“You telling me my ass isn’t a werewolf”: Science fiction ontology and representing queerness in Gail Carriger’s Parasolverse

“You telling me my ass isn’t a werewolf”: Science fiction ontology and representing queerness in Gail Carriger’s Parasolverse

Jack Murray

This paper is the result of a number of questions about how representation functions within SF works that construct complex worlds with mechanisms that change how they are understood through their own internally consistent logic. I approach this through the lens of queerness as a way to describe slippery and hard-to-define subject positions and by placing it alongside Gail Carriger’s Parasolverse. I then describe an approach to reading science fiction that I refer to as “science fiction ontology” by drawing on Seo-Young Chu’s lyrical mimesis as a way to understand how science fiction performs the work of representation. Science fiction ontology demonstrates the ways that representation occurs through the internal structures of the fictional world that determine how characters understand themselves as subjects in that world. This differs from allegorical representations which shift the world to be understood primarily from the external perspective of the readers. I read the narrative arc of Biffy the reluctant werewolf alpha, a side plot within Carriger’s Parasolverse, through the framework of science fiction ontology to show how queerness exists within Carriger’s work and how it can be read as a blueprint for queer masculinity. 

Gail Carriger’s Parasolverse is a collection of science fiction novels set in an alternate steampunk version of Victorian England. The series consists of three major multibook arcs and several standalone stories that take place between 1850 and the turn of the twentieth century. Within the Parasolverse supernatural elements have influenced the social, cultural, and imperial development of Carriger’s British Empire. The supernatural set is made up of ghosts, vampires, and werewolves, each being a form of the afterlife enabled by the presence of excess soul. When someone with excess soul dies the remaining soul tethers the spirit to their body until the body decomposes and the tether dissipates. Vampires and werewolves, on the other hand, preempt this through a kind of ceremonial death. New vampires are created through the bite of a vampire queen and new werewolves from that of an alpha werewolf, and they become a member of the hive or pack respectively. Carriger positions representations of monstrous beings alongside the social intricacies and romance of Victorian London steeped in science fiction world-building that tends towards the “harder” end of the genre. Representing queerness is complicated in the Parasolverse by the presence of characters whom readers would already understand as queer alongside monsters that are often used allegorically to stand in for queer subjects. Troubling the process of representation also raises questions about how to read representations of queerness in science fiction and fantasy. 

Identifying what does and does not count as queer within science fiction literature is particularly difficult due to the inherent ambiguity of the term; the word “queer” expresses a variety of different ideas and performs a variety of linguistic functions. Queer as an identity category gestures towards a multitude of possible gender, sexual, and other identity categories. As Hannah McCann and Whitney Mongahan observe, “queer theory finds its radical potential as a term to challenge, interrogate, destabilize and subvert” (1). The implication is that queer theory is a way of talking about the things that resist definition, description, or otherwise exist outside structural boundaries. Constructing “queer” as a political identity that is “inclusive of all those who stand on the outside of the dominant constructed norm of state-sanctioned white middle- and upper-class heterosexuality”(Cathy Cohen 411) is at the core of queer theory’s critical praxis. Cathy Cohen explains that queerness is necessarily an intersectional analytic that “recognizes how numerous systems of oppression interact to regulate and police the lives of most people”(411) which subsequently expands what it means to be queer. Queer theory identifies structures such as desire and sexuality, then asks how power relations determine what and who get to count as “normal.” Anyone outside of the normative determinations can be said to be queer. Queerness describes an ontological position couched in acknowledging difference while also attending to the concerns about sexuality and gender that give rise to queerness, or as Bo Ruberg poetically puts it, queerness is “a way of being, doing, and desiring differently” (7).

The second part of the question stems from how representation is approached in science fiction and fantasy. If queerness is a question of ontology, then representation is a question of epistemology. That is to say, there is a tension between how we come to know a world and how a diegetic world is known within itself. In a world where the conditions of existence differ radically from ours, how is queerness understood differently? The supernatural and steampunk elements in Carriger’s work disrupt an otherwise familiar Victorian London that would cause a fundamental difference in the characters’ understanding of their world compared to our understanding as readers. After all, how might conceptions of queerness change for a culture where supernatural metamorphosis, monstrous transformation, and definitive proof of the soul’s impact on one’s afterlife is an accepted and commonly acknowledged faction of reality? 

Reading the text from our frame of knowledge might approach vampires and werewolves as allegorical for “race, gender, sexuality, our perception of difference, our tolerance towards its expression” (J. J. Cohen 52). Monster theory describes this plethora of intensely transdisciplinary approaches to mapping our own semiotic interpretations onto monstrous bodies. Indeed, part of the appeal of using monsters as signifiers, as queer readings are wont to do, is “the realization that meaning itself runs riot” (Halberstam, Skin Shows 2). This type of analysis is useful for examining many themes and anxieties regarding cultural, racial, queer, and othered bodies (J. J. Cohen; Wright; Bildhauer; Creed; Asma; Puar and Rai) as well as positive possible potentialities related productive conceptions of monsters (Lioi; Haraway; MacCormack). These readings are almost always focused on the relationship between the self and underlying queerness or an unknowable other. But what does it mean for monsters to represent queer people, when they also already exist and are actively present in the narrative? Instead, could we use monsters to understand the ontological structures of queerness in Carriger’s world? 

These questions propose a method of approaching representation that differs drastically from approaches to reading gothic horror and other fiction genres that frequently address the monstrous. Genre boundaries are points of contention and working through this methodology of reading representation in fiction will necessitate describing how I approach science fiction. Indeed, one could rightly describe Carriger’s novels as fantasy, yet I have been primarily referring to them as science fiction. I turn to Seo-Young Chu’s conception of science fiction as “a mimetic discourse whose objects of representation are nonimaginary yet cognitively estranging” (3), a definition that synthesizes broader discourse within the science fiction community. Chu’s use of mimesis refers to the propensity of art to imitate or represent the real world, a definition which preempts the complex history of mimesis and postulates “the capacity of language to reflect a reality ontologically prior to representation” (2). In many ways I accept the idea that science fiction operates at a level beyond mimetic representations of the real world because science fiction worlds must be ontologically distinct before signification can occur. Allowing a work to create its own internally consistent ontology functions similar to mythology, in that the ontology of a myth exists prior to what it is attempting to represent and allows meaning to emerge through the act of reading within extended contexts. In the previous examples from monster theory, the object being interpreted points to any number of possible objects. Similarly, myths read as parables rely heavily on the storytelling process to influence the production of meaning. This is possible because fiction exists on a spectrum of mimetic intensities that is bounded by a work’s referents’ capacity to be comprehended. On one end are works that are interested in representing concrete objects “ highly susceptible to understanding and amenable to representation”; on the other hand are “referents virtually unknowable, referents that all but defy human language and comprehension” (Chu 6). Chu positions genres of realism at the low intensity end of the mimetic spectrum, while science fiction and fantasy tend towards higher intensity. A text’s position on the spectrum is determined by the relative difficulty of their representational tasks and the difficulty of representation is a function of is the property of referents to be “impossible to represent in a straightforward manner” yet “absolutely real” (Chu 3), what Chu describes as cognitive estrangement. Cognitive estrangement is borrowed from Darko Suvin’s definition of SF as a genre of cognitive estrangement induced through imaginative frameworks that differ from the author’s actual material reality. In contrast to Suvin’s claims that SF’s form of representation as non mimetic and purely imaginative, Chu suggests that “all reality is to some degree cognitively estranging” (7) because it is impossible to completely know and understand a referent. The implication is that all works of representation are, at some intensity, science fiction. Affective vertigo is a similar concept to cognitive estrangement in that each “calls into question (their, anyone’s) epistemological worldview, highlights its fragmentary and inadequate nature, and thereby asks us . . . to acknowledge the failures of our systems of categorization” (Mittman, qtd. in Weinstock 3). The difference is that one precedes the other. Inducing affective vertigo is necessary to conceptualize a cognitively estranging referent. Science fiction as outlined here relies on a literalization of figurative formations within a narrative ontology. 

Queerness induces affective vertigo by design and as such, queer subjects are often associated with monsters or the monstrous. Characters are forced to confront queer subjects or their own queer subjectivity through their relationship to the monstrous. Fiction is well suited to the task of representing queer identities, while representing the already slippery concept of queerness which necessitates understanding of being within the work of fiction. What I propose is reading a system of mimesis in a way that draws on extensive worldbuilding to understand how cognitively estranging referents are understood from within the story world. Admittedly this method of reading a text or group of texts is most effective with more expansive collections or texts that have a strong interest in world building. The text can more easily represent the unrepresentable by codifying the rules of the world and ensuring they function consistently. This has the added bonus of allowing the author to subvert or break the rules for dramatic, narrative, or moralizing effect. Being a work of fiction, the author’s episteme impacts the production of the narrative and subsequently its ontology as well as our reading of it. This method and traditional methods are not mutually exclusive. Traditional readings of representation cannot and should not be abandoned; rather, the two approaches supplement one another to encompass a wider scope of analysis. 

My interest in Carriger’s Parasolverse is twofold. First, the presence of werewolves seeks to induce an affective vertigo, which Carriger leans into by disrupting understandings of werewolf monstrosity by embedding them within the veneer of high class Victorian Culture, a move that corresponds to contemporary monster theory’s focus on how “subjects are ‘monsterized’ and the implications of this process” (Weinstock 25). Specifically I am interested in the process of metamorphosis via death and how queer desire, affect, and power interact within pack dynamics and London high society. Second, Carriger’s inclusion of a diegetic scientific approach the monstrous and its ability to represent queerness as function of science fiction’s “capacity to perform the massively complex representational and epistemological work necessary to render cognitively estranging referents available both for representation and for understanding” (Chu 7). As noted earlier, the epistemological underpinnings of queerness are predicated on disrupting and upsetting interpretative and cognitive categories. Just as Weinstock identifies the emergence of the monster as “the catch-all conceptual category for things that don’t fit” at the moment of affective vertigo (Weinstock 2), queerness comes into being at the moment it is identified as queer. Queerness emerges in relation to nonnormative ways of being, knowing, and desiring that destabilize dominant systems of categorization. Werewolves represent affectively destabilizing subjects and their presence in the world of Carriger’s science fiction comes to represent a construction of queerness.

This analysis will draw on Biffy’s story beginning in the five-book Parasol Protectorate arc as a minor character and then continues through to the follow-up series, The Custard Protocol, and into a number of standalone novellas where he takes on a more central role. In Soulless, Biffy is described as a dandy with extensive espionage training, a marked preference for men, a penchant for women’s fashion—hats in particular—and lover to flamboyant vampire Lord Akeldama. In Blameless, Biffy is kidnapped as part of a hostile vampire plot and is rescued by Lord Maccon and Professor Lyall, the London Pack’s Alpha and Beta, respectively. During the rescue Biffy is fatally shot, and to prevent him from dying Lyall convinces Lord Maccon to metamorphose Biffy into a werewolf. Biffy’s successful change causes friction between the pack and Lord Akeldama. In Heartless we get glimpses of Biffy’s struggle to reconcile the loss of his potential future as a vampire alongside Lord Akeldama with his new place as a werewolf within the London Pack. In Parasol Protectorate book 5, Timeless, it is discovered that Biffy has the traits of an Alpha werewolf and plans are made for Biffy to replace Lyall—who has also become Biffy’s new paramour— and become Lord Maccon’s Beta before taking eventually over as pack Alpha when the strain of holding the pack together eventually forces Lord Maccon to retire. This replacement occurs during the second book of the Custard Protocol series after which Biffy and the London Pack’s stories are picked up in the standalone novellas Romancing the Werewolf and How to Marry a Werewolf. 

Werewolf metamorphosis is a literalization of becoming-wolf as Deleuze and Guattari describe it: when man and wolf are made from matter shifted into different configurations, an individual’s relationships with social assemblages and desire is fundamentally restructured. Desire is “never separable from complex assemblages” and “results from a highly developed, engineered setup rich in interactions” (Deleuze and Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus 251). The restructuring of desire comes at the expense of previously existing social flows (Deleuze and Guattari, Anti-Oedipus). In becoming-werewolf, Biffy’s shifting conceptualization of death fundamentally alters his relationship with desire and social subjectivity. Carriger provides insight into the precarious nature of mortal and immortal desire through Biffy’s reflection on changed relationships with mortal friends and newfound empathy for his former lover, 

Lord Akeldama’s love, such as it was, was always transient and shared. Now Biffy understood why. True, Biffy was a young immortal, but he was almost fifty, and he’d seen his mortal friends grow old while he had not. Or die in the attempt to become like him. He wasn’t yet old enough to have grown the protective thickness around his heart, the one that made Lord Akeldama’s smiles brittle, but Biffy knew why it was there. (Carriger, Romancing the Werewolf 21)

Desire is a productive force with real, tangible effects (Deleuze and Guattari, Anti-Oedipus). Another way of expressing this idea is to think of desire according to Eve Sedgwick’s definition: “the affective or social force, the glue, even when its manifestation is hostility or hatred or something less emotively charged, that shapes an important relationship” (Sedgwick). Sedgwick uses this framing to describe homosociality as the desiring relationship that invests men in the affairs of other men as a way to uphold forms of masculinity. 

Carriger’s werewolf packs disrupt the common conception of normative homosociality with a queer homosociality centered on a politics of care where pack members are attuned to each other’s emotional wellbeing. In keeping with wolf tropes, status within the pack outwardly seems to be determined via physical capability; however, Carriger’s world building shows status based on affective capacity and emotional sensitivity to the pack. The tethers that effervesce from the soul remaining post metamorphosis are a literalization of the relationships between pack werewolves. The network itself centers on a tripartite relationship between the pack’s Alpha, Beta, and Gamma described by Carriger as:

The balance of the pack, the rule of three. Alpha for the head, evolving, shifting, holding too many tethers, burning brighter than the rest of the pack until he snuffed himself out in madness. Beta for the heart, beating a steady rhythm of care, love, resilience, ever steadfast. Gamma for the strength in arms, the warrior, the challenger, the weapon, to remind the pack of what they really were – hunters, trackers, fighters. (Carriger, How to Marry a Werewolf 159)

Biffy’s conceptualization of the dynamic of the pack is somewhat incomplete as a result of the impromptu nature of his metamorphosis. As Alpha he recognizes his duty to keep his pack anchored without fully comprehending the bidirectional nature of the relationship. Professor Lyall explains to Biffy, “when you became Alpha of this pack, you tethered to them, to each and every member. Your tether is the last of your soul, so in a way the pack becomes the Alpha’s soul. And you are theirs” (Carriger, Romancing the Werewolf 102), indicating that while the Alpha provides a stabilizing presence, they also rely on the connection of the pack to stay grounded. Biffy’s metamorphosis is a total disassembly of his prior social assemblage and as a result his integration into the pack goes poorly. The multidirectional flows of affect are demonstrated as Lord Maccon and Lyall bring Biffy into a stabilizing relationship with the pack through his participation in investigations related to the pack’s overall wellbeing as well as the gradual romantic connection between Biffy and Lyall. As Biffy settles into the pack, his capacity for sensing the flow of affect ultimately identifies him with Alpha werewolf potential (Carriger, The Parasol Protectorate, Volume One; Carriger, The Parasol Protectorate, Volume Two). 

The mechanics of the soul and its relationship to supernatural metamorphosis and pack dynamics is the focus of the Parasol Protectorate. Excess soul is assumed to be the primary determinant in surviving metamorphosis. The only known indication of excess soul is an individual’s penchant for creativity, though the correlation is presented as speculative at best. Throughout the Parasol Protectorate there are elements of an anti-supernatural cadre of scientists attempting to determine a way of measuring one’s soul for the purpose of identifying those who have supernatural potential. The readings of queer identities are very made very apparent. The efforts to measure soul echo the ways Foucault identifies scientific pathologizing deviant sexuality (63-70) and the way that Halberstam describes medicine’s domain over gender identify categories (Trans* 24-29). Scientific measurement of the soul is an attempt to identify and discipline non-normative bodies. However, the science fiction ontology of Carriger’s world represents queerness as cognitively estranging, something that produces affective vertigo in characters who exist within the narrative world. Rather than representing sexual orientation or gender identity, the politics of the soul represent anxieties around the possibility of being otherwise and the fear associated with being preyed upon by those who exist or desire in non-normative ways. This theme is also present in Biffy’s initial resentment and resistance to becoming a werewolf. The possibility of escaping normative structures following death is perhaps one of the prime draws for metamorphosis as “Werewolves, like vampires, have always been less bound by the limits humans pose on their own desires” (Carriger, Romancing the Werewolf 136). The London Pack is never shown to be interested in maintaining normative sexual desires as long as “Both parties [are] agreeable and willing, and capable of undertaking an informed decision” (136), a view that reflects the same values held in regard to the process of metamorphosis that necessitates education in Pack protocol through serving as a claviger. Many pack members and clavigers can be identified as being what we understand as queer, while the protocols themselves represent queer homosociality predicated on ethics of care. 

Scientifically foreclosing the possibility of transformation with the threat of permanent death is a mechanism by which power attempts to retain its influence. This functions in a manner that preys upon a natural fear of loss and death. Where queer desire is subsumed by a desire for oppression. This is not to ideate suicide as a liberatory alternative. Suicide, or the act of desiring one’s own death (Deleuze and Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus), is a tool of what Achille Mbembe identifies as necropolitics that sees power incorporate death into the assemblages of biopower (83-92). Instead, in the Parasolverse, becoming-werewolf is a drastic destruction of the social via embracing queerness that, as Lee Edelman says, “must redefine such notions as ‘civil order’ through a rupturing of our foundational faith in the reproduction of futurity” (17). The immortality of werewolves is a fundamental rejection of “the death drive of the dominant order” (17) in the most literal sense. However, the werewolf does not reject the possibility of futurity, instead they “represent a mode of being and feeling that was not quite there” (Muñoz 9) that remains to embrace José Esteban Muñoz’s queer potentiality that is “spawned of a critical investment in utopia” (Muñoz 12). The werewolf metamorphosis and pack dynamic based on desire represents the slippery, cognitively estranging idea of queerness in a way that is useful to queer theory because “power centers are defined much more by what escapes them” (Deleuze and Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus 254). The literal becoming-wolf of Carriger’s werewolves “contains blueprints and schemata of a forward-dawning futurity” (Muñoz 1) which places the subjects in a new relation to the structure of normative power by placing one outside the structures and instead positions them within networks centered on an ethic of care. 

Biffy allows us to understand queerness from within his frame of reference as he exists in the world. Treating science fiction worlds as ontologically distinct allows for representation that exist beyond the purely allegorical, opening rendering the unrepresentable visible within the expansive body of a text. By reading the Parasolverse as a science fiction ontology, the werewolf pack is tasked with representing a diagram of queerness that escapes structures of normative power and reimagines the how individuals exist in relation to one another. Using this method of reading ontological representations of queerness in conjunction with allegorical representation and direct representations of queerness allows us to interrogate who gets to be queer, what it means to be queer, and how we understand queerness in relation to the narrative elements of a work of fiction. 


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Jack Murray is a Ph.D. Candidate in the Texts and Technology Program at the University of Central Florida. He received a B.S. Software Engineering and a M.A. in arts, technology, and emerging communication from the University of Texas at Dallas. His research interests include critical game studies, emergent storytelling, and narrative systems.  Jack’s current research is focused on the intersection of analog and digital games. He is a frequent collaborator with the Narrative Systems Research Lab,  Studio for Mediating Play, and the Center for Humanities and Digital Research @ UCF.

Same As It Ever Was?: Portrayals of Appalachia in William Gibson’s The Peripheral

Same As It Ever Was?: Portrayals of Appalachia in William Gibson’s The Peripheral

Jennifer Krause

This paper will investigate representations of Appalachia and Appalachian communities in William Gibson’s The Peripheral. In his novel, Gibson sets one of two alternative futures in Appalachia, though he does not clearly name it as such. Yet instead of leaning into one-note depictions of backwoods drug dealers and fundamentalist preachers preying on rural white trash, Gibson presents a complicated picture of the region that views Appalachia as an internal colony within the United States. He also layers his near future Appalachia within a second layer of colonialism, a colonialism defined by the far future reaching into the past to monetize and manipulate alternate versions of history. This layering allows Gibson to create an intriguing commentary about place-specific stereotyping and the need to create communities that insulate themselves from critique. I therefore posit that by presenting Appalachia as an internal colony within the United States and emphasizing the idea that place matters, The Peripheral complicates and questions both the colonialism more overtly present in the relationship between the different timelines in the novel, as well as the usefulness of colonial models for understanding such complicated and paradoxical relationships. 

