Locating Blackness at the End of the World: N.K. Jemisin’s Broken Earth and the Black Anthropocene

SFRA Review, vol. 51, no. 3

Selected ICFA 2021 Papers

Locating Blackness at the End of the World: N.K. Jemisin’s Broken Earth and the Black Anthropocene

Misha Grifka Wander

The Anthropocene has been portrayed as a crisis that implicates the whole human race, threatening every person as well as their nonhuman ecological surrounds. However, several theorists have critiqued the totalizing nature of the Anthropocene. Axelle Karera writes that “the ‘political Anthropocene’ (if there is or ought to be one) will remain an impossibility until it is able to wrestle with the problem of black suffering,” (33) and further argues that theorists of the challenges facing the human race have yet to take into account the fact that Black and other marginalized peoples are often not counted as part of that human race. I believe both that Anthropocene ethics are important and also that Karera is right. As a first step toward reconciling these two beliefs, this paper will use N. K. Jemisin’s Broken Earth series as a speculative staging of the ethics involved when Blackness meets apocalyptic sensibilities.

This paper is intended to be an opening statement in a conversation that I believe is crucial for scholars of speculative fiction: that of speculative fiction’s ability to imagine possibilities for us that critique has yet to address, specifically with regards to climate change and the pressing problems of the Anthropocene. While I hope to contribute valuable ideas to this discussion, I am not a Black person, and I acknowledge the potential discomfort in my speaking on this topic. I am still going to do so, hoping that I have honored the topic and material as best I can, because I believe white people should be and are called to do anti-racist work. That being said, I acknowledge the possibility I have failed to do the material justice, for which I can only apologize and invite correction from other scholars.

My main critical conversant is a paper by the philosopher Axelle Karera called “Blackness and the Pitfalls of Anthropocene Ethics,” in which she critiques the theorists of Anthropocene ethics in light of their failure to acknowledge race. Calls for interconnectedness with the earth and urgent recognition of relationality fall flat when one realizes that white humans have failed to treat other humans as equals, much less the nonhumans that Anthropocene ethicists would have them attend to. The claim that the world is ending once again begs the question: Whose world? As Karera writes, in the academy “To deny the ‘unprecedented’ geological impact of humans’ force on nature is now practically untenable” (33), and yet, this apocalyptic sensibility fails, in Karera’s eyes, to produce a viable ethics or critical framework. She sums up, “In other words, the insidious problem of the Anthropocene is the generalized—perhaps even calculated—unwillingness to account for past and current imperial injustices, coupled with a rampant inability to imagine alternative futures outsides an apocalyptic state of emergency” and that “More specifically, I would like to argue that apocalyptic sensibilities which have significantly monopolized Anthropocenean discourses are powerful in disavowing and erasing racial antagonisms” (33). The apocalyptic sensibility is one in which we are told that unless we take drastic collective action, the human species will not survive, to say nothing of the countless other species which will die (and are already dying). “We” who are about to die must act together, with each other and with an awareness of the interconnected nature of human and nonhuman existence.

However, this “we” is suspect. Currently much of Anthropocenic ethical writing “establishes grievability—or the capacity (and the necessity) of mourning one’s own life—as the constitutive imperative that both forms the category of the human and ensures its survival .” (37) And yet if we accept that, what do we make of “those ungrievable lives for which even survival requires facing death. That is to say, those lives for which existence requires suicidal decisions such as deadly expeditions across the Mediterranean Sea, the Mexico-United States border, and the many ‘border-fortresses’ of the EU” (45)? Karera makes a powerful argument about the failure of Anthropocene ethics to incorporate the reality of racial violence and death, and therefore its failure to make its own argument for interdependency and species unity.

Karera’s argument is troubling for scholars of the Anthropocene such as myself. And yet, I think the concept of Anthropocene ethics can be rescued. Karera concludes that “In these conditions, therefore, we are left with what I would like to call here the potential of ‘speculative experimentations’ whereby one can experiment with ethically counterintuitive terms like the ‘non-relational’ in the attempt to renew the central tenets of our critical endeavors” (50). Speculative fiction provides a space to conduct ethical experiments, creating test conditions, so to speak, where responses to extreme ethical quandaries can be explored, tested, rejected, altered, and more. N. K. Jemisin’s Broken Earth series is rife with difficult ethical questions, and thus provides a perfect testing ground for a re-evaluation of Anthropocene ethics.

In the Broken Earth series, we find the complete shape of an apocalypse: the lead-up, the beginning, and the struggle to survive mid-disaster, as well as the new shape of the world after the total apocalypse is averted. The people who live in the world of the Stillness (the setting of Broken Earth) are quintessential Anthropocene subjects—living in an actively unfriendly environment, suffering under onslaughts from both nature and the political system. The apocalypse they are suffering is swifter than the one discussed in Anthropocene ethics, but nonetheless the parallels are striking, as no doubt Jemisin intended. While many of the people in the Stillness are described as Black-presenting, it is the orogenes who are the metaphor for Blackness. Their labor and lives are exploited to maintain the status quo and even possibility of life in the Stillness, through the enforced labor of the Fulcrum orogenes and the grotesque enslavement of the tortured orogenes inside the node stations. Yet, even though they are necessary, they are despised and subject to both lynching and judicial murder. Just as Karera acknowledges that American democracy is built on Black death, so too is the Sansed Empire of the Stillness built on orogene enslavement and death.

It might at first appear, then, that Alabaster’s choice to end the world is a kind of revenge, a strike back against the world that has treated him and his kind as so much chattel. But then we learn that it was in fact an attempt to fix the world, to bring back the moon and end the Fifth Seasons that necessitate orogenes’ powers in the first place. Karera characterizes the apocalyptic sensibility of the Anthropocene as one that erases “the racist origins of global warming” (38) and fails to imagine a new system of racial relations in the hereafter. Alabaster’s actions portray the apocalypse as, instead, a kind of political action, a destructive but potentially also corrective and renewing explosion of the old political order, in favor of a hoped-for better future. Of course, there are differences between the world of the Stillness and ours—no one person is causing anthropogenic climate change. But it does portray the possibility of apocalypse as a liberatory rupture from oppressive systems.

In fact, as we learn in the third book, it is a rejection of oppression that caused the Fifth Seasons in the first place. An earlier civilization had subjugated the original orogenes and tortured them to provide energy; when the tuners (who later become stone eaters) found this out, they destroyed the civilization in question rather than allow such injustice to continue. In the process, the Earth grew angry at the people who tried to manipulate it, fought back, and the moon was flung out of orbit, causing the Fifth Seasons and further angering the Earth. Unfortunately, while this struggle successfully erased one kind of oppression, it gave way to another, as the orogenes were used to control the geological chaos of the Fifth Seasons.

So then, what: are apocalypses liberatory? Are they doomed to re-create the world in all its oppression again? The callous use of the Earth, the torture and oppression of the orogenes; these crimes resonate through the history of the Stillness just as anti-Blackness resonates through our own history. In her review of the series, author Amal El-Mohtar writes: 

I am used to fantasy and science fiction […] setting up apocalypse as threat, cataclysmic change as something to be prevented at all cost. […] The unquestionable premise of this kind of setup is that the world is precious and worth saving. The Stone Sky rejects this out of hand. If the Broken Earth trilogy as a whole shows a world where cataclysm and upheaval is the norm, The Stone Sky interrogates what right worlds built on oppression and genocide have to exist.

El-Mohtar’s writing aligns with Karera’s in understanding apocalyptic themes as a plea to protect the status quo. I could not agree more that Jemisin rejects the right of genocidal worlds to exist. However, I would like to examine the ending of the series. In the end, Essun makes the ethical choice to let her daughter end the world rather than kill her own child. And yet her daughter, Nassun, is inspired by this choice to save the world after all. Saving the world, though, does not mean restoring it to the same world in which she grew up. Neither Essun nor Nassun want to continue the world as-is, but they both recognize the value of life-in-relation, the value of one’s own loved ones, the ethical weight of caring. Caring for others’ pain, for the injustices they were subjected to, leads those in the Stillness to end the world, but also to make sure that there is some kind of afterlife for the world, a chance to rebuild a different and better society.This, ultimately, is how I believe The Broken Earth can help resolve the problems Karera describes: the apocalypse should not usher in an urgent desire to protect the status quo, but rather introduces an explosive, liberatory understanding of the fact that the apocalypse represents an opportunity to remake the world. The apocalypse may end some worlds, without ending all life. The interconnected, relational Anthropocene ethics that Karera critiques are valuable, I believe, but only as a goalpost to strive for in remaking the world. They are speculative as well: we have seen the instantiation of none of them, not yet. To fully commit to an ethics of interconnected relationality would mean committing to an ethics of justice, would mean addressing environmental racism as part and parcel of any other environmental topic. In the shadow of an Anthropocenic apocalypse that threatens to end all life, let us instead work to end the world-as-is, and make a new world that fully recognizes the importance of justice to our interconnected existences. Otherwise we will simply preserve the existing world of oppression and, for marginalized peoples, relationality will only be “the condition for the possibility of their enslavement” (48).


El-Mohtar, Amal. “In ‘The Stone Sky’, Some Worlds Need to Burn.” NPR, 2017,  https://www.npr.org/2017/08/19/542469223/in-the-stone-sky-some-worlds-need-to-burn

Jemisin, N. K.  The Fifth Season. Orbit, 2015.

—–. The Obelisk Gate. Orbit, 2016.

—–. The Stone Sky. Orbit, 2017.Karera, Axelle. “Blackness and the Pitfalls of Anthropocene Ethics.” Critical Philosophy of Race, vol. 7, no. 1, 2019, pp, 32-56.

Misha Grifka Wander is a PhD candidate in the Ohio State University English department. Their major fields are video game studies, comics studies, and speculative fiction studies, using a ecocritical and queer lens. Other publications include an essay on sexism in speculative fiction genre divides (The New Americanist, Fall 2019), ecology in Skyrim (Being Dragonborn, 2021), and a forthcoming chapter on pronoun use in contemporary science fiction (The Routledge Companion to Gender in Science Fiction).

Against Man: Violence and the Vegetal in Han Kang’s The Vegetarian

SFRA Review, vol. 51, no. 3

Selected ICFA 2021 Papers

Against Man: Violence and the Vegetal in Han Kang’s The Vegetarian

Cynthia Zhang

Commonly marked as a horror novel, Han Kang’s The Vegetarian follows a simple premise: one day, after a series of bloody dreams, a woman named Yeong-hye stops eating meat. Yet despite the novel’s title, reminiscent as it is of such horror movies as The Ring or The Grudge, it is not vegetarianism but patriarchal violence that emerges as the true horror in The Vegetarian. Rather than accept her unorthodox but otherwise initially innocuous decision, Yeong-hye’s family members—in particular, her husband and her father—respond to her vegetarianism with intense and often violent censure. Previously seen by her husband as “completely unremarkable in every way,” Yeong-hye’s conversion towards vegetarianism marks an end to her previous “passive personality” as she begins to instead start asserting control over her own body (Kang 11). As the violent responses of Yeong-hye’s father and husband show, however, such attempts at autonomy are viewed as threats by patriarchal authorities and punished accordingly. 

At the same time that The Vegetarian can and has been read as an “indictment of the Korean patriarchy,” it is also crucial that Yeong-hye’s resistance to patriarchal violence takes the form of solidarity with non-human actors (Kang and Patrick). In an interview for Literary Hub, Kang acknowledges the feminist currents of The Vegetarian while also characterizing the novel as a mediation on her “long-lasting questions about the possibility/impossibility of innocence in this world” (Kang and Patrick). In this paper, I examine Yeong-hye’s vegetarianism as an act of resistance against not just patriarchal violence, but the violent logic of consumption more generally. Through allying herself with planthood, initially through choosing a purely plant-based diet and then later through rejecting consumption altogether in favor of “becoming” a plant, Yeong-hye signals her desire for a model of being that does not rely on the consumption of other bodies for its own survival. Yeong-hye’s resolutely human body, however, complicates a celebration of the vegetal as an alternative to human subjectivity as her attempts to become plantlike ultimately leave her near death. Despite this, The Vegetarian is not wholly nihilistic about the possibility of alternatives to systematic violence, and in Yeong-hye’s sister, In-hye, I read the possibility for another mode of being, one which acknowledges the impossibility of innocence while insisting on a commitment to coalitional politics. 

Part I: The Meat of the Issue

In examining Yeong-hye’s vegetarianism, it is necessary to first consider what meat means within The Vegetarian. For Yeong-hye’s family, eating meat is a natural behavior, and Yeong-hye’s new diet is consequently disconcerting because of its challenge to the norm. “‘It’s preposterous, everyone eats meat!’” Yeong-hye’s father exclaims during a family dinner (Kang 46). Similarly, when Yeong-hye and her husband attend a company dinner, Yeong-hye makes the other guests uncomfortable not because she challenges their eating habits, but because her vegetarianism implicitly offers an alternative to normative meat consumption. It is particularly telling, moreover, that the figures who most strongly police Yeong-hye’s eating habits are ones with strong ties to the established social order: Yeong-hye’s father is a decorated veteran while Mr. Cheong, her husband, is a decidedly archetypal office worker. That the most severe censure of Yeong-hye’s vegetarianism comes from such staunch representatives of the social order further emphasizes that “what matters is not vegetarianism but Yeong-hye’s difference from others” and the threat posed by that deviance (Lee 68).

If diet is one realm in which societal norms exercise control over bodies, it is far from the only one. As a woman, Yeong-hye suffers particularly gendered forms of violence: as a young girl, she is expected to bear her father’s paternal violence while as an adult, her status as a wife means she is expected to satisfy her husband’s alimentary and sexual needs regardless of whether she shares them. In a patriarchal society which views her body as the property of others, Yeong-hye’s vegetarianism becomes a way of asserting bodily autonomy. Previously the near perfect model of a docile Korean wife, Yeong-hye becomes unyielding when it comes to defending her right to vegetarianism. Following weeks of erratic behavior, Yeong-hye’s family confront her and attempt to alternatively bully and convince her into eating meat. Yet despite Yeong-hye’s weakened state, when she declares her refusal to comply, “[f]or the first time in a long while, her speech was clear and distinct” (Kang 45). Even in the midst of malnutrition and weeks of insomnia, Yeong-hye finds mental and physical strength in her right to vegetarianism, a right which also serves as a declaration of bodily autonomy.

Yet while Yeong-hye’s commitment to vegetarianism can easily be read as an assertion of bodily sovereignty, Yeong-hye herself does not make this connection and instead consistently links her vegetarianism to her dreams. As generations of psychoanalysts have established, dreams are a primary space where repressed memories and unconscious desires can take form. Yeong-hye’s blood-soaked dreams can thus be read as the return of the repressed, a way in which the bodies she has previously consumed “return as collectors of some unpaid symbolic debt” (Žižek 23). It is telling, then, that one of Yeong-hye’s most vivid dreams is a childhood memory of eating a dog that had bitten her. Prior to biting Yeong-hye, the dog is Whitey, a beloved presence whom “everyone in the had village always thought… could do no wrong” (Kang 49). After biting “the big man’s daughter,” however, Whitey becomes merely ‘the dog,’ a creature whose flesh, according to folkloric tradition, must be eaten for Yeong-hye’s wound to heal (49). To kill the dog, Yeong-hye’s father ties it to the back of a running motorcycle, forcing the animal to run to its death in an ordeal that is supposedly “a milder punishment” than flogging but which Kang describes in excruciating, nightmarish detail (49). While not directly responsible for the dog’s fate, Yeong-hye’s implication in its death is more direct and visceral than it would be with a fish or piece of pork bought from a grocery store, and thus her recollection of this childhood anecdote can be seen as a sign of her lingering guilt over her role in a violent system that preserves certain lives at the expense of others. 

Notably, the manner in which the dog’s death is arranged mirrors the operation of humanistic systems of sovereignty. As a companion animal, Whitey occupies a para-human space and is granted a para-selfhood, one which is accordingly stripped away when Whitey becomes ‘the dog’ and thus an entity which can be killed and eaten. Almost human yet indelibly animal, dogs represent a border space where selfhood is largely provisional. Such a space of precarious subjectivity is also the domain of traditionally Othered humans, and within The Vegetarian itself, Kang connects the practice of meat consumption to the legacies of patriarchy and colonialism. The first section of The Vegetarian, also called “The Vegetarian,” is narrated by Mr. Cheong, and throughout the sub-novella, he never refers to Yeong-hye by her name—she is only ever ‘my wife,’ a term which neatly condenses his understanding and expectations of her. Yeong-hye is his wife; therefore, she prepares meals for him, sees him off to work each day, and fulfills his sexual needs. When she ceases performing the last of these wifely duties, it is not long before Mr. Cheong’s frustration leads him to rape her in a scene he mentally compares to that of “a ‘comfort woman’ dragged in against her will” by “the Japanese soldier demanding her services” (38). 

