Review of Wonder Woman 1984 (film)


SFRA Review, vol. 51, no. 3

Media Reviews


Review of Wonder Woman 1984
(film)

Jeremy Brett

Wonder Woman 1984. Directed by Patty Jenkins, Warner Brothers Pictures, 2020.


“Nothing good is born from lies. And greatness is not what you think.” So says Diana of Themyscira, or Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot), to villain Maxwell Lord (Pedro Pascal) towards the end of Wonder Woman 1984 (WW84). The nobility of truth is at the heart not just of this film, but of Diana’s entire character across much of her publication history. The physical, cinematic conflict between Diana and Lord in the film is almost secondary to the psychological struggle produced by the seductive nature of lies, and to the objective heroism of truth. One of Diana’s most significant character traits, in her recent films and in her comic career, is her determination to serve truth – her most emblematic symbol is her golden Lasso of Hestia, which in the early days of Wonder Woman was a method of forcing adversaries to her will but which in more recent decades has the overt power to compel the truth from those it binds. The theme of truth and lies is not only a familiar one across the superhero genre, but one that echoes the film’s sf intertext.

In Wonder Woman 1984 the audience finds themselves nearly seven decades on from the first film. Diana works as a scientist at the Smithsonian’s Museum of Natural History, while secretly fighting crime as Wonder Woman. She and her new colleague Dr. Barbara Minerva (Kristen Wiig) encounter a mysterious artifact – a crystalline stone desired by businessman/huckster Lord. The ‘Dreamstone” (created, it is revealed later, by an ancient god of lies and deception) has the power to grant a single wish to anyone; any viewer who has ever read the W.W. Jacobs story “The Monkey’s Paw”, knowingly referenced in the film, will anticipate the results, namely that every wish comes with an unseen cost, the loss of what is most precious to the wisher. Lord gains the Dreamstone and transfers its power to himself, becoming the granter of wishes and the taker of people’s money, power, resources, and life force. Diana and Barbara both inadvertently make fateful wishes – Diana to have her dead love Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) returned to her, which he does, in the host body of another man. This is the most troublesome aspect of the film, in that this consequence-free violation of bodily autonomy is entirely glossed over by everyone. Within the film’s context, however, the hijacking of another person is presented accurately as an unnatural lie that both Steve and Diana end up rejecting as false. Meanwhile, Barbara is granted the strength and confidence of Diana. Towards the end of the film, Barbara doubles down on this false identity with her transformation into ‘apex predator’ Cheetah.    

A commitment to truth as a noble virtue is one of the things that characterizes Diana as a superhero caught between two worlds. In her traditional origin story, Diana is born and raised on the all-female island of Themyscira, a place of peace, calm, and strict codes of honor. Yet she finds herself consigned to the outer world, where she fights evil on an Earth torn by war, crime, social injustice, and little men who grasp at power. Diana carries the tenets and lessons of her home within her and is a living embassy for Themyscirian truths, but at the same time she binds herself to a humanity where both those truths and her honor can seem radically out of place, quaint, even unnatural. In a world of deconstructed superhero media populated by broken, damaged and traumatized heroes marked by bitterness (the motley crews of Umbrella Academy or Doom Patrol), built-up heroes who dramatically fail to rise to the necessary occasion (John Walker in The Falcon and the Winter Soldier), and false heroes who are secretly corrupt and evil (the Seven from The Boys), watching Diana stand firm in her colorful costume and pronounce the value of love, honor, and truth may appear to jaded and cynical audiences in this post-truth era to be a Captain America-like relic of more innocent days. However, Diana’s ethical fortitude—like that of the MCU’s Steve Rogers or Sam Wilson—is a boldly refreshing counternarrative to the post-Watchmen age of flawed heroes.

It seems to me more than a coincidence that the new film is set in 1984, the same year providing the title for Orwell’s classic set in an oppressive society where truth is not merely relativized but reshaped and obliterated as necessary to ensure the continuation of an unjust, brutal society. In Oceania, truths are lies, and vice versa. Indeed, truth as an objective fact has no real existence or place in an Orwellian world. This perilous situation is even more relevant to readers today in the age of ‘fake news’ and Colbertian ‘truthiness’. The Diana of WW84 stands for something else. The exact opposite, in fact: for her, lies are lies. The one moment in the film where she herself embraces a lie (namely, that Steve’s return to life is acceptable rather than a dubious, magic-caused aberration) is, near the film’s conclusion, reversed not only to regain her powers but because Diana knows that to live a life is to live it in the world that is,not what we pretend it to be. Steve’s death at the end of the first film was the truth; his return violates that truth.

Unlike Diana, Lord is a small man who wants to become bigger. In television ads and in face-to-face encounters, he continually promises that “Life is good! But it can be better!”, almost an affirmation of and a call to utopia. His reputation and his career are built on facades and not reality (tellingly, the office for his company Black Gold Cooperative consists of a beautiful and well-apportioned lobby that fronts a nearly empty, barebones office space). He is composed completely of false promises and baseless hopes. In this, as in everything else, Lord is presented as Diana’s opposite: insecure in himself while Diana is serenely confident; needing to be seen, heard and followed while Diana lives her life of heroism covertly and without fanfare; emotionally connected to his son Alistair while Diana lives an isolated life of solitude and loneliness.

Unlike the climax of the first Wonder Woman, a standard comic book-style fight between Diana and the war god Ares, in WW84 Diana practices moral suasion, in keeping with her traditional character trait of seeing the good in humanity. She pleads to her worldwide audience: “This world was a beautiful place just as it was, and you cannot have it all. You can only have the truth, and the truth is enough. The truth is beautiful.” It is a Keatsian sentiment very true to Diana’s love for her adopted world and her courage in facing the truth—an experience that can be sad or painful, but which contains its own nobility. A superhero that defeats a villain through an appeal to morality and reason is rare indeed, and it makes WW84 a much more significant film in this genre than its mediocre reviews would suggest.

Wonder Woman 1984 is not a great film, certainly compared to its predecessor. The narrative holes are gaping at times, and shaky comic book logic—common to this film subgenre—sometimes takes hold. Overall, however, WW84 is useful to researchers and scholars as an examination of the traditional role of the superhero as expressed in modern times. Superheroes have always embodied certain societal values of their age: what does a figure like Diana represent and mean as a referent to commonly-held ethical principles, especially in our current age of shifting truths? Diana’s light in the postmodern darkness might be dismissed as mere nostalgia, but there is real psychological and cultural power in appeals to traditional societal values like honor and truth. Analyzing that power within the context of Wonder Woman 1984 would be a worthwhile scholarly endeavor. 


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

Review of The Outer Worlds (video game)



Review of The Outer Worlds
(video game)

Sara Walker

The Outer Worlds. Private Division, 2019.


The Outer Worlds is an open-world science-fiction roleplaying game. Released in 2019, the game is inspired by the Fallout series of games, with the directors of the game, Tim Cain and Leonard Boyarsky, also being the creators of the Fallout franchise. The story follows “the Stranger,” a customizable character, who has been in cryostasis for 70 years aboard the Hope, a derelict ship floating through the Halcyon system. Dr. Phineas Welles, a mad scientist, boards the Hope to save the colonists. He only has the resources to wake the player up and, after joining him, the player is sent on a series of missions to collect resources to wake up their fellow colonists, which leads them to different planets and settlements in the Halcyon system. Along the way, they recruit people to their team: their objective changes into taking on the Board and the corporations that run the system.

The game shines with its writing, which is at times humorous and serious, but always thoughtful in its execution. The player is given absurd response options when communicating with various characters, but the writers understand when and where to pull back the humor enough to allow the significance of the events within the game stand for themselves. The player will sometimes be penalized for a certain choice—they may choose not to take on a quest, for example—but the dialogue options are not designed for “scoring” or punishing the player needlessly, though the actions still feel consequential. Like in the Fallout series, communication and player choice are important parts of the game, and the emphasis rests on these features rather than the combat, which is a standard first-person shooter.

The Halcyon system does not have a government in the traditional sense; instead, it is governed by ten corporations who together form the Halcyon Holdings Corporation (HHC). The HHC, referred to throughout the game as “the Board,” represents the primary antagonizing force in the game. Almost all the colonies and every planet are claimed by at least one corporation, with each one creating its own unique products and operating its own paramilitary force to protect its assets. Loyalty to corporate interests is paramount among Halcyon citizens, and the corporations go to great lengths to ensure workers are loyal and rebellions are quashed quickly. One HHC memo states, “please be reminded that acting against the interests of the corporations is acting against the interests of humanity,” emphasizing the connection between human status and the role of labor in the system.

Corporations are a common feature of many science fiction media, though their roles vary. For some, the corporations remain in the background, only existing to provide the reader, viewer, or player some level of recognition or worldbuilding. For others, particularly in the cyberpunk subgenre, corporations take on the role of government and represent the merging of consumerist and political spheres. In these media, a further subgenre is the self-referential parody, the texts that both portray the corporation as an evil entity, while presenting a distinct self-awareness. The Outer Worlds doesn’t necessarily break the mold in this regard, but it does provide an interesting text through which to examine corporate parody, and the setting in space allows the game to plausibly experiment with corporatism as the governing economy and philosophy. That the game is cognizant of its own depiction and active association with corporate interests allows it to provide a setting in which a player can fully realize the ubiquity of corporations without affecting those interests in the real world.

The overall tone of The Outer Worlds is humorous—a deep contrast to the Fallout titles and many other science-fiction video games. The use of humor in the game is not unlike the novel Snow Crash, where Neal Stephenson parodies the science fiction romp to imagine a dystopic world governed by corporate interests. In this game, the use of humor emphasizes the absurdity of not only the situation, but how corporations are governing the system. The humor is physical and dialogical. For example, the slogan of one of the corporations, Spacer’s Choice, is “you’ve tried the best, now try the rest—Spacer’s Choice!” This slogan, a required statement by all Spacer’s Choice employees, is catchy and boasts an uncomplicated and easily memorable rhyming pattern. Upon consideration, the slogan is expressing just how mediocre Spacer’s Choice products are. And yet, SC is one of the governing companies in the system, with the CEO of its holding company, Charles Rockwell, serving as Chairman of the Board of the HHC. The company should, in a perfectly meritocratic environment, be a failure, and yet, in this system, the corporation is successful, ostensibly pointing out the emptiness of meritocratic systems.

Because of the game’s focus on the absurdity of the corporations, it is debatable if the full scope of the corporate greed that established civilization in the system can be fully experienced by the player—while the horrors of the corporate machine are seen, the emotional connection to them is one of ridicule. Dr. Welles is the voice of reason and adds weight to the unethical corporate actions, but the gravity of the situation he presents is broken up by farcical events, such as the frequent mechanical failures that plague his ship. While it makes for excellent storytelling, such events take away from the game’s anti-corporate messaging, making it feel hollow and self-interested. But to its credit, it would be nigh impossible for any corporate product to simultaneously possess an anti-corporate message that included itself to the point of affecting consumer behavior. Here, then, the role of humor is integral: the text’s message is presented as an invitation to the player to join the game at the shallow end of the pool. Rather than shoving them out into deeper waters, the player is left in their comfort zone to synthesize the game’s message with their own ideology. At some point, they may wade out into the deep end—but the responsibility of the game is squarely in the shallow side.