To begin such an analysis, we need to look into Gibson’s ties to the mountains. Gibson was born on the coast of South Carolina, but lived most of his early life in Wytheville, Virginia. As Gibson mentions in his autobiographical essay “Since 1948,” his experiences in southwest Virginia influenced his own interest in things not of this world. He notes, “I’m convinced that it was this experience of feeling abruptly exiled, to what seemed like the past, that began my relationship with science fiction” (Gibson, Distrust 22). In a question-and-answer session during a book signing in 2015 at Joseph-Beth Booksellers in Lexington, Kentucky, someone in the audience asked Gibson where the book was set. Gibson answered that he had originally thought the book was set in southern Ohio, somewhere rural, but the more he thought about it, the more he suspected that the book was set very close to Wytheville, where he grew up (“Questions”). In an earlier interview for Tor.com in 2014, Gibson is less willing to point to Wytheville as the setting of the novel, however. He mentions that he wanted the setting to be in Pennsylvania, “right across the Virginia line” (“Gibson on Urbanism”). Yet Gibson goes on to say, “But inevitably, in spite of my wanting that, I think what happened was that my experience of my own childhood colored it all. And so it feels more like a southern small town than anything else. [. . .] There’s a kind of inadvertent generic quality to it that stems from that idea I had that I could make it kind of Everytown. But in the end I guess it’s not really.” Interestingly, all the locations Gibson mentions fall within the traditional boundaries of Appalachia, so even if the novel does not take place in Wytheville exactly, it is still affected by its location somewhere in Appalachia. And though, as Steve Fisher notes in a discussion of Appalachian cultural identity and political activity, “many use the term ‘Appalachian’ in a way that glosses over the diversity of the region and some ugly parts of its history,” there is still a cultural (mis)understanding of the region that allows readers to pick up The Peripheral and know exactly where it takes place (Fisher 58-59). The main character’s hometown may not be Wytheville exactly, but its feel, its undercurrents, and its customs reflect an Appalachian way of life, even if its geography doesn’t. 

We must therefore next tackle an understanding of how popular notions of Appalachia and Appalachian stereotypes play out, in scholarship concerning the region as well as in popular adaptations, including Gibson’s novel. The Appalachian way of life most readers will pick up on is usually based on very specific stereotypes. In a discussion of stereotypes in Appalachia, Barbara Ellen Smith mentions that “within the national imaginary, Appalachia is a land of backward, inbred (always implicitly white) hillbillies whose very degradation—in the manner of most binary oppositions—functions to valorize the intelligence and culture of the normative, middle-class American, who is decidedly not from Appalachia” (54). The hillbilly, as a representation of all who live and work and function in Appalachia, is therefore the opposite of everything America stands for, yet still resides within the limits of American culture: worth less than the rest of country, but still white; and deserving of poverty and ridicule and hopelessness perhaps because of their rejection of the rules and strictures they are supposed to live up to. 

To combat this view of Appalachia, Helen M. Lewis and Edward E. Knipe suggest the colonialism model as a way to understand Appalachian social, cultural, and economic structures. This model:

describes the Appalachians as a subsociety structurally alienated and lacking resources because of processes of the total economic political system. Those who control the resources preserve their advantages by discrimination. The people are not essentially passive; but these ‘subcultural’ traits of fatalism, passivity, etc. are adjustive techniques of the powerless. They are ways by which people protect their way of life from new economic models and the concomitant alien culture. (15)

Viewing Appalachians as native inhabitants attacked by alien invaders calls into question multiple assumptions made by the stereotypes projected onto the region by both internal and external sources.

In their study, Lewis and Knipe therefore turn to a definition of colonialism, specifically internal colonialism, first introduced by Robert Blauner in a 1969 study of African Americans in the inner city. Blauner’s definition includes multiple steps in the ongoing act of colonization, including “a forced, involuntary entry,” “rapid modifications in values, orientation, and the way of life of the colonized,” “a relationship by which members of the colonized group tend to be administered by representatives of the dominant group,” and finally, “a condition of racism” (Lewis and Knipe 16). A comparison between the situation of African Americans in the late 1960s and inhabitants of the Appalachian region is overtly problematic, on multiple levels, yet the introduction of a social model that considers issues of colonization in the region have been fruitful and provide a useful way to think about how Appalachia is often seen. 

So how does all this come together in the novel itself? To begin my analysis, we first need a quick overview of the novel’s plot. In the introduction to an interview with Gibson, Tasneem Raja quips, “The new book, meanwhile, stars a bunch of downtrodden trailer park residents who get caught up in the deadly games of some time-warping elites from 70 years hence” (61). Though this description sums up the plot quickly, it also reveals inherent biases. Yes, the novel’s heroes are rural and poor and trapped by a society that has no use for them, but the main characters don’t live in a trailer park, nor are they as downtrodden as the word implies. The stereotypes in such a description highlight the ways in which place matters in the text. A better description of the plot might read: “The book follows a woman, Flynne, and her community as they deal with the impact of what happens when a group of time travel hobbyists from seventy years in the future decide to meddle with the past. Flynne witnesses a murder in the future, though she thinks she is playing a video game. This leads to two rival powers from the future using her present as a gameboard for their ongoing feud. Flynne must therefore travel to the future through the use of a peripheral body, which allows her to live in her world but interact with theirs, in order to personally identify the murderer and stop the violence that rages in her own timeline.”

This is where a reading of the text from an Appalachian studies perspective becomes useful. If we read Flynne’s hometown as doubly colonized, invaded by the future and internally ostracized by the rest of the United States, we can begin to understand not only how we are supposed to react to her world, but also how we are supposed to reflect revelations within her world back onto our own society. The far future’s colonial attitudes toward the near future are introduced very clearly in a conversation between three main characters. No one knows much about this time-travel hobby, so Lev, a prominent hobbyist, tries to explain it. He says, “The act of connection produces a fork in causality, the new branch causally unique. A stub, as we call them” (Gibson, Peripheral 103). Lowbeer, a high ranking member of what amounts to a police force in the future, asks, “But why do you? [. . .] Call them that. It sounds short. Nasty. Brutish. Wouldn’t one expect the fork’s new branch to continue to grow?” (103). Lev replies, “We do [. . .] assume exactly that. Actually, I’m not sure why enthusiasts settled on that expression” (103). In response to this confusion, one of Lev’s employees interjects, “Imperialism [. . .] We’re third-worlding alternate continua. Calling them stubs makes that a bit easier” (103). This conversation very clearly introduces an imperialist, colonialist agenda into the novel’s use of time travel. Thinking back to the definition of internal colonization Lewis and Knipe use, we can read this as “a forced, involuntary entry,” one recognized as blatantly capitalist and hypocritical by onlookers who are not enthusiasts (16). 

This becomes all the more complex if we view the near future, Flynne’s world, as an internal colony within greater U.S. culture. We can see that internal colonization within the fabric of Flynne’s community even before it is touched by Lev’s hobby. The “forced, involuntary entry” in this case is not coal companies that Lewis and Knipe highlight in their study, but drug manufacture, a clear reference to the opioid crisis in rural America. In an assessment of the economy in Flynne’s timeline, one of Lev’s employees in far future London states, “County’s economy is entirely about manufacturing drugs” (Gibson, Peripheral 108). Tommy, a cop in Flynne’s world, explains to Flynne that building drugs is the only way to make real money in their community: “if we all woke up one day and [. . .] that building economy had been taken up to heaven, after a few weeks most people around here wouldn’t have any money for food” (233). The drug trade therefore serves as a mechanism of colonization, bringing a type of predatory capitalism into the region that, like coal, doesn’t actually boost the economy or bring any development for the region or investment in the people. 

For Lewis and Knipe, the second step of internal colonization is “rapid modifications in values, orientation, and the way of life of the colonized” (16). We can see this second step both within Flynne’s world before the intervention of far future London as well as through that intervention. Flynne’s community reflects these modifications, as the novel contrasts her childhood home and the homeplace feel of much of the countryside with the modernization and capitalist neglect of the town and its drug dealer leaders. Flynne’s world, though ruled by technology in some respects, is grounded in its sense of place: the endless fields, the rushing creeks, the wind in the trees. This closeness with nature is contrasted by one of the novel’s villains, Corbell Pickett, a politician and community celebrity who also runs the local drug syndicate. His power serves as a reference to the third aspect of internal coloniality that Lewis and Knipe also reference: “a relationship by which members of the colonized group tend to be administered by representatives of the dominant group” (16). When characters drive to Pickett’s home, they pass “a long stretch of white plastic fence, fabbed to look like somebody’s idea of Old Plantation” (Gibson, Peripheral 291). As for the house itself, “They’d painted everything white, she guessed to tie it together, but it didn’t. Looked like somebody had patched a factory, or maybe a car dealership, onto a McMansion, then stuck an Interstate chain restaurant and a couple of swimming pools on top of that” (292). All of these details speak to Pickett’s status as both a colonizer and a representative of the effects of colonization. Pickett’s home, like Pickett himself, reflects a different worldview than Flynne’s homeplace. While Flynne’s family has been in their home for over a century, and that home reflects its connections to the past and to family ties, this is obviously a new building, frankensteined together out of consumerist kitsch. The influence of the drug trade is stark here, revealing the paradox of the region: the modifications the drug trade has made to the community and the power money has over everything else. 

The interaction between far-future London and Flynne’s world only deepens the us versus them mentality set up against Flynne and her community. The changes in their way of life, as well as the implication that Flynne’s world is not actually in charge of what is going on, is most clearly obvious in a conversation Flynne has with Macon, a friend of Flynne’s who is one of the first know that they are dealing with interference from the future. Macon asks:

“Know what ‘collateral damage’ means?”
“People get hurt because they happen to be near something that somebody needs to happen?”
“Think that’s us,” he said. “None of this is happening because any of us are who we are, what we are. Accident, or it started with one, and now we’ve got people who might as well be able to suspend basic laws of physics, or anyway finance, doing whatever it is they’re doing, whatever reason they’re doing it for. So we could get rich, or get killed, and it would all still just be collateral.”
(Peripheral 279)

Flynne, her brother, her friends, her family, all have to deal with the reality of this situation. They are part of this plot not because of who they are, but because they were originally preyed upon by Lev and his hobby. All of this randomness leads to Flynne and Macon and all the rest being collateral damage, for good or ill. 

This is also where an understanding of Appalachia and the internal colonial model reveals a more nuanced reading of the text. This model creates an intriguing picture of insider versus outsider and what that means for how we can read communities and citizens who have been stereotyped as backward and dispossessed and downtrodden. Barbara Ellen Smith and Steve Fisher lay out why such a model is so enticing for Appalachian scholars, even as it is also problematic. They note:

The analytical power and emotional appeal of the internal colony model lie in its capacity to interrelate spatial or place-based exploitation (Appalachia as dispossessed region) with cultural degradation (Appalachia as America’s Other). It thereby creates Appalachia as a regional collectivity, no longer pathologized but oppressed, and enables us to situate ourselves within a shared cultural geography that recognizes all residents as heirs to a special, place-based identity. Although [. . .] this depiction obscures internal class processes and relationships (along with much else), the stark invocation of thievery, arrogance, and smug condescension by outsiders draws an undeniably powerful line between innocent victims inside the region and profiteering elites on the outside. (Smith and Fisher 76)

The internal colony model allows citizens of the region to create a narrative that sets them not as the Other, but as the protagonist in a plot aimed against them. This understanding of self, founded on a place-based myth of righteousness against outside aggressors, gives Appalachians a way to see themselves as heroes, innocent victims, and righteous underdogs. 

Within that context, we can begin to understand why it is so easy for readers to side with Flynne and her community against outside forces, be those forces internal colonizers or colonizers from the far future. Flynne’s identity as part of an already marginalized group helps us to understand her plight and allows us to easily see her as capable and heroic, even if she does live in a place and time that most would consider backwards and primitive. Interestingly, Gibson’s description of his inspiration for The Peripheral echoes these sentiments. In an interview in Mother Jones, Gibson says:

I’m interested in how we came to automatically think of the inhabitants of the past as having been rubes. [. . .] The people in my 22nd century initially assume that anyone they’re dealing with back in 2025 or whenever is just kind of a hick” (Raja 62)

Just like the inhabitants of Appalachia, the inhabitants of the past are much more than they seem, and the internal colony model reinforces the agency, intelligence, and resourcefulness of people who have normally been overlooked or underestimated. 

This doubled coloniality in the novel bolsters how we might view the end of the story, too. The final two chapters of the book present a conclusion that seems a bit too easy. The story jumps several years ahead, presenting Flynne happily married to Tommy, with a child on the way. Most of Flynne’s family and friends seem to have paired off nicely, and everyone lives together in new buildings in and around Flynne’s original homeplace. Several critics, scholars, and reviewers have called it a happy ending and left it at that. Others, however, see it as rather more sinister. This ending—which Gibson himself has said, “gave me the creeps!” (“Gibson on Urbanism”)—becomes that much more creepy when read from the vantage of a doubled coloniality . In explaining his rationale for being disturbed with how the novel ends, Gibson continues, “Really, its potential for not being good is really, really high. [. . .] I mean, she’s lovely, but what are they building there? It’s got all kinds of weird third-world bad possibilities. . . . I wasn’t expecting that actually, and it completely weirded me out, and I still haven’t really gotten my head around it” (“Gibson on Urbanism”). Gibson’s reference to “third-world bad possibilities” brings Flynne and her community back to where they started, in a sense, though they are no longer the poor denizens of Appalachia just trying to make some money and get ahead. Now, Flynne and her people have joined the colonizers, both in the future and in their own society. We want to root for Flynne because she is an underdog, one of the oppressed workers in Appalachia, but once she crosses the line and can no longer be seen as an underdog, we must question what we think of her and her future. 

This becomes especially apparent if we read the end through an Appalachian studies lens. One of the major arguments against the internal colonial model is that it hides what Smith and Fisher call internal exploiters. They note:

[B]laming “outsiders” for regional economic problems is an over-simplification, if not outright distortion. When we focus on where people are from as the main problem, we run the risk of exonerating everyone in the region as good and implying that we who live here are, in this most fundamental respect of residence, all the same in our righteousness. Race, class, gender, sexual orientation—all are secondary to our zip code. Perhaps most important, this perspective conceals and exonerates internal exploiters [. . .] without whose actions the exploitation of Appalachia would not be possible. (47)

From this perspective, using the internal colony model to help understand Gibson’s text, Flynne and her family can seem to have a happy ending, and we can feel good for them because their potential for chaos and harm is hidden from view by the assumption that where they are from defines who they are. Their hillbilly-ness, their rural ways and Appalachian values, mask the possibility that they could be something else, something far more in keeping with their own colonizers than anyone, including the reader, would want to acknowledge. 

Place is therefore of utmost importance in this novel, even if that place is never clearly stated outright. Flynne’s world, as both situated in a version of the past that is our near future, as well as situated in an Appalachia eerily similar to today’s, is ruled by multiple colonialities. This doubled coloniality questions both temporal and geographical stereotypes because of the way Gibson approaches his characters and their places in both time and space. The complex nature of the internal colonial model, however, causes us, as readers, to make certain assumptions about the characters. We see them as capable, intelligent individuals, but they are also flattened because they are defined by place in a way that homogenizes them, ignoring the complex intersectionalities of the region as well as the lived reality of people who are there right now. The internal colonial model that seems to be written into the cosmology of the text therefore also affects our understanding of how the future looks back at the past. Whether or not Flynne’s community is able to save themselves, they still have to rely on the future for security, money, and power. The colonial model in that scenario flattens them as well, creating temporal myths that counteract stereotypes but also build a future that is probably going to look very much like the one they are trying to avoid. Saving the world probably doesn’t actually save the world. The Peripheral, then, asks us to pay attention to how place matters in the text. It also asks us to interrogate the usefulness of colonial models, not only for understanding place-based marginality, but also for expressing the complexities of communities that can’t and shouldn’t be defined by just one thing. 


Fisher, Steve. “Claiming Appalachia—and the Questions That Go with It.” Appalachian Journal, vol. 38, no. 1, Fall 2010, pp. 58-61.

Fisher, Steve, and Barbara Ellen Smith. “Internal Colony—Are You Sure? Defining, Theorizing, Organizing Appalachia.” Journal of Appalachian Studies, vol. 22, no. 1, Apr. 2016, pp. 45-50. JSTOR, https://doi.org/10.5406/jappastud.22.1.0045.

Gibson, William. Distrust That Particular Flavor. Putnam, 2012.

—. Question and Answer Session. Joseph-Beth Booksellers, Lexington, Ky.

—. The Peripheral. Putnam, 2014.

—. “William Gibson on Urbanism, Science Fiction, and Why The Peripheral Weirded Him Out.” Interview by Karin L. Kross, 29 Oct. 2014, Tor.com, https://www.tor.com/2014/10/29/william-gibson-the-peripheral-interview/.

Lewis, Helen M., and Edward E. Knipe. “The Colonialism Model: The Appalachian Case.” Colonialism in Modern America: The Appalachian Case, Appalachian State University, 1978, pp. 9-31, https://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt1xp3n1t.5.

Raja, Tasneem. “William Gibson’s Peripheral Vision.” Mother Jones, vol. 39, no. 6, 11 Dec. 2014, pp. 61-63.

Smith, Barbara Ellen. “Transforming Places: Toward a Global Politics of Appalachia.” Appalachia in Regional Context, edited by Dwight B. Billings and Ann E. Kingsolver, University Press of Kentucky, 2018, pp. 49-68. JSTOR, https://doi.org/10.2307/j.ctt1z27j0k.6.

Smith, Barbara Ellen, and Steve Fisher. “Reinventing the Region: Defining, Theorizing, Organizing Appalachia.” Journal of Appalachian Studies, vol. 22, no. 1, Spring 2016 2016, pp. 76-79. MLA International Bibliography with Full Text, https://doi.org/10.5406/jappastud.22.1.0076.

Jennifer Krause is an assistant professor in the English Department at Emory & Henry College in southwest Virginia. Her research interests include cyberpunk, the New Weird, dystopian fiction, and posthumanism.

Understanding the Modern Episteme through H. G. Wells

Understanding the Modern Episteme through H. G. Wells

Noah Slowik

At its core, H. G. Wells’s novel, The Island of Dr. Moreau (1896) is a story about scientific ethics. Specifically, it asks how far scientists should be allowed to go to make their contributions successful, even if it causes harm to either animals or humans in the process. One figure in particular whom Wells seemed to be directly addressing is Charles Darwin. The obvious parallels between Moreau and Darwin push the reader to consider the aforementioned ethical question as they read the novel. When put in comparison, Moreau seems like a more malicious figure than Darwin was, but that is part of the artistic liberty Wells takes in this small science fictional island-world he creates. Certainly, the overexaggerated dystopian tone of the novel highlights the way literature offers a distinct opportunity for audiences to make sense of the fragmentation of the real world. Michel Foucault, in The Order of Things: An Archaeology of the Human Sciences (1966), wrote at length about the power dynamics of what he referred to as the modern episteme. Instilled within Foucault’s epistemology are questions that revolve around the validity of potentially oppressive concepts like evolution. As Wells examined in his novel, however, sometimes the ideas in and of themselves are not dangerous, but it is the means as well as what we do with the knowledge that can become problematic. Therefore, I explore in this paper how Wells’s The Island of Dr. Moreau is an exemplary representative of the modern episteme as defined by Foucault in The Order of Things.

Foucault saw Darwin as one of the most important figures of the modern episteme because he was using pre-existing natural sciences to create new ways of thinking about the world. In this way, Darwin was a positive figure because of his subsequent impact on science. On the other hand, exactly like Moreau, his logical conclusions have potentially racist implications, exemplified by the survival of the fittest mentality of social Darwinism. As an illustration of this influence, one need not look further than the diction employed by Darwin and Wells. Much work has been done on the impact that SF language has had on vocabulary used in the actual sciences. [1] When thinking about what words to use for a certain theory or material in science, literature offers a good starting point because of its creativity. The science fiction canon—Wells undoubtedly included—would be one place to look for this linguistic influence. In the words of Foucault, “What civilizations and peoples leave us as the monuments of their thought is not so much their texts as their vocabularies, their syntaxes, the sounds of their languages rather than the words they spoke . . . the discursivity of their language” (87). Taking this one step further, literature influences science just as much as science influences literature. Based upon this logic from Foucault, one might wrongfully assume that Wells was the one influencing Darwin, but Darwin died when Wells was still only a teenager. Building upon Foucault’s point, there is a crucial element of the recursiveness of language here, in addition to the discursivity.

