Review of WandaVision

Review of WandaVision

Jeremy Brett

Schaeffer, Jac, creator. WandaVision, Marvel Studios, 2021.

In early 2021, the Marvel Cinematic Universe introduced its first Disney-directed television production—the limited series WandaVision. The show is a bold choice for the MCU’s Disney+ television debut because it is not a traditional superhero story (despite the battle-heavy final episode, which features its fair share of superpowered individuals hurling energy blasts at one another). Instead, the show is a number of other things, including an exploration of the tempting power of nostalgia, a meta-commentary on television and the cliches and pretensions of the sitcom format, a study of female autonomy and the social construction of a life, and an examination of the fragility and survival mechanisms of the human psyche in the face of trauma. Each of these aspects of WandaVision is valid and would merit significant academic analysis. The show is certainly a feast for scholars of media studies, as well. More than one sizable study could be produced detailing the ways—through imagery, dialogue, and more subtle Easter Egg-type references—in which WandaVision contributes to the ongoing evolution of the MCU. The production and creative decisions behind the construction of a cohesive narrative universe are a topic of significant interest, especially as Hollywood seems to be running full tilt into the “cinematic universe” mold of filmmaking. In essence, the show is rewarding enough in its complexity to hold multiple layers of analytical weight.

But to me, WandaVision, at its foundation, revolves around the twinning of grief and illusion. The show’s chief protagonist, Wanda Maximoff (played by Elizabeth Olsen), is driven by grief so profound that it quite literally warps herself and the people around her, as gravity warps and distorts the flow of time. Grief can be life-destroying; it is an intensely powerful emotion for regular human beings, let alone an Avenger imbued with Chaos Magic that is amplified by the power of an Infinity Stone. What WandaVision makes clear, however, is that the effects of Wanda’s all-consuming grief are wide-ranging and catastrophic because of her power, but her desire to change fate and wrap herself in comforting illusion is a common human trait.

WandaVision opens soon after the events of the films Avengers: Infinity War and Avengers: Endgame, during which the Avengers and their allies first failed at preventing the Mad Titan Thanos’ plan to erase half of the intelligent life in the universe and then—thanks to time travel—finally eliminated Thanos. The victory was achieved at great cost, however—several heroes died in the attempt to save the universe, including Wanda’s love, the synthezoid Vision (Paul Bettany). In Infinity War, Wanda must endure watching Vision die not once but twice, first by her own hands in order to stop Thanos, and again, by a time-reversing Thanos who rips the Mind Stone from Vision’s head. This doubling of Wanda’s trauma is added to an existing foundation of unearned guilt over destruction that Wanda caused in previous MCU films, causing an ultimately untenable burden on Wanda’s psyche that triggers the events of WandaVision.

The show’s first seven (of nine) episodes are clever in tone, writing, and production. Each one is modeled after a different era of American situation comedy, with appropriate opening themes, credit sequences, and commercials. In each episode—beginning with a 1950s show modeled on The Dick Van Dyke Show and continuing through to the 2010s Modern Family—Wanda and Vision are a happy married couple living in the idyllic town of Westview, New Jersey. It is a safe, comfortable, low-stakes life, in a town where the lawns are always mowed, Agnes the wacky neighbor is always dropping by, and all conflicts are minor and solved within 30 minutes. But the show’s tone shifts from the outset, signifying that things are not what they seem. Neither Vision nor Wanda can remember their lives before coming to Westview; the radio breaks in with someone’s voice calling out to Wanda; neighbors occasionally act peculiar—as if they are lost or scared. Most strangely of all, within a mere two episodes, Wanda becomes pregnant and gives birth to two rapidly growing twin boys. The increasing sense of otherworldliness and unease, even menace, is atypical of other Marvel productions and instead reminiscent of shows like The Twilight Zone, Twin Peaks, or Carnivale.

