Review of The Paradox of Blackness in African American Vampire Fiction

SFRA Review, vol. 51, no. 2

Nonfiction Reviews

Review of The Paradox of Blackness in African American Vampire Fiction

Misha Grifka Wander

Jerry Rafiki Jenkins. The Paradox of Blackness in African American Vampire Fiction. The Ohio State UP, 2019. New Suns: Race, Gender, and Sexuality In The Speculative. Paperback. 234 pg. $29.95. ISBN 9780814214015.

Picture a vampire in your head. Whether your image is more Nosferatu or more Edward Cullen, more than likely one of its most notable traits is the stark whiteness of its skin. Although humans come in a great variety of colors, depictions of vampires rarely reflect that. In The Paradox of Blackness In African American Vampire Fiction, Jerry Rafiki Jenkins uses stories of Black vampires to investigate how the seldom paired traits of “vampire” and “black” expose American society’s assumptions about what it means to be Black.

Jenkins focuses on a specific work of African American vampire fiction in each of the five chapters, covering The Gilda Stories (Jewelle Gomez, 1991), My Soul To Keep (Tananarive Due, 1997), Dark Corner (Brandon Massey, 2004), Fledgling (Octavia Butler, 2005), and Image of Emeralds and Chocolate (K. Murry Johnson, 2012). Through the lens of the novel in question, each chapter also focuses on a particular aspect of Black life and experience, from masculinity to religion to sexuality.

In the introduction, Jenkins efficiently counters the idea that the vampire myth is a European one, sourcing vampire myths from across Africa and the Caribbean, and writing, “to treat the vampire as the sole property of whites is to ignore the history of this creature, a history which predates the word ‘vampire’ and the biological notion of race” (5). Rather, Jenkins writes, the vampire is a tool, used to express the fears and anxieties of its originating culture, especially those about death and immortality. This thesis is well-accepted in speculative fiction studies, but to my knowledge, has seldom been used to examine questions of Black racial construction. Jenkins poses the main question of the book as, “Is there more to being black than having a black body, and what might the answers to that question mean for African Americans in the 21st century?” (10).

In the following chapters, Jenkins uses the vampire novel to illustrate ways in which various parties have attempted to define Blackness in line with requirements other than the simple fact of having a Black body. The nature of vampirism allows the novels’ authors to use tools to assert their characters’ racial “authenticity” in ways that would not be possible for human characters, such as establishing their characters’ participation in American slavery, lives in historical Africa, and connections with famous abolitionists and civil rights activists. Simultaneously, the characters question the assumptions of other characters about what is necessary to be deemed Black, or Black enough. Gilda from The Gilda Stories frequently says, “a row of cotton is a row of cotton,” indicating that oppression is oppression no matter how you slice it, and this sentiment is echoed across Jenkins’ book. The oppression that women, queer people, and other marginalized groups experience does not make them less Black, but rather is part and parcel of the oppression Black people face in America.

Jenkins uses analysis of the novel and real-world events and theories in equal measure, alternating between characters’ narration and explanations of their own racial beliefs, and real political figures and movements such as Afrocentrist Molefi Kete Asanti and political scientist Francis Fukuyama. Jenkins uses the fictional vampires to counter real arguments, demonstrating for instance how the unquestionable Blackness of Marquis in Image of Emeralds and Chocolate or Dawit in My Soul To Keep are not at war with their homosexuality or atheism, and therefore neither homosexuality nor atheism can dilute one’s Blackness, as has been argued by various Afrocentrists, Black conservatives, and Church members (whom Jenkins cites).

Though each chapter focuses on a specific topic, the chapters as a whole build toward answering the question Jenkins poses in the introduction: is there more to being Black than having a Black body? Each chapter answers no in its own way, but the final chapter, on Octavia Butler’s Fledgling and transhumanism, goes a step further. Shori, the main character of Fledgling, is the first Black Ina, a race of nonhuman vampires who have no melanin in their skin. Shori is a hybrid of human and Ina, the first Ina to possess melanin and therefore the first to be able to withstand the sun’s rays. Jenkins argues that Butler, through the figure of Shori, is demonstrating that all humans have melanin, and therefore all humans belong on a spectrum of Blackness. There is no such thing as a non-Black human, just humans with more or less melanin. Jenkins ends the volume with the statement:

By linking humanity’s fate to the fate of black people, the new-black vampire novel offers us a future in which blackness no longer defines one part of the human species, as it does in the post-black vampire novel and most of the Western world, but the entire species […] The road to that future, as Butler suggests in Fledgling, begins with accepting the fact that nonblack people are not born notblack; rather, we make them not black (180).

This triumphantly transhumanist ending confirms the ambitious scope of Jenkins’ work—reconfiguring our understanding of Blackness to include all of humanity.

This brings me to my one critique of this otherwise brilliant book. “All humans are black” is a statement Jenkins supports elegantly throughout the book, but one that struggles in regular conversation. Jenkins does not address what that conclusion does for the cause of any real humans, Black or otherwise. One might argue that he never promises to, which is true, but when working with a politically laden topic, one might ask for a few signposts as to the political utility of such an argument.

That said, I highly recommend this book. Academic books are rarely called page-turners, but this one might qualify, for Jenkins’s skill at building his argument propels each chapter. Jenkins glosses the basics of both race theory and vampire theory, so those lacking expertise in either will not be lost, but doesn’t dwell on it enough to bore more experienced readers. I recommend this book for scholarly and general audiences interested in speculative fiction and race, vampires, and the battle over Black authenticity in America.

Misha Grifka Wander is a PhD student at the Ohio State University. Their research focuses on media, speculative fiction, gender, and ecocriticism. 

Review of Suburban Fantastic Cinema

SFRA Review, vol. 51, no. 2

Nonfiction Reviews

Review of Suburban Fantastic Cinema: Growing Up in the Late Twentieth Century

Rob Latham

Angus McFadzean. Suburban Fantastic Cinema: Growing Up in the Late Twentieth Century. Wallflower Press, 2019. Short Cuts: Introduction to Film Studies. Paperback. vii + 140 pg. $22.00. ISBN 9780231189958.

The seed for this slim book was a 2017 essay in the Journal of Science Fiction Film and Television that anatomized a cluster of movies from the 1980s and 1990s the author saw as forming a new genre he called the “suburban fantastic.” At 25 pages, the essay was one-fifth the length of the new volume, which is basically an expanded version, chopped into five chapters and with more developed readings. A sixth chapter extends the discussion to encompass films released in the twenty-first century.