Sara Walker recently completed her Master’s degree in English/Creative Writing at the University of West Florida. Her thesis, a creative piece titled “Moderator,” features a fictional social media company that uses algorithms and AI to manipulate its users. She writes short science-fiction stories and published “Pensacola 2045” in the student literature and art journal, the Troubadour. She is a nonprofit consultant currently living in Virginia.

Review of Star Trek: Lower Decks, season 1 (2020, TV)



Review of Star Trek: Lower Decks, season 1 (2020, TV)

Jeremy Brett

McMahan, Mike, creator. Star Trek: Lower Decks, Season 1, CBS Television, 2020.


The opening to each episode of Lower Decks has a familiar ring to viewers of Star Trek. The grand views of deep space and a mighty starship, the U.S.S. Cerritos, set to swelling music until asteroids start thudding off the ship’s hull, or until the ship arrives in the middle of a pitched battle with the Borg and immediately turns around and retreats, or until the Cerritos is seen zipping through space at warp speed with a giant bug-eyed parasite suctioned to the engine nacelles. Ideally, the audience smiles as they realize that this is not typical Star Trek nor is the Cerritos the U.S.S. Enterprise or Voyager or Discovery.

But the Cerritos is a more typical Starfleet vessel, and therein lies the beauty of this intentionally goofy show. The Cerritos is no flagship devoted to Enterprise-like missions of deep exploration; it takes on the less glamorous assignments, most notably “second contact”. As Ensign Bradward Boimler (voiced by Jack Quaid) notes in his practice ‘Captain’s Log’ in the pilot episode:

First contact is a delicate, high-stakes operation of diplomacy. One must be ready for anything when Humanity is interacting with an alien race for the first time. But we don’t do that. Our specialty is second contact. Still pretty important. We get all the paperwork signed, make sure we’re spelling the name of the planet right, get to know all the good places to eat.     

The Cerritos and its crew don’t live on the final frontier; they live behind, and maybe slightly to the left, where the scutwork gets done that gives the heroes the freedom to do what they do best. It’s an inspired concept that makes Lower Decks a show of immense humor and surprising emotional depth.

For decades, audiences have watched Star Trek almost entirely through the eyes and experiences of high-level Starfleet officers: Kirk, Picard, Sisko, Janeway, Archer, Burnham, and their command crews. In most cases, members of the lower ranks appear as extras and disappear as rapidly as they came (represented most visibly in popular culture by the concept of the ‘redshirt’—the utterly expendable crewmember who dies early, unheralded, and often nameless). But Starfleet is a massive and sprawling organization, which in order to function as peacekeeper and exploration arm of the Federation must rely on countless underlings to make everything run: namely, the ensigns. Lower Decks centers around four of these lowly officers who live and work far from the Cerritos’ bridge, taking part in missions that waver between routine and fatally hazardous, sometimes with a healthy dollop of grinding dullness.

Crammed into bunks that line the corridors at the bottom of the ship’s saucer section, the ensigns deal with their lots in life in various ways: Boimler is an anxious rule-follower who dreams of captainhood and idolizes his superiors; Beckett Mariner (Tawny Newsome) is an excited, excitable, impulsive devil-may-care junior officer who ignores Starfleet regulations and the chain of command (including her mother, Cerritos’ Captain Carol Freeman (Dawnn Lewis)). Sam Rutherford (Eugene Cordero) is an engineer with a cybernetic implant and boundless enthusiasm for constant repairs and inspections of the ship’s machinery. The last in this quartet is Deltan D’Vana Tendi (Noel Wells), new to the Cerritos and bringing comedic levels of excitement to her sick bay duties. Over the course of the season, the four grow close, forming tight bonds equaling any in Trek’s long series of shipboard friendships forged from shared loyalties, senses of duty, and curiosity about the wider universe. Much of the dramatic (and comic) tension in Lower Decks comes from the disconnect between the ensigns and their superiors, as each ensign comes up hard against the perilous realities inherent to Starfleet missions.

Lower Decks isn’t for everyone. The animation and vocal stylings are fast and frenetic, like Rick & Morty. There is much more violence than is typical of Trek, and far more sexual references. Some may find it just too silly. Arguably, however, Lower Decks adds a welcome note of hilarity to the sometimes-too-solemn-for-its-own-good Trek franchise, poking fun at some of its traditions and cliches but doing so with a sense of real love and respect for its predecessors. Not the least part of this comes from the constant shower of references to incidents and characters from previous Treks. Yes, these kinds of references are Easter eggs for Trek fans, but they give Lower Decks a lived-in sort of feel—that the show is not just a parody but part of a shared canonical universe.

One of Lower Decks’ direct inspirations is a 1994 TNG episode (also titled “Lower Decks”) in which four Enterprise-D junior officers are shown to have lives of their own, with the ship itself a setting for the lives and struggles of non-main cast members. Lower Decks follows in this narrative tradition, showing how the “regular” people—the ones that work behind the scenes undramatically and with perseverance, or whose unseen lives are lived in the wake of decisions made by major characters—have their own moments of heroism and centrality to the moment. That is certainly an inspiring notion for the legions of Trek fans who have imagined themselves as members of Starfleet and through fanfiction or cosplay written themselves into the narrative.

Some may quibble over whether Lower Decks should be considered Trek canon. Lower Decks, in fact, can be a source of fruitful discussions about what constitutes true “canon”—is there room in a media universe for a production that so differs in tone and pace from the keystone shows? Where does an animated production fit into a family of non-animated productions? This last question has been asked in Trek history before, of course, with the 1973-1974 Star Trek: The Animated Series. Is canonicity even necessary—does a particular media universe require a single accepted narrative for audiences to enjoy individual productions within it?

Lower Decks is also an example of what many in the Trek community see as a retrograde obsession with revisiting and recrafting the historical timeline. In recent years, the mainstay of filmed Trek has involved prequel material such as Discovery or the upcoming Strange New Worlds, or the Kelvin Universe of J.J. Abrams’ film trilogy. Furthermore, productions like Star Trek: Picard or the upcoming animated Star Trek: Prodigy are centered on major cast members that have been explored in previous installments. These all suggest a question: how imaginatively rich is a media enterprise that at times seems entrapped by its past, endlessly retreading the same time periods and settings and relying on appeals to viewer nostalgia through in-the-know references or memes? None of this makes Lower Decks any less enjoyable to watch, but it does raise questions about the franchise’s overall commitment to the original themes of Trek that have inspired several generations of viewers—the ever-forward progress of science and technology, the movement towards an increasingly utopian future, and a growing consciousness that humanity can and must unite for the collective good. Indeed, similar questions can be posed of other recycled franchises at this time. As time passes, expect much fruitful scholarship to be mined from Lower Decks and its relation to Trek’s classic vision of the human future, as well as to the dramatic and narrative malleability of media franchises.

 The Cerritos’ ensigns, in their imperfect personhood, are appropriate representatives of that vision: in their own quirky ways, they are always evolving into their better selves. That character development and purposeful optimism contrast with more recent Trek productions (such as Picard) that eschew confident 1960s SF for a grimmer, more cynical, and more pessimistic Federation populated by ruthless Section 31 agents and corrupt Starfleet officers. That attitude may well reflect our weary and traumatized present. Lower Decks, though, for all its irreverence and animated lunacy, is an interesting throwback extension of the Trek utopian tradition that demands a humanity moving ever forward towards a societal and technological ideal.


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


Review of Snowpiercer (2020-2021, TV)



Review of Snowpiercer (2020-2021, TV)

Ada Cheong

Hawes, James and Graeme Manson, producers. Snowpiercer. Netflix, 2020-2021.


There is a strange dissonance about watching fictional depictions of the end of the world when the world we live in feels about to end. As the Covid-19 virus devastated many parts of the globe, the gratuitous pleasure and morbid intrigue offered by on-screen catastrophes felt like a confirmation of the adage that it is easier to imagine an end to the world than an end to capitalism.

I was thus reluctant to give Snowpiercer (2020-2021) a go when it was pulled onto the Netflix platform. At first glance, the TV series is just another story about Humanity’s struggle to survive on an inhospitable planet, joining the many post-earth TV series on their catalogue, such as The 100 (2018-2020), The Rain (2020) and Into the Night (2020). The eponymous Snowpiercer is a train that circles an uninhabitable earth. The apocalyptic event that precedes the story is triggered by the release of synthetic coolant CW-7 into the atmosphere in an attempt to reverse global warming. Now on its seventh revolution through the earth’s unforgiving whiteness, the train struggles to stay on track as a rebellion from its tail end threatens its delicate socio-ecological balance. Consisting of unticketed passengers that have been forced into the last carriages with limited space, food, and water, the Tailies seek to rearrange the social order of the rain. The fragility of the closed container of Snowpiercer is jeopardized by an external temperature that is announced to be -119.6 degrees in the first episode. Used to execute dissidents by freezing off entire limbs in a matter of seconds, the cold makes even the smallest breach a grave threat. Snowpiercer thus becomes (for the most part) the last container of life on earth, a near-biblical ark brought to fruition by human ingenuity and technological prowess.

The TV series first premiered on TNT in the US and is based loosely on the French graphic novel series created in 1984 by Jacques Lob and illustrator Jean-Marc Rochette. The second and third volumes of the original comic were released by Benjamin Legrand and Rochette in 1999 and 2000 respectively, with Olivier Bocquet and Rochette wrapping things up with the fourth volume in 2015. Bong Joon-Ho’s esteemed direction of the Snowpiercer film in 2013, based mostly on the first and second French volumes, was produced in English. Boosted by widely recognised faces such as Chris Evans and Tilda Swinton, the narrative assumed an international reach that triggered the translation of the original French comic series into English in 2014 and 2016, re-distributed into three volumes instead of four by Titan Comics. Titan Comics also produced a two-volume prequel comic to the Snowpiercer universe in September 2019 and November 2020, written by Matz and illustrated by Rochette.

Amidst this vibrant intertextual history, Graeme Manson and co-producer James Hawes have done well with the TV series. Their version of the end of the world rejects an essentialised, undifferentiated notion of Humanity (with a capital H). It reinserts the complex material and cultural struggles surrounding resource scarcity into the dominant technocratic narrative of climate breakdown, a narrative that has long presented green technology as the main solution to the present climatological condition. The consequences of climate breakdown, they insist, will always be experienced unevenly, the blame most heavily falling on the Global North, and the consequences most greatly borne by the Global South.