According to Foucault, there was a logical line of thinking that led humans to believe they gradually became stronger and smarter over time. In other words, it makes sense that a figure like Darwin emerged during the modern episteme. Interestingly, Foucault did not necessarily see the superiority of humans over other animals as the deciding factor; rather, he saw the connectedness of humanity to nature as the driving force. Foucault wrote, “‘evolutionism’ is not a way of conceiving of the emergence of beings as a process of one giving rise to another; in reality, it is a way of generalizing the principle of continuity and the law that requires that human beings form an uninterrupted expanse” (152). He acknowledges progress as a fundamental force of the modern episteme. What he fails to mention, however, is the cost of such progress—enter Wells’s The Island of Dr. Moreau and other dystopian science fiction. Wells conveyed that humanity’s power over the natural would eventually lead to civilization’s demise in a way that Foucault did not. Through mad scientist figures like Moreau or even Victor Frankenstein, literature posits representations of the simultaneously positive and negative contributions to science for the real-world example of Darwin. Foucault wrote, “The quasi-evolutionism of the eighteenth century seems to presage equally well the spontaneous variation of character, as it was later to be found in Darwin” (153). We can see how the theories of Darwin are necessitated by the line of thought Foucault lays out. Subsequently, it makes sense that a person like Wells would come along to produce Moreau as a mediating character to help the reader make sense of Darwin. In short, important past contributions to science cannot be ignored no matter what means it took to attain them. It seems, however, that Foucault is too complacent with the problematic nature of Darwin, whereas Wells did not shy away from the horror and the terrible implications to follow.

Wells highlights the madness of Moreau through contrast with the degeneration of the protagonist, Edward Prendick. When Prendick is picked up early in the story in a little dinghy somewhere near the Galapagos in the Pacific Ocean, he makes it clear that he is familiar with the dominance of science as a field having studied under T. H. Huxley, but it is not his area of expertise. He says, “I told him my name, Edward Prendick, and how I had taken to natural history as a relief from the dulness of my comfortable independence.” Prendick goes on to explain, “He was evidently satisfied with the frankness of my story, which I told in concise sentences enough—for I felt horribly weak,—and when it was finished he reverted presently to the topic of natural history and his own biological studies” (Wells 11). This being said, Wells is establishing that there is going to be a metacognitive awareness of arts and sciences in the novel. In other words, by Prendick drawing attention to his familiarity with both natural history and biological studies from the start, he is revealing that they  will eventually be central components addressed throughout the story. In the context of Foucault’s The Order of Things, it is also interesting to think about the development of science as a concrete subject originating around the Renaissance roughly aligned with what he refers to as the Classical age. Talking about conducting surface-level analysis versus a truly formal one, Foucault wrote, “one is limiting one’s view of language to its Classical status. In the modern age, literature is that which compensates for (and not that which confirms) the signifying function of language” (44). Like what was discussed above with the influence of SF on real science vocabulary, one may see a way in which Wells is capitalizing on the linguistic sophistication of scientific terms over time. The fact that Wells is demonstrating this sequence of thought articulated in language is part of what makes it a perfect representative of the modern episteme. In addition to discursivity, Foucault clearly saw intertextuality as one of the indicative markers of the thought from this time—more so than times preceding—especially as it pertains to looking backward for informing future progress. While the titular character, Moreau, is the most obvious subject that comes to mind when thinking about a comparison to Foucault’s modern episteme, Prendick shows how Moreau’s work can be dangerously influential in an everyday philosophy.

Given the interconnectedness of thought in the modern episteme, Prendick is plagued by an uncanny feeling of remembrance when he first meets Moreau. It is as if the figure of Moreau was inevitably going to become naturally actualized regardless of whether it was Moreau himself  or someone else. To highlight how far back Moreau is reflecting in history, Prendick notices texts from antiquity while Montgomery, the stereotypical evil henchman, is showing him around their little island’s base hut: “He called my attention . . . to an array of old books, chiefly, I found, surgical works and editions of the Latin and Greek classics—languages I cannot read with any comfort” (Wells 32). Drawing upon the aforementioned epistemological nature of Foucault’s project, this is no surprise because one would expect Moreau to be well-versed in ancient teachings since a compilation of previous knowledge is one of the central elements of the modern episteme. Once again, however, the reader’s attention is pulled toward Prendick’s interpretation of Moreau as opposed to prompting us to come up with an objective judgment of the mad scientist ourselves. From the outset, we see the amount of respect the stranded visitor has for Moreau, and this is something that he toils with throughout the novel. While Prendick really wants to believe there is some scientific benefit behind Moreau’s creations, he cannot look past the immoral means of achieving such advancements. At any rate, this dilemma is evident from the first utterance of his name: “‘Moreau,’ I heard him [Montgomery] call, and for the moment I do not think I noticed. Then as I handled the books on the shelf it came up in consciousness: where had I heard the name of Moreau before?” (Wells 32). As the first mention of Moreau’s name mostly functions to foreshadow the eerily despicable actions to come, it also serves the purpose of showing how the scientist is somewhat of a universal character representing the many dangers of modern science. Just because something—like vivisection, for example—could be possible does not mean that we should experiment and find out, but that desire is the inescapable drive of the modern episteme.

Like Darwin, a significant figure of the modern episteme, Moreau draws upon past scientific practices to inform his own. Foucault understood the importance of implementing revolutionary methods unlike anything that has been conducted before for the purposes of generating new knowledge. Moreau, explaining to Prendick the origin of his experiments, notes, “mediaeval practitioners who made dwarfs and beggar cripples and show-monsters; some vestiges of whose art still remain in the preliminary manipulation of the young mountebank or contortionist. Victor Hugo gives an account of them in L’Homme qui Rit” (Wells 72). This line of thinking is representative of the modern episteme because Foucault acknowledged that people were conceptualizing science and engineering epistemologically in a way that has never been done before, hence the emergence of groundbreaking technological movements during the Industrial Revolution. Wells’s novel is getting at the heart of a crucial question of whether innovative scientific ideas can be executed without malicious acts. For example, Moreau references other manipulative, deformative sciences that inspire his Beast People: “creatures as the Siamese Twins . . . And in the vaults of the Inquisition. No doubt their chief aim was artistic torture, but some at least of the inquisitors must have had a touch of scientific curiosity . . .” (Wells 72). Interestingly, these examples Moreau references are only possible through the colonization of vulnerable populations. Again, that makes the novel a perfect representative of the modern episteme because it takes a postcolonial world to make scientific discoveries like Darwin did, something Foucault recognized. While Moreau enlisted the corporeality of the Kanakas (native Hawaiians) as slaves to help him create his Beast People, the accomplishment of his abominations is still impressive. If anything, the colonial element of The Island of Dr. Moreau is what sets it apart as more representative of the modern episteme than, for example, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818). Victor Frankenstein’s monster was made using the body of a white man combined with animals, whereas Moreau abuses the labor of the colonized to make his creations. Embedded within Moreau’s philosophy, therefore, is a dense history of exploitation never before represented in this manner.

Prendick’s adoption of Moreau’s interdisciplinary approach to life and science at the end of the novel exemplifies Foucault’s use of multiple disciplines to represent the modern episteme. After Prendick eventually makes it back home off the island and re-enters normal, civilized society, one might expect him to commune with others given the traumatic experience of interacting with Moreau, the henchman Montgomery, and the Beast People. On the contrary, Prendick returns to a life of seclusion and study not dissimilar to the lifestyle he observed by Moreau: “I have withdrawn myself from the confusion of cities and multitudes, and spend my days surrounded by wise books, bright windows in this life of ours lit by the shining souls of men” (Wells 131). This hermetic existence goes to show that the problem with Moreau did not lie in his approach to science—in actuality, Moreau is a terrible but accomplished doctor the same way Voldemort is a terrible but great wizard. When Prendick decides to live his life similar to how Moreau lives after his adventures on the island, it reinforces Foucault’s emphasis on the ability of concentrated effort in a single discipline influenced by many to produce substantive, positive change: “What new modes of being must they have received in order to makes all these changes possible, and to enable to appear, after scarcely more than a few years, those now familiar forms of knowledge that we have called, since the nineteenth century, philology, biology, and economics?” (Foucault 220). To put it simply, Prendick represents everything that is good about the modern episteme while Moreau represents everything that is bad. The difference between the two of them lies in their sets of ethics that they implement in their approaches to scientific practice. Therefore, the last lines of the novel beg the reader to speculate whether Prendick will go on to make great contributions to science given everything he has learned: “There it must be, I think, in the vast and eternal laws of matter, and not in the daily cares and sins and troubles of men, that whatever is more than animal within us must find solace and its hope” (Wells 131). There is potential in all knowledge to change the world for the better, but it is entirely dependent on what is done with said knowledge. To a certain extent, Moreau is a perfect example of a modern scientist because he saw a gap in the research and praxis, and he then went on to perform experiments that he thought would fill that gap based upon his area of expertise. The problem was in his horrific use of animal brutality through vivisection with the enslaved labor of Indigenous peoples. In other words, the ends are not problematic for Moreau, but the means through which he arrives at those ends are. As Wells suggested at the end of the novel, and as Foucault wished for the modern episteme, Prendick and other real-world scientists like him should be able to arrive at those desired ends without the use of such malicious means.


[1] See, for example, B.L. King’s “Is That From Science or Fiction? Otherworldly Etymologies, Neosemes, and Neologisms Reveal the Impact of SF on the English Lexicon.”


Foucault, Michel. The Order of Things: An Archaeology of the Human Sciences. 1970. Translated by Alan Sheridan, Vintage Books, 1994.

King, B. L. “Is That From Science or Fiction? Otherworldly Etymologies, Neosemes, and Neologisms Reveal the Impact of SF on the English Lexicon.” SFRA Review, vol. 51, no. 3, 2021, https://sfrareview.org/2021/07/20/is-that-from-science-or-fiction-otherworldly-etymologies-neosemes-and-neologisms-reveal-the-impact-of-science-fiction-on-the-english-lexicon/. Accessed 12 July 2022.

Wells, H. G. The Island of Dr. Moreau. 1896. Penguin Classics, 2005.

Noah Slowik (he/him) is a second-year English M.A. student at the University of Vermont, a graduate research assistant for the Writing in the Disciplines Program, and a consultant for the Graduate Writing Center. His thesis is on the biopolitics of H. G. Wells’s utopian science fiction, advised by Sarah Alexander. He worked as a teaching assistant for a Geology, Physics, Philosophy, and Literature interdisciplinary Extraterrestrial Life course. Next fall, Noah is taking an independent study, “Science Fiction Film,” with Todd McGowan. Lastly, he will be presenting his project, “Taking the Multiverse Seriously in Everything Everywhere All at Once” at the Midwest Popular Culture Association (MPCA) Conference on the panel, “A Critical Analysis into the Popularity of A24 Films.”

“But the planet’s what matters, right?”: The Entangled Environmentalism of Three Final Fantasy VII Remake Communities

“But the planet’s what matters, right?”: The Entangled Environmentalism of Three Final Fantasy VII Remake Communities

Andrew Barton

An evil corporation siphons energy from the planet, slowly converting natural resources into money as the world slowly suffers and dies. The corporation, intent only on generating profits, disregards any environmental concerns from the general public, leaving vocal citizens limited avenues in which to redress complaints against the corporation. Such is the world of late stage capitalism. This is Shinra, the megacorporation-turned-world-government featured in Final Fantasy VII. But it could also describe Square Enix, the publishers of the game, who recently announced their intention to sell NFTs as an additional revenue stream. Within the game, a team of disaffected youths join together to stop Shinra and save the bioenergy of their planet, often engaging in violence and ecoterrorism to advance their cause. Similarly, fans of the game have condemned Square’s embrace of environmentally devastating technology and noted the company’s hypocrisy in the endeavor, though they have yet to endorse violence in support of the environment. As such, the team within the game, the fans of the game, and the publisher create three communities with different outlooks on environmentalism. This entangled environmentalism of these three communities demonstrates how video games, despite largely being produced by huge multinational corporations, can metatextually provide opportunities for fans to engage in critiques of capitalist ventures, especially/in particular in FF7 as they relate to the desolation, destruction, etc. of the natural world.

Cloud, the player character in Final Fantasy VII, is hired as a mercenary to help a group called AVALANCHE stop Shinra’s abuse of nature. Slowly, Cloud (and the player) become embroiled in AVALANCHE’s politics. Despite his aloofness, Cloud finds himself supporting his new teammates, and actively works to support their goals out of genuine interest, not merely for his paycheck. Barret, the leader of the local chapter of AVALANCHE, is more radicalized than the larger organization, and orchestrates an act of ecoterrorism: destroying a reactor to limit Shinra’s ability to convert mako, an energy source connected to the planet’s health, into electricity. Barret and the rest of the player’s party members frequently engage in similar violent tactics, attacking Shinra soldiers and destroying its infrastructure. 

Cloud and his party illustrate the strained relationship that often occurs in late capitalism between a concerned, politically active group and megacorporations. Nick Dyer-Witheford and Grieg de Peuter refer to this as a conflict between “activists” and a “multinational conglomerate” that operates as a “weapons developer” turned “world government” which “cause[s] massive ecological destruction” (236). Here, we should recognize AVALANCHE’s status as activists rather than ecoterrorists. Dyer-Witheford and de Peuter validate the party’s stance with this tacit approval. Activism downplays the violence of AVALANCHE’s methods, and condones their actions as an appropriate response to the damage caused by Shinra. In contrast, Shinra’s description emphasizes the facelessness and ultimately violent nature of the company. Shinra’s recognition here focuses on its role in weapons manufacturing rather than their efforts at city-building, modernization, and the supply of electricity to a city of millions of people. Here, Shinra is cast as the violent one and the player’s party is innocent, or at least absolved of any implication of instigating violence. Shinra is the guilty party, and with the megacorporation’s monopoly on violence, the player is forced into violent actions as the only remaining resort. Thus, the player and their party are validated: destroying power reactors is an acceptable choice when faced with a potential biological collapse. The locus of violence is clearly situated with Shinra and not the AVALANCHE cell. Within this conflict, the small collection of individuals is heroic, and the corporation-governmental entity is antagonistic.

We should note that the ecopolitics of the player’s party are made all the more appealing by their depiction as cool, attractive people who want to better the world in which they live. Dyer-Witheford and de Peuter refer to the party as “fantastically good-looking ideal characters” and “disaffected youth” fighting against a “multinational conglomerate [. . .] whose attempt to drain the planet’s vital energy sources makes it both a world government and the cause of massive ecological destruction” in “a saga that strangely connects the postnuclear legacy of the dissident shin jinrui to today’s anticorporate movements” (17). Shin jinrui, which here translates to new breed or new generation, references a youth movement of dissident politics and engagement that roughly corresponds chronologically with the punk movement in the United States. Games critic Jessica Howard echoes this analysis, claiming Final Fantasy VII is “an extremely punk game, abundant with political sentiments,” (Howard) and the party members certainly resemble that aesthetic, with their machine-gun hands, exposed hardware sticking out of their armor, and wild spiky haircuts. The party embraces punk; their angry, disaffected edge makes them relatable to young players of the game. Their status as righteous ecowarriors only enhances the cool: they care, and so should the player, because that is the only way things can change.

The game channels the party’s cool energy and desire for change into the conflict with Shinra, and we must recognize that this conflict originates from a capitalistic desire to extract profits from natural resources. Dyer-Witheford and de Peuter connect mako to Foucault’s concept of biopower: by harnessing a substance that sustains all life on the planet, Shinra asserts control over all the people—or all the living creatures—in its domain (236). In this way, access to mako enables Shinra to reach otherwise unattainable levels of power to regulate and control any biological entities within their influence. Mako provides Shinra with significant riches, granting a capitalistic power to the corporation, and also allows the company to tap into the metaphysical life force of the planet, so that Shinra’s reach extends beyond economic power and into a mystical control of not just humanity but indeed all forms of life. Shinra dictates who lives, who dies, what occupations are available to individuals, and even conducts experiments on citizens. Possession of mako energy is thus significantly valuable along multiple avenues of control, and ties to its position as a natural resource. Shinra’s control of mako is a severe environmental concern. This is why the player’s first mission in the game is to destroy the mako reactor: AVALANCHE intends to cause significant loss of capital to Shinra, and simultaneously deny the corporation the ability to consume as much mako, thus protecting the planet’s life force. In retaliation, Shinra flexes its biopower by destroying a section of the city, killing thousands of people, and blames the attack on AVALANCHE, calling it a second terrorist attack. Shinra is able to use this as a pretense to assume tighter political control over the populace, enhancing their biopower. All these exertions of influence, control, and even the conflict between Shinra and the player’s party are expressions of how the exploitation of natural resources can be used to create biopower. 

The heroic representation of the party in Final Fantasy VII as plucky underdog ecowarriors in a noble fight to save the natural world has had a profound effect on the fanbase of the series. In his focused discussion on how fans react to game narratives, Mattias van Ommen suggests that an affective component plays a crucial role in connecting the players with the characters and world of Final Fantasy VII, asserting “[t]his narrative approach towards emotions can help clarify why certain games, featuring narratives in which the player guides forth the growth of characters over the course of many hours and play sessions, may be more successful in producing a longer-lasting affective relationship between player and game world than games in which each play session concludes a mini-narrative” (24). Jessica Howard reinforces van Ommen’s analysis when she calls a member of the player’s party a “childhood friend of mine,” and demonstrates how this game “abundant with political sentiments and messages regarding the distribution of power, our treatment of the environment, and the evil found in complicity” ultimately speaks to her. Hence, game narratives, especially longer ones, hold a special ability to elicit affective reactions in their players, and, as van Ommen recognizes, Japanese Role-Playing Games often take a distinctly narrative-forward approach, which indicates that Final Fantasy VII engenders a stronger affective relationship with its players than many other games in different genres that feature shorter narrative elements. In this way, players may respond affirmatively toward narrative decisions made by party characters that are nonetheless out of the player’s control; the affective relationship between player and party encourages the player to view characters just as they would friends, supporting their actions and adopting their ideological outlook.

Moreover, we should note that such connections are not limited by the narrative components of the game, but rather that the ludic mechanics also contribute to strong affective responses with players. Gameplay structures within Final Fantasy VII induce a deep emotional association within players, who are allowed to customize the various party members and experience a steady growth of character statistics, which rewards the player for significant investment of time and engenders a sense of ownership over the characters. Such customization may, for example, take the form of equipped weapons, magical augmentations called materia, how the player chooses to respond to in-game questions, or even whether or not to indulge in side quests. As van Ommen observes, “statistical progression and creative customization are often at the core of creating a personalized experience, which has the potential to generate affective relationships with character worlds that are simultaneously intimately personal as well as shared with other fans” (23). This personalized experience invokes an even deeper affective connection to the in-game characters and world than may be otherwise possible. By tailoring the various characters to their personal whims and desires, the player forms an affective bond with the party. Personal stylings through equipment and upgrades, as well as minor choices in gameplay, such as how Cloud answers questions, do not affect the narrative at all, and yet gives the player a sense of ownership over their gaming experience, inextricably drawing the player in closer to the characters and the world. In this way, the affective response here is made all the stronger through the gameplay mechanics. Players thus feel invested in the party’s success within the narrative, and this affective association may help the players adopt some of the party’s ideology, such as with friendships and relationships, mental health, or, most aptly, environmentalism. As Stephen K. Hirst recognizes, “the game’s radical environmental themes and Shinto-tinged philosophies wound up influencing a generation of environmentalists,” specifically pointing out multiple high-ranking officers of environmental organizations such as Tyler Kruse, the senior communications director at Greenpeace (Hirst). These examples point to the depth of resonance that players feel with the game’s narrative; investment of time and energy into the characters and narrative fosters a strong affective relationship with the game and its outcomes. The Final Fantasy VII fan community has embraced a position of environmental concern and activism, largely influenced by the affective response from the game. 

It is with this fanbase that, toward the end of 2021, Square Enix announced it would incorporate NFT technology into its games. NFTs, or non-fungible tokens, are units of cryptographic data stored on a blockchain, which acts as a deregulated ledger of ownership, and allows for the sale of data stored on the blockchain. However, because of the computational energy required to process transactions on the blockchain, it has been condemned as an environmentally devastating waste of energy consumption, which some scholars have estimated to be equivalent to that of a small nation in order to process only a few transactions (Das and Dutta). Despite these concerns on the ecological impact of blockchains and NFTs, Square Enix already incorporated the technology into several smaller games, and in November of 2021, suggested an interest in pursuing blockchain gaming with a more “robust entry,” according to games industry analyst Daniel Ahmad (@ZhugeEx). This mirrors other large corporations within the gaming industry, such as Ubisoft, who incorporated NFTs into their popular Ghost Recon series in late 2021; EA, whose president Andrew Wilson called NFTs “an important part [. . .] of the future of our industry” (qtd. in Makuch); Take-Two, whose president Strauss Zelnick is a self-described “big believer” in NFT technology (qtd. in Makuch); or smaller publisher Team-17, who famously announced support of NFTs and then backtracked less than 24 hours later after backlash from fans. In short, Square is just one more company searching for an additional revenue stream—one they can exploit to generate significant profits with comparatively little labor. Square’s interest in NFTs and blockchain gaming indicates a capitalistic desire to extract wealth rather than some sort of artistic pursuit.

