Review of “The Conquest of Gola” and Other Stories by Leslie F. Stone

Review of “The Conquest of Gola” and Other Stories by Leslie F. Stone

Sue Smith

Weinbaum, Batya, editor. “The Conquest of Gola”: and Other Stories by Leslie F. Stone. JustFiction, 2021.

In her edition of “The Conquest of Gola” and Other Stories, Batya Weinbaum convincingly argues for a closer critical evaluation of the work of Leslie F. Stone, a Jewish-American woman author who wrote during science fiction’s pulp and golden ages. In brief, Weinbaum’s intent is to highlight Stone’s contributions to science fiction written from a Jewish female perspective and understood from within the context of 1930s America. According to Weinbaum, the value of exploring Stone’s work in this period is to acknowledge and appreciate her unspoken political view and desire for a more inclusive world. For Weinbaum, Stone’s political outlook can be found in her science fiction work in a subtext of race and gender that presents a complex negotiation between insider-outsider identities vying for acceptance and ultimately, assimilation. This recurring theme in Stone’s work, according to Weinbaum, presents the plight of the Jewish immigrant in alien form at a time when Jews were persecuted and viewed with suspicion in America. As Weinbaum argues, sensitive to the Jewish predicament, the key theme in Stone’s stories is the Jewish desire for Americanization, a goal pursued by both first- and second-generation Jews.

To give an overview of the collection, the edition begins with a preface, an introduction and five main stories, which are bookended by two short pieces of writing. The first is titled “Letters of the Twenty Fourth Century” (1929) and the second is the appendix, which is titled, “Day of the Pulps” (1997). To give a brief overview of these works, “Letters of the Twenty Fourth Century” features a male narrator who produces an up-beat letter to a friend about life in a bright new technological future. “Day of the Pulps” is Stone herself addressing a contemporary readership in 1997. In this address, Stone provides commentary about her writing career during the 1930s alongside her expressed desire to restart her career in later years. In a more sombre tone, Stone also includes in her discussion the reason for exiting science fiction at the end of World War II. As Weinbaum points out in her comment on the final piece, it was Stone’s Jewish beliefs in Kaballahism, in which words are believed to give life to what they describe, that brought Stone to the idea that it was her writing of science fiction that contributed to America’s decision to use nuclear weapons to end the conflict with Japan.

Situated between Stone’s initial optimism for the future and final dismay at the technological turn in WWII are the five main stories that showcase her utopian ideas of acceptance and the assimilation of diverse populations. At the start of each story, there is Weinbaum’s supporting explanation of cultural trends in science fiction alongside the social and historical events at the time, which help to foreground the relevance of Stone’s work. To sum up briefly: the five main stories are in chronological order and map out Stone’s science fiction that covers common themes of evolution, eugenics, sex, and race by using the trope of the human-alien encounter. In “Men with Wings” (1929) and “Women with Wings” (1930), two stories that focus on genetic engineering and the evolution of the human species, humans have progressed by evolving and developing the ability to fly. To ensure their survival, social progress depends on cooperation between the sexes by accepting human and alien alike in order to create a single species of winged human founded on a mutual respect for species diversity and racial difference. In contrast, “The Conquest of Gola” (1931) presents a battle-of-the-sexes scenario as an all-female society fights off a male invasion. “The Conquest of Gola” explores the limitations placed on women by an American patriarchal society as formidable female aliens refuse to be assimilated by their male counterparts. Instead, they, as a species, remain intact, and with their knowledge of science, keep their power and independence. Finally, in “The Fall of Mercury” (1935) and “The Human Pets on Mars” (1936), Stone turns to the tale of the space pioneer as humans from Earth meet aliens on Mercury and Mars. Again, it is the human-alien that Weinbaum argues reflects anxiety felt at the time over the Jewish presence in America. While the key idea in these stories is to promote similarities between species in order to establish a common ground in which to gain acceptance and find agreement, it is, as in “The Fall of Mercury,” the niggling persistence of the “foreign body” that threatens the stability of identity in these opposing societies.

Weinbaum’s academic quest to collect Stone’s writing into a single volume is motivated by a desire to let the voice of a Jewish-American woman writer be heard. Indeed, Weinbaum’s passion and choice to focus on Stone is a worthy project offering insight into one woman’s response to the precarity of gender and race between the two World Wars. Although Weinbaum makes it clear that Stone often wrote from the perspective of a male character, Weinbaum’s insight into cultural trends in science fiction, which she thoughtfully interweaves into the social and historical events of the time, provides a rich context within which to read Stone’s work from a Jewish feminist perspective.

Sue Smith has an interest in feminist science fiction with a focus on cyborgs, disability and gender. She has published articles on disability and cyborg fiction in FEMSPEC (2010), David Bolt’s edited book, Changing Social Attitudes Towards Disability (2014), BMJ: Medical Humanities (2016), Journal of Literary and Cultural Disabilities Studies (2017-2020); Journal of Transcultural Psychiatry (2020); and she has provided book reviews for a range of journals.

Review of The People’s Republic of Everything

Review of The People’s Republic of Everything

Sébastien Doubinsky

Mamatas, Nick. The People’s Republic of Everything. Tachyon Publications, 2018.

Nick Mamatas (born 1972) is an award-nominated American fantasy, horror and speculative fiction and non-fiction writer, known for his anarchist political commitment. His most well-know works are the novels Move Under Ground (2005), I am Providence (2016), Second Shooter (2021) and his non-fiction book, Starve Better: Surviving the Endless Horror of the Writing Life (2011).

The People’s Republic of Everything is his fourth short stories collection. It is comprised of 14 short stories and Under My Roof, a novella-length story. It draws upon multiple genres, from political steampunk (“Arbeitskraft”) to science fiction (“Walking with a Ghost”), social-realism (“North Shore Friday”) and dystopian fiction (“Under My Roof”). Although there is no real narrative nor thematic unity in the volume, Mamatas’s peculiar irony and political views can be seen as the red thread connecting the stories.

We can, however, loosely regroup them under three main categories: political, realistic and poetic. The works making up the first of these categories are “Arbeitskraft”, “The People’s Republic of Everything,” “The Glottal Stop,” “We Never Sleep,” and “Under My Roof.” Under the banner of “realistic” are “Tom Silex, Spirit Smasher,” “The Phylactery,” “North Shore Friday,” “A Howling Dog,” and “Lab Rat”. Finally, “Walking with a Ghost,” “The Great Armored Train,” “Slice of Life,” “The Spook School,” and “The Dreamer of the Day” form the poetic corpus.

The stories that are contained in the political category perfectly illustrate Nick Mamatas’s anarchistic views. “Arbeitsskraft,” for example, imagines Engels, Marx’s friend and co-author, as a Frankenstein-inspired steampunk character set on creating a collective, revolutionary mind based on dialectal materialism with the help of cyborg-like match girls. In the same manner, “We Never Sleep” features Rudolf Diesel, the inventor of the fuel bearing his name, as a crazy scientist living in an underground laboratory in a parallel world setting and creating a brand new ideology with the help of a pulp writer. In these stories, Mamatas uses his anarchist position to make fun of and criticize both capitalism’s and communism’s positivist ideology, putting them back-to-back in their dangerous delusion. With the novellaUnder My Roof”, Mamatas turns to a more Pynchonesque or Vonnegutian style of story, in which family man Daniel Weinberg builds a nuclear weapon in his basement with the help of his son and secedes from the United States by founding the free state of “Weinbergia.” Beyond the wacky humoristic narration, Mamatas tackles the notions of nation, freedom, and domestic politics in a way reminiscent of Hunter S. Thompson’s political writings.

The realistic stories uncover a lesser-known and more personal aspect of Mamatas’s narratives. Although they more or less belong to the noir, speculative fiction or weird horror genres, they stand out as being built on more personal aspects of Mamatas’s life. It is an interesting choice of works and it pushes the collection towards a fictional self-portrait of the author that we could definitely link with some Philip K. Dick’s works. “The Phylactery,” for instance, is based on Greek traditions and family anecdotes before moving into specific territory. It also gives the traditional Mamatas reader or a newcomer insight into how his fiction can be built on personal references and how it is transmogrified in the stories. Obvious non-genre references that come to mind are Jack Kerouac’s Dr. Sax, which is a pulp horror tale combined with childhood memories told in stream-of-consciousness style, or William S. Burroughs’s series of novels, which blend first-hand experiences and nightmarish visions. In that way, Mamatas seems to be continuing the Beat tradition and pointing at creative possibilities in their wake, an echo of what he did with his 2005 Beat and Cosmic Horror novel, Move Under Ground.

Finally, we come to a set of stories that moves away from classical genre definitions and that could fall into the “poetic” field in the largest sense possible. In “Walking with a Ghost”, the main character, Melanie, creates a virtual version of Lovecraft, which has become sentient. By blending the figure of the founder of cosmic horror into a speculative fiction A. I. narrative through anecdotes linked to Melanie’s life, Mamatas displaces the traditional tropes of horror and future technology to the periphery of the story, and chooses to focus instead on the strange relationship between his main character and Lovecraft, creating a strangely poetic moment. The same can be said of “The Great Armored Train”, in which Leon Trotsky is confronted by a supernatural phenomenon during the 1917 Russian Revolution, more precisely the ability of a young woman to transform into a lethal owl. Here, by leaving the truth undecided (is the transformation real, or, as Trotsky is convinced, just an illusion?), Mamatas manages to suspend the reader’s disbelief, which is one of the essences of poetry. Once again, Mamatas proves his reluctance as a writer to be easily categorized and the fact that a genre cannot be reduced to a list of tropes and styles.

If The People’s Republic of Everything is not a truly coherent collection, it will nonetheless be of interest to the classic Mamatas readers precisely because of its wide range of styles and stories and for any reader because of the multiple influences that one can find within or behind their constructions. It also questions many definitions of genres (from horror to speculative fiction, and even steampunk, for that matter), as it chooses to veer towards the literary instead of the usual plots and structures. Yevgueny Zamyatin, Karel Čapek, Kurt Vonnegut, Jack Kerouac and William Burroughs are more obvious references than, say, Michael Moorcock, H.P. Lovecraft, Philip K. Dick and Vernor Vinge. The People’s Republic of Everything is therefore a bit of a side-track in Nick Mamatas’ works, but interesting precisely because of its undefinable and undefining nature

Seb Doubinsky is a bilingual French dystopian writer and poet. He is the author of the City-States Cycle, comprising, among others, The Babylonian Trilogy, The Song Of Synth, Missing Signal, The Invisible, and Paperclip. Missing Signal, published by Meerkat Press, won the Bronze Foreword Reviews Award in the Best Science-Fiction Novel category in 2018. He lives in Denmark with his family and teaches literature, history and culture in the French department of Aarhus University.

