Do tell

Okorafor is a graduate of the Clarion workshop, but that doesn’t seem to stop her from flouting the old workshop maxim “show, don’t tell.” Okorafor tells all the time. Within pages of introducing Adaora we learn that she has a Phd in marine biology and a dead father. The book’s full of this kind of direct exposition. What’s at stake in the maxim “show, don’t tell”, and can we think about how the other writers we’ve read thus far have succeeded or failed at following it? The maxim itself is often taken to be an imperative towards reservation, subtraction, minimalism: A restrained style that has currency within a narrow but influential site of literary production.
To my mind the novel’s cinematic origins (which DFarin pointed us to in their post) speak to the nature of its exposition. The novel moves forward almost in episodes; I think it would have worked well as a TV series. There are moments that would strike me as a contrivance in fiction that was attempting to align itself with a narrow literary tradition. We learn Agu’s rapist superior is Lance Corporal Benson and suddenly the man is on TV. For a television show this would be something to roll with, for a “literary” novel this would be grounds for pause.
Never Let Me Go is concerned with aesthetic experience. The Dispossessed and Parable of the Sower are concerned with the potentials enabled by text in their own ways. I think it would be interesting to think about the influence of the visual media format vis-a-vis the themes that get taken up in this book. I think catskills is right to point us to the post-chapter as a moment where the novel thinks through its effects.
I don’t mean to caricature Lagoon here. The novel is certainly also full of moments which are uniquely textual. But I do think that considering the way this novel is not compelled to hang its hat on its textuality is a useful avenue for understanding what the book is up to, and that it furthermore casts a light on a lot of the other books we’ve read this semester. I think it is along these lines that we might begin to answer question of why this book gets to have a happy ending.

Fluid exchanges in Lagoon

How much simpler would’ve Lauren’s problems been had Ayodele and her people landed in California instead of Nigeria? In light of Ayodele’s self-proclamation of “’I am change” (218), it’s hard to miss the family resemblances between Parable of the Sower and Lagoon in terms of theme and ethos: are not the aliens of Lagoon the very embodiment of the god Lauren describes in Earthseed? Okorafor says if she were teaching Lagoon, she would pair it with Things Falls Apart because “both are First Contact/Alien Invasion narratives. And both are directly connected to our world” (which, I think, are connections to the “real-world” like a missing president or witch-slapping).

I draw attention to Lagoon’s intimacies with these two texts because of another comparison mentioned in all but one of the nine reviews and interviews I read: Lagoon is Okorafor’s rebuttal to District 9. While own Okorafor’s own characterization [her tweet] of the novel as such certainly explains this ubiquity, it still gives me pause: why is Lagoon so often introduced in juxtaposition to District 9? Or, approaching it from another angle, how does this presentation affect the way we read Lagoon, or District 9? What form of cultural capital does Lagoon earn from this juxtaposition? What form of cultural capital does District 9 lose (or gain?)? Echoing Catie, I’m interested in the exchanges in cultural capital in terms of medium (novel/film), but also in terms of nation (Nigeria/South Africa), authorship, genre, and postcolonial/decolonial aesthetics and politics?

Somewhat unrelatedly, I’m also thinking about the messiness of the science fiction/fantasy distinction in this novel. To what extent is this science fiction? I’m not personally invested in distinguishing the two, but I’m curious about the motivations of those who are. For our discussion, Kinitra D. Brooks’s coinage “fluid fiction” might be helpful in thinking about genre in this novel. “Fluid fiction” is a genre of literature, mostly produced by Black women writers, “that purposely blurs the boundaries between science fiction, fantasy, and horror in a manner that mirrors how black women confound the delineations between race, gender, and sexuality.”

In his review, John Clute writes that the novel establishes its science fiction-ness early in the narrative with “some jump-the-shark escalations of old Disaster technothriller formulas,” which are later abandoned. If, as Okorafor claims, genre is “a WAY of telling a story,” (the how of the story rather than the what, I assume), then is the function of these science fiction “cliches” (Clute’s word) to somehow prime the fantasy of the latter half of the novel? What I’m asking is if the science fiction elements of this narrative somehow extend a form of cultural capital to the supposedly more fantasy-based elements, the more African elements? What are the politics of this fluidity?

Please excuse the 472-word length, but this is the last blog post of my coursework career! Thanks for reading, folks.

