Review of Nevala-Lee’s Astounding: John W. Campbell, Isaac Asimov, Robert A. Heinlein, L. Ron Hubbard, and the Golden Age of Science Fiction



Review of Astounding: John W. Campbell, Isaac Asimov, Robert A. Heinlein, L. Ron Hubbard, and the Golden Age of Science Fiction by Alec Nevala-Lee

Andy Duncan

Alec Nevala-Lee. Astounding: John W. Campbell, Isaac Asimov, Robert A. Heinlein, L. Ron Hubbard, and the Golden Age of Science Fiction. Dey St., 2018. Hardcover. 544 pp. $28.99. ISBN 9780062571946.


In his first non-fiction book, novelist and longtime Analog contributor Alec Nevala-Lee tackles a daunting topic: a braided biography of the affinity group of science fiction writers that once centered on John W. Campbell Jr., the longtime Astounding/Analog editor who for a decade shaped a field that subsequently arrayed itself largely in opposition to him. 

One must admire the feat of distillation this book represents. Nevala-Lee appends 83 pages of notes and an eight-page, 94-item secondary bibliography, but he also seems well acquainted with all the works of his notoriously prolific subjects, and the complete contents of 30-plus years of Campbell’s monthly magazines. In shaping this prodigious mass of material, Nevala-Lee’s storytelling skills serve him well. Throughout, he maintains firm control of his multiple narratives, and his pacing never flags.

Nevala-Lee acknowledges that he is “particularly indebted” (415) to Asimov’s three volumes of memoirs, to William H. Patterson’s two-volume Heinlein biography, and to Russell Miller’s Bare-Faced Messiah: The True Story of L. Ron Hubbard (1987). But the Asimov and Patterson books are forbidding tomes of layered minutiae that dissatisfy in different ways (Asimov by blithely ignoring the difficult material, Patterson by forcing his protean subject into a manageable libertarian box), while Miller’s bracing muckrake has been legally unavailable in the United States for decades thanks to Scientologist litigation. (If you’re content with a PDF, the robust anti-Church of Scientology web can fix you up.) Nevala-Lee’s judicious and clear-eyed sampling of these predecessors is thus something of a public service.

Every page of Astounding is engaging and thought-provoking, and even those familiar with the era will make discoveries here. Especially intriguing are Nevala-Lee’s character sketches of the women who eventually broke free of their husbands’ concentric macho orbits, one way or another; Dona Campbell, Leslyn Heinlein, and Sara Hubbard deserve a collective biography of their own. 

Many of Nevala-Lee’s most compelling passages involve John Campbell, a confounding and ultimately tragic figure who understandably has eluded biographers until now. Nevala-Lee details Campbell’s unhappy adolescence and complex family life; the development of his lonely conviction that science fiction was somehow central to the 20th-century American enterprise; his ability to attract disciples and repel them in equal measure; and the racist attitudes that poisoned much of his later thinking.

Above all, Nevala-Lee explores Campbell’s genuinely “astonishing” capacity for self-invention, which often was indistinguishable from self-deception. That he infamously was given to identifying himself, without evidence, as a nuclear physicist pales beside some of Campbell’s grander claims, for example that he once pinned the hapless Asimov to a chair through sheer hypnotic will power, or that his biofeedback control of his own cell structures meant he could never die. Fans of Mary Roach’s and John Grant’s books on pseudoscience and fringe science will find much to appreciate here.

Nevala-Lee’s most poignant chapter details the grief-stricken Campbell’s characteristic reaction to his stepson Joe Kearney’s fatal 1955 car accident on the Pennsylvania Turnpike: a vow to solve the problem of “the relationship between the present human mental mechanism and the operation of high-energy, high-performance, extreme-endurance machines” (314). Nothing came of it, other than everything: “Joe’s death was too painful for him to abandon it entirely,” Nevala-Lee writes. “The answer, he decided, was psionics, which would serve as a source of objective data on the brain. . . . It was a turning point in the history of the genre, and although Joe was never mentioned again, he provided its unspoken motivation, haunting it to the end like a ghost” (315-316).

Nevala-Lee’s final hundred pages, though they climax with the science-fictional triumph of Apollo 11, comprise a long dying fall, as his principals go their separate ways from the 1950s onward. Heinlein turned to “slick” magazines, YA fiction, and eventual cult status in both the Haight and the Pentagon; Asimov embraced popular science and gained household fame as a go-to expert on all subjects; and Hubbard steadily faded from view behind the impenetrable cloud layers of the church he founded. Moreover, all of them largely kept their distance from their onetime mentor, until Campbell’s death in 1971 triggered a spasmodic wave of nostalgia in the field for all that he once signified. He should have lived to participate in the tacky yet touching 1972 ocean cruise promoted as the Voyage Beyond Apollo, described in Nevala-Lee’s epilogue. I’m sure no participant ever quite forgot that voyage, much as they may have tried.

Nevala-Lee has a good story to tell, and he tells it well, but what is its larger meaning—other than perhaps to underscore the late Thomas Disch’s argument, in The Dreams Our Stuff Is Made Of (1998), that the history of science fiction is inextricably tied to cranks, charlatans, and hoaxers? On the last page of his back-of-the-book Acknowledgments, Nevala-Lee writes, “My greatest hope is that this book will inspire a larger conversation about the history of science fiction” (411). One could argue that the conversation is already under way, and that Campbell and company are not terribly relevant to it. Three recent brilliant pop-culture biographies—Julie Phillips on Alice Sheldon a.k.a. James Tiptree Jr., Ruth Franklin on Shirley Jackson, and Jill Lapore on Wonder Woman—make their eccentric 20th-century subjects seem quite timely, inspiring to a new generation of creators, and relevant far beyond genre borders. Can such a brief be made today even for Asimov and Heinlein, much less Campbell and Hubbard?

Packed with rich, weird details and told with a storyteller’s brio, Astounding is a welcome account of the field’s pulp origins. As I enjoy and admire it, I can’t help but wonder whether it hasn’t been published a generation too late.

Review of Gallagher’s Telling It Like It Wasn’t: The Counterfactual Imagination in History and Fiction



Review of Telling It Like It Wasn’t: The Counterfactual Imagination in History and Fiction by Catherine Gallagher

Glyn Morgan

Catherine Gallagher. Telling It Like It Wasn’t: The Counterfactual Imagination in History and Fiction. University of Chicago Press, 2018. Paperback. 359 pp. $35. ISBN 9780226512419.


Catherine Gallagher is Professor Emerita of English at the University of California, Berkeley. In her distinguished career, she has become best known as one of the leading contemporary figures associated with New Historicism, a school of literary criticism that seems to work quite naturally with a study of alternate history and counterfactual thought. Telling It Like It Wasn’t is the culmination of lengthy research project, bringing together arguments initially laid out in articles such as “War, Counterfactual History, and Alternate-History Novels” (Field Day Review 3 (2007): 52-65) and “What Would Napoleon Do? Historical, Fictional, and Counterfactual Characters” (New Literary History 42 (Fall 2011): 315-36). It is an important and timely text which broadens our thinking about counterfactual thought beyond the alternate history novel, military history essay, and political hypothesis to encompass theological thought, philosophical proposition, and legal argument.

