen University. Her thesis was published as a book in 2019 as Sensational Things: Souvenirs, Keepsakes, and Mementos in Wilkie Collins’s Fiction. She has taught and published on speculative fiction, with an article on popular steampunk forthcoming in Neo-Victorian Studies

“It’s Better to Hope than Mope”: Evaluating the Biopolitics of Hope in The Year of the Flood and The Tiger Flu

“It’s Better to Hope than Mope”: Evaluating the Biopolitics of Hope in The Year of the Flood and The Tiger Flu

Sababa Monjur

Living on a Damaged Earth

The concept of a ‘margin’ has a significant resonance in speculative fiction, as the marginalization of human and sub/non-human others is closely associated with the Anthropocene discourse, which is frequently questioned by SF authors. Margaret Atwood in The Year of the Flood and Larissa Lai in The Tiger Flu portray the complex realism of the Anthropocene emphasizing techno-capitalism and petro-culture by highlighting the cultural meanings of ecological crisis in North America. Instead of presenting the apocalypse either as a future happening elsewhere or as a backdrop for the dystopian setting, both Atwood and Lai foreground it as an ongoing crisis. The marginalized community in each novel, the God’s Gardeners and the Grist Sisterhood, respectively, are placed at the forefront of the resistance against unethical use of biotechnology not only because of their exposure to the techno-capitalist society’s exclusionary practices, but also because their ethical stance is situated at the polar opposite of their respective biopolitical regimes that have unleashed the Waterless flood and the Tiger flu upon humankind. Drawing heavily on Donna Haraway’s theories, my ecofeminist reading of the selected texts scrutinizes first, how Atwood and Lai attempt to relocate agency by dissolving boundary-making practices that produce marginalized subjects and justify exclusion, systemic violence, dehumanization, and mass killing of those who are dubbed by Rita Wong as “extra-legal” (111), people who are either unregistered and undocumented (i.e., the Grist sisters are denied ‘human’ status) or structurally downtrodden (i.e., the Gardeners are labeled as religious fanatics). Secondly, since chaos has the subversive potential to challenge and destabilize the socio-political order, I will discuss how the God’s Gardeners and the Grist sisters use their marginalized status to resist the exploitation and to bring positive change for the humans as well as their planetary partners. 

Addressing the importance of building kinship in turbulent times, Donna Haraway begins Staying With the Trouble by stating that “[w]e—all of us on Terra—live in disturbing times, mixed-up times, troubling and turbid times” which is why it is required “to make kin in lines of inventive connection as a practice of learning to live and die well with each other in a thick present. Our task is to make trouble, to stir up potent response to devastating events, as well as to settle troubled waters and rebuild quiet places” (1). She further explicates:

Kin is a wild category that all sorts of people do their best to domesticate. Making kin as oddkin rather than, or at least in addition to, godkin and genealogical and biogenetic family troubles important matters, like to whom one is actually responsible. Who lives and who dies, and how, in this kinship rather than that one? What shape is this kinship, where and whom do its lines connect and disconnect, and so what? What must be cut and what must be tied if multispecies flourishing on earth, including human and other-than-human beings in kinship, are to have a chance? (2)

Following this line of thought, I argue that the aforementioned communities initiate epistemological rethinking to relocate the agency of the sub/non-human and ensure their survival on a damaged earth.  

The Biopolitics of Hope

To begin with, in The Year of the Flood, Toby, a former Gardener and one of the protagonists, elaborately discusses how the God’s Gardeners, through their eco-religious teachings, try to familiarize the anthropogenic crisis as an aspect of the human condition to the privileged Compound citizens, who are not directly affected by the crisis, and to the marginalized Pleebland dwellers, who are unaware that they are victims of it. The Gardeners intend to include everyone in their faith-based system, as the cult is based on inclusion rather than extraction, which is why Adam One questions the validity of human-centered thinking: “Ours is a fall into greed: why do we think that everything on Earth belongs to us, while in reality we belong to Everything” (Year 63). Keeping the sixth mass-extinction in mind and maintaining awareness of the corporate bioterrorism, the Gardeners believe that another ecological disaster will soon destroy the human race: “God had promised after the Noah incident that he’d never use the water method again but considering the wickedness of the world he was bound to do something” (26). Hence, their prediction of the Waterless Flood turns out to be a plague that only kills the humans but does not affect any other species: “We God’s Gardeners are a plural Noah [. . .]. We must be ready for the time when those who have broken trust with the Animals—yes, wiped them from the face of the Earth where God placed them—will be swept away by the Waterless Flood” (110). Interestingly, in Adam One’s proposition, Noah and the ark are amalgamated: “My body is my earthly Ark, / It’s proof against the Flood; / It holds all Creatures in its heart, / […] It’s builded firm of genes and cells, / And neurons without number; / My Ark enfolds the million years” (111). It is also noteworthy that Adam One emphasizes memorizing the extinct animals as a way of saving those creatures from disappearing completely: “[W]e Gardeners will cherish within us the knowledge of the Species, and of their preciousness to God” (110). The Gardeners and their children are taught that saying the names of the species is “a way of keeping those animals alive” (376). Furthermore, Toby’s recalling of the pre-Flood era reveals how the Gardeners relied heavily on nature and natural others for food, medicine, and other resources.