Never let Never Let Me Go go

We covered a lot of ground in our Ishiguro session, and I don’t feel a need to tie up any of the loose ends we left in interpreting the novel. Is it a humanist novel in some sense? What judgment or attitude are we supposed to form towards Kathy H.? I think the novel is very clearly designed to make these hard questions to answer; Ishiguro’s literariness is visible above all in a total commitment to ethical and aesthetic ambiguity, manufactured by means of every narratological trick in the book. I certainly recommend both Walkowitz and Robbins on the novel as surprising readings that suggest how Ishiguro inverts the classic realist tradition he appears to belong to (to e.g. the Permanent Secretary of the Swedish Academy).

Omnivorousness, and the readings on it, needed more time than we had, so the rest of this post provides some glosses and commentary. Peterson and Kern’s article gives a sense for why the concept was introduced in the first place: the empirical falsification of the “snob” or “highbrow/lowbrow” model of cultural stratification, which expects that high-socioeconomic-status people like high-status cultural objects and low-status people like low-status objects. From the neoliberal era on, high-status people rarely or never profess an exclusive taste for legitimate or “high” arts and culture. But class distinction in cultural preferences didn’t end; instead, the difference is between those who have wide taste and those who are narrow. In particular, high-status people increasingly express preferences for formerly low-status arts and culture. In literary studies this transformation is visible, in just the same era, in the increasing academic interest in “popular culture” and formerly despised genres—including SF. Academia, however, tends to lag cultural trends, which is why there is plenty of highbrow literary taste for genres like detective fiction and SF well before there are college courses or a body of scholarly articles on them—and why such genres are much less central to the English curriculum than they are to the reading habits of most avid readers today.

I imagine some of you had to set Lizardo and Skiles aside last week, but their essay is well worth your time. It’s important to see how sociological theory proceeds, if only to clarify to yourself how another discipline does Theory differently. It’s easy to bounce off the surface; the sociological convention of highly impersonal and abstracted writing, which works in that discipline as a sign of objectivity and rigor, will disappoint your expectations for style. But persist. The essay is very good of its kind, and it does things literary theory never does: it confronts its every proposition with the available empirical studies, and it tries to produce further empirical tests for itself. Also, because sociologists have much less investment in the value of the aesthetic, they are free of the defensiveness which tends to get in the way of literary theory on this subject.

Lizardo and Skiles’s core claim, they tell us, is that “omnivorousness emerges as an empirical manifestation of the operation of the aesthetic disposition under contemporary macro-level conditions” (269). This responds to the widespread belief in the sociological literature that the omnivore phenomenon rendered outdated Bourdieu’s account of the aesthetic in Distinction. For many in the social sciences, Bourdieu was (incorrectly) understood to have put forward a “highbrow/lowbrow” model for explaining the aesthetic disposition. Lizardo and Skiles are concerned to recuperate Bourdieu’s theory of the aesthetic in relation to the emergence of the omnivore. The omnivore is an aesthete who can be aesthetic about many things. They propose that this capacity is rooted in the early acquisition of the disposition: “We advocate for a conception of omnivorousness as a phenomenon generated by the iterative application of a habitual disposition by members of those class fractions most likely to have developed and perfected it as a skill” (266). The omnivore is opposed both to the resolute lowbrow and the narrow highbrow, both of whom betray their lack of fluency in appreciating things aesthetically.

Lizardo and Skiles go into some detail on how hierarchies of legitimacy in the arts interact with the omnivorous disposition. The emergence of omnivorousness by no means does away either with hierarchies within the arts of with the tendency of cultural processes to reinforce social status. What may be harder to take on board is our own implication in this theory. It’s easy to deny that I am a cultural snob: I like all kinds of stuff and I don’t look down on people who like yet other kinds of stuff too. That feels like an unimpeachably democratic sentiment, but the theory of omnivorousness holds that it is no such thing, that it is rather produced and reproduced by the current dynamics of our class society. In our society, the capacity to appreciate widely—in literature, in media, in food, in music, and so on…—is unmistakably a cultural status marker. It pales in importance next to economic status, but it is still a form of status. Most provocatively, even the cultural taste for racial, ethnic, and national diversity could be understood not as a kind of democratization or even as pluralism but as a manifestation of omnivorousness. (I think we could add to Lizardo and Skiles that one way omnivorousness functions as a status signal is when it is seen as an ethically worthy from of inclusiveness.) Consider Ishiguro’s own conflation, in his Nobel lecture, of generic diversity in literature with other, demographic kinds of diversity (“we must become more diverse”).

Do not make the mistake of thinking that these remarks reduce manifestations of omnivorousness to mere attempts to “one-up” other people aesthetically. A careful reading of Lizardo and Skiles (or Bourdieu) will correct this error. I don’t think Ishiguro has a snobbish bone in his textual body. But as a literary writer, his craft, and his achievement, are predicated on a disposition to appropriate objects of popular culture in a particular way: aesthetically. This disposition, and its interaction with the circuits of publication, are what differentiate his use of the SF genre from the uses made by the other writers we have so far considered.

