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 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.


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.