In its declarations of interest in NFT and blockchain technology, Square has yet to acknowledge the environmental impact this technology may have. In his “A New Year’s Letter from the President,” Square Enix’s President Yosuke Matsuda redoubles the company’s desire to incorporate NFTs and blockchain gaming, specifically noting different incentives to engage new kinds of players, differentiating between the so-called “play to earn,” “play to have fun,” and a new “play to contribute” (Matsuda). Matsuda equates the first with the third, suggesting “explicit incentives” could be used to encourage players to develop user-generated content, with the understanding that we may see “advances in token economies [result] not only in greater consistency in [players] motivation [to contribute], but also creating a tangible upside to their creative efforts.” In essence, Matsuda sees these players as a potential expansion of the workforce, who may be rewarded with a percentage ownership of any NFT generated as a result of the content they create. Matsuda’s view here is explicitly capitalistic. He doesn’t speak on any artistic value or merit in the technology, he neglects to point toward any user-generated content he finds to be particularly compelling, and he never mentions any creative innovation in game mechanics, art design, or narrative structures that could arise from incorporating NFTs or blockchain. Matsuda dismisses “play for fun” immediately after mentioning that as an option; their objection to these new technologies are “reservations,” and Matsuda never elaborates on how these trends will enhance the experience for “play to have fun” players. Any interest expressed by Matsuda in NFT and blockchain technology is couched solely in the financial. Square is in this to make money.

Despite (or perhaps because of) Square’s gleeful interest in the capitalistic side of NFTs, fan response has been less enthusiastic. Final Fantasy VII primes its audience to be receptive toward environmental politics, and when ecological concerns entered a realm the players felt secure in—that is, the gaming industry—they were ready to act. Stephen Duncombe claims gamers get “intense pleasure” from a game because it “offers power, excitement, and room to explore” in ways that political involvement often doesn’t (72). Thus, if politics can offer similar avenues of pleasure, gamers may become more politically active. Duncombe continues to suggest several methods through which play can be used to recruit gamers, but sometimes, players have the propensity to mobilize themselves. Square’s announcement of its decision to invest in NFTs triggered a perfect storm for players: a political issue that the players had been taught to care about was entering an arena they were passionate for, all because of the hypocrisy of a corporation betraying the themes of a beloved game. Now, they could bring play to politics.

And play they did. Across social media, players have denounced Square Enix’s enthusiasm for NFTs, trolled official company accounts, mocked the decision, threatened piracy in response, and even gone so far as to weaponize Square’s own games against them. Twitter user @TheIshikawaRin declares the company is “sinking lower and lower” because of “the NFT scam” before ending with the very declarative “Fuck you Square-Enix [sic]” (@TheIshikawaRin). @Nicodemus82 says “if you start putting NFT’s [sic] in your games, I’m gonna pirate every single game you put out going forward. Sincerely, A fan” (@Nicodemus82). Other responses attached screenshots from the game featuring the characters, turning these examples of Square’s capitalism into tools that point out the company’s hypocrisy. Such images often feature Barret, perhaps the most outspoken critic of Square’s—I mean, Shinra’s—exploitation of the natural world. One such screenshot features the dialogue subtitled at the bottom of the screen, “You gonna stand there and pretend you can’t hear the planet crying out in pain?,” drawing the viewer’s eye toward Barret’s machine gun-arm. Crying out in pain indeed. Another features an altered screenshot of the original game, featuring an early moment in which Barret addresses Cloud, and therefore the player. The original dialogue reads “The planet’s dyin’, Cloud!” to which has been appended “And these crypto-fuckers are trying to get us to burn down half the rainforest for [a] damn JPEG?” These examples, and countless others, speak to the passion of the fan response. Players have enthusiastically rejected NFTs in gaming more broadly, but Square’s interest seems to be an especially brutal betrayal because of the environmental themes of Final Fantasy VII, which holds a special place in many players’ hearts. And yet, despite this, and despite the retractions made by many other game companies, Square has yet to change course.

Screenshots of Final Fantasy VII: Remake featuring Barret. The screenshot is often reposted in fan communities as support of environmental activism, with undertones of violence. The second image has Barret’s dialog altered to incorporate what fans believe the character would have thought of cryptocurrency and NFTs.

This is where we stand as of this writing. Square remains committed to incorporating NFTs into games, and fans remain committed to making fun of them for doing so. But I think the important takeaway for now is rather the mobilization of game fans. Often, video game fans have experienced negative portrayals in popular media, are castigated by public officials, and have become a go-to example of the lazy and aimless. However, the situation around Final Fantasy VII demonstrates exactly how that negative image is incomplete—how games can be a positive force on players. Because of the experiences, both narrative and ludic, in Final Fantasy VII, many players find themselves politically aware and engaged. They learn that it’s okay to be passionate about issues that may be minimized by other people. And, by incorporating a sense of play in political action, we may see a growing involvement of game players. Their new passion can even be directed at the company behind this original lesson, showing the depth of their commitment to the cause. After all, as AVALANCHE member Biggs asks Barret after the party successfully blows up the mako reactor, “But the planet’s what matters, right?”


@Nicodemus82. “@SquareEnix I love you, and have been buying your games for the past 25_ years, but if you start putting NFT’s in your games, I’m gonna pirate every single game you put out going forward. Sincerely, A fan. #keepthatshitoutofgames” Twitter, 31 December 2021 10:07 p.m., https://twitter.com/Nicodemus82/status/1477129452832317443?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw%7Ctwcamp%5Etweetembed%7Ctwterm%5E1477129452832317443%7Ctwgr%5E%7Ctwcon%5Es1_&ref_url=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.itechpost.com%2Farticles%2F108550%2F20220103%2Fsquare-enix-loves-nft-games-metaverse-fans-hate.htm

@TheIshikawaRin. “Wow, Square-Enix really do keep sinking lower and lower. First it was the Epic Games exclusivity stuff, then it was the ridiculous pricing of said exclusive games. Now it’s getting it on the NFT scam? Fuck you Square-Enix.” Twitter, 1 January 2022 7:51 a.m., https://twitter.com/TheIshikawaRin/status/1477276328265199622?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw%7Ctwcamp%5Etweetembed%7Ctwterm%5E1477276328265199622%7Ctwgr%5E%7Ctwcon%5Es1_&ref_url=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.itechpost.com%2Farticles%2F108550%2F20220103%2Fsquare-enix-loves-nft-games-metaverse-fans-hate.htm

@ZhugeEX. “Square Enix is also looking into entering the blockchain and NFT games segment. – Shi‐San‐Sei Million Arthur mobile was proof of concept. – Believes games are expanding from centralised to decentralised formats – Expect to benefit as NFTs and token economies take hold.” Twitter, 5 November 2021 4:16 a.m., https://twitter.com/ZhugeEX/status/1456551027168137216

Das, Debojyoti and Anupam Dutta. “Bitcoin’s energy consumption: Is it the Achilles heel to miner’s revenue?” Economics Letters, vol. 186, no 1, 2020.

Duncombe, Stephen. Dream: Re-imagining Progressive Politics in an Age of Fantasy. The New Press, 2007.

Dyer-Witheford, Nick and Greig de Peuter. Games of Empire. U of Minnesota P, 2009.

Final Fantasy VII. SquareSoft, 1997.

Final Fantasy VII Remake. Square Enix, 2020.

Hirst, Stephen K. “How Final Fantasy VII radicalized a generation of climate warriors.” Ars Technica, https://arstechnica.com/gaming/2021/07/how-final-fantasy-vii-radicalized-a-generation-of-climate-warriors/. Accessed 1 June 2022.

Howard, Jessica. “Final Fantasy VII Is A Timeless Tale of Hope, Growth, and Love.” Gamespot, https://www.gamespot.com/articles/final-fantasy-7-is-a-timeless-tale-of-hope-growth-and-love/1100-6500280/. Accessed 1 June 2022.

Makuch, Eddie. “GTA and EA Executives Are Big Believers in NFTs.” Gamespot, https://www.gamespot.com/articles/gta-and-ea-executives-are-big-believers-in-nfts/1100-6497712/. Accessed 1 June 2022. 

Matsuda, Yosuke. “A New Year’s Letter from the President.” Square-Enix, https://www.hd.square-enix.com/eng/news/2022/html/a_new_years_letter_from_the_president_2.html. Accessed 1 June 2022. van Ommen, Mattias. “Emergent affect in Final Fantasy VII and Japanese role-playing games.” Journal of Gaming & Virtual Worlds, vol. 10, no. 1, 2018, pp. 21-39.

Andrew Barton is a lecturer in the Department of English at Texas State University, where he graduated with a Master’s in literature. His research centers on medieval literature and medievalism in popular culture, especially in Game Studies and speculative fiction. His particular areas of interest include the interplay between narrative and ludic elements in games, ecocriticism, and gender studies. Current projects Andrew is working on include an examination of fan studies and environmentalism in games like Final Fantasy VII Remake and Death Stranding, as well as a study of gender, representations of feminism, and fan response in The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, in which he argues that the game’s depiction of women is better than most others in games media, yet work remains to be done within the game.

Race, Utopia, and the Contemporary Post-Apocalyptic Zombie Narrative

Race, Utopia, and the Contemporary Post-Apocalyptic Zombie Narrative

Julia Lindsay

The post-apocalyptic zombie narrative has experienced an astounding resurgence of popularity in the last fifteen years. This is in part due to their symbolic flexibility, as they are often mobilized for cultural critique. According to editors of Zombie Culture: Autopsies of the Living Dead (2008) Shawn McIntosh and Mark Leverette, the contemporary zombie’s adaptability to the shifting cultural zeitgeist is indeed one of its defining features. However, tellingly for this project, they find that zombies often reflect cultural interest or underlying anxiety in contagion and the Other. Indeed, a backdrop of racial politics shapes many texts of the “zombie renaissance” (Hubner 2014). Despite the post-race narrative common to these post-apocalyptic depictions, several scholars have pointed to the anti-Blackness structuring their often racialized presentation. [1]

If “post-racial” describes a condition where race no longer matters because racism no longer persists, it, in other words, denotes the state of being beyond race. Of course, the idea of the post-racial exists as a fantasy, both in the colloquial understanding of the word fantasy as the opposite of reality but also in the sense that, to some, ceasing discussions on race and ending social movements and policy geared towards creating equitable futures is something to be fantasized about. Many zombie renaissance narratives enact the post-race fantasy, projecting into their visions of the future their desire to consign racial issues to the past. Exploring undead narratives from the eighties to the aughts, Annalee Newitz writes that these narratives “are preoccupied with the way anachronistic race relations exist alongside those of the present day, like zombies among the living” (91). Caravan points out an even greater degree of racism in contemporary zombies. Noting that open violence upon the zombie is justified as it is a threat no longer considered as human, he argues that these narratives can function as a means for white-dominant cultures to exercise fantasies about doing violence against the racial other (439). 

The Post-Race Utopian Fantasy and the White Utopian Reality 

Some contemporary zombie narratives reflect the naive progressivism of their authors who use the zombie apocalypse trope to imagine a more equitable future, imagining essentially a post-race utopia-within-dystopia. In Zombies, Migrants, and Queers: Race and Crisis Capitalism in Pop Culture, Camilla Fojas casts this post-race fantasy as an important constituent element of what she terms the “Postcrisis zombie narrative.” Many zombie television shows and films after the 2007–2008 financial crisis, she notes, manifest fantasies about the end of late-stage capitalism. These zombie stories “explore race relations through the lens of capitalism, as both a function of it while signaling a reprieve from its onslaught” (62). At best, post-racial narratives—whether it be the belief that we are a post-race society, the belief that the end of racism is nearing, or the projection of a naive desire for the end of racism into the world-building of fictional futures—are still dangerous, reflecting an ignorance towards the anti-Black violence and micro-aggressions Black people experience and witness everyday. Though one may be more malicious, these two camps, so to speak, of people touting post-racial narratives equally participate in obscuring the scope and depth of racism in American history, likewise ensuring it will continue in the future, Moreover, even well-intentioned post-race zombie narratives at best fail in creating a post-race utopia-within-dsytopia, as Canavan points out, contemporary zombie narratives often reinforce white dominion over minority groups. 

Justina Ireland’s alternate history novel Dread Nation (2018), in which zombies rise from the dead in the midst of the Civil War, remixes the zombie narrative trend, calling upon the zombie not only to foreground the historical abuses faced by Black Americans but also the legacy of systemic racism in the present. Reading the novel in the context of contemporary zombie narratives highlights the erasure of both historical and contemporary anti-Blackness inherent in post-racial discourse. Particularly focusing on the novel’s white supremacist utopia, a small frontier town called Summerland, I argue that Dread Nation undermines the post-race utopian ideal common to post-crisis zombie narratives and in fact magnifies the failure of such an ideal to come to fruition. The post-race fantasy and fallacy are reflected in the structure of their communities in—and moving across—space. The real utopian fantasy here is the maintenance, if not the enhancement, of white heteropatriarchal status quo. Summerland models the homogenizing function of America’s race-centered utopian ideal. [2] It exemplifies how perceived threats to the prevailing social order engender the creation of reactionary utopias intimately tied, in various forms, with apocalyptic projections.

Dread Nation follows protagonist and first-person narrator Jane McKeene, who is saved from her fate as a slave when the zombies (called “shamblers” in the novel) rise shortly after her birth, effectively ending both the war and chattel slavery. The novel’s legal novum, however, establishes a new form of forced labor. After the Years of Discord, the chaos period following the initial outbreak, a restructured United States government passes the Negro and Native Reeducation Act which “mandates that at twelve years old all Negroes, and any Indians living in a protectorate must enroll in a combat school ‘for the betterment of themselves and of society’” (Ireland 116). Seventeen years after the outbreak we find Jane at Miss Preston’s Combat School for Negro Girls in Baltimore. This white-run school teaches Jane and her cohort combat skills such that they may one day “work” as Attendants for aristocratic white women, essentially serving as body guards and “protectors of virtue” (Ireland 10).  

We then move to Summerland, where Baltimore’s mayor, Abraham Carr, sends Jane as punishment after she steps out of bounds one too many times. Summerland is organized around the ethos of the Survivalist party, which promulgates rhetoric on racial difference and amasses a following through the promise of safety and greatness. This segregated town is run by Sheriff Snyder—a former plantation overseer in South Carolina—and his pastor father. They force Jane and other Black captives to patrol its outer walls and exterminate any zombies attempting to breach. The importance of the wall in Summerland and the novel’s references to “greatness,” an invocation of Trumpian rhetoric, make it quite clear that Dread Nation’s alternate history also reflects and critiques material and socio-political realities of the present. 

Summerland may appear as a foil to the world presented in post-crisis zombie narratives wherein multi-ethnic groups move freely across previously policed spatial and social boundaries. However, we may in fact read Summerland as a magnification of the ethnoscapes inherent in the post-crisis narrative as characterized by Fojas. In these narratives: 

Race and ethnic differences are surmounted and absorbed into a primitive and utopian community formation that is outside any social ordering and institutions but remains fundamentally patriarchal, heterosexual, and white. This community is a refuge from the predations of the dead and represents the remaking of institutions, reforming and revising them to more conservative, autocratic, and morally rigid formations. (Fojas 62, emphasis added) 

In creating a literal utopia that is governed by white-supremacistt Christian fundamentalists through Summerland—one that is indeed built upon the reinstallation of conservative and morally rigid institutions—Ireland’s novel magnifies the fact that the communities in post-crisis narratives, and the real world from which they are derived, fail to reflect a post-race society. She likewise highlights the fallacies inherent in the post-race fantasy, a goal as Ramón Saldívar and Cameron Leader-Picone both point out, is common to many Black authors today. [3] As the government in Dread Nation, like the zombie itself, rises from the dead after a period similar to the post-crisis zombie narrative world and proceeds to cooperates with racist communities such as Summerland, Ireland suggests that the world in these shows is always liable to return to previous forms of oppressive rule. [4]

The American Small Town: A Case Study in the National Ideal

    Utopian narratives are ingrained in the national imagination, and after John Winthrop’s infamous “City on a Hill” speech, the New World’s utopian promise became centered on small towns and communities. [5] As this narrative developed in social discourse and literature, the small town came to represent the embodiment of American ideals and a model to emulate. This model undoubtedly was (and is) white and heteropatriarchal, a homogenizing force. Historically, small towns have been intentionally created on frontiers and in heterogeneous pockets in order to enforce such an ‘ideal’ (Poll). Dread Nation dramatizes this reality, highlighting the racist foundation of the American utopian ideal. If not already clear in the town’s name, Mayor Carr has clearly been inculcated in the American utopian fantasy and its promise of safety. He tells Jane: “‘Imagine it, a utopia on the Western plains, safe enough to withstand any shambler attack. . . .  America, as it should be, once more . . . a city on a hill, a place where people can raise their families without worrying about any of this nasty shambler business’” (Ireland 181). He thus co-opts Winthrop’s language, positioning Summerland as a model for other towns to emulate. 

Ireland’s speculative utopian small town is a distinctly fruitful example of America’s race-centered utopian project because it is situated in a virological zombie narrative: utopia, in its pursuit of perfection, is by necessity built upon exclusion and eradication in both an ideational and material sense. [6] An individual or group that conflicts with the norm, or that represents ideologies that go against the norm, are treated as contagions that must be homogenized or eliminated through various means. [7] The virological zombie thus serves as a parallel for this practice. Moreover, Summerland, and the novel as a whole, reflects how this exclusion and fanaticism are built upon fears of cultural annihilation, literalizing such fears in its apocalypse setting and through the apocalyptic rhetoric of its reactionary characters, as this paper will later explore. The project of assimilation and eradication in the American utopian ideal is best reflected in its model, the utopian small town, which reveals how this project is enacted through scapegoating and through creating geographic and temporal isolation. 

Ireland’s project here aligns with many SF authors of color who highlight how SF tropes and figures reflect their own experience. [8] In her exploration of contemporary SF by authors of color Joy Sanchez-Taylor coins the term “double estrangement,” linking Darko Suvin’s concept of “cognitive estrangement” with W. E. B. DuBois’s “double consciousness” (7). As many SF authors of color are “more likely to identify with the alien other,” SF offers the opportunity for cultural critique, to “presen[t] the unfamiliar as familiar” (Sanchez-Taylor 7). Moreover, “altering established SF tropes,” Sanchez-Taylor writes, SF authors of color also turn this critique inwards, drawing attention to and combating SF’s white normativity” (7). Dread Nation’s context and intertextuality bring to light the ways in which fears of contagion and annihilation are intertwined with racism and/or racial anxiety both in the diegetic world of contemporary zombie narratives and in the culture and contemporary moment that shape them and drive their production. In other words, fears of social change lead to apocalyptic imaginings and utopian fantasies that reinstall, as evidenced in their community dynamics, the white hetero-patriarchal norm. 

Summerland’s racist impetus reflects the fears of the “annihilation” of a racialized order in the face of societal changes. In Summerland’s church, Jane meets an unnamed white man who tells her: “‘We have no need for Attendant companions to live alongside our fair blossoms, no matter what Mayor Carr has instituted in those heathen cities of the east. Here, we have worked to reestablish the Lord’s natural order’” (Ireland 229). Its homogenizing project is further on display in that Jane is barred from entering the church for “bearing the Curse of Ham” (228). The racist and heteropatriarchal ideals of the town are channeled through religious symbology and terms. The term “Curse of Ham” was used to cast Black people as moral contagions, which are contrasted here with a symbol of white (female) purity, and this language is then weaponized here to police Jane’s movement, pushing Black people out of spaces central to the town. 

Ireland translates pre-existing Christian-supremacist rhetoric into her speculative world. This then informs Pastor Snyder’s sermon to the population of Summerland within its segregated mess hall. He attributes the zombie apocalypse to God’s punishment for the Civil War and the abolitionists who “unleashed the Sinners Plague of the Dead” (Ireland 254). He claims that they are a violation of “God’s order” and “God’s plan,” which is specifically racialized as he condemns thoughts of racial equality—and implicitly Black people—saying, “It was hubris to think we are all equal in His eyes, friends. Not in this world . . . For failing to understand this law,” Snyder goes on, “He has unleashed His wrath upon us” (Ireland 246). He thus scapegoats anyone believing in racial equality for this apocalyptic epidemic. Snyder’s scapegoating—and its foundation in pre-existing racialized religious rhetoric—reveals how projections of apocalypse relate to social structures; fears of annihilation amount to perceived threats to an existing social order. Such fears are then mobilized to scapegoat Black people and allies which is essential in the maintenance of his utopia, as it becomes a mechanism to reinscribe white supremacy and normativity. 