Heir to the Zahn seminar—but scroll down for Catskills’s Lagoon post

I’m still catching up. A couple of lingering thoughts on Zahn. Catskills, by contrast, is right on time with her Lagoon post—pleased read that, which fortuitously also has Star Wars on its mind.

We never did pick up our initial conversational thread in our Zahn session on games and play. One way to think about the totality of Star Wars is as a set of rules for play, with each new entry in any medium being recognizable by adhering to the rules—or by modifying them in ways that the players accept, or by inviting players into a contest over rule-modification. This is how I understand the fact that Star Wars: The Roleplaying Game was an important source for Heir to the Empire (Guynes, 147). What makes Star Wars into a sprawling transmedia narrative is that there are many ways for players to join in the game, and many ways for play to be extended. In this metaphor, it’s important to remember that George Lucas and Lucasfilm, despite their outsize legal and economic power, are players rather than referees, and there is no game without the other players. The problem of “continuity” is not simply one of regulating consistency across the narrative but of ensuring that, precisely, the game can continue to be played. That doesn’t preclude radical changes in the rules and indeed in who commands the dominating positions (Disney now). Nor does it preclude surprising and fluid shifts in the legal and commercial Death Star that defends the cycle as intellectual property (see my favorite of the films, Star Wars Uncut).

On this understanding, Star Wars itself forms a cultural subfield in Bourdieu’s sense: a network of competitive and collaborative relations with a specific hierarchy organized according by the ability to legitimately and authoritatively produce and circulate Star Wars stories. As Somtapian pointed out in seminar, like some religious subfields, the Star Wars field uses scripture as one of its tools for producing and measuring authority, and this gives rise to a whole ancillary apparatus for choosing authoritative promulgators of scripture (“canon”).

Saying subfield is useful because it lets us think about capital conversion. Zahn’s pre-existing standing as a recognized SF writer (Hugo for best novella, 1983–the same year Butler won one for her story “Speech Sounds”) is converted into his ability to produce an authoritative continuation of the Skywalker saga. It also probably contributes to his ability to produce, in Heir to the Empire, a bestselling novel which finds an audience far wider than earlier Star Wars tie-in stories.

Another kind of SF capital is also being invested in the development of Star Wars: this is the pulp SF magazine heritage and one of its most stereotypical subgenres, the space opera. So far we have mostly seen Gernsbackian pulp as something to despise (Le Guin, Gibson); for Lucas, pulp is an object of calculated nostalgia. Heir is interesting for the way it converts the films’ pastiche of pulp into something that is reasonably up-to-date as a 1993 SF novel, by toning down the most melodramatic aspects of the films and supplying a wealth of plausible detail about New Republic politics, space-battle tactics, galactic cultural variation, and so on.

DFarin put it very well in seminar: in Heir, continuity with the films is the illusion of continuity. It is in many ways a radical departure, stylistically, from Star Wars as it existed before, at times even adversarial or parodic about the films (the cloned Dark Jedi, the Dagobah cave playing reruns, the Force-negating ysalamiri) but the familiarity of characters and settings knits things together well enough. Zahn is also careful to insert some highly familiar catchphrases from the films: “‘Why,’ she [Leia] murmured, ‘do I suddenly have a bad feeling about this?’” (122). This use of leitmotive may even have something to do with his attested habit of listening to John Williams’s scores while he writes: yet another stock of SW capital to draw on.

“this X-Men in the ocean craziness:” Making the Alien Visible

Early in Lagoon, the Nigerian president wishes that, instead of addressing the alien invasion, he was “watching Star Wars on his high-definition wide-screen television” (84). He thinks, “he’d have made a great Jedi knight. Being a vigilante loyal only the justice was always better than being any king of head of state.” (84). Later, the president seems to have gotten his wish as he convenes with the Elders, who have shapeshifted into “something out of Star Wars” (251). Here, the president steps into a simulation of the SW storyworld, negotiating with aliens according to an understanding of justice not necessarily tied with political minutiae.

Here, Lagoon renders the incompressible comprehensible: the Elders—figures only vaguely sketched by Agu, Adaora, and Anthony after their meetings—become entirely visible and memorable. They do this by taking on the shape of something familiar to the president. As we discuss our final book of the semester, I would like to reflect on how SF renders new, unprecedented, fantastic, or incomprehensible phenomena readable to its audience. Just as the Elders become visible to the president, so too does Okorafor’s text itself become legible to both characters and readers through familiar references. Jacobs, Fisayo, Rome, and Seven discuss the alien motivations in terms of “that old American movie… E.T.,” Troy dismisses Moziz’s plan with a reference to Die Hard, and Agu compartmentalizes his super strength with an analogy to “Okonkwo in the book Things Fall Apart” (75, 88, 174). And in the postchapter, what we might consider three readers of the events in Lagos understand them through comparisons with X-Men, Orwell, and War of the Worlds (302).