In contrast, the Grist sisters in The Tiger Flu are genetically modified parthenogenic clones, manufactured by a techno-capitalist corporation called Jemini. One of the protagonists and a Grist sister Kirilow Groundsel informs the readers that Jemini supplied these clones as factory workers to HöST Light Industries where they were used as test subjects for techno-scientific experiments. One of the clones fled the factory eighty years ago and founded the Grist Village for the ‘free’ sisters. Kora Ko, the other protagonist and a Saltwater City dweller, recounts that the Grist sisterhood is believed to be a myth by the inhabitants. Despite living in a city that is governed and exploited by the HöST technocracy—a corporate monopoly that manipulates the inhabitants “in its own best interests” (Flu 3)—Kora and the citizens do not acknowledge the fact that their lives are not much different from the so-called factory workers. Regardless of dividing the Saltwater Flat into several quarantine rings to control the spread of the Tiger flu pandemic, people keep dying. Hence, survival plays a pivotal role in The Tiger Flu. Feeding on people’s desire to live, the CEO of HöST, Isabelle Chow, introduces her yet-to-be-perfected technology called LiFT and promises the flu-infected men that by uploading their consciousness to the mainframe satellite, LiFT can ensure virtual immortality. Eventually the readers learn that, on one hand, Isabelle’s beloved Marcus Traskin owns the tiger bone wine business and consumption of the wine causes the flu, while on the other,  Isabelle uses the infected Tiger men, the small community of men who survived the flu and are taken care of by Marcus, as test subjects for LiFT. Moreover, Isabelle does not mind capturing and murdering the Grist sisters as she believes that Grist DNA can help improve and perfect her technology. Similar to the God’s Gardeners, the Grist sisterhood chose not to rely on contemporary technology that exploits people. As Kirilow elucidates, “[t]his strange killing and rebirthing is Salty business. We Grist sisters have no faith in such things. If the body is dead, then so is the woman, whatever these occultist Salties think they have copied” (232). Eventually, Kirilow helps Kora to understand how Isabelle has been exploiting humans and sub/non-humans alike.  

Even though Kora comes from Saltwater City and Kirilow from the Grist village, they overcome their mutual hatred and decide to work together to stop Isabelle from killing huge numbers of people. Kora is fatally injured participating in  their resistance movement. In a largely unexplained way, Kirilow performs a surgery to upload Kora’s mind to LiFT and ultimately her consciousness becomes a part of the batterkite—a genetically modified oceanic creature with tentacles. Kirilow plants one of the batterkite’s tentacles on the soil that transforms into a Starfish tree. As a Starfish tree, Kora is capable of reproducing vital organs. The final chapter of the novel, which takes place 156 years after the deadly incident, reveals the new beginning where Kora identifies as a Starfish and reminds the new Grist children that her transformation has been painful. Yet, she embraces her identity as the establishment of the Starfish orchard ensured the eradication of older forms of forced organ transplantation and violence. Kora Tree is therefore the epitome of revitalization of life and inclusion of sub/non-human beings, and transgresses the dualistic binaries as she is a conscious life form that is capable of communication and can provide replaceable vital organs infinitely. 

The Year of the Flood confirms that there are other survivors who might have a chance to rebuild a civilization from the ruins of the past while living harmoniously with the Crakers. In contrast, The Tiger Flu ends with the establishment of a new Grist Village where the Starfish tree grows replacement organs, effectively abolishing the necessity to forcefully harvest organs from the Starfish sisters; therefore, older forms of violence are non-existent. Kora Tree, thus, reminds the children of the new village what she and Kirilow had to go through to establish the compassionate society: “You must remember my pain, as I remember yours” (327).  

The remaining humans of the post-apocalyptic worlds manage to build a new, less individualistic, more inclusive society that recognizes the relational interdependence of all living things—both human and sub/non-human. Despite the bleak scenarios that center on the impact of techno-capitalist discourse and exploit the marginalized sub/non-human ones, the selected speculative fictions point towards the possibilities of reconstructing a better world and providing strategies for narrating non-anthropocentric realities. Hence, I conclude that by revising and rethinking the exclusionary practices and relocating agency, a better future can come for humans and non-humans alike within and beyond a North American context.


Atwood, Margaret. The Year of the Flood: A Novel. Virago Press, 2010. 

Haraway, Donna J. Staying with the Trouble. Duke UP, 2016.    

Lai, Larissa. The Tiger Flu. Arsenal Pulp Press, 2018.   

Wong, Rita. “Troubling Domestic Limits: Reading Border Fictions Alongside Larissa Lai’s Salt Fish Girl. BC Studies, no. 140, Winter 2003-04, pp.110–122. DOI: https://doi.org/10.14288/bcs.v0i140.1694

Sababa Monjur is currently enrolled as a doctoral student at Philipps University Marburg, Germany. She completed her M.A. in North American studies from the same institute. Her research interests include SF, popular culture, gender studies, environmental studies, and ecofeminism. The latter area is the focus of her dissertation. She is the recipient of the ICCS Graduate Scholarship 2022.