JFA 30.3 (2019)

Introduction: Book-Love in A Time of Cholera

As I write this, the US is well over the 150,000 death mark from the Covid-19 virus, and the rest of the world fares somewhat better or much worse, depending on the quality of leadership. People around the country are being attacked for upholding the value of Black lives, although our own local demonstrations have been incident-free. Yet amid the crises it’s the glorious height of summer, with hot sunny days and cool nights in my part of the mountain West. Everyone’s yard is thriving: quarantine has kept people locked down and gardening is one of the ways to cope. Things are weirdly normal except when they’re not: it’s business as usual but with camouflaged invaders in cities and unprecedented heat in the Arctic and insane claims from politicians and a general breakdown of civility and communication.

Reading feels very strange in these circumstances—rather like getting messages from an alternate timeline in which people still travel, attend plays and concerts, shake hands on meeting, and count on health, employment, and a predictable future. I have been taking advantage of enforced isolation to catch up on fantasies old and new, and every book seems to have a doppelganger, a different version of itself if read in other circumstances. I recently finished Lois McMaster Bujold’s The Physicians of Vilnoc, a new novella in her World of the Five Gods, obviously written after the invasion of the virus. What would (a few months ago) have seemed like an exercise in speculative fabulation about medieval plagues now reads as a translation of the headlines into pointed parable. I recently got around to reading Patrick Rothfuss’s The Name of the Wind and found myself looking for instances of contagion. Details that now stand out mark virulent ideas or spells passed from community to community. Going back to Philip Pullman’s world of daemons in the first two volumes of the second trilogy The Book of Dust, I found myself intensely nostalgic for the Oxford and Arctic of the prior series, His Dark Materials, which in an earlier moment seemed almost reachable from our world, just barely distanced bymagic and a different history. I read Naomi Novik’s Spinning Silver and was struck mostly by the isolation of the characters as they moved back and forth across the border of a wintry Elfland.

The point here is that works of literature are never merely or entirely themselves. They are products of an interaction between text and reader, and the reader’s circumstances are as much a part of the meaning of the story as are the characters and scenes and incidents. That’s why we keep studying literature: the object of our study never stands still. The experience changes; understanding is always just beyond our grasp. But we have to keep trying, because stories are our only way to make sense of the universe and ourselves, and insights are not less valuable for being partial, conditional, and subject to endless revision. I hope to reread at least some of these works under more normal circumstances: to read them in coffee shops and talk about them in person with friends. If so, they will be different books, with the ones I read under quarantine still hovering as ghost texts.

The articles in this issue were all written, peer-reviewed, and edited before the pandemic. All have new resonances now. I recommend taking a couple of looks at each essay as you think about your own surroundings and the way they influence your reading. What stands out now might not have been visible earlier; new connections might yet emerge. Critical writing is always multiply historical, with the time that produced the original works interacting with that of the critic and intersecting yet again with the moment in which you encounter it.

The table of contents here corresponds roughly to the chronology of the subject matter, which represents much of the span of modern fantasy. First up in the issue, Timothy S. Murphy explores one of the foundational writers of the genre, William Morris. In his article, Murphy addresses the seeming contradiction between Morris the nostalgic romancer and Morris the utopian socialist. Rather than viewing Morris through the lens of Tolkien and the religion-based fantasies of the Inklings, Murphy sees him as establishing a mode of materialist, socially critical fantasy that anticipates and influences writers such as Le Guin, Delany, and Miéville.

Dennis Wilson Wise next takes up the heroic fantasy of Glen Cook, written from the 1980s to the 2010s. Wise finds in Cook’s sprawling series a double vision grounded in two story structures: epic and picaresque. Readers of the books might likewise be required to utilize a double set of lenses: one looking back to the Vietnam and Cold War circumstances behind their writing, and the other looking ahead to today’s fragmented and infected social landscape. As Wise sums it up: in Cook’s vision, “A better society always therefore exists just over the horizon, and this entails a perpetual dissatisfaction with one’s current society. The self-presence of the contemporaneous is always, partially, dislocated into an as-yet-unrealized future.” This could describe Morris as well as Cook, or, looking to the next article in this issue, China Miéville.

Daniel Baker’s essay examines one of Miéville’s less-studied works, The Census-Taker. Whereas in much fantasy, political implications remain tacit, in Miéville they are inescapable. Baker’s approach is partly a history of reading fantasy, with nods to theoretical statements from Rosemary Jackson, Kathryn Hume, Farah Mendlesohn, me, Mark Bould, and Miéville himself. Baker finds the form of fantasy itself to be inherently revolutionary, though not all authors allow that potential to be expressed. In his words, “any articulation of such a reality questions, if not rejects, current forms of social authority while offering a reimagination of formation of the subject” and thus, “secondary-world fantasy rejects extratextual reality; imposes its own re-imagining idea of what constitutes reality; sends its heroes into this alternate reality; and, as their battle with the forces of evil ends, produces a new political subject in a new socio-political system.” In Miéville, then, we find the split vision of now and then, past and future, transformed into the very structure of fantastic narrative.