With these moments in mind, how does Lagoon participate in, contribute to, perhaps even restructure a media network (SF or otherwise)? What are these references doing? How do they aid in explanation or comprehension as both character and reader interact with the impossible?

Incomplete final remarks on Butler

A very belated and short retrospective on our second Butler discussion; I feel that the several abstracts on Butler have did a lot to point out lines for continued thinking about Parable.

I do want to underline the sheer virtuosity of Butler’s accomplishment in making Lauren’s West Coast survivalism into a plausible response to a plausible near future. This has something to do with the technique of Butler’s realism—its rich detail, its methodical attention to the needs of day-to-day existence—and something to do with Lauren’s persuasive voice in her journal. It’s useful, I think, to compare a journalistic account of a society in collapse—like Patrick Cockburn on Syria—to sharpen your sense of what is fictional about Butler’s narrative of a group of plucky individualists striking out on their own.

In seminar I sensed some resistance to entertaining the proposition that readers like the editors of Octavia’s Brood have to read Butler against the grain to conscript Parable, or the figure of “Octavia,” for a politics of “progressive change.” In particular, they seem to me to have a very different idea of what it means for Butler to be a black woman writer than she herself has (either in her fiction or in her interviews and essays). And the kinds of inexorable change and adaptation Butler’s novel is so interested in are clearly very different from US progressive politics. If I am right, the later readers’ reading of Butler needs to be analyzed not as an intellectual error but as a product of a distinctive reading situation: one in which, first of all, the genre of science fiction has a moral and aesthetic value which is quite distinct from the kinds of value ascribed to it by the institutions of fandom or the marketplace—and which is more typical of the kinds of worth attributed to literature on the post-1970 college or university campus. Once again, then, it is a matter of converting among forms of capital.

Grad school is just a really mean book club

Rather than seek out the sf Stans that normally provide the material for this assignment, I’ve elected to think about “mass” consumption/reception for Never Let Me Go. A 2015 Publisher’s Weekly article lists the sales of the text as having “sold 74.5K in hardcover and 427K in trade paper to date.”[1] While that’s not workers of the world, I assume that of the texts we’ve read this year, only maybe The Time Machine and Heir to the Empire top it in print volume. So, I’m trying to think about “popular” readings of this novel through book club guides and “the internet” in its most broadly accessible spaces, Google and Wikipedia.

There’s interesting sociological research on book clubs, but these studies seem to focus on the types of reading that happen in small, self-selecting groups who guide their own interrogations of texts.[2] Easier are the “book clubs” or “book club guides” that are published either in the books themselves, on the publisher’s website, or in some other mass media form. There’s plenty for this novel, but I chose Penguin’s and The Guardian’s as representative of “official” end of the book club spectrum. The Penguin is a series of questions that, presumably, some extant club could simply deploy. The Guardian seems to have run an actual book club in London for some years, attendable by the public for £7. The first is interesting for the ways it guides the audience toward certain thematics (but also seems to be testing readers to see if they read all the way to the end?) and away from others (genre, for example), the second for its reports on readers’ frustrations with the text (“Among the many readers writing in to the Guardian Book Club weblog, the issue of this failure to rebel has provoked the most animated questions and disputes,” writes the Book Club host John Mullan). Particularly interesting is Mullen’s report on the discussion around “sci-fi” narrative techniques.

Unlike the Penguin guide, Wikipedia is interested in genre. The 19 authors of the “Never Let Me Go (novel)” page have given us a very genre-focused “Reception” section, citing five high-to-middlebrow publications’ reviews (The New Yorker, The NYT, The Atlantic, The Telegraph, The Guardian) and one horror writer (Ramsey Campbell). The page offers “quasi-science-fiction,” “pop genre—sci-fi thriller,” “horror,” a “coming-of-age” story, and tells us that the book ranked “4th on The Guardian’s list of the 100 best books of the 21st century.”

Finally, Google. When I search “never let me go book,” I get the following “People also ask” queries: “What is the purpose of Never Let Me Go?” “Why is Never Let Me Go a good book?” and “Is Never Let Me Go based on a true story?” —is google the book club of the “masses”? (and with discussion questions not so far from our classroom discourse!).