As is typical of works in the post-apocalypse and cli-fi genre, energy scarcity forms a key concern, managed through human technology and ingenuity. Indeed, across all Snowpiercer’s permutations, humanity’s last vanguard of defence against a frozen death is the old energy myth of sf: the perpetual motion engine. In Lob’s graphic novel, the engine assumes a pseudo-sentient status, requiring human companionship. Although it loosely gestures towards notions of sentient AI, the comic series never really develops this, eventually choosing to take its plot off-train. In the TV series, on the other hand, as with Bong’s film, the eternal engine is completely inanimate and thoroughly engineered by human design: specifically, by Wilford Industries. Mr. Wilford, as the creator of the engine, assumes a god-like status in both film and series, something that Manson and Hawes magnify in the latter. The man is even afforded an altar in the Snowpiercer’s Tea Room, a spiritual car. In a tongue-in-cheek allusion to the Catholic practice of drawing the sign of the cross, his supporters draw a W across their chest. Wilford’s deification in the TV series most vibrantly articulates the faith in the progress of Humanity’s technological expertise that has become so characteristic of the Capitalocene. This technocratic faith is also encapsulated by the admittance of protagonist Layton’s adopted son, Miles, into the ranks of the train’s engineers, a highly esteemed role. As the brightest new mind to continue this essential work of balancing the train’s energy inputs and outputs, his full name, Miles and Miles, is a hopeful prayer for an engine truly eternal.

Keeping the carrying capacity of the train’s biosphere on track is thus a major plot engine within the TV series, involving the neo-Malthusian balancing act of limiting population size and creating food supplies. Yet, while scientists and engineers hold great esteem within the series for their ability to keep this delicate mathematical balance in check, the show makes it clear that it is not just about the math. Indeed, the TV series’ main success is its ability to strike a fine balance between the histrionic ecological emergencies that threaten to derail the train (always soothed by the hospitality team, dressed in an inoffensive faux-calm shade of teal) and the other very human, social issues that the series explores.

Manson’s Snowpiercer sheds the brutalist aesthetics of the original cramped, Soviet-like train in Lob’s comic (Bocquet). It more closely resembles the luxury liner designed within Bong’s film, by production designer Ondrej Nekvasil. Masterminded by Barry Robinson, the beauty of animal and plant life in the TV series is given space to shine around the human dramas of the train, acting as an elegy to the complex ecosystems wiped out by the manmade apocalypse. The mathematical problem of sustaining life is thus given a highly sensuous quality. Furthermore, by avoiding chrome finishes for the train’s interior and utilising copper instead (Grebey), the TV series distracts from the train’s apocalyptic dieselpunk exterior and eschews a minimalist end-of-earth aesthetic.

The material and cultural issues that accompany the end of the world are also given ample space to play out around the ecological and technological crises in Manson’s series. Indeed, it is in the articulation of socio-economic inequality where the series sets itself apart from the 2013 film. In the latter, Bong’s critique of capitalist inequality is couched in allegory and absurdity. Who could forget Minister Mason’s (Tilda Swinton) speech as the limb of a Tail member gets frozen off? Resting a shoe on his head, their theatrical rhetoric is at once laughable and deeply unsettling: “Would you wear a shoe on your head?” The film gestures towards the cyclical and inherently chaotic nature of capitalist progress, as Mr. Wilford is revealed to work in tandem with ex-leader of the tail, Gilliam, to spark periodic revolts. Through such rebellions, the tail population is systematically pruned by 74%, thus restoring ecological balance. Unfortunately, the momentum of Bong’s plot loses steam after Curtis successfully reaches the engine. The lengthy dialogue he has with Wilford on capitalism and its cycles of instability is an anti-climactic finish to his rebellion—saved only by the final explosion of the entire train. The derailment of the train and the emergence of the last two surviving humans into the snow (Korean girl, Yona, and 5-year-old Afro-American boy, Timmy) suggests that destroying the train is a more viable option than rehauling its existing capitalist system.

Conversely, the serialised medium of television offers Manson and Hawes more space to explore the intricacies of resource struggles. The caloric distribution of food is the most visible manifestation of such inequalities in a post-apocalyptic world. Both the graphic novel and film imagine radical changes in our food future. In the comic, rabbits are bred as meat for the most privileged, while the rest of the train’s population feed on something called the mother, the quasi-sentient blob that resembles a yeast culture. The artificial supply of meat is grotesque despite its miraculous proliferation and certain supply, disturbing in the same way as       Margaret Atwood’s chickienobs in her novel Oryx and Crake. Bong’s film similarly invokes a sense of grotesque when depicting the food of the Tail section, even exploring the trope of cannibalism. Furthermore, the dark, gelatinous slabs of protein that the Tail eats are ground from insects (roaches), an ingredient that has now received serious scientific consideration in technofixing the worlds’ shrinking food supplies.

In this, Manson’s latest reincarnation of the tale is perhaps the least original. Yet, in part because of this, it most poignantly critiques the realities of the current world food system. Synthetic and miraculous gustatory concoctions are completely missing from the TV series. The train’s food system is instead supported by greenhouses and aquariums as well as feedlots in the cars loosely grouped together as Ag-Sec. While slabs identical to those in Bong’s film are served up, their origin is not mentioned, suggesting a perhaps more open-minded attitude to non-animal protein alternatives. Despite the (just) sufficient volume of calories being produced for the entire train population, the richest eat in quality and excess, while the poorest starve. The highly familiar food system of the microcosmic train thus provides a no-frills critique of food distribution in reality, mirroring it closely.

Building on the film’s abstract critique of capitalist inequality, the TV series also more fully explores its unsustainable contradictions through its rebellion. Manson’s chosen hero, Layton, stages a more convincing revolution than Curtis in Bong’s film, with information networks and diplomatic tactics. Significantly, he forms an alliance between the Tail and Third Class section, unfolding a complex picture of class politics and the value of unionising labour as underground networks unfurl amongst janitors, caterers, and brakemen. As Miss Audrey, a key ally from Third, threatens, “Third touches every system on this train. We will be heard.”

The diverse and inclusive world of the Tailies and Third Class that displaces the wealthy population of the First Class section in the series is a key tenet of its success. The distinct rejection of a white-centric picture of Humanity’s survival, engineered through wealthy technocrats, is reflected through Manson’s and Hawes’ casting choices, containing a deliberate diversity that is absent from the graphic novels and film. Unlike a largely white, cisgendered heterosexual cast of the film, led by the face of Chris Evans, with the token black and Asian actors, the TV series features African American actor Daveed Diggs, playing Layton’s character, as its hero.

The mix of characters in the series is also far more inclusive along the lines of gender and sexuality. Unlike the film, in which Curtis stops the young female Yona from engaging in combat, the series stars strong women in the frontlines of political and military confrontation. Strikingly, the brightest engineer and character behind Mr. Wilson’s fictional persona in the first season is Melanie Cavill. She is joined by a whole host of other female characters who play key roles in the revolution: Miss Audrey (the Madonna of the Nightcar who performs the train’s healing and emotional salvation); Josie (Layton’s revolutionary partner-in-crime) and Bess Till (another frontliner in the revolution who convinces the brakemen to join the movement). The series also features several queer characters such as train detective Bess Till, chef Jinju, civilian Zarah and brakeman Osweiller.

Overall, I am surprised by the nuance of the TV series, given the limited mileage offered by the ‘last train on earth’ premise. Despite being strongly rooted within a hard sf tradition where math is critical in ensuring survival, the TV series asserts that it can only get us so far in understanding the end of the world. Beyond the abstract margins of scientists and engineers, climate breakdown and resource scarcity are experienced in highly material and uneven terms. If climate breakdown is not just a technological problem but also a cultural and imaginative one, the series offers a bold vision of what it would be like to radically re-imagine our existing socio-political structures of inequality. With the production for season 3 now in train, I am excited to see where the next season alights.


WORKS CITED

Bocquet, Olivier and Jean-Marc Rochette, creators. Terminus. Casterman, 2015.

Halperin, Moze. “We Talked to Snowpiercer’s Production Designer About Building A World Inside A Train”. Vice, 2014. https://www.vice.com/en/article/mgpvba/we-talked-to-snowpiercers-production-designer-about-building-a-world-inside-a-train

Grebey, James. “Make it a little more Ridley Scott’: How Snowpiercer’s 1,001-car train got built IRL”. SyfyWire, 2020. https://www.syfy.com/syfywire/snowpiercer-1001-car-train-inspiration.

Joon-Ho, Bong, director. Snowpiercer. CJ Entertainment, 2013.

Lob, Jacques and Jean-Marc Rochette, creators. Le Transperceneige. Casterman, 1982.

Legrand, Benjamin and Jean-Marc Rochette, creators. The Explorers. Casterman, 1999.

—–, creators. The Crossing. Casterman, 2000.


Ada Cheong is a PhD candidate at the Department of English in the University of Exeter. Her thesis examines contemporary sf of the Americas and the ways in which such fictions help us to navigate the late-capitalist food ecology. Sitting loosely within the field of the Energy Humanities, her interdisciplinary research looks at a variety of sf tropes such as terraformation, post-apocalyptic biospheres, zombies, etc. to illuminate the intersections between food, technology and ecology in the Capitalocene. Beyond her academic teaching and research, Ada also takes an active interest in local foodways, and is a home fermenter and baker.


Review of The Expanse (2015-present, TV)



Review of The Expanse (2015-present, TV)

Heather Clitheroe and Mark A. McCutcheon

Fergus, Mark, Hawk Ostby and Naren Shankar, creators. The Expanse. SyFy/Amazon Prime Video, 2015-present.


In 2016, an article I co-wrote (see McCutcheon and Barnetson) argued that contemporary SF markedly underrepresents organized labour (in contrast to business), with exceptions by writers like China Miéville, C.J. Cherryh, and Cory Doctorow. While the article was in press, this review’s co-author, SFF writer Heather Clitheroe, suggested The Expanse, and from the first episodes I realized that our article needs a major update—or a rethink. The Expanse bases its finely machined world and story in working-class culture, organized labor, and the political-economic context of postcoloniality—just a few reasons The Expanse repays critical attention with interest.