The secret is eventually revealed, partly through the help of government agency S.W.O.R.D., which has become aware of the situation and is observing from the outside. Wanda’s dark despair has fueled her semi-unconscious creation of a dome of magical energy around Westview—within that space, she has transformed Westview into the ideal kind of town she recalls from her memories of watching American television as a child in war-torn Sokovia. Wanda’s Westview captures the utopian myth of the American small town, but at the terrible price of transforming the residents into live puppets in her idyllic theater. Inside the “Hex”, she can happily play at being a wife and mother with her husband, her emotional anguish buried under layers upon layers of denial. But gradually, the illusion keeps giving way to reality as Vision increasingly questions the events around him and Wanda’s resets of reality keep being punctured.

The final breakdown comes because of revelations from two very different characters: S.W.O.R.D. agent Monica Rambeau (Teyonah Parris) and Wanda’s neighbor Agnes (Kathryn Hahn).  Monica is dealing with feelings of guilt and grief because, in her mind, she failed to be present when her mother Maria passed away. This, however, was a result of being “blipped” by Thanos in Infinity War and therefore not her fault. Unlike Wanda, Monica comes to accept the truth of her existence and seeks to live it, not avoid it. As she tells Wanda during one exchange, “I can’t change, and I don’t think I want to, because it’s my truth.” Monica rejects the same cycle of grief and doubt-erasing illusion that Wanda builds to escape both her past and her present.

The other character that returns Wanda to herself is neighbor Agnes, who reveals herself as Agatha Harkness, an ancient witch seeking the source of Wanda’s power. Their confrontation in the penultimate episode exposes the secret about herself that Wanda never knew—she is the inheritor of a destiny marking her as the “Scarlet Witch”, a magic user of unparalleled ability. Agatha ironically causes her own downfall by helping Wanda—through flashbacks—to see the truth about her past, by wiping away the illusions, and by excavating the traumas Wanda had hidden away. A flashback to Wanda’s past soon after the death of her twin brother Pietro (Aaron Taylor-Johnson in Age of Ultron; Evan Peters in WandaVision) shows Vision trying to comfort her. He notes quietly to the despondent Wanda that he is too young to have known grief, or love, but he wonders, “What is grief, if not love persevering?”  This conveys to the audience Wanda’s ultimate motives for creating “Westview”. Her final rejection of this illusion in favor of a harsher yet truer reality, her acceptance of responsibility for the mental enslavement of the townsfolk, and even her assent to her Scarlet Witch destiny, all reveals her growing recognition of illusion and denial’s ultimate paucity.

Therein lies the narrative power of WandaVision, distinguishing it from its fellow MCU film productions. Wanda is arguably the most emotionally complex figure in the MCU to date, and the most human in how repeated traumas and violence have affected her life. Though her fellow Avengers have their own imperfect lives, their own traumas and scars, none so far (with the exceptions perhaps of Natasha Romanoff or the protagonists of the Marvel Netflix shows) have been so defined by their pasts or have entwined their abilities with such fraught and piercing emotional resonance. WandaVision presents the viewer and the scholar alike with a more multidimensional kind of Marvel hero. In Wanda and Vision (who, as a construction from Wanda’s memories, experiences his own crisis of identity when confronting his newly reactivated S.W.O.R.D. incarnation), power is linked to trauma in an intimately, fallible human way. The show attempts to interrogate the image of the trauma-laden traditional superhero and asks its audience to consider what sorts of people result from the fusion of trauma and power. With this alone, WandaVision proves itself truly something new in superhero media, beyond its clever re-creation of old television in all its cliches and tropes, its multiplicity of tone, and its powerful acting from Olsen and Bettany.

The show is a meditation on the power of grief and the lengths humans go to avoid or deny it. Wanda’s history in the comic books has always been marked by heightened emotional states resulting in world-changing effects—notably in the “Avengers Disassembled” and “House of M” story arcs—and the show reflects this heritage. More problematically, however, it reinforces continuing complaints about Wanda’s character—that she is primarily defined by her reactions to loss and that she personifies the antiquated stereotype of women being prone to mental and emotional instability. Note how, in contrast, fellow magic-user Stephen Strange is eerily calm and composed in most situations. Conversely, science whiz Tony Stark is easily as emotionally unstable as Wanda yet is seldom called on it as a gender-trait. It’s an image that bears closer scholarly study. WandaVision doesn’t necessarily do much to overturn this conception of Wanda, but it does effectively chronicle her pathway from broken and reactive victim of trauma to a woman cognizant of her destiny yet still wholly imperfect. Notably, Wanda flees the angered townspeople whom she enslaved rather than actively engage with a reckoning for her crimes; besides Agatha’s acidly noting that “heroes don’t torture people,” the show ducks the ethical question of her criminal responsibility. 