Gallagher begins by presenting the long-history of counterfactual thought, pausing only briefly to acknowledge then discard the most commonly cited first example: the Roman writer Livy. Instead, she chooses to truly begin her account of the history of alternate history with Gottfried Leibniz. Gallagher argues that, with his ardent belief in God’s Providence, Leibniz is not the preventer of counterfactualism which he is more conventionally portrayed as, but that in fact his “apparently paradoxical theorization of contingent imminent historical causes as the basis of divine supervision” is one of the first significant developments in counterfactual thought (17, emphasis in original). God, Leibniz argues in his Theodicy (1710), sees all possibilities of all timelines and selects for us the best possible route. Hence, when some disaster befalls us we must have faith that it is part of a divine plan to a better reality. From this new foundation stone, Gallagher demonstrates the construction of counterfactual thought as a tool in theology and philosophy, via amongst others Voltaire and D’Israeli, to its deployment as a tool in critical military history. Here, Gallagher argues, counterfactual thought becomes truly established as a legitimate method of analysis and reflection, culminating in Carl von Clausewitz’s various discussions in his treatise on the nature of warfare: On War (1832). “Military historians are at ease with counterfactualism,” she writes, “because wars are notoriously full of unpredictable turning points, meeting the counterfactualists’ need for contingency and multiple possibilities, and yet they have unusually long-range and widespread ramifications” (27). This remains true today with battles and wars providing the background material, if not the entire subject matter, for a vast array of essays by historians and analysts, as well as novels and short pieces by authors of fiction.

Gallagher’s history of counterfactualism is pleasing in its scope and the breadth of its sources, taking in early tabletop war games, through to the use of counterfactual arguments in law and political debate. This wide-ranging familiarity with the historical sources, non-fiction counterfactual essays and experiments, and the political and cultural contexts in which each piece was created follows through to her discussion of fictional texts in the subsequent chapters. Gallagher introduces an interesting distinction to her terminology when discussing counterfactual thought in fiction. In line with most scholarship on the subject, she retains “counterfactual histories” as the term to discuss analytical essays and speculations, but narrative forms are split into two categories: the “alternate history” and the “alternate-history novel,” the distinction being that the alternate history describes “one continuous sequence of departures from the historical record . . . drawing the dramatis personae exclusively from the historical record,” whilst alternate-history novels invent “not only the alternative-historical trajectories but also fictional characters” (3). She later gestures towards the reader’s possible confusion at this distinction when she writes that “the word ‘novel’ may be losing this precision of meaning, but this study will insist on its retention” (325).

These distinctions in place, Gallagher’s next chapter charts the changes in counterfactual thought through the nineteenth-century, taking particular note of the rise of the novel in France, the United States, and England. However, the remaining text is largely split into analyses of texts in two thematic categories: those, by American authors, which imagine scenarios where the Union loses the American Civil War, and those, by British authors, which imagine scenarios in which Britain is occupied by Nazi Germany in the Second World War. Limiting the pool of writers to those native to the country in question limits Gallagher’s discussion somewhat by removing some particularly interesting texts, but it also allows the author to avoid the risk of undermining her central argument that these counterfactual scenarios are being written in response to some cultural or political shift or event contemporary to the writer. For example, that writers in the Jim Crow era saw that “the racial situation in the South was so bad that it could not have been worse and would have been better if the Confederate states had seceded” (113, emphasis in original), reflected disillusionment with the war’s outcome because though free, the former slaves were now subject to terrible conditions and laws which were also rapidly being normalised in the Northern states. In effect, Gallagher argues, these writers were easily able to imagine that the North had lost the Civil War because it felt to them like they actually had.

The resulting volume presents a very neatly packaged argument for the relevance and critical worth of counterfactual thought in both historical writing and narrative fiction, with no snobbishness about science fiction’s role in this process, but also an awareness of its deeper roots. If anything, it sometimes feels almost too neat, a result of Gallagher’s precise calibration of texts to contexts with each author carefully orientated to appear as a reflection of their time and place. As is so often the case with such arguments, it leads us to wonder about the authors who write similar material in different places, or those writers who are perhaps old-fashioned in their approaches (writing in the mode of the previous generation) or indeed ahead of their time. Yet this is a minor complaint in an otherwise excellent discussion of alternate history and counterfactualism.

Review of Frankel’s Women in Doctor Who and The Women of Orphan Black



Review of Women in Doctor Who and The Women of Orphan Black by Valerie Estelle Frankel

Jeanne Hamming

Valerie Estelle Frankel. Women in Doctor Who: Damsels, Feminists and Monsters. McFarland, 2018. Paperback. 253 pp. $29.95. ISBN 9781476672229.

Valerie Estelle Frankel. The Women of Orphan Black: Faces of the Feminist Spectrum. McFarland, 2018. Paperback. 226 pp. $39.95. ISBN 9781476674124.


A quick Google search of Valerie Estelle Frankel paints a clear portrait of a prolific, detail-oriented independent scholar who has found her niche: pop-feminist analyses of pulp genres and cult science fiction and fantasy favorites—Doctor Who and Orphan Black, but also Outlander, Game of Thrones, Harry Potter, Hunger Games, True Blood, Wonder Woman. The list goes on. It’s clear that Frankel is a pop culture super-fan, which equips her with the enthusiasm, if not the academic bandwidth, to produce the meticulous compendia of observations that comprise the two volumes reviewed here. 

The Women of Doctor Who is a timely addition to critical work on the long-running series given that the 2018 season brings viewers a female doctor for the first time, played by actor Jodie Whittaker. Frankel’s review of human and non-human female characters in the series and its spin-offs (The Sarah Jane Adventures, Torchwood, Class, K9) is exhaustive, arranging Doctor Who’s treatment of women into broad categories: sweet girls, experts, bad ladies, tough girls, and outsiders. From there, Frankel further identifies female characters in the series by their established archetypes: sexy damsel, evil ice queen, trickster-seductress, and so on. While this convenient conceptual schema works well for a quick reference guide, it is less conducive to a deeper exploration of the critical issues surrounding gender, race, species or their intersections, including analysis of the recent trend to gender- and race-flip established characters and the implications, good or bad, of this particular cultural zeitgeist.

 Frankel’s encyclopedic approach works well to highlight the ways that, despite attempts to explore future and alternative worlds, female characters in the series remain firmly fixed as products of twentieth and twenty-first century attitudes that limit the depth and range of the roles women are expected to inhabit. Frankel offers an account of the evolution of women’s roles, from pubescent damsels like Susan in the first seasons, to more “competent” (read: contrary) women in the series’ reboot— e.g. Donna Noble and River Song. This trajectory is both fascinating as it charts the shifting history of feminism’s impact on popular culture, and distressing as you come to realize how little has changed in the past six decades, and how, as Frankel observes, these women remain “trapped within the patterns of their archetypes” (3). One consistently defining characteristic of the Doctor’s companions, Frankel points out, is their collective obligation to serve as his moral compass, to provide, in today’s parlance, invisible emotional labor. While his companions exist to nurture privately the Doctor’s better angel and steer him away from more destructive impulses, he remains free to play the public hero. This narrative through line is brought into starkest relief during the “War Doctor” arc when Billie Piper returns as both the specter of Rose Tyler and as “Bad Wolf,” a sentient weapon of mass destruction that, nonetheless, has a heart (Frankel, Doctor Who 167-168). 