James S.A. Corey is the nom de plume of co-authors Ty Franck and Daniel Abraham. Leviathan Wakes, the first novel in Corey’s nine-volume roman-fleuve, was published in 2011; subsequent novels have followed almost annually. The ninth and final Expanse novel, Leviathan Falls, will appear in November 2021, with a final novella planned afterwards (Urrutia). The Expanse takes place some three hundred years from now, positing a postcolonial solar system that stretches from a climate-changed Earth and its moon, centrally governed by the United Nations, to an independent Mars, engaged in a Cold War with Earth, to the asteroid belt and gas giant moons, where “Belters,” les damnés du vide, labor on the colonial periphery in resource extraction for “the Inners” who exploit and oppress them. Belt governance beyond corporate charters is loosely organized around the Outer Planetary Alliance, or OPA, an ambiguous collective that “had begun its life more like a labor union than a nation” (Abaddon’s Gate 183) and parlays its organizing power into political power as the story unfolds. The Expanse’s interplanetary, postcolonial setting is premised on the novum of an “Epstein drive” that enables fast (but not light-speed) rocketry. To launch the plot, a second novum emerges: the “protomolecule,” an artifact of a vanished alien civilization, discovered on a moon of Saturn and appropriated for research and development by private interests seeking to weaponize it. How the solar system’s powers respond to the destabilizing effects of the protomolecule technology, competing to control or destroy it, drives the series’ storyline over nine novels, which also work as three linked trilogies. The first sets the scene, then estranges it with the “protomolecule” novum; the second—with Nemesis Games as middle volume and fulcrum of the whole—recounts the political and economic fallout wrought by the protomolecule mostly within the solar system; and the third, set later, follows that fallout well beyond the solar system.

The TV series based on the novels originated with producers Mark Fergus and Hawk Ostby and Naren Shankar as show-runner. Franck and Abraham signed on to write and produce. The first three seasons aired from 2015 to 2018 on the SyFy channel, which cancelled the show in mid-May 2018. Fans campaigned to “#SaveTheExpanse” and, before that month ended, Amazon picked up the series for its Prime Video service, where it now streams. There is postmodern irony in the acquisition of such a labor-friendly show by one of the world’s most notoriously exploitative corporations. Amazon aired Season 4 in 2019, and the fifth in late 2020—accompanied by Amazon’s announcement that the next, sixth season will be its last.

Each season of the TV series adapts mainly one novel; however, to strengthen the adaptation, the writers take bold and shrewd creative liberties with the novels (and accompanying novellas and stories), like rearranging plot points and turning minor book characters into major screen roles. Season 5 follows the main plot of Nemesis Games, integrating elements of the sixth book, Babylon’s Ashes. In purported “retribution for generations of atrocities committed by the Inners against Belters” (“Gaugamela”), a radicalized Belter faction attacks Earth with accelerated meteors (literalizing, to cataclysmic effect, the resort to rocks as the only weapons the desperate and downtrodden can wield against empire). The ensuing catastrophe embroils the series’ protagonists—especially Naomi Nagata (played by Dominique Tipper) and Amos Burton (played by Wes Chatham)—in a thriller plot of terrorism, espionage, sabotage, abductions, underground trade, double-crossing, disaster survival, and daring escapes.

The Expanse’s style, in print and on screen, emphasizes accessibility (Franck and Chatham, “Episode 8”): in linear plotting; realistic rendering of diverse, likeable protagonists; plain-speaking dialogue; and skilled interweaving of two familiar SF tropes with proven crossover success—first contact and Frankensteinian hubris. The Expanse’s accessible narrative style helps the series’ representations of working-class culture reach the popular audience that relates to them. Yet The Expanse also harbours arch allusions, ironies, and references. The writing reworks elements from a myriad of genres such as space opera, hard SF, climate fiction, noir crime, Gothic horror, pulp Westerns, and political thrillers (the fifth instalment’s title echoing Tom Clancy’s Patriot Games). Ironies abound in the series’ postcolonially informed détournement of Western tropes (frontier, first contact, shootouts) and Gothic tropes (hauntings, monsters, imprisonments). Sometimes both classes of tropes are brought together, as in the remark by protagonist Jim Holden (played by Steven Strait) that humankind’s interstellar expansion will be “another blood-soaked gold rush” (“Abaddon’s Gate”). The series also teems with literary references—often to poetry: Clarissa Mao (played by Nadine Nicole) talks about writing poetry in prison (“Tribes”); Chrisjen Avasarala (played by Shohreh Agdashloo) contemplates a line by her poet spouse (“Winnipesaukee”).

The Expanse features pervasive, refreshingly sympathetic representations of organized labor as part of everyday life, in details like union representatives, dialogue about work and working conditions, enactments of democratic and community-building practices, and leftist and labor allusions (in character names like Althusser [Nemesis 229] and Bertold, a sixth-book character introduced in Season 5, played by Stephen Tracey). Workers facing arrest can request union representatives for defence. Basic income is standard policy on Earth. Season 5 dramatizes good-faith bargaining (in Burton’s negotiation of housing for a friend, and in Mao’s advocacy for servants abandoned by their employers) and expressions of solidarity both blunt—Avasarala’s call for unity among Earth, Mars, and the Belt (“Nemesis Games”)—and subtle, like Belter idioms that suggest the internalization of union-inculcated collectivism. “The more you share, the more your bowl will be plentiful,” says a Belter family sitting to supper (“Churn”). Formally, too, a collective tells the story, in rotating focalizations of multiple characters’ viewpoints—antagonists’ included. “Everybody gets a point of view that makes sense,” says Franck of their writers’ room ethos (Franck and Chatham, “Episode 5”).

Burton and Nagata exemplify the series’ valorization of labor organizing, the entrenched capitalist class striation it challenges—and the importance of higher education to mobility. The lack of socioeconomic mobility and tertiary education experienced by characters like Burton in his early life, and the exceptionality of Nagata’s advanced engineering degrees (for a Belter) unnervingly reflect the real-world crisis of late capitalism’s “university in ruins” (see Readings), as neoliberal governments cut education budgets, tuition fees and student debt escalate, and private capital colonizes public universities.

The Belter character Camina Drummer (played by Ojibwe actor Cara Gee) exemplifies the series’ working-class grounding and how the show adapts the book to magnify that focus. In the books, Drummer is a minor character first appearing in Nemesis Games (172); in the series, Gee’s Drummer has been a lead role since Season 2. Season 5 also rewrites Drummer into the “polyam Belter fam” brought forward from Babylon’s Ashes: “It was really important to all of us,” Gee reflects, “that this queer…fluid and polyamorous [family was] represented with respect” (qtd. in Franck and Chatham, “Episode 6”). Gee’s Drummer exemplifies the TV series’ consistently creative adaptation of the books and its brilliant casting of Indigenous and international talent in the series’ many leading women protagonists, among them Nicole’s Mao, the ex-Marine Draper (played by New Zealand-Samoan actor Frankie Adams), Iranian actor Aghdashloo’s magisterial Avasarala, and the Dominican-British Tipper as Nagata. The Expanse far surpasses the Bechdel test’s threshold.

Nagata focalizes a Season 5 subplot in which she gets abducted and imprisoned by her abusive ex; then, for several episodes, this Black woman struggles to communicate her emergency, to escape, even just to breathe: first aboard a ship whose oxygen depletes because of the way she hacks its communication tech (“Winnipesaukee”), then in a spacesuit whose oxygen runs out (“Nemesis Games”). While this subplot’s context of surviving abuse and oppression is more about misogyny than racism, the season’s sustained close-up on Nagata’s struggle to breathe—set against a backdrop of terrorist conspiracy implicating a corrupt police force in arming Nagata’s captors—argues a dialectical, intersectional synecdoche, the political in the personal. Tipper’s performance of Nagata’s struggle thus makes for uncanny, harrowing viewing in the wake of 2020’s #BlackLivesMatter protests and ongoing violence perpetuated against BIPOC communities.

Corey’s series has become a genre-culture, transmedia touchstone, orbited by a satellite belt including short fiction, graphic novels, social media, and a role-playing game. The Expanse rewards science fiction studies and studies in the other aforementioned modes it reworks, as well as Cultural Studies, postcolonial and postmodern theory, socialist and labor studies, adaptation studies, and poetry. Between the latest season and whatever big finish the final novel and TV season will bring, now is the perfect time to explore The Expanse. Its world is not one of warp speeds or anti-gravity fields, and its attention to scientific realism, if not its vision of solidarity, may ruin other space opera for you. Don’t worry. It’s worth it.


WORKS CITED

“Abaddon’s Gate.” The Expanse, season 3, episode 13, 27 Jun. 2018, Amazon Prime Video, https://www.primevideo.com/detail/0KRG9W70THAC0B6ZIQREP784SU/ref=atv_dp_btf_el_prime_hd_tv_wfb_t1ACAAAAAA0wg0?autoplay=1&t=0.

“Churn.” The Expanse, season 5, episode 2, 2 Feb. 2021, Amazon Prime Video, https://www.primevideo.com/detail/0LCTJOQ37QDWSJBMSTAJ07JZEE/ref=atv_dp_btf_el_prime_hd_tv_wfb_t1ACAAAAAA0wg0?autoplay=1&t=0.

Corey, James S.A. Abaddon’s Gate. Orbit, 2013.

—-. Nemesis Games (2015). Orbit, 2016.

Franck, Ty and Wes Chatham. “Episode 5.” The Expanse Aftershow, Youtube, 30 Dec. 2020, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=D8YkNDsWQl0.

—-. “Episode 6.” The Expanse Aftershow, Youtube, 6 Jan. 2021,  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ynyCMXijTig.

—-. “Episode 8.” The Expanse Aftershow, Youtube, 20 Jan. 2021, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8wHFysH434Q.

“Gaugamela.” The Expanse, season 5, episode 2, 2 Feb. 2021, Amazon Prime Video, https://www.primevideo.com/detail/0QG40FAV0H1QYVE0Y3PZE9LWQQ/ref=atv_dp_btf_el_prime_hd_tv_resume_t1ACAAAAAA0wg0?autoplay=1&t=2398.

“Hard Vacuum.” The Expanse, season 5, episode 8, 19 Jan. 2021, Amazon Prime Video, https://www.primevideo.com/detail/0N4RC4OWKVY0NOVEMG0770W08T/ref=atv_dp_btf_el_prime_hd_tv_wfb_t1ACAAAAAA0wg0?autoplay=1&t=0.

McCutcheon, Mark A. and Bob Barnetson. “Resistance is Futile: On the Under-Representation of Unions in Science Fiction.” TOPIA, no. 36, 2016, pp. 151-71, rpt. in AUSpace, https://auspace.athabascau.ca/handle/2149/3590.

“Nemesis Games.” The Expanse, season 5, episode 10, 2 Feb. 2021, Amazon Prime Video, https://www.primevideo.com/detail/0M6NPRDJEDWEAZIYLA22CK6X6U/ref=atv_dp_btf_el_prime_hd_tv_wfb_t1ACAAAAAA0wg0?autoplay=1&t=0.

Readings, Bill. The University in Ruins. Harvard UP, 1996.

“Tribes.” The Expanse, season 5, episode 6, 6 Jan. 2021, Amazon Prime Video, https://www.primevideo.com/detail/0IE98A41K0662GT29RR3OH7OYU/ref=atv_dp_btf_el_prime_hd_tv_wfb_t1ACAAAAAA0wg0?autoplay=1&t=0.

Urrutia, Doris Elin. “‘Leviathan Falls’: The 9th and final book of the epic ‘The Expanse’ sci-fi series revealed.” Space, 23 Sept. 2020, https://www.space.com/leviathan-falls-the-expanse-book-9-cover-revealed.