[2] Childress, C. Clayton, and Noah E. Friedkin. “Cultural Reception and Production: The Social Construction of Meaning in Book Clubs.” American Sociological Review, vol. 77, no. 1, 2012, pp. 45–68. JSTOR, Accessed 17 Nov. 2020.

“I don’t know how it was where you were, but. . .”

Working my way through the novel, I’ve been intrigued by the way Kathy’s direct address of us—the readers—functions in what Darling has described as “reticent world-building.” The “hints [which] appear in Kathy’s vocabulary” (Darling) are strengthened by this direct address. For instance, early on Kathy says, “If you’re one of them (i.e., an able carer who doesn’t get the credit they deserve), I can understand how you might get resentful” (4). Perhaps more than her opening explanation regarding the trajectory and imminent conclusion of her career as a carer, this use of the “you” presumes the reader understands the world she is describing. Kathy even goes so far as to assume that we’ve heard the standard privileged-Hailshamian-carer-with-the-great-record tale more than she has (4).

One of the more subtle uses of direct address happens at the beginning of chapter 2: “I don’t know how it was where you were, but at Hailsham we had to. . .” (13). This subtle combination of direct address and the memory does two things quite effectively. First, it interpellates the reader as someone who likely has a slightly different experience, but nevertheless has a shared understanding/memory of the way things were. Second, it increases our trust in Kathy’s—often fuzzy—narration of her memories.

By making these assumptions, strengthened through the use of direct address, Kathy draws us into her world, as Ishiguro quietly builds the novel’s world. These assumptions clear the way for us to focus on the specific memories and, more specifically, the objects of memory(i.e., Tommy’s favorite polo shirt, Ruth’s pencil case, and Kathy’s cassette) that drive the plot. I’m wondering how the use of direct address affects our trustworthiness of Kathy as the narrator? Does the more conversational tone make us more lenient towards the gaps in her memory? (Side note: Do Kathy’s numerous attempts to ensure us that Ruth and Tommy have recently corroborated and/or contested her memory enhance the conversational nature of the tone?)

Teaching habits

I’m still learning from Never Let Me Go, and I think I’m learning very different things than the novel is teaching its characters. This seems like an education novel more than anything else. It is significant how many different levels of education (i.e. the acquisition of cultural capital) are taking place throughout. We eventually learn that the creation of a pleasant childhood was the original mission of Hailsham. As Miss Emily puts it to Kathy and Tommy, “we sheltered you during those years, and we gave you your childhoods” (268). Yes Hailsham was meant to grant the future-donors “happiness,” but what did it actually teach them?

Hailsham succeeds: it allows, and therefore teaches, the future-donors how to be children. However, it also teaches them how to navigate Hailsham in their isolation: how to withhold information that seems off-limits, and how to share quite effectively with one another. There comes a point at Hailsham when “the rule about not discussing the donations openly was still there [. . .] but now it was okay, almost required, every now and then, to make some jokey allusion to this things that lay in front of us” (84).

As a result, the Hailsham crew are, well, really well-adjusted with one another: we “didn’t leave [Hailsham] behind nearly as much as we might have once thought [. . .] unable quite to let each other go” (120). Even when Kathy, Ruth, and Tommy are in conflict, it is shocking how well much they get each other, whether used is to comfort or to needle.

We can compare the habits of/produced by Hailsham to the habits of the “veterans” at the farmhouse—they have taken “all kinds of other things [. . .] from TV programmes: the way they gestured to each other, sat together on sofas, even the way they argued and stormed out of rooms” (121). And at the same time, they always seem to be sitting around “arguing about poetry or philosophy” or holding “meandering discussions [. . .] about Kafka or Picasso” (120). Where did they learn this stuff, and what does this knowledge do?

Ishiguro’s reticent world-building

I’m interested in Ishiguro’s reticent world-building in Never Let Me Go. With “omnivorousness” in mind, this withholding of information (about the specifics of systematically cloning humans for organ donation) seems to negotiate not just the degree to which the reader understands Kathy’s circumstances, but also the degree to which the reader can identify the text’s “SF”-ness. Reticence might then be a formal, structural, and thematic way in which Never Let Me Go negotiates (satisfies?) readerly tastes for/expectations of both “literary fiction” and SF. 

From the start, Ishiguro hints at something else going on that marks Kathy(‘s world) as different. These mostly stop at hints, without illuminating what they signify or how they might radically change our apprehension of the textual world. The moment “when we know this is an SF novel” is thus deferred or strangely diluted, so that we suspect (with the help of paratext), but don’t know. Hints appear in Kathy’s vocabulary: she uses terms like “carer,” “donor,” “completing,” “recovery centre,” and “collections,” (3, 5, 16). The reader starts to collect and make some hazy sense of these terms, but explicit explanations aren’t given (yet). (“England, late 1990s” is another cryptic scene-setting gesture.)