In The Women of Orphan Black, Frankel organizes her analysis of the show around two intersecting histories: the evolution of feminism from first to fourth wave and how this history has been shaped by emerging bioethical issues, especially as they relate to the biopolitical battle over control of women’s bodies. Rich with excerpts and insights from the show’s creators, actors, and consultants, including the fascinating science advisor, Cosima Herter, on whom Cosima the clone is based, Frankel explores how the series deliberately engages in contemporary debates over reproductive rights, bodily autonomy, tensions between science and religion, gender, and globalization. Cleverly, Frankel shows how each female character in the series embodies various feminist waves, from the radical seventies feminism of Mrs. S, to Cosima as second wave feminist-lesbian, to Sarah as radical, “punk” feminist, to Mika/M.K., the elusive cyber-feminist whose hacktivism brings viewers’ attention to issues of disability, virtuality, and neurodiversity (M.K. is portrayed as being on the autism spectrum). Perhaps the most useful part of Frankel’s close look at Orphan Black is her exhaustive catalog of the series’ numerous “easter eggs,” from the literary references in each episode’s title to the allusions embedded in the show’s narrative. Frankel carefully teases to the surface allusions to Charles Darwin, Isaac Newton, Francis Bacon, William Wordsworth, Aldous Huxley, Arthur Conan Doyle, Richard Dawkins, and Donna Haraway, among others, demonstrating how the show’s fast-paced adventure narrative is smartly informed by philosophical, scientific, and literary histories.

The strength of Frankel’s contributions to discussions of Doctor Who and Orphan Black is more curatorial or archival, and one can imagine that this kind of work would make for good starting points to stoke the interests of high school students, undergraduates, or science fiction fans looking to enter mainstream conversations about representations of women and bioethics.

Review of Ahmed’s RoboCop



Review of RoboCop by Omar Ahmed

Dominick Grace

Omar Ahmed. RoboCop. Auteur, 2018. Constellations Studies in Science Fiction Film and TV. Paperback. 117 pp. $15. ISBN 9781911325253.


It is disappointing, though no longer surprising, to see an academic book so riddled with compositional errors and infelicities as this one is make it into print. One can find writing problems—sometimes more than one—on many pages in this book. These range from the relatively minor (e.g. recurrent problems with punctuation, or inconsistent italicizing of titles—especially problematic when the main character and the movie have the same name) up to sentence-level issues. On page 25, for instance, a sentence says the opposite of what it evidently means: “A departure from the whiteness of the American Western is reversed by the presence of a black sergeant”; presumably, the black sergeant’s presence reverses the whiteness of the Western, so a departure from that reversal would in fact restore said whiteness. On the following page, we read, “By having Reed refuse the advances of the lawyer signifies both his authority as an honest blue-collar lawman and establishes the power he exercises over the precinct” (26). Such sentences suggest, at best, inept revision, but the problems seem more basic and extensive than that. For instance, a sentence such as “[Outland] reworked Alien’s theme of the merciless corporation with a deceptively savage rapt” (49) is simply incomprehensible (unless “rapt” as a noun has some specialized meaning that escapes me—and the dictionary). Incorrect or eccentric word choices are especially problematic; for instance, we read of an “apocryphal clash” (93) between Boddicker and RoboCop, when, presumably, “apocalyptic” might be the intended word, but if so, it’s not really an appropriate word in that context, either. That such extensive and basic slips, whether merely accidental or the result of poor writing, survived the editing and proofing process is disheartening. Nor do such problems encourage one’s faith in the content; if writing problems are so pervasive, can we rely on what the book is actually saying to be accurate? A professionally-published book should not be this riddled with basic errors.

Such problems are especially unfortunate, as a short (under 100 pages of actual text), basic reader such as this could be a useful and inexpensive tool for undergraduate students. The frequently casual and subjective tone of this book suggests that its target audience is the general reader or student rather than the more seasoned academic, though Ahmed certainly shows that he has done his research. Despite its brevity, the book does show a good range of scholarly influences and cites reasonably extensively from earlier work on RoboCop. Unfortunately, though, the book lacks an index, so tracking how Ahmed uses his sources (and even where in the book key scenes or characters are discussed) is a bit of a challenge.

The book is divided into four chapters, plus an introduction and afterword. The first chapter focuses on “Genre Mutations,” and explores the generic hybridity of the film. Its main focus is the ways in which RoboCop plays on the tropes of the Western, though other genres, such as horror, noir, and the cyborg film, are also considered. RoboCop’s echoes of the Western have been explored before, but Ahmed’s reading provides some additional insights. His comments on race, for instance, are of value, though the blackness of corporate drone Johnson is oddly ignored.

The second chapter, “Neo-fascist Corporate Bodies,” addresses the film’s politics, especially its ambivalent treatment of RoboCop’s relationship with OCP. The focus here is perhaps a bit fuzzy—more on ambivalence than on constructing a reading—but again, Ahmed has some interesting things to say, albeit arguably more for those less familiar with the critical tradition. Chapter three, “American Jesus,” is potentially the most interesting but also the least successful, as it does not have a sufficiently sharp focus on the film itself.

The final chapter, on “The Legacy of RoboCop,” offers a brief account of how the film was initially reviewed (more positively in England than in North America), how it was marketed and franchised, and how it might be seen in relation to some of Verhoeven’s later films, notably his other SF films: Total Recall (1990), Starship Troopers (1997)—which together with RoboCop tend to be viewed as a loose SF trilogy, the former of which is overrated and the latter of which is underrated, according to Ahmed—and The Hollow Man (2000), Verhoeven’s final SF, and final Hollywood, movie. The shortness of each chapter does not allow for close or detailed reading, so generally the book offers limited insights. All the books in this series are similarly brief, so Ahmed cannot be faulted for the limitations the brevity imposes, but nevertheless, the book is unable to offer much depth or detail.

Overall, the book would work best as a basic introduction to the film for undergraduates, if not for the extensive writing problems. Those already steeped in the critical tradition surrounding the film, or SF film generally, may find occasional insights and useful rehearsals of the film’s key elements, notably its satirical and subversive agenda, but will not find much new. However, I cannot advise assigning this book for students, either, given its extensive compositional problems. Overall, then, this is not a book I can recommend, for either the advanced or the beginning scholar.

Review of Tarr and White’s Posthumanism in Young Adult Fiction: Finding Humanity in a Posthuman World



Review of Posthumanism in Young Adult Fiction: Finding Humanity in a Posthuman World edited by Anita Tarr and Donna R. White

Anelise Farris

Anita Tarr and Donna R. White, editors. Posthumanism in Young Adult Fiction: Finding Humanity in a Posthuman World. University Press of Mississippi, 2018. Hardcover. 290 pp. $70. ISBN 9781496816696.