Heroes don’t torture people. Nor, traditionally, do heroes grieve like people do, nor feel guilt for the destruction they create and inspire in the name of saving the world. Traditionally, heroes are supposed to be better, and are often rendered justified in any actions because of this assumption. Yet recent superhero film and television has started reevaluating the superhero’s image in light of a more confusing, complex, and divided world. WandaVision, in its depiction of a woman of great power who blinds herself to emotional reality past the point of safety, joins this new group of media devoted to the fallibility and humanity of heroes.

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 Loki

Review of Loki

Zahra Rizvi

Loki. Created by Michael Waldron, Disney+, 2021.

Apocalypses have long been a fascination for SF and dystopian fiction, whether it is to look at possibilities for alternate futures or exploring the horrors of the present which carry within themselves roots of impending, near-future disaster. Often narratives dealing with apocalypses place themselves in a post-apocalyptic universe, where irreversible changes have caused an impossibility of going back to a pre-apocalyptic existence. Loki too seeks to participate in the mythmaking of the apocalypse by trying to reinvent this engagement in new and interesting ways.

Loki (Tom Hiddleston) is introduced to the Time Variance Authority (TVA) when he is picked up by the organization and tried as a ‘Variant’. The story starts off as a divergent thread of a hand-picked scene from Avengers: Endgame (2019), a possibility of which was already teased in the film. The throwback to the film—the Avengers traveling through time to reverse the effects of an apocalypse of their own—works to set up the premise of the series: a combination of time, technics, and the persistence of the apocalypse. The TVA endeavours to ensure that order is upheld by strictly regulating the Sacred Timeline, or the decided timeline of the Time-Keepers, the three elusive beings who are said to have differentiated between the multiversal disorder of multiple timelines (and their respective alternate universes) to decide on the one timeline that is now protected by the TVA against any divergence from this set path.

Director Kate Herron has described the series as “a big love letter to sci-fi” and it is the TVA where the mood and tone of this love letter is set up (Polo). There is a certain quality of timelessness to the TVA and yet at the same time, it seems to carry anachronisms of all sorts that serve to make the fabric of this celestial space even more unique and strangely, believable. This can be attributed to the identifiable popular SF influences of Herron and her team. Miss. Minutes, the adorable yet infuriating, animated AI mascot of the TVA is the Loki version of Jurassic Park’s Mr. DNA (Jurassic Park, Jurassic World, Jurassic World: Camp Cretaceous), and primarily functions as a posthumanist, cheerful explicatory trope to fill in details of the story that are more economical to conveniently tell rather than show. The design of Miss. Minutes is much like the overall design of the TVA, a strong retro-futuristic style that is a memento of not only popular SF but a nod to what Herron calls ‘the golden age of comics’, with the tech deeply reminiscent of the bureaucratic, corporatist technocracy of Brazil (1985) and its eerie, dystopian undertones. The technology, including archaic computers with Alien-inspired font and Dune-esque timedoors, is placed within an architecture that is an oddly well-made mix of Brutalist and Midwest architecture, and the uncanny oxymoron serves cleverly to house the misplaced even repressive ‘heroism’ of the TVA. These allusions and the overall intertextuality of Loki no doubt enrich the SF tradition it is a part of, but at the same time, they rupture it instead of securing continuity of it, and at this early outset itself present the multiversal chaotic potential present in the otherwise sanitized order of the TVA. The series upholds this pendulum-like debate between order and chaos throughout its six episodes, and it is embodied in its titular character’s struggle at the brink of the age-old question of fate versus free will.