“Winnipesaukee.” The Expanse, season 5, episode 9, 26 Jan. 2021, Amazon Prime Video, https://www.primevideo.com/detail/0L4AN3E85JGHNYPVH5GCQQGQ6T/ref=atv_dp_btf_el_prime_hd_tv_wfb_t1ACAAAAAA0wg0?autoplay=1&t=0.


Heather Clitheroe is an author whose stories have been published in numerous SFF anthologies and magazines, including Beneath Ceaseless Skies and Lightspeed, and she has participated in writing residency programs at the Banff Centre for the Arts, including the Leighton Artists’ Colony, and the Arrowmont School for Arts and Crafts. She has edited science fiction collections in collaboration with the NASA Exoplanet Science Institute at Caltech’s Exoplanet Demographics conference, and leads youth science fiction and fantasy writing workshops in collaboration with the Calgary Public Library. Heather has been a member of the award-winning Uncanny magazine staff since 2014 as a submissions editor, and is a full member of SFWA.

Mark A. McCutcheon is Professor of Literary Studies at Athabasca University. Mark’s open access works include the books Shape Your Eyes by Shutting Them: Poems (2019) and The Medium Is the Monster (2018), winner of the Media Ecology Association’s McLuhan Award; poems in the Exoplanet Demographics conference zine (2020), the 2019 Rhysling Anthology, and Riddled with Arrows (2018); and SF studies in scholarly periodicals like TOPIA (2016), Continuum (2011), and SFFTV (2009). His poems also appear in Beyond Earth’s Edge: The Poetry of Spaceflight (2020), and journals like On Spec, Star*Line, and Kaleidotrope. Mark’s on Twitter and Mixcloud as @sonicfiction.


Review of The Comma Press Podcast, Series 2 – Futures (2020, Podcast)



Review of The Comma Press Podcast, Series 2 – Futures (2020, Podcast)

Paul March-Russell

The Comma Press Podcast, from Comma Press, May-September 2020, https://commapress.co.uk/digital/the-comma-press-podcast/.


Founded in Manchester in 2003, Comma Press is one of the UK’s leading publishers of short fiction. Influenced on the one hand by such techno-inspired collections as Sarah Champion’s Disco Biscuits (1997) and, on the other hand, by Charles May’s now-classic critical anthology, The New Short Story Theories (1994), Comma Press has sought consistently to promote the short story as the vanguard of literary experimentation and artistic responses to modernity. This has meant a strong commitment to science fiction, as well as other related modes such as horror and the Weird, and to the dialogue between science and SF, for example, in Geoff Ryman’s landmark anthology, When It Changed: Science into Fiction (2009). More recently, Comma Press has responded keenly to the refugee crisis, for instance in David Herd and Anna Pincus’ collection, Refugee Tales (2016), and in the publication of émigré authors such as Hassan Blasim. This podcast series, recorded on the eve of the first Covid-19 lockdown in Britain in 2020, brings together the press’ various concerns for SF, the Arab-speaking world, ‘Fortress Europe’, literary innovation, and the politics of locale.

The main presenter is Comma Press’ founder, Ra Page, with Sophie Hughes, co-editor of Europa28 (2020), presenting episode four. Each episode, with the exception of the series opener, takes a recent Comma Press publication as its focus – Blasim’s Iraq + 100 (2016), Basma Ghalayini’s Palestine + 100 (2019), Europa28, and M. John Harrison’s selected stories, Settling the World (2020). Although ‘futures’ is the common theme, each discussion is wide-ranging – covering such topics as the resurgence of Arabic science fiction, the translation and distribution of non-Anglophone literatures, political and cultural oppression, hauntology, and the ambivalences of social media. The longer listening format of the podcast enabled free-flowing conversations, with each episode ranging in length from 60 to 90 minutes. The one exception to the series format, the opening edition, takes a more general look at the role of science fiction, its relationships to science and society, and the predictive and ethical bases for futurology.

For this introductory episode, Page’s guests are the academics Amy Chambers and Amanda Rees, and the SF writer and literary critic, Adam Roberts (a frequent contributor to Comma Press anthologies). Although Roberts begins the discussion by recounting his thesis that science fiction has its origins in the Protestant Reformation of the 16th and 17th centuries, he acknowledges that (as Paul Alkon influentially argued) the idea of futuristic fiction only began in the late 18th century as part of that period’s revolutionary ferment. Roberts’s linkage, however, between SF and scientific and political revolution enables Rees, an historian of science, to argue for SF’s pivotal role as a thought experiment rather than a pedagogical tool. It is in this role that SF most effectively communicates science to a wider public by thinking through the ethical and social dilemmas that underpin scientific discovery. Chambers, a former member of Lisa Garforth’s ‘Unsettling Science Stories’ project at Newcastle University, concurs with Rees’s position whilst drawing upon her research specialisms in SF film and TV. Page’s description of the frustration felt by scientists, participating in the Comma anthologies, towards the more sceptical responses of SF writers initiates a rewarding discussion not only of the differing responsibilities between science and SF but also of the roles of utopia and dystopia. Roberts expresses his distaste for the ultraviolence of Game of Thrones, as well as the simplistic solutions of superhero movies, whilst also lamenting the revisioning of (ostensibly) utopian franchises such as Star Trek. All three acknowledge, though, that dystopia can have a critical function which, ironically, also has a utopian purpose—by pointing out the worst possible scenarios, SF can help to safety-proof future technological outcomes.

Episodes two and three most strongly complement one another, and so form the central focus for the series. In episode two, Page is joined by the Arabic scholars, Sinéad Murphy and Annie Webster, as well as the writer Anoud, one of the contributors to Iraq + 100; in episode three, he is joined by Ghalayini, editor of Palestine + 100, the academics Barbara Dick and Lindsey Moore, and the Palestinian writer Rawan Yaghi. The first of the anthologies imagines life in Iraq a century after the US invasion of 2003 while the second imagines Palestine 100 years after the Nakba: the enforced exodus in 1948 of 700,000 Palestinians following the creation of the state of Israel. Although Murphy and Webster tend to concentrate on the current vogue for SF in the Arab-speaking world, Dick emphasises that its roots lie in the 1960s, and so is more of a revival than a new phenomenon. Anoud’s stress upon the influence of the 1001 Nights as a repository of marvellous tales and feisty heroines suggests, however, that the supposed belatedness of Arabic science fiction is a false construction. Both sets of panellists avoid comparisons with Western SF, concentrating instead upon the local conditions for the production of Arabic SF.

Page notes that, although interest in Arabic futurisms has grown in the wake of Afrofuturism, it may still be Orientalised as an exotic counterpart to Western SF. By contrast, in episode three, mention is made of Larissa Sansour’s film, A Space Exodus (2009), in which the first Palestinian in space can still not escape the historical legacy of the Nakba. Page pertinently observes that, despite the enthusiasm of Western scholars and readers, the production of Iraqi and Palestinian SF from within those countries remains precarious. Anoud, for instance, describes the hostility of US officials and the regional threat of Isis. But, whereas these oppressions drove Anoud to create her SF, the decades-long colonisation of Palestine has all but stifled local literary networks. Page notes that, while there is active émigré writing from Iraq, contact between Palestine and the West remains difficult with Palestinian writers denied the right to travel overseas. Although Anoud, Murphy and Webster emphasise the mix of absurdity and terror that constitutes life in Iraq, a generative factor (as Webster argues) for the ‘creative destruction’ of art, Palestinian life appears more rigid and controlled with fewer opportunities for creative outlets. To that end, Dick and Moore warmly celebrate the appearance of Palestine + 100, and co-opt the role of interviewer from Page to ask Ghalayini how the collection was assembled, how the translations were prepared, and how the authors have distributed their work. Their hope is that the cause of Palestinian SF may be advanced with the aid of TV and film adaptations of Arabic texts—for example, a mooted screen version of Ahmed Khaled Towfik’s Utopia (2008).

Episode four, recorded after lockdown had been introduced, changes tack by focusing upon women’s futuristic fiction from Europe. It acts, though, as a mirror-image to the previous conversations by exploring the refugee crisis from the EU’s point of view and its implications for the European project. As Hughes’s guests and contributors to Europa28, Janne Teller and Kapka Kassabova, contend, the failure to help refugees from Syria and other warzones undermines the utopian principles of the EU, born from the (literal) ashes of two World Wars and the Nazi Holocaust. In their conversation, Teller and Kassabova argue for the need for embodiment, intimacy, touch and the face-to-face encounter in contrast with the alienation of the Internet and screen culture. As Hughes and her panellists note, this demand is all the more ironic since—due to the pandemic—their conversation is reliant upon Zoom. Nonetheless, while making communication across borders technically possible, the technology also highlights the estrangement between individuals and the need for sustainable ecologies to ensure the physical survival of the public space. In the writings of Thomas Piketty, Teller and Kassabova see an economic model in which a fusion of capitalism and socialism is viable. Underlying both this conversation and the collection of stories and essays, written by twenty-eight European women, is a vision of Europe that predates the EU—an Enlightenment model consisting of the ‘republic of letters’.

The final episode is only tangentially related to the overall theme of futures through discussion of hauntology, Mark Fisher’s concept of ‘lost futures,’ and Robert Macfarlane’s reflections on the ‘eeriness’ of the English landscape. Page’s guests include M. John Harrison, the critics Andy Hedgecock and Jennifer Hodgson, and the filmmaker Adam Scovell, best-known for his popularisation of ‘folk horror’. Taking Harrison’s retrospective anthology, Settling the World, as its focus, the conversation offers a thoughtful and insightful examination of what it means to move through a landscape, to be both possessed and radically displaced by it. In comparing Harrison with other neo-avant-garde writers of the 1960s and ‘70s, such as Ann Quin, Hodgson emphasises the phenomenological basis to his fiction—the collapsing of any dialectic between inner and outer experience—, so that Harrison’s protagonists tend to treat the external world as a hieroglyph to be deciphered: only to be entrapped within its manifold complexities. Harrison concurs with Hodgson, acknowledging the impossibility of mimetic representation to describe the object in itself, but emphasising that this tendency also comes as a refusal of such literary conventions as linear narrative, closure and plot. For Harrison, his aim is for fiction to be viable—to live on its own terms—and not at the behest of such external apparatus as the science-fictional obsession with ideas. Although the exchange between Harrison and Hodgson allows Hedgecock and Scovell to discuss the now-familiar terrain of the hauntological, with mention of such writers as H.G. Wells (‘The Door in the Wall’), M.R. James and Robert Aickman, more interesting is how Harrison’s writing is positioned in relation to the avant-garde and the legacy of European modernism. This, too, would seem to dwell upon the nature of political and artistic borders as discussed in the preceding episode. Despite the excellent contributions of the other panellists, Harrison—as is so often the case—is not only the most thought-provoking writer but also the most perceptive analyst of his own work, and its sustenance of a late modernist aesthetic.