The relationship between scapegoating (an ideational apparatus to control the community) and geographic isolation (a material and spatial enforcement of control) becomes clear in this scene. After his sermon, Snyder pointedly looks to the space in the mess hall—far removed from where he stands amongst the tables of aristocratic supremacists—reserved for Black captives and other people perceived as (or actively) threatening the social order. [9]  His gaze in this context not only reinforces this scapegoating and exerts his control, it demonstrates how scapegoating works in tandem with the town’s spatial logic, seemingly authorizing their segregated place at the periphery. The mess hall is indeed a microcosm of the town, as the Snyders drive Black people and other “social deviants” to the margins. The utopian ideal in small towns is often situated in the center, typically around a Main Street or town square. [10] Progressive movement away from this center marks a shift in population ranging from the “less than ideal” to the social outcast to the sub-human Other. The position Black people occupy at the extreme limit of Summerland patrolling the outer wall serves as a reminder that they must adhere to the community’s racist regulations, as they are always vulnerable to being cast beyond the wall. In fact, we learn that the Sheriff has done just that with dissidents, pushing one of Jane’s older classmates from Miss Preston’s over the wall, defenseless, to be attacked by zombies. 

This project of segregation and isolation also occurs on a broader scale. Summerland falls in line with other utopian towns and communities in literature that rely on geographic isolation [11]—evident here in its frontier position and its walled structure—and temporal isolation. [12] This town’s social order is permitted by its distance from what we’ve seen the unnamed man in the church refer to as the “heathen cities” of the East. Such a characterization of cities, in fact, reflects the interrelationship between geographic and temporal isolation as it pertains to the homogenizing project. In reading the small town as a source and function of national identity, the locus of dominant narratives, Ryan Poll posits in Main Street and Empire that the small town symbolizes the past, a foil to the “modern” city. Cities emerging in the nineteenth century were places where black and white people frequently crossed paths, sharing social spaces unmediated by plantation politics, and, as a result, became places with comparatively (I say this lightly) more progressive politics. In the white supremacist mindset, “city” was synonymous with racial mixing, with dangerous and contagious ideas. [13] When read alongside Mayor Carr’s framing of Summerland as restoring order by way of “going back,” this comment on “heathen” cities shows that the geographic isolation of and within this small town is also a temporal project—fighting against the modernizing cities by reinstating, and attempting to spread as model, the plantation society past. The rejection of modernity in this backward-gazing small town engenders a crisis of futurity for Black people quite literally, reflecting, as GerShun Avilez has pointed out, the distinctly spatial element of injury to the injury-bound subject. [14] 

    Both within the diegetic world of the novel and the (zombie) apocalypse narrative mode that it evokes, Dread Nation highlights the function of apocalyptic rhetoric/apocalyptic projections in this spatio-temporal isolation, serving as a mechanism in the maintenance of white supremacist utopia. Apocalypse, in other words, can serve as a homogenizing force that is intimately tied with the production of space and conceptions of time. Dread Nation dramatizes a particularly Southern way of thinking that Anthony Hoefer terms the “Southern Apocalyptic Imaginary” (SAI). Part of the South’s eschatological obsession stems from the white evangelical protestant conception of Biblical apocalypse—the rhetoric of God’s judgment was (and still is) discharged as a threat against those challenging the prevailing social order. Hoefer argues that religious apocalypse plays a large role “in the production of southern spaces and places, particularly the never-ending discursive work necessary to assert and reassure the division between black and white” (12). This results in assumptions that God sends punishments to the earth when “divine” (read: white heteropatriarchal) order on Earth is threatened. “Within the cosmology of southern evangelical Protestantism,” Hoefer writes, “cataclysmic consequences are often ascribed to any violation of the radically bivalent order” (23). We’ve seen this rhetoric on display in Snyder’s sermon wherein the zombie plague is cast as an apocalyptic consequence of the moral, material, and ideational “illness” or “contagion” of free Blacks, racial integration, and racial equality. Despite the ubiquity of racism across the United States, these fears manifest in apocalyptic discourse specific to the American South, consequently informing the creation of Summerland and its isolationist spatial logic. The South’s racist eschatological fixation in turn shapes the spatial organization of Summerland; it informs the hegemonic mechanisms of control dominant in the utopian small town.

Temporal Logics in Post-Race Discourse and Apocalypse 

Whether it be the white supremacist utopia in Summerland or the false post-race/post-capitalist utopia-within-dystopia of many zombie renaissance narratives, the construction of these spaces and communities is deeply informed by conceptions of temporality. It goes without saying that as a literary mode, apocalyptic texts—be it the Book of Revelation or contemporary post-apocalyptic SF—revolve around the creation of a new time. In the Judeo-Christian tradition, apocalypse issues a new order, a new time after a great Revelation of absolute truth, and many zombie renaissance narratives maintain this formal concept of apocalypse in creating a radical break in time. [15] This is evidenced in the portrayal of clock time as anachronistic as well as in the characters’ conception of time based on “before” and “after” the apocalyptic event. In these contexts, apocalypse as a literary and discursive mode falls within a long history of exclusionary practices that reinforce white dominion over the perception of temporality, specifically here within what historian Lloyd Pratt identifies as the historical desire to create “homogenous, empty time” (qtd. in Nilges 135). Matthias Nilges highlights the racial implications of this “aim to singularize and unify time” historically and in our present moment in How to Read a Moment: The American Novel and the Crisis of the Present. He illustrates how it “emerges particularly strongly in the context of the tension between diversity and racial and national identity” (135). The creation of such identity, of course, is the American utopian ideal, historically built upon racial exclusion that is manifest and modeled in the utopian town/community. 

Such temporal homogenization is reflected today in the narrative of contemporaneity that divorces our moment from the past, or, in other words, from the history of racism, anti-black violence, and systemic oppression. “The singularization of the contemporary,” Nilges writes “serves as a central mechanism . . . of the homogenization of our social and racial imagination, and as such it is directly bound up with mechanisms of racial segregation, cultural exclusion, and historical erasure” (126). Creating this gulf between the long now and the way back can thus enable discourse that social difference based on race is or can be “resolved.” Applying this history to apocalypse studies, I argue that the temporal logics common to the apocalyptic mode mirror the conception of history and time central to the rhetoric of post-racialists; initiating a new time through the apocalypse provides the necessary conditions for, and can be seen as a form of, temporal homogenization. Manipulating temporality through the use of apocalypse therefore fosters the contemporary zombie narrative’s historical erasure, allowing for the post-racial conceit common to them. Indeed, we may even see apocalypse as the literalization of the discourse of contemporaneity. It is completely divorced from the past yet, because post-apocalyptic landscapes are often presented as wastelands, is not associated with movement towards the future: it is the embodiment of the “long now” which defines contemporaneity. 

If post-crisis zombie narratives are driven by a naive desire for a society free of social and economic constraints, this desire is paradoxically enacted through a literary and discursive mode that has historically been used to maintain white heteropatriarchal power and to control Black bodies. Creating a fictional apocalypse may thus reflect a desire to bury racism in a distant pastness. The consequences of such desire, wherever it manifests, is that it silences Black voices and obscures anti-Black violence. Dread Nation on the other hand resists the temporal logics of the post-apocalypse genre—Ireland refuses to authorize this kind of work by creating a zombie “apocalypse” that does not resemble the same rupture in time found in Abrahamic religious apocalypse or the post-crisis zombie narrative. Though we associate the zombie with the apocalypse genre, Ireland’s novel could better be seen as an epidemic narrative, as the relative similarities in the world before zombies and those after undermine the notion of a radical break, and the resurgence of the government promotes instead a cyclical perspective as it pertains to hegemony, further undermining the linear logics undergirding the post-race progressive narrative. Jane’s daily procedures at Miss Preston’s and later at Summerland, for instance, are fully regimented by clock time. Disallowing a full apocalypse, therefore, contributes to the novel’s political work and its criticism of post-racialism, as apocalypse authorizes the post-race fantasy underlying these narratives. Ireland continues this work by subverting past/present/future divides altogehter, pushing readers to rethink conceptions of history by putting the slave narrative in conversation with the contemporary virological zombie and by marrying nineteenth century racist discourse with MAGA doctrine, a counter-hegemonic move common to the neo-slave form. [16]

The myriad racial anxieties inherent in many contemporary zombie narratives makes it a useful lens through which to explore how they appear in other forms of cultural production, political discourse, social narratives, and the like. They variously reflect fantasies of violence on the racial Other, frustrations or concerns with current racial realities—be it the belief that racial tensions are anachronistic, fears of disruption to the white status quo, naive desires to imagine a world free of capitalism and racism, or the desire to disconnect the present from the burden of our fraught past. The zombie narrative proves especially fruitful in examining those societal anxieties and social discourse, as it literalizes underlying fears of contagion and annihilation while simultaneously enacting what lies at the heart of the post-race fantasy: a complete and total divorce of the present from the past. The zombie narrative exemplifies the ethnoscapes common to so many SF tropes, creating a perplexing reality for SF authors of color who have both found a home in and been alienated by the genre. Authors like Justina Ireland rise to this challenge, turning SF on its head to highlight the science fictional experiences of people of color and to make the genre more inclusive, critiquing along the way the ethnoscapes inherent in SF and the Eurowestern society from which they are born. Ireland creates a speculative past with an overtly racist white supremacist utopia not to show us how far we’ve come, but how much is still the same. Dread Nation reveals how the American utopian ideal is ostensibly white and heteropatriarchal, how this ideal was and is maintained through discursive and material mechanisms from policing the movement of bodies to controlling perceptions of temporality, our conceptions of history and of the present. And while these realities are deeply ingrained, the zombie bites back in Dread Nation


[1] For a history of the cultural appropriation of the zombie in the United States and its racialization in pop culture from the 1930s to today, see Sarah Lauro’s The Transatlantic Zombie: Slavery, Rebellion, and Living Death.

[2] For more on white-supremacist utopias and the role of race in the American utopian imagination, see Patricia Ventura and Edward Chan’s collection Race and Utopian Desire in American Literature and Society.

[3] See Ramón Saldívar’s “The Second Elevation of the Novel: Race, Form, and the Postrace Aesthetic in Contemporary Narrative”; Cameron Leader-Picone’s Black and More Than Black: African American Fiction in the Post Era.

[4] Justina Ireland is not the only Black American author using the zombie apocalypse trope to levy this critique. Colson Whitehead’s Zone One (2011) also features the resurgence of the national government as well as large corporations, and he similarly undermines the post-race conceit.

[5] For my argument on the crossover between the utopia and the small town, I am deeply indebted to the research of Zachary Perdieu, Ph.D. candidate at the University of Georgia.

[6] While theorists such as Frederic Jameson have developed compelling and fruitful theories on utopia such as considering utopia as praxis, the concept of utopia I am working with here is utopia in the static form, in the early concept of utopia as both good place (eutopia) and no place.

[7] For more on the rhetoric of contagion and its relationship with group belonging, see Priscilla Wald’s Contagious: Cultures, Carriers, and the Outbreak Narrative.

[8] See Isiah Lavender III’s Race in American Science Fiction.

[9] Jane is actually a double threat to the social order, as her bi-sexual identity goes against the heterosexual “norm.”

[10] For more on this, see Ryan Poll’s Main Street and Empire.

[11] For example, Herland (1915) by Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Islandia (1942) by Austin Tappan Wright.

[12] The Time Machine (1895) by H.G. Wells, Looking Backward (1888) by Edward Bellamy. Some narratives taking place in outer space such as Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Dispossessed: An Ambiguous Utopia (1974) can be seen as both.

[13] Melissa Stein expounds upon this in “Nature is the Author of Such Restrictions: Science, Ethnological Medicine, and Jim Crow.”

[14] See Avilez GerShun’s Black Queer Freedom: Spaces of Injury and Paths of Desire.

[15] For additional study on Judeo-Christian apocalypse and its role in twentieth century cultural production, see James Berger’s After the End: Representations of Post-Apocalypse..

[16] See Ashraf Rushdy’s Neo-slave Narratives: Studies in the Social Logic of a Literary Form and Timothy Spualding’s Reforming the Past: History, the Fantastic, and the Postmodern Slave Narrative.


Bellamy, Edward. Looking Backward, 2000-1887. Edited by Cecelia Tichi, Penguin, 1986.

Berger, James. After the End: Representations of Post-Apocalypse. U of Minnesota P, 1999. 

Canavan, Gerry. “We are the Walking Dead: Race, Time, and Survival in Zombie Narrative.” Extrapolation, vol. 51, no. 3, 2010, 431-453.

Castillo, David R., et al. Zombie Talk: Culture, History, Politics. Palgrave-Macmillan, 2016.

Fojas, Camilla. Zombies, Migrants, and Queers: Race and Crisis Capitalism in Pop Culture. U of Illinois P, 2017. 

GerShun, Avilez. Black Queer Freedom: Spaces of Injury and Paths of Desire. U of Illinois P, 2020. 

Gilman, Charlotte Perkins. Herland. 1st ed., Pantheon Books, 1979. 

Hubner, Laura, Marcus Leaning, and Paul Manning. The Zombie Renaissance in Popular Culture. Palgrave Macmillan, 2014. 

Ireland, Justina. Dread Nation. Blazer + Bray, 2018. 

Jameson, Fredric. Archaeologies of the Future: The Desire Called Utopia and Other Science Fictions. Verso, 2007.  

Lauro, Sarah J. The Transatlantic Zombie: Slavery, Rebellion, and Living Death. Rutgers UP,  2015.  

Lavender, Isiah. Race in American Science Fiction. Indiana UP, 2011. 

Leader-Picone, Cameron. Black and More Than Black: African American Fiction in the Post  Era, UP of Mississippi, 2019.   

Le Guin, Ursula K. The Dispossessed; an Ambiguous Utopia. Harper & Row, 1974.

McIntosh, Shawn and Marc Leverette. Zombie Culture: Autopsies of the Living Dead. Scarecrow, 2008. 

Newitz, Annalee. Pretend We’re Dead: Capitalist Monsters in American Pop Culture. Duke UP, 2006. 

Nilges, Mathias. “The Tenses of Race: The Privilege of Contemporaneity and the Unequal  Distribution of Presence.” How to Read a Moment: The American Novel and the Crisis of the Present, Northwestern UP, 2021, pp. 125-170.  

Poll, Ryan. Mainstreet and Empire: The Fictional Small Town in the Age of Globalization. Rutgers UP, 2012. 

Rushdy, Ashraf. Neo-slave Narratives: Studies in the Social Logic of a Literary Form. Oxford UP, 1999.  

Saldívar, Ramón. “The Second Elevation of the Novel: Race, Form, and the Postrace Aesthetic in Contemporary Narrative.” Narrative, vol. 21, no. 1, 2013, pp. 1-18.

Sanchez-Taylor, Joy. Diverse Futures: Science Fiction and Authors of Color. The Ohio State UP, 2021. 

Spaulding, Timothy. Reforming the Past: History, the Fantastic, and the Postmodern Slave Narrative. Ohio UP, 2005. 

Stein, Melissa. “Nature is the Author of Such Restrictions: Science, Ethnological Medicine, and Jim Crow.” The Folly of Jim Crow: Rethinking the Segregated South, edited by Melissa Stein, et al., Texas A&M UP, 2012, pp.124-149. 

Ventura, Patricia and Edward Chan, eds. Race and Utopian Desire in American Literature and Society. Palgrave, 2019. 

Wald, Priscilla. Contagious: Cultures, Carriers, and the Outbreak Narrative. Duke UP, 2008. 

Wells, H. G.. The Time Machine: An Invention: Authoritative Text, Backgrounds and Contexts, Criticism, edited by Stephen Arata, W.W. Norton, 2009. 

Whitehead, Colson. Zone One. Doubleday, 2011.   

Wright, Austin Tappan. Islandia. Rinehart, 1958.

Ryan Collis is a Ph.D. student in the faculty of education at York University, working in the intersection of autism, expertise, and science fiction to discover future imaginaries where autistic students are truly supported. He holds degrees in English (B.A., Queen’s), computer science (B.Sc.H., Queen’s), education (B.Ed., OISE), and science and technology studies (B.Sc.H., York; M.A., York). Ryan has been a high school teacher in the York Region District School Board since 2006, is a Member at Large of the executive of the Canadian Committee of Graduate Students in Education (CCGSE), and serves as the Graduate Student Officer of the Canadian Educational Researchers’ Association (CERA). Ryan lives with his wife and son in Ajax, Ontario. 

Fictional Foresight and Autism Advocacy: The Role of Science Fictional Narratives in Unearthing Eugenic Motivations

Fictional Foresight and Autism Advocacy: The Role of Science Fictional Narratives in Unearthing Eugenic Motivations

Ryan Collis

At the end of August 2021, a research project named “Spectrum 10K” launched in the United Kingdom. Its goal: to collect the genetic data of 10,000 autistic people to “investigate genetic and environmental factors that contribute to the wellbeing of autistic individuals and their families” (spectrum10k.org/). This quickly became a lightning rod for controversy as the autistic community wrote articles and circulated petitions against the project. The backlash eventually grew so strong that the project voluntarily paused, with project representatives “apologiz[ing] for causing distress, and promis[ing] a deeper consultation with autistic people and their families” (Sanderson). The reason for the strong condemnation of the project, as well as the formation of a community specifically to oppose it, is the subject of this paper. The fears of the potential eugenic use of DNA brought together a community that had a unified understanding of what DNA, genetics, and eugenics are, which was mostly based on the way they are presented in the fantastic. While there are real world examples of DNA editing, such as CRISPR (Le Page), most people’s understanding of what genomic medicine is comes from science fiction. Further, through the proliferation of autistic-coded characters in SF (such as Spock, Data, and the Terminator), negative stereotypes and misrepresentations of the autistic community further influence public perception of what it means to be autistic. The claims by Dr. Simon Baron-Cohen, one of the lead researchers, that the purpose of the Spectrum 10K project is benign, must be viewed in light of fantastic representation of genetic science and eugenics. 

Non-autistics consider Baron-Cohen to be one of the most knowledgeable voices in autism research. Autistics have a significantly less positive opinion of him, because while his claims have a wide reach, they are mostly “bad takes”—a slang term used to flag what is commonly seen on social media as a clear error in judgment made even more regrettable for having been published at all (Dias). He once ran a study that produced results so improbable that the authors of the software he used objected to its publishing (Bach and Dakin). To end the controversy, the research team ran the experiment again and had to retract their original results (Tavassoli et al.). To expand the scope and source of Baron-Cohen’s negative impact on the autistic community, we can also turn to science fictional representation. In SF, the autistic-coded alien/non-human (e.g., Spock or Data) often does not understand or experience emotions, thereby placing them outside the realm of the human. I use the term “autistic-coded” because the authors of these texts were not necessarily intending the character to be autistic, but there is a link between this type of dehumanized character and the archetype of the emotionless autistic who lacks empathy. That depiction of ‘what an autistic person is like’ comes from Baron-Cohen’s “empathizing-systemizing theory,” which claims that males are systemizers and females are empathizers, a conclusion he reached based on a study where baby boys looked longer at an object and baby girls looked longer at a person. However, these results could not be replicated (Spelke). Science journalist Angela Saini argues that Baron-Cohen overstates the significance of his findings and notes that his foetal testosterone level studies have provided no evidence for his argument (Saini). This clear lack of scientific viability is significant given that Baron-Cohen is one of the creators of the autism-spectrum quotient, a common questionnaire that is used in diagnosis (Baron-Cohen et al.; “Autism Spectrum Quotient (AQ)”). It has been criticized for its overuse of stereotypes as the basis for diagnosis—for instance, an interest in math increases the score while an interest in literature or art decreases it—which further reinforces stereotypes linking math skills and autism (McGrath). In his book, The Essential Difference, Baron-Cohen presents the idea of autistic mind blindness, the idea that autistics cannot understand the minds of others. A review of the book, published in Phenomenology and the Cognitive Sciences, described his work as “very disappointing,” noting that Baron-Cohen has a “superficial notion of intelligence,” and concluding that the book’s major claims about mind-blindness and systemizing–empathizing are “at best, dubious” (Levy 315, 316). Baron-Cohen’s response to criticisms has been to agree that while his results have not been replicated, he “remains ‘open minded about these hypotheses until there are sufficient data to evaluate them’” and yet he does not see a problem with publicising his theories before there is evidence to confirm them (qtd. in Buchen 26). With this attitude towards the necessity of evidence for his theories, Baron-Cohen problematically offers pure speculation as science, suggesting that he may be content to remain within the realm of science fictional thought experiments without care for the way narratives influence both science and public perception. Scientists rely on existing cultural narratives to explain the significance of their work, and so SF that presents autism or autistic-coded characters both reflects and influences the goals, understanding, and direction of actual scientists (Hamner, Introduction).