The link between colonial violence and Yeong-hye’s plight are further underscored by the fact that Yeong-hye’s father, her first abuser, was a veteran of the Vietnam War, another colonial conflict in which South Korea fought on the side of former colonizers. As Rose Casey and other scholars have noted, Yeong-hye’s father is described as taking immense pride in his service, taking any opportunity to boast of his actions there: “I myself, in Vietnam… seven Vietcong…”  (Kang 38). Note how the enemy here is referred to as not men or soldiers, but simply ‘seven Vietcong.’ Just as renaming Whitey to ‘the dog’ makes it possible for a village to kill and eat a former beloved pet, referring to enemy soldiers as ‘seven Vietcong’ is a gesture that reduces the value of their lives and thus enables their death. Similar to how human sovereignty rests on the consumption of animal bodies, patriarchal subjects and colonial powers acquire sovereignty through the ‘consumption’ of female subjects and colonized countries. 

Considered alongside the other forms of violence present in her life, Yeong-hye’s turn towards the vegetal can be seen as her attempt to exit a model of sovereignty that demands consumption. In becoming vegetarian, Yeong-hye rejects the consumption of animal bodies; in becoming a plant, she rejects the consumption of any living bodies. Rather than being predicated on the domination of others, plants are self-contained and self-providing; through photosynthesis, they meet their own needs rather than relying on others. Upon first meeting Yeong-hye, In-hye’s husband describes his sister-in-law as “radiat[ing] energy, like a tree that grows in the wilderness, denuded and solitary,” and those tree-like qualities—self-sufficiency and lack of either excess or desire—are only intensified after Yeong-hye converts to vegetarianism (71). “[U]ncommonly hard and self-contained,” Yeong-hye post-vegetarianism is a subject who has exited an economy of desire that depends on consumption of the Other for its fulfilment (94). 

Yet for all the potential of the vegetal as an alternative form of subjectivity, one cannot escape the fact that by the end of The Vegetarian, Yeong-hye is physically near death. While death can be read as an ultimate rejection of human subjectivity, Kang herself has described The Vegetarian as a novel about “human violence and the (im)possibility of refusing it,” implying that for all that we are meant to sympathize with Yeong-hye, there is still something irrevocably quixotic and doomed about her philosophy (Kang and Patrick). Queer theorists such as Lee Edelman may read death as a refusal of normative values and systems, but in the final analysis, death is still death; it is not a mode for living in this world. Yeong-hye’s commitment to the vegetal may command our respect, but she does not serve as a model for future dwelling. For that, one is better served by examining Yeong-hye’s sister, In-hye.

Part II: Sibling Sympathies: In-hye and Vegetal Solidarity

As the narrator of the “Flaming Trees,” the third and final section of The Vegetarian, In-hye is positioned throughout as a counterpart to Yeong-hye. Despite not being close in age, the two sisters are often described in terms of their physical similarities, with both Mr. Cheong and In-hye’s husband commenting on their resemblance to each other. Beyond physical similarities, In-hye and Yeong-hye initially both adhere to standard expectations of good Korean wives; prior to the Yeong-hye’s conversion to vegetarianism, she is noted as being a “skilled cook” like her sister, with both women dutifully preparing their husbands a variety of meat-based dishes (Kang 42). When In-hye’s husband consistently prioritizes work over his family, In-hye never directly confronts him; similarly, pre-vegetarianism, Yeong-hye is the type of wife who dutifully irons her husband’s clothes and sees him to the door each morning. Despite these similarities, In-hye is consistently described as the more conventionally attractive of the two: while Yeong-hye is androgynous, In-hye has “larger and prettier” eyes and is generally “much more feminine” (35). In better conforming to societal standards of femininity, In-hye is marked as also better conforming to societal standards than her sister. As a diligent wife to her husband and a caring mother to Ji-woo, In-hye fits typical expectations of womanhood, while as the successful owner of her own cosmetics store, she exemplifies the self-determining liberal subject whose “innate strength of character” enables her “to make one’s own way in life” (145). 

Yet for all that In-hye is the more successful of the sisters, such success does not make her immune to patriarchal violence. While their father’s violence targeted Yeong-hye primarily, he does not shy from using physical discipline with his other daughter. Similarly, while In-hye’s husband is less demanding than her sister’s, he still expects sexual services from her, neither stopping nor caring when she starts crying during a sexual encounter. For all her outward accomplishments, In-hye is as much a victim of the patriarchy as Yeong-hye, and as her sister’s condition worsens, In-hye begins to consider the hollowness of her success: “She had never lived. Even as a child, as far back as she could remember, she had done nothing but endure” (167). As the stressors pile up on her, In-hye begins to be haunted by the same bloody dreams that tormented her sister, a sign that she too is vulnerable to the existential dilemmas that have led Yeong-hye to self-destruction. More so than any of the characters in The Vegetarian, In-hye understands her sister—and consequently, more than any of them, she is vulnerable to following in Yeong-hye’s steps. 

Ultimately, however, In-hye does not share her sister’s fate. Speaking on her intentions for the novel, Kang states that the novel’s ending image—one in which “In-hye stares fiercely at the trees” while she accompanies Yeong-hye in an ambulance—was intentionally chosen for its ambivalence (188). Even as In-hye searches for answers by studying the trees her sister seeks to emulate, her interrogation is an open-ended one: “Without start or finish, only struggling tenaciously with her open eyes, in the same form/way of “now” in our life” (Kang and Patrick). Like Yeong-hye, In-hye is acutely aware of the violence endemic to a system of humanist subjectivity; unlike her sister, however, In-hye does not accept vegetal sovereignty as an alternative to the liberal humanist subject. By acknowledging violence without fully renouncing humanity, In-hye can be seen as enacting what Julietta Singh would call the project of dehumanism. As a practice, dehumanism seeks “to dispossess oneself from the sovereignty of man [and] to refuse the anticolonial reach of becoming masterful human subjects” by making oneself vulnerable to the Other (Singh 157). Yet even as a project that encourages sympathy for both Othered humans and non-human actors, dehumanism remains a practice of “vital ambivalence,” one which “emphasizes, politicizes, and embraces the subject’s contradictions and slippages” (158). Just as In-hye’s gaze embraces the coexistence of beauty and violence in the world, the dehumanist subject is both altruistic and selfish, a wronged victim and a perpetrator of violence themselves. 

In its focus on ambivalence and refusal of innocence, dehumanism appears as a powerful alternative to both liberal humanist and vegetal conceptions of the subject. Rather than a vegetal form of sovereignty, I argue that dehumanism enacts what one could call vegetal solidarity. While vegetal sovereignty is represented by Yeong-hye’s attempt to literally become a plant, vegetal solidarity can be best found in In-hye’s relationship with her sister. As represented by Yeong-hye, vegetal sovereignty moves inwardly away from the world and seeks to erase the difference between self (Yeong-hye) and other (trees). By contrast, vegetal solidarity reaches outwards towards the world, operating via sympathy with radically different others rather than a totalizing empathy. In-hye may participate in her family’s disastrous intervention attempt, but she is also the only person who does not attempt to dissuade her sister from vegetarianism, instead focusing on how Yeong-hye should “draw up a proper, well-balanced meal plan” (Kang 43). While this advice remains a corrective injunction, In-hye remains the only member of her family who respects the essence of Yeong-hye’s decision to give up meat. When Yeong-hye’s complete rejection of food leaves her close to death, In-hye’s worry may tempt her “to force [Yeong-hye’s] mouth open” and shove food inside, but In-hye ultimately sides with her sister against psychiatric doctors who would use coercive violence to rescue her (160). In-hye may find her sister inscrutable, but she still cares for her, and in this care, one can see the coalitional promise of dehumanism: the promise of being sensitive to not only those beings similar to us, but also “those which we still imagine as radically distinct” from us (Singh 64).

In addition to extending outward, vegetal solidarity is also a relational practice that extends forward towards the future. While responsibility towards others also entails guilt over one’s failures to carry out one’s ethical duty to others, responsibility’s future-facing orientation is one which does not allow one to be caught in the mire of this guilt. Musing on the similarities between herself and her sister, In-hye concludes that it is her son, Ji-woo, and “the sense of responsibility she felt toward him” that ultimately anchors her to the world (Kang 173). Given that children are commonly figured as representatives of futurity, In-hye’s responsibility towards her son can also be read as a responsibility towards the future and the possibility of newer, kinder forms of existence. At the end of the novel, as the ambulance rushes Yeong-hye to the hospital, In-hye admits to her sister that she shares her bloody dreams. “[A]nd I could let myself dissolve into them, let them take me over… but surely the dream isn’t all there is? We have to wake up at some point, don’t we? Because…because then…” (187). Ambivalent and uncertain as they are, In-hye’s questions do not point to any concrete model of being that can supplant the liberal humanist subject and all its flaws. Yet in this same ambivalence and refusal of clear-cut answers, one can see glimpses of a mode of existence that neither repudiates nor resigns oneself to the world, but which rather aims to dwell imperfectly within it.


Casey, Rose. “Feminist Aesthetics in Han Kang’s The Vegetarian. American Comparative Literature Association, 10 March 2019, Georgetown University, Washington, D.C. Conference presentation.

Edelman, Lee. No Future: Queer Theory and the Death Drive. Duke University Press, 2004.

Kang, Han. The Vegetarian: A Novel. Translated by Deborah Smith. Hogarth, 2016.

Lee, Jihyun. (2017). “Debt, Payback, and the Sustainability through the Vegetal Imagination: Atwood’s Payback and Han Kang’s The Vegetarian.” PEOPLE: International Journal of Social Sciences, vol. 3, no. 1, 2017,  pp. 57-78.

Meeker, Natania & Szabari, Antónia. “From the Century of the Pods to the Century of the Plants: Plant Horror, Politics, and Vegetal Ontology.” Discourse, vol. 34 no. 1, 2012, pp. 32-58.

Patrick, Bethanne, and Han Kang. “Han Kang on Violence, Beauty, and the (Im)Possibility of Innocence.” Literary Hub, 12 Feb. 2016.

Singer, Hayley. “Erupt the Silence.” Animaladies, edited by Lori Gruen and Fiona Probyn-Rapsey, Bloomsbury Academic, 2018, pp. 65-76.

Singh, Julietta. Unthinking Mastery: Dehumanism and Decolonial Entanglements. Duke University Press, 2017. 

Wynter, Sylvia. “Unsettling the Coloniality of Being/Power/Truth/Freedom: Towards the Human, After Man, Its Overrepresentation—An Argument.” CR: The New Centennial Review, vol. 3 no. 3, 2003, pp. 257-337.

Žižek, Slavoj. Looking Awry: An Introduction to Jacques Lacan Through Popular Culture. MIT Press, 1991.

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

The Reclamation of McCaffrey’s The Ship Who Sang: Irony as Resistance to Utopian Ableist Narratives

SFRA Review, vol. 51, no. 3

Selected ICFA 2021 Papers

The Reclamation of McCaffrey’s The Ship Who Sang: Irony as Resistance to Utopian Ableist Narratives

Tessa Swehla

Introduction: At First Glance

The future of the bodymind and the emergence of the posthuman remains one of the most ethically charged points of social discourses concerning medical and technological advancements, especially those that affect disabled people. Alison Kafer argues that social discourses concerning the future often erase or discount disabled bodyminds, excluding them from the fantastic or imagined futures: “if disability is conceptualized as a terrible unending tragedy, then any future that includes disability can only be a future to avoid” (259). Utopian narratives often include these “cured” futures as a natural part of human evolution or as a sign of progress. Over the past decade, criticism of Anne McCaffrey’s science fiction novel The Ship Who Sang (1969) has focused on a perceived erasure of disability from its imagined future. This presentation invites a reconsideration of criticisms of McCaffrey’s novel, presenting an alternate reading of the text as an ironic critique of utopian narratives. 

The main character of The Ship Who Sang is a disabled woman, Helva, whose body is encased in a spaceship. The text positions Helva as disabled in the opening lines of the novel: “She was born a thing and as such would be condemned if she failed to pass the encephalograph test required of all newborn babies” (McCaffrey 1). Here is a government, Central Worlds, that has seized complete control over medical institutions and is concerned intimately with the bodies of its citizens, but styles itself as a place-based utopia that cares about the happiness and wellbeing of all its citizens. Helva is positioned as labor for Central Worlds: she is a cargo ship, a diplomat, an artist, a scout ship, and an informational processing machine, amongst other roles. Due to the nature of its origins as a series of published stories, the novel functions episodically, with the first story establishing Helva’s origins as a shell-person (a human encased inside a metal shell) and the loss of her first partner (a “brawn”), with subsequent chapters recounting adventures while dealing with issues of grief, trauma, sexuality, privilege, ableism, and gaslighting.

The controversy surrounding the novel stems in part from a misreading of the text by Donna Haraway. In her “A Cyborg Manifesto,” Haraway briefly references Helva as an example of how people with prosthetics might pose a challenge to organic integrity: “Anne McCaffrey’s pre-feminist The Ship Who Sang (1969) explored the consciousness of a cyborg, hybrid of girl’s brain and complex machinery, formed after the birth of a severely handicapped child. Gender, sexuality, embodiment, skill: all were reconstituted in the story. Why should our bodies end at the skin, or include at best other beings encapsulated by skin?” (25). Kafer criticizes Haraway’s use of this example: 

It is useful to note that the one example Haraway gives of such “severely handicapped people” is not a real person but a fictional character from Anne McCaffrey’s The Ship Who Sang: a “severely handicapped child” who was so physically disabled that her only hope of survival was to have her brain removed from her body and placed inside a machine (the spaceship of the title). (112) 

Although Sami Schalk does not mention Haraway’s reading of the novel, she echoes Kafer’s criticism by positioning The Ship Who Sang in the tradition of speculative “cure” narratives, “all of which represent disabled people significantly enhanced—and essentially erased as visible figures—through technology in the future” (2117). In her blog post “The Future Imperfect,” disability activist Sarah Einstein reacted to reading the first lines of the novel with horror at the thought of a future where “disability is so depersonalizing that the very promising are rewarded with slavery and disembodiment; those who don’t pass the test for these rewards are put to death” (Einstein). These readings are supported by the paratext surrounding the novel. After all, the back cover of the Del Rey collection of these stories includes the rather dramatic description “Helva Had Been Born Human… but only her brain had been saved—saved to be schooled, programmed and implanted in the sleek titanium body of an intergalactic scout ship” (Ship). This is inconsistent with the novel, which insists again and again that Helva and the other shell-people are not disembodied brains but are bodyminds whose nervous systems have been connected to a ship as an advanced form of prostheses. It is easy to see how Haraway may have misread the text through the lens of this framing, and it is furthermore understandable why many crip theorists and disabled readers have dismissed the novel as ableist based on Haraway and these paratextual readings.

What McCaffrey’s novel does is explore the ironic relationship between utopia and cheerful affect. Place-based utopias often posit general happiness or cheerful affect as an end goal. Many have argued that science fiction has the unique potential of allowing writers and readers to imagine otherwise, making an ideal conveyance for utopian discourse; however, unstated in this claim is that science fiction also has the power to allow writers and readers to imagine the same. This double-vision of the same and otherwise within the same temporal space destabilizes utopian narratives through irony: “Utopia’s critical edge requires irony’s edge to sustain its challenge to, rather than its endorsement of, ideologies of all stripes” (Wagnor-Lawlor 6). In The Ship Who Sang, the cheerfulness of these characters, a signifier of utopia, is deliberately juxtaposed with darker signaling of dystopia to create that double-vision of the same and otherwise. Helva is Le Guin’s “child in the basement” [1] that allows the Central Worlds to thrive; she exists in a dystopia within the same spatial plain as utopia, a utopia that relies on her very existence. Hutcheon asserts that this kind of irony gets its “edge” from having “two or more meanings being played off, one against another. It [irony] plays between meanings, in a space that is always affectively charged, that always has a critical edge” (72). McCaffrey’s novel’s critique comes from this space: the physical and discursive space that must contain both the utopia of the abled characters of Central Worlds and the dystopia of disabled characters within itself, creating an affective charge between optimism and debilitation. [2]

Helva’s affect is cheerful and matter-of-fact, but her affect is the result of early childhood brainwashing. Early on in the novel, the narrator describes the education of shell-people to be “balanced properly between optimism and practicality” with a “non-defeatist attitude” (6). The novel explores how the Central Worlds uses this conditioning through Kira, a temporary brawn. Kira reveals to Helva that she has attempted suicide in the past but has been subjected to heavy conditioning to avoid it (67). Kira is highly suspicious of Helva at first because she believes that Helva is either participating in Kira’s conditioning or is monitoring Kira for signs of conditioning failure. Helva assures Kira that neither is true but then gives the reader some insight into why the conditioning occurs: “And they can’t allow you to suicide because the ethos of Central Worlds is dedicated to extending life and propagating it wherever and whenever possible. I’m a living example of the extremes to which they are willing to go to sustain a human life” (67). The mission of sustaining and saving life is equated with absolute control over the bodyminds of the citizens of Central Worlds. This control is justified through the utopian “ethos” but the unspoken question here is what kind of lives are valued and why are they valued? Central Worlds is clearly not interested in the kind of life Helva may have had as a disabled person at the beginning of the novel. Yet Helva insists in the above passage that she is proof that the “ethos” is real, that Central Worlds has gone “to extremes” to sustain her life (67). The irony here comes in the affective charge between the two statements: Central Worlds values a certain kind of life, a life they can control through a “cure.” Conditioning in this novel, then, signifies the debilitating discourse that forces citizens to participate in the capitalist systems of this utopia as biopower. [3]

Helva’s bodymind as a person/ship is positioned from the very beginning of the text as biopower for Central Worlds. Shell-people are expected to work for Central Worlds in whatever capacity deemed necessary until they pay off “the massive debt of early care, surgical adaptation, and maintenance charges” (10). Central Worlds is a “company store” model: the shell-person must rely on the government for all resources, medical or otherwise, until they have paid off their debt. While this arrangement may seem like a natural extension of a capitalist system that requires payment for services, it also blurs the boundaries between national and corporate entities. Central Worlds values Helva as biopower, which gives them a vested interest in continuing to debilitate her. By using utopian language—“Helva would live a rewarding, rich, and unusual life, a far cry from what she would have faced as an ordinary, ‘normal’ being” (1)—to describe the value of disabled bodyminds (provided they are not too disabled), Central Worlds simultaneously erases and debilitates Helva’s body into biopower that is used for the good of the corporation-state. 