The novel’s world-building does hinge on a few instances of explicit description of the cloning system. These eruptions (ex: Miss Lucy’s speech, page 81) produce rents in the fabric of the text’s reticence, allowing the reader to retroactively piece things together. The process of gleaning subtextual, tonal clues and finally recognizing the contours of the dystopia parallels Kathy’s own experience of learning (or always already partially knowing). She reflects that: “certainly it feels like I always knew about donations in some vague way, even as early as six or seven. And it’s curious, when we were older and the guardians were giving us those talks, nothing came as a complete surprise. It was like we’d heard everything somewhere before” (82-3). How are we to read the novel’s tight-lipped tone/plot before, amidst, and after scenes of rare explicitness? And how does the novel resist such clear temporal distinctions between stages of understanding? Finally, how do generic codes/expectations play into this? 

“(we fans knew it!!!)”: Fan Participation in the Star Wars Canon

Sean Guynes’ article outlines the expansive canon of Star Wars (SW) in service of an argument that highlights the importance of print literature to franchise production. “Canon” and “franchise,” though different, are both at the mercy of the whims of producers and consumers. In considering the 1991 circulation of Zahn’s Heir to the Empire, I’d like to examine the voices of these so-called consumers: How might fan reactions to a specific installation impact or become reincorporated into an SF franchise or canon?

Hibernation Sickness (HS) was a quarterly SW fanzine (1987-1992) that featured fan-fiction and art—which is another “addition” to the SW canon we may consider. Issue 15 (July/Aug 1991) offers two pages of reader responses to Zahn’s Heir. The responses are largely ambivalent: “The plot is not much,” writes Z.P. Floriam, and the “half-baked girl thing” disappoints, “… but the book treats [Luke] wonderfully” (50). Regardless, Floriam claims—in terms that trouble fan impact in the creation of canon—that Heir is a “dose of SW, and some of our addicts needed it badly” (50). In more outraged language, Melanie Guttierez writes that she “hungered for SO long [to] receive so LITTLE” (51). Contradicting the fan complicity in Floriam’s addiction comparison, Guttierez claims that “WE deserved better than this—hell, most of us have WRITTEN better than this” (51). Here, Guttierez signals the productivity of fans and implies their own skills have been eclipsed in favor of an SF authorial icon. She undermines Zahn’s inherent authority over the canon, though, when she writes: “Hugos must be going cheap!” (51).

What I read here is an awareness of a divide between the producers of a canon and its fans: Zahn’s capital in the industry means little to these fans, who claim their “love” of the SW canon allow a certain authority in legitimizing its narratives (51). This divide is emphasized further when the editor of HS includes a review of Heir from The Associated Press, citing that they wanted to provide a “professional” (i.e. not fannish) review of the book (52). It is notable that, though the review is similarly ambivalent about the book, the language is less florid, less emotional and offended, maybe even less invested.

In light of this implied division, I would like to ask how the audience of a franchise (or fans of a canon) may participate in its formation. Guynes’ cites that Heir was “popular”—and perhaps it was on a scale of profitability—yet fan reactions seem largely disappointed in the installment (143). Does this disappointment matter? Are these readers contributing to a larger formation of a canon informed by multiple actors, which ostensibly includes an audience (Guynes 148)? Or are these fans speaking within the vacuum of HS, exchanging lamentations not considered by content creators? And if it is a vacuum, is that a problem? Can we consider the fictions and forums that inhabit the SW fanzines as a sort of alternate canon—one protected from those only in it “for money, instead of love” (HS 51)?


Mrs. Potato Head, a prolific contributor to Fanlore who graciously sent me their full scan of Hibernation Sickness #15.

Fanlore’s Heir to the Empire Page (which includes excerpts from all the above Hibernation Sickness reviews)

Fanlore’s Hibernation Sickness Page

Star Wars fandom and corporate citizen science

Eyewire is a “game” produced by Princeton in which players map actual neurons. Researchers select actual 3D visualizations of neurons which the “players” are to trace through a visual interface. The same neuron is sent out to multiple players and as each player completes the “puzzle” of mapping the neuron a composite image of their assessments is made, which is then double checked by more established players. The wikipedia page says “These players have the power to extend branches, remove erroneous segments (nicknamed ‘mergers’), and flag cubes for further review. This end result is volumetric reconstructions of complete neurons.”