Taken as a whole, the series offers a number of engaging and stimulating conversations on the relationship between science and science fiction, the politics of writing, the role of translation, art and civic society, and the nature of landscape. The general theme of futures is somewhat stretched, not least in the final episode, but this is compensated by the quality of the conversations and the various contributors. Since the series was affected by the transition into lockdown, praise should also be given to Becca Parkinson for the editing and sound quality of the series despite at least two of the conversations being conducted remotely. Ultimately, however, the podcast acts as a shop-window for Comma Press and, on this basis, the series demonstrates how the press is not only tapping into some of the most urgent issues of the day but also contributing to the cosmopolitan ideal of the republic of letters. From the point of view of the short story, Comma Press’s anthologies emphasise the importance of short fiction in assembling voices from around the world—a veritable United Nations of writers, artists, and other unacknowledged legislators. 


Paul March-Russell is editor of Foundation: The International Review of Science Fiction, commissioning editor for SF Storyworlds (Gylphi Press), and co-founder of the feminist fiction imprint Gold SF. He is also a member of the European Network for Short Fiction Research, and author of The Short Story: An Introduction (2009).


Review of Color Out of Space (2019, Film)



Review of Color Out of Space (2019, Film)

Lúcio Reis-Filho

Color Out of Space. Dir. Richard Stanley. SpectreVision, 2019.


Produced by Spectrevision, Color Out of Space (2019) is the latest rendition of H. P. Lovecraft’s most adapted short story to date. Richard Stanley’s cosmic horror film centers on a family who moves to a remote farmstead in rural New England to escape the hustle of the 21st century. They are adapting to their new life when a glowing meteorite crashes into their front yard and melts into the earth, poisoning both the land and the fabric of space-time with a strange, otherworldly color. To their horror, the family realizes that an alien force is gradually mutating every life form it touches. The film stars Nicolas Cage as a neurotic, righteous family man who faces the odd phenomenon while his wife and children fall victims of a grotesque transformation, which takes him to the brink of madness.

The film opens with a voice-over narration of the first lines from “The Colour out of Space”: “West of Arkham the hills rise wild, and there are valleys with deep woods that no axe has ever cut…”. The plot follows that of the source material, but also dialogues with the more magical-supernatural side of the Mythos by adding a wide range of references to the storyline. In the first scenes, for example, the family’s daughter Lavinia Gardner (Madeleine Arthur) performs a Wiccan ceremony to cure her mother’s cancer. Later, a copy of the Necronomicon and a notebook with arcane symbols can be seen in the girl’s bedroom. Witch cults, occult arcana, and ancient folklore are recurring motifs in Lovecraft’s fiction, although they are absent in that specific source. In addition, the glimpse of a psychedelic dimension inhabited by alien entities whose tentacles curl up through the moving image references the Cyclopean architecture and the dream worlds of “The Call of Cthulhu” (1926) and other stories.

Stanley also brings a new color palette, which was a significant move from earlier adaptations of “The Colour out of Space”. Historically, cinema has built a correlation between the “blasted heath” and the effects of radioactivity on the environment—that was already hinted by the source itself. It’s not by chance, for example, that the “color” fluoresces green from enriched uranium in Daniel Haller’s Die, Monster, Die! (1965), the first adaptation of the story for the screen. That “green” had long become associated with radioactivity, how it reflected post-Cold War era fears, and how it taps into science fiction tropes of radioactivity and outer space. In this sense, Stanley’s color purple is innovative since it departs from the shining green, with any allusion to radiation being much subtler and almost disappearing.

It is interesting that in changing the color palette of the film, Stanley seems to be aesthetically invoking that more magical-supernatural side of the Mythos, instead of the extraterrestrial-cosmic side of it. At the beginning, the strange meteorite is implicitly summoned as a result of Lavinia’s magic ceremony. Nevertheless, the Color’s effects are just as devastating, since it infects mind and body, destroys soil and crops, and causes horrific mutations. At the climax, the color purple is dominant and leaves a trail of destruction. The newcomer hydrologist Ward Phillips (Elliot Knight) witnesses the Gardner property becoming the visual depiction of Lovecraft’s “acres of grey desolation,” with everything (even the color palette) “turning grey and brittle”, “fast crumbling to a greyish powder.”

The film also interacts with the history of horror cinema, since it plunges into body horror—a subgenre of horror and science fiction films since the 1980s. After being affected by the Color, Theresa (Joely Richardson) absentmindedly cuts off two of her fingers with a kitchen knife, spreading blood in the sink. Later, the Color fuses the mother and her son Jack (Julian Hilliard) together into a deranged, grotesque mass in the gruesome style of Sam Raimi, Stuart Gordon or David Cronenberg. In the stables, the alpacas undergo a horrible mutation and become a many-headed monster that resonates the practical effects in John Carpenter’s The Thing (1982). In a way, Color Out of Space could be said to be a film of that decade, and is definitely related to the 1980s revival being currently experienced in film and television.

Color Out of Space opens valuable avenues of interdisciplinary research. If previous generations interpreted the Color’s green as radiation—a “scientific” fear that was a product of the Cold War—, the film reveals how cosmic horror appears to have taken a departure from science fiction in recent times (excepting in media like Stranger Things and Chernobyl, perhaps). Adaptation studies may shed a light on this departure and why it has become a trend in cosmic horror films nowadays. In the field of reception, the changing in the color palette may clarify today’s audience’s fears and the metaphors Stanley is exploiting. Another point of interest, which also represents a departure from Lovecraft’s writings more generally, especially given Lovecraft’s blatant racism, concerns the main roles being played by a female actress and a black actor—Lavinia and Ward, respectively. Reminiscent of the novel Lovecraft Country (2016) and its adaptation, this choice points to the currently changing landscape concerning adaptations of period literature, and should be considered to explore key areas in gender and race studies. On a more paratextual level, the film is tackling the horror that was Lovecraft and racism in general, by casting a diverse cast. Also in the field of gender studies, Lavinia’s mystical bonds with the Color may raise questions about how the female character is represented and why it is more connected to the magical-supernatural side of Mythos.



WORKS CITED

Joshi, S.T. I Am Providence: The Life and Times of H.P. Lovecraft. Hippocampus Press, 2013.

Lovecraft, H. P. “The Colour Out of Space.” The Complete Cthulhu Mythos Tales, 2015, pp. 62–85.

Mariconda, Steven J. “Atmosphere and the Qualitative Analysis of ‘The Colour out of Space.’” Lovecraft Annual, no. 14, 2020, pp. 14-25. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/26939805. Accessed 31 Mar. 2021.

Poole, W. Scott. “Lovecraft, Witch Cults, and Philosophers.” The Age of Lovecraft, edited by Carl H. Sederholm, and Jeffrey Andrew Weinstock, University of Minnesota Press, 2016, pp. 215–230.


Lúcio Reis Filho is a Ph.D. in Media Studies (University Anhembi Morumbi, 2019), film critic and historian specializing in the relationships between cinema, history, and literature, with a focus on the horror genre. Addressing the echoes of H.P. Lovecraft in Clive Barker’s works, he wrote the chapter “Demons to Some, Angels to Others: Eldritch Horrors and Hellbound Religion in the Hellraiser Films,” in Divine Horror: Essays on the Cinematic Battle Between the Sacred and the Diabolical (McFarland, 2017). His award-winning research funded by CAPES (Coordination for the Improvement of Higher Education Personnel, Brazil) “Lovecraft out of Space: Echoes of American Weird Fiction on Brazilian Literature and Cinema” was published in Lovecraftian Proceedings No. 3. He also wrote essays on zombies in contemporary Latin American films, published in journals such as the SFRA Review and horror-themed anthologies. Currently, he investigates Lovecraft’s works and its cinematic adaptations in the late twentieth century

Review of SHE-RA AND THE PRINCESSES OF POWER, Seasons 1-5 (2018-2020, TV)



Review of SHE-RA AND THE PRINCESSES OF POWER,
seasons 1-5

Adam McLain

SHE-RA AND THE PRINCESSES OF POWER. Seasons 1-5. DreamWorks Animation, Netflix. 2018-2020.


Riding the success of the He-Man and the Masters of the Universe show and toy line (1982–1988), the children’s toy company Mattel sought to capitalize on its sword and sorcery moment by introducing a female-focused toy line, Princess of Power, centered around He-Man’s sister—Adora in her human form, She-Ra in her empowered form. From 1985 to 1987, She-Ra fought the Evil Horde, its leader Hordak, and her nemesis Catra through twenty-two action figures, thirteen comics, several children’s books, and a two-season animated cartoon series created by J. Michael Straczynski and Larry DiTillio. Throughout the ensuing thirty years, Adora/She-Ra would appear numerous times in toy lines and cameos, but she would never be as popular—nor, one could say, as marketed—as her brother, Adam/He-Man.

In 2017, Netflix and DreamWorks Animation announced their plans to reboot the franchise as She-Ra and the Princesses of Power, with Noelle Stevenson, an award-winning author, helming the project as executive producer and showrunner. This move came as part of a series of repackaging of old intellectual property for new audiences (e.g., DreamWorks/Netflix’s Voltron: Legendary Defender). As showrunner, Stevenson chose to pay homage to the past show while inventing a new future for it and for animated fantasy children’s shows. Stevenson’s direction chose to focus on diversity and representation, reimagining all the characters to portray more LGBTQ+ characters and characters of color onscreen. Indeed, the reimagining even goes so far as to portray various body types and emotional and mental capabilities. This diversity breathed new life and vitality into the sword and sorcery franchise and created a show that crossed genre boundaries and pushed back against a television culture that consistently shies away from representation, especially queer representation, in shows created for a young audience.

She-Ra and the Princesses of Power has the same premise as She-Ra: Princess of Power: raised in the Horde, Adora abandons it to fight for the Rebellion after finding the sword that gives her the power of She-Ra. Although sharing the same premise, She-Ra diverges from its source material by changing age, gender, and complexity. Adora is joined by her new friends Glimmer, the princess of Bright Moon and a young woman with mother problems, and Bow, a young Black man and Glimmer’s best friend who believes that love and friendship can conquer any insurmountable obstacle. The team of friends sets out to reestablish the Princess Alliance so the Rebellion can defeat the evil Horde (Season One). However, defeating the Horde is not as simple as gathering a few superpowered friends. As the Horde and Rebellion battle back and forth, the show, through its five seasons, weaves together a story of magic and adventure with more sinister and galaxy-wide intrigue. Seasons Two and Three introduce a long history of She-Ra connected to the ancient First Ones, beings who connected the She-Ra power to the magic of Eternia, the planet. As Adora learns more about her power and the true, ancient, intergalactic war that is being brought to Eternia’s doorstep, she grapples with her identity and destiny, striving to be her own person as she is driven to a certain end goal by other forces. Indeed, Season Four introduces weapons of mass destruction and interdimensional travel, culminating in Adora shattering her destiny, and her connection to She-Ra, in order to save her planet and the rest of the galaxy. This event, though, brings Eternia back into a dimension of space controlled by an evil despot—a despot who wants Eternia’s weapons to arrest full tyranny over the galaxy.