When Helva does “pay off” by the final chapter, she realizes that although she yearns for companionship from someone who sees her as a human being, anyone qualified to be her partner would have gone through conditioning by Central Worlds, which she has begun to distrust. She is free to choose, but her choices are limited. While she contemplates this dilemma, another shell-person, Silvia, recommends that she get legal representation from some activist groups for minorities and then tells her to contact another shell-person to ask about other employment options (203). This advice suggests that the shell-people have formed both formal and informal networks designed to resist the debilitation by Central Worlds. Faced with the possible threat of forced service, Helva realizes the extent of control Central Worlds has over shell-people:

Now Helva could see that the subtle, massive conditioning she’d received in her formative years was double-edged. It made her happy as a shell-person, it had dedicated her to her life in Service, and it made her Pay-off a mockery. What else could a BB ship do but continue as she had started… in Service? The same must apply to other shell-people trained to manage ships, mining planets or industrial complexes. (205)

The conditioning made Helva “happy” in her role as biopower and obscured the inability for Helva or any of the other shell-people to opt out. The last sentence especially highlights the irony: Central Worlds contends that the compensation the shell-people receive prevents them from becoming slaves, but ultimately, what does that compensation mean if the shell-people must give it back to Central Worlds in the end?

I am currently writing a chapter of my dissertation on this reading of McCaffrey’s novel: there is simply too much material here for a short presentation like this one. I certainly do not intend to argue that The Ship Who Sang should be immune to criticism; McCaffrey’s inattention to race and her positionality as a straight white seemingly abled woman perhaps brings into question her motives for writing this novel. However, I think this study of the novel as an ironic examination of utopian narratives through the lens of a disabled character, one who learns to recognize and resist the debilitation of those narratives, can help us understand feminist science fiction of the 1960’s. After all, renowned science fiction texts such as Star Trek (1966-1969) posit utopias much like Central Worlds, but lack the ironic critique that McCaffrey’s novel poses.


[1] A reference to Ursula Le Guin’s short story “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas” in which Omelas is a utopia that exists only so long as a child is tortured in a basement.

[2] I use Jasbir Puar’s definition of debilitation as the way in which social, political, and geographical forces slowly create populations as biopower for late capitalism (Puar xiii-xiv).

[3] Robert McRuer connects the capitalist construction of disability with social constructions of heternormativity in a theory he calls “compulsory abled-bodiness,” meaning, “free to sell one’s labor but not free to do anything else effectively meant free to have an able body but not particularly free to have anything else” (8). He goes on to connect the social model of disability to the idea that normalcy does not just create disability, but that it compels citizens to perform ability in order to participate in capitalistic discourses (or risk being excluded) (8).  Although Helva performs super-abled-bodiness instead of abled-bodiness, she still must perform to participate in the capitalist system.


Einstein, Sarah. “The Future Imperfect.” Redstone Science Fiction, June, 2010, http://redstonesciencefiction.com/2010/05/einstein-essay-june2010/. Accessed June 01, 2020.

Haraway, Donna. Simians, Cyborgs, and Women. Routledge, 1991.

Hutcheon, Linda. Irony’s Edge: The Theory and Politics of Irony. Routledge, 1994.

Kafer, Alison. Feminist, Queer, Crip. University of Indiana Press, 2013.

Le Guin, Ursula. “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas.” E-book, HarperCollins Publisher, 2017.

McCaffrey, Anne. The Ship Who Sang. New York: Ballantine Books, 1969.

McRuer, Robert. Crip Theory: Cultural Signs of Queerness and Disability. NYU Press, 2006.

Puar, Jasbir K. The Right to Maim: Debility, Capacity, Disability. Duke UP, 2017.Schalk, Sami. Bodyminds Reimagined: (Dis)ability, Race, and Gender in Black Women’s Speculative Fiction. E-book, Duke UP, 2018.

Tessa Swehla is a PhD candidate in English at the University of Arkansas. Her current project focuses on the intersections between US medical discourses and science fiction through the lenses of disability theory and medical humanities. Her project advocates for a more equitable and empathetic healthcare system for all in the US.

Make the Familiar Strange: Decolonizing Speculative Fiction Through Postcolonial Visibility

SFRA Review, vol. 51, no. 3

Selected ICFA 2021 Papers

Make the Familiar Strange: Decolonizing Speculative Fiction Through Postcolonial Visibility

Marisca Pichette

Introduction: At First Glance

In his 2018 craft book, A Stranger’s Journey, David Mura writes, “We write to articulate who we are, to describe our sense of the world” (11). As a search for identity—an internal exploration using external media—writing is heavily influenced by personal experience. Stories handed down over generations form part of this influence. One of these stories is the narrative of colonialism (91). 

The colonial narrative has been explored in all genres of literature, including nonfiction, poetry, and genre fiction. How do these media confront—or fail to confront—a world impacted by global coloniality? In “Writing Back: Speculative Fiction and the Politics of Postcolonialism, 2001,” Nancy Batty and Robert Markley write, “Colonialist, anti-colonialist, and, later, postcolonial themes have long been staples of the genres that figure prominently in twentieth and twenty-first century popular culture: science fiction, fantasy, magic realism, and horror” (6). Speculative fiction in particular confronts colonialism, putting colonial themes at the center of narratives spanning history and the cosmos. 

I began thinking more closely about postcolonial discourse in speculative fiction while working on my Broken trilogy. In the trilogy, the Mèrəsr are a colonized race whose history has been buried by the humans who invaded their island many centuries before. The journey of the Mèrəsr is one of rediscovering truth and selfhood, literally piecing their bodies back together to repair the breakage humanity wrought. The damage of colonialism is not easily overcome, and as I will discuss in the case of The Lesson, the marks remain long after the colonizers have departed.

Drawing on my own writing projects and reading, this paper will focus on postcolonial visibility in two subgenres of popular fiction: fantasy and science fiction. These subgenres traditionally articulate encounters with the Other, both in first contact narratives and the diversity of fantastical worlds. Treatment of this theme frequently occupies the territory Edward Said termed Orientalism: a mystical and unknowable East, discovered and catalogued by a protagonist cast in the role of the Western (European) explorer (Said 13). 

Orientalism and colonialism often occupy the same space in literature. In “Science Fiction, Colonialism, and the Plot of Invasion,” John Rieder describes the science fiction lexicon as directly related to “the celebratory narratives of exploration and discovery, the progress of civilization…and the unfolding of racial destiny that formed the Official Story of colonialism” (374). This relationship can be likewise applied to fantasy; while science fiction often treads the ground of first contact as resulting in disaster, fantasy narratives follow the protagonist’s journey to conquest and the suppression of an evil Other. By looking at these subgenres, we can see how colonialism (and Orientalism in the character of the Other) is played out again and again in fiction.

David Mura writes of a class of novel told, not by the protagonist, but by “a secondary character… the one who survives” (142). Mura’s surviving character is cast as secondary but occupies the role of the storyteller, giving voice to what might otherwise have been silenced with the protagonist’s death. Similarly, writers of the Global Majority [1] are survivors, voices that Western colonization failed to silence. However, the position they occupy is far from secondary. The discourse of postcolonial literature “has become an important vehicle for writers from outside the metropolitan centres of Europe and North America… [to] write back against the empire” (Batty 7). By reversing the lens, postcolonial authors reclaim visibility in fantasy and science fiction, revising and revitalizing canonical imperialist narratives with modern relevance. 

Visibility is itself a decolonial act: critiquing the universality of Western knowledge production (Bhambra 116). In this paper I will  draw on Sara Ahmed’s process of disorientation, the process that “makes familiar spaces seem strange” (159). While Ahmed uses this term to refer to the hyper-visibility of people of color in spaces perceived as white, I will be adding another layer to her analysis. “Strange” in the case of this paper refers not only to defamiliarizing coloniality, but also to employ speculative elements to craft something beyond reality. Using hyper-visibility, postcolonial authors work to decolonize speculative fiction and make the familiar space of Western colonial thought very strange indeed. Hyper-visibility in this paper refers to the deep visibility of central point of view characters, their culture, and their lives. Rather than simply including characters of color, authors use hyper-visibility to situate the reader within a space that is (nearly) exclusive of Western Imperial culture. Using Cadwell Turnbull’s The Lesson and N.K. Jemisin’s The Obelisk Gate as primary texts, I will survey the theme of hyper-visibility as it fosters empowerment for a future divorced from Western coloniality.

Part One: A Closer Look

Due to our global colonial past (and present), first contact as a plot device can never be fully divorced from colonialism as it has been practiced by humans (Rieder 374). This brings us to Cadwell Turnbull’s debut novel, The Lesson: a first contact novel involving the arrival of the alien Ynaa to the US Virgin Islands. It is also a novel about reclaiming visibility, even when that visibility can lead to danger. 

In an interview, Turnbull cast his novel as one of survivance: “We haven’t had the opportunity to truly be in charge of our political destiny. Yet we live. We live because we don’t erase ourselves… Writing is an act against erasure and as such a decolonizing act” (Turnbull, “Write the World You Want”). Writing—and in turn, visibility—is a move toward decoloniality.

Turnbull interweaves visibility and mobility, highlighting how the mobility of the Ynaa plays against the immobility of the residents of St. Thomas, while the Ynaa’s visibility—and the visibility of the humans who associate with them—leads to disaster. 

In her essay, “A Phenomenology of Whiteness,” Sara Ahmed writes about the “politics of mobility” in a world where whiteness inherently “belongs” and anything not perceived as white is made hyper-visible; “The discourse of ‘stranger danger’ reminds us that danger is often posited as originating from what is outside the community, or as coming from outsiders” (162). For Ahmed, the danger comes from being hyper-visible as a person of color in a space perceived as white. In Western society, this perception of space is part of the process of normalizing whiteness while leaving people of color as constant exceptions to whiteness (159). Understanding the politics of whiteness and mobility is necessary for looking at The Lesson. 

Turnbull’s characters are St. Thomians, occupying an island that has been colonized again and again over centuries—by the Ciboney, Arawaks, and Caribs, followed by European invaders, and at last the Ynaa (Turnbull, 40-42). In making a “History of Invasions” visible, Turnbull restores part of St. Thomas’s agency by recalling the history of colonization (40). 

Agency for Turnbull’s modern St. Thomians is limited. They are constantly reaching for something they cannot grasp, “trapped” on an island passed between the hands of colonizing forces (Turnbull 27). Despite this limit to mobility, Turnbull’s characters are hyper-visible; they tell the story of invasion, and have the power to name, to speak back against, the Ynaa. 

The interplay between looking and being looked at is present throughout The Lesson. Mera, ambassador to the Ynaa, is hyper-visible as an Ynaa among humans and as a Black woman who has endured slavery in the US Virgin Islands. Her presence on Earth through the centuries lends visibility not only to her character, but also to the traumas of St. Thomas’s past. Mera is a link to the shifting identity of St. Thomas and its inhabitants: she is a product of colonialism, postcolonialism, and an agent of decoloniality all at once (146). 

Ahmed writes that “Bodies stand out when they are out of place. Such standing re-confirms the whiteness of the space” (159). While St. Thomians occupy a space of continual colonization, the Ynaa stand out from the point of arrival: “A seashell in the sky, not obeying gravity” (Turnbull 38). Their approximated human movements, their superhuman strength—all place them in a category of unbelonging. But, like all colonizers, the Ynaa are defined by their power, and, as a result, their ability to claim mobility: “the Ynaa chose to stay where they landed” (85, emphasis mine). In contrast, St. Thomians are immobile, “marooned” (27).  The confluence of St. Thomians’ immobility with their visibility comes to the fore at the climax of the novel.

In retaliation for one man’s crime, the Ynaa order the slaughter of every man on the island. Hyper-visibility dominates the end of the novel. Derrick, secretary to Mera and previously made hyper-visible by his relationship with her, is one of 25,000 targets of Ynaa bloodlust (234). Derrick and Mera rush to save as many men as they can, sending them on boats off the island before the Ynaa can get them. In this way, St. Thomians scramble to reclaim the mobility that was actively denied them by multiple colonizations. Mera’s own visibility as both ally and enemy in the eyes of Ynaa and humanity forces her to disappear after Derrick’s death (255). 

At the end of the novel the Ynaa depart, leaving St. Thomas irreparably affected by their occupation. The result is similar to Ahmed’s “disorientation:” a process by which spaces are molded to suit whiteness, and thus alienate bodies that do not conform to expectations of whiteness (160). St. Thomas is disorientated by repeated colonization, and even when the colonizing forces have departed—the Ynaa into space, the United States as an “absentee landlord”—the impact of colonization endures (Turnbull 85). At the end of The Lesson, St. Thomas is no longer a familiar space; it has been ruptured by invasion. Turnbull articulates the impact of disorientation in the character of the room left vacant after Derrick’s grandmother dies from a cancer Ynaa medicine could have healed:  “It would be a long time before the room forgot her” (277). 

The Lesson is a work of postcolonial ongoingness, using the theme of hyper-visibility to embody the impacts of colonization on the US Virgin Islands. Turnbull’s novel turns the perspective of the colonial narrative back on the colonizer, using the vision of his characters to document colonial processes and take hold of cultural realities. Recalling the “moralistic” themes of mid-century science fiction, Turnbull turns them around, presenting aliens who are not emotionless but have themselves faced annihilation (Sontag 216). In the character of Mera, Turnbull gives voice to the Caribbean past in the body of a survivor. This brings us back to Mura’s survivor, an observer whose story is entangled with broader themes. The recognition that comes out of this entanglement is that there can be no disentanglement, no sanitization: “the very act of writing… becomes a political act” (Mura 13).

Part Two: The Mirror

Susan Sontag casts the lure of science fiction as “generalized disaster,” a fantasy of being released from “normal obligations” (215). I would argue that this is a central theme in fantasy as well: in the form of magical threats embodying unquestioned evil, particularly present in post-apocalyptic fantasy. This is the setting for N.K. Jemisin’s Broken Earth trilogy. The Fifth Season sets up the initial disaster, its primary purpose in constructing hyper-visibility for the main character. 

Jemisin’s world is constructed around what Gurminder K. Bhambra terms “a coloniality of knowledge” (117). This term refers to the treatment of knowledge as property—property held only by the colonizer. This property is associated in turn with modernity and rationality, casting the colonizer as the modern ideal and the colonized as a primitive Other. Bhambra writes of how “colonization invent[ed] the colonized,” while simultaneously disrupting “the social patterns, gender relations and cosmological understanding of the communities and societies it invaded” (118). The coloniality of knowledge creates a logic of colonial difference which structures the relations and hierarchies between colonizer and colonized. 

Bhambra suggests that knowledge is decolonized through an acknowledgement of “the sources and geo-political locations of knowledge while at the same time affirming those modes and practices of knowledge that have been denied by the dominance of particular forms” (118). Before the cataclysmic eruption that will destroy the world, the Fulcrum existed to keep orogenes controlled. The eruption that begins Jemisin’s narrative acts as a decolonizing force, destroying the Fulcrum. But with the obliteration of the formal structure that symbolizes Bhambra’s dominance, those who survive continue to hold onto prejudice cultivated by the dominant anti-orogene culture: Essun’s existence as an orogene is not made acceptable merely because the Fulcrum is gone.