Again and again, Loki is brought face-to-face with the futility of his ‘glorious purpose’ in the light of being shown that all of his life, his decisions, his choices and even his death, are predetermined. Anything he does off-course is picked up as a variance and demolished, a fate that would be his own if he hadn’t been tasked to catch a dangerous version of himself—Sylvie (Sophia Di Martino)—who he finds out has been hiding in apocalyptic events. Loki and Sylvie go from one apocalypse to another and it is interesting that even on the Sacred Timeline, free will is surprisingly possible in a time-space where one least expects it to be so. This apocalyptic chronotope is one of the strengths of Loki, as it presents the endless possibility of life at the end of the world, of a forever, short but existent present. It is in one such chronotope that the transformative power and redemptive possibility of love and companionship is revealed and the series presents it with moving emotion and feeling.

In the later episodes, Loki faces the anarchic multiplicity of his variant selves, in scenes that pay tribute to the superhero genre (see, for example, DC Comic’s Crime Syndicate) and, especially, Marvel comics history and its continuing engagement with alt-universes of the Marvel multiverse of as early as the 1960s. For example, in 1962 the Fantastic Four often come across alternate Earths, one of which is even inhabited by a variant of Kang the Conqueror, as seen in Strange Tales #103 (1962) and Fantastic Four #19 (1963). In another story, multiversal travel takes Doctor Strange and the Fantastic Four to alternate universes in Strange Tales #126 (1964) and Fantastic Four Annual #6 (1968). MCU’s open acceptance of the multiverse in Loki is supposed to spearhead MCU Phase 4 and it is interesting to carry out a comparative analysis of the multiverse in Loki as part of the MCU against the multiverse in the Marvel Comics revealing “one big, odd MCU/Marvel Comics coincidence (or planned synchronicity?) between the kick-off of the MCU Multiverse and its comic book counterpart” (Marston). Indeed, Loki, by carrying out a bricolage of sorts with comics/superhero history, SF, and more importantly, specific Marvel history, hints at the increasing instances of retcons in upcoming MCU creations.

The fracturing of the ‘ustopia’ of He Who Remains (Jonathan Majors) presents the simultaneous co-existence of all SF, retcons and more, and it is with immense speculation that the promised Season Two will be awaited for studying more of the multiverse.


Marston, George. “The Marvel Multiverse and the meaning of Earth-616 explained.” Gamesradar, 2021.

Polo, Susana. “Loki director on the sci-fi that inspired its timeless, time-traveling look.” Polygon, 2021.

Zahra Rizvi is a Ph.D. scholar at the Department of English, Jamia Millia Islamia, and founder member of Digital Games Research Association India. She was recently MHRD-SPARC Fellow at the Department of Linguistics and Germanic, Slavic, African and Asian Language Studies, Michigan State University, and works in the fields of popular culture, young adult participatory spaces, and geopolitical issues in and of cross-platform media.

Review of Love, Death & Robots, season 2

Review of Love, Death & Robots, season 2

Jeremy Brett

Miller, Tim, creator. Love, Death & Robots, season 2, Netflix, 2021.

Reviewing an anthology television series can be tricky. With exceptions, perhaps, like Black Mirror, which has a central theme (the societal and personal dangers of new technologies) around which critics and scholars can work a targeted thesis, most anthologies are too varied, too diverse in theme and tone and story and quality, for a single opinion to cover an entire production run. The Twilight Zone has been rightfully enshrined in the pantheon of great SF television programs, but any fan or regular viewer will testify that many episodes are, to put it charitably, clinkers. It’s a phenomenon reminiscent of the slew of publications from the Pulp Era: certainly literary treasures could be found within their pages, often in great numbers, but for every Bradbury or Asimov or Heinlein or Lovecraft, there were examples of equal and opposite hackery, best forgotten except as curiosities. The same applies to The Outer Limits, Tales from the Crypt, or Masters of Science Fiction: the tonal and thematic varieties are so great that it’s really impossible to consider the anthology series as a discrete object.  The closest Love, Death & Robots (LD&R) might have to a thematic predecessor is the 1981 animated film Heavy Metal (as well as the groundbreaking magazine on which the film is based); it’s hardly a coincidence that the show started life as a reboot of that production. Both are constructed with a comic book sensibility in mind, marked by powerful imagery, and heavily steeped in adult themes with instances of both erotica and intense violence, love and death together. But Heavy Metal had a (thin) framing story connecting its vignettes together, whereas in LD&R and its fellow genre anthology programs there is no such narrative linkage. In that sense the series is much more like Analog or The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction.