What does genetic research with dubious justification and a researcher with a history of publicizing stereotypes about a minority have to do with the fantastic? The answer comes from the link between how people understand advanced science and SF. SF can provide an understanding as to how and why resistance to ‘advances’ formed as it did regarding the Spectrum 10K project. For most people, knowledge of genetics comes from their exposure to fiction rather than formal education, but Hamner makes the claim that scientists, too, use cultural narratives to explain their work; science both shapes and is shaped by fictional narratives (Introduction). There is no shortage of fantastic works that imagine the role of genetics in possible futures. In Jurassic Park, egotistical scientists “were so preoccupied with whether they could, they didn’t stop to think if they should” (Spielberg) while in Gattaca, testing DNA determined who was a member of the elite and who was condemned to the lowest rungs of society (Niccol). The autistic understanding of biomedical research is, in part, shaped by fictional media representations, such as those above, that often show it as “an unscrupulous enterprise that exploits individuals for the sake of advancing knowledge and/or profit” (Cottingham 285). Cottingham calls on Foucault to argue that just as texts shape and construct reality, fictional media is more than mere representation (285). Rather, fictional narratives have the power to shape public perception and public discourse and, in turn, can help us better understand the public and community-driven response to the Spectrum 10K project. To provide evidence for this claim, I will illustrate key connections between the following three concepts: that media (and specifically SF) influences public perceptions of science; that autistic people are exposed to this media and internalize the message that future scientists may weaponize genetic screening for eugenic purposes; and that this distributed knowledge has lead to the formation of a community predicated on social justice objectives: specifically that there should be no research on autism that is not guided by autistics, or, as per the motto of the Autistic Self Advocacy Network (ASAN), “nothing about us without us” (autisticadvocacy.org/).

In pursuit of my first assertion—that media influences public perceptions of science—I turn to an additional example. Kirby examines the 2002 film Blade II (del Toro), and notes the plot is a retelling of the story of aristocratic purebloods (those born with vampirism) worried that newly turned vampires are degenerating their race. The leader employs genetic manipulation to remove flaws (e.g., weakness to silver and sunlight) preventing vampiric ascendancy, mirroring how historical eugenicists argued against the dilution of pure bloodlines in pursuit of a master race. Kirby notes that “eugenics, it seems, is a clear-cut means of making vampires more evil. By implication, the film condemns any person utilizing gene-altering technologies to achieve social control” (“The Devil in Our DNA” 100). In his two-part story Beyond This Horizon, Robert Heinlein claimed that “Only under absolutism could the genetic experiments . . . have been performed, for they required a total indifference to the welfare of individuals” (Heinlein, qtd. in Clayton 324). Heinlein’s narrative cautions that if humanity learns to pick and choose what traits are permitted to pass on, we risk “homogenization of the species, or its opposite, overspecialization” (Clayton 324). Other fantastic literature echoes this claim. For example, Kirby notes that in Frankenheimer’s 1996 adaptation of The Island of Dr. Moreau, “Even though Moreau feels he can save humanity from its genetic demons, the film makes it clear that the devil is embodied in a scientist’s willingness to manipulate humanity’s molecular soul” (“The Devil in Our DNA” 100). One of the most explicit examples of fundamentally non-human beings who appear human are the replicants in Ridley Scott’s 1982 film Blade Runner, based on Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (1968). Like the stereotype of autism promoted by Baron-Cohen, these simulacra lack the ability to empathise (a trait that is used to identify them so they can be executed) and these less-than-human beings are used to do the tasks humans cannot or will not do. The film asks if beings who are biologically similar to humans can be considered “human” despite their lack of empathy and artificial nature. Like autistics, “the replicants do not want to be considered ‘superior’ to humanity, rather they want to be considered an equal part of humanity” (“The Devil in Our DNA” 95). Often in SF there is a link between being human (with all its rights and privileges) and possessing empathy. This connection is demonstrated by the treatment of the white female protagonists in both Alien: Resurrection and Species (see Stacey 82). 

My intent is to demonstrate how SF influences both scientific aspirations and public perceptions and responses to genetics projects. At the same time, SF representation of autistic-coded characters also influences perceptions of autism, giving rise to stigma and stereotypes. Three threads intertwine here:

  • The representation of autism influences and is influenced by stereotypes, such as Dustin Hoffman’s Raymond in Rain Man , and those presented by SF and the fantastic like She-Ra’s Entrapta;
  • Expansive projects like Spectrum 10K are inspired by these representations and by the veneration of scientists’ speculation;
  • Communities also have SF as a resource to see potential futures and to push back against problematic research using SF texts as speculative narratives that illustrate their fears.

SF texts provide a way to examine possible futures, which is why SF “has come to be seen as an essential mode of imaging the horizons of possibility” (Csicsery-Ronay 1). Texts opposing genetic research argue a society which allows selection or screening of genetic traits is the opposite of a free, individualistic (and thus Western) society. These texts have alerted the autistic community to the dangers of genetics research that leads to eugenic ends. SF becomes a space where we argue the ethics of science.

When the Spectrum 10K project was announced it caused quite a stir, because anything that has the potential to be used to prenatally screen for autism holds the potential to exterminate a minority group. This is not hyperbolic: after screening programs for Down Syndrome became commonly available in Iceland, abortions of fetuses that tested positive reached 100%: no babies with Down Syndrome have been born in Iceland since 2017 (Rogers). This elimination—or as Chambers calls it, genocide—of those who have a detectable condition is feared as the fate of any group that carries a marker in their genes. Research has shown that over half of parents who had their child (aged 2-6) genetically tested for biomarkers of autism would have chosen to have the results at conception or birth (Wagner et al. 3118), recalling the warning of the film Gattaca “that the eugenic mentality of the early twentieth century might return with even greater discriminatory force in the twenty-first” (Hamner Ch. 1)—a world where human futures are decided before birth. Stacey traces the idea of the “encoded body as a threat” back to the 1950s and 1960s “body rebellion films” making it a site of suspicion and a space for potential rebellion requiring, as Gonder explains, “‘special and extreme levels of surveillance by scientific experts’” (qtd. in Stacey 72) to quash rebellion and ensure conformity. Autistics and their allies, drawing on narratives that clearly articulate the genocidal consequences of genetics screening, began to organize a resistance against the project almost immediately. 

The internet has led the creation of many communities of people who would have otherwise never encountered each other (Nicolaidis et al.). When word of the Spectrum 10K project’s plan to collect large numbers of DNA samples circulated online, a community of autistic people formed to resist this project. Botha et al. note that autistic community connectedness (ACC) plays a role in protecting the wellbeing of autistic people. Here, community is defined as a group of people united by a collective identity and shared values (Botha et al. 3) working together toward a common political goal (16), and “refusing to take part in genetic research which may lead to the potential for the removal of autistic genes or a cure” because they feel “detached and dehumanized by autism research” (19). Bothea et al. specifically reference ACC’s connection to “an awareness of shared grievances (genetic research and a fear of eradication), [and the identification of] adversaries with whom they have a power-struggle with (researchers and professionals who advocate for these genetic understandings)” (Botha et al. 20). Boycott Spectrum 10K, a coalition of autistic advocates, identified a number of red flags, including issues surrounding transparency and consent (Boycott Spectrum 10K). Spectrum 10K’s rationale for collecting DNA was suspect, and participants were required to allow unknown third parties in the future to have access to the anonymized data. The collective noted that the Common Variant Genetics of Autism and Autistic Traits (GWAS) Consortium grant funding the project is “solely focused on identifying ‘several genetic variants that contribute to the development of autism’” with no mention of aiding “co-occurring conditions,” despite that being the reason given by Spectrum 10K for collecting genetic samples. This immediately led to fears that the data could be used to create screening tools to eliminate autistics before birth. Baron-Cohen is on record in 2019 agreeing that “there’s no way that we can ever say that a future political leader or a scientist won’t use the [genetic] research for eugenics” (qtd. in Opar), which is part of the reason that autistics fear having their genetics exist in a database with unclear regulations for who will be granted access. Quinn, host of the Autistamatic YouTube channel, argues that one of the reasons autistic people are drawn to SF is because SF involves clear distinctions between the ‘good’ and ‘bad’ guys, alleviating the difficulties that autistics have with “the ambiguity of people’s motivations” (Autistamatic). An SF outlook on a mistrusted scientist leading a mysterious, well funded project that collects people’s DNA (for reasons they represent differently in the grant and in public) and can share with unknown parties in the future can only be read one way: as a potential threat. Bruno Latour wrote of the power of fiction to, “through the use of counterfactual history, thought experiments, and ‘scientifiction’,” see connections that are otherwise hidden (82). SF empowers marginalized groups in their resistance against violence by helping them articulate their fears of the consequences of potential research in a way that the public can understand, given the wide-spread proliferation of fictional narratives that depict such possibilities. SF becomes a space of empowerment.

The connection between autistics and SF has been written about before. English professor, and father to a non-speaking autistic son, Ralph James Savarese, writes that he “had a sense, a strong sense really, that autism and sci-fi went together. They were like two astronaut peas in a spaceship pod” (89). While one cannot say “all autistics love SF,” there is some research to show that it is popular with autistics (see, for example, Davidson and Weismer) and even Baron-Cohen noted that the “more systemizable” SF had greater appeal to autistics than “pure fiction” (“Autism, Hypersystemizing, and Truth.” 72). SF is influential in how people negotiate futures (Reinsborough) and “both proponents and opponents of any given technology or scientific advancement turn to science fiction narratives” when there is uncertainty about research and its social impact (Lynch 37). In some cases, books, television, film, and video games inform public perception of scientific research and public debate more than the actual developments in research (see, for example, Reinsborough; Kirby, “The New Eugenics in Cinema”; Clayton). Weingart et al. describe the SF trope of the scientist who starts out idealistic but becomes corrupted when their ambitions cause them to “lose sight of the consequences of their work; and, most importantly, they grow willing to violate ethical principles for the sake of gaining new knowledge.” (Weingart et al. 283). They further note that:

The utopian or dystopian views about science are clearly dominated by concerns about the manipulation of human and animal life. Not surprisingly, medical research is, again, most often associated with fictional developments, followed by genetics, physics, psychology, and chemistry. (286)

When the geneticist in Gattaca meets with Vincent’s family, he is eager to impress on the prospective parents that the genetic selection process removes traits that would be socially disadvantageous: baldness, poor vision, obesity. His playing on existing beliefs and attitudes is a representation of what parents, given the opportunity to secure what they see as the best possible future for their children, would experience should genetic testing and pre-implementation screening become more accurate and available. Hamner notes that “even when genetic fantasies have little to do with actual biology, they often powerfully shape science’s public reception” (Introduction). Yet the message of Gattaca is that it is because of Vincent’s defective genes that he has honed a trait the genetically enhanced characters lack: “inner strength or ‘spirit’” (Kirby, “The New Eugenics in Cinema” 207). Hamner, writing about similar issues of genetics in the X-Men movies, notes that there is a double reality at play: while the “genetic specifics might be ludicrous,” science fiction “is often deeply insightful about the ultimate inseparability of biology and culture” (Introduction). 

Hamner argues that the lesson of the X-Men universe is “less about the effects of personal genome testing or new gene therapies than whether experiences of prejudice and injustice should inspire reform or spark revolution” (Introduction). In the case of Spectrum 10K, the result was a revolution that demanded reform. In Botha et al.’s definition of ACC they employ a broader definition of community: a shared form of collective identity, values, and emotional cohesion that is not limited by proximity, which “reflects the cognitive and affective components of community; emotional bonds or ideological solidarity” (Botha et al. 3). They note that political ACC has been described by others as either a connection to a “power grid of activists” promoting social justice or a “grand counter-culture” (15). The connection to other autistic activists gave members of the group a sense of purpose, a feeling of control, and a network of like-minded individuals fighting for similar goals (Botha et al. 16). Those active in political ACC work to end stigmatizing depictions of autism, educate the public, ban unethical ‘cures,’ and direct research funding towards areas considered important by the community (Botha et al. 13). 

As a result of the attention drawn to it by autistic resistance, Spectrum 10K paused its research. Not only that, but, because of the “significant amount’ of feedback about the study” they received, the Health Research Authority and the Research Ethics Committee have requested further information from the research team about “social or scientific value; safety or integrity risks to participants; the study’s feasibility; the adequacy of the site or facilities and the ‘competence or conduct’ of the study’s sponsor or investigators” (O’Dell). Operating from a common understanding of the risks of genetic research, an understanding that was in no small way the result of the Fantastic influencing popular culture and the social understanding of science, a group of autistic advocates and their allies formed a community. This community had fewer resources (funding, public reputation, the cachet of ‘science’) yet was able to prevent, at least for now, a well-funded scientific project helmed by a world renowned ‘expert.’ Even after the announcement of the study’s pause, a group of autistic advocates engaged in a physical protest at Baron-Cohen’s research center. When autistic advocates announced they would protest at his center, Baron-Cohen, who was knighted in 2021 for his “services to people with autism” (Brackley), threatened the protesters with police officers and dogs, something he later apologised for and admitted “there were ‘no plans for police, or police dogs’ to be present” (Pring). The research center did, however, get a new chain to secure the front gate causing one protester to note, “‘Literally, they’ve locked us out completely. And that’s how it is in reality, we are locked out of any research or anything about us and it shouldn’t be like that, there should be nothing about us without us’” (Pring). 


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Ryan Collis is a Ph.D. student in the faculty of education at York University, working in the intersection of autism, expertise, and science fiction to discover future imaginaries where autistic students are truly supported. He holds degrees in English (B.A., Queen’s), computer science (B.Sc.H., Queen’s), education (B.Ed., OISE), and science and technology studies (B.Sc.H., York; M.A., York). Ryan has been a high school teacher in the York Region District School Board since 2006, is a Member at Large of the executive of the Canadian Committee of Graduate Students in Education (CCGSE), and serves as the Graduate Student Officer of the Canadian Educational Researchers’ Association (CERA). Ryan lives with his wife and son in Ajax, Ontario. 

Transcendence: Facing Intergenerational Trauma through Octavia E. Butler’s Kindred and “Bloodchild”

Transcendence: Facing Intergenerational Trauma through Octavia E. Butler’s Kindred and “Bloodchild”

Candice Thornton

In “Bloodchild” and Kindred, Octavia E. Butler’s characterizations and use of time travel permits readers to examine the implications of their own intersections of identity within existing and imagined societal infrastructures. Kindred illustrates the physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual impact that descendants of enslaved Africans experience, inherit, embody, and transcend. In “Bloodchild,” Butler depicts the complex dynamics and intergenerational implications of colonial hegemony for the Tlic and Terran people. Through the characters in Kindred and “Bloodchild,” alongside her manipulation of time and setting, Butler contextualizes moral dilemmas in multi-dimensional perspectives. Butler’s works convey the persevering implications and infrastructures of capitalistic cisheteropatriarchy that contribute to the commodification, erasure and subjugation of, and violence against, marginalized individuals and communities. 

In Kindred, Dana’s relationships with Rufus, her enslaver ancestor; Alice, her enslaved ancestress; and Kevin, her Caucasian husband; illustrate the long-reaching impact of chattel slavery on African American people’s bodily agency and ability to safely engage in consensual, equitable, and loving relationships. Dana, who is an interracially wed African American woman, is transported from her middle-class California life into enslavement in antebellum Maryland. In “Bloodchild”, Gan’s relationships with his mother Lien and T’Gatoi highlight how oppressive infrastructures limit marginalized peoples’ ability to consensually engage in relationships that respect their bodily agency. In “Saying ‘Yes’: Textual Traumas in Octavia Butler’s Kindred,” Marisa Parham asserts that “Butler immediately concretizes the uncanny sensation, as she makes the briefly unfamiliar domestic present double as the site of an unfamiliar domestic past, a slippery traversion made possible by the convergence of race, gender, and history—a convergence which, once revealed, resituates Dana’s home as a place of danger and vulnerability” (1321).

In Kindred, Dana’s relationship with Rufus is inherently non-consensual because she is unable to consent to being summoned to Rufus’s era and is only transported back to her own era when faced with the threat of death. After being transported with Dana to the Weylin plantation, Kevin asserts that he will not leave Dana alone to be harmed. Dana replies, “You’ll try. Maybe that will be enough. I hope so. But if it isn’t . . . I’ll have a better chance of surviving if I stay here now and work on the insurance we talked about. Rufus. He’ll probably be old enough to have some authority when I come again. Old enough to help me” (89). Kevin counters, “It still might not work. After all, his environment will be influencing him every day you’re gone” (89). As Rufus ages, he does, in fact, assume more authority; however, as Kevin suggests, he does not grow into a helpful person. 

On the contrary, Rufus develops into an entitled, immature, and violent man. In the chapter titled “The Fight,” Dana is once again transported to Rufus’s era. She finds him beaten with “his nose . . . bleeding. His split lip . . . bleeding . . . His face was a lumpy mess, and he would be looking out of a couple of black eyes for a while” (121). Rufus was beaten by Alice’s husband, Isaac, after having assaulted Alice. In her private thoughts, Dana expresses that she “should have been used to white men preying on black women. I had Weylin as my example after all. But somehow, I had hoped for better from Rufus” (119). Dana asks Alice, “wasn’t Rufus a friend of yours? I mean . . . did he just grow out of the friendship or what?” Alice responds “Got to where he wanted to be more friendly than I did . . . He tried to get Judge Holman to sell Isaac South to keep me from marrying him” (119). Learning that Isaac is enslaved, Dana advises them to run while she tends to Rufus, to mitigate the chance that they will be killed once Rufus regains consciousness. 

After Alice and Isaac leave, Rufus awakens and asks Dana where they’ve gone. Rufus threatens, “He’s going to pay!,” to which Dana responds by attempting to persuade Rufus to blame his injuries on a fight between drunken men. Rufus vehemently retorts, “What in hell are you talking about? You know Isaac Jackson did this to me!” Dana reminds him that “You raped a woman—or tried to—and her husband beat you up . . . You’re lucky he didn’t kill you. He would have if Alice and I hadn’t talked him out of it. Now what are you going to do to repay us for saving your life?” (122). Dana asks if he managed to rape Alice, and Rufus “looked away guiltily.” She asks him, “why would you do such a thing? She used to be your friend,” and he responds, “When we were little, we were friends . . .We grew up. She got so she’d rather have a buck nigger than me!” (122). Dana counters, “Do you mean her husband?” and in her interior thoughts, admits that “Kevin had been right. I’d been foolish to hope to influence him” (122). 

Dana tends to Rufus, and “after four days of freedom together . . . [Alice and Isaac] were caught” (143). Alice was terribly beaten, and Isaac was sold South after having his ears cut off. Dana realizes that “Rufus had done exactly what I had said he would do: Gotten possession of the woman without having to bother with her husband. Now, somehow, Alice would have to accept not only the loss of her husband, but her own enslavement. Rufus had caused her trouble, and now he had been rewarded for it” (149). Through this heartbreaking series of events, Dana and her enslaved ancestress Alice are subjected to Rufus’s violence. They are continuously stripped of their agency, yet reliant upon one another for survival. 

In “Beloved and Betrayed: Survival and Authority in Kindred,” Novella Brooks de Vita provides insightful perspective about Dana’s relationship with Alice and Rufus. She asserts that Dana “holds some authority over Rufus as his instructor and protector” (18). Arguably, Dana’s authority over Rufus is limited at best, in that Rufus ultimately impacts Dana’s agency. It is through Rufus’s near-fatal encounters that Dana is transported to his side. Brooks de Vita further explains that “Dana grows to see Rufus as both a detestable chore and a pitiful child. She is unable to create in her mind an effective balance between the two views” (18). Through Rufus’s rape of Alice and attempted rape of Dana, Butler illustrates the perpetual legacy of sexual violence against African descendants by European and Anglo-American people in order to commodify, control, and otherwise subjugate them. 

In “Bloodchild,” Gan and his Terran family are non-consensually enmeshed with the Tlic person T’Gatoi. Although Butler describes both the Tlic and Terran as people, the Tlic are the ruling class and differ from humans in that their reproductive survival relies upon using the Terran people as hosts for their eggs. The short story begins with the protagonist, Gan, describing the last night of his childhood. Gan recounts his Terran family being visited by T’Gatoi, the Tlican government official. Gan explains that “when [he] was little and at home more, [his] mother used to try to tell [him] how to behave with T’Gato—how to be respectful and always obedient because T’Gatoi was the Tlic government official in charge” (Butler, “Bloodchild” 3). Although Gan’s mother, Lien, explains that “it was an honor . . . that such a person had chosen to come into the family,” Gan observes that Lien “was at her most formal and severe when she was lying” (4). Gan’s last night of childhood begins with T’Gatoi offering the family some sterile eggs that “prolonged life, prolonged vigor” (3). Despite their life-sustaining and euphoria-inducing qualities, Gan’s mother Lien declines the offering, which causes Gan to question “why [his] mother denied herself such a harmless pleasure” (3). He also reveals that his father, “who had never refused one in his life, had lived more than twice as long as he should have. And toward the end of his life, when he should have been slowing down, he had married my mother and fathered four children” (3). As the story unfolds, Gan explains that T’Gatoi’s people, the Tlics, “wanted more of us made available . . . we were necessities, status symbols, and an independent people” (4). While Gan naively describes his people as independent, the dynamics and subsequent exchanges between the Terran and Tlic people illustrate the hegemony that strips the Terran people of their agency. 