Since the 19th century, liberal humanist thought has encouraged the view that the ideal human being is unified, authoritative, and entirely autonomous (and generally male, white, and heterosexual). Not only does this favor a certain type of individual, but it also promulgates speciesism and fails to account for the ways in which our bodies interact with other forms of matter and different environments. Posthumanism, in contrast to traditional humanism, approaches the human as a hybrid, boundless subject. Through this lens, scholars critically examine the relationship between human beings and their environment, technology, and other species. 

In Posthumanism in Young Adult Fiction: Finding Humanity in a Posthuman World, editors Anita Tarr and Donna R. White have compiled twelve essays that emphasize the unique applicability of posthumanist thought to the study of young adult literature, where issues related to the changing body are paramount. Following a comprehensive yet concise introduction in which Tarr and White define the many forms of posthumanism, the collection is divided into four parts. Part one, “Networked Subjectivities,” includes two chapters that theorize a posthuman understanding of subjectivity—one that moves away from the singular self to an ethical understanding of one’s plurality. Mathieu Donner, in his reading of Octavia E. Butler’s Mind of My Mind (1977), questions the possibility of achieving unity without sameness, and Shannon Hervey reflects on social media as a type of collaborative, networked self-writing.

“The Monstrous Other: Posthuman Bodies,” the second part of the collection, contains five chapters that deal with adolescent bodies that are transformed either through magic or medicine. Several of the chapters look at material embodiment in Marissa Meyer’s Cinder (2012) and Julianna Baggott’s Pure (2012), while others look at Leigh Bardugo’s Grisha trilogy (2012-present), Michael Grant’s Gone series (2008-present), and works by Nancy Farmer. A unifying concern among the chapters in this section is how to manage the dangers inherent in an increasingly technologized society. Part three, “Posthumanism in Climate Fiction,” collects Lars Schmeink’s “Coming of Age and the Other: Critical Posthumanism in Paolo Bacigalupi’s Ship Breaker and the Drowned Cities” and Phoebe Chen’s chapter “Posthuman Potential and Ecological Limit in Future Worlds.” Both of these chapters are concerned with posthumanism as a political movement with a zoe-centric worldview and agenda. The final part, “Accepting/Rejecting Posthumanist Possibilities,” features three chapters that cover both film and literature: Ridley Scott’s Prometheus (2012), Lev Grossman’s The Magicians (2009), and novels by China Miéville. 

As evidenced here, the collection as a whole provides interdisciplinary insight into a significant number of understudied young adult texts. Posthumanist theory is dense and complex, and this collection offers an accessible and beginner-friendly introduction to the discipline. From defining key terms and the different branches of posthumanist thought to drawing attention to key scholars in the field—such as Pramod K. Nayar, N. Katherine Hayles, and Cary Wolfe—the introduction does an excellent job of preparing readers for the chapters included here. That said, for scholars familiar with posthumanism, the theses and general observations made by the authors are in danger of coming across as obvious or derivative. 

Many of the chapters included here still find themselves asking, in a very basic manner, what it means to be human, to be posthuman. Consequently, the authors speak to the same theories and conversations that have been in circulation for the past few decades, without providing us with new readings, just merely old readings of new texts. One of the more novel points the collection posits is that posthumanism must incorporate liberal humanism into its being, “as part of the assemblage” (White 153). What this necessitates, however, remains unresolved.

There are several other problematic aspects of Tarr and White’s collection, the first being that there is a sustained attention to technology as disturbing and negative. Although posthuman bodies are nothing new, the proliferation of technology and climate change has forced us to acknowledge posthumanist concerns with greater urgency. Yet, for some reason, this reality—as presented in this collection—is regularly regarded with distrust and fear. A lone voice among the host of scholars here, Lars Schmeink, rightly urges readers to recognize the “possibility of utopian hope in the face of dystopian systems” (177). 

The second major concern involves the application of the label young adult to texts that do not necessarily fall into that category: Ridley Scott’s Prometheus and Lev Grossman’s The Magicians. Torsten Caeners, in his chapter on Prometheus, spends only one sentence defending the inclusion of this text in a YA collection. Caeners holds that it is young adult fiction because “it focuses on one of the major themes of young adult fiction . . . finding one’s identity” and is “readily available to all audiences” (199). Not only does this present a simplistic understanding of YA literature, but it also broadens the category to such an extent that nearly any text can be read as young adult. Meanwhile, Tony M. Vinci, in his reading of The Magicians, offers no reason whatsoever for reading Grossman’s series as young adult. It is, and always has been, marketed as an adult series, and to include it here merely because it’s a magic school story suggests, once again, ignorance of what young adult literature entails. 

It is difficult to recommend the collection Posthumanism in Young Adult Fiction: Finding Humanity in a Posthuman World, especially at the price point. For individuals unfamiliar with posthumanist theory, the introduction is valuable, and the third part on climate fiction provides the best example of the positive potential of posthumanist thought. However, for a handful of essays, the collection, for individual purchase, is passable. It would be best suited for university libraries, as individuals can pick and choose what to take from the collection. While recognizing the possible dangers that technology can bring, we in the (post)humanities must begin to move forward and cultivate a positive, hybrid understanding of embodiment—something that, unfortunately, this collection illustrates is not likely to happen any time soon.

Review of Idema’s Stages of Transmutation: Science Fiction, Biology, and Environmental Humanism



Review of Stages of Transmutation: Science Fiction, Biology, and Environmental Humanism by Tom Idema

Nathaniel Doherty

Tom Idema. Stages of Transmutation: Science Fiction, Biology, and Environmental Humanism. Routledge, 2018. Hardcover. 176 pp. $140. ISBN 9780415788229.


Part of the Perspectives on the Non-Human in Literature and Culture series, Tom Idema’s Stages of Transmutation: Science Fiction, Biology, and Environmental Posthumanism roots itself squarely in contemporary European posthumanism (with a feminist inflection). Idema’s introduction helpfully sketches out what he means by the term “posthumanism,” noting specifically the strain of posthumanism preoccupied with transformation and relationships between species and environments. From here the chapter proceeds to define and situate the book’s central premise, outlining the idea of environmental posthumanism as it manifests in Octavia Butler’s Lilith’s Brood novels (1987-89), Greg Bear’s Darwin’s Radio (1999), Jeff VanderMeer’s Southern Reach trilogy (2014), and Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars Trilogy (1992-99). Each chapter pairs a few key, usually somewhat current and innovative, scientific concepts with Idema’s reading of a primary SF text in order to suggest that human transformation in response to environment can be read productively through the lens of environmental posthumanism in both fiction and science. Because Idema brings his scientific sources into relief through heavy use of citation, this text can serve as a primer on the scientific background of environmental posthumanism or as an introduction to the resonances between science and general posthuman thought.