In Season Five, Adora must take to the stars to rescue Glimmer and Catra from the clutches of the true Horde, led by Horde Prime. Season Five is the culmination of four seasons that have woven seamlessly into each other, building up to the point where Adora must overcome her self-sacrificing nature or let the universe fall into the iron grip of Horde Prime and his army of clones. At the same time, Glimmer must come to grips with her mantle of leadership, having almost caused the destruction of the universe, and Catra must realize her love and adoration of Adora. Season Five presents a strong message of companionship, empowerment, and self-realization.

As a finale, Season Five touches on the themes that have been developed throughout the show. Delving into ideas of cowardice, bravery, honor, friendship, and agency, the fifth season is a heart-wrenching experience as the characters realize the culminations of their journeys of self-discovery. For example, one of the princesses, Entrapta, has been an enigma throughout the entire show. Beginning as a princess who joins the Princess Alliance, she is captured by the Horde, thought dead by her friends who leave her behind. Entrapta, lover of technology, thrives within the Horde, joining their side and building them weapons of destruction. In one of her culminating scenes, as she tries to obtain the tech that will save Glimmer and Catra, who are lost in space, Entrapta says, “I’m not good at people, but I am good at tech. I thought maybe if I could use tech to help you, you’d like me” (Season 5, Episode 2),. Entrapta’s growth is just one example of the growth of all the characters on the show—growth that compliments the gender and sexual diversity of the show. The fifth season delivers on the many plot threads, character arcs, and disparate secrets to which the show has been building.

She-Ra is able to take cultural touchpoints—like LGBTQ+ conversations, for example—and present them in ways that are both inclusive and metaphoric. For example, at the end of Season 2, Episode 7, the show introduces the viewer to Bow’s parents, two male historians. The fact that his dads are the gay parents of thirteen children is accepted by everyone in the show. Instead of being a story about struggling with coming out or queer acceptance, the story shifts the focus to the dads. Bow’s parents, who want Bow to become a historian like them, must overcome their former hopes and dreams for their child in order to love him as he is, a warrior in the Rebellion who loves adventure. Like much of the show, the expected tropes—like the unaccepting parents who must come to love their queer child for who they are—is refracted through a different lens. This refraction, present in much of the show, allows viewers and scholars alike to reapproach different ideas in fields like queer theory, film studies, and children’s literature, and conceptualize these in new and intriguing ways.

Along with innovative metaphors for LGBTQ+ representation, the show itself helps to bring more diversity and representation to the animated screen. From the beginning, the show makes it clear that Spinnerella and Netossa, two princesses, are married. Additionally, many of the characters are characters of color, from Bow and Netossa to Frosta and Mermista. As already mentioned, Bow and his twelve siblings were raised by two fathers. Introduced in Season Four, Double Trouble, a shapeshifting mercenary, is nonbinary, uses they/them pronouns, and is voiced by the LGBTQ+ rights activist and actor Jacob Tobia. Additionally, throughout the entire series, and culminating in Season Five, the show develops a strong relationship—from friendship to enemies to lovers—between Adora and Catra as they come to understand the complexities of love. For a DreamWorks show on Netflix, this representation is very welcome, especially after the fleeting representation in previous shows. She-Ra can be firmly placed into the history of LGBTQ+ representation in media, improving upon the dismal efforts of Legend of Korra and Voltron and leading to the lauded work in Kipo and the Age of Wonderbeasts.

As a show is progressive and innovative, however, it also echoes a continual problem that has been revealed over the last years: nostalgia and the recreation and repackaging of intellectual property. This move within science fiction can be a boon and a curse. Reapproaching old property with fresh eyes allows creators to invigorate a universe, helping to bring it into conversation with current questions and interrogations; however, at the same time, repackaged universes must grapple with histories and futures that are tainted with ghosts of the past.






Review of WESTWORLD, Seasons 2-3 (2016, TV)



Review of WESTWORLD, seasons 2-3

Amandine Faucheux

WESTWORLD. Nolan, Jonathan, and Lisa Joy, creators. HBO Entertainment, 2016.


It took me two rewatches of the last two seasons of HBO’s SF blockbuster to appreciate its genius; my partner vowed never to watch the show again after season three. We probably represent a good average of reactions from fans, but, like Dolores, I maintain that Westworld warrants “seeing the beauty” of its fictional universe — that is, to overlook some of its glaring aspects to favor what is unique about the show. Season two delivers all the violent promises set up by season one as we follow the key awakened hosts (Dolores, Maeve, and Bernard)[1] as they take control of their destiny and seek vengeance, freedom, or to fulfil their purpose. It is a glorious, complex, audience-sensitive season that pushes its characters in new and intriguing ways. Season three takes a big leap of faith by leaving the show’s fantastic and gorgeous worldbuilding behind to set the action in the ‘real’ human world, a nightmarish vision of corporate neoliberalism. It’s a gamble that pays off only because the characters’ storylines, delivered by a stellar cast, compel us to keep on watching. This season also unfolds the ideological conundrum of the premise: a world in which technology serves the purpose of a eugenic population control system to maximize labor.

In Michael Crichton’s original 1973 movie Westworld, the hosts of the parks turn evil because of something akin to a technological plague, and the human guests are punished for their hubris by violent death. It probably inspired in great part the wave of cult classic SF movies that follow this morale: The Terminator, The Matrix, Ex Machina. But in HBO’s version, of course, it is human beings who are the villains who rape, torture, and murder the hosts made innocuous by their inability to defend themselves or remember. The audience, therefore, feels satisfied upon seeing the tables turned on the members of the Delos board, no less, in season two. While Dolores leads her group of hosts within the Delos headquarters and massacres people along the way, Maeve looks for her daughter across the park, which eventually leads her and others to the “Valley Beyond”—an Eden-like virtual world in which the hosts may escape the control of Delos. In this way Dolores and Maeve represent the two extremes of the hosts’ reaction to their awakening: vengeance and destruction or escapism. Meanwhile, Bernard’s (revealed to be a host in the previous season) fragmented consciousness—whereby he can no longer recognize memories from the present time—provides the season’s nonlinear narrative structure. Just like its predecessor, season two is complex, original, and rich in lyrical writing. Much has already been written about episode 8, “Kiksuya” (Lakota for “Remember”),[2] in which Akecheta (Zahn McClamon) tells his story, mostly in Lakota, to Maeve’s daughter, which explains the stereotypical scene in which Ghost Nation members attack Maeve’s encampment. This episode and the metafictive episode 5 “Akane no Mai,” featuring the shogunate-version of the Mariposa narrative, represents some of the strongest episodes of the season.

Overall, one of the best aspects of this season is in the power it gives to the characters made passive by a combination of racialized and gendered ideologies, as the two episodes just mentioned illustrate. In the shadow of Dolores’s and Maeve’s character development from feminized and sexualized narratives (as the rancher’s daughter and the brothel madam, respectively), to full-fledged heroines lies the fascinating characters of Teddy (James Marsden) and Hector (Rodriguo Santoro). Teddy’s role as a host mirrors that of Dolores’s: he is supposed to introduce guests to the park and take them on easy adventures. Like her, he dies often and violently, and like her, he also possesses the sort of forgettable character-traits of a basic RPG character: guests are seen making fun of him on multiple occasions. But while Dolores grows out of her role and indeed comes to embody almost the exact opposite—the violent, ruthless, and powerful “Wyatt”—Teddy cannot quite grow out of his character. While he follows Dolores in season two, he tries multiple times to convince her to leave the revolution behind and escape with him. In episode 5, Dolores ends up manipulating his core drives to make him less sensitive and more merciless, which results in his suicide in episode 9. In contradiction to his persona as a romance-novel pistolero of season one, in season two Teddy thus comes to take on the feminized role of the lover who, as a result of their romantic nature, cannot follow their partner’s path to violence. Likewise Hector, playing the role of the archetypal and uber-masculine bandit, embodies in season two and three the tragic figure of the lover one cannot save. In spite of his awakening, Hector never manages to survive his reboots and he indeed dies presumably irrevocably in season three. In both cases, it is the female characters who lead the plot intellectually and physically, and the two representatives of the mythological Wild Wild West masculinity take on a passive, feminized role. This reversal of expectations at the cross-section of two genres heavy with polarized gendered tropes (the western movie and science fiction) represent one of the many ways the show transcends.

Season two also increases the layers of complexity of Delos’s sinister plans. The parks serve not as touristy attractions but rather as a massive system of data collection of the guests for the purpose of population control, the plot of season three. In this way hosts and guests are aligned as victims of a system that would rewrite their core narratives, endlessly providing the illusion of freedom (the mythical Wild Wild West on one hand, meritocracy on the other) while stripping away their power of will to its core. Thus Dolores’s vengeance does not, like in the Crichton movie, represent the main threat to human beings; rather, she becomes in season three the revolutionary hero who might save humans from themselves, and in particular from the system that a character like Liam Dempsey (John Gallagher Jr.) stands for—decadent, unfettered, nepotistic capitalism at its worst.

Unlike the hosts, who showcase complex ‘human’ emotions and relationships, human beings in the show are consistently incapable of relating to one another in any positive or meaningful way. For example, Felix (Leonardo Nam) and Sylvester (Ptolemy Slocum), the two Delos employees who Maeve blackmails into helping her, do not exchange a single line that is not antagonistic (for instance, Sylvester calling Felix a “ding dong”), in spite of the show’s implication that they are friends and in spite of their shared trauma of being kidnapped by Maeve and her crew for most of season two. In fact, all of Delos employees frequently trade insults and derogatory remarks with one another. The most significant characters, like Charlotte Hale (Tessa Thompson) represent corrupt executives who routinely abuse their staff; for instance, Charlotte purposely opens the door to Theresa (Sidse Babett Knudsen) stark naked, which in any context should be construed as sexual harassment.

Even in the world outside the park, the nightmarish capitalist context intrudes on human relationships. Friendships only exist within the gig-economy criminal hustle in which Caleb Nichols (Aaron Paul) participates, and even familial relationships do not survive the ultra-competitve, manipulative nature of this universe. Every one of the plotlines that connect the most important human characters in these two seasons—William (Ed Harris), James Delos (Peter Mullan), Caleb, and Liam Dempsey—are defined by families fractured by violence, addiction, and corruption, all of which intimately tied to the demands of capitalism. What’s more, in this world there seems to be no recognizable laws (or not any that serve to protect people), nor ethics concerning the value of human lives. Delos, for example, seems totally untouched by the brutal murders of people (including their own board members) that took place in their parks; one remaining board member only mentions the impact on Delos stocks. Police can be bought as mercenaries, and people seem to be routinely assassinated without any consequence. Democracy itself is portrayed as a joke, as illustrated by the villain Serac (Vincent Cassel) threatening the Brazilian president with a coup if he does not comply with his requests.