The Fifth Season is told from three points of view: Essun (second person), Damaya (third), and Syenite (third). However, these three voices are in reality one, told from one character’s perspective across different points in her life. Through this narrative structure Jemisin constructs hyper-visibility, not just of her character’s past and present, but of the shifting cultural identities that culminate in second person confrontation.  These voices occupy a single character at three stages of being—not simply observing disaster, but living it: “To her, Syenite. To you, Essun… you’ll be glad when you finally figure out who you are” (Jemisin, Fifth Season 446). While Essun is hyper-visible to the reader, she is constantly hiding from the characters around her, even her own family. It is not until the second book, The Obelisk Gate, that Essun begins to be visible to others—and herself.

The threat that arises in The Obelisk Gate is a forcible reintroduction of coloniality: a racialized attack on Essun’s new comm, Castrima, by a group with views of racial purity and reinstituting the empire of Old Sanze (Jemisin, Obelisk Gate 294). Essun’s dual identities of Midlatter and orogene are both in conflict with perceived Sanzed purity. As a human, she is powerless. But as an orogene, she has the power to save Castrima.

Essun’s visibility begins as a threat to her safety, but in claiming that visibility, it becomes a tool to turn back on coloniality. By claiming the name of orogene, Essun uses her visibility to fight against colonial influence and write a new future for herself, her daughter, and Castrima. It is in this fighting back that Essun interrupts the “staging of modernity” that situates coloniality as the only rational future (Bhambra 116).

N.K. Jemisin uses the theme of hyper-visibility to flip the colonial structure of fantasy and futurehood. Essun’s recognition and acceptance of self is a radical act, “ a terrible thing… that she loves herself” (Jemisin, The Obelisk Gate 314). In order to recognize the mutilation of history, Essun must recognize the mutilation of identity as a product of that history. Essun’s self-reflection, her looking in the mirror, acts to deconstruct “how the idea of the universal was based both on an analytic bifurcation of the world and an elision of that bifurcation” (Bhambra 116). Displacement, in this way, removed the colonized body from the production of modernity: “History became the product of the West in its actions upon others” (116).

By highlighting how Old Sanze and the Leadership legends “have the air of a myth concocted to justify their place in society,” Jemisin exposes the fallacy of colonial modernity (Jemisin, Obelisk Gate 91). This is a different kind of visibility, one that is equal parts external and internal, just as the reader is placed squarely with Essun in second person narration. When one highlights the strings used to arrange this history, the universality of Western ideology falls apart. The future—and progress—can no longer be cast as unequivocally Western. 

Part Three: Unfamiliar Faces

Postcolonial speculative fiction works to decolonize the future by exposing our colonial past. In The Lesson and The Obelisk Gate, this decolonization is achieved through hyper-visibility, situating the reader in the position of the colonized. In telling these stories, postcolonial authors decenter Western culture. 

When discussing techniques for writing marginalized identity, David Mura counsels us that “the path forward may be particularly obscure, indeed may seem not to exist at all. But then the truly new is almost always strange, and the truly strange is almost always new” (213). Making the familiar strange—in speculative fiction and beyond—is a decolonial act (Ahmed 159).

Of course, Turnbull and Jemisin are not the only authors writing in this vein. Rebecca Roanhorse, in her novel Trail of Lightning, shows a post-apocalyptic world where white America has no place. Fonda Lee decenters Western coloniality in her World Fantasy Award-winning novel, Jade City, and K. Arsenault Rivera employs oral history in her novel, The Tiger’s Daughter. [2] In all the postcolonial texts mentioned in this paper, central point of view characters are characters of color, actively decolonial in story and identity. The central characters in these novels have experienced colonialism and the after-effects. The postcolonial future that follows these experiences is theirs to confront and determine. These authors create a hyper-visible space in their choices of character, setting, and conflict. Through speculative fiction, Turnbull and Jemisin—as well as Lee, Roanhorse, and Rivera—articulate the damage wrought by colonialism and assert resilience and survivance. In claiming speculative fiction as a postcolonial space, they present a future outside of Western “rationality” (Bhambra 116). I hope that my work can add to the growing number of science fiction and fantasy novels that focus on futurehood, visibility, and decoloniality.


[1] This term acknowledges that Black, Indigenous, and people of color represent over 80% of the world’s population. I use it to push back against the term “minority” as inaccurate and disempowering to many (Source: PGM ONE).

[2] Oral history is a cultural practice that Western colonialism has repeatedly attempted to delegitimize (LaPensee, et al, “Decolonizing Science Fiction and Imagining Futures”).


Ahmed, Sara. “A Phenomenology of Whiteness.” Feminist Theory, vol. 8, no. 2, pp. 149-168, 2007.

Batty, et al.  “Writing Back: Speculative Fiction and the Politics of Postcolonialism, 2001.” Ariel: A Review of International English Literature, vol. 33, no. 1, pp. 5-14. 

Bhambra, Gurminder K. “Postcolonial and Decolonial Dialogues.” Postcolonial Studies, vol. 17, no. 2, pp. 115-121, 2014.     

Jemisin, N.K. The Fifth Season. Orbit, 2015.

Jemisin, N.K. The Obelisk Gate. Orbit, 2016.

LaPensee, et al, “Decolonizing Science Fiction and Imagining Futures: An Indigenous Futures Roundtable.” Strange Horizons, 2017.

Lee, Fonda. Jade City. Orbit, New York, 2017.

Mura, David. A Stranger’s Journey. University of Georgia Press, 2018

Rieder, John. “Science Fiction, Colonialism, and the Plot of Invasion.” Extrapolation, vol. 46, no. 3, pp. 373-394, 2005.

Rivera, K. Arsenault. The Tiger’s Daughter. Tor, 2017.

Roanhorse, Rebecca. Trail of Lighting. Saga Press, 2018.

Said, Edward. Orientalism. Routledge & Kegan Paul Ltd, 1978.

Sontag, Susan. Against Interpretation and Other Essays. Picador, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1966.

Turnbull, Cadwell. “‘Write the World You Want’: A PEN Ten Interview with Cadwell Turnbull.” PenAmerica. 18 Jul. 2019.

—–. The Lesson. Blackstone Publishing, 2019.

Marisca Pichette is a queer author of speculative fiction, nonfiction, and poetry. Her debut novel, Broken, is forthcoming in Spring 2022 with Heroic Books. A lover of moss and monsters, she lives in Western Massachusetts.

Terradeformation: Unsettling Environments, Knowledge, and Control in Recent Speculative Fictions

SFRA Review, vol. 51, no. 3

Selected ICFA 2021 Papers

Terradeformation: Unsettling Environments, Knowledge, and Control in Recent Speculative Fictions

Aaron Gabriel Montalvo

One of the chief ironies of the global warming crisis is that this virtually unknowable and uncontrollable event is an accidental side effect of attempts to exert control over the earth. Western science offers unprecedented abilities to measure and mold the earth. Yet, these tools are inadequate to fully comprehend or halt the changes they have wrought. Critically, these changes can be likened to an earthly enactment of the science fiction trope of terraforming. Terraformation is commonly recognized as the engineering of other planets, typically Mars, to make them habitable for human survival (Prucher 224). However, terraforming is not solely a speculative enterprise confined to other planets. Earth itself has been largely transformed to make it more fit for human habitation (224). As Chris Pak has elucidated in his book on terraforming and SF, the recognition of terraforming as an ongoing, earthly process is a recognition of the profound impacts made on the planet by modern society (Pak 2016, 2). A consideration of the issues surrounding terraformation calls to mind broader issues of control over the earth. What are the limits of such control and who benefits from it? While all societies have engaged in terraforming, the most sweeping changes are the result of Western society’s attempts to gain dominion over the planet. The modern era’s colonialist and capitalist enterprises have enacted fundamental changes to the planet in order to support a slim margin of Earth’s population. Now these changes threaten to exceed the possibility of human control in ways that make the planet ironically less fit for human inhabitance. Terraforming is not just about a future Martian enterprise but about contemporary shifts in Earthly ecology and society (7).

As this year’s conference theme of “Climate Change and the Anthropocene” attests, science fiction can and has played a role in the development of ecocritical practices, themes explored by authors such as Eric C. Otto and Ursula K. Heisse. Key among their arguments is that science fiction provides a unique opportunity for ecocritical engagement through its ability to reimagine the dynamics and parameters of human relations with the environment (Heisse 281-82; Otto 7-18). For my paper, I am going to expand this practice of SF ecocriticism by introducing a conceptual framework for theorizing some of the unruly environments of speculative fiction, a concept I will refer to as terradeformation. To begin, terradeformation names a trope in recent speculative fictions in which the environment undergoes a dramatic reconfiguration that defies human attempts at control. While the nature of these changes may vary, the central facet of these transformations is that they upend existing epistemologies and political systems through radical reformations of the earth. Practicing terradeformation moves beyond naming the trope to asking about the status of human and environmental relations when those relations are no longer stable. Such questions include: What types of knowledge of the earth are possible? How have society and the earth shaped one another? How does earthly dominance interact with technological and political systems? And what effect can an earth-centered consciousness have on such systems? Terradeformation offers a critical technique that serves to unsettle the foundations of modern socio-political systems, thereby providing opportunities for their reconstruction from the ground up.

In my explanation of the possibilities of the concept of terradeformation I am going to focus on two primary points. First, I will examine the way it works to undo concepts of epistemology as control by presenting an earth that is both unknowable and untamable. I will do so through a reading of Jeff VanderMeer’s Area X: The Southern Reach Trilogy. [1] Second, I will explore the way that terradeformation rethinks oppressive socio-political systems by highlighting the interconnection of earthly and human dominance and showing how an unstable earth can be brought to bear against these systems. For this section I will draw on N.K. Jemisin’s The Fifth Season. In my explanation of the possibilities of terradeformation, I have set the concept largely in contrast to terraformation. However, I do want to note that these two terms are not entirely oppositional. Both these terms describe shaping the land in ways that could be considered as deformations. Further, they are not strict moral opposites. Advocates of terraforming also advocate earthly stewardship (Beech 11-12) and terraforming in SF often deals with questions of ethics (Pak 2016, 7-17). The distinction I wish to convey is that terradeformation is concerned with examining the problematic principles of earthly control on which terraformation is based. Rather than extrapolating systems of control into fantastic futures, terradeformation interrogates these systems, asking how they have formed the world and how they might be formed anew. 

Questions of terraformation are invariably questions of epistemology. In both its speculative and real-world manifestations, terraformation relies on a carefully codified knowledge of the earth in order to reproduce these conditions across space. Terraformation therefore requires an orderly form of the earth that abides by scientific measurements and categorizations. The universal application of these measurements both facilitates and requires control of spaces. Terraforming involves an imposition of a global order onto a landscape to force it to conform to a preset ideal. This imposed order is written in the gridded landscapes visible outside the window of any passenger plane, a striking example of terrestrial terraforming. These grids mark not just organization, but also control and possession of physical spaces (Campbell 9). Terraformation represents an extension of Enlightenment principles in which science serves to extend dominions of power through twinned forms of geographic and geologic knowledge.

Terradeformation, meanwhile, focuses on an earth that resists clear epistemologies and the strict ordering that would be imposed on it. This shift in knowledge engenders a renegotiation of existing relations of humans to the earth. To demonstrate this effect, I will focus on Jeff VanderMeer’s Area X trilogy, a text explicitly concerned with ecological epistemologies and their limits. Broadly speaking, Area X concerns the attempts of government scientists to learn about the mysterious Area X, a space that maddens and transforms living beings that enter it and that cannot be explained despite decades of research (VanderMeer 63). Area X operates as a destabilizing force; its name hints at unknowability and the failure of these government agents reveals the inadequacy of scientific systems. Area X is akin to Tim Morton’s concept of the “hyperobject” (Tompkins), an object whose existence can only be recognized and comprehended symptomatically (Morton 1-2). Morton’s paradigmatic example of the hyperobject is global warming (3), and just as global warming defies attempts at full-scale comprehension, so too does Area X resist understanding beyond the piecemeal. Universal comprehension is denied in favor of an acceptance of the unknowable. The trilogy, therefore, imagines a terrestrial space that cannot be subjected to Enlightenment’s scientific classifications in order to deform them and ask what other modes of thinking are possible in their stead. 

In its resistance to scientific categorization, Area X also breaks down the boundaries these orderings serve to impose. Area X disrupts systems of terrestrial ordering by defying schemas that circumscribe spaces and define them by human use. Though Area X is bounded by a nearly impenetrable border (Vandermeer 154), its boundaries are not defined through scientific or political processes like the grids of geographic coordinating systems or national borders. Instead, Area X arises spontaneously in an undefined “Event” to change the space around it (63). Read critically, this terradeformation is legible as an environmental disruption of the spatial impositions of socio-political systems. Though Area X is a localized transformation, its critical possibilities are not so confined. These possibilities can be extended to considerations of intellectual control, a possibility echoed in the slow transformation of the environment and people surrounding Area X. While Area X may not expand physically (221), it affectively transforms the government agency tasked with researching it. The agency is just as mad as Area X itself, with several characters driven insane by their inability to understand Area X (313-15). Changes in the terrestrial landscape lead to changes in the psychological and intellectual landscapes as well, highlighting the reach of these transformative possibilities. Reading for terradeformation need not induce madness but should induce intellectual destabilization, a necessary change for rethinking relations to the earth beyond forms of containment and control. Terradeformation recognizes an unknowable and untamable earth that drives to the heart of Enlightenment epistemologies and the systems they serve.

Now that I have demonstrated terradeformation’s application to issues of knowledge, I will turn to issues of power. Issues of terraforming are invariably aligned with issues of power. [2] For example, the grids that define the U.S. landscape mark a legacy of settler colonialism. Gridding represents dominance over landscapes but more importantly signifies power over the people who live within human-scripted geographies. Terraforming mimics these relations in its future-oriented enterprises as well. Recent proposals of geoengineering as a solution to global warming represents terraforming at a planetary scale (Pak 2018, 500; Iles 11). As critics have noted, whatever possibilities geoengineering may offer, it is a speculative solution that largely supports systems of power already in place (Pak 500; Iles 2; 11). Geoengineering relies on a technological answer to a social problem; it foregrounds narratives of scientific innovation that fail to address scientific limits and social injustices as part of the campaign for sustainability (Iles 2). While terraformation promises radical environmental change, it does not promise the same for political systems.

Terradeformation, meanwhile, asks for a reconsideration of these systems of power by examining the ways dominance over the earth is tied to dominance over others. We have already seen aspects of this in Area X’s engagement with epistemologies of control. Now I will directly engage the political through a reading of N. K. Jemisin’s The Fifth Season. Jemisin’s novel takes place in a world called The Stillness, which is regularly beset by large earthquakes (2) and devastating ecological disasters (94). The novel’s central protagonist is an “orogene,” a person with the quasi-magical ability to control earthquakes (462). Orogenes are subject to racial discrimination (56; 462; Iles 7-9; Murphey 109; Walter 11-13) and must work for the ruling Sanzed Empire, whose power they must help maintain or be killed (Jemisin 34). Applying the concept of terradeformation makes visible the interrelations of environmental and political systems of power in the ironically named Stillness. The Stillness is hinted to be a future version of our world at several points in the text through allegories of modern environmental destruction (115; 284; 379-80). These destructions include mining the earth’s mantle, which causes a shattering of the earth that destroys most of civilization (379-80). [3] This description allies the novel with cli-fi, but more importantly it demonstrates that the terrestrial instability of the Stillness is a result of the continuance of extractive environmental practices. Earth’s shattering is a response to ongoing structures of power that rely on environmental destruction. Earth is not inert matter subject to external power; it is an agential force capable of destroying those systems that would do the same to it. Jemisin’s novel serves as a warning, demonstrating that change will come to these structures in one form or another.

Though terradeformation is invested in examinations of human-environmental politics, it does not neglect the human end of this dynamic. Environmental control is one aspect of its interrogation of larger socio-political systems. The book makes clear that the discrimination faced by orogenes is the manifestation of a systematic racism deployed in order to secure power for the ruling class. The perceived threat of orogenes allows them to be separated from society and trained in service of the Sanzed Empire in roles such as controlling earthquakes (34). The capital of the empire, in fact, is one of the only places in the Stillness that is free from tremors, due to this system (117). The process via which orogenes are forced to serve an imperial power that dehumanizes them is a clear metaphor for slavery (Murphey 109; Walter 112; Hurley 468). More importantly, for our discussion, it demonstrates that exploitative systems of power rest on a false stability built atop a quaking foundation of marginalized human beings. This stability is only maintained via the continued acceptance of these systems. By connecting this unstable dynamic to the earth, Jemisin’s text concretizes the interrelation of global power systems and earthly dominion. The Fifth Season does simply metaphorize our world, however. The novel includes several scenes in which characters cause earthquakes as a means of striking back against these power structures (7; 56-58; 413). Terradeformation in this case is a destruction of the literal bedrock of socio-political systems in order to force their reconstruction. This reconstruction is not only about justice for the earth but also justice upon the earth, a reckoning for those harmed by political forces. Significantly, these scenes tie terradeformation to human agents. In the previous examples, the concept might seem to be a theorization of Gaia’s revenge scenarios. This case, however, demonstrates that terradeformation is not solely focused on an agential form of the earth. Rather, it entails a recognition of what an earthly agency might afford for reconfiguring relations both to the earth and to other human beings.