Idema’s idea is that certain SF texts interface with posthumanist reevaluation of humanity through an emphasis on reduced anthropocentrism. Environmental posthumanism comes into focus when this anti-anthropocentric change is brought about by human characters’ interaction with their environments. When Idema lays out his uses of “stages,” on which these transformations are elaborated, the book encounters one of its few weak points. This idea of several stages—temporal, spatial, epistemological—complicates the book’s central argument about environmental posthumanism in a way that is sometimes more distracting than illuminating. One of Idema’s obvious strengths, however, is his ability to weave a relationship of interpretive collaboration between innovative scientific approaches and science fiction narrative thought. Idema reads science fiction as a “privileged literary genre for thinking about environmental change in a posthuman vein” (7).

In the introduction to Stages of Transmutation, Idema lays out the background of his environmental posthumanist approach, emphasizing the work of Rosi Braidotti in particular, and provides a short but detailed history of SF narratives that engage heavily with the idea of environment. He then traces the development of environmentally-oriented strains of posthumanism in contrast to strains that are focused specifically on technological innovation. This sketch also distinguishes both forms of posthumanism from transhumanism, a movement identified by posthumanist thinkers like Rosi Braidotti and Cary Wolfe as distinguished by its disinterest in revising the role of “the human” in philosophical, social, and governmental landscapes in favor of maximizing human agency. Idema notes an increasing visibility, in contemporary scientific thought, of approaches that de-center genetics in favor of interactions between organisms and the environment. These approaches are frequently linked to environmental posthumanism throughout the text; particularly the focus is on empirical science’s overlap with philosophy and science and technology studies. The introduction closes with a consideration of the roots of resistance to the idea of environmentally-driven human transformation in anthropocentric religious, civic, and scientific traditions.

The first chapter is titled simply “Introduction,” resonating with the central focus of the chapter, which is a refinement of concepts surrounding just who counts as a responsible actor in mutually transformative ecological relationships. Idema takes the scientific work of Susan Oyama and pairs it with Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars trilogy, weaving them together around the idea of terraformation. In Idema’s reading, the trajectory set by Oyama’s thought is important for the notion of “intra-actions,” a way of understanding the mutually-constitutive aspects of the relationship between organisms and their environment. Oyama and several scholars following her lead contribute evidence of the responsiveness of the genetic code to its surroundings, de-centering theories that position genetic transformation as the cause of environmental change. Idema identifies this dynamic in Robinson’s Mars trilogy as “the tension between anthropocentric and ecocentric perspectives” which “is . . . played out in the contrast between human focalization and (quasi-)scientific narration” (63). For the Mars trilogy, this means that the central scientists’ attempts to terraform Mars become impossible to disentangle from the process by which Mars “areoforms” the humans introduced to it. The striking novum, in Idema’s understanding, is the humans’ nearly total mastery of physics, biological manipulation, and both genetic and mechanical engineering. Even with this mastery, the humans find it impossible to control the evolution of the Martian environment without being changed by it, both socio-politically and biologically. Idema argues that this entanglement of politics and biology is how Oyama’s oeuvre and Robinson’s trilogy work together to push science and science fiction into the realm of environmental posthumanism. For Idema, science and politics become necessarily interconnected as a result, in opposition to what he terms the modern idea of science as an apolitical realm of objective observation.

Chapter two is less cohesive and more focused on using literature to explicate environmental posthumanism. Casting Bear’s Darwin’s Radio as a work of “informed speculation” allows Idema’s reading of the novel to be a stage for a broad claim about SF in general: that it is the imaginary creative space in which informed authors actually contribute to both literature and science by pushing the boundaries of science more broadly than is allowable in the laboratory. Science Fiction, when written by a scientifically well-informed author, acts as a laboratory for thought experiments that help both SF and science improve. Darwin’s Radio is particularly suited to Idema’s purpose because it illustrates different approaches to science’s relationship with institutions. The chapter contains a detour through the fruitful but meandering pathways of Deleuze & Guattari’s A Thousand Plateaus. While this allows Idema to provide a thorough primer on the concept of “nomad science,” which is relevant to his point in the chapter, the explication is too long at six and a half pages, moving too far afield of the discussion of Darwin’s Radio. 

Chapter three’s primary claim is that Jeff VanderMeer’s Southern Reach trilogy dramatizes the dissolution of the apparatus of androcentric epistemology and communication that structures humanity in the 21st century through the physical and mental transformation of the central characters. Idema links this narrative pattern with what he identifies as the trilogy’s postmodernist pastiche of genres. This literary-critical observation works alongside a series of contemporary scientific approaches that emphasize the capacity for the environment to function as an actant that displaces the human, and human knowledge constructs like literary genres, from the center of epistemological relevance. Stuart Kaufman’s theory of evolution and Rosi Braidotti’s ethics of sustainability are particularly important here. Kaufman’s theory mirrors Idema’s reading of the activity of the environment in the trilogy, and Braidotti’s ethics offer a lens through which to read one central character’s willing engagement, even fascination with, forces and processes outside the individual that seemingly dissolve and transform the very concept of individuality. 

In chapter four, Idema’s central literary argument is that Octavia Butler’s Lilith’s Brood “is an exploration of interspecies relationality and subjectivity that fundamentally questions anthropocentrism” (139). This interpretation rests on the argument that the trade of genetic material for survival between the Oankali—extraterrestrials with inborn genetic engineering abilities—and Earth’s few surviving humans is not coercive in a colonialist or capitalist sense because the Oankali are also profoundly changed by the exchange and do not have full control over the process of blending their genome with that of the humans. As a result, at the end of the trilogy, there has been a merger between humanity and the Oankali that allows both to coexist where before both would have died out. Idema does not manage to completely refute the understanding of the Oankali as coercive because he does not directly approach the Oankali’s control over which humans are allowed to be involved in the process of deciding or the coercive nature of the offer to exchange or die out. Idema’s argument that comparing the trade to biotechnological capitalist exploitation ignores textual details is more convincing given his elaboration of the unpredictable results of the species merger and how the human insistence on confrontation and the value of both purity and separatism is mirrored between resistant human characters and readers that emphasize the coercive aspects of the bonding. Calling the reader to face the ways in which their thinking is limited in exactly the same way as characters’ is a convincing rhetorical move. Idema manages to explain the discomfort elicited by, and depicted in, the Lilith’s Brood trilogy in a way that leaves the discomfort intact but makes its profound interpretive weight clear. His use of Braidotti’s posthuman ethics alongside Donna Haraway’s work on companion species renders his identification of the uncomfortable and profound interconnection forged between species as the primary novum of the series convincing.

Overall, Stages is a very useful work for scholars interested in both science studies and science fiction. This work’s occasional lack of clear transitions between ideas and vocabulary of different disciplines should be forgiven given the complexity of the task Idema has attempted in this slim volume. Working through those challenges will be rewarding.

Review of Greene and Heter’s Westworld and Philosophy: Mind Equals Blown



Review of Westworld and Philosophy: Mind Equals Blown edited by Richard Greene and Joshua Heter

Robert J. Creedon

Richard Greene and Joshua Heter, editors. Westworld and Philosophy: Mind Equals Blown. Open Court, 2019. Paperback. 298 pp. $19.95. ISBN: 9780812699913.