Although Butler does not rely on time travel in “Bloodchild,” she infuses elements of science fiction to create a society that reflects the breeding practices and societal dynamics which are akin to the institution and practices of chattel slavery. Despite the characters in “Bloodchild” having fictionalized racial identities, Butler’s classifications of each race and the subsequent dynamics are similar to those between European and Anglo-American people and people of the African diaspora. The Tlic people’s survival is contingent upon their ability to procreate, and their procreation is sustained by depositing their eggs into Terran hosts. 

In Kindred, Dana is unable to choose when she will be transported to rescue and otherwise care for Rufus, Alice, and other enslaved people; in “Bloodchild,” Gan’s family has little agency to liberate themselves from the breeding practices of the Tlic people. Similar to Dana, Gan and his mother understand that their safety and survival are reliant upon their compliance with and participation in the harmful practices and systems established by the ruling class. The protagonists in Kindred and “Bloodchild” “survive the tension between understanding their bodies as their ‘own’ and also recognizing their bodies in relation to pasts that exceed, leak into, the present moment” (Parham 1318). Butler uses the protagonists and their families to depict how race, gender, and class impact one’s agency. Butler’s juxtaposition of enslaved and enslaver/ruler and ruled, contextualizes how marginalized peoples are forced to negotiate what little agency they possess to preserve and protect themselves and their loved ones. Ultimately, through her manipulation of time and setting, along with her characterizations, Butler illustrates the persevering implications and infrastructures of capitalistic cisheteropatriarchy that contribute to the commodification, erasure and subjugation of, and violence against, marginalized individuals and communities. 


Brooks de Vita, Novella. “Beloved and Betrayed: Survival and Authority in Kindred.” The Griot, vol. 24, no. 1, 2005, pp. 16-20. 

Butler, Octavia E. “Bloodchild.” Bloodchild and Other Stories. Seven Stories Press, 1996. 

—. Kindred. Beacon Press, 1979. 

Parham, Marisa. “Saying ‘Yes’: Textual Traumas in Octavia Butler’s Kindred.” Callaloo, vol. 32, no. 4, 2009, pp. 1315-1331. JSTOR. http://www.jstor.org/stable/27743151.

Often described as an innovative and passionate multi-hyphenate, Candice Thornton (they/them/theirs) is a second-year humanities doctoral student and adjunct English professor at Clark Atlanta University. Candice earned their B.A. in art history from the illustrious Spelman College and their M.A. in English literature from Texas Southern University. While attending Texas Southern, Candice was awarded the Most Outstanding Student for the English department, Most Impactful Award from the Student Academic Support Services department, and the Outstanding Thesis Award from the Graduate School. Broadly speaking, Candice’s research interests combine their love of Black folx, linguistics, comparative literature, and hermeneutics to examine how oral and literary traditions of the African Diaspora articulate the complexities of Black consciousness. Beyond academia, Candice enjoys tending to their loved ones, their business MN8Beauty, and their houseplants, as well as creating mood-based playlists, painting past-life portraits, and eating all the snacks.

Mother’s Madness: The Silent Struggle of Mothers in African American Literature and Film

Mother’s Madness: The Silent Struggle of Mothers in African American Literature and Film

Aileen Fonsworth

While existing in a racist, patriarchal society, women are not in control. The mother is responsible for the duties of the home and children. In Octavia Butler’s “Bloodchild,”Toni Morrison’s Beloved, and the television miniseries THEM directed by Lena Waithe, sociopolitical and cultural pressure to perform physically traumatizes and mentally destroys the mothers of the house. Each of the matriarchs of these texts and program are tormented by the situational circumstances of their lives. Oppression and the illusion of freedom keep these women in unstable mental states. The silent struggle of these mothers drives them to insanity, self-destruction, child abandonment, and experiences of various forms of death. 

The coupling of what is socially acceptable and what they know is wrong gives birth to their behavior and, as a result, a generational curse. In “Bloodchild” by Octavia Butler, Gan’s mother, Lien, is constricted by her internal conflict. She watches and is arguably complicit in the age-inappropriate courting and ultimate rape of her youngest child by an alien creature. She does this because of a pact that she made with this creature for status. As much as she hates the idea of what is going to happen to her son, she raises him to honor his captor and to believe that his sacrifice is an honorable elevation instead of a condemned social station. She assists in the grooming of her child to elevate the rest of the family but denies herself any of the available comforts during the process. 

The aliens, called Tlic, provide sterile eggs that act as an age-defying intoxicant for humans. Lien refuses to partake in the nectar’s comforting effects as not only a silent act of rebellion but also as self-flagellation. Lien hates the alien T’Gatoi and the calamity that her family is in. She struggles through the story not sleeping or eating enough, which expedites her aging process and leads to her eventual death. This is an act of defiance that Lien exhibits as her own way of protesting. She refuses the nectar but is coerced to partake in it. T’Gatoi gaslights Lien constantly saying, “this place is a refuge because of you, yet you won’t take care of yourself’ (Butler 5). When Lien takes the bare minimum, the creature disregards her volition, forcing her to ingest more.

Against the wishes of the matriarch, the creature captures and stings her. In a venom-induced lull, Lien babbles that she wishes she would have killed T’Gatoi: “I should have stepped on you when you were small enough” (7).While this is presented as a joke between the two, Lien suffers as she bears the knowledge of what is to befall her child. The sociopolitical climate renders the humans (called Terrans) inferior and at the disposal of the Tlic. Lien promised her youngest child to the creature to secure provisions and safety for her family out of obligation, not by choice. Absent the intoxication-induced admission, she never discusses the exchange. In the stupor of the sting, Lien futilely protested, “Nothing can buy him from me” (7). She is only mocked and stung again. 

 The family’s social ascent is dependent on Gan being the carrier of T’Gatoi’s eggs. For fear of harming herself, Lien is forced to facilitate his impregnation through sodomy. When T’Gatoi takes Gan outside the designated area for his people, his mother instructs Gan to “take care of her” (5) even though he is only a child. When they do get out of the compound, there is chaos. Terrans are fighting and clamoring in fear and filth while the aliens are arguing for access. In fear of the unknown terror of the outside world, Lien becomes an accessory in the victimization of her son. Rather than risk her family being exposed to the unknown, Lien decides to protect her family at the expense of her youngest child.

In Toni Morrison’s Beloved, Sethe is physically aware of the horrors of the plantation Sweet Home, where she was formerly enslaved. After the overseer’s nephews rape pregnant Sethe, by stealing her milk, she escapes enslavement. After a tumultuous escape, she reunites with her mother-in-law to live in a false sense of socio-political and economic security. When the overseer, schoolteacher, comes looking for Sethe and her family, she decides to free her children eternally to prevent her daughters from suffering the same plight. When faced with the possibility of losing her children to the torment of a known oppressor, Sethe sacrifices her baby’s life to keep her safe. Haunted by the memory of the dead child, Sethe is internally and externally tormented by her past and her actions.

When Paul D, one of the formerly enslaved men of Sweet Home comes into town Sethe is comforted by his presence. They share the history and because of it they connect and communicate with each other. When Paul D calls into question Sethe’s choice to take the child’s life, “a forest sprang up between them” (Morrison 194). While he tried to defend his statement or offer other options, he insults her saying “you got two legs not four” (191). Sethe explains that she not only knows what she did but made the choice with the surety of knowing that anywhere would be better than Sweet Home. “I stopped him . . . I took and put my babies where I knew they’d be safe” (193). Sethe denies herself the love and comfort of a partner in standing by her decision. Like Lien, Sethe refuses herself pleasure and sacrifices her child to keep the family safe. The rejection of pleasure and comfort is often the cost of security for mothers in oppressed situations.

In the television miniseries, THEM, directed by Lena Waithe, a 1950s African American family decides to move to California from South Carolina after the mother, Lucky, is raped and the youngest son killed. The intention behind their move is to give the remaining children access to a more progressive environment and better education. Although they have family in the Watts area of Los Angeles, Lucky’s husband buys them a house in predominantly Caucasian Compton. From the day they move into their new home, the racist neighbors begin to harass them relentlessly. Lucky expresses her unease in their new place. After realizing that their neighborhood had previously prohibited African Americans from living there, she explains to her husband, with a gun in her hand,, that if any of her neighbors get too far out of line, “they ain’t getting’ a warnin’” (“Day 1” 19:34). The decision to stay in Compton wears on her mental state.

To cope, Lucky seeks refuge in the familiarity of family. Taking a day to visit relatives in town, Lucky goes to her cousin’s house to fellowship. What starts as relief ends in a triggered escape. In the scene, Lucky is getting her hair done by a cousin who also offers children’s services. During their conversation, she asks Lucky about her son’s age and hair length. “What his name . . . Chester right?” (“Day 4” 21:15). Lucky panics and leaves hastily in a mentally foggy state. It is obvious that her cousin was uninformed of the situation. After being brutally raped and having her child murdered in front of her, Lucky silently suffers that trauma alone.

While being tormented at home by neighbors, the children are also taunted at school. The eldest daughter, Ruby, is mocked constantly by her classmates and haunted by an imaginary friend. The apparition that befriends Ruby helps her navigate the social climate of her new school. Ruby’s suffering is compounded by the treatment of her family and particularly that of her mother. When she paints herself white at school to fit in, Lucky blames herself and begins to insist that they leave that house and neighborhood. The homes in Beloved and THEM are both vehicles of fear and suffering for their matriarchs.

In these texts and in the television series, the mothers sacrifice their peace to do what they think is best to protect the lives of their children and families. While these characters represent various points of contention on the oppressed freedom spectrum, they are all similar in the sense of sacrifice. None of them are willing to allow the harshness of the outside world to invade their homes and negate the little bit of control that they have. At the cost of their safety and sanity Lien, Sethe, and Lucky are willing to suffer the consequences of extreme actions for the sake of preserving their families.


Morrison, Toni. Beloved. Vintage, 2007.

Butler, Octavia. “Bloodchild.” “Bloodchild and Other Stories.” Seven Stories Press, 1996.

“Day 1.” THEM, created by Lena Waithe, season 1, episode 1, Amazon Prime, 2021.

“Day 4.” THEM, created by Lena Waithe, season 1, episode 4, Amazon Prime, 2022.

Aileen “A.E” Fonsworth is a native of San Francisco, California, currently residing in Huntsville, Texas, while attending Sam Houston State University. In her pursuit of an M.F.A. in poetry, she is an Editorial Fellow, a Poetry Fellow, GUIA Fellow, and an A.S.P.I.R.E Scholar. A.E is a mother of two and serves the undergraduate population as an Academic Recovery Coach. She is a traveling poet and speaker, as well as a proud Texas Southern University Alumna.

“I’m a Node Worker Too”:  Mexican Cyborgs as Resources and Resistance in Sleep Dealer

“I’m a Node Worker Too”:  Mexican Cyborgs as Resources and Resistance in Sleep Dealer

Karen Dollinger

In 2008, filmmaker Alex Rivera wrote and directed Sleep Dealer, a science fiction film set almost entirely in Mexico, centering on “node workers,” people who are plugged into machines run by multinational corporations so their work can be exploited around the globe. The film centers around three characters, all of whom have cybernetic enhancements. Memo works in construction, virtually controlling a giant robot in a country he himself is not allowed to enter to make skyscrapers he will never see with his own eyes. Luz works for TruNode, a corporation that allows customers to virtually experience the memories of others, selling her memories and creating memories on demand as a form of virtual tourism. Rudy, the only (Mexican) American in the film, is a drone operator, able to kill others from thousands of miles away.

An allegory for Mexican immigration in the United States, the film constructs a future with roots in Oaxaca, Mexico, in which the United States is able to receive all of the benefits of laboring Mexican workers without ever seeing actual Mexicans. Natural resources such as water are controlled by corporations, and farmers in Oaxaca must pay in U.S. dollars to have access to it. Indigenous people who would take control of their own resources or are even suspected of it are killed at the push of a button in another country. Nonetheless, the node workers, who can be considered cyborgs, discover that they can do more than merely survive, and use the very nodes that drain them as a form of resistance, creating a community of cybernetically enhanced humans to improve the lot of those subjugated by corporations.

This paper will examine the narrative and symbolic function of the protagonists through the lens of Donna Haraway’s Cyborg Manifesto, specifically, her definition of a cyborg:

The cyborg is resolutely committed to partiality, irony, intimacy, and perversity.  It is oppositional, utopian, and completely without innocence. No longer structured by the polarity of public and private, the cyborg defines a technological polis based partly on a revolution of social relations in the oikos, the household. Nature and culture are reworked; the one can no longer be the resource for appropriation or incorporation of the other. (151)

In Sleep Dealer, turning a human into a cyborg (or cybracero, another term for node worker) is meant to exploit human beings as natural resources without agency, and yet it is as cyborgs that effective resistance becomes possible. New relationships and new ways of being are created through nodes by the three protagonists, demonstrating the transformational possibilities of a post-human future.

The film begins when Memo’s father in Oaxaca is unjustly killed by a drone controlled from the United States after being mistaken for an aqua-terrorist. In order to support his family, Memo travels to Tijuana to work in a maquiladora, a type of factory. In this future, though, workers ship their labor north via “nodes,” cybernetic implants that allow them to control robots located thousands of miles away, while connected to giant machinery in the Tijuana maquiladoras, also called “Sleep Dealers,” nicknamed thus because they eventually drain the life force of the node workers. Before he can find work, Memo must locate a coyotec, an illegal dealer in the much sought-after cybernetic implants which transform ordinary human beings into something more—or lesser. The name is also a play on “coyote”—someone who assists undocumented migrants from Mexico to the United States—and “tech”—as in node technology. By chance, Memo meets Luz, a cybernetic journalist who makes her living uploading her own memories directly to the Net, allowing anyone with nodes to experience them. She is able to transform Memo into a node worker, and the two begin a romance.  

Before she had gotten to know him better, Luz had uploaded her memory of meeting Memo on a bus, intending to highlight the plight of migrant workers. A mysterious client offers to pay her to create more memories of Memo, which she does without Memo’s consent. It is revealed to the audience that the mysterious client is Rudy, the American drone pilot who killed Memo’s father and now has doubts about the dead man’s guilt. Using the memories Luz had uploaded Rudy is able to track down Memo.

At this point, the film defies audience expectations. Rudy is not there to investigate or arrest Memo; neither is this a tale of Memo avenging his father’s death. Instead, it is a tale of connection, of community, for as Rudy observes, “I’m a node worker too.” Being a node worker unites Memo, Rudy, and Luz across ethnicities, nationalities, and genders. Rudy seeks to make amends to Memo and his family for the harm he has done, and Memo decides to accept them. The three protagonists concoct a plan to destroy the dam that has devastated the farming community where Memo was born, specifically using their cybernetic abilities. The idea is the culmination of the dream of Memo’s father, who had explained to Memo in the beginning of the film that the dam choking off the river made farming nearly impossible. In a life-affirming act that harms no one, they become the aqua-terrorists the United States government feared and sought to destroy.

While initially being controlled and repressed by becoming part machine, Memo, Luz, and Rudy are all able to find liberation utilizing the very tools of their repression. They fit the model of the cyborg proposed by Haraway. As she writes of what it means to be a cyborg: 

Taking responsibility for the social relations of science and technology means refusing an anti-science metaphysics, a demonology of technology, and so means embracing the skillful task of reconstructing the boundaries of daily life, in partial connection with others, in communication with all of our parts. It is not just that science and technology are possible means of great human satisfaction, as well as a matrix of complex dominations. Cyborg imagery can suggest a way out of the maze of dualisms in which we have explained our bodies and our tools to ourselves. This is a dream not of a common language, but of a powerful infidel heteroglossia. It is an imagination of a feminist speaking in tongues to strike fear into the circuits of the supersavers of the new right. It means both building and destroying machines, identities, categories, relationships, space stories. (21)  

We see this tension throughout the film. The negative aspects of the futuristic technology of Sleep Dealer are highlighted by the plot, beginning with the dam which has nearly destroyed Memo’s family’s milpa, an indigenous farm in rural Oaxaca, then the drone technology which permits Memo’s father to be murdered by someone thousands of miles away, to the Sleep Dealers which are slowly killing node workers, to the exploitative TruNode which colonizes memories.  

While this paper examines the characters with nodes as cyborgs, there is also something vampiric about the apparatus associated with the nodes. Many scholars have pointed this out, such as Micah K. Donahue in “Borderlands Gothic Science Fiction: Alienation as Intersection in Rivera’s Sleep Dealer and Lavín’s ‘Llegar a la orilla’”:

The needle-like injection point of the wires that the cybraceros insert into their bodies, an insertion that doubles as the debilitating extraction site of labor and willpower, additionally reprises the longstanding Latin American tradition of the parasitic vampire . . . The dangling cables in Sleep Dealer and the bulbous machines above them form part of that (techno)gothic archive: cybernetic spiders descend from the rafters of the infomaquilas to suck the life from victims snared in their bioluminescent webs. Memo directly addresses the vampiric nature of the transnational Sleep Dealers. “Me estaban drenando la energía y mandándola lejos (They were draining my energy and sending it far away.)” (61)

The impersonal disembodied transnational corporation takes the role of the villainous bloodsucker here. It is not, however, the only way in which our invisible vampire casts its shadow. Luz captures moments of life—both her own and others—which are then consumed through TruNode. Rudy swoops down from the sky and deals death. Even the dessicated farm and village of Memo’s youth can be seen as a vampiric victim, drained of the lifeblood of the river by the private transnational water corporation.  

So does this mean that the nodes themselves are evil? It’s complicated. The node technology, which blurs the boundaries of organic and machine and even spatial location, also leads to powerful connections. It is the character of Luz who first sees this. She explains that she became a reporter for TruNode precisely because she wanted to bring to light—which is what “Luz” means in Spanish—the lives of diverse people and to create connections and community through her memories of them. She doesn’t see what she is doing as exploitative until Memo confronts her. Luz realizes Harraway’s promise of cyborg relationships when she suggests to Memo that they make love while connected to one another via their nodes so they can experience the act through the sensations of the other person. Binaries and boundaries—and what human experience means—is blurred in this scene. Luz is the bridge between Memo and Rudy as well.  

If Luz wants to use her cybernetic nodes to make human connections, it is Rudy who sees the connections that are already there. He muses, “I’m a node worker too,” highlighting this similarity to Memo: they are both cyborgs. This contradicts and complicates what should be very different subject positions. Rudy is American, while Memo is Mexican. Rudy is middle class, while Memo is poor. Rudy grew up in a highly technological society, while Memo grew up on an indigenous farm in Oaxaca. Rudy is a member of the military, while Memo obtained his nodes illegally from a coyotec. Rudy controls a murderous drone, while Memo controls a construction robot. Yet Rudy sees Memo as an equal, and one he has wronged. Rudy saw Memo’s father die through cybernetic eyes, but still saw the humanity of the man he killed, which made him question everything he had been taught.  

Ultimately, though, Memo is the one who must take the final steps in creating a new community blending both his indigenous roots and his new position as a node worker. He is the one who chooses to forgive Luz for appropriating his memories and experiences and to forgive Rudy for having killed his father. By choosing connection over repudiation, he is able to come up with the plan to return the river in his home town to his people by having Rudy pilot his drone to destroy the dam. The farms in Oaxaca will once again thrive and will no longer have to pay the exorbitant prices demanded by the foreign corporation for life-giving water. Ultimately, technology defeats technology. The unity of node workers led to the survival of Memo’s indigenous family and community.

Cravey, Palis, and Valdivia in their article “Imagining the future from the margins:  Cyborg labor in Alex Rivera’s Sleep Dealer” point out that the three cyborg protagonists of the film are able to learn via their nodes to recognize and value their connections with a wider community: “The three central characters also gain insight about ways in which their own individual fates are ineluctably entwined with others and with humanity; and each struggles to act with more empathy. In this regard, each of the protagonists wrestles with a specific dilemma about the consequences of one’s actions in a world of globally-extensive, densely-intertwined, social interconnections” (872). Their nodes allow them to see connections in ways none of the cyborgs could have predicted, but they realize that humanity has always been connected, nodes or not.