However, shows like these can certainly be analyzed and judged on their ability to tell an entertaining or enlightening story, and that intrinsic storytelling quality is the essence of Love, Death & Robots. The show is best examined not for any ethical lessons (arguably, the only story in Season 2 that outright provokes moral inquiry is “Pop Squad”, based on a story by Paolo Bacigalupi—a dark tale of a future where overpopulation is countered by a special police unit tasked with killing unregistered children), but more for the visual and emotional impacts the episodes provide the viewer. The intensity of these impacts is heightened by the stories’ brevity and, I would suggest, the shortness of the second season (8 episodes, down from the first season’s 18) which encourages binge viewing and more emotions hitting the viewer in a briefer period. It appears that the show’s producers are taking their cues from Season 1, which was also marked by small-scale stories that ranged in their emotional and narrative impact from the whimsical to the action-packed to the gut-wrenching. Love, Death & Robots reflects less the Rod Serling-style of didactic, thoughtful morality and more a consciousness of the emotive and cathartic power of storytelling. There is a great imaginative power in the ability to tell a good story well, and the show succeeds in this for the most part.

There is Love; in “Ice” (story by Rich Larson), two brothers, Fletcher and Sedgewick, live on a bleak industrial colony planet covered in ice and snow. Sedge is an “extro”, a human without cybernetic mods that enhance speed, strength, and agility, while his younger brother Fletch is, like most of the colony’s population, modded. Sedge is seen as an outsider by Fletch’s friends and as a weakling by his rough father, weighed down by an inferiority complex, (“Different. That’s what the grown-ups say, but they mean ‘better.’”) He resolves to join Fletch and his friends in a dangerous race across the ice to outpace the massive ‘frostwhales’ before they breach. During the race, Fletch risks his life to allow Sedge the chance to save him, giving Sedge a new cachet with the modded teens and demonstrating a deep love for his brother. “Snow in the Desert” (story by Neal Asher), also set on a hostile planet—this one a desert—brings together a widowed hermit named Snow, who is being relentlessly pursued by bounty hunters for his genetic immortality, and the mysterious Hirald, carrying her own secrets and her own key to long life. The two form a romantic bond centered on their shared loneliness and on being mutually set apart from the rest of the universe around them. And in the aforementioned “Pop Squad”, parents’ love for their children drives them to break the savage anti-overpopulation law that mandates those children’s deaths. When Squad investigator Briggs traces one mother to her home, he is struck by her fierce commitment to her daughter, who “makes everything new and gives [her] life.” Briggs’ realization of the strength of this love, combined with his growing PTSD caused by his legal murder of children, results in his death at the hands of his squad partner.

There is Death; the largest example of this—literally so—comes in the season’s final episode, “The Drowned Giant” (story by J.G. Ballard), in which the corpse of a giant naked man has washed ashore on the English coast. The story is an extended meditation by an academic investigator named Stephen on the realization of mortality and inevitability of change, as well as the frivolous nature of humanity. The giant corpse quickly becomes a tourist attraction and a spot on which people pose for pictures, skate, and scrawl graffiti. Stephen is nearly alone in his respect and consideration for the sheer presence of the giant, while workers systematically cut the body up and haul it away, popular interest dimming in the body as it decays and becomes smaller. In time, the giant is forgotten about or misremembered, leaving only Stephen with a memory of this vanished colossus. In “The Tall Grass” (story by Joe R. Lansdale, in one of his typical thoughtfully creepy tales), a train passenger, stopped in a lonely prairie, encounters a herd of ghoulish, demonic creatures that try to kill him. They are driven off by the conductor, who posits that in this little lonely section of the world, “it’s like a window opens up out there, I figure it leads to some other world”, one populated by people once alive, now lost and become savage terrors. 