Westworld is an HBO series that goes beyond the Westworld (1973) and Futureworld (1976) movies and the short-lived Westworld (1980) TV series with their format of sex and violence over strong writing. We see the evolution of AI to the emergence of a new species by the end of the first season. This series is rich with philosophical concepts with episode titles like “The Bicameral Mind” and “Dissonance Theory” as well as its intertextual elements, notably its many Shakespearean references. Such a series screams out to be included in the Popular Culture and Philosophy series.

As I prepared for this review, I wrote a list of the topics to expect while watching the series and waiting for the book to arrive. This is volume 122, which makes it the ninth I have read. This volume didn’t disappoint as it covers all the topics I expected from the Westworld series and previous volumes of this philosophy series. The chapters were well-written and edited to be clear and concise within their standard 10 page format. Each addresses classical and modern philosophy as reflected in the actions and dialogue of the Westworld characters. The book is an easy read and employs an effective and distinct formula of introducing a concept in each chapter and exploring it in relation to the series. This formula is a great aid for teaching and provides with each chapter the basis of a good lesson. Furthermore, the ten-page essays can provide students with bite size lessons that make reading more enjoyable and palpable.

The first half of the book focuses on the first season primarily. The first six chapters delve directly into the concepts of identity, self-awareness and shared reality that are the essential to any discussion of AI. While there are a couple of minor editing errors, the writing and the arguments remain clear. These chapters cover in detail the familiar topics I expected to see addressed and are extremely well done. However, the chapter on evil, “When Bad Things Happen to Good Hosts (and Good Things to Bad Guests),” is confusing, as the chapter does not provide bridging support between the concepts of Susan Neiman and the concept of evil. The writer seems to want readers to discover the connection on their own, without the guidance that the earlier chapters provide. This technique doesn’t work well in this format and is very jarring to readers who have bought into the format of previous chapters. It is very unclear whether this is an editing or a writing issue as the chapter seems to have missing information. 

The chapter “Justice or Pleasure” changes things up delightfully, as it dives into the world of Westworld by relating it to the 1980 Westworld TV series. The chapter “Just Desserts or Just Rebellion” provides an insightful treatment of the just war philosophical argument. It is especially valuable, as Westworld is not a grand epic war but instead explores conflict on a smaller scale, offering a useful venue for discussing themes of war, rebellion and revolution in grittier environments and situations. This deeper look at the conflict as explored in the series will be a highlight to anyone interested in military science fiction, fiction or nonfiction. The rest of the book explores newer ideas, including the significance of the Hosts as Simulacra in relation to the concept of slavery. The final few chapters expand on the format with topics not often seen in the series. Although it felt like everything is covered earlier, these later chapters are a wonderful surprise with these enlightening unique treatments of those concepts. 

This volume is a great read for anyone who has followed this HBO series, as it goes beneath the action to explore the ideas and issues raised as the characters evolve. It is clear that all the individual writers did their homework and reviewed some of the interviews with the cast and creators to delve deeper into their concepts before writing. This book would be useful for for any first year philosophy or drama/writing student to explore how the show addresses concepts of consciousness, free will, and the mechanics of change. It carries readers beyond HBO’s ‘sexposition’ form of storytelling to get to the real adult content of thoughts, ideas and concepts. The ten-page chapter format makes these chapters great ways of introducing larger concepts, providing common ground for readers who lack expertise in philosophy. The majority of the chapter writers have used the formula effectively and crafted essays that provide useful lessons. One of the basic theories of learning is to relate new ideas to previous knowledge; these chapters do so effectively, thereby creating or improving understanding for all readers, whether scholars or new learners, though the book is more useful for such novices. Most chapters could be used in a classroom setting above grade 11, although the show content is adult. This book covers large concepts such as self-identity, person versus non-person, pain creating change, freedom of choice, ability to have self-knowledge, just wars, and shared reality. Different chapters could therefore be useful across a wide range of classes and disciplines. 

For anyone who is truly interested in philosophy, science fiction, writing or the Westworld TV series specifically, this is a great book for studying philosophical concepts. This is one of the strongest of the books I have read in this series; it will go on my shelves prized not only for the clarity of its chapters but also for the clarity it has brought to me after reading them. This volume is an excellent first step into this series.

Review of Stanley, et al.’s Martian Pictures: Analyzing the Cinema of the Red Planet



Review of Martian Pictures: Analyzing the Cinema of the Red Planet by O’Brien Stanley, Nicki L. Michalski, Lane Roth, and Steven J. Zani

Thomas J. Morrissey

O’Brien Stanley, Nicki L. Michalski, Lane Roth, and Steven J. Zani. Martian Pictures: Analyzing the Cinema of the Red Planet. McFarland, 2018. Paperback. 246 pp. $49.95. ISBN: 9780786498932.


As a life-long Marsophile and having reviewed Robert Crossley’s comprehensive Imagining Mars: A Literary History and Visions of Mars: Essays on the Red Planet in Fiction and Science, edited by Howard V. Hendrix, George Slusser, and Eric S. Rabkin, and having been drawn by this book’s clever title, I jumped at the chance to read and review a new text on Martian cinema. However, the experience was not entirely satisfactory. 

Martian Pictures is a collection of thirteen essays that are reworked versions of conference papers amalgamated into a single critical text. The chapters are subdivided into three parts: ‘Exploring Mars,” “Invaders from Mars,” and “Mars and Society.” The main text is preceded by a short essay on the book’s origins, a Preface and Introduction; a Martian filmography, an extensive list of references, and an index follow. Thirteen well-chosen black and white stills from film and TV illuminate the text.

Quoting several times from Hendrix et. al., the Introduction imagines Mars as a blank canvas onto which are projected images of human frailty and the precariousness of our planet’s biosphere. These projections are shaped by the interaction between film and audience and the need for Hollywood to psyche out the audience in pursuit of success at the box office. If I am reading the authors’ intentions accurately, then these points need further discussion and consistent reinforcement in the main text. 

The chapters in Part One focus respectively on three major themes: the similarities between Martian and combat films., the role of deviant thinkers in bringing about successful missions, and the depiction of space agencies modeled on NASA. Chapter One is a rapid review of Martian film since WWII emphasizing the evolution of the genre from the Cold War-obsessed 1950’s to the early twenty-first century with its extensive Martian exploration and societal fear that science is in danger of running amok. Chapters Two and Three focus on the role of the prevalence of non-conformist characters that save the day, including those who thumb their noses at NASA, a situation best illustrated by The Martian (2015).

Although the topics are important and the theories employed to explore them interesting, the chapters do little to solidify the book’s central themes and are not user-friendly. Phrases like “as mentioned above” (32), “as mentioned in Chapter One” (36), or “as mentioned earlier” (42) occur far too frequently, especially when accompanied by lengthy plot summary without many strong transitional sentences between paragraphs. Repetitive plot summary is an issue throughout the book.