In summation, terradeformation offers not only a name for a speculative fiction trope but also a way of thinking about what the stakes and possibilities of that trope are in this era of global, ecological disasters. It asks us to reconsider the limits of Enlightenment thinking and to dissolve the false barriers imposed by such knowledge. It also envisions the deformation or destruction of oppressive political regimes supported by these intellectual schemas to argue for their change at a fundamental level. As the Earth undergoes non-speculative deformations induced by these systems of power, terradeformation’s lessons will only grow more significant. Just as terradeformations expand beyond their initial bounds to change intellectual and political systems, so too must these lessons beyond their textual bounds to reform the terrestrial sphere.


[1] Hereafter the trilogy will be referred to as Area X.

[2] Pak makes a similar argument (Pak 2016, 7).

[3] Iles describes this process as it is revealed throughout Jemisin’s trilogy in detail and similarly analyzes the interrelation of environmental destruction and systems of power (10-12).


Beech, Martin. Terraforming: The Creating of Habitable Worlds. Springer, 2009.

Campbell, Neil. The Rhizomatic West: Representing the American West in a Transnational, Global, Media Age. University of Nebraska Press, 2008.

Heise, Ursula K. “Science Fiction and the Time Scales of the Anthropocene.” ELH, vol. 86, no. 2, 2019, pp. 275-304.

Hurley, Jessica. “An Apocalypse is a Relative Thing: An Interview with N. K. Jemisin.” ASAP/Journal, vol. 3, no. 3, 2018, pp. 467-77.

Iles, Alastair. “Repairing the Broken Earth: N. K. Jemisin on Race and Environment in Transition.” Sciences of the Anthropocene, vol. 7, 2019, pp. 1-25.

Jemisin, N.K. The Fifth Season. Orbit, 2015.

Morton, Timothy. Hyperobjects: Philosophy and Ecology After the End of the World. University of Minnesota Press, 2013.

Murphey, Kathleen. “Science Fiction/Fantasy Takes on Slavery N. K. Jemisin and Tomi Adeyemi.” Pennsylvania Literary Journal, vol. 10, no. 3, 2018, pp. 106-15.

Otto, Eric. Green Speculations: Science Fiction and Transformative Environmentalism. Ohio State University Press, 2012.

Pak, Chris. Terraforming: Ecopolitical Transformations and Environmentalism in Science Fiction. Liverpool University Press. 2016.

—–. “Terraforming and Geoengineering in Luna: New Moon, 2312, and Aurora.” Science Fiction Studies, vol. 45, no. 3, 2018, pp. 500-514.

Prucher, Jeff. “Terraform.” The Oxford Dictionary of Science Fiction, Oxford University Press, 2007, p. 224.

Tompkins, David. “Weird Ecology: On the Southern Reach Trilogy.” Los Angeles Review of Books, 30 September 2014. https://lareviewofbooks.org/article/weird-ecology-southern-reach-trilogy/.

VanderMeer, Jeff. Area X: The Southern Reach Trilogy. Farrar, Straus, and Giroux. 2014.Walter, Marvin Johnson. “The Posthuman and its Others: A Posthumanist Reading of Tomi Adeyemi’s Children of Blood and Bone and N. K. Jemisin’s The Fifth Season.” Gender Forum, vol. 73, 2019, pp. 2-25, 71.

Aaron Gabriel Montalvo is a doctoral candidate in the English department at Pennsylvania State University. He is enrolled in the dual-title program in visual studies and expects to be among its first graduates. Aaron’s research primarily focuses on twentieth- and twenty-first-century American literature, particularly that of the American west, in conjunction with environmental studies and environmental art. He would like to thank Dr. Tina Chen for her guidance and insights in the development of this talk.

Wolves and Werewolves: How Our Beliefs About One Influence the Other

SFRA Review, vol. 51, no. 3

Selected ICFA 2021 Papers

Wolves and Werewolves: How Our Beliefs About One Influence the Other

S.M. Mack


    While modern research into the behavior and socialization of wolf packs positively influences the portrayal of werewolves in contemporary fantasy literature, in horror novels, or other stories portraying lycanthropy as undesirable or dangerous, past prejudices about real wolves tend to eclipse fact-based observations. In texts portraying lycanthropy in a positive or desirable light, the contemporary scientific parallels are significant, but in literature portraying lycanthropy in a negative way, these parallels are absent. This is significant because while scholars have discussed werewolves from a historical, folkloric, and even literary standpoint, my research indicates that no one has studied how our changing view of wolves has resulted in similar evolutions of the portrayal of werewolves in the various genres of contemporary fiction. 

    As modern research educates the public regarding wolves’ behaviors and social patterns, people increasingly empathize with wolves and seek to treat them humanely. However, previous generations of “naturalists,” nature writers and field biologists of varying experience, spread lurid and hostile fabrications about wolves. Those stories remain embedded in the public consciousness. This sets up a clear contrast between the more positive views of werewolves in contemporary fantasy literature, where authors use modern lupine research from approximately the last sixty years to humanize their werewolves, and werewolves portrayed as a source of horror, where authors rely on the monstrous preconceptions still held about wolves to craft their werewolves, thus perpetuating stereotypes that influence individual and collective responses to the treatment of actual wolves. If fantasy authors were to include more positive portrayals of werewolves in their fiction, it could create a more positive contextualization for the protection of wild wolves. 

The Reality

    According to Valerie M. Fogleman, a leading environmental lawyer and professor at Cardiff University in Wales, “…[M]odern scientific research about wolves began in the 20th century.” Prior to and even after that, sensationalist, exaggerated, and outright false stories about wolves’ viciousness and bloodthirstiness spread far and wide, mostly via dramatic magazine articles. She states that the first study using modern research techniques took place in 1944; therefore, all accurate scientific knowledge we have about wolves today has been gathered since then (Fogleman 81). Modern research on wolves has helped to dispel an incredible amount of misinformation, but much more is left to learn. As L. David Mech and Luigi Boitani say in the introduction to their seminal book, Wolves: Behavior, Ecology, and Conservation

The wolf is truly a special animal. As the most widely distributed of all land mammals, the wolf, formally the gray wolf (Canis lupis), is also one of the most adaptable… The great variation in the wolf’s environment, and in the creature’s behavior and ecology as it contends with that environment, makes generalizing difficult. This problem can lead to false generalizations and misunderstanding about the animal. (xv) 

Therefore, this paper will provide as accurate and up-to-date scientific information as was available at the time of writing, but it is worth noting that there is likely an exception to every anecdote and discovery that wolf researchers have made. For example, we know today that a wolf pack is, first and foremost, a biological family unit. However, as wolves leave their natal packs and disperse in search of territory and a mate, sometimes they are adopted into other packs. Sometimes they find a mate and start their own pack. Sometimes they spend a year or more splitting their time between their natal pack and another that they have been adopted into. Therefore, the designation of a biological family unit does not necessarily hold for all instances. As a result, this discussion will necessarily deal with some of the generalizations that Mech and Boitani warn us about. It is important to keep this in mind moving forward. 

Common knowledge has spread the notion that the hierarchy within a wolf pack is rigid, with the alpha male and female at the top, followed by the less dominant beta wolf or wolves, all the way down to the supposedly abused and submissive omega member. However, although the number of members fluctuates far more than the members of a human family, the two otherwise display a large number of similarities. Instead of alpha, beta, and omega members in a wolf pack, consider a human family: the parents (or, more correctly, the breeding pair) are the dominant members, and the children range below them. Dominance is not based on size or age alone; in fact, in both humans and wolves, personalities are the greatest indicator of dominance. Additionally, dominance doesn’t necessarily mean bullying more submissive pack members. For example, many people today consider their pets to be part of the family. A pet is the equivalent of an omega wolf, because while pets are cherished and taken care of, they are not allowed to attempt to dominate the humans in their families. If a pet attempts to do so, it is reprimanded and subsequently put in its place, just as a so-called omega wolf would be. 

In both wolf packs and human families, siblings tend to make up the bulk of the pack. These siblings can be the children of the breeding pair, or they can be the siblings of one member of the breeding pair. While the former is considered standard, the latter is not at all uncommon and would occur in cases where one member of the breeding pair aged out or died. The dynamics between these siblings and half-siblings depends on a number of factors, including ages and environmental influences, while personality is, again, generally the most accurate indicator. 

Even families with adult children and aging parents can find their situation mirrored in a wolf pack, because the hierarchy within a wolf pack can be approximately as fluid as a human family. Adult children have a different relationship with their parents than young children do with theirs. Furthermore, the relationship between children and their parents evolve as the children grow. In wolf packs where one or more of the breeding pair’s children do not disperse to find their own territories and mates, the hierarchy shifts as family members come of age, grow ill or injured, recover their strength, and accept or reject newcomers into their pack. 

Dispersal is the process by which the offspring of a breeding pair leave their natal pack to individually search for their own mate and territory. “Some wolves disperse when as young as 5 months of age, whereas others may remain with the pack for up to 3 years, or occasionally longer” (Mech and Boitani, Ecology 11). Dispersal has been recorded as late as five years of age, though it generally occurs when the offspring is between 10 and 36 months. Dispersal usually occurs during puberty, when tensions between the maturing wolf and the pack’s breeding pair rise. A low food supply can also trigger a higher dispersal rate. According to Brenda Peterson, author of Wolf Nation: The Life, Death, and Return of Wild American Wolves, only approximately 20 percent of the wild wolf population are dispersed at any given time (179). 

When a young wolf disperses from their natal pack, they go in search of a few things: a mate, enough food to feed them both, and a territory of their own. A successful wolf is one who has found those things and gone on to have a litter. Until a dispersed wolf finds a mate and settles down, however, it is considered a lone wolf. Almost none of the common knowledge or connotations held today about “lone wolves” is accurate—for one, real lone wolves are never as violent as a “lone wolf” human killer. As Peterson states: 

Not only does comparing a man who opens fire with a military-grade automatic weapon on a helpless crowd of people to a lone wolf betray our blatant prejudice against this most maligned animal; it also is not based in any biological fact. A real lone wolf has deeply diminished powers to hunt or kill. A solitary wolf must live off smaller ground prey like squirrels and rabbits. Without family for protection and alliance, the wolf endures the most endangered time of his life and will survive only half as long as the eight- to ten-year life span of wolves in the wild (159).

For wolves, being alone is always temporary. They, like people, are not meant to live in isolation. A wolf named OR7, nicknamed Journey for dispersing over 1,200 miles after leaving his natal pack, traveled as far as he did in search of a mate. Additionally, the “slender, black” female wolf that he eventually paired with had also dispersed from her natal pack, likely based in northeastern Oregon (Peterson 185-86). 

OR7, born in 2009, was special in several ways. First was the epic journey for which he was nicknamed—he traveled hundreds of miles farther west than any wild wolf had since their reintroduction to the lower 48 states. He was also the first wolf in Western Oregon in sixty years. Additionally, in December 2011, he made international news by being the first wolf to cross the border from Oregon into California since 1924, when the last wild Californian wolf was killed. As OR7 reached milestone after milestone, he accumulated thousands of fans from across the U.S. who followed his progress online. Everyone from schoolchildren to seasoned field biologists spent years rooting for him; even some hardline anti-wolf politicians allowed that they would at least consider supporting bills that only permitted the hunting of wolves that had “a history of going after livestock” (Peterson 186). 

OR7 did not change everyone’s minds, of course, but his stardom raised the profile of all wolf conservation and why that conservation is important. People who had never given a second thought to wolves before grew genuinely invested in OR7’s health and progress across the western U.S. Documentaries and other media coverage brought wolf conservation into the public consciousness; a San Francisco librarian even wrote a successful children’s book about OR7’s journey, which further endeared him to the public. We are lucky that OR7’s dispersal closely followed a hero’s epic journey because it illustrates so clearly that when humans can look at wolves with empathy, it can help us learn to value and protect them. Furthermore, when authors imbue werewolves with genuine wolf-like characteristics, rather than the horrific and untrue attributes humankind has long associated with wolves, readers’ attachments to these werewolf characters can help them to see wolves with a clearer and less fearful eye. 

Fantastic Werewolves

Charles de Lint’s short novel Wolf Moon features a werewolf named Kern on the run from an evil musician with a magical harp. The book opens with the werewolf going over a waterfall rather than confronting the musician’s golem. He washes up near an inn where he is taken in and healed. Kern and the innkeeper, Ainsy, fall in love, but before Kern can tell her his secret the harper finds him and turns Kern’s newfound family against him. Ainsy’s cousin fights her way free of the magic and helps Kern kill the harper. 

Although De Lint’s version of a werewolf exhibits a much higher tendency toward violence against humans than is realistic for actual wolves—Kern kills a brigand who was torturing Ainsey’s uncle and, later, the evil musician—for the most part Kern’s journey follows that of a young wolf. His first transformation occurred at thirteen, “hard on the heels of puberty” (42). His parents, who were completely human, drove him away in fear. 

In reality, “dispersals do not seem to be actively chased away;” it is usually a mutual parting due to puberty-related aggression (Mech and Boitani, “Ecology” 13). Conflicts within the pack become more common when young wolves reach sexual maturity. When these conflicts become intolerable, the young wolves disperse. The young wolf’s quest, however, is the same as Kern’s. He wants to find a mate (Ainsy), find a territory he can call home (the inn), and have a pack (the rest of the inn’s ragtag permanent guests, and presumably any children that Kern and Ainsy may have down the road). 

Wolf Moon is significant because, above and beyond the implicit similarities between Kern’s journey and that of a young wolf’s, de Lint draws a direct line between the werewolves in the world of Wolf Moon and real wolves:

What was it about [Kern’s] gray brothers that filled people with such terror? They spoke of a pack numbering thirty or more, but that was never the case. A pack of twelve wolves was extraordinarily large. Folk told tales of atrocities that only men were capable of and laid the blame on a wolf. Not that wolves were gentle creatures, incapable of violent actions. They were the rulers of the forest, fierce and implacable when aroused. But first there must be a threat of some sort… (129) 

Even Kern’s new family, before they learn he is a werewolf, openly despises wolves as terrifying predators, capable of bloody and horrific “atrocities” (129). When the antagonist, a musician named Tuiloch, begins telling people that he’s seen a wolf in the woods nearby, even Ainsy wants to know: “Is anything being done to hunt the [wolf] down?” (129). The wolf’s supposed presence is what frightens people, not its actions. 

The reader sympathizes with Kern as he listens to people he respects and is growing to love disparate creatures like him. Additionally, part of what makes the musician a villain is his use of the preconceptions people hold about wolves to stoke fear and hatred for the supposed lone wolf in the nearby woods—he turns people against Kern before revealing to them that Kern is the wolf. Granted, the musician uses dark magic to complete Kern’s ostracization, but Tuiloch’s actions stem from the belief that wolves—and werewolves—should be hunted into extinction. Tuiloch treats Kern like an animal that would make a good hunting trophy. 

De Lint uses the reader’s sympathy for Kern and his efforts to defeat Tuiloch to build an indirect yet equally sympathetic link between the reader and nonfictional wolves. The reader feels for Kern, who in turn dislikes that regular wolves are hunted as he is being hunted—relentlessly, and by someone who cares not at all if the wolf has a family similar to Kern’s new one. Over the course of Wolf Moon, the reader becomes willing to take Kern at his word that wolves deserve the same dignity and respect that he does. 

Wolf Moon stands out as a particularly clear example of the parallels between real wolves and werewolves portrayed in a positive light, but it’s not the only one. Huntress Born by Aimee Easterling and Raised by Wolves by Jennifer Lynn Barnes both feature a protagonist who disperses from their natal pack. Furthermore, Easterling’s werewolves behave remarkably like real wolves. At one point, Ember, the werewolf protagonist of Huntress Born, is sexually harassed by another werewolf on her way home from work. “A teaspoon-ful [sic] of bile clawed its way up my throat and I opened my mouth to release odors that should have cued any sane werewolf in to my lack of interest” (71). Easterling uses the moment to show the reader that there is something mentally wrong with the attacker—he can smell that his advances are physically making Ember want to throw up, but it doesn’t phase him at all. As it turns out, the assaulter is under the sway of magic that radically impairs his judgment. Real wolves rely heavily upon olfaction for communication. Most biologists agree that it is a wolf’s most acute sense. 

In Huntress Born, Ember leaves her family to travel to the big city in search of her biological brother. Ember was adopted by her maternal uncle and his wife as a baby but considers her adoptive parents (both werewolves) her real mother and father. Her father is the alpha of their pack, and he treats Ember with warmth, understanding, and respect. He is a good father, and that is what makes him a good alpha. Jane Packard notes that there are two theories that deal with leadership within a wolf pack. A deterministic view concludes that a wolf pack is a “qualified democracy” within which “the male leader guides the activities of the pack and initiates attacks against trespassers.” On the other hand,  a stochastic view concludes that “parents influence the offspring, but offspring also influence their parents. Wolf families can be so diverse that both models probably have merit, depending on… the history of relationships within the pack” (Packard 60). 