It can be easy to dismiss the role of Luz as superfluous, as merely the love interest of Memo. But without Luz’s work as a TruNode cyborg reporter, Rudy and Memo would never have made their connection, and they never would have made the plan to destroy the dam, freeing the river for the citizens of Memo’s village in Oaxaca. As China Medel writes in “The Ghost in the Machine: The Biopolitics of Memory in Alex Rivera’s Sleep Dealer”: 

TruNode’s simultaneous position as public forum and private marketplace for sharing memories reveals the ambivalences structuring the production of collective memory and shared images environments within neoliberalism. TruNode writer Luz becomes like the sex workers and domestics of the transnational economy whose affective  labor generates social relationships. Yet her labor also enables the film’s narrative shift from a story of romantic love to the transnational love of solidarity. (116)  

It is Luz, through her work as a sort of cybernetic interpreter, who helps Rudy and Memo come to understand one another. And it is Luz who performs the vital role of coyotec, the person who illegally transforms Memo into a cyborg. Notably, she does this for free. Luz is both Memo’s introduction to the world of the node workers and the point of contact between Memo and Rudy across national boundaries. 

The climax—the redemption for Rudy, Memo, and Luz—occurs when the trio blows up the corporate dam. No one (that we see) was killed by this act, whereas the existence of the dam had already cost lives. Is it terrorism? Orihuela and Hageman write in “The Virtual Realities of US/Mexico Border Ecologies in Maquilapolis and Sleep Dealer”: 

Blowing up the corporate dam is coded within the film itself as an act of eco-terrorism. Occasionally, shots linger over the graffiti-portraits of masked figures with the letters ‘‘EMLA’’ standing for the Mayan Army of Water Liberation, thereby using the backdrop of Tijuana to imply that Memo’s plan is a self-conscious act of eco-terror. Additionally, the television media in the film, consistent with current US media discourse, reports the dam-destruction as an act of ecoterrorism. As such, the film’s conclusion seems a deeply problematic prescription. But, as Rivera pointed out . . . the destruction of the dam brings some hard contradictions about ecology, borders, race, technology, and gender to the forefront. (183)  

One such contradiction is in who is allowed to define the word “terrorist.” Why is Rudy a terrorist but not the transnational corporation denying water to the indigenous community that had relied on it for generations? In Orihuela and Hageman’s interview with Rivera, the director says: “Words like ‘terrorist’ and ‘freedom fighter’ or ‘revolutionary,’ ‘patriot’ are obviously used by one kind of player in history against another, depending which side of the struggle you are on. ‘Ecoterrorism’ is a word that could be used with as much moral authority against Monsanto as it could against Earth Liberation Front” (qtd. in Orihuela et al., 183). So who, precisely, are the villains here? The node workers blowing up the dam is coded as an act of heroism. Throughout the entire film, we only see two direct acts of violence against individuals: when Rudy kills Memo’s father, and when Memo is robbed in Tijuana. Most of the suffering is systemic and caused by faceless corporations. Instead of a specific enemy, the cyborg protagonists must fight systemic oppression.

In the final scene, Memo is planting corn in Tijuana, and Rudy is heading deeper into Mexico to hide from the authorities. We realize that Memo still has his nodes, and the entire film was composed of Memo’s memories on TruNode, most likely uploaded by Luz. The cyborgs are still resisting, literally putting down roots in the case of Memo, but are also making new connections. Memo vows to keep resisting by staying connected. The past, as Memo’s father would say, now has a future.


Cravey, Altha, et al. “Imagining the Future from the Margins: Cyborg Labor in Alex Rivera’s Sleep Dealer.” GeoJournal, vol. 80, no. 6, 2015, pp. 867-80. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10708-015-9652-4.

Donahue, Micah K. “Borderlands Gothic Science Fiction: Alienation as Intersection in Rivera’s Sleep Dealer and Lavín’s ‘Llegar a la orilla.’” Science Fiction Studies, vol. 45, no. 1, March 2018, pp. 48-68.

Haraway, Donna Jeanne. Cyborg Manifesto. Camas Books, 2018. 

Medel, China. “The Ghost in the Machine: The Biopolitics of Memory in Alex Rivera’s Sleep Dealer.” Camera Obscura: Feminism, Culture, and Media Studies, vol. 33 no.1, May 2018, pp. 113-37.

Orihuela, Sharada Balachandran, and Andrew Carl Hageman. “The Virtual Realities of US/Mexico Border Ecologies in Maquilapolis and Sleep Dealer.” Environmental Communication vol. 5, no. 2, June 2011, pp. 166-86.

Rivera, Alex, director. Sleep Dealer: Maya Entertainment, 2008, DVD.

Dr. Karen Dollinger is a Spanish lecturer at the University of West Georgia. She has presented at the International Conference for the Fantastic in the Arts and has taught courses on Latin American science fiction.

Melancholia, Assimilation, and Genre in Charles Yu’s How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe

Melancholia, Assimilation, and Genre in Charles Yu’s How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe

Cynthia Zhang

In Charles Yu’s How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe, the existence of multiple universes is an established fact, AIs are accepted as middle managers and drinking buddies, and time travel is a quotidian practice. When time machine technician Charles Yu (referred to as Charles for the remainder of this paper) shoots his future self and becomes trapped in a time loop, he is reassured by his AI companion TAMMY that “it happens to everyone, some even by choice” (Yu 97). Yet despite the prevalence and normalization of many recognizably sci-fi tropes, Yu’s novel is in many ways less recognizably science fiction than it is Asian American. Time travel may drive the plot of Science Fictional Universe, but it is an examination of the promises and disillusionments of the American Dream that forms the novel’s thematic center. Given the prominence of such themes, Science Fictional Universe’smain departure from a paradigmatic model of Asian-American literature would be its status as science fiction. As Science Fictional Universe is a novel more interested in questions of immigrant struggle than the implications of time travel or multiverse theory, one must ask why Yu chooses to work in science fiction and not literary realism.

In this paper, I argue that Yu deliberately works to destabilize the lines between literary fiction, Asian-American literature, and science fiction. By using science fiction to frame a story of immigrant angst, Yu reframes the dream of multiethnic assimilation itself as a particular form of science fiction, one whose conventions and expectation are just as restricting as the familiar tropes of genre fiction. This inability to assimilate fully—to be just ‘American’ as opposed to ‘Asian-American’—produces a profound sense of racial melancholia, a term I borrow primarily from David Eng and Shinhee Han’s work on the subject. Ultimately, through using the language of science fiction to capture the melancholia of racial assimilation, How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe contests the hegemony of realist fiction to depict psychological states as well as the necessity for delineating between genre and literary fiction in the first place.

The Genre Question

Before proceeding to Science Fictional Universe itself, it is useful to contextualize Yu’s place within the contemporary literary marketplace. On the one hand, Yu’s status as the recipient of awards such as the Sherwood Anderson Prize (for “Third Class Superhero” in 2004) and the National Book Award (for Interior Chinatown in 2020) speak to the cultural standing of his work among arbiters of literary prizes (“About”). On the other hand, Yu’s work has also received attention from speculative fiction awards such as the Locus Awards and the Campbell Memorial Award, and Yu in 2017 was the guest editor on that year’s edition of Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy (Adams). Historically, literary fiction has defined itself as against genre fiction in negative terms, with genre fiction viewed as formulaic mass entertainment while literary fiction is thoughtful, elevated art. Yu’s status as an author with footholds in multiple fields blurs the traditional division between literary and science fiction, instead pointing to a literary landscape where the genre boundaries are not fixed but perpetually porous.

Yu’s status as a Taiwanese-American author further complicates his engagement with science fiction. As Sami Schalk traces in Bodyminds Reimagined, marginalized groups have historically tended to regard literature as a vehicle through which authors can combat dominant stereotypes “by offering positive, realistic representation” (19). Because of this commitment to authenticity as well as the greater prestige afforded to ‘realistic’ fiction, minoritarian writers often favor realism as “an effective way to create cultural change” (19). By contrast, science fiction with its robots and faraway galaxies comes to be regarded as a genre too fantastical to address pressing social issues in the ‘real’ world. Further, science fiction is a genre marked by a historically troubled relation with race, one which can be traced from H.P. Lovecraft’s fear of racial miscegenation to cyberpunk’s representations of menacing Japanese corporations. To be a writer of color in science fiction thus adds another challenge in the form of a “double-layered negotiation with authorial legitimacy within the genre community and with genre legitimacy within the literary community” (Huang 98).

Given the prevailing biases against both writers of color and genre fiction, it is certainly possible to read Yu’s success within the literary mainstream as a story of meritocracy, one in which Yu’s persistence and natural talent allow him to achieve success despite the odds against him. However, I want to propose a counternarrative of Yu’s writing career, one in which Yu’s engagement with science fiction as a minoritarian writer is also a deliberate engagement with systems of legitimation. Proceeding from the observation that genre fiction “share[s] a history of marginalization with Asian American literature vis-à-vis mainstream and academic literary establishments,” Yu’s choice to work within science fiction can be read as an embrace of the minor position with all its perils and potentials (Huang 6). Though Science Fictional Universe straddles multiple genre categories (literary fiction, science fiction, and Asian-American literature), it ultimately refuses to be neatly assimilated into any one genre, insisting instead on its position at the interstice of all three.

Racial Melancholia and the Minor Subject

In analyzing Science Fictional Universe as a critique of the American Dream, I will focus on the two characters most affected by its failure: Charles and his father. As a child, Charles works with his father, a structural engineer working for an unnamed company, to develop one of the first working theories of time travel. However, flaws in execution mean that their time machine fails to impress a visiting research director from the prestigious Institute of Conceptual Technology. As a result, it is another researcher—one who possesses significantly more financial means than Charles’s father and lives in an idyllic town where the children’s playgrounds are “painted red and white and blue”—who becomes the credited inventor of time travel, confining Charles’s father to the margins of history (Yu 193). As an immigrant to a “new continent of opportunity,” Charles’s father is a believer in the narrative of immigrant aspiration in which hard work always pays off and success proceeds “in direct proportion to effort exerted” (174). The failure of his machine thus produces a profound sense of disillusionment in Charles’s father, one which extends beyond disappointment with the American Dream into disappointment with himself. Eventually, this disappointment leads Charles’s father to build a “darker, more powerful” version of a time machine and to become subsequently lost in time (197).

Even as Charles’s father internalizes a sense of inadequacy, Science Fictional Universe points to the ways in which his success is precluded by barriers of race and class. When Charles and his father first meet the director, the differences in status between the two are evident in their appearances: while Charles’s father is a short man dressed neatly but thriftly in too-short slacks and cheap glasses, the director is an authoritative figure dressed in “cuff-linked shirtsleeves” and an impressively knotted tie, “the kind neither my father nor I ever seemed to be able to do” (172). The class disparity between Charles’s father and the director is one which is also described in racial terms, with Charles describing his father next to the director as looking like “an immigrant [. . .] a bewildered new graduate student in front of the eminent professor, a small man with a small hand in a large foreign country” (184). Despite the many years Charles’s father has spent studying and working in his adopted country, he continues to be regarded as an immigrant and a foreigner, a perpetual Other never fully belongs to their adopted country. Celebratory accounts of multicultural diversity may champion the potential for all newcomers to become a part of the national fabric, but race persists in circumscribing the extent to which non-white subjects can assimilate into an implicitly white national consciousness.

Reading Science Fictional Universe as a narrative of how race haunts the American Dream, one can read Charles and his father’s experiences as ones of a particularly racialized melancholia. As theorized by Freud in “Mourning and Melancholia,” melancholia differs from mourning in that it is a) an indefinite state and b) one in which the subject is unable to let go of the lost object (245). Freud attributes the longevity of melancholia to the fact that, unlike mourning, melancholy involves “a loss of a more ideal kind,” one in which the melancholic knows “whom he has lost but not what he has lost in him” (245). Unable to understand the true nature of their loss, the subject is unable to let go of their attachment. Instead, the melancholic is marked by “an identification of the ego with the abandoned object,” one which causes the subject’s psychic attachments to retreat inward and, “by taking flight into the ego,” thus remain intact (249-57). When the subject’s feelings towards the lost object are ambivalent in nature, the introjection of the object causes those ambivalent feelings to migrate inwards so that the negative feelings towards the lost object become transformed into self-recriminations. For Charles’s father, the process of melancholic introjection means that his failure becomes not a technical error, “but an actual failure of his own mind, his own concept” (Yu 184). Disappointment with the promises of immigrant aspiration becomes directed inward, and Charles’s father begins quite literally drifting back into the past in a manner that literalizes how attachment to a lost object anchors Freud’s melancholic to a past moment. Unable to let go of his lost dream and all that it represents, Charles’s father is borne melancholically back into the past until he becomes ultimately unreachable to his family.

While Freud’s original account of melancholia characterizes it as a pathological state, theorists since have questioned this reading of melancholia as an inherently unproductive state. David Eng and David Kazanjian, for example, argue that “melancholia’s continued and open relation to the past” opens up the possibility of “new perspectives on and new understandings of lost objects” (4). In this way, the process of staying with melancholia can prove productive in both analyzing the past and also “rais[ing] the question of what makes a world of new objects, places, and ideals possible” (4). Thus, while melancholia proves paralyzing in Science Fictional Universe, trapping characters in loops of memory and stranding them outside of time, for Charles at least melancholia also provides an opportunity for him to revisit and reinterpret his past experiences. Killing his future self may trap Charles in a melancholic time loop of his own memories, but it also forces him to directly confront his past instead of attempting to ignore it or push it aside. Given that Charles is a character whose avoidance of the past has led him to spend ten years living inside a time machine, melancholia here offers Charles an opening for self-transformation if he is willing to undertake the arduous task of examining both the past and himself. 

In addition, following Ann Cvetkovich’s call to interpret “depression as a cultural and social phenomenon rather than a medical disease,” melancholia can be read as less as an individualized malady than a collective condition resulting from the shared experience of trauma (1). For racialized subjects, shared trauma takes the form of “histories of racial loss,” with racial melancholia naming the way in which those historical losses “are condensed into a forfeited object” that continues to haunt the racialized subject (Eng and Han 1). Regarding melancholia as a cultural condition complicates Freud’s account by raising the question of ethical responsibility. If melancholia is a response to historical trauma and structural violence, then detachment becomes a form of forgetting, one which may be necessary for the subject’s survival but which does not engage in transforming the structural injustices responsible for producing melancholia in the first place. Racialized subjects can become legal citizens, but because the “standard of assimilation” remains whiteness, their ability to become fully American as opposed to hyphenated American stops “short of the color line” (Cheng 69). Promised Americanness but perpetually figured as foreign to the white nation, Asian-American subjects experience the call to assimilation as “a repetitive trauma,” one which can very much entrap the desiring subject within its structures (67). 

Stuck reviewing memories of his father in a melancholic loop, Charles as an adult is able to gain a new understanding of how race has structured his and his father’s dreams. However, Science Fictional Universe does not end with its protagonist trapped in memory and regret. Instead, Charles steps out of the time machine and lets himself be shot by his past self, thus allowing time to continue its normal forward flow. The melancholic loop is closed and Charles, while injured, survives to face a future that he now has the tools to properly confront. By the standards of a classical Freudian account, Charles’s trajectory illustrates the path of proper mourning, one in which Charles is able to let go of his investment in the ideal of immigrant assimilation and instead invest his attachments in a new model of subjectivity, one which affirms his ability to be “kind of a protagonist after all” (Yu 233). Still, it is notable that it is Charles’s experiences while stuck in a melancholic time loop that allow him to achieve this state of peace with himself. Existing in the space of melancholic attachment allows Charles to reexamine his relationship to the immigrant assimilation narrative and, with the aid of an adult perspective and an AI interlocutor, gain an increased understanding of how that narrative forecloses the very promises it offers. Faced with the systemic inequalities that underlie the American Dream, Charles is able to view his father in another light—not as a failed dreamer, but rather a racialized subject whose theories, even without institutional acceptance, “would have been good enough for the director, for the world, good enough to be a serious contribution to the field of fictional science, good enough for me” (Yu 194). Per Freud, melancholia very much possesses the power to trap Charles and his father within its structures. However, when examined as a symptom of structural forces such as systemic racism, melancholia can become a useful tool in analyzing individual relationships with larger structures and ideologies.

Science/Fiction: The Genre Question Returns

Reading Science Fictional Universe as a rejection of theconventional assimilation narrative, Yu’sapproach towards genre can be interpreted as an extension of his resistance to assimilation. While Science Fictional Universe straddles the boundaries of Asian-American literature, literary fiction, and science fiction, it ultimately refuses to fully belong to any of them. By doing so, Science Fictional Universe implicitly disputes the primacy of naturalism for realistic representation while reframing the American Dream as itself a form of science fiction.

For many minoritarian authors, the burden of representation means that realism is seen as a more robust mode for telling “authentic” depictions of marginalized communities. Yu’s decision to use science fiction to tell a story of immigrant longing can be read as a challenge to such long-standing dynamics, one which implies that there are certain experiences that science fiction can capture more fully than literary realism. In Do Metaphors Dreams of Literal Sleep?, Seo-Young Chu notes while few people would debate realistic fiction’s ability to depict the life of a university professor, objects such as “the infinitely remote future, the infinitely remote past, and whatever lies on the other side of death” are far more elusive (7). Rather than viewing science fiction and literary realism as opposites, Chu thus proposes that we see the two as poles on a spectrum, with SF offering a way of accessing objects that would be otherwise “impossible to represent in a straightforward manner” (3). In particular, Chu argues that science fiction’s tropes of time travel and alternative selves make SF a productive genre for representing trauma as an experience that alienates the subject from themselves and disrupts an ordinary relationship with time (155). One reason for deploying SF in Science Fictional Universe would thus be the narrative elasticity the genre provides, with science fiction as a mode allowing Yu to portray Charles’s relationship with the past in a manner that reflects how Charles experiences his memories of racial and familial trauma.

In addition to opening narrative space for the depiction of trauma, SF further allows Yu to reframe the narratives of immigrant assimilation and the American Dream as themselves SF constructs. Throughout Science Fictional Universe, Yu describes the country to which Charles and his father live in terms of science fiction. Charles’s father is a “recent immigrant to a new continent of opportunity, a land of possibility [. . .] the science fictional area where he had come, on scholarship” (Yu 71). Though immigrant narratives of America have frequently described the country’s promises for economic improvement in hyperbolic terms, Yu here explicitly frames it as a science fictional construct. The American Dream as SF emerges as an elusive, illusory object, a promise extended to immigrants which the racialized subject can never quite achieve. 

Yet if the American Dream is an SF text, then Yu offers an antidote in Charles’s final confrontation with himself: a heightened awareness of how imposed narratives frame our experience of the world and a willingness to revise or reinvent those narratives when necessary. If Charles is trapped in a world whose laws prevent him from being more than a minor subject, then the only way for him to be “kind of a protagonist after all” is to create an alternative world, one structured by narratives which do not bestow humanity according to racialized processes of assimilation.


“About.” Charles Yu, 3 Mar. 2021, www.charlesyuauthor.com/about/.

Adams, John Joseph. “NEWS: BASFF 2017 Cover Reveal + Announcing Guest Editor Charles Yu.” John Joseph Adams: Editor and Anthologist, 11 Apr. 2017, www.johnjosephadams.com/2017/04/11/news-basff-2017-cover-reveal-announcing-guest-editor-charles-yu/.

Cheng, Anne Anlin. The Melancholy of Race: Psychoanalysis, Assimilation and Hidden Grief. Oxford UP, 2001.

Chu, Seo-Young. Do Metaphors Dream of Literal Sleep?: a Science-Fictional Theory of Representation. Harvard UP, 2011.

Cvetkovich, Ann. Depression: A Public Feeling. Duke UP, 2012. 

Eng, David L., and David Kazanjian. “Introduction: Mourning Remains.” Loss: The Politics of Mourning, edited by David L. Eng and David Kazanjian, U of California P, 2003, pp. 1-28.

Eng, David L., and Shinhee Han. Racial Melancholia, Racial Dissociation: on the Social and Psychic Lives of Asian Americans. Duke UP, 2019.

Freud, Sigmund. “Mourning and Melancholia.” The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud: On the History of the Psychoanalytic Movement, Papers on Metapsychology, and Other Works, translated by James Stratchey, The Hogarth Press and the Institute of Psychoanalysis, 1957, pp. 243-58. 

Huang, Betsy. Contesting Genres in Contemporary Asian American Fiction. Palgrave Macmillan, 2016.

Schalk, Sami. Bodyminds Reimagined: (Dis)Ability, Race, and Gender in Black Women’s Speculative Fiction. Duke UP, 2018.Yu, Charles. How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe. Pantheon Books, 2010.

Cynthia Zhang (she/they) is a Ph.D. student in the Department of Comparative Literature at the University of Southern California. She received a B.A. in comparative literature and an M.A. in the humanities from the University of Chicago, where her work focused on the intersections between new media technologies, reading practices, and fandom. At present, her research focuses on theorizing fantasy as a site for exploring the relationship between ideology and material realities. As a fiction writer, her work has been published in Phantom Drift, Kaleidotrope, and On Spec, among other venues. Her debut novel, After the Dragons, came out with Stelliform Press in 2021.