Review of Hunting by Stars

Review of Hunting by Stars

Jeremy Carnes

Dimaline, Cherie. Hunting by Stars. Abrams, 2021.

Content Warning: This novel and review discuss Residential Schools in Canada, which may be distressing or triggering for some readers. It also contains some spoilers for The Marrow Thieves by Cherie Dimaline.

Hunting by Stars is the highly anticipated follow up to Cherie Dimeline’s (Métis) 2017 novel The Marrow Thieves. Both novels tell the story of a dystopian Canada after people lose the ability to dream. A lack of dreams eventually leads to a lack of sleep and, by extension, a fundamentally changed society. However, in the midst of collapse, settlers in Canada learn that Indigenous people are still actively dreaming; in an effort to determine why Indigenous peoples still have access to their dreams, the Canadian government develops centers to imprison, study, and experiment on Indigenous individuals. The system is based on the residential schools common in the 19th and 20th centuries, where Indigenous youth were separated from their communities and cultures, had their hair cut, and were violently “educated” according to Western cultural standards. In fact, the Native characters throughout both books refer to each of these centers as schools; some of them were built atop the bones of the old residential schools, themselves covering the bones of Indigenous youths. Settler society and systems of power repeat themselves again.

While The Marrow Thieves introduces its readers to a cadre of characters that comprise a found family as they run from recruiters, soldiers sent to capture Indigenous people to take them to the schools, Hunting by Stars focuses more on the violent settler system itself. In many ways, this is a book about the ways settler colonial education extends tendrils into young Indigenous minds in an effort to drive out their communities and cultural ontologies. Of course, it is equally about the violence enacted upon Indigenous peoples in general to extract seemingly necessary resources, in this case dreams.

In The Marrow Thieves, readers follow Frenchie, a Métis teenager, as he watches his brother get kidnapped by recruiters. That same brother, Mitch, returns in Hunting by Stars as a brainwashed worker for the settlers in the schools. As Frenchie continues to resist the violent invasions into his mind and body, Mitch continually reminds him of the ways that the school’s program helped him and how it will help Frenchie and others. After all, as Mitch admits, it’s better to be working for the schools than to be killed in them. Throughout the novel, Frenchie must toe the line between working for the schools as an act and becoming conditioned to believe the worst in his communities because of the school’s violent indoctrination, a balancing act made poignant by his found family outside the school and his brother inside urging him toward assimilation.

The school, the stand-in for the systemic oppression of Indigenous communities, doles out violence again and again as the program works to keep “residents” calm and obedient. In some of the most difficult passages from either book, Hunting by Stars describes torture designed to claw into the psyche of “residents” and consume them from the inside out. As Frenchie undergoes much of this torture, his hopes and dreams, fears and desires are laid bare as he confronts the traumas he’s faced and the utter loneliness he is made to feel through complete isolation. The system and the individuals who design and run it understand that a central goal of the program must be driving a wedge between “residents” and their families and communities. Many of Frenchie’s strengths in The Marrow Thieves are found in his family; his weaknesses are exploited in Hunting by Stars when he is separated from them.

While Frenchie’s perspective was the sole one in The Marrow Thieves, Hunting by Stars cycles through the perspectives of various characters, many of whom readers already know. Miigwans (Miig), the stand-in father figure for Frenchie and his partner Isaac take the found family away from the recruiters to protect the others while Rose, Frenchie’s love interest, begins the journey to the nearest school to try to rescue Frenchie. For tension’s sake, she is accompanied by Derrick, another boy around her age who is also vying for her affections.

Thus, much like its predecessor, Hunting by Stars is a book about communal connection. It examines the search for connection against the power of huge systems: settler colonialism, capitalism, and nationalism. It explores the fallout of violently forced disconnection. In all of this, it never forgets that systems are maintained by people and people are blinded by systems. In as much as systems are maintained, they are often done so through a process of blinding: a skewing of knowledge or understanding, a cloaking of truth, a redirection of desire. Oppressed communities then come to serve the larger system that continually keeps them oppressed; this is most clear in the character of Mitch.

Throughout these broad conversations that examine the social systems dictating our lives, Hunting by Stars considers local levels of relationality and oppression. From alliances found in the most unexpected of places to the appropriation of Indigenous cultures by New Agism in the time of dreamlessness, Dimaline takes particular care to show that love and demoralization both come in the closest of spaces. She also makes sure that we continually remember that loss happens here as well–marking it as personal, bodily as much as it is communal and collective.

While this particular novel, and its predecessor, might see most use in Indigenous literature or science fiction courses, there is applicability broadly through the analogous ways this novel gestures toward the historical backdrop of settler colonialism in Canada and the United States. One of the best pedagogical applications lies in the central metaphor of the novel itself—residential schools in Canada. Both The Marrow Thieves and Hunting by Stars are young adult novels that circle around the generational trauma caused by the residential school system and the ways by which Western education has had deleterious effects on Indigenous communities broadly. From the specifics of the residential school system to the broader connections across settler colonial policies, Indigenous language revitalization, and communal ceremony and connection, Hunting by Stars could play a pivotal role in many different cultural or historical studies courses.

At its very foundation, then, Hunting by Stars is a book about resistance and remembering. As Miig notes, “They never win when we remember.” The act of remembering and connecting is both about resisting and building a world that looks better than the one that Frenchie, Rose, and the others are living in now. Centrally, the book returns to the responsibility of ancestors—those that came before and will come after. Dimaline returns to the central mantra: “Sometimes you risk everything for a life worth living, even if you’re not the one who’ll be alive to live it.” In the end, community, language, and land are what matter fundamentally.

Jeremy M. Carnes is a recent graduate from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Central Florida. He is working on his first book on comics by Indigenous creators and the affordances of comics as a visual medium for considering land-based practices by Indigenous communities. He is also co-editing a collection titled The Futures of Cartoons Past: The Cultural Politics of X-Men: The Animated Series with Nicholas E. Miller and Margaret Galvan. He is reviews editor for Studies in American Indian Literature.

Review of The Seep

Review of The Seep

Lucy Nield

Chana Porter. The Seep. Soho Press, 2020. Hardcover, 216 pg. $20.99. ISBN 978-1-6412-9-0869.

Chana Porter’s debut novel The Seep is a vibrant and colourful piece of fiction. Often called a Utopian novel, Porter’s science fiction explores the deepest depths of ‘being human,’ freedom, and what matters to the ‘individual.’ The Seep appear to be an alien hive-mind-esque species who slowly take over the world and use human beings as hosts. The world abruptly changes around the humans who choose to live through this invasion. Those who remain can either accept and embrace the Seep, fight against them, or escape to the Compounds which are void of the Seep’s influence. Those who welcome the Seep begin to change, resulting in the human condition becoming something malleable and unstable. Concepts of mortality, death, love, grief, and sadness all come as part of the package deal of ‘being human,’ but the Seep challenge this and strive to remove the more difficult human attributes from everyone they encounter. Porter’s almost phantasmagorical narrative explores humanity, loss and the ever-changing world in which we live in. In using the unusual guise of “The Softest invasion” by all-loving aliens who want to suffocate all pain and unhappiness out of the world, Porter forces the reader to confront the knowledge that mortality and grief are built into the very fabric of who we are (3). The Fantasy Hive rightly notes that Porter’s novel ‘marks the emergence of a crucial new voice in speculative fiction,’ as this striking novel delves deep into ‘what it means to be human.’ Porter certainly does this and more; through her exploration of humanity in her speculative fiction, she also reaches into the realms of the individual. From the marginalized, the silenced and the ignored, Porter offers every individual a voice that can be heard, leaving no one behind.

The novel is set slightly in the future, in a society not completely different from our own. Humans are concerned with longevity, relationships and affairs influenced by capitalism; the difference is that the Seep are here, and intend to stay, and so the world will never be the same. The novel begins by telling us that “The Seep had already infiltrated their city’s water supply. They were already compromised, already bodily hosts to our new friends” (9). We are introduced to our characters at a dinner party, because during the initial alien invasion “throwing a dinner party was all Trina and Deeba could think to do,” surrounding themselves with like-minded people and old friends to watch the apparent end of the world, as it was engulfed by the Seep (7).

Quickly, the novel has familiar echoes of other omnibenevolent-alien-invasion narratives. A distinct similarity unites the Seep of Porter’s novel with Yivo, a sentient tentacle monster from Futurama’s “The Beast of a Billion Backs” (2008). Yivo loves all humans and wants only love in return. Before contact, characters in the year 3,000 are terrified of Yivo, but once contact is made, all fear of the tentacle fades away, with love and unity in its place: “thou shalt love the tentacle.” This distinct change of attitude of the humans, towards the sentient species that has come to Earth, is also seen in The Seep: “Eventually, everyone understood that those who had already made contact with the aliens felt fine about the extraterrestrial invasion, while those who had not felt no shortage of panic, despair, rage, and powerlessness” (11).

The reaction to this abrupt attitude change indeed fuels several of the concerns that linger throughout the narrative, without any drastic crescendo. Concerns and issues flicker throughout this novel, such as societal constructs and ideology, freedom, ethics, theories of reality, and the trustworthiness of human perception. The whole novel flickers with uncanniness and uncertainties that help the narrative thrive and encourage you to push on through the unfamiliar territory. At the beginning of the novel, characters at Trina’s dinner party question life and the numbness of it all, leading Trina to question her own reality: “what did Trina believe in with total certainty? [..] what was more mutable than her own perceptions?” (7). There seems to be a thin layer of ideological suggestions painted throughout the novel’s pages, which add to the uncertainty and questionable sanity surrounding the behavior of everyone in the novel.