McFadzean’s basic claims are cogent and illuminating. According to him, the suburban fantastic initially crystallized in the films of Steven Spielberg and other directors—e.g. Joe Dante, Robert Zemeckis—who worked for his production company, Amblin Entertainment, during the early-to-mid 1980s. In movies such as E.T.: The Extraterrestrial (1982), Gremlins (1984), and The Goonies (1985), a distinct pattern emerged: an adolescent boy with some kind of personal dilemma (conflict with parents, alienation from peers) is confronted with a supernatural intrusion (an alien being, demonic entities); these related crises develop in parallel over the course of the narrative, such that the resolution of one leads to the resolution of the other. At the end of the story, the supernatural element has been expunged and the protagonist has been effectively socialized into the suburban patriarchal order. Later in the decade and into the 1990s, other producers and directors developed and experimented with this basic model, in films such as Flight of the Navigator (1986), Short Circuit (1986), Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991), Jumanji (1995), and numerous others. In the process, they hybridized the form with themes and narrative elements borrowed from science fiction, horror, romantic comedy, and other genres. At the same time, a significant subset of these films included parodies or pastiches of earlier fantastic traditions, especially 1950s SF movies, making the genre increasingly self-reflexive. Yet the core remained a fusion of personal melodrama and fantastic incident, usually set in contemporary suburbia or some narrative surrogate for it.

Laying out this model, structurally and historically, takes up the first two chapters, with chapters three through five pursuing specific thematic strands within this cinematic corpus. Chapter three focuses on the crisis of masculinity experienced by the youthful protagonist, who over the course of the narrative moves from outsider to representative of the patriarchal order, in effect being successfully socialized into an appropriate gender identity (as a Freudian critic would say, Oedipalized) through confrontation with the fantastic. Chapter four further addresses the self-reflexivity of the genre by analyzing a series of films in which the mass media is centrally, almost metafictionally present—e.g., Explorers (1985), The Monster Squad (1987), Matinee (1993). Chapter five considers the genre’s socioeconomic implications, claiming that the fantastic intrusion into suburbia functions as some sort of allegory of contemporary capitalism and its key social institutions: government, science, and the military. The final chapter, as noted above, looks at later Hollywood versions of this basic story structure, such as War of the Worlds (2005), Frankenweenie (2012), and the Stranger Things TV series (2016-).

While McFandzean’s core claims are largely convincing, and many of his readings of specific films are compelling, few readers will really need this longer version of the argument—the 2017 article is probably enough. A larger problem, at least for me, is the structuralist framework underpinning the argument (borrowed from film theorist Rick Altman), which tends to make the process of narrative construction sound much too mechanical. Essentially, the genre is reduced to a kind of toolkit of “semantic” and “syntactic” elements from which individual filmmakers borrow to assemble a new film text. While McFadzean is a bit more attentive to external history than are most structuralist critics—he shrewdly shows, for example, how developments like the new PG-13 rating impacted the genre—he still makes most film narratives sound like mix-and-match aggregations of pre-fabricated materials rather than complex and often contradictory aesthetic creations. This tendency is exacerbated by his rather mechanical, often jargon-clotted prose: “Even as the fantastic established itself as a semantic and syntactic bend, with the defining syntactic trait of a connection between the pre-teen protagonists and the element of the fantastic, it became subject to a series of experiments and extensions that altered its semantic and syntactic set” (39). If this were what the process of movie-making is actually like, no one would ever watch movies.            

This problem aside, I can recommend Suburban Fantastic Cinema to scholars and students of SF and horror film, and fantastic media more broadly—though, as noted, the article-length version will be more than adequate for most purposes.

Rob Latham is the author of Consuming Youth: Vampires, Cyborgs, and the Culture of Consumption (2002) and the editor of The Oxford Handbook of Science Fiction (2014) and Science Fiction Criticism: An Anthology of Essential Writings (2017). He is a senior editor for The Los Angeles Review of Books

Review of Undead Ends: Stories of Apocalypse

SFRA Review, vol. 51, no. 2

Nonfiction Reviews

Review of Undead Ends: Stories of Apocalypse

Daniel Helsing

Sarah Trimble. Undead Ends: Stories of Apocalypse. Rutgers University Press, 2019. Paperback. 210 pg. $29.95. ISBN 9780813593647.

As I am writing this review in June 2020, in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, social distancing, face masks, and travel restrictions have become the new normal. At times, the line between fiction and real life has seemed eerily blurry; if headlines and news clips from the past few months were edited into a minute-long video, it could easily be mistaken for the opening scenes of an apocalypse film. For this reason, and for the fact that we do not know when and how this pandemic is going to end, it is more important than ever to examine the apocalypse narratives that circulate in film and literature. Which narratives are we enacting in our responses to COVID-19? How do we imagine life after the crisis? And who are “we”?

In her book Undead Ends: Stories of Apocalypse, Sarah Trimble examines popular Anglo-American apocalypse films of the past two decades. Her arguments illuminate the entire genre, but she singles out six films for closer analysis: The Road (2009), I Am Legend (2007), 28 Days Later (2002), 28 Weeks Later (2007), Children of Men (2006), and Beasts of the Southern Wild (2012). Though highly relevant also before COVID-19—anthropogenic climate change, the rise of right-wing populism, and the persistence of neoliberal capitalism being three important reasons—Undead Ends has taken on another level of relevance in this unprecedented global pandemic.

Trimble argues that the prevalence of high-visibility apocalypse films should be read in the context of a particular kind of capitalism that has gained influence in recent decades. She invokes cultural critics and theorists, including David Harvey and Naomi Klein, who characterize this version of capitalism as “creative destruction” (Harvey, cited on page 2) and “disaster capitalism” (Klein, cited on page 2): when disaster strikes or is induced, as the case may be, policy makers and investors arrive at the scene to privatize resources and reconstruct society in ways that will benefit them. Apocalypse films neatly parallel this process of destruction and reconstruction: the old order collapses, and a group of survivors struggle to create a new order. And since, according to Trimble, stories are incredibly powerful—she borrows Sylvia Wynter’s term homo narrans to characterize humans as “a species of storytellers” (9)—it becomes crucially important to critically analyze the identities, behavior, and aspirations of the survivors in apocalypse films. Do they reproduce Western colonialism and neoliberal capitalism? Or do they let other voices in, offering alternative visions of culture and society? In Trimble’s words: “In Undead Ends, I argue that contemporary apocalypse films offer an occasion to intervene in neoliberal storytelling. At the heart of this claim is the conviction that stories make and remake the world” (3).

The historical roots of Trimble’s arguments extend further than the last few decades, however. She builds on Wynter, who traces the “invention of Man” to the Renaissance, when “the Christian tale of humanness gave way first to a vision of the human as rational (Man1) and then to a ‘biocentric’ vision of the human as a living organism imperiled by natural scarcity (Man2),” a vision that “took shape in relation to Others imagined as exploitable and/or killable” (3). Closer to our time, Trimble argues, Man2 can be identified with homo oeconomicus, or the “economic Man,” who “defines good humanness in terms of economic productivity and security” (3). Borrowing the title of Mary Shelley’s novel The Last Man (1826), Trimble then defines “the Last Man” as “the protagonist who exemplifies the norms of humanness established by Man’s story” (153, n8). For Trimble, “the Last Man” thus signifies both a survivor of the standard apocalypse narrative and an embodiment of the Western, neoliberal “economic Man.”