I raise the example of Eyewire because it serves as an interesting metaphor to think through the project of Wookieepedia itself. In the history of the Star Wars EU the various competing efforts to map the continuity of the universe have all been on shaky footing. Paradigms emerge, like the canon hierarchy of Leland Chee’s Holocron continuity database, but these paradigms are themselves shakily established and short lived. Wookieepedia catalogues how Chee waffled on whether there was one Star Wars continuity, and after the sequels started Chee’s hierarchy for the canon was discarded altogether.
Because the franchise is in the end at the mercy of capital, at whatever the wealthy overlords decide to do with the IP, the cottage industry of Star Wars exegesis must settle for observing rather than casting judgement. Wookieepedia is like the connective white matter of the Star Wars universe, which allows the contradictory strains of the mythos to sit next to one another. But it is in fact this white matter which becomes the object of study for the owners of the IP. The producers of the media dip into the network of reception when creating new works (with profit of course being a selecting factor) and the dialectic continues.

In class I’d like us to consider both the formal features of this body of work and the material circumstances of its production to think through the differences between this kind of inward facing fandom, where the consumption of the work is itself a kind of alienated production, and the more outward facing fandom we’ve seen from sci-fi zines.

fidelity to the Star Wars empire–I mean, canon

I have to eat my words from last class because I’m genuinely enjoying Heir to the Empire. Although my knowledge of Star Wars canon falls within the poor to fair range, the narrative is surprisingly easy to follow thanks, largely, to the notes (in 20th anniversary edition). The author annotations are striking because their function seriously puts pressure on the “para” of this paratext because they so significantly inform the tone, diegesis, provenance, authorship, and interpretation of the narrative. (With a ecopy of Heirtoggling between the text and the annotations is easy, which perhaps contributes to how central they are to my reading—a factor not unworthy of discussion.)

Most striking about the annotations is their chatty and even jocular tone. Many of the annotations exhibit an almost tangential talkiness: Zahn’s surprise that the name “Thrawn” is difficult to pronounce for German readers (ch. 13 n. 3); his recurrent adulation of Han: “Han Solo: master of tact. You gotta love him” (ch. 8 n. 5); his philosophizing about human behavior or attributes of good leadership; his editor’s  hokey jokes about Zahn’s incomplete Physics PhD (ch. 12 n. 5) and praise for the “high-art” of his cliffhangers like: “They’ve got him, too” (ch. 12 n. 6). The effect of these annotations aren’t tangential at all: they make the narrative more fun by engaging the reader conversationally, which is arguably  necessary for the project’s success since the novel must live up to the more sensory-engaging medium of the Star Wars films.

Even the more diegetically-oriented annotations are geared toward maintaining fidelity to the films and the canon more broadly. Zahn repeatedly justifies or explains his authorial choices, addresses cross-canon inconsistencies, and even describes his numerous failed pitches to Lucasfilm. Although the extent to which Zahn takes his justifications is, in my view, extreme,  I get the vague sense that Zahn is only doing what’s expected per Star Wars canon dictums. At once, the notes demonstrate the authorial heterogeneity of Star Wars texts—everyone from the movie makers to fans at conventions—as well as the disciplining influences of Lucasfilm and the fanbase.

Butler’s Gravity

Octavia E. Butler’s novels and short stories demonstrate a robust capacity to animate the world beyond a literary context. Her work has been used as a resource for political praxis in the anthology Octavia’s Brood, and even passages of her novel, Parable of the Sower, serve as the founding doctrine of a religious movement called Earthseed. While it is the case that Butler’s Blackness and womanness has contributed to her writing’s extension into political, religious, and other “real-world” fields, it is the materiality of her lived experience that informs her writing’s animating force. Like Butler, Lauren Oya Olamina, the protagonist of the Parable duology, incorporates her own lived embodied experience into her creative labor by emphasizing the signficance of materiality in reckoning and living the world. I argue that carefully attending to materiality–understood  “as the tense and ongoing work of living within the thickened experiences and sensory orders of daily life”–is essential to the exceptionally animating force behind Butler’s and Lauren’s creative labor (Tompkins 61). In turn, this suggests that it’s more useful to consider the question of Butler’s identity as one of the specificity of a Black woman’s embodied experience rather than resemblance or proximity to a larger group.

Work Cited

Tompkins, Kyla Wazana. “’You Make Me Feel Right Quare’: Promiscuous Reading, Minoritarian Critique, and White Sovereign Entrepreneurial Terror.” Social Text, vol. 35, no. 4, 2017, pp. 53-86.