The three chapters in Part Two are loosely connected by the theme of Martian invasion. Chapter four considers the Martian as Other. Of note is the discussion of how the perennially hostile Martians of films like Invaders from Mars (1986) and Independence Day (1996) contrast with Martians as mirror images of ourselves in the 1980 TV adaptation of The Martian Chronicles and Spielberg’s War of the Worlds (2005). Chapter five offers an engaging treatment of serials in general and Zombies of the Stratosphere (1952) in particular. I do not know why 1938’s Flash Gordon’s Trip to Mars is not included since it would fit here very well. Chapter Six does what the book does best, apply theory—in this case mythic criticism—to Martian texts. The Prometheus myth has played a key role in SF since Frankenstein: or the Modern Prometheus gave birth to the genre in 1818. The film chosen for discussion is Prometheus (2012), which has nothing to do with Mars. The argument is that there are Martian films that also rely on the myth but not as well as Prometheus does. 

The third section consists of seven chapters, more than half the book’s total. Topics include class, gender, climate and comedy, among others. Chapter Seven is an ambitious discussion of feminist utopia/dystopia, especially the stories of Eve and Lilith, and their application to Martian films. The individual film discussions are convincing, as is the chapter’s conclusion. The brief chapter on climate (eight) celebrates the few Martian films that are concerned with environmental issues. Think about Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars trilogy and you will get a good idea of just how much richer print SF is when it comes to climate. 

Total Recall figures in two chapters, one of which is about capitalist exploitation and the other of which focuses on Philip K. Dick’s short story “We Can Remember it for You Wholesale” (1966) and the 2012 remake of the 1990 film. The authors see the ending of the 1990 film as a victory over capitalist hegemony, which I think is too simple a reading of this rhetorically complex movie and its final scientifically farcical or dream-like scene. 

The chapter on Mars and religion (ten) is consequential. Much of the discussion concerns Ray Bradbury’s classic novel The Martian Chronicles (1950) and the 1980 mini-series derived from it. The authors recognize the genius of Bradbury’s text and never claim that the TV version is its equal. The authors tell us that Bradbury called the 1980 production “boring,” a judgement with which it is difficult to quarrel, then write that “for our purposes, the religious themes and messages of the book and series are relatively similar, so perhaps major differences in other respects are not necessarily important” (156). I disagree; the other differences are quite important; however, the discussion of the Father Peregrine episode—a filmic representation of “The Fire Balloons”—and the transformation of a hapless Martian into a suffering Christ is well done. These events are more effectively adapted than are most of the installments in the mini-series. 

Although Martian Pictures does a good job of cataloging a large number of video productions, some quite obscure, the book has a rhetorical looseness that a unified critical text should not have. In this sense, it has not made the complete transition from a collection of conference papers to finished critical book. There is much to be learned here about the fascinating filmic history of Mars, but the book really should have had one more round of editing for clarity. 

Review of Malley’s Excavating the Future: Archaeology and Geopolitics in Contemporary North American Science Fiction Film and Television



Review of Excavating the Future: Archaeology and Geopolitics in Contemporary North American Science Fiction Film and Television by Shawn Malley

Pedro Ponce

Shawn Malley. Excavating the Future: Archaeology and Geopolitics in Contemporary North American Science Fiction Film and Television. Liverpool University Press, 2018. Hardcover. 232 pp. $120. ISBN 9781786941190.


In the epilogue to Excavating the Future, Shawn Malley’s provocative and fastidiously researched monograph on archaeological motifs in several contemporary science fiction mainstays, the author updates us on the war on terror, a central backdrop to the fictional narratives he has scrutinized in the preceding chapters: “As I compose this on St. Patrick’s Day of 2017, Iraqi and coalition forces are poised to recapture the city of Mosul, the last major ISIS stronghold in northeastern Iraq” (191). Malley’s self-reflexive envoi is as striking for what it omits as for what it remarks; given his engagement with the geopolitical truths obscured by the hunt for authentic artifacts, it’s surprising that he would not invoke the ongoing contest over truth and authenticity taking place just across the border from his academic post in Quebec. 

As I compose this review, on the other side of the Canadian border, we have just buried the 41st U.S. president, amidst a deluge of favorable comparisons to the 45th. Before nostalgia for the first and second Bush administrations has a chance to overtake us, however, we would do well to follow Malley’s scholarly trajectory: deriving a perspective on the present by assiduous scrutiny of the framing past. 

Before Malley gets to the second Bush administration, his study takes us to the cradle of civilization, via the history and mythology surrounding Babylon. The human heritage associated with the ancient city and its Mesopotamian environs, as well as the threat to this heritage presented by the war on terror, implicates the stakes of preserving its artifacts for posterity. But this stewardship, a significant part of the U.S. mission after 9/11, is not without strategic value in the larger conflict between West and East. Malley unearths telling parallels between the war and preservation efforts mounted around the second Gulf invasion. Just as the Department of Defense issued a deck of cards featuring images of Iraqi “most wanted” in 2003, four years later, DOD’s “Legacy Resource Management Program issued its own deck of cards, this time representing archaeological sites in Iraq and Afghanistan [featuring] instructive slogans about the archaeologically rich terrain upon which soldiers are fighting and to which they should feel historically and culturally connected” (36). 

Even more suggestive than the links between soldiering and stewardship in the theater of war are their contemporaneous representation in SF film and television. Central to this representation is the pursuit of ancient artifacts that do much more than drive the plot, according to Malley’s introduction: “as a source of objectified temporality in SF, archaeology is a critical tool for unearthing the contradictions and fissures of political discourse displaced into imagined futures” (3), as well as “an important critical medium for teasing out ideological subtextures of historical representation within the genre” (7).

Malley culls from several fan favorites to make his points: Stargate SG-1 (1997-2007), Smallville (2001-2011), and the rebooted version of Battlestar Galactica (2004-09). Other choices might seem more questionable—the SyFy channel original film Manticore (2005), the second installment of Michael Bay’s Transformers reboot (2007), the pseudo-documentary series Ancient Aliens (2009- ), and Ridley Scott’s disappointing Alien prequel Prometheus (2012). More often than not, though, Malley makes these and other excavations of the future richer through his rigorous historical and theoretical framing. The titular monster in Manticore is unleashed by Iraqi insurgents in possession of a looted magic amulet. More than a topical creature feature, the film exposes the uncomfortable synergies between military occupation and the media, between hearts and minds and shock and awe: “Sanitizing the archaeological past of its association with dictatorship, the SF telefilm implicitly exonerates the destructive effects of Operation Iraqi Freedom and the West’s invention of WMDs. Like the Iraqi extras in this film, the material remains of Mesopotamia play bit parts in cultural spectacles of propriety and control” (42). Malley observes a similar dynamic at work in Transformers 2, in which director Bay “repositions archaeological ‘landmarks’ separated by hundreds of kilometres into a single diegetic field” to represent a battle scene around the Great Pyramid at Giza (66). This aesthetic displacement is just another form of cinematic violence that resonates with the structural violence obscured by the spectacle. Observes Malley, “Tongue-clacking goat herders, whooping Bedouins with their camels, and ubiquitous squawking chickens are atmospheric and anachronistic extensions of the pyramid, a monolithic Orientalist chronotopic threshold waiting activation by [hero] Sam [Witwicky], the Autobots, and the U.S. military” (67).