Except for 28 Days Later and 28 Weeks Later, which she discusses in the same chapter, Trimble devotes a chapter each to the films listed above. But rather than ordering the films chronologically, she creates a kind of narrative of her own through the order in which she discusses them. Very simply and roughly, the films increasingly problematize the story of the Last Man and, in different ways, let other voices in. In Trimble’s reading, The Road reinforces the current economic order. For example, the unnamed father explains to his unnamed son that they are “the good guys” and that they are “carrying the fire.” They are distinguished as such in the plot of the film too, both through the contrast with the unnamed mother—who has committed suicide—and through the contrast with a group of cannibals—a trope which evokes the old Western binary of “the savage” versus “the civilized” (29–30).

In subsequent chapters in Undead Ends, the Last Man is still present, but his hegemony becomes undermined and other perspectives and voices gain in strength. The last film, Beasts of the Southern Wild, sees a very different protagonist from The Road: not a white man trying to rekindle “civilization,” but a young, black girl, called Hushpuppy, living with an abusive father in precarious circumstances. However, Trimble does not simply praise Beasts for challenging the status quo; she quotes and discusses a number of critics who have argued that Beasts amounts to “a romanticization of racialized poverty” and reinforces “tired tropes of primitivism and black familial dysfunction” (119). But Trimble also sees an opportunity for challenging the hegemonic “we” in our renderings of history. For example, in a key scene early in the film, Hushpuppy “accidentally-intentionally sets her house on fire” (119). While hiding from both the flames and her father in a cardboard box, she draws pictures on the walls of the box and explains: “If daddy gonna kill me, I ain’t gonna be forgotten. I’m recording my story for the scientists in the future” (quoted on page 119).

Undead Ends is a valuable and timely addition to the literature on climate fiction and apocalypse narratives. Through her well-written and nuanced readings of Anglo-American apocalypse films, Trimble illuminates and problematizes the “we” of widespread apocalypse narratives by relating the films’ plots and perspectives both to 500 years of colonial history and to the “disaster capitalism” of recent decades. We will be better off if we read Undead Ends—with regard to everyday life as well as to COVID-19 and other potentially apocalyptic hazards down the road.

Daniel Helsing received his PhD in literature from Lund University in 2019, and he currently teaches at the Department of Interdisciplinary Studies in the Liberal Arts at California Polytechnic State University. His research centers on representations of science and the universe in texts of various kinds, including fiction, poetry, creative nonfiction, and science communication.

Review of Star Wars after Lucas

SFRA Review, vol. 51, no. 2

Nonfiction Reviews

Review of Star Wars after Lucas: A Critical Guide to the Future of the Galaxy

Benjamin J. Robertson

Dan Golding.  Star Wars after Lucas: A Critical Guide to the Future of the Galaxy.  University of Minnesota Press, 2019. Hardcover. 264 pg. $21.95. ISBN 9781517905422.

In Star Wars after Lucas, Dan Golding implicitly and explicitly grapples with challenging questions scholars of that galaxy far, far away must consider when they attempt to make definitive statements about the franchise. How does one deal with more than forty years of Star Wars? How does a single person, in a single text (even a book-length one) identify and address an adequate sample of films, television shows, novels, comics, toys, video games, theme park attractions, and so on? How does one make sense of the relationship and interplay among the various groupings of narrative texts that make up the universe: the original trilogy, the prequel trilogy, the Disney trilogy, the films labeled as Star Wars stories, the de-canonized texts that make up Star Wars Legends, the new non-filmic texts that have replaced the Legends as canon, and so on? How does one account for the myriad historical moments in which they were produced and the various models that shaped their production, distribution, and reception? Perhaps most importantly, how does one say something about Star Wars now, in the present, when the inevitable progress of the franchise machine will make whatever one says about it obsolete in the very near future, perhaps even before one’s claims find their way to readers?

Star Wars After Lucas comprises an introduction and nine chapters, the bulk of which, as Golding’s title suggests, focus on the Disney era of the franchise, especially Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens (2015). The introduction lays out the foundations for Golding’s subsequent discussion of the complex nostalgia Star Wars produces in its fans, a nostalgia that has become perhaps the franchise’s main thematic concern and narrative guide since at least 2015. Chapter one examines the politics of the original trilogy, the malleability thereof, and the consequences of this malleability with regard to the ongoingness of franchise. Chapter two turns to the Disney era, specifically to fan reaction to the announcement of new Star Wars films after the prequels—whose legacy has been, at best, problematic for the franchise—and the prospect of revitalizing Star Wars in such complex circumstances. Chapter three offers a strong reading of The Force Awakens by way of Golding’s conceptualization of the legacy film, whose goal is “to extend the life of a film series and renew it for a new era” by: bringing back actors/characters from earlier films, introducing new actors/characters, repeating and revising narrative strands and thematic concerns from earlier films, documenting a handoff from one franchise generation to the next, and using this handoff to shift the narrative focus from the older generation to the younger one (71). Chapter four stays with The Force Awakens to investigate the film’s politics, which shift away from the original trilogy’s concerns with colonialism and war in the aftermath of Vietnam and towards questions of diversity and representation appropriate to a decade when Black Lives Matter, #MeToo, and similar identitarian movements focused on marginalized voices have taken center stage in political debates. Chapter five, perhaps the most interesting in the book along with chapter three, also focuses on The Force Awakens and how the film’s score, by John L. Williams, plays a clear and important role in Disney’s nostalgic enterprise. In chapter six, Golding compares the nostalgia deployed by The Force Awakens to that deployed by the second film of the Disney era (and the first film to not be part of the episodic structure of the entire film franchise to that point), Rogue One (2016). Chapter seven then compares how Rogue One and the animated Star Wars Rebels television program take on fascism in their respective ways. Chapter eight turns away from engagements with specific films in order to think about how actors and the characters they play (specifically Carrie Fisher/Leia and Harrison Ford/Han Solo), by way of their mortality in the real world and their narrative weight in the storyworld, affect franchise production and reception. Finally, in chapter nine, Golding turns to Star Wars Episode VIII: The Last Jedi (2017) and how it responds to The Force Awakens and Rogue One “by questioning some of the fundamental questions about Star Wars that these films took for granted” (205). Such questioning, undoubtedly, will remain at the heart of the franchise for the foreseeable future.

As this summary suggests, Golding accomplishes a great deal in Star Wars after Lucas even as he continually faces the specific challenges Star Wars presents to critics, as discussed above. In some cases, he answers a challenge by doing what so many scholars of the franchise have already done. For example, he defines his object mainly in terms of the films, and privileges discussions of them over Star Wars in other media—a sensible move given the volume of material in other media and given the fact that the films will likely always remain canonical, and therefore central, for the Star Wars universe.  While this choice might appear merely standard, it allows Golding the opportunity for a very clear and focused discussion of the consequences of Disney’s 2012 acquisition of Lucasfilm for the recent rebirth and success of the Star Wars franchise through The Force Awakens and subsequent films. As Golding makes clear, this success derives from a complex relation the new material establishes with the older material, a complexity that the idea of the legacy film clarifies and makes available to further scholarship. For Golding, as for many other fans and critics, while The Force Awakens and subsequent films clearly recall beloved moments from the original trilogy, they also distance themselves from the prequel trilogy.  However, Golding takes a further, and much needed, step by making clear that we must not only consider how the Disney-era films relate themselves to the past, positively or negatively. We must also account for how these films do something new within the franchise itself: “For all that has been made about these new films’ ability to deliver something quintessentially ‘Star Wars-y,’ their atonement for past sins, and their renewal of the franchise, there are discontinuities here, too. […] Disney’s strategy in reviving Star Wars can tell us much about not just how American, global media functions today but also the power of the contemporary audience’s thirst for revisiting the past, and culture that deals with questions of legacy and myth” (3-4). In other words, Star Wars will always refer to its own past, but such reference goes beyond the valorization of what we like and denigration of what we don’t. It requires that Disney balance the weight of franchise history with the need for new narrative and thematic possibilities which can leverage the galaxy for further profit.