The werewolves in Huntress Born use urine to scent mark; it tells other werewolves who left the scent and the leaver’s approximate mood. As Easterling writes, “My brother had been present in this very spot no more than a week earlier. And in the way of wolves, he’d imbued not only his identity but also his mood into the chemicals that laced his urine” (32-33). Fred H. Harrington and Cheryl S. Asa discuss wolves’ use of urine to communicate at length in their chapter “Wolf Communication” in Wolves: Behavior, Ecology, and Conservation (83-86). The werewolves’ body language described also tends toward accurate depictions of wolf behavior and interactions: “…[P]awing at the earth, I whined out my confusion;” “…[T]he alpha’s displeasure bent down my spine until my tail tucked between my legs;” and “…[S]lobber soaked the bedspread where I’d drooled out my distress and my ears pinned back against my skull” (33, 37, 93). 

Easterling plays with the delineation between human and animal through the use of bourgeois mores. Ember, who is blond and white, uses words like “darn,” and regularly refers to herself as a “pack princess,” believes that certain cultural norms must be followed (16, 63, 127, 71, and 98). Ember is also a baker, and Easterling plays up the harmlessness of creating, sharing, and eating desserts such as apple turnovers, oatmeal cookies, and triple chocolate cupcakes. Through her baking and upper-middle class mores, Ember is among the most harmless of werewolves in existence. 

By crafting werewolves that behave similarly to real wolves while keeping them relatively harmless with middle-class backgrounds and an emphasis on behaving civilly, Easterling draws a line directly between how harmless werewolves of Huntress Born are and how harmless real wolves generally are to humans. Like de Lint’s more overt attempt to spread understanding about wolves as social animals instead of monsters, it is a method of garnering sympathy and understanding for non-supernatural wolves. 

The werewolves in Jennifer Lynn Barnes’s Raised by Wolves exist within a pack, in contrast to Wolf Moon and Huntress Born. There is a certain level of jockeying for hierarchy inside the pack, as well as an undercurrent of violence that threatens to manifest whenever someone steps too far out of line. Like real wolves, aggression is used to assert dominance and solicitous or humble body language and behavior is used to placate anyone whose dominance has been threatened. In this way, the werewolves in Raised by Wolves are dangerous in the same way that wild animals are dangerous: if one cannot read a wolf’s body language, it can be impossible to know how to deescalate an encounter. 

Raised by Wolves is noteworthy because the protagonist, Bryn, is not physically a werewolf. She is one of the lone humans who grew up in a werewolf pack. As such, she understands werewolves better than she understands humans. Aside from the physiological differences, being a werewolf comes with different body language, expectations, and culture, and Bryn understands those better than she understands humans’. In this way, she is a werewolf in every aspect except the physical ones—she cannot transform into a wolf and lacks the supernatural senses, strength, and advanced healing abilities. However, she behaves and thinks like a werewolf. 

In Raised by Wolves, Bryn ends up leaving her natal pack and founding her own. She originally leaves under duress, essentially spirited away by her adoptive mother after a disagreement with the alpha of their old pack. The alpha had allowed Bryn to be corporally punished for breaking a pack rule as if she was physically a werewolf. Bryn accepted the punishment, essentially telegraphing submission as a real wolf would, but her adoptive mother (who is also human) decided to leave the pack and take Bryn with her. In biologist terms, they dispersed together. Although there has been no recorded anecdote in which a mother-daughter pair dispersed together, under the right circumstances (for example, if a pack fractured) it is not out of the question. Additionally, after a time Bryn’s romantic partner joins them in their new home, helping Bryn carve out a small piece of territory between two existing territories just as real wolves would. 

Part of Bryn’s emotional journey involves coming to terms with the violence indicative of life among werewolves. She learns to protect herself and surrounds herself with people she trusts not to treat violence as a panacea, as several wolves from her natal pack did. In founding her own pack, Bryn also finds a level of connectedness and family that she had never expected. She grows to accept that a certain amount of violence is part of growing fangs and claws at will, but trusts that her packmates, who are a number of new, young werewolves, are not bloodthirsty in the least. Bryn maintains a relationship with her prior alpha, but both understand that Bryn’s new pack is her future. Although they have access to cell phones, email, and other methods to stay in touch, the physical distance between their territories prevents any kind of blending of packs. 

Horrific Werewolves

    In an unpublished essay obtained via private correspondence, Steve Cave’s Stonecoast third semester paper “From Hellhound to Hero: Tracking the Shifting Shape of the 21st Century Werewolf” discusses a shift in the portrayal of werewolves from the monstrous creatures that naturalists historically pushed to protagonists with close family ties and an affinity with the natural world. It has been a gradual evolution occurring over the last two decades or so, but one I predict will continue as solid and meaningful research into wolves progresses. However, Cave’s essay overlooks the fact that in horror fiction, werewolves remain as monstrous as wolves have ever been viewed. This holds true even in non-horror novels where lycanthropy is portrayed as something undesirable or dangerous. In novels such as Glen Duncan’s The Last Werewolf, Carrie Vaughn’s Kitty and the Midnight Hour, and Steven Graham Jones’ Mongrels, werewolves in their transformed state are dangerous killing machines without any qualms or morals whose bloodthirstiness often leads to cannibalism.    

The Last Werewolf in particular relishes the horror that its protagonist, Jake, creates. It is a gory book full of all the worst characteristics a werewolf can have—in the protagonist’s grotesque wolf-like form he is hideous, horrific, and deadly. While reading, one might even conclude that the author intended to disgust the reader as much as possible. Jake has killed hundreds, perhaps thousands, of people over his extended lifespan, beginning with the graphic murder and cannibalism of his pregnant wife the first night he transformed. Additionally, and perhaps most tellingly, the protagonist has spent his life since that first transformation as a lone wolf. Some naturalists describing wolf behavior prior to the application of modern research techniques held that wolves only came together to hunt or to mate (Fogleman 72). Because wolves supposedly only tolerated the company of other wolves during mating or at times of bloodshed, all wolves, then, were necessarily lone wolves. 

Jake has never held out hope that he might be able to find a mate, although the possibility of sex with a female werewolf (a “She”) eternally taunts him. 

On the Curse you’re desperate for sex with a She… while off the Curse your regular libido’s amped up by the frustration of not having had sex with a She. It’s a numbers problem. Infection rates for females have always been low, WOCOP [the werewolf hunting organization] estimates one to every thousand years. As you can imagine, we don’t run into one another. (38)

Despite the book’s various depravities, the parallels between Jake and dispersed wolves such as OR7 are clear, even though Jake treats the absence of a female werewolf as a problem only because it is impossible to be completely satiated by sex with a human women. What he discovers upon meeting a “She” later in the novel, however, is that meeting the right female werewolf (or in this case, the only one) is rather like meeting one’s soul mate. This is a distinctly human idea, of course, but again we see parallels to OR7 and his own mate. 

Jake’s ideal romantic partner, however, has his same appetites, and it is on these that the book lingers. Jake and Tallulah’s meeting is portrayed as a monstrous communion. Even as they retain their human forms between full moons, their inner monsters are only temporarily caged; neither attempts to control their base urges. Tallulah fought it for her first three months as a werewolf when she only ate animals when she transformed, but the combined effort and act nearly killed her (231). Since then, she has adopted Jake’s resigned acceptance that if there’s no way to reign in the monstrous side of her wolf, then she might as well enjoy it. 

“I’m smarter when I change,” she said. “In all the worst ways. In all the ways that matter.”

“I know, Lu.”

“You think some sort of red cloud would come down, some sort of animal blackness to blot everything out and just leave the dumb instinct, but it doesn’t… I know what I’m doing. And I don’t just like it—I don’t just like it…”

“I know.”

“I love it… I tasted it,” she continued calmly. “All of it. His youth and his shock and his desperation and his horror. And from the first taste I knew I wasn’t going to stop until I had it all. The whole person, the whole fucking feast.” (232-33) 

All this, as they make love in a hotel room. Jake’s narration emphasizes that it is his lycanthropy that makes him a monster; although he makes no attempt to control it, without the lycanthropy he would have been a normal human. The same holds for Tallulah. 

Fogleman recounts various stories about naturalists from the 1800s and 1900s: “One naturalist ignored the opinion that wolves did not ordinarily attack people by stating that some wolves preferred human flesh to animal flesh. Another naturalist stated that once a wolf tasted human flesh, the animal would then attack people instead of animals” (71). Jake and Tallulah’s transformed bodies look more like cinema’s traditional humanoid wolf-man than an actual wolf, but it is clear that all their animal urges stem from historical attitudes and misconceptions toward wolves. 

It is easy to see the parallels in horror fiction, specifically, to past descriptions of wolves, but it is important to note that in all instances that lycanthropy is portrayed negatively, werewolves’ negative traits have roots in historical attitudes. This is true even of non-horror literature such as Carrie Vaughn’s Kitty and the Midnight Hour, in which Kitty Norville, a werewolf, works to balance her lycanthropy with her job as a radio DJ. The novel itself is urban fantasy, but the traits Vaughn gives to its werewolves are both disturbing and similar to those employed in The Last Werewolf. Upon transformation, werewolves in Kitty and the Midnight Hour experience “innate bloodlust”: “…[I]f you didn’t hunt deer you’d be hunting people, and that would get you in trouble. How do you feel about hunting people, Pete? How about eating people?” (28). Kitty’s pack of fellow werewolves also joins together only at the full moon. The rest of the time, the farther-flung members are essentially lone wolves; recall that common knowledge for centuries insisted that all wolves were lone wolves. 

In order to stress Kitty’s struggle to maintain a balance between her civilized and wild sides, Vaughn makes the contrast as stark as possible. Like Ember from Huntress Born, Kitty is white, blond, and comes from an upper-middle class background with a loving, normal (albeit human) family. She went to college, is working in her preferred field, and—unlike Ember—is only a werewolf because of one terrible night of bad luck. Where in Huntress Born, Ember’s lycanthropy binds her to her beloved family, Kitty’s lycanthropy restricts her job options and time spent with her family because she is unequivocally unavailable once a month. 

In addition, Kitty is the most submissive member of her pack. Misconceptions about hierarchy and dominance struggles within wolf packs have led to the mistaken idea that life is always miserable for the “omega” wolf. While this is generally not true for wild wolf packs, it is absolutely true of Kitty’s werewolf pack. The pack’s alpha pair —there is no breeding pair in Kitty’s world because no werewolf pregnancy is viable—emotionally abuse Kitty while protecting her from physical abuse by the rest of the pack. The alpha male also regularly takes her to bed without giving her the option to say no. Although there are occasions when a pack’s most submissive member is abused, sometimes to the extent of dispersal, this is not the way most packs operate. 

As aforementioned, most wolf packs in the wild are comprised of biological family members. An excellent example of a horror novel that blends both the accurate and inaccurate traits attributed to real wolves is Stephen Graham Jones’s Mongrels. The story follows a boy who lives with his aunt and uncle as he grows up. They are a biological pack. His aunt and uncle are werewolves; so was his maternal grandfather, who dies early in the story. The protagonist’s mother died in childbirth and his father (the biological outsider in this situation) is hardly mentioned. The violence in Mongrels remains front and center—it includes both grave robbing and cannibalism—but blends the horror sourced from old stories and modern knowledge about real wolves. 

In Mongrels, all the characters consider 16 years old to be full maturity. When the protagonist reaches 16, his aunt and uncle leave him to join their respective romantic partners and the pack effectively disbands. This would be realistic but unusual in a real wolf pack. According to Jane M. Packard, a pack without a breeding pair doesn’t generally last very long. It fractures, and the members disperse (38). 

However, wolves’ devotion to their young is well documented. Siblings from every generation have been recorded helping to take care of their brothers and sisters or nieces and nephews. Though unlikely, it is not impossible to imagine that a pair of siblings might rear their dead sister’s pup. In a wild wolf pack, if the puppies’ mother dies, the primary job of raising them usually falls to the father. Because the father of Mongrels’ protagonist is absent, however, this is not possible. Although violence is a given in the hard-scrabble life of Mongrels’ werewolves, it is never turned inward on the pack. There are squabbles between the members, but no actual fights. 

Despite the similarities between the Mongrels’ pack and real wolf packs, many of the horrific traits ascribed to werewolves in Mongrels stem from the same common misconceptions that the public once held about real wolves. In Mongrels, grave robbing is unfortunate, rather like eating out of the garbage, but needs must be met. Murder is frowned upon in that it will bring attention from authorities, not for its moral implications, and the bloodlust is so intense that cannibalism is a given. 

While some werewolf books emphasize the gory impulses that stem from historical inaccuracies about real wolves, others use stark contrasts between the horror that is an innate part of the characters’ werewolf sides and the gentler, more natural and civilized human sides. This contrast allows both the positive and negative traits to shine more brightly. Readers are more deeply horrified, but also more deeply moved to empathize with the werewolves. It could be argued that what readers empathize with is the werewolves’ human sides and ascribed desires, but the werewolves’ more admirable traits are present in both humans and wolves. The fact that the admirable traits exist in wolves as well as humans has simply been overlooked. 


Werewolves are intimately tied to wolves, and the perception of one influences the other. In her essay “American Attitudes Toward Wolves: A History of Misperception,” Fogleman says, “If no-one had been interested in hearing or reading about werewolves, accounts of them would not have been influential in shaping American attitudes toward wolves” (78). Werewolf fiction influences how we view real wolves, and vice versa. For hundreds of years, wolves were “the very symbol of avarice, viciousness, and guile,” and tales of monstrous werewolves were the only kind found in literature (Busch 109). However, as Fogleman states,“…[T]he negative attitudes toward wolves are slowly beginning to change” and she attributes the most important factor in this evolution to an “increased knowledge of wolves” (80). 

The more we learn about wolves, the harder it is not to see the similarities between them and ourselves. This is reflected in werewolf fiction, which portrays werewolves either as monstrous creatures, depictions of which draw on the sensationalist and inaccurate stories about wolves that naturalists pushed for centuries, or on modern wolf studies and research dating from approximately 1944. The former is used in literature intended to showcase werewolves in a negative light, while the latter is used in stories meant to humanize werewolves. 

Learning about wolves and using those characteristics to craft sympathetic or heroic werewolves in contemporary literature could create a positive feedback loop—as the public begins to associate “good” werewolves with real wolves, wolf conservation will grow more popular with the public as well. When we begin to admire or empathize with an endangered species, we are more inclined to create and enforce public policies that protect that species. In the long run, werewolves could help protect their nonfictional counterparts in the wild.


Barnes, Jennifer Lynn. Raised by Wolves. Egmont USA, 2010. 

Cave, Steve. “From Hellhound to Hero: Tracking the Shifting Shape of the 21st Century Werewolf.” Personal communication.

Coudray, Chantal Dourgault Du. The Curse of the Werewolf: Fantasy, Horror and the Beast Within. I.B. Tauris, 2006. 

Busch, Robert H. The Wolf Almanac, New and Revised: A Celebration of Wolves and Their World. The Lyons P, 2018. 

De Lint, Charles. Wolf Moon. Firebird, 1988. 

Duncan, Glen. The Last Werewolf. Borzoi Books, 2011. 

Easterling, Aimee. Huntress Born. Wetknee Books, 2017.

Fogleman, Valerie M. “American Attitudes Toward Wolves: A History of Misperception.” Environmental Review: ER, vol. 13, no. 1, Oxford UP, 1989, pp. 63-94. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/3984536

Harrington, Fred H. and Cheryl S. Asa. “Wolf Communication.” Wolves: Behavior, Ecology, and Conservation, University of Chicago P, 2006, pp. 66-103.

Jones, Stephen Graham. Mongrels. HarperCollins Publishers Inc., 2016.

Mech, L. David, and Luigi Boitani. Wolves: Behavior, Ecology, and Conservation, University of Chicago Press, 2006.

—–. “Introduction.” In David and Boitani 2006, pp. xi-xvii.

—–. “Wolf Social Ecology.” In David and Boitani 2006, pp. 1-34. 

Packard, Jane M. “Wolf Behavior: Reproductive, Social, and Intelligent.” In David and Boitani 2006, pp. 35-65. 

Peterson, Brenda. Wolf Nation: The Life, Death, and Return of Wild American Wolves

Da Capo P, 2017. Vaughn, Carrie. Kitty and the Midnight Hour. Grand Central, 2005.

S.M. Mack is a MFA recipient in popular fiction from USM Stonecoast, a Clarion graduate, and the 2017 first place winner of the Katherine Patterson Prize for Young Adult Writing. She lives in San Diego and can be found on Twitter at @whatsmacksaid.