The Negro and the Big City

In this paper, I examine the conception of “the Negro” (or “the ignorant African”) and “the Negro’s” relationship to the Big City in early SF. Specifically, I consider Wells’s The Time Machine, Wertenbaker’s “The Man from the Atom” and Du Bois’s “The Comet.” At pivotal moments in The Time Machine and “The Man from the Atom,” the narrator-protagonists imagine themselves as “Negroes” in London. In both cases, “the Negro” is conceptualized as non-knower and London is figuratively represented as “the Negro’s” unknown future. In “The Comet,” however, “the Negro” knows the operations of the Big City—New York—all too well. Moreover, “The Comet” temporarily suspends the color line, offering “the Negro” a brief opportunity to un-know these operations. In the end, I argue that these conceptions of “the Negro” provide valuable insight about the role of SF for “voices from within the veil” and voices outside of it.

Messianism and SF

Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower and Ursula K Le Guin’s The Dispossessed are both works which self-consciously conceptualize writing as a form of messianism. Le Guin’s ansible, a technology which allows people separated by space-time to become contemporaries, operates as an ambiguously utopian theorization of the ends of literature. In a non-trivial way the ansible allows for the resurrection of the dead. Likewise, the Earthseed book in Parable of the Sower is a holy text which is aimed at offering its adherents a place “among the stars;” it is a text which seeks to inaugurate a teleology towards an astral eden through the molding of entropy, the single phenomenon which lends the forward motion of time to our theories of physics. In this paper I take up the messianic conceptions of the temporal modalities of literature offered in these two works and place their respective political contexts in conversation. I inform this comparison of political contexts with the reception of these works in fan-zines.

Writing the World Otherwise in Butler’s Parable

This paper examines the utility of writing and reading in Butler’s The Parable of the Sower. In the novel, writing and reading take two related forms: as actual literacy and as a more general means of processing the surrounding world. This second representation informs the format of Parable, a journal in which Lauren Olamina records her impressions and  details of events down to exchanged dialogue. This meticulousness persists, even as Lauren begins the dangerous move north, suggesting that writing serves a survivalist purpose. Regarding Lauren’s journaling alongside her composition of her Earthseed verses, this paper argues that writing and reading serve a utilitarian purpose of imagining the world otherwise. This extends beyond Lauren’s own imaginings and into those of her extra-textual author and readership: in a near-future landscape ravaged by climate change and capitalism, writing and reading at the level of both narrative and the circulation beyond it permit escape and necessary reconstruction.

Can a prophecy heal?

Reading the reception history of Pohl and Kornbluth’s The Space Merchants and Butler’s The Parable of the Sower, I suggest that these novels, although commonly marked as representative of distinct moments in the American SF tradition, are in fact closely linked by their near-future explorations of the indefinite formation of “ambiguous utopias” in opposition to an aggressive corporatization of everyday life in the United States after 1950. Tracking the association of The Space Merchants with satire from the 50-80s alongside Butler’s critical designation as prophetic from the 90s to now, I argue that within the post-war mass cultural genre system, Butler could only write her way out of the walls of the present after she was first written out of the walls of SF. I conclude by thinking through Butler’s reception history since her death in 2006—as we approach the actual near-future years of The Parable— in order to sketch the ambiguous position of SF as the central literary genre within the cultural imagination that is able to imagine world-healing as much as world-building.

Disabled People Destroy Science Fiction

Science Fiction addresses the limits and possibilities of both embodiment and genre itself; as such it invites discourse around access and accessibility. But “accessible” names a mode of relating that is—at best—amorphous and ill-defined. In this essay, I argue for a working definition of access as a mode of relating that calls forth the channels or vectors something has built into itself that provide opportunities for intimacy. SF’s multivalent use of the term offers ample space to do this work, particularly when looking at embodiment and genre not as discrete subjects, but as part of a connected exchange. Using the intratexual dialogue within the covers of the September/October 2018 SF fan magazine, Uncanny—an edition titled Disabled People Destroy Science Fiction— and its intertextual dialogue with race, disability, and genre theories, this essay deploys SF to work toward a portable definition of accessibility.

Generic Reticence and Mediation in Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go

This project takes up Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go, focusing on reticence as a stylistic, structural, and narrative practice which mediates readerly access to or awareness of the novel’s non-realist, dystopian, “genre” elements. I argue that the novel’s effectiveness depends on its careful withholding (and revealing) of precisely how its world-building differs from what might be expected (and is uncannily performed prior to and around moments of revelation) of a realist, non-SF novel. Considering the novel’s reception by various reading communities (reviews and profiles in publications like NPR and the New Yorker, SF fan responses to Ishiguro’s “genre” novel(s), and academic articles that situate the novel within fields such as “Global Anglophone” and “World Literature”), and responses to Ishiguro’s 2017 Nobel Prize, I identify the novel’s suppression of SF/dystopian/generic explicitness as a key characteristic which allows for its uptake by and mobility between different cultural fields.