Here, however, we find a challenge that no critic of Star Wars will likely ever completely overcome. Just as Anakin Skywalker could not bring any final balance to the Force, no critic can ever make a final claim about how the franchise works. Because the franchise always carries on, and because this particular franchise (more than most, I think) so clearly concerns itself with a constant revision of its own history, future films (and television shows such as The Mandalorian [2019]) will not only provide new grist for the critical mill in and of themselves, they will also constantly affect how we understand all that has come before. With this point in mind, we can understand how any scholarly investigation into Star Wars will not only offer potential insights into what the franchise means (or has meant to date) and how it works (or has worked to date), but such statements will also provide a snapshot of Star Wars and its reception prior to some new revelation that might moot such statements. It is, of course, far too early to tell how, for example, Star Wars Episode IX: The Rise of Skywalker (2019) might undermine Golding’s arguments. Nonetheless, the fact that Golding could not have known the title of this film—revealed in April 2019; Golding refers to the film as “Episode IX”—hints at the franchise’s potential for such undermining. Along similar lines, Golding says very little about Solo: A Star Wars Story (2018) or the claims that its relatively poor performance at the box office caused Disney to cancel or delay previously announced Star Wars projects, including trilogies by The Last Jedi director Rian Johnson and Game of Thrones showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss (both of which Golding mentions in his introduction as evidence of the robust future Disney imagines for the franchise). Finally, although Golding spends a whole chapter on The Last Jedi, his reading of the film does not seem to have much impact on his discussions of earlier films, perhaps because he could not wait for it to be released and integrate his reading of it into the rest of the book given academic publishing timelines.

I do not mean to suggest that Golding’s inability to see the future is a problem for this book so much as that every scholar’s inability to do so presents a problem for critical engagement with twenty-first century cultural production generally and the most prominent form of such production specifically. Insofar as Golding’s book both succeeds as an investigation of Star Wars in the Disney era and performs the limitations such investigations necessarily entail, it provides a useful and necessary account of contemporary, popular entertainment. It shows us that, as critics, we must make claims about what we know even when part of what we know involves the fact that knowledge, and therefore claims, will always remain radically provisional under contemporary capitalism and the forms it produces.

Benjamin J. Robertson is an assistant professor of English at the University of Colorado, Boulder, author of None of This is Normal: The Fiction of Jeff VanderMeer (2018), and editor, with Gerry Canavan, of a new book series from the University of Minnesota Press: Mass Markets: Studies in Franchise Culture.

Review of The Dark Fantastic

SFRA Review, vol. 51, no. 2

Nonfiction Reviews

Review of The Dark Fantastic: Race and the Imagination from Harry Potter to the Hunger Games

Jonathan W. Thurston-Torres

Ebony Elizabeth Thomas. The Dark Fantastic: Race and the Imagination from Harry Potter to the Hunger Games. New York UP, 2019. Hardback, 240 pg. $28.00, ISBN 9781479800650.

Even as I am writing this review, I am wearing both a Slytherin tank top and a Slytherin scarf. I grew up in a generation in which J. K. Rowling’s famed Harry Potter book series was coming out; they were published during my middle and high school years. While I have seen the movies a few times, I have never gone back to read the original books. But, when I saw the title and subtitle for Ebony Elizabeth Thomas’s new book, I found myself thinking back to racial representation in the book series. I knew about the occasional person of color in the books, and I knew that representation was minimal. I remembered, too, the “scandal” in the media over the black Hermione in the stage production of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child (2016). But Thomas’s book pushes back against all of these preconceived notions of race in the Harry Potter books and other young adult literature, begging the question, “What about the space for young adult imagination?”

Thomas begins her book with the eponymous critical term for her work: “the dark fantastic.” She first defines it as “the role that racial difference plays in our fantastically storied imaginations” (7). In this introduction, she details how monstrous others in fantastic literature are “endarkened” and convey to “readers, hearers, and viewers of color” that they “are the villains […] the horde […] the enemies […]the monsters” (23). She gives numerous examples throughout the text to showcase the term more concretely, such as Rumpelstiltskin who becomes the “Dark One” in the TV series Once Upon a Time (2011-18), the Native American bestial werewolves of the Twilight series (2008-12), and the “majority of witches and warlocks” with “visible African ancestry” in the television show The Vampire Diaries (2009-17) (30-31). However, as the diversity of these examples shows, the “dark fantastic” is a murky term to define.

In his 2019 monograph The Paradox of Blackness in African American Vampire Fiction, Jerry Rafiki Jenkins summarizes and discusses race discourse around Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897). In this description, he shows how while many scholars have argued that a dominant response to the novel is to empathize with the victims of the vampire, some race readers like Jewelle Gomez align more with Dracula himself as a form of “shared ‘suffering’” (24). What Jenkins creates here is an awareness that both darkness and othering are spectra in and of themselves, not to mention their intersections. Is Mina Harker capable of being a Dark Other for Thomas, or is only Dracula capable of that? As Thomas points out, being othered in literature often means being darkened, so, therefore, are all folkloric antagonist archetypes qualifiers for Dark Othering? All antiheroes?

When Thomas moves into case studies, she starts with representations of Rue in The Hunger Games (2008). This section begins with a solid analysis of construction of race and ethnicity in the series, showing how Rue was raced in the first book. While these representations are complex, Thomas excels at being able to focus the camera in at the line level and then zoom back out to show the larger picture: we see how specific phrases and sentences help to create a systematic construction of race, and that affects the ways that Rue “becomes” innocence in the novel. But, as Thomas shows, that innocence is “transferred” to Katniss by the end, and Rue “fades from the narrative” (57). The chapter wraps up with a survey analysis of social media responses to the black representation in the films, investigating what Thomas calls the “dark fantastic cycle,” a narrative cycle that tracks the role of the Dark Other in fantastic literature (60, 26). This cycle makes it so that cishet white men can read the work and not even notice these characters who just “happen to not be white.”