Is That From Science or Fiction? Otherworldly Etymologies, Neosemes, and Neologisms Reveal the Impact of SF on the English Lexicon

SFRA Review, vol. 51, no. 3

Selected ICFA 2021 Papers

Is That From Science or Fiction? Otherworldly Etymologies, Neosemes, and Neologisms Reveal the Impact of SF on the English Lexicon

B.L. King

Science fiction has been the red-headed step-child of literary genres since her beginning, despite being one of the most successful and fast-growing genres besides her sister, fantasy; however, this position is inconsistent with the impact the genre has made on language and the relating novum that its neologisms represent. Numerous English words and phrases have been coined or redefined by science fiction;they are also widely recognized and understood as more than pop culture references—as actual concepts, intellectual properties, and objects. Words such as spacesuit, webcast, and blaster are neologisms and actually find their derivations from science fiction literature and film, while words like alien and satellite were given new meanings while becoming used and understood on a much larger level, making them neosemes (Valentina). These words and phrases are widely recognized, even without contextual clues, and used outside of science fictional contexts, despite their alien meanings, pun intended. Even though they were initially introduced to characterize and term foreign, extraterrestrial objects and concepts, they have extended beyond that context and have made it into generalized dictionaries. Most find their birth in science fiction texts instead of scientific research, contrary to common belief and assumption. These etymologies prove the momentous impact of science fiction on the English lexicon and contribute to the popularization and mainstreaming of the genre as a whole while also mentally inventing new ideas and thoughts for the human race, especially in exploration of science, through linguistic means. Examining the extension of SF terminology into the lexicon results in evidence for SF to be regarded with reverence and credibility as a literary genre in and of itself. 

It is no secret that SF has been looked down on for its sensationalism and has been accused of writing for the masses as a product of “the culture industry” (Horkeimer and Adorno). Anthony Enns highlights this discrimination in his article “The Poet of the Pulps: Ray Bradbury and the Struggle for Prestige in Postwar Science Fiction” and recounts that the cultural perception of the pulps and critics of SF’s widespread reaction of awe and horror contributed to this imbalance. Despite the positive pop-cultural reception and growth of the genre, university programs continue to shun it and it is unequally represented in the western literary canon. Such negative associations, connotations, and biases persist in the world of both authors and critics. 

To negate this inequality, I will relay the undeniable impact of SF neologisms and neosemes on the English language by recounting the etymologies of the most widely used neologisms and citing their listings in mainstream, standard, modern dictionaries. It is crucial to clarify that the words to be discussed are simply the most popularly recognized and utilized words SF has coined and not the only ones. My etymologies will also be abbreviated as for the purpose of this paper, the quantity and usage of these words proves more to the argument than their lengthy histories. 

Thus, to start our alphabet of SF, the word alien (noun) has taken on a purging of its original meaning, which is “a foreigner” in its noun form and “belonging to a foreign country” in its adjective form (Oxford English Dictionary, “Alien”). It first appeared with its new definition as a noun meaning “a being not of earth” in the 1820 Collected Letters of Thomas Carlyle and was used again in this context in Frank R. Paul’s One Prehistoric Night and again in Eando Binder’s 1939 Impossible World (Prucher and Qolfe 2). From there it continued in its new usage as such while the other, though still used but infrequently, became a secondary meaning. The word’s first known use as an adjective was in Abraham Merritt’s Moon Pool (1919). The recorded usage of alien escalated rapidly after approximately the late 1800s and beginning of the 1900s. This time frame parallels the rise in popularity of its SF definition, which has now become for many the first definition that comes to mind.

Artificial intelligence (AI) (noun) was coined in 1973 by G. R. Dozois in the novella Chains of Sea (Prucher and Qolfe 10). It is defined as “the theory and development of computer systems able to perform tasks that normally require human intelligence” (Prucher and Qolfe 10). Big Tech and its most well-known entrepreneurs, like Bill Gates and Elon Musk, have co-opted the phrase to describe their technologies that mimic human intelligence. It is also the basis for the more recent term artificial super-intelligence, which formed before most modern computer programs were invented and one year before the personal computer’s (PC) invention, contributing to the notion that SF takes part in the invention of technology by speculating it.

Atomic bomb (noun) was introduced to the lexicon by none other than H. G. Wells in his 1914 novel, The World Set Free (Brake 122). Oxford defines the term as “a bomb that derives its destructive power from the rapid release of nuclear energy by fission of heavy atomic nuclei”(Oxford English Dictionary, “Atomic Bomb”). Wells invented the term about thirty-one years before the first actual atomic bomb, “Little Boy,” was dropped over Hiroshima, Japan. Wells’s psychic phrasing points again to the strong bond SF has with the English language and the technology around us. 

D stands for disintegrator (noun), first appearing as the name of a weapon in 1925 by N. Dyalhis in When Green Stars Wane, published in Weird Tales (Prucher and Qolfe 36). In the same sentence where the world first saw a disintegrator, Dyalhis also coined the term blaster—although some might first think of a certain space opera by the name of Star Wars upon hearing this word because the films are one of the main perpetrators of its use. Both words have made it into the Oxford US English lexicon and through their widespread use, are very easily pictured and recognized words and concepts. When this type of recognition and mental imagery happens, it is as if the author has invented something concrete and is not merely describing or employing a plot device, accentuating the power of language and specifically the power of SF language.

Going back to one of the most common themes of SF, extraterrestrial (noun, adjective), a neoseme to describe alien life, first appeared in S. D. Grottessman’s 1941 Cosmic Stories. Its root word, terrestrial, comes from Latin meaning “of the earth” and now with the prefix extra-, it does not mean more earthly, but instead “outside of earth,” in reference to UFOs or alien species (alien as in the aforementioned definition). An entire institute is actually named from this word called The Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) which accredited scientists support and research for. This solidifies the integration of not only the word into the language, but also the concept it stands for.

Hyperspace (noun) was given its meaning of another dimension that one reaches by travelling faster than light in 1934 by John Campbell in The Mightiest Machine (Brake 70), yet many commonly associate the phrase with the Star Wars franchise’s Millennium Falcon. The term was recorded once before 1934, but only as a geometrical reference, and was added to the Oxford English Dictionary in 2010 (Oxford English Dictionary, “Hyperspace”). It has become a shared concept among SF texts and contributed to the use of hyperdrive, which originated in SF in 1955. Campbell’s word also inspired the term cyberspace which was coined by William Gibson (Brake 137) in his 1982 short story Burning Chrome and then expanded upon in his best-seller from 1984, Neuromancer. 

Lightspeed (noun), coined in 1929 by E. Hamilton in the novel The Star Stealers, is a neoseme meaning “a unit of speed equal to the speed of light” (Oxford English Dictionary, “Lightspeed”). It is now used in scientific texts and jargon and is the accepted unit of measurement of 300,000 kilometers per second. It was added to the Oxford English Dictionary in 2005, cementing its use. Lightspeed’s continued usage persists as a common element of SF stories. The phrase “speed of light” inspired our neoseme, but it was not a measurement and related itself with questioning and speculation rather than with coinage or tangible ideas. 

One of the most famous neologisms of SF origin is robot (noun), derived from a Czech play called R.U.R. that uses the Czech word “robota” meaning “forced labor” (Prucher and Qolfe 165). The play was written by K. Čapek in 1920 to refer to artificial but biological slaves, and P. Selver translated the play in 1923. Flash forward to 1941 when Asimov applied it, along with other writers, to mechanical beings, and he coined robotic, robotics, and roboticist. It is arguably one of the most famous SF-derived words and concepts and is another one that we tend to forget or not realize was originally  coined in SF.

The neologism spacecraft (noun) was first used in 1930 by P. Nowlan and R. Calkins in Buck Rogers 2430 A.D. Buck Rogers is probably a familiar name to some and has contributed to the mainstreaming of SF through its franchise so it is no surprise that it has also contributed to language like it has with pop culture. Spacecraft as a term makes its appearance twenty-seven years before the Soviet Union’s Sputnik launched from earth. Yet spacecrafts have a far more complex and impressively prophetic history than that. Johannes Kepler, an astronomer and early SF author, wrote in a letter to Galileo humans should and could create a “craft ‘adjusted to the heavenly ether for the ‘brave sky-travelers’ who are ‘unafraid of the empty wastes’” (Brake 20). This letter was written about 300 years before any sort of spacecraft even existed and illustrates the mental experimentation that SF holds at its core. 

The neologism spacesuit (noun) can be defined as a “a sealed and pressurized garment which protects the wearer against the conditions of space.” It was first used in the 1929 July edition of Science Wonder Stories (Oxford English Dictionary, “Spacesuit”). Man’s first actual journey into space took place many years after that and astronauts did not don spacesuits until the 1960s. NASA now refers to these “pressurized garments” as spacesuits because of science fiction stories. This is yet again an instance of SF not only influencing the jargon of science, but also the very technology that science can create. Similarly, space station (noun) also made its debut in Science Wonder Stories in 1929; however, it actually appeared as “spatial station” and later that year in December, C. W. Harris and M. J. Breuer replaced it with space station in Baby on Neptune in Amazing Stories (Oxford English Dictionary, “Space Station”). The neoseme phrase space travel (noun), the concept of navigating outer space, also finds its coinage in the 1929 September edition of Science Wonder Stories (Oxford English Dictionary, “Space Travel”) and is even born in the same sentence where we first see space station. In 1998, the International Space Station was launched, simultaneously actualizing both phrases, space station and space travel, once again showing a cross between SF and science and making SF predictions a reality. Mark Brake writes “that a spirit of ‘what if’ is common to both science and science fiction” (Brake 2).

Time machine (noun), perhaps one of the most famous neoseme phrases from SF, is a phrase coined by H. G. Wells’s 1894 novel of the same name. This text is one of the very first SF novels and created one of SF’s signature tropes, inspiring classics like Back to the Future. Through this phrase Wells also made time the fourth dimension (Brake 70). Time machine was added to the Oxford English Dictionary in March 2012, over a century after its first use (Oxford English Dictionary, “Time Machine”). This phrase also precedes time travel and time traveler. Wells did not just coin a word, however, he invented a scientific concept that some scientists believe could be an actual possibility. Einstein himself believed in and studied the existence of wormholes (Brake 70), which are essentially tears in the space-time continuum through which one could theoretically enter and come out the other end at a designated date in what is considered linear time. Again, SF has opened doors for scientists to experiment with concepts born of authors’ minds.

Our last word, a brief honorable mention is the neologism Webcast (noun), which was coined in 1987 by D. K. Moran in Armageddon Blues, meaning, “[a] live broadcast transmitted over the World Wide Web” (Oxford English Dictionary, “Webcast”) Now with the technologies of Skype, Zoom, and Webex, Moran’s direct vision is a vivid reality. 

As we end our alphabet of SF, it is important to note that SF has also been crucial to the popularization of existing words. Among this category are words like zero-gravity, humanoid, mothership, and nanotechnology. These words had scattered use before they appeared in SF texts, but after their appearance they steadily gained momentum in use and in research (Google Ngram). Not only does SF coin words, but it also popularizes obscure words and is the main contributor to their inclusion in the standard lexicon. 

Yet not only has SF impacted our language through these neologisms, introducing new words to our shared, universal vocabulary, but it also has introduced novum, new ideas, to our realities. SF has not just coined a word for a space station, but because it has introduced a new word to our minds linguistically, it has now invented intellectual property that must be represented by the word, as I conclude using Darko Suvin’s and Ferdinand de Saussure’s theories in conjunction. The genre introduces us to novum, those of which must be symbolically represented by our language in order to be conveyed. These neologisms are signs that transfer new meaning, novum, and images to the human brain and consciousness that were previously unthought of, and their signifiers (or words) were previously without meaning. In order for a word to be coined, introduced to, and used in a lexicon, it must have an image, concept, or idea behind it to provide its meaning since language is an arbitrary medium for communication in which the main goal is for ideas to be exchanged. SF has not just impacted us linguistically, but idealistically. To impact a language is to impact thought and reality, perceptions and inventions. Thus, SF has not just coined or recoined words, but has introduced and described new ideas, which are novum, and the mental invention and recognition of concepts like spacesuits, robots and webcasts. Mark Brake, the author of The Science of Science Fiction, discusses a version of this as “a kind of theoretical science” (Brake 2). However, an emphasis on the linguistic part of that science is missing. SF could not achieve this theoretical science of exploration and, as I term it, mental invention without keywords which are neosemes and neologisms to signify those inventions. 

Now that we have explored what words come from SF, we must highlight why it matters. Brake argues that SF precedes science in many cases and has impacted our culture and interests, which largely supports the notion for SF to be regarded with more reverence as a genre. To build upon this, the elemental way in which SF is able to influence our culture and science is through neologisms and neosemes. The concepts SF words stand for are why people love them, but the way the concepts are communicated—through neologisms and neosemes—is what makes readers able to grasp and understand them and henceforth, to accept them within the culture. Without the invention of these words, the intellectual properties and tropes of SF would be lost in translation,would not be able to be copied and recognized across texts as effectively, and would also not as easily slip into our language. We do not talk about “the pressurized garments worn in space”; we talk about spacesuits. Most of us are not familiar with the mechanics of navigating precise wormholes that operate through use of hyperspace activity and their function in the fourth dimension, but we do know what time travel is. Without these neologisms and neosemes, these concepts would not be popularized or commonly recognized. 

It is difficult to argue that another genre has been this heavily involved with real-world science and the English lexicon. This sets SF completely apart from other literary genres, yet it has not been dignified as a credible genre. Many of the words above represent concepts that actual scientists are now exploring thanks to concepts that originated in SF like time travel, parallel universes, and space travel (Brake). This exemplifies the strength of language, but also the impact of SF as a genre on our reality. Considering the volume and popular usage of the collection of SF words above, it is reasonable to say that SF has made a large impact in not just the words we speak, but the voice we hear in our heads that heralds images and ideas into the forefront of our minds. SF has not made meaningless words, but has mentally invented a vast world of concepts, some of which we have made into a tangible reality. This linguistic power moves SF beyond the page and into our daily lives, into the fabric of our communication, making the case that SF should no longer be ignored when its impact extends this far. This proof that SF is a credible genre lies in its very text and our very own language.


Brake, Mark. The Science of Science Fiction. Skyhorse Publishing Company, Incorporated., 2018.

Enns, Anthony. The Poet of the Pulps : Ray Bradbury and the Struggle for Prestige in Postwar Science Fiction. Belphegor, 2015.

Horkheimer, Max, and Theodor W. Adorno. The Dialectic of Enlightenment. 1947. Trans. Edmund Jephcott. Ed. Gunzelin Schmid Noerr. Stanford: Stanford UP, 2002.

OED Online, Oxford University Press, December 2020, http://www.oed.com/view/Entry/90321. Accessed 13 December 2020.

Prucher, Jeff and Gene Qolfe. Brave New Words: The Oxford Dictionary of Science Fiction. Oxford University Press. (2007).

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B.L. King is an MA graduate student and instructor at Florida Atlantic University with a concentration in SF and Fantasy. She is an ICFA, PCA/ACA and SFRA member and has presented at each of the 2021 conferences for those associations. Her master’s thesis will be an ecocritical look at The Witcher series and she is a proud working member of Heartwood Books and Art, an antiquarian and rare book seller.

“Master harmonizers”: Making Connections in the Post-Disaster World of Nnedi Okorafor’s Binti Novella Series

SFRA Review, vol. 51, no. 3

Selected ICFA 2021 Papers

“Master harmonizers”: Making Connections in the Post-Disaster World of Nnedi Okorafor’s Binti Novella Series

Iuliia Ibragimova

Rosi Braidotti, contemplating the implications of human and non-human agents’ interrelations laid bare by globalization and capitalism, states in The Posthuman (2013) that the “unity [of these agents] tends to be of the negative kind, as a shared form of vulnerability, that is to say a global sense of inter-connection between the human and the non-human environment in the face of common threats” (50). Emphasizing the urgency of the environmental crises that the world is embroiled in, this statement also expresses concerns about the perception and attitudes, construed through the discourse of interconnectedness visible and incontestable due to these crises. While the recognition of these connections is vital and integral to boosting awareness of the necessary shift in environmental policies, coming from the premise of a looming threat to human survival casts these connections as “negative” and “reactive” (50), locating non-human agents in relation to the central human figure. The human figure dominating the discourse is equated to a specimen of an endangered species, which anthropomorphizes the non-human species and diminishes them by failing to recognize their significance independently of the human. This paper draws on the theoretical framework set forth by Donna J. Haraway in When Species Meet (2008) and Staying with the Trouble (2016), Rosi Braidotti in The Posthuman (2013), and by Anna Tsing  in “Unruly Edges: Mushrooms as Companion Species” (2012). They advocate a transformation of this reactive bond by shifting the focus from the human and seeing these relations as an intricately connected whole without a hierarchical center, treating organic and non-organic companion species in a compassionate and respectful manner (Haraway Species 262-263; Braidotti Posthuman 101; Tsing 144). But what would it look like in practical terms? How can this inevitable interconnectedness be revised in an affirmative manner without falling into the trap of anthropocentrism? 