Malley’s reading of Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008) invites comparisons between 9/11 and its cataclysmic precursor in the American mind: the mushroom cloud. Malley discerns this parallel when archaeologist Jones witnesses a nuclear test in Nevada:

If in the moment the audience confuses Jones staring in awe at the detonation with our mediated ground-level views of the towers collapsing in inverted mushroom clouds, the ghostly apparition of the crystal skull is a crystal ball for a post-9/11 America experiencing resurgent Cold War anxieties in the form of nuclear brinksmanship with terrorist states like Iran, Pakistan and North Korea.

101

The rebooted BSG and Prometheus gain depth, if not complete coherence, from Malley’s cybernetic reading. In the former, the Galactica itself is an artifact which preserves what remains of humanity after Cylons attack. The search for Earth that galvanizes the narrative is replete with excavations for other artifacts that serve as guides, not just to a new home planet, but to the intertwined destinies of humans and the enemy cyborgs they created. “In BSG,” notes Malley, “archaeological sites are places of assembly, contestation and ultimately critical reflection on the dangerous antagonisms and imperial politics that have brought humanity to the brink of extinction” (147). And by going into the intertextuality between Prometheus and the 1962 film Lawrence of Arabia (the archaeological classic that the cyborg David watches avidly as the crew of Prometheus sleeps), Malley makes a strong case that the film’s real plot is not about the human past but the cyborg future: “If Prometheus ultimately fails to break radically from the parasite of franchise mythology, the film does gesture towards a cyborg subjectivity beyond recycled myths of biological or mechanical reproduction” (185), adding that “[h]aving given birth to an alien life form herself, [Dr. Elizabeth Shaw, the sole human survivor at the film’s conclusion] is also a cyborg, suggesting a co-evolutionary future alongside [David] her artificial companion” (188).

Invoking such heavy-hitters as Roland Barthes, Jean Baudrillard, and Homi Bhabha, Excavating the Future is best for scholars or advanced students already acquainted with a fair amount of theory. Nevertheless, Malley maps rich territory at the intersection of literature, media studies, history, and geopolitics.

Review of Bolton’s Interpreting Anime



Review of Interpreting Anime by Christopher Bolton

Chris Reyns-Chikuma

Christopher Bolton. Interpreting Anime. University of Minnesota Press, 2018. Paperback. 336 pp. $24. ISBN-13: 9781517904036.


Over the past 25 years, anime has continuously attracted not only fans but also academics. Bolton’s brilliant book joins a growing collection of outstanding academic works about Japanese animation, such as those by Anne Allison, Jacqueline Berndt, Ian Condry, Thomas Lamarre, and Susan J. Napier, as well as works in Japanese by Murakami Takashi, Otsuka Eiji, and Azuma Hiroki, most of which are rarely translated. That these texts converge in Bolton’s study is one of its major strengths. Being both a Japanologist and a comparatist, Bolton is able to read and bring together rich Western texts like Lamarre’s, Lacan’s, and Jameson’s with scholarly works written in Japanese, sometimes to corroborate or complement each other and at other times to challenge prevailing Western views on anime and Japanese culture. 

Although younger than its Anglo-Saxon counterpart, Japanese science fiction (SF) has been prevalent in literature and other media since the 1960s, especially in anime. Although anime covers all genres (historical, romantic, erotic, pornographic, etc.), SF, with its subgenres like mecha and cyberpunk that originated as anime, is ubiquitous. As a specialist in Japanese studies, Bolton also has expertise in SF. He is the author of two books on the subject, one on avant-garde writer Abe Kobo (2009) and another, Robot Ghosts and Wired Dreams, Japanese Science Fiction from Origins to Anime (2007), for which he served as co-editor. He is also a founding member of the editorial board of Mechademia, the academic journal on anime.

In Interpreting Anime, Bolton has chosen six SF anime, some already famous, to make a case for the richness of these “texts.” He begins by asking, “What can anime do that other media cannot?” (6), and although I would argue that his answer to this question is not convincing, his chapters are nonetheless thorough and illuminating. Bolton argues that what most long-feature anime do best is to strike a balance between immersion and distanciation. The shortcomings of this argument are that the question is too general, and he inevitably focuses only on examples that support his thesis. The question asked in the title of the last chapter, “It’s Art but Is It Anime?” (233), is revealing: Miyazaki’s artful animation would not be considered anime because they tend to be mostly immersive. Similarly, one could argue that some American animations, which are not mentioned at all, could also be interpreted as using the same balancing technique (see for example Eric Herhuth’s Pixar and the Aesthetic Imagination, 2017). Therefore, readers are not given a satisfying answer to his too general question about anime.

Undeniably, Bolton’s hermeneutical methodology (obvious from its book title) provides sophisticated arguments and analysis that should convince the few remaining skeptics who are unconvinced that popular media/genre is potentially as rich as our literary texts. To this, Bolton adds two strong specificities. The first one is that he analyzes not only narrative devices and dialogues but also visual language in a very detailed, precise, and convincing way. The second is that, being also a comparatist, Bolton performs “text” analysis within a comparative paradigm by comparing the same narrative in various media, i.e., anime with theatre, manga, TV anime, and novels. However, Bolton emphasizes the abundance and richness of self-reflective symbolic devices, such as the mirror and the half-opaque window, as an insightful postmodernist reader-scholar, but what of the immense majority of other viewers who are not academics? We see here the weak point of his study: the absence of the readers’ agency within these insightful interpretations. Hence, in Chapter 4, when he first considers the otaku in his analysis, it is to make “it” (the otaku) play a role inside the “text” as another distancing device. Interestingly, Bolton sees the otaku not as a “separate group or even a separate way of reading but to describe a potential in any viewer and any viewing—the potential to have a third eye open as we become aware of the artifice or artificiality, and become able to see ourselves watching the text” (156). This otaku reading would be more idealized, “a mode of reading associated particularly if not exclusively with anime and its viewers” (168). Moreover, the author favors progressive critical readings rather than conservative ones, or rather he favors the tensions between these two readings, when most people might see one or the other in the anime but not both.

In Chapter 6, after using Lamarre’s subtle hermeneutical methodology, Bolton directly mentions other methodologies, such as Allison’s and Condry’s ethnographic approaches. He then addresses Otsuka Eiji’s character and “grand-non-narrative” (216) interpretation, as partly integrated by Marc Steinberg in his media studies approach, by writing, “With their ideas about the decline of individual narratives and individual auteurs, and/or the need to focus more broadly on characters, collaborations, franchises, and commercial contexts, the critics above position their work variously as a supplement, alternative, or replacement for the kind of interpretive close readings of individual anime and individual directors practiced in this book” (217). He then considers whether we can combine these two approaches by evaluating three different franchises of Blood. His answer, although well-rounded, is not completely convincing. 

To conclude, this book is a very useful and enlightening reading for many scholars and students of literature and media. This is especially true for those without much knowledge about Japan and/or anime. But, as the book insists, if students, like anime fans, read in a more participative way through the balancing act of immersion and distancing, anime (and other media) studies need to integrate their points of view. In his book, Bolton uses “we” a lot; however, if “we,” as academics, still want a grand narrative of tolerance and social progress, we need to teach and write not only through lectures, regardless of their quality, but from the students-readers-viewers-fans-producers’ perspectives also.