The next chapter reads closely representations of Gwen in BBC’s Merlin (2008-12). The chapter starts by showing how the mixed-race character of Gwen might disrupt the dark fantastic cycle, but, at each step of the analysis, while there is potential for disruption, Thomas shows how even this narrative follows the conventions, even if in more roundabout ways. The second half of the chapter is devoted to Thomas countering common trends in social media response to Gwen’s racialization. However, many of these analyses are really quoting various posts, putting them in conversation with each other, and then making a brief point that could have been explained more. In one section, Thomas traces the statement that “Gwen and Arthur [as a desired coupling] are heteronormative” (96). She sets up the context for this discourse, she shows some quotes, details how important an Arthur and Merlin shipping is for the LGBTQI community, gives more quotes, one of which says that race is important for characterizing Gwen, and then paraphrases that quote some more, and then moves on to the next assertion. The social media analysis throughout Thomas’s work signifies new ways to examine young adult literature and its reception, but I would have liked to see more critical analysis of it, rather than mostly summary.

In the final two chapters, Thomas examines blackness in The Vampire Diaries and the Harry Potter series. In each, she grounds the discussions in anecdotes of conversations with her family about race and racial representation, and these anecdotes showcase one of the strongest aspects of the book: this book is an essential text for anyone teaching young adult literature, especially in middle or high schools. Thomas models reading YA lit for race and encourages ways to teach not just reading but also analysis of social media reception of race in literature and film. Thomas’s work definitely needs to be in university libraries, educators’ hands, and scholars’ shelves. And for me at least, even as a proud Slytherin, I have new understandings of the Harry Potter series and the ways the dark fantastic cycle snakes its way into the narrative.

Jonathan W. Thurston-Torres is a PhD Candidate in English at Michigan State University, and their edited collection Animals & Race is scheduled to come out through MSU Press later this year. They specialize in early modern studies, animal-race theory, and HIV activism.

Review of EC Comics

SFRA Review, vol. 51, no. 2

Nonfiction Reviews

Review of EC Comics: Race, Shock, and Social Protest

Dominick Grace

Qiana Whitted. EC Comics: Race, Shock, and Social Protest. Rutgers, 2019. Comics Culture. Paperback. 196 pg. $29.95. ISBN 9780813566313. Ebook. ISBN 9780813573106.

Qiana Whitted’s EC Comics: Race, Shock, and Social Protest, the latest volume in Rutgers’s Comics Culture series, is of more value to comics scholars than to SF scholars, but it is nevertheless both eminently readable and a valuable addition to pop culture scholarship. As Whitted notes in her introduction, despite the general high regard in which EC comics are held, they have received relatively little scholarly attention. In this volume, Whitted focuses on the so-called “Preachies,” the stories in various EC titles (mainly Shock SuspenStories) that were “designed to challenge readers’ assumptions about racial, ethnic, and religious prejudice, Cold War paranoia, and other anxieties over social difference and American heterogeneity” (5). Whitted does not attempt to do a high-level survey of how EC stories addressed social concerns, and rightly notes that a great many of them have little or no (overt) social commentary. Indeed, she cites William Gaines’s testimony from the US Senate Subcommittee on Juvenile Delinquency hearings in 1954, in which he differentiated between the “preachies,” which carefully spelled out the messages readers were expected to receive, and stories designed merely to entertain. Instead, she focuses specifically on the more obvious examples of the “preachies,” notably the story “Judgment Day!” written by Al Feldstein and drawn by Joe Orlando, originally published in Weird Fantasy #18 in 1953 and reprinted in one of EC’s final comics, Incredible Science Fiction #33 (1956), as a poke in the eye to the Comics Code Authority. EC subsequently shuttered its comics division. While Whitted could have fruitfully expanded her study by looking more broadly at EC comics (I would especially have been interested in her take on New Direction titles such as MD and Psychoanalysis, the latter title especially, with its proselytizing for the benefits of psychotherapy), the focus on a few key stories allows her space not only for extensive and detailed historical context but also for deep dives into the stories on which she does focus.

For readers of SFRA Review, the most relevant chapter here is chapter four, “‘Battling, in the Sea of Comics’: EC’s Invisible Man and the Jim Crow Future of ‘Judgment Day!’” This famous story recounts the visit of Tarlton, representative of the Galactic Republic, to the planet Cybrinia, to determine whether its robot inhabitants, descended from (if robots can indeed descend from ancestors) robots first built on Earth. Tarlton discovers that there are two robot classes, orange and blue, and that the blues are treated as distinctly second-class, despite being identical in manufacture to the orange robots, except for the colors of their external shells. Tarlton determines that the robots are not yet ready for admission into the Galactic Republic. Probably unsurprisingly to readers today, but very much controversially when the story first appeared (this issue was the basis of the Comics Code Authority’s attempt to bar EC from reprinting the story in 1956), Tarlton, who has worn his space suit throughout the visit, is revealed in the final panel of the story to be Black. Whitted’s reading of this story is detailed, subtle, and nuanced. Especially beneficial are her detailed comments on the historical context of Jim Crow, other relevant comics stories of the time, and, most interestingly—for me, anyway—her linking of the story to Ralph Ellison’s novel Invisible Man, published in 1952, one year before this story was first printed. Whitted reads the imagery and dialogue (even its use of ellipses) closely and carefully to build a complex reading that acknowledges not only what makes the story important but also the ways in which its proselytizing intent is complicated by its own assumptions. This chapter alone makes the book of value for scholars of SF, especially those interested in issues of race and of colonialism as explored in SF.

The whole book, however, is of enormous value to comics scholars. While Whitted has little to say about the vast catalogue of other SF, fantasy, and horror stories published by EC (and there is indeed much room to consider the merely entertaining stories, as well as the “preachies,” through the lens Whitted applies), her study nevertheless engages deeply and insightfully with EC’s complex legacy as a comics publisher renowned for its overall quality while also at times criticized for its formulaic storytelling and often pat moralizing. Whitted assumes a middle ground, between EC idolatry and the tendency of some scholars to attempt to apply a corrective to the often uncritical admiration of EC via harsh critique. This book is especially valuable for comics scholars but also of use for SF scholars, especially ones interested in SF in visual media.

Dominick Grace is professor of English at Brescia University College in London, Ontario. He is the author of The Science Fiction of Phyllis Gotlieb: A Critical Reading and the co-editor of several books, many focusing on comics and graphic novels.

Review of Sideways in Time

SFRA Review, vol. 51, no. 2

Nonfiction Reviews

Review of Sideways in Time: Critical Essays on Alternate History Fiction

Carl Abbott

Glyn Morgan and C. Palmer-Patel, eds. Sideways in Time: Critical Essays on Alternate History Fiction. Liverpool UP, 2019. Hardback. 216 pg. $120.00. ISBN 9781789620139.

Sideways in Time collects essays derived from a 2015 conference at the University of Liverpool. It opens with a Foreword from prolific speculative fiction author Stephen Baxter and includes ten essays that are bookended by an Introduction and an Afterword by the editors. With a couple of exceptions, the contributors are based in Britain or have British academic connections.