Nnedi Okorafor’s Binti novella series (2015-2019) presents a compelling, if utopian, model of establishing relations between the interconnected human and non-human agents in a post-disaster world. These relations are based on listening and responding to various others, becoming a part of the flow of shifting matter entailing mental, spiritual, and even physical changes and acting with respect and compassion to all human and non-human persons. Dustin Crowley in “Binti’s R/evolutionary Cosmopolitan Ecologies” (2019) notes that Okorafor employs the elements of African animism (238) in the novella, introducing the non-hierarchical and non-dualistic paradigm of relations with human and non-human others. This paradigm that can be traced throughout the series is consonant with critical posthumanism, a theoretical approach contemplating “what it means to be human under the conditions of globalization, technoscience, late capitalism and climate change” and “non-dialectical relationships between human and posthuman (as well as their dependence on the nonhuman)” (Braidotti “Critical Posthumanism” 94, emphasis original). The eponymous protagonist approaches communication with human and non-human agents through harmonization, a process of making contact peacefully and considerately, blurring the traditional boundaries between the natural and the artificial, the born and the manufactured, the human and the non-human. “Harmonization,” a talent and skill that Binti inherits from her family, enables communication between the human, technology, aliens, and non-human animals, laying bare the irrelevance of borders between them and offering a way to challenge the consumerist and oppressive regime that the existence of these borders sustains. The process of harmonization and its implications are discussed later in the essay.

The series does not give a detailed explanation on how the environmental conditions of the post-disaster world emerged. Okorafor does not delineate a clear line between the present-day Earth and the future and does not mention a natural catastrophe or connect the environmental conditions of the future with a war, though the war with Meduse comprises an essential part of the plot. Likewise, the differences in the ecological conditions of our world and the world of the series do not become the focus of the Binti novella series. They are mentioned in passing: the intensity of Sun radiation that requires tinted glass for a fair-skinned person to endure it (Okorafor Binti 10), portable water capture stations (87), energy from solely renewable sources both for domestic and industrial needs, as well as only two climate varieties – desert and snow – in describing the future Earth. All these details contribute to the picture of different climate conditions, which are portrayed in a deliberately oblique manner. This creates a dynamic of the world that has not changed overnight due to a single event, be it a natural disaster or a catastrophic event; the process of transformation has been gradual, like the sea level rising by millimeters to cause the destruction of whole habitats, like a single species extinction that destroys the balance of an ecosystem that deteriorates day by day losing biodiversity, like global temperature rising by fractions to inevitably change the climate conditions of the planet. This approach to the portrayal of the post-climate change world instigates the feeling of urgency. No single disastrous event is necessary; the environment is already on the verge of collapse due to anthropogenic influence. In Staying With The Trouble (2016), Haraway accentuates that multiple factors caused by and connected to human activities threaten “major system collapse” right now (100), revealing the urgency of the problems and the necessity of the systematic changes to at least attempt to solve them. Okorafor’s depiction of the world transformed by climate change echoes the gradual decay of modernity, showing how these negative changes accumulate and transform landscapes and habitats to make them unrecognizable. In this manner, the urgency of the shift in the vision of the world and the necessity to challenge anthropocentric views is articulated as vividly as in disaster narratives, which tend to concentrate on a catastrophe that leads to an environmental crisis.

Harmonization, a skill, and process which Binti is gifted at, suggests a way to contemplate the relations between human and non-human agents from a non-anthropocentric perspective. Harmonization, initially presented through Binti’s capacity for mathematical thinking and engineering, is not limited to science and technology; when the ship taking her to Oomza University, a prestigious intergalactic institution, is attacked by the Meduse, a combative alien race, she uses harmonization techniques to communicate with them. Mwinyi, a young male of Enyi Zinariya, an imaginary tribe getting their name from their contact with another group of aliens, is also a harmonizer and uses his gift and skill to communicate with non-human animals and to provide for the safety whenever a need to travel through the desert arises. The expansion of the meaning of harmonization from technological skill based on individual talent to alien species and non-human animals resonates with the posthumanist vision of the unstable boundaries habitually infringed upon in complicated entanglements and shows how decentering the human harbors the potential of a peaceful co-existence in the interconnected universe. The capacity of harmonization to achieve understanding between different species echoes Tsing’s vision of “interspecies species being” (144). Tsing states that “most species […] – including humans – live in complex relations of dependency and interdependence” (144), pondering the processes of globalization and the division of domesticated and wild species; she emphasizes the importance of respecting these connections and understanding the implications and consequences of one’s actions from the point of view of mutual impact. While harmonization, unlike Tsing’s analysis, is grounded in a fictional universe, it depicts a necessary shift in the worldview for the respectful and peaceful co-existence of different human, non-human, and alien species. 

Harmonization is first introduced in the novella series as a hereditary trade and gift in Binti’s family allowing them to produce intricate devices, astrolabes that resemble modern-day phones. These devices are in high demand not only among the Himba, a real ethnic group and the one to which Binti belongs, but also among the Khoush, a fictional majority in the series. Joshua Yu. Burnett describes Okorafor’s representation of the Himba as technological experts thus challenging the image of traditional cultures left behind by the progress and lacking access to advanced technology (127). The association of Western culture with science and technology development is no longer valid for Okorafor’s future; the Himba in the series are not conflicted by creating computational devices receiving universal acclaim and following traditional patterns of governance, family structures, as well as wearing otjize on their skin and hair. The erasure of the perceived interdependence of technological progress and Westernization conveyed through the relations between the Himba and technology in the series also aims to eliminate the association of technological progress and the destructive consequences of technological intervention driven by the consumerist approach to the colonized territories and ethnicities in Africa, associated with Western colonization practices.

Locating technological expertise in the Indigenous African environment, Okorafor conveys a different vision of technology – it originates in negotiation and cooperation with natural forces that are a part of the environment, its logical continuation, not a detrimental factor triggering environmental decay and natural disasters. The manufacturing process is a process of making contact and connection, based on the recognition of non-human agency; it entails “communicat[ing] with the spirit flow and convinc[ing] them to become one current” (Okorafor Binti 16), rejecting the idea of mastering the nature and imposing a purpose on inert matter. Technology, created and used by the Himba in general and Binti in particular, becomes a “full partner,” not only mediating the relations of the human with the world, but also revealing its own agential power (Haraway Species 249). Technology, both an agent and a product of negotiating with natural forces, is rendered inseparable from the natural world, which dissolves the dichotomy of the natural and the artificial. This vision of technology rejects a division of interconnected phenomena into separate ontological categories with clear boundaries and embraces the interdependence of agents, processes, and the environment. This vision is crucial for the post-climate change world where the methods of interaction between the human and the environment must be revised and reformulated to avoid further destruction and to sustain the fragile balance. The Binti novella series presents a vividly optimistic image of technology, but this technology is unhinged from the habitual associations with progress, Westernization, and globalization; it emerges from the deep connection with the environment and relies on the expertise of Indigenous people to respectfully communicate with the environment rather than assume control over it.

A deep awareness of the connection with the environment in the series manifests itself not only in relations between the human and technology, but it also spreads to the relations with non-human animals. The skill of harmonization as practiced by Mwinyi opens communication channels with non-human animals. In contrast to Binti who learns harmonization from her father, Mwinyi discovers his talent in an encounter with elephants, who are notorious for killing humans on sight but spare him because he can talk to them. It activates the reversal of the colonial discourse when the colonizers refuse to acknowledge the agency of the colonized based on their inability to understand the colonizers’ language (Burnett 124). Here on the contrary, the human colonizers of the natural world are threatened by their inability to listen and converse, and Mwinyi, enabled by his talent to initiate a conversation, is rewarded not only by surviving the encounter, but also by being able to advance his innate ability with his elephant friend’s help. Mwinyi’s learning of harmonization skill from a non-human agent results in a revelation for Binti: “An elephant taught him to harmonize and instead of using it to guide current and mathematics, she’d taught him to speak to all people. The type of harmonizer one was depended on one’s teacher’s worldview” (Okorafor Binti 230). The worldview that Mwinyi shares with his teacher allows them to form a bond that is mutually beneficial and promotes their understanding of each other, allowing them to live side by side peacefully, regardless of the initial animosity that elephants have to humans. The relations based on negative reciprocity, that grow out of the interactions between species in the “contact zones” (Haraway Species 264), are transformed through communication and recognition of agency that all the participants of the interaction possess. This transformation is rooted in African animism, which runs through other works by Okorafor as well. She describes the mysticism in Who Fears Death by the “golden rule” of “welcoming and tolerance” that promotes the peaceful co-existence of species (Okorafor “Writing”24). This concept  is interwoven into the plot of the Binti novella series as well and is expressed through the multiple connections that Binti shares with technology, human others, non-human animals, and aliens. 

The communication between Binti and the Meduse is the main driver of the plot of the series, which starts on her journey to Oomza University and eventually brings her back home to her roots and to new revelations about herself. The ship, itinerant to Oomza University, is attacked by the Meduse who kill everybody on the ship except for the pilot, who they need to get to Oomza, and Binti, who is unexpectedly protected from them by her “edan” – a piece of ancient and alien technology that Binti attempts to decipher during the series (Okorafor Binti 6). The edan also acts as Binti’s translating device invoking once again the colonizer-colonized discourse and reiterating the significance of language as a means of communication and making contact in the imagery of the series. Communication, assisted by harmonization, becomes a way to prevent the imminent massacre at Oomza; as a master-harmonizer, Binti first gets to the bottom of the Meduse’s attack and then becomes the mediator between the Meduse and the University’s governing body. Binti, a member of the marginalized Himba minority, becomes a speaker for the marginalized alien race who used to reject contacts with the intergalactic community and have no interest in integrating into its shared culture. They even refuse to attend Oomza University before they encounter Binti. The successful resolution of this conflict exemplifies the importance attributed by the series to listening to marginalized voices and recognizing their capacity to show new ways of tackling complicated situations that otherwise can lead to bloodshed. Only when all the voices are heard and all interests are heeded can the peaceful cooperation and mutually beneficial development between species and races ensue.

However, to represent the interest of the Meduse Binti must give up her edan temporarily and suffer a Meduse sting that introduces alien genes into her genome, which not only allows her to understand the Meduse without her edan, but also changes her appearance. Her dreadlocks turn into tentacles, leaving a visible trace of contact and the transformation it entails. Haraway, speaking about the interactions between companion species, contemplates the mutual changes on the chemical, genetic, and microbial levels that emerge through interaction and communication with each other (Species 16). Being a companion, sharing a meal, and making kin entails intimate changes and recognizing it facilitates understanding of the nature of communication, an action that transforms the participants in meaningful ways, no matter how big or small these changes are. Binti’s metamorphosis is radical in a SF fashion. Representing the Meduse in the negotiation with humans and other alien races entails becoming a part of their “family through battle,” a human-Meduse hybrid (Okorafor Binti 56). It reiterates the inevitable changes that communication brings to all participants. Reflecting them on the bodily level makes them conspicuous and challenges the perception of communicants as separate entities, accentuating the reciprocal nature of communication on more than one level. 

Binti’s physical transformations are not limited to becoming partially Meduse. In the last installment of the series, she dies in the Meduse-Khoush conflict reignited by Binti and her Meduse companion’s visit to the Earth. Binti is saved by New Fish, a sentient spaceship that is genetically close to a shrimp and houses a plant garden in its intestines that produces oxygen both for itself and its passengers. The young spaceship’s microbiome, flourishing in the plant garden, is in its active developmental stage and possesses the power to revive Binti’s dead body. However, Binti’s revival comes at a price for both her and the spaceship: they need to be physically close to each other to keep Binti alive. These relations, though formed to save a human life, do not place the human into the center. New Fish will live much longer than Binti and chooses to sustain Binti’s life by staying next to her; it is a gift and a reward for Binti’s ability to listen and respect others’ voices. It is given willingly rather than taken forcefully without considering the agency and aspirations of the other. Binti is still a receiving party in this exchange mirroring the real-world relations between the humans and non-human animals and bringing to light the underlying mechanism of interdependence: humans are critically dependent on those from whom they take and those with whom they engage in a mutual evolutionary process; the impact of these relations on all parties is difficult to underestimate. 

The concept of harmonization in the series connects the human, the non-human animal, and technology with the bonds of communication, creating a complex network of agential interactions rather than separate individuals acting independently to achieve their goals. This network does not have a defined center, it does not allocate any agent with a special place or power, which challenges human exceptionalism. The representation of communication between different agents in the series resonates with posthumanist theory, which counters the ideas of human centrality, analyzing interactions between different entities including individuals, species, environments, and humans from the point of view of their interdependence (Tsing 144). Approaching the environment from the point of view of human hegemony has already brought the world on the verge of disaster and has proven to be a dangerous misconception (Haraway Staying 100). The future of the Binti series shows the consequence: the climate of the Earth is irreversibly changed and the relations between species are bound to change as well. The human participants representing the results of this transformative process are located outside the Western paradigm among Indigenous people, like the Himba; their vision, rooted in a different culture, is  key to a peaceful co-existence between species, technologies, and environment. African animism endows non-human agents with a pronounced individuality and the ability to engage in a dialogue with each other and humans, which influences the vocabulary of the series where all animals, both human and non-human, and aliens are referred to as “persons” (Okorafor, Binti 82). This reference implies their equal contribution to the process of living and working together in the interconnected world that requires equal respect for each agent. Endowing personhood to the humans, non-human animals, and aliens blurs the traditional boundaries between the human and the non-human, expanding the ideas of who can be considered sentient and,consequently, whose interests should be considered in political decision-making, which makes the choice of vocabulary a purposeful declaration of the political stance towards non-human others.

The dichotomic boundaries are blurred not only in the human/the non-human dichotomy. The boundaries between the born/the manufactured, the human/the animal, and nature/culture are habitually broken in the interactions between the protagonist and other agents. The clear distinction between these categories underpins the hierarchy that the human envisions in both nature and in human society; the instability of these borders undermines these hierarchical structures, leading to decentering the human and questioning the treatment of those who are classified as ontologically different from the self (Braidotti, Posthuman 96). Harmonization becomes a fictional tool dissolving these boundaries. Using it the protagonist is capable of traversing strikingly different landscapes, like a desert on Earth, a spaceship travelling through planetary systems and a planet-sized university campus accommodating various alien peoples, and making a connection with various agents, without approaching them from the hegemonic position of anthropocentricity.  But an even more striking challenge to boundaries comes with the physiological transformations that Binti undergoes: the Meduse genes and New Fish’s microbiome. These changes transfer the broken boundaries from mental space into corporeality, infringing upon the boundaries that define an individual. Binti’s body is the illustration of a contact zone where different genomes, microbial organisms, and other species meet and come into a complex entanglement. These multiple transboundary encounters, experiences, and transformations reiterate the interconnected essence of the world where pulling one string has an impact on others and where meeting in the nodes – contact zones – leaves traces on those who and which meet. Comprehending this essence and its implications opens a different perspective on how humans can navigate their relations with other species. The different perspective on the interspecies relations in the Binti novella series rooted in African animism and cosmology branches out to the posthumanist vision of fluid boundaries and non-hierarchical relations, where the self is not divided from the environment but becomes a part of an intricate system of connections and where it can form multiple contacts with others and get transformed through this connection. Both the Binti series and posthumanist theory invites us to reconsider the hegemony of the Western paradigm depicting vivid images of global interconnectedness. This invitation is valid not only for a post-disaster world but the contemporary situation where ecological balance is under a constant anthropogenic threat.


Braidotti, Rosi. “Critical Posthumanism.” Posthuman Glossary, edited by Rosi Braidotti and Maria Hlavajova. Bloomsbury Academic, 2018.

–. The Posthuman. Polity, 2013. 

Burnett, Joshua Yu. ““Isn’t Realist Fiction Enough?”: On African Speculative Fiction.” Mosaic: An Interdisciplinary Critical Journal, vol. 52, no 3, September 2019, pp. 119-135. Web. 

Crowley, Dustin. “Binti’s R/evolutionary Cosmopolitan Ecologies”. Cambridge Journal of Postcolonial Enquiry, vol. 6, no 2, April 2019, pp. 237-256. Web. doi:10.1017/pli.2018.54. 

Haraway, Donna J. Staying with the Trouble (Experimental Futures): Making Kin in the Chthulucene. Duke UP, 2016.

–. When Species Meet: 03 (Posthumanities). U of Minnesota P, 2008. 

Okorafor, Nnedi. Binti: The Complete Trilogy. DAW Books, 2020. 

—–. “Writing Rage, Truth and Consequence”. Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts, vol. 26, no 1 (92), 2015, pp. 21-26. 

Tsing, Anna. “Unruly Edges: Mushrooms as Companion Species”. Environmental Humanities, vol. 1, 2012, pp. 141-154. 

Iuliia Ibragimova is a PhD student at Dublin City University