After several years of The Seep taking over, Trina is unhappy as everything is different. The Seep know this an constantly harass Trina, trying to get inside her to remove all the sadness, “We are revealing the sadness you carry around you like a coat, like a skin. Let us in, let us in, let us in…” (151). The world has completely changed; the Seep have removed war, famine, and disease. Capitalism has fallen. The Seep “took away money and illness, the sickness of the land, the poison in the water and the air,” and can provide humans with anything they desire (177). Now humans can do whatever they choose; they do not have to work and can choose longevity and immortality; once you have connected with the Seep death becomes “an opt-in procedure,” one that you can choose to participate in or not (44). Human experience has been augmented and manipulated by the Seep, into something distant and unrecognizable. The Seeped human experience has familiar elements of the intoxicated aesthetic quality found in Jeff Noon’s Vurt, in which humans long to remain in a drug-like state of adventure or euphoria brought on by Vurt-feathers. Individuals choose to drink Seeped punch and release Seep into the air to make their music more enjoyable, enter into euphoric and aggressive orgies, or change themselves somehow. Once connected with The Seep, humans can feel the pain of buildings of stone, can choose to grow antlers, or be young forever. But they can never, ever be alone.

Whilst many may call this text a Utopia, I would push to label this text, as Margaret Atwood might, as an Ustopia. As Atwood states, Ustopia is a combination of “utopia and dystopia—the imagined perfect society and its opposite—because […] each contains a latent version of the other. In addition to being, almost always, a mapped location, Ustopia is also a state of mind, as is every place in literature of whatever kind.” Atwood uses examples such as ‘Hell’ as a place and a concept in Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus, because “In literature, every landscape is a state of mind, but every state of mind can also be portrayed by a landscape. And so, it is with Ustopia.” Atwood’s definition of an Ustopia describes Porter’s novel appropriately due to the uncertainty within the novel and the clear and defined binaries we are confronted with throughout the text.

The uncertainty of the novel does not only refer to the Seep themselves, their agenda, and the dramatic changes society is embracing (or rejecting), but also the uncertainty of what is “real,” in many of the scenes. Often, it is uncertain whether the places Trina visits are a memory, artificial, or reality and many occurrences are described in such a drunken-dreamlike way it is difficult to know whether one is reading about a real-time event in a mapped location or being taken on a walk-through of Trina’s mind. The defined binaries I mention refer to the drastic attitude changes characters have, from mortal fear to a deep respect and love, calling the Seep “our greatest teachers” as the abuses of the Seep simultaneously occur (25). Some use the Seep knowledge for the good of mankind, such as in the medical field, whilst other’s use the Seep to excess, forcing groups of people into hordes of orgy-like frenzies or stealing other people’s faces and wearing them. Porter acknowledges that even in a utopian future swaddled by sentient and benevolent aliens, there will always be a darker, dystopian underbelly.

Whilst this novel is a speculative piece that focuses on pain, mortality, and grief as vital human attributes, Porter also explores the physicality of the human and individual perceptions of the human body. By centering human characters that desire to change their bodies or become something nonhuman altogether, the novel acknowledges that part of who we are is retained in the core of our bodies and trapped beneath our very skin: “Our bodies may be containers, but they still carry specific histories. And these histories are still meaningful. Of course, The Seep doesn’t understand that – they’re amorphous beings with no physical bodies!” (36).  Whilst this is acknowledged, there is also mixed attitudes surrounding identity and the body: “everyone who has been joined even once with The Seep knows that we’re all the same. We’re all of the same essences, all layers of identity are just that, layers, and you can play with them just as we play with our appearances…” (35). This attitude upsets Trina sometimes. As a Trans woman before the Seep, Trina had faced difficulties in her life trying to obtain the body she felt was truly hers, and now that people can change whatever they want with the Seep, she is not tempted to change again: “But Trina had labored for this body! She’d fought and kicked and clawed to have her insides match her outsides, and now people changed their faces as easily as getting a haircut” (145).

The novel explores and confronts these contemporary struggles and concepts of identity in a way that dramatically fuels the rest of the narrative, making the novel ‘Powerful, beautiful, moving and uncompromising’ (The Fantasy Hive). This novel is a haunting but mesmerizing take on the alien invasion and Utopian, or Ustopian, or Dystopian visions of Future Earth. Posthumanism drips off the page at every opportunity, but more than that the concept of the human is questioned, unpicked, pulled apart, then reconstructed again and again, because “With The Seep, anything is possible” (35).


Atwood, Margaret. “Road to Ustopia.” The Guardian, Accessed 11 March 2022.

Futurama. “The Beast of a Billion Backs”. Directed by Peter Avanzino, Rough Draft Studios, 2008.

Noon, Jeff. Vurt. Tor, 2014.

Thornton, Jonathan. “The Seep by Chana Porter.” The Fantasy Hive, Accessed 21 March 2022.

Lucy Nield is a PhD student and GTA in the Department of English Literature at the University of Liverpool. Her research interests include Dog-culture, animal studies, speculative fiction, posthumanism and anthropomorphism within Science Fiction. She is an organizer for the Current Research in Speculative Fiction conference at the University of Liverpool (@CRSFteam), co-editor for the Ariadnes Thread Journal (@Ariadnesthrd) and regular contributor to The Fantasy Hive (@TheFantasyHive). Lucy has also been published for fiction and poetry by University of Liverpool Press and Pandoras Box, and has been published in Foundation Science Fiction Review (2021) and SFRA Review (2019).

Review of Machine

Review of Machine

Ian Campbell

Elizabeth Bear. Machine. Saga Press, 2020. Trade paperback, 482 pg. $16.99. ISBN 978-1-5344-0302-4.

Elizabeth Bear, a master of the craft of SF, released Machine as the second novel in her White Space series. It is a direct follow-up to 2019’s Ancestral Night, also an excellent read: the events of Ancestral Night form part of the backdrop to Machine. The novel is a complex and sympathetic depiction of a seriously disabled person who is enabled to function at the much higher level she desires through the intervention of an empathetic social democratic government and technology developed by and among a diverse society. It is also a sustained critique of the utopian impulse, both directly and in its presentation of the conflict between an imperfect society still more utopian than our own and those whose wish to purify it puts that society at serious risk.

White Space is a universe in which humans crashed Earth’s ecology and their own society before learning to work together, whereupon they were contacted by the mostly benevolent and very diverse galactic society of the Synarche; after a few centuries, humanity has integrated into shared governance with other “syster” species and the advanced AIs that run starships and facilities. Machine takes as its setting the enormous, multispecies, multienvironment teaching hospital Core General; it is told from the perspective of Brookllyn “Llyn” Jens, who grew up on a backwater human planet to serve first as an officer in the Synarche’s law enforcement apparatus, then as an ER physician at Core General.

Llyn’s current job as the point person for a medical rescue team affiliated with the hospital leads her to a derelict human sublight generation ark, drifting in space far from where it should be and filled with the corpsicles of humans who fled Earth as things were collapsing, and thus represent the very bad past for Llyn. This encounter leads to the infection of Core General’s AIs with a virus; Llyn’s investigations lead her to discover that Core General is a corrupt institution that in a proudly egalitarian society allows wealthy individuals a form of immortality that crosses a real line in the Synarche, all in order to fund its services, including Llyn’s rescue team. Sorting out what is happening and how those she holds dear have manipulated her first into discovering the corruption, then having to work to ameliorate it is deeply wrenching for Llyn. She is a true believer in the benevolence of Core General and the Synarche, who have taken her from someone defined by her disability on a nasty backwater planet to someone everyone else regards as an action hero.

The plot is significantly more complicated than this, but Machine is well worth not further spoiling. Let us rather consider the novel’s presentation of history, disability and utopia. Llyn is pleased, and proud, and very vocal, about how the modern humanity that was able to solve most of its problems benefitted still more from contact with and integration into the Synarche. She frames this as the human species reaching “adulthood”:

Adulthood begins when you look at the mess you’ve made and realize that the common element in all the terrible things that have gone wrong in your life is you. The choices you have made; the shortcuts you have taken; the times you have been lazy or selfish or not taken steps to mitigate damage; or have neglected to care for the community. As a species, the immature decisions we made contributed to the collapse of our own population and the radical alteration of our biosphere. Running away to space at sublight speeds was a desperate move. It made more sense and was more sustainable in the long run to fix the evolutionary issues in our own psyches that led us into irrational, hierarchal, and self-destructive choice? (131)

The metaphor here is to compare an individual’s development to a society’s; the estrangement is of course to cast our own society as children, the implicit defining feature of which is to be so psychically damaged as to take shortcuts, or to neglect to care for the community. Llyn grew up, and became an adult and a self-admittedly very bad parent, in a society she considers not fully adult; she underwent therapy/medication, which Machine refers to as “rightminding”, to rid herself of selfish tendencies. Like most human adults in the Synarche, Llyn also has a “fox” or computer implanted and networked into her brain: at moments of high anxiety, she or her ship AI use the fox to moderate her brain chemistry. It is clear from the text that “rightminding” can be coercive and is widely used as a means of disciplining those deemed too selfish or who damage the community; it is less clear whether direct manipulation of brain chemistry is similarly imposed. Llyn is a big fan of rightminding, and preaches its virtues just often enough to point to how we as readers ought to pay attention to just how much free will is involved in rightminding and being a part of the Synarche. Her own less-rightminded birth society was something she escaped as soon as she could; she is apprehensive because the corpsicles might exhibit all sorts of the behavior she calls “socipathological”, and intelligent enough to be amused by her own shock that the one thawed corpsicle she spends meaningful time with turns out to exhibit nothing but communitarian, “adult” values when things become dire.

A primary reason Llyn is so enthusiastic about the Synarche is that it enables her. Llyn suffers from chronic pain and a never clearly defined autoimmune condition whose inflammatory response often nearly immobilizes her. She implies late in the text that her condition is hereditary, introduced into the human genome as one of many mostly idiopathic autoimmune conditions that sprung up in the wake of environmental catastrophe on Earth. Rightminding and tuning her brain chemistry help ameliorate, but never eliminate, her chronic pain, but the main gift of the Synarche is her exoskeleton. This is not a metal frame like the one Ripley puts on in Aliens, but rather a much more subtle assembly of nanotubes and the like: Llyn is of course hyperaware of the exoskeleton, but the text implies that someone unfamiliar with Llyn and viewing her while clothed might not know that she’s wearing it. With the exoskeleton, she can leap out of spaceships into the void and rescue the injured; without it, as happens once in the text when she outranges its battery life, even something as simple as walking can be fraught. From the perspective of the plot, Llyn’s disability is relevant only insofar as she loves the Synarche for providing her the means to become an action hero; otherwise, she is simply a disabled person who sometimes has to make time to tend to herself. It’s a complex and nuanced and sympathetic portrayal of a disabled person who is neither defined by her disability nor has to overcome or transcend it as a sort of personal growth: we can only hope that other writers of SF will look to Bear’s example as a model for disabled characters.