That scaffolding described, the editors deserve a shout-out for their Introduction. In eleven pages they provide a quick and clear review of the critical literature on alternate history from H to G (Hellekson to Gallagher) and make a cogent argument for simple and direct terminology that avoids awkward coinages like allohistory and in-crowd references like Jonbar Hinge. Use “alternate history” and “point of divergence” and people will know what’s being  talked about. They also make a case for considering alternate history as its own genre or category that overlaps science fiction but also draws from counterfactual history and historical fiction, attracts mainstream writers, and morphs easily into television thriller mode.

The ten essays touch on some familiar landmarks of alternative history: Napoléon et la conquête du monde (1836), The Years of Rice and Salt (2002), The Man in the High Castle (TV version, 2015-19). Other contributors treat less frequently studied texts, such as short stories by Alfred Bester and John Wyndham, as well as introducing English-language readers to a Spanish novel from 1998 and a set of twenty-first century films and anime from Japan. All of the pieces offer interesting takes, and every reader will have their preferences. One of mine is Jonathan Rayner’s “Forever Being Yamato: Alternate Pacific War Histories in Japanese Film and Anime,” which explores a fascinating set of feature films and animations. It is a good start at developing a complement to the extensive analysis of alternate “Hitler wins, or doesn’t he?” fiction by Gavriel Rosenfeld and Catherine Gallagher. A second is Chris Pak’s “’It Is One Story’: Writing a Global Alternate History in Kim Stanley Robinson’s The Years of Rice and Salt.” A third is Karen Hellekson’s “Agency and Contingency in Televisual Alternate History Texts,” which energetically analyzes eight separate television series and mini-series (Maine winters must be good for bingeing).  As a group, the essays raise several questions about the character and boundaries of alternate history, which the editors interpret broadly.

A first issue is the tension between “timeline stories” and “lifeline stories.”  The former explore the social, political, and cultural effects of a divergence and work in the same realm as do the more abstract counterfactuals that historians sometimes propose. The latter focus on single individuals whose personal stories change through time travel interventions or passage to a parallel world. In very rough division, the essays in “Part I: Points of Divergence” deal with timelines and those in “Part II: Manipulating the Genre” with lifelines. The point of this boundary question is whether something to be called alternate history needs to dramatize counterfactuals with implications for social groups, societies, or nations. “Straight” alternate history hews to the plausible, whether its scope is as specific as Simone Zelitch’s Judenstaat (2016) or as broad and deep as The Years of Rice and Salt. Authors who work in this vein are interested in how their characters interact with the changed society, which remains “realistic” in that we can understand how things might get from the point of divergence to the society being described.  Some of the best examples, of course—Philip  Roth’s The Plot against America (2004) or Jo Walton’s “Small Change” trilogy (2006-08)—are able to span the two interests by placing compelling characters in alternate timelines where they have to cope with very interesting dynamics of politics and power.

A second issue involves the mechanisms that generate the alternate history. Is the divergence based on an event that is conceivable within the context of the time, such as the assassination of Elizabeth I or southern victory in the American Civil War without extra weapons from the future? In contrast, does the story depend on the speculative physics of parallel worlds with convenient portals tucked away in a basement? Or on equally speculative time travel scenarios in which a Japanese warship from the twenty-first century can materialize in 1942 (the manga series Zipang [2000-09]) or a history professor (!) joins the time patrol to save the world (Michael Crichton’s Timeless [1999])? Utilization of alternate physics offers abundant options for authors to play with but may thin the “history” part of the alternative. It also brings these sorts of alternate history firmly into the science fiction camp.

On a different side of the Venn diagram are stories that fall in the realm of fantasy with fully implausible, non-scientific premises. Stephen Baxter suggests distending the category to alternate cosmologies, favorably citing the flat Earth in Philip Jose Farmer’s “Sail On, Sail On!” (1952), Chloé Germaine Buckley’s essay explores Shadows over Baker Street (2003), edited by John Pelan and Michael Reaves; its contributors imagine Lovecraftian monsters, shape-shifters, and other supernatural phenomena perplexing reimagined versions of Sherlock Holmes. La locura de Dios (1999) by Juan Miguel Aguilera seems born from a kinky coupling of H. Rider Haggard, Dan Brown, and Erich von Daniken. The analysis in these essays is interesting, but I wonder if the texts are alternate history or some other category such as fantasy, fantastic adventure, or magical realism (the latter being perhaps the best slot for Colson Whitehead’s  alternate-historyish The Underground Railroad [2016]).            

There is a matter of intellectual interests behind these boundary issues, for different readers engage most deeply with different aspects of human experience. I’ve been studying, practicing, and writing “straight” history for multiple audiences for longer than I’ve been writing about speculative fiction, and find alternate history that engages the dynamics of societal change to be the most challenging and the most capable of imagining more just as well as more unjust societies. One might guess as much from the individual essays that I’ve cited. Readers of Sideways in Time whose predilection is for narratives that focus on the thoughts and emotions of individuals or that play with the weird and fantastic will have a different set of favorites. To paraphrase the editors, they will be drawn to the narratives that expand, stretch, subvert, and redefine the genre. For all of us, however, the collection is worth reading and consulting.

Carl Abbott retired after teaching Urban Studies and Planning at Portland State University in five decades (but not fifty years!). His book Imagining Urban Futures was recently published in Chinese translation.

Review of Theory for the World to Come

SFRA Review, vol. 51, no. 2

Nonfiction Reviews

Review of Theory for the World to Come: Speculative Fiction and Apocalyptic Anthropology

Gabriel A. Saldías Rossel

Matthew J. Wolf-Meyer. Theory for the World to Come: Speculative Fiction and Apocalyptic Anthropology. University of Minnesota Press, 2019.Forerunners: Ideas First. Paperback. 116 pg. $7.95. ISBN 9781517907808.

Apocalypse is never singular, but multiple. This is “Wyndham’s rule,” the main premise with which Matthew J. Wolf-Meyer opens Theory for the World to Come. Speculative Fiction and Apocalyptic Anthropology (the title of the first chapter and its contents detail what Wolf-Meyer means by the term), an interesting and thought-provoking study of the future and the conditions of possibility that make it happen.

This compact volume of just over 100 pages is, despite its brevity, is packed to the brim with contingent and at times even radical ideas on topics as widespread as catastrophe, city planning, race, human nature, and politics. This interest in seemingly disconnected topics also extends to Wolf-Meyer’s cross-disciplinary methodology, which groups speculative fiction, personal diaries, and social theory in a common effort to interrogate the many possible dimensions of our imagination about the future.

The future—and its limits—are exactly what lie at the heart of this book: the “world to come,” with all its problematic folds and inexplicable weirdness. How can we trace back the way our world has come to be, and understand its temporality as a complex continuum of historical variables? How can we develop new ways of comprehending what’s going to happen in the next few centuries if we haven’t yet absorbed the many undetermined possibilities of our present? And, more importantly, how can we deal with the idea of an “end” to what we’ve built? Can we change it, or should we resign ourselves to impending doom? These and other questions lead Wolf-Meyer to explore the ways in which twentieth and twenty-first century speculative fiction—in both literature and film—have  advanced different social theories that provide us with usually unorthodox as well as revealing answers about our past, present, and future.