And there are Robots; in the comedic season opener, “Automated Customer Service” (story by John Scalzi), a woman and her dog reside in “Sunset City”, a retirement community where robots do all the menial work. The woman’s robot vacuum is accidentally set to “Purge Mode”, pursuing her and the dog across her house and attempting to eliminate her. While this death hunt is going on, the woman frantically tries to connect to VacuBot’s customer service line, where an automated voice takes the woman through increasingly nonsensical levels of options and useless advice on how to stop the rampaging bot (including hurling her dog at the bot as a distraction). The final conflict ends with a cheery recorded “Congratulations! You’ve stopped the unstoppable killing machine that is VacuBot!” from the customer line, followed by the unwelcome (though delivered equally cheerily) news that all VacuBots have now been signaled to attack the woman. Rather than pay for an upgrade that will add her to the do-not-kill list, the woman, newly determined (and royally angry), flees town with her dog in a commandeered golf cart, pursued by countless robots. 

In a more serious tale, “Life Hutch” (story by Harlan Ellison), a space fighter pilot crash-lands on an airless planet; reaching an automated shelter, he must also battle a malfunctioning robot intent on murdering him. Trapped in a small space by a robot that tracks by sound and movement, the pilot has to call upon his own deepest resources to survive (the episode bears some resemblance to Season 1’s “Helping Hand”, in which an astronaut cast adrift faced a likewise intense kind of mental and physical challenge in a hostile environment).

Even when the stories themselves are a bit thin dramatically, or rushed (some, like “Pop Squad” or “Life Hutch,” would benefit from a longer runtime), the animation is detailed and nuanced, which helps capture the viewer’s eyes and imagination. (“Ice”, from Passion Animation Studios”, is particularly lovely in its spareness and starkness.) In an age of popular cartoons marked by cheap-looking or outright unpleasant animated stylings, LD&R has a certain rich aesthetic to it that helps set it apart from other televised SF.

In the end, what Love, Death & Robots does well is to reinforce the nature of science fiction as story, as a tale to be told. It more than adequately fulfills SF’s traditional function of using fantastic settings as stages for telling and retelling the classic stories about humanity and the ways with which we engage with each other and the universe around us. In small and easily digestible doses, it asks the same universal questions about our existence that we have asked since we began telling each stories long ago, in new but still recognizable ways. And, to my mind, one of the deepest and most existential questions comes at the conclusion of the show’s shortest and most frivolous episode. In “All Through the House”, two children are awoken on Christmas Eve by noises coming from downstairs. Hurrying down to catch Santa Claus, they discover that “Santa” is a hideous, clawed, Xenomorph-like monster, that vomits up wrapped presents and departs with an ominously hissed “Stay…Good.” Back upstairs, now gifted but traumatized, one child asks the other “What would have happened if we weren’t good?” Indeed.

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 Wonder Woman 1984 (film)

SFRA Review, vol. 51, no. 3

Media Reviews

Review of Wonder Woman 1984

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.


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.

Grebey, James. “Make it a little more Ridley Scott’: How Snowpiercer’s 1,001-car train got built IRL”. SyfyWire, 2020.

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.


“Abaddon’s Gate.” The Expanse, season 3, episode 13, 27 Jun. 2018, Amazon Prime Video,

“Churn.” The Expanse, season 5, episode 2, 2 Feb. 2021, Amazon Prime Video,

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,

—-. “Episode 6.” The Expanse Aftershow, Youtube, 6 Jan. 2021,

—-. “Episode 8.” The Expanse Aftershow, Youtube, 20 Jan. 2021,

“Gaugamela.” The Expanse, season 5, episode 2, 2 Feb. 2021, Amazon Prime Video,

“Hard Vacuum.” The Expanse, season 5, episode 8, 19 Jan. 2021, Amazon Prime Video,

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,

“Nemesis Games.” The Expanse, season 5, episode 10, 2 Feb. 2021, Amazon Prime Video,

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

“Tribes.” The Expanse, season 5, episode 6, 6 Jan. 2021, Amazon Prime Video,

Urrutia, Doris Elin. “‘Leviathan Falls’: The 9th and final book of the epic ‘The Expanse’ sci-fi series revealed.” Space, 23 Sept. 2020,

“Winnipesaukee.” The Expanse, season 5, episode 9, 26 Jan. 2021, Amazon Prime Video,

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,

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.


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, 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