Llyn’s enthusiasm for the Synarche, and her despair and then determination when she finds it to be more corrupt than she’d believed, serves as the perspective for Bear’s estrangement of utopias and the utopian impulse. The Synarche is Bear’s own invention, but it’s also pretty clearly a critical read of Iain M. Banks’ “Culture” novels and the conditions of existence for a galaxy-spanning utopia: the hinge point here are the lovingly silly names the AI ships give themselves. The Culture is whatever “pan-human” might be; the Synarche contains alien species ranging from supercold methane breathers to the inhabitants of superhot Venus-like environments. The Culture is uniformly high-development and primarily based on enormous starships and created mini-Ringworlds; the Synarche has backwater planets that are clearly not economic or social utopias, and the particular sort of FTL technology it uses prevents ships from growing too large. Banks handwaves a great number of things to get where he wants to be; Bear interrogates how something like Core General might come to exist. Whereas Banks directly states in Consider Phlebas that resources are effectively unlimited in the Culture, Bear has resource allocation become a direct problem in Machine; due to a previous crisis, funds to Core General were cut before Llyn’s time.

The limitation of resources leads the AIs and systers who run Core General to cut corners, accepting an unpleasant tradeoff in return for the funds needed for its operation. Inequality persists in White Space: the very wealthy are treated to special privileges in a private wing of the hospital. Because this breach of ethics is intolerable to some, they engage in a grand conspiracy to expose it, manipulating Llyn to do some of their dirty work. To give more detail would again be to spoil a work I encourage you to read, but the crux of the story is whether Llyn will side with those who accept some corruption and those who want purity at any cost. The Culture novels handwave how they get to utopia because they are concerned with how utopia imposes itself upon others and what happens to people who are unhappy even within utopia. Bear, by contrast, is encouraging us to consider how the utopian impulse is itself as destructive as it can be constructive: the corruption at Core General doesn’t affect its ability to deliver services, and in fact even helps it to do so, while those who would expose that corruption in the name of true equality would impede its function. It’s a fast-paced, entertaining, fun and plausible read that has far more than it seems going on beneath its surface—and it’s got three different giant talking bugs.

Ian Campbell is the editor of SFRA Review.

Review of Flyaway

Review of Flyaway

Jeremy Brett

Kathleen Jennings. Flyaway., 2020. Hardcover. 175 pg. $19.99. ISBN 978-1-250-260049-9.

Author and illustrator Kathleen Jennings has accomplished something wonderful – at least to my American eyes – with her graceful, evocative novella Flyaway. In bringing a fairytale sensibility and ethos to her native Australia (the story is set in the Outback of western Queensland, or, as Jennings poetically opens, “somewhere between the Coral Sea and the Indian Ocean but on the way to nowhere, there was a district called – oh, let’s call it Inglewell.”), she demonstrates the generality of that sensibility (11). The lessons of fairytales, their tropes, their internal constructions, their stories of mysterious and profound transformation – these are the common property of humanity and know no geographical boundaries. We’ve seen, of course, fairytales before that take place both from and in settings far and away from the traditional woods of Mitteleuropa, but Flyaway beautifully reinforces the universality of the fairytale. Leaving aside the beauty of the writing, the novella would be a powerful resource for scholars looking to explore not only Australian fantasy but the commonalities of the fairytale genre as a whole.  

At once Jennings establishes a powerful, immediate sense of fantastical place and mood, with her indeterminate and airy description. Her opening chapter “All That Was” describes Inglewell, and its central town of Runagate, in terms of their distance, their ephemerality in the face of harsh reality, and their underlying endurance that betrays the existence of a more lasting order of things.

It was a fragile beauty: too east to bleach with dust and history, to dehydrate with heat,     rend with the retort of a shotgun or the strike of a bullbar, blind with sun on metal. Easy to turn from it, disgusted and afraid. But if you got out of a car to stretch your legs and instead were still, if you crouched down and waited, it would find you, nosing among the grass like the breeze. The light and loveliness would get into your bones, into your veins. It would beat in your blood like drumming in the ground.

Memory seeped and frayed there, where ghosts stood silent by fenceposts. (12-13)

And the story is deeply rooted in the slipperiness of memory. The novella’s protagonist is young Bettina Scott, troubled by her inability to recollect key elements of her past, including the whereabouts of her missing father and brothers. Her fellow Runagate denizens (who are rife with suspicions and hatreds about one another’s families) seem to know more about Tina’s life and past than she does. There is a Gothic horror-style unease in Tina’s memory gaps, especially when combined with her mother’s unnerving need for reassurances about every aspect of their lives. Something is clearly askew, not right, not the way things are supposed to be. And so, Tina embarks on a quest of sorts, complete with companions, visits to mysterious places, and interwoven stories. As she notes, “It could be my dad, I thought, rustily – I’d so carefully not thought that. If all those stories mean anything, they mean sometimes people do just disappear. And maybe they can be found” (121).’

Along with the unreliability of memory comes the exploration of loss. Things and people go missing all the time in Flyaway, despite attempts to bind them. A repeating theme is Tina’s friend/enemy Gary Damson, who is also seeking to solve the mysteries of various disappearances and whose family builds fences in the district. The Damsons are concerned with maintaining order and balance in the face of wildness: his family is one of the ones who “know what’s going one…It’s what my gran says. We’re charged with keeping things on an even keel” (161). In the most dramatic instance, an entire school in the town of Woodwild vanishes forever beneath creeping lantern-bush, taking with it most of the town’s children in an Australian Outback turn on the Pied Piper tale. Order and civilization (and memories) fall beneath the power of mystery and disorder and loss.

The world forgot we’d ever had a school. In Woodwild, it felt as if the vines had grown inside our skulls. We’d never get past them. No kiss could fix that…The police investigated. They went into steep country and gullies. They found dying stands of lantern-bush, sheep bones, cattle bones, rusting carcasses of cars. They went right into the caves. I heard a rumor they found a cavern nearly beneath the school, the stone white in light filtering down through knotted roots. Nothing else (113).

In the end, however, the encroaching power of loss is belied by liberation. As in the old stories, the quest is completed, the riddle solved, the lost found. (Not to give away the ending but suffice it to say that the novella’s title becomes quite literal by the book’s conclusion.) This is all too appropriate, given Flyaway’s deep immersion in the power and impact that stories can have. Stories can be embodied and given life – literally here, this being a fairytale. “The schoolchildren of Woodwild, David Spicer, Linda Aberdeen, all who went before and alongside and after them: they are trapped by the stories that made them and dragged them in; they are caught and held by town and road and lantern-bush and trees.” (158) Jennings artfully weaves the power of story into the whole of the novella: people tell stories, people become stories, people’s absences form their own stories in turn, and so on. Stories reflect the mysteries and randomness we encounter in our lives, and in Jennings’ tale, they often cause them as well. The true heart of Flyaway comes about halfway through the book, when that view is explicitly noted. It gives additional weight to Flyaway’s value as a profound work of modern folklore that carries on the hallowed fairytale tradition of exploring the human experience through the fantastical lens of story.

“There aren’t any stories except the ones we bring with us,” Trish Aberdeen used to say, stamping into the long grass after school, as if she wanted it to be true (as if she didn’t keep thinking she’d seen wolves and tigers stalking her in the scrub). Gary Damson, who knew better, who suspected Trish knew better too, would hold his tongue.

Because even if she were right, something had to happen to all the stories no one wanted. Histories and memories that had been taken into the trees, beyond the fences and roads – those seams of the world from which reason and civilization leak – and abandoned.

They must have outnumbered all the living populations of Inglewell. Stories that had belonged to the people who lived there before the Spicers established Runagate Station…. Battles, massacres, murder; bushrangers and lonely revenge; tales of whose last stand was on this knob of land, of what will catch the toes of children swimming unattended, of witches in the scrub waiting for the unwary, of loping beats and whispering megarrities. Then there were the stories of those who had simply…gone. (48-49)

Jeremy Brett is an Associate Professor at Cushing Memorial Library & Archives, where he is both Processing Archivist and the Curator of the Science Fiction & Fantasy Research Collection. He has also worked at the University of Iowa, the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, the National Archives and Records Administration-Pacific Region, and the Wisconsin Historical Society. He received his MLS and his MA in History from the University of Maryland – College Park in 1999. His professional interests include science fiction, fan studies, and the intersection of libraries and social justice.

Review of Fauna

Review of Fauna

Susanne Roesner

Vadnais, Christiane. Fauna. Translated by Pablo Strauss, Coach House Books, 2020.

Christiane Vadnais’ Fauna draws the reader into a near-future scenario where humanity has changed the planet so drastically and irrevocably that unexpected variations are occurring more and more throughout the animal and plant world. Through evocative and creative language, masterfully translated by Pablo Strauss from French into English, the text pulls the reader into a nightmare world, hauntingly different and yet strangely familiar. In ten short chapters, Vadnais’ various protagonists try to make sense of this transforming and often hostile environment. Amidst them is Laura, a biologist attempting to determine the origin of the profound changes she observes around and inside of her. Parts of the earth have been flooded, altering ecosystems which take on a wilder, more dangerous shape. “Don’t swim in the evening, the villagers say. The lights dancing like a bonfire are far too alluring, drawing the lake monsters from all sides” (27). The story may be set in the future, yet humanity seems to have been set back into a darker past, where nightmarish beasts roam the darkness. On four black pages inserted throughout the book Vadnais writes about the night, about dreams, imagination, and fear. She sets the underlying tone for her book already on the first black pages when she tells her audience that “To dream of a future where our species survives, we must get back to wilder times” (9). As Vadnais’ protagonists struggle to comprehend their new reality and fight for survival, the reader soon learns what exactly these “wilder times” could look like.

Ecological discourses and the examination of human-nature relationships are central to science fiction literature, either in the world-building of other planets such as in Frank Herbert’s Dune (1965) and Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Dispossessed (1974), or in near-future scenarios of planet earth such as H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine (1895) and Kim Stanley Robinson’s New York 2140 (2017). While Wells explores the question of human evolution in a distant future, Robinson’s New York 2140 investigates humanity’s adaptation and technology in a post-apocalyptic world. Vadnais’ Fauna combines both aspects, the ecological discourse of evolution and the apocalyptic setting, to pose questions about human evolution in an environment transformed by anthropogenic climate change.