The structure of the book follows a straightforward premise: if the threat of annihilation looms on the horizon, as Wyndham’s rule seems to suggest, then speculative fiction must address this notion and produce social theories relevant for a future at risk of never materializing. From this standpoint, the author identifies three different forms of narratological social theory under the guise of “future historiography” (19): extrapolation, intensification, and mutation. These modalities manifest themselves as narrative or even thematic devices designed to propel the conversation about the future beyond its commonly agreed limits and to advance discussion on alternative ways of portraying what’s to come. Accordingly, each chapter explores different fictions and ways of employing future historiography to produce coherent and relevant social theories.

The first three chapters after the introduction (“Detroit Diaries, 1992-1999,” “White Futures and Visceral Presents: Robocop and P-Funk,” and “The Revolutionary Horizons of Labor and Automation: Blue Collar and Player Piano”) deal with the idea of “intensification” (19), analyzing futures in which present issues are not really resolved, but rather expanded on, both in significance as well as spatial and social presence.

Images Wolf-Meyer brings forward during these first few pages include Robocop’s (1987) ultra-violence as an expression of repressed humanity and P-Funk’s music as an attempt to recover such lost humanity during the 80s; Player Piano’s (1952) representation of automation as a reflection on the meaning of labor, and Detroit as a city of technological promises degraded into a racially segregated sprawl. Each chapter is short and direct, not wasting any time to get to the main topics the author seeks to put into the spotlight: race politics, human nature, and the possibilities of automation in a posthuman age.

The following two chapters (“California Diaries, 2008-2015,” and “Extrapolating Neoliberalism in the Western Frontier: Octavia Butler’s Parables”) focus on extrapolation as a narrative device employed to represent present problems in scenarios radically different from our own. In his “California Diaries,” Wolf-Meyer reflects upon how living—and, particularly, buying a house—in California forced him to accept the fragility and indeterminacy of a future “so precarious, so subject to change” (53), where catastrophe is always around the corner, while his study of Octavia Butler’s work makes some interesting points about the inner logic of capitalism and its ever-consuming nature, revealed through extrapolation and a rather fascinating proclivity towards devastation and crisis, something the author also finds a characteristic feature of life in California.

The final three chapters of the books (“New York Diaries, 2015-2018,” “The Nihilism of Deep Time: Man after Man and After,” and “Mutating Temporalities: Slipstream Christopher Columbus”) deal with mutation, or the speculative expression of change as a chronological and temporal construct. This section opens with the “New York Diaries,” in which the author explores life in a secluded town where the future “never seems to come” (72), thus rendering thinking and worrying about it as unnecessary exercises in frustration.

This notion of an unmanifested future, precluded from experience, is also present in his study of “deep time” (82), which posits that in the larger scheme of things, human existence and humanity’s self-made so-called apocalypse, is not only circumstantial, but irrelevant altogether. This pessimistic conviction is then contested in the final chapter of the book, which turns its attention to the possibility of alternative futures, or “mutant temporalities” (91) that would allow, at least in theory, for possible “ways out” (100) of the unavoidable apocalypse that we, as humans, seem so stubbornly obsessed with bringing about.

In the end, this is indeed a book about the future and the many natural and artificial threats it faces; but it’s also a deep and well-researched study on the expression of hope through speculative fiction and social theory during the last fifty years. Through his analyses and account of personal experiences, Wolf-Meyer provides a panoramic view of the many attitudes towards the future we have developed over time: Should we fear it? Should we try to stop it?  Escape it? Transform it? The possibilities are numerous, and if there’s something to be taken from this book, it is the idea that an undetermined future is not necessarily a bad one. Indeterminacy means possibility, and possibility means opportunity for change. For Wolf-Meyer, this is the conviction that motivates speculative fiction to represent different scenarios and outcomes to problems we, today, might see as simply insurmountable. It also helps us to understand the trends that have brought us to where we are and, ideally, to try to remediate them before it’s too late, because any theory for the world to come should at least address our experience with time and space and project it beyond our imagination into—if not better, at least different—ways of experiencing reality.

Gabriel A. Saldías Rossel is an Assistant Professor at the Catholic University of Temuco in Temuco, Chile. He holds a PhD in Literary Theory and Comparative Literature. His areas of expertise include Latin American literature, utopian studies, politics of catastrophe, critical theory, science fiction and fantasy studies. Currently he is researching the utopian implications in the representations of catastrophe in current Latin American novels. 

Review of Utopia and Dystopia in the Age of Trump: Images from Literature and Visual Arts

Review of Utopia and Dystopia in the Age of Trump: Images from Literature and Visual Arts

Simon Spiegel

Brodman, Barbara, and James E. Doan, eds. Utopia and Dystopia in the Age of Trump: Images from Literature and Visual Arts. Fairleigh Dickinson UP, 2019. Hardcover. 244 pg. $95.00. ISBN 9781683931676. EBook ISBN 9781683931683.

The title of this collection is, without any doubt, catchy, and the dystopia part in particular feels very topical at the moment. While I am writing this review, in the midst of the COVID-19 crisis and the protests against the murder of George Floyd, Donald Trumpʼs unique blend of viciousness and ineptitude is reaching new heights (or lows). The images we see from Washington, with armed forces in front of the Lincoln memorial, certainly have a dystopian feel to them. But, as it so often goes with catchy phrases, the title proves on closer inspection also to be quite problematic.

The problem is twofold and really concerns both parts of the book’s title. First, surprisingly few of the fourteen essays collected in this volume actually deal with proper utopias or dystopias. While opinions among scholars differ about how loosely the concept of the positive utopia should be understood, dystopia is quite clear-cut as a genre. Dystopias deal with a society which is worse than the one we live in. But neither Hamlet (c. 1599-1601) nor Edgar Allan Poeʼs “The Fall of the House of Usher” (1839), which Christine Jackson analyzes in her article, are set in dystopian societies. It is, of course, legitimate to read Poe or Shakespeare against the backdrop of the Trump presidency (as Stephen Greenblatt has done so beautifully in Tyrant), but the mere fact that Claudius has murdered Hamlet’s father does not make him a dystopian ruler. Claudius may be a bad person, but there is little evidence that he is also a bad king.

Similarly, Daniel Adleman reads Bret Easton Ellisʼs notorious American Psycho (1991) as a critique “of the callous cultural logic that underpins the utopian ideology of the US neoliberal project”. (70) It certainly makes sense to see Ellis’s murderous protagonist Patrick Bateman as a kind of proto-Trumpist—as Adleman points out, there are more than thirty direct or indirect references to Trump in the novel—but again it is not really clear how this relates to the concepts of utopia and dystopia except in the most general way.

While some might consider this criticism to be narrow-minded genre policing, it is telling that the editors give only short summaries of the individual articles in their introduction, but fail to come up with any kind of conceptual framework which would help to explain or contextualize their selection.