Edward Ardeneaux discusses recent fantastic works in which the social distancing and virtual community that are becoming the new normal were just beginning to emerge in hacker and gamer communities. Daniel Suarez’s two-part novel Daemon and Freedom posits an artificial intelligence that Suarez describes in an interview as “a transmedia news-reading, human-manipulation engine”—which could also describe certain mislabeled TV “news” networks. A very different cultural setting and plotline characterize G. Willow Wilson’s Alif the Unseen, about a would-be hacker caught up in financial and religious struggles in a city somewhere along the Persian Gulf. What both creations have in common, Ardeneaux points out, is a turn from science fictional extrapolation to mythic fantasy: he calls them both “oracular.” Both involve “the use of the mythological to explain the technological,” but not merely the technological but the techno-capitalistic. To penetrate and resist the power of neoliberal thought requires other mystical forces: Daemons in one case, demons in the other.

Finally, in a remarkably timely piece, Kim Wickham explores a fantastic creation that seems to encapsulate most of the tensions and transformations of our time: N. K. Jemisin’s Broken Earth trilogy. Wickham looks specifically at Jemisin’s use of second-person narration—a seemingly eccentric technical choice—and shows how the direct address in the novels asks the reader “to experience the connections between identity, memory, and community and to ultimately understand the need to acknowledge the traumas of the past as a step toward forging a more hopeful future.” Like Suarez’s and Wilson’s fictions, Jemisin’s trilogy must be read in more than one way: as post-apocalyptic science fiction, as mythopoetic fantasy, and as transmuted history. Wickham finds hope in Jemisin’s vision; let us all hope that storytelling retains its ability to change readers and thus to change the world.


Introduction: Book-Love in A Time of Cholera

William Morris and the Counter-Tradition of Fantasy
Timothy S. Murphy

History and Precarity: Glen Cook and the Rise of Picaresque Epic Fantasy
Dennis Wilson Wise

Staring into Black: China Miéville’s This Census-Taker, the Fantastic, and Perceptual Coding
Daniel Baker

Science Fiction’s Revolutionary Imagination: Hacking beyond Neoliberalism in Daniel Suarez’s Daemon and FreedomTM and G. Willow Wilson’s Alif the Unseen
Edward Ardeneaux IV

Identity, Memory, Slavery: Second-Person Narration in N. K. Jemisin’s The Broken Earth Trilogy
Kim Wickham


The Necessity of Dragons and Fairies
James Hamby


Michael M. Levy and Farah Mendlesohn’s Aliens in Popular Culture
Rev. by Luke Chwala

David S. Roh, Betsy Huang, and Greta A. Niu’s Techno-Orientalism: Imagining Asia in Speculative Fiction, History, and Media
Rev. by Virgina L. Conn

Dale Knickerbocker’s Lingua Cosmica: Science Fiction from Around the World
Rev. by Daniel Creed

Dan Golding’s Star Wars after Lucas: A Critical Guide to the Future of the Galaxy
Rev. by Jason W. Ellis

Amy J. Ransom’s I Am Legend as American Myth: Race and Masculinity in the Novel and Its Film Adaptations
Rev. by Amanda Firestone

Matthew Gibson and Sabine Lenore Müller’s Bram Stoker and the Late Victorian World
Rev. by James Hamby

Trace Reddell’s The Sound of Things to Come: An Audible History of the Science Fiction Film
Rev. by Rob Latham

Ewa Mazierska and Alfredo Suppia’s Marxist Approaches to Science Fiction Cinema
Rev. by Natalija Majsova

Alexis Lothian’s Old Futures: Speculative Fiction and Queer Possibility
Rev. by Tommy Mayberry

Isiah Lavender III’s Dis-Orienting Planets: Racial Representations of Asia in Science Fiction
Rev. by Perry Miller

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

Ulrike Pesold’s The Other in the School Stories: A Phenomenon in British Children’s Literature
Rev. by Megan Suttie

Philip L. Simpson and Patrick McAleer’s Stephen King’s Contemporary Classics: Reflections on the Modern Master of Horror
Rev. by Jonathan W. Thurston

Christy Tidwell and Bridgitte Barclay’s Gender and Environment in Science Fiction
Rev. by Peter Tiernan

David Annwn Jones’s A Guide to Dark Visibilities
Rev. by Jude Wright