Like many current climate fiction novels, Fauna contemplates the question of humanity’s survival in relation to the aftermath of a drastically changed climate caused by human interference. However, unlike Robinson’s New York 2140, where the focus lies on various characters and their everyday business as well as adaptive technology in a now flooded city, in Fauna the human protagonists appear small and insignificant amongst the overwhelming forces of nature. Futuristic technology is absent. Instead, not elevated by superior technology, the characters in Fauna are presented as simply part of the mutating fauna on earth. Visiting a permanent settlement on the water, Laura meets one of the residents and observes his changed skin: “Curiosity makes her linger over the hard, scaly skin, a patch that grows larger by the day, increasing Thomas’s likeness to the other lake creatures” (33). Fauna explores the changing environment caused by human intrusion but now spiralling outside of humanity’s control: a parasite has emerged, infecting animals through the water and triggering rapid transformations. As the infection spreads, it is only a matter of time until all of humankind too will be affected irreversibly. The interconnectedness between humanity and nature is highlighted: as one changes, the other is bound to change as well.

Due to vivid descriptions in Fauna, nature takes on a life of its own, at times invasive, fierce, and almost like an alien foe. “Under a toxic green moon, the mist crawls along the centre of the zoo’s deserted walkways until it reaches the strand of trees and wraps itself around the trunks” (39). The intrusive quality of the fog foreshadows the threat that a changing environment can pose, not only to our surrounding flora and fauna, but to human existence itself. By further blurring the clear borders between animals and humans, Vadnais’ novel evokes a similar feel to the 2018 film Annihilation directed by Alex Garland, where an alien presence distorts the area around itself, causing all lifeforms in its vicinity to transform and merge in beautiful and horrible ways. Even though the transformations in Fauna are not caused by alien interference, the novel still poses questions central to science fiction literature: What does it mean to be human? And how do we imagine the future survival of our species?

Vadnais’ protagonists struggle with the profound transformation of their environment and are, like this environment, shaped by these changes. Fauna invites the reader to look inwards. Instead of asking questions of society’s large-scale adaptation to climate change, the audience is left to contemplate adaptation on a cellular level. How fast can evolution happen? How much can we transform and still be human? Fauna can be seen as a warning, showing in vivid details and through haunting language that humans are part of nature—vulnerable, fleeting, and wild—and that, as we change nature around us, we will inevitably change with it.

Susanne Roesner is a PhD student in Creative Writing at Swansea University in Wales. With her PhD project she explores current technological innovations regarding the climate change crisis to imagine and convey optimistic paths into the future. The insights she gained while conducting research for her master thesis on knowledge and worldview in Indigenous Australian storytelling inspired her to further investigate human-nature relationships. Susanne is interested in all kinds of positive visions of the future, be it in Solarpunk fiction, Climate fiction, or Indigenous Futurism.

Review of Sorrowland

Review of Sorrowland

Julia Lindsay

Solomon, Rivers. Sorrowland. MCD Books, 2021. 368 pp, $14.45, ISBN 9780374266776.

In relation to both gender and genre, Rivers Solomon pushes boundaries. Their first novel, An Unkindness of Ghosts (2017), launched them into the literary scene and was shortlisted for several awards. Solomon maintains Unkindness’s queer and Afrofuturist themes in their subsequent novels and continuously engages with African American history. Sorrowland (2021), Solomon’s third and most recent novel, features a cast of queer characters, including intersex protagonist, Vern. The novel follows Vern as she evades a Black separatist commune-turned-religious-cult, the Blessed Acres of Cain, from which she has fled. In the first half of the novel, Vern hides from her pursuers in the woods of a speculative contemporary American South, an unconventional setting for the SF genre. The novel further toys with the reader’s generic expectations, employing tropes and figures traditionally associated with the gothic and the fantastic.

The novel is queer from the opening pages, as Vern gives birth to twins Howling and Feral and does not bother to look at Howling’s genitalia after birth (the sex of the babies is never revealed to the reader). She decides not to gender them, concluding that such matters are of no concern in the woods. Vern and the children’s relationship with the woods may trouble readers in the first half, as Solomon’s initial characterization could potentially stabilize the problematic nature/culture binary. However, the latter half of the novel, which follows Vern and the children after they leave the woods, complicates such a reading. As Vern and the children come into their own, she realizes the naivete of her escapism. Vern’s time in the compound and the years she and the children live in the woods, in fact, leads them to encounter the novel’s speculative United States as strangers. Solomon utilizes free indirect discourse and reading through Vern’s, and later Howling’s, perspectives defamiliarizes the novel’s setting, evoking the same sense of cognitive estrangement common to temporally or spatially distanced SF. 

Solomon uses gothic and fantastic conventions that are particularly associated with Southern and African American literature, continuing the push to open SF to the experiences and voices of authors whom the genre has excluded based on race and region. Further, Vern’s ambiguous references to “hauntings” and to a “fiend” stalking her in the opening scenes, evoking the gothic or fantastic, unmoor the reader, making it difficult to place the novel in place or time. These “hauntings” originate in Cainland and appear to follow Vern after her escape. For Vern, they materialize in human form, featuring both familiar and foreign faces, increasing in number and intensity as the plot unfolds.  The science fictional nature of Sorrowland is not confirmed until the latter third of the novel, a move that, while not unique to SF, sidesteps the norm and contributes to the novel’s interrogation of genre, particularly as it pertains to Black experience. Vern discovers that her hauntings, and the strange developments in her body that she begins to notice shortly after the birth of her children, are the result of a government conspiracy with Cainland at its center: Cainites are being used for medical experimentation. Joining the gothic/fantastic and science fiction through hauntings displaying the history of violence on black bodies highlights how these genres can both reflect and be limited by an antiblack culture.

Vern is forced out of the woods when the symptoms of this experimentation take a turn for the worse, making her fear she will die and leave her children abandoned as a rapidly developing exoskeleton leeches her body of energy. Once the novel moves out of the woods, the introduction of Gogo, a queer woman of Lakota descent, provides a welcome shift in plot and intensity, the novel’s underlying detective structure becoming more realized with Gogo taking on the role of co-investigator and love interest. Gogo identifies as winkte, a term from her Lakota heritage that is definitionally fluid, pushing against the binary constructs of gender and sexuality in the Anglo world as well as those in fundamentalist Cainland. Gogo enables Vern to not only become more comfortable with her sexuality but also to better understand her changing body.

Solomon thus forges a unique and fruitful link between the novel’s queer and posthumanist themes. Their inclusion of queer and intersex characters and of Black characters with albinism brings to the fore the many ways bodies naturally resist categorization, and this queer lens compliments the novel’s science fictional rendering of posthumanist perspectives. Together they undermine notions of fixity and autonomy and the naturalized, humanist hierarchy placing the human above the non-human. Solomon instead favors the cyborg, the porous being, the process of becoming, the mutual interpenetration of human and nonhuman nature, the rhizome. Vern refers to her developing exoskeleton as her “little passenger,” an echo of the language she uses to explain germs, viruses, and sickness to her children. Vern does not see her passenger as a separate entity threatening her bodily autonomy; rather, she sees it as an organism doing what it needs to do (the same way she views her body’s adaptation to it). Near the end of the novel, she acknowledges that her passenger has turned her into her “true self.” 

Sorrowland presents scholars with a case study of how queerness, Blackness, and science fiction intersect. The novelreframes African American history with science fictional tropes, like P Djèlí Clark’s Ring Shout (2020), where grave-robbing “night doctors” and Klansmen are likened to literal alien body snatchers, or Bill Campbell’s Koontown Killing Kaper (2013), which extrapolates from the government-made crack epidemic in a darkly funny monster-noir narrative. Foregrounding the incredibly science fictional nature of Black history and experience, Solomon draws a genealogy between the novel’s fictional experimentation and its historical precedents, referencing MKUltra, Project 112, Edgewood, and Tuskegee. These novels together ask: how fictional is science fiction? 

Themes such as trauma and collective memory connect Sorrowland with African American literary predecessors across genres, its spectral figures, of course, evoking Beloved (1987). However, Solomon moves beyond the trauma narrative, as these undead are neither psychological manifestations of trauma nor merely tragic figures. Because Vern’s passenger is a mycelium, she becomes part of a subterranean matrix, tied through the earth to the knowledge and experiences of the dead who have carried this fungus. 

These are not ghosts to be excised; they are part of an Afrofuturist-networked consciousness, inseparable and codetermining. Solomon‘s play with genre and history provides scholars with fruitful ground, highlighting how their science fictional fungus is just one iteration of this kind of Afrofuturist work. Drawing from and celebrating subversive and/or non-Western knowledges and technologies and connecting Black people across time and space through various engagements with collective memory sits at the core of the African American literary tradition. Sorrowland, as such, can serve as a point of departure in conversations about the ever-evolving definitions of Afrofuturism and SF. 

Review of Chosen Spirits/The City Inside

Review of Chosen Spirits/The City Inside

Ruchira Mandal

Chosen Spirits, by Samit Basu. Simon & Schuster, 2020. To be republished by Tor in 2022 as The City Inside. 256 pp. Price/ISBN yet to be established.

Chosen Spirits by Samit Basu is a novel set in the late 2020s in a New Delhi that still carries the scars of real, recent political violence, albeit hidden beneath the glib veneer of technological advancement and a plethora of distractions. Dubbed as a “capitalist technocrat’s wet-dream” (Deepanjana) by one reviewer, this near-future view of the city unsettles the present-day reader both by the familiarity of its history and the strangeness of its present.  The people now live under constant surveillance from their gadgets, houses, and even toothbrushes all watching and listening; they are distracted from dissent via the stories they are fed from their omnipresent screens. This distraction is primarily in the form of the new-age social media platform, the Flowverse, a cross between reality television and live-streaming. The Flowstars are the new celebrities/influencers of this era, streaming artificial, scripted stories about their lives, the content of which is pre-determined by their teams in accordance with the policies of their corporate bosses. It is not only the Flowverse, but also the actual reality of ordinary people that is largely controlled and curated by a combination of safety filter settings on the television channels, a firewall around the country’s internet, and the manipulation of information by the powers that be. As Nikhil, a potential investor, tells Indi, the Flowstar, “Bro, you have no idea who even runs the country…. It’s certainly not the dumbfucks on the hoardings” (Basu 106).