Utopia and Dystopia in the Age of Trump is not targeted at scholars of utopias or sf. This becomes evident in Jeffrey Barber’s chapter, which is a compressed introduction to and history of sf and utopian writing with a special focus on the theme of sustainability that ends with thoughts on the Trump presidency. While the overview given might prove useful to readers not acquainted with sf theory, the link to contemporary US politics does not go much beyond the assessment that sales of Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949) have soared after Trump’s election.

And this brings us to the book’s second, more serious problem: The question of how much it can tell us about Trump which is enlightening or relevant. Much has been and is still being written on the 45th US President. An obvious disadvantage of an academic book like this is its long gestation time. Utopia and Dystopia in the Age of Trump was published in June 2019, which means that probably none of its chapters was written later than the end of 2018. Not surprisingly, some of the essays therefore already feel outdated. Sometimes painfully so, such as Tom Shapira’s chapter on Judge Dredd, in which he likens special counsel Robert Mueller to the comic’s eponymous protagonist. Like the judge, a member of a special unit who is police, judge, jury, and executioner in one person, Mueller is “an authoritarian figure, a straight and narrow professional, stern of gaze and relentless in his task”. (188) Shapira’s observation that even people for whom a character like Mueller used to be something short of a bogeyman suddenly rooted for the special counsel is intriguing, but the sad fact that the Mueller report amounted to nothing in the end gives his essay a quite unexpected punch line. Unfortunately, unlike in the comic, in real life the crazy President was not brought down by a disciplined servant of the state.

As an introduction to Judge Dredd—which unlike Hamlet really deals with dystopia—Shapira’s chapter works well, as do Matthew Paproth’s discussion of the TV series Black Mirror (2011- ) and Kate Waites’s chapter on Mad Max: Fury Road (2015) and the Hulu TV series adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaids Tale (1985). But in each case the connection with Trump—which should be the whole point of the book—seems forced and not very productive. Waites’s contribution is typical in this regard. Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale (2016- ) is probably the first example that comes to mind when people think of dystopia in the age of Trump. The adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s novel does indeed feel very timely, and some of its iconic elements, like the handmaid’s red dresses and white winged hats, have become symbols of the #MeToo movement and of resistance against Trump in general. In her analysis, Waites concentrates on visual strategies of the show, though, and says little about Trump.

The already mentioned lack of a theoretical framing for the volume becomes particularly striking with David L. McNarron’s chapter, which closes the book. McNarron discusses Albert Camusʼs classic novel The Plague (1947)—which has gained new topicality thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic—and Jean Raspail’s The Camp of the Saints (1973), an obscure French book which has in recent years become a favorite among the alt-right. McNarron’s reading of the two novels ­– which manages to turn Camus’s deeply humanist novel into a plea for nationalism – culminates in a surprising call for strong borders and unabashed support for Trump’s policy.

What is the point of this chapter? Do the editors intend to bring some kind of balance to the selection of texts which are with the exception of McNarron’s decidedly anti-Trump? Is it meant as a refreshing provocation? Since the book lacks a coherent concept, the readers are left to wonder.

Review of The Twilight Zone (TV Milestones)

Review of The Twilight Zone

Dominick Grace

Barry Keith Grant. The Twilight Zone. Wayne State UP, 2020. TV Milestones. Paperback. 132 pg. $19.99. ISBN 9780814345788. Ebook. ISBN 9780814345795.

The Wayne State University Press has published nearly 40 volumes in the TV Milestones series; surprisingly, it has taken on The Twilight Zone, one of the most celebrated TV shows ever made (so much so that it has been rebooted three times, with limited success, as well as adapted into a feature film) and arguably the seminal show to make the fantastic legitimate adult fare on TV, only in 2020. Barry Keith Grant’s volume is as compact as the other entries in this series, and it is a quick and easy read. Non-academics should find this a perfectly accessible introduction/primer. However, the book is also thoroughly researched, well-grounded in the scholarly tradition associated with the show, and insightful in its own right. Anyone interested in The Twilight Zone, whether as a fan or scholar (or both) will find this book valuable.

Bookended between an introduction and a conclusion waggishly entitled “Zoning In” and “Zoning Out” are three chapters exploring, as Grant outlines his plan in the introduction, “the interrelated questions of authorship, genre, style, and ideology in the context of The Twilight Zone”. (14) Throughout the book, Grant balances relatively deep dives into key episodes with quick summaries of linked episodes. As a result, he manages to be comprehensive without being superficial.

The first chapter, “’Once Upon a Time’: The Twilight Zone and Genre,” focuses on “the place of The Twilight Zone within the various modes of the fantastic, showing how it combined them with other generic traditions to offer social criticism cast as moral fables”, (17) but crucially also explores in some detail how the show works as a hybrid of genres, folding in, notably, elements of film noir, as well as other genres (e.g. the then-popular on TV Western; several episodes of the series are explicitly Westerns or at least are set in the West).

Chapter Two, “’The Prime Mover’: The Twilight Zone and Authorship,” addresses the extent to which the show represents a unified vision. As Grant notes, the show is indelibly associated with Rod Serling, who created the show, oversaw the production (for the first few seasons, anyway), wrote a significant percentage of the episodes, and, most significantly perhaps, hosted the show, stamping his personality on each episode and himself becoming a TV icon as a result (so much so that he is folded into the final episode of the first season of the latest reboot). While Grant acknowledges the complexities of auteurist criticism, he makes a compelling case for Serling’s voice and characteristic concerns as the dominant elements of the series. 

Chapter Three, “’What’s in the Box’: The Twilight Zone and the Real World,” is perhaps the book’s most interesting chapter, delving as it does into The Twilight Zone’s hallmark social commentary. Grant carefully contextualizes the show historically, showing how it responds to current concerns and anxieties. He also deftly documents its own tensions, arguing that the conflicting condemnation of collective action as dangerous (the show’s famous “The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street” [1.22, March 4, 1960] being perhaps the paradigmatic example) weighed against the show’s consistent condemnation of selfishness, greed, and other dangerous manifestations of individualism constitutes the “thematic tension at the heart of the show” and “places it squarely within the debates that have informed American culture and political thought from the nation’s beginning”. (98)

Also central to Grant’s argument is his recognition of the tension between art and commerce, a tension he recognizes as built in to Serling’s own conflicted view of television as, on the one hand, a commercial medium reliant on formula and beholden to sponsors but, on the other, a popular medium that could be used artfully to engage in social commentary. Grant notes that The Twilight Zone “reveals the tensions between artistic ambition and commercial capitulation at a pivotal point in the history of the medium”, (100) but that Serling was largely successful (with some instances of unsuccessful episodes scrupulously noted): “With The Twilight Zone, Rod Serling joined the ranks of such otherwise very different American artists as Walt Whitman, Frank Capra, and Frederick Wiseman, all of whom have sought in their work to find ways to integrate the individual within the great democratic project of the nation”. (99)

This book is a valuable addition to Twilight Zone scholarship, acknowledging the work of previous scholars while also advancing the study of the show. Its clear and accessible style makes it ideal for undergraduate students, perhaps especially in media courses, but its depth and insight make it valuable for advanced scholars as well. I would recommend it for any library interested in remaining current with studies of the fantastic across media.