It is by resisting the impulse of portraying a Disneyfied corporate utopia of the ‘real world’ and instead building a subtle dystopia, the show is capable of transitioning from the host-centered plot of season two into the host-human revolution that takes place in season three. And although fans might not like this season as much, it’s for that courageous transition that I believe it should not be dismissed. The plot centers on Dolores (now made to look like a modern woman) as she attempts to use the system, an AI called Rehoboam[3] who can predict the future of human beings based on the data collected by Delos, not to destroy human society but to free human beings from this eugenic population control. She recruits Caleb, a former soldier who was controlled by the US military into being a mercenary and then brainwashed, as the leader of the revolution. Maeve, hired by the improbably named Engerraund Serac, who promised to reunite her with her daughter in the Valley Beyond, attempts to stop her.

At the end of season two, Dolores makes a Charlotte-Hale host for herself and steals five host “pearls,” and this season builds a sense of mystery as we do not know which hosts she brought into the real world. Slowly, it is revealed that Dolores in fact copied her own identity over; there are now five Doloreses disguised as various characters. I think this decision is one of season three’s strokes of genius. It would have been easy to build on nostalgia for the park by bringing back our favorite characters—Teddy, say, or Clementine (Angela Sarafyan)—but instead the Doloreses both complexify her character and offer another interesting take on gender. The distinct Doloreses start taking on different personalities and even resist the original Dolores’s plan; the Charlotte-Dolores, for instance, starts caring about her family and attempts to avenge their death in the latter part of the season, showcasing yet another case of hosts being more human than humans.

Furthermore, season three continues the show’s subtle yet intriguing representation of gender as a meaningless facet of identity. The “male” Doloreses are still identifiable as her. In season two, Dolores’s “dark” personality—the polar opposite of her character as a host as the rancher’s sweet daughter—was named Wyatt, a ruthless and even insane assassin represented as a man in  the hosts’ imagination. When Dolores calls herself Wyatt, the other characters, including William, accept it without question. Thus, Westworld embodies a visual example of the radical ways in which SF texts of the last two decades have handled questions of sex, gender, and sexuality: deregulate it while keeping it as a completely innocuous part of the worldbuilding.[4] Where an older feminist tradition of SF put their non-normative representation of gender and sexuality at the center of the plot or the worldbuilding (i.e. through alien societies for example), our generation’s SF shows off with a shrug.

This is not to say that season three is perfect, or indeed as good as the previous two seasons. One of the most egregious problems is the villain Serac’s plot, which is cartoonish at best. Because of the (unexplained) destruction of Paris when he was a child, Serac and his brother resolve to build a system that can predict the future of humanity so that they can essentially eliminate violent criminality—and therefore the destruction of European capitals, we must assume. I suppose we are meant to see a connection between Serac’s loss of his home and hosts’ loss of theirs, but it’s a flimsy connection. Serac’s technology serves a violently eugenicist project and the absurd nature of his backstory make it difficult to believe in his own humanity, or in him as a fully-fledged character.

Moreover, while Caleb’s character and plotline are interesting throughout the season, the effect of his role is dampened quite a bit when we get to the reason why Dolores picked him in the last episode. It turns out that as a soldier, Caleb was trained in a Delos park and actually helped save Dolores and other hosts in a simulated situation. But Dolores selects him in particular because he prevented the other soldiers from raping the hosts at the end of their mission. Therefore, Caleb’s heroic nature stands only from the fact that he didn’t abuse his power over the hosts, thus representing a sort of opposite to William, for whom the park unleashed his violent and ruthless nature. Compared with the hosts’ more-than-human humanity, however, Caleb’s heroism pales. 

Serac and Caleb’s backstory aside, I do believe season three delivered the promises set up in the previous seasons in original and intriguing ways, and while fans might miss the park’s beautiful landscapes, the show continues to dazzle with its unique aesthetic and grand action scenes. Season three will be particularly fruitful to scholars interested in contrasting the other two seasons’ truncated utopia with the realistic and unsettling dystopia set up in the outside-the-park universe. Furthermore, Dolores’s character—split into five different personas—will provide interesting discussion about hiveminds and other disembodied consciousness that seem to be at the forefront of contemporary SF.


[1] Played respectively by Evan Rachel Wood, Thandie Newton, and Jeffrey Wright.

[2] See for example Tom VanDerWeff’s and Aja Romano’s discussion  https://www.vox.com/culture/2018/6/10/17442310/westworld-season-2-episode-8-recap-kiksuya; David Sims, Spencer Kornhaber, and Sophie Gilbert’s discussions https://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2018/06/westworld-season-2-episode-8-kiksuya-roundtable/562451/.

[3] Named after the Biblical character.

[4] For example, see the treatment of gender in Ann Leckie’s Imperial Radch trilogy. For casual yet crucially innovative representations of gender expression, queerness, and non-monogamy, see Seth Dickinson’s ongoing Masquerade series.





Review of UPLOAD (2020, TV)



Review of UPLOAD

Nora Castle

UPLOAD. Prime Video, 2020.


Following in the vein of shows like The Good Place (2016-2020) and Forever (2018), Amazon Prime Video’s Upload (2020) tackles the question of what happens after we die. A bingeable, comedic SF TV show set in 2033, it depicts an Earth in which the death of the body does not spell the end for the mind; with sufficient warning (and a sufficient budget), humans can ‘upload’ into one of a variety of pay-to-play virtual-reality (VR) ‘heavens’ and live on, interacting with the living as well as their fellow ‘uploads’. Nathan Brown, the protagonist, is a coder working on a freeware version of one of the many ‘heavens’ currently on offer from mega-corporations such as Oscar Meyer Intel and Nat Geo Instagram—the irony that this show is produced by one such mega-corporation should not be lost on the viewer. After his autonomous vehicle crashes, Nathan, dazed and dying, is pressured by his overbearing girlfriend, Ingrid, into uploading his consciousness into Lakeview by Horizen, “the only digital afterlife environment modelled on the great Victorian hotels of the United States and Canada” (“Welcome to Upload”). Among his fellow residents are a multibillionaire, a veteran who ‘suiscanned’ (i.e., committed suicide by upload), and a child who fell into the Grand Canyon on a school trip.

With the first (46 min) episode given over primarily to exposition, the remaining installments of the show’s 10-episode arc (ranging in duration from 24-32 min) deal with Nathan’s difficulty adjusting to a stuffy digital eternity where every purchase must be approved by Ingrid, his budding romance with his Angel (aka customer service rep), Nora, and the increasingly realization that his death was in fact a murder. Part-romcom, part-mystery, Upload is effectively what would happen if a Hallmark movie crashed a Cyberpunk convention.  The show draws heavily on video game tropes, with the portrayal of Lakeview invoking a kind of massively multiplayer online game, complete with in-app purchases, pop-up ads, and a Street Fighter gamer mode. The non-VR world of the show is one similar to our own, with a neoliberal gig-economy and stark wealth disparity, albeit with some significant technological advances. These include innovations with regard to driverless vehicles—which, importantly in the series, allow the user to “prioritize passenger” or “prioritize occupant” in the event of a crash—and 3D-printed foods, though the most significant advancement is undoubtedly the posthumanist digital afterlife itself.

Virtual (after)lives are, of course, nothing new in the world of SF. As early as 1933, Laurence Manning imagined in The Man Who Awoke a world in which machines could replace human senses with electrical impulses, allowing people to escape to a virtual life of their choosing. Even uploading consciousness into virtual reality (VR) after death—as opposed to re-downloading into human bodies as in Altered Carbon (novel: 2002, TV show: 2018-2020), transferring into androids like in Rudy Rucker’s Software (1982), or uploading into computer consoles as in Cory Doctorow’s Walkaway (2017)—has a number of precedents, including Philip K. Dick’s Ubik (1969), Iain M. Banks’ Surface Detail (2010), Black Mirror’s “San Junipero” episode (2016), and Neal Stephenson’s Fall (2019). It is interesting to note that the society in Upload is, in fact, striving for the Altered Carbon model of re-downloading consciousness, though so far only with disastrous results. What makes Upload unique, however, is its comedic take, opting for a more optimistic vibe even while depicting a variety of social ills such as ubiquitous surveillance, overbearing labor, and social control via Uber-style star-ratings.

Designed to be easily watchable with an adequate—but not obtrusive—dose of social awareness, Upload is less genre-bending than genre-melding, and the murder plot and digital-panopticon milieu tend to get overlooked in deference to the garden-variety love story. Fans of hard SF will no doubt struggle with the mismatch in the technology portrayed, with, for example, the immense leaps in data-storage for consciousnesses met with chunky VR glasses that already appear outdated for 2020—not to mention the slasher-comedy-esque head-zapping upload sequence.

The series in general seems to have difficulty maintaining a clear focus, and often, in trying to do too much, it ends up doing too little. This includes the character development of its protagonist, who is somehow simultaneously comically narcissistic and impressively altruistic. Intelligent enough to build his own Upload, he doesn’t realize the suspicious circumstances of this death until they are spelled out to him by a neighbor: “Yeah, sure… you just threatened a 600-billion-dollar-a-year industry, and no one murdered you” (“Five Stars”). Nevertheless, it does address a number of themes worthy of scholarly exploration. It does so while treading a middle ground of not-quite biting the hand that feeds it (i.e., Amazon), which in itself may be interesting to analyze for media studies and/or cyberpunk scholars, especially given Sean McQueen’s assertion that “Cyberpunk’s subversive strategies were quickly adopted by, and became indistinguishable from, the corporate structures they initially opposed” (McQueen 5).

Upload is worth watching for those interested in posthumanism, digital worlds, video game studies, artificial intelligence, and biocapitalism, as well as those interested in portrayals of neoliberalism and/or contemporary labor relations. Related to its portrayal of stratified society, it also obliquely addresses questions of racial inequity through its casting and visuals, though there is not anything terribly new there for critical race scholars. The series will be interesting for food studies scholars due to its portrayal of 3D-printed foods and its making visible of the deep enmeshment of food companies in the capitalist world-system (e.g. Nokia Taco Bell, Panera/Facebook). The latter will also make it of interest to scholars working on the Anthropocene/Capitalocene/Plantationocene, though Upload pointedly avoids any mention of climate change. Environmental humanities scholars may also find it interesting in its invocation of a (digital) pastoral sublime. Despite its lukewarm story arc, Upload is eminently topical, and its Amazon backing adds a paratextual dimension which makes it a cultural artifact worth at least passing consideration.      

WORKS CITED

Daniels, Greg. “Welcome to Upload.” Upload, 1, Amazon Video, 1 May 2020.

—. “Five Stars.” Upload, 2, Amazon Video, 1 May 2020.

McQueen, Sean. Deleuze and Baudrillard: From Cyberpunk to Biopunk. Edinburgh University Press, 2016.