It is appropriate then, that the protagonist of this novel, Joey, holds the designation of a “reality-controller,” a professional image-builder and storyteller whose role it is to curate the feeds of Flowstars assigned to her. However, Joey’s own position as one of the objects of constant surveillance and her lack of control both over her own reality and over her Flowstars’ actions renders the job-title of “reality-controller” ironic. The opening sentence of the novel sets the mood for this world of mundane but sinister compliance: “Sometimes Joey feels like her whole life is a montage of randomly selected, algorithm-controlled surveillance-cam clips, mostly of her looking at screens or sitting glazed-eyed at meetings” (3). As a professional storyteller, Joey notes the lack of structure and story qualities in her own life, sometimes fantasizing herself as the star of those perfect montages she curates for her clients. In a world watched by some undefined, multi-entity Big Brother, life is a series of social media stories. While Orwell had the Thought Police, Basu’s characters are watched not only by their devices but also by their own bodies. Smart tattoos on their wrists can monitor their hormones and stress levels for the personal AI assistant called Narad, [1] who can order the coffeemaker to make coffee, order takeout, schedule a therapy session, and even send puppy gifs and loving emojis to their phones. Basu brings Orwellian dystopia and satire closer home with click-bait headlines that you may have read last week (Chattopadhyay). However, despite this omniscient surveillance, there are hints of an undercurrent of resistance. Surveillance cameras are mysteriously smashed and roadside kolams [2] with QR codes lead to secret protests with maximum bloodshed ratings.

Unlike many cyberpunk novels written by Western authors, Basu does not create a lone, male protagonist fighting the system. Rather, his protagonist, Joey, is a more relatable Indian, upper-middle-class woman, trying to do her job, look after her elderly parents, and survive without getting into trouble with the authorities. In creating an upper-middle class protagonist with a privileged social standing, Basu ensures that the readers are given entry into the world of the powerful while simultaneously sharing in her helplessness and insignificance. Rudra, the secondary protagonist and disfavored second son of a powerful family, is another character who functions as an observer of this world through all his cameras and VR sets. In his Dear Reader interview, the author declares that:

…this is a book about people who I might have known if they’d really existed, set in a world that’s pretty much identical to ours right now, and will be wholly so very soon. Which is why what the protagonists want is a normal, everyday life; peace, happiness, clarity — not adventure, not escape, not any form of saved or improved world; just the ability to cope with a regular day. (Deepanjana)

This is perhaps the reason why, unlike his earlier, more fantastical work such as the Gameworld trilogy, there is no grandstanding, saving-the-world scenario in Chosen Spirits. The protagonists of Gameworld learn to view all grand narratives with a degree of cynicism and irony, but they are nevertheless players with stakes in the game, rulers, powerful sorcerers, and prophesied heroes. In Chosen Spirits, the characters would simply like to get by without getting into trouble. Basu’s primary milieu is of “a middle-class family, complete with domestic help, facing the usual problems—ageing parents, a younger brother who isn’t ‘settled.’ Basu even posits a kind of ‘jugaadpunk’ [3] aesthetic in his depiction of the semi-formal cyberbazaars of Delhi” (Unudurti).

What makes Chosen Spirits specifically Indian and particularly disorienting is its rootedness in current Indian socio-political events. Basu wrote this novel in a milieu of protests relating to, among other issues,the Citizenship Amendment Act or CAA, which could compel citizens to prove their citizenship (The Hindu); the Farm Laws, which farmers allege would leave them without legal recourse against traders’ hoarding and arbitrary pricing (Chaba); and the attack on the students of Jawaharlal Nehru University (BBC News). More popularly known as JNU, the university has long been one of India’s premier educational institutions as well as a stronghold of Left-Wing student politics. In November 2019, an MP of the ruling party proposed that the university be closed for a period of two years “to curb the presence of antisocial elements” (Press Trust of India). In Chosen Spirits, we are casually informed that the mall selling the world’s largest air-conditioning machine has been built “over the ruins of what was once Delhi’s most prestigious post-grad university, demolished after three years of demonstrations, terror strikes and bloodshed the city pretends hard to forget” (Basu 122). Likewise, Shaheen Bagh, the hotbed of anti-CAA protests, “exists only in memory” (7) in the novel, with a new name that Joey refuses to learn. It is this near familiarity with the real world that paradoxically gives the novel its quality of displacement. As the author says, unlike classic sci-fi, there is “no central sci-fi or fantasy plotline or regular-physics-distortion in Chosen Spirits, so physical and digital objects, places, and character transformations based on both real (and imaginary near-future) historical events are where the dislocation from here and now comes from” (Deepanjana). Instead of taking a dive in an unspecified far future, Basu takes us on a ride through the dystopia of a possible near future, and the effect is both fascinating and discomfiting. In Joey’s world, our present has become ‘the Years Not To Be Discussed’ (Basu 14), a time when opinions could still be expressed before:

the Blasphemy laws in several states, … the mass de-citizenings, the voter-list erasures, the reeducation camps, the internet shutdowns, the news censors, the curfews, … data-driven home invasions… the missing person smart-scrolls on every lamp-post…. (15)

Joey’s parents, belonging to an older generation, continue to cling to a lingering faith in the idea of protests and standing up for what is right. But in a world where anyone from pest-control or app-based cleaning crews can plant molka cams in one’s kitchens and bathrooms and young girls may disappear a few days after attending a protest of the demolition of their schools (18), the individual has very little agency to do anything to change the state of things.

The ubiquitous surveillance technology described in the novel is very similar to an early 2000s Georgia Tech project called ‘Aware Home’ (Kidd 191-198), a “human-home symbiosis” consisting of a network of “context aware sensors” embedded in the house and wearable computers worn by the home’s occupants. The network of smart tattoos, personal AIs, smartphones and kitchen appliances in the houses of Joey or her parents in Chosen Spirits recalls this concept of ‘aware home.’ However, whereas the original intention of the scientists might have been optimistic and idealistic, the idea of a truly ‘aware’ house takes on a far more sinister connotation in Basu’s novel where the idiom about walls having ears comes true in the most literal and frightening sense. As Joey tries to explain to her uncomprehending parents, while one could still express one’s opinions in the good old days when surveillance was run by people, it was “your own house spying on you now” (Basu 16). While the scientists at Georgia Tech assumed that the knowledge produced by the new data systems would belong exclusively to the people who live in the house, the data in Chosen Spirits is subjected not just to government surveillance but also to corporate espionage. Shoshana Zuboff in her book The Age of Surveillance Capitalism discusses how this original benign idea might have influenced a present-day smart home appliance such as the Nest Thermostat, which uploads its personalized data to Google’s servers “to be shared with other smart devices, unnamed personnel, and third parties for the purposes of predictive analyses and sales to other unspecified parties” (Zuboff 6). The project, in the year 2000, “imagined a digital future that empowers individuals to lead more effective lives” (7). Writing in 2019, nearly two decades later, Zuboff observes how those inalienable rights to privacy and knowledge have given way to the age of “surveillance capitalism”, which “unilaterally claims human experience as free raw material for translation into behavioral data” (7). And writing just a year later in 2020, Basu predicts a future in which personal data is not simply sold for marketing purposes but is also monitored to ensure the maintenance of the status quo of inequality and injustices that allows for more profitable trade.

While Joey leaves for work from her posh gated community, the militia is busy herding out people in rags, possibly to some detention centre. She wonders if they have become non-citizens already or if they are going to lose their organs, but can’t voice any of her concerns because “she’ll hear they were illegal terrorists or Pakistani spies, and her concern will be noted in the Welfare Association’s ledgers, marking her out as a potential troublemaker” (Basu 27).  Meanwhile, a Singapore real estate tycoon advertises for partners for an organ-farm business and the debate on the news centers not around human trafficking and slavery, “but around the maximum allowable percentage of foreign ownership of these farms” (29). Farmer protest processions still happen, but in single file as they submit to face scans and searches through data implants installed on their necks (30). While a fraction of this makes its way to the Newsflow, real news is to be found in the gatherings of the powerful, as Rudra discovers during his father’s funeral by shadowing Chopra, an ‘access-caste’ elite, one of the people with access to people’s data and the means to use them (63). As Zuboff notes, “Surveillance capitalism’s actual customers are the enterprises that trade in its markets for future behaviour” (10). As Rudra learns from this gathering, there are new plans in place to implement a new system of social-credit ranking, an automated, algorithm-based system where the average citizen will be ranked according to “every transaction, every observed adherence to or violation of every unwritten rule, every movement, every word spoken or messaged, every act of consumption, participation or expressed emotion…” (Basu 64) to be filtered and categorized by their biometrics and their role in family and community against their optimum, ideal potential as a member of society. The resultant data will only be available to people like Chopra to be used while the ordinary citizens, thus judged, will never even know about it; “Surveillance capitalists know everything about us, whereas their operations are designed to be unknowable to us. They accumulate vast domains of new knowledge from us, but not for us” (Zuboff 11).

The surveillance capitalists in this new world continue to grab for even more control, not just for data but for the very identities of individuals. As Zuboff says, “the competitive dynamics of these new markets drive surveillance capitalists to acquire ever-more-predictive sources of behavioral surplus: our voices, personalities, and emotions. Eventually, surveillance capitalists discovered that the most-predictive behavioral data come from intervening in the state of play in order to nudge, coax, tune, and herd behaviour toward profitable outcomes” (8). In Chosen Spirits, Basu posits a future where faceless corporations not only control the social media content of the influencers but eventually control their digital identities—for all time—where this new digital icon/filmstar/influencer might become the face and voice of anything without the consent or even involvement of the actual individual. According to this estimate, in some undefined but not far off future, the individual may not even exist, and celebrities would be created from scratch, without the need to sign up an actual human being (Basu 115). This is the offer that is made by a potential investor to Indi and Joey, an offer they refuse at first, because in a world where every action performed by the body is recorded and measured, “talking is all we can do…” (116). Thus, digital expression via the Flowverse, however scripted, remains one of the last vestiges of freedom of expression, or an illusion of it at least. But the oligarchs in this world get what they want, and Indi is soon convinced into signing to save his career when a video-clip of him sexually assaulting a makeup-artist mysteriously finds its way to the feed of a rival Flowstar. In the ensuing damage-control measures, the issue of justice for the victim is of course buried.

Surveillance capitalism thus depends upon knowing and thereby shaping human behaviour towards goals that suit those in power. While Basu’s dystopian Delhi has neighborhood armies marching in jingoistic uniforms, simultaneously advertising vegetarian restaurants and flushing out undesirables, the real power of the state is exerted not via “armaments and armies” but “through the automated medium of an increasingly ubiquitous computational architecture of ‘smart’ networked devices, things, and spaces” (Zuboff 8). Thus, while Indi dreams of the poor rising like a zombie herd someday to overthrow the current order, Joey is aware of the difficulty of achieving that in a regime that has foreseen every possible means of insurrection and taken measures to prevent it.

Basu’s dystopian Delhi can be described as a cyberpunk cross between the Orwellian world of surveillance and Huxley’s Brave New World where instead of Soma, the people are drugged by the constant diversion of catchy, clickbait entertainment.  Moreover, this distraction is often a conscious and necessary choice in a world where “not looking away means seeing terrible things” (Basu 28). Early in the novel, Joey and her brother attempt to prevent their parents from having “a full-scale fight about the State of the Nation…. She barges in and makes the standard gestures—they stop immediately, and stare back at her with their usual mix of rage and shame” (14). The crisis is then more properly averted as Joey sets the television to a puppy adoption show, which acts as a ‘smart pacifier’ to distract the elderly from ranting about the government; “There will be no van full of murderers pulling up outside their house today” (16). When Tara, aspiring Flowstar, speaks of participating in protests as a student while promoting the supermarket built at the site of the former university, she manages to disturb the audience who would rather forget student protests when “the mall and the accompanying religious park… are an attempt at dazzling the city into distraction” (122). 

Even Joey, who is more adept than her parents at keeping her opinions unheard, and less tone-deaf than Tara, is often tormented by having “Real Thoughts” and must distract herself with the work of creating stories for her clients. A major theme of the novel therefore is that of storytelling and narratives. Chosen Spirits looks at how stories are constructed, which stories are told, and which ones are buried beneath the onslaught of relentless entertainment. While Joey selects the stories that might get maximum engagement from Indi’s followers, another slum not far from her upper-middle class, respectable neighborhood is being evacuated by the police and the builder-militia.

Although written from the perspectives of the upper-class elites of the city, the novel manages to highlight this clear line between the privileged and the poorer section of the population. Basu posits the ‘Chosen Spirits’ of the title as the privileged, ‘chosen’, conformist elites who have always been a part of the city’s top brass, “the chosen ones of the age” (Basu 1) mentioned in the Mir Taqi Mir poem used as an epigraph. In a private Twitter conversation, Basu states that the poem reflects “both the timeless nature of Delhi” as the city of the powerful and “the representative/popular/conformist nature of the workspace of the protagonists.”  Joey herself is aware of this “low-level court intrigue” (12) that makes her feel a little out-of-place amongst her Delhite friend circles despite belonging to the same social class. Although she has adapted herself to this new position of being in the surveillance state, this sense of discomfort never really dissipates, much like the constant itching of her smart tattoo. Similarly, the privileged may pretend that everything is perfect, protected as they are by their air-sealed, air-conditioned apartments and cars, but even for them stepping out on the streets entails packing essentials such as water bottles, smog masks, and pepper sprays. Even for the chosen ones, the problems of environmental pollution and social degeneration are hiding just around the corners, and neighborhoods must hire private militia (wearing patriotic uniforms with sponsorship logos in a beautiful marriage of jingoism with capitalism) to ensure that their ration of weekly drinking water is not raided by someone less fortunate.  This state of being is maintained by a combination of surveillance and the dissemination of too much information that drowns out news that matters, such as the new age slave-trades and environmental disasters.

Although the book, toward the latter part, does consider the possibility for change, Basu’s main focus is to dig into the mechanics of oppression, the way those in control silence or marginalise the “other”—whether it be Muslim, Dalit or LGBTQIA+ voices—by feeding an eager audience with spectacle and distraction. (Mond)

Flowstars are often willing participants in this circus of ‘spectacle and distraction.’ Indi may speak of uprisings and the freedom to use his own voice and Tara may speak of her struggles and trauma from participating in student protests in her hometown. Yet, in truth, they have very little agency or even intention beyond building their own careers. Even celebrities less selfish than Indi or Tara can do nothing to change this state of affairs. Joey has seen other reality controllers and Flowstars fade and disappear from the industry after being seen at protests. Even looking at inspiring photographs of protestors braving police brutality and fascist mobs across the world is of no help, if not downright dangerous as potential ID traps (Basu 28). This is in contrast to the Shaheen Bagh and Jantar Mantar protests, which Joey remembers as a time of hope, of people coming together from all walks of life for a common cause: “…they’d thought they were alone, that most people in the country had been swallowed up by a tide of bigotry and hate. They’d never been happier being proved wrong” (5). Those people from ‘the Years Not To Be Discussed’ were united by stories of faith against a common enemy, and as history will show, stories are important as tools that can both make or break a civilization.  As Yuval Noah Harari says in his famous work, “The ability to create an imagined reality out of words enabled large numbers of strangers to cooperate effectively…. Since large-scale human cooperation is based on myths, the way people cooperate can be altered by changing the myths- by telling different stories” (Harari, 36).

In the fictional near future of the late 2020s India, all possibilities of cooperation and collective protest have been nullified through a multiplicity of stories. As Nikhil tells Indi during their business meeting, “They wouldn’t know if there was another epidemic happening right now, or a genocide, or a civil war. Even if they knew, they wouldn’t know how to join it. They would have no idea what to do. They’re that easy to distract” (Basu 116). Unlike the protestors from the past, the oppressor in Chosen Spirits is faceless, even more so than Orwell’s Big Brother:

…it isn’t just the government snooping any more, but a peak-traffic cluster of corporations, other governments, religious bodies, cults, gangs, terrorists, hackers, sometimes other algorithms, watching you, measuring you, learning you, marking you down for spam or death. (Basu 16)

In an interesting conversation between Joey, Indi, and Nikhil where the latter proposes to make Indi a global icon in exchange for his digital identity, the reader is offered an insight into what it means to be an ‘influencer’ and the mechanics of garnering an audience in India and in the West. In this new age of ‘Cultural Warming,’ the digital identity of the icon can be constantly altered to stay relevant to public demand, becoming a film-star or spiritual healer or social justice activist as the need be. Whatever public dissatisfaction exists may be weeded out without causing any real impact: “The state funds and controls the resistance, so there’s no left or right, everything’s a distraction, everyone’s observed and under control” (Basu 120).

The real resistance in the novel is offered by tertiary figures who have learned to subvert the system to their benefits, sometimes using VR gaming platforms: DesiBryde, a radical porn-star who performs while wearing the masks of religious leaders, creating a Flowstream powerful enough to circumvent all culture-policing and censorship; E-Klav, a Banksy-like Dalit graffiti artist who has somehow managed to stay hidden while vandalizing the symbols of the establishment; and Zaria Salam, an investigative journalist who has managed to build up an online notoriety despite her videos disappearing off the Indian internet within seconds of release. There is also cyberbazaar, the market for pirate-tech run by working class people where Rudra and Zaria get their smart-tattoos removed when they go off-the-grid. At the end of the novel, Basu does not offer revolution, only the possibility of change through slow, long-term efforts as Desibryde and Joey begin to discuss the possibility of working together. This leaves the novel open for sequels, but also makes it more realistic. As history might prove, the mass uprising of the poor, as envisioned by Indi, rarely affects a sustainable shift in the dynamics of power imbalance, especially against an insidious, all-pervasive system. Basu thus creates a cautionary tale of a possible future, leaving us only with an outline of how to navigate it.


[1] Narad or Narada is a god-sage in Hindu mythology famous as a travelling musician and storyteller.

[2] Kolam is a form of traditional decorative art made of a series of dots joined by lines and loops that is drawn by using rice flour, generally seen during festivals and celebrations.

[3] Jugaad, a Hindi word meaning hack or makeshift solutions. Cyberbazaar in the novel is a market for pirate tech.


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

—. Personal Communication on Twitter. 8 July 2020.

BBC News. “JNU: Students across India Protest against Campus Attack.” BBC News, 6 Jan. 2020,

Chaba, Anju Agnihotri. “Explained: Point-by-Point, Why Farmers Still Oppose the Centre’s Proposals on Farm Laws.” The Indian Express, 16 Dec. 2020,’%20objection%3A%20%E2%80%9CThe%20Union,discontinue%20the%20subsidies%20to%20farmers.&text=Therefore%20the%20Modi%20government%20wants,farmers%20are%20opposing%20this%20move.

Chattopadhyay, Diyasree. “Samit Basu’s New Novel Looks at How Reality Is Shaped and What Humans Can Do about It.”, 9 May 2020,

“Citizenship Amendment Act.” The Hindu, 2021,

Deepanjana. “Of Choices and Chosen Spirits.” Dear Reader, 12 May 2020,

Mond, Ian. “Ian Mond Reviews Chosen Spirits by Samit Basu.” Locus Online, 4 Aug. 2020,

Harari, Yuval Noah. Sapiens. Vintage, 2015.

Huxley, Aldous Leonard. Brave New World. Kindle ed., 1932, Vintage, 1994.

Kidd, Cory D. et al., “The Aware Home: A Living Laboratory for Ubiquitous Computing Research.” Proceedings of the Second International Workshop on Cooperative Buildings, Integrating Information, Organization, and Architecture, CoBuild ’99, 1999, 191–98,

Orwell, George. 1984. Kindle ed., Secker & Warburg, 1949.

Press Trust of India. “JNU Should Be Shut for 2 Years, Renamed after Subhas Chandra Bose: Subramanian Swamy.” India Today, 26 Nov. 2019,

Unudurti, Jaideep. “Joey and the Guardians of the Data Galaxy: Review of Samit Basu’s ‘Chosen Spirits’.” The Hindu, 13 June 2020,

Zuboff, Shoshana. The Age of Surveillance Capitalism: The Fight for the Future at the New Frontier of Power. Kindle ed., Profile Books, 2019.

Review of His Master’s Voice and Return from the Stars

Review of His Master’s Voice and Return from the Stars

Jeremy Brett

His Master’s Voice. Translated by Michael Kandel. Forward by Seth Shostak. The MIT Press, 2020. Paperback. 259 pp. $17.95. ISBN 9780262538459.

Return from the Stars. Translated by Barbara Marszal and Frank Simpson. Forward by Simon Ings. The MIT Press, 2020. Paperback. 295 pp. $17.95. ISBN 9780262538480


MIT Press’s decision to reissue the translated works of the incomparable, singular cosmic visions of Stanislaw Lem in lovely paperback versions is fortunate indeed for readers of philosophical and satirical fiction. Lem is one of those relatively rare authors of both profound ideas and deep prose; he provides each subsequent reading generation with renewed consideration of the impacts of technology on society, the inexplicability and utter foreignness to humanity of alien intelligence, and the complexities inherent in communication both between humans and between humans and aliens. These are longstanding and important concerns in speculative fiction, and it is a tribute to Lem that he remains, after six decades, one of the preeminent voices asking the kinds of foundational human questions that go to the very heart of the speculative fiction enterprise.

All the more appropriate, then, that these works started being released last year in advance of the 2021 centennial of Lem’s birth; their reissue signals the perennial interest in Lem and his lasting value as a thoughtful writer whose works constitute a truly deep literary dive into humanity’s relationship to the rest of the universe. And small wonder that Lem’s native Poland has declared 2021 the “Year of Stanislaw Lem”: a year of celebrations and commemorations of Lem and his place in world literature. But Lem’s work, with his lasting curiosity about the universe and our place in it, transcends a mere year of remembrance and tribute: in the best traditions of fiction, he is an author for all years, and all time.

His Master’s Voice, first published in 1968 and translated into English in 1983 by Michael Kandel (the version reissued and reviewed here), is centered around two of Lem’s more common themes: the limits of science’s ability to understand the universe around us, and how those limits are reflected in our own behavior. Lem wrote the book during the early years of the mid-20th century worldwide search for extraterrestrial intelligence, and Voice is an artifact of that time when concerted efforts were being made to seek out evidence of alien life and ask serious questions about how we as a species would receive that evidence and interpret messages received. The novel is narrated by mathematician Peter Hogarth, a brilliant, caustic, and self-aware professor attached to a secret US government project seeking to decipher a signal from deep space that arrived on Earth carried by neutrinos. Voice is less a straight narrative and more an extended philosophical essay about humanity disguised as an exhaustive description of the His Master’s Voice Project by Hogarth.

It is also the story of a massive failure, as evidenced by failed hypotheses and theories that the official project record will never show and the public will never see: as Hogarth notes, “the history of His Master’s Voice is the tale of a defeat: of wrong turns that were not followed by a straightened path. Thus one should not wipe away the zigzags of our journey, because those zigzags are all that is left us” (35-36). Finally, it is a chronicle, ultimately, of human insignificance and imperfection. “We stood at the feet of a gigantic find, as unprepared, but also as sure of ourselves, as we could possibly be. We clambered up on it from every side, quickly, hungrily, and cleverly, with our time-honored skill, like ants. I was one of them. This is the story of an ant” (36). Ironically, it is that very imperfection that not only causes its failure (through a lack of suitable intellect) but jump-starts the project in the first place – the initial theory that captured neutrinos are carrying an alien signal is inspired by the inadvertent efforts of con artists and pseudoscientists. Hogarth posits that “[e]very great matter has, among its circumstances, some that are ludicrous or pitifully banal, which does not mean that they do not play an integral role. Ludicrousness, anyway, is a relative thing” (60). Our imperfections and the ironies inherent in human activity are baked right into all our endeavors, Hogarth (and Lem) supposes. Although he notes at one point that “I do not know what it was among the people of the Project that determined finally the Project’s fate” (72), it seems clear that it is something stemming from humanity’s fallible nature that does it.

Explanations for the source and purpose of the signal all fail in the absence of proof. Was it sent containing information for starting life? For building an efficient mechanism for processing information? As a precursor to an alien invasion of Earth? As a symbolic extended hand of friendship? Hogarth himself dismisses all these as the fevered dreams of science fiction and the truth of the signal as being ultimately unknowable. “All these hypotheses (and there were more) I considered not just wrong but ridiculous. In my opinion, the stellar code denoted neither a plasmic brain nor an informational machine nor an organism nor a spore, because the object it designated simply did not figure in the categories of our conceptualizations. It was the plan of a cathedral sent to australopithecines, a library opened to Neanderthals. In my opinion, the code was not intended for a civilization as low on the ladder of development as ours, and consequently we would not succeed in doing anything meaningful with it” (121-122).  For Hogarth, the Senders broadcast their signal too early in humanity’s evolution to be of any use. In addition to the sheer time gap between human and Sender civilization, the project would have been doomed because the definition of words and concepts and contexts would differ between the two so widely. (All that, even so, assumes that the signal is indeed artificial: one Project scientist, Lerner, presents a reasonable case that it is merely a natural phenomenon.) In the end, the Project and Earth both have failed what Hogarth calls “a test of cosmic—or at least more-than-terrestrial—universality” (41), suggesting that much time will still be needed to straddle the gaps between our knowledge and the nature of the wider universe. In this, His Master’s Voice is a pointed rejoinder to the old strand of optimism and scientific progress running through classic science fiction, which Lem himself so derided.

“I took nothing with me, not even a coat” (1).

So begins the wholly undramatic return to his home planet by Prometheus astronaut Hal Bregg, following a long mission of exploration to the star Fomalhaut, some 23 light years from Earth. He comes home to no parades, no media interviews, and no serious reintegration into a society that has long passed him by. (Thanks to time dilation, only a decade has passed for Bregg, while 127 years have gone by at home.) What follows is a perilous new form of navigation by Astronaut Bregg, through a completely altered social order in which his experiences and social mores have no place. 

1961 was a prolific year for Lem: in those 12 months he wrote three significant works – his nightmarish riff on Kafka, Memoirs Found in a Bathtub; probably his most famous work, the graceful Solaris; and finally, Return from the Stars. Return was translated into English in 1980 by Barbara Marszal and Frank Simpson, the edition featured here in this 2020 reissue. Of those three 1961 works, Return may be the least memorable, but it is still a very interesting, even poignant exploration of the relativity of the utopian concept. And there are moments of literary brilliance: I am always taken with the dizzying and disorienting mood of the first chapter, in which Bregg is emptied out back onto Earth and forced to weave his way through a vast, confusing, and alienating metropolis. His emotional burden is extreme: “[f]rom the very first moment I was invariably behind in everything that went on, and the constant effort to understand the simplest conversation or situation turned that tension into a feeling horribly like despair” (2). He sees things whose function he cannot uncover, geographies he cannot follow, behaviors he cannot decipher; all this, as Lem accelerates the pace and the mass of details, contributes to Bregg’s growing fear and sense of alienation (which the reader keenly feels as well). The contradiction between Bregg’s decade spent inside spacecraft with a small group of fellow crewmembers and his new life in a sprawling city of countless strangers creates a feeling of real unreality that never leaves the reader (and it is a literary precursor to the disorientation felt some years later by American soldiers returning home from Vietnam, thrown back into unfamiliar civilian life with little or no assistance after a year or more of intense tours of duty) in the course of the novel.

That feeling of unreality, of unease, sets Return apart as a utopian novel, wholly appropriate because the Earth to which Bregg has returned is a utopia from the inside, less so from Bregg’s 127 year-out of date viewpoint. Poverty on Earth is gone, war is gone. Resources appear to be unlimited and free to all. People are happy, and no one is being turned into food or killed at the age of 30 or relying for their good condition on the abuse of one single poor child. But… social stability relies on a process called ‘betrization’, a medical procedure performed universally across the globe that eliminates the psychological need or capacity for aggression. As a result, Bregg and his fellow returnees, who go unbetrized, find themselves even more isolated and foreign, in a world where the mission for which they gave years of their lives is no more than a footnote from Earth’s aggressive and assertive past. At one point in the novel, Bregg has a conversation with an aged doctor who notes:

“There is a great deal you do not understand, Bregg. If you intended to live like a monk for the remainder of your days, your ‘I don’t mind’ might be in order, but… the society to which you have returned is not enthusiastic about what you gave more than your life for… Apart from a handful of specialists, no one cares about it, Bregg. You know that?…

The society to which you have returned is stabilized. Life is tranquil. Do you understand? The romance of the early days of astronautics is gone… You are alone. A man cannot live alone. Your interests, the ones you have returned with, are an island in the sea of ignorance. I doubt if many people would want to hear what you could tell them” (75-76)

Bregg, still a man wracked by strong emotions (among them guilt for causing the death of a fellow crew member), is shocked to hear that, thanks to betrization, “everything is now lukewarm” (82) – no hatreds, but no passions; no danger, but no need for adventure; no risks, but no rewards for challenging risks; no struggles, but no strivings. It is a world that runs neither hot nor cold. Lem asks us to consider whether a utopia is truly so – even if want has been eliminated – if human nature has been neutered or cast out of society. And are those qualities that Bregg possesses and notes the absence of, truly desirable parts of ourselves? Do we need them to be truly human, else our existence is ultimately sterile? It is in these questions that Return from the Stars may be of particular interest to researchers of utopian studies or scholars of SF concerned with the exploration of the human condition.

            Bregg’s solution to his crisis is to flee the city, abduct a young woman named Eri (certainly today the most troubling portion of the novel), and wrestle with his emotions, eventually reuniting with several of his fellow returnees and questioning the importance of their deep space mission that ended up robbing them of their lives and identities. It is in the light of a utopia made for others that Bregg clearly comes to see, in the end, a true understanding of himself as a contradictory human being. As Simon Ings puts it in his helpful introduction to the novel, Return is less about a future Earth and more about the story of a single man. “About his impulse towards solitude and his need for company. About the nonheroic risk and beauty of exploration, and about what it means to carry wounds and beauty home to a world that does not care” (xii). These are facets of ourselves that so many of us wrestle with in the real, and Lem asks whether a society can deny space for those of us who think, and act, and feel differently and strongly, and whether that society can still be called a utopia.

Jeremy Brett is an Associate Professor at Cushing Memorial Library & Archives, Texas A&M University, where he is both Processing Archivist and the Curator of the Science Fiction & Fantasy Research Collection. He received his MLS and his MA in History from the University of Maryland – College Park in 1999. His professional interests include science fiction, fan studies, and the intersection